The Gemini Hustle: Chapter 12

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The bartender left a trio of Milleons, whose bulky insectoid figures dominated eight stools near the bar’s middle section, to meet Ray at the spot he’d previously occupied.

“Who in the name of Odin’s goat are you?” she asked without preamble, her voice low and her eyes wary. 

“Those bills I gave you, I swear I had no idea they were bogus,” Ray quipped. “I mean, they were a little smudgy in spots, but—”

“I’m serious,” she cut him short. “I’ve seen a few people make the trip you and your friend took through that door tonight.” She jerked her head toward the mezzanine. “And if they weren’t employees, they didn’t come out again. Until you and your friend. I don’t know who you guys are,” she dropped her voice even lower, “but you don’t read as street shubo or syndicate.”

“And if we’re not?” Ray asked. Nothing so far indicated the barkeep was anything but that, and yet… 

“If you’re not, then like the note said, my name’s Ziio. That’s what my friends call me.” Saying this, she shoved a hand across the bar. “Friend.”

Ray accepted the hand, wincing at her crushing grip. “What makes you think we’re not like them?”

“Let’s say I’m familiar with the type,” she said. “Plus, I really don’t like the shubos who took your friend.”

“Al-Kar and Booth,” Ray put names to the pair in question.

“Pretty Boy and the Beast,” Ziio confirmed. “That’s what the club girls call them. I call them xiàliú,” she used the Su Li term for lowlife. “The two of ‘em lived in Romeria down below when they were younger. Word has it they ran rackets for the Draco Brotherhood, back in the day. Had their own street clique they called the Lords of Death.” Her wrinkled nose at the moniker told Ray what she thought of that—chòupì. “They disappeared for a while, but popped up again a few months ago as part of the Rose garden. Showed up in expensive suits, jewelry, flashing thick credit stacks, and not a mention of the Dracos.”

Ray digested that for a moment. “There was a third guy with them,” he said. “Looks like a mostly shaved bear?” 

“That’d be Oz,” she affirmed with a nod. “Another huàidàn.” 

Ray had to think about that one before his memory pulled up ‘rotten egg.’ 

“Rumor is,” Ziio continued, leaning on the bar, “Oz is the one in charge of the syndicate’s joy dens and flesh auctions, which means we usually don’t see him much around here.”

“Why’s that?”

“Politics.” Ziio shrugged. “Bartenders hear a lot, and a lot of what I hear says the Roses don’t go in for trafficking. But there’s a new element pushing for it, and that’s the element your boys Al-Kar, Booth, and Oz work for.”

“You do hear a lot,” Ray said. “What have you heard about a guy named León?” 

“He rides a few feet higher than Oz,” said Ziio. “But I don’t think he works the same venues. And if vibes count for anything, León doesn’t care for Pretty Boy and the Beast.” She made a show of peering over Ray’s shoulder. “I have seen him sit down for drinks with your lady, but more like friends, and only when she isn’t with Pretty Boy—Sims. And last few months, she’s mostly always with Sims,” she added. “But if the way she’s been eying you the last few minutes says anything, maybe dance partners are about to change.” She leaned on the bar with an elbow, like an old buddy chatting. “My take, good for her. She could do better.” 

“I appreciate your support,” he said with a grin. 

Her answering grin was as warm as the whiskey she poured. “Anytime, gorgeous.” 

“Ray,” he said. “My friends call me ‘Ray,’” he told her, then offered a quick salute and rose from the stool. 

But before he could go, Ziio caught his wrist, leaning to meet him as she pulled him back.

“Like I mentioned before, I don’t know who you work for. Hells, it’s better for me if I don’t, but if you’re interested, the Roses own another place. It’s called The Gallery, located outside the city, up in the hills. There’s a big shindig happening tomorrow night, lots of off-planet VIPs flying in, and I’m working it. In case you’re interested…” She let the sort-of offer hang. 

Ray looked back to where Harry and Jessyn sat, deep in conversation. “I might be.”

“Then might be I’ll see you there.” With a grin and a wink, she released his wrist, and Ray headed off to join his party.

Bereft of his fake bodyguard, Harry came up even with Jessyn, and both watched Ray make his way to the bar.

“Popular guy,” Harry noted.

“I believe that is what your people refer to as the pot calling the kettle hot.”

“Black,” Harry corrected automatically, “the pot calls the kettle black.”

“Truly?” She frowned as together they crossed to the chosen table. “I don’t recall seeing any black kettles on Earth, but they do all become hot.”

“That…is true,” Harry agreed, biting down on a grin. “But I think the idiom precedes modern cookware.” He gestured for her to be seated first, and as soon as she slid into the booth—with a grace at odds with such a prosaic maneuver—he slid in opposite before adding, “I didn’t realize you’d been to Earth.” 

Which, he realized immediately, was a stupid observation, since they’d spoken all of twice, and therefore knew squat about each other. Or rather, he immediately corrected himself, he knew squat about her. 

But she worked for the Black Rose Sisterhood, and they had already proven they knew quite a bit about Harry Finn. 

As if to demonstrate the point, the same hostess he and Ray had observed leading the Suradi through the crowds a few minutes ago stepped up to the table bearing a cup of tea, which she set before Jessyn, and a glass of seltzer, which she placed in front of Harry. 

“Compliments of the House,” the hostess said with a distinctive (and uncomplimentary) smile for both members of the table. “I’d have brought a whiskey for your other friend,” her eyes warmed as she glanced to where Ray huddled with the bartender, “but James seems otherwise occupied.”

James? Harry looked from Jessyn to Ray at the bar, and back. 

“Thank you, Lyselle,” Jessyn replied with a perfect courtesy that left Harry in no doubt of her disdain for the other woman. “I will be certain to inform Ray of your care.”

Lyselle’s catlike smile remained in place but in a pasted-on sort of way, as if it had been left behind when the rest of her face shrank down to a malicious point. “Enjoy your drink,” she said, turning to Harry, “if that is even possible.”

“In the right company, tap water is better than Crystál,” he said, raising his glass to Jessyn. Then he turned back to see Lyselle’s pasted smile had fallen the rest of the way off. “And while I’m sure you have an entire repertoire of comebacks, digs, and generic nanner-nanners at your beck, I’m just as sure no one here will be impressed by them, so if you’d just…” here he made a little shoo shoo motion with his right hand, “…that’d be great.”

Across the table, Jessyn’s eyes went wide, and he sensed a warm wash of respect.

From Lyselle, on the other hand, he caught a flash of rage, followed by a sudden pointed, and supremely un-useful stab of lust. “You two deserve each other,” she said with a hiss. 

It wasn’t the first violation he’d experienced that evening, and not even the most potent. But it was also true the Lady had pretty much steamrolled through his defenses in the interview room, which meant he was already half out of the booth with a Lyselle-sized target in his sights when he felt Jessyn’s own rage rise like a tidal wave, striking the other woman, and causing her to stumble three steps back.

Jessyn hadn’t moved a muscle. 

“You go too far, Lyselle,” she spoke in a voice as cold as it was soft. “The Lady will hear of it. Now I suggest you do as Mr. Finn asked, and leave.”

Pale, shaken and—Harry had no doubt—livid, Lyselle went.

Jessyn, trembling with anger and shame, turned to where Harry had returned to his seat, holding himself very still. “I am sorry,” she said, sensing his discomfort with an internal wince. “She had no right.”

“She was pretty pissed,” he pointed out, taking a long, slow sip from the glass.

“You seem to have that effect on people,” she offered, willing to go along with his pretense of calm, while at the same time berating herself for not taking action to ease his pain. Indeed, with any other man, she would have already counteracted Lyselle’s psionic attack—the empathic equivalent of a cold shower often proved quite effective—or taken steps to ease his suffering in the most natural of ways. 

But with Mr. Finn, she found both actions inconceivable. Even were Ray not standing only yards away, his presence a constant thrum, she would have resisted connecting with Mr. Finn in so intimate a fashion.

She was about to apologize for her lack—a full Nhaiad should never hesitate to bring ease to one suffering—when she realized with a start that he no longer suffered. 

“How did you do that?” she asked, staring at the man who, mere moments ago, had been ready to bed half the women in Ankh—without benefit of a bed. 

Now he was utterly in control, his emotions a blank. Though, for no reason she could name, Jessyn thought she smelled smoke. 

“Do what?” he asked in return, and as his eyes met hers, she knew he was aware of what she’d felt in him, and that this was not an area she was welcome to delve.

“Forgive me,” she murmured, drawing away both physically and psionically.

“Don’t,” he said, but not unkindly. “You don’t have to apologize for her. If anything, I feel I should be sorry.”

At her questioning look, he gave the slightest of shrugs. “My business on Ócala could be finished in a day. If I’m lucky, it’ll be finished with me still breathing, but, either way, over. You have to live with these people.” 

And this time, as he spoke, she felt everything fade into the background under his kind regard. 

“And I’m sorry for that, too,” he said, before taking another sip of his water. 

“Why?” she asked, wondering why it was her eyes stung so.

He set the glass down, turned it on its axis a few times before admitting, “I have no idea.” 

For a time both sat wrapped in a cocoon of shared confusion, one that finally collapsed when a shadow came up at Jessyn’s side.

“What’d I miss?” Ray asked, looking from one to the other with open curiosity. He didn’t need to be a Rasalkan to catch the awkwardness thickening the air over the little booth. 

It was Harry who answered, offering a glib, “An exploration of idioms, a show of prep school envy—I’d watch out for that Lyselle chick, if I were you—and the fact Jessyn here spent time on Earth at some point, which I’d like to hear about when you have the chance.” He smiled in her direction, where Ray noted she’d gathered the previous serenity back around herself like a cloak. 

“It would be a pleasure,” she replied to Harry. “I loved Earth, though I lived there only a short time.” As she spoke, she made room for Ray, who slid in at her side.

“What about you?” Harry asked, looking at Ray. “Pick up any good cocktail recipes?”

“A couple of interesting tips.” Ray gave the side of his nose a sly scratch in the universal nudge nudge (wink-wink), to which Harry reciprocated with a tug of his earlobe.

Ray sat back and took in the action throughout the lounge. At the front, near the foyer, Lyselle and Neishi were engaged in a discussion that involved any number of dagger glances sent towards the trio. Atop the mezzanine, to the right of the dance floor, another gathering had formed that included Sims Al-Kar, his blood brother Gavin Booth, and Oz.

“Looks like the wolves are gathering,” he said. 

“You will be safe from harm, so long as you remain on the club premises,” Jessyn said, meeting Ray’s eyes. “Or in my company,” she added, taking his hand. 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he replied, letting his thumb massage her palm as even that simple contact sent his nerves to sparking—and hers, as well, judging from the way her eyes darkened. 

After a beat, Harry cleared his throat, reminding Ray of his presence. “Sorry,” he said. 

“No you’re not,” Harry replied dryly, before looking at Jessyn. “Are you allowed to tell us if we’re being monitored?”

“There are no monitors in this section,” she said. “Every floor has a blind spot. This is for everyone’s protection. You understand?” 

Both men did. Records of any sort could bite both ways. 

“In that case—” Harry began.

“However,” she interrupted, “while I am under orders to assist you, you should be aware I am also directed to deliver whatever information I receive to my superior.” 

“The Lady,” Harry murmured, and Jessyn’s head dipped in a nod. At Ray’s questioning look, he added, “I met her—sort of—while I was downstairs.”

“You impressed her, and she does not impress easily,” Jessyn offered. “Impressed enough she prefers you alive, both of you,” her glance took in Ray, “though this is against the wishes of others in the organization.” 

“Okay,” Harry said slowly, then shook his head. “Since I don’t know what to do with that information, let’s move on before life once again becomes interesting. And frankly, I don’t have a problem with you or your Lady hearing this—she’s already up on who and why of the fugitive I’m pursuing.” 

Now Ray and Jessyn shared a look before returning their attention to Harry.

“I figured you were on the job,” Ray said, “and seeing the ISM badge back in that room pretty much sealed it.” 

“That’s the thing,” Harry said. “I’m not on the job. Not that job, anyway. And this?” He drew out the badge in question from his pocket and tossed it onto the table between them, where it landed with a thin clatter. “This is not my badge.” 

Ray looked at the ISM shield, which was silver, seriously dinged up, and somewhat warped, as if it had been through a fire. 

“Then whose is it?” Jessyn asked. 

“There are a couple of answers to that question,” Harry said, his expression telling Ray this was not a favorite topic. “But first, have either of you heard of a guy called ‘Gemini’?”

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Before Harry met Ray…

Meet Ray and Harry in the dark days before their fateful meeting on Ócala.

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