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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Bick Ilsa J
 

«Daughter of The Dragon», Ilsa Bick

To all you fans out there, the men and women for whom we spin these tales. Your dreams make these books real.

Иллюстрация к книге

 

Writing this book was a team effort, and wouldn’t have happened if not for the dedication and enthusiasm people brought to the table. My warmest thanks to:

Sharon Turner Mulvihill, for taking a chance on an MWDA wannabe;

Loren Coleman, for introducing me to the CBT and MWDA universes and putting me out there in the first place;

Randall Bills, for patiently answering each and every panicked e-mail query about all matters, arcane and otherwise:

�ystein Tvedten, for making sure that if Randall didn’t have an answer, he did;

Herbert Beas, for scanning in all those attachments for all that battle armor and not once getting peevish.

My thanks also go to Dean Wesley Smith for his continued support, advice and friendship—and the occasional well-placed boot in the butt.

 

Finally, my gratitude and love to my husband, David, for making my writing life more than just a dream. Buckle your seat belt, babe; you’re in for one wild ride.

Prologue

 

Devil’s Rock

Prefecture VII, Republic of the Sphere

14 February 3134

 

Seven at night and still raining like hell in Faust City: a frigid rain, the near side of sleet, the kind that spiked a man’s skin like an ice pick and burned like a brand. The kind of rain that made a man hope to hell he found a cheap dive and fast: a place with foggy windows and bored women with sagging breasts and pallid skin who bumped and ground through clouds of blue cigarette smoke swirling around their legs like gauzy fabric; a place where a guy could toss back a couple belts of cheap whiskey raw enough to knife his throat and explode in the pit of his stomach like napalm. A place like Lucifer’s Pit.

C sat at a small, round table tucked into the far left corner, behind a pillar and in inky shadow. Anyone looking saw only a silhouette, but no one looked because everyone was too busy getting drunk, or stoned, or laid, or all three. C wasn’t. He had a good view of the bar and the john was down a short hall to his right. He’d discovered a fundamental truth: You never drank beer; you only rented it. Other than boozy men weaving by to take a leak, no one frequented this little corner of the universe. That was fine because C had a man to kill and tonight was as good a night as any. In fact, tonight was more than good. It was rainy, dark and colder than a witch’s tit. Hell, it was perfect.

C hefted his mug, sucked in what passed for coffee, forced it down. The coffee tasted like it’d simmered since the early Pleistocene; a dank brew scummed with an amoeboid slick that shimmered suspiciously like engine oil and was sour enough to leave his mouth tasting like burned tar. He’d have preferred whiskey, but a good ISF agent didn’t drink on the job—not and keep a clear head. Besides, there’d be plenty of time to celebrate when the Bounty Hunter was dead. Payback for all the Combine troops the Bounty Hunter had killed a year ago, and a long time coming.

C looked over the rim of his mug at his target, a man who sat eight meters to the right on a diagonal, and ringside to the runway where the dancers did their routines. The Bounty Hunter’s disguise was pretty good: jowls, liver spots, a bottlebrush of thinning, white hair. The getup screamed civil servant slouching toward retirement: the kind of guy who got a watch and a handshake and was forgotten the moment he walked out the door. He wore rumpled khaki pants, a frumpish blue V-necked sweater and a pair of owlish steel-rimmed specs with thick lenses that gleamed white as coins in the light from the runway. But the thing that really sold the package? The limp. The Bounty Hunter lurched like an old man favoring a bad hip he should’ve replaced ten years ago.

Only the Bounty Hunter had buried himself in the part, inhabiting his role so well he’d developed habits, little routines more predictable than the sunrise. Like coming to the Pit every afternoon at five and staying until eight. What the Bounty Hunter saw in the bar was a mystery. There were enough people puffing away to fill a cancer ward. The Bounty Hunter didn’t seem to be there for the girls, either, and his tip wasn’t anything designed to endear him to the management (a half stone—big spender, but the coffee was pretty lousy). No, the Bounty Hunter just drank his two cups of coffee and read the paper. Then, every night at eight, he tucked the paper under his arm and limped out for home sweet home—a dingy apartment in a decrepit complex of narrow warrens and dead-end alleys a klick southeast of the sulfur refinery. Along the way he’d shell out a five-stone coin here and there and chat up one of the regulars, a down-on-his-luck drunk who squatted at the corner of the Bounty Hunter’s apartment complex. And bingo : The idea came for just how, exactly, C might make the universe a better, brighter place.

Still, C was uneasy. He wasn’t the first ISF agent to go after the Bounty Hunter. C was the third, and he had no illusions about being any better than his immediate predecessor, who’d been delivered, sliced and diced into a jigsaw, in a refrigerated box to ISF headquarters on Luthien three months ago. No one knew exactly what had gone wrong, and the dead guy sure wasn’t talking. So C had to act on instinct, and instinct screamed that if he was going to make a move, he’d better do it tonight.

C’s eyes dropped to his finger watch: a quarter to eight. Fifteen minutes was enough; he’d timed it that morning. Scraping back his chair, C stood, shrugged into his raincoat, backhanded a stone as a tip, and then wove his way toward the door and around tables, moving not too fast and not too slow and being careful not to avoid the Bounty Hunter’s table, which lay on a direct line to the door. He passed so close, a quick glance over the man’s shoulder let C catch a glimpse of the breathless headline: a follow-up story about that string of murders on Kordava in the suburb of Little Luthien nine months ago. So close C felt his pulse ramp in his temples and his stomach cramp with excitement—one shot right behind his ear and, with the silencer, I’d get away before anyone noticed–and then the moment was gone, and C was moving past the Bounty Hunter and pushing his way into the night.

The door clapped shut, cutting the sounds from the bar in two like a ribbon snipped by sharp scissors. C moved quickly now, grateful that it was still winter on this godforsaken planet. Night had slammed down hard; the rain had slacked but not ceased. The streets would be deserted, the traffic light. No witnesses. No one likely to interrupt C’s little tête-à-tête with one very-soon-to-be-ex–Bounty Hunter.

Fifteen minutes later he was dripping wet, the rain trickling in shivery fingers down his neck and giving him the shakes as he turned onto the Bounty Hunter’s street. The Bounty Hunter’s apartment was in a red brick tenement, second building down on the right. The wind was blowing in from the west, flinging sheets of rain. The feeble glow from a solitary streetlamp threw out rain-fractured light, a wavering halo edged with a shimmering, rainbow-colored corona. The streetlamp stood at the near corner on the opposite side of the street: perfect, because that meant that anyone coming that way would lead with his shadow.

C armed wet out of his eyes and blinked. No one around, the rain washing the drunks away. Fantastic. C ducked into a narrow alley that was more pothole than asphalt. The alley was squalid with mushy garbage that squelched beneath C’s boots and reeked enough to make him gag. But the alley was good because it was blind and windowless and, at the end, a bonus: an assortment of dented trash cans and one industrial-size rubbish bin.


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