Zack rounded the corner with Hobbar close behind. Chip trailed sluggishly, not used to keeping up with as much activity as the other two.
“We’ve not seen anyone in minutes,” Chip panted. “There’s no one after us! Let’s… let’s take a break here.”
“Not a chance,” said Zack, nearing the next door in the hallway. “Based on the kinds of rooms we’re seeing, this is a standard service floor. Now, the architecture here’s the sort that might send a city planner to the funny farm, but layouts like this tend to have extra exits for service staff, even if we’ll have to climb stairs to find them. Chefs, janitors, maintenance crew, and all the people who’ve got the jobs that keep things running smoothly. And while Murk’s definitely repurposed this building, the whole place is too clean. There’s another way in down here, and we’re getting close to it.”
Zack reached for the door, but it opened before he touched it, pulled inward by someone on the other side. Vox Cul-Dar, looking as if he’d strangled so many guards that his heart simply wasn’t in it anymore, appeared behind the door and froze at the sight of Zack Gamma.
“You?” said Vox.
“Vox!” said Zack.
“Vox?” said Hobbar.
“You!” shouted Vox, seeing Hobbar. The Crinlian took a step back, as Vox’s normally highly ordered mind spun into overdrive. When he’d first come to Murk’s headquarters, his priority had been tracking down a lead on the Phantom Matador. But after a slow and, frankly, aggravating trek through the service entrance’s security team, seeing the bounty he wanted to catch the most and the child he wanted vengeance on the most at the same time caused his mind to experience something not unlike whiplash.
He jumped at Zack, but had wasted just enough time in the shock to see the investigator draw and aim one of his Purcellian striker pistols. Vox slowed and entered a defensive stance, but Chip ran, shoulder first, into Zack, sending them both onto the ground. The gun that Zack had been carrying launched itself from his hands and slid across the floor, coming to a rest at Vox’s feet. Vox looked at the weapon, then at the man who was struggling to keep Zack pinned to the floor.
“Thank you for the assistance,” said Vox. “I don’t plan on sharing the bounty, though.”
“Don’t turn him in to the DMA,” said Chip. “Turn him in to Murk.”
“Now why would I do that?” asked Vox. Hobbar managed to inch away for a moment before Vox spotted him, glared, and willed the Crinlian to halt.
“Murk’s favors are valuable,” said Chip. “Think of what having him as an ally might bring. He’s eager to see Zack dead at his hands rather than someone else’s.”
“I doubt that Murk’s favor would be as valuable as what I’ll collect with my original plan,” said Vox. “I also don’t know why Zack is wanted by the DMA. If a higher-up has wrath equal to Murk’s but the resources of the entire agency, then I think I know who I’m working for. Now… get off my quarry.”
Zack looked up into the eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He wasn’t in a position to run, fight, or bargain. It was the end of the line.
Much earlier, on another world…
Sister Barris waved Azar into the small room, and motioned for him to sit at the table. Azar sat, feeling wary and trapped. The Order of Fierce Mercy had safehouses, an assumption built from the knowledge that their clients might not be able to find legal counsel because their position was too dangerous for their location to be known to the public. Azar had grudgingly agreed to the process but had resented it.
“It’s not right,” he said. “I’m supposed to be getting a new home and retiring comfortably, not on the run in back alleys and secret buildings.”
“I know,” said Sister Barris. “It’s just until the trial, though. Once you’re passed the trial, and once the verdict comes down in your favor, this will all be over.”
“They’re looking for me,” said Azar. “I can feel it.”
“We all can,” said Barris. “They’re afraid that they’ll be losing it all. And while they don’t know where you are yet, they’re looking. That’s why we’re here.”
“Do you think we can trust anyone else in this situation?”
“Yes,” said Barris. “It may be true that everyone in this line of work has a history… just as it’s true that everyone has a history… but I think he’s the best bet you’ve got. Bristlecorp may find our safehouses, but they’ll never find the ones he’s set up.”
The door on the opposite side of the room swung open, and the agency representative entered, tossing a clipboard onto the table before sitting across from Azar. The man looked haggard, spindly, and confident, even if overworked. It was the look of a man who did exhausting work, but made sure it was done right. Azar recognized the look from his own mirror. The man doffed his hat and tossed it into the chair next to the one he’d selected for himself.
“Azar?” said the man. “Good to meet you. I’m Gamma, Zachary Gamma. Sister Barris tells me that you’ve hit some desperate times, and that’s exactly when our company can step in to help people like you.”
“Thank you,” said Azar. “I’m still not sure what you can do that isn’t already being done, though.”
“Let me worry about that,” said Zack. “I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a client in quite your position… I don’t think anyone in history’s been in exactly what you’re experiencing… but my job’s going to be all about finding exactly what it’ll take to see you get to your trial date in one piece. Nothing’s gonna take you out of the picture while I’m around, and I expect to be around for a long, long time.”