Gravel Voice was a giant bald black man with a cleft in his chin crouched near us. Over two-and-a-half meters standing up. Muscles straining against his brown leather bomber jacket.
Behind him and to one side stood a woman in black with a thick halo of blond curls, a pistol-grip 12-gauge shotgun leveled at us.
Both sported black berets.
Slammers. Guardian gang who patrolled this end of Southside, from Ellison Avenue eastward to Knight Street, and from Railroad south to Sunset.
Guardian gangs were self-appointed neighborhood vigilantes. Bad news to gangers.
And to anyone else who invaded their turf.
I popped my optics to thermograph.
Biomods on both. Dermal mesh. Headware. Optics. Gravel Voice had one cyberarm, right side. Shotgun Woman, implant claws.
This could be bad.
I rolled to a kneeling position, both hands palms out.
The shotgun followed me.
"Not looking for trouble, choom," I said to Gravel Voice.
"But trouble found you." He inclined his head at the ex-building behind us. "That was a thermobaric warhead. Next gen bunker buster. Go through all that trouble means somebody wants you dead real bad."
"We're popular that way," I said.
He looked at us one at a time with narrowed eyes. "Modded," he said.
Statement. Not question.
"I hope this won't get ugly," I said. "We don't have time."
"Mods mean you'll be quick," said Gravel Voice.
"Kat..." Mouse said.
Gravel Voice jerked a thumb at the roof of the building behind him.
Two-story office building. Gray concrete. Windows reflected the rubble on the other side of the street.
And over the edge of the rooftop, a pair of assault rifle barrels peered down at us.
"Wouldn't try it," Gravel Voice said and grinned.
I returned the grin.
"Crap and a half," said Mouse.
Gravel Voice got up and walked toward the building entrance. He rapped twice on the door with his knuckles.
His grin widened a notch. "Step into my office."
Shotgun Woman gestured us toward the doorway with the 12-gauge.
I looked at Mouse.
"Did things just get better or worse," she said.
* * *
We went in covered by Shotgun Woman and, once through the doorway, three more Slammers, each with a MAC-10 machine pistol.
Gravel Voice led us through a reception area and into a large room with three rows of office cubicles. He pulled a couple of chairs out from their desks and rolled them toward the nearest wall.
"Sit," he said, pointing to the chairs.
The MAC-10s fanned out around us.
Shotgun perched on the corner of a nearby desk, the 12-gauge still leveled at us.
Gravel Voice stood in front of us, feet spread, arms folded across his massive chest, the grin still on his face.
"Are we missing something?" said Mouse.
The grin widened further. "Name's Duncan," he said and indicated Shotgun and the MAC-10s. "Some of my crew." He gestured at us. "And you're Kat and Mouse."
"Do we know you?" I said.
"No. But we know you by reputation."
Mouse nodded at me. "We're still famous."
Duncan's grin widened even more. "Kincaid tells stories."
When you need firepower and your local gun "dealer" doesn't have it, you turn to one man.
He owned the West Coast market on firearms, military weapons, and ordnance, running the game from Southside.
We'd dealt with Kincaid before. The last time, we owed him money after a transaction had gone awry but we soon cleared up that situation and we were now on his good side.
"He said you two are pretty wiz," said Duncan.
"We have our moments," I said.
"I can see that. Pile of rubble out there, for one." He laughed, starting as a low chuckle, building to a hearty guffaw, his head tossed back. When he finished laughing he signaled to Shotgun and the MAC-10s.
They lowered their weapons.
I looked around at them, then at Mouse, then at Duncan.
"So," he said. "Shooters after you."
"Figured. We saw them earlier this morning. Probably setting those charges that blew."
"Around 900 hours."
Four hours before the meet.
"Any left?" said Shotgun Woman.
"We got all but one," I said.
"That was the one who hit you with the warhead," said Duncan and shook his head. "You ladies know how to stir up shit, don't you."
"It's a skill," said Mouse.
"You probably want to go after the shooter who got away," Duncan said.
"That's the plan," I said. "But our car's stuck on the other side of that pile of bricks out there."
"And they blocked up the streets on four sides," said Duncan.
"Creative," I said. "I'll give 'em that."
"We can help with the car," said Duncan.
"What's the catch?"
He chuckled. "Future favor."
I looked at Mouse.
She shrugged. "Why not?"
Murphy used to tell us: "Friend today, enemy tomorrow. Enemy today, friend tomorrow. You never know. Never burn your bridges. You may need them one day. And it always happens when you least expect it."
Turned back to Duncan. "Deal."
He nodded. "Got a guy itching to use some dynamite. Half an hour okay?"
"Okay by me."
He nodded, then reached behind his back and held out Bonnie, grip toward me. "I think this belongs to you."
(to be continued...)