A little over two hours later, Ray followed Harry into another room, in the same circular design as the lounge. This one lacked a window but featured a conference table that King Arthur might have designed.
Two security types stood against the walls. The one at Ray’s nine o’clock was almost ethereally thin, and so pale he came off gray, but the hooded eyes were predatory enough to set all of Ray’s nerves humming.
The guy at three o’clock played the yang to the skinny guy’s yin—big, broad, and with a broken nose in the burnt-umber face.
Already at the table were Eineen Marifanne and her second, Arrion Degas, Tahna, and an older woman with short fair hair nursing a mug of something that lent a hint of spice to the air.
There were a few other Rasalkans he didn’t recognize, but he thought the young woman with blank eyes would be Viel, the healer Arrion had mentioned.
Mollin and Jessyn were also present, and seated next to each other, with an empty chair to either side.
The Lady herself sat between the short-haired woman and Eineen.
There were carafes on the center of the table, with a scattering of mugs.
With the exception of the security types on the walls, Ray figured they could be walking into a corporate board meeting.
But appearances, especially where Harry was concerned, were deceiving.
“—don’t give a rat’s ass about your opinion when it’s my neck on the line,” Harry continued a rant he’d begun in the hallway. “Sorry,” Harry added to the room in general. “My security consultant and I have a difference of opinion. Oh, look,” he added with a faux brightness, “there’s coffee.”
“No danishes,” Mollin offered.
“They’d just give you bad dreams,” Harry replied.
Ray decided not to ask what that meant. “I believe that’s my seat,” he said as Harry pulled out the chair next to Jessyn.
“And it’s cute you think that.” Harry dropped into the chair.
“Oh, no, this isn’t gonna get old,” Ray muttered.
“For some of us, it already is,” Harry muttered back.
Ray didn’t respond but ran a hand over Jessyn’s shoulder, allowing him to sense the frisson of nerves running through her—as she no doubt sensed his.
Harry tapped his fingers on the table in a nervous tattoo. “Just so we’re all clear, the first appearance of a holo-slide graphing tonight’s activities, I’m outta here.”
“You disapprove of holos?” Eineen asked.
He shot her a tight grin. “I disapprove of boredom.”
“If that is the case,” Fayla said, “you may enjoy this a great deal more than I’d expected.”
She nodded to Eineen, who, along with Arrion Degas, rose from their chairs, drawing their sidearms.
Ray watched Harry’s spine stiffen. “Am I missing something?” he asked, his gaze locking on Fayla.
“Not yet.” Fayla looked at Ray.
“Sorry, boss,” Ray said, drawing his Sig—returned by Arrion twenty minutes ago. “But I regret to inform you our contract has been terminated.”
“Ray?” Jessyn looked down the table. “Lady? What is this?”
“This,” Fayla said, “is the price of doing business.” Now she also rose, addressing everyone in the room. “Three hours ago, the Council of the Black Rose placed a sizable price on Mr. Finn’s head, one that extends to anyone who assists him.” Here she turned to face Harry. “While I appreciate your motivations, no one sapient is worth the loss of everything I have built.”
“No,” Jessyn said.
“Wait.” Mollin turned, his expression as still as his pigment. “You can’t give him up. They’ll kill him.”
“Eventually,” Ray murmured, earning a glare from the Cherrii.
“Don’t worry,” Harry said, his eyes locked on Fayla’s. “It’ll all work out.”
“No,” Fayla said, “I’m afraid it won’t.” Then she nodded to Ray, who took his cue by slamming the butt of his Sig into Harry’s temple.
* * *
Two hours ago…
Harry paced the lounge, hands stuffed in his pockets, while Mollin commandeered the desk and Ray and Jessyn stationed themselves up against the bar.
Fayla, folded on the sofa in one of those leg-twisting positions she seemed to favor, laid out the import of the coming summit at Rija.
“The Black Rose is to sign a treaty with the Draconis Brotherhood,” she explained. “One that has been in the works for months. If all goes as planned, this treaty will solidify Mariska Breeshandra’s position well beyond the circle of the Black Rose.”
“Seth was generating some reports for Mariska, for tonight,” Harry observed, and looked at Ray as he recalled the invitation from his bartender friend who would be working tonight’s party at Rija.
“Black Rose financials, itemized inventories, lists of business fronts and actual businesses,” Fayla replied, one hand whispering over the fabric of her dress. “Or rather, the version of Black Rose financials, inventories, and businesses Mariska wants the Brotherhood to see. And they will provide their own—no doubt highly edited—version of same to us.”
“Makes sense,” Ray said.
“But that is not all,” Jessyn said, looking at Fayla.
Harry, pausing mid-room, got the impression the two women were having a conversation he couldn’t hear.
At last Fayla’s eyes dipped infinitesimally, and Jessyn turned to the men. “The last time Sims and I were together,” she began, “he told me his superior would be providing a show of good faith to the Drés, the chieftains, of the Draconis Brotherhood.”
“What kind of good faith?” Ray asked.
“Information,” she replied, looking from Ray to Harry.
“Not just any information,” Harry realized. “Intel is Gemini’s stock in trade, and the Decagon, Force Intel, the IS Marshals, and the ConFed Reserve were all targets even before Seth’s cover was blown on Ceres. Who’s to say they managed to plug all the leaks?”
“And if they didn’t?” Ray picked up the thread.
“Gemini could be handing over anything from a decade’s worth of Sol Sector taxes to the identity of every embedded undercover in the Confederation,” Mollin said.
Harry nodded. “So, it’d be in all of our best interests to put the kibosh on this treaty.”
“Right.” Ray shook his head, poured another drink. “So how do we make that happen?”
“I have an idea about that,” Harry said. “But I think we need the data Mollin discovered to do it.”
“Oh. Yes. Right.” Mollin cleared his throat and presented his findings—both the identities of Neishi’s victims, as well as their connections to the Black Rose and Draconis Brotherhood’s respectively.
“But why would Neishi target Black Rose assets?” Jessyn asked. “Or even those of the Brotherhood? And the timing. All of these deaths occurred after Mariska made her first overtures to the Drés.”
“And then there’s Kaneth Sooks.” Mollin said. “I couldn’t find anything to mark him as a high-value target.”
“Maybe he wasn’t.” Ray shrugged, took a sip of his drink. “Maybe Neishi offed him for kicks.”
“I’ll be sure to ask Neishi the next time I see her,” Harry replied.
“Speaking of that,” Fayla said, her dark eyes locking on Harry’s. “I presume you understand that there is only one way to get you into Rija tonight.”
“What do you mean?” Jessyn asked.
“She means if I’m going to get in, it has to be a Trojan Horse,” he said. “A gift to my enemy,” he clarified for the non-humans in the room.
“But won’t that be dangerous?” Jessyn asked.
“Less dangerous than my trying to get in as a piano player.”
“You don’t play the piano,” Mollin pointed out.
“That’s why this is less dangerous,” Harry said.
* * *
One hour and twenty-eight minutes ago…
“The plan sucks,” Ray told Harry.
Fayla and Jessyn had already departed to start the plan rolling, and they’d taken Mollin along so he could get the lay of Fayla’s C&C facilities.
Harry turned from the window, where clouds were gathering to block out the stars. “You didn’t have a problem with it, before.”
“Going along with a plan because no one could come up with anything better isn’t the same as not having a problem with said plan.”
Harry’s mouth twitched. “Granted.”
“I can’t believe you expect us to hand you over to a woman who appears to be the demon lovechild of Jack the Ripper and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
“Yes,” Harry said, “we’ve met. Which is why I was able to steal the evidence of her crimes, upon which this entire plan, sucky or not, hinges.”
“Does it?” Ray asked, leaning his hands on the bar. “What I mean is, right now that evidence is in Fayla Szado’s hands—not yours, not the local PD’s, not the ISM’s or Stellarpol’s.”
“My point is she’s got her own agenda,” Ray said, pushing off the bar in frustration. “One that has fuck all to do with bringing Seth Aliombe or Neishi to justice.”
“True,” Harry said. “But then, neither does yours.”
Hearing that, Ray met the assessing blue gaze. “Maybe not, but I have a stake in keeping whatever intel Gemini stole out of Draconis hands.” He picked up a glass half full of vodka, then put it down, again. “Fayla is using you.”
“True,” Harry admitted. “But since I’m using her back, I figure it evens out.”
“It’d be more even if Fayla’s ass was in the sling with yours,” Ray muttered.
“It is,” Harry said, his patience clearly wearing thin. “If any of tonight goes pear-shaped, her House, her staff, Jessyn included, will be just as dead. Which makes it a good thing we have you in play.”
“Which is another problem,” Ray pointed out, his own patience worn to a fraying thread “Pretend contract or not, loyalty to the client is core to a jammer’s good name. I’m not sure the opposition isn’t going to believe I turned on you.”
“They might not believe you sold me out for money, but Sims will have no problem buying you turned on me for a shot at Jessyn.”
“Don’t bring her into this,” Ray said, his hands forming fists.
“She’s already in it.”
“So, you’d use your own daughter to keep me in the game?”
“No, but I’d sure as shit use you to make sure someone’s looking out for her,” Harry snapped. “Listen.” He held up a hand to cut off Ray’s next argument. “I’m going to do what I’m going to do regardless, but at least it’s my choice. Jessyn doesn’t even get a choice. She never has. All her decisions were taken from her when she was seven years old.”
“And I get that,” Ray admitted, “but you throwing yourself on Neishi’s sword isn’t going to help her.”
“It—” Harry took a breath, let it out. “It gets me close to Seth,” he said, as if that answered everything.
“And if getting closer to Seth gets you killed, she’ll have lost you twice.”
“I know,” Harry said, regret showing for the first time. “But—”
“You should see the setup they’ve got upstairs!” Mollin burst into the room. “Caris already has us sliced into Rija’s security feeds, and we’re layering in multi-feed comms for every member of the team in—” Then he paused, seeming to catch on to the tension in the room. “Okay, what did I miss?”
“Nothing much,” Harry said with a half shrug.
“I’m going to pretend I believe that,” Mollin said, turning to Harry, “but only because Fayla wants a word with you. She’s waiting in her room.”
“Great,” Harry said, then looked at Ray. “Conference room, seventeen hundred. And remember, we hate each other.”
“Not gonna be a problem.”
Both men smiled, then Harry joined Mollin. “About that transcomm we talked about,” he said. “You’re clear on what to tell Control?”
“Five by five,” Mollin assured.
“Good.” Harry nodded, and with one last glance at Ray, left the room.
“So,” Mollin began.
“So, about this plan—”
“Oh, the plan sucks,” Mollin cut in. “But then, most of Harry’s plans objectively suck, and yet, they also mostly work out.”
“I’m not comfortable with mostly,” Ray said, eyes narrowing in thought. “At least, not without backup.” He paused, met Mollin’s curious gaze. “If I give you the transcode, can you send a message on the down-low to my Uncle Mikey?”
Mollin grinned. “Down-low is my middle name. Or, it would be if I had a middle name.”
* * *
Forty-five minutes ago…
“Arrion tracked down the man you were looking for—Rizzo? And says that Rizzo is most eager to help.” As she spoke, Fayla watched Caris fit Harry with a transcomm.
The device was of a new design, made entirely of organic materials, rendering it undetectable to scanners. The devices were still in the testing phase, but Caris had connections.
The rest of the team would use the external model, but Harry’s only hope of remaining in contact was via subdural implant.
“Will Arrion be getting Rizzo to the shindig tonight?” Harry asked, remaining as still as possible at the edge of Fayla’s bed.
“They are already on the way, or will be, once they make a stop at Mr. Degas’s tailor.”
“Rizzo will love that,” Harry murmured, his eyes closed as Caris inserted a pair of micro forceps into the incision behind his right ear.
“There is something you are not telling me,” Fayla observed.
“There is a Galactic Encyclopedia of somethings I’m not telling you,” Harry replied.
“Something specific to your objective.”
Harry said nothing, but as he also had a micro forceps inserted behind his ear, Fayla waited until Caris withdrew the instrument before continuing, “You are aware tonight could go badly for you.”
“I’ve had things go badly before.”
“Finished,” Caris declared, pressing a healing pad over the tiny incision point. “Keep pressure on it for at least five minutes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Harry smiled.
Caris, made of sterner stuff, simply gave him a warning look, then at Fayla’s nod, made her exit.
“No doubt you have,” Fayla responded to his prior statement. “But always before, Siane’s conditioning protected your secrets.”
“And now you’ve breached the firewall, so to speak, you figure I’ll be an open book?”
“I think what I know, you know.”
“Okay, so what do I know?”
Fayla didn’t answer right away. Instead, she crossed the room and sat next to him on the bed, placing her own hand over his on the healing pad. “You know everyone has a breaking point,” she said at last. “Even one conditioned with the czozprjz andi can be made to give up their secrets.”
As, indeed, he had . . . to her.
Harry said nothing, but in his eyes she could see what she’d sensed.
“The escape from Kelmno had almost no chance of succeeding,” she said. She felt the muscles of his neck tense under her hand.
“Believe me, I know.”
“Still, you pushed the others to make the attempt.”
A brief pause. “Yes.”
“Because I knew I was on the edge,” he replied, meeting her gaze. “I knew the next time Gajor Lok—he was the Judon Inquisitor—I knew the next time he got me in the cell, or maybe the time after, I’d break. And I had the locations of every FI operative in my sector, and their comm codes. I knew the words that would bring them in from the cold and right into Judon custody. So, I pushed for the escape.
“To be honest?” he drew her hand from the healing pad so he could toy with her fingers, “I didn’t think we’d make it. I thought, best case, I’d get killed before we got to the jump ship.”
“You were attempting suicide,” she said, refusing to be distracted by the brush of his fingers over hers.
“The only kind possible, under the circumstances,” he agreed. “So, I took the chance.”
“Harry,” she said, but he shook his head, and then he returned her hand to her lap, as if he’d no further right to such comfort.