30 September 2042
Ascot Arms Hotel
Bay City, California Free State

Homicide Detective Sgt. Ellen Calhoun, fresh from the shower and wearing jeans, casual boots, dark turtleneck, and black leather blazer, looking every bit a tourist, stepped out of her room, pulled the door shut behind her, adjusted her backpack, and stepped into the hallway, then checked her optic clock.
It read: 10:12:33.
She blinked a few times and her vision went back to normal.
Still not used to it. Chen had said it would take some time. The optics. The implants.
But she didn't have time.
She'd force herself to adapt. That would be the key.
And step one of adaptation was less than fifteen minutes away.
She glanced back at the door of her room, then at the door across from her, and grinned.
Let's see how you like this.

*   *   *
"I'm here," Sakura said into the earbud, starting up the staircase at a sprint, her footfalls echoing off the stone walls.       

"Wouldn't the elevator be faster?" said Simon.   
"Can't be seen," she said. "Or did you forget?"
"They're at the front entrance. What floor are you at?"
Sakura glanced at the nearest door as she sprinted past. "Sixth floor."
"Eleven more to go, boss. Better hurry."
"Sakura out."
She gritted her teeth and took the steps five at a time, six, then a whole flight, two flights, more, bounding up the staircase like a gazelle.
Why hadn't she seen this coming?

*   *   *
When the elevator doors closed, Mouse turned to me and made a face. "Why always this place?" she said. "Why can't they pick another damn hotel. There's gotta be at least a dozen of them in Uptown."
"I know," I said. "But we go where they ask us to go."
"Good thing there's a fee waiting for us."
"Good thing."
We were back at the Ascot Arms Hotel, dressed like a pair of businesswomen, and I had to agree with Mouse. I personally didn't like coming here. Our first time here ended with a corner penthouse exploding. The second instance involved a shoot-out in the downstairs restaurant and a dead client. And the last time resulted in the two of us being kidnapped by some nutball assassin who then put us through a deranged obstacle course.
"Next time," I said, "I'll choose the hotel."
"Damn straight you will."
The elevator toned, signalling our floor.
The doors wooshed open and we emerged from the elevator, padded down the carpeted hallway to room 1712, and stopped outside.
"Let's get this over with," said Mouse, fidgeting in her outfit and readjusting her grip on the leather attaché case she carried. "I hate these clothes."
"At least we're not in the woods," I said.
"That was enough nature to last me the rest of my life, thank you very much."
I stepped forward to knock on the door, spotted a small red light along the doorframe at knee height.
What the hell--?
My brain started to register the light as part of a motion sensor unit when I felt a sting at my neck.
Then a shadow closed on me.
Impact jarred through my body.
Followed by a distant roar.
Then blackness.

*   *   *
Thunder roared across the Bay City morning.
A section of the Ascot Arms' seventeeth floor exploded in a geyser of fire, concrete, and glass, raining debris onto the street below.

*   *   *
Calhoun smiled and counted along with the display above the elevator doors.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen.
The car pinged to a stop and the doors whispered open.
She stepped out into a smoke-filled corridor, the fire alarm whooping somewhere nearby, warning lights strobing.
The elevator doors whispered closed behind her and she heard the car descend.
Just in time.
She stood for a moment in front of the doors. Groups of people in various states of dress jogged past her toward the stairwell at the far end of the corridor, their voices panicked and concerned.
They paid no attention to her.
Her smile widened a little.
Better that way.
She waited until the voices and the footfalls in the stairwell died away.
Then she drew the compact SIG P250 from her holster, turned the corner, and went down the main hallway.
And stopped short, her smile fading.
Halfway down the corridor, the shattered and burned sections of two doors lay strewn across the floor. Smoke from her room and the room across billowed out into the hallway, the flickering light from the flames inside dancing across the walls.
But they weren't there.
Their bodies should've been on the floor. With the doors.
Not dead, of course. She'd take care of that later.
It would be slow. Painful.
They would be--should have been--there. Stunned, surely. Out cold, possibly. Minor burns, likely.
But they weren't there.
There was no one there!
Her grip on the pistol tightened and the world went crimson.
Where had they gone?
Then she heard the distant wail of sirens.
Fire department.
And right behind them, the police.
Calhoun stared at the shattered and burned doors and ground her teeth, swearing to herself, nostrils flaring as she sucked in deep breaths.
She holstered her pistol, took one last look at the spot where the bodies should've been, and turned.
And rammed her right fist into the wall, spraying chunks of plaster, burying her arm up to the elbow.
The sirens were closer now.
She had to go.
Calhoun pulled her arm out of the wall and looked at her gloved right hand. The fabric across the knuckles had torn and metal glinted up at her.
She had to find them.
And she knew where to start.
The Red Dog Bar.

*   *   *
I came to staring up at the bare ceiling of a vehicle.
Blinked a few times, willing my sight and brain into focus, then propped myself up on my elbows and looked around.
We were in the back of a cargo van. The bare metal floor had been replaced with rubber padding. Behind us, a metal partition separated the cargo area from the front seats.
Mouse lay on her side half a meter to my left, near the van's sliding side door.
Then I remembered the sting and touched the side of my neck.
It had come from our right.
Same direction as the impact.
Knockout drug? Again?
I looked at the van.
"Sakura?" I said. "Is this another one of your tests?"
"No test."
The voice came from speakers somewhere in the cargo area.
Mouse stirred, let out a groan.
"So it is you," I said.
"What do you want?"
"I'm here to help," she said.
"By locking us in the back of a van?"
"The door's unlocked," said Sakura. "And before you say it, you're still armed."
I blinked at that, then realized I still had the Twins, Bonnie and Clyde, my pair of Colt-Springfield M2001 .45-caliber high-capacity pistols, in the double-holster rig beneath my suit jacket.
Scanned the van again and now spotted Mouse's attache case at her feet.    
"They're still in there," said Sakura. "Feel free to look."
"Sonofabitch," said Mouse, rolling onto her back. "The fuck happened?"
I sat up, reached for the attaché case, pulled it open.
Inside were her twin wakizashis.
I turned to Mouse. She was sitting up and looking at me.
"Our friend is back," I said.
"Mouse," said Sakura.
"Aw, shit," said Mouse. "Again?"
"She said she's here to help," I said.
Mouse cackled.
"I just saved you two from being blown into tiny pieces," Sakura said.
"Yeah, right," said Mouse.
I was about to join in with a retort when a memory surfaced.
A light. A red light.
"Motion sensor," I said.
"What?" said Mouse.
I turned to her as images flashed through my head. "Just before we stepped up to the door of that room, I remembered seeing a red light on the door frame. Size of a thumbnail. About knee level."
"Yes," said Sakura. "It was a motion sensor. Rigged to a goodly amount of explosives. Got to you both before it blew," said Sakura.
"And now we're in a van," I said. "Listening to you through hidden speakers." I shook my head. "Isn't this a little much? I mean, it's like something out of Mouse's thriller vids."
"That covert assassin guy with amnesia," said Mouse. "Wakes up on a boat."
"Yeah," I said. "Kind of theatrical."
"She did convert an entire R&D lab into a deathtrap," said Mouse. "This is nothing compared to that."
"Tell me," said Sakura. "Would you have believed me if I'd called and told you not to go into the room because it was rigged to explode?"
"Like you told us that lab would blow when time ran out?" I said.
"Exactly," said Sakura. "Plus, I had to make sure."
"Make sure of what?" I said.
"Later," said Sakura. "Somebody was gunning for you."
"Was?" I said.
"They're not anymore."
"And why not?" said Mouse.
"Do you want them to be?" said Sakura.
"Answer the question," I said. "Why aren't they gunning for us anymore?"
"Because I took care of it," said Sakura.
"Took care of it how?" I said.
We waited.
Still silence.

*   *   *
The van had been parked on the top floor of the Cameron Street Garage, two blocks east of the Ascot Arms.
The same garage where we'd parked one of Spec's loaners three floors down.
From where we stood, Mouse and I could see the thick black smoke pouring out of a room on the hotel's 17th floor facing Wisher Avenue.
Down below, traffic had been diverted to either side of Cameron Avenue and BCPD cruisers blocked off 14th and 15th Streets. Further up the street, I could see the strobing red flashes from the fire trucks assembled at the foot of the hotel.
"We could've been up there," said Mouse, gesturing toward the smoke.
"If it hadn't been for Sakura," I said. "And I don't like that."
"Me either," said Mouse. "Like we owe her or something." She shuddered.
Just then my phone chirped.
I pulled it out of my jacket pocket.
"The hotel again?" said Specs.
"Don't start," I said.
"Okay okay," he said. "Don't get your undies in a knot. I take it this one's a wash?"
"Pretty much," I said.
"At least you got paid half in advance, right?"
"Is this a social call, Specs?" I said.
"It just so happens I got another run for you two," he said. "Meet up at the Red Dog. I'll tell you there."
"Can't you tell me now?"
"Not this one," he said.

*   *   *
Sakura crouched on the edge of the rooftop and watched.
Three stories below, Calhoun walked down the alley between the Red Dog and the beauty salon next door and stopped at the back door of the bar.
She'd done some homework. Sakura had to give her that.
But had she done enough?
She waited to see.
Calhoun glanced around, then pulled something out of her jacket pocket.
Sakura popped her optics to magnify.
A pick gun.
Sakura grinned and popped her optics back to normal.
No. Not enough homework.
Calhoun stepped closer to the door.
Then staggered back and crumpled to the ground, writhing and spasming, arms twisted, fingers curled into claws. The pick gun fell out of her hand.
Ten seconds later she stopped writhing and rolled to one side.
It was time.
Sakura leaped down from the roof edge and landed half a meter from where Calhoun lay.
Calhoun craned her neck to look up, eyes squinted.
"Who--who are you?" she croaked.
Sakura stepped up next to Calhoun and went down on one knee beside her. "You're in the way," she said.
Calhoun blinked at her. "What?"
Sakura struck cobra-fast with both hands and snapped Calhoun's neck.
The crack of bone echoed briefly in the enclosed space of the back alley.
Calhoun's body jerked, then went limp.
Sakura popped her optics to thermo and looked over Calhoun's body.
Lots of mods. Both legs. Right arm. Dermal mesh. Optics. Boosters. Neuralware.
She shook her head.
A waste of time.
Sakura reached out, yanked the taser prongs and leads from Calhoun's chest, picked her up in a fireman's carry, and stood.
Looked around for a moment.
Then sprang up to the roof of the beauty salon and vanished.


NEXT TIME: "Ties That Bind"


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