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Nar Shaddaa Noir: Blush Response [Complete]

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Time
 (Edited)

NAR SHADDAA NOIR

BLUSH RESPONSE

Siblings Cazran and Cleonara Farr fought for years in the Mandalorian Wars. Mandalore the Ultimate sent his armies of Neo Crusaders across the Outer Rim, where they attacked and conquered worlds.

The brother and sister warred side by side against the forces of the Galactic Republic, piloting Basilisk fighters in space and smoky skies. On war-torn grounds they gunned down or blew up enemies with a sporty lust.

But Cazran lost his arm and an eye in the Battle of Dxun. And their formerly glorious campaign was losing to the Republic! The siblings fled the war.

Years later on Nar Shaddaa, Cazran Farr and his wife Abigail Wudruf are private detectives, decoding mysteries left behind by the scum of the galaxy. . .

- - - - - - - - -

Special Thanks to @Admiral Volshe and @Ewok Poet

- - - - - - - - -

ONE

A guard blew a blood bubble from his mouth as he grunted his last breath, lying on the carpet of the manor living room amid overturned chairs and dining table, wood splinters, and pieces of broken figurines. Light periodically crescendoed in rows across the walls, showing scorch marks. Three men held a meeting in an almost black corner. Clovis Gronwe, dressed in pajama pants and slippers, faced the other two. He had thick oily hair on his scalp, mutton-chops framing his face, and curly peach fuzz on his chest.

A different guard leaned forward with his right arm hooked around the throat of the third man, Rasmus, who was on his knees. His left hand pressed a blaster pistol to the captured's temple.

Rasmus had earned a few cuts, a broken nose, and busted lip during his fight with the dead guard. Right now he found himself clear of mind and pumped for action. Having a blaster to your head helped you feel alive. He held onto the buff arm at his throat and stared up at the crime lord.

"He stole Irene from me." Clovis' voice wavered, same as his footing. Rasmus would prefer to be beaten than have to sit and watch this man break down to tears. "But he wants more? He wants me dead?"

"You hired a detective to follow her."

"He came up empty-handed." The crime lord tugged at his facial hair. "She visited her friends, her favorite cafe." He turned his back on them and started to pace the room, muttering about wanting to drink a hole into his gut.

"Whatta load. He spotted your sweet wife with my employer."

"Should I shoot him?" The guard tightened his hold on Rasmus' neck.

The hitman chuckled while trying to pull the arm away from his throat. "He'll send more. May as well shoot your boss and be done with this mess."

Clovis stopped and squinted out the window. "We could peel off his face, send it to that reptile. Scare him ****less." But he was only thinking aloud. The guard groaned and rotated his hips a few times.

"Hurt to stand for long?"

"You're gonna be hurting worse."

"Right."

Clovis looked at Rasmus. "I bet you're single. You're all a bunch of bachelors over there at his base, aren't you? Who'd dare work for him and keep a favorite frak buddy?" He stepped for the two men again.

"Make up your friggin mind what you'll do to me." Rasmus let his arms sag. He could tell by the way his captor constantly shifted that he was in pain and losing patience. About time to act. "I'm tired of smelling this shaved wampa's BO."

The guard head-butted the top of Rasmus' head.

Rasmus grabbed the guard's arm and shoved off the floor with both feet, doing a front roll that sent the man over him and smashing into Clovis. Both of them fell back and landed by the dead body.

The guard tried to climb to his feet, cursing. Clovis held his midsection and whimpered. Rasmus got up on all fours, feeling rather drunk from the hit on the head, and reached for a stray chair leg on the floor.

The guard raised his blaster and aimed.

The hitman threw the blunt instrument.

PEW! SMACK!

Rasmus had one good arm left. He ran for his temporarily stunned enemy, taking up a shard of glass. The guard was aiming for a second shot --- when Rasmus stabbed him in the throat.

He had bent down and wrapped his fingers around the blaster when something hard came down on the back of his head. He fell on his injured shoulder. That was going to hurt later. Even now pain warped his vision. A blurry figure whose name he had forgotten brandished a club and yelled from a great distance away.

Rasmus took shaky aim at the phantom and pulled the trigger.

- - -

Inside the captain quarters of a clunky light freighter orbiting Nar Shaddaa, a comm device atop a table beeped. A net-mesh cot swung lazily when its two occupants stirred. Cazran stretched, groaned, and sat up on an elbow. He brushed long, partly-dreadlocked blonde hair from his face. . . a face gruff 'n handsome, his sister had once told him, to the agreement of his wife. Abigail, the red-headed woman in her late twenties who lay on the captain's naked torso, bundled herself tighter in the comforter.

"What?" Caz spoke into the comm device clutched in his cybernetic hand. In fact, his entire right arm was machine inside jointed armor plates. "Talk low, girl's trying to sleep."

"Risto Lachlen here. How's you doing, old friend?"

"I'd be doing well, if some sleazebag Toydarian had let me sleep. What's up?" Caz slid a hand under the comforter and ran his rough palm up and down his wife's side, appreciating her curves. Abigail kissed his chest, wrapped her smooth leg about both of his.

"We gots a bit of a problem." There came a pause, filled by the thrum of Risto's hyperactive wings.

"I assume by we you mean you, and whatever it is is important enough to contact me directly." Caz was long accustomed to these conversations in the mornings, used to people from his past dropping heavy news on him when he woke with a hang-over from a long night of frakking and drinking.

"Our colleague 'n comrade Clovis is dead. Murdered. Some crap-shoveler killed our blood brotha."

Caz stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, waiting for a sense of loss to sink in. To see if he could still feel for anyone in his former circle of bounty hunters. He felt... that hang-over. Clovis was dead, but so what? He entertained the Toydarian, though, maybe out of a sense of obligation or to see if further developments could trigger his sentimentality. "I'm sorry."

"Please, Cazran, come to estate 'fore the Cartel contaminate the investigation. Cops in the Hutts' pockets will take their time, since the victim's human. We owe it to our old friend, 'eh?"

Lachlen was an information broker, strongly associated with Gronwe's clan of thieves. The Toydarian had his finances and rep at risk til he solved this case. But if he found the killer, he'd be in for a promotion among criminals. Mess with Lachlen's business partners, you mess with him, supposedly.

"This had better pay well."

"Oh, it will! How's a hundred thousand credits sound?"

Caz clicked off the comm, tossed it on the table, and continued staring at the ceiling. His wife's waking would his signal to rise as well.

An hour later, Abi sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Where are the pills? Serious headache."

The couple dragged arse out of the cot, downed pills, then did small talk while dressing, he in a tank-top and pants with many pouches, and her in a matching top albeit feminine and short shorts. Their boots were of the same combat design. She tied her hair into a ponytail. He tossed her her gloves with the fingers cut off, and her bandanna. She put those on and walked to him, pecking a sloppy kiss to his lips. "Ready, babe."

He told her what he knew of Gronwe and the upcoming mission and they jetted their ship for the Smuggler's Moon.

Author
Time

TWO

Lachlen sent instructions. Abigail remained stationed in the control room of their freighter while Cazran and his T-7 astromech left and made down crowded, smoky, neon sidewalks -- he clasped the hilt of a knife on his belt, while the droid had its stunners and flamethrower showing -- to a garage beside a pawn shop. A skycar, in a line of trashed skycars, blinked its lights in the darkness to signal them over. A grunt chauffeured them through a private tunnel ending at a garage in Clovis Gronwe's estate. Caz took a lift to the sixty-fifth floor, the manor section of the skyscraper, and found the Toydarian hovering outside the lift door.

"Risky plan," Caz said as they entered a warm, low-ceiling hallway of soft carpeted floors and faux-wood walls. "You chance becoming a suspect yourself by trying to beat the Cartel to his killer."

The alien chuckled, snorting mucus up his stubby snout. "I'm where I am by gambling. In casinos, in life at large." They passed a widescreen holo-pic displaying natural landscapes and entered the dining hall.

A slideshow partitioned this room from the next, each snapshot of the victim and his wife vacationing: they smiled at the cam on beaches, tree-house patios, while rock climbing or skiing. Tape blocked the gap into the crime scene. Caz neared the wall and saw blaster holes. One hole was in a tree trunk in one pic, then the center of the woman's head the next.

"Try to hurry," Lachlen said from beside a tall chair at the dinner table. "I have to call real security soon. The longer I hold off doing so, the more suspicious it'll be, you know."

"Who else did you send in there?"

"A hover droid." That baggy, stubble-covered throat undulated when he moved. What an ugly frakker, Caz thought. "It swept the place, found DNA of three people. But there's three dead inside. Means the killer cleaned."

That was a funny statement, Caz mused, when he stepped over the tape and saw the state of the room. Congealed blood smeared lacerations on the guards' corpses. All the furniture was in pieces and the window was cracked. Crap, urine, colagne, and air freshener made a stomach-turning stench. He lifted the tape for T-7 and stepped carefully toward Clovis. The dead man was on his back, closely-grouped burn holes scarring his chest.

Cazran and Clovis had been a bounty hunter pair for years on Nar Shaddaa, Lachlen their sponsor. When Clovis had saved enough money, he quit that career to purchase an estate and hire his own bounty hunters. Caz worked as Clovis' right hand for a while, going after low-lives who owed his boss money, or smugglers who embezzled packages on drug shipments. The crime lord favored him too much, giving him the largest fraction of jobs, and Caz became a target for some of the same hunters he worked with.

"T-7, begin DNA detection."

"BLEEP-BWAK." The astromech fanned out a small laser field onto the floor, moving it up and down while slowly rolling toward a corpse.

"Wasn't he married?" Caz raised his voice. The couple had sent him a wedding invitation months ago, but he had ignored it.

"Her name's Irene," the alien answered from the dining room. "We've tried to contact her, but zilch. I even personally left a voice message telling her to contact me, that I have bad news about her husband."

There was their prime suspect right there. Caz took a comm from his pants pocket and crouched down beside his dead friend. "Abi. You there?"

"I'm here and ready to go poking in places I know we probably shouldn't."

"Tell me what you can about Irene Gronwe's recent activities. Hack Net-Acc if need be."

"Sure. I'll give you a call when I find something."

"Wreep-roo." T-7, next to the guard with the throat wound, deactivated the field and turned its head to point its lens-eye at him. It issued a metallic arm and dabbed a tiny sponge on the man's forehead. Caz replaced the comm in his pocket and took out a second hand-held device that gave him a literal translation of the droid's language. The screen read, "Fourth specimen found. Beginning full analysis."

They spent the next half an hour searching the rest of the manor. The man put on gloves and had the droid spray the air to wipe out his skin particles. The Cartel investigators best believe they were the first people in here since the murder, or the Toydarian might dock credits from his final pay. In a closet off the bedroom upstairs, he pushed back hangers to see Clovis' business or dinner suits, bathrobes and swimwear. On the other side was the lady's outfits. He snatched a few lingerie dresses for Abi and stuffed them in the droid's storage compartment. Irene and Abi looked to be about the same size. He felt around the walls and shelves of the closet, then exited to the bedroom and examined every article of furniture and object there. He found a bottle of perfume in a nightstand drawer, a quarter of the way empty. He put that in the droid's compartment as well.

"Grezakk hrooo," or, "Are you a private detective or a kleptomaniac?"

He made for the stairs leading down. "Those things could be significant later."

They were crossing the tape again when T-7 informed him that the DNA belonged to a human male in his late thirties. Its match was unknown.

"What did you find?" Lachlen rubbed his small hands together and grinned.

Caz shook his head. "I need a list of both his and Irene's contacts, be they business and or personal."

"I'll send it to your ship." The winged little man led them back down the hall and partook in a one-sided conversation about their pasts as hunters.

- - - 

Soon after in the cockpit of their light freighter, Cazran stood beside Abigail who sat in the co-pilot's seat and they studied stats on a console screen. T-7 was at a different computer in the cramped space, surfing the HoloNet to broaden its search for a DNA match.

"The latest record was two days ago." Abi pointed at security cam footage of Irene stepping onto a descending escalator in a busy mall. "She dropped off the map after that."

"Good find," Caz said. "We'll call every contact you found on her network." He put a hard kiss to his wife's cheek, sat in the captain's chair and started dialing the first number on the list, Irene's psychiatrist.

"Who is this?" A female asked. Abi glanced to Caz, who nodded.

"Good day. This is Glamira Dazzle," the red-head answered. "I'm Irene Gronwe's beautician." Caz thought Abi looked a bit like a kinrath pup when she mischievously smiled.

"OK. What about it?"

"She gave us your name and number in case we couldn't reach her. Irene was scheduled for a facial appointment this morning, but she never arrived. "

The other woman hummed and made noises with her tongue. "I shouldn't tell you this, but she skipped out on her last appointment with me, as well. Have you tried calling her home?"

Abi gave an 'eek' expression. "Many times, but all I got was dead silence. Thank you, miss."

The couple took turns role-playing while calling everyone on the list. They each once played a massage therapist, to Abi's amusement. Caz told the manager of Irene's favorite restaurant that the missing woman had terrible neck cramps and he was worried for her safety. "Who knows," he said. "Her head could've fallen right off." But it had been days or even weeks since any of them had last met Irene. Abi was right in that she seemed to have disappeared during her escalator ride two days ago.

Caz rotated about in his chair. "See if you can't hack into the psychiatrist's files." He stood and went for the lounge.

"What'll you be doing?" Abi got up and jumped onto his back, wrapping her limbs around him.

He carried her to their so-called medicine cabinet next to the circular lounge table where they ate dinner or played cards. "Visiting one of Clovis' partners."

"I hope it isn't a Hutt. It might sit on you and crush you."

He popped the lid on a flask, threw his head back and gulped down strong liquor. He needed a buzz for this trip. Abi took the flask from him and sipped.

"It's a Hutt."

She gagged and spat the liquid out. "You could strip durasteel with this stuff."

Author
Time

THREE

The towers of the Air District rose well into the upper atmosphere of the moon and were spaced far apart, hence the name. About anyone could land there, but you had to have some workable reputation among the wealthy to enter any of the marketplaces or its attractions. On the street Cazran walked, there were too many bars, casinos, strip clubs, brothels, or combinations thereof to count, all owned by the same tub of worm lard Nukk the Hutt.

He smelled perfume and cologne on the well-dressed pedestrians he passed, somewhat covering the stench of sweat and poor crotch hygiene wafting from portals. Rapid deep drums and snatches of aggressive vocals pounded speakers inside most every establishment, the babbling of the exterior crowd its constant chorus. Flashing signs and lamps shining across plazas transformed the silly concept of night into an electric day.

He needed to find the Hutt. He stopped in the flowing foot traffic and glanced at the signs. He spotted what he guessed was a girl wearing a bra with an advertisement on each cup and sheer glittering pants. She made eye contact and smiled, coming for him through the crowd while making her hips sway. "Stop right there, pirate man, I've an offer for you." A femm-boi, if the voice and bobbing throat apple were any indication.

Cazran, being casually polite, stopped and gave her a 'make this good' look.

"Fruity Ambrostine for my pirate?" She reached behind herself and pulled out a flier from her pants strap, handing it to him. There was a picture of a bubbling alcoholic cocktail on the front and fruit in the background.

Cazran took one and pretended to be interested. "Where can I find this... tempting beverage?"

"Allorann's Gyration Revolution. Nukk bought the property from the first owner, but left the name for brand recognition."

"How much are they paying you to look pretty and hand these things out?" The man slid the flier under his belt at the front, as though proud to carry it in plain view.

She covered her face as she laughed and rocked back on her heels. Caz conversed teasingly with her for the next couple minutes, gaining rapport, then asked the important question. "Know where I can find Nukk the Hutt?"

Her eyebrows perked and her painted lips drew back in fright. "He's a dangerous one. Sure you wanna meet him?"

Caz nodded once. Soon he ended the conversation by giving her a one-armed hug. He made for a strip club named Pink Lips.

Inside, dancing bodies pushed him from all sides even on the ramp bordering the dance floor. The hands of male and females belonging to various species caressed him. He supposed his posture, outfit, and looks were sufficient to instantly seduce those high on exotic weed or heavily inebriated by alcohol. Strobe lights fleetingly showed him shapes on the second level overlooking the first and he saw the glint of bulbous eyes, rough wrinkled skin, a rotund larva-esque body. Two guards stood at either side of the Hutt. Caz traveled up steps to a giant of a man at the top who held a blaster rifle and spread his legs further part to block the way when he saw the stranger.

"The hell are you and what do you want?" The guard demanded. A name tag attached to the front of the jumpsuit he wore read 'Manny'.

"I'm a private investigator." Cazran had to raise his volume quite a lot to be heard over the absurdly loud music and when it came out it was tinged with annoyance and warning. "A Murglak murdered your boss's friend and I'm here to ask questions."

Another man came up behind Manny, exchanged a few words with him, then jogged to the Hutt, leaning in and whispering to the drooling, wide-mouthed alien. A young, well-toned servant guy dressed only in a crotch hommack meanwhile slathered oil on the Hutt, whose tail squirmed in pleasure. Cazran and Manny stared each other down until the the messenger came back again.

"Try again later." Manny hoisted his rifle. "Nukk's busy." The Hutt was plainly busy orgasming to the feel of tender hands on his rough hide.

Caz set his hand on the knife hilt at his belt. "I spent a lot of time in that cesspool out there searching for Nukk. I'll speak to him now. Move or I'll move you."

Manny thrust the butt of his rifle for Cazran's face but the detective dodged and moved his hand upward, both unsheathing his knife and slashing the man's forearm. Manny growled and tried again, managing to hit Caz's synthetic shoulder, the motion causing blood to flow from his forearm wound.

Caz slashed the knife for the man's face. The other man blocked with the barrel of the rifle and swung the other end back for Caz's face. He dodged the brunt, but a jagged edge slid across his cheek. He knew it had cut.

A blaster shot fired and whizzed past his head while he was holding his opponent's rifle at bay using the strength of both arms. Manny was doped up on stimulants of some kind, or himself augmented by cybernetic strength, because Cazran had to apply effort when he pushed forward and slammed the weapon horizontally into the Manny's face.

The guard sagged and began to fall, unconscious, as a series of bolts flew at them from the darkness beside the Hutt. Cazran so happened to hoist Manny's bulk upward in the same nanosecond, expecting further blaster attacks, and used the body as a shield. He threw the corpse forward in the direction of the gunman, sheathed his dagger and unholstered his blaster pistol when he heard the resultant thump and whimper.

He trespassed onto the second floor, pistol raised in his right hand and an alternating his aim to every sentient present. The remaining two guards rushed out of the shadows and pulled the triggers of their automatics, spraying the air with glowing bolts. Cazran guarded his face and chest with his metallic arm but kept his pistol in front him and pulled the trigger repeatedly.

He returned fire even as shots bounced off the metallic casing of his arm, skidded the surface of his Arkanian energy shield, or singed the meat left to his being. The detective had injected stimulants of his own into his veins before coming here, never mind the buzz he still felt from a morning spent boozing. And the experience he carried through his years from the Mandalorian Wars. These upstarts needed taught a lesson in combat, he thought, even as he gunned down the final guard, sending him with a flurry of blaster fire backwards over railing to crash into the bar section on the first floor. Glass shards and liquor gushed. Some partiers screamed and ran, some clapped and cheered or laughed, but others kept dancing as if this was all part of life.

The assistant who oiled Nukk now hid behind his master's body mass. The Hutt himself puffed from a bong and stared through the assailant.

Cazran approached the Hutt. "Clovis Gronwe was found dead in his manor this morning. I need to interview you, one of his closest associates."

Nukk groaned, blowing out a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke. He then spoke in his native language of Huttese. "You could have waited two hours and tried to interview me then. Now I have three dead men, damaged furniture."

Cazran felt the pain of burns on his organic arm and chest. He would wait to pop some pain killers. "When was the last time you saw Clovis?"

The Hutt closed his eyes and nibbled on the end of the bong, smoke rolling from his mouth and nostrils. "I last encountered Gronwe at the banquet I held a week ago." His lids opened slightly. "We spoke about the spice shipment he was supposed to monitor, but everything else was small-talk and feasting."

"What else can you tell me about what went on at that banquet?"

"Not much else," Nukk said. He gestured with a stubby arm for the stairs. "I've indulged you long enough. Be gone, for your own sake. I summoned more men, and these will be heavier armed and much meaner than before."

The detective scoffed. "I'll leave when you give me answers. Don't you want to find out what happened to your associate?"

"My business partners die every day. I'm constantly replacing them. That one small-time, drug-running, greasy human died is trite news." The Hutt slapped his belly. "Ah, here they come now."

Cazran glanced over his shoulder to see three more guards running up the stairs. His hand settled on his pistol again. "Gronwe was an asset. It'll make you look bad among other lords if you let this crime fly."

The guards reached the top and started to take aim at the intruder. He did, as well, pressing the point of the barrel to the slug's forehead.

Nukk commanded the reinforcements to hold their fire. He let out a grovely, deep laugh. "Do you have a romantic partner, detective? A girlfriend or wife?"

"Where did the banquet take place?" Caz pressed the point in harder. "Tell me where it took place and give me the names of everyone who attended." The man's other hand reached into his pocket, closing around a small spherical object.

"I have another associate," Nukk continued, big eyes pointed half-lidded at Cazran. "Who can give your girl a taste of pleasures she only dreamed could exist."

Caz turned the upper half of the object and pressed a tiny button. He would entertain the Hutt's suggestions to buy him a few more seconds. "I'll make sure to relay your offer. But I'm guessing that so-called friend is none other than you."

Nukk laughed again. "She'll be given to me soon, after ---"

Caz whirled about, taking the small ball from his pocket and flinging it at the slowly-closing guards. POOF! The smoke from the bomb enveloped them and spread across the floor. The enemies fired blindly. The detective ducked and ran to the railing, throwing himself over legs-first.

Author
Time

FOUR

An hour later, Cazran sat at a restaurant stall eating Exoboar stew. Other customers constantly bumped into him as they ordered dishes of the cheap slop. Behind him people walked a sidewalk in tight chaotic lines, and behind them speeders whooshed across a six-lane sky street. Smells of spice, cooking meat, and volatile chopped vegetables lured in lower middle-classed rabble to replace those who left with their food. Fumes from speeders and narcotics waved in the atmosphere. This place could dull your senses if you stayed too long. Caz soaked a chunk of toasted bread in his stew and tossed it in his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, took out his comlink and called his ship.

"Abi?" He held the device close to his mouth and whispered, knowing she would adjust the volume settings so his voice was loud in the cockpit.

"Hey baby." She sounded awfully chill. "Comp registered minor burns. Tell me everything."

"Are you drunk?" He lit a cigarette. "Without me?"

"You can criticize my habits when they stand in the way of my job." He heard her light a cig and puff.

"But the day you start chewing on spice, we're having ourselves a serious talk." Cazran updated her on his progress. He suggested they could go through the security recordings of Nukk's recent banquet. "We look and listen for clues. Irene has to have more connection than appeared on the network's contact list."

"I'll find the place and study its security specs," Abi said. "You may as well come back. Join me in the fun."

Caz left the stall and blended with the crowd on the sidewalk. "On my way. See you soon."

"Wait." Abi giggled. "Remember how you wanted me to hack that psychiatrist's files?"

"What'd you find?"

"You're going to love this. It's saucy. Irene had an affair months back. She asked her psych for advice on how best to hide the evidence."

"Tell me when I get back. Give me twenty minutes."

"Fine."

He turned corners and eventually started north along a sidewalk beside a normal, ferrocrete road and three kilometers later the crowd thinned until he was one of only five beings in sight. Flies buzzed around a half-eaten sandwich on the curb. A breeze blew scraps of paper, aluminum cans, and other litter. Clouds of dark smog raced in the sky, sprinkling toxic droplets.

He entered an alley where his speeder bike was chained to a dumpster. He hesitated, left hand pausing a few inches above the left handle bar. The previously hardened grime at the edges of the control panel board had been broken. There was a clean streak in the dust coating the board. He looked directly down at the ground, saw impressions in the dirt and 'crete pebbles. Too bad for you, Caz thought. I spent years tracking on Dxun.

He stepped back and leaned over, studying the footprint and subtler signs. Someone had braced themselves in taking off the panel cover, which they had set down to his right, then shifted their weight to get a better view of the speeder's innards. They had walked around to the other side --- Caz followed the vague prints --- squeezed into the gap between the vehicle and the building wall next to it, and stooped to mess with the power cell under the seat.

Caz opened the control panel and accounted for the placement of wires and mechanical parts. He saw a flattish box with a beeping light stuck to the side. Wires trailed from the box and out of sight into the engine. He pulled a latch and lifted the seat up. Yep. The arse-clown had rigged the engine to explode upon ignition.

Almost any amateur engineer could have defused the rudimentary explosive. After doing so, he tossed it in the dumpster, and reassembled or reconnected all the necessary gadgetry again to return the bike to normal.

He got on, flew from the alley, and within two minutes returned to a populated area, blending with speeder traffic on an air highway. He headed for the hangar bay where his ship was docked. When he took an exit and accelerated, though, blaster bolts flew past him.

He turned long enough to see a masked biker two hundred-meters behind, then directed his attention forward again and tilted his body to the side and back so that he detoured up a ramp to an industrial zone. I'll find better cover in a place like this, he reasoned. And ample more opportunities for escape, if need be, than on an open road.

He zoomed into the durasteel-frame skeleton of a huge skyscraper. Construction droids hovered, flew, and climbed throughout the space. They smelted ore, welded metal platforms to beams, drilled screws, pounded rivets, and carried supplies.

More blaster shots whizzed near him, hitting beams and even a droid who squeaked shrilly and, as Caz saw when he chanced a glance, pointed a torch at the attacker and sprayed a far-reaching stream of super-heated sparks. The other biker swerved and avoided the stream, going off course.

Caz twisted the handles away from him, slowing somewhat, and pressed the altitude controls on which his feet were set, dropping his bike down a shaft. He plummeted thirty-some floors, stopped and jetted into a square tunnel that stretched for a kilometer. He exited out over a wide open area where, below, were small mountains of sand and mineral mixtures on the shores of a mucky lake-sized reservoir.

The hum of a separate speeder's engines reached his ears. He slowed down and glanced back to the building frame, supposing this was a good spot for a stand-off. The enemy shot out of the maze at a higher elevation and began to descend upon him faster than gravity. Caz gave his bike a burst of speed and began a wide curve to the side. The enemy terminated their fall where he had been a few seconds before.

Caz, his laser cannons pointing at their flank, yanked the trigger to fire --- only to find out that his guns were sabotaged. The other biker whirled about and pointed their cannons at him. Too late to dodge.

Caz reared his bike back eighty degrees so that the bottom absorbed the shots. BRAKKA-BRAKKA-BRAKKA! The vehicle shuttered, spewing sparks, flame, and smoke near his feat. The detective pulled the end of a zipline from his belt with his left hand, wrapped repeatedly around the handlebars quick as possible, then let himself fall off the bike. He fell for a quarter of a kilometer, resistance in the zipline slowing him somewhat, while the attacker above zoomed and fired toward where he would be in a few seconds, then ---

BOOM!

Burning heat blew across him, shrapnel pelted him, and light blinded him. The man pressed a button that let loose the zipline from his belt and spun as he fell through empty air, thinking to himself that there were worse ways to die, that he had lived a full life.

He landed on the slope of a sand mountain and tumbled limb over limb, head over feet, finally coming to a stop many meters later on his back. Vision slowly clearing, he saw a plume of smoke where his speeder had been. There were sounds of the giant mixing machines and skycar traffic in the distance. He sat up, feeling wounds and burns when he moved, and looked around for the person who so wanted him dead. They were gone. But why? He carefully took his shirt off and tossed it away. Small puffy burns and tiny bleeding cuts decorated his torso, arm, and face. His neck feeling cramped, he massaged the muscles there and rotated his head.

A splash came from the shore of the lake reservoir, followed immediately by a huge intake of breath. Caz looked to the side to see, fifty meters away, a man walking from the waters carrying a blaster.

The explosion must have sent the would-be assassin into the lake. How fortunes changed. Caz unholstered his blaster, remarkably having stayed latched when he had fallen, and sprang to his feet, flipping the stun switch up with his thumb.

The other man wiped muck from his face and stepped onto land, boots making slurping sounds. He opened his eyes and blinked, saw the detective aiming a blaster at him, then with his left hand jerkily patted at his belt to presumably search for his own blaster that was now gone. Caz noticed the man's right arm hung limply.

The stranger groaned. "Kill me, man. Shoot me in my frakking face."

"Good night." Caz fired three shots into his enemy, who went rigid and dropped.

Caz brought his comm up to his mouth. "There, Abi?"

"What are you doing at a construction site?"

"I need a pick-up. Lost another speeder."

Author
Time

FIVE

Cazran and Abigail trapped their prisoner within a suspension field against a wall of the cargo hold. The man's DNA matched that of the mysterious fourth person from the murder scene at Gronwe's manor and, according to T-7, his name was Rasmus Reigns. They probably had their killer, but Cazran wanted a motive before he closed the case and collected his payment from Lachlen. 

Rasmus was still unconscious and wearing the muddy catsuit. 

"Let me look at those injuries already." Abi leaned on the console beside the field. "You're manly and sexy and all that jizz for playing it cool, but seriously, those are getting infected as you stand there."

"In a little while." Caz sipped from the cup of iced caf liquor in his hand. "The read-outs showed I'm fine for now."

She shrugged and gestured to the sleeping Reigns. "Should we wake him?" 

"First, I want to learn what Irene confided to her psychiatrist about that affair."

"Oh, right." She tried suppressing a smirk as she looked off to the side for an emphatic moment, as though she had a naughty secret. She finally looked back to her husband and straightened, sauntering toward him and stopping at his front. Caz swallowed an upcoming burp and raised an eyebrow. 

"She asked her doc for advice on hiding the affair from her husband." Abigail placed a small hand on his chest. "And you know the silly thing? She actually helped Irene hide the affair."

The man gulped down the rest of his caf liquor and dropped the cup. He wrapped his arms around her and leaned his head in so their mouths were close. "I wonder where I've heard about a scheme like that before." He kissed her. "Irene must be a real devil, straight outta Hell."

Abi stiffled a giggle and kissed him in return. But after a few minutes Cazran drew back. "Business first, you tramp. Remember, we've gotta guest waiting to be interviewed."

She pouted, spun on her heel, and skipped to the console. "I'll take the honor this time." 

In a blink, Cazran's expression hardened and his voice became commanding. "All right. Wake him up." He approached the suspension field to glare at the filthy prisoner. Abi turned a nob. A continuous bolt of static shocked Rasmus Reigns' head. He screamed as pain abruptly pulled him to full alertness. Abi turned the knob again and the static vanished. 

Reigns cradled his head in his hands. "Wh-who?"

"Why did you kill Clovis Gronwe?" Caz demanded. 

Reigns vomited on himself. And he began to cry, dry-heaving every other sob.

Abi said, "Scans show he has what I think is a blaster wound on his shoulder."

"Take advantage of it," the fierce-eyed warrior ordered. 

Static shot into Reigns' injured shoulder. He screamed, a high-pitched sound. 

Caz left it to Abi to decide when to stop. When she did, Reigns curled into a fetal position on the circular bottom of his narrow encasement, shivering violently.

"That was a low-intensity dosage," Caz said. "If it were set to high, you'd be going into real shock. Ignore my question much longer and that'll be your fate."

A silent minute passed, the caged man's breathing finally evening out. "I work for someone," he answered at last, body and voice shaking. "He hired me to kill Gronwe."

"For what reason? Who is he?" Caz said.

Reigns swallowed. "My boss gains the trust of wealthy women, seduces them into giving him the contents of their bank accounts, or their husbands' bank accounts, then he disappears. Irene was his latest target. Gronwe suspected Irene was having an affair, had his men track her down. They found out my boss's identity. Gronwe had to be taken down."

Cazran waited for several seconds, and then when nothing more came from Reigns, he felt his patience leaving him. "You ignored my other question."

Reigns sighed and shrugged his good shoulder. "What does it matter anymore if I tell you? He's a Falleen named Gaspare Odilon. He's emptied out his headquarters by now, relocated to some other part of Nar Shaddaa to lie low for a while. He was going to contact me, tell me where to find him for more jobs, but only if I was successful in killing you."

"He'd pay you well to get rid of the detective on his trail, huh?"

Reigns shook his head. "Location of his HQ. That was my only reward. I made a real mess of killing Gronwe. I was supposed to cleanly and quietly bust a bolt in his head."

The detective said, "There are wealthy crooks all over Nar Shaddaa that pay their assassins well. What does this guy have on you that would motivate you to go through the trouble of killing me for free, then tracking him down to his new haunt?"

The prisoner started to speak, but stopped and hid his face between his knees. Caz walked up and punched his artificial fist into the energy field. Static discharge burst forth around his fist, a crackling racket filling the room.

Reigns sat up, but this time he bared his teeth in anger. "He has my wife at his disposal, damn it! He'll add her to his harem now that I failed!"

- - -

Cazran sat on the table in the medbay, his shirt off while Abigail doctored his wounds using a versatile hand-held tool. The woman was dressed in her t-shirt and short shorts, her usual gloves and bandana were bundled in the corner.

She flash-sanitized his cuts, used a tiny metal-detector to find shrapnel which she pulled out with tweezers, then sealed the wounds shut with medical glue. When done, she put the tool in a drawer under the sink and went to T-7 who ejected a precision tech toolkit. She took it and placed it on the table beside her husband. She picked out a flathead and began prying off the metal casing of his artificial arm. The joints of the limb sporadically twitched and the parts within buzzed or creaked, signs that the machinery needed repair.

 The couple remained silent during most the process, and when they did speak it was softly. His wife was one of the few people he trusted to operate on him. He even shunned droids in that regard. In the old days he had preferred to do these tasks for himself, out of habit and a sense of self-sufficient masculinity. Abi liked to argue this was a good bonding exercise for them, and often asked how he would fix his eye should it ever malfunction. 

Abi opened the hinged cover of the bicep portion to reveal a servomotor, power module, and a batch of sensory impulse cords that trailed upward to connect to his organic tissue. The plasma in the module brightly glowed, giving her light to see fine detail. "How long we been married, babe?"

Caz scoffed. "You keep track of that stuff better than I do."

The woman dropped the flathead in the case and picked up a multi-pronged pincher. "Tell me how you lost your arm and eye."

The man shook his head and silently stared at the wall as she worked. He noticed her movements were a bit more aggressive than usual, and she made sure to keep his arm's nerves active as she ground tools on its components. Damn it, the pain.

"I thought Mandalorians loved telling their war stories," she said.

"I'm a crappy Mandalorian, aren't I?" He growled. "I try to forget the event, Abigail."

"But you remember every day. You trap the trauma inside, letting it burn away at you." She finished, sealing his arm with a click and returning the toolkit to T-7. He opened and closed his metallic fingers, then squeezed his fleshy, muscular thigh to test their strength. He stood.

She reached behind her head, slid off the hair tie, and shook her long, wild locks loose. "What do we do with Reigns?"

"We could turn him over to Lachlen for a hefty reward."

 Abi crossed her arms over her stomach and zoned out. "It'd feel wrong, Caz." She blinked, sighed, and looked to him in resignation.

"Yeah." He stepped past her and out of the medbay, making for the cargo hold. "I know."

She followed close behind. "Lizard on the menu?"

"You'll have fancy new boots after this."

- - -

Cazran and Abigail escorted Reigns to the medbay where Abi treated his injured shoulder and Caz stood guard with a blaster at the ready. The prisoner said little, other than "thank you" and "really appreciate this". Reigns then showered and put on a clean shirt and pants, given to him by the captain. He was using a towel to dry his spiky dark hair when he entered the lounge where the couple sat at the round table and ate insta-dinners.

"We're dropping you at a respectable docking bay," Caz said. He stuffed a spoonful of mashed vegetables in his mouth.

"Twenty-five creds should rent you a nice motel room for a night," Abi said.

"You guys are too kind." Reigns draped the towel about his shoulders and went to conservator, opening the food storage. He chose a bottle of water and a frozen dessert pastry.

"Abi will hurt that shoulder all over again if you eat that," Caz said. "Heat you up one of these. They're at the top section."

Reigns settled down at the table and started eating after the couple had already disposed of their trays and popped open bottles of alcohol. The three sat awkwardly for a while until the guest asked, "How do you plan to go after him?"

Abi burped through her nose. "Ever hear of Nukk the Hutt? Well -"

"That's right," Caz interrupted. "Did you ever tap into his security feed?"

She shook her head. "I checked it out for like ten minutes, then your high-speed shenanigans distracted me. I can tell you the system would be hard to crack. Someone would have to translate the code to binary then upscale bit by bit to -"

The ship shuddered, the lights in the lounge flickered. Cazran shot to his feet and ran down the corridor for the cockpit. He threw himself into the captain's chair and checked the computer. Buttons in the alcove flashed and alarms sounded. Abi sat down beside him an instant later. On the screen he saw a fighter close in at aft, firing lasers at their freighter's exhaust ports. 

Caz ended their locked orbit of the planet and flared the ion drive, sending them forward at a thousand klicks an hour. He pulled their course upward, out of the laser stream.

Abi modulated the deflector shields. "Rear starboard thruster damaged. Enemy fighter on our tail, targeting RST."

The man glanced to the relative elevation numbers and punched the brakes. The fighter zoomed past them, disappearing into space, but the sensors still pointed out their coordinates. 

He targeted with cannons, pressed the trigger and unleashed a torrent of bolts. The fighter did a one-eighty, tilted its nose down three degrees, and sliced space back at them. It slid through the ion barrage, taking a few hits that rocked it and stuttered its shields. It fired back.

Caz entered a chaotic pattern of maneuvers into the console. He evaded the majority of shots even though the damaged thruster limited his options. But some bolts pierced the ever-changing concentration of energy shielding and scorched the hull. Automatic status reports displayed declining capacities of the humble vessel. 

"We're screwed unless we get our engines and thrusters back online," Abi said. "I'm headed down there to see what I can do." The woman started to rise, but a different voice came from the cockpit entrance.

"Wait," Reigns said. "Keep co-piloting for your husband and I'll see to the engines." 

T-7, in the corridor behind Reigns, beeped reassurances that he would keep careful watch on the man in the engine room and assist repairing the equipment. 

"Go," Caz said. He abused the trigger and hounded the enemy fighter, forcing them to evade. The targeting computer overlapped its visual and audio reports of his lock-ons, misses, and hits. His tactic bought them time, but he knew it would mean overheating the ion engine.

"Meltdown in ten seconds." Abi yelled over a chorus of alarms. 

But kept aiming and pumping the trigger. To let up too long was to die. He would die before he surrendered. If the other person even took prisoners. 

The fighter wove the narrow gaps in laser spray, swooping closer and closer to the damaged ship. 

Six. . .

Cazran switched targeting to where he projected the blip to be in half a second. 

Five. . . 

The fighter ducked under the bolts, did a sharp u-turn, headed for the light freighter's aft.

Four. . . 

Reigns yelled about it being hot back there. Tools clattered on the deck. T-7 let out a panicked cry.

Three. . . 

The fighter raced a meter above the freighter, opened fire.

Two. . .

The shields failed and impact quaked the hull. Abi screamed as her body slammed into console.

One. . . 

Cazran aimed again, shot. . . let go of the trigger.

The fighter exploded. 

Author
Time

SIX

Abigail sat in the co-pilot seat holding an ice-pack to a bump on her forehead. Cazran stood behind her and gave her a shoulder massage. "You'll be all right," he said to his wife. "We survived and we're in the clear." 

The woman sipped from a bottle of chilled water. "I've had close calls, but that beats the record. Dear frak, Cazran, that was crazy."

"I know." He kissed the top of her head. "I'll choose a tamer case, next time. We'll hunt down lost kittens." She snorted and leaned her head back, their lips meeting. 

Reigns and T-7 soon appeared at the threshold, the former red in the face and soaked in sweat. "Thrusters are back." He wiped his face on his already damp shirt. The astromech hooted cheerfully.

Cazran nodded and sat back down. His eye caught a specific flashing bulb on the console. "We gotta message. Must've missed it in the action." He pressed a button and static came from the speakers over their heads, clearing into a human voice.

"Surrender." Laser blasts rose in the background. "You want to keep that gorgeous girl safe, don't you? Surrender and give her over. I'll destroy you after, but she'll live." The three in the cockpit glanced to one another curiously. The voice of the now-deceased pilot continued, "Stop firing, idiot. Fine. Have it your way. Down you go. Your schutta can turn to space dust for all I care." Cazran deleted the message and leaned back, looking to Abigail. 

The woman rolled her eyes. "Worked out great for him, didn't it?"

Reigns leaned back on the door frame and sank down to sit. "Sounds . . . familiar, doesn't it?"

"Nukk the Hutt sent him." Cazran remembered back to what the Hutt had said to him in the dance bar. "That slug connects Gaspare to both Gronwe and Irene."

Abigail set her ice-pack down on the console. "What do you mean?"

"Nukk arranges for Gaspare to meet the wives of wealthy men, for a cut of the stolen credits. This time it was Gronwe, who did something to piss off the Hutt. Poor business decisions? Doesn't matter. We have a good lead on where to find the Falleen. The case is almost closed."

"Help me find Daisy," Reigns said. "Maybe we can move fast enough to stop that piece of crap from . . . you know." T-7 gave a sympathetic sound.

"We're going to the Hutt's tower at top speeds, buddy." Cazran turned his attention to the computer and scrolled through recent data, searching for the location of the network Abigail had tried to hack earlier. 

"This is a bad idea," Abi said. "We're already in the Cartel's cross-hairs. You really want to make it worse?'

- - -

Cazran sat on the base of an antenna spire at the top of a skyscraper a kilometer from Nukk's tower. A beskad sword hung sheathed at his back to a strap. At his belt were his usual Mandalorian heavy blaster and kal dagger. Abigail had landed their freighter on a pad behind and far below him.

Shrieking winds whipped at his long hair. T-7 the astromech, beside him on the slab of metal, pointed a miniature satellite dish at the enemy's domain, feeding to Cazran's ear-piece the conversations taking place all that distance away. He brought macrobinoculars to his eyes and zoomed their sights in on the floor where an elite banquet was taking place. He could see three meters forward along the edge of the window wall. A lot of shoes, heels, slacks, and dresses. 

He switched to infrared and saw people as shapes filled with faint light. The further away they were from the window, the rougher their images, but he could make out finer details on those closer, such links on chain necklaces or individual teeth when someone smiled.

Aristocrats sipped at expensive wine and sampled bite-sized delicacies. They chatted about economics, children, or weather on far-away planets. He perceived their smiles as fake, their chuckles forced, their interest in others feigned. A woman played sleepy music on an electric organ. The Hutt sat on a platform at the front of the room, attended by servants who made sure he always had fresh food in reach. A Twi'lek male in a black robe would periodically break from visiting with the guests to go whisper in the Hutt's ear slit. 

The confidant wished a human couple a good evening as they left through the door next to a statue fountain. He pulled out a datapad from his pocket and checked the screen, became still for a few seconds, then walked faster than ever for Nukk across the room.

"Your Highness. The detectives neutralized the pilot-assassin we sent."

Nukk groaned. "Relocate him to a panic room until further notice." The Twi'lek nodded, turned, and hurried down a hallway and out of sight. 

Caz set the macrobinoculars down and took a comm out of his pocket. "Abi. He's in there. Do your thing." 

"Aye aye."

T-7 beeped his well wishes.

"Sit tight." The man stood as the freighter took position next to the base of the spire. He kicked off the edge, landed on the vessel in a crouch, and grabbed the edge of a module with his cybernetic hand to brace for the trip. He raised his blaster in the other hand.

The ship flew forward. Caz let his lids fall close as air swept his face. Too soon they were at the tower. The laser cannons fired, short bursts that shattered the transparasteel. He opened his eyes and enjoyed the natural exhilaration as the ship whirled about. He heard the ramp lower, heard the elite scream and order their own to safety. Fireworks sounded. Reigns threw rigged concussive grenades among the ranks of the spoiled . . . those whose high-life had rendered them soft and weak.

 

The man rose, turned, and ran. His bound covered the distance from ship to carpeted floor. The screams changed to pathetic moans. Security appeared at the corridor; two shoulder to shoulder, stepping over bodies. Caz aimed and fired. He wanted as a pilot. He was a man out of place and time. The war was long over, everywhere except here and now. He blasted man after man. Headshots. They fell backwards dead. 

The ship hovered in place a few meters outside. Abigail played her real life holo-game of shooting down exterior security droids. Reigns fired an automatic from the opened cargo bay, covering Cazran.

Pawns swarmed from two entrances, too clumped together. Caz switched a setting on his pistol, shot a frag over the heads of said pawns at one entrance. The sphere bounced off the ceiling, off the wall, landed in their middle. 

BOOM!

The Hutt gurgled threats and obscenities. Caz replaced his blaster on his belt, and extracted his sword from its casing. He slashed a second wide, slobbering slit under the first. Guts spilled.

The man entered a corridor at a run, pausing for a second to slap a sticky-det on the wall. He pressed his ear-piece. "Direct me to the target's last known location, T-7." Ten seconds later there was a loud bang and the passage was blocked. T-7, a kilometer away, hacked the tower's systems and uploaded the lock codes to Cazran's cybernetic eye. He stalked the halls and invaded rooms, punching codes into consoles to allow him entrance into locked-down sections. His optical implant overlayed a glowing trail on the floor. 

He encountered more security personel. When they were out of arm's reach, he weaved in and out of cover behind objects in the area, such as containers or furniture, eventually rushing his enemy and cutting them down. Sometimes there were two or three foes together, at which point he stayed put and pick them off with his blaster until only one remained.

Soon the portal to his destination swooshed open, Caz holding his blaster in both hands, arms extended out in front of him. Several distinct facts hit him at once. Two dozen naked and half-naked women bustled about, trying to get dressed. They stopped and stared a moment after he appeared. The widest bed he had ever seen was set against one wall, while wardrobes lined the opposite. There was a plateful of what looked to be wedding rings on an elevated plate beside the door. Place smelled of perfume and sweat. Sex.

"Where's the Falleen?" He pointed the blaster at a dark-complected woman in an exotic dancer's bikini and shawls. 

"Protect our master," said a barely-legal girl with curly blond hair, dressed in panties and jingling bracelets. 

Most females murmured in agreement. 

"Give him time to escape." One with a shaved head wriggled her fingers ending in sharpened nails. In fact --- he noticed they all had those dangerous-looking claws.

Caz flicked the stun switch with his gun and started shooting at women. He needed into that room to search for the secret passage out. It was apparently off the grid, and T-7's help ended here. He hit one after the other but their numbers were too much and they moved fast. Banshee-like wails filled his ears. He backed a couple steps into the hall when two engaged his either side, slashing his arm and face. A third pushed his blaster down. He jerked his arm free and punched that third girl in the head. She whimpered and went down. But a fourth thudded onto his front, gripping him with her limbs while head-butting him. Pain spread from his nose. He felt his body going numb. He went to his knees, fell over. Someone pulled his weapon away. Their nails had to be coated in neuro-toxin. Doubtful that it was deadly, for the safety the harem itself.

"Get back, girls, I found a blaster." Their weight left him. He could think lucidly, but his body was losing mobility. He tried to move his legs to find them dead. His last hope was his cybernetic arm, its movements determined mostly by impulses in his central nervous system. Even when his muscles became stunned, he could manage some motion, albeit sluggish. He reached for the last grenade in his pouch. 

A blaster bolt hit him on the chest, fluctuating the Arkanian energy shields. He felt a vague impact, but luckily the toxin numbed the worst. He unclipped the pouch. More bolts hit him, increasing his pain, pushing his shields toward a malfunction that would mean his death. 

He raised his arm several inches, pressed the activator on the spherical weapon, and used the strength and lingering dexterity in his hand and fingers to throw the device toward the woman firing the blaster. The concussive grenade made a great 'poof' noise, bodies hit the floor, and everything went silent. Light consumed his vision, his ears rang, and his mind spun. 

A few minutes later of trying to move, he sat up to immediately feel dizzy and neauseous. Wicked hang-over. He went to all-fours, bent his leg and set one foot flat, tried to stand. He toppled. A voice said in his ear, "Cazran. Cazran?" 

"Yeah, I'm here. Fill me in."

"You sound groggy. What's up?"

"Light poison. Wearing off. Sup with you?"

"Lizard's in a parking garage. I'm suppressing him, but Reigns picked up a transmission. They called in reinforcements. Hurry."

"K."

- - -

Cazran threw back a pillow and found a tiny red button on the bed head board. He pressed it, and the back of wardrobe opened into a passageway.

Bleeding gashes decorated the man's face and arms. The injuries were, by his reckoning, shallow. 

He stumbled out into a parking garage. Thick stone pillars held up its ceiling and one side was opened to the night sky outside. Speeders lined the spots by the door. He heard cannons and blasters firing floors above him.

He ran up a flight of stairs, across a duracrete stretch, then up more steps. Sweat dribbled down his face. Muscles in his legs ached. His head swam. But he pushed on up the steps and into the next garage. The lot must have stretched for half a klick to his right. Ahead of him, its width opened to the city. Wind wailed through the industrial vacancy, carrying stenches of pollution. Speeder traffic flowed, signs flashed, and thousands of windows twinkled. . . far away. Closer, security droids fired lasers at his ship, which corkscrewed, dove, and rose. Caz reached into his pocket and opened a case of stimulants. He placed the tip of an adrenaline ejector to his leg and pressed the top. A slight sting. He watched his wife pilot the ship as the chemicals flooded his veins. Once every few seconds it returned fire, and once every few tries it hit a droid. 

"Abigail. I'm at your floor. Where's the Falleen?"

"Baby, tell me where you are. I can pick you up."

"Where's the Falleen?"

"Somewhere around you, I think. Lost him in the shadows. You sure you wanna ---"

"Get out of here, Abi. I'll call you when I'm done."

"Caz, you're being stupid. You're a man against ---"

"Go." 

The engines flared and the freighter zoomed off toward greater civilization. The Mandalorian walked through beams of light and shafts of darkness cast by pillars, his senses heightened and alert, his sword held out in front of him in both hands. The wind died down.

Fabric wooshed behind him, something scraped the floor. Cazran rotated and went after the source. Faint sounds came and faded. Pause, listen, move. Again. He stepped within blade's reach of the railing at the edge and glimpsed a silheoutte of a ridged cranium, top-knotted hair, and smoke-like robes. And so the hunt went until the man, while keeping still, sensed a slight mass disrupting air flow to his side. 

He rushed at the Falleen and, upon beholding the dark shape of his body, swung downward. 

Gaspare blocked with one end of his vibro double-blade, pushed the beskad a few inches to the side, and thrust for Cazran's face.

The man moved his head out of the way, feeling the edge slice his cheek. He tilted his blade inward, thus keeping the staff on the outside of his body, then raced along the vibro's length and slashed at Gaspare's chin. 

The reptile twirled his weapon so that he held it horizontally in front of him and brought it up, contacting the sharp edge of the beskad and slowing its progress. 

Cazran spun his blade rightside up and stabbed forward, under the staff. Gaspare at the same instance pushed the vibro into the human's collar bone. Caz felt his blade stab into cartiledge right before he stumbled backward. 

The two dueled across the garage, equally giving and taking minor damage. But damage that gradually added up to major. They bled as they slashed, dodged, stabbed, or parried. They scraped their weapons on surfaces that caused sparks to burn their clothing. Caz felt the adrenaline running its course as the intense minutes flashed by. 

Eventually he chopped the staff in half. 

His target flung both pieces at Caz, then turned and ran.

Caz swept both of them aside and gave chase along the railing. Damn. This alien was fast. Where was he even going? He lunged, tackled him.

Gaspare had already started rolling around so he would land on his back. They hit the floor together. 

The Mandalorian, holding the sword in one hand, stabbed down at the Falleen's throat. Gaspare managed to cross both his forearms over himself and hold the worst of the attack at bay, though the tip dug a few centimeters into his neck. 

Cazran pushed down. He registered the resistance strengthen, pushing his offending arm up a few inches, then give way. A sharp object sliced Caz's wrist. The sting momentarily surprised him. He spotted a blade from a bracelet on his opponent's wrist. 

Gaspare stabbed him in his organic eye.

The detective growled harshly as blood gushed from the socket. He grabbed the hand at his face, pulled it out, and pinned it to the hard floor beside them. But his cybernetic arm was free. He reached down. Gaspare pushed back. The servomotors were stronger. Caz took hold of the first thing he could, which so happened to be the Falleen's jaw. 

"Do you know the feeling?" The man underneath groaned, allowing his muscles to slacken. "Their pupils dilate, their cheeks redden, their smiles are slow-forming and honest. They laugh at your every joke, however obvious."

Caz loosened his grip a bit. 

"They search for excuses to touch you. First by teasing slaps on your arm due to something risque you claimed, then they rove their fingertips from elbow to hand, or move their foot up your leg under the table. Tantalizing creatures, aren't they? Human women."

Cazran felt his mind fogging. Worse than the pollution in the skies of Nar Shaddaa. He felt his grip loosen even more as he began to question himself. Why was he truly attacking this exotic creature? This person. What right did a lowly Mandalorian have to soil biological art?

"Psychologists toil years away trying to understand what is going on in their brains," Gaspare continued. "Women flaunt their mystique in front of men, teasing, pulling back, over and again. You can have them, you can own them, or so you think until they laugh and leave you cold. The power of femininity drives men to suicide by legions, but we men come back for more. Oh, your race will always replicate. But mankind shall blunder ever in the evolutionary murk until it can comprehend the woman." He started wriggling his pinned hand free. "For she --- the female --- is the most important of the two sexes."

A female voice, puncuated by sobs, sounded in his ear. "You're getting yourself killed, aren't you? Damn it. Talk to me." Abigail. Sweet girl.

Gaspare's knife hand came loose.

Cazran squeezed the Falleen's jaw with all his strength.

KRAA!

Most everything after that was a confused blur. He remembered ripping away the wrist knife, and Gaspare slithering out from under him. And he recalled the piercing pain throughout his body, the streams of his own blood creating a puddle where he sat on his knees, expecting death to claim him at any moment. Every sound reached him from a great distance as shadows crept from the edges of his vision to its cracked center. But there was one bright spot: he saw his wife leaning over him. 

His dreams manifested as memories of Cleonara. They were both children on Dxun, a moon of Onderaan. She playfully splashed him while they swam in a calm river. He caught fish for her in his bare hands, she squeeled in delight. The siblings hunted in the thick of moist forests, armed with primitive spears, dressed in loin cloths. She scraped her slender arms on rocks or jagged branches, crying for him to doctor her. He spread herbal salve on her cuts, told her to act like a big girl.

And then they were adults. War phased into existence around him. Cleo, armored, her eyes gone hard, told him the Republic was encroaching on the base. She faded and reappeared further away. He ran after her. Bolts littered the air in front of him, striking his armor. His sister kept distancing herself. Boiling smoke obscured his vision, burning flesh invaded his nostrils, and he heard a chorus cry, "Die with honor!"

 

- - -

Cazran opened his eyelid and stared at a ceiling. The other eye was covered by something. He groaned as he turned his head either way to find he lay on sectioned bed with handles at both sides, his torso raised about forty-five degrees. At first he was a stranger to himself in a strange room. His identity and whereabouts returned to him incrementally as he glanced to a medical table, a screen on the wall displaying his vitals, and clothes bunched in a corner by the portal. Dread and realization crawled into his mind. Maybe he would be better off if he forgot everything about his life and started over again. Those memories in the form of feverish nightmares seemed foreign right now, and some part of him deep inside said that they should stay as such. 

A stunning woman entered the cramped infirmary, dressed in a white tank-top, shorts that reached her knees, and sandals. She had a pleasingly curved figure. Fit, with a bit of meat on her bones. Narrow waist, wide hips, handfuls of breasts. Pale eyes and a liberal sprinkling of freckles. She saw him awake and beamed, pronounced canines silently promising that she would bite into anything that would dare try to harm her partner. Abigail Wudruf. The young female stepped for him and set a hand on his. "Morning, captain. How you feeling?"

"Like crap," he scoffed. "Is this all a dream?"

She smiled and leaned down, kissing his forehead. "Your eye. I'm sorry."

He rubbed the temple next to his blind eye. "Don't be. The other one was my choice, a long time ago. No regrets. But here, I just got sloppy."

Abi sat on the edge of the bed and gazed down at him sympathetically. "Just relax. We'll get your eye fixed up soon."

He shook his head. "No. It's not mine anymore. He stole it, like a warrior. I'm using my one good eye to look forward to repaying the favor."

She kneeded her forehead before nodding in resignation. "All right, big man, but we should think about burning sky here pretty soon. You toppled Nukk the Hutt's empire, and a lot of his partners are going to be looking to put us out of business." She tilted her head and clicked her tongue, looking to the ceiling. "That is, after Lachlen pays us."

"We'll disappear for a few weeks," Caz said. "Nukk and Gaspare ran a cuckolding ring. Whether those were the wives of Nukk's enemies or allies, doesn't matter. The Cartel will want to distance themselves."

"Yeah, well," Abi admitted. "Turns out those were the wives of his business partners. He used Gaspare to blackmail them into doing what he wanted, or punishing them when they stepped outta line."

Caz raised a brow. "How long have I been out?"

"Few days."

"What became of our would-be prisoner, by the way?"

"He's working in the engine room. Nobody knows what happened to Daisy." That news made him more grateful that he had Abigail still by his side. 

He pulled her into a long, wet, passionate kiss. Lust invigorated him. His wife had saved his life, nursed him back to health, and ran the ship during his recovery. 

She straddled him. He stripped her, she stripped him. They frakked hard and loud. . . an act that energized greater than any manufactured stimulant.

-END-