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"Into The Woods" - Part Ten

The message was short and sweet: "Trapped. Dylan dirty. Raid compromised."

Kyle sat on his haunches to one side of the door and used the end of a tactical folder to tap out the message.

He was good at this, the five words going out in nearly rapid-fire dull staccato clanks against the door.

It took me three passes to decode it in my head. I needed practice.

Mouse came up next to me. "This gonna work?"

"It's what we've got at the moment," I said. "Other than trying to dig our way out."

"I found food packs, water bottles, and toilet paper in that stack Kyle knocked over," said Mouse. "Won't help with digging."

* * *

My optic clock read: 16:12:44

Over an hour since Kyle started.

I looked over at him.

He was now sitting cross-legged in front of the door, still tapping away.

"Kyle," I said.

He stopped tapping, turned to look at me over his shoulder. "Yeah?"

"When's the raid supposed to take place."

He drew back the sleeve of his uniform shirt and glanced at the dim blue glow on the inside of his wrist. "About an hour forty-five. At 18:00."

"Where?"

"Capital plant. Just outside of Redding."

"Leaving from here?"

He shook his head. "From French Gulch. They've got vehicles stashed around town. SUVs. Trucks. Four Hummers. They're on their way down there by now. Take 'em at least an hour to haul gear and weapons on foot and by ATV."

"That much equipment," I said. "They planning on taking down the factory?"

Kyle nodded. "Yeah."

"And Capital's waiting for them."

He grimaced at the thought. "I know."

Then: two muffled cracks.

Then a third.

Gunshots. Just outside.

Kyle leaped to his feet and sprang back from the door.

I dropped into a fighting stance, felt my body tense.

Watched.

Waited.

The lock clanged.

The door squeaked open.

And Tina stepped through, a pistol in hand. She saw us and grinned. "Good thinking, big bro," she said to Kyle.

"Gunshots," I said.

Tina nodded. "Me. Had to put Rico down."

"The big guy?" said Mouse.

"Yeah," said Tina. She pushed the door open further and we all stepped into the tunnel.

A meter and a half from the door, Rico lay facedown, blood pooling beneath his torso, the back of his head looking like a ruptured melon. Two meters away from him were a pair of electrical leads attached to a Taser lying on the floor.

I looked at Tina. "And a Taser?"

She shrugged. "Got 'im before he boosted. But he didn't go down." She indicated ths pistol. "So I greased him. Before he ended me."

"Everyone out?" said Kyle.

"Yeah," she said. "I stayed back to look for you."

"Rico standing guard?" said Kyle.

Tina nodded. "Said Dylan already sent you"--she inclined her head at Kyle--"and two others ahead to the site. Friggin' liar. I heard your message. Left, then came back."

Footfalls. Far end of the passage.

We looked.

A figure carrying a duffle bag in one hand and two rifles slung over one shoulder stepped into the glow of a wall lamp then stopped short, eyes going wide at the sight of Rico's body. "Shit--!"

I recognized him from the dirt road earlier. The Claw member with the hook-nose.

Tina gestured at him. "Bag."

Hook Nose nodded, took one last look at the body, then skirted past it, toward us, and set the bag on the floor. "Here they are," he said.

"So what the hell's going on?" Tina said.

Kyle told her.

While he did, I went down on one knee, opened the bag, reached in, pulled out the Twins, and looked them over.

Their weight felt good in my hands.

Like reuniting with old friends.

Old good friends.

"Okay, already," said Mouse, dropping to one knee next to me. She reached in, pulled out her wakizashis in their scabbards, grinned, and let out a short cackle.

Mouse loves her pointy toys.

I checked the mags on both guns, then the chambers.

Loaded. Round in the pipe.

Slid them into my shoulder rig.

Then back into the bag for my spare mags, slipped them into the mag holders on my gear belt, then pulled out the two MP5s and the three extra mags for each.

"Ready?" said Kyle.

I rose to my feet "Where's Beck?"

Kyle frowned. "Why?"

"Tell me where he is and we'll get out of your hair."

"What about Dylan?"

"Not my fight."

"After telling us about Dylan, you're just gonna leave?" Tina said and leveled her AK-47 at me. "Fuck that. You want Beck, you gotta go through me."

"Don't be stupid," I said. "Time's wasting. Your friends are on their way to get killed. You better help them."

"Heartless bitch," said Tina.

"Been called worse," I said.

"Believe her," said Mouse.

Kyle put a hand on the barrel of Tina's rifle. "Hold up." He looked at me for several seconds. "I get it."

Tina shot him a puzzled look. "What?"

A grin crept across Kyle's face. "She'll help if we hire her."

"Smart boy!" Mouse said, applauding. "Surpised you're not Mac's second."

Kyle made a face. "Long story." He nodded once at me. "Okay. I'm hiring you. Help us take down Dylan and keep Claw from getting blown to hell. How does ten grand sound?"

Mouse gave a low whistle.

"Sound good," I said.

"Where do you have ten grand?" Mouse said.

"Nevermind that," said Kyle.

"Are you crazy?" said Tina. "She's--!"

Kyle leaned in toward Tina's ear, said something, and Tina went saucer-eyed. Then he drew back, his face grim.

She looked at him. "You sure?"

He nodded.

Her expression went grim, too. She looked at me and nodded once. "Okay."

"Okay." I looked between the two of them, then at Kyle. "Now, Beck."

* * *

It was another "waiting room," this one further down the tunnels, beyond the big cavern, and also housed supply crates behind a thick metal door.

Beck got to his feet when Mouse and I and Kyle stepped inside the cave.

He looked a little worse for wear. His clothes were dirt-stained and rumpled and he had a nice shiner beneath his left eye and a cut on his lower lip.

"You okay?" I said.

He nodded then indicated the lip and black eye. "Except for these."

"They do anything to you?"

"Some bald asshole pistol-whipped me back at the aerodyne," he said.

"He won't bother you again."

"Brought me in here. Shut the door. Haven't seen anyone 'til you guys came in. We leaving now?"

"Not yet. You're gonna stay here a little longer."

He shot a suspicious look at Kyle.

"Don't worry about him," I said. "He's with us now."

Beck nodded. "Okay. But one thing."

"Yeah?"

"Got anything to eat?"

* * *

Kyle had opened one of the supply crates and let Beck help himself to some ration bars and water bottles then came out of the cave and closed the door and stood with us in the tunnel outside.

"How far to town?" I said to Kyle.

"Three miles," he said. "Let's move."

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods" - Part Nine

After I told Kyle, I heard Cutter say, "Sleazy son of a whore!"

Kyle quirked an eyebrow at me. "When?" he said.

"About an hour ago," I said.

"You sure?"

"Pretty sure it was this Dylan."

"And the other guy?"

"Definitely corpsec."

"You could tell."

"Yeah, I could."

Kyle looked at me, brow furrowed, and I could tell gears were turning in his head.

Then he looked at Mouse, then at Cutter.

"Cutter," he said. "You flew them."

"Yeah," said Cutter.

"They on the level?"

"And then some."

"So this Beck isn't Capital."

Cutter snorted. "Not by a longshot. Their employer deals tech gear. The expensive stuff."

Kyle's brow creased further and he scratched his chin. He was about to say something when a knock came on the door.

We turned to look.

Tina had poked her head in and was looking at Kyle. "Mac wants to talk to you," she said.

* * *

It was another hour and a half before the door opened again.

Kyle came in with a large, filled plastic bag in one hand.

I got up from where I'd been sitting on the cave floor next to a crate stack. "Well?"

Kyle looked like his favorite pet had died. "No dice," he said, then held up the plastic bag. "Water bottles and some sandwiches."

"Real meat?" said Mouse, getting to her feet.

Kyle snorted. "Yeah, right." He set the bag on the ground in front of us and headed for the door.

"Did you tell Mac what I told you?" I said.

Kyle stopped and turned back to me. "I said no dice. Dylan is Mac's favorite. He can't do any wrong in her eyes. She wasn't having any of it."

"She that blind?"

"Dylan's helped her plan every raid on Capital for the last three months," Kyle said. "Every single one's gone off without a hitch. But after what you told me earlier, I got to thinking. It was too good to be true."

"What do you mean 'gone off without a hitch'?"

"No casualties. In any of the raids."

"None?" I said.

He shook his head. "None of ours."

"Doesn't make sense," said Cutter, seated again on the edge of the crate stack. "Capital's corpsec teams are Excalibur trained."

"And Excalibur's almost as good as military spec ops," Mouse said.,

"Which tells me there's something fishy," I said, "and Dylan's involved."

Kyle's eyes went to slits. "You're saying Dylan could be a plant."

"Yeah," I said. "Or one of yours who decided to sell out."

"He owes me a new aerodyne," said Cutter.

A thought struck.

"That cavern we were in before," I said. "There was a lot of activity."

"Getting ready for a raid tonight..." Kyle's voice trailed off and his eyes widened.

I was way ahead of him.

"He's setting you up," I said, then turned toward the door. "Aren't you."

Dylan stood just inside the cave, arms folded across his chest. Just behind him stood another Claw member, a giant solid Samoan man with close-cropped platinum blond hair and a scowl on his face.

"You're really nosy, aren't you," Dylan said to me.

"You fucking traitor," Kyle said reached for the pistol in his leg holster.

The Samoan was wired and he moved, fast.

A split-second later, Kyle flew backwards, arms and legs pinwheeling, and smashed into a pile of crates, knocking them over, spilling their contents onto the cave floor.

"Holy shit," said Mouse and darted toward Kyle.

Cutter hopped down from the crate stack and joined Mouse.

I turned back.

The Samoan stood where Kyle had been, tree trunk-sized forearm held up in front of his massive chest, his other hand clutching the pistol that had been in Kyle's holster.

Dylan shot me a humorless smile. "Stay here. Be good."

"Does Mac know you sold your soul to the corporate machine she's fighting against?" I said.

He fixed me with a piercing look.

I gave it right back to him.

He bared his teeth in a feral smile. "Let's go," he said.

The big Samoan grunted a reply, turned, and the two of them went out the door and it boomed shut behind them.

I turned to Mouse. "How is he?"

She was helping Kyle sit up. "Looks okay," she said.

"I'm fine," said Kyle, wincing. "Just a little sore."

I went over and knelt down on one knee next to Kyle. "We've got to warn Mac."

Kyle indicated the door. "We'll never get through that. It's fifteen centimeters thick. Besides, you heard her. She's not going to believe you. She didn't believe me."

"Then we have to tell someone else," I said.

"Like who?"

"Is everybody here a blind follower?"

Kyle scowled. "What that's supposed to mean?"

I held up both hands. "I'm just asking if you follow Mac without thinking."

"I know where she's coming from," Kyle said. "Her husband was killed by Capital corpsec when he and a bunch of others tried to fight back after being downsized. That's how the first Claw got started. After they got downsized, a bunch of ex-employees vandalized Capital property. Threw rocks and bottles. Graffiti. Pushed around some employees. Capital retaliated and went after them. Sent a team to a local bar. Rounded up ten of them. ID'd from security cameras. Mac's husband and my dad were in that group. Took 'em out back and shot 'em." His expression went dark. "I saw it happen."

"Shit," said Mouse.

"How many got downsized?" I said.

"Thirty people. After the bar shooting, Claw took in about hundred members. Ran a bunch of raids. Capital went out and hunted them down. Killed over eighty of them. The ones who got away stayed away. Stayed quiet."

"You said 'the first Claw'," I said. "This would be the second Claw, right?"

Kyle nodded. "Started up six months ago. We joined at the end of May."

" 'We'?"

He gave me a small smile. "Me and my sister. Tina." Then his eyes brightened. "We can tell her."

"Tina?" I said.

"Yeah."

"How?" I said and gestured to the door. "Fifteen centimeters thick."

He grinned. "Morse code."

I blinked. "You know it?"

Kyle nodded. "You?"

"Yeah. Our old mentor taught us."

"Grandpa," said Kyle. "He learned it from something called a boy scout. Anyway, he taught it to me and Tina. We'd send each other messages when we were kids."

"How're you planning to send it?"

Kyle got to his feet and gestured at the door. "She knows I went back here after talking to Mac. She'll come to check if I'm not out there."

"And you're going to use the door to tap out the message," I said.

"Yup," Kyle said with a grin.

I returned the grin. "I like it."

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 10

"Into The Woods" - Part Eight

The mine entrance sat in the hillside some fifty meters from the rear of the house, set back into the hill and framed by a supporting arch of thick wooden beams.

A surly-looking Claw member with a goatee and long blond hair underneath a wide blue bandana stood to one side of the entrance, an AK-47 leveled at us.

"Nice digs," I said.

Kyle motioned us toward the entrance. "This way," he said and went inside.

Mouse glanced at me. "Better not be any rabid bears in there. I'm unarmed."

Tina prodded me in the back of the shoulder with the muzzle of her rifle. "Keep moving," she said.

* * *

Inside the tunnel, the temperature dropped at least fifteen degrees, and I shuddered as the cool air chilled the sweat on my face and the back of my neck. The tunnel was at least three meters wide, the ceiling about as tall, with rocky walls. Wall lamps and support arches reinforced with metal beams were evenly spaced along the length of the tunnel. Thick bundles of cables and wire ran along the bottom edge of either wall.

After passing several side tunnels, we emerged into large cavern with four tunnels branching out from it. More Claw members were here, some passing through carrying equipment and duffel bags, others huddled in small groups and talking.

Kyle signaled a stop and motioned to Tina and another from the group, spoke briefly with them. They nodded and came back to us.

I turned to Kyle. "You said you'd take us to Mac."

"I will," he said. "They're just taking you to a waiting room."

"Let's go," said Tina, and she headed toward the nearest tunnel on our left.

As we started after her, I glanced back.

Kyle was talking to a man in a faded black t-shirt and faded jeans.

The same man from the Airpark Cafe.

Sonofabitch.

Then a thought clicked into place.

And I didn't like it one bit.

* * *

The waiting room turned out to be a cave roughly the size of the Red Dog's back office and filled with stacks of crates two-deep along the walls. Supplies, from the look of some of the labels. Two lamps perched on opposite walls gave off a sickly yellow glow. A thick steel door stood between us and the tunnel beyond.

Cutter tested one of the crate stacks, then hauled himself on top of it and leaned back against the cave wall.

Mouse rapped on the door with her knuckles. "This is not good."

"Something else not good," I said.

"Isn't there always?"

I told her about the guy at the cafe and the guy I just saw in the cavern.

Mouse frowned. "You sure?"

"Positive."

"This is a hunch again, isn't it."

I grinned at her. "Never wrong yet."

"Always a first time," said Mouse.

* * *

Half an hour later, the door clanged and creaked open.

Kyle walked in, followed by a statuesque woman dressed in rumpled green fatigues like the others, long, dark, curly hair swept back from a face with high cheekbones. She had a sidearm in a drop-leg holster and an AK with a folding stock hung from a three-point sling just behind her right hip.

She stepped into the middle of the cave, feet apart, hands on her hips, and regarded us with penetrating brown eyes. "I'm Mac," she said. "I hear you've got something to say to me."

Cutter jumped down from the crate stack and stalked toward Mac. "Since when does Dylan give orders around here?" he said. "I thought you were in charge."

Mac turned to him. "I am."

"Did you order your idiots to shoot down my aerodyne?"

"I did," said Mac.

Cutter went saucer-eyed. "What the fuck, Mac?"

"Dylan said you were carrying a Capital suit."

I stepped forward. "He's not a Capital suit."

Mac and I were standing eye to eye.

The corners of her mouth turned up in a smile. "Big girl."

"The guy your people took off the crashed aerodyne isn't Capital," I said. "He's a tech for Lux Technologies."

"Liar," said Mac.

"Why would I lie?"

"You corp muscle are all alike. Brainless thugs slaving for the corporate machine."

Mouse said, "You borrow that line from a vid?"

Someone fought back a snorted laugh.

Mac frowned.

"If you give him back," I said to Mac, "we'll get out of your hair."

Mac's eyes narrowed at me. "Telling me what to do? In my own camp?"

"If something happens to Beck, I'm taking it out on you."

Mac shot me a look of contempt. "We're done here," she said and turned to leave.

I put a hand on her arm. "No, we're not," I said.

She swatted my hand away and rounded on me. "Touch me again and I'll kill you."

"You can try," I said.

We locked eyes for what seemed like forever.

Then she snorted, stepped back, turned, and headed for the door.

"Who's the guy in the black t-shirt?" I said. "Skinny. Scruffy chin."

Mac stopped by the door, looked back toward me, eyes slitted. "I said we were done." She turned and walked out.

"You owe me an aerodyne, goddammit!" Cutter said.

Kyle looked after Mac. Then he signaled to someone beyond the door, turned, and walked up to me, eyes narrowed, and folded his arms across his chest. "Faded black t-shirt? Was in the other cave a while ago?"

I nodded.

"His name's Dylan. Mac's second." He tilted his head to one side. "Why?"

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 9

"Into The Woods" - Part Seven

The paved road turned into a one-lane dirt road wide enough for a large ATV and snaked up into the hills under tree cover.

We were about half a klick along when a leanly-built black man with short, cropped hair wearing rumpled green fatigues and a gear belt with a holstered pistol stepped out from the treeline five meters away on our right, planted himself in the middle of the road, and said, "Stop right there and put down your weapons."

Mouse and I trained the MP5s at him.

"Don't think so," I said.

Then Cutter stepped forward, the AK held down at his side. "Okay--which of you numbnuts shot down my aerodyne?"

The line of trees to our right exploded in a spray of wood chunks and leaves under the rolling burst from a machinegun hidden further up the road.

"Shit," said Mouse.

The man folded his arms across his chest. "Weapons down."

"Putting them down," I said and set the MP5 on the ground.

Mouse gave me a sidelong look as she did the same then slid off her back scabbards. "Is now a good time for your plan?"

I unholstered the Twins and set them next to the submachinegun. "You mean the one I don't have yet?"

"That's that one."

Cutter took another step forward. "Kyle? Is that you? You wanna tell me who the hell shot me down?"

The man--Kyle--turned to Cutter and pointed a finger at him. "You," he said. "Wait." He swung the finger at us. "You. Take two steps back."

Mouse and I complied.

"I'm waiting, Kyle," said Cutter.

"Back off, Cutter," said Kyle, "and put the damn rifle down."

"This is bullshit," said Cutter and he put the AK on the ground and stepped aside. "I wanna talk to Mac."

Kyle ignored him, pulled a walkie-talkie from his gear belt, and spoke into it.

Trees and bushes around us rustled and six figures emerged, all wearing the same green fatigues, all armed with AK-47s. They stood in a semi-circle, rifles trained at us.

One of them--a petite black woman with copper hair pulled back in a tight ponytail--slung her rifle, stepped forward, and patted me down. Then Mouse, smiling every time she pulled a knife from some hidden sheath, and set those down on the ground. When she got to Cutter, she gave him a lascivious grin.

"Be nice, Tina," Cutter said, his brow furrowed..

Tina's grin grew wider.

She took her sweet time with him.

When she finally finished, she swatted him on the ass, stepped back, and turned to Kyle. "They're clean."

Kyle looked us over, eyes narrowed. He spoke into the walkie, listened to the reply, then looked at the others. "Where's Bishop? I thought he was at the site?"

"Is Bishop big and bald with a mustache and nasty b.o?" I said.

Kyle turned to me. "Why?"

"If he is, he tried to feel up my partner." I indicated Mouse.

"Yeah," Mouse said. "It's true. I stabbed him in the neck for that. He won't be joining us anymore."

Tina fought back a snorted laugh and turned away.

A hook-nosed Claw member grunted and said, "Asshole deserved it."

"Enough," Kyle said, then looked at me and Mouse. "Thirty seconds to explain what you're doing here. I don't like it, we grease you."

"What about my aerodyne?" said Cutter.

"Dylan's orders," said Kyle. "Said you were running for Capital."

"That's bullshit!," said Cutter. "What does he know anyway. And what did Mac say?"

"Is this Mac in charge?" I said to Cutter.

Cutter snorted. "Supposed to be."

"Hey--!" said Kyle.

"Take us to Mac" I said to Kyle.

"Why don't I just shoot you two right now?" Kyle said.

I popped optics to thermo and raked my gaze across the Claw members, saw what I needed, popped back to norm viz. Gave Mouse a slight nod.

Her eyes smiled.

I said to Kyle: "Tell you why not."

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

I bolted forward, bent, scooped up Bonnie from the pile on the ground, and closed on Kyle. His eyes just started to widen when I reached him, grabbed the back of his shirt with my left hand, shoved Bonnie up under his chin, spun us both so that he was between men and the others.

Out of the corner of my eye, ahead and to my right, Mouse had Tina in front of her in a modified headlock, one hand cupped around her jaw, exposing her throat, while the edge of a Bowie knife lay against the other woman's throat.

I dropped boost, heard my pulse thudding against my chest and my temples, took a couple of slow deep breaths through my nose. Then I angled Kyle slightly so he could see Mouse and Tina. "See why not?"

Beyond, the other Claw members swept their rifles between me and Mouse, confusion on their faces.

"Well?" I said to Kyle.

He turned head toward me, his expression gone dark, his eyes narrowed. "My man's got a light MG aimed at your back," he said.

I dug Bonnie's muzzle further into the underside of his chin. "I get you first," I said, "and my partner slices your girl." I gave him a humorless grin. "Wanna chance it?"

Kyle's nostrils flared a couple of times. Then he swallowed. "Okay," he said. "I'll take you to Mac."

* * *

Mouse and I surrendered our weapons--again--then fell into line with the other Claw members and we headed up the dirt road.

After fifteen minutes of walking, the road rounded a bend and led into an open area. Ahead of us, four outbuildings--shacks, really--stood in a semi-circle beneath a stand of trees, most missing planks from their walls and roofs. On our left was a one-story building, its two front windows missing glass.

The road went around the outbuildings along the left, past the remains of some large building, toward a two-story house. A set of stone steps led up from the road to a covered wrap-around porch. Tree-studded hills rose up around the house and open space.

I spotted a figure in the house's front window looking out from behind curtains. Before I could get a better look, the figure stepped away and the curtains fell back into place.

"I thought there was a mine here?" said Mouse.

"Back side of the house," said Cutter.

"How many in the house?" I said.

"Dunno," said Cutter.

"Doubt there's fifty-plus people in a two-story," said Mouse and shook her head. "Was me, I'd kill someone pretty quick."

"The way you snore," I said, "they'd kill you first so they could sleep."

She stuck her tongue out at me.

(to be continued...)

"Into The Woods"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 8