The Gemini Hustle: Chapter 4

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Ignoring the looks of distaste from various tech staffers and flight engineers he passed, Ray entered the primary access portal of the multilevel doughnut that was the city of Romeria’s Intergalactic Spaceport. 

Here he paused at the security panel for the mandatory palm and retina scan.

[Authenticated. Mr. John Steed] the security computer’s synthetic voice responded. [State your destination.]

“Level twelve, berth sixteen-epsilon.”

After a beat of silence came a series of tonal clicks. [That is correct, Mr. John Steed. You may proceed to the passenger conveyance and have an enjoyable day.]

“It’s been a barrel of laughs so far,” Ray said. 

[Your response does not resonate within my occupational parameters. Please explain, Mr. John Steed.]

“Resonate this,” Ray muttered, and shot the computer a middle finger as he made his way to the lift. 

Upon reaching his level, he found his ship squatting in near-solitary splendor, her only company a light freighter docked a good hundred meters away. His footsteps in the cavernous dock echoed, then changed to a clang on the lowering gangplank of the Gypsy Moth. 

At almost a century old, the Moth was no beauty—on the outside. On the inside, thanks to his current employer, she was the perfect blend of comfort and convenience.

Speaking of convenience, Ray made his first stop the onboard med station, set port aft, where he had the ship’s MMB—medical mini-bot —clean and seal the knife wound in his bicep.

Comfort followed, with a sauna and reverb water shower in his private bath. The other two cabins, located on the opposite side of the communal area, shared a bathroom. 

Not that anyone ever used them. His profession didn’t run to traveling companions. 

He stayed under the water a long time—long enough for the ship’s vent system to purge the remaining sewer fug that had accompanied Ray aboard, leaving the not quite dusty metal odor he associated with the ship’s interior. 

After he felt sufficiently clean, he sought out dinner, which was found amidships starboard in the kitchenette/dining nook which featured a round table and built-in chairs, one long counter with cupboards, and, most important, a drinks cabinet stocked with loving care every time Ray hit a port. 

If tonight’s outing was any indication, he’d be spending a good chunk of platinum in the Romeria liquor stores. 

His food options, however, were less than optimal. 

A rectangular vid-screen and console above the small kitchenette counter, when activated, displayed a menu of meal selections. Once Ray made his choice, the unit prepared the vacuum-sealed food packet and placed it on a plasti-ware platter along with cutlery and napkin, ready to be consumed.

To call it edible was an overstatement, but it could’ve been worse (and had been, not so many years ago), so Ray accepted his reconstituted meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and green peas philosophically before opening a new bottle of Wallace Blue Label, single malt scotch. From this he poured himself three fingers neat and crossed to the onboard computer, located against the forward bulkhead, just starboard of the cockpit entrance. 

Here he turned his focus back to his reason for being on Ócala: Gavin Booth and Sims Al-Kar. The two men were said to be blood brothers, and known to be syndicate lieutenants who moved black-market weapons across the known galaxy, leaving a swath of bodies in their wake. 

Ray had been hoping to get a line on the two lowlifes at The Needle. 

Now that that line was burned (literally), Ray needed to cast a new one if he was to fulfill his mission. 

And Ray always fulfilled his mission. 

Pulling up to the comp, he reviewed the intel that had placed Booth and Al-Kar in Romeria, as recent as twenty-four hours prior to his arrival. A few more rumors picked up after he docked suggested the two did business in the Cailat District, and one last rumor had them recruiting new talent in the local watering holes, including The Needle, which had been Ray’s third and last stop of the evening. 

Unfortunately, things had gone south before that plum could be picked. 

At least he’d gotten something out of the evening: Oz’s mention of possible syndicate activities, “mergers and acquisitions,” as he’d put it, in a topside club called Ankh.

“Computer. Audio interface,” he said, sipping his drink. “Passcode, One Eye Jack.”

[Passcode verified. Audio Interface accepted] the computer answered.

“Information requested on local topside club called Ankh. Cover the entire spectrum, from construction to opening, owners, operators, financial backers, everything. Also, a history of syndicate and cartel presences and actions, topside to understreets, planetwide.”

[Specify time parameters for the latter.] 

Ray thought about that. “Go back one year to eighteen months.”

[Be advised the Ócala satellite and InfoNet contains a security-tracking and identification algorithm. To prevent detection, I must research this material in the 6.6 minute by 3.9 hour interval the security protocol is offline for realignment. Therefore, the Intel you have requested will take several hours to amass.]

“Do whatcha gotta do,” Ray replied. He took another, longer sip, then set the glass down, kicked his feet up onto the console, let his eyes drift shut and slid easily into sleep.

Given how things had shaken out in The Needle, he probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, as sleep slipped into dreaming, she was waiting.


“Ahh, Ray.” Saskia’s smoky contralto caught in a gasp, released in a sigh. 

You’re dreaming, man, Ray told himself, but given the subject matter, his self didn’t give a shit.

A visceral ass dream, too, as Ray felt the damp slide of her thigh over his skin, the warmth of her breath against his throat. 

Instead of the smoke-and-honey odor of the scotch he’d been drinking, he scented her skin—tea and cinnamon—a combination he’d never have thought erotic before meeting Saskia Solange.

But it wasn’t just a dream. Even in it, he knew better. 

It was a memory of the last time they’d been on the job together just a few weeks ago, on Beta Niobe 6. They’d registered at New Lozärn’s Grand Königsberg Hotel under the names Ms. Annette Funicello and he Mr. Frank E. Avalon of Red Beach Shipping, out of New Mars. 

But this dream, this memory, had nothing to do with the job and everything to do with her. 

For Ray, their intimacy provided a much-needed release from the physical and mental stress of his most recent mission. 

He’d believed (or told himself he believed) it had been the same for her. 

The dream was a potent reminder how wrong he’d been, fading to black on the afterglow of sex and coming back into focus the next morning, when Ray had flung on his pants and gone into the living area to find her, fully dressed and going over a series of data pages at the desk. 

She’d looked up at his approach, greeted his caress with a distracted smile. But when he took the caress a step further, she hopped out of the chair and slapped his hand aside with a sting he felt even in his sleep.

“What was that for?” He shook the abused hand as she placed herself out of reach, her eyes aglow with a fury he didn’t understand.

“For being—you,” she said with a frustrated wave. “Look, we had the requisite sexual interlude. Now it’s time to work. So let’s work.” She gestured to the desk. “I’m supposed to debrief you, in case you’ve forgotten.” 

“Debrief?” He hiked an eyebrow, twitched both shoulders in a shrug, shoved his hands in his pockets. “Fine. Callum Jadriel, commander of the Syndicate smugglers’ fleet, narco supplier, and child-flesh trafficker. Former headquarters, Beta Niobe Six, the Erebus System…two blocks from this hotel, in fact. Current condition of subject Jadriel? Permanent state of death.” He pulled out one of the two desk chairs and slumped into it as he added, “I made it look like an accident. The stupid sonufabitch had too much wine, took a long night walk and fell off a seventy-foot cliff. End of debrief.”

Saskia’s arms crossed over her chest and her eyebrows hiked up in imitation of his. The pose lasted barely three seconds before they dropped and fixed on a displaced sofa cushion as if it were an oracle, capable of answering every buried question she’d ever had. 

“Clearly there’s a problem here,” the Ray in the dream said, causing dreaming Ray to shift in the chair, hunching away from his own callousness. 

Still, the dream continued as he latched on to her earlier statement. “Requisite sexual interlude?” he prompted.

She tensed, and her eyes flicked up from the oracular cushion. 

“I should’ve caught that when it first popped out,” he said. “That’s not you,” he said with doubtless certainty. “It’s a Doyleism.”

At their control’s name, her shoulder rose in a shrug much like Ray’s own.

“When did he find out about us?” Ray asked.

“He’s always known.” Saskia’s eyes rolled in disgust. “He hasn’t said anything to you because this particular op is too important to him. He needs you on point, so he’s playing stupid. It’s not a good look on Doyle,” she added with obvious bitterness. “And I’m not loving it on me, for that matter.” 

“What?” Ray asked, and then, finally, he got it. And he hated that he got it. “Oh… Oh, shit.” 

“Yeah.” And now she turned away, but not before he saw the first gleam of tears. “It really sucks.” 

“I don’t—” he began, and then faltered. “I didn’t—”

“I know,” she said with a gesture both understanding and helpless. “Listen, how I feel is how I feel, and I hate it, but that’s not the problem.” 

“Then what is the problem?” Sailors lost in the Bermuda Triangle couldn’t have been more at sea than Ray. 

“The problem.” She shook her head, the explosion of curls bobbing as she did. “Okay, did you hear yourself just now?” 

“When?” 

“Just a minute ago. The way you talked—the way you talk about killing,” she prompted. “I remember you at your first briefing. You didn’t let it show on the outside, but inside,” she tapped her own chest over her heart, “the notion of taking a life outside of combat was repellent. But now? Four years in? You make it sound as easy as walking a dog.”

“Depends on the size of the dog,” Ray quipped. “You ever see that new breed on the Antares colony?” He held one hand at eye level, palm down. “They’re friggin’ horses.”

“Everything’s a joke with you, Raymond.”

“Not everything,” he tossed back at her, rising from the chair and crossing to take one of her hands. “Not us.”

“Maybe not a joke,” she said, sliding her hand free, “but not the main act.” 

“Sas—” 

“Ray.” She held up her hand, cutting him off. “It’s okay. Or it will be. But not yet, because I love you, Ray. I’m sorry for that, sorry for me for feeling it, and for you because you can’t. But because I do, I can’t do this anymore.”

“This?” 

“I’m supposed to be your handler,” she explained. “Dispassionate, detached, and I could do that, at the start, but not anymore. For more reasons than you can imagine, I can’t.” 

She looked at him, as if waiting for a reply. 

Nothing came. 

How could it, when even Ray, inept as he was with the L-word, knew caring about a person who made a living by ending lives couldn’t be good for the soul? Add to that the person in question might end up dead in a ditch or tied to a chair in a dank basement while some hulk named Gustav pulled out the pliers…

And add injury to insult, if the person you cared about didn’t care back—or, at least, didn’t care back enough. 

In the dream, as in reality, he stood silent, wondering if there’d been any way to avoid this moment.

“I put in for a transfer,” she said while he stared, unable to speak or to change or be who she needed him to be. “Doyle’s already approved it. There’s a position opening up on the ISM Fugitive Protection Force.”

“Okay?” Hearing how stupid he sounded, Ray shook his head. “I’m guessing there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”

“No, but you could do me a favor.” 

“Anything,” he said, then winced because hadn’t he just realized how much he couldn’t do? 

“You’re a damn good agent,” she told him, coming forward to rest a hand on his heart, “but you have a tendency to act with the gut instead of the brain, and that gets you in trouble, so promise me you’ll be—”


[—careful of the glass, sir.]

The AI’s snippy warning yanked Ray from the melancholy dream and he shot upright, his feet clomping down on the deck and knocking the glass off the console, sending a splash of single malt onto his shirt.

“Shit!” Jumping up from the chair, he let the tumbler thud to the deck and brushed at the spill, then he stopped and leaned a hand on the console as the smoke-and-honey scent of spilled liquor failed utterly to mask the tea and cinnamon of Saskia’s perfume.


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