Chris let his gaze sweep across the city of Etti IV upon leaving the Rogue in the spaceport behind them. Unlike Cordoba, Etti IV was not a community put together in any random arrangement. The men who had been responsible for its construction, wanted a city that would represent splendor that could be comparative to the contemporary designs of Coruscant as well as an oasis in the wilderness of Star's End. It had succeeded in a small way, Chris decided as he saw a skyline serrated with the tops of spires, office buildings and lavishly designed skyscrapers. Hover cars whisked about the tree lined streets and people went about their business, like they did anywhere in the core worlds, oblivious to all except those who might make them profit, which was the main reason for being in Star's End.
Beyond the boundaries of the Etti IV, was nothing but bland landscape travelling as far as the eye could see. Doily looking ornithoids glided across the watery blue sky, pausing long enough in the sand to be devoured by the sand feeders, ravenous creatures who hid beneath the sand with their jaws agape, until some foolish victim chose to cross what it though to be just another odd shape stone formation. It was a place that would not support human life and not his first choice for the establishment of vast city. Unfortunately, according to Rogue's directories, this world sat in the heart of Star's End and provided a central convergence point for all ventures that transpired in this place.
"We should get off the street," Chris heard Vin Tanner remark after a few seconds in the open. Vin had reacted just as they all had to the presence of the trio of Espos, Secret Police, walking past. Espos, no doubt abbreviated from some ostentatious official title, had the same powers in the Corporate Sector as Imperial Stormtroopers and it was a wise idea to not call their attention.
"Where to Ezra?" Nathan asked. "You're the expert."
"As much as I may detest it, I think we shall visit my mother," Ezra said reluctantly.
"Your mother lives here?" JD asked with no particular intent behind his question, other than curiosity. The youth was still new enough to space travel to be fascinated by every port they made since joining the Rebel Alliance. His eyes were studying everything and the others had become accustomed to his wide eye observation.
"Yes," Ezra answered. "After her contract was done with the Hutts, she took her sizeable recompense and come here to become an entrepreneur, if I recollect her words correctly."
"I don't know why you get so embarrassed about her Ezra," Nathan said disapprovingly. "I know she's a little bit of a con artist, for that matter so are you but Maude don't hurt no one who never asked for it."
"I'm sure your judgement would be so stellar if she were your mother." Ezra gave his oldest friend a look.
"So where is she?" Chris spoke up with a tone in his voice that indicated that this idle chatter was not bringing them any closer to Mary.
Ezra could sense the tension in the Jedi, like the rest of his companions and decided that it was probably prudent if they made a hastier progress than they were presently accomplishing. "Fortunately," Ezra looked at Chris. "She is not too far away from our present location so we will not be needing the services of a hover car."
"So what does your mother do for a living?" Buck inquired as they crossed the street into something of a boulevard flanked by trendy shops, sporting everything from clothing to exotic pets.
"She owns a bistro called Standish Room Only," Ezra announced as Buck's eyes followed two leggy human females walking past them on the sidewalk.
"Wait a minute," Vin spoke immediately. "I know that place. I had to get my payoff on a job there once, its not a bistro, its a entertainment club."
"An entertainment club?" JD asked, once again showing his inexperience.
"Yeah," Buck grinned. "That means we're talking about gaming lounges, dance floors with rich, idle women, some places have stage shows for the customers and did I say women? Lots of women." He put an arm JD's shoulder an offered the younger man a little smile. "Maybe while Ezra and the others are conducting their business, we might see to putting some whiskers on that baby chin of yours."
"Settle down big fella." Chris gave his friend a look because just the thought had made JD shudder with fear. "We're here to find Mary," he reminded Buck.
"Sorry," Buck made a quick apology and shrugged his shoulders in JD's direction. "Next time kid."
"Fine by me," JD returned in irritation. "And I do have whiskers on my chin."
"No you have peach fuzz," the older man teased.
"As much as I hate to interrupt this intellectually stimulating conversation," Ezra broke into the two's conversation. "I believe we are here."
The Standish Room Only Bistro was definitely not a bistro. Even though it was barely evening, a steady stream of customers were departing and entering the establishment. It was certainly no dive as it was evident from its external view that this was a place of opulence. Glass facades gleamed from the departing sunlight and as they approached the automatic doors, a gust of cool air-conditioned air greeted them from the interior. The gentle bass thumping of music could be heard through the glass walls, not to mention the cacophony of voices in utter revelry.
"I am impressed," Nathan declared, unable to remember when was the last time he had been in such a place and then remembered that it was probably the last time he had been an Imperial officers. The life of a rebel did not allow the opportunity for such luxuries. "Maude always knew how to do things with class."
"Yes she does," Ezra begrudgingly admitted as they entered the place and was greeted by a statuesque, auburn pelted Wookie bouncer who kept watch on the patrons and ensured that no one got rowdy lest they wanted to be the focus of its attention. "If you gentleman will find yourselves a table, I will go find my dear mother in all this."
"No problem," Buck retorted as Ezra drew away, his eyes already focussing on a table occupied with a bevy of beautiful women clad in chryosilk and other luminescent material, giving him come hither looks.
"Someone hold onto Buck," Vin joked.
"Very funny." Buck gave the apprentice Jedi a short glare. "Ezra said to mingle."
"He said to grab a table and wait," Nathan retorted and grabbed Buck gently by the arm and towed him away from his drift towards the ladies.
"Hey look, they got Starfight games!" JD exclaimed as he glanced in the direction of the gaming room and found that aside from the countless sabbaac tables were also one on one games like Mind Jam, Reflex Races and Senso Switch."
"I got him," Josiah remarked tugging JD by the collar before the young man gave in to his impulses.
"But...but...but..." JD started to say as Josiah guided him to an empty table.
No sooner than they sat down, a curvaceous native of Ulan 2 came up to their table in order to get their order for drinks. She trailed a soft plume of dark auburn feathers behind her as she sauntered to them, her skin hidden by the luxuriously delicate covering of white feathers that tapered into her bird like face with wide, indigo colored eyes. A small metallic object hidden away in the folds of white allowed her to speak and be understood. She was one of many non-human types in the establishment. There was so many that the six men, except for maybe Josiah had trouble identifying from which planet some of these eclectic sentients originated. Respirators, odd shaped drinking utensils were provided for those who required more than the conventional cutlery and atmosphere could provide. Strobe lights flashed in their direction from the nearby dance floor where a bubble of low gravity had been activated so dancers would appear graceful and light on their feat when they moved.
"This is my next vacation spot," Buck said firmly.
"We don't get vacations in the Rebel Alliance," Nathan reminded with a smile. "Remember you're a patriot."
"In your dreams," Buck retorted as he went back to entertaining himself with the establishment's fine selection of female patrons, performers and employees.
"Ezra's mother must be doing quite well," Josiah remarked, taking another look at the place. "Its not even evening."
"Well Maude was always a shrewd business woman," Nathan remarked as the same Ulanite waitress returned and served them their drinks. She always knew how to make gold from nothing."
"Hey there's Ezra," JD pointed out and the group cast their gaze in the direction of the Imperial officer approaching their table with a very handsome woman of vintage at his arm. Although the resemblance between the two undoubtedly gave away their relationship, she certainly did not look like anyone's mother. A tasteful shimmersilk dress clung to her body, showing quite firmly that keeping her figure was not a problem and her golden hair with little signs of gray, was mounted on top of her head in a stylish twist. It made all that viewed her wonder how spectacular she must have looked in her younger years.
"That's his mother?" Buck exclaimed with obvious approval.
"It appears so," Chris muttered, having to admit that Maude Standish did keep her age well but he could not be as appreciative as the others because his thoughts were too centered on Mary to be so easily distracted by the obvious charms of the Standish Room Only establishment.
"Nathan!" Maude gushed seeing him. Nathan stood up and was immediately on the receiving end of a warm hug. She paused a moment from her happy greeting to give him a more serious look. "How have you been?"
Nathan knew that she was referring to how he was getting on since Ana's death for Maude had been there for their wedding, with Ezra as best man. "I'm surviving."
"I see," Maude nodded.
"Mother, may I introduce you to my friends," Ezra started running off the names of his companion when Josiah Sanchez stood up and make his own introduction.
"It's been a long time Maude," Josiah said with a smile.
"As I live and breathe, Josiah Sanchez! What are you doing in these neck of the woods, Senator?" she asked as Josiah took her hand and kissed it gently on the knuckles.
"Mother?" Ezra asked suspiciously as he saw the long, wistful gazes being passed between the two old 'acquaintances'. "Have you two met?"
"I'd say that's a distinct possibility," Nathan remarked, just as surprised by the reaction.
"Oh darling," Maude looked up at Ezra, Josiah still holding his hand much to the Imperial officers chagrin. "Josiah and I go way back. Before your father in fact."
"Just how much did you con me out of?" Josiah gave her a warm look.
"I believe I won those fifty credits from you Senator, fair and square," she returned his gaze with mischievous wink before Josiah pulled up her chair for them to join them.
"This galaxy is becoming all too small for my liking," Ezra grumbled as he sat down, not at all liking the way Maude was looking at Josiah. In the years past, there had always been suitors, a woman as beautiful as Maude could not expect less but she always viewed those suitors as conquests to be made, not paramours worthy of her. The way she looked at Josiah was different and the commander of the Cordoba base did not know whether or not he ought to be happy about this reunion.
"Ma'am, this is a mighty fine place you have here." Buck found that he had to comment on this before they discuss any further.
"Why thank you Buck," she smiled and then her eyes met Chris. "I did not think there were many of you left." She did not need to say Jedi but Chris could tell clearly that was what she meant without having to use the Force to read her thoughts.
"There are a few of us," Chris said politely, no wish to discuss that subject on any level.
"So Ezra," Maude turned her attention to her son. "I did as you asked, I sent your base on Cordoba that message. You care to tell me what it is you're involved in?"
"It is probably best that you don't know Maude," Josiah interjected smoothly.
"Oh Ezra," Maude shook her head in disapproval. "You could have been the best around, for you to be wasting your god given talents on the military and now god only knows what, it just breaks my heart."
"Mother..." Ezra had no wish to get into this with her right now. He knew that she was disappointed that he had not followed her into the business but the point of his enrollment into the Academy was for that very reason.
"Maude we need your help," Josiah responded rescuing Ezra from any further discussion on his career choices. "We need to find out how to get to Black Sun."
Maude's eyes widened in shock. "Are you insane, all of you?" she asked in a low voice and then turned to Ezra. "Darling, you are not involved in this hazardous escapade are you?"
"Brace yourself," he gave her fair warning.
"Oh Ezra," she grumbled again, disappointment clearly showing in her features.
"Do you know how to find them?" Chris asked in cool, soothing voice that seemed to end any further argument Maude had and the woman nodded slowly, as if hypnotized by his voice. Chris hated using his powers on her that way but he had no choice. His patience had run out.
"Yes," she said almost dreamily. "There's a man named......"
"Kelso." Alex forced the well-known snitch back into his booth in the dark corner of the bar she and Mary had entered a few seconds ago.
This place was not at all luxurious but came with dark corners and odd smells that reeked of booze, inadequate respirators for non-oxygen breathing life forms and a host of narcotics that were sold under the table. The dim lighting kept its clientele partially obscured but not from someone like Alex who dealt in shadows and knew where to look. Kelso's reputation among the underworld was well known. He was a bunko artist who was more proficient in information gathering than the art of the con. The weasly little man was having a meal when Alex and Mary happened upon him. Upon seeing the two-armed women approaching him, Kelso had tried to make a run for it but could not get past Alex.
"What do you want?" the man asked nervously as Alex slid into the booth with him on one side while Mary took the other flanking position. His protests did not become so vocal when Alex jammed her gun into his stomach under the table. Around them, the other patrons of the bar who were engaged in activities almost as illegal if not more than simple coercion, ignored the trio of humans.
"Information," Alex said simply.
"I don't know nothing," the man retorted quickly.
"Now that's not what we hear Kelso," Mary remarked smoothly. "They say that if there's news to be had in this town, you're our man."
"They're wrong," Kelso answered starting to twitch. "I'm just an honest businessman."
"Whose got more scams running that usually end up fizzling then any other 'honest businessmen' in the quadrant," Alex hissed. "Now, you're needing a sure thing about now Kelso, so I'm going to give you a hand."
"A hand?" He looked at her in puzzlement.
"Yeah," the operative narrowed her eyes and stared at him with a menacing look. "If you don't tell us what we need to know, I'm going to kill your right here and now because you're not use to me alive if you can't give me information. Is that a sure enough thing for you?" she punctuated her threat by tightening her finger around the trigger of her gun.
"I guess so," the man said reluctantly, having little choice to concede to the argument considering that his refusal would most likely see his innards spread out across the booth. "What do you want to know?" he asked, licking his lips.
As soon as he heard the word pass her lips, Kelso stood up abruptly in fear. "No way," he declared with an unprecedented surge of bravery. "I ain't crossing swords with Chase, I ain't getting fed to no kryat dragon."
"Sit down," Alex ordered once more, pulling him down and quashing any ideas he might have that he was walking out of here without giving them any information. "You won't be crossing swords with Chase. All we want to know is where to find her. We hear she hires female talent. We want to take her our resumes personally."
Kelso found himself in an untenable situation. If he did not give these two women what they wanted, he was sure that they would kill him right this minute. Of course, if news leaked back to Black Sun that he had talked, he would also be just as dead. No matter how he looked at it, he was in a no-win situation. Finally, he opted for the extension his life from this point on. "Okay, okay," he grumbled and took a big gulp of his drink. "You won't tell her where you got your info?" he asked hopefully.
"No," Mary answered before Alex could. "If you give us what we want, you're involvement is over. We won't tell her anything. We just want to meet her personally."
It was not much of a guarantee but at this point, he had little choice in the matter. "I don't know nothing fore sure except that Chase likes to move around a lot."
That much was consistent with what Alex knew personally about the woman. Laurel Chase had made a lot of enemies in her time and it did not surprise Alex that she would opt for a secret base of operations. "Go on," she instructed.
Kelso twitched anxiously before he started speak. "All I know is that her last boyfriend was a Baron or something on Orron 3. When she had him snuffed out, she took over the place and moved Black Sun in there."
"Orron 3," Alex frowned, recognizing the name.
"You know it?" Mary asked.
"Yeah," Alex nodded. "It's no more than a day's journey from here," she answered. However, she was not happy that Orron 3 was also notable as the last star system before passing the galactic rim into the void that existed between their galaxy and its nearest neighbor.
"You better be right about this." She turned to Kelso and poked the barrel of her gun deeper into his side. "If you're sending us on some wild snipe hunt, I guarantee you'll regret it when we get back."
"I'm telling you the truth!" he insisted. "That's all I know!"
"Okay Kelso," Mary met Alex's gaze and indicated that it was time to go. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you," she said sliding out of the booth. Alex lingered long enough for Mary to have her hand poised over her own gun, in case Kelso decided to do anything stupid, before withdrawing her own weapon and moving away from the snitch.
The two women strode out of the bar, garnering appreciative glances as they sauntered towards the door. Neither of them spoke until they were well and truly beyond the dank surroundings of the establishment and back into the setting warmth of Etti IV's daylight.
"You think he was telling the truth?" Mary asked as they made their way back to the spaceport where the Tracker was berthed in a restricted bay paid handsomely by Alex to maintain their anonymity and where Casey Wells was still seething from being confined to the ship while they took care of business.
"He was too terrified to lie," Alex said coolly.
"Tell me," Mary found herself asking. "Would you have shot him if he didn't tell us?"
Alex looked at her with a little smile and replied. "Hell no, but he would have a good scar to remember us by."
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