Chapter 1: Juno Steel and the Case of All His Nightmares Coming True At Once Basically
If there's one thing I'll never understand about Mars, it's the obsession with mythology names. Planets, I can understand - that's not just a Mars thing, and that's how humans have named planets since we figured out what they were. The cities, fine, that's stretching it a bit but still location-based. But the Elysium was just excessive, and it put me in a bad mood from the moment the name crossed Sasha Wire's lips.
The winds buffeting the shuttle taking us to Elysium didn't help, either, particularly combined with the in-flight advertising: "Visit the floating pleasure palace of the gods themselves: Elysium!" The video displays were annoying, but the audio loop repeating the same damn phrase over and over again just added insult to injury.
"What, Dark Matters couldn't spring for a private ride?" I called to Sasha, the only other inhabitant of the shuttle, after a particularly vicious bout of turbulence. Sasha always had more of a stomach for - well, for everything, particularly when compared to me and Mick, but even she had her lips pressed together and a white-knuckle grip on the safety harness keeping her in her seat.
"I told you, Juno," Sasha called back, bestowing on me a brief glare, "this isn't official Dark Matters business. I can throw my weight around and use my title, but those are all the resources we're getting."
That didn't make me feel any better, let alone the swirling rusty vista out the window or the constant rustling almost-thud of sand against the shuttle. But if I was going to die doing Sasha Wire a favor, I wasn't going to do it rubbing it in her face. The silent acceptance of moral high ground was just the right level of smugness for this situation.
And what a situation it was. The call came in twelve hours ago, Sasha on a personal line asking to hire me not in her capacity as a Dark Matters agent, but just as herself. She hadn't provided many details, but she didn't have to. After twenty-seven days of petty thefts, documenting affairs, and one case that was literally tracking down a missing pet - one that wasn't about to explode, this time - I was ready for something that would actually distract me from the boredom of life after everything went down with Ramses O'Flaherty.
The ad for Elysium cut off mid-sentence ("Visit the floating pleh - "), and an automated voice cut in.
"Warning," the system said. "The Martian Weather Authority has declared an Omega-Class Sandstorm Watch. This shuttle will be the final shuttle to or from its destination until the sandstorm has passed. We apologize for the inconvenience."
"Oh, great," I said, my fingers clinging to a handrail next to my seat. "You hear that, Sasha? You've just gotten us stuck on a floating mansion with no way in or out until the damn sandstorm's passed - and with a murderer, no less!"
"The good news," Sasha called back, "is that the murderer won't be able to get away either!"
A hush came over the shuttle cabin, and I peeked out the window. I saw only faded, tired sky above and level with the shuttle, but below, I could see the sandstorm: a massive blur of dulled rust.
Sasha sighed with satisfaction. "There we go," she said, and unclipped her safety harness. "We're above the sandstorm layer. It should be relatively smooth sailing from here - we must be getting close." She stood up and picked her way to my seat through the empty shuttle, sitting down next to me.
"I'll never understand," I said, "why these things don't just go up to where it's smooth and fly there."
"Atmospheric conditions are less efficient - more fuel for less lift. But that's not the point."
"Are you finally going to tell me what the job is that you hired me for? More specifically than 'murder,' I mean."
Sasha sighed again, glancing past me to the window. She informed it, "Agent V was my subordinate. More than that, he was my protégé. He was coming up fast through Dark Matters - in a vertically-oriented organization like ours, it's rare to come across an optimist, but that was him. He always saw the best in people. It got him access, sometimes, to witnesses who were too cynical to talk to the rest of us - but that's beyond the point." She pursed her lips together for a moment before continuing. "That was his downfall, unfortunately. He trusted the wrong person. Specifically, Rex Glass."
Time itself lurched at the name - and the reminder. "Oh?" I said, trying to keep my voice nonchalant.
"Agent V was the agent who recommended Rex Glass for the Grimm's Mask case," Sasha said. "We found the trail of how it happened, of course, although it took a while, but long story short - Glass fooled him. Dark Matters doesn't take kindly to agents who get fooled that badly. Agent V's career has been on the decline for a while, and he was recently put on probation. He was sent out here to Elysium on a case - a small one, one that Dark Matters didn't have a stake in and that wasn't deemed vital to interplanetary security, but one which would curry favor and positive reports if Dark Matters had a hand in solving it. Have you heard about the recent string of thefts of musical instruments?"
"I heard about a harp that disappeared a few days ago on Phobos - there were alerts out all over Mars and Hyperion City in particular to keep an eye out for it. There's a hell of a bounty on it."
"Well, it wasn't the first high-profile musical instrument to go missing." Sasha rolled her eyes. "Why musical instruments, I have no idea, but I suppose it isn't my place to judge."
"Oh, that's never stopped you before, Sasha - don't let it get you down now."
"Agent V," Sasha continued, "suspected that the next theft would occur here at Elysium. Anita Whitfield, a famous guitarist, has been touring with a recently-acquired Earth relic: a guitar said to have been played at one time or another by most of the greatest Earth guitarists since the twenty-first century."
"Let me guess - Whitfield's tour is bringing her to Elysium."
Sasha nodded. "Most of the thefts have occurred around small private concerts, and that's exactly what the concert at Elysium is. This one is funded by Chaudhry Recreationals for an audience of fewer than ten people - it's a comprehensive retreat, an opportunity to meet the artist, that sort of thing."
"Fewer than ten?" I repeated. "I bet they charge even more when it's smaller like that."
"They absolutely do."
"Wait - Chaudhry Recreationals? Don't you mean Chaudhry Pharmaceuticals?"
Sasha shook her head. "Recreationals is a smaller company under the Chaudhry umbrella, but it's managed separately by Calpurnia Chaudhry. They make boutique compounds for exclusive clientele, including custom-mixing blends on demand - they're pushing them hard, especially on the art scene. But back to the point, Agent V deduced that Elysium would likely be the scene of the next theft, so he came to investigate. Last night, someone poisoned him." Sasha met my eyes dead-on. "It seems likely that whoever murdered Agent V has information about the thefts, at the very least. But more importantly, someone killed a Dark Matters agent - my agent. Agent V was my subordinate. He may have had questionable judgement, but he didn't deserve to be murdered. Dark Matters may be content to leave well enough alone, but I'm not."
"I know," I said. "We're going to find out who did this. I promise."
Sasha looked me up and down, then nodded. On the overhead system, the automated voice, quiet since its declaration about the sandstorm earlier, said, "You are arriving at your final destination. Please ensure you take all baggage with you when exiting the transport shuttle."
With a name like "Elysium," the pleasure palace had a lot to live up to, but by god it did its best. As we stepped off the transport shuttle, we saw a floating island of marble walkways meandering to marble courtyards through lush greenery, the kind that never grows naturally on Mars no matter how much the scientists try to make it. Fountains burbled gently, and a small river ran around the outer perimeter of the palace. Ahead of us from the landing site, a stucco-and-marble building rose up in two squat stories wrapped around another courtyard. The ground floor wasn't continuous, stopping to allow for a wide arch to gain access to the inner atrium, while the top floor bridged over the arch gracefully.
"So this is how the other half lives," I said, looking around. The faint glimmer of the atmospheric dome surrounded the entire pleasure palace, its presence reassuring. I've been exposed to the Martian desert without a dome, and I didn't like it. I didn't like any of it.
"This is how the top point-five percent of the other half lives," Sasha corrected me absently. "Now come along. We should drop off our things in our room."
"We have a room?" I said, following her as she began to walk towards the building. Then what she said actually caught up to me. "Wait, we have a room, singular?"
"Dark Matters isn't paying for this," Sasha reminded me. I had a single bag of luggage with me, a duffel that I usually used to keep photographic equipment or, occasionally, to smuggle large items for cases, but Sasha had honest-to-god luggage, the kind that she rolled behind her and which hitched in between each marble tile of the walkway. "Like I said, I can throw my weight around as a Dark Matters agent and if we solve this case it'll go in my file, but we're on our own here. And there aren't any staff - at least, not any human ones. Only robots, and the guitarist's dogsbody, who organized this whole tour. The only option to get us here was for us to be here. We don't have to pretend we're a couple or anything like that, but I'm not exactly going to be able to requisition us anything, and with the interference from the sandstorm, we probably won't have access to any of the databases we normally would."
I almost felt guilty about how relieved I was to hear Rita wouldn't be able to heckle me daily about using the cold compress on the eye, since it had been giving me headaches recently. Almost.
"So it's just us, the suspects, and a burglary victim waiting to happen for the duration," I said. "Great."
"And Agent V's body," Sasha added grimly. "Don't forget that."
I stayed quiet and kept walking behind Sasha. I could think of a thousand responses to that, each one crueler than the last, and for once I managed not to say any of them.
Score one for self-actualization. For once.
The inside of the pleasure palace was just as opulent as the outside. It was structured like a villa, a perimeter of hallways and exterior rooms around a large open courtyard that itself contained more nature than I saw the whole time I was growing up in Oldtown. The sandy stucco walls supported a red-tiled roof, and arches jumped from column to column to etch out a colonnade along the inside of the courtyard. A decent-sized pool sank into the floor, in the half closer to the entrance that Sasha and I were coming through, and beyond it a garden, complete with gazebo and chairs laid out for a performance, peeked out at us.
Sasha muttered, barely under her breath and with noticeable disdain, "Money," and turned to the right to continue into the hallway of the villa itself. I followed, silently agreeing with her. To sustain that much greenery in a floating pleasure palace on Mars would cost more credits per day than I've seen in my entire life combined.
The rooms weren't much better, although their attempt at a villa was noticeably more halfhearted than the courtyard's. This being a pleasure palace rather than a hotel, it wasn't so much a room as it was a suite of rooms: a cozy living room with fainting couches and backless chairs set around an indoor fire pit, already burning as Sasha and I entered; a kitchen that, although it appeared to be fully stocked with appliances, boasted a notable lack of actual cooking implements; a bathroom with a bathtub the size of my office, complete with immersion bench and a small waterfall feeding into it; and a bedroom that at first seemed to be missing a wall entirely until I saw the faint reflective sheen of glass. This side of the villa was the one opposite where we came in, and all of the rooms on this side must've been glassed like this - the platform that the villa sat on ended at the wall, providing an unhampered view of the sandstorm below us. The bed was pushed right against that wall, no doubt to give the impression of sleeping in the sky itself, unencumbered by material needs.
I resolved to sleep in the living room. I didn't like the way the bedroom seemed to tilt towards the not-there wall.
"First," Sasha said, following me into the bedroom and depositing her luggage next to a bureau set in one corner - although on second inspection it seemed to be less of a bureau and more of a wetbar, prestocked with bottles and empty glasses - "we should inspect Agent V's body. The robotic staff moved him to the backup kitchen to keep the body cold, so we should be able to do an examination. His case notes and belongings should be in his room - I made sure nobody touched it. Then, interviews. We'll need to talk to Baron Wolf, the tour organizer, and then follow up with everyone in the - "
"Yeah, Sasha, this isn't my first murder investigation," I said, narrowing my eyes at her. "In fact, this isn't the first murder investigation that I've done for you."
"Don't remind me," Sasha said, rolling her eyes. "You know we never even found Rex Glass? He was out of your sight for mere minutes and he was in the wind. Unbelievable."
"Yeah," I said quietly, looking back out the window that made up the far wall. The sands of Mars swirled far below. I shook my head slightly to clear it and turned my attention back to Sasha. "Why'd you hire me for a job if you're going to treat me like you don't trust me to actually do it?"
Sasha gave me an exasperated look. "It's not that I don't trust you, Juno, I just run my own investigations now, and you're here to support me. Can you respect that?"
"I can respect that - I just don't see what that has to do with you treating me like a child."
"I'm not treating you like a child, I'm treating you like a subordinate." Sasha gave me a thin-lipped smile. "I'm much nicer to children."
"Yeah, I'm sure you are," I muttered, and dropped my duffel by the door. "Let's go see that body, then."
Agent V was very, extremely, unmistakably dead when Sasha and I examined him. Getting him into the cold as quickly as the robotic servants had certainly had helped, but there's no mistaking the lifeless stillness of a corpse, and Agent V had it in spades.
"Poison, almost definitely," Sasha said, circling the body. The staff had laid him out on one of the prep tables in the secondary kitchen (the very existence of which was offensive to me, since I grew up stealing bar peanuts for meals rather than trying to cook for myself or my - or anyone else), and a slight blue tinge marred his face, particularly around his mouth and eyes. "The residents of the pleasure palace were all eating together when he died - we should also have multiple eyewitness accounts."
I raised my eyebrows. "Multiple eyewitness accounts? That's going to be a mess to sort through." Sasha turned from Agent V's body to give me yet another stern look, and I amended, "A mess which I'm sure we'll get through somehow."
"Better too many witnesses than too few," Sasha murmured.
"Spoken like someone who's never had to deal with too many," I said. Sasha ignored me and pulled out some kind of implement that I'd never seen before - it looked like the handle of a ladle or spatula, and after a moment I recognized it as the largest injector-needle I'd ever seen. "Whoa. Is that - "
"A one-person toxicology lab," Sasha said, fiddling with the settings on it. "Give it a blood sample and it should test for all the most common poisons and compounds, among other tricks."
"Dark Matters has all the best toys," I said, trying to suppress my jealousy.
"Yes," Sasha agreed, turning one last dial, "we do." Then she pressed the tapered end of the injector into Agent V's limp throat.
"I thought we wouldn't have Dark Matters resources on this one," I said.
"Well," Sasha said with a shrug, "not more than I could carry."
I looked away before I could catch sight of any blood. I knew, rationally, that part of being dead is no blood flow, but if Sasha thought the injector could somehow get a blood sample anyway, I was going to err on the side of trusting her.
"Hmm," Sasha said from behind me.
"Hmm?" I repeated, this time letting the hum's tone rise.
"Definitely poisoned," Sasha said. "Atricholine, from the look of it." I risked turning back around, and caught the sad cast of Sasha's eyes as she looked down at Agent V. "Not a pleasant way to die, all things considered. Speeds up the heart and stops the breathing at the same time. Paralysis and a panic attack." She looked at him for a long moment, then sighed and straightened her shoulders. "Well. Time to go to his room, I guess."
"Atricholine - is that a restricted substance?" I said, falling in line behind Sasha as she led me out of the secondary kitchen and back towards the courtyard. "Or can anyone get their hands on it?"
"It's mostly used for industrial purposes - it's a byproduct of several common chemical reactions and it isn't usually used as a poison," Sasha said, frowning in thought as we passed through the stucco hallway. "It has an antidote that also isn't that difficult to get access to - it's just inefficient. If you're going to kill someone, better to go a bit more esoteric and have a better chance of finishing the job."
"More esoteric and with a better chance of finishing - I should put that in my job description."
I froze mid-step, almost falling over. The voice coming from behind us - I knew that voice, jovial and ironic, confident and oddly compassionate, freewheeling and laser-focused.
"I," said the voice of Peter Nureyev, "am Baron Wolf. You must be the Dark Matters agents, come to solve the mystery of your compatriot. How exhilarating!"
Sasha turned immediately to look at Nureyev, but I hesitated until I couldn't put it off any more. Sure enough, there was Peter Nureyev standing down the hallway from us, hair wet and a towel draped over one arm. His pants were loose and flowing, but his white button-down shirt clung to his chest -
I focused on Nureyev's face. Nureyev, I had to admit, was a master of deception, and his expression barely even flickered as he registered my presence.
"I'm Dark Matters," Sasha corrected him, crossing her arms. "Codename Agent W. This is Juno Steel, a private detective who will be assisting me - " I spared a moment to note that the emphasis was surely meant for me rather than Nureyev - "in this investigation."
"Oh?" One of Nureyev's eyebrows twitched upwards a bit, and he didn't hide his slow up-and-down look over me. "A private detective. That's certainly novel." Nureyev sauntered forward a few more steps. "I must say, it's reassuring to once again have a law enforcement presence in this palace. Things have been getting downright dangerous here the past few days, and it's just so comforting to know that there are do-gooders walking these halls."
"Baron Wolf, you said your name was?" Sasha said, looking Nureyev over. "You're the one who organized this concert series, right, Mr. Wolf?"
"Please, just call me Baron," Nureyev said, with a wave of his hand that was so clearly an affectation that as far as I was concerned, he might as well have slapped Sasha in the face. But Sasha didn't seem to notice. "Frankly, I don't do much - I inherited a good deal of money from my family and have been looking for worthwhile ways to spend it ever since. Why not find my way into a job where I'm forced to listen to amazing music in beautiful locales all the time? And Anita is amazingly talented. It was a joy to put together these retreats. Stimulating conversation, shared joy over the art form, curated musical experiences by Anita herself - she puts together every track list not only for what she plays, but for the parties every night, did you know that? And she provides commentary. Delightful. That she and I have become quite good friends along the way was just the icing on the metaphorical cake."
I knew I should say something, but I couldn't quite think of any words at the moment. I was more occupied by sensations: the coagulating mass of unhappiness currently coming into being in my stomach, the heat pressing at my cheeks and ears, and, most strangely, the sense-memory of the steel door in Miasma's hideout against my fingertips, cold and solid and exactly the barrier I needed to actually be honest for once.
"Of course," Nureyev continued, "if there's anything I can do to be of assistance to you and - Juno, was it? Or do you prefer Detective Steel?"
I met Nureyev's eyes, and I saw what I was looking for: below the flirty angle to his brow, below the jaunty smile across his lips, there was a glimmer of anger.
I couldn't blame him.
"Whichever," I muttered.
"Of course," Nureyev said, and kept talking breezily. "If there's anything I can do to be of assistance to you and Detective Steel, I do hope you'll let me know. This is all awful business, of course, and I'd hate to see it interfere with the concert."
"A man's dead," Sasha said mildly. I've known her long enough to recognize the danger in that, but Nureyev just nodded.
"Right, yes, of course, and that's horrible, it really is, but if there's ever been a time that demands the healing nature of music, it's now."
I narrowed my eyes at Nureyev - if he wasn't careful, he'd talk himself into an early grave right next to Agent V.
"Of course," Sasha said, her voice bone-dry. "Well, Mr. Wolf, we'd appreciate a more in-depth - and private - interview with you if you wouldn't mind. We'll be asking the same of all the other guests."
"Certainly! And if I can assist in convincing the others to interview, then I'd be delighted to do that as well."
"Eager to help catch a murderer?" I said, sarcasm finally overcoming shock.
Nureyev turned his gaze on me and provided me with a slight, private smile. "While of course we're all upstanding citizens who would never dream of breaking any laws," he said, "we are also a group that enjoys its privacy. I do hope that you understand that justice and discretion aren't mutually exclusive."
"We're here about a murder, Mr. Wolf," Sasha broke in. "I assure you, anything else is secondary and, frankly, probably outside of Dark Matters' jurisdiction."
"We'd certainly hate for Dark Matters to overstep its bounds," Nureyev said, and gave Sasha a conciliatory smile. "It's almost lunchtime, so I imagine everyone is gathering in the atrium. You came in on the shuttle, correct? Then the automated systems should compensate for your presence. I hope you're hungry."
Nureyev stepped past Sasha and me with a sway to his hips that could only be described as a sashay. I kept my eyes firmly on the back of Nureyev's shoulders, slender and smooth and covered with wet white linen as they were.
Lunch was set out in the atrium by the time we arrived, small plates set out at the bistro tables. There were five of them, each set for two places, and almost all of them were occupied: one had only one occupant and another was empty, but the others were all full.
"Everyone," Nureyev said as we circled the pool to get to the dining area, his voice ringing across the atrium like a bell, "I'm sorry to interrupt your meal, but I'd like to introduce you to two new arrivals." He stopped at the edge of the dining area, where the red tiles met the grass, and stepped to one side to gesture at Sasha and Juno. "This is Agent W of Dark Matters, and her assistant, Detective Steel."
I tried to keep the wince off my face at the word 'assistant.' No way Nureyev didn't do that deliberately. I mean, I deserved it, but still.
"They're here to investigate the recent passing of Agent V, who I'm sure you all remember," Nureyev continued, and briefly ducked his head in a respectful moment of mourning. "They'd like to speak to all of you in their valiant search to find Agent V's murderer."
"Well," said a blue-haired woman sitting at one of the nearby tables, standing up ostentatiously, "I for one would like to welcome Agent W and Detective Steel and commend them on their noble goal." She looked pointedly around at the rest of the guest and golf clapped, and they all followed suit. "In this trying, difficult time, we're all anxious to see the killer brought to justice."
"Yes, we'll all feel much safer eating our food once we know there isn't a poisoner running amok," agreed a man slouching at another table. Even his voice sounded lazy, drawling and dripping in stretched-out syllables that lingered in his nasal cavity. "Well, running amok anymore."
"If it's all right with you all," Sasha said, stepping in front of Nureyev with the straight-backed posture I recognized as her working stature - I'd seen it before, in Oldtown, each time she got on her comm and became Agent W instead of little Sasha Wire - "I'd like to interview each of you separately so we can start getting a picture of exactly what happened last night."
"Of course, Agent W," Nureyev butted in, "we should have time to eat first, shouldn't we? After all, we wouldn't want anyone forgetting something because of an empty stomach. And," he added, his voice dropping to a stage-whisper as he looked over at me, "your assistant looks as though he could use another square meal or ten. Entirely too skinny."
"Thanks," I pushed out through gritted teeth, "for your concern."
"I'm just saying that you look like a halfway decent breeze would knock you right over the edge of the palace platform," Nureyev continued blithely.
Sasha looked around the courtyard, and I recognized the frustrated gleam in her eye and the small wrinkles at the corner of her eyelids - she wanted to say no. But her professional judgement won out over her impatience, and she said, "Sure, lunch first. We're all here together, after all."
Nureyev clapped his hands together. "Excellent! Then please, you two, take a seat. Look, there's a table for you right there. When you're done, just leave the plates on the table and the staff will take care of it."
Lunch was everything I would imagine lunch at a pleasure palace would be. No courses, but the plate before me had a sandwich stuffed with smoked meat and fresh vegetables, tomatoes still dripping with juice and lettuce that hadn’t lost any of its crunch, and some kind of thick, spicy sauce that laid down a faint burning sensation in the back of my throat. Next to the sandwich was a salad that I poked at dubiously with my fork, watching the spiky, dark green leaves shift as I did.
"Juno, eat your vegetables," Sasha said absently.
"Vegetables? I thought this counted as foliage."
Sasha rolled her eyes and took a sip from the glass next to her plate - then did a double take at it. "Just water. Huh."
"Disappointed?" I said, savagely spearing several leaves on his plate.
"Relieved, but surprised," Sasha said after another sip. "A place like this I'd expect wine, but it's nice not to have to worry about trying to work with a hangover. Might've been nice to let the suspects think I was compromised, though. I never say no to an advantage."
I glanced over at Nureyev's table, on the other side of the courtyard. He was seated with someone, a woman that I didn't recognize - not that I would recognize anyone here other than Sasha and Nureyev - and he didn't look over or seem to notice my gaze.
"How long have they known we were coming?" I said to Sasha, turning my attention back to the table.
"I registered my travel plans last night, as soon as I heard."
I nodded to myself. "So if they were going to get their stories straight--"
"They would've done it by now," Sasha finished. "No use worrying about them talking amongst themselves. And really, eat your salad. Wolf wasn't wrong. You look like you need it."
I nearly put my fork down entirely at Sasha trying to baby me, but before I could even start the motion, I hesitated. I still wasn't entirely sure why Sasha hired me for this job - and even though it was a favor, it was clearly a job, and she'd signed the invoice to that effect - but it was hard not to take it as an olive branch of sorts. One that I didn't deserve after our last encounter. Mick's words at the bar afterward had been harsh, but not wrong. Sasha had every reason to resent me, and yet here I was, sitting on a pleasure palace on her dime and investigating a murder at her behest. If that wasn't an invitation to reconcile, I don't know what is.
And I...I didn't miss the old days. No matter how Mick remembered it, the old days were just plain terrible. But I remembered the days when I knew Sasha would have my back, and I missed those, just a little.
So I shoved the fork and its cargo of salad in my mouth, and I ate it. The leaves were almost peppery and the dressing was bitter and sweet and acidic all at once and I had completely failed to notice that there were additional chunks of something - probably vegetables of some kind - mixed in, but I ate it anyway and went on to clean my plate, because I figured it was the least I could do.
"What information do you have on the people here?" I asked with my mouth full of the last bite of salad.
"I pulled the dossiers on all of them, but I want you to go into the interviews clean. Better to have to multiple perspectives."
"Any suspects?" A fleck of green landed on my plate, and Sasha gave an aggrieved sigh.
"Like I said, Juno, I want a fresh set of eyes."
"You know, Sasha," I said after swallowing, "I'm starting to wonder if you didn't bring me here so that you could show off your investigation skills and leave me in the dark. Just to show off."
Sasha leveled a glare at me. "Do you want to know why I brought you, Juno? Because Mick asked me to."
I stared at her for a moment. "Mick asked you to bring me to investigate the death of your subordinate?"
"Mick said you two had worked together and it'd been good for you, and you'd been in a rut ever since that business with Ramses O'Flaherty. So he said if I found a case that looked like it would be up your alley, it might help get you out of whatever funk you've been in," Sasha said, lifting her glossy black hair out of her face and over her shoulder. "First you went missing - "
"Not my fault," I said instantly.
"Twice - "
"Shame on me."
"Then you refuse to talk about where you were, also twice - "
"Without an eye - "
I hesitated there and so did Sasha. When the expected rejoinder didn't come, she frowned.
" - and in a terrible mood," she finished.
"Business as usual then," I tried, but it came out weak.
"He said he wants his two best friends to be friends again," Sasha says. "And he's worried about you. Seeing you in person, I can understand why. You look horrible."
"That's just my face."
"You look like you haven't slept in a month."
"Don't judge my life choices."
"Mick thought a case might take your mind off things, get you back to your old self - which, admittedly, is only marginally better than this, but…" Sasha capped her trailing-off with a shrug.
"So this is - what, a favor to Mick Mercury?" I said incredulously.
Sasha sighed again and took a sip of her water. Over her glass she said, "He may have also said some things about the good old days."
"About how nice it was to have all three of us together again that time in Old Town a while back - "
"Does he even remember what happened?"
Sasha shrugged. "You know Mick. He always remembers the good parts, and lets the bad parts just…fall away. Leaves them for the rearview."
"Yeah," I muttered, buffing a spot on my fork with my finger. "Lucky him."
"Mmm." Sasha's hum sounded more agreeing than disagreeing. I took it as a win. "And I needed backup anyway, and I wasn't going to get it from Dark Matters. Not for this case."
"I still can't believe a Dark Matters agent is murdered and they're not investigating it at all."
"He was on probation and there are…higher priorities at Dark Matters at the moment, so no," Sasha said.
"I hate to tell you, Sasha, but your employer's kind of a jerk."
"It's for the greater good," Sasha said back, but her voice sounded a little more hollow than it did a moment before. She crumpled her napkin into a ball and put it next to her plate on the table. "Well. Now that we've accomplished our lunch, it's time to get to work."
I followed suit, although I also managed to get four of the extra rolls into my pockets and a fifth in my mouth as Sasha stood up to face the courtyard at large.
"If I might have your attention," she said loudly. The quiet lunch chatter of the other guests calmed almost immediately, and Sasha said, "Thank you. If you wouldn't mind, we'd like to begin the interviews now - is Miss Anita Whitfield available?"
Nureyev's lunch partner sat up momentarily straighter with surprise. "Oh! Me? Already?"
"If you wouldn't mind," Sasha said again, with a steely smile that implied also if Anita would mind.
Anita glanced at Nureyev, and I watched the back of his head bob slightly as he gave her an encouraging nod. She slipped out of her chair and said, "Well, all right…"
Nureyev stood as well and escorted Anita to Sasha and me. "Under the circumstances," he said quietly, "perhaps the Vista Room would be appropriate? It might be more comfortable than doing the interviews in your suite."
"That would be perfect, thank you," Sasha said, and once again followed as Nureyev led the way. Anita trailed behind her, and I let myself fall to the end of the line. I couldn't keep my eyes off Nureyev, though.
He looked none the worse for wear after our time in the Martian tomb. Immediately afterward, the lines around his eyes and mouth had stood out like crevasses, at least until I had kissed them away, and his shoulders had sagged with a looseness too incongruous to be unforced, at least until he'd fallen asleep next to me. But here he was, back in his element, his posture set smooth and his smile as much of a mask as ever. Those weeks, it seemed, rolled off him like sand off Hyperion City's storm shields.
Lucky him, I thought viciously; and then again, thinking of how he'd cradled my head in his lap after my sessions with Miasma, how he'd brushed the blood off my face when it had dried into flakes there, the way the sound of his breathing managed to be the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard...yeah. Lucky him.
Chapter 2: Juno Steel and the Case of the Interrogation Montage
This chapter was delayed due to DragonCon; forthcoming chapters will be posted much more promptly!
The Vista Room lived up to its name. Much like the bedroom in our suite, the far wall was entirely glass from floor to ceiling; unlike the living room in our suite, the chairs in this room had backs. There were six of them, plush armchairs currently set up to survey the planet below in pairs with small tables set between them. On a clear day, the view would've been stunning. Today, the view was just a smear of high-velocity winds carrying nothing but red Martian sand.
Sasha wasted no time in rearranging the chairs, pulling two of them opposite another with the view off to one side. Then she looked evenly at Nureyev. "Thank you, Mr. Wolf. We'll bring Anita back to the courtyard when we're ready for the next person."
Nureyev's blandly upper-crust smile didn't budge for a moment, and I almost thought he's going to try to stay. But then his eyes flickered to me, and he inclined his head towards Sasha. "Of course, Agent W. Please let me know if there's anything else I can do to make sure this horrid business is taken care of quickly."
The door closed behind him when he left, and I immediately claimed the chair furthest from the view. Sasha rolled her eyes - she had plenty of opportunities to grapple with my completely reasonable distaste for heights when we were kids - but took the chair next to me without incident. Left with nowhere else to go, Anita slowly lowered herself into the solitary chair facing us.
"So," Sasha said, stony-faced as a military interrogator, "can you tell us your name, what you do, and what brought you to Elysium? Just so we can make sure we have everything straight."
The interviews flew by, blurring together into a series of answers:
Blonde hair, carefully unkempt enough to feel natural while still bearing all the signs of dutiful maintenance, cascading around a slight, pale face made even paler with obvious anxiety. Deep wrinkles at the corners of her eyes despite her youth, constant twisting of her hands, indentations and red patches on her lower lip due to constant worrying.
"Anita Whitfield," she answered. "I'm a guitarist, and I'm here to play a concert on the Strings."
"The strings?" Sasha asked.
"That's my guitar - the one that Agent V thought…you know." Anita leaned forward and widened her eyes with significance. "Might get stolen. It was made in the 21st century and they say that all the greats played on it. I've been touring with it to show it to the peoples of all the worlds, not just Earth. Mostly to larger venues - concert halls and that sort of thing. But Chaudhry Recreationals reached out for a smaller concert and Baron thought it was a good idea - a much higher profit margin, after all - so I thought…why not?"
The next interviewee: A halo of dark, tightly-curled black hair framing strong cheekbones and a jawline that could slice meat. A careless slouch in the chair but a straight spine despite it, a cultivated air of inattention. Truly remarkable amounts of forehead beneath the hair. Honestly, it was almost distracting.
"Matteo Fauntleroy, of the Enceladan Fauntleroys, charmed," he said, and I recognized the lazy, meandering quality to his voice - he was the man who spoke earlier, in the courtyard. "I don't work, as such. That's what my parents are for. As long as I don't do anything too embarrassing - well, nothing too embarrassing that gets caught on video, unless it's sellable - they don't really care what I do. As to why I'm here, it's for the Strings, of course. It's a legendary instrument, absolutely legendary, and a private concert at Elysium when I haven't been here for months…I could hardly pass up an opportunity like that, now could I? Not when it's been so long since I've seen my dear Calpurnia."
Black hair fell just past the bottom of her shoulder blades, mostly straight until it hit a slight curve to give it life, and a perfectly circular dot of a red bindi rested between her eyebrows. A round face, smiling and canny, watched Sasha and me every step we took.
"Calpurnia Chaudhry, head of Chaudhry Recreationals - have you heard of us?"
"Can't say I've had the pleasure," I said. Sasha stayed silent.
"We're still very boutique - we work with a very exclusive clientele, you understand. Our competitors prefer to base their operations geographically, but we deal with much more niche needs - take Saffron Pharmaceuticals, for example. Why convince an entire planet that they're tired and need an arcane Martian wonder drug when we can find the needs of each individual person and tailor them exactly the remedy they need? My specialty is, of course, the enhancement of art." Calpurnia reached into her purse, and I tensed, my hand going to my holster - which was empty. Sasha had insisted on that, to avoid any…incidences. Sasha herself didn't even twitch. She'd never been one to spook easy. "I've already given the rest of the guests samples - it's only fair that you get them, too! The sample pack includes Jewel, Radiance, Sense Memory, Flare, and Calm Waters." Calpurnia pulled out two small boxes, padded and paneled in silk, and handed them towards Sasha and me. "A standard mix - a hallucinogen, a euphoriant, an eidetic, a stimulant, and a sedative. Descriptions and dosing information can be found in the box. I don't recommend mixing them, either with each other or anything else - each one is already perfectly balanced for an ideal recreational experience."
Calpurnia smiled brightly at us, and I blinked at her.
"So you sell drugs."
"Recreationals, yes," Calpurnia said, her smile not budging.
"And you're here in your professional capacity?" Sasha said.
"Yes, I'm providing my services as an artisan. My partner, Melody, she handles most of the business side."
Almost every facet of Melody Harper's appearance was altered, from her sapphire-blue hair that precisely matched the almost-glowing shade of her eyes to the cloudy purple imbued into her fingernails, the color not resting on top but suffusing the nail itself. All of this against preternaturally smooth dark skin and a smile so bright it could probably be seen from orbit.
"Melody Harper, sales and advertising for Chaudhry Recreationals - I'm here for the concert, of course. Calpurnia doesn't allow Chaudhry artisans to travel without someone with more of a head for business, and, well," she smiled bashfully, "Calpurnia does so love my head for business. And it allows her to focus on her art in preparation for the concert."
"What does the concert have to do with Chaudhry's…" I caught the significant look from Sasha just in time, and changed the end of my question to, "recreationals?"
"It's a new strategy we're trying - Chaudhry Recreationals has been sponsoring concerts like this all over the system. We provide unique access to the performer before the concert, allowing each member of the audience a specialized experience, and then provide the listeners with a recreational hand-curated by our artisan to complement the choice of music."
I traded a glance with Sasha, whose face was unreadable as ever.
"And that…works?" I asked.
"It's…been a bit rocky," Melody admitted. "I'm sure you could hear about it from anyone. A string quartet on Europa changed their selection of music at the last moment from Scheherezade to Danse Macabre without telling us. It made the choice of a hallucinogen…poor." Melody flicked a lock of blue hair over her shoulder. "But it's the growing pains of a new art form. Our customers know that we're pushing the envelope and that there will inevitably be lessons learned."
Sasha leaned forward a bit in her seat, bracing her elbows on her knees. "And the thefts?"
Melody's expression sagged into a resigned frown. "Yes, the thefts are unfortunate. Chaudhry Recreationals has been attempting to flood the market, so we've maintained a significant presence at - well, as many private concerts like this that we can get access to. So, yes, there have been Chaudhry representatives at a significant portion of the recent thefts, but you could say that about almost any player in the field."
Flawless ebony skin and a soft halo of dark hair surrounding an expression that seemed permanently set to 'pleasantly and politely engaged,' with a slight Mona Lisa smile and an unconcerned slant to her brows.
"Odalys Taiwo, heir apparent to Retina Productions," she said. "I'm here for the concert, of course, but - I'm not going to lie to you - I'm rather intrigued by the possibility of a theft occurring."
I almost did a double take. "Did you say 'intrigued'?"
"These thefts are the talk of society," Odalys said with an unconcerned shrug. "It's one thing when money or jewels go missing - of course everyone wants money or jewels - or a dusty old ancient something-or-other, but instruments…those have stories. They make art. For those of us who haven't recently tripped over our money, we know how to value art properly. Particularly those of us at Retina Productions." She gave me a canny look. "Detective Juno Steel, you said your name was?"
I sat up, trying not to bristle at the sudden attention. "So?"
"Retina Productions works with some of the biggest names in entertainment," Odalys said, and the slight curve of her lips flexed briefly into something stronger and more genuine. "Including the Kanagawas. I've seen your appearances on their shows. Excellent melodrama - family intrigue, an ancient curse, a murder motivated by both business and passion. You should be on every show. No doubt you make the ratings explode."
"Not many shows can handle me. So you came here because you thought the Strings were going to be stolen? Because, what, you wanted the excitement?"
Odalys raised a shoulder in a delicate shrug. "I also wanted the chance to speak with Calpurnia Chaudhry. While there have certainly been a few…hiccups…her recreationals have received some amazing reviews, and if there's a way to expand that experience to our programming, it could be beneficial for all of us. After all, everyone wants a unique experience."
"And which hiccups would those be?" Sasha said.
"Well, there was the business on Ganymede - a member of the audience didn't pay enough attention to the warnings and took her Flare with a glass of wine...but the courts ruled Chaudhry Recreationals wasn't liable for her medical costs."
I made a note to myself: Read the instructions on the recreationals very, very carefully. Or better yet, avoid them entirely.
"But those of us with an interest in music have also noticed that almost all of the instruments that have been stolen were at concerts where a Chaudhry rep was," Odalys continued. "It's become almost a badge of honor, I suppose, to have been at one of the concerts where it happened. Pan was very keen on that part, too. They like their fair share of excitement."
Short where Odalys was tall, a genuine smile where Odalys's looked constantly fake, and a faint but noticeable cologne of something floral and citrusy.
"Pan Taiwo, married to Odalys Taiwo - I'm basically here because she is." Pan gave me and Sasha a full smile. "She used to be very interested in music, you know, and recently I've been trying to encourage her to explore that part of herself more. See where it takes her, that sort of thing."
"How long have you two been married?" I asked.
"Almost three years now," Pan answered. "Odalys is everything I could've asked for, but - well. She came from a very business-oriented family. Understandable, but I've been really trying to encourage her to break down some of her walls, you know? Try things a bit outside the lines. Self-actualize."
Sasha said, her voice mild, "And did you know that Tobias LeFitte was going to be here when you decided to come?"
Pan's smile froze on their face.
Tobias LeFitte himself: the slim but muscular frame of a man who exercised for health rather than a specific physique. A truly magnificent mustache, growing like a disconcertingly hairy fungus across his top lip.
"Ah, yes, well," Tobias said, chewing the inside of his lip between words as he stared out though the window, his gaze skittering as though trying to track a single gust of wind in the sandstorm. "I'm Tobias LeFitte. I've always been a bit of an aficionado for a well-played guitar, and when I heard about this concert I knew I needed to be here. I almost became a professional musician, you know, before I took over the company, and I - well, you probably heard about it. I had a bit of a mental breakdown a few months ago. Just a minor one, of course, but the shareholders - I'm up to inherit the company now that my sister - that is to say, Aperture Technologies creates the latest and most cutting-edge entertainment equipment, and getting all that responsibility so suddenly was a bit much. And because of my sister's death, well, I was crushed, utterly crushed. Not as crushed as Samantha was when that car accidentally landed on her, of course, but it was such a tragic accident and I decided - and my shareholders agreed - that a little bit of time and distance from the whole thing would be beneficial." Tobias lifted his hands in an expansive 'what are you going to do?' gesture.
Commit murder, possibly, but that was beside the point.
"And did you know Odalys Taiwo was going to be here when you decided to come?"
Tobias's expression darkened. "Of course not. Ex-fiancees are not particularly stress-relieving."
Sasha's next question: "Did you have any interactions with Agent V?"
Anita Whitfield - the guitarist, I reminded myself - said, "Well, yes, I mean - he was investigating the Strings. Or whoever was going to steal the Strings. Or maybe steal the Strings." She was squirming, but she had the kind of face where it could just as easily mean guilt or any pressure stronger than a standard atmosphere. "It's all been very ambiguous, and I have to say, I don't particularly...thrive under these sorts of conditions. I've only ever wanted to play guitar, more than anything. I indentured myself to pay for the academy, did you know that? This tour was supposed to pay off the last of my loans, be my coup de grace, but now I just want this all to be over."
Matteo Fauntleroy, the annoying one: "He certainly skulked around. He wasn't as methodical about asking questions as you, of course, although why would he be? Nobody had been murdered yet. A bit ironic, that. But you could hardly turn a corner in this place without him starting up some incessant prattle about music - what do you know about guitars, do you play any musical instruments, why are you here if you don't care about music, you do realize this is a concert don't you, that sort of thing. Practically an interrogation of its own sort, really. Completely unfair. But I suppose he wasn't actively offensive until he interrupted dinner last night with that collapse."
Calpurnia Chaudhry, maker of recreationals: "He was an abstinent one, that's for certain. I gave him a sample pack of our wares, same as everyone else, but he didn't seem interested in the art of it at all. I suppose I can't blame him - he was here for work, after all - but he didn't pay much attention to me and Melody at all."
Melody Harper, possessor of Calpurnia's favorite head for business, apparently: "No, although believe me, I tried. His rugged pursuit of justice was obvious, and even before dinner he seemed fairly distressed that he hadn't made as much progress as he wanted to."
Sasha, interrupting: "He was upset?"
Melody: "'Upset' is a strong word, but - he wasn't happy. Did you notice that your glass at lunch today was water even though each of the rooms has a fully-stocked bar? That's because of us, I'm afraid - after the case on Ganymede, we had to draw some lines. Meals and concerts are when the recreationals come out, but we aren't liable for what people ingest in their own rooms. Well, Agent V brought a flask to dinner last night. I saw him taking sips out of it. Who knows how long he had it on him? He was frowning all the time, too. I tried to suggest a…an outlet for him - "
Me this time: "One of your recreationals?"
Melody: "Of course not! I would never distract a man in search of the truth in any way that might keep him from finding it."
It clicked: Melody liked law enforcement. Really liked them. And Agent V hadn't been receptive to her advances.
She continued: "But he was so preoccupied that it never happened. We asked him about his progress over dinner, since we were all so interested to hear, but he didn't get the chance to answer."
Odalys Taiwo: "We spoke a few times. He spoke to everyone. Surprisingly friendly, actually - not a word I'd use to describe most Dark Matters agents. No offense," she added.
Sasha said, "None taken."
I said, "Accurate."
Odalys continued: "I gathered that he thought that the theft would happen here. He had questions about our belongings, about how many suitcases we brought, that sort of thing."
It made sense. A floating pleasure palace like Elysium had a limited number of ways on and off. It was a point of pride for their security. Whoever stole the guitar would have to figure out a way to get it off Elysium, and it wouldn't be easy once people knew the guitar was gone. All of this, of course, raised a question: why the hell steal the guitar here? If Anita had been playing in concert halls and other bigger venues - venues located firmly on ground - those would be the place to steal a high-profile instrument like the Strings, not here.
Sasha's next question: "Did you see Agent V having any interactions with anyone else here?"
Anita: "I've been practicing almost non-stop. The view from this room is inspirational, and I haven't picked my piece for the concert yet - I'm torn between two options and I'm waiting for one to just feel right. So I have no idea."
Sasha managed to unobtrusively kick my chair before I had a chance to roll my eyes, which was particularly impressive since we were in full view of Anita Whitfield without a table or anything else to block her view. Sasha was always talented.
Matteo Fauntleroy: "Oh, god, yes, just about everyone. He spent his entire time here running around asking everyone intrusive questions. Melody, bless her, was all over him. Clearly not one for subtlety. Calpurnia gave him her sales pitch, too, and he ate lunch with Tobias a few times - with two couples and several social butterflies around, the seating arrangements shifted more than once. Oh, and there was his argument with Baron Wolf, of course."
Of course. Of course there was an argument. My feet went cold. Sasha tilted her head slowly, with precision - a dangerous movement if I had ever seen one. "Could you elaborate?" she said.
"Well, I just came across them in the library yesterday after lunch and they were talking - not loud, like they were trying to keep their voices down. But heated. To be honest, at first I thought I was interrupting an intimate rendezvous - " Matteo pitched his voice low and waggled his eyebrows to leave no question what he meant - "but then Agent V got into Baron's personal space and pointed at him - you know, sharp, with a finger, like sort of jabbing? Like this." Matteo demonstrated, poking at nothing with his face screwed up. Then he dropped it and continued. "Then I figured I was interrupting the aftermath of an intimate rendezvous. They both looked angry - Baron a sort of cold-angry and Agent V like he was about to start spitting fire. So I just backed up and left before either of them noticed me."
Sasha said, "Did you hear what they were arguing about?"
"No, but by dinner they seemed to just be ignoring each other."
I tried to let that calm me down. It didn't work.
Pan Taiwo: "Well, he was at dinner sitting next to Tobias when it happened, I can tell you that, and it wasn't their first time eating together - but nothing happened to Tobias, of course. And Melody didn't catch Agent V's eye, but who knows? Maybe Tobias was more his speed. He has a reputation for always getting his way, and, frankly, for being ruthless."
"A reputation with who?" I asked.
Pan shrugged. "Everyone. Odalys's company was set up to merge with Tobias's a while back, to be sealed with a marriage. But when the merger fell through, so did the wedding. His call, not hers. Though it ended up being lucky for me," they added with a smile. "And even with an entire system to consider from the Outer Rim to Mercury, there just aren't that many circles in entertainment. Word gets around."
Tobias himself: "He asked a lot of questions of a lot of people, but it always felt more like he wanted to catch up with you than an interrogation. Like this? This feels like an interrogation. Talking to Agent V felt more like a chat."
I asked, "Were you two having an affair?"
Tobias flinched backwards. "An affair? With a Dark Matters agent? Do you know what kind of conflicts of interest that would bring up for my company? Of course not." His disgust and distaste, while motivated by business though they were, struck me as genuine enough, although there was always the possibility that he was just an excellent liar. That was always the very last thing to be ruled out.
"But you were with him when the poisoning happened?" I pushed.
"Of course. Melody and Calpurnia are practically joined at the hip, so they were eating together, and Anita and Baron had sheet music out and were talking about that, and Matteo…" Tobias trailed off, his eyelids growing visibly heavy with the effort of not rolling his eyes. His voice flattened out and he finished, "Matteo set up a screen at the place-setting across from him and had a solar-sailing race streaming."
"A solar sailing race?" Sasha repeated, and for once a hint of surprise came through in her voice.
"Apparently he had a lot of money put down on the Warhammer and wanted to see if he beat the spread, since they were predicted to lose to the Cow-Eyed Athena by a full minute. This is a level of detail I never wanted to know about solar sailing, you understand, but Matteo had the volume up loud enough for all of us to hear it. Or, he did until Agent V collapsed and people started screaming."
"Speaking of which," Sasha said, tilting her head like a falcon surveying its prey, "could you describe to us exactly what happened?"
Tobias said, "Of course. We were eating dinner - a lovely wild-caught whitefish imported from Earth in a delightful butter curry sauce with soil-grown squash and an arugula salad - and he was being quiet. I thought it was odd, of course, but I didn't mind. I thought that after all the talking he was finally beginning to realize there wouldn't be any theft here. But then he stood up suddenly, barely a few bites into his meal, and just fell straight to the ground. It startled all of us, as I'm sure you can imagine, but he was still breathing and his eyes were still looking around at that point, and Baron told us to stay where we were and checked on him and - we waited, of course, until Baron said there was nothing that could be done."
The dark, cynical part of my mind suggested that Nureyev had probably taken Agent V's watch while taking his pulse. The rest of me wondered whether Nureyev genuinely tried to help. He had a mean streak, sure, and I'd watched him kill more than one person, but they were generally people who had made their threats first. And there wasn't much that Nureyev could've done about poison.
Matteo: "To be honest, I only saw him on the ground, and only for a minute before Baron tended to him. Once I saw it was being dealt with, I turned my attention back to the rather urgent business matters I was forced to bring with me to dinner."
I said, "You mean the solar sailing race?"
Matteo said, "Obviously. Do you know how much stake I had on that race? I do, and I wouldn't have if I had stood around watching everyone panic without doing anything productive."
"Couldn't you have checked your bank account afterwards?" I asked.
"Oh, the money itself is a sucker's game. What the other gamblers think of you - that's what gambling's really about."
Anita: "Goodness, I - I don't know, I was so…Baron was helping me think about what sort of party I should curate tonight, since I can't decide and Calpurnia's been asking since she wants to know what to brew up, and I've told her the options but apparently that's not good enough, and Baron has such an ear for music that I thought - "
Sasha intervened this time: "Agent V?"
"Right. Yes. Baron and I were eating and talking, and Agent V just fell over, right out of his chair, and - " She stopped, her eyes filling with tears. She held a hand up to her mouth and said through it, "It was just awful. I've never - I've never seen someone die before. He looked so...scared." The tears spilled over, and she dashed them away with the back of her hand quickly, like swatting a bug.
I took a quick glance at Sasha sitting next to me, but her face stayed as stony and unreadable as ever.
Melody: "He was nervous, I think. I mean, he was a couple minutes late, and he had never been late before, and he had a flask with him - I don't know where he got it, but he ignored the water and just drank it. At first - well, I guess I should tell you this, shouldn't I? At first, Calpurnia and I worried that he'd mixed whatever was in his flask with one of the recreational samples, but none of the samples would've done this with alcohol and we made sure to tell everyone specifically not to mix them."
A flask - had there been a flask on the body? We hadn't looked. We'd been working so fast trying to beat out the weather and get here at all, we hadn't done the prep work right. I made a note to myself to find the flask. Maybe it hadn't been Agent V's dinner that had been poisoned.
"If none of the samples interact with alcohol, why insist on only water at lunch?" Sasha said, quirking her eyebrow.
Melody shrugged. "We live in hope that we'll bring on new clients here, and Calpurnia has all of her equipment to do commissions. We didn't want to take the chance and Baron thought it was a sensible idea. Also, you know, liability. We organized the meals, after all."
"And Agent V?" I prompted.
"He seemed shaken by something, and almost paranoid - he kept looking around all funny, but he hadn't been doing that at all earlier, and I don't know what changed. If he came here thinking that any one of us could be the thief, then, well, shouldn't he have been paranoid about us the whole time?" Melody shook her head, a lock of blue hair drifting to land gently on the side of her face. It really was a beautiful mod. "I don't know. It just…doesn't quite add up." Then she looked at me and Sasha and gave us a halfhearted smile. "But I guess that's what you're here for, right?"
That smile…there was something about it I couldn't quite place. It didn't fit with her earlier confidence, that was certain.
Sasha changed the subject. "And have you been present at any of the other thefts?"
"Of course I have," Matteo said, sounding offended.
The admission was so surprising I nearly flinched. "You - what?"
"Only a certain sort of person gets invited to this sort of shindig, and I happen to be precisely that sort of person."
"And what sort of person is that?" asked Sasha.
"One who's notoriously free with their money." Matteo sounded incongruously proud. "These kinds of retreats are elite. One has to be seen moving about in the right circles. Frankly, I'm shocked that they let you through the door."
Sasha and I both waited for a "no offense." None came.
"And that's half the fun of it, isn't it?" Matteo continued. "Knowing that at any moment, there might be crime afoot."
I made a mental note to double-check that there were no other lifesigns on Elysium, because there was no way this guy could be a thief.
Calpurnia Chaudhry's answer wasn't that different: "I've been at three of them, I think, out of - I haven't really been paying attention to how many there have been, if I'm honest. I mostly take notice when it affects attendance, but luckily the insurance we pay out has been covered by the increased demand once something like this gets exciting - "
"Insurance?" I interrupted.
"As sponsors, we insure the possessions of everyone who attends one of these concerts," Calpurnia said. "The thefts that haven't been in Chaudhry events, I don't know who takes care of those, but for the three that have been ours, we've had to provide a payout."
I briefly considered that these supposed thefts might not be thefts, but insurance fraud - but that wouldn't explain why instruments, or why different owners. And if Chaudhry were doing it just for the publicity, well, all the thefts would've been at Chaudhry events.
"We did consider trying to incorporate it into the branding," Melody Harper admitted next. "But word of mouth seemed to be working just fine - there's nothing quite like word of mouth advertising, is there? - and besides, we couldn't exactly claim exclusivity." She pouted a bit, and the high-gloss shine over her metallic blue lipstick nearly blinded my remaining eye. "It would've been brilliant marketing if we'd been able to do that."
Odalys Taiwo: "No. No, I haven't been much into music since - I'm sure you've heard by now - since Tobias called off our engagement. He's a masterful musician, you know. I loved that about him, that passion."
"Did you know he was going to be here?" Sasha asked.
Odalys let out a heavy sigh. "No, and if I'd known, I'm not sure I would've agreed to come at all. As wonderful an experience as this has been, it's not exactly relaxing for me. Pan says this is a bit like exposure therapy, but I'd really rather not deal with it at all."
I thought of our upcoming interview with Nureyev and aggressively sympathized.
Tobias: "I've only recently begun to try to get back into music. I play string instruments, so when I heard that the Strings were going to be on a galactic tour, I put the word out in my old circles that I would personally make sure a stop to Mars would be well-attended. Or, well, well-compensated. Elysium was added to the list a few days later, and here I am."
And, of course, last but by no means least: Baron Wolf, better known to me as Peter Nureyev.
He had a strong opener, at least: "I have to admit that I haven't been entirely forthright with you," he said, sitting ramrod-straight in the chair. "While I'm here on behalf of Ms. Whitfield, the job title known to the others on Elysium isn't accurate. I told them that I'm something of a groupie and general dogsbody, when in fact I've been hired by Ms. Whitfield as a private security consultant."
"Security?" I repeated incredulously.
"Yes," Nureyev said, and something hardened in his expression as he looked me in the eye. "Security. Ms. Whitfield is, of course, aware of the recent string of thefts, and she's deeply concerned by them. I've been investigating on my own for quite some time - "
"As a private security consultant?" I said, because apparently I just can't stop myself sometimes.
"Yes," Nureyev repeated, and he was definitely glaring at me now. "It's a new career path for me. And sometimes in a field like this you come across a job that's worth working just for the exposure. Whoever stops these thefts will be noticed by people with paranoia and deep coffers. I came to the same conclusion that your Agent V apparently did - that the Strings would be a potential target for the next theft - and approached Anita at the first stop of her tour to offer my services at a reduced commission. It took some convincing - I'm sure you can imagine the stress she must be under, since her acquisition of the Strings has been a boon to her career but less so to her wallet - but she agreed to allow me to travel with her in case anything happens."
I translated this as: he was there to steal the Strings.
"So what are you a baron of?" I said, because apparently I just can't stop myself.
Nureyev gave me a flat look. "Alas, it's just a name."
"I hope you understand that a murder on your watch makes your skills look a bit suspect," Sasha said.
"Please understand, while I'm not without sympathy, my job is the Strings, not the customers," Nureyev said. " Agent W, I appreciate that you're settled in your chosen career and I'm very happy for you, I really am, but those of us who aren't Dark Matters don't have the luxury of that kind of job security. The Strings haven't been stolen and there are only two days left in the retreat, so I'm currently counting the tour so far as a win and trying to keep it that way."
I winced. I'd only ever seen Nureyev play flamboyant characters, but this was a bit further in the other direction than I'd expected. He managed to sell it, though, with a hardened, exhausted look in his eyes, like a person who'd been working nonstop and waiting for just the next break, the next one would surely fix everything...
Sasha's posture stiffened, just a bit, but she said, "Then we're on the same side. And I'm sure a Dark Matters agent in my position might be able to help advance your career. As could Agent V, which is why I'm so surprised to hear you were arguing with him."
"I'm trying to stake my career on this case, not get it covered up by Dark Matters. Or, worse, have Dark Matters take the credit. This is my case!"
I felt suddenly indignant, as though he were taking my lines, before it struck me with awful clarity just where he might have mined the inspiration for this particular character: bristly, unable to work well with others, tenacious, kind of an asshole.
"Then," I said, "how about instead of being the person pissing off Dark Matters, you be the person who helped Dark Matters solve a theft and a murder and received the eternal gratitude of a Dark Matters agent?"
Nureyev glanced at me, and I met his eyes, willing him to understand what I meant: trust me. Don't get on Sasha's bad side. Don't make this worse. Trust me.
He looked right back at me for a long moment, his curmudgeonly persona not budging, and then sighed. "Fine. I've already triple-checked the robot servants' programming and verified that there haven't been any alterations, so none of them have been suborned to commit crimes of any sort. As far as I'm concerned, it could be just about anyone else. The Strings could be sold on the black market for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of creds, and money's always a motive. Fauntleroy loves having ostentatious things, so maybe he's dipped his toes into obtaining them. And there's no way he's as vapid and idiotic as he seems. Nobody is that insufferable. Chaudhry and Harper - well, Chaudhry Recreationals has been doing pretty well with all the publicity surrounding the thefts. LeFitte is notorious for getting what he wants, and with his musical background it wouldn't be surprising if he wanted the Strings. The Taiwos aren't hurting for money but have been bleeding investors since the merger got called off a few years ago. And I wouldn't put it past Odalys to steal the Strings just to take a vid of setting them on fire to send to Tobias. Her nasty streak and creative streak practically form a braid the length of my arm."
"So you've narrowed it down to everyone," Sasha said. "How helpful."
"You'll have to excuse me for being distracted by a sudden and brutal murder," Nureyev snapped.
"And have you been at any of the other thefts?"
"No." Nureyev's voice was clipped as he glared at Sasha. "And, as a matter of fact, I was already working with Anita on her tour during the most recent theft - the Hermes Lyre, wasn't it? About a month ago? I heard about it while we were on Brahma."
"Brahma?" I said.
Nureyev looked back at me. "Yes, Brahma. New Kinshasa. A public concert in a public square, to kick off the tour. There are a lot of things that I would do," he said, and now his voice sounded heavy, full of meaning, "but this murder isn't one of them."
There was only one reason I could think of that he would bring up Brahma, New Kinshasa, the public square - to let me know he was really telling the truth.
And I believed him.
He didn't have any new evidence to contribute to the case, but as he left, he paused for a moment before opening the door. He straightened his shoulders, rolled his neck, and settled into the insouciant ease of Baron-Wolf-the-dogsbody like a blanket falling over him. Sasha saw it too - I figured that was probably the point - but she didn't say anything until the door was closed again behind him and it was just me and her.
"Convenient of him to claim to have that Brahma alibi when we can't check it because of the sandstorm," Sasha said.
"We can check it with Whitfield," I said, and then realized that if it was just a message for me then the guitarist wouldn't be able to confirm it. I kicked myself - usually I'm a better liar than that - but he had me off-balance. This whole thing had me off-balance. "I'll ask her," I added quickly. "At dinner. I think you scare her."
"Good," Sasha said darkly, and then sighed and rubbed the back of her neck with both hands.
"Hey...look, if you're tired, or need a break - "
Sasha's voice came out clipped. "I'm fine."
"Okay." I waited a second, but Sasha didn't say anything else. "You know...it's okay to not be, if you need to - "
I had never heard the honking noise that Sasha made before, and for a second I wondered if she'd been poisoned. Then I realized it was a snort so deep it may as well have come from her toes. "I'm sorry, I'm just shocked that the depth of that hypocrisy didn't just destroy the fabric of spacetime," she said.
I bristled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
She sighed again, and stood up, letting her arms drop to her side. When she spoke, she sounded tired. "I don't have time for this. Let's get to Agent V's quarters."
I opened my mouth to argue but stopped myself just in time. I reminded myself that this whole relying-on-people thing was new to me, and if I wanted to reconnect with Sasha in more than a being-inspired-by-and-slightly-terrified-of-her way, it would mean taking a few jabs from her and letting them go.
And if I reminded myself of that by chewing on my tongue until I tasted blood, well. Baby steps.
Chapter 3: Juno Steel and the Case of the Gratuitous Dance Party
Some clues, some dancing, some poor choices of refreshment.
I'd apologize, but I'm not sorry.
Also, I sat down, budgeted words and time, and compared it to the outline for the story I have; I can now confirm that this story will be completed by the next Juno Steel episode release date, so within the next three weeks.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The layout of Agent V's rooms mirrored the ones that Sasha and I had: we entered into a sumptuous living room with a fire pit that my brain still couldn't register as anything other than a really bad idea on a resort floating this high above a planet. The kitchen in Agent V's quarters showed some signs of use, particularly the coffee machine, and a few plates, utensils, and glasses hung neatly on the drying rack. Sasha, naturally, made a bee-line for the kitchen while I took a look around the living room.
A throw blanket lay rumpled over one of the fainting couches, and I noticed an odd, flat lump. I glanced over my shoulder towards the kitchen. Sasha had her magical whatever-the-hell out and was swabbing the insides of the dishes with meticulous attention. Sasha never appreciated anything breaking her concentration and I didn't appreciate having my curiosity unfulfilled because of Dark Matters secrets, so I didn't say anything - I just lifted back the blanket.
Paper's not so much a luxury these days as it is a throwback, the kind of thing that rich jerks like Fauntleroy probably keep around to show how they're more in-tune with the art of writing than us plebes who use comms units and plastic screens. So at first I thought maybe Agent V had swiped the journal from someone else. It practically reeked of good old-fashioned obsession with the good old days, before technology came in and ruined everything by making words and information accessible to the masses: leather cover imprinted with some kind of shiny paint in a fleur-de-lis design, a delicate ribbon stitched into the binding and tucked between two pages to mark the place, even rough edges to each sheet of paper to really hammer home the point that this wasn't just any journal, but one made lovingly by hand for someone who could afford that kind of wastefulness.
Like I said, my guess was on Fauntleroy, or maybe LeFitte. But when I nudged the journal open to the marked page, the structure of the notes was immediately familiar: case notes.
Calpurnia Chaudhry (and Melody Harper?) - means. Regular attendance. Melody tried to distract (or is groupie). Calpurnia tried to distract (or really wants to sell me drugs).
Tobias LeFitte - motive. Also weird.
It was written in all capital letters, hard enough that the page almost tore, and it was underlined - but it was alone on its own line. That was all there was for Wolf, and I flipped back a couple pages to make sure there was no reference to Rex Glass. Nothing. That secret was safe, for now. Maybe Agent V didn't want this particular tidbit of information getting back to Dark Matters. Whatever it was, I breathed a sigh of relief.
"What's that?" Sasha called from the kitchen. I jumped - I'd forgotten that she had better ears than a rabbit in the sewers looking for a mark.
"Case notes, I think. Did you know Agent V kept a journal? Who keeps a journal, anyway?"
Sasha came over to join me, so we were shoulder-to-shoulder. "He said writing the words out made him really think about them. Let me see that."
My hand tightened on it, because apparently part of me will always be a child when Sasha's around, but I made myself loosen my grip. She took the journal and frowned at the page I had it open to.
I leaned sideways into her personal space to look. "What?"
Her elbow twitched, and I could tell that maybe she had some childhood habits that were dying hard, too - for most of our lives she wouldn't have hesitated to elbow me. Instead, she leaned the open journal towards me.
There, below the same theory that Nureyev had had about Pan and Odalys Taiwo's interest in revenge against Odalys's former fiancee Tobias LeFitte, were the words "Dolosian Marketplace?" circled.
"I...have never heard of Dolos," I said, frowning. "Or Dolosia, maybe?"
"Neither have I," Sasha murmured. "That's...highly irregular. Huh." She flipped back one page, and then another, and I decided to leave her to it. There was more of the suite to be searched, after all.
I wandered from the open-floor-plan living room to the open-floor-plan bedroom. I hadn't really had a chance to be irritated at the layout in our own quarters, but now that I was really getting a good look at things, the only conclusion I could come to was that it was designed by an exhibitionist. There wasn't so much a doorway to the bedroom as there were halfhearted suggestions of walls framing a long threshold with an unenthusiastic divider that could be pulled shut. The wall opposite me wasn't a wall, yet again, but truly unnecessary floor-to-ceiling windows. To my left, a sturdy dresser-and-hutch set housed the bar, and the rest of the wall space beyond it up to the windows boasted shuttered doors - closet, probably. To my right, the frosted-glass door to the bathroom.
In this room, though, I noticed that the spacious, subtle grid pattern in the wall over the headboard had deeper grooves than I had realized. I looked closer, keeping myself as far away from the window as possible, and saw that they weren't grooves at all - they were edges. I pressed on one of the squares, and sure enough, a drawer popped out.
I definitely did not expect the smell.
Or the glitter.
Through my coughing, I managed to choke out, "Uh, Sasha? You might want to see this."
I stepped back and tried to wave away some of the glitter now hovering in the air. It didn't work. I could feel it seeping into my lungs, mixed with the cloying smell of cotton candy.
"Oh," Sasha said from behind me, by the divider. "Did you just now find that drawer?"
I frowned over my shoulder at her. "Do you even know what's in it?"
"If it's anything like the drawer in our room, it's sex toys," Sasha said, folding the journal shut around a finger jammed in to mark her place. She had that light in the corners of her eyes that meant that she'd be smiling if she didn't want to stay straight-faced for a joke. "Do you need me to explain how to use them, Juno? You see, when two people crave oxytocin - "
I slammed the drawer shut. "Okay, point taken. So I guess this doesn't tell us anything about Agent V's...proclivities."
"Depends," Sasha said. "Anything used?"
I opened my mouth to say no, then hesitated. Then I opened the drawer again and gave it a quick glance. "Can't tell. Everything's in single-use packets. One of them burst at the bottom, which explains the smell. And the glitter."
"It's been years since I've seen you in glitter," Sasha said, a surprisingly wistful note in her voice. "Remember Mick's - "
" - twentieth birthday bash," I finished, grimacing at the memory. "I still sneeze sparkles from that glitterball pit."
Sasha said darkly, "I still have the rashes from that glitterball pit. I told him his business model would be more effective if he marketed it as a torture implement instead of a luxury item, but you know how he never listens."
"He, uh...he can be pretty smart sometimes, though. I guess." Out of the deep obligation to the truth that my crime-solving career required, I added, "Somehow."
"I love the guy, but are we sure we're talking about the same Mick Mercury?"
"Yeah. You know, after the whole thing back in Old Town, he, uh...he kind of called me out on how I'd been treating the two of you."
Sasha stared at me. "He what?"
It turned out that giving Mick Mercury credit, especially at my own expense, was another technique that could be implemented as torture. "He...told me to get over myself."
Sasha kept staring. "Mick did."
"I think your grasp of the situation is pretty accurate, Sasha, yeah." I took a deep breath. "And you should also know that I'm...I'm trying. I think maybe I stopped trying for a while there - okay, I know I stopped trying for, like, a really, really long time, but I'm trying to do better. For myself, yeah, but also for you and Mick and - and everyone."
Sasha sighed. "Okay, Juno," she said, her voice heavy with resignation, and she began turning back to the living room.
"Hey - what's that supposed to mean?"
Over her shoulder, she said, "We notice it, you know. When you start doing this. When you decide everything's on an upswing until you might actually have to be happy and decide that rock-bottom's better just so that nothing can get worse."
Hot prickles of anger broke out all over my skin. "That's not fair - I just said I'm trying, okay? And I am! And I appreciate you, and Mick, and - "
Sasha didn't round on me. Instead, she stood in the not-doorway, implacable, like a lamppost in the middle of a crowded street: everything just had to flow around her. "There are only so many times the people who give a crap about you can watch you do this to yourself, you know. Watch you choose to be miserable instead of taking a chance to be happy, just because it's kind of like being in control. That's what happened between us. Say what you want about me, but I can't stand by watching people hurt my friends. Not even if they're doing it to themselves."
I grasped for whatever straws of argument were left to me. "Look, what I do is my own business - "
"Sure it is," Sasha agreed. "Once you've pushed everyone away. But when you care about people and have people who care about you, what you do to yourself affects them, too. I'm glad that you're trying. I hope that works out. Seriously. But I think I'm going to wait to see how it turns out before I put any money down on it lasting."
I stared her down, and she met my gaze. "I respect and admire you," I said through gritted teeth, "but I'm really, really looking forward to proving you wrong."
Sasha shrugged. "Sure. It's almost time for dinner. I figured you might not pack anything formal, so I brought you a dress that I think should fit you."
I, once again, bit my tongue. Because apparently that's what trying to change means.
But halfway across the bedroom, something caught my eye. The hutch and dresser, also like the one in our room, had a wetbar. Next to the bottles - one with a slightly lower liquid level than the others, suggesting what had filled Agent V's flask - and glasses that matched ours, though, was a small silk-covered box.
"Sasha, wait." I headed over and looked at the box more closely, trying to figure out where I'd seen it before. It lay at a careless angle to the rest of the room, turned mostly away as though it had been tossed there and forgotten, but the pattern of careful pillowing along the outside...
Sasha arrived behind me and followed my gaze. "It tracks," she said, sounding fairly unconcerned. "Calpurnia Chaudhry said they gave everyone samples."
Right - the recreationals. I used the side of my pinkie to spin the box around and gently levered it open.
Inside, five glass vials lay carefully placed in more silk padding, each with meticulously-laser-etched labels embossed with gold.
Three of the vials were empty: Jewel, Flare, and Calm Waters.
"Any chance Agent V used them deliberately?" I said.
"On a mission? Not a chance in hell. He knew about Chaudhry Recreationals' issues in Ganymede - it was in the Dark Matters briefing. A flask of whiskey is a questionable choice, but these recreationals are a whole different level." Sasha had her serious face on, which looked a lot like her homicide face. Not the face she put on when she was investigating homicide; the one when she was aspiring to it. "So either someone else used his samples for themselves, or someone mixed a bunch of them together in his flask and hoped it would be fatal."
"I know just the person to talk to - and more to the point, I happen to know she has plans tonight." Sasha squared her shoulders and offered me her arm. "Want to go dancing? I've got just the dress for you."
When we got back to our suite - including the drawer above the bed that I now knew was just one punctured plastic packet away from making the entire suite reek of fake cotton-candy smell - and I tried it on, the dress indeed fit perfectly.
Sasha's always had an eye for detail, so I wasn't entirely surprised that the dress she'd got me was designed like a trench coat. A deep purple instead of the traditional beige and flared at the hip, it went just long enough on my leg to accommodate a thigh holster, and the soft, silky lapels were cut low enough to generate some interest and look appropriately formal. The long sleeves even gave me a place to hide the ten-cred plasma cutter I kept with me at all times once I sewed it in.
"Planning to cut down some boxes on the dance floor?" Sasha inquired mildly as she watched.
"Never know when you'll be attached by a bunch of...boxes."
"Fair." Sasha produced a pair of high heels, a black patent leather that I could practically see myself in. "I don't suppose you've gotten better at walking in heels in the past two decades?"
I eyed them with a grimace. "Sure haven't."
"Flats it is. A Dark Matters agent always comes prepared."
Based on the collection of clothes that had appeared in our joint closet, Sasha wasn't kidding. She'd picked a gauzy black number for herself, floor-length with a slit up to her hip and a tight, stiff bodice that looked avant-garde enough that nobody who didn't know her might not suspect it was body armor. Even the shimmery field of energy flowing down her arms looked like a daring aesthetic choice rather than a personal forcefield.
And, of course, she had flats for me.
I've been to some pretty swanky parties in my time, some even by my own volition. The tables and chairs of the dining area by the pool had been pushed to the edges of the atrium, and now the center of attention in the space was the dance floor. Calpurnia and Melody had already arrived and stood by one of the tables in the corner pouring liquids into champagne flutes, and Anita tinkered with a monumentally huge piece of sound equipment.
"Oh, good, we've got some of them alone. Well, alone-ish," Sasha said. "You take Whitfield, I'll take Chaudhry and Harper. Maybe Chaudhry will have an idea of what those three samples together would make."
Taking Sasha's orders rankled, but Sasha abandoned me before I had a chance to tell her off. It was probably for the best, given that I was going to be considerate and gracious and prove her the hell wrong about me.
I sauntered over to Anita. "So this is...a lot," I said.
She whipped her head up to stare at me with rabbit-wide eyes. "Oh! I didn't hear you come over here, sorry, I just - well, it's a really authentic sound, you know? This is how this kind of music is supposed to be played."
With a frown, I asked, "This kind of music?"
"I specialize in the ancient sounds of twentieth-century Earth," Anita said, standing up and brushing her hands off. Her eyes stayed in motion, scanning the rest of the room. "It's really an underappreciated era, if you ask me - they're some of the oldest recordings of music we have, just really classic and beautiful. The sophistication of the sonic qualities and the old-fashioned nature of the word choice - "
"And everyone's going to be on drugs for this?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.
"I designed the song list to pair with Flare," Anita said, picking at the cuffs of her suit jacket.
"I think it should go fairly well with my choices." Anita kept her eyes on the entrance to the atrium, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. "Baron said he'd be here..."
"I'm sure he'll be here soon. In the meantime," I said, barreling along to deny her a chance to object, "tell me more about your music. Twentieth century - that's when the Strings are from, right?"
Anita nodded, still distracted. "That's why I got them."
That got her attention. She focused on me. "What?"
"The Strings must've been a huge investment," I said. "Someone like, I don't know, Matteo Fauntleroy - I can understand why he'd want them, just to put them over a fireplace or something. But if you actually play them, I mean - what's so different about them?"
Anita stared at me, her nostrils flaring with disdain. "They're...the Strings," she said, as if that explained it all.
"Yeah, but why do you care?"
Anita drew herself up indignantly. "Do you have any idea what it took to get here?" she demanded. "Let me guess - you're Martian? You have no idea what it's like out on the Outer Rim. How hard it is to get out. But I did it. I made it. I had to indenture myself, which I'm probably going to be paying off until I die, and I practically had to sell an organ to pay for the Strings. But now people want to hear me. If it took the Strings to make that happen, well, fine."
"Oh...kay," I said. "But you still sound the same on the Strings or on some random guitar, right?"
The look Anita gave me perfectly conveyed what uncultured swine she thought I was. "I should really get back to work," she said. "We're going to be starting soon."
So I wandered back towards the tables along the sides of the atrium. They were set for dinner, I noticed, which made sense seeing as we hadn't eaten yet. Another salad, some kind of brown meat with black stripes, and chunks of something orange that was probably a vegetable. The knives were heavier and more serrated than I would've thought, given how delicate and elegant the lunch had been.
A nasally voice snapped me out of my suspicion. "Oh, excellent. I was promised steak." Matteo Fauntleroy came up behind me and clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Look at those grill-lines! And that marbling - none of that vat-grown nonsense for us. I say, you and that Dark Matters agent have been keeping to yourselves - how about you come eat with me?"
I stared at him, then looked past him to Sasha. She was still talking to Calpurnia Chaudhry and Melody Harper. Chaudhry, despite the way the metallic gold of her sari made her skin glow, looked pale and clutched Harper's arm. Harper clutched back with a grave expression, although she at least seemed to be keeping herself together. It looked like the recreationalists weren't taking the news that their product may have murdered a man particularly well.
And besides, Fauntleroy was bound to be interesting. Or possibly a murderer, which would be even more interesting.
"Sure," I said.
Fauntleroy had just tucked a napkin into his lap when Anita's sound system turned on, pumping music into the atrium. Fauntleroy immediately brightened.
"Do you seriously know this one?" I said to him.
"Of course!" he said. "Did you know that this song is part of the mythology of how humans imagined Mars before colonization actually began? You see, they used to produce vids to go with songs like this, with dancing and whatnot, but this one was set here. They had fascinating ideas about Martian fashion. I have the pink catsuit from that vid, as it so happens. I daresay it looks better on me than it did on the singer."
I narrowed my eyes at him over the orange chunk I'd speared on my fork. "You're just bragging that you own that catsuit, aren't you."
"Of course I am," Fauntleroy said, pleased that I'd gotten his point. "I mean, that's not the only reason. I do genuinely enjoy this music. Especially with Anita's attention to detail - exquisite! I was excited to hear her concert, obviously, since live music is so much better than recordings, but this is still an experience, isn't it? Hearing it the way it was meant to be played."
The orange stuff was surprisingly okay. I followed Fauntleroy's lead and cut into the meat with the oversized knife. It still oozed inside, and I suddenly realized what he'd been saying earlier - that this had been part of an actual cow.
I hated this place.
"Is that why you're here?" I asked, opting for the salad instead. "For the concert on the Strings?"
"There's something so beautiful about live music," Fauntleroy said through a mouthful of cow. "Being in the room, hearing the imperfections, the poor acoustic quality, maybe a missed note here and there - that's altogether different from recorded music. I love recorded music too, certainly, but live music is a love you have for a few moments, and then you remember it being sweeter than the reality could have ever been."
"Yeah," I said impatiently, "because you're remembering it wrong."
"It's worth it, though." Fauntleroy put down his utensils with a wistful look in his eye. "My father once told me that anything worth having is worth losing. Why keep the credits, he said, when you can say goodbye to them and say hello to a seventy-five-million-credit lab-grown diamond instead? Why keep the diamond when you can say goodbye to it and say hello to a handpainted lifesize portrait of yourself to hang opposite your bed to greet you every morning? Why waste a moment with something that doesn't bring you joy anymore, when you can have something that does?"
I glanced at the champagne flutes on the table. Someone had painted "Flare" on them in calligraphy, but the liquid levels were untouched - so Fauntleroy didn't even have the excuse yet of being on drugs.
Fauntleroy followed my gaze. "Oh, good catch! I nearly forgot!" He lifted his flute and emptied it with practiced ease. "Delightful," he said as he put it back down. "Calpurnia and Melody finally figured out their little aftertaste issue. That was downright pleasant."
"Life's about more than just happiness," I said, trying not to get off the subject, which was - oh, right, I was supposed to be asking him about the murder. It was hard not to get distracted by how completely ridiculous he was.
"Of course there's more to life," Fauntleroy agreed. "Sad things, even."
My determination to stay on track dissolved immediately, and I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess - the sad parts make the happy parts even happier?"
"Oh, no, they're just sad. But they don't mean there will never be joy again, either, and just because there might be more sadness coming is no reason to turn away joy." He leaned forward and pointed at my flute. "Are you going to drink that?"
"Uh - no."
He took it and this time had the dignity to sip. "You know, my yacht salesman told me that. About not turning away joy. That's why I named the sky-schooner I brought from him the Silver Lining. He's a man of great insight, although he's not always right. Oh, he said to me, Mr. Fauntleroy, why do you want a yacht designed for water on a planet that doesn't have naturally-occurring liquid, and one with sails on a planet whose atmosphere isn't dense enough to create any real thrust in them?" His words got faster and faster as he spoke. "But you know what, that schooner looks truly beautiful placed magnificently in the center of my ballroom, and it's brought me more joy than you could ever imagine. I've been teaching myself how to operate the sails, you know. It quite passes the time, and it's so thrilling to imagine myself as an adventurer on the old oceans of Earth! Chasing the horizon, seeking out new lands, being taken as a god by the natives and bedecked in gold and jewels. I can't wait until someone invents time-travel and I can take my schooner and be worshipped by those primitive turn-of-the-millennium Europeans as I deserve." He blinked, his eyes getting wider each time they opened. "Wow, Calpurnia's really made this fast-acting! This is even better than Saffron's stuff."
He was starting to sweat, and I was starting to get alarmed. "Are you okay?"
"I need," he said, "to dance. Detective Steel, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for your Flare. I'll buy you a sky-schooner to repay you; honestly, everyone should have one."
He stood up, taking my flute with him, and made his way out to the dancefloor. The song had shifted to some old Earth hymn about a mystical city built on rock and roll, which sounded architecturally unsound to me, and he began dancing exuberantly, jumping up and down and rolling his head on his neck. Somehow he did this without spilling his drink. Probably had a lot of experience.
Sasha filled Fauntleroy's seat almost immediately, shoving his plate aside to make room for her own. "Chaudhry confirmed that the three samples combined would make atricholine. She seemed pretty shaken up about it, too. What about Fauntleroy?"
I gestured uselessly towards where he now sang aggressively along to the music into his second empty flute. "I mean, that's basically him in a nutshell. Either he's the most brilliant actor who's ever existed or he didn't do it. Although he'd definitely have motive to steal the Strings - he really, really likes having fancy things and bragging about it."
"Charming," Sasha said, shoveling food in her mouth. Old habits from Old Town die hard, I guess. She swallowed and said, "I wouldn't rule out Chaudhry or Harper, but I don't think it's either of them, all things considered."
I took another glance around the atrium. Nureyev had arrived and joined Anita at the soundboard; Odalys and Pan Taiwo had taken up their own table and clinked their flutes of Flare in a toast as I watched; and Tobias had joined Fauntleroy on the dance floor with an empty flute of his own.
Rich people are weird.
"What are the chances that it was deliberate?" I wondered. "I mean, that they knew that that combination of recreationals would be fatal?"
"They might not have," Sasha said, considering. "Especially since it was three mixed together. And those three especially - a hallucinogen, a stimulant, and a sedative? The two kinds of recreationals that would probably be most dangerous, plus the one that additionally targets brain activity. If I were trying to poison someone and had those materials to work with, it's probably what I would've done."
Over the speakers, Anita began to wax poetic about the value of some old-timey instrument called the saxophone, and the next song cut in with slow, popping drums and the swaying wail of something brassy. A slower song this time, intense but regretful, and beyond Sasha I watched Odalys Taiwo lead her partner to the dance floor, her hand trailing behind her and pulling along - Tobias? That seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.
But before that disaster could materialize, another one did.
"Detective Steel," Nureyev said, appearing next to me with a hand outstretched. "May I have this dance?"
He said it with a slight, alluring smile, but the way one of his eyebrows cocked expectantly - the one that Sasha couldn't see because of the angle - clued me in that there was more going on than just a dance.
"I - " I couldn't just accept the offer without protesting, not without tipping Sasha off, so I glanced at her. "I'm pretty sure Agent W here has some things we need to - "
"Oh, no, of course not," Sasha said, sinking back in her seat and crossing her arms, her smugness coming off her so forcefully I expected it to become a law of physics on the spot. "I would never dream of keeping you from the dance floor, Juno. I know how much you love dancing."
If I could count on Sasha Wire for one thing, it was taking pleasure in my suffering. At least this time it worked to my advantage, I guess.
"Then...sure," I said, and took Nureyev's hand. Its softness surprised me, even though I'd held it before. Even though I'd felt other parts of him before, and that hand had felt...other parts of me.
He pulled me out to the floor and immediately wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me in for a slow dance. It was appropriate, not only to the tempo of the song but to the atmosphere - beyond Nureyev I could see that almost everyone else had paired off, Melody-and-Calpurnia and Odalys-and-Tobias. I copied their setup, resting my arms in a loop around Nureyev's neck. It felt nice to have him so close, just to feel his physical presence even through our clothes. We were so close we couldn't look directly at each other, not without putting our mouths together, so I stared dutifully over his should and took a deep breath to smell -
Or not nothing, but some boring, flowery perfume that was about ten degrees subtler than I expected. It occurred to me for the first time that maybe the cologne had been a Rex Glass affectation, one that he'd only kept up when he realized it got to me.
"That's a very fetching dress," Nureyev said, bringing my attention back to the situation.
"Sasha picked it out," I muttered.
"Appropriate," Nureyev continued. "For a private eye."
"Yeah, well," I said, and couldn't shut myself up, "she also gave me some pumps to wear with it but I can't take two steps in heels without turning an ankle."
"It's a wonderful mental image, though," Nureyev murmured, and I hazarded a sideways glance at him. He did, indeed, seem contemplative of it.
I said, quietly, "Is this really what you wanted to talk about?"
His answer came just as softly, and as a bonus, his lips barely moved as he spoke. "Of course not, but one must keep up appearances, particularly in a crowd like this. Come to my quarters after this. I have information for you."
"You can't tell me now?" I said.
"Too risky. I can't break cover." He turned his head towards me, and his breath brushed against the sensitive spot where my jaw met my neck. "No one suspects a seduction, though."
"I..." For a moment, I let the idea take me - another seduction a la Rex Glass, a kiss and a deft hand and the easy shallowness of a con. I ached for it. And then I said, "I'm sorry."
I felt his shoulders tense below my arms.
I continued anyway. "I should've - I should've a lot of things. But when it comes down to it, I - I couldn't go. No more than you could stay."
For a moment, his arms tightened around my waist, as though with a single gesture he could make me a liar, hold me close enough to prove me wrong. Then they slackened again. "I suppose we'll never know." He turned his face fully towards me, and now I felt his breathing against my mouth. "But oh, Juno," he said, "I would have loved to try." His face inched closer, so his speech brushed my lips like a kiss: "Don't forget. My quarters. Maintain the cover."
Then he backed away with a smirk, Baron Wolf back in full force. I realized the song had ended, replaced with the incandescent guitar, a rolling drumline, and a singer asserting that he was coming out of his cage and he'd been doing just fine. Over it, Nureyev said with Baron Wolf lightness, "I hope our paths cross again, Detective Steel. I would so love to see more of you. If you need anything, anything at all, at any time of day or night - well, I hope you'll find your way to my quarters."
He winked, and retreated back to the sound station where Anita was managing the playlist. Over by the refreshments table, Sasha had snagged Pan Taiwo, and I could tell from Sasha's body language that she was doing the old pretend-the-conversation-is-light-when-it's-really-an-interrogation move. Odalys Taiwo and Tobias LeFitte had stopped dancing and now were just standing, facing each other, expressions intense enough that this was either going to end very, very well or very, very not. Pan kept glancing past Sasha with a slight frown, exuding a halfhearted nervous energy that made it clear they were debating whether or not to intervene.
I knew, vaguely, that I should be weighing the same thing - neither Odalys nor Tobias would be able to help us with the investigation if they murdered each other - when a glow of blue hair eclipsed my view.
"Detective Steel, I've been trying to get you alone all night," Melody Harper said with a smile. "Drink?"
I took the glass she offered and put it down on the table. "No thanks. I'm not in the mood for any free samples."
Melody sighed. "Shame. You look like a lady who would benefit from some chemical intervention. Why the long face? Wolf not interested?"
"I - no, he's - I mean, I - "
"Because, you know," Melody said, and took a step closer, "Baron isn't the only one with an appreciation for a person with purpose. A person interested in justice."
I took a step away. "I'm flattered, Melody, I really am, but come on. We both have to know that you have better taste than this."
Melody blinked, then laughed, easing off. "Don't sell yourself short, Detective."
"Don't joke about my height."
"You're a perfectly wonderful catch, I'm sure." She leaned her hip against the table next to me, crossing her arms and looking out over the dance floor. The sudden shift from attraction to camaraderie felt like a weight off my shoulders. "So...Agent W. Are you two - ?"
"So she's single?"
I snorted. "Good luck. You're not her type."
Melody caught a lock of her blue hair between the index and middle fingers of her right hand. "She's not into bodymods?"
"She's not into anything but her job," I said. "I mean, please, feel free to bark up that tree as much as you want. It'll be hilarious to watch."
The corner of Melody's metallic-blue-lipsticked mouth twitched. "Noted. And thanks for the tip. Speaking of which, how's the investigation going? Have you been looking at...clues?" She gave an exaggerated pause before the word and fluttered her eyelashes at me as she said it. "Tracking down...leads?"
"Yeah, I'm not gonna dignify that with a response."
"Oh, come on, now." She reached out and traced one purple-infused nail along the lapel of my dress. "Some of us happen to like a head with some brains in it. And a mystery can just be so...thrilling, can't it? The whodunit, the attention to detail, the single-minded pursuit of justice..."
She drifted closer as she spoke, and as much as part of me enjoyed the attention, something felt...off. Or familiar. The tenor of her voice, maybe, the way the tone of affectation seemed to come from deeper in her throat than it should; or maybe her slow but steady invasion of my personal space; or maybe the blatant fetishization of lost causes -
She leaned in and kissed me. It was a decent kiss, skilled, not too wet or dry and just the right evocative motions with her lips and tongue. Under other circumstances, I would've enjoyed it.
Under these circumstances, my right hand automatically swept towards my hip and intercepted Melody's hand.
I leaned back, breaking the contact with Melody. "Is that your hand in my pocket, or are you happy to see me?"
She smiled impishly at me. "You're really observant."
"And you're really handsy. Seriously, is pickpocketing your way of flirting?"
She shrugged, the motion tugging my arm a bit since I hadn't let go of her wrist. "I admit, it's a bit of a power move, but it's worked before."
"What has, stealing someone's room key and waiting naked for them on their bed?"
I stared at her. "Seriously?"
She shrugged. "Can't blame a girl for trying, right?"
There it was again: her utter lack of repentance, her baldfaced lying, that distracting kiss -
Odalys's voice shattered the - well, it wasn't silence, since synthesized piano had overtaken the previous song, but Anita's explanation of why the singer was exhorting someone named Bright Eyes to turn around faltered under Odalys's shout.
"We were never partners, Tobias! Partners talk to each other! That's the whole point!" Tears streamed down her face as she screamed, and Tobias stared her down with red-faced stubbornness and some tears of his own. "Partners," Odalys spat, "don't send a single written message saying 'our engagement is null and voice, thank you for the last two years' and then refuse to answer their comms!"
The music cut off abruptly, and beyond Tobias and Odalys I saw Nureyev and Anita arguing in hushed whispers over the soundboard.
Tobias said back, his voice firm and loud, "You're right. We weren't partners. I realized that the moment I chose my sister over you. She gave me an ultimatum when the merger fell apart - I could marry you and leave the company or break off the engagement and stay. So that's what I did, because I knew that when it came down to it, I could live better without you than without her, and that's - that's not what you deserved. You deserved something better." He looked over Odalys's shoulder at Pan, still standing and staring, horrorstruck, by their table. "And you finally got it."
"Don't pretend this was some noble bullshit." Odalys's voice shook even as it got louder. "Don't pretend you did this for me!"
"But I did! I decided it was better for you to hate me than to hurt. Was I wrong?"
Odalys, her entire face shimmering with tears of fury, took two steps towards him, closing the distance between them. "You were. I can do both. But you were right about one thing - I deserve better than you, and now I have it. I wish you the best, Tobias. I really do. I hope someday someone comes that you can love long enough to get over your sick need to control everything around you. I hope someday someone comes along who can make you get the hell over yourself - because apparently it was never going to be me."
Then she turned on her heel and walked away.
"Well," Melody said, with a lightness in her voice about as genuine as the color in her hair, "you have to admit that Odalys knows how to make an exit."
Pan shoved past Sasha after their wife, and Sasha didn't resist. Matteo Fauntleroy sidled up behind Tobias with another glass of Flare and flung his free arm over Tobias's shoulder. After a quick whisper from Fauntleroy, Tobias took the glass of Flare and knocked it back like it was water.
"Well?" Tobias bellowed at Anita. "This is supposed to be a dance party!"
I suddenly realized the music had stopped, but Anita quickly got it started again, this time something with an electric guitar riff and some truly obnoxious cowbell. But it was danceable, at least, and Tobias and Matteo immediately got to work making the most of the dance floor. And the recreationals, presumably.
"Yikes," I muttered. Then I realized that Matteo and Tobias weren't likely to keep the party going for long, as much as a gathering with fewer than ten people could be a party in the first place. Nureyev-as-Baron was talking intensely with Anita, trying to figure out how to salvage the social situation I assumed, and Sasha had caught Calpurnia again.
Sasha - she was going to be a problem if I wanted to have a rendezvous with Nureyev.
"You know, I think I'm partied out," I said to Melody. "Might just call it an early night. Get some sleep. They don't make pillows like this in Hyperion City's Old Town, after all - better make the most of it."
Melody smiled ruefully. "Sure. Baron's quarters are the third on the right from the landing on the second floor, by the way. In case you needed to know. But, uh..." She caressed my jawline. "If you change your mind about your choice of partners tonight, do let me know."
"I - yeah, sure, sure thing," I said, and got the hell out of there and to Nureyev's room before it could get any more uncomfortable.
Nureyev's closet was spacious, just like all the closets in Elysium - maybe half again the size of my office, with a small upholstered bench in the middle in case he wanted to, I don't know, survey his clothes like a king looking over his lands. This entire palace was ridiculous, frankly, and the proof was that even the closets were too fancy to feel comfortable hiding in them.
But I did my best, tucking myself behind a row of suits that didn't even begin to fill the rack. The voices got abruptly louder, presumably as the door to the suite swung open.
" - understand the urgency, but I don't suppose your inquiries can wait until tomorrow?" Nureyev said smoothly. "It's been a very long day, what with all the interrogations."
"This won't take long." I froze in surprise - I had expected Calpurnia to continue her seduction, or maybe Anita to want to talk Baron Wolf's ear off even more. I hadn't expected Sasha Wire, and I definitely didn't expect what she said next: "I want to talk to you about Detective Steel."
A pause, just long enough for me to start to squirm. Then Nureyev said, "What about Detective Steel?"
"I can see the way you've been looking at him. I'm not a fool."
Another pause. Nureyev was always too smart to deny the obvious, so this time, he instead said, "I think this might be a conversation best conducted with alcohol. Perhaps even copious amounts of it. Would you like a drink? I assure you, I pour quite generously."
Sasha continued with dogged determination. "I've known Juno a long time. We grew up together."
The long, sustained sloshing of a drink being poured, very generously. "Really? Is this the 'if you hurt him I'll break your knees' talk, then?"
"No. It's the 'don't even think about going there' talk."
My head smacked against the side of the closet - I hadn't even realized I was leaning in closer to hear better. I somehow managed to keep my 'ow' to myself, and Nureyev coughed, loudly and wetly - almost like he choked on his drink.
"Are you okay?" Sasha said. So maybe he did choke on his drink after all.
"Fine," Nureyev said, his voice hoarse. "Pass me that towel, would you? Thank you."
Okay: he definitely choked on his drink.
"You think Detective Steel isn't interested, then?" Nureyev said after a moment.
"On the contrary, I know he is," Sasha said. "Like I said, I'm not a fool. Every signal you're putting down, he's returning."
"Then you think - what? We wouldn't be good for each other? And you have an obligation, no doubt, to look out for your childhood friend - "
"No, although that would probably be kinder of me," Sasha said. "I think it doesn't matter how good you and Juno might be for each other. Juno won't let it happen. When I say I've known him this long, it's not to say how much I care about him. I just know his patterns. I've seen what happens when he gets interested in someone. He tries at first, or at least convinces himself that he might, and then once it looks like he might start to care - like he might actually have to be happy for once - well. The same thing happens every. Single. Time. He'll break his own heart to keep you from getting there first. And he'll break your heart in the process, too."
Nureyev didn't say anything.
"So the warning is as much for your sake as for his, I suppose," Sasha continued blithely. "Because Juno doesn't do casual, but he doesn't do serious, either. So it's better for both of you if neither of you do anything."
"That's a very cynical view to take, Agent W," Nureyev said quietly. "And hardly one that's charitable to your friend."
"I've learned a lot from Juno," Sasha admitted. "But the biggest thing I learned was that you can't be happy if you don't want to be. I don't mean that the power of positive thinking can just magically make happiness happen, but if you're determined to stay sad…you'll stay sad. And nobody can fix you or make you want to be different. Charity doesn't do crap, Mr. Wolf, for someone who's unwilling to accept it."
"I'm just trying to save you both some heartache," Sasha said. "Anyway, thank you for the drink. Well, for the offer of a drink. Hopefully nobody will have stolen the Strings by the time we wake up tomorrow."
"Yes," Nureyev said, voice faintly, "hopefully not."
I heard the door to the suite sweep open and then shut again.
Then Nureyev called, "Juno? I don't suppose you're running late…?"
I came out from behind the suits and pushed open the closet door. Nureyev stood in front of the bar build into the bookshelves on the side of the room, wide-eyed and blitzed in a way I hadn't seen him look since - well, since that split-second when Miasma had suddenly sprouted more appendages than any human was ever meant to have, right before he took out his gun and got to work. At least this time he had a glass in his hand and, true to his word, it was filled generously with whiskey.
"No such luck," I said, lingering in the doorway.
"Ah," Nureyev said, and quickly took another gulp of his drink. After swallowing, he said, "You know, I almost want to tell you that if Agent W is an example of an old childhood friend, I would hate to meet your enemies. But of course I've met your enemies, and I have to say, now things make a disconcerting amount of sense."
"Sasha talks a big game, but - she's always thought she could read people better than she can. She's not as good as she thinks she is."
Nureyev gave me a skeptical glare over the rim of his glass, which was he was emptying rapidly. It was nearly empty by the time he let it leave his lips. If I thought I had a chance in hell of getting one, I'd've asked for a drink myself. Sasha had that effect on people. "She certainly seemed well-informed. Drawing more on historical precedent than any off-the-cuff profiling at the very least." He turned back towards the bar and put the glass down with a heavy - and pointed - thud.
"She's not always right," I said, but it sounded weak even to me.
"Of course not," Nureyev said.
"And - and anyway, I didn't come here to talk about me. I came here to talk about you. You said you had information for me."
Nureyev stayed turned away, his hands braced against the surface of the bar, and said, distantly, "Yes, I did say that, didn't I."
"Sasha told me that he was the one who referred you for the Grim's Mask case as Rex Glass. He made you, didn't he?"
"Oh, of course. Immediately."
He still wouldn't look me in the eye, wouldn't even show me his face, so I pushed harder. "Other witnesses saw you two arguing. Was that what it was about? We know about the turn that Agent V's career took because of that case. So - what, did he confront you?"
"I…" Nureyev's voice held none of its usual crisp diction and razor-fine control; instead it was heavy and curious, like it suffered under the weight of a revelation. "I may have made a mistake," he said slowly.
For a second, I couldn't tell which part of the conversation he meant - his discussion with Sasha or something related to the case. "Which was?"
"Leaving the whiskey…unattended…"
It took a moment for the words to penetrate, and I blinked. As I did, I noticed Nureyev's white-knuckle grip and trembling fingers where he gripped the bookcase, and the telltale sway to the back of Nureyev's neck that betrayed lightheadedness.
Then he collapsed.
The sheer amount of work that I put into picking the playlist for the dance party is disgusting. Please encourage these horrific tendencies in the comments, or over on my tumblr.
Chapter 4: Juno Steel and the Case of the Deferred Angst
Sorry about the delay in getting this chapter up - real life hit me like a wrecking ball. I'm still aiming to get the last chapter up before the next episode drops next Tuesday.
And I promise the next chapter will be the last, and it will have sexytimes.
I stepped closer just in time for Nureyev to drop, knees buckling and sending him forward into the bookcase. His hands dropped to his sides, limp, and the weight of him knocked the decanter of whiskey sideways, spilling it across the counter and filling the room with the sudden astringent smell of alcohol. I grabbed him under his arms, taking a few tries to get the distance right, and levered him back to lay him out on the floor.
"Nureyev?" I demanded. "Nureyev!"
His eyes were open but unfocused, glazed and wandering, moving but not tracking anything. His pupils were pinpoints, and he reached out one hand towards my face, wavering as though he were already drunk, before it fell back onto his chest.
"No," I muttered. "No, no, no, goddamnit - "
My comm. I still had my comm. I couldn't get Rita, but I pulled it out anyway since I could get - "Sasha! Sasha, Wolf's been poisoned!"
A moment's static, then Sasha's voice, confused. "What? Wolf? I was just there, how do you - "
"I'm in his room, I'm with him right now, and I'm telling you, he's been poisoned! He's not responding, but you have to - Sasha, you have to have something that can help him - "
"I'm on my way." The comm line closed abruptly, leaving me alone with a dying Peter Nureyev.
"It's going to be okay," I told him, since I didn't know what the hell else to say. I lifted his head into my lap and stroked his hair - he'd stroked my hair, once, when we'd been in that Martian tomb, so it only seemed fair to return the favor. "Sasha's on her way, and it's going to be okay."
I've never been a very good liar, but those words were the best lie I ever told myself, if only because of how badly I needed to believe it.
Sasha didn't take too long - the conversation between Nureyev and I had been minutes at most, after all, and she burst in to find us there on the floor. I looked up at her and she stared back at me for a second. I think it's the closest I've ever come to surprising her.
Then she came to kneel on Nureyev's other side and pulled out the massive autoinjector again.
"What are you going to - "
I didn't even have time to finish the sentence before Sasha stabbed it into Nureyev's leg and held it there.
"Hold him down," she said grimly. "If he was poisoned by the same compound as Agent V, this should measure the level in his blood and give the appropriate dose of antidote, but it won't be pretty."
I put an arm across Nureyev's chest to keep him down, and Sasha held the autoinjector steady. "Won't be pretty how?" I asked, and as if in answer, Nureyev began to tremble - no, to convulse, jerking and twitching, no longer like a puppet with the strings cut but like a marionette in the hands of a hyperactive demon child. "What the hell is this?" I demanded, although I kept enough weight on Nureyev to keep him down. "He needs help!"
"This is helping, just shut up and wait!" Sasha said, adding her other hand to her grip on the autoinjector.
So I shut up and waited. And finally, after far too long, Nureyev's body stopped twitching; in fact, it settled into shallow but slow breaths and something that almost seemed restful. The autoinjector dinged cheerfully, and Sasha let it fall to the floor before giving out a relieved sigh.
"Well," she said, "that's one witness we managed not to lose. And probably an important one, if someone's trying to silence him."
It took me a few seconds to find my voice. "Yeah. Yeah, of course."
"He'll be out for a bit - at least until morning I'd say - so we'll have to wait to get any additional information from him."
"Yeah," I said again, still staring at Nureyev's face, watching the small flare in his nostrils with every inhale.
"Juno," Sasha said, her voice level almost to the point of kindness, "could you help me get Wolf to the bed, now, please? He'd probably appreciate waking up there more than waking up on the floor."
"Oh - right." I stood up carefully. We'd been on the floor long enough for the weight from Nureyev's head to press a numb patch into my leg. I took Nureyev's shoulders and Sasha took his feet, and together we managed to maneuver him onto the bed. From there, Sasha watched as I took off Nureyev's shoes and pulled the half of the comforter that he wasn't lying on top of over him, to keep him warm.
"So," Sasha said, once I was done and just staring at him. "Why were you in here with Wolf when he got poisoned?"
The word poison pricked at my ears a bit, just enough for me to get something halfway approaching my wits about me. "I didn't try to kill him, if that's what you're asking."
"I'm not. I've known you for too long. If you wanted someone dead, it would be with a gun, and it would happen."
My hand came up to my eyepatch without me even thinking about it, but I forced it back down before it got all the way up. "Yeah," I said, the syllable coming out more as a laugh, "not anymore."
"Don't lie to me, Juno, not now, not in the middle of this case." Sasha came up behind me, inserting herself between me and Nureyev so I couldn't not look at her. "Are you sleeping with him?" she demanded.
I stared at her. I didn't even know how to answer that. But I said the only answer that felt accurate: "No."
"Were you trying to sleep with him?"
She stared at me, inspecting me as though she could tell that it wasn't the truth but wasn't a lie, either. "Whatever part of this I'm missing," she said slowly, "it's starting to get people hurt. You need to tell me what it is."
She was right. Of course she was right. When it had just been Agent V's death, I had been able to dismiss it as coincidence, but now, with Nureyev in the crosshairs too, there didn't seem to be any way this could be unrelated to Rex Glass, and there was no way I'd be able to solve this myself.
So I said, "Baron Wolf is Rex Glass."
Sasha hadn't been staring before; I had just forgotten the depths of disbelief that her incredulous stare could achieve when she was warmed up. "Excuse me?" she demanded.
"That's probably what he and Agent V were arguing about," I continued. "At least, I'm assuming. It seems like the natural thing to argue about. And I - I recognized him the second I saw him. I knew, but I didn't want it to have anything to do with this case, so I didn't say anything. But he recognized me, too, and he told me to meet him here after dinner, that he had information he had left out of the interview earlier, and I - I believed him, so I came here to meet him. I hid in the closet for your conversation - I heard all of that, by the way, so thanks for that - and then we barely started talking when he just…fell over. He thought it was the whiskey. He managed to get that much out before…" I glanced around Sasha at Nureyev's form - peaceful enough now that it seemed fair to call him 'sleeping' rather than 'unconscious' or 'dying.'
But Sasha was still frowning at me intently. "What else," she said, her voice flat. It was less of a question than a demand. I hesitated, and she said, "Juno, even if our history means nothing to you, even if you don't care about Dark Matters and what we do, there is still one man dead and another one who came damn close. This is not the time to try to start deciding for yourself what you can get away with leaving out."
"He was with me," I said, the words rushing out before I could stop them. "In the weeks that I was missing. The first time."
Sasha looked appalled. "He had you the whole time?"
"No! That's not how it - we were both prisoners. We were…leverage on each other, kind of. I couldn't act up or he'd get hurt, and he couldn't act up or she'd hurt me."
Too much. A slip like that would've gotten right past Mick Mercury, but not Sasha, whose eyes narrowed as soon as I said it. "She who?"
So I told her. I told her more than I'd told anyone else. I left out Nureyev's name and anything that could get her there, but...I told her everything else. The card game, the train, Miasma. Holding on to the few minutes where it felt like maybe, just maybe, things could change, and the decision to get it over with and return to reality, where good things don't happen and people like me don't get second chances like him. Slipping out of bed and the lies and the silence, to Rita and Mick and everyone else.
Sasha's expression barely changed the whole time.
"Well," she said when she was done, "by my count that's about seven outstanding Dark Matters casefiles that I can close out now."
"I wasn't telling Dark Matters Agent W," I said, too tired to even muster a good 'damnit, Sasha,' to emphasize my point. "I was telling you Sasha."
Some complex reaction flitted across her face, and for a second it was almost like I had that damn pill again: I could practically see her Dark Matters, down-to-business front falter, showing a brief glimpse of Sasha Wire hearing her that her friend went through some hard times. The realization hit me harder than it maybe should have: she still cared. After everything I'd put her through, she still gave a damn about me. Even if I didn't deserve it.
But she took a deep breath and rallied. "It doesn't matter anyway - it's not like I can get in contact with Headquarters until this storm's passed. So the real question is...what does this mean for the case?"
I looked over at Nureyev, who hadn't so much as twitched aside from the steady, exhausted rise and fall of his chest. "Whatever he was going to tell me, he never got the chance. I do think it was about the case, though. Or maybe why he was here in the first place."
"You don't believe his story about being a security consultant?"
"Oh, I believe it's the story he gave Anita, but he's - well, he's a thief."
Sasha's lips puckered in distaste. "That didn't escape my attention."
"But he was with Anita on tour on different planets. He could've easily made a play for the Strings then, but he didn't. And while he was on tour with her, he missed the three thefts that fell in that timeframe, so whatever his game is, he's not the thief we're looking for."
Keeping her voice even, Sasha said, "And you trust him?"
"Should I trust him?"
I let out a laugh before I could stop myself. "Not with your wallet."
"Juno," Sasha said intently, "there's a corpse across the hall and there was very nearly another. So I'm not messing around, okay? I'm not talking about your feelings or your relationships or some ancient Martian trying to commit genocide. You're in a position where you might know better than me, so I'm asking you: should we trust him?"
I took a deep breath. "When it comes down to it, when it matters, he'll do the right thing. So, yeah. We should trust him."
With a decisive nod, Sasha turned around and went to the dining area. She grabbed one of the chairs by the dining table and pulled it back over. "Then we'll need to talk to him when he wakes up. I don't want anyone trying again, but we need to be able to function tomorrow - it's the last day of the retreat, after all, which means it's our last chance to figure out what's going on. We'll keep watch tonight in shifts. Four hours each." She looked me up and down. "I'll take first shift. You try to get some rest."
The second shift meant that I spent four hours staring at the ceiling of the bedroom, pretending to try to sleep, while Sasha sat by Nureyev's bedside to make sure nobody else tried to poison him. I thought about Nureyev, both limp and twitching; I thought about Sasha and about Annie Wire, about how no matter what the world dished out to her she could just take it and break through it like the bow of a sandship in a Martian duststorm; I thought about Mick Mercury at a bar, telling me, very reasonably, to get over myself; and I thought about Nureyev again, asleep in another bed in another room where I wasn't. I kept my comm in my hand, halfway ready to get the same call from Sasha that I'd given her earlier, but instead got a silence so loud it rang in my ears until I finally trudged back to Baron Wolf's room at four in the morning to relieve her.
"Juno…" she said, her voice halfway to a sigh and her gaze lingering just below my eyes. The skin was probably puffy with exhaustion there by now. "I know it's hard for you, but please try not to do anything stupid."
"I'm going to sit in a chair for four hours watching a man sleep," I said. "How stupid could I be?"
"You're clever. I'm sure you'll think of something," Sasha said, and left me alone with Nureyev.
He was in more or less the same position I had left him in, although his head had tilted slightly away from the chair, towards the floor-length windows. Sasha had left one of the lights on inside the room, the reading light by the bed, and it cast only a slight glow onto Nureyev - not enough to blot out the stars beyond him, spilling in thick clusters down the bow of the Milky Way, clearly visible through the thin Martian atmosphere.
His breathing was deeper than it had been, and strong enough to drown out the roaring of silence I'd been hearing for four hours.
I'd watched him sleep before. He snored that time. I'd never seen an ocean, but I bet that's what it sounded like: an ebb and a flow, waves in and waves out, moonlight on water all the way out to a horizon no one could ever catch. Watching him sleep then had felt like a moment turned in on itself until it was an entire universe, with nothing outside, nothing beyond, just the quiet and the dim barely-light and his breathing and the stupid little faces he made in his sleep.
I watched him sleep for four more hours. This time, he barely twitched.
But eventually the sun came up, first in the slow fading away of stars, and then in watery gray fingers of light illuminating the dust clouds below, and then finally in the full force of sunlight halfheartedly rusting the sky. Up this high, there wasn't quite as much atmosphere to scatter the light, and Martian atmosphere is never very thick anyway, but there was enough that even the window facing away from the sunrise didn't provide enough shade to keep Nureyev asleep.
Nureyev waking up was certainly a process: it began with a slight frown, like a realization that he forgot to pick up his synthemilk at the grocery store, which then deepened to a realization that he might've left the stove on, followed by a softly deepened breath in and out--and finally a low, unhappy groan.
"Morning," I said, my voice gruff from how long I'd been awake at this point.
Nureyev said, "I seem to be alive. How delightful and unexpected." He levered his eyes open and looked at me. "At least, I assume I'm alive?"
"Apparently whenever Dark Matters operatives go to the site of a known poisoning, they bring along a dose of the antidote. You're alive."
"Ah. Thank goodness for Dark Matters, then." He sat up slowly and laboriously, his lips pressed together with discomfort, and I didn't try to help. Helping would require getting close, would require contact, and as much as I wanted to replace the sense-memory of cradling Nureyev's limp form in my arms while screaming for Sasha, I couldn't quite bring myself to touch Nureyev yet. Or maybe not ever. That was a right I had probably forfeited when I left him in that hotel room.
Instead I said, "Sasha knows you're Rex Glass."
Nureyev slumped forward, breathing heavily with the exertion of staying upright. Antidote or no, he didn't look in any condition to be sitting up just yet, but if his arms were shaking holding himself up, it may have been equal parts exhaustion and determination. "Oh?" he said, his voice coming out strained. "I don't suppose you can tell whether that will be a problem."
"It's probably why someone just tried to murder you, Nureyev, so yeah, I think it's a goddamn problem!"
"Nobody knew but - "
"But Agent V, yeah, sure, but who knows at this point? His career was in the crapper because of you, you argued, maybe he snuck in here and left you a little something in your whiskey. Maybe this is all his revenge on you from beyond the grave. Or, hell, maybe this is just turnabout being fair play - maybe you both tried to kill each other, and you just got lucky!"
He turned his head to look at me more fully, and even though his very skin seemed to sag with exhaustion, he looked me right in the eye. "Do you really," he said quietly, "think that I killed Agent V?"
That was when it occurred to me that I had been basically yelling at a man who was bedridden and less than eight hours away from being near-fatally poisoned. More than that, I was yelling at Nureyev, because - what? Because he had scared me? Because I had been afraid of losing him? I'd lost my right to be afraid of that, and no matter how much my habits were telling me to double-down, to say why not? I've seen you kill before, and with less reason to, when I looked at Nureyev in front of me I just…couldn't.
"No," I said. "I don't think you did."
"I suppose that's a relief," he said, and I suppressed my wince. I deserved that. "And where is Agent Wire now?"
"Sleeping. We, uh. We took shifts to make sure nobody else tried anything."
"I should've known. Historically, you aren't very good at staying the whole night." After a moment, Nureyev said, "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
I said, "No, it wasn't."
There was another silence between us. With the window behind him, Nureyev looked like a man-shaped splotch of darkness, a silhouette of hanging head atop slouched shoulders cut out of a dim paper sky splayed beyond him.
Eventually I cleared my throat. "You said you had information - was it just about Agent V knowing you were Rex Glass? Or is there anything else you don't want to tell Sasha?"
Nureyev gave a halfhearted chuckle. "The list of things I don't want to tell Agent W is lengthy, to say the least."
"Someone just tried to poison you, Nureyev, and Sasha's your best bet to figure out who."
"Her? Not you?"
I said stiffly, "I haven't exactly been doing a bang-up job so far, have I."
Nureyev sighed, and slowly crawled himself back against the headboard so he could lean against it. "I wasn't lying when I said I wasn't here to steal the guitar," he said. "But I also didn't get a chance to tell you the whole truth. I am, indeed, here as a security consultant for Anita Whitfield, but I'm also here to let the Strings get stolen."
I blinked. "What?"
"I was hired by Amandine Veridian, the owner of the Ellerby Flute. Well. Previous owner, I should say. When it was stolen, she hired me to find the next theft, let it happen, and follow the item to figure out where the Flute went. And then to steal it back for her, of course, if possible. I'm here for the same reason you are--to solve a case."
"And your Baron Wolf identity…?"
Nureyev lifted his head enough to look me in the eye while he shrugged unapologetically. "Why get paid for a job once when you can get paid for it twice? Same duties, after all. Really, Juno, you have no head for business."
"That's true," I mumbled. Then I said louder, "And the argument with Agent V?"
"Exactly what you thought, I'm afraid. He wasn't particularly pleased to see me, after the identity that he had vouched for became so thoroughly burned. He described to me his difficulties at work, and in great detail. He asked me for all of my information that I had gathered while trying to pin down the culprit behind the thefts - he accurately deduced that if I had planned to steal the Strings, they would damn well be stolen by now."
"And I didn't give him any information, of course. Don't give me that look, Juno, my job was to let the guitar get stolen - I could hardly do that if Agent V foiled the plot, now could I?"
"I'm still trying to wrap my head around you moonlighting as an investigator of crimes, rather than an instigator."
Another shrug from Nureyev. "I was in the market for a job that would take me to beautiful, opulent places. The tour did that. And - Elysium was a last-minute addition to the schedule. When I signed on, there were no stops on Mars." He looked down at the blanket still covering the lower part of his body. "When I said I was leaving Hyperion City for good, I meant it."
Nureyev's voice got a bit sharper. "And I had no idea you were going to be here. None at all."
"I know that too."
"You're being remarkably unsarcastic about all of this and it's making me uneasy. Are you sure I'm alive?"
I remembered the way his hair felt between my fingers, which had shaken so hard that his hair seemed to bristle with it, and the vacant way his eyes had stayed open even after he was no longer aware. "Positive," I said.
Nureyev frowned at me. "You're not very convincing, you know."
We were interrupted by the sound of the door opening, and my hand went to the spot where I used to keep a gun before I even realized it. The gun would've been useless, but even more than that, it was unnecessary - Sasha came through into the bedroom with a Dark Matters-issued sidearm at the ready just in case. Shift change.
When she saw that Nureyev and I were both present, accounted for, and awake, she slid it into her holster. "Well, Agent Glass," she said, crossing her arms and planting herself in the bedroom doorway, "as you can imagine, I have some questions for you."
Nureyev glanced at me, and I couldn't quite decipher his look. Solidarity? Camaraderie? Irritation? All of the above, probably. Then he looked back at Sasha. "You're right. I can imagine it."
The only consideration Sasha showed of Nureyev's condition was that she brought another chair in instead of dragging him out of bed, but she at least stayed more or less quiet as Nureyev told her what he'd told me.
"You're being very forthcoming, Agent Glass," Sasha told him pointedly when he was done.
"Yes, well, this recent murder attempt has made me rethink my priorities. Although I'm not sure how much good it does us, seeing as I'm no closer to figuring out who the thief - and, presumably, murderer - is than you are."
"You really expect us to believe that you don't even have a hunch?" Sasha raised an eyebrow.
"Believe me, I wish I did," Nureyev said, glancing at me. "This case is a bit...confounding. That's the difficulty with a concert like this to celebrate the Strings - everyone has motive to steal them."
"And if the poison was a mixture of two of the samples in Chaudhry's pack of recreationals, then everyone had the means to kill Agent V," I chimed in. "And everyone with a motive to steal the Strings had a motive to kill him, too."
Sasha trained her eye on Nureyev. "But why would they go after you, Glass? Aren't you supposed to be undercover?"
"Supposed to be, yes," Nureyev said with a labored shrug. "It's possible I was made, of course."
"Or that someone just thought that Whitfield's assistant would be a barrier to stealing her prized possession," I added. "What about opportunity?"
Nureyev sighed. "Everyone is supposed to be pre-vetted before so much as stepping foot on the pleasure palace's platform. As you might have noticed, even the doorknobs are more decorative than anything else - I doubt it would take more than a determined jiggle to open one even if it's locked."
I decided not to mention that that was exactly how I'd gotten into Nureyev's room to hide in the first place.
"I don't suppose you sampled the whiskey between when Agent V died and when you were poisoned, or anything else that would help us narrow down the timeline?" Sasha said.
"Ah. No. I'm afraid not. I can say with certainty, though, that Agent V's whiskey must have been tampered with fairly close to when he died - he was partaking of it liberally."
I looked at Sasha. "That usual for him?"
"I may be able to shed some light on that, actually," Nureyev broke in. "It's a strategy that I used, too - since Chaudhry wouldn't dare mix her precious recreationals with alcohol, a steady flow was the easiest way to avoid ingesting any unknown substances." His mouth twitched, but without mirth. "Ironically. Agent V made it known that he was, and I quote, 'more of a whiskey man,' and I made sure to at least rinse my mouth with a bit before any time Chaudhry might try to pressure me into taking a sample." He looked at me again and added as an aside, "I wasn't particularly keen to find out if hallucinogens would pair well with two nested false identities."
"Fair enough," Sasha said, and I stared at her. "What about information on where the instruments were being taken? That was your second job, correct?"
Nureyev gave a frustrated sigh. "Yes, but I haven't had much luck on that front."
"We might actually have something there," I said, talking fast so I could get it out before Sasha stopped me. "Have you ever heard of a place called Dolos?"
A slight frown crossed Nureyev's brow, too faint to be faked but too obvious to be suppressed. "I can't say I have. Is it a planet? A city? Another godforsaken pleasure palace?"
"We don't know," Sasha said. Her attention was on Nureyev, and she didn't so much as glare at me even though I'd just given away information to a known thief. Instead, the look on her face was more like - respect, almost? Grudging, but open. "Agent V had it written down in his notebook. I thought it might be the name of a specific black market."
"Ah," Nureyev said, his eyes lighting with recognition. "Did it say 'market'? Specifically?"
"It said 'Dolosian marketplace,'" I said.
"In that case, yes, I do know what it means. But Dolos isn't a place - a Dolosian marketplace refers to, well, a type of crime, I suppose."
Sasha crossed her arms. "It what."
Nureyev leaned back against the headboard. "A typical theft has several distinct stages, yes? You obtain the item, you find a fence, the fence finds a buyer, the money is exchanged. Preferably with as much anonymity as possible in each stage. A Dolosian marketplace, on the other hand, is...streamlined, I suppose you could say. It's an auction."
I rolled my eyes. "Then why don't they just call it an auction?"
"Because it's a very special auction, Juno, as I'll explain if you let me finish," Nureyev said, giving me a stink-eye that was almost affectionate. "The auction takes place before the theft. Typically there's a buy-in to even get access to the auction, for that matter. The prospective thief accepts the bids privately, so that no bidder has any knowledge of what anyone else has bid, and if the price is high enough, the theft occurs and the item goes to the highest bidder. Everyone else gets their buy-in back, as a sort of deposit to make sure they don't turn in the thief."
"That seems really needlessly complicated," Sasha said.
"Yeah, who would even bother to do that?" I added.
Nureyev made a gesture to Elysium at large. "These sorts of people, typically. The ones who value the whole cloak-and-dagger production of it just as much as they want the actual item. And from what this whole group has said about the attention the thefts have been garnering, well, that all seems to be part and parcel of it. An expensive auction? A daring theft? A cutthroat but utterly anonymous competition? Better yet, one carried out under the nose of the poor dupe who's about to be robbed? All it's missing is a masquerade, really, and then it would check all the boxes for needless excitement for the obscenely rich."
"There was a masquerade when the Yankovic Keytar was stolen, actually," Sasha said.
Nureyev looked at me and gestured to Sasha. "Well, there you are, then."
"So they're just going to, what, have an auction here in the middle of everything?" I said.
"It will likely be disguised," Nureyev said. "Once, I saw the bidders provide their bids using carefully coded flowers in bouquet arrangements at a wedding. A white rose was ten thousand creds, two white roses were twenty thousand, and so on. Of course, then the groom came out wearing a flower crown of orchids, which according to the code meant paying in sexual favors, and, well, everyone got a bit confused after that trying to figure out if he was bidding or not."
"Well...was he?" I asked, caught off guard.
"Do you know, I never found out."
"We're getting off-track," Sasha said, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
"Yes, of course," Nureyev said. "At the very least, we now know why everyone is a viable suspect in the theft."
"The theft which hasn't occurred yet, if it's even still going to happen after Agent V's murder," I said.
"Because they're all the bidders," Sasha agreed. "Which doesn't exactly narrow it down."
"And it also means that everyone who wanted the auction to go forward still had motive for the murder, especially if Agent V had figured out that it was a Dolosian Marketplace," I said. "Or, I guess, everyone except for Whitfield. She probably wouldn't want the Strings stolen."
"I'm not so sure we can rule her out, either," Nureyev admitted. "When her agent hired me as a security consultant, my briefing included a description of the insurance policies out on the Strings. With how much the Strings are worth, it wouldn't be a net gain for Anita, but it wouldn't be a total loss, either."
"Except for her career, seeing as people only want to hear her play the Strings," I said.
"Depends," Sasha said, frowning. "She may have decided she wants a career change. Pulling off a Dolosian Marketplace with this kind of clientele would set her up pretty well to become a fence."
"I wish," Nureyev said darkly. "She cares far too much about the integrity of her musical persona to do that, I'm afraid. Ever since the tour began, it's been conversation after conversation about building her brand, curating the perfect experience, making sure everyone's fully satisfied with her work - she's been putting entirely too much effort into her career to be contemplating a life of crime."
"None of this is going to matter if we don't get more details," Sasha said, getting up from her chair to pace. "We know the theft is going to happen, but we don't know who the thief is. We know the auction's going to happen, but we don't know when."
"Or if it already happened," I said.
Nureyev shook his head. "Give me some credit, Detective Steel. I would recognize a Dolosian Marketplace auction if it were happening under my nose. Particularly if it's set up to be as ostentatious as the rest of this retreat."
"Ostentatious..." I said, thinking. "Well...if it's going to be ostentatious, then it only makes sense for it to be hidden in the biggest draw of the retreat, right?"
"Which would be Whitfield's concert on the Strings," Sasha agreed. "Which is this afternoon."
"It was meant to be the last event of the entire retreat," Nureyev mused. "And all the guests were scheduled to leave afterwards, until the sandstorm happened. Now I suppose everyone will be spending an extra night until it clears up - the forecast says that should be tomorrow."
"So you've had to unexpectedly book the entire pleasure palace for an extra night?" Sasha said with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, no," Nureyev said. "Between Anita's equipment for the Strings and Calpurnia Chaudhry's mobile lab for mixing recreationals, we had already booked the extra night for cleaning up and transporting all the equipment. It was just going to be the four of us - me, Anita, Chaudhry, and Harper."
All of a sudden it clicked. The sense of familiarity when I'd been talking to Harper, when she'd distracted me with a kiss and picked my pocket, the way she'd tried to seduce me - and the sense that it was only a cut-rate version of something I'd seen before. I hadn't fallen for it then, either.
"It's Harper," I said. "Harper's the thief."
Sasha raised an eyebrow at me. "You seem very sure of that, Juno."
"I am," I said. "Chaudhry might be in on it, too, or Harper might just be using her, but think about it. By working with Chaudhry, Harper has access to everyone who's planning to come to the retreat. She knows who's coming and who might want to buy the Strings - hell, she might even have hand-picked who the invitations went out to."
"She's in charge of the financials," Nureyev murmured thoughtfully. "The attendance fee would be an awfully convenient way to pay the buy-in. No need to even launder the money to make it look legitimate - Harper would be the only one to know."
"And with the access to Chaudhry that she's got, it wouldn't exactly be hard for her to slip you all something at your farewell toast at dinner tonight to make sure you slept through a robbery, now would it?" I said. "One of Chaudhry's recreationals would take care of that."
"Calm Waters," Sasha agreed. "Fewer potential witnesses, the logistical access to the site to make sure she has a way to smuggle the Strings off Elysium..."
"A delivery at a later time is traditional for a Dolosian Marketplace," Nureyev said. "Helps keep the heat off, so to speak."
"Having to cancel the rest of the concerts wouldn't be so great for business - " I began, but Nureyev shook his head.
"This is the only stop on Mars and the last stop in the Inner Solar System," he said. "Our partners for Europa on are completely different. This is the last stop with any involvement from Chaudhry Recreationals - or Melody Harper."
"Which," I said, kicking myself, "is obviously a fake name now that I'm thinking about it."
"Sure sounds like it. Don't you agree, Baron Wolf? Or would you prefer to go by Rex Glass?" Sasha said pointedly.
Nureyev gave her a perfectly placid expression, if faintly amused. "Either's perfectly acceptable, thank you, Agent W."
"But it's all circumstantial," I said, ignoring them. "We don't have any proof."
"And even if Harper killed Agent V, the theft hasn't happened yet - if it's even going to happen now," Sasha said, still pacing.
"It will," I said. "She tried to steal my room key out of my pocket last night in front of everyone. That doesn't strike me as someone who's easily put off."
"Especially if she wanted your room key to poison your whiskey, too," Nureyev said, and we all sat with that for a moment.
"When we get back to the room, I'm pouring the whiskey down the drain," Sasha said eventually.
"Yeah, good call," I said, and then looked at Nureyev. "But why would Harper want you dead, too?"
Nureyev shrugged. "Perhaps she thought that, as Anita's assistant, I might be as much of a barrier to the Strings as Agent V was."
"Either way," Sasha said, and stopped pacing, "Juno's right."
"I what now?" I said.
Sasha ignored me. "It's all circumstantial."
"No, sorry, could you say that again? Maybe into a recorder so that I can save it for posterity?"
"What we need," Sasha continued, "is evidence. We need to catch them in the act."
Nureyev raised an eyebrow. "'We?'"
Sasha turned towards him, her arms crossed. "Rex Glass," she said, "how would you feel about talking a walk on the right side of the law?"
Chapter 5: Juno Steel and the Hard Road to a Happy Ending
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The first order of business on the right side of the law was pretty straightforward: we had to confirm that Melody Harper was behind the Dolosian Marketplace and, by extension, the impending theft of the Strings.
Which meant we had to go to a concert.
We had to fill up the rest of the day before the concert without arousing any suspicion, so Nureyev went off to do his...whatever he'd been doing, pretending he hadn't been the victim of an attempted murder the night before, and Sasha and I went around showing off what we figured the rest of them would think crime-solving looked like. We dusted for prints in public areas, even though they'd be useless. We set up a laser-guided recreation of the crime in the dining area even though Agent V had been poisoned. If I had a nickel for every time Sasha turned to me holding some leaf or piece of detritus in a pair of tweezers and told me to "get it to the lab," I might've been able to afford a night in Elysium. Well, a night's rent on a stretch of desert below where I could stargaze at it, anyway.
It worked, at any rate. Tobias LeFitte gave us a curious look as he crossed the atrium wearing last night's clothes, a starfield of hickeys covering every inch of visible skin, and the smell of Matteo Fauntleroy's cologne. Melody Harper watched us for a solid half-hour before anyone else woke up, although after last night's revelry everyone seemed to be sleeping in so that wasn't saying much; but she didn't interrupt us either, just checked out Sasha's ass as she bent over to "check for fibers."
I tried not to be jealous that Melody Harper wasn't giving me eyes anymore, and reminded myself that she was almost definitely a thief and probably a murderer.
Honestly, after all the mayhem of the night before, it was a little boring.
Once we actually got to the concert - after the awkward, vaguely-hungover brunch where, despite my close attention, nobody gave any indication that they were surprised Nureyev was alive - Melody Harper racked up another tick-mark in the 'Thief and Possibly Murderer' column by emceeing it.
"Thank you, everyone," she said, raising a champagne flute in a toast to the atrium at large, "for attending this wonderful event. Despite some of the...complications..." and here she glanced at me and Sasha - "I hope you've had a restorative and educational experience. The point of this retreat was really immerse ourselves in creativity, relaxation, and, of course, all the other wonders that Chaudhry Recreationals can provide." She gave the kind of polite golf clap that somehow all rich people can do while still holding a champagne flute, and the rest of the crowd followed suit. Calpurnia Chaudhry stood, raised her own flute in acknowledgement, and gave a slight bow without getting so much of a drop of liquid on her bright gold sari. The only ones of us who had foregone the recreationals today were me, Sasha, Nureyev, and, of course, Anita Whitfield herself, hovering behind Harper and clutching the case of the Strings to her like she thought someone was about to steal it right out of her hands.
"Today, our esteemed guest, Anita Whitfield, has put together a setlist intended to evoke her favorite period of classical music, as well as showing us what the Strings can do!" Titters of polite laughter. I frowned. Why did rich people laugh at things that weren't funny? "Paired with these most ancient hymns and airs for your gratification, we have something special. Calpurnia, darling?"
"Just for today," Chaudhry said, "I've made a never-before-sampled recreational that pairs Sense Memory, our standard eidetic recipe, with a new recipe that targets and blends the senses. I'm calling this new synesthetic class of recreationals...Abstraction."
More polite golf clapping. Out of the corner of my vision, I caught Sasha blink in the heavy, slow way that meant she was trying not to roll her eyes.
"But you aren't here for my recreationals - not only, anyway," Chaudhry said, and joined in the obligatory titters. She raised her flute again, this time in Whitfield's direction. "Please, everyone - bottoms up, and enjoy the show!"
As the rest of the crowd downed their recreationals, Whitfield pulled out the Strings. It was the first time I'd seen them, and according to our recon earlier this morning, this was also the only time Whitfield would be playing the Strings. They looked just like any other electric guitar to me, but apparently they were old enough to be incredibly delicate, and the insurance company's policy wouldn't let the Strings be played more than once per tour stop to make sure they didn't get damaged.
Anita had also lugged along her period-appropriate sound equipment, meaning that she actually had to plug one end of a cord into a big, ugly, black box and the other end into the Strings themselves. Based on the impressed "oh!" from LeFitte, I wasn't the only one surprised - I knew this concert would be a throwback, but this was a bit ridiculous.
"Thank you all," Whitfield said as she looped the guitar strap over her shoulder and around her neck, "for coming to this retreat. I know over the course of our time together, you've gotten a sense of my taste in music and my abilities - " a reference to the other concerts she'd given on less-impressive instruments before Sasha and I showed up - "but it's my honor, privilege, and pleasure to be able to share this with you today. And so I'll be playing music authentic to the period from which the Strings originate, so you can hear the songs as they were truly intended to be played."
Then she cleared her throat, positioned her fingers over the Strings, and began to strum.
She was pretty good, I guess - I don't know anything about this stuff, but it was obvious she put a lot into it, like she knew this might be her last concert with the Strings. Which made sense.
She sang, too, something her baby not messing around because she loves her so and this she knows for sure, but I stopped paying attention to her and started looking for any indication, any at all, that an auction was occurring under our noses. Chaudhry and Harper had taken the seats set to the side of Whitfield's stage, but their attention was fully on Whitfield. Matteo Fauntleroy listened just as intently, a slight frown of concentration on his face - which surprised me, honestly, because he hadn't given any previous indication that he gave a damn about any of this. But his fingers tapped out the complicated, shifting beat of the song against his leg, so he clearly knew at least something about this music.
Tobias LeFitte watched Anita's fingers moving over the neck of the guitar with a practiced eye, and whatever he saw seemed to be impressing him, based on the quirk to his eyebrows. Odalys Taiwo, seated as far away from Tobias as possible in the small performance space, stared straight ahead with a fury that radiated off of her and in Tobias's direction, no doubt due to the outburst between the two of them - Jesus, was it just the night before? I hadn't slept at all, and the coffee I'd been chugging all day - after getting Sasha to test it for poison, obviously - already felt like it was wearing off.
Pan Taiwo, on the other hand, had their attention on Tobias. Which made sense - if the Taiwos were in this for revenge, figuring out what Tobias thought the Strings were worth would be a necessary step towards outbidding him and snatching his beloved prize out from under him.
If only we could figure out how they were bidding.
We sat through the entire concert as Whitfield flowed smoothly from song to song, from exhortations that we shake it like a Polaroid picture, whatever that was, through telling us she knew who she wanted to take her home, and on through her insistence that she knew we were trouble when we walked in.
I watched everyone's blinking patterns. I watched their hands. I peeked over at Sasha as she surreptitiously used her Dark Matters-issued supercomms unit to make sure there were no hands-free messages being sent - nothing. As Whitfield demanded to know why we had to go and make things so complicated, I seriously considered standing up and just flat-out asking if there was an auction going on, if only to break up the monotony.
The good news was that, after a long, melancholy song about being a little drunk and needing us now, Whitfield's concert finally ended. The bad news was that we'd sat through the peak of classical music of more centuries ago than I cared to count and we hadn't seen a damn auction.
As the last chords faded, Melody Harper stood and raised her now-empty flute towards Whitfield. "That," she said, "was truly beautiful, Anita, thank you." She led the audience in another round of applause around their glasses. Sasha's jaw was so tense it looked like it was about to snap like a wire - at least I wasn't the only one frustrated by our lack of progress.
"That wraps up the programming that we had scheduled for this little shindig," Harper continued, "but as I'm sure you all are aware, the sandstorm below us has affected travel to and from Elysium. We have enough food to make up for it, although," she added with a grimace, "I'm afraid it won't quite be up to the standard we've provided for the rest of the week. I'm sorry to say that your steaks tonight may be lab-grown."
Matteo Fauntleroy gave an indignant gasp. Harper ignored him.
"Your quarters are available for your use as well, and shuttle service should resume overnight. Everything should be in place to take you home by the time you wake up tomorrow morning. In the meantime, if you'd like to partake of any other Chaudhry Recreationals, please feel free to let us know - Calpurnia would be delighted to offer guidance on what's safe to take with the Abstraction we all just enjoyed. And, of course," she added, pitching her voice louder like a teacher trying to corral a class three minutes before the bell rang, "as we mentioned at the beginning of this event, we're collecting the comment and suggestion cards that were waiting for you in your quarters when you arrived."
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and the muscle pulsing in Sasha's jaw went still.
"If you have any specific comments," Harper continued blithely, "feel free to see me for a pen or other writing implement - I'm sure this demonstration of the Strings has given you all a lot to consider in your assessments."
In front of me, Tobias LeFitte wrote on a comment card he'd pulled out of his pocket. Whatever he wrote was too short to be a full sentence, but it could be a number. A large number. Then he stood and crossed over to Harper, handing her the card in full view of everyone - but turned down so that nobody could see what it said.
"Thank you for this amazing event," he told her, and then turned to Whitfield. "And more importantly, thank you. You're astoundingly gifted, and the Strings downright sang in your hands."
"I - thank you?" Whitfield said.
LeFitte turned back to the rest of us - no, to Odalys, and met her eyes for a long, challenging moment. It was the kind of pointed look that dared her to do her worst. Then he left.
That seemed to break up the atmosphere of the concert, and Whitfield began packing up the Strings and her audio equipment. I made a beeline for Harper, though, and managed to get to her before anyone else.
"Hey, Harper, quick question - I don't think Agent W and I got comment cards," I told her, stepping neatly in front of Pan Taiwo.
Harper gave me a bland smile. "No offense, Detective Steel, but we're mostly soliciting input from our potential repeat customers, and given the way you've been lurking in the shadows looking like you wanted to die every time you weren't actively interrogating someone, I figured you weren't our target audience. Ah, Pan, thank you," Harper added, reaching past me to take what I was damn sure was Pan Taiwo's bid for the Strings.
Sasha met my eyes and jerked her chin towards the hallway to our quarters, and I followed her.
"It's the comment cards," I began.
"Of course it's the comment cards, it's the only thing that makes sense," Sasha hissed back at me. "Find a reason to ask your friend Glass to make sure - he said he'd recognize a - "
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Matteo Fauntleroy said without sounding the slightest bit apologetic, poking his head through the archway that led to the atrium. "Detective Steel, did I hear you say you wanted a comment card? You can have mine, if you like. I won't need it."
He held it out towards me, but Sasha was closer and grabbed it first.
"I - are you sure you don't need it?" I said, running through what this could mean in my head. Maybe it wasn't the comment cards, or maybe Fauntleroy wasn't here to bid even though that made no sense, or maybe he was just rubbing it in? Or -
"Well, I was going to use it to bid on the Strings," Fauntleroy said with a careless shrug, "but since Whitfield's guitar is a fake, I don't need it."
Sasha and I stared at him.
"I'm sorry, what?" I demanded.
"It's a fake," Fauntleroy repeated. "She didn't have to adjust the tuning between songs, and while the Strings could simply be exceedingly well-cared for, that wouldn't account for the action on the strings being just a smidge pitchy."
"How do you know any of this?" Sasha demanded.
"And what the hell does 'pitchy' mean?" I said.
Fauntleroy tilted his head to indicate that it was obvious. "When I buy something beautiful and fancy and expensive, I make sure I know how to take care of it. What's the point of having something absolutely astounding that you never use if it isn't in pristine condition? Someone like LeFitte probably wouldn't think twice - when you're that focused on actually using something, you hire someone to take care of it for you." He tsked, shaking his head. "Remarkably short-sighted. Anyhow, I'm sure you could probably still use that card to provide actual feedback. And if you do, please do mention the vat-grown steaks - for how much we paid to be here, it's simply a travesty that they didn't plan for every possible eventuality."
Sasha and I stared after him as he walked away.
"Well, that's..." I looked down at the comment card in her hand. "That means something, right?"
Sasha blinked, then looked at me. "We need to regroup. Juno, go proposition Baron Wolf for a threesome."
"I - what?"
She rolled her eyes. "Or whatever other excuse you can think of to get Glass to our room so we can figure out what this means."
I kept staring at her. My brain had just kind of...stopped.
"Juno," she snapped, "go!"
So I went. I think I muttered something to Nureyev about Agent W and I wanting to get to know him a little better, and from the look on Whitfield's face she wasn't thrilled about having her tour-manager-slash-security-guard borrowed for that particular purpose.
Melody Harper, on the other hand, gave me a thumbs-up and a wink from across the room. I was really starting to dislike her, and not only because she was a thief and probably a murderer.
"A counterfeit?" Nureyev said when we filled him in, eyebrows raised with surprise. "That's...unorthodox, particularly for this sort of crime."
"Is it possible that the Strings have already been stolen and replaced with a fake?" Sasha said.
"Possibly," Nureyev murmured, looking at the comment card in his hand. It didn't have any indications of actually being a bid card for an auction that had gotten a person killed.
"But if everyone who's here is in it for the show, too, then what's the point of doing it this quietly?" I said. "I mean, what's the point of having something stolen if everybody thinks it wasn't stolen? At least," I added, "when you're rich and an asshole like these people."
"Shuttle service was operating normally until the two of you arrived," Nureyev said. "It's possible that the real Strings were smuggled off Elysium on one of the earlier shuttles."
"And if the fake Strings go missing tonight," Sasha said, nodding along, "then anyone trying to investigate would be completely thrown off. And then they don't even have to worry about getting the Strings off Elysium - if they know they're stealing back a fake, they could just throw it in the incinerator."
"It would certainly fit with Melody Harper's flair for the dramatic so far," Nureyev agreed.
"Good news for us, though," I said. "Because it means they have to steal the fake-Strings. We can still catch them in the act."
Nobody raised the possibility of using Fauntleroy for testimony - people as rich as him didn't cooperate with law enforcement as a general rule.
Sasha checked the time on her comms. "If they're waiting until Elysium crosses the terminator into night, then we've only got a few hours before their window of opportunity opens."
"We can probably assume they're going to be slipping everyone else some Calm Waters with their dinner," I added.
"And if they already murdered one Dark Matters agent, they won't hesitate to do it again," Sasha said grimly. "Trying to guard Whitfield's quarters is just asking for a situation that could go sideways. We need to do this smart."
"They don't know we know," I said. "Anything we can do to make sure they don't see us coming - "
"Perhaps," Nureyev suggested, "we provide Harper with the sort of story that wouldn't surprise her. Two detectives succumbing to temptation, taking advantage of the unique opportunities of Elysium with the aid of a tour manager..."
Which is how me and Sasha ended up pouring three champagne flutes of whatever Chaudhry and Harper were passing off as Jewel, the hallucinogen tailored to go with Abstraction, down the sink in the quarters that Sasha and I shared. Nureyev went out to soothe Whitfield's nerves - without risking tipping her off, obviously, and laying down the groundwork for our cover story. All Whitfield would have to do was gossip a little and nobody would expect to see the three of us until the next morning.
"We'll set up surveillance feeds and monitor from here," Sasha told me, laying out displays on the dining room table of our quarters. I immediately turned to the counter and began brewing a fresh part of coffee - this sounded like a stakeout. "When I'm installing the cameras, we'll have to - well, I guess we can wait for Glass to come back for that part."
I looked over my shoulder at her. "For what part? I can do it."
Sasha gave me a patented Sasha Wire Look, the one she'd perfected at age seven. "You can calibrate the surveillance wavelengths to minimize interference and troubleshoot any problems, Juno? You?"
"I..." I'd been getting better with the tech stuff, I really had. It was obvious from the way I'd brewed coffee three times that day without anything exploding. But not that good. "Okay, yeah, maybe Glass should take that."
Sasha turned back to the table with a smirk.
"Want a cup for yourself?" I asked, squinting at the coffeemaker's display. The first thing I'd made Sasha do when we got back from the concert was make doubly sure that it wasn't going to poison us. It was bad enough that the heightened paranoia was keeping me away from the liquor - at this point, the coffee was the only thing keeping me going, and I bet that Sasha wasn't doing much better.
"No, thank you," Sasha said.
I frowned. "You sure? You sound tired, and you were on watch half of last night."
"I'm fine, Juno," Sasha said, sounding even more tired.
"Right," I said. "Right." Then, because I can't help myself sometimes, I said, "Are you, uh. Are you doing okay?"
Sasha sighed, her back still towards me. "I was responsible for him, you know," she said. "Agent V. Hamish Veracruz, before Dark Matters recruited him. He was my protegé, and now he's just dead." She slapped down another display with more force than it probably needed. "I just want to nail the people who killed him and shove them in a deep, dark cell where they can think long and hard about what they did and never see another human being ever again."
"You...you actually care about him."
"Of course I care about him! If I didn't care, it wouldn't - " She stopped herself, but I could feel the word she didn't say hanging in the air: hurt. If she didn't care, it wouldn't hurt. "It doesn't matter, anyway. At this point there's no changing what's happened. There's only getting justice for Agent V."
She fiddled around with the displays some more.
"Sasha," I said, "I'm sorry about your friend."
"Drink your coffee, Juno," Sasha told me.
Nureyev returned having thoroughly spread the news that Sasha and I had cracked under the pressure of the case and were rapidly descending into hedonistic irresponsibility and recreation, or rather Recreationals, courtesy of one Baron Wolf, tour manager and roadie to the stars. Sasha provided Dark Matters-issued nutritional mush whose texture, which was somehow rubbery and gritty at the same time, made me seriously consider risking whatever Harper and Chaudhry were planning to put in the provided meals.
As we choked down our meals - Sasha somehow sipped hers, how did she manage that? - she and Nureyev looked at the blueprints of Elysium to decide where to strategically place the cameras we had, which involved lots of talk about coverage, signal ranges, potential sources of interference, and other things that were more Rita's thing than mine.
So instead I tried to ignore the things about the case that were nagging at me. Like why Harper and Chaudhry would've bothered to kill Agent V if they'd already stolen the Strings and replaced them with a fake - or if they'd stolen the Strings after Agent V died but before Sasha and I arrived? That timetable didn't make sense, either. And if Chaudhry had brewed the poison that killed him, shouldn't she know enough about chemicals to do something more targeted, more reliable, than just shoving two sample drugs into a bottle of whiskey and hoping for the best?
And how could Anita Whitfield play that guitar and not realize it was a fake while Matteo Fauntleroy - Matteo Fauntleroy - could tell just from listening to it? Was she in on it? If she was, how had she hidden it from Nureyev? He'd been practically stapled to her side at least since Sasha and I arrived, and if she was involved in the theft, wouldn't she have to coordinate with the actual perpetrators? And why would she agree to a theft that would at best leave her only slightly ahead of where she started and without her ticket to her entire career?
"I'll plant the cameras," Sasha said, standing up and crumpling her empty squeeze-packet of nutrients. She tossed it towards the recycling receptacle without looking, and it landed right in without so much as bouncing off anything else. "Glass, use Juno's comms if I need to adjust anything. Juno..." She sighed. "Try not to break any of the highly advanced surveillance technology."
"I'm a lot better with that these days!" I objected.
"Uh-huh," Sasha said. "Are you still carrying that plasma cutter up your sleeve? The one you sew in there, with needle and thread?"
"Never go anywhere without it," I told her, brandishing my sleeve at her so she could see the shape of it through the fabric. "And how else am I supposed to carry it?"
"You can get subcutaneous pocket implants on your forearms now, actually," Nureyev said blandly from the table.
"Yeah, well, how am I gonna keep up my needlepoint skills if I do that?"
Sasha gave a deep sigh as she went to the door. "Just try not to ruin anything too badly."
Then Nureyev and I were alone.
He kept his eyes on the displays covering the entire table, all currently black and empty, waiting for a signal. He leaned against the table even as he stood over it, and he looked about as worn down as I'd ever seen him - as tired as he'd looked in that damn tomb when Miasma had us, but with the same bright attention in his eyes.
"So..." I said, watching his reaction. "How are you doing?"
"I'm feeling much better," Nureyev said, still watching the displays. "Agent Wire's antidote seems to be quite effective." Then he glanced up at the middle distance in the direction of the kitchen wall and pursed his lips. "Although I do get a bit of a...a zapping feeling if I move my head too fast. I suppose that's preferable to dying, although it's certainly irritating."
"Yeah, okay," I said, and Nureyev looked back at the displays. One of them popped on, showing a hallway leading into the atrium, and after a second Sasha backed into view.
"Camera one is good," Nureyev said into my comms - when had he gotten my comms? Sasha gave the camera a thumbs-up and moved out of frame.
"So," I said again. "So how are you? After, you know. Miasma."
The quiet was long enough that I thought he wouldn't answer. Then he said, "This isn't the first time I've been...injured, in my line of work."
"Yeah, I kind of figured."
"And I assume it's happened to you as well."
"So you know how it is." Nureyev reached forward and rubbed at a smudge on one of the displays. "I've been keeping my eyes on the exits wherever I am, maintaining escape plans, avoiding sedatives and drills and psychics and Ancient Martian genocidal murderers, which are all quite reasonable steps, when you think about it."
"I - yeah, I guess."
"Camera two, good," Nureyev said into the comms. He still wouldn't look at me, but I could feel the shift in his attention even as Sasha gave another thumbs-up in one of the displays. "And you?"
"...business as usual, I guess."
"I suppose that's nice."
"Not really. More the opposite. But it's familiar, at least."
Nureyev finally glanced in my direction. "I heard about Ramses O'Flaherty."
With a groan, I said, "You heard about that?"
"I've been gallivanting about the solar system, Juno, not living under a rock. Ramses O'Flaherty made waves."
"Yeah, that wasn't great."
Nureyev kept looking at me as though he expected me to say more, but there really wasn't any more to say. Another display came on, and he spoke into the comms. "Camera three, good."
Another thumbs-up from Sasha, and more waiting.
My nerve broke first. "Hey, look, Nureyev, I'm glad we...ran into each other."
Nureyev's eyes narrowed, even though nothing in the displays he was looking at so intently changed.
And like an idiot, I kept talking. "I figured you didn't want - I mean, I figured you'd want some privacy, I guess."
"Camera four, good," Nureyev told the comms, and then put the unit down. More quietly, he said, "I wasn't the one who wanted that."
"Sasha was right. Don't - don't tell her I said that," I added quickly. "But I...I know that I keep hurt people, that I hurt you, but I'm trying to do better, I really am - I'm just not very good at it. I - I really am sorry."
There was a different kind of brightness in Nureyev's eyes now, but I told myself it wasn't surprising they were starting to water, given how exhausted he must be after the night he'd had. And it wasn't the only sign - there was an ashy cast to his skin, and he leaned on the table more heavily than he should've had to. But another display popped on, and he cleared his throat and activated the comms with a press of his finger. "Camera five, good."
I ignored the unsteadiness to his voice. "I wish," I told him, "that I could be the kind of person who would've stayed."
He finally looked at me, really looked at me without a waiting-look or an expectant-look but just the kind of look that showed me exactly how he must've felt waking up alone in that hotel room, how much he must've wanted what we'd planned. There was so much longing in that look it damn near broke me.
Then, as I watched, he put the mask back on. It fell over him like a coat, the way his shoulders straightened, and his expression reset with a brief moue of his lips before they relaxed into an easy almost-smile. "It's dreadfully unfair for you to say things that sexy while we're meant to be working, Detective Steel. You know how I feel about your little crusades."
He had a con voice, I realized - one that seemed to come from his diaphragm, smoother to help the lies go down more easily. He was using it now.
I also realized that I knew him too well for him to get away with it. How the hell had that happened? Somehow, mind-reading Martian pill or not, I'd figured him out well enough to know that right now he was giving me half deflection and half brutal honesty.
But I'd said what I'd needed to say, and if he needed to deflect, I wasn't going to begrudge him that. "Yeah, well, now we're even for how you look in those heels. They're - " I coughed a little in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the glimpse of said heels I'd just gotten. "They're very nice heels."
Nureyev's smile relaxed into something more playful and more genuine.
"And it looks like Sasha just got the last camera up," I added, pointing.
Which brought us to the next phase of our plan: the stakeout. It was never my favorite part of an investigation under the best of circumstances, let alone when I was locked in a room so expensive it made my entire life's earnings weep with inferiority, and with Peter Nureyev and Sasha Wire no less.
And worse, it wasn't even an interesting stakeout.
We watched the various guests stumbling back to their rooms, some yawning and some clearly enjoying the fruits of Chaudhry's efforts, like Tobias LeFitte who took a break from his route to his quarters to run his hands lovingly along the walls like their texture was the most fascinating thing ever. Chaudhry and Harper stayed behind to help Anita Whitfield with her audio equipment - big black boxes that, based on their sheen of sweat that was obvious even in the low resolution of our hidden surveillance cameras, were even heavier than they looked. But eventually Elysium drifted across the Martian terminator from sunlight to night, the displays went from mostly-light to mostly-dark, and quiet settled over the pleasure palace.
Stakeouts in Hyperion City have noise, they have interruptions, they have distractions that normally bothered me but I would've killed for any of them right about now. Nureyev began yawning within the first hour, and I poured myself yet another cup of coffee even though Sasha and Nureyev both demurred. By hour two, even Sasha's eyes were looking glazed, and we were just a few minutes shy of hour three when Nureyev murmured that he was going to rest his eyes, "just for a moment," and immediately began snoring.
Sasha met my eyes with a resigned quirk of her eyebrows - we knew each other well enough that we didn't have to say anything. We let him sleep.
The first shuttle docked around hour three, a shifting blob in the corner of one of the displays; Sasha moved that display closer to us so we could watch it and make sure nobody tried to escape. Her dead-eyed gaze stayed on it as I stood up to brew a fresh pot of coffee.
It was late-slash-early enough that our second winds were flagging, the time of night-slash-morning that felt like the whole world was muffled behind an invisible pillow and made the air feel too cold no matter what temperature it was. As the coffee brewed, I went into the living room and picked a throw off one of the couches. I knew if Sasha wanted a blanket she'd damn well get one for myself, so I draped it around Nureyev's shoulders instead; he hadn't stirred for an hour, and his jacket was back in his quarters.
Sasha gave the blanket a longing look before turning her heavy-lidded attention back to the displays, smothering a yawn with her hand. I poured myself my coffee and pressed my hands into the mug, waiting for it to warm me up. I hadn't slept at all the night before, and it was catching up to me: I could barely feel the skin of my face except to sense it drooping, and even the mug felt impossibly heavy when I lifted it to my lips and let the heat radiate into my face. It was too hot to drink without burning myself, and while that normally didn't stop me, preparing myself for the shock of it just seemed too hard.
Even Sasha's eyes were drifting shut. She'd propped her elbow on the table and leaned her chin into it, and her whole upper body listed lazily to one side, towards the inevitable angle that would let her just go to sleep.
From the counter, I had a decent view of both her and Nureyev, and the sight made me feel...nice. Two of my favorite people sitting at the same table, working the same case, and sure it was a murder but, really, what in my life wasn't? And they'd gotten along, too, shockingly well. All this scene was missing was Rita and Mick and it might actually be everything I wanted, the kind of perfect storm of happiness that never happened to people like me. Hell, I was halfway there already, based on the calm contentedness filling my chest, wrapping around me like a cloud made of hugs, and I wondered if this was what it felt like to actually be happy?
But that - that couldn't be right. Something about this wasn't right. I didn't get this - I didn't deserve this, there was no way that I could just stumble into this without having to do any work for it -
And then, beyond the coffee vapors, I smelled the sterile, numbing edge to the air, and that sure as hell wasn't right at all.
"Son of a bitch," I muttered, or tried to - I couldn't quite feel my face and my muscles refused to coordinate, even as I staggered the few steps towards Sasha. "Sasha? Sasha, wake up!" I raised my voice, but Sasha was down for the count.
At least, she was until I stumbled and emptied my cup of coffee right into her face.
She let out a shriek that I remembered from our days at the Pour and Floor, the angry, indignant war cry that she let out whenever she'd just downed a shot of something awful on a dare, perfectly calibrated to make whoever was about to suffer her revenge know it was coming.
"Sasha - " I mumbled, but I nearly followed my coffee and ended up on my knees, clinging to the empty seat next to Sasha. "'S in the air, they put it in the air - "
She stared at me for a long second, uncomprehending, then her nostrils flared as she smelled it too. "Those - " she began, but whatever insult she was trying to think of didn't make it to her lips as she turned her concentration to getting out of her chair. The shock of the coffee was working better on her than my anger was on me, and I slid all the way down to the floor, leaning against the chair and thinking that it was surprisingly comfortable, given how much it was poking into my shoulder -
Sasha slapped me right across the face, as hard she could. She could slap really, really hard, and suddenly I could feel my face again. No matter how much I wished I couldn't.
"Stay awake!" she yelled at me, and staggered out of the kitchen into the living room.
I had to admit, the pain was really effective: it took a while, but I made it all the way to my feet by the time Sasha staggered back in.
With the giant Dark Matters needle in her hand.
"Whoa, Sasha, wait - "
Sasha didn't wait. Instead, she plunged it right into my shoulder and held it there.
"Don't move, you'll just make it worse," she told me.
I held myself as still as I could, no matter how much I wanted to push her away from me, or possibly off Elysium altogether. "I've never understood why suddenly it's not stabbing anymore when it's a needle," I said instead, but even as I said it I could feel my head clearing and jittering adrenaline coursing through my body. "Also, ow!"
Sasha finally pulled the needle away and looked at the displays. "There," she said, pointing to one. Sure enough, one shade of dark gray moved through another shade of dark gray in a way that suggested it might be a person. "They put the drug in the air recyclers and they're making their move - damn it - "
"That's what I said!"
Sasha ignored me. She pressed a button on the needle handle and the needle itself retracted, replaced by a fresh one.
"Do you need someone to hold it for you?" I said, thinking of how it might at least be satisfying to get to stab her back.
"I dosed myself out there, as soon as I got it," she said. "Come on, Juno, we've got to move - "
"What about N - Glass?"
Based on the way Sasha didn't so much as blink at my near-slip, she still wasn't operating at one hundred percent. "He could probably use the sleep and I don't think whatever's about to go down needs more thieves. Come on, Juno!"
"Wait, what's that?" I said, pointing to a smudge of darkness on another display.
"What's what?" Sasha asked, leaning closer to look and giving me the opportunity I needed.
By some miracle of coordination, I managed to yank the needle out of Sasha's hand in a way that would've been completely impossible in any other circumstances, and since it only had the two buttons, I had it working its magic on Nureyev before Sasha could snatch it back, making it the first game of keep-away I'd won with her in - well, ever.
"We need all the help we can get, okay?" I said. "This way we can be sure we outnumber them!"
I told myself that that was why I did it, too, and not Nureyev's earlier comment about psychics, exit plans, and sedatives.
Nureyev's eyes fluttered open, and I took it as a sign that I could put the needle down.
"Ugh, fine!" Sasha said, and grabbed me by the arm. "Glass, catch up with us and check on Whitfield - we need to make sure they didn't do to her what they did to Agent V."
"Whuh - " Nureyev said, jolting upright.
"They're going for the Strings in Whitfield's quarters! Make sure she's not dead!" Sasha barked at him, and dragged me out of the room.
About halfway down the hallway I managed to get my feet under me and run along side her, and though Elysium wasn't that big, the hallways felt like they stretched on forever. I could still feel whatever was in the air tugging on my eyelids and calling me to take a nap, just a quick one, but on the other hand, whatever that Dark Matters antidote was, it had the same effect as standing three feet from the band at an Old Town post-post-post-grunge scream metal concert, one of the ones where if the volume had no permanent effect on the architecture, it meant the gig was a failure. I'm pretty sure my ribcage alone was shaking hard enough to scramble my lungs, and my head pounded like - like -
Well, it pounded hard enough that I couldn't think of any descriptions for it.
But we made it to Whitfield's quarters, and the door was already partially open, the kind of careful quarter-open that meant someone had deliberately pushed it back but hadn't let it close. Sasha, in the lead, didn't bother with any of that care - she barreled through it hard enough that I heard the splintering sound of one of the hinges breaking out of the wall.
Melody Harper and Calpurnia Chaudhry jolted upright at the noise, and the case of the Strings, barely lifted an inch off the pile, dropped back down with a thud. Harper and Chaudhry had been hunched over the pile of sound equipment in one corner of Whitfield's rooms, which were much smaller than the other ones I'd seen. It had actual walls between the rooms, which seemed unfair to me if they were supposed to be crappier, but the living room was maybe half the size of the one Sasha and I shared. There was only one other door on the other side of the room from the equipment - to the bedroom, I assumed - and most of the floor space was taken up by equipment and, now the four of us.
"Put your hands up," Sasha said, aiming a blaster towards them.
"Where'd you get a blaster?" I said indignantly. "I've been with you this whole time!"
"How are you still standing?" Chaudhry snapped at us.
"Justice never sleeps," I said.
Harper groaned and rolled her eyes. "Too much, Detective."
"That doesn't matter," Sasha said, and indicated the corner furthest away from Whitfield's room with her blaster. "Step away from the equipment - we know you're here for the Strings."
"Well," I added, "the fake Strings, anyway."
Harper and Chaudhry stared at us, then Harper let out a laugh. "I've heard some fun bluffs in my time," she said, "but this one's new."
"Detective, Agent - ah, there you are," Nureyev said breathlessly, catching himself against the doorway into Whitfield's room - he hadn't bothered to slow down when he got to the door, relying on the door jamb and his upper body strength to do the hard work for him.
"Check on Whitfield," Sasha told him, her eyes still on Harper and Chaudhry. "These two have already killed one person and tried to kill another - let's make sure they haven't gone three for three."
"We didn't kill anyone!" Chaudhry said, taking a step forward.
Sasha responded with a step forward of her own, muzzle trained on Chaudhry. "Don't give me an excuse to lose my temper, Chaudhry."
Nureyev stepped around me with a perfunctory, "Ah, hello, Detective, if you'll pardon me," and went into Whitfield's bedroom. On our side of the room, Harper insinuated herself between Sasha and Chaudhry - the space was so limited that Sasha's blaster was less than a foot from Harper's chest.
"We didn't," Harper said, lifting her hands as instructed. "We're thieves, not murderers. Suave, debonair thieves with an excellent business plan and massive amounts of market research."
Chaudhry didn't have her hands up like Harper - one of her hands was upright at about waist height, but the other reached forward and tucked the fingers into the waistband of Harper's pants.
"Hey, hey, Chaudhry, watch it!" I said, taking a step forward of my own, but Chaudhry didn't lift her hand - but she also didn't pull out a gun. Instead, she got even closer to Harper, her hand gripping Harper's pants like she was clinging to a lover's hand, and all her body language screamed possessiveness and protectiveness.
"Don't hurt her!" Chaudhry said, drawing Harper closer.
Sasha yelled, "Keep your hands where I can see them - "
"Wait, wait!" I said, putting myself as close to between Sasha and the two thieves as I could without shoving her blaster into my kidneys. I looked at Harper. "You stole the Strings. Agent V was on to you - why wouldn't you kill him?"
"Because we're not murderers," Chaudhry protested.
"Also do you have any idea how much more people would pay for a deposit for one of these events if they knew they'd get to watch a theft right under the nose of a Dark Matters agent?" Harper added. "A murder's dangerous, and danger's bad for business, but intrigue? That's what we do. And for your information, we haven't stolen the Strings yet. Why else would we go through all this trouble in the middle of the night? But you got here first, so you know what - " Harper lifted her shoulders in a shrug, taking her still-raised arms with them. "It's a fair cop."
"You can drop the act, Harper," Sasha told her. "We know the Strings are fake."
"Pfft, nice try," Harper said, rolling her eyes. "Besides, you already caught us - you don't need to talk us out of it." After a second, she added with an ingratiating smile, "Unless you'd be interested in a cut of the profits...? No? Well then, since we haven't stolen anything just yet, how about we just call it even and you let us go?"
"Are you serious?" Sasha demanded. "We know you have the real Strings - that you smuggled them off Elysium before the sandstorm and replaced them with a fake to throw us off your trail! We're not going to let you go so you can sell them anyway!"
One side of Harper's lips twisted up in abject bafflement. "Uh, what are you talking about?"
"Wait, the Strings are fake?" Chaudhry asked, frowning and pointing to the pile of sound equipment. "Those Strings? But we just heard them!"
"Excellent news, everyone - well, everyone but Miss Harper and Miss Chaudhry, I expect," Nureyev said, and I turned around to see him and Anita Whitfield step out from the bedroom. Whitfield looked muzzy and half-awake but otherwise none the worse for wear, and her gaze was sharpening by the second. "Miss Whitfield is alive. No thanks to these two artless excuses for cat burglars."
"So we botched one job," Harper said with a shrug. "It's not the best for our margins, but it's not the end of the world - and technically, since we haven't stolen the Strings, we haven't done anything wrong."
"You keep saying that," Sasha said, her voice hard. "You do know that repeating it won't magically make it true, right?"
Whitfield's gaze flitted from Sasha to Harper to the sound equipment, lingering on the case for the Strings right on top. She didn't look relieved to see it there - if anything, with the way her expression tightened and her cheeks went even paler, it was the opposite.
The bottom of my stomach dropped as something occurred to me.
"You know," I said, "our friends here were just telling us that they didn't know the Strings were counterfeit."
"Ah, I see," Nureyev said, unconcerned. "Are they any good at lying, or were they transparent? And please use my standards, Detective, not your own - you know mine are much higher."
But I kept my eyes on Whitfield. As Nureyev spoke, her jaw set and her hands tightened into fists by her side.
"That's the thing - as weird as it sounds, I think they're telling the truth," I continued. A muscle in Whitfield's cheek twitched.
"Juno?" Sasha said.
"Because it's like you said, Wolf - after anything gets stolen, the thief finds a fence. And I imagine after a high-profile theft like the Strings, there'll be a whole lot of fences just itching to be the ones to sell the Strings - after all, aside from the bidders, who would know this was a Dolosian Marketplace job?"
"A what? What's that?" Whitfield said, rocking back on her heels slightly.
"I think the Strings never made it onto Elysium," I continued. "Maybe not even on the tour at all. Because everyone knew the Strings were on the top of the list to get stolen next, right? And if everyone knew it was going to happen, no one would blink when it did - and if two Strings hit the market, well, maybe you won't get top dollar, but they'd still fetch a tidy sum, especially if you could prove the provenance. And especially," I added, watching Whitfield carefully, "when you consider the insurance payout."
Whitfield's lips went white with tension.
"After all, why get paid once for a theft when you can get paid twice? Especially if you don't actually have to steal anything? Just let someone else do the dirty work - or think they did, anyway."
"I don't," Whitfield said, enunciating carefully, "know what you're talking about."
Nureyev slowly shifted away from her with the grace of a cougar settling in for a pounce. "You're suddenly a very bad liar indeed, Miss Whitfield," he said, and his hands went to his pockets - or where his pockets would've been if he'd been wearing his coat.
Maybe it was the cocktail of drugs that had tried to put us to sleep, or the ones keeping us awake, or just the fact that we'd been up for so damn long and Whitfield had the edge of adrenaline on her side - but she whipped out a knife from God-knows-where and had it at Nureyev's throat before the rest of us could so much as blink.
"Don't make me do something I don't want to do," she said. Her hand shook, enough that the blade of the knife trembled just in front of Nureyev's jugular. Light bounced off the serrated edge - it was one of the steak knives from dinner. How did we miss her taking it? Or had she taken it tonight, when we hadn't been there - vat-grown steak, Harper had said.
"Did you want to kill Agent V?" Sasha said, her voice dangerously level. Her blaster hung at her side, but I recognized the tension in her arm - she was just waiting for an opening.
"Agent W, perhaps now isn't the time - " Nureyev began, then let out a frustrated sigh. "Oh, of course, just go ahead, why don't you."
I glanced behind me - Chaudhry and Harper were gone, the door to the hallway gaping open behind them.
"He was just supposed to get sick," Whitfield said, and there was just enough anguish in her voice for me to believe it.
"As was I, I suppose?" Nureyev said, and Whitfield's eyes widened at him. "That's right, we found the poison in my whiskey, as well. But you didn't bother to warn me, did you."
Whitfield steeled herself, her grip on the knife tightening. "In for a penny-cred, I guess." She looked at me and Sasha. "Now if you don't want his blood on your hands, you'll let me take him to the shuttle. I'll get on, he won't, and we can just go our separate ways. And you can drop that blaster, Agent V - I'm feeling pretty twitchy, and we wouldn't want any accidents."
Nureyev was unarmed - he had to be, or else he would've taken care of this already, and instead his hands hovered uselessly at his sides like his fingers were itching for a knife of their own. Sasha, on the other hand, was armed and, if the look in her eye was any indication, downright homicidal - but so was Whitfield.
Overall, not a great situation.
"Sasha," I said, keeping my eyes on Nureyev. "Sasha, do what she says."
"Juno," Sasha said through gritted teeth.
"Sasha, we can't risk his life."
"Juno - "
My voice broke. I wish I could say I did it just for the effect, but - well, it got the job done. The blaster thunked against the carpeted floor as Sasha dropped it.
"Okay," I said, trying to keep my voice soothing. I lifted my hands to show that I was unarmed, the same way Harper had. "Okay, Anita, we don't want anything to go wrong here, okay?"
Anita took a sideways step behind Nureyev. Just the right angle, I thought, to cut his throat. "Then let us go."
"I can't - " I began, and my voice faltered again. I took a deep breath. "Take me instead."
"What?" Like a chorus, Whitfield, Nureyev, and Sasha said it in disbelieving unison.
I put my foot forward, slowly shifting my weight onto it, keeping my hands up the whole time - as nonthreatening as possible. "You need a hostage? Okay, fine, take me instead. Just let him go?"
Whitfield was so bewildered that, for a moment, she forgot to look threatening. "Why the hell would I do that?"
"Because." I swallowed heavily, meeting Nureyev's eyes. "I love him."
Nureyev's expression didn't change, but he drew back slightly, pushing into Anita. Luckily, she was so confused she didn't notice.
"You - you know you met him like thirty-six hours ago, right?" she said.
What can I say? Sometimes I just can't stop my mouth. "I'm sure if you want to hold an intervention for me, Agent W would be happy to help."
"Juno," Sasha said, in her tone of voice that usually meant she couldn't even think of anything painful enough to tell me how she wanted to kill me - which was saying something, given how creative she was, even as a kid.
"It was love at first sight," I continued. Nureyev's expression didn't change overall, but it did twitch a bit at the edges, and I might've been able to read him better now, but not well enough to know what that meant. "The way he walks into a room like - like royalty, like the ancient kings who only spoke languages that've been dead ten thousand years," and Nureyev frowned a little but I could tell I'd have to lay it on a bit thicker for it to really get through - "like any chair he sat in would turn into a throne - " The frown deepened, but it was still mostly confused. Was I going to have to draw him a damn map? "It's the little things about him," I continued, but I was running out of fluffy words and no matter how oblique I was, I couldn't keep dropping hints for long. "The - the way he just accumulates things in his pockets, doodles and sandwiches and who even keeps sandwiches in their pockets, anyway, and how does he make it so endearing - "
Nureyev wasn't looking at me anymore - he was looking just to the side of me, his brow wrinkled like he'd be able to remember whatever was on the tip of his tongue if he could just bring together the opposite sides of his face. He was close, then - I just needed to stall, to buy time so he'd put it together -
"His cologne," I said, throwing out the first words that came to my mind. "God, that cologne, I swear it gets in your head, and his eyes, those bright eyes, I didn't know eyes came that bright - "
"If you spit out another word of whatever freeform spoken-word poetry bullshit that's supposed to be," Whitfield said, "I will slit his throat, I swear to God. That was the most incomprehensible thing I've ever heard, and Tobias LeFitte insisted I play him a solo performance of MmmBop yesterday."
"I have no idea what that means," I said.
"It means I'm an incredibly talented musical historian and also shut up!" Whitfield snapped, but Nureyev was looking at me and, as I looked back at him, he gave me a minute nod of understanding.
"Do you really think you can kill a Dark Matters agent and just walk away?" Sasha said from behind me.
I let my hands fall to my sides as I turned towards her. "Sasha, please," I said, drawing my hand back into my sleeve. "Please trust me. I can't let him get hurt."
"I'm rather in favor of that as well," Nureyev said.
Sasha frowned at me. Turned like this, Whitfield couldn't see my face, but I couldn't risk anything too big - I just widened my eyes significantly at her.
"Fine," she said, spitting out the word like a fighter spitting out a tooth after a fistfight.
"If I see either of you coming down the hallway after me," Whitfield said, nudging Nureyev forward, "I'll kill him. I swear I will."
"We know," I said. I was far enough from the door that I could get away with not moving, but close enough to - hopefully - be able to pull this off. It was a terrible plan, but it was the only one I had.
Whitfield and Nureyev kept inching in an arc towards the door. I kept my right arm behind me, hidden from their view. Between the mishmash of drugs running through all of us and the high stress of the situation, it didn't take much acting to seem like I was staying put out of indecision and helplessness. Every part of me shook, and I couldn't have kept my hands steady if I wanted to.
I waited until they were right at the door, just within arm's reach of me. "Baron," I said, reaching out to him. "Baron, be careful - "
Nureyev took my hand, and even with all the mortal peril, his skin on mine, his hand in mine, felt - nice. Mostly nice. Nice where we were touching, anyway; there was the cool metal strip sandwiched between our hands for the rest of it.
"I always am, Juno," he told me, and maybe he was just a really good liar - well, I knew he was a really good liar - but he seemed like he meant it.
"Come on," Whitfield said, pulling Nureyev back through the door, and then they were gone.
"Juno," Sasha whisper-yelled at me, grabbing her blaster off the floor, "what the hell are you thinking - "
"I'm thinking," I whispered back, keeping my eyes on the door, "that there are no better hands for a cheap ten-cred plasma cutter in a tight spot than Rex Glass's."
Through the door we heard a sharp "Ah!" of surprise and pain, quickly followed by a scuffle and the metallic clattering of a knife on a tiled floor.
Sasha and I rushed into the hallway. Sure enough, Anita Whitfield was on her knees, one of her arms twisted up behind her and dripping blood. Nureyev stood behind her, one hand keeping Whitfield's arm in its lock and the other hand holding an activated plasma cutter inches away from Whitfield's face. Whitfield's steak knife lay on the floor in front of them.
"Agent Wire," Nureyev said, his voice perfectly calm. "I figured you might like to handle this from here?"
Harper and Chaudhry had snagged the one shuttle that had already docked. I didn't begrudge them that - if they weren't murderers, well, part of me almost wanted to root for them. I wondered how they'd gotten into business together; if Harper had swept into Chaudhry's life on a job and then fallen for her and swept her away, too. I couldn't blame them for that.
The next shuttle arrived within an hour, though, so I packed up Sasha's things for her. Or, as she called it, her 'go-bag.' She travelled light enough that it wasn't hard, and even I have the organizational skills to shove everything that I don't recognize as mine into a duffel bag.
I also slipped in the samples of Recreationals, just in case Sasha ever wanted to cut loose a bit.
Then I waited with her in the courtyard. She left Whitfield handcuffed to one of the ridiculous fountains, which I thought was only fair.
"Do you need to take, uh...do you need to take Agent V back with you?" I asked her.
She shook her head. "He's not going anywhere. Once I get Whitfield into secure custody, I can deal with the rest of it - telling his family, making the arrangements for the body."
I winced. "Do you need any help with that?"
Sasha snorted. "Not from you, Juno. You don't exactly have the bedside manner for it."
I let out a sigh of relief. "Oh thank god."
"You know, Juno," she said, "your friend Glass - the intel he gave us about the Dolosian marketplace, and that lead on Miasma - those were a lot of cases that got wrapped up since we got here."
"Really?" I said, not daring to hope.
"Yeah," she said. "It's enough to make me lose track of him when he leaves here. Since he gave Dark Matters that information about the thefts and Miasma."
"Huh," I said. "Then I guess it's a good thing that...he told you about Miasma."
"It's a lot of casefiles we can close out now," Sasha agreed. "I want to be clear - if I ever see him again, I'll arrest him."
"Of course," I said.
"But since I'm taking Whitfield right to Dark Matters," she continued, "if he's gone by the time I get back to wrap things up, I can't imagine he'd be a priority."
"Right," I said. Then, "Thanks."
Sasha didn't seem to have anything else to say, and neither did I, so we sat by a fake river in an artificial courtyard floating over Mars until, as the far side of the sky started to blush with dawn, the shuttle arrived. It had been a long time since I'd just hung out with Sasha. It was nice.
I dumped her go-bag in the shuttle as she manhandled Whitfield in.
"If you're anxious to get back on solid ground, you can come with me, you know," Sasha said, and there was a vicious glint of humor in her eye. "I'm sure the remnants of the sandstorm won't make the ride too bumpy, especially if we stay locked into the safety harnesses."
"Yeah, I think I'll wait until the ride is actually smooth, but thanks," I said, but I hesitated by the door of the shuttle. "Hey, um," I said. "If you're - the next time you're in Hyperion City, if you want to, I don't know, get a drink or something - with me and Mick, obviously, he'd give us those puppy-dog-eyes if we left him out - just, y'know. If you feel like it."
Sasha looked past me to the courtyard, drinking it in one last time, and I could see the jump in her throat as she swallowed. "Dark Matters doesn't let me make a lot of scheduling promises," she said.
"That's fine, I get it," I said, waving away the excuse I could feel coming. "I just figured I'd - "
"But the next time I'm in town..." she said, and took a deep breath. "Well, assuming you haven't disappeared again."
"Yeah, I'm trying really hard to do less of that these days."
"Right." Sasha shook her head disbelievingly, but she had a smile on her face as she did. "Well." She cleared her throat. "Take care of yourself, Juno."
"I...will try," I said.
Sasha gave me a look that I couldn't quite decipher. "You know," she said, "that's the first time you've said that that I've actually believed it."
Then the shuttle doors closed between us, and she took Anita Whitfield off to - to justice, or the greater good, or a deep, dark cell where she'd be able to think long and hard about what she'd done and never see another human being ever again.
I went back inside. The sight of the edge of Elysium made me nauseous.
I caught Nureyev with his bag half-packed. I'd say I caught him red-handed, but evidently he wasn't in any legal peril at the moment.
I went to his room anyway, and he opened it when I knocked, and when he saw it was me he even stood back and held the door open for me to enter. So I did.
"Sasha said you're not a priority, under the circumstances, but you probably shouldn't be here when she gets back. Do you know where you're going?" I asked, catching sight of his bag on his bed through the doorway to the bedroom.
Nureyev crossed to the doorway in question and leaned against it, facing towards me and crossing his arms. "I haven't decided yet," he said, airily. "I have an appointment, of course, with my first employer. I have the information they paid me for."
"Keeping your word?" I said. "Not even a little tempted to disappear again?"
"Half up front, half on delivery," he said, and shrugged the shoulder that wasn't jammed against the doorframe. "Once I've gotten my fair share, I'll be back in the wind."
"Right," I said. "Right." Beyond Nureyev glowed the burgeoning light of a Martian sunrise that would probably be fairly stunning, an ember of blue in a sky that was normally dusty and red. The horizon wasn't visible, blocked by the bed.
"And you?" Nureyev said. "Back to Hyperion City, I presume?"
There was something tight in his voice, an emotion I couldn't quite place, although it was familiar. I'd heard him sound like this before, even if I couldn't quite remember where.
"Where else would I go?" I said.
Nureyev's gaze narrowed with impatience. "You know exactly where. I can't shake the feeling that we've had this conversation before, almost word for word."
I hesitated. "I - I assumed that offer was no longer…on the table."
"Why would it be?" Nureyev said. "There's no use in revoking it when you've already made it quite clear that you won't take it. It would be inefficient."
That stung - the idea of an offer left in the air not out of generosity but apathy. And judging by the look on Nureyev's face, it was meant to sting.
"After all, it's like you said," Nureyev continued, his voice taking on an exaggerated, almost mocking tone. "You'll never go, and I'll never stay."
"Hey, don't - don't say it like that. Hyperion City's been my home my whole life. I can't just abandon it!" Nureyev kept his eyes on me, cool and collected, my words having no effect at all. "You don't know what it's like - "
"No," he finally interrupted. He uncrossed his arms and left the doorframe, coming towards me with a fire in his eyes. "I don't. I don't know what it's like to have a home. And I'm very thankful for whatever you worked out with Agent Wire and for your help this evening, but I'm tired of dancing around this. I asked you, Juno, and I gave you every opportunity to say no, and you didn't. You waited until you could run away without having to look me in the eye. You let me wake up alone. That wasn't because of Hyperion City, or your ridiculous quest to get your face knocked in by every person on this planet, it was you."
I kept my eyes on the floor. He was right. He was right about everything, and that was why he deserved better - better than someone who would sneak out in the middle of the night without even leaving a note. Better than someone who could only take the gift that he had given and break it. He deserved someone who wasn't me.
But here he was, and like Sasha almost said, if he didn't care, he wouldn't hurt. And if he cared, if he deserved better, then the least I could do was try harder.
"I know," I said quietly. "I'm sorry."
Whatever Nureyev expected, it wasn't that. His head ducked back, flinching away like he'd just seen a spider or something, and the curve of his brow relaxed from angry to confused.
"I…I don't have an excuse," I continued. "There is no excuse. Only - only you should know that I can't promise to always do the right thing. I can't promise not to do crappy things. I wish I could, but - the thing is, I know myself, and I don't want to lie to you. Not again. I wanted to believe I could go with you. I told myself that if I told myself hard enough, I could make it happen. That everything tying me down to this stupid planet and this stupid city could just…stop mattering. And they didn't. But that wasn't a good enough reason. There wouldn't be a good enough reason, not to just leave you like I did. And I really am sorry."
He looked at me for a long moment, and apparently whatever he saw on my face was enough, because he nodded slightly to himself. "I guess it doesn't really matter," he said, his voice gentler. More melancholy. "Since…you'll always stay, and I'll always go."
"…yeah," I said. The last gasps of the dust storm swirled beyond him, outside the window of his bedroom, like the wind itself reached for the horizon.
Nureyev stepped closer, and the absence of that smell of his cologne came with him. God, I missed it more than made any sense, more than I had any right to. "I meant what I said that night, you know. I did fall in love with you. I suppose I hoped that would be enough."
I didn't say anything back. I couldn't think of anything worth saying. Everything I wanted to say would sound hollow or trite or would be a lie from the second it crossed my lips.
Because love - love was like gravity. Get deep enough into it and it was inescapable, an invisible set of chains weighing you down and keeping you trapped. Nureyev had a ticket out of this particular gravity well, but me? No matter what I tried, this planet - and Hyperion City - would just slingshot me right back to where I was.
And then it struck me just how completely self-pitying that idea was.
It came on so suddenly it was almost laughable: like I could see Sasha sitting at the Pour and Floor, listening to my latest philosophical description of Life As I Knew It As A Fourteen-Year-Old and rolling her eyes. I could practically hear her, too: "If you're going to be dramatic, Juno, pick a metaphor for love that isn't something humanity conquered centuries ago."
I could practically hear her saying something else, too: "Try harder."
So I did. I tried harder, and I crossed the distance between us, and I bunched my hands in Peter Nureyev's coat and pulled him to me to kiss him for all he was worth. I tasted his lips, passed my tongue over the stale taste of Dark Matters nutrient paste, breathed in the sour sweat-smell of all the hours he'd gone since his last shower, layered over one another from poison to concert to grand reveal. I let go of his coat to grab his hip with one hand and trace up his shoulder blade with the other, looping around the back of his neck to keep him where I wanted him, working my way under the bottom of his untucked shirt and running my fingers through the stubble at the base of his skill.
And he kissed back, met my lips with his own, opened his mouth to me and slid his tongue along mine, found my skin with his fingertips slipping underneath my shirt to skate along the side of my ribcage.
When he pulled back, he gasped for air and said, winded, "Your breath is terrible."
I said, "Come back to me."
There were only inches between us, and I watch his pupils as he searched my face, refocusing for each depth as he looked for answers. "What?" he said.
"If I'll always stay and you'll always go, fine. Go. And then come back to me, until you get the itch and have to leave again, and then, when you've done whatever you have to do, come back to me again."
We were frozen for a moment, breathing each other's breath, and I saw the second he realized I meant it. And that was all I had the chance to see before he was kissing me back.
I guess we stumbled into the bedroom and towards the bed, but I'm not convinced I moved my feet - it just happened sometime between feeling the heat of his skin seeping off of him, his proximity like the thrill of electricity or irresistible magnetism or some force the universe hadn't discovered yet and couldn't even begin to reckon with. His fingers ran up my spine and I nearly tripped us - I could feel his smile in response against my lips.
Suddenly the bed was behind us, or rather, behind me, and he crowded me back onto it. Not that it took much persuasion. He wrenched away from me and gasped, "Pillows are that way, Juno, let's be civilized about this."
"Seriously?" I grumbled, but I turned so we were facing the right way in the bed. Despite his complaint, he didn't let me actually put my head on the pillow - instead he intercepted me while I was still upright, one hand under my thigh urging me up until my back was against the headboard.
"There we go," he said, straddling me, and yeah, okay, it wasn't half-bad.
I pulled his head down and bit his lower lip, gently, just a light scrape of teeth, but his breath caught and his hips bucked. I let his lip run between my teeth with just a little more pressure, pushing up into him - even though we were still clothed, why were we still clothed when clothes were so stupid - and he let out a soft sound. It was a glorious sound. I don't think he meant to make it. But he had, and I had made him. That broken half-syllable was mine.
There was nothing gentle about his response. He took my face in both hands, possessive and hungry, his fingers curling and nails scraping the skin at the back of my skull as he pulled me closer. I went, letting one hand slide its way up his torso while the other found the knob at the back of his hipbone, and he moved against me with just enough friction to drive the air from my lungs.
"So," I said with what little breath I still had, "is that a 'yes,' then?"
He huffed out a laugh and hitched my leg up over his hip. The brief moment of contact earlier couldn't hold a candle to the pressure of his body against mine now. If I'd been standing up, I would've staggered. As it was, my head lolled back against the headboard, and he took advantage of the new angle to bracket me with his arms and suck the tender spot where my neck met the back of my ear with relentless determination.
I clutched at him to stay upright, or as close as I could like this, anyway - with my leg where it was I didn't have much traction and he swept his hands around the back of me and up, leaning back just far enough to pull my shirt off. Then he was right back at it, blowing on the hickey he'd just left and immediately tracing it with his tongue, and I moaned in surprise, giving voice to a full breath and jutting my hips against his.
He lifted his head again, just enough so that I could see the smug and satisfied smile and a wicked rise to one eyebrow as one of his hands closed over my wrists, pinning them above me and my breath hitched again as I inched closer to better access, closer contact, more -
The telltale click and whir of gravitic handcuffs immediately preceded a heavy pressure across my wrists, really pinning them to the headboard.
"What's that old Earth saying?" Nureyev said, leaning back to adjust the cuffs on his shirt - that smug bastard, he was still wearing even though he'd done away with mine. "'Turnabout is fair play?'"
I looked up, and sure enough, there they were: thick metal cuffs arcing over each of my wrists, flat then round then flat again like the world's most expensive - and frustrating - inchworm. How the hell had he managed to get both of my hands at once.
"Since you seemed so keen earlier tonight on revisiting our first night together, I figured this would only be appropriate," he said, and let all of his weight shift back into my lap. "You teased me with handcuffs that night, too, and, well, after all that buildup I think I deserve some payoff, don't you?"
I kept breathing heavily, wondering - no, he wouldn't just leave me here, even though I'd left him in that hotel room -
"You're a beautiful sight like this," he said quietly, looking me over. "I could drink in this view all night."
I licked my lips. "Technically it's daytime."
Nureyev glanced out the window, surprised. "So it is. Huh. That would explain the exhaustion."
I stared at him, still gasping for breath. "We could...take a raincheck, I guess, if you - "
"Oh, heavens, no," he said, laying his palms on my stomach. I could feel the head from him all over now, even where we weren't touching. From his legs, his stomach, his hands, pouring off of him like Martians sands in the wind. My pulse beat through my entire body, every heartbeat like a physical blow. I wanted to rise up to meet him, cover his lips with mine. I wanted to wrap myself in him like a blanket. I wanted to make him make that sound again. And as his fingers curled against my stomach in a whisper-light touch, the look in his eyes made me think maybe he wanted that too.
"Okay," I said, not entirely sure what I was agreeing to.
"I'm just saying that, given that I was fatally poisoned a day ago, held at knifepoint just a few hours ago, and also slept for at most an hour last night - well, the spirit is willing, but the flesh may not be." He looked me up and down again. "I'm sure I can think of a few things to do to you, of course."
My mouth went dry. "Well, I can try to, ah, inspire you. If you want."
He looked at me, his expression going soft and fond for just a second before he blinked it away. "Oh, to hell with it," he said, and then his lips were against mine again, his body was against mine, the hand that wasn't bracing him against the headboard was at the small of my back pulling me closer.
And I kissed back, I pushed back, I arched against him as much as I could without tearing my arms off at the shoulders, I tightened my leg over his hip and damn well pulled him closer like a throwback shepherd's crooking yanking a bad performer off a stage. He hummed his approval into my mouth, sucking on my tongue, and all I wanted to do was run my fingers through his hair, hold his head where I could keep kissing it, draw him in until I'd had a chance to rub every inch of my skin over every inch of his -
Except the damn handcuffs.
I broke away from him with a gasp and spoke, the words carried by panted breaths despite my best attempts to keep my tone conversational. "You know, it's going to be a little hard - " he raised an eyebrow - "yeah, haha, it's going to be a little hard to get my damn pants off with my hands like this - "
"A duty I'll happily take up myself," Nureyev said, swinging his leg over and off me to unfasten my pants.
My head fell back against the headboard as he undid my fly, and my breath turned to hissing when he put a hand flat against my waistline, skin to skin, and he hooked his fingers into my panties - then stopped moving.
"What do you think?" he said. "Should I just leave you like this, laid out and debauched for anyone to see?"
"You'll have to get on with the debauching if you want to do that," I said through gritted teeth.
"That's true," he conceded, and stroked under my waistband, idly, possessively. "I rather like you like this, you know."
"Impatient?" I said, lifting my hips for emphasis.
"I was going to say 'pushy,' but I suppose it's all the same," he said.
"You want pushy? Let me out of these cuffs and I can give you pushy."
A smile bloomed over his face. "Yes, that's exactly what I mean." He slid up to kiss me again, at an angle that put his body firmly against mine again. Good. I zeroed in on the spot he'd exploited so well on me, on the side of his neck, and scraped my teeth against it. He'd liked that before, in the hotel room - I was almost relieved that he still did. The answering shudder was almost as good as the way he pushed his face into my shoulder and breathed hard against my skin, so I did it again and he finally, finally started to move, rocking against me so lazily I wasn't sure he knew he was doing it.
I sure as hell noticed, and dug my heel into his back to encourage him. It worked a little too well, since the motion pushed my pants open just far enough that I felt him moving through only my panties, and I couldn't hold back the moan.
"Well, now," he murmured, and rearranged himself to palm me through the thin fabric. I wanted to fall into that hand. It seemed just as possible as anything else right now. "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you - "
"Don't you dare," I said, and groaned as he circled his fingers around my dick, still through my underwear.
"You're not exactly in a position to bargain," he said mildly, and I - yeah. I liked that.
I liked it so much he could feel it, and he beamed at me. "So you are happy to see me. I rather thought so."
"God, you're a mouthy - "
"Not yet I'm not," he said, and immediately made good on his promise, pulling my pants and panties down as he edged back in the bed. Once they were far enough down, he leaned over and ran his tongue along the length of my dick.
I gritted my teeth, trying to keep quiet, to - to - what, to keep him from the satisfaction of hearing me, so he wouldn't know what an effect he had on me? That didn't seem right.
And it all went right out the window, anyway, when he took me into his mouth. I might've said words. There was definitely volume to it, but probably not a lot of sense. He felt too good for that, gripping the hilt of my cock with one hand and cupping my balls with the other as he worked me with his mouth, sometimes just lips, sometimes just the tip of his tongue against my slit as his breath rustled over the sensitive skin where he'd just been. He kissed a trail down the side, then applied his tongue to the base, then hummed against me until I was writhing, but he kept his other hand clamped to my hip to keep me steady.
And - and it was him, he was giving me this, he was going to come back for me even though I'd thought I'd screwed it up forever -
I looked down at him, secondhand sunrise shining off the spit and precome coating his face when he looked up at my movement. Meeting my eyes, he lowered his head again, slow enough for me to watch every centimeter of flushed skin disappear under his pinked lips. My fingernails scraped against the headboard as I tried to ground myself, counterbalance the wet and hot and tight seal of his lips, find an anchor even though my head was swimming, and he still looked at me, watched me with intent and desire -
This was what he wanted. He wanted to watch me come undone, my every reaction brought on by his mouth or hands or even just his nearness, and he hadn't even taken my pants all the way off but damn if he wasn't almost there, if he didn't have me right where he wanted me.
He knew it, too. I could see it in his eyes, the way he was going red at the cheekbones and the jerky, intermittent pressure of his hand on the inside of my thigh, holding my legs apart while he worked.
If it was a show he wanted, I'd make sure I got mine, too.
"You going to stay down there all night, or are you going to fuck me?" I said.
He smiled around me, the muscles in his mouth contracting and stretching around my dick. Then he brought his head back, careful not to snag me with his teeth, and said, "Pushy."
But one of his hands left my thigh, tracing back to cup my balls for the briefest moment before thoughtfully stroking further.
I held my breath, and he kissed the inside of my thigh as his hand moved, probing and testing. There was so much I wanted to say to him, so many more apologies and so many ways I wanted to make everything up to him, so many lazy afternoons and bad takeout meals and minor meaningless back-and-forths over him hogging the blankets - because he would absolutely be the type to hog the blankets, I could already tell - that I wanted to share with him, but I didn't know how to say it. I didn't know how to take the messy tangle of everything I was feeling and everything I was doubting and the goddamn fear of what if we tried to make this work and failed anyway...how was I supposed to turn that into words?
"If you're not up for it tonight," I said, my heartbeat speeding up in a way that had nothing to do with my dick, "then we could try it next time?"
I didn't mean for it to come out as a question, but the look he gave me, the soft and wondrous and hungry look, was somehow an answer.
He sat back, yanked off his own shirt, and began fumbling with his fly. "I," he told me, "am going to be very sore tomorrow."
I glanced out the window. "Technically later today."
He gave me a half-irritated clear. "You're just being pedantic." Then his fingers stilled. "Ah. I'm afraid this is - a bit more than I expected," he admitted after a moment. "I admit it, love, you caught me unprepared."
If I was dizzy before, I downright reeled now. My brain caught on that love that careless syllable of affection.
Then I pulled against the gravitic handcuff. "Oh, so you came prepared to handcuff me to the bed but not actually to have sex?"
"Well, I didn't think the handcuffs would be for you," he protested. "I didn't know you were going to be here when I packed for this trip."
"So you just brought handcuffs because...?"
"In case I needed to handcuff anyone. Obviously."
I sighed. "Try the drawers above the bed."
Nureyev looked at the pattern of tiles above the bed. "Oh! They're drawers. Imagine that." He frowned. "Do you know, I've been here for a week and I didn't notice?"
"Just push on them to open them."
He did so, pulling himself up on his knees to peer into the drawers. This had the additional benefit of putting the bottom of his ribcage level with my mouth, and I took advantage, planting sloppy kisses on every bit of skin in front of me.
I could feel his shiver. "This is just going to take longer if you keep distracting me," he told me.
"I'm not sorry," I mumbled into his solar plexus.
"Well," he said, "they're certainly...well-stocked here, aren't they." He brought one arm down, dangling a lacy and intricate black domino mask in front of my face. "Should we have a party, Juno?"
I blew at it until he put it back with a chuckle. "What is it with rich people and masquerades? Seriously." I heard a soft thumping from the floor beside the bed, but I couldn't turn to look because my arm was in the way, and something occurred to me. "And don't take anything!"
He sat back down just in time for me to see the face he pulled, like he'd been grievously wounded. "Detective Steel! You know me better than that," he chided.
I sighed. "You took everything, didn't you."
"A lot of it, yes." He held a pair of opera glasses in front of his eyes briefly. "You never know what life will throw at you, after all. It pays to be prepared."
"Except in this case, right now, when you're stealing from the sexy minibar because you forgot to bring condoms to a seduction, but hey. At least you have opera glasses."
"You seduced me," he said, tossing the opera glasses off the bed into presumably the same pile where he'd put everything else. On the bed on my other side, he put down a bottle of lube and several sealed condoms. "Now. Where were we? Ah, yes." He backed up again and finally, finally, pulled off my shoes, pants and underwear. Then he straightened and contemplated the condoms he'd laid out.
"I assume you know how to use those?" I said pointedly.
He didn't take the bait, just said, "Of course," absently and tore one open, even though his pants were still on - smeared with spit and my precome, no less, and the tent in the crotch was obvious. Instead, to my surprise, he laid it on the tip of my dick and, pinching the tip with meticulous attention, began to roll it down my shaft.
"Whuh - " The syllable became a hiss as he tightened his grip on his way down, and then a grunt as he followed it with his tongue. It was a different sensation than before, a quick blunt pressure compared to wet overstimulation, but it caught me off guard the whole way down.
When he was done, he straightened again. "It's easier to clean up this way," he explained, and gave my dick a satisfied pat that felt excellent parts amazing and condescending.
"Did you just - " I said, then sighed. "Never mind. Are you ever going to shut up and take off your pants?"
"Well, when you put it like that," Nureyev said, and pulled his belt off - only to lean over and begin carefully unlacing his shoes.
I let my head fall back with frustration. "You're just messing with me now, aren't you."
"Me? Why, I would never." He toed off his now-unlaced shoes, and began unzipping his fly, one metal tooth at a time. "Lies and libel."
"Slander, technically. Libel's only in writing."
"We'll call it general calumny, then, and leave it at that." Once the shirt was off, the view was worth it: A decent coat of chest hair, dark and fine, thickened just below his navel and trailed down under the waist of his underwear. He was wiry and lean with softened edges, a figure of a man who spent equal amounts of time scaling buildings to crawl through windows and conning his way into decadent dinners and parties, rather than paying attention to building muscle definition. He noticed me looking and raised an eyebrow. "Enjoying the view? Or should I borrow a blindfold from your drawer?"
I shivered, and his smile grew edged. His erection strained against his underwear now, obvious and waiting, and his impatience must've won out since he didn't waste time on the blindfold, just finally - finally - got fully naked.
"Next time," he promised, returning himself to his previous position between my legs. I only got a glimpse of his dick, short but thick, eager and glistening -
Then he came in for another kiss. The motion pushed us against each other and he gasped into my mouth as his dick bumped against mine. I arched my back so our stomachs touched, then used the little leverage I had with my thighs to push my hips up to meet his, drawing our lengths against each other. Even with the sensation diluted by the condom, my heart sped up, and I laid a careless, distracted kiss on his jaw, then the pulse point on his throat, then the hollow where his collarbones met as I kept moving against him.
He had himself braced with one hand, but the other grabbed my ass, pulling me closer and kneading as best he could. Under my tongue, I could feel the small shifts in his throat as he panted, the way his breath hitched each time my direction reversed, the moments that he almost made a sound. He moved with me, though, finding the same instinctive rhythm I'd started and pulling on me only when I moved towards him.
We really made a great team.
The tip of his dick slicked my pelvis with precome, and he ducked his head to capture my lips again with his. I could've kissed him all night - or day - long, particularly like this, now that pleasure was making him careless, disrupting his intent and giving me long moments to just breathe in his breath, his nearness and focus on the feeling of him against me. Sweat broke out on the both of us, and he was drawing tight as a bow as we moved together -
"How - how gentle do you - " he said, his voice shaky.
"It's…" I broke off halfway through, as his fingers pressed against my hole. "It's been a while."
He managed a bit of that collected, debonair catburglar's composure as he said, "Duly noted," and pulled himself off me. Suddenly I felt every inch of our skin that had been touching, his absence like ice as I let myself fall back onto the bed.
The telltale tearing of a condom wrapper. I looked up in time to watch him unroll it over himself, his eyes going half-lidded and his hands lingering on the downwards caress. The condom made sense - it would be slick, and it really had been a while since I'd done this. Hell, since I'd done anything, with anyone. Since I'd let someone get this close.
Nureyev grabbed the bottle of lube for extra assurance. He popped the cap open and squirted some onto his fingers -
Only for the bedroom to fill immediately with the cloyingly sweet smell of cotton candy.
"Really, Juno?" he asked, wrinkling his nose. "Really?"
I tilted my head, trying to find an angle where I could look into the drawer. "I didn't stock it! And there's got to be more in there. Something a little less - hnng - "
Words went out the window as Nureyev's clean hand slid between my hipbone and the bed, caressing downward.
"On second thought," I said, panting, "this is fine."
He smiled at me, secondhand early sunlight dancing off the sweat on his skin. "I agree. Do let me know if I need to be gentler."
"Right now, if you were any gentler, you'd be watching me from afar."
"Well," he said, a layer of testiness falling over his voice even as he leaned down and shot me an irritated look from beneath a quirked eyebrow, "someone has to pay attention to your well-being, seeing as you're terrible at it."
"I do just fine!"
"Oh?" His clean hand left my ass and brushed up my arm, fingers ghosting over the messy clump of scar tissue there. "You got this within twenty-four hours of when we met. Did you forget that? Less than twenty-four hours and you were bleeding all over me. So yes, I'm going to be gentle, and you, my dear detective, can for once in your life attempt to be patient."
It came out almost playful when he said it, but the tense lines around his mouth disagreed with his tone. I couldn't argue, either. For some reason, I tended to bleed a lot around him. Maybe that old Earth saying was wrong, and the fastest way to a person's heart was actually their circulatory system. Might explain a lot.
"Fine," I said. "Gentle it is."
"Good," Nureyev said, then hesitated. He added, "I'm also a bit tired, so there's also that," and without missing a beat took me into his mouth down to my hilt.
I'll say this for him: he may have been gentle, but he was thorough. His lubricated fingers filled me by inches, stretching and massaging, even as he kept me distracted from how unfamiliar it was after so long. If he was rusty, it didn't show: his lips pressed along my dick at the same moment that his finger stroked into me, his tongue swirled across the head as he pulled his finger out, and he palmed my balls as he paused to let me gasp for breath.
"Relax, Juno," he murmured, his free hand coming to rest in the shallow valley left by my hipbones.
"Counterproductive," I managed to mutter as the contact raised goosebumps.
"I," he enunciated, "am a man of many contradictions."
I opened my mouth in the hopes that a smartass comment would fill it, but he leaned towards me, the fingers of his left hand still buried in me, the motion tugging and shifting just enough to distract me. Then he put two fingers of his right hand against my bottom lip, letting them slip into my still-open mouth, and stroked his left hand in just enough to make my world contract to just the two of us, the feeling shooting through me like lightning. His touch crackled, every shift of breath felt like a caress, and already my hands had stopped clutching the headboard and had just relaxed into it, helpless against the tide of pleasure that shortened my breath.
I closed my lips around his fingers and sucked, letting my tongue slide between them and pull along them, and in my pleasure-soaked haze I caught sight of his expression as he watched his fingers in my mouth, teetering on the edge of focused and wrecked; it wasn't just me, it wasn't just my universe that was suddenly made up of this room, this bed, this skin-on-skin and this singleminded purpose -
Nureyev's eyes met mine. There was no hesitancy there, but there wasn't any of his confidence either, no fake name to hide behind, no pretense or seduction. There was only need, and desire, and the precipice of what this could be - the future this could bring with it.
I pulled my head away from his fingers and pulled myself forward far enough that that my shoulders protested, and something hot popped in one of my arms, but I ignored it because I was close enough to kiss him again.
This time I kept my eyes open, and he did too, even though the angle was terrible to maintain eye contact. But we tried, and if it was sloppy, it was better than nothing.
He drew back again, sliding his fingers out of me, and took a deep breath. "Are you - " he said, and faltered. "Is this what you want?"
I wasn't sure if he meant this, right now, or everything that was coming with it, so I just said, "Yeah. I'm sure. Let's try to make this work." But then, just to make sure there was no ambiguity, I added, "And I'd also really like you to be inside me now if that's all right with you, thank you very much."
Nureyev laughed, and turned his attention to lining everything up. His breath came heavy and ragged, and while most of me wondered if I could get him to make that sound again, something else occurred to me.
"Hey, can I - " My breath hitched as I felt him right at my entrance, but he had really poor timing in when he chose to be a gentleman - he looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to finish my sentence. I cleared my throat and tried to gather my thoughts. "I keep calling you Nureyev," I said. "Can I call you Peter?"
He stared at me in wonder. Then he started talking and I realized he was in wonder at how stupid I was. "That is generally the point of one's name, Juno."
"No - I just mean, you know, you have that whole thing about your name - "
"Yes, and I told it to you," he said, exasperated. "Quite a while ago. A ridiculously long time ago, even. I appreciate your diligence in guarding my real name from others, but, honestly, Juno - " He gestured down towards where, admittedly, his dick was about to enter my ass. "I think we're a bit past that now."
"Well, I don't know, what if the room is - is bugged, or something?"
"Then you just said my name when you were asking me anyway!" he said, and then we both froze for a moment of terrified contemplation of what it might mean if the rooms were genuinely bugged.
"Let's not worry about bugs for now," I suggested.
"Wonderful idea, Juno," he said. "Now may I continue, or would you like to - "
"No, no, by all means."
"Excellent," he said, and thrust in.
I knew immediately that I wasn't going to last long, but the way his eyes fluttered shut and his head tipped forward in pleasure made me think that he wasn't going to, either, so that was fine. I wrapped both my legs around his waist and he obligingly picked up the same rhythm we'd been using before.
All my other senses faded away as we moved together. After the first few thrusts, he scrambled one of his hands to my dick and began to stroke, sending crackles of electricity up my spine - every muscle in my body started twitching to try to get me closer to him, to take more of him, to feel more of him and make sure he was feeling the same -
He made that sound again, a voiced fluttering noise like he'd forgotten how not to be vocal, and I said, "God, yes, Peter - "
The new noise he made was closer to a whine, and his hips jerked out of the rhythm.
"You're so beautiful like this," he breathed. "You're so - Juno, you feel so - "
My shoulders burned from taking so much of my weight, but as far as I was concerned, they could shut up and wait. I pulled myself up a little to change the angle on him, and he gasped, his hand stuttering on my dick.
I wasn't sure I knew how to use my voice anymore, but I forced the words out. "C'mon, Peter, c'mon, that's it - "
A tremor overtook him and his mouth opened soundlessly as he came, and I could hardly believe I did that to him, that I made him look like this, wrecked and sweaty and yeah, we were definitely both going to be sore tomorrow but there was something about his pleasure that looked so honest, like this was the core of him suddenly exposed, this joy and contentedness -
I could tell from the shift in his shoulders that he was about to pull out, but I tightened my legs around him as well as I could manage when I was half-boneless from pleasure myself.
"No," I said, "don't, I want you inside me when - "
He didn't let me finish my sentence, just covered my lips with his and began pumping my dick furiously with his hand and it was so much, just on the edge of too much, I couldn't keep track of where his lips were to kiss him back, couldn't keep track of my my lips were as my world tightened to his grip on me, the weight of him on the back of my thighs, the way he filled me up and his aftershocks still pulsed inside me -
His lips moved against the shell of my ear as he whispered, "I like it when you say my name, Juno, say it again."
"Peter," I said helplessly, so close I couldn't breathe, the pleasure blocking out everything else and driving the air from my lungs.
"Good," he said, his voice full of satisfaction, and he moved again, just enough to push me over the edge, and the waves of pleasure rolled through me until I was wrung out.
With my legs now limp, he pulled out and collapsed next to me, rolling over onto his back. I was still handcuffed to the headboard, and I was aware, dimly and somewhere far away, that that probably wouldn't work for the whole night. Day. Whatever.
I didn't let myself care. Instead I watched through half-lidded eyes as Peter slipped off first his condom, then mine, tying them neatly and walking them to the trash can. Or maybe the bathroom. I didn't really care about that, either.
"You know, I'd help you clean up, but someone decided to put me in these handcuffs," I said sloppily. God, I couldn't even talk right after that.
Peter returned, trudging to the bed like his exhaustion would win out any second now. "I don't recall you complaining when you said you wanted me inside you when you came," he noted, but he sat on his knees at the top of the bed next to me.
"Yeah, I guess it's nice to have an excuse," I said, and my mouth fell into a lopsided smile without my meaning to.
"Very nice," Peter repeated, leaning in for a brief kiss. One of his hands reached above me, and judging by the angle, I'd say the handcuffs used a thumbprint lock. Peter's other hand reached up and tossed them off the side of the bed, but he kept himself leaned against me, keeping my arms up. "Don't try to bring them down too fast - they might cramp."
"I know," I said. "This isn't my first time in handcuffs."
"Oh? Now I expect a full report. Maybe even a demonstration." His face hovered closer to mine, then he winced. "Sometime when I'm not so sore."
"Yeah," I agreed, beginning the process of letting my arms come down, "maybe this wasn't such great timing."
"I can't say I regret it," Peter said airily.
"I'm great at bad timing," I said, and he leaned his forehead against my shoulder. I tilted my head forward, kissing the crown of his head, and breathed in deeply.
"Juno," he said, his voice flat, "are you sniffing me."
"I - I was just trying to catch a whiff of your cologne. Don't blame me for your great taste in trademark scents."
He chuckled, half-asleep, and eventually my arms came all the way down and we curled up together. Or more specifically, he curled up on me, covering me like a blanket and looping one arm around me to keep me in place. I almost told him that if he didn't move, we were going to find out just how much of me I could lose feeling in, and then I decided it was worth it.
We drifted off like that, even though we smelled horrible, had been drugged this way and that over the past day, weren't remotely clean or hygienic, hadn't had meaningful sleep in longer than was healthy, and also Peter's weight was probably going to give me nerve damage in at least fifty percent of my body, even as skinny as he was.
I think it was the best sleep I've ever had.
And I woke up the next morning alone.
I half-expected it, to be honest, and once I woke up enough to realize where I was and who wasn't there with me, I let myself stay still in the uncertainty for a solid minute. Maybe he was making coffee. Maybe he'd stepped into the bathroom. Maybe he'd just left early, to make sure Dark Matters didn't catch him, and he'd be back on my doorstep before I knew it. Or maybe this was that turnabout that he'd told me was fair play.
I stayed there, not moving on the bed, for longer than I care to admit. Although also, basically everything hurt.
But eventually I made myself sit up. The sun was setting now, pouring light into the room and showing every corner that no longer had Peter Nureyev's belongings and illuminating the kind of silence that only came from being alone in a room.
Then I saw the note on the nightstand, underneath a black domino mask. I pushed the mask away and snatched up the note.
Dear Juno -
Obligations to keep, jobs to finish, Dark Matters agents to outrun, etc.
Until we meet again - sooner rather than later, I'm sure. In fact, I'll make sure.
All my love,
You know my name.
PS: Really, though, brush your teeth. Your breath was weapons-grade even before it somehow ended up smelling like cotton candy.
I smiled down at it, feeling heat flood my chest. Although it might have been cramps from the handcuffs. Then I frowned and fanned the note towards me.
The scent of Peter Nureyev's cologne wafted over me.
How did this get so long? How did it get so late when I'm posting this? I did try to get this up by yesterday, and obviously that didn't happen, so I guess we'll all just have to settle for within twenty-four-hours of the latest episode drop. (Which I haven't listened to yet so please no spoilers in the comments.)
If you liked this, or hated it, or want to know my precise reasoning behind every song I referenced in this story and/or what my soundtrack was for each chapter (spoiler alert: there is a nonzero amount of Miley Cyrus), feel free to come by my tumblr!