"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--"
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.
"--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?"
"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.
"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.
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...)