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«The House That Jack Built», Robert & Linda Evans

Chapter One

Skeeter Jackson wasn't in jail.

And that was so overwhelming a shock, he wasn't entirely sure what to do with himself. The one thing he didn't want to do was hang around the infirmary, where Bergitta lay in the recovery room after emergency surgery and where Senator John Caddrick sat bellowing like a wounded musk-ox, threatening to shut down the station around their ears. So he ducked past crowds of shaken tourists, wounded in the riot at Primary, slithered past news crews and the irate, fuming senator—who was still taking up a valuable medical technician's time to wash tear gas out of his eyes—and headed out into the vast crowds thronging the Commons.

He didn't really know where he was going or what he intended to do, once he got there. He didn't have a job any longer, and wasn't likely to find a soul on station to hire him, particularly not with the kind of trouble Time Terminal Eighty-Six had brewing. Skeeter threaded his way through the jostling crowds, ignoring the shocked gossip flying loose through Commons, and wondered for perhaps the fifteen millionth time what had become of his friends, young Julius, who'd been born in ancient Rome, and—far more devastatingly—down-time refugees Ianira and Marcus and both their little girls. Ianira was the leader of the entire community of down-timers stranded on the time terminal, Speaker for the Found Ones' Council, and the inspiration for the fastest-growing up-time religion in the world.

Not only major VIPs in anybody's book, but very nearly the only friends Skeeter possessed. They'd all disappeared in the middle of a riot, the first of many to hit Shangri-La Station during the past week, and despite massive searches, not a trace of them had been found. Either they'd managed to escape down one of the open time-touring gates or they'd been kidnapped and smuggled out. Or—and he had to swallow hard, at the thought—somebody'd cut them into small pieces and dropped them down an unstable gate. Like the Bermuda Triangle, maybe...

"Skeeter!"

He looked around, startled, and found Kit Carson homing in.

Panic struck.

"Don't bolt!" The retired time scout held up a hand as he hurried through the crowd. "I just want to talk."

Skeeter paused, gauging the expression in Kit's eyes—a surprisingly friendly look—and decided not to run. "Okay," he shrugged, waiting. After all, Kit had stood up for him in the station manager's office high above Commons floor, when Security Chief Mike Benson had been chomping at the bit to toss him into the nearest jail cell—or maybe through the aerie's glass window-walls. A long shiver caught Skeeter's spine at that too-recent memory. Mike Benson had dragged him up from the station's subbasement battleground in cuffs, facing murder charges. Neither he nor the station's down-timer refugees had really had any choice but fight to the death, trying to wrest Bergitta away from her kidnappers, a group of Islamic jihad fighters.

The Ansar Majlis had styled themselves after the original Ansar, the religiously motivated nineteenth-century "dervishes" of the Sudan, famed for routing British forces and killing General Gordon at Khartoum. The terrorist members of the Ansar Majlis had dragged Bergitta down into the station's sub-basement, where they would've beaten her to death, after raping her. But that hadn't mattered a damn to Mike Benson.

If not for Kit's support...

He didn't even know why Kit had come to his rescue.

So he shoved his hands into his pockets, suppressing a wince where the cuffs had dug into his flesh, and waited for Kit to catch up. The world-famous time scout actually clapped him on the shoulder, startling Skeeter considerably.

"Come down to Edo Castletown with me," Kit said over the roar of voices on Commons. "I need your help."

Skeeter blinked. "My help? What for?"

Kit grinned at his tone, but the smile faded too quickly. "After you left the aerie, Ronisha ran computer records checks for everyone who entered the station today. I'm afraid the databanks are a mess, thanks to that riot Caddrick started." Kit shook his head and made a derisive sound of disgust. "Half the arriving tourists haven't even scanned their records in properly yet. But Ronisha thinks she's got a line on the Ansar Majlis leadership. A couple of businessmen, seemed legit enough. Came to open up a new outfitter's shop for the Arabian Nights sector. They checked into their hotel, nice and quiet, then tried to contact some of your pals from that murderous construction crew. By radio, mind."

Skeeter's brows rose. "Don't tell me, they tried to contact those little radio handsets Benson took off those bodies we left downstairs?"

One corner of Kit's mouth twitched. "You got it. Mike intercepted the call. That down-time kid, Hashim, who helped you with the rescue? He helped us out again, in a big way. He answered the transmission, told them there'd been trouble, but he'd meet them, bring them up to date." Kit thinned his lips. "They're in my hotel, Skeeter. I want them out."

"Alive?" Skeeter asked softly.

Kit's eyes blazed, giving Skeeter a dangerous, top-to-toes assessment that left Skeeter sweating despite the bravado of his return stare. "Preferably," Kit said in a low growl. "With as little damage to young Hashim as possible."

"No argument, there. Where'd he agree to meet them? At the Neo Edo?"

Kit nodded.

"When?"

The retired time scout checked his watch. "About fifteen minutes from now."

Skeeter swore. "I'll need a good disguise. Get me somebody's headdress. And a tool belt." He paused. "You're sure you've got the right assholes? Not just a couple of innocent Arab businessmen looking for long-lost relatives?"

"We're sure," Kit said grimly. "They asked Hashim to bring schematics of the station's brig, so they could plan an attack. They aim to break their buddies out of jail."

Skeeter whistled. "That's bad."

"You're not kidding, that's bad. Right now, they're in room Four Twenty-Three, waiting for Hashim to show up with his pals."


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