The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part three

james-garner-maverickA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2

 

Dear Reader, I confess I’ve been dragging it out a mite, setting the scene and all, but here at last comes the moment you’ve been waiting for. The moment their eyes first met. Across, believe it or not, a crowded room. It is not the most improbable thing you will hear.

*****

When it came to crime out on the Riff, Spiker was not an especially big fish. But sometimes the optics of small ponds can be deceptive, and so he liked to surround himself with people. It was not that he was any more sociable than the next third-string crimelord. He just figured the more folks between him and the entrance, the more time he had to evade the law if ever the law came knocking. Which they rarely did. He preferred bribery to blackmail and collusion to coercion, but even there he overplayed his hand. Vanity, his desire to seem more important than he was, to appear larger than life, defeated thrift every time, and would likely be his downfall.

So Eliane locked her suite and began the long walk through the New Dragon Gate. There was no furtiveness to her now. She wanted to be seen. It would make her getaway so much easier if everyone was looking for this her. She would need only half a minute’s privacy to look like someone else entirely.

She left the elevator at the mezzanine level, and swept down the long staircase that curved around the lobby and out towards the hubbub of the barroom. Hotel guests, drinkers and gamblers rubbed shoulders unawares with smoothies, hosers and fleecers; she could almost smell the flimflam. Dippers moved discreetly among the tables, looking for any opportunity to empty a pocket or a purse that was not their own.

The skirt of her gown swayed lightly from side to side, its sumptuous green seeming to draw the light in the room to it. Each step revealed the pointed toes of shoes that seemed too delicate to walk in. Each dark, elbow length glove concealed a forearm holster, one for a blade, the other for a very ladylike needle-gun. A shawl covered her shoulders. A dusting of malachite fragments glittering against the dark flesh of her décolletage matched the colour of the stones in her ear-rings. Her hair, now, was a flaming red.

*****

It was a winning hand. Not even the cat-faced man stood a chance. The question now, Brett thought, is not whether it can be beaten, but how much it can be milked for. His expression unchanging, he started to calculate who had how much on the table.

Something changed in the room. At first he could not put his finger on what exactly. It wasn’t the kind of abrupt difference that usually arrives just a moment before the holder of yet another not-quite-good-enough hand finds the drunken courage to accuse him of cheating. Nor was it the kind of terrible silence when you see an outraged man unaccustomed to gun-fighting pull a gun. But something was suddenly different. Brett looked up from his cards.

He did not even have to turn his head. He preferred to play with a wall behind him, which meant he was facing the bottom of the staircase.

She quite took his breath away.

She paused and scanned the room, as if looking for somebody. He could tell there was something false about it. That she knew exactly where she was going. That this was all show. That she wanted to make an impression, to be remembered.

But before he could begin to wonder why, those eyes, which he was certain had no intention of coming to rest upon anyone, picked him out of the crowd. She seemed as surprised as him.

An easy grin lit up his face.

For a moment she faltered. The corners of her mouth found themselves turning up to flash a smile in response.

And then she recovered her purpose. He watched her with all the circumspection he could muster as she glided through the crowd towards the back rooms. Where bossmen dangled their wealth and paraded their minions, and where VIPs made their peace, collected their bribes and embraced their honeytraps, when they were not being bamboozled and bled.

He was so intent on figuring out what business she might have back there that he nearly lost the hand.

That had a salutary effect. ‘If you gentlemen will excuse me for a while, I’m in need of some air.’ As he stood, he scooped his chips into his hat and placed it on his head in one easy motion.

They laughed indulgently as he made for the bar. They all had seen her, too. A little discombobulation was to be expected when a spacer hit ground for the first time in a while. They weren’t used to the oxygen or the booze or the women. Or to the sparkling wit of such grand grounder gentlemen as themselves.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 4

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