New Seattle, Earth II
Tal Darkrunner slouched in his chair, back to the wall of the huge, busy nightclub.
He had a woman on each arm, his lieutenant flanking him and other members of his gang arrayed around his table.
Against the backdrop of laser lightshows and throng of nightclubbers, scantily clad barmaids hovered. A few feet away, a huge Mau stood guard to keep the curious and hostile at bay.
Tal had the biggest and best table in the place, where he could see all comers and all could see him. No one challenged him for it, and no one sat here without his okay—ever. Matter of fact, no one entered the club without his okay and one jerk of his head could have them ejected.
After all, he owned the place.
Flash wasn’t the classiest nightclub in New Seattle, but it was the edgiest and the hottest. Crowded every night with New Seattleites hungry for music and a few hours of bliss fueled by alcohol or legal synthetics that might even include sex in one of the cubbies in the back hallway, the club pulled credit into his accounts like a nuclear-powered spacevac.
Dancers crowded onto the floor so tightly they could barely move, but no one seemed to care. Above their heads a singer belted out a powerful, bluesy tune while she danced sinuously to the beat of the band behind her, backup singers gyrating in counterpoint. Attractive, scantily costumed beings on small hoverpads skated over the crowd, shooting small projectiles that showered partiers with neon sparks and the occasional prize.
The volume was softened by the mute screen hanging around Tal’s area, pulsing in waves of energy visible only as occasional shimmers of color. Tonight’s selections were purple and black. Tal liked music, and he liked it loud, but he couldn’t carry on business if he couldn’t make himself heard, and in his business a mistaken word or phrase could make enemies, even start a firefight.
Melode´, the singer, was a flashy redhead with a throaty voice, glittering makeup and breasts which threatened to burst from her shimmering green gown. She had a powerful contralto voice that dropped to a sultry, sexual purr when she was satisfied.
Tal knew this because he’d had her last night. He could have her again if he liked. The performers who graced his club were greedy for credit and influence, willing to do whatever it took to make it in this city, including have sex with him.
Hells, most of them wanted to have sex with him. Danger and power were their own aphrodisiacs, and according to Melode´, he radiated both. He’d been amused but not surprised by her insight. He knew who and what he was, and he knew the effect he had on other beings.
He used his wits and his persona to rule his kingdom and he’d yet to meet a female he couldn’t have if he really wanted her. Except that the thrills had muted lately, until he sometimes felt as jaded as a man a century older.
The auburn-haired chanteuse was beautiful, as inventive and talented in bed as she was on the stage. Tal should want her again, just as he should be excited by what both of the women encircled loosely by his arms were doing. Trix had her hand inside his unbuttoned shirt, stroking his chest, while Saia used her long nails to tease his cock through his leather pants and tickled his ear with her clever tongue.
But the truth was, although his body responded predictably, his cock hard, his mind was detached, as if he’d seen all this, done all this for too many nights in a row, until they blurred together in a chain that bound him in ever-tightening coils.
He was powerful, wealthy, desired and feared by most of the beings in this raucous court over which he presided … and he was quarking bored.
Which was why, when he saw the stranger making his way through the crowded tables, Tal’s gaze sharpened.
The newcomer stuck out in the flashy crowd like a Solar Wars surplus fighter in a fleet of souped-up city cruisers. Ex-military, with close-cropped hair, erect stature and a hard, watchful gaze that said he’d do whatever was necessary to accomplish his mission.
Unlike most of the male clubbers in their shiny faux silks and leathers, this man wore utilitarian pants, boots and jacket. Although he wasn’t visibly armed, he was huge, with broad shoulders and heavy muscles. Tal had no doubt the man carried more than one weapon hidden where he could reach it. And his current trajectory brought him inexorably toward Tal.
“Find out who he is,” Tal murmured.
“Already on it.” Trix quit nibbling his ear to fiddle with her comlink, her pretty, metal-studded face intent on the small holoscreen. She’d been no more into their foreplay than Tal—she just liked to perform.
Tal’s bodyguard, Dalg, a Mau behemoth with the dark purplish skin and ebony hair of his race, stopped the man from coming any nearer to his table. Tal watched with a lick of amusement as the man paused, speaking to the bouncer without taking his eyes off Tal.
The stranger was nearly as big as the Mau and looked as if he might match him in a fight. Not that it would come that, as all employees of the bar carried stunners and knew how to use them. Drunks and druggers of any size could be unpredictable, and Tal wasn’t having his people hurt unnecessarily. Also, occasionally someone with a grudge tried to get to Tal. They never made it.
Tal waited, giving the newcomer a long once-over calculated to piss him off, before he lifted his chin. Dalg stepped aside and let the man through.
He stopped on the other side of Tal’s table, hands loose at his sides, square face unsmiling, and gave Tal a curt nod.
“Darkrunner,” he rumbled in a deep voice.
“Who’re you?” Tal asked.
“And what brings you to my table, Mr. Berenson?” Tal asked.
Saia didn’t stop what she was doing and he didn’t ask her to. To do so would attribute importance to this encounter. But Trix froze, staring from her com to the newcomer. Tal cocked his head to see.
Although he gave no outward reaction, anger fired in Tal’s gut, deep and hot, as he stared at Berenson’s ident. This man belonged to Logan Stark, one of the few beings Tal hated with a passion. Tal had plenty of enemies. Most he tolerated as long as they stayed out of his way—or he made sure they did by eliminating them. Either way, he didn’t waste thought or emotion on them. Stark was different.
“You’ve got nerve, walking in here,” he said.
Berenson looked around the table. “Have some intel for you. Mind if I sit?”
Tal made him wait again as he calculated the probable time and damage involved in having the man stunned and dragged out to be dumped in the dark, wet alley behind the club. It was what any of Stark’s beings deserved if they were foolish enough to venture into one of his clubs.
But this man couldn’t be stupid if he’d attained the post of head of LodeStar Security, so he had a good reason for venturing in here. Tal’s curiosity won. He jerked his chin at the one empty chair, which he kept just for times like this. New Seattleites from all strata of society found their way to his table—usually to ask for something, from revenge on a common enemy, a job of some kind, or protection from a rival gang. He gave, but at a price.
If Logan Stark wanted something, Tal was going to take great pleasure in refusing altogether. Stark had gotten all he’d ever get from Tal.
But first Tal would hear what the bastard wanted. At least it was a cure for his boredom.
One of the barmaids appeared at Berenson’s side. “Drink, sir?”
“Ale,” he said. “In a bottle.”
Tal smiled humorlessly. “Think I’d drug you, Berenson?’
The big man didn’t answer. Wise of him. Tal stroked Saia’s hair and raised his brows in lazy inquiry. “So, what can I do for you—or should I say for Stark? Since you’re his.”
Everyone around the table froze, gazes flicking from Tal to Berenson. The big man’s reaction was nearly infinitesimal, but Tal saw it—a slight tightening of the skin around his eyes. Tal smiled to himself. Something was wrong in Stark’s world—badly wrong. Now wasn’t that rich?
He trailed the silky ends of Saia’s hair through his fingers, prepared to enjoy himself at Stark’s minion’s expense.
That is, until the man spoke.
“I’m here to give you a piece of news,” Berenson rumbled. “We recently broke up a slaver gang operating this end of the galaxy. We killed the leader, captured his mistress. She was on her way to Deep Six for the rest of her life … until she escaped.”
Tal shared a look with Darry. The blond man grinned, and Trix sniggered.
“And why would I care about that?” Tal drawled.
Berenson leaned forward. “Because the woman, Slidi—she was the one who tried to kill or kidnap Ms. te Nawa, before you spirited her away to safety.”
Tal froze. Kiri te Nawa. Only a barista, and not the most beautiful, most seductive or even the cleverest female Tal had had … but something about her had twisted him in knots like a callow youth. He’d wanted her, badly. He’d had her for one hot night, and then lost her … to Logan Quarking Stark.
Tal would’ve killed him for it, but one thing had stayed his hand, the glow in Kiri’s golden eyes when she spoke of Stark. The little fool had been in love with the magnate, and not for his money either.
If she’d ever looked at Tal like that, he’d have given up everything he owned … well, some of it. Even the impulse to offer, however fleeting, simply proved there wasn’t a man alive who couldn’t be made a fool by a pair of big eyes.
“Can’t Stark protect one small woman, then?” Tal asked. “You must not be worth much as a security expert.”
Berenson ignored the insult. “I could protect her, if she were still with him. She’s not.”
Only when Saia whined in protest did Tal realize his hand had tightened on her hair, pulling her head back at an awkward angle. He let go and gave her a push. “Get off me.”
She scrambled away, pouting. Trix leapt nimbly from his lap as well. Tal surged to his feet, and tossed back the contents of the small glass in front of him. The fine Serpentian fire-whiskey burned all the way down, then settled in his gut in a warm glow, centering him.
“Come with me.” Without looking back, he strode for the door directly behind him.
His heart was thundering out a rhythm to equal the amplified drumbeat pounding through the club. Kiri had left Stark. This meant he, Tal, had another chance.
He could find this Slidi creature and present her to Kiri as a gift. A small token of his esteem.
Then they’d see. Oh, yes, then they’d see.