Nine hours later, Harry was behind the wheel of a van, driving through Romeria’s winding streets.
Behind him, Mollin hunched over a small warehouse of tech built into the unassuming ground transpo, tracking León Enris’s movements.
“Did you get anything more on the guy from the bar . . . Slater was it?” Harry asked, swinging the van around one of Romeria’s tourist glides.
“Nothing more than I already gave you,” Mollin said, eyes on the blip that represented the iso-tracker Enris had ingested. “Ray Slater, raised at the New Mars Mission of Mercy Orphanage,” he recited from his—to Harry—scary accurate memory. “Joined the Marines on reaching his majority, served with distinction until he beat his CO, one Colonel Frederick Rikert, to a bloody pulp. Court-martialed, served two years of a ten-year sentence in Danseker Super-Max. Current occupation—unlisted, but his name comes up in a lot of the feeds used by jammers.”
Jammers, Harry thought, meaning muscle for hire—which was to say, anything from bodyguard to mercs fell into the category
He thought back to the night before, from Slater’s almost-perfectly covered interest in Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth, to the perfectly timed distraction with the liquor bottle. “This guy was more than a jammer,” he muttered.
“Maybe so, but I’m not finding the breadcrumbs to prove it.”
“A lack of breadcrumbs is a tell of its own.”
“Yes,” Mollin agreed, “it’s telling us the guy is probably deep cover, likely for one of the big agencies.”
“Force Intel, ConFed Central, Fleet Intelligence…”
“Not Fleet,” Harry tossed in, braking for a rogue hover-bike. “They can’t step onto a non-aligned planet without starting another war.”
“What about Zodiac?” Mollin asked.
Harry thought about that, but, “Doubtful,” he decided. “Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Slater did me a solid, maybe the best thing I can do for him is forget he exists.”
Mollin took a breath, and Harry thought he was going to say something else, but when he did, it wasn’t about Slater.
“León’s heading into that fancy club you had me scope out.”
“He’s going to Ankhar?” Harry asked, easing around the corner where a kick of the verticals had the van rising to the upper-level road and access to a parking garage.
“Just cleared the lobby.” Mollin turned to study Harry’s puce coveralls, blazoned with the logo for Mercier’s Pest Removal Service. “You’ll probably want to change into something more formal.”
Less than thirty minutes later, a more formally dressed Harry stepped out of an auto-cab in Ankhar’s drop-off zone. He could only hope the monochromatic gray suit was sufficient for the ziggurat-shaped nightclub, itself sparkling like a jewel at the edge of the Nuph River and surrounded by flowering zin trees, their boughs heavy with blossoms that looked like anemones and smelled like cinnamon.
Harry’s nose still tickled from the spicy scent as he entered Ankhar’s foyer, where he discovered a holographic 3D map of the place, displaying the various entertainments on offer.
According to the holo, the five diminishing stories of the club boasted three lounges and two saloon bars. There was also a dining room on the top floor, a casino on the second, and music and dancing on both the first and third.
There was also a mezzanine surrounding the ground floor, accessible by a wide stairway to the left of the stage. According to the holo’s legend, the mezzanine featured a series of private rooms of varying sizes—rental prices available upon request.
Turning from the holo, Harry’s eyes caught on the half-dozen hostesses milling near the lounge entrance.
All, he noted, were female . . . and human in appearance.
But appearances could be deceiving, and Harry knew they were deceiving now, as an old but familiar prickling at the back of his neck told him these women were not human but Rasalkan, a matriarchal species known for their high psionic ratings.
Rather than risk a stray thought or emotion giving him away, Harry slid around the welcome party and straight into the lounge where he could lose himself in the crowd.
And the place was crowded—so much so that Harry considered himself lucky to snag a table at the edge of the dance floor.
The table was small, snugged up against a crystal-encrusted pillar, and further sheltered by a potted tree with broad, purple leaves.
It was probably the closest thing Ankhar had to a cheap seat, but for Harry it was perfect, as it provided a view of the dance floor, the saloon bar, the stairs, and most of the mezzanine level and its array of colorful doors which, he supposed, led to the private suites.
Satisfied with the view, Harry turned to the holo-menu and, after a quick scan, ordered a seltzer and a tray of overpriced appetizers . . . not because he was hungry but because he didn’t want to be memorable, and servers tended to remember stingy orders.
The service was prompt, and within minutes, he was leaning back in his chair, sipping fizzy water and listening to the band’s rousing techno-swing underscored by the conversations of those at nearby tables.
Local spices, expensive liquor, and a heady mix of perfumes filled the air, while the briny tang of an olive tart exploded on his tongue.
To his left, a smattering of newcomers headed for the bar. Another party slid into a booth near the bandstand while pairs, triplets, and the occasional clump of guests hit the dance floor.
But most interesting to Harry, León Enris—himself looking spiffy in an uptown black suit—exited the saloon bar and climbed the steps to the mezzanine where, after a brief scan of his surroundings, he stepped through the jade green door of one of the private rooms.
And who are you meeting, León? Harry wondered, before flicker of motion drew his attention from the green door to see yet another woman—another Rasalkan, he was certain—descending the stairs.
This one was young, early to mid-twenties. Willowy, and tall with it, she wore a simple, floor-length gown of shimmering bronze, and her mass of dark curls glittered with jeweled pins.
But it wasn’t the woman’s adornments that caught Harry’s eye.
Nor was it the fact that she moved with what he thought of as a superconscious grace . . . as if every step she took was measured against the impact it would have on her surroundings.
No, what caught Harry’s eye was the sense he’d seen her somewhere before.
“What the hells are you doing here?”
Harry masked a wince and glanced over his shoulder, where the man who had asked the question stood, glaring.
“Hey, Sims,” he said. “Been a while.”
“Not long enough,” Sims Al-Kar, a mid-level arms dealer with whom Harry shared a brief, yet violent, acquaintance, rounded the table and dropped into the remaining chair.
“Please,” Harry said, “have a seat.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same,” Harry replied. “After our last meeting, I figured you for a stint out on the fringe, but here you are, living the good life on Ócala.”
“You mean that meeting where you tried to entrap us?” Sims countered.
Harry tipped his head. “That bust was righteous.”
“You’ll have to forgive us for not sticking around to argue the case,” Sims replied, plucking an appetizer from the platter and downing it in one bite. “How’s the spine, by the way?”
“Mostly functional,” Harry replied.
“Too bad.” Sims leaned back in his chair. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”
Harry shrugged. “I’m on vacation.”
“Take your vacation someplace else.”
“I like it here.”
Sims leaned forward. “You won’t like it for long.”
“Sims.” A delicate hand came to rest on the other man’s shoulder. “Who is your friend?”
Looking up, Harry was surprised to find the young woman from the staircase had joined them. Up close, he noted her eyes were a light blue, contrasting sharply with the gilded fawn of her skin.
“Jess.” Sims nodded toward Harry. “This is Harry Finn. He’s just leaving.”
The young woman looked at Harry with those clear blue eyes. “Is this so?”
“That my name is Harry Finn? Yes,” Harry replied, rising from his seat—an old-fashioned gesture, but one his mother had pounded into her children from a young age. “That I’m leaving? Not so much.”
Sims stirred in his seat. “Now, listen—”
“Jessyn Breeshandra,” the woman cut in, her attention focused on Harry, who felt a strange tug at the sound of her surname. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” She offered him a curious look along with the right hand over her heart—the Rasalkan greeting to an equal.
“Likewise,” Harry replied, mirroring the gesture before glancing at Sims. “Mr. Al-Kar isn’t nearly as happy to see me.”
“Jessyn, I’d like a moment with Mr. Finn.”
There was the slightest hesitation—and Harry got the sense of an unspoken interchange—before her head dipped and she turned back to Harry. “I look forward to seeing you, again.”
For reasons he couldn’t name, Harry believed her and, with Sims, watched as she returned to her circuit of the lounge.
“That,” Harry said, as Jessyn disappeared in the crowds, “is a lady.” He folded himself back into his chair before adding, “Better than you deserve.”
“I know,” Sims said, then frowned, as if realizing he’d revealed too much. “Listen,” he said, leaning forward on the table, “whatever axe you think you’ve got to grind with me you’ll leave her out of it.”
“I don’t have any axe to grind with you,” Harry said.
“Our meeting on Ceres says otherwise.”
“You didn’t drop that crate on my back,” Harry pointed out and, before Sims could scoff added, “Listen, straight up, I have zero interest in your affairs at this time. I have slightly more in Gavin’s because—well, because he’s Gavin—but there’s only one Most Wanted I’m after right now. Until I bag him, the rest of you can go on living your worst lives.”
Sims shook his head. “You’re chasing a dead man, Finn.”
“My magic eight ball says otherwise.”
“What’s a magic eight ball?” Sims looked genuinely confused.
“No one remembers the classics,” Harry groused. “It’s like an oracle. You ask a question, shake it, and it . . .” His voice trailed off as he spied another familiar figure heading into the saloon bar.
Of all the gin joints, Harry thought, as the man who’d come to Harry’s aid in the Needle, the man Mollin’s research said was Ray Slater, took a seat at the bar.
“And then, what?”
“What?” Harry turned back to the expectant Sims.
“You sure you haven’t fallen off the wagon, old man?” Sims asked, nodding at Harry’s glass.
“The only thing I’m sure of, is that Gemini is on Ócala,” Harry said, rising. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see a man about a needle.”
He’d barely taken his first step when a hard, muzzle-shaped pressure dug into the scar tissue on his back.
“Hello, Finn,” a silky, too familiar voice slid over his shoulder as Sims rose to stand in front of him.
“Gavin,” Harry murmured, glancing over his shoulder to see Sims’s partner The slender, chiseled features hadn’t changed much in the past couple of standards. Nor had the dark, oddly empty gaze which flicked to Harry’s right, where a woman sidled out of the crowd, effectively surrounding Harry.
She was, Harry knew, another Rasalkan, and the reason he knew this was, the second she appeared, he experienced a sudden, sharp, sickening ping in his spine.
Empath, he thought and hissed out a breath as sweat popped over his skin—and one who’d weaponized her abilities.
“Harry, meet Neishi,” Sims nodded to the woman. “Neishi, say hello to Harry Finn.”
“Hello, Harry Finn,” Neishi said, her voice low, throaty, and oddly gleeful. And then, as Gavin’s gun struck Harry in the temple she added, “Goodbye, Harry Finn.”
As you may have noticed, this website is ad free, and depends upon the generosity of its readers (that’s you!), so if you are enjoying, please Like, Subscribe, or Share on your favorite social platform, using the handy buttons below. Lastly, and only if you can afford to, consider buying the authors a coffee. Or buy an ebook. Every little thing helps.