The air was close, humid, syrupy, and full of the unfamiliar scents of alien flora. The forest stretched out before me and around me: springy moss under my feet, giant, lush ferns waving overhead and spindly trees covered in strangely-glowing fungus, fleshy red flowers filled with sticky fluid and voluptuous succulents with razor-edged leaves and gaping maws that smelled of death. The whole planet seemed bathed in a sickly green light as if from those tubes they use in the windows of Sextillion, and when I looked up, I could see the sun struggling to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves far above me. It seemed like a good planet to make bad choices on. I pulled off my crash helm and stepped forward into the damp heat.
At my side, Sweet Boy gave a whuff of disapproval. I knew how he felt; chasing flighty dames through a hothouse planet was hardly my idea of a good time either. I hadn’t had much say in the matter. Work had been scarce these last few months, and I’d tided myself over with a string of two-bit fluff jobs and grunt work: missing persons, silencing blackmailers, taking out the odd cheating husband. Nothing to write home about, and this was more of the same. Some rich wing had hired me to find his wife. He thought she’d been snatched, but after five minutes of talking to the guy, I was starting to figure she’d run out on him. Either way, here I was investigating their vacation home in the ass-end of the galaxy on the off-chance she was here. If she had the sense her mother gave her, she wouldn’t be; nor would I, for that matter, but nobody had ever accused me of being sensible.
I sighed and began to fight my way through the undergrowth. The undergrowth fought back.
I was starting to feel lightheaded from the heat and the plant spores by the time I tracked down my target. The vacation home was a log cabin nestled in a clearing, or, at least, it had once been a clearing. Now it seemed as if the jungle was trying to take it back. The wooden walls were stained green with algae, and tendrils of vines crept along them, curling around doors and grasping at windows like the fingers of some monstrous hand. It looked as though no one had set foot here in years. I was about ready to write off the whole enterprise as so much confetti—nothing here, just give the place a quick once over and get the hell off of this planet—when I felt Sweet Boy sniff the air and then tense up, quivering like a racehorse at a gate with all his fur stood on end as if he’d had an argument with a power coupling.
With a sense of inevitability settling heavy in the pit of my stomach, I pushed past the vines and opened the door.
Copper in the air, the metallic tang of it sharp at the back of my throat, but over everything the sickly-sweet stench of decay, dense and cloying. Blood on the walls, on the floor, on the creeping vines that inched themselves between the logs. Feathers all over the goddamn room like someone reckless carved up a turkey or maybe an angel, jewel-bright and lurid where they stuck in the viscous red, and there on the bed, her.
And handprints in the blood. From something with a hell of a lot of hands.
That kind of sloppiness seemed strange, but I knew the style. There was only one being who worked like this: seducing her marks, bedding them, and icing them in the afterglow. A black widow. They called her The Stalk.
“Well, that just about puts the tin lid on this affair, don’t it?” I remarked to Sweet Boy, but he didn’t have an answer for me.
In retrospect maybe I should have expected it, but when I landed back in my office to find her lounging in my chair with four of her long legs up on the desk, I damn near jumped out of my skin. But there she was, in the flesh: the one that got away. A broad to make a cyclops grow a second eye just to look at her more. Curves for days and legs for years and a smile sharper than the point of a lance.
“Brand,” she said, carelessly brushing aside the darts Sweet Boy sent her way the way a dragon might brush off a gnat. “How’s tricks?”
“Stalk. It’s been a while. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Can’t I just want to see my best girl?”
I gave her a dead pan.
“Fine,” she said. “I heard you were looking into something interesting.”
“I’m looking into a lot of things.”
“Don’t give me the dumb flatfoot routine, Brand. It don’t suit you.”
“Blood on my shoes don’t suit me,” I said. “Dumb’s what I am for tangling with you.”
She leaned back in my chair and lowered her lashes, all eight sets of them caressing her soft skin before fluttering back up to reveal eyes wet and shining like rubies in her face. I’d seen that trick before. It was the one supposed to make me sit up and beg like Sweet Boy for a bone. No, I wasn’t planning on dancing to that tune.
“Hurt’s a cake you can slice two ways,” I said. “What’s your interest in a dead wing anyhow?”
The coquette slid right off her face like so much water.
“As a blueblood on Wreath,” I said. “Don’t give me that you didn’t know. That room was lousy with your calling cards.”
Hell. It was a long time since I’d heard her say my name like that. Either she was a better actress than I credited her with or this really was news to her. I sucked in a breath, buying time to think.
“How’d you know her?”
“She was my lover. Dammit, Brand, answer the question.”
“I already told you. If it wasn’t you who bumped her off, someone did their level best to hang the frame on you.”
She turned the air blue as a moonie’s dictionary. Wordlessly, I pulled open my bottom drawer, found a bottle and two pony glasses, and offered one to her. She took it, knocked back the slug I poured her and held it out for another. I’ve never been much good in a crisis, but that office bottle has seen me through plenty of them anyway. I poured.
Two fingers of aqua vitae seemed to take the wind out of her sails. She slumped back in the chair, one hand over her eyes like some kind of fainting damsel, though nothing could be further from the truth. Her chest heaved, and I forced myself to look away. She was grieving.
“What happened?” I said instead. “I know she wasn’t on the books.” By that I meant the Brio Talent Agency, where rich bozos with more money than morals went to hire Freelancers to get their dirty work scrubbed clean. I’d checked with Erving first off, but nobody wanted her dead. At least, not in the way that makes for a good transaction. Passion’s messier.
“The usual,” she said. “A pretty dame. A roll in the hay. A little light cuckolding.”
“You think her old man was the one, then?”
“You tell me,” I said.
She lifted a shoulder in her version of a shrug. “I don’t know, Brand. She was a nice girl.”
“I thought those were extinct,” I said, and she clinked our glasses together.
The sun was going down by the time I dropped the bottle back into the drawer. Or, at least, the light was getting dimmer; I didn’t have the dough for an office up in the gods, so all I had to go on was the artificial cycle. It gave the place an air of desolation: harsh florescence illuminating all the nasties that inhabited this part of the world, throwing all its unpleasantness into sharp relief until the artificial sunset let them slip away into the shadows like thieves. When you know what’s out there, those kind of nights can give even the most world-weary shamus all kinds of terrors. It’s those kind of nights that hide monsters.
My monster wasn’t hiding. She slinked around my desk like she was born to slink, giving me the full works. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that she didn’t look like a broad in mourning, and I told myself I wasn’t going to get caught up in one of her webs.
“Sophie,” she murmured, voice dark as space and twice as deadly.
She had me. Hell, she’d always had me.
Her kiss, when it came, tasted of booze and bad decisions. The barb of her tongue grazed mine, tearing a desperate sound from my throat. Two of her legs came around behind me, tugging me close and trapping me while two others worked at my clothes, shedding them with the ease of a broad who sheds clothes for a living. Not to be outdone, I popped the button on her skirt and it fluttered to the ground, exposing the swell of her abdomen to my roving hands. I’d almost forgotten this: the smoothness of her skin giving way to wiry hair, the curves so different from my own where we pressed together, her body at once alien and familiar. I pushed her back onto the desk and she went willingly, lay back obedient as a housewife on pay day. I ran my hands up over her front, spinnerets to breasts, and savoured her shiver. I could see her eyes gleam faintly in the dimmed light, eight points of red like the dying thrusters of a ship slowly crashing into orbit. We crashed together too, grinding and pawing and mouthing until she threw her head back in bliss, beautiful and terrible in her ecstasy.
I was woken by a pounding that sounded like the workings of the engines of hell.
“Open up!” someone hollered. “The Brand!”
“Hold your horses,” I muttered, trying to pull myself together. A glance around the room told me I was alone but for Sweet Boy and whatever john was trying to beat down my door. I yanked it open and fixed the wing outside with my best glare.
“The Brand?” he said.
“That's what it says on the glass.”
“I’m with Coalition Law Enforcement and I’m arresting you on suspicion of the murder of one of our citizens.”
“Now listen here, pal. I think you've got things turned about. I'm investigating that affair, I ain't involved in it.”
“This'll go easier for you if you keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Any rate, it's like they say, ain't it? Women and fury.”
It hit me all at once. A better actress? Hell, she should be on the Open Circuit with a talent like that. She'd been in my office, but I was the one who'd walked into her parlour.
You always were a sap, Sophie, I thought to myself as he cuffed my hands behind my back. I guess I’ll never learn.