“Services were held today in the Chapel of Interplanetary Memories for Senator T’ong Glokk of the Interworld Federation. From the swamp where he spent his embryonic childhood to the Federation’s highest council, T’ong will always be remembered as an amphibian with style and gusto. “If you have to croak, croak with a song on your lips’ he was often wont to say.
“The controversial but beloved senator was found dead as a result of a broken neck in his private pond last Zarday in what the Peaceforce Crime investigators suspect was a botched robbery attempt. The only item of value taken was a gold Federation signet ring from his left flipper.
“Senator Glokk is survived by pondmate B’lurpp and tadpoles too numerous to mention. In lieu of worms, donations may be sent to SPAPS, the Society for the Preservation of Algae and Pond Scum. Farewell, our beloved T’ong.”
“Actually, I heard he was a total jerkoff,” Taragon remarked, staring through clouds of dhungsmoke to the viewscreen on the far wall. The seedy little bar was packed with carousing miners and dockloaders, all eager to squander their Kasday paychecks. She turned her attention back to her companion seated across the battered table. “I hate to say this, but when I contacted the Blademaster Guild for a hired assassin I was expecting someone who looked a little more...experienced.”
She had a valid point. Falle was a petite brunette with a splash of freckles over a doll-like angelic face. The only feature spoiling the picture of a college cutie in a black bodysuit was her eyes. They were pale blue and utterly devoid of expression.
“You’ve seen my references from the Guild,” Falle replied. Her voice was low without tone or inflection.
“Yeah, I once had good references from a housemaid I hired who broke more dishes than she washed.” Taragon took a sip of her whiskey and coughed. They must have distilled it yesterday, she mused.
Falle stretched her hand across the table. A gold signet ring bearing the crest of the Interworld Federation rolled onto the battered speerwood.
“Gorth crap!” Taragon grabbed a napkin and hurriedly covered it. “Okay, you’ve made your point.”
“So are we going to talk about the job?”
“The job, yeah.” She glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder, leaning closer. “There’s someone I’d like to see stinking up a vault like our lamented Senator Glokk.”
“Perhaps you’d also like to invite your friend over to join in our conversation.”
Taragon was taken aback. “What?”
“The rather large gentleman at the far end of the bar.” She nodded in his direction. “The one having no neck and the bulge of a force pistol showing through his jacket.”
“Well then. You do have sharp eyes,” she admitted, somewhat chagrinned. “My bodyguard. In this part of the city-“
“Hey, two foxy wedges all alone and waiting!” A drunken miner emerged from the crowd and stood by their table, weaving.
“Beat it, nerf nuts,” Taragon ordered without looking up.
“Hey, sugarbowls, you look like the type what wants to date a real stud, huh?”
“Let me know when you find one.”
“Ah, come on, sweetcheeks-“ The next instant the mass of
Taragon’s bodyguard loomed over him, exuding menace. The drunk blanched, raised his hands in supplication.
“Hey, I’m walkin’, I’m walkin’,” he whined and melted back into the dhungsmoke.
“Now you see why I wanted Jukebox along.” She looked up. “Now disappear.” Jukebox grunted, slouched off to his place at the bar.
“So tell me about the security around this person you want stinking up a vault?” Falle picked up the drink before her and tossed it down as if it were water.
“Airtight. Security has installed proximity attack sensors on every wall. The slightest fast move toward our friend and a particle beam turns you into ionized gas.”
“Weapon sensors too, I imagine.”
“You bet your tush. Programmed to detect any metallic object they sense as a weapon, vaporizing whoever is carrying it.” Taragon picked up the bottle and refilled their glasses. She sighed and ran an unflattering glance over her drinking partner, unable to relate freckles and a doll face to a hired assassin. “Are you really sure you’re up for this job?” she ventured. “Maybe the Blademaster Guild can send me someone a bit more, how can I put it...lethal?”
“Lethal.” Falle took a sip of her glass, got up and walked to the bar. She went to the drunk Jukebox had run off and sat down beside him. The drunk was entranced when she ran her hand over his thigh. They chatted companionably, then Falle pulled his face to hers, kissing him on the lips. Without farther ado she eased herself off the barstool and returned to her seat at the corner table.
“You want to tell me what that was all about?” Taragon demanded.
The drunk, startled at the abrupt departure of what he hoped was his future bedmate lurched up, pushing through the noisy crowd toward them. Halfway across the floor he stiffened, clutched at his throat and began to gag. With palsied steps he made for the door and vanished.
“He’ll be dead in about five minutes.” Falle leaned back in her seat, crossed her legs and savored the expression on Taragon’s face. “I picked up the hydrophis virus from a blood transfusion after a jetwing accident a few years ago. It won’t kill me, I’m just a carrier. But all my body fluids contain a class M neurotoxin.” Her grin was feral. “And that was only a little peck on the lips I gave your drunk. He should be glad he didn’t end up in bed with me.”
Taragon swallowed and edged back. “I guess your love life must really be in the toilet, huh?”
A flicker of emotion passed over the doll face. She seemed to stare through Taragon at some distant dream lost in time and
space. “Let me just say when you lose something of yourself you simply find something else to replace it.”
“So you kill people for money.”
“I prefer to think of it as the removal of inconvenient obstacles in other people’s lives.” The blue eyes became ice. “Shall we discuss the inconvenient person in yours?”
“Yeah, him.” Taragon took a quick glance about her, lowering her voice. “The person happens to be Duke Tomerlane, the Royal Overlord of the Six Cities, wise and noble leader, beloved of the people, pure in thought and deed. My husband.”
“It’s party time!” the girl in the pink micro bikini squealed, jumping into the hot tub, sending a cascade of water over the recumbent figure of her sovereign lord.
Tomerlane wiped water from his eyes, elbowing himself from the cushions littering the marble floor and tried to get a fix on his surroundings. The pipeload of dhungweed and moon sand was wearing thin and he was finding it hard to grasp the complete scene, only intermittent flashes like pictures snapped through a camera lens.
Click. The vast balcony of the Grand Hall where revelers gyrated to the throb of zirax basshorns blasting from stacked
Click. His friend Count Dace wresting in a corner with a pneumatic blonde he vaguely remembered escorting to the festivities what seemed like a month ago.
Click. A tabletop stillife of a half-filled bottle of dradoroot zinfandel (or was it half empty?) complete with two wineglasses, one overturned and draining onto an embroidered serviette.
“Your Highness, there you are!” A little man wearing a velvet court outfit was bending over him. “It’s time for your evening selection.”
With a massive effort of will Tomerlane got to his feet and recognized Packenheid, his Grand Chamberlain. “Hey, Peckerhead, what’s happening?”
“The evening selection,” he explained, leading him to the balcony where a line of girls were waiting.
Tomerlane blinked owlishly and leaned on Packenheid. “What’s all those wedges doing here, new cleaning crew or something?”
“Oh no, Your Grace. These maidens are all volunteers to be your companion for the evening.” He bent closer, lowering his voice. “The Duchess has retired for the night.”
“Man, you sure are an efficient flunky, Peckerhead.”
“I’m honored, Your Grace.”
Pursing his lips Tomerlane considered them, the girls smiling
with nervous anticipation. “Those two on the end might do. Oh, and I’ll take the third on the left with the nice set of shabooms-“
High above in the vaulted ceiling a shadow moved down a marble column on a gossamer-thin line. A carbon fiber crossbow gave off a muted hiss of gas as it was loaded. Instantly, a security sensor in a darkened alcove sent out a searching beam which passed over the deflecting material of the shadow’s black bodysuit.
“Last one for the big head, one more for the little head,” Tomerlane grinned, draining a wineglass and tossing it aside. “Now for those lucky wedges awaiting their master’s touch.”
“Yes, Your Grace, I will escort you-“ Packenheid stepped in front of Tomerlane in time to intercept a barbed crossbow shaft. He squalled in pain, flailed wildly to reach the burning agony between his shoulder blades, slammed into his patron. There were screams and a collective cry of horror from the crowd when they toppled over the balcony railing to the floor of the Grand Hall a hundred feet below.
It was almost closing time in the bar and with the stereo System shut down for the night the place held an almost funereal stillness. A sleepy barkeep was wiping down the bar top around a solitary drunk passed out among spilled beer and overturned glasses. In a corner table two figures sat in the gathering gloom.
“I was to be paid two thousand creds for the death of Duke Tomerlane,” Falle hissed. Her voice was low, dark with latent menace. “Are you saying you’re stiffing me on my contract fee?”
“He died from a fall from the balcony of the Grand Hall,” Taragon retorted. “All you took out was Packenheid, his chamberlain.”
“The crossbow shaft would have found Tomerlane’s heart if the chamberlain hadn’t stepped in the way. Regardless of how, he died because I was there.”
“I’m not paying out two thousand scoots because you perforated a foot-licking flunky. Forget it!” On cue, Jukebox emerged from the shadows and stood behind her, his hand fondling the butt of his force pistol. “So you can take the finger from your mouth and drop the bad look from your face.”
The air seemed to thicken while Falle stared across the table. Under her basilisk gaze Taragon felt a worm of unease. She reached into her blouse and held out a hundred cred disc. “Listen, here’s a small retainer for your trouble. That okay with you?”
With startling suddenness a smile rearranged the freckles.
“Of course it will. And I’m afraid I’ve been remiss in offering you my congratulations.”
“Excuse me?” said Taragon, flustered.
“You are now in line for the throne of the Six Cities.” She reached over the table and patted her forearm. “My warmest best wishes, Your Grace. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”
“Yeah... thanks.” With no small relief Taragon watched her walk across the deserted bar and disappear through the door.
Outside in the night rain slanted past flickering streetglobes to turn the cracked walkways a glistening illusion of newness. Water sluiced in the gutter before the seedy bar where on the mud and scattered garbage lay a crumpled hundred cred disc.
The woman reflected in the ornate boudoir mirror wore the flimsiest of negligees artfully concealing rolls of middle age fat and supporting in their proper positions a pair of heavy breasts. Wearing a complacent smirk Taragon centered a diamond tiara on her head. Tomorrow was her coronation and her first day as ruler of the Six Cities. She mentally checked the list of Tomarlane’s ministers and councilors she would be sending into exile. Deadwood, all of them.
She picked up a jar of ointment and began rubbing it over a red rash on her forearm. I must have got bit by some kind of bug last night at the dirtbag bar, she mused. They should have the place fumigated or better yet, burned to the ground.
“I hope you’re not planning to wear this to bed.” A handsome young Captain of the Guard, wearing even less than her, joined the reflection in the glass. He put his arms about her, nuzzling her neck.
“You mean the tiara or the negligee?”
“I was thinking of the tiara, Your Grace.”
“I’ll be wearing only a smile when we start pounding the pillow, hot rod.” She turned and pulled his face to hers for a wet and lingering kiss.
He drew her closer, then abruptly stiffened, broke off the kiss. She looked up in surprise.
“Banistair... what is wrong?”
His face drained of color, his hands grabbing for his neck. With a strangled cry he staggered back and collapsed, writhing on the marble floor. Then he lay still.
“Banistair! What’s the matter!” She knelt by his side and turned him over. Blank, sightless eyes stared without seeing at the vaulted ceiling.
Taragon jumped up and backed into her dressing table,
cosmetics and perfume scattering. Her heart hammering, she looked to the angry red rash on her forearm. It all came back to her in a rush; the scene in the bar where Falle had taken the finger from her mouth and stroked her arm, the scratch of a fingernail over her skin.
“The hydrophis virus,” she whispered, dropping to her knees in despair. “She infected me.”
“Well, there I was, fifteen years with Cyrus Nanotextiles, all ready to step into old Greenwald’s jumpsuit when he finally checked out. Then they bring in this young weenie from Orion Tech, just graduated. Bet he hasn’t even started shaving yet and they gave him the job I was in line for, waited, trained and sweated for all these years.”
They were seated in a deserted corner of the spaceport lounge. Throngs of travelers hurried along the ramps past the plexglass windows to the departure tubes.
Falle was studying the young exec across from her in a way unusual for her. Instead of gauging the fee a client would be willing to pay she found herself taking in the broad shoulders and grey eyes. She especially liked the eyes.
“How did the Blademaster Guild contact you?” She asked.
“They didn’t. I was talking to some guy after a corporate seminar about how the Guild was shortening the list of cheating husbands, mothers-in-laws and obnoxious bosses.” He paused as the thunder of a departing starfreighter vibrated the building. “Said he knew of a contact who had your comm number.”
Expertly, Falle scanned the empty tables and the faces in the crowd moving past the entrance to the lounge. “So let’s go over this new president of Cyrus Nanotextiles.”
“Yeah, the weenie from Orion Tech.” He sighed despondently, tracing a finger over the plexglass table. “The Corporate Council voted between him and me and I lost by one vote. One vote.”
“Why did the vote go against you?”
“I used to be a Terran Ranger. We were sent in to rescue a geodetics survey team which crashed on Swampworld.” He shrugged. “When we rotated back to Homeworlds I found out I had it.”
“The hydrophis virus. Somehow the weenie got hold of my service records and leaked the information to Corporate.”
There was a long silence at the table. Falle felt her heart jump and when she spoke her voice sounded strange.
“Your love life must really be in the toilet, huh?”
“Well, when you lose something in your life all you can do is
find something else to replace it. That something was my career
at Cyrus Nanotextiles.” He took a deep breath and looked directly at her. “Okay, I need to set things right in my world. Tell me what it’s going to cost me.”
Falle toyed with a lock of her hair. “What’s your name?”
“Um... the name is Ted, Ted Jenson.” He was starting to feel unsettled by the intensity of the look he was receiving. “We were talking about your fee, I believe?”
“Well, Ted Jenson, you can start the negotiations by taking me to dinner.” Her hand reached out to cover his. “Then we’ll talk about the big discount you’re going to get.”