by KD Sarge
No, no, no…Joss fought tangled sheets, fumbled till he hit something that stopped the beeping. He sagged back to the bed, buried his face in a pillow. A chuckle replaced the alarm’s efforts to keep him awake.
“That’s your wake-up call, you know,” Bran said. Or Bren. Brin? A hand stroked Joss’ hair and down his back. “Time to go catch bullets!”
“…go ’way…” Joss mumbled. Ugh. Morning-happy. Knew the guy had to have a flaw.
“It’s my bed!” Bren said, laughter in his voice.
“…go ’way come back wi’ coffee…” Yeah. Bren. That was it.
“Fine.” The bed shifted as Bren slid out the other side. “But only because you ask so sweetly.” Soft creak as the door opened, then the snick of a latch as it closed. Joss cranked one eye open to peer at the chronometer he’d just beaten. Scowled a moment until he realized it was on Standard time. What the hell? He poked it to planet-local and grumbled. Time to move. If he moved fast and the subway was actually running, he might even be early.
Yeah, couldn’t have that. Instead Joss rolled onto his back to grin at the ceiling. Pretty. Beams. Medieval-like. Hadn’t noticed that last night. Bren must really like his antiquities. The house was big and expensive; if Bren had wanted doors that opened themselves, he could have afforded them.
Joss stretched, taking note of what hurt and how much. Each new ache brought back a piece of the night before, widening his grin. Had better be one hell of a breakfast headed his way. He’d earned it.
But if he waited for breakfast in bed, he’d be late. Really late, rather than his usual few minutes give or take. Joss sighed and sat up. Somewhere out there a door opened and after a long moment closed, but no coffee appeared and neither did the handsome writer with the great smile. Had Bren got lost in his own house? Joss didn’t even smell coffee yet.
Maybe he’d got distracted, daydreaming of last night. Joss shook back hair that “burned as brightly as his soul” and decided he’d better go fetch. Maybe the door noise had been the mailman delaying Joss’ proper appreciation.
Going naked might give Bren ideas Joss didn’t have time for, so he snagged a robe from the closet and went after his caffeine. Door, hall, corner, scratching his back—Joss froze.
Bren’s eyes snapped to Joss. The gun behind Bren’s head spat fire. The gunshot and a scream rolled over Joss as Bren’s lifeless body toppled from knees to face-down.
Joss snatched a metal fan off the wall as the gun jerked to aim at him. What the—? Damn, hell, another intruder, holding a struggling girl. The room he hadn’t noticed last night sank in. Statues, antiques, exotic and ancient weapons…
Bless Bren the collector! Joss threw the fan, snatched a spear and stabbed the gunman’s ankle as the guy dodged the fan, used the spear-butt to crack hostage-taker’s knee, back again, disarm—
Gun dropped, hostage freed—she’d bit him—Joss batted the gun across the room, grounded the spear and grinned.
The gunman reached into his jacket. Joss stabbed, too slow. Hissing and smoke, hell! Joss dove at the girl, connected with a firm body and knocked her to the floor. She screamed and fought him.
Fuck that. Joss rolled away, to his feet but low. He’d heard the door. Didn’t mean they were gone. He put a sleeve over his face, blinked as his eyes teared.
“Daddy?” called a soft voice from where Joss had just been.
Oh effing hell. Kid, maybe a teen, in spacer’s clothes with a travel bag—
“Oh God,” the girl said, and coughed. “Oh my God.”
Joss closed his eyes and pictured the room as best he could. Did a zombie lurch to a window and found the latch no more antiquated than one from back home. He threw open the window and got a big gulp of air, went and got the girl and pushed her head out the window. Didn’t push her the rest of the way when she started struggling. Damn teenagers. Joss gulped more air and searched out another window, scraping his shin and nearly losing the robe on the way.
When he had a window to himself he leaned out, breathing and swearing. What the hell, what the hell? Who went right into a man’s house and executed him? Krishni Tribe ran this patch, didn’t they? Krishni hardly ever killed anyone! So what—didn’t matter. Get out. Take the girl if she’d go, and—shit. Had to call the cops. If he didn’t, and the mess landed in Rukya’s lap—
The girl’s head disappeared from the other window. Joss ducked back inside and intercepted before she got to the body. The smoke had risen, but the smell stuck. Chemical stink, gunpowder, blood…
“Here,” Joss said to the girl. Kid. Teen? Barely. “Why don’t you—” Joss shoved a door. Kitchen. Good. “—make coffee,” he finished. Keep her busy. Avoid hysterics, right? “I’ll call the police.”
“Who—who are you?”
“Joss,” Joss said. “You could make breakfast. Bunch of cops.” He shut the door behind her. If the kitchen was as low-tech as the rest of the house, that should keep her a while. Joss looked around and found the phone.
Reporting the murder was hindered by Joss’ not knowing the address. He had to go outside and look. Of course he didn’t think of that until the woman on the phone asked. Joss told her what she needed to know—murder, witnesses, address, evildoers gone—and hung up. That wasn’t his brightest move ever. Off the phone, Joss was alone with the body.
The smoke had cleared, leaving a large bright room full of things. The one object that held Joss’ attention lay on the floor before him, golden skin clad only in red boxers, remaining hair a bloody mess. A crimson pool lay around what was left of the head.
Damn. Not eight hours ago they’d staggered in the door laughing, stumbled into the wall and—
Joss shook his head and walked away. Clothes. Find clothes, because he wasn’t dead and that meant he had to go to work.
Suit coat, sock, cane—if he’d had that when he’d come around the corner…Joss hooked the cane over a doorknob and piled the rest as he found each piece, walking wide around the body and not looking at it. He found his tie hanging from the helmet of a tall statue but it snagged when he tried to get it with the cane so he left it there. The girl tried to come out. Joss asked her for a cup of coffee and some bacon. She stared a moment, but she went back into the kitchen.
The doorbell sounded and Joss opened the door.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the woman officer said, “but we had a report—”
“Yeah.” Joss opened the door wider and stepped aside. The girl came back right then and the officers clutched at guns then relaxed. Joss aimed the girl at the woman officer. “This is his kid. I guess.”
Daniels, according to her badge, did a double take, then put an arm around the kid. The girl promptly fell into little crying pieces. Daniels shot Joss a disgusted glare and guided the girl toward the kitchen, leaving Joss with her partner.
And without his coffee that the girl hadn’t handed over yet. No bacon, either.
Partner glanced at the pile of clothes, looked Joss up and down with particular attention to the robe and the long loose red hair, and sighed. Joss waited for the comment but it didn’t come.
“Right,” Joss snapped finally. “I’m getting a shower.”
Officer Chhreti, or so his badge named him, had droopy eyes that opened wider at Joss’ announcement, but he didn’t say anything as Joss scooped up his pile of clothes. He did follow Joss out of the room.
“You live here?” he asked as they walked down the hall.
“I know the way from the door to the bedroom.” No real questions, not even his name. Just how big was this mess, that the cops knew already not to dig too deep? Maybe he should just leave town now.
“Ahh,” Officer Chhreti said. “What’s the girl’s name?”
“Asleep when you arrived?”
“Guess so.” Hell. The cop really didn’t give a damn, did he? Shit. Bren deserved better than—
Bren was dead. Joss wasn’t. And to stay not-dead, he’d steer clear of big fucking messes. If the cops weren’t touching it, sure as hell he wasn’t.
As Joss had vaguely remembered or imagined, the master bedroom contained a master bath. Officer Chhreti followed Joss into the room without comment and Joss didn’t give enough of a damn to comment either. He turned the water on, and gave a second’s warning before he dropped the robe. Chhreti turned his back. Joss opened the glass door and stepped into the huge stall with four different fixtures that was pretty much paradise and damn it if not for the bastards with guns he and Bren might have—
No, there was the kid. Hell. Bren hadn’t even mentioned her. What if she’d come out while they were still in the foyer last night?
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” the cop asked finally. Joss scrubbed himself as he told the story from the moment Bren caught his eye at the bookstore, leaving out the really good bits. He got all the way up to calling the cops before the guy interrupted.
“You sent her to make breakfast?”
“So she wouldn’t—” Joss flapped a hand the officer couldn’t see. “You know. Get all screamy. Hysterical.”
“Known a lot of women like that, have you?”
“Where’d you say you worked again?” Now, finally, the guy pulled a notepad from his back pocket. Too much to hope a cop might have better technology. Only the richest tribes had hand-held electronics.
“Fukuyo.” Joss had only just learned to say it without a smirk. “Security.”
The notebook sagged as the man turned to stare at him. He coughed and turned back around.
“Fukuyo,” he said. “You guys are supposed to be tough.”
“I didn’t get shot. Like to see you manage it.”
“There is that. I’ll tell you, though,” the cop pulled out a pen and started scribbling, “you try to keep Lady Rukya from getting hysterical, she’ll probably shoot you.”
Joss knew damn well she would. That’s why he worked for her.
To Joss, the measure of a good night was easy: was it worth the morning after? In fairness to dead Bren, he might have to revise that standard. Or suspend it, or whatever. It had been a great night, and probably would have been a fantastic morning if not for two uninvited dickheads and one big gun.
Maybe he’d just count the morning separate. In that case, it would go down in the Chronicles of Joss as one of the worst. Definite top-five material. There was the shooting, of course. The bumps and scratches from the girl’s flip-out when he tackled her. The lack of breakfast and lack of time to get any—the lack of coffee. The fact that he was standing in a small crowd of pushy people on a smelly platform underground hoping to anyone/thing that listened that a damned train would come down the tracks in a minute and get his tired hungry ass to work. Bad enough he’d lost his tie. If he had to trot across town to show up an hour late, sweaty, stinky and hungry…
If he got his pay docked again, it was pretty effing certain he’d kill someone.
Stupid train was ten minutes late and counting, and the talkative girl Joss had ditched at the back of the crowd had reported that the last train never showed at all. When Joss snarled she’d shrugged and told him the trains ran better than before, but Joss figured “We show up almost half the time!” was still a bad motto.
Stupid Kari’s Star. Couldn’t even run a damned subway.
“Hey, hey!” called a voice from the back of the milling crowd. “Got a chiva going west up-top! No train’s gonna come, you know?”
Joss put his cane to use and was third in line for the new mode of transportation. Third of the new passengers—the converted bus held some twenty riders already. Joss eyed the garish green and red paint job as he waited for the second guy to get done bargaining. Owned by a tribe-less, then. The staid tribes didn’t like color. Joss shook his head and looked at what was important—the wheels. Many chivas rode on bald and oft-patched tires, but these guys had moved to spoked metal wheels. With new tires costing more than an old car, they’d be easier to maintain, but…ow.
“Where you going, hey?” The porter was a tall thin man with black hair and a curled mustache whose vest matched the chiva’s paint. He looked Joss over from damp hair to good but scuffed shoes, lingering on the dragon-headed cane and the gold hoop in his ear, and jerked his head. “What tribe?”
“Fukuyo headquarters. How much?”
There were advantages to being a tribe-man. Joss stepped on the back wheel and up into the open-air bus. One glance at the line still waiting told him to head for higher ground, so Joss found a spot on someone’s laundry in the front corner of the luggage rack above the driver—both so he could signal when he needed to get off, and because near the driver was likely to be the safest place on the bus. Joss had heard a chiva needed four different licenses to operate legally, but greased palms in the right places worked just as well while costing less.
As he’d expected, the driver and his partner packed people into the chiva until the line was gone. Joss shared the luggage rack with an old woman and her crate of chickens, a lot of bags and boxes, and a couple cuddled together in the back. The rest of the passengers were crammed in below with a big barky dog. A goat and goat kids. A whole lot of human kids. A fetid-smelling “holy man” and his four filthy disciples.
Better to be on top.
Finally the chiva lurched into motion. Joss watched Kari’s Port slide by and thought nasty thoughts about the whole damn planet.
On BFR, walking out of the spaceport was walking into the jungle, untouched and amazing. Wild anything scared Kari’s people, though, so they’d built their capital—and their damned spaceport—on an island, and tamed the whole damn thing. The entire place was buildings and parks and gardens, everything growing where it should and nothing left that was mean enough to take a hand off a fool who wasn’t paying attention.
Unless the fool ran crosswise of a major tribe, anyway. Here and there among the crowded buildings lay a pile of rubble no one had got around to reclaiming yet.
Idiots. Joss spared a thought for Bren and his kid, but shook it away. Bren was dead. And yeah, Taro would have looked after the kid, but he’d have done it by shoving her at Rafe. Joss didn’t have a good-with-crying-people partner. Usually he didn’t need one. Stupid fucking planet.
Some mornings Joss thought he really ought to pack his ass up and go home. Sometimes he thought he never should have effing left. This morning, coffee-less and pissed off anyway, he even wished he’d stayed on the damn Pendragon’s Dream. Even Taro’s badass sister dragging him to “physical training” at 0500 was better than watching these damn fools kill each other over stupid kid squabbles. On the Dream the only ones that acted like kids were kids. And he’d have had effing coffee by now.
Some effing adventure. Saw what, three planets before he left the Dream? Two more before he hit Kari’s? Shit.
The chiva trundled around a curve and headed down the hill, picking up speed. Joss held on and hoped the damn—
“Hey, hey!” came from below, and a brown arm waved out the driver’s window. “A ship! Spaceship, sixty degrees and coming fast!”
The chiva tilted as everyone lunged to see.
“Keep your eyes on the damned road!” Joss shouted as his own eyes searched out the shape of a small courier angling down out of a thin grey sky.
“Yeah, hey,” the driver shouted, thumping the side of the bus. “She’ll get you there!”
Should have taken Taro up on piloting lessons, Joss thought as the winged ship curved around and down, heading for the port on the other end of the island. Sneak over there and steal that damned ship and leave the whole effing mess of stinking stupid Kari’s citizens—
From below came a sonorous voice, invoking the anger of God on the heathen Galactics. A filthy arm extended, casting the curse. Joss thwapped it with his cane, and got his own curse in return.
“Hey, hey,” the driver shouted. “Get out of the way, little car! Coming through!”
Joss forgot the spaceship and the “holy man” in favor of holding on.
Usually when he got to the new headquarters, Joss paused to appreciate the tall hotel with all the modern—for Kari’s—conveniences. Some of the doors opened themselves, and others had doormen, and if a guest paid enough a machine would do his laundry rather than a person…it might not be as modern as the rest of the galaxy, but at least it was fancy.
He should live in luxury, damn it, not just work there.
Even though he didn’t stop to look today, stalking through the lobby lightened his mood, filtered into his walk. Crystal chandeliers, polished stone floors, people in fine clothes…he liked the new HQ. Was about time they showed off a bit, and got the hell out of the boss’ house to boot. Cane in hand, Joss bounced past the group loitering at the elevators. Large security types of the make-it-obvious breed.
Joss spun, swinging his cane up to rest on his shoulder just in case. There were six of them.
“Darling!” he called back.
Caught short, dumbass stared. Joss stepped to pat his cheek.
“Aww! You’re speechless!” He turned away, fluttered a hand over his shoulder. “Ta ta for now, big boy! Catch me later; you can buy me a drink!” Joss trotted up the stairs before big and dumb decided to re-assert his machismo. He just…didn’t feel like another fight today.
“Why do you taunt them?” Dembe Marchal asked, appearing as Joss reached the top of the flight. Joss grinned at his superior—or, as he liked to call him in his mind, Tall, Brown, and Delicious—and tossed his hair.
“Because it’s fun, baby.”
Marchal rolled his eyes. “You’re late. Come on; the boss has a personal assignment for you.”
“Aw, not Kichi again,” Joss protested. “Look, man, I don’t feel good. And I suck at babysitting. My ears haven’t recovered, and I haven’t eaten, and there’s this thing on my toe—”
“Not Kichi. Who has, by the way, come back around to threatening to jump out a window because of you.”
“Gods, it’s been months. I say let her.” Usually Joss had to slow for Marchal, but he was tired. His boss only had to work a little to keep the lead.
“I told you not to dance with him,” Marchal rumbled. “Didn’t I? And look where it got you.”
“You were shaking your head,” Joss answered. “I thought you had a twitch.”
“Joss Ravid, you knew exactly what you were doing. You stole your protectee’s date.”
“Hey, he asked me to dance. Because she wouldn’t. She drove him off being boring and spiteful. I just picked him up.”
“You went home with your boss’s daughter’s boyfriend!”
“Zeke said they’d dated, but they weren’t dating.”
“Was he naked when he said that?”
“Yes,” Joss answered. “And sweaty, and—”
“All right. I don’t care. But damn it, Ravid—” Marchal shook his head. “Dancing with him in front of all her friends. Dancing with him like that!”
“Turned you on, did it?” Mmm, dancing. And after…a brisk game of Chase the Redhead was always fun. As long as Joss was the redhead.
His stomach rumbled, and his head hurt. Good gods, he needed coffee. With a little luck, though, it was just around the corner. Someone had coffee, he could smell it. And if he couldn’t annoy a cup of coffee out of someone—
“For the love of all that’s holy!” Hands grabbed Joss’s shirt, straightened the collar. Tabitha. “Just once couldn’t you come to work looking decent, Joss?”
Hell no, he couldn’t take Tabitha today. Joss caught her hands as she tucked his shirt in. “Back off, babe. Seriously.”
“You better just take the help, babe,” the blonde snarled, twisting free. She whipped off her own tie to wrap around Joss’s neck. “Seriously. Do you have any idea how torqued off the boss is? She was looking for you an hour ago.”
“I wasn’t even supposed to be here till twenty minutes ago!”
Hells, now Marchal was fixing his shirt while Tabitha tied her tie on him.
“Do you know,” Joss demanded, “how effing lucky you are that I’m even here? You wouldn’t believe—”
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” Tabitha interrupted, pulling the tie tight. Joss gagged; she tugged again. “He was gorgeous, he adored you, he was a great lay, and—” she cocked a finger at Marchal, “—you don’t know how the hell you dragged yourself out of bed,” they finished together. “Grow up,” Tabitha went on alone. “Joss, this is important.”
“It’s always fucking important.” Joss batted her hands away from his hair. “Don’t make me kill you.”
“You’re lucky the boss is still stuck in her last appointment.” Tabitha pointed at a door. “Breakfast and coffee are that way, and you’d better get in a good mood, Joss Ravid. You clash with Lady Rukya today and I guarantee she’ll chop you off at the knees.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joss said, already moving towards coffee. Everything would get better after coffee. But when the door opened, Joss forgot liquid sanity to wonder what the hell he’d done to get on karma’s shit list. Zeke Cayden, Heir to Tribe Cayden and spoiled little Kichi’s lost love, turned from the buffet with a smile. Darker than Marchal, he was also taller and hotter—no. Not hot. Stop thinking of him as hot—he was just a pain in the ass. A rich pain in the ass, in a smart tailored suit with his hair in braided rows and a great effing smile—
“There you are.” Zeke offered the plate in his hands. Thick, yummy, fried-food smells rose from it. “You prefer bacon, right?”
“Hell.” Joss took the plate and fell into a chair. Bacon, greasy goodness… “Thought you were done stalking me,” he grumbled around a slice. Zeke sat on a footstool and watched him eat. Asshole.
“I’m here on business. For the moment, anyway.”
Lady Rukya, Chief of Tribe Fukuyo and Joss’ boss, swept through another door. Her daughter Kichi followed. Joss bounced to his feet. Hot damn, could this get any worse?
Zeke…had business here? The Heir of Cayden had business with Fukuyo? Something smelled bad, and it wasn’t the food Joss had barely got a hand on.
‘Torqued off,’ Tabitha had said. Joss didn’t know how she figured that. Rukya looked as cool and regal as ever. And Kichi just as primped up and sneering. While Rukya greeted Zeke, chief to chief’s heir, Kichi ran a disparaging eye over Joss and ended with a dramatic sniff and wince like he hadn’t bothered to shower. Holding his coffee cup to hide his mouth from Rukya, Joss stuck his tongue out at his boss’ daughter. She made a face back, just as Rukya turned to her.
“Kichi is acting as my secretary today,” the Fukuyo chief said without twitching an eye even when Kichi’s grimace turned into a simper at Zeke, “and, of course, you’ve met Joss.”
Met, screwed, stalked for half a year…Rukya sharpened understatement into a surgical instrument. Zeke grinned, but Rukya talked right on.
“The Chief of Cayden wishes to explore the possibilities of a mutually beneficial partnership,” she said, mostly to Joss. “Zeke will act as his representative. You, Joss, will be my liaison.”
No, no, no—
“Yes,” Kichi said. “You’ll be working…under…him. Since we know how you enjoy that.”
Joss set the plate down. Yanked at Tabitha’s knot until he got the tie off, then let it flutter from his hand as he walked away.
“Joss,” Zeke called, “wait—”
The door cut him off. Son of a bitch. Son of a—he elbowed through Rukya’s entourage, getting an arm out of his suit coat at the same time.
“Oh, oh, Ravid’s leaving!” a guard said with a laugh.
“Was it something I said?” another called. “Did someone eat the last donut?”
“Joss, baby, don’t be mad—”
Sound of the door opening, slamming. The men shut up.
“Like hell!” Lady Rukya growled, snatching Joss’ arm before he got it free. She was as tall as he, and not as pampered as she looked. Nor as serene, and the elegant black dress didn’t slow her at all. “Come here!” she snarled, dragging him. Another door, and they were in a bathroom. “What do you think you’re doing, Ravid?”
“Quitting.” Joss set his cane down and shrugged the rest of the way out of the damned suit. “Getting out of uniform. Want my company boxers too?”
“You wear underwear?”
“They’re in my pocket.”
“You said you’d help me, Joss Ravid.” Rukya said. “You said I was the only chief on this rock with half a brain. Has that changed?”
“Yes. Right when my sex life became your business.”
“I don’t care about that,” Rukya said. “I want Zeke. He’s a solid ally, and he brings connections I need. Kichi almost ruined everything, but you can save it.”
“As my liaison, Joss.”
“I couldn’t liaise to save my life.” Joss threw out his arms to emphasize the gorilla-suit he was almost wearing. “Rukya, I’m hired muscle. A goon. Not—”
“I need you to be more, Joss.” She put her hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes the same way Gramma used to when it was for his own good. “I—”
“Stop that.” Joss shrugged her off. “Marchal could—”
“Zeke asked for you,” Rukya interrupted, folding her arms and getting back to the argument. “We both know you’re the reason he’s here. If I insisted on someone else, he’d just tell his father to forget us. I need time to win him to our cause. Besides, Dembe is too rank-conscious. He can’t keep Zeke out of trouble; he would never tell a superior he’s screwing up. You could never not tell him. Or her.”
“So I’m telling. I’m a slut, not a whore, damn it!” Like effing Kari’s even saw the difference.
“I’m not ordering you to sleep with him,” Rukya growled. “Keep him at a distance all you want. On Winternight you fended off six drunk women teaming up to get you under the mistletoe. You can’t tell me Zeke is more of a challenge. Just don’t let anyone catch you giving him less respect than his rank deserves. I know you can do that, too.” Rukya patted his arm. “Think of it this way—you can finally get him over his obsession with you. Two days and he’ll be just like the rest of us, wanting to strangle you.”
“Babe,” Joss said with a smirk, “no one gets over me. That’s why no one strangles me.”
Rukya shook her head. “Or…” she drawled, “I could assign you to Kichi for a month. Have you teach her about men so she can land one and shut the hell up about Zeke.”
Joss shuddered. Rukya chuckled.
“We could stuff you in a skirt,” she offered. “You’ve got the legs for it, and I’ve been meaning to beef up the office staff—”
“I hate you,” Joss growled. Skirt? Fine. Office? Fuck no.
“Or you could work with Tabitha,” Rukya offered. “I’m sure she’d love some help planning my anniversary party.”
“What happens to your damned alliance when I break Zeke’s arm?”
“He’s a big boy,” Rukya said. “He’ll have to cope. Just don’t break his neck.”
“You ask a hell of a lot, you know that?”
“I’d be more sympathetic,” she said, turning for the door, “except…well, ever heard of karma, Joss?”
Heard of? He was karma’s fucking bitch. And on that note—
“Rukya, I need to tell you something.”
She put her back to the sink and waited. Joss told her about his morning. When he reached the end she put her hand over her eyes, shook her head.
“You left her?” Rukya asked. “Her father was killed right in front of her and you just left her there?”
“Hey, I don’t do comfort,” Joss protested. “Besides, she was with the cops. And if I’d stayed much longer, I wouldn’t have made it in at all today.”
“Sweet, Joss. Real sweet.” She frowned, tapping her lip with one finger. “All right. We’ll know something by who comes to question you, and we’ll know more if no one does. Krishni territory—the chief’s been sick, and her sons are fighting for favor. Any idea which son Bren supported?”
“None. I picked him up in—”
“Don’t care.” Rukya waved a hand. “Unless it was the gates of a family compound or something similar, I don’t want to hear what low bar you picked him out of or what you were doing when you met. And I’m quite willing to believe the subjects of work or alliances or last names never came up. I was just checking.” She tapped some more. “All right. Stay in today. I don’t want to get Zeke attacked because you stepped in something. Eat, train, challenge Dembe and annoy Tabitha. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Several people glanced up when Joss followed his boss out of the bathroom, but only two, a page and a newb security thug, stared. Joss smirked at them while he settled his jacket, until he saw his coffee and his plate sitting on the corner of Tabitha’s desk. He snatched them up, bumping her shoulder with his hip.
“Thanks, babe. If you were a guy, I’d totally—”
She clapped her hands over her ears. “Don’t want to know!”
Joss snickered and refilled the cup, then found a quiet place to deal with it and the now-cold plate Zeke had assembled for him, since the rest of the buffet had disappeared. He refused to wonder how the plate had acquired so many of his favorites when Zeke had seen him eat only once—twice—hell. Joss moved to cursing his co-workers for thinking it was funny that he had a stalker.
Who was now his job. Joss hoped Rukya managed to keep Kichi away from him, because one more comment about him working under Zeke, and—
Yeah. Time to go downstairs. Or down-corridor now they’d moved. Whatever. Joss hurried past Rukya’s office, even faster past the employee chapel that gave him the creeps. Half a corridor away he spotted Gruber and friends going into the locker room.
Joss stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled.
“Gruber! Hey, baby, like the pants!”
Gruber jumped. His friends laughed. Gruber started through the door then came back as his friends went on.
“Finally! Come to me, hot stuff!”
“Ravid…” Gruber shook his head. Brown-haired and built, he was twice as wide as Joss but he wasn’t looking violent. Damn. Could have used a good fight. “Ravid,” Gruber said, “I’ve asked you to stop doing that. Repeatedly.”
Joss gave the jerk his best wide-eyed innocent look. “You don’t like being appreciated?”
“No! Not when you’re making everyone laugh at me.”
“But…you do it to Tabitha! I thought everyone liked it!”
Gruber rubbed his forehead. “Fine. You’re right. I’ll stop. Will you?”
“Maybe.” Joss sauntered by. “You do look damn fine in those tight pants, Gruber.”
In the locker room where Gruber didn’t follow, Joss changed and headed for the gym. He bypassed the weight machines; he wasn’t in the mood. What he really wanted—
—was that. Joss slammed the bastard, one, two, three, to the mat.
“That’s Your Majesty, dumbass.”
“All right, that’s enough.” A brown arm around his ribs pulled Joss away. Joss grinned up at Marchal as he was carried off.
“You don’t gotta drag me, babe. I’m all yours.”
“I thought you’d like an audience.”
“Kerscher, you’re up.” Marchal dropped Joss in the middle of the mats. “This evil-looking bastard—” he ruffled Joss’s hair till Joss hit him, “—is coming after your charge. Stop him.”
Damn, he could really love Dembe Marchal. If only the man weren’t so mind-bogglingly straight. Joss grinned and charged the new kid.
New kids. Marchal had a slew of them. He sent them at Joss one at a time and in groups. Joss wore off some nervous energy, the kiddos learned a few things, and Marchal got a look at who might be worth keeping. Then he sent them all off to the showers.
Joss was feeling generous by then. He paced the mats slowly, giving the shy ones a head start before he showed off his newest tattoo. Marchal cocked an eyebrow at him.
“My turn?” he asked. “Or are you worn out?”
“For you, hot stuff, I’ve always got some left.”
Marchal’s mouth hooked in his rarely-seen crooked grin, and he tossed Joss a racquet before turning to lead the way to the racquetball court. Joss followed, admiring the view.
Fukuyo’s head of security was not a big man, though most people thought he was. It was an illusion Marchal created, a combination of effective looming and standing near short people. The first time most people met Rukya, Marchal stood tall behind her. And often on the streets, he preferred to have Joss at his side for the same reason. Marchal also liked to maintain the myth that because he was big, he was slow. Joss was one of the few who knew better, and he’d learned the hard way.
Marchal threw rock and Joss paper in a round of roshambo, so after his superior made him put on eyeguards, Joss stepped into the service zone and started the game.
Twenty-seven hard-fought rallies later, Joss was down by one point and Marchal was stepping into the service zone. Since only the server could score, one mess-up by Joss meant Marchal would win. Joss stuck his tongue out at his superior. “Right where I want you,” he taunted. Marchal grinned and served.
“We’ve acquired an audience,” he said as he did. The ball rebounded off the front wall.
“Saw him.” Joss slammed the ball back. Good thing about racquetball, nice and forceful and loud.
“Four months.” Marchal returned the ball. “It’s not infatuation.”
“No.” Damn it. That was what he got for being too damned good in bed. Lovers always wanting to keep him there. To keep him. Chiro and his “I can support us both.” Zeke and his—Joss swatted the ball.
“He’s asking about wedding customs on BFR.”
Joss snorted. “He won’t like ‘em.” On Joss’ beloved home planet BFR, independence was the name of the game. Marriage was “till death do you part or one of you gets sick of the other” with a contract to take care of any kids resulting.
The ball came back high; Joss ran up the wall a step to slam it. Betcha Marchal—
No, he got it. Joss darted across the court for the next one.
“You could do worse,” Marchal offered. Joss didn’t hit him because he had to hit the ball.
“Marriage isn’t a curse,” Marchal tried
“No, it’s a disease,” Joss answered. Marchal hit the ball. Joss bounced sideways, shoes squeaking. Slam! “It’s an STD,” he expanded. “Rots your brain—” Slam! “—makes your balls fall off—”
“I like it.”
“See? Rots your brain.”
“Don’t you get tired of chasing a new man every night?”
“Not the chaser, baby.” Slam! “I’m the chasee.”
“Eating every meal in diners, playing among the tribe-less, living like a transient—”
“I am a transient.” Slam! “Stupid planet’s just a short stop on a long strange trip.”
“With the end of the Interdiction,” Marchal said, “we’ll have modern medicine again. You could have a real family here. Kids.”
“Kids! Kids are worse than husbands!”
“You’re twenty years old, Joss. Time to let someone make an honest man of you.”
“I…” Joss stared till the ball slammed his face with a welcome distraction. His head rocked back with the impact. Plastic cracked but held, protecting his eye. Marchal caught his arm as he staggered.
“Yield,” Marchal muttered, “and I’ll head Zeke off.”
“Game’s yours,” Joss snapped, and scooted for the locker room. Fast, because if Zeke caught him, Joss would have to kill him.
Marchal was good, though. Zeke didn’t catch him, then or later.
Ow, ow, ow…Joss fumbled until the beeping stopped. “Five minutes,” his own voice warned. “Starting coffee.”
Fuck. He was home? Joss let his fingers walk across the narrow bed. Nothing. He was home and alone. And…hung over? How drunk had he got, to have a full-fledged, just-shoot-me hangover?
“Four minutes,” his voice warned. “Coffee brewing.”
The magic word got him erect, though he had to grab wall to stay that way. Coffee. Kitchen.
Damn, he was still wearing clothes? Joss pulled off his shirt. Ew, ew…
“Three minutes to fucking sirens. Get your ass to the coffee.”
Coffee. Kitchen. Joss peeled off his slept-in pants and headed for coffee.
And jerked back inside his door, the scream still echoing. That wasn’t him. He hadn’t screamed, that was—
Holy shit, that was a girl! A girl, boobs and all, was cleaning his apartment! He’d seen floor!
Whatever. She was between him and his coffee. Joss turned back for the door, remembered the scream and grabbed boxers. He realized three steps from the door that they weren’t his.
Oh well. Joss caught the boxers before they slipped off his hips and stalked past the girl to his coffeepot.
She’d already poured him a cup. Cream and tree-sugar sat on the counter. Breakfast was spread on the table in the tiny nook, the smell making his stomach churn.
“I’m sorry I screamed,” she said quietly. Joss peered at her over his mug. Young, early teens maybe. Slim, pretty as girls went, with straight black hair and brown eyes and high cheekbones. Recognition came with the ‘oh thank gods’ of the first sip of coffee.
“You’re Bren’s daughter.” Joss boggled for a moment, then shut it down. He didn’t care. Interrogation could wait until he’d had his coffee.
Joss sat at the table and shoved a plate out of his way. Coffee…
Paige sat opposite him. “I made—”
“No.” She flinched; Joss sighed. “Hangover, kid. I don’t even want to think about eating.” Damn. Why had he got so messed up? Joss thought back though it hurt.
Work. He’d been sober at work and no one had come to ask him anything. He’d even been sober for a while after work. Then at his usual diner he’d seen that the city news site had one short paragraph about how popular historian and author Brendon Dakota had accidentally shot himself while cleaning an antique firearm from his collection. Survived by his two siblings, location unknown, and one daughter, location unknown. Services to be announced.
Yeah. Joss had decided the only answer to that was to get good and shit-faced. And he’d done a proper job of it, too, despite the discovery that he’d misplaced his wallet.
“Oh. Right,” the girl said, and started clearing the food away. Joss considered telling her to eat, but didn’t. She probably had some woman reason not to. Women were like that. No telling why they did or didn’t do anything.
When he finished his cup, she got up to get him more. Joss debated if there was anything he actually needed to know, decided not. She’d explain what she wanted from him eventually.
“You were pretty drunk last night,” she said softly as she came back. At least she knew that much about hangovers; she was being quiet. That wasn’t easy for women.
Damn, Tabitha would clock him for that observation. Joss made a note to mention it to her some day when he wasn’t hung over.
“It made me feel better,” the girl went on. “At least one person cares.”
“We should do something.”
Why was the girl trying to bond with her dead father’s one-night-stand?
Coffee now, questions later. Joss drained his cup quickly as various itches made themselves known. Shower now, questions later. He stood, and thought to explain. “Shower.” Wow, was he articulate this morning.
Hot water drove further thought from his head. She was still there when he came out. Cleaning his coffeepot. Joss pondered if he should do anything about that. Shouldn’t she be with her mom or something? He asked.
“She’s off-planet,” the girl answered, looking away from his bare chest. “I just got here when—right before we met yesterday. It was—it was supposed to be a surprise. My being early, anyway. Daddy sponsored me, of course. Uncle Beltan said the sponsor system was proof this planet was dangerous; he told my mother that she was insane to—”
“Uh huh.” Joss cut her off as both pitch and volume rose. “Used you to get into the house, did they?”
Bloody bastards. “That was an execution, kid. They would have found a way.” A little more, head off the hysterics— “It’s not your fault.”
“An execution! For what?”
“Dunno.” Joss stepped the half-step from tiny kitchen to tiny living room, sat in the only padded chair to deal with his hair.
“Let me,” the girl said, following. Joss moved to the coffee table and turned his back to her. Pampering was pampering, no matter the source. She brought him another cup of coffee, then spread the towel over his shoulders and started separating the strands. “Your hair is beautiful,” she said softly, applying comb and dryer carefully. She had good hands. Like her dad.
Yeah, not going there.
“I’ll bet Daddy loved it,” she said, going there. Joss smirked. Yeah, Bren had—
Oh hell. She thought he was Bren’s lover. Well, yeah, but…she thought Joss was her dad’s boyfriend. He opened his mouth to correct her and stopped. The kid was completely alone. She’d lost her dad, mom was far away, and she wouldn’t have been cleaning Joss’s apartment if she had any friends here. And girl or not, she was a nice kid. He could at least drop her in Rukya’s lap. Served the boss right for getting all self-righteous on him.
“I’m sorry for these,” the girl said, lightly touching above—not on—the scratches she’d inflicted when Joss tackled her. Joss had flashbacks of Tabitha prodding a black eye, Lakisha adjusting a sling without warning, Rukya patting his head when he was hung over—good God, did this girl have sense? “I didn’t realize you were a man until you landed on me,” she went on, ruining that theory. “I…kind of freaked out.”
Well, she had a right to have lost it right then, whatever cause she claimed. Joss was prepared to be generous.
“Are you always this quiet?” she asked.
“Just let the coffee hit, kiddo.”
“You’re so pretty. I bet you get in a lot of fights over it.”
Joss snickered. “Yeah. Lots.”
“I didn’t know Daddy was…”
“Gay?” Joss chuckled. “I’d say you existing rules that out.”
“Have—had—you known Daddy long?”
“Not long enough.” Hell yeah, he could have enjoyed more of Bren’s company. At least one more date, maybe more if he didn’t get possessive.
“Me either.” She sniffled. “I…hadn’t gotten to know him well yet. This was the first time I was going to get more than a few hours with him. But we messaged a bit. He seemed very sweet. He didn’t deserve that.”
Joss didn’t ask who she thought did deserve to be executed in his own home in front of his daughter. Estranged or not.
“I thought they would kill us both,” Paige went on. “Then you came around the corner and you looked so surprised…”
Well, yeah, he had been. Hadn’t slowed him down much, had it?
“If I could have done something too—”
“Like what?” Joss growled. Oh hell no, not going through the teenage angst thing. He’d had enough of that when he was a teen. And he wasn’t dealing with the hysterics he’d headed off once, either. “How many years have you been training to fight?”
“You’re a fighter? But you’re so…pretty.”
So maybe she was smart. She just needed to get over ‘pretty’ meaning ‘girl.’ “Even with me, babe, grace like that doesn’t just happen. I got a friend who’s a ninja. Sort of. He taught me.”
“You and your training saved me.” She hugged him. And kissed his cheek! “Thank you.”
“Gaah!” Joss complained. “Keep your cooties to yourself.”
She laughed. Joss pretended not to notice the sob on the end of it.
“How did you find me, anyway?” he asked. She handed his wallet over his shoulder. Right.
“I found it when—when I cleaned the entry. I didn’t know what else to do! The police took him and left me and I couldn’t—”
“Yeah, makes sense.” What the fuck? Left her with a bloody floor? Didn’t even take her back to the port to call her mom?
“You’re a stranger here too,” she said. “Where’s BFR?”
“Too damn far away,” Joss answered. Of course she’d read more of his ID than his address. Women were nosy. “How did you get in here?”
“I…well, you were passed out in the hall. I just used your hand to unlock the door.”
Damn, she’d dragged him—wait a minute. Ew, she’d been in his room! She’d put him to bed!
Whatever. Girls didn’t really have cooties. Or they did, but the things weren’t dangerous. Besides, he’d still been wearing his clothes. It was not a big deal.
“Get done, will you? I’ve got to get moving.”
“Where are you going?” Joss heard the quaver, but she didn’t ask him to take her. Damn, this kid could make him like girls.
“Work. I’ll take you, if you want. My boss can help you out. You can…cry on her shoulder and…stuff.”
“I…thank you,” she said softly.
“Yeah, okay. Just don’t hug me again.”
Joss had spent months beating respect into the less intelligent of his co-workers; he wasn’t going to let some girl set him back to the beginning. He made Paige wear his bulkiest jacket and promise to keep her mouth shut until he told her it was safe. She could pass for a cute boy if she didn’t talk.
He had a reputation to maintain.
Tabitha gasped over Joss’s unwrinkled clothes—Paige had run most of the floor-stuff through the butler so he couldn’t find anything messy—complimented his neat braid, glanced at his companion, and then stared.
“Joss, you do know that’s a girl, right?” she asked. Joss clutched his chest.
“You evil witch!” he gasped at Paige. “You lied to me!”
Paige stuck her tongue out.
“Tab, this is Paige,” Joss said. “Can you tell the boss I brought that girl she was so worried about?”
“Why don’t you tell her?”
“Because I’ve got Zeke duty.” Joss sauntered off, almost as cheerful as he seemed. Put the girl with the girls. They knew how to take care of each other. Now all he had to do was break Zeke’s arm at the first excuse, and life would be good.
Except Joss didn’t get three steps before Rukya stepped out of her office and called him. Damn. Zeke stood behind her. This would be Not Good, then. Joss slouched back. Rukya turned to her office, then spun around to peer into Paige’s face. The poor kid flinched—Rukya being intense often frightened the unprepared—and stepped half-behind Tabitha. Then she straightened and pulled together a polite smile.
“Chief,” Tabitha said. “She’s—”
Rukya waved a hand and Tabitha stopped talking. “Hello,” Rukya said, smiling back at the kid. “You must be Paige. I was about to ask Joss to find you for me.”
Oh crap. What was she up to? Rukya swept a hand at her office.
“Won’t you come in?” she asked. “Have you eaten?”
“No, Miss,” Paige said as she obediently moved forward. “But I’m not—”
“Come talk to me for a few minutes. Then we’ll find you something.” Behind Paige’s back, Rukya crooked a finger at Joss. Just in case he thought he’d been forgotten. “You may call me Lady Rukya. May I call you Paige?”
Rukya Fukuyo, iron-willed chief of a tough tribe on a vicious planet, chatted with the child for several minutes while Joss stood by the door playing guard-gorilla and ignoring Zeke trying to catch his eye. What the hell was she doing? Rukya gave Paige her condolences on the loss of her father, talked about her life with her mother on a small freighter, asked her opinion of the crazy planet she’d found herself stranded on. Asked what other planets she’d visited. Then finally she patted Paige’s knee.
“I do hate to distress you, Paige, but I wonder if you’ve heard the official statement on the death of your father.”
Paige looked to Joss. Joss looked to the potted tree behind Rukya’s desk. Back home he’d be wondering if it was carnivorous.
“Yes, M—Lady Rukya. I read it on a news site yesterday.”
“That spares me telling you, though I wish I had been there to support you.” Rukya pressed a square of fabric into Paige’s hands. “Would you please, Paige, tell me and Mr. Cayden,” she waved at Zeke who sat forward like he’d listen, “what happened?”
Paige told. Zeke paid attention. Joss hoped that was all this was about—giving a face to the people Rukya was always on about helping, the people that Zeke the Heir of rich and powerful Cayden didn’t know existed. Rukya knew Chase the Redhead was the only reason Zeke had pushed for an alliance. But that gave her an opening, and by gods she was going to take it.
If Rukya wanted a weeping child for Zeke to feel sorry for, though, Paige let her down. The kid told her story with an occasional catch of breath, but she didn’t break down. She did get properly appreciative describing Joss’ magnificent entrance. Rukya, unimpressed, guided her past that to her conversation with the police officer. Then she gave the girl a few more platitudes that Paige ate right up, and guided her to the door. She shook her head when Joss made to follow, though.
“Tabitha, find Kichi, please, and tell her I’d like her to guide my guest for a while? This is the young lady I told you about.”
Kichi? Ugh. Joss faded into the wall like a good gorilla and left Paige to her fate.
Paige Carlyle had been through a lot in twenty-four hours. Being handed off again—even to the woman that Joss had tried to hand her off to already—didn’t help, but she could understand. Lady Rukya was a chief. She had things to do. She was going to do something about Brendon Dakota’s murder.
His execution, Joss had said. Her father had been executed, and that meant more than a random shooting.
“I think,” Tabitha said at her side, “that you look like someone who could use a cup of tea.”
“Yes, please!” Tea was her mother’s cure for any ill, and Paige had never wanted a cup more. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Tabitha led down a corridor with deep carpeting. Paige followed her into a small sunlit room with an electric kettle and a fine porcelain tea set with handle-less cups. “I bet we could find some pastries too,” Tabitha said as she filled the kettle, “if we wanted.”
“I don’t want to be a bother.” The thought of food made Paige’s stomach turn over.
Tabitha cocked an eyebrow and opened a cabinet. “We have to stash the doughnuts,” she said, pulling out a tray. At the sight of a chocolate éclair, Paige’s stomach changed its mind. “Joss would eat them all. Every day.”
“He does seem like he’d use a lot of energy.”
“I think he burns it through his hair.” Tabitha set the tray down and got plates. “I have to keep you company,” she said with a smile.
“You’re too kind,” Paige said, grinning back.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Joss with a non-Fukuyo female,” Tabitha said, moving to the tea set.
“He…said I had cooties.”
“He would. Don’t let his act fool you, though. He pretends to be a flighty little jackass, but he’s very good at his job.”
“Lady Rukya seems very—”
The door popped open. “Tab, there you are!” A woman—a girl—shoved the door wide. She looked like Lady Rukya only younger, curvier, and scowling. She wore a frilly dress that bounced. “Are you making tea for Mother?”
“No, Miss Kichi. For Paige.” Tabitha nodded at Paige. “And you, if you’d like some.”
“You always make it bitter. Anyway, leave it and help me. Zefirah is arguing about the calfish again.”
“Zefirah is correct,” Tabitha said, her eyes on the tea tray. “As we had decided, calfish is too delicate. Your mother wishes to feed the crowds, not poison them.”
“But—” Kichi put her hands together and blinked hard, until her eyes were swimming. “I just want it to be perfect for Mother and Daddy—”
“It is too late to change the menu,” Tabitha said, looking away. “How are the peace cranes coming?”
“Oh.” Kichi plopped down and kicked off shiny high-heeled shoes. “I’ll get them done.” She grabbed a plate. “Who are you?” she asked Paige.
“Paige is your mother’s guest,” Tabitha said.
“If you’re making origami cranes,” Paige offered, “I can help. I’ve made simpler things, and I’m sure you can show me how.”
“If you brought the paper,” Tabitha said, “I could help as well.”
“Great! I’ll be right back! Coffee for me, Tab!” Kichi ran off, leaving her shoes. Tabitha poured hot water into the teapot and scooped loose tea into it.
“It will taste bitter while eating doughnuts,” she told Paige.
“I thought I’d let it…settle my stomach before I ate.”
“A wise move.” Tabitha smiled at her. The door flew open; Kichi flounced in with different shoes and a stack of blue-green paper.
“Paige, you sit here,” she ordered. “So I can show you. Tab, put the doughnuts away so there’s room.”
“After Paige gets one,” Tabitha answered. “Lady Rukya tells me this is your first visit to Kari’s Star, Paige. I don’t imagine you have a very good impression of us.”
“You’re a Galactic?” Kichi looked up from folding a paper not quite evenly. “Great! Where are you from? Have you been to Goodfella? Is it as sinful as it sounds?”
“I’ve been to Goodfella,” Paige said. “What I saw was much like any port, except my mother didn’t let me out of her sight.”
“Paige is young for the blandishments of Goodfella,” Tabitha said. “I’d imagine you have some questions about Kari’s, Paige.”
“I don’t know why,” Kichi grumbled. “It’s the most boring planet in—not quite in—the Union.” She shoved a piece of paper at Paige. “Here. Start with a fold like this.”
“I…don’t understand about the tribes,” Paige said, folding obediently. “And what do you mean not quite in the Union?”
Tabitha sighed. “No one explained why you needed a sponsor to come down?”
“Uncle Beltan said it was so they knew who to blame if I got murdered. Momma said it was so someone was looking out for me.”
“Kari’s Star has been at war with itself for much of the last half-century,” Tabitha said. “Sometimes spacers were pulled into that war, and oftentimes they died. About five years ago a hundred seven spacers died. The regional governor, Zahir, gave Kari’s six months to make peace or leave the Union. After a lot of wrangling over whether that was legal, the Interdiction was imposed. No one can emigrate or immigrate, few ships land here, and trade is strangled. Lady Rukya has made it her life’s work to bring peace to Kari’s, and her greatest focus has been to get the Interdiction lifted so we can bring Kari’s out of the dark ages.”
“Sticking our noses in everyone’s business along the way,” Kichi grumbled.
“A leader must lead everyone, not only those willing to follow,” Tabitha said.
“But what about the tribes?” Paige asked. “I thought it was just another word for families.”
“In the beginning that’s all it was,” Tabitha said. “Colonization is not easy. People worked in groups—in families—to survive.” Tabitha shrugged. “When the war came, who could you trust more than your own family? Some families rose in power; others diminished.”
“Or were wiped out,” Kichi put in with a meaningful glance at Tabitha.
“In war people die,” Tabitha said, her eyes on her folding. “One reason your mother wishes to end the war for good and always, Miss Kichi.”
“If all the tribes are fighting all the other tribes,” Paige asked, “why is Mr. Cayden here?”
“The redheaded whore,” Kichi snapped, and the crane in her hands ripped. “He—”
“Miss Kichi,” Tabitha said. “Let me get your coffee.”
“Then get it, Tab.” Kichi shredded the crane she’d ripped and dumped the pieces on her plate. “Cayden has no interest in us,” she told Paige. “But Joss suc—”
“Miss Kichi, she is a child.”
“—succeeded in catching Zeke’s eye,” Kichi said, making a face. “Zeke would do anything to get near Joss, even drag his whole tribe into an alliance they don’t need or want.”
“And as distasteful as it may be,” Tabitha put in, “Lady Rukya will use whatever comes to hand to save lives and make peace.”
“Even foreign sluts who—”
“Miss Kichi, I’ve made five cranes,” Tabitha interrupted. “How many do we need?”
Wait. “If no one can emigrate,” Paige asked, “how did Joss get here?”
“He claims,” Tabitha said, “that he doesn’t remember.”
Going back to Bren’s place was stupid. Even drunk, Joss knew it was stupid. It was just an empty house. He did it anyway. Tucked the bottle of Remus 1100 under his arm and used Taro’s magic trick on the door. He’d never seen it fail, and it didn’t then—in seconds Joss was past the best lock Kari’s had to offer. Not that Kari’s best was anything much.
The lights didn’t come on. Joss snorted at how fast the power had been cut and waited for his eyes to adjust. The ceiling of the big room, into which most doors including the main one opened, making it Where It All Happened—the ceiling was transparent, and though the night was cloudy, enough ambient light should filter in so Joss wasn’t stumbling into pointy things in the dark. He waited for his eyes to adjust.
After a few minutes Joss fought down an eerie feeling of not-belonging and moved away from the door. No, he didn’t belong, but it was just a damned empty house anyway and he wasn’t going to freak out about it. He wasn’t there to desecrate the dead or steal Paige’s inheritance if anything was left once the tribes were done. He just wanted to drink in peace.
Pale light fell from the domed roof, sectioned off by the radiating supports. It fell on statues, on weapons, glinted on blades and transformed shadows. Joss remembered staggering through with Bren and barely noticing the room, then seeing it again the next morning. Bren had been right there, by the goddess with the bow and arrows. Bren there, Paige there, assholes looming over both…
Bastards. Joss flipped open the Remus and waved at the goddess.
“Artemis Huntress,” he read from the base of the statue. “You weren’t much help.” He drank. Dribbled a few drops on the dark patch of floor, and drank some more. He wandered over to where Paige had been held, next to the…cannon? Damn, it was a shame Bren was gone. Joss wanted to play with his toys.
He told Bren that. Or at least, he told Bren’s empty home. Then Joss told the house that Paige was safe, that she’d be cared for, that he didn’t have to worry. He dribbled some more booze on the floor, dumped a bit more in him. Was so surprised by a man-shaped shadow moving towards him that he called it Bren and didn’t try to dodge until he saw the weapon in the figure’s hand.
Joss crumpled at the feet of Artemis much as Bren had.
“You shouldn’t have stunned him,” someone growled, scratchy voice penetrating the nice fog Joss had found to hang out in. Joss fought the urge to shake his head. Hangovers and head-shaking never made a good combo, no matter what caused either one. Also, he had a feeling he’d rather postpone waking up to whatever this guy had in mind.
Tied to a chair, he realized. He was tied to…maybe the wooden piece of crap falling apart by Bren’s front door. Gods, was he in the hands of amateurs?
“You didn’t see him last time,” another voice answered. “He’s puny, yeah, but he’s damned fast.”
“Fucking bugger,” first voice growled. “And fucking wuss you, letting one gunless, gormless nancer run you off.”
Yeah. Scratchy-voice was going down first. Unless the other one gave Joss an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Then he could take his time kicking the shit out of—
“He should be awake by now,” second voice said. “Do you think—”
“Then let’s wake ‘im.”
Stinging pain exploded in Joss’ cheek; his head rocked back from the blow. His eyes teared and his head swam. Full-arm slap. The print would probably glow in the dark.
Fuck. It was that game. Joss hated that game.
He’d learned to play it well, though. He wet his lips and blinked a few times and leered at Big and Lurking. An electric lantern hung from the bow of Artemis, casting Lurk’s face in shadows. Damn.
“If you want my attention, sweetcheeks,” Joss said, “there are better ways to get it.” Bedamn and by gods, they were amateurs! He had a good two centimeters slack against the…scarves. Spirits love Bren, the first thing they’d found to tie up a captive was lovely soft silk scarves! Hells, the man was a gem and they’d killed him before Joss—
“Shut up, fruit. What did you come for?”
Joss just smiled. A good poker-face was another trick Taro had taught him. Behind his smirk, he wondered why the shite it hadn’t occurred to him that the killers might come back since he’d run them off before they were ready last time. Damn and fuck, just had to break into Bren’s house to give him another send-off and now he was stuck playing Bash the Homo when he could have had Chase the Redhead at any bar in the Nether.
“You…told him to shut up,” second voice, the worrier, helpfully pointed out. Joss could have laughed, except Lurk poked him in the chest. Hard. Joss coughed.
“He knows what I mean. Shut up that perv talk, spill with the goods. Where is it, go-boy?”
“Go-boys go where they’re told,” Joss corrected. “I come as I please.”
That earned him another slap, backhand. Ow, ow…Joss swallowed blood and decided he didn’t really have to get the guy to hit him after every exchange. Especially considering how easily he bruised. Keep this up and he’d be head-to-toe purple by morning. And guys who liked their boys bruised weren’t the kind he cared to date.
“It might help if you told me what you were looking for,” Joss said before Lurk took another swing. Worry actually opened his mouth to answer before Lurk poked him, offending Joss to his core. Bad enough to be caught without a fight, but to be captured, trussed to a bad excuse for a chair with sex toys and then interrogated by someone who answered your questions… Joss was a professional. This was an insult.
Hells, they might even be dumb enough to kill him before the interrogation. He should tell them that “shoot first and ask questions later” was just a saying, but he wouldn’t want to give them ideas.
“I’ll ask the questions,” rumbled Lurk, and Joss almost groaned aloud. Gods, couldn’t they at least try to be original?
Purple, he reminded himself. He didn’t look good swollen and purple, so he didn’t suggest creativity to the big guy.
“What did you come back for?” the idiot went on. “Where is it?”
“Oh, you mean the thing I didn’t bother to get in the good half-hour I was here between you guys killing Bren and me leaving for work?” Joss blurted. Pointing out their stupidity might not be a wise move, but Joss could only take so much. Bash the Homo sucked, but at least it was better than Who’s The Stupidest Oaf Of All?
Joss kept working the scarves though his wrists burned. These guys were following the age-old Big Dumb Villain script, and there were only a few ways that could end. All of them Not Well for the lovely ingénue. Since there weren’t any Big Damn Heroes around to rescue Joss and carry him off to bed, anyway.
Lurk backhanded him for being smarter than the two of them put together. Then he leaned closer.
“The girl, then. Where’s the girl?”
Joss smirked some more. “There was a girl? I don’t notice girls.” Almost free…a slat of wood ran down the back of the chair, and the goons had wrapped his bonds around it. If he could just work it free—
“The girl,” Worry’s voice repeated. “This Paige you were talking about. Where is she?”
“I’m sorry,” Joss said and meant since he did regret that he was about to get whacked again, “I was too busy taking you and your buddy down to notice.”
Predictable as ever, Lurk hit him. Worry, though, he started playing music. Something tropical, fun. Joss rolled his eyes in disgust as the man pulled a comm from his pocket.
That…was an awfully small, completely not-plugged-in communication device for a low-level thug to be carrying.
“Sir!” Worry said, loud enough Joss could still hear though he moved away, “no…I’m sorry, it will take us a little while. We’re at the…place where we…dealt with the problem, looking for the…err, thing, so—no! No, you didn’t, we just thought—well, we would, I mean, we will, but—no! No, you don’t have to do that! We’ll be right there! It’s just…the one is here. The red one, sir. Yes. Yes. Yes, sir.” Worry closed the comm with a snap. “He says bring the redhead.”
For half a second Joss considered letting that happen, finding out who was at the bottom of the shit and maybe putting an end to it. But Lurk smiled and Joss didn’t want to go anywhere that made that sadistic bastard so happy.
Luckily he’d almost worked free. If they found that out before he was free, though…
“You know, guys,” he said, “I’m thinking I’ll just stay and look for the thing. What’s it look like again?”
Worry started. “He’s right; we should find it. If someone—”
“If it’s not found yet it won’t be found,” Lurk grumbled. “Especially if this fruit’s not going running to the cops to tell ‘em to look again.” Lurk pulled a knife from a sheath on his belt. Almost, almost—one hand came free, but the knots slipped tighter on the other and Joss was still tied to the damned chair. Lurk turned the knife, catching the light “You’re too pretty to be a man,” he said.
“You’re too ugly to be—look out!” Joss pointed behind them. “Drag queens!”
Worry looked. Lurch glared at Joss’ hand. Joss spun out of the chair, swinging it up and into Worry’s face—he had the stun. Worry staggered; the chair came apart. Joss gripped a splintered shaft and swung it at Lurk’s eyes as he lunged. Lurk jerked back, onto the arrow of Artemis, and spun on instinct to the new threat. Joss swung the stick up between Worry’s legs as hard as he could then ran.
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