A Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 5: Watchful Eyes
This is Chapter 5 of my sci-fi detective noir short story. If you’re one of those weirdos who likes to start from the beginning, choose something earlier below:
Either the bed was deceptively comfortable, or a day that included dealing with my sister, traveling millions of miles, and ending in a police station made me a lot less picky. My head was aching from my high-speed introduction to yesterday’s wall, but some painkillers, scotch, and a shower improved my outlook. I didn’t normally drink this early, but, to be fair, I wasn’t often up this early either. I suited up, wishing I was wearing some heavy assault armor instead. The message I got saying “Congratulations! Almost twelve hours before you got picked up by the cops – M” certainly didn’t improve my mood. I had a bad feeling about the day. That wasn’t unusual, because the days I woke feeling like life was great always ended up terrible. A bad feeling was almost encouraging.
I hit the streets and made my way back to Tranquility. The streets were busier than yesterday, the respectable folks and their opposites going about their business at the tail end of the Ward. I got propositioned twice for action, one that called for a bed and another that called for k nuckles, and passed on both. I figured I had enough problems already.
The bar was busier too. It seemed like a wet lunch was popular in this area. I saw Weaver halfway down the bar, in roughly the same spot his partner occupied last night. Maybe that was designated parking for the fuzz. Half the tables were full with a healthy mix of races. The salarian bartender Merrin was bantering with the clientele with the fast patter normal to his people. He seemed popular. I made a note to tell Tomyra that the night shift might attract more customers if she was nicer. I followed that thought with a plan to stand behind Kreeg when I said it.
I made my way to the bar and waited. It didn’t take long. I watched the salarian work and he was easily the most efficient bartender I’d ever seen. Not a wasted movement. Salarians produced a lot of scientists, and apparently Merrin was a doctor of mixology. I liked the guy already. He got to me, scooped an empty glass and a peel from the bar while dropping a square napkin in front of me in one fluid motion and said, “Greetings, good sir. Would you like a beer, some horosk, or would you rather skip straight to the hangover with some batarian ale?” He smiled like a polished salesman at the end of the rapid-fire speech.
“Whiskey, rocks, and a chat when you’ve got a minute.”
He nodded as if he expected nothing more, deftly filled my drink request, and sat it on the napkin. “Part one. I’ll return shortly for the rest.”
It didn’t take him long to come back. He started slicing some sort of fruit for garnishes as a cover as he asked what I needed. “I’m looking for a girl, human, blonde. She may have come in for information regarding a certain type of sand in the last couple days. I was wondering if you’ve seen her.”
He concentrated on getting the width of the green fruit slices just right. “Seen her? Sure. Two days ago. Sent her along to the market. Everything’s available there.” His voice didn’t have the same level of conviviality it had before. “Told her to look for a fellow named Graham.”
I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough, but I knew he didn’t mean regular commerce. “Where can I find the market?”
He gave me directions. It wasn’t far. “Once there, you’ll see a three-eyed batarian. Tell him Merrin sent you.” The salarian moved on to another customer, his banter back to his previous level of helpful neighborhood friend. I finished my drink and glanced over at Weaver, who was not looking at me so hard he might as well have worn a sign.
I headed out, making my way in the opposite direction I needed to go. My sister tells me I’m as paranoid as a banker in a bad neighborhood, but I point out that it must be working because I’m still breathing. I wanted a little bit of time before I wandered into a black market anyway. I smoked a cigarette as I crossed a busy plaza and made my way into side alley with no other foot traffic. At the end I turned right and went a few steps before leaning against a wall to finish my smoke. I nodded to the two fellows who came out of the alley not long after I did. They tried to keep their faces blank, but they looked angry. No one likes being made.
The pair moved off and I wondered if they’d keep following me or if they had someone to switch off. I couldn’t tell whether they were cops or something else. That worried me a little. They were both human, but C-Sec had a good bit of them on the force so it couldn’t be ruled out. Their incompetence at tailing only meant they weren’t special agents. I figured I was dealing with C-Sec, Alliance military, or some hired goons for a less-than-legal outfit.
As I wandered I checked off the Alliance. No way my sister would be involved with anyone that shoddy. Besides me. Anyway, if she was willing to have the military here she wouldn’t need her kid brother stumbling around. So it had to be cops or thugs. Of course, with fine fellows like Weaver in C-Sec it made the line between the two possibilities a little blurry. I made a few more movements to smoke out another tail, but didn’t find anyone. I started to head towards the market. It wouldn’t be the first black market on the Citadel I’d been to. I hadn’t been to this one before, but the same rules would apply. No stupid questions, no prolonged eye contact, no loud disputes, and no real names. Maybe I’d even follow those rules this time.
I had a feeling like I was being watched again. I was getting close to the market and tried a few more of my tricks. I didn’t see my buddies from earlier, so I figured they traded up. Whoever they passed me off to was a lot better. There were enough people around to make it hard to tell, and my blind-alley tricks yielded me nothing. Either I was wrong about the tail or they were good. I got tired of messing around and figured I’d just let them tag along. If they were even there.
I went down the alley Merrin told me to take. At the end was a door and big ugly batarian sitting on a metal shipping crate. I had to get close to see that one of his four eyes was just a scar. He sneered at me, which I considered the universal greeting between our races. I told him who sent me and he just stared at me, trying to be intimidating. Batarians always claimed that their four eyes, one pair set higher on the forehead than the other, gave them an advantage in negotiations with two-eyed races, since we’d never be sure which pair to fix on. It was a load of vorcha dung, as far as I was concerned. I waited him out and he eventually gestured his head towards the door. The electronic lock turned green and I walked through.
For a wonder I wasn’t shot immediately. My day was looking up. The door I went through was a narrow hall that opened up onto a much bigger area. Where I was didn’t look all that different from a normal Citadel market, like a spacious shopping mall. The streets were wide, there were vendors in booths, there was chatter and shoppers and good-natured haggling. Unlike the regular market, though, everyone was armed and looked like they were ready to use them. Each booth or group of them had some armed protection, which seemed to keep the violence to a minimum. At least no one died in the first five minutes I was there.
I made my way to a spot not far from where I came in, up some stairs to a railed upper deck with a good eyeline to the spot I came from. I wanted to see if I was right about being followed. I waited for a while but no one else came through. Looking around, I figured there must be a dozen different ways to get to this place, to minimize the traffic at a single location. I’m sure C-Sec knew it was here and even occasionally dropped by for a friendly raid, but appearances had to be kept up. Plus it kept the civilians out of the place, which was better for everyone involved. C-Sec would come down a lot harder if innocents got waxed in a black market, plus the regulars wouldn’t appreciate the tourists. Already I was getting a hard eye from a few who didn’t recognize me. I ignored them and smoked and scoped out the place.
What I was looking for, besides the people following me, was a dealer. Whoever it’d be would be a mid-level player at best, since dealing in a market meant exposure, even in these relatively guarded confines. Low-levels would be out in the Citadel at large getting busted. The higher levels wouldn’t have anything visible to do with the business. I needed to find one who was willing to talk about an Admiral’s daughter in exchange for a lot of Reasonable Expenses. I didn’t want to ask around for Graham by name, not yet anyway. I knew names were frowned upon in places like this.
I’d given up on the ambush for my stalkers and had a pair of dealer candidates in mind when I saw a couple of fellows making their way through the crowd. They were moving like people who are following someone and weren’t good at it. Normally people moving through a crowd don’t fixate on an object ahead of them. A regular shopper would look around. Someone who was good at tailing would do the same thing. This pair were human, like my guys, only they weren’t the same guys. Didn’t have exactly the same look either. These two looked like bad news, although that meant they fit in here a lot better. Hard eyes and faces, like they were used to getting punched. Thick, too, like a lot of the Marines I’d served with who were dedicated to being meatheads.
They stopped their pursuit and started looking around idly in the worst attempt at nonchalance since the first time I walked into an asari strip joint. Their quarry had stopped. I checked the crowd ahead of them, trying to figure out who they were after, since it definitely wasn’t me. I figured it out when the hulks started moving on again. They were following someone wearing a non-descript brown outfit, basically a short robe with a hood over some trousers. Not shabby enough to be noticed, not nice enough to be envied. I watched their target for a little bit, then remembered someone during my bout of paranoia earlier. I’d seen this person walk into a side street when I was checking for a tail. I recognized the boots, black with a simple line design in blue at the top. I started to suspect it was my tail, when I saw a glimpse of her face when she looked around briefly. I grinned, stubbed out my smoke, and made my way down the stairs to say hello.
She was looking at an array of weapon mods at a booth dealing Batarian State Arms equipment as I sidled up next to her. “I’d have thought Armax Arsenal equipment would be more your speed.” Armax dealt in high-end special forces military technology for the turians.
Severa didn’t even look up. “You actually do have a death wish, Blake. I only supposed that before.” She toyed with a recoil damper that looked as heavy and ugly as a batarian itself.
“Maybe. Lucky for me I have C-Sec keeping an eye on me. Makes me feel safe.”
“I bet a month in solitary would feel extra cozy, then.” She dropped the damper and moved on. She figured I’d follow her.
She was right. “Probably would. Solitary brings me closer to my friends. Speaking of, you’ve got a pair of admirers with their eyes all over you.”
I never knew a gasp could be sarcastic. “Really? And here I thought this outfit would spare me from unwanted followers.” Her flicked eyes towards me implicated me as part of that category.
“You were the one following me. I was starting to wonder if you’d become smitten.”
“With what? Severe head trauma? Sudden onset blindness? A near-suicidal lack of taste?” I was really starting to like her. We walked quietly for a few seconds. “These two picked me up once I got here. I was tailed by a different pair before then. They’re as bad as the guys I had on you.”
It was nice to be right about something for a change. “They’re worse. These guys look like extras from a Blasto movie. As subtle as krogan belch.”
She nodded. “That’s true. They’re so bad that it’s hard to pick out the others.”
She looked at a schematic for a biotic amp at a booth. “At my 2 o’clock, upstairs. Blue jacket. At my 8, overcoat baldy.”
I gave it a few before I checked those positions. Sure enough, she had other eyes on her. Just as hard, but a lot more discrete. The blunderers were a feint. I’d walked into a well-coordinated and tightening net. “Oops.” I like understatement.
“Ahhh. So you’re stupid, not suicidal. I guess that qualifies as improvement.” Being followed by a couple of people was one thing. Usually it meant surveillance. More than two reeks of an ambush in the making. Someone was on to Severa. I thought about her predecessors on this case. It looked like she had some folks that wanted her to join them on the Missing list.
“You have backup coming?” There was always the hope.
She rummaged through parts and shook her head. “I went dark when I got here, in case transmissions are monitored. Now my comm is dead. They’re probably jamming me.”
“Figures.” I had some ideas, but I wanted to know hers. “What’s your play?”
“Scoping out where I want them to hit me. See if I can reverse the ambush.”
She made it sound like it’d be easy. These guys looked professional. I sucked air between my teeth. “I can’t think of anything else we can do. Find a place yet?”
She looked at me directly for the first time. “‘We?’ Never mind what I said before. You are suicidal.” She laughed a little, tossing a silencer back to the bin and started walking again. “If it’s because you have a crush on me, I’ll tell you now not to get your hopes up.”
“Don’t start your letter to Fornax just yet.” Fornax was a magazine dedicated to human and alien relations of the more intimate variety. “I’m just a fan of underdogs.”
We wandered along for a bit. “There’s an alley up ahead, quiet and out of the way. Should be able to lead them in and surprise them. They probably won’t expect you to fight.” She eyed me up and down quickly. “Or to do much if you do.”
“See? Things are looking up.” My heart started to pump a little faster. Impending violence and probable fatal encounters had a way of doing that. I scanned the crowd looking for anyone else that might be joining the fun. Up ahead of us there was a human woman, deep tanned skin with short dark hair with tattoos on her face and hands. She was striking, especially with her square jaw and high cheekbones. Her eyes went past me like I wasn’t worth noticing and I didn’t stare either. I tapped Severa on the arm and led us in her direction. The turian didn’t ask why, which I appreciated. I hated answering questions.
I got close to the young woman. I kept my voice pitched low. “Hi, Lorelei. This is Severa, with C-Sec. We’d appreciate it if you took a little walk with us.”