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Timothy Zahn

Odd Girl Out

The third book in the Quadrail series

For Eric and Kandi

—may your tribe increase.

ONE :

The first thing I noticed when I opened my apartment door was the woman standing there. She was young, late teens or early twenties, her clothing a conservative dark gray, her hair strikingly blonde. She was slender, nearly gaunt in fact, and her face, while pretty enough, was drawn and taut. The glitter of a silver necklace peeked out from her open collar, with a matching twinkle from a ring on her right-hand ring finger.

All that I noticed peripherally, though. My main attention was on the gun she was pointing at me.

'Easy,' I cautioned, my eyes flicking once around the room in case I'd somehow arrived at the wrong apartment door and my key had somehow managed to open it anyway. But it was my furniture, all right: old and mismatched, with a thin layer of dust marking the fact that I hadn't spent a lot of time here in the past year. 'Let's not do anything we'll both regret.'

'Come in,' she ordered. Her voice was cold, a really good match for her face.

Briefly, I considered trying to outrun her reflexes by ducking back outside into the hallway and making a dash for the stairs. But the self-rolling carrybags that had followed me from the elevator were still behind me, and I probably couldn't get out without tripping over them. Besides, even if I could outrun her reflexes, I couldn't outrun a 5mm thudwumper round from her gun.

Possibly my gun, actually. It was hard to tell one gun from another when all you could see was the view down the barrel, but that could very well be the Glock I kept holstered under the tea table she was standing beside.

She was still waiting. I took a couple of steps forward, bringing myself and my obedient luggage fully inside the room. Just to prove I knew the routine, I reached behind me and pushed the door closed. 'Now what?' I asked.

'First tell me who you are,' she said.

'I'm Frank Compton,' I said. 'I live here.'

'Prove it.'

Prove it so that she would put away the gun? Or prove it to confirm that I was the guy she'd come here to shoot? I glanced around the room again, looking for some clue as to what was going on.

It was only then that I noticed that the layer of dust that should have been covering everything was not, in fact, actually there. I took a third, longer, look, this time spotting the fact that the stack of magazines and unanswered mail on the tea table had been subtly shifted since my last brief time at home.

Which suggested that the woman facing me hadn't simply nipped in five minutes ahead of me, hoping I'd show up and play skeet for her. She had, in fact, moved in.

'What, you've been here this long and haven't looked through my photo albums?' I asked, focusing on the woman again.

Her lips compressed briefly. 'No, I have,' she conceded. 'Mr. Compton, I need your help.'

I shook my head. 'I never discuss business when there's a gun pointed at me.'

Slowly, she lowered the weapon. It was my Glock, all right. 'My name's Lorelei Beach,' she said. 'My sister's in trouble.'

'Sorry to hear that,' I said. 'What does that have to do with me?'

'She's trapped on New Tigris,' she said. 'I need your help to get her out.'

'How do you get trapped on New Tigris?' I asked, walking over to the couch and sitting down. My carrybags followed, rolling to a halt by the corner of the tea table.

'I mean she can't get out,' she said with a flash of impatience. 'There are some bad people trying to find her, and they're watching the spaceport.'

And New Tigris had only one spaceport, or at least only one place where torchships were legal to land. 'She owe them money?' I asked.

'Of course not,' Lorelei said, a bit stiffly.

'Then why do they want her?'

'They want to hurt her.'

'So call the cops,' I said. 'How about putting that gun down before someone gets hurt?'

'The police can't help us,' she said, some desperation creeping into her voice. The gun stayed where it was, hanging loosely at her side. 'You're the only one who can.'

'I'm flattered,' I said. 'I also don't believe it.'

'It's the truth,' she insisted. 'Why else would I have waited for you this way?'

'Free rent?' I suggested.

Her cheeks reddened a little. 'It was the only place I felt safe.'

'Especially since most New York hotels don't stock guns for their guests?'

She lifted the Glock as if she'd only just remembered she was holding it. 'They're after me, too,' she said in a low voice.

'I'm sorry to hear that,' I said. 'Feel free to call the cops on your way out.'

'If they catch me out there, they'll kill me,' she said.

'Oh, come on, Ms. Beach,' I growled. 'Really. You think I haven't heard that one before? It's the last card everyone tries when they want to con someone into doing something.'

'I'm not trying to con you into anything,' she insisted.

'Could have fooled me,' I said. 'There's an emergency women's shelter right down the block. Feel free to go there and tell them your troubles. Maybe they'll put you up for the night. Maybe they'll even talk to the cops for you.'

'The shelter can't help me,' she said. 'Neither can the police.'

'You won't know until you try, will you?'

She took a deep breath. 'She should still be in the Zumurrud District of Imani City,' she said. 'She'll wait for you to contact her. Her name's—'

'Ms. Beach, I already told you I'm not interested,' I interrupted, standing up again. 'Furthermore, it's been a long day and I'm very tired.'

'Her name's Rebekah,' she went on, the words coming out in a rush like a countdown sprinter trying to beat the clock. 'She's ten years old, blonde—'

'Ms. Beach, do I need to call the cops?'

Her throat tightened. 'No,' she said, finally moving toward the door. 'Would you at least think about it?'

'Sorry, but I'm otherwise employed at the moment,' I said. 'You wouldn't believe how complicated my life is these days.'

Her lips twitched. 'Actually, I would,' she said. 'Good night, Mr. Compton. If you change your mind—'

'Good night, Ms. Beach,' I said. 'Just leave the gun on the side table by the door.'

She hesitated. Then, turning her back on me, she set the Glock carefully onto the table. She turned back, her eyes searching my face, made as if to say something else, then nodded silently and left.

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