"Do you know what time it is?" I said, my voice croaking.
"Early bird catches the worm."
"And people who wake me up before noon catch a bullet."
"Who is it?" Mouse said from across the room, her voice partially muffled by a pillow.
"Does he want to die early?"
"I heard that," said Specs.
"Good," I said. "Call back later."
"Scored a run for you."
"Call back later."
"It'll get Kincaid off your ass."
That caught my attention. "I'm listening."
"Guy wants protection," said Specs.
"That's gonna get Kincaid off our ass?"
"He wants the best of the best."
"Still doesn't answer my question."
"He's willing to drop five hundred grand."
I sat up in bed. "Say again?"
"Five hundred grand. Want me to draw pictures, too?"
"Meet's at 1100. No Smith. You're meeting the client directly. 'S what he wants. Name's Collins."
"Veronica's. At the Ascot Arms."
I winced and likely made a noise because Specs said: "Yeah. That Ascot Arms."
Two weeks earlier, Mouse and I had a run-in with some corp hitters that resulted in a corner penthouse and part of the floor below going up in smoke.
"Try not to blow anything up this time," Specs said.
"You think that was intentional?" I said.
I hung up.
Mouse was sitting up in her bed. "What's the run?"
I told her.
She made a face. "That's Uptown."
* * *
Doc was perched on a barstool, a barrel-chested fiftysomething black man with curly white hair cropped close to his head, an old pair of spectacles perched low on his wide nose, and a large paunch hanging over his beltline that suggested too much good food. He looked up from the chessboard on the bartop when I walked in from the back hallway. "You, young lady," he said to me in his melodious, rumbling basso voice, "are overdue for a maintenance check."
"Since when do you need glasses, old man?" I said as I walked up to the bar. "Don't tell me those optics of yours went to waste.
"They're top-line Nikon-Zeiss," he replied. "Don't change the subject."
Revell stood up from behind the bar and wiped his hands on the apron he was wearing. He inclined his head at me then jerked a thumb at the back counter.
I saw the coffee maker, came around the bar.
Then spotted the photo on the counter.
Murphy and Revell in camo fatigues, standing in front of an Apache gunship. Revell, years younger but still bear-like, holding an M4 assault rifle at port arms. Next to him stood Murphy, square-jawed and sporting his ever-present smirk, boonie hat at a rakish angle atop his head, twin pistols in drop-leg holders.
The surging noise hit me like a blast of gale-force wind then vanished.
"That was in '12," said Revell.
I blinked and looked up at him. "What?"
He gestured to the photo. "Outside Bogota." A grin creased his face. "Photojournalist from Boston took picture. Can't remember her name."
"Changing the subject again," Doc said. "So when are you and Mouse coming to the clinic?"
"As soon as we can," I said. I grabbed a mug from the stack below the bar, poured coffee, and took a sip.
"Soon's too late," he said. "Come in today." He turned back to the chessboard and moved a piece.
"Can't," I said. "Busy day."
"You keep putting this off and bad things will happen."
"And you know that we can't afford the checks right now."
Doc nodded. "I know. Revell mentioned Kincaid."
I let out a long breath and drank more coffee. "Yeah. Kincaid."
"You could work off the payment."
I threw him a small smile. "You willing to do that for the other stuff we owe you?"
"Didn't think so."
Revell moved a piece. "Check."
Doc turned back to the board and frowned. "Damn."
* * *
Bordered by Imperial Avenue to the west, Archer Street to the east, Front Street to the north, and Midway Avenue to the south, Uptown housed everything Bay City's gliterrati could ask for. This was a whole other world, one of gleaming towers and golden people. It made even the nicer parts of the city look like a shithole.
And the parts Mouse and I frequented?
I stopped the black ChrysFord sedan at a light. A loaner, courtesy of Specs.
Mouse let out a long hissing exhale in the seat next to me.
"What?" I said.
"I look like an idiot in this getup."
I glanced over at her.
We were dressed in similar outfits: blouse, blazer, and slacks. Black for me. Dark gray for her.
"It's what they wear," I said.
"Then they look like idiots."
"Gotta dress the part, Em."
"What's wrong with our gear?"
"We'll stand out. When we stand out, the cops show up. And I don't feel like shooting it out with BC MaxTac today."
Mouse leaned back in her seat and folded her arms across her chest. "Fine. Have it your way."
The light changed. I put the car into gear and drove on.
I said: "You're just pissed because you can't wear your sheaths under that blazer."
"I'm not talking to you right now."
"I thought that's what the briefcase was for? They fit in there, don'tthey?"
"This is me not talking to you, Miss Shoulder Rig."
"You've got one, too."
"Yeah, for a pair of dinky six-inchers."
"What about your forearm sheaths? Six throwers? You forget those?"
"Just keep driving."
I grinned. "I thought so."
As we continued north on Garner Street and into Midtown, sunlight barely peeking through gunmetal gray sky, street conditions went from rundown and garbage-strewn to well-kept and litter-free. By the time we crossed Midway Avenue, the whole world had changed. The streets looked as if they were scrubbed down and polished daily until they turned to chrome and sparkled. In the space of two blocks, we passed a police cruiser and a pair of roving sky-eyes.
The hairs on the back of my neck snapped to attention.
"Kat..." Mouse began.
"I know," I said. "Here we go."
Welcome to Uptown.
* * *
Veronica's occupied the ground floor of the Ascot Arms's west wing, near the main entrance, and boasted high-ceilings with ornate chandeliers and tall picture windows that fronted 15th Street. Mellow piano music floated by. As the hostess led us through the restaurant, Mouse nudged me and gestured toward a nearby table.
"Last time I saw that much silverware was when Caitlin went to a dinner party with Kara."
"Who's Kara?" I said.
"Angel City," said Mouse. "Ep seven. Season two. When Kara gets into that car wreck."
"You watch too many vids."
Mouse shrugged. "Girl's gotta have a hobby."
Joshua Collins, thirtyish, round and ruddy-cheeked, sat at a table near the picture windows.
He looked up when we approached the table.
"Are you--?" he began.
I nodded. "Mr. Collins, right?"
"Yes." He motioned for us to sit down.
I sat to Collins's right side, angling my chair so I could see the rest of the restaurant. Mouse did the same on his left side.
"You have a job for us?" I said.
A shadow fell across the table.
I started to rise, my hands going for the Twins, when I noticed it was the waiter.
"Can I start you folks off with some drinks?" he said.
"Give us a minute," said Collins.
The waiter nodded and left.
"The job," I said to Collins.
He folded his hands on the table. "A flight leaves Bay City for Seattle Metro in two hours. I need to be on that flight when it lands at Sea-Tac."
"What about--" Mouse began.
"You'll be a company team assigned to oversee me," he went on. "Full clearance on...on equipment."
Mouse and I exchanged looks.
"Okay by me," I said.
Collins slid a creditchip across the table.
"Here you go," he said. "Certified."
Mouse took the chip, pulled a 'reader from inside her blazer, and slid it home. "Two hundred fifty," she said looking up from the reader's display.
"Half now," said Collins. "Balance when I reach Sea-Tac."
A shadow fell across the table.
Then the hairs on the back of my neck bristled.
Collins said: "I said give us a minute--"
"Good morning, Mr. Collins."
Collins looked up and paled.
A bald man, thick and broadchested in a dark suit stood in front of us. Just behind him and to either side, stood two more dark-suited men.
I caught sight of Mouse's hands slipping beneath the table.
"Excuse me," I said.
Bald Man swiveled his head at me, eyes slitted. If it was meant to be an intimidating gesture, he failed.
"This is a private conversation," I said.
"This matter doesn't concern you, ma'am."
I glanced at Collins.
He had stiffened in his seat. A light sheen of sweat on his forehead.
Looked at Mouse.
She made a tiny motion with her head.
Bald Man turned back toward Collins. "You have something that belongs to us. We'd like it back."
Collins shook his head, almost violently.
"Afraid I'll have to insist," said Bald Man.
He started to reach into his coat.
A subvocalized command dropped the world into slo-mo.
Bald Man's hand started to clear his jacket lapel.
I kicked the table over, spilling flatware. Drew the Twins. Bald Man stumbled back a step, confusion crossing his face.
The Twins barked twice. Slugs punched into Bald Man. He folded.
Swiveled to my right, saw the other muscle, gun clearing his jacket. Stroked the triggers. The Twins barked again. He crumpled into a nearby table.
I holstered Clyde, freeing my left hand, grabbed Collins by the back of his collar, and surged to my feet, pulling him with me.
Mouse had finished with the third muscle, rising from the floor with a blood-drenched wakizashi in hand. I nodded at her to follow.
Glass exploded behind me. Something slammed into my upper back, shoved me to the floor. I half-turned, taking the fall on my shoulder. Caught sight of Collins falling, too. He landed next to me, wide-eyed. He pushed himself up, arms shaking, then fell again and that's when I saw it.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
An engine roared and tires squealed.
I sat up and Collins reached for me and suddenly I was looking at Murphy's face.
Then blinked, and it was Collins again.
His groping hand latched onto my wrist and he gurgled something.
"What?" I said.
Blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth. "Don't let them..."
"Don't let who?"
"Them..." He licked his lips. "Don't let them..."
His body spasmed and he let out a ragged wheezing breath.
Then he was gone.
The sirens got closer.
Outside what was left of the huge picture window, a spy-eye hovered over the middle of the street, its camera lens panning across the scene.
A hand on my shoulder.
"Same way as last time?" she said
And ran smack into trouble.
(to be continued...)