After last night’s adventure in The Needle, arguably the nadir of gin joints, Harry looked on Ankh as a figurative, as well as literal, twelve steps up.
Located on the planet’s surface, in the tourist hub of Romeria, the nightclub sparkled like a jewel under the star-misted skies above—a really big jewel, shaped like a ziggurat, or a cake that had been frosted in crushed opals. The structure was set off from other, lesser nightclubs by dint of being built on a small peninsula that jutted into the Nuph River, and the drive leading up to the club was lined with zin flowers, a plant unique to Ócala that grew upwards of twenty feet, with a stem as thick as the sugar maples of Harry’s home forests.
As he walked past, the zins’ stems wafted in the balmy evening breeze, spreading a spicy, chrysanthemum-like scent. While several approaching guests oohed and aahed at the floral magnificence, Harry’s first thought was to wonder if any tourists had ever been taken out by a falling petal.
Then he wondered what allergy season might be like in Romeria.
Then he reached the door and ordered himself to stop wondering about the Alice-in-Wonderland-size flowers.
Stepping inside the foyer, he paused long enough to study a holographic kiosk that displayed a 3D map of the place, highlighting the various and sundry entertainments available.
According to the holo, the five diminishing stories of Ankh boasted three lounges, two saloon bars, a dining room on the highest floor, casino on the second, and music and dancing on the first and third.
There was also a mezzanine surrounding the ground floor, accessible by a wide center stair that rose behind the dance floor. The balcony, with its crystal-clear railing, fronted a good twenty private rooms of, according to the map, varying sizes and accommodation, prices available upon request.
Privacy, no doubt, was a strong selling point in a club that catered to the wealthiest, most powerful, most connected members of a multitude of systems.
A stronger selling point might have been the hostesses wandering the club’s floor.
Counter to more traditional venues, the hospitality staff of Ankh was entirely female, and so Human in appearance that most who entered wouldn’t question their Terran heritage.
But Harry wasn’t most, and he knew these particular Bright Young Things were not Human, but Rasalkan, a species of humanoid with high psionic ratings and a strongly matriarchal society.
And he knew all this because he’d had some experience with Rasalkans, back in the day. Way back, in fact, and in those days, very few Rasalkans could be found outside their home system.
From the number of Rasalkan hostesses working the room tonight, moving through the crowds, greeting and schmoozing, drinking and dancing, things had changed in the past two decades.
As he stood contemplating Ankh’s unique staffing, one of the hostesses slipped past him, arm in arm with a silver-haired Suradi woman, and Harry spent a few unproductive moments thinking of ice-cold showers before he could continue on in search of a table.
Given the talent working the floor, it was no wonder the joint was asses to elbows, and he counted himself lucky to snag a ground-floor two-top to the right of the dance floor.
The table was small and wobbly, snug against a crystal-encrusted pillar, and further sheltered from the foyer traffic by a potted tree.
It was probably the closest thing Ankh had to a cheap seat, but it was perfect for Harry, as it provided a view of the dance floor, the saloon bar to his left, and the mezzanine.
As he sat and nursed the seltzer (delivered with a dish of the local olives and a sneer), Harry listened to the crowds, catching the distinct sound of ice against crystal, the sigh of silk and the gentle ka-ching of small fortunes being exchanged throughout the building. Harry figured any number of deals were being made over dinner.
A waft of perfume passed by, trailing after a vid-star one of Harry’s nephews had a serious crush on.
Interesting, but Harry hadn’t come to Ankh to get an eyeful of the high and mighty.
One hour before Harry walked into Ankh, Mollin was tracking León Enris. “I thought you said Enris was a foot soldier?” he asked.
Harry, up in the driver’s seat of a van purchased under the name Jean-Francois Mercier, looked over his shoulder to see the cy-tech hunched over his portable comp. On the comp’s holo, the little green dot representing Enris moved across the grid of Romeria like an avatar in some ancient arcade game.
“I thought he was. Why?”
“Because he just exited the mag-cab in front of that club you had me scope out.”
“That’s the one.” Mollin glanced forward, to where Harry sat, clad in the coveralls and cap of Mercier’s Pest Removal Service. “You’ll probably want to change.”
Harry had changed, and now, an hour after his arrival, sat dressed in a monochromatic ensemble of dark gray slacks, shirt, tie, and jacket—with matching Glock—at his teeny tiny table and took in the view.
In particular, he took in the view of a jade-green door up on the mezzanine, three rooms to the right of the wide staircase, through which he’d seen León Enris, also in his Ankh-day best, enter some twenty minutes ago.
Harry had spent most of those twenty minutes wondering why, the first time León set foot out of his lodgings all day, he’d made a beeline for a nightclub he’d previously claimed was too upside for his ilk.
Not our kind, he’d said, with every evidence of sincerity.
So why would a foot soldier of the Black Rose, one who knew himself to be a sudra, jump two castes to mingle with the Kshatriya who patronized Ankh?
Somewhere between the sixth and seventh revolution of that question through Harry’s brain, his gaze was drawn past the dance floor (where a daring few were attempting a vigorous Suradi dance to what sounded like classical Aerosmith) to the stairs, down which a young woman was currently descending, and he forgot there’d been a question, or a León, or anything else, really.
On the taller side of medium height, and just a few curves shy of willowy, the Rasalkan hostess wore a single-shouldered gown of glimmering bronze that did nothing to detract from the golden-brown of her skin.
Her hair was gathered in a mass of dark curls and glittered with jeweled pins, so that it seemed to Harry she moved in starlight, and with the kind of grace most people called unconscious, but struck him as almost superconscious. It seemed to him as if she measured every step against the impact it would have on her surroundings.
He was entranced by her descent, so much so she’d almost reached the dance floor before motion at the top of the staircase reminded him he wasn’t here to ogle pretty girls—especially not pretty girls half his age—and dragged his eyes to where a man and woman on the mezzanine approached the same door León had disappeared through earlier.
While the woman at the top of the stairs shared the younger woman’s gilded-brown complexion, her figure leaned more towards what on Earth would be termed Amazonian. Her hair, a brown near to black, was an explosion of tight curls, and her bearing so conspicuously sensuous that, even from the lower level, Harry felt the impact of her presence.
And yet, despite the wallop of sexuality she wore like her thigh-skimming excuse of a dress, the woman’s indifference to the man accompanying her was visible as a wall—a response Harry could appreciate, seeing as he’d already met the man, after a fashion.
Oz, you sonufabitch, he thought as he recognized Slater’s benefactor from the night before.
He wondered if any other characters from last night’s performance at The Needle would be making an appear—
“Hello, Harry,” a voice—smooth and cold and teasingly familiar—cut into Harry’s thoughts, and he looked up to see who’d come up on his six.
“Sims Al-Kar,” Harry greeted the man. Sims had been a mid-level arms dealer when they’d last crossed paths. “Been a while.”
“Not long enough,” Sims replied, “given how you tried to frame me and my partner back on Ceres.”
“That bust was righteous,” Harry said, nothing in his voice indicating his guts had just turned to ice. “It was the execution that left something to be desired.”
Sims offered a smile that didn’t reach his eyes as he asked, “How’s the spine?”
“Pity,” Sims replied, pulling out the other chair the little table afforded and dropping into it.
“Please,” Harry said, “have a seat.”
Sims didn’t respond right away, and for a moment the two men sat, watching each other, each with one hand on the table, the other…not.
Judging the silence suitably stretched, Harry decided to pluck it. “You’re looking pretty uptown, compared to Ceres,” he offered.
And this was no less than true, as the only other time Harry had laid eyes on Sims Al-Kar was during the aforementioned bust—one that had gone so far south it ended up north. Back then, Sims and his partner, a nutbar by the name of Gavin Booth, had been more than a little rough around the edges.
Then again, Harry hadn’t emerged from that affair looking too swell, either, and then there was Harry’s partner, who—
He cut that thought off at the knees, because Seth wasn’t something he could afford to think about now.
“Clean living,” Sims said in reply to Harry’s previous comment. Then he asked, “Why are you here, Finn?”
“I could ask the same of you,” Harry said. “Are you still peddling stolen weapons? Or have you moved on to something more destructive? Plague? Famine? Pestilence?”
“You flatter.” The hand on the table tapped once, twice. “A little out of your jurisdiction, aren’t you?”
Harry shrugged. “I’m on vacation.”
“Take your vacation someplace else.”
“I like it here.”
The two sat for another beat, staring at one another.
By now the other man’s aggression had Harry wondering if Sims was still pissed enough over the Ceres bust to start something in the middle of a crowded nightclub.
Then a delicate hand came to rest on Sims’s shoulder.
“Sims,” the hand’s owner said. “Who is your friend?”
That was all it took—a touch, a softly voiced question, and suddenly both men relaxed the fraction necessary to avoid an explosion.
Looking up, Harry saw the young woman he'd been watching descend the staircase.
“Jess,” Sims nodded towards Harry, “this is Harry Finn. He’s just leaving.”
One brow tilted up and the girl looked at Harry with clear blue eyes. “Is this so?”
“That my name is Harry Finn? Yes,” Harry replied, rising from his seat—an old-fashioned gesture, but one his mother had pounded into Harry from a young age. “That I’m leaving? Not so much.”
Sims stirred in his seat. “Now, listen—”
“Jessyn Breeshandra,” she said, cutting off Sims with a glance, surprising both men before returning her attention to Harry. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
For reasons he couldn’t name—even taking the whole Rasalkan-psionic thing into account—Harry believed her. “Likewise,” he said, letting his gaze slide down to where Sims sat, glaring. “Mr. Al-Kar isn’t nearly as happy to see me,” he explained.
“Jessyn, I’d like a moment with Mr. Finn.” Sims placed his hand over hers, where it still rested on his shoulder.
There was the slightest hesitation before her head dipped, the jeweled pins catching the light to toss back in Harry’s direction. “Of course,” she said, offering a smile to each man before returning to her circuit of the club, one hostess among many, and yet not.
“That,” Harry said, watching her exit, “is a lady.” He folded himself back into the chair before adding, “Better than you deserve.”
“I know,” Sims said, then frowned, as if realizing he’d revealed too much. With a dark expression he waved down one of the club’s waiters, who practically tripped over himself to respond to the summons.
Harry’s brow arched. Not only was Sims dressing uptown, he seemed to have acquired some uptown status, to merit this kind of service—not to mention the attention of a woman like Jessyn Breeshandra.
Sims ordered a scotch from the pallid server and waited until he left before turning back to Harry. “Listen, whatever deal you think you’ve got with me, you’ll leave her out of it.”
“I don’t have any dealings with you,” Harry said.
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“I don’t have any dealings with you,” Harry repeated. “Your boss, on the other hand…”
“What boss?” Sims asked. “Gavin and I are entrepreneurs. Have been since Ceres.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” Harry deadpanned, but any response Sims might have made was delayed by the arrival of the server with his drink.
As soon as the waiter swanned off, Sims lifted the glass and took an appreciative sniff—an affectation, Harry knew, meant to get under his skin—before taking a long, slow sip and setting the glass down. “Now, where were we?”
“I don’t know about you,” Harry began, letting his gaze slide away, towards the stairs, “but I was about to—” And then his voice caught as his eyes slid past a familiar dark-eyed man bypassing the dance floor and heading into the saloon bar at the left of the main floor.
Well, he’d wondered if anyone else from The Needle was going to show up. Looked like he had his answer.
“About to—” Sims prompted.
“What?” Harry watched Slater settle down at the bar, then he looked up the stairs to the jade door, which, of course, was finally opening.
“You sure you haven’t fallen off the wagon, old man?” Sims asked.
Upstairs, the Amazonian woman in the excuse for a dress emerged from the jade door.
At the L-shaped bar, Slater was ordering a drink.
“Only thing I’m sure of is entropy,” Harry said, glancing back up the stairs to see Oz following the woman out of the door.
And from behind him, none other than Sims Al-Kar’s aforementioned nutbar of a partner, Gavin Booth.
No sign of León Enris, and not a whiff of Sims Al-Kar’s boss.
And, yet again, shit.
“Entropy?” Sims prompted.
“Things fall apart,” Harry explained, rising from the table.
Sims raised his glass. “I’d say you’ll be missed, but…”
Harry ignored the jibe as he moved to intersect Oz, who was already on his way down the staircase and who had, by some miracle, not yet seen Slater.
With luck and a well-timed collision, Harry would be able to keep it that way.
And if he kept Oz from discovering Slater in Ankh, he figured that would pretty much repay Slater for burning his cover last night in The Needle.