Founder’s Landing, Day One, Midnight.

Decaying Mansion, Dying Firelight

There was a light in a ground-floor study, the flicker of a fireplace. Solid construction; the floors didn’t squeak and the door opened silently. My employer didn’t look up from the papers he was studying at an old-fashioned desk; I decided not to bother him. I went over and sat in a comfortable-looking chair, trying to look like I’d been there all along. I gently cleared my throat.

The effect was all I could have hoped for. His eyes bugged as he stared at me. “H-how–?!” he gasped.

In my line of work, it’s all about making a good first impression.

It didn’t last as long as I’d hoped. His nose wrinkled as he peered over his cheaters at me. “You’re late,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow and grinned. “And how would you know?”

He sneered. It was a face made for sneering, carefully selected over dozens of generations for pale skin, patrician nose, thinning hair, and an absence of chin. “Smelling like that, you can’t have been here more than a few seconds or I’d have surely noticed, even over the fire.” His can’t came out cawnt; only the snobbiest schools teach that. So — not just a functionary, but a high-level one. A diplomat, perhaps? And one with a sensitive nose.

I grunted. The smell of the alley was still with me, it seemed. I figured I’d better parry. “You have people watching your house,” I said.

“Yes. Private security. The price of wealth in these degenerate times. More importantly, the price of privacy.” Natural or faked? Not many call it privissy, not even among the well-to-do. He sniffed and went on.

“You made it past them unseen; you made it here, hours after curfew. That’s good. I need someone who can move around unnoticed. To be specific, I need a man who can move something around for me. And you, sir, have a reputation for being very good at exactly that. But… you know what a reputation means.” He paused a moment, waiting; I said nothing. He continued.

“It means people talking. Which I cannot have, not for this job. Nobody must know; nobody must ever find out.” His tongue darted out, lizardlike, and moistened his lips. He was nervous after all. That was something.

“If you know my reputation, you’ll also know I’m discreet.”

“Yes, famous for it, apparently. Served three months on a vagrancy charge rather than give up your client.” He surprised me with that one; not many people knew about it. I’d taken a lot of trouble to clean things up afterward. Can’t have your genetic profile on record; if the cops think you’re a criminal, they’ll harass you forever. All they need is an excuse even at the best of times.

“Real name unknown; you work as either Martin or Taylor, depending on the job. Martin Taylor, perhaps? Taylor Martin? Martin the Tailor? Still, it hardly matters. We won’t meet again after tonight.”

“And my fee?”

“Half in advance, half on completion. Completion bond on file with the Galactic Bank; funds in escrow from the moment you take the package.” He peered at me again. “Three hundred thousand credits in total.”

That was five times my highest fee ever. I tried to look bored. “Sounds like a tough job,” I managed. “The cargo?”

“Right here.” He lifted a matte black case from a desk drawer. I’d seen one like it before, but there’s no way he could have known that. “Ten kilos. It can’t be opened, so don’t try.”

“And where to?”

“There’s a ship that will be in orbit tomorrow night. You’ll have a four-hour window to get the case on board. Customs never sees it. Once you drop the case, you’re on your own.”

“Fair enough. What about expenses?” I had to ask; it would be out of character not to.

He raised one eyebrow at me. “Such as?”

“I can’t very well go up on the regular shuttle, now can I? If I steal one, that just draws more attention — but neither one of us wants a paper trail. That means bribes on top of base cost, and more bribes at the other end. I just want to be clear: This sort of service is expensive for a reason. I’ll earn every credit of that fee.”

He thought for a moment, then nodded sharply. “I see; that’s fair enough. Very well; another fifty thousand added to the initial deposit, available immediately.”

Quick decision; no consulting anyone. That meant he was my principal; either that or he was a person so highly trusted it made no difference. More importantly, it meant he wasn’t government, not the normal kind. No bureaucrat ever forks over money he doesn’t have to. Curiouser and curiouser.

We fenced a bit more about terms for the look of the thing, but there was no real doubt: He was the sort who hired a professional and trusted him; I wasn’t about to turn down a fee that big. After a little while we reached agreement and shook hands. I took the case and went out the way I came. I’d been right; this was gonna be a fun one.

Who is our mysterious client? What’s in the case? And what else is going on here? Tune in next time to find out!

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