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"Pop Quiz" - Part Three

The Ascot Arms occupied most of 15th Street between Hancock and Wisher.

We walked west on 15th to the hotel, joining the crowd of peds that cruised the sidewalk in both directions, and waited for the signal light at the corner.

Another blue and white cruiser came around the corner and headed south on 15th. Five seconds later, a sky-eye swung into view, its camera sweeping the street.

Mouse and I conveniently turned away from the camera, pointing toward some distant object like a pair of tourists.

A few seconds later, it whirred past us.

The light changed.

We crossed the street toward the hotel.

* * *

The hotel interior oozed money. Marble tile dominated the huge foyer. To our left, the entrance to Veronica's, the restaurant where we'd had the shoot-out three months earlier. Directly in front of us, a path running under high columned arches led to the lobby and registration counter. Guests came and went, their conversations joining the clack-clack of passing luggage carts manned by bellhops in dark gray uniforms.

We made our way across the foyer to a discreet security station. I handed over our ID cards, showing we were armed couriers, licensed and bonded with the CFS.

The guard swiped the cards through a slot at the side of his terminal, studied the display on the screen, then said, "What room?"

"421," I said.

He nodded, handed the cards back to me, then gestured down the long path. "Straight to the counter, then make a left, then your first right. That'll be the elevators."

We thanked him and made our way down the path.

No alarms had gone off.

I let out the breath I'd been holding.

"Me, too," Mouse said.

The IDs still worked.

I made a mental note to thank Eddie again.

* * *

I knocked on the door of room 421.

Silence.

Then a faint click of a lock and the door opened slightly, the security chain still in place.

A pair of dark eyes peered through the opening. "Yes?"

I held up the briefcase. "Delivery," I said.

"Excellent," said the eyes. "Right on schedule. Please set the briefcase in front of the door and step back into the hallway."

We complied.

The door closed. A clack of metal as the chain came undone. Then the door opened again and a slender, red-haired man in a powder blue suit stepped forward and reached for the briefcase.

Spotted a large figure standing just behind the man.

Muscle.

We exchanged nods.

Professional courtesy.

"One moment, please," Red Hair said and stepped back inside the door and closed the door.

We waited.

Quiet settled over the hallway.

No one came out of the other rooms.

After a minute or two, the door opened again and Red Hair emerged, cred'chip extended between thumb and index finger. "Here you are. Final balance as agreed."

I stepped forward and took and proffered 'chip. "Thank you."

"Feel free to confirm the amount," he said. "I can wait in case there are problems."

Very slick.

I smiled and passed the 'chip to Mouse., still keeping my eyes on Red Hair.

After a moment, Mouse said, "Confirmed."

"A pleasure doing business with you," Red Hair said and smiled.

His smile struck me as being far too white and the hairs on the back of my neck bristled.

I quickly pushed the though out of my mind and thanked him again.

He disappeared back into the room.

Mouse and I turned and headed for the elevators.

As we stood waiting I said, "Was he a little odd to you, too?"

"Yeah," said Mouse. "Can't figure out why though."

"Me either. But something was...off."

The elevator chimed, the doors slid open, and we went inside.

Mouse made a noise.

I turned, saw her stumble slightly.

"You okay?" I started to say and felt the sting at my neck.

Looked behind us and saw the woman standing in the hallway beyond the elevator doors, a pistol leveled at us.

Then she went out of focus, and the world went gray.

Then dark.

(to be continued...)

"Pop Quiz"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

"Pop Quiz" - Part Two

We had an hour before the pick up. Just enough time to make sure we weren't tailed before heading north on Highway 342 to Interstate 117 and Bay City International Airport near Northwood. The meeting would be on the third level of the parking garage next to the terminals, the northwest corner.

As we drove up the 342 onramp off 47th in the white ChrysFord loaner Specs had sent, Mouse grumbled to herself.

I glanced over at her.

We were dressed in similar outfits: blouse, blazer, and slacks. Black for me. Dark gray for her.

"I really hate these clothes," she said.

"Just a little while longer," I said. "We'll be done with this in no time."

We got to the garage half an hour early and parked in a slot halfway down the aisle. The angled parking gave us a clear view of the northwest corner.

At 13:00, on the dot, a silver Mercedes sedan came around the corner and stopped at the end of the aisle. The door behind the driver's side opened and a dark-suited man with a briefcase got out.

I put the loaner into gear and rolled toward the sedan then stopped a few meters away. I kept the motor running. Mouse and I both got out of the car but stayed behind the opened doors.

"You two picking up?" Briefcase Man said.

"We are," I said.

"I'm reaching for the first half of your payment," he said.

"Slowly."

He nodded, slipped a hand inside his jacket, came back out with a cred'chip between thumb and index finger. He waved it at us.

"Walk forward," I said. "Stop halfway between us."

He nodded, took several steps forward then stopped.

"Put the briefcase and the 'chip on the ground and walk backwards to the car."

Again, he complied. When he reached the car, he stopped.

Mouse glanced at me then went forward to pick up the briefcase and the 'chip. She pulled a reader from her trenchcoat pocket and swiped the chip in the slot. "Twenty-five," she called out. "As promised."

Then she walked backwards to the loaner and got inside.

The Man said, "And you know where to go?"

I nodded. "Ascot Arms."

"Room 421," he said and got back in the Mercedes. They pulled around the loaner and drove away.

I watched them go. When they disappeared around the corner at the other end, I got back in the car and went back to our parking slot.

"Ten minutes," I said. "Then we'll go."

Mouse nodded and pulled a half-opened bag of screamer chips from the glove compartment. "Don't say it."

"But two cake runs in one day," I said. "That's gotta be a record for us, right?"

"You said that earlier and remember what happened? Besides, there are no cake runs."

And I suddenly remembered something Murphy once said to us: "There are no cake runs. Only runs with minimal body count."

* * *

Back to Uptown.

Bordered by Imperial Avenue on the west, Archer Street on the east, Front Street on the north, and Midway Avenue on the south, Uptown housed everything Bay City's glitterati could ask for. This was a whole other world, one of gleaming towers and golden people. It made even the nicer parts of the city look like a shithole.

And the parts Mouse and I frequented?

Cesspools.

We took the 10th Street exit off 342 and headed west toward the steel and glass towers of Corporate Plaza. Street conditions went from rundown and garbage-strewn to well-kept and litter-free. By the time we crossed Archer Street, it was as if the whole world had changed. The streets looked as if they were scrubbed down and polished daily. In the space of two blocks, we passed a blue and white police cruiser and a pair of roving sky-eyes.

Thankfully, we were dressed for the part, despite Mouse's protests. Our normal outfits would've had BCPD MaxTac on us in under a minute and I wasn't in the mood to tangle with them.

"Here we go again," I said and turned into a parking garage two blocks from the hotel.

(to be continued...)

"Pop Quiz"
Part 1 | Part 3

"Pop Quiz" - Part One

"I think," I said, putting my refitted 2008 Shelby GT500 into gear, "that was our very first cake run."

Mouse, my partner and fellow ronin, held up the cred'chip between thumb and index finger. "Twenty thousand cred payout right here," she said. "I think you could be right."

I pulled the car into traffic heading north on Cameron Avenue, just past 50th Street.

At the next intersection, the light turned red. We stopped.

And the ivory Metro Cab in front of us bucked under a rain of machinegun fire that punched through the hood and blew out the windshield.

Then the rain of lead walked across the cab's roof toward us.

"Oh shit!" said Mouse.

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

Me. Name's Kat.

I yanked the wheel hard left and mashed on the gas.

The Shelby flipped a U-turn into the southbound lane in a screech of tires, back end fishtailing.

Clipped part of the cab, felt the jolt shudder up my arms.

Concrete exploded around us.

Then the wheels caught, we lurched forward, and sped south on Cameron.

"Okay," I said to Mouse. "Maybe that wasn't a cake run."

She grunted in reply.

* * *

I took the long way back to the Red Dog, circling some blocks twice, just to make sure no one tailed us.

Mouse had been keeping watch out the back window. When I rounded Garner at 48th, she turned back toward the front of the car.

"Clear," she said.

"Good," I said.

"Any idea who that was?"

"Nope. You see where they were?"

"Second or third floor. Building further up Cameron. Was a crappy angle. They had to adjust."

"Good for us," I said. "Bad for the cab."

"Who was it, you think?"

"Not our delivery. That'd be stupid. And bad for biz."

"Then who?"

"We'll figure it out later."

* * *

We had just walked in through the Red Dog's back entrance when my phone chirped.

Tinker. Genius gadget-girl and all-around techno-wizard.

Mouse gestured toward the main bar area. "I'll get us some eats."

I nodded and answered the phone. "Hiya, Tink."

"Updates about the house," Tinker said.

After the incident with Danny and his aunt two weeks earlier, Tinker had come out to assess and repair the damage. "Good news, right?"

"It is for me," she said.

I groaned. "I don't like the sound of that. How much?"

"Not very."

I could hear her smile. "Says you."

Tinker chuckled. "Grand total comes to five hundred thousand. That's the gate, back door, and rebuilt safe room."

"What was the good news?"

"Ashe already installed a new gate. Back door'll be ready in two days. Take another week, week and a half to finish the room."

"Sounds good," I said and made a mental note to check our funds later. "I'll get that out to you." I hung up and went into the bar area.

Mouse was perched on a stool at the bar, a plate of sandwiches and screamer chips in front of her. She saw me, gestured at the plate.

"Turkey," she said, and took a sandwich.

I came over, sat on a stool next to her, and picked up the other sandwich. "Real?"

She nodded. "Rev got them from an importer."

My stomach gurgled. I took a bite.

A nice change from the soymeats we usually ate.

"Who called?" Mouse said, grabbing a handful of screamer chips. Muffled wails came from her hand.

"Tinker," I said and told her the gist of the call.

She swallowed, gave a low whistle. "Pricey."

"Gotta be done."

She held up her half-eaten sandwich. "Enjoy this while it lasts."

"We just got paid," I said.

"I'm being practical."

"Cynical, more like it."

She stuck her tongue out at me then bit into her sandwich.

My phone chirped.

Specs. Everybody's favorite infobroker.

I put the phone on speaker and set it down on the bartop. "Specs!" I said. "What's up?"

"I just heard back from your client," he said.

"From this morning?" said Mouse. "That was quick."

I checked my optic clock, then said, "Was barely an hour ago."

"Yep," said Specs, "and he's got another run for you. Another delivery."

"I'm starting to get tired of running errands," I said.

"Yeah," Mouse said. "Got anything else?"

"Too tired for a fifty thousand credit payout?"

I straightened in the stool.

Two payouts in one day. Nice change.

"We're in," I said. "Details?"

Specs told us.

"Shit," said Mouse. "I hate changing."

"Gotta look the part," I said.

"Yeah. Look like an idiot."

"I'm more worried about where we're going."

The final delivery was at the Ascot Arms hotel in Uptown. The last time we'd been there, we ended up in a shootout in the hotel restaurant with some corp secmen. The time before was another fracas, also with corp secman, that resulted in a corner penthouse and part of the floor below going up in smoke.

"That, too," said Mouse.

Specs said, "You got two hours."

"More than enough time," I said. "Got a car for us?"

"Be there in five minutes," said Specs. "Oh yeah. There's some chatter you oughta know about. Somebody's gunning for you two. Actively."

"We know," said Mouse.

"Bastard tried to hose us with a machinegun," I said. "Just after we made the drop this morning."

"Chatter's saying it's a local ganger. Ring any bells?"

Mouse and I exchanged looks.

"Dreadlocks," we said at the same time.

"Who?" Specs said.

I reminded him about the incident with the cat and added the run-in with the Wyld Boyz.

Wyld Boyz (and their female halves, the Wyld Grrlz) funneled Aguila rec drugs to BCU students and were rumored to drink the blood of their enemies. They tended to dress in tattered clothing like streeters--if streeters sported tattoos and piercings, ran in packs, and hunted tresspassers on their turf.

Said turf covered everything between Hancock Avenue west to Steiner, and from 38th Street south to Hillside.

The last time Mouse and I encountered them we'd been after a runaway cat inside Wyld Boyz territory. Mouse cornered the cat in an alley. Three Wyld Boyz cornered Mouse.

I cornered the three Wyld Boyz.

They didn't like that very much.

Especially their leader, a big hulking bruiser Mouse and I called Dreadlocks.

"Sonofabitch," said Specs. "How you two always manage to stir shit up is beyond me."

"But we get the job done," I said. "And you get your percentage.

"And that's why I love you guys."

"Greedy bastard," said Mouse.

Specs laughed. "Damn straight. Now you two watch your asses, y'hear? And for chrissake, don't blow up the hotel again."

"Thanks, Specs," I said and hung up.

"Not good," said Mouse.

I nodded. "Be the second time he's crossed turf."

When Mouse and I were investigating fellow netjockey Valkyrie's disappearance, Dreadlocks had fired on us from the mouth of the alley next to the Red Dog. Lucky for us, we'd been near the armored backdoor and were able to hit cover in time. Otherwise, we'd have been filled with holes.

"Let's tell the dogboys," I said. "Let them know someone's sneaking around their patch."

The dogboys were the Wolfpack, a punkergang that controlled the Hillside District from Wisher Avenue eastward to Waterman Avenue, and from 36th Street south to Hillside Avenue. Mouse had run with them before hooking up with me and Murphy.

The Red Dog was right in the middle of Wolfpack territory.

Mouse grinned. "They're gonna love that."

(to be continued...)

"Pop Quiz"
Part 2

"With Cat-like Tread" - Part Twelve

After I cuffed the mook to the staircase railing, I called Revell.

"Da?" he said.

"It's done."

I heard a long exhale. "Spaseba. Thank you."

"Did you want to see her?"

A pause. Then: "Nyet. Not this way. There will be chance later."

"Okay, Rev."

He hung up.

I started to put the phone away when it chirped again.

Eddie.

"What've you got for me?" I said.

"Building was rented a month ago to a company called Champion Media," he said. "Sim producers."

"Legit?"

"If by 'legit' you mean 'quite dodgy,' then yes. Got them renting small offices in San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Angeles. Plus at least thirty other cities from the Northwest Free Zone to the NorFed States."

"What did you mean by dodgy?"

"They only stay for a month, then pack up and leave."

"I don't get it."

"I didn't either. 'Til I dug some more. Champion's owned by a company called Alliance Entertainment. Second-tier adult entertainment company. Sims. Toys. Net movies. Typical stuff. Run by a bloke named Douglas Jackson. And Jackson's just one of many names. Better known as William Sikes."

I felt my breath catch in my throat. A prickling sensation crept up my spine and my pulse thudded in my ears.

"Kat? You there?"

Took a deep inhale, willing away the images that started to take shape in my mind.

No. Not now.

"Kat?" said Eddie. "Everything okay?"

"Fine," I said, my mouth dry. I licked my lips, tried to swallow.

"You've heard of Sikes, haven't you."

"Yeah. White Brotherhood. Traffickers."

"Champion and Alliance, they're just fronts for them," said Eddie.

"And we just stuck our foot in their door," I said.

Fuck.

* * *

Mouse met me outside the unit. "Everything okay?"

I told her about the White Brotherhood connection.

She winced. "Oh, fuck."

* * *

We drove back toward BCU in silence.

The two brunettes lived on campus so we dropped them off near the residence halls on the north side. They thanked us profusely before heading off toward one of four red-bricked buildings.

Ten minutes later, we pulled up in front of the townhouse.

Raya leaned forward between the front seats. "I wanted to say thank you."

"Glad we could help," I said.

"Uncle Revell's probably not coming, right?"

"Probably not."

"Didn't think so."

"Don't misunderstand--" I said.

She held up a hand and half-smiled. "It's okay. I know why. It's just the way it is. And besides"--her smile widened a notch--"he sent you two. I'll take that."

"He said there'll be a chance later."

"I know. I'll be waiting."

I got out of the car. Mouse got out, too, moved her seat forward, and let Raya slide out.

"I'll wait here," said Mouse.

I nodded and walked with Raya to the townhouse's front door.

"Thank you again," she said. "And tell my uncle I said hello."

"I will," I said. "Until you two meet up."

She grinned, turned, and knocked on the door.

It opened. Tanya stood in the doorway, saucer-eyed, and gasped.

"Hi, honey," said Raya. "I'm home."

* * *

When I got back in the car Mouse turned to me and said, "What're we gonna do about the White Brotherhood?"

I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, squeezed hard, and tried to steady my pulse. "Let it sit for now," I said.

"They'll find out eventually."

I turned to Mouse. "We'll handle it then."

Her eyes narrowed for a long moment. Then she nodded and said, "Works for me."

I started the Shelby, put her into gear, and headed back to the Red Dog.

When we turned east on 47th Street, Mouse swore under her breath.

"What?" I said.

"I still have that damn song in my head."

"What song?"

"With cat-like tread, upon our prey--"

I clapped a hand over her mouth. "Never. Do that. Again."

--END--

NEXT TIME: "Pop Quiz"

"With Cat-like Tread"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11