Chapter 1: Jack of Diamonds
Alar Zarkadon adjusted his night-vision glasses and slipped into the darkened suite as silently as a ghost. Crossing the luxurious inner room with a cat's swift grace, he could clearly see the furniture and the two inanimate figures sprawled in a tangle of black silk on the immense circular bed. Under a mass of satin and lace in the second dresser drawer, the brass bound leather box was right where the maid had said it would be.
Within seconds, he'd short-circuited the fancy alarm, sprang the locks and poured the glittering contents into his waiting bag. Before leaving, he checked the room once more, and spotted the solid gold wrist communicator next to the man's hand. Worth eighty thousand at retail, it would be good for at least twenty from the fence, assuming he didn't keep it. Slipping the communicator onto his right wrist with an appreciative grin, Alar drew a playing card from his belt pouch. He left the card face-up where the communicator had been and left as quietly as he had come.
Out on the balcony, he tapped a button on his left wrist. The moment his earpiece picked up an answering beep, he attached a thin cord to the heavy bag and lowered it carefully over the railing. Feeling the cord go slack, he retrieved it, then grabbed the rope he had left hanging next to the balcony and made his silent way back to the roof. Stripping off his black silk mask and jumpsuit in the shadow of a conveniently placed solar unit, Alar stuffed them into a pocket pack with his shoe-covers and gloves.
A few minutes later, he was quietly making his way through the crowded lobby of the city's most luxurious hotel. Intrigued by his ebony skin, exotic looks and aura of money, women turned to look at him as he passed.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, Alar saw none of them. Bucky and Zack should be waiting across the street and he heaved a sigh of relief that this was their final heist. Nublis Security had beefed up Cyrenia's city patrols to an all-time high for the convention and he agreed with Bucky that the place had become entirely too hot to suit them. He was ready for a change of scene anyway, and the planet Eos's glittering resorts and easy lifestyle had begun to look very appealing, especially now he could afford them.
Just as Alar reached the hotel's outside door, a family group moved out ahead of him. The husband was shepherding his exquisitely bejeweled wife toward a waiting limousine where a scarlet-liveried chauffeur stood holding the door. The dark-haired boy with them favored Alar with a supercilious glance, then just as quickly dismissed him. Behind them, all blonde curls, rosy cheeks and excitement, a little girl was doing her best to hang onto a wriggling puppy. Straining at its crimson leather leash, the tiny dog was yipping at something it saw in the street.
Then it happened.
The pup raced out into the busy evening traffic, the leash whipping behind it like a serpentine flag and its frantic mistress in hot pursuit. A klaxon's blare cut across Alar's bemused consciousness and he looked up just in time to see the black mass of a delivery truck bearing down on the child. The little girl's attention was focused on the escaping dog and she appeared oblivious of the approaching danger.
With a sense of moving in slow motion, Alar jumped into the oncoming vehicle's path, scooped up the small body and tossed it out of harm's way. As he leapt for the sidewalk's safety, his thin-soled dress shoe skidded on something wet. Right leg twisting, he went down. Something pounded into his left side, carrying him inexorably backward amid a slow tortured metallic screech. As he smacked into the rain-slicked pavement, he felt as if an entire wall of bricks was caving in on him at once, then faded out. Traffic from both directions promptly halted and Bucky and Zack watched in frozen horror from their vantage point across the street as people ran from all directions toward the still figure on the ground. The dazed truck driver climbed down from his cab and simply stood there, repeating over and over, "He came out of nowhere. I swear to God, he just came out of nowhere."
A pedestrian grabbed the trailing leash and hauled the errant puppy back to its frantic owners. As the little girl sobbed helplessly in her father's arms, the unwitting cause of it all wagged his tail, wriggled in delight at all the attention and happily licked every face within reach.
When Alar opened his eyes, he was hurting. Good grief, how he hurt. Amid a confused babble above his head, he heard someone say in Nublian, "Get those cameras out of here. Can't you see he's bleeding? Where's that damn MedEvac? Gentlemen, please. He's a tourist from Sirius, and had it not been for his courageous action, this little lady might very well be dead. Ah, finally. Now stand back. There'll be a statement later."
Alar struggled to sit up but a pair of firm hands pushed him down. Something was shoved over his face. A mask of some kind, whatever it was pumping tasted medicinal, and vaguely comforting. He heard a voice in his ear. "Please relax, sir. We're just checking you over."
Alar pushed futilely at the mask. "Just let me out of here. My friends are waiting. They'll take care of me."
The two medics glanced at the portable monitor next to the stretcher, then at each other. "Sir, we appreciate your anxiety but you've got more than just a couple of bruises there. Tell us where we can reach your friends and we'll notify them."
No, he thought hopelessly, That won't work. Bucky and Zack must have seen the accident, and, with any luck, they've already taken off to meet the fence. Oh, this is really stupid. Dammit, I need to get out of here.
"As long as you're awake, sir, would you mind telling us your name, address and where you're staying? And the location of your next of kin."
He sighed, then closed his eyes for a moment, his speech laboring through the mask. "Alar Zarkadon. I'm a registered antiquities dealer from the city of Maderia on the planet Sirius and there are no next of kin. I've been in Suite 12A at the Star Matrix for the past nine days and am scheduled to leave on the Elizonda for Eos first thing tomorrow morning."
When a third voice interrupted in flawless Siriun, he opened his eyes to see a distinguished-looking man of about forty looking down at him. Although the speaker's throwaway perfection and air of careless arrogance spoke of old money and even older breeding, his silver-blond hair was disheveled and his wide-set gray eyes genuinely concerned. Ignoring the puddles, he crouched next to the stretcher. "Mr. Zarkadon. My name's Aaron Fortier and you just saved my daughter's life. While there's no way I can possibly repay you, if there's anything you need or want, just name it." He switched abruptly to Nublian. "Give this card to Doctor Rowan the moment you arrive. My private number's on the back. If Mr. Zarkadon needs anything at all, have him call me. Day or night."
Yes, there's something I need, and that's to get out of here fast.
Alar replied courteously in the same language, "That's very kind of you, sir, but not at all necessary. Just have them patch me up and I'll be on my way."
The man was obviously surprised. "You speak our language very well, Mr. Zarkadon. So many of your compatriots don't."
Alar smiled faintly behind the mask. "Since I spend a great deal of time on your beautiful planet in connection with my business, I thought it advisable to learn the language. Call me Alar."
"Aaron will do. I'm not much for standing on ceremony either."
One of the medics interrupted "Your Highness, we need to get him over to the Temple, stat."
Highness? wondered Alar as they lifted his stretcher into the waiting unit. Who is he anyway, and what in the hell have I gotten myself into?
The door slammed shut, and the MedEvac's electric motors' shrill whine was followed by the shove of the big boosters. The thrusters engaged with a slight rumble and they were airborne. One medic spoke softly into his communicator while the other did something to Alar's left arm. When the young Siriun craned his head to look, all he could see was a wad of blood-soaked cloth. The other medic gave him a wry grin. He shone a small light into each of his eyes and took his right hand. "Now squeeze. Very good."
He took out a small silver instrument and passed it over Alar's chest. "Let's have a couple of deep breaths. In, out, in. Very good, sir. Now, would you cough for me, please. Did that hurt?" Alar shook his head and he said something into his communicator. "Excellent."
Alar's curiosity got the better of him. "Why did you call that man 'Your Highness?' "
"Prince Aaron's the Emperor's nephew. He's one of the richest men on Nublis, or in the entire Synod for that matter. His late mother was the famous dress designer Princess Deborah de Raven and his father was Lord Zachary Fortier."
"It seems to me I've heard of Lord Zacharly. Didn't he have some connection with Seira?"
"He sure did. Lord Zachary was mixed up in their revolution about fifty years ago, and the Seirans erected a statue of him in their capital city Giulliam. Prince Aaron was his only son and that little girl you just saved is the apple of her father's eye."
Alar opened his mouth to say something else, then yelped instead.
"Sorry about that but your arm's pretty messed up. Here, I'll give you something."
Something stung the side of Alar's neck. He felt desperately tired. The medic's voice came from a great distance and he could barely hear it over the sounds of the MedEvac. "Just relax, sir, and let it take you. We're about to land on the Temple roof and you'll be in Emergency in a couple of minutes."
"That's good," he muttered and drifted off into oblivion.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby