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"Into The Woods" - Part Six

Outside, standing two meters away, the aerodyne looked even worse than before. The RPG had taken out the rear left thrusterpod and part of the rear fuselage. Burned and twisted metal still smoked and what paint scheme there was on the main body had been scraped off, as if by some monster talons, exposing bare metal beneath.

Cutter had brought the aerodyne down but managed to take out a stand of trees and a house. Now the craft sat at a slight angle atop at pile of debris and tree parts.

"Damn," said Mouse as we looked at the crash.

"Fucking assholes owe me," Cutter said, walking up to us.

"How the hell are we supposed to get back to Redding?" Mouse said.

"We'll deal with that later. First, we get Beck." I looked at Cutter.

He nodded and gestured toward the narrow paved road ahead. "This way."

We started after him.

"You sure you know where you're going?" said Mouse.

Cutter turned so he was facing us but kept walking backwards. He gestured around him with one hand. "We're in French Gulch. About thirty klicks west of Redding. Place died twenty-five years ago. Claw uses this as a kind of landing area for supply runs."

"Meaning people like you help them out," I said.

"Strictly a job," he said. "I don't take sides."

"Money talks."

"Bingo."

"So you've been here before?" said Mouse.

"Three times," said Cutter. "Supply run, like I said. Food. Parts. Materials. Clothing. You name it."

"Why not just drive up here from Redding?" I said.

"If Capitol got wind of a supply run, they could blockade the city. No one in or out. Or take out a truck or two enroute. Aerodynes can land pretty much anywhere. It was a no brainer."

"At least until Capitol gets their own aerodynes."

"Until then," said Cutter.

I said: "You know them. They know you. Why'd they shoot you down?"

"That's what I want to find out."

* * *

We'd been walking for several minutes. On either side of the road were dilapidated houses buried in overgrown weeds. Rusted and dust-caked cars, tires gone flat and windows broken, sat in driveways and along the side of the road. From the dashboard of a nearby faded green sedan, a pair of squirrels sat on their haunches, noses twitching, staring as we went by.

"So where is Claw?" I said.

"They've got a base up in the hills," Cutter said. "There's a road that runs northeast from town. Leads up there."

"It's a fixed base?"

He nodded. "Used to be an old mine. Pretty sure they're using it now."

"Why not use the town?" said Mouse.

Cutter shrugged. "My guess is power. None out this way anymore. You'd have to use gennys. And that'd be a lot of them. Might as well just use the big one in the mine."

"Makes sense," Mouse said.

"Should be there in about an hour," said Cutter. He looked at me. "We just planning to go in, guns blazing?"

" 'Course not," I said.

"So you have a plan."

"Working on it."

Cutter stopped and gaped at me. "You're kidding, right?"

"You get used to it," said Mouse. "Just follow her lead."

"Follow her lead? What the hell kind of ronin are you?"

"The 'still alive' kind," I said.

"Makes things interesting," said Mouse, grinning.

* * *

Just like Cutter said, the paved, two-lane road led northeast away from town, flanked by three long-abandoned buildings on our left and a shrub-dotted rust-orange hillside that angled sharply upward on our right.

Mouse, keeping pace with me, said: "Why do you think these Claw guys grabbed Beck?"

"Best guess is ransom," I said. "Fighting against the corporations and all that. They know Cutter. We were armed so they probably figured we were hired muscle. Beck wasn't armed so he was probably the important one. Usually works that way."

"Good point. Always boils down to money."

"Most of the time."

Mouse wiped sweat from her forehead and shifted her shoulders beneath her back scabbard harness. "I hate this heat."

"Me, too," I said, feeling the sweat spreading across my upper back, and the thin lines snaking down the side of my face.

Mouse inclined her head at Cutter who walked several paces ahead, the AK held at low-ready position, head scanning the road ahead. "And him?," she said. "Can we trust him?"

"For now," I said. "But I'm watching."

"He's kind of a mouth."

"He is."

"But nothing like Jake Steele, right?"

"I'm not answering that."

She snickered. "You just did."

I ignored her.

We walked on in silence for another few minutes, no other sound except for the dull thunk of our boots on the concrete, and the random call of a nearby bird or two.

Shortly, Mouse said: "You figure out how we're gonna play this yet?"

"The mine bothers me," I said. "One way in. One way out. Fatal funnels are a bitch. Remember Sakura and that old factory?"

She shuddered. "Yeah."

"I'll let you know when I figure something out."

"Make it quick."

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 7

"Into The Woods" - Part Five

I woke to a dull pain at the back of my head, a loud thump near my feet, a gargled protest, and the sour reek of body odor mingled with the scent of scorched metal.

Opened my eyes.

A thin haze of smoke hung in the air.

The cabin door stood open and a craggy-faced man with a thick horsehoe mustache dressed in faded green fatigues lay slumped against the edge of the door, surprise etched on his face, hands clawing at his neck, blood gushing between his fingers and onto his chest. He twitched a couple of times, then lay still.

"He was trying to cop a feel."

Mouse. To my left.

I turned to her.

She was slipping out of the restraints, wincing as she did, a bloody Bowie knife in her right hand.

"Me?" I said.

"Me," said Mouse.

"You okay?"

"Headache," she said. "Sore."

"Was I out?"

"Yeah. Me, too."

"How long?"

"I came to just as he"--he gestured to the dead man at the door--"started groping me."

I undid my restraints, felt my muscles and my head complain, and looked at the man. "Who is he? And what the hell happened?"

"We got hit," Cutter said, staggering into the cabin from the cockpit. He winced, leaned against the bulkhead, and shut his eyes tight. "RPG, my guess. Glancing hit or we'd be gone." He opened his eyes again, took a step, looked down at the body by the door, and scowled. "You stupid bastard!" he said to the corpse. "Why the fuck did you shoot me down?"

"Kat," said Mouse.

I turned back to her.

"Beck's missing."

Looked around the cabin.

Beck had been sitting in the bench seat next ot the doors.

The seat was empty.

Shit.

* * *

"We have a slight problem," I said to Renaldi over the secured satphone.

"Beck?" he said.

"First off," I said. "We got to your nephew just in time."

Renaldi said nothing. Loudly.

Then: "In time for what?"

"Working remote was a cover," I said. "He was in forced exile. And they were planning to grease him at 13:00 today because he wouldn't talk about you and Paragon."

"Of course not," said Renaldi. "Beck doesn't know anything. So what's the problem?"

"We got shot down heading back to Redding. And Beck is gone."

A pause. Then: "I see."

"Just wanted to let you know there might be a slight delay."

"I understand. Do what you have to do."

"We will."

I hung up then turned to Cutter who was crouching near the body. "What's going on?"

Cutter tilted his cap back and gestured the dead man, the scowl still on his face. "He's a Claw."

"A what?" said Mouse.

"C.L.A.," said Cutter. "Civilian Liberation Army. Anti-corporate guerillas."

"Oh, great," said Mouse. "Fanatics."

"They prefer 'freedom fighters'," Cutter said. "Battling against the multinational giants to preserve small town America. 'S how their pitch goes."

Mouse gave a snort.

"Pipe dream," I said. "Hasn't been a 'small town' or an 'America' since The Collapse. And that was three decades ago. Who's the big corp player around these parts?"

"Capital Biologics," said Cutter. "Cleantech megacorp."

"And they probably use Excalibur for security," I said.

"No," said Cutter. "Got their own forces. But Excalibur-trained."

"And these Claw? What are they working with?"

"Stolen weapons, mostly. Some black market. Automatic rifles. RPGs. Maybe a machinegun or two. And pistols."

"How many people are we talking about?"

"Fifty or more."

Mouse gave a low whistle. "Gonna be rough."

"We can do it," I said.

"You're going after them to get your guy back, aren't you," said Cutter.

"Damn right," said Mouse.

"I'm coming along. Bastards shot me down and I want to know why." He turned and stepped back into the cockpit.

I reached underneath the benchseat, pulled out the gear bags, and opened them. Took out Mouse's wakizashis--Japanese short swords--and her back scabbards. Two Heckler and Koch MP5 submachineguns. An old Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. Spare magazines for the MP5s. Three cans of ammo.

Mouse put on her back scabbards.

I gave one of the MP5s to Mouse along with spare mags. Took the other for myself, slipped the extra mags into the bellows pockets of my pants.

Cutter came back into the main cabin wearing a tactical vest bulging with spare magazines and carrying an AK-47. He took one look at the opened duffles and gave a start.

"You always carry that much firepower?" he said.

"Always," I said.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 6

"Into The Woods" - Part Four

We had landed at the edge of a wide clearing. In the center stood a low, single-story, weatherbeaten cabin that looked like it had been built well over two hundred years ago. Shingles were missing from the roof, a brick chimney slouched against the side of the cabin, and a tall pile of chopped firewood hunched next to a covered front porch.

I spotted two of them. Cookie-cutter corp muscle with the same dark suit, same dark mirrorshades, same haircuts. They watched from the edge of the porch as Mouse and I emerged from the aerodyne and walked toward the cabin.

I kept both hands at my sides.

As we got closer, I called out: "Morning, gents."

The first muscle stepped off the porch and came to intercept me.

Saw the other muscle on the porch sidestep to keep me in view.

Heard Mouse veer away to my right.

The first muscle had his left arm up and held out in front of him, palm out. He stopped two meters away. "This is a restricted area."

"We're here for the tech," I said, still walking toward him.

His brow furrowed. "You're early."

"Orders are orders," I said.

The furrow deepened. "I should double-check."

I smiled at him. "Sure."

Confusion crawled across his face but he shook that off, reached into his suit coat pocket, pulled out a phone, touched the keypad.

And I reversed my grip on the ballistic knife in my right hand, pointed it at the muscle, and thumbed the switch. The gas propellant gave a soft chuff and the blade speared the muscle's throat.

He gagged and went saucer-eyed, blood pouring from the hole and splashing down the front of his shirt, staggered back a step, dropped the phone, left hand clawing at his throat, right hand brushing back his coat and reaching for his sidearm.

Stupid.

I closed on him, pinned his left hand against his throat, trapped his right wrist on top of his hip holster, slipped a foot behind his leg, and shoved him onto the ground. He dropped, head bouncing against the dirt, and I held him down, felt him twitch and jerk beneath me, blood pooling and sinking into the grass and rocks underneath.

He gave one final gargled protest, jerked, and went still.

I got to my feet, checked on Mouse.

She was at the porch railing, wiping blood from her wakizashi onto the back of the other muscle's suit. He was draped over the railing, blood dripping onto the ground below.

"Clear?" I said.

"Five by five" said Mouse. "Just them."

Renaldi had said three to four guards.

Mouse must've seen the look on my face. She said, "Maybe the others are inside?"

"Let's find out," I said.

We stepped onto the porch and to either side of the cabin door, Mouse to the right, me on the left. The door opened outward and had a rusted knob.

Mouse pointed at the door.

Partially open.

I put the ballistic knife handle in my pants pocket, drew Bonnie, dropped to a crouch, reached for the knob, and yanked the door open.

A wooden barstool whipped across the air above my head and splintered against the doorframe.

I rose up, shoved Bonnie's muzzle into the surprised face of the twentysomething male wearing an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans standing just inside the doorway and he jumped back with a yelp, wide-set eyes like plates, hands raised, his breath coming in gasps.

It was Beck.

"Don't!" he said.

I stepped inside, Bonnie still leveled at his face.

Glanced around.

The cabin interior was one large room with a small kitchen to one side and a door that led to a tiny bathroom at the opposite end of the front door. A battered mud-brown couch sat in the middle of the room atop a once-white area rug. To the left stood the fireplace. On the front wall, to the right of the door, were two long folding tables with a mass of cables, wires, electronic parts and components, and computer equipment.

I heard Mouse come up behind me and step to one side.

And Beck's jaw dropped. "Natty?" he said.

Mouse and I exchanged looks.

Of course.

Natalia Renaldi.

Beck's cousin.

Mouse threw back her head and laughed, loud and hearty.

I grinned at Beck.

He took a step back. "What the fuck?"

"That's my partner," I said. "Mouse."

His shoulders sagged with relief and he dropped his hands and let out a long sigh. "You're Kat and Mouse. Natty told me about you two." Then he turned toward Mouse and looked at her with narrowed eyes, as if searching for something.

Mouse frowned at him. "What?"

"Jesus Christ, you look just like her," said Beck.

"Is she still whiny?" said Mouse. "Or has she finally grown up?"

Beck grinned. "She grew up. Doesn't complain as much now."

"About time," said Mouse.

I said to Beck, "You okay?"

"You mean aside from being cooped up in here while two gorillas with guns stand outside?"

I shot him a smirk. "Yeah."

He nodded. "I'm wiz. Can we go now?"

I jerked my head toward the cabin door. "Was it just those two out there?"

"You were hoping for more?" said Beck.

"Little too easy," I said.

"Natty was right," said Beck. "You guys are nuts."

"We know," said Mouse.

"So can we jet?" said Beck.

I gestured to the table of equipment. "Don't you need any of that?"

"They can keep that shit," he said.

"Clothes?"

He shook his head. "Maybe Uncle Phil'll spring for new ones."

* * *

Four minutes after we left the cabin and were cruising back toward Redding, the aerodyne lurched sharply to one side, hurling us against the seat restraints.

And the world vanished in a flash of light and a clap of thunder.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5

"Into The Woods" - Part Three

My optic clock read 10:07:33 when Renaldi's private jet touched down on the airfield on the west side of Redding and Mouse and I disembarked.

The Airpark Cafe occupied the second floor of a two-story building that sat next to a gray aircraft hanger with its doors closed. The ground floor housed the Benton Field Aviation Office, just beneath a wooden staircase.

To the left of the building, on the other side of a chainlink fence, sat a gravel parking lot with two cars--a heavy duty gray pickup and a white sedan.

South of us, glass and steel buildings up to fifteen stories tall dominated the skyline. Beyond them, in the near distance, jagged tree-covered hillsides rose up into a bright cloudless sky as if containing the sprawl in a pocket of green.

It was in the mid-30s here, at least 20 degrees hotter than back in Bay City, and the warm breeze that blew across the airfield wasn't helping. I could feel the pinpricks of heat erupting up and down my arms and upper chest. The smell of dried grass hung in the air.

Mouse fanned herself with the lapels of her black leather trenchcoat. I saw the sheen of sweat on her cheeks and forehead.

"Like San Angeles," I said.

Mouse grunted. " 'Cept we were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Not work gear."

"Comes with the territory."

"Territory sucks."

I nodded toward the cafe. "Let's go."

We went up the staircase to the second floor.

A wraparound balcony doubled as the cafe's outdoor seating. Two men occupied a table to the left of the cafe. One was a tall, heavyset black man with close-cropped hair going slightly gray at the temples. He wore crisp tan cargo pants, an untucked short-sleeved shirt, and dark mirrorshades and sat straight-backed in his chair, hands folded on the table. The other man was lanky, long-faced, with chin stubble wearing a faded black t-shirt and equally faded jeans. He was leaning forward in his chair, narrow-fingered hands gesturing as he spoke.

As Mouse and I went by, the black man with the mirroshades turned his head slightly to look directly at me.

I met his gaze and held it for half a second.

Then he turned back to his companion.

Something about him bugged me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

I shrugged it off.

A pair of tables sat in front of the cafe beneath a dull green canvas canopy. One table was empty. In the other, a short skinny teen with a blue mohawk and nose studs dressed in a mesh shirt, cuffed jeans, and thick-soled workboots slouched in the chair, absorbed in the display screen of a portacomp.

Inside, the cafe boasted low ceilings, a few centimeters shy of my meter-ninety. I tried not to slouch to keep from hitting the ceiling.

Our boots clunked on the hardwood floor and I thought I felt it give a little as we moved.

A woman, face creased by age, thick blond hair now giving way to gray, looked up from the counter at the back. "Table for two?" she said with a slight drawl.

"Looking for Sam Cutter," I said.

She gave a small smile and inclined her head to our right.

Sam Cutter hunched over a mug at a table toward the back corner, stained khaki ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He looked up as we approached.

"You the two I got called about, right?" he said.

"Depends who called," I said.

He leaned back in his chair, arm draped over the seat back, and flashed a grin. "Good answer. Renaldi called. Philippe Renaldi. You must be Kat and Mouse."

"That's right," I said. "You ready to go?"

"I was born ready," he said. He upended his cup, stood, and waved to the woman at the counter. "Back later, Shelly."

"Better be," Shelly said. "Don't make me hunt you down for your tab."

"I would never," Cutter said.

"Liar," said Shelly.

Cutter blew her a kiss and headed out the door.

* * *

As we went back down the wooden staircase, I glanced at the table on the side of the restaurant.

Empty

I looked toward the parking lot.

Both the truck and the sedan were gone.

* * *

We followed Cutter onto the airfield past two old small- engine planes, a one-man gyro, and a helicopter, until we came to an aerodyne sitting by itself.

Mouse pulled up short and gaped. "Please tell me that thing can fly."

The aerodynes we had seen were three- to six-meter long dull gray metal bricks powered by four ducted vectorthrust engine pods. This one was at least ten meters long and clearly had seen better days. Its body was painted half primer gray, half rust, with strategic spatters and smears of caked-in dirt. I got the distinct feeling it would creak when it moved.

Cutter patted the craft's fuselage. "She's a classic. First gen. May not look like much now, but she can handle herself. I've made some modifications."

"You stole that line," Mouse said.

"What?" he said.

"Old vid," said Mouse. "Guy with a starship."

Cutter gave her a confused look.

"Nevermind that," I said. "As long as you can get us there and back, I'm good. How long will it take?"

"Depends how far," Cutter said.

"I have map coordinates."

He opened a small panel set into the side of the craft, tapped the keypad inside, and main cabin door popped open with an audible creak. "We'll check the nav."

* * *

While Cutter did his pilot business inside the aerodyne's cockpit, Mouse and I took seats in the main cabin.

A bench with five seats lined the bulkhead opposite the cabin door. We took two of those five. There were three more seats across from us just to the left of the cabin door.

The rest of the cabin space was taken up with several plastic storage crates lashed to the rear bulkhead with cargo netting

After Mouse and I settled in and stowed our gear bags in the space underneath the seats, Cutter called out from the cockpit: "Gonna take us about eight to ten minutes to get to your coordinates."

"That quick?" I said.

"Only thirty-eight klicks. I could take longer if you want. Give you a tour of the area. Place used to be a national forest back in the day."

"Ten minutes is good."

"Good," said Cutter. " 'Cuz we're off."

The aerodyne gave a low thrum that vibrated through the floor and up into my legs.

Then it shuddered and lifted off the field.

* * *

Eight minutes later, Cutter called out: "Coming up on the cabin."

"Thanks," I called back, pulling the gear bags out from beneath the seats.

Mouse reached into one and pulled out one of the MP5s.

I shook my head.

She blinked at me. "You got another idea?"

"I was thinking something quieter and up close."

Mouse gave me a feral grin. "I brought just the thing," she said and dug into the gear bag.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

"Into The Woods" - Part Two

Once the plane was in the air, we filled up on food and coffee from the silver serving trays at the front of the plane.

Then, while waiting for the onboard terminal to come online, I called Fast Eddie, our resident console jockey.

"Wotcher, Kat," he said in his cheery Cockney-laced tenor.

"Need an infodump," I said.

"Oy! Is that a plane I hear?"

"Heading to a run."

"Don't sound like a commercial flight. Private jet, yeah?"

"Eddie--"

"Corr! You ladies turning glitterati on me? That mean I need to wear a tuxedo when you come to call?"

"Eddie. Infodump."

"If I must, your ladyship."

"Don't make us hunt you down and kill you."

"All right, all right. Keep your hair on. Who's the mark?"

"Matthew Beck," I said. "Works for Lux Technologies."

"Five, ten minutes. I'll call."

I hung up. The onboard terminal was online by then, displaying the AstraNova logo. I slid the data disk into the slot.

A few seconds later, a personnel file appeared on screen. Taken from Lux Technologies.

Mouse and I looked at the narrow-faced man with wide-set eyes, dark curly hair, and a lopsided smile.

Beck, Matthew James. Age, 27. Born in the Redding-Chico Metroplex. Parents deceased. Raised by maternal grandparents in Oakwood. Went to Bay City University. Two months with Lux as a systems programmer at an R&D site just outside Chico.

Mouse gestured to the screen. "That's it?"

"I know," I said. "There's gotta be more." I hit a few keys.

Another file opened listing a series of numbers.

"Map coordinates," said Mouse.

"His cabin."

I hit a few more keys and another file opened.

Another photo, this one of a lantern-jawed man with dark eyes half-hidden by a grease-stained khaki ball cap and sporting a day's worth of stubble. The caption on the photo identified him as Sam Cutter, our hired pilot. We were supposed to meet him at the Airpark Cafe, right near the landing field.

"That's all we got," I said.

"Is it me," said Mouse, "or does this look like another cake-but-not-cake run?"

"Cake-but-not-cake," I said. "Let's see what Eddie has for us."

Five minutes later, Eddie called.

I put the phone on speaker.

"Tell us you have something good," I said.

He repeated what we already read from the personnel file.

"Yeah," I said. "We've got the same info. Was hoping you had more than that."

"How about this," he said and I heard the sound of keys tapping. Then Eddie said, "Know about his cabin?"

"Yep."

Key taps.

"Know he got a bonus when he was hired at Lux?" he said.

"How much bonus?" said Mouse.

"Half a mil."

Mouse gave a low whistle.

"Helluva bonus," I said.

More tapping of keys, then: "I think I might know why. You know what Lux does, yeah?"

"I figured electronics," I said. "Tech gear, that sort of thing."

"Right. Consumer goods, mostly. High-ticket goodies for the techheads out there."

"Like you."

"Like me."

"So where are you going with this?" I said.

"There are two West Coast megacorps fighting for the same crowd. Lux is one. The other is Paragon. Paragon's parent company is AstraNova."

I straightened in my seat. "That's more like it," I said.

"Gets better," Eddie said. More key tapping, then: "Beck's cabin? Not by choice. More like forced corporate exile."

"Say again?" I said.

"According to some private correspondence I'm looking at, Beck wasn't being helpful in providing information to his superiors."

"What kind of information?"

"Anything on AstraNova."

"How would Beck know?" said Mouse.

"Because Philippe Renaldi is his uncle."

Mouse and I exchanged looks.

Sonofabitch.

Then the hairs on the back of my neck saluted.

"Eddie," I said. "How long is Beck supposed to be in exile?"

"Let me check. Give me a few."

I sat back in my seat.

"Kat," said Mouse, and I heard the tone in her voice.

"You, too?" I said, looking at her.

She nodded, frowning.

Something was way off.

* * *

It was almost fifteen minutes later when Eddie said: "Bloody fuck!"

Mouse and I leaned toward the phone.

"You okay, Eddie?" I said. "We were getting worried."

"Hardcore ice," he said, sounding out of breath. "Bastard had me bang to rights, but I kicked his arse."

"And?"

"Got it," Eddie said, "and it's not good. Exile ends today."

"Meaning?"

"They're retiring him."

"Greased?" said Mouse.

"Bang on," said Eddie.

"When?" I said.

Eddie said, "1300 hours."

Shit.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 3