Authors: Jay Allan
“I'LL SEE YOUR THOUSAND AND RAISE YOU . . . FIVE THOUSAND.”
Ace stared across the table, through the dim light and swirling haze of cigar smoke. His opponent wasn't half the poker player he fancied himself, and Ace would have been licking his chops anywhere else, ready to pounce. A pompous fool, whose arrogance greatly exceeded his skill, was tailor-made for a shark like Ace Graythorn. But today he had a job to do, and that was to keep the sucker at the tableâsomething he would hardly accomplish by cleaning him out early.
Ace looked at his hand for the third time, part of his carefully orchestrated act, and he exhaled loudly. Finally, he pushed his cards facedown into the center of the table with a groan that was only half playacting. Granted, he was sighing because
he was laying down a winning handâhe figured his kings were a 90 percent favorite to winâbut the sigh went over well. No matter what, the mission came first.
Alejandro Jose de Cordoba reached out and pulled the chips across the table with pudgy hands festooned with gaudy rings. He wore the elaborate dress of a Castillan nobleman, though Ace knew there was nothing but peasant blood coursing through his veins. Cordoba had earned his position the old-fashioned way. He'd killed for it.
“Ah, Lord Suvarov, now you find yourself in a real game. One hopes you are not easily intimidated.” Cordoba's voice was pleasant enough, despite the slightly mocking tone, but there was something else there, a menace only another killer would have noticed. Cordoba was a loud and boisterous man, but just like Ace, it was all an act.
This is definitely not a man to be trifled with.
“Indeed no, Lord Cordoba. I find the challenge . . . stimulating.”
Ace had been gambling almost around the clock for five days, waiting for Cordoba to notice him and invite him to a game. Cordoba was well known at the Grand Palais as a high-stakes gambler . . . and more important, as the top henchman of Lord Aragona, the venerable establishment's notorious owner.
It was easy enough to play the buffoon, but much more difficult to strike the balance Ace had managed most of the last week: that of a reasonably capable player, but one with inadequate control over his emotions. Just the sort of opponent an arrogant shark like Cordoba would seek. Strong enough to feed his ego, but weak enough to fleece.
Ace had vacillated between winning and losing, managing
to stay about even despite making some wild and foolish bets. Of course, that was exactly his job, but it still hurt the gambler inside to give it all away just to play a role. And it wasn't easy, either. He wanted to appear as a gambler who was reckless, but he wasn't looking to actually lose money. Anything he left at the tables would just ramp up the costs of the mission, and that would come right off the bottom line.
“I am delighted to hear that, Lord Suvarov.” Cordoba stared across the table, looking into Ace's eyes.
s trying to get a read on me,
see how far he can push me
Good luck with that, you arrogant ass. It will take a better man than you.
“Perhaps you'd care to up the stakes, Lord Cordoba?” Ace slipped his hand under the table and pulled a large purse from his belt. He dumped it on the table, and an avalanche of platinum coins poured out. “I need a chance to win my money back, and I am prepared to wager my imperial crowns against your Castillan florins. Shall we say fifty florins to the crown?”
Ace knew it was an attractive trade for Cordoba. Imperial coinage was illegal for use on Castilla, and although the official exchange rate at the planet's central bank was twenty-five to one, that was a ludicrous example of wishful thinking that only supported a flourishing underground economy where a crown could fetch at least sixty florins, and often eighty or more.
“Very well, Lord Suvarov.” Cordoba nodded, his eyes barely betraying him.
Just not better than me.
He'd put it about fifty-fifty Cordoba would try and bargain him down, but he'd picked just the right number, an attractive deal that wouldn't look suspicious. “Then, by all means, Lord Cordoba . . . deal.” Ace looked out over the table. He was down
about fifteen hundred florins, nothing he couldn't manage. And the big pile of platinum crowns was occupying Cordoba's attention.
Ace wondered how the others were doing. His “wife,” Katarina, would be in the restaurant, hopefully making a fool out of him by now. And Blackhawk and Sarge would be approaching the target location soon. In another few hours, the crew of
would be blasting off Castilla after another successful missionâor they'd be in deep shit.
Just like every other mission,
“Lady Suvarov, what a delight to see you again.” Arragonzo Francisco de Aragona stood next to the table, smiling. He wore a magnificent suit, perfectly tailored and trimmed in gold and silver lace. His neatly arranged hair was pulled back and fastened behind his head with a jeweled clasp.
Unlike Cordoba, Aragona
a Castillan nobleman. He was also a renowned ladies' man, one who preferred his women as beautifulâand marriedâas possible. His noble pedigree was modest, something that would normally have placed a ceiling on how high a Castillan could rise. But Aragona was smart. And ruthless. His willingness to use whatever means were necessary to clear rivals from his way had taken him far, and now he was one of the Oligarchs Council, a board of twenty men who ruled the planet.
His interests included most of the hotels and all the gambling on Castilla and, less formally, almost the entirety of the planet's underworld. He was the most junior member of the council by lineage, but he'd made up for that with fear. The other oligarchs, members of proud and ancient families, held their arrogance in check around Aragona. It was well known
how he'd dealt with his rivals on his rise and, although he'd never made a hostile move against any in the highest ranks of the nobility, none of them wanted to risk being the first.
“Lord Aragona, what a delight to see you.” Her voice was haughty, but there was something else there too for anyone truly listening, a hint of seduction. Katarina Venturi had played many roles, and she slipped effortlessly into the guise of an exiled Saragossan noblewoman. She glanced up with a smile. “Won't you join me for dinner? I'm afraid my husband's attention is consumed by the gaming tables.” She sighed, a passing hint of sadness on her face.
Aragona bowed slightly. “By all means, Lady Suvarov. It would be my great pleasure. If I may say, your husband is a fool.”
Katarina's smile broadened, and she looked across the table to her dining companion. “Natasha, do get up and make room for Lord Aragona. You may retire.” She glanced back at Aragona, a playful glint in her eye. “I don't believe I will be needing you any further this evening.”
Sam Sparks stood up and bowed her head toward Katarina. “As you wish, my lady.” Samantha was doing her best to look comfortable in the elaborate dress she was wearing, but Katarina could see how much difficulty she was having trying to keep the long skirts in place.
“Lord Aragona.” Sam bowed again, but Aragona didn't acknowledge her.
I'm not surprised, given the neckline of this dress,
Katarina thought. Indeed, his attention was focused on Katarina, who was leaning forward slightly, giving him a better view. Sam turned and quietly slipped out of the restaurant.
“Now, won't you keep me company?” Katarina smiled again, more mischievous this time, turning up the seduction just a bit.
Aragona glided around the table and slid into Sam's chair.
“This is an unexpected pleasure.” He raised his hand, just a few centimeters above the table. The waiter rushed over, clearly trying to hide his nervousness. “Yes, Lord Aragona? What can I get for you?”
“Have you ordered yet?” He glanced over at Katarina.
“No, Lord Aragona. I have not.”
“May I?” He smiled across the table.
Aragona turned his head slightly. “Bring us a bottle of the Antillean Black ChÃ¢teau. And we'll start with the chilled Paru melon, followed by the fire-roasted dragonfish.”
Katarina suppressed a grin. She was an expert in aphrodisiacs, and she knew most of them were either frauds or only marginally effective, Castillan Paru melons among them. She had a few truly effective elixirs in her own bag of tricks, but she was confident she wouldn't need them. Aragona's mind was already where she wanted it.
“I have heard much of the legendary Castillan dragonfish, Lord Aragona, though I have never had the pleasure.” The large fish was from the extreme arctic regions of the planet, and it was considered one of the finestâand most expensiveâdelicacies in the Far Stars.
“I am certain you will enjoy it.” He looked across the table and smiled. “And please, no more Lord Aragona, I beg you. I am Arra.”
Katarina returned the stare with a smoldering sensuality. “And I am Irina.”
Arkarin Blackhawk crept through the thickets on the outskirts of the estate, knee deep in the warm waters of the estuary. Aragona's home was a vast compound, built along the sandy low
lands just south of Madrassa. The lights of the city were visible in the distance, along the ridge behind the great chÃ¢teau.
Blackhawk held his hand up behind him, a reminder to Sarge to move slowly, cautiously. Aragona's residence looked like the opulent seaside home of a wealthy nobleman and, indeed, it was that. But it was much more, and Blackhawk knew it. Arragonzo Aragona was more than a businessman and a politician. He was the undisputed leader of most of the Castillan underworld. Blackhawk didn't have the kind of scouting data on the compound he'd have liked, but he was sure the place was a veritable fortress.
But every fortress has its weakness . . . and sometimes that's someone inside.
He was confident Katarina would manage do the job. He almost pitied any man who was the target of her seductions. No, it wasn't getting her in that worried him. It was getting her out with the prisoner that gave him the cold sweat on his palms.
Blackhawk suspected Aragona was neck deep in a wide variety of unsavory enterprises, but the Castillan mastermind had made one crucial mistake. He'd included the Far Stars Bank among the targets of his frauds, defaulting on a loan for more than ten million crowns. The bank was not an entity to accept such a loss without consequences, and it had hired Blackhawk and his people to capture Aragona and bring him to its headquarters on Vanderon.
It's so easy to see power on one world as being universal. Aragona probably thought he was secure in his little fiefdom.
Blackhawk knew better.
There is always someone more powerful.
He reached his hand out again, about to signal to Sarge to move forward, but then he froze. He heard something, far away, his ears picking up the dull roar long before Sarge knew any
thing was going on. Then, a few seconds later, he saw the lights, moving down the road from the east.
It was some kind of convoy, and it was heading right for the compound. He stared into the darkness, trying to focus on the oncoming vehicles. There was something about them, something troubling, familiar.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The convoy consists of imperial Raider-class ground assault vehicles. Probability 93 percent.
The artificial intelligence implanted in Blackhawk's brain was limited to the same sensory input as his own mind, but it was often able to make more effective use of the data.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Imperial Raiders are armed with dual particle accelerator cannons and can carry up to ten . . .
I am well aware of the specifications of imperial Raiders
. There was an edge to the thought, directed toward the AI. Blackhawk had an odd relationship with the computer presence in his mind. He couldn't dispute the fact that the AI, whom he'd nicknamed Hans (for HANDAISâan acronym for “heuristic algorithmic nanotech dynamic artificial intelligence system”), had been incredibly valuable on many occasions, but there was still some part of him that resented the intrusion. Despite the indisputable usefulness of the intelligence, he frequently found himself sparring with it . . . pointlessly he realized, but he did it anyway.
What the hell are imperial fighting vehicles doing on Castilla? More to the point, what are they doing on the way to Aragona's estate?
He wondered for a few minutes if Aragona's chÃ¢teau was about to be attacked by his enemies, but as soon as the lead vehicle reached the gate it was apparent they were expected.
He stood stone still, watching the scene unfold. His grip tightened around his assault rifle, but that was pure reflex. He knew fighting wasn't going to solve his problem, especially not a suicidal assault on Aragona's villa.
Blackhawk had no idea what was going on, but this was the second time in six months he'd run into imperial involvement in the affairs of backwater worlds, and he didn't like it one bit. He wasn't a great believer in coincidence.
There's no time to worry about that now,
he thought, setting the topic aside. He knew immediately he had to change the plan. Katarina was planning to seduce Aragona and lure him back to his estate, where Blackhawk and Sarge's crew were positioned to get them both out. But the chÃ¢teau was going to look like an armed camp in a few minutes. There was no way they'd manage to sneak anyone in or out.
“We're going to have to go with the backup plan, Sarge.” That meant getting back into the cityâfast. And he'd have to break communications silence, at least briefly, to let Katarina know. Hopefully, he'd get to her before she and Aragona were on their way to the compound.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small controller, pushing one of the buttons with his index finger. The communication was short, just a microburst to a small receiver in Katarina's ring. She wouldn't get any details, just a prearranged signal telling her to move to the backup plan.