"Dust Up" - Part Three

"In front!" said Mouse.
Looked ahead.
The car in front of us screeched to a halt as the light up ahead went red.
Too close.

I slid the Royale onto the gravel shoulder, went past three stopped cars, turned back onto Bayview as it intersected Waterman, then caught sight of the front of the #15 bus as it bounded into the intersection at the same time. Its headlamps flooded the inside of the Royale, the bus driver's face frozen in a mask of terror, the bus's horn screaming for us to get out of the way.

Yanked the wheel right, hard, sliding, slipping back onto the gravel shoulder, kicking up a spray behind us, and nearly slamming into the concrete wall beyond.
Wrestled the Royale away from the wall, shot past the turning bus and a cacophony of car horns and squealing tires, and rode the shoulder at least five blocks before putting us back onto Bayview.
"Fucking buses," said Mouse.
"I know," I said, still keeping my eyes on the road ahead. "Tail?"
A moment, then: "No. Probably stuck at the bus."
"Maybe. But I'm not taking chances."
Then a street sign caught my eye.
Kirkland Avenue.
And a memory struck.
Checked the rearview again.
"Hold on," I said.
Accelerated, passed an ivory MetroCab on our left, then yanked the wheel left, slewing across two lanes in a squeal of tires, nearly clipping the front of the cab. Mouse gave an excited whoop as we fishtailed onto Kirkland Avenue heading south, scattering a group of peds crossing the street from a corner noodle house.
Zoomed five blocks south on Kirkland, then east on Front Street to Lenora then turned into a parking garage we'd used for a meet several months earlier. Went up to the second level, slid into a open slot on the far end, and killed the lights and engine.
Shut my eyes and listened.
Five seconds later came the wail of sirens in the distance, moving westward, then getting further away.
Not stuck at the bus but at least nowhere near our position.
"Think we're good?" said Mouse, her voice pitched low.
"Think so," I said, opening my eyes.
"Good," she said, "cuz I'm starved."
She dug into the paper bag, pulled out the two foil-wrapped burgers, handed one to me, and started on hers.
Popped optic clock.
Still time.
I let out a long breath and took a bite of my burger.

*   *   *
We finished eating ten minutes later. There'd been no further sirens in the area and no other activity that hinted we'd been found.
"To the Marina?" said Mouse in between slurps of soda.
"Might as well. Looks clear enough."
"Makes you wonder what's in the case, doesn't it?"
"It's Biz," I said.
"I know, I know. But they're glitterati. Doesn't make sense they'd be involved in something with gunfire."
"Doesn't have to make sense."
Mouse frowned and slurped the rest of her soda. After a moment she said, "Yeah, you're right. We live longer not knowing, don't we?"
"We do," I said. "And it's not the first time we had issues with a case."
"Righetti's doll, you mean."
"But you got blindsided by a bunch of joyboy wannabes that time," said Mouse.
The memory made me wince. "At least we're not dealing with wannabes this time."
"Thank god for proper mooks," said Mouse.

*   *   *
Lenora Street was clear in both directions as I edged the Royale out the garage's exit lane.
"Twenty minutes'll get us to the Marina," I said, turning left onto Lenora. "Enough time to--"
Something green smashed into the Royale's right front corner with a defeaning crunch of metal and spun us partway around in the middle of the street.
My head bounced off the driver's side window and bright white light exploded behind my eyeballs. Opened my eyes to a fuzzy view of the steering wheel and dashboard.
Glass shattered nearby.
Blinked several times to refocus, the world still gauzy.
A shadow passed to my left and air rushed into the car from behind me.
Blinked again a few more times and my vision cleared slightly.
Mouse was in the passenger seat, clutching her head and groaning.
A reflection in the rearview caught my eye.
The left rear passenger stood ajar.
My gut clenched.
Half-turned to look in the back and stared at a hazy and empty back seat, and felt the car sway.
The case was gone.
Blinked a few more times and my vision cleared slightly again.
Then: a memory struck.
The shadow.
Looked out the Royale's back window.
Five meters away, a fuzzy dark green sedan sat diagonally in the middle of Lenora facing north. A figure in a hooded sweatshirt was shuffling toward it, a long handled object in one hand, the case in the other, its weight clearly making progress difficult.
I kicked my door open, drew the Twins, and slid out. My right leg twinged and I caught myself against the door panel, sucked in a breath, and fought down the pain. Damn the Halloween run.

Shook it off and pivoted toward Sweatshirt and the other car. I could hear the other vehicle's engine still running.
And the concrete tilted under me.
Clamped my eyes shut for a three-count, opened them, and my vision went clear and the ground stopped moving.
Much better.
Raised the Twins at Sweatshirt as he neared the sedan--a dark green BMW.
Recognition hit.
The car from San Marino Road.
"Hey, asshole!" I said, my voice echoing off the surrounding buildings.
Sweatshirt whipped around, saw me, and turned and bolted to the BMW's far side, putting the car between us.
Waited too long.
But habit--and Murphy's voice in my head--kept me from greasing someone who wasn't shooting back.
The figure ducked into the car.
New plan.
Shifted aim and put two rounds into the BMW's right rear tire. It gave a satisfying boom-pop and that end of the sedan dropped. Shifted aim again and belched two more rounds. Another boom-pop and the entire right front side of the car dropped.
Sweatshirt scrambled out of the driver's seat, hood falling back, revealing a twentysomething male with short curly hair, his broad face creased with panic. He took another look at me and shuffled north on Lenora, dragging the case with him.
I hated footchases.

(to be continued...)

"Dust Up"
Part 1 | Part 2
Part 4

"Dust Up" - Part Two

We turned once more onto San Marino Road's eastern loop. Beyond the metal railing that bordered the edge of the road and down the wooded eastern slopes of The Hills lay Newcastle and Essex, the scattered glow from their lights not quite reaching us.    

Five seconds after getting in the northbound lane, I confirmed it.
"Kat," said Mouse and I heard her tone.
"Saw them?"
"Yep," she said now half-turned in her seat and looking out the back window. "About two streets ago. I thought we were clear?"
"Thought so, too. Must've been after we were in the house."
"They just turned onto San Marino."
Checked the rearview and saw a pair of headlights get into the northbound lane. "Got 'em," I said.
"What's the play?"
Looked at the rearview again. The headlights were about a city block behind us and keeping pace.
I felt a twinge in my gut.
"Hang on a sec," I said, then slowed the Royale and pulled to the dirt shoulder.
"What are you doing?" said Mouse.
"Just checking," I said as the Royale came to a stop.
I turned my attention to my side mirror and drew Bonnie at the same time, laid her atop my right leg.
The headlights got closer and then the car went past, still heading north on San Marino, but I got a good look--it was a dark green BMW.
I kept watching as the tailights headed into the distance. Then it slowed and turned left, vanishing down one of the winding lanes that snaked between The Hills' mansions.
"False alarm," I said, holstering Bonnie but still staring at the spot where the car had turned, the gnawing feeling still in my gut.
"You don't sound convinced," said Mouse.
"Not sure," I said and turned to her. "What do you think?"
Her eyes narrowed and she also looked in the direction the car had gone. "Could've been a civvie. Maybe they made a wrong turn and had to come around this way. Happened the first time we came up here to Righetti's."
"Maybe," I said.
"Or," Mouse went on, "somebody's playing us."
"I'm thinking that, too," I said. "Keep an eye on our six."
"Done," she said, still half-turned in her seat.
I put us back on San Marino heading north. A check of the rearview showed a dark and empty road behind us.
As we neared the street the BMW had turned down, I slowed, popped optics to low-light, and scanned the street.
Except for trees and shubbery lining both sides and a streetlamp halfway down, the street was empty.
"Nothing," I said, popping optics to normal and turning back to the road ahead. "You?"
"Six is clear," said Mouse. "I'll keep checking."
I nodded, got the Royale back to speed, and headed up San Marino toward the Highway 610 westbound entrance.
Mouse said, "You hungry? I'm hungry? Is there time for a quick bite?"
I popped my optic clock.
"Plenty of time," I said."

*   *   *

I kept an eye on our six as we got on Highway 610 west toward Bay City proper, snatching quick glances at the rearview and both side mirrors.
No sign of the BMW during the four klick stretch of highway and still nothing as we exited onto Edge Road. Nothing but other cars also getting off the highway and going about their business.
But the gnawing in my gut was still there.
Ten minutes later, I handed the two soda cups and the big warm grease-stained paper bag to Mouse and pulled out of the Grill Palace drive-thru lane back onto Beech Street. Headed north to Bayview Avenue and turned left into the middle of three westbound lanes. To our right, past a soft gravel shoulder, a three-meter tall fenceline running west all the way to the Marina marked the south end of the port. Beyond the fenceline I could see the tops of scattered outbuildings. Past them, closer to the waters of San Marino Bay, stood the huge gantry cranes that serviced the container ships using the port.
Mouse dug into the paper bag. "Eat on the way?"
A metallic blue MitsuAudi sedan fishtailed into the intersection ahead, skidding to a stop at an angle facing us. The driver's side rear door flew open and a dark suited male with mirrorshades stepped out, raised a subgun, and opened fire, full-auto.
I ducked my head and mashed the accelerator. We screamed forward as a hail of rounds spanged off the Royale's hood and stitched a ragged line across the top of the windshield, the glass spiderwebbing.
Aimed the car at the shooter and he managed to dive out of the way onto the gravel shoulder as the Royale's left front corner crunched the opened door, shoving it back against the MitsuAudi.
We caromed off the MitsuAudi and kept going on Bayview as another hail of gunfire riddled the back of the car.
"Holy shit," said Mouse, still gripping the Grill Palace bag, dividing her gaze between me, the front windshield, and the back window. "Not Triads."
"Only Chinatown," I said trying to concentrate on the street ahead.
"So who the hell is it?"
"My question, too," I said. "Let's get to the Marina before anything else--"
"They're back," said Mouse, looking back over her seat.
Glanced at the rearview.
Yep. The MitsuAudi was about a block behind us and starting to gain.
"Persistent little shits," said Mouse.
"Let's lose 'em before--"
And a blue and white BCPD cruiser slewed into the lane behind the MitsuAudi, lightbars flashing, sirens wailing.
Son. Of. A. Bitch.
"Sonofabitch," said Mouse.
"My thoughts exactly," I said.
I gave the loaner a little more gas and began to slalom between westbound traffic amid yowling horns and squealing brakes. Thankfully it wasn't as crowded as it would've been a few hours earlier but there were still enough cars to make driving interesting.
The MitsuAudi was still a block behind us, the cruiser about two car lengths behind them.
The last thing I wanted was to tangle with BCPD and, very likely, MaxTac.
Quick scan ahead.
Timed right, we could steer past everyone and lose the MitsuAudi and the cruiser up ahead--
"Fuck," said Mouse.
A second cruiser had joined the chase and someone in the MitsuAudi decided open fire on them.
"Dumbfucks," said Mouse. "And in a bright blue Mitsu, no less. That's really gonna call out MaxTac."
"Not in the mood for them," I said, still checking the rearview.
The MitsuAudi was now weaving between cars and still firing on the cruisers. Other cars were swerving to get out of the line of fire.
"In front!" said Mouse.
Looked ahead.
The car in front of us screeched to a halt as the light up ahead went red.
Too close.
I slid the Royale onto the gravel shoulder, went past three stopped cars, turned back onto Bayview as it intersected Waterman, then caught sight of the front of the #15 bus as it bounded into the intersection at the same time. Its headlamps flooded the inside of the Royale, the bus driver's face frozen in a mask of terror, the bus's horn screaming for us to get out of the way.

(to be continued...)

"Dust Up"
Part 1 | Part 3

"Dust Up" - Part One

The bad news: The 108 and the Jade Dragons had orders to shoot us on sight if we ever came into Chinatown, the Shelby was still out for repairs, we still didn't know who had set us up at Double-Deuce or caused Eddie's suicide, and we hadn't had a lead on a run in over a week.
The good news: we had just gotten a lead on a run.
Just another day in the life of a ronin. Street mercenary. Gun for hire.
Me. Name's Kat.
"Thanks, Specs," I said over the phone.
"Don't thank me," he said in his reedy tenor. "Five other leads dried up before this one. You two got lucky."
"We could use some luck right about now."
"I'll say. At least it's only a week since the last run. Better'n last time, am I right? More than two weeks. I thought you guys were finished. This is a big improvement."
"We'll take whatever we can get."
"I hear ya."
"So where is it?"
He told me and added: "At 22:00 hours."
Checked my clock: 18:42:12
"Loaner," I said.
"Jesus, you really busted up the Shelby good this time."
"Goddamn buses. Even Tinker was surprised."
"She say how much longer?"
"Not yet."
"Gimme twenty minutes," said Specs. "Have one there then."
I thanked him again and hung up.
Mouse looked up from where she'd been slumped on the beat-up mustard yellow couch in the Red Dog's back office.
"Where to?" she said.
I told her.
She scowled and shook her head. "Fucking glitterati." Then she made a face. "Do we have to change?"
I looked at our outfits. Work clothes: dark t-shirt, black BDU trousers, knee-high lace-up motorcycle boots, and black leather biker jacket for me. Black leather trenchcoat for Mouse.
"I'm comfortable," I said. "You?"
"Yep," said Mouse.
"Then no."

*   *   *

An hour later we drove through the gated entrance and pulled up in front of a two-story mansion in the San Marino Hills. The loaner from Specs--a gray ChrysFord Royale--looked drab compared to the house's stonework and columned front. The house wasn't as ornate as Righetti's and its gargoyle-topped roofline or as lavish as Hosaka's with its driveway fountain and expanse of manicured gardens but it definitely fit the neighborhood.
Unlike us.
"So who are these people?" Mouse said as we got out of the car and headed toward the marble steps to the tall front doors.
"Besides fucking glitterati?" I said.
She glared at me.
"No idea," I said. "Specs didn't say. Just that they were hiring."
"At least they can afford us," she said, gesturing to the four thick columns that formed a semi-circle in front of the entrance and held up an ornate stone canopy.
"Of course they can afford us," I said. "They're fucking glitterati."
"Say that again and I will stab you."

*   *   *

The heavyset butler in a black cutaway coat barely flinched when he opened the door and ushered us with comment into a wood-paneled library dominated on three walls by massive floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with books.
A tall barrel-chested man in his mid-fifties wearing a dark gray three-piece suit stood in front of a large antique mahogany desk. He nodded at the butler. "Thank you, Carson. That will be all."
"Sir," the butler rumbled and closed the door behind us.
The man looked at us hesitantly at first. A normal reaction when a meter-ninety of dark-haired Amazon in black biker leathers enters a room accompanied by a petite spitfire in a leather trenchcoat boasting twin swords on her back.

After a moment he approached and offered his hand, a nervous smile twitching across his face. "I'm Robert Rowley," he said. "And you two are...?"
"Here to help you, Mr. Rowley," I said.
Rowley stopped abruptly, a startled look crossing his face, and dropped his hand. Then he gave a sheepish grin. "Ah. I see. Discretion."
"Discretion," I said. "How can we be of service?"
He straighted and tugged on his suit's lapels. "I have--"
The door behind us burst open and a petite eightysomething woman with high cheekbones and a halo of silvered hair strode into the room. She wore all black--skirt suit, shawl wrap, and formal gloves--and her blue eyes flashed as she took in the scene.
Mouse gasped.
The woman leveled her gaze at us. "You've both been briefed, I take it?" she said in a strident and formal soprano.
"Ma'am?" I said.
She rounded on Rowley. "I thought you said they were professionals, Robert."
"Mother, please," said Rowley.
Mouse jabbed me in the side with an elbow. "That's Violet Rowley," she said, her voice pitched low but exuding awe. "Holy shit."
Violet Rowley shot us an imperious look. "I am perfectly aware of who I am, young lady. Who you are still remains to be seen." Her eyes narrowed. "And please refrain from using profanity. It's damned undignified." The corner of her mouth twitched up in a grin for a brief moment before resettling into her imperous expression.
I felt my eyebrows start to shoot up, caught myself, and fought back an involuntary grin.
"Sorry, ma'am," said Mouse.
Quirked an eyebrow at her.
"What?" she said.
"Apology accepted," said Mrs. Rowley. "Now, you two are...?"
"Discretion, Mother," said Rowley. "The less we know--'
Mrs. Rowley flinched, as if she'd been slapped. "Pish posh, Robert. I realize the need for discretion in these situations, thanks to Cousin Sharkey. But if they are professionals, as they claim to be, they no doubt operate under sobriquets or monikers. Or handles, as it were."
"Kat," I said.
"Mouse," said Mouse.
Mrs. Rowley quirked an eyebrow, sniffed, and clasped her gloved hands in front of her waist. "My, my. How colorful. And no doubt applicable given your profession?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
"Very well. Your demeanor has convinced me." She turned to Rowley. "As to my ealrier question about the situation..."
"I was just getting to that before you came in," said Rowley.
"Carry on, then." She gave him a prompting wave of her hand.
Rowley looked at us. "I've a package that requires delivery. Under the circumstances, I decided to avail myself of more discrete couriers than usual and my inquiries led me to you ladies. The package needs to be delivered to Pier 22 at the Marina by 22:00 tonight."
"Understood, Mr. Rowley," I said. "And the package?"
Rowley turned toward the desk and grabbed a large black plastic hardsided equipment case from the desktop. Half-meter long and wide, half as tall, with a rubberized handle and thick pull latches. "Is here," he said picking up the case with a huff and holding it out with the handle facing me. "The contents are--"
"Discretion, Robert," said Mrs. Rowley.
"No further details necessary," I said and took the case from Rowley. It had weight to it, at least five, six kilos.
"And as promised," said Rowley, reaching back toward the desk, then presenting a cred'chip to me. "Half your fee. Unsecured, as per your man."
I took the chip and handed it to Mouse.
She took it, drew a 'chip reader from an inside pocket of her trenchcoat, swiped the 'chip, and studied the display. "We're good," she said.
"The rest upon delivery confirmation," said Rowley. "I'll have it here upon your return."
"Not a problem," I said.
We turned to leave.
Mrs. Rowley slid into our path. "It is imperative the package reach its destination. I have your word it will see safe delivery?"
"You can count on us, Mrs. Rowley," Mouse said with a grin. "We're the best in the Biz."
Mrs. Rowley's eyebrow shot up. "Indeed."

*   *   *

As we headed down the front steps toward the Royale I said to Mouse, "So who is Violet Crawley? One of your vidstars?"
"Might as well be," said Mouse. "She's just one of BC's biggest socialites."
"Queen of the glitterati?"
"Pretty much. All the big parties you hear about on Net12? Hers. And we're talking big. Fancy as hell."
"Surprised her house isn't bigger," I said, gesturing at the mansion.
"Isn't hers," said Mouse. "Probably her son's. She's got this huge private estate out in Lakeshore. Gated. Big fancy gardens with statues. Husband was some big deal financial type."
"Died last week. She inherited his fortune."
"Lucky her."

(to be continued...)

"Dust Up"
Part 2

"Connections" - Part Two

1 November 2042
00:57:12 PST

Val was in standing in the middle of her kitchen draining a can of Tsunami cola when her phone chirped. She answered.
"Val," said Kat. "Good run?"
"Vegas is loud," said Val. "But I'm up Creds."
"That's always a plus," I said. "So Hiller. What've you got?"
"Decided to nose around Reliance's system a bit more."
"Hiller's former employer."
"Yup. Ran across a simple document that I would've bypassed completely if my sensors hadn't been tuned right. It was sitting in an unsecured folder, looked like any old file. But get this--it was encrypted and tagged with black ICE."
"Why this file?"
"My question, too. So I unscrambled the encryption without tripping the ICE, copied the file, and that's when someone tried to flatline me."
"What? Who?"
"Don't know. But I took him down."
"And the file?"
"That's the weird thing. It was just a list of names. Five names. Seemed really odd for it to be encrypted but then I recognized one. Hiller."
"Anything else on the document?"
"Nope. Just the names. No other identifying marks on it."
"What's so special about this file?"
"That's the question, right?"
"Find anything on the other names?"
"Yep. Two are ex-FedDef, like Hiller. The other two are ex-cops. All four worked for Reliance until three to four months ago. Then they each had an accident."
"Just like Hiller did," said Kat.
"All car accidents?"
"One plane. Car for the rest."
"Noted. Pics?"
"Yep. From company ID badges."
"Can you send me copies of what you found?"
"Thanks, Val."
"Sure thing."
Val hung up, went back to her workstation, and sat back in her high-back chair. She stared at the list of names for a moment, then turned her attention to her cyberdeck.
Time to start the hunt.
But where?
Chatter. Chatter was always good. People liked to talk. 'jockeys liked to talk most of all. Especially ones who needed to show off.
She knew some chat nodes.
Worth a shot.
Until she had a better lead.
She reached for her data jack.

01:12:35 PST

When he answered on the fourth ring, Jade said, "Status."
Oi!" came the reply. "Muri shinaide, Jade-chan. You gotta chill, bruh."
Jade shook her head and clenched her jaw. Scully had said this ChromeBurn was an up and comer first-rate. He was acting more like a pain in her ass.
"I don't have time to chill," Jade said. "I'm paying for info. You give it to me, we're good. You don't, I find you. Don't make me find you."
"Okay, okay," said ChromeBurn. "I got it.
"You've had two days. Tell me you have something."
"Damn straight. Told you I'd stick it. I'm no gremmie,
"Good. Spill."
"Street cam on Bryce has viz on a ride. Gray Mitsu. Tags reg to a NorFed corp called Reliance Security. Ride parked there and your boy got out."
"Had to do a little digging but biomets tagged him as John Carter." A chuckle. "And get this--he died three months ago. Plane crash."
"A ghost."
"Boy worked for Reliance before he bit it."
"When was that feed?"
"Timestamp at 19:26:22, 14 October. He goes into that addy you gave."
Jade frowned and thought back to that night. Michelle had called her about the two knuckleheads trying to grease Kat and Mouse at 19:15.
"He comes back out at 19:30," ChromeBurn continued. "Gets back in his ride, bounces."
"Okay," said Jade. "Another 500,000 creds. Find Carter and the car, track him, and tell me where to find him."
"Gnar, bruh," said ChromeBurn with a chortle. "On it."

09:27:22 PST

When I got back from having my leg checked over by Doc and stepped into the Red Dog's rear hallway Mouse was standing by the entrance into the bar area.
"Wang's inside," she said. "Wants to talk to us."
"He say about what?"
Mouse shook her head. "But he looks panicky. What'd Doc say?"
"Heal up in eight to ten days. If I don't go running around guns blazing."
She smirked. "That'll be the day."
I gestured toward the bar area. "Let's go see about Wang."

*   *   *

"What?" I said, feeling my gut drop away.
"Sonofabitch," said Mouse.
We were sitting at a center table in the Red Dog's bar area. Mouse and I sat facing the doors. Wang sat across from us, hands folded on the table in front of him, brow furrowed and beaded with sweat. Revell stood behind the bar, arms folded across his barrel chest, and watched us.
I looked at Wang. "Since when?"
Wang said, "Monday. Just one or two a day."
"Both of them?" I said.
Wang nodded. "Started with just the Jade Dragons. Then yesterday, two of The 108 came in."
"What did they do?"
"They came in to eat."
"And then?"
Wang shrugged. "They paid and left."
Mouse and I exchanged looks.
I looked back at Wang. "So one of two Triad members came into your shop, ordered food, ate, paid, and left."
He nodded.
"And that's a problem because...?"
"It's how they start," said Wang.
"How they start what?"
"Strong arming," said Wang.
"Intimidation," I said.
Wang nodded. "It's why I didn't set up shop in Chinatown," he said. "Only now..." He stared at the tabletop and gnawed on his lower lip. "Now they're scaring away my customers," he said after a moment. "Pretty soon they start talking about how I can keep bad things from happening to my restaurant." He looked at us. "I want you to run them off."
I threw up both hands, palms out. "No way," I said. "We already pissed them off. Specs said they have orders to shoot us on sight if we even breathe next to Chinatown. No thanks."
Wang threw up his hands and muttered something in Chinese. "So you won't help? Well, thanks for a lot of nothing."
"Your driver who got us mixed up with the Dragons in the first place," said Mouse, leaning forward and jabbing a finger at Wang. "Or did you forget?"
Wang slumped back in his chair, folded his arms across his chest, and glared at the tabletop. Afer a long moment he looked up and nodded. "Yeah. You're right. Johnny..."
"Screwed us over," Mouse said.
Wang kept nodding. "He did. But what am I supposed to do?"
"Wang is pawn," said Revell.
We all turned to him.
"They are trying to force your hand," Revell went on. "And they are using Wang to do so."
"Why not just come after us all at once?" I said. "They've got the resources. Hell, they've got the numbers."
"Direct war on you would also mean direct war on your allies. That means Righetti. That means White Lotus."
Wang paled and gaped at us. "White Lotus?"
"We've come to an understanding," I said.
Wang swallowed visibly.
"They don't want that," said Revell. "But if you happen to strike at them, they can claim--"
"Self-defense," I finished.
"Again," said Mouse. "Sonofabitch." She looked at me. "So how do we play this?"
I considered for a moment, then said, "Let them puff up their chests. We avoid Chinatown." I turned at Wang. "Let them keep coming to your place but tell us if they start to get violent."
Wang looked skyward, closed his eyes, and frowned. Then he opened them, looked at me, and nodded. "Okay."
"What if they decide to come after us?" said Mouse.
"They haven't yet."
"Those two 108s in the van."
"Two weeks ago. Not since."
Mouse frowned but nodded. "Point. Still..."
"I know," I said. "But right now, our priority is Eddie. We deal with that first. Then we take care of the Triads."
Mouse looked at me for a long moment, her brow furrowed. Then she gave a short nod. "Okay."
Wang blew out a noisy breath. "I'm trusting you two on this."
"Nothing to worry about, Wang," said Mouse. "We got it."
Wang shuddered. "That's what I'm afraid of."

09:07:28 PST

Val sat up in her high-back leather chair and blinked sleep away as her phone chirped for attention from atop her workstation. She reached for it and answered.
"Hey hey, Val!" came a cheery contralto.
Tinker. Just the person to call when she'd only gotten a few hours of sleep.
"What's up, Tink?" she said, and tried to inject a smile into her voice but it wasn't working. 
She needed some Tsunami.
"I was just staring at the disaster that is Kat's Shelby when I remembered something."
"Kat's Shelby?"
"Yeah," said Tinker with a slight chortle. "They smashed the hell out of it last night. Shot. To. Shit. Noodles all over the back end. I don't want to know."
Val stood up from her chair, willing her body to wake up. "You said you remembered something?"
"Yeah," said Tinker. "It's about Eddie."
"What about?"
"Those people who got Eddie--if they got him while he was in his van, there's footage."
Val felt her heart leap into her throat. "Footage?"
"Yeah," said Tinker. "Eddie had me install a microcam above the cargo area and the driver's seat. He said it was for security."
"Tink, you're frickin' wiz!" said Val. "Do you know how to pull the feeds?"
"Sure. You have the van, right?"
"At my place."
"Fab! I can be there in a jiffy."

11:13:25 PST
Val felt her stomach churn as she scowled at the center screen and stopped the video in mid-playback.
Goddamn bastards.
At least three of them.
She turned to the right-side screen and looked at the three images displayed.
Sarah Hiller. John Carter. Marcus Himura.
A match to their ID badge pictures.
She tapped out a command and a smaller display box appeared over the images.
The list of names.
Those three were on it.
So that's why the file had been encrypted and tagged with ICE. Had to be.
She looked back at the center screen. A high-angle still image of Carter seated on a stool inside the van's cargo area while Eddie lay on his back looking up at him.
Val tapped out commands on her keyboard and a new still image appeared. Hiller in the van's driver's seat.
Another set of commands and a third still image appeared. Himura laying Eddie's limp form on the floor of the van's cargo area.
Val felt the burning in her gut spread across her insides.

We've got 'em, Eddie. We've got 'em.
She reached for her phone and dialed.

12:03:35 PST

As soon as the last set of footage finished playing, I fought down the acid that had bubbled into the back of my throat and unclenched my fists. I turned to Mouse.
Her eyes were narrowed at Val's center monitor where the footage had been playing in a display box.
"Mouse?" I said.
She turned her head slowly toward me, her eyes still narrowed.
Then she got up from her chair, crossed to the apartment door, and went out.
"Um, should we go after her?" said Val.
"No," I said. "We'll let her blow off some steam." I turned back to the three images on the right-side screen.
Recognition dawned as I looked at Carter once again.
The mook who greased Johnny.
Something began to gnaw at me. I studied the faces for a moment, replayed the footage over again in my head, and the thought struck.
I said, "These three are operatives."
Val looked at me.
"They're carrying out orders," I went on. "But they're not pulling the strings. It's good work. Almost first-rate. I'll give them that. But someone else is calling the shots here. We need to find him or her."
"We can't just ignore these three," said Val.
"Five," I said. "There are five names. All five are operatives. We've only seen three for now. The other two will probably show up soon. And we're not going to ignore them. Something bigger is going on and they're all involved. Something to do with us and the people we know."
"What are you getting at?" said Val.
"You might as well know," I said and told her about the photoprints from the Halloween run.
"Fuck," said Val. "Should I be worried?"
"Wouldn't hurt," I said.
"I'll call Mikey," Val said, reaching for her phone.
I turned back to the on-screen trio and the gnawing feeling came back.
Who was pulling the strings?

NEXT TIME: "Dust Up"

Part 1

"Connections" - Part One

19 October 2042
Bay City, California Free State
08:33:20 PST

Val slid into the driver's seat of the ChrysFord LoadMaster, put her hands on the steering wheel, and tried to fight back the wave of guilt that suddenly washed over her.
It was Eddie's van and it seemed wrong for her to go ahead and use it. But it was set up for a 'jockey doing mobile work, gear and all. Better than her little runabout.
Just what she needed.
Maybe she could see it as a kind of gift from Eddie.
Maybe a kind of inheritance.
Maybe once they found out who'd been responsible for Eddie's death, maybe then it would feel right.
At the moment, it didn't.
A short rap at the driver's window jarred her back to the present and she jumped slightly in her seat.
Mikey stood just outside, looking up at her with his glossy black optics instead of eyes. "Dude," he said in his laid-back tone. "Set?"
"Five minutes," she said. "Need to call Kat."
"Say when," he said, turned, and strode back to a silver BMW parked to one side of the van.
Val pulled out her phone, dialed, and tapped her earbud.
Five rings, then a short beep.
"Kat," she said. "Val. I've got to go out of town for a run. Back in two weeks. I'll get started on that Hiller woman when I get back."
She hung up, took a long breath, blew it out, and put her hands back on the wheel.
She would start hunting then, too.

We'll get them, Eddie.
We'll get them and we'll make them pay.

23 October 2042

When I found Mouse, she was in the unit we'd turned into a workout area hurling throwing blades into one of the blue sparring dummies.
"Turning Floyd into a pincushion?" I said, gesturing toward the dummy.
She whirled on me, her entire body coiled spring-tense, clenched fists at her sides. "What are we still waiting around for?" she said through gritted teeth. "You said we were going to find those fuckers."
"We will," I said.
"When?" Mouse said, punctuating the word with a flung blade that slammed into Floyd's face, rocking him back on his base, nearly tipping him over.
"We need intel," I said. "Val's out for two weeks. Kid Tachyon said he'd help but he's busy with his own runs. We can't exactly just go randomly shooting up the city."
Mouse grunted, spun, and let fly with two more blades. Both punched into Floyd's throat.
"Fuck intel," she said and strode over to the dummy. She stood in front of it, hands on her hips, regarding her work for a moment, then reached out and yanked out a blade from Floyd's torso.
Then she plunged the blade back into Floyd and cracked a fist into the dummy's face. It rocked back on its base, almost tipping again, and rocked forward. Mouse caught Floyd around the head and slammed the dummy onto the floor, a growl rising from her throat that turned into a chant of "Motherfucker motherfucker motherfucker--!" She started kicking the dummy in the ribs.
"Mouse!" I said, bolted over, caught her in a bear hug from behind, pinning her arms, and pulled her back from the dummy.
She kicked out at Floyd, missed, then thrashed in my arms, trying to escape, and I tightened my hold.
"Mouse!" I said.
"Fucking bastards killed him, Kat!" she said, still struggling, her voice rising in pitch. "They fucking killed him."
"I know!" I said.
"They fucking killed him and I'm going to kill them and gut their fucking throats--"
She fought against my arms and I tightened my grip, my vision going hazy, like water splashing against a window, tasting salty heat at the edges of my mouth.
Her struggling slowed and I continued to hold on.
"Goddamn fuckers--!" she said, her breathing heavy and raspy.
"I know," I said, my voice suddenly husky, a tightness growing in the middle of my chest.
Then her legs buckled and she sagged to her knees.
I eased her down, still holding on.
She went quiet, her shoulders heaving and shuddering.
I let go and she knelt back on her heels, head slumped forward. I sat on the floor next to her.
After a while, Mouse looked at me, her eyes red, face wet with tears.
"I really liked him, Kat," she said, her voice low and quivering.
"You did," I said.
"I did. I really liked him."
Then she went quite again.
And we sat in silence for a long time.

31 October 2042
23:44:33 PST

Val gasped and sat bolt upright in her high-backed leather chair, her t-shirt now damp with sweat, fingers of moisture trickling down her temples. Her heart jackhammered in her chest.
What the hell was that?
She sucked in a long breath, blew it out, then tugged at her shirt front with her left hand in a fanning motion. At the same time, she pulled the cable out of her jack with her right hand, then reached for the retractable cable on the side of her cyberdeck, pulled it out, and plugged it into one of the front ports of her terminal tower. She keyed in a series of commands on the keyboard and several command windows blinked to existence on her center flat screen.
A few moments later, the file she wanted appeared onscreen.
Val stared at it.
Five names.
That didn't make sense.
All that security for this--?
And then she recognized one of the names.
Well well well.
She was right.
was hinky after all.
She grabbed her phone from the desktop and dialed.
Five rings, then a beep.
Vmail it is.
"Kat," she said. "Val. Back in town. Got to checking more on our friend Hiller. Found some info. Hit me up."
She hung up, set the phone down, and looked at the file again.
The file name read: "Allocation."
Whatever that means.
Five names.
Hiller was one.
So who were the other four?
She smiled and reached for the data jack.
Let's take a look.   

55 Central Park West
New York City
Northern Federation of States
02:52:35 EST

Stephen Bishop leaned forward over his desk blotter, hands on either side, and glared at it. "What?" he said through gritted teeth.
"Peregrine's dead," said the voice on the other end of his earbud.
"That's impossible. I just talked to him not twenty minutes ago."
"I know, Mr. Bishop. I was here when he called you."
"What happened?"
" 'Netspace fight. He didn't make it."
"Attack program?"
"Yes, sir. Pretty brutal from the looks of it."
Bishop fought back the urge to slam his fist onto the desktop. He clamped his eyes and took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
You're Stephen Bishop. You don't act like William--
He opened his eyes.
"It's Rodriguez, isn't it?" Bishop said.
"Yes, sir."
"Secure the system, Rodriguez. Find out exactly what happened. Who it was, where they came from, what they found, what they took. Everything. Get your whole team involved. Outsource if you have to."

"Yes, sir," said Rodriguez.
Bishop hung up and let out a long breath through gritted teeth.
Then he slumped back in his desk chair, swiveled it toward the windows behind him, and stared out at the city skyline beyond the park below, still bright even at this hour.
Who the hell could've been in there?
And what hell were they looking for?
All he remembered Peregrine saying was an unauthorized system entry. Nothing more. He figured the man would scare away whoever had gotten in. Peregrine had sold himself as the best 'Netjockey in the trade.
Bishop hadn't expected the best 'Netjockey to die in a fight.
He frowned.
Something he'd missed?
one he'd missed?
Surely not given what he'd spent on research and surveillance.
A fluke then. Some random consolejockey at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sure. That was it.
A fluke.
His frown deepened.
Losing an asset was not part of the plan.
Perhaps this could still be salvaged.
A minor hiccup was all. A fluke. Everything would be fine.
His phone chirped for attention and Bishop recognized the customized tone.
He popped his optic clock, did a quick calculation in his head.
Right on schedule.
He grinned.
He was right.
Everything was going to be fine.
"And?" he said into his earbud.
A chuckle, then: "You called it, Mr. S."
Bishop slowly gripped the arms of his chair, ignoring the stiffness of his left hand and the scar that ran along the back and the palm.
Everything was going to be just fine.

(to be continued...)

Part 2