Zamath s'Ral hissed in satisfaction. Draining his goblet of Hellrose liqueur, he ordered another. The fools would never find him here. The goblet crashed to the floor as every muscle in his body froze and he toppled from the stool. A figure appeared before him; a Terran female dressed in black, weapons riding low on her hips, her golden hair spilling from under a broad-brimmed hat. He tried to lunge, but his muscles refused.
"Howdy Zamath. Some folks on Aldis III want a chat with you. Nighty-night." She raised her pistol and fired. He slumped unconscious.
Rae Arizona holstered her replica .45 Colt Peacemaker and toed her fallen quarry with a silver tipped boot. Satisfied, she unclipped her antigrav carrier, lifted him and headed for the ChronoPort stage nearby. Two Peace Patrol officers rounded a corner and galloped towards her. This was Rae's third visit to Deneb IV with its centaur-like inhabitants. She pulled her Cosmic Retriever medallion from between her ample breasts, letting it dangle against her black shirtfront as the officers approached.
Their eyes narrowed at the sight of the medallion. It was a galaxy-wide passport for any wearer. Cosmic Retriever's only accepted the most difficult cases of wanted or escaped fugitives from hundreds of planets; with a double-your-credits-back guarantee if they failed, which was seldom.
"A Rigelian," one officer snorted in Unispeak. "Good riddance. They are naught but trouble. What was his crime?"
"Organlegging in the First Degree," Rae replied. "Seven counts to date. Its life in the Beryllium mines for him, that's certain."
"Peculiar weapons you carry," the second officer commented. "May we examine them?"
Rae stiffened, placing her hands on the gun butts. "Fraid not, boys, these never leave my side, never."
"It is of no matter," the first officer said, nervously pawing the ground. "Be on your way, Terran. We wish no trouble here."
"Thanks. See you around the nebula," Rae replied, tipping her black Stetson. She activated the ChronoPort's controls, drew her prisoner on the stage and disappeared.
Rae entered the director's office and settled into a null-grav chair. "Well done, Rae, well done," Hyde-Mathis said warmly. "Aldis III paid 3MCr for your retrieval, a tidy sum. Was it difficult tracking him?"
"Once I accessed the primary data bank, the rest was simple. They never knew I was there. The overconfident fool registered for citizen status and that led me right to him. It was too easy."
The proton screen behind Hyde-Mathis blazed into life. A Terran male's face appeared, middle-aged, around 80, a pasty round face, frightened eyes. "This next assignment may not be as simple. You are familiar with The Red Moon Brotherhood?"
"Who isn't," Rae drawled sarcastically. "If it's illegal, they know about it or are doing it. I helped break up a LifeSpice smuggling ring of theirs when I was with the Patrol."
Hyde-Mathis chuckled. "They have offered us 15MCr for the return of one Philo Saunders, this man. They did not say why, only that they want him alive. You're the best at bringing them back alive. Do you want this one?"
Rae thought a moment. Twenty percent of 3M Creds would buy that beach house on Arcturus IX she had been dreaming about.
"I'll take it, Cedric. I'll need a week to prepare. Send me the data."
"Tight-beamed to your house," Hyde-Mathis said. "Good luck, Rae."
"I make my own luck, Cedric. You know that. Adios."
When Rae approached her landing stage, there was an unfamiliar hoverbug parked in a normally vacant port. Exiting her bug, she crept silently into the house, but saw no one.
"Anyone in here? You better show yourself. I'm armed and I shoot to kill."
No answer. Rae hung her guns and belt in the closet, added her Stetson, bowie knife and boots, and then proceeded to search the house 2mm derringer in hand.
"Hi Aunt Rae!" someone said behind her. She spun around into a firing crouch and saw a woman with flaming red hair and a wide smile standing there.
"Don't shoot," the woman said. "I'm your cousin Jan. I wanted to surprise you, but not like this."
"Cousin Jan, from Procyon IX, what in Isis' name are you doing here?"
"Medical leave. A prong hopper on Cassiopia V nearly got me. Put me in a robodoc for 3 months, then the director told me to take a vacation and here I am. I was in the hydrogarden admiring the jelly flowers when I heard your bug land."
They hugged and Rae said "How many years has it been since we've seen each other?"
"At least five standard, you were at my wedding, remember?"
"Oh yes, of course," Rae said, blushing, "I sorta forgot."
"I wish I could," said Jan ruefully.
"Didn't work out, huh?"
"Nope, total flame out, you still with the Patrol?"
"Uh uh, Cosmic Retrievers, the pay's better and no incompetent desk Admirals to deal with; you still with the Galactic Consortium?"
"Undercover Bureau, I was tracking some renegade Zarthian commandos when that pronger jumped me. It skewered me in the leg, I burned it in the belly plates, twice, they're tough to kill."
"Tell me about it; you hungry?"
"I could eat something."
Rae and Jan caught up on each other's lives while having dinner. Jan's ex had complained about her sometimes prolonged absences once too often, so she left him. Rae had a few affairs, but nothing serious, like Jan she craved adventure which for them was what life was all about.
For the next week they talked, laughed and relaxed; enjoying each other's company. Rae told Jan about her new assignment and it's connection to the Red Moon Brotherhood.
"That's a rough bunch of boys," Jan said with a grin. "I tangled with 'em once on Crowninshield's World smuggling crater guns to the various indigenous warring factions; quite a step up from bows, arrows and lances for those folks. What a mess that was."
"I'll remember that," Rae replied. "I'm workin' for 'em, not against 'em, but I'll bet oranges to asteroids they try a double cross once I find their man."
"Just watch your back and keep your pistols charged, Rae. Don't wanna lose you."
The week passed all too quickly and then Rae was buckling on her guns. She told Jan she could stay as long as she liked and make herself at home. They kissed and hugged and Rae was gone.
Jan watched until Rae's hoverbug was a speck in the distance said "Good fortune, Aunt Rae," and then went inside.
Rae stepped off the ChronoPort stage and looked about. She had never been on Arcturus III, but the briefing chip indicated a breathable atmosphere, humanoid inhabitants and a Class 2 culture with a central government and reasonably advanced technology. The square where she stood was deserted, the heat of the sun reflecting from the pavement. She strolled towards a shop offering food and drink and went inside.
Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the dim interior from the blazing sun outside. Several humanoid beings sat at tables, slumped forward, snoring noisily. Rae wondered if mid-day sleeping was a local custom.
She had analyzed data regarding her quarry, determining it was highly probable that he was on this world. Once she found living quarters and privacy, she would scan their central data banks to narrow down her search.
The beings began to stir; green, yellow and blue eyes of various hues flicked open and stared with vertical pupils at the stranger. She calmly returned the gaze of the feline evolved humanoids.
A server walked towards her table, his fangs bared in what Rae knew was a greeting. She showed her teeth in return.
"Frisst of the Sheathed Claw welcomes you. I recommend the Prey of the Day, Haunch of Noropod."
"I will have that."
"You wish it cooked?"
"Rushberry wine is fresh today."
"I will have a goblet."
"It shall be a moment."
The being walked away, greeting other diners.
Rae looked about. Every inhabitant's fur was different. Some one color, some mottled, some striped, their faces and heads leonine, humanoid in shape overall. Their sole garment consisted of a wide belt with pouches and Class II weapons, appearing to be lead projectors.
Her food arrived and she ate slowly, savoring the tender meat. The wine was above average and complemented the meal perfectly. Paying her bill, she inquired as to where she could find lodging. Given directions to The Inn of Yellow Pelts, she was soon behind a closed door, preparing to scan the planet's data banks for information about Philo Saunders.
Rae reached for her weapons as someone knocked on the door.
"What do you seek?"
"I am Sith of the Swift Leap. I seek one Rae Arizona. I offer the Covenant of Peace."
Rae stood and leveled her guns.
"Come in, slowly. No quick moves."
The door opened and a feline life form strode in, paws extended.
"Enter. Sit. How do you know my name?"
"I am an agent with the Galactic Consortium. I know of your cousin Jan. Her techniques are taught at the Academy."
Rae's guns never wavered. She frowned.
Sith blinked and an ID hologram appeared. It was genuine. Rae had seen Jan's.
She relaxed and sat back on the bed.
"What can I do for you?"
"You seek one Philo Saunders. I seek him as well. I know this planet. We can assist each other in capturing him."
"What is the Consortium's stake in this?"
"He possesses valuable information concerning the inner workings of the Red Moon Brotherhood. It could go far in reducing their influence throughout the galaxy."
Rae laughed. "You want him and so does the Brotherhood. My assignment is to return him to them. If we join forces, and we find him, what then?"
"I am sure we can come to some understanding."
"I understand I will lose a fee if I don't return him to The Brotherhood."
"The Consortium is prepared to compensate both you and your employer for any losses incurred."
Rae thought for a moment. "Fair compensation seems reasonable. I agree."
Sith removed a data chip from his belt. "Here is all the pertinent information on our subject."
Rae smiled, Sith was thorough. She liked that.
He stood and walked to the door. "I will meet you here after sunrise. We will begin our search, Rae Arizona."
"Call me Rae, Sith."
He bared his fangs and left.
Sith arrived promptly at sunrise in a land crawler and they crossed the city to their first destination. "This is Philo Saunders last known address," he said as they parked before a shabby block of apartments. "His rooms have been thoroughly searched, but nothing of consequence was found."
"Mind if I browse around for a minute?"
"Not at all, I have a key. Nothing has been touched."
Rae walked slowly through the rooms. The local Peace Patrol squad gave it a good going over, that was obvious. Then she saw it, a misaligned screw in the ventilation grill. In the duct, she saw a minirobot tracking module. She removed the grill and showed the device to Sith.
"We're too late. The Brotherhood has him."
"How shall we find him? Presuming he is not off planet already."
"I think I can activate this bug's control beam, and then we can trace it to its source. We get Saunder's and accomplish our mission."
"I will call for assistance." Sith reached for his communicator.
"Don't bother. If we come rolling in there with an army they'll kill him. We'll handle them ourselves."
"As you wish, it is late, I desire sleep. I will return you to your lodgings."
Rae took one more look around and they left.