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.
"Headache," she said. "Sore."
"Was I out?"
"Yeah. Me, too."
"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.
Looked around the cabin.
Beck had been sitting in the bench seat next ot the doors.
The seat was empty.
* * *
"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."
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...)