A Serpent in the Citadel, Chapter 10: An Overdue Conversation
This is the tenth chapter of this story, in case the title didn’t give it away. If you want to read the others first, or if you’d like to read them in random order (hey, I don’t judge), here are the other chapter links:
The universe had other plans for me besides a stiff drink or seven. It always did. “Before you pickle yourself,” Severa said, “I need you to ring my contact. You’ll want to be sober for the meeting.”
I grabbed some filtered Earth water instead with a scowl. The label made it look like Earth was a pastoral wonderland and the water therein was hand-filtered by nymphs. I grew up there and knew it probably came out of a rusty spigot in some filthy bottling plant. I drank it anyway in a misguided show of solidarity for my species. “What’s the name?”
“Don’t worry about that,” she responded, clicking on her omni. Mine buzzed silently as she sent me a message. Just a number with no information. “You have encryption on your piece of terracrap?” She was recovering quickly.
I figured Madeleine had set me up with some. A quick check verified it. I made the call with no video. A brusque voice answered without identifying itself. He sounded turian, which didn’t surprise me. I gave the spiel Severa told me to say and he stayed quiet throughout my performance. All he said was, “One hour,” and cut the line. All in all, it was as heartwarming as most exchanges between our species.
I told Severa what he said and she nodded. I looked over at Lorelei and she was standing closer to the assault rifle than I liked. She was looking at me like a volus banker eyeing a krogan in his queue. I think she suspected my statement about finding Cole was something to save my face from being shot. She was right, but I felt like I’d need to follow up before she picked up a firearm again. “OK, Lorelei,” I said, “the C-Sec angle is shaping up. I said I’d help find your friend. What can you tell me?”
She kept looking at me hard. The fire in her eyes was having an effect on me, but I didn’t think it was the one she’d intended. I always did seem to be attracted to the ones that could hurt me the most. Physically and emotionally. Finally she spoke, just before my knees could buckle. “What do you want to know?”
She really didn’t like me at all. “Know where he is?” I didn’t have much hope, but I had to try.
Females of every species seemed to learn young just how much contempt they could put into a head tilt. “Your little show stopped me from finding out.”
I knew I needed to tread lightly. “Fair enough. What do they want from you?”
It was clear she didn’t expect the question. She probably figured I’d be looking for information about her friend, not her. She stopped looking at me. Her eyes danced around a bit. It took a second or two before her eyes came back to mine. “They… wanted my help. To convince Cole to help them.”
“Why you?” Her face went a little red. I’d gotten lucky and knocked her off-balance. She didn’t answer right away so I kept at it. “They hoping his girlfriend could put a little pressure on him? What kind of help is a rising star in the Alliance Navy going to provide with a bunch of drug runners? Or is he already a dealer and they need his help to expand?”
She got redder and she snapped at me. “It’s not like that.” She took a couple of rapid breaths and looked down. “Well, not exactly.” She sounded a little calmer. “Look, Cole and I… we’re close. We basically grew up together. As we got older, he wanted a little more than I did. A relationship.” I lit a smoke and she gestured at me for one. I handed it over and lit it for her and she went on, talking more to the bar than me. “He was like a brother to me. He didn’t take it well, but things got better after a while.”
Lorelei started drawing little patterns on the bar with her finger. “Then after he graduated, he came home. My father was busy with his shipping company so Cole and I got to catch up. He seemed off. A little too excited. I didn’t think it was just excitement for starting at the Academy. He was just… off.” She took a long drag and held it for a bit. “One day he asked about us again. He said he understood me better now. I didn’t know what he meant. He smiled and pointed at a vase of flowers on the table. One of them lifted up and floated over to us. It didn’t make it. That was when I knew he was using sand.”
She stubbed out her cigarette on the bar and left it. I used a towel to clean it up before Tomyra showed back up as Lorelei went on. I didn’t want the asari to toss her across the room. “He started dusting because he thought it’d bring us closer. He wanted me to try some of the other stuff he brought, the Minagen. He said that it’d make me even stronger and that I’d feel like a goddess.” Her face clouded and I could see she’d make one hell of an angry one. “I laid into him. I was furious. He was a damn junkie and he wanted me to be one with him. He begged me not to tell my father, as if he were even around to have a conversation. Cole and I didn’t speak for days.”
I handed her a water and she nodded a thank you. “Cole finally found me and apologized. He was broken up and looked scared. He was babbling about how he didn’t mean it and how sorry he was for things getting this way. Then he spilled it all. He’d gotten hooked on the stuff his last semester. Then he started helping his classmates get it. Small-time stuff, you know, but dealing all the same. Lucky for him it didn’t mess with his performance at school. Or maybe it was unlucky, because none of us would be here now.”
Lorelei got quiet. I lit her another cigarette and she took it. I didn’t want to interrupt her flow so I kept my mouth shut. I can manage that from time to time. Severa kept quiet, too. I imagine she was used to confessions and knew when to back off. The young lady took a few drags, looking off. Her face was a blend of anger and regret and melancholy.
After a minute she shook her head. “He was in bad shape. He was trying to stop using. Doing it for me, is how he put it. He was full of remorse and self-pity. Then I found out why he was so scared. The people who’d gotten him the stuff were putting the screws to him. They knew my father and his cargo transports. They were telling Cole that unless he helped them get their stuff on my father’s ships then his career aspirations were over. Done. They had a plan, a cover company. They wanted Cole to sell my father on it, since if he approved it then the normal vetting wouldn’t happen. He wanted me to help him. He wanted me to help convince my father to use his company to ship this shit all over the galaxy.”
The anger was back, with a vengeance. “He put me in that position. After all my father did for him. I lost my temper. Things flew around the room. I didn’t hurt him, but I wanted to. He ran out. I let him go because I didn’t know what I’d do to him. I felt betrayed. No, I was betrayed.” Lorelei finished the cigarette in three quick drags then stubbed it out in the ash tray I just managed to put in her path. She took breather to calm down again. “I went looking for him a few hours later. He was a wreck. It was like someone had stolen the person I knew and replaced him with a shell. I talked him down. He wanted to tell the dealers he was out. In person. He was due to meet them anyway. I told him I’d go with him. I thought that maybe I’d be able to convince them to leave us alone.”
She waved off my offer of another cigarette. “Cole didn’t want me to, but I told him he’d never get off-planet unless he agreed to let me come. He gave in. I wanted to help him. He’s smart. He’s capable. He has such a bright future. I wanted to help him get back on track. He’s family.” She laughed to herself for a second, the rueful kind I was well acquainted with. “Then he slipped out the first night we were here. I used my connections to get some fake documents, a new look, and untraceable credits, and tried to track him down.”
That one got the better of me. “Those are some connections. I’d have a little trouble scoring that, and I’ve been around. Where’d an admiral’s daughter make those kind of friends?”
The look she gave me showed her harder edges. “I’m very active, politically. Some organizations are a little underground. Not because they’re bad, but because their causes are unpopular with some very powerful people. Like my father. Groups like Terra Firma give my friends a hard way to go. And,” she paused to grab another cigarette from me, “what they do isn’t always strictly legal. They help refugees get through the Citadel protocols to get to safety. They bend the law for the right reasons. They helped me, because I’m helping them.”
I could see why they helped her. She had the pedigree and presence to be a real ally to their cause. “So that’s how you went off-grid,” I said. “How’d you end up in the black market?”
She smiled without much humor. “When Cole was babbling after I’d scared him, he let slip a name. Someone from his school. I contacted him anonymously and put the screws to him. That got me another name. I worked my way up until I got someone who agreed to meet with me in the black market.” So she’d never been here, and the bartender had set me up. I looked forward to chatting with him. She took a deep drag and gave me a bad look. “That’s when you showed up. I was arranging a meeting with their boss. They were amenable to talking and were going to let me see Cole. They didn’t want my father’s resources coming after them.”
I shook off her look. “I don’t think things were going that way. No offense.”
Her voice had so much venom I started to worry about an antidote. “You messed everything up. You destroyed the chance I had to get Cole out of this. You almost got me killed and I have to save your ass on top of everything.” The fire in her eyes wasn’t nearly as alluring as before. “You’re a complete idiot, so forgive me if I think you have exactly no chance of helping me at all.” Her hand began reaching for the rifle next to her.
My mouth moved a bit as different arguments that wouldn’t get me shot failed to appear on my lips. Luckily someone else had one. “He’s an idiot,” Severa said, “that much is true. But,” the turian said, feeling nothing of the glare Lorelei now directed at her, “he did save your life. Despite the terrible plan and botched execution.”
“Spare me,” Lorelei said, her words spat out like a human tasting turian food. “They wouldn’t do a damn thing to me. They know who my father is.”
Severa stood up and leaned an elbow on the bar. “I’m sure they did,” she said. “But he doesn’t know who they are. Believe me, I know their type. I’ve fished enough bodies out of alleys and reclamation vats, kids of diplomats or politicians from the Presidium, all who thought their names were their armor. It doesn’t mean a damn thing down here.” The turian was matter-of-fact. “They would have gotten you alone, and you would have died, and if you were lucky, some C-Sec patrol would find you before the Keepers took your body for disposal. And you’d have been one more rich kid who died in the Wards, and no one would know who did it.”
That quieted Lorelei down some. Her anger was gone. I wanted to keep it away. “We’ll get Cole. You have my word.” That came out before my brain knew what the rest of me was promising. I regretted it immediately. “Did they give you any indication where the meet-up was supposed to be?”
Lorelei shook her head. “I was supposed to follow them as they escorted me.” Her voice sounded flat. I figured she was thinking for the first time how that little walk would have ended.
I scrubbed my face with my hand. “Severa, there anything you aren’t telling us? Without a location, we’re at square one.”
It wasn’t Severa who answered. “Deravam Medical Supply warehouse.” The three of us turned. Tomyra was wiping off her hands as Kreeg carried the bodies out from the back. They hung limply down from the krogan’s shoulders and looked a little stretched to me, like their arms and legs had gone through a growth spurt. I didn’t want to know. The asari saw us looking at her funny. She shrugged. “You wanted a location. You got it.” She looked at me. “Don’t you have a meeting to go to? I want to get this show on the road.”
She started checking over her gun as Kreeg rifled the bodies, sticking credit chits in his pockets. I raised my best eyebrow. “You’re coming?”
Tomyra didn’t look up from her rifle. “No one comes into my bar and threatens me.”
I left it at that. I pulled my collar up to hide my face as best I could and headed out. The prospect of breaking into a gang hideout filled with military types suddenly seemed a little more survivable.