The rain fell in sheets and even the rich soil had quenched its thirst, causing water to pool in every depression. Lochlain jumped over one such pool only to land in another. The water splashed around his boot, soaking a leg of his new trousers. With a curse, he veered off the street and pushed through a light containment field to enter a nightclub.
The low humidity inside was a welcome relief and the conditioned air felt decadent compared to what he had grown used to over the last two months in prison. The music blaring throughout the club resonated deep within his chest. He found the driving cadence only mildly less irritating than the shouts, clangs and vulgarities of his former setting.
Lochlain swept a hand through his wet hair while approaching the human mountain dressed in a fine suit that posed as club security. The bouncer’s jaw dropped open at the sight of him. “Reece Lochlain,” the huge man hissed by way of greeting. An obvious disbelief fixed the man’s uncertain expression. “Ms. Larsson told me if you had the nerve to show up that I was to bring you straight to her.”
Lochlain smiled roguishly. “That’s who I’ve come to see, Mitch.” He raised his arms from his sides as if formally presenting himself and stated with a curt bow, “I bet you thought you’d never see me again.”
“More like hoped,” the man countered acerbically. “The only nice thing about On Margin’s bust was that you got caught up in it.” He waved Lochlain forward and orbited his great bulk in a large circle. “Walk this way.”
Following behind the massive ogre, Lochlain successfully resisted the urge to waddle step for step with the man and, instead, scanned the crowd for notable faces. On their way to the back of the club, he spotted five smugglers he knew, including Lacy Allred. The sight of the attractive, dangerous ship captain caused him to sidle closer to the bouncer and use his immense width as a shield. Once safely beyond the main room and inside the rear corridor, he resumed his stroll at a more dignified interval.
The mountain ground to a halt at the end of the hall. A thumb reminiscent of Lochlain’s morning assassin’s flicked toward the door. “Ms. Larsson is waiting for you. Lemme search you.”
Lochlain’s eyes moved from the sealed portal to the bouncer. “Search me? And you’re not going in with me?”
“Not this time.”
The mountain shrugged. “I have to get back to the front.” He looked down at Lochlain and repeated, “I have to check you for weapons now.”
Lochlain flinched slightly but smiled. “Sure, though you know I don’t carry.” He fidgeted a moment, as if unsure what to do, before lifting his arms and stretching them out widely.
The bouncer leaned down and began by feeling the cuffs of Lochlain’s soaking pant legs. With the man’s eyes focused on his search, Lochlain flattened his hands and savagely brought them together in twin strikes to the bouncer’s ears. Both palms easily found their marks against the stationary target. Eyes growing dim, the bouncer crumpled to a knee as his jaw dropped open for the second time that night.
Inside the next heartbeat, Lochlain maintained his grip on the sides of the man’s head and yanked forcefully downward as he drove his right knee up. The knee made contact with the bouncer’s nose, shunting it sideways with a loud crack. Lochlain felt all resistance ebb from the unconscious man and let him tumble to the floor. He looked guiltily down the corridor for additional security but saw none.
Bending low, Lochlain’s hands rifled inside the man’s suit coat. “You know I don’t carry weapons, Mitch,” Lochlain whispered, “but I know you do.” His lips curled upward as his right hand extracted a simple slug thrower.
A cursory examination told him that Mitchell Gibbs preferred to carry an Isacroft APEX 10-millimeter pistol. The lethal, black handgun smelled faintly of oil and Lochlain could tell the weapon was meticulously maintained by the smoothness of the action as he eased back the slide. As he suspected, a round was already seated inside the chamber. He tested the safety and tucked the pistol into the waistband of his trousers near the small of his back. “I hope you won’t hold this against me too much, Mitch,” Lochlain offered while stepping closer to the door. After a fortifying breath, he entered the office of Judit Larsson.
The woman sat behind her desk with an inscrutable expression. This came as no surprise to Lochlain who walked in and casually closed the door behind him. As usual, flattery was his first approach and he unleashed his warmest smile. “Good evening, Miss Larsson, and may I say it’s always a pleasure to be in your company.”
Larsson’s heartless gaze remained fixed and Lochlain felt the temperature in the room drop several degrees.
“You’ve saved me some trouble, Reece,” she noted emotionlessly.
Switching tactics, Lochlain moved on to obfuscation. “I only cooperated because I knew it would save at least one associate for you.”
The woman behind the desk crossed her arms and huffed. “Which conveniently happened to be you.”
He looked at her earnestly. “Judit, Captain Frazier and the rest of the crew were going down no matter what I did. My testimony didn’t change that. If I really wanted to harm your organization, I could’ve rolled over on all of you.”
Larsson merely nodded her head. “I was concerned about that, Reece. I shut down the entire outfit for a month expecting CBP and Sec-Pol to storm my fronts all across Svea.”
Lochlain gestured emphatically at her. “But it didn’t happen, did it? See? I’m on your team. The dolts at Vosstäder Correctional might think I’m a snitch but I knew that you’d be smarter. You know that as the last, free crewman of On Margin, I still have access to all the records and manifests. That means you haven’t lost those revenue streams. That’s why I did it, to save credits and resources for your business, Judit.” He raised his hands dramatically in exasperation before letting them come to rest on his hips. “And at great cost to my personal reputation, I might add!”
“Not just your rep,” Larsson corrected as her icy facade began to melt. “The entire outfit’s reputation.” She launched a finger toward him and heatedly accused, “Because you saved yourself, I’ve got a fleet of captains wondering how many CBP moles have infiltrated their ships.” The shadows under her eyes turned darker as she lowered her chin. “I’ve already had an entire crew poached from me by another firm and who’s to say that the next time you’re picked up that you won’t use me as your next bargaining chip?” She slowly shook her head. “You’re a confirmed snitch, Reece.”
Lochlain backpedaled as bargaining came next. “All right,” he stated with solemn resignation. “I see where this is going. Despite my best intentions over the last few months, you don’t think you can trust me. I want you to know that I came here so we could continue at least our business relationship but if you can’t understand that what I did, I did with your interests in mind, then maybe it’s best to just part ways amicably.” He let his hands creep further around his waist. “It was a good run, Judit. No, it was a fantastic run but I guess you’re going to let the best smuggler you’ve ever had slip through your fingers.” Lochlain took short, tentative steps for the door behind him.
Larsson held out her hand and her next words were pure contempt. “Just stop it, Reece. We both know you aren’t leaving my club alive. You’ve either got more guts than any three of my ship captains put together or less common sense than a Svean mudrunner.” She chuckled darkly to herself. “I think I know which one.” Still sniggering, the woman began to reach to her desktop.
In the blink of an eye, Lochlain drew the APEX 10mm and pointed it directly at her. His stomach plummeted as he fully realized he was challenging a prominent head of Capeland City’s organized crime. He idly wondered if it would be safer to point the gun at his own head but it could not be helped. He had tried his other tactics. His mind raced to Plan B. “Don’t,” he cautioned. Goosebumps ran down his arms as he gauged the hateful expression on Larsson’s face.
The woman’s eyes narrowed at the weapon, anger flushing through her cheeks. “How did you get that past Mitchell?”
An impish grin took hold of Lochlain. “He gave this to me. He warned me about this.” The perverse pleasure he experienced telling the lie almost made him feel guilty. “Let’s just say that there are a lot more people on my side than yours, Judit.” He twitched the gun’s barrel upward. “Stand up and don’t even think about trying to go for that cannon under your desk.”
Larsson moved to place her hands on the desktop to help herself up.
“Stop!” Lochlain ordered harshly. “I’ll shoot you down before you can activate those force field controls.” He let his eyes roam over the woman’s body mischievously while arching an eyebrow. “I know you’re a fit woman. You’re perfectly capable of standing without using your arms.”
The woman rose from her chair slowly. For the first time since Lochlain had known her, he saw real doubt creep into her blue eyes. “What are you planning to do with me, Reece?” she asked with a tinge of fear in her voice. “I hope you’re not stupid enough to think you can walk me out of the club. That’s going to get us both killed.”
Lochlain’s free hand dug into a pocket to produce a thick, polymer tie. “Relax, I’m not a kidnapper. I just need you not to sound an alarm before I abandon the premises.” He motioned her forward with a wave of his pistol.
Larsson eyed the tie sharply before observing, “You came here with the noblest intentions yet just happen to have a zip-tie in your pocket?”
He threw the restraint at her with a jaunty look. “What can I say? I’m always prepared for a good time. Secure one end around your right wrist and the other to the door handle.” His grin grew wider. “Be thankful I’m not telling you to strip first.”
Once the task was complete, Lochlain ordered, “Now open the door but stay quiet. I’m not a killer so don’t make me one by screaming your head off.”
“You already know I’m not a screamer,” Larsson remarked scornfully. “And I don’t mind giving you a head start.” She drew close. Her expression became lethal and her voice soured. “You’re going to need it,” she promised.
With false bravado, Lochlain gave the woman a carefree salute. “Farewell, Judit. I hope you’re smart enough to leave well enough alone.” He passed through the doorway, careful to avoid stepping on the human lump prostrate on the floor. Pistol pointed vaguely at Larsson, he trotted down the hallway for the front of the club. Without a look back, he burst through the door and into the crowd of patrons.
The constant throb of bass and drum was loud enough to cover any screams from Larsson, if any came at all. Lochlain dropped the pistol into a trashcan near the bar before ricocheting his way through the crowd. The most direct route to the exit took him past two other bouncers but he risked it for expediency. Halfway across the room, his eyes locked accidentally onto Lacy Allred’s and witnessed her immediate outrage. The pulsating music covered the woman’s indignation.
Upon reaching the exit, Lochlain smashed his jacketed elbow into the pane of transparent carbon foam protecting a fire alarm. At last, the music’s relentless thumping found its perfect counterpoint. Seconds later, Lochlain was lost in the pouring rain and sea of humanity fleeing the club.