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Journal #840-

A person fond of an orderly existence will find much to admire about life on a military base. (Given the rarity of chances to admire the military, one probably ought to appreciate the few that do present themselves.)

As soon as Phule had left, the concierge walked briskly across the lobby to the owner’s private office. He knocked, waited an instant, then opened the door. At her desk, Madame looked up at him, annoyance turning to expectation as she recognized him. “Well, Robert. How did Jester react to our little ploy?”

“He seemed to take it at face value,” said Robert, easing into a chair without awaiting his boss’s invitation. “He managed to act as if he had no idea what those legionnaires were up to. We know better, of course, but he was quite convincing.”

“He’s a damn good actor,” agreed Maxine Pruett, Phule’s old rival from the Lorelei casino wars. “Do you think he knows I’m planning to turn this joint into a new casino?”

Robert shrugged. “Why would he show up here if he didn’t suspect it? The only other possibility is coincidence- which is too far-fetched to believe.”

Maxine wrinkled her nose. “I see your point. The question is, what are we going to do?”

“Realistically?” Robert drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, then said, “I see only two ways to play it: Plow ahead and hope no one catches on before we’re home, or get out before everything collapses around us.”

Maxine nodded. “What do you recommend?” She raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Robert chuckled. “Is this an intelligence test? If we pull the plug now, I’m personally going to lose a lot of money, and so are you. My instinct is to stick it out. On the other hand, if we’re caught…”

“Hix’s World throws the law books at us,” said Maxine, not letting the pause drag out too long. “High risk for high profit, or bug out now and lose it all-and no guarantees with either choice. But my gut instinct is the same as yours. That gives us another problem…”

“Whether to eliminate Jester before he ruins our entire plan,” said Robert, nodding. “Luckily, those two flunkies of his aren’t going to pose any threat to us.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Maxine. “I’ve run up against the Space Legion before…”

“Forget them,” said Robert, waving a hand. “The Legion is a laughingstock, even in military circles. And that’s saying a mouthful, if you have any idea of the level of incompetence and corruption in the Alliance military as a whole.”

“You haven’t had them shooting cannons over your head,” said Maxine. “I have-and that makes me want to think twice before I call in the rough boys to deal with Jester.”

Robert leaned over the desk. “All right, then. We wait and see how he responds to my hint that someone’s after him. I’m hoping it’ll scare him off—or at least slow him down enough to let us finish our business before anything else threatens us. If he doesn’t scare off-well, we’ll have to see what kind of trouble we’re in at that point.“

“That’s my Robert-I can always depend on you to argue for the plan with the least risk,” said Maxine.

“And it’s gotten me a long, nearly trouble-free life,” said Robert. “But least risk isn’t no risk. If circumstances dictate, I’m ready to take steps against Jester. If that doesn’t work, I have a bag packed, ready to go-and if the fellows with badges and handcuffs are close enough behind me, I’m content to leave without it. I advise you to make similar preparations.”

“You’d think it was a crime to try to make a profit,” said Maxine, dryly. “The damn Settlers’ Bill of Rights wasn’t supposed to kill off business, was it?”

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” said Robert. “I’m equally sure that the party now in power has consistently interpreted it so that our little enterprise can be seen that way. A good attorney could probably convince an appeals court otherwise. But there’d be a lot of expense and other unpleasantness before we reached that point. I’d just as soon grab my profit and get out before anybody comes around asking questions.”

“Good point,” said Maxine. “All right, we wait and see. But be sharp-I don’t want any surprises. If Jester starts snooping into something we don’t want him to know about, I want you to tell me instantly.”

“Not a problem,” said Robert. “Believe me, I have as much to lose as anyone. Do you need me for anything more, Madame?”

“Right now, no,” she said. “Remember-keep your eyes on Jester!”

“There is definitely somethin‘ weird goin’ on back there,” said Do-Wop, as he and Sushi walked down the path from La Retraite Rustique.

“Really,” said Sushi, stopping and putting his hands on his hips. “I am, like, completely blown away by your powers of observation.”

“Yeah, well, I guess not everybody would notice it,” said Do-Wop. He looked back over his shoulder, as if to ensure nobody was watching them. “You sorta hafta know what you’re lookin‘ at.”

“That would never have occurred to me,” said Sushi, scaling unprecedented heights of sarcasm. “What exactly made you suspicious? Perhaps I can learn something from you.”

Do-Wop grinned. “Well, yeah, that’s why they made us partners, ain’t it? Thing is, that consigliere . . .”

“You mean the concierge!”

“Hey, you say it in your language, I say it in mine,” said Do-Wop. Together they strolled casually over to the rack where they’d parked the tandem bike they’d come on. “Anyways, I seen that sucker before, in another hotel. And guess where?”

“We’ve been in a few hotels together,” said Sushi, trying to think back to the various places Phule had quartered Omega Company since taking command. “I can’t say I remember him from any of them, though.”

“Well, here’s a hint,” Do-Wop said, mounting the tandem bike behind Sushi. “It was back on Lorelei—that help any?”

“Not exactly,” said Sushi. “I stuck my nose into a lot of places there, dropped a few bucks… Wait a minute. Was it by any chance one of the mob-owned hotels?”

“Got it in one,” said Do-Wop. “Course, that covers pretty near all the hotels on Lorelei.”

“Huh,” said Sushi. “That’s very interesting, even if it could be just a coincidence. The guy’s entitled to get a job in the same line of work he’s been in-and you can’t just assume that everybody working for a gangster is crooked, themselves…”

“Nope, but it’s where the smart money’s gonna be. And you know what else I’m thinkin‘?”

Sushi grunted, starting to pedal the bike. “Maybe. Do you mean it hits you as a little bit fishy that the mob boss’s old secretary-now known as Nightingale-is running around the same planet as this guy?”

“Naah, I was thinkin‘ I’d like a sandwich…” Do-Wop put his feet down, bringing the bike to a halt. Sushi just managed to keep from flying headfirst over the handlebars. “Wait a minute, do you really think that?” said Do-Wop. “But she’s part of the Omega Mob, now. She wouldn’t sell out the captain, would she?”

“She sold out her old boss-or seemed to,” said Sushi. “And her old boss is likely to be holding a really serious grudge against the captain. What if running away with Beeker was just a way to get herself some credibility, so she could spy on the captain? What if she’s brought Beeker-and the captain-here so the mob can get another shot at them?”

“Geez, Soosh, that’s a really scary idea,” said Do-Wop. “You think the captain’s in trouble?”

“I think maybe we’re all in trouble,” said Sushi. He turned around on the bicycle seat and grinned. “Not that that’s anything new, is it? Come on, let’s see if we can figure out what our next move’s going to be and make it before the bad guys realize that they’re in even worse trouble than we are!”

“Oh my God, the captain’s dead!” shouted Brick, who’d been caddying for General Blitzkrieg. She dropped the general’s golf bag and rushed over to the prostrate robot simulacrum of Phule, which lay apparently lifeless on the ground. Armstrong was already there, kneeling to feel the robot’s wrist in search of a pulse. Does an Andromatic robot have a pulse? he wondered, idly. Then he decided it didn’t matter; checking the pulse was what he’d have done if the robot had been the real captain, and for the moment, at least, he figured it was best to keep up the pretense that this was the real Captain Jester.

Meanwhile, General Blitzkrieg had rushed over to his golf bag, and was examining it for grass stains. For his part, Flight Leftenant Qual stood watching with lively curiosity, perhaps taking mental notes on human behavior for the Zenobian intelligence service.

“Captain! Speak to me!” said Armstrong.

There was a long and disconcerting silence from the robot. Armstrong had a sudden flash of terror, realizing that there might well be no one in Omega Company capable of repairing the robot if some component had been jarred loose when the golf ball struck it. They could hardly send it back to the factory-not with the general on base. As much as Blitzkrieg appeared to be enjoying the golf, he was beyond any doubt still ready to jump on any excuse to break up the Omega Mob and drum the captain out of the Legion-or at least, to send him someplace where he would never again have the opportunity to use his unique talents to overthrow military discipline.

Armstrong was ready to order the caddies to load the robot onto a golf cart and take it-where? Omega Company’s new medic Nightingale had gone off-planet, taking along Beeker, and the captain had followed them, which was why they were in this fix to begin with. All of a sudden, the robot opened its eyes and said, “Hell of a way to wake a fellow up. What can I do for you?”

Uh-oh, thought Armstrong. That wasn’t an encouraging response. “You just got beaned by a golf ball, Captain,” he explained, hoping to reorient the robot. “Do you feel all right?”

“I think so,” said the robot. “Let me try to get up.” Somewhat shakily, with Armstrong and Brick each holding on to one arm, the robot rose to its feet. “There, I think I’m fine-at least, there’s nothing wrong a good drink won’t fix. Who’s tending bar?”

“Uh-I guess I am, Captain,” said Brick. Timidly she added, “How about a cold drink of water until you figure out whether anything’s wrong?”

“Legionnaire, are you presuming to tell your CO he’s had enough to drink?” growled General Blitzkrieg.

“Uh, no sir, General Blitzkrieg, sir,” said Brick. It was undoubtedly the most “sirs” she’d gotten into one sentence since joining the Legion. Omega Company didn’t encourage ostentatious military etiquette.

“Not to worry, General,” said the robot, grinning broadly. “Let’s just play out the hole-as long as I can hit the ball straight, I guess I’m all right.”

“If you insist, Captain,” said Armstrong. “Uh, you’re away.”

“That’s right, Lieutenant,” said the robot Captain Jester. He stepped up to the ball, which had rebounded off his forehead and ended up perhaps six feet in front of the tee. “And that reminds me, General-I owe you ten dollars. Want to make it double or nothing I can’t outdrive Armstrong from where I lie?”

“You’re on!” said the general, sensing an easy win. Without a tee under the ball, it would be even harder for Jester to get the kind of distance he needed to best Armstrong’s tee shot. “I like a man who’s not afraid to put his money on the line!” In fact, the latter statement was true only if the fellow putting his money on the line then proceeded to lose it to the general. But for the moment, Blitzkrieg felt a glow of appreciation for his gallant if foolhardy opponent.

“All right, then,” said the robot, stepping up to the ball and waggling the driving iron. “Now I’ll show you how the goddamn game’s supposed to be played!”

There was something really wrong with that remark, thought Armstrong. But before he could place it, the robot had taken a mighty swing. The bystanders heard the distinctive ping of a ball caught precisely in the sweet spot of the club head. It took off straight as a laser beam down the middle of the fairway. When it finally came to rest, it was in the center of the green-some seventy yards past Armstrong’s tee shot.

“Wow, some shot,” said Brick. “Ain’t nothin‘ wrong with you, Captain.”

“A fine shot indeed,” said the general. “However, he does lie two. If our short game’s up to scratch, we’ve still got a fair chance to win the hole, eh, Lieutenant Armstrong?”

“I don’t plan to concede the hole, General,” said Armstrong, remembering whose partner he was supposed to be. He grabbed a short iron from his bag and the foursome set off down the course.

Armstrong was still trying to figure out what had bothered him when they got to the green and it became obvious to everyone-except perhaps the general-that something had gone seriously hay wire.

Phule’s instincts all told him something was wrong-very wrong. He found an empty bench in the garden of La Re-traite Rustique, sat down, and began trying to piece together what was bothering him.

First of all, he knew that Beeker and Nightingale were on the planet, probably even in the close neighborhood. He even had a pretty good idea what they were here for- unlike Cut ‘N’ Shoot, where he hadn’t learned about the main tourist attraction until the last day of his visit. He still didn’t have any idea what had possessed them to spend any of their vacation days on Rot’n‘art, one of the least interesting places he’d ever visited.

Here, at least, the Floribunda Festival was clearly the magnet drawing tourists from around the galaxy, although he couldn’t quite picture Beeker getting excited about flowers. Maybe Nightingale was the flower fancier. It didn’t seem like her, but how well did he know her, anyway?

But even knowing why they’d come to Hix’s World, he hadn’t managed to find them-not counting the one glimpse he’d gotten of Nightingale from his hotel window. Was it just bad luck, or was something else going on?

That brought him to the question of who’d been asking about him in the hotel. One way to figure out who was following him might be to let them catch up… but then, they might just turn out to be somebody he really was much better off not letting catch him. It was silly to pretend that he didn’t have enemies. He could think of several people who thought they had some reason or another to stick their noses into his business-some of them even had pretty legitimate reasons, if you granted their particular point of view.

Most likely, the people looking for him were just local newstapers who’d learned he was on-planet and wanted an interview. Not that he was going to give one and reveal his location to various people who would use the information for their advantage. General Blitzkrieg, for one, would consider Phule’s being away from his company’s base nothing short of a capital offense. Or whoever was currently in charge of the Lorelei crime syndicate might see this as an opportunity to eliminate their main competitor in the casino business. At least, Phule’s hotel had turned away the mysterious visitors… if only for the time being.

Phule stood up and stretched his muscles. In the absence of any real danger signs, his best bet was to go about his business, keeping an eye open for any suspicious characters in the vicinity. Considering that he was already keeping an eye open for Beeker, and one open for Nightingale, that was going to be a strain on his eyesight. But he’d cope. He always had.

Suspicious characters or not, it was important to keep his priorities straight. His main business was still finding Beeker, and that meant figuring out where the butler was likely to be the next day or so-after that, the Floribunda Festival was over, and most of the tourists would be leaving Hix’s World. Beeker and Nightingale would probably be among them. Chasing them to still another backwater planet was not Phule’s idea of fun, but neither was going into an induced catatonic state, which was what would probably happen if he gave up the chase. If he could just get Beeker’s Port-a-Brain, the entire problem would be solved. He could return to Zenobia, the butler and medic could continue to enjoy their vacation, and that would be that.

He reached in his pocket and brought out the Festival schedule he’d gotten in his tourist information packet at the spaceport. This afternoon’s big attraction was a “floral ballet,” whatever that was, in the Festival Pavilion. A map showed the Pavilion at the edge of town, not far from La Retraite Rustique. He didn’t know for certain that Beeker would be there, but if the butler had come all this way for the Floribunda Festival, it was just a good bet he-or Nightingale-would want to see the floral ballet, as well.

Phule double-checked the map, returned it to his pocket, and set off in the direction of the Pavilion. It was a long shot, but at the moment it was still the best shot he had.

Do-Wop and Sushi sat on the ground, in the shade of a hedge a short distance from the entrance to La Retraite Rustique. Their bicycle was propped up next to them. The day had turned hot, and they both felt a certain dissatisfaction that their mission remained unfinished. Even Do-Wop, a firm believer that “If at first you don’t succeed, it’s a good time to quit,” was trying to find alternative strategies.

“What we need to do is sneak back in the joint,” said Do-Wop. “Then we can figure out what room the captain’s in and put a message under the door.”

Sushi shrugged. “It could work,” he said. “That concierge, Robert, could cause a lot of trouble, though. How do we know when he’s going to be away without sticking our faces in?”

“Uglypuss Robert has to eat some time,” said Do-Wop. “My cousin Louise, she useta be a waitress, told me the staff always eats before they start serving the customers. I bet that’s when this guy eats, too-before the dining room opens for lunch.”

Sushi checked the time. “If you’re right, that’d be in maybe half an hour. But there’ll be somebody covering for him-you can bet he’s going to warn them about us. What are we going to do about that?”

Do-Wop grinned and pointed a finger at Sushi. “We go in disguise!” he said.

Sushi rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure. It’d be really triff if we had a whole kit full of different costumes, and fake beards, and all the other stuff. Except we don’t. Tell me when you come up with a real idea.”

“No, Soosh, this’ll work,” said Do-Wop. “Like, if we sneak in the employees’ entrance while everybody’s eatin‘, we can pop into the locker room and snag ourselves some hotel uniforms-janitor’s coveralls or maybe a bellhop jacket. Then we just zip right into the main part of the hotel without anybody battin’ an eyeball. You got the right uniform, you can go anyplace you want.”

“How do you know they have a locker room?” said Sushi. “This isn’t that big a place, you know…”

“If that happens, we go straight to Plan B,” said Do-Wop, nonchalantly.

“Which is?”

“Run like hell and try to think of somethin‘ else,” said Do-Wop, with a wink. “C’mon, Soosh, have a little faith in your buddy.”

“I guess I don’t have any better ideas,” said Sushi. “Besides which, if this goes sour, I can outrun you. When the bad guys catch you, they’ll probably forget about me.” He stood up. “We might as well go try it.”

They left the rented bike behind a privet hedge bordering the back garden of La Retraite Rustique, then worked their way through the gardens, dodging behind trees and other bits of greenery just as they’d been taught in basic training-Brandy would’ve been proud of them. She’d have been even prouder if there’d been anybody in the gardens for them to hide from.

The two legionnaires stopped outside the back door, which bore a sign reading service entrance. They exchanged a glance, as if to ask whether they were still going through with it. Then Do-Wop shrugged, pushed the door open, and they went inside.

They were in a hallway with a pair of swinging doors in front of them, and closed doors to either side saying men and women. From directly ahead came the low buzz of talk and the clatter of utensils-the kitchen, most likely. Do-Wop poked Sushi to get his attention, pointed to the door marked men, and they quickly slipped through it. As anticipated, they found themselves in a locker room, with showers and toilet facilities visible through an opening at the far end. For the moment, at least, no one else was in the area.

“OK, look for somethin‘ we can use as a disguise,” said Do-Wop. “Long as it covers up the Legion uniform, it oughta work.”

“What makes you so sure?” said Sushi. “Don’t you think the bosses know who works here and who doesn’t?”

“Sure, when they stop and think about it,” said Do-Wop. “But most of the time, they’re not payin‘ attention, doin’ something else, y’know. If you act like you know what you’re doin‘ and where you’re goin’, you can walk right past ‘em and they don’t even notice. There’s always new guys on the job. My cousin Rufo useta pull this trick all the time when he was stealin’ stuff.” He walked over to some shelves, where jackets, aprons, and other items of employee apparel were laid out. “Maybe one of these will fit,” he said, tossing a jacket at Sushi. It was lavender with gold trim.

“What happened to your cousin Rufo?” said Sushi, slipping the jacket over his uniform. It was a loose fit, but close enough to pass.

“He got nailed,” said Do-Wop, putting on a jacket of his own. “Shit happens, y’know.”

“Just what I wanted to hear,” said Sushi, rolling his eyes. “Guess there’s nothing to do but give it a try, though. Let’s go…”

Wearing uniforms taken from the employee locker room, the two legionnaires stepped into the hallway. For the moment, at least, they were alone. But there were clearly people in the kitchen, where the sound of conversation and food preparation was audible. Unfortunately, the path into the rest of the hotel led through the kitchen.

Leaning against the wall on one side were a push broom and a dustpan. Do-Wop picked them up and handed them to Sushi, with a wink, then brandished a roll of paper towels he’d taken from the locker room. “Just like the Legion,” he said. “Look like you’re workin‘, and they leave you alone.”

Sushi pointed the broom handle toward the swinging doors into the next room, as if to say, “After you.” Do-Wop shrugged, then strode forward as if he had every right in the world to be where he was. After a moment, Sushi followed.

The kitchen was small but well lit, and full of wonderful odors-definitely in a league with Mess Sergeant Es-crima’s back at Zenobia Base, Sushi thought. The three men busy with food preparation had their backs to the two legionnaires, who moved past quietly. At the other end of the kitchen, several employees sat at two long tables, eating and talking. None of them spared more than a glance at Sushi and Do-Wop, as the two walked briskly through the room, doing their best to appear that they were on the way to some job. This was going almost too smoothly, Sushi thought to himself.

Then a door opened in front of them, and Sushi’s heart leapt into his throat as the concierge came into the kitchen, walking directly toward them, a scowl on his face. But Do-Wop dodged back against the wall to let him pass, and a frightened Sushi followed his lead. To his enormous relief, Robert strode past them with no sign of recognition. Without saying a word, Do-Wop continued out the doors.

Sushi was right on his partner’s heels. “Wow, I thought we were dead there,” he whispered. They had emerged into the hotel dining room-at the moment unoccupied except for the two of them.

“Ahh, nothin‘ to it,” said Do-Wop, out of the side of his mouth. “Just remember, act like we’re just doin’ a job and nobody’s gonna look at us twice. Come on, let’s see if we can find out what room the captain’s in.”

Do-Wop led the way through the dining room and out into the lobby, where a handful of guests sat reading or conversing. The guests ignored the two legionnaires, who strode over to the desk. There, Sushi glanced at the guest register while Do-Wop leaned on his broom. For whatever reason, Sushi’s partner found it impossible to read upside down, a skill that came easily to Sushi. “Three-thirteen,” he said softly.

“Upstairs, then,” said Do-Wop. “Let’s go get it.”

They started up the stairs-Hix’s World had apparently legislated gravshafts and elevators out of existence, along with almost every other really convenient modern device. At the second-floor landing, Sushi was slightly ahead, but as he looked around the corner to see which way to go, he ducked back quickly and whispered hoarsely, “The captain! He just came out of his room-quick, up the stairs so he doesn’t see us!”

They scuttled up to the fourth floor, hoping that Phule was headed in the opposite direction. Pausing to listen, they heard the captain’s footsteps heading downward, and heaved a sigh of relief. Their disguises might be good enough to fool the hotel staff, but they certainly weren’t going to get through a face-to-face encounter with the captain without being recognized. And Lieutenant Rembrandt had ordered them to keep the captain from learning that she’d sent them to look after him. Not that they were especially afraid of disobeying Remmie-but if the captain knew they were here, he might come up with ideas of his own how to put them to work. And that might be a lot less fun than what they were doing.

Then their luck ran out. Just as the sound of the captain’s footsteps faded out into the lobby, a raspy female voice behind them growled, “If you two clowns are through goofing off, I’ve got some work for you. Or maybe you want to find jobs somewhere else?”

Half-recognizing the voice, they turned around slowly, and saw before them the scowling face of Maxine Pruett. “Well?” she said out of the corner of her mouth. “You working or not?”

Sushi and Do-Wop followed Maxine down a hallway and through a door marked danger-unpredictable quantum flux. As they entered, a light came on, and the two legionnaires could see a stack of packing crates. Sushi’s first thought was that he’d walked into a warehouse full of ultracomputers-but that made no sense. The amount of processing and storage capacity even one of these crates might hold would satisfy the needs of most planetary governments. So it must be something else.

Maxine interrupted his train of speculation. “You boys are gonna restack everything in this room so these crates are at the back, where nobody can see ‘em without moving a bunch of other stuff. And you’re gonna do it without taking anything out of the room and without making enough noise to attract attention. You got it?“

“Man, that’s gonna take all day,” said Do-Wop.

“So, you’re gettin‘ paid for all day,” said Maxine, frowning. “Or would you rather punch out and go find jobs that don’t hurt your pretty little hands?”

“We’ve got it covered, boss,” said Sushi, before Do-Wop could say anything else. “Shall we report to you when we’re finished?”

“No, just tell Robert you’re done, and then go finish your regular jobs. Oh, one more things-you don’t talk about what you’ve done here. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Sushi, and Do-Wop joined in a half beat behind him. Maxine nodded, then turned and left them to their devices.

“Man, this rots,” said Do-Wop. “By the time we’re finished with this, it’ll be way too late to get our message to the captain.”

“Never mind that,” said Sushi. “Did you see who that was? That’s Maxine Pruett, the mob boss from Lorelei. ”What’s she doing here?“

“Makin‘ us hump boxes, it looks like to me.” Do-Wop scowled at the pile of crates. He looked up and said, “It is pretty weird to find her here, though. What d’ya think we oughta do about it?”

“Fear not, I have a brilliant plan,” said Sushi, grinning. “Help me with this crate.”

“Some plan,” said Do-Wop. “I throw my back out, it’s your fault, y’know.”

“Don’t sweat it,” said Sushi. “You ought to know me better than to think any plan of mine involves real work. What we’re going to do is open this crate up and see what’s in it. Then we’re going to sneak out, put our message under the captain’s door, and get out of this dump before the boss lady or anybody else figures out what’s happened. You with me?”

“All except the part about opening the crate,” said Do-Wop. “Why we gonna waste time with that?”

Sushi grinned. “Because, anything Maxine Pruett wants to hide, I figure it’s to our advantage to know about. Come on, it can’t take more than a couple of minutes. You see anything we could use to pry one of these boards off?”

Do-Wop dug into his pockets and produced a laser cutter, and in a few more moments they had the crate open and the packing strewn around the floor. There in front of them sat a familiar item: a quantum slot machine, just like the ones they’d guarded in the Fat Chance Casino back on Lorelei. Do-Wop whistled. “I’m feeling lucky,” he said. “Got a quarter?”

“Never mind that,” said Sushi. “It doesn’t have a power module, for starters. But I just thought of something else- gambling is seriously illegal on this planet. This is some deep trouble. Let’s get out of here before the boss lady sends somebody to check up on whether we’re goofing off. Knowing Maxine, she’s got some muscle boys around to keep people like us from screwing up her operation.”

“Ahh, I ain’t afraid of no farkin‘ muscle boys,” said Do-Wop, brandishing the laser cutter.

Sushi rolled his eyes. “Come on, we’re out of here-or would you rather hump some more boxes for free?”

“You got a point there, Soosh,” said Do-Wop, pocketing the laser. “Let’s blow this joint!”

Sushi cracked the door and peered out; the coast seemed to be clear. The two legionnaires crept into the hallway. “Don’t forget, we’ve got to leave the note for the captain,” whispered Sushi.

“Right,” said Do-Wop. “Remind me-which way’s his room?”

“Down one flight and to the left,” said Sushi, starting off in the direction of the stairway.

The two legionnaires had just started down the stairs when a slim figure stepped onto the landing below them and started up. It took Sushi a second to recognize her, though he’d been looking for her ever since he’d left Omega Base. “Nightingale!” he said, stopping in his tracks.

Omega Company’s truant medic looked up at him, surprise written plainly on her face. “You!” she said. “What are you two doing here?”

But before Sushi could answer, another voice came from the landing above them. “Oh, shit, it’s Laverna. Security! Security!” shouted Maxine.

After that, Sushi and Do-Wop were far too busy making their getaway to notice which way Nightingale (aka Laverna) went, let alone say anything to her.

Phule sighed as he walked up through the gardens at La Retraite Rustique. The visit to the floral ballet had been a bust. Not only had he failed to spot Beeker, he’d been unable to leave the Pavilion until the end of the ballet’s first act-a spectacle that was probably just fine if you liked that kind of thing. He could now say with not doubt whatsoever that he didn’t like it. In fact, he really didn’t like it.

Phule realized that something was wrong as soon as he entered the lobby. For one thing, nobody was at the desk. For another, several guests were milling about, arguing with hotel employees, who seemed every bit as confused as the guests. And behind the desk, he could see through an open door to an office that appeared to have been thoroughly ransacked.

“What’s going on?” Phule asked the nearest person who seemed calm enough to have useful information, an elderly man with bristling white whiskers and a ghastly tweed jacket of a cut that only someone of long-established family could wear without being accused of trying out for a part in a bad period drama.

“Demmed ‘f I know,” said the bystander. “The management seem to have absconded without notice. Silly of them, what? Now we’re all looking at cold supper, to say the least. Not quite fair play, say I. Not fair at all.“

“When did this happen?” asked Phule. “Everything seemed fine just a little while ago, before I went into town.”

“It happened all of a sudden,” said another guest, a tall woman with startlingly red hair. “One moment, all was quiet-then, Madame came shrieking down the hall, saying that the Legion had come and all was lost. Her senior staff seemed to know what that meant, though I haven’t a notion, myself.”

“The Legion’s nothing to be afraid of,” said the be-whiskered man. “Stout fellows-they did my father a good turn, back on St. Elmo’s. Must have been in ‘44…”

“We haven’t time for that old story,” said the red-haired woman. “If these people can’t provide the dinner I’ve paid for in advance, I need to find someplace that will.”

“Unless things are corrected in short order, I shall have to write a letter to the Forum,” said the man, firmly, turning to Phule. “I say… I say, where’d the fellow go?”

Phule had gone to inquire elsewhere. He pushed through the kitchen doors, looking for someone with more authority-and, he hoped, better information-than the busboys and dishwashers out front with the guests. Ahead of him, a group of cooks and waiters stood arguing with a woman dressed in a rumpled business suit-some sort of manager, Phule decided. She might actually know something.

“Excuse me, do you have a moment?” said Phule, stepping into the woman’s line of sight.

Her eyes turned cold, and she all but snapped, “I’m afraid I’m pretty well occupied at the…” Then the woman’s gaze fixed itself on the hundred-dollar bill Phule was rubbing between his fingers, and her mouth fell open. “Of course, sir. I’m Aster Igget, the personnel manager. What can I help you with?”

“If she can’t help, I’ll give it one helluva try,” said a man in a white apron and chef’s hat, ogling the hundred. The woman glared at him, and he backed off, grinning.

Phule lowered his voice. “Just before I left to go into town, the concierge told me that two suspicious-looking men had been asking about me. Did anybody else see these two men?”

“Well, I certainly didn’t,” said the woman. “But I do know that Madame came into the kitchen right as Robert, the concierge, was eating-she was ranting about someone trying to ruin her business. He went with her to her office, and apparently when they came out, they went straight to the door and left. It wasn’t long before someone realized that they’d taken all the cash with them and wiped most of the office files.”

“Interesting,” said Phule. “Obviously they were trying to hide something-but what? And from whom?”

“The boss lady said the Legion had caught up with her,” volunteered the man in the chef’s hat. “That’s your outfit, right? I recognize that uniform…”

“Funny, I’ve been here nearly a week and nobody seemed worried,” said Phule, even more puzzled. “What I’d like to know… wait a minute. Did anybody see a woman in a Legion uniform?”

The employees looked at one another, then one of the waiters said, “Somebody in a black outfit ran through the kitchen and out the back door, right before the boss freaked out. I guess it could have been a woman.”

“Aha,” said Phule, putting two and two together. “Do you have any idea where the boss might have gone?”

“She didn’t give her forwarding address to the kitchen help,” said the man in the chef’s hat. “But if she’s in enough trouble to light out that fast, Hix’s World’s too small a place to hide. I’d bet she’s on the way to Old Earth.”

“Why Old Earth?” said Phule.

“There’s a regular flight there three days a week,” said Aster Igget, apparently realizing how little she’d done to earn the hundred-dollar bill Phule was still dangling. “A lot of our guests go there after Hix’s. Joyday, Floraday, Restday-that’s today, at six p.m. It’s the quickest way off-planet… and you can pick up a ship to anywhere from Old Earth. That’s where I’d go if I were on the run.”

“Something tells me that’s where I’m headed, too,” said Phule. He handed the hundred to Aster Igget and dug out two more for the other employees who’d offered information. Then he headed for his room to check what the Port-a-brain had to tell him.

Sure enough, it showed Beeker’s computer exiting Hix’s World on the way to Old Earth. He sighed and began packing for the next flight out.

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