Edar Reith waited until the tout slipped his hand into a pocket for a gat, then slammed an elbow into the idiot’s gut. The surprised would-be assailant folded over, winded, and met Reith’s upcoming knee. By the time he’d staggered back into the plastic-brick alley wall the man he’d intended to roll had a snub-nosed needle-pistol under his chin.
“Want to try that again?” the hard-faced black man asked the gasping attacker. “’Cause second time round I’ll take out your kneecaps.” He crashed a fist into the tout’s belly and let him slither to the floor to vomit.
Reith didn’t turn round but his gun pointed directly at the head of the person approaching from the shadows.
“Hey, it’s okay,” the girl told him, holding out her hands. “I surrender! Usually it takes a couple of drinks but…”
“You know about a little house down in Acidalia?” Reith demanded.
“Sure. It has yellow shutters and the door squeaks.”
The Runner’s leader relaxed a little. The code was right. “You want to tell me why your delivery guy just tried to introduce me to his cosh?”
The girl – she wasn’t out of her teens yet and could pass for anything from fourteen to twenty-five – peered down at the heaving tout. “He’s not my guy. You just can’t get the help these days. I don’t know who he is.”
“He said the right words, about the red grass in Lycos.”
“That’s not good. ‘Specially not good for Curtis – that’s your actual guide.”
Reith grabbed the tout again and slammed him hard. The man’s shabby fur coat shed as he hit the wall. “You want to tell me how you knew to look for me?” Reith asked. “The right answer’s ‘Yes, sir. I sure do enjoy keeping my teeth.’”
“I got told to, is all! Some guy comes into the club. Didn’t want to buy Sindee, just wanted me to bring you to him. Described you. Gave me some words to say. Told me you’d be at the Tipping Point. That’s all.”
“But you got greedy, decided if he wanted me that bad then I must be worth rolling?” Reith guessed. He’d survived the streets of Phoenix Landing for ten years. He knew how the locals thought.
“I wasn’t… it was just a misunderstanding, man.”
The girl closed in on the tout. “Who paid you?” she demanded.
“Think very carefully before saying I don’t know,” Reith advised. “Those would be really bad last words.”
“I… guy named Stegis. Still-Eyes Stegis, they call him, on account of he don’t blink. I… owed him at cards. So he said…”
“Where were you supposed to deliver me?”
“Mama Shore-Leave’s. The back door.”
Reith turned to the girl at his shoulder. “Anything else you want to ask this piece?” he checked.
“Why he bought that coat?” she considered. “No, I don’t even want to know that.”
“Hey, man, we can work…” began the tout before Reith scientifically knocked him unconscious.
Then the Runner picked him up again, grabbed his head, and carefully hammered it twice more against the wall. “Should keep him down for about twenty-four hours,” he decided.
“You make a study of this stuff?” the girl asked, a little wide-eyed.
“Professional judgement. So what have you got for me?”
“Oh, right.” His contact fumbled with her satchel and pulled out a data coin – slowly; she’d seen Reith tense. “Hey, I’m on your side, tough guy. You might not know me but…”
“You’re Meleti Manysongs, from Meridiani. You apprenticed under Sogan the Elder and Dame Malebrande. Your mother was Lothlani, who died in Fatal Laugher’s Toyroom of Delights – my condolences. You volunteered to come out of cover and you think you convinced Ambutorius to let you do it. I know you.”
The girl folded her arms. “Okay then, well you’re Edar Reith and you’re… mister big Runner guy from… around. Look, you can trust me, okay?”
“I can’t trust anyone. Learned that the hard way. But you should trust me.”
“Makes it easier for me to kill you if I have to. What’s on the data coin? Don’t pretend you didn’t check. You’d be dumb not to look and I don’t like stupid. So give me the summary.”
“It’s the money trail on the Lady Ysildis kidnapping. Ended up with those raiders in the Deadfields, and they were paid by Molossa of New Trinachria. She got the jammer tech she bartered with them from a trader out of Nuachis called Sydachi, He turned up dead in a brothel in Syrtis Major a couple of weeks ago, throat cut clean.”
Reith frowned. “Somebody doesn’t like loose ends.”
“The commission for the kidnap came from Nors Olssen here in Phoenix Landing. He’s a low-life middle-man running some local rackets, including some of the whore-houses that Molossa supplied. Trace back where he got the money and you end up at Count Archin Teledrene of Isidis. Teledrene’s youngest daughter recently got an exclusive once-in-a-lifetime invitation to the Palace of Whispers that got revoked when he provided an even better candidate.”
“That pretty much confirms where we were two weeks ago, Meleti. What else?”
“Your Runners tracked down one of the raider’s women. He’d talked big to her before the mission. He was going to buy her a caravan, shower her in spices, that kind of thing. And he described how they were going to earn the money by snatching some Promethean virgin. But there’s the interesting bit: he mentioned some of the instructions he’d been given.”
Reith tensed as a drunken couple staggered by, but that was nothing unusual in Phoenix Landing at this time of night – and this close to the Northern polar ice cap it was a six month night. “Go on,” the Runner prompted.
“The noble girl had insisted on a visit to some aunt. They had her itinerary, her route, the strength of her guard, everything. Orders were to snatch the girl and not harm her, but to take out at least some of the retainers and make it look light a fight not a massacre. The lady had to see her people die. Otherwise she was to be treated like the highly valuable sale commodity she was and delivered to the Inn of Abu Massur.”
“So somebody wanted the girl scared? Or what?”
“There’s more. I went to the House of Teledrene myself, as a wandering entertainer. Songs, stories, and a couple of dirty jokes, you know the routine. I’m pretty good so I got to stay for three days and pick up on the gossip. Enough to know why the Teledrene daughter couldn’t honour her House by becoming a Bride of Night anyhow. Little Jessa Teledrene doesn’t qualify on the whole purity thing – on account of being three months gone.”
“I believe that would be a mortal crime in the Domain of the Lord of Night,” Reith recalled. “Ladies of noble birth require permission to marry and to…”
“Yep. And no hubby in sight. Picked up his name from the lady herself though, when we exchanged weepy girl-talk. Same fellow who helpfully put her father in touch with Olssen and supplied the dossier on Lady Ysilde.”
“Now you have my full attention, Miss Manysongs,” Reith admitted. His gaze flicked up the alleyway. “Or would have if a couple of guys hadn’t just powered up vibra-weapons round the corner there. Hold the narrative and follow me.”
Mel nodded. She trailed behind Reith as he slid down a series of alleys, over a mesh-link fence, and through the back of a steaming kitchen to use a second exit.
“You know Phoenix Landing,” she admitted.
“I like having back doors,” the Runner answered. “Keep walking down that passage. Wait for me at the end.” With no more explanation he melted back into the shadows.
Mel resigned herself to a short season playing The Bait. She hurried down the corridor, glancing back anxiously every so often, casting about for a means of escape.
A pair of locals slithered up after her, carrying power blades.
Something unpleasant happened to them that involved the snapping of bones. When Mel looked back Reith was examining the unconscious men’s faces. “Someone’s doing all their recruiting out of the same strip bar,” he noted.
“Maybe an out-of-towner then?” Mel suggested. “Doesn’t have all the local contacts, needs to hire muscle…?”
“Or Still-Eyes Stegis being careless. Or perhaps wanting me to think he’s careless. Could be I’m getting an invite to walk into his trap a second way, when I think I’m sneaking in.” The resistance leader emptied the thugs’ wallets – the cash was always handy in Phoenix Landing – and moved on before more of Stegis’ gambling buddies could find him.
Phoenix Landing was the historical site of the first unmanned human probe to Mars from old Earth, back in legendary times. Near the Northern ice-cap, covered in snow and ice ten-twelfths of the year, subject to spontaneous dust and ice storms, the settlement that clung to independence and survival in the so-called Green Valley now was largely bolted together from the stripped out plastic sheets from Ancient colony ships. The near-indestructible materials were all built into one huge covered sprawl cluttering the edge of the icefield, a seething feral settlement that was independent of the First Men mostly because none of them cared about it.
Unlike the elegant classical Ancient ruins that dotted Mars, Phoenix Landing was bleak, utilitarian, dirty, and definitely budget-class. Reith sometimes missed the wicked city when he was away. Here he knew every ruling capo, every racket boss, every merchant dealer, and most of the cathouse-mamas – and all the back ways.
He dropped down on the next trio of local talent who hoped to pick up some gems or Tempe roubles by ambushing him. He took them down quickly and hard. Reith had no time for amateurs.
Mel dropped down after him and picked her way over the fallen men. “You’re going to be really popular with the colony’s healer-halls,” she predicted.
“This way. There’s an Elysian take-away whose owner owes me a favour.”
They slipped down another of the badly-lit connection corridors that joined the larger crowded urban sprawls. Reith ignored the rickshaws-for-hire and crossed the plaza swiftly, vanishing again into an alley that appeared to be mostly for garbage dumping. A small service door there succumbed to his locksmith’s tools and he pulled the bard-girl into another steamy noisy kitchen.
The owner saw him and carefully turned his back.
“Three-pea ragout and a plate of slarren,” Reith told one of the waiters. He slipped out front and found an alcove where he had a wall to his back and could watch the doors.
“I love slarren,” Mel told him. “Thanks for checking.”
“I know what you like to eat,” the Runner growled. “Now go on. You were about to shock me with a revelation about the Teledrene girl’s parter-in-horizonal-crime, the same guy who put Papa Teledrene onto the elusive Olssen.”
A waiter brought steaming bowls and a tureen. Mel grabbed up chopsticks and helped herself to the slarren. “Too much soy,” she said disappointedly. “The charming young man in question called himself Heosphoros.”
Mel looked as though that should mean something to the Runner chief. He stared at her expectantly.
“It’s ancient Greek, from old Earth-that-was,” the bard-girl explained. “It translates as Dawn-Bearer. Or Morningstar.”
Reith’s mouth tightened into a grimace. “That would be Morningstar as in the second annoying Earthman given a new super-body by the Black Sorcerer, the guy who’s running round rogue doin’ all kinds of stuff for his own benefit at everyone else’s cost?” He offered some terse Anglo-Saxon words that might also be good names for the man in question.
“The description matches the one you circulated. I think…” The girl hesitated to give her conclusions to the foremost information-gatherer on Mars.
“It’s good to think. Tell me what you think, Miss Manysongs.”
“I think maybe he had a special reason to need that particular noble lady handed over to the Sorcerer of Night at that particular time. I think the release of that Incantrus Veil wasn’t an accident. And I don’t think Morningstar is finished yet.”
Reith nodded. “Nice work, girl. Glad to see the Bards haven’t lost their edge during all their long time in hiding. If they’re going to have a public face again I’m pleased it’s someone with wits.”
“Thanks. But now I think about it, I’m not so sure that I actually did talk Ambutorius into sending me out. I think maybe he made me think I did. Now I’m wondering if I’m just expendable?”
“Now you’re starting to get it, bard. You might just survive. So, for a bonus score, any idea why the Sorcerer of Night or Colonel Morningstar might have interest in this particular maiden?”
Mel hesitated. “There’s nothing on the data coin about this, but I did a bit of checking as best I could. There is one possibility…”
She mentioned it to the Runner chief.
Reith popped a chunk of slarren in his mouth. He used his fingers rather than the provided chopsticks. He chewed and thought.
Nord Olssen was somewhere in Phoenix Landing, but he’d had the sense to go to ground. Maybe he knew what had happened to Sydachi of Nuachis and Molossa the Flesh-Merchant. Maybe he knew by now that the Runners were looking for him. Maybe he’d got Duros Curtis, Mel’s messenger-boy, and made him talk. Maybe somebody else had snatched Olssen and was using him to set a big nasty trap.
Maybe this had David Morningstar’s fingerprints all over it.
“One other thing,” Mel added hesitantly.
“Yeah? What else?”
“When I arrived at Phoenix Landing off the Olympia caravan train… Just as I was hauling my gear off the mammoth, some guy came up to me. Well that happens a lot, me being gorgeous and this being Phoenix Landing, but this one called me by name – and profession. ‘Meleti of the Bards’ he said, ‘tell Aria to take her champion to the Hall of Tatters. Soon.’” The girl hesitated. “I wasn’t sure whether to mention this to you.”
Reith was puzzled by her reticence. Though young, the bard-girl was hardly lacking in confidence. “Why not tell me?”
Mel sipped her tea. “Well, to be honest, I… I can’t describe who spoke to me. Or exactly how it happened. I just know I was spoken to, given that message. The whole encounter was a bit unreal, disjointed… spooky.” She looked over to the Runner chief with troubled eyes. “The Hall of Tatters is just a legend, right? Like the Voice of God or the Midnight Court. Or guys who call you again the next day.”
“Thought so,” Reith admitted. “I’ll pass it on.”
Morningstar was a games player, but this didn’t sound like him. The Incantrus? Veil was a sentient construct of arcane lore patched from the minds and souls of a dozen of Lord Erebus’ wizards. Approaching a new-to-the-game little-known bard-girl on a minor intel mission didn’t seem like his kind of thing. Nor did this have the heavy boot-print of a First Man. A new faction? Reith sighed.
A pair of for-hire trappers entered the restaurant and started looking round. Reith popped another slarren ball and flexed his fingers. “Okay, Miss Manysongs. You done your part here, and you’ve done it well. Things are going to get rough from here on in. You need to get out of Phoenix Landing fast and keep going. I’m going to Mama Shore-Leave’s to have a word with Still-Eyed Stegris, and then I’m going to find what hole Nors Olssen is hiding in.”
“But I can help…” began the eager bard-girl.
“Not here. Not now. This is about to get heavy and you’re not ready yet. Maybe one day but not today. Hell is riding in to Phoenix Landing and it’s going to break loose on Olssen, Stegris, and anybody who’s behind ‘em.”
“I mean it,” Reith warned. He checked his watch. “Probably tomorrow. Which means I only have tonight to do things my way, in the shadows, hard and dirty. Tomorrow things will probably start exploding.”
That would be when John Blackthorn arrived in Phoenix Landing.