“It’s not too skimpy, is it?” Debbie asked Chiyeko, a merry-faced koboroku girl who worked as a waitress at Midori. The outfit was a black tissue-thin myarlastic™ tank top/ skirt combination that didn’t quite plaster itself against her like a second skin. Not quite. The pleats of the skirt came a third of the way down her thighs, which was long enough for decency, but short enough to have given her mother palpitations. A studded belt rode low on her hips, drawing attention to them. The boots had low heels that still provided enough lift to accent her behind.
Nah, Chiyeko chirped with an accent that was far better adapted to English than Debbie's. There's an ancient bit of Amero wisdom: If you got it, flaunt it!’ Honey, you oni lucked out! Most Ork chicks look like they crawled out of a cave or something, but you Onis just look like you got body paint and spend a lot of time in the gym. At least the ones smart enough to get those great honking TUSKS yanked.”
Debbie wasn’t quite sure how to interpret that, so she worried her lower lip and fretted, “I’m not showing too much bust am I?”
Chiyeko rolled her eyes. “Please. Most girls in Japan would kill to have your chest. And, you’ve got what the Amero call a ‘bubble butt’. And you’ve a waist that no dwarf will ever have. Or want; how can you digest anything with a waist like that?”
“I just don’t want to seem like I’m, well, trying to take unfair advantage.”
“Well, if that’s the way you feel, then you’ve chosen a very odd sort of line of work.”
Debbie scrunched her face into a grimace, “I just… don’t want to be… seen as…”
“Sneaky.” Debbie’s voice and face fell as one.
“And I don’t want to be seen as short,” Chiyeko snorted. “And that ain’t happening any time soon, either.” Debbie pouted, and Chiyeko relented. “Honestly, Hon, people back in Nihon have made up their minds that Oni are sneaky, conniving, underhanded, thieving, baby-stealing, ambushing-”
“Where are you going with this?” Debbie growled.
“My point is that the more you try to prove to people that you’re NOT sneaky, the more the real sneaks are going to think that you’re a chump. And Debbie-chan, in Orkland, once the word gets out that you’re a chump, you might as well grab an iron club and charge into a squad of Imperial Marines, ‘cause it’ll be ALL OVER for you.” Chiyeka paused and said, “All that I’m saying, is ‘Carpe Doom’, or whatever the Latino is. Grab ahold of the breaks that come your way, and remember who your friends are. Especially the ones who have to wear 8-inch platform shoes to reach the table tops.” Then she perked up again. “You’re not going to wear just that are you?”
“See? It IS too skimpy!”
“No, but where are you going to stash your gun?”
“Why would I carry my gun? We’re going clubbing!”
“Yeah, but if shooting starts, you really don’t want to be the only one not packing hot iron.”
“Okeh, but where would I hide it? I was going to wear this jacket,” she pulled on a white pleatherette short jacket. “And there’s nowhere to hide a big gun like mine in it!” She produced her automatic pistol, a Colt Manhunter, a big gun with a lot of kick.
“So, borrow my gun,” Chiyeka said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a SIG Sauer P298, a much smaller gun. “Besides, I know that you can handle a Manhunter, but let’s face it, there will be guys who’ll think that either you’re trying to challenge them, or that you’re afraid of something if you’re carrying a cannon like that around.” Chiyeka showed Debbie how to stash the SIG in her jacket so that it could be easily drawn, without being too obvious. “There! So! Go! Mingle with the beautiful people! Dance the night away with the elite of the street! Forget all about me, slaving away here, serving the very dregs of metahumanity!” Chiyeka threw her arm over her brow and traipsed off in a cloud of melodramatics.
Debbie looked into the mirror. Maybe Chiyeka was right. While Goblinization had taken away a lot of things, at least it gave her a more… dramatic… figure. She just wished that it hadn’t also given her shoulders like a baseball pitcher. Maybe Chiyeka was right, and she should wash the black dye out of her hair, and let her horns grow.
Shepard took Debbie and the crew on a tour of the bars and nightclubs of Oakland and Berkeley. At first, they hit a few bars that were suspiciously well-attended for a Monday night. Debbie got a sense that it was a ‘Biz Bar’, like you see on Crime Drama shows on TV, with prostitutes and pimps and dealers in various commodities quietly doing business. Shepard went around, making little snips of conversation, ‘touching bases’ as the phrase went. She noticed that Shepard carried his tumbler glass with him and had the bartender ‘topped off’ his glass- with a cola, not scotch, as Shepard was playing at.
The others didn’t seem to pick up on Shepard’s ploy, and Debbie was only drinking beer, so she decided that she could afford to relax and enjoy herself. After the ‘Biz Bars’, Shepard took them on the rounds through nightclubs and dance clubs with names like ‘Knight Saber’, ‘Gibson’s’, ‘the Budayeen’, ‘Molly Shears’, ‘Chirigia’s’ ‘Wintermute’, ‘R. Talisorian’, ‘Marid’, ‘Catalyst’, ‘The Glass Hammer’, ‘Blizzard’, ‘Friedlander’s Bay’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, still making the scene and touching base, but actually having some fun along the way.
‘Wintermute’ was set up in what Debbie took to have been a small indoor shopping mall that had folded, with the several floors open to each other and a huge faux-crystal abstract sculpture dominating the central atrium. The club was set up so that the music blaring at one end was blocked by two thick curtains, so that it didn’t clash with the music blaring at the other, and the tiny cubicle store-lets on the first mezzanine now formed intimate alcoves, such as the one that Shepard had them set away in. The alcoves made talking easier, while still letting the music outside be at its traditional eardrum-thumping levels. Still, Debbie loved to dance, and her dress was made to dance in, so she cut loose on the floor with first Marco, then Kent, and then Ben. The band was working a weird local mix of acoustic guitars, woodwinds and drums, with a keening electronica underscore. She threw herself into the dance, and for a while, it was like she was back at Nekomi Tech, and her biggest worry was picking her major.
That had seemed like such a terrible, towering concern, at the time.
Debbie danced all of the tension and frustration out of her system, and spent, slumped against Ben. Ben helped her off the floor and back to the alcove. At the table, Dawson was lobbying for something. “Seriously, I think that I could be so much more valuable to this team if I didn’t have to plow through those stupid handheld controls! Just think of the increased speed and accuracy-”
“I agree,” Shepard said in a weary tone. “So why don’t you just go to any of the hundred or so DocWagon™ or Wire-Masters©, or Little Chiba® clinics on this side of the bay and have them punch a hole in your head?”
Debbie made an inquiring peep, and Marco said drolly, “The cybermonkey is trying to get Sheppado to pay to get a datajack implanted.”
“Why?” Debbie asked, squicked. Like many Japanese, Debbie found the idea of sticking electronics into your head and making it a part of you rather… disquieting. There were those who found the idea exciting, and those who found it merely a matter of progress progressing, whether you liked it or not. But Debbie tended to view it as trading in a little bit of your soul.
“I’m not asking for Sheppado-jushi to pay for it,” Dawson said with stiff dignity. “It’s just that the corporate retail datajacks have wired-in ID transponders, echo-fixes, serial number broadcasts and probably a lot of stuff that I haven’t heard of, because I don’t have the speed to make it to the real decker chats. If we’re going to be shadowrunners, I can’t bring the corp-goons down on my team, because Fuichi or Renraku are following a beacon right to wherever I am.”
“A sound reason,” Shepard said heavily. “But there’s a very good reason why you shouldn’t. You’re an ELF.”
“Oh really? I hadn’t noticed,” Dawson said sourly.
“By which I mean, that you could live for a very, very LONG time,” Shepard amended.
“Which is WHY I want the datajack,” Dawson insisted. “I’d like to stay alive for a very long time, which may not happen if I don’t have that edge to keep me that way.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Shepard said. “My point is that you’re an elf, and you have that unnatural longev’ty as a birthright. BUT, I’ve checked; elfs aren’t that genetically differn’t than orks or dwarfs or humans. They’ve looked, and they can’t find anything in the elf genome to ‘splain it. Like I said, you’re not that different. The only reasonable explanat’n is that elfs channel some kind of magic that keeps them young. Dunno how, dunno who, but there you are. And cyberware? Cyberwear cuts into your soul, boy. Every bit bites off a chunk of your base Essence, leaving your spirit weaker’n weaker. That can’t be good for you Ez-er, Dawson. Maybe not now, maybe not this year, but a hundred years from now? Two hundred? What will those chunks that you chewed out of your own soul do to you?”
“Ya!” Debbie agreed, cheered that her sensei was so wise about this. “Besides, why put yourself through that for a piece of techno-junk that will probably be obsolete in two or three years? Who knows what they’ll come up with in ten or twenty years? Or a hundred? What will you do then? Have them rip out the datajack and have the shiny new whatever it is rammed in, taking another bite from your soul?”
“Besides, you did good with that VR visor that Sheppado gave you,” Kent said. “Why fix it if it ain’t broke?”
“The interface hurts my eyes if I look at it too long.”
“I’ll have someone tweak it for elves’ eyes,” Shepard said. “Dawson, you can’t trust magic to do everything for you, but you can’t trust tech to do it all, either. It can come around and bite you in the ass. Let’s see… who’s a good example…” he scanned the floor, until his eyes settled on a pair of slender girls wearing identical motorcycle leathers and cybervisors. “Ah. The Tipton Twins. A little compl’cated, but they’ll do. Take a good hard look at ‘em, what d’you notice?”
Debbie stared at them for a moment. “They’re identical twins?”
“Yah. Now take that nice black hair they’ve got, make it platinum blonde, but in a perky shag-with-bangs ‘do, and use a trademark pair of teeny shades up on her head to keep it out of their eyes. And put some bubblegum pop in the background.”
Dawson did so and reeled. “WHY in the name of all that’s sane, would anyone pay the kind of money that that took, to look like Geneva Tipton?” He referred to a media superstar whose spectacular fall from grace was still ammunition for vicious stand-up comedians and cheap shot artists. “Which one is Geneva Tipton?”
“Neither. That’s Jackie and Jillian, the Tipton Twins. One’s a hermetic mage, the other’s a physical adept. They were part of MCT-Entertainment’s pers’nal security squad for Tipton, back when Geneva was a major investment for MCT. Some executive idiot decided that personal doubles who could also fight were the next big thing, and he got them to sign a long-term contract. Their contracts had pages and pages of iron-clad protections and guarantees. And ONE single-line clause way down on page 52 that turned all of those iron-clad protections and guarantees OFF like a light switch.
“Jackie and Jillian got dragooned into going along with a full-body-and-face sculpt, voice-box implant, the works. Then, when they finally got used to it and were clicking as part of Tipton’s entourage, Geneva went and… well, let’s not thrash that out, the poor dears get enough guff for it as it is. Anyway, the MCT-Ent bigwig couldn’t cop to it, so Jackie and Jillian got scapegoated. Hey, they were useless for anything else, and they were going to be dumped over the side anyway. So, since no one on the legitimate side of the street would take them seriously, Jackie and Jillian headed into the shadows. Odds are, they’ll be buried in matching coffins.”
“How are they dealing with it?”
“Oh, she’s getting along, but HE’S still furious about it.”
As they watched the ‘Twins’, ‘an angel passed’, as the music and all the ambient noise suddenly shut down all at once. One of the two girls shattered the awkward silence with a high pitched giggle. “Well, at least she’s dealing with it,” Ben rumbled.
“Oh, that’s the behavior-emulation chip that MCT implanted,” Shepard said with a swig of his drink. “It keeps her in that bubbly, happy-girl state of mind that made Geneva such a hit.”
“Can’t she turn it off?”
“I imagine so.”
“Why doesn’t she?”
“I asked her that once. She said that if she ever turned the chip off, it might penetrate exactly how fucked they both were, and she’d probably go berserk and wipe out everyone in a three block radius.” Shepard fixed Dawson with an intense gaze. “Boy, don’t put your trust in technology or magic or money. The only thing worth putting your trust in is loyalty. If you have the loyalty of good people, then that loyalty will haul your hoop out of the dreck when magic and tech and money fail. And if you don’t have anyone’s loyalty, then no amount of magic, tech or money will save you.”
Shepard kicked back a little and added more softly, “Besides, having that implant might interfere with your real duty, Dawson.”
“You, my dear long-lived boy, will bear the burden of memory.”
“The burden of memory?”
“Dawson, you will live a very long time, Dog willing. The rest of us? I’m getting old already, and the rest? Nature has shortened their time on this veil of tears, for no good reason that I can tell. The Street has infinite cunning, but no memory. Someone who is a legend, a byword today could die tomorrow and be forgotten by Monday. Names and faces and lives fade like the fog in the noonday sun. But someone has to remember. Someone has to remember a man who lived and died by his word. Someone has to remember that there was a young girl with a face like an angel and a body made for sin, who had no idea of how beautiful or brave she was. Someone has to remember a valiant young officer, who was betrayed by his comrades in arms, but never gave up the heart and soul of a warrior, even in a demon’s body. Someone has to remember a young man who swore a sacred oath to avenge his father’s betrayal, and still burns to keep that oath. Someone has to remember an honest police officer, cast down into the gutter, forced to become a criminal, who still believes in honor and justice. Someone has to remember a beautiful woman who crawled out of poverty and despair, to become a true lady. Someone has to remember a pair of lovers, mocked and despised for the stupidity of others. There are a million stories in the naked city; these are but a few of them. But they will be yours to remember, Dawson. If you don’t remember them, all these memories will be lost. What you have, what you earn, what you gain, are all meaningless. What you DO… THAT has meaning. But all that is lost in the-”
Shepard was about to go further along this rather depressing line, when a tall, slender, elegant bla- er, African woman walked up gracefully to their table, and greeted him in the polished manner of a hostess working the room. She welcomed Shepard’s introductions of his ‘new crew’ with such practiced grace that Debbie really wasn’t sure or not whether the woman was actually comfortable about having five metahumans in her club or not. “People, this is Isabel, who owns this club, and a couple more, and a few other businesses, including the place that does my laundry.” Shepard snickered at his own whimsy. “So, Isabel, how long do you think this venue will last?”
“Don’t get me started!” Isabel moaned, “The costs of just buying this broken down dump took a hyyooje chunk out of my operating capital, and the costs of getting it up to code almost broke me! And with the costs of hiring these legend-in-their-own-minds bands, I’m barely breaking even!”
“Which is weasel-speak for ‘I’m making money hand-over-fist’,” Shepard smirked.
Isabel gave Shepard a good natured cuff on the shoulder, but then got down to what Debbie took to be her real business there. “So, have you given my proposal any thought?”
Shepard paused, took a slug of his drink and held it out for the waitress. Then he took another drink and said, “I’m sorry, Isabel, but count me out of this one. Yeah, I know what a dick Boston Charlie is, but so are a thousand other players in the area and Izzie, you’re no saint yourself. And Charlie’s tied up in some ventures that I’ve got floating, and taking your side would screw with that. So, I won’t act against you, but I won’t act against Charlie either. All in all, I think that I’ll just sit this one out, and let you wheeler-dealers thrash it out between yourselves. DO try to keep it clean, please?”
Isabel got up stiffly, all her professional courtesy spent for the moment. “I just hope that you don’t regret this, Shep,” she said coldly as she walked off into the crowd with no further ado.
“What was that about?” Kent asked.
“Just business as usual, in the shadows,” Shepard grunted. “Two sharks, both say that the other’s trying to eat them, and they’re just trying to protect themselves. They’re both telling the truth about the first part, and lying about the second. And they both want me to get in the middle of it. Like I’m that stupid.”
Then a well-dressed, very smooth Anglo gent walked up and started schmoozing, and it was, indeed, back to business as usual, and Debbie dragged Dawson back out onto the floor for another round of dancing.
Debbie and Dawson came back to the table, and Marco was about to take her right about out to the table, when she noticed that Shepard’s movements were getting a little erratic. “Sheppado… are you drunk?”
“Drunk? Of course not!” Shepard blurted. “I’ve had one or two, but I never get slosssh- sloththed- schloschh- oh frag, I’m drunk.”
It immediately struck her that Shepard wasn’t the sort to pull a gambit like passing soft drinks off as hard liquor without due cause. “Kento!” Debbie said in a worried whisper, “We’ve got to get him out of here, before anyone notices that he’s had too many.”
“So he’s a little tipsy,” Kent smirked, clearly worse for one drink too many himself. “So what?”
“I may not have a lot of time on the street,” she hissed, “but even _I_ know that it’s not a good idea for a crime boss to be drunk and exposed like this!”
“Crime boss?” Kent jeered, and then shut down as it occurred to him that the label- and the problem- fit the situation all too well.
“She’s right,” Marco said firmly, even though he’d been imbibing as well. “Benno, keep watch. Kento, get a grip on Sheppado and help him to the door. Dawson, go pay the bar tab. Debbie-chan, call for a cab, we need to get in the car as soon as we’re out of here.”
“I appreschiate the concern,” Shepard said with a woosy smile, “but it’s not a big probl’m. I can just cast a Detosk- detoskifikayshu- a dedox- a ‘Sober Up’ spell. I should’a done it hours ago.” He twiddled his fingers and muttered something. Then he paused and did it again. And again. “Oh Frack… I’m too drunk to cast the spell…”
Kent and Marco helped Shepard get up as Ben covered for them, and Debbie and Dawson did their bits. They were halfway to the escalator, when their waitress intercepted them. Debbie explained in a hush that Shepard needed to get out quickly and quietly. The waitress nodded and said, “Yeah, we get that every so often. There’s a hidden stairway to a safe door to the outside that you can use.” She led them down the stair to a sliding door. The door was stuck, and it took Ben and Kent and Marco together to get it to open, but they managed. The waitress handed Shepard back over to Ben, and Debbie pressed a wad of bills into her hand in thanks for her help. They warily stepped out into the ill-lit alley, and the sliding door slammed shut behind them.
Debbie knew something was wrong the second she heard the door slam shut. The door had been sticky, but it closed quickly. Like a trap. “Kento… Marco… I don’t like this…” Marco apparently agreed with her, because he was already going for his gun. Kent was just starting his centering mudra when he got bowled over by a plastic garbage bag. Debbie saw men, orks, a few of them were oni, a couple of them might be trolls. They were wearing punked-out motorcycle jackets with shoulder-guards and spikes, and they wore red kerchiefs with black-and-white markings over their faces, bandit-style. They didn’t say anything, but fell on Debbie and her friends like a pack of wolves. Ben was trying to figure out how to empty his hands of Shepard without hurting his jushi and Kent was still trying to center himself when they overran them. Marco managed to clear his gun and get a round off.
Someone jumped Debbie from behind and slammed her into the alley wall. She felt fists hitting her face, making her see sparks, and she passed out. She heard a voice screaming, “Kono baita!” in her face. Her last thoughts before sinking into the darkness were, ‘it’s a trap.’
Debbie came to with hands gently patting her face, which stung, though not from the patting. She heard Ben’s concerned voice say softly, “Debbie-chan, are you all right?” She nodded and Ben pulled her to her feet.
It took her a moment to remember what had happened, but she looked around. “Sheppado-sama!” They had all been worked over; even Dawson, who was shorter and slighter than the rest of them, had a face full of bruises. But they’d paid special attention to Shepard. His face was black and blue, blood had gushed from his nose and swollen lips, and his eyes were swollen shut. “Sheppado!” Recalling her EMT training, she felt round his face and along his chest. He was wearing an armored vest over his chest, and she was reasonably sure that there wasn’t anything broken. “He’ll be all right,” she said with a sigh. “But he won’t be waking up any time soon.” She felt around for his medicine bag, not really thinking to use it, but guessing that he’d want the bag the very second that he woke up.
It wasn’t there.
Shocked, Debbie checked his clothes. “His knife! His gun! His charms! His walking stick! They’re all gone!” she gasped. “My purse! They got my purse! And my KNIFE!” Turning to her comrades, she said, “It was an ambush! They were expecting us!”
Marco made an angry face, as though he was about to say something nasty and snide, but he caught himself and said in a controlled voice, “Yes. It was a trap. And we fell right into it like a bunch of rubes from the sticks.”
“We have to get him back to Mama Yama’s,” Dawson said. “Sheppado will know what to do when he comes to.”
“NO!” Kent roared in nihongo. “Sheppado trusted us to protect him and we failed him! There is No Forgiving This Insult! We will track down those scum, we will get Sheppado’s tools back, and we will break their backs! The sun will not rise on our disgrace!”
Marco gave Kent a bland look and then said to their team in English, “He’s right. Without the chan-bara, but just like that.” He was tightly controlled as he said it, and flicked garbage off his suit. He seemed more concerned about the soiling of his dapper suit than the damage to his face. But Debbie could tell that inside he was as angry about the insult as Kent was. “We have to find those gutter-rats and rip their pointed ears off and shove them down their throats. The first law of survival on the streets: don’t let anyone push you around. If you do, you’re everyone’s bitch, and they’ll slap you around just to prove they can.”
Debbie nodded. Those were the laws of the world she lived in. She reflected that they weren’t really that different from the real, unwritten laws of Feudal Japan. Or from those of Medieval Europe or the American Wild West, for that matter. To submit was to be a slave. And she would not be a slave. And even if those weren’t the laws she had to live by, she still would have agreed. As a girl, she had always thought that the posturing of TV and movie samurai had been rather silly and overdramatic, chan-bara, as Marco had put it. But now? Now she boiled with rage! Those unspeakable travesties of paranature had taken her knife! They’d also taken her credstick with 25 thousand nuyen on it and her SIN ID as ‘Debbie DeVille’, but they’d taken her KNIFE! Now she understood why samurai got so upset when someone did something to their swords. Now, going after someone with a long razor-sharp piece of steel to carve them up made sense!
Debbie would have gone after them with a razor-sharp piece of steel, but they’d taken her Knife!
“We should see that joushi is all right,” Ben rumbled.
“He’ll be all right,” Debbie assured him. “And after the beating that he’s taken, he’ll want his tools there to help him heal.”
Ben let out a sigh and shook his head. And it registered with Debbie that she, that they all, needed Ben’s… not permission… blessing? “How do we find them?” Ben asked, “Rats like that always run back to their sewers after something like this, and we don’t have any idea as to who they were.”
“We do,” Marco said with an edge to his voice. “Those bandanas they were wearing were red rag of the Wah Ching. The Wah Ching are an Amerko Chinese street gang that likes to pretend that it’s a Triad. They have numbers like a Triad, but not the connections or the clout. They’re just errand boys for the real Triads. I’ve heard that Wah Ching was taking in goblins, so they’re heading for Chinatown. But not the San Francisco Chinatown; the Protectorate wouldn’t have them, even with their Triad connections. They’ve got to be headed for the Chinatown or Little Korea here in Oakland.”
“Actually, they’re in a warehouse about ten blocks from here, on the edge of the old waterfront,” Dawson said, looking at his commlink.
“What makes you say that?”
“They took my credstick along with my gun. But I tagged my credstick with a tracking signal,” he said matter-of-factly. They all looked at him, dumbfounded. “What? I had 20 thousand nuyen on that drive; I wanted to keep track of it!”
“YOSHI!” Kent exulted, “There, we know exactly where they are! Well, Benno?”
Ben screwed up his face, looked down at Shepard, and sighed with resignation. He nodded heavily. “We do it.”
“YOSHI IZUKO!” Kent yelled. He pulled a hachimaki with the kanji for toukon (fighting spirit) out of a jacket pocket, tied it around his head, and gave a fierce yell.
Marco gave Kent a long disbelieving look. “You carry that thing around with you, just in case you’ll need it?” he asked in English.
Getting a cab at 2 in the morning on a Monday night (or very early, Tuesday morning, if you insist), was hard. Getting it to drive into the shabby, gang-infested hulk of discarded commerce that was the Oakland waterfront was easy; Ben just smiled at the cabbie. But even Ben’s winning smile and cheery disposition couldn’t keep the cab there once they’d gotten out of the car.
Dawson’s signal was coming from one of five not-quite-abandoned, but rather disused looking warehouses (the ‘No Trespassing’ sign was years newer than most of the graffiti). But even without Dawson’s location app, they knew which building their bushwhackers (which Debbie thought was a remarkably silly-sounding word for ambushers) were in; it was the one with the lights on. “So,” Debbie asked, suddenly at a loss, now that their objective was a concrete (and probably well-guarded) reality, “what do we do?”
Marco was checking out the neighborhood, but Kent already seemed to know what to do. “First things first, we get information. We send in a scout, who finds the layout, their numbers, their arms, their state of mind and reinforcement, methods of entry and exit, each unit’s exact location-”
“We send in someone to look around and see what he can find,” Marco summed it up. He looked over at Dawson. “Well, it looks like we finally found a use for your runty physique.”
“What?” Dawson bleated. Marco pointed up, and with a little hard looking (well aided by Orks and Elves sight, which needs less light to make things out), they could just make out, a good forty feet above them, a ventilation shaft with the grating almost off, hanging from its setting by a single screw. “You expect me to in there through that?”
“How do you think they got in there, in the first place?” Marco asked in the voice of irrefutable logic. “You don’t think that they pay rent, do you?”
“That’s… very… high…” Dawson said in a small sick voice.
“Why are you asking HIM to do it?” Debbie asked.
“Because… the rest of us are far too broad in the shoulders to fit through that grate,” Marco said, from his tone of voice, clearly wondering why she was asking such an obvious question.
“My shoulders aren’t that wide!” Debbie snapped at a sore point for her.
“You?” Kent peeped. “How would you get up there, Debbie-chan?”
“The same way that HE would: I’d have Benno-kun throw me up to that pipe, I’d pull myself up, scootch along the pipe to that section of power cabling, crawl up the cabling, then hand-over-hand along that other section of pipe to the grating, set my foot on that dead-end of pipe and go in.” Debbie noticed a significant silence from her crew. She turned and saw that they were giving her blank stares. “What?”
“How… do you know that?” Kent asked, wide-eyed.
“I was in my Pahku [Parkour] club in college. And I wasn’t a cheerleader, or an equipment manager, or anything hanger-on like that! I competed! Okeh, I wasn’t first string or anything, but I wasn’t the one bringing up the rear, either.”
“Pahku?” Marco asked derisively, his arms folded across his chest. “Are they still doing THAT on campus?”
“Only the cool kids,” Debbie shot back with a smirk.
“I thought the Police shut that down after kids got hurt doing it,” Ben said warily.
“They did. That only made it more fun.”
“Tell you what,” Kent said smugly, “if you can get up there without Benno throwing you, you can go in.”
Debbie shot Kent a sour look, and then shrugged her white pleather jacket off. Looking around, she pulled the SIG Sauer that Chiyeko had loaned her out of its niche and handed it to Marco. Marco looked at the dinky little SIG and shot Debbie a ‘what am I supposed to do with this popgun?’ look. Debbie returned with a look that said, ‘better than being completely unarmed in this neighborhood’.
Kent gave Debbie credit for being game as she warmed up (though she admitted that she hadn’t done anything like that for over a year). Then she spraddle hopped up some piled-up junk to get to that first pipe, and from there did pretty much what she said she’d do. Debbie was setting her foot on that dead-end pipe butt, and she looked down to see what the guys were doing. All four of them were looking up with a uniform look of wide-eyed, blank-faced rapt attention. For a moment, she was moved that they were so concerned for her.
Then she realized that her awkward position with her legs set that way was making that short pleated skirt of hers ride up. She was giving them a clear shot of her panties!
MEN! Short-eared or long-eared, they are all PERVERTS!
With a brief pause for her cleavage, Debbie slithered through the vent. She gained her feet in a smooth roll and immediately checked her surroundings. Like all warehouses, this one was basically one large open area, with stacks of pallets and aisles of shelves arranged by some logistical plan that Debbie couldn’t make out. However, they had arranged for a makeshift ‘second floor’, by arranging pallets on the beam rafters that crossed the space at about 25 feet up, and storing things up there; exactly why, Debbie wasn’t sure. There were about eleven or twelve such pallet ‘islands’ up on the rafters. Peering down into the warehouse proper, she saw that there was a clear area leading up to one of the roll-down doors with a number of motorcycles parked, a table, a sofa, a couple of upholstered chairs, and several metahuman goons in studded motorcycle leathers idling about. Remembering what Kent had said about layout, numbers and all that, she quickly took note where all the doors were. Two roll-down doors, a regular door right next to it, another regular door on the back of the building and a third to the right side from the front. There was an office up on the second level, looking down on the warehouse, but it was dark. She counted the gangers, and they added them up to fourteen all told. Three trolls, two koboroku, seven oni, and two orks. No elves, no humans, and they all looked at least Asian. They were standing around in three groups; one around the table, one on or around the sofa, and a third near the motorcycles, with a couple doing some sort of maintenance on a couple of the bikes. There were shotguns and machine pistols and a couple of large pistols carelessly stashed on the table. Oh, and Debbie spotted her purse as well. She unclipped her commlink from her belt, took pictures of the situation and sent them to Dawson’s commlink.
After sending the pictures to Dawson, Debbie sat down on her heels and took in the situation. It wasn’t good. Debbie wasn’t a big Strategy & Tactics fan, but she could see that it wasn’t a promising situation. They had 14 men, to the crew’s four. They were fresh, while the crew was still recovering from a beating. They had shotguns and machine pistols, while Marco had only a dinky little SIG Sauer. They had three trolls, and one of them was even bigger than Ben, and he had a huge pair of cyberarms that looked like they could pound through a brick wall. A few others were sporting cyberwear that she could spot. And she was useless up there in the rafters. She didn’t have a gun, and even if she did have a gun, she would be more of a danger to her crew with it than to the gangers. And there was nothing up in the rafters that she could use except for a lading gaff, and even…
A sneaky oni grin crossed Debbie’s face.
Even the boxes stored up there would be more dangerous to the gangers below than the lading gaff. Indeed, a heavy box, dropped 25 feet, could be very dangerous indeed. Her grin increased as Debbie had more fun than you’d normally associate with moving heavy boxes around in the dark, moving very quietly to avoid being heard by heavily armed violent thugs.
The thugs at the table, on the sofa and by the motorcycles were, by no accident gathered under crossbeams of the rafters; those were where the light fixtures were set. Carefully, Debbie stacked boxes five-high in a cross at each of them, stable enough to stand for a while, but balanced just so, so that with a single push with the gaff, she could send the boxes tumbling down in any direction she wanted. She also arranged for several boxes and bags of rice (what bags of rice were doing up there, she had NO idea) strategically placed, so that could throw them if it came down to that. Then she settled in to wait for the crew to make their move.
She was in the middle of texting Kent, to ask when they were going to make their move (after all, it was Kent who had been so insistent about ‘the sun not rising on their disgrace’), when one of the orks got a comm call, and one of them went over to one of to the roll-up doors and raised it. A few of the gang got up as to form a ‘we’re hardasses’ welcoming phalanx, but the ork who’d taken the call waved them down. Apparently, he was playing the ‘you’re so tough that we don’t have to worry about holding our own turf’ card.
No wonder humans thought that orks were stupid.
A car pulled in through the roll-up door, and it turned out to be a Mitsuhama Nightsky© stretch limousine. The Nightsky was a luxury limousine, high-end enough to be used by executives and celebrities, but mass-market enough that successful gangsters and thugs could buy them as a sign of their success. Debbie had also heard that Nightskies were often sometimes armored, which she guessed was another reason for driving around in the attention-grabbing showboats. Debbie took a picture of the limo and shot it to Dawson. A tall, broad-shouldered, olive-skinned man in a well-cut but boxy (obviously armored) suit, wearing mirrored sunglasses and a coiling cable stuck into the jack just behind his ear got out of the car and glared impassively at the gangers. He got out and assumed a stance. A moment later, a similar man, who was only distinguishable from the man by the cut of his dark hair and the color of his bulky overcoat got out, and assumed a similar stance. Then, from the rear compartment stepped a similarly dark-haired and olive skinned man, though he was shorter and slighter, though still quite athletic, and his clothing was of noticeably better (or at least flashier) quality. A buxom blonde woman wearing a tight black leather jacket and miniskirt followed in the time-honored quiet yet showy manner of a professional ornament.
The ork that Debbie took for the gang leader stepped forward and assumed a pose. The rent-a-floozy stepped forward while the man who Debbie took for the leader of the limousine party held back looking stoic. The arm candy held up some sort of portable console, and the ork slotted a credstick into it. The woman looked at the readout and said professionally, “Twenty thousand nuyen, registered, certified and verified.”
Then the woman stepped back as the slickly dressed man stepped forward with the sharkgrin smile of a predatory salesman. They fenced back and forth in what Debbie took to be the American version of the initial pleasantries expected of Japanese business people, and then they suddenly got down to business. The dealer, whom the ork leader referred to as ‘Cortez’, reached into the back of the limousine and pulled out some cases which had large-caliber semi-automatic pistols and machine pistols. The ork leader, whom Cortez referred to as ‘Hatchet’, sneered at those, saying that they already had small arms; they were in the market for ‘something bigger’.
Cortez nodded, and brought out larger cases. He pulled out an assault rifle, and proudly stated, “The Heckler & Koch G13A3z. H-K took their classic G12 and made it lighter, slimmer, and included integral laser spotting sight and recoil compensation. It was a contender at the UCAS squad rifle tests-”
“It was a contender,” Hatchet pointed out. “That means it lost. Keep talking.” And Cortez did, and produced a sample M22A2 assault rifle, a vz 88V assault rifle and a few more military level weapons, before Hatchet stopped him. “LOOK. It’s obvious that you’re looking to unload this junk. Fine. But we want some major firepower. Tell you what: you show us something that will put the fear of GOD into the Replicants, and we’ll buy the M22A2 and the vs 88V and the Ares Alpha for seven-and-a-half grand, plus whatever you show us. DAZZLE us.”
“Dazzle?” Cortez said with a smirk. “Pendejo, prepare to be dazzled.” He went into the trunk of the limo and pulled out a long case. He lugged the case over and opened it. Debbie stifled a gasp. She didn’t need to be told; too many cheap TV and movie crime dramas informed her that this was an infamous Panther Assault Cannon, a belt-fed infantry assault cannon that fired a round that could penetrate even heavy tank armor! That maniac was going to give those street scum a Panther Assault Cannon! Indeed, Cortez grinned as he hefted the heavy weapon with the distinctive blunted muzzle and said, “Grade-A bang-bang! So? Dazzled?”
Debbie hadn’t been idle during all this; trusting that the men below would be so intent on their haggling that they wouldn’t hear her, she’d re-positioned some of the boxes immediately over Cortez’s two bodyguards. She’d had to pile them extra high, since the guards weren’t conveniently standing right under the beam, and she’d have to arrange enough topple room to get them. The stacks were teetering, and she was wondering what was taking Kent and the boys so long? If they kept dawdling…
As if in answer to Debbie’s silent question, something crashed through the other roll-down door at high speed, crashing into several of the motorcycles, and blinding everyone with very bright headlights. On pure reflex, Cortez’s two bodyguards whipped out heavy pistols and started firing. A few of Hatchet’s goons did likewise with whatever guns they had on hand, as a few who didn’t have anything scrambled for the pile of weapons at the table. Debbie was taken by surprise and it took her a moment to remember her own ploy, and then she whapped the piles of boxes, dumping the heavy loads squarely on top of the bodyguards, knocking them down (and almost knocking herself off the beam in the process).
Debbie did almost fall, but she caught herself on the beam and turned the momentum of her fall to swing herself back up onto the beam. She paused for a moment, when she realized that she was actually having fun doing that. Then, sparing only a moment to recognize the ‘cherry blossom’ logo on the car that had crashed in, making it as belonging to Sakura Security (a contract police service that was a subsidiary of Yakashima Technologies), she sprinted over to where she had a stack of boxes piled up over the table. She hit that stack, one of the larger arrangements, with her shoulder, sending a shower of boxes (microwave ovens, if the printing on the boxes was to be believed) down on to the gangers scrambling for their firearms.
Then the doors to the side street and the back burst open. Ben charged in, wielding a tonfa that looked pathetically small in his hamhock hands, while Dawson covered him from the door with a shotgun. Kent raced in with Physical Adept speed towards the table and the firearms, also armed with a tonfa, as Marco covered him with two large semi-automatic pistols. Dawson wasted two shots, but managed to nail one of the trolls that Ben was charging towards. The buckshot didn’t penetrate the troll’s leather jacket, but the sheer force of the hit stopped him for a moment, giving Ben a free hand to take out his target. The troll swung widely at Ben, who ducked under the swing and used the tonfa to trip the ganger. When the gang-troll was on his hands and knees, Ben gave him three quick strikes to the head with the tonfa that laid him out cold. Then Ben used the tonfa to knock the knife out of the hand of gang-troll that Dawson had shot, and he had the ganger down on the ground with his knee in his back before the punk even knew what happened. Dawson, all-too-aware that he wasn’t that great with guns, and not wanting to shoot too close to Ben, started firing for effect, sending the various punks ducking for cover.
Marco fired at the punks who’d managed to dig their way out of the boxes that Debbie had dumped on them, and hit one. Then Kent was upon them, crossing the room in three bounding leaps. He upended the table, pushing them off balance even more, and separated them from the weapons stash. After rattling them with the tonfa, he grabbed two machine pistols (an Ingram Smartgun and a SCK Model 500, to be exact) and threw them to Marco. Marco dropped his semi-automatics and grabbed the machine pistols on the fly. Barely pausing to chamber rounds, Marco let fly, spraying lead all over the room, shrieking, “uuuuurrrreeessshhhiii!!” with a maniacal grin.
Marco’s happiness was short lived as, of all people, Cortez’ leather-clad piece of arm candy grabbed cases containing two Ingram Smartguns, opened them, extracted the machine pistols, inserted two double-taped magazines into the guns, chambered rounds into them and started firing, all in one fluid motion. Two bullets hit Marco in his right arm. Marco kept firing, but now his elation was gone, replaced by fierce intent. As the blonde kept Marco pinned, one of the gangers charged over to the limo and grabbed the Panther Assault Cannon.
Ben got the troll ganger that he was handling into a pair of troll cuffs, laying face down on the concrete. But the ganger was struggling too much for Ben to get the binding done as quickly as he’d tried for, and the big ganger with the two cyberarms closed on him and rang his head like a bell, just as the cuffs snapped shut. The big troll roared in triumph as he raised his two sledgehammer-like fists over his head. But, just as he reared his fists to the point where he was just about to strike, he was hit full in the face by a thrown bag of rice. Given the arc that Debbie tossed the bag at, it dropped a good twenty feet, so it may have only been 60 pounds of rice, but it might as well have been cement for the force it hit with. It took the man-monster by surprise and knocked him in a backflip, not quite knocking him cold. He sat up, stunned, as Ben shook the tweeting birds out of his head.
Then Ben heard a ratcheting sound, and looked up straight into the barrel of a Panther Assault Cannon. “Say, ‘Sayonara’, Sucker!” gloated the dwarf. Then he pulled the trigger and-
Not even a click.
The dwarf furiously worked at the assault cannon, working the slide, checking the levers and toggles, trying to get the safety off, or whatever was keeping it from working properly. Then a big beefy hand closed over the gun and Ben gently but firmly took the cannon away from him. “Sayonara, Sucker,” Ben said calmly and swung the cannon as a club into the side of the obnoxious dwarf’s head, knocking him to the ground. The chromed-out troll struggled to his feet, growling. Ben tried to use the Panther cannon as a club against the ganger, but the troll blocked it with one of his cyber-arms. The two trolls went at it. Ben’s technique was superior, but the ganger’s wires gave him too much speed. The ganger got tired of parrying the cannon/club’s blows, so it grabbed the cannon and tried to grapple it away from Ben. Then, suddenly, the troll pitched forward and fell, releasing the cannon into Ben’s hands. Appearing behind the troll as he dropped was Dawson, his shotgun smoking in his hands. “How did you know that his skull was reinforced?” Ben asked.
“His skull was reinforced?”
Then there was a yell from the far side of the warehouse. “HOI! BENNO! CATCH!” Ben turned just in time to see Kent throw something to him, and catch a loaded assault rifle. Which had a TrollGrip® trigger adaptor. Ben threw Kent a thumbs-up and chambered in a round. He looked around and took stock of the situation. Kent was more than holding his own against the unarmed gangers who were trying to rush the table to get at the arms stash. If anything, he appeared to be enjoying himself immensely, using a combination of small arms fire and hand-to-hand combat techniques. Marco was having a much harder time of it. He was tied up trying to take out Cortez’s not-arm-candy. The woman was zipping around in bursts of the kind of speed that only comes either from being a skilled physical adept, or having a heavily augmented nervous system. Marco had his hands full keeping the woman from flanking him. He was burning a lot of ammunition doing it, and every so often he’d give out a sharp ‘HUP!’ and Kent would provide him with a fresh magazine or two from across the room. Across the room, gangers were trying to take cover, only to have a heavy box or large bag drop from the rafters on top of them. Ben was rather impressed by Debbie’s aim. Even if she didn’t hit them dead on, she was close enough that she scattered them, giving Dawson easy targets. Cortez was hiding in his limousine, but he didn’t seem to be inclined to take part in the fight. Then Ben spotted one of Cortez’s other bodyguards struggle to his feet. If the man had any tactical sense whatsoever, he’d get to the limo and get Cortez out of there while it was possible. And Cortez was the source of too many answers that they desperately needed. So Ben fired a burst into the man’s center mass, and put him down. Not that he’d stay down for very long; that bulky long coat was pretty obviously armored.
It struck Ben that taking out Cortez’ blonde enforcer might not end the fight, but it would put the fight squarely into the crew’s hands. “Dawson!” he barked as he put the assault rifle to his shoulder and let out a burst at the blonde. Dawson joined in, and the blonde found her options severely limited. So, she changed the rules. She kipped up the stack of boxes that she’d had her back to, and went up into the rafters.
The blonde caught Debbie in the middle of hefting a box to drop on top of one of the gangers. The blonde fired two rounds into the box that Debbie was holding, making her drop it. Then the blonde aimed and-
-ran out of ammunition.
With a superior smirk, Debbie picked up the loading gaff and started to approach the blonde. The blonde dropped both guns, and stiffened the fingers of both hands into fans. There was an audible click as inch-long razors slid out from her long nails. The woman made claws of her hands and made ready for Debbie’s attack. Debbie feinted with the gaff, and the stick was quickly reduced to splinters. The blonde feinted a few times with her hand razors, and Debbie wondered what she was up to; then it occurred to her that the woman’s best chance of getting her client out of there was to take Debbie hostage and force the crew to back down and let Cortez get away. Aside from the fact that she needed to know what Cortez had been planning with these gangsters, being taken as a hostage really struck Debbie as a prime way of being labeled by one and all as a chump. And as Chiyeka had said that afternoon, being tagged as a chump was just this side of a death sentence. Debbie pulled herself up into a backwards flip over the stack of boxes that had been (ahem!) ‘boxing’ her in, but took a nasty gash along her thigh for it. The blonde vaulted to the top of the stack, but Debbie kicked the stack over, not quite getting rid of the blonde. The blonde caught onto the beam and started to pull herself up, hampered by the fact that her hand-razors didn’t give her a lot of grip on the steel. Debbie just missed getting rid of the blonde by kicking her in the face; the blonde just turned that against her by grabbing her ankle and using Debbie as a post to haul herself back up onto the beam. Debbie decided that finesse wasn’t working, so she’d just have to resort to brute Oni strength. That didn’t work out very well for her, and only earned her two gashes along her flanks. The Blonde did a sweeping kick that knocked Debbie off the beam, but Debbie turned that around by grabbing onto the beam and using her momentum to swing her back up, working in a nice double-footed kick into it in the bargain. The blonde spun, redirecting the direction of the kick and tumbled back to her feet, already preparing for a spring.
The Debbie heard Ben thunder from below, “DEBBIE-CHAN! CATCH!” She turned just in time to see a shotgun rise up into the air near her. She grabbed it just as it hit its peak, chambered in a round, spun and fired it without aiming. The first blast caught the blonde just as she was leaping and stopped the jump. The second and third hits stopped her completely and had her reeling. The fourth hit knocked the blonde completely off the beam. She fell about four feet, hit a crate, rolled off of it, fell another ten feet or so, hit another crate, and then hit the concrete floor in the sort of limp heap that only the well-and-truly unconscious can form.
“HOI-HOI-HOI!” Marco shouted, jumping to the top of a bundle, “I think this fight is OVER, Ne?” Brandishing his auto-pistols, he glared around, daring any of the gangers still up to contest the point. The six (out of the original 14) gangers, none of whom were packing guns, looked around, and took in the situation. Finally, one of them was willing to be the one who gave in first, and put his hands on his head. The others, relieved that he’d taken the bullet, did likewise.
Up in the rafters, Debbie sagged with relief, but tensed up when she felt a twinge in her side. She touched the pain, and her fingers were red. Oh yes- the blonde had cut her. The blonde’s hand razors were only an inch or so long, but even so, she had to get a trauma patch on that before the endorphins coursing through her blood wore off. She quickly kipped down one of the stacks to the ground and made for the Sakura Security patrol car. She knew that most Contract Police Service providers had their units carry fully-stocked med-kits, for emergencies (and against liability, for not carrying such things for emergencies). But when she opened the rear compartment, where they stored the med-kits (and kept detainees), she found Shepard on the floor, wrapped up in a blanket. “Sheppado-sama!” she gasped. She turned to Kent and Marco, oni fire in her eyes and demanded in the tensest, most exacting form of Nihongo, “You put our joushi in this car and crashed it through a wall, and then let him get SHOT at? Whose idea was this?”
Ben and Marco both reflexively pointed at Kent. “It’s all right!” Kent assured her. “This car is crash-tested, and the compartment’s armored. Joushi was safer than any of us.”
Debbie reached in past Shepard’s unconscious form and pulled out the medkit. “And it never occurred to you to get out this kit and use a stimulant to wake him up? Or than having a magician in a gunfight would have given us a huge advantage?”
“That would have been a good idea,” Ben admitted to Dawson.
Debbie got out a tube of DermaSeal©, set the Insta-Suture ® appliance to ‘micro-scar’ and sealed up the cuts on her thigh and sides. In her mind’s ear, she heard a zipper closing, though she knew that the nanites that DermaSeal used had no noise. She covered each wound with a trauma patch and sighed as the combination of medicines, stem cells and nanites went to work. Then she went to work on Shepard. She shoved a Breathe-Rite® appliance into his nose, lanced the swelling around his eye, and scanned his head and chest for any signs of internal injuries.
As Debbie worked on Shepard, Dawson got out his comm-link and checked something. “The Sakura patrol dispatch for this area sent a situation update inquiry, and a backup necessary inquiry. I think we only have a few minutes before Sakura Security comes down on us like a tsunami.”
“Not to worry,” Ben growled. “It’s SOP, making sure that their units haven’t been jumped. Tell them that it’s a Code 10-66C, that they found the victim of a mugging, and they’re providing all due assistance. That’s cop shorthand for ‘we found a bum on our turf, and we’re beating the crap out of him so he knows to stay away; we’re busy, don’t bother us’. The dispatcher will ignore any calls or alarms from this immediate area.”
When she felt that she’d prepped him enough, Debbie waved some smelling salts under his nose. When he reacted, she fired an inhaler of stimulant up his nose. Shepard’s eyes snapped open, he gasped and sat up bolt straight. “FUCK!” he shouted as he gripped his face. Debbie pulled his hand away from his face and administered a nasal pain reliever. Shepard relaxed, made a few passes with his hands while muttering something, and the general condition of his face improved, although he still had a nasty black eye and a few other bruises. “Okay, two questions: One, what the frag happened? And Two, where are my medicine bags and walking stick?”
Debbie gave him a pained smile. “I’m sorry, Sheppado-sama, but that was the first thing we looked for when we came to, and we couldn’t find it.” From there, she spelled out what had happened.
“What?” Shepard asked, “You’ve already tracked them down and bagged them?” He looked around, taking in the warehouse for the first time. “How long was I out?”
“A little over an hour.”
“You did all this in under an hour?”
“The ‘great general’ here,” Marco jerked a thumb in Kent’s direction, decided that ‘the sun shall not rise on our disgrace’.”
“I merely felt that the sooner we found these kusotare, the less chance they’d be able to smear our reputations by bragging about it,” Kent said flatly.
“Good call, Go kuro,” Shepard said, getting to his feet with aching care. “So, who are these clowns, anyway?”
“Well, from the backs of their jackets, they call themselves the Headsmen.”
“Sheppado-sama-” Debbie tried to tell him, “it was a trap!”
Shepard hushed her with a hand. “Probably. But let’s find out who we’re dealing with first.” He turned to Dawson. “Have you taken care of the police yet?”
“They think that officers whose car that is are beating up a vagrant.”
“And where are those officers?”
“In the trunk of the car,” Dawson answered with a quick bow. “The patrol car found you unconscious as we were setting up our attack on this warehouse. I think that they thought that you were drunk. We took them out quickly, and once we had the car, it was either use it or leave it on the street for someone to notice.”
“Good Man.” Shepard’s mild approval melted away as he walked over to where the six unharmed gangers were sitting on their knees, hands on their heads, their jackets removed, their weapons taken, and their pockets turned inside out. There were three injured but conscious gangers seated, nursing their wounds. The other gangers were laid out on the floor, unconscious, and if they had any sense, they’d stay that way for a while. But one of the injured oni didn’t have the sense to stay down. He snarled as Shepard approached, and then reached into the clothing of a fallen comrade. He pulled out a hidden knife and launched himself at Shepard with a savage warcry.
He didn’t even get within a foot of Shepard.
Marco stepped in with casual grace and used the oni’s own momentum to take the knife away from him and steer him into Ben’s waiting arms. Ben got the oni’s arm behind him and leveraged him into a choke hold. The oni struggled and kicked, but Ben had too good a hold on him. In his frustration and rage, the oni was reduced to throwing insults in Japanese at Shepard, with a Hokkaido accent. “I think that you missed something during the search,” Shepard said dryly.
Shepard leaned in closely and examined the oni. He was squat-faced and broad-nosed, with red eyes almost popping out of his sockets and skin that was only a shade or two darker than his eyes. His hair was bushy and three shades of yellow, orange and red that made it look like his head was on fire. Any semblance of mortal humanity that his face might have had was lost in the rictus of pure animal rage that clearly filled him. “I don’t know you,” Shepard said calmly. “What’s your beef with me?”
“I am Kimochi Warui!” the oni spat out with even more venom.
“Oh, that explains everything,” Shepard said sarcastically. “And who is Kimochi Warui?”
“I am the man who will skin you alive and wear your skin as an apron!”
“Oh, THAT was informative…”
Debbie had been studying the man as well, and there was something that was nagging at her, but she just couldn’t place it. Then she noticed that the tip of Gaki’s left ear looked gnawed on-
-or shot off.
“Hoi, Sheppado,” she cut off Shepard’s upcoming snarky comment. “I think that I recognize him. Do you remember the day that you picked me up at the pier?”
“Not especially,” Shepard admitted.
“What?” Kimochi yelped, “You burned me and shot off my ear!”
“You’re not narrowing the field that much, Sport.”
“He challenged you at the pier,” Debbie explained, “and you set a magical cat of fire on him, and blew the tip of his ear off with your gun.”
“So?” Shepard asked with an eloquent shrug. “They dump kodoukujin on that pier every Wednesday, fifty-two weeks out of the year, and I’m there, forty-nine weeks out of the year to see what I can do. There’s almost always one or two buttheads who need to be slapped down, just so the rest get the idea that it’s time to take the situation seriously, and not listen to the inevitable putz who tells them to wait for the ferry that will never come. I’ve been doing that for over ten years! After a while… the people that I’ve had to smack around just sort of… all run together…”
“What? You ruined my life!” Kimochi roared.
“You mean, it wasn’t already in the crapper, what with being dumped in a foreign country with no money and no passport?” Kimochi lost control of his English and sputtered pure rage at Shepard. Shepard sighed and said, “Well, we won’t get any answers out of this loser. I’m still too groggy to use magic to read these guys; did any of them give you any signs that they’d be willing to give up a little useful information in exchange for, oh, say, their SPINE?”
“Not them, Joushi,” Ben said, dragging Cortez and his two bodyguards out from the limo, where Cortez had been futilely trying to get the car started without anyone noticing. “But this one was here to sell those bums weapons.” Ben unceremoniously dumped Cortez in front of Shepard and then stashed the two bodyguards in the back of the patrol car. Marco stopped him, and frisked the two bodyguards, coming up with an impressive array of hidden weapons and tools. Marco then added the female bodyguard, who, despite taking several close-range shotgun blasts and a nasty fall, was starting to struggle back to awareness.
“A-Mart Cortez,” Shepard purred. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“HEY!” Cortez snapped, “That’s MY question! What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Shepard? What kind of ripoff crap IS this?”
“Earlier this evening, I and my protégés here were enjoying a lovely night of celebration. Then we got sandbagged by your delightful friends here.”
“Gee,” Cortez sneered, “looks like the big dog is getting a little gray around the muzzle. Sucks to be you, Bow-wow.”
“Not as much as it sucks to be you, pendejo.”
“What?” Cortez bleated, all of his bravado evaporated. “You’re blaming me for that? Hey, I barely even know these losers! I was just trying to do a little business here!”
“Cortez, we got hit just a little over an hour ago,” Shepard pointed out. “And yet, instead of laying low or going out and celebrating taking us out while we had a little over a hundred thousand nuyen rattling around in our pockets, here they are, doing business with you.”
“So? Okay, Shep, so you got hit; exactly how is this is MY fault?”
Kent stepped up, holding a credstick. “They were going to pay with this. A registered credstick for 20 thousand nuyen.”
Shepard gave Cortez a measuring glare. “Twenty thousand. Less than an hour later. It sounds like they got paid, quick. A lot. And less than an hour after that, YOU show up. Gee, that almost sounds… arranged.”
“Hey, hey, hey, Shep! Business is business, and Action is action! I’m just moving some merchandise here!”
“The only way that you’d be here so soon, is that you’d agreed to meet them beforehand. That means that they knew that they’d have the money, which they’d never know if their ambush was just a random jumping. That means that you’re part of their payment.”
“Look… Shep… it looks like it’s ‘No Sale’ t’night, so I’ll just pack up my goods and be on my merry way, ‘kay?”
Shepard’s smile took on a predatory gleam. “It doesn’t work that way, A-Mart, and you know it. I got chump-jumped, and when I wake up, here you are, first in line to pick at my bones. Like my man said, I can’t afford to let the sun rise on my shame. Someone’s got to pay for this, and here you are, A-Mart, selling these chumps,” he paused and picked up the Panther Assault Cannon. “A Panther? You’re selling a bunch of over-aged juvenile delinquents assault cannons?” Then Shepard seemed to notice something off about the cannon. He checked the action and shot Cortez a look of pure rage. “This is a dummy! You’re pushing bogus merchandise! I don’t know what pisses me off more, that you’re selling MilSpec weaponry to guys who’re expecting me come after them-LATER- or that you’re selling worthless JUNK!”
“Hey, I don’t sell that! I knew they couldn’t afford it! I just use it as a come on to get them to buy the smaller stuff! Then I-”
“The only thing this is good for is to use as a club! Which, it seems, it has…” Shepard hefted the faux-cannon experimentally.
“Hey, hey, HEY! Shep, there’s no need to get nasty!”
“You’re right,” Shepard admitted. “I don’t have to get nasty. I can leave that to the Aztecs, when I take you down to San Diego, and turn you in for the reward they’ve got out on you.”
Cortez visibly paled under his swarthy skin. “Shep… You can’t! I can’t go back to Dago!”
Shepard grinned ferally. “Oh? REALLY?”
“Come ON, Shep!” Cortez pleaded, literally on his knees, “You can’t! They’ll rip my heart out! LITERALLY!”
“Sucks to be you, Peddler-Man.”
Cortez’s face fell and went stony. “Okay, Shep, you can cut the crap, let’s deal.”
“What do you have to deal with?”
“Oh, I can deal. Come, walk with me, talk with me.”
Motioning to the crew to stay watching the gangers, Shepard walked over to the table where all the captured firearms were laid out. Shepard and Cortez spoke quietly but intently for many minutes, and after a bit, they started moving guns back and forth from one end of the table to another. Finally, Cortez started putting some of the guns back in their cases, and the two men rejoined them. “Let them out and give them back their guns,” Shepard ordered, indicating Cortez’s bodyguards in the back seat of the patrol car.
“What?” Kent bleated.
“We cut a deal. Oh, and give them back the FALN and the Ares Alpha.”
“WHAT?” Kent and Marco yelped as one, clutching the assault rifles to their chests.
“You can still have the HK and the A2.”
Kent and Marco handed over the FALN and Alpha to the bodyguards with the air of mothers giving up their children. The bodyguards regarded them with chilly reserve and then offered their fists. “Business is Business…” one started.
“-and Action is Action,” Marco finished as he bumped the guard’s fist.
“Well, Shep,” Cortez sighed, “I wish that I could say that it’s been a pleasure. But I got reamed on this one. Yeah, yeah, I know… it’s a helluva lot better’n the alternative, but it still stinks.” He paused and gave the gangers an icy cold look. “And what about these cabrons?”
“Not to worry, A-Mart,” Shepard assured him. “These clowns will have better things to worry about than besmirching your good name. Such as it is.”
“Okay guys, nuthin’ left for us here,” Cortez gestured in the direction of his limo with a mildly disgusted air.
“Wait,” Debbie said firmly, stepping forward. “There is something that I have to ask YOU-” she looked at the female bodyguard, who returned the look with glacial hostility. Realizing that she put too much force into her statement (she still wasn’t that sure of the nuances of English), Debbie perked up and asked in a more pleasant tone, “Where did you get that outfit? You took three shotgun blasts at close range, but you don’t look like you even got scratched! I know that it must be armored, but I can’t spot anything! Where did you get it?”
The bodyguard immediately defrosted. “Oh, this? Oh, it’s got this great new mono-flex memory plastic mesh called Mnemex©. It’s great! It costs an arm and a leg, but I’m telling you it’s worth it!”
After Cortez’ limo left the warehouse, Shepard pulled out a commlink and started making calls. As he bopped around, making connections, he muttered, “I swear, you simply can NOT be nice to some people.” He noticed the crew’s reaction to this and asked them, “By any chance, are my gun or knife here? They’re not magical, but I’m used to them. Hell, I’ve had girlfriends that I didn’t trust as much as that gun.” Debbie searched around a bit and found both the knife and the revolver. And, with no small satisfaction, her own knife and purse. Shepard absently checked his gun and said, “Oh, and pick out one of those bikes for your own. We’re going to use the rest to pay the guys who’re going to take care of these yahoos for us.” That set off a storm of protest from the Headsmen, but Debbie wasn’t sure whether they were angrier about ‘being taken care of’, or losing their bikes. “Aaahh… SHADDAP!” Shepard barked at them.
“Yeah!” Marco sniped at the prisoners, “Maybe if you clowns shut it, we won’t tell the Wah Ching that you were flying their colors!”
But the gangers didn’t stop making noise until Kent threw a screwdriver at one of them, planting it into the concrete pillar next to him. “HEY! That missed my head by an inch!” the Oni yelped.
“HALF an inch,” Kent said in a low yet carrying voice, not looking up from the motorcycle that he was checking out.
While Shepard was distracted, one of the gangers tried to slip away. Marco and Kent threw a wrench and a spare carburetor at him, knocking him down. “I hit him first,” Marco smirked.
“I got him in the head,” Kent came back.
While most of the bikes were Honda Ashigaru© or Katanas© or other low-end street machines, there were a few suspiciously high-end bikes that were in very good condition. There was a BMW Blitzen™ with a bloody hatchet painted on it. Kent didn’t quite go ‘MINE!’ like a grabby two-year old. Not quite. He climbed on, keyed in the ignition and listened to the engine roar. He grinned and invited Debbie to climb on behind him. Marco laughed and gunned the engine of the Ferris Fenrir© Mk II that he’d chose. Then he jerked his head for Debbie to join him on the bike. But Debbie shook her head and claimed the Honda Banshee© for her own ride.
“Do you know anything about motorcycles, other than they look cool?” Marco asked snidely.
“As a matter of fact- YES!” Debbie snipped. “Back at Nekomi Tech, I used to date a boy who was in the school’s Auto club. He taught me some things about motorcycles, but the most important thing that he taught me was that it wasn’t a bike’s speed, or how cool it looked that was important. What is important was how well you could keep it up. There’s nothing more pathetic than a top-of-the-line motorcycle that never sees the streets, because it’s always being repaired. The Blitzen is a garage queen. The Fenrir’s better, but it still takes a certified mechanic to keep it running. But the Banshee?” she revved the engine. “It was designed so that an amateur could keep it in trim, and still perform well. What about you, Dawson-kun?”
“Me? I love tinkering with machines!” he slapped the Mitsuki MSX900 Bakushin© that he’d chosen. “This baby needs taking care of, but so what? That’s half the fun! Besides, this is rigged for direct control, so when I get that datajack, I’ll be able to-” he nattered on in true tech-head fashion, drifting from the potentials in the Bakushin to the possibilities of arming the hardpoints on Marco’s Fenrir, to adjustments to the Harley-Davidson FXDLF Gideon that Ben had picked for himself.
Debbie was listening to this with amusement, when teams of armed men suddenly appeared in the doors of the warehouse. A voice from up in the rafters shouted, “NOBODY MOVE!” Ice ran through Debbie’s blood as she realized that they’d been caught as flat-footed as they’d caught the gangers. Reflexively, she looked at Marco, who looked like he was about to make a very dangerous (and stupid) move.
But Shepard shouted, “CHILL OUT! Nobody Shoot!” A few of the uninjured Headsmen tried to escape, but they only ran right into the face of guns in unfriendly hands.
The voice from up above said in a calm but carrying voice, “You okay, Old Dog?”
Shepard looked up with an exasperated glare and said, “Yes, no thanks to you, you stupid pup! You damn near gave me a heart attack, not to mention starting a firefight!”
“We saw the Sakura car crashed through the door, and figured that it would be better safe than sorry.”
“Fair cop,” Shepard sighed. “Come on down, and meet everyone.”
Three figures dropped down. They were all oni, wearing the same style dark red leather jacket, which suggested a gang, or at least, some organization. The leader, a tall powerful-looking oni with ruggedly handsome features, ink-black skin, and startlingly white hair, stepped forward. “Okeh, who’re they?” he asked, giving them a measuring glare that stopped dead at Debbie and stayed there.
“They’re my latest crew of protégés.”
“’Protégé’? Is that a fancy word for ‘pigeon’?” the oni sneered. “Do they have any idea of what you have planned for them?”
“For your information, they’ve already been blooded,” Shepard said. He spelled out the ambush and the crew’s response. Dawson added a mention of Debbie’s ploy with dropping the boxes from the rafters. “You DID?” Shepard and the other man favored Debbie with surprised and appreciating looks. Well, Shepard gave her a surprised and approving look; the other one was more on the ‘appreciation’ (with touches of smirk and leer). Shepard nodded and introduced each of the crew by name, leaving Debbie for last. “And, in return, THIS is Goliath. If I am, as some of you have called me, your sensei, then he is your Sempai. He won’t speak with my voice, but when he does tell you something, it’s usually worth listening to.” As one, the crew bowed.
With that, Shepard was finished the introductions, and the men went to work. As some of the men loaded the Headsmen into a van, and others started working on the motorcycles, Shepard pulled out his commlink and made a call. “Boston Charlie? Shepard. You know that problem that you’ve been having with Isabel Frost? Well, be at Wintermute in an hour, and we’ll finish this. Believe me, someone is going to wish that they’d never started this. Shoot me the contract that you prepared. Get a couple of your boys and meet me at the club. No, I’m going to use my own people. I need to make a statement about people playing stupid little games.”
As Shepard shut his commlink, Debbie asked him, “What are they going to do with them?” nodding at the gangers being loaded into the van.
“Oh, nothing too terrible,” Shepard assured her. “They’re just going to drive them up into the High Sierras and leave them there. It’s spring, so if they have the right amount of brains and guts, they should be able to make their way back to civilization.” He stopped and gave the gangers a short look. “Of course, with that crew, I may have to give the Border Patrol a head’s up, or they’ll be bear chow this time next week.”
“And what about him?” Debbie nodded in Goliath’s direction
“What? I explained… ah. He’s one of my graduates.”
“He’s what I’m hoping what you and Kent and Marco and Ben and Dawson will become: an independent shadowrunner- that is, if you don’t find something else to do- who runs his own operations, and has his own organization. Debbie, you and your crew aren’t the first team of shadowrunners that I’ve trained. I’ve been doing this for years. Most of the better teams in the Bay Area and CalFree- and a few up in the Tir- apprenticed under me. He runs a very good crew of runners. I wouldn’t expect anything less of him.”
“Then why is he so rude to you?”
Shepard gave a wry grin. “The problem with teaching someone to think for themselves is that they think for themselves, and not as you would have them. He has his own opinions on things, and we don’t always agree. Also, over the years, I’ve had to make some hard decisions; decisions that he didn’t agree with.” Debbie blinked and started to ask what sorts of decisions Shepard was talking about, but he shushed her, as he walked into the warehouse’s office and fired up its computer. He printed something out and gave a loud whistle. “Time to roll!” he shouted. They had wrapped up taking care of the gangers and getting the motorcycles ready to ride. They pulled the two Sakura officers out from the trunk and put them in the back seat of the patrol car, leaving their weapons with them.
Shepard motioned for the crew to saddle up, and he got onto the back of Ben’s Gideon bike behind Ben. He gave a sweeping wave of his hand, and they all rode off en masse.
As they rode, Debbie noticed that even as he was riding, Shepard was on his commlink, making calls. When they all pulled up a block or so down an alley from Wintermute, Shepard set his commlink to project, and a strange whirling visage appeared in the air. It was a face, sort of, made up of whirling circles-within-circles, with stylized wings rising and falling from the outer circle, and six ruby-red eyes within the circle. “Jesodoth, we need to get into get into Wintermute without Frost knowing that we’re coming.”
#Sorry, Sheppado,# the visage said, #Wintermute’s isolated from the web for some strange reason. If there was Ice, I could cut through that, but you can’t pick a lock that’s not there.#
“What if we got a remote link in and hooked it up?”
#If you get me a direct hookup, then that mother’s already my bitch#
“A becoming modesty, Jesodoth,” Shepard muttered. “Put the schematics for Wintermute up. And I know that you already have it; you found it two minutes after I mentioned we were going into Wintermute.”
Jesodoth didn’t argue. A wire-frame display of the club’s layout replaced the visage. Shepard, Goliath and two other veterans went over the schematic. “THERE,” he pointed at a spot on the diagram. “If we-”
“NO,” Debbie surprised herself by disagreeing with the veteran. “That is a false door, and probably trapped somehow.”
Shepard raised an eyebrow and looked at her. “What makes you say that?”
“There’s no reason for that door. It serves no purpose, other than to provide a way in that isn’t covered by cameras.” She blushed. “I took a couple of preliminary architecture courses at Nekomi Tech. One of the first things they teach you is, ‘everything has a purpose; otherwise it’s a waste of materials and money’.”
“And where would YOU go in?”
Debbie hesitated, looked closely at the schematic and said, “There,” pointing at an isolated maintenance access hatch.
“And how would you GET there? It’s ten feet off the ground.”
“I can get there.”
“Joushi, she can get there,” Kent said with absolute conviction.
Goliath shrugged. “Hey, the worst she could do is break her own neck.”
“Let’s avoid that, shall we?” Shepard said dryly. He gave her a multi-tool that he had on him, and quickly showed her how to use her commlink as a direct patch for Jesodoth.
As Debbie checked her commlink, Goliath turned to one of his crew and said, “What odds will you give me that we’ll just have to break down one of the doors, alarm or no alarm?”
Debbie gave Goliath an annoyed squeak, turned with a snip and marched over to Ben. On a cue, he cupped his hands and hefted her high into the air. Debbie just barely managed to grab onto a light fixture and use that to swing herself over the hatch, using what few holds she could get at. Very awkwardly, she perched herself and managed find the ‘key’ in Shepard’s multi-tool that fit the hatch. She got the hatch open, and was about to crawl in, when she remembered what had happened the last time she’d done this. She looked back, and sure enough, her skirt was hiked up over her butt again. But this time, when she looked down, her crew was glaring with icy hauteur at the other men, who were standing around looking sheepish, like a bunch of boys caught at something naughty. Shepard was just standing there, looking rather amused.
Feeling much better about her crew, Debbie slipped into the hatch. The hatch hadn’t been designed as an entrance into the mall, it was just a way of getting to parts of the systems that would have been too far from the internal hatch to reasonably ask someone to crawl to. But it was one crawlspace, and Debbie was able to crawl all the way through it with a good deal of effort. Once she was out of the crawlspace, she got her breath back and found the telephone junction box. She called Shepard and let him know. “Good girl,” he said. Then, just before he shut his end of the link down, she heard him say to someone, “You owe me five bucks.”
Debbie patched her commlink into the junction box, and then she was acutely aware that she was in the middle of hostile territory, and all that she had on her for protection was her knife. Come to think of it, she’d have to find Chiyeko’s SIG Sauer P298, wherever it had gotten to, and get it back to her.
It worried Debbie, that she remembered not on the make and model of the gun, but the model number as well.
She opened her knife with a flick and took what comfort she had in it. As before, the sight of the mono-sharp edge gave Debbie the focus she needed. She wanted to be of help, but in a very real way, she’d done everything that she could, getting the direct link into the club. Without a gun, the best she could be if a firefight broke out was a distraction for her side. After that, it tended to settle out as how good a hostage or meat shield she could be for the other side. As galling as it was, the best thing that she could do for her side at this point was lay low and not get in anyone’s way. Like an insipid anime ‘heroine’.
And not one of the miho shojo anime, either.
But that image did kick in an idea. In anime, the ‘heroines’ who had more brains than to be taken hostage would sometimes prove useful by warning the hero of something sneaking up on him while he was too busy being heroic to notice. Well, it wasn’t much, but it was head and shoulders better than standing around ‘heroically’ not fainting.
Debbie wracked her brains over the layout of the club, which had once been a shopping mall. Like most malls of this scale, it was cruciform, and it had been cut into three basic sections by the two thick curtains, with the two longer stretches separated by the shorter ‘crossbar’. Debbie’s admittedly limited tactical savvy told her that the ‘crossbar’, especially the crossing point, was the important position. That was where the important action would be, and that would where she could spot anything happening that Shepard or Kent might not see.
Carefully, she sneaked all the way from the bottom floor up to the third floor without anyone spotting her. Settling herself into the doorway of the old shop nearest the corner, Debbie wished that she could tell Shepard where she was, but her commlink was busy acting as a direct link; besides, Shepard probably had his hands full. Around her, she heard the various sounds of the help clearing out the last few drunks, cleaning the floors, and generally gearing up to shut the place down that Debbie was all-too familiar with these days.
Then she saw something that happened almost too quickly for her to catch, like one of those trap-door spiders snatching a bug. One minute, one of the cleaning women was pushing around a mop, the next she was gone, with only the briefest glimpse of a couple of men with their faces covered by bandanas (though once or twice it was women) to explain why. This happened until someone noticed that the cleaning women weren’t doing their jobs.
A team tried to grab one of the guys looking around for the cleaning women, and it didn’t quite come off as planned. The guy let out a yelp, they were spotted, and a hue and cry went up. From there, it quickly turned into a complete mess, with people running around screaming and panicking and generally carrying on. But not shooting. Shepard’s men were packing very obvious firepower, and it seemed that while few of the club’s employees were willing to simply put their hands up and surrender, neither were they inclined to draw small arms and trade fire.
Another myth about Americans shot down.
For their part, Shepards’ men seemed to be operating on the principle ‘the one who shoots first is at fault’ or something like that. But, there seemed to be some rule that every club that could afford them was required to hire a particularly large troll to act as a bouncer (no doubt trusting to their impressive bulk to keep the peace), and Wintermute must have been doing very well, as it had THREE. The three suspiciously well-dressed trolls had formed a mutually supporting formation and were moving about breaking up Shepard’s men’s attempts to get the club under control. Debbie wondered whether it was an American thing, a troll thing, or a just a Man thing. Or if it was simply a matter of keeping face, and they were trusting that Shepard’s crew wouldn’t take it to the next level of violence. That was, until one of the trolls popped a matched set of metal claws out from the sleeves of his elegant jacket.
Well, at least, they didn’t shoot. Instead, with martial cries, they unsheathed katanas and pointed them at the trolls with clear intent. The trolls stopped, and appeared to figure that they’d earned their keep that night. The cybered troll retracted his claws, they all raised their hands over their heads, and Shepards’ crew was able to start getting the situation under control. Debbie mused that now many shadowrunners’ fixations with katanas made more sense; a three-foot bar of razor-sharp steel could be as intimidating as a gun, and its user was lot more likely to use it.
Then Debbie heard someone coming down the walkway near her, and she melted back into the shadows of the store. It turned out to be one of the waitresses at Wintermute. Debbie was about to pull her into the doorway with her, just to get the poor woman out of harm’s way, when the woman drew a gun. Then the waitress pulled several technical bits from her apron, swapping out the action of her pistol, putting on a barrel extension, a sound suppressor, a collapsible stock, and a collapsed targeting system and then chambering in a magazine of bullets of a much larger caliber than the pistol should have taken. In the matter of less than two minutes, the small pistol, which would have been unremarkable on a waitress working such a bad neighborhood, was suddenly a far more formidable weapon. Folding a handgrip down from the barrel extension, the woman aimed the gun intently down at the main floor and seemed to be tracking a target.
Debbie didn’t know who the woman was targeting, but she knew that a single shot would break the fragile situation down below like a brick through a plate glass window. It could turn into a bloodbath. The woman seemed to have her target fixed and was bracing to fire. Debbie silently stepped out from the shadows, sliding her knife open, and came up behind the woman. She brought her knife around to the far side of the woman’s neck and set the blade just under the corner of her jaw. “DON’T,” Debbie hissed into her ear as the sniper stiffened. Debbie felt her tense, so she wrapped her arms around the woman and set her feet against being thrown. “I said, DON’T,” Debbie hissed again. The woman relaxed. “Good.”
Debbie took the gun from the sniper’s hand, but kept the knife at her throat. A woman carrying such a sophisticated weapon wasn’t just a waitress; Debbie needed to keep her advantage, no matter what. Debbie looked down to where the sniper had been aiming. Shepard was talking to Kent and Goliath. Then Debbie got a better look at the woman, and the penny dropped. “Oh! YOU… Oh, Sheppado will definitely want to have words with YOU.” Debbie took control of the gun and set the barrel at the sniper’s ear. “Let’s go.”
It was awkward, but Debbie managed to keep the sniper off balance all the way down to the main floor. Shepard was coming out of one of the offices with his walking stick under his arm when they got down among the hostage situation. “Hoi Sheppado! I think that you want to talk to this one!” Debbie called out.
“She’s the waitress who’s been bringing you drinks all night. And she’s the one who steered us to that back door where we got jumped. AND She had this-” Debbie tossed him the assembled gun, “-and she was aiming it- AT YOU. I don’t think she liked the tip I left her.”
Shepard caught the gun and took in the complex make. He quirked a knowing smile at the two women and said, “You’re quite right. I DO want to talk to this young lady. At length.”
Debbie took the knife away from the sniper’s throat and stepped away as Shepard approached and handed her the strange gun. “Now, young lady,” he said with a gentle paternal smile, “Exactly WHY were you pointing this nasty toy at me?”
But before the sniper could say anything, they were interrupted by the loud shrill sound of a woman’s voice complaining at the top of her lungs. Wincing at the sound of the woman’s nails-on-a-blackboard bitching, Marco dragged that ‘Isabelle’ woman out from one of the back rooms. “HEY!” she interrupted a stream of obscenity, “SHEPARD! What the frag IS this? What the-” more stream of obscenity, “-do you think you’re doing? I thought that you said that you were gonna sit this thing with Boston Charlie out! Now you’re-” more obscenity.
“Debbie, dear, would you take this young lady and keep her out of sight for a while?” Shepard asked quietly. “Vince, Jaeger, you keep an eye on both of them. If the young lady tries anything with Debbie, smack her down hard, but don’t hurt her. I may want her later.”
Isabelle stalked over to Shepard as forcefully as her slinky outfit (warmed up by a fawn cardigan sweater) would allow her and was just about to uncork some more verbal abuse, when Shepard cut her off with, “We had a DEAL Isabelle- I pay Scotch prices for soft drinks, so that I can do business without getting my ass plastered. But tonight, instead, I got Coke laced with something that I couldn’t taste, and the only reason that I wasn’t passed out on the floor was that my people got me out when they saw I was pissed! And THEN, instead of calling a cab, one of your people points us to door to a back alley, where there’s a squad of heavily armed PUNKS waiting to kick the livin’ crap out of me!” He finished by pointing significantly at the livid bruises still on his face.
“So, you got jumped!” Isabelle demanded, “This is MY fault HOW?”
“They were waiting for me…” Shepard hissed, “in an alley that is supposed to be security monitored! Your girl steered us right into it! They were waiting for us!”
“LOOK, Shep, I can tell that you’re pissed,” Isabelle said in a gentler tone, picking up that the situation was very much against her.
But she was cut off by, “Hey, what is going ON here?” A tall thin, redheaded Anglo man in a very well-cut suit walked in, bracketed by two very large orks in what Debbie took for standard bodyguard armored suits. “Hey, Shep you didn’t- WHOA! What happened to YOU?”
“Somebody set me up,” Shepard said dyspeptically.
“I thought that you was gonna sit out this thing b’tween Izzy an’ me,” the man said in a high, slightly nasal accent that sounded vaguely American, but not the Californian variety that she’d been hearing since she got there.
“I was,” Shepard growled, “until SOMEONE decided to play games, and sicced a gang of ork punks on me!”
“And that someone’s game wasn’t quite good enough?”
“Not Hardly.” Which Debbie took to mean ‘No’.
“You need any help finding this gang? I mean, it can’t be good fer yer rep, them jumpin’ you like that.”
“Not to worry, Charlie, I’ve got it covered.” Shepard gripped Isabelle by the shoulder, steered her over to one of the tables and forced her down into a chair. “Enough chit-chat! Let’s get down to business!” He slammed a hard text document of maybe ten-to-fifteen pages down on the table and stuck a pen in her hand. “SIGN!”
“What IS this?”
“Oh, just a Title Transference contract.”
Isabelle glared red-hot hatred at Shepard. “You intend to get your pound of flesh, don’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t want a pound of flesh, Isabelle,” Shepard assured her. “Just… everything. Clubs, businesses, land, buildings, vessels, existing inventory, vehicles, rolling stock, contracts, accounts, outstanding debts owed… the whole nine yards. All sold for a hundred grand, of which I’ll get half as a Mediator’s fee.”
“Isabelle, whoever had me jumped planned to ruin my rep, to paint me as a has-been who’d lost his touch. And in the shadows, that’s pretty much the same as putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger! Only nowhere near as quick and painless, and I’d take a big chunk of my organization down with me! I think that everything is a fair trade for that, don’t you?”
“I! Didn’t! DO! It!” Isabelle snarled.
“Isabelle, I found my magical tools, which had been lifted off me by your *ahem!* ‘waitress’ while we were making that graceless exodus out into those punks waiting hands, in the closet of your office.”
“Shep, this will never stick.”
“Oh, it’ll stick,” Charlie snickered.
“I’ll MAKE it stick.” Shepard’s voice went dangerously calm. “Isabelle, you’re making this harder than it has to.” He pulled out his revolver and pulled back the hammer with a significant click. “SIGN. On the parts that have been highlighted in red. NOW.” Isabelle snarled silently, but took the pen and signed in six places. “Okay Charlie, your turn. Sign on the green highlights, and it’ll be good.”
Charlie stepped forward with a smirk. His bodyguards made to stay by him, but Shepard waved them back. Charlie gave them a confident grin and nodded as to say that it was okay. Charlie took the pen and started to sign. As he signed he chattered away, “Well, Iz, it was a done deal from the get-go anyway. One way or another, I was gonna get this place, and we both knew it. Probably why you hadda get nasty with ol’ Shep here. BUT, look at the bright side, Izzy! At least you still got yer health. And with what I was gonna- HEY! WHAT IS THIS?” he yelled, in the middle of signing. “This isn’t the agreement that I sent you! This says that I’m selling her everything that I’ve got for a hundred grand!”
Charlie looked up in outrage, just in time for the barrel of Shepard’s Ruger Warhawk to clip him on the side of the jaw, knocking him to the floor. The sniper-girl reacted, but Debbie just dug that amalgam- gun deeper under her jaw. Boston Charlie’s two goons dragged guns out of their bulky overcoats, but they were a good five meters from their employer, and Shepards’ men were covering them from almost every quarter with shotguns and assault rifles. Charlie scrambled to his feet, but Goliath and one of his crew grabbed him by the arms. “Did you think you were being slick, Charlie?” Shepard growled as he tucked his revolver into his belt and slipped a knuckle duster onto his hand. “Isabelle had no reason to jump me!” *wham!* He gave Charlie a rounding punch in the face. “I was staying out of it! So what? It didn’t make it that much harder for her!” *wham!* “We do business, but I don’t owe her money, and she doesn’t owe me anything either!” *wham!* “But YOU? You owe me a hundred grand!” *wham!* “And you’ve managed to weasel your way into over sixty percent share in SIX of my projects!” *wham!* “WHILE you still owe me a hundred grand!” *wham!* “Isabelle isn’t stupid enough to arrange for me to be jumped in her own club. ‘Never crap where you eat’.” *wham!* “AND she’d know better than to keep my magical tools in her club!” *wham!* “But YOU? This was right up your alley, right down to sending A-Mart Cortez to the Headsmen, to sell them the heavy weapons that they’d need to take me down when I came looking for them!” *wham!*
By this time, Boston Charlie was very unconscious, and his face was a mass of bruises. Shepard touched him with his medicine pouch, and the bruises cleared up (mostly). Charlie started to move groggily, and Shepard fired an inhaler stimulant up his nose, bringing him to waking. Charlie shook his head, got his wits together and sneered, “Okay, so I set you up. SO WHAT. Business is-”
“Nah-Ah, Charlie!” Shepard cut him off. “Not THIS time. There’s business, there’s action, and then there’s messing with the kid, which this is a textbook example of! This is not ‘I had action going down and you had action going down and crap happened’; this is YOU came after ME. You even had a shooter inside the club, just in case anything went pear-shaped. You know how it works, Charlie: If I let you off the hook, people will start saying that I’ve gone soft. I’ve GOT to take you down and take you down HARD.”
“I’d feel sorry for you, Charlie,” Isabelle breezed, a smug smirk of relief wreathing her face, “if not for the fact you were just about to do this to ME.”
Shepard towed Charlie back over to the table and forced him down into a chair and put the pen back in his hand. “You still have three more signatures to do, Charlie.” Charlie started to complain but Shepard cut him off. “I’m not going to take everything, Charlie; I’m going to leave you your health.”
“And as long as you’ve got your health…” Isabelle gloated through a grin.
Charlie started to complain, so Shepard slammed his head down onto the table and pinned Charlie’s head against the paper with his Warhawk. He made a production of pulling back the hammer and snarling, “Don’t make me quote The Godfather, Charlie. It gets nasty when we quote The Godfather.” Charlie squirmed, but finally gave in and signed the last three lines highlighted in green.
Shepard holstered the gun and let Charlie up. He separated the papers into two sets and handed Isabelle one. “There you go, Isabelle, your copy,” he said, all charm again. “Sorry about how I set this up, but it couldn’t be helped. I had to get Charlie-boy here off his turf and out of the range of his guards, and the only way to do that was to make him think that his little drama piece had worked. Still, I did tell my people to not hurt anyone more than absolutely necessary, to set the stage.”
“I’ve put up with worse, in return for less,” Isabelle muttered as she riffled through the papers. “Hey, Shep, I’m a little shy on liquid capital at the moment; do you think that you could give me a few days to-”
“Sell the contents of Charlie’s KeltiKorp warehouse to Ferrare the Turk; I didn’t go through all of this to slap down one shark, just to get shafted by another one.”
Isabelle started to complain, but caught a look at the state of Charlie’s face, pulled out her commlink and made a call, asking for the Turk.
“Okay, so you’re a badass,” Charlie groused. “Gimme my copy and I’ll be on my way.”
YOUR copy? This-” Shepard shook the remaining pages, “is MY copy. You won’t need it where you’re going.”
Suddenly Boston Charlie looked very worried. “Waddya mean, ‘where I’m going’?”
“A rigger I know is making a run up north in a few days. On my way over here, I called her and arranged for her to take you on an all-expenses-paid tour of Tir Tairngire. Oh, and she won’t have any space for you on the way back.”
Charlie went white as a sheet, and he almost melted in panic. “SHEP! PLEASE! NO! The Elves! They know my name, from Boston! They’ll… they’ll DO things to me! Shep! If you gotta, just SHOOT me! But, Mother of GOD, don’t give me to the ELVES!”
Shepard sneered at Charlie. “DOG, if there is anything I hate, it’s someone who plays hardball, and then whines about it when the other guys get rough. You were trying to take down me AND my whole operation, Charlie. Your little play was geared to smack me down and paint me as a has-been, so that I’d be too busy covering my bleeding ass to put up a fight when you took over those businesses we’re partners in. Those were the REAL prize here. Well, I’m taking those prizes and leaving you for the Wild Hunt. Goliath, get him out of here, he pisses me off, just by breathing!”
Shepard gestured for Debbie to bring the waitress/sniper forth, and stand her by the two bodyguards. “I have nothing against professionals doing a job professionally,” he began. “You were hired to do a job, and you did the best you could. I don’t hold that against you. ‘Business is business and Action is action’ applies to you. IF you’ll let it. If you don’t have a problem with me, then I don’t have a problem with you.” He held up a fist.
The two orks looked at him, then each other, and then the sniper-girl. “Yeah,” one of the orks sighed. “He didn’t pay THAT well.” He reached out and bumped Shepard’s fist. It struck Debbie that Charlie was standing right there, but already they were talking about him in the past tense.
“Business is business,” the other ork said, tapping Shepard on the fist.
“And action is action’,” finished the sniper-girl, also tapping Shepard on the fist.
“When you tell people what happened here, remember to mention WHY it happened. Give them their guns and let them leave,” Shepard ordered.
Debbie clutched the amalgam gun to her. “ALL the guns?” she peeped.
“ALL the guns,” Shepard said sternly.
“But… it’s so cool!” Shepard gave Debbie a stern look, and she handed over the gun to the sniper as though she was handing over her favorite doll.
“Hold on a minute,” Debbie snapped.
“He owes me for this dress, which is ruined,” Debbie indicated her myarlastic outfit, which was ripped in several places, leaving it barely able to dodge a charge of public indecency. She stalked over to Boston Charlie, and dug around inside his jacket. He complained, but she gave him a backhand slap that rocked his jaw. She fished out a wad of bills, a gun, a few credsticks and a pocket secretary. “Here,” she tossed the pocket secretary to Shepard. “He won’t need that.”
As she tucked the rest into her purse, Goliath asked, “And why should YOU get all of that?”
“Because I thought of it.”
“She’s learning,” Kent moaned.
“Dog help us all,” Shepard agreed. As Goliath took Boston Charlie off, Shepard quietly slipped a credstick into Charlie’s pocket, not that Charlie noticed.
“What was that about?” Debbie asked.
“Oh, that’s to pay off Jenny Quick, the smuggler that I hired,” Shepard said very much sotto voce. “I wouldn’t give even a little turd like Boston Charlie to the Tir Elves, but on the other hand, I can’t exactly let him GO, either, not after he pulled that crap on me. I was hoping that he’d do it with the credsticks he had on him, but you made that impossible. Still, if he’s got the good sense Dog gave a doorstop, he’ll pay Jenny to take him up to Seattle, so I’ll still get the ‘cold blooded’ cred for dumping him with the Elves.” Noticing others checking out their whispered conversation, Shepard covered himself by asking aloud, “So, does anyone know where we could find a good Notary Public?”
Marco settled into the long red leatherette couch and enjoyed the game. While the old United States was a dead letter, and California Free State was fraying at the edges, the American baseball leagues were still thriving concerns, and had opened up to true international competition, with teams enjoying a rare freedom of safe passage over national boundaries. The Renraku Rangers were playing the Santo Domingo Padres, and the very wide screen 3D TV was almost as good as being there (without the problematic issues of actually being in the Dominican Republic). Then, just as Yamada ‘Fireball’ Hideki was winding up, the ‘Door’ icon appeared on the screen, meaning that someone was at the door, ringing the ‘bell’.
Marco let out an annoyed grunt, fished for the remote and hit the button to see who was at the door. An inset appeared on the screen, and he perked up when he recognized Debbie looking into the camera. Marco vaulted off the couch and sprinted down the stairs to the security door. He almost threw the door open, but at the last minute remembered his all-important cool. He stopped got control of himself, set the fit of his shirt back to rights, made sure of his hair, and opened the door with the appropriate aplomb. “Ah! Debbie-chan!” he purred. “You decided to take me up on my invitation…”
Debbie handed him her motorcycle helmet and unzipped her motorcycle jacket. Marco puckishly noted to himself that Debbie definitely put the ‘robust’ in Robustus. “I’m on my way to a party, and I thought that I’d invite you along with me.”
“Why don’t you come in, and try to convince me?” Marco asked urbanely. Debbie gave him a wry look and pushed past him, leading him up the stairs. A chance that Marco took full opportunity of, to check out how Debbie was filling out those jeans from the best perspective.
“Nice place,” Debbie said, looking round. “Very airy, lots of space.” Actually, she thought that it looked like something out of an old Playboy magazine, a spread on ‘the upwardly mobile young man of the world’, that sort of thing. Lots of empty space, spare furniture, dark woods, dyed leather, glass plate tabletops, brass fixtures, that sort of thing. “How much is this costing you?”
“Ten thousand a month.”
“TEN THOUSAND? You can’t afford this! You only got enough for a couple of months, and then you’ll be broke again! And didn’t you say that you were going to going to upgrade your motorcycle and arm its hardpoints with weapons?” she pointed at the Ferris Fenrir motorcycle, parked on a blue plastic tarp in the middle of one section of the large open area, with an open toolkit near it.
“Yeah,” Marco said, suavely going behind the bar and fixing himself a drink. “So what? I can afford it. We’re Shadowrunners! Sheppado is grooming us for the big time! We’re going to have another big score coming our way soon. Besides, life is the Shadows is fast and nasty. We could be dead this time next month. Why should I put my money in a bank, where the only one who’ll enjoy it is some round-eared fat cat, when I could enjoy it while I can?”
Debbie scowled at him. “Marco, we got lucky! Those bakebuta managed to avoid hunters and park rangers and such for years, but Sheppado managed to find a nature spirit willing to give it up for us. By rights, we should have maybe been able to find one or two normal feral pigs, three if we were really lucky. We should have come back with a couple of hundred nuyen in our pockets and some good exercise, not twenty thousand each! We can’t expect things like that to happen to us every time we go out!”
“Yeah, we got lucky!” Marco breezed. “But we were tough, and we were smart and we were together! Either of those hogs could have scattered us, but we pulled together and took them down! Having lucky things happen to you is only half of being really lucky; the other half is grabbing the luck and making something out of it. When we got jumped in that alley, we could’a just run off and left Sheppado to bleed to death. We could’a gone back to Mama Yama’s, and let the Headsmen run down Sheppado’s rep on the street, so we was all a laughing stock. We could’a gone after the Headsmen after they’d bought those heavy guns, and gotten ripped apart. But we didn’t; we was tough, we was smart, and we did it right. Kento had the fighting spirit, Dawson had the fix, you had the intel, Benno had the tactics, and I had the moves. We took on the Headsmen AND Cortez’ wired goons, and we handed them their ASSES! Hey, smart, tough and together will pull you through when the Luck just aint there, and we got smart, tough and together covered.” Then he paused and seemed to notice something. “You washed the black dye out of your hair.” He gestured at Debbie’s hair, which was white and rather bushy again.
“Oh yah,” she sat down on the couch and shook her hand through her hair. “And I’m going to let my horns grow out. I’m getting tired of pretending that I’m something that I’m not.”
Marco slid closer and leaned over with a leer. “Oh? You’re willing to admit that you’re an Oni, a creature of passion and fire?”
“I admit that I’m an Oni. What do you use to shape your horns? I use Konodagi’s horn-dissolver©, but that just burns the horn. It smells horrible, but it’s better than filing the horns down.” Despite himself, Marco winced with remembered discomfort; sawing horns down was bad, but filing them down was taking a power drill to your skull. “So what do you use on your horns?”
“What? I don’t use anything!”
“Really? You mean you got that great brow curve without any styler?”
“Yeah, this is natural,” Marco preened.
“Personally, I use Carlito’s Corn Curler©,” a deep voice rumbled at them from behind. “It’s an Aztechnology™ product, but then, your really do have to work to find something on the shelves that’s not.”
Marco whipped his head around. “Benno! What are you doing here?”
“Bringing Debbie-chan’s bike inside.” He set the Banshee down on the carpet. “Can’t leave it outside; this is a very bad neighborhood.”
At Marco’s yip of outrage, Debbie said, “Over there,” and pointed over to the blue plastic tarp. Marco whimpered at the trail the tires left on the rug.
“How did you get in here?” Marco demanded. “This is supposed to be a security building?”
“And in this neighborhood, that’s a very good thing. Nice place,” Ben said, looking round. “Very airy, lots of space.”
“I let him in,” Debbie said, holding up the remote.
“You’re not going to bring your Gideon up here,” Marco stated, not asked.
“It’s a troll bike,” Ben said reasonably, “who’s stupid enough to steal a troll bike?”
“Another troll,” Dawson pointed out, walking out of the kitchen, eating from a bag of corn chips. “Nice place,” he said, looking round. “Very airy, lots of space.” He looked over at the Fenrir on the blue tarp. “What? You tried to fix it without me?”
“How did YOU get in here?” Marco yelped.
“He came in with me,” Ben said reasonably. “What? I couldn’t just leave him outside, not in this bad neighborhood.”
“True that,” Kent said walking out of the kitchen with a drink in his hand. “Maybe if I’m lucky someone will steal my Blitzen. That is the most expensive ‘free bike’ I’ve ever seen!” he looked around. “Nice place; Very airy, lots of space.”
“And what are YOU doing here?” Marco glowered at Kent.
“Well, someone had to give the girls a ride.”
“Hoi, Dawson-kun!” came a merry voice from the door. Chikeya, Fumiko, and Megumi, three of the waitresses from Mama Yama’s came in carrying platters of food. “Where should we put this?”
“I left the drinks in the kitchen.” Fumiko gave Dawson a kiss on the cheek as they took the food into the kitchen.
“Who’s minding the BAR?” Marco yelled into the kitchen.
“Oh, Mama Yama gave us the day off,” Megumi explained. “Nice place,” she said, looking around. “Very airy, lots of space.”
“And you decided to spend the day HERE?”
“Why not?” Shepard asked, setting the hand truck with the beer kegs down. “This is where the party is!”
“How did YOU get in here?”
“You really expected to keep me out?” Shepard looked around. “Nice place. Very airy, lots of space.”
“Yeah, it is,” Goliath said as he and one of his crew set down kegs next to Shepard’s hand truck. “I see that you went for the ‘the upwardly mobile young man of the world’ package. Nice.”
“Yeah,” his companion agreed. “But it costs. MAN, does it cost.”
“Right. The guys who usually go for this kind of setup say to himself, ‘I can afford it! I’m a Shadowrunner! I’m in the big time! I’m going to have another big score coming my way soon. Besides, life is the Shadows is fast and nasty. I could be dead this time next month. Why should I put my money in a bank, where the only one who’ll enjoy it is some round-eared fat cat, when I could enjoy it while I can?’ They blow their wad living large and throwing big parties, and then when they fall up to their chins in the drek, they don’t have anything to dig themselves out with. And the rental agent keeps the deposit, scoops up and sells off all the toys they leave behind, and rents the place out to the next sucker.”
“So, who’s throwing a big party?” Marco looked around, and his place was full of people, eating, drinking, dancing, playing computer games on his big screen, and generally having a good time. He only barely recognized half of them in passing as Shepard’s people or folks that he’d seen at Mama Yama’s. He turned to Debbie. “Why did you let all these people in?”
“Well, when we were breaking into that warehouse, I learned something about myself. It turns out that I really AM an Oni;” she gave a wicked smile, “I ENJOY being sneaky.”
Then Marco felt a sharp kick on his shin. He looked down into Chiyeka’s usually merry face, which was scowling up at him, despite her 4-inch platform shoes. “Hey! Debbie says that she gave you the SIG Sauer that I loaned her. What did you do with it?”
Marco was about to give Chiyeka a piece of his mind, when a group of burly non-Asian orks in gang (or at least ganger-ish) leathers came muscling in, carrying baseball bats and tire irons. The leader yelled, “Who’s giving this party?”
Suddenly Marco found himself in the middle a ring of pointing fingers.
The gang leader swaggered up to Marco, tapping the bat he was carrying in the palm of his hand. “We’re from the local Neighborhood Committee. We’re gettin’ complaints about the noise. You didn’t apply fer a permit to have a party.” Marco started to complain, but the Anglo ork overshouted him. “LOOK, yer gonna hav’ta cough up fer a party permit! AND pay a substantial penalty for having a party! Otherwise…”
He opened a switchblade ominously. There was a sound of racheting machinery, and the gang leader found himself looking into a near-wall of gun barrels as everyone at the party produced at the very least a light pistol and pointed them at his crew. Foremost was the mark, some Nip sleazebag in an ‘upwardly mobile young man of the world’ suit, who was holding an Ingram smartgun right in the gang leader’s face, with a look that said that he was looking forward to using it.
Marco took the switchblade from the gang leader’s numb fingers and tossed it over his shoulder. Then he took the baseball bat. Tapping the bat into the palm of his hand, Marco said, “Hey, Debbie-chan! It’s time for party games! There’s a great Kalifornajin game that I’ve been wanting to try out! It’s called ‘Break the Pinata’!”