"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

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