Harry had suffered more than a few rude awakenings in his career, so opening his eyes to find himself stretched out on a low-pile carpet that smelled mildly of rug shampoo in a room that featured a long table, a handful of chairs, and a two-way mirror was no big thing.
In fact, the biggest surprise came with the realization he was alive to wake up at all.
Then someone’s foot slammed into his gut, giving him reason to believe his “alive” status might prove a temporary situation, at best.
“That will be enough,” someone said.
A female someone.
A female someone of the "brooks-no-nonsense" variety.
“It’ll be enough when he’s dead,” a male voice, familiar and pissed, snapped.
León. Harry’s memory filled in the blanks. The same León he’d tracked into Ankh however long ago, and immediately lost behind the green door.
“That is not for you to decide,” Ms. No-Nonsense replied.
There was a beat, followed by the sound of footsteps receding over carpet.
By now Harry’s vision had cleared enough to see, along with the dark gray carpet and gleaming bits of furniture, a pair of legs dressed in deep black, with feet tucked in shoes of the type that fell into the sensible oeuvre.
The legs bent, and a pale, sharply carved face peered into his. Even as he focused on her, he caught the telltale Rasalkan glow in her complexion. “There is a chair,” the woman said, dark eyes cool under the cropped silver cap of her hair. “Do you need assistance getting to it?”
“I’ll manage,” he said, in part because it was true and in part because the woman’s tone made it clear there was serious street cred on the line here.
He took in one long breath and, on the exhalation, rolled to standing. He then settled quickly into the offered chair, where he took another long breath.
Really, one couldn’t appreciate breathing enough.
On the opposite side of the table sat a neatly stacked pile of data sheets. He looked left, at the man standing in front of the room’s only door. “León,” he said by way of greeting. He gave a nod to the slick, high-collared suit León had donned for his evening out. “You’ve changed.”
“You should talk, Victor.”
“Yes, we all know I’m not the real Victor,” Harry said. “Then again, you and that Oz character weren’t playing it straight, either.”
“How we do business is none of yours, cabrón.”
“No need to call names.”
“You traced me, you sonofabitch!”
Harry glanced to where the woman stood to one side of the mirror, watching the byplay. Her expression and her position told him there was someone else watching from the other side of that mirror.
“True.” He turned back to the irate León. “I did. Which is why I bothered to make sure you got out of the bar before you became a León kabob, so you’re welcome.”
A sound, either suppressed laughter or a not-suppressed growl, emerged from the woman’s corner, but at the moment León was moving for the table.
“Stop,” she ordered.
León stopped, but Harry could see he was vibrating, like a hunting dog waiting for his master’s release.
The woman stepped up to the table. “Our security detected the tracer in Mr. Enris’s system when he entered the Jade Room,” she told him. “As you might imagine, this caused some distress to the management, as it is a breach of protocol, and would normally lead to termination.”
Harry got the impression she wasn’t talking about a pink slip.
“However,” she continued, “Mr. Enris swears he is innocent of any wrongdoing.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s done more than his share of wrong,” Harry commented.
“Against management,” she clarified, and glanced towards the mirror, to which she gave the slightest of nods before smoothly drawing her sidearm, a sassy little Walther.
Harry thought it nice to see Sol System goods making it out of the ConFed.
Then she pointed the gun at León, surprising both men.
“Wait.” León held up a hand.
“What my superior wants to know,” the woman looked at Harry but kept the gun on León, “is if Mr. Enris is telling the truth regarding the tracer?”
“Yes,” Harry replied, hands flat on the table as he met her eyes. “León was nothing but a patsy.”
Her finger tightened on the trigger.
“I needed an in with the Black Rose,” Harry continued quickly. “León was the first soldier who crossed my path. He didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I’m confident he’d have stuck a knife in me if he had.”
She said nothing.
Sweat beaded on León’s face.
“I am telling the truth,” Harry said, wincing as a sudden stab of a headache blurred his vision. “As far as I know, León is a loyal soldier.”
“Very well,” she said. Then, without looking away from Harry, she lowered her arm a degree and fired.
León let out a howl of pain and dropped to the carpet, hands pressed to the hole in his thigh.
The woman slid her gun back under her jacket.
The door opened and two men in suits with matching automatic weapons entered. One covered Harry while the other dragged the whimpering León out.
“You may sit down,” the woman told Harry.
Was he standing? Harry looked down. Yes. Yes he he was.
“Okay.” He sat, looked at the mirror, then at her. “Why did you shoot him?”
She rounded the table and stopped in front of the data sheets he’d noticed earlier. “Mr. Enris, while loyal, was careless and indiscreet. Hopefully he will take tonight’s lesson to heart and do better in the future. Meanwhile I’d like to discuss your intentions.” She glanced down at the first sheet, ran her finger down it, as if reading,
“I don’t know what you mean.” Harry eased back in the chair, resisting the urge to press at the spot above his right eye, which felt as if someone were pounding a spike into his skull. Weird, since Oz had clocked him at the back of his head. “Like I told your Mr. Al-Kar, I’m here on vacation.”
“He’s not mine,” she replied shortly, laying a hand on the data sheets. “And if I may, even a cursory glance at your ISM jacket indicates you’d never come to a planet like Ócala for your vacation. Actually,” she added, “nothing in your ISM jacket indicates you’d willingly take a vacation. At least, not since the death of your wife, twenty-five Terran years ago.”
Harry tamped down the instinctive fury at the invasion of his privacy, simply offering the data sheets a cool glance—enough to see the telltale stamp of the Inter-System Marshal Service on the upper tabs. “Those records would be classified,” he offered, easing back in his chair.
“I’m sure someone thought so.” She flipped a few pages to the side, revealing one with the black-and-silver tab of Confederation Fleet Intelligence, which were supposed to be several degrees beyond classified. “By the way,” she added, running her fingers over the top CFI page, “were you aware the Judon Inquisitors keep records of all of their interrogations?”
“They do,” she said, eyes locked on the page before her. “Their records on Major Harry Finn are—extensive.”
He might have responded, but his mouth had gone cotton dry, and anyway, she was still going.
“They also recorded the unprecedented escape from the Kelmno prison station of six Allied officers, including a young ensign under your command, a man named Seth Aliombe, and led by yourself.”
“It was a group effort.”
She didn’t seem to deem that worth commenting, instead returning her attention to his ISM files. “You have quite the arrest record,” she noted. “And it only improved after Mr. Aliombe became your partner—interesting the two of you would work together again, after the war.”
The spike above his eye was drilling deep. “Is there a point to all this?” he asked, pressing the heel of his hand into the point of excavation.
“My superior is curious about you,” he heard the woman say, as if from a great distance.
“Maybe your superior would like to come in here and talk to me,” he suggested, forcing himself to look up. “Or are you comfortable being a mouthpiece, Ms…”
“Captain,” she corrected. “Captain Eineen Marifanne.”
“Captain,” he repeated, looking for a badge and finding none. Not even one of the ubiquitous black roses.
“There are a number of enforcement agencies outside the Confederation,” she pointed out, reading his intention.
“So glad you approve.”
“I doubt that.” He tried to relax in the chair, tried to forget the spike in his head—failed at both. “So, here we are—you know I’m a cop and you know I tagged León. Now what?”
“Now we want to know why.”
At which point the pain in Harry’s skull twisted in on itself, Mobius-like…and took him with it…took him down.
Down, and back…
At the same time León was giving Harry a boot to the gut, Jessyn and Ray took the elevator to the club’s top floor, where the dining room sat in solitary splendor, overlooking the Nuph River on three sides of the square, and while a part of his mind kept jumping to concern for Not-Raz—or Harry Finn—the rest of his thoughts were entangled in the woman at his side.
Not so entangled he didn’t automatically scope out their destination.
A quick scan showed a low-lit, high-ceilinged space that came off like a maze, as every table was semi-enclosed by lattice barriers. The few tables open to view held translucent pyramids at the center in which oil candles (of a much higher quality than those in the Needle) burned.
Where he and Jessyn waited at the dining room entrance stood a statue of a jackal-headed Anubis with an Ankh symbol in his hands. The god of the dead holding the breath of life.
Mixed imagery, but, Ray thought, quite deliberate.
Their emergence from the elevator brought an immediate response from the host on duty, who approached them with a smile and a head-inclining bow.
“Domina Jessyn,” he greeted, favoring Ray with a single dismissive glance. “How may I serve you this evening?”
“Erbin.” Jessyn offered a smile and the same hand-over-the-heart gesture she’d given Ray earlier. “My guest and I would like a booth overlooking the river, if possible.”
“I will see to it personally,” Erbin said, bowing again before hotfooting through a set of double doors to their left.
“I’m gonna go out on a limb,” Ray said, tracking Erbin’s comet-like exit, “and guess Domina isn’t your given name.”
“And if I may also assume—there is a lot more to you than simple bodyguard,” Jessyn countered.
Ray’s lips twitched at the observation. “Touché.”
As he spoke, a pair of harried kitchen staffers emerged through the doors through which Erbin had vanished moments prior, carrying with them a load of fresh table settings and a grav-lev dish cart. Seemed some unfortunate guests were about to have their view of the nighttime Nuph usurped by Domina Jessyn and himself.
Erbin returned moments later, menus in hand.
“I apologize for the delay, Domina.” He bowed again and turned with a wave of his hand. “If you will follow me.”
Jessyn did so, sending a brief glance to the man who claimed himself Harry Finn’s protector. He cocked an eyebrow back and, shame to say, the easy confidence only added to the flutter his physical presence inspired.
She had felt it earlier, when she’d seen him enter the club with Lyselle. At the time she had been impressed by the way he sidestepped Lyselle’s overtures.
Admittedly, Lyselle did not have the same level of training as herself, but Jessyn knew the other woman made up for the lack by using her empathic talent like a club, and most men willingly fell to her tactics.
“I hope this will suit, Domina,” Erbin interrupted Jessyn’s musings, pulling out her chair before Mr. Slater had the chance.
“It is perfect,” she assured him, folding herself into the chair.
Erbin pushed the seat in. “Your usual, Domina?”
“Just tea, please, and the citrus mousse.” She looked across the table, to where Mr. Slater was taking his seat. “Two spoons.”
Again the cocked eyebrow. Do we have time for this?
Her own eyebrow rose. Trust me.
His lips quirked.
Her cheeks warmed.
“Excellent choice.” At long last Erbin acknowledged her companion. “And for sir?”
“As the lady requested, two spoons,” Mr. Slater replied. “And coffee, if you have it. Kenyan blend, black.”
“Very good, sir,” Erbin responded, tucking the unread menus under one arm before he took himself off.
“Is it just me,” Ray asked, “or does Erbin have a bug up his a—derrière—about Humans?”
His companion smiled, and the butterflies in his stomach went spastic—something he hadn’t experienced since high school and his first kiss with Taleya Gambol in seventh grade.
“It is nothing so specific,” she said. “Erbin is of the school that the worse he treats the guests, the more they will appreciate their experience.” She eased back to allow the server who’d arrived with her tea and his coffee to set the cups on the table, pour out of the individual pots into each cup, set the pots down, and step aside for another server. This one set down the promised mousse, an airy confection that looked like sunshine in a crystal goblet and smelled like a tropical vacation.
With the moons shining outside, the river flowing below, and the strains of the upper-level dance floor seeping into the restaurant, Ray might have considered it a vacation—if he weren’t preoccupied by a room with a jade door a few floors down, and what Oz, Al-Kar, and, worst of all, Booth, might be doing to Finn. As much as the Domina here promised the other undercover’s safety, nothing in his briefings on Gavin Booth indicated a man who’d abide by anyone’s rules, not when there was the chance to inflict pain.
And yet he stayed where he was, sitting at the table with the coffee, the dessert, and the woman.
As he questioned his own lack of action, a pair of chilled, long-handled spoons was set on the table, and then they were, once again, alone.
“Shall we?” Jessyn lifted a spoon in her left hand and looked at him. “On three?”
And like kids sharing a treat at a picnic, they dug in, but the second Jessyn’s spoon touched her tongue she let out a sound that had nothing to do with childhood.
A sound that prompted an unexpected and startlingly graphic flash in Ray’s mind of the two of them, naked and entwined.
Jesus, Ray. You’re working. Get a grip.
“Now…” With a sigh she leaned forward, head tilted, shoulders angled and lips slightly open. Playing the flirt, he thought, but playing the flirt in such a way he knew she was playing. “We may talk, but it must be quick.” Her chin dipped down to the dessert they were sharing. “Before we eat the rest of my cover.”
“Cover?” he asked.
In answer, she reached over and touched the back of his hand, where it rested by his coffee cup.
What came next was a rippling surge of pure citrus-scented pleasure, coursing from her skin to his, and shooting through his system with a rush as bright as the mousse sitting between them.
“Dopamine,” she clarified over the shimmer of their physical contact. “Any other Rasalkans who might be paying attention will be as overwhelmed by the experience as I am. Which means,” she added, taking another tiny bite, “they won’t know what we’re discussing.”
Rasalkans, he thought, drawing his hand back and letting out a shaky breath. They had to be Rasalkans. “I guess that explains why I’ve had trouble keeping my mind on business—hell, I’ve been having trouble keeping myself from tearing you out of that dress—since you walked up to me downstairs.”
“My sorrows for your discomfort,” she said, but already he was thinking back to what she’d said about other Rasalkans paying attention. Then he thought about Lyselle, and the tall woman who’d accompanied Gavin Booth.
Both the other women had the same glowing quality to their skin. They had also both packed a sensual wallop, but not the same as this. What he felt from Jessyn went deeper while, contrarily, being less intrusive. “How many Rasalkans are working here?” he asked, shelving the comparisons for later.
“All the hostesses, all of upper management, almost half of security,” she replied, taking another bite of mousse.
This time, even though she wasn’t touching him, he felt the shudder of her pleasure all the way to his core.
“Okay,” he said, taking a desperate swig of coffee, “so you’re Rasalkan. Why bother with the questions? Why don’t you just?” He tapped the side of his head.
“First, because I am an empath, not a telepath. Second, even if I were, sentient thought is not linear. Very few telephs have the ability to hone in on even a single line of thought.” She swirled the spoon through the mousse as she continued. “In a way, what I sense is more accurate, as it is difficult for emotions to lie. Which leads to another truth,” she admitted, setting down the spoon. “What you yearn for right now? It is not only you.”
A statement that did nothing to ease his suffering.
“Sad to say,” she continued, “I am not my own mistress, nor able to…choose for myself. If I were?”
Here she looked down, but only briefly. “If I were, you would not need to tear this dress away. It would be on the floor already.”
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Before Harry met Ray…
Meet Ray and Harry in the dark days before their fateful meeting on Ócala.