The room held the hint of lemons, tropical essence and money. That meant opportunity, and Emilio Morales lived for the next leg up, like having intercepted the invitation to his boss, Manolo, from the Coco Cartel, out of the blue two weeks prior, to meet here on Ganymede at the Chateau Phillipe.
The chateau spanned several acres, with multiple buildings trimmed in gold with tile roofs, fancy materials he’d seen available only to those on the upper planets, not this close to the asteroid belt. Fresh fruit trees in the gardens, fine furniture without holes or tears, guards at every door with automatic weapons, not wheel gun pistols or ceramics. This was what money got a person—whatever they wanted. And Emilio wanted.
Walking in a tight circle, he took in the meeting room. These kinds of fancy surroundings beat the villas and homes of the cartel leaders on Earth by a long shot. Anything was better than sleeping on those hard, wooden cots kept in some drafty room off a main Earth house.
“Do you think they’ll feed us any of that?” Emilio asked, motioning to a table behind him. It was covered in sandwiches, fruits, vegetables and a few other more traditional Earth meals, like enchiladas. The last time he’d shoved an enchilada in his mouth had been the day before his partner had offered him a job. Since then, it’d been food cubes, the occasional good meal and plenty of bootlegged booze.
The other group who had received an invitation—a pair of bald-headed men with matching spider tattoos on their hands—stood side-by-side, glancing out of the floor-to-ceiling window. Emilio recognized them as part of the Web Spinners, another drug-runner crew. They mainly worked with cartels in the Western Hemisphere of Earth, whereas Emilio had connections across the globe but did a lot of work in the Eastern Hemisphere.
The skinnier one piped up first. “Feed us? To sharks maybe—did you see that water? Besides, we’re here to talk business.”
A gong sounded somewhere, echoing through the room. A heavy-set shirtless man, positioned by a white door lined in painted gold roses, announced in a deep bass voice, “The Honorable Alfonso Grecia arrives.”
Emilio would normally have shrugged off the elaborate entrance, something he’d seen before during previous business meetings. But, this time, Grecia wasn’t doing one-on-one business. He’d opened up to competitors. As the only cartel boss who didn’t reside on Earth, choosing to live on the outskirts of the uppers, Grecia was rumored to have ties to Earth royalty from ‘before-the-nuke’. Over the years, Emilio’s admiration for the man’s amassed wealth and power, the way he commanded his organization, had grown. This was something he aspired to have for himself, the reason he’d chosen to attempt putting this deal together on his own…without his cokehead partner.
“Greetings, runners. Join me at my table.” Grecia, with his low voice and expressionless face, stood an inch taller than Emilio and wore a floor-length black tunic. He’d already moved to the large cherry-wood table set up in the center of the room and flanked by matching leather upholstered chairs. Damn things even had little rolling wheels on the bottoms, an unexpected, luxurious touch.
Emilio was the last to sit, and Grecia turned his soulless eyes on him. Emilio pushed the gut twinge away, the one that said this man ate bullshitters for breakfast and that Emilio would never get away with his plan.
“Did you have a good trip?” Grecia asked him.
“Why is your partner Manolo not here?”
“He’s not allowed on the planet anymore. A disagreement with your local law enforcement.” In truth, Manny didn’t know anything about this meeting, and nor would he. If all went well, Emilio’s mentor might remain in a coke-induced haze while this deal was brokered and executed. “I can speak for both of us.”
“Good. Good.” The kingpin’s attention moved to the Web Spinners, whom he’d ignored so far—possibly a good sign. “And welcome, Recluse. I’ve brought you both here because I have a proposition for you. My growers have developed a new product called Kiss Kiss. There’s nothing like it anywhere on Earth, and I’ve got buyers waiting on the pleasure moon, Callisto. I don’t trust easily and have recently ended my short-term arrangement with the Hermes service.”
Hermes had been an established group, with a handful of ships, and according to the latest wire reports, they’d been wiped out. Shot down by law, ships stalled in space with everyone on board dead due to exposure, top lieutenants killed in a poker game gone wrong—the list went on. It appeared Grecia ended things in a permanent fashion. Not a common practice, but accepted if the runners had been acting against their contract.
“You offer us business, but it’s not really an offer. More a demand.” This crap came from the crossed-armed Recluse in his unexpectedly high-pitched voice, and his skinny, bald companion nodded in agreement.
“What demand? I’m giving you both a chance to prove you’re fit to run my exclusive product to the upper planets. If you meet my requirements, then you get this product and all my others. Once I contract with you, my allied cartels will follow suit. You’ll control all Eastern Hemisphere running.”
Emilio did his best to school his features at Grecia’s reply. The benefits and possibilities were too numerous to even list, but the potential to retire from this shit in a matter of months versus years ranked high among them. “What are the requirements?”
Manny would have walked away already, spouting inanities and paranoid theories, whereas Emilio believed in analyzing all facts before making a decision. He hadn’t kept their entire enterprise afloat by making half-baked choices.
Grecia smiled and motioned to the man from the door. The lackey dropped a memory disk in the center of the table and up popped a visual projection. It held several images of Earth, Grecia’s product and a map. The best part was the way the projection held steady and bright, no fading or flickering, with everything being one hundred percent triggered by touch. A display table almost as good as the ones on Emilio’s ship, and a sight better than Manny’s.
The drug boss swiped through the images, all smaller versions of what they could be, and selected Earth first. “You’ll take your ship to the third planet, retrieve a shipment of my herb, Kiss Kiss, then transport the product to Callisto in six days from receipt.”
He selected a map, pulling up the proposed trajectory and fastest route. It took them past all the major hotspots, places runners usually avoided unless they were stupid or suicidal. But the fastest route rode the currents with ease, putting less pressure on a slip drive, using less fuel. Emilio respected Grecia’s presentation. It came with a plan.
“If you don’t get caught, make it past the checkpoints and no harm comes to the shipment in transit, the contract is yours.”
“Ridiculous.” Recluse slammed a hand on the table. “No one runs or bootlegs along that route. It’s a death trap and a sure-fire way to get your ship and crew pinched.”
Attitudes like that get people killed. Emilio piped up fast. “Now, hold up a minute. If His Honorable wants this route run, then his people must know where there may be gaps in security. And if not, my folks would be happy to figure it out. There’s nothing like exploring new travel routes.” One more lie added to the couple he’d already launched made no difference.
Grecia’s mouth twisted. On most people, it would look like a smile, but on his… “I like your thinking. Emilio, right?”
It irked him a bit that the big drug boss knew his partner’s name and had to check his, but after this run, he’d make sure this guy always remembered him. They’d be contracted business partners. “That’s correct.”
“I like your style. You’ve got—how do they say it on Mars—steel stones?”
“Nuggets, sir. They call ’em steel nuggets.”
This provoked a full grin, with teeth this time, and Grecia raised his hand above his head before bringing it down in a forward motion. The visuals on the table disappeared and a slicing sound rent the air. Emilio had been looking at Grecia but heard a gagging sound from the skinny guy and Recluse’s head rolled onto the table.
There was no time to react before a blade shoved through Skinny’s torso, razor-sharp and lined in red. Emilio took in a steadying breath, low and slow.
“Those men, they have no creativity, no passion. I can tell you do.” Grecia walked around the table and sat next to him, steepling his fingers under his chin. “We’re going to make this deal between us. You do the job, you deliver the goods and you get all my business.”
People died every day, sometimes at his hands. He’d taken lives, almost lost his before. The nature of the beast, the business. Emilio could only be thankful his blood wasn’t on some assassin’s blade. An assassin who’d disappeared into the shadows of the room once more. Staring at Recluse’s head, his stomach grumbling with unease, Emilio replied, “Sounds like a plan.”
“No.” Grecia shook a single finger in the air. “You haven’t heard the rest. I determine pricing and you mark up twenty-five percent on this shipment. If you win the business, I’ll let you mark up thirty percent.”
Emilio whistled low. Yes, the deal wasn’t perfect, but no deal was, not in his years of experience. Someone always came out on with the stems on a marijuana plant, as the saying went. But negotiations never got old. “Then I can’t guarantee we go the route you want. It’s not easy unless there’s money to grease the wheels. I have to replace depleted funds.”
Markups were always the runner’s game, never the cartel’s. The cartels made their money on the front end, with the runners assuming all the risk on the backside. That was the way Earth’s economy worked. Cartels rarely owned ships, let alone wanted to bring the fury of the United Allied Planets down on them. This boss wanted to change the game—and for what purpose, Emilio didn’t need to know. He did need to make sure he earned a profit.
“You, nuggets of steel.” Grecia glanced around at his doorman and the guy Emilio hadn’t seen, the one responsible for the dead bodies in the room. “Nobody talks to me like this.”
“I don’t believe in making commitments I can’t keep. A man is as good as the deals he honors.”
“Have you heard the one about no honor among thieves?” Grecia waved his hand in the air, and two seconds later a door shut behind them. The assassin had been dismissed.
“I’m a runner, not a thief. Soon, the sole runner for the Eastern Hemisphere of Earth.”
This made Grecia laugh. A good sign, Emilio hoped.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll include twenty-five kilos of Opium Dust and several cases of brandy on the pickup. You sell those and mark them up for whatever you need to cover the expense. I give these to you at cost.”
The cost wouldn’t do him. Emilio leaned up, propping his elbows on the table. “You give them fifty percent off.”
Grecia’s smile disappeared. “At cost.”
“At cost.” He’d settle in order to keep his life and the assassin with his sharp sword out of the room. “Do we shake on it?”
“I don’t touch hands, but I’ll remember your face, and your ship has already been scanned. Where it goes, I’ll know.” The boss leaned in close, giving Emilio a good look at the tiny scars running across the older man’s cheeks. “If you fuck me over, you won’t get the quick treatment disrespectful Recluse received. No, I’ll hang you up by your arms and ensure you die slow. Now, let’s eat.”