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"Babysitting Blues" - Part Two

Back to the Red Dog. And to square one.

Revell, owner of the Red Dog, sat down next to Natalia and offered her a
steaming mug of tea which looked out of place in his bear-like hands. She said nothing. Just sat lodged into the corner of the beat-up mustard yellow couch, knees tucked against her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, staring intently at her sneakers.

Couldn't blame her. Somebody just shot at her with a chaingun and, most likely,
70mm rockets out of a pepperbox launcher. Typical in my line of work.

Not typical for her.


Revell stood up and turned to me, a frown on his bearded face. "Shock," he said
in his Russian-tinged basso.

I nodded, finished slipping rounds into the fifth magazine, set that down on the desk in
front of me, and began loading a sixth. "She'll be fine."

"Ya znayu. I know." He set the mug down on the other end of the desk. "What
about Mouse?"

"Next order of business." Bad move. Whoever you are.


I started to top off the magazine, but my vision suddenly went fuzzy. Like looking
through a rain-drenched window.

"Katya?"


Revell. His hand suddenly on my shoulder. Comforting. It reminded me of
Murphy.

Revell's best friend.


My old mentor. My friend. A father to me.


Before he went to a meet in the Zone two months ago.


For the last time--


No. Not going to happen to Mouse.


Blinking brought the world back into focus.


I cleared my throat, finished loading the magazine.


Just then the office door flew open and everyone's favorite info broker, Specs,
burst in, resplendent with his circular mirrorshades and a Hawaiian shirt the color of a really obnoxious fireworks display. The overhead light glinted off his bald head.

"Can't a guy even enjoy a cold frosty one out there without bein' summoned like
some goddamned manservant?"

I nodded at him. "Hi, Specs. I'm fine. How are you?"


"This enlightened warrior shit is really starting to piss me off, Kat."


"I need info."


"And what the fuck do I look like?"


"Specs--"


He held up his hands and grinned. "I'm kidding! Jesus! Lighten up, will ya? All
that stress'll give you a heart attack." He pulled up a chair and sat down across from me, propping his feet up on the corner of the desk. "You two already done? I thought that Rambaldo guy--"

"Renaldi."


The three of us turned. Natalia sat upright on the couch, hands on her hips,
looking imperious. She threw Specs a dagger-filled stare. "The name," she said, "is Renaldi."

Specs looked at her, dropped the mirrorshades to the end of his nose, and
looked again. "You ain't Mouse."

I looked at Revell. "Give the man a prize."


Specs squinted at Natalia. "Goddamn. You look like Mouse, though. Fuckin'
weird." He turned back to me. "What the hell?"

I told him what happened.


When I finished, Specs whistled and shook his head. "Son of a bitch. So you got
stuck with the package--"

"I'm not a package." Natalia said.


Specs turned to her. "Take it easy, kid. It's just bizspeak--"


"I don't care. I'm. Not. A. Package."


I raised an eyebrow at Natalia.


She stared at me. "I have a name, thank you," she said.


I said, "Natalia, this is Specs. He's a broker."


Specs grinned at her. "How ya doin'?"


"Watch out," I said to Specs. "She's feisty."


"No shit." He turned to me and sat back in his chair. "So whadda ya need?"


"You brokered the run. Who's your contact?"


He scratched his head. "You know I can't divulge that info."


I gave him The Look.


He cleared his throat. "It's a professional thing. You know, broker-client
privilege."

The Look continued.


Three seconds later he threw up his hands. "Deborah Kelly. Her name's
Deborah Kelly. She works for whatsisname."

"Renaldi."


"Yeah. Him. She called the run. You happy now?"


"Thank you."


"I'm gonna lose my license for that."


"You don't have a license."


He shrugged and gave me a lopsided grin.


"Oh," I said. "I need a car."


"You're killin' me, Kat."


"I love you too, Specs."


He went back into the bar with Revell in tow leaving me with Natalia. She looked
at me expectantly.

"Do you know Deborah Kelly?" I asked.


"She works with my father," Natalia said.


"What's she like?"


She shrugged. "I met her once."


I nodded and pulled out my cellphone to call Fast Eddie, our favorite console
jockey. Two rings, then a cheery Cockney-laced voice answered: "Hello, luv. Miss me, did you?"

"Need you, choom."


"Don't let Mouse hear that. She'd be jealous."


"Kinda' why I called." I told him what happened.


"Bugger..." he said.


"You on board, then?" I asked.


"Anything for Mouse," he replied, then quickly added, "And you, too."


"I know."


Eddie'd been jonesing for Mouse since they first met three years ago. The boy'd
go through hell and back for her. And has. Twice. Second time nearly flatlined him. This time around wasn't quite hell, but I knew he'd come through. As always.

For me and for Mouse.


He cleared his throat. "Right. What's the crack?"


"Infodump."


"Mark?"


"Deborah Kelly. Works for Phillipe Renaldi."


Keyboard tapping in the background. "Renaldi? The AstraNova bloke?"


"Yeah. Full dump. Anything you can dig up."


"On it. Ten, maybe fifteen. I'll call."


"Thanks, Eddie. By the way, how's the magic working for you?"

"Bloody thing went dodgy on me. Dropped me into the middle of a shite storm two days ago."

"What happened?"

"Dunno. Checking it out. Mean time, I'm staying away from it."


"Probably best. We'll be waiting." I hung up.


"What now?" Natalia asked.


I loaded up. Topped off The Twins, Bonnie and Clyde -- my pair of Colt-Springfield
M2001 .45-caliber high-capacity pistols -- before slipping them snugly into my double-holster shoulder rig. Then pulled on my black leather biker jacket, started for the office door, and looked over at Natalia. "Let's go."

"I'm not going anywhere," she said.


I stopped. "You need to be with me."


"Why? 'Cause it's safer?" She snorted.


"It is safer."


"We almost got blown up. You call that safe?"


Good point. "Look," I said, "it's my job to make sure nothing happens to you."


"Oh yeah. I forgot. I'm your 'package.' Well, screw that. And screw you!"


"Your father hired us."


Natalia snorted. "As if he cared." She folded her arms across her chest and
looked away, lower lip trembling.

"Those men wanted you," I said. "They picked up my best friend instead. I plan
to get her back. Your father paid us for a job. I plan to do that, too. Either way, that means you stay with me."

"Says who?"


I sighed. Patience, they say, is a virtue. One I usually have.


Not this time.


One of the Twins, Bonnie, suddenly pointed herself muzzle-first against Natalia's
forehead. Natalia went saucer-eyed.

"Says me," I said.


* * *

"This," Natalia said, pouting, "is called kidnapping."


"This," I said, "is called 'keeping you alive'."


"Almost blown up?" she said. "Remember?"


" 'Almost' is the operative word."


We were headed up Sterling Avenue toward Corporate Plaza in a gray
ChrysFord sedan, a loaner Specs had rustled up. He'd also arranged a meeting with Deborah Kelly at the AstraNova building. We joined the steady stream of sedans, compacts, and runabouts headed into City Center. Just your average pair of women with business among the suits.

"How do I know this isn't some kind of plot?" Natalia asked.


"Don't flatter yourself," I replied. "You just stick with me and you'll live."


"Fine," she said. "Do it your way." She folded her arms across her chest and
glared at the windshield.

I turned back to the road. Four blocks away, the 'scrapers of Corporate Plaza
loomed over the city, jagged steel and glass giants clawing at the sky. Something about the situation reeked like a Sprawl alley. I couldn't put my finger on it. Not yet. But I wanted answers. And fast.

Talking to Kelly would be a good start.


As we neared the AstraNova building, a thought struck.

I said to Natalia, "Let me
do the talking. Whatever happens, not a word. And" -- I gestured to the ballcap -- "keep that over your eyes."

"I know."


"I mean it."


She turned to me and opened her mouth. I gave her The Look. "Scan?"


Natalia glared at me but said nothing.


Then she looked away.

(to be continued...)

"Babysitting Blues"
Part 1 | Part 3


"Babysitting Blues" - Part One

Even though it sounds like a good idea when your partner suggests it, it's usually considered bad form to lop off your client's head with a katana.

"Come on, Kat," Mouse, my partner and fellow ronin said, leaning in toward me
from her perch on the corner of the desk in the Red Dog Bar's back office. "Why not?"

The shrill whine continued nearby, like a drill burrowing through steel: "--not
going to sit on that! Can't you see how dirty that chair is? Are you blind? You're both women. Don't you have any concept of hygiene--"

I sighed.


Just another day in the life of a ronin.
Street mercenary. Gun for hire.

Me. Name's Kat.


God, I love my job.


Under normal circumstances, the tactic Mouse was describing wouldn't be
necessary. The client is typically cooperative and will do whatever is asked of them. After all, their life depends on it. Such cooperation makes life easy for the client and allows me and Mouse to do our duty as bodyguards.

With no beheadings involved.


"--this place is so rank. The last time, we stayed in a penthouse suite at the
Ascot Arms--"

This wasn't bodyguarding.


I sat back in the desk chair and regarded our principal.

Natalia Renaldi.
Sixteen. Decked out in an outfit that cost more than my biomods. The petite, brown-haired, blue-eyed daughter of AstraNova president Phillipe Renaldi. AstraNova was the leading electronics manufacturer on the West Coast, second only to Lazlar Technologies, which meant Renaldi was worth in excess of several billion credits.

His daughter, however, was a pain in the ass. And her incessant pacing made
the office more cramped than usual.

An hour ago, Renaldi had hired us to watch his daughter while he was out of town for a meeting. Despite my desire for a quiet day, we needed the work to pay off a couple of outstanding accounts.

I was starting to think the quiet day would've been the better choice.


Mouse crossed her arms, glanced at Natalia, then turned to me with raised
eyebrows and gave me a pleading look.

I shook my head. "It'be unprofessional," I said to Mouse. "Besides, she
looks like you. You could be twin sisters."

That earned me a dirty look.


I shrugged.


"--if you think you're gonna starve me to death in this rat-hole, you'd better think
again!"

Mouse hopped off the desk and strode toward Natalia, black leather trenchcoat flapping
behind her.

Natalia's eyebrows went up. She put her hands on her hips. "What do you
want?"

The two of them stood nose to nose. Mirror images.


Mouse studied Natalia for a moment, head cocked to one side. Then, still looking
at Natalia, she pointed toward a corner table. A grease-stained brown paper bag and a large plastic cup with a bent straw poking out of the cover sat on top. "Food. Eat up."

Natalia wrinkled her nose and made a retching sound. "You expect me to eat
that?"

"Yeah."


"You are so wrong."


A toothy grin crawled across Mouse's face. "Tell you what. You eat that like a
normal person. Or I shove everything down your throat."

She gasped, saucer-eyed. "You wouldn't dare!"


"You gonna tell daddy on me?"


Natalia's jaw clenched. Then she leaned into toward Mouse, eyes slitted. "When
he finds out you've been threatening me, you are so gonna get it."

Mouse turned to me. "Gonna let that go?"


I shrugged. "She's a teener, Mouse. She thinks she's indestructible."


Mouse started to reach inside her coat. "Can prove her wrong."


"Save it, partner."


"I am not a teener," Natalia said, crossing her arms. "I'm seventeen if you must
know."

Mouse turned back to her. "I didn't ask."


I leaned forward on the desk. "We can't keep her here."


Mouse looked at me. "Come back?"


"Thank god!" Natalia said. "At least someone here is paying attention. We can
call ahead to the Ascot Arms and --"

I said: "No one's calling anybody."


"But you just--"


Mouse said, "What's wrong with the Red Dog?"


"Remember Lazlar?" I replied. "And Jade?"


"Oh." Mouse frowned and rubbed her shoulder. "Yeah."


A run-in three weeks earlier with a rival ronin, Jade, and a team of corp shooters
had left the Red Dog in a mess, Revell with a bullet in his shoulder, and Mouse a prisoner.

"Whoever comes looking for her"--I gestured to Natalia--"might find out we're
involved and will probably come looking here."

"This bites--" Natalia began.


I hit her with my best Look. The one that makes people nervous. She flinched,
as if she'd been slapped.

"Sit," I said.


She sat.


"Okay," Mouse said. "So where?"


"I'm working on that."


Mouse said, "What about The Shack?"


* * *

Half an hour later, under a typical Bay City gunmetal gray sky, we rounded
Archer Street in my refitted dark gray 2008 Shelby GT 500 and roared toward the Highway 342 onramp just off 48th Street.

It was a twenty minute drive to The Shack, an old, two-
story farmhouse east of Bay City, in Lakeshore. When they were still in the biz, Murphy and Revell had used The Shack as a safehouse.

Mouse rode shotgun and Natalia sat in the
back dressed in civ, not chic. The wardrobe change had been Mouse's idea. Attracted less attention. Natalia's previous outfit screamed money. She now sported Mouse's old bomber jacket, a ballcap, t-shirt and jeans, and hightop sneakers.

Twenty meters before the onramp, the aerodyne dropped out of the sky right in
front of us, a three-meter long, gray metal brick suspended in mid-air by four ducted vectorthrust engine pods. Its chin-mounted 30mm chaingun swiveled toward the Shelby's windshield.

"Holy fuck!" Mouse said.


Natalia screamed.


I yanked the car into a squealing bootlegger reverse, scattering traffic behind me
in a frenzy of screeching tires and yowling horns. Concrete exploded around us. I floored the accelerator. Tires caught, squealed, and the car leaped forward.

Then the world flashed white, flipped over. Thunder roared through my skull and darkness slammed into me from all sides.

When I came to, the Shelby needed extensive bodywork, our principal lay
unconscious in the back seat, and my partner was gone.

(to be continued...)


"Babysitting Blues"
Part 2

"Easy Money" - Part Twenty-four

EPILOGUE

The banging on our apartment door woke me up.


"This better be good," I called out, "or you're gonna get shot."

"You've got company, luv," came the reply.

Eddie.

I rolled over, untangling myself from the bedsheets, and sat up. "What?"

"Some corpgeek's in the bar," said Eddie. "Wants to see you."

I blinked sleep from my eyes and glanced at the clock on my nightstand. It read: 10:00.

Too early.

Across the room, Mouse shifted in her bed, the springs creaking slightly. "Piss off!" she said from beneath a pillow.

I got up, padded across the room to the door, and yanked it open.

Eddie clapped a hand over his eyes.

"What are you doing?" I said.

"Averting my eyes," said Eddie. "You'll kill me if I see your naughty bits."

I looked down at myself. T-shirt, black BDU trousers, and socks.

"Eddie," I said.

"What?"

"I've got clothes on."

He spread his fingers and looked out at me from between them. "Oh."

"Walk in here," Mouse called out, "and I'll stab your eyes out."

I leaned in toward Eddie. "She sleeps in her skivvies."

He turned red and his eyes went distant.

"Who is it?" I said.

"What?"

I cupped his face with both hands. "Focus. Who's downstairs?"

He blinked. "Didn't give a name. But corporate. Had a couple of muscle with him."

"Sure it's not a Smith?"

"Didn't act like one."

"Five minutes."

He nodded and headed back down the hallway.

I closed the door then pulled on shoes, the Twins in their shoulder rig, and slipped into my jacket. I checked the Twins.

Locked and loaded.

Then went downstairs.

* * *

He stood just inside the door, hands folded behind his back. Fiftyish. Hawk-nosed. Silver hair combed just right.

A pair of muscle flanked him.

Eddie met me as I came out from the back hallway. "Need me to hang about?"

"I should be okay," I said.

"Right. I'll be nearby." He shot a look over his shoulder at the corpgeek. "Just in case."

Eddie went out the back.

I faced the three men inside the bar and popped my optics to thermo.

The two muscle had the standard mods. Bone lacing. Dermal sheathing. Optics. Gunlinks. Headware. Plus a few extras. And, of course, they carried.

The corpgeek had mostly headware. Nothing else.

Typical.

"Can I help you?" I said.

"They call you Kat," the corpgeek said. "Is that correct?"

"Who's asking?"

"My name is Richard Armstrong. I represent Lazlar Industries."

"That a fact?"

He gave me a thin smile. "Feel free to look it up."

"What do you want?" I said.

"I take it your business with James Burns has been completed?"

"No."

His eyebrows went up.

"We agreed on compensation for--"

"--for an item." Armstrong nodded. "I'm aware of that."

I remembered something. "Last night," I said. "Burns contacted you."

He inclined his head. "He did. We will discuss that promised compensation in a moment. But your business with him. It's been completed, yes?"

"Yeah."

"Good. Which means your business with Lazlar Industries is also completed."

"I guess it has."

"I'm glad we understand each other. We are, after all, professionals. Businessmen and women. As for your compensation..." He made a gesture.

One of the muscle stepped forward and handed Armstrong a creditchip and a reader. Armstrong took both and held them out to me.

"I'm sure you'll find everything in order," he said.

I took the 'chip and the reader and checked.

My stomach jumped into my throat.

Armstrong must've seen my expression because he laughed.

"Thank you for your assistance," he said.

"Anytime," I said.

He gave me a quick nod, then turned and left the bar.

I stared at the reader's display again. Just to make sure I hadn't read it wrong.

Footsteps.

Mouse and Eddie appeared next to me.

"Who was it?" Mouse said.

"Lazlar," I said. "One of their higher-ups, I think."

"What'd they--" Eddie began.

I held up the reader so they could see the display.

"Wicked," said Mouse.

Eddie chuckled. "Looks like we all scored."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Last night," said Eddie. "I found out Burns had himself a hidden account. And since he probably wouldn't need it anymore..."

"You sneaky bastard," I said.

He shrugged.

"I also thought," Eddie went on, "that since you two did help me out a bit--"

"Help you out?" said Mouse.

"--that I'd pass on a little token of my undying appreciation."

"How little?" I said.

He grinned and gestured to the reader. "Add three to that."

"Hot damn," said Mouse.

Fifteen million credits.

I returned Eddie's grin.

God, I love this job.


INTERLUDE TWO

Armstrong waited until the car pulled away from the bar then touched his earbud. "I've just left."

"Same place?" the voice in his ear said.

"Same place."

"Did the payment work?"

"I think it did."

"You don't sound certain."

"What if there's a problem down the line?" said Armstrong

"I hope there will not be a problem. I hope she proves to be ignorant of...things."

"And if she should get too curious?"

"Don't you Americans have a saying about curiousity and cats?"

Armstrong grinned. "We do, Harada-san."

* * *

The man who called himself Simon shoved the piece of fish into the saucer of malted vinegar and let it soak.

"...and then BAM!" Simon said into the cellphone. "Plastered his brains all over that rooftop."


"I'm not surprised," said the voice on the phone.

"You should've seen it. Those two work tight."

"They should. They learned from the best in the biz."

"I know. He was--"

"I know who he was. Don't say anything more. There are ears everywhere."

"We're on a secured line."

"Yes, but a fish and chips shop is not secure."

Simon looked around. Wang's Fish and Chips was empty except for him and the proprietor, a stout, fiftyish Chinese man with thinning hair, who seemed to be dozing in a chair behind the register. "Lady, you're paranoid."

"Keeps me alive."

"Whatever you say." Simon popped soaked piece of fish in his mouth and licked the grease and malted vinegar from his fingertips.

"Keep watching them," the voice said.

"You're the boss."

--END--


"Easy Money" - Part Twenty-Three

Twenty minutes later, we pulled into the back of the Red Dog.

I shut off the Shelby's engine and turned to Mouse. "That's the last time I save your skinny ass."

She gave me a backhanded slap across the shoulder. "Who're you calling skinny?"

I threw her a grin and got out of the car, felt my muscles groan with the exertion.

Jake looked out from the van's driver side window. "You look like hell," he said.

"Same to you."

He chuckled. "You good?"

"Yeah."

"Sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Stay out of trouble."

"You bet."

"I mean it."

He fixed me with a long hard look and I felt my knees start to buckle. I put my hand against the side of the van to steady myself.

"Thanks," I said.

He gave me a curt nod. "Anytime."

Then he and Mikey turned the van around and headed out of the alley onto Garner and into the night.

"What, no kiss?" Mouse said behind me.

I gave her the finger.

She snorted, then said: "What now?"

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Kincaid."

Sonofabitch.

I let out a long breath. "Let's deal with him in the morning."

"If we're still alive." She turned and walked to the back door. "Dibs on the shower," she said.

"All yours."

Had one last thing to do.

* * *

Eddie stood in the hallway, hands in the pockets of his lab coat, and watched Mouse go through the stairwell door at the far end.

"She's okay, Eddie," I said.

He whirled, saw me, and relaxed. "I saw," he said. "That's good. Little bruised. Not a big deal, though."

"Kid gone?"

"Yeah. Left after you called."

"No ride?"

"I--I wanted to wait until she--until you got back. Make sure everything's all right. Yeah?"

I gestured toward the office. "Couch is yours," I said. "I'll drive you back in the morning."

"Thanks," he said.

* * *

My phone chirped as I stepped through the roof access doors.

Doc.

"How's Revell?" I said.

"Asleep," he said. "Operation was fine. Replaced the shoulder. Going to keep him until morning. Make sure recovery is smooth. He'll be back to his old crotchety self in no time."

"Thanks, Doc."

"And I expect to see you and Mouse in here bright and early tomorrow."

"Doc--"

"I know, I know. 14:00 is fine."

"You're all heart, Doc."

I hung up, then walked to the roof parapet facing north, leaned my hands against the parapet edge, and stared out at the glimmering skyline. A light breeze blew in from the west bringing the slight scent of vehicle exhaust and the aroma of fried food from the fish and chips shop next door.

The city hummed all around me.

"It's done, Murph," I said aloud. "It's all done."

"Not quite," the voice said.

I whirled.

As I did, the Twins leaped into my hands and tracked the voice.

Burns stood a few meters away, partially silhouetted from a nearby streetlamp, a pistol pointed at me.

"You're--"

"Dead?" He shook his head. "Stupid bitch. And you said Revell told you everything?"

"What're you--"

"I know you have optics," he said. "Switch to thermo."

I did.

And inhaled sharply.

He heard and chuckled. "Missed that, didn't you."

Mods. Dermal sheathing. Boosted reflexes. Optics. Brainware.

"Spec Ops?" he said.

"I remember."

"Good. Which means I can kick your ass without this." He lowered the pistol to his side and let it drop from his hand. It clattered to the rooftop.

I kept the Twins trained on him.

The corner of his mouth twitched up into a small smile. "What's the matter? Scared you're not up to the challenge? That Murphy didn't teach you enough?"

"He taught me plenty," I said.

"Like how to be a coward?"

"No."

"Then show me. Show me what he taught you."

The wakizashi blade came out the front of his neck.

Burns staggered forward, saucer-eyed, coughed blood, and collapsed to his knees.

Mouse stepped around him and to one side. "Here's one. Teamwork."

Burns grabbed the blade that jutted from his throat. Blood poured from the hole, soaking the front of his suit. He gurgled something in reply then snapped the exposed blade.

Mouse whipped out her other wakizashi and plunged it down his jugular notch.

He screamed blood.

I stepped up to him. "Here's another," I said. "Follow-through."

And I shoved Bonnie's muzzle into his temple and blew his brains out.


(to be continued...)

"Easy Money" - Part Twenty-Two

Then a figure stepped up next to Jade. Tall, well-built, with close-cropped silver hair. Earbud radio in his right ear. Drooped eyelids, as if half-asleep.

But the eyes.

Piercing blue. And shark eye blank.

On either side of him were two more uniformed guards with HK MP5s held at the low-ready position, stocks pulled against their shoulders, the barrels pointed down at a forty-five degree angle.

Shit.

Jade turned her head slightly toward the figure. "See, Burns?" she said. "Told you she'd be here."

I felt my jaw tighten.

So. The son of a bitch himself.

Burns looked at me. "You'll want to put your guns down."

I didn't move.

Burns inclined his head toward me.

The guards stepped forward and the MP5 barrels popped up, level with my head.

The corners of Burns's mouth gave a small twitch. "Your guns. Down. Now."

I set them on the floor.

"Now take two steps back," said Burns.

I did.

"Want me to dance next?" I said.

He gave me a humorless smile. "You have something that belongs to me."

"Do I?"

"Wrong answer. You need to give me the right answer. Her life"--he motioned with his head toward Mouse--"depends on it."

"Okay," I said. "I have it in my jacket pocket."

Burns nodded.

I reached in, took the hardcase out of the inside pocket, and held it up.

"Show me," said Burns.

I popped the lid and showed him the disk.

"Good," he said. "Now put it on the floor and slide it toward me."

I closed the lid, set the case on the floor, and shoved it toward him with the toe of my boot. It spun and slid across the tiled floor and stopped against the edge of his shoe.

He bent down and picked it up then touched his earbud. "Gibson. I have the item. I need a confirmation."

A moment later, a short Korean in a white lab coat--Gibson--came past the two guards and stood next to Burns. Burns handed him the hardcase. Gibson opened it, took the disk out, then produced a portable terminal and inserted the disk into a slot.

Light flickered from the terminal's screen, illuminating Gibson's face. He tapped the keys and studied the resulting output then turned to Burns. "Confirm."

"Good. Tell Mr. Armstrong that we've completed the retrieval."

Gibson nodded, turned, and went back down the hallway.

Burns fixed me with a long look. "Thank you."

I gave him a one-fingered salute.

A smirk crawled across his face. Then he glanced down at the Twins and his brow furrowed.

"Recognize them, don't you," I said.

He frowned.

"Revell told me. Everything. You fucking sell-out."

Burns looked up at me and his eyes were slitted. "He got what was coming to him."

"Killing her was part of the plan, too?"

I saw his jaw clench, the muscles flexing and tightening. His nostrils flared.

"You got what you wanted, Burns," Jade said.

Burns's face relaxed somewhat and he turned toward her.

"I want them," Jade said, indicating me and Mouse. "Like we agreed." She grinned at me. "We've got other biz to discuss."

"Very well," said Burns. "Like we agreed."

Jade shoved Mouse toward me, still keeping her pistol trained on us. "And the payment," she said. "You promised payment, too."

"I did," said Burns. "And I'm a man of my word."

Jade turned toward Burns and held her free hand out.

Burns reached into his suit jacket pocket, pulled out a handgun, shoved it into Jade's chest and fired three times.

She jerked backwards and slumped against the wall. Her pistol clattered to the floor.

"Holy fuck!" said Mouse.

Burns put the gun away and turned back to us. "Kill them."

The lights went out.

Emergency lights flickered on.

Subvocal. And the world went to slo-mo.

Burns looked up, mouth opening to exclaim something.

Never heard it.

Two secmen, also looking, distracted.

I moved, lunged forward, keeping low, reached for the Twins on the floor, scooped them up and raised them, slid to my knees, sighted, squeezed, felt them buck in my hands.

Burns went saucer-eyed as the first round slammed into his midsection. He jerked. Jerked again. And again. And again. His legs buckled under him and he fell back.

Pivoted right, saw the secman bring his weapon back in line. The Twins coughed twice and two rounds punched through his helmet. He dropped.

Scanned left, saw Mouse slice the other secman's neck. He brought hands up to his throat and blood streamed from between his fingers. He dropped to his knees and pitched face first to the floor.

I shot a glance back at Burns, at his body on the floor.

That's for you, Murphy.

I turned to Mouse.

"Go," I said.

She nodded.

We bounced.

And ran right into Jake.

* * *

He skidded to a stop in the middle of the corridor, a Colt-Springfield M4-A battle rifle held tight to his chest, barrel pointed down at a forty-five degree angle, a crooked grin on his face.

"Clear," he said and jerked a thumb back up the corridor.

I looked.

Several bodies lay sprawled on the floor.

"Nice," I said. "Mikey?"

"Upstairs. Making sure we've got a way out."

"Better not keep him waiting," said Mouse.

* * *

We exited the elevator on the garage level to the chatter of small arms fire, stayed low, and ducked behind a nearby support pillar.

At the entrance, the gates had come down. The gray sedan I drove in sat parked in the middle of the entry lane, just past the guard shack. Mikey sat with his back against the sedan's rear left wheel, a battle rifle on his lap, while bullets raked the other side of the car. Glass shards rained down around him.

He spotted us and waved.

"Is he fucking serious?" said Mouse.

"Yup," Jake said.

I hefted the Twins. "We should give him a hand. Gotta be at least six of them behind the gate--"

Jake shook his head. "Just watch."

Mikey cocked his head, listening for something. Then he yanked out a spent magazine, pulled another from the front pouch of his tactical vest, slapped it into place, and yanked the charging handle. He got into a low crouch, brought the rifle to his shoulder, pivoted toward the entrance, and placed the barrel on edge of the trunk.

The gunfire from the other side of the gate stopped suddenly.

And Mikey opened up, sweeping the gate with rolling bursts of fire.

A few moments later, it was done.

"Nice," said Mouse.

(to be continued...)