The Stardust Palace
Baker stepped out of the shadow, unseen by the angry patron. His stealth would have been impressive given his size, except the asshole screaming into the speaker was blind drunk.
“That’s enough, Flynn.”
He hadn’t raised his voice, but the wiry man staggered back in belligerent surprise.
“Baker! I ain’t looking for trouble, but you know I already paid. I get a dee-duction taken out every week.”
Baker stood unmoving, arms crossed.
“C’mon man.” Flynn whined, “I just want my time.”
“Rules apply to you same as everybody else. You drink after you get your time, or you don’t get your time.”
“That’s bullshit, man! ‘Nother way for the Company to cheat me!”
“Sober up. Come back next week.”
Flynn turned, blinking into the sunlight, harsh even in the last days of the cycle. He left pissed and bitching, but he left. Nobody messed with Baker.
Baker slouched into the faux bricks, flicked his vintage Bic, relit the cig, and pondered the irony of life on the rock. Humankind had built a colony inside the lunar eco-dome, and the walls still looked like cinderblock. Somewhere on Earth, an engineer was laughing.
“That habit is going to get you in trouble.”
Even through the tin of the speakers, Misha’s voice was cultured and exotic.
Baker shrugged, “CP knows where I am.” Ashes floated as he saluted the nearest Company camera. “They’re welcome to take me any time.”
Her low chuckle sent an involuntary frisson of pleasure down his spine.
“The Company Police? Not likely, my dear. No, I fear you are going to stray too near an oxygen vent and incinerate yourself.”
“I’ll try to avoid that,” he said drily. “What’s the evening look like?”
“The usual fare. Flynn was the only problem on the book.” Misha’s voice was light. “The other issue I mentioned will need handling.”
He took a deep drag and ground the cigarette out a second time. With a nod to the camera, he dropped the butt into his collection near the door and punched in the entry code.
Baker stepped through the looking glass into the Stardust Palace.
“Good evening Mr. Baker.”
He nodded to the hostess on duty and entered the parlor. Red velvet chaise lounges sat atop handmade Persian rugs. The décor, 18th Century bordello, felt more contrived than the cinderblocks. The only nod to reality was the screen on the opposite wall, rotating salacious images of the girls available that evening.
When Sunshine appeared, all wide-eyed innocence, Baker tapped the screen twice. The picture disappeared, and a moment later, Sunshine stepped into the room in a buttery negligee.
Her sultry expression wavered when she met his eyes.
“Baker. Is there a problem?”
“No darlin’,” he drawled, “just feeling lonely.”
Her eyes darted around the room.
“But I thought you and Misha…”
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Long night’s comin’. I need a little Sunshine.”
She didn’t smile at his joke, but she didn’t argue either. His authority trumped her reluctance, so she squared her shoulders and led him through the door, stopping in front of a guest room.
“Uh uh. Your room.”
“I…uh…don’t…I mean we don’t entertain in our private quarters.”
“You don’t entertain clients in your private quarters. Surely, I rate higher than Flynn.”
Baker’s tone was light, and he was still smiling, but Sunshine twitched like a rabbit ready to bolt.
Baker placed a firm hand on her shoulder and led her to her own door.
She offered one last protest. “My room is messy. I could take care of you better in one of the VIP suites.”
The effort was wasted. Baker dropped the pretense.
“Open the door.”
She entered the code with shaking fingers, and Baker pushed her roughly inside.
“Sit down, Sunshine.”
She obeyed, huddled on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor.
“You know why I’m here.”
She nodded miserably, “I’ll leave on the next transport home.”
“Home?” Baker snorted. “You Earth girls never get any smarter. Ivy League, right? Journalism?” He shook his head, angry now. “Editor calls you special. Persuades you to go undercover in the infamous Stardust Palace, and you just have to prove yourself. Congratulations! You make a convincing whore.”
Sunshine aka Sharon Billingsworth reached blindly, haphazardly, gathering her things. Baker grabbed her right arm, twisting it almost to the breaking point. He produced a vintage Swiss Army knife and opened it one-handed. Sharon flailed, screaming, but Baker outweighed her by 150 pounds. No help was coming.
The blade sank into her forearm, peeling back the skin.
“NO!” Her shriek echoed through the living quarters.
He pulled the bloody chip from beneath her skin and released her. She fell onto the bed sobbing.
“Don’t fret. It’s not a tracking chip. It never was. It contains instructions for the wire transfer to your editor.”
He watched horrified understanding cross her face.
“All our girls are educated. Keeps the boys in line. They’ll work a week in hell for an hour on top of a fresh-scrubbed Earth girl. You’ll see.”
Baker wiped the blade on his sleeve. “An option, yes, but if you don’t earn your keep, you’ll have to move into the colony. All-male dormitories. No security. No income. Same end result without the comforts of home.”
He leaned over, brushed a blonde strand behind her ear, and whispered, “Welcome to the Palace, Sunshine.”