"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

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