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"Taking Care of Business" - Part One

6 September 2042 - One hour later
Atlanta Metroplex
Southern Alliance

Malachi gripped the arms of his desk chair and glared at the phone on the desktop. "You assured me," he said, teeth gritted, "your men were reliable."

"They are, Brother," said the voice on the other end of the line.

"Then explain." He shot a glance at the bank of video monitors on the wall nearest to him. "It's being carried over five major networks."

"I...can't," said the voice.

"You'd better hope that fool didn't jeopardize the plan," Malachi said.

"I don't think he did."

"I'm not confident with your answer at the moment, Captain. Fail again and I will end you."

Malachi cut the connection and slumped back in the chair.

Ten months of planning nearly ruined by a moment of stupidity.

Idiots.

He felt his jaw tighten and took a long deep breath, willing himself to relax. He closed his eyes and let out a long exhale.

Lord, give me strength...

The intercom buzzed at him.

Malachi tapped the TALK button. "Yes, Sister Rebecca?"

"Call for you on line two, Brother."

"Thank you." He keyed the phone. "Yes?"

"Malachi, are you insane?" came the reply. "What the hell--what in blazes are you thinking?"

Malachi smiled, frustration disappearing. "Vice Mayor Jeffries. How are you this evening? Are you working late?"

"I sent you the package," said Jeffries, his voice tight and pitched high. "I agreed to cooperate and I have been. Now this?"

"Your tone, Mr. Jeffries," said Malachi. "Remember."

"I remember, damn you. That's still no call for this."

Malachi frowned. "And what exactly do you mean by 'this'?"

"Don't play coy with me. You know damn--you know exactly what I mean. Your people tried to blow me to kingdom come."

"A simple misunderstanding," Malachi said.

"Misunderstanding? Bullshit."

Malachi frowned. "Language, Mr. Jeffries."

"This is getting nuts. This...I can't...I don't know..."

"Did you know, Mr. Jeffries, that Amanda is with child?"

"What? That's--that's not possible! It was five months ago--"

"With God all things are possible," said Malachi. "Think of it, Mr. Jeffries."

"No," said Jeffries, and the word came out choked.

Malachi smiled. "I'm glad we still have an understanding. I must go now, Vice Mayor. Until next time."

* * *

7 September 2042

Giovanni Vittorio frowned and drummed thick fingers on the blotter of his huge oak desk. "How long ago?"

In the highback red leather armchair across from him, Joseph Manfredi, Vittorio family consigliere, tall and dapper with a narrow-face and thick salt-and-pepper hair, said, "Ten minutes."

Vittorio nodded. "And Righetti? Does he know?"

"Only a matter of time."

"Call him. We'll need to talk."

"A meeting."

Vittorio shook his head. "No time. You said tomorrow, si?"

Manfredi nodded. "Si."

"Then as soon as possible. By phone."

"And Daniela?"

"Righetti first," said Vittorio.

(to be continued...)

"Taking Care of Business"
Part 2

"Date Night" - Part Four

Kitchen Man turned toward the other diners. "Like Jesus said to the second thief--verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise."

"Amen!" the other two figures said.

"Yes, amen!" said Kitchen Man. "Praise the Lord for he is good."

I check my optic clock.

19:47:33.

"We have to end this," I said to Jake, keeping my voice low and trying not to move my lips.

Jake indicated Kitchen Man with a nod of his head. "He's key. Take him out, other two might hesitate."

"Ideas?"

"Working."

I looked back at Kitchen Man. He was reciting something about a lake of fire. His left hand still held the deadman's switch.

Then I looked at the other two figures. They still held their UZIs with both hands.

And a thought struck.

"Got something," I said to Jake.

"You lead."

Optic clock: 19:49:22.

I let out a long exhale.

Grabbed the cloth napkin from the table, unrolled it until it was a length of fabric, and held it in my lap.

Then I lowered my head and began to whimper.

Soft at first.

Then louder.

After a few seconds of this, I mumbled "Don't wanna die" over and over and began to rock back and forth in my chair.

Kept one eye on Kitchen Man.

Optic clock: 19:50:45.

Kitchen Man started back in our direction, still reciting.

Louder now: "Don't wanna die. Don't wanna die."

The rocking got more pronounced.

Kitchen Man stopped talking and looked at me.

Even louder. Voice pitched higher. "Don't wanna die. Don't wanna die."

Jake was making soothing sounds.

He put a hand on my shoulder.

I yelped and shook it off.

Then launched into a fit of wailing.

Kitchen Man strode toward us.

I went back to mumbling. Agitated. Almost sobbing.

"I'm sorry--" Jake began.

Kitchen Man held up his hand, and at arm's length away said to me, "Dear Sister, what's the matter--"

A subvocalized command flooded my body with adrenaline stimulators and the world slid into slo-mo.

I sprang forward, the napkin held at either ends.

Closed the gap between us in one step. Wrapped the napkin tight around Kitchen Man's left hand, trapping his thumb against the switch. Shuffled forward so I was behind him, pivoted, and yanked his arm up behind his back, and shoved him onto the table.

His head bounced on the tabletop.

I snatched the pistol from his leg holster and flung it aside.

Heard four shots go off behind me, followed by a woman's scream, then the thud of falling bodies.

Kitchen Man twitched.

I slammed him back down. Twice.

Then once more, just to make sure.

The third time his head bounced off the tabletop, he went limp.

Another subvocal command and the stims shut off.

My pulse raced, hammering in my chest, and my body felt like a spring at full tension.

I forced my breathing to slow down.

Then Jake was at my side. Four long strips of duct tape dangled from the edge of his hand.

"Good idea," I said.

He wrapped the duct tape strips around the napkin on Kitchen Man's hand, making sure the switch stayed depressed.

I let go of the napkin, stepped back, and turned to look at the other two bombers.

Both lay sprawled on the floor at the edge of the dining area, faces blown off, blood pooling beneath their heads.

I found Kitchen Man's pistol on the floor, just past the table Callahan's muscle had been sitting at. I picked it up, dropped the magazine, ejected the round from the pistol's chamber, and dropped magazine and pistol onto the table.

Turned back to Jake.

He had taken more duct tape off Kitchen Man's vest and had wrapped the hand until it was a silver gray ball.

"All good?" I said.

"Until he wakes up," said Jake.

Footsteps behind us.

I whirled, the Twins already in my hands.

Jake had also drawn his pistol.

Two men stood in front of us. One was muscle and had a hand inside his suit jacket. The other had a hand on the muscle's arm. Medium height, fortyish, with slicked-back blond hair wearing a dark suit.

"It's okay," said Blond Hair. "My security can watch him."

"And who are you?" I said.

Blond Hair smiled. "Vice Mayor Carl Jeffries." He extended a hand.

I gave him a quick nod and holstered the Twins.

He gave a small cough. "I've called the police. They should be here in the next five minutes." He gestured at Kitchen Man. "We'll make sure he doesn't try anything. You two had better go."

"Just like that?" I said.

"I know what you two are," said Jeffries. "And I know you don't exactly do well with law enforcement."

Sirens wailed outside.

"Service elevator," said Jeffries's bodyguard. "Back of the kitchen."

"Let's bounce," I said to Jake.

We turned and started for the kitchen.

"One more thing," Jeffries called out.

I stopped, looked back at him.

"Thank you," he said.

* * *

Twenty minutes later, we had snuck past the police cordon outside the hotel and were heading to the Red Dog in Jake's gray BMW. We rode the rest of the way back in silence. Just the low thrum of the car's engine and the buzz of traffic around us.

When we finally pulled into the alley next to the Red Dog, Jake shut off the car. "That was unexpected."

I shrugged. "That's Biz. Remind me to tell you about Bakersfield."

"I will." He turned toward me. "Half is yours. Consult fee."

"Fine by me."

Then his hand found mine. "I'm sorry about dinner, though," he said, his voice suddenly low and husky. "Let me make it up to you."

The butterflies in my stomach went batshit again.

"Sure," I said, my voice cracking. I pulled my hand away from his, got out of the car, and made for the Red Dog's back door.

And Jake was suddenly in front of me, blocking the back door, ocean blue eyes boring down into mine.

I never heard him move.

"Jake--" I said.

Then his lips covered mine.

Searing white heat flared in my belly, exploded into my slacks, then surged up my spine, and air wooshed from my lungs. I sank forward against a rippling muscled torso and the sound of rushing water mingled with the pounding in my skull.

And then he was gone, the sound of the car's engine vanishing up the alley, and I was leaning my forehead against the cold metal of the back door, gasping for breath.

Dammit dammit dammit.

Not again.

--END--

NEXT TIME: "Taking Care of Business"

"Date Night"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

"Date Night" - Part Three

Half a dozen figures wearing food-stained aprons bolted out of the kitchen into the dining area.

Followed by a figure wearing a ski mask and dark overcoat with the lapels turned up, an semi-automatic pistol in his left hand, the barrel pointed at the ceiling.

Movement at the corner of my eye.

Turned.

Two more figures. Also with ski masks, overcoats, and carrying UZI submachineguns. They herded the serving staff further into the dining area.

Beyond them, the doors leading in the restaurant were closed.

Dammit. Bakersfield all over again.

I glanced over at Jake.

He gave a small shake of his head.

"Steven," said Callahan.

Callahan's muscle rose from his chair at the adjacent table, pistol clearing his suit coat from a shoulder holster beneath. An old Desert Eagle.

He strode forward, stopped in front and to one side of our table, and leveled the pistol at the gunmen. "Drop the guns," he said.

The figure from the kitchen turned toward Steven. Then he slowly pulled his overcoat aside with his free hand.

My gut dropped.

He was wearing a load-bearing vest carrying at least three blocks of C4, fully wired, with a plastic bag packed with metal ball bearings duct-taped to each block.

A suicide vest.

Shit.

The figure smiled.

Then a short chatter.

Steven's head jerked back and exploded in a spray of blood, gray matter, and bone fragments. He dropped the pistol and toppled backwards on the adjacent table, slammed his head against the edge and flipped it sideways in a clatter of silverware.

A diner screamed.

"Quiet!" said Kitchen Man.

The scream trailed away into a muffled strangle.

I saw one of the gunmen lower his UZI.

"That's better," Kitchen Man said with a smile. "Instead of screaming, y'all should be singing hallelujahs. Because today you're going to be saved from your earthly trials."

The other two figures spread out along the front of the restaurant, still facing us, subguns leveled.

"History lesson," said Kitchen Man. "Ten years ago on this very day, the Alliance marched on the lawless states of the so-called Border League to reclaim rightful Alliance lands. Because the Lord commanded us just like he did Joshua: 'Ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and dwell therein for I have given you the land to possess it.' "

"Goddamn fanatical sons of bitches," said Callahan, lips pulled back in a snarl.

Kitchen Man turned to Callahan. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

"Fuck you," said Callahan.

Kitchen Man leveled his pistol at Callahan and shot him three times in the chest.

Callahan jerked in his chair with each shot, then slid off, and thudded to the floor.

Kitchen Man pointed the pistol at me.

I held my hands above the table, palms out.

He gave me a nod, then pointed the gun at Jake.

"Are we going to have trouble with you?" Kitchen Man said.

Jake shook his head. "No trouble."

Kitchen Man looked from him to Callahan's empty chair then back to Jake. "You pick sinful friends."

"Client," said Jake and gave a small chuckle. "Actually, I always thought he was a pompous jerk."

Kitchen Man smirked.

"Okay if I sit next to my wife?" said Jake and inclined his head at me.

I blinked.

Kitchen Man glanced at me, then back to Jake and nodded.

Jake got up, crossed in front of our table, and took a seat in the empty chair to my left. He reached out, took my hand, then covered it with his other hand and squeezed. "It's okay," he said to me, loud enough for Kitchen Man to hear.

I looked at him, fighting down the frenzied butterflies in my stomach.

His expression said: Go with it.

I nodded and gave him what I thought was a nervous smile.

Kitchen Man slid his pistol into a leg holster and turned back toward the other diners. "Like I was saying," he went on. "Y'all have been chosen to take part in this historic occasion. It's now 19:45. In fifteen minutes, we're going to remind everyone that those who continue to live in ungodly ways will suffer the holy vengeance of eternal fire. And we're going to proclaim that moment with an example."

The other two figures shrugged off their overcoats and my chest tightened.

Both wore suicide vests. Like Kitchen Man's.

I counted four blocks of C4 in front and at least that many at the back, plastic-packed ball bearings also duct-taped to the blocks.

Kitchen Man reached up to his vest's lapel and unhooked a pen-sized cylinder. A length of braided wire connected the cylinder to the vest. He depressed a switch with his thumb and held it there.

Deadman's switch.

Next to me, Jake sucked in air through gritted teeth.

"I know," I said, under my breath.

This could get ugly.

(to be continued...)

"Date Night"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

"Date Night" - Part Two

At 18:00 on the dot, I stepped out into the alley next to the Red Dog.

Jake wore a black tailored suit that accentuated his broad shoulders and tapered waist. He stood on the driver's side of a gray BMW sedan, the door open, looking at me over the car's roof, a lopsided smile turning up the corner of his mouth. "No little black dress?"

Once more, I fought down the butterflies in my gut. "In your dreams," I said.

"Every night."

The butterflies went batshit again.

I took a long breath, opened the passenger side door, and got inside.

Jake got in. "I thought this was date?"

I turned and glared at him, still fighting the butterflies and the growing heat in my gut. "Just drive."

His smile widened another few notches. "I love it when you're serious." He gave a low chuckle, started the car, and headed north on Garner toward downtown.

"Who's the client," I said.

"Guy named Callahan," said Jake. "Small time boss with delusions of grandeur."

"Not in B.C."

"Northwood. Righetti and Vittorio would have his balls if he tried that here."

I said, "So what am I doing here?"

"Callahan knows me as a duo. Female partner. That's where you come in."

"So you've done this before."

"Twice."

I felt my jaw clench. "Really."

"Purely Biz."

"I've heard that before."

"Last two times was with Raven," Jake said.

"Oh." Raven was another ronin who used to run in B.C. but now worked out of the Portland Metroplex. I knew her by reputation. Ex-Mossad. An efficient operator whose tastes ran toward explosives and women.

"You weren't around then," Jake went on. "She was."

"So now it's my turn."

"Something like that."

"Thanks."

"Don't take it the wrong way. Raven was good. But you, you're..."

He paused.

I turned toward him. The butterflies quivered.

Jake said: "Raven was quiet and deadly. You're loud and deadly." Another pause, then: "I prefer loud and deadly."

Then he looked over at me, eyes narrowed, and smiled.

I turned my attention to the street ahead as it rolled underneath the BMW's hood. Past the car taillights and the flashing signboards, the glass and steel 'scrapers of the Bay City skyline loomed ahead. Beyond them, the dark violet sky of evening.

I forced myself to concentrate on the upcoming meet.

But the smell of soap and gun oil wafted past my nose and the butterflies started their frenzy again.

Dammit all to hell.

* * *

The meet was at the rooftop restaurant of the Palladium Hotel.

Callahan was fiftyish and hook-nosed in dark blue pinstripes. He sat at a large round table at the far end of the restaurant, his back to the huge picture windows that looked out over 10th Street twenty stories below.

At a table behind Callahan sat a huge bald man stuffed into a badly-fitting dark suit.

Muscle.

He looked at us from behind a pair of mirrorshades and gave a brief nod. His face stayed expressionless.

When we reached the table, Callahan gestured to the four empty chairs around him. "Sit, sit," he said.

Jake and I sat in chairs to either side of him, angled so we could see the restaurant entrance.

Callahan reached for the wine bottle on his right and held it out to us. "Romanee Conti, twenty years old. From my own cellar. Paid over twenty thousand Creds at auction for this. Per bottle." He grinned. "Got seven more at home. Glass?"

"We're here for business, Mr. Callahan," said Jake.

Callahan chuckled and refilled his glass. "Focused. Always liked that about you." He took a sip of wine then set the glass back on the table and inclined his head at me. "She's not the same one."

Jake shook his head. "This is Marie."

"What happened to the other one?"

"Harsh business. Things happen."

Callahan nodded. "Too bad." His eyes narrowed at me. "Could pass for her sister, though."

"Business," said Jake.

Callahan turned to him, reached inside his suit jacket, and pulled out a creditchip. He passed it across the table to Jake. "Ten thousand. As promised. Balance on completion."

Jake took the 'chip, pulled the reader from his suit jacket, scanned it. He nodded. "The job?"

"It's an extraction," said Callahan.

"Who's the target?" I said.

" 'What' is a better word."

"What," said Jake, "is the target?"

"An item of value," said Callahan. "You'll need to take in transit."

"Why then?" I said.

Callahan said: "There's going to be--"

Three rapid cracks.

Gunfire.

Then panicked voices and hurried footfalls.

I turned toward the sound.

(to be continued...)

"Date Night"
Part 1 | Part 3