I’d been out for half an hour when I picked up a shadow. They were good, but I was better. The odds of it being someone who worked for Adams were astronomically low, but no matter who it was, I wanted to send a clear message that I was off limits.
Someone is following me, I told Imogen over the link. Do not leave the house. I will deal with it. I enabled location sharing, just in case. It gave Imogen access to my real-time location data.
I’ve got a lock on you. Be careful, she said.
It took me another five minutes to find the right spot. I slipped into an alley that was too narrow for shops—I didn’t need any witnesses. A few steps down the corridor, there was a decorative ledge between the first and second story.
The person tailing me had been staying about five seconds behind, which gave me just enough time to jump and haul myself up. I flattened myself onto the ledge, which was conveniently dirty enough to match the color of my coat.
I held myself utterly still. Many people wouldn’t look up at all, and even those who did were mostly scanning for movement. Still and shadowed by the buildings around me, I would be hard to spot even for a trained professional.
A second later, a slightly-built person wearing a hat pulled low strolled around the corner. When they saw the empty alley, they glanced around in panic, but their eyes passed over me without stopping. They focused on the intersection farther down the alley and hurried toward it.
When they were just below my hiding place, I rolled off the ledge and landed on my feet. The sound was impossible to cover and they whirled around in surprise. That was a mistake. If they’d ran instead, they might’ve escaped.
A young man with pale skin stared at me in shock from under the brim of his hat. I hadn’t stopped moving, and I caught him before he could draw the weapon at this waist. I slammed the front of his body up against the wall with his arms behind him. “Why are you following me?”
“I wasn’t!” he whined. I adjusted his age down a few years. He was a teenager, all lanky limbs and false bravado.
It’s a kid, I told Imogen. I squeezed his captured wrists hard enough to sting, and he hissed out a low curse. “Want to try again?” I asked.
“I ain’t telling you shit,” he growled. Or he tried. It came out with a faint whine.
“I suppose I’ll have to take it up with your boss, then. Who do you work for?”
He remained mutinously silent.
I sighed. “Look, kid, I don’t want to hurt you, but people following me around is bad for business. If you’re not going to talk, I’m going to have to ensure you won’t be able to follow me again.” I let the threat hang in silence.
He broke in less than ten seconds.
“I’m not working for anyone. I saw you give something to Mo when she tried to dip you. I don’t want her getting mixed up in trouble.”
“So you decided to get mixed up in my trouble instead?”
“Better me than her,” he spat with fierce protectiveness.
I patted him down with my free hand and removed the knife from his hip. “If I let you go, are you going to run?”
“No,” he said, a little too quickly.
I chuckled. “You’re a bad liar, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” he growled.
“How old are you? Sixteen?”
His jaw jutted out, even though his cheek was pressed against the wall. “Old enough.”
“Says the sixteen-year-old.” I sighed. “I’m looking for info and willing to pay for it. And if you run, I’m keeping your blade. So decide.” I let him go and backed up, his knife held loosely in my left hand.
He spun to face me but didn’t immediately bolt. He eyed the knife warily. “What do you want?”
I decided to start with something easy. If he proved himself trustworthy, then I might ask him more interesting questions in the future. “Where’s the best place to find information?”
“What kind of information?” He peered at me, trying to see my face through the shadow of the hood.
I smiled at him. “The kind one doesn’t blurt out to sixteen-year-olds on the street.”
He huffed out a breath. “I’m eighteen.” At my skeptical expression, he grumbled, “Seventeen and a half.”
“You got a name, Mr. Seventeen-and-a-half?”
“You can call me Ran. The best place to find information depends on if you mean in Block 48 or in general. Both answers will cost you.”
“I’ll pay you a hundred credits each.”
His eyes narrowed. “Five hundred. Each.”
“One hundred each, and I’ll forget that you were following me with a knife.” I flipped said knife and caught it without looking. His face paled.
I didn’t get any satisfaction from scaring a kid, but if he stuck his nose where it didn’t belong at the wrong time, he would get hurt far worse than a little scare. And if he’d been watching me earlier, then he knew where I was staying. That wasn’t good for either of us.
His mouth set in a mutinous line. “Fine. Let’s see the money.”
I withdrew two credits sticks with a hundred credits each and held them up.
Ran eyed the knife and decided lunging for them was not a wise choice. He was getting smarter. “In Block 48, you want old man Flack. He’s in Sector J. Tell him I sent you and he’ll help you.”
My initial research had turned up Flack as a potential, so I tossed Ran the first chip.
“In general, the most connected person on CP57 is Sawya, but they are in Block 1 and you’ll need an invitation to set foot in there.” His expression turned sly. “I can get you one—for a price.”
Sawya and I went way back. They had originally introduced me to Jax, the traitorous little shit who’d decided that Quint money was better than mine. I didn’t think Sawya had sold me out because Jax and I had worked together many times before he’d betrayed me, but caution would be wise.
I tossed Ran the second credit chip. “I’ll let you know if I need help getting an invite.” I didn’t tell him that an invite wouldn’t be a problem if I wanted to go as myself—I had a standing invitation. Or, rather, the Golden Dahlia did. But if I used those credentials, then I’d potentially be revealing far more than a simple invite warranted.
“What about my knife?” he demanded.
I threw it before he could react. The tip embedded into the composite wall a half meter from his head. The hilt vibrated from the impact, and he stared at it with wide eyes. “Watch your back, Ran. I don’t want to catch you following me or my people again. And if you try it, I will.”
I turned to leave, but his voice stopped me. “Are you going to leave Mo alone?”
“That depends on how good your information is.”
His expression turned mulish. “It’s good. And if you need more, find me in Sector B.”
I nodded and slipped from the alley. Once I was out of sight, I stepped into a shadowed alcove and waited for Ran to leave. He did, heading toward Sector B and away from the building I’d rented. Hopefully that meant he was done following me.
I circled back toward our home base. My hour of exploring was nearly up and if I stayed out too long, Imogen would come hunt me down, as long as Valentin didn’t beat her to it.
By afternoon local time, the house was full. Ari, Stella, and Eddie had all arrived safely, and as far as anyone knew, they hadn’t attracted any suspicion. Their ships were on other parts of the station, giving us multiple fallback points.
In the ideal case, none of our preparations would be needed. But the universe was rarely ideal.
Imogen and Luka were talking again, which I took to mean that Luka had pulled his head out of his ass and apologized. I silently wished them both luck.
Valentin volunteered to make dinner while the others got settled. I went with him.
“Can I help?” I asked. I wasn’t the best cook, but I could follow directions.
“No need.” He handed me a drink that smelled citrusy. “But you can sit at the bar and keep me company.”
I climbed onto a barstool and looked around. I conceded that he’d made the right call. The kitchen was small enough that I would’ve just been in his way. He pulled out ingredients with the ease of practice.
“Where did you learn to cook?” I asked as I tasted my drink. It was deliciously cool and refreshing.
A grin turned up the corner of his mouth. “I didn’t always have people waiting on me. Until last year, I had to feed myself.”
I rolled my eyes. “Weren’t you an officer in the military? Didn’t they feed you?”
The grin transformed into an abashed smile. “They did, and I’m sure that my food was better than most. But I wasn’t always on a fancy ship with staff. So when I had time, I taught myself to cook. I enjoy it.”
I sipped my drink and watched him move around the space. My heart twisted. The simple domesticity called to everything in me. I imagined the days we’d spend together: Valentin would cook, I would clean up, and then we’d retire to bed early. I knew it was an illusion—he was an emperor, and I was a queen, albeit barely. We had far too many responsibilities to just walk away. But I enjoyed the fantasy.
The meal wasn’t gourmet, but it was hearty and delicious. Everyone was a little subdued, and conversation was light. We were all focused on finding Adams and getting home safely.
After dinner, we moved down to the ground floor. We’d designated the large office as our on-station command center. The room had plenty of seating, a big desk, and multiple displays on the walls.
Ari and Stella sat close together in a pair of padded chairs. I sat on the edge of the desk and Valentin joined me. Luka and Imogen leaned against opposite walls while Eddie prowled around the room, repeatedly revealing and vanishing a coin with sleight of hand. He was equally skilled with either hand, despite one being mechanical. It had taken him many long hours of practice to get the calibration just right.
Ari took charge of contacting the teams that Arthur had sent. The mercenary advisor had been clever. He’d sent two teams, one as a smoke screen for the other. The first group didn’t have any apparent ties to Arx, but someone who went digging would find threads that led back to the Rogue Coalition fairly quickly.
The second group was in deep cover, and they were professionals. It would take weeks to tie them to the Rogue Coalition.
It was too dangerous to meet in person, but neural links were almost as good and didn’t risk exposure.
“Dammit,” Ari said a few minutes later.
“No luck?” Stella asked gently.
She shook her head in disgust. “Either Adams and his people aren’t here or he’s a fucking ghost. Neither team has heard anything.”
I’d contacted my own team, with similar results. One of my contacts had worked her way into the docking department since the last time I’d talked to her, and her careful searches had turned up nothing but dead ends. I was still convinced that Adams would show for the meeting, but I started making mental contingency plans in case he didn’t.
“Are we wrong?” Eddie asked. “What are we missing?”
“We still have two weeks until the meeting,” Ari said. “Maybe we’re giving him too much credit. Just because we’re here early doesn’t mean he will be.”
I instinctively shook my head, dismissing the thought, but then I stopped. “Adams isn’t dumb, and he’s able to plan complicated attacks that require a lot of coordination. If he’s not here, it’s a choice. Why make that choice?”
“He suspects a trap,” Valentin said.
“Of course, but so do we, and we’re still here.”
“He wants to force you to tip your hand,” Eddie said.
“Which means he had some way of knowing what’s happening on CP57, even if he’s not here. That would usually mean a team, but maybe he’s paying for information another way.”
“We don’t have the resources to track information flow,” Ari said. “Not on a station this big.”
I sighed. “I might have an option for that, but it’ll be very expensive and should be saved for a last resort. Let’s see what the rest of this week brings, first.”
“Well, that’s not ominous or anything,” Stella grumbled.
“It’s one of my old contacts,” I said.
Her eyes widened in understanding. “No wonder it sounded ominous.” She waved her hands. “No reason to rush into that. There’s still time. Let’s see what happens.”
“We’ll stick to the plan for now,” I agreed. “Now that we’re here, we can do our own recon. The meeting was set for a building in Block 20, which is two blocks over. If Adams picks a similar location, he’ll likely be within a ten-block area.”
“That’s still a lot of ground to cover,” Imogen said.
“It beats the whole station.”
She conceded the point with a shrug.
Stella yawned. “Today started early and station time is messing with my internal clock. I say we all get some sleep and reconvene in the morning. Everything looks better in the morning.”
“I don’t,” I said drily.
She rolled her eyes at me. “You know what I meant.”
I stood from the desk. Stella was right. I could use some sleep because today had been long. It was still relatively early by station time, but I’d been up for nearly twenty hours. “The doors are secured from the inside, so we shouldn’t have any surprises tonight. If you need to go out for something, make sure you disable the alarm. And let someone know where you’re going.”
Imogen pointed a finger at me. “Don’t go out without me.”
I gave her my most innocent expression. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”