"Watch it, Kat!" Mouse said.
I jammed my foot on the brakes, jerked the wheel.
The Shelby fishtailed to a squealing stop.
The figure kept going. Bounced off the hood. Hit the pavement, hard.
Just another day in the life of a ronin. Street mercenary. Gun for hire.
Me. Name's Kat.
I got out of the car as the figure--a fortyish Japanese corpgeek with a rumpled gray suit and an acne-scarred face--scrambled to his feet.
"You okay?" I said.
He spun toward me and recoiled, fear etched on his face.
Typical reaction. It's not everyday that a meter-ninety of dark-haired Amazon hits you with an antiquated car, then gets out and comes over for a closer look.
I stopped and held up both hands, palms out. "Easy. I don't bite."
Mouse, my partner and fellow ronin, came up beside me, her short brown hair pulled back into a stumpy ponytail, a few stray locks always spilling across her forehead. Her black leather trenchcoat billowed cape-like around her. "Yo, choom," she said to the corpgeek. "No worries. We come in peace."
My optic clock read: 22:45:33.
"Little late to be out jogging, isn't it?" I said.
"He's letting off steam," said Mouse. She inclined her head to the corpgeek. " Whatsa matter? Bad karaoke?"
The man looked past us, let out a strangled yelp, and stumbled back, hitting the curb and falling on his ass.
As I did, the Twins, Bonnie and Clyde--my pair of Colt-Springfield M2001 .45-caliber high-capacity pistols--leaped into my hands from the double-holster shoulder rig underneath my black leather biker jacket.
At the same time, I heard metal sing out as Mouse's wakizashis whipped from the scabbards beneath her coat.
Japanese short swords.
Mouse loves her pointy toys.
A figure strode out of a nearby alley, jungle cat slow, and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Tall male. Leanly muscled beneath black fatigues. Face covered by a black balacalava.
And glowing red eyes--
What the hell?
I popped my optics to thermograph.
What I didn't see made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.
Aside from optics and what looked like bone lacing, nothing.
Yet he gave off an air of tightly restrained violence.
I've run into my share of both highly trained fighters and outright psychos. But this guy was something else entirely.
Just my luck.
"Kat..." Mouse began.
I heard the tone in her voice. "I know," I said.
I kept my gaze--and the Twins--on the figure. "No problem here, is there?" I asked.
Balaclava turned glowing eyes toward me. Then he turned to the suit and took a step forward. "Tetsuo Nakagami," he said. "Time's up."
Nakagami gurgled a pathetic reply.
I took a step forward, still keeping the Twins leveled at Balaclava, trying to ignore the little voice in my head telling me to run. "You didn't answer my question," I said.
"I'd answer," Mouse said. "She's got an itchy trigger finger."
Balaclava looked at us. "This isn't your concern," he said.
"Too late," I said. "It is now. So talk. Or should I let these two"--I gestured with the Twins--"do the talking?"
He started toward Nakagami.
"Hold it," I said.
He got to the middle of the street, kept walking.
"I said, hold it."
Mouse sprinted to the corpgeek, planted herself between him and Balaclava, and dropped to a fighting stance, blades at the ready. "Kat..." she said.
"Fuck it," I said and squeezed both triggers. The Twins boomed twice and four slugs plowed into Balaclava. He doubled over, staggered back a step.
And stood up.
What the fuck?
Then he moved, too fast for me to follow until he was standing in front of Mouse.
Mouse slashed at him.
Balaclava blocked the swing and Mouse's blades bit deep into his forearm. He grabbed her trenchcoat collar with his free hand and threw her aside.
Mouse landed in a heap several meters away and her blades went skittering across the blacktop.
I ran to her. "You okay?"
"That fucking hurt!"
"Don't meddle in things you don't understand," Balaclava said.
We turned toward him.
He fixed us with a look. "This is your only warning," he said, then turned to Nakagami.
The other man stared at Balaclava, wide-eyed, mouth open.
Balaclava loomed over the corpgeek. "Tell Takeda I'm coming for him."
Then he turned and sprinted back across the street into the darkness of the alley.
I popped to thermograph only to catch a blurred form vault four stories to the roof of the nearby building and vanish from sight.
I turned to check on the corpgeek.
He was gone, too.
"I need your help," she said as Mouse and I walked in.
"Love the do, Staci-chan," Mouse said, inclining her head at Staci's close-cropped red-orange hair.
Staci gave a small smile.
"What's up?" I said.
Staci's almond-shaped cat-irised eyes narrowed. "I think my brother's in trouble."
"Trouble's our business," Mouse said, dropping into the couch.
I shot Mouse a look.
She shrugged. "Old vid."
I perched on the edge of the desk and turned back to Staci. "What kind of trouble?"
Staci frowned and fidgeted with the green apron Revell made the bartenders wear. "I don't know. Not exactly."
"Not helping much, Stace," I said.
"Call it a sisterly hunch," she replied.
Mouse's brow wrinkled. "Can you vague it up any more?"
Staci's face fell. "Sorry."
"Mouse is right," I said. "That doesn't give us much to work with. Got any details we could use?"
"I might," she said, "but it'll take a while and I need to get back on shift. How about I meet you after?"
"Sure," I said.
"So you guys'll help?"
I glanced at Mouse.
She was looking at me expectantly.
I turned back to Staci.
Staci noticed my hesitation. "Revell said--" she began.
I held up a hand.
Out of all the bartenders Revell had hired over the years I'd known him, Staci had lasted the longest. She'd been there when Murphy took me under his wing five years ago. She'd been there when Mouse came on board two years later.
And she was there when Murphy died three months ago.
Like Revell, she was family to us.
"We'll help," I said.
I nodded. "Been kinda boring lately," I said. "And her whining"--I jerked a thumb at Mouse--"is driving me wonky."
Mouse stuck her tongue out at me. "Bite me."
Staci beamed. "You guys are wiz." Then she chewed on her lower lip. "One more thing..."
I stared back. "What!"
"No charge?" she said through gritted teeth.
"Keep it down," I said, glancing at the office door as it shut behind Staci.
"Are you crazy?" Mouse said. "We're running a business, remember?"
"She's family," I said. "You gonna charge family?"
Mouse frowned. "Well..."
"Stop worrying," I said. "We still have half the creds left from the Lazlar payout. We'll be fine."
"Yeah," Mouse said. "If we want to live off kibble for the next month."