The madam wasn’t wrong—it was a long walk from Block 83 to 48. It took nearly an hour to work our way through the intervening blocks. By the time we stepped through the Block 48 airlock, I was ready to drop my pack and stretch the muscles of my back and shoulders, even with my strength augments.
We could’ve taken an automated taxi or public transit, but I’d wanted to get a feel for the blocks between us and the ship. The path back wasn’t straight, and even at a run it would take twenty minutes, depending on the crowds.
Stepping into Block 48 was like stepping into a shady planetside back alley market. It was far larger than the previous blocks we’d visited, with a soaring ceiling that had to be at least twenty stories tall. However, the block still managed to feel cramped thanks to the profusion of tall, tightly packed buildings. It was one of the more populated blocks, which was one reason I’d chosen it as our meeting point.
Watch your pockets, I warned the group.
And your kidneys, Imogen muttered back. I’ll be surprised if we aren’t attacked before we get to our rooms. She’d closed the distance between us until I could practically feel her breathing down my neck.
I looked around. It wasn’t that bad. I’d been to far shadier places and had emerged unscathed. The trick was to be aware of your surroundings and not to do anything stupid.
The streets were thick with people, even at this hour. We hadn’t made it more than a hundred meters before I stopped and caught the small hand that had darted into my coat, aiming for my pocket. When jerking away didn’t free her, a young girl stared up at me with wide, innocent eyes.
I didn’t believe it for a second.
I pressed a credit stick into the hand I held. “Spread the word: leave me and mine alone, and I’ll make it worth your while.”
Her mouth turned down into a mutinous frown.
I shrugged and made to remove the stick, but her fist clenched tight around it, and she nodded once, sullenly. I stared at her for a few more seconds and then let her go. She slid away and vanished into the crowd with the ease of experience. A hundred credits was a small price to pay. It wouldn’t buy me loyalty, exactly, but it was a start.
Told you, Imogen said.
I’ll have you know that I still have both kidneys. And that was hardly an attack.
There’s still time, she grumbled sourly.
I smiled, though she couldn’t see it. Imogen had never delved much into the shady side of the law, so this trip was going to be an eye-opener for her, in more ways than one. I just hoped she’d still be talking to me once everything was said and done.
I led our group deeper into Block 48’s warren of narrow alleys and winding pathways. Our house was in Sector G, near the heart of the block. I’d rented the first three stories of a long, narrow building with ground-level access on both sides and upper-level access to a pair of skybridges. More entrances meant more places to keep watch, but it also meant that we were less likely to be trapped inside.
The door opened with the virtual key I’d been sent after my payment went through. Stay alert, I linked to the group. I drew my pistol and eased through the door. I didn’t think Adams could’ve already made my safe house but assuming was a good way to get dead.
I silently dropped my pack and coat in the first room, which appeared to be a cross between a sitting room and a waiting room. We need to sweep the building.
The others dropped their gear as well, and we split into two teams. Imogen and I took the ground floor while Valentin and Luka started on the third. We met in the middle, sweeping for anything suspicious or any unexpected surprises.
We didn’t find anything.
A scan for camera or audio recording devices also came up empty. After ensuring that all the access doors were closed and locked, we headed back to the sitting room.
“I knew CP57 was big, but I’d forgotten just how big,” Imogen said. “How are we ever going to find Adams in this mess?”
“Luck and skill. Barring that, we’ll let him find us.”
She shot me a troubled look, but I waved it away. I wasn’t going to play bait quite yet.
I picked up my pack. “There should be enough bedrooms for everyone, so no one needs to double up unless they want to.” At my raised eyebrow, Imogen found the far wall incredibly interesting.
Valentin moved toward me, his mask firmly in place. He linked me privately. What will we do?
I frowned. I thought we’d share a room, I said slowly, but we don’t have to.
His expression heated. I want you in my bed. He grinned. Or me in yours. Take your pick.
I shook off the tension that had tightened my muscles. Silly man. As if I was going to let him go now that I’d caught him. Everyone already knew we were sleeping together. We might as well find enjoyment where we could because the rest of the trip would be severely lacking in fun.
Luka and Imogen were either linking privately or ignoring each other as we climbed the stairs to the second story. Most of the bedrooms were on this level, with public rooms on the ground floor and private spaces—like the kitchen—on the third.
I’d already viewed all of the rooms, both in the original listing and when we’d done the earlier sweep. The bedroom at the end of the hallway that overlooked the front of the building was the nicest, but only because of the window. Otherwise, the room looked just like the others, with a bed big enough for two and a single nightstand. A built-in wardrobe had a few shelves for clothes and gear.
Everything looked worn but clean.
I dropped my pack on the bed. “Does this work for you?” I asked Valentin.
He nodded and set his pack next to mine.
“You’d be safer in an internal room,” Imogen said from the doorway.
“I’d be safest on Arx, and yet, here we are. I like the light.” Being able to see out was just an additional bonus.
“Is the window reflective outside?”
“Yes. It’ll shield us from view during the day, but it won’t be enough when it’s dark outside and light in here. We’ll draw the curtains when we leave the room and leave them closed overnight.”
Imogen knew a losing battle when she saw one. She pointed at the closest door on her left. “I’ll be there.”
Without a word, Luka entered the room across the hall from hers.
“Unpack,” I told her. “We’ll head back out in a little bit. I want to get a feel for the area. And we need to pick up some food.”
Imogen couldn’t quite hide her grimace at the thought of returning to the neighborhood, but she nodded and entered the room she’d chosen.
Once we were alone, Valentin shut our door and pulled me into his arms. “I hate that you are involved in this,” he murmured. He held on when I tried to pull back. “I know you’re more than capable, but I can still hate it.”
I relaxed. “I hate it, too. I’d much rather we were still on Ardia.”
His arms tightened. “Me, too.” His hot gaze roved over my face. “How long until the others arrive?”
“It’ll be at least a few hours before Stella and Ari arrive. Eddie will be longer than that. Why?”
The corner of his mouth tipped up in a wicked temptation. “I was just thinking that the house was going to be full of people with very sharp hearing pretty soon. Maybe we should take advantage of the relative emptiness while we have a chance.”
I rolled my eyes but couldn’t help the grin. “I’m pretty sure Luka and Imogen both have excellent hearing.” I pulled his face down to mine. “But I can be quiet if you can,” I whispered against his lips.
He made a low sound deep in his chest and fused his mouth to mine.
Valentin and I both proved ourselves liars, but when we reappeared a while later, neither Imogen nor Luka made any comment. Of course, we found them in the upstairs living room with a vid blaring in the background, so they really didn’t need to say anything at all. I didn’t even try to fight the hot rush of color that bloomed on my cheeks.
“Did you have trouble unpacking?” Imogen asked with a perfectly straight face. “I heard banging.”
Luka made a strangled sound halfway between a cough and a laugh.
Ah, so she’d just been waiting for an opening. Good for her. There was a time not so long ago that she wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to tease me. And the double entendre was sheer perfection.
I grinned at her. “Unpacking was very relaxing, as a matter of fact. What about you? Did you have any trouble settling in? If you need a hand, I’m sure we can find someone to help.”
She tipped her head in thought. “There was that gorgeous shirtless man back in 83,” she said with an odd bite in her voice. “I wonder if he’s still available.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Luka’s fists clench. I linked Imogen. Is everything okay between you two?
Yes. Mostly. He said something that hurt my feelings. I know he didn’t mean to, but he hasn’t apologized, and I’m not over it yet.
Do you want to talk about it?
No, she said with a minute shake of her head.
Want me to kick his ass?
Imogen laughed aloud. No. He’ll figure it out soon enough. If not, I’ll kick his ass.
I didn’t know what he’d said, but for all of her physical strength, Imogen’s heart bruised easily. If Luka was playing with her, I would make him regret it. Luka caught my glare and his expression iced over. He glanced at Imogen and whatever he saw on her face caused his expression to chill even further.
Stop glaring like you’re going to murder him, Imogen said across the link.
Nothing so dire as murder. But maybe a broken bone or ten would teach him some manners. Think he’s dumb enough to spar with me?
Imogen snorted. Not when you’re wearing that expression.
Let me know if it becomes a problem or if you just want to talk. I’m serious. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. And I’m sorry I teased you about it. I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I won’t do it again.
You didn’t hurt me, Imogen assured me. You were just giving as good as you got, and there’s no harm in that. I will let you know if it becomes a problem.
She dropped the link and I let her go.
Valentin brushed a hand against my back. I met his eyes and shook my head slightly. I might tell him later, if it became a problem—or if I needed to knock some sense into Luka—but for now, we needed to head out.
Which was going to be its own drama.
“We need food, I want to scout the neighborhood, and someone needs to stay here to keep an eye on our stuff so it doesn’t walk off.”
“I thought this block was safe,” Imogen said.
“It is, but we don’t know who else might have keys to the building. Until the rest of our supplies get here and we can secure the doors by alternate means, someone needs to stay and keep an eye on things. If we split up, we can meet back here in an hour.”
My statement met a wall of resistance, but I refused to be swayed.
After ten minutes of arguing, we split up. Imogen remained behind to watch the building. Luka and Valentin went to buy enough food to last us for a week. And I slipped out the door into the shadows between buildings.
I’d lost the pack but kept the hooded coat, and I still had my weapons. I didn’t expect trouble, but I was prepared to meet it if it decided to find me anyway. Imogen had insisted on an active link, so she rode along with me, a quiet connection in the back of my mind.
The connection would allow me to keep an ear on her, too.
I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I was mostly making a mental map of the area, but I did keep an eye out for shops that might sell useful—and illegal—items. Shadowy doorways guarded by people who looked like they fought for fun were as familiar as my own reflection, and they looked the same across the universe.
I’d spent years in places just like this. Imogen might be uncomfortable in Block 48, but to me, it felt like my natural habitat.