The Vanished Seas
Book 3 in the Major Bhaajan Mysteries
Survive the City of Cries
Bhaajan grew up in the Undercity, a community hidden in the ruins beneath the glittering City of Cries. Trapped between the beauty and poverty of that life, and caught by wanderlust, she enlisted in the military in her youth. Now retired, Major Bhaajan works as a private investigator, solving cases for the royal House of Majda. She has a new case to solve—why are the powerful elite in Cries disappearing? Only Bhaajan, who grew up in the Undercity, can find them—if she isn’t murdered first.
The Vanished Seas
Book 3 in the Major Bhaajan Mysteries
The Vanished Seas
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Light glittered through the crystal columns in the ballroom of the Quida mansion. Women in sleek clothes and men in sensual black and silver filled the room, all with the ageless beauty that wealth and power could bestow. Music played while the glitterati danced.
So yah, these people were rich.
To say I didn’t normally attend parties with Imperialate nobility was like saying it didn’t normally rain in this region of the world Raylicon. I mean, this place was a freaking desert. The few humans who lived here had built the gleaming City of Cries, the stark jewel of the empire, a paragon of modern civilization and all that. Not that it wasn’t true. The City of Cries, despite its name, wasn’t a place where people wept, at least not where you could see.
Tonight the planners had done themselves proud in this reception for Scorpio Corporation, a simple name for a conglomerate that was anything but simple, an empire of commercial industries and military contracts. I’d attended as a guest of the Royal House of Majda, because, well, who the hell knew why. Majda wanted a private investigator present, so I went. After all, they paid me an exorbitant retainer, not to mention the penthouse they’d given me in Cries. Although I’d never been at ease in their stratospheric world of influence, I’d adapted during the two years I’d worked for them, Earth years, the human standard. To fit in tonight, I’d even worn an evening gown, chic and shimmering gold, the type of clothes I usually avoided like a techno-plague. I was normally a black leather and muscle-shirt gal.
The Quida mansion stood on the outskirts of Cries in the foothills of the Saint Parval Mountains. Attending the gala had started out as one of my easiest jobs ever, just go to the party so I could later tell the Majdas if I noticed anything “unusual.” They apparently wanted me to judge how the guests reacted to whatever big announcement the Scorpio slicks had planned for tonight.
With so many of the Imperialate’s mighty gathered together, none of the invited guests noticed when Mara Quida disappeared. It told me a lot more about this supposed esteemed gathering than they probably wanted me to know. As Vice President for Sales and Marketing at Scorpio Corporation, Quida was the guest of honor at tonight’s gala.
You’d think they would have noticed when she fucking vanished.
Four of us gathered in an alcove upstairs, hidden from the ballroom while the gala continued downstairs, its entitled guests blithely partying. The small room here gleamed, white with silver accents. Detective Talon, the head of security for Scorpio Corporation, paced across the alcove, rigid in her gray uniform, with silver hair and silver ribbing on her sleeves. She surveyed our group as if she were trying to fix us in place with her stare. Screw that. I had no patience for people who expected to intimidate me instead of earning my respect.
Besides myself and Talon, our group included two other people: Colonel Lavinda Majda, third in line to the Majda throne; and of course Mara Quida’s husband Lukas Quida. We were isolated from the gala; Lavinda’s “aide,” the redoubtable Lieutenant Jo Muller, stood hulking at the bottom of the sweeping staircase that led from this alcove down to the main floor, out of earshot but not out of sight, pretending to be the colonel’s assistant. Yah, right. Majda bodyguards were about as discreet as power-hammers.
“Who knows Mara Quida is gone?” Detective Talon demanded. She spoke to Colonel Majda, which made zero sense. How would Lavinda know?
Lukas answered. “No one is aware of her disappearance yet except the four of us.” Light from the chandelier glinted on his silver hair. He was too young and too rich to be going gray; that metallic look had to be deliberate. The effect was gorgeous. So was he, the trophy husband, with his broad shoulders, narrow waist, and handsome face.
Lavinda spoke coolly to Talon. “Why does it matter who knows?” She looked every bit a royal heir, with her dark coloring and aristocratic features. The green tunic and trousers of her dress uniform were sharply pressed and gold bars gleamed on her shoulders. Her dark eyes, high cheekbones, and smooth skin showed no trace of irregularity. I recognized her upright military carriage because I also stood that way, but only in part. I’d never exuded that sense of authority, a self-assurance so ingrained, I doubted she even realized the confidence she projected. I’d always respected Lavinda, in part because she never tried to intimidate anyone. She did it anyway, to put it mildly, but it wasn’t deliberate.
Talon’s discomfort actually seemed more with Lukas than the Colonel. The detective glanced at Lukas when he spoke, then looked away quickly and talked to Lavinda instead. “It could help to know. None of our searches have given any clue why his wife vanished. She might have had her own—personal reasons.”
Ouch. That was as subtle as thwacking Lukas with a hammer. I doubted his wife had run off with another man. Why do it in the middle of this gala intended to honor her? Lukas wouldn’t have asked for our help if he believed it was anything that simple, not to mention humiliating. That he’d called us here suggested he had good reason to suspect trouble.
Lukas spoke with restraint, but his body had gone so tense, he seemed like a band of elastic ready to snap. “She didn’t have a ‘personal’ reason.”
Talon grunted, and she still wouldn’t look at him. Seriously? The atavistic era was long gone when matriarchal queens owned their men, when no woman could speak to a highborn man unless she was a member of his family. Modern culture gave men equal rights with women. In the Skolian Imperialate, a star-spanning civilization with nearly a trillion people, almost no one followed the ancient customs, only a few of the most conservative noble Houses—including the Majdas. Since they cloistered their princes, hiding the prized fellows from the rest of the universe, some families among the highest society here followed similar customs. Although legally they couldn’t get away with keeping their men in full seclusion—they weren’t Majdas, after all—they could still be ridiculously sexist. Lukas had asked us to come here, though, so I doubted he had any use for those barbaric constraints.
I spoke directly to Lukas. “How did you discover your wife was gone?”
He turned to me, his shoulders coming down from their hunched position. “Mara was about to announce the Scorpio contract with Metropoli. She intended to present the Metropoli execs with a scroll, a ceremonial parchment. She went to get it about an hour ago. When she didn’t return, I looked for her.” He raked his hand through his hair, messing it up, which revealed more than he knew. He didn’t care about his appearance, he just wanted to know what the hell had happened to his wife. “She wasn’t in our room,” he continued. “The remains of the scroll were on the bed. It was ripped up, like it had been caught in a fight.”
Talon frowned as if he were a lying child. “Those ceremonial scrolls are museum pieces.”
For flaming sake. What was wrong with Talon? He finds the bedroom in shambles and her only comment is about the damage to a thing?
Lukas met her gaze, neither averting his eyes nor stepping back. “What’s your point?” He looked ready to explode.
I spoke quickly, before Talon could cram her foot farther down her throat. “Your wife went to a lot of trouble for this gala. It must be quite an achievement, what she arranged on Metropoli.”
He took a deep breath, waited a moment, and then spoke in a more even voice. “Yes, it is. She was about to make the announcement. Scorpio will be managing the usage franchises for the northern continent on Metropoli.”
Holy shit. No wonder Mara Quida wanted to party. “Usage franchises” meant Scorpio had just taken over the electric and optical utilities for the largest continent on the most populous world of the Imperialate. A contract like that would involve billions of people and trillions of credits. Nothing could hide the admiration in Lukas’ voice, and I had the impression he appreciated what she had achieved because of her accomplishment, not because he expected to gain from it in financial or social terms. He offered a refreshing contrast to the other guests I’d met tonight.
“I see,” Talon said. She watched me with poorly disguised suspicion. People in Cries claimed I had a “wild “quality, whatever that meant. It was true I could go places no Cries citizen dared visit. No one here knew that, however. Besides, I was the least dangerous person in this room. These people took “threatening” to an entirely different level, one that would terrify any sane person who understood how the technocrats of Cries navigated the currents of power in their glittering city. I wasn’t one of them and I never would be no matter what my Majda ties.
Well, tough. If Talon thought she could intimidate me into leaving, she had no idea. I met her stare, and her expression hardened.
Someone coughed. Talon turned away and spoke to Lukas. Although she sounded awkward, at least she looked at him this time. “We need to trace your wife’s actions, everything she did for the past day.”
“I’ll go over it with you,” he said. “Anything you all need, just let me know.”
Max, are you getting all this? I thought.
Yes, I am recording.The thought came from Max, my EI, or Evolving Intelligence. I used my neural link with him for privacy. He usually “lived” in my gauntlets, but tonight he resided in the slender bracelets I wore instead. He sent signals via sockets in my wrists along the bio-optic threads in my body to bioelectrodes in my brain. Coated with protective chemicals, the electrodes fired my neurons, which my mind interpreted as thought. Tech-induced telepathy. I wished I actually were telepathic, so I could figure out what everyone here thought. I had to rely on intuition and my ability to read body language, voices, and facial expressions.
Talon took Lukas through every detail of the gala preparations. Security had searched the bedroom, looking for a body. They found nothing. They also checked their monitors. Big surprise, the footage for those vital moments in the bedroom was missing, with no clues yet as to why.
“What I don’t get,” Talon was saying, “is why someone destroyed the scroll. It’s as valuable as your wife, maybe even more so.”
Lukas stiffened, and I stared at the detective. Was she brain dead? She continued, oblivious to the pain she was causing Lukas. “Whatever ransom they can get for her would be greatly increased if they also held the scroll hostage.”
“That assumes this is a kidnapping,” I said, more to shut her up than because I actually thought something else had happened.
Lukas turned to me with a jerk, as if he were trying to escape Talon’s words. “What else would it be?”
“To answer that,” I said, “I need to look more at the bedroom.”
Talon frowned at me. “This is an internal Scorpio matter. We will take care of it ourselves, officer—” She paused as if waiting for my name, which pissed me off, because as the chief investigator here, she would have checked my identity with her EI the moment we met. Her refusal to acknowledge my name was an insult more effective than any words she might have used.
Diplomacy, I reminded myself. Be courteous. I said only, “Major Bhaajan, army, retired. I’m not a police officer, I’m a PI.”
“And why are you here?” Talon spoke with disdain, in an accent that sounded Iotic, the language spoken by the nobility. It also sounded fake. I wasn’t impressed.
Lavinda turned her cool gaze on Talon and spoke in a true Iotic accent, which I doubted she even thought about. “Major Bhaajan works for the House of Majda. I requested her presence.”
“Oh.” Talon closed her mouth.
I wondered what stake Lavinda had in this. As a sister of General Vaj Majda, the Matriarch of the House of Majda, she operated on a level of power I could only imagine. She was also a colonel in the Pharaoh’s Army; I doubted she had either the interest or time to involve herself in her family’s corporate dealings. The third sister, Corejida Majda, ran their finances. I hadn’t expected such a highly ranked Majda to attend the gala, but given what I’d just heard about the Metropoli deal, I saw now why they were interested. They controlled the city, and that meant knowing everything that went on at its highest levels.
It was also obvious why Lukas requested Lavinda join us. He was no fool; he knew whose presence would get the police snapping on this case.
“Can you help?” he asked me. Smart choice. Asking an heir to the Majda throne would be presumptuous, but addressing the Majda rep acknowledged their sway.
“I’ll do my best,” I said. “I’m good at finding people.”
Talon spoke tightly. “We are grateful to Majda for offering this aid in our investigation.”
She didn’t sound grateful, she sounded like she wanted to throw me out the window.
The bedroom looked like hell: cracked tables, shattered holoscreens, and mirrors in jagged shards on the ground. A filigreed nightstand had broken in two. The scroll lay on the bed, torn and crumpled, but even with that, I recognize its value. I’d grown up in the ancient ruins under the city, a buried world rich with the remnants of past ages, and I’d learned to respect such artifacts. This one didn’t look native to Raylicon. It probably came from the planet Parthonia, the seat of the Imperialate government, which made it even more valuable. I had to admit, Talon had a point. Who in their right mind would destroy that scroll? Mara Quida plus the artifact would bring the kidnappers more wealth than Mara alone.
Max, I thought. Make a record of all this. Use my eye filters.
I’m recording in the optical spectrum, he answered. Also infrared and ultraviolet.
A holoscreen on one wall was cycling through views of the room. I blinked, startled. I barely recognized the tall woman it showed, a statuesque figure in a shimmering gold evening gown with a cloud of black curls falling down her back. Yah, that was me. Strange.
My walk around the room gave Max many views of the wreckage. I paused by Talon. “Can you send me the police reports after their analysts finish their work here?”
The detective turned her cold stare on me. “Aren’t you making your own recordings?”
“Yes. But I can’t get the same detail as their experts.” Talon knew that.
“It’s up to them if they send you their report.” She turned back to her work, ignoring me.
I gritted my teeth. She knew perfectly well that if I asked for the report, as the Majda rep, she had to send it to me. Let it go, I told myself. I had no interest in getting involved in her turf war.
Lukas paced the room, restless, never pausing, but he stayed back, respecting our space. He had class, this one. I didn’t want to like him, on principle, because I’d grown up in poverty and these people were all too rich. But I couldn’t help it. He seemed like a decent fellow.
When he caught me watching him, he came to where I stood with Talon. “What do you think?” He directed his question to us both, letting us figure out whatever hierarchy we were inflicting on each other. Smart. I wouldn’t want to get between me and Talon, either.
“Your wife clearly fought with her captors,” Talon said.
“It’s possible,” I said. “But something is off.” I motioned at the mess scattered across the floor. “It doesn’t look like anyone stepped on this debris. Those broken mirror shards are like knives, but none of them show any sign of blood. And it would take more force than two fighters slamming into that nightstand to break it in half.”
Lukas went very still, hope warring with fear on his face. “You don’t think they fought with Mara?”
I gave him the truth. “I’d say an explosion blew apart this room.”
Talon spoke quickly. “I doubt it.” Before I could respond, she walked away.
Well, screw that. I tamped down my anger. The last thing Lukas needed was to see the investigators on his wife’s case at odds. I even understood why Talon left so abruptly. It wasn’t just to piss on the PI trespassing on her jurisdiction. She didn’t want to tell Lukas his wife could have died. I realized then her rudeness with him came from awkwardness rather than insensitivity. She had no clue what protocol applied to a man with his high rank, and yah, with his beauty, too. He rattled even me, and I’d thought I was immune to that sort of thing. She obviously wasn’t comfortable talking to him without his wife present.
Lukas spoke quietly to me. “I haven’t received a ransom demand.”
“That isn’t so unusual,” I said. “She disappeared less than an hour ago. It could be hours before they contact you.”
His face paled. “And if this was an explosion?”
I spoke as gently as I could. “We’ve found no trace of blood or any clue that she suffered injuries.” It was the closest I could come to reassuring him.
Lukas rubbed the heel of his hand over his eyes, smearing away tears. “I just—I don’t understand.” He lowered his arm, watching me as if willing us to make sense out of this nightmare. “We planned so long for tonight. She was so happy! I can’t believe it ended like this.”
“I’m sorry.” I meant it. “I swear to you, we’ll do everything we can to bring her home.”
“Thank you, Major.” He went back to pacing.
I exhaled, fearing I’d raised his hopes too much. This didn’t look good. No, that was too mild a word. It looked like bloody hell. I continued my investigation, not only of the bedroom, but also in the surrounding areas. I stopped on the landing of the curving staircase near the foyer and stood at the rail, studying the foyer below.
Talon joined me. “The police analysts are here. We’ve also set up monitors in case Del Quida gets a ransom demand.”
Del Quida. She used a high title of respect for Lukas, only a hair’s breadth below Lord. She had to get me the report, so she wasn’t telling me much, but at least she was trying to be civil. Maybe with Lukas somewhere else, she could relax.
I touched the crystal sphere at the top of the banister. It was just the right size to rest your hand on as you started down the stairs. “Someone twisted this.”
Talon peered at the ball. Light from the chandeliers refracted through the crystal, creating a rainbow on the rail. “Looks normal to me.”
I tapped the stem of the ball. “See that mark? Someone turned the sphere.”
Talon straightened up. “I doubt it means anything.”
“Probably not.” It just struck me as odd that in such a perfectly kept mansion, this ornament was out of place.
Lukas came over to us. “I don’t see any way someone could have broken into the bedroom.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Talon said, gazing at his shoulder.
His voice cracked. “She has to be all right.”
Talon finally looked at him. “We’ll do everything we can to find her.”
Lukas just stared down the staircase. The guests had left, and the robo-servers that cleaned the mansion were waiting patiently for the police analysts to finish their work. Yah, I knew the cleaners were machines, that “patience” didn’t come into it, but they looked that way, robots of all sizes and shapes arrayed in a silent row while human analysts applied yet other machines to study the crime scene.
Lukas took a deep breath. “I should check on things.”
“You go on,” Talon told him. “We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
Lukas nodded and headed downstairs, gripping the railing. He was damn convincing as the distraught spouse. At a gut level, I believed him. I had to think about the rest of it, however, that he and Mara Quida had no children. He was his wife’s sole heir.
Lukas had a lot to gain if she died.
The desert night drowsed with a crystalline purity of air. I stood outside the mansion, one of the last people to leave after the gala. A few light globes floated off to the right, above a patio the guests had deserted hours ago. I walked along a path paved with blue stones. Lawns dotted with tiny white flowers lay on either side and the delicate scent of night-blooming jaz filled the air. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the gardens; I just knew too well the other side of that tender beauty. Except for the jaz, everything else growing here came from offworld. Native plants were spiky and tough, better suited for desert survival than making gardens pretty.
I pulled up the shoulder strap of my dress. The blasted thing kept slipping down my arm. Max, I thought. Have the city transport authority send a flyer. It would be good to get home and take off this outfit.
Done, Max answered.
I headed for the curving driveway about a kilometer from the house, where I could meet the flyer. Silence surrounded me; not only was the Quida mansion on the outskirts of Cries, but sound dampeners also muted the hum of the city.
I stumbled on a rock in the path and caught myself. Damn heels. Damn dress.
You wear them well. Max supposedly didn’t have emotions, but his amusement was all too realistic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many men try to pick you up before. Or women.
I’d never gotten used to the way upper-crust types found me sexy in what one fellow called an “untamed way.” I stopped and pulled off my heels. Holding them in my hand, I continued in bare feet. Max, you need to learn some new idioms. English has some good ones.
Why ever would I need to learn English idioms?
This one: Silence is golden. Especially from EIs who found my sex life so amusing.
I am an EI assistant. I don’t experience amusement. He didn’t sound one whit less amused.
I stopped, distracted. The silence was too golden here at the mansion. Concentrating, I trying to pick up a sound. Any sound.
What’s wrong? Max asked.
Turn up my ear augs. Any good investigator had biomech augmentation, including enhancements to her ears, eyes, skeleton, and musculature. I’d received the basic combat mods when I enlisted, and an upgrade when I transitioned into the officer ranks. It was invaluable in my work, and I kept my system at the top of the game.
As Max activated my ear mods, sounds intensified, the scrape of leaves against leaves, a breeze whispering over the lawns, and the buzz of pico-ruziks, tiny flying reptiles that lived in the desert but sometimes wandered into city gardens. Normally my enhanced hearing was too intense to use for long, but tonight the gardens still seemed too quiet.
A faint clink came off to my left.
I dove into the garden and rolled, my legs tangling in my stupid dress. In that same instant, the lilies next to the path where I’d been standing lit up in the blast of a nail-laser.
Damn! I jumped to my feet and dropped my shoes. Grabbing my dress, I hiked it up to my hips, holding it with one hand while I sprinted through the garden, my stride stretched out to its full length. I clenched my little gold purse in my other hand, not because I liked little gold purses; I hated the things. But it contained useful stuff.
Combat mode toggled, Max thought. I’m activating your internal microfusion reactor.
Somewhere behind me, the garden hissed with a nail shot. I ran harder, doubling my speed. Rocks jabbed my calloused feet. As I dodged back and forth, a lawn at my side flared with another shot.
Max! With my free hand, I shook my purse open. Have the beetle shorten this damn dress.
A little green beetle bot zipped out of my purse. It extended its blades and proceeded to cut off the bottom half of my dress while I ran. Its AI managed to keep it from chopping me up, too, despite the way I bounced it around. Within seconds, I was running in a gold shift that fell around my hips in tatters. As I dodged onto a lawn, the dirt next to me hissed with a nail shot.
I sent a command to the beetle through my link to Max. Find out who is shooting at me.
The beetle whisked away into the night.
A public flyer is waiting for you on the driveway, Max thought.
Why hasn’t security kicked in? The city monitors should have whapped the shooter.
Someone must have deactivated security.
No shit. To block city security required a clearance higher than anyone in this investigation could claim—except for Colonel Lavinda Majda.
I ran out into the sweeping curve of the driveway. A silver flyer waited there. As I sprinted for it, darting back and forth, a nail shot exploded the ground. The hatch of the flyer snapped open and I threw myself inside.
“Get us out of here!” I yelled.
With my enhanced speed, it looked as if the pilot was moving in slow motion. To her credit, she took off without hesitation, the craft leaping into the air as the hatch snapped shut. I slid across the deck and plowed into a passenger seat.
Within moments we were above the city. As I pushed up on my hands and knees, the pilot looked back at me. “You pay now,” she said. “And you give me your clearance.”
Combat mode off, Max thought.
My sense of speed returned to normal. “Clearance for what?” I climbed into the passenger seat, doing my best to project a calm, civilized appearance. I doubted it worked, with my hair in a wild mess, my dress in tatters, and my breath coming in gasps.
“Hell if I know.” The pilot turned back to her controls. “You give me a reason why I should help a raggedy-assed woman running out of a mansion with people shooting at her.”
“Look at your screen.” Max would have already sent my ID, to pay for the transport.
A ping came from the cockpit. “Well, shit,” the pilot said. “Majda.”
As uncomfortable as I felt within the Majda realm of influence, I couldn’t deny that being on their payroll had advantages. “Take me to the city outskirts.” I gave her coordinates for the entrance to the Concourse, a great underground boulevard in the desert beyond the City of Cries. The Concourse was supposedly part of the Undercity, the ancient ruins that lay beneath the desert, but in reality it just served as a glitzy source of revenue for Cries. The true Undercity where I’d grown up existed far below the gleaming Concourse.
While the pilot brought the flyer around in a long arc, I pondered the Majdas. They had sent me to the gala and called me in on the investigation when Mara Quida disappeared. They were also the only ones who could have deactivated the city security monitors. Coincidence? I doubted it. I needed to find out what was up.
My life could depend on the answer.
I strode onto the main floor of the Black Mark casino. No one blinked at my ripped gold scrap of a dress. I fit right in. Holographic roulette wheels spun in the air above the tables, glowing in neon colors while patrons bet and lost. Other gamblers sat around tables in chairs with diamond accents. Dealers who were far too beautiful dealt them cards, cubes, spheres, disks, rods, or whatever game pieces the players wanted. The games were all holographic, run by the house. I mean seriously, who would bet on games of chance controlled by a house mesh system? It always beat you, unless it calculated it needed to let you win a few times to keep you coming back. In the end, you lost, lost, and lost again. You could lose your soul to the Black Mark if you weren’t careful.
A man in a silver shirt and tight black trousers lounged against a table, watching me. I ignored his predatory gaze. Yah, I recognized his arrogant body language, knew the aristocratic sheen of his glit-rags. He was probably among the wealthiest of the wealthy in Cries, illicitly coming to the Black Mark in the depths of the true Undercity. Sure, he had plenty to offer—gifts, drugs, and who knew what the hell else. I didn’t care. I stalked past him without a glance.
Someone caught my arm. I swung around, raising my fist, my adrenalin surging—and froze. A bar tender stood there. Her slinksuit showed more skin than it covered, her makeup glittered, and the holo-stars in her black hair sparkled.
“Eh.” I lowered my arm. I had no intention of slugging my best friend. “Dara.”
She pulled me over to the bar and spoke in the terse Undercity dialect. “What goes? You look ready to blow.”
“Need talk to Jak,” I said. “Fast.” He always had his ear tuned to the Undercity whisper mill. If any rumors were going around about what had happened at the gala, he’d know.
“I get. Stay here.” Dara sped off, soon lost amid the patrons and holos. Taking a deep breath, I leaned against the bar, surveying the clientele to see if their behavior offered any useful info they didn’t know they were revealing. I recognized a few guests from the gala, come here to slum it in the Undercity’s infamous den of vice. I watched them discreetly, but no one did anything interesting.
The other bartenders left me alone, though they did glance my way when they thought I didn’t notice. It would be all over the Undercity whisper mill tomorrow: Bhaaj showed up at the casino dressed like a blitzed out city slick instead of like Bhaaj.
A group of slicks wandered over to me, two men and two women, all dressed in scraps of metallic cloth that covered almost none of their bodies. They looked like cyb-fibs, a weird trend among the wealthy in Cries, pretending they were machines rather than people. One of the men had a gold face, and the woman with him had eyes the color of polished titanium coins. The other woman had a cybernetic arm that glowed with tech-mech. It looked like solid gold, but more likely it used some hardened alloy that wouldn’t dent. The second man had implants in his ears that flashed in light patterns I knew were supposed to make me dizzy. They didn’t have the intended effect any more than the swirling holos in the casino could entice me to gamble. I’d never been particularly susceptible to suggestion, and the biomech in my body further blocked the effects.
The man with ear implants leaned against the bar next to me and gave me a once over, letting his gaze linger on my body. I felt like punching him. He leaned in closer, bringing his lips to my ear, and spoke in the Cries dialect. “You’ve good cyb. I’ve got better. Try it out.”
“Fuck off,” I said, ever the epitome of tact. I didn’t have to act civilized at the Black Mark, and after some city slick had just tried to kill me, I had no intention of pretending otherwise.
The woman with the cyber-arm laughed at her friend as she tilted her head at me. “You won’t get honey from that kit.”
Kit my ass. I might look young, but I was probably twice their age.
The man took my arm. “Your accent is undercity. You’re a dust rat, aren’t you?”
I twisted out of his grip and pulled his arm behind his back while I swung him around. “Touch me again, asshole,” I said in a perfect Cries accent, “and I’ll break your elbow.”
“Hey!” The woman with the cyber-arm pulled him free. “Get your respect together, rat,” she snapped at me. “Or you’ll regret it.”
She had that tone I hated. I tensed, my fist clenching—
Bhaaj, stand down, Max thought. Let it go.
I took a deep breath and stepped back from the group. “Not interested.”
“He didn’t ask if you were interested,” Cyber-arm said.
The other woman shook her head at her friend, probably her equivalent of Max telling me to stand down. To me, she said, “Your loss.”
Ear-plants looked me over avidly. “You got pump,” he told me, whatever that meant. He sounded like he intended it as a compliment. “Come with us. We’ll make it worth your time.”
“Seriously?” He thought I’d go with them for gifts? I probably had more wealth than the four of them combined. After living the first sixteen years of my life in poverty and then twenty years in the austere life of the Pharaoh’s Army, I saved my earnings with an obsessive intensity these slicks would probably never understand, given the gilded life they most likely took for granted. I was annoyed enough, though, that I couldn’t resist baiting him. “Worth my time how?”
“What do you want?” He sounded sure of himself again, in familiar territory, offering to buy whatever took his fancy. “Credits, jewelry, hack, bliss. You name it.”
Bhaaj, cut it out, Max thought. Leave them alone.
Oh, all right. “Sorry,” I told Ear-plants. “Not interested.”
“You won’t find better,” he told me. “I mean it. Whatever you want.”
A dark voice spoke behind me, sensuous and smooth, but with a steely undertone of eagerness that said, push me, go ahead, see what happens. “She already has everything she needs.”
Their gazes shifted to a point beyond my shoulder—and they froze. I turned. A man stood there, tall and leanly muscled, dressed in black, from his sleeveless muscle shirt to his rough trousers to his thousand-credit belt. An old scar stretched down his cheek that he’d never bothered to get fixed, and a gnarled scar snaked across his left bicep. Violence simmered in his gaze. He was menace and sexuality incarnate, with the face of a threatening god and the aura of a man who’d earned his wealth from the dark side of human nature.
Jak had arrived.
He spoke to the cyb-fibs in a terrifyingly pleasant voice. “I see you met my wife.”
His wife? Where the bloody hell did that come from?
Ear-implants looked ready to shit platinum bricks. “My apology sir. We meant no offense. We were just leaving.”
“Yes, just leaving.” Cyber-arm spoke fast, stepping back.
“You’re welcome to keep enjoying my establishment.” Jak was practically purring. He lifted his hand, indicating the worst of his rigged roulette wheels. “Please. Be my guest.”
The cyb-fibs all bowed to him, I mean, bowed, for freaking sake, after which they made a fast retreat, heading off to his tables to lose more money and make him happy.
I swung around to him. “Your wife? Fuck that, Jak.”
A slow, drowsy smile spread across his face. “Yah, Bhaajo, sure.”
I strode past him, headed for the back of the room, to a discreet stairway without any gleams or glitz. I didn’t look back as I went up the stairs. Holos activated in front of me, just enough to light the way, and then went dark after I passed. I headed into the secret depths of the casino owned by Mean Lean Jak, the most notorious criminal kingpin in the Undercity.