CC Bridges © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The kid should have looked out of place in the bar. Too young for this crowd, too freshly scrubbed, narrow shoulders under a heavy jacket, with wheat blond hair that fell perfectly straight around his face instead of tangling into matted knots. Wide blue eyes regarded Raine from across the table, giving the guy a ridiculously youthful appearance for someone who seemed to be looking right through him.
Despite the fact that he should have been a target—fresh meat on Meridian, where someone that pretty would have been stamped with a pleasure-worker tattoo and set up in one of the whorehouses that spacers came to the planet for—nobody fucking bugged this kid. He’d walked through the room and not a single spacer gave him the time of day, until he plunked down across from Raine.
Everyone knew this was his table. You didn’t fucking bother Rick Raine when he sat there with a tall, cool Siennan beer in the center and a deck of old-fashioned cards flipping between his fingers.
“Are you Raine?” the kid asked.
“I don’t do business in the bar, kid. Save it for the spaceport.”
He barely blinked at Raine’s tone, ignoring the implied shove off. “Who said anything about business? Maybe I just want to have a drink.”
He liked the kid’s spirit. Raine snapped his fingers and drew one of the barmaids toward his table—their table now, he supposed. “Cleo, get this fine young man a drink.”
She turned her exotic, dark eyes and ample chest toward the fresh meat. “What’ll you have, doll?”
The kid’s lips worked for a moment, and Raine hid his grin behind his mug, glad to have gotten a reaction out of him.
“Meridian brandy,” he blurted, as if aware of Raine’s mocking. “One for each of us.”
“Whose tab, babe?” Cleo turned toward Raine.
“I got it,” the kid interrupted, plunking down a nice-sized chit. Well, now, maybe Raine might be swayed into doing business in the bar after all.
“Sure thing, sweets.” Cleo snatched up the chit and disappeared.
Raine set the beer down. “So, you came looking for Raine. Who are you, kid, and who sent you?”
He slouched down in his seat, the motion making him look smaller and even younger. “You can call me Karl,” he said, making Raine wonder what he was hiding. “Nobody sent me. Your name came up when I asked around the spaceport. I’m looking for passage.”
“I don’t take human cargo,” Raine snapped. Anyone dropping his name around the port should damn well have told Karl that.
“No, but I heard you could use some crew. I figure I could work to earn my keep.”
Karl seemed to have this all planned out. “Don’t need any crew right now. Besides, you don’t look like you know a spanner from a light drive.”
Karl winked at him. “Oh, you’d be surprised at what I know.”
Raine felt a stirring at those words, which were spoken in a low, raspy tone. If the kid only knew he was playing with fire.
Cleo showed up with their drinks, two short glasses brimming with the dark violet liquid. She dropped them on the table, winking at Raine when he tugged on her skirt. He didn’t miss Karl’s narrowed eyes at that. This was freakin’ Meridian; the kid should know he’d see worse than that. Hell, if he’d been at the spaceport, he must’ve seen worse.
“I only take on crew when I need the extra help for the cargo. I’m not shipping anything right now.” Raine picked up his glass and downed the brandy in one go, relishing the burning cold in his belly. Wasn’t the best vintage, but this wasn’t the place you went if you were picky about the brandy.
Frowning, Karl attempted to toss back his own glass and came up sputtering and coughing. He’d probably never even had Meridian brandy before.
Raine didn’t hide his laughter this time. “Kid, what the hell are you doing out here?”
“Not a kid,” he protested. “I can pay you.”
“Oh, yeah, in what? UPA credit?” He took a guess, because no way was this boy for real. At the silence, he nodded. “You just don’t scream border rat to me.”
“You don’t know a damn thing about me.”
At that snarl, Raine realized the kid had some bite to him. Well, they might be doing some kind of business, after all, just not the kind Karl had in mind. Raine liked bed partners with some teeth on ’em.
“I can pay you in Confed chits, if that’s what you want.”
“Everybody’s got to go somewhere. Plenty of people take on transfers, into the Confed and the UPA both. I don’t think that’s what you’re looking for, though.”
Karl stared into his glass, swirling the remaining purple liquid. “I need a reliable cruiser and a captain who has plenty of discretion.”
“And somehow you came up with my name?” Raine challenged.
“I’ve heard the name Raine was the standard in private cargo transport for over thirty years.” Karl looked him over, since obviously Raine wasn’t that old.
“My father,” he said, leaving it at that. Raine had taken over the family business when his daddy met the wrong end of a laser pistol, nearly ten years ago now. It had been him and his ship since Raine was seventeen. “You could say I’m coasting on his reputation. Where do you need to go, kid? Not that I’m committing to anything, you hear?”
Karl gave him a small, tight smile. Shame, Raine would like to see what a real smile would do to that baby face. “Mendhem. I need passage there and back, with possibly another passenger in tow.”
Mendhem. He might as well have said Tanvir, the goddamn capital of the Confederation. Mendhem was controlled by one of the most infamous warriors in the Confed military, General Purohit.
Raine tended to avoid the place, which was too strictly controlled for the kind of cargo he dealt with. “You’d be lucky to find anyone to take you near there.”
Karl all but crumpled in front of him. What the hell was so important?
“Look.” Karl seemed to collect himself after a moment. “Maybe we can help each other out. If I can get you cargo to transport, would you consider taking me on?”
Raine gave him one of his best smirks. “Oh, kid, I’d take you on for free.”
Karl made a face. “You know what I mean.”
“Loosen up, man. You need to find yourself a sense of humor if you’re going to end up as part of my crew.”
“That’s a yes, then?”
“That’s a yes only if you can get me cargo to transport,” Raine told him. Before he could second-guess himself, he continued. “I run a business, not a damn charity ship. When you find something, come find me in berth 52, south side of the port.”
“I will.” Karl’s words were like a promise.
Raine chased the taste of the brandy with the remains of his beer, wondering which one of them was biting off more than they could chew.