This one’s a couple of years old now, but I found it languishing down in my drafts list from back when I was writing and thought it deserved an outing.
“Coffee, sir? Madam?”
The waiter hovers beside them, radiating refinement and dignity.
“Thank you, yes,” says Boudreaux. “I’ll have the Alatheia Gold 18-carat with the cinnamon clusters. A light foam, if you please.” He glares at the waiter. “And I want real cinnamon: no synthetics. I warn you, I will be able to tell.”
He turns to the woman – Ceit, she’d said her name was – and softens his expression. Assertiveness is essential, of course, but it never pays to be seen as aggressive.
“And you, my dear? What would you like?”
He holds out a hand to her, encouraging her to speak. The poor girl seems a little subdued – but then it’s hardly surprising. Sapphire is probably the highest-quality establishment in the sector, if not those around as well. The Sapphire Bar, in which he’d found her, was select enough, and generally the haunt of local celebrities and other high-flyers; but it wasn’t entirely exclusive. Sometimes ordinary people would wander in, either because they didn’t know any better, or simply to spend time near people of quality.
The restaurant, here on the lower floors, was, however, a very different matter. Here, you only got in if you were someone – or, in this poor woman’s case, if you were lucky enough to have someone who was someone to invite you. And she’d been lucky, no doubt of it: when he’d noticed her at the bar upstairs, sitting alone, nursing a low-end cocktail; he’d approached her and easily caught her interest. It didn’t take much: like so many before her, she’d been quickly enchanted by his combination of wealth and charm, and had been positively bowled over when he’d led her downstairs to be shown to a table for two.
The woman pauses for a moment, before presenting the waiter with a broad and contented smile. Then she rattles off an order for a complex caffeine-based beverage Boudreaux finds himself struggling to keep up with. He hears several references to triples, skinnies, regulars, twists and layers. But the waiter appears unflapped, executes a restrained bow, and glides away, still tapping on his slate.
Ceit sits back in her chair and breathes out.
“That was lovely,” she says, as though she might have expected anything else. She looks around at the plush dining hall. The waiting staff move back and forth, attending to the throng of colourful and gleaming rich gathered around their tables, cutlery and glasses clinking. The room is full of the hum and rustle of refined and cultured conversation; occasional bursts of tinkling laughter; and, from two tables to the left, the unique cackle of Grand Dame Kovesi, holding court for her regular entourage of family and other beneficiaries-in-waiting.
Now Ceit’s looking at him. She watches him for a few moments without speaking. He reaches up and smooths his smartly trimmed moustache. He’s looking pretty damned good, if he thinks it himself: long, dark brown hair immaculately done in the Core Sector’s most up-to-the-second andro style; a gleaming new, flawlessly tailored suit in deep red, of the be-frilled and elaborately buttoned retro fashion currently in favour amongst the sophisticates of the central systems. His beard and moustache are smartly trimmed, with not a bristle venturing beyond its prescribed boundary.
For her part, the woman looks attractive enough, and her clothing is passably smart – though not really to the general standard found in this venue. A sleeveless black bodice above a long skirt which highlights her figure quite pleasingly. A delicate, translucent lace around the shoulders and chest still leaves her cleavage nicely visible, and he finds his eyes wandering periodically in that direction. Her jewellery is understated, though what there is appears relatively inexpensive. On the whole, she’s not made a bad effort; though perhaps she’d benefit from a few tips here and there. He certainly knew a few experts who could put her right.
The waiter returns, tray in hands, and deposits the two works of coffee mastery on the table before them. Boudreaux reaches over and repositions Ceit’s cup; turning it slightly and nudging it a knuckle closer to her. Satisfied, he takes up his own vessel and, waving his free hand, silently dismisses the waiter. He takes a sip; puts the cup back down, and licks froth from his bristly top lip.
“I must say,” he says, “It’s great fortune that you walked into the bar when you did, my dear. I’d planned only a short visit here tonight and might already have left had you been but a quarter-hour later. Perhaps the Fates smile on us!”
“I was very fortunate,” she replies. “And this place is just magnificent. The food was wonderful, thank you.”
“The pleasure is all mine, my dear,” replies Boudreaux.
They finish their coffee, and Boudreaux looks around for a waiter. He snaps his fingers at the man, who glides towards them.
“Sir?” Boudreaux favours the man with a tight smile.
“The lady and I will be leaving shortly,” he says. The waiter nods an acknowledgement and, with a subtle gesture, passes a small slate bound in red leather to Boudreaux. A quick fingerprint scan, a soft chime; the waiter offers thanks, takes back the slate and once again retreats into the background.
“I really feel we’ve connected tonight,” Boudreaux says. “Don’t you, my dear?” Ceit is silent. Just smiles. Probably overwhelmed, poor thing.
Boudreaux continues. “Perhaps we should go on somewhere else? It’s still quite early, after all. Do you live locally?”
“I’m fairly local at the moment, yes,” Ceit replies. Boudreaux suppresses a grin. There’s no doubt about it: he’s in luck tonight. She seems a shy character, true, but he can tell she’s besotted. It’s in the way she looks at him, and in the way she so frequently glances away, at the other diners, the staff, the doors… But of course she’s nervous. What ordinary person wouldn’t be, in such circumstances?
She doesn’t seem about to volunteer anything further. The poor girl is obviously completely tongue-tied. Boudreaux smiles again, as encouragingly as he can.
“Yes,” he says. “A definite connection, I think. I think we have…” He pauses a moment, frowns, then his smile returns. “I think we have a thing, you and I. A most definite… thing. Don’t you think?”
He stands as he speaks, reaches down, offers her his hand to help her up, but she’s already on her feet. She looks at him now, her grey eyes lock to his. She reaches out, places her hand in his, and she smiles. And her smile, he thinks, is a little different now. There’s something else there – the timidity seems to have faded away.
“I think we do,” she says, still looking him in the eyes. “I think we both have a thing.” Her other hand moves out, and he hears a click. There’s a cold sensation around his outstretched wrist. He looks down. He’s wearing a bracelet of some sort. It takes a moment for him to realise what it is.
“What?” he says. “What are you doing?”
“You do have a thing,” she says, standing up and stepping back, her hand gripping the other handcuff. “The thing you have is a bounty. Quite a substantial one.”
“But… You can’t…” He glances around. The room has fallen quiet; wealthy patrons, important people, are glaring. In the midst of it all, Boudreaux feels a sense of outrage. The woman is embarrassing him. In front of his people.
“Yes I can,” she replies. “Because the thing I have is a warrant. Oh, also a directed-energy weapon for use on unco-operative subjects. It’s non-lethal, usually, but the voltage on it is just hilarious.”
“I can pay you…”
“I’m sure you can. It says on the warrant that you do that sort of thing. To politicians. Reporters. The occasional prefect, I gather. Come along. Let me get this other cuff on you, and we can go outside and wait for our pick-up away from all these nice people. We don’t want to be making a scene, do we?” She clicks the other cuff into place, and tugs at the bar, pulling him around towards the door.
A thought strikes him.
“But, hang on,” he says, his voice shriller than he’d like. “You let me pay for dinner.”
She shrugs. “I was hungry,” she replies. “Besides, I don’t get many chances to eat in a place like this. I’m a freelance pilot, not a noble.” She glances around at the silent, but attentive, clientèle. “Or a banker.” So saying, she tugs again and, having little option, he follows her outside.
The gang-ramp locks into place; the inner doors open with a faint hiss. She really must get the equaliser looked at one of these days. Some other time. Not tonight. Ceit steps lightly into the corridor, humming a cheerful tune to herself. She stops for a few moments to free her feet of her expensive, nearly fashionable and very definitely uncomfortable shoes. A sigh of relief. She takes the shoes and, twirling them by the straps around her fingers, makes her way forward, through the common room to the flight deck.
Banjax is there, lying draped across the back of the ragged sofa at the back of the compartment, bathed in the flickering light of the TV – left on again and by now auto-muted – and the multicoloured fairy lights strung around the furniture. Occasionally his tail twitches, and he chitters quietly; a mechanical squirrel dreaming of electric acorns. Ceit wanders over and drops into the sofa, leaning her head back against her friend’s furry belly, her arm outstretched, the terrible beautiful shoes dangling from her fingertips. She kicks up her bare feet and rests them on the drone-management console.
“Windows,” she says quietly. The forward, side and upper viewscreens click on with a real-time view from the exterior cameras. The city glows brightly below, but the stars are still just visible, along with two of the planet’s tiny moons. She can just make out the Milky Way, too, arcing across the sky – brighter here than in the Core.
She sits, watching the stars, and feeling the squirrel’s even breathing. It’d been a good evening. Bounty completed with no trouble, payment received. That meant food in the cupboards and fuel in the tank. Plus, the job was a little feather in her cap with the local authorities. And there’d been a pleasant bonus. She digs into her handbag and brings out the compliment card, passed discreetly to her by a young man in a sharp suit, as she and Boudreaux had waited outside Sapphire for the Prefecture wagon to arrive.
“To the excellent young bounty hunter in Sapphire. Should this note manage to find its way to you, please accept the compliments of Grand Dame Kovesi of Skyvale. Your performance in the apprehension of your target this evening has impressed Her Ladyship, and she would ask that you make contact with her at the address given overleaf. She feels you may prove suitable for a small contract which may be available shortly.”
An easy job; a swift payment; a beautiful evening and a top-quality meal; plus the favourable attention of a wealthy matron; and being called ‘young’.
Yes. This had been a good evening indeed.