Planet Janus 5
The scene inside Fat Louie's froze. Vintage techno blared in the background. The two women onstage stood still and silent like half-naked statues, silver G-strings glittering, hands gripping the poles worn smooth by a hundred dancers who'd come before. High, round breasts, tipped with dusky pink nipples, heaved as the dancers struggled not to gasp aloud in shock. Gold credits peppered the stage, gleaming in the hot, white lights, but nobody reached down to swipe them up. All eyes were fixed on the doorway.
The man shifted to widen his stance, making himself look even larger and more intimidating. "I'm sorry, did I stutter? I'm looking for Vincent Mendez."
Fat Louie's was a brothel like any other. The working girls saw johns in every size, shape, and color. They sold their charms to the highest bidder whether he was an Alliance loyalist or a rebel sympathizer. But the man standing so calmly in the doorway was neither.
Everything about him screamed raw power. But the way he patiently scanned the room with his eerie, pale blue eyes told Tavish this man could do strategy as well as brute force.
He stood tall, at least six feet. She would've bet an entire night's credits that he weighed in at around 275 pounds of solid muscle. His dark pants hugged his narrow hips, giving her a good idea of just how firm his buttocks would look in the flesh. The drape of his long, dark coat emphasized the wide expanse of his shoulders. His skin appeared to be naturally olive toned; no doubt his ancestors descended from Earth's exploding human population. His thick, dark brown hair would have hung to his shoulders had he not tucked it behind his ears. But any hint of warmth that his physical appearance offered hid behind icy eyes.
The room began to stir. The murmur began low, and several moments passed before Tavish heard the words Stone Cold Bondsmen whispered in hushed tones.
Her heart leaped in her chest.
"Go away, lawman," someone growled.
Murmurs of agreement erupted around the room.
Tavish wondered if the big man really expected help from anyone inside the brothel. Fat Louie's catered to sleazebags with money, but nobody catered to bondsmen.
A network of stages made up the central area of Louie's low-slung main room. Old-fashioned billiard tables sprawled in one corner, the latest holo-gaming units in another. A bar stretched the length of one long wall. At the far end of the sleek, alloy structure, Tavish could just see the top of Vincent Mendez's balding head.
Behind the bar, Seth, the night manager, grew restless. "You got until the count of three to get the fuck out of here."
The bondsman lowered his gaze, examining his hand as if bored. "You want to get rid of me? Give me Mendez. I never leave without my man."
She sucked in a breath. One look at the cool, calm exterior of the bondsman, and she knew he spoke the truth.
Seth slanted Mendez an appraising look before turning back to the bondsman. "One."
The entire room held its breath.
"Three." The bondsman lifted his icy gaze from the floor.
The scene exploded.
Two enforcers erupted from the front corners of the room and flanked the doorway. Tavish had seen them work their brutal trade on other unwelcome visitors. Her heart pounded a staccato beat in her chest. She'd never seen a bondsman in action before, but the pirates, smugglers, and lowlifes who paid her a few credits to spread her legs and pretend arousal always spoke of Warrick Stone's Stone Cold Bondsmen with something akin to awe.
Louie's enforcers were big, braw men used to a good smash and bash. The bondsman was something different altogether. Just when she was certain he would be crushed between the huge enforcers, the bondsman pivoted to one side. With a flick of his wrist, a silver, chainlike whip hissed through the air. Serrated edges winked beneath the brilliant lights and wrapped themselves around the throat of the first enforcer, flinging him headfirst into his comrade. The first man grabbed at the metal, a panicked look in his eyes as he went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The links ate into his flesh like tiny talons. The bondsman changed the arc of his arm, releasing the whip's hold on his opponent. The first enforcer rolled on the floor, hands clutching his throat, choking on his own blood. The second man remained still, with his neck twisted at an odd angle.
"I know you're in here, Mendez! You gonna hide behind a bunch of skirts?" The bondsman arched one elegant, dark brow. "Or should I say G-strings?"
His words seemed to unfreeze the remainder of Louie's patrons. The man who'd been so interested in the cost of Tavish's cunt before the bondsman's abrupt entrance shoved her away in his haste to make a quick exit. He wasn't alone. Men holo-dicing or playing cards dived away from their tables, heading for any available exit. Working girls screamed and exploded from the room like brightly colored supernovas.
The bondsman strode into the chaos, his thick-soled boots crunching on broken glass. He wielded his serrated metal whip like an avenging angel and methodically searched the men fleeing Fat Louie's.
Tavish's slight build let her duck easily out of sight beside a brocaded armchair. She was barely five feet tall in heels, and though she had nice, high breasts just the size for a big man's hands, her hips were no more than a narrow flare that eased into long, slender legs.
Peeking around the back of her armchair, she blew a few renegade strands of hair away from her face. The chignon she'd carefully arranged in front of the mirror in her boxlike room had become a messy knot. And her topaz minidress was hopelessly wrinkled from crawling around on the floor.
Movement caught her eye a moment before Mendez's balding head slunk around the back side of the bar, heading for the side door and freedom.
She leaned the other way. The bondsman wheeled about, scanning the patrons fleeing the room in twos and threes. The remaining girls still screamed at the top of their lungs and zoomed around in circles like one-winged spacecraft.
Mendez waited until the bondsman focused in the opposite direction. Scrabbling for a hold, he vaulted from the floor and ran straight toward her.
She knew Fat Louie's policy. The bondsman's actions were a massive breach in protocol. Coming after one of their clients was brazen. Louie would be furious. And helping this outsider catch his man would be suicide.
She did it anyway.
It might've been the drop-dead good looks of the big, athletic man. It could've been how he seemed to keep the damage to a bare minimum with only necessary force. It might've been the way he kept setting the other girls aside instead of running them down in his haste. Whatever the reason, she couldn't ignore the prompting in her gut telling her to help this man, no matter what it would no doubt cost her.
She curled into a ball and flung her entire body in Mendez's path. His boot caught her in the ribs as he tripped headlong over her body. Air rushed from her lungs, and stars burst before her eyes. Smothering a cry of pain, she kept her head down.
Fat Louie himself had finally hauled his fat ass out of the office, just in time to see her trip Mendez. The sound of Mendez hitting the floor made the bondsman spin on his heel.
"Hello, Vincent." The bondsman's voice dripped velvet and thorns.
Tavish shivered from her place on the floor. How could a man sound so sexy and so dangerous all at the same time? Gooseflesh erupted on her skin, and her nipples began to tingle.
"Fuck off," Mendez snarled, gaining his feet just inches away from where she still huddled. "You got no right."
"That's for damn sure!" Fat Louie squealed, waving his chubby fist.
She hazarded a peek at her boss and wished she hadn't. His electric orange suit made him look like an enormous exotic fruit on legs. Rolls of fat jiggled beneath his chin. His bald head gleamed in the light. The jovial expression he saved for paying customers was gone, replaced with the ugly expression the girls learned to fear not long after arriving at his brothel.
She began to sweat. She hated Fat Louie; they all did. She'd only been twelve when he'd taken her virginity to "break her in properly." He boasted that he broke in all his girls before offering them to customers, but Tavish had always seemed to fascinate him. Though the customers had never been particularly pleased with her lack of substantial hips and coltish long legs, Louie kept her around. He once promised she'd live and die in the same room he'd given her when she'd stepped off the smugglers' ship at the age of seven.
Fat Louie lumbered over to her, reached down, and grabbed her by the hair. "Stupid cunt! Whorespawn bitch! Don't think I didn't see what you did!"
She bit the inside of her lip until the taste of blood filled her mouth. Her neck ached with the thrashing, but she soon forgot it when Louie yanked the hem of her tiny dress above her buttocks.
"I'll teach you a lesson you won't soon forget!" he raged, smacking her bare ass with his cane.
Through a haze of pain and suppressed rage, Tavish saw something flicker behind the bondsman's ice blue gaze, but then he turned his attention back to Mendez.
"You got nowhere to run, Vincent."
Mendez's gaze darted nervously around the room.
The bondsman twirled a set of electrocuffs in one hand. "Warrick wants you alive. I could personally care less. I get paid either way."
That seemed to decide Mendez. He put his beefy shoulder into Fat Louie's bulk and shoved him aside. Fat Louie went twirling across the room like a neon Humpty Dumpty, and Mendez grabbed for her.
His arm closed over her throat, and she gasped.
"You move and she dies right here."
The sour stench of Mendez's fear-sweat raised bile in the back of her throat. She gagged against his arm, fighting for consciousness as he held her powerless against his stout body.
"Let her go."
The cool order cut through the encroaching blackness. She grasped at the arm across her neck, flailing uselessly.
"You care what happens to this whore, bondsman?" Mendez squeezed harder. "She's gonna die no matter what happens to me. Nobody sells out a customer. Ain't that right, Fat Louie?"
"This one's been nothing but trouble since I bought her," Louie huffed, still trying to roll his body into a standing position.
"Her mouth is the only part worth paying for." Mendez lowered his lips to her cheek. His tongue laved a slow line between her lips and her ear. "You remember sucking my cock dry, don't you, sweetheart?"
She retched, his foul breath making the meager contents of her stomach pitch and roll. Mendez and Fat Louie laughed in concert.
She fought harder, her heart fluttering inside her chest. She'd spent every minute of her adult life in bondage to Fat Louie. If there were snatches of memory left from a life with parents and siblings on a peaceful planet worlds away from the brothels of Janus 5, Tavish couldn't remember them. She didn't want to die. Not now, not like this.
Icy blue eyes settled on her. The big bondsman seemed suddenly undecided. The electrocuffs went back into his pack.
"Give me the girl and I'll go."
The raucous laughter stopped. Tavish wondered if she'd heard correctly. Apparently Fat Louie and Mendez wondered the same. A few hushed mutters broke out around her, and then she found herself flying through the air.