Copyright Grahame Walker 2016
Published at Shakespir
So, Ben Grant and Gulch, ‘Universal Finders of Stuff, Things and Occasionally People’ had been hired to find four kidnapped girls and in their search had been joined by Kaskey, a small time hustler. There was a bit with Wotham, remember? He captured Gulch after a gunfight and car chase and there was that show down in the restaurant.
Then what? They’d been joined by the hitman, Stephen Regrette and went and met a criminal called Hounsards in a hotel and they got attacked by goons and escaped to the roof. That was pretty exciting.
Then they headed to the planet of Cravalor and hit up the city of Vexupulla where they met three space port security officers, Tandish, Loveritto and Kov and they joined the team to bust into a mechanics that was helping to move people and after another exciting firefight they went and saved some girls from a bar.
Joined by Rainsford Tsyrker, all eight of them headed to the city-continent of Haffir and went to the Loggajello Casino in disguise. After all sorts of hijinks they managed to break out all of the slaves there, including the girls they were originally looking for.
After that they all went their separate ways; Grant, Gulch and Kaskey went to Kaskey’s place to lie low for a bit and Kaskey finally decided he was in and they all decided they needed to go after Maggie Desard.
So far it had all been about Gothra, a Universal criminal, as she was a link to getting to the Desards. She also owned the bar and the casino.
Gothra was more than livid. The news from the bar had got lost in the assault (that’s how she thought of it) on the casino. It had come in before news on the casino; that girls had gone missing from there with a side note that those using the private room were unsatisfied with the experience, but had quickly got buried.
Now with the assault she looked at it again. It had to be linked, but who did such a thing? Who risked their lives to save some pointless people? And why her places? There was the obvious, the InterG, but if it had been them it had been well hidden. And it didn’t answer why just her.
It wasn’t like she was the only one on Haffir to supply such entertainment and she certainly wasn’t the oldest at it. Was that it? One of the other casinos trying to shut her down? That still didn’t make sense, there were many casinos offering such things. Gambling was still the major draw and no one had tried to shut her down before this. Did she accidentally have someone special? It didn’t gel with her, but she had people looking into it.
The only silver lining she could see was that she had paid for the people. She been annoyed about that, but now it was a blessing. She had lost a lot of money, but it was her money and not theirs. Still, it looked bad, looked like she couldn’t handle her operation.
No, come on, who expected this? It had to be big, it would take hi-tech equipment and training to pull off something like this and again that just begged the question: why would they just take the people? It was infuriating.
“All systems are back,” Logdon said from the door.
“Good,” she nodded. “What’s the damage?”
“Nothing major,” he shook his head. “They wiped the takings records, but there’s no sign they actually stole money.”
“Unaffected,” Logdon said. “The fact that anything happened never reached the floors.”
“And the cameras?” she asked, but she already knew the answer.
“Blank. All blank,” he shook his head sadly.
“We don’t know. We’re trying to find out without alerting…” he didn’t even want to say their name less they heard it.
“Alright. Go,” she commanded.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said instead.
“I know that,” she snapped.
He decided it was best to leave after all.
OK then, this was alright. It was a freak incident that no one could foresee. So her security would be questioned, but it’s accepted that people with hi-tech enough equipment can get into just about anywhere. No one knows that better than criminals. What she would get a chance to do was show how she bounced back, how she investigated and how she caught the shabwozers that did this. This could all work out for her.
She walked to a window and looked out over the city of Pelluu. She was on the top floor of the second highest building in the city and the view was incredible. She preferred the urban sprawl to oceans, mountains or sunsets. You couldn’t make money from them. No, she liked to look across the vast expanse of opportunity. She had an opportunity now like no other and she wasn’t going to let some do-gooders ruin it for her.
Said do-gooders, or at least Ben Grant, Kaskey and Gulch, were on The Albatross closer than she could have guessed. They were in the Dwituf System of the Werther Galaxy and heading towards The Dead Planet of Callevetto, just one planet away.
“So what’ve we got?” Kaskey asked.
“So far no blow back on Gothra,” Gulch said.
“They’ll be questioning her security, but we were an oddity,” Grant said.
“An oddity?” Kaskey raised his substantial eyebrows.
“You think people with hi-tech kit routinely break in to places and not steal money?” Gulch asked.
“Well,” he thought about it. “No. I guess not,” he thought about it further. “But those people we freed, they’re money to Gothra.”
“They are,” Grant nodded, “and the fact that she hasn’t had more grief suggests it was her money.”
“But still,” Kaskey argued, “if we could do it then others could too.”
“They could, but it’s harder than you think,” Gulch said. “Remember they all share the Underworld. Big job like that, lots of hi-tech equipment? Everyone would know who did it.”
“Alright, so what does that all mean to us?” Kaskey asked.
“It means that Gothra is still a go for us, though she’ll be searching for the perpetrators. If we show too much of our hand she’ll know it was us,” Grant said.
“None of that answers the question of why we’re heading to the Dead Planet.”
“Good place to lay low,” Grant said.
“I thought we were done with that?”
“Plus the Dead Planet is quite fascinating,” Gulch enthused. “The Uvartin people left a lot of ruins there, but no one yet knows how the planet became lifeless, or what happened to the Uvartin people.”
“That’s not why we’re going there though, right?” Kaskey asked Grant.
“We have to be sure Gothra is still a go, but it’s good to be close. Start surveillance,” Grant said.
“But we’ll certainly have some time to explore,” Gulch said with a firm tone that made it clear he was exploring. Like it or not.
“Certainly,” Grant said less certainly than the word ‘certain’ implies.
“And why are you doing this at all?” Kaskey asked.
“Gothra’s casino is still operating. And that bar we went to. What do you think they’ll do? Just close up because someone rescued some of their slave labour?”
“Right,” Grant said reading his mind. “All we’ve done is make sure another bunch of people get kidnapped and enslaved.”
“Then it’s all hopeless,” Kaskey said with frustration and anger.
“Unless we cut off the head,” Gulch said.
“But it’s an Ankarian, isn’t it?” Kaskey said. “You chop off a head and another grows back.”
“Welcome to the Universe,” Grant said.
They took the Lark down to the surface and landed at a small makeshift spaceport. Grant wondered if they would meet security, but Gulch assured him that unless treasure was found there wouldn’t be any.
Archaeologists would be another issue though. Without security anyone could come in and ruin the, well further ruin, the ruins and artefacts. No one of any use was going to sign up for that unlikely occurrence and so Archaeologists trained themselves in martial arts to fend off any thieves or vandals. In fact, outside of the Navy, Archaeologists were the best trained hand-to-hand combat organisation in the Universe.
Turns out it wasn’t going to be an issue.
They exited the ship and walked to meet a mixed racial group that was coming towards them.
“Grant?” a Laikan asked with surprise.
“Hendricks? Shabbus, is that you?” Grant asked back with just as much surprise.
“It is, old boy, it is,” Hendricks said with delight.
They met and embraced.
“Well what are you doing here?” Grant asked.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Hendricks grinned.
“Right. Yeah, about that.”
“You know each other?” Kaskey asked.
“This is Squadron Leader Hendricks,” Grant introduced.
“No, no, not anymore. Doctor these days,” Hendricks said.
“You’re an Archaeologist?” Grant asked.
Hendricks spread his arms out to remind where they were.
“Right, yeah, makes sense,” Grant said.
Laikans were descended from the dogs Russia sent into space and looked like werewolves in Earthen films. They were great Archaeologists due to their genetic disposition to dig.
“And you?” bushy eyebrows raised. “Not to offend, but the Navy seems to have gone downhill somewhat.”
“Well I never,” Gulch well-I-nevered.
“Would you believe we’re here to look at the ruins?”
Dr. Hendricks eyed him and then Gulch and Kaskey. His raised eyebrow told Grant that he didn’t believe it for a minute.
“It’s a fascinating site, a fascinating world. Come let me introduce you to the site leader,” Hendricks said with a smile and gestured for them to follow him.
The planet was known as the Dead Planet for good reason, the ground was a hard-packed, grey dirt with no vegetation or animals to be seen. In the distance were a range of hills, the far distance was obscured by haze.
“It like this everywhere?” Kaskey asked Grant.
“We are seeing some new growth,” Hendricks said from ahead of them. “Fascinating after all this time.”
“Really?” Gulch asked just as fascinated as Hendricks seemed to be about everything.
“More so on the other side of the planet. There’s a team of botanists over there right now.”
“And what are you excavating here,” Gulch asked catching up to Hendricks.
The rest of his meeting party had gone on ahead now that their fighting skills were not needed.
“Myself? Nothing. Like you I’m just visiting. I’ve got a dig just starting in your neck of the woods though.”
“Rarbar?” Gulch asked and Hendricks nodded.
“You think there is a link between the Uvartin people and the Chonbium?”
“More work will be needed to date them both, but that’s why I’m here,” Hendricks nodded.
“Amazing,” Gulch swooned.
“And, look here, sorry about that crack about the Navy, just joshing, you understand?”
“I’ve had worse, believe me,” Gulch grinned.
They hadn’t landed too far from the dig site and got there to find considerable excitement.
“Dr. Hendricks, Dr. Hendricks,” a young Jobru called. “This way, this way,” and waved to a small open top bus.
“Join me,” Hendricks invited our heroes and they jogged to the bus and got in.
The Jobru jumped in along with a Reutorgian and two more Laikans.
Jobru sat on three long tentacles a lot like an octopus’. Their bodies were reminiscent of a chubby baby’s with long arms that ended in three-pincered hands. Their head was oddly small for their bodies with small eyes, but a distending jaw and large nostrils. They were originally water based creatures, but were equally happy out of it. They were happiest in a warm bath, but then isn’t everyone?
The bus raced over the dusty flats and towards a group of people who were erecting a large tent. The Jobru, Vastao, filled them in.
“Routine comb found something. Claim it’s metal,” she jabbered. “Rorckshift is out there now.”
“Kendell Rorckshift, that’s the dig leader,” Hendricks told them.
It didn’t take them long to reach the hub-bub and they disembarked (except for Kaskey who just got out).
“Ahh, Hendricks,” a tall, muscular Human called as he walked over.
Kaskey thought Rorckshift spent more time training for the martial arts side of things than researching.
“And who are these?” he asked.
“Friends of mine, interested in the history of the Uvartin people,” Hendricks said. “I can vouch for them,” he added, answering the unasked question.
Rorckshift merely nodded.
“What is it?” Gulch asked, barely able to contain his excitement.
“What do you know of the Uvartin people?” Rorckshift asked instead.
“The latest date for them is one thousand years ago, there are ruins attributed to them across the Universe and they are one of the few Older Races that left writings behind them,” Gulch spieled. “Though they never mention them, it is thought they were concurrent with the Chonbium people. Their most famous and complete writing is ‘The Tale of Egorbius’, which doesn’t deal with the Universe, but a mythical place between…”
“Very good. Enough,” Rorckshift smiled. “I was going to follow by asking you about the Ten Kingdoms, but I don’t think we have the daylight. You are an erudite scholar…?”
“Gulch. I am Rorckshift and to answer your question. Well, take a look at this symbol.”
He moved away so that they could see what was clearly metal that had become uncovered in the sandy soil there. It was ten feet long and four wide and disappeared into the soil on every edge. Close to where it disappeared on one side was a faint symbol:
“Naylor,” Kaskey said with a touch of awe.
“Well you’re full of surprises aren’t you,” Gulch said, a little miffed to have been shown up.
“I read,” Kaskey shrugged.
“Well I’m in the dark,” Grant said.
“Lord Naylor of the Tenth Kingdom,” Gulch explained to try and recoup his loss
“Oh,” Grant said.
“This is incredible,” Hendricks enthused.
“It could change everything,” Rorckshift enthused back.
“But surely you can’t…” Hendricks started.
“But if the stories are true…” Rorckshift interrupted.
“Then it could…” Hendricks failed to finish.
“Perhaps,” Rorckshift nodded. “Perhaps.”
“Right,” Grant said. “Now I see.”
Though the technology exists to avoid tents and campfires altogether, Archaeologists still use both. It’s part of the Code and no one has found a good enough reason to change it. And so they sat around one of three large, roaring campfires that were set between the tents. Everyone sitting, talking and drinking an alcoholic beverage, as also set down in the Code. It was mainly Faro’s Gold beer here, though Rorckshift and Hendricks were sharing a bottle of Johnny Skyewalker with Gulch and Kaskey.
Grant sat alone just in reach of the warmth from a fire, but out of it’s light. He wondered on Kas’ question about why he was doing this. He’d done other jobs that involved criminals and hadn’t hunted them down. That wasn’t his job anymore and yet he was picking up that mantle again. Was it because the others wanted him to or was it because he wanted to? Both Rainsford and Regrette would have reasons for wanting to go after the Desards, what was his? It wasn’t just idle thoughts either, if he was going to do this then he had to have a good reason, had to have purpose in his mission. He couldn’t trust the others to follow through once they had gotten what they wanted or needed, so he had to have the resolve to do so himself.
“So?” Hendricks asked sitting down.
“Come on, Grant.”
“I find stuff.”
Hendricks barked (literally) a laugh.
“Kaskey said you’d say that. Bet me ten space pounds on it.”
“He’s a good kid,” Grant smiled.
“Then why’s he with you?” Hendricks twisted a grin.
“I’m considering going after the Desard Crime Family.”
“Means nothing to me.”
“That should tell you something about them.”
“Can’t say I’ve seen them here and you would think I’d notice.”
“Funny, Doc,” Grant said. “There’s a woman, criminal, on Dwituf Minor. She’s our in.”
“May I ask why?”
“I was just asking myself that.”
“And?” Hendricks pushed.
“And I don’t know. It’s not what I do. I told you I left the InterG and I did because I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
“But it’s a rare chance to make a difference. Take down criminals that really pull strings.”
“Is that why you left the InterG?” Hendricks asked with a knowing smile.
“I left because I couldn’t make a difference.”
“And do you? Finding ‘stuff’?”
Rainsford Tsyrker was watching a Human and a Tarancort beating each other to death in a warehouse. She was standing in makeshift stands filled with a hundred people of mixed races all shouting and betting money. Bookies pushed their way through the crowds shouting the changing odds and taking money. Making two people, even willing people, fight for entertainment was illegal within the Universal Trading Network. The idea that someone had to suffer for the entertainment of others was seen as barbaric by almost everyone in the Universe. Of course, if that were strictly true then this fight would not be happening.
The Victorians had thought that boxing was a pretty gentlemanly sport and had tried to introduce it to the rest of the Universe. They had been frowned upon so deeply and from such a great height that they scrapped it quicker than the idea of an Australian petting zoo. Still, there had been those who had developed a taste for the idea and had continued it on in the Underworld. As with anything barbaric and/or violent, they turned to Earth and discovered the Romans. Things got a lot bloodier a lot quicker after that.
Tsyrker was not there to bust the fighting ring, such things were below her, though she noticed the Jobru crime boss, Dascrux, and the leader of the Albertine Suns gang, Mejweb. It was interesting that they were talking and she might make a note of it, but even that was beneath her. She, and those she worked with and for, kept tabs on only the highest levels of criminals.
They spent most of their time spying on the governments of countries, worlds and galaxies. The UTN was a grand idea, but it was one that needed balance. You couldn’t have groups outside of the Councils gaining too much power, nor could you have sudden shifts in the power balance at any level. Of course, said power balance needed help in being maintained or sometimes shifted in a way not to cause ripples and that was another job for her organisation.
The fight was over and the body of the Human was being carried out while the Tarancort limped off to celebrate his victory by writing a will. They were replaced by a Merrick and a Rontin Tiger.
“The Suns are trying to negotiate a safe trade route through Dascrux’s territory,” a male voice said from beside her. “He’ll let them and in a month or so they’ll be massacred by the Folb’s Boys.”
“This is a turn up,” Tsyrker replied.
“It is, but so was your communique.”
“I just need to know what I’m hunting for.”
“Indeed and Walters would have wanted in.”
“Couldn’t happen, Sir.”
“That’s why I’m here. Walters has been working for years to get a break at the Desards.”
“I don’t need to tell you that it’s not my break.”
“No. Interesting company you keep. First Wotham and now this, you’re making a name for yourself,” he mused.
“That’s not my intention.”
“But it is a truth.”
“What do you need?”
“You assume you will succeed.”
“The Shadow Archetype,” he said.
He did so as the Rontin Tiger finished off the last of the Merrick.
Stephen Regrette was in Azwani, sweating into his light suit. It was a nice tan number, almost matching the colour of the sands that stretched in all directions. It was made of a fancy and expensive breathable material and custom cut to hide the bulge of his gun(s).
The wind was as from a hairdryer and brought with it the smell of the ocean though there was no water for many miles. None above ground at least. The nearest body of water was the Vortru Shore where every wave was a tsunami that washed far inland, sinking quickly into the sand and travelling even further in underground. As the water evaporated from the salt flats, the wind took it and gave Azwani the ocean air that it was famous for.
Regrette sat at a little table under cloth shades in a square near the west of the small city. As the water evaporated it pulled the salt up with it, forming the aforementioned flats and leaving behind some of the purest water in the Universe. That was the other thing Azwani was famous for. The tea he was drinking was brewed using water from a well close by, the Igzuwami Well. Each had it’s own name as they were so important to survival and each, allegedly, had their own taste and health properties.
Not too far away in the Forluminan Spa was Koey V. The bug on his car hadn’t been found and Tsyrker was more than happy for Regrette to take up the chase. As long as he kept her informed. The spa used the Forluminan Well and was famous for curing troubles with the guts and to a person like Regrette that was invaluable knowledge. Not that he believed it and he didn’t think Koey would either, and that told him that Koey was prepared to try anything.
There was the age old question, which you have no doubt had to ask yourself: what is the best technique to force information out of someone?
There was money, but that became less effective the higher up you got. People like Koey would weigh up the money against how much trouble he would be in if it was discovered he’d snitched. And he already had plenty of money.
Then there was torture, but that had been proven to simply turn up information that would make the torture stop. You will always get what you want to hear from torture because either they tell you what you want to hear to stop the whole pain thing, or they don’t and you keep torturing them until they do.
The third option was to put them in a situation where it was, or at least seemed, beneficial for them to talk. Perhaps if his stomach was in pain he would talk for medicine.
Finally there was the weakened state. Get them into a situation of physical and/or mental weakness making them more susceptible to your questioning. Perhaps if his stomach was playing up, Koey would not be able to focus on the rigors of interrogation and give up information he wouldn’t otherwise. Perhaps.
It was a, literal, Universal truth that power ruled and that power generally came from money. That first part was true, if you had more power than another then they would kowtow to you. In the Underworld you accepted that; accepted your place in the hierarchy and if you wanted to move up in the ‘World then you hired someone like Regrette to make an opening. The second part wasn’t necessarily true. Money brought you the ability to buy people like himself to do your nefarious bidding. Or it bribed people to ignore your nefarious bidding. What people never seemed to realise was that it wasn’t them and their money that had the power, but the people they hired with it.
Real power came from your view of yourself. An acceptance and belief in yourself; a personal moral code; the ability to hold to your convictions rather than pander to others or worrying what others thought of you; and an appreciation that material possessions are not important. Once you became a self-contained unit not blown around by the wills and whims of others, or of things, you held true power. Perhaps, he thought, he should join the motivational speaker circuit, but then even he wasn’t that big of an arsehole.
In this way Koey was a powerbroker, a tool used by others to gain or keep their place in the Universe. Koey, however, like many criminals, thought the same as those they served. Koey believed money gave him power and more power would give him more money. He lived in a microcosm of the world his employers lived in. If Regrette could show the power he held, Koey would bow under the weight of it.
The question now was what did he want? What could Koey give him? All the time through the interrogation Koey would be weighing Regrette’s power against the Desard’s and Regrette knew he’d only get a certain amount of information out of him. It wasn’t necessarily the importance of the information that stopped people talking, but the perceived amount they had given away. Regrette would have to make sure he got what he wanted in those first few questions before Koey decided he’d said too much.
It was a lot easier just assassinating people.
“So?” Regrette asked.
“So what?” Tsyrker asked back.
“So what do you want to get out of this? He’s only going to talk long enough to feel he can barter.”
“You know I’m not going to tell you.”
“You’re a hard lady to please.”
“What do you want out of this?” she asked him.
“Hewy Desard and no, you can’t ask why.”
She thought about it.
“For now? That’s good enough for me.”
“Ooh,” Regrette grinned, “you’re going bigger.”
“You know Grant will push as far as he can.”
“This isn’t about Grant anymore,” Regrette said.
She smiled at that.
“You know what. If Grant’s involved then this is all about him.”
Regrette sneered briefly, but she was right. They wouldn’t even be sitting here if it wasn’t for him and you were better to follow his lead than carve your own path. Let alone try and go up against him.
“Mssh, alright, alright, but I’m gonna get what I want.”
“As am I,” Tsyrker nodded, still with a smile. “Now. Plan?”
Regrette had broken into the spa the night Koey had been there and found that he was booked in for another appointment. He’d once met a woman who swore by them and she had said you had to do three over a seven day period so he knew Koey would be back. He also knew the process. At the time he hadn’t wanted to, but as with all information, it came in handy eventually. It meant that Regrette knew that there were two parts to the process. Without going into all the colonically distressing details, there was a filling and an emptying.
It was between these two processes that Koey found himself once again face-to-face with Regrette. Turned out that Koey didn’t treat people too well and the staff at the spa were only too happy to let him interrupt for some questioning.
“Hello,” Regrette called cheerily
Koey looked up from where he was seated on a large chair that almost enveloped him in cushion around the stomach, waist and thighs. Next to him a large machine with a thick tube whirred and chugged. Not only was he trapped in the chair, you don’t need me to tell you where that tube went, but the process would only get more and more uncomfortable the longer it was before someone pushed the button marked ‘flush’.
Koey didn’t say anything, he didn’t need to. He knew what was happening, he’d done similar to others. The thing now was to get it over and done with. Preferably while still being alive and without giving too much away.
“I take your silence to mean you understand the present situation,” Regrette said.
“Just get on with it,” Koey said a little crossly.
“Now hold on there, Koey, you know we’ve got to set some groundwork. I want you to know I’m serious.”
“You’re seriously an idiot if you think you’re getting away with this.”
“Come now, Koey, things are only going to get more uncomfortable for you the longer you don’t play nicely.”
“Then get on with it. This isn’t about Gothra, so what is it?”
It was getting uncomfortable, but at this point that was part of the normal process. He still had time before the next part of the process, but once that time ticked by (and he didn’t think the nurse was coming back until this man left) things were going to get nasty.
Koey laughed despite his discomfort.
“You are an idiot.”
“But a very serious one, Koey. I could spend a lot of time convincing you of this, but time is against you and this isn’t personal, but business. So the question is not how serious I am, but how bad I am.”
Koey narrowed his eyes. Who was this guy? It was a serious question. The Desards were serious people and he would be in serious trouble if he discussed them. But. If this guy was serious then he would be in trouble not telling him what he wanted. Things, according to this paragraph, were serious.
“I know what you’re thinking Koey, I’ve seen that look a lot. You’re wondering if I’m serious or if I’m dead serious,” Regrette moved his coat to show his pistol.
Koey flicked his eyes down to it and understood. Not that he had a gun, but what kind of gun he had. An expensive gun; a working gun; a serious gun. The kind of serious that you italicise. And of course he was telling him that he was willing to kill. He tried to shift a little in his seat, his bowels were beginning to get painful. He shook his head.
“If I thought you could? Yeah, maybe, but I don’t think you can. I think you’ll try and botch it and really serious people will come looking for me.”
Regrette walked behind Koey and looked at the whirring machine. He knew they had now passed the time that Koey was used to. The discomfort and perhaps pain would start to fog his brain. Whatever he wanted to say, his brain would override and make sure he did what he could to relieve the discomfort.
“I don’t botch the things I set my mind to,” Regrette said.
“Come on, man,” Koey said with an edge to his voice.
Regrette walked back around.
“Tell me what I want to know and you walk out of here.”
“I can’t. You’re talking about a world you don’t know. I don’t know.”
“You still don’t think I’m serious enough?”
“For this? I know you ain’t.”
His bowels now wanted to evacuate themselves, but they couldn’t. That is a feeling that words cannot, and should not, describe.
Regrette walked to the door and Koey’s spirit fought between hope and despair, but it wasn’t a nurse who walked through.
“Oh, come on,” he groaned.
Regrette closed the door behind the Typan dressed in light urban armour and a helmet with a silver visor that hid their face.
“You’re a Typan?”
“Nope,” Regrette grinned. “I’m the type of guy who can bring one here just to prove to you I’m serious.”
To be fair, his guts were reaching a point where he would tell this guy something just to get the nurse back in, but a Typan? Maybe this guy was serious.
“Not enough,” he said as he tried to shift his position.
The Typan reached for it’s helmet.
“No, don’t,” Koey cried.
No one saw a Typan’s face and lived.
“Seriously. You can’t just walk into the world that Hewy moves in. You’d never get close.”
“So how do I?” Regrette asked.
“Gothra. She’s your weak link. You might be able to get to Maggie through her. We were doing a deal, Maggie’s taking over Gothra’s operations.”
“I don’t want Maggie.”
“Right, right, I know,” he said with the desperation of a man in the netherworld of discomfort. Not just his guts now, but his muscles. “But take down Maggie and Hewy will come to you. You don’t mess with the family.”
“Very good,” Regrette smiled.
“They’ll all come for you.”
“What’s the deal?”
“You want Maggie? You’ll need to cripple operations. Four main places,” he wheezed. He couldn’t think, his brain was just filled with the need for release. “Kagar, Polince, Randaritchia and Wiloth should do it.”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” Regrette asked.
“You found me twice. Come on, man.”
The Typan walked over and squeezed a tube.
“I am, I am,” Koey screamed.
The Typan let go of the tube and pressed the ‘flush’ button.
Koey’s sigh of relief could be heard on the other side of the city.
Grant found himself in the van at Gulch’s computer. It wasn’t actually Gulch’s computer, but that was how they both thought of it. Grant knew his way around a computer and the Universal Trading Web, but not like Gulch.
Gulch had insisted that he should go with them to Dwituf Minor; that it was his job and Grant had pointed out that this wasn’t a job and he wasn’t getting paid for it. That wasn’t, Gulch had pointed out, how it worked. He hadn’t joined Grant for a job, but for the ideal that Grant held. Grant had laughed that off and had quoted Gulch about ‘the find of the century’. Gulch couldn’t argue on that one and Grant knew that he wanted to stay and look into it more. It was just a little reconnaissance, Grant had assured. No big deal. Plus, Gulch wouldn’t be able to focus. That had hurt him a little, he took pride in his work, but Grant could see that he knew it was true. Archaeology, history and science were much more Gulch’s bag than running around after bad guys. It was, he’d often say, the real way they’d change the Universe for the better.
So now Grant was watching a screen that was showing the picture from a tiny camera Kaskey had hidden on his person. They rarely used cameras in this way, but Grant had insisted as he got bored quickly being stuck in the van. He didn’t know how Gulch did it. What did he look at all day? Was he happy when he was in here? He’d never thought to ask.
On another screen he had information on the Quillitt Gang, the largest in the city of Pelluu and not, as far as he could see, affiliated with Gothra.
“So, so, so, so, so,” the Byfrok said sitting opposite Kaskey in a dingy bar. “I like you.”
“You just met me.”
“You’re going through the channels, I like that. My boss likes that.”
“I’m here to make money, not step on toes.”
“Very wise,” the Byfrok nodded tapping both sets of pincers on the table.
“It’s an Albertine trait,” Kaskey shrugged. “And I’m wise enough to know Quillitt isn’t the biggest fish in the city.”
“Not so wise to cast such aspersions,” the Byfrok tutted.
“I told you I don’t want to step on toes.”
“You just worry about The Gang.”
“So what’s the deal?”
“Dsetreen Quarter. Ten percent comes to us, but it doesn’t buy you protection from the Police if you get caught.”
“Not a great deal,” Kaskey frowned.
“Better than the alternative. You rip us off or bring the Gang into disrepute, well, you better not come back.”
Kaskey nodded and the Byfrok got up, dropped down onto four legs and left.
Kaskey watched the Byfrok go. He loved the way they could bend their bodies to use those lower limbs as either arms or legs. The extra set of arms meant they could fly complicated ships solo and were highly sought after by the UTN Navy as fighter pilots as well as those in the Underworld. He finished his drink and also left. Grant had told him that there was no known association between the gang and Gothra and if he wasn’t supposed to worry about her then it meant that she didn’t have any operations running in the city. He supposed that was wise, but it was also wise to have protection in your city.
He’d been in Ghrotal when Kaliff Foley was assassinated. She paid the local gang to act as eyes and ears throughout the city in case anyone came to assassinate her. Hard to gather information when everyone you could ask was working for the person you were trying to kill. The Assassin had quietly and methodically cut a swathe through the gang before reaching the building where she lived and worked. If Gothra was smart, and he assumed she was, then she would have a similar set up to clock people like himself who were sniffing around. But if it wasn’t the Quillitt Gang, then who was it?
He got into the van and headed for the Dsetreen Quarter.
“You wanna talk to the cops?” Kaskey asked.
“No. Either they won’t know who Gothra is or they’ll be in her pocket.”
“She’s got to have some protection.”
“Right,” Grant said, “but I don’t think it’ll be police. It’s hard to get a whole force on your side. Easier with a gang.”
“According to the data Quillett’s is the only real gang in the city.”
“But Gothra’s Universal, much bigger than people like Quillett.”
“Are you telling me there’s a secret gang here?” Kaskey asked.
“Maybe. We should keep our wits about us.”
Kaskey pulled up in the Dsetreen Quarter and found a place to park.
“Slop?” Grant asked.
“Mostly diners and not high end. Hard graft for little payout.”
“What does that mean? To you as a hustler?”
“Two things. Either they’re gunning for you or they’re just messing with you. Sometimes they want to deter hustlers, but you went through official channels so they gotta give you something.”
“They gunning for you?” Grant asked seriously.
“Can’t see why they would be.”
“I’m remembering the whole Wotham shebang.”
“I’ve grown and learnt,” Kaskey said solemnly and Grant smiled to himself.
“I’m going to come with you.”
“It could be dangerous.”
“It’ll be OK.”
“What?” Grant asked a little crossly. “It’s me, isn’t it?”
“Nah, come on, man.”
“So I’ll come.”
“It’s just…” Kaskey trailed.
“Spit it out, Kas.”
“Ahh, man. You’ll cramp my style.”
Grant sat back and stared at the map on the computer screen.
“It’s nothing personal,” Kaskey said turning in his seat. “Just the way I work.”
“You think I’m old.”
“You are old.”
“Young enough to kick your arse.”
Kaskey laughed and turned back to face forwards.
“If you say so.”
“I know you’re smiling.”
“I can see you in the mirror.”
Kaskey stopped smiling and moved the mirror.
“I’m next to useless staying behind this computer.”
“If there’s other protection out there, they might have flagged us at the Port.”
“Right and I’m not going to spot them in here. If this is a set up they’ll be onto you as soon as you ask questions.”
“So I‘ll be subtle.”
“You might not know who’s watching.”
“Alright, so stay close, man. Stay close.”
Kaskey got out of the van and walked to a bar. The whole of this street was bars of different kinds and the street was busy with people turning up for dinner and drinks. It was that nice part of the evening before people were drunk. Maybe just a little buzzed and having fun. Nice, middle class people would leave the area before that buzzing became slobbering drunkenness. He chose a bar and entered.
Grant got out a few minutes later and wandered down the street. This wasn’t where he wanted to be, this wasn’t where he thought he could get the information they would need. And that was why he had hired Kaskey. He could get information in places like this, but as he had said, that might attract attention and so Grant couldn’t leave.
From his past life it was impossible not to spot all the criminals on the streets. Most looked small time, the odd pickpocket and thief; pimps and girls, but then there were the guys and gals that were obviously gang members. They had that look that said ‘we’re in a gang and we’re the bestest and toughest around’. If this was an area that they allowed others to work in then they were either there to keep an eye on them or looking to recruit anyone half decent. He’d heard of such things before, but this was all too low-level for InterG and he’d never dealt with them.
He went into one of the nicer looking establishments and sat at the bar. It was mainly couples eating, but also small groups of friends drinking and laughing quietly, the odd family. It was respectable, but in a Quarter where new people weren’t uncommon. The kind of place an assassin or hitman might start out and therefore the type of place security might be watching.
It was another thirty minutes later when a woman walked into the bar who looked a little out of place. Grant doubted anyone in the restaurant would notice it. If they could pick out the gang members perhaps they would lump her in with them, but she wasn’t. Grant could read her stance, her walk; the set of her expression. She walked up to the bar and ordered a Vant’s Soda (it’s got the pop so you won’t stop!). Grant immediately shifted his position as she took up the same stance. The casually-sitting-but-actually-positioned-to-take-in-the-room position. She would have recognised it in Grant if he hadn’t moved.
You had to wonder what she did for the rest of her time. People coming looking for Gothra couldn’t be that regular and she wasn’t running the crime in the city. Maybe this woman was a local butcher or something, who had to drop her work to check stuff out. Like a volunteer fireman. Most likely, like the Archaeologists, Gothra’s staff were also trained in protection. Though Rain would disagree, he didn’t like to kill someone that had just signed up as an accountant and had to do some henchmanning on the side. He frowned and then wiped it away. That would attract her attention.
“I think my style could use some cramping,” Kaskey said over the radio. “Affrick’s.”
Grant casually finished his drink and got up to leave. He knew she’d be watching him, it couldn’t be coincidence that she’d rocked up now.
“Get to the van,” Grant said once he was back on the street.
“Don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
Grant crossed the road in a stride, trying to look calm and trying not to look behind him. If Kas had trouble with Quillitt’s then that didn’t mean anything more, but he didn’t want to risk getting on the radar.
He reached Affrick’s and walked inside to find Kaskey making smiley faces and flapping his hands at three men. Grant thought of the woman and changed his stance and pace up. He pushed one of the men out of the way.
“This better be worth it,” he said crossly.
“Who are you?” a Human asked.
“Who am I? Who are you? What’s the deal? I tell you if this is shabbus I’ll be pissed.”
“Asking a lot of questions,” a Tarancort said.
“So?” Grant asked testily.
“So he’s supposed to be here hustling. The Boss liked him, thought he might have talent so we was watching him.”
“How absolutely fascinating, are you planning to waste my whole evening?”
“What more do you want? He’s not here to score, he’s nosing around your lot.”
“Alright, alright, valkswagon, Just bring him to my van.”
“This is shabbus,” Kaskey declared. “I ain’t done nothing, man.”
“If he’s going to cause a scene, shut him down,” Grant ordered.
Suffice to say Kaskey shut up and let himself be led out to the van.
Grant grabbed Kaskey by the arm.
“You gonna be a problem?” he threatened.
“Nah, man, I’m just here to have a little fun.”
“Well, you be good and maybe you’ll get your wish.”
“I don’t want any trouble, man,” Kaskey whined.
Grant opened the passenger door.
“You want help?” the Human asked.
Grant looked him up and down.
“I think I’ll cope.”
He shoved Kaskey in and ran around to the driver’s side, got in and hit the gas just as the woman came running down the street screaming at the gangers to stop them.
“What happened?” Grant asked as they sped through the city.
“Turns out I still have more learning and growing.”
“So I tried asking around. Nice and easy, like, but I guess I was too eager. Too many questions not enough hustling.”
“You’ve learnt and grown enough to understand your mistakes.”
“You’re not mad?”
“This is a strictly learn on the job deal, Kas.”
“I can’t imagine you as a fumbling new recruit,” Kaskey smiled.
“According to you it’s lost in the mists of time.”
“I’d ask you about it, but you don’t talk about the past do you?”
“I try to look forward, Kas. I fought a war and patrolled the Universe to make a better tomorrow. I try to keep my eyes on that rather than looking back.”
“Well that was fast,” Grant said.
They were sitting in the van just down the road from the space port’s main entrance.
“We’ve got to get your eye in, Kas. Same as sizing up marks.”
Kaskey nodded in understanding.
“Let me try.”
What was he looking for? He now, unfortunately, knew what the gang members looked like. The three thugs he had encountered all dressed similarly. He guessed that it was a badge of honour, but he couldn’t see anyone dressed like that. As a hustler he knew that you didn’t commit crime successfully by being obvious so he reckoned anyone more than a thug wouldn’t be obvious by their dress.
It would be in their manner.
If they were out to stop them entering then they would be walking and looking with purpose, but he couldn’t see anyone like that.
As a hustler you took the average of a room. Clocked everyone and from there worked out the strongest and weakest, those above and below the average. He did that now, clocking the people walking in and out of the port.
“The woman in the yellow trench coat,” he said.
“Very good,” Grant replied. “Gothra’s security. People like them can’t help but exude a feeling of danger in the same way people clock me as police.”
“They also ain’t going anywhere,” Kaskey noted.
“Right, but with intent.”
“They’re chilling with intent?” Kaskey asked.
“Look at all the others, just milling around waiting for people or for the next shuttle to leave. The woman in the yellow coat isn’t milling. Neither is that Merrick man in the blue shirt.”
“You see people milling I see stories,” Kaskey said.
“And that’s why I hired you. I miss all that, the level I’ve always worked at? You let the crowd fade and focus on those that are different. Something more.”
“You know that’s sad, right?”
Grant stared out the window for a couple of beats.
“Yup. Though at least I haven’t spent the last few minutes clocking who’s best to scam.”
Kaskey looked over at him and Grant smiled out the window.
“OK, man. Touché.”
“We need a diversion,” Grant changed the topic.
“You know who I have clocked?” Kaskey asked.
“Let’s move on, shall we?”
“This guy sneaking up to your window,” Kaskey said with a little satisfaction.
“Shabbus,” Grant swore and sparked the engine to life.
The man started to run as Grant smashed the gas and yanked the wheel into a U turn. He knocked the guy flying, but those at the space port saw it and were shouting into radios.
“Shabbus, shabbus, shabbus,” Grant swore, angry with himself.
“I’m sorry, man.”
He skidded around a corner and accelerated along a long wide road.
“Now how the shabbus are we going to get off world?” Grant asked.
“Well what do you normally do?”
“We don’t normally do this.”
“Right, right, you just find stuff.”
“I don’t say it for fun,” Grant snapped. “Oh, well, great.”
Two cars were screaming up behind them.
“There should be some guns in the back,” Grant said.
Kaskey fell into the back as Grant swerved around cars and Kaskey briefly wondered if Grant had done it deliberately.
“Where?” he shouted.
“Under the seat, hit it.”
Kaskey hit under the chair and a secret compartment popped open. He grabbed the two pistols that were in there and scrambled back into the front.
The two cars were catching up with them.
“Shoot the tires or the driver,” Grant commanded.
“I’m not much of a murderer,” Kaskey shot back.
“They are,” Grant pointed out. “Just shoot the tires.”
“Tires? I don’t shoot guns, I’ll be lucky to hit the car.”
“Remind me why I hired you again?”
“To offset your crotchety old man personality?”
Grant took a quick look over at him.
“Alright. Yeah. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologise, just work your magic, man.”
“We’re going to have to lay low and get support in,” Grant said.
The first car had caught up and Grant twisted the wheel to bash it. It skidded away and Grant accelerated again. The other car came up the other side and tried shooting at them, but Grant managed to slalom around another car and a truck. The first car began to catch up again. Grant dodged out from in front of the truck and slammed one of the cars and then yanked the wheel to hit the other car. It braked to avoid the collision and the van pulled away again.
Grant was considering turning off the road, though he didn’t know the city, so didn’t know whether he’d be turning into somewhere better or worse. Just as he thought valkswagon to it (good job Gulch wasn’t here) another van came speeding up behind the cars and slammed one into the buildings on the left as someone shot the driver of the other. It accelerated ahead of the van and Grant involuntarily slowed as he watched it. It pulled ahead of them and flashed both its indicators before signalling left.
Grant looked at Kaskey who just shrugged and Grant followed the car around a corner. They slowed their pace and took enough turns for Grant to be well and truly lost before pulling into a yard and then slowing as a garage door opened and they drove inside.
“Give me one of those guns,” Grant said.
“Take both, man.”
“Just be ready,” Grant said as he opened the door and slid out, sliding the guns into his waistband as he did so.
The garage contained three men and two women, but only one of them was armed, with a machinegun. Two men stepped out of the van and walked over to Grant and Kaskey, who was now standing next to Grant.
“Detective Grant,” the Human man said.
“You’ve got me confused with someone else.”
“Then I’ve risked all our lives to bring you here.”
“Alright, I used to be a detective, not anymore.”
“We just find stuff,” Kaskey said.
“My subordinate colleague here is right.”
“Well that is beneficial to us,” the man said. “I am Drey.”
“Good for you.”
“Your appearance certainly is,” Drey nodded.
“People enjoy your cryptic nature?” Grant asked.
“So how do you know him?” Kaskey asked.
“Would you prefer to retire to somewhere more comfortable?” Drey asked.
“Cryptic comfortable or actual comfortable?” Grant asked.
“Sofas,” Drey replied.
“Lead on,” Kaskey grinned.
They walked through a door at the back of the garage and through to a more comfortable room.
“So?” Grant asked as soon as they were comfortable.
“You’ve done some work for us,” Drey said. “Not that you knew.”
“Back to the cryptic clues,” Kaskey told Grant.
“Should I just shoot him?” Grant asked him.
“Nah, man, give him the chance to give a straight answer first.”
“We are the Cadre of Camilleron,” Drey said. “We thought the alliteration sounded better.”
Grant pulled his gun.
“Whoa there,” Kaskey held a hand up, “I’ve heard of them.”
“Camilleron is the mining planet, isn’t it?” Grant asked.
“It is, it is,” Drey said gamely. “It was taken from us.”
“The planet?” Kaskey asked with surprise.
“No, the rights to mine,” Drey told him.
“Oh. Right. I’d always heard you were terrorists, but that makes sense.”
“Gothra,” Grant said and Drey nodded.
“We have finally traced it back to her.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long, six to eight months. Just long enough to get set up.”
“Can we go back to how you know Grant here?” Kaskey asked.
“This has been a long fight for us, there were times that other’s work has helped us. We were, for example, the anonymous lead on the Falijj case.”
Grant stared at him for a moment before nodding.
“And that helped you out,” he said.
It was Drey’s turn to nod.
“It helped rid us of Ponifex which drew us closer to another lead.”
“We said we find stuff and you said that was beneficial. Why?”
“May I ask what you are doing here in Pelluu? Having saved your lives…”
“We’re also looking to take Gothra down,” Kaskey said.
“Let’s be a little less eager with our information, huh?” Grant told him.
“Right. Sorry. They seem nice, is all.”
“Perhaps we could help each other?” Drey suggested.
“Again, you said about us finding stuff?” Grant said.
“There has been something of a takeover, I’m sure you know. We don’t know who, but we have had word that one of Gothra’s lieutenants is going to defect.”
“Defect?” Kaskey asked.
“Yes. To a rival gang. Our information says the Shen Mi, but we can’t be sure. Do they even exist?”
“They do,” Grant assured him, though knowing the Shen Mi existed wasn’t very assuring. “Now I think it would be better if you started at the beginning and then I need to contact some friends.”
Camilleron had rich supplies of a mineral, Zanxite, which is used in the production of fuel. Those that lived there had formed their own company (as was the case with a number of worlds that found resources before the mining companies) with a government structure that was more like a business, in which all the inhabitants had shares. It worked well because those in government could become wealthy, but only if they kept the voters happy. Still you couldn’t become mining-company-CEO-wealthy and so the then government of Camilleron had done a dirty deal with Gothra.
The then government had already been greedy and they knew that they wouldn’t be re-elected due to their skimming of profits and funnelling of money to the rich rather than to the people. They therefore sold some of the selling rights to Gothra for a large sum of money before escaping the galaxy. The next election was rigged by Gothra and she began taking control of the whole process (and the money) through her puppet government.
From there things became worse for the people and they couldn’t vote out the government due to Gothra’s rigging. She took full control over the selling of the mineral and conditions for the people deteriorated rapidly. They were forced to keep working or starve to death and saw little of the profits.
The Cadre was formed to find out who exactly was behind it all, escaping off-world to find those that had originally sold the rights. This was years ago and now they had finally gotten to the root of it and their biggest challenge yet.
“So what’re you gonna do when you get Gothra?” Kaskey asked.
“She has the deed to the mining, we’ll take it and show it was wrongly gained,” Drey explained.
“No way, man, she wouldn’t keep that kind of stuff.”
“Kas is right, she wouldn’t keep something that could incriminate her.”
“Originally we tried the legal route,” Drey told them. “We actually met with a Yithim, supposedly her second in command. Obviously it did not work out for us, but before we left, when there was no one to hear, Yithim laughed in our faces and told us that when there wasn’t enough left to sell he would sell the deed back to us. One last way of taking our money and spitting in our faces.”
He looked at the floor as he shook his head sadly.
“But you haven’t found a way to get to Gothra,” Grant said.
“No. We are hoping this new news of the defector could help us. He is high up enough to have been to her building. The second highest here in the city.”
Grant thought about it. Kaskey let a little smile play on his lips, he hadn’t known Grant long, but long enough to know that he was a sucker for this kind of thing.
But suckers got played.
Suddenly Kaskey was holding Drey up by the neck so his feet dangled in the air.
“How do we know you’re not playing us?” he shouted. “Huh? You work for Gothra? Trying to trick us? You using us little man?”
“No, no,” Drey sobbed and squeaked as those around him shouted variations on ‘let him go’ and ‘what are you doing?’.
“How d’we know you’re straight with us?”
“Please,” Drey sobbed.
“Enough,” Grant commanded and Kaskey let him go just as someone had found a gun.
“I’m sorry, man, I had to check,” Kaskey said and held a hand out to Drey.
Drey cringed back.
“C’mon, man,” he waved his hand and Drey gingerly took it.
“You see the type of people we are?” Grant asked Drey. Asked the room. “Hard people, serious people. Are you serious about this?”
“We are,” a woman called out.
Grant looked at Drey (still holding Kaskey’s hand), who nodded.
“We have spent much time and blood on this,” Drey croaked.
“Alright then,” Grant said. “We’ll get your deed back for you.”
“Bet Gulch is loving this,” Regrette said looking around.
“You know he is,” Grant smiled.
“What’ve you got?” Rainsford asked.
“Asward Koleermeer, we hear he’s looking to defect from Gothra to the Shen Mi.”
“Very. Come and let’s talk,” Grant said and led them to a large tent.
He had been in contact with Regrette and Tsyrker as well as Gulch. Gulch and Hendricks had flown to Pelluu where Gulch had taken the Lark. Drey had snuck Grant and Kaskey out of the city at night and to a dark zone where Gulch had met them. Grant and Kaskey had been tense and ready for a battle, but there had been no one at the dark zone. Or at least no one that looked like one of Gothra’s. So he was kind of hoping no one had traced them back to the Dead Planet.
They entered the tent and took seats around a large camp table. Grant introduced them to Rorckshift and Hendricks, the former leaving after meeting the people who were sullying his dig site.
“He’s not best pleased at having his site usurped,” Hendricks said. “Though he’s too intrigued to kick you out.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t follow him out,” Regrette said to Gulch.
“I would love to,” Gulch replied.
“Really? Found something good?” Rainsford asked.
“No,” Gulch said quickly.
“Nothing,” Grant said.
“Uh-huh, nope,” Kaskey chimed in.
She looked for one to the other. The problem with being in a group of people that specialises in reading others was that it was really hard to keep a secret.
“What’s going on here?” she asked.
“Gothra,” Gulch almost shouted.
“Oh, no. Tell me,” Tsyrker said.
“It’s not personal,” Kaskey said feeling bad for her.
“Shut up,” Gulch hissed.
“How many tentacles can you lose and still use a computer?” Tsyrker asked.
“You wouldn’t,” Gulch decried.
“Just tell me. This isn’t cool.”
Grant sighed. It wasn’t cool, she was their friend, but being in such a group had its downsides as well as up.
“Kas is right, it’s not you.”
“But the people she works with,” Regrette said with glee. “Ooh, you have found something exciting. As far as ancient junk can be considered.”
“I’m sorry, Rainsford,” Gulch said with a deep frown.
“We’ve discovered remains that could be related to the Ten Kingdoms.”
She stared at him, drinking in his expression, every little move and tic of his face and hands, reading the truth or lie that stood there.
“That’s massive,” she said slowly.
“And secret,” Grant said.
“I have to tell them.”
“That’s why we didn’t want you to know,” Gulch said sullenly.
“I’m sorry, Gulch, but I have a job. The best interests of the Universe to think of,” she said and Regrette snickered at the idea.
“Well why couldn’t you just keep your nose out of it?” Gulch exploded. “We said we hadn’t found anything, didn’t we?”
He collapsed back in his chair and they all looked at him with shock.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s not first on my agenda, the Desards are. When the time does come I’ll talk to Rorckshift myself before talking to anyone else.”
“Others will come though. If word gets out.”
“We’re aware of that,” Gulch said.
“Anyway,” Kaskey said.
“Yes,” Grant agreed, “back to business.”
“This Koleermeer?” Regrette said. “He could be a real help.”
He went on to explain all that had happened with Koey V and what they had found out.
“Four targets,” Grant said.
“What are they?” Kaskey asked.
“Don’t know,” Regrette shrugged.
“You don’t know?” Kaskey asked.
“We know what they are. Obviously. We just don’t know what more they are.”
“Rain?” Grant asked, but she shook her head.
“I’m not using my contacts. Unless you want my colleagues on the case.”
“No,” Grant agreed. “So this Koleermeer is our best source of information.”
“You referred to him as a lieutenant,” Gulch said.
“That’s what Drey called him,” Kaskey replied.
“But how much power does he have?” Gulch asked.
“From what Drey told us, he oversees a galaxy,” Grant said.
“If she keeps things compartmentalised he may not know as much as we need.”
“But he knows Gothra’s HQ, Drey seemed sure of that,” Kaskey said.
“We’re better avoiding that if we can,” Tsyrker said.
“No. We still hit Gothra,” Grant said and told them about the mining deed.
Both Tsyrker and Regrette shook their heads.
“You don’t risk the mission for a side quest,” she said.
“Like saving the rest of those slaves on Haffir?” Grant asked.
“That’s different. We were already there doing it. You’re talking about hitting a fortified building in a guarded city for no gain other than to help some others out.”
“And from what you’ve said,” Regrette continued, “they’re doing a decent job by themselves.”
“It’s taken them years to get to this point, it’s taken us days,” Grant said.
“Gothra goes,” Kaskey said firmly.
“Oh yeah, boy?” Regrette raised an eyebrow.
“Why?” Regrette challenged.
“Because. Because that’s what we do.”
Regrette stared deeply at him, but Tsyrker laughed.
“He’s learning,” she said.
“Faster than I thought,” Regrette smiled.
“Not just because,” Grant said. “Even if this Koleermeer gives us all we need on these locations, taking down Gothra shows we’re serious. Serious brings out Maggie Desard.”
“And all her army,” Tsyrker said.
“She’ll always come with an army,” Gulch said.
Tsyrker shrugged in agreement.
“So what do you know?” Hendricks asked.
“Kagar, Polince, Randaritchia and Wiloth,” Regrette said again.
“Well Wiloth is a major port,” Hendricks said.
“Let’s stick to Koleermeer,” Grant said. “What do we know about his whereabouts?”
“That I can look into,” Tsyrker said.
“Good. Get on it,” Grant said and she left the tent.
“What’re you thinking?” Regrette asked. “Kidnapping?”
“I doubt the Shen Mi would want him talking to us, so yes. Grab him and promise to deliver him to the Shen Mi. If he’s willing to talk to them why shouldn’t he talk to us?”
“You can’t give him to the Shen Mi, they’re not after Gothra, but the Desards,” Regrette pointed out.
“Good point, we’ll make him disappear.”
“Whoa, man, hold on…” Kaskey interrupted.
“Not like that. Actually disappear.”
“Oh. OK, cool,” Kaskey relaxed again.
Tsyrker called for Gulch to join her on the computers and Grant decided to take Kaskey away from the ruins and give him some shooting practice. Hendricks and Regrette walked through the ruins.
“So you flew with Grant, huh?”
“I did, I did. Long time ago now,” Hendricks lit his pipe.
“Must have been weird. Fighting against your own kind.”
“My kind, Stephen, are good people everywhere. Not warmongers.”
“They do get everywhere, don’t they?”
“I don’t think you mean that. Isn’t it why you do your job?”
“You don’t know me, Doc, don’t think that you do.”
“I’ve met enough Hitmen and Assassins in my time to spot one, Stephen. The fact that you are friends with Grant tells me you’re the latter.”
“Most of the time,” Regrette shrugged. “So. Ten Kingdoms.”
“Yes. Very exciting.”
“The Shores of Dawn and all that,” Regrette said. “Lot of crazy, bad people looking for that sort of thing.”
“You doubt it exists?” Hendricks asked.
“I didn’t think the Ten Kingdoms existed ‘til you found a relic from them.”
“I have to admit, neither did I.”
“What about the people who might come for it? You believe in them?”
“The so-called Shadow Archetype? Yes, I do actually.”
It was Regrette’s turn to laugh.
“You smart people. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of this Universe and I haven’t seen any evidence there’s one group controlling everything.”
“Trying to control,” Hendricks corrected.
“Don’t you think they’d be in the Great Council by now?”
“I do not think it interests them. The Halls of Power can slow progress, dear boy.”
Regrette thought about the Desards. The Doc was right, the great criminals didn’t get involved in politics, they controlled from outside. Politicians, like anyone else, were just pawns in their games. People like Hewy Desard thought they could do anything they wanted and the fact was they were right. Politicians could be bought just as much as anyone else, but they were all used, abused and tossed away when they were no longer of use. And sometimes, they met people who couldn’t be bought, wouldn’t be used, and they used them anyway. Forced to do what others wanted; not necessarily even for any gain, but simply because these people expected to get whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it.
People like Hewy just never thought they had to pay, but they were wrong. Everyone has to pay eventually.
“Huh?” he asked.
“I said,” Hendricks started. “Oh never mind, I lost you there for a second didn’t I?”
“Nevermind, nevermind. You had something weightier on your mind than my prattling.”
They reached the dig site.
“These people. According to the stories, Lord Naylor’s people escaped a great war to try and find the Shores of Dawn. Find answers and maybe a way to save their Kingdom. This is what they got instead. Is that it? Is this what we all get in the end?”
“Everything ends, Stephen, we can only hope we get to choose how it does.”
Regrette nodded to himself.
“Mssh, if you say so, Doc.”
“OK,” Tsyrker said. “Not only have we found him, but we’ve caught a lucky break. Seems our man Koleermeer has a meeting on Earth. That’s territory we know and, by nixing aliens, keeps down the amount of goons he might have with him.”
“And the bad news?” Grant asked.
“We think he’s meeting with the Shen Mi,” Gulch said.
“Wonderful,” Regrette ironicalised.
“Asia,” Grant said and Tsyrker nodded.
The Shen Mi were an Asian gang (at least to start with) and the Humans were still almost entirely Asian as was the leadership. As far as anyone knew, the current leader was Lou Fu. He had been more active in the social scene in his younger years, showing himself as a mere businessman, but he hadn’t been seen in public for years now. Perhaps due to increased interest from people such as Tsyrker. What it meant for Grant and his team was that the Shen Mi could blend into Earth’s Asian countries and hold a much stronger presence there than anyone else. It also cut down Kaskey’s usefulness
“I guess I’ll just go home then,” he said.
“Oh no you don’t,” Grant said. “There’s a spa in Phra Padaeng, I can’t think of anywhere else our man will stay.”
“Earthen spa, you say? You’re right, man, these missions can be fun,” Kaskey grinned all round.
“And the food, boy. Oh the food,” Regrette said.
“It’s all originally Chinese,” Tsyrker said with wounded pride.
“And improved upon no end,” Regrette said boldly and dropped a wink at Kaskey.
“Rainsford will obviously be going under cover,” Grant continued. “Gulch will work computers from the spa while Kaskey gathers information on Koleermeer’s posse and possible kidnap opportunities. I’ll be out on the streets and hopefully Regrette will do what he’s told.”
“Doubtful,” Regrette said.
“What do we know about this guy, then?” Kaskey asked.
Gulch shook his head.
“Doesn’t work like that,” he said. “They all like to imbibe their information in different ways. I’ve found it a lot easier to just compile dossiers and hand them out. Plus dossiers on cover identities.”
“It was a good question though, Kas. Know your enemy,” Grant said. “Anything else anyone needs to know at this point?”
Kaskey thought about it, he knew this question was really directed at him and he accepted that.
“Yeah. While we’re together, the Shen Mi. I’ve heard of them, but, y’know, always someone works for someone who works for them or something.”
“They’re ingrained in the Universe,” Tsyrker said. “You’re absolutely right when you say someone works for someone who works for the Shen Mi…”
“More likely someone works for someone who works for someone who works for someone who…” Regrette interrupted.
“Point is,” Tsyrker continued after a quick glare at Regrette, “is that’s how they work.”
“It’s possible, if not probable,” Gulch said, “that even in your line of work you’ve met a member of the Shen Mi and never known it.”
“Everyone who meets an Asian in space thinks they must be Shen Mi and that actually works for them. Keeps the fear high, the idea that they’re everywhere,” Regrette said.
“They are everywhere,” Tsyrker rebutted.
“You’re not one though. Right?” Kaskey asked.
She just raised an eyebrow at him.
“Hey, Grant keeps ‘interesting’ friends,” he nodded over to Regrette and Rainsford laughed.
“I’ve been called worse,” Regrette shrugged.
“Mostly by Rainsford,” Gulch said with a smile.
“Oh yeah,” Grant laughed. “Remember after Torneslii?”
“We’re still not allowed back in that bar,” Gulch nodded.
“And they had great seafood,” Grant bemoaned.
“He could have ruined everything,” she decried.
“You were taking too long,” Regrette said.
“We were patient.”
“You were procrastinating. You still can’t admit you didn’t know what to do.”
“We had to consider all possible ramifications,” she argued.
“It was a good shot though,” Regrette said.
“It was alright,” she agreed, not being able to help a smile.
“Plus she gave me the nod,” Regrette told Kaskey.
“I didn’t,” she exclaimed.
“I didn’t,” she told Kaskey. “If I’d wanted the shot taken I’d have taken it myself.”
“Mssh, as if you could.”
“Gulch could have made that shot.”
“Oh, well thank you very much,” Gulch indignified.
“Mssh, prove it,” Regrette said.
“I will not,” Gulch cried.
“Alright, come on,” Tsyrker stood.
“Is this the time?” Grant asked, but knew he shouldn’t bother.
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
“After you,” Regrette said and showed her the door.
“We’re make it realistic and use your head as the target,” she said as she walked out of the room.
Grant just looked at Gulch and shook his head.
“I’ll tell you about the Shen Mi over a beer,” Grant told Kaskey. “Gulch get us those dossiers. I wouldn’t bother printing out the others’ until we know they both make it back alive.”
With that he got up and left.
“They do this much?” Kaskey asked.
“Often enough,” Gulch replied.
“But they’re friends right?”
“I think they’re in love.”
Kaskey was glad he wasn’t drinking as it would have splurted out of his mouth and over Gulch.
“Oh not like that. They’ll certainly not admit it, but I don’t think they can live without the other. They spur each other on. For better as well as worse. I think it might be why they keep coming back to work with us. Get to spend time with each other.”
“You think they’ll…” Kaskey started, but Gulch shook his head.
“It’s not them, not their lives. I don’t think either of them could really understand the concept of loving someone like husbands and wives do.”
“And what about you? You got a special someone out there?”
“No. I haven’t really found the time to look. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the job. It’s just I’ve found other things within the job to take up my time. I’ve had dalliances, of course,” he smiled.
“I understand, man. It’s hard for me to score, being a hustler. I met a girl once, real nice. She wanted me to stop hustling and I did. I thought she was the one to start anew with, but I just couldn’t fit in with ‘normal’ life. Started hustling in secret when I couldn’t hold down a regular job and in the end chose my lifestyle over her.”
“Then she wasn’t the one for you, Kas,” Gulch said.
“I guess. I still wonder though.”
“This isn’t forever, Kas. You can walk in a hustler and walk out respected.”
“Yeah? That really true?”
“For me and you? Yes. For Ben? Maybe.”
“For the others?”
“They both hope to die before they get old and keep up their quarrelling in Fiddler’s Green.”
Bangkok, or Kreung Thep as it’s known in Thailand, was built upon the Chao Phraya River and in one of its long lazy loops sat an area of wetlands that had been left untouched. This is Phra Pradaeng and though one can cycle through some of it there was enough left to fit a high class spa into without anyone noticing. And as for spaceships entering and exiting? Well, have you seen the traffic in Bangkok? Nothing is a surprise on those roads.
Kaskey was glad from the word go that he was staying in the spa. He’d only had to walk a short distance in the tropical, wet heat and was drenched in sweat. He once again cursed his race’s desire to wear clothes over fur. Once inside though he was fussed over from the very start. People carried his bags for him and offered him high end alcohol just for being there. Would he like a glass of Champagne before he went up to his room? Of course. He’d never had real champagne before! How about a light snack of the local food? He’d never tasted something so delicious! Perhaps a quick massage based on the tradition of the country? Knock yourself out! He considered just never leaving the foyer and wondered how he would have time for the mission between all the treatments, eating and drinking.
And he didn’t have to feel bad about it. Grant had told him to live it up a little. He had to look like someone who was there to enjoy himself. Ingratiate himself into the spa community. They had hacked the spa’s computer to make sure Koleermeer was staying there and Kaskey couldn’t give the slightest hint that he didn’t belong. Here, in private, Koleermeer could have as many bodyguards of as many races as he could book rooms for. In many ways this was the most dangerous place (though if danger came with this much luxury, then bring on the danger) for them to be. Gulch was already here and he knew Regrette was staying. Grant and Tsyrker were out in the city somewhere.
He sat in his room and tried to pull himself together. He was thankful to Rainsford that his cover included that this was his first time to the spa. There was no way that he could have pretended it wasn’t the first time eating such glorious food. He was new money according to his dossier and learning to live it up, it was a hustle he knew well. Playing the innocent that the mark would take under his or her wing. It wouldn’t necessarily be that easy; he was looking for ways to kidnap this mark and that might involve befriending others to get himself close, or to find ways to get the mark alone. Getting to know the staff might be a better way to find out Koleermeer’s routine. Well, it wouldn’t be hard to butter up the staff, they were treating him better than he’d ever been treated in his life. He bet that others didn’t treat them well and even a thank you would be a rarity. Still, he couldn’t be too nice, that would blow his cover. He decided he needed to go and have a snoop around when there was a knock on the door.
“I didn’t order no room service,” he said as his body tensed.
“No, you misunderstand. I’m here to explain our room services.”
Kaskey walked to the door, he relaxed a little but was still tense as he opened the door.
Regrette pushed past him and closed the door with his foot as he went.
“No need to stand on ceremony, boy,” Regrette said as he found a chair to relax in.
“What? You do voices too?”
“What is it about my profession that you don’t understand?” Regrette asked. “What’ve we got in the minibar?”
Kaskey just stared at him.
“Come on, be a good host.”
Kaskey went to the bar and grabbed a couple of mini-bottles and tossed one to Regrette before sitting on the bed.
“You’re rude, man.”
“I am, aren’t I? Comes with wanting to get stuff done rather than sitting in hotel rooms,” Regrette said swigging from his bottle.
“You don’t like me, do you?” Kaskey asked.
“Don’t be offended, boy, I don’t like anyone.”
“Yeah? How does that work for you?”
“Shall we get emotional?” Regrette raised an eyebrow.
“You have emotions?”
“What have you learned so far?”
“That Thai food is amazing.”
Regrette’s smile widened.
“It is. We can only hope that one day Earth gets let into the UTN and it is more widely available,” his smile dropped. “Get on with it.”
“Well I couldn’t tell you the norm for a joint like this,” Kaskey said.
“But you must have learnt something from Grant by now.”
“Yeah, actually. There’s no one I’ve seen that falls out of the average. Everyone’s milling or chilling. Without intent.”
“I agree, but things like this are extremely touchy, watch out for any changes; watch out for anyone that reminds you of me,” he flashed a wolf-like grin and got up. “You did good, boy.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad.”
“Don’t push it,” Regrette growled as he walked to the door.
He wasn’t going to tell him, but Regrette was suitably impressed by Kaskey so far. He was jumping in the deep end and keeping his head above water. Good for him. He’d just have to hope he didn’t come up against someone like Regrette, or someone from the Shen Mi, but that was his problem, not Regrette’s.
What Regrette needed to do now was get himself accustomed to the spa, know its ins and outs, it’s very workings. If things went south then he wanted to know where to go, when and how in order to escape. Being out in the wetlands meant the spa was big and all on one storey to be hidden from view. Anyone who did stumble upon it would find a classic Thai façade and a Thai staff who would generally dissuade you from staying too long. The best anyone would get was that it was a private resort (and you’re not rich enough to be here). He needed to find out which room Koleermeer was booked into and what the quickest route to the small space port was from there. Things would go a lot easier if they could keep it contained to the spa. He could judge almost all the variables here; out in the city? Not so much.
Due to the location of the spa and the size of the wetlands, only small craft were allowed to land. Earthen technology wasn’t advanced enough to detect space craft, but the locals would notice. Many of the spas ran a shuttle service, with their ships built to look like Earthen aeroplanes, that ran from a space port near Saturn (In and of itself a very nice place to spend a few hours). Even then most flights in and out were at night to stop detection. The Lark was deemed small enough (and Earthen enough) to land on Earth and there was a distinct possibility in Regrette’s mind that they would be winging Koleermeer to it. Probably while being shot at if his previous adventures with Grant were anything to go by.
He wandered the corridors before he found a little storeroom for fresh towels and changed from his bellboy outfit to a maintenance one and wandered back out and along until he found a masseuse room. It had a reception and a number of private rooms for the massages as well as a number of shared spas in the atrium area.
“Come to fix the computer,” he said to the receptionist.
“There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Yeah there is.”
“No, there isn’t,” she said firmly, but politely.
“Well that’s don’t make no sense. If there’s nothing wrong with it, why’d they send me to fix it?”
“Well, how am I supposed to know?”
“How’m I supposed to know that?” Regrette asked back and that flummoxed her. “Look, I was told there were issues with the spas’ temps. Fluctuations. Complaints,” he shrugged.
She looked horrified by the idea of complaints.
“Well, I thought you meant about this computer. I haven’t heard anything about temperature fluctuations. You can tell them that; no one’s come and told me.”
He smiled kindly.
“I’ll let them know, that I will. Can I check your terminal there?” he nodded to her computer.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
She stepped out of the way and he slid behind the desk. It was impossible for him to hack into the guest list with her looking over his shoulder so instead he did a quick search for other computers that he could use. There was one that actually did, among other things, regulate the spas temperatures and it was hidden away in a room of machinery.
“Right, I just need to go and have a look in the bones,” Regrette said closing down what he was looking at.
“I’m sorry, the bones?”
“Mechanics. Just over there, don’t worry, looks like everything is fine here.”
He walked off before she could argue.
Once again he was doing something he enjoyed, just tinkering about. The room was small and contained all the valves and levers needed to be tweaked and turned to keep the spas clean and running. He did some of his own tweaking, making the filters run more efficiently and set the temperature parameters half a degree higher. With that done he turned to the computer that ran it all.
Gulch had a room in the spa, but Regrette didn’t need him to hack this terminal. He did attach a little device, however, that gave Gulch an in to the system. The cursor waggled three times, Gulch’s way of saying thank you and that he was in the system. If anything happened they would need to blank the cameras, they couldn’t be identified. It would be too much of a coincidence and they would be linked to the casino job. All of them would be in a database somewhere, if you could look deep enough.
Here he was. Koleermeer’s room was, of course, at the other end of the complex to the space port and though Regrette had a visitor’s map, he knew he was going to have to walk it to make sure he had the quickest route and the one that afforded him the best protection. He got into the maintenance site and found a map and, pulling out said visitor’s map, he quickly sketched on the access doors and corridors. And what was this? He frowned at the screen. Something to look into.
“Ha, I’m an idiot,” he told the receptionist on his way through. “Wasn’t you guys.”
“Nope. No complaints for you,” he grinned. “Was the private spas, you know these businessmen, complain if it’s one degree different to how they like it.”
“I couldn’t possibly say,” she said, but nodded slightly.
He walked out to do his rounds.
While Regrette was doing all of this, Kaskey was in the lounge talking to some businessmen who were there on a team building exercise.
“Nice company that runs it in a place like this,” Kaskey said.
“Oh yes,” a Petruthsian said. “Great company.”
“They know no one likes them, but the research says they work, so they set them somewhere we might actually enjoy,” a Zorblid explained.
Zorblids had a head shaped very much like a hammerhead shark, but with bigger eyes and less bitey-bitey teeth. Their bodies were humanoid and they had a small bony protrusion on their hips, shaped like a hook. They could hook their skin onto these and pull it out with their hands to form wings with which they could fly, though only from a high object. (So glide really. Glide. Should have said that in the first place…). To help this their hands and feet were like a monkey’s, which they used to quickly ascend trees from which to take off.
It might be of some use now to point out that most of the Universe’s inhabitants had humanoid forms as this really was the best form for Universal multitasking. Few flying or swimming creatures had evolved to a point to really take over a world and had, therefore, never really joined the UTN with the whole flying through space thing. Having said that, it was only landlocked animals that really had an urge to go further. When you have the oceans or the air, the urge to have more seems pointless. Few birds have ever wished they could just walk places and those that had, well, let’s just say Ostriches and Emus are somewhat bitter. But not as much as chickens, they didn’t get the choice, man.
“Yeah? That’s cool, man. I need to do some networking while I’m here,” Kaskey said. “I need a team.”
He was talking to businessmen, remember? That was a much longer aside than I had banked on.
“Another reason they send us to a place like this,” the Petruthsian said. “They’re more business than relaxing.”
“Well, be careful who you talk to,” a Human said. “Some bad sorts in the spa at the moment.”
“I thought we were the bad sorts,” Kaskey laughed and the others joined him.
“Different kind of bad,” a fellow Albertine said conspiratorially.
“Well, that’s interesting,” Kaskey said slowly. “I’ll be careful.”
And then Regrette spoke in his ear.
“Room 49, boy. Now.”
Kaskey walked at a casual, but brisk pace. Regrette had seemed pretty urgent over the radio, though in normal person’s speak he’d sounded quite calm. Before he could get to room 49 he was grabbed and dragged into a storeroom.
“Stop struggling, boy,” Regrette hissed and Kaskey relaxed.
“You need to drag me in by the neck?”
“Force of habit.”
“Apologise,” Kaskey said rubbing his throat.
“Don’t push me…”
“You’re pushing me, man. I’ll walk. Apologise.”
Regrette thought it through. He needed Kaskey here and now, a second person would make everything easier and quicker. And, yeah, OK, perhaps he shouldn’t have grabbed him by the neck. He wasn’t saying he deserved an apology, just that he was willing to give one.
“Alright, I apologise. That OK?”
“Best I’ll get.”
“Real shabbus,” Regrette harrumphed.
“So you gonna tell me what we’re doing in a storeroom?”
Regrette looked around out of habit.
“Squavoon is here.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Kaskey ironicalised.
“And dangerous,” Kaskey said.
“Mssh. Not comparatively, but I don’t like the coincidence, boy.”
“Glamourous life you lead,” Kaskey commented looking around.
“You’ve got me there,” Regrette agreed. “I seem to spend a lot of time in cupboards.”
“Not really what you signed up for, I guess.”
“The best assassins didn’t sign up. People like Squavoon did. They do it for the thrill, for the love of taking lives and that can make them reckless rather than professional. Erratic and hard to judge.”
“And you think he’s here for Koleermeer.”
“I want to find out. Put these on,” Regrette handed him a uniform.
“Where do you get these from?” Kaskey incredulised.
“Just get it on.”
They’d knocked together a plan and Regrette had to continue to admit (not out loud) how impressed he was with Kaskey. Not that he should be surprised, Grant didn’t just hire anyone. Rain thought she was using Grant as a cover, but he knew that Grant had hired her because he knew what he could get out of her. It was the same for him, though he wasn’t on Grant’s payroll. In the end they all got something out of it and he wondered what Kaskey might before wondering when he’d gone soft and started thinking like this.
Kaskey was also impressed. Regrette had a sharp and quick mind. He had to admire (while also be offended by) Regrette’s ability to read a person, their strengths and weaknesses. He shouldn’t be offended, it wasn’t personal. When Regrette was forming a plan; silly things like emotions and feelings went out of the window. And they were doing this on the fly. If Regrette was right then things weren’t as simple as they first seemed. If this hitman was here for Koleermeer then others also knew that he was defecting and were aiming to stop him. Gothra most likely, but, as Regrette had said, that would mean more than just a lone hitman. Who else, he had asked, would want to stop Koleermeer?
“Maybe they don’t, maybe it’s security. Either the Shen Mi or someone else making sure he doesn’t change his mind,” Regrette had said. “Could be anything, hence the plan we just came up with.”
Now Kaskey was walking up to Squavoon’s room dressed as a maintenance man. He had to be careful that no one saw his face and recognised him as a guest so he watched the carpet as if he was just minding his own business, trying to be invisible to the guests. Regrette had swiped a key card from somewhere, but security was tighter than just that. Without authorisation the card wouldn’t work and so Gulch was rerouting the systems to make it work. Then, according to Regrette, Squavoon would have his own little securities to protect things in his room (guns mostly), but also ways of detecting if someone had been in the room. That shouldn’t be a worry if everything went to plan as Squavoon wouldn’t have time to check them. Still, he was kinda worried about getting shot as he walked in. Or the card not working and getting busted by security. Though that was doubting Gulch and if they all had one thing in common, it was that they all trusted Gulch to get it done.
He approached the door and took a quick look up and down the empty corridor before inserting the key card and holding back a relieved sigh as the lock clicked. He pushed the door open slowly, and out of the way, in case there was some kind of booby-trap, but nothing happened.
The room was much like his own, a little hall with a bathroom through a door on the left and a wardrobe on the right. At the end, the corridor opened out into a room that contained a living room with a bedroom through a door on the left. If it was like his then the bedroom was small and filled with a king size bed, but the living area was a comfortable size with all the mod cons. The spa was all about comfort, after all.
The window was in the same place as his and he nipped over to it and opened it before hurrying back to the door. He stopped just before re-entering the corridor and looked back around. Should he have a snoop? What was he looking for? Anything to help tell them why the hitman was here. No. Anything he touched could be booby-trapped. Leave it to Regrette; get out before Squavoon came back. He walked back to the door and slipped out into the empty corridor. Regrette had warned him to keep radio silence while in the room in case Squavoon had listening devices. Once out he wanted to thank Gulch, but he waited until he was around the corner before saying a quick one. He was desperate to get rid of the uniform before he bumped into someone, but kept his pace even until he got to his room where he fumbled with the door and then fell inside.
“All good?” Regrette asked from an armchair with a Frosty Handok in hand.
“If you can break into my room, why not his?” Kaskey grumped.
“Do join me,” Regrette gestured to the other chair and produced another cocktail.
“Alright, but it better be properly frosted,” Kaskey said as he sat.
“And how would that be?” Regrette asked withholding the glass.
“Pour, chill, pour, chill, wait thirty seconds at room temperature, pour, freeze, chill, wait thirty seconds at room temp and serve.”
“Very good,” Regrette grinned as he handed over the drink.
“So?” Kaskey asked after having a sip.
“So as I told you, boy, I can’t risk being seen. Who knows who else is here?”
“Yeah, but they’d know you?”
Regrette thought about it for a second.
“He shouldn’t. No one should, should they? But within the hitman world we know each other. You need to network, just like any job.”
“You have weekend retreats to places like this?” Kaskey asked with a smile.
“More the type of places you’re used to.”
“Hey, man, you don’t know me,” Kaskey shot.
“Calm down, it wasn’t a jibe, boy. Mssh, but you’re touchy.”
Kaskey took another drink.
“Shut up. You get that window open?”
“Good. If anyone looks into it, you’ll be the last one in with a fully authorised check on a fault and you will have been seen leaving.”
“Alright, I better get changed,” Kaskey said and went to the bedroom.
“You got eyes outside, Gulch?”
“Ready when you are. Your man has left the masseuse and entered the lounge.”
“Then let’s put this plan into action,” Regrette said and stood. “Into the shadows!” he whispered.
He walked over, slid the window open and jumped out.
If there was something that you felt around Regrette, it was that he could kill you then and there; however he wanted, whatever the situation. Kaskey couldn’t feel totally comfortable around him and he wondered if the others did. Tsyrker would, she would be a match for him. Grant? Yeah probably, though Kaskey didn’t think Grant would be a match for Regrette. Then again, he didn’t think Regrette would dare. There was something of respect, or awe, that Regrette held for Grant. What about Gulch? He would remember to ask, but for now he had another issue.
He had the same feeling being in the same room as Squavoon, but maybe that was because he knew he was a hitman. Either way, it wasn’t as strong as with Regrette. He didn’t think Squavoon was on the same level as Regrette, but that didn’t make him any less dangerous.
They were in one of the lounges, here the televisions were all tuned to the cricket (it being an important test match) and Squavoon had one eye on a TV and one on a newstablet. He was relaxed, but aware; chilling with intent. His target wasn’t here yet so he could relax, but Kaskey guessed a hitman never really relaxed. What Kaskey was more worried about was whether he was armed. Regrette had said yes, but nothing to worry about, which wasn’t helpful. He’d then pointed out that a good hitman didn’t need to be armed to kill you, which helped even less.
He wandered over and The Hustle took over.
“Even in a place like this, business never stops,” Kaskey said.
“What?” Squavoon asked sharply, looking up.
Kaskey took a seat.
“One eye on the cricket and one on the news,” Kaskey nodded to the tablet.
“Don’t sit down,” Squavoon said.
“Already am,” Kaskey smiled innocently. “Kalatin’s the name.”
Squavoon ignored the outstretched hand and Kaskey smoothly retracted it.
“You’re not making this easy. How’re we supposed to network, man?”
“Shabbus, but you’re bad at this,” Kaskey sighed.
“I told you I’m not interested in your networking.”
“Not that, your cover.”
Squavoon’s eyes narrowed and he slowly set the newstablet down.
“You’ve got me confused with someone else.”
“Seems to me you’ve got yourself confused, man. Places like this are more business than relaxing, you can’t sit there and not network, it makes you look out of place. And you don’t want that, do you?”
“I’m just here for my health,” Squavoon said.
“Now that’s more like it,” Kaskey grinned. “But a little too late.”
“I’m not who you think I am.”
“You’re Squavoon and you’re out of your depth,” Kaskey said seriously.
“Who are you?”
“What? Did you win your hitman badge in a box of cereal? C’mon, man.”
“What do you want?”
“I want you gone.”
Squavoon smiled a little and relaxed back into his seat.
“No. You’re obviously out of your league if that’s what you want.”
“What you’re not considering is that I’m telling you because I’m out of your league.”
“I don’t give a shabbus about your boss,” Kaskey hissed. “You understand me? You’re out.”
This set Squavoon back. He tried not to tense up in his seat and only failed a little. This was not how it was supposed to go. He’d never been hired by such a big hitter as for this mission and it was his ticket up. It also meant that failure was not an option. There would not be a place in the Universe that he could hide. So he had to take this guy out. Well, that he could do, there was a reason they’d hired him for this job. Right?
“You won’t see me again,” Squavoon said standing. He liked it, the veiled threat that he didn’t think this monkey would understand.
“I better not. You’ve got ten minutes to be packed and gone. This ain’t personal, just professional, man.”
Squavoon merely nodded. He couldn’t top that ‘you won’t see me’ line. He walked out of the room.
“Have you seen this?” Regrette asked.
Squavoon stopped in his tracks. The room was lit and it wasn’t the monkey from earlier sitting in one of the comfortable chairs with the cricket playing silently on the TV. This was a Human. He could sense the danger coming off of him, nothing like from the monkey and it was at that point Squavoon knew he’d been duped into coming here.
Regrette held up a booklet.
“‘Famous Gangsters and Hitmen of the Universe’ by someone called Coblidge. Never heard of him, but pleasingly I’m in here. You are not.”
“I’d heard someone was putting together stories,” Squavoon moped.
“Do come and sit down,” Regrette flourished a hand at the other chair.
“So you’re in there,” Squavoon pushed, trying to get some kind of hold on the situation. “Can I see?”
“You want to play a guessing game? You must be smart enough to know that you don’t want to know who I am.”
He was right. If Squavoon knew who he was then he was dead. There was a good chance he was dead anyway, but if he knew nothing then there was always that sliver of hope. Of course his best course of action would be to take this man out.
“I’d say ‘don’t even think about it’, but you already have. Mssh, you don’t stand a chance, so don’t bother,” Regrette said putting away his little booklet.
“Kwaydo’s in it,” Squavoon said.
“He is and he’s a lesson to us all,” Regrette nodded.
“What do you want?”
It was a stupid request, no hitman gave away his or her mission brief. But he reflected on what the monkey had said about being out of Squavoon’s depth. There would be no saying ‘no’ to this man.
“Well that puts me in a difficult position.”
“And this looks like my ‘I care’ face, does it?”
“You know we don’t tell on our missions.”
“Missions?” Regrette chuckled. “That’s sweet. I already know enough, I just want details. And you, my little upstart, are going to give them to me.”
Grant sat at a little street restaurant; a cart with all the cooking amenities and seven tables with four stools a piece along the pavement. Each table was full and there were people waiting. That was how good the food was and why you never went to a proper restaurant in Bangkok. Restaurants would be ten times the price and the food would be as good as it was on the street. This food stall specialised in Khao Man Gai, boiled chicken with the rice cooked in the chicken broth and was absolutely more divine than the description allowed.
It was getting dark and he knew that the person he wanted to see would be opening up shop right about now. Well, I say ‘wanted’, but Grant didn’t want to see this person at all. But it was the one person he knew who might have information of a meet happening.
He finished his meal and wandered off towards the Skytrain. The Skytrain was an overhead train that ran throughout the city with a large exchange station among the expensive malls of Siam Square. It was here that he changed lines and travelled out to Asoke station on Sukhumvit Road. Soi Cowboy was a gaudily lit side road off of Sukhumivit that contained numerous bars of whores, dancers and dancing whores. Patpong was the tourist friendly red-light district with its famous night market running through the middle, but this was where the real sleaze was. Every bar had outdoor seating from which girls called to men to come and join them, buy them a drink etc. and Grant didn’t look left or right, didn’t listen. Instead he became lost in a memory.
He’d tracked a lead in his spare time, the case was officially cold and he and his partner had been reassigned. He took a week off and flew to Grarnac and the red light district there. It was a lot like the one he was walking through, but with more races. Everywhere the atmosphere was of a party; everyone was happy and having a good time, but underneath was the stench of desperation, the vibe of desolation.
She’d been here, that was the lead. A bar with a private area in the back for those with younger tastes. Of course the bar staff had denied such a room existed and when security came over to escort him out he used one of their heads to open the secret door.
She wasn’t there though and instead of being praised for breaking the ring open to investigation he was dragged over the hot coals by his supervisors for being a renegade.
He snapped out of his revelry as he reached the bar. It was a smaller one, squeezed between two large bars, but it had a nice outdoor area and was doing a brisk trade.
“Ahh, you nice man, you come sit with me,” a girl took his arm.
“I’m here to see your boss,” Grant said.
“I am de boss,” she smiled and tried to guide him to a chair.
“Not tonight,” he pulled his arm free and walked to the door.
The inside was not as nice as the outside, but dingy and sleazy, fitting the clientele. Joy was still behind the bar, which took up the whole left-hand wall of the room. He didn’t know how old she was, but she certainly wasn’t getting asked to a short time hotel by any of the patrons. She looked at him and a look of fear, disgust and disappointment crossed her face. Sort of like this. That would have been better if you could see my face. Anyway…
“Grant,” she said slowly.
“Joy,” he smiled.
“Don’t smile at me.”
“I wasn’t smiling at you, I was smiling with you.”
She just gave him a look to say ‘get on with it’.
“Go on then, just let me through.”
“I can only imagine. Let me through.”
“Just wait here, would you?” she sighed. “I’ll go and tell him.”
“I’m assuming you don’t want any trouble.”
She gave him a look that said ‘as if you can give me trouble’. She was good at looks. Very expressive. Except for joy, which was ironic.
He took a seat and was automatically flanked by two girls.
“You want to buy me a drink?” the left one asked.
Fasido Minor, that’s where she came from judging by the inflection in her accent. He nearly said it, but that would be mean. A reminder of where she had been taken from. It burned him that he wasn’t here to send her home and he remembered Haffir and what he had said about saving all the girls and boys in all the casinos. You couldn’t save them all and if he tried to save these girls he would lose the Desards. And he remembered what Hounsards had said. That if he found Maggie Desard then he’d find a lot of missing people. Well. He already was.
“I’m here on business,” was what he said instead.
“Alright, come on through,” Joy said with very little of her name in either her face or voice.
Grant got up and followed her through a door at the back of the room. They went past a couple of doors in a thin corridor and up a surprisingly nice flight of stairs.
“You know the way,” Joy said and let him squeeze past her.
“Pleasure as always,” Grant smiled as he passed.
She just grunted and headed back down.
The upper floor was nicer than the downstairs and split into rooms with sturdy looking doors. He walked past them all to the end and knocked on the door before opening it.
“Well, well, Benjamin Grant,” a rotund, balding Human smiled from behind a scarred wooden desk.
“Protus,” Grant nodded.
“Come sit. Not on official business are we? No jurisdiction here.”
“Yes, of course, I did hear something about that,” he looked down at the desk in thought as he said it and then looked up with a bright smile. “So what can I help you with?”
“I want to know about a meet.”
“Now, Grant,” Protus’ face darkened, “you know I won’t tell about my clients.”
“Earthens banging aliens? You think I want to know about that?”
“Well what then?”
“Someone meeting with Shen Mi.”
“Ooh,” he sat back with a smile. “You’re really retired?”
“Come now, Grant, do sit.”
He didn’t want to, he didn’t want to be even vaguely comfortable in the presence of this man. He wanted to punch him in the face and drag him before a firing squad. But then he felt like that in front of most criminals. Especially those that worked in the sex trade.
Protus took girls from around the Universe and, for a small fee, kept them on Earth. The one thing about Earth, the reason it had so many spas, was that spending time in it’s atmosphere was very good for the health. Rejuvenating even. Some said that a week there added a year to your life. It often worked out easier and cheaper to send girls and boys to Protus than to kidnap or buy more, especially if they were popular. It was the same for what-could-be-generously-called entertainers in the same field. Protus, of course, set them to work while on Earth to earn himself some extra cash. He was filthy and greedy and the type of person Grant had dedicated his life to wiping out. But as the man said, he had no jurisdiction on Earth back then and he certainly didn’t now.
He sat down.
“That’s better. A drink?”
“Of course you are.”
“I’ll talk. But I want you to know why first.”
It was the last thing Grant wanted, but he nodded assent.
“Things are changing here,” Protus explained. “Very small at the moment, like ripples, but I know they are changing, going to become waves.”
Despite himself Grant was interested.
“Crime. Or criminals. As you know there is no point running any crime on this backwater as Earthen money can’t be exchanged for space pounds. Anything earned is useless, but there is interest now. Little inroads.”
“Doesn’t make sense.”
“No,” Protus pointed a finger. “No, it doesn’t. Unless. Unless there are bigger things at work.”
“And why does that make you want to talk to me?”
“I like it here, I don’t want to see it ruined by Universals.”
Grant did his best to ignore the terrible irony and fight the urge to clench his fingers into a nose-breaking fist.
“So?” he asked instead.
“Yes, yes. I’ve heard of a meeting. No. I should say I have heard of Shen Mi activity. I’d tell you a little story about them, but I don’t think you want to be in my presence.”
He was right, but Grant wanted to hear anything about the Shen Mi.
“Really?” eyebrows raised.
“It was a good few years ago now; I had more hair.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t,” he frowned. “Nasty type, the fella I met. At the time I thought the Shen Mi didn’t exist, like so many still do. So I’m doing a job, routine I thought. But this guy turns up, we’re told he is on our team. Asian descent, but we don’t think he’s Shen Mi, we…”
“Didn’t think they existed, I get it.”
“Right. So it’s a heist and it’s not going to plan, someone messed up so suddenly this guy takes over. We’re not getting what we came for and he wants to torture this woman. The manager or some such. We say it’s not part of the job, we have people on it, but he takes her into another room.
“Anyway, our guys on computers get the mess sorted and we’re back on. We all talk about telling this guy, never got a name, but that room is deathly silent and that’s worse than screams. Still we can’t not tell him so I go and knock on the door. He opens it a crack and just looks at me. I tell him we’re moving on and he nods and opens the door just enough to get out. It was enough for me to see though and I won’t describe the horror I saw. He was somehow clean except one little spot of blood on his chin.
“We got through the job and never saw him again, but you know what?”
“He never gave you any extra information,” Grant said.
“Right, never told us anything that he had gained from torturing that woman. I don’t think he even asked her anything. I know what you think of me, Grant.”
“Right,” he nodded. “We all are, but you’ll hear stories about how people got sucked in, or born into it. Whatever. Most people get into crime because it already exists; people like the Shen Mi start crime.”
Grant just looked at him. It was a surprisingly eloquent piece; an understanding of the Underworld that few criminals had. He had to agree; hadn’t he said similar to Kaskey? At what point though do you stop feeling sorry for them as victims and start hating them as criminals?
“So?” he asked.
“It seems big, a lot of set up, but I don’t know what for. Lăobăn is here.”
Grant merely raised his eyebrows.
“Shen Mi high up, I mean not real power, but high enough to make this important.”
“So how do you know about him?”
Protus shrugged. “I shouldn’t really and I certainly shouldn’t be telling anyone I do.”
“MBK. The food court on the sixth floor.”
“Good,” Grant said and stood. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say thank you.
“There’re more ripples,” Protus said.
Grant raised an eyebrow at him.
“Too small for the Shen Mi to see, or being hidden. Other Universals here. Something’s up, Grant, I tell you. Something’s up.”
“Thank you,” Grant finally managed to be polite and left.
Rainsford Tsyrker was in a little bar at the very end of Silom Soi 4. Silom being the major road and a soi being the Thai word for a smaller road. This one ended in the gates to the house of the people who owned the land and was full of bars and restaurants. It was also a ‘gay’ soi and was famous for its whole-street-closing red carpet drag queen acts. Not that all the bars were gay, this one at the end wasn’t, it was more of a simple bar and it was empty except for three men in their late twenties playing music just for the hell of it. A singer on guitar, a guy on harmonica and one on the drum kit. There were posters up advertising actual music nights there, but this wasn’t it. The three of them seemed to do more drinking and laughing than playing seriously, but they seemed to be having a good time and were actually pretty good. Or at least entertaining. It was a good place for her, the music was loud, but there wasn’t anyone to overhear her conversation either.
She was joined at her table by a man after he had bought a drink from the bar.
“This bar will never last,” the man said.
“I noticed,” she replied.
When she had first arrived she had sat outside and she had seen a number of straight couples walk down and turn around before they reached this bar. It was obvious that they hadn’t meant to wander into a gay street and had only fully realised and turned back just before they reached here. It was a shame as it was a nice and quiet little place that young couples would enjoy. Both gay and straight. It was also a shame that some people would be put off just because something was different. It was one of the things that kept the UTN from approaching Earth. If they couldn’t accept some of their own race due to simple things like skin colour then how would they accept a Petruthsian or Oncolutian?
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“And how did you know I was here?” she asked taking a sip of her cocktail.
“Isn’t that our job?” he smiled.
“Of course,” she twisted a smile. She was annoyed that he seemed more clued in than her.
She didn’t like that. There was no reason to have agents on Earth. Unless there was more to it that she didn’t know and she didn’t like to think there were things happening in the Universe that she didn’t know about.
“But we’re meeting because of why you are here,” he said.
“What can you tell me?”
“Can we swap?”
She took another drink and he followed suit. She didn’t want to share, she worried it would screw Grant over unnecessarily. Shabbus, it could screw her over. She wanted this and Grant’s paid job was over. Then again she wanted to know what was happening to have an agent stationed on Earth. How many were?
“OK,” she said finally.
They both looked at each other, both waiting for the other to share. Eventually he laughed.
“We don’t even trust our own, do we?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It’s the training.”
“It’s the need to get ahead,” he said seriously.
He nodded. She was working for someone else as a way to gather information and, it seemed, she didn’t want to endanger this ‘other’s’ job. Well, in a way, that made it easier; that meant she wasn’t going to be jumping on his mission. At least not yet.
“There are things happening. We’re not sure yet; little things. Interest in Earth from criminal organisations. Could be nothing,” he said.
“I’m working on the Desards,” she said and he nodded.
“Not heard of them here.”
“No. Shen Mi.”
“Now that is something I’ve heard. Recent influx, nothing to do with my job. At least not as far as we can see.”
We. He said we; this scouting mission was bigger than just him. What did the ‘we’ mean though, she wondered. Higher up or just the people working Earth? How many were there? She thought it would be both. He’d be reporting back regularly. It was interesting.
“Koey V’s been here, just landed again was my last intel,” the man said.
Well that was a turn up for the books.
“Tit for tat,” he said.
“Someone is allegedly defecting to the Shen Mi.”
“Someone called Gothra. Heard of her?”
He shook his head.
“Owns a lot of bars and the like throughout the Universe, but nothing to attract our attention,” Tsyrker said.
“But it’s got something to do with the Desards.”
“Yes,” was all she said.
“Interesting,” the man nodded to himself before taking a drink.
She knew he was doing it to buy himself some thinking time and that was also interesting.
“Back to Koey,” she said.
“You think he’s here for this?”
“You’re wondering how much to tell me. Just tell me.”
“I’m trying to get a feel for what you know and want to know what to give you.”
“Don’t patronise me,” she warned. “You’re not working on anything that important.”
“Don’t think you know what’s going on here.”
“A couple of gangs have moved in on Earth; not only that, but links have been traced to certain businesses. It doesn’t make sense unless Earth is going to join the UTN. But we’re a long way from that. The real question is: if the Councils have machinations, how does the Underworld know of them? Good enough? I’d be more specific, but I don’t know how much you actually know,” she sat back and took a drink.
He made a face. He shouldn’t have, he was trained to be expressionless, but she had him. Of course she did, he had been egotistical and foolish to think he could play her. Oh, yes, he knew who she was. There were agents and then there were agents. She was also, supposedly, a Typan and that scared even a guy like him. A little.
“It’s Cross, by the way, my name.”
“I know,” she nodded. She didn’t, but hey.
“OK. Well, there is movement, I was prying because we weren’t sure about Koey.”
“And you’re also trying to put stuff together,” Tsyrker said.
“Yes. We didn’t know about this defector so it threw out some of our data, but it makes sense. Up to a point.”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“I said I hadn’t seen any Desard influence here; that may not be strictly true. I couldn’t tell you it’s the Desards, but there has been another little blip,” he paused in thought. “Sorry, what you’re telling me solves a lot of issues for us.”
“Yeah. This whole Shem Mi stuff has been a blip, we couldn’t work out where it fitted. I mean they already have people here, but why bolster now? Well, there was this other little blip, not so obvious; even to us and we’re looking for such things.”
“The crims, they’re all aware of the others?”
“The one’s we’re interested in? Yeah, seems so. It’s been fairly peaceful while there’s enough to share and I don’t think anyone wants to too fully commit.”
“So this blip…?”
“No,” he shook his head emphatically. “Look maybe it’s better I show you.”
“Sounds good,” she smiled and finished her drink.
As they walked she asked him about Koey V.
“Rocked up in Germany maybe a month ago; obviously a known shifter lights us up, but nothing came of it. He met with some people who weren’t on our radar and then left. Well, we’d lost interest by that time, the last I heard was that he’d left.”
“You lost interest?”
“We have a very specific brief. Someone may have followed him up, but he wasn’t moving in the in-groups we’re watching.”
She was still annoyed. Yes, she knew of things happening on Earth; knew more after talking to her boss at the illegal fight, but she didn’t know that they were committing people to it, didn’t know why they would be. There was more to it and she wanted to know. This brief? What was it? It burned in her.
“I’d like to talk to your Germany contacts,” she said.
“And now he’s here?”
“Yes, so I’ve heard.”
So Koey was currently working with the Desards on the Gothra take over and not only was he here just as one of Gothra’s people was about to defect, but had already been here previously. The most obvious reason was that Gothra knew and was going to take Koleermeer out, but you don’t send Koey V to do something like that and you wouldn’t wait until he was on his way to defecting, just take him out at home. The fact that Koey had been to Earth a month ago, but not to this city was interesting. She would need to find out who he met with. Maybe Koey was more involved with Earth than her colleague here thought, but she wasn’t going to argue with him. She didn’t know the full brief on this Earth mission and he did, if he said Koey wasn’t involved then he wasn’t.
“Where’re we going?” she asked.
“Two places. First a bar; it’s Shen Mi run if that’s OK.”
“Shouldn’t be an issue.”
They turned up Patpong Soi 2, a much seedier version of the more tourist friendly Patpong Soi 1. There was no market stalls here and it was quite narrow. Where Patpong was filled with neon, here there were quiet bars, most with curtains covering their doors. They turned right down a short alley and walked into a bar on the right.
It wasn’t a large bar and it was quite full, but no one gave them so much as a second glance. If the people in there knew who Cross was they were happy to have him in their midst. It was obvious that this was a place to swap information rather than plan or partake in criminal activity. It was interesting to her just how in the dark everyone seemed as to what they were doing on Earth, or how they might proceed. She decided after this mission with Grant was finished that she’d look further into it.
They didn’t do much in the bar, just had a drink and talked quietly about Earth and the Universe. The agent seemed genuinely interested to find out what was happening in a popular long-running drama that he couldn’t get on Earth. She supposed even people in their position had to have some form of relaxation and she wondered what hers was. Oh, yeah, working for Grant.
They talked through another beer about various places they’d been in the Universe.
“I feel like I’ve done something wrong,” he frowned.
“Being stuck here.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“No,” she smiled. “If anything you’re a favourite. You’ll outlive all of us living on Earth so long.”
He smiled at that.
“Put your nose to the ground,” Tsyrker continued seriously. “Others might treat this like a backwater mission, but I think something important’s happening and you could be right at the centre of it here.”
He looked at her as he thought and then nodded his head slightly.
“Come on, let’s go.”
They got up and left. Out on the street again she asked him why they had gone in there.
“A fairly usual crew in there. Bangkok is centrally located in Asia and has the best food…”
“Mostly of Chinese origin.”
“…so a lot of the Asian focus is here,” he continued. “But that group in the corner?”
She knew the one he meant. She had taken in and studied every man and woman in the bar.
“New. You see how they stuck together? Not mingling, not sharing information. Cagey.”
“And different,” she added. “Still got the smell of space on them.”
“We call them ‘shinys’ as in they still have all that wondrous technology while we use the primitive stuff Earth has to offer. Remember everything in the UTN is still futuristic to Earthens.”
“It has it’s charms,” she shrugged.
“Try living here,” he frowned. “You noted the woman with the scar on her face?”
“Yes. She didn’t seem so shiny.”
“No. That’s Lóng, she’s running the Shen Mi here.”
“Know who she was talking to?”
“No, but he looked important,” Cross admitted.
“Right, she seemed a little deferential.”
“Interesting,” she mused.
They walked up the steps to the Skytrain station and jumped into one just before it left. It took them just two stops to Surasak. This was Sathorn, a major road that ran parallel to Silom. Where Silom was more about leisure, shopping and tourists; Sathorn was part of the business district. From the station was a walkway that led to a four star hotel. They walked through.
“You’re set up here?” she said with surprise.
“Why not? It’s not like Earth money is worth anything,” he shrugged.
It was a better gig than he let on.
They had a hotel room set up as an office and Rainsford was currently looking at a map of Earth. She’d already talked to the agents in Germany and it was looking like Cross’ blip was blips plural. All over the world there were groups of criminals coming in who weren’t linking up with those already here. Too small to be noticed, but too many to suggest pleasure rather than business. It had thrown their work out, trying to work out what was going on; surely these groups had to be linked somehow, but how?
And then there was Koey. That had been a bigger spanner in the works and someone in Germany had followed it up. It wasn’t clear who he had met, but the level of secrecy told them something. One of the Germany operatives theorised that it was Shen Mi as they had the presence and capability to setup a covert meeting, but others shot it down. Why would they go all the way to Germany for a meet? It was a massive step up in operations to have someone of his level on Earth, but he didn’t seem to be interested. Now with her information things were falling into place for all of them.
“Alright, that’s Australia,” a woman said from a computer. “Same again. Small group, but no word on them flying here like some of the others.”
“Lot closer,” a man commented.
“Right,” Tsyrker said. “About seven hours from the Western Coast, I’d think.”
“They’ve been told to keep an eye on them and report back,” the woman said.
“Thanks,” Cross said. “So?”
“So I think I need to go and talk to my team,” she said still looking at the map.
“Something’s up,” Grant said.
“Agreed,” Tsyrker, er, agreed.
“All is not as it seems,” Regrette said theatrically with a grin.
They were all sitting in Gulch’s room in the spa, well, Kaskey was leaning against the wall next to the door and Grant had a tendency to get up and pace as he thought.
“OK, OK, well let’s put it together,” Gulch said.
“Let’s get the background out of the way first,” Tsyrker said. “A lot of this is being worked out against a background of other activity. There are other crims already working here. Something else is going on.”
“Yes,” Grant said. “I’ve heard the same. But the Shen Mi are definitely here for other reasons.”
“Then let’s looks at that,” Gulch said. “Rainsford?”
“Yes, according to my source we’ve got a fairly large number of Shen Mi newly arrived here for, we can assume, the defection, however, we’ve also got a small number of other criminals that also seem to be here for the defection. Not only that, but there’re more flying in from all over the planet.”
“Hiding their numbers,” Grant mused.
“Yeah,” Tsyrker agreed.
“Who are they, then?” Kaskey asked.
“We should assume they’re with Gothra,” Tsyrker said.
“Or the Desards,” Gulch added.
“Couldn’t it be, y’know, other gangs coming to try and get the defector? I mean, we are,” Kaskey asked.
“No,” Grant shook his head. “Remember what we said about getting hi-tech equipment? If this is out in the Underworld then Gothra will have picked it up.
“Desards definitely,” Tsyrker agreed. “So we keep it simple and go with Gothra.”
“So they know?” Kaskey asked.
“I think they’ve known all along,” Regrette said and told them about Squavoon.
“And where is he now?” Grant asked.
“I heard from other guests that someone committed suicide,” Kaskey said narrowing his eyes at Regrette.
“I heard that too, door and window locked from the inside, no one on the cameras and no sign of foul play,” Regrette said happily.
“What did he tell you?” Tsyrker asked.
“Not the greatest assassin, bit of a generalist. He didn’t tell me that, I just knew. But it was why they hired him, to protect Koleermeer, or assassinate him if it came to that. Whatever the situation demanded, he would do.
“And who was ‘they’?” Gulch asked.
“He didn’t know, at least not to a level that would help us.”
“It’s a trap,” Grant said.
“Yup,” Regrette agreed happily.
“Wait, what?” Kaskey asked.
“Koleermeer isn’t defecting, he’s a lure,” Tsyrker said.
“Shen Mi,” Regrette said.
“Why?” Gulch asked.
“Rain?” Grant asked.
“On first thought, it’s a show of strength, a blow to the rival organisation,” she said.
“But that would lead to recriminations,” Gulch interrupted.
“Right, gang war, they wouldn’t want that. Well, Gothra wouldn’t, but the Desards? A nice little gang war would strip the Shen Mi of resources and leave them even more vulnerable to being superseded.”
“The Desards aren’t using Gothra to extend their operations,” Grant said. “They’re using her as cover.”
“We need to be sure of that before we proceed,” Regrette warned.
“Explain?” Kaskey asked.
“We’re ghosts, we have to decide just how much we interfere within each mission. We have to consider collateral impact,” Gulch explained. “Sometimes it’s better to let things run out as they would, sometimes we try and alter them and sometimes stop them altogether.”
“A gang war isn’t necessarily a bad thing for us,” Tsyrker said. “As long as we can swoop in and get the required info from Koleermeer.”
“If that’s what’s happening,” Regrette said.
“Koey V is here,” she replied.
He arched his eyebrows at that.
“Why didn’t you just say that to begin with?”
“Because then we wouldn’t have had all this lovely conversation,” she returned.
“Well I think we should go and talk to him,” Regrette said.
“I know you do.”
“Well let’s go then.”
Regrette and Tsyrker both stood.
“Be quick,” Grant said. “Koleermeer is here in another day.”
“Quick and painless,” Regrette said. “Well, quick.”
“And what of us?” Gulch asked after they had left the room.
“If this is a setup then it changes everything,” Grant said. “We can’t just grab Koleermeer here at the spa as Gothra, and the Desards, will know he’s been kidnapped.”
“You’re talking about taking him in the middle of it all,” Gulch said. “It’s getting hairy, Ben.”
“Nah, Kas won’t be there.”
“Funny,” Kaskey pulled a face. “Wait, what do you mean?”
“You can’t leave the spa and we can’t hit him here. No point wasting your talents.”
Kaskey shook his head.
“I don’t like leaving you guys.”
“Like part of a team,” Grant grinned at Gulch.
“One of us,” Gulch nodded in return.
“Alright, so maybe I am. And I’m not sitting on the sidelines,” Kaskey said grumpily.
“Not at all,” Grant said. “You have one last job here and then you’re going to start the end of our friend Gothra.”
“Tell me,” Kaskey said.
“You’re sure?” Regrette asked.
“I’m sure,” Tsyrker replied.
They were walking down the steps from the Skytrain and entering Victory Monument. It was just a large roundabout with a statue in the middle, but it was also a transport hub. Mainly for minibuses that went throughout the country. It was three concentric circles. The first being the main four-lane road, the second being the road that the minibuses used and the outer one had bars and shops along it. Just around the corner from the Skytrain steps was the famous Saxophone Bar. This was where Cross said Koey was.
As they walked in they found a horseshoe bar in front and slightly to the right of them with the longest side facing a round bar to their left that demarcated the band’s playing area. Within that circular bar a band was playing an up-tempo blues number. Regrette and Tsyrker found a spot there and sat down next to the rhythm guitarist.
A waiter came over and they ordered an Earthen whiskey each. They both took the chance to look around. Most of the room was taken up by the band’s stage and the bar surrounding it was full, however there were other nooks and recesses around the walls of the odd shaped building that contained tables and chairs along with a wraparound balcony above them.
“There,” Tsyrker said.
Across from them, in the gloom beyond the stage they could see Koey V sitting at a table with two girls.
“There or here?” Regrette asked.
“I think here.”
“Very well,” Regrette started to stand. “You know this is the end for our Mr. V?”
“He can’t be allowed to tell his masters what we’re doing,” she agreed.
“He can’t be allowed to have such a good description of us.”
She nodded once. He was right, this would be the third time Koey had met them and if he had a whiff of who they were he could spread their descriptions far and wide. It was time for Koey V to be out of the game.
Regrette got up and walked left around the stage area, making no effort to hide himself. Koey saw him and predictably sprang up and headed the other way towards the door. Regrette picked up his pace, but made no effort to actually catch him as, at the last moment, Tsyrker sprang up and grabbed Koey’s arm. She pulled him back to their seats and Regrette sat down on the other side of him.
“Koey,” he said friendlily.
“What the shabbus?” Koey said angrily. “You guys just follow me or something? Want to make my life a misery?”
Regrette scratched his chin.
“I hadn’t really thought about it, but making your life a misery actually sounds like a worthwhile cause.”
“Up your crunghole,” Koey sneered.
“You should join the Navy with language like that.”
“Enough,” Tsyrker said. “Why’re you here, Koey?”
“I like the music.”
“Long way to come for a band.”
“It’s good for my health.”
“Your health is going to deteriorate quickly if you don’t start talking,” Regrette said.
Koey remembered the last time he had met this man. He’d given him a lot of information and couldn’t believe he was back again, what did he want? Why couldn’t he leave him alone? Still, he wasn’t sure how serious their threat of violence was. The last time had been uncomfortable, but it wasn’t torture and he’d been left alive. That suggested he wouldn’t go that far, but then again this was a man who got a Typan to come just to show he was serious. Could it have been this woman? He didn’t want to think about that; that would mean he’d seen a Typan’s face.
He had, he could admit now, gotten in over his head. It was one thing to do deals, it was another to play games with the Underworld. He’d crossed a line, become too involved and in doing so had attracted the attention of people he shouldn’t have. And the question was, how was he going to get out of it? The easy route was to tell these two what they wanted to know, but that could mean facing the wrath of others. He didn’t know these two, but he knew who he was working for. Knew what they could and would do to him.
“You don’t scare me,” he said bravely.
“Because you don’t know us,” Regrette replied. “You know we’re serious, you know we’re not to be messed with, but you just don’t know how we really stack up against your employers. So we should enlighten you, shouldn’t we?”
“So my friend here is pretty quiet, isn’t she? That must be unnerving.”
Koey flicked his eyes over to Tsyrker.
“You’ve got your suspicions about who I am, or at least the type of person I am. After all, I brought a Typan to our last meeting. I bet you’ve done a little research. But her? Her you know nothing about, her you can’t find anything, not even a whiff. She should scare you.”
“You’re right, I know who pays my wage and I know what they’ll do if they find I’ve been talking.”
“But think of what we might do if you don’t. If I continue talking, or worse, she does, then you’re in a dead if you do, dead if you don’t scenario.”
“Perhaps we can work something out here, Koey,” Tsyrker said.
He didn’t look at her, his face had ticked in fear when she spoke. Instead he stared at the lead guitarist, watching his hands on the guitar as he tried to compose himself.
“Gah,” he exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. “Alright, alright. Yeah, I’m in too deep. I’m a businessman, I just shift stuff, y’know?”
“We know,” Tsyrker comforted.
“I don’t get involved, but now I am. Thought I could go up in the Underworld, but I’ve learnt that I have my place. Yeah I looked into you, no I don’t know who you are. I don’t want to.”
“Let me lay a deal on the table, Koey,” Tsyrker said. “I could do with someone like you, someone who knows the things you know. You tell us what we want to know and I’ll hire you.”
“I don’t think I want that.”
“No, you misunderstand. You’ll go back to doing what you used to do. It’s just that you’ll let me know if anything big is being moved. You’ll be intel for me and in exchange my organisation will protect you.”
“I’m already screwing over the Shen Mi and you want me to screw the Desards as well?” Koey said. “They’ll know it was me.”
“You know we’re taking care of that,” Regrette said.
“We’re put you somewhere safe until it’s over,” Tsyrker said.
“And then what? As soon as I go back to business the Shen Mi will be on to me.”
“I told you we’d keep you safe,” Tsyrker said and sighed. “Look, think of it this way: When I grabbed you I stabbed you with this,” she held up a tiny syringe. “You have twenty-four hours to live. You tell us what we want to know and I tell you where to find the man with the antidote. Whatever your choice, your time on Earth is over.”
He just stared at the tiny syringe.
“I told you, didn’t I?” Regrette grinned and punched Koey on the arm. “Even I didn’t see that coming.”
“It’s a trap,” Koey said in a daze. “To take out Lóng as well as a good number of Shen Mi. Lăobăn is here for it too.”
“We know that,” Regrette said with a good dash of condescension. “How and where, come on.”
“MBK. It’s a large mall off Siam Square. More like an indoor market. Anyway, sixth floor, a food court.”
“Lots of exits,” Regrette said.
“Tons, but also a lot of stalls around the food court, it’s a labyrinth. The whole mall is.”
“What’s the deal?” Tsyrker pushed.
“Nothing to it. Shen Mi all think it’s secret, they chose the venue and Koleermeer doesn’t even know it yet. They pulled me in on this, but it was all set up so they would. Gothra’s people will go in and shop during the day and then go in blasting,” Koey shrugged.
“No finesse,” Regrette said sadly.
Koey V pulled a disgusted face.
“We’re pulling a fast one on the Shen Mi and they don’t know it. You think that’s easy? What I’ve done to get this set up?”
“Perhaps you’re right, my apologies,” Regrette said graciously (and a little condescendingly).
“Whatever,” Koey sulked.
“You see?” Tsyrker said. “It’s that kind of talent that’s going to keep you alive, Koey.”
“Being a snitch,” he sulked.
“Being a live snitch.”
“But seriously, why not a little more finesse? Why not just rig up a bomb or something?”
“Not enough time,” Koey shook his head. “Plus they don’t want to kill Koleermeer and, I guess, they want to be brutal, want the Shen Mi to know they’re serious. Up close and personal.”
“Doesn’t make much sense for an escape. The local police will be all over a mass shooting.”
“Doesn’t matter. Gothra’s people are expendable,” Tsyrker said.
Koey just looked at her.
“We’re all just being used, aren’t we?”
“Don’t feel so sad, Koey,” Regrette said and patted his shoulder (condescendingly), “greed blinds everyone, not just you.”
“You’re taking Koleermeer in,” Tsyrker said.
“No. We got a hitman to cover his back, or,” he gave a little frown, “take him out if necessary.”
“Err,” Regrette said.
“What?” Koey asked. “Ahh, c’mon, man.”
“Who’s protecting him now?” Koey whined.
Regrette and Tsyrker both just looked at him.
“Oh, right, yeah. OK,” he said.
“How many,” Tsyrker asked?
“Us or them?”
“Both,” Regrette said.
“Us? Only ten on the initial, but another fifty in the mall.”
“That’s not many.”
“Doesn’t need to be if they’re caught off guard.”
“And them?” Tsyrker asked.
“About the same, but all together. Protecting their prize, getting him out.”
“But they’re not expecting issues,” Regrette said.
“Not as far as I know. Hope. Hoped, until you two turned up. Not much hope for it anymore.”
“Stick to the facts, Koey,” Tsyrker said.
“Organisations like the Shen Mi are one reorganisation from being a military force. They plan for all eventualities. But I’ll tell you, it’s not often you get even that number of them in one place at the same time.”
“What’s he know that’s so important, this Koleermeer?” Regrette asked.
“He’s a trusted lieutenant of Gothra’s, he knows all her organisation’s workings. He knows how to get to her. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you worry about our interests, Koey. And, no, I don’t buy that. Like you said, they’re one reorganisation away from an army. They could crush someone like Gothra if they wanted to,” Tsyrker said.
“Alright, but this isn’t percent, right? It’s just talk, just rumour.”
“Spit it out,” Regrette said.
“She’s got back up. The Desards made a deal, got their own army.”
“Who?” Tsyrker asked forcefully.
“Shadow Archetype,” Koey said quietly.
“That’s shabbus, Koey, you blew it,” Tsyrker said and began to stand.
Koey grabbed her arm to stop her, which was far more dangerous than he knew. She nearly killed him on instinct.
“You’ve seen what’s going on here, I know you have. The Underworld is moving onto Earth. Why’d you think that, huh?”
He let go of her arm as she sat back down.
“You have blown it, Koey. You’re the one supplying the information, it’s a trap remember?” Regrette said.
Koey shook his head.
“Even you don’t know. That’s how it is.”
“Make sense,” Tsyrker pushed.
“Shen Mi are too big, too tight knit. Like the Raiders. You don’t get to run them. The Desards? They’re always looking for a bigger piece of the pie. And smaller operations like Gothra? They’re always happy to have more powerful masters.”
“It’d make a great film, Koey, but I don’t believe in a secret organisation ruling the Universe.”
“Why’d you think the Desards are joining up with Gothra, moving in on the Shen Mi?” he asked crossly.
Regrette looked past him to Tsyrker and he could see she was taking it seriously. He raised an eyebrow that said ‘seriously?’, but she just looked away. Ooh, interesting, this was real deep, dark corner of the Universe stuff.
“There’s something bigger going on behind all of this. Even I’m in the dark, and happy to be,” Koey said. “But if you wanted my guess at the prize? I’d say we sitting on it.”
Gothra sat behind a desk that was bigger than some people’s homes. Her Father had always talked about having things at your fingertips and she had taken that literally. She used computers, but she preferred to have everything printed out, have it all physical, at her fingertips, as she sorted it all out. And there was a lot to sort. She had operations all over the Universe, she didn’t know anyone else who had the length and breadth of her organisation. At least at her level. Those operations that were bigger than her had multiple people running them, but she had all of her businesses at her fingertips.
Take this Maggie Desard, who she had just finished talking to over the secure line. She sat on her high horse and she talked as if she knew, but she didn’t. She’d never gotten her hands dirty, she’d never dealt with the gritty day-to-day of running a criminal enterprise. She just swanned around giving orders and expecting others to carry them out.
Well. Perhaps not for much longer. The problem with those at the highest level was that they never thought they could be toppled. They acted like they were different from everyone else; infallible, untouchable demi-gods. But they weren’t. They forgot that they took that position from someone else. She knew the Desards were using her and her organisation to try and compete with the Shen Mi and she had agreed because she really thought they could. The Desards were known for their ruthlessness and their calculating. They didn’t do anything unless they knew they could; they didn’t overstretch themselves, didn’t reach higher than they knew they could. They were taking on the Shen Mi now because they knew they were in a position to do so, but… But. She had a few ideas of her own and she also thought that she was in a position to move up in the world. Or more importantly, the Underworld.
“Madam,” a Byfrok waved a piece of paper from the door. “I think you should see this.”
“Bring it over.”
He walked to her desk and laid it in front of her. You never passed anything to Gothra. She picked it up and read it.
“You did well. I want every available human to the spa and send a team in. Use Grantok, he’ll get there quickest.”
“What of the Desards? Shouldn’t we inform them of a change to the plan?”
“I’m not changing the plan,” she said curtly. “I’m just adding to it. They need know nothing of this.”
“Yes, madam,” he slunk back through the door.
Kaskey had played his game once more. He could see now why Grant had been keen to recruit him. He was useful, if he did say so himself. Koleermeer had arrived at the spa alone and had looked nervous. Kaskey thought that he might not to others, but he was used to reading people’s emotions. The constant flick of the eyes was one thing. Surely he knew that Squavoon was here, but was he expecting to actually meet him? The fact that he hadn’t bolted suggested that he didn’t, merely knew that there was someone there watching over him. That’s what Regrette had said. Hitmen didn’t go in for jobs where people knew who you were, especially since Squavoon had revealed that he was there to assassinate Koleermeer if he actually tried to defect or got captured.
Kaskey had planned on playing the friendly businessman, but on seeing just how jumpy Koleermeer was he decided to take another route.
“Gimme one of those White Russians,” Kaskey said jovially as he sat down at the bar.
Koleermeer sat next to him, using the mirror behind the bottles to scan the room.
“Man, why don’t they have these out in space, huh?” he said to Koleermeer.
You could sense Koleermeer’s apprehension, the fear of someone being there to whack him. He was playing a dangerous game and he knew it. Probably didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“Hm,” he said and tried a smile before going back to looking at the mirror.
The drink arrived and Kaskey took a long draught.
“So what brings you here?” Kaskey asked happily. “Business or pleasure?”
“What?” Koleermeer looked at him sharply and Kaskey could read his desire to move away. “Look. No. Sorry, I don’t want to talk.”
Kaskey leaned in slightly and Koleermeer leaned away.
“Cool it, man. You’re covered.”
“You don’t need to watch the mirror, man,” Kaskey said conspiratorially. “We got you covered.”
“Well I ain’t walking the streets of Earth, am I?”
“No. No, I suppose not.”
“But I got my best man on it and I’ll be here, so chill.”
“Right,” Koleermeer nodded, more to himself than Kaskey.
“You knew we wouldn’t leave you hanging. Every eventuality is planned for, man,” he took a quick look around the bar. “Here take this.”
He put a small device on the bar.
“What is it?”
“Put it away,” Kaskey hissed.
Koleermeer scrambled to put the small device in his pocket.
“It’s a tracker. It’ll help us know exactly where you are.”
“You know where I’m going,” Koleermeer protested.
“Every eventuality,” Kaskey said seriously. “Keep it on you at all times. You won’t see me again, but I’ll be watching you, man. Good luck.”
With that he got up and left the bar. Not long after, he left the spa and Earth.
“Dead?” Tsyrker asked pacing Grant’s room at the spa.
“Very,” Kaskey replied over the radio.
“Drey?” Grant asked from a chair.
“Yeah,” Kaskey said sadly.
“Signs of torture?” Tsyrker asked.
“I dunno, man. I don’t wanna look too close.”
“Missing fingers, multiple wounds in non-fatal places,” Regrette said with glee.
“Ahh, man,” the radio went silent. “Yeah, alright. I think so.”
“Don’t think, know,” Tsyrker commanded.
“Yeah, missing fingers. I think there’s a tongue on the floor. I gotta get out of here.”
“Yes. Go. Get back to Hendricks,” Grant said. “Gulch will be there shortly. Out.”
“I will?” Gulch asked.
“You need me here,” Gulch protested.
“You’re a sitting duck here in the spa,” Grant countered.
“I always said you were a liability,” Regrette tsked.
“Can it,” Gulch fired back.
“Oooh,” Regrette put his hands to his cheeks.
“But Grant’s right,” Tsyrker said. “We have to assume they know we’re here. Have to assume we’re linked to Haffir.”
“What about new arrivals?” Grant asked.
Gulch tapped on his computer.
“OK. A number, but yes, here. A group of six came together on a private. Forged documents. Pretty good too, enough for most to not notice. Look here, Stephen.”
Gulch moved the computer and Regrette got up to look.
“Oh my, oh my, is that Grantok? I wondered where he’d gone.”
“Let me see,” Tsyrker walked over.
In fact they all huddled around to see the faces from the ID documents that had been lodged with the spa.
“Hm. I questioned him once on a case. Low level back then,” Grant said.
“Still low level,” Tsyrker said.
“We don’t all breath your rarefied air,” Regrette said.
“One exhale from you and it would no longer be rarefied,” she replied.
“OK, you two,” Grant admonished. “We’ve got to get Gulch to the ship.”
“Fear not, O Brave Captain, I shall make sure he escapes,” Regrette said straightening. “Come, Gulch, let us be away.”
“Does anyone else worry about his mental health?” Gulch asked closing his computer and sliding off of the chair.
Grant and Tsyrker raised their hands.
“Mssh. I worry about you,” Regrette said and walked to the door.
For all of the banter, Gulch felt completely safe. Regrette knew what he was doing, had possibly the sharpest mind of all of them. Though he wouldn’t say that in front of Rainsford.
Regrette and Gulch moved down the corridor.
“Come, my be-tentacled ward, we must move swiftly,” Regrette said and scooped Gulch up under one arm.
He strode down the corridors and they got a fair distance before coming across a Tarancort.
“Shabbus,” it swore and fumbled for it’s gun.
Regrette flipped back his coat, pulled his pistol and shot the man in one fluid movement. Right between the eyes. Gulch didn’t see the next gunman, but Regrette kicked sideways, breaking open a door and stepped in just as a hail of laser came their way. He stood patiently until the firing stopped and then calmly stepped back out and shot the Human as he was reloading.
Gulch had never really been out with Regrette, certainly not when Regrette was working alone and it was quite an eye-opener. He was completely calm and seemed oblivious to Gulch’s presence and was he? Was he humming to himself? Gulch thought it was Carlmody’s Battle Hymn.
Regrette ducked and swivelled as another blast came and shot the offender as he rose back to striding along. They were nearing the corridor that led to the port now and seemed to have left the attackers behind, though they were undoubtedly forming up throughout the spa.
It seemed, Gulch thought, that they had caught them just seconds unaware, just before they launched their attack. Koleermeer would be out in the streets now and that would have been their number one goal. To stop us reaching Koleermeer and ruining the plan.
They strode into the hanger (Regrette humming Salanche’s number one pop hit, ‘Cosmic hero’) but there was no one around. Kaskey had taken a commercial vehicle up and so Regrette headed to the Lark that was parked next to his own Wraith.
“Get to Kaskey,” Regrette said putting him down.
“I know the plan.”
“Of course,” Regrette said looking through the door they had come.
He focussed on Gulch properly for the first time.
Gulch watched Regrette’s face go through the gamut of which emotion and thusly which reply, he should give. Finally he shrugged.
“In our line of work, everyone needs a Gulch,” he said.
“Well. Be careful,” Gulch smiled.
Regrette shrugged again.
“From the shadows he appears,” Regrette decried and, after chucking Gulch on the shoulder, disappeared back out of the hanger.
It was, Gulch considered as he took off, the catchphrase from an old TV show. About a mercenary for hire who each week helped a poor and defenceless person against the evils of the Universe. It said a lot about Stephen Regrette, possibly the greatest hitman in the Universe, and Gulch smiled to think that they were friends.
Regrette got back to the room to find Grant and Tsyrker pulling dead bodies into the room.
“Mssh, just four? And, y’know, I wouldn’t bother trying to hide them. Won’t matter.”
“We need to move,” Tsyrker said.
“We do. We can’t let this catch up with Koleermeer,” Grant said.
“You don’t think it is?”
“No,” Grant said. “I think this is just us. They wouldn’t want to mess up their set up.”
“Then they’re on to us,” Regrette said.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Tsyrker replied.
“I could be a captain, couldn’t I?” he grinned at the ceiling.
“Let’s move,” Grant said.
The walked out of the room and, looking down the corridor Grant could see a trail of bodies along Regrette’s path.
“What?” Regrette asked. “They started it.”
“We’ll never get invited back.”
“Mssh. I’ve been to better spas on Blordat Minor.”
“Hhh, you’re not allowed on Blordat Minor either,” Tsyrker said as they headed to the exit.
“Hmm, same reason too,” Regrette mused.
“Uh, uh, uh,” Grantok said stepping in front of them. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I would have to disagree with that,” Grant said as more of Grantok’s men stepped in front and behind them.
“Ooh, you don’t want him disagreeing with you,” Regrette said.
“You’re not in a position to disagree,” Grantok smiled.
Grant looked over his shoulder.
“I really think we are,” he said.
“You’re not,” Grantok burst angrily.
“We are,” Tsyrker assured him. “We are.”
“It’s nine against three,” Grantok said as if explaining Maths to a child.
“Are you not wondering where the rest of them are?” Regrette asked with a smile.
“We’re wasting time,” Grant said with annoyance.
“Right, right,” Regrette sighed. “Bet I can get more than you.”
“You wish,” Tsyrker replied.
“Get on with it,” Grant said tiredly.
Tsyrker and Regrette both turned sideways as they pulled their guns. They brought their arms up to the shoulders, gun in each hand, and pulled the triggers.
As the smoke cleared they both stood like that, arms outstretched.
“So?” Regrette asked.
“What?” Grant asked.
“Who won?” Regrette exasperated.
“Oh, right. Er, it was a draw…?”
“That’s what you always say!”
“Who the shabbus are you people?” Grantok exclaimed and Tsyrker shot him.
“There. I win.”
“No fair,” Regrette complained. “I thought we were leaving him to be questioned.”
“Yeah, so did I,” Grant said.
“Well, not anymore.”
Grant sighed and shook his head.
“She’s very competitive,” Regrette whispered to him.
“It’s more than a problem, Doc. People died,” Kaskey accused as he paced the tent.
“Forgive me. The ways of war are still ingrained in me.”
“What does that even mean?” Kaskey turned on him.
“That in such situations one thinks of how to achieve the goal and ignore the loss of life. Why? Because the goal still needs to be achieved and to think of the loss is to break down completely.”
Kaskey stopped pacing and looked at him.
“I don’t like it,” he said.
“And well you shouldn’t,” Hendricks said from his seat.
“But I see your point.”
“I am sad that you have to.”
They were in Rorckshift’s tent on the Dead Planet.
“He’s right,” Rorckshift said. “You have a mission you still have to complete. Those that died believed in it, you have to honour that and continue.”
“And what did you do before you dug up old junk?” Kaskey asked him.
“Kas,” Gulch said quietly.
Kaskey blew air out of his mouth and deflated.
“It’s alright, old bean,” Hendricks said. “Nasty business. Not something anyone should have to see.”
“No,” Kaskey said and leant against a tent post.
It had been horrific, like nothing he had ever seen. Once again he wondered about working with Grant, even hanging out with him. But no, leaving would just mean he didn’t see any of this, not that it didn’t happen. People like Grant existed because of this, because some people were just bad. Though he didn’t want to see it, wanted to pretend it didn’t happen, the fact was that it did and he had been given the opportunity to do something about that.
“Alright, OK. But this still puts us in a tough situation. We needed their number.”
“I’ll help,” Hendricks said.
“You have important work to do here,” Gulch protested.
“He has,” Hendricks nodded to Rorckshift. “My important work has been buried in the sand for centuries, it can wait a little longer.”
“We could perhaps help,” Rorckshift mused rubbing his chiselled, stubbly jawline.
“Yeah?” Kaskey asked.
“Special Forces,” he replied. “And then some during the Laikan War.”
Kaskey looked at him. It fitted. Though he’d never thought Archaeology would be so populated with ex-military.
“You said ‘we’,” Gulch said.
“As you well know Archaeologists are some of the best fighters in the Universe.”
“With no reason to risk their lives to help us,” Kaskey said.
“Some would,” Rorckshift shrugged. “Digging can get dull.”
“Surely not with this find,” Gulch said.
“Which needs moving,” Rorckshift said.
“Aha,” Kaskey aha’d.
“You help us, we’ll help you.”
“How?” Gulch asked.
“This is a dangerous business, as I’m sure you can understand, Gulch,” Hendricks said. “A find of utmost importance.”
“People with deep, no, endless, pockets keep an ear out for things like this,” Rorckshift said. “They would make one of my team rich beyond their wildest dreams for this information and never notice the money gone.”
“You don’t trust your own team?” Kaskey asked.
“I wouldn’t blame them,” he answered.
“You’re a hard man, Rorckshift,” Kaskey shook his head with a smile.
“I’m a realist.”
“And you trust us?” Gulch said.
“The Doc does and I trust him.”
“We’re still digging, but we need to get what we have away and safe. Just in case,” the Doc explained.
“If anything were to happen we’d still have that to study,” Rorckshift agreed.
“And what do you have?” Kaskey and Gulch asked together.
“Come and look,” Rorckshift said.
They had a large tent erected close to the dig site and inside were the metal plates from the hull of a spaceship along with a small collection of unidentifiable parts.
“The sand and arid climate has saved the outer hull, but perhaps only because it’s the strongest part of the ship,” Rorckshift explained.
“You’ve found nothing else?” Gulch said.
“Not a lot, so far,” Hendricks said.
“It can’t be true though,” Kaskey said slowly.
“Yes,” Rorckshift said excitedly, “That’s the point isn’t it? How can it be?”
“The Shores of Dawn,” Gulch whispered.
“We’re wandering into the realms of myth and legend here,” Hendricks said around his unlit pipe.
Kaskey looked at the metal plates, the unmistakable symbol of Lord Naylor. One of the Arks that left the Tenth Kingdom.
“There are myths and then there are legends,” he said slowly.
“Go on,” Rorckshift said.
“The Ten Kingdoms are a legend and there’s usually some truth to them. Maybe just a nugget, but the Shores of Dawn that’s still myth even if the Ten Kingdoms are true.”
“He’s right,” Gulch said. “I don’t like that he said it instead of me, but he’s right.”
“Still though,” Rorckshift said with simmering passion. “When legends become reality, myths become legends.”
“Perhaps, man, perhaps.”
“Though there will be people more than willing to believe this could lead to that,” Gulch said.
“Right,” Hendricks said, “which is why we need to move it. This dig has just become a lot more dangerous.”
“What do you need?” Kaskey asked.
If Grant had been there, Gulch would have suggested storing the finds on the Albatross, but he couldn’t make that call. Especially as it could make the Albatross a target. Of course, hopefully no one would know that it was there, not if Gulch could work out his little magic trick. That was what it was going to have to be, sleight of hand, just in case anyone was willing to sell out the information. They had sat and talked about it, a good hiding place and the bones of a plan. They had a circle of trust amongst the four of them and it pleased Gulch no end that he was a part of that with such great scholars.
Perhaps if his early life had gone differently he could have been a contemporary of these two Archaeologists. A scholar. He had dreamed of it, even when sleeping rough on the streets, refusing to believe that this was the end, the summation of his life. Going to Ballantium University, exploring the Universe, digging up treasures and finding the truths behind the Universe.
Well, he smiled to himself, he’d found that with Grant: that it was run by crooks. But there were other things, other truths, such as those who came before and those that have never been found. Like the Ten Kingdoms.
He remembered when he’d first heard of them; he’d picked up a job, working computers in a data dump. A small team had gone in and set up a link and it was his job to grab specific data out of the dump and forward it on before returning all the files as if nothing had happened. The people he was working with were good. Professional. And he had a good window to work in. He didn’t need it, he found the appropriate data, copied and sent it with plenty of time, but then he had seen another file that caught his eye. He’d opened it and read about the Ten Kingdoms; the wreck of the Theotarkin and it’s supposed resting places; as well as supposed information that would give away the Universal coordinates to the Kingdoms themselves. He read as much as he could, but not as much as he had wanted as the window closed and he had to rid his computers of all the files and the link was severed. Those inside, risking their lives for the information never knew that he had spent his time reading and were still impressed with the time it had taken him. Everyone walked away paid and happy. Except for Gulch, who was now consumed with finding out more. And once again he had stumbled on information about the Ten Kingdoms, but this time it was information that those people, so long ago, would kill to have.
They couldn’t assume that the Archaeologists were dirty, I mean they were dirty, they dug dirt for a living. Not dirty in the corrupt way, but you knew that didn’t you? ‘Course you did. Smarty pants. At this point it was doubtful that any of the team were crooked, that usually only comes once the money, or promise of money, is flashed before the eyes.
So they weren’t keeping it a secret that they were moving the finds to a place better suited for analysis, it was just that they were lying about the destination. It would be Kaskey and Gulch’s job to get it there, but as that would look dodgy, it was time for a bit of bait and switch.
Grant, Tsyrker and Regrette were racing after Koleermeer. Traffic was always terrible in Bangkok so they had grabbed a motorcycle taxi each. They could have stolen the bikes off of the riders, but even they couldn’t ride as fast and dangerously through traffic as a Bangkok motorcycle taxi.
Koleermeer was using Kaskey’s tracker and was rapidly approaching MBK via the Skytrain. There was still a good walk from the platform to the mall and then up to the sixth floor. That meant there was still a chance of catching him before he got to the meeting point and all hell broke loose. But only a small one.
They’d had radios in since they left and, on the motorbike ride over, they’d furiously discussed the best way to proceed now that their plans were dead in the water. The issue was with changing things. Any time you changed a criminal’s plan you risked setting off a chain reaction that led to worse things. The consequences of which would then be on your head. Of course if you let bad things happen then they were also on your head. You couldn’t win, really.
Tsyrker wanted a fight between the Shen Mi and Gothra to go ahead and Grant wanted to grab Koleermeer even if it diverted said gang war. Regrette pointed out that if it was known they’d kidnapped Koleermeer then everyone would shut down and that would be the end of it all. No more Desards until they came out to assassinate them. At this point it seemed unlikely they’d be able to grab him before he reached his destination anyway.
“Alright, alright,” Grant had said.
The attack on the Shen Mi had to go ahead to cover them. He hadn’t wanted them to get caught up in it, but now the best they could hope for was to not lose their chance of grabbing Koleermeer in the heat of battle or as he escaped. The latter was riskier, but no one wanted to be grabbing him out of a gunfight.
Grant had looked down at the tracker, they were running out of time.
“Steve. You have an odd sense of what is fun, don’t you?” he’d said.
“Mssh,” came the reply.
“How about this?” and Grant had outlined his plan.
Koleermeer was nervous as he walked into MBK. He trusted those that were part of his organisation, but he didn’t know who was here. Gothra’s gang was large and spread out and the further down the chain from you someone was, the less you could trust them to watch your back. Really, he only trusted his own second and third in command. Beyond that he was always suspicious of being sold out. And this hitman? Well he’d never met him or her, and though his associate from the spa seemed professional and on the ball, he didn’t like trusting his safety to an unknown.
Gothra had chosen him though as she thought he was the best prize, the one who they would want to get. She was right, he thought; he was close to her, her confidant, he knew how she worked. He’d been with her a long time. And she’d assured him that she would keep him completely safe, that she wouldn’t lose a trusted lieutenant such as he.
But still, he had worried for some time that he might be doing too well, getting too well connected. That maybe she was worried that he would make a bid for something bigger. He wouldn’t, he knew his place and he served diligently. He had everything he had ever wanted and certainly didn’t want the stress of controlling a whole organisation. But she’d seemed a little more distant for the last year, a little less inclined to share the workings of the gang as she had used to. He didn’t know what was going on, but when he was asked to do this job, well… Maybe it was her way of bringing him back in; he knew she had been brokering some kind of a deal and he knew it was with the Desards, though she hadn’t told him that. He could appreciate why she would keep that one to herself. So he’d gone along with it, of course he had, he was willing to serve and wanted to show that, but still the doubts played in his mind. Especially as he walked into MBK.
From the Skytrain station he walked into a semicircular corridor with a department store to the right. Following this around opened up to the bulk of the mall. In the centre was a void only pierced by the escalators. The shops on every floor existed on an, admittedly large, balcony that wrapped around the walls in a figure of eight, with a wide shop-filled floor separating the two voids next to the escalators. It was, Koleermeer had to admit, impressive. Below him there were two floors of shops, but he ignored them and headed to the up escalators. He wanted to get to the meet, and out of the crowds, as fast as possible.
He got on the escalator and watched the people coming down the other one right next to him. If this was a hit then this would be a good place. Stab him on their way past.
Come on, she wasn’t going to kill him and she wasn’t going to let the Shen Mi take him; he really did know an awful lot about the operation.
No, it would be at the meet where she’d do it. Make it look like they murdered one of hers. She wanted a gang war and this would legitimise it for her.
She wasn’t going to kill him, he’d always been there for her, always been loyal; never made any inclination that he might want to take her place.
He arrived at the fourth floor; this was by far the busiest floor as it was almost full of kiosks selling mobile phones and accessories along with some bootleg films. Seemed the Thais were very into their phones. If anyone was to grab him it would be here. He had to walk across the void to get to the next escalator going up and he took a deep breath as he entered the crowds.
The sixth floor was filled with kiosks and clothing stalls with shops around the walls. At one end, through a maze of kiosks was the food court. Said kiosks were so plentiful and haphazardly placed that there were arrows on the floor to help you find the food court or the way out. On one semi-circular shaped wall were the counters selling a variety of delicious foods from all over South East Asia with tables and chairs filling the floor. It was bustling as it always was, but today a lot of those people sitting with a meal in front of them were not there for the food. I mean, they’d still eaten it, how could you not? All that lovely food just sitting there under your nose? They had to have something to justify taking up a seat and so most of the Shen Mi had had to get up two or three times to have a uneaten meal in front of them.
They had been tense, the area was full of foot traffic and they were not in an area they could fully control. Oh they had done their best and they had chosen this as the meeting place because they knew that it was confusing, knew there were many exits and they knew that only they would have the time to plan for them all.
And now here came their target. No one knew who it was, but this man was walking purposely to where their leaders, Lóng and Lăobăn sat. This had to be him and they all readied themselves.
“Yes?” Lóng asked the man with the hat pulled low.
“I’m here to defect,” the man said.
“I don’t think so,” Lóng said.
She was fast, but Regrette was faster and the two Shen Mi were dead with their pistols still in their holsters.
“Gothra says hello,” Regrette shouted and flipped open his coat to show a simply ridiculous array of weapons. He shot another two Shen Mi with his twin pistols, before the others could react.
Gothra’s gang had been walking around the shops for a good few hours before they were alerted to Koleermeer’s entering of the mall and had, on verifying his presence, moved up to the food court in front of him. Now someone else was approaching the Shen Mi and then the unthinkable happened. The guy shot the two leaders. Not only that but he shouted ‘Gothra says hello,’ before shooting two more. Well this just wasn’t the plan, but if this guy was from Gothra then maybe it was, maybe she hadn’t risked Koleermeer after all? Either way they really needed to act and this guy seemed to be on their side so… well? They looked at each other and all shrugged. This was the plan…
Gothra’s gang ran in blasting as innocents went running and screaming or hiding under tables and screaming. Most of them doing their best to also save their tasty, tasty food. The Shen Mi pulled guns and followed their plan of retreat whilst shooting back at Gothra’s crew. In the middle Regrette shot at both sides and cackled maniacally.
Meanwhile Grant and Tsyrker were guiding Koleermeer towards the very back of MBK and another set of escalators down.
“Come on,” Grant urged.
“We’re here to save you,” Tsyrker said.
“Save me?” Koleermeer asked tremulously.
“A man of your brains had his doubts,” Grant said. “All rather risky for a man of your stature.”
“But, but, I was the ideal bait,” Koleermeer whined.
“Yes. Yes you were and ideally out of the picture when the Desards took over,” Tsyrker said pulling him along.
They knew! They knew about the Desards. Who were they?
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Can’t have you in a position where the Desards could choose you over her, can she?” Grant asked instead. “It’s the way takeovers always go. We’ve seen it a hundred times, haven’t we?”
“A thousand,” Tsyrker agreed. “Get rid of the boss and promote the second in command. Promotes loyalty to the new bosses.”
“But I don’t want to be the boss,” Koleermeer whined.
It had been a long time since he’d been in the thick of it. He’d gotten used to giving orders from the comfort of his own home. Ruining lives without even meeting the person; making and breaking deals while choosing which Whiskey to serve next. But what they said made sense. He knew it; Gothra knew it. To break an organisation or a person, you go for the head not the tail. Sometimes literally.
They were halfway to the escalators when three men and a woman came running past, pushing people out of the way. Tsyrker noticed the radio earpieces as Grant tried to turn Koleermeer away from them. They ran past and Grant pulled Koleermeer forward.
“Hey,” someone shouted. “That’s him, get ‘em.”
“Shabbus,” Grant swore.
Both he and Tsyrker pulled their guns and turned in one motion. They took aim amongst the crowds and shot at Gothra’s gang. People screamed and dived for cover as Tsyrker shot the other man, the woman however had disappeared.
“Come on,” Grant commanded Koleermeer.
“See?” Tsyrker shouted as they pulled him into a run. “They’re trying to kill you.”
The escalators at the back were smaller and went through the floor and were full of people running down or up to escape the bullets. Of which there were now some following Grant, Tsyrker and Koleermeer. They charged down them, pushing past terrified people where they could or just urging them to move down faster.
Now they were on the floor with access to the Skytrain and so they ran towards the front of the building where the void opened up. On the balcony above them they could hear people shouting and someone shot at them from the escalator. The whole void in fact was echoing with screams and the gunfire from the sixth floor. They couldn’t see it from where they were, but the battle had spilled out of the food court and was slowly spreading through the shops and to the floor below.
Grant shot at someone lining up a shot from across the void and Tsyrker took careful aim and shot the shooter on the escalator.
“There,” Koleermeer shouted and Grant turned and shot two that were in front of them.
The low glass wall that ran around the void cracked as bullets thudded into it and Grant and Tsyrker tried to put stalls between them and it.
“Down, down, everybody down,” Grant yelled as they ran.
Tsyrker was running backwards shooting at Gothra’s gang as they chased and Grant took pot-shots where he could and then they were away from the void heading around the crescent corridor to the exit. Somewhere behind them there was a muffled bang of an explosion. Bullets hit the wall just as they rounded the corner, but they didn’t stop.
They hit the exit and ran down the flight of stairs onto a wide concrete walkway that ran above the four-way road intersection. They ran forward as Tsyrker turned and shot a man coming out of the doors. The walkway went both left and right; left to the Skytrain station and right to join up with the Discovery Centre mall on the corner of Siam Square.
As they were being chased, a train didn’t seem much good so they sprinted right, following the walkway as it turned left and then veered back around to the right.
Someone shot at them from where they had just come from and Grant turned and shot back, as once again people were running, screaming and dropping to the ground. They charged up the steps, dragging Koleermeer with them and burst into the mall. This one had shops lining the walls, again with a void in the centre from floor to ceiling. They’d managed to get down the escalator one floor before someone started shooting at them from above and they shot back while not stopping. The only cover they would get was from a shop and they would get trapped in there. They ran to an enclosed sky-bridge that led to the second in a line of three malls that lined the road facing into Siam Square. Here they ran down escalators and pushed their way through the scores of teenagers who shopped at The Siam Centre, as it is known. On the ground floor was some kind of concert and so teens filled that floor and filled those above, hanging over the central void to see.
No shots came as they passed through the excited crowds and disappeared into the last and largest mall. Siam Paragon. From here they could get to the Skytrain station by a sky-bridge.
“You’re safe,” Tsyrker said.
“I’m not so sure,” Koleermeer said looking around the hotel room.
Tsyrker had managed to ring ahead and ask Cross and his team to be absent, but the room was still obviously what it was and Koleermeer was uneasy.
Now that they were away from the danger he had composed himself and was once again thinking like the criminal mastermind he was. And the big question for any criminal mastermind is ‘how can I get out of this alive?’ followed by ‘and somehow profit?’.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Grant said. “We want Gothra and considering today, that could work to your favour.”
“How can I trust you?”
“Really? And in your day to day criminal activities you work with trustworthy people, do you?” Tsyrker asked.
She had a point there.
“They’re my kind of untrustworthy. You two I’m not so sure about.”
“Well boo-hoo,” she gave him a frowny face.
“You’re in a difficult position here,” Grant said evenly. “You can’t trust us, but you walk out of that door and you’re a walking target.”
“I’ve only got your word that she was trying to kill me,” he said.
“That’s true,” Tsyrker agreed. “And if she isn’t she will be when she finds out you’ve talked to us. Or worse the InterG.”
Koleermeer smiled at her. She was sharp this one. Cunning and beautiful. He liked her.
“But where would that get you?” he smiled up at her from his chair.
“No,” Grant shook his head. “You’ve missed it. Look around, it’s pretty impressive, all the computers and whatnot.”
“It is,” Koleermeer agreed with a raised eyebrow.
“And yet she mentioned handing you over to the ‘G.”
He didn’t let it show on his face, but Koleermeer understood and understood he wasn’t in the position he thought he was. He had no idea who these people were, but they weren’t InterG.
“Now nice, he understands,” Tsyrker smiled.
Had he let it show on his face? Or was she that good?
“You ever torture anyone in your line of work?” she asked him.
“How’d you know she was gunning for me?” Koleermeer asked trying to avoid the implied threat.
“We want Gothra, we were looking into it when your supposed defection came up. It didn’t take much more to find out she was using it as a chance to get rid of you,” Grant explained.
“I struggle to believe it was that easy. Gothra plays everything close to her chest.”
“It wasn’t easy.”
Tsyrker had started to play with a knife and Koleermeer gave her a glance, but refused to be intimidated. Though he was a little and it had nothing to do with the knife.
“And what about…” he feared even to say their name out loud.
“The Desards?” Tsyrker asked and he nodded.
“They’re not gunning for you,” Grant assured him. “Gothra added this in to the plan. She’s scared of you, Asward. As we said, it’s common in takeovers for them to get rid of the boss and promote the next-in-command.”
“Better to have someone who is used to operating under someone else than someone who has had ultimate power,” Tsyrker agreed.
“And you’re going to take her out?”
“Not to help you out,” Tsyrker pointed out.
“But yes. We need access to her HQ.”
This could work for him, Koleermeer thought. He’d had no interest in climbing any higher than he was, but if the Desards were taking over then he was actually dropping a place in the hierarchy unless he moved up one. And, of course, Gothra wouldn’t let him live anyway. They were right about taking out the boss in takeovers. They weren’t common, at least at this level, but you certainly heard of it when smaller gangs got amalgamated. He spun through all the options and he realised that he couldn’t risk it. Helping these two was his best bet. He knew the tech around him, knew the set-up; this wasn’t criminal, this was legit.
“Alright. I’ve got a few conditions, I need to be out of the picture for a while obviously, but alright. What do you need to know?”
“Regrette,” Grant said with relief as he entered his room at the spa.
“Where’ve you been? I’ve been bored,” Regrette said from a chair by the window.
The curtains were closed and he had a glass of whisky in his hand. His clothes were stained red with blood.
“You didn’t think of changing?”
Regrette looked down at himself.
“Mssh. Are we a go?”
“Ooh,” Regrette grinned and threw back the alcohol.
“Nothing to it,” Regrette replied disinterestedly.
“I’m assuming none of that it yours,” Grant nodded to the stains.
“Not that I’m aware,” Regrette got up, but staggered sideways.
Grant rushed to grab his friend and tried to sit him back down. Regrette pushed against him to stay standing.
“How bad?” Grant asked.
“Flesh wound. Hurts like a Firecroat bite on the soft and danglys though.”
“Alright, we can’t stay here. Let me see it.”
Regrette lifted his shirt and Grant could see two bullet wounds. One was still bleeding and looked more serious than the other. Grant ran to the bathroom and grabbed a towel, soaked it and brought it back to press against the wound.
“Take off your shirt, I’ll get you a new one. Hold that there.”
“Thank you, nurse,” Regrette grinned weakly at him.
They managed to sneak out of the spa through a window and get to the Wraith without any issue though it was clear that people were looking for them in connection with the gunfight they’d had before leaving for MBK. Through windows they also saw TVs showing MBK with smoke coming out of it and police and fire engines swarming outside. There looked to be a large hole in the front façade.
They got into Regrette’s ship and he insisted he was a big boy and could patch himself up with the medical supplies aboard if Grant could fly the ship. Grant had given him the ‘you’re so funny’ face and considered poking his wound, though of course he wouldn’t. They might be from completely different worlds and ways of thinking, but Regrette was his friend and he was deeply worried for him.
He took the controls and as soon as he fired up the engines people came running to try and stop them. Grant recognised them as from a special InterG unit that policed the spas, but as very little really happened at the spas it was more of a comfort position than a real police job. They could have, Grant mused as he took off, walked right out (even with Regrette covered in blood) without the ‘G officers noticing.
They were half way between the star gate and the Dead Planet when Regrette came into the cockpit and took a seat. He looked better already, but he was moving slowly and even in a dark top, Grant could see he was still bleeding.
“We’ll get you to Hendricks,” he said.
“I’m not that old,” Regrette protested.
“He’s a doctor.”
“Laikan doctor? Bet that went down well after the war.”
“Like a Firecroat bite on the soft and danglys,” Grant twisted a smile. “Hence him being an Archaeologist now. You OK?”
“Mssh. I’ve had worse.”
“I shouldn’t have put you in that situation. I’m sorry.”
“You gonna get teary on me? You know I don’t hug, right?”
“It wasn’t a good plan,” Grant admitted.
“And I still said yes to it. We got what we needed. We did get what we needed, didn’t we?”
“Did she torture him?”
“No,” Grant exclaimed.
“Bet she’s disappointed.”
“She would have. If he wouldn’t give. You know that, right?”
“I don’t think on it.”
“Bet you don’t,” Regrette laughed and then held his stomach and clenched his teeth. “Mssh.”
They entered the atmosphere of the Dead Planet and Grant steered them in to land next to the Lark.
“You look smug,” Grant said to Kaskey as they sat in a tent listening to Regrette swear and less-than-politely question Dr. Hendricks skills as a physician.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Gulch looked smug too.”
“Hard to tell with Petruthsians though, isn’t it?”
“Tell me,” Grant said.
Kaskey shook his head as he twirled a finger. Grant got it. Not here.
“I think he’ll live,” Hendricks said entering.
“You think?” Kaskey ironicalised.
“I’ll go see him,” Grant stood.
“No,” Hendricks stopped him. “He’s having a drink or two of Carute Whiskey. I don’t think he’ll be awake for long.”
“So where do we stand?” Kaskey asked.
“We’ve got what we need, we’re just waiting on Tsyrker to arrive.”
“And you know we’re in?” Hendricks asked.
“No. No, I didn’t,” Grant said looking at Kaskey. He looked smug.
“Rorckshift and I along with a few of our diggers. Change is as good as a rest and all that.”
“Good,” Grant nodded to himself. “It’ll be dangerous though.”
“That’s why they’re doing it, old boy. Why they’re doing it,” Hendricks grinned as he lit his pipe.
“Alright, you’re OK, Doc. I guess,” Regrette called drunkenly from the tent next door.
“What’ve we got?” Grant asked.
“Rorckshift is in the city as we speak with some of our diggers,” Hendricks said.
“Man knows what he’s doing, Grant,” Kaskey said.
“You can’t make me go in there,” Regrette shouted. “I won’t, I won’t.”
“And what is he doing?” Grant asked trying to ignore it.
“Finding our best route to the Skyscraper. If we’re right about her having a private guard, you know they’ll be patrolling the streets,” Kaskey said.
Grant thought he sounded a little excited. He didn’t know what had gone on here, but Kaskey was obviously somewhat impressed.
“Good. We’re happy to let him lead, but he needs our information to form a plan. We need him back,” Grant said.
“Schreinold’s Box? Again? Come on, man,” Regrette babbled. “Ooh, is that a Carutan Death Trap? Now we’re talking.”
There was silence and then a sudden shriek followed by sobbing.
“Should I?” Grant asked quietly.
“No,” Hendricks replied without meeting his eyes.
“Why? Why?” Regrette screamed.
And then he began to laugh.
“It’ll take more than that.”
“Maybe we should go,” Kaskey suggested.
“Yeah,” Grant agreed.
“What’s that?” Regrette asked with fear. “Oh,” he then said calmly. “Well, bring it on.”
They all got up.
“You’ll pay for that,” Regrette said with menace and then screamed a scream that turned to maniacal laughter.
As they left the tent he began singing Aycher’s Ode before there was a thump and they all stopped. They heard snoring.
“I’ll get him to bed,” Grant said.
“I’ll help,” Kaskey said.
“No. See you in the morning.”
“I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. Please don’t. Please don’t,” Regrette murmured.
“Alright,” Kaskey said eventually.
The next morning Kaskey got up to find Grant already up and talking to Tsyrker in the middle of the camp. The day was cold but bright and Kaskey knew it would quickly heat up. All around the camp people were getting out of tents and there were already people in the mess tent preparing breakfast.
He took the chance to look back between the tents and across the grey plain to the distant hills. There were stories here; one big story of how the planet had ended up like this, but he couldn’t imagine them. The trained eyes of people like Rorckshift and Hendricks could see them, could imagine times long past, but he could not. What he could understand was that even in something seemingly dead there were stories buried under the surface. That whatever a place, or a person, was like now, there had been a process to get there. Stories.
“Morning,” he turned to find Grant behind him. “Sleep well?”
“’Sbeen a long time since I camped, but yeah. What’s happening?”
“Breakfast then we’ll meet in Rorckshift’s tent.”
“Sometime in the night.”
“And Regrette?” Kaskey asked and Grant looked over his shoulder at the hills.
“He got up early and went for a walk. He’ll be back soon. I don’t need to tell you…”
“Not to mention last night,” Kaskey finished.
Grant smiled and took his shoulder.
“Come on, let’s eat.”
They all sat or stood around the table in Rorckshift’s tent. Both Gulch and Rainsford sat in front of portable computers as news rolled in from overnight.
“Five bars were bombed, all belonging to Gothra,” Gulch reported.
“Yes,” Tsyrker said. “Followed by two alleged Shen Mi bars and a warehouse. We have to assume that’s a Shen Mi front too.”
“She has good information,” Rorckshift said.
“Gothra or Rain?” Kaskey asked and Rorckshift thought about it.
“The Desards would know Shen Mi operations,” Grant said.
“She’s showing that she won’t back down,” Regrette mused. “Gothra, not Rainsford.”
“It seems mighty foolish,” Hendricks thought.
“Jayfad Loxiir was then assassinated,” Gulch said.
“Ran the Yxin City operation for Gothra,” Tsyrker said. “Who replied with five random shootings of Shen Mi out in public and, this is interesting, a missile attack on a building that turned out to be a Shen Mi stronghold in Ictopia.”
“She has got good intel,” Grant agreed.
“And it seems the Shen Mi were buying time to plant explosives in the Loggajello,” Gulch said. “Massive damage to it reported, and the surrounding roadways and buildings.”
“Mssh, I lost a cufflink there,” Regrette commented.
“Why haven’t they just attacked her HQ?” Kaskey asked.
“They’ll be scoping it out first. Often it’s not worth it, too well protected; they’ll lose a lot of men trying to get in when they could just assassinate her in the future,” Tsyrker explained.
“They’ll try if they think they can though,” Grant added.
“It just seems somewhat unlikely,” Rorckshift said. “From what you’ve said, Gothra is a much smaller operation.”
“Yeah,” Kaskey agreed. “And a hustler, not a ganger.”
“That’s where the Desards come in,” Gulch said.
“And where are they getting an army from? Most of the people who work for them don’t even know it,” Regrette asked, looking at Tsyrker.
Tsyrker had been set a task by her boss. To find out any information or links between the Desards and the Shadow Archetype and Koey had also mentioned it. Even she didn’t know if it existed or not, Regrette certainly didn’t think so, and yet her boss seemed to. She wasn’t going to mention any of this to the others, but she thought that perhaps that was where the support was coming from. Koey had said as much. If that were true then either the Desards weren’t throwing Gothra to the wolves, or the Archetype were seeking out a less powerful criminal to raise up as their own.
“I think the Desards made their move because they had outside help,” she said.
“Oh, yes?” Rorckshift asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Forget it. She has sources she won’t even share with Grant.”
“Gothra’s not stupid, she wouldn’t agree to this without the safety of knowing she and her operation can survive. She must have an army behind her.”
“What does that mean for us?” Grant asked her.
“It could be harder getting in than we thought,” Tsyrker replied.
“Rorckshift?” Grant asked.
“Security is tight, we saw the protection Kaskey described to us, but nothing heavier than that. If she’s got it she isn’t showing it. We got to the skyscraper without any trouble. Though, well, we’ve had some experience of sneaking into places.”
“Archaeology that dangerous is it?” Kaskey asked not completely seriously.”
“Sometimes artefacts are in places where the people would happily see them perish in war rather than be preserved,” Rorckshift told.
“It’s OK, we understand that,” Gulch said giving Kaskey a quick glare.
“A ship just exploded taking off from the Space port at Prantz, planet of Oswith,” Tsyrker interrupted. “Reports are sketchy, but it seems to have been smuggling out Ankarian blood.”
“So who’s was it?” Kaskey asked.
“Unsure,” Gulch replied looking back at his screen.
“I think you need to stop and ask yourselves what this Gothra is trying to achieve. What is she getting out of all of this?” Dr. Hendricks asked.
Gothra was working on that as they spoke. She’d expected the attacks and had actually done her best to direct them to lesser targets. She had been partially successful, though the assassination of Loxiir wasn’t planned. The idiot should have stayed indoors as soon as he heard. And the Loggajello? That was a big blow, but it was a terrorist attack, a major tragedy. The Shen Mi had made the mistake of destroying some of the civil engineering around it and the insurance would be there to build it bigger and better with the support of the local government. That would make the Desards happy.
The Desards wanted the Shen Mi’s operations weakened; wanted to make a space that they could muscle into. Yes, they all knew that Gothra’s places would suffer, but the Desards had the money to rebuild them. They were ready, while the Shen Mi were not, to rebuild and swoop into the holes in the Shen Mi Empire. They weren’t really criminals, the Desards, but logisticians; business people. They didn’t have gangs of hard men and women to swoop in and take over the Shen Mi outfits, but rather accountants and contractors ready to build where the rubble lay.
Not that she took them lightly. They ran the same kind of criminal activities as she did; as the Shen Mi did and they didn’t get into that position without being ruthless.
She had ordered murders and carried out enough herself to get to and keep her position; they would have done the same, if not more and worse, to reach where the Desard Family now stood.
She looked at the time.
“Now,” she said into the intercom.
A Shen Mi warehouse went up in flames.
Where the Desards had planned on profiting from her war with the Shen Mi by taking over both; she was planning to profit by taking over the Desard’s business. She had help, help that would like to see both the Desards and the Shen Mi taken out of the picture. And of course, they were also playing her, using her to get what they wanted, but unlike the others, when the dust settled, they were offering her something more than she already had. Safety. Moving up into a realm where the InterG couldn’t touch you, where no one could touch you because you were too rich, too powerful. A realm where even the Councils were in your pocket. She would take her place there, and she would take it from the Desards.
The ship carrying the Ankarian blood was the first part of the puzzle. A closer look would show it’s destination was now owned by the Desards. The first clue for the Shen Mi. If all had gone well, the assassination of Kozin Fo would be there next little clue.
“How is that of importance to our mission?” Grant asked sincerely.
“Well, I am out of the loop somewhat, but from what I’m hearing it doesn’t make sense. She must have known that she would be dragged into a gang war while the Desards sat out of it. How does that benefit her?” Hendricks asked.
“She gets more power from the Desards at the end?” Regrette asked. He’d gathered quite the respect for the Doc.
“If she survives. And if she does then all she’s gained is a new master. That usually means less power, not more.”
“We asked the same question of Cobroy, remember?” Gulch reminded.
“So, how is she getting more power out of this?” Rorckshift asked giving the Doc an approving nod.
“What if she had her own back up?” Kaskey asked.
“She could be playing both sides?” Regrette asked intrigued.
“Err, yeah. I guess.”
“No, it’s a good point, Kas, but does any of this change what we’re doing?” Grant asked.
“It means someone might try to get to the Desards before we do,” Tsyrker said.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Kaskey asked.
“Indeed, saves you the bother,” Hendricks agreed.
Tsyrker tried to hold in a laugh and snickered anyway. That set Regrette off.
“Did I say something funny?” Hendricks asked.
“You know what?” Grant asked. “You’re both just mean.”
“It means we need to stop this,” Tsyrker said.
“Well that’s what we’re doing,” Grant said with impatience, “and we’re not getting any closer with all this supposition.”
It sometimes annoyed him; the other games that were being played, primarily by Tsyrker. She wanted everything to fit to her plans without sharing what they were. It could make things a little difficult, to say the least.
“Kozin Fo has been killed,” Gulch pronounced.
“Oh really?” Regrette said with interest as Tsyrker turned back to her screen.
“And he is?” Kaskey asked.
“Enough,” Grant said firmly and loudly. “This isn’t getting us any closer to Gothra and time is wasting.”
“It’s juicy,” Regrette winked at Kaskey.
“Steve,” Grant reprimanded sharply.
“Mssh,” he said, but stayed quiet.
“We need to know what we’re up against in that building,” Tsyrker said.
“And if she has an army?” Kaskey asked.
“Then we bring our own,” Regrette said with a smile. “I’m sure the Shen Mi would like to get in there and finish this.”
“Yes,” Tsyrker smiled. “We’ll get Mr. V to sing for his supper.”
“They’ll screw us over as soon as they can to take what you need,” Rorckshift asked.
“You can pull out, you’ve got no stake in this,” Grant said.
“You still need to get through to the top, even with the Shen Mi. We’re in.”
“I say, of course,” Hendricks agreed.
“Well we won’t just be knocking on the front doors, Koleermeer gave us another entry,” Grant said.
“I’ll talk to Koey,” Tsyrker said and got up.
It was late afternoon in the city of Pelluu and it was business as usual, but Grant could feel the difference. A tension in the air as if Gothra’s own fear had spread through the air and been inhaled by the populace. If you asked them they would tell you they were fine, but one or two might admit to a vague dread that they couldn’t explain.
Grant was with Gulch and their computing equipment in a hotel room overlooking the city. For this part the computers would be a two man job and no one had wanted to do it (except Gulch) and they had all agreed it should be Grant as he might get recognised.
“Kaskey might too,” he had countered.
“Him?” Regrette had asked. “Nah, highly forgettable face. I can’t even remember what he looks like half the time. Plus look at his hands.”
Kaskey held them up.
“Right? Too big and clumsy for working a computer,” Kaskey said.
Grant knew Regrette was doing this to annoy him, and it was working. And, worse, Regrette knew it was. Shabwozer.
“Leaders lead,” Tsyrker said and Grant knew she was right.
“Do you enjoy this?” Grant asked looking out of the window.
“Of course. We’re taking down another bad guy,” Gulch said from behind his computer screens.
“No, I mean this. Sitting alone in front of a computer, a lot of the time in a small van,” he looked over at him and Gulch looked up from his screens.
“No. No, Ben, this is my world.”
“You don’t get bored?”
“Not at all. You think all the action happens out there?”
“Er, yeah. I guess.”
“Plenty of action goes on in front of these screens, Ben. You guys just never see it. What about the cameras at the Loggajello? That was pretty exciting. Keeping you guys off the screens, plenty of close calls too.”
“Really?” Grant asked with surprise. Surprise tinged with alarm.”
“Mssh, that’s why I don’t tell you guys about it,” Gulch said and looked back to his screens.
Grant stared at him for a couple of seconds and then turned back to the window.
“Did you just say ‘mssh’?”
“Security’s been stepped up,” Rorckshift commented from the pavement seating of a bar. “Looks like patrols.”
“Agreed,” Tsyrker agreed over the radio.
“They’re expecting us? Kaskey asked.
“No,” Rorckshift shook his head. “No reason to think so. If there’s going to be an attack it’s most likely at night.”
“Especially after what’s gone down today.”
“Anybody else noticed the vans?” Regrette asked.
“Not here, no.”
“I know what he’s talking about,” Hendricks said. “One has just passed me again; I’d say a fifteen minute interval.”
“Let’s move and see if we can see one of these vans,” Rorckshift said and got up.
Kaskey followed him as they walked down the road. It had been blocked off for the evening and the bars and restaurants had spread themselves across it. There was a little stage with a band playing a cover of ‘Stargate Lover’.
“Aw, man, murdering a classic,” Kaskey bemoaned.
“A classic? The song, man. You seriously don’t think so?”
“Never heard it before,” Rorckshift shrugged as he marched up the street.
“You’ve never heard Stargate Lover?” Kaskey incredulised as he hurried to keep up.
“No, ‘course you haven’t. Silly me.”
“Is it any good?” Rorckshift tried his hand at small talk.
“Well, yeah. It’s a classic.”
Regrette held back around the corner of an alleyway as a group of four henchmen went past. He counted to five in his head before looking out to see them disappearing into the crowds.
The weather was nice and people were returning home from work on foot and stopping in the city’s parks, restaurants and bars. Lot of computer jobs, working with the Web, and that meant a lot of young people. Add to that tourists who came for the famous nightlife, the beaches and the so-called Party Islands. It was, he considered, an odd place for a Universal crime boss to set up shop. But then that was the point, wasn’t it? Be where you weren’t expected, hide in plain sight and all that.
He headed off in the opposite direction to find a good spot.
As soon as the vans had been mentioned a new plan had formed and after returning to Grant and Gulch to pick up some kit, Rainsford Tsyrker had set out again. She was taking her preferred mode of transport: rooftops. On the ground she could run, fast, of course she could, but it was the obstacles to taking the roofs that really made her fly. Though not actually fly, just, y’know, move really fast. Cooling units to be dodged or leapt; gaps to be jumped; walls to be scaled. Once she got going she just built momentum, and she loved every minute of it.
And so she flew (not literally) across the city, looking for her goal and from the roof of a particularly tall building she saw it and set off again.
She felt alive; as she always did with a purpose, a mission. She loved to move and to be moving; she loved to feel the wind in her hair and the coolness of the air at this height. She loved the excitement of moving over the roofs, but more than that the excitement of being on a mission. Of having a goal, an endpoint, something that would help others. It was all that she had ever wanted to do, ever since she’d been a little girl.
Her Grandmother had taught her that, that she had to look after others, help others. She had taught her how to look after herself so that she could do that. It was her Grandmother who had set her on the path to this and she had always wished she had asked her why. Asked more about her past and how she had known such things. She had asked, of course, when she was young, but Grandmother had always been mysterious or deflective. Now she wished she’d pushed it when she was older, but, as was the way, as a teenager she hadn’t cared.
And now she was using techniques her Grandmother had taught her in those teenage years to navigate across the skyline, with no knowledge of how or why her Grandmother should or would have known how. And here she was at the warehouses she had seen from afar. They were dark and she stopped at a long skylight on a roof and looked in. Each of the warehouses on this street looked to be identical and she moved from skylight to skylight until she found one that seemed suitable. Mostly because it seemed relatively empty.
Not far away on another roof top, Stephen Regrette was setting up. It was another part of his job that he enjoyed, constructing guns. He supposed it was all the jobs that took time and care, but had a definite way of doing them. He loved greasing the parts, cleaning them. He loved sliding each piece into the next and hearing the satisfying clicks as they connected.
But then some of it was that he just loved guns. Partly it was the technology, but it was also what they did. Not the killing people, but the ability to. They were an amazing leveller and could raise up the weakest and make them a killer. And taking a life was the ultimate power. But that meant that you had to go one step beyond. There was a saying, he thought it was from Earth, about taking a knife to a gunfight, well there were people like him that had trained to be able to do just that and still win. All through the Universe were examples of martial arts that took discipline, skill and training and that could help you to win even in a gunfight. But they, for the most part, also preached self-defence, the ability to fight in order not to and that was the other thing Regrette liked about guns. That even though they were a leveller, even though they put power into your hands, most of the Universe chose not to own one, not to use one. To make their way through the Universe, rich or poor; weak or strong, through methods other than violence or the threat of it. Because in the end, guns, the use of a machine to give yourself power, were the ultimate weakness.
He also liked the noise they made.
Now he had his sniper rifle assembled and loaded in a clip. This wasn’t ultimate power because he was shooting tranquiliser darts rather than laser bolts. With the clip loaded he laid the gun down on its stand and put an eye to the scope. He swept right and then left along the street below him; it was almost deserted, obviously a linking road as the odd couple or car came along, but none stopped and Regrette could see nothing worth stopping for.
He tracked a lone man as he walked the length of the street and then followed a car going back the other way.
“OK, gentlemen, here it comes,” Hendricks told them from the other end of the street.
Rorckshift and Kaskey got ready, one on either side of the street. Kaskey was just leaning against a building with a large bottle of Pargkat beer, Rorckshift in a doorway holding a small box that, via Gulch, could change the traffic lights at this end of the road.
The van came into view and Rorckshift let a car go through the intersection before changing the lights to red and the van began to slow. As it did so Kaskey began to make his way drunkenly across the road. He smacked into the front corner of the van and gave a yell of pain and surprise.
“What did you do that for, man?” he shouted at the driver.
The driver just waved him to move on.
“What? No, man you hit me,” Kaskey shouted and began to move to the driver’s window.
As both of the occupants looked at Kaskey, Rorckshift sprinted out and wrenched open the other door, hitting the passenger with a stun gun. As the driver reacted to this sudden change Kaskey did the same. They quickly shoved the bodies over the seats and into the back and then pulled the doors closed.
“We have a van,” Rorckshift told the radio.
“OK, I have their radio hacked and have you all linked up to it. No sign of code words or authentication checks. Sign offs are ‘copy’ and ‘copy out’,” Gulch told them. “I have groups mapped by radio usage and am doing my best to designate them. Kas? Your van is designated Van Tau, understood?”
“Understood, Control,” Kaskey came back.
He wasn’t ‘control’, Kaskey was just being cheeky. It irked Gulch as this was through an official channel and Rorckshift and Hendricks were listening. But then he scorned himself for it. He didn’t want Kaskey to lose his cheekiness, didn’t want this job to burn out his sense of humour. And he knew that Kaskey was professional, knew he would give his best.
But still, he didn’t want Rorckshift or Dr. Hendricks thinking he’d named himself ‘Control’. He frowned to himself and then let it go.
“OK, let’s set the trap,” he said. “Unit Soila, request check on Fadet Street. Reports of a group of people breaking in, copy.”
“On our way, copy out.”
Regrette watched the squad of four enter the street and move slowly along. As nothing happened they sped up, reaching the middle of the street before Regrette laid them low. Kaskey screeched up in the van and he and Rorckshift bundled the bodies into the back.
“Unit Fhir, I’m not getting response from Soila; last location Fadet Street. Check it out, copy.”
“Five minutes away. What are we expecting? Copy.
“Unsure. Proceed with caution. Copy.”
“Coming from the West, Regrette.”
“Copy out,” Regrette replied with a grin and swung his gun to that end of the street.
He got bored waiting and popped them as soon as they’d got a quarter of the way down the street. Again Kaskey and Rorckshift picked them up, but this time they left for the warehouse and Regrette efficiently stripped his gun and moved on.
Before they got to the warehouse they picked up another four person squad that Hendricks had taken down by casually walking up and asking for a light for his pipe. He’d actually had quite a pleasant conversation with one Tarancort about the pleasures of pipe smoking before he downed all four with a stun gun in each hand.
From there they moved on towards the warehouse and Gothra’s tower.
Rainsford Tsyrker sprinted from the shadows as a van passed and leapt forward, grabbing the door handle in mid-air. As the door pulled open she grabbed the frame, pulling it wider, stunned both occupants and, sitting on the drivers lap, pulled the van over to park at the kerb.
Having left the van she was engaged by a unit who radioed for help, though Gulch stopped their signal reaching anyone. As the unit took chase down a street they were taken down by Regrette on the roof. Again Kaskey and Rorckshift were there to pick up the bodies and then they took them to the warehouse to unload.
And so a corridor was opening up through the city and through it Grant was now directing a large (though spread out for disguise) army of Shen Mi soldiers. Not that he thought of them as soldiers, thugs really. Just thugs that all fought for one boss. He’d seriously considered ways to kill them when they were all in one place and then hope they could get through to Gothra anyway. But the plan was the plan and they needed an army to fight an army. And they were now in no doubt there was an army in there. Both Rain and Steve had done a recon on Gothra’s tower and were sure that there was a lot of activity in there. He was surprised that Regrette hadn’t come back with some token to show that he’d been inside, if Gothra had been a hit then he would have found a way in. Though not without weeks of preparation, well maybe only days in Regrette’s case. The fact that he hadn’t made Grant think the place really was locked down tight, but he also knew that Regrette, when working with him, stuck to the plan. He respected Grant and Grant had never really worked out why, but he wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardise the plan.
Gulch was working hard next to him, continuously talking to either Gothra’s roving units or their own gang and in-between blocking radio calls for help and answering calls to units that were even now unconscious in a warehouse. He took the time to marvel and appreciate what Gulch did for him, for them. He was skilled and calm under a huge amount of pressure. One wrong move and those in the field could die and yet no stress wrinkled his brow. How many times had he saved Grant’s life by doing this and never told? He always said everything had been fine and insisted that the three of them in the field had done all the hard and dangerous work. But it wasn’t true. When all this was over he should probably give Gulch a nice long holiday.
He himself was working from a map that Gulch had set up on a larger monitor, giving directions to the numerous groups of Shen Mi, telling them which ways to turn to follow the corridor and helping them avoid any of Gothra’s units that strayed into it.
He’d never met, nor heard of this Koey V, but he’d done a good job in convincing the Shen Mi to come. Especially as not only had the last time been a trap, but Koey had been involved in it. According to Regrette this was a good chance to convince the Shen Mi that Koey had nothing to do with it and shouldn’t be murdered by them. So he had and a Cantorvial by the name of Darckin had gotten in touch with Grant. He was still suspicious, but Grant could do Koey’s job better than Koey could. He knew what to say to make the deal, how to act and Darckin had agreed to it.
The Shen Mi were well connected, they knew that Gothra was well guarded and knew she would be until such time as this gang war had ended and she felt that she had shown enough strength for the Shen Mi to leave her alone. It was the way of such things, if you couldn’t end a gang within a certain time the war would eventually fizzle out and everyone would go back to normal, accepting that neither could get the upper hand. Knowing that to try again would be to spark another conflict. Gothra’s downfall would be that she thought of the Shen Mi as just another gang; no, they would not stop until she was in a very public grave.
Well not very public. It was a curse for the Shen Mi, the need to be secretive. It worked for them for the most part, but it meant that they couldn’t always do things they wanted to as it could draw attention to their existence. It was why they couldn’t launch a flagrant attack on Gothra’s skyscraper, send a Missile ship in to blow it up. As much as they’d like to. Still, they would kill Gothra and make sure the people who needed to know got the message.
When contact had been made it had gone to the top (considering how the last meet went for them) and Darckin had been with the Organisation for long enough to know that those at the top were wondering how someone as relatively low level as Gothra had gotten the drop on them. He knew that there were others like him looking into who might be pulling Gothra’s strings. For him to be tasked with this, for the Gang Leaders to risk another alliance, meant that they were worried and wanted to shut Gothra down as quickly as possible.
All of which meant that Grant was directing a number of small groups across the city, telling each one where to turn left or right; when to stop; when to go. It was exhausting, especially as they were staggered to surround the skyscraper and because the groups continued to split down smaller as they got closer.
Another dot representing a unit of Gothra’s henchmen disappeared and Grant commanded a group to proceed before splitting up at the next intersection.
Ahead of the Shen Mi the last marauding unit was picked up and taken to the warehouse. It was now brimming with Gothra’s gang and Tsyrker had left a gas bomb in there, slowly letting out its contents and keeping the gangers in a contented sleep. It was up to poor Gulch to play the right pre-recorded message for the right unit every time they were asked to check in and do his best impression if the recordings wouldn’t cut it. So far though, so good.
Hendricks stood in the shadows and watched the front doors. It was hard to see anything through them due to the angle and the tinting on the glass. For all intents and purposes it looked like any of the other skyscrapers that he had passed and had seen throughout the Universe. There was no obvious sign of guards or protection, but he supposed that would give away the true nature of the building.
They’d been briefed on what to expect by the lovely Rainsford. Such a nice girl for such a hard line of work. Rorckshift had spoken about her, he seemed to know more about her than she was letting on. Not that he was letting on too much either as it seemed to have a lot to do with his own shady past. It was all very enjoyable, all the mystery and adventure, Hendricks smiled to himself.
“Oh, Rainsford, how did you get here?”
He was in a service doorway and there was only enough room to fit two people snugly in the shadow. And yet she had joined him without him noticing.
“I was thinking about you,” he replied.
She glared at him.
“Oh, not like that. Just about how nice you seem for someone doing this type of thing.”
“I come across nice?” she asked gruffly.
“Is that your talent? Reading people ‘underneath’?”
“No need to be mean, dear.”
“I’m a very secretive person.”
“So I’ve noticed, it’s tremendous fun,” he smiled warmly.
She just stared into his eyes and then her face softened.
“You’d get on well with Regrette.”
“He’s a nice fellow, isn’t he?”
“You’re a strange one, Doc. What’s it look like?” she pointed to the building with her chin.
“All quiet. No one in or out. No one even walking past.”
“You remember what I said?”
“Yes. They use skyscrapers so they can use the lower, and sometimes upper floors as protection. Set up with traps or blinds for people to fire from.”
“Right. Hard to know what kind of tech she’ll have in there. It won’t be the most elaborate set up, but we’re banking on a lot of henchmen.”
“Indeed. A good old fashioned gunfight,” Hendricks said before putting his, unlit, pipe in his mouth.
“Are you this chirpy about everything?”
“You’ve got to look on the bright side, haven’t you, dear?”
“If you say so. Look, here are the Shen Mi.”
Regrette sat on yet another roof and looked down at the view he had of the front doors to Gothra’s tower. He could also see the other entrance that Tsyrker and the rest would be using. He methodically put his sniper rifle back together and laid out the two types of rounds he would be using. No more tranquilizing, now he was euthanizing. He looked at the other rounds he had and smiled. And vaporising.
He watched his comrades gather and skitter around buildings to the second entrance that they knew about thanks to Koleermeer. Around the skyscraper he could see pockets of Shen Mi gathering as well. Finally they were taking a big step towards the Desards and his reckoning with Hewy.
It was the moment of truth as they stood in front of the door. It was hidden in a separate building and entered the skyscraper through a shaft that came out in the fifth floor atrium. It was a secret entrance for those that might be seen entering and raise suspicion as to what the building held. And the question was, had Koleermeer given them real information? Were they about to trip a very loud, very insistent alarm?
Tsyrker looked at the others, waggled an eyebrow and then punched in the code. The door whirred, clicked and then slid open.
“No alarms triggered,” Gulch said. “Making a scan now.”
They waited for Gulch to scan for other alarms or trips using a device Tsyrker was carrying.
When he told her to, she moved forwards slowly and the rest followed tensely. The corridor sloped gently down and it was nicely appointed, meant for guests; meant to show them that Gothra had money, class and taste.
“Is that a Homiere?” Hendricks asked stopping at one of the paintings.
“Not one I recognise,” Rorckshift said.
“Exactly,” the good Doctor nodded.
“The piece stolen from The Saadlemaaj?” Rorckshift incredulised.
“I jolly well think so,” Hendricks nodded.
“Is this the time?” Kaskey asked over their shoulders.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” Rorckshift said sternly.
“You taking it with us?” Kaskey asked. “He is, he’s taking it with us.”
Tsyrker looked at him, but merely shook her head to herself and continued on.
They didn’t come across anyone and eventually arrived at the shaft with a lift that was on the upper floor. There was an emergency ladder however, and after Tsyrker had accessed it with a code, they took that. Rorckshift with a painting under one arm.
They reached the floor and Rorckshift checked that the coast was clear as Tsyrker got in touch with the Shen Mi. The plan was simple; the Shen Mi would go through the front doors (they had the codes) and as henchmen amassed there to stop them, Tsyrker, Kaskey, Hendricks and Rorckshift would attack from behind. That initial entry was going to be the toughest part but pretty much everyone got freaked when they realised they were being attacked on both sides. Most people got freaked when attacked by a bee. Or simply passed by one.
There was an explosion below them because, of course, the Shen Mi had to make an entrance, but it worked in their favour as henchmen poured down the stairways to meet the threat. So many went by that Kaskey thought they could probably just stroll up the rest of the way. Tsyrker counted to twenty after the last henchmen went past and then motioned the others to follow her as they crossed the corridor and went down the stairs, guns up and down.
“OK, light them up on the tenth,” Tsyrker said.
“About time,” Regrette replied.
He fitted a rocket round onto the end of his barrel and slammed in the propellant clip. He took aim through the scope, finding the best window on the tenth floor and fired. Quick as lightning he ejected the clip and slammed in another and fired a laser blast at the armoured window. It cracked but didn’t break, but it was enough and the rocket round smashed through the window and exploded inside.
Fighting was fierce and hampered by the smoke and debris from Regrette’s hits, but they were making better progress that Tsyrker had thought. Regrette’s hits were as accurate as ever and taking out a number of henchmen before they even reached that floor.
The lower floors were set up as offices and though they seemed to be actually used, they had been empty at this time of the night. The floors were open plan and the two gangs had rushed into hand-to-hand combat on the first floor. Even their small group shooting into the fray was enough to panic the guards and once the tide had turned they headed back up the stairs ahead of any Shen Mi. They didn’t hit trouble until the sixth floor.
Now Tsyrker was in a room, hiding behind a blind (just a small concrete wall with a fancy name) shooting at henchmen behind similar blinds. Rorckshift and Kaskey were behind one to her right and suddenly the shooting stopped and Hendricks waved his pipe above the blinds.
They ran forward.
“How’d you get there?” Tsyrker asked.
“Sneakily,” he replied, clamping the pipe between his teeth.
“Don’t doubt the Doc, Tsyrker, he could have been one of us,” Rorckshift said seriously.
“One of us?” Kaskey asked all eyebrows raised.
“I’ll kill you myself, son,” Rorckshift said affably.
“Not asking no questions, me. No questions.”
They ran on through a door.
Things were not going as well as expected for Gothra and henchmen were pouring back through the streets to protect the skyscraper. Things went less well for them when they fell to Regrette’s sniping. He wouldn’t be able to do it for much longer though, the piles of bodies made it obvious that there was a sniper about and surely even now they were combing the nearest buildings for him. Good job he was a crack shot that didn’t need to be in one of the nearest buildings. Mssh, nearest buildings were for amateurs. Though, looking at the bodies, he was probably still pushing his luck being here. Maybe one last rocket round into the skyscraper? Well, why not, Stephen, why not?
Inside and they were currently stuck in a maze. The whole floor was just a tangle of corridors, some leading nowhere, some booby-trapped. Said traps seemed to mostly be set off by invisible trip lasers and Hendricks was leading them slowly through, using the smoke from his pipe to show up the lasers. Once they came across one they doubled back on the assumption that the path through was unbooby-trapped.
“Y’know there must be another way around,” Kaskey said.
“Indeed,” Hendricks agreed. “We haven’t seen anyone come through.”
“It’s a bit late for that,” Tsyrker irked.
Another two floors up and they were once again in actual usable office space and were once again caught up in a firefight.
“That door there, I would think,” Hendricks mused to Kaskey as he fired his machinegun over a desk.
“Right you are, Doc,” Kaskey agreed.
“Go check it out, get those Shen Mi up past the maze,” Rorckshift commanded.
“Hold on,” Tsyrker shouted shooting two henchmen. “We want space between us and them, they can’t get to Gothra’s office before we do.”
“Perhaps we could radio and tell them to hold. I feel terrible about letting them die in that maze,” Hendricks said.
“They’re just as bad as the one’s you’re shooting,” Tsyrker pointed out.
“But they are currently on our side,” he retorted.
“Alright, Kas, get on it.”
They’d been forced to let the Shen Mi through the maze as they had encountered heavy resistance on what they were told was the floor below Gothra’s office. There wasn’t a lot of protection for them and Gothra’s henchmen had been well embedded.
With the Shen Mi they had managed to smash the first line of defence, to heavy casualty and now they were spreading out through the floor. Tsyrker pushed them through to the stairs, only reaching there because of Tsyrker and Rorckshift’s battle skills against so many foes (Rorckshift doing it all while still holding the painting). The stairs were ornate and led up to an almost entirely open floor. A large, well decorated reception room seemed to be the largest and as they went through (there were no henchmen, really if you got this far then what was the point?) they found a deserted control hub filled with maps and monitors.
Kaskey tried one, but nothing happened.
“Wiped?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you?” Rorckshift asked him, fiddling with another computer.
“I guess,” Kaskey shrugged.
“It’s thorough,” Tsyrker said from another computer.
“Agreed,” Rorckshift agreed.
They moved on to Gothra’s office to find it empty.
“It’s empty,” a Shen Mi decried and Tsyrker shot him.
“Hide that body and don’t let anymore get up here.”
“We’ve got her,” Rorckshift said into the radio. “Make sure we’ve got a safe exit.”
While he spoke, Tsyrker got on the computer and it looked as if the wipe had somehow been stopped or malfunctioned. All that was left was some information on Gothra’s lower level dealings and all the information on the Desards’ involvement with the Bangkok hit. So she was selling the Desards out.
She hit a few buttons and the computer wiped itself clean. She put a laser blast into it to make sure.
“Gulch? Come and pick us up.”
“Inbound in five.”
“So?” Hendricks asked as they moved up to the roof.
“So she’d left information about the Desards. The Shen Mi were supposed to find it when they attacked the skyscraper.”
“Just enough protection to make the fight feel hard won,” Rorckshift said.
“Here we are.”
“You left the gift, Kas?”
“All wrapped up in a bow.”
“Bomb, I say again bomb, get out, get out now,” Rorckshift said urgently into the radio. “Gothra’s office is rigged, evacuate now.”
They ran up to the roof and piled into the waiting Lark before it dusted off.
“I’m not sure I like this,” Hendricks said.
“The fewer Shen Mi in the Universe the better,” Tsyrker replied.
“I’m not sure Grant would like it either.”
“I agree, man,” Kaskey said.
“Grant’s not here. We hide our tracks if we want to go after the Desards.”
Hendricks frowned to himself, but said nothing. He’d agreed to tag along, but he wasn’t a part of this and he was reminded to be thankful for that.
Rorckshift frowned at him as if to say ‘sorry’ before he hit the button and the skyscraper exploded.
“Grant won’t like that,” Gulch said over the intercom.
“Ooh, Grant’s going to be having words with someone,” Regrette sang gleefully. “Stern words.”
Kaskey wasn’t sure, but he thought a look of worry and perhaps regret came over Rainsford’s face.
While they were searching her office, Gothra was comfortably landing at her little known private hideout. Nothing big nor fancy, nothing that would make you think a Universal gangster was there. Just enough tech to keep running her business.
She hoped that Koleermeer would be there; she hadn’t heard from him since the hit, but that wasn’t surprising since he was supposed to be lying low. She wasn’t worried as the hit had gone off just as she had hoped and if he’d been caught the Shen Mi would have let her know by now, or one of her spies would have. No, everything was going to plan; well, the Shen Mi had attacked somewhat sooner than she had thought they would. Hoped they would, but it would just decimate their numbers further and it was what she, they, wanted anyway.
So she hoped Koleermeer would be hiding out here as she wanted to hear about it from him, having been there. She would have loved to see the look on the Shen Mi’s faces when they realised they’d been had. She walked into her comfortable control room to find that he was indeed waiting for her there.
“Koleermeer,” she seethed.
“Don’t blame him,” Grant said. “We kinda convinced him the whole thing was a set up to assassinate him.”
“And he squawked like a Throttlefinch. Perhaps I should have whacked him.”
“Seems like a nice guy. As far as criminal scum go.”
“And what is it that you want? If you were Shen Mi I’d be dead already.”
“That,” he pointed to her computer.
Unfortunately none of the tech worked. It was a pretty standard set up because it was a good one. None of the technology worked without a key. Usually another computer though it could just be a chip. Something that completed the circuit, as it were. The down side was it meant those carrying the key were prone to kidnap and all sorts of other nasty things. He didn’t think it would matter anyway, he suspected all of the data he needed would be there on her portable computer.
“I don’t think so,” she smiled a tight smile.
So this was the man who had been messing with her plans. The one’s who were in Bangkok (she had to assume Grantok had failed and that she could erase his number from her phone) and probably the ones who took down her casino. And now? Now they’d gotten Koleermeer to tell them all he knew in return for protection and that was how the Shen Mi had gotten to her office so much quicker. But this man wasn’t working for the Shen Mi, she knew that by looking at him.
“I am curious though; I assume it was you at my casino.”
“What can I say? I love Kuutio and hate slave labour.”
“Hmm, very droll. But why? What are you getting out of all of this?”
“You see, that’s the problem with you guys…”
“Us guys? You mean criminal scum?”
“Exactly. You think everything is about what you can get out of it. That’s life for you, but that isn’t life.”
“Oh, pleeeease, spare me. You did all this just to give me a moral lesson?”
“Nope. I did all of this to get that computer.”
“And, valkswagon, why?”
“I want the Desards.”
“Seriously? Oh, and I thought you guys were serious. Clued in, but you’re not. I’m not fighting the Shen Mi, I’m setting them up to fight the Desards. I would’ve happily given them to you.”
She laughed incredulously.
“And how would your masters feel about that?” Grant asked calmly.
“I have no masters,” she screamed at him.
For a moment he thought she was going to throw the computer at him and then she calmed.
“Well, either way, that wasn’t going to happen and we both know it. So now we’re in a position to chat,” Grant smiled nicely at her.
“Yes. Yes, we are.”
“And I would love for that to happen,” Grant said pulling his gun, “but it’s not going to and we both know that too.”
He watched her eyes flick from the gun to him, to around the room. Judging the situation, judging him, looking for the best way to proceed. The best way to defeat him.
“We don’t have to do this,” Gothra said and was annoyed at the hint of pleading in her voice.
“Uh-hmm,” he said quietly.
“No, you’re right,” Grant said brightly, “we should watch some TV.”
He used a remote to turn it on; the only thing that worked without the key. He flicked to a news channel and sure enough the news came on.
Showing her building with smoke pouring out of it.
Underneath was information telling them that it was a suspected bomb on a skyscraper that records said held a number of small businesses.
“That was my people. I tell you, I’m not that pleased they did it, but well… That’s a lot of Shen Mi and whoever you were given, off of the street.”
“I wasn’t given anyone,” she retorted crossly.
Grant held up his hands.
“Alright, alright. They were all your own people,” he ironicalised.
“I hate you already,” she seethed, her eyes slits of hate.
“Because I know more than you’d like,” Grant smiled at her. “What this serves to illustrate, Gothra, is we’re not above taking people out of the equation. Not always through a bomb though.”
He thought about it.
“Mostly not with bombs; I really need to have a word with them about that,” he frowned.
“You’re just stalling for time. I’m never coming with you; I’m never giving you this information and you’ll never crack the passcodes, so it’s all been for shabbus.”
“You underestimate us.”
“You’re weak,” she spat. “All your morals, but you don’t have the backbone to…”
He shot her between the eyes.
“You better be able to crack these passwords.”
“Nothing to it,” Gulch said rather too brazenly for Grant’s liking.
Gulch was a lot of things, but brazen wasn’t one of them.
“Where are you?”
“Five minutes away.”
Grant looked down at the body of Gothra. He too was many things and he would like to think a murderer wasn’t one of them, but you couldn’t argue with the facts. And he had chosen this path, had chosen to go after the Desards and in doing so had placed himself in a world above the InterG, one that was more in tune with the Regrette’s and Tsyrker’s of the Universe. You didn’t get to be nice, you didn’t get to let people go with a warning. You couldn’t send people like Gothra to the InterG, she’d be released before you got the engine running.
This was the first, and if he was going to put the Desards up against the wall then he had to have no mercy. They would show him none; they would rip him apart at the first hesitation, but at the same time, to do that meant to be like them. Criminals, and many non-criminals, ran on greed and there was no mercy, no compassion; no empathy for anyone who stood between them and what they wanted. By killing Gothra had he been the same? No mercy for her as she stood between him and his target. When you entered the Underworld; when you went after this type of evil; who was first against the wall? Them, or you?
“How dramatic,” Regrette said from the door and Grant turned and looked at him solemnly. Regrette became serious. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I’m not so cold.”
“No. Sorry,” Grant looked again at the body. “But how do you do it?”
“After a while you become so stained you can’t remember what you looked like clean.”
“No,” Grant shook his head. “That’s not it.”
“You take a picture, you keep it safe, remember what you looked like and promise you’ll get back there one day. Little by little you try to wash yourself free,” Regrette said, not looking at his friend.
“And can you?” Grant looked him in the eye.
Regrette met his gaze.