We drove through the opened gate into the gravel lot and pulled up by the front entrance.
Which was standing open.
My stomach churned at the sight and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention.
"That's not good," said Mouse, gesturing toward the opened door.
Valkyrie pulled herself forward between the front seats and peered through windshield. "No, it's not."
"Let's go," I said, opening my door and stepping out of the car.
The Twins, Bonnie and Clyde, leaped into my hands and I heard Mouse's wakizashis sing out as they cleared her back scabbards.
Glanced over, saw Valkyrie with her Colt-Springfield XD-II .45-caliber compact pistol at low-ready, her face grim.
"Eddie!" I called out and waited.
Walked to the padlocked roll-up door that led into the shop area, one eye still on the opened entrance, and gave three quick kicks with the toe of my boot. The door rattled, the sound flat.
"Eddie!" I said. "You in there?"
Still no answer.
The three of us exchanged looks.
"Call it," said Mouse.
"You two," I said, "on the right of the door. Break left. I'll go in first and take the other side."
Mouse nodded and motioned for Val to follow.
We crouch-walked forward and took positions on either side of the entrance.
Mouse and I locked eyes as I counted down with nods.
"Go!" I said, ducked through the opening, and cut to my right, the Twins already up and tracking.
Heard Mouse and Val dart inside and move to the left of the door.
Pan and scan.
We were inside the small waiting room and former mini-mart. The room was bare except for a dust-caked and rust-stained metal desk near me, a discolored square patch on the tile floor where a vending machine once stood, and a metal folding chair sitting by the front window beneath long-forgotten shelf brackets. Toward the back was another door that led to the shop area, this one closed.
Quiet, except for the faint hum of the ventilation system.
I holstered Clyde and inclined my head at the door.
Mouse and Val nodded.
"Same as before," I said.
Moved toward the door, Bonnie at the ready, tested the knob, then yanked it open and darted inside and to the right, Bonnie already up, Clyde clearing his side of my double-holster rig and rising into place.
Inside the converted repair bay, beneath exposed metal rafters and two rows of flickering flourescent lights, past a worktable at the center piled high with parts, coiled cables, and tools, a high-back leather chair sat in front of three tables connected in a U-shape set up against the far wall opposite the roll-up door. Empty soda cans and assorted electronic equipment trailing wires and cables occupied the two side tables. Three flat-screens, two keyboards, and a cyberdeck dominated the middle table.
I saw it at once.
The bank of monitors on the workstation had been blown apart by gunfire.
Eddie's highback leather chair still faced the workstation, its back to us.
The queasiness returned, boiling up in the middle of my chest.
"Eddie," Mouse said, brushing past me, wakizashis still in her hands. "We're talking to you."
"Wait--" I said, holstering Clyde and trying to grab for her shoulder.
"Eddie, you shit," she said, ignoring me, sheathing her blades, and striding toward the workstation. "You've got some explaining to do--"
And then she yelp-screamed, saucer-eyed, and staggered back.
I was at her side in seconds, took one look at the chair and the air rushed from my lungs.
Eddie was slumped in the chair, head canted, chin to his chest, a bloody crater in the back of his skull, crimson gore splashed across the headrest. A pistol sat in his lap.
Val, standing next to the chair, eyes wide, hand to her mouth. "Oh god..."
Holstered Bonnie and turned toward Mouse
She was staring at Eddie, nostrils flaring, slowly shaking her head.
"Mouse?" I said.
She said nothing but continued to stare.
"Val," I said, hearing my voice go hoarse. "Get Doc."
"On it," said Val, her voice suddenly hoarse, too.
And then Mouse pounced on Eddie, grabbed him by the lapels of his rumpled lab coat. "You fucking ungrateful thoughtless piece of shit why the hell did you do this you goddamn self-centered bastard I'm gonna beat your ass until you fucking bleed out--!" She shook him with every word, hard, slamming him back against the chair, her voice rising in pitch until she was just shrieking wordlessly, and I was grabbing her around the shoulders, yanking her off and away, and she fought me, squirming and wriggling, her hands clawing at him, toward him, and then I caught her in a bear hug and we crashed to the cold shop floor, and she was pounding her fists into my upper back, trying to shove me off, trying to get to her feet, her wails piercing my ears, and I could smell the blood on her hands, and I pinned her to the ground with my body, and she buried her face into my shoulder and her torso shook and shuddered, and I told her over and over and over and over it would be okay and but I knew it wouldn't and then I couldn’t hear my voice anymore and everything around us disappeared.
* * *
Bay City, California Free State
Ten minutes later
"The Chinatown segment is in full swing?" said the voice on the other end of the line.
Carter set the glass of whiskey back on the small hotel room table, leaned back in the chair, and stretched his feet out in front of him. "It is, Mr. S.," he said into his phone. "And they've set it in motion."
"Good. And I'm sure they've found their dear departed friend by now?"
Carter grinned. "They have. I just got the call a few minutes ago."
"Then we're done there. Have the team clean up and pull back. When they've finished, begin the next phase."
"Understood," said Carter. "And if you don't mind my asking, sir..."
"How did you know he’d kill himself?"
"Resign himself to life without running the 'Net?" A small chuckle. "I believe Mr. Howard made the best choice."
"So you took a chance?"
"I never take chances, Carter. If he hadn't killed himself, I would've ordered you to detonate his charges."
(to be continued...)