Just shy of ten o’clock, Gideon scanned Marlowe Street as the girl (apparently she didn’t consider them on a first—or any—name basis, as yet), opened the door of Kit’s Place, the joint she’d suggested two hours and eight tram stops ago.
It would have been only one hour and three tram stops, but it seemed the lovely Rey and her accomplices didn’t take being ditched in the Circus lightly, and had called in a few favors from other players.
Gideon discovered this when, upon stepping down from the tram at its third stop (one avenue away from their current location), he caught a high-shrieked keen of warning from the rooftops, where Elvis had just perched.
Instinct had him ducking, and shoving the girl back onto the already-departing tram, thus barely avoiding a blast of plasma from some street tough’s shooter.
“Does every street drone in Nike have a gun?” he’d asked, frustrated.
“Only them as wants to work,” she’d said, with a hood-bouncing shrug.
Fortunately, there had been a dearth of street drones at the Canterbury Avenue stop, where, even if there had been any of the criminal class waiting, they’d have had a tough time getting to Gideon through the throngs of university students pouring out of the closing library towards home or, more likely, the pubs.
From there, they’d hiked to the Virgin Avenue station and caught the Twining Circle tram, which eventually brought them to Tempest Park, from which they hoofed it back to Marlowe Street, and Kit’s.
Halfway through Tempest Park, the girl had looked at Gideon oddly. “What are you counting?”
Gideon, who’d just reached 2,218, came to a halt. “Nothing,” he said, then gestured for her to continue on.
Shortly after (another seventy-two steps), they turned onto Marlowe, and ninety steps after that, they reached their destination.
After a thorough scan of the street, and an all-clear from Elvis, now perched on the diner’s awning, Gideon was pleased to discover that no one had followed them.
Fortunately, the rain continued to hold off as well, so Gideon didn’t feel too guilty about leaving Elvis outside.
“It’s for your own safety,” he explained, looking up.
Elvis glared down from the top of the awning, unconvinced.
“Fine, I’ll bring you a little draco bag,” Gideon promised, then followed his young guide into the diner, where the warm air was redolent of oats, cinnamon, butter, and the sharp slash of bacon.
His mouth commenced watering while his eyes skimmed the place.
Kit’s wasn’t large, having room for no more than five booths running along the left-hand wall, a handful of four tops in the middle, and a counter fronted by well-worn, red-cushioned stools on the right. The kitchen was open to the dining area via a long pass-through, though he couldn’t see anyone inside the kitchen.
He wondered if the place served pie. He seemed to recall, in the distant past, having a fondness for pies. Not the gooey ones, though. He liked real fruit in his pastries.
“You comin’ in or what?”
Gideon shook off the whimsy of desserts past and followed the girl into the diner present.
She’d explained, during tram connection six, that Kit’s tended to slow down after the early dinner rush, and that by this point in the evening, the working folk who frequented the place would have come and gone.
“We’ll be able to watch for any trouble coming, no problem,” she’d promised.
The way she’d said it told Gideon the girl was accustomed to watching trouble approach. Certainly the way she’d handled herself thus far—both as a medic in his room and backup in the alley—indicated the kid kept a cool head in a crisis.
She was also spot-on about the diner. The joint was empty but for one lone soul, a young man with tousled gold-brown hair, and wearing a UCF Air Corps jacket that had seen better days.
The airman looked up, and Gideon watched him acknowledge Gideon’s Infantry coat which, to be fair, had also seen better days.
The two shared a brief look, a short nod, and then the younger man’s brown eyes returned to the cup of tea he was nursing. There was an empty plate in front of him, all but licked clean, which gave Gideon a certain optimism about the fare.
A kettle began to whistle, and Gideon turned towards the sound in time to see a red-headed woman appear through the open arch between the kitchen and counter area.
She was young, pretty, and visibly pregnant beneath the bib apron she wore over a brown kimono blouse and trousers, and was carrying a stack of clean plates in her hands.
Upon spying new customers at the door, she assayed a tired smile, one that became genuine the moment they fell on the girl at his side.
“Honey from the keepers,” the young woman called in greeting, surprising Gideon with a Fordian accent. She set the plates down and pulled the copper kettle from the mini-stovetop set in front of the kitchen pass-through. “I haven’t seen you in, what, two weeks?”
“Been busy,” Gideon’s guide dodger replied with a shrug. “You look—bigger.”
“Yeah, part of the process. Millions of years of evolution, and this is the best we can do.” The redhead leaned on her side of the counter where the girl, after a brief hesitation, joined her, gesturing Gideon to follow. The redhead gave Gideon a sharp look as he approached. “And who’s your friend? A little tall for a dodger, isn’t he?”
“I was shorter when I started,” Gideon said, and was rewarded by a sharper look than the first. So sharp, in fact, he felt a bit as if he were being dissected by the keen gray eyes.
“Another Ford native,” she observed, studying him. “Far from home, aren’t you, soldier?”
“Don’t call me ma’am,” she countered from behind the counter, “I work for a living.”
“This here’s Gideon,” the girl jerked her chin his way. “Gideon, this is Jinna. She’s okay, for a citizen.”
“High praise from Mia,” Jinna murmured.
“Your name is Mia?” he asked, glancing at the girl, who, of course, shrugged.
He then turned back to Jinna, who, on second glance, was younger even than he’d thought. It was her gaze, keen, assessing and, in his case, utterly dispassionate, that made her seem older.
It also told him that, young or not, this Jinna was a formidable person.
Their eyes held one another’s, each acknowledging a mutual summing up before Jinna broke off relations by looking away to gesture towards the tables. “You’re welcome to take a seat anywhere,” she said. “I’m not sure Mia told you, but this near to closing we’re down to whatever’s left over from the day, and today what’s left over is griddle cakes and bacon.”
“If those cakes taste half as good as they smell, I’ll die happy,” Gideon assured her.
“Please, don’t die on my account,” Jinna said dryly. “Take a table and I’ll get your tea going.” Already, she was turning back to pour water from the kettle into a waiting teapot.
Feeling very much dismissed, Gideon followed Mia to a booth at the rear of the diner, past the airman, who nodded and greeted Mia by name, indicating both were regulars at Kit’s.
Also, if Gideon were to judge from the glances the young man occasionally sent Jinna’s way, he wasn’t just there for the food.
There was no doubt a story in those looks, but Gideon was too far stuck in his own tangled narrative to put much effort into sussing it out. Nor was it a story likely to play out tonight because, just as Jinna came by with the teapot, the young man rose from the booth, leaving a small pile of bills on the table.
“No more tea, then?” she asked as he passed her on the way out.
“Thanks, but no,” he declined, with the distinct brogue of the Campbell Isles.
“Hold on, Rory,” Jinna said.
The airman turned to face her. “Is there a problem?”
“You left too much money. Again.”
“I did nae such thing.” And now Rory was stuffing his hands in his pockets so he couldn’t accept the cash Jinna was trying to foist back on him. It made an absurd picture, the tall scarecrow of the airman dancing back from the curvy, fire-haired sprite.
Despite his preoccupations, Gideon wanted to cheer Rory on.
“It’s twice what you owe.” She waved the bills at him.
“Consider it a down payment on my next meal,” he said, grinning.
“Ach, will you look at the time! Best be off, Pitte’ll be pacing at the gangplank, he will.”
Pitte? At the name, one he’d not heard spoken aloud in over six years, Gideon felt himself go cold.
Can’t be, he told himself. There had to be more than one Pitte in the Colonies.
“You’re using John as your excuse?” Jinna was trying not to laugh by now.
Okay, more than one John Pitte, he thought with desperation. Because what sick twist of fate would put both John Pitte, Jessup Rand, and Gideon Quinn in the same city at the same time?
“Oy, what’s wrong?” Mia hissed, reminding Gideon he wasn’t alone here.
He shook his head, not important.
But it was.
Of course it was.
“It’s still your money,” Jinna was insisting.
But Rory was still backing up, brown eyes sparkling with mischief. “Best keep it for me, then,” he told her, “until I’ve need of it.” Then, before Jinna could protest further, Rory spun around to make a dashing exit.
Or, what would have been a dashing exit, if he hadn’t misjudged the distance and pulled the door straight into his face.
“That’ll leave a mark,” Mia muttered.
“I’m all right!” Rory called out before stumbling outside.
“Nutter,” Jinna said with a fond sigh as she turned to her two remaining customers, one of whom felt as if he, too, had been smacked by a door.
“Sorry about that,” Jinna said, joining them to pour the tea. “Rory’s something of a regular and—oh!” She stepped back as Gideon popped from the booth like a child’s bounce ball. “What—”
“What’s his story?” Gideon asked, looming over her.
“Who? Rory?” She glanced back at the door. “There isn’t any—”
“Not Rory. The one he mentioned. Pitte.”
Gray eyes frosted over. “I don’t see why it’s any of your business.”
“We served together,” Gideon cut her off with the truth. Sort of the truth. “We fought at Nasa Valley, and I’d really like to see how he’s doing.”
Jinna looked unconvinced, but after a moment relented with a short hiss. “John Pitte is Rory’s captain on an independent freighter. He’s also a friend, so—” She cut herself off this time, as Gideon was already moving to the front door.
He yanked it open and took a quick look outside, but the street was empty of any signs of the lovestruck Rory.
For a time, Gideon stayed where he was, staring out at the night.
Just as Mia was starting to get out of the booth, he turned, only half-looking over his shoulder. “I need a minute,” he said, though no one had said a word.
Then he strode quickly to the rear of the building and into the diner’s lone bathroom.
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