The Gemini Hustle: Chapter 3

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As the bar exploded around Raz—or whoever Raz really was—Ray had time to note the guy had moves. 

Yet even with Braxx out of the action, there were still a dozen of The Needle’s loyal patrons, plus León and Oz, for not-Raz to deal with.

Oz, Ray thought, turning back to his table mate just as the bearded bar owner leapt to his feet. 

A metallic glint in the shimmering glow of the now-burning bar (and the also-burning Braxx) revealed the weapon that had materialized in Oz’s hand: an Old-Earth-style sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. 

“Oz!” Ray shouted, distracting the man from his target just long enough to shove the table into Oz’s gut in an unintentional homage to not-Raz. The move brought Oz’s upper body over the table top, where Ray could grab his head and slam it into the table’s chipped surface with enough force to knock him unconscious.

A flutter of movement in his peripheral vision had him turning to the right just in time to deflect the downward plunge of a murderous, curved blade. 

Or almost in time. Yes, the blade missed his heart, but the curved point ended up in his bicep.

With a curse, Ray caught his attacker’s thick, indigo wrist in his left hand, pulled it away and up, then delivered a snap-punch to Tolly’s (the same Suradi who’d been grappling with the prostitute) throat, causing Tolly to lose his grip on the blade.

Ray took immediate possession of the knife—a Suradi ketcherra, no less—and moved past the suffering Tolly to meet two more assailants, both of whom slowed their advance after witnessing Ray’s dispatch of their fellow thug.

Harry was pleased to have avoided sudden death by big-ass gun when Braxx dropped the Tav/Taz on the bar top. He was satisfied with the way the bar stool he’d swung up and around had cleared away the first wave of angry patrons, and was downright giddy when the same stool blocked an incoming katana, saving him from an ugly dismemberment (but leaving him with much less bar stool). 

Now left holding one wooden leg in each hand, Harry jammed the left hand’s stick straight into the katana-wielder’s gut. As the sword clattered to the floor, he flipped the makeshift baton over to slam into the back of the fellow’s head, sending him into la-la land. 

At the same time, he swung the right hand’s stick in a horizontal arc, cracking across another incoming attacker (León, he noted) across the cheek, splitting it open. 

Harry’s swing continued around and behind him, thwacking another random thug before he twisted back towards the rear of the bar, both sticks coming to bear on a body that turned out to belong to Rizzo the Dip. The pickpocket stood frozen, holding up a chair of his own in both hands, his face a study in indecision. 

Harry lowered the stool legs. “Scram,” he said, jerking his head towards the door. 

The little pickpocket scrammed, still holding the chair. 

Harry tracked Rizzo’s flight, along with that of the Cherrii prostitute—her skin mottling in multihued panic—and a few other customers making their way to the entrance, which dilated open at Rizzo’s approach. 

Movement to the left had him turning to where Oz and Slater had been sitting. Except now the bear-like Oz was out cold on the table and Slater was facing off against two other locals while standing over Tolly, who was currently choking out on the floor, his normally deep-blue face shading towards purple. 

He took a step forward, meaning to assist the other counterfeit criminal, when a shadow to the left proved to be another bar stool, this one intact, rushing his way.

Harry twisted to the right, but not fast enough, and he took a direct hit to the back, hard enough to drop him face down on the floor where he lay, blinded by the white-hot explosion of an old pain. 

But the pain was old, and therefore familiar, so even through the mind-numbing shock his body kept moving, rolling to one side as reached into yet another of his coat's pockets for the gun he’d nicked from León.

Unfortunately, his hand was still in the pocket when the Gmell’s taloned foot landed on his left arm, xer talons digging into the bicep like four claws of fire and causing him to pull the trigger. 

The shot grazed xer ribs, and the Gmell’s muzzle pulled back in a snarl as xe put all xer weight on his arm and raised the stool that had felled him over xer head, ready to bash Harry’s brains out.

Which might have ended up badly for Harry—would have, he was sure, except for the fact that, in that moment, as León’s gun was falling from his pain-numbed fingers, he recalled Braxx’s gun—the Tavor-Taz 112 that the bartender had dropped onto the bar. 

The bar that was now on fire.

In the instant he remembered, Harry’s eyes sought Slater, who was engaged in his own battle for survival.

Just when Ray thought both the approaching thugs would call it quits, the one at Ray’s left decided stupidity was the better part of valor and made a kamikaze run, coming at him at a dead rush, head down, arms folded against his chest—a move that surprised and delayed his buddy, who came to a complete stop to watch as Ray sidestepped the charging attack while plunging the Suradi blade into the back of the idiot’s thigh.

The howl of pain that followed spurred Thug #2 into more cautious action. He snatched up a nearby chair, tore off one leg, and advanced at a crouch, tossing his makeshift cudgel from hand to hand. 

It was at that point that Ray caught the eyes of not-Raz, currently flat on the floor at the receiving end of an angry Gmell’s talons. 

The two locked gazes, and it was hard to say who was more surprised when not-Raz uttered a single word. 

Duck,” he said.

Ray’s body reacted faster than his brain and dropped to the floor just as Braxx’s gun, a fully loaded automatic, reached the temperature necessary to cook off and the superheated weapon opened fire. 

The warning saved Ray’s life, but Thug #2 wasn’t so lucky.

Ray’s early childhood kicked in and he said a quick Hail Mary as physics came into play and the rapid expulsion of bullets caused the Tav/Taz to dance across the burning bar, spewing lead through The Needle and whoever wasn’t quick enough to seek cover.

Bodies dove, glass exploded, flames jumped from the bar to the spreading puddles of liquor released by bullet-shattered bottles. 

Harry felt the talons on his right bicep tighten for an agonizing moment before they suddenly withdrew. At the same time, the Gmell’s stool, which had been about to crack open Harry’s skull, made a desultory slump to the floor, followed by a severely perforated Gmell who landed across Harry’s legs, xer whiskey-splashed pelt smoldering. 

Harry’s throat closed to the smell of smoke and, despite the urgency of the moment, he shrugged out of the long black coat and used it to slap out the smoking pelt. “Sorry…”

“Holy Mother sand rats!” Strange place for your mind to go, Ray thought on the heels of a sudden flash of memory: Sister Abigail Francis Rosetta—she of the New Mars Mission of Mercy Orphanage—who had often been known to warn that “He or she who speaks the Virgin Mother’s name in vain will feel the pain,” a warning followed immediately by a brutal swipe across the ass, legs, or knuckles with the silica-fiber baton she used to conduct the choir. 

Ray was inclined to believe Sister Abigail as the blank air above him was suddenly filled by the bloodied face of Oz hanging over the tabletop just a foot above where he, Ray, lay, blinking into the smoke-filled air.

The bearded pilot was regaining consciousness, licking at the rivulet of blood covering his upper lip.

Ray figured it’d be maybe another few seconds before the waking Oz pushed himself up from the tabletop and straight into a .301 exploding projectile.

Offering up a prayer to whichever deity might be on duty, Ray slid his body in a cautious circle until his feet pointed at the table’s nearest leg. A swift upward kick was all it took, and the slender support, most likely attached with bonding glue, collapsed, bringing the table down at a slant and depositing Oz on his face.


“Sorry,” Ray muttered, patting the unconscious lump as he scooted around to assess the damage. 

It seemed the gun on the bar had expended its ammo. All that could be heard now were a scattered volley of choking curses. 

The Needle’s interior was a smudge of cloying smoke, clogging Ray’s lungs and making the ability to see more than a few inches away all but impossible.

“Hey, Victor… hey.” 

A tentative soft pat on his shoulder pulled Harry’s attention from the smoking pelt he was patting out. 

“It’s not Vic— Never mind,” Harry said, looking up to find Rizzo the Dip hunched over like a question mark. “I thought I told you to scram.” 

“Yeah, you did.” 

Rizzo’s head nodded. Like everything else about him, the motion was soft, his wispy hair floating around a face streaked with soot. 

Obscurely, he reminded Harry of the velvet paintings of big-eyed children he’d seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, back on Earth. “Then why are you here?” he asked, coughing. The smoke had thickened considerably.

“Ain’t no one else would ‘a cared enough to kick me outta the way.” This wistful statement was followed by a wisp of a shrug and a cough. 

“I care. Deeply,” Harry told him. “Now scram—again. Wait,” he held up a hand, pointed to where León was out cold on the floor. “Take him with you.” 

“Sure thing, but…” Rizzo’s voice trailed off uncertainly.

“But?” Harry prompted, then coughed a few more times.

Rizzo didn’t speak, but pointed to his right, to a spot on the floor. 

Harry turned his mismatched gaze in the same direction, uncertain what he was expected to see. 

Then he saw it. 

Or, rather, he saw the smoke disappearing down it. 

“Ah.” He looked back and there were Rizzo’s big brown eyes watching. “Thanks,” he said. “Now scram. For real.” 

The smile Rizzo gave him was almost childlike. Then the pickpocket turned away and, with surprising strength for someone so malleable, got up under León’s shoulder and hauled the Black Rose’s foot soldier out of the bar.

Left alone, Harry bent over to avoid inhaling any more smoke than necessary and made his way to the large, grated drain that Rizzo had been pointing to set in the middle of the floor—an intelligent feature for a dive like The Needle, and Harry had no doubt all manner of unpleasantness got washed down that drain on a nightly basis.

Harry figured the garbage chute was as apt a way as any for Victor Raz to make his final exit.

Arriving at the drain, he paused to look around until, through the drifting smoke and rising flutter of firelight, he found Slater, hunched over a mountain of Oz. 

“Back door.” He jerked his head downward and wrapped his fingers around the grill, pleased to see it wasn’t screwed in. 

It was, however, jammed in pretty tight. Probably glued in by years’ worth of effluvia. Oh, for Han Solo’s blaster. 

Then another set of fingers slid through the grate. 

“On three?” he heard Slater ask. 

A sudden explosion from the bar showered them both with glass shards and melanine chips. 

“Hell with three,” Harry said. 

Both men strained upwards, sweat dripping, spines creaking. 

A few metallic pops, a sharp, air-releasing hiss, and the grill jerked up on a billowing gust of truly foul air. 

“I’ll say one thing,” Slater commented, eyes tearing from the stench, “tonight definitely goes down in the books for the most fun I’ve had since my last blind date with a 7-foot, 390-pound Drellanese cocktail waitress.”

Harry, done enough he could feel the fork in him, responded with a raspy, “You first.”

It took a while to navigate the maze of foot-sucking sludge, malodorous tributaries, and slime-coated walls that were the catacombs beneath Romeria’s lowest level.

For the first few hundred meters it would have been dark as pitch but for Harry’s cybernetic eye and Slater’s watch, which had a flashlight feature. The tech allowed them to follow the trails of smoke from the burning Needle into better-ventilated passages, leading them at long last to a utility access shaft, which in turn opened on Level 9.

“What the hell is this place?” Ray asked, scoping the area that, luckily for them (and whoever might have a sense of smell) was deserted. 

The lower level overhead had been shut down to match the planet’s diurnal cycle, but ambient light from a nearby entertainment district made it possible for Ray to view his surroundings, and what he saw made no sense. 

They’d emerged in the middle of an expanse of dimpled melanine flooring that spread dozens of meters to all sides, dipping into pockets of various sizes and shapes, with low spigots set in various configurations through each of the dimpled areas. To their left was the lighted entertainment district and to their right a low, curving wall, and beyond that what looked to be a playground of sorts, with slides and swings and large structures kids might like to climb on. 

Not-Raz, setting the shaft’s cover back in place, looked up and laughed, surprising Ray.

“Water park,” not-Raz said with a smile, at which point the ravaged face became more ravaged as the telltale scar began to peel away. 

“Water what?” Ray asked, trying not to stare at the loosely dangling disfigurement. 

“Watch.” The other man walked into one of the nearby dents and waved. 

Immediately a spray of water shot out of the spigots, drenching not-Victor, who turned his face up into the spray and began to scrub. As he did, the scar fell completely away, and patches of less sallow skin began to appear. 

This current ablution wasn’t the first hint of the man beneath the mask of Victor Raz. 

The lank hairpiece had been lost during an encounter with a lower-level life form that would provide Ray with nightmare fodder for years to come. What remained was a short brush of dark hair that, even in the dimness, held a sheen of silver throughout. 

Not-Raz’s voice, which in The Needle had sounded like someone had rubbed his vocal chords with sandpaper, now only bore the same roughness Ray’s did, from exposure to smoke. 

What the hell, Ray thought, and took off his jacket and shirt (both saturated with smoke, ripped, and bloodstained) and joined not-Raz in the open-air shower. 

There were still eight levels between him and the ship berthed at the Romeria spaceport, and having a wash might help draw less attention.

The wound from the Suradi ketcherra, he noticed, was little more than a long, jagged gouge, already clotted.

A glance at not-Raz—What is this guy’s real name, anyway?—showed the Gmell’s talon marks were similarly nonlethal.

After a few minutes of scrubbing, Ray couldn’t hold it in anymore. 

“Look,” he began, shaking his head like a wet dog, “I really don’t give a shit who you are or why you were posing as this Raz guy. It’s your business. But I stuck my neck out back there helping you, and put a crimp in my business.”

“Really?” Not-Raz turned to look at Ray, the red eye gleaming in the dark. “Because the way I recall, Braxx was looking at you when he went for that T&T.” 

“Then you might want to get your memory checked, because Braxx didn’t go for the gun until after he made you for a narc,” Ray said, stepping out of the kiddy fountain to glare at the other man, who glared back—and then he started to laugh again, which led to him coughing again, and then to both hands landing on his knees as he doubled over, as if in pain.

“Hey, you okay?” Ray stepped forward and was immediately doused by the nearest fountain, activated by his motion. “Shit.” He ducked back out of range. 

“Fine.” With visible effort, the other man straightened. “I’m fine. And thank you for burning your cover. Even if I didn’t ask you to.”

“You must be a blast at holiday parties,” Ray offered, and then sighed. “Can you at least tell me it was worth it?”

“No,” the other man said. 

Ray’s eyebrow arched. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” The red eye blinked and turned away, leaving the echo of spots in Ray’s vision. “But for what it’s worth, I am sorry it cost you.”

“So am I.” Ray used his own shirt to dry off, then slipped back into his jacket (shirtless), zipping it to chest level. “In any case, The Needle is one bridge we burned behind us. Literally. It’s a safe bet we won’t be seeing anyone from down there—” Ray turned as he spoke, cutting himself off when his eyes reached the spot where not-Raz was now not standing. 

Ray looked towards the lighted area, then to the darkened playground. 

“You’re welcome,” he said to the empty night. “Really. I almost blow my cover to help total strangers all the time.”

Ooookay. Moving on, he thought as he left the park, walking to the main road to hail a tunnel taxi. Whatever not-Raz had going, Ray had his own job, and tonight’s shitstorm had definitely put a crimp in it. Time to drop back, regroup, and figure out another way to get to his targets.

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