Copyright © 2011 Reesa Herberth and Michelle Moore
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The smoky rat’s nest of a club passed for high dollar on Station 43, and they priced their watered-down drinks accordingly. Tal had nursed his for over an hour by the time Vanya slipped into the seat across from him. Her dark hair was pulled up in a complicated twist that left half her curls free to cast shadows across her face, and the light from the candle between them wavered with her barely quickened breath.
“Station authorities undocked his ship a few minutes ago, and they’re dragging it to an impound net right now. We’ll be able to search it as soon as they’ve received our warrant transmissions. There isn’t a ship scheduled for departure for the next full cycle, and they’re already recalibrating their law-enforcement scans to search for his face.” Smiling impishly, she leaned across the table and snatched the last of his drink, tossing it back with aplomb. Neither of them said it, because until they closed the binders around his wrists it wasn’t real, but they both knew they were bringing in the bounty on Kellen Frey after three years of running him down.
Before the empty glass even reached the table, a scantily clad waitress replaced it with another. Tal found himself staring, the woman’s ample attributes brushing his cheek. Vanya laughed softly, and he jerked his eyes back up. “What?”
She waited until the waitress had left them alone again before answering, and he knew damn good and well that she was enjoying watching him squirm. “I think she likes you, Tal. Should I just go look for Frey by myself, while you get to know our hostess?”
He grunted something vaguely outraged at her, leaving his drink after the first burn of it warmed his throat. Vanya’s blue eyes sparkled, and he cupped her cheek, running his thumb over her skin. Tal dropped a credit chit on the table and stood, offering her his hand. She rose gracefully to her feet and led him across the dance floor, her steps light as the two of them slipped out the door.
In the cooler common hallways of the station, they both took a moment to check their weapons and their notebooks. Tal had three alerts in the last minute indicating that a partial facial match had been made on someone heading for the docking bays. In true form, they were all coming from different corridors on different levels. Unless Frey had learned to clone himself at will, he was on to them and already hacking their feed.
“Split up or track him together?”
Vanya watched the screen for a moment before answering. “Together. And I don’t think any of these are really him. The partials are all blips. He’s just throwing them up across the grid for a second or two at a time, long enough to alert, but there’s no tracking after that.”
“I wonder…” Tal didn’t finish the thought, fingers sliding over his notebook as he diverted more of the station’s resources to his own use. “He’s cloning someone, all right, but not himself.” Holding out the pad for her to see, he shook his head in amusement. According to the station-wide trackers, Tal was currently standing in the hallway with his wife and heading towards the docking bay of their ship.
“Damn.” She sighed, twining her loose curls between her fingers distractedly. “Want to hazard a guess as to why he’s on his way to our ship?”
“Sabotage,” Tal said without hesitation. He hoped he was wrong, that Frey wouldn’t be that stupid, but Vanya merely nodded and ducked into the nearest lift. He kept watching on his notebook as flickers of misinformation sprang up all over the station. When the door to the lift slid open, he tucked the pad away, and they spilled out with their weapons drawn, sprinting down the deserted corridor in the direction of the more populated docking areas.
“And there we are,” Vanya whispered triumphantly as the familiar figure disappeared around the corner. There was only one way up or down the corridor, but they hugged the walls for the limited cover provided by the bulkheads. Frey wasn’t a violent man, but he also wasn’t used to being cornered, and they had blast guns for a reason.
Tal wasn’t expecting to find Frey leaning against the sealed docking pod, his hands clearly visible in front of him as he smiled faintly.
“Vanya, Tal, it’s been too long.” He gave them a careful slow nod. “Your hair looks stunning like that, Vanya.”
Tal watched the slow smile spread across his wife’s face out of the corner of his eye, most of his attention still on their mark as he stood there waiting to be restrained.
“You’re too sweet, Kellen. And just turning yourself in to us this way? How did you know it was Tal’s birthday next week?”
“Well, I thought to myself, what do you get for the bounty hunter who has everything? Sorry about the wrapping job,” he said with a wave of his hand to the black bodysuit he was wearing.
Tal snorted as he caught Frey’s other hand, slapping the binding cuff on it and waiting while the tight plastic was suctioned down to an immobile glove over Kellen’s all-too-nimble fingers.
“Nice bow too.” Tal ruffled the unnaturally bright blond hair before he pulled Frey’s other hand behind his back and settled it into the binders. “I think I’ll wait a while to unwrap it, though. In fact, I’m thinking I’ll put it somewhere safe, first.”
Vanya holstered her blast gun and started patting Frey down, grinning the whole time. “My, my, you are well-appointed.” She took a slender, tightly rolled tool kit from a pocket near his hip.
The flash of dismay was almost too quick to see, covered immediately by a cocky shrug. “I’ve never had any complaints.”
“I’m sure you haven’t.” Tal nodded towards the tool kit. “Let’s just see how well-appointed, shall we?”
Van dropped it into his hand with a slight frown, and this time there was no missing the unhappy crease between Kellen’s eyes.
It all looked ordinary enough, the tools obviously used but well-kept. Tal rolled them over again with one finger, waiting for some telltale sign from Kellen. When there was no reaction, he sighed. “Okay, so what’s with these? I know there’s something.”
Kellen glanced from the tool kit to Tal. “It was a gift,” he said, voice tight and defensive. “I’d like it back, please.”
Tal sensed rather than saw Van’s eyebrows rise, but he kept his eyes on the other man’s face. “From your dear, departed mother?”
That was probably a little below the belt, judging from the way Kellen bit down on his lip. “I asked nicely. What more do you want? It’s not like I can use them right now.”
“I’ll make sure you get them back at some point.” Tal dropped them into the pocket of his own pants. “Anything else?”
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” She pulled a slender pick from Frey’s collar and a few single shock-packs from his pockets, but on the whole it didn’t seem as though he’d been out with any particular mischief in mind. Vanya handed Tal Frey’s notebook, but a quick glance showed it to be a tangle of encryptions that Tal would try to defeat later. For the time being he simply shut it off, relishing the sudden death of the alerts beeping on his own device.
“Let’s get him into the cell so we can process the claim.” Tal keyed in the entry code for their docking pod, then bent down for the retinal scan.
“Finally,” muttered Kellen, and Tal narrowed his eyes. There was always a game with Frey, always a con to be unraveled, and he was smart enough to realize that finding the biggest rundown of their career sitting on their doorstep probably wasn’t the gift from the gods that it seemed.
Their holding cells were converted crew cabins, and they only had two of them. Vanya, ever the gracious hostess, gave Kellen a choice of which one he wanted. A gentle shove through the door sent him stumbling into the small space.
“My own cabin? You two really know how to treat a guy.”
“Only the best for you, sweetheart,” Tal drawled. “Being that there is a person of a different gender present, Imperial law requires that I offer you the choice of one of us leaving while you strip. Do you have a preference?”
Frey smiled, a flash of perfect white teeth that matched the twinkle in his eyes. “My preference has always been for whomever is willing. Which of you lovely people is going to come in here and help me?” He turned to the side, wiggling a little to show off his cuffed hands. “I won’t bite, I swear.”
“Oh, why don’t you do it, honey? I know how good you are at getting people out of their clothes.” Vanya patted Tal’s cheek, then tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ll go get us scheduled to undock.”
Tal turned back to find as innocent a look as he had ever seen lighting Frey’s face, and rolled his eyes. “No sudden moves, or I’ll leave you in the cuffs until we hit atmo in Rogena next week.”
“I’d put my hands where you can see them, but I’m a bit hampered by your little bondage fetish at the moment. I guess my word will have to be enough.”
Tal entered the lock code, stepping through the door of the cell and letting the clear panel slide closed. He waited for the locks to seal, then motioned to Frey, who turned around obediently and waited while his hands were freed. Tal’s jaw tightened as Kellen cracked his knuckles, but all it took was a raised eyebrow and Frey was unzipping his bodysuit, revealing the whole lot of nothing that he was wearing underneath it.
“Did you want the full floor show?” Fingers toying with the zipper, Frey paused as it parted just below his waist.
While he wasn’t averse to seeing what the full show might entail, Tal was fairly certain that it wouldn’t be the best idea. “Just strip.”
“Your loss.” Frey stepped out of the suit without fanfare, though he did seem to be fighting a smile and losing.
“I’ll try to live with my disappointment,” Tal said dryly, catching the body suit when Frey tossed it at him. “Come on, underwear too.” He demanded it with a touch of impatience, surprising himself. He should have been flying high on this success, but there was something off about the whole deal, and it was enough to make him twitchy.
“And you said you didn’t want a show,” Frey scolded, holding out his skivvies. “You can burn the suit for all I care, but I really like those, so try not to ruin them.”
Tal rolled his eyes again, letting himself back out of the cell and setting a small bag inside before resealing the door. “Clothes and necessities. I’ll get you some food later.” He made a bundle of the clothing and stowed the restraints away in a cabinet, and even let himself be mildly amused by the appalled look on Frey’s face as he unfolded a set of plain blue disposables.
“You have to be kidding me, Tal. These are huge, not to mention ugly.”
“I’d say wear them or go naked, but you’d probably choose the latter. Put them on, sit quietly in your cell, take a nap—I don’t really care, at least for the next half an hour.”
Anyone else would have flipped him a rude gesture, started swearing or screaming, but Frey graced him with a look that clearly said Tal kicked puppies out airlocks, and began pulling on the outfit with exaggerated distress. The shudder as he donned the V-neck shirt was better than half the teledramas Tal had seen in the last year. Leaving Frey to his fashion disaster, he headed towards the bridge, where he hoped Vanya would remind him that sometimes, things could be this easy.
“Van, am I making this too hard, or is it really, really strange that Frey delivered himself to our doorstep?” Unburdened after dumping Kellen’s belongings in the workroom, Tal stepped onto the bridge and kissed Vanya’s cheek. She laughed and pushed him away, finishing up their departure forms and sending them off before she swiveled her chair around to face him.
“No, he’s definitely trying to play us for something, but I don’t have a clue what it is. Maybe he wants a nice long vacation on the Imperial account.” She shrugged, not dismissing the topic, but obviously as puzzled as he was. “The warrants came through, so I’ve got us in for a departure in about half an hour, and then we can retrieve his ship and decide if it’s worth a tow. It is, of course, just big enough that we’ll be running underpowered, so it’s going to take us an extra week to get back to Rogena with it.”
“Figures.” Tal’s exasperation showed as he dropped into the other chair. “Somehow, I’m not too torn up about having an extra week to get an idea of where he’s got some of his caches hidden.” He kicked her foot gently, smiling. “Not to mention an extra week of planning the perfect vacation.”
“We’re going someplace with a beach. Giverny, Karibee, I don’t care, but we are not going anywhere that I have to put on more than one layer of clothing to go outside.” Her eyes crinkling at the corners, she got to her feet and stood over him, leaning down to give him a quick kiss. “In fact, I was hoping we’d go somewhere that didn’t require clothes at all.”
“Our bed is down the hall.” His hands settled at her waist to pull her into his lap. “Or there’s the chair right here. You know what seeing you fill out forms does to me.” The last a whisper of sound against the skin of her neck, Tal was fairly sure that Vanya’s reply was lost somewhere in her shirt as she pulled it over her head. He sat back and she came with him, wicked blue eyes making him feel more bare than if he’d already lost his clothes.
“I had no idea you had an administrative kink. Here I thought you were bothered and bewildered by helping our favorite criminal strip.” Reaching for his hands, she laced their fingers together and held them above his head, leaning in close enough that her breasts brushed against him. She’d just nipped at his lower lip when the dock control officer broke through with their clearance.
“Vessel number 314159, registered to Serafine-Reyes Bounty Services, you are okay for departure at your convenience.”
Tal groaned, and she buried her face against his neck, laughing softly.
“I’ll owe you one. Or you’ll owe me one, or however we’re figuring it these days.” Untangling herself from his lap, Vanya retrieved her shirt and waved a hand at him. “You might as well go make sure that Frey’s settled in. If you stay up here, I won’t be held responsible for making us late off the station.”
Tal wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it certainly wasn’t to find Frey on the floor of the tiny cell, hunched over and face buried in his arms.
“Funny, I had you pegged for being a little more creative. The sick-prisoner trick? Really?” Hands on his hips, Tal shook his head in mock sorrow. “I feel so cheated.”
It took Frey several seconds to look up, and to his credit, the man’s face was white except for the bruise-colored shadows under his eyes. “Just got a headache,” he muttered. “Worse now, because I’ve been insulted. Thanks.”
“Well, unless you want some broken bones to go with it, you need to strap in. We just got clearance from the stationmaster to depart.”
Frey nodded stiffly, the movement minimal. “In a minute.”
It wasn’t like Tal was ready to leave either. The lingering twinge of arousal spoke to that. “Not in a minute. Now.” When the only response was silence, Tal sighed, punching in the lock code with a little more force than necessary. For all that their warrants gave them a good degree of free rein, he had no desire to turn in a prisoner in worse shape than he’d been found.
Warily approaching Frey, Tal put a hand under his elbow. “Come on, I’ll get you settled on the bed.” Expecting some kind of scuffle, he was surprised by the limp acceptance as he maneuvered Frey onto the bed. After eyeing him for a second, Tal’s question was skeptical. “Are you going to need a bucket?”
A shudder racked Frey’s lean form, almost shaking Tal’s hands loose. “If I do, you’re going to have to kill me.” He rolled over on the bunk, face to the wall. “Promise you’ll put me out of my misery?”
“Not a chance, there’s no bounty on a dead man.” Tal reached across Frey, pulling out one of the restraint straps on the bed and fastening it over him, loose enough that he’d be able to get free if he needed to. Perching on the edge of the bed next to Kellen’s feet, Tal scowled at his hands for a second. “Look, if it’s withdrawal, we can get you meds.”
Frey kicked him. Hard. “It’s not withdrawal. How long have you been after me, a week? It’s amazing you even wound up in the same galaxy as me, if your investigative skills led you to the conclusion that I’m using.”
Tal caught Frey’s foot when he lashed out again, holding it still as he felt the first shudder of the ship coming to life around them.
“Didn’t seem like something you’d have picked up, but you’ve hidden worse things from better people.” Patting the bare ankle that peeked out from the loose hem of the disposables, he got to his feet. “Try not to vomit on the floor. The other holding cell is smaller.”
“I’m not going to vomit.” The words came through gritted teeth, Frey rolling over enough to turn a baleful gaze on Tal.
“Then you’ll be fine until we get out to the impound net. I’ll come back and check on you then.” It was annoying that he couldn’t manage to stifle that feeling of sympathy. The man was a criminal and he had no business looking so damn pitiful. “I think maybe we should have a little talk then too.”
Eyes that had started to drift closed opened, expression guarded. “What about?”
“If I told you, it would ruin the surprise.” Firmly turning his back, Tal snickered, feeling the glare burning into the back of his head. “Rest up.”
Vanya took pity on Tal and left him snoring softly in his chair when they arrived at the impound net. An hour of float wouldn’t kill them, and it gave her time to work on the mystery of Kellen’s easygoing surrender. His clothes were in a pile on the workroom table, but they didn’t yield up anything new as she scanned and poked through them. Two low-balance credit chits and the tool kit they’d taken from him. She unrolled it, but it didn’t give her anything to work with. Typical lock picks and microtools, a small scalpel and a paintbrush that made her smile. Ever the artist, that was Kellen Frey in a nutshell.
Abandoning the workroom, roll of tools in hand, Vanya walked to the holding area, surprised to find Frey still curled up on the bed, staring at the glass that separated him from the rest of the ship. He mustered up a smile when he saw her, but the effect was somewhat marred by the sweat that plastered his hair to his forehead and left a dark V at the neck of his ill-fitting shirt.
“Ah, Vanya. I know I mentioned this while your husband was trussing me up like a goose for the roasting, but it bears repeating. You’re looking remarkably lovely today.”
“I wish I could say the same, but I’d be lying. You look like hell.” She watched him push himself upright, wincing when Frey swayed before bracing a hand against the wall. “Tal said he asked you about withdrawal and you denied it.” Vanya laughed. “Vehemently, I hear. The man is sporting a bruise that he’ll complain about for weeks.”
“I imagine he’s had worse. I’m not even wearing shoes.”
“Technically, that could be considered assault of an Imperial deputy.”
“Well, add it to the bill. Maybe you can get them to tack another few months on to my sentence for it.” His face drew tight, even though she was sure he’d been joking, and he held up a hand. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude.” He didn’t so much sit down again as fall back onto the bunk, wiping his face with both hands.
“What the hell were you doing on Station 43, Kellen? It’s not exactly your kind of digs. Last I checked, there were very few antiques and not a lot of call for art forgery on the outer stations.”
“Favor for a friend,” he said lightly.
“Yeah, I wondered about that friend.” Vanya tapped the glass wall with the tool kit she’d been holding behind her back. “Where is Cassie these days?”
He froze, eyes slamming closed, but not fast enough for Vanya to miss the flash of pain. Impossible to tell if it was physical or mental distress, especially when he hunched over, pulling his knees up to his chin, face buried. “Would it be possible to continue this conversation a little later? I’m not—” A ragged breath interrupted whatever he was going to say.
When Frey didn’t continue, Vanya frowned, fingers trailing across the lock pad indecisively. There was a reason it had taken as long as it had for them to run him down—the man had conned the best. She’d also spent a lot of years trusting her instincts, and right now they weren’t flashing any warning signs. Transferring the tool kit to her other hand, she keyed in the code, slipped through the door and waited for it to close behind her before she stepped over to the bed.
“Please go away, Vanya. Please.” There was little left of the cultured voice, replaced by rough desperation.
Vanya sighed and shook her head. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” It wasn’t a good idea to be reaching down and brushing a hand through Frey’s hair either, but there she was, doing it anyway.
His skin was hot under her fingertips, hotter still against her palm when he turned his face into her hand with a small, inarticulate sound. “Go. Away.” In direct contrast to his words, he was leaning into her, his weight almost pushing her off balance.
“You’re sending me really mixed signals here.” She let him rest his head against her hip, feeling the heat through her clothes. “On the one hand, Tal was right, the sick-prisoner bit has to be the oldest con in the books. On the other, that doesn’t seem like a fake fever, and we’re not so far from the station that we can’t turn around and get you medical care.”
“No.” Hands shaking, he used her leg for leverage, fingers slipping along the curve of her thigh as he pushed himself back against the wall. “If you want your bounty, the last place you should set foot on again is that station.” He laughed, forcing himself to sit upright, and she admired the fact that he could maintain even this level of composure. “Damn it, Vanya, you’re not stupid. Why the hell are you in here with a prisoner, unarmed? You have no idea what I’ve got, and you’re not in a contagion suit.”
“Did you just try to frisk me? Nice. I appreciate your concern for my safety. What you don’t have is any known communicable disease. The ship’s systems run a scan on all new passengers as they come aboard, and you’re not carrying anything it recognizes as contagious. So I’ll ask you the same thing Tal asked—is this withdrawal?”
“I don’t know what the fuck this is!” The explosion startled her, not for the vehemence so much as the language. Frey was known for his manners, and in all the years they’d spent building their construct of his life, not a single person had ever mentioned him being anything less than polished and elegant. Watching him fall apart was disarming, as she was sure he’d intended if he were trying to work the situation. As authentic as it seemed, he was that good, and she couldn’t discount the possibility.
“Poison? The scan wouldn’t have gotten that.” She folded her arms across her chest. The tool kit was still clutched in one hand, and his eyes tracked it for just a second too long. “Oh, now that’s just cold. She poisoned you?”
“She’s in over her head. She asked me to do her a favor, but I don’t think she knew—” The startled grunt of pain cut off any words, and if he was faking the way his pupils blew wide, he was better than anyone could have ever dreamed. She dropped the kit and fell to her knees next to the bed as he dwindled down into the mattress. Breathing only in rapid, shallow gasps, he looked terrified.
“Tal, get in here.” Trusting the ship to carry her message, she pulled out her notebook, already accessing the nav systems to turn them around to the station.
Frey’s hand fell across hers, and he shook his head, beyond words.
“You want to die? Neither of us is a medic, Frey.”
He still shook his head, and she was ready to pass it off as a seizure when his fingers landed on the screen of her notebook, and he froze.
Thundering footsteps pounded down the corridor, and Tal appeared outside the glass, fumbling the code once before he got the door open and came in, gun drawn and leveled on Frey.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. He’s not,” Vanya said.
Frey’s hand was locked around her notebook, and the lines in his face were smoothing out, the shudders fading little by little. Vanya attempted to pry his fingers loose, dropping both his hand and the computer when it proved akin to trying to yank something out of a vise. Tal pulled her back. The room smelled of burning plastic, and the screen of her notebook cracked under the pressure of Frey’s fingertips. He gave a final shudder, and the device fell to the floor, destroyed. His hand dangled open off the side of the bed, the fingertips as blistered as if they’d been scorched, and though his eyes were closed, his breathing had returned to something like normal.
“What the fuck just happened?” Tal echoed her own sentiments exactly. If she’d had even the slightest idea, she would have told him.