“You don’t have to be gentle. It’s not my first time.”

Sergei held out his arms to either side and smiled at the security guard. “You don’t have to be gentle. It’s not my first time.”

The bouncer, doughy but hardly formidable, bit down hard on his lip as he bent to his task. Sergei remained still for him as he ran his hands over his arms, his flanks and his legs, then finally an extremely cursory brush over his inner thighs. 

He found it funny, the way the big man avoided getting near his cock. He’d been frisked more times than he could reasonably count, but not by amateurs. He could’ve hidden an entire grenade behind his balls and this piece of door meat would never find it.

It was a formality. Sergei unarmed was no less deadly, and often demonstrated that fact. His tail, the Tsarnaev cousins, were less comfortable with going unarmed, but it hardly mattered in the scheme of things. He needed them for their eyes and ears. He’d chosen Russians because there was a paucity of Russian speakers in the Group of Four and it pleased him to be able to communicate confidentially with his own men.

Rapture was just as advertised — a nightclub situated on a covered barge big as a modest warehouse, with lounge area, an L-shaped bar, and a dance floor complete with DJ pit. It was like stepping back in time to the days when Sergei enjoyed himself by joining the crush of people, breathing in the smell and feeling of erotically charged humanity. When they were this vulnerable, tightly packed crowds had filled him with a sense of his own sexual power and physical strength. It was better than drugs, though he’d done plenty of those too.

It amused him to see an actual DJ working the low thudding beat as a crowd of expensively dressed people danced, gyrating, grinding on each other, their sweat smelling of top shelf booze, and various other intoxicants. Out here “above the salt” the chief economic engine was the procurement of processed drugs. The high seas provided, as it did so many things, a glut of cocaine, heroin, molly, fentanyl, and the raw ingredients for processing these same drugs. Container ships carrying legitimate freight often included hidden caches of the more lucrative, but less permissible cargo, and they were everywhere. It had become a race to secure and sink as many of these caches as possible, and made up an entire piracy industry of its own.

Once captured, those substances, as they had done in the before-world, had several stops to make before they arrived in the Cradle. Large drug hauls went first to the deadships, the floating emporiums made from demobilized cargo shipping. These were rented by the merchants and the more powerful guilds. They sold their product directly to those beyond the cordon, and moved shipments of it into the Cradle, providing Sergei with a cut of the profits with each increased premium. That, and direct tribute from the deadships, meant he got a cash value cut of anything snorted, injected or swallowed whole. 

He paused at the top of the short run of stairs to take in the sights and sounds. Below, the people dressed in their pilfered finery, dolled up and glossy with perspiration, gave a perfect impression of the same glitterati he remembered from the clubs of Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

That thought kept him entertained as he made his way down to the bar. The few lounging around the couches gave him a lingering glance, though most of them were already too blitzed out of their minds to be afraid. He smiled at them, then looked to Aleksandr and Vasily, indicating with a hand where he wanted them to stand sentry. 

“Alek, watch my back. Vasily, the exits and perimeter.”

Da, komandir.”

The bartender, when he caught sight of his patron, gave a momentary pause. Sergei gestured to him, excusing him of the need to do anything but his job.

“Vodka,” he said. “I don’t care what kind.”

To his credit, the man executed a steady pour, and without needing to be told, left the half-empty bottle of Stolichnaya on the bar beside the glass. Sergei shot it back, felt the familiar burn rise up in his throat, then lifted his head to look around. A row of mirrored tiles had been set up over the top shelf above the bar, and afforded him a good general view of the lounge area behind him. He also caught sight of the reflection of another patron, which corresponded to the woman at the other end of the bar.

She was exceptionally lovely, with pale freckled skin, long black eyelashes, and curly black hair gathered into a loose bun at her neck. Sergei was certain he had never seen her before, which he felt was more than passing strange. He was familiar, to one degree or another, with all of the truly beautiful women who still remained to humanity. Rachel was the only one who really mattered, but this one did have intriguing possibilities.

Her freckled breasts were elevated by the tight bodice of her dark blue dress, which was cut low and left her equally freckled arms bare. She rested her forearms against the bar, hands apart in a casual attitude much like a card dealer as she waited for the bartender to deliver, of all things, a pint of stout. She hesitated just long enough for the cloudiness to settle, and then took a long, indulgent draught from it.

In that moment, Sergei was suddenly aware that he was being deliberately ignored. Not even that, but disregarded. It struck him that this woman, whoever she was, was neither an inebriate, and nor was she the least afraid of him.

He left the vodka behind as he moved a few more stools closer to her, and tilted his head to catch her eye. “Is that real stout?”

She raised her gaze to him, dark blue eyes enhanced by the blue of her dress. Her cold smile was tempered by the raised eyebrow, and he could tell that she knew who he was, and she wasn’t going to give him the least satisfaction of her fear, or her acknowledgement that he was anything other than a strange man encroaching on her evening.

Still, she humoured him, turning the glass to show him the Guinness logo. “It’s the last place you can still get it.”

He was curious about her accent, which had a flatness to it that almost said American to him, but there was a warble that didn’t resemble any American accent he’d ever heard. Vikram was far better at this sort of thing, but Sergei was usually reasonably good at identifying most of the locals’ original whereabouts. 

“You always dress up like that to drink by yourself?” he said, indicating the stunning blue sheath that flattered her already excellent figure. 

“Might be a special occasion,” she said, taking another pull off the glass. “Or maybe I felt like showing off.”

It occurred to Sergei that she might in fact be here on a professional basis, but something about her frosty confidence and her sheer presence told him that she was something else. Something new in his world, which gave him a little thrill, since he very rarely encountered anyone who didn’t hate and fear him. Not that he disdained those qualities in others, but it was novel to meet a girl who had no issue with making him work a little for her notice. Even in the life before, he had looks and presence, and enough broad access to female company to take it for granted.

“What is your name?” 

She gave him a chilly smile that didn’t reach those dark blue eyes. “Say I don’t tell you. What would you do?”

He considered this. “I would be… sad.”

“Would you indeed?” she raised the pint and gave him a mocking little salute with it. “Well, you’re in the right place to drown your sorrows, aren’t you.”

With a greater sample of her mode of speaking, Sergei was able to detect her brogue. Putting that together with the Guinness, he satisfied himself that she was Irish. He was surprised, as he hadn’t heard that anyone but Edward Blythe had made it out of the British Isles. 

“I’d rather drown them in you,” he said, no longer able to sustain his patience for the game. “I don’t need to know your name for that, but it would make things easier.”

She tilted her head, eyes measuring him. He felt a prickling at the back of his neck as she continued to show no evidence of fear of him. He was unaccustomed to being treated in this manner, and he felt the impulse to move on her. To get in her space and dare her to do anything about it.

“Easier,” she said. “That sounds boring.”

“I could choose a name for you, if you won’t tell me.”

“Really,” she said, now looking him directly in the eyes, her lips parted in an inquisitive expression. “What name would you choose, Commander?”

There was something uncanny about her lack of playfulness. The coldness in her, the intensity of her gaze, the slow way she dismounted from the bar stool made him absolutely sure that she’d known he would be there. That she had intentions for him. He shivered slightly, wanting very much to know what she looked and felt like under that dress, but even more what was going on inside her mind.

“Lucretia,” came Arnaud’s voice, and Sergei turned to see his lieutenant commander, one hand extended to the woman.

To Sergei’s utter surprise, she allowed herself to be folded in Arnaud’s embrace, kissed him, and waited until Arnaud released her to step back. Arnaud then turned to Sergei.

“Commander. All’s well?”

“So far,” Sergei said, his eyes still on the girl. “Are they here yet?”

Arnaud did not seem overly perturbed by his commander’s attentions on his mistress. “Right behind me.”

She paused just long enough to smile mockingly at Sergei before following her unlikely lover. He lingered for a moment to observe her boneless grace, her stunning, upright figure. As he followed his lieutenant to the meeting place, he resolved he would not conclude his evening without first acquainting himself further with this strange enticement. He wanted to know what she had to say for herself, and her excuses for having delayed their meeting for so long.