The Gemini Hustle: Chapter 1

The Gemini Hustle: Chapter

Chapter 1

The Needle
Romeria, Ócala
Iriitu System
Universal System Date 16.01.74

* * *

Since leaving the New Mars Mission of Mercy Orphanage at the tender age of eighteen, Ray Slater had spent more time than he cared to admit in low rent watering holes.

Still, as he entered the narrow confines of the Needle, and took his first breath of smoke, off-brand liquor, and the musks of a multitude of species, he was forced to admit that it never got easier.

Narrowing his eyes against the smoke, he noted the place was lit by a handful of dim overheads, supplemented by oil candles placed on a scattering of mismatched tables.

He also noted that the buzz of conversation slowed on his entrance, and that, even as he surveyed the territory, more than a dozen sets of eyes, eyestalks, and oculars turned to survey him, in turn.

Confident the locals would see nothing more than another down-on-his-luck spacer, Ray stepped into the bar. But as he passed the outer ring of drinkers, he ran a hand through his disordered black hair—the gesture a cover for checking the lay of the vibro-blade up his sleeve—before twitching the collar of his jacket, where the garrote was hidden.

He didn’t need to check his Sig, the comforting weight snug in its shoulder holster.

By the time he’d confirmed his arsenal was intact, the bar chatter had rumbled back to life.

A lot of that chatter was focused on the discovery of a body a few streets over.

No ID released, the gossip followed Ray through the crowd, but had anyone seen Kaneth Sooks in the last thirty-one standard?

No, the answer rippled back in a flurry of accents, before someone with the Voice of Authority said they’d heard how Kaneth had been bragging about a sweet deal with a high roller, and how he’d be moving uptown if it worked out.

Something in his gut told Ray that Kaneth Sooks wasn’t going to be making that uptown move.

Further inside, the gossip faltered, and by the time Ray approached the smoke-draped back of the room, it had sputtered to little more than the occasional whispered comment.

Squeezing into a space at the end of the bar, Ray angled to view the quiet zone and found another human at the nexus.

The man sat with his chair tilted against the wall, one foot propped on his table next to a half-empty glass and a guttering oil candle.

A cigarette dwindled to ashes on the fellow’s lip, and lank black hair brushed the collar of a long black coat. The candle illuminated a sallow face, etched with lines of experience.

Some of those experiences must have been painful, judging from the scar that ran along his cheek, from the lip to the outside of his right eye. Then there was the eye itself, an ocular implant with a growing red iris that contrasted sharply with the near black of his left.

As Ray watched, Red-Eye dropped the remains of his cigarette on the floor, to join the corpses of a thousand other smokes, before picking up his glass.

Ray couldn’t say how or when the man took a drink, but when the glass returned to the table, its contents had dwindled by half.

“You drinking or sightseeing?”

Ray turned to discover the bartender, a Xhavant with tusks in need of a good filing, had arrived.

“Drinking,” Ray said. “Depending on what you got.”

The Xhavant’s tusks clacked. “Tonight we got gray-market whisky. Pogue.

“Whiskey, then.”

“Good choice, pogue.” The bartender plopped a jigger on the bar top and poured two fingers from a dark obsidian bottle with no label.

Salut.” Ray raised the glass and knocked it back.

Only years of imbibing gray-market booze kept him from retching as the liquor burned its way to his gut. “Again.” He placed the jigger, on the bar. “And leave the bottle.”

“That’ll cost ya, po—” The bartender’s reply was cut short as Ray clamped a hand on his wrist.

“Call me pogue again and you’ll be eating your tusks,” Ray said, his voice reasonable, his expression ice.

It was a gamble, but having known a few Xhavants in the Marines, Ray had learned to recognize when one was more clack than fight.

The beady, white-less eyes blinked, and the bartender eased back, his leathern face crinkling in a grimace. “Whatever you say.”

“Yo, Braxx!” a voice from near the entrance called. “Need a refill.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” The bartender waved and grabbed another bottle.

Ray, left to ruin his stomach lining in peace, shifted on his stool to face the tables and found another human—male, black hair, brown eyes, and skin a shade lighter than Ray’s warm tan—approaching Red-Eye’s table. The man was better dressed than most of The Needle’s patrons, and Ray spied a black rose insignia on his jacket, marking him as a soldier for the Black Rose Sisterhood.

“What’s your story, cabrón?” The rose-bearing soldier asked as he stopped in front Red-Eye’s table.

Red-Eye glanced up, considered the newcomer. “Who’s asking?”

“Enris. León Enris,” the soldier said. “But you may call me ‘sir.’”

“Funny.” Another cigarette appeared in Red-Eye’s hand and was lit with the table’s candle. After a slow draw, he exhaled and put the candle back with a dull thunk, seemingly uncaring of the oil spilling over the edge. “Was there anything else?” He studied the other man. “Hope you’re not waiting for me to ask you out.”

“Little chance of that,” León sneered. “I prefer partners who look like men, not echar la pota.” He leaned over the table, a dagger appearing in his hand as he added, “I bet you think that scar makes you scary.”

“Nah,” Red-Eye said. “I don’t think this scar makes me scary.” Then Red-Eye shoved the table into León’s gut, knocking the air out of the man and the remaining oil out of the candle.

León doubled over with a breathless whoop, and his knife clattered to the floor, where it was snatched up by a quick-handed fellow with wispy blond hair.

Red-Eye, meanwhile, had come to his feet to slam Léon’s face onto the table. “Do you think the scar makes me scary?” he asked as the pool of hot oil spread closer to Léon’s face.


“Sorry, what?” Red-Eye asked.


“Let you up?”


“Why didn’t you say?”

Red-Eye released his grip, and León popped up and away from the table like a Jack-in-the-Box to land on top of the nearest party, spilling drinks and raising curses in equal measure.

With a curse of his own, León shoved himself free and drew a gun from under his jacket, only to find Red-Eye standing directly in front of him, ready to nab León’s weapon, twisting it to one side while pressing his own gun into the soft flesh beneath León’s chin.

“Are we done yet?” Red-Eye asked.

“Go fuck yourself,” León growled.

The audience, Ray included, held its collective breath.

Red-Eye grimaced.

Or maybe, Ray thought, it was a smile because Red-Eye’s response was a simple, “Good answer.”

And then Red-Eye lowered his gun.

Several dozen breaths exhaled, setting the remaining candles to dancing.

“You got guts,” Red-Eye continued, releasing his grip on León’s hand. “I like that.”

León, for his part, looked a little dazed, but Ray noted the murder in the man’s eyes had shifted to speculation.

“You loco, señor.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Red-Eye said as he slid his weapon back into the shoulder rig.

Ray, however, wasn’t so sure. He’d seen crazy.

Too often, as a matter of fact, and there was nothing crazy about this guy.

No, what this guy was was calculating, having challenged, humiliated, and—in practically the same breath—saluted, the Black Rose soldier.

So much so, that Ray could almost see the numbers clicking into place as Red-Eye jerked a thumb at the bar. “Let me buy you a drink,” he offered León. “Take the sting off.”

“Wait.” León held up the hand holding the gun, froze, then holstered the weapon before continuing. “I mean, yes. Gracias, but—who are you?”

“Just a guy looking for work.” Red-Eye held up two fingers to the bartender. “Heard tell that Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth were recruiting for the Black Rose. Figured I’d check it out.”

Hearing the names Al-Kar and Booth, Ray’s inner sensors began to chime while, on the outside, he took a measured sip of Braxx’s rotgut.

“Al-Kar and Booth are on planet,” León admitted, though he didn’t look happy about it.

Ray, who’d read up on Al-Kar and Booth, couldn’t blame him.

“But they won’t dirty their boots in a place like this.” León added, joining Red-Eye while Braxx, tusks clacking, poured two shots. “They mostly do business from Ankhar.”

Ankhar?” Red-Eye glanced at León while Ray filed that detail away.

“Uptown club,” León explained. “Uptown clientele. Not our kind.”

“That so?” Red-Eye slapped some creds on the bar and took the glasses.

And because, by this point, Ray was watching the scene very closely, he spied Red-Eye tipping something from his sleeve into León’s glass before handing it over.


But why bother poisoning León when he could have shot him seconds ago?

Something else here, Ray thought. Something, in fact, that looked lot like tradecraft.

León tossed back the doctored liquor, and Red-Eye, in a quick move, made his own disappear.

León set the glass down and studied Red-Eye. “If you’re really interested in some work, I can get you in touch with the right people. But . . . they’re going to want a name.”

“Everyone does,” Red-Eye said, setting his glass on the bar. “You can tell them Victor Raz is in town.”

The name didn’t mean anything to Ray, but from the rush of gasps and murmured comments, it meant something to the locals.

Maybe, Ray thought, he should listen to his Control and pay more attention to the newsfeeds.

But they were always so damned depressing.

“Raz?” León echoed the name, his jaw slack with shock.

“I heard Raz was dead,” another voice growled. Literally growled, as the speaker was one of the lupine Gmell species.

“He is,” Braxx confirmed, leaning on the bar next to Ray. “Killed by an Inter-Sys Marshal four years back. Guy named Finn. Harry Finn.”

Red-Eye, or Victor, rather, met the bartender’s suspicious glare. “Worked out well for both of us.” One shoulder slid up in an approximation of a shrug. “Finn got a commendation for ridding the Known of a murdering pirate, and I got the heat off my back because they figure I’m a corpse.”

Someone let out a whistle.

“You bribed an Inter-Sys?” a Drellan near Ray asked, her deep voice little more than a rumble. “An Untouchable?”

“No one can bribe Untouchables.” 

At the comment, Ray turned to see the wispy haired dagger thief from earlier. “That’s why they call them Untouchable.”

Victor’s red eye gleamed across the room. “Everyone has a price.”

“Come,” León said. “Let me introduce you around. This is Rizzo,” he added, nodding to the dagger thief, who’d joined them.

“Meet’cha,” Rizzo said, then surprised Ray by passing León’s dagger back to him as he passed by Victor.

“Same.” Victor said, then snatched the little man by the arm. “But if you don’t give those credits back, I’ll cut off your fingers.”

“Ah,” Rizzo said with a flush. “Just practicing.” And he handed a fold of creds—and when, Ray wondered, had he made the dip—back.

A low rumble behind Ray had him turning to see Braxx glaring at Victor. “Problem?” Ray asked.

The beady eyes flicked to Ray, then back to Victor as he straightened and said, loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear, “Only problem I have is this shubo pretending to be Victor Raz.”

The entire bar went silent.

Ray glanced over to see Victor, León, and Rizzo turning to face Braxx, but it was León who asked, “What makes you think he is not Victor?”

“Because you’re still breathing,” Braxx said shortly. “And Rizzo there still has his fingers.” The bartender fixed his black eyes on Victor. “My cousin worked with Victor Raz in the way back, and from what she says, Raz would’ve left León with a Judon necktie just for blocking his view.”

“Is that so?” Victor asked, his head tilting to one side.

Shit, Ray thought.

“Wait.” León held up a hand.

“Don’t think I can,” Victor said, right before shooting his elbow into León’s temple.

“I knew it,” Braxx growled and, as León crumpled to the floor, reached under the bar, pulling out a Tavor-Taz 112 automatic.

Ray jumped back, as any sensible civilian would, but as he jumped, he knocked over the bottle of whiskey Braxx had left, dousing the bar—and Braxx’s sleeve—with the liquor.

Braxx snarled at Ray, which gave Victor—or not-Victor, Ray supposed—time to toss another of the Needle’s oil onto the bar, where it landed in the pool of spilled booze.

Ray and the entire populace of the Needle shared a moment of shock as the blue-white fwoooomph of flame erupted atop the bar before climbing up Braxx’s sleeve.

Braxx let out an unholy shriek and stumbled away from the flamesz at the same time loosing a round of bullets that missed Victor, who was shoving Rizzo to the floor, but struck the Gmell in the shoulder.

The wolf-howl of fury and pain followed Ray under the nearest table, which was close to where not-Victor had landed.

All around, bodies dropped for cover or stampeded for the door.

At the bar, the sound of bullets slowed, then stopped, while Braxx’s pained whistles faded under the growing roar of flames.

Given the lack of any fire suppressant, Ray assumed Braxx hadn’t bothered to keep the Needle up to code.

“Better scram.” Not-Victor’s gravelly voice drew Ray’s attention to where the lanky figure spoke to Rizzo. “And take him with you,” he added, indicating León.

“Sure thing.” Rizzo’s head bobbed in a panicked nod, then he paused and asked, “Will you be okay?”

“Signs uncertain,” not-Victor said, turning from the burning bar to the earnest pickpocket. “Best get on.”

Rizzo got on. With not-Victor’s help, the little thief got a shoulder under the slowly waking León and eased him out the door with the last of the escaping horde.

The smoke was getting thicker, Braxx and the Gmell’s moans getting softer, and the wail of sirens indicated Emergency Services would soon arrive.

Like Rizzo, Ray knew he’d best get on.

Instead, he turned to where not-Victor was hiding—to find the man had disappeared.

Peering through the shreds of smoke, Ray spied something crumpled on the floor. Moving closer, he discovered it was not-Victor’s coat.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered, but the sirens were nearing, and it wouldn’t do to be stuck giving a statement to local law. Covering his face with his shirt, Ray bolted for the door and, with the rest of the Needle’s patrons, faded into the rat-warren that was Romeria’s downtown.

As he meandered his way back to the spaceport, Ray reviewed the evening and decided it hadn’t been a total loss. He might not have laid eyes on Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth but, thanks to not-Victor’s conversation with León, he had a lead on them.

He also knew, thanks to not-Victor being not-Victor, there was a chance of another ConFed agency active on Ócala.

Whether that was a problem or an asset remained to be seen.

If not-Victor was under ConFed DOJ oversight, it could be a problem.

If he were under Intel oversight—okay, could still be a problem—but only because they might be in competition.

Time, Ray decided, to plan his next steps.

First, get back to the Gypsy Moth and take a long shower.

Second, pour himself a real drink.

Or maybe reverse that order.

Third, he’d look into Ankhar—the club León said Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth favored.

And lastly, he’d have his ship’s AI pay a visit to the Intersystem Marshal database in search of intel on both Victor Raz and the man who had reportedly killed him—one Deputy Marshal Harry Finn.


For those interested in the changes between the first edition and the second, this one chapter takes the place of four chapters in the original version. There was a massive bar fight, a trip through the sewers, a water park, a flashback, and a dream sequence. It was a lot.

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