Estimated Release Date April 2017
THE SUN WAS just peeking out over the harbor as Jayla ran with her usual long easy strides along the deserted beach. Vensoog’s equator Islands, where most of the first colonists had settled, boasted an abundance of beaches. Jayla liked run along the shore next to the spaceport because in spite of the noise of the shuttles taking off and landing, the beach was seldom frequented by people living in the city. Absently she brushed her short gold hair back out of her face. She had been running half her life it seemed. She smiled to herself as she remembered how hard it had been when she first started running every morning.
She had been fourteen and had only been on Vensoog for a year. Her Uncle Gideon had married Genevieve, the Laird of clan O’Teague and emigrated after their home planet had been burnt off. Jayla had just lost her parents and had resented being uprooted to a new planet with strange customs where she knew no one. A headstrong resentful teenager can find a lot of trouble to get into, especially if there are unscrupulous adults around to take advantage of her. She had made quite a few mistakes that first year. She bitterly regretted having gotten involved with Gregor Ivanov, the much older man who had romanced her and who had planned to sell her to his Thieves Guild cronies for their child sex trade. While it had not been her fault when she and some other girls from all the clans had been kidnapped by the Thieves Guild, she hated remembering how helpless she had felt as a captive. She had been rescued both times, but she had been determined to learn to defend herself so nothing like that could happen again, she had asked for help to learn how to prevent it. Within two weeks after she had been freed from the Jack ship, Wolf Larsen from her Uncle Zack’s old Recon unit, had showed up on Glass Isle to begin giving her lessons in self-defense.
“Stamina,” his deep voice echoed in her mind, “is the essence of defense. You can’t fight if you run out of breath.” That first day he had knocked on her door at dawn to drag her out to run a mile. Wheezing, and with her legs feeling like jelly, Jayla had kept at it because she was tired of being pushed around. Seeing her determination, Wolf had shown up every day for the next two years to train her. She later learned Wolf had been specially requested as her teacher by her Cousin Luc’s best friend, Lord Jake Reynolds.
That had been four years ago. Jake had shown up off and on over the years to check up on her. Thanks to her parents foresight in moving all their accounts to Fenris as soon as the war with the Karamines started, Jayla had inherited a sizable nest egg. Enough to buy the gift shop when she turned eighteen. When she had bought the shop with the apartment over it earlier in the year, he had promised to come by and see how she was getting along.
The morning runs were not an indulgence even though they took time away from her shop. She ran, worked out in the Clan gym at Glass Manor, and practiced her marksmanship faithfully because she never again intended to be at the mercy of someone else.
Ghost was now her faithful companion, and like all Quirka, she went everywhere with her chosen human and even seemed to enjoy the morning runs. Sturdy leather straps affixed to the shoulders of Jayla’s running clothes allowed Ghost to cling to Jayla with her tiny hand-like paws and feet as Jayla ran. Ghost had never developed the ability to change color to match her environment the way other Quirka could, but her once dirty coat was now a fluffy pristine white and the row of retractable venom quills along her backbone glistened as the sun hit them. Her bright blue eyes, unusual for Quirka, matched Jayla’s in color. Ghost chirped in her ear now, her small upright ears pricked forward as she recognized the large rock where Jayla usually turned to the return trip.
There appeared to be a bundle of rags and sticks lying on the shore. Jayla slowed as she approached, hoping it wasn’t something nasty a picnicker had left there. If it were, she decided, she would report it instead of hauling it all the way back to the Spaceport buildings the way she usually did.
Ghost hissed as they approached, her sharp pointed nose wrinkled in distaste and her quills lifted. The smell hit Jayla first and she stopped several feet away. She had once come upon a goat on Glass Isle that had been dead for two days. It had smelled like this.
It took her a minute or so to realize what she was looking at. What she had taken for a bundle of sticks was wearing shoes. Swallowing nausea, she made herself walk up close enough to see that it was human or at least humanoid. It was difficult to tell because the body was in such bad shape.
Glad she hadn’t eaten before starting her run, she backed away and sat down, trying not to throw up. Ghost, in the way of all Quirka, was more concerned with Jayla than with an unknown body. She stroked her mistress’s face and crooned soothingly to her. Jayla dropped a kiss in gratitude between the small pricked ears and took a deep breath before she tapped on her wrist com.
Even though she was now living above her gift shop in Port Recovery, when she tapped the help code, instead of Port Recovery Security Patrol the com automatically called Glass Manor.
“Jayla, I haven’t heard from you in ages—what’s wrong, honey?” Mira’s voice had been cheerful until she saw the girls face.
Jayla turned her wrist so Mira could see the body through the com. “I need Port Recovery Security to come out here. It looks like Ghost and I just found a dead body.”
“Are you safe?” Mira demanded, instinct kicking in. Her regular job was in O’Teague Clan Security but she was pulling desk duty because she was pregnant.
“Yes, we’re safe,” Jayla reassured her. I think it’s been here a while.”
In the background, Jayla could hear her calling for Larry to grab a sled and get his ass out to the end of Port Recovery Island. “Jayla’s found a body. I’m calling the Port Recovery Security but she’s alone out there—“
“Jayla,” Mira’s voice was calm. “You stay where you are. I’m sending Larry out to you, and I’ll call the Port Recovery Security. I want you to keep this com open, okay?”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Jayla assured her.
The trip from Glass Manor on O’Teague to Port Recovery Isle usually took thirty minutes by boat, but a fast airsled could make it across the channel in ten. Larry Jorgensen, the O’Teague Clan Security Chief, was a former member of her Uncle Gideon’s unit who had married into the clan. When the tall, dark skinned man dismounted from the sled, he smiled reassuringly at Jayla whom he still saw as the little girl she had been when he first met her.
“You okay, kid?” his deep voice rumbled.
She nodded, giving him a watery smile. “Yes, I’m fine Larry. It was a nasty surprise, but we’re okay.”
He nodded at her and went to inspect the body, being careful not to touch it. He was examining something on the ground in front of the corpse when they heard the approaching whine of the Port Authority Security sleds. He immediately came over to her side to wait with her.
The usually deserted shore was suddenly swarming with the Patrol. First came the uniformed officers to check out her story, then the medicals, and then finally a man and a woman in civilian clothing apparently the detectives in charge.
Since she and Larry and been told to wait for the detectives, she leaned back against one of the boulders on shore, and sipped at the bottled water Larry Jorgensen and provided for her and Ghost. Ghost, no longer perched on her shoulder, was investigating a clump of seaweed a few feet from where Jayla sat. They had both missed breakfast and the Quirka was probably hoping to find a few insects to eat until they could return home. Larry had offered Jayla an energy bar earlier, but her stomach had turned queasy when she thought of eating anything.
When the two detectives finally approached her, Larry moved in protectively.
“Lady Jayla?” the male detective asked. “I’m Jim Gorsling, and this is my partner, June Sipowitz. We have a few questions for you.” Gorsling was short, with a square, bulldog face and dark hair in contrast to his partner, a tall, hazel-eyed woman with bronzed skin.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Ma’am,” Gorsling began. “You found the body?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why did you contact Clan O’Teague Security before you called us?” Sipowitz asked.
“Like all of the Laird’s immediate family, Lady Jayla’s com is set for Glass Manor on O’Teague,” Jorgensen interjected, obliquely reminding the two detectives they were dealing with a high-ranking clan member whom they should treat carefully.
“Perhaps you could join me over here, sir,” Gorsling suggested. “We have some questions for you as well.”
“I was dispatched here when Lady Jayla notified O’Teague clan she had found a body,” Jorgensen said, not moving. “It’s been requested I stay with her until she can leave. I’m to give her a ride back to her shop.”
“Are you her legal representative?” Gorsling inquired. “Because unless you have some legal standing—“
Ghost, sensing discord, left off hunting for bugs and scrambled back to Jayla where she hopped up to her shoulder. She turned her bright blue eyes to the two detectives and hissed protectively, her quills lifting.
Sipowitz tried a different tactic. “Your Quirka is unusual. I don’t think I’ve seen a white one before.”
Jayla stroked Ghost’s back. “Yes, she is different. She was a gift.”
“From me,” announced a voice from behind them. “Why is it,” Jake remarked as he dismounted his airsled, “that whenever I find you, you’re either causing trouble or in it?”
“Jake!” Jayla cried. “Where did you come from?”
Jake pulled off his helmet and hung it on the handlebars of the sled, revealing a shock of dark hair. Watching them, Jayla noticed the male detective giving Jake a sharp look of recognition. He saw, as she did, a slim man in his early twenties whose easy smile and air of assurance guaranteed he could be a formidable opponent if he chose. Ghost bounced in delight and when he was close enough, leaped to his arms chirping happily. “Yes, I’m glad to see you too,” he told her, petting her before moving her to his shoulder.
Sipowitz frowned. “And who might you be?”
Her partner answered her. “This is Lord Jake Reynolds, the Duc of Oranges nephew, L’Roux Clan. What brings you here Lord Reynolds?”
Jake gave them a little bow. “I’ve been requested by Clan O’Teague to assist Lady Jayla in her present difficulty. Ah—I do have legal standing.”
Jorgensen had relaxed his protective stance. “Good to see you kid. If you’ve got this, I’ll head back to the manor. I was just coming off shift when I caught this.”
“Sure,” Jake said, “take off.” Jorgensen stepped away and spoke with Gorsling for a few minutes before mounting his sled and zipping off.
When Gorsling returned, he said, “Lord Reynolds, you said you had legal standing but—“
Smiling, Jake pulled a small crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. “Here is my authority to act for Lady Jayla.”
Frowning, Gorsling stuck the crystal into his porta-tab and showed it to his partner.
Jake looked over at Jayla. “So you found a body, did you?”
She nodded. “Yes, unfortunately.”
“This is a kind of deserted area.”
“I like to run out here,” she said a little defensively. “Nobody bothers me.”
He grunted. “Where’s your weapon?”
She patted the pocket of her running shirt. “It’s here. Mira made got me another small one to fit in this pocket and I always carry it when I run.”
Sipowitz looked up and held out her hand. “May I see, it Lady Jayla?”
Jayla slid her hand into her pocked and pulled out a pulsar gun about the size of her palm, which she held out butt first to the detective. Sipowitz took it and examined it carefully. “Hasn’t been fired recently,” she said, handing it back.
“That’s right,” Jayla said.
Sipowitz studied her thoughtfully. “Had you ever seen the deceased before this?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Jayla replied. “I’m afraid the smell kind of got to me so I didn’t go any closer than I needed to make sure it was actually a person.”
“Okay. Just as a matter of form, can you tell us where you’ve been over the last several days?”
“I’ve just moved into my new apartment in Port Recovery. I’ve been out on Glass Isle collecting the rest of my stuff.”
“Alright,” the detective said. “That’s all for now. We may have more questions later, though so don’t leave town.”
“I believe it’s time we let these officers get on with their investigation Jayla. If you have any further questions, Detectives, you can bet in touch with Lady Jayla through Clan O’Teague,” Jake said. He took Jayla by the arm and led her over to his sled.
“There’s no place for Ghost,” she objected.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, opening up a cache in the side. He took out a spare helmet for her and handed it to her. Then he brought out what looked like an upside down helmet that he snapped into place in the front control panel. “C’mon Ghost,” he said patting it. Ghost hopped into the cavity and settled happily into the made-for-Quirka seat.
“I want one,” Jayla declared. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s a prototype. Friend of mine is marketing them. I’ll tell him he’s got a sale.” He mounted the sled and waited for her to throw a leg over the seat behind him before they took off in a whirl of sand.
GOSLING CAME left the Coroner and returned to his partner as Jayla and Jake took off. “Coroner thinks it’s a body dump,” he told her. “She figures the woman has been dead about two days.”
“That means if Lady Jayla was out on Glass Isle she couldn’t have done it.”
“Even though her Clan bracelet is marked to show she’s a member of the Laird’s immediate family, I’m surprised to find the clan sent two people out to back her up, unless—“
“I’ll tell you after you run their Match List history,” she said.
“I’ll do it when we get back to headquarters. What do you want it for?”
“Well, it occurred to me that Lord Reynolds showing up might not have anything to do with our murder. Maybe either the Laird or the Duc is just doing a little matchmaking. If that’s the case, then O’Teague’s local Security Head showing up might only mean Lady Jayla has an overprotective family.”
JAKE STOPPED the sled in the rear of Jayla’s shop. Her apartment was on the second level. Although she had access from the store, the actual entrance to her apartment was in the back and up the stairs. She dismounted and pried Ghost loose from her perch in the Quirka basket. “Thanks for coming to the rescue again,” she told Jake.
“Drusilla wanted me to invite you to have dinner with the three of us tonight here in the city,” he said.
“I’d love to, but I’ve been invited to attend the Merchant Guild mixer tonight. It’s my first one and I don’t want to miss it.”
Jake shrugged. “So I’ll escort you there and then we’ll meet Luc and Drusilla for dinner afterwards.”
He waited while she and Ghost mounted the back stairs to her Apartment. Once Inside, she stripped, and she and Ghost got in the shower. She lifted Ghost to the specially made Quirka shelf and turned on the water, letting the spray wash away the morning. Ghost enjoyed playing in the water, turning and twisting to rinse her short plush fur of the sand and salt that had accumulated on it during their stay at the beach.
Once they were both clean, Jayla wrapped a towel around herself while she patted Ghost dry. She set the Quirka down on the mat in front of the Quirka sized blower on her dresser and turned it on, laughing as Ghost danced and whirled in the stream of warm air.
“May I assist you in dressing?” Jayla jumped as her house-bot spoke behind her.
She scowled at the house-bot who had been christened Daryl by the previous owner. Daryl was one of the new bots that could fool the unwary into thinking he actually was human. He had come with the apartment, and judging by his programing, his previous owner had apparently put him to some unconventional uses.
“No, you may not,” she snapped. “Remove yourself from this room while I am dressing. Go in the kitchen and make a grocery shopping list.”
“But Mistress,” the Daryl protested. “I am versed in all forms of physical pleasure and I can assure you—“
“Out!” she shouted. Thank Goddess the maintence people were due to come today to adjust his programming, she thought half hysterically. If she had to listen one more time to that bloody list of sexual acts he was programed to perform, she was going to start screaming.
She was furious when she listened to the messages on the house net and discovered that the Robo-Maintence crew was not coming out today. They were sorry to hear that she had cancelled and wanted to reschedule the appointment.
Furious, Jayla immediately got on the com with them and demanded to know who had cancelled the prior arrangement.
“Your house-bot left us a message you were cancelling the appointment,” she was told.
“Well, I didn’t,” she snapped. “I expect to see you out here today at our scheduled time.”
“I’m sorry, but that won’t be possible,” the receptionist said. “We’ve already filled your time. We do have an open slot two weeks from now if you want that.”
Jayla made a growling noise. “Fine! In the future, please have it noted in the records that until the re-programing has been done, you are not to accept messages from my house-bot! Is that clear?”
“As crystal,” she was told snippily.
Jayla turned her glare on the house-bot. “You are no longer authorized to contact anyone without my express order.”
“That is a waste of my talents,” Daryl informed her. “I am well versed in communication protocols needed to efficiently run this house for you as well as—“
“Shut up!” she yelled.
Daryl hadn’t stocked the robo-chef either so Jayla took Ghost down the street to a local eatery that served breakfast where she ordered Ghost the Quirka Special and a large spicy omelet made from Ostamu eggs for herself.
Since Jayla was a fellow business owner, Carol brought her order to her and sat down for a friendly chat.
“What’s the matter, hon?” Carol asked, pouring them both a large Cafka. Carol was in her late forties with the comfortable shape of those who work in the food industry.
“Can they charge you for killing a droid?” Jayla asked. “I just found out that clump of slag I inherited as a house-bot cancelled the appointment I made to get him reprogrammed!”
Carol’s eyes danced over the rim of her cup as she gave a gasp of laughter. “Oh, dear,” she said inadequately. “Is he still offering you sexual favors?”
Jayla nodded over a bite of Ostamu egg omelet. “This morning when we got out of the shower. I don’t dare invite anyone over—I hate to think what might happen if he does it to a guest. Suppose my friends think I programed him for that stuff?”
Carol sputtered into her Cafka. “You never know—it might lead to some interesting encounters.” She eyed her friend shrewdly. “That’s isn’t all that’s bothering you, though is it?”
Jayla sighed. “No. I found a body on my morning run today. It was nasty.”
“Oh, you poor thing. Who was it?”
“Well, to tell the truth the smell was so bad I didn’t get close enough to find out. Just that it was human or humanoid.”
“ick,” Carol sympathized.
“Yes. I rather talk about something else if you don’t mind, though. Anything else.”
“Sure,” Carol said obligingly. “Are you still doing inventory?”
Jayla nodded. “Yes, I hope to be open by the end of the week.”
The rest of the day was productive enough that she almost forgot about the morning’s proceedings. When she went upstairs from the shop to dress for the evenings events, she had a pleasant feeling of achievement. The original shop owner, Sara Lipski had sold mostly high-end imports, but Jayla intended to widen the sales base by featuring locally made arts and craft products. She already had a number of local artists and craftspeople bringing in the new products and hoped to pick up more at the Planting Festival.
She and Ghost were still dressing when she heard Daryl let Jake in. The apartment’s walls were soundproofed so she couldn’t hear the actual conversation, just the murmur of voices.
She took a look at herself and Ghost in her mirror and nodded in satisfaction. She wanted to look professional, but classy tonight, so she had chosen to wear loose black pants and a dark grey vest over a blue dragonnest silk blouse. The blue in the blouse with its three quarter inch sleeves matched her eyes, and the black vest snugged under her breast and drew attention to her slim waist. Ghost had chosen to wear a bracelet of glittering black and blue stones around her neck, and Jayla had fluffed her white coat until the hollow ends of her fur sparkled.
When she joined him in the sitting room, Jake was standing there with his arms crossed and looking at Daryl with a frown, but he gave her a wide smile.
“You look great. Very classy,” he said.
“Thanks. I want to look like a businesswoman at the mixer.”
“You pulled it off,” he said. “At least as long as no one at the mixer ever meets Daryl here.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the house-bot as they shut the door and started down the stairs. “Seriously Jayla, you need to get that sucker re-programmed. Do you know what he asked me?”
She signed, “I can guess. The programmers were supposed to be out today, but Daryl called them and cancelled. It seems Sara Lipski had some very irregular enhancements programmed into him. They told me it would be another two weeks before they could reschedule me. I’ve told them not to accept any more orders unless it comes from me in person, but I don’t know if I can stand keeping him around for that long.”
“You could turn him off.”
She snorted. “I already tried that. He’s got some sort of failsafe that resets itself if he’s been off for more than eight hours.”
She was pleased to see that Jake had brought a closed two seater airsled for tonight. She had enjoyed the ride from the beach but tonight she didn’t want to arrive looking windblown. The Merchant Guild Mixer was held at a meeting room in City Hall, one of the large domes used by the first settlers to Vensoog that the City had converted to civic use. Tonight the Merchant Guild had scattered tables around for seating, but a lot of those present were standing around in groups talking. When they entered, they were met by Miles Standish, the current Elector of the Guild.
“So glad you came tonight, Jayla,” Miles said enthusiastically pumping her hand. “And you brought a plus one, too. Nice to meet you. Are you a close friend Lord Reynolds?” he asked Jake, smiling owlishly. Miles and Jake were of similar heights, but Miles snub nose and round face gave him the air of a friendly puppy.
Next to Miles bubbling personality, it seemed to Jayla that Jake appeared dark and dangerous. Overtly, Jake did nothing Jayla could object to; in fact, he had been perfectly pleasant when introduced to the other man, but she could almost sense him going on alert. “That’s right,” he agreed. “Jayla and I go way back. He cousin Lucas introduced us.”
“Ah, Carol,” Miles said snagging Jayla friend from the café, “I need to introduce Jayla to some of the other merchants. Perhaps you can find Lord Jake here a drink and entertain him for a few minutes.”
“Sure,” Carol agreed, smiling. “I’m always up for a drink with a good looking man.”
She signaled a waiter-bot who brought over a tray of drinks. “What’s your poison, Jake?”
“Cafka,” he told the server. “No alcohol for me thanks, Jayla and I are meeting friends for dinner after this, and I don’t like depending on the auto pilot on my two-seater. It’s been a little wonky lately.”
Jayla enjoyed meeting the other storeowners, some of whom she could see becoming friends. Besides Carol, there was a young couple named Lin and Elsie Boyington who owned a food supply store, and a pair of sisters named Jan and Alice who ran a local boutique clothing shop.
About halfway around the room, Miles stopped. He seemed to hesitate for a minute then he asked, “Do you mind a personal question?”
“I suppose it depends on the question,” Jayla responded, looking at him curiously.
“That guy who came with you—is he boyfriend or guard?”
Jayla stiffened. “Jake is a very good friend of mine and of Clan O’Teague,” she said somewhat haughtily. The ‘it’s none of your business’ remained unspoken.
Miles looked self-conscious. “I’m sorry, it’s just—well I got a copy of my Match List today and you’re on it, and I find you very attractive, so I was wondering—“
Jayla’s anger softened. “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said. “Look Miles, I like you, and you seem like a nice man, but I’m going to be too busy getting my shop up and running to think about Match Lists.”
On cue, Jake asked, “Everything Okay here, Jayla?” He and Carol were standing a few feet away. Jayla turned to him with relief.
“I’m fine, Jake,” she said. “I guess this morning took a little more out of me than I thought. I’m sorry Miles, Carol, but I think we need to get going to meet our friends for dinner. Thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time and I do want to meet more of my compatriots at a later time.”
“Of course,” Miles said. “I’ll drop by with the paperwork for joining the Guild sometime this week.”
“Thank you and good night,” Jayla told him
Jake was silent as he put her into the airsled. He gave the order to proceed to the restaurant, a new one overlooking the water and turned to face her.
“Okay, what did I interrupt?” he asked.
Jayla made a frustrated noise. “Did anyone ever tell you what a nosy boots you are?”
“Yes,” he said quite calmly. “You, many times. Give.”
“You’re worse than Ghost at a vermin hole,” she complained. “He wanted to tell me I was on his Match List. There, are you satisfied?”
He studied her face. “You didn’t look overjoyed at the news. Is he on yours?”
She looked at him blankly. “I don’t know. I didn’t download mine when it came in this morning. I was too busy dealing with the house programmer fiasco and then I went down to work in the shop.”
“So look now,” he said. “I’ve got mine already.”
When she hesitated, he said, “I’ll make you a deal. You download yours, and I’ll call mine up and we’ll swap. That way neither of us will have any surprises.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “Why would you be willing to do that? You always guarded your list like it was pirate gold before.”
He grinned at her. “And you always managed to find out who was on it anyway. What are you afraid of?”
Jayla tapped her com unit and scrolled down through the list until she found the message from the Makers, conscious of Jake doing the same. When she called it up her Match List, she stared at it in shock. Miles Standish was on it all right, but so was Jake. Before she could wipe it clear, Jake had initiated the data swap. She looked at his list. She was on his list this time as well.
“You already knew I was on your list this time,” she accused him. “That’s why you wanted to swap.”
“Well, I was curious,” he admitted. “Now we both know and we don’t have to worry who else is on it. All we have to do is decide what we’re going to do.” He patted her hand. “You think about it.”
The two-seater stopped at the door of the restaurant and the valet came to open the doors. Jayla exited the car with mixed emotions. Truthfully, she didn’t know what to think or feel. Her first girlish hero worship of Jake, began when he had defended her from Gregor at the trial and then when he rescued her from the Jacks, had never quite gone away. However, over the years she had accustomed herself to thinking he regarded her like a little sister, and convinced herself he was just a friend. Now he was hinting at something different and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.