By: Kayelle Allen | Other books by Kayelle Allen
Published By: Liquid Silver Books
Published: Oct 02, 2006
ISBN # 1595782826
Available in: HTML, Microsoft Reader, Adobe Acrobat, Mobipocket (.prc)
Tarth, Tarth City, Kelthian District
Sumertsag 18, 4659 Tradestandard date
Six android cooks glanced up and nodded to Wulf Gabriel as he entered the restaurant's back door. He smiled in greeting and angled through the black tiled kitchen, around the cluster of steel stoves and counters.
Chef Yvan was finishing one of the cheesecake masterpieces Batchelors had made famous. He topped the last curl of dark Tyran bittersweet. Wulf snatched it, barely escaping a slap when the man swatted at his hand. He blew the tall blond Yvan a sassy kiss and danced out of the way as the door swung open.
Two uniformed human waiters slammed through it. One grabbed a tray, slid orders onto it and swept back out. The other followed him, ice bucket and wine in hand.
Yvan stepped back from the dessert. "What do you think?" He made a sweeping gesture. "Delicious? Beautiful?"
Wulf sucked a chocolate smear off his fingertip. "Perfect."
Yvan bowed. "What are you doing here so early? No hot date tonight?" He motioned to one of the droids to remove the cake.
Sighing, Wulf folded his arms. "Working. Photo shoot started before dawn and here it is long past dinner."
"Sounds like my life." Yvan washed his hands. "You hungry?"
"I'm good. Ate one of those energy bars on the walk over here."
"Energy? How you gonna get energy from somethin' made of sugar?" Yvan opened one of the commercial refrigerators and pulled out a covered plate. He set it in front of Wulf, handed him a fork and a napkin and, with a flourish, removed the cover. "Eat."
Slices of lean roast beef, a small bowl of salad and a handful of asparagus spears had been artfully arranged on the silver plate. "Looks good." Wulf cut the beef with the edge of his fork. "Somebody didn't pay for their food?"
"Naw." Yvan folded his arms and leaned against the counter near him. As tall as Wulf and built the same way, Yvan resembled a ruckball linebacker more than a pastry chef. "Saved it for you." The concern in his blue eyes warmed Wulf's soul as much as a good hug. "You never eat enough."
Wulf held out a hand and slapped it against Yvan's. "Thanks man." The first forkful of meat almost melted in his mouth, it was so tender. While Wulf ate, Yvan chatted about his day, the celebrity clientele they'd served, how many orders for specialty cheesecakes they'd filled.
Finishing the last bite, Wulf patted the napkin across his mouth. "I've never eaten anything you made that wasn't tip top perfect." He leaned out to admire Yvan's backside when he turned to put the dishes in one of the sinks. "You and Trink must make a mint with this place. Every time I come in here, it's all I can do to keep from getting run over by waiters dashing in and out with orders."
"Yeah, well if you'd come in through the front door like you spos'd..." the chef paused and shot him a stern glance, "that wouldn't happen. Then again, if you did I wouldn't get to see that cute little model butt o' yours nearly as often as I'd like." He winked.
Wulf stuck out his tongue.
Yvan leered. "You don't want that tongue in yo' mouth, honey, I'll let you put it in mine."
Wulf rolled his eyes. "You are such a perv. Where's Trink tonight?"
He nodded left, toward the swinging door, where his partner was entering.
Trink halted in his tracks, hands spread. Though far shorter and several years older than Yvan, he always looked more like a kid playing dress up than a true maitre de. With his baby face, few believed his real age when they learned it. "If it isn't his Royal Hotness. You lookin' fine, m'boy. All the honeys be watchin' you to-night!"
Wulf swept a deep bow. "Wuss down, bro?" He brought up a palm and Trink brushed his fingertips across it in greeting.
Yvan nudged Trink's shoulder. "You spy he pushin' de dog?"
"Hell no!" Wulf knew enough Kelthian street slang to get that. "Ain't no boy toy selling cock. Dis boy straight up real."
Trink rubbed the edge of Wulf's Draap denim jacket between thumb and fingers. He lifted his dark brown gaze and raised both brows. "Your boss know you stole these naughty lookin' taggers?"
Wulf brushed at the denim jacket. "I got off a late photo shoot and the crew didn't feel like putting it all away. Let me wear it home."
The Draap jeans and jacket cost over two hundred and eighty draks apiece. Their logo on the simple black t-shirt made that worth one twenty-five. And even on the fees he pulled down as the Face of Draap, Wulf couldn't afford the prototype footwear. Low gravity athletic shoes--no sports association in the empire would ever permit such an advantage. Still, walking in them sure felt good.
Rubbing his chin, Trink ambled all the way around him. He gave a low whistle. "You sure be fine tonight."
Wulf held up both hands and spun in a tight circle, stopping in a chin-lifted pose straight off the runway.
Yvan whistled. Trink grinned. "You be scorin' with the ladies, you keep that up, Wulf."
He made a rude noise. "Not even for free, bro."
Trink laughed aloud. "Catch me up. You hawkin' or tawkin'?" Hunting action or hanging with the guys?
Wulf gestured right. "Hawkin' this side." Gesturing left, he added, "Tawkin' that."
Trink held up a hand and Wulf connected with it, hooked fingers with him, and then released.
Trink dragged over a barstool and perched on it, one elbow on the counter. "You sure you're not slakin' this territory?"
Yvan rested a hip against the counter and winked.
Wulf caught they were teasing. Both had been public pleasure slaves back on Kelthia ... "slakes" in local talk--but had bought their freedom and opened Batchelors together. He loved them for their big hearts; guys dabbling in prostitution always worried them.
"Hey, you know I'm real. Not sellin', bro. Not sayin' no offers to buy, now." He blew on his nails. "Good money, too."
Trink leaned over and popped him on the arm. "You is doggin' me tonight, bro. What's down?"
"Got troubles. Need friends."
"Sure come to the right place." Yvan untied his apron and threw it into a bin. "Come on, bro. Grab us all a beer, Trink."
His partner opened a refrigerator and tossed each of them a bottle of the good stuff: gold label. Wulf followed them into an adjoining office, where Yvan dropped into the chair behind the desk. Trink propped himself in the corner and waved Wulf into the only other chair, a wooden swivel-type.
Wulf broke the seal on the beer as he sprawled, legs out in front of him. He took a long sip of the cool golden brew and tilted back his head. A moth fluttered around inside the ceiling light. A seeker doomed to death for finding what he wanted. Way too much like him.
"Anybody ever threaten you?" He rolled his head to one side so they could see his face.
Yvan sat up straight. "You got some fuck leanin' on you, bro? You give me his name; I'll break his damn neck in six places."
"Thanks, man, but this is different. Answer my question first. You ever been threatened?"
The guys shot each other a glance. Yvan answered. "Yeah, 'bout two weeks before we opened."
Trink wiped beer from his mouth. "Inspector guy. Wanted money up front for good numbers. When we wouldn't pay, he gave us a failing report on cleanliness. Yvan about shit. You know how he is about this place."
"Hell yeah!" Yvan leaned both arms on the desk. "Worked our asses off for this place." He cracked a smile. "And I do mean asses."
Trink almost spewed his beer. He choked on a laugh and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "You straight up right on that, hon."
Wulf rocked forward. "What'd you do?"
Yvan flashed Trink a glance that said, "You tell it," and leaned back in the chair.
"You know the story of how we bought this place. But you don't know how we really got our money."
All slaves had a Freedom Savings Account, provided by law. When they had earned enough to buy out their contracts, they could free themselves.
"It wasn't your freedom money?"
Trink shook his head. "We tell folks that's how, but we had help."
Wulf frowned. "You mean an investor?"
The guys flicked glances at one another. Yvan lowered his lashes.
"Kind of." Trink shifted positions, crossing one ankle over another.
Wulf took a long chug of beer as he sat back. This had a juicy feel to it, like one of those hot novels on Imperinet.
"I tell you this snippet, man, you gotta swear you didn't hear it here."
Wulf drew a cross over his heart.
Trink chewed his lip. Yvan sat still, head down, as if he wanted no part.
"Geez, guys." Wulf gestured with the beer. "If you did somethin' illegal, you don't have to tell me."
They both snickered.
"Naw, man, it's cool." Trink pushed away from the corner. "Yvan and I had the same master. Guy used to sell us on the sly. You know, without paying us. Against the law. Even slakes have rights. He slipped it all in his lover's pocket." He set a hand on one hip. "Thing is, the lover's a parole officer. If we said anything, the PO would say we were doing something wrong and haul our asses to jail."
"That low life fuck."
Trink shook a finger at him. "You said a mouthful there, bro."
"Straight up." Yvan reached across the desk and slapped Wulf's upraised hand.
"'Bout ten years back, Yvan was a chef in a brothel on Porosen'la. He used to cook for parties. Master found out. Sent him over to work the Man's gigs once a week. The Man paid for his time two ways--the fee our master charged and then triple that straight into his freedom account."
"Super guy." Yvan gestured with the beer. "Asked if I had a friend who'd like to slake a party or two. He paid Trink the same way. Whatever he earned for the master and three times into his account. Shit, we got free of that hole within a year."
Trink rubbed the beer bottle against his cheek. "We both worked directly for the Man about six months, catering parties and such. He paid us straight up, on time and bonused us for good gigs. When we wanted to start a restaurant, he loaned us the money. Said Yvan's cooking deserved a first class place. Had investors scope one out. That's how we founded Batchelors, man. We paid him back end of the third year out of profits."
"So did he help you with this inspector guy?"
"Oh, yeah. We called the Man; he went to see the guy in person."
Yvan chuckled. "Guy prolly wet himself."
"I don't get it." Wulf leaned forward, elbows on his knees, the beer bottle swinging between fingers and thumb. "Was this man someone important?"
The guys shared another one of those glances.
"Not 'a man', bro." Trink leaned forward. "'It was 'the Man'. You know. On Kelthia."
He squinted. He'd been to Kelthia on photo shoots in the last few months. Hell, he'd been born and raised there until his father died when he was ten. That was twenty years ago. "Sorry, guys. No clue."
"You never heard of 'the Man'," Yvan blinked. "You shittin' me?"
"Sorry, Yvan. I have no id..." Wulf almost stopped breathing at the realization of whom they meant. No, surely not. He swallowed. "You don't mean ... the Harbinger."
The guys hunkered as if they thought he'd appear any second. No one back on Kelthia said his name if they could help it.
The Man. The Harbinger. The crime boss even the crime bosses feared. Luc Saint-Cyr.
Wulf slapped one thigh and laughed. "I can't believe you went to the fuckin' Harbinger. That's too good." He took a long pull on his beer and then laughed some more.
"We're not shittin' you man. He helped us out."
Still chuckling, Wulf nodded. "Oh, I believe you." His shoulders shook with laughter. "That's what makes it so funny."
Yvan and Trink stared at him like he'd just sprouted antenna. "Uh, you ok, bro?"
Wulf tried to answer but couldn't stop laughing long enough. He set the beer on the floor and took a deep breath to gain control. After a few gulps of air, he wiped his eyes and sat back.
"Sorry." He snuffled a laugh.
"You wanna say what's gigglin' ya?"
Wulf sucked in a few more deep gulps of air and blew it out slowly, calming himself to speak. "Sorry, guys. Not you, believe me. It's a long story. Kind of personal." He wiped his eyes with the heels of his hands and brushed the front of his shirt.
"No squeeze, bro." Trink perched on the desk. "We got your back. How you bein' threatened, Wulf?"
Sighing, he scooted back in the chair, bent over and picked up the beer. He drained the little that remained, set the bottle on the desk, and then folded his arms. "Last year, my agent fucked with my contract so I'd have to work for him longer. When I tried to sue, he bought off my lawyer. Bought off the media. Hell," he dragged a hand through his hair. "They wouldn't go near that story for a million draks, even now."
"That shit!" Yvan hit the desk. "He still messin' wit you?"
"Yeah. He knows I've always wanted to act. About two months ago, he started feeding me scripts. Good stuff. Not great, but not bad, either." Wulf shrugged. "I'm a newbie. But he said to get the roles, I'd have to sign with him for another five years."
Trink pulled a face, one eye shut. "That doesn't make sense."
"Turns out his father owns the studio producing the vids. I don't sign with his son, I don't work. They'll blackball me to the entire entertainment industry." He kissed his fingertips and flipped up his hand. "Goodbye career."
"That ain't right." Yvan shook his blond head. "Shit like that--that gets my blood goin'."
Trink faced him more squarely. "How can we help, bro?"
Wulf leaned elbows on his knees and put his face in his hands. Blowing out a deep breath, he paused before lifting his head. "I wish I knew. I just got the contract to be the Face of Draap--worth more money than anything I've done so far. If I try to leave, I won't work at all. If I stay with him--fuck. You have no idea what an ass this guy is. I can't prove it, but now..." He swept a hand through his hair. "I should be able to coast the rest of my life off money I get modeling."
Trink and Yvan nodded, enrapt.
"My investments have all been in places he advised before I knew he was dirty. Now I find out he cranked me for most of it." He held out his hands. "I'm flat. Haven't made a lick on what I invest. It sits there, gathers dust. Sure not getting interest."
"Not that I like the law, but you sure they can't help?"
"Trink, I wish they could. This guy has connections and family all over the empire. Hell, he gives the Harbinger a run for his money, power-wise."
Trink's eyes crinkled; he gave Yvan a glance. Yvan nodded.
"I know you laughed when we told you our story," Trink said. "Still, I think the Man might help you."
Wulf closed his eyes. "No." He gave a half-hearted chuckle that fizzled at the end and came out a squeak. "No way."
"He's our friend, bro. If we ask him, the Man'd step in just 'cause we're tight, you know?" Trink held up two fingers together.
Wulf choked on a laugh. He tilted the chair and leaned his head back. The moth in the light overhead had stopped fluttering. Trapped at the source of everything he sought. Just like him. One of the top ten models in the empire, and helpless to get himself free.
"Wulf." Trink and Yvan both leaned against the front of the desk to face him. "Let us help you, bro. We can call the Man. I know he's got the power. Hell, he owns everything on Kelthia and half of Tarth. This whole district owes him."
"Thanks, guys, but there's got to be another way." He dusted off his pants. "I should go." When he stood, Trink took hold of his arm.
"What is it, Wulf? What you not tawkin', huh? Me and Yvan." He gestured among them. "You know we got your back. You can tell us anythin' bro."
"Thanks, Trink." He situated himself so he wasn't being touched, hopefully smooth enough not to offend. "Don't want to talk about it."
Yvan started to speak.
"Guys." Wulf held up both hands. "I appreciate the advice and the offer to help, but the last thing I want is to involve Luc Saint-Cyr. The Harbinger, the Man, whatever you want to call him. If I'd known you'd suggest anything that had to do with him, I never would've come here. No offense." He ducked around Yvan, but the taller man leaned a hand against the door to block him, then swung around and leaned against it, arms folded.
Wulf sighed. "Don't do this, Yvan."
"Doin' nothing, bro. Jes standin'. Whyn't you talk to Trink."
"Yeah, bro." Trink spread both hands. "Let us help."
Pressing his lips together, Wulf concentrated on breathing through his nose, focusing on a dark spot on the wall.
"Listen, Wulf," Trink dropped his street voice. "If you let that asshole fuck you like this you'll kick yourself for it."
He closed his eyes, jaw clenching. "Back off, Trink."
"People always say that to me, Wulf, but truth is I can't. I'm your friend. Friends help friends."
Wulf leveled his gaze on the man's face. "I appreciate your concern, but I'll handle it."
Yvan tilted his head. "We're trying to help you."
"Thank you. Really. Thank you." Wulf tucked his fingertips into the front of the jeans. "Now back off and let me out of here."
Yvan stared into his eyes for a long moment, not blinking any more than Wulf. At last, he nodded his head. "Just tell me one thing."
Wulf ground his teeth together. "What?"
"Why you so dead set against the Man's help?"
"His help." Wulf pressed his lips together, shaking his head. "I would rather die than ask that fucker's help."
You'd have thought he'd just blasphemed. Trink crossed himself and Yvan slid aside like he expected a lightning strike. "Smackers! You got a death wish?"
"You think I'm crazy? How's this? If Luc Saint-Cyr was on fire, I wouldn't cross the street to piss on him."
Their mouths dropped open.
"You want to know why I hate, loathe, and detest Luc Saint-Cyr?"
The guys flinched.
"When I was ten years old..." Wulf slammed one fist into the other, "--he made me watch my father die."