“Wait,” Jessyn said. “Give me a moment.”
Ray looked down and saw her expression had gone distant, as if she were concentrating on something. “I don’t know—”
“Me too,” Harry cut in. He kept the Glock in his left hand and with his right tapped the trans-comm earbud Eineen had returned to him earlier. “It’s me,” he said when the connection went through. “I’m coming out hot, and I have guests. Can you bring the cart around—ah, yeah, hold on.” He looked at Jessyn. “We have a ride, but they don’t allow panel vans in the front lane. This joint got a loading dock? Back door. Employee entrance?”
“All of those,” Jessyn replied, though her eyes remained unfocused. “But the best chance will be through the hostesses’ retiring lounge. It is reserved for our use alone. Tell him to head to the east wing. It is the only door in that area, exiting onto Riverside Drive.”
Harry relayed the information while Ray kept his eyes on the surrounding bodies, noting a sudden dearth of hostesses on the floor. If he wasn’t mistaken, several individuals on the mezzanine had taken tactical positions.
“Best not to show too early, or you might give away our exit strategy.” Harry was still speaking into the comm. “Wait ten minutes, then haul ass to the door. We’ll either be waiting or…you know, not. Yup. Okay. Thanks, M… Yes. I will… Uh huh… Okay…bye now.” He closed the comm. “It’s like hanging up on my mother.”
“Can we go, now?” Ray asked, trying to estimate how many guns Al-Kar and Booth had asked to the party.
“Tell me what you see,” Jessyn replied.
Despite the non sequitur, Ray didn’t mistake her words for a request, so he looked. “I see,” he paused, “I see a lot of people staring at, no—aiming their weapons at—the lounge floor.”
Harry let out a soft curse as he too noted the half-dozen thugs of dubious loyalty who’d set themselves in the perfect position to rain hell on the dance floor.
“Then yes,” Jessyn said, giving the barest hint of a nod, “we can go. I will need you to lead the way.” She held up a hand towards Ray. “I am seeing through too many eyes just now.”
“Whatever you say,” he muttered, helping her out and throwing a glance at Harry, who was staring at Jessyn as if he’d seen a ghost. “Time’s wasting,” he prompted, causing the older man to start.
“Yeah, right.” Harry eased from the booth, keeping his gun pointed down along the seam of his trousers. “Direction?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Right,” Jessyn murmured, swaying slightly. “Through the saloon bar, all the way to the wine rack, and right again.”
“Got it.” Ray started forward, but Harry stepped out first.
“Stay with her,” he said, and started forward, all pretense of needing a bodyguard dropped.
“Making my life hard,” Ray muttered, but it was clear Jessyn couldn’t walk and continue to do whatever it was she was doing, and Harry wasn’t without resources.
“We should hurry,” she murmured just before the first bullet spat into the lounge floor, followed by the first scream.
More shots rang out, followed by more screams, and the acrid whiff of propellant began to fill the air.
But not a single bullet struck anywhere near the fugitives, and all three were soon hustling their way to the rear of the bar, through the wine rack’s hidden door, down a winding staircase and down a long, narrow corridor.
On reaching the hallway, as utilitarian as the one downstairs, Jessyn blinked, huffed out a breath, and took the lead at a quick step, one hand holding her gown out of the way, only slowing when they reached what Ray assumed was the retiring lounge she’d spoken of earlier.
A circular room, the lounge featured sheer pastel-shaded curtains draped throughout, providing pockets of semiprivate areas. Each pocket included a scattering of plush chairs or pillows and low-slung tables on which trays of food and drinks were set out. Throughout the room, a bevy of bewitching Rasalkan women sat or reclined, in varying degrees of undress.
None of them seemed the least disturbed by the men invading their sanctuary, but then again, he thought as he glanced at Jessyn, still in the lead, perhaps they were forewarned.
As the trio weaved their way through the various curtained spaces, Jessyn would reach out and brush hands with the occasional hostess, twice pausing long enough to press foreheads or share a kiss to the cheek.
Not a word was spoken, but those who made contact with Jessyn offered Ray and Harry curious glances, during which both men sensed the soft breath of various psionic touches, like petals drifting across their thoughts.
“Should anyone attempt to follow,” Jessyn at last said aloud, “my sisters will delay them and give us the time to escape.”
“When we’re less pressed,” Ray stared down into the mesmeric, bottomless blue of her eyes, “I’d love to hear about that trick you pulled upstairs.”
“I look forward to it,” Jessyn promised, with an unwavering stare of her own.
Harry cleared his throat, effectively shattering their concentration as he added a little hurry up gesture. “Can we focus on getting out of here first? Ladies,” he offered a general smile to the women assembled, several of whom smiled back, which caused him to roll his eyes before following Ray and Jessyn through a last section of curtains and into another, shorter corridor, again echoing the bland, back of house design, and which led to a muscular-looking door with an equally muscular security system. Here Jessyn entered a code, leaned in, and spoke a few words in a language unfamiliar to Ray, then stepped back as the locking mechanism spun open and several unseen bolts slid back into the thick, metal-plated door.
“Stay,” Ray said, pulling the door open.
SIG in hand, he stepped out onto a low platform, then stepped back in and looked at Harry. “There’s a white ground van with a giant bug on top.”
Harry grinned. “That’s it.”
Jessyn peeked around Ray’s shoulder. “The driver is waving.”
“He worries,” Harry said, also peering through the cracked open door. Beyond was a small lot, surrounded by a high hedge, and another line of the giant zin flowers.
A few high-end personal ground vehicles were parked here—Romeria didn’t allow privately owned hovers within city limits—and from beyond the secluded lot could be heard the thrum of street traffic and, beneath that, the soft rush of the Nuph River. Overhead, one of Ócala’s sky yachts drifted, the hull a gleaming rose gold under the pearl of its sails.
“Your enemies will have learned they were shooting at phantoms by now,” Jessyn said, mimicking Harry’s hurry up wave.
“Right,” Harry said, leading the way.
As they approached the van, the side door slid open and Harry assisted Jessyn into the back. He and Ray gave the area a last once-over and followed. Harry hadn’t even closed the door before Mollin had the van moving.
“Not too fast,” Harry called forward, holstering the Glock. “We don’t want to draw attention.”
“We’re in a van with a giant scarab on the top,” Mollin replied over his shoulder. “How can we not draw attention?”
“I don’t know—drive casual?”
Mollin muttered something about misquoting old vids.
Harry ignored him and turned the swivel chair in front of the comm and surveillance panel so Jessyn could sit. She was careful, he noticed, not to touch any of the equipment. “By the way, Mollin—Ray and Jess. Ray and Jess, this is Mollin.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the Cherrii called back.
“My honor,” Jessyn said.
“Yo,” was Ray’s contribution to the formalities.
“There’s a fold-down seat behind you,” Harry told Ray, who, like himself, was standing in an inverted J shape, one hand on the van’s side to keep from tipping while Mollin pulled out onto Riverside Drive.
“Don’t forget the bug check!” Mollin called from the front.
“I thought the pest-control thing was a cover,” Ray quipped.
“Bugs?” Jessyn looked around her, alarmed, until she saw Ray’s grin. “Oh, you mean—”
“Yes, he means…” Harry assured her, and while Ray got himself situated, bent over Jessyn’s shoulder to pull open a shallow drawer. After a moment’s digging he found a wand, almost twin to the one used on the guests entering Ankh, which he activated and ran over himself.
It remained a steady blue until he reached the back collar of his jacket, at which point the wand pulsed orange. He reached back and found a pill-sized tracer stuck under the collar. A little fiddling got the thing switched off, and the wand returned to its sedate blue. Harry tucked the deactivated bug into his trouser pocket.
“I don’t think they’d have tagged you,” he said, handing the wand to Ray, “but better safe.”
“Nothing,” Ray announced once he’d run the scan, then passed the wand back to Harry. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Better we keep moving for the time being,” Harry said, then called forward to Mollin. “But try to steer clear of the more populated neighborhoods. I’d like to avoid any more collateral damage.”
“How about a tour of the Seven Bridges?” Mollin asked. “We’re coming up on Taygete.”
“Go for it,” Harry said, then looked to Jessyn. “You wouldn’t know what kind of opposition we’re looking at, would you?”
She bit her lip, thinking, and something in the expression had Harry’s gut turning in much the same way it had when she’d pulled her psionic hoodoo inside of Ankh.
“It is true,” she said after a moment, “that the Black Rose has a strong presence on Ócala, but Sims is not acting on behalf of the organization. Those who fired on the lounge would have been nonaligned free-spearers.”
Freelancers, Harry thought. “So you’re saying we don’t have to worry about the Black Rose coming after us?” he asked, putting a hand against the van wall to steady himself as the vehicle turned onto the third of Nuph’s famed bridges.
“The Lady will not, nor anyone sworn to her House. But House Szado does not control the Black Rose organization.”
“That sounds suitably murky,” Harry commented.
“My thinking,” Ray said, “is we can keep driving around in your bug mobile—”
“Hey!” Mollin’s affront was audible, if not visible in the usual Cherrii fashion. “Respect the ride. ”
“Sorry,” Ray called, rolling his eyes. “As I was saying, we could keep driving, or we go to ground in a hotel, or third choice—”
Whatever the third choice might have been went unsaid because that was when something struck the right side of the van, tipping it over sideways, throwing Jessyn into Ray. Harry was thrown into the ceiling and then came down in front of the smoking, sparking wall of tech while the capsized vehicle skidded along the bridge’s grooved paving with a shriek of abused metal.
At this point the van took a second hit, this time to the undercarriage, and this fresh impact upended the van a second time, slamming the three passengers against the roof before everything came to a sudden, concussive halt against one of the bridge towers.
For a time the only sounds were the hiss and snap of frying systems and the steady whine of the van’s collision alert.
In the front seat an unconscious Mollin swayed from his chair, suspended by the seatbelt.
Ray splayed over the middle section, and Jessyn had landed just past him, under the remains of Mollin’s tech station.
Harry lay sprawled on his back, with his legs extending into the driver’s area and his head near the panel door. From inside a fog of pain, he caught the muffled sputter and fwump of a micro charge, followed by the groan of metal being forced open. A rush of night air chilled his skin and cut through the acrid smell of smoke. Voices echoed without meaning in his addled brain, and then hands were dragging him out by one arm, and he slid out of the van and onto the cool surface of the bridge, where his eyes opened to see a shadowed figure standing over him.
“Hello, Harry,” the figure said, raising a thin cigar with a hand that gleamed silver under the moons.
“You,” Harry said, in a voice gone hoarse with smoke, “are under arrest.”
At which point Seth Aliombe, AKA Gemini and Harry’s one-time partner, threw back his head and laughed.
Sign up for the Outrageous Fiction newsletter and receive these two short prequels to The Gemini Hustle.
Before Harry met Ray…
Meet Ray and Harry in the dark days before their fateful meeting on Ócala.