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?"
"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.
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?"
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."
"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."
"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.
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."
She stood watching the door, arms folded across her chest, radio in one hand, her face emotionless.
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?"
"Let me know when."
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."
* * *
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."
"Got an idea," I said.
(to be continued...)