A few minutes before Harry spied him, Ray was walking into the foyer of Ankh, where one of the hostesses immediately sidled up to make his acquaintance. Petite, golden-haired with fawn-gold skin and amber eyes, she was something to look at, but it was how he felt when she slipped her arm into his that got Ray’s attention.
Or, at least, it got a particular part of Ray’s attention.
“You’re new here,” the woman said, by way of introduction.
Ray cleared his throat. “How can you tell?” he asked, unable to pull his eyes off hers, uncertain what was causing this reaction. Possibly it had to do with the husky suggestion in her voice, and the way it snuck in through his ears to tug at places best left untugged, given he was on the job here.
“I’ve been working at Ankh long enough to recognize that new-player smell,” she said.
“I’m not really what you’d call a player,” Ray said. “Gambling’s not my thing.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said, “but I think you know that.” She stopped inside an arch that opened into the main floor lounge and swung around to face him. “You intrigue me, Mr. Not-a-Player.” She danced her fingers over his lapel before adding, “I’m Lyselle, in case you’re in the mood for company later.”
“Rockford. James Rockford, and I’ll remember that,” Ray said, eyes dipping to appreciate her assets as she returned to the front door, where no doubt she’d make the next guest feel welcome.
On the job, he reminded himself, and (mostly) shook off the aftereffects of the hostess’s unique greeting before heading into the main lounge to discover a lounge crowded with high-profile clientele.
In the first ten meters he spotted half a dozen celebrities whose names and faces dominated galactic media on a minute-by-minute basis. Some legitimate, some infamous.
And then there was the flip side of the coin, those not known to the public, but superstars in their specialized venues—gun runners, smugglers, flesh peddlers, and drug lords. A literal rogue’s gallery of cartel and syndicate capos and Mob chieftains of almost every known species wandered through the lounge, rubbing elbows with the wealthy and glamorous society types.
Which begged the question, who owned Ankh?
Ray’s computer search had revealed little concerning Ankh’s origins and owners. He had learned the club had been open two years, one month, three weeks, occupying a location that once belonged to the Draconis Brotherhood, one of the oldest and most powerful crime syndicates in the galaxy (and one he had some passing familiarity with).
The Draconis connection linked in with an unconfirmed rumor that Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth—Ray’s two reasons for being on planet—spent several years as adolescents in the understreets of Romeria, as the founders and co-presidents of the Talons of the Dragon street gang, a sort of proving ground for the Draconis Brotherhood.
In addition, according to documents on file in the Romeria Hall of Records, all building permits, liquor licenses, and other associated licenses for the club known as the Ankh were attributed to the Titus Investment Company, Ms. I’des O. March, President. Except Titus was a subsidiary of Su Zann Bea Anthony Realty of New York City. Which, in turn, was owned by the Carree Nation Foundation, Inc. of Proxima Centauri. And there it ended.
All of which told him somebody wanted to keep the club’s association to the Black Rose a secret. Not much of a secret, given the shell-company names were about as subtle as the smoke from Doyle’s favorite cigars. Interesting, though, that the owners, whoever they were, used Terran sources as their various and sundry aliases.
What that might mean, he couldn’t begin to say, so, curious and alert, he stayed on task, meandering through the split-level lounge—called the Osiris Room—before stepping up to the L-shaped ledge containing a long bar that echoed the floor plan, with its own smattering of private tables, all under soft blue lights that gave it a cool, relaxed ambience.
A moment’s thought had him aiming for the short leg of the bar’s L, figuring it would allow him to watch the comings and goings on the lower level.
The bar itself was all but deserted, most of the patrons occupying the upper tables or those on the floor near the dance floor and the bandstand located on the opposite end of the club from the bar.
“What’s your pleasure, gorgeous?” the russet-blonde Gal-Asian (he figured Galactic because her accent placed her as being from Su-Li rather than Earth—but heavy on Earth’s Southeast Asian heritage) popped up before his butt had time to warm the stool he’d pulled out.
“Any chance you stock Wallace Blue?” he asked, trying not to overly appreciate the woman’s abundant cleavage (like the hair, probably a trait inherited from the Russian segment of Su-Li’s original colonists).
“Sorry, luv. Closest I can give you is Sterling Black Label. And you know it’s spendy, right?”
“You get what you pay for.” He gave a head-tilting shrug and whipped out his money-clipped ‘show roll’ of platinum certificates, peeling off a 50-spot. “Three fingers, neat, and keep the change.”
“You got it, sweetness.” The bartender plucked the certificate and slid down the bar to prepare his drink.
In the interim, Ray entertained himself with a more detailed scan of the lower lounge’s denizens.
On the dance floor a Lambdol named Cade Vuhl danced, after a fashion, with rock star bad girl Sindarella Sexx—“after a fashion” because, like all other Lambdols, Vuhl was short. In fact, his head only reached Sindarella’s bared and jeweled belly button.
Still, the guy had moves. Ray figured he’d have to, as Vuhl was also considered a person of interest in at least seven political assassinations.
In one dark corner, just under the staircase, Ray spied low-gravity hoop-ball star Moishe “Lil Mo” O’Meill surrounded by a bevy of barely dressed Young Things, holding a rolled platinum note into his nostril while the opposite end vacuumed up a line of Martian Red Snow.
At another booth on the far side of the dance floor, Admiral Phillius T. Pembrooke, Confed Naval Fleet (ret.) and current Congressman of the World Council, sucked face with a Suradi who Ray privately bet himself was a pro. A high-class pro, given the surroundings, but he doubted anyone not being paid would succumb willingly to the congressman’s salacious attention.
Amused, he let his gaze drift back to the grand stairway and up, where he found something much more interesting than the foibles of the rich and notorious.
Two somethings, in fact.
First, Oz—owner and operator of the ill-fated Needle—and, at his side, one of Ray’s two objectives, Gavin Booth.
Automatically his hand twitched towards his shoulder rig, even though he knew this wasn’t the time.
With a soft hiss, he forced his hand to relax and continued observing, noting that Oz and Gavin had company of their own, a woman with the same uncanny oomph as the other hostesses, but in this case with an underlying sense of challenge.
All three were moving toward the stairs, which descended to the dance floor and lower lounge.
Ray started to skim the lounge for potential exits and/or cover—he couldn’t let Oz compromise his mission—when his eye caught on someone in the lower lounge moving towards the stairs.
A stranger, on the surface, but the height, build, and that slightly loping gait…
Ray narrowed his eyes and imagined the stranger in a long coat, with a red eye glaring at the world, and he let out another, more vocal hiss.
Not-Victor had come to Ankh.
And rising up from a small table a few meters away from not-Raz was Ray’s other target: Sims Al-Kar.
It was a scene bearing all the earmarks of another bad night.
As it happened, Harry needn’t have worried about drawing Oz’s attention away from Slater’s position because, as it also happened, he and Gavin Booth and their lady friend had already turned in his direction.
Which, okay, maybe he could lure the entire party outside, and—
“Guess you’re not leaving after all,” Sims said from behind.
The muzzle-sized pressure against his ribs told Harry this was not up for debate.
“Guess not,” he said.
By now Gavin and the woman had arrived, outstripping Oz, who was still heaving his bulk across the dance floor.
Gavin pulled up short in front of Harry and leaned in to sniff the air around the taller man, a habit Harry recalled from the first tumultuous encounter on Ceres. After a suitably uncomfortable moment, Gavin settled back on his heels before offering a simple, “Finn.”
“Booth,” Harry replied. “Still honing the creep factor, I see.”
Gavin smiled his creepy little smile, then stepped back, allowing the Rasalkan at his side to fill his place.
Up close, her dress, a wisp of gold fabric that draped from throat to just below legal, was enticingly sheer, and in her stiletto heels, she matched Harry’s 6’2”, which made it easy for her to place the palm of her right hand against his face.
He started to make a joke of it, but her touch caused all manner of parts to sit up and take notice.
So much so that Harry’s hands fisted at his side, lest he follow the sudden, driving impulse to shred the filmy scrap of fabric pieces so he could get his hands on what it barely concealed.
Then her fingers curved, and she pulled her hand away, leaving four bloody scores on his cheek.
“Neishi Fabria, this is Harry Finn,” Sims made the dry introduction. “Harry, Neishi.”
“Hi,” Harry said with a brightness he knew she knew was false.
He was almost grateful when Oz arrived to displace her, looking quite the swell in his bespoke suit. “Victor,” the bearded man growled.
“Victor?” Sims asked.
“About last night,” Harry began, just before Oz buried his considerable fist under Harry’s sternum.
As Harry doubled over, Oz propped him up, leaning in to whisper in his ear, “I’d do worse, but someone wants you more than I do.”
Then the three men were herding him across the lounge while Neishi led the way. The band had switched to something slower, so it wasn’t long before they were at the stairs, Harry being trundled along and looking for all the worlds like a guest who’d overindulged being assisted to a private room by his three heavily armed friends.
Not just any private room, either, but the private room behind the jade door—the same room León Enris had entered almost an hour ago.
As they reached the top of the stairs, Harry glanced towards the bar, but Slater was nowhere in sight.
He did see Jessyn Breeshandra, however. The hostess had paused mid-step at the mezzanine, one hand clutching the railing.
Then Oz and Sims were shoving him through the jade door, and a heavy object of some sort was striking the back of his head, which, at least for a time, put paid to his worries over Slater, the mystery of Jessyn, and—pretty much everything, really.
Not my problem, Ray thought, watching the scene unfold below him.
Gavin Booth and the woman were already on top of Not-Victor, and Sims Al-Kar was moving up behind, where Not-Victor’s body language said clear as a speech bubble in a comic book that Sims had a gun to Not-Victor’s spine.
Not my problem.
Ray’s focus on the conflict below prevented him noticing the bartender had returned with his drink.
“Friend of yours?”
Her voice yanked his eyes around to acknowledge her presence, then his gaze returned to the scene below in time to witness Oz’s sucker punch to Not-Victor’s gut.
Oz, you sonufabitch.
Still…not my problem.
He forced himself to turn his attention back to the bar, taking a slowsip of his scotch, savoring it.
“So what’s the drang?” He jerked his chin towards the contained scuffle on the lower floor. “That guy grab a waitress’s ass?”
“Dunno. Don’t care. Not my drang is all I give a shit about.” The bartender tapped the bar top beside Ray’s glass as another customer plopped onto a stool at the bar’s other end.
“Yeah. Hit me again,” he told her, waiting until she walked away to give the scene below his full attention. The woman in their company rang no bells for him, but Oz, Al-Kar, and Booth? Whatever Not-Victor’s true identity, he and Ray shared the same enemies. Which, he admitted, meant the situation really was his problem.
At present, his problem included the fact that Oz, Al-Kar, and Booth were maneuvering Not-Victor up the grand staircase.
“One scotch, three fingers, neat.” The bartender came to a halt as Ray tossed a 20-credit platinum note on the bar and pushed off from his stool.
“Hold on to that for me,” he told her. “I’ll be back.”
“I’ve seen that vid,” she said as he left. “It didn’t end well.”
But she took the note.
As he moved, Ray scoped the floor. The staircase provided the only visible access to the mezzanine. Anything he tried would be necessarily out in the open and possibly suicidal.
Still, Oz hadn’t seen him yet, which gave him the element of surprise and a better than 50-50 chance of freeing Not-Victor.
Ray set foot on the lower lounge tile just as the jade green door closed behind Oz, Al-Kar, and company. He wanted to break into a run, but the aisle between the surrounding tables and the near rim of the dance floor was a study in potential disaster.
Twice he had to slow his jogging walk to a slow sidle to avoid a collision.
The entire time he kept his eyes on the door. No guards outside, so did that mean he could just walk in? Or did the private doors require keys or passwords, or worse, some form of bio scan?
“May I be of assistance?”
The voice alone would have been enough to stop him. He’d never heard anything like it, low and musical, and soothing as water in a deep stream. But the voice’s owner—a young woman who seemingly stepped out of nowhere to block his path—no healthy, breathing male would have ignored.
From the jeweled pins in her fawn-colored curls to the bronze-painted toes peeking from the metallic sheath of her gown, she walked, as the poets said, in beauty, like the night.
“You won’t be able to get in through the door,” she continued, laying a hand on the stair’s bannister, where the bronze cuff she wore, the same shade as her gown, glinted under the lights. Even her skin seemed to glow with gold undertones.
“And you would be?” He met her startlingly blue gaze. “More, why do you care?”
“Jessyn Breeshandra.” As she spoke, her hand rose from the bannister to rest over her heart. Some form of greeting, he figured. “And I care because I believe you mean to help Harry Finn.” She flicked her eyes over her shoulder, towards the door at the top of the stairs, which told him she knew more about his intentions than she should.
“Yes. Harry,” he repeated the name. “And yes, I mean to help him, because he paid me to protect him. Ray Slater,” he introduced himself, sticking as close to the truth as possible. “Jammer by trade. Except I’m not worth much as a bodyguard if I let my client be hauled off by a bunch of thugs.”
“Bodyguard?” She tilted her head, and he felt more than saw the frisson of amusement running beneath the urgency. “Interesting.”
“Because he struck me as being very self-sufficient.” And here she stepped down to his level, bringing her closer. Not so close as to be touching him, but close enough he could feel the warmth shimmering off her skin, and for him to inhale the soft, spicy scent she wore. “I can help you help him.” Her breath brushed at his jaw.
Breathe… “Again, why?”
Bodies were flowing around them, up the stairs, down the stairs, like the ocean at high tide, but Ray and Jessyn remained in place, eyes locked on one another, the epitome of alone in a crowded room.
“I’m not sure,” she said at long last. “But I will help you. Just not that way,” she said as she angled her shoulder in the direction of the green door. “You have no reason to trust me,” she continued, “but on the honor of my House, I swear to you no serious harm will come to Mr. Finn while he is inside this building.”
None of which precluded Oz and company from taking Finn outside, but—and Ray couldn’t have explained it if his life depended on it—one look into Jessyn’s eyes and he knew, without a doubt, she spoke the truth. “Okay. But if not my way, how?”
“Perhaps we should go somewhere less conspicuous, so we may talk?” As she spoke, her hand dropped from her heart to rest on the back of his wrist, and the jolt that hit him must have struck her as well, given the slight catch in her breath and the widening of her eyes.
I’ll follow you into the third ring of Hell, he thought. “Lead the way,” he said.
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