Apologies for the late posting. Got a new job and haven't yet adjusted to the new daily schedule. Hope this chapter was worth the wait!
“Play busted to hell.”
Hearing Maynard’s comment, Ray turned from Sims and Jessyn to where the protector had just arrived. “Did you see Gavin—and hopefully kill him?” he asked the giant.
“No—and I’d have loved a piece of that,” Maynard growled.
Ray couldn’t argue. “What about Arrion?”
“Alive. It was a through and through. Viel’s doing what she can, and she can do a lot.” He came up alongside Ray, and both looked at the dead man and the woman who mourned him. “Gavin do that?”
“And then some,” Ray agreed. “Where do you think he’d have gone?”
“With most of the protection upside in the club, he’d be smart to head to the garage, steal a ride.”
“He is not sane,” Jessyn said, then took Ray’s offered hand as she stood. “But Gavin is not a stupid man. He will already be far from here.”
“Maybe. Probably.” As he spoke, Ray sensed that Jessyn was cold and, without thinking, doffed his jacket to wrap around her shoulders. “But just in case, let’s make sure none of the Lady’s people go anywhere alone.”
In response, Maynard activated his comms to deliver the news of Sims’s death, Jessyn’s recovery, and Ray’s suggestion.
“Copy that,” Maynard said, tapping off his comm. He turned to Ray. “I’m heading back to Viel’s location to assist with Arrion’s transport. Caris suggests you two get yourselves topside ASAP. Things are heating up, and the Lady wants everyone prepped for evac.”
“Guess we better go,” Ray said.
With a last look at Sims, the three headed down the ill-lit corridor until they reached the elevator Sims and Ray had taken.
Silently, they boarded, with Jessyn and Ray selecting the first floor and Maynard the second, where Viel and Slim waited with Arrion.
The doors opened, and Ray and Jessyn stepped into a lounge that had shifted from formal cocktail hour to dystopian plague.
Ray was tempted to turn around and get back on the lift, but it had already moved on.
He heard a popping sound, along with the spatter of several lights blowing.
A heartbeat later, something dark dropped out of the rafters and into the pool at the base of the waterfall.
Ray and Jessyn both looked up, but the spray of the waterfall and the glare of the remaining lights prevented them from seeing what was happening on high.
“It has to be Harry,” Jessyn murmured.
“Yeah,” Ray agreed, just as the club’s speakers blared to life.
* * *
“What can I say?” Harry’s voice echoed through the club. “I’m a sucker for a woman with an eye to the main chance—or eight eyes in a suitcase.”
* * *
Near the foyer, Fayla Szado looked up from a quiet spot in the mezzanine where she and Dré Altimus had both fled to avoid the illness rampaging through the club.
As Altimus and his bodyguard tensed for action, Fayla set a calming hand on the Dré’s arm. “Wait,” she told him, “you will want to hear this.”
* * *
“—Mariska tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
* * *
Ray and Jessyn shared a glance. “We should get to the extraction point,” Ray said, speaking of the loading dock where everyone from House Szado was to meet if—or rather, when—the summit went pear-shaped.
* * *
“She’s framed me for the murders you committed.”
“What of it?”
“I guess you’re right. Eight people tortured to death? No big. Bit of advice, though? If your crimes are supposed to be a secret, it’s best not to keep souvenirs.”
“A momentary weakness.”
“That is so wrong.”
* * *
Rizzo couldn’t agree more, though he said nothing of the kind.
Instead, he moved on to a trio of individuals, one male, one female, and one—hard to say—slumped together near the waterfall.
Given the damp state of their clothing, he considered it likely they’d used the pool as a makeshift bath. Most dips, he knew, would look at a wet pocket and move on, but Rizzo enjoyed a challenge, so he stepped in to offer whatever aid and comfort would get him close enough to try.
* * *
“—sanctioning the murder of a short stack of Draco and Black Rose associates doesn’t come off as the savviest of plans. I’m surprised your ruling council went for it.”
* * *
“They didn’t,” Fayla said as, beneath her hand, Altimus’s arm turned to iron.
It said something of the man that, while he might not take her directly at her word, neither did he pull away.
Given he could snap her neck with one hand, she had to admire his restraint.
* * *
“— the council didn’t sanction those kills?”
“The council of the Black Rose believes what the Drés of the Brotherhood believe, that an unknown predator was killing off members of both organizations. By thinning both herds, I provided a common enemy, and Mariska used that enemy as motivation to unite with the Brotherhood, rather than waste more lives competing with them.”
* * *
“Gizma has returned to the lounge, and she reports that everyone capable of responding to Harry’s recording has blood in their eyes,” Tahna announced.
“Have her gather up any strays and get out,” Caris said, at the same time one of her screens erupted in a flare of red warning sigils.
“Trouble?” Mollin asked, glancing sideways.
“I’m not certain,” Caris said, “but according to Ócala Flight Control, five ISM drop ships have just entered Romerian air space.”
“Interesting timing,” Mollin said.
* * *
“Clever, as long as you never got caught.”
“But I haven’t been caught. You have. So, it appears Mariska’s plan worked.”
* * *
“It seems the bag is off the cat,” Jessyn commented at Ray’s side.
Bag is off the . . . Ray mused, then caught on, but his answering smile was interrupted as he spied several Dracos hovering near the pool. They were all upright, so he figured they hadn’t partaken of the champagne.
The way the night was going, he figured they’d notice the Rasalkan Nhaiad and her escort any second now.
“Let’s go this way. Slowly,” he said, turning toward the walkway that skirted the waterfall’s inner rim, hoping against hope that Mollin had gotten hold of Uncle Mikey.
* * *
“We’ll be on the ground in five minutes, sir,” the Tac leader announced.
Colonel Liam Michael Doyle grabbed the bar overhead as the drop ship hit the first bit of in-atmo turbulence before turning to the Tac leader. “I assume Romeria Flight has been apprised of our mission?” he asked.
George Chance, of the Inter-Systems Marshal’s TacOps Division, gave a short nod. She hadn’t helmeted up yet, and her tightly braided red hair glowed like embers under the drop ship’s dim overheads. “Any last insights before we hit the ground, sir?”
“You were in on the briefing, Senior Marshal,” Doyle said. “Our intel has it we’ll be dealing with two unstable elements . . . the Draconis Brotherhood and the Black Rose. You’ve tangled with the Dracos before, but the Roses are more in the known-unknown category. Lethal force is authorized,” he continued, “but there is one more detail.”
“I knew it,” she muttered and shrugged at his glance. “You’re not ISM, and you’re not Regular Fleet—gotta figure there’s some gray or black ops shit involved. Sir.”
“You figure right.” Doyle handed her a data stick. “Can you provide these images to your team’s HUDs?”
“These our targets?” she asked, taking the stick and inserting it into the data port on her wrist unit, uploading it to the group’s Heads Up Display.
“Those are the friendlies in the mix. Try not to kill them. Plus, there’s one face in there I think you already know,” he said.
Chance looked at the first image to pop up on her unit, then bared her teeth in a grin and gave a thumbs up before activating her transcomm and briefing the rest of her team.
* * *
On the far side of the lobby from Ray and Jessyn, Fayla and Altimus turned at the broadcast’s apparent conclusion, each making eye contact with their respective protectors, preventing any unfortunate misunderstandings.
“It appears the Black Rose has some weeding to take care of,” Altimus said.
“Indeed,” Fayla agreed. “My sorrow to say, I do not believe there will be any treaties signed, tonight.”
“I’m inclined to agree.” He glanced at the lounge, then at her. “Though I’m not sure I believe you’re really sorry.”
She offered a hint of a smile, which Altimus matched. “If you will excuse me, Dama,” his head dipped with a respect she knew to be genuine, “I have a communiqué to send.” And then Altimus and his guard departed.
Fayla looked at Eineen, who’d remained tuned in to the comm feed throughout. “What is happening?”
“All staff have been ordered to the extraction point,” Eineen said. “And Caris reports five drop ships have entered Romerian air space and are vectoring in on this hillside. She suggests we vacate immediately.”
“And Jessyn, and Mr. Finn?”
“Jessyn and Mr. Slater are en route to extraction,” Eineen reported. “Finn has dropped out of the feed.”
“Of course he has,” Fayla murmured.
“Should we go, Dama?”
“Not just yet.” Fayla’s eyes glittered as she looked over the lounge. “First, let us find Mariska, shall we?”