Mo Stonewell was no stranger to plans going sideways. After all, sapient nature alone was sufficient to prevent even the best cons from being foolproof.
Because she understood this, she also understood that a grift had to remain fluid. If a body couldn’t pivot when the mark went left instead of right, or chaos introduced an external element, that body had best retire from the game and find work as an insurance actuarial.
But as she and Harry traversed deck seventeen en route to Gorgon’s Lair, Mo couldn’t stop chewing over the discovery that her little brother was in fact an AD. That fact, along with his subsequent arrest, and the understanding that Ray was—well, Ray—had her more on edge than she cared to admit.
“What’s the worst surprise you ever had on a job?” Harry asked as he paused in front of the Build a Tardigrade store, studying the varying options of water bear fashion.
“What? Why” she asked, huffing out a breath that sent a wayward tendril of hair flying.
“I’ve run a lot of ops.” Harry’s gaze slid in her direction. “Doubts are part of the package.”
It burned that he could read her so easily, but because he had, she gave a hitch of a shrug and thought back. “I’d have to say the worst was when my crew was running a modified wire scam. Our mark was running a point shaving operation in the Ketel Province on Bosch,” she explained. “We were in her betting house when some local yahoos decided to pull an armed robbery.”
“Bad timing,” Harry decided.
“Tell me,” she agreed. “Before it was all over, my fixer got shot, so there I was, still playing the inside for the mark, my floater’s doing everything she can to keep my fixer from bleeding out, while my team on the outside made a quick change to the Hooker and Gondorf.”
“Gotta love the classics,” Harry said.
“Too true.” Mo sighed. “How they got that many Ketelian police uniforms that fast, I’ll never know. But we got through it. We bagged the mark, the armed robbers, and picked up a pretty bonus for all the mark’s victims. Plus, my fixer now has a scar xe swears is a mate magnet.”
“Bosch,” Harry now echoed the planet’s name. “I think I heard about that one. One of my colleagues caught the case,” he clarified. “The robbery was local, but the points shaving op included multiple planets, so that went Interstellar.”
“Nice,” she said, but was mostly grateful for the reminder that she knew how to pivot. And so, she thought, did Harry. “What about you?” she asked as they scooted around a gossip of teenagers, huddled over a handheld game.
“What about me?” he asked.
“I showed you one of mine. Give me one of your worst.”
“You already know about the Tammas Ren deal,” he reminded her.
“And wish I didn’t,” Mo said, suppressing a shudder at the thought of the serial killing self-improvement project.
“Anyway,” Harry said, “I was just trying to settle your nerves.”
“And your nerves don’t need settling?” Mo challenged.
Harry’s eyes slid towards her, then away.
“That’s what I thought.” Mo didn’t smirk, she hated smirkers, but she felt smirkish. “So, give me something.”
“‘Something’ covers a lot of territory,” he pointed out.
“Tell me about the escape from the POW station,” she said, looking at him in time to see his cheek twitch.
“Why that, in particular?”
“Because it relates to this job,” she said, keeping it casual. “And, I suppose, because, compared to masterminding an escape from a Judon prison, this job has to look like a piece of cake.”
“You suppose wrong,” he said, angling to avoid an oncoming Suradi family, led by their laughing toddler. “It’s harder,” he explained, “because this time escape means getting everyone out, alive.”
Mo, stunned by the implications, froze while Harry continued on, so that she had to rush and catch up to him.
“Wait,” she said, laying a hand on his arm.
“We need to get in character,” she said, pulling him towards a recess set between a pretzel vendor and a clothing store that catered to the tween set of every species in the Known. They even had temporary carapace tattoos for the emerging Milleons.
“Ah,” Harry said. “Does that mean I have to be an Alfred, again?”
“You made a good Alfred,” Mo judged, physically angling Harry around so he stood between her and the promenade’s foot traffic. “But for this, be Ray.”
He tipped his head down. “I don’t think I can glower that well.”
“Ha. I mean, be the jammer.”
“And here I left my sunglasses at home.”
“Just loom,” she told him. “And let me do the talking.”
“As the spoiled heiress,” he guessed.
“Please.” Mo flicked her hand. “Ambrosia is a flighty, brainless, party addict, but she has some scruples. No,” she said, “for this we need Ana Volkova.”
“And who,” Harry asked, taking the handbag she thrust at him, “is Ana Volkova?”
“Ana is the factotum to Pyotr Nikolaev, an oligarch who operates along the Ha’Q Frontier. Pyotr has fingers in all sorts of nasty pies, so no one would be surprised if he’s dipping a pinky in the AD slave trade.”
As she spoke, she knotted her hair at the nape of her neck, flipped the collar of her shirt up, hitched her skirt down a few centimeters.
“Just out of curiosity, are either Pyotr or Ana real people?” Harry asked.
“Sure,” Mo replied, taking her handbag back, flipping it open and depositing the flashy earrings she’d been wearing inside. “They both lead full and horrible lives—digitally.”
Harry let out a low whistle. “I wish I’d talked to you before I took on my last legend in Ócala,” he said. “I used a real guy. A real dead guy. It led to some complications.”
“This is how we learn,” Mo said philosophically, snapping the purse shut. “Shall we?”
Harry gestured towards the store. “Tol’ko poslye vas.”
She eyed him as he used the Russian phrase for after you. “You speak Russian.”
“A few phrases,” he said with a shrug. “Please and thank you, have nice day, drop the pulser, how many seconds until the bomb goes off… like that.”
“You live a colorful life,” Mo decided as she stepped out of the nook.
“It keeps the moss from growing,” Harry said, straightening and commencing to scan the surroundings, much as Ray did, everywhere he went.
“Maladets,” she murmured the equivalent of well done, as, with every step, Ana’s upright, cold personality seeped further to the surface. By the time they entered the store, all traces of Mo were gone, and all that remained was a hard-eyed fixer, who would do whatever it took to get the job done.
They stepped inside Gorgon’s Lair, and, with Harry looming at her side, Mo studied the open, airy space that, nonetheless, seemed to contain every possible form of geekery in the Known.
Her eyes roved over the packs sapients of all ages browsing the comics section, testing the VR games, or huddled over tables in the back where a number of different tabletop and RPs were in play.
She spied the quiet joy in a young girl’s eyes as she studied a case filled with dice of every shape and color, heard the excited whoop of the teenager who’d just slayed a dragon in VR.
It was all so innocent. So basic.
But, she reminded himself, beneath the innocent and the basic lurked a monster—not the virtual kind being battled over in the VR section—but a monster nonetheless.
She glanced up, saw the same realization flicker briefly over Harry’s face before settling into a hard blank.
Ray, she decided, would have been proud.
“This way,” she said, her voice deeper, and heavy with the Ana’s Slavic accent and strode purposefully to where two young men worked in the service island at the center of the store.
As they neared, she heard Harry breath the word “Sibs,” and had to agree.
The two youths behind the sparkling counters were nearly of a height, sharing lanky frames and the tawny complexion common to the multitude of Humans of mixed race. Their features were similar, but while one wore his tightly curled hair in its natural black, his brother had opted for a red that might have been inspired by the Bradbury City Martians football jerseys.
On arriving at the counter, Mo watched as the dark-haired teen, bearing a name tag that read “Justice,” completed a sale to a young Cherrii, while the red-haired sib, with a name tag reading “Logan,” pointed a middle-aged Surad to a specific aisle in the analog game section.
Both transactions ended almost simultaneously, which meant both young men turned towards Mo at the same time, and she noted that Justice had deep brown eyes, while Logan’s were lighter, shading closer to her own hazel.
Whatever their color, however, both sets of brows rose and both mouths tipped up in smiles on seeing Mo.
“Welcome to Gorgon’s Lair,” Justice said, his smooth baritone carrying the faintest of Gallic accents.
“How can I help you?” Logan asked with the same musical lilt.
“I saw her first,” Justice said, easing a little in front of Logan. “How can I help you?”
Mo heard Harry’s barely suppressed sigh, and internally smiled.
Externally, Ana allowed the faintest of smiles. “I am looking for Jean-Pierre Bisson,” she said. “I understand he is proprietor of this establishment?”
Both sets of eyes blinked, possibly surprised by the cool formality, but Justice recovered quickly. “Sure,” he said, adding, “Hang on a sec,” before crossing to the opposite side of the island.
But, instead of using an intercom, or going in search of Jean-Pierre as Mo expected, he used the universal teenage method of getting someone’s attention by shouting, “Hey! Oncle! There’s someone asking for you!”
From where she stood, Mo looked past Justice to the collection of tables at the back of the store, where any number of sapients were engaged in any number of analog games. At Justice’s call, a head massed with dreadlocks popped up.
The head belonged to a man who kneeling next to an Eiolan child of about seven, or maybe nine—it was hard to tell with the tall, slender species. They appeared to be in the process of painting a tiny figurine of some sort.
As she watched, the man turned to say something to the child, and as he did, Mo was able to see the misshapen spine Koz and Dorothy had described.
With an encouraging pat on the child’s shoulder, Jean-Pierre pushed himself to standing and made his way with a surprising grace through the multitude of gamers.
As Jean-Pierre neared, she could see that Justice and Logan bore the stamp of their uncle’s jawline, and the hint of his cleft chin. Jean-Pierre’s skin was of a more rich brown than his nephews’ and carried hints of a copper undertone.
But what she noticed, even more than the handsome features or the curvature of his spine, was Jean-Pierre’s smile, which bloomed as bright and handsome as that of his nephews’ and, though his eyes were darker, they were just as open and friendly.
Until, that is, they landed on Mo, then shifted to Harry and back, at which point his face went momentarily blank, and even more momentarily afraid, before he adopted an expression of mild curiosity as he turned to his nephews.
“Oncle Jean-Pierre, the très jolie femme wanted to see you,” Justice said.
“Very good,” Jean-Pierre replied, barely sparing Mo a glance. “Justice, keep an eye on the register and, Logan,” he turned to his red-haired nephew, “the manga section needs to be tidied. Again.”
“It must be a day of the week,” Logan said as he stepped out from behind the counters, offering Mo a saucy wink on the way.
“We may speak in my office,” Jean-Pierre said to Mo and, without another word, turned and led the way to the back of the store.
Mo and Harry followed. She shot Harry a look, but his eyes, narrowed in speculation, were was focused on Jean-Pierre.
They stopped at the door of a cubicle, set in the back corner of the retail space. He waited for Mo, and then Harry, to enter before following, closing and locking the door behind them.
Mo looked around the space—small, cramped, and filled with the detritus of running his particular business—including a shelf crammed with figurines like the one he’d been painting with the Eiolan child.
While she looked around, Jean-Pierre slid to the business side of a compact comp-desk, which was set to the left of the door, half of which was, she now realized, a one-way glass. Probably so he could keep an eye on the store while attending to his paperwork.
Jean-Pierre didn’t sit, and neither did Mo, but only because the only chair in the office was the one behind the desk.
Harry angled himself so he could see through the door.
“So,” Jean-Pierre said, squaring off to face Mo. “How may I be of assistance?”
“I believe,” Mo said replied, still using Ana’s voice, “you are already aware of what we need.”
Jean-Pierre’s eyes flicked towards Harry, and back. “I prefer not to speculate,” he said. “It is so easy to mistake a person’s intentions.”
Mo nodded, as if expecting the deflection as, in fact, she had. “Very well. I am representing Mr. Pyotr Nikolaev. He runs many businesses along the—“
“Ha’Q frontier, near Sakai station,” Jean-Pierre finished. “I have heard him.”
“I would hope,” she said. “Mr. Nikolaev has an interest in one of the items being offered at an auction being hosted by a mutual friend.”
“I have so many friends,” Jean-Pierre said, offering the most lopsided shrug Mo had ever seen. “Which do you mean?”
Mo crossed all her mental fingers, then replied, “I speak of course of Mr. Rikert.” It wasn’t a sure thing, but since learning Frederick Rikert was working with GIES, and was also on Libra, she had to hope—especially since Ray wasn’t present to provide his method of persuasion.
But even as Rikert’s name dropped between them, Mo saw Jean-Pierre’s mask of cool detachment fall, revealing what she recognized as a deep and pure hatred, before this too was gone, to be replaced by a shimmer of fear.
The slip was so quick she doubted Jean-Pierre knew it had happened, even as she doubted he noticed the way his gaze shot to the window, through which his nephews could be seen—Justice ringing up another sale and Logan chatting with a small party of tweens as he tidied the bookshelves—before his gaze returned to hers, the chill mask once again in place.
“And who may I tell Mr. Rikert is attending?”
“Wait,” Harry said, at the same time Mo said, “Shit,” completely dropping Ana’s accent and physicality.
“What?” Jean-Pierre asked. “What is happening? Who are you?” he continued, easing a desk drawer open.
“Please,” Harry said, waving off the implied threat. “We know you don’t have any weapons in there.”
“What makes you think this?” Jean-Pierre asked.
“Because we knows you wouldn’t risk the kids finding it,” Mo replied, glancing at Harry.
Jean-Pierre’s lip twisted, but he slammed the drawer shut. “Who,” he said again, “are you?”
Mo looked at Harry, who nodded, then back at JP. “Is it safe to talk in here?” she asked.
“We are talking,” Jean-Pierre said then, at her tipped head, cursed. “Yes, it is safe. This is a dead room,” he explained. “I could hardly conduct Rikert’s business without some safeguards.”
“Good,” Harry said, leaning back against the wall and crossing his arms. “So now you can tell us how you got sucked into brokering invites to a slave auction.”
“I—you—why should I tell you anything?” Jean-Pierre challenged. “I do not know you. Perhaps you are the law, or come from Rikert himself, to test my loyalty.”
“That’s very twisty thinking,” Harry observed.
“It is a very twisty business,” Jean-Pierre told him, his eyes flicking once more to the store, and his young nephews. “Now, get out.”
“It’s the kids,” Mo determined, turning to Harry. “Rikert, or Rikert’s associates, have to be threatening the kids.”
“Listen,” Jean-Pierre said.
“That’d be my take,” Harry said to Mo. “But why him?” He indicated Jean-Pierre. “Someone like Rikert—ex-military, part of GIES? He’s not going to just pick some random citizen out of the Known to do his bidding. He’d want someone with experience in the nightsider trade.”
“Someone with contacts,” Mo agreed.“Someone who can dig into the bona fides of anyone requesting an invite to Rikert’s peculiar institution.”
“Very clever,” Jean-Pierre inserted. “But—”
“My take,” Harry said, over Jean-Pierre’s protest, “is JP here used to be in the trade.”
“And Rikert used the GIES connections to ConFed Justice Oversight to find the right kind of talent,” Mo speculated.
“Possibly a slicer,” Harry picked up the narrative, “given it has to be someone with the skills to check a potential buyer’s bona fides——but one who, for a good reason, or two good reasons,” he glanced out the window himself, “got out of the game.”
“Right there with you,” Mo said, beaming. “Seriously, are you sure you were a cop?”
“Wait—you are a cop?” Jean-Pierre asked.
“Not anymore,” he said to Pierre.
“Now he’s in the jail break business,” Mo offered, helpfully.
“My head,” Jean-Pierre said, dropping into his chair.
“So,” Mo said tapped her handbag on the desk, “how did Rikert find you?”
“As you said,” Jean-Pierre replied, waving his hand at the both of them. “Almost exactly as you said. I was working on a crew—“
“Who’s?” Mo asked.
“Is this relevant?” Harry asked her.
“Professional curiosity,” she said.
Jean-Pierre huffed. “You know Emmet?”
“The Weasel, sure,” Mo said, then turned to Harry. “His crew got Praximom’s Moons of Jupiter out of New Verdun branch of the Louvre.”
“And the IS Marshals got it back the next year, from a private collector-slash-Alice dealer on Beta-Niobe.”
Mo and Harry shared a grin.
“Yes. Well,” Jean-Pierre tugged the conversation back in his direction. “I worked with Emmet for many years, until my sister and her partner were killed in action.” He offered a shrug. “The city of Dumas, were we grew up, was a hard place—and our father a hard man. When I came of age, I chose crime as a way out. My sister chose the military.”
Harry sent Mo a pointed glance.
“So you took the boys.”
Jean-Pierre’s head dipped in a nod. “And we came here. Out of the ConFed jurisdiction, but away from the frontiers. I wanted to give them a good life. A safe life. And I did,” he said bitterly, “until Rikert walked into my store, and explained that if I did not do as he asked, it would be my nephews who paid the price.”
“Jesus,” Harry said. Then, “Jesus,” again.
“I thought I hated him before,” Mo managed.
“Join the club,” Jean-Pierre said wearily. “We have a charter. So,” he said as Mo and Harry continued to process the levels to which Frederick Rikert would go to achieve his ends, “now you know why I do this. Will you leave, now?”
“No,” Harry said, turning to face Jean-Pierre.
“But we can make Rikert go away.”
“Ah, and now you are a comedian.” Jean-Pierre raised his hands and scrubbed at his face, then dropped them and looked from Mo to Harry and back to Mo. “You already see what I have to lose,” he told her. “Why should I trust you?”
“Ever hear of a grifter known as the Duchess?” Harry asked, before Mo could respond.
Jean-Pierre’s eyes narrowed. “Who hasn’t? The Duchess is a legend,” he said. “Every grifter in the Known has heard of her.”
Harry tipped his head in Mo’s direction. “You’re looking at her.”
“Ha,” said Jean-Pierre, then turned and stared at Mo, who gave him a little finger wave.
Jean-Pierre gaped. “No,” he said.
“Yes,” she told him.
“And,” he swallowed, a terrible hope burning in his eyes, “you are truly going to take down Frederick Rikert?”
“Rikert, Libra, GIES—we’re taking it all down. If,” she added, “you can get me and my plus-one into that auction today.”
Jean-Pierre let out a pained breath. He licked his lips. He looked out into the store, then back at Mo. “Let me make a comm.”