heather lin book

Lady of Mars: Chapter 49

By “booking passage” the captain meant he’d rented a camper ship for Leroy to use. Campers were tiny ships mainly used by middle-class families to see some of the sights outside of New Earth. They held enough fuel to travel twenty-four hours without stopping.

Leroy had traveled in one once when he and Jax were small. They’d gone to Venus to see a famous fountain. Their parents had thought they should go off-planet at least once in their lives; they’d never imagined their sons would travel the System for a living.

There was a special dock on the far side of Mars for those on unofficial business, who were there just to visit family and friends or see the shops, restaurants, menagerie, and the less lived-in parts of the palace. There was enough space for twenty ships and a satellite guard booth.

Leroy held his breath during check-in, but his false documents passed inspection. They took his picture, which was standard practice, but he clearly wasn’t on any kind of watch list. He tended to fade into the background compared to Colin and Brody. Even Jax, sometimes. People took him more seriously. He guessed it was a good thing in this case.

He got to work on his mission. There was no time to waste.

He knew the risk they were taking, the position they were putting Capri in, but he still felt a flutter of excitement knowing he might see her again.

His original plan had been to join a tour group at the palace. He could sneak off and hack into the mainframe easy enough. But thanks to the shooting and tightened security, the tours had been put on hold and that was no longer an option. However, he’d done his research, and he knew that most of the readers at the Mars bars and restaurants were connected in some way to the palace in case they needed to send out official announcements.

If someone was highly-skilled—and he was—they could hack into the network and get the information they needed that way.

He tossed a rucksack over his shoulder. The guard at the booth would only find a few essentials—and one latch from Gypsy Lass. He studied the object for a moment, then shrugged and put it back in the bag, waving Leroy through.

The mechanic breathed a sigh of relief and walked into the first bar he came to. His plan worked beautifully, and he had a belly full of beer and the information he needed in no time.

Tamara Ellis frequented the bar nearest the palace docks after her shift, and one month ago she’d shared a drink there with Broderick Davis.

Leroy walked until he was able to catch a tram and watched the people mill about. Everyone on Mars had their place in the perfect, manmade hive. No one was idle. Everyone was happy, confident. The status quo was all that existed outside of the palace. They dressed in similar clothes and looked perfectly content as they went for an evening stroll or watched children play on swings.

It gave Leroy the creeps. Even in U.S. Territory on New Earth, it hadn’t been that perfect, that efficient. He’d had to read a book called The Stepford Wives at school once, and he thought everyone around him now could be robots.

The palace must be different. He couldn’t imagine Shots—or Capri—fitting in out here.

He reached the bar and pushed open the door. He admired the wood accents and other luxuries that were plentiful enough on New Earth but didn’t often extend to places like this. He’d had it pretty good on New Earth. Traveling on Gypsy Lass had shown him the other side of things—how those on the rebel planets lived—but the kingdoms were always a step above everyone else. They resembled gated communities, some part of the U.N. so detached they barely had to follow the same rules.

It was never more obvious than here, where the king was allowed to have a harem—and now a prostitute—with no repercussions.

Even now, as he took a seat at the bar and glanced down at the reader the barman provided, there was an advertisement for the King’s Auction. If the price was low enough, he could buy a night with her. She might be happy to see him over some of the other potential Victors.

But the idea was fleeting. It wasn’t the way her wanted her, and he knew—from his earlier hack—that the price was still well above his current price range.

“Lager, thanks,” he ordered when the bartender came over to take his order.

He offered the automatic smile that came from years of practice. He’d been the class clown, of course, always ready with a smartass remark and shenanigans. Somebody had to counteract Jax’s enduring solemnity. He never knew anything other than being the yang to his brother’s yin—even when he brother wasn’t there.

The bartender brought the beer, and he promptly downed it.

“Another?” the bartender asked, hand on the empty glass.

Leroy nodded, face brightening as his target appeared at the entrance. “And your fifth-best whiskey on the rocks.”

He waved to Tamara and smiled as if he’d known her all his life. The woman, still in uniform, looked behind her to see if it could have been meant for someone else. Her gaze narrowed, turning suspicious, but she approached the mechanic with caution.

“Do I know you?”

“No, but you know Shots.”

Tamara backed up a pace. “Are you a newsman? Have you come to shit on his good name, too?”

Leroy wasn’t sure what to say. He’d been prepared to spend a fair amount of time and drinking money to find out the woman’s allegiance. That was another thing to be said for rebels. They were direct.

“No,” he said, recomposing himself and getting into the forlorn character he’d expected to have a few hours to ease into. He looked sorrowfully down at his drink. “He is—was?—a crewmate of mine.”

Tamara hesitated. Then she came to a decision and sat down on the stool next to him. She remained tense, on guard, but Leroy didn’t think it would take long to convince her that he was a friend.

“Is,” she said gruffly, eyeing the untouched whiskey in front of him. He slid it over. She took a sip and continued. “I don’t know exactly when he’s set to die, but I know he ain’t dead yet.”

Leroy nodded and took a sip from his own glass, looking down at it once more. Then he glanced at her, as if determining whether or not she could be trusted. “Do you know a lady named Capri?”

Tamara snorted and took a long sip of her drink. Her nails were well-manicured. The whole of her was somehow a meeting of masculine and feminine that he found appealing.

“Everyone knows Lady Capri. Shots is dying for her, ain’t he? I’d be surprised if he’s the first.” Her brown eyes shot up. “Were you on the ship with them, then?”

Leroy couldn’t keep the flush from his cheeks, but he nodded calmly. Tamara went back to the drink. “Then you might know what I mean,” she said.

The mechanic didn’t want to divulge too much information, but the observation hit home. He nodded again and took a long sip of beer. It was a struggle for him, it went against his nature, but he had to keep his answers short and sweet.

He also had to be as honest as possible, if he was to be believed. “I do.”

Tamara raised her eyebrows in a casual, commiserative salute, and Leroy saw his opening to expose his ulterior motive. “They were in love.”

The words hurt to say, for all he knew they were true, but it had to be done. The guard’s eyes shot up from her glass at that, and suspicion settled itself in her hard features once more.

“I doubt that.”

“It’s true. I have something of his I think she’d like to have. It might bring her some comfort.”

Tamara swirled her drink around in its glass, considering his unspoken request. “I ought to report you, you know,” she said.

Leroy was shit when it came to masking his feelings, and he was sure he looked scared. A smile twitched the corner of her mouth. “I won’t. If you tell me how it is you knew about me.”

As close to the truth as possible, he reminded himself. “I’m good with computers. Shots mentioned you a time or two when he was still at the palace. Seemed like the two of you were at least on good terms.”

Tamara glanced at his bag and finished the drink. “What is it you want me to give her?”

He pulled the latch from the front pocket and displayed it on his palm. Tamara took it gingerly between her thumb and forefinger, as if she thought it might explode. “What is it?” she asked again.

“Trust me. It’ll mean something to her.” He hoped his words were true.

The woman looked hard at him, still trying to make up her mind, but she closed her fingers around the object and slipped it into her pocket. Leroy nodded his gratitude and ordered another round.

Tamara lifted her glass. “To Shots,” she said.

“To Shots,” Leroy agreed.

*

Leroy returned to the little camper vessel two hours later, legs wobbly and vision blurry. He probably shouldn’t have ordered that last beer, but his mission had been accomplished. The next step was in Tamara’s hands. He could afford to celebrate.

He could only hope that Capri would recognize the latch from the first time they’d met. She was observant, skilled at what made people—men, lovers—tick. She’d understand he was sending her a message and look deeper. She had to. Otherwise Brody was dead and he’d failed.

He climbed the short, folding stairs that led into the small craft—and stopped dead. Haddaway was seated casually on one of the bottom bunks. He felt a wave of dizziness, and it had nothing to do with the drinking.

Haddaway would know exactly who he was and could guess why he was there. Had Tamara ratted him out after all? Leroy cleared his throat, but his voice cracked slightly.

“I didn’t give you permission to board.”

A humorless smile touched Haddaway’s lips. It didn’t make the mechanic feel any better. The other man stood, and Leroy held his breath.

“Leroy,” he greeted. “I was glancing through our list of guests on this side of the kingdom, and your photo caught my attention.”

Leroy said nothing, afraid he’d give something away.

“What brings you all the way out here?” Haddaway’s gaze was hard, unblinking. He reminded Leroy of a school principle.

“Just had some vacation to burn,” he said with as much confidence as he could muster. “Thought I’d come and see the sights.”

Haddaway nodded, eyes holding a glint of disappointment. He’d expected a better lie. Leroy felt the blood drain from his face. One word burned in his mind, and the pain was searing—failure. This was the end of his solo mission, and it had barely begun.

But Haddaway turned away, hands clasped behind his back, posture impeccable. A military man. Leroy recognized the signs. The older man gazed through the side window at the rest of the dimly-lit dock.

“You know Shots will be executed.”

Leroy swallowed, forcing his mind back to the present, away from his fears. “I wasn’t sure,” he lied.

Haddaway nodded, almost approving, but probably just deep in thought. “I expect you aren’t here to try and sabotage that.”

Leroy snorted, easily digging up his disdain for the gunman in order to convince the senior officer. “Of course not.”

“Good. Because Ekon insists on having tightened security at the memorial, which means I don’t have as many guards as I’d like to transfer Shots that night.” He turned to Leroy, begging his understanding. “If anyone knew the details, something could easily go awry.”

Leroy stared at the man. He wasn’t an idiot. Why was he telling him this? He forced himself to nod. “He made his choices. He deserves what he gets,” Leroy said automatically, not entirely disbelieving the words.

“Good.” Haddaway nodded again, turned, and exited the camper.

Leroy stood where he was for a moment, stunned. There was only one explanation for Haddaway’s visit and strange behavior: he was on their side.

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