The Bitch Butchers rode into Wauwatosa riding lightning. They would have come in riding thunder, but you can’t get skips to go ‘vroom’. It was one of things that almost kept suspension field vehicles from breaking into the market. People, especially motorcycle riders, seemed to regard the ‘vroom’ of an internal combustion engine as a vital part of the motoring experience. But the draw of a vehicle that zipped along, flying over unpaved surfaces, snow, ice and open water with equal speed was irresistible. Still, your basic biker types needed something to compensate for the loss of the thunder. So, as they learned the ins and outs of heterodynamic magnetic suspension and propulsion systems, some enterprising bikers rigged the suspension fields to delta-spike and arc flashes of lightning that shot from the bike to the ground. It was loud, it was flashy, it was hard on the suspension system, it was an energy drain- in other words, it was cool.
The Bitch Butchers rode into Wauwatosa flying the mottled pelt of a flayed mongrel dog as their hata (Hata: a ceremonial banner, of a type originated in Japan, adopted by Bosozoku, Japanese biker gangs, and imported to the NAF).
That pretty much summed up their attitude. They slammed around with rowdy abandon, screaming insults and crass remarks to each other over the crackling of the lightning. One of them used a slow-moving sled as a ramp to perform a high arcing leap ahead of the pack. Her showy success bred imitation, as one after the other of the Bitch Butchers tried to out do the others, regardless of how it affected the other people in traffic. Then, suddenly, the entire pack split off from traffic, and hit the off-ramp for Parkridge.
Once, Wauwatosa had pretty much been an extension of the Milwaukee urban sprawl, but the increasing polarization of the weather patterns had taken their toll. Like most urban areas in the Great Lakes region, both Milwaukee and Wauwatosa had invested in modular arcologies which were able to handle the rigors of Wisconsin’s frigid blizzard-ridden winters, rain-flooded springs and blustery, almost tornado-like autumns better than the flimsy single-family dwellings that had once dominated the suburban landscape. As a result, the wilderness was returning to the deserted burb-sprawl. Weeds choked the once manicured lawns, and tore up the thin layers of asphalt and concrete. The flimsy knocked-off bungalow and split-level ranch-style houses were falling apart, even when storms or fire didn’t tear them up.
Parkridge had been a particularly shoddy example of late 20th and early 21st Century land development, and its residents had gladly left the decaying suburb for the comfort and security of the Wauwatosa City Center Arcology. The cheap sprawl of cul-de-sacs and strip malls was already halfway returned to wilderness in most spots, but there were still strips of asphalt and collections of semi-habitable houses.
The Bitch Butchers drove down Marquette Drive with the lightning turned off, and ghosted into Pennyroyal Court, a cul-de-sac with a handful of ramshackle but still viable houses. Silently, the leader, a short, delicate appearing Asian woman, gave a staccato series of hand-gestures, which meant, ‘Search the Area. Do it silently. Find anyone hiding. No killing.’ The Bitch Butchers broke off into five teams of five women each, and swept the entire cul-de-sac with a discipline and technique that one doesn’t normally associate with bikers.
When all five teams had returned to the court without incident, the small Asian woman said, “Okay, Cleo, Wanda, check the perimeter beyond the court. Ayumi, you’re in charge of arranging the camp.”
“Why is Yummi in charge of setting up the camp?” a curvy brunette with strange blue eyes asked.
“Because,” the petite Asian replied, “in case anyone finds this place, it has to look like a biker camp. In other words, a mess. And as for her expertise… well, have you ever seen her room?’
“Okay, that house over there is still sorta livable.” The Asian girl with spiky hair and the sleeveless duster with the severed dog’s head logo on the back said, “And the fence between those two back yards is down.”
The leader nodded, and all the women started pushing their skips in that direction. “Vangie, you were with the CCC, right? You check to see if Mackelroy was right, and the gas and sewage lines are still working in this court.”
Vangie paled visibly, but nodded, and pulled the appropriate gear from a saddlebag. Chai delegated out a few more tasks. For the most part, the girls set up housekeeping in the abandoned tract house but kept their skips outside with camouflage draped over them. One of the girls was doing a little ‘K-ration cuisine’ with some canned goods, when Chai got a call on her PTN. She took the call, and pulled out a laminated map of Wauwatosa. She muttered a few remarks and made a few marks on the map. “Okay, will do. How long do we have to hold them? Ayah, cut it fine, why don’t you?”
She shut off her connection, and briskly clapped her hands. “Atten-SHUN! Okay, ladies, in accordance with sacred tradition, our employer is dropping our first crisis in our lap before we even have time for lunch. Tirza, keep what you got cooking warm for us. We’ll be hungry for it when we get back. Team C, you all stay with Tirza, and make sure that nobody finds the place. Team E, you ride to map position J-14.25.03/E- 04.43.17 and cover our path of retreat. Cleo, I want you to watch the intersection of Bender and Nalley, and give us a heads-up when our bunnies show up. The rest of you, ride with me.”
Wordlessly, they saddled up and rode out. As they rode, Chai gave a series of orders in one-handed ‘hand jive’. When they got to the Paul Bunyan micro-mall (Today’s Special: Genuine Eel-skin jackets from New Brunswick!), they pulled in, and started seriously confusing the poor schlubs at the Retro drive-in diner. They were apparently having a right jolly old time playing mind-fuck with the patrons, when one of them gave out a loud whistle. Suddenly, they all dropped everything that they were doing -except for the big redhead, who grabbed an entire tray of krill burgers and took off without paying- hopped on their skips and were out of there like the wind.
The ‘Bitch Butchers’ shot down the road, flying quiet, without any of the previous shenanigans- well, except for Kait chowing down on a krill-burger as she rode. Ahead of them, just pulling off the off-ramp, was another band of bikers, this one riding thunder, good and loud. Chai made a signal, and six of the ‘Butchers’ fell into a formation of three pairs in a row. Ayumi came up behind them, and started to run between them as the slammed their skips together. The result catapulted Ayumi ahead into the middle of the predominantly male bikers, like a bar of soap being squeezed out of a fist. Ayumi scattered the Larrikins, (as the logos on their backs proclaimed them), like bowling pins.
The Larrikins tried to pull themselves together as a very tall blonde sporting a buckskin duster and a white Stetson literally dived off of her skip into a group of them with an ear-rattling war whoop. The rest of the Bitch Butchers piled into the Larrikins with a zest that reminded some of the on-lookers of a White Sale. The Larrikins were a group of some thirty big, brawny, ugly, smelly, stereotypical bikers, but the pretty ladies were mopping up the street with them.
Someone must have phoned this in, because after about five minutes of the Larrikins getting their backsides shellacked, four sleds and a sledge with Total Security Concepts logos on them pulled up. A squad of twelve uniformed guards climbed out of the sleds and eight riot-armored goons piled out of the sledge.
One of the uniforms pulled out a bullhorn. “ATTENTION! Attention! This is Total Security Concepts© (Total Security Concepts © We make SURE that you’re safe ®)! We have been hired to suppress this riot! Disperse now, or face the consequences!”
Julia and Kitten sped at them, squealing, “BOY TOYS!” They heterodyned their suspension fields so that the men were pushed aside, rather than plowed into. As she passed, Kitten grabbed a helmets from one of the riot goons, and put it on her head. “Is it me?”
“Oh, PLEASE!” Julia shot back, “Yellow and Black with Pink? Ew!” Kitten threw the helmet to Cleo, who didn’t like it anymore than Julia did, so she caromed it off the head of one of the Larrikins, getting it to Ayumi. The helmet- along with several others that came into play as the Bitch Butchers unhelmeted (and disarmed and disrobed) the TSC goons- became equal parts volleyball and cannonball in the hands of the Bitch Butchers.
The big redhead was having a right jolly old time doing an airplane spin with one Larrikin, using him as club on his mates, when there was the sound of a siren. The small Asian hopped up on top of a car, and gave a loud whistle. “It’s Hickcock! Someone called the REAL Cops! Playtime’s over, girls!”
The Butchers gave their playmates a last disabling set of licks, got on their skips, and scrambled like roaches when the lights are turned on. Well, except for the big blonde cowgirl, who had to be dragged off this one poor Larrikin who was trying to hide under his skip. On Chai’s hand signals, they split up and used a variety of tactics to shake pursuit, including one of them who literally drove through an enclosed mall.
They reassembled at the designated spot, and drove back to the cul-de-sac in groups of five. When everyone was back and accounted for, Chai called for a debriefing session. “Okay, all around, not bad for a run where you only had a day’s notice and no set objective. BUT-” She turned and marched over to Dallas Rogers. Dallas was almost a foot taller than Chai, but the little Thai woman still managed to overawe her “-when I say ‘Pull Out’, you Pull Out!”
Dallas started to say something, but was stopped cold when a mono-edged katana appeared, as if out of nowhere, and settled itself in the corner between her jaw and throat. “This is MY operation, understand? When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed! Immediately! Understand?”
“Clear as crystal!” Dallas answered as best she could.
With a single fluid move, Chai sheathed the glass edged blade. “Good. Aymui! Yeah, I know, you’re as smooth as oil on polished marble with that skip, but that ride through the mall was too much!”
“Hey, I hadda get away from H-A somehow!”
“Yeah, yeah. But don’t do it in a way that makes Hickcock look like a bunch of Keystone Kops next time. Use those moves of yours to make it look like you got away by the skin of your teeth, or something like that.”
“So,” Vangie drawled, “we’re working for Hickcock-America™, (Hickcock-America™, Taming the Modern West since 2032®), hunh?” She settled her trademark frameless glasses on her nose. “Total Security Concepts beat them to the scene, and we made them look like Total Weenie Klutzes- but that was the entire point now, wasn’t it?”
Chai looked at her coldly. “Y’know, Snake-eyes, it IS possible to be too clever.”
Marlo Phillips lit a cigarette. “Total Lifestyle Concepts’ usual SOP is to create some kind of ‘state of emergency’ to discredit the in situ PSP. But is that bunch of losers, the ‘Larrikins’, the best that they can come up with?”
“Nah, nah, nah,” Cleo cut in, “They’re just the opening round. Y’see, first they bring in those clowns. Then they bring in another gang of some kind, maybe a third, and they start having ‘turf battles’ all over the place, trashing the place up but good.”
“Especially the firms that would compete with the new ‘Total Retail Concepts’ or ‘Total Design Concepts’ or ‘Total Nutrition Concepts’ outlet that they’ve just moved into the area,” Wanda said. “Of course their outlet isn’t untouched. They’re just mussed up enough for them to make a big production about ‘sweeping up and standing firm’- as they scream for a Total Security Concepts presence in town.”
“And TLC-sponsored politicos start bleating about ‘getting tough on crime’,” Vangie got in again, “and pointing fingers at Hickcock-America, who for some bizarre reason, just never manage to quite BE there, when things suddenly blow up.”
“Of course, Total Security Concepts is right there!” Kitten said with radio-announcer gravitas, “Keeping the peace, enforcing the Law, kicking butt, and hauling the creeps off to the hoosegow!”
“But for some strange reason, the perps never seem to get to court.” Ayumi drawled through the cigarette dangling from her lips. “Paper work tangle, or sum’thin’. Fer some bizarre reason that just happens to get dumped in Hickcock’s lap, they always seem to skip out.”
“Further proof that Hickcock-America simply isn’t up to protecting Wauwatosa from lawless brigands like the Larrikins,” Kait jumped in. “But fortunately, TOTAL SECURITY CONCEPTS is on the scene, and more that up to the job!”
“Of course, once TSC is in place, they start muscling Hickcock out of all the other PSP contracts,” Dallas said with authority. “And once TSC controls all the PSP and security contracts in the area, then they go into Gestapo mode. First they harass chains that compete with other TLC subsidiaries- and suddenly TLC is putting up subsidiaries all over Wauwatosa- out of the market. The local independents don’t kick up too much of a fuss at first, as it means more business for them. Then, when the other big boys are run out of Wauwatosa, TSC starts putting the screws on them. Before you know it, all the major businesses in Wauwatosa are either direct TLC franchises, or TLC owns them through a series of blinds, or they exist entirely at TLC’s pleasure. Then, when they can cripple Wauwatosa’s economy, they have their tame politicos write a slate of laws, statutes and civil codes that seem all aboveboard, but effectively make Wauwatosa a TLC vassal state.”
“What?” Kitten asked with mock naiveté, “You mean that Sioux City, Biloxi, Akron and Paterson DIDN’T become full-time Bizzy Bee theme parks because everyone just thought that the TLC lifestyle was just the funnest thing EVER?” She ended with a shocked squeak.
“Be happy, or else,” Ayumi muttered.
“And Wauwatosa is linked at the hip with Milwaukee,” Cleo pointed out.
“Dear GOD!” Kait blurted out, “You mean the nation’s BEER supply is threatened?”
“Worse,” Dallas said hollowly. “We could be looking at ‘Total Beverage Concepts’ in a few years.”
“Not on MY WATCH!” Kait said melodramatically and assumed a ‘Patriotic Heroine’ stance.
Chai rolled her eyes heavenward. “There’s an old Thai saying- ‘A bear eats honey and wipes its backside with the same spoon’.”
Hard Dan, the guy who was calling the shots in the Larrikins, was tired. It has been a long, hard, and really frustrating day. He’d had five jobs on his sheet, and he’d hit each and every one of ‘em, and he’d gotten absolutely NONE of them done. Those crazy bitches had busted up one of his toughest apes. And three of his saner men had gotten themselves busted. TLC would bail them out, of course, but they’d take it out of his hide. That was the TLC way, the boss always got his pound of flesh, no matter what. The rest of the boys were tired and frustrated too. Well, at the end of a day like today, there’s only one thing that you can really do- head to the local watering hole, buy a round for the crew, and let them blow off some steam. He guided the skip pack along a raggedy little street that was mostly occupied by mealers squatting in what was left of Wauwatosa’s suburban housing, to Matt’s Grill, the gang’s favorite bar.
The Larrikins pulled their skips up in front and walked in without their trademark swaggering bravado. All they wanted was a good cold beer.
“HEY!” Hard Dan froze in sick fear at the sound of the clear female voice. Three drop-dead gorgeous babes were standing at the bar, there were another two by the jukebox, and another four by the pool table. A dainty Asian chick with a perfect Idoru face, spiky black hair and an anime-babe body swaggered up holding a big glass stein of foaming beer. “What are YOU losers doing here? Only REAL bikers can come in here!”
Hard Dan had the cold comfort of knowing that five of his boys managed to get out before the Bitch Butchers caught up with them. You know that you’ve hit bottom when you regard getting chased out of your own hang as a victory.
Ayumi looked around the campsite with a minxish smile on her face. No one was around, and Chai had given her the job of making sure that the campsite looked kosher, just in case someone did manage to find the place. And, in her expert opinion, Vangie’s site was just too freaking neat. Vangie had a tarp draped over her skip to form a tent, and she had everything neatly laid out in absolutely the proper place. REALLY! What was she trying to do, blow their cover? Ayumi reached over and skootched a crescent wrench a centimeter out of place. Not enough for anyone sane to notice, but just enough to drive Vangie bats. Hmmm... Maybe she should rig some sort of water-drop, with an untied cord as bait?
As Ayumi pondered this, Tirza poked her head out of the door of the split-level ranch-style dwelling. “HEY! Ayu! Get in here! The Reviews are in!”
Ayumi bustled into the joint living room/dining room, to where the girls were gathered in a semi-circle in front of a large sheet of demi-transparent photo-reactive polyestylene, which was tacked up to form a viewing screen almost twelve feet diagonally. There was a smell of nuked popcorn in the air, and someone shoved a pouch of beer into her hand. “Okay Vangie, everyone’s here. Hit it!”
Vangie cued the download, and the Newsbleed began. Urgent music began and the WTSA News Update™ logo flashed on the polyestylene sheet. A stock newshead looked intently into the camera. “The wave of outlaw biker terror continues unabated in Wauwatosa. Today the Abe’s Mall shopping outlet was devastated when rival factions of violent bikers carried their feud to the retail center. Exact details of the conflict are sketchy and rather contradictory, but the fight was carried into the mall’s Total Housewares Concepts© outlet. We have downloads from the outlet where security monitors picked up footage that might explain at least some of the motives for today’s rampage.”
*Panicked customers and sales personnel dive for cover as women in leathers and denim with bandanas across their faces run through the aisles with rifles, submachine guns and shotguns. One woman takes aim at a shelf displaying the THC ‘Home Total Child Safety System’. *blam!* “That’s for the ‘THC Child Protection Package’! *blam!* Pay an additional $30 a month for the ‘Advanced Protection Package’, or we’ll tell Family Services that you’re endangering your child! *Blam!* You bastards took my baby away! *blam!* The child monitoring system bursts into shards of electronics and ‘child friendly’ plastics.*
“Oohhh … Nice touch of pathos there, Molly!”
“Thank you, thank you! I’d like to thank the Academy and...”
*Another she-devil opens up with a submachine gun on the bathroom fixtures section.* “Yeah? Well THAT’S for ‘Total Housing Concepts!” *br-r-r-at!* “Just the SAME fucking price per month as renting!” *br-r-r-at!* “ ‘Oh, but you’re buying EQUITY’!” *br-r-r-at!* “Only to get kicked out a year before we closed the fucking mortgage, *br-r-r--at!* ‘Because of a fucking BALLOON PAYMENT that you jacked up 300%!”
“Not bad, Cleo. But really! Who talks equity and percentages during a deadly rampage?”
“Well, Sorry, but I just didn’t feel the bit about being sick because of their shitty gray water standards!”
“Oooggg… Poor choice of words, Cleo…”
“Nice form with the gun, though.”
*Another woman takes a fire axe to THC ‘Home HealthCare’ Modules* “And THIS is for Gramma Britney! *whack!* “You scumbags turned her into a fucking VEGETABLE, *whack!* just so you could stick one of these goddamn *whack!* ‘Home Nurse Computers’ in our house! *whack!* Cost us more than a REAL nursing home would have! *whack!* AND we hadda WATCH her turn into a rutabaga, *whack!* right in front of our eyes!”
“Okay, now THAT’S drama!”
A tall blonde woman in a fringed duster, white Stetson and red bandana across her face draws six-shooters from cross-belt holsters and begins shooting up an entire row of the very latest nano-precision definition TV sets. *Bang!* “And THAT’S for litigatin’ *Bang!* ‘Wrangler Jane,’ *Bang!* the BEST DANG Western on TV *Bang!* off the air, just ‘cause it was wipin’ up that stupid ‘Alamo Sue’ show a’yer’n in the ratings!” *Bang!*
“Dallas!” Chai snapped, “WHO in their right mind gets THAT pissed, just because a TV SHOW got cancelled?” She stopped short when she turned and saw that Dallas was openly weeping.
“Best dang Western EVER! *sniff!* And Rowdy was just getting’ ready t’ tell Wrangler Jane that he…” Dallas broke down.
Vangie cleared her throat. “Ixnay about the owshay, Chai. According to the WTSA newboard, the forums are choked with messages from outraged Wrangler Jane fans, in support of ‘the Kickass Cowgirl tellin’ it like it is’.”
Kait kicked back on the divan and looked at her bud-in-charge. “Y’know, Chai, we could do a lot better, if we KNEW what we were supposed to be DOING. I mean, how am I supposed to know my motivation, what’s supposed to be driving me to violence-”
“The opportunity?” Vangie and Ayumi sniped in perfect unison. They each then glowered at the other for stepping on ‘her’ line.
“-if I don’t know what the director wants?”
“Kait, this is a high deniability mission. If you don’t know what’s going on, then you can’t be questioned about it.”
“Questioned? What do you mean, ‘questioned’? Hey, why did I take this job?”
“Because you trust me.” Kait glowered at Chai. “And, you need the money.”
Two fun-filled days later, Vangie gave a general call-out. “Hey Guys! Get in here! The Mayor just posted a General Announcement podcast!”
As the girls filed in, Marlo asked Chai, “So, your contact say anything about what hizonner is gonna say?”
“Let’s just listen to what the political hack has to say. It might actually be interesting for a change.”
The Mayor, who like most politicos, was just handsome enough for a good visual recognition factor but not so glossily good looking to garner ‘prettyboy’ cracks, addressed the cameras. “I don’t need to tell anyone that in recent weeks, Wauwatosa has come under attack by violent biker gangs that appear to regard our city as their personal playground.
“While certain elements of the City Council have been agitating for the removal of Hickcock-America as Wauwatosa’s primary Police Service Provider, I am less than impressed by the performance of Total Security Concepts, the proposed substitute PSP, when they have dealt with these outlaws. The only way for either Hickcock-America or Total Security Concepts to cope with the Larrikins and the Bitch Butchers would be to increase their on-the-street presence to 250% over the current coverage.
“We simply cannot afford that level of increased coverage. Neither can we afford to allow rocket-propelled scofflaws to turn our streets into a war zone. While I am personally more than happy with Hickcock-America’s day-to-day performance in patrolling the streets of Wauwatosa, I believe that the Larrikin- Butcher feud falls well within the definition of a civil uprising. This allows me, in my role as Mayor, to use the Discretionary Fund and hire a special Crisis Intervention Consultant.”
“Whoa…” Molly said, “New player in the game? Any ideas, Boss?”
“Why would I know?” Chai answered.
“Paladin Enforcement™ (Paladin Enforcement © A Tradition of Courage and Excellence ®)?” Julia guessed. “Coming in and ‘saving the day’ right under TSC’s nose would be right up their alley. AND their Crisis Intervention division is pretty good.”
“Yeah, they’re good,” Dallas conceded, “but they cost mucho dinero. If the Mayor’s payin’ outta a discretionary fund for this, then he’s gonna shop around. Thar’s nothin’ like misusin’ a discretionary fund for handin’ the opposition a big whackin’ club t’beat y’on the head with.”
“What about Burke & Whitehead?©” Kait offered. “I wouldn’t put it past them to walk up to the Mayor, slap an offer on his desk and start counting out the seconds that he has left to sign up, or twist in the wind.”
“GOD, I hope so!” Vangie drawled, “I’d love another chance to make Bugfuck & Wimps look like the idiots they are!”
“Nah, this sounds like Trans-Global Security (Trans-Global Security® We WILL Be There ©) territory to me,” Margo opined. “Big, heavy-handed and crude. If it’s them, then we can expect lifting-body troop transports hovering over the town 24/7, with grunts in heavy combat armor and Mil Spec ordinance.”
“Ooohhhh …!” Kait squealed, “Does this mean that we get to upgrade from these little peashooters we got now, to something with some real DAMAGING potential?”
“Please say no, please say no, please say no,” Vangie prayed. Then she perked up. “HEY! Is THIS why we’re really here? Drumming up business for the Myrmidons?”
The Mayor continued. “Surveying the initial offers of the capture contracts, the projected collateral damage budgets, and the track records of the bidding firms, I have made my decision.”
“I got five on Bozos & Wimps!”
“Ten on TGS!”
“Five on Paladin!”
“Five on the Mims!”
“We have signed Justice Unlimited™ to a special Single-Purpose contract to end the Biker Feud, and bring peace to the streets of Wauwatosa. Both Hickcock-America and Total Security Concepts have been instructed to not engage the Larrikins, the Bitch Butchers, or any other gang that might decide to join in this turf war. And now, it is my extreme pleasure to introduce the Field Officer in charge of this effort, Special Agent Adam Ironknife!”
The Erinyes paused in their betting and gaped open-mouthed at the screen. After a stunned pause, Kitten blurted out, “JUSTICE UNLIMITED?” The rest of the Erinyes broke up in hysterical laughter.
“What?” Cleo giggled, “The Legion of Superheroes weren’t available?”
Ayumi looked puzzled at the screen. “Justice Unlimited? Who the hell is Justice Unlimited? And who picked such a pussy-ass name for them?”
Vangie put the podcast on hold. “Where have you been, Yumi? JU is all over the place!”
“Maybe, but apparently not out in the badlands! I just got back in the office when you put out the cattle call, remember?”
“Vangie, surf for a JU ad!” Kitten insisted. “Oh, Yumi, you GOTTA SEE THIS!”
“Just a sec- here we are.”
The mayor’s frozen visage dwindled down to an inset, and a more dramatic image filled the screen. A genteel suburb-clave was being overrun by grubby generic thug types. The elderly assaulted. Children snatched. Houses burned. Property Values declined. “JUSTICE UNLIMITED,” intoned a melodramatic voice. “Police are overworked and understaffed. Conventional Police Service Providers care only about their bottom line-”
“Yes, and your point IS?”
“So, who can you depend on in a time of crisis, to BE THERE when the going gets tough?”
“JUSTICE UNLIMITED!” Most of the Erinyes shouted along with the announcer.
Figures in modified Royal Canadian Mounties uniforms stormed into the scene of rampant chaos. “Justice Unlimited is an elite corps of highly trained crisis intervention specialists, devoted to the cause of peace, harmony and decency!” The multi-ethnic, culturally diverse, red-coated paladins scattered the generic pug-uglies, restoring peace and sanity to the ravaged scene. “Justice Unlimited offers Crisis Intervention at rates that small municipalities, even groups of concerned private citizens can afford, because,” one of the Justice Unlimited men, a guy who was a hair away from being an obvious male model, turned to the camera and filled in. “Because, at Justice Unlimited, Justice is our bottom line!” the Erinyes joined in with him, and broke up.
Ayumi looked aghast at the screen, her mouth wide open. “You. Have. GOT. To be. SHITTING. Me.”
“Nope!” Vangie said with relish. “They just hit the scene three weeks ago, and since then, they’ve been all over the place, especially on the Net. According to their precis, they operate on some sort of ‘Social Holism’ principle, figuring that if people have some sort of sterling example to look to, then the overall tenor of society improves.”
“ ‘Sterling example’?” Ayumi scoffed. “That sounded more like an ad for a Kid-Vid adventure series!”
“Nobody knows what the scam is, but it’s gotta be a doozy!” Kitten said.
“You mean people are taking that seriously?” Ayumi said incredulously.
“Hey, all I know is that every so often, there’s a newsblurb about Justice Unlimited riding to the rescue. The News scum love them- or at least they will until they get bored and start looking for a way to rip them apart.”
The girls were whooping it up on their way back to the cul-de-sac after making TSC look like complete idiots again, when Chai suddenly signaled for a ‘break-and-capture- pursuers’ maneuver in a cul-de-sac about a mile away from base. A few minutes after the ‘Bitch Butchers’ pulled into the cul-de-sac, a second group on skips drove in. A group of five skips pulled ahead, while the rest stayed at the bottleneck of the street, presumably to block any attempt at escape.
Everyone on the skips was female, wearing Bitch Butchers colors. The ones driving the skips were all big, tough-looking hard-edged women; the ones riding bitch all looked like third-string models, the types that got catalogue work and car shows, and not much else. Chai leaned over the handlebars of her skip and purred, “Gee… NICE LOOK, ladies…”
The probable leader swung her leg off the skip and scowled at them. “WE… are the Bitch Butchers… We was down in Gary, when we heard that some bunch’a scraggly losers was draggin’ our good name through the mud up in this bugfuck burg.” The massive bull-dagger tellingly smacked her fist into the palm of her other hand. “You bitches better have a good explanation fer this, or yer gonna get BUTCHERED!”
Chai let out a gusty sigh. “Do it.”
Five minutes later, the Erinyes had finished off the *ahem!* ‘Bitch Butchers’ and their TSC backup. “Well, that was amusing,” Cleo said as she checked the faux-Bitch Butchers’ skips, weapons and clothing for tracking transponders.
“Barely,” Kait and Dallas said in near-unison.
“True!” Chai said brightly as she rummaged through the TSC backup ramrod’s stuff. “So, let’s turn up the amusement knob a little, shall we?” She pulled out a Personal Telecommunications Node, looked through the directory and found a single number. There was probably an incendiary self-destruct chip built into it. She hit speed-dial, and waited for the call to bounce through the protocols. “Hello!” she said brightly when the call went through. “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking? I think that we have a few things that we need to talk about. Face to face.”
Eight hours later, in the deserted ‘Highland Park’ suburban tract, Dylan Carver, the regional director for Total Security Concepts stepped out of his armored skopter in the middle of the agreed-on cul-de-sac. He was a thickset, bullnecked man who hadn’t bothered to have his receding hairline adjusted. He walked right up to Chai and got right to the point. “What will it take to get you people to go away?”
Chai gazed at him dispassionately. She pointedly produced an open-air anti-surveillance device and turned it on. “You’re Dylan Carver, regional director for TSC. You moved into your position five months ago. You spent ten years in the TSC ‘Reconnaissance’ division, which is your corporate euphemism for ‘Dirty Tricks and Industrial Sabotage’. You’re currently quartered at suite #24-A at the Seljuk Security Suites, as TSC doesn’t have a compound here. Yet. You’re trying to force out the occupants of your chosen site, and they’re being unreasonable.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“No, you’re supposed to figure out that if you pull that nifty little back-stab that’s bouncing around in the back of that little pin head of yours, you’re dead, your wife is dead, your secretary is dead and your mistress is dead. Or, maybe I just tell your secretary about your mistress.”
“I consider myself mortally threatened. What do you want?”
“Five months ago, Hickcock-America shut down a local firm that was laundering money for a Chicago mob and the DA RICO’d all their holdings. Currently, Police Evidence Inventory Lot #12G873V14/ag- do you need me to repeat that?- has been gathering dust in the Wauwatosa PD Evidence Locker.
“If you hand over Lot #12G873V14/ag to us, we will have better things to do than burn down the Total Amusement Concepts ‘Bizzy Burg’ theme park currently under construction, which is using substandard materials and should burn quite nicely.”
Carver gave Chai the cold fish glare. “And if we don’t?”
“A man who has 15,000 tons of unprocessed toxic industrial waste stored in the basement levels of his local Total Childcare Concepts outlet shouldn’t be making ‘take your best shot’ noises. If that goes up, not even your stooges Lawrence, Carlin, and Morris would be able to gloss over the stink.”
Carver still glared at Chai like a snake considering its prey. Then he gave his answer: “No.”
“No?” Chai echoes. “Okay, girls, we’ve had a hard day- let’s go to Bizzy Burg!”
“I can NOT justify exposing Total Lifestyles Concepts to that sort of risk,” Carver said stolidly. “Not just to be rid of trash like you. HOWEVER-”
“There’s always a ‘however’,” Chai said lightly.
“Your activities in Wauwatosa have badly undermined TLC’s credibility in the region. However, if you were to… recompense us…”
“Recompense? You want us to write you a check?”
“I merely ask that the obviously very competent Bitch Butchers do us a few… favors… Things that would balance out the harm that you’ve done us, things that we couldn’t do ourselves as it would… reflect badly… upon the TLC Way of Life.”
“In other words, you want us to do your dirty work, so’s you don’t gotta track the mud in on your own carpet.”
“It will look better all around, if the Bitch Butchers don’t just mysteriously pull up stakes and leave town without any explanation,” Carver insisted. “But, if they pull a few jobs here in town, then it looks like all the hell-raising was just a smokescreen as you were getting to know the layout of the area. Our TSC forces will make token efforts to stop you, so when you finally do leave, we’ve recouped some of that public standing that you’ve cost us.”
Chai licked her teeth and made a dissatisfied sound with her tongue. “You want a lot, Mr. Man. Just remember, if you try to stick it to us, we do know where you live.”
“Do we have a deal?”
“Yeah, we got a deal. So, waddya want us to trash for you?”
Friedlinde Conroy gave the wide, cheery grin that suited her wholesome Wisconsin milkmaid good looks so well, and steeled herself to do the part of her job that she loathed with a passion. “Good Morning children! Welcome to the Crystal Stream© municipal waste recycling plant!” From there, she went on to explain to the 3rd Grade kids from the Happy Hive Educational Outlet™ (a branch of Total Educational Concepts™- ‘Because A Mind Is a Wonderful Thing to Build’!©) how earlier in the century, Gomez Kemp figured out that the one thing that humanity would never run out of was shit. He started off by building a plant that fed worms and maggots on municipal sewage, sold the freeze-dried ‘meat’ to farms for livestock feed, and from there proceeded to George Washington Carver the hell out of human waste.
Currently, the Wauwatosa plant subjected the effluvia of the county to no less than 358 separate and distinct biological, chemical, electrochemical, nanite and thermal processes, each of which managed to wring every possible cent of profit from the unthinkable muck, before rendering it down into a mass that was 21% of its initial volume, which was sold as a safe, sanitary, and highly nitrated fertilizer. Friendlinde knew this. She realized that this was a near-textbook example of the ‘Enlightened Capitalism’ that had been all the rage some 30 years before, which dealt with society’s problems in ways that made things better for everyone, while turning a profit. She knew that it was far better to treat Wauwatosa’s sewage this way than just dumping it in the river or lake water. What she hated was that these tours forcibly reminded her that some of the hundreds of byproducts of this plant were dyes, lubricants, stabilizers and preservatives that were used in her favorite cosmetics. She was very good at not thinking about where her meat, eggs, milk and indeed most of her food came from; she really HATED being reminded that she had faint traces of someone’s shit on her lips.
For his part, Octavian ‘Pip’ Densch (age: 9, 3rd Grade, Happy Hive Educational Outlet™, Average Grade: C, ‘Has Problems Concentrating’) wasn’t much enjoying his day much either. Okay, it was cool that he got out of regular classes- I mean, how many ‘bee dance’ socialization exercises can you DO?- but this stanky dump wasn’t much better. It was like all the dump Happy Hive field trips, all ‘you too can grow up to be a brain-dead suck-up and contribute to the community, if you eat all your vegetables and buy TLC products!’ Hey, what was the big deal, all there was, was pipes and vats and… oh, KEWL! Maggots!
Pip watched as scoops full of gross writhing pale white were dug out of the oozing crap where they had been eating and growing for four days. The tour had just gotten a lot more interesting. He broke from the group and watched as the wriggling things were washed and freeze-dried. Maybe there was something really gross!
Friedlinde Conroy did her level best not to snarl. This was the part of her job that she truly loathed. She skittered over to where the boy was leaning over the railing. “Shouldn’t you be getting back with your class, little boy?”
The little boy, who was just old enough to get really cheesed-off at being called ‘little boy’, didn’t even turn around as he showed off exactly how mature his vocabulary was. Friedlinde kept her professional smile firmly pasted to her face and professionally refrained from showing the little booger precisely why she was the terror of her cul-de-sac growing up. Instead, she endured the expected barrage of contra-logic and skewed verbal abuse that she usually got when she had a class of school kids come through. Of course, Friedlinde had to put up with at least one of these little PITAs on every tour.
However, she DIDN’T have to cope with riders on skips bursting through the maintenance corridors, screaming like a bunch of herniated banshees and starting to tear up the place! “NO!” she shouted, “Not the Stage Seven fungus! No! You don’t understand! If the Stage Seven fungus mixes with the Stage Twenty nanites-”
“KEWL!” Pip enthused as the huge vat erupted into a cloud of vile-looking smoke.
Then one of the riders got his skip up onto the catwalk and paused as he looked at the assembled. Even through the draping long coat and fully concealing helmet, you could sense his confusion. A muffled voice asked, “What the He- heck are these kids doing here?”
“Field Trip,” Friedlinde explained in what she hoped spelled out the bleedin’ obvious.
“HEADS UP!” The rider bellowed. “There’s-”
But before he could say anything more, the double doors of the emergency entrance burst open to reveal a group of five persons in distinctive red tunics and black trousers. “STOP!” the leader, a tall, barrel-chested vision of First Nations manhood blared in a tone that managed to be both completely clear and totally commanding. “This installation is now under the direct protection of JUSTICE UNLIMITED! Cease your vandalism, step down off your skips, and surrender NOW!”
A voice from nowhere muttered, “Oh, you gotta be kiddin’ me…”
“HEY!” the rider blurted, “There are KIDS here!”
“Justice Unlimited will NOT allow innocent children to be used as hostage! Team! Code 73!”
The Justice Unlimited team burst into action. Friedlinde dragged Pip over to the relative safety of the rest of the class, where the entire group was immediately encased in a protective memory plastic bubble by one of the JU agents. From there, she lost track of the fight as Justice Unlimited quickly put the raiders’ skips out of commission long enough for them to begin taking them out one at a time. The fight was fast and furious, and the sewage works were out of commission for at least a week, but Justice Unlimited managed to keep the damage down, and sent the raiders packing as soon as their skips’ coils were back on line. Justice Unlimited got tons of good air from it, Friedlinde got a bonus and a paid week’s vacation for her bravery, and Pip Densch conceived a new passion for chemistry, which earned him the new nickname ‘Stench’.
“LOOK,” Chai screamed into the PTN that was scramble linked to Carver, “we took out as much of Crystal Springs’ plant as we could while we were fighting a pack of frickin’ Mounties, so your ‘Total Recycling Concepts’ team should be able to do something with that. But what *I* wanna know, is what the FUCK a bunch of freaking school kids were doing there, just when we were set to go in?”
[Look, ‘Oni’,] Carver screeched back, [How am I supposed to know when some cut-rate, shoestring Chit School decides that taking a bunch of snot-nosed kids into an idiotic Sewer is a good idea?]
“ ‘Cut-rate’? ‘Shoestring’?” Chai echoed. “Yeah, that fits. It was a ‘Happy Hive’ class, which as memory serves, is a wholly own subsidiary of Total Education Concepts, isn’t it?”
[It WAS?] Carver paused. [I’m a Regional Director. I don’t bother with things like individual section schedules. But the REAL point is-]
“The real point is, that we’ve done your little favor for you. Okay, Aladdin, that’s wish number one. What’s wish number two for Total Genie Concepts?”
[I don’t like your tone]
“And I don’t like your after-shave. So, just give us our next mission. Uh-hunh,” Chai nodded as Carver spelled it out. “Can do. Oh, and ‘Massa’- I have ways of checking on lot #12G873V14/ag. I’d better find out that that lot has ‘mysteriously vanished’ from the Wauwatosa PD evidence locker when we finish this.” Chai shut the PTN and glowered at it. “Sleazebag.”
“Hey, Chai!” Ayumi called from where she, Cleo and Vangie were working on the skips.
“What is it?” Chai asked as she stalked over to the machines.
“Those EMP grenades that those Justice Unlimited assholes really did a number on our suspension coils. This one here is, like, SHOT. No more riding lightning for this poor baby.”
“Not that that would be a good idea anyway.” Vangie said. “Weather Service reports that a storm front’s coming this way.”
“So, we’ll use those POS skips that those TSC bimbos rode in on,” Chai said matter-of-factly.
“You’re kidding!” Ayumi bleated. “They’re complete and utter SHIT!”
“Hey, Chai,” Cleo cut in. “Where the HELL did those Justice Unlimited goons come from?”
Chai shrugged. “How would I know? Maybe they turned on the Bat-signal.”
Cleo massaged her chin. “I don’t know where they came from, but they sure as hell don’t hit like a bunch of PR models. That blonde was damn fast!”
“Look at the bright side,” Ayumi grumped. “At least they didn’t lecture us on Good Citizenship.”
“So, in other words,” Vangie summed up, “no matter how goofy their marketing strategy, at least they put the best boots they can find on the ground.”
“Hey, they can’t be making that much on this contract,” Marlo offered. “If we run into them again on this contract, maybe we can just grease our way out of it.”
“Where’s the fun in THAT?” Dallas bleated.
Vangie let out a groan at the thought of having to buy out of an arrest. “Ah, MAN, why did I take this stupid gig?”
“GREED?” Ayumi said with a snide grin.
It was bucketing down rain in the sort of sudden drenching that people were getting all too used to. Cursing and muttering, the two women wrestled the heavy soda-chest sized container through the door. As soon as they cleared the door and stood up straight, they were pinned by a glaring light. “STAND RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE! DON’T MOVE! YOU’RE UNDER ARREST!”
“What?” the blonde said as she shielded her eyes from the glare.
Figures in heavy body armor erupted from the darkness, with PASes drawn. “STAND RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE!” the voice boomed again.
“Dude, we haven’t moved.”
“What’s the beef?” the black chick with the long curling black hair asked, her hands in the air.
Before the voice behind the spotlight could answer, more figures, these ones in Justice Unlimited uniform burst into the room with weapons drawn. “No one move!”
“Whoa, déjà vu,” the blonde said.
The first group whipped around creating an armed standoff. “Back off! This is a Total Security Concepts bust!”
“This is an I.G. Pfinson (IG Pfinson™ We Know What’s Good For You ®) installation! TSC has no jurisdiction here!”
“HEY! WE caught these two breaking in-”
“WHAT BREAK IN?” The blonde yelled. “We rang the frickin’ bell, and there was no answer! The door was open!”
“So that gives you a right to steal vital immunology supplies that are slated to be distributed to school children?” The TSC honcho snapped.
“Whaddya mean ‘steal’?” the black chick said setting into an aggrieved pose. “We were bringing it BACK! See? It’s wet from the rain! We found it by the side of the road, and brought it back here!”
“Oh, please! And I suppose that you brought it here out of the sheer goodness of your heart!”
“No,” the blonde said in the voice of tried patience, “there’s a five hundred nubuck reward for returning it. See? It’s right here on the side: ‘If found, please return to I. G. Pfinson, this address. $500 Reward’.” She looked around. “Hey, where’s the counter staff? I mean it’s past Nine, but there should be someone here!”
The Justice Unlimited people shifted their cover. “Yes, where IS the counter staff?”
The TSC honcho said stiffly, “We picked up a bulletin that a container of vaccines that were vital to the Wauwatosa Public Health Department’s schools immunization plan had been stolen. As per SOP, we moved in and began an investigation.”
“A general bulletin authorizes all Providers to pursue leads OUTSIDE the crime scene. We are here pursuing information that this was a Bitch Butcher raid.”
“It WAS, and here two of them are!” The TSC honcho pointed at the two women.
“Did you just call me a bitch?” the black chick said dangerously.
“And we would have gotten some ANSWERS out of them by now if you hadn’t butted in!” the TSC honcho continued, the timber of his voice rising.
“You haven’t answered the Question, WHERE is the counter staff?” the strapping JU honcho continued.
The bristling encounter was interrupted when a man in battered TSC gear staggered out of the back. “They got it!” he gasped. “The proto-neural cultures! They got ‘em!”
“The Bitch Butchers!”
“Damn! You were a distraction, you bi-” the TSC honcho started. But when he turned around to complete the accusation, he was speaking at thin air. The two women were gone, and the four TSC goons who had been at the door were laid out unconscious. He turned to his men and screamed, “Pursuit with Intent, Code: 32!” the men boiled out of the room as the vacuum bubbles on several skopters whined into existence- and promptly shorted out explosively. “DAMMIT! We would’a had ‘em, if you-” the honcho turned to face the Justice Unlimited team, but they were gone as well.
Vangie gave a whistle-code for ‘incoming friendlies’ from her perch under a tarp atop one of the strategically placed tract houses. Chai and Vangie had a terse whistle-code conversation in which Chai asked if she was absolute sure, Vangie said that yes, she was sure, and then Chai sent Molly ‘Eagle-eyes’ up to check, JIC. Vangie broke the chain of whistle-code with a loud Bronx cheer.
In order to get ahead, most Erinyes try to find something that they’re very good at. Vangie was renowned as an uncanny shot. Ayumi was a phenomenal pilot. Cleo was the local Breaking & Entry maven. Nobody could work an interview like Marlo could, especially if the bunny was a middle-aged man. Kait was the resident ‘big boom’ expert. Chai was just plain deadly. And Molly was justly hailed for having a pair of eyes that could spot a black cat in a coal bin at midnight from a half-mile away. Molly whistled out ‘Multiple bogies/high fliers/ low and slow approach/North by Northwest vector/ estimate three ships/ possible forward recon drones.’
In response, Chai let out a shrill ‘hey, lissen up people, I’m only gonna say this ONCE!’ whistle and erupted in a flurry of hand-jive. As Cleo and Marlo rode up, the camp was bustling in breaking to leave in a screaming hurry. Only, instead of lots of noise and tripping over things and getting in each other’s way, it was eerily silent, and the girls were cooperating with the fluid grace of circus performers, despite the impeding rain. Kait and Tirza assembled some things from bits of pipe and so on and handed off to Julia as each was finished. Julia inserted kitbashed EMP RPGs into the ‘zip-rifles’ as they were tossed to her. She tossed them over to Wanda as soon at they were prepped, and Wanda threw them up to Vangie, who was scanning the approach with a sniper rifle with her left hand as she absently held out her right hand for the RPGs.
As soon as the third RPG was safely by her side, Vangie set her right hand to the sniper rifle and started tracking the trash-can-lid appearing JU recon drones as the entered Bulrush Court to do a preliminary scan of that cul-de-sac. It was a little tricky, but she managed to pot the lead drone in a nice approximation of an amateur in the cul-de-sac taking out the easiest target first. She took out two more drones, and then thumbed the side of the gable roof with her fist. She dropped the sniper rifle, which Wanda caught and chucked over to Kait, who disassembled it and packed it away with the proper mix of speed and precision.
The ‘Bitch Butchers’ were almost completely packed away, and Kait was planting the evidence elimination charges when three JU APC sledges got into formation for an ‘insertion against armed defense’ posture into Bulrush Court. As the sledges advanced, Vangie pulled the kit-bashed RPGs closer to her and carefully ‘popped’ the vacuum ‘bubbles’ of the sledges, causing them to crash into each other. The rear doors of the sledges burst open, and five-man teams rushed out in close formation. Mollie let out the whistle for ‘they got us pegged’.
The ‘Bitch Butchers’ scattered on their skips, except for the Last Second Charlies (Kait, Molly and Vangie) who were still setting the charges. Molly heard something and nudged Vangie, even though she never took her eyes from the demolitions packet that she was setting on the inoperable skip that she was helping Kait with. Vangie whirled around, drew her gun, and knocked three JU jump-pack troopers out of the air with as many bullets, all in one fluid motion. That did nothing for the JU boots that used their jump packs to charge through the dilapidated fences separating the yards from each other.
The fight was short and fierce, and Kait, Molly and Vangie were definitely getting the worst of it. That they were wearing only biker leathers, while the JU agents had Hazard: 3 body armor worked into their colorful uniforms was part of, but hardly all of it. The three Erinyes were highly trained hand-to-hand combatants, but the JU boots were at least as good, they had the Erinyes outnumbered, and they were using very sophisticated coordinated combat maneuvers. Justice Unlimited had the Erinyes reeling, when Linda zipped through at top speed, picking up Molly on the fly. Then Tirza picked up Kait, and Ayumi snagged Vangie in the same way, each going in a different direction.
“Search and Clear!” Agent Ironknife snapped. He reached for his communicator to tell overwatch to try and track the fleeing Bitch Butchers, but he cut that off as the first of the demo packets ignited the built-up methane in the sewers under the cul-de-sac. His first priority was getting his people to safety, and making sure that none of them unnecessarily endangered themselves trying to drag evidence clear of the cascading blasts.
“WHHOOO!! Look at YOU!” Ayumi said with sadistic relish as she examined the bruises on Vangie’s face. “Sit still for a moment, I wanna get a camera and save this for posterity!” Vangie just cradled an ice pack against her jaw and flipped Ayumi off.
“You okay, Kait?” Chai asked of her strapping friend.
Kait cradled her ribs and said, “Ain’t nuthin’ I haven’t gotten from a friendly bar fight that got outta hand. I’m okay, Chai.”
“Where’s everyone else?” Molly asked as Cleo gingerly applied some medication to a cut.
“I sent them away,” Chai answered. “We only have one more hoop to jump through for Carver. Hickcock, Wauwatosa PD, TSC and JU are all looking for us, so keeping twenty-five girls under wraps is going to be too hard to pull off. So, I’m trimming the group down to five, which should be enough to pull off whatever Carver throws at us, but still throw off any search parameters they might be using. Molly, take that skip and head for these coordinates.” Chai handed Molly a map. “Ayumi, Cleo, Kait and Vangie will stay behind with me and finish up.”
“What?” Vangie asked in the voice of dread. “You, Boom-boom AND Yummie? What, you think that Carver’s gonna ask you to reduce Wauwatosa to a smoldering heap of rubble?”
“What’sa matta, Snake-eyes?” Ayumi jeered. “Scared?”
“This, from a woman whose specialty in trade is running away,” Vangie returned with an acidulous grin.
Dylan Carver didn’t really live at the Seljuk Security Suites. That was just where he parked his current trophy wife. He really lived at the suites that TLC kept in the Johnson building. On the other hand, it would look bad if he slept at the office. Besides, if you have to pay for the upkeep of a trophy wife, you might as well get some good out of her. He slogged through the security to get into the Seljuk, to the elevator, off the elevator onto his floor, and into his suite. Once in his suite, he called for Dolores, his wife, and started his winding-down ritual. After pummeling the punching bag about a hundred times, he turned on some hot jazz (a wonderful antidote to the syrupy pabulum that Total Entertainment Concepts crammed into the muzak), and fixed himself a stiff drink. He waited for a moment for the alcohol to enter his bloodstream, and then he triggered a sex performance enhancer inhaler into one nostril. He waited a moment for it to kick in, and savored the rush as it hit his bloodstream.
Yes! There was nothing like a little rough sex to take the edge off a stressful week. But he liked his mistress Oriel too much to do that with her, and as for Vera, his secretary? Hell, he could always find another trophy wife, but a competent and loyal secretary was worth her weight in gold! Bucked up, Carver strutted into the bedroom, where a figure with long golden blonde hair was curled up under the covers. He ‘playfully’ slapped on the bottom through the covers. “Wakey-wakey! Time to earn your keep!”
He whipped the covers off her, but instead of a cringing little morsel in a nightgown, there was a strapping woman in biker’s denims. “You BEAST!” she squealed, “How DARE you?” Carver barely had time to even register this as she nailed him with a palm-strike to the nose. As he reeled, she kicked him in the midsection, and persons unseen came up on other side and laid him flat out on the floor.
When Carver managed to focus again, he was rolled up in the comforter, unable to use his arms or legs, face down in the carpet. He could just make out a pair of boots standing right in front of him. “There were a few complications on the IG Pfinson job,” he heard ‘Oni’s’ voice said in a frigid tone.
“I _said_ that there would be token attempts by TSC squads to capture you. It was understood that they wouldn’t be informed that you were working for us, and that you’d have to get away on your own.”
“That’s NOT what I was talking about,” she said testily. “The lot number that you gave us wasn’t for. Instead of an Alzheimer’s Treatment prototype, we found a shipment of vaccines earmarked for the local public school district’s immunization program. Y’know, for a company that’s supposed to be all about the family, you seem to have a yen for putting kids in harm’s way. What would Bizzy Bee say?” she finished in a mocking tone.
“You checked the container?”
“Of course we checked the container!”
“How very… professional…”
Carver felt a cold, very sharp edge just under the corner of his jaw. “Look, the only reason- and I _do_ mean _only_ reason- that I don’t just lop off your ball peen head right here and now, is that my sources inform me that Lot #12G873V14/ag has been removed from the Police evidence locker. Good for you. If, after going through all of this, we’d had to break into the Police compound on top of killing you and your entire family, we’d have been PISSED. _But_, just to be sure- you DO have Lot #12G873V14/ag, right?”
“Of course we do.”
“Goooddd…” Oni purred. “Here’s the proof that we have OUR part of the deal.” She dropped a plastic unit bottle in front of his face. “Okay, we’re going into endgame here, so what say that we limit the chances for creative double-crossery a bit, hmmm? We have the IG Pfinson shipment. You have Lot #12G87V14/ag. What say we take care of your third job, and hand over whatever it is and the IG Pfinson lot at the same time?”
“That wasn’t the agreement,” Carver grated.
“Actually, our agreement was rather vague,” ‘Oni’ responded calmly. “This way, we get it all over with at once, and we can get out of each other’s hair. OR, if you don’t like that, I can just kill you here and now, and torture Lawrence, Carlin or Morris for it.” Carver twitched in reaction, but settled down. “Alright, I’ll take that as an ‘okey-dokey’. Well then! What’s our next assignment, big boss-man?”
“I’ll call you with the details.”
“I thought that I said that I wanted this over quickly.”
“Very well, in my briefcase-”
“Pshyeah, right! TELL us. Right now.” She joggled the edge of the knife against his throat.
Carver growled. “Okay, okay! We have a man undercover inside a local branch of one of the competition. Very delicate, Ultimate Discretion Mandatory. He’s been there for years. We need to debrief him. We need you to bring him in without compromising his cover. Under the circumstances, a snatch for ransom would be the perfect cover for the debriefing. We know that for the past three years, he’s had a regular tryst at the Xanadu Fantasy Suites, the local ‘no-tell motel’, suite 14, from 10 PM to 11PM on Wednesday nights.”
“And you know about this HOW?”
“It’s SOP for deep penetration missions. Always leave a method of for getting in touch, something slightly unseemly, but not blackmail worthy.”
“And why don’t you just send somebody to talk to him?”
“He’s watched too carefully. Indeed, we suspect that that woman that he’s seeing may be his minder. Also, thanks to YOU wonderful people, the opposition smells blood in the water. We can’t spare anyone who can be trusted with the knowledge of who he is.”
“And you trust us?”
Carver stiffened with rage. “As a matter of fact, NO. Part of the cost of this will be that our man be delivered to us with a Hostage Hood on, which will be placed on him in the dark, so that you don’t know who he is. And YES, we have ways of knowing that beforehand.”
“So, we put this pig in your poke and deliver him to you, sight unseen, and you give us Lot #12G87V14/ag?”
‘Oni’ gave a half-sigh, half-snarl of annoyance. “This deal sucks. But I’m guessing that it’s the best that we’re gonna get out of you without committing Felonious Mayhem on elected officials. Let’s haul, girls.” The knife remained at Carver’s throat for a minute or two, and then withdrew. When Carver extricated himself from the comforter, the only sign that anyone had been there was his wife with a sedative patch on her throat.
“This stinks like the Basin at low tide,” Ayumi grumped as they scouted the Xanadu Fantasy Suites locale. “That bastard Carver’s asking us to commit Kidnapping! Even if it’s not a capitol offense anymore, Kidnapping’s still an ‘A’ Felony. And the bit with the Hostage Hood only makes it worse.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, I’m with Ayumi on this one,” Vangie said. “Getting our hands dirty on a job is one thing, this is entirely another.”
“Well, someone wake up the Pope!” Ayumi jeered. “A miracle has happened! The blind girl sees the bloody obvious!”
“Zip it, you two,” Chai said in a flat, unamused tone. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Ah, Chai?” Vangie asked. “Is this like the time that you ‘knew what you were doing’ when you chucked a bomb down the shaft of an elevator, almost destroying the foundation of the hotel that you were in?”
“That was a tactically sound maneuver for the situation.”
“Oh God,” Vangie and Ayumi whimpered in unison.
Unlike many ‘no-tell motels’, the Xanadu Fantasy Suites didn’t rely on isolation or the discretion of the community to keep its clientele anonymous. Rather, the Xanadu was almost flush against three other very busy businesses and catty-corner to two more, and they all used the same concealed parking garage. This allowed the patrons of the motel to enter and leave without implicitly admitting that they’d been there.
Cleo had the layout for the local power grid and pointed to a node a bit off to the side. “Our best bet for bagging him is to take out the power, go in the dark with IR goggles, grab him quick and fast, and get out. Nice and simple. If we get too elaborate, we start tripping up under sit-com complications. Taking out the power node for just this building or this block is a little too obvious. But, if we take out this node right over here-” she pointed to a utility box off to one side, “we can black out an irregular area here, here, here, here, and here,” she pointed at various regions which included the Xanadu, “and do the job without causing anything more than a few minutes convenience for some people.”
“Very good,” Chai said with a nod. “How much damage will you have to do to the utility box?”
Cleo shook her head. “No damage. Any sabotage will be investigated, and no matter what Carver says, it will be investigated like a kidnapping. This can’t even be clean, it has to be sterile. I’ll use an inductive overloader to trip the fuses; there’s no way in hell they can trace that.”
Vangie raised an eyebrow. “An overloader? Won’t the box be rigged with some kind of condition evaluator and an automatic reset?”
“Yeah, but it will take at least ten minutes for the evaluator to examine the box and okay a reset.”
Chai looked at the layout. “As I see it, our big problem is that since we don’t know who he IS, we have no way of checking on when he’ll be there or who he’ll be with. Him and his cuddle-buddy, that’s a given, and I think that we can safely assume at least one bodyguard and let’s make allowances for at least one flunky of some kind. If he’s important enough to warrant a bimbo-slash-minder, he’ll probably have a gofer-slash-minder as well. So, how do we tell who’s our bunny?”
“Oh, that’s simple,” Kait said in an ‘it’s obvious’ tone. “He’ll be the one doing the horizontal mambo with Miss Bimbo-slash-minder.”
“Good call, Kait!”
“Yeah,” Cleo allowed, “but how are we gonna use it? I mean, in order to use that, we’d have to catch them in flagrante delicto, and these suites are designed to prevent that.”
“Not a problem,” Kait continued. “He’ll be the one who isn’t fully dressed. I mean, the Xanadu is a ‘fantasy suite’ place, right? That means that he’s got a regular kink that he’s working out. Now, he’s not gonna want to get his freak on in front of the people that he WORKS with- I mean, how awkward can you get? So, they’re gonna be in the sitting room or whatever, while he and his rent-a-honey get nasty in the hidden part of the suite, playing ‘Naughty Schoolboy and Sexy Teacher.”
“Good point,” Ayumi nodded. “Okay, who are you really, and what have you done with Kait Marksbury?”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Boom-boom,” Vangie said as she powered up her purse-top computer. “I mean, places like this usually just have some silly, over-the-top décor like ‘Arabian Knights’ or ‘Roman Decadence’. And it says here that room 14 is a… ooooggg…” Vangie carefully closed her purse-top and said with forced brightness, “Okay, let’s go with that!”
Chai shot Vangie a glare and said, “Then we wait for about a half-hour for Mr. X to relax and get into it. Kait, Vangie and I will enter the building via the roof from this building over here. Ayumi will wait outside with her bike. Once Kait, Vangie and I are in the building, Cleo will trip the utility box. Once the lights are out, we go in. Ayumi will move her bike to just outside this service exit here. Yumi, make sure that door stays clear, no matter what. Kait will secure this stairwell, which goes out to the service exit that Ayumi will be covering. Kait, ditto: keep that stairwell clear and open. Vangie and I will go in with tasers, using IR flashlights. Vangie will take out anyone in the outer room, and I’ll secure our bunny. We take him out this corridor, which has no security cameras, IR filter or otherwise, then down the stairwell that Kait will be holding, and hand him off to Ayumi. Ayumi heads off lickety-split to the van, which will be waiting for us, over here, three blocks away in this blacked-out area. Once you get him there, Yumi, just secure him and wait for us. Period. The rest of us will walk there and wait for the lights to come back on. Remember, we want this to be clean- the only evidence there to be that we nabbed Mr. X at all, is the fact that he’s not there.” And that was all there was that had to be said.
Chai, Vangie and Kait were on the roof of the Xanadu when the power went out. They moved to the door down from the roof, but waited as Chai kept an intent watch on her stopwatch. Then they heard the single *blip!* on the right frequency that said that Cleo was clear and heading to the van. “Okay , we have nine minutes, 45 seconds to completethis, starting- NOW!”
· 585- Enter building
· 565- Kait holds door
· 561- Vangie and Chai find room 14
· 529- Kick open locked door
· 526- Take out two bodyguards. Vangie deals with flunky trying to speed-dial.
· 484- Chai copes with minder
· 457- Bind bunny with Hostage Mask
· 347- Out door, cope with guy with flashlight
· 305- Misunderstanding at door, Kait was holding it against people trying to use the stairs
· 265- Down stairs, hostage is clumsy
· 212- Out door
· 203- Load bunny on Ayumi’s bike
· 198- Chai checks time. “Three minutes and eighteen seconds to spare. Not bad, but no bonuses.”
The weather hadn’t gotten any better, and Chai had had to reroute her call to Carver a couple of times to get through the electrical interference. Chai rejected the first three suggestions for the location of the pickup, but agreed on the fourth location. “You have ten minutes to get there Carver, and don’t give me any guff about the short notice. If you aren’t here with Lot #12G87V14/ag in ten, then the IG Pfinsen cultures will be all over the place in eleven. In fifteen, I just let Kublai Khan here go to find his own way back home. What I do after that… well, that would be telling…”
She tucked away her PTN and started fussing with the captive’s Hostage Hood. The Hostage Hood was developed in Latin America, where kidnapping for ransom was still a thriving business. It consisted of a tough but lightweight kevlar-successor head-covering hood with an entubed rubber chock inserted into the mouth, so that the captive could breath, even though the hood kept his jaw in place to prevent speaking. The ears were covered by white-noise generators, and the eyes were covered by opaque lenses. The noise generators and the lenses could be turned off immediately, if the captors wished the hostage to see or hear something without having to remove the hood first. The hood was designed to be put on easily, in the face of violent opposition, and taken off only with difficulty.
“You’re not gonna reassure him that we’re only delivering him to be ‘debriefed’, now are you?” Cleo asked with flat disbelief.
“Now why would you think that THAT would be such a bad idea?” Chai asked with bland facetiousness. Cleo only answered her with a low growl.
When the lone TLC skopter arrived at what was left of the rundown Mayfair shopping mall, all that they could find any trace of was one small female standing out in the parking lot with an electrical lantern. The abandoned and dilapidated main store buildings of the Mayfair were of old fashioned reinforced concrete, and with the cold Wisconsin rain, they could have hidden a small army from the skopter’s sensor sweeps. The skopter put down, and Carver got out wearing Hazard: 3 body armor with a PSA at his side. "You’re a little formally dressed for this time of night,” Chai said sarcastically.
“I’m here to do business, not socialize,” Carver said coldly.
“You have Lot #12G87V14/ag?”
“Do you have the proto-neural cultures that you took from IG Pfinson?”
Carver went back into the skopter and towed out a reinforced steamer trunk sized container with notarized seals on its multiple securing hasps. Chai stepped forward and examined the seals. Satisfied, she waved a flashlight in the general direction of the stores. Kait and Cleo brought out the chest with the IG Pfinson logo on it. Chai reached in and threw one of the plastic unit bottles to Carver. “What are those?” he asked, pointing at the packets stuck to all four sides of the chest.
“Oh that?” Chai smiled snarkily. “That’s for that inevitable overeager subordinate, who seems to be born for the sole purpose of screwing up delicate situations like this by charging in, guns blazing. If those things go off, there won’t be anything left for a quarter mile but a hole in the ground.”
“Very clever,” Carver said flatly. “Now, where’s the other part of our deal?” Chai waved the flashlight again, and Ayumi brought out the captive riding on the back of her skip. “The hood. I haven’t gotten where I am, by buying a pig in a poke.”
Chai obliged, and carefully removed the hood, revealing the irate blocky face of a late middle-aged man. “Oh SHIT!” Cleo blurted out, “That’s the Chief of Police!”
Carver instantly responded to this by drawing his gun with lightning speed and putting three bullets into the Chief’s midsection. He sprinted back into the skopter yelling, “They’ve shot the Chief! Withdraw! There’s a Weapon of Mass Destruction on site, alert the Authorities and initiate Procedure: 12947!”
Carver’s escape was spoiled when not one but two EMP grenades hit his skopter’s vacuum bubble. Between them, they were enough to completely short out the nitrogen expulsion system. As the skopter came down with a thump, stadium lighting left over from the days when the mall had needed security lighting for its patrons’ cars clicked on, casting blinding light over everything. “THIS IS JUSTICE UNLIMITED! PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS, YOU ARE SURROUNDED! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST FOR KIDNAPPING, MURDER AND TERRORISM!” The sound of skopters approaching could be heard, and figures approached in the bounding leaps that are the hallmark of kid-augmented operatives.
Vangie slipped a magazine of armor-piercing rounds into her sniper rifle, but she was thrust down and pinned to the concrete by a pistol at the side of her head before she could get off a single round.
Cleo hopped behind Ayumi as she sprint-started her skip and took off. But even before Ayumi could clear the shattered blacktop, another EMP grenade detonated near them, throwing them to the wet asphalt.
Chai sprinted into the downed TSC skopter as Kait held up a hand. “DEADMAN SWITCH!” Kait yelled. “There’s enough plastic explosive here clear this entire area! Here’s how it’s gonna go down! My buddy’s gonna get that POS skopter running again and then- oh shit.” Kati’s ultimatum was cut short when she saw the nice C-7 plastic explosive packets expanding and deforming in the heated biscuit dough manner that meant that someone had used a maser on it to denature the RDX.
Carver was furiously denying shooting the Wauwatosa Chief of Police, claiming that ‘Oni’ had left the fired PSA in his skopter (despite the smell of cordite on his body armor), as Vangie was bundled into a Wautwatosa PD transport sledge with Kait, Cleo and Ayumi. Ayumi was furious, but she didn’t say anything, since the sledge was obviously wired for sound. Cleo was icily withdrawn. Kait was already wriggling in her restraints. And under her own glum demeanor, Vangie felt her insides doing a mambo. Chai had gotten away somehow. And while Vangie didn’t begrudge her friend’s good luck any, what it really meant was that it would be quick and painless when they died. It would take the Wauwatosa PD less than an hour to confirm that they were Erinyes with a single blood test. THEMIS would, naturally, claim that they were moonlighting and disavow them. But THEMIS couldn’t take the chance that the disgraced four wouldn’t turn State’s Evidence against THEMIS, testifying that it was a legitimate contract on behalf of an employer. And THEMIS couldn’t allow itself to be linked to murder, kidnapping or terrorism for hire. Someone would tell Chai to do it, and well, after that, all that was left to decide would be a burial at sea or cremation.
As Vangie mused on the matter, their only chance for survival at all would be to somehow fox the blood test. At least delay it somehow long enough for Chai to arrange their escape. Vangie smiled. Yummie loved to rib her about her ‘spy gadgets’, but Vangie was already trying to figure out which of her little surprises she could count on surviving the body search, and how to use them to mess with the blood test. She had internally reviewed (and dismissed) half of them when the sledge suddenly pitched over on its side.
There was a sound of a scuffle from the front. The Erinyes quickly gained their footing and Kait was just about to try to batter the back door down when it opened. They faced four men in TSC black-with-yellow trim outfits, all holding assault pistols on them. “Out,” one said in a dry monotone. “On your hands and knees. One at a time.”
“That’s kinda a problem,” Kait said. “We got these restraints, see? And-”
“Hands and Knees.”
As the Erinyes crawled out one at a time and were dragged to another sledge by their heels. Vangie couldn’t help but smile. Thank god for anal-retentive goons who wanted their pound of flesh in person. Carver probably had these guys ready and waiting to take the Erinyes when he sprung his trap. Great. Now they had all the plausible deniability that anyone could want.
Anything to keep Chai from coming for them with her mono-katana.
Vangie almost had her mono-molecular cutter out from its niche and into her hand when the goon sat her up on the bench in the sledge. “Chai?”
Chai shushed her and waited until Ayumi had been dragged in, kicking and cussing. When Ayumi spotted Chai- unshackled and chipper, Chai knocked at the bulkhead to the forward cabin, and the sledge rose and started moving. “Nice job, girls.”
“Hanh?” was the general response.
“The perfect blend of despair, defiance and scared shitless. You can’t fake that.”
“You mean… we were supposed to get caught?”
“Oh, not originally, but when Justice Unlimited got in on the act, we had to improvise.” Chai chuckled. “We would have had that bastard Carver with the neuro-cultures alone, if not for Justice Unlimited.”
“What?” Cleo sputtered. “Those clowns?” Then something clicked inside her head. “You’ve been working with them to set all this up, haven’t you? Crystal Springs, IG Pfinson, now- you fed them the information, so they’d show up and be the big heroes instead of TSC!”
“NO,” Chai growled, “I haven’t. It would have been a LOT simpler if we had. No, they figured all that out all by themselves. Don’t ask me HOW but they did. And our client firmly believes that they wouldn’t play ball with us, even if we did go and try to cut them in on it. This last play went down without you knowing the score, because I couldn’t be sure that you’d be able to convince them that you’d been caught fair and square if you were faking it.”
“You’re afraid… of Justice Unlimited?”
“YES,” Chai answered in a way that brooked no sass. “And as for you not being properly briefed before, that was a condition of the hire. Our client requires complete discretion on this one.”
“Why?” Kait grunted, holding out her hands for Chai to unshackle. “Everyone knows that it was Hitchcock-America, trying to get TSC off their backs.”
Chai twisted the key in the lock, freeing Kait and moved to free Cleo.
“Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but the mission’s over as of now, and I know that you four will drive me nuts asking until I break down. So here it is: Hitchcock- America wasn’t our client; the Wauwatosa Police Department was.”
“What? Wauwatosa PD hired us?” Kait blurted. “Why?”
“To get TSC off their backs,” Cleo said as she shook her shackles to be set free next.
“Right,” Chai said as she worked the key. “After Biloxi, Paterson, Akron and Sioux City, it didn’t take much for Chief Hagen to see the TLC barreling down the tracks right at him. The Wauwatosa PD is supposed to be apolitical and unbiased-” there was a general snort of derision. The only way for a public servant to remain apolitical was to be a master politician “- but when he saw that slimebag Morris pretty much sell the open Aldermans’ slots to those TLC rent-a-hacks Lawrence and Carlin, he had a pretty good idea what was going to go down, and it did.”
“Let me guess,” Cleo said. “Hagen saw one of his subordinates getting chummy with Lawrence, Carlin or Morris, and figured that in the goodness of time, he’d be moved out of his job?”
Chai nodded. “And, given what happened to Charlie Hernandez in Sioux City, he knew that it might not just be a premature gold watch.”
“What was all that noise about ‘Lot #12G-whateveritwas?” Vangie asked as she held out her shackles.
“Hagen couldn’t just dummy up a reason to pull TSC’s PSP license and kick Carver out of town. He had to completely discredit TLC, and Carver, Lawrence, Carlin AND Morris, each on a personal level. Real crash and burn stuff. The only things that he could come up with would be trafficking in Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
“WMDs? Where would they get WMDs?”
“What do you think was in Lot #12G87V14/ag?”
“We were handling a NUKE?”
“Just a Regional Dispersal Nanite Dispenser.” The girls still shuddered. “Without the Catalyst cartridge.”
“So… we were supposed to be?”
“Augmented agents of an unnamed terrorist organization looking to purchase said WMD. Snake eyes, didn’t it ever occur to you that it’s stupid to try and field Erinyes undercover as anything other than Models or Mistresses? Individually, we tend to catch the eye of the average man. In a mass, we’re hazards to navigation. We counted on Carver catching on to who and what we really were. He was so busy planning to try and turn the situation around on us and pull a double-roorback that it never occurred to him that we’d ever let ourselves get CAUGHT under any circumstance other than what he set up. He knew that we wanted Lot #12G87V14/ag, so he had his three stooges use their influence to remove it from the Police Evidence locker. And Hagen got it on tape. He needed to catch Carver personally with his hand in the cash drawer. Then Carver committed one of the classic mistakes.”
“He started a land war in Asia?”
“He repeated himself- specifically, the ‘tragic kidnapping and death’ number that he pulled on Chief Hernandez. Once we knew what he had in mind, Hagen decided to run with it. After all, the only thing better than nailing Carver for trafficking in WMDs was nabbing him for kidnapping and attempted murder- with Hagen as the star witness to both crimes.”
“Pretty gutsy,” Vangie said as she took the key from Chai and removed the shackle from her off wrist. “He took three rounds in the midsection.”
“Not that gutsy. One of the reasons that it took me that long to get him into that hostage hood was that I was also wrapping a sheet of kinetic plastic around his amble tummy.”
“If JU isn’t in on it, won’t they suspect something when they find the ‘kidnap victim’ is conveniently wearing a bulletproof vest?” Ayumi asked, shaking her cuffs for her turn.
“Not a bulletproof vest- a sheet of kinetic plastic, treated with water activated disassembler nanites. It was just thick enough that it slowed down the bullets to the point where he’ll be hurt but not really endangered, and it will dissolve in the rain.”
“What if JU HADN’T caught up with us?”
“Then you’d have been arrested and sprung, as per the script, and Hagen would have made a miraculous recovery in the hospital to accuse Carver of his base treachery and stealing the WMD.” Chai said smugly.
“Okay, there’s just ONE MORE THING that I need to know.”
“When is it gonna be MY turn to get these stupid things off?”
Vangie tucked the key down her cleavage. “BEG,” she said with a nasty grin.