We were in a unit on the south side of the high block. It was roughly the same size as our shared flat above the Red Dog and packed tight with furniture, shelving, and decor that was once colorful but now looked tired and faded.
The other two occupants of the unit were a thirtysomething woman with red-streaked ash-blond hair, an eyebrow ring, and nose piercing, and a pig-tailed brunette of about eight or nine. The woman had a hand clapped over the little girl's mouth. Both stared at me, saucer-eyed.
Then: running footsteps outside.
Turned back toward the door.
The blond was peering cautiously at the peephole viewer, hand held up in warning.
When the footsteps finally receded into the distance, I realized I'd been holding my breath.
Let it out in a long exhale.
The blond woman turned toward me and Mouse and the corner of her mouth turned up in a lopsided smile.
"Kat and Mouse," she said.
Mouse and I exchanged glances.
I looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Do we know you?" I said.
"Sort of," she said.
"Anya, what's going on?"
The red-blond woman was frowning at us, holding the little girl tightly.
The curly-haired blond woman--Anya--stepped forward. "It's okay, Becca," she said. "These women are safe. More or less."
"Are they gonna hurt us?" said the little girl.
"No, Evy," said Anya. "They won't."
"You'll be okay," I said to Evy.
Evy cringed against Becca but gave me a small nod.
I turned to Anya. "How do we sort of know you?" I said.
Her small grin went up a notch "Would it help if I shove a shotgun in your face?"
"Slammers," I said. "Duncan's crew."
The Southside Slammers were a guardian gang. Mouse and I had run into them five weeks ago on the northwest end of Southside when a team of shooters tried to grease us.
"What are you doing here?" I said, keeping my voice low and gesturing to the room and the two other occupants.
"Visiting my sister and niece," Anya said, inclining her head at Becca and Evy. "Why are you two trying to take on both the Trogs and the Dragons? Ballsy, but I don't think it's your thing."
"On a run," I said. "Just trying to get to the top floor of this block. Didn't expect both gangs to come after us."
"Why are they coming after us?" said Mouse. "Why aren't they trying to chop each other into little pieces."
"No idea," I said.
"I don't know either," said Anya. "But you need some help. I could run interference."
"Anya!" said Becca.
"It's okay, Sis. I do this all the time."
I quirked an eyebrow at her.
"Pisses off the Go-Boys," she said and crossed to a duffle bag sitting on the floor by the front door. She reached inside and pulled out a familiar looking pistol-grip pump-action shotgun.
"Same one?" I said.
Anya grinned. "Same one." She checked the action, nodded to herself, then reached into the duffel again, pulled out a bandolier of shells, and slung that cross-body. "I wouldn't recommend taking the main stairs."
"We were planning to go up the back way," I said.
"Wiz," said Anya. "I can keep them busy chasing me. That'll keep them off your asses."
"Shotgun all you have?" I said.
Anya patted her waist. "Pistol and extra mags. I'll be fine."
"What about us?" said Becca.
"Keep the door locked and bolted," said Anya. "I'll use my keys to get back in once it's all over."
"Are you leaving, Auntie Anya?" said Evy.
"Just for a little bit," said Anya. "Auntie Anya's gotta get rid of some bad people."
Evy's eyes lit up and she gasped. "You are?"
Anya nodded. "Yup."
Evy pumped her fist. "Yes!" she said.
Becca glared at Anya.
Anya shrugged and looked at me and Mouse. "Annoys her when I do that."
Mouse chuckled. "Teaching her survival skills."
"That's enough foolishness," Becca said. "Just get it over and done with."
Anya sketched Becca a loose salute. "Back soon."
* * *
All the units in both towers faced a central light-well and a railed walkway wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side ran along the edge of the well. We stood near the southwest corner unit on the fourth floor of the high block, partially shielded by a wide support column formed where the walkway corners joined.
Our side was quiet, but we could hear fast moving footsteps echoing from the low block, the sound bouncing off the concrete walls.
Anya pointed to our right. At the end of the corridor, where the two blocks connected, we could see a lift bank and part of the stairwell.
"Main lifts and stairs," said Anya. "I'll make noise over there. Keep them occupied."
"Thanks," I said.
"Make sure Duncan gives you a promotion," said Mouse, flashing her a grin.
Anya snorted. "I'll be sure to tell him."
She was just about to head for the lift bank when Mouse swore and shouldered her aside, and a throwing axe whipped past and plunged into the wall where Anya had been standing.
Mouse continued to sidestep, her M4 sweeping up, and she let loose two quick bursts.
Spotted a Trog on the walkway directly across from us on the other side of the light-well slump back against a scarlet-spattered wall and slide down to a sitting position, leaving a wide scarlet trail as he did.
"Go," I said to Anya, motioning her forward.
She gave a quick nod and bolted fo the lift bank, shotgun at the ready.
I looked at Mouse, pulling the FAL to my shoulder, and inclined my head at the back stairs.
"Let get this over with," I said.
"Rock and roll," said Mouse.
(to be continued...)