“Today might be your lucky day,” I offered with false optimism to the hulking green Dargun seated at the slot machine, his eyes glued to the spinning screen. If buttering him up kept him pumping credits into the machine a little longer, I didn’t give a damn about lying.
I clasped his meaty shoulder reassuringly, making a mental note to send over some free snacks if he stuck around another hour. For the small fortune he blew here daily, a few freebies was a worthwhile goodwill gesture to keep him coming back.
The Black Star Casino was an instant, record-shattering success since opening day here in the shadowy lower levels of the Thodos III station. Packed to capacity each night, it rapidly became the hottest spot for socializing and of course, for those dreaming of hitting the jackpot and stuffing their percomms with credits.
It was a long shot when I proposed the business to my old unit leader, Alkard, but I knew I could make it work.
And it did, spectacularly.
I felt pretty damn pleased with myself just then.
“Garv!” I shouted to one of the floor monitors while signaling at the hulking Dargun. “Get this gentleman whatever he wants to drink, on the house.”
“Right away, boss!” Garv scurried off to carry out my orders, then paused to flash me a grin on his return. “Busy night tonight.”
“Busier than usual, I’d say,” I agreed, watching the teeming crowds below.
“All thanks to you, Boss,” Garv smarmed with a sycophantic smile. “I mean, I know you’re a high-ranking Vinduthi and all, but it’s your hard work and loyalty that turned this place into a goldmine.”
I just chuckled at his ass-kissing as he scurried away. Sure, I was the owner, but that didn’t mean I had to waste time making small talk with the punters.
That’s what I had a team for. Every member of my unit had a task, and small talk usually fell to Thelev. He was the living embodiment of top-notch customer service, the one who whipped my staff into shape.
Thelev understood the bottom line: rake in as many credits as possible from these suckers. That influx of credits fueled the Vinduthi syndicate, expanding our operations throughout Thodos III. Not all our business ventures were strictly above board, but running legit joints like this let us launder the shadier profits from our more unsavory activities.
With profits on my mind, I pressed on toward the ballroom, the main space we’d reserved for the upcoming gala event. It was closed off for now, the staff hard at work transforming it for the big night. The doors wouldn’t reopen until the Black Star’s most extravagant event yet, in just four days.
My newest brainchild would be the greatest spectacle ever seen on Thodos III, drawing eyes from across the station to the Black Star Gala. For the general public, it was to be a lavish extravaganza for both commoners and elites alike. For me and the Vinduthi, however, the occasion held deeper meaning.
We would be honoring our fallen brothers, those who sacrificed their lives for our people at the fateful Battle of Bauxwell so many years ago. Though the war was lost, we would never forget.
I entered the ballroom and the staff straightening up the decorations stiffened at my arrival, eyes lowered deferentially until I passed.
“Everything going smoothly, Ita?” I asked a tall Bedrosian floor monitor.
“Well, boss, seems like things shape up whenever you come around, so maybe swing through more often?” He chuckled. “Other than that, all’s well.”
My gaze swept critically across the cavernous space, far larger than the adjoining casino and restaurant wings packed with revelers at this early hour. The ballroom often hosted parties and celebrations, but for the gala, every single detail must be flawless.
We were days away, but I learned long ago to be prepared early.
So far, so good, I mused, inspecting the holographic spheres being tested and mounted. The sweeping walls and soaring pillars gleamed spotless, the decor elegantly minimalist. However, as I approached the team unloading huge stacks of flower arrangements, I froze in disgust at the sight.
“What the hell is this crap?” I snapped, beckoning the nearest worker over. He cringed as I brandished a limp bouquet of faded, wilting flowers in his face. All around, his cohorts froze like prey animals and exchanged uneasy glances, relieved that the boss’s wrath singled out someone else today.
“S-Sir, it’s the f-floral arrangements for the g-gala,” the quivering Fanaith stammered. “The ones marked elegant.”
“You call this elegant? Look at these flowers! Limp, discolored, half rotting away!” I snarled. “The gala must be immaculate in every detail. When would any of you have thought to inform me of this trash?”
“It was the cheapest bulk order available, sir!” he bleated.
“I don’t give a damn about the cost. This is unacceptable, you idiot. We need replacement flowers, pronto.”
“Uh, sir, they’re just flowers,” someone dared to pipe up from the back. “Guests will be too drunk to notice these anyway.”
I hurled the putrid bouquet down in fury and stalked toward the mouthy worker as the others scrambled out of my path. Grabbing his scrawny neck, I throttled him off his feet.
“Maybe they’ll be too drunk to notice you hanging dead from the rafters!” I spat.
“I’m s-sorry!” he choked out.
I dropped him wheezing to the floor and raked a hand down my face, mind racing to solve this dilemma with the gala fast approaching. Any replacements likely wouldn’t arrive in time now.
Just then, Thelev clasped my shoulder reassuringly as he entered the ballroom, defusing my anger.
“Trouble, my friend?”
“Look at these flowers. It’s trash. All the elite of Thodos III will see this embarrassment.” I sighed heavily. “Even Alkard will see it.”
Thelev picked up a bouquet, grimacing at the wilted flowers before his face lit up. “I know just the place. Speaking of Alkard, he has some, shall we say, interests in a particular florist shop.”
I looked at him sharply, a glimmer of hope rising. “Go on.”
“Yes, it’s run as a front business by one of Alkard’s, ahh, workers.” He lowered his voice meaningfully and I read between the lines. Alkard used the shop as a front to launder money, hiring an indentured human to pretend to run a legal floral business.
“But despite being small time, she seems quite talented with exotic flowers,” Thelev continued brightly. “I’ve seen some rare beauties there that I guarantee no one on Thodos III has seen before.”
The notion of working directly with a human intrigued me. Alkard didn’t keep workers bonded without good reason. This florist apparently had some legitimate skill if Thelev praised her flowers so highly. And access to rare, off-world blossoms to boot.
“Anything would be better than this crap,” I said. “I’ll head out first thing and check out this shop for myself.”
“Go soon, she doesn’t keep much stock on hand,” Thelev said meaningfully. What he meant was that she didn’t actually do much business, so I’d need to give her advance notice to prepare for a large order. Ironic for a Vinduthi syndicate member to actually approach her with legitimate business for once instead of just pretending.
“I’m sure she can whip something up,” I said breezily, unconcerned. “Alkard must have resources for his little side business. Just get rid of this trash heap for me.”
“Will do, boss.”
I exited the ballroom, stepping out into the chaotic crowds swirling through the metro station corridors. Bobbing and weaving around the oblivious masses, I hurried toward the florist shop, irritation rising at the thought of having to scramble to fix this flower fiasco so close to the gala date. One deep breath reminded me there was still time. Just barely, if I moved fast.
I pulled up a map on my percomm, quickly identifying the likely florist based on location in Vinduthi territory. The short walk there flew by as I strode purposefully through the corridors, residents scrambling from my path.
Around the station, the Vinduthi syndicate members like myself are referred to as the Grim Fangs, sometimes as space vampires. Neither nickname is one we sought out, yet neither we discouraged. If it parts the crowd for us, I’m not complaining.
Today, I was especially appreciative as people made way, sensing my foul mood. Wouldn’t want to bump into me on a day like today, no sir.
I rounded the final corner onto the row of shops, spotting the simple storefront sign for “Elara’s Blossoms” up ahead, marked only by a painted flower bouquet logo.
“That must be it,” I muttered, slowing as I passed the front window display. The vibrant bouquets and packaged flowers on exhibit inside made me stop short, stunned by their dazzling colors and pristine condition.
The stems stood tall and verdant, the water in each vase clearer than an empty night sky. Petals shaded light and deep hues contrasted elegantly against one another. I could’ve plucked a single stem from those bouquets and it would put that entire dismal pile of flowers back in the casino to shame.
“At least she’s competent,” I mused appreciatively before pushing through the doors.
A rush of sweet, tangy floral aromas enveloped me as I entered. The spectacular bouquets aligned throughout the modest shop would convince anyone that this was the right place to procure flowers for the gala.
But it wasn’t the blossoms that stunned me most. No, that honor belonged to the ravishing shopkeeper standing behind the counter, staring at me now with luminous sapphire eyes that drowned me in their depths like the lost seas of Old Earth. Fiery coils of red hair tumbled freely over her shoulders, illuminated by the soft overhead lights. The light smattering of freckles across her fair cheeks only accentuated the elegant lines of her face.
Had I seen her before?
The memory struck me. The woman in the crowd. I spotted her over a week ago, and she’d haunted my dreams ever since.
While her exceptional beauty dazzled me, I snapped back to the task at hand. Personal interests would have to wait until business was concluded. I straightened up and approached the counter with a polite nod. “Good day, miss. I believe you’re the one who can help me with a rather urgent issue…”