The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

This was a literary retort to critics who slammed the science-fiction tropes in the Quinn stories--anti-grav in the ships and space stations, FTL space travel, and Quinn's reliance on her genetic gifts as opposed to technoporn geegaws.

There are different schools of thought about technology in science fiction; some feel the "black box" technology of Star Trek has watered-down the science aspect of the genre. I personally feel that technoporn tends to be over-emphasized in science fiction.

Stripped of our gadgets, we are still very vulnerable creatures.

The Bridgeport Job

by Holly Messinger

October, 2004
all rights reserved

Quinn waited until Carlo was asleep before easing out from under him. She was less disappointed than she was disgusted with herself. Why did casual sex look like so much fun when other people did it?

Carlo muttered and rolled toward her; she slipped nimbly out of reach and he engulfed her pillow in a meaty embrace. He began to snore gently.

She sighed. Carlo was a bodyguard for one of Zoja's guests—one of the planetary ambassadors, she couldn't remember which—and she'd had a lot of fun with him in the gym, showing off throws and joint locks. He had made her laugh, and it was nice to work out with a young man again, although she'd had to hold back a bit—it didn't help a man's ego to realize she was stronger than he.

Music wafted up through the balcony doors as Quinn skulked around his room in the half-dark, squinting to find her dress and underwear on the floor. She could see perfectly well in the dark, but Zoja insisted she wear these stupid contact lenses around the guests, to conceal the catlike shape of her pupils. The faint light from the pavillions caught the edges of the lenses, creating a corona in her peripheral vision.

She spotted her shoe next to the armchair, glided over to collect it, and stubbed her little toe on the ottoman. A shriek of pain was caught behind her teeth and came out sounding like a high-pitched grunt.

Carlo stirred. "Quinn?"

"Umph," she said, gracefully. "Ugh. Sorry, Carlo, I got paged. Zoja needs me." She stepped into the dress as she spoke, glad she hadn't worn stockings tonight.

"Hey," he said, sitting up. She knew he couldn't see her in the shadow of the curtain, but she could see well enough; his expression was puzzled. "You all right?"

"Yeah," she said, wriggling a shoe onto the undamaged foot, hoping the other toe wasn't sheared off, or something. "Yeah, I just got to go." Feeling guilty, she limped back to the bedside and gave him a quick, hard kiss on the lips. His arm came up around her but she twisted away.

He caught her hand. "Hey. What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she said. "I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

"Okay." He sounded hurt. Big, dumb male, professional bruiser, and she'd hurt his feelings. She felt like a fool. Her skin itched with unfamiliar sweat; she could smell him on her, but the scent was all wrong—wrong sweat, wrong man, wrong reasons.

Oh no, nothing wrong at all.

***

Stephen Zoja's estate on Natoshi, home to the "Silk Emperor" and the fashion center of the galaxy, was a pressure-cooker of hedonism. Every three months, Zoja threw a house party to launch the new season's line, and invited a ravening horde of celebrities, models, and political luminaries to descend on the planet.

Quinn had been on Natoshi for almost two years, and she'd gotten used to the cyclic freneticism. She'd learned to converse with people who used to intimidate her into mute paralysis, partly because she'd seen that having money didn't make people any smarter or kinder. The fashion designers were as ruthless as gang lords, everybody with their own tiny piece of turf that they defended like rabid dogs. The models abused drugs and sex as wantonly as any stardusting street-whore, and the fashion critics were as vicious as the worst of the gun-runners, even if they cut people up with words instead of laserblades and machetes.

But even though she'd learned to feel at home on Natoshi, she still got depressed during Zoja's house parties. Everybody seemed to belong to a group but her. It was worse, this time, with Justin around. She had a few admirers among Zoja's artist friends, but Justin was the golden boy—Zoja's protégé, rarely on Natoshi, so with him in attendance she got shuffled to the background. She got to feeling small and grubby and rather like a poor relation hanger-on, and in that frame of mind she was inclined to make foolish decisions.

At least the house was peaceful during the morning hours, while the guests were sleeping off last night's excesses. Quinn had slept reasonably well. Fifteen laps in the pool had worked off the sexual frustration and the aftertaste of stupidity.

She was grateful, this morning, that Zoja had insisted on her moving into the family wing, at the south end of the house. It put her closer to Zoja and to her tai hui teacher, Master Tan. She could walk around in workout clothes, without the damn contact lenses. It also ensured Carlo wouldn't drop in on her unannounced.

Unfortunately, living in the private wing deprived her of the buffer of other guests at breakfast. Zoja was waiting for her when she came down. He was disgustingly fresh and alert, even though he habitually got no more than an hour or two of sleep when there was a house party.

"Good morning, angel," Zoja said, laying down his newsscreen as she bent to kiss his temple. She had gotten fond of the old man. He had always been kind to her, even though Justin had foisted her on him. Zoja had found teachers for her: elocution, history, languages, dance, martial arts. He had given her clothes, taught her poise and self-control and the art of conversation. After twenty months on Natoshi, she was beginning to believe his affection was genuine. He had started telling people she was his goddaughter.

"I heard you turned in early," Zoja said, as she filled a plate from the sideboard.

She cringed, mentally, but was not surprised. Zoja knew everything that went on in his house. "Yeah, I guess."

"Sleep well?" Zoja's eyes were on his stock figures, but Quinn was not fooled. He had tossed several handsome young men into her path, when she first came to Natoshi. When she shied away, he'd tactfully offered to find her another kind of teacher, but it wasn't sex that scared her. Zoja knew all the gory details of how her last relationship had ended; he just didn't think it was healthy to deprive herself of a basic human need because of what one bastard had done to her. Quinn wished she could be as pragmatic about it.

"Why don't you just ask me if I slept with him?" Quinn said, buttering a piece of toast.

"Did you?"

"Sleep, no. Screw, yes."

"You don't have to be crude about it, angel. Was he good?"

"Not particularly."

"Pity. That was Ambassador Shallah's young man, wasn't he?"

"I think so," Quinn said. "Bodyguard."

"Well, you're certainly doing your part for interplanetary relations. That makes, what, six this month?"

"I didn't sleep with all of them, Stephen. Just because you see me flirting with someone doesn't mean I'm going to take him to bed."

"Might do you some good," Justin drawled from the doorway.

"Oh joy," Quinn said, injecting disdain into her voice. "The morning after has arrived."

Justin grinned at her, that annoying, charming, insincere grin that twisted her guts every time. He looked perfectly put together, despite the early hour. His golden curls gleamed, his jaw was clean-shaven, his clothes looked like they had just happened to fall onto his body in a coordinated way. He sauntered into the dining room and poured himself a cup of coffee.

He was supposed to be her boss, but lately he seemed more like the older brother she'd never live up to. They had met on the orbitdock at Blue Haven, two days after her parole. He had offered her a job as a courier, ostensibly for his information brokerage operation, but Quinn knew now he had picked her up on spec. Justin had an instinct for investments. He had gotten a look at her inhuman eyes and realized she might be worth something. He had even backtracked her to Earth, found the records from the old lab, and tried to sell her gene blueprints on the open market, using her as a visual aid. Their relationship had gone steadily downhill from there.

He had been gone too much while Zoja was training her, Quinn thought, shoveling scrambled eggs into her mouth and avoiding looking at him. He still thought she was the grubby little dock-rat he'd picked up at Blue Haven. He still thought she was a mark to be manipulated.

"So how was the Italian Stallion?" Justin asked, smirking into his coffee cup.

Quinn made a disgusted noise. "Bite me, Lightburne."

"Thanks, but I'm not into sloppy seconds."

"You say that as if you had a chance," she said sweetly.

Justin snorted. "You know, Quinn, while I'm ever so glad you're working through your Electra complex, I'd think you could do it with a bit more discretion."

"Discretion?" she hooted. "You were licking cognac off that redhead's fake tits."

Zoja grimaced. "Quinn, please."

"Sorry."

"In the first place," Justin said, "it was her shoulder. In the second place, they are not fake, trust me. In the third place, jealousy doesn't look good on you, kitten."

"Jealousy had nothing to do with it. It was nausea. And I do not have an Electra complex."

"You don't even know what that means."

"Au contraire, mon patron, but seeing as how I don't have a father—"

"I was talking about Ladron."

Quinn's fist clenched on her fork; that was hitting below the belt. Seth Ladron had been the last man to make her over. She had lived with him for three years. His testimony had put her in prison for two. "Ladron's dead."

"I'm aware of that, but you keep trying to resurrect him. Don't think I haven't noticed the type. Thirty to thirty-five, tall, dark, beefy, extra points for psychotic behavior—"

"Sounds like you're the one with the fixation," she said acidly. She didn't know why she was letting him bait her like this. So she'd finally taken one of her sparring partners to bed—she'd been celibate damn near three years, and tai chi just wasn't cutting it any more. Besides, why should she worry about discretion—she was scouting lovers out of the hired help, while Justin made passes at politicians' wives.

"You know," Zoja said, stirring his coffee, "you two should really try the chocolate cake. It's exceptionally good this morning."

"For breakfast?" Justin shuddered. "Makes my teeth feel fuzzy just thinking about it."

Zoja went on as if he hadn't heard. "I find when I have a craving for chocolate, it's best to indulge it. Otherwise I eat far too many pancakes and bonbons and muffins trying to make up for what I won't let myself have."

Quinn and Justin stared at him.

Zoja snapped his newsscreen closed as he pushed back his chair. "Now, much as I'd like to stay and absorb more vulgarity, I have business to conduct this morning. I'll be at the silk hatcheries, if anyone needs me. Try not to need me." He kissed the tips of his fingers to them, and left the room.

Quinn glanced at Justin, who was looking at her. He seemed about to say something. She redirected her gaze to her plate. There was a moment of awkward silence.

"I got some more info on Hambani for you," Justin said.

"Is it information or is it data?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"I mean, knowing the guy's brand of underwear doesn't help me get close enough to kill him."

"Don't be dense. If you know your target you can find his weak point."

"Done a lot of assassinations, have you?"

"Hell with this," Justin said, flinging his coffee cup onto the sideboard so hard it broke. "If you're so damned smart then do your own research. Obviously you don't need me for anything."

He left. Quinn forced herself to finish her breakfast, even though it hurt to swallow past the lump in her throat.

***

"Stop, " Master Tan said, exasperated, as she overshot her blocks for the fourth time in as many minutes.

Quinn stepped back, shaking her arms, breathing hard. "Sorry. I'm just—distracted."

"You going to hurt one of us."

"I'm sorry."

"Won't be me." Tan looked her over. "What the matter? Justin again?"

"Shit," Quinn said, putting both palms to her brow and digging in the heels. She repeated it in a couple of other languages, for good measure. "Merde! Go se! He's driving me crazy."

"Look like," Tan said dryly. "What about the job?"

"What, Bridgeport? It's still on, although I keep expecting Antonia to call and tell us Hambani died of old age. I don't think it can be done, sifu, I really don't."

"What the problem?" Tan motioned for her to sit, and she did, frog-legged on the straw mat, gripping her ankles.

"There's no way to get to him. Getting on Bridgeport Station is no big deal—thousands of people go through it every day. Getting into the hotel is no problem—there's all kinds of staff who come and go through there. But Hambani's cordoned off a suite in the Waldorf and put in all his own security measures—bio-scanners, metal and silicon detectors, EEG remotes—all of that is no problem—all my enhancements are genetic, which is why Antonia hired me."

"So what the problem?"

"The problem is nobody goes in or out except his particular staff. There are a dozen who are allowed into Hambani's wing, and three who are allowed into his quarters. Justin's got a nethead on Bridgeport who was able to tap into Hambani's closed-circuit, but all he can do is look. He said the pathways are all coated in neuro-viral defenses that could kill him if he touches them." Quinn took a deep breath. "I could maybe fool the genesinks and the facial-recognition programs if I could lay hands on one of his people, but the real kicker is the nanites."

"What kind?"

"Justin's not sure what they do, but the odds are they're some kind of back-up surveillance system. Justin's trying to find out where Hambani got them, so maybe we can get some counter-nanos to get rid of them—"

"Why get rid of them?" Tan said. "You use force against force, you get zero, right?"

"Yeah, but—"

"No ‘Yeah, but.' What do I teach you? Always use less force. Find the way around. He put all his trust on his machines, but he still a man. Use his strength against him. Find the simple answer."

Quinn nodded, tight-lipped. He didn't understand. Master Tan was a superb teacher, but sometimes she thought he had been in retirement on Natoshi too long.

***

"Don't worry about the time frame," Justin told her, at dinner that evening. "Antonia was willing to invest five or ten years in genomorphing one of her boys. I think she'll be tolerant of a few months."

"But I hate this—having this hanging over my head. I just want to get it done." Quinn applied her knife to the sirloin as if it were to blame.

"Nature of the beast, kitten. If you didn't want to do the work, you shouldn't have taken the job."

"I wasn't complaining about the work, I was complaining about the lack of forward movement. And I didn't have much choice but to take the job, after you offered me up to Antonia like some kind of attack dog—"

"Oh, don't start that again," Justin said. "I made it very clear to Antonia that I was only selling the research data and you weren't part of the deal."

"That didn't stop her from siccing her brute on me."

"Can we not have this argument again?" Zoja said. "Please?"

"You handled yourself well enough," Justin said, getting in the last word before he fell silent.

For several minutes there was only the scrape of cutlery against china.

"You don't have to do it, angel," Zoja said. "I can still farm it out—"

"No," Quinn said. "I said I'd do it and I will."

"You don't have to feel obligated to either of us—"

"I want to do it," Quinn said, with quiet force. This was another argument they'd had too many times. Zoja accepted that she'd killed in self-defense, but he didn't want her doing it for money. Quinn thought that was hypocritical of him; he didn't talk about his life before he'd gone legit, but she bet he'd ordered his share of executions over breakfast.

What she didn't tell him—and he probably already knew—was that she liked it. The stalking, the violence, the high-wire tension of life and death—those were the times she felt most alive, most sure of herself. She sometimes wondered whether the gene tampering in her childhood had shaped her emotional and intellectual development, as well as the physical.

Then again, it might be an acquired taste. Ladron had been quick to realize her physical prowess and had trained her as his bodyguard. Seth Ladron had taught her to associate violence with approval and affection, and then thrown her to the police when she killed one of his lieutenants.

"What I don't like," she said carefully, "is doing all this planning and research at a distance. Antonia hired me because I have all these enhanced senses and fighting training, and I can't even get close to the guy. I'm starting to think a high-tech solution is the right answer—surely you know somebody who deals in counter-nanotech."

"Yeah," Justin said. "But that would be one more person we'd have to cut in on the deal—not to mention one more person who knew you did the job. You may as well take out an ad."

"Hey, you don't run your business by yourself. Even in a simple operation you need backup. Ladron used to—"

"Can I express to you how tired I am of hearing what Ladron used to do?"

"It's what I used to do. He knew more about guerilla tactics than both of us put together—"

"Didn't keep him alive, did it?"

"That's it," Zoja announced, plunking his water glass down on the table. "That's about three degrees past enough. Both of you, get out."

Justin blinked at Zoja, mildly surprised. "Fine, we'll take this to the library—"

"No you won't. You'll take it out of my house. I want you both off the planet in two hours. Go to Bridgeport and don't come back until it's done. I'm sick of this squabbling."

"Oh, Stephen—" Quinn began.

"Don't Stephen me. I mean it. Go. Pack. Get gone. If you're not on the orbitdock shuttle by five o'clock, I'll have Security remove you. And I'll get Liang Tan to help them," he added, with a meaningful look at Quinn. He threw down his napkin and stalked from the room.

Quinn and Justin looked at each other. "Sheesh," she said.

"He sure has been grumpy lately," Justin added.

***

Bridgeport Station was sometimes called the Gateway to the Stars. Where Quinn came from, they referred to it as the Sphincter of the Empire, and variations on that theme. Bridgeport had been one of the first projects of the infant Embassy for Management of Planetary Resources, built soon after the near-simultaneous discoveries of Constantinople and Natoshi. The station handled seventy percent of the shipping and passenger traffic between Earth and the outlying colonies.

Eleven years earlier, a group of anti-Embassy terrorists had seized control of the station by manipulating the life support and artificial gravity. An Embassy fleet commander in the area, having received orders to control the situation, estimated that the terrorists couldn't maintain their stand without life support. He rammed his M-class battleship into the heart of the station, decompressing a third of it and killing some three thousand people. Investigators later determined that the commander of the Pharaoh was drunk and suffering a psychotic break, but Quinn could understand his frustration: the station was damn near impenetrable.

She and Justin took hotel rooms at the Sofitel, deck two-south, in the ritzy part of the station. There was a lovely view of the Bridgeport Victims Memorial through the window of their suite.

Maleke Hambani, as they already knew, was directly across the atrium from them, in the Waldorf. He did not have a window overlooking the Memorial. He was in the Presidential Suite—away from the windows and away from the station's outer skin. He housed his men in the suites on all sides of him. He had his own maid to clean and take the laundry in and out, and his own chef to bring in groceries and prepare them.

"Maybe we can hijack an M-class," Quinn said sourly.

"You're being too pessimistic," Justin said.

"No, I'm being practical. If I'd seen the details of this first, I wouldn't have taken the job." She refrained from saying Ladron had taught her to know when to back off.

Justin's nethead agent at Bridgeport had already supplied diagrams of Hambani's suites, as well as schematics for the station's life-support and utilities. Justin set up a holo-projector on the coffee table in their suite and they ordered room service—coffee, tea, and several kinds of pie—while they considered the logistics of getting into Hambani's rooms.

"The blue lines are the original hotel design," Justin explained, pointing with his fork. "The yellow is where Hambani's made modifications, but I added those in so they're not necessarily to scale."

"That's okay," Quinn said. "They've closed off this front vestibule?"

"Made it into a mantrap. One man in there at all times, plus a camera, a voice-print scanner, metal scanner, EEG readout, facial recognition, and DNA sink."

"Okay, so I can either fake my way in, or persuade them to let me in. Where's the surveillance core?"

"There are two—one's at the mantrap. It gets used the most often; I guess Hambani trusts his men to screen his guests."

"The people you keep closest are most likely to betray you," Quinn said cynically.

"True, but there are readouts and controls in the bedroom, as well. Daddy could be watching at any time, but his boys would never know when. So that's the direct route in." Justin paused to take a forkful of coconut cream from the room service tray. "The other possibility I see is through one of these side suites." He rotated the holo image, zoomed in, and pointed. "This room—there are two guys bunking in there. You could take them out, easy, then be right next door—"

"No." Quinn shook her head. "Not unless absolutely necessary. More dead bodies means more DNA evidence, and ups the chance of station security catching me on visual."

"They won't be able to ID you. I purged all your prison records. You don't exist anymore."

"Then there's no sense in leaving a new trail. Besides, what am I going to do once I'm in there? The evo's clean the air, so I can't gas him. He's got his own back-up generators, so we can't cut the power. He has his own chef, so I can't poison him—and I'm still not close enough to lay hands on him."

"You could always do the hooker routine," Justin said.

Quinn snorted.

"Hey, there's a reason it's a classic."

"Does he even use whores?"

"He has a standing arrangement with an establishment on three-south. They send the same boy twice a week—"

"Boy?"

"Yep. He's sly. Same boy, Wednesdays and Saturdays."

"And you think I look enough like a boy to just slide past his security."

"Well, no, but you could more easily pass for a boy than for one of his thugs."

She conceded the point and slumped back on the couch with a huff. "Even if it worked, I'd never make it out again. As soon as I hit him, his crew would lock the place down. I might handle them, but the electronics would get me, and I'd still leave DNA all over the place."

"Plan your escape route first," Justin agreed.

Quinn made an amused sound. "That's what Ladron used to say."

"Don't you threaten me," Justin said, with a curl of humor in his voice.

She grinned, and he met her gaze for a moment—a novel thing, that shared humor. She had never trusted him enough to relax around him. He hadn't been around enough for her to get used to—she suspected that was why the attraction was such a torment. But the trip on the starliner, and the past two days on the station, had had a sobering effect on them both. For Quinn, at least, the job had started to feel real. Much as she adored Stephen Zoja, his house was like some strange limbo where the party never stopped and people seemed determined to act on their worst impulses. She felt she could think again, since leaving Natoshi.

Justin had settled, too, and his businesslike side had reemerged—the part of him she liked best. When he quit being smarmy and rude she remembered he was also extremely intelligent, and occasionally charming.

She picked up her tea mug, swirled it thoughtfully. Go round the machines, Master Tan had said. Force against force equals zero. "Maybe… maybe we should be thinking outside the locked room, so to speak."

"How so?"

"Well, Ladron—" she held up a finger as Justin rolled his eyes. "No, hear me out. Ladron used to say that the winner of a gang war wasn't the guy with the most firepower, it was the guy with the most patience. Laying siege almost never works—he'll just wait you out. But every rabbit in a hole has to come out sooner or later."

"Hambani doesn't."

"Not that we've seen. But there hasn't been an emergency since we've been watching him."

"What kind of emergency?"

"Well, what would force a rabbit out? Fire. Flood. Sickness."

"You want to start a fire on a space station?"

"The station safeguards would decompress the sector," she said lightly. "Freeze-dried Hambani."

Justin grinned. "That's an idea, but you'd still have to get in there to start it, or at least plant the incendiary. And you'd have to get around station sensors, as well as his safeguards. And get out again."

Quinn sucked her teeth. "Still, I think getting him out somehow is the best option. What if we… he has a doctor come to him for preventative treatment, but if he had something really life-threatening, like a heart attack, they'd have to take him to the hospital, on one-south."

"What do you suggest?"

"I don't know. I can't imagine anything we could do to him that doesn't involve, again, me getting in there to administer it."

"And they'd still catch you and skin you alive."

"Yeah." She took a sip of tea, rolled the bitterness around on her tongue. "We'd need something slow-acting, so I could get in and out of there before anybody noticed there was a problem."

"Or something that looked natural, like a heart attack."

"Hm. Did you manage to find out where he got the nanites?"

"Not yet, but I've narrowed it down to the type of nanites they are. They're bio-synthetic, and they don't appear to be tied to the surveillance system. I'm guessing they're some kind of environmental maintenance bug, very single-purpose."

"To guard against poisons?"

"Most likely. He's got a vat in the suite—that's what that strange energy source is, behind the kitchen. Most of them stay concentrated in the kitchen and around the dining area."

"How do you track them? Aren't they invisible?"

"Not quite. They're about the size of a gnat, and colorless, but when—"

"Gnat-sized? Doesn't that make them micros, instead of nanos?"

"Don't get cute. When there are a lot of them gathered in an area they are visible, but they look like dust-bunnies. The infrared sensors in the system see them as a faint heat source, where they gather."

"What do they gather around?"

"I haven't figured that out yet."

***

While Justin did research, Quinn wandered through the long curving corridors of the station, getting a feel for the light gravity and the overly-rich atmosphere. She carried one of Justin's surveillance detectors as she explored; it buzzed against her wrist whenever she got near certain types of scanners. There were not many of them, she discovered, in or around the hotels, only near the exits and in the elevators. She walked in and out of the Waldorf unchallenged, and one day, desperate for amusement, she knocked on the door of Hambani's suite.

After a bit of delay and some beeping, the door opened a few inches. The man inside was big, ugly, and kept his hand concealed behind the doorframe. "What?" he said.

Quinn made herself look all innocent and bewildered. "I'm looking for Julia Lewis?"

"Wrong room, baby," he said, and closed the door.

It was worth the risk; it told her that the guards were confident in their system. They had their procedures down. But procedure could be anticipated, punctured. Find his weak point, Master Tan would say. Use his strength against him.

She staked out the hospital on deck one-south. Hospitals were notoriously difficult to secure, and this one was monitored much like the hotels; only the doors and the waiting area were closely observed. The security guard at the front door was chatting with a pretty nurse, and several of the showy "cameras" in the halls appeared to be fake. Quinn walked the corridors with her arms folded and a frown on her face, like a worried relative. She was only stopped once, by a nurse who asked if she was lost. Quinn said she was and got helpful directions to the cafeteria. She lifted an ID badge off a countertop on her way out.

A plan was forming in her mind. All she needed was a catalyst: something to get Hambani out of his bolthole. She asked Justin to get Hambani's medical records for her.

***

Artificial gravity, even a hypermass system like Bridgeport's, always did weird things to Quinn's inner ears. She tended to sleep heavily in space, so it was a bit of a shock when Justin flung open the door to her room and bounded onto the bed. She had him by the throat before she realized who it was, and once she was awake, considered strangling him anyway.

But he was gripping her shoulders, and shaking her. "You lucky little genius!" he said gleefully. "Wake up! Wake up, you've got to hear this."

"Cripes, Justin," she groaned, and shoved him off, reaching for her wristwatch. It was in the wee hours of the morning, Natoshi time. "Don't you ever go to bed?"

"I found out why Hambani uses the nanites."

She rubbed a hand over her face. "Because he's a paranoid crime boss and people are trying to kill him?"

"That, and he's allergic to practically everything. Cats, dogs, feathers, dust, iodine, shellfish, milk, wheat, oregano—"

"Who the hell's allergic to oregano?"

"Hambani, evidently. That's what the nanites are for—they're specialized toxin screeners. They keep the air clean."

Yes: she'd heard of that. Some of the black-market shops in her old hometown had dealt in nanites. She must've remembered it unconsciously; no wonder the idea of the hospital drew her so strongly. "So they're not surveillance?"

"Not unless you're a lobster."

She rose on her elbows, fully awake now. "Is he itchy allergic, or anaphylactic shock allergic?"

"Some of both, according to his records. Did you know that's what nanites were used for?"

"Sort of—you mentioned they were clustered around the kitchen and dining area." She was thinking very fast, details piling up like—well, like nanites—in her mind. "Those type of nanites are sensitive to heat, aren't they?"

"Should be, yeah. They're designed to operate at room temperature, like in hospitals."

"If it gets too hot in there, what happens?"

Justin blinked, and a crafty look came into his eyes. "Heat raises resistance, so they don't function efficiently. They have to retreat to their vat or their little midget brains get fried."

"The kid—the boy-whore—do they pat him down, strip search him when he goes in?"

"Not that I've seen. He's got the routine down. They know him."

"That's what I figured." He's still a man. And the people he trusts will get him killed.

"You're scary when you smile like that," Justin said.

She smirked. "I don't see you running."

"I don't scare easy." The look in his eyes was definitely not fear. Quinn became keenly aware of her bare shoulders, her thin camisole, and Justin's naked torso.

"Why don't you put on some clothes?" she said.

"You're not exactly dressed for court."

"I'm in bed."

"So was I."

"Now you're in my bed."

"Not yet," he said.

The words hung in the air between them—and Quinn's next breath was a little faster than she would have liked. "You're my boss, Justin."

"Not if you finish this job, I'm not. You'll be an independent contractor, and I'll be a paid consultant."

"Paid how much?"

"Twenty percent."

She snorted. "Ten!"

"Fifteen."

"Twelve."

"Done."

"Good," she said. "Now go away. It's two in the morning."

***

Wednesday rolled around two days later.

Hambani's chef came with groceries and prepared breakfast, like any other day. Quinn and Justin watched, via Justin's spliced-in connection, while the chef fanned himself and wiped sweat from under his cap. The man was scrupulous about washing and cleaning everything.

Quinn leaned close to the monitor as Hambani ate brunch. He was about Zoja's age, thin, with a stoop. He had an oily, sour look about him, which did not surprise her. Among other things she'd learned about him in the past few months, he had once killed a man who referred to him as "little" in front of his friends. He asked one of his bodyguards to turn down the heat.

At midday, the maid came and cleaned, changed the air filters in the evo system and added some protein to the nanite tank behind the kitchen. She took the bedsheets away with her, and as she passed through the mantrap, the guards were in shirt sleeves, fanning themselves. One of them asked the maid if there was something wrong with the hotel's environmental controls. She told them several people on their floor had complained and maintenance was looking into it.

By three p.m., local time, the moving shapes on Justin's heat-register imager had become large indistinct blobs.

"What's the temp?" Quinn asked.

"Twenty-seven point eight," he replied. "Three degrees higher, and the nanites should retreat."

"How long before the station maintenance guys figure out what you did?"

"They won't. Maintenance deals with mechanics, and there's nothing wrong with the parts. I put a bug in the computer. They'll have to go to manual before they can isolate it, and to do that they'll have to call in all the second-shift workers. No way management is going to do that until the last resort."

At five p.m., the temperature was thirty degrees centigrade, and the hotel manager called Hambani's suite to offer him a new room. Hambani refused. He was reclining in a Jacuzzi full of cool water, drinking frozen cocktails. His men sat around in the mantrap and the dining room, stripped to their undershirts and grumbling.

A little after six, Quinn stood up, paced stiffly across the suite to the breakfast nook, and began gathering up her props.

"You going?" Justin said. His voice had the same tension she felt along the bend of all her joints.

"Guess so." Her hands were steady but her voice was too high-pitched; she didn't trust herself to say much.

"Got everything in place?"

"Yep."

"Got your passport?"

"It's in the cache."

He wet his lips. "Guess you're on your own, then."

"For the best."

"Don't say that."

She looked at him. His eyes were worried. She was not: her feelings had flattened to skin-depth. Her vision was trying to tunnel but she wouldn't let it. In that state, whys and shoulds tended to lose significance. She set her baggage down and walked over to where he sat on the sofa.

He frowned as she swung one leg over his and straddled him, but his hands cupped her thighs and his lips parted under hers. He tasted of coffee and sugar and testosterone. She stroked the tip of her tongue down the roof of his mouth and drew back enough to let him see the heat in her eyes—lust and impending violence. She hoped he knew the difference. This was all of her and he'd better know what he was getting into.

"Be careful," he said.

She kissed him again, softly. "I'll see you on the ship."

***

Quinn took her bags and got on the elevator, rode it to the third floor, then got off and loitered around the gift shop until she saw her quarry approaching: a beautiful young man with Byronesque curls and a pale, languid appearance. He wore stark black and white, with lace at the cuffs. Quinn met him at the elevator, hefting up her stack of gift-wrapped packages and throwing him a harried smile.

The young man pressed the button for level two. Quinn stooped to press level one, and a soft bundle wrapped in sparkly nylon slid off the top of her stack and bounced on the floor.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Quinn said, but the youth smiled at her and picked it up. "Could you just put that in here?" She held out one of the gift bags and he obligingly put it inside, innocently coating his hand and sleeve with shellfish proteins.

They rode the elevator down together. The young prostitute got off the elevator on Hambani's floor, and Quinn continued on to the hospital level. She breezed through the waiting room as if she knew exactly where she was going—and she did. Behind the emergency admittance desk was a multipurpose room with an attached restroom. She stacked her packages tidily beside the snack machine—as a karma-saving gesture she had bought several stuffed animals and labeled each, "From the Children's Hope Foundation"—and locked herself in the restroom.

The day before, she had stashed a plastic bag behind a wall panel. She took it down now and changed clothes, putting on stolen scrubs and new white sneakers. She pulled her hair back with a rubber band, scrubbed off her makeup, and snapped on two pairs of disposable gloves. Two hyposprays went into her pockets, one on either side. She stashed her old clothes—also newly purchased, and disposable—back in the trash bag and into the wall. Odds were they'd be there until the station was dismantled.

She clipped on her new, phony I.D. badge and went to sit in the multipurpose room, a nameless hospital drudge on a break.

She had only been there perhaps ten minutes when the buzzer on her wrist vibrated. Despite her outward calm, her guts jumped at the signal: Justin was watching the monitors on Hambani's suite—she'd told him to buzz her if and only if everything went according to plan.

The heat had crippled the nanites—they had retreated, or shut down.

The lobster proteins on the boy's skin had transferred to Hambani, triggering a systemic allergic reaction.

Hambani's thugs were bringing him to the emergency room.

He was probably already in anaphylactic shock. Most likely his men had already administered an epinephrine shot. If he survived the trip down the elevator, she had to be in place to finish the job.

She got up and collected a half-full cup of cold coffee from the trash. She thinned it with water, and dumped the mixture into a bedpan she had hidden under the sink the day before. Small wonder hospitals were so rife with infection; apparently nobody cleaned around here.

Bedpan in hand, she skirted the edges of the emergency room, to an empty bedside within sight of the emergency entrance. She busied herself with folding towels.

Hambani arrived a few minutes later, limp and flushed in the grasp of two of his henchmen. The nurses jumped into action, bagging the crime boss and checking his vitals, while the head nurse asked a barrage of questions. The head thug replied with menacing brusqueness—He'd had an allergic reaction, yes they'd given him his shot, they needed a private room and a doctor now.

The head nurse clearly took umbrage at being addressed this way, but she made things happen. Quinn and her bedpan followed at a discreet distance. She noted the room number, but did not stop or stare. The two biggest thugs took up position outside the door—Hambani had trained them well—and Quinn merely glided past while the lifesaving measures were in progress.

***

Two hours later, things were calm again. One thug remained on guard outside the door. The timing was fortunate; several of the staff had gone on dinner break. Quinn bustled systematically in and out of every room, up and down the hallway, pausing inside each room for a few minutes, to check the towels and the plastic drinking cups at bedsides. One old man asked her for a glass of water, which she cheerfully provided.

In turn, she came to Hambani's room, and of course the thug stopped her.

"You can skip this one," he said.

"I have to check the towels."

"We got plenty."

"Well, can you at least hand me the card on the back of the door? I have to check it off."

He looked disgusted, but he turned his back on her to reach around the door and she jabbed the first hypo into his buttock. "Hey—" he said, and went down.

Quinn nudged him so he fell into the room. The second thug sat in a chair by the bed, was just starting to stand, going for the gun under his arm. Quinn leapt over the fallen thug, punched the standing one in the throat and followed through to the groin. He folded over, wheezing; she got her left hand around his gun wrist, right arm around his neck and snapped his spine with one good heave. Drop the body; back to the doorway, roll the goon over, check the hall, close the door.

All clear. Good. Good girl.

She bowed her head to the cool doorframe for a moment and drew several slow, deep breaths, fighting down the combat-high. The surge of adrenaline combined with the smells of bleach and antiseptic gave her an unexpected flash back to the lab of her childhood, a muscle-memory of pain and fear, but she pushed that down, too. She straightened and turned to face the room.

Hambani, the elusive Hambani, lay still and a bit flushed, in the room with her, a tube down his throat, the hiss of the respirator the only sound.

The thug near the door was alive, just drugged. She dragged him to the bedside, propped him up in the chair with his feet on the dead guy. She pulled the curtains closed around the bed.

Having spent nine of her formative years in a lab, Quinn was quite comfortable around medical equipment. She stripped the doped thug of his jacket and shirt, removed the sensors from Hambani's body one at a time and then reapplied them to his bodyguard's skin at the appropriate places, so no one in the nurse's station would notice their patient going flatline. Last, she eased a breathing tube down the thug's throat, taped it in place, and switched off Hambani's respirator momentarily, long enough to transfer the tube to the thug.

Hambani continued to breathe on his own, but shallowly. Quinn pulled the other hypo from her pocket and sprayed it up his nostrils—more lobster protein. His breathing cut off with a snort, as his body's hyperactive defenses closed off his airway. He made a croaking sound, arching up from the heels with the effort to inhale.

It took about six minutes for him to die. His face turned black at the end, but Quinn stayed to make sure it was done. It was different from a fight, when she often didn't have time to think about what she was doing, but it wasn't as bad as she'd feared—it was simply a body trying to live, a machine trying to function, despite the spanner she'd thrown into the works.

Six minutes was worth two million yaddas, easy.

***

She changed clothes again in the hospital laundry. Her scrubs, name badge, and sneakers went into an ultrasonic washing machine, to be stripped clean of biologics. Twelve minutes after Hambani drew his last gasping breath, she was dressed in a chic silk traveling suit, hair up, heels clicking on the ugly institutional floor as she exited through the outpatient doors, carryon bag over her shoulder.

Thirty minutes after Hambani's heart stopped, she approached the on-call window for Starwind passengers, and collected her ticket and boarding pass for cruise AR-109, Ariston via Natoshi, in the name of Angela Warren.

She passed through boarding security without incident, and a nice young porter showed her to her stateroom. Her luggage was already there, on the bureau and in the closet. Justin had been entrusted with her bags, so she knew he was in another stateroom, elsewhere on the cruiser.

She made a cup of tea and sat in the kitchenette, waiting for the ship to undock or the numbness to wear off, whichever came first. Her guts felt a little shaky, but that could have been low blood sugar; she'd been too keyed up to eat lunch.

Two million ETC's. She could live for the rest of her life on that kind of money. She would be completely free to make a new identity for herself, since Justin had erased her prison records. Leave Stephen Zoja a note, leave Justin a bank draft for his commission, and disappear. Although Justin could probably find her, if he chose.

She wondered if he would make the effort. She no longer doubted that he wanted her, but he'd known she wouldn't get involved with her boss again. So he'd kept her at arm's length with snide behavior and other women, while behind her back he arranged meetings with mob bosses who needed a genomorphed assassin. Allowing her to think she was choosing her own life, but manipulating her path so she was tied to him. Hedging his bets, just as when he'd first picked her up.

There was a soft knock on her door.

"Ave," she told the door, and it clicked open.

Justin came in and closed it quietly behind him. His eyes were shining. "Well?"

"It's done," she said, and sipped her tea.

"No difficulties?"

"No."

He cocked his head, as if puzzled by her reserve. He'd seen her after the last killing, when she had been high on adrenaline and success. This job had given her none of that, confirming what she'd suspected—it wasn't the death she craved, it was the fighting, the excellence of skill and purity of combat. "You all right?"

"I will be."

He came to stand beside her, ducking his head to look at her face. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"There's nothing to say. It wasn't any big deal. I just have to come down."

"Intense, huh?"

She nodded.

"You want me to leave you alone?"

She looked at him, and hunger boiled up in her, sharp and strong. His smell permeated her numbness, drew her out of her shell, pulled her hands to his chest. She gripped the front of his shirt, eyes hot, unable to ask for what she wanted, but he knew.

They didn't make it to the bedroom. The edge of the counter bruised the hell out of her back, but the pain added poignancy to his delicious liquid friction, and her body took his breath and his thrusts as if they were CPR. "Oh God, yes," she said in relief, and bit into his shoulder so she wouldn't scream.

***

Zoja's house party had ended, and the house was again peaceful. Zoja congratulated her on her success, although she knew he was more gracious than pleased. He also took one swift, shrewd look from Quinn to Justin and back again, but said nothing.

Master Tan was proud of her, especially when she gave him the details. "Three strikes?" he said, when she told him how she'd broken the thug's neck. "Very efficient. Good girl."

Justin said little, as he had for most of the trip back. He didn't walk on eggshells around her, but he hadn't been his usual bouyant self, either. He seemed to understand she needed time to decompress. He acted normal, just a subdued version of normal, and by the time they got back to Natoshi she was able to leave the job on the ship.

The day after their return, he came to her room, knocking once on the open doorframe.

She looked up from her book.

"Got something for you." He held out a small piece of paper.

She sat forward to take it from him. It had numbers on it.

"Bank," he explained, straddling the hassock at her feet. "Routing number, account number, phone number. Deposit arrived this morning."

"Minus your cut?"

"No. I opened that just for you, had Antonia put it directly in. You'll have to pay me. If I were you, I'd talk to Stephen, study up on investing. You could live on that the rest of your life, easy."

"Yes. I suppose so." She folded the paper, twice, and put it in the trinket box on her reading table. "If I wanted to live a quiet modest life in a respectable colony somewhere."

"Wouldn't suit you." He smiled, hands laced together between his knees.

He looked adorable, with the neck of his shirt unbuttoned and his golden curls brushing the collar. He had been so sweet the past few days. She couldn't even resent him for manipulating her—if in fact he had done so. She had a bad paranoid streak left over from Ladron, and it was hard to know sometimes if she was being sensible or merely gun-shy.

"Tell me something," she said.

"Anything."

"Did you set up that meeting with Antonia, knowing she needed an assassin, so I'd get the job and you wouldn't be my boss anymore?"

Justin's eyebrows went up and he dipped his head in a very large, exaggerated nod that circled into a negative. "And what in hell gave you that idea?"

"Just curious."

"That's very flattering, kitten, but you were the one who asked her what she wanted the gene blueprints for, remember?"

"Yeah, but sometimes you know more than you let on. You could've set it up."

"I didn't."

His crystal-blue gaze was guileless and steady, and she wondered if he was lying. She'd gotten better at reading faces, but Justin's was tougher than most. "Okay, then," she said.

"Now tell me something," Justin said, and she braced herself, because she knew it was coming. "Are you still in love with him?"

It sounded so trivial, put that way. Love was between equals. Worship, symbiosis, were more accurate assessments of her relationship with Ladron. "I can't say I ever was."

"You wouldn't hate him so much if you weren't."

She smiled a little, bitterly. "So you're afraid I'll fall in love with you, and then decide to kill you if you disappoint me?"

"No, but thanks for hanging that blade over my head," he said, and she chuckled. "I'm just saying, if you let him into bed between us, you will be disappointed."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Not if you keep doing that thing with your tongue."

That made him laugh, and buttered his ego a bit—she saw the smug flattery in his eyes. But he was right about Ladron, and that crack about the Electra complex was not entirely unfair, either. She set the book aside and scooted forward to the edge of her chair, so their knees knocked together. "Listen, Justin. Much as I would like to, I can't just erase Ladron from my memory. He had too much influence over me, at a time when I— I don't think I really knew I was a human being. I can reshape what I learned from him, incorporate it, but you can't ask me never to think about him again. It would be cutting the foundation out from under me."

"Then I won't ask it." He studied her for a moment. "You know human emotions are a bit like computer memory?"

"How so?"

"Computer files don't get erased when you delete them. The directory just recycles the storage space so it can be written over, later. Human emotions are like that. They don't go away until you overwrite them with something else."

"What a great analogy."

"You like that?"

"I do, yes. Did you just make it up?"

"Sure." He grinned—that boyish, deceitful, charming, gut-twisting grin. "Kiss me."

"You first."

He did, and this time she had leisure to savor him, his flavor and skill. He had the lightest touch she'd ever felt, but she knew he could be rough when she needed it. That was the upside of his ability to read her, that sensitivity to her moods. She guessed she was in for some real education, but she didn't want to relinquish control just yet.

She broke the kiss and slid off the chair to the floor, pushing his knees apart. "I don't need another daddy figure, Justin. And I don't want a boss, either." She slid her hands up his thighs to his groin, not quite touching. "I think… I want to find some ground between casual and obsessive. Something frivolous and easy and… friendly."

"A partnership," he suggested.

"That's a possibility." She eased the tongue of his belt through the buckle.

"So you think we could go on working together? You play bodyguard for me when I need it, I provide technical support when you need it? Trade off favors?"

"Sexual favors?"

"Perks of the job," he said, and gasped. "Be gentle, now."

"I won't bite unless you ask," she promised.

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