Zack and Nectra continued moving the body of The Phantom Matador. Zack had wearied of transporting The Phantom Matador by lifting his limbs quickly, and Nectra had recommended the switch to carrying the criminal by keeping his arms over their shoulders. Appearing to walk side by side, the three trudge through the jungle. Zack was definitely moving slower, and looking paler. He coughed violently and slowed to a stop.
“Hey, mind if we take another break?” he asked. “This heat’s gettin’ to me… maybe Igneous’ ice tub wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.”
“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”
“Yeah, she was… overheating or something? And so she made or bought a kind of hot tub that was cold. Who knows why.”
“Well, I don’t think we can do that,” she said, awkwardly lowering the Phantom Matador’s body to the muddy floor of the alien jungle. “But we can rest a bit. I can even scout ahead if you’d like!”
“Yeah, sure,” said Zack. “Don’t be too long, though. I dunno what Fletch drugged Matty with but it’s not deadly, so he’ll come to eventually. We should both be on the lookout for that.”
“Right,” said Nectra. “I’ll… get our bearings. Make sure we’re on the right path. Ooh, or maybe ask one of those snake people for directions!”
“I dunno how well that’d go over,” said Zack. “I said you might’ve been involved in those murders. Plus you don’t speak the language, do you?”
“Right, the murders… rest here, I’ll be back.”
Nectra’s wings opened, and she pulled her staff off of her back. Using the leverage that it granted, she easily jumped to a low branch, kicked herself even higher, and began gliding away.
Zack watched the flying shangmere until she was out of sight before turning back to The Phantom Matador, half expecting the criminal to already be up and pointing an energy blade at him. Zack reached into his coat, and pulled out a Purcellian Striker.
“Not a bad idea, imaginary Mat,” he said, charging the Striker and aiming it at his prisoner. In time he found a suitably dry log didn’t look poisonous and he sat upon it. Minutes later he drifted off to sleep.
Much earlier, on another world…
Zack checked his passport again before looking out the window. The pilot for his charter plane was running late, and the other two passengers at the private terminal weren’t talkative. One was a haukreen carrying a glowing glass tube over its shoulder, and the other a human wearing a business suit and checking a watch while reading a small pamphlet on the ecological impact of human civilizations on non-human planets.
An orange skinned vantarian neared, the first that Zack had ever seen with his own eyes. The four-legged creature approached, looking comfortable in a captain’s uniform that looked like it had been designed for humans but altered to accommodate humanoid employees. The vantarian tipped its hat.
“Apologies, everyone,” he said. “We can begin boarding now, there was just a last minute charter service that I needed to attend to. Which one of you is Zack Gamma?”
Zack shifted uncomfortably and looked at the other two passengers, who were similarly looking at each other and him. Zack looked back.
“Who wants to know?”
“Oh, it involves the delay,” said the captain, smiling. “Are you Mister Gamma, then? Someone came here to meet you. Is that fine?”
Zack looked at the captain in confusion before glancing at the entrance to the comfortable sitting area that acted as the private terminal’s waiting area. A grizzled, though well-groomed and decidedly sheepish, Azar stood at the door. He raised a hand in a friendly half-wave. Zack returned the gesture and turned back.
“Yeah, yeah that’s fine. I just go through the double doors when we’re done talking?”
“Oh, yes,” said the captain, turning toward the doors himself. “Take all the time you need, he tipped generously to earn a little extra time for your plane before we take off.”
The vantarian walked toward the double doors and the two other passengers followed, eying Zack and the stranger curiously. Zack watched them go as Azar neared, looking almost apologetic.
“Hello, Zack,” he said. “I found your folder and realized you were slipping off without saying goodbye.”
“I said goodbye last night,” said Zack. “And again before you came out to Ravelar with a former pro-wrestler for your secret vacation, if you’ll recall. I don’t belong here.”
“We’re your friends here, Zack. Seems to me you belong where friends are. Plus, if memory serves, you weren’t thrilled with the plan to head to Ravelar.”
“I was wrong about that,” said Zack. “Zamona wasn’t waiting to get you alone to turn in the bounty. Or if he is, he’s playing a longer game, one I wouldn’t expect him to have the patience for.”
“You don’t give him enough credit, Zack. He’s actually very bright.”
“Maybe not. You could see the silver lining of a smog cloud, though, so forgive me for being paranoid. It’s in the job.”
“One you do very well. Stay safe out there, Zack.”
“And you stay safe here. Take care, okay?”
“I will. Goodbye, Zack. And one more thing?”
Azar reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glowing disk, a coin made of energy. Zack recoiled, but Azar was faster, quickly slipping it into Zack’s hand. The detective almost dropped it in surprise.
“Hey!” he shouted, while his brain processed. “Wow, that’s… that’s heavier than I thought. And… almost hot.”
“Hold onto that for me, would you?” said Azar. “I don’t like keeping all my eggs in one basket. One’s in the bank, and the interest alone is paying for everything here… the other I keep with me. And I think that you should take the third.”
“Azar, that’s crazy. This thing should be-”
“In a bank? In a safe? Zack, it does no good in either of those. If I lose one, I have two others. Just keep it until we meet again.”
“Azar, I appreciate that we’ve been through a lot here, but this is a lot of money. You still don’t know that I won’t just run off with it, abandon you, and drop this in a bank somewhere for myself.”
“Are you saying you will?”
“Well, no… but that’s not really the point, is it? You shouldn’t trust someone with this much money.”
“I shouldn’t,” said Azar. “I will though. Bring it back in one piece for a nice bonus. Or use it for expenses.”
Zack looked at the coin and gulped.
“Azar, this technically makes me one of the wealthiest people ever by proxy.”
“It makes you one of the wealthiest people ever literally, at least while you have it. The oddity with wealth is that you need a place to spend it.”
“I can spend it all I like after I finish this job for the monasteries.”
“You can’t spend it in one place, though,” said Azar. “I’ve looked. Look, this is just for emergencies. And after what I read in that red folder you slid under my door-”
“You’re a fast reader if you read all that already.”
“I was in the habit of double-checking the fine print when I signed on for my hazard pay jobs,” said Azar. “Teleporting rigs don’t build themselves, after all. You need to know what you’re getting into.”
“Fair point. Look, Azar, this is still crazy even if you DO trust me.”
“I’ve earned the right to be eccentric, Gamma, and I’d ask you to respect that. We all have lives we want to live, and I’d like to do things that I like to do. Just like you enjoy helping people, and like Zamona enjoys wrestling. Did you hear about his first match the other night?”
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Zack. “He was good, they say… though I think it’s bad for our cover.”
“Of course you do,” said Azar. “Look, it’ll be a while before you can access a bank and take payment from me. Just hold onto this in case you need it, all right?”
Zack narrowed his eyes but Azar stared back with large, friendly eyes that lacked any real concern about the world or the reasonable dangers it contained. Zack eventually closed his eyes.
“Fine,” said Zack. “But you’re takin’ this back as soon as we meet again.”
“Do you think that’s likely? Your notes in the red folder were… thorough.”
“Look, just follow those exactly. I’ll keep in touch eventually, I’ll just have to keep tabs on how it unfolds.”
“Are you sure you can do that? It’s a complicated scheme.”
“Hey, did you forget who you’re talkin’ to?” said Zack, taking a step away and tapping his hat with the coin. “Mind like a steel trap. Look, I don’t wanna delay the fine folks on my plane any more, so…”
“Goodbye, Zack,” said Azar. “And good luck.”