Two muscle flanked the silver-haired Smith standing in front of a dark sedan with its parking lights on.
Mouse and I stopped two meters away.
"The items?" the Smith said.
I raised the duffle bag I was carrying.
The Smith inclined his head. "If you please?"
I stepped forward, set the bag on the ground, then stepped back.
The Smith gestured and one of the muscle walked over, picked up the bag, and brought it back to the Smith. He opened it, peered inside, then looked up at us, a frown creasing his features. "We have a small problem."
"Cosmetic," I said.
He looked inside the bag again. "Perhaps. It will have to be verified."
"Of course," I said.
"Under the circumstances, your compensation will have to wait pending verification."
Mouse swore under her breath.
"We understand," I said.
He zipped up the bag and handed it to one of the muscle then turned to us. "However, since we have done business before and you both have demonstrated excellent follow-through, I will overlook the matter of your compensation."
"We appreciate that."
He snapped his fingers.
The muscle with the dufflebag reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a thumb-sized metal card. A creditchip.
"For services rendered," the Smith said.
"Thank you," I said.
* * *
We waited until the Smith and his muscle left before I pulled the Shelby out of the lot and headed west toward Bay City and the Red Dog Bar.
Mouse pulled a chipreader from the glove compartment and slid the creditchip into the slot at the bottom.
"Shit," she said.
I glanced sideways. "Shit?"
Mouse held up the reader. "Fifty thousand."
"No. Should be one hundred thousand."
"What the 'reader says."
Dammit. I pulled my phone out and dialed.
"I thought you'd call," said the Smith.
"The deal was for one hundred thousand," I said. "And you told me we wouldn't have to wait."
"That's correct. But I never said you'd get all of it."
"That's business. You should know. Your mentor did."
I gritted my teeth. He was right.
And Murphy would've told me the exact same thing.
"When we confirm the second 'deck is undamaged," the Smith went on, "we will remit your balance."
I hung up.
"Well?" said Mouse.
I told her.
"Son of a bitch..."
"Tell me about it."
Mouse started to say something, then stopped, and stared out the passenger side window.
"What?" I prompted.
"Nothing," she said.
* * *
When I pulled the Shelby up to its spot behind the Red Dog Bar and killed the engine, Mouse said, "You sure you're okay?"
"Fine," I said.
"Bullshit, Kat. Bull. Shit."
I shot her a look.
"You heard me. Bullshit."
I felt my stomach bubble. "I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"No. You're not." She turned in her seat toward me. "You missed grabbing the catwalk even though you were less than half a meter away. Then you drop the package and we almost lost the payout because of it."
"It was a minor glitch."
Mouse's jaw dropped. "Minor glitch?"
"Jesus Christ!" Mouse threw up her hands, then got out of the car, slammed the door, and stalked toward the Red Dog's back entrance.
I got out after her. "What's the deal? We got half the payout."
Mouse grabbed the back door handle then looked at me. "Half, Kat? Half? When this kind of run is a no-brainer? And you're telling me you feel fine?"
"I am fine."
"You fucking liar." She yanked the back door open and went in.
Not the time. Not the place. Not for this.
I followed her into the dimly lit back hallway toward the stairs at the far end that led to the second floor room we shared. "I'm telling you there's nothing wrong. Why're you getting so bent out of shape over this--?"
She stopped halfway down the hall and whirled on me. "Kincaid."
I skidded to a halt, felt my jaw tighten.
Mouse put her hands on her hips and arched her eyebrows. "Well?"
Just then, the door to our left popped open bringing in the sound from the bar beyond. A bald head poked through the doorway and a pair of round mirrorshades looked at us.
Specs. Everyone's favorite infobroker.
"Tell me everything's okay," he said.
"Everything's okay," I said.
"Ha!" Mouse said.
Specs stepped into the hallway, clad in one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts the color of a drug-induced fireworks display. He shut the door behind him and came toward us. " 'Ha!' doesn't sound okay. Neither does the call I just got."
"Sounds like trouble in paradise," said a husky voice down the hallway.
We all turned.
She stepped out from the shadows, a smirk painted on her face, hands in the pockets of a knee-length leather coat. A few centimeters short of my meter-eighty. Long blond hair still pulled into a tight braid that fell halfway down her back.
Jade has the uncanny knack of showing up whenever we have biz. Sometimes, she's an observer. Other times, she's in our way. Mostly, she's a pain in the ass.
I wouldn't call her a thorn in our side.
More like a sharp stick in the eye.
I popped to thermograph. She packed, but had nothing in her hands.
"Jade," I said.
"Kat," said Jade, inclining her head.
Mouse snarled, a low throaty sound.
Jade's smirk twitched.
I stepped between them and folded my arms across my chest. "What do you want?"
"Rumor has it you two haven't been doing very well."
"What's it to you?" Mouse said.
"Call it professional concern."
"Call it 'gloating'."
She feigned shock. "Me? Gloat?"
"We're fine," I said.
Jade smiled. "Glad to hear it. I was really worried. Wouldn't be any fun if you two weren't out there." She stepped forward until the two of us were a meter apart. Her smile widened into something feral. "I'm glad we had this little chat."
My eyes went to slits.
We stood that way for maybe a few seconds.
Felt like hours.
Then Jade gave a throaty chuckle and walked past me, heading back into the bar.
I watched as the door shut behind her, then turned to Mouse.
"You were saying?" she said.
When you need firepower and your local gun "dealer" doesn't have it, you turn to one man.
He owned the West Coast market on firearms, military weapons, and ordnance, running the game from Bay City's Southside district. He dealt with everybody and everybody dealt with him.
Eleven days earlier, Kincaid had hired us to oversee one of his smaller shipments headed to the Northwest Protectorate. Two hours south of the Portland Metroplex, a better armed team jumped us.
We lost the cargo. All 500,000 Credits worth.
And Kincaid wanted us to pay him back.
I exhaled loudly. "We'll deal with Kincaid when the time comes."
"We wouldn't have to worry about that if you'd just get your head back in the game," said Mouse.
"I told you I'm fine."
"Wanna fill me in?" Specs said.
Mouse told him about tonight.
Specs gave a strangled yelp. "Christ on a crutch--! That was supposed to be cake. Easy money. What the hell, Kat?"
"It was a minor glitch," I said.
"Goddammit, Kat," said Mouse. "That minor glitch is gonna put one of us in a body bag--"
"I'm fine," I said. "Now back off."
I turned and went down the hallway.
Mouse said something, but I didn't hear it. Just noise at my back.
I yanked open the stairwell door, slammed it shut behind me, and headed upstairs.
It came quickly again. Like before. A sudden wave of fatigue that made me want to curl up into a ball and hide from the world.
(to be continued...)