"Born of the Blade" - Part One

Getting one night of comfortable restful sleep is rare in our line of work.
When that rare event is interrupted by a chirping phone at an ungodly hour of the morning, you tend to want to shoot someone.
"Whoever that is," said Mouse, voice half muffled by her pillow, "I'm gonna stab them in the head."
Or stab them in the head.
Just another day in the life of a ronin. Street mercenary. Gun for hire.
Me. Name's Kat.
I snuck a hand out from under my blanket, groped for my phone on the plastic crate nightstand by my bed, and answered.
"Rise an' shine, Ladies!" said a cheerful and reedy tenor. "I got a hot one for ya."
Specs. Everybody's favorite infobroker.
"Do you know what time it is?" I said, my voice sounding like sandpaper over gravel.
"It's five hundred thousand creds o'clock," said Specs.
That woke me up fast.
I sat up in bed, all trace of sleep gone.
"Miss Renée's got a job for you," Specs said, "and she wants you at her place ASAP. Move your asses."
"Didja tell 'em about the head stabbing?" said Mouse from beneath her pillow.
I lowered the phone a moment and turned to her. "It's Specs," I said.
"I'll stab that ugly shirt of his first," said Mouse. "Then his head."
"He's got a run from Miss Renée," I said. "Five hundred thousand."
Mouse bolted upright and looked at me saucer-eyed. "Holy shit. Say yes already."
I put the phone to my ear. "We'll be there," I said and added, "Car."
"You still have the one from last night."
"Has bullet holes. Not good for Uptown."
"Fine," said Specs. "I'll send another one over. Twenty minutes."
I hung up and popped my optic clock.
Still too early.
But the payout...
Turned back to Mouse. "Miss Renée wants us at her office ASAP. Got another loaner on the way."
Mouse was already padding toward the bathroom. "First dibs on shower."
"Remember," I said. "Heading to Uptown."
"Yeah," Mouse called back. "But it's Miss Renée. I can handle doing it for Miss Renée."
"You sure about that?"
"Trying to focus here. We should ask her for a slinky number for you."
"So you and Jake can go out again."
"Go back to focusing."
"Something in red."
"I said focus."
"You'd look real sexy in red."

*   *   *

Forty minutes later, we parked the loaner--a black ChrysFord Royale--in the underground garage of a red brick five-story office building at Chadbourne near 16th and took the elevator up to the top floor.
We were dressed in similar outfits: blouse, blazer, and slacks. Black for me. Dark gray for Mouse.
The Twins, Bonnie and Clyde--my pair of Colt-Springfield M2001 .45-caliber pistols--were snug in the double-holster shoulder rig under my blazer.
Mouse wore forearm sheaths on both arms with three throwing blades each and carried a brown leather attache case that hid her pair of Bowies.
"You okay?" I said as the elevator hummed upward.
"Five by five," said Mouse.
"Just checking."
"I told you. It's Miss Renée. It's different."
"You look a little fidgety."
"Don't make me stab you."

*   *   *
The elevator doors wooshed open and deposited us into a plushly carpeted foyer. A blond woman wearing a cream blouse with a floral print neck scarf sat behind a desk in front of smoked-glass double doors. A stylized sign on the wall behind her read: Heavenly Dreams.
The blond looked up as we approached and smiled. "Welcome to Heavenly Dreams. How can I help you today?"
I said, "We're here to see Miss Renée. She's expecting us."
"You must be Kat and Mouse," said the blond, standing up and moving toward the doors. "She told me to bring you in as soon as you got here. This way, please."
She ushered us inside the doors and led the way past a series of partitioned cubicles to a glass fronted office at the back corner.
As we stepped in, Miss Renée rose from behind her desk, looking much like I remembered her last: a fortyish ebony-skinned woman with a heart-shaped face and high cheekbones framed by short cropped hair. She was wearing a crimson skirt suit and a tight-lipped humorless smile creased her features.
"Thank you, Claire," she said to the blond in her husky contralto then gestured to the two chairs in front of her desk. "Please."
We sat.
Miss Renée sat back down and looked at both of us. "Been a while, Ladies."
"Seven months," I said. "Since..."
She held up a hand. "I know," she said. "You two look well."
"So do you," I said.
Her expression became rueful. "Unfortunately not today."
"What's going on?" I said.
She sat forward and clasped both hands on her desktop. "Three of my girls have gone missing. I need you to find them."
Mouse and I exchanged glances.
"Kidnapped?" said Mouse.
"Maybe," said Miss Renée, then shook her head. "I don't know. They haven't checked in. And we can't reach them."
"Phone?" I said.
"Phone. Vmail. Email, too. The oldest hasn't been in touch since the twenty-seventh. More than a week ago."
Mouse gave a low whistle. "Blue boys?"
Miss Renée snorted. "Not likely. They wouldn't care anyway. No-name girls to them. We'd be sitting at the bottom of the priority list. Or lower."
"The oldest," I said. "Who is that and what do you mean?"
"Brittany," said Miss Renée. "Oldest as in she was the first one who didn't check in at her usual time. That was on October twenty-seventh. On November second, Eve failed to check in. The latest is Sheena. She didn't check in last night."
"Do they always check in?" said Mouse.
Miss Renée nodded. "After finishing with a client."
"Always?" I said.
"Always. It might be a day or two for the Middle and Upper Tier girls but that's usually because of a multi-day or longer contract. But those three were Copper. Hour, maybe two per client. If that."
"Lowest tier girls. In the old days, they'd be called 'streetwalkers.' Not in my house."
Miss Renée held up a finger. "Lower priced. Affordable for the everyday client."
"Wham, bam, thank you ma'am?" said Mouse.
Miss Renée made a face. "To put it one way, yes," she said.
"And the Upper Tier?" I said.
"Bronze and Silver," said Miss Renée. "Middle Tier. More discriminating. Evening companions. Dinner. Dancing. So on. Upper Tier is Gold. Even more discriminating. Weekends. Multi-day. And then Platinum. Cream of the crop. Sometimes a week or more. The ones you'd take to dinner with royalty."
"And do you handle all the arrangements?" I said.
"Only for the Gold and Platinum Girls. Exclusive clients only. The rest are free to arrange their own schedules and clients as they see fit."
"At the initial contact with the client. Before anything else happens. All the girls have an optic cam that sends an image capture back here." She gestured toward the partitioned cubicles in the main office area. "The ladies out there handle background checks. Anyone with a questionable record is denied and flagged and the girls are notified."
"That can't sit well with some potential clients," I said.
Miss Renée smiled. "All the girls are chipped with some basic takedown skills. The rowdier ones learn pretty quickly not to push their luck."
"And they get flagged on top of it," I said.
"How do clients usually find the girls?"
"Gold and Platinum are done here. They call us. We screen and make the arrangements. The other levels do their own thing. Some advertise on the 'Net. Others find them on local chat nodes. Or they have points of contact in local neighborhoods who steer clients to them. They get creative."
"Where do the girls and their clients go to complete their transaction?"
Miss Renée smiled. "We've contracted with a number of hotels and resorts for premium rooms for client use."
"All the girls?"
She nodded.
"Hell of an operation," I said. "I see what Murphy meant."
"He was a good man," Miss Renée said. "He and Revell helped us out a lot in the early days with troubleshooting."
"Revell, too?" said Mouse.
"He won't talk about it much," said Miss Renée with a chuckle. "He didn't approve. But he helped anyway."
"Now it's our turn," I said.
"Thank you again."
"Do you have info on the three girls?"
"Right here." Miss Renée picked up a clear jewel case from her desktop and held it up. The case held a data disc. "Pertinent details you might need. Including their last clients." She held the case out to me. I took it.
"Easy part is," said Miss Renée, "they all worked the same patch."
"Where?" I said.
"BCU," said Miss Renée. "We've got fifteen girls in that area. Their territory runs from Harbor to Center and from 24th to Hillside. Each girl has her own section of that territory. We're contracted with four nearby hotels so they could use one or all of them. Info's on the disc."
"The checking in," I said. "How does that work? You said they all do that."
"Just to advise they'd finished with a client," said Miss Renée. "What concerns me is that Brittany, Eve, and Sheena usually finish after 02:00. Their last check-ins were before midnight on those dates."
"Thank you," I said and rose. Mouse did the same.
Miss Renée rose too and reached inside her suit jacket. "Don't forget this," she said and held out a cred'chip. "Payment in full."
I took the proffered chip and slipped it inside my suit jacket. "We'll keep you posted."
Miss Renée nodded, then looked at Mouse and quirked an eyebrow. "You okay?"
I looked at Mouse, too.
She was tugging at the collar of her blouse and she gave me a grimace.
"You're in luck," I said. "I brought a change of clothes."
Mouse let out a huge relieved sigh and dropped her shoulders. "Thank god!"

*   *   *

We got back in the elevator dressed once again in our working clothes: dark t-shirt, black BDU trousers, and knee-high lace-up motorcycle boots.  Black leather biker jacket for me.  Black leather trenchcoat for Mouse.
As we headed back down to the garage and Mouse strapped on the back scabbard harness with her wakizashis, I called Val.
"Yo, Kat," she said.
"Hit me."
"It's on a data disc," I said. "We'll come by."
"Catch you in a few."

(to be continued...)

"Born of the Blade"
Part 2

"Double Down"

8 November 2042
09:07:22 PST

Miss Renee scowled at her desk blotter, hands clenching and unclenching on the desktop, her stomach going sour

Three girls? Gone?
She looked up at Dani standing on the other side of the desk. The younger woman gnawed on her lower lip, her brow furrowed, and she hugged a clipboard to her chest.
"And you're certain about Sheena?" Miss Renee said.
Dani nodded. "She didn't check in last night. And Janna's been trying her phone for the last hour."

"What are we going to do?" said Dani, her voice small.
Miss Renee stared past Dani, past the glass windows of her private office, toward the partitioned work stations beyond. She sucked in a long breath, smoothed out her crimson skirt and adjusted the cuffs of her suit jacket, then looked back at Dani.
"We'll need help on this."
Dani gasped. "The police?"
Miss Renne gave a humorless chuckle. "No, my dear. Not the police. They won't help us."
"Then who--?"
"This is Biz now," said Miss Renee. "And I know just the people who can help."

*   *   *
Specs finished paying the pimple-faced teener working the register and exited the Harbor Cafe, his lips still tasting of too much pancake syrup.
He adjusted his round-framed mirrorshades despite the overcast skies and crossed the gravel parking lot to his well-loved vintage midnight blue El Camino. The car was over seven decades old when he'd found it in a Northwood salvage yard and he'd spent a good chunk of creds to have Tinker refit the engine to run ceetol.
"Why not just spring for a Mitsu or a BMW?" she'd asked. "This is a junker."
"This is a classic," he'd said.
"Your money," she'd said with a shrug.
As he neared the car, his phone chirped for attention. He tapped his earbud. "Go."
"Hello, Specs."
Specs grinned, recognizing the slightly husky voice on the other end. "Miss Renee," he said. "Good morning."
"Not so much on my end."
Spec's grin vanished. "Well, shit. What can I do for you?"
"I need Kat and Mouse," she said.
"Five hundred thousand," said Miss Renee. "The usual way. My offices ASAP."
"They'll be there," said Specs and hung up. He fished his car keys out from one pocket and his phone from the other, unlocked the door, and slid inside.
Five hundred K.
He gave a low whistle.
Must be big.
That'd put them back on the map.
He tapped his earbud then dialed a number.
Two rings, then: "Yeah."
"Rise and shine, Ladies," he said. "I got a hot one for you."
"Do you know what time it is?" Kat replied, her voice gravelly.
"It's five hundred thousand creds o'clock. Miss Renee's got a job and she wants you both at her place ASAP. Move your asses."
A brief, muffled conversation, then: "We'll be there. Car."
"You still have the one from last night."
"Has bullet holes. Not good for Uptown."
"Fine. I'll send another one over. Twenty minutes."
The line clicked off.
He dialed another number. When he heard the beep he said: "Loaner. Red Dog."
Then he hung up and slid his phone in the breast pocket of his Hawaiian shirt--the good one with the red and blue palm trees.
"Back in the game," he said with a grin and drummed a short rhythm on the leather wrapped steering wheel. Then he put the key in the ignition, started the car, and exited the lot, heading south on Harbor Boulevard.
Twenty minutes later, Specs pulled the El Camino to a curbside parking spot on Sterling near 50th just outside his office-flat above a laundromat. He cut the engine and got out, humming to himself.
He saw Kat's reflection in the El Camino's door window as it shut and gave a start.

The hell--?
She and Mouse were supposed to be at Miss Renee's. That was all the way in Uptown.
He started to turn to ask what the hell she was doing down here and when the hell she decided to get the nose stud when he felt the sharp sting at his neck, then a hand at the middle of his back.
His vision blurred.
He got one look at Kat, now seemingly close and looming over his face, her features going hazy.
--that wasn't Kat.
And he remembered. Chinatown. Shooting up Global Mercantile.
The woman called Hiller.
Fucking hell--!

And then he blacked out.

*   *   *

Hiller caught Specs under the arms just as the infobroker's legs buckled and steadied him a moment. Then she dragged him back until she was next to the El Camino's rear cargo bed and deposited him inside.
Then she looked around.
No one else on the street.
Good timing.
She pocketed the jet injector, picked up the dropped car keys, opened the car door, and got inside. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed. Carter answered on the second ring.
"Got him," she said.
"We're all set here," said Carter. "Come on down."
"There in ten," she said and hung up.

12:30:27 PST
Revell pushed open the Red Dog's back door and nearly dropped the garbage bag he'd been carrying.
A figure lay sprawled face up next to the blue dumpster in the bar's back lot.
Chto vadu?
What in the hell...?
He set the garbage bag down just inside the back hallway, toed the doorstop into place, then went over to the figure, his eyes narrowed and scanning the back lot and the opening to the alley that ran beside the bar.
No one around.
As he got closer, he noted the figure--male, bald--had been badly beaten. The man's face was covered in blood, both eyes swollen shut, cheekbones swollen and red.
Then his breath caught in his throat as he looked over the rest of the figure.
The shirt.
Brightly colored Hawaiian-style with palm trees now drenched scarlet.

Bozhe moi.
My god.
Heat flare up his neck and into his face as he clenched both hands into fists.
He knelt beside Specs and a gave him a quick cursory inspection.
A nasty gash over the left eye continued to ooze blood. His mouth hung open, bottom lip cut, and Revell could see missing front teeth. The 'broker's breathing came slow and ragged. Blood bubbled out of both nostrils.
Revell winced.
He was still alive.
But for how long?
Revell felt his stomach sour.
He grabbed Specs under both arms, pulled him into the Red Dog, and shut the door after him. He knelt down next to him again and touched a hand to his shoulder. "Specs? Can you hear me?"
No response.
Revell noticed that Specs's shirt had ridden up slightly, then saw the mottled burgundy skin on his torso.
Broken ribs.

Revell stood, pulled his phone from his pocket, and dialed Doc.
"We have emergency," he said. "Come to Red Dog now."
When he hung up, he noticed something in Spec's breast pocket. He knelt down once more and reached inside.
A folded photoprint.
He unfolded it.
Acid boiled in his gut.
It was a photoprint of Specs, the same one that had been in the briefcase Kat and Mouse had opened afer the Halloween run in Southside. Surveillance photo.
And it had a red "X" across Specs's face.

Sukin sin.
Son of a bitch.

*   *   *

Carter stood in the alleyway next to the Red Dog and listened. When he heard the clang of the back door closing, he smiled. He pulled the phone from his inside suit pocket, dialed, and walked out of the alley onto Garner.
"Yes?" came the voice on the other end.
"It's done, Mr. S.," he said walking south toward 48th and the waiting MitsuAudi sedan. "We've dropped off the package."
"And it was received?"
"It was."
"Good. I'll be making some arrangements and will give you instructions. Then it's Hiller's turn next. Have her contact me."
"Understood," said Carter.


NEXT TIME: "Born of the Blade"

"Double Down"

"Dust Up" - Part Five

The boat docked at Pier 22 was an eighty-two foot pre-Collapse former Coast Guard cutter now called Lady Fair sporting a gunmetal gray paint job and a bow-mounted .50-caliber machine gun half covered by a blue tarp. The captain was a solidly built woman with angular features and fiery red hair plaited halfway down her back. She wore a black commando sweater and a large caliber pistol in a flap holster at her hip and stood at the end of the gangplank as we walked up.   

I held out the case to her.
She took it with a short nod and handed it off to a bald crewman standing behind her.
"You'll want to check that for a tracker before you set sail," I said.
The captain quirked an eyebrow at me.
"Trust me," I said.
She turned to the bald crewman and gestured. He nodded and headed up the gangplank and onto the cutter.
"Little excitement on the way here?" she said, inclining her head behind us.
I shot a glance over my shoulder at our loaner. The Royale's back end was riddled with bullet holes and the driver's side rear passenger door window was missing..
Turned back to the captain and smiled. "Just a little."
"But not a big deal," she said.
"Nope," I said.
She grinned. "I'll let 'em know you delivered," she said reaching into her front pants pocket and pulling out a cellphone. "Nice doing business with you."
"Same," I said, turned, and Mouse and I headed back to the Royale.
We were halfway to the car when headlights popped on ten meters to our right and I saw the blue MitsuAudi sedan from Bayview Avenue. Dark suited figures half leaned out from both the rear driver's side and passenger side windows, each with subgun held in an awkward two-handed grip.  The sedan lurched forward with a squeal of tires, barrelling straight toward us, and the two gunmen opened fire.
Subvocal, and the world slid into slo-mo.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mouse bolt around the left side of the MitsuAudi, caught the quick flash of metal from her throwing blades as they popped into existence in her hands. Then turned my attention to the car and my shooter.
Rounds whizzed past me as I dropped to a crouch and the Twins leaped into my hands and spat fire and thunder. Six rounds punched into the shooter's torso and took off half his face. He crumpled still hanging out of the window, the subgun falling from his hands and clattering uselessly away. Shifted aim and four more rounds crashed through the MistuAudi's windshield. I got a brief look at the driver as his upper chest and face exploded in a spray of crimson gore before the car's front grill got too close and I dove to one side. The car rocketed past me.
I hit the ground in a tuck and roll, coming up on one knee, and turned back toward the car.
It continued past the cutter, angling toward the wharf, and then went off the edge and plunged into the waters of the bay.
I cut boost, stood up, and heard Mouse jog up to me.
"That was fun," she said.
"Other shooter?"
"Got him."
I looked at the spot where the MitsuAudi had gone over then looked toward the cutter.
The captain was standing on the main deck and watching me. She sketched a loose salute.
I nodded.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
"Let's bounce, I said to Mouse and we ran for the Royale.
We were skidding away from the Marina when I took one last look at the cutter in the rearview. She was pulling away from the wharf.
Then I turned my attention back to the streets ahead and got us back on Bayview Avenue heading east.
After a moment, Mouse turned from looking out the back window. "No cruisers," she said.
I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. "Good. Really didn't want to deal with MaxTac."
"Who were the guys in the Mitsu?"
"My guess is Rowley Jr. hired them to grab the case," I said. "I think he was looking to sell whatever was in there to pay Salerno."
" 'Cuz that Buzzcut asshole was one of Salerno's goons."
"I figured you'd recognize him."
"He was the asshole who shot me during that fish business."
"Now you're even."
She chuckled. "And he's greased."
"Even better," I said.
"So Salerno's goons found Rowley Jr. first, I guess."
"Salerno probably got tired of waiting for his money and decided to grease him for non-payment."
"Sure. Rich kids with nothing better to do than spend mommy and daddy's money."
"Bet he's gonna have fun explaining to the cops why a dead mob goon is lying next to him."
"Or why he's got a throwing knife in his ass."
Mouse chortled. "That, too."
The light ahead turned red and I came to stop with the rest of traffic.
Mouse said, "So what was all that about a tracker?"
"I figure it was the only way they found us at the Grill Palace. And how Rowley Jr. found us at the garage. He probably put it on the case or in it."
"And when the Grill Palace went bust, he decided to track us and take us himself."
"Bad idea," I said.
"Bit him in the ass," said Mouse with a snort and she collapsed in a fit of laughter.
The light turned green and I put us back in the flow of traffic eastward.
When her laughter finally subsided, I said, "I'll say this about Rowley Jr.--that move back in The Hills was genius. He must've turned down another side street so we couldn't see him. Then used the tracker to follow us. Probably gave our position to the Mitsu at the Grill Palace and told them where the drop would be."
"Genius didn't last too long," said Mouse.
"Nope," I said.
As we neared the Highway 610 onramp a thought struck.
I said, "You mentioned Queen Glitterati's husband died recently."
"Patrick Rowley, yeah."
"Last week. They had the funeral yesterday. Cremated him, I think. Big deal. Lots of city bigwigs turned up. Was all over Net12 for hours."
"And we just brought a good-sized equipment case from their house to a waiting boat."
I shot her a sidelong look.
Mouse sucked in a breath and she whipped her head toward me, saucer-eyed. "Holy shit! You don't think--"
"The less we know," I said.
"Yeah but--that's a little creepy, isn't it?"
"Don't want to know."
"Don't you think that's creepy?"
"Forget I said anything."
"Like hell," said Mouse. "I hope we don't get haunted by his ghost or something."
"Okay, that's enough."
"But he was in the car. All ashy and stuff."
"Just stop."
"You think they'll spread him out at sea or just dump the case?"
"I said stop."
"Oh shit!"
"What now?"
"Rowley Jr. was gonna sell the ashes?"
"Now that is fucking creepy."
"I'm not talking to you anymore."
"Who would sell human ashes except a creepy person?"
"This is me not talking to you."
"Not like dress-up-as-dead-mom-and-keep-her-mummified-corpse-in-my-basement creepy but you gotta admit this is close."
"Do you see me not talking to you?"
"You realize we'll probably need a priest now."
"What? Why?"
"For an exorcism."
I shook my head and ignored the rest of her babbling as we continued on Highway 610 toward the San Marino Hills and the rest of our payout.
60,000 Credits for two hours of work.
Plus car chase and gunfire.
Not too shabby.
I glanced at Mouse.
She was still going on about ghosts and something about haunted vintage cars.
But the smile was still on her face.
A nice change.
A good change.
And I suddenly had a feeling things were about to get better.

NEXT TIME: "Double Down"

"Dust Up"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4

"Dust Up" - Part Four

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.

"He got away?" said Mouse, coming up alongside me.
"You okay?"
"Five by five."
"He's on foot," I said, lowering the Twins and inclining my head. "With the case."
She looked up the street.
Sweatshirt was on the next block over trying doors. That stretch of Lenora was all two- and three-story office buildings with well-locked doors not likely to provide much in the way of cover or escape. A motion-sensitive lamp above one door flashed to life as Sweatshirt first yanked on a door handle then gave the door a few solid kicks. It held.
"Is he for real?" said Mouse.
"Not sure," I said.
"Don't go there."
"Is he carrying a club?"
I squinted to look then shook my head. "Flashlight. Long handle."
A flap of leather and she held up a throwing blade. "I can wing him. Save us a chase."
I looked up the street, trying to gauge distance. Sweatshirt was now trying to shoulder open another locked door and bouncing off harmlessly. I fought back a laugh. "Kinda long distance, isn't it?" I said. "I make it at least forty, forty-five meters."
"Yeah," said Mouse, eyes narrowing and studying the distance. "My best was thirty meters. I can get closer."
"When was that?" I said.
"That time in Southside with the chicken guy."
The memory flashed through my mind and I turned to Mouse. "His name was Rooster."
"Chicken guy," said Mouse. "Anyway, I tagged that one ganger at about thirty meters. Nailed him in the leg. He screamed like a little girl."
I looked back at Sweatshirt. He was now at yet another locked door on the left side of the street screaming at it to open, then kicking it to make his point.
"So wing him?" said Mouse.
"Let me try something else."
"Just wait."

*   *   *
By the time we had jogged across the intersection of Front and Lenora and got to the same block, Sweatshirt had already tried five doors and was now three-quarters of the way up the block, standing in front of a set of windows, the case on the ground next to him, the flashlight loaded back for a swing. My right leg throbbed slightly and again  I shook it off.
"You can end this now," I said as we closed the distance to fifteen meters.
Sweatshirt spun toward us and dropped the flashlight. "Stay back," he said, jabbing a finger in our direction. He scooped up the fallen flashlight, grabbed the case, and started walking backwards.
"We just want the case," I said, still following.
"Over my dead body," said Sweatshirt.
"That can be arranged," said Mouse.
Sweatshirt went saucer-eyed and raised the flashlight defensively. "You wouldn't dare!"
"Try us," I said.
"Don't you know who I am?"
"Don't care."
"The old man's already dead. Least he can do is make it worth my while."
Mouse looked at me. "Bored now. Wing him?"
"Wing him," I said.
Mouse hefted the throwing blade she'd been holding and loaded for the throw.
Sweatshirt's eyes widened even more. He stopped, dropped the flashlight, and held up his hand as if to ward off Mouse. "Okay, wait!" he said, stopping, his voice going up several registers and cracking. "I'll pay you double what you're already getting."
Mouse stopped in mid-throw, the blade still in her hand, and looked back at me.
I stopped and looked at her, then at Sweatshirt. "Double?"
Sweatshirt nodded so hard I thought his head was going to fall off. "Double. Swear to Christ. Just let me keep the case and don't kill me."
"Double," I said. "Now. And we take the case."
He gave a start, as if he'd been slapped. "What?"
"Pay us double now," I said. "Or she"--I inclined my head at Mouse--"ends you."
"Don't pay now," said Mouse.
"Couple of hours, tops," he said. "You'll get it."
"Nope," I said. "Pay now or give us the case and bounce or I let her skewer you a lot."
Sweatshirt gave a yelp, turned, and hobbled north toward Canal Street.
"Mouse," I said.
"Done," said Mouse.
Leather flapped and the lone throwing blade arced out, spinning, and impaled itself into Sweatshirt's right buttock with a meaty thunk.
Sweatshirt screamed, a high-pitched keening wail that echoed off the surrounding buildings, stumbled forward, and went sprawling on his stomach, the case clattering away from his grasp.
"Good hit," I said and we started toward Sweatshirt at a jog, my attention starting to focus on the fallen case.
Then a black SUV roared through the intersection of Walnut and Canal and screeched to a halt ten meters from Sweatshirt.
The hell?
We skidded to a stop.   
The SUV's rear door swung open and a dark-suited wall with legs and a buzzcut stepped out, looked down Sweatshirt, and gave him a toothy grin.
A memory struck.
"There you are, Rowley," said Buzzcut, striding toward him.
Sweatshirt Rowley yowled again, put his face to the concrete, and covered his head with his arms.
Buzzcut reached into his jacket.
Mouse said, "Hey! That asshole shot me!"
Buzzcut looked up at us and gave a start, as if suddenly noticing we were there.
Time enough.
A subvocalized command, and the world slid into slo-mo.
Sidestepped right, the Twins rising, tracking.
Buzzcut's pistol was just clearing his jacket when the Twins  roared, spitting fire and death in a booming staccato. Six rounds slammed into Buzzcut's torso and he crumpled.
Turned toward the driver's window, the Twins tracking, then checked fire as a throwing blade plunged through the middle of the window. Then the SUV reversed out of the intersection, tires smoking, the rear door still open and flapping against the door frame, heading east on Canal, finally disappearing down the street.
The Twins tracked them until they were out of sight then went to low-ready.
Dropped boost, sucked in a long lungful, blew it out, waited for my pulse rate to slow.
Then looked back at Sweatshirt Rowley.
He was still on the ground on his stomach, fists clenched near his head, and whimpering, the throwing blade still lodged in his buttock, blood staining the back of his khaki pants.
Mouse stood nearby, hands on her hips, watching him.
The case sat on the ground past Sweatshirt Rowley, a few meters ahead and to my left.
Beyond them, lay Buzzcut's limp, bullet-riddled corpse.
Things clicked into place.
I holstered the Twins, walked over to the case, and picked it up.
Popped optic clock.
Still time.
Walked over to Sweatshirt Rowley and turned my head slightly to look at his face. He was still face down, one hand next to his head clawing at the concrete, but I saw enough.
"Trying to steal from Daddy?" I said.
He craned his head to look up at me with baleful eyes. "You stabbed me in the ass, you shits," he said through gritted teeth.
I was right. He looked like a younger version of Rowley. "You didn't answer my question."
"You fucking stabbed me in the ass," he said again, his voice rising in pitch until he was screeching.
In the distance, sirens wailed.
"Let's bounce," I said to Mouse and started back toward the Royale at a jog.
"Fucking ass stabbers!" Sweatshirt Rowley called out in a screeching voice. "That's mine, you hear me? Mine!"
Shot a glance back.
He had pushed himself up on his elbows, his face a mask of rage.
"Nice doing business with you," I said.

(to be continued...)

"Dust Up"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 5