Unaware of Ray’s interest in his service record, Harry Finn—AKA not-Victor Raz—entered the bathroom of suite 419 of The Big Sleep Inn & Suites, Romeria.
Since he’d already dumped Victor’s coat and wig, he headed to the bathroom to shed the rest of the dead pirate, starting with the eyes.
The black cosmetic lens was easy, but the false ocular implant took more care, as the glowing red prosthetic was not just for show, but the latest in liquid-imaging tech, designed fit directly over the wearer’s eyeball.
This made it both very convincing and exceedingly uncomfortable.
It was also a pain in the ass to remove.
Even with the aid of the galaxy’s tiniest suction cup, Harry had to grit his teeth through the sucking pressure, and it wasn’t until he set the ocular safely in its tray that he let himself breathe.
With the lenses out and Harry’s eyes returned to their usual ice blue, he began removing the rest of his kit.
The vial of isotonic tracer he’d poured into León’s drink, check.
The wand affixed to the underside of his right forearm—the latest incarnation of a device Human stage magicians had first developed to make it appear as if water were disappearing from a pitcher—check.
Finally, Harry peeled off the rest of Raz’s clothes before stepping into the pint-sized shower.
Angling himself so the spray hit the layers of scar tissue on his lower back, he used the hotel’s minty soap to scrub off the remnants of skin dye, as well as the odors of smoke and booze.
Once the last remains of Victor Raz were washed down the drain, Harry emerged from the shower a changed man—still tall, still rangy, but lacking Raz’s scars and slumped posture.
Once he’d dried off, he wrapped the towel around his waist and grabbed the tray holding the liquid imaging lens.
Tray in hand, he headed for the desk, set in front of a privacy-screened window, where he’d set up a scanner and mobile comp/comm. Here he pushed the dark, silver-touched hair away from his forehead before inserting the ocular tray into a scanner, which in turn uploaded everything he, as Victor Raz, had seen during his brief but eventful evening in the Needle to the computer.
As soon as the upload was complete, Harry transmitted the data to his cy-tech’s secure comp/comm on the other side of the city. And seconds later, when Mollin confirmed receipt, Harry turned off the lights, dropped the towel, and let himself fall face first on the bed.
A moment later he grunted, shifted, and removed the yo-yo he’d left atop the mattress earlier that day.
He tossed the toy onto the nightstand, where it landed next to an old still photo of a young woman with a crooked smile.
The picture was creased where it had been folded repeatedly over the years, and one edge was singed, but her laughing eyes still shone warm from the gilded terracotta features.
With the yo-yo out of the way, Harry used what little energy remained to confirm his favored Colt M2411was still in its place between the mattress and headboard before crawling between the sheets.
But even as his eyes closed, the pain in his back persisted, a dull, hot pulse and constant reminder of why he was in a low-rent hotel on the planet Ócala—a long, long way from Sol Sector.
* * *
“Who’s the woman?”
The question pulled Harry from sleep so fast he had the Colt in his hand and aimed at the speaker before his eyes were all the way open.
“Whoa! Finn! Stand down! Or wake up.”
A voice—an irritated voice—an irritated voice Harry recognized—pierced the fog of dreams.
Dreams of Sara and fire . . . of Seth and fire . . . of himself—broken and burning.
Then he recalled night before, and the Needle . . . and the fire.
Harry hissed, blinked the dreams from his eyes, and glared at the coppery Cherrii at his bedside, who was staring at the Colt in Harry’s hand. “Mollin?” He hissed again and lowered the gun.
“Still a bit jumpy?” From where he stood holding the old still photo, the cy-tech flicked on the table lamp, causing Harry’s eyes to shutter themselves in self-preservation.
“Didn’t it occur to you to use the buzzer before you hacked the lock?” Harry asked, daring to peek through his lids.
“I did. Repeatedly.” Mollin returned the picture to its place and crossed to Harry’s comp/comm. “I also knocked,” he added, leaning over the desk to activated the C&C and opening a good half-dozen holo screens—public newsfeeds popping up next to the data Harry had gotten the night before. “I considered breaking into song, but the neighbors might not have been pleased.”
Harry, who’d heard Mollin sing, was sure the neighbors wouldn’t have been pleased. “What time is it, anyway?” he asked, setting the Colt on the bedside table, between the yo-yo and the photo.
“Just past oh nine hundred, local.”
“Ugh.” Harry heaved himself out of bed, paused, remembered where the dresser was, and headed in that direction.
“Thanks to Victor’s ocular, I got a good view of last night’s events.” As he spoke, Mollin looked over his shoulder. “Did you have to burn the bar down?”
“That wasn’t intentional,” Harry grumbled. “And I had help.”
“The dark-haired human,” Mollin agreed with a little hum of appreciation before adding, “You were looking at him when he dumped the bottle on the bar, so I got a good look.”
Despite Mollin’s obvious approval of the stranger, his skin tone remained stubbornly copper—none of the orange to red shimmers that indicated Cherrii attraction.
In a way, Harry supposed Mollin’s inability to shift pigment was his own version of scar tissue.
And, Harry reminded himself, had nothing to do with the job at hand, so he grabbed a pair of sweats from the open drawer and slid into them while asking, “You know what I’m thinking?”
“That burning down a bar is a terrible way to begin a covert op?”
“No. I mean, yes,” Harry amended, “but besides, that, I’m thinking that our bottle-tossing friend from the Needle isn’t just a random bystander.”
“And what do you think he is?”
“I don’t know—but he was pretty interested in talk of the Black Rose.” Harry’s eyes narrowed as he thought back to the evening prior. “I’m guessing he’s some flavor of law enforcement—or Intel.” He paused, glanced back. “Can you do a run on him? One that doesn’t raise any flags?”
“I’m hurt you have to ask,” Mollin said.
“Ha,” Harry said, but his eye was caught by one of the newsfeeds hovering over the desk. “What was the damage from last night, anyway?”
“One in hospital with a GSW and smoke inhalation, one with severe burns and smoke inhalation. The rest were a series of minor burns, smoke inhalation, contusions, etc. No fatalities, but a lot of noise.” Mollin paused, looked at Harry. “Are you sure we should go forward with this plan?”
Harry opened another drawer. “Do we have a choice?”
Mollin seemed to consider the question, no doubt also imagining the response of their Control to same, and then shook his head.
“Then we go through with it.”
“Right.” Mollin returned his attention to the screen in front of him. “In other news, it appears your mark, León Enris, was treated on-scene. I waited until the med-techs released him before activating the isotonic tracer you put in his drink. Currently, the tracer puts him at a flat on Parsus Square. We have another thirteen hours before the tracer dissipates, give or take,” Mollin continued, “so you’d better hope he runs home to papa.”
“In this case it might be mama,” Harry said, pulling a faded Northern Hem University T-shirt out of the drawer. “Given he’s with the Black Rose Sisterhood. Speaking of, I need any information you can get me on a nightclub named Ankhar.”
“Think you’ll find Gemini there?” Mollin asked, taking a seat at the desk’s chair.
“If not, I’ll find Al-Kar, or Booth,” Harry said, “which is the next best thing, given they work for him.” He pulled on the shirt, then sat on the edge of the bed. “And one more thing . . .” He started to put on a pair of socks. “Can you check into a DB found in the Cailat District yesterday, late afternoon? And a missing person named Kaneth Sooks?”
“And you want me to look into a dead body and a missing person because . . . ?”
Harry put on a pair of trainers and stood up, ignoring the dull twinge at the base of his spine. “Because they’re ripples.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t have to know. Even I don’t know yet. Just look into it.”
Mollin’s shoulders hunched. “I should have let you sleep longer.”
“I got plenty of sleep,” Harry mumbled, heading into the bathroom and turning on the taps.
“More like you had bad dreams,” Mollin’s comment rose over sound of running water. “Like that danish!”
Harry splashed water on his face, shut off the taps, grabbed a towel. “Say again?”
“Like the danish,” Mollin said, glancing up as Harry reentered the living area, scrubbing his face with the towel. “You know, the guy who said he could be counted a king of infinite space, except he had bad dreams.”
“You’re talking about Hamlet,” Harry said. “And he was a Dane, not a danish, and—you know what? Not important.” He tossed the towel into the bathroom behind him, grabbed his watch and earbud, and headed for the door.
Mollin looked up. “Where are you going?”
“The hotel gym. I’m still on prescribed PT.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
“Don’t be. You didn’t drop a crate on my back.” Harry inserted the earbud, slid on the watch. “If León starts to move, ping me.”
“Copy that.” Mollin waved over his shoulder as Harry headed out the door. “See if you can bring back a danish from the breakfast room.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Harry said as the door closed behind him.
“He’s not going to bring back a danish,” Mollin muttered, turning back to his assigned tasks.
He might have regretted that if his search hadn’t immediately pulled up the precinct reports on the body found in Caillat—who turned out to be one and the same as the missing person Harry had mentioned: Kaneth Sooks, age nineteen, known prostitute.
Seeing what had been done to the young man, Mollin figured a danish wouldn’t sit well, anyway.
With a clutching in his gut, he turned his attention to the image of the dark-haired man who’d helped Harry burn down the Needle. “Okay mystery man, let’s see what we can see.”
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