He dragged his ass into short-term parking. His boots scuffed drying gray mud across the floor. Probably there was some blood mixed in there; it hadn’t been a clean job, not by a long shot. His wet clothes were plastered to him, stinking like cabbages and farty old men, and there wasn’t a muscle in his body that didn’t ache.
So of course when he talked his spaceship open, The Stalk was sitting inside.
“Get out,” The Will said, passing her by. Lying Cat paused long enough to give her a skeptical Mrr. “I’m no good for this today.”
“I came all this way to see you,” she said, all eight of her eyes blinking suddenly and in sync.
The Will shot Lying Cat glance, but she didn’t disagree. Then again, Lying Cat’s scruples were marginally more flexible for The Stalk than for other people. At least, that was The Will’s private theory, although when he’d mentioned it out loud his beast had informed him he was lying.
He could ask how The Stalk found him or how she’d cracked his ship open, but he he’d worked with her often enough now that he already knew: she was just that good. Instead he said, “Why?”
“Don’t be like that.” She smiled. That was how her ancestors must have smiled at their furry prey, he thought.
Another day, a look like that’d only rile him up – in every possible sense – but not today. “I’m fucking beat. No dice.”
But she was in a mood. “What are you going to do instead? Bet you it’s not as good as what I have planned.”
“A bath,” he told her.
“Couple shots of whiskey.”
Not that he had any whiskey. He’d skipped out on the grocery shopping to do this rush job. “A pile of fried coilfish in burnt orange sauce.” Probably there was a diner somewhere on this forsaken blue rock that’d serve it to him, if he could convince himself to go find it. He probably wouldn’t go find it. “Sleep for a year.”
“Or,” The Stalk said, lifting a notepad and flipping it open to show him. It had a figure on it. The figure had a lot of zeroes. “Halvsies?”
The Will blinked at the number. He tried to estimate what half of that would be, but a number with one less zero, probably was as far as he got. It would be, in any case, a very large number. “A bath,” he repeated.
She smirked, a terrifying prospect to edible things everywhere. The Will would be terrified, too, if he knew what was good for him – and if he weren’t so exhausted. “Oh, you’ll want a lot more than a bath.”
The Will did not, in fact, get his bath. He did almost fall asleep in the shower, though. The Stalk came looking for him after a while. She hauled him out and sat him in front a bowl of canned vegetable soup. “Your pantry is shit,” she told him. “This is the only actual food I could find in it.” He didn’t try to explain about the missed grocery run.
Probably she put him to bed, too. At least, bed was where he woke up, what felt like a long time later. He sat up and looked over the side of his bunk. The Stalk was at the helm. “Where are we?”
“Half an hour out from Grease.”
“Grease,” The Will repeated. He ran a hand over his head. “Sounds familiar.”
“You have to have heard of it. The gearworld planet.”
“I’ve heard of it,” The Will agreed cautiously. “Why are we there?”
“For the same reason that I brought you this.” The Stalk shuffled towards him, and from the wall below his bunk, she plucked a hanger he didn’t remember putting there. On the hanger was some kind of get-up he definitely didn’t remember seeing. It was a suit, more or less, crimson with bits of blue. Fobs and shiny chains hung from every one of the vest’s many pockets, and instead of a jacket, there seemed to be a cape. It was blue, too, with a red lining, and as The Stalk turned, The Will could see that the cape had a masked hood.
“I’m not wearing that,” The Will said.
“Of course you are. It’s the job, Will.”
He continued to maintain that he was not, all through a breakfast of vegetable soup, and then somehow by the time they put down on Grease, he’d put on the suit and was feeling as ridiculous as he’d ever felt in his life. “I look like some kind of dandy,” he complained, looking himself over in the mirror.
“Yes,” The Stalk crooned, appearing behind his shoulder. “You really do. Here, try the cape.” She lifted it over his shoulders. Her hair tickled his ear as she reached around him to fasten the clasp. She shuffled backwards a couple of steps and said, “Now turn around.”
He did. The Stalk whistled, but he hardly noticed; he was too busy staring. “Fuck, Stalk.”
The Stalk laughed. All eight of her feet stamped as she twirled. Her crimson skirt twirled with her. It was layers upon layers of fabric done up in mysterious cascades of ruffles. The bodice of the dress framed her pretty white tits like jewels in a setting, and she had a cape, too, some dainty thing that stopped just halfway down her back. Her hair was fixed in some kind of knot with a rose made of the same ruffles as her skit. She looked posh as hell. “Like it?” she asked.
“Hell.” He took a step forward and almost tripped on his cape. Once he’d recovered, he laid his hands on her shoulders and said, “Maybe we want to stay in instead?”
She shoved him away with a hairy foot, laughing. “Later, handsome. Right now we have a pair of shipping magnates to off.”
Eventually they stepped off the ship and into the night, one of The Stalk’s hands slipped demurely through The Will’s arm. Lying Cat stayed behind, because this was going to be a discreet operation – at a ball, which explained the fancy duds. Social lies would flow thicker than the wine; there’d be no place for a scrupulously honest cat.
They stood at the street corner under a wrought-iron lamp post and tried to hail a coach. The first one was pulled by a horse who caught one look at The Stalk and couldn’t be coaxed closer for love or carrots. The second was a horseless carriage that walked on its own six mechanical feet, but The Stalk shook her head at it, too. “I’d crush my skirts,” she said. In the end they walked the handful of blocks to the ministry of trade.
They weren’t the only ones. The Will saw a bear and a seahorse paw-in-hand; a pair of wings, his stretching out feathered and golden-brown behind him, hers fluttering at her back as bright as jewels and as quickly as a bee’s. They were all dressed up more or less like he was, although he thought maybe the colors were a little more dull, and not a one of the women outshone The Stalk.
Leave it to her to broaden the definition of blending in beyond the bounds of usefulness. Discretion wasn’t really her forte any more than it was his.
As he and The Stalk waited stood in the queue outside the door, she repeated her instructions in his ear. “Just keep your mouth closed and your eyes open.”
“If I weren’t a professional, you wouldn’ta asked me along,” he muttered back.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said, looking him over with a gaze so hot his skin prickled. Then the heat was gone, like a flicked switch, and she was peeking prettily at him through her lashes.
A few moments later, the doorman took the card The Stalk handed him, printed with her and The Will’s assumed names in fancy script, and bowed them in the door.
The Will barely held in a whistle. This was some kind of palace they were in. Well, not a palace; The Will knew just enough about Grease politics to know that royalty and nobility and all other forms of –ity were anathema. On Grease, Invention was queen and Trade her doting king. He’d gotten that from the travel brochure The Stalk had given him to read. But the place the ball was being held was more than rich enough to be a palace as far as The Will was concerned, with its heavy green carpets and ceiling high overhead and its horse-sculpture fountain at the near end, twice as high as a man and made of gears that kept the horse pawing and shaking its head with each splash of water into the pool below.
A shiny brass automaton walked up to The Will and offered a tray of champagne flutes. He took one. He leaned in and whispered to The Stalk, “I’m gonna take a survey of the place.”
“You do that,” she said, looking distractedly into the crowd. “I’m going to dance.”
He lifted a skeptical eyebrow, but she shuffled away without even noticing. The crowd parted for her – as they should, he thought. Finer than the lot of them, no matter how many jewels the other women flaunted.
That was his cue, then. Champagne in hand, he set off around the edge of the ballroom. He tried to keep his stride easy, to look like he belonged. Hell knew how well he managed it. He wasn’t much for these discreet jobs. The Stalk knew it, too, when she’d flashed that figure at him and then gotten him most of the way here before even explaining what the job was. Though really he should have known, considering the price.
But he was here now, so if he could just keep eyes off him, and if those funny brass-plated phase guns he saw at every man’s hip stayed in their holsters, well, he might be all right.
The Stalk had shown him photos of the two they were looking for – the trade ministers, Ransom and McClure. He’d been sure he’d know them anywhere in those top hats and the waxed handlebar mustache one of them wore, but those were neither uncommon attributes on Grease, it turned out. Instead he kept an eye out for the fancy green-jeweled fobs in their uppermost left-hand pockets – the fobs, so The Stalk had informed him, that signified the ministry.
He’d made his way halfway around the circuit of the ballroom and taken sauced shrimps and tiny sushi rolls – not the same as coilfish, but not bad – from three different proffered trays when The Stalk found him again. “Hello, lover,” she said. A woman nearby glanced sharply at them both, and The Stalk waved a merry hand. The Will could practically hear the woman’s disapproval as she turned away.
“How’s the dancing?” The Will asked.
“Oh, fine,” she said carelessly. “But won’t you have this next one with me?”
“You’re fucking joking,” he said.
Now the eavesdropper’s hmph was audible as she marched stiffly away. The Stalk shook her head, and her left quartet of eyes winked at The Will. “I’m lonely out there. I need a partner.”
The Will heard the flirtation, ignored his now-habitual reaction to it, and squared his shoulders. “I can’t lead worth a damn,” he warned her.
“I didn’t figure,” she said, and held out a hand. She led him to the edge of the ballroom floor and its ladies atwirl in their finery. Then she turned and arranged his hand on her hip, lifted the other one in hers, and swept them both out among the whirling cyclones of silk.
He didn’t step on any of her feet. In fact, he could tell by her gait she was keeping the foremost pair lifted up and out of the way – and armed, almost certainly. Still, it was work enough just to stay on his feet and not back into anyone, and he barely noticed how The Stalk was spinning them across the floor until they arrived at the other side, just feet away from a door that opened into the outdoors.
The Stalk fanned herself with an accordion fan he hadn’t noticed before, and then she shook her head, and she giggled. The Will doubted he’d ever heard a sound better suited to strike fear into the hearts of men, but the idiot at the door just smiled back, and then The Stalk curtsied and lead The Will out of the ballroom.
It was a garden she’d led him into now. “For trysts,” she told The Will, ducking her head near his shoulder. Hairy fingers threaded through his. “Romantic or otherwise.”
“I know which I’d like,” he said, sliding his other hand over her hip, but she just laughed and shook her head.
“Come on, lover,” she said. “This way.”
But once they got onto the winding path and into the trees, all pretense of harmlessness fell away from her like a cloak. She was better like this anyway, he thought, predatory, even her skirts rustling with deadly purpose. Or maybe it was just his Lying Cat rubbing off on him. He liked half-truths less and less, he was finding. Maybe he just liked seeing The Stalk as she was rather than who she’d have marks and fools believe her to be.
If that was the way it was, he was pretty well fucked. There was nothing real going to happen between him and The Stalk. Fun, that was all.
Although, don’t get him wrong. She was a hell of a lot of fun.
They arrived at a fork. One path led under looming tree branches; the other wound through a patch of pale lilies and out of sight. The Stalk let go of his hand and pointed with a long, slender finger towards the wooded path. He headed down it. His fingers twitched near his lance, but he didn’t draw it yet; better not to be caught with his hand on his weapon by anyone except his mark.
There were lamps here, bright through lattices of ironwork, but they weren’t so close together that they kept the evening shadows entirely off the path. The Will stepped just a little quieter through each shaded spot, listening, but there was nothing to hear. No ministers to find.
Suddenly there was a crack through the woods that maybe only a Freelancer – maybe only a Freelancer who worked with The Stalk – would recognize. It was the sound a mallet hitting a skull. The Will took off down the gravel path, thanked his stars when he came to a bend that took him back towards the sound, and then nearly crashed headfirst into a man in a tall, tall silk hat.
“I say—” began the man, casting a stricken, bloodless glance over his shoulder. As he did, The Will caught sight of the jeweled fob hanging from the man’s pocket, and with a single flick of his thumb The Will released his lance and ran the man through.
“Oh,” the man said. Blood spurted from his chest, and he slumped slowly on the path.
The Will took a harder look at him. He took out his Freelance badge, thumbed it on, and swept the man’s sightless eyeball with it. It read the man and confirmed his identity as one Minister McClure of Grease, but nothing else happened. There was no satisfied chirp, no crisp black letters reading contract fulfilled.
Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? What with all the fuss to get here and all the sleeping he’d done, he’d never officially signed on as The Stalk’s partner. He’d have to wait for her.
He didn’t have to wait long. “I threw the other one in the bushes, but it won’t take them long to find her.” She held out her badge and swept The Will’s dead minister with it in a single fluid motion. “Come on.”
They hurried back up the path, slowing as they passed a pair of women, deep in conversation. If The Will was any judge, the one in the silk hat was going to kiss the one behind the painted fan any moment now. They slowed again as they arrived back at the garden gate. Just as they came in sight of the doorman, The Stalk snuck a kiss from The Will – a deep one like she had a mind to swallow his tongue. It might’ve stolen The Will’s breath away if he weren’t breathless already. Could be that was the idea. Then The Stalk curtsied to the doorman again and pulled The Will inside.
“We should get some more of those hors d’oeuvres,” The Will said. “There’s this fish one you’ll like.”
“In a bit.” The Stalk smiled at a passing woman with a vagueness The Will knew meant she was really focused everywhere else. Following one of her possible lines of sight, he saw a uniformed woman whisper urgently in the doorman’s ear.
“Found him,” The Will said. “Or them.”
The Stalk’s mouth twisted. “They’ll lock down the entire grounds now.”
This was why The Will hated these discreet jobs above all else. In most places, a Freelance badge earned a free pass out of town, but places like Grease paid no heed. He and The Stalk would have to sneak their way out like run-of-the-mill assassins.
“We’ll be here for a while,” The Stalk said, turning to him. She offered her hand. “Might as well enjoy ourselves?”
The Will closed his fingers around hers. “I still can’t lead.”
She grinned wide enough to show her teeth, and then she backed them out onto the dance floor.
He must have looked like a manikin hooked up with gyros and set loose, as stiff as he was those first few moments. Every second he expected a tap on his shoulder that’d be his last as a free citizen – until his agent sprang him from lockup, anyway, and there were no guarantees how fast that’d be. But by the second dance he’d settled into a comfortable, familiar sort of alertness. Once he’d found his feet and his nerves, he started to notice things: the slide of satin under his hand and the bony heat of The Stalk’s hip beneath. The easy way she danced in spite of all her feet, all the while murmuring “One two three, one two three” under her breath – for his benefit, probably, but he couldn’t find it in him to be offended. He knew she had eyes on everything, but still it felt like him she was mostly looking at.
Jewels flashed and brass automaton waiters circled the crowd with edibles, and the chamber orchestra full of xylophones and living harps played, and behind him a fountain reared like a horse, and his flashy cape swirled at his heels, and all the while The Stalk kept on grinning that wide, wide grin at him.
He didn’t stop paying attention; he’d rather make a clean exit than not. But he let that attention settle to the back of his brain, in that part of him that never stopped watching, and instead he concentrated on the clasp of The Stalk’s hairy fingers in his and the ever-present tang of champagne on the air.
The challenge of not stepping on or getting stepped on palled after a while, though, and when he nodded towards the edge of the dance floor, The Stalk followed. There was another of those waiters. This one had a bowtie and a monocle. “Sushi?” it asked.
“Don’t mind if I do,” The Will said, taking two. “You should try some, Stalk.”
“Seafood.” The Stalk wrinkled her nose. “I’ll pass.” She cocked her head, looking out over The Will’s shoulder.
The Will swung around to see what she was looking at. One of the exits was open again, and it seemed people were being let through. “Time to scram, do you think?”
They didn’t head directly to the door; no reason to attract notice. They wended their way at the edges of the crowd. As The Will passed yet another one of the ever-present waiters, he snagged a champagne flute and handed it to The Stalk. “Can’t have you going without.”
She laughed and drained the whole thing in one gulp. Then she belched and clapped two fingers to her lips in mock surprise. “Oh my.”
Giddy with the nearness of freedom, the promise of a rich payday, and maybe a little bit with the view of The Stalk’s deadly tongue running daintily over her lips, The Will could only laugh. Always a class act, his Stalk.
And he wasn’t even joking, he realized. There was no part of that statement he didn’t mean. Well, fuck.
The Stalk’s attention had already moved on, and the arm she’d looped through his had stiffened. The Will looked around and saw more uniforms collecting at the door. They’d brought around a hulking contraption on wheels, but in one side of it he caught a glimpse of what looked to be an ordinary computer screen.
He caught a glimpse of The Stalk’s face, too. In her everyday tiara with her hair down, granted, but they’d probably not be confused by that when really all they had to do was find the woman with eight limbs.
“Clear out,” The Stalk whispered. “You were never on this job officially anyway.”
“What, like no one’s noticed me dancing with you all evening?” The Will scoffed. “I’m staying right here.”
“You’re an idiot,” she told him, scowling. He shrugged.
A woman wearing epaulets and a sword appeared at The Will’s side. “Miss,” she said to The Stalk, “if we could speak to you just a moment?”
“Oh, hell,” The Will said. “We’re a legal operation. I wish you people would just get that through your heads and let us go.”
The woman blinked at him. “Of course, sir,” she said. “Right this way, sir.”
The Will frowned at The Stalk. The Stalk shrugged, equally mystified. The woman was already striding away, so they followed her all the way to one of the other exits,. She whispered to the uniforms at the door and nodded towards The Will and The Stalk. Whatever she said must have been convincing, because the next moment the guards unlocked the door and stood aside, all smiles, to let The Stalk and The Will through.
Feeling more spooked all the time, The Will walked through the door with a hand on his lance, but no one jumped him, and the next moment he and The Stalk were standing in the street with the door shut firmly behind him.
“What the fucking hell,” he said.
“Don’t look at me.” The Stalk glanced down the street. It was dark now, and glowing lamps lined the sidewalk. Another of the horseless carriages clopped past. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
Their walk back was a lot more hurried than their walk to the ministry. The Will’s cape fluttered and snapped importantly behind him, and despite the urgency, he noticed he kind of liked it. He wondered if The Stalk had rented it with the suit, or whether he could maybe keep it.
The ship opened up on The Will’s word, just like it always did, and Lying Cat looked up from her customary rug and said, “Mrrow?”
“We’re blowing this joint,” The Will told her.
“Mrr,” she said, apparently satisfied, and laid her head back on her paws.
The Will got them up and out of Grease’s orbit without any trouble, but they were a half hour out before his pulse really settled down. He set a stable course and pushed himself up from the helm. “God, I hate these undercover things.”
Lying Cat opened one eye to a slit and said, “Lying.”
He stared at her. “What the hell, Cat? You know I hate ‘em.”
The Will opened his mouth to disagree again.
“I think,” The Stalk said, her hand resting on his shoulder, “that she’s saying you didn’t hate this one.”
“I—” The Will paused. Then he swung around to look at The Stalk, still dressed in all her finery. A curl of hair had come loose from her clasp, and her rose was knocked a little loose, but she still looked posh as hell.
She lifted a couple of legs as if to say, Well?
“All right,” The Will conceded. “There were parts of this one I liked.”
“Thought so.” She leaned in for a kiss, but their lips had barely touched when she drew back, grimacing. “What have you been eating?”
Feeling a little despondent at the interruption, he said, “Sushi?”
“Ugh, seafood.” But she kept on sniffing and looking puzzled. Then suddenly she laughed. “Wish fish,” she said. “Talk about swank. They put wish fish in the hors d’oeuvres. That’s how we got out.”
Understanding dawned. “I made a wish.”
The Stalk shook her head. “That’ll teach them for next time, eh?” Her eight eyes all full of promise, she leaned in again.
The Will shied away from her. “I don’t get it, though.” The Stalk straightened up with a huff. He ignored it. “What’d you need me for? You could have taken those two out by yourself, no problem.”
She shrugged with a carelessness The Will knew better than to trust. “Maybe I needed a date.”
“Pretty sure your garden variety escort costs a hell of a lot less than me.”
“What do you mean?” she said, blinking innocence at him with all of her eyes in turn. “You came along as a favor. Free of charge.”
“I—” The Will closed his mouth, opened it again. “You promised me half the take!”
“Oh, I can’t believe I did that.”
“Lying,” said Lying Cat, sounding bored.
Unconcerned, The Stalk amended, “Well, if I did, there was never any paperwork that nailed it down. I do appreciate you coming along, though.” She patted The Will’s cheek.
“You—” The Will was completely lost for words. He stared at her. Something in his jaw ached from clenching.
The Stalk heaved a sigh. “Oh, fine. Don’t turn purple on me.” She pulled out her badge and swiped a couple of strokes. “There, see? Half.”
So the badge testified – half, deposited into The Will’s account. The Will did not feel much better. “So what, I was just a cheap date?”
“Don’t be a bore.” The Stalk turned her back to him with finality and began to fiddle with her hair.
The Will wasn’t finished, though. After he’d turned a few more things over in his mind, added two and two a few more times and still came up with four, he said, “So why?”
The Stalk huffed and stamped heavily around to look at him. “Because I thought it’d be fun, okay? I thought we’d have fun. Which I am now not, by the way, so just take me back to Quicksilver so I can get my ship.”
Oh. The Will thought about that a bit more, and then he said, “Well, you were right.” He ventured a step closer. When she didn’t show him her tongue or scowl any more deeply than she already was, he laid careful hands on her shoulders. “I did.”
She eyed him, her mouth still twisted in suspicion. “Damn right you did.”
The Will felt out his words very carefully. Apologies were tricky things with Lying Cat in earshot; they were apt to go quickly wrong. “I’m glad you asked me along.”
“Yeah?” There was something in her tone, just the faintest hint of uncertainty, that about made The Will’s mercenary heart turn over.
“Hell, yeah,” he said, and kissed her.
“Ugh, seafood,” The Stalk said.