From his spot at the bar, Ray watched the pair cross the floor and felt something poking at him, like an annoying kid trying to get attention, but movement to his left had him turning to see Ziio holding up the bottle of Sterling Black, and he told the annoying kid to take a number while he learned what the bartender wanted.
“Hey,” he began, as she poured a fresh glass of scotch for him. “How’s it—”
“Who in the name of the four dragons are you?” she cut in, shoving the glass his way.
“Those bills I gave you, I swear I had no idea they were bogus,” Ray quipped. “I mean, they were a little smudgy in spots, but—”
“I’m serious.” She cut him short with a gentle thwack of her ever-present cloth, making Ray think of his sister, who never let smart comment go un-thwacked. “I’ve seen a few people make the trip your friend took through that green door, and most don’t come out. I don’t know who you guys are, but you don’t read as street shubo or syndicate.”
“And if we’re not?” Ray asked, taking a sip as he watched Harry and Jessyn at their table, leaning forward and chatting like the oldest of friends.
“If you’re not, then, like the note said, my name’s Ziio. That’s what my friends call me.” Saying this, she shouldered the towel and shoved a hand across the bar. “Friend.”
Ray accepted the hand, and the surprisingly strong grip, but still asked, “What makes you think we’re not syndicate?”
“Let’s say I’m familiar with the type,” she replied. “Especially the shubos who ambushed your buddy.”
“Sims and Gavin,” Ray guessed.
“Pretty Boy and the Beast,” Ziio confirmed. “That’s what the club girls call them. I call them xiàliú,” she used the Su Li term for lowlife.
“Interesting,” Ray said. “And what have you heard about a guy named León Enris?”
“León’s okay,” she said with a shrug. “He rides a few rungs lower than Gavin and Sims, doesn’t care for either of them. I have seen León sit down for drinks with Domina Jessyn,” she added with a glance toward the lounge, “but only when she isn’t with Sims. And the last few months she’s mostly always with Sims.” Again the shrug, a swipe of the cloth over the bar. “But the way she’s been eying you the last few minutes, maybe dance partners are about to change.” Ziio leaned her elbow on the bar. “My take? Good for her.”
“I appreciate your support,” Ray said with a grin.
Her answering smile was as warm as the whiskey she poured. “Anytime, gorgeous.”
“Ray,” he said. “My friends call me Ray.” He offered a quick salute, finished off the scotch, and rose from the stool. “See you around.”
“Maybe sooner than you think,” she said, tapping the bar to call his attention back. “The Roses own another place, Rija, up in the hills. They’re hosting a big shindig tomorrow night, lots of off-planet VIPs. I’ll be working it. You know, in case you can swing an invite.” She shot another glance toward the lounge.
Ray looked back to see Harry and Jessyn at a table, deep in conversation. “I might just do that.”
* * *
“Popular guy,” Harry observed as he and Jessyn watched Ray commune with the bartender.
“I believe that statement is what your people refer to as the pot calling the kettle hot,” Jessyn replied.
“Black,” Harry corrected automatically. “The pot calls the kettle black.”
“Truly?” She frowned and tapped the table. “I don’t recall seeing any black kettles on Earth, but they do all become hot.”
“That . . . is true,” Harry agreed after a moment’s thought. “But I think the idiom precedes modern cookware. I didn’t realize you’d been to Earth,” he added, even as he realized it was a stupid observation, since they’d spoken all of twice, and therefore knew squat about each other.
Or rather, he immediately corrected himself, he knew squat about her.
But Jessyn worked for the Black Rose Sisterhood, and they, as Captain Marifanne and the mysterious Lady had proven, knew quite a bit about Harry Finn.
As if to demonstrate the point, one of the many hostesses working the club sidled up to the table bearing a cup of tea, which she set before Jessyn, and a glass of seltzer, which she placed in front of Harry.
“Compliments of the House,” the woman said. “I’d have brought a whiskey for your other friend,” her eyes warmed as she glanced to where Ray huddled with the bartender, “but he seems otherwise occupied.”
“Thank you, Lyselle,” Jessyn replied, coolly. “I will be certain to inform Ray of your care.”
Lyselle’s catlike smile remained in place, but in a pasted-on sort of way, as if it had been left behind when the rest of her face shrank down to a malicious point. “Enjoy your drink,” she said, turning to Harry, “if that is even possible.”
“In the right company, tap water is better than Crystál,” he said, raising his glass to Jessyn before taking a drink. He turned back to see Lyselle’s pasted-on smile had fallen the rest of the way off, leaving only the malice. “And since I’m confident you have an entire repertoire of comebacks, digs, and generic nanner-nanners at your beck, I’m just as sure no one here will be impressed by them, so if you’d just . . .” he made a little shooing motion, “. . . that’d be great.”
Across the table, Jessyn’s eyes went wide, and he sensed a warm wash of respect.
From Lyselle, on the other hand, he caught a flash of rage. “You two deserve each other,” she said, fixing her gaze on Harry with a heat so intense he felt the burning and had to work not to slap at the non-existent flames crawling up his arm.
He was about to lose that battle when the flames were countered by Jessyn’s own rage, rising like a tidal wave that washed over him and into Lyselle, who stumbled away from the table with her hand rising as if to ward off a blow.
Jessyn, Harry noted, even as he caught his breath, hadn’t moved a muscle.
“You go too far, Lyselle,” Jessyn said softly. “The Lady will hear of it. Now I suggest you do as Mr. Finn asked, and leave.”
Jessyn turned Harry.
“I am sorry for that,” she said.
“Don’t be,” he said, shaking his head as his heart resumed a less frenzied beat. “You don’t have to apologize for her. If anything, I should be sorry.”
Harry gave the slightest of shrugs. “Because my business on Ócala could be finished in a day, two at most. If I’m lucky, it’ll be finished with me still breathing, but either way, it’ll be over. You have to live with these people.” He paused, and then said the rest. “And I’m sorry for that too.”
“Why?” she asked again, her voice a low ripple, and again he thought of water.
“I have no idea,” he admitted, even as Ray appeared at Jessyn’s side.
“What’d I miss?” Ray asked, looking from one to the other with open curiosity.
“An exploration of idioms,” Harry replied easily. “What about you? Pick up any good cocktail recipes?”
Ray slid into the booth next to Jessyn. “Got the word there’s going to be a big party at someplace called Rija tomorrow night. Lots of VIPs.”
“That so?” Harry asked as Ray scanned the lounge.
Following his gaze, Harry saw that Sims and Gavin were standing at the mezzanine rail, along with a few rent-a-goons.
“You will be safe from harm, so long as you remain on the club premises,” Jessyn said as Harry and Ray exchanged a glance. “Or in my company,” she added, taking Ray’s hand in her own.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he replied, letting his thumb massage her palm.
Harry, after a moment of watching the two go moony-eyed, cleared his throat.
“Sorry,” Ray said.
“No, you’re not,” Harry observed wryly, before addressing Jessyn. “Are you allowed to tell us if we’re being monitored?”
“There are no monitors in this section,” she said. “Every floor has a blind spot. This is for everyone’s protection. You understand?”
Both men did. Records of any sort could bite both ways.
“In that case—” Harry began.
“However,” she interrupted, “while I am under orders to assist you, I am also directed to deliver whatever information I receive to my superior. And I have her permission to tell you so.”
“Your superior?” Ray asked.
“The Lady,” Harry murmured, and Jessyn’s head dipped in a nod. At Ray’s questioning look, he added, “I met her—sort of—while I was downstairs.”
“You impressed her, and she does not impress easily,” Jessyn offered. “Impressed enough she prefers you alive, both of you.” Her glance took in Ray.
“Okay,” Harry said, then shook his head. “Since I don’t know what to do with that information, let’s move on. First, I don’t have a problem with you or your Lady hearing this—she already knows about the fugitive I’m pursuing.”
“I figured you were on the job,” Ray said, “and seeing the ISM badge back in that room pretty much sealed it.”
“That’s the thing,” Harry said. “I’m not on the job. Or not that job. And this?” He drew out the badge in question from his pocket and tossed it onto the table between them, where it landed with a thin clatter. “This isn’t my badge.”
Ray looked at the ISM shield, which was silver, seriously dinged up, and somewhat warped, as if it had been through a fire.
“Then whose is it?” Jessyn asked.
Harry thought there were a couple of answers to that question, but all he said was, “Have either of you heard of a slicer called Gemini?”
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