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"Peek-a-Boo" - Part Four

Instead of the black leather he sported the previous week, Todd Wagner was wearing a t-shirt and baggy cargo pants when he came around the aisle near the store's checkout counter, an open-topped box in his arms.

Mouse and I stood in the middle of the main aisle.

I caught his eye and nodded at him.

He shrieked.

The box went airborne, showering the aisle with blister packs of electronic components, and Wagner's gangly form bolted for the back of the store.

Crap.

I tossed the loaner's keys to Mouse. "Car. Out the back."

Then sprinted after him.

Wagner tore through the stockroom and out a rear exit that led into an access corridor. He caromed off the walls, shoes squeaking, arms flapping wildly as he ran.

He skidded around a corner at the far end of the corridor, stumbled, caught himself at the last moment, and scrambled away.

I rounded the same corner five seconds later just in time to see him go through a set of double doors leading out of the Galleria.

Dammit.

The cat had been an easier chase.

I followed.

The doors emptied me in an alley between two of the mall's stores.

Wagner was near the alley mouth. He slowed and looked back over his shoulder at me, panic scrawled all over his face. Then he turned away, picked up speed, raced out of the alley.

And slammed right into the loaner's driver side door.

Bounced off. Fell back on his ass.

He started to get up.

Mouse slugged him with the door.

He dropped and lay still.

I jogged to the car and yanked the rear driver's side door open. Grabbed Wagner underneath his arms and hauled him into the back seat.

"Kat," said Mouse.

I looked up.

A hundred yards away I spotted a white pickup truck with lightbars heading in our direction.

Mall security.

"Time to go," I said.

Mouse scrambled into the passenger side. I slid into the driver's seat, put the car in gear, and peeled out of the parking lot.

"Where to?" said Mouse.

"Red Dog," I said, speeding up the freeway onramp and onto Highway 42. "How's he doing?"

Mouse craned her head toward the back seat. "Still out."

"Hope he stays that way until we get to the bar. Or it's gonna get a little complicated in here."

* * *

My optic clock read: 14:22:10.

Mouse slouched in the highback leather chair behind the desk, cleaning her fingernails with a throwing blade.

I sat on a folding metal chair in front of the desk.

We both watched Wagner.

He was sprawled on his back, one arm and one leg dangling from the edge of the seat cushion. He still wore the red vest with the CompuWorld nametag pinned to the left breast.

He'd been out for over half an hour.

The leather chair creaked.

I turned.

Mouse leaned forward, elbows on the desk. "How much longer do you think--"

A groan.

Wagner.

We both turned.

He was sitting up now, feet on the floor, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. "What the hell happened?"

I got up, folded my arms across my chest. "Hi, Todd."

He looked up and squinted at me.

"It's Todd, isn't it," I said.

His eyes slowly widened and color drained from his face.

Then he leaped to his feet, bolted for the door.

I grabbed the folding chair and hurled it at him. It crashed into the back of his legs and he went down in a heap.

"Wrong answer, Todd," said Mouse. "They always pick the wrong answer."

I strode over, grabbed Wagner by the back of his shirt collar, hoisted him to his feet, and threw him toward the couch.

He yelped, hit the cushion, bounced back to his feet, tried to bolt again.

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 under my jacket and leveled themselves at Wagner's face.

He squeaked and fell back on the couch.

"Less running," I said. "More talking."

Wagner held up a hand. "Okay okay okay okay." He let out a loud exhale. "Tell Duke I'll have the money for him tomorrow. I swear."

"This isn't about Duke," I said. "Or his money."

His jaw dropped. "What? Then you two aren't--"

I shook my head.

He relaxed.

"We want to know about the White Rabbit," I said.

Wagner's brow furrowed. "White Rabbit?"

"Club over on Mason," said Mouse. "You were there last Thursday."

Realization dawned on his face. His eyes widened and he shrank in on himself.

"Oh," he said.

"You remember," I said.

He nodded. "You two were in that office upstairs."

"Give the man a prize," said Mouse.

I indicated the Twins. "Do I still need these two?"

"No," said Wagner.

"Good." I holstered the pistols. "And just in case you get any ideas? Mouse?"

"Yeah."

"Show him."

I heard a snap of fabric and three throwing blades thunked into the wall next to Wagner's head in rapid succession.

He gasped.

"More where that came from," said Mouse.

Wagner looked at me, past me toward Mouse, then back at me. "What do you want?"

"Where's Valkyrie?"

"Who's Valkyrie?"

"Don't make me ask again."

"Make her ask again," said Mouse.

"I don't know a Valkyrie," Wagner said.

The Twins came back out.

Wagner curled into a ball, arms over his head. "Oh fuck I swear I don't know oh shit Jesus I swear I swear--"

"The club," I said. "You were calling for Valkyrie. Why?"

"I was just doing what I was told."

"What do you mean?"

"Are you gonna shoot me?"

"Not if you talk."

"I'll talk, I'll talk." Wagner put his arms down and uncoiled his legs. "This guy. Told me he'd pay for me to go to that club and say 'I love Valkyrie'."

"Who?" I said.

He shrugged. "Dunno. Some guy. Came into the store a few times a week. Never gave a name. He'd check out new merch. We talked shop a little. One day, he asks me if I wanted to make some money. I said sure. CompuWorld pays shit."

"When was this?"

"Two days before I went to the club."

"And you do your thing there," said Mouse.

"Yeah. So I do it. And get jumped by those two security guys."

"Did you get your money?" I said.

"No. Bastard gave me a bogus cred'chip."

"When was that?"

"The next day, at the store. Said I did good. Gave me the 'chip and left. I scanned it. Came out nil. Whatta rip."

"How much?"

"Was supposed to be fifteen hundred."

"What did he look like? The guy?"

Wagner thought a moment. "Almost as tall as you." He pointed at me. "Dark hair, slicked back. Kinda pale. Big nose. Like a beak."

"Name?"

Wagner shook his head.

"He ever buy anything?" I said.

"Yeah," said Wagner. "But he paid with a secured 'chip."

I nodded. As good as old-time cash.

And just as easy to follow.

Damn.

The office door opened.

I glanced back.

Revell, the bearded and bear-like owner of the Red Dog bar, stepped inside and closed the door. He wore a white collarless shirt opened at the neck, sleeves rolled over beefy forearms. He came over to us.

"It is finished?" he said in his Russian-tinged basso.

"Da," I said.

"You got enough information?"

"Enough. You have it?"

He held up the airhypo.

"The hell's that?" said Wagner, his voice cracking.

"Do it," I said.

Revell stepped toward Wagner.

Wagner threw up his hands defensively. "Hey now--!"

Revell grabbed him by the upper arm with one huge hand, pinned him to the couch, then jabbed him in the left buttock with the hypo.

Wagner shrieked and grabbed his ass. "What the hell was that?"

"That was a tiny needle," said Mouse. "My toys are bigger. And hurt more."

I looked at Revell.

"Sixty seconds," he said. "Or less. Did you and Mouse eat?"

"No."

"There are sandwiches on bartop."

"I haven't eaten either," said Wagner. "Do I get a sandwich?"

His speech sounded slurred.

"That was fast," I said. "Twenty seconds?"

Revell nodded.

Wagner frowned up at us. "The hell did you do?" He started to nod off and shook his head to fight it. "The hell kind of cops are you people?"

"Didn't say we were cops," I said.

Wagner tried to add something else but his eyelids fluttered and he fell back on the couch.

"Out for the count," said Mouse. "Again."

"Cab is coming for him," said Revell. "They will take him back to mall." He picked up Wagner, tossed him over his shoulder, and left the office.

"What do you think?" said Mouse. "Is Wagner a smokescreen?"

"Yeah," I said.

"So Val's still out there. Question is, where?"

I perched on the edge of the desk and, in my head, quickly went over what Wagner had said. "She disappeared some time between yesterday morning and today. We were at her place until...when?"

"About 0600 yesterday morning," Mouse said. "Then we got that message from her via Specs."

"She was still there when we went to eat. Gone by the time we got back to her place about an hour later."

"So gone where?" said Mouse.

"I have an idea," I said. I pulled out my phone and dialed Specs.

"Hey, Kat. What's doin'?"

"Val gets her runs from you, right?"

"Yep. Ever since Michelle stiffed her twice coupla' years ago."

"You broker anything for her recently?"

"Sure."

"How recent?"

"Yesterday morning."

"A Smith?"

"Yeah. Over at the Harbor Cafe. 18th and Harbor."

"What time?"

"Lemme see." A pause. Then: "0830 hours."

"Thanks."

"Everything okay?"

I told him.

"Fuckin' sonofabitch," he said.

"I know."

"You think there's a connection?"

"Maybe. Not sure yet."

"When you find that fucker, give 'em a swift kick in the balls for me."

"Will do." I hung up.

"Clue me in?" said Mouse.

I did.

When I finished, she said, "Let's go."

(to be continued...)

"Peek-a-Boo"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5

"Peek-a-Boo"- Part Three

We were back at the White Rabbit that evening by 21:00, this time seated in the Shelby a block up the street from the club.

I sipped coffee from a thermos, a strong blend of something that tasted like unsweetened syrup going down. Revell swore it would keep me up for days.

Great. Just what I needed.

Mouse was eating a bag of screamer chips. In between crunches, I could hear tiny cries of agony coming from her mouth.

I set the thermos between my legs. "Visual?"

"That's a negatory," she said. "I still think we should go inside."

"If Valkyrie's inside and sees us, she'll know we're still tailing her. And Absinthe's already written this off."

"But not you."

"No."

Mouse dug into the bag despite tiny panicked screams, grabbed a few chips, and popped them into her mouth. "I'm not sure anymore, Kat."

I looked toward the club, saw the line of people waiting to get inside stretch halfway down Mason Street. "You can bow out, you know," I said. "I won't stop you."

"We got nothing so far, Kat. The presents stopped coming, according to Absinthe. Val seems to be okay. Yeah, the guy looked a little out of his element, but maybe it's a personality quirk."

"True," I said. "True. And true." I turned to her. "Like I said, you can bow out. Want to go back to the Red Dog?"

Mouse chewed on a corner of her lower lip for a moment. Then she looked sideways at me and said, "You're staying?"

"Yeah."

"Then so am I. Hell, somebody's gotta keep your ass outta trouble. And I'm the only one qualified."

* * *

After two hours and no sign of Valkyrie going into or coming out of the club, Mouse and I decided to try her place again.

The building sat in darkness except for the glow of the streetlamps along the sidewalk. Three other cars were parked along the street but no sign of the runabout.

I drove around the block, just to make sure she didn't park elsewhere.

Nothing.

We pulled to the curb a block up the street and watched the building for the next hour.

After the same BCPD blue and white circled the block twice, we called it a night and went back to the Red Dog.

* * *

Absinthe called at the crack of noon the next day and said, "Valkyrie's gone."

I sat up in bed, fighting back sleep. "Say again?"

"She's gone. I need your help."

"What happened?'

"Better in person." She rattled off a street address. "Meet me there in half an hour."

Mouse was already pulling on her trenchcoat.

Thirty seconds later I was dressed and geared up.

The address Absinthe had given was Valkyrie's place.

* * *

Despite the shitty-looking exterior, the inside of Valkyrie's loft apartment was done in sleek chrome and black furniture. It looked like something from one of Mouse's space adventure vids. The one with the laser sword and the guy in the black helmet.

Absinthe paced the living room when we walked in.

"You were right," she said. "It was probably him."

"Probably," I said. "How do you know she's gone? She could be on a run."

"She'd call," Absinthe said. "Or leave a message. Even to check in."

"Short leash?" said Mouse.

"No. Nothing like that. Val's just good about keeping in touch."

I said, "We're not here to tell you and your lover how to--"

Absinthe held up a hand, then let out a long, hard exhale. "She's not my lover. Valkyrie's my kid sister."

"Whoa," said Mouse.

Made me blink.

Damn. Did not expect that.

Absinthe looked at us for a long moment. "I know you'll keep this quiet. It leaks? I grease you both myself."

Murphy always told us the less people know about your secrets, the better. Especially relationships. Made either party a prime target for your enemies.

Better to keep all that hushed.

"Noted," I said.

"So we go for the guy?" Mouse said.

"Yeah. We'll need Eddie." I pulled out my phone and called. He answered in two rings. "Tell me you have something."

"Not yet," Eddie said. "Late start. Got a good image, though. Running it through the CFS database. Might take a bit."

"Any chance of a rush? I know I didn't say so before but the situation changed."

"Working as fast as I can, luv."

"Val's gone missing," I said, "and the guy on the security cam feed is involved."

"Say no more. I'll--hello, hello. What's this?"

"Eddie?"

"Wait a tick." A long pause. Then: "Your bloke's a burbee."

* * *

I promised Absinthe I'd keep her posted on things and we left the building. On the way to the Shelby, I called Specs for a loaner.

"Standard rate," he said.

"Fine."

"No complainin'. You can afford this shit."

"Right now I can."

"So we'll live in the 'now'."

"Half an hour," I said and hung up.

Mouse said, "I hate this part."

"At least it's not doing the 180-to-corp-look from two months ago. Just dressing down a little."

"Corpgeeks look like idiots," she said. "So do burbees."

* * *

Todd Wagner, twenty-one, lived in an apartment in Bayside, the residential district west of the city proper. Occupation: stockroom clerk at a CompuWorld in the Grantville Galleria.

The Galleria sat amid a sea of tract homes and front lawns just off Highway 42, a three-level, cross-shaped concrete and glass structure flanked on all sides by a huge, tree-lined parking lot.

Two hundred yards to the west was Oakwood.

Bayside was burbee-lite. Oakwood was true burbee, where the tract home ocean was dotted with islands of minimansions.

I pointed the gray BMW loaner down the offramp, onto Grantville Boulevard, and into the Galleria's parking lot. CompuWorld was on the east side of the mall so we threaded our way past foot and vehicle traffic.

Mouse was watching the Nav-N-Speek unit on the loaner's dashboard and pointed to one of the two floating icons on the display. "Wagner's apartment's two block from here," she said. "Shouldn't we try there first?"

"Mall first," I said. "If we poke around the apartment, some suspicious neighbor might call the cops on us. At least here, we're just a couple of burbees out shopping.

Mouse barked a laugh.

* * *

The entry opened onto a vast promenade lined with trees and foilage-filled planter boxes. Kiosks and benches dotted the middle of the main walkway and overhead, skylights dominated, giving the place an open-air feel.

I was in jeans, t-shirt, and my black leather biker jacket. My boot soles clumped on the marble tile floor.

Mouse wore an oversized dark green sweatshirt that covered the Bowies on either hip. Her hightop sneakers squeaked as she walked.

Burbees passed us, young and old, all of them with that same dreamy but blank gaze. I'm in my own little world, it said.

"We sure he'll be there?" said Mouse.

"Want to call the store?" I said.

"Sure." She pulled out her cell phone and dialed the number I gave her.

I heard a faint voice answer.

Then Mouse's face changed.

Suddenly, I stared into a pair of bubbly yet vacuous eyes and an expression frozen halfway between surprise and joy.

"Is Todd there?" she said. Then: "Oh, total wiz! You are so stellar. No no. Don't tell. We're surprising him. Lates!"

She hung up.

I stared at her for a moment, then said, "Where the hell did that come from?

"Angelica's younger sister, Tawny," she said. "Angel City."

"Should've known."

"And remembering Natalia."

"Be nice."

"Before she got some sense."

"Better."

I spotted the sign three stores down, on the right. Done in big block letters.

CompuWorld.

"Ready?" I said, inclining my head at the sign.

"Hell yes."

(to be continued...)

"Peek-a-boo"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

"Peek-a-Boo" - Part Two

Tuesday night at 21:30 found us back at the White Rabbit, perched at the far end of the bar, away from the door.

The music thumped at us from all sides, keeping time with the strobing flashes of red and blue from the rigging overhead and the undulating bodies that packed the dance floor.

At 21:45 she walked in. Valkyrie. Petite and willowy, red hair falling across her face, looking as if she'd just stepped out of the shower, skull-and-crossbones eyepatch fixed to her right eye.

A thought tugged at me, then vanished.

Then Valkyrie was standing in front of us, a grin on her face, hands on her hips. "You ready to go to Valhalla, ladies?"

Mouse barked a laugh.

"Not yet," I said, "but when we are, you'll be the first to know."

"It's a deal," she said. "So what brings you here? I didn't think you two were the type for this scene."

"We like to keep people guessing," said Mouse.

"Bet you a hundred creds it's biz," said Valkyrie.

"I only gamble with my life," I said. "Never with my money."

Valkyrie's grin widened. "You sound like one of her old vids." She gestured to Mouse.

Mouse brushed back stray locks that fell across her forehead and grinned. "The one with the British girl and the creepy bald Egyptian guy."

"You really gotta try the sims," said Val. "The intense factor's through the roof."

"Get enough of that in the biz," Mouse said. "Vids're fine with me."

Val nodded. "Good point."

Absinthe walked out of the crowd, came up to the bar, and inclined her head at us.

"Gang's all here," I said. Next to the three of them, I was a giant--a meter-ninety of dark-haired Amazon in black biker leathers.

"Biz," said Valkyrie with a snap of her fingers. "I knew it."

"Can we talk?" I said to Absinthe.

"Upstairs," she said.

* * *

"Not him?" Absinthe leaned against the edge of her desk and quirked an eyebrow at me. "You're sure?"

"Not a hundred percent," I said. "Just a hunch."

"The gifts stopped coming."

My turn with the eyebrow. "Really."

"Nothing's come for her since last Thursday. I'd say he was the guy and there's nothing more to do."

"Humor me," I said.

"Okay."

"Copy of the security cam feed from that night."

"Done."

"Send it to Fast Eddie."

She nodded. "That's it?"

"That's it."

* * *

Mouse and I left the club and headed back to the Shelby.

My phone chirped when we reached the car.

Eddie.

"I got movies from Absinthe?" he said in his Cockney-laced tenor.

"Security cam feed."

"Always fun."

"The bouncers take down a guy at the deejay's console. See if you can ID him."

"Depends on the feed quality," Eddie said. "I'll do what I can, luv."

"Also, see who bought an MBV convertible recently and shipped it to the White Rabbit."

"MBV? Didn't think Absinthe was the type."

"She's not. It's something else."

"Got one of those on my queue at the moment. Get to this as soon as I can."

"Call me when." I hung up.

Mouse said, "You're still not buying what Absinthe said."

I shook my head. "Still smells."

"What now?"

"We wait."

"That's a first."

"No," I said. "Not that kind of waiting. My kind of waiting.

Mouse grinned. "Oh goody."

* * *

Valkyrie left the club a little after 01:00, walked half a block north on Mason Street, and got into a four-year-old ToyoHonda Atom, a two-seater runabout that resembled a cube with four wheels and rounded corners.

The car pulled away from the curb and zipped north.

The Shelby rumbled after her.

Twenty minutes later, we turned off Sheffield, six blocks south of the Wyndham Arena, near the elevated section of Highway 610.

The Atom went down a semi-deserted street and pulled in front of a darkened loft building. Graffiti covered one entire side and the entrance had several boarded up windows.

I parked half a block down from the building, killed the engine and the lights.

Valkyrie got out of the car, locked it, then walked toward us and stood outside Mouse's side of the car. She tapped a knuckle on the window.

Mouse opened the door.

"Can I sit?" Valkyrie said.

"Sure," I said.

Mouse got out, went into the back, and Valkyrie took her place in the passenger seat.

"So what's the idea, ladies?" Valkyrie said to us.

Mouse leaned in between the front seats. "Friendly visit," she said.

"At this hour?" She shook her head. "Absinthe's involved. This is about those emails and the flowers, right?"

"Need to know basis only," I said.

"Absinthe had you two keep an eye on me, didn't she," said Valkyrie and laughed. "I'm fine, you guys. Honest. This guy is harmless. Okay, so the presents were a little much, but he'll be like the others. Get bored soon and go away."

"You sure?"

"Positive. Happened the last six times. Besides, I've got building security courtesy of Tinker and Jake."

My stomach did a flip-flop. "Jake?"

"Yeah," said Valkyrie. "Hired me for a couple of runs. Gave me a 12-gauge for protection." She looked at me. "He likes you, you know."

Mouse slapped me on the shoulder. "Told you."

I ignored the slap and said, "Jake's an idiot."

"An idiot with the hots for you," said Valkyrie, grinning.

"He told you."

"No, but I can tell."

Mouse said, "I keep telling her to jump his bones already. All this sexual tension gives me gas."

Valkyrie snorted a laugh.

"We're not talking about this any more," I said.

"You're blushing," said Mouse.

"Bite me," I told her.

"Look," said Valkyrie. "I'm fine. Everything's fine. There's nothing to worry about, okay?"

I looked at her for a long moment. "Okay."

"Promise me you two'll back off and let this go."

"Promise," I said.

"Okay." She gave us a nod, then got out of the car and headed back up the street toward the building.

Mouse slid back into the passenger seat.

"You lied to her," she said.

"Of course."

* * *

We kept watch on Valkyrie's place for another two hours. I took the first shift.

Except for a few cars and a stray dog passing by, nothing else happened.

Mouse took over shortly after 04:00 and I leaned back in the seat and drifted off.

* * *

I woke to Mouse shaking my shoulder and a too-happy chirping coming from inside my jacket.

My phone.

Sat up in the driver's seat and answered it.

Specs.

"Rise an' shine," he said.

"This better be good," I said.

"I got a message from Valkyrie. She said for you two to go the fuck home. I'm paraphrasin', of course."

"Of course."

"She left out the 'fuck' part."

"I figured."

"An' just fer the record, I ain't no damn messaging service."

"Doing this out of the goodness of your heart?'

"Ya damn right. Not to mention the grand and a half she offered."

"You're a saint, Specs."

"Don't you forget it."

"Wiseass." I hung up and told Mouse about Valkyrie's message.

"Guess we're outta here?" she said. "She might use that 12-gauge on us."

I checked my optic clock.

06:09:22.

"Let's grab some eats," I said, "then see if Eddie's got anything for us."

* * *

Eddie didn't pick up when I called so I left a message.

We got a bite to eat at a diner a few blocks down, then came back to Valkyrie's place. Her car wasn't there anymore.

"So much for that," said Mouse. "What next?"

The sky was just getting light. Through the Shelby's windshield, I could see a hazy orange glow creeping up behind the buildings, past the elevated section of highway. I checked my optic clock.

07:12:33.

"Home," I said. "Sleep. We'll pick this up again tonight."

(to be continued...)

"Peek-a-boo"
Part 1 | Part 3

"Peek-a-Boo" - Part One

Absinthe stepped into the room, a petite, willowy woman with jet-black hair and blood-red highlights, wearing a corset, red blouse with bell sleeves, and knee-length black skirt above tall lace-up boots. She closed the door behind her, took one look at us and said, "I think Valkyrie's in trouble and I need your help."

Mouse and I exchanged looks.

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

Me. Name's Kat.

Mouse and I were sitting in an upstairs office at The White Rabbit, a nightclub on Mason Street. Being two blocks from the BCU campus and student housing made it extremely popular with the city's college crowd. Always a full house.

Tonight was no exception.

Even though the office muffled the sound from the dancefloor below, I could stil feel the thumping beat through the floorboards, up my legs, and in the middle of my chest.

"How do you know Valkyrie?" I said to Absinthe. "Besides the obvious." Valkyrie was another datarat and console jockey, just like Fast Eddie and Kid Tachyon.

Absinthe went to the desk and sat down in the high-back leather chair. "She comes in here a lot." She spoke in a measured, precise voice. Friendly but commanding.

If Murphy had been a woman, he'd been Absinthe.

"What's a lot?" I said.

"Two to four times a week. For the past two years. We talk."

"What do you talk about?"

"Anything. Everything."

"What makes you think she's in trouble?"

"I get the feeling something's wrong," Absinthe said.

She had hesitated a second before answering my question. Missed it if you weren't paying attention.

I was paying attention.

"So you've got a feeling," I said.

Absinthe nodded.

"That it?"

Nod.

"You sure?

She blinked at us. "What do you mean?"

I leaned forward, elbows on my knees. "You're not telling us something."

"I can pay, if that's what you're worried about."

"I know you can pay."

Absinthe's jaw clenched. She stared at us for a long time. Then she sat back in the chair. It creaked beneath her. She said, "It started about three weeks ago."

"You're not going to tell us," I said.

The corner of her mouth turned up. "Three weeks ago, Val started getting gifts here."

"You two an item?" said Mouse. " 'Cuz that's wiz cute."

Absinthe looked at Mouse for a moment. Then turned back to me. "Cards, first," she said. "Then flowers. Came a few days apart."

"Sounds like a 'no' on the item question," I said to Mouse.

"Or hiding something," Mouse said.

Absinthe laced her fingers together in front of her chest and narrowed her eyes at us. "Should I call someone else for this? Maybe Jade?"

Mouse snarled.

I straightened in my chair. Put a hand up. "Hang on a sec."

"Jade probably wouldn't ask so many questions."

"Fine," I said. "Biz. No other questions."

Absinthe inclined her head. "Do I need to repeat myself?"

I glanced at Mouse. She'd settled back in her seat. She saw me and gave a nod. I turned back to Absinthe. "Presents," I said. "Three weeks ago. Delivered here. Cards. Flowers. Few days apart."

Absinthe nodded.

"How's that trouble?" I said.

"After the flowers, she started getting roses. First a single. Then half a dozen. Then a dozen. Then two dozen. Then three."

"Few days apart?" said Mouse.

"Yes," Absinthe said. "Then came the jewelry. Ring. Necklace."

"Expensive?" I said.

"Both clocked in between ten and fifteen thousand."

Mouse whistled. "Stalker," she said.

"Yeah," Absinthe said.

"Who?" I said.

"The gifts were all signed 'Your Special Admirer'," said Absinthe.

"Narrows things down," said Mouse.

Absinthe said, "Then there was three days ago."

"Which was..."

"A silver convertible showed up outside the club. A silver Olympus convertible."

"Hooooly shit," said Mouse.

"Exactly what I said," said Absinthe.

The Olympus was made by MBV. The sort of car that vid stars and the glitterati drove. Worth more than all my biomods put together. Times two.

"For Val?" I said.

Absinthe nodded. "Card attached to the steering wheel by a red ribbon was addressed to her. It said 'Elegance deserves elegance.'"

Mouse made a retching sound. "Now that's just creepy."

I said, "What did Val think of the gifts?"

"She says they're harmless," said Absinthe. "Another secret admirer from the 'net. Says she gets them all the time. Usually some infatuated teener. They don't tend to send presents, just a lot of email and 'net messages saying how much they love her and want to marry her and all that. She kept the flowers. Sold the jewelry."

"And the car?"

Absinthe looked at us for a long moment, then said in a lowered voice, "She doesn't know about the car."

"You keeping it?" I said.

Absinthe shook her head. "Specs took it off my hands. Gave me a nice deal, of course."

Good ol' Specs. Everyone's favorite info broker.

"All the gifts make you think Val's in trouble?" I said. "Even though she says this is harmless."

"Nothing harmless about a car worth almost half a million creds."

She had a point.

"No matter what Val says," said Absinthe, "I've got a bad feeling about this."

I nodded. "Okay. We'll check it out. When does Val usually show up here?"

"Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays," Absinthe said. "Between 21:30 and 22:00."

"Lucky us," I said. "It's Thursday and it's 21:50."

The thumping beat of the music downstairs cut out and the speakers let out a loud pop, a buzz, then wailed.

Absinthe frowned, tapped something at the edge of the desk, and nodded to the wall behind us.

We turned.

The lights in the office went out and a panel slid away from the wall to reveal a one-way mirror that looked down over the club.

Absinthe got up.

Then a voice from the speakers said: "Valkyrie! I love you!"

We all ran to the mirror.

The dance crowd had stopped and were staring at the deejay's platform where two men wrestled for control of a handheld microphone.

Then a pair of bouncers rushed the platform and yanked the duo apart. The mic dropped to the ground and the speakers let out a thundering boom.

I heard the short crackle of a two-way radio behind me and Absinthe said, "Bring him up."

I turned.

She stood watching the door, arms folded across her chest, radio in one hand, her face emotionless.

Imperious.

But I could see the muscle in her jaw twitch as she clenched her teeth.

Moments later, the door swung open and the two bouncers from downstairs stepped inside. One was big and beefy with a close-cropped mustache and beard, and long hair tied back in a ponytail. The other was slimly built with a tall rust-orange mohawk. Both wore mandarin-collared black leather dusters buckled down the front.

Between them, held by the arms, stood a tall, skinny twentysomething man with a narrow face and a thick shock of brown hair. He wore a dark collarless shirt, black leather pants and coat, and pointed ankle boots. Typical dress for the club.

But not for him.

The bouncers let go of his arms and he stumbled forward.

His eyes, wide as saucers, flickered between me, Mouse, and Absinthe.

Absinthe stepped up to him, hands folded behind her.

He shrank back.

"I don't know what your game is," Absinthe said, "but it's not welcome here. You're not welcome here. If you come back, my boys have orders to take you down. Isn't that right, Marco?"

The big bouncer with the ponytail gave the man a feral grin. "Right, boss."

"Do we understand?" said Absinthe.

The man nodded.

"I hope so. And if I catch you trying to contact Valkyrie or even hear about you trying to contact Valkyrie in any way, shape, or form, I will personally decapitate you and hang your head over the bar."

He swallowed visibly.

Absinthe said, "Now. Get. Out."

Mohawk stepped aside and Marco opened the door.

The man bolted out the door and down the stairs.

Absinthe gestured to Marco and Mohawk. "Make sure he's gone."

"Done," said Marco and he and Mohawk went down after the man.

Absinthe put the radio on the desk and turned back to us. "I guess that takes care of that. Sorry to have bothered you two."

"No bother," I said. "Always up for an assist."

"I can at least cover your time. Consult fee. It's biz."

"Fine by us."

"Five thousand okay?"

"More than enough."

"I'll have a runner bring the cred'chip by your place tomorrow morning."

"Sounds good." I checked my optic clock. "After 2200. No Val?"

Absinthe frowned and picked up the radio from the desk top. "Carl?"

Static. Then: "Boss?"

"Val come in?"

"Nope."

"Let me know when."

"Will do."

She clicked off the radio, pulled out her cellphone, dialed, put it to her ear. After a moment she said, "It's me. Checking to see if you were dropping in. If not, catch you next time." She hung up.

"Not there?" said Mouse.

"Voicemail," said Absinthe. "Probably on a run."

"Probably," I said. "Tomorrow, then."

"Tomorrow."

* * *

A block away, inside my refitted dark gray 2008 Shelby GT 500, Mouse said, "Something's off."

I saw the frown on her face. "You noticed."

She nodded. "Can't place it, though."

"The guy," I said.

Mouse wrinkled her forehead at me.

"The guy who came in yelling for Val," I said. "The clothes didn't fit."

"Looked like they did."

"Not like that," I said. "He didn't wear them right. Like they were out of place on him."

Mouse's eyes lit up. "It's not him."

"I don't think so."

"So let's tell Absinthe."

"Not yet. We need to confirm."

"Confirm. How?"

"Got an idea," I said.

(to be continued...)

"Peek-a-boo"
Part 2