"Missing–One Black Cat"

Solomon left the train station and stood on the dusty sidewalk, gathering his thoughts. Liverpool, England. About as far away from Ray Balzac Courland's normal, glamourous environment as he'd ever thought to look for him. Yet, his mischievous black cat was not here by choice, if rumors were true. Ray's friends feared that something had gone terribly wrong in his last escapade as Noir and he'd gone to ground. The elusive master jewel thief's entourage of misfits, lost without the sheltering wing of their guardian dark angel, had tried searching for him themselves for a week. When their efforts proved fruitless, however, it only took several minutes of heated debate before they'd decided to call upon an odd ally, Noir's supposed enemy. Without ever conceding Sugar was looking for "Noir" as much as Ray Courland, they begged him to find him first, and protect him from a bigger threat–Azura.

Solomon's narrow lips twisted into a wry smile as he reflected on the motives that had caused him to book a seat on the first ship to England and then a train to the Liverpool section of London. Ray had most of them fooled. They saw only the cool, capable man, the flippant hero who always arrived in time to save the day. The dapper, handsome man with his fine suits and his slim cigar in its expense holder, always so impeccably turned out no matter the time of day or the occasion. Courland was always comfortable, whether mingling with the titled guests at the opera or with the power brokers at an Ambassador's dinner. One would think he was the son of a nobleman, trained from the cradle for exactly that type of life, he took to it so naturally.

Oh, Solomon saw all that, but he saw more as well. Observing people and looking for their weaknesses, well, it was a occupational habit. In the case of Ray Balzac Courland, it was difficult to say whether some of the man's hidden characteristics were weaknesses or in fact his greatest strengths, the very qualities that had saved him from becoming another Romwell, Jr.

Solomon Sugar, private detective, shook himself out of his contemplative mood, and started to walk briskly. Stand too long like that by a train station and he was just looking to attract the attention of a pickpocket. Or worse. Time to find a hotel, get something to eat and then begin his search for the missing Noir. Except...

Just then, as he passed an alleyway, he felt the slightest brush of cloth against his shoulder and hip. Moving faster than would seem possible for such a scholarly looking man, he whirled, catching the dark clad figure that was creeping back into the alley. His large hand closed around a slender wrist, and he felt a tingle at the contact.

Wild green eyes looked up at him from a tanned, too thin face.

"Ray?" He whispered, shocked. The other man, hardly more than a boy really, pulled frantically in his bid for freedom but Solomon held firm, tightening his hold on the thin wrist. He thought regretfully of the pain he must be causing as the other man continued to twist and pull in vain. Solomon dropped his valise and reached out to clasp Ray's far shoulder, again, noting with dismay how thin it was, shocked to feel bones protruding where there were smooth muscles mere weeks earlier. Had the young man eaten nothing since he disappeared?

"Hold on, stop fighting, Ray, it's me, Sugar...Solomon Sugar...no need to carry on like this." He spoke softly, soothingly, as if to a frightened child, or spooked animal.

Solomon could see no light of recognition in Ray's eyes, just panic at being caught. What was just as perplexing was the way Ray was struggling–he showed none of the finesse in fighting that Ray normally had–thank God, or Solomon never would be able to restrain him. Still, it was a cause for concern to see him so...so not himself. It clearly was Ray, the eyes, the face, the form, yes, even despite the startling loss of weight, it was still obviously his lithe body. Yet it was as though some stranger lived inside Ray's mind.

"Let me go, m'sieur, let me go!" The voice was Ray's, but Solomon noted that it sounded much more heavily accented than his friend normally spoke English. Ray prided himself, as well he should, in being able to speak English flawlessly, the same way he spoke German, Russian, Spanish, and several other languages, along with his native tongues of French, Arabic and Berber. This was yet another odd piece to the puzzle. To Solomon's knowledge, an amnesiac might lose memories, but if he has access to knowledge of a language, wouldn't he be able to speak it in his accustomed fashion?

"Ray, let me help you. Come, let us find a room..."

To Solomon's shock, a resigned look came into Ray's eyes at that suggestion and he stopped struggling. The younger man slumped against the detective, who remained alert for a trick of some sort, something that Noir might try to throw him off balance. He really wasn't expecting, however, what came next.

"How much will you pay then, m'sieur? It is extra if you want me to go to your rooms with you. Less if we just take care of your 'needs' right here, and you pay me and let me go. And my name is Noir."

As though it were of no moment, Noir loosened his ragged clothing enough to give Solomon Sugar a glimpse of curved flanks, slightly paler than his normal skin tone, but still a lovely light golden color. Such a contrast to his pale skin, Solomon thought, distractedly. The ragged pants fell to the ground and only the tattered shirt covered the lovely line of ass and back as Noir leaned against the wall.

"Well, m'sieur, it is getting cold, do we have a deal?" The green eyes looked at him challengingly now.

Taking a deep breath, Solomon decided this would have to be cleared up in the warmth of a hotel room. And a telegram sent to Florian at once.

"We have a deal. I'll pay you triple your normal rates to come to my room with me. Now pull up your pants and come along...no tricks, mind you."

Grabbing Ray's thin arm firmly as soon as he's pulled up his poor excuse for pants, Solomon hurried him along to the nearest hotel.

Focused on Ray, Solomon Sugar didn't notice the swarthy complexioned man standing across from the alley who looked at his pocketwatch when they came out and made notes in a small booklet as they headed down the street. If Sugar had not been so worried about Ray's strange behavior he undoubtedly would have noticed that the man then followed them at a discreet distance and took up a position in the lobby of the hotel they entered.

But, Solomon Sugar was very worried.