The Gemini Hustle: Chapter 2

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In the twenty-some minutes since León Enris began making introductions, Harry Finn—which was to say, the man everyone thought to be Victor Raz—had acquired his very own entourage.

Harry figured the real Victor, were he still among the living (reports of Victor’s death had not, in fact, been exaggerated—Harry had made sure of that), he would have been gratified by the overt adulation. 

It didn’t hurt Harry’s case, either. The more people who were convinced Raz had re-entered the stage of crime, the better his chances were of attaining his objective. So, as the crowd settled in around his table, Harry tipped back in his chair, made a little more of the liquor in his glass disappear, and played his part, all the while continuing to observe the local color. 

In particular he observed the new new guy—the one the bear-like figure named Oz had called Slater—who had arrived on the scene just prior to Harry’s dust-up with León Enris. 

Harry had noted the jackers circling Slater even as he, himself, did the Alpha dance with León. 

He’d also watched the vibro-dagger fall into Slater’s hand, though the jackers stalking him missed it.

The entire situation screamed messy, but it was also part of the natural order, and not his problem. 

Or so Harry told himself. 


Except something…some instincts…some untellable tell in this Slater’s vibe didn’t jibe for Harry, so Harry, while playing Victor, was also keeping one beady red eye on Slater.

“You can put that shaker back in the cradle.” Oz nodded at the hilt of the vibro-dagger Ray held as the two settled back in their chairs. “You probably won’t need it.”

“Probably?” Ray asked, not yet sliding the vibro-dagger back into its sheath. 

“Have you looked at this place?” Oz asked, then shifted as the bartender—Braxx—arrived with the requested bottle of the real stuff, along with three glasses. 

“I see your point,” Ray murmured, but he did stow the blade. 

Oz, meanwhile, sloshed booze into all three glasses, then thunked the bottle down on the table. “To better days than yesterday,” he said as he raised his glass in a toast. 

“Hear, hear,” Ray and Braxx replied, almost as one, and the three downed their drinks. 

“So, Oz,” Ray leaned back and gestured around the room with his glass, “is all this yours?”

“Quarter.” Oz threw a sideward nod at the table’s other party. “Braxx has a quarter share, too.” 

“And the other fifty percent?” Ray asked.

“Silent partner,” Oz replied.

Braxx snorted. “Not that silent,” he said, thumping his glass on the table. “They were plenty loud about Sura Koh letting the mist trade into the joint they owned with her. Surah owned the other bar in our sector. Her place burned to the bedrock a few weeks ago.” 

Ray let out a low whistle. “Your silent—sorry—not-so-silent partner burned their own business, just because there was mist dealing going on?”

“Our…partner…has some particular ideas about business,” Oz said, glaring at Braxx. 

“Interfering, high-nosed bitches,” was Braxx’s comment. “I’d like to take every one of those black roses of theirs and shove the thorns up their—”

“Stifle it,” Oz hissed, glancing in León’s direction, his eyes fixing on the black rose emblem on the thug’s jacket. After a moment he returned his attention to the table and saw Ray watching. He sighed, shrugged. “It’s the same old story,” he explained, picking up the bottle and pouring out another round. “New party comes on planet, pushes out the old guard, and the rest of the players either join up or pack up.”

“I’m guessing you joined up,” Ray offered, lifting his glass. 

Oz shrugged again. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“I am not making any promises, of course.” León leaned over the table and spoke quietly. On all sides the others were succumbing to the onslaught of free booze, so the conversation was almost private. “I am only saying there are opportunities to be had if you are willing to be part of something bigger.”

Harry’s right hand turned his glass around on the table, a slow, continual motion as he considered that statement. “When you say bigger?” he prompted.

León’s face slipped into a smug grin. “Big enough to have fingers in all kinds of pies.”

Harry scratched at the scar, which really did itch. “I do like pie.”

“Taking the offer was the only way to keep The Needle,” Braxx said to Ray. “The deal’s simple: They front the cash, and we let their soldiers use the place as a recruiting ground.” 

If that was the case, Ray figured Victor Raz had come to the right place to look for work.

“Fine for them, but it ain’t much of a growth industry for us,” Braxx groused. “Not if we can’t deal in mist, and don’t even think about letting the slavers work outta the place. So we’re stuck at underground level, maybe moving some bootleg if we’re lucky.”

“Only until we can prove our worth to the bosslady,” Oz said. 

“Lady?” Ray asked. 

“Prove our worth,” Braxx said.

“Better put away the bottle,” Oz said to his partner. “I just said that.” 

“No. I mean, yeah, but,” and here Braxx leaned close enough to asphyxiate the other two with the one-two shot of BO and halitosis, “what I mean is, we gotta prove our worth.

Ray and Oz shared a pained expression and eased to each side of Braxx’s fetid breath.

“Yeah?” Oz said. “So?”

“So,” Braxx’s voice dropped and he peered over Oz’s shoulder at the popular kids’ table, “so what if we prevent their boy León from recruiting a narc?”

Ray bit the inside of his cheek against a familiar tightening in his gut. “Narc? You mean Victor Raz?”

“No,” Braxx said with a low, poisonous growl. “I mean the guy who claims he’s Victor Raz.”

“What makes you so sure he ain’t who he says he is?” Oz asked, his gaze sliding towards the pirate’s table. 

“Because I worked a crew with Raz back in the day,” Braxx replied. “Before the,” he pointed to his right eye and drew the finger down, tracing a line similar to Raz’s scar. 

Oz seemed to relax. “So what, you’re miffed he don’t remember you?” 

“Hells no.” Braxx waved that off. “It was a big ass crew, and my team and his worked different decks of the ship.”

“Then where’s your proof?” Ray asked. 

“My proof is, this guy here?” Braxx jerked his chin in Victor’s direction. “He may be the spittin’ image, but he stepped wrong, saying he bribed that marshal.”

Which made both Ray and Oz smile. 

“You don’t really buy that whole ‘marshals can’t be bribed’ thing, do you?” Oz asked.

“Everyone has a price,” Ray echoed Raz’s earlier statement.

“Did I say that?” Braxx’s pocked face reddened. “What I’m saying is, Victor Raz wouldn’t have offered a bribe, not to any badge. He would ‘a ate his own pulser first.”

“Okay,” Oz said after a moment. “I’d say that’s reason to suspect the guy, but—”

“Plus,” Braxx cut in, “Enris is still breathing. The Victor Raz I met would ‘a left him with a Martian necktie just for blocking his view. Victor Raz,” he continued, “was ice. He wanted a job with the,” his eyes darted to León’s black rose, “he’d a walked over a garden path of corpses to get it.”

“People change.” It was Ray’s turn to play the skeptic. “Their tactics, if nothing else. If he’s here looking for a job, maybe he thinks that killing León might send the wrong message.”

Braxx blew a snorting gust of fetid air through his cracked lips, causing both Oz and Ray to recoil. “And maybe you been living under a rock, el tee.”

“I gotta tip my hat to Braxx on this one,” Oz said as a shout and a few shoves from the bar crowd drew his attention. He tapped the table near Braxx’s hand and jerked his head. “Handle that. Give them one more free round, then close the bar.”

Braxx nodded, gave Ray a glare that said I still think you’re a pogue, and departed.

Oz downed his drink and splashed in a refill. “Now we’re on the subject, el tee, where have you been since Verdanti? I mean, we all heard about how you killed Rikert, and the court martial after, but that was it.”

Ray gave a short laugh. “Well, first, the sonufabitch ain’t dead, though not for lack of trying. I got drummed out of the Corps, pulled a 10-spot in the Dutchman and got an early parole. The last few years I’ve been hiring out as a jammer, personal body guard—mostly for people the legit jams won’t touch.”

“Then you should be up on who we’re dealing with.” Oz threw another look at Enris and friend, followed by a cautious scan of the room. He leaned forward, voice lowered. 

“The Black Rose.” Ray nodded, his eyes flicking to León and back. “Didn’t know they’d made it this far out.” 

Which was a lie as bald as Oz’s head, because Ray knew exactly how far The Black Rose had made it, and he knew because he was tracking two Black Rose operatives. The only reason he was in The Needle in the first place was that his objectives had been spied entering the joint several times over the past few weeks—possibly recruiting for the Black Rose Syndicate, like good old León. 

“The Rose has been working in the Armante System for the past three years,” Oz said, confirming Ray’s intel as Braxx returned and dropped into his chair, which groaned in protest. 

Ray sympathized with the chair.

“The understreets?” León’s left hand waved dismissively over the bar. “The Rose does business here, but here is not where the real action is.”

Harry’s shoulder lifted in a shrug. Go on.

León, tipsy on bad booze and proximity to legend, went on. “On Ócala, the big deals, the interstellars? They happen upside, on Romeria’s ground level.”

“Prime pickings upside,” the wispy-haired fellow from earlier, a pickpocket with the unlikely name of Rizzo, muttered, slumping over his glass, the proverbial three sheets in. “But don’t pick any pockets in Ankh,” he added, slipping further down in his chair. “Sisters don’ like trouble in their place.”

Cállate! Shut it, Rizzo,” León hissed, flicking a nervous glance around the bar.

“Ankh?” Harry repeated the word.

“Upside club, upside clientele,” León said, suddenly sober. “Not our kind.”

“It all started small enough,” Oz said, waxing poetical on the rise of the Black Rose in this sector. “Smuggling to the frontiers, a little nightside trading in-systems, but then they put down roots. ‘Mergers and acquisitions’, they call it on the newswaves.”

“I remember that.” Braxx frowned into his glass. “There was a whole spread on one of ‘em buying that joint next to the Nuph River. Ack? Ark?”

Ankh,” Oz corrected, rolling his eyes at Ray.

“Whatever,” Braxx snorted. “Point is, the Black Rose came to Armante and targeted Ócala from the get,” Braxx said, glowering at Enris’s table. “Upside to understreet.”

“It’s a good location,” Oz admitted to Ray. “Why we picked it for our business—midway between the Dead Zone,” he used the spacer term for the Judon sector, “and Confed’s outer systems. All manner of trade can go down without Confed oversight.”

“Guess the Roses thought the same thing,” Ray offered. 

“Which brings us back to,” Braxx nodded towards Victor Raz.

“Okay. All right. For what it’s worth,” Ray said, “the ISM bribe thing and the fact he didn’t kill Enris is damning. But there’s still a chance you could be wrong. And if you are—if he’s not a narc but the real Raz—you better be ready to have your ass scraped off the walls. If this guy’s as frosty as you say, he’s not gonna give you the same consideration as Enris if you throw down on him.”

That seemed to have an effect, if Braxx’s nervously flickering gaze was any sign.

“Even if you’re right,” Oz threw his not inconsiderable weight into the match, “it’s not on us if one of their own nabs a ringer.”

“You would take the pogue’s side,” Braxx countered, his nerves flipping back to ire on a credit. 

Oz bristled, but a crash of glass and a shriek from the bar proper got in the way of whatever retort the bald man intended. “Braxx…” 

“I know, I know.” The trollish bartender heaved himself from the chair. “I’m handling it. Tolly!” he snapped at a thick-necked Suradi who had himself an armful of Cherrii working girl. “The glass was free, but you’ll be paying for that bottle.”

While Braxx busied himself with rousting the drunks, Ray noted that the liquor that had spilled was now spreading over the plank bar—probably the only cleansing that grime-encrusted melanine would ever see.

“Listen.” Oz pulled his attention back to the table. “I didn’t wanna say this in front of Braxx, but it may be there’s more than a grain of sense in what he says.”

“You really think Raz isn’t Raz?” Ray asked, then shared a grimace with Oz because, yeah, it sounded stupid.

“More I think it won’t matter that The Needle’s owners had nothing to do with it if it turns out he is a ringer. But seems to me, someone in the jamming business might have contacts, ways of finding stuff out. Maybe even put himself in the way of doing a favor for the Black Rose, one that comes out making me and mine smell real pretty.”

“Hate to break it to you,” Ray’s eyebrow arched, “but nothing in the galaxy is gonna make Braxx smell pretty.”

What could be seen of Oz’s mouth twitched, but his attention shifted to the drunkest of the drunks, who were helping each other towards the door and leaving Braxx alone behind the bar.

As Ray watched, Braxx’s gaze drifted over to León’s table. 

At the same time, Victor Raz looked in the bartender’s direction.

It couldn’t have been more than two seconds the mutual gaze held, then Braxx broke contact and, for no reason Ray could fathom, the bartender shot a look in his, Ray’s, direction. 

And then, as Ray watched, Braxx’s hands dipped under the bar, as if he were reaching for something. 

Shit, Ray thought.

At the rear table, conversation had circled back around to the unidentified dead body and the missing Kaneth Sooks when Harry’s roving eye caught the bartender, Braxx, glancing in his direction at the same time.

Braxx’s expression didn’t change one iota— none of the oops I got caught staring—just a steady regard that lasted as long as it took Harry’s heart to beat twice. 

On the third beat, Braxx’s eyes flicked toward that Slater character. 

On the fourth, his hands disappeared under the melanine bar.

Shit, Harry thought, and rose from his chair as he realized why he’d been so attuned to Slater. The guy was likely another undercover. 

Only not so under cover anymore, if Braxx was reaching for what Harry thought he was reaching for. 

Two covert ops in one bar…what are the odds? 

“You are leaving?” León asked as Harry moved past him. 

“Bummer.” Rizzo’s soft eyes blinked up owlishly.

“Didn’t get that last free round,” Harry said, taking his glass—still half full—in his right hand. As he started for the bar, his left dipped into one of his coat pockets and emerged with the first thing that came to hand, which turned out to be a cigarette lighter.

Shit. Shitshitshit, Ray chanted to himself.

Turned out Braxx was right.

That nagging, wispy something surrounding the man who called himself Victor Raz was instinct. The guy was probably SCUBA, a deep undercover agent. 

A cover now a heartbeat away from being blown like a cheap toy balloon, which left Ray with two choices.

One, he could sit back, safe, and watch it go down, hoping against hope the Raz character had skill (and the luck of the Irish) on his side.

Or two, he could commit the cardinal sin in his line of work and blow his own cover by helping Raz or, at the very least, warning him.

This was the moment where perception changed.

The people at the table who’d been vital to Harry’s objective five heartbeats ago were now little more than objects in space, dim in the background of flickering candles. 

All he knew now was the tear-raising odor of the liquor spreading over the bar, the swish of liquid in his glass, the cool satin of the lighter against his fingers, and the irritating rumble of the object on the other side of the bar, talking.

“—make an ass of me,” Braxx growled as he hauled the gun—and not just any gun, but a Tavor-Taz 112—from under the bar.

“Braxx,” another object added his voice to the mix, causing Braxx’s eyes to flicker to the right.

It was the one second Harry needed to toss the liquor from the glass in his right hand straight into Braxx’s eyes.

That motion, and Braxx’s accompanying (and high-pitched) scream, provided another 1.7 seconds for Harry’s left hand to flip the lighter to active and drop it into the pool of alcohol atop the bar.

The blue-white fwoooomph of flame erupting along the melanine, with accompanying screams, curses, and scrambling of bodies away from that particular space, provided a crucial nine seconds, during which Harry grabbed the nearest bar stool with his right hand and swept it wildly at the bodies nearest, who were catching on almost as fast as the fire that Victor was, in fact, not Victor.

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