by Aaron Allston

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671319939
Publisher: Baen
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.76(w) x 4.22(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Aaron Allston

Baen Books

ISBN: 0-671-31993-0

Chapter One

Pistol in hand, Doc ran through the deserted streets of the city of Neckerdam.

The skyscrapers around him looked like the misaligned, broken teeth of some long-dead giant, spikes of black or gray or checkered white-and-green pointing accusingly at the sky.

At the stars. These weren't the stars Doc knew, not the ones that belonged above the true Neckerdam. That, and the fact that he had not seen one other living soul on the streets, told him he was dreaming.

But was he experiencing a true dream or a sending-dream? The second kind could be meaningful ... and dangerous.

Ahead, on a street corner, he saw the wanted poster.

Above the text was a picture of Doc, but this was not the sort of picture normally posted on the walls of the city jails. In it, Doc stood in a heroic pose, gun in hand, wearing explorer garb better suited to exploration of the Dark Continent, his shirt ripped, his long snow-white hair flowing in a wind.

The words beneath the picture read, "Sought by the Crown, Doctor Desmond MaqqRee of the Sidhe Foundation. Also hight Doc, also hight Doc Sidhe."

There was something missing from the text. Doc shook his head; it was so hard to think in a dream. Then he knew: There should be some specification of charges, some indication of the reward being offered.

He looked up the street and now, where none had been before, his wanted poster was thickly plastered on every wall and light pole.

He heard and felt a grinding from beneath the pavement only a few steps away. Two large bronze plates set into the sidewalk clattered open and the elevator beneath them rose into view.

On it was a bed, a beautiful four-poster of ornately carved hardwood, draped in sheer bed-curtains, with a lavender canopy above. And lounging on the pillows lay Ixyail del Valle, Doc's lover.

She was a small woman, not just in comparison with Doc's generous height, but by any human standard; yet she was well and sleekly muscled like a panther in human form. Her features were delicate, the legacy of royal ancestry from the Old World, but her mouth was broad and generous. Her skin was a light brown, natural to her rather than the result of sunning. Her hair, flowing and glossily black, was far longer than Doc remembered it, as long as the silken nightdress that came barely to her thighs.

She gave him a smile that was all invitation and crooked a finger to summon him.

He took a last look around. There was no sign of an enemy. He felt nothing that indicated this was a sending-dream. He set his pistol down on the concrete and climbed in.

As he passed through the curtains his clothes disappeared. Ixyail seized him, pulling him atop her. This time, she had no need of love-play; she was ready for him, clutching, clawing, her skin hot to the touch. He tore her nightdress from her with a single yank and she drew him into her. She purred a true cat's purr and wrapped herself around him.

Too quickly, he spent. He held and kissed her, tried to form the words to soothe her, to appreciate her. But the words wouldn't come. He could see from her smile and her eyes that she'd understood his intent. Yet there was something odd to her eyes, an expression he had never seen in them before, an anxious expectation-she seemed to be asking a question he could not understand and could not answer.

She rolled over so that she was above and he beneath, and said, "I'll return when you are ready again." She slid from atop him and vanished as she passed through the curtains.

Doc tried to follow but found that his wrists and ankles were bound by heavy bronze shackles that held him, splayed, to the bed. He struggled but they were unyielding.

He tried to wake up. But above him the canopy of the four-poster bed remained stubbornly in place.

He looked around, but still there was no one to be seen on the streets of this phantom Neckerdam. Even his wanted posters were missing. And he wondered if he were dead, gone to some place of afterlife punishment like the one the members of the Carpenter Cult described.

That's when the memory returned to him: the gunman emerging from behind the pillar, his rifle rising into line, aiming at him, firing-

* * *

Zeb Watson wondered for the twelfth time where he'd seen the minister before. He also waited for words he'd once been certain he would never hear.

"I now pronounce you husband and wife," the minister said. He peered at the bride and groom over metal-rimmed glasses and waited. "Oh. You may kiss the bride."

Harris Greene, the groom, was a lean man, darkly handsome, with features best suited to a cheerful rogue on a TV show; he was dressed in a tuxedo the green of late-summer oak leaves. He took his new wife about the waist and drew her to him. The gesture was theatrical and dashing.

Gaby, the bride, Latina ancestry evident in her coloration and features, had a jaw that suggested stubbornness and alert eyes that spoke of keen intelligence. She wore a wedding dress in a matching green and a wreath of laurel leaves. She smiled at his display as she kissed him.

The crowd in the hotel ballroom applauded, the wedding party joining in.

The couple gave no sign that they were ready to break their clinch. The minister smiled as he stepped around them and past Zeb. He was a young man with a wispy brown beard and mustache and open features suggesting that stress, to him, was nothing but a word in the dictionary. He was dressed in the same style of green tuxedo as the groom's party. "Attention, please. As soon as we can pry Harris and Gaby apart and get the members of the immediate families up here, we'll start taking wedding pictures. If you can sort of gather in the open spaces, the hotel staff will be able to drag the chairs up against those two walls and get the buffet set up."

Zeb ignored him and kept his attention on Harris and Gaby. They were different from the last time he'd seen them. Six months ago, Harris had been an unsuccessful professional kickboxer, his career spiraling away to nothingness in New York. He and Gaby, a programming director for a UHF station, had been together for a while but signs had not looked good between them. Then something had happened-a neighbor had reported Gaby kidnapped, then she'd turned up again, then she and Harris had dropped out of sight.

There had been little word from them after the reported kidnapping. Zeb had received a note from Harris saying that all was well and that he'd explain later. The explanation had never come, but a wedding invitation had, eventually. Now Harris and Gaby looked confident, healthy, as happy as Zeb had ever seen them ... and he still didn't know why.

Not that Zeb minded a happy ending. He just wished he knew how they'd gotten there.

* * *

At the back of the columned hall, in the last row of the seating devoted to the groom's guests, Rudi Bergmonk cupped his chin in his hand and decided that he needed a shave. On the other hand, he wasn't here to impress the wedding attendees with close-shaven elegance. He might have to shoot one of them, in fact. He might have to shoot several of them.

He and his four brothers stood as the rest of the audience did. That cut off their view to the head of the hall; the tallest of them was a head shorter than most of the men present. Rudi knew that this wasn't the only thing that set them apart, visually; the black suits they wore were badly fitted to their thick-chested, short-legged builds, and all five, unlike the genuine wedding guests, wore gloves.

Albin, the oldest and the only one whose beard was completely gray, said, "I still don't see him."

Jorg, the biggest of them, mopped a handkerchief that was as floridly red as his hair over his sweaty forehead. "Then he isn't here."

Albin fixed him with a look of contempt. "Have you even been looking among the crowd? He might be employing a disguise."

"Of course I have," Jorg said, his voice rising in protest. "We all have. Right, boys? No sign of him. Maybe he'll come later."

Albin still frowned. "I don't like it. I've done research on their weddings ... but they're not doing it right."

Egon, the second oldest, though he still had some blond in his hair and beard, shrugged. His hands were in his pockets; Rudi knew that one hand would be on a knife hilt even now. "Perhaps you did your research wrong."

"Shut up," Albin said. "The part we've just seen, they're supposed to do in a temple. Then they have cameos taken. Then they have rice thrown at them as they leave the temple."

Otmar, youngest of the brothers except for Rudi, young enough not to have any silver decorating the brown in his beard, laughed-giggled, rather. "Messy."

Albin took a deep breath, an effort, Rudi knew, to keep his temper in check. "Dry rice, you idiot. Then they go to the hall where the food is-that's the best place we could have taken them, on the trip from temple to hall. But these cretins have cobbled together both parts of the ceremony. They do everything wrong." He looked around, directing his contempt against the other attendees instead of his brothers. "They actually let duskers into the hall." He gestured toward the head of the room, where, until the audience had stood, they'd been able to see the tall black man standing beside the groom. "They've got a dusker for the best man. I think the bride's a dusker passing for dark."

Rudi said, "That's not our problem. The fact that they're not doing things according to their own traditions is. So we'll have to improvise. Where do you want to do it?"

Albin curled a lip, still obviously distressed about the presence of the black man. "When they go to change their garments, I think. We'll follow them and catch them in their rooms, one by one or two by two."

* * *

The bride, the groom, and their families collected at the front of the room to endure the photographer's instructions. Zeb was far enough to one side to be out of the camera range but close enough to hear the photographer's victims talk.

The bride's mother-small-boned, more than a trifle overweight, a frown seemingly a permanent feature of her face-leaned in to whisper, "That Minister Jones, is he a real minister?"

"Yes, Mother." Gaby kept her smile on for the camera.

"I think he's an actor. I think I recognize him from a peanut butter commercial."

"He is an actor from a peanut butter commercial. He and Harris studied theater together in college. But he's also a minister. He founded his own church. Government-recognized and everything."

"Well, it's not right. You should have been married by a real priest. A Catholic priest."

"Well, maybe we'll do it again with a real priest next time."

"How about next week?"

Minutes later, the families immortalized, the photographer maneuvered them away and had the wedding party step in.

Zeb put on his photographic face. He knew his close-cropped beard and mustache gave him a distinguished look, and his eyes were expressive-but only when he put on the right face. He had other faces for other situations. There was his war-face, developed and polished for the boxing ring, his I'm-not-to-be-messed-with face for walking certain neighborhoods in New York, his I'm-so-nice face for persuading people he was no threat to them. He had a face for every occasion. He sometimes wondered if any of them was his own.

While the photographer was changing cameras, Zeb leaned forward over Harris's shoulder. "Sorry I was so late."

"Don't worry about it," Harris said. "You got here, you didn't lose the ring, and in the original tradition of the best man, you're the most dangerous guy I know, so I had no worries that anyone would come and steal Gaby away."

The photographer said, "All right, bride only for a while." Harris and Zeb obligingly moved to one side and relaxed.

"We haven't had a lot of time to talk," Zeb said. He couldn't keep a trace of suspicion from his voice. "Months I don't hear from you or Gaby, and then boom! You're living in California, you're getting married, and you're doing what?"

"Freelance consultants. We're hotel reviewers and inspectors."

"Meaning what, exactly?"

"We're on the road most of the year, going from hotel to hotel under assumed names. We just look around, see how good the hotel staff is at doing its job, use all the hotel facilities we can without being obvious, cause a weird problem or two to see how they deal with it, and file reports to the companies that hire us. We might work for the corporation that owns the hotel, a corporation that owns rival hotels, a chain of travel agencies, a credit-card issuer, that sort of thing." Harris shrugged. "It's good work that pays well. And we like the travel."

A crowd of well-wishers descended upon Harris, shaking his hand, clapping his back, and then moved on to linger in a predatory fashion around the buffet table setup.

"Harris?" Zeb said.


"Where are the pictures?"

Harris gestured at the photographer, still posing Gaby and members of her family. "They won't be ready for weeks."

"No, not those. You've been travelling the last few months from hotel to hotel. The last time you and Gaby went anywhere, she came back with a lot of photographs. She was into photography and journalism in school, right? I remember she likes taking pictures when she's on vacation."

"You don't forget much."

"So where are they?"

"Hell if I know. I told her I don't like looking at pictures. She packs them away somewhere."



"You heard me."

Harris frowned, but not at Zeb's remark. He watched someone toward one side of the hall. "Stay here a second. There's a guy I want to talk to."

"You're avoiding the question."

"No." Harris broke away and moved into the crowd.

* * *

The short, stocky man moved behind one of the columns on the long wall where chairs were stacked. Harris followed as closely as he dared. He peeked around the column, saw the man's broad back, saw over his shoulder as the man lit a pipe.

Harris moved out from behind the column and asked, "Pardon me, goodsir, what's the bell?"

The stocky man turned, revealing his bulbous nose and bushy brown beard; he automatically reached into the pocket of his vest and fetched out a large pocket watch whose lid was ornately engraved with the image of an apple tree. He opened it up. "Why, it's-" Then, guilt dawning on his features, he looked up.

He dropped the pipe, reached under his armpit. As he brushed his jacket lapel aside, Harris saw the gun butt and shoulder holster beneath.

Harris hit him, a knuckle-punch to the solar plexus. He stepped in even closer, slammed his forearm into the man's head, driving it back into the column, and followed through with a knee to the man's groin.


Excerpted from Sidhe-Devil by Aaron Allston Excerpted by permission.
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