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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...)