Sunlight streamed in through a crack in the shade, a pure white sliver that fell warm across Cass’s cheek. Her eyelids fluttered, drew open heavily. She felt herself waking, slowly, awareness leaking in like warm water pooling in from under a door. And as she woke, she was loath to move. The bed was more comfortable than any she could remember ever having slept in before, the sheets and blankets a secure cocoon of warmth and comfort that seemed to have been arranged and fitted to her exact frame. Wren was gone, but Cass felt so perfectly at peace that her usual desperate need to know where he was at all times failed to kick in. In the other room, no doubt. Safe. She could hear the low tones of Three’s voice through the door, a quiet rumble like distant thunder.
She rolled to her side and arched, stretching, scissoring her legs to different corners of the foot of the bed, feeling the sheets run smooth and cool across the bare skin of her legs. jCharles had given her a stack of quint the evening before, which her bloodstream had greedily accepted. Cass relaxed her stretch, accessed GST. It was nearly noon. She’d slept for fourteen hours.
She sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed. Took a deep breath. A smile crept to her lips. She felt good. Better than good. She felt well. She slid out of bed, dressed, and padded barefoot into the adjoining room.
The conversation stopped when Wren called to her. He hopped off the couch and ran over. She stooped to intercept him, and swung him up to hug him tightly. jCharles was sitting in one of the plush chairs. Three, as usual, was standing. Mol was seated on the couch, next to the spot where Wren had been moments before. She had a book open on her lap. Apparently she’d been reading to him.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Cass said.
“Hope we didn’t wake you,” Mol answered. “I was trying to keep them quiet, but you know how boys are when you get ’em together.”
“Thanks, Miss Mol, but I probably should’ve been up about six hours ago.”
Mol shot Three a flat look. “Now you’ve got her doing it.” Her eyes were red, slightly puffy. Cass guessed she’d been crying recently. “At this rate, you’ll have Twitch calling me ‘Miss’ before you go.”
Three was unmoved, his stone mask intact. He looked Cass in the eye without expression. Grim. Cass couldn’t help but wonder what had transpired while she slept.
“So what’s the plan?”
Three’s look lingered for an uncomfortably long moment. Almost angry.
“Tryin’ to work that out now, actually,” jCharles answered. “We seem to have a timing issue.”
Cass moved on into the room, letting Wren slide down to his feet as she did so. To her surprise, he went right back to the couch and plopped down next to Mol, close. Right up next to her. She dropped an arm around him casual, like family. Cass, aware of the tension in the room but unable to identify the reason, situated herself on the arm of the couch, neither sitting nor standing.
“Anything I can help with?”
“No,” Three answered in his direct way. A look passed between him and jCharles. She recognized the look, the one that Three used to indicate there would be no further discussion on the matter. jCharles either didn’t read it the same way, or didn’t care.
“I said no, Twitch.”
“Options and time, man. We’re short on both. Don’t say no to me again unless you’ve got a solution.”
“I’ll go,” Mol offered.
“Absolutely not,” Three said without looking at her. jCharles glanced over, warm, but shook his head.
“I’m not a cripple. I can still handle myself.”
Cass got the sense everyone was talking around her, and she didn’t like it.
“I know, Mol, but I didn’t come here to bring you into this—”
“If you’re in it, we’re in it,” jCharles said, cutting Three off. He leaned forward on the edge of his chair, voice intense. “That’s how it works. Spatz Three, do you have any idea how tired it gets, you playing this solo warrior gig all the time?”
“jCharles,” Cass injected. “What’s the problem?”
Three looked her way, but jCharles ignored him.
“Schedule. We’ve got to be in two places at once. And neither of them are pleasant.”
“And I can’t go to one?”
jCharles looked back to Three, eyebrows raised. Cass saw the muscle of Three’s jaw working. Finally, he turned to her.
“I’ve gotta go see the Bonefolder’s people. They won’t talk to me without Twitch there. But he’s got a chem drop lined up Downtown.”
“Caught a lucky break on the timing,” jCharles added, “but with the quantity they’re moving, they won’t wait around. And it might be a week before I can get a handle on that much again.”
Cass understood now. And it offended her that Three wouldn’t consider letting her take care of the drop. She stood up.
“Then of course I’m going,” she said. “It’s for me, it’s my thing. I’ll handle it.”
“Too dangerous, Cass,” Three answered. “Greenmen don’t patrol down there. You don’t know your way around. You’re a wo—”
He stopped himself, but not soon enough.
“What, a woman? Who do you think I am, Three? I’m not some useless skew, you know. You think a crew like RushRuin picked me up because they felt sorry for me?”
If she hadn’t been so worked up, she would’ve noticed the sudden look of surprise and concern that passed between jCharles and Mol.
“jCharles, just tell me where I need to be and when. I can handle it.” jCharles looked back at Three, but Cass wasn’t having it. “Don’t look at him, he doesn’t have a say.”
Three smoldered but didn’t reply. Cass took small satisfaction in knowing he didn’t really have any other choice.
“One sec, lemme sig you the spot.”
He bursted the location to her. She pulled up a satellite overlay, gipsed the path, scouted the area via the image projected directly on her corneas.
“That’s what we call ‘Downtown’.”
Rows of concrete blocks were arrayed around a large central structure that looked like an old aircraft hangar. None of the wild color that painted the rest of the city was apparent Downtown. Everything was still cast in its original concrete gray. Cass realized the blocks were isolation units, individual prisons for what once must’ve been Greenstone’s most violent and deadly citizens. From the looks of it, the neighborhood hadn’t changed much. More garbage, maybe.
“How much product are we talking?”
“Forty-five hundred in tabs.”
Cass couldn’t help but jolt at the number. Even the labs she’d frequented back in Fourover never dealt in more than a thousand when it came to quint. Too potent. Too much risk to have all in one place. She was almost afraid to ask, but knew she had to. “For how much?”
“Three thousand Hard. But the first half’s been paid.” Cass glanced to Three, but he’d turned away from her now. He was busying himself with his pack and harness. No doubt he’d paid for the chems. Probably enough to last him a year the way he traveled. She felt suddenly wrong for what she’d said to him. And how she’d said it.
“The people to meet check out fine,” said jCharles. “Not direct connections of mine, but they come with the right credits. It’s just, you know, walking in with that much cold and back out with that much q-dose.”
“I understand. What time?”
“It gonna be a problem if it’s me and not you?”
“Nah, I’ll send word. Even Downtown they respect Bonefolder’s time. You show up with the money, they’ll do the deal. It’s these guys.” He transmitted two pictures, which she flashed up. They were practically kids. Gangly, bookish types. “The long-hair’s Tyke. His friend is Jantz. They’ll have security. Tyke’s the talker. Jantz is the nervous one.”
“Anything else I need to know?”
“Yeah, open that shirt up a bit, you might get a discount.”
“Twitch!” Mol snapped, and Cass jumped, having forgotten she was in the room.
jCharles shrugged with a sheepish smile.
“I’m just saying. They’re chemists, Mol.”
“Mol,” Cass said, a potential hitch having just occurred to her. “Do you think Wren could stay here? While I’m away?”
“Of course, Cass. Absolutely. If it’s OK with Wren here, I mean.” She squeezed him once, smiled down at him.
Wren looked uncertain.
“Will you be OK without me?” he asked. His sincerity brought unexpected tears to Cass’s eyes. Her baby. Her would-be protector.
“Yes, baby, I’ll be fine. You stay here with Miss Mol.”
“OK,” he answered. “If you’re sure.”
She walked over and kissed him on the head, then turned back to jCharles.
“Gimme just a minute, then I’ll head on. I’d like to have some time to scout it out before I go in.”
“Probably a good plan.”
She glanced to Three who was still carefully ignoring the whole exchange. She couldn’t see his face, but she could picture it. Cass returned to the back room and made the bed. She didn’t know why, exactly. It just felt wrong to leave it a mess.
Afterwards, she went into the bathroom, ran cool water in the small basin, and washed her face. She pulled her hair back tight into a short ponytail. Looked at herself in the mirror. Her color was better. Her eyes steady.
“It’s just a buy,” she said to her reflection.
“It is and it isn’t,” said Three from the doorway. Cass jumped. Of course she hadn’t heard him come in.
“Don’t try to talk me out of it, Three.”
He shook his head, looked over the freshly-made bed.
“No, I—” he started, then stopped. Eyes narrowed. Gathered himself. “Look, I didn’t mean…” he trailed off. Made eye contact. Cass was surprised to find something behind his usually-unreadable dark eyes. Genuine concern. “You watch yourself. And if you see anything you don’t like, you walk away. We’ll figure something else out. You just walk away.”
She nodded, moved again by his suddenly obvious concern for her.
“We’ll be back before sundown,” he said.
He nodded and withdrew. When Cass returned to the main room, he was nowhere to be found. Mol was reading to Wren again, and he sat enthralled. jCharles approached and put himself between Cass and the others.
“You shouldn’t need this,” he said in low tones, “but I’d feel better if you had it.” He slipped her one of his stubby jitterguns. “You know how to use it?”
Cass gripped the chunky weapon, tested its weight. It wasn’t as viscerally terrifying as Three’s pistol, but its design was still a clear indication of vicious intent. Its some two-dozen slender barrels were tightly stacked in a squared-off housing. A classic close-range weapon for personal protection. Cass nodded and tucked it into her coat pocket.
“Just a precaution,” he said. “More for me than you.”
“Thanks, jCharles.” She leaned around jCharles. “I’ll be back soon, sweetheart.”
Wren looked up, and quickly hopped down. Her wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his head in her hip. “Be safe, Mama.”
“I will, baby. Take care of Miss Mol while I’m gone.”
“I will.” He slipped back away from her, and returned to his place on the couch. Snuggled into Mol. Cass couldn’t remember him ever having taken to someone so quickly before. Mol smiled and nodded, and without another word Cass left the safety of the Samurai McGann and plunged into the stream of humanity that seemed to flow in every direction except for the one she wanted to go: towards the darkest corner of Greenstone.
Three stared up at the building that seemed to loom over them despite being only three stories tall. jCharles had gone in first to make sure everything got off on the right foot. As important as this meeting was, Three found it tough to focus on the task at hand. He wondered how Cass was handling the trek. Tried to convince himself she’d be fine. She was right, after all. She’d run with RushRuin. There was no doubt she could handle herself. She’d already proven how tough she was, fighting for her life and covering twenty or more miles a day without complaint. And she was back up and running on quint, which meant… well, it likely meant that even Three had no idea what she was capable of now. He was probably in more danger than she was, anyway.
Three surveyed the street and surrounding buildings for the fifth time since Twitch had gone in. This section of Greenstone was surprisingly quiet. Almost vacant. There were a few stragglers here and there, but they seemed out of place. No, actually, they seemed too in place. Too evenly spaced, too strategically positioned. Three watched a man in a long, rumpled coat pass by on the opposite side of the street, noted how careful the man was not to look Three’s way, how careful to keep the coat closed. Perimeter security. Three wondered how much hardware the guy was packing inside the coat. Long gun seemed unnecessary for a two-man meeting. Then again, in Greenstone it never hurt to be over-prepared. Three reached inside his coat and checked his pistol, gave a slight tug to loosen it in its holster. Just in case.
What was taking Twitch so long?
The nearer Cass drew toward the Downtown district, the thinner the crowds got. Knots of people walked together here and there, others clustered together in doorways, on steps. Some glanced at her as she followed the internal beacon that guided her towards her destination, but most ignored her presence completely. She kept her head up, her stride confident, shoulders back. Anyone who looked her way found her looking right back. Experience had taught her that the projection of strength was more important than actual possession of it. Still, it helped her confidence knowing at least she could boost again if she needed it.
Though the walls and alleys still bore the occasional spray of vivid symbols marking territory, the color had otherwise begun to drain from the surroundings. And with the loss of that wild façade, Greenstone was looking less and less like a vibrant city and taking on more and more of its original personality. The street hadn’t changed width, but the walls felt closer, taller, more dominating.
Further ahead, Cass could see the rounded dome of the hangar peeking above the concrete-gray horizon. She put her head down and focused on reaching her goal. Get in, do the deal, get out. She realized she was gripping the jittergun in a tight fist.
Breathe, she told herself.
“Problem.” jCharles was back, looking grim. He moved close to Three, lowered his voice. Eyes roving the surroundings. “There are way more people inside than there should be,” he said. “The fact they let me come back out makes me think they’ve got ’em posted out here, too.”
“Yeah. I count six ground level, two up high. Probably one across the street, second floor window, overlooking the intersection.”
jCharles flicked his eyes that way.
“Shutters are all pulled up there.”
“Perfect vantage to the front and side entrances. They should have someone there.”
“So what do you wanna do?”
As far as Three was concerned, nothing had changed. Not really. Dealing with the Bonefolder was always a trap, in one way or another.
“You walk. I’ll go in.”
“It’s like this, Three. Bonefolder’s in there. Looking for you. So either we’re both going in, or we’re both shooting out.”
“Well. Then I guess we’re goin’ in.”
jCharles stepped back and nodded, glancing up and down the street.
“Bartender’s faster than he looks. The big guy is the last one to worry about. If it goes bad, start right, I’ll take left. Meet you in the middle.”
Three nodded, unfastened his coat, and forced himself to relax.
The closer she got to the hangar, the more apparent it became as to why that was the meeting point of choice. Cass had walked the perimeter twice, and noticed only two doors, each on opposite sides of the structure. The main gates had been pulled to and welded shut long ago, and there were no windows to be seen. It’d be awfully hard to surprise anybody on the inside and still be able to get away without being tracked by someone on the outside. The place was almost tailor-made for deals between untrustworthy business partners.
Cass checked the time. 13:27 GST. Soon. But enough time for one more lap. She’d run her first two perimeter checks clockwise, and started that way again, but something pricked in her gut and caused her to turn back. As she did so, she noticed a man in a grubby brown coat limping her way. When she turned, he hitched his step. The briefest eye contact. A hesitation. Slight, but as if she had startled him, despite being separated by more than thirty feet. He continued on his shuffling way, turned a corner and disappeared down a row of iso-units. By the time she’d reached the line of units he’d taken, he was nowhere in sight.
Paranoia, maybe. But something about the man stuck with her that she didn’t like. Some unplaced familiarity. Or maybe he was just the kind of person she’d expect to find lurking Downtown. Three’s words flashed back to her.
You see anything you don’t like, you walk away.
It’d seemed like good advice at the time, but now it sounded so vague as to be useless. There was a lot down here she didn’t particularly care for. And the deal. The deal was big enough for her to get well, be well, and stay well for good long while. No way was she going to walk away from that chance. She shoved the man out of her mind and finished her final walk around the perimeter.
“Either of you gentlemen carrying any weapons?” the neckless bodyguard asked.
“No,” Three answered, despite the fact that his coat was open and his vicious pistol was widely on display.
The bodyguard smiled, a gleaming white split amidst the pale pink flesh of his face and head. Three hoped this was the “big one” Twitch had mentioned. The Big One looked like a mountain of flesh, poured in a pile and shaped into some vaguely human form by someone whose only experience with anatomy had been muscular. He was dressed in a three-piece suit that looked like it was ready to tear apart if he so much as turned his head. Though it was cleverly tailored and woven, Three could tell from the sheen of the fabric that it was fibrasteel, likely impervious to any stabbing or slashing that might occur.
“And that piece is, I suppose, decorative only?”
“Keeps the kids away is all.”
“The Bonefolder understands the nature of the world in which we live, friend. We do not wish to deprive you of your protection. We mean only to inventory. I would, however, advise you to keep your hands away from your… ornament. This way, please.”
The Big One led them both from the entryway into a large open room, set with a number of tables. There was a bar off to the left, where a man stood wiping down a counter with a rag. The bartender looked to be in his early 60s, and he tipped his head in greeting. Even across the room, the bartender vibrated with menace. An open staircase in the back led up to a second floor, where an open balcony surrounded and overlooked the first floor. Evenly spaced doors off the balcony hinted at some kind of upstairs living quarters.
A knot of men sat or stood around small tables in the center of the room. And there at the large central table, all alone, sat the Bonefolder.
“Gentlemen,” said the Big One. “Be seated.”
Three and jCharles sat themselves across the table from Bonefolder.
“May I have a beverage prepared for you?”
“Bittertonic might be nice,” jCharles answered. “How about you Numbers, something to take the edge off? Good chance to taste something from the top of the shelf.”
Three shook his head, kept his eyes on Bonefolder. He could tell from Twitch’s eager casualness that he was wound tight. Quick count put them down four to one, not counting the Bonefolder. Not good odds even against poorly-trained gun hands.
“Very well,” said the Big One. He motioned to the bartender, who began preparing a drink for jCharles.
Three took in as much about the Bonefolder as he could. High cheekbones, light brown hair that flowed in a steep cascade to just below her shoulders. Pouty lips drawn down permanently at the corners of her mouth. Gave her a look of constant, polite disdain. As he regarded her, she smiled, drawing her lips back fiercely in an almost upside down kind of way, that, rather than a frown, managed to be something of a smile while still communicating a sort of strained patience. She’d been a looker once. Maybe still was, to some of particular tastes. She seemed severe in every way.
The fact that a woman had grown into such a commanding presence here in Greenstone told him all he needed to know about her will. And the deference the men around her showed her hinted at how she exerted that will. Her men exhibited the kind of fear and respect one might expect to see shown to a queen. Or an unforgiving goddess.
“This is the one they call ‘Three’?” she said, with mild disdain, looking towards the Big One and waving her hand at Three dismissively.
“I am,” Three answered for himself. The Bonefolder looked to him with mild disappointment.
“We see. Not much of a proper name, is it? It sounds simply ridiculous to us, to go about having others refer to you by number rather than name.”
If she had intended to garner a response, she would be disappointed. Three sat without reply. The Big One left the table. The corners of the Bonefolder’s mouth pulled downward.
“Well, we won’t abide referring to you in such a manner, so here you will be identified as Mr Walker. Such seems suitable, from what we know of you.”
“You can call me whatever you like, ma’am.”
“How unexpected. It has manners.” The Bonefolder paused long enough to sip from her beverage, a steaming, brownish liquid Three couldn’t identify.
“Mr Walker, we understand you wish to make use of our train.”
The Big One returned and placed a bittertonic in front of jCharles, and then moved around to stand behind Bonefolder. jCharles didn’t touch the drink.
“We had high hopes that we could reach some sort of an agreement on the matter. But it has been brought to our attention that an obstacle may have arisen between us already.”
There was no further sign of the limping man and as far as Cass could tell the area around the hangar was clear. Or at least, clear enough. jCharles hadn’t told her which entrance to use, so she picked the westernmost. The door was steel, with thick white paint flaking off in strips. It didn’t seem like the kind of place where you’d be expected to knock. Cass raised the bar that served to hold the door closed, and nudged the door open. Inside, the hangar was a dusty orange twilight of artificial light. Smooth concrete floor. A stale odor of mildew and something like kerosene. Same feel as the lab back at the enclave, where Fedor had nearly caught them.
She pushed the door open wider, and slid inside, careful to check both sides as she entered. Clear. From the inside, the hangar seemed impossibly large. The light didn’t stretch high enough to reveal the roof, so looking upward into that looming blackness gave a sense of endlessness that made her dizzy. A small group of people stood in a cluster right in the middle of the hangar, soaked in a bright yellow-white light from the four vertical tubelights that formed a rectangle around them. The lights were a bit of a surprise, given the relative darkness that surrounded them. It seemed like inside that box of light, it would be nearly impossible to keep a clear view of what may be going on beyond its borders. She had to wonder just how experienced these guys were.
From this distance the tallest of the figures gathered in the center was no larger than her thumb. She knew that the eastern entrance was roughly the same span again from the center, which gave the hangar mind-boggling proportions. And she couldn’t help but wonder what had ever been housed here.
Cass drew a breath, steadied herself, then started the long walk, her footfalls echoing mercilessly in the metallic cavern. Floorbox electric lights ran in a haphazard path the full length of the hangar, bathing the floor in dull pools of hot-orange between pockets of dusky hues. The cluster of people broke up slightly as she approached, two of the larger coming forward while the others remained behind. Separated as they were, she got a solid headcount. Six, altogether. Tyke, Jantz, and security. Seemed about right. Not great numbers for her, though, if it went bad.
When she was about twenty yards away, one of the bigger men raised his hand, indicating she should stop. It was tough to see him well, backlit as he was by the tubelights, but she could see enough of his silhouette to get the gist. She held her place.
“Can I help you, miss?”
Cass suddenly wished she’d asked jCharles for a little more info. Every chem scene had its own nuances, its own etiquette. Common greetings, sometimes elaborate introductions, even unspoken rules about distances to be maintained at all times. Play it wrong, and the other guys would know right off the bat you were an out-of-towner. That might just cost you an extra thirty or fifty percent. Worst case would cost you a whole lot more. On a whim, Cass reached up and nonchalantly unfastened her shirt a little lower.
“You boys keep it hot in here, don’t you?”
“Are you looking for someone in particular?”
Dangerous question. In some circles, if you didn’t have the right name, the deal would be off. In other circles, mentioning names was a quick way to get dusted off. She played cool.
“My boy from uptown sent me out for business, said he’d sent word.”
“Why didn’t ‘your boy’ come himself?”
“On account of his unexpected delay with the Bonefolder.”
The mood suddenly shifted.
“Oh, you’re McGann’s little sister? Why didn’t you say that, come on over here!”
Cass just smiled and walked to the group. As she approached, the light shifted enough that she could see the man who’d been talking to her. He was sporting the uniform of a Greenman, but it was ill-fitting. She saw him checking it out, and chuckled.
“Helps with the walk in,” he said with a shrug.
“Long as you don’t meet any greenmen, I guess.”
He nodded, and led her to the others, who largely stood gawking. There was a small collapsible table set up in the middle of the lights. A case sat on the table. Behind it stood two young men she recognized from jCharles’ pictures. Quick scan of the three other guards. One in red, one in black, one wearing a white coat with a backpack.
“This here’s Tyke,” said the guard, pointing to a tall and thin youth with long hair and a hawk-beak of a nose. “And that’s his buddy Jantz.” Jantz was shorter, but just as rail thin, with a shock of orange hair highlighted silver. Neither made eye contact. Both were staring at her chest.
“Boys!” the guard snapped, drawing Tyke’s attention. He glanced up, wild-eyed, looking back and forth between the guard and Cass several times. Jantz lingered.
“Hi, yeah, sorry, sorry, little jumpy out here with all this material out here, you know, out here. We’re big fans of your brother, Mr McGann I mean, big fans, I read all his stuff. Me and Jantz both do, all his stuff. Maybe, you know, maybe if we’re all happy with this arrangement, you know, after we, you know, handle what we have to handle here, maybe sometime down the road we could actually meet him. If you’re cool with that, I mean.”
“I’m sure that’d be great, Tyke,” she cooed, putting on the womanly charm. A little bit of skin seemed to have them all distracted. The sultry voice would probably have them completely mesmerized. Completely off guard. “He had nice things to say about you already.”
Tyke let out something halfway between a giggle and a snort. A thin thread of phlegm flipped itself over his bottom lip and dangled there a moment before he wiped it away. Jantz lowered his head and stared at the table. Then slowly slid his eyes back up to Cass’s cleavage.
“My understanding is that you’ve received the half up front?”
“That’s right, and you can check the case if you want,” he said, as he swiped a fingertip across a chrome strip. A mechanism hissed and the case unsealed itself. “It’s all there, forty-five hundred, cut in stacks. We went ahead and cut ’em in stacks for you so, you know, so when you, you know, when you sell ’em off or whatever, they’re easier for you to move, for when you sell ’em. That’s a little extra service we wanted to provide to you on account of Mr McGann. For when you sell ’em.”
“Well, I appreciate that Tyke. I’m sure Mr McGann will too.”
“And you’ve got the money, right? In Hard?”
“Of course.” She slung the pack onto the table. “Case is mine to take?”
“Sure, that’s fine. Sorry to make you lug it all the way down here, that much Hard. But you know, this was kind of a hurry up kind of thing, and we don’t usually work in this kind of, you know, arrangement, and so we’re sorry, we would’ve rather done it some other way that was better for your brother, you know and you, but this was all we could work out to handle, you know, on such short notice, with that much, you know, that much q.”
“It’s really not a problem, Tyke. I know it’s a lot of pressure on you guys.”
A momentary cube of light flashed at the eastern entrance of hangar, someone entering quickly. Once the door clanged shut again, it was impossible to see who it was approaching, with the light from the tubelighting in her face.
“Don’t worry that’s just our moneyman. Like an accountant, you know, just to make sure we’re all on the square and everything. He’s with us, don’t worry, he’s one of ours. He’s our moneyman.”
A prickle of electricity raced along Cass’s spine. That made seven. No matter how well things were going, seven to one was bad odds.
“I’m not sure what kind of trouble I could’ve caused you, ma’am,” Three answered. “Just rolled into town yesterday, and haven’t done anything untoward to anyone since I got here.”
The Bonefolder sipped her beverage again, a dainty procedure borne of long years of practice and some kind of homage to traditions long dead. She replaced her cup on the table, adjusted it slightly so the handle was pointing exactly ninety-degrees to her right.
“This may be true. But we fear the offense came before you ‘rolled into town’, as you so eloquently put it.”
Three could feel the tension pouring off jCharles. Without a doubt, he was already running through the scenarios of who to drop first when it all went down.
“Ma’am, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ve had a long few weeks. If I’ve done you some wrong, you’re gonna have to come right out and tell me.”
She looked at him with disappointment, clearly affronted by his crass disregard for her preferred manner of speech. The Bonefolder took another sip of her beverage. Three already recognized the routine. Same quantity in every sip. Raise the cup. Sip. Pause. A long blink. Lower the cup. Adjust. Handle ninety-degrees to the right.
“A few days ago, Mr Walker, several of our business associates went looking to procure certain commodities that are at times in demand here within Greenstone. Four associates departed. Only one of those associates returned, Mr Walker, and he was notably less well than he had been when he first departed. His ankle snapped cleanly in two. Jaw dislocated. Only partial memories of the events which led to the unfortunate state in which we found him.”
The image flashed through Three’s mind immediately. The slavers. He’d told Cass he might not have killed all of them. Apparently he was right. Small comfort.
“It seems he spent the night in a culvert, wedged inside a drain pipe, Mr Walker, after having crawled there on his elbows, he says. Apparently, he had the less than desirable experience of observing the Weir as they savaged the corpses of his companions and then dragged them away. We fear he has been somewhat changed.”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry for your loss, but I gave those men the only thing I had to offer ’em. I didn’t know they were yours.”
“Would it have mattered if you had, Mr Walker?”
“No ma’am, I reckon not.”
“As we suspected,” she replied. She pressed her lips together so that they disappeared into a perfectly flat, horizontal line. Cup up. Sip. Pause. Blink. Cup down. Adjust. “Under normal circumstances, we fear we would have no choice but to make an example of you. Greenstone is a challenging place for a woman of any standing, let alone for one of our particular age, you see.”
Close to go time. Three casually surveyed the bartender. He was cleaning a glass, but watching intently. The Big One stood statue-still behind Bonefolder, hands behind his back. The rest arrayed in a half-circle that nearly enclosed Three and jCharles. Four to one. And the Bonefolder. Three didn’t know how she’d earned that name, and he didn’t want to find out.
“So what’s the procedure here? I assume you want some kind of restitution, else I’d be swinging from a post already.”
“Oh, isn’t it a sharp one?” she said. “We understand you desire use of our train that you may travel to Morningside. Is this accurate?”
“It is to your great fortune, then, that we have need of a courier for just that very destination. A messenger.”
“So I hop on your train, deliver your message, and we’re square?”
“We require a message be delivered to the governor of that province. A man by name of Underdown.”
Under the table, jCharles spread his fingers wide, stretching them, then relaxed them into his lap. He bowed his head slightly, let his eyelids droop. Ready. On Three’s move, Twitch would unleash.
“And the message?”
“The message is his death. After we receive confirmation, we will allow your woman and child to join you.”
An icy shock went through Three, and he saw jCharles’ eyelids flutter. How did she know about Cass and Wren?
Three forced himself still. Calm. Cool. Controlled.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that doesn’t work.”
“Mr Walker, by now we have your woman and child in our custody. Your decisions are reduced only to this: deliver our message to Governor Underdown of Morningside, or die. We do not care, but recompense must be made. Your death plus the woman and the boy are calculated a fair exchange. The sum is equal to the cost of the zeroing of Underdown. This is business. What is your decision?”
The electric feeling didn’t subside as the man approached from the hazy darkness. There was a shift in the crowd, as well. Cass felt the ring tighten ever so subtly.
“Our moneyman,” Tyke continued. “Just taking care of the money, and we should all be on our way, just like that. I hope you’ll tell your brother what good business partners we are, how well we held up our deal, and how eager we are to serve. We’re fans of his, we read all his stuff, me and Jantz.”
The man finally reached the perimeter of the lights, and Cass recognized him instantly. The limping man from before. But more than that, she saw it now, all of it. The man she’d seen in the Samurai McGann. The one with the familiar eyes. She’d seen him even before that, out in the open. He’d been wearing a mask over his mouth then, when Three had broken his leg and knocked him to the ground like a dead man. Not dead after all.
Cass stepped back involuntarily, and felt the fake greenman close behind her. Seven to one. Very bad odds.
Tyke changed his tone immediately, apologetic now.
“We didn’t have nothing to do with it, I swear. You tell Mr McGann we didn’t have nothing to do with it, we wanted the deal just like we said, just like we said, and we didn’t want to have nothing to do with the Bonefolder!”
Hands gripped her upper arms tightly, surprising in their strength. The pressure applying so smoothly, so steadily. The uniform wasn’t the only thing fake about the greenman. Servorganical arms, at least. They gripped with steel certainty.
The Limper approached, got right in her face with a damaged smile, and without a word he slapped her, hard. When she looked back, he spit on her mouth.
“Easy”, the fake greenman said. “Bonefolder doesn’t want her damaged.”
“She said alive. Didn’t say nothin’ about damaged.”
The Limper grabbed her shirt at the top and ripped it wide open. Seven to one was bad odds.
“There is no decision,” Three said, quick to grab Twitch’s arm under the table. “The woman and boy are yours if you want ’em. But I’m not going to handle Underdown. Killing a governor’s not my idea of repayment. So look, you take the woman, you take the boy, what’s that leave between us? A few thousand?”
The Bonefolder hitched, the slightest hint that something had taken her by surprise.
“These terms are unacceptable.”
Three knew jCharles was straining with all he had not to open up on the crowd and see how far he could get before they cut him down. If they were going after Wren, that meant they were going after Mol. And the thought of that seared Three to the core. He could only imagine what Twitch was feeling.
“Then forget it. Keep the woman and the boy, and we don’t bother with the train. We’ll call it even.” Three stood just quickly enough to make everyone flinch. He snatched jCharles’ bittertonic and downed it.
Four to one, plus the Bonefolder. Ranges were all wrong. One shot for the bartender to open, and after that, it was all close work. Had to assume everyone was packing hate of one form or another. Even at his most desperate, Three had never tried something so obviously guaranteed to end with his death. Why had Twitch come? Even if they managed to clean house, there was no way they’d make it out of the building alive. And then what would happen to Mol? And to Wren? Where was Cass? What were they doing to her?
“Come on, Twitch, we’re done talkin’.”
jCharles stood, slowly, smoothly, all eyes on him. And then, Three did the most dangerous thing he could possibly think of.
He turned his back and walked out the front door.
It was obvious to Cass what was going down. The Bonefolder had arranged for them to be separated. For whatever reason, the Limper was here to handle Cass. She could only assume that meant Three and jCharles were in the heat. And the thought flashed: what if they’d sent someone for Wren? The fake greenman’s fingers were beginning to dig into her flesh. The Limper obviously had plans for her body. She made plans of her own.
“Wait, stop, listen,” she said, suddenly frightened, shrinking back into her captor. “Take the quint, take the money, I don’t care, take it all.”
“Too late for that, missy,” said the Limper. “Bonefolder says I gets to have you, so that makes you mine.”
“You can have me,” Cass answered. She pulled her shirt fully open, letting it fall down her shoulders, her thin compression top the last line of defense. “Take me, take me, just leave my son alone.”
She stepped toward the Limper, felt the greenman’s grip loosen as she went docile. Cass reached up and slid her garment down, baring her breasts.
“It’s OK, take me,” she whispered. The Limper stepped forward, mouth hanging open, hand raised.
They made it out of the building, and picked up the pace to cross the street, both walking as if slightly drunk, hoping any first shots would miss. Across the street, alley twist, another alley twist, and they broke into a full run.
“What was that?!” jCharles shouted.
“We gotta get back to Mol first! Back to Mol and take it from there!”
As they punished the pavement with heavy footfalls, fast as they could deliver them, they crashed through the increasing crowds, knocking people aside and to the ground. Three’s heart pounded with icy fire at the thought of Mol confronted by Bonefolder’s thugs. She would never back down to them. She would do anything to stop them from taking Wren, and that thought, that knowledge, terrified Three.
They’d get to Mol first, find Wren. They were priority. After that, they’d find Cass. If she was alive.
She waited in stillness, as his hand approached. Fingers flexed, shaking in anticipation. The final half-inch. So close she could feel the heat off his palm.
He never touched her.
Cass flashed with her palm, drove it upwards into the Limper’s nose, felt the bone shatter and the cartilage slide back and in. The Limper choked and burbled a blood-filled cry as he stumbled back, lost his footing, and went crashing into the table. She covered herself, and surveyed the scene. With the quint racing in her bloodstream, everything seemed to be taking twice as long to fall. Cass felt faster than ever. The Limper’s head was just above the table, his neck hard against its edge. Cass stomped forward, snapping his neck in an instant, and then reversed the kick and folded the knee of the fake greenman behind her. She spun as he fell, saw his head at her waist level, and struck down on the side of his face with her open palm, ensuring his impact with the planet would finish the job.
As she pulled the jittergun from her coat, she saw with crystal clarity the guard in red drawing a black device from his belt. Two gleaming points shone from the tip, and she recognized it instantly as a stunner. She brought the jittergun to bear on the security man in black across the table. Just as the red guard fired, Cass squeezed the trigger on the jitter, felt it hum in her hand, saw the guard in black’s chest explode in red puffs from the impact of dozens of micro flechettes. In the same instant, she twisted, snatched the stunner’s dart-like probes between two fingers. Whipped them back at the red guard. Tips buried in his neck, the live current of his own weapon knocked him writhing to the floor.
Cass leapt to the table, and off again, plunging from eight feet in the air down onto the last guard, who seemed frozen in fear. Her impact dropped him to the concrete, crushing the air from his lungs and knocking him out cold. Without losing momentum, she rolled to her back and let loose with the jitter, shredding Jantz’s left calf. Before he’d finished collapsing, Cass was up and had Tyke’s head on the table, with the jittergun tight against his temple.
He was crying.
“Bonefolder! The Bonefolder, we didn’t want none of this, you take it you take it I’m sorry, we love your brother, man we love him!”
Jantz was screaming on the floor like a hysterical woman. Cass had to take a second, let the bloodlust lose its edge. She shouldn’t have done that to Jantz. It was payback for staring at her, she knew, and she knew it was wrong. Tyke was quivering under her grasp.
“Take all of it, keep the money, we don’t want it. Please, just take it and go!”
“Maybe you find yourself a new line of work, alright, Tyke?”
“Yeah, alright, definitely, yeah.”
Cass left the pistol pressed against his temple while she resealed the case. She threw the money pack back over her shoulder, and picked up the quint. She nudged the shrieking Jantz with her foot.
“Hey, Jantz. I’m sorry, kid. Wrap it up tight, you’ll be OK.” She tapped Tyke on the head with the jittergun, and then slid it into her pocket. “You stay clear of the Bonefolder.”
Cass walked to the eastern entrance, and didn’t look back. Once she’d crossed through the outer edge of Downtown, she turned down a narrow alley, dropped to a knee, and vomited.
Three had led for most of the way back, but Twitch had covered the last hundred meters faster than Three had ever seen anyone move. He crashed through the front door of the Samurai McGann, and Three was only a few steps behind.
“Mol!” he shouted, “Where’s Mol!”
The bartender leapt over the bar and intercepted him before he could get too far, grabbed him by the shoulders, held him fast.
“Twitch!” the bartender tried to get his attention. “Twitch!”
“Mol! Mol, baby, where are you?”
“Twitch, hold on now, hold on!” said the bartender, but jCharles wasn’t having any of it. He lifted the man bodily and threw him into the bar, and raced towards the stairs.
Three followed closely behind, certain his heart had stopped in his chest. Halfway up the stairs the door swung open, and Mol stood there looking terrified. jCharles swept her up in his arms so violently, they both nearly toppled into the room.
“Twitch?! Twitch, what happened, are you alright?”
“Mol, baby, are you OK? Where’s the kid?”
She was pale with fright, confused.
“Wren? Wren’s right here. Wren, come here, sweetheart.”
Wren poked his head out from the back room, wild-eyed and clearly confused.
“Twitch, calm down, what is going on?”
Three stood at the door, scanning the apartment. No signs of a struggle. Everything seemed as they’d left it.
A commotion sounded on the stairwell, and without hesitation, Three drew and was on target in less than a blink. The poor bartender nearly fell back down the stairs.
“Nimble! What’s going on!?” jCharles yelled from the top of the stairs.
Nimble, the bartender, crept up the stairs almost apologetically. “That’s what I try’a tell ya, Twitch. Got some down here for you see.”
Three reholstered, straightened up. jCharles went back and hugged Mol.
“You sure you’re OK, baby?”
“We’re fine. We’re completely fine. What happened, Twitch?”
He kissed her hard on the mouth, then on the forehead, then left her in the room. Nimble led them back downstairs, down the length of the bar, and around the corner to a large end booth. Two rough-looking gentlemen sat shoulder-to-shoulder next to each other, surrounded by seven much rougher-looking gentlemen. Three recognized the seven as regulars.
“These ones here,” said Nimble, wagging a finger at the two men pressed in the middle of the booth. “Come run in ask about Miss Mol, say the Bonefolder needs talk to her. I tell ’em get faffed.”
“Faff off, ye!” one of the regulars shouted, for no apparent reason.
“And ’ems start get rowdy. Actin’ for show, y’know. And ol’ Nimble say nay go round here, no sir.” He looked at the two men for emphasis. “NAY. GO. ROUND HERE.”
Twitch let out a laugh then, a genuine laugh of relief and joy. He slapped Nimble hard on the back, leaned his forehead into his bartender’s in some version of a hug. Started handing out backpats to the regular seven.
“Well thank you, Nimble. This is why I let you run the place. You take better care of it than I do. Open the bar up for everybody.”
“And about ’em?”
Twitch thought about it for about two seconds.
“Strip ’em. Tie their arms around each other. Let ’em walk back to Bonefolder.”
“Make sure they’re facing each other. And tie ’em tight.”
“A course, sir.”
Twitch led Three back to the main room, where the bar seemed to be carrying on as usual.
“Good people, Twitch.”
“You gotta have a few, Three. What now?”
“I gotta go find my girl.”
“Let me tell Mol—”
“No, you stay.”
“We’re not doing this again, Three.”
“Good reason this time. They might try again, I’d feel better if you stayed. I’ll move faster without you.”
“Alright, I’ll buy that this time. But if they’ve got her, don’t you go in there on your own. You come right back here, and we’ll get my boys up a right proper army, you understand?”
“Fine. I’m gone.”
Three turned and strode to the door, half a catastrophe averted, the other half unknown. He reached for the door, and it flew open, catching him in the chin and forehead. He saw stars.
And then, he saw her.
Cass. Alive and well. Carrying a case and a backpack.
He grabbed her and pulled her in, holding her as tight as he could, wishing he could bring her even closer.
He pulled away, looked her over. “Are you alright, Cass? Did you have any trouble?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment, shook her head.
“No. No trouble. You?”
“Is Wren OK?”
“Yeah, he’s upstairs. You get everything you need?”
“Yeah, we’re good.”
“Good. Cause we’re gonna have to move again. Now.”
“Like, right now?”
Three nodded. Brain already racing to do the calculations. They were going to have to disappear, fast. Train was out, no doubt about that. Only a few hours of daylight left. Not enough to go far. But there was no way they could stay in Greenstone now.
And what about Mol and Twitch?
“Come on,” Three said. “Let’s get upstairs. We gotta get this sorted out.”
He slipped his hand along the small of Cass’s back, and steered her through the bar, up the stairs, into the apartment. And as he watched Cass drop to a knee and Wren run into her arms, Three knew, and let himself know, that he loved them both in a way he’d never thought possible.