Here's a sneak peek of my upcoming short story set in the Ziva Payvan universe, starring Nexus's Kat Reilly.

The interior of the restaurant was darker than he'd expected. Upon further consideration however, he wasn't sure what he'd expected, if not this. He could have guessed that entering a dark alley and descending a set of dark stairs into a dark tunnel would have led him to a similarly dark space.

He paused in the restaurant's entryway and swept his gaze over the cramped space, unable to fathom how anyone could stand to eat here. It occurred to him that this trip had taken him far outside the borders of Chaiavis's prestigious Government District. Here in the Endion Entertainment District, the lower-class citizens had lower standards to match. He coughed against the musty scent of some unfamiliar smoke and reminded himself that he'd come all this way for his own protection. The thought brought him minimal comfort.

The restaurant's layout was circular, just like the only-slightly-more-reputable club above it. It was late in the day for lunch but too early for dinner, and thus only a handful of customers occupied the space. Some of them looked his way when he entered; despite the fact that he'd dressed down per his contact's suggestion, he still felt conspicuous standing there in his polished boots and unsoiled jacket. He forced his shoulders to sag a bit in an attempt to mimic the posture of those around him. 

Maintaining a low profile was not his area of expertise. It was his job to stand out and be in plain sight. But at the moment, his career, his family, maybe even his life...they all depended on his ability to stay out of the spotlight. That's why I'm here, he reminded himself with a sigh. 

He forced his feet forward, hoping he hadn't been standing there as long as he felt like he had. The bartender, an older woman with tired eyes and a mop of ragged gray hair, glanced his way and jerked her head toward one of the booths on the far side of the room. He hesitated, but she shifted her full attention down to the damp cloth she was wiping back and forth over the counter.

A figure occupied the booth she seemed to have indicated, so he cautiously resumed his circuit around the room, ready to reach for his concealed pistol at a moment's notice. He'd been expecting to find some sort of world-weary mercenary -- probably greasy, probably armed to the teeth -- waiting for him, so the sight of the stunning young woman sitting there came as a bit of a surprise.

"I was beginning to think you weren't going to show," she said, nodding toward the vacant seat across from her.

He took one last look around and then, against his better judgement, slid into the seat without bothering to size her up any further. Anything was better than remaining out in the open any longer.

"Trust me, the harder you try to blend in around here, the worse you're going to fail. Relax."

"So I've noticed," he muttered, slouching down far enough that the back of the seat hid his face from any onlookers. The fact that his back was to the door made him squirm, but based on the way the woman glanced periodically between him and the entrance, she'd be well aware if trouble arrived.

The slight accent he'd detected in her voice prompted him to take a closer look at her. She didn't look it at first glance, but her voice was unmistakably Haphezian. Her skin was ghostly pale, and in the dim light it was difficult to tell whether her hair was extremely light blonde or actually white. She wore it bundled back in a thick ponytail, and he thought he caught a hint of silver when she moved her head. Silver. His attention shifted to her eyes, an intense icy blue. He bristled as the realization hit him: she was one of them.

The woman sighed and drummed her fingers on the table. "It never gets any easier."

"What?"

"Oh, you know, facing the shock people always seem to show when they realize I'm a Defective."

Was he being that transparent? "If I'd known Briggs was going to set me up with you, I wouldn't have agreed to this."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Charming. If you want to find someone else who can do this job in time and keep your predicament under wraps, be my guest." She zipped her flight suit and picked up a helmet from the seat beside her, prepared to leave.

"Wait," he said, not prepared to grovel to the likes of her but too desperate to let her just walk away. "I need you to do this."

"Better." She set the helmet back down and considered him for a moment. Despite the intensity of her gaze, there was a kindness in her eyes that -- if only for a moment -- made him feel sorry for being rude. She produced a small data pad from her pocket. "Let's start with the basics. Kellen Stice, age thirty-five. Hailing from Haphor, you've been transferred between offices a total of seven times throughout your twelve-year career with the Haphezian Special Police." She tilted her head. "Must be your sunny disposition, right?"

Kellen ground his teeth. "Where are you getting all of this information?"

"Relax. It's my job to know everything I can about you. You don't get to know much about me -- it's for your own protection."

His gaze shifted between her eyes and hair again. "I know all I need to know about you."

"You know nothing about me." She didn't raise her voice, but the words were said with enough force to make him regret his jab.

She stared him down for several more seconds before taking another look at the data pad. "You were transferred to the Haphezian embassy here on Chaiavis as a disciplinary measure." Her arched eyebrows and pursed lips gave him the impression she was restraining herself from making another snide comment.

"Been on the embassy's security detail for the past six months," Kellen said.

The woman set the data pad down. "And I've lived here for twenty-five years. Been on the streets for seven. This is my turf, and you'll follow my lead. Got it?"

He managed a half-hearted nod.

"Now, tell me exactly what happened."

"You don't already know?"

"I want to hear it from the source."

It had been hard enough to admit his situation to Briggs; reliving his mistake -- for the benefit of this defekt, of all people -- was the last thing he wanted to do.

"I was on duty two days ago. I stepped away from my post and moved into an alley to investigate a suspicious person. While there, I was ambushed by a group of thugs. They rendered me unconscious and stole my service weapon."

"Okay." The woman steepled her hands in front of her mouth and nodded gently before glancing back down at the data pad. "Tell me what you were really doing in the alley."

Kellen went rigid. The look in her eyes told him trying to lie again would be futile. "If I had to guess, I'd say you already know."

"I want you to admit your situation."

All the frustration and anger he felt toward her transformed into a lump of shame that settled in his stomach. He curled his hands into fists and brought them to rest on the surface of the table. "I was in that alley because I was supposed to meet someone. I owe the Nordal Cartel a little money. They came to collect, I didn't have the payment, and they decided to teach me a lesson."

"How much do you owe?"

He scoffed. "Three hundred credits. I told you it wasn't that much. They'd paid me to hold on to a small drug shipment, but I lost it. They revoked my pay and demanded I compensate them for the loss. I was getting close -- those three hundred credits were all I had left to pay."

"You weren't fast enough," the woman said matter-of-factly. It was a statement, not a question.

"I guess not. They took my gun as collateral, wished me luck finding it, then knocked me out. My parter found me about half an hour later."

She almost looked as though she might laugh. "And neither of you reported the incident?"

He shook his head, realizing how ridiculous the whole story sounded. "Briggs knew I'd been caught up in cartel dealings. He even loaned me some credits in hopes that I could pay my debt more quickly." He sighed and raked his hand back over his head. "Look. I'm scheduled for a promotion. It feels like the first time I've had anything good going for me in years. I was going to use my bonus to pay off the cartel and rid myself of them for good."

"And when the embassy finds out about the missing gun, you can kiss that promotion -- and your career, for that matter -- goodbye."

Kellen sighed, glad he didn't have to hear himself saying the words. "Exactly. You have to get it back."

The woman hummed to herself and leaned forward, cold focus in her icy blue eyes. "Here's the thing. Your partner Briggs sounds like a decent guy, working hard to pull you out of the fire. He reached out to my contact, my contact reached out to me, I heard your story, and I agreed to meet with you. But I'm siting here listening to you and I just...." She shook her head and scoffed. "I want you to give me one good reason why I should help you."

"Look," Kellen said, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "I know this is a mess, and I know I've screwed up. But I'm desperate here. I'm willing to pay you whatever you want." With what money?

"If you think I care about your money, you're wr--" 

"You want a reason?" he snapped, pulling out the tiny viewscreen he always carried. He pushed it toward her. "I can give you three."

She lowered her gaze to the screen and took a moment to study the image of the three small children.

"I've ruined my family's lives. My kids have been uprooted and moved around for as long as they've been alive. My wife is on the verge of leaving me. If I lose my job, it's going to destroy everything, and I can't put them through all of that again. Please...if not for me, do this for them."

The woman's features had softened upon seeing the image, and he'd taken that and run with it. Seeing the image had even made him re-think his initial disgust at her defekt appearance. Briggs hadn't mentioned she was a Defective from the very embassy they worked for, but he had said she was one of the best fixers on Chaiavis. She used her skills only to help people, and the galaxy only knew how badly he needed someone like that right now.

She slid the viewscreen back toward him, her lips pressed into a straight line. "That's exactly what I'm going to do. You just stay out of my way and continue to make sure they don't find out. I'll get that gun back before your promotion ceremony."

"That's two days from now."

"I said I'd get it done. Did you bring the descriptions I asked for?"

Kellen nodded and produced a data pad of his own, waving several files over to the device the woman carried. The cartel thugs who had attacked him had been fairly nondescript, but he'd done his best to compile some information for her to act on. "You really expect to be able to find these guys in time?"

She confirmed the data transfer and met his gaze. "Like I said, I've been on these streets a long time. For now, you just worry about how you're going to pay both me and the cartel."

Kellen sighed and shut his eyes; she was right, but at the moment he was just pleased she was still willing to go through with her end of the deal despite knowing what a struggle it would be for him to go through with his.

When he opened his eyes, she had slid from her seat and was once again gathering up her helmet. He hurried to stand up and forced himself to offer his hand, a gesture he'd never imagined sharing with a Defective. She brushed her long white-blonde ponytail behind her shoulder and returned the handshake with an impressive grip.

"I'll be in touch," she said with a sharp nod. She studied him for another microsecond before turning to leave.

"Wait," Kellen said, stepping forward. "I didn't get your name."

The woman paused after several strides and turned back, watching him in silence as if she were trying to decide whether to actually answer. "Kat Reilly," she replied. Then she was gone.