The Smithsonian Institute had seen better days. When the waters rose, people had to make some hard decisions as to what parcels of land they would save by diking them off and which they would abandon to the sea. Washington had been built on a drained swamp, so most of it had completely submerged in 30 feet of water. The Mall was one of the most scenic ‘venices’ in the North American Federation, but the Smithsonian complex had been diked off into a ‘bowl’.
Preston Wyecross had also seen better days. When he’d come to the Smithsonian with his high school class on a field trip, he had expected to be mildly bored as he was moved along with the rest of the sheep past all the relics in the Old Museum of American History. He hadn’t expected a team of very expert appearing terrorists to take advantage of the Smithsonian’s ‘bowled in’ placement, and take his class, along with two other schools and the other visitors, hostage.
Pres had snuck away from his group in order to answer the call of nature. He’d hit the jackpot, and found a small toilet that was probably used by the cleaning staff or something, instead of the larger visitor’s loo. He hoped that it wasn’t an exhibit. He’d just finished up when he heard the sound of gunfire. From his perch in the small, antique toilet, he watched as men in what appeared to be monk’s robes herded groups of people along. He barely managed to miss what appeared to be a team of five men sweeping the building for stragglers as he ducked out of the toilet and into the halls.
Pres found his mind falling into a strange, coldly lucid state. He knew that allowing himself to be taken hostage was a very bad idea. Hostages get shot by their captors, just to make a point. Hostages get shot by the people who are supposed to be rescuing them, because accidents happen. Hostages are forced to sit around in cramped, uncomfortable positions as their captors play mind-games with them, and the ‘rescuers’ play political games for their release.
Being a hostage sopped.
Also, Pres knew that he was way down on the long list of priorities for rescue. His parents weren’t important enough to squeeze for anything, he wasn’t young enough for the ‘poor little child’ angle, and as scrawny as he was, he couldn’t play the Pity Card, either. If he were taken hostage, he’d probably be one of the last ones released.
On the other hand, if he managed to stay free, and maybe helped out the rescue effort somehow, well that was a completely different kettle of fish!
>>>K-WASH NEWSDUMP! SPECIAL ON THE SPOT REPORT!<<<
This is Ilena Reyes, live on the roof of the Old National Gallery, over-looking the Smithsonian Institute, which has been taken by a group of as yet unidentified terrorists. Twenty minutes ago, according to what sources as we’ve been able to access, no less then ten apparently separate groups of men broke into caches of weapons and armor that had somehow been smuggled past Institute Security and began to take Institute visitors and staff hostage. For reasons not completely understood, they seem to be concentrating on the Old Museum of American History, and are evacuating visitors and staff from the other buildings. Witnesses report that the terrorists used a false flood alarm to clear out most of the rest of the complex.
“At this point in time, the hostages have been separated into five groups, with hostages being held in four tourist sledges, and a group in an open huddle near the Main Landing Entrance. So far, there are reports of at least four deaths. From what we can see of the group that’s visible, the Terrorists are wearing Combat Grade Reflex Armor with integral gas masks, and are carrying Personal Assault Systems. The hostages in the open are being covered by three interlocking mounts of what looks to be Heavy Gauss Guns.
“At this point in this crisis, all that the Washington Police Department will say, is that a Crisis Intervention Service Provider HAS been sub-contracted.”
Several groups of figures moved through the murky water of the flooded Mall on skips. The skips were in ‘silent running’ mode, using rotary hydro-jets instead of their suspensor field crawl. They had to navigate by dead reckoning, since the skips’ sonar was tied up broadcasting a subtle ‘white noise’ just in case the perps had anyone watching the Institute’s Security system. And from the moves that they were making, it would be a minor miracle if they weren’t. The groups separated into five-man teams, and each went off to their own goal. Some of these teams, when they reached their destinations, stopped, and angled their skips up so that they were pointing nearly straight up. When each team was in its proper position, the team leader led out a single loud *clack!*, and then went silent.
The terrorists were making sweeps of the Museum, just in case they missed anyone on the first clean out. Pres managed to avoid being spotted by them, but he couldn’t trust his luck to hold. He sprinted from one hiding place to another. Hiding in the lower levels was stupid, since they were designed to prevent people from hiding, and each time he broke cover, he risked being spotted by the security cameras. If he could get into the Staff Offices, he figured he would be reducing his exposure to when he passed through the ‘Authorized Personnel’ door. And he figured that hiding in the offices would be a lot easier. Besides, using his PCS to call the Police from where he was at the moment was impossible. They were jamming the PCS carriers in the building, so his best bet was to find a landline in one of the offices.
Pres managed to duck past the sweeps and through the Staff Offices door without being spotted. The Old Museum of American History was, indeed, an old building, dating from the late 19th Century, and the offices were warrens of small cubicles that were packed with an agglomeration of office equipment in various stages of obsolescence. Pres darted about for a bit, and finally found a cubicle with a phone link that he could easily hide in, if another sweep came through.
He started to punch in the code for an outside line, when it occurred to him that if the Terrorists were watching the security monitors, then they probably had some way of watching outgoing calls as well. He paused, slumped down on the floor and huddled into the leg space under the workstation to think. Was there some way of figuring out if they were watching the landlines? Even if he could figure it out, could he do that without sending up a big ‘here I am’ flare? And even if he could do that without getting spotted, would he be able to sneak past them?
There was a shadow, as something flew between the office window and the sun.
Of course. He was over-thinking it. When uncertain, keep it simple. All that he really needed to do was get to a window, find one of the probably hundreds of Police Service Provider observers (and snipers) watching the windows, and get them to notice him.
Without the terrorists spotting him.
Or getting shot by an over-eager sniper.
Maybe he’d have a better chance with one of the News services. He tried to switch his PCS to one of the Newsfeeds, but the Terrs were jamming those, as well.
Well, it looks like I’m gonna havta do this the hard way, Pres thought to himself. As he carefully made his way to the window, he spotted a woman’s purse by one of the workstations. Seeing an opportunity, he rifled through the handbag, and found a makeup compact, no doubt with a mirror in it. This makes things easier, he thought, I guess pressure brings out the best in me.
He carefully approached the window and scanned the skyline of the buildings across the water. It occurred to him that if the Newsfeeds caught on that he was at large, they’d air it, and the Terrs would also immediately know it, seeing as how the Newsfeeds got paid for having ratings, and teenagers getting shot live on the air was a guaranteed ratings booster.
Okay, let’s see if the snipers are any safer...
Pres spotted what appeared to be several people intently looking through some sort of surveillance rig. He caught the sun in the hand-mirror and angled it at the side of the building. When he had it located, he maneuvered it over to where they were. There was a reaction, and when he was sure that they were looking at where he was, he waved a hand, and started flashing an SOS.
Then he waited for them to do something intelligent and professional. Well, they were the professionals, right? They dealt with this sort of thing all the time, right? Damn, he wished he knew Morse code or something...
The man in the command chair at the Tac-Ops center snapped into his mike,
“Well, are you in position NOW? Everyone ELSE-”
“The Observation Team on the Old FBI building says they have a loose cannon on the third floor.”
“Loose Cannon? Security Guard or what?”
“No, they say it appears to be an unidentified civilian minor, probably one of the school kids, who managed to avoid getting rounded up with the rest.”
“Sorry, Skip, but Best Guess Thermographics say that there are at least three groups of Bogies - probably between 5 and 10 in number in each group - at large inside the building.”
“Shit. Just what I don’t need. Okay, the first set of hands that are free, we’ll send them in to get the little fucker out before it gets itself shot up on our watch.” He shifted his attention again. “Are you in position NOW? It’s about fucking TIME!”
Pres was still waiting for the professionals to DO something, when he heard the door. He scooted away from the window, and got well hidden in one of the cubicles. SHIT! How could he have been so STUPID? Of Course, they’re sending patrols around to double, maybe triple check these offices! The offices were such an obvious place for stragglers to try and hide in! They probably left these offices unchecked, just to sucker in stupid kids like him, as a matter of SOP!
But, instead of beginning a methodical sweep of the cubicles, Pres heard a voice with a crisp British accent saying, “Very well, we have exactly Three Minutes to get everything collected and verified, starting--- NOW!”
From where he was scrunched up hiding, Pres could just barely see through the chair and office equipment. He saw three figures in ‘monks robes’ walk up to one of the old-fashioned doors and open it. The hoods were pulled back and the gas masks were off, so he could see that they were two men and a woman. The woman was the dark, sleek sort of attractive that tended to put you in the mind of some sort of hunting cat, who could either purr or claw your face off. She was definitely on the prowl now.
The first man was definitely her counterpart, with a long, narrow, rather European face and well trimmed, short, blonde hair. He oozed a sort of relaxed focus, like a martial artist waiting for the first blow of a set to begin. The other man was the odd one out. He had a soft face that was set in a counter-productive tension, the sort that made people snap if it wasn’t relieved.
The soft-faced man opened the door, and the woman and the first man went in, then Pres heard the sound of lockers being opened. One of them handed the soft-faced man a beige plastic case the size of a hard-bound book. "Well, is that it?” the woman’s voice said, with a clipped British accent.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well, Idiot, don’t THINK so - Make Sure! We can’t very well come back and get the right one, now can we?”
“Oh, of course not, of course not...” He opened the case and took out an odd metallic device that was the size and shape of a paperback book. There were cogs set along the sides - two each on the top and bottom, and three along either side - and Pres could see an ‘E’ and and ‘F’ in large letters at the corners.
“Well, IS it?”
“Just a second, making absolutely sure...” the soft-faced man replied as he took a fold of paper from the case. He read something intently, his lips moving silently. Pres could see the man’s fingers moving, touching the thumb to various fingers. It was a common mnemonic device for remembering long figures or statements that you didn’t have any context for remembering otherwise. He was memorizing something.
He ran through his mnemonic device five times, and then placed the strange object back in its case without the paper. “Yes, I’m absolutely sure, this is the proper unit.” As he spoke, he quietly tore up the paper.
Pres pulled back and held his breath as the soft faced one came toward the cubicle that he was in and leaned down.
But he didn’t spot Pres - he was just looking for a paper recycling bin. He casually tossed the scraps in, and returned to the door, as if he’d done nothing. “Well? We ARE on a schedule, as you keep telling me!” There was a sound of a drawer shutting, and the man and woman came out, carrying four long cardboard tubes and a folder.
“Of, you noticed, did you,” the blonde man said dryly, in a soft polished British accent. He handed the soft faced man the folder.
The soft faced man hurried through the dossier. “Yes, yes, yes, wait... yes. It’s all here.” He checked the writing on the bands on the ends of the tubes. “Yes, Yes, Yes... and... Yes.”
The blonde man hit the button on a stopwatch. “Two Minutes, 36 Seconds. Adequate.”
As one, they turned, pulled up their masks and hoods, and went out the door. Well, what was all THAT about?, Pres asked himself. He waited a few seconds for the footsteps to disappear down the hall, and went rummaging in the recyke bin. He couldn’t find all the bits of paper, but he did find one that he knew was important. It was a set of numbers headed by a large capitol ‘C’, on a strip of Foto-Proof© finish. The Foto-Proof© refraction finish was a security treatment to prevent what was printed on it from being scanned, photographed, or copied in any way. Highly secure information, like Combinations and stuff like that were printed on Foto-Proof©.
Pres thought that, as bad as it would be for him to get caught in this office at all, it would be a thousand times worse if he were caught with this on him. He memorized the combination, using mnemonics similar to what the soft faced man had used. Then he shredded the Foto-Proof© finish with his pocketknife and tucked the shreds in his shoe. Then he went and poked his head over the bottom of the window and tried to see if anything was happening.
In the Tac-Ops center, the Media Monitor said, “Skipper, they’re broadcasting their message. They say that they’re Tribulation Saints.”
“Is it a live cast, or are they showing a re-run?”
“Just a sec. Yep. Cloud patterns match what we have flying today.”
“Are they saying anything interesting?”
“Not really. The usual Fire and Brimstone crappola.”
“Are they showing the hostages?”
“Yep, right behind the Spokes-head.”
“Well, it’s about damn time.” The Tac-Ops skipper lifted a cover and hit a red button.
All the figures waiting underwater on the skips heard a single *Clack!* As one, they all leaned to and hit a button on their skip handlebars. Matched sets of Ionic Thrusters mounted on the Jet-Ski like vehicles thrust them up, out of the water and high into the air, well over the top of the dikes that rose twenty feet above Sea Level. Or at least, where Sea Level was this year.
As the skips crested over the tops of the dikes, their drivers widened the repulsion fields to their widest dispersal, and all the riders let out an ear-splitting, nerve-rattling ululating shriek. The Erinyes War Shriek is a Ki technique that was designed to cut past the rational mind’s defenses and kick in a primordial fear response. The Erinyes War Shriek could reduce the average man to incontinence. Of course, the Erinyes were not, as a rule, deployed against average men, so soiled underwear was rarely an issue. But even hardened veterans were usually startled by it, and as anyone who’s ever been in a firefight knows, that moment of hesitation and distraction can spell the difference between victory and defeat.
As the skips began a minimally reduced descent, each skip’s pilot fired a pistol-launched grenade, and the Erinys riding behind kicked off into the air.
On TV, the viewers were watching a man dressed as a rather sinister Inquisitor, right down to the large silver crucifix that he wore on his chest, harangue the North American Federation for ‘betraying the Holy Nation of Gideon’, and proclaiming that the End Times were here. He was only getting the airtime because the networks had agreed, as a term for the safety of the hostages. Most of the people watching were only doing so in hopes that it would be over soon, and their regularly scheduled programming would continue. Suddenly, the diatribe was cut short by a loud shrieking that was disorienting, even over the TV.
There was an explosion near each of the Gauss Guns. But instead of a hail of shrapnel, the grenades erupted in a shower of Scatterballs©. Scatterballs are pea-sized pellets of memory plastic used as a non-lethal anti-riot measure. When they are fired, the pellets store the kinetic energy inside the plastic, priming a change of form. The second impact triggers the shift into a rigid hollow sphere about the size of a grapefruit. The resulting strike is painful, disorienting and often bruising, but not lethal.
And, more to the point, as the Scatterballs hit the ‘Tribulation Saints’, they hit Reflex Armor’s big flaw. Reflex Armor diffuses impact by becoming rigid and spreading the impact over an entire region. But, in protecting the wearer, the armor also becomes a form fitting prison, until the impact has dispersed and the memory plastic becomes flexible again. The Tribulation Saints’ Reflex armor was cut along its ‘monks habit’ lines, down to the Capuchine-esque capelet, to minimize that restriction. But the barrage of Scatterballs hit almost every part of the armor, trapping the ‘Saints’ in their own armor and scattering them like ten-pins. And, most importantly, the Saints couldn’t start firing into the body of hostages.
Then gloriously female figures dropped to the ground. They looked as if they’d been dipped in liquid latex. Their only feature that wasn’t covered by the glossy black bodysuits where their faces, which were concealed by tac-helmets. They touched down lightly and immediately began firing assault pistols at the Saints. The assault pistols were loaded with sabot rounds containing more Scatterballs, so though the terrorists scrambled among the hostages, all the hostages received were some bruises. Then the skips came down, bowling over the Gauss Guns with their suspensor fields.
A few teams of Saints who had been on open patrol began to run in the direction of the battle. There was another ululating yell, and figures in more conventional Hardsuit armor came over the wall. Some were carrying personal assault systems, but some where carrying what looked to be oversized scrolls. The pairs carrying scrolls pulled them apart, stretching a length of fabric between them. One pair held their screen between the on-coming Saints and the hostages, while the others erected their screens around the huddled body of hostages. The screens were more mono-flex memory plastic, and while they weren’t bullet-proof, they provided as much protection from small arms fire as the Myrmidon hardsuit squads could offer under the circumstances.
The teams of Erinyes assigned to the hostage sledges used a different tactic. The lead skip pilots for Team B fired grenades at the base of ‘Sledge B’, but the grenades weren’t Scatterball rounds. They were EMP grenades, and they heterodyned with the nascent repulsion fields on one side of the sledge, tipping it over, and sending everyone inside sprawling. One of the skip pilots shot down, shed her two passengers, and wedged the suspensor field of her skip between the ground the sledge, keeping it from flipping back right, as it was designed to.
The other skip pilot shed her passenger high up and came down slowly. The jumper landed directly on the side of the sledge near the door. She instantly slapped a small demolition packet on a hatch near the door and vaulted back off the sledge. The explosion knocked the Erinys in mid-vault, but she used the force to carry her further, and was ready with a large caliber LMG ready when she landed on her feet.
As soon as the explosion cleared, the two Erinyes that had come down with the skip jumped up to the sledge door. The one with the smart-rigged .45 Colt 1911A at ready kicked in the door, and the smaller one with the Mono-Edge© glass-edged ‘katana’ dived in the door on top of the Saint who had been assigned to watch the front end. His Reflex Armor was great for stopping high velocity rounds, but the near mono-molecular edge of the sword cut through it like it was soft leather. The swords-woman cut his throat and then positioned her blade over his heart. She pushed in, and made a ‘coring’ motion that made hamburger of his heart.
As the front guard gave a gurgling scream, the Erinys with the Colt .45 ducked upside down through the sledge door and waited, her cybernetic eyes already painting a tactical targeting overlay on the scene. Sure enough, the guard in the middle managed to struggle up from where he’d fallen into the seat cavity and looked toward the sound of his comrade. The gunwoman let fly with two shots, very close apart, that sounded like thunder in the cramped and piled up sledge. The two rounds hit him squarely in the faceplate, and threw him back.
At the sound of the gun, the skip pilot who had come down slowly and landed at the rear of the sledge opened the Emergency Door, let the hostages there pour out and grabbed the struggling Rear Door guard by the head. She pulled him halfway out, pushed back his hood and gave his head a quick vicious twist that did not snap his neck, but did render him instantly unconscious.
As soon as the middle guard went back, the gunwoman snapped, “Chai! Confirm!”
Chai, the swords-woman, hauled her lithe form up onto handgrips on the empty seats above and spider-climbed over the hostages who were still reeling from the dumping and the small explosion. She was halfway there, when the Erinys at the rear door yelled, “Down!”
The gunwoman looked at one of the hostages who was recovered enough to look afraid. The gunwoman said in a calm, level voice that was pitched in just the right way to be comforting while still conveying authority, “How many guards are there on this sledge?”
“aahhh... Three...” the hostage answered, still groggy.
“Good. Then you’re safe.”
Chai got to the middle guard and pulled his faceplate off. It was thick and supposed to be protective, but when you’re talking about a Colt .45, ‘bulletproof’ is more wishful thinking than truth in advertising. “Woof! Vangie, you punched his lights out! One in each eye! You’re getting extravagant! You used up two whole bullets!”
Vangie checked the ‘stopwatch’ readout in her Tac helmet. “Forty-eight seconds, from Launch to Last Kill Confirm.” Then she said in a firm, carrying voice, “People, listen up! You are safe now! We are from THEMIS© Investigation and Enforcement Services, a division of INFAX™. We were contracted to get all of you out of here safely. We are going to right the sledge now.” She hit the comm button. “Ayumi, set this thing right-side up again.” She addressed the hostages again. “Now, please, while your guards have been taken care of, the situation has not been declared SAFE yet. I know, you want to get off this sledge right now, but please stay in here! We have our Rescue and Evacuation corps en route, even as we speak. But, if you leave before they get here, you could be vulnerable to a stray shot or a revenge sniper. When Ajax, that’s our Rescue & Evac guys, gets here, you will be taken out in bulletproof vans. But until then, stay in the sledge!”
The hostages seemed to be listening and were busy coping as the sledge began to right itself, so Vangie shifted her comm-link to the Tac-Ops center. “Ops, this is Team B leader. Last Kill Confirmed, no hostage casualties.”
The Ops Skipper called back, “Team B leader, we have a situation in the Museum. We have an unknown civilian minor at large on the third floor, last seen west side - your side. Passive Thermographics suggest three groups of roving patrols inside. Get the kid out before he gets himself shot.”
Vangie opened her link to helmet-to-helmet. “Okay, kids, you heard him, we have overtime. Ayu-” Then Chai was out the door even before the sledge was leveled back, and Vangie could see the lanky Erinys who had blown the hatch moving toward the building at top speed. “Kait! Chai! No! oh, shiiiiitttt... Okay, Ayumi, Margo, you stay with the hostages until Ajax gets here, then come in to reinforce. I’m going after them. I am NOT gonna let those two loose in the Smithsonian without a leash!”
The Tac-Ops Skipper paused as he heard this. “Marco? Who’s on Team B?”
“Just a sec. Ah, yeah, Ariyanundataka, Chaimaia; Blake, Evangeline; Lane, Margaret; Marksbury, Kaitlyn; Matsu-”
“Ariyanuntaka?” A chill ran down his normally temperate spine. “Chai Ariyanuntaka? And Kait Marksbury? You mean, I just sent the Apocalypse Twins into the Smithsonian Institute?” He tried to raise them, but they were already outside of the effective range of the ultrasonic link. “Oh, Christ...” he whimpered.
“ah, Yeah. Well, at least Blake is going in to ride herd on them.”
“Oh, wonderful. She’ll be able to keep the collateral damage down to a billion. DAMN! There goes our profit margin, straight down the tubes!”
Vangie managed to catch up with them with a springboard jump off a parked sled up to a ledge on the third floor. Chai had just unlatched the window from outside, and Kait was raising the sash. “Damn nice of you to wait for my order,” Vangie snarled.
You could tell Chai’s dismissive smirk, even through the featureless Tac-helmet. “Ayah, give the round-eye a Team Leader slot, and she thinks she’s in charge of everybody!”
Vangie went in first, her Colt at the ready. Despite her lip, Chai waited for Vangie’s go-ahead before slipping through the window, followed by Kait.
When Kait was all the way in, Vangie stopped her with a hand on her chest. “Hold it. Gimme your ammo.”
“WHAT?” Kait clutched the gun to her breast like a newborn baby.
“This is the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE, the Old Museum of American History! There are pieces of paper and gimcracks in there more valuable than all three of us put together! If you destroy ANYTHING, we’re ALL in Debt for the rest of our lives! If we run into anything where that thing’s needed, I’ll hand you the ammo. But, dammit, if there’s any damage, I want it to be THEIR fault!”
Kaitlyn was a good six inches taller than Vangie, and had an impressively valkyriene build to go with it, but she looked for all the world like an overgrown eight-year-old being forced to hand over her doll. She removed the magazine from the LMG and slung the now empty gun over her shoulder.
“Good girl. Now, your backup ammo.” With hunched shoulders, Kait handed over her backup ammo. And her reserve ammo. And her reserve backup ammo. And her backup reserve ammo. And her emergency ammo. And her backup emergency ammo. And --- well, you get the idea.
“Okay, melee weapons only, unless we really NEED firepower.” Vangie reached into her boot sheath, pulled out a Jin Ren Sho™ OmniStaff© combat system, and extended it into a full length staff with an expert flick of her wrist. Chai didn’t bother with her sword (too clumsy in tight places), but settled for a matched pair of long knives, with similar glassy edges. Kait produced a set of grenades, which she pinned to her harness.
Vangie gave Kait a look that practically melted both of their tac-helmets. She tapped in impatient foot.
“These are Scatterball grenades,” Kait said exasperatedly. “Do you honestly think that I’d set off high explosives in the Smithsonian Institute?”
Vangie kept tapping her foot. Kait handed her the two frag grenades that she’d been keeping, Just In Case.
Vangie tucked away the grenades and pulled her tac-helmet off. “Helmets off. Our brief is to find this kid and get her out, not shoot it out with the perps. I figure that the kid is either grade school age here with her parents, or a teener here with one of those high school field trips. Either way, she’s gonna want to see a human face, not a scary helmet. We’re gonna have a hard enough time finding her, if she’s actively hiding, we don’t want her getting freaked out and running. So, standard quick search formation - Chai down low, Kait on high in case she bolts, and I keep an eye out for hostiles. Keep your helmets with you.”
“And what do we do if they already bagged her, Gramma?” Chai asked over-sweetly.
“We get her from them, as quickly and quietly as possible. Let’s go.”
When the SWAT teams started to attack, Pres figured that the upper floors of the museum were safe. No matter what the terrorists were really here for, they’d either head down to the lower levels to fight off the SWAT teams or up to the roof to take out any Skopter based units. Maybe if he looked around, he might find something to give him an idea of what this was all about.
He concentrated, trying to tell which sounds were coming from down the marble lined hallways, and which were coming from outside. He was able to pick out the sound of heavy-duty linear motors working, through the sound of gunfire from outside. Cautiously moving, he followed the sound from the office area to the mail area. Even in an era where electronic data transfer was the norm, there were still messages that, for reasons of need of confirmation or security or simple formality, had to be delivered on hard text. The Smithsonian mail room was large and full of packages, bundles of letters, and a man inside was using an odd-looking linear motor power frame that looked kludged together from chrome pipes to bring in a large reinforced cardboard crate. The fox-faced blonde man was looking irritably at a stopwatch. “Is that the last one? We ARE on a schedule here, you know!”
He was talking to a group of six men, who had peeled out of their ‘monks robes’ (which lay in a pile beside the table), and were furiously taking bundles of paper out of paper crates. One was taking the bundles out and handing them to the man next to him. He was giving them a hurried but practiced once-over and either putting them into a box in from of him or handing them on to the next man. That man was packing those bundles into another box, and the final three where busily sealing, labeling, metering and putting other crates on the Outgoing pile of mail. They all looked like they’d been in a firefight; their clothes were full of holes and looked like they were soaked with blood. Pres checked, and he saw the fox-faced man and the woman, but where was the soft-faced man?
The soft-faced man was back in the offices, furiously checking the recyke bins. How could he forget the sequence? Goddamn twenty digit sequences! He could remember the orienting letter, but he couldn’t remember the last three digits! And he couldn’t let those two know it! Hell, he couldn’t make his real move until they’d got rid of the fanatics, and he had his hired men in place. At the moment, the only reason they didn’t just shoot him where he stood was that they couldn’t afford to do anything like that in front of the Saints. As it was, his only real protection was being the only person who knew the sequence. But for that he needed the goddamn piece of paper with those last three digits!
At last! He found the recyke bin with the pieces of paper. But no piece with the Foto-proof© strip. Then he spotted a few pieces of paper on the carpet next to the bin. Someone had taken the Foto-proof© strip out of the bin! He got to his feet and ran to the door. Damn! Why was this happening to him?
Vangie, Chai and Kait watched as the man in Reflex Armor bustle out of the office without even bothering to pull his mask back up. He ran down the corridor without looking back. Vangie held Kait back, and shook her head. She mimed walking stealthily along with two fingers, and then jerked her head in the direction of where the soft-faced man had run.
The three Erinyes silently went down the hall in a staccato staggered formation, each covering the others.
Pres watched closely from his place of concealment as they finished up the last packages, and started shredding the original crates. The fox-faced man and the feline woman where doing something to the power frame. Pres pulled back just in time as the woman turned to look at the corner. Pres heard her mutter, “Where IS that fat fool?”
The soft faced man raced down the hall, and spotted someone lurking further down. It was a small, frail-looking boy with straw colored hair, wearing what the man took to be a Private School uniform. With the clarity of desperation, it struck him that the boy had been hiding. He must have been hiding in the office, and those two fools who were SUPPOSED to be such Professionals, didn’t think to search it first! The boy must have seen him tear up the paper, picked the Foto-proof© strip out of the recyke bin, and had it on him! Of course, that was more desperation and wishful thinking than reason and objective logic, but even a blind toss hits the bulls-eye occasionally.
In a desperate panic, he tackled the boy and yelled in his face, “I know that you have it! You’re the only one who could have it! Where IS it?”
“Sheee-iiiittt…” Vangie muttered to herself as she pulled her helmet back on. They had the kid. Time to stop being quiet.
“What ARE you doing?” the fox-faced man said as he and his partner walked out into the hall. He saw the boy. “Oh, this is NOT good.”
“Tell me!” the soft faced man yelled as he furiously rummaged through Pres’ pockets. The woman began to say something, but was cut short when a thick, blunt disk landed near them.
The Scatterball© grenade went off, sending the woman and the fox-faced man sprawling. But the soft-faced man pulled his protective mask down, grabbed Pres and used the force to spin Pres on top of him as he pulled a gun. “BACK! Back, or I’ll...”
The Erinyes’ Fury armor didn’t have that glossy sheen just for the jazzy effect (though it certainly didn’t hurt); except for the palms of the gloves, some of the anchoring points for utility belts and the soles of the traction slippers, the armor was covered with a frictionless surface. This slick surface prevents opponents from getting a good handle on them, or for various entangling weapons to work. It also allows for some rather unorthodox maneuvers. As Vangie covered them, Kait grabbed Chai’s hand and slid her like a curling iron at the two.
Chai didn’t plow into them. Instead, she used one hand to cut at the captor’s gun arm, the other hand to grab the boy and her foot to kick them all free. As soon as the kid was free, Vangie took out the soft-faced man with a single shot through the faceplate.
Kait and Vangie rushed up to cover Chai and the boy, just as the packing men recovered in time to get to their guns. Kait thrust out a hand at Vangie. “Ammo!”
“No! Top Priority: Get the hostage to safety!”
Kait chucked her last Scatterball grenade at the Saints. While it didn’t lock them up, as they weren’t wearing reflex armor, since they had NO form of protection, there was a very satisfying amount of them being knocked around.
As the two figures that were in reflex armor got to their feet, Vangie whipped out her Omni-Staff©, flicked it into full staff configuration, and used it to sweep them back off their feet in one smooth motion. Kait swept Pres up in her arms, and the four of them hustled down the hall.
Vangie checked the secure radio link. The hypersonic link that they’d been using while the Saints were jamming all EM frequencies was useless indoors, but maybe the Myms finally got around to taking out the area jammer... “Ops! Ops, this is Team B!”
She got a firm, if rather stressed reply, “Team B? Blake, report!”
“We have the hostage, but encountered armed resistance-”
“Oh, Christ, what did you trash?”
Vangie scowled into the pickup. “No collateral damage. YET. We have to get the hostage out. What venues are secure?”
“Oh, right. The hostage. Venues. The way you went in is currently invalid - the Saints brought BFADs [Bipedal Firefight Assistance Drones] in from somewhere, and the Power Frames are dealing with them. But you should be able to get out through a fire escape on the southern face, second floor. That area is secure. Now, Blake, this is important - DO NOT SHOOT-”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I KNOW! I’ll try and keep Vesuvius and Krakatoa from doing anything too devastating.”
“HEY!” Chai complained, “Kait’s the trigger-happy one!”
“You’re an enabler,” Vangie muttered back. “Ops, are there any other hostages in here?”
“No, passive thermographics show heat clusters, but they’re all moving in groups that suggest roving groups of opposition.” That makes no sense, Vangie thought to herself; the interior of the Smithsonian makes for ideal hostage taking conditions. The walk-through conditions make keeping an eye on your hostages easy, while exhibits make most rapid forced entry methods nearly impossible. They should have broken up the hostages into mixed groups, kept them hustling from place to place, and set a few anti-entry bombs.
Vangie killed the link (who wants the ossifer joggling their elbow while you’re in a situation?), and brought up the Smithsonian schematic. “Okay, we have a stairwell in this direction. Chai, take point. Kait, you cover the kid. I’ll cover the rear.”
When they were halfway down the stairwell, Vangie called a brief breather. She took her helmet off and looked at Pres. “Kid, while you were running around in here, did you see those men herding bunches of people around, like they were keeping them busy?”
No, but I did see something weird.”
“Something that looked like a bomb or a nanite disperser?”
“No, they broke into one of the locker rooms and they took some files and some tubes and this weird looking gadget.”
“Files? How many cards worth of files did you see?”
“No, not that kind of files - hard text folders, like you see in old movies. And, now that I think about it, the tubes looked like the kind they kept blueprints in, in old movies, too.”
Vangie blinked. Hard Text? The only reason to keep files on hard text anymore was if it was too sensitive to keep on a computer, even an isolated system, so... Vangie hit her comm link. “Ops? Blake. Patch me out to the main office, Erinyes division, Case Manager Wendy Hookes.” There was some clicking and Vangie got her connection.
“Erinyes Division, Case Manager Hookes speaking, how may I help you?”
“Wendy, this is Vangie Blake-”
“Vangie? I thought you were busy on that kafuffle down at the Smithsonian.”
“I am. Taking five. Anyway, Wendy, I wanna put an option down on an investigation for the Smithsonian, regarding the theft of files and an unidentified object from the Smithsonian offices.”
“Sorry, Vange, but Burgess & Whitehead have the Smithsonian contract. You’re only there because B&W’s Crisis Intervention division opted out, ‘cause they couldn’t reliably deploy in the half-hour required in their contract.”
“I know, but I think it’s connected with this bogus terrorist strike, so we have a claim to the investigation.”
“Aaahhh... Vangie, I don’t see anything listed for any theft from Smithsonian offices.”
“It hasn’t been discovered yet. That’s why I’m taking out this option.”
“That’s cutting it pretty thin, Vange.”
“Blake’s Law: Carpe Diem, before the diem carps back.”
“Well, okay, the Smithsonian’s carrier has posted your offer and verified your option on the next such case that arises, recompensation commensurate with the value of what’s recovered. Better hope it ain’t missing office supplies.”
“I have a good feeling about this. By the way, Wendy - what’re the odds on Kait’s Mayhem Pool for this operation?”
“Pretty low - no real time to set up a line, and from what I heard, they made damn sure that they stuck her on one of the outside lines of attack.”
“Well, I have an inside line that she’s INSIDE the Smithsonian right now, AND she has ‘Sarah Jane’ with her.”
“YOU’RE KIDDING! They let her inside the Smithsonian?”
“Yeah, and I wanna put a hundred on her keeping her overhead to less than $50,000.”
“Vangie, we’re talking KAIT - inside the SMITHSONIAN - with ‘Sara Jane’!”
“Hey, I have a good feeling about this one!” Vangie silently hefted the ammo clips in her carryall sack.
“Okay, you’re down for a hundred, but what makes you think-”
There was a sound at the bottom of the stairwell. “Sorry! Back to work!” She crammed her helmet back onto her head.
Pushing Pres flat against the wall, the three Erinyes prepared. When the sound of the cautiously approaching feet was right, Vangie sprang out, cart-wheeled over to where she had a blank section of reinforced wall behind her and drew a bead with her pistol. As she expected, she was immediately hit by a hail of gunfire. While the bullets weren’t enough to penetrate her Fury armor, it was still like being pummeled by an equal number of fists, and it was NOT pleasant. Vangie covered her facemask - the only vulnerable part of the armor - and leaned into the storm. Chai emptied her hands of the knives by putting them into the gun hands of two of the Saints.
As Chai drew her sword, Kait came roaring in, picked up one of the Saints, and hefted him over her head. With a hearty shriek of the patented Erinyes War Cry, Kait hefted him into a pair of his fellows, knocking all three to the ground.
With the relief from her backup, Vangie brought her staff into play again, and vaulted over the heads of the Saints, effectively containing that cell. Dealing with men in reflex armor can be a hassle, especially if you don’t particularly want to kill them. But Vangie had a remedy for that. She tapped the back of her off hand and deployed a GladiCorpa™ Retarius© capture system. The monofilament ‘net’ not only entangled the man she threw it on, but it worked on a ‘cinch-up’ principle, using the prisoner’s own movements to tighten itself more closely around him. Not only did his reflex armor not do anything against it, since the Retarius used his own movement and reflex armor only guards against external force, but the constant pressure of the Retarius turned his own armor into a form fitting prison.
However, the Retarius© is a single shot device, so she unclipped a MnemoPlast™ DermaDhesive© restraint system from her belt and started ‘taping’ the Saints into submission as Chai and Kait put them down.
When the last of the seven ‘Saints’ was down, Vangie hissed, “Kid! Any sound of the guys up on the Third Floor?”
Pres shook his head ‘no’. “I think they’re finishing up with the packages.”
“Packages?” Vangie started at the non sequitur.
“Yeah, they were taking a bunch of hard text documents from one set of crates and puttin’ ‘em into mailing crates.”
Things began to click - at least some of them did - in Vangie’s head. “Later. First, we get you out.”
Chai and Kait stripped one of the Saints, who was unconscious and not restrained, of his reflex armor and pulled it on Pres, as Vangie wrapped the Saint up like a mummy.
Once their charge was reasonably safe from stray rounds, they set off down the museum corridor.
“Damn!” Vangie muttered, “We’re in an exhibition area! Do-” Before she could finish her order, a group of ‘Saints’ came charging around, guns at ready.
Kait opened up a full-auto volley, knocking the Saints back into a glass-faced display, and shredding a display of elegant ladies’ gowns on dummies. Then she shifted over to shotgun, sending more of them sprawling, and then the grenade launcher, which splatted them with compressed adhesive ‘globs’.
“WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?” Vangie screeched at Kait.
“I took them off the Terrs.” Kait held up one of the Personal Assault Systems that the Saints had been using, as if explaining to a rather slow child.
Vangie wiped the metaphorical egg off her face through her Tac-helmet and let out a long, slow breath. She looked at the display plaques. It was a display of the Inaugural Gowns of American First Ladies. One elegant gown was almost completely shredded. The plaque said that it had belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy.
Jackie Kennedy. It couldn’t belong to Hilary Clinton or Pat Nixon; no, it HAD to be Jackie Kennedy.
Vangie took another deep breath, took the PAS from Kait and threw it next to the Saints. Then she took two of the other PASes, and plastered the exhibit with fire, to confuse the ballistics. “Okay, this never happened. When we write our reports, WE were going along THIS side of the corridor, and the Saints shot at us from that angle. THEY shot at US, destroying the display _IS _THAT _UNDERSTOOD_?”
Chai and Kait snapped to, saluted, and as one responded, “Yessir! We were coming along that side, and they shot at us from that angle, GOT IT!” Never mess with Vangie when she’s cooking reports.
“Okay - now, drag them over there, so this will fly.”
As they were busily straightening Vangie’s frame-up, another squad of Saints came along and decided to help them by confusing things more with a cross-fire of Gauss-gun fire. They managed to bracket the four and prevent them from reaching the fire escape.
The Gauss-guns were chewing up the ‘bullet-proof’ display that Pres and the Erinyes were using as cover, when the nerve rattling Erinyes War Shriek sounded from the outside. Ayumi and Margo came crashing in through the fire escape window and sent the Gauss-gun crews flying. As the Saints collected themselves enough to try and handle Ayumi and Margo, Chai and Kait peppered them with adhesive globs from the PASes they’d liberated.
When the Saints finally fell, Ayumi brightly chirped, “Did anyone call for a cab?”
Vangie gave a loud, martyred sigh. “No, we wait for an armored Ajax van. You just added at least $15,000 to our overhead, so we can’t afford any ‘reckless endangerment’ fines.”
The Ajax van powered up to what was left of the fire escape, and Vangie and Pres stepped into the van. Vangie assigned the other four to help the Myrmidion hard suit squads sweep the buildings for any lone suicide shooters or spoilsport bombs. Kait visibly brightened at the mention of bombs. *High Explosives! YEAH!*
Vangie pulled her helmet off again and watched as the Ajax EMT/PTS counselor fussed over the kid.
Pres, no longer in immediate threat of being shot, gave the woman his full attention. She was a trim, athletic woman, and her skin-tight outfit left no question as to her curves or endowments. She had the rectangular, regular features of a Hollywood beauty, with killer cheekbones, a full lower lip and a nose that turned up ever so slightly. There was something slightly off about her dark blue eyes, but he couldn’t peg it. Her dark hair was pulled back in a French braid for the helmet. Then he saw the emblem on her shoulder. It was a logo done in the art nouveau style of Aubrey Beardsley, with the face of a scowling woman with hair of writhing snakes, framed by a pair of wings. Two ribbons above and below the face declared, ‘The Wicked Flee/Where No Man Pursueth’. He flickered his gaze back to her face. “You’re an Erinyes?”
Vangie quirked a smile. “No, I run around in a skin-tight outfit, shooting guns as Performance Art.” But she relented. “Yeah, I’m an Erinys. By the way, ErinYS is the singular, ErinYES is the plural. You’ve heard of us?”
Pres blushed. “uhm, Yeah. I’ve been to a few of your web-shrines.”
“Oh, one of THOSE.” Vangie smirked. “Well, if you wanna, when you’re declared fit to live your own life again, I’m sure that I can talk a few of the girls into joining me in a few snapshots with you. Oughta make your rep on the combat-porn sites.”
“Don’t tease him!” the Ajax EMT/PTS snapped. “Hasn’t he been through enough as it IS, without you making fun of him?”
“Oh, his day isn’t over, not by a long shot,” Vangie blandly assured her. “He’s a material witness. After you’re through with him, there are going to be a LOT of questions.”
The van didn’t go very far. SOP required that all Minors involved in a hostage situation be accounted for by the Adults responsible for them, face to face. The van touched down at the landing dock, and the Erinys went looking for Mr. Vasquez, Pres’ teacher at Milken Academy. Pres glossed over the EMT/PTS’ soothing blither. He was too jazzed by the experience to listen to what she was saying. Needing something interesting to focus on, that wasn’t about ‘deep rooted fears’ or ‘shattered paradigms’, Pres took in every part of the scene at the landing.
They were stacking up what was left of a bunch of combat robots, with CSI types swarming over them for some reason. There were media types all over the place. A few of them tried to get a look inside the van, but one of the utterly humorless guards stopped them. There were a few ambulance sledges, loading seriously wounded victims. But there was something about one of the gurneys - it didn’t look right...
Then Pres spotted one of the female EMTs as she secured a rather dead looking man with a facial wound. Then it clicked! She was the woman from the office, with the fox-faced man and the soft-faced man! And there! The other EMT was the fox-faced man!
Pres tried to tell the Ajax EMT/PTS, but she just soothed him, telling him that it was perfectly normal to start seeing terrorists in every corner. Finally, when the ambulance only had three more gurneys to load, the Erinys team leader came back with Mr. Vasquez. “LOOK! See that ambulance? The EMTs! They’re part of the terrorist team! I saw them without their gas masks in the office!” Pres furiously gestured at the ambulance.
As the EMT/PTS started to say something, Vangie paused, considered and turned. “You! In the ambulance! Hold on!”
The two ‘EMTs’ gave Vangie a hard look, and chucked the gurney that they were loading. Vangie immediately started loading eye shots from her optics into her RAM implant, drew her gun and advanced through the crowd.
“TROJAN HEARSE!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, “STOP THAT SLEDGE!”
The female ‘EMT’ threw a few Flash/Bang grenades to confuse the already jittery crowd, and the sledge leaped out of its cradle. A pair of non-regulation and totally illegal ‘afterburner’ pods popped out of the sides, and the sledge went soaring over the traffic control barrier. It screamed down the Mall for a block or so, and then there was another explosion. When the spray cleared, there were two bubbling wakes, one going straight forward, and one veering off to the left.
Vangie snarled at the wake of the escaping sledge, pistol drawn but useless. Pursuit Skopters were already in the air, but Vangie knew that the foxes were already out of the hen house, and no doubt halfway to their hole. She pushed through the throng and touched her headset. “Ops? Blake. Get me Legal.” A few seconds later, “Legal? Erinys Field Agent Blake, Evangeline, X., on-site at the Smithsonian sub-contract. I have a rush order for you; I need restraining orders on one Vasquez, Arnold Schwartzeneggar, a teacher at Michael Milken Academy Private High School, and the Field Trip List for that school to the Smithsonian. I also need a Material Witness Holding Warrant for one Wyecross, Preston Giles, age 15, a freshman at that school, a student of afore-mentioned Mr. Vasquez, and should be on that Field Trip List. I need to be able to hold the kid for 48 hours at least, 96 would be better, in Protective Custody. It’s possible that our perps don’t know who the kid is, and I’d like to keep it that way. Also, I don’t want the media getting to the kid’s parents and turning them into 15-minute celebrities, so do whatever it takes to keep the wolves from their door. Get that stuff signed and sealed ASAP. SOP says that they gotta do a stint of PTS therapy, but after that, I need to ask the kid a LOT of questions.”
That done, Vangie walked back to the van. She told the guard, “You, stay with the kid. I don’t want ANYONE except the PTSes and me to talk to him. He’s a material witness in MY case, capise?” The guard nodded. She pointed at Vasquez. “I have a restraining order for him in the works, ordering him to keep shut about what just happened here until my investigation is complete. Until the ink is dry, nobody talks to him, either.” Then Vangie gave the van pilot the go-ahead, and the van lifted off with an armed skip escort.
Vangie let out a cleansing breath and looked at the Smithsonian. If she got there soon enough, she might be able to do something before anyone mucked things up too badly.
Nobody stopped her as she walked through the main door of the Old Museum of American History. ‘Spoilsport’ squads were swarming over the place, but they weren’t fool enough to challenge an Erinys. Or at least not one still carrying a gun in her hand. Vangie noticed their looks at her hand, realized that she was still carrying her .45 in the open and holstered it.
Using the Ops report on the first sighting of the kid as a guide, Vangie checked the office that he must have been in, in violation of CSI SOP. She checked the ‘No Admittance Confidential Files’ room door. Unlocked. Sloppy. Someone was in a screaming hurry.
Well, no sense contaminating the scene any further, at least until Smithsonian Security got here, so she could nail this gig. She strolled down the corridor, to the mailroom. If the kid was right, then...
In the mailroom, Vangie looked over the packages stacked for mailing. She discarded most of them, but still had a rich selection to choose from. But then...she started checking the time/date stamps. Yes. She snapped a few more internal shots, and paused. She looked at the postage meter, and quirked a pussycat smile to herself. If she had enough time...
The Burgess & Whitehead team came in with all the officious disdain that they were famous for in the Police Service Provider industry. B&W fancied themselves as heirs to the tradition of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and they never let you forget that. The two B&W agents, who looked like they’d been stamped out by a machine, glowered at Vangie in her clinging Fury armor as she lounged against a marble clad wall, with puritanical disapproval. But then, they’d have glowered at her in disapproval if she’d been wearing an all-concealing burkha; it was part of their act. “What are you still doing here? This is a Burgess & Whitehead investigation. We don’t need any more showboating.”
‘Showboating’ is a B&W term for anything that isn’t covered in the famous B&W 3,450 page Manual of Procedures.
Vangie smiled at them. “Oh, don’t mind me, I have to hang around for Smithsonian Security to get here and confirm a case for me.”
The B&W men stiffened. “Case? This is OUR case. We have the Smithsonian contract.”
“Which you defaulted on, by not being able to deploy in time.”
“We already have the contract to investigate the Tribulation Saints attack.”
“That’s not what I’m here about. My team was sent in to retrieve a loose minor who was in harm’s way. While in here the aforementioned minor saw what appeared to be an opportunistic grab of several hard text files from office lockers.”
It took some doing, but the Smithsonian Security Chief confirmed that something had been stolen from the Confidential Files, and that INFAX (by way of Vangie) had the option on the case. Morgan and Webb, the B&W ramrods, didn’t like it. Burgess & Whitehead had a rather stringent corporate culture, and ‘losing’ a contract, even a single case contract, was regarded as an abject failure. Morgan and Webb ‘allowed’, in their ‘stay out of our hair, you bumbling amateur, WE areProfessionals’ way, Vangie her ‘trivial matter’, as long as it didn’t get in the way of B&W bringing the terrorists to justice.
And yes, they really did use the term ‘bring the terrorists to justice’.
The Burgess & Whitehead forces had ‘secured’ the Smithsonian and told the Themis forces that ‘their services were no longer needed, the First Line Team was there’. So, none of the Themis vehicles were available, not even the Skip that she’d arrived on. So, Vangie had to take a taxi back to the Themis Washington Office. Which was a pain, because that meant that instead of being ‘pinged’ through the Georgetown dyke-gate and being allowed directly into the Themis garage, she had to slog through the regular security measures. In her skin-tight, latex-appearing Fury suit. Carrying a gun.
All of which meant that by the time that she got out of that skin-tight, latex-appearing Fury suit and had a much needed shower, the post-mission de-briefing was almost over. The Myrmidons were grousing again about the fact that the Erinyes got more On-Air time than they had. “Hey, we’re just more fun to watch,” Chai summed up.
“Damn nice of you to join us, Blake,” Velikovski, the Mission Honcho, drawled, as Vangie found a chair beside the rest of Team B.
“I needed take care of a few last minute details,” Vangie returned, “I hadda nail down my option on a case for the Smithsonian.”
“I thought that was B&W’s gig.”
“Side job that I wrangled.”
The Honcho gave her a respectful look. “You wrangled a contract right out from under B&W’s noses?”
“Blake’s Law: The earlier the bird, the juicier the worm.”
Velikovski shrugged. “Okay, to sum up, this mission was a qualified success. First, we deployed in under Ten Minutes, from First Alarm to Last Man In Place, on a Default Option Call. That’s an automatic $500 bonus for everyone.”
There was a general ‘all right!’ all around on that.
“Next, all known hostages were recovered. There were four injuries and two fatalities, but that happened before we hit the button. We have been cleared for $1,000 ‘clean slate’ bonuses all around.” There was a heartier ‘Yeah!’ for that one.
“Team B, you finished first. There were two broken arms, and a raft of bruises and such, but nothing actionable. $1,000 bonus for you girls.” There were high-fives all around.
“Also, Team B, you went in and recovered an endangered minor, in the face of repeated attack. There’s a $5,000 bonus in it for you, IF it can be proven that a certain exhibit worth $12 million and change was destroyed by the opposition.”
“It’s in the bag,” Vangie breezed. “Ballistics will prove that the damage was done by the Saints’ PAS.”
“Assault Systems that YOUR team appropriated for use,” Velikovski pointed out.
“From two guns that we set aside as evidence, after we took them away from the thugs who shredded the exhibit. The guns that my girls used were promptly turned over for examination against any damage done, as per SOP.” Vangie, Kait and Chai all smiled, the very image of virtuous innocence.
The Honcho raised one eyebrow. “Yeah, right. At least there’s nothing that can conclusively be tracked back to Themis™.”
“Oh, ah, just for the record,” Vangie asked innocently, “how badly DID we chew into our overhead?”
“Well, for a change, you actually managed to keep the carnage to a minimum. $18,000, and most of that was the window which Matsuyama crashed through.”
“YES!” Vangie gave out a victorious yelp.
“By the way, exactly how DID you keep Marksbury from wreaking her usual havoc?”
Vangie grinned and cocked a thumb at Kait. “First thing in, I ordered ‘Boom-boom’ to hand over all of her ammo.”
“Anyway, the Determination Board is on your side on that one. The Smithsonian’s insurance is kicking about it, but it’s up to them to prove that you did the damage.”
Velikovski reviewed Kait’s performance with the bomb squad, and then gave the kicker. “So far, an excellent job. But then, we let the Bad Guys GET AWAY! This is a MAJOR disgrace, people! Yes, only a handful of them got away, but Themis was on the job, so exactly ZERO of them should have gotten away! Yes, it was a pure fluke that we even know about it at all, but that makes it even worse! So, no ‘Perfect Performance’ bonuses, and a unilateral $1,000 ‘boy, did YOU screw up’ penalty will be levied.” He let out a heavy sigh. Then he gave the assembled hoard a sly look. “Of course, if we found these bad boys and dragged them in by the heels, that would go a LONG way toward perking our stock up. Both the Company’s - and yours. Now, technically the Saints are Bozos & Wussoid’s contract, but, hey, that’s just the Smithsonian contract.
“There are multiple bounties out for the Tribulation Saints, both as an organization and for many specific individuals.” He grinned evilly, his trademark stainless steel teeth glinting in the light. “Which makes them fair game. Still, we’ll have to be careful on this one. B&W will be cracking heads left and right, so the Saints will be laying low.”
“I don’t think so, Boss,” Vangie said.
“Oh? You know something, Blake?”
“The Smithsonian job wasn’t the Saint’s usual gig. Usually, they try to set it up so that they can play up the ‘decadence of modern society’ angle and make their ‘the Last Days are here’ noise. The Smithsonian was a straight up grab, with the hostages as window dressing. They went in for something, and whatever it was that they got, is the key to whatever it is they’re gonna do.”
“So, any ideas, Sherlock?”
“Not just yet. But I’ll get more information, when B&W does.”
“Oh, you’re dating a B&W goon?”
“Better. My contract with the Smithsonian specifically states that they give me access to all information that they have dealing with the case. B&W SOP requires that they give their clients regular, detailed information on what they’ve learned. The case involves the Saint’s raid, so any information the Smithsonian security goons have will be shared, as a matter of course, with us. Hell, I’ll probably be the only one actually reading the damn reports.”
Velikovski arched an eyebrow. “Any way to keep the data-bleed one-way, if B&W starts asking things?”
“Only if you allow me to alter our client update schedule. To, like, when we feel like it.”
“Consider yourself allowed. So, since there’s nothing else...” The Honcho started handing out Bonus Chits.
“Suh-weeet!” Chai breezed. “$7,500 for an afternoon’s work! I love picking up Butt & Wipe’s fumbles!”
Kait blinked her large green eyes at the chit. “Oh, so THAT’S what a bonus looks like!”
“Yeah,” Ayumi grinned, "maybe now you’ll be able to dig yourself out of the coffins, and into a REAL dorm room.”
“Why?” Kait asked, “I never sleep in them, anyway.”
“Yeah, well, ask for a bigger space anyway,” Chai said snippishly, “I getting tired of cluttering up MY space with all your toys.”
“Hey, where you goin’, Snake-eyes?” Ayumi asked.
“I have a case hanging fire, remember?” Vangie returned. “And I have to clean up a few details, before that kid gets out of PTS and I can get started on it.”
Back at the Erinyes’ Office, Vangie looked up at the Offering Board. Shit, the Trans-Atlantic fish poaching case was still flapping in the breeze. Please, please, pleeeeze don’t let Diana dump it in my lap, Vangie prayed.
She walked over to Wendy Hookes’ Case Manager’s desk. “So, Wendy --- how did the betting run on the Kait pool today?”
Wendy attacked her keyboard with a passion and called up a screen, then swiveled it around so that Vangie could see. *<Pfew!>* “SOMEBODY was busy! We were in there, what, Ten, Twenty minutes tops?”
“I, ah, called around, as soon as you told me that Marksbury was inside. The betting got pretty stiff, at between 10 and 25 Mil.”
“Well, that explains why the Bomb Squad was so keen on having Kait help them out.”
Hookes gave Vangie a calculating look. “Aaannddd...exactly HOW MUCH damage did they ding her for?”
Vangie gave her a feline grin. “18K, for the entire team.”
“WHAT? And you expect me to pay off on that? Everyone KNOWS that you cooked the results!”
Vangie’s grin went steely. “Yeah, you go and prove that. I’ll bet that the company would be REAL grateful that you proved that we’re liable for 12 million.”
The office bookie grumped, pulled out a Chit book, and wrote out a Chit for five thousand dollars, on her personal account. She gave the chit a disgusted look and handed it to Vangie as if she were turning over her only child.
“Oh, Puh-leeze!” Vangie said as she took the chit. “It’s not like you’re not making out like a bandit on this one, anyway.”
“Please, just --- just --- go away. I need time to mourn.” Wendy struck a pose of melodramatic grief.
Pres was barely able to keep from dancing with relief as the guard escorted him from Post-Traumatic Stress therapy. There is nothing surer to bring you down from an adrenaline rush than someone babying you and telling that it’s okay to be afraid. The sheer relief at getting away from the tender concern was enough to make him feel good. And then they walked into the Erinyes Office Area.
The office area itself wasn’t that remarkable. It was your basic cubicle warren, with a ring of offices around the edge. It was a rather nice warren, as warrens go. It had nice low partitions of dark wood, the kind that allowed you to look over them at your neighbors, instead of the claustrophobic kind that most cubicle warrens had. There were plants and such, and the cubicles themselves were well stocked with individual touches. But what made the Erinyes Office Area remarkable, was the women.
Everywhere, there were absolutely gorgeous women. It was like being backstage at a fashion shoot. Only the ‘models’ were all carrying guns. Everywhere he looked, were exquisite beauties, the kind who would be the center of attention anywhere else. But they just part of the scene, here. The guard led him past utterly gorgeous women, who seemed to take a special pride in dressing each in their own fabulous way.
Rubbernecking all the way, Pres was led to one of the cubicles. The guard ‘knocked’ on the partition. “The witness, safe and sound - or, at least as sound as you can get, after a session with the shrinks.”
“Thanks, Rajhid.” Seated at the desk, staring at an array of hologram computer screens as they popped up, flickered, merged with other screens, budded off a few other screens and then winked out, was the woman who’d been with him in the van. Her black hair was loose, combed back from her face and falling to her shoulders in waves. She was wearing a simple long sleeved dress with a high collar that opened up into a nice décolletage. The dress, while not as revealing as the ‘latex’ number, was close fitting, and was of a dark blue solid that brought out her eyes. She turned those eyes, which were behind a large pair of frameless ‘fashion’ glasses that suited her face, on Pres as she pulled a plug from a socket just behind her right ear. “So, Preston,” she began in a voice that had a slight lilting accent that he couldn’t place.
“Pres. Everyone calls me Pres.”
“Okay, Pres; so, are you up to answering a few questions?”
“You’re not ask me how I feel, and try and herd me into admitting that I'm gonna wet my bed, are you?”
Vangie smiled. “No, my questions will be a lot more objective. Pres, you're a material witness to the theft of materials from the Smithsonian. Since those thefts are linked to the terrorist assault on the Institute, which resulted in two deaths, you're also a Material Witness to a Capital Felony. We have a warrant, which allows us to hold you as a Material Witness, no matter what your parents say, for up to 72 hours. We’d infinitely prefer to have your active cooperation in this, and it IS in your best interests. We’d rather not go all strongarm on you, but we can. So, Pres, how is this all gonna snap together?”
Pres looked around the office. “Why are all the women here so good looking?”
“Look at this place! It looks like the set for one of those utterly plastic ‘super-spy’ shows, where all the girls are jaw-dropping mega-femmes! I look around, and I don’t see anyone who rates less than an ‘8’ - oh, my mistake, now that I’m looking, I do see a few average looking women and even a few guys. But those are wearing what looks like office uniforms while the others…” Pres trailed off, watching one Mediterranean beauty walk by. She was wearing a one-shouldered ‘toga’ shift dress, and was as telling an argument for his point as anything he could say.
He turned to Vangie, his eyebrows raised.
“We are Erinyes-”
“The Erinyes Corps is Themis’ Utility/Special Operations division. As the Special Ops division, we are expected to go into some very... extreme... situations, and not only survive, but perform very complex, very demanding tasks while doing it. So, each field agent is treated with what’s called the ‘Dragon’s Blood Process’. The Dragon’s Blood process-”
“Like the dragon’s blood that gives Siegfried the ability to talk to birds, in the Ring of the Neibelung?”
Vangie smiled and cocked an eyebrow at him. “I take it that they’re big on the Classics, at that school you go to? Yes, the blood of dragons confers great power in many mythologies. Anyway, the Dragon’s Blood process is a suite of nanites that reinforce the skeleton, ligaments and musculature, retro-gene therapy virii, and a technique that augments the Ki, so that we’re stronger, faster, tougher and so on. Where I’m going with this is, that part of the reinforcement process causes our bones to become cartilaginous, go soft and pliable, before they firm up again. During this period, Osteo-scultping, or adjusting the formation of bone and muscle tissue, is so easy that they literally allow us to pick and choose what we’re going to look like beforehand. In other words, we look this good, because we CAN,” Vangie finished with a smile.
“Okay, I can see that,” Pres nodded, “but howcum there aren’t any GUYS like that around?”
<ahem!> “Well, you see, while there are a number of Ki-augmentation and other, ah, ‘super-soldier’ processes in use, the Dragon’s Blood process is hands down the most effective, in terms of conferring strength, speed, durability and endurance-”
“Then why are you guys working for a Private Company, instead of some government or Bloc?”
“I was getting to that.” Vangie lowered her glasses down her nose and gave Pres a glare. “As I said, the Dragon’s Blood process is arguably the most effective Combat Performance Upgrade method yet created. But it has an essential flaw that they just couldn’t get around. You see, the primary retro-gene virus - ah, no, that’s too technical. The problem with it was that, in plain speaking, it killed 87.3% of the women that it was used on and it turned the men that it was used on into women. The British developed it for the SAS, which is their contribution to the EU’s Special Forces, but they couldn’t get any volunteers. Dying for Crown and Country is one thing, but giving up your manhood? Nobody was fool enough to ask a macho Special Forces type to do that. So, after they gave up trying to resolve that essential flaw, they sold it to INFAX, Themis’ parent company, which is an Information Management Syndicate. INFAX tinkered with it for a while, and then someone got the bright idea of offering it to Male-to-Female transsexuals, who WANTED the sex change effect. So, INFAX, by way of Themis, their Police Services Provider division, offers the Dragon’s Blood process in exchange for working for them as Erinyes.”
“You mean that you just went to INFAX, asked them for it, and they let you have it?”
“It’s a LOT more involved than that. The Erinyes Corps is rather famous in MtF TS circles. There are literally millions of applicants every year, and Themis can only afford to field a few thousand Erinyes in our offices worldwide. Openings are pretty much ‘dead man’s boots’. The Screening Process is excruciating, and it’s not like they tell you what they’re looking for, so you can’t study for it. Not that it stops us.” Vangie gave a rueful laugh. “Themis likes to brag that the Erinyes are responsible for a quantum shift in High School performance among diagnosed TSes. Once you get through the screening, you have to go through a three-year training course that makes West Point look like a party college. And even then, when you graduate, you have to sign a $250,000 Indentured Service Contract.”
Pres goggled. “Two hundred and fifty THOUSAND dollars? In NuBucks?” While $250,000 in old American dollars may not have been that much in 2030, there had been the spiraling deflation of the 2030s and 2040s. That was followed by the depression of 2045-53, and the merging of the United States with Canada and Mexico into the North American Federation. All this had strengthened the Federal Dollar, or ‘NuBuck’, to the buying power that the American Dollar had enjoyed in roughly 1955. In other words, $250,000 in NuBucks, while not an actual fortune, was more than most people expected to earn in twenty years. To sign an Indentured Service Contract for $250,000, which meant that you had to pay off your debt with a percentage of your wages, and you couldn’t leave your job until the debt was paid, was the equivalent of becoming a virtual slave for life.
“Yep,” Vangie nodded, "in NuBucks. It’s not that bad - they only charge a 1% interest rate, and we get bonuses that we can put against our Process Debt if we choose, and, well, it’s not like they've got us picking cotton.”
Pres looked at Vangie skeptically. “One percent? Compounded annually? I thought the companies that used Indentured Service Contracts charged as much as 20%, compounded quarterly, to keep their workers under their thumb as long as possible.”
“You’re right, most companies with Indentured Service Contracts do that, and worse. But WE are nanite-enhanced, Ki-augmented, covert ops-trained shock troops with very big guns. And what sort of pinhead squeezes super-soldiers? The Brass would SHOOT any accountant daft enough to suggest upping our interest rate by even one percent!”
The look on Pres’ face altered slightly. “And do YOU feel that you did the right thing?”
Vangie smiled and leaned back in her chair. She tucked her hands behind her head, thrusting out her full, but not top-heavy, chest. “What do YOU think?”
Then she leaned forward, and typed out a command on her desktop computer. The printer coughed and whined, and produced a glossy brochure, folded and bonded with adhesive. Vangie handed the brochure to Pres. The cover of the eight-page brochure read, ‘Erinyes Corps: Be More Than Just A Woman’. “This IS what you’ve been angling for, isn’t it?”
Pres turned beet red. “W-what do you mean?”
Vangie started ticking things off on one hand. “First, back in the van, you knew that I was an Erinys, without being told. This, despite the fact that just now, you were all ‘what’s an Erinys’? That means that you know who we are, and you’ve done some research, probably on-line. Second, you knew me from my shoulder patch. The combat-porn sites that run all of those clips of us, don’t bother with the patch. But, the TS resource sites that mention us - in nauseating detail - do. Third, while you were obviously interested in the female beauty around you, you haven't been giving yourself whiplash, the way that the average horn-dog does when they first come in. Fourth, you were steering the discussion as to find out as much about the basic situation as you could. You’re not particularly worried about the terrorists, so you’re obviously more interested in the potential benefits that this situation offers than the risks. And last,” she finished ticking off her fingers, “I was wearing a skintight outfit that showed off every curve, but despite being a healthy 15-year-old boy, you were looking at my face, not my boobs.”
Pres looked down, clearly abashed. Vangie softened, and reached over to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Pres, honey, if there is any place on this planet where you won’t be slammed for being TS, it’s here. Lighten up, sweetie.”
Vangie started to ask a few questions, when a pair of Erinyes walked up to the cubicle. One of them was a sleek blonde wearing a mutton chop-sleeved shirtwaist blouse in the ‘Neo-Victorian’ style that was all the rage. Just behind her, the other was a stoic faced brunette with her hair arranged in a high-set ponytail, wearing a close fitting sleeveless minidress. The blonde rested an arm on the frame of the cubicle and leaned in with a smile. “So! Is this your witness for the Smithsonian case?”
Vangie gave them a tense not-really-a-smile. “I’m sorry, but that’s restricted information. Need to know, pertinent to the case, kill you if I had to tell you and all that sort of thing.”
“Oh? Have you chosen a partner for this case? You can’t work a case like this without one, you know.”
“Partner. Yeah, she’s getting a file.” Vangie got up and looked around the office area for anyone available who wasn’t Val or Darcy.
She searched for someone that Val couldn’t push around. But Val was very good at pushing people around. Then Vangie spotted Chai turning in the paperwork for the case that she’d had to leave hanging that morning, to her case manager. A ‘Completed’ icon appeared over Chai’s case screen on the Status board. Perfect. Chai and Val hated each other’s guts, and since she’d helped get Pres out of the Smithsonian, she could reasonably be considered already ‘in the loop’. “Hey, Chai!” she shouted, “you got that file yet?”
When Chai looked over, Vangie dropped her hand to where Val couldn’t see it and flashed Chai a hand signal. The signal meant ‘under fire’ and then another one that meant ‘play it by ear’. Chai saw Val and Darcy standing by Vangie’s cubicle, and gave a nod of understanding. She walked over, making a production of slinking along in her emerald green chiamsong. She must not have gotten enough raw meat at the Smithsonian, Vangie thought to herself, she usually wears that outfit when she’s in one of her ‘Dragon Lady’ moods.
Chai walked up to the cubicle, and Pres got a distinct impression of two cats folding their ears back, arching their backs, bristling up their tails and just holding back from spitting at each other. Chai gave Val a broad not-smile and said, “Oh, you came over to see what we’d have to drink? Lovely! I’ll have lapsang suchong tea, no sugar, no milk, and just a squeeze of lemon.”
Val held back a spit and turned to leave. Chai called after her, ‘Remember, no milk this time!” Then she muttered, “Ayah, that woman needs to get a man.”
“She did,” Vangie returned, “you can see little bits of him in her teeth.”
“What was all THAT about?” Pres asked.
“Oh, just office politics. Nothing to worry about, Sweetie,” Vangie reassured him. “Val, the blonde, is the office scavenger. She has a habit of ‘poaching’ on cases, and none-too-gently edging you out of the picture. All strictly within Company Ethical Guidelines, you understand. And Darcy, the brunette, isn’t quite Val’s yes-woman; she’s way too tough in a stand-up fight for that.”
“Oh, I dunno about that,” Chai countered with a feral smile. “I wouldn’t mind running into her in a dark alley.”
“DOWN, Killa,” Vangie said warningly. Then she relented. “So, you free to second me on this case?”
“Well, it will be a nice change from the lost dog cases they've had me on lately.”
“Lost dog?” Pres asked. “But I thought you were some sort of Elite Combat Unit! And they have you working lost dog cases?”
Vangie leaned over. “Well, y’see, a few months back, she and her buddy - y’know, the big amazon with the guns? - sort of demolished a warehouse down in Watertown on a Contraband Control case. So, as punishment, they’ve been sticking them with the small fry cases that the other divisions send over to get them off of their boards.”
“But why would they waste your time on little things like that? You told me that it takes a quarter of a million dollars to get you converted, I’d think that they’d want to save you for the important stuff!”
Chai cocked an inquiring eyebrow at Vangie. “Pres here is very interested in what we do here,” Vangie explained.
Chai spotted the Erinyes Corps brochure in Pres’ hand, and gave a knowing smile. “So, did ‘Snake-eyes’ here fill you in on the Dragon’s Blood process, and our hyoooj Process Debt?” Pres nodded. “Well, you have to remember, the Dragon’s Blood upgrade is only really useful for combat monsters like us. But it’s an Iron Rule of Combat that, no matter how well trained, equipped, or conditioned they are, Soldiers Die. Period. That means that a significant number of Erinyes are going to die before they pay off their Process Debts. So, the bean counters jacked the initial Process Debut up to a quarter-mil, and they try to get us to generate profits in ways other than getting our oh-so-expensive asses shot at. So, besides being a Special Operations division, we are a Utility division as well.”
“‘Utility Division’ being a bureaucratic euphemism for sort of a stone bucket,” Vangie explained. “We get jobs and cases from practically all the other divisions, usually the piddling little stuff that they don’t want cluttering up their boards, or the messy stuff that they don’t wanna deal with and like that.”
Chai pulled a spare chair from the cubicle across the way and sat. “So, now that we have the info-dump taken care of, why don’t we do a little actual investigation?”
“I was just getting to that, when the Vulture Queen showed up,” Vangie responded. Then she turned to Pres. “Okay, Sweetie, start from the time that you entered the Smithsonian, and give me the basics. We will go over various parts - repeatedly - so don’t bog yourself up by trying to remember too many details at this part.”
After Pres gave them his basic story, Vangie reached into a drawer, pulled out a TlS crown, unwrapped it from its cellophane packing and settled it on his head. She said soothingly, “Okay, you probably recognize this as a Total Immersion Sensorium headset, the kind they use in TIS arcades. You do go the arcade, right?”
“What’s your favorite milieu?”
Pres blushed. “‘Riverdale High©’.“
“Ah, the old idealized High School setting. Well, you’re only a freshman, so I guess that you can be excused on that one. Besides,” Vangie leaned in confidentially, “I’ve ‘gone to the dance with Archie’ a few times m’self. Who’s your favorite character to play?”
Pres blushed again. “Betty.”
“Okay, now, as you know, the headset detects specific responses in your brain and interprets them through a pre-set matrix of recorded and verified responses. By the way, do you have your Arcade Card on you?”
Pres dug into his wallet and fished out a blue-gold-and-white Elysium Arcades™ interface card. Vangie took it. “This will make things a lot quicker.” She connected the crown up to her computer and inserted the card into a reader. “Okay, now the headset won’t ‘read your mind’ or anything, but it can tell when you’re using the parts of your brain that store memories, or the ones that you use when you are being ‘creative’. And, for our purposes, ‘creative’ means either lying, or coming up with things that you think that we want to hear. Now, I want you to go to a level 2 meditative state, like you would at the arcade.”
Pres settled back and tried to relax. But in the arcades, they had really comfortable reclining chairs, each in their own booths, so you didn’t have to worry about other people seeing what you were doing. Still, he allowed himself to relax as best he could.
“All right, now slowly open your eyes, Sweetie, and hold that mindset.”
Pres opened his eyes. Vangie had set the computer hologram projector to erect a screen about two feet in front of him. On the ‘screen’ was a face shot of a balding, square faced man. “Okay, Sweetie, I know that this doesn’t look much like the ‘soft-faced’ man that you saw in the museum. Think about what the soft-faced man DID look like, as opposed to what you see here.”
Pres though about it, and as he did, the face on screen began to warp. It slowly moved closer and closer to what he remembered. Then it moved in twitches and lurches, and it jerked into becoming the very image of the man that Pres had seen.
“That’s HIM! But I don’t have that good a memory!”
“Actually, we all do, Sweetie,” Chai assured him. “Besides telling when you’re being *ahem!* ‘creative’, the headset can also tell when your memory is being jogged, and to what degree. That last bit with the sudden jerks was to get it as accurate as possible. Now that we’ve got his face, let’s go to work on his voice.”
The face on the screen began reciting a poem. Pres recognized it as Whitman’s I Sing The Body Electric. The voice fluctuated a bit, and by the third repetition, the synthesized voice had every nuance of his delivery. Then they repeated the whole process for the fox-faced man and the woman. But when the time came for the book shaped gadget, for some reason, Pres just kept sliding over into ‘creative’, and no definitive image could be captured.
Vangie saved the three mug shots and shut down the Identify Program. She leaned back in her chair and gave Pres a raking look of scrutiny. “Y’know, this shouldn’t be that hard. From your description, it’s a simple mechanical device, with a few intricacies that are probably some Byzantine security measure. It should be easier for you to ID this than it was for the three faces and voices.” She raised an eyebrow. “Of course, you realize that your identification of that dingus is crucial to this case. It’s probably what this whole shebang is about. Indeed, we’d probably have to involve you directly into the case, taking you along, just in case you spot anything that you glossed over. And of course, to positively ID the dingus when we actually see it.”
Vangie shifted her gaze to one of the computer hologram ‘screens’ and the flickering readout. Her face went hard, her voice stern, and her eyes glittered like steel. “But then, that was the whole idea, wasn’t it? You figure that maybe you’ll get a nice ‘In’ with Themis if you are listed as a material asset in a concluded case, don’t you? You figure that maybe it will grease your way past the Admissions Exams, right? That’s why you deliberately fudged the ID scans! So that you’d have to be in the field, a direct part of the investigation, instead of locked away, just a footnote in the case record!”
Vangie’s expression melted into bemused appreciation. “Good Plan, Kid! It works! We have you for another 68 hours, until we have to ask your parents their permission. And, having you close at hand would be better than risking a video link.” Vangie’s expression firmed up again. “BUT, you ARE a witness. AND a minor, to boot. While you’re in our custody, you're our responsibility. And even it you weren’t, we don’t like it when ‘little sisters’ get hurt.” Vangie patted Pres’ hand. “So, that means, you only come in at a scene when we need an ID, when we TELL you to come in. When we tell you to stay in the sled or any other safe location, you'd better bloody well STAY there! When we tell you to duck for cover, you duck! We tell you to run, you run like the devil was after you! Is that understood?”
Pres nodded vigorously.
Vangie turned and looked at Chai. “And what about you?”
“Oh, I’m perfectly willing to stay back where it’s nice and safe!”
Vangie glowered at her. “I meant, are you willing to have a witness tagging along on this investigation?”
Chai gave Pres a long, measuring look. “Yeah, with one proviso - we bring along a bodyguard for the kid. I suggest Kait.”
Vangie’s eyes popped wide open. “Boom-boom? You want to put this child-”
“HEY!” Pres bridled.
“-under the care of a trigger-happy Gun Nut like BOOM-BOOM?”
“Hey, do NOT dump on Kait!”
“So, who’s dumping? She’s a brick! But she’s also a walking disaster area, whenever she has a gun in her hand! Her first reaction in a firefight is to put as much lead in the air as physically possible! This is the first time in months that she’s seen an actual profit on an operation! She’d be more of a threat to the kid than a safeguard!” Vangie glared at Chai, her eyes unblinking.
“Hey, do NOT give me the Snake Eye!” Chai retaliated. “Besides, she’s only a danger to anyone in front of her. As long as he stays out of Kait’s arc of fire, he’s safe as houses.” Chai arched an eyebrow. “Admit it, you’re just too damn cheap to risk the possible damage charges that might accrue if Kait was along for the ride. You’d rather let the kid get dead than cut into your overhead!”
“Hey, I admit that having an extra hand along to make sure that the kid stays safe is a good idea, but WHY does it have to be Kait? Don’t get me wrong, I like Kait, she’s a great girl, but she LIVES to blow things up!”
“And this will be a liability exactly how?” Chai said in the Voice of Extreme Reason.
Vangie settle back in her chair and tapped a finger on her desktop. “How about Kitten? They’re the same height, and with a little help, we could confuse the opposition.”
Chai looked at the Status Board. “Nope. Kitten and Julia are both still working that Black Bag job for Finson & Nalley.”
Chai shook her head. “Kait. If we’re going up against the Tribulation Saints, I want someone I can rely on backing me up.”
Vangie glared at her. “Oh, thank you so very much for the vote of confidence.”
“Vangie, she needs the money.”
Vangie continued glowering at her.
“Vange, this is a Smithsonian job! Anything having to do with the Smithsonian, that would involve a break-in like this morning, has to be up in the hundreds of Millions in value, if not Billions! Even KAIT would have a hard time putting a dent in the overhead allowance for that much!”
Vangie let out a long, martyred sigh. “Okay, okay, but I expect you to keep her on a leash for a change. Go ahead, get your partner in catastrophe, before I come to my senses.” Chai scurried off as fast as her tight dress would allow. Vangie looked up at the ceiling and said to the universe, “I just KNOW that I’m gonna regret this...”
A few moments later, Kait followed Chai into the getting even more crowded cubicle. She towered a good foot over her friend, even thought Chai was wearing 4-inch heels. She was wearing traction slippers, embroidered blue jeans, a red leatherette blazer, and a black singlet with a licensed character of an anthropomorphic (and quite buxom) tigress in a tight slinky dress, sprawling on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. The tigress was toying with a martini glass while gazing at the viewer with a ‘come-hither’ look. Under the picture was written ‘Sexual Predator’. Kait’s long, flaming red hair was pulled back in a flirty ponytail. “So,” she said cheerfully, “I hear that you’re looking for a lost dog. We have a special today on Airedales!”
Vangie let it slide. “Pres, this is Kaitlyn Marksbury. She was one of the team members that got you out this morning. You know, the one that-” Vangie shot a glare at Kait, “-*DIDN’T* trash that exhibit with a gun that she wasn’t supposed to have?” Kait flashed a wide apologetic smile and bounced on the balls of her feet. “Kait, this is Preston Wyecross, the kid we pulled out of the Smithsonian this morning. She saw a few things going down while she was sneaking around, trying not to get caught. So, we’re going to have her tagging along, just in case she spots something.”
Kait raised an eyebrow at the use of ‘she’, and spotted the Erinyes brochure in Pres’ hand. Pres quickly stuffed the brochure away. Even so, Kait have Pres a reassuring smile.
Vangie went on to explain the need for a bodyguard. Then there was a spirited round of negotiation, which they settled with a 35-35-30 split, with Kait getting the 30%. As Kait grumbled about getting stiffed, Vangie was giving Pres a measuring look. “Hmmm...the real problem here isn’t so much keeping Pres safe - we just keep her at one of the dorms, no biggie - it’s gonna be keeping her identity a secret. They didn’t get much of a chance to look at Pres in the Smithsonian, she was all bundled up in that Reflex Armor when she spotted their ambulance getaway, and we’ve got a restraining order on the student list for the Field Trip, so that’s no biggie. BUT, if we drag her along, there’s no way that we can stop them from getting a good shot of her and doing a brute force comparison of the students at the schools. If they do that, we’d have to take your parents into protective custody as well. And, if we do that, we gotta recompense them for Hours Lost. And that could be REAL expensive. I think it would be safer all around-”
“And a LOT cheaper,” Chai piped in.
“-if we just disguise you while you’re with us.” Vangie favored Pres with a conspiratorial smile. “So, Sweetie, how would you feel about going around in a holo-mask, a wig, and maybe --- a dress?”
Pres’ face lit up.
“No, not a holo-mask,” Chai insisted.
Pres crashed. “Why nawwwttt????”
“Because holo-masks are obvious. There’s that white plastic frame all around your face, and everyone knows that you’re wearing a holo-mask. So, as soon as she’s seen with us in a holo-mask, everyone’s gonna KNOW that she’s our witness!”
“And this is bad?” Vangie asked, hands wide. “As soon as a high school kid is seen with us, they're gonna know that she’s our witness. BUT, they’re gonna assume that a real girl is the witness, and direct any research that they do toward finding her parents in the wrong direction.”
Chai folded her arms. “Blake, they SAW her in the museum. They KNOW that the kid who saw them is a boy. Her only protection is in having no one think that she’s a witness!”
“Oh?” Vangie challenged, “And what do you suggest?”
“A flesh mask. It will register as the real thing, even under UV, IR or radar scrutiny.”
“A FLESH MASK?” Vangie sputtered, “Are you NUTS? Do you know how much those things cost?”
Chai turned to Pres and jerked a thumb at Vangie. “She’s such a cheapskate, you’d think that she was five years behind on her Process Debt, instead of five ahead.”
“Hey, it’s GOOD to be a little ahead!” Vangie snarled. “And you don’t pile up that breathing room you've got by maxing out your Expense Account on every case!”
“What’s a ‘flesh mask’?” Pres asked.
Chai ignored Vangie as she fumed. “It’s a sort of ‘living mask’ of pseudo-flesh. They lay a nano-fine sensor mesh over your face, and then overlay that with a responder mesh. The responder mesh is shaped to the form of the new features that you want. Then Stemiderm© pseudo-flesh is poured into the responder mesh and integrates with your own skin. The whole thing is less than half a millimeter thick, so the mask isn’t obvious. The sensor mesh detects the nuances of things like blushing, twitches and such, and sends them to the responder mesh, so you get lifelike expression, and the responder mesh also sends back input, so it feels like your own skin. They are very convincing, and very comfortable.”
“Yeah,” Vangie said, crossing her arms defensively, “and what she ISN’T telling you is that if the damn things aren’t devitalized with 36 hours of setting, they start to become extra levels of dermis, levels of mesh and all. You’re STUCK like that.”
Pres shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like that big a problem.” It was obvious that she was digging on the flesh mask idea.
“Oh?” Vangie hooted, eyebrows up high. “You wanna go to back to your parents with a new face?”
Pres wilted. “_No._”
Vangie sat forward. She hadn’t expected the kid to take it that badly. “What’s the matter? Don’t your parents at least have a clue about your TS?”
Pres squirmed in her seat. “ah, No. Y’see, they’re kind’a stiff, y’know?”
Vangie screwed up her face in sympathy. “So, ah, your parents kinda put the ‘despair’ in ‘desperately respectable’?
Vangie let out a long breath. “Okay, okay, okay, we’ll spring for the flesh mask. BUT, you gotta take it off either just before you go to bed, or when you get up in the morning. We don’t want have to explain to your parents about your ‘new look’. They’re gonna be pissed off enough as it is, that we’re keeping you as a material witness.”
Vangie got up and looked around. When she saw the woman in the ‘toga’, she caught her eye and waved the woman over. “Hey, Julia, this is Pres, she’s a material witness in the Smithsonian case that we’re working on. We’re gonna need her in the field, so we have to come up with a disguise. We’re taking her down to Covert Ops, to have Disguises do a flesh mask for her, but we’re gonna need something for her to wear; d’you think that you could talk Kitten into lending us a couple of her ‘little darling’ outfits?”
Julia looked at Pres and favored her with a wide smile, the kind that warms up a room. “Of course,” she purred, “anything for a little sister.” She tousled Pres’ hair and walked away.
“Okay, let’s get you fit for the street,” Vangie said as she shut down her computer.
“Who’s Kitten?” Pres asked.
“Oh, The Kitten’s one of the Erinyes in the office. She’s about your size, and her specialty is passing herself off as a kid.”
“And Julia’s her partner?”
“No, they’re just working together on a case. We don’t have regular partners, the way that Cops do.” Vangie shot off a glare at Chai and Kait. “Of course, SOP requires that we have partners on a case, but it’s nothing permanent.”
Pres looked puzzled. “Then why would Julia be the one to ask Kitten if she’d lend me an outfit?”
Vangie steered Pres out of the office. “Because people have a very hard time refusing Julia anything.”
“She’s that persuasive?”
“More to the point, she’s one of those people who loves doing things for other people, so everyone owes her at least one favor, and even it they didn’t, no one - well, maybe Val - has the heart to say ‘No’ to Julia.”
With that, Vangie sent Pres off with Kait. When Pres was well out of earshot, Vangie used one of the secure landlines at Wendy’s desk. “Hello, Domestic Intelligence? This is Evangeline Blake, Erinyes Division. Would you give me Roger Park?” There was a wait. “Roger! Vangie. Lissen up, Raj, I've got a ‘tourist’. Yep. Part of that Smithsonian hoo-ha. Wants to be ‘part of the investigation’. Uh hunh. Yeah, all of fifteen years old. Ennyway, I need some place to take the kid. Some place with no real danger, but lots of atmosphere and suspense and grit and all that Cop Show crap. Yeah. Well, it would be really good if it actually had something to with the case, so that we’re not completely wasting company time by humoring the kid. It’s gotta have something to do with the Trib Saints.”
It took Roger a while, but he had a lead on a suspected Saints weapons cache. “So, since they dipped into their weapons stores, they probably moved it already,” he said. “BUT, if you nose around, you might be able to get a lead on stuff like when they moved it, how-”
“And from there, check the local security measures for license plates and like that. Yeah, Raj, I know the drill.”
Vangie saw Roger smirk over the line. “So, once you give Junior his thrill ride and put him away for the night, what say we get together for a drink?”
Vangie smiled back at him over the phone. Hey, it was GOOD to be a heart-stopping babe! “Raj, you KNOW that I have a rule about not dating Cops! And even if I didn’t, I’m seeing someone regular these days. As a matter of fact, I have-” Vangie’s face dropped, “-a date tonight. Oh, Crud. Gotta Go, Raj, I owe you one!”
Wendy leaned over her desk, one hand over her keyboard, a look of predatory curiosity on her face. “Oh, what’s this?”
“Please, Wendy, I don’t need any grief right now!” Vangie pulled out her phone and hit speed-dial. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I do NOT want to say this to an answering machine!”
Then David’s Priority Clearance system put Vangie through. “DAVID! Honey! About the Opera tonight.” Vangie's face screwed up in an apologetic grin. “I’m afraid that I’m gonna have to ask for a rain check. A cow dropped out of the sky, and a really time-sensitive case landed in my lap. No, I can’t sluff it off on someone else. There’s a personal touch issue involved. No, David, I am not begging off, I love Verdi, but if I wanna buy out of this outfit, I have to put in the hours! Yes, I know how hard it was to get those tickets-”
As Vangie’s current flame, David Weston, an investment banker, raked her over the coals for this latest flake-out, Wendy was listening with one ear. With both hands, she was furiously factoring calculations to adjust odds.
Chai looked over Wendy’s shoulder at the odds. “Well, they’re at the cusp of the ‘starting to get nasty’ period. Put me down for a hundred on David walking out on her within three months, but no sooner than a month. Ah, what the heck, narrow it to a two-to-three month period.” Chai smiled at the odds that Wendy quoted her.
Vangie stood there, arms folded, giving Chai a look that could have frozen Lake Michigan in August. Chai looked back at her, utterly unabashed. “Hey, it’s not MY fault that you run your private life like a soap opera!” With that she left the office grinning widely, and Vangie followed, fuming.
When Chai and Vangie got down to Covert Ops, Sullivan had Pres strapped into the facial features analyzer. Kait was helping Pres with picking out the exact features that she wanted. To do Pres credit, she wasn’t trying to copy the look of the current Teen Queen, but seemed to be going for a wholesome fresh-faced ‘girl next door’ look.
As Pres put the finishing touches on her new ‘face’, Sullivan was carefully lasering every square millimeter of her face, leaving a raw pink tinge.
Exactly why *ouch!* do you have to do that?” Pres asked.
“Gotta remove all the dead skin, facial hair and the gunk that’s trapped in your pores,” Sullivan replied, as he stripped off the plasticized ‘mask’ that took all the aforementioned detritus with it. “The pseudo-dermis needs to bond with living skin. If there’s anything except the two meshes between your real skin and the pseudo-dermis, you get ‘dead’ patches, that don’t respond, get gray, and peel.” Sullivan unpacked a mold from a box. “Okay, close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax.” He settled the mold on Pres’ face.
As the mold settled on Pres’ face, Vangie took advantage of Pres not being able to see to spell something out in Erinyes ‘hand jive’. ‘Take-Client-Idiot’s Tour. Shake her up-Put a Scare into Her-Humor her. Get her to safety-before-she does-something stupid.’
Kait glared at Vangie and vigorously signed, ‘Play Fair! Give Kid a Break! Give her a shot!’
Vangie gave Kait the snake eye and signed back, ‘Give her a shot? - No Way! - Will get killed.’
When the mold came off, Pres looked around. “Where’s the mask?”
“On your face,” Sullivan replied matter of factly.
“But I can’t feel anything.”
“Of course you can’t! What would be the point of a living mask that was thick enough to feel?” As he was saying this, Sullivan was unwrapping another mold. “Okay, now this is gonna take a while. The computer has to adjust the responder mesh to configure into the face that you want.” He loaded the mold into a slot.
They killed a few minutes until the mold-setter beeped. Sullivan took out the mold, and gave it a final eyeball exam. “Okay, looks good.” He inserted two bottles into the mold. “Okay, the Stemiderm© is bonding with the responder mesh. Now, remember, when you’re done, you have to take off the responder mesh first with this mold, and insert this bottle-” He held up a plastic bottle, “-which will cause the Stemiderm© to dissolve. Wash the gunk out of the mold and off your face, and then remove the sensor mesh with the first mold.”
“Are you sure there’s a mesh on my face?”
“Yeah, Kid, I’m sure. How, hold still.” Sullivan placed the second mold on Pres’ face.
As the second injection of Stemiderm completed the bond, Chai gestured angrily at Vangie, ‘Kid-deserves-even–chance.’
Vangie gave her a chill glare. ‘Have-you-heard-of-In-Loco-Parentis-?’, she returned.
Sullivan laid a hand on Pres’ shoulder. “Okay, I’m about to remove the mold. Be sure to keep your eyes shut. I want you to count to twenty - WITHOUT moving your mouth! - the pseudo-flesh needs to breathe a bit.”
Pres rather pointedly counted out with her fingers, and on the count of twenty, opened her eyes. “I still think you’re pulling my leg. I can’t feel a thing.”
Sullivan produced a hand mirror with a flourish. Pres took the mirror and looked into it. Her eyes snapped wide open, and she gasped.
The face that gaped back at her from the mirror was just like the one that she’d cobbled together on the computer. Only this was her face. She reached up, and it was just like touching her own face, only beautiful.
As Pres was wrapped up in her new face, Kait was rummaging around in a drawer. She pulled out what looked like a pair of deformed casaba melons.
“What are those?” Pres asked.
“Boobs!” Kait replied cheerfully. “Same idea as for the face mask, only for your chest!”
Vangie gave an exasperated snarl, reached down into the drawer and pulled out a much smaller appliance. “Training wheels.”
“Ah, c’mon!” Kait whined, “Give the kid a break! I mean, how often is she gonna get a chance like this?”
“This is NOT a Feminization Fantasy, Marksbury!” Vangie shot back, “This is a measure to keep a valuable witness alive while she’s in our custody!” Vangie leaned in closer, “Besides,” she whispered, “this way we can use a larger cup as a reward for good behavior.”
Kait just rolled her eyes heavenward, as Sullivan helped bond some Stemiderm to the breast form.
The new ‘breasts’ looked like the first blush of a fifteen-year old girl’s bosom, and Pres was amazed at how sensitive the nipples were.
Then there was a knock on the door. “Hello, hello!” chirped a cheery voice. “I hear that we have a new recruit!”
“Hey, Kitten!” Chai called back, “C’mon in!”
Julia, the lovely Mediterranean woman in the ‘toga’ came in with two dress bags draped over her arms, followed by a petite girl with shaggy blonde hair. The second girl was as short as Pres, and had a cheery gamine face with a tiny nose and huge blue eyes. She looked like she could be anywhere from fourteen to her mid-twenties. Pres remembered that Vangie had said that her specialty was ‘passing herself off as a kid’. Pres could see how that could work.
Kitten put down the boxes that she was overburdened with, and gave Pres her full attention. “You said that she was fifteen years old?” Kitten had a high, chipper, slightly nasal voice that suited her gamine look and air. “Wow! A fifteen-year-old who actually WANTS to look fifteen!”
Kitten took Vangie’s face in one hand. “With this face? What else? She’s gotta be a blonde!”
“She already IS a blonde,” Vange responded dryly.
“You KNOW what I mean! And I have JUST the thing!” Kitten picked up one of the boxes, and pulled out a wig. The wig had long, straight, butter-yellow blonde hair with bangs. “With that face, y’gotta have bangs!”
Without asking, Kitten pulled the wig onto Pres’ head and set it straight. Julia, Kait, Chai and Vangie gave the effect their collective judgement and agreed that it brought out her eyes.
“Yeah, eyes. Brown doesn’t really go with this whole look,” Kitten mused. She opened up a toolbox and started rifling through a selection of conical tubes. “So, Sapphire Blue, Teal, Sea Blue, Royal Blue, Lapis Lazuli, Cornflower Blue...”
“Cornflower Blue!” Kait said in no uncertain terms.
“Excuse me?” Pres asked, slightly overwhelmed.
“We’re deciding on your eye color, Honey,” Kitten said as she pulled one of the plastic tubes out of the tackle box. “Lean your head back and keep your eyes open. I’m going to put some drops in your eyes.” She did just that. “Now, keep your head tilted back and your eyes open for a ten count. These drops contain a nanite that uses the slope of the lenses of your eyes to form a colored false iris on the lens. It won’t form on the part of the eye that you actually use for seeing. And, viola!Cornflower Blue eyes!” Kitten handed the mirror to the furiously blinking Pres.
Pres looked, and sure enough, her eyes were a lovely deep blue color.
“Yeaaahhhh! But, how do I get them out at night?”
“You don’t have to. The false irises will dissolve, if not exposed to open air for at least twenty minutes. So, when you go to sleep, they’ll dissolve, decompose, and be absorbed harmlessly into your bloodstream. So! Enough build up! Let’s get you dressed!”
Julia steered Pres out of the Covert Ops workshop and into a side room. Kitten lugged her haul of teen-wear in after them, followed by Chai. Kait tried to go as well, but the room was much too cramped already. She gave Vangie a look. “Aren’t you going?”
Vangie shrugged. “Hey, what do _I_ know about teen fashions? Even when I was a kid, I couldn’t afford those kinds of rags, and you know that they try to completely cycle through a fashion trend within five years. I’d just get in the way. Besides-” she shot a glare at Sullivan, “-someone’s got to be on Pervert Patrol!”
“Yeah, Right,” Sullivan grumped, “like I’d really waste my time.”
“Sullivan, you’ve got no less that 47 different kinds of disguised cameras in here. Besides, everybody knows that being a voyeur is part and parcel of being in Covert Ops.”
Sullivan said nothing, but abruptly stashed something in a pocket. Kait and Vangie spent the next five minutes or so glaring at him as he and his compadres went about their duties.
When Pres came out, she was wearing an outfit that managed to look both innocent and suggestive at the same time. She wore a short pleated blue skirt that barely covered her thighs, and a long sleeved diaphanous blouse that looked like a light mist over the strapless under-blouse. Kitten assured Vangie that it was THE current look in affluent high schools. Pres spun around in her traction slippers, clearly enjoying herself.
“She wanted something with a high heel,” Kitten commented, “but she admitted that she doesn’t have any experience with them.”
Vangie nodded. “Very nice. Very nice indeed!” She turned to the assembled Covert Ops gnomes. “Hey, Sugimoto! You got any Sopranette©?”
“Sopranette?” Pres asked, clearly baffled.
“It’s a throat spray. A couple of spritzes, and it tightens your vocal chords. In adults, it usually causes the voice to rise an octave or so. Since your voice is still breaking, it will keep your voice in a higher range, and it should keep it from breaking at embarrassing times.”
Sugimoto came up with three pump bottles. “So, do you want Melon, Yam or Licorice flavor?”
Vangie sent Kitten and Julia to the Themis dorms with the rest of the clothes and things that they’d set aside for Pres. The rest went back to the office. As they walked through the office this time, the ladies took a lot more notice of, and interest in, Pres. They didn’t jeer, but rather there were gentle words of approval and encouragement, and warm accepting smiles. Pres learned that she could indeed blush through the flesh mask, but still, she was floating on air by the time she got to Vangie’s cubicle.
As Pres made sure of her skirt as she sat, Vangie gave her an amused smile.
“Okay, Fun’s Fun, but we do have to get a little work done today, or Diana’s gonna be all over us tomorrow morning.”
“Diana?” Pres asked.
“Office Honcho,” Kait explained.
“By ‘Office Honcho’,” Vangie explained Kait’s explanation, “Kait means that Diana is the Office Supervisor and our immediate superior. She keeps the Case Managers honest - and alive - and the rest of us in line. I just signed off on some pretty expensive equipment to keep you safe, and she’s gonna want to see some results for it ASAP.
“So, let’s get busy-” Vangie stopped. “Hey, what ARE we gonna call you like this, anyway? It sort of defeats the whole purpose, if we keep calling you by your right name!”
Pres blushed beet red, but didn’t hesitate. “Kallista.”
Vangie fought unsuccessfully to keep an amused smile from her lips. Kallista. Kid would choose a TV character name like that. Well, who was she to cast asparagus, with a name like ‘Evangeline’? “Okay, Kallista, it’s getting late, so we only have time for a couple of stops tonight. First, I want to get you rigged up with a few, ah, ‘special measures’.”
Chai smirked, “Ayah, the Gadget Queen strikes again!”
“Hunh?” Kallista hooted.
“Oh, Snake-eyes here,” Kait explained, “is our resident ‘Spy Movie’ gadget fiend.”
“Well, excuse me,” Vangie said defensively, “but having an unforeseen advantage has saved my ass on more than one occasion.”
Kait grinned at Kallista, “The reason that she’s so cheap in the office, is that she has expensive tastes, and those whacko doohickeys of hers head the list.”
Vangie grinned back at Kait. “Hey, _I’m_ five years ahead of my repayment schedule - how far along are YOU?”
Kait scowled back and shut up. Except for Kait, the group bundled up in the draping (but well air-conditioned) overcoats that the current fashion demanded. Kallista suspected that the overcoats were also well armored, though they didn’t weigh that much. Chai, who had changed from her chiamsong to a matching blood red leather jacket and pants set, called ahead to the motor pool and reserved an armored sled. When they got to the garage, a sleek Mercedes-Benz™ sedan was waiting for them. As she and Kait scooted onto the butter-soft leather upholstery on the back seat, Kallista whistled, “Wow! They really treat you Erinyes right!”
Vangie, Chai and Kait shared looks. “Okay,” Vangie said, “anyone wanna guess the odds that one of the THREE Em-Bees we have in the motor pool, which are ALWAYS checked out, usually by either Val or Darcy, just happen to be returned and maintained, just when we need it?”
Kallista blinked. “You mean that Val woman set this up? But how? And why?”
“Yes,” Kait answered as Vangie linked into the driver’s system. “How? Too many ways that she could set up, starting with just snarling at the motor pool monkeys. As for the Why, well, anything having to do with you has to do with the Tribulation Saints right at this moment. And anything having to do with the Saints is Big Bucks and Beaucoup Brownie points, both of which Val is addicted to. And Val-”
“Is the office hijacker,” Kallista finished for her, “yeah, I got that part. So, what are you gonna do?”
“Tonight?” Vangie answered as she started up the Em-Bee, “Nothing. We’ll be checking out a lead, and if anything, we can use them as a twisted sort of cover. They won’t let anything happen to us, until we get real close, and that won’t happen tonight. And, the extra time will give us the opportunity to come up with something especially nasty to do to Val.”
“Always a high priority,” Chai said smugly, and with no further ado, they drove out into the sweltering Washington, D.C. night.
Back when Washington was still the capitol of the old Union, various writers and commentators made a good deal out of the contrast between the splendors of the Mall and Federal buildings, and the squalor of the slums only a few blocks away. DC was still the seat of the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area) district, and the slums were now largely covered in stagnant water, but other than that, things were still pretty much the same. The Movers and Shakers still lived in Georgetown, the Bourgeois in Arlington and the other ‘burbs, and the Poor lived in the submerged shadow of glory. The Themis sled was pre-cleared to leave the dyke-gate and skimmed over the Potomac estuary waters in the general direction of ‘Alphabet City’.
Let’s just say that ‘Alphabet City’ is used a lot for ‘blighted urban landscape’ stock footage, and leave it at that.
The Em-Bee pulled up to an inlet dock on the ramshackle venice, and the four girls piled out, first Kait, then Chai, then Kallista, and finally Vangie. As Vangie got out, she shut the watertight doors and keyed the autopilot to return to the water and submerge. As she did this, Vangie saw a group of six types that looked like they probably saw a fair amount of business posing as ‘vicious urban thugs’ for the aforementioned stock footage. As were many in the nastier parts of the sprawl, these fools were sporting the ‘romantic buccaneer’ look that was all the rage, with loose shirts, tight pants and big boots. The ‘buccaneers’ saw Vangie looking at them, and returned the look with a bit of ‘oh yeah, we’re bad people’ posturing. Vangie returned the posturing with an ‘ask me if I care’ attitude.
Vangie led the others through a side door, up to the third floor. The sign by the door said, “Desmond & Lou Ellen Recycled Electronics.” The storefront looked like the purchasing counter for junk electronics to Kallista, but weren’t those places usually on the ground floor? That is, unless this place was actually a front for a fence, and Vangie was here to pump him for information about the Saint’s equipment or something. Vangie pressed the ‘service’ buzzer and waved at the security camera. After a bit, a rather anorexic looking man with a beaky nose came out. “Hello, Des. How’s Lou Ellen?” Vangie asked brightly.
“Bitching the hell out of everyone and everything.”
“Is it her time of the month?”
“Nope. That’s the problem. It should be.”
“Okay, I didn’t need to know that.”
“Hey, you asked.”
Vangie sighed, “That’ll learn me to try small talk. Okay, I need some special equipment.”
“I didn’t think you came up here for the scenic waterfront view.”
Vangie turned to Kallista. “Kallista? C’mere.” Vangie laid her hands on Kallista’s shoulders. “Des, we need to be able to keep this young lady safe, and to be able to find her again, if she gets lost.”
Des fitted Kallista for a bit of personal armor that fit almost without trace under her top. Des claimed that it would stop a .38 slug at ten feet. “True, it’ll hurt like hell,” he hedged, “and you’ll have a bruise the size of a pancake, but you’ll walk away from it.” Kallista was touched, and rather flattered by the gentle touch, the extra care that he took in fitting her, since she was a young lady.
Kallista shifted her shoulders a bit. “Are you sure that this thing is bulletproof? It doesn’t weigh much more than some T-shirts I’ve had.”
“There is no such thing as ‘bullet-proof’,” Des corrected her, “just armored. And being light is rather the idea. If it isn’t a bother to wear, then you’ll be that much more likely to put it on, No?”
Vangie fixed Des with an icy glare. “I’ll have to trust you that this thing is as good as you say. It’s not a good idea to violate an Erinys’ trust, remember that.”
“I consider myself mortally threatened, thank you,” Des replied equitably.
“Now, what else can we offer you?”
“We need a few defense measures. Non lethal, preferably.”
“Got a nice little item right here, should do the trick.” Des went behind the counter and produced a small box. Inside the box was a lovely little brooch. “This little number has a tiny magnesium flare built into it. You say the right trigger word - the shorter the better - and a vox-recog chip sets off the magnesium, producing a blinding flash. Nothing too nasty, but enough to shake up your basic street monster, as so he’ll give you room to run away.”
Vangie looked at Kallista. “Now, you remember that - running away is a VERY effective self-defense technique.”
Kallista looked wistful. “And here I thought all this time, I was being a wimp, and I was really using effective self-defense. But you can’t always run away.”
“All too true,” Des agreed - mostly because it allowed him to make more sales. “The brooch also comes with reload chips. Next, are you familiar with Spider-Man?”
Kallista shook her head.
“Old Comic Book character.” He pulled out an odd handset with two obvious tubes of something. “He used to swing around from buildings on ‘webs’ made of a kind of adhesive. Utter rot, given the tech of the time. But it was enough that some old fan managed to kludge this design together. Binary polyacetlyether, with a nitrogen fixing nanite suite, and a variable-force propellant system.”
“errrr...” Kallista bit her lower lip. “And what does all that mean?”
“Webbing.” Des pointed the ‘gun’ at the far wall and gave the firing button a tap. A wad flew out of the nozzle, and exploded into a web-wheel of adhesive. “Y’can’t swing on it of course - that part’s bosh - but it’s damn versatile. Comes with a book on the various settings and such. Don’t try anything too fancy too quick, and you should be fine.”
Vangie took the ‘web-gun’ from Des and looked at it. Well, it would give the kid a better sense of some kind of active participation in her own defense. Whether that was a good idea or not, was still up in the air. “Fine, we’ll take it. Anything else that could be useful?”
After a few rather exotic tries, Des produced a bracelet. “Switch this,” he indicated a bit that looked like an ornament, “and this little beauty generates an electromagnetic field powerful enough to mess with most non-hardened electronics and jam most guns. Has a 7 second capacitor battery, that can be recharged from most household current.”
Vangie nodded. “Very Nice! I think that that will cover it for defensive measures; what about tracking?”
“What kind of opposition are we talking about?”
“If they’re going to get her away from us, assume that we’re talking about pros. Very sneaky pros. They’ll have one eye peeled for any of the usual stuff: radio traces, ultrasonics, chemical trails, and like that.”
Des thought for a bit. “Got one thing here that the developer tried to get the FBI interested in.” He took a small disk that looked like a quarter at first glance out of a box. “In a way, it’s sort of a throwback to the oldest trick of all - a trail of string. This little disk is actually two disks. You stick it on the bottom of a shoe or bag or whatever. Basically, you just mash down hard on it and the bottom of the disk adheres to whatever it’s on. The disk splits into two spools of micro-filament thread. Each spool has a maximum range of 15 klicks for a max range of 30 klicks. The spools unwind, depending on the amount of pull on them. The thread is virtually invisible, and damn near unbreakable. It won’t slice through anything - specifically designed not to - but it’ll slip through practically any crack that isn’t vacuum-sealed, and continue to un-spool.”
Vangie raised an eyebrow. “That’s nice - but how do you follow it?”
Des pulled a rounded object that resembled an old-fashioned computer ‘mouse’. “This. It’s called a ‘hound’. It has a sensor that picks up the magnetic signature of the thread and follows it. It follows the thread at a speed of up to 40 KPH, and you follow it. It also picks up an activation signal from the ‘quarter’. It’ll also tell you the rough direction that the ‘quarter’ is from the hound, and how fast the mono-filament unspools.”
Vangie picked up a few doo-dads for herself while she was there, and then they were off. Darkness was beginning to settle over Washington, and the shadows of ‘Alphabet City’ grew long and harsh. Kallista was looking around, and as little as she knew about this part of town, she could tell that they weren’t headed in the direction of Georgetown. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Duchess Court,” Vangie responded distractedly.
“Duchess Court?” Kallista echoed back.
“Duchess Court,” Kait informed her, “is a raft-town that’s grown up around a pair of Arks, that is, a couple of old immobilized cruise liners. TheCaribbean Duchessand the Antilles Duchess, a pair of old luxury liners that they ripped the engines out of, and turned into floating housing. The Duchesses provide the rest of the raft with clean water, power and Com-Net access.” What Kait didn’t tell Kallista was, that Duchess Court wasn’t run by a street gang. It was run by a shadowy ‘middleman’ who really didn’t like violence happening on his patch. So, the Court looked a lot like the tougher parts of town, but it was actually quite safe, as long as you didn’t try throwing your weight around.
The Mercedes pulled up to a dock set between the two huge ships, and Vangie turned in her seat to face Kallista. “Okay, Kallie, here’s the situation: it’s getting late, and witness or no witness, we gotta get you to bed at a decent time, or we answer to Family Services for it. So, we only have time for this one stop.”
“And you want me to stay in the vehicle, right?” Kallie said grimly.
“Actually - No,” Vangie replied.
“It’s like this - we have information that the Saints have one of their ammunition caches stowed in one of the storage areas of the Antilles Duchess. If we can get in there, we might be able to find something that may lead us to the Saints, or whatever it is that those three were really up to. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth taking, and nothing else is likely to develop tonight. Problem: all we have is ‘intelligence’, and no real Probable Cause. Now, I just now took out an option for the Alarm Response contract for the Duchesses, for the next hour. So, if someone who wasn’t an employee of THEMIS - like, say YOU - were to go aboard the Duchess, and go down to Storeroom 8 on H Deck - don’t worry, we’ll download you a map - and trip the alarm on the door, we would have full authority to enter Storeroom 8, in order to check that no intruders had entered.”
“You want me to break and enter into private property?”
“Good Lord, NO!” Vangie raised her hands in mock horror. “And if anyone ever asks you, we are not, and will never, ask you to commit an illegal or unethical act. All that I’m saying is that IF someone were to take a restricted piece of equipment, like, say this cardlock bypass-” Vangie handed Kallie a blank white card with an iridescent strip, “-which would bypass most cardlocks between Security Rating 1- to - 6, to gain access to Storeroom 8 on H Deck, then we would be able to board theAntilles Duchess, and enter that storeroom, even without a Search Warrant. If I were to TELL you to do that, then I’d be both Soliciting to Commit a Felony and Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. However, if you just DO it, out of some mostly repressed adolescent rebellion, well then, I’m sure that we could be persuaded to let you go on your own recognizance.”
Kallista gave Vangie a knowing nod, took the card and stepped out onto the dock. She squared her overcoat and marched up the gangplank like she knew what she was doing.
Once Kallie was on the gangplank, Kait crossed her arms and grumped, “I still think that we should play fair with her.”
“We ARE playing fair with her,” Vangie said as she plugged a modem link into her corymbic socket. “We’re keeping her safe, by not dragging her into a REAL danger situation. That’s as fair as it gets.” Then she looked back into the rear seat. “Speaking of which, what are you doing, lollygaging about? The reason that we brought you in on this in the first place, was to keep that kid safe!”
Kait glowered at her, and stepped out of the sled.
As Vangie flipped up the onboard computer keyboard, Chai asked, “You’re going to monitor the alarm?”
“It’s a ton more likely that they’d leave some sort of alarm on their old stash to tell them that someone’s looking for them, than it is that they’d conveniently leave a forwarding address slip.”
Chai nodded. “And if they do leave an alarm, what makes you think that the Saints would want to cope with a patrol unit that might be tapped to investigate?”
Vangie sighed. “Fanatical Theocratic Militants are SO unreasonable. You think they disconnected the main alarm?”
“Why not? It’s what I’d do.”
“Yeah, but you’re rational. For the most part. Still, I guess that if someone tripped the exterior alarm, just as the kid went in, then-"
“I’ll do it, I’ll DO it! Enough with the non-incriminating suggestions already!” Chai crawled into the back seat, pulled the cushion back and took her weapons case from where she stashed it in the trunk.
“You carry a mono-molecular katana around,” Vangie said flatly.
“Hey, when you need one, and don’t have it, THEN you’ll sing a different song.”
As they were bantering, Vangie had lifted the sled up to beside one of the windows on the decommissioned cruise liner. Chai made an impromptu entrance with one of her blades and ducked in. Once Chai was securely inside, Vangie took the sled back down the dock. Before settling in for a good computer hack, she pulled out her .45 and chambered in a round; there’s always going to be some idiot who’ll try to jack a good car that seems to be empty.
Kallista looked down the ship’s corridor, and tried to suppress a grin. The few people that she’d crossed had given her second looks, but nothing that they wouldn’t give to a pretty young girl. She’d even had a rude proposal. Amazing, he was one of those filthy street types that her parents were always worrying about, but he’d gone away with a glower that wouldn’t even have slowed down one of the football team.
The liner’s old stores compartments had been converted into personal storage spaces, which were rented by the month. All that you got for your money was the space and a card-lock, so the rent was cheap. But Kallie figured that since there was little if any security, it also meant that the Saints could come and go without being observed. Whether that meant that the Saints were clever, or just cheap, she wasn’t sure.
Vangie’s cardlock bypass had got her past the corridor lock and it opened the compartment lock without any problems. Before she went in, Kallie pulled a phone out of her pocket, and hit the speed-dial for Vangie’s number. “Vangie? Kallie. The door is open.”
[Interesting. No sign of an alarm yet.]
“Maybe I should go inside?”
[Legally, I can’t order, or even recommend for you to commit a crime, such as Breaking and Entering.]
“We’ve already done this joke. I’m going inside.” Kallie pushed past the double door. Since triggering the alarm was part of the whole idea, she fumbled around for the light switch and found it. She blinked. She’d been expecting a cramped room with a few crates. Instead, it was a large warehouse sized chamber, with at least a hundred crates, and what looked like warehouse moving equipment.
Kallie pulled out her phone again. “Vangie, I think we have the wrong place. This looks like a regular storage space.”
[Really? Let me take a look.] Kallie panned around the storage space with her phone camera. [Kallie? This is very important. Aim the camera up at anything that’s bolted to the roof.]
Kallie did so. [Kallie, sweetie, do you feel lightheaded or anything?]
“Yeah,” Kallie’s head was a little fuzzy, “now that you mention it...”
[SHIT! Kallie-hon, do you have a breather on you?”
“Ah, Yeah. Why?”
[Sedative gas. Put your breather on NOW, and get out of there ASAP!]
Kallie pulled her breather out - you never know when you’re going to go into the drink, these days - and crammed it over her face. She hurried to the doors, but they were hermetically sealed. “HELP ME!” Kallie shrilled into her phone, “I can’t get out!”
As soon as Kallie had shown her the gas dispensers over the cell’s camera link, Vangie had given Chai and Kait the go ahead. “Sedative Gas, and, if they’re protecting anything, probably a couple of Combat Drones. Get in there NOW!” Switching back to Kallie, Vangie said, “Kallie, sweetie, Kait and Chai are coming for you. Now, this is very important - lay down on the floor and DON’T MOVE!”
“Motion Sensors,” was all that Vangie told her. Shit! Every instinct that Vangie had, told her to get in there and help. But reason told her that by the time that she got there, it would all be over, one way or another. And she had an alarm to trace.
When Chai got to the door, Kait had a pistol launched grenade pointed at the door and was ready to fire. Irritably, Chai swatted the pistol aside, “Oh, would you get serious?” She unsheathed her mono-katana, and breached the seal with three expertly aimed strokes.
Kait pushed the doors apart, just in time to be almost blinded by the flash from Kallie’s trick brooch. Kallie was grappling with an Aegis Arms™ Charybdis© restraining combat drone. The drone, which was constructed from two rotating hemispheres, was wrapping long telescoping ‘tentacles’ around her. It had two of them well anchored on her, and a third around her neck. It wasn’t strangling her - yet; it was concentrating on dragging her further into the room, away from the door.
The blinding flare did seem to have an effect on the drone. It paused, giving Kait an opportunity to give the basketball sized robot a resounding kick in its side, sending its stabilizing gyroscopes whirring to regain it equilibrium. Kait strangled the spongy ionic-expansion tissue of the tentacle that was choking Kallie, and ripped it from the main body. Chai stepped in, on cue, and sliced the other tentacle, severing it from the drone’s body. Kallie managed to untangle it before it managed to strangle her as it shrank.
The two Erinyes wasted little time in taking out the non-lethal security unit. But a little time was too much to waste, as a half dozen more of the units came to life and advanced on them, and went from a simple Restraint Mode to Subjugation Mode, with taser units sparking.
“Dammit, Vangie,” Kait growled into her link, “why don’t you just turn these things off?”
[Can’t,] Vangie replied, [it’s an isolated system. Besides, I almost have their alarm tracked.]
“Screw this noise,” Kait snapped. “Time to put an end to this.” She reached under her longcoat, and snapped out her Personal Assault System from concealment to attack configuration. With a bare pause to aim, she took out two of them.
[What was that?] Vangie yelled.
“Got two of ‘em,” Kait said smugly.
[Idiot! It’s on a Threat Matching system! It was using noiseless, non-projectile response because it’s a secret ammo dump! But if you go shooting-]
Vangie’s explanation was cut short by the sound of several of the ‘loading equipment’ units reconfiguring into firing modes, and chambering rounds.
Kait, Chai and Kallie’s ducks for cover were greatly hampered by the restraint drones still in use. [Kait,] Vangie muttered disgustedly, [how the fuck did you manage to make it through training? Were you screwing one of the instructors or something?]
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Her pin had helped against the restraint drone, Kallie thought feverishly, maybe it would do something against these fire-drones. She fumbled another magnesium chip into the pin, held it up of the top of the crate that she was hiding behind, and waved it back and forth. Then she set it off.
The fire-drones’ targeting systems were temporarily overwhelmed. Kait took advantage of that to put a few rounds squarely into them, before the restraint drones were on her. Chai advanced with her katana, and Kallie used her ‘webbing’ gun on one of the remaining ones, hoping to gum up their works a little.
As the drones’ targeting systems reset themselves, Kait said, “Hit ‘em with the razzle-dazzle again!”
Kallie tried, but the pin holder was still hot from the last use. “No go! Too Hot!” Then Kallie had an idea. She pulled out her phone, jacked up the brightness on the camera flash, and set the camera on automatic flash.
The strobing flash wasn’t enough to overload the drones’ targeting systems, but it did confuse their target priority systems. As Chai and Kait were concentrating on disassembling one of them, Vangie cut in again. [Heads up, people! You managed to kick the Threat Match up to the point where it where it just requested permission to implement the - and I quote - ‘Ultimate Measure’. I think that we have at least 15 seconds before they give it.]
“So block the response, idiot!” Kait snarled.
[That’s far more easily said, than done,] Vangie replied, [especially if we don’t want them to know that we’ve tracked them. I can slow it down by maybe two minutes, without them catching on.]
“You’d rather we blow up, than lose these guys?” Kait yelled.
[No, I’d rather you spend the two or three minutes that I can give you, finding the spoilsport bomb. Chai, get Kallie OUT OF THERE!]
“More easily said than done,” Chai said. “We have two fire-drones covering the exit.”
“Just a second,” Kallie said. “Let me try something.” She slipped the magnetic bracelet off her wrist, armed it and threw it at one of the fire drones. The bracelet activated when it hit the combat drone, and the powerful magnetic field deployed. The field not only caused the firing mechanism on the fire-drone to lock up, but it pulled the two war machines together, knocking both of them off their legs.
Chai ducked under the drones’ suppression fire, and subdivided both of them with two strokes of her katana. Then she grabbed Kallie by the wrist and dragged her out into the corridor.
Kait looked around the chamber. Okay, if they figure that they’re gonna lose it anyway, the bad guys are gonna try to set off everything, and kill as many of the searchers as possible. Can’t trust everything to blow, so the best bet is to breach the hull, and let the water take care of everything. Kait started desperately searching the crates along the hull wall, and found a Claymore mine set up between a crate of construction explosives and the wall. Contrary to TV and movies, most ‘spoilsport’ packages aren’t designed to foil disarming, they’re set up so that the people who set them - and therefore know where they are in the first place - can disarm them easily. The bitch is finding them in the first place.
Kait pulled the timer chip from the anti-tank mine. “Got it!”
[Good! Now get Kallie out of there! I’ll meet you topside with the sled.] Then explosions rocked the ship. [I thought that you said that you got it!]
[Hold it, I see it now - scumbags planted breaching charges in the compartments on either side of the one that you’re in. They must intend to sink the entire ship. Secure the compartment doors, if you can, and the corridor, if not. I’m calling in Disaster Response. Get Kallie topside NOW!]
This was far more easily said than done, as the ship listed badly to one side. Kait was on advance, pushing people aside, and Chai brought up the rear, making sure that Kallie didn’t get trampled by anyone.
By the time that Chai, Kait and Kallie got done securing the flood-hatches on the corridor, the sky was thick with Themis Disaster Response Skopters. Vangie squeezed the Mercedes over to the railing and opened the door for them. As she settled in, Chai said, “Okay, Snake-eyes, I’m impressed! How did you get them here so fast?”
“The Controller said that she put them on Amber Alert as soon as I called in that you guys were going in to investigate. Since we were the outfit with the current security contract, Themis has first option on the Disaster Response.” She pulled away from the ship, and took the opportunity to check out the situation.
The Antilles Duchess hadn’t quite capsized; several of the portholes were underwater, but the far railing wasn’t underwater. But it was listing so badly that several of the ‘raft’ components on one side had been forced underwater. On the other side, the Caribbean Duchess was being pulled over, and the elements of the raft were being pulled out of the water. Water, power, and communications cables were pulled taut, those that hadn’t snapped entirely.
The Themis Disaster Response units were swarming over the entire place, severing the links between the two liners, to keep the Antilles Duchess from dragging her sister ship into ruin along with her. Divers managed to get sheets of memory plastic over the holes blown in the hull, so the Antilles Duchess stopped gaining water, and the bilge system could start actually being effective. They deployed floatation devices to start to right the liner, and they started getting the raft back into its normal patchwork condition.
There were people and debris still floating in the water, and skopters were lowering sonic dissuaders to keep away the sharks that had learned that there was always something edible falling into the swollen Potomac estuary. “Oh, Christ...” Vangie sighed disgustedly. “The insurance companies are gonna have full-grown elephants.”
“Hey, it could have been worse!” Kait insisted, more out of force of habit than anything else. “If the scuttling charge that the Saints left had detonated, that ammunition would have blown and the entire side of the ship would have opened up! The ship would have dropped like a brick, and taken the other ship and most of the raft with it!”
Vangie turned around and said, “And you play that for everything that it’s worth, in your report!” Vangie focused, obviously furiously trying to put a spin on the debacle so that it wouldn’t put the lot of them in debt until doomsday. “Might as well put down, and put as best a face on this as we can.”
Deucalion, Themis’ Disaster Response division, kept the damage - and Themis’ potential liability - to a minimum, but there was one thing holding up the works. Vangie kept noodging the Crime Scene Investigation guys to verify that the near-sinking was due to the charges left by the renters of the storage lots. “Sweat bullets much?” Chai sniped.
“Are you kidding? This is a full-sized habitat! If we get stuck with the liability on this, we’ll all be in debt for the rest of TIME!”
“Vangie gets very nervous, when money’s on the line,” Kait whispered as she leaned over to Kallie.
“Truly spoken like someone who doesn’t have at least a SHOT at digging out!”
“Kait, Vangie, simmer down,” Chai said flatly. “We have visitors.” A formation of skopters was approaching.
Vangie stepped forward, and stared at the incoming units. Even with her optical implants, she had a hard time making out the corporate logo on the units. “It’s Bugfuck and Wimpizoid. Somebody probably went behind our backs and told ‘em that it was a Saints weapons cache, and now they’re here to hog - er, claim the crime scene. Well, there’s nothing for it.” Vangie hit her comm-link. “Yo, Herbie! Vangie. Might as well let Bozos & Wussizoids land. It’s their crime scene from here on.” She switched channels. “Hello, Babs? Vangie. Wrap it up down there, PDQ. B&W is here. They’ll insist on examining everything with their own people, so don’t waste time writing up a report for them, ‘kay, Hon? But I’d still appreciate a copy of the Internal Report. rrriiiggghht.Ciao.”
One of the skopters came down, but the other four assumed an Air Coverage formation. When the landing skopter touched down, it immediately disgorged a heavily armed squad of B&W hardsuits, who immediately assumed a capture position. “HEY! What IS this?” Kait yelled, as she tried to maneuver Kallie into a covered position, which wasn’t easy, as they were surrounded.
Then, two men in personal armor disembarked. Vangie recognized them as Morgan and Webb, the B&W ramrods on the Smithsonian case. They walked up to Vangie and produced a pair of hand restraints. “Evangeline Xantha Blake-”
“XANTHA?” Kait and Chai echoed, promising much heckling later.
“-you are under arrest for the Murder of Sherman Beddoes Gordon.”
“Who?” Vangie hooted, taken flat-footed.
“So, the Eryinyes are such cold-blooded murderers that they don’t even bother to learn the names of their victims! Assume the position!”
“Oh, you have GOT to be kidding,” Vangie said flatly. “You doinks know that, according to the Knight Errant v. Renraku decision, Police Service Providers can’t arrest employees of other PSPs.”
“Tell it to the judge, bitch!”
Then, one of the hovering skopters was batted from its position into another skopter by one of the Cadusalon recovery cranes. Other Themis personnel took cover, produced their support weapons, and trained them on the B&W hardsuits. Normally, their discipline would have been to keep their eyes on the Erinyes, but only a fool doesn’t react to someone drawing a gun on them. The three Erinyes took immediate advantage of even that slight distraction. Kait grabbed Kallista and pulled her behind one of the B&W hardsuits, who she got in a necklock and used as a shield. Vangie also took one of the hardsuits in a headlock, pulled her .45, and painted a dot on Webb’s forehead. Chai got behind Morgan’s back, drew her two carry blades, and almost dared the hardsuits to open fire.
There were a few reaction shots, but discipline quickly kicked in, the shots stopped, and both parties started edging around for an advantage. The civilians on the scene were frantically scrambling for cover, and the Newsfeed crews on the scene were shooting footage for all they were worth.
“HEY! What the FUCK is going on here?” A short, ‘bantam’ style African American man in the uniform of the Washington PD stormed through the crowd. “What do you idiots think you’re doing?”
“These scofflaws are guilty of Obstructing Justice!” Morgan snapped.
“These creeps are trying to pull a fast one!” Vangie shot back.
“Enough!” The officer, whose nametag said ‘Forrestal’, strode into the middle of the fire zone without so much as a pause. “Okay, first things first. Everyone, guns DOWN!”
No one responded. A few looked like they were considering it, but they didn’t want to leave themselves open.
Forrestal give a long exasperated breath. “Okay, BE that way.” He walked up to one of the B&W hardsuits. “Okay-” he read the nametag on the hardsuit’s armor, “Vaslek, see this?” He pointed at his badge. “This is a Washington Police Department badge. It is also an optical pickup, and it’s broadcasting your name and ID number to Central. _I_ am a Police Officer. _I_ actually have the authority to pull my gun, arrest people and give orders as apply to the Common Welfare of the people of this municipality. YOU are a jumped up security guard with a gun. I am giving you a direct order to put that gun down NOW! If you refuse to obey a direct, lawful and reasonable order from a Washington District Police Officer, your permits to carry a gun and act as a Private Security Officer will be revoked, pending an inquiry. If you are so dense as to actually shoot me, you’re dead. Period. You PSP thugs may have small armies, but I can have a National Guard unit here inside of twenty minutes, loaded for MBT.” Forrestal paused and folded his arms. “I just gave you an order, putz. Why haven’t you put that gun down?”
Vaslek paused, altered his body English uncertainly, and lowered his PAS.
“Smart Boy.” Forrestall turned and regarded all the others with a withering gaze. “Okay, we have ONE person here who actually has some brains. Now, as for the REST of you idiots, I want those guns down NOW!”
[Do it, people,] Vangie sent through her link.
The Themis personnel stepped down. The B&W suits began to shift to take advantage, but Forrestal shrieked, “And who gave YOU idiots a cue, hunh?” He stepped in front of the raised guns. “Go Ahead! SHOOT! But if the National Guard doesn’t kill each and every one of you assholes, then Washington PD will. And that’s only if your own Brass doesn’t kill you first, for costing them their license to operate in BosWash!”
Forrestal whirled around and pushed his face into Webb’s. “You! You look like you think you’re in charge. What do you think you’re doing, interrupting a Disaster Response in progress?”
“That woman,” Webb jabbed a finger at Vangie, "is wanted for First Degree Murder! These people are Obstructing Justice!”
“Wanted, hunh?” Forrestal said, clearly unimpressed, “You got a signed warrant for that, Bubbie?”
“She is wanted for Questioning as a Primary Suspect in a First Degree Murder!” Webb continued, using Procedure CI-165/D: ‘Maintaining the appropriate tone with local authorities’.
“I’ll take that as a ‘No, we don’t’,” Forrestal shot back.
“Officer,” Vangie offered, “if these men have anything, then proper procedure would be for the Investigating Service Provider to forward their evidence over to the local Police Agency, and have them deal with it. So, IF these idiots have anything, I’m more than willing to come along and answer any questions that the proper authorities may have.” She made a production of producing her .45 with her thumb and forefinger, and offering it to Forrestal.
Forrestal accepted the gun and turned to Webb and Morgan. “This young lady has just surrendered herself to my custody, pending investigation of your charges, Gentlemen. So, unless you intend to obstruct an Officer discharging his legal duties?”
Three hours later, Vangie was in a Washington PD holding cell with four other women. Vangie was using the back of the largest and meanest of those women, who happened to be quite unconscious, as a seat. The three other women where huddled as close to the wall, and as far away from Vangie as they could manage.
The guard came and the door opened. “Yo, Blake! They’ll see you now.”
Vangie stood up and released the right little and ring fingers of the woman that she was sitting on, allowing the flabby sow to slump completely to the floor.
What happened to her?”
“Overexcited, poor thing. So delicate.” The guard let the matter - and the prisoner - lay.
Vangie could tell which workstation the investigating officers were at immediately. Webb and Morgan were there, hovering over the two officers like a pair of vultures in off-the-rack suits. Vangie walked up and took the offered chair.
“Okay, Blake, what’s your story?”
“What are the charges?”
“You viciously and cold-blooded murdered a Smithsonian Associate with your trademark one bullet between the eyes!” Morgan barked.
“Shut It!” Augustino, one of the PD CID officers snapped. “According to B&W’s forensics report, they found a bullet, with a serial number that was listed as being issued to you, in the head of one Sherman Beddoes Gordon, a research fellow of the Smithsonian Institute’s Old Museum of American History. Forensics puts the TOD at about somewhere between 1 and 3 PM yesterday.”
Vangie shook her head. “The name doesn’t ring any bells. And the only shooting that I was doing at that time was at Trib Saints. There weren’t any Smithsonian personnel in the way.”
Webb started to say something, but Prentice, the other CID man, shushed him. Prentice called up a JPEG on his workstation and swiveled the image around so that Vangie could see it. “Does that ring any bells?”
The image was of a soft-faced man going into middle age with receding dark hair. Then it all clicked for Vangie. “Oh, so THAT’S who he was!”
“So you admit shooting him?”
“Yes, and I can tell you that the forensics reports states that they found minute shards of ‘bullet-proof’ plastic in and around the wound. Also, there was a nasty gash on his left forearm. And, that he had been dead for about a half-hour or so before being submerged in the Estuary. And the serial number on the bullet is from the third round of a clip that was specifically issued to me for the Smithsonian contract.”
Augustino checked. “Right. How did you know all that?”
Vangie spelled out the hostage situation with Preston and how she’d taken out Pres’ captor with a single shot. “The plastic shards in the wound should support my claim that he was wearing a bullet-proof faceplate at the time of the shooting. The plastic should be an exact match for the type used in the faceplates used by the Trib Saints during the raid. My guess is that they removed him from the scene for reasons as yet unknown, but dumped him when they were sure that he was dead. And as for the place of my bullet in the clip, well, I keep track of my shots.”
“Oh?” Morgan snapped, “Do you have a witness to this alleged hostage situation?”
“Yes. He’s being held as a material witness in the theft case that we’re working for the Smithsonian.”
“How convenient,” Webb sneered.
“So, call Themis’ local office and ask for the material witness in the Smithsonian case.”
“And the name would be?” Webb and Morgan leaned forward, ever so slightly.
Vangie gave Webb and Morgan the snake-eye. “Ask for the boy who’s a material witness in the Smithsonian case. Give him a few minutes - the kid’s a minor, it’s late, and he’s had a big day.”
Kallie gave her deposition to the Washington PD officers over a secured and verified link. The detective didn’t give her any idea as to what the deposition was about, he just showed her a photograph of the soft-faced man who’d taken her hostage at the Smithsonian, and asked about the shooting. He asked the same question a bunch of times, worded a little differently each time, and then he said that a transcript of the deposition would be sent over, and that she had to sign it. Then Vangie twisted the camera around a little, told ‘Preston’ that she’d be back soon, and signed off.
Kallie looked at her Milken Academy blazer, and felt a sour taste in her mouth. In order to make the deposition, she’d had to take off the flesh mask, and use a counter-agent to the Sopranette©. She felt like a fraud in her own body. Oh well, at least she hadn’t had to take off the breast forms. Chai turned off the secure link, and said, “Well, it’s late, and you’ve had a long day, young lady. We’d best get you over to the Secure Dorm.”
Kallie sighed, “Okay, just let me put my face back on, first.”
Chai grabbed the flesh mask mold’s carrying case. “Sorry, but Snake-eyes would have my head on a pole, if I let you do that. Remember, if you leave that thing on for too long, it’ll graft itself permanently onto your face!”
“So? I just took it off!”
“Sweetie, your skin - your real skin - needs a chance to breathe! You’re going to go to sleep anyway, so why not start the day fresh? It’s the best way, really. It’ll give you more leeway, if things start to get hairy later on, tomorrow.”
Kallie grunted her assent. “Nnnrrgg...Okay...but can I at least keep the boobs on?”
Chai thought it over for a second, shrugged, and said "Enh. Why not?”
As Chai and Kait bundled her into the MB to get her over to the Secure Dorm, Kallie asked, “What? We’re leaving HQ? Howcum the dorm is in a separate complex?”
“First, never put all your eggs in one basket. We do a lot of business where we butt heads with people with very active grudges - and Claymore mines. Second, there’s the whole ‘separation of work and private life’ thing. It helps to relax, if you know that you can’t be called away from something, just because it would be convenient for one of the pinheads in suits, which happens all the time, when Company Housing is on the same premises as the work offices.”
“Besides," Kait added, “all the good BARS are near where we bunk!”
“Kait has an...active...social life,” Chai explained.
“Chai?” Kaillie asked as Chai started the MB.
“Why do you call Vangie ‘Snake-eyes’?”
“Well, you may have noticed that there’s something a little off about her eyes.”
“Yeah. Can’t quite put my fingers on it, though.”
“It’s because she doesn’t blink as often as most people do. Her eyes are bionic implants, with low-light, IR, UV, telescopic and targeting features.”
“Kewl! That must be why she’s such a great shot!”
“Oh, there’s more to it than fancy implants. Y’see, when she was a kid, some asshole cut out both her eyes.”
“Eewwww!!” Kallie flinched visibly.
“Tell me about it. Anyway, her folks were poor, and couldn’t afford to have them replaced. She was, like, thirteen or so, before some charity got around to getting her some optics. Even then, they were these crappy black and white things with no detail or depth perception whatsoever. Vangie grew up blind, and even after she got the implants, she hadda learn to use her other senses to make up the difference. She knows how far away something is, and she notices things that other people just gloss over, like smells and textures.”
“But, if her eyes are optical implants, howcum she wears those glasses?”
“She once told me that she got used to wearing the glasses when she was a kid; people don’t like looking at gouged out eye sockets. And later, well, people don’t much like looking into cheap optic implants, either.”
The Secure dorm turned out to be a nice quad-complex in Arlington. Part of Themis’ arrangement with the neighborhood control association was that they could run a secure complex, as long as it didn’t clash with the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood, and they provided active reinforcement for the neighborhood security service. The Mercedes slid through the security corridor and into parking without a hitch. Chai and Kait walked Kallie through the verification process, and had her assigned a dorm for the duration of her stay with Themis. “Put her next to Vangie,” Kait suggested to the Dorm Mother.
“Snake-eyes would insist on it, and since she’s a Guarded Witness, she rates a room a that level. Lucky duck,” she finished under her breath.
“Her?” The Dorm Mother raised an eyebrow at Kallie.
“Not to worry,” Chai murmured, as she opened Kallie’s jacket significantly.
“She’s a little sister.”
The Dorm Mother nodded and smiled reassuringly. She entered it all into the database and handed Kallie a key-card. Chai and Kait walked Kallie down the corridor, and showed her the temporary room. Company housing tends to be rather cramped as a rule of thumb, and this unit did rather remind her of a stateroom on a ship, but it was a lot roomier than Kallie had expected. The bed was a futon, but it wasn’t one of those ‘studio-beds’ arranged like a bunk bed over a workstation, there was actually room to move around in, and there were several empty bookshelves, suggesting that it was waiting for a more permanent occupant. Chai showed her that it actually had its own bathroom and kitchenette. “All your quarters are like this? Sweet!”
“Hah! I wish!” Chai grunted. “Nope, this is a level B+ unit. You start dipping into your own paycheck to pay for units like this. Snake- er, Vangie has a unit like this, next door. It’s one of the reasons why she’s so freaking stingy at work - she has expensive tastes, including real bound paper books.”
“What about you?”
“Me? I have a level C unit, a couple of floors up. And ‘Boom-boom’,” she indicated Kait with a jerk of her thumb, “crashes up in the coffins. That is, when she crashes here at all.”
Kait looked at her watch and made an irritated noise. “Ah, MAN! Would you look at the time? It’s WAY too late to drop in on anybody! And by this time, all that’ll be at the bars will be the fucking Trolls!” She gave Kallie a hopeful look. “Maybe I could crash here tonight, maybe? A little extra security, for our star witness, and all?”
“Oh, right, like I’m really gonna run the risk of Val or Darcy running and whining that we let a woman spend the night here, with a de jure male minor!” Chai grabbed Kait by the ear and dragged her to the door. “Tonight, you sleep in the coffins!”
Kallie hear Kait whine, “Ah, Maaannn...” as Chai dragged her down the hall.
Kallie settled down on the futon, and tried to figure out what she was supposed to do, when there was a buzz at the door. Kallie checked the door monitor and recognized the Dorm Mother.
“Here you go, Sweetie.” The Dorm Mother handed Kallie a clothes bag and what appeared to be a traveling kit. “Our standard temporary guest kit. In the clothes bag, you’ll find a nightgown, a change of undies and some disposable slippers. In the kit, are the usual - soap, toothbrush, combs, brushes and so on.” She sailed into the room with a few other things under her arm. She tucked a mixed bouquet of flowers into one of the empty vases, and set a Styrofoam wig stand on the desk. Then she keyed the LED ‘window’ to a nice soothing moonlight harbor scene. “There! We don’t often get young girls here, especially not ‘little sisters’, so we try to do our best by them. Will you be needing any help, dear?”
Kallie blushed and murmured a, "No, ma’am."
“Well, if you need anything, just buzz the front desk.” With that, she bustled out, leaving Kallie alone. Kallie looked around the unit, and agreed that it WAS late, when she almost dislocated her jaw yawning.
Oh, the thousand little fantasies! A girl - or near to it - in her bedroom, enjoying all the persnickety little rituals of getting ready for bed. And no parents to worry about! She started with brushing out her hair, which she suddenly remembered was a wig. With a blush, and grateful that there was nobody to see her goof, she pulled off the wig and set it on the stand.
Yes, much easier to comb out this way.
That over, she gratefully climbed out of her Milken Academy uniform, which was now too tight across the chest. Stupid boy clothes! Even the frumpy girl uniforms at Milken were better! Wrapping the ‘complimentary’ robe around her, Kallie took her first shower as a girl - or near to it.
It was interesting. The only thing that was different were the breasts. No, that and the perfumed body shampoo. And the fact that she was going to sleep in a nightgown. And the fact that her parents weren’t there to come crashing in without knocking.
After the shower, she delicately dabbed herself dry with the towel and powdered herself. Then she climbed into a *nightgown!* and crawled into bed. Her last impressions were of the crisp feel of the sheets and the scent of peppermint.
Kallie was running. Her Erinyes battlesuit showed off every fabulously feminine curve. Her 4-inch stiletto heels made her bountiful breast bounce - despite the fact that Erinyes wear traction slippers with their battlesuits, not heels - but they made no noise. Kait, Chai and Vangie were running beside her, their guns drawn. Together, acting as a single fluid unit, they made their way inside a grim citadel that mysteriously resembled Milken Academy. They prowled through the twisting corridors, until they found the vicious terrorists, who bore an odd resemblance to the Milken Academy football team. The Erinyes tore into them, blazing away at the brutal thugs, until the bell for Fourth Period rang, echoing through the corridors.
And speaking of ringing, there was a sound at her door. Oh, freaking classic! Kallie shook her head until she was awake, and crawled out of bed. She pulled the robe on, and as an afterthought, crammed the wig onto her head. Then she hurried to the door and opened it. “Yes?”
At the door were the blonde and brunette pair that Kallie recognized as Val and Darcy, the office ‘vulture’ and her sidekick. “May I help you?”
The blonde said, “Come with us.” The brunette wordlessly reached in and grabbed Kallie, twisting her arm into a painless but still uncomfortable controlling hold.
“HEY! What IS this?”
“Shut up. We need to ask you a few questions. Blake and her crew of screw-ups were removed from this case, due to that blow-up with B&W. It’s our case now, and we need to know what Blake didn’t tell us.”
“Yeah?” Kallie asked as she was frog-marched down the hallway. “If that’s so, then why don’t you just wait until morning, and ask me over breakfast, like a human being?”
“This is MY case now,” Val hissed, “and I’ll run it the way *I* see fit.”
They marched her over to the elevator. Val hit the button, and pulled away to peer around the corner. Just in time for Vangie, in her dressing gown, her hair up in curlers, a look of barely restrained rage on her face, to stick the barrel of her .45 into Val’s mouth. Val almost gagged, and Vangie took advantage of her reaction to pin her to the wall with the gun.
Darcy reacted by twisting Kallie up in front of her in the classic hostage-shield position.
Quick as a wink, Vangie had another .45 in her left hand, pointed across her chest straight at Darcy. “Darce, I know that you’re not the brightest bulb on the marquee, but even YOU gotta know that you’re blown. If Val even thinks about moving, she’s dead, and she knows it. And you know me - I can punch your lights out, and never come anywhere near the kid. Let her go, and I’ll let you live.”
Darcy was rapidly tallying up her options, when the elevator door opened. Inside were the Dorm Mother and four security guards dressed for a full-blow riot. There was a ‘Thou Shalt Not Fuck With Me’ expression on the Dorm Mother’s face. She scowled at the dramatic tableau, and said, “Well, well! Did I interrupt something?”
The next morning, Kallie had a chance to meet the Office Honcho, Diana. Diana Davenport was one of those sleek, gorgeous, utterly perfect looking blondes that make you feel inadequate just by looking at you. And the scowl that she was giving Vangie, Chai, Kait, Val, Darcy and Kallie as they stood in front of her, would have made Patton feel uneasy. “Exactly what do you think you were doing?” Diana didn’t yell. She didn’t even raise her voice. But there was enough steel in that question to rebuild the St. Louis Bridge.
The five Erinyes gave each other darting glances. Which one was she talking to? None of them wanted to draw attention to herself by asking.
“Miss Wyecross, from your point of view, what happened last night?”
“Which part? The part on the ship, or the part in the dorm?”
“Why don’t you start with why you’re wearing that dress, and take it from there?”
Kallie swallowed, and related yesterday’s events as she remembered them. Diana listened with bland dispassion. “And you didn’t go with Miss Worthington or Miss Sharpe willingly?”
“With only a dressing gown on? Why would I willingly go out of a nice warm bed, wearing only a cotton robe, without my flesh mask?”
“Uhm, Security Measure,” Vangie hedged carefully.
Diana accepted that answer with stoic grace. “Worthington, WHY did you take a material witness from someone else’s case from safekeeping, for questioning?”
“For the welfare of the witness, and the good of the firm,” Val said with the calm panache of a CEO explaining that the hookers on his account for his junket to Djakarta were legitimate entertainment expenses. “Blake placed a witness and a minor in harm’s way, and then got herself busted by B&W. It was obvious that Blake was screwing the pooch with a jackhammer. It’s a Smithsonian contract, so we can’t afford to blow this, especially with B&W making a fuss. With Blake in jail, the kid was in real danger. After all, I wouldn’t leave a stray DOG with Ariyanundataka and Marksbury, without Blake to hold the leash. So, in order to keep Ariyanundataka and Marksbury from getting the witness killed, and prevent the company from being liable for it, should she take a bullet, we took over the case.”
“GEE,” Vangie drawled, “I wonder how you knew so quickly that I’d been detained by B&W, Val? Come to think of it, how did B&W know where I was, so that they come so conveniently arrive loaded for bear?”
Val started to say something, but Diana cut her off. “Worthington, Sharpe, your Person Telecommunications Nodes. Hand them over.”
“What?” Val yelped, “You carn’t be serious.”
“The phones.” Diana snapped her fingers.
“This is a GROSS violation of my-”
“So, write up a complaint and send it in. AFTER you hand over the phones.” Diana fixed them both with ‘don’t make me hurt you’ looks.
Val and Darcy sullenly handed over their phones. Diana took them, breezed through their on-board security, and looked in the call history. “My my, Val. I didn’t know that you were dating Agent Harmon Barnstable of Burgess & Whitehead Security, Enforcement and Police Services, Inc.™.” She speared Val with her icy blue eyes. “Especially since I know for a fact that Barnstable is married with three children, and B&W’s corporate culture strictly frowns on extra-martial relations. Especially with people under contract to other PSPs.”
Diana put the phone down. “Okay, Blake about the Duchesses-” Then Diana picked up on a flurry of hand-jive from Vangie. “er, Miss Wyecross, would you wait in the outer office? I’m going to want your version of what happened on the Antilles Duchess, and I don’t want you to just be backing up whatever Blake, Ariyanundataka, and Marksbury say.”
Kallie pouted a bit, but nodded, and left.
When the door shut, and the White Noise generator kicked in, Diana said sharply, “Okay, Blake, what the HELL were you thinking, sending a civilian minor and a protected witness to boot, into a combat zone?”
Vangie held up her hands in self-defense. “Honest, Boss, I didn’t know that it was loaded! Besides being a ‘little sister’, Kallie’s amped on the idea of being an Erinyes someday. She wants to be involved in the investigation. I figured that we’d take her along on a nice, safe investigation, and let her figure out how tedious 90% of what we do is. After a few of those, we’d arrange for her to hang around the Squad Room, which would be a lot more fun, and we could go do the dangerous stuff without her getting her nose out of joint. I asked Roger Park over in Domestic Intelligence for a nice safe lead in a suitably grimy but safe neighborhood, and he gave me Duchess Court. We had NO IDEA that the Saints hadn’t moved that weapons cache.”
Diana tapped a pen on her desktop. “Any ideas why the Saints didn’t move it?”
Vangie flickered a look over at Val and Darcy. “Yes.”
Diana nodded. “Okay, here’s how it’s gonna go down. Blake, I’m fining you $500 for endangering a witness, and another $500 for drawing a gun on a fellow Themis employee.”
Val and Darcy smirked at Vangie.
“Worthington, Sharpe, I’m fining both of you $1000 for poaching on someone else’s case, $1000 for interfering with a witness, and another $1000 for interfering with the Disaster Response by calling B&W. Each. And-” Diana picked up the receiver on her internal line. “Hello, Mendendez? This is Diana Davenport, over at Erinyes division. I want a full IA investigation on Valerie Worthington and Darcy Sharpe, of this division, with particular emphasis on their relationship with Agent Harmon Barnstable of B&W’s Corporate Intelligence division.”
Diana put down the phone. “Worthington, Sharpe, you’d better pray that IA doesn’t find anything. Because, if they do, we’ll open an office in the worst Third-World Hellhole on Earth, just to staff it with you two. Now get out of here.”
Val and Darcy filed out, but Vangie got the impression that they were more pissed about losing the three grand per, than they were worried about IA. But then, Val was very good at covering up her shit.
Kallie was brought in, and gave her version of what happened on the Antilles Duchess. Diana nodded. “Okay, Blake, now that Worthington and Sharpe aren’t here to eavesdrop, do you have any ideas as to why the Saints hadn’t moved their ammo dump, which should be SOP?”
Vangie nodded. “Yep. I think the Saints are running this by someone else’s playbook, and that someone didn’t bother to cut the usual housekeeping orders.”
“Maybe it’s not the Saints at all? Just someone pitching the Saints’ line, to confuse things?”
Vangie shook her head. “Nope, tempting as it is to leave them out of this, the Saints are in this, up to their tinsel halos. We got overnight input from various sources, and what they were after was the Lieberman Papers.”
“The Lieberman Papers?”
“The Presidential Letters and so on, of Abe Leiberman.”
“Ah,” Diana said, in a tone of enlightenment. An enlightenment that escaped Kallie entirely. “Yes, the Saints would definitely want to get their hands on those.”
“Also, we got ID on the guys that we bagged at the Smithsonian. All of ‘em have priors, but none of them are political in any way, let alone have histories of religious extremism. We think they were Kwik-Kroots.”
Diana nodded. “So, the Saints were after the Lieberman Papers; but you said that someone else was calling the plays? An notion of what they were after?”
Vangie pulled out a data-card and inserted it in a presentation caster. A hologram of the mysterious cog-riddled box appeared in mid-air. “According to our witness,” Vangie nodded at Kallie, “they were after a hard-text file of unknown contents, a few tubes of large documents - possibly blueprints or other schematics - and this. The description’s a little vague, our witness didn’t get a very good look at it, but she assures me that she’d be able to identify it if she saw it.”
Diana Kallie a sour look. “And any luck ID-ing the two mysterious masterminds?”
“As a matter of fact, Yes!” Vangie hit a button on the remote. Two head shots that Kallie immediately recognized as the two from the Smithsonian appeared.
On the off chance that these two aren’t just very affected, we shot this over to New Scotland Yard, and almost immediately got hits. They’re Leslie Charters and Erskine Caldicott, an ‘Avengers’ team from our friendly rivals over at Baker Street Atlantic.”
“Baker Street Atlantic?” Diana raised her sculpted eyebrows curiously. “And what are this fine young lad and lass from perfidious Albion doing, mucking around in America’s Attic?”
”Well, Boss, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think that BSA is behind this. When I made my inquiries, they shuttled me over to BSA’s Internal Affairs division. According to them, our laughing pair of intrepid daredevils here were, until four years ago, bright lights in their ‘Creative Tactics’ unit.”
“‘Creative Tactics’,” Kait whispered aside to Kallie, “means ‘Dirty Tricks’.”
“Anyway, Charters and Calecott were recruited from the RAF and the British Navy, respectively, and given the ‘Lionheart’ upgrade process.”
“Wimps,” Kait and Chai muttered under their breaths in unison.
“Then,” Vangie resumed, “after years of playing those merry ‘we’re oh, so clever’ games that the Brits love so much, it turns out that Leslie and Erskine learned their lessons a bit too well.”
“Someone caught them pilfering out of petty cash?”
“More like a particularly nasty version of the old ‘Badger Game’, only with dead bodies involved, rather than creaky rape set-ups.”
Diana tisked. “Blackmail. How tacky. I really do expect better of Baker Street, even their renegades.”
“Actually, according to what BSA sent over, they were a bit more ambitious than that. It seems that they were planning to create an influence peddling scheme, with their blackmail victims doing whatever they were told, and supporting each other politically. Throw in almost unlimited access to various classified government information, and you have some serious cash coming in, more than mere blackmail could generate. Anyway, according to BSA, they had about six or seven public figures under their thumb, before someone wised up and remembered that under British Law, the victim of blackmail is protected, even when the thing that they’re being blackmailed for is Murder. The personage in question sicced the Yard on them.” Vangie paused. “At least, that’s what Baker Street claims. Still, that’s pretty embarrassing for BSA, and they just came out with it. I smell dirty politics. I’d love to know what really went down.
Vangie shrugged. “Anyway, they escaped to the Continent one step ahead of CID, and pulled some sort of musical comedy number to get from there to the Federation, and from here to Asia. They set up shop in Rangoon for a while, and then relocated very quickly to the Balkans, which was Baker Street’s last known address for them.”
Diana nodded. “So far, so good. Any ideas on what Frick and Frack are really up to?”
“Nothing that I’d write down.”
“And what about the Dastardly Duo themselves?”
Vangie grinned evilly. “Blake’s Law: When the going gets tough, get someone else to do it for you. I have volunteers who will track them down for us.”
Diana raised an eyebrow. “How convenient. Care to share?”
“The Tribulation Saints.”
Diana raised both eyebrows, “And how did you manage to find the Saints, let alone convince them to subcontract out, to find their own confederates?”
“The way the Saints got into the Smithsonian in the first place was that they had a man on the inside.” Vangie keyed the remote again, flashing the picture of the slain man on the screen. “Namely, Dr. Sherman Beddoes Gordon, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Smithsonian specializing in 20th Century American History, particularly the Cold War. Wrote books on the Gehlen Network, the Burgess/Philby ring, and Marshall Tito. Apparently, a bit of a cloak and dagger buff. My guess is that Gordon managed to get an in with the Smithsonian’s shipping department, and got the Saints’ Kwik-Kroots’ weapons and armor inside the Institute, probably in crates marked ‘Agricultural Equipment’ or something. The Saints and their stooges bought tickets, just like everyone else, and Gordon slipped them into some storage room, where they changed and started their takeover. When we rescued Kallie here, she told us that she saw several of the guys in armor unpacking papers from storage crates and re-packing them in mailing crates.
Okay, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the Saints were gonna try to mail the papers out, right from under B&W noses. I checked the labels, and they were certified as having been security checked the day before, but they were addressed to a mail drop in Washington that I know of. Anyway, I had a few free minutes, so I changed the labels on the parcels, and stuck Themis Evidence stickers on the crates with the Lieberman Papers; right now, they’re in our Evidence Locker. We can return them to the Smithsonian, when the case is over.”
“And pick up a nice little finder’s fee for returning them,” Diana murmured wryly through a tight grin. “And what will the Saints be getting?”
“Twenty boxes of scrap paper that was supposed to be picked up for recycling, liberally doused with our house brand of traceless, scentless, mildly radioactive tracking spray.”
“Ah,” Diana said with an air of enlightenment. “Given the Saints’ institutional paranoia, and your break-in at their weapons cache, they’ll assume that Charters and Caldicott, soulless infidels that they are, are double-crossing them, before they can double-cross Charters and Caldicott first.”
“That’s my take on it. I figure that if anyone knows anything about those two’s set-up and operations, it’ll be the Saints. And, since I know where the Saints will be picking up the crates, finding them will just be a matter of waiting. We find out where they hang, plant a few discrete bugs and taps and all, and we just let them track Nick and Nora down for us.”
“That is, IF they don’t notice the radioactivity.”
Vangie shrugged. “Yeah. IF. But, it’s simple, inobvious, and our best bet at tracking them. And, if they find it, they’ll be even more likely to be convinced that ‘Holmes and Watson’ double-crossed them. Thing is, we still don’t know where Charters and Caldicott are, what they’re up to, or what they took. They could be over the hill and far away by now, and our only real lead is the Saints.”
Diana leaned back in her chair and tapped her pen on her desktop. “Sounds like a plan. Go, make it happen. If she wants to, your witness can hang around in the squad room.”
“Ah, Ma’am?” Kallie asked in a small voice, “I thought that I’d, y’know, go along with them, in case I spotted something that I didn’t remember before.”
Diana shook her head. “Not a chance. After last night, we are keeping you under strict security. If they need you for an eyeball confirmation, they can video-message it to you.”
Vangie smiled, relieved that Diana had taken the onus of telling Kallie that she was under House Arrest off her shoulders. “Okay, Kait, you make the arrangements for Kallie. Chai, let’s roll.”
“Take Marksbury with you,” Diana said flatly.
“ah, Excuse me?” Vangie asked, dreading what she was hearing, “The only reason that we brought Kait in on this, was that Kallie needed a dedicated bodyguard. Chai and I should be able to handle it from-”
“Take Marksbury with you,” Diana cut her off. “It’s a coin-toss as to whether the Saints will fall for your trap. If they twig, you’ll need all the firepower that you can get. Besides, there's a thousand dollar a head bounty on confirmed members of the Saints, Dead or Alive.”
“ah, Boss, what’s the use of a grand per head bounty, if we wind up doing 20 grand in collateral damage per head?”
“And what’s the use of being five years ahead on your schedule, if you don’t live to pay out?” Diana raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Well, Blake, you started off with a 25 Million dollar disaster that we still might be held liable for and a Minor Witness placed in mortal danger; not a promising beginning. But, with the news about the Lieberman Papers and your lead on the Saints, you’re looking a lot better. We lost a lot of stock, letting the Saints get away. If you bring them in, as well as Charters and Caldicott, and whatever they went in for, and you just might walk out of this with your five-year lead intact. Carry on.” With that, Diana turned to her computer screen, and pointed ignored them.
Vangie deflated with a scowling sigh, and waved the other three out of the office. When they walked past her desk, Wendy Hookes asked eagerly, “So? What happened?”
“I got fined five hundred nubucks, for drawing on Val and Darcy,” Vangie snarled.
“Oh? That’s all?” Wendy looked at the fan of screenlets rezzed in front of her. She tapped around, found one screenlet that was empty. “Keeewwlll…” Wendy breathed, “nobody put so much as a DIME on ‘$500 fine!”
“You ran a pool, on how badly we’d get punished?”
“Well, YEAH,” Wendy replied, unabashed.
“And you didn’t cut ME in for any of the action?”
“After what you pulled with Kait at the Smithsonian? No way!”
“So, what was the big favorite?”
Wendy didn’t even have to look at the screens. “That Diana would jerk you from this case, give it to someone else, and put you on the Trans-Atlantic fish poaching case.”
Vangie shuddered. “The Trans-Atlantic case? THAT’S what you all wished on me?” She turned to the rest of the office and said in a loud voice, “It’s nice to know that I’m so beloved by my peers!”
Kallie tugged at Kait’s sleeve. “What’s so bad about this fish-poaching case?”
“Well, Trans-Atlantic is a fishing company. They do that bit where they ‘farm’ fish from eggs to fry stage, and then they stick them in these big floating cages, which they set adrift. The mesh on the cages is fine enough to keep the small fry in and the big fish that would eat them out, but large enough to let in plankton and diatoms and like that. The small fry eat the plankton - and each other - and grow. When they’re big enough, Trans-Atlantic comes along and picks up the cage, fish and all. But every so often, someone comes along and either tries to hijack the cage, or some Sea Gypsy will rip it open to get a free meal, or something like that.”
“And, it’s a lousy gig! It makes dog-catching look fun! It’s months at sea in a small boat, going from cage to cage, on the off chance that you’ll catch somebody with the hook in their hand. Long hours, cramped quarters, cold water, high seas, seasick like you wouldn’t believe, and on top of all that, the pay’s lousy! That case has been up there for almost three months. If nobody bids on it - or Diana doesn’t drop it on them as a punishment - it’ll be bounced back to Corporate Security, where it belongs.”
“So, Vangie,” Kallie asked, eager to change the topic, “what are we gonna do? Stake out the mail drop, and wait for the Saints to pick up their crates?”
Vangie stopped dead in her tracks. “No. WE aren’t going to do anything. Remember what the Boss just said? YOU are a protected witness, and as such you will remain in a protected area whenever possible. In this case, you have your choice of the Secure Dorm or the Squad Room.”
“I’m already in trouble for taking you along on the Duchess Court thing. If I take you into a high risk situation, they’ll transfer me over to Site Security, and I’ll be paying off my debt for the rest of my life!”
Kallie stuck out her lip and said nothing. Vangie wrapped an arm around Kallie’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s not so bad! Hang out here, see how things are done, get an idea of what it’s really like, and maybe you can write a paper about the experience for your school.”
Vangie steered Kallie through the Squad Room. “Besides, most of this is gonna be stakeout duty. Stakeout duty is hours of watching and waiting; very boring. And, believe me, you do NOT wanna be stuck in a car with Kait, when she’s bored.” Vangie steered Kallie over to Julia’s workspace. “Hey, Jools! Mind if Kallie here hangs with you for a while? We gotta go into a high-risk sitch, and we need someone to keep an eye on her.”
Julia gave her usual room-warming smile. “Sure! Kitten and I aren’t doing anything until well after sundown, so why not? Hey, Sweetie, if you want to be helpful, take a look at the plans that we’ve drawn up for an investigative B&E, and see if there’s anything that jumps out at you.”
Kallie gave the plans an interested look through her pout, but said nothing.
“Well then, we should be back before you have to head out.” Vangie looked Kallie straight in the eye. “Kallie, this may not be exciting, but it is the business. If you really want to become an Erinyes someday, you’ll have to accept the fact that no matter how hard you try to avoid it, some day you’ll have to do paperwork. Besides, the girls in the office have great stories, which they’d love to tell you. Heck, some of them can even be repeated in polite company.”
Vangie and Kait somehow managed to wrangle one of the Mercedes-Benzes at the motor pool, and Chai requisitioned a skip. One of the big dangers with a stakeout was sitting in one place for too long and becoming obvious. They arranged themselves in a three-person post, with one of them watching the mail drop, another hanging loose but alert, and the third either napping or reading or playing a game, but available. They wasted three hours until their Geiger counter informed them that the latest parcel delivery van had brought the irradiated crates. From there, they shifted to a full-on stakeout formation, with one of them close, another at a median distance, and a third at a bit further distance, keeping an eye on the two that were up close. Every twenty minutes, they’d rotate their positions.
Kait was doing her stock streetwalker schtick, and Vangie was popping a Jitter-Not© tablet to take the edge off of her 12th (!) cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, when a large van pulled up. Vangie immediately made an optic shot of the license plate. [Chai, run this plate.]
[Kait, Snake-eyes, that plate isn’t registered to any delivery, portage, or rental service in the district. Want I should widen the search parameters?]
[Don’t bother, Killa. Just keep an eye on them and let us know when they pull out, and in what direction. Boom-boom, pull out and get to the car; our minnows just bit.]
The delivery truck pulled into a service alley behind a ratty looking Arlington strip mall. “‘Glad Tidings’?” Chai asked in a bewildered tone. “That’s a new one. What is it?”
“What?” Kait hooted, “You haven’t seen these things?”
“Oh, they’re the latest thing. Or, at least, they were last Christmas. They’re sort of a cross between a programmable greeting card and a plushy. They’re these cute little plushy angel dolls that fly on a weak suspensor field. They have a sound chip, and a small, short-life span navigation/target recognition system. The idea is that this cute little plushy angel flies up to the person that you’re sending a greeting to, and it sings it to them.”
“Yeah,” Vangie snarled, “they were uber-hot for about a week, and then everyone pretty much got sick of the damn things. Talk about annoying! I’m amazed that they’re still in business!”
Chai looked at the storefront. “It looks sort of like those old ‘build-a-bear’ stores that they used to have. Design your own ‘messenger of glad tidings’. Ayah! Could these idiots be any more obvious?”
Kait paused. “I dunno. I mean, you’d think that the Saints would avoid anything this obvious, but couldn’t the very obviousness be a blind?”
“Don’t go there,” Vangie groaned, “it only gets sillier, the more you look at it.”
“Okay,” Kait asked as she leaned against the window of the strip mall bakery, “what now? Do we go in and bag them, or what?”
Vangie looked at Chai. “Once they open those crates and sift through the paper, we should be able to track them, wherever they go.”
Chai nodded. “Their SOP is to immediately abandon a site in use, if there’s a chance that they’ve been compromised. They won’t risk exposing another vehicle, so they’ll have to use that van to move whatever they’ll want to take with them. Odds are, it’ll be at least a two-trip move.”
Vangie nodded back. “Tag the van, and check out what they leave behind on the first trip, to see what they’re moving. Then we follow to their next site, and establish a surveillance.”
“Hey, don’t I get any input on this?” Kait asked in a hurt voice.
“You’re lucky that I’m letting you carry ammunition,” Vangie snarled.
As predicted, the van was hurriedly re-loaded and the Saints decamped for their next base. Chai, Kait and Vangie managed to bill some jewelry and clothes shopping to their Expense Accounts by picking up a few things at the stores in the strip mall. Toting their bags to the door of ‘Glad Tidings’, Vangie quickly slipped an inductive scrambler patch over the section of the door where the alarm should be, as Chai made short work of the lock.
Even in the dim lighting, the store was oppressively bright and cheery, with baby-blue skies, fluffy white clouds, rainbows, pearly gates, and golden harps depicted on the walls. Obnoxiously perky angels grinned at them from every surface. One of the floor models, a cherubic faced ‘blonde’ singing from sheet music, lifted off, and began singing ‘Oh, Come All Ye Faithful’. It flew at them and repeated the opening refrain twice. Then it flew closer, still singing the opening refrain. It paused near Vangie, but when it flew near Chai, she snorted, “Oh, Please! I’m starting to see why these things didn’t get hot!” She whipped out one of her crystal-edged knives and threw it into the doll’s midsection, pinning it to a far wall.
When the plushy hit the wall, it exploded with a bang that left a baseball-sized hole in the wall.
When the store was rocked by the impact of the explosion, every plushy in the store, floor model or shelf inventory, sudden turned on, lifted off and began singing. “ah, Kait?” Vangie asked as she drew her gun, “Assuming that they’re using the standard toy-grade suspension unit, how large an explosive would these things be able to carry and still fly?”
Kait calculated furiously as she unlimbered her personal assault system and snapped it out of carry configuration over to fight. “Oh, judging from the hole in that wall, I’d say enough to kill an unarmored man if it got within two feet of him.”
As one, the three Erinyes edged toward the door.
“Okay,” Vangie huffed, gathering her chi for what she knew was going to have to happen next, “let’s assume that the Saints just pulled the message recording chip and replaced it with a demolitions chip. Even so, these things can’t be very smart. At least, not at these prices. Those things must just have foil chips for brains.”
Again, as one, they took another step toward the door, as the twittering flying bombs came their way. Chai said, “I can tell you’re going somewhere, Snake-eyes, don’t stop now.”
“Okay, these things have our images as their target. Still, they can’t be all that rugged; nobody’s gonna put really sturdy systems inside a plushy. So, if we run, one of three things is gonna give out first - its battery, its brain or its suspensor coil.”
“So, basically, what you’re saying is, we run away.”
“No, Kait, you and I run away. Chai, you duck behind some cover; Kait and I will draw them away. Odds are, the simplest thing for them to do will be to follow the greater number of targets.”
“Very nice,” Chai said dryly. “And what about the ones that DO decide to follow me?”
The plushies were assuming a formation and began to advance. “Shoot them. There’ll be so few of them, that it’ll actually be effective. You toss this place, while we lure the rest of them away, so they don’t blow up any civilians.”
“Hey!” Kait complained, “Why should BOTH of us be boom-bait? Why don’t you lure them off by yourself, while Chai and I toss the place?”
Vangie gave her the snake-eye. “Do you honestly think that I’m letting the two of you go in there unchaperoned? I’d rather charge into the mess of those things, and be done with it!”
Chai stepped between them. “Excuse me, but incoming flying bombs! It sounds like we have a plan. Let’s do it.”
As one, the three Erinyes turned, pulled their guns and shot a great gaping hole in the front door. Once the glass was out, they bolted out of the store as fast as they could. Cute little bundles of adorable flying death came boiling out of the store in hot pursuit, somehow all singing ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ in perfect harmony.
After running full-tilt for a bit, Chai, Kait and Vangie ducked behind a kiosk.
“Y’know, for flying bombs, those things aren’t very fast,” Kait remarked.
“I guess they’re not pursuit devices, they’re sneak attack devices,” Chai opined. “They count on the fact that they’re regarded as harmless, to get them past security, and up close to their targets. Besides, the Saints probably didn’t want to mess with the basic design too much, so they couldn’t amp up the suspensor coil.”
“OR, they’re just plain cheap,” Vangie said. “Speaking of which, I really doubt that these things have very sophisticated target tracking equipment, SO...” she cupped her hands together. Chai used them to hop up to the top of the kiosk. She pulled her 9mm, and readied it. Once she was prepped, she gave a thumbs-up.
At Chai’s signal, Vangie and Kait bolted from behind the kiosk, with the entire flight of militant angels not far behind. After about a hundred yards, Vangie yelled, “KAIT! Slow down!”
“Slow DOWN?” Are you NUTS?”
“These things aren’t fast! If we outrun them, they’ll just lose track of us, and begin a target search sweep.”
Vanige grunted in exasperation. “If we do that, we’ll be responsible for releasing somewhere between thirty and fifty rogue explosives into the general public.”
Kait chewed that over. “That would be bad.” Kait slowed down to a trot.
“The mind boggles.”
“So, we gotta run slow enough for them to keep track of us, but not fast enough for them to actually catch us.”
“So, where do we lead them to?”
“Head for the skip. We’ll draw them out onto the estuary. Once we’re free, I’ll start picking off the ones that don’t just drop.”
“So, we’re going from a slow motion chase scene on foot, to a slow motion motor chase scene.” By this time, Kait and Vangie had reached the skip.
“Y’know, we could do this in the car.”
“We don’t want any of them to lose our profiles.”
Kait pulled the skip out at a puttering pace. “Gawd, I hope none of my friends see me like this.” The customers of the strip mall watched bemused as two women on a skip led a stately procession of caroling angels toward the nearest loading dock.
Kait led the cutsie little demolitions packets through the loading dock and out onto the water. She looked back at the trailing ‘angels’ and strummed her fingers on the handlebars. “Maaannn...this is too lame!”
“Worse,” Vangie corrected her. “It’s too interesting. We’re gathering lookie-loos. Better let them know that getting too close isn’t a good idea.” Vangie pulled out her .45 and picked off one of the angels. She hit one that was flying in the middle of a cluster. It responded to the impact by detonating, which took out four more, which also detonated, resulting in a chair reaction that wound up destroying sixteen of them. Vangie’s next few shots weren’t as effective, but Kait managed to maneuver the dynamite darlings into close groups, that Vangie could take out with single shots.
The curious bystanders quickly got the idea that it wasn’t safe. Vangie managed to pick off a few more before the few remaining angels petered out and fell into the drink. Which was just when Paladin Enforcement’s Estuary Division pulled up, guns drawn. Kait gave Vangie a dirty look. “You know, we’re never going to live this down...”
“-and then we got a judgement call from Washington PD’s Estuary Division,” Vangie reported to Diana later that evening. “Pee-Dee sided with us, that we were neutralizing a Clear and Present Danger to the General Populace, and the threat posed to Estuary Traffic was minimal.”
“We’re still getting a bill for the clean-up,” the Office Honcho said tersely.
“As opposed to the liability for damages, or –perish forbid- personal injury, if we let those fool things just wander around ready to blow?”
“I’m not arguing that. What I want to know is, did we get anything out of that, besides bills from PE and the strip mall?
“Well, we have a pretty good idea of where at least two of the Saints’ safe houses are in the area, one of which Domestic Intelligence didn’t even have a clue as to. I had Argos Division put surveillance units on both of the sites, and they’re tracking the radioactive signatures as best they can. According to Argos the Saints aren’t lying as low as they might; they’re skipping all over the place, in groups of three to four, presumably tracking down Charters and Caldecott. As soon as they start shooting, we’ll know about it, and be there tuit de suite.”
Diana nodded. “Any clues regarding Nick and Nora themselves?”
Vangie shook her head. “Sketchy at best. Apparently, the heist was Sherman Gordon - the research fellow at the Institute - his big scam, and we think that he contacted Charters and Caldecott somehow to make it happen. We checked his database, both at his home and at the Institute, and it shows all the signs of a first-rate BSA wipe-and-overwrite.”
“So, any ideas as to what they’re up to, or what they’re going to do next?”
Vangie nodded. “A very vague one.” She keyed the remote for the monitor. A vague picture of the paperback book sized object appeared. “This is a best guess TIS Inquiry based composite of one of the things that Kallie saw. We’re running Visual ID matches, but so far no hits. We know that it has something to do with a 26-character alphanumeric sequence, which Gordon was very careful to keep to himself, and well away from Tommy and Tuppence.”
Diana smiled, “So, Dr. Gordon didn’t trust either Charters or Caldecott?”
“Well, would YOU? But this point is our big break, I think. If that dingus is the big key to whatever it is they’re up to, then that code sequence is just as crucial. And with Gordon dead, Charters and Caldecott only have one place to go, to get any possible backup - the Smithsonian."
Diana leaned back and steepled her fingers. “And this helps us HOW?”
“Well, right now Botch & Wankers’ security at the Smithsonian is so airtight that there’s no way that the Duplicitous Duo could have gotten in to look for anything. So, tomorrow, I’m visiting the Institute, and I’m going to leave a nice little cryptic envelope taped to the underside of Gordon’s workspace, just where Jonathan and Jennifer should be able to find it. Inside said envelope will be a puzzling little cypher-field, printed on Foto-Proof©.”
“And this little conundrum will SAY?” Diana prompted.
“Nothing. A subtle transponder will be woven into the Foto-Proof paper. They’ll probably have to take it somewhere to get someone to unravel the code, and the second that they move it from the Smithsonian, we’ll have them.”
Diana arched an eyebrow. “Charters and Caldecott haven’t stayed alive as long as they have by being gullible, Blake. They may just leave the country altogether, let things cool down, and just come back in a few years to try again.”
Vangie shook her head. “Blake’s Law: Nobody walks away from their own wallet. They have too much invested in this. I mean, I sort of doubt that the Saints contributed those BFADs [Bipedal Firefight Assistance Drones] that they used in the Smithsonian raid. Besides, the more time that they let other people try to puzzle this out, the greater the chance that someone will find two twos to put together. Besides, they’re probably all too aware that the Saints are out there, looking for them. They’re going to be taking chances, and that’s our opportunity.”
Diana nodded. “Okay, it sounds like you have a grip on the situation.” Then she scowled. “But then, you usually do. Now, what about your *ahem!* ‘little sister’?”
“Hey, Kallie was NOT involved in any of this! As per your orders, she spent the afternoon in the office. Julia says that she’s been as good as gold.”
Diana quirked a half-smile. “I know. But then, she’s living out a daydream, isn’t she? God knows, when *I* was fifteen, I would have loved to have been taken under the wing of an entire office staffed with mind-numbing beauties!”
“Maybe,” Vangie glowered back at her, “but she’s still been inside all day. She’s been good, so I’m gonna reward her with a girls night out.”
Diana’s eyes went hard. “And said ‘girls night out’ will precisely entail WHAT?”
“Nothing work related. Do a little shopping at a four-star security rating mall, a little dinner at someplace sort of ritzy, and a lot of being out and about as a cute girl. A few hours of not being cooped up inside to stave off cabin fever.”
Diana smirked knowingly. “AND, you get to indulge in playing ‘big sister’.”
Vangie just responded with an ‘and your point IS?’ expression.
Diana insisted that Vangie take Kait along with them, and if Kait was going along, you just knew that Chai would be there as well. Kallie bought a couple of new outfits for herself (on Vangie’s expense card), and Vangie, Kait and Chai each tweaked their own wardrobes a bit. As they were toting their swag down the mall corridor, Chai stopped. “Hey, Vangie. Check it out.” She jerked a thumb at the mall’s Elysium™ TIS Arcade franchise.
Vangie stopped and looked at the marquee. “I don’t see anything particularly interesting.”
“No, not the milieus; Vangie, you said that you think the Trib Saints were using Kwik-kroots. But they managed to field a force of over fifty disposable guys at the Smithsonian. You don’t manage to get that many guys using one or two jury-rigged washing chairs.”
“But an Arcade full of TIS suites,” Vangie nodded, “with a tampered mainframe, would be able to churn them out as quickly as you wanted.”
“But the Saints wouldn’t risk breaking into an operating Arcade with that many guys. The security would be ridiculous.”
“Wait a minute!” Kait said, “Remember, Xanadu Arcades went out of business last year! Maybe the Saints bought out a few of the old Arcades through a front company.”
“Possible,” Vangie agreed, “one of several possibilities. Kallie, hold on for a second.” Vangie pulled out her Portable Telecommunications Node and keyed it to ultra-secure scramble. “Hello, Domestic Intelligence? This is Evangeline Blake, Erinyes Division. Would you give me Roger Park? Oh, he’s out for the evening. Okay, I’d like to leave him with a request for information on-”
As Vangie called in, Kallie asked, “By the way, I never asked; what’s a ‘Kwik-kroot’?”
Chai grimaced. “Well, okay, but don’t go spreading this around. It’s not exactly a secret, but the Arcade operators really don’t like it when people stir this up. Y’see, the Total Immersion Sensorium technology wasn’t originally developed as an entertainment or education thing. It was originally developed by the old American CIA as a brainwashing and interrogation process.”
“Brainwashing?” Kallie squeaked, remembering all the times that she lost herself in a Total Immersion Sensorium.
“Yeah, that’s exactly the reaction that the Arcade operators want to avoid," Chai said. “But don’t worry. As a brainwashing technique, it was a bust. It had most of the limitations of hypnosis - you can’t violate someone’s personal code of morality and things like that - the effect only lasts for a little over a week, no real time to do anything interesting. And, while the effect is working, the subject’s too focused to really be that useful. Also, while modern TIS Arcades are a lot more sophisticated than the old CIA brainwashing system, there are tons of hardware and software restrictions to keep anything hinky from happening. BUT, if you can kludge a TIS suite together, or you have a de-commissioned TIS Arcade suite where you can rip out all the restrictions and avoid the inspectors, you can manage to pull off a quick and nasty brainwashing. And, if you have a sufficiently compelling rationale to cram down your chump’s throat, like they’re saving the world from invading aliens, you can convince a poor schlub to drive a car-bomb into a building.”
“Or, if they have this really blissed out ‘religious experience’...” Kallie said, getting where Chai was headed.
“Yep. Now, Kwik-kroots aren’t really that good for much - not enough time to really train them to do that much, but they’ll shoot damn near anyone, and they’re not afraid to die. And that’s always useful to send at someone.”
There was something bothering Kallie. “So, howcum you don’t have every goon who gets busted for armed robbery or the like claiming that he was brainwashed into doing it?”
“Because the Kwik-kroot process leaves neurological traces that CAT scans and MRIs can spot. Those thugs that know about kwik-krooting, also know that as an alibi, it just doesn’t work. Now, the thing is, there’s been no sign that the Saints have used the Kwik-kroot process, so if we can prove that they’re using some as-yet undetectable variation, it’ll be a big-time feather in our cap.”
“Well, you see, the Saints loudly deny that they use Kwik-kroots. A big part of their general effectiveness is that normal, everyday people, sane, rational, not-religious-whackos, will suddenly ‘stand up and take a stand for what’s right’; namely blowing up someone that the Saints don’t like. It sends the message that there’s this wide, silent, underground current of sympathy for the Gideonites. It sets the Saints, ‘the Maccabees’, ‘the Mighty Men’, and ‘the Daughters of Judith’ a step above other violent nutjobs. BUT, if we can prove that they’re using Kwik-kroots, well, then! That’s a whole different kettle of fish! Then, the Gideonites are just a gang of brainwashers, using religion as an excuse. They’ll lose a lot of sympathy - and more importantly, funding. And, no matter what they say, most terrorists are all about the funding.”
Vangie folded up her cell phone. “Well, that’s that! Can’t really expect anything tonight, so what’s next?”
“How about some food?” Kait asked plaintively.
“Well, this is your night out, Kallie,” Chai said, “where do you wanna eat?”
Kallie thought it over. “I’m not really in the mood for anything fancy. Over there is just fine.”
“B.G. McGruff’s™? You got a thing for goat meat?”
“Why do old people get so weird about goat meat?”
Vangie shrugged. “I guess it’s just that I grew up in the last days of Big Beef. When I was a kid, my parents would buy me a hamburger if I was good; goat’s just so...sustenance diet...”
Kallie, Vangie and Kait took a table, as Chai got into the line. “So, Vangie, you told your boss that you think the Saints were after the Lieberman papers. Why would they be so amped about getting his presidential papers?”
“Well, think about it - what do you know about Abe Lieberman?”
Kallie shrugged. “Well, just that he was the last president of the old Union, the first and only Jewish-American President, and he was one of the architects of the Amalgamation into the Federation. Oh, yeah! And he sat on the Executive Committee until he was assassinated.”
Vangie nodded. “Not bad. A little skimpy, but not bad. But what your school glossed over, was that Abe Lieberman was a loudly vocal critic of the ‘Christian Republic of Gideon’ experiment from the get-go. Let me set the stage for you. For decades, the Fundamentalist Christian Right had been pushing things like Prayer in public schools, Anti-Abortion laws, teaching Creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’ in the schools, and other ‘Faith Based’ initiatives. By the turn of the 21st Century, they were powerful enough that a movement started to set up an ‘Autonomous Region’ inside the US based on policies indicated by Biblical interpretation. They used the autonomy of the Native American Tribes on their reservations as a precedent. Naturally, the Secular Humanists opposed this very loudly, but the Christian Right stuck to their guns and basically used the old ‘lead butt’ to finally get it greased through after twenty-five years. Anyway, Abe Lieberman was one of the most visible opponents of this, on constitutional grounds. But, as you know, they finally managed to bulldoze it through, and a ‘limited 10-year experiment’ was allowed in Iowa, Missouri, lower Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. If the residents of those areas didn’t want to take part in the ‘experiment’, they were free to leave.”
“Of course, that usually meant selling their homes, property and businesses at a BIG loss,” Kait cut in. “There were a lot of people who really didn’t like the Gideonites.”
“For the first five or so years,” Vangie resumed, “the Gideon Experiment did fine, and there was a lot of noise among the Religious Right about taking this show on the road to other parts of the country. BUT, then about six or seven years in, things started to go sour in the Promised Land.”
“Yeah, I remember reading about that in school,” Kallie said. “Howcum?”
Vangie shrugged. “Well, as I remember it, it was for pretty much the same reason that the Nazis and Soviets did so well in the short-run, and petered out. At the beginning, they had a bunch of really competent, really committed people who threw themselves completely into making the whole thing run, on the assumption that if they got it up and running, that momentum would take care of the rest. But, after a while, these really competent, really committed people found themselves replaced in their positions by well-connected people who cared more about the party line than in getting the job done. Their replacements assumed that their Bible Interpretations was what was making the system work, not ordinary mortal hard work, so they figured that they had cushy jobs that would more or less do themselves. They were wrong. Blake’s Law: Never mistake extraordinary effort for ordinary competence.
“Still, there was a lot of momentum, and no shortage of people willing to put in extra hours. For a while, at any rate. But, in the fine old tradition of zealots down through the ages, when things started going wrong, the Ecclesiastical Council of Gideon decided that instead of re-thinking their policies, what was needed was more zeal. Funny, a zealot’s answer to everything is more zeal. So a whole raft of punitive measures were drafted, and they created the ‘Vigils’ to enforce them.”
Chai came back from the counter with a large cardboard ‘bucket’. “The ‘Vigils’, if you haven’t heard of them, were what eventually became the Gideonite secret police.”
Kallie goggled at the huge ‘bucket’. “You got the eight-portion ‘buffet bucket’!”
“Oh, don’t worry. If there isn’t enough, we can always go back for seconds.”
Kait unwrapped her plastic spork and knife. “One of the downsides to the Dragonsblood process - we replace our cells at about the same rate as a 16-year-old, so we eat a LOT of food.” Kait scowled at Chai. “Where’s the curry? You didn’t load this down with your usual selections of napalm, did you?”
Vangie leaned over. “Even the Chinese, who think that most American food is incredibly bland, think the Thai are crazy with what they put in their food.” Vangie looked in the bucket. “Oh good, Chevon sauce. Dibs!”
Seeing the Erinyes pillaging the bucket with ruthless abandon, Kallie made sure that she managed to get some neck for herself. But even that was at the risk of losing her hand. “So, what does all that have to do with Abe Lieberman?”
“Bear with me, I’m establishing a foundation,” Vangie said as she piled on some pilaf. “By the end of the 10-year ‘experiment’, Gideon had gone from a reasonable republic with an ecclesiastical governing body to a flat-out totalitarian Theocracy. They’d taken one of the richest and most productive sections of the country, and pretty much driven it into the ground. They weren’t producing food, they had to import it. But even despite the fact that they were only getting by with outside support from Fundy groups in the rest of the country, the Gideonites pushed for a series of extensions on the ‘experiment’. And Abe Lieberman was there, fighting them tooth and nail, every inch of the way.
“Then, the Big Brawl collapsed the economy in 2043, and the World Depression went down. Things went bad everywhere, and Gideon pretty much shut down its borders to the rest of the world. In 2048, Abe Lieberman was elected Vice-President on the ticket with Ted Ward. The Ward-Lieberman ticket was one of those ‘Bush-Cheney’ tickets, where you had one really effective administrator as Veep, and someone who could get elected as President. Anyway, Abe put on his ‘Franklin Roosevelt’ hat, and started pulling some major power moves. And one of his big items was ‘excising the parasitic leech clamped onto the American heartland’, as he put it."
“In other words,” Chai said around a mouthful of goat, “he pulled the plug on all the Federal government handouts that Gideon was scraping by on. He said that if God was really on Gideon’s side, they didn’t need charity from Caesar.”
“Yeah,” Vangie said, “and that really put the fat in the fire. Y’see, if ever there were two men who were born to hate each other’s guts, it was Abe Lieberman and Pastor Bob Whitlowe, the head of Gideon’s Council of Elders. Pastor Bob was the type who knows how to make the right noises and look good, and that’s about it. Abe Lieberman, on the other hand, was the sort of tough, no-nonsense, New York Jew kind of politician that’s all about getting the job done, screw the prima donnas’ tender feelings. Whitlowe accused Liberman of trying to sabotage Gideon; Lieberman shot back that he was too busy trying to keep the US on the tracks to waste time and money on what he called a pipe dream. I won’t bother you with the whole nasty affair, but when it finally came down to dissolving the old Union to join with Canada, Mexico, Cuba and the other Caribbean states, Abe finally saw a way of getting rid of the ‘Republic of Gideon’. He offered Whitlowe a chance to completely secede from the Union, by calling for a Popular Vote inside Gideon on whether to Amalgamate with the rest of the Union, or to secede into its own separate country. Whitlowe jumped on it.
“From there, everyone was pulling every dirty trick they could think of: voting the graveyard, disenfranchising political enemies, issuing voting proxies to exiles but not telling them, ballot stuffing, everything that anyone could think of. But in the final analysis, depending on who you ask, Lieberman was either the better dirty fighter, or the everyday people of the Gideon region were just plain fed up with the Theocracy. There was a landslide victory for Amalgamation.”
“If you ask me,” Kait said, as she dove in for seconds, “the real thing that decided the vote was Lieberman’s offer of immediate shipments of food, if they voted for Amalgamation. Nothing rocks the vote like an empty stomach.”
“The point here, Kallie,” Vangie took the ball again, “is that the Theocracy and its partisans didn’t exactly take this gracefully. Whitlowe announced that America had betrayed the Holy Country of Gideon, and that the End Times were here. Big Shock; the Fundys always say the End Times are here. Whitlowe, the Ecclesiastical Council, and Elements of Gideon’s army and secret police went underground, and formed the Tribulation Saints, the Maccabees, the Mighty Men, the Daughters of Judith and a few other terrorist groups. They think that if they use a bunch of different names, they’ll create the illusion of having a wide support base. The Saints and the other Gideonite groups have always claimed that the reason that Gideon failed after such a promising start was that the US Federal government sent saboteurs into Gideon to derail things. And if anyone would have his fingers on that sort of action, it would be Abe Lieberman.”
Kallie nodded. “Okay, now I get it - the Saints think that if they get their hands on the Lieberman papers, they’ll find proof supporting their claims, so they might have a chance of conning someone into trying the Gideon experiment again.” Kallie paused, and chewed on it for a moment. “But why would Lieberman leave incriminating documents in his personal papers? I mean, I know he got assassinated, but I’d think that he’d shred everything that tied him to anything illegal, the second the Amalgamation vote went his way!”
Vangie smirked. “Oh, I sincerely doubt that there’s anything there. Lieberman didn’t have to sabotage the Gideonites - they did it all with their own incompetence. Besides, he was too busy keeping the rest of the country from falling apart to waste time and money on them. And, even if he did do anything, he was way too smart to put anything in writing, let alone keep it. Not that that will slow the Saints down any.”
Vangie smiled, “Kallie, honey, the Saints ‘know’ that Lieberman sabotaged Gideon. It’s an article of faith with them. If they don’t find anything, they’ll just ‘reconstruct’ documents proving their point, from any gaps in the Lieberman papers and what they ‘know’ he did.”
“One of the advantages of being a fanatic,“ Kait sniped, “you never have to worry about being wrong, ‘cause even if you are wrong, you can just ignore it.”
“There is an old Thai saying,” Chai entoned, “the butterfly is tossed by the wind, but the rock will never see the rainbow.”
Kallie just stopped and looked at Chai. “Don’t ask,” Vangie warned her, “it will only just encourage her.”
A few tables over, seated at separate but adjoining tables, a sharp-featured man dressed in the current ‘bohemian’ shabby-chic style muttered across to the woman in the current Corporate power style who was apparently studiously ignoring him, “So, what are they talking about?”
“History lesson for the kid. Any idea as to who she is?”
“Couldn’t say. I’d say maybe one of their relations, but with Erinyes, how can you rely on family resemblance? What’s the history lesson in regards?”
“Leiberman and the last days of Gideon.”
“And you said that this was a shot in the dark.”
“Just because they’re talking about the Lieberman papers doesn’t mean that they’re the ones that took them.”
“Judging by the disparity in their builds, those are the three that managed to snatch the boy that spotted us in the Smithsonian. Also, my contact at Burke & Whitehead states that the brunette with the glasses is Evangeline Blake, who was the last Themis operative inside the Institute. The scenario immediately suggests itself, that the boy dropped something that they picked up on, and Blake seized the chance to reverse our ploy against us. God knows Burke & Whitehead didn’t figure it out, or it would be all over the newsbleed. Someone has the Lieberman papers, and the odds are that it’s her.”
“But that doesn’t mean that she’s in a position to get them back for us. She could have turned them over to her supervisor for the finder’s fee.”
“Really, Charters! Who in their right mind would settle for a piddling finder’s fee, when they could sell the Lieberman papers for a few hundred thousand under the table, easily?”
“Point taken. But how do we get her to hand them over? The ‘Scandal in Bohemia’ ploy?”
“No, first we watch them a bit, see if anything pops up.”
“Well, it’s not like we don’t have every other option covered as best we can.” Charters paused. “Oh, Hell.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Bitch moved her glass. I’m searching for something else to bounce a beam off of.”
Chai fiddled with her drinking glass. “Dear, dear, dear.”
“What’s the matter, Chai?”
“It seems that we have fans. Someone was bouncing a laser off my glass.”
Vangie looked. “Yep, from the arc of the bounce, I’d say that it was those two over there, the pair pretending to not know each other. The MBA-wannabe in last season’s power colors, and the retro-boho in leather.”
“Are you sure?”
“It must be - who comes to BG McGruff’s for the parfait?”
Kallie couldn’t help herself; she turned and looked. She tried to keep it to a brief glance, but she accidentally locked eyes with the man. There was something about him...
Then it clicked.
Charters had just re-tuned her eavesdropping laser pickup on a reflecting surface on the Erinyes’ table, when she heard the girl hiss, “That’s HIM! He’s the one with Gordon! And in the phony ambulance!”
Then she lost contact again, as the tall redhead shifted her seat.
Oh Shit, Caldecott, we’re ever so slightly rumbled.”
“Don’t get flustered, Leslie. They don’t know that we know. If I can tag one of them with a tracer, we can lose them when they try to lead us into an ambush.”
“Are you sure about that, Kallie?”
“Yes!” she hissed back, “Why do you think they’re here? Are they following me?” The fact that she might have been read caused Kallie more grief than the prospect of being taken as a hostage did.
“Not a chance,” Vangie reassured her. “Odds are they’re following me, as I was the last Themis operative inside the Smithsonian at the right time. Still, I’d love to know how they fingered me specifically for that. Any chance that they’re reading us, Chai?”
“Oh, the woman’s working that laser for everything it’s worth. You got any tricks up your sleeve, Snake-eyes?”
“Oh, NOW, you’re all eager for an edge!” Vangie huffed. She pulled out her purse and started piling the table up with cosmetics. “Now, sit still, Sweetie, I want to see what this color looks like on you.”
“Vangie, what ARE you doing?” Kallie whispered.
“What IS that woman up to?” Caldecott asked, desperately trying to cover his confusion.
“Well, right off, I’d say that she’s trying to confuse us,” Charters answered equitably. “I’ll wager that one of those things has some sort of IR jammer, and she’s getting ready to pull some dramatic capture. Just be ready when she ‘accidentally’ spills something.”
“I’m just trying to confuse them a little, hon,” Vangie muttered under her breath. “The cologne sprayer has an IR jammer built into it. Kait, why don’t you take over the makeover?”
As Kait leaned over, Vangie used the cover to reconfigure several pieces from her purse, and assembled them into what looked like a cobbled together pistol. “You’re gonna shoot them? Right here?” Kallie muttered as she looked at what Kait had done to her face.
“Oh, this doesn’t shoot bullets,” Vangie said calmly. “Lots better. It shoots teeny-tiny tracker transponders.”
“The only problem,” Chai said as she picked at her salad, “is how to tag them without them knowing it. Kait, what would you say the odds of them having twigged to the fact that we know they’re there?”
“So, Charters, do you want to take the tracker bug, or shall I?”
“Oh, not to worry, Caldecott; I’ll take it. This corporate clone color simply isn’t me.”
“You ARE a sport. What say we mix it up a tad, just to make it interesting?”
“Well, something about this mess should be amusing. D’you think they’ll go for a ranged tag, or a hands-on tag?”
“So, do we go for a ranged or contact tag?”
“Neither. Make them think that we tagged them, follow them to their wheels, and tag that. Kait, are you up for one of your ‘oops, I’m such a klutz’ numbers?”
“Yeah, but I usually get either a drink or a date out of it.”
“Oh, here it comes. I think the big redhead is about to trip over her own feet.”
Kait was just getting up, when the glass partition that separated the BG McGruff’s from the rest of the mall exploded.
Now, dear readers, on the very off-chance that you ever find yourself looking for a good place to have a firefight, let me point this out: fast food franchises are near the very bottom of the list. They are always very well lit, making everyone a wonderful target. There are always innocent bystanders to worry about, either in the form of the employees or the customers. While the partitions and tables do offer lots of cover, it’s visual cover only. They’re always made of fiberglass that’s just about one step above painted cardboard in terms of ballistic protection. Trading shots in a fast food restaurant is the next best thing to getting caught out in the open. And lastly, there’s always a security camera running, so unless you’re 100% on the defensive, you WILL get caught on camera shooting people.
Fortunately for the Erinyes, the men who’d blasted through the safety glass wall were firing at Charters and Caldecott, and with far more enthusiasm than accuracy. Caldecott pulled Charters behind the minimal protection of a partition, as Charters threw a blinding flare.
Kait reached for her Personal Assault System, but Vangie grabbed her arm. “Priorities. Get Kallie out of here!” With that, Vangie draped her longcoat over Kallie and pulled her down to the ground.
Taking a moment to survey the situation, Vangie saw that the attacking force consisted of five men in shabby clothing who were using assault pistols. Behind them, was a nondescript man yelling into a cell phone. “Looks like the Saints finally caught up with the Dastardly Duo. But the Saints have never exactly been known for respecting unconcerned bystanders, so...” Vangie reached into a pocket and produced what looked like an iridescent playing card. She pinched one corner of the ‘card’, ran her fingers down the edge, and threw the card in front of where the gunmen were firing.
The card landed iridescent side up and exploded, sending a cloud of glitter into the air. Besides being pretty as all get out, the sparkling cloud was as confusing to laser and radar targeting systems as it was to the naked eye. Charters and Caldecott took advantage of the brief confusion to haul themselves over the counter into the working back of the restaurant, where at least there was some real metal to hide behind.
“Shit!” Vangie hissed. “Couldn’t get a clear shot at them!” She sighed, “Oh, well, might as well get while the getting’s good.”
Keeping Kallie well draped by the armored long coat at all times, the three Erinyes duck-walked her through the remains of the glass wall. As soon as Kallie was clear, Vangie turned and fired her tracker-gun four times at the Kwik-kroots controller, who had his hands full steering his fanaticized minions in pursuit of their former allies. “Okay, Snake-eyes, this is your operation,” Chai said under her breath, “what’s the color of the day?”
Vangie chewed her lip. “Amber. Don’t shoot anyone, but assume that anyone armed is hostile, and avoid. Even if they aren’t Saints, the Mall Security will want to hold us for questioning, and we can’t let it get out that Kallie’s a protected witness.”
“Easier said than done,” Kait said. “We’re on the fifth floor, and Mall Security’s gonna cover every elevator, escalator and stairwell, SOP.”
Like most Malls, this one was designed around a large open central atrium. The atrium of this mall was cruciform. Vangie pointed at one section of the glass banister. “Cherokee Air Lift. Chai, Me, Kallie, then Kait.”
“Right!” Chai and Kait said in unison.
“What?” Kallie asked in confusion as Vangie and Kait sprinted to the banister. Chai was five steps ahead of them and vaulted over the banister into thin air. She dropped out of sight, and Kallie heard Chai call out, “One!” Just as they got to the banister.
As soon as they got to the glass railing, Vangie jumped over it. Kallie watched her drop five stories and land lightly next to Chai. Chai had her long coat off, and she and Vangie stretched it out between them. When it was taut, Vangie called out, “Two!”
“Are you afraid of heights?” Kait asked conversationally.
“No,” Kallie answered, really not following what was going on.
“Good.” Kait picked up Kallie, held her over the edge of the railing, and paused to aim.
“What are you-” Kallie asked just as Kait dropped her, “-dooiiinnnggg?”
Suddenly, Kallie realized that she really could scream like a little girl.
Chai and Vangie caught her with a bounce, using the long coat as a net. As Kallie struggled out of the long coat, Chai laid her hand over Kallie’s heart, and did something that went a long way toward Kallie keeping her dinner down. As soon as the landing site was clear, Vangie called out “Three”, and Kait dropped, bringing the shopping bags with her.
Once Kallie was steady on her pins again, the four ran toward the parking garage. Vangie keyed a remote that started up the Em-Bee, and had it autopilot to the garage door. They piled in unceremoniously, and Vangie powered the sled through the tollgate.
Once her breathing was normal again, Kallie asked, “Okay, what the fuck happened back there?”
"Kallie! You can use four letter words!" Vangie shrugged. “Well, my guess is that the Saints are pissed at those two because they think that they - Charters and Caldecott, that is - doublecrossed them with the Lieberman Papers. Those two were probably following me on the long shot that I can lead them to where the Lieberman papers are, so they can get the Saints off their asses. Don’t worry, Hon, I really doubt that they know who you are.” Vangie grinned. “Y’know, this has been a very good evening.”
“How do you figure that?” Kait asked, “I didn’t get to shoot nuthin’!”
“It means that Charters and Caldecott can’t get what they really want. They wouldn’t be wasting their time following us on a long shot, if they could. Nope, if their plans were still on track, they’d be over the hills and far away, and not worrying about what the Saints thought. That means Dr. Gordon was key to their plan, and now that he’s dead, they can’t pull it off. And that means they’re desperate.” Vangie gave an evil grin. “Desperate people are SO easy to manipulate. Just give them the ghost of a chance that they can pull their ashes out of the fire, and they’ll do anything, no matter how dangerous or stupid. Advantage: Themis.”
“Don’t get too revved up, Vangie,” Chai said in a flat voice. “Remember SOP.”
“Oh,” Vangie grunted, “Right.”
“What’s the matter, Vangie?” Kallie asked.
Vangie gave a gusty sigh. “It means that our troubles aren’t over just yet, Dear. Standard Operating Procedure demands that I write up an Incident Report, and *you* have to do another round of PTS counseling in the morning.”
In their Four-Star lodgings, Charters helped herself to a large brandy, collapsed into an overstuffed chair and sighed, “Well, we can file THAT under ‘unmitigated disaster’.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Leslie, m’dear.” Caldecott had also helped himself to a brandy, but he was considerably more chipper. “If anything, I’d say that we’re in a much better position than we were this morning.”
Charters scowled at him. “And how do you figure that? Not only did we get chased out of a burger joint by a crew of drooling zombies, but also those Erinyes are onto the fact that we’re trying to follow them! Tell me, Erskine, exactly HOW does that help us in the least?”
Caldecott smirked smugly. “Do you remember that little blonde snip that was with them? The one that they took such great pains to protect?”
Charters blinked. “Her?” Then something clicked. “Oh, Caldecott - just before it all went wonky, I heard the girl say that she recognized you! She knew Gordon’s name, and about the ambulance.”
“Yeeesss...” Caldecott purred, “I rather thought that I saw the look of recognition in her face.”
“But how? Nobody saw us!”
Caldecott shook his head. “No, remember what Gordon was doing, just before he went and got himself shot?”
Charters blinked. “Well, I remember he hared off on some last minute errand, and when he came back, he was yelling at that boy and going through his pockets.”
Caldecott nodded. “And, what’s our primary problem at the moment?”
“We don’t have the unlocking sequence to go with the bloody lock component!” Chambers snarled.
“And WHY don’t we have that sequence, which SHOULD have been in the case with the component?”
Chambers blinked again. “Well, the only people who handled the case were us and Gordon. I guess that Gordon removed it for some reason.”
Caldecott nodded. “My guess is that Gordon didn’t trust us.”
“Well, can’t really blame him there,” Chamber focused. “Let’s see now, if *I* were trying to pull this, I’d memorize the sequence and destroy the paper, so that I’d be the only way to open the vault. Since my allies wouldn’t dare doublecross me in front of the hired help, I’d be reasonably safe. I’d either burn it-”
“Too likely to be noticed.”
“-Or I’d simply rip it up and dump it in the recyke bins. And then I’d periodically run through the sequence in my head, just to make sure that I had it right.”
“And if you got it wrong?”
“I’d go back and try to fish the pieces out of the recyke bins.” Charters blinked. “And that was what he did! And he was shouting something about that boy ‘having it’. He must have searched the recyke bins, and found nothing. He assumed that the boy fished the bits out of the bins and had it.”
“A long shot, but it would explain why the pieces suddenly disappeared. The offices would be a logical place for stragglers to hide. Sloppy of us to not search them first.”
“We were on a very tight schedule. Still, it’s a pretty thin supposition.”
“True, but it’s a supposition that’s supported by the fact that those Erinyes took such pains to protect that girl, instead of coming after us.”
“I’m not making a connection, Caldecott.”
“Leslie, they’re Erinyes, as in Male-to-Female transsexuals? And the girl recognized us?”
“You mean...the girl is really the boy?”
“It would explain why she recognized us, true?”
“But that still doesn’t mean that the boy has the locking sequence.”
“No, but the Erinyes have to be keeping him as a protected witness for some reason.” Caldecott paused. “You know, according to my sources, there was a young girl at that incident that Blake was involved in last night. If so, she’s doing a very poor job of protecting her witness.” His eye narrowed. “And THAT is our opening.”
Vangie walked out of Diana’s office. ‘I should’a worn the miniskirt’, she thought to herself, ‘would’a made Diana’s chewing my ass off easier.’
Then she spotted Kallie sitting with Kait near the kitchenette. “Hey, Kid. How did the PTS session go?”
“Why is it, the more they tell me not to feel bad, the worse I feel?”
“Don’t ask me to explain PTS - they do good work, but that doesn’t stop them from being annoying as hell. Well, Kallie, we’re looking at the final 24 hours of our legal custody of you. I’m gonna have Legal try to get an extension for another 72, but it’s iffy.”
“What happens if you can’t get the extension?” Kallie asked.
“We hand you back over to your parents, and hope that neither C&C or the Saints have been watching your school, to see who’s been showing up and who hasn’t.”
“That’s IT?” Kallie wasn’t sure which scared her more - the prospect of being kidnapped by ruthless terrorists, or having to give up being a pretty girl.
Kait shrugged. “Well, we could give you a ‘panic button’ that you could activate if anything happens, but y’gotta remember, we ain’t the Cops - there’d be an ‘Instant Response’ charge and a lotta bookkeeping shit.”
Vangie was about to say something, when her cell phone rang. “Chai? How did it go? A what? You’re kidding!” Vangie giggled. “Yes, well it would work nicely, but still! Okay, phone Legal, have them start up the paperwork, and come on in. We’ll scare up help, and start the prep. With any luck, we should have this wrapped up before lunch.” Vangie flickered a glance at Kallie. “Or dinner, at any rate.”
Vangie looked at Kait. “Boom-boom, go see if you can round up, oh, six or seven girls who are up for a quick side-job. Just not Val or Darcy. As a matter of fact, I’d appreciate it if neither of them heard about it, until after the dust settles.”
An hour later, Vangie was facing Chai, Kait, and six other Erinyes in a briefing room. She filled them in on the basics of the case. “Now, I pegged the Saint’s Control agent with a tracker, and Argos says that he dropped by the location of the defunct Elysium TIS Arcade in Alexandria. Chai went down there earlier, and checked out the scene. Chai, fill them in.”
Chai leaned back in her chair. “Check this out. The Elysium Arcade is still shut down. The main entrance is still very convincingly grated and boarded up. But, as you all no doubt know, every arcade is supposed to have two emergency exits, as well as an Employees’ Entrance and a roof access. BUT the employees’ entrance opens out into an access alley, and at least two other businesses use that alley. These businesses have been experiencing an unusually high rise in ‘walk-through’ traffic, that is, people going in the front and out the back. It turns out that whoever is running the Elysium Arcade is offering low-cost, no-buffer TIS Porn.”
Marlo Phillips, who affected the patter, dress, and even face and form of a 1940’s film noir femme fatale (specifically Veronica Lake) gave a low whistle. “The high-and-mighty, oh-so-MORAL Tribulation Saints are peddling blue movies? What IS the world coming to?”
“Actually, it makes sense,” Margo Lane corrected her. “From the Saint’s point of view, they’re taking the morally bankrupt and turning them to the Lord’s purpose. They’re probably taking some of the prize sleazos in the region, and offering them whatever twisted fantasies they can afford. Hell, they’re suckering them into actually paying for being brainwashed.”
Kitten nodded. “And, it would explain why the Saint’s Kwik-kroots are so high-functioning. The Saints probably offer very reasonable rates for the Immersion sessions, so their pigeons become regular customers, and the brainwashing can be done over a long period of time.”
“Sounds right,” Julia purred. “And that would explain why they haven’t been able to peg the Saints’ ‘instant fanatics’ as Kwik-kroots. Normally, with Kwik-kroots, they use an overwhelming surge of imagery, which over-stimulates certain parts of the brain, and leaves detectable traces of that stimulation. But, if it’s done over a period of weeks or months?”
“Nothing,” Ayumi grumped over her cigarette. “So, what are the targets?”
Vangie took a deep breath. “Okay, here goes. Our priorities are, in order: One, acquire the Saints’ files, both hardcopy and datafiles. The Saints seem to know a lot about Charters and Caldecott, and we want to know all about that.” Vangie shrugged. “Okay, it’s thin, but it’s the best that we’ve got at the moment. Blake’s Law: Play the cards you’re dealt, as best you can. Also, there should be some information on the Saints’ financial structure and their front organizations. Assume that both the hardcopy and datafile discs are booby-trapped.
“Two: Take control of the Arcade’s mainframe. The Department of Justice will pay a very nice reward for proof that the Saints are using Kwik-kroot technology.”
“Well, all right!” Marya gloated. Marya was the office ‘get-rich-quick’ schemer, and she always needed a hefty infusion of cash for her latest endeavor. “How much?”
“Don’t know, right off the bat. Three: there’s a standing reward for known leaders of the Saints.” Vangie called up a Rogues’ gallery of twelve mug shots.
“These are known wheels in the various Gideonite fronts that Domestic Intelligence thinks might be in the area. Download their biometrics into your tac-helmet databases; if you spot one of these guys BAG HIM! Just-” Vangie flickered a glance at Chai and Kait, “-don’t kill them, if you can absolutely avoid it. Getting just one of these guys would go a long way toward pulling this case out of the hole it’s been digging. More would be nice, of course. And Department of Justice doesn’t pay nearly as well for a cold body as it does for a warm one.
“ANYWAY,” Vangie dragged the conversation back onto its tracks, “I want shock-rounds for this. I managed to wrangle a bid from PD/Vice to shut down an unlicensed Feelie-Pit, but that’s ALL that it might be. If that’s all it is, we don’t wanna hurt the customers or unnecessarily damage the property. Just before we go in, we make sure that the front really IS shut down, and we block off one of the emergency exits. We break up into three teams of three. I’ll ride herd on the Apocalypse Twins. You six, figure out who you want covering your forty. We go in all three open exits at once.” Vangie called up a schematic of the arcade. “I got this schematic from the District Recorders Office. I doubt the Saints have altered the basics that much. Margo, as soon as you get in, I want you to get down to the Power Room, here-” she pointed at the diagram, “-and trip off the Main Power.”
Margo nodded. “Right. You want a nice, unfair advantage in the dark. I know the drill. You want the whole schmegeggie, or just the lights?”
“Shoot the works, Margo. I don’t want any ‘suicide’ programs scrambling the mainbrain. Marlo, the main ‘customers’ entrance’ is this cigar shop. I want you to shut it down. The owner is a 50-something-year-old man.”
“Ooohhh...” Marlo cooed, “My specialty!”
“Right. Just shut it down, I don’t want any new customers coming in and getting themselves shot.”
“Lastly,” Vangie shot a flat-out gorgon glare at Kait, “let’s keep the civilian casualties to a minimum on this, understand?”
“Why are you only saying this to ME?” Kait responded glacially.
“$150 Thou in Wrongful Injury and Death penalties, last year alone.”
“I STILL say those guys were packing major heat,” Kait grumped.
“Whatever. Let me spell it out for you: use Shock rounds only if they resist and are under 55. Physically restrain anyone resisting over 55. If they don’t resist and they aren’t on your Saints roster, just ID them, photograph them, ticket them for using an unregistered Porno Pit, and send them on their way. We’re only getting ten nubucks a ticket, so it’s not a priority. Shock them if they look like they’re trying to destroy incriminating documents or computer equipment, or planting a spoilsport charge. Assume that anyone trying to destroy anything is connected with the Saints and bag them. And,” Vangie glared at Kait again, “just so that it’s perfectly understood, use ballistic rounds ONLY if the opposition is firing on you and wearing body armor. So, everyone clear?”
The other Erinyes nodded their understanding, while Kait just pouted at being singled out.
Whatever mojo had been securing the Em-Bees for Vangie’s crew seemed to have worn off. The motor pool provided a Chevy-Leyland sedan and a Saeder-Krupp GUV (General Utility Vehicle) that was tricked out as a ‘Soccer Mom Special’. The team loaded the GUV with their gear. When that was done, Vangie walked over to the Chevy-Leyland, and banged on the trunk. “We know you’re in there, Kallie! Come on out!”
Kallie crawled out sullenly. “How’d you know I was in there?”
“What? You think you’re the only one who’s ever seen old ‘Jonny Quest’ cartoons? Besides, why do you think we have security cameras, eh?” Kallie stuck out her lower lip and trudged over to the elevator back to the Squad Room.
About an hour later, Kallie was listening to Cleo’s favorite war story. “So, there I am; I got this guy pinned to the wall with my 10mm and I’m searching him for the shotgun that I think he’s got stashed in his trousers. Turns out that he DOESN’T have a shotgun in there, but that he had one of those Stem-tissue *ahem!* ‘augmentations’, up to and including reversing his circumcision.” A wanton grin crossed over Cleo’s classic African features. “I still look him up, every so often.”
Then Wendy Hookes called from her station, “Hey, Kallie!” Kallie looked over. Wendy was busy fielding several calls all at once, so it took her a bit to get back to her. “Vangie just called! She needs an in-the-field ID from you. Dallas Rogers will be coming to pick you up and take you there.”
“Sounds like Vangie hit the jackpot,” Cleo murmured.
“Well, Dallas is an Erinys, but she’s also one of the meanest and sharpest SWAT accountants ever to spot a double-entry. The Bean-Counting Cowgirl can smell a hinky ledger entry from a quarter mile away.”
“So, she’s...an Erinys AND an accountant?”
“Hey, don’t dis the red-ink wranglers. They solve at least as many cases as the CSI guys do. Still, I’m surprised that Vangie asked for Dallas.”
As if in answer, the door to the Squad Room opened with an ear-splitting “Yeeeee- HAH!” Standing in the door was a girly-magazine vision of a cowgirl, wearing a Fury battlesuit under a draping duster long coat, with cross-strapped gunbelts, a wide white Stetson and the traction slippers tucked into elaborately tooled cherry-red cowboy boots. She was tall and blonde, with the same sort of heroically Amazonian build as Kait. Her big blue eyes twinkled in her long face, and her wide mouth was stretched into a maniacal grin. “Hey, y’all! Ah’m here t’pick up a witness t’ take t’ the scene o’ the crahme! Where IS the li’l darlin’? Time’s a-wastin’!”
“errr...Dallas is a little too, ah, over-enthusiastic for Snake-eyes’ taste. They mostly have Dallas doing audits for other departments. If Vangie wants Dallas, then they must have finished pacifying the site, and they’ve got something fiscal for Annie Oakley to examine.”
Dallas barely paused to sign the responsibility form, and almost wrenched Kallie’s arm out of its socket dragging her to the door. “Hey!” Kallie yelped, “What’s the hurry?”
“Wanna get there while there’s still somethin’ left t’ shoot!”
“Why bother?” Kallie sulked, “There’s no way that Vangie would call for me, unless the place is a more pacified than DisneyPlex on a Sunday.”
“Yeah, well, there could still be spoilsport snipers hidin’, waitin’ for a chance. Maybe a suicide berserker! Or maybe they could send in a squad to recover somethin’! Yeah, gotta think POSITIVE!”
A sled was waiting for them in the motor pool. Dallas barely waited for Kallie before she tore out of the garage.
“Hey, I did NOT join Erinyes just for the classy chassis!” Dallas monologue’d as she wove the sled in and out of traffic. “Not that the new fizz-zeek ain’t spiffy or nothin’, but I joined this outfit for ACTION! I mean, they spend how much to turn me inta a lean, mean, fahghtin’ machine, and what d’they DO? They stick me back in with the fuckin’ BEAN-COUNTERS, doin’ audits an’ shit! Pardon m’ French.”
“I thought you were really good at audits and accounting stuff,” Kallie said in a state of barely restrained panic, as Dallas narrowly missed a sledge.
“What’s THAT got t’do with anything?” Dallas demanded. “Do you have any IDEA of how boring doing accounts is?” Dallas’ ‘wild west’ accent started to slip. “And believe me, I *know* what I’m talking about! People think they know how boring accounting is, but let me tell you, know don’t know, until you’ve spent three hours looking at exactly the same entry, and wracking your brains to remember...” Dallas grimaced, shoved what was apparently an extremely traumatic memory to the back of her mind, and let out a roof-rattling war-whoop. “MAN, if Vangie didn’t leave anything for me, I’m gonna be PISSED!”
Suspension fields don’t screech to a stop, but Dallas made a good try at it as she pulled the sled up in front of the Xanadu arcade. As Kallie struggled to get out of the sled, Dallas perked her ears up. “YES!” She reached for her holsters and whipped out her twin assault pistols, reconfiguring them from carry to ‘all-out war’ position with a single fluid snap of her wrists. Giving a Cherokee war-whoop, she charged up the stairs to the front doors of the arcade, kicked them in and started firing.
Kallie looked after the long drink of loco-juice incredulously. Yes, now that the doors were open, she could hear the sounds of gunfire. But dammit all, Dallas was an Erinyes! Couldn’t she smell the trap that had been laid? What, did they make some sort of excuses for her, because of her accounting skills?
Then it struck Kallie that this was probably exactly what they’d done.
But, no one lays a trap just to catch jumped-up accountants. And that left...her. It was a trap for her. There was NO WAY that she was going in there! Why would anyone sane...?
Well, of course. No one sane would go charging into a firefight in what was obviously a trap. Except Dallas, who went right in and left her all alone, out on the street...
All Alone. Out on the street. Kallie looked around the street, and spotted an ambulance sort of creeping in her general direction. It wasn’t a Themis ambulance (that she could tell), and what were the odds that an ambulance would conveniently be crawling through the neighborhood, just as an ambush was going on?
On the other hand, ambulances made great kidnapping/getaway vehicles. Suddenly, the firefight inside didn’t seem so scary.
Chambers almost spat as the ‘girl’ ducked inside the arcade’s front door.
“Blast! He figured it out!”
“Not he, SHE! We could just wait here, on the chance that she catches a bullet,” Caldecott said equitably.
“Hardly,” Chambers grumped back, “Blake will sit on her as soon as she lays eyes on her. And even if she does take a round, it will be a toss as to whether she dies, or Blake recognizes us.”
“True,” Caldecott said with a sigh. “Well, this sort of thing IS why ‘Plan Bs’ were created.” Without further ado, Caldecott sped the ambulance up to merging speed, and got out of the area.
Vangie didn’t know what pissed her off more, that they’d stumbled into an ambush with at least a hundred brainwashed gang-bangers with guns and body armor, or that Kait was enjoying it so much. They’d run out of shock rounds long ago, and Kait was going through live ammo like a compulsive gambler going through a tax refund check.
Vangie and Chai were trying to make their way to the Arcade’s mainframe. Odds were that the Saints had hauled away all their records, but with this many goons to brainwash in such a short time, their chances of physically destroying the mainframe were pretty slim. And right now, Vangie NEEDED proof that the Arcade’s current owners were operating an unlicensed feelie-pit, and were creating Kwik-kroots. One was an Organized Crime felony (minor), and the other was a major felony, but it wasn’t listed under the Organized Crime statutes. But together, they constituted grounds for confiscating the Arcade and everything else that the shell corporation owned, under the current applications of the RICO confiscation laws. Themis would get a 10% cut of the value of the confiscated property, and Vangie and her crew would get a 5% cut of that. And if the Saints were filtering money through the shell corporation, that could mean a LOT of money.
Hell, it might even cover the Wrongful-Death-and-Dismemberment fines that were piling up in heaps, right before her eyes.
Chai had finally managed to secure a position from where they could get at the stairwell to the mainframe room. Chai gave the okay, and Vangie was tapping Kait on the shoulder to tell her to move, when a loud noise stopped everyone in their tracks. “Yeee-HAW!”
Dreadful icy fingers creeping down her spine, Vangie turned to see a Six-foot, four-inch tall blonde cowgirl assuming a classic ‘Saturday Matinee Western’ pose, with a Personal Assault System in each hand. “Reach for the SKY, y’mangy varmints!”
“oh no...” Vangie croaked, “Dallas...”
“What are YOU doing here?” Kait blared.
“Hey, I couldn’t let YOU hog all the fun, now could I?” Dallas shot back.
And that was like throwing a match into a gas tank. Dallas and Kait charged into the cluster of gangers, and applied a combination of small arms fire and hand-to-hand combat. “Oh YEAH!” Dallas exulted, “Now, this is more like it!”
“Hey, we were having a nice little firefight here, until YOU came in to spoil everything!” Kait sniped.
“Hey, someone’sgotta show you wimps how t’fahght!” Dallas reached out, snagged one of the perps by his armor harness and pulled him close. “Y’know, you look JUST LIKE a boy Ah had a big crush on, back in hy skool!” She mashed her face into his, and gave him a big kiss.
The ganger pulled away, called her a whore, and tried to shoot her. Dallas beat him to the draw. “Okay, NOW you’re in for it! Now, Ah’m a WOMAN SCORNED!”
“So,” Chai said stoically, “do we go down to the mainframe without them, or do we wait for the hurricane to pass?”
Vangie sighed. “We wait. Odds are, if they haven’t blown the frame, then they at least put a spoilsport charge on it. Besides-” Vangie stopped. She saw something peeking around a corner, down the corridor. “Kallie!”
On pure reflex, Vangie grabbed Chai’s hand and ‘curled’ her down the hall. Chai took advantage of this to take out three gangers who were headed in Kallie’s direction.
“What are you DOING here?” Chai snapped as she made sure that Kallie was still unhurt.
“Vangie sent for me! She told Dallas,” Kallie indicated the Tombstone Tornado as she was mopping up the last of that batch of gangers, “to bring me here. I thought something was-”
“Later.” Chai towed Kallie down the hall, as Dallas and Kait squabbled over who got to shoot the last one, and settled for beating the crap out of him in unison.
Vangie pulled her tac-helmet off, and scowled at both Dallas and Kallie. “WHAT. ARE. YOU. TWO. DOING. HERE?” she grated out through clenched teeth.
“Hunh?” Dallas hooted, “You SENT for us, a’course!”
“Why did you bring HER?”
“’Cause you asked me to,” Dallas replied, a trifle deflated.
“You brought a Protected Witness into a Firefight?”
“Oh, HELL No! I left her outside. She came in, all on her own!”
“You left a Protected Witness outside, ALL BY HERSELF?”
“Y’know, Snake-eyes, I do not like the tone that you are taking here.”
Vangie was all set to rip Dallas another one, when Ayumi called, asking for backup coping with her allotment of TIS addled goons. Dallas gave a whoop, and headed off in the sound of gunfire, guns drawn.
Kait was on her heels, but Vangie tackled her. “NO, you don’t! Yosemite Samantha can go, but I've got plans for you!”
“It involves high explosives!” Chai consoled her.
“YOU ASKED DALLAS TO BRING YOUR PROTECTED WITNESS TO A GUNFIGHT?” Diana screamed at Vangie, back at the office.
Vangie winced, partially from the volume and partially from the déjà vu, but held her ground, “Hey, do NOT try to dump the blame on me! I had nothing to do with this one.”
“Yeah? Convince me.” Diana snapped her fingers. “The PTN. Now.”
Vangie handed over her phone without a qualm. Diana checked the phone’s call history. Then she got Wendy Hookes on the intercom and asked her for a history for all the incoming calls to her station for the time in question. “Okay, Blake, it looks like you were set up, big time. You want me to haul Worthington and Sharpe in here, and give them the Third Degree?”
Vangie shook her head. “I don’t think so. If Val was behind this, she’d have figured a way to bag the Saints, instead of just warning them. Also, get this: the guy who ran the cigar shop told Marlo that just as the people who were running the feelie-pit were scrambling to get all their stuff out, there was like some HUGE rush of business from the Ganger crowd. Some sort of big promotion, group rates, like that.”
Diana nodded, “So, that’s how the Saints got all their instant fanatics.”
Vangie shook her head, “Yeah, but that's not exactly the point. The Saints weren’t expecting them. They just showed up, out of the blue, demanding cheap feelie-porn, and the Saints took it as a sign that God was on their side.”
A look of enlightenment spread over Diana’s exquisite features. “Ah... The Saints were warned that you were coming, then a providential influx of expendable and somewhat combat-ready goons, and THEN someone has Dallas come fetch Kallie into the middle of a battle.”
“Most of which can be done with simple phone calls, IF you know who, when and where.”
“Charters and Caldecott?”
“I’d be amazed if it wasn’t.”
Diana nodded and settled back into her chair. “Okay, but what are they up to?”
“Well, Kallie said that she saw an ambulance coming at her on the sly. No flashing lights, no sirens, no nothing.”
“So, it was a snatch?”
“Well, suckering Dallas into dragging Kallie out there it was a way of getting her out of Themis HQ, and then leave her alone.”
“Why do they want Kallie so badly? It couldn’t be because she could identify them; if that was it, they would have just taken her out with a sniper rifle when Dallas left her out in the open.”
Vangie shrugged. “Dunno. But I doubt they’ve played their last card.”
“Any ideas?” Diana raised a single eyebrow over steepled fingers.
“Well, I do have one pretty good idea: they have some sort of ‘In’ at Themis.”
“What do you mean?”
“One, they knew enough to be able to track me when I left HQ. Two, they knew about Dallas and her trigger-happy ways. Three, they knew enough about our procedures to flood Wendy with telephone calls when *ahem!* ‘I’ called to tell her to send Kallie with Dallas. Four, they knew that the ‘girl’ on the scene was really Pres. I don’t know how, but they’re getting information about us from somewhere.”
“Okay.” Diana made a ‘I’d rather chew glass face. “I’ll talk with Internal Affairs. So, what do you plan to do now?”
Vangie gave an even more gallic shrug. “Dunno. Argos told us that a bunch of people unloaded trucks into that safehouse that they think that we don’t know about. We called Legal and got a search warrant. I sent Margo and Ayumi over there, holding Dallas’ leash. Margo said that they bagged the records for the Arcade. Between those and the evidence in the mainframe, we should be able to prove that Fischer Property Management Ltd. is a Saint’s front, and RICO everything.”
Diana raised her eyebrow inquiringly, “Why didn’t they blow the mainframe?”
“They tried. There was demolitions pack with a tripwire on it, for anyone checking the mainframe. Sloppy work; it took Boom-boom less than three minutes to have it in pieces.”
“Why didn’t they just blow it as soon as they left?”
“The gangers were as much a surprise to them, as they were to us. They needed the mainframe to keep the gangers happy, while they got out. And, I’m guessing that they didn’t have anyone good enough to link the demo pack to whatever brought the grumpy gusses out of TIS. Either that, or they just didn’t think of it.” Vangie sighed deeply. “Past that, I got nuthin’.” Vangie looked at Diana. “Any chance of getting another 72 hours with Kallie as a material witness?”
Diana made a ‘maybe’ gesture. “I’ll talk to Judge Eberhard. She-”
Diana was interrupted when one of the office clerks came in with a certified letter. Diana signed for it, and opened the envelope. “Perfect timing. Well, Vangie, it looks like the issue of your extension is moot.”
Diana turned the letter around. “It’s from Family Services. It seems that it’s come to their attention that a minor material witness in our custody has been exposed to serious danger, not once, not twice, but THREE SEPARATE TIMES in the less than 72 hours that we’ve had him. They’re ordering us to turn him over to them ‘in the child’s best interests’. I wonder how they found out.”
Vangie smiled, and even her implant optics seemed to twinkle. “Oh. So THAT’S their next move.”
Mariel marched over to the cubicle pointed out to her with the determined stride of a born crusader. She looked down at the overblown idiot in charge of the debacle. “Evangeline X. Blake?”
The ridiculous looking trollop pulled her glasses down her nose. “That’s me. And you are?”
“I am Mariel Harbin, from District Family Services. You have in your custody a male minor, whose name and family are being withheld from me, as per Judge Cullen’s restraining order as of two days ago.”
“Yep, he’s a material witness, being held in protective custody.”
“PROTECTIVE CUSTODY?” Mariel snapped, “Do you deny that in the last sixty-odd hours, that this child was involved in the near-sinking of a residential liner, a firefight at the BG McGruff’s at the Keystone Shopping Mall last night, AND the pitched battle at the Xanadu Arcade that was on the news this morning?”
“Gee, when you put it that way, it seems hard to believe that the kid’s been complaining about being bored!”
Have you at LEAST given the poor thing some counseling? He-”
“PTS counseling is SOP for every non-combatant. Kid’s had his head shrunk so much, it ought to fit in a shot glass.”
“That is NOT funny!”
“Well, at least somebody thinks so!”
“Blake,” Mariel gritted through her teeth, “by the provisions for the protection of minors in the custody of Police Service Providers, you have proven an unfit custodian by allowing the minor in your charge to be exposed to extreme danger. In accordance with those provisions-”
“Don’t bother, it’s all moot.”
“WHAT?” Mariel screeched, “You got him KILLED?”
“No, his parents called, and asked if he was involved in the Xanadu incident this morning. And I’m not about to give myself even more problems by lying to them about that.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that, even as we speak, the paperwork for releasing the minor in question to the custody of his parents is being finalized. However,” Blake got up, “if you really want to, you can witness the formal transfer of custody, just to be sure that I’m not pulling a fast one, which was what you were just about to say, am I right?”
Mariel started to say something, but Blake was already marching out of the room. “If you think that you’re getting out from the disgrace of having a witness removed from your custody by this-”
“Then I’d be absolutely right, now wouldn’t I?” Blake shot back. “We are returning a juvenile witness to his parents slightly ahead of schedule, as said juvenile’s testimony is no longer useful to this investigation. So, you have no cause to remove him from our custody, now do you? So, it’s a non-incident.” Blake stopped short and stared into Mariel’s eyes with an unnerving, unblinking Medusa’s gaze. “OR, are you going to try and take him away from his parents, without cause?”
Blake led Mariel to a small well-appointed office, where a professional looking couple were sitting with a man and a woman, also dressed professionally, who were haggling over some paperwork. The couple got up, but Blake held up a restraining hand. “Hello, I’m Evangeline Blake, the agent in charge of the case that your son is involved in. Please, don’t use you or your son’s names. This is Mariel Harbin, from Family Services. She’s here looking into the same issues that you called me about. I think that it would be best if she witnessed our turning your son over to you. Even so, our security measures require that for your son’s - and your - continued safety, that she not learn your proper names.” Blake introduced the man as one of Themis’ lawyers, and the couple introduced the woman as their lawyer.
There were a few tense moments of near-silence, and then a short rather feline-looking Asian woman brought a sullen looking boy of maybe fourteen or fifteen. The boy’s mother bustled over and buried him in a big hug, and the father fussed a bit over whether he was all right. Then there was an elaborate bureaucratic ritual with signatures, countersignatures and notarization, and the boy was now officially in his parents’ custody.
“Excuse me,” Blake said to the two lawyers, “but there’s something that I need to straighten out with Family Services. Would you leave us?” The lawyers complained, but the mother sent her lawyer out, and the Themis lawyer left also, as if to make sure that the first one didn’t make off with office supplies.
“Okay, listen up, because this is going to get a little involved,” Blake began. “We have reason to believe that someone’s tried to finesse Family Services into taking your son into custody, probably as a way of getting him away from us. Now, nobody really knows that you’re here to pick the kid up,” Blake explained to the parents, “so, you should be able to leave without being too conspicuous. Still, I’d suggest that, instead of going straight home, that you check into a high-security hotel for a few days. I personally recommend the McKinley Suites Hotel.” She handed them a business card. Bitch probably got a kickback for every client she sent the hotel’s way.
“Now,” Blake resumed, “our mysterious perps are expecting Miss Harbin here to leave with a juvenile in tow. I suggest that she do so, only with one of our Erinys, a specialist in adolescent impersonations, and a none-too-subtle escort. The idea isn’t to catch them; it’s just to make them not grab Harbin, but try something at Family Services’ Wards Dorms. By the time they figure that they’ve been had, both Miss Harbin and you three should all be free and clear.”
“Thank you,” Mariel said frostily, “but I think I’ll pass. I have no intention of playing decoy, just to cover up for your gross incompetence.” With that, she left the office with exactly the same strident march with which she’d come in.
“Give me a minute, I’ll work on her,” Blake said and followed after her.
The sled, a respectable Nelson-Healy with a ‘My kid is an honor student at Milken Academy’ bumper sticker, pulled out of the guest garage at the Themis offices, and went through the dyke lock without a hitch. The Nelson-Healy headed to one of the dryer parts of Georgetown. It had gotten ten blocks, when two black sleds pulled up and bracketed them, one just ahead, the other to the right. The lead sled heterodyned with the Nelson-Healy’s suspensor field, and the guidance fields kicked out. The sled on the right nudged the Nelson-Healy off the canal, and onto a landing.
Two women, one a sleek blonde, the other a stoic faced brunette, got out of the sleds. They cautiously approached the Nelson-Healy with guns drawn.
Mister Wyecross and their lawyer got out of the sled. “What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Wyecross blustered.
Val handed the lawyer a piece of paper. “I have a warrant for the arrest of one Preston Wyecross, on suspicion of Breaking and Entering into Private Property, and complicity in the near-sinking of the Antilles Duchess.” Val grinned predatorily. “Of course, should young Preston agree to cooperate, and provide information on certain open cases-”
Just as Val was about to put the squeeze on them, two sleds tore up to the landing and pulled up on either side of the first two sleds. In regulation manner, the new sleds disgorged two sets of men in dark suits, weapons drawn. “Nobody move! We are Burke & Whitehead Security Services ©! Special Investigations Division! We are arresting that minor as a material witness in a capital felony!”
“Dammit, Webb!” Val snapped, “What the HELL do you think you’re doing? I thought that we had a deal!”
“You had a deal with Barnstable, not with us! Now, drop the weapons, and step away from the vehicles!”
Val and Darcy reluctantly lowered their weapons and stepped away-
-just as two sledges barreled up the landing and crashed straight into the B&W sleds, sending the faux-G-men sprawling. At least, those did, that weren’t mashed, flat out. Jury-rigged support cannons swung to cover the area, and an equally jury-rigged exit gate on the sledge swung down with a crash and figures in familiar ‘monk’-style body armor came piling out, carrying Personal Combat Systems in a brisk, professional manner. “Servants of the Beast, prepare to meet Divine Justice!”
With that, the Saints - and it was immediately obvious that these were actual Tribulation Saints, trained, capable and disciplined terrorists, not brainwashed instant fanatics - opened fire on those B&W agents that were still standing. Val and Darcy tried to leap up to the top of the sledges, but the Saints on that side of the fray were ready with monofilament nets. Val and Darcy jumped right into the netting, and only got two dollars worth of razor-fine cuts and ruined clothing for their efforts. Two of the Saints bulled their way over to the Nelson-Healy, opened the door, and tore Pres out of his mother’s arms. “Come with us, Boy. You’ve been chosen to do the Lord’s work.”
Pres kicked and complained all the way, but the two ‘Saints’ dragged him over to one of the sledges, and took him inside. A few minutes later, there was the sound of an ear-rattling shriek from inside the sledge, and the sledge actually jumped around a bit. The Saints on the ground turned and hurried to see what was happening inside the command sledge. Mr. & Mrs. Wyecross and their lawyer all reacted to the distraction as one - they each pulled a grenade tucked inside a sleeve and threw it. Mr. Wyecross threw his at the Saints heading for the command sledge. Mrs. Wyecross threw hers at the Saints on the other side. And the lawyer threw hers at the sledge opposite the command sledge. Mr. & Mrs. Wyecross’ grenades were Scatterball© grenades, which knocked the Saints around like ten-pins; the lawyer’s grenade was an EMP grenade, and it knocked the other sledge over on its side. As the sledge went over, the lawyer rushed over to Darcy’s sled, powered it up and rammed the sledge with it, keeping the larger vehicle upended.
Mr. & Mrs. Wyecross exploded into the scrambling crowd, hitting them where it hurt - palms flat into faces, arms broken with joint locks, trips that sent them scrambling back onto the scatterballs.
As the Wyecrosses kept the Saints busy, a flight of scopters flew in and provided air cover. One of them produced a squad of hard-suited Myrmidons who quickly covered the Saints.
Presently, Pres appeared at the exit gate of the Saints’ command sledge, pushing a stocky, middle aged man who looked as if he’d been beaten within an inch of his life, despite the body armor that he was wearing. Pres handed the Saints’ team leader over to one of the Myrmidons, and walked over to his mother, who handed him what looked to be a flesh mask mold.
“HEY!” Val snapped, still trapped in the stinging embrace of the monofilament netting. “What’s going on?”
Pres strolled over to her casually, spraying something in his mouth. “Oh, nothing much,” said Kitten’s voice out of Pres’ mouth, “just wrapping up this end of the case. Despite your interference.” Kitten pressed the mold to her face, revealing her own perky features.
The 'Wyecrosses’ lawyer’ walked up, also pressing a mold to her face. When the mold came down, neither Val or Darcy recognized her, but the face was still somewhat familiar. “Val, Darcy,” Kitten said with a purr, “allow me to introduce Randa Sykes, from Internal Affairs.”
Curiously, Blake didn’t say anything on the way to the parking garage where Mariel’s sled was parked. Standing beside the sled were a tall redheaded woman with a chest that couldn’t be natural, and a short blonde-haired girl with a tote bag at her feet. “So, how did it go?” the titian-tressed titaness asked.
“It could have gone better,” Blake answered. “Miss Harbin, despite appearances, THIS is the boy that you came here to pick up.” Blake gestured at the girl.
“What?” Mariel asked in total confusion, “But what about-”
“I apologize for all the cloak-and-dagger,” Blake continued in a tone that didn’t suggest the least apology at all, “but it was necessary.”
“Why is he dressed that way?” Mariel cut her off. “Did you FORCE-”
“It was NECESSARY,” Blake continued in a firmer tone of voice. “We believe that the incidents that put him in danger in the first place, happened because we have a security leak of some sort in the office. The little dosey-do that we went through up there, including asking you to act as a decoy, were so that the mole - or bug, or whatever - would tell the party in question, who would follow our real decoy team, instead of you.”
“Then...who were those people?”
“Themis personnel, pulled mostly from other divisions, with the exception of Kitten Carlyle, the Erinys who’s playing Ka- er, the kid.”
Mariel gave Blake a glare that could have iced over the Potomac. “And how do I know that you’re not trying to con me into playing decoy, after all?"
“Kait?” The redhead handed Blake a clipboard, on which were documents, which Blake started signing. “Okay, I am signing real documents that state that I am signing over custody of the witness over to you personally - UNTIL HIS PARENTS COME TO TAKE CUSTODY OF HIM. That’s close enough to what you wanted, right?”
“I notice that you’re still getting out from under having him removed from your custody,” Mariel grumped.
“Gee! Really?” Blake gushed in patent insincerity, “Wow! Is that serendipity or WHAT?”
Mariel reluctantly signed the papers. “And how am I supposed to know who his parents are?”
“They’ll be the ones with the proper papers from Judge Cullen.” Blake paused, “Just give the kid a chance to change into his boy clothes, before he meets anyone, hunh?”
“Why IS he dressed that way?”
“The people who are looking for him are expecting you to leave with a decoy dressed as a girl. And, yes that’s as simple as I can make it. Blake’s Law: bait a twisted hook to catch a twisty fish.”
Mariel reluctantly helped the boy stash his baggage in the trunk of the sled. As she stood in the open sled door, Mariel glared at Blake and said severely, “I Will file a report about this!”
“Ooo...you’re going to write a report...big shock,” Blake sneered back.
With a wordless snarl, Mariel got in the sled and drove out of the garage.
‘Maybe I got a little spoiled,’ Kallie thought to herself as the grubby district-issue sled puttered its way through the dyke-lock, ‘got too used to being accepted as a girl’. Kallie sighed to herself as the sled headed north. She could just tell that this woman wasn’t going to keep this juicy little tidbit to herself. Kallie could see what was coming: frigid looks, lectures, parent conferences, and - God help us all! - unending, pointless, will-eroding ‘counseling’ that wasn’t designed so much to help as to nag her into toeing the line.
When the sled was a few blocks away from the lock, Harbin pulled out her PTN and punched a speed-dial. “Harbin here. I picked up the client. No, that was a false alarm. Start the paperwork, as planned.” Then she hung up.
The sense of danger that Kallie had picked up with the Erinyes automatically kicked in. That was way too quick and cryptic for a disgruntled bureaucrat on the phone. No whining, no complaining, no snide comments. If Harbin was half as honked as she was making out, she’d have jumped at the chance to vent.
Yanked completely out of her funk, Kallie looked around her with sharpened alertness. She checked the map/GPS hologram against the windshield. Harbin’s set course was a few blocks North by Northeast of their location; Family Services would be in Downtown DC, the Civic Center Bowl, which would be West by Southwest of Georgetown.
Somehow, Charters and Caldecott had gotten to Harbin. Kallie didn’t know how, but they had. Finessing Vangie into handing her over into one of their agent’s hands was just the sort of thing that Charters and Caldecott would do.
A chill helplessness crawled through Kallie’s gut. She took a deep breath and focused. Okay Kid, time to prove that you’re Erinyes material. What assets to you have? The flash pin on your lapel? Useful, but it’s not a trump card; keep it for later. The magnetic bracelet? Ditto. The webbing gun? No, that was in the tote bag, which was stowed in the trunk of the sled. The ‘ball of string’ tracer?
Yes. Definitely yes. Kallie mentally reviewed what that guy - Des? - had told Vangie. Place the ‘quarter’ on the bottom of a bag or a shoe, mash down hard, and it starts to unspool and send out an activation signal to the ‘hound’. Well, here was hoping that Vangie still had the ‘hound’ on her... Kallie fished the quarter out of the pocket where she had it hidden, so that she’d have some kind of momento that her parents wouldn’t know about, and waited until Harbin was busy dealing with traffic. Then she carefully placed the ‘quarter’ on the sole of her traction slipper, just under the ‘ball’ of her foot, where she could favor it until the time was right, and still mash down with all her weight, when the time came.
And the time wasn’t long in coming. Harbin pulled through a dyke lock and into a shopping district, where she found a loading dock, and pulled in. Standing by a high-end sled, were two very recognizable people, though they were both wearing much more stylish clothes than the last time that Kallie had seen them at BG McGruff’s. “Wha- what’s going on?” Kallie gasped, playing the role for all that it was worth.
Harbin ignored her and sprang out of the sled. “ERSKIN!” she gushed, in a way that reminded Kallie way too much of the slopping romance dramas that her mother watched. She rushed over to the man and threw her arms around him. She cocked her head back, and pursed her lips, as if expecting a kiss.
Instead, the other woman pressed a pressure injection sprayer against Harbin’s throat - most likely at the carotid artery, and Harbin sagged immediately. “Caldecott,” Charters said, “you can be SUCH a rotter.”
“What,” Caldecott asked, as if hurt, “you wanted her? Well, why didn’t you SAY so, Old Thing?”
Charters ignored the jibe and just walked over to the sled. She looked in the door at the cowering Kallie, and gave her a feline smile. “Now, I ask you, young man, is that any way to act? Come along, don’t be tiresome.” But she didn’t give Kallie chance to come along or not; she just grabbed the girl and hauled her out of the sled.
“What did you DO to her?” Kallie goggled at Harbin, as Caldecott leveraged her over-upholstered form into the sled’s driver’s seat.
“Not to worry,” Caldecott said as he arranged her in the seat, and placed a bottle of cheap wine, and some paper cups, as to present a picture of a drunken lapse. “She will wake up in a few hours with a nasty headache, and no memory of anything that’s happened in the last 18 hours.” He keyed in the sled’s onboard computer, and programmed a selection of rather maudlin music. Then he prepped another hypo sprayer. But, as he was about to place it against her carotid, he paused and looked at her. She was the ‘butterball’ type with a round face and no real taste in clothes. “You know, it would be a shame for her to forget what was probably the only great romantic moment in her life. Even if it was only in a TIS simulation.”
“Now, now, Erskine-“ Charters chided gently, “remember, ‘a woman scorned’ and all that.”
“Too true, Leslie my dear; besides, her life would seem even more wretched in comparison if she thought that it was all real.” He injected her carotid, and started to make as if he were going to give her a farewell kiss. Then he looked at her face again, and passed on it. He looked around, ticking things off on his fingers, then he paused on one finger, remembered and fished Kallie’s tote bag out of the trunk.
Then they took Kallie between them and bustled her over to the long luxury sled. Kallie made a production of kicking up a fuss, and stomped down on the ball of her foot as hard as she could, until she saw a ‘quarter’ appear on the dock.
Once they had her inside the sled, Charters told the driver to ‘head for the site’. Then she raised the partition and turned to Kallie and gave her the smile of a cat playing with a mouse. “Listen to me, BOY - we don’t any objections about any nasty little habits that you might have. But we’re going to deal with men who might have some very strenuous objections. Just do as you’re told, and how you’re dressed won’t become an issue.”
It occurred to Kallie that her captors had a fine touch for the bare throat. As the sled drove off, she wondered whether the slight drag she felt on her shoe was the 'ball of string’ doing its job, or her own imagination giving her false hope.
Vangie, Chai and Kait were at Wendy’s station, waiting on tenterhooks for news of Kitten’s trap. Then, Tirza, who was in the cubicle next to Vangie’s yelled across the office, “HEY! Vangie! Something in your purse is ringing!”
“Something in my purse?” Vangie puzzled. She trotted over to her workspace and fished around in her purse. The ringing was coming from a small white box that she didn’t place at first. She opened the box, and found what looked like an antique mouse...
No, not mouse...hound...
Suddenly, Vangie remembered the tracer gimmick that she’d given Kallie...
...in case she got lost...
Furiously wracking her brain to remember what Des had told her, Vangie flipped open the carapace to find the ‘quarter’s’ location finder. According to the hound, the ‘quarter’ was a little over a half a klick North by Northwest of HQ, and the string-play reader said that Kallie was heading West by Southwest at about 60 klicks per hour. Family Services in the Downtown DC Civic Center Bowl would be West by Southwest of here. But THAT would mean-
“SHIT!” Vangie screamed, stopping all conversation in the office. She spun around. “Chai! Garage! NOW! Get the fastest thing they got! At gunpoint, if necessary! Kait! GUNS! They got Kallie! I dunno HOW, but those uncanny bastards got Kallie! Wendy! I need backup! Just get them and have them call me, to find out where it’s gonna be!” Then Vangie dashed into Diana’s office.
Vangie found the ‘quarter’ and set the hound on top of it. Chai looked at Harbin, still sleeping in her grubby district issue sled. “Okay, Snake-eyes, it’s still your case. What do we do about her?”
Vangie didn’t even spare Harbin a glance. “Lock the door and leave her. We have more important things to worry about.”
Vangie and Chai got in the sled. From the back seat, bristling with guns, Kait said, “Y’know, it scares me to be the one to say this, but what about waiting for backup?”
“No time,” Vangie said in a flat voice, “let them catch up to us.” She keyed the sled's navigation system to the hound’s frequency, and activated the hound’s seek function. The off-white half-ovoid shuddered for a second and then sped off, with the sled in hot pursuit.
To Kallie’s surprise, the luxury sled breezed into one of the newer and more high-rent districts, an artificial ‘island’ built up on a basis of old rubble. But before they entered the enclave’s lock, the sled submerged and went deep. After traveling for at least a half-mile, the sled headed straight into a sheer face of bedrock-
-and passed through a self-sealing membrane and a hologram façade, into a short, well-buttressed tunnel. The sled surfaced into a bubble of air and pulled up to a makeshift dock. The small cavern was ringed with lights, and there was a lot of heavy-duty equipment arranged around the site, some of which looked like excavation equipment. A group of men was gathered around a rather impressive ‘airlock’ setup, and appeared to be waiting for Chambers and Caldecott.
“What’s this?” Caldecott asked as they approached the site, “Why don’t you have the emergency water pumps-”
“They won’t be necessary,” said a squat Asian man, who spoke fluent English with the deep, concise tones of someone who spoke an Asian language as his mother tongue and learned English formally, rather than picking it up piecemeal. “There’s been an unexpected development.”
“Oh? Say on, Wise Sage, say on!”
“We were doing sound probes on the door for weak spots, in case your ‘magic key’ doesn’t work, and we have to either drill or blast.”
“Very enterprising,” Charters said dryly. “And?”
“Our sound probes didn’t bounce back as they would, if there were water on the other side.”
“Oh, don’t play it for the drama, Man! What’s your POINT?”
“The sound probes indicate that there isn’t water on the other side of the door. It’s dry in there.”
Both Charters’ and Caldecott’s jaws almost hit the planking. “WHAT? How Dry?”
“Well, we drilled through a small section with a laser and we got a pressure of 26.17 Hg, almost three Hg lower than Standard Pressure. That’s a standard ‘hermetic seal’ vacuum. After all these years, if there were any seepage - any seepage at all - the Hg would have gone up at the very least, a half to a full Hg. I doubt that there’s even mold in there.”
Charters looked cagily. “And what have you been doing since then?”
“We widened the hole a bit, rigged up a filtered air blower, and we’ve been blowing absolutely clean, absolutely dry air into it at 87 Hg, for about an hour. Given the volume in there, we have about, oh, another half-hour, before its ready to pop.”
“Well then!” Caldecott said brightly, rubbing his hands together, as if in anticipation of a bit of fun, “We have time to tell this lovely young lady a story!” One of the men started to object, but Charters shut him up with a medusa glare.
Caldecott sat Kallie down on a crate and smiled down at her benignly. “Now, I’m sure that, like Rikki-tikki-tavi, you must be eaten up from nose to tail with curiosity, as to precisely WHAT all the fuss of the past few days has been about. That will take a bit of telling, but since we have time, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t tell you. You see, while we could force your complicity, we’d vastly prefer your cooperation. Are you familiar with the region known as ‘Bulgaria’?”
Kallie nodded. “Sure! It’s the area between Greece and Rumania, or at least it used to be, before it and Rumania broke up into all those micro-states.”
“Excellent! It’s good to hear that today’s youth isn’t the total loss that the Media is constantly bemoaning. Now, our tale begins when Bulgaria was split off from the Ottoman Empire, to become its own kingdom in the 19th Century. Like most kingdoms, the rulers felt the need for a set of crown jewels, and they managed to get back the crown jewels that the Turks had stolen from them, back when they *ahem!* ‘absorbed’ the old Bulgar Empire in the 15th Century. From there, we must fast-forward to roughly a hundred years ago, to the heady last days of the Second World War. The ruling regents, Prince Kyril and two others I couldn’t be bothered with, were overthrown by the advancing Soviets, and eventually the nine-year-old ‘King’ Simeon was allowed to exit the country with a few surviving members of his family. NOT the regents, one notices.
“However, while Simeon was captured, the crown jewels weren’t. Royalists managed to smuggle them out with the assistance of British SOE agents, and the jewels eventually managed to find their way to the States, where they were held ‘in custody’ by the American State Department. When King Simeon reached his majority, he demanded that the Americans return the crown jewels, but they replied that they had been turned over to the Smithsonian Institute, and the Smithsonian claimed that they couldn’t find them. Well, things ARE always getting lost in the attic, now aren’t they?
“Well, there was a kafuffle about it at the time, but that died down, as such things do. Fast forward again, to five years ago, when a research fellow of the Institute, one Dr. Sherm-”
“Oh, you’re talking about that idiot, Gordon,” Kallie interrupted.
“Oh yes,” Caldecott drawled, “I see that Ms. Blake’s been keeping you up to speed. Yes, Dr. Gordon was something of a ‘Spy Biz’ buff. In tracking down some incredibly tedious bit of historical trivia from the Cold War, he discovered that the Bulgarian Crown Jewels were still in the Smithsonian. Or, more to the point, here-” he waved a hand about, “-in these secret Ultra-Secure vaults that the Smithsonian had built in the early 2000s. They were running out of room in the museums, and the insurance companies didn’t like the idea of items of such incredible worth being guarded by a private storage facility.”
“Wait a minute!” Kallie interrupted him. “If this is a Smithsonian warehouse, howcum they let those developers build an entire freaking island on top of it?”
Caldecott smiled. “Well, you see, this was one of twelve vaults that Kunst & Wessler built for the Smithsonian. Unfortunately for K&W, they used a local subcontractor, who skimped on the materials. When the water started rising, they trusted that the vaults were sufficiently water-poof. In 2032, this entire area collapsed into a sinkhole over 20 feet deep, well under water. The Smithsonian opened up a few of the other vaults, and found that cracks had formed, and the contents were irreparably water damaged. They checked a few others, gave up the rest as lost, and sued Kunst & Wessler into bankruptcy. The land was eventually sold to build that island, and they used the vaults, along with a lot of rubble, to form the foundation. Enter Gordon. He found some obscure bit of documentation that suggested that the Crown Jewels were stored in this vault. Now, if they were cloth, or paper, or wood, or even a corrodible metal, then he would have written them off as a loss. BUT, the Bulgarian Crown Jewels are made of silver, gold, platinum and, of course, precious gems! A little polish, some elbow grease, and they’re fine!”
Kallie blinked incredulously. “You mean...all of this...is just an over-blown JEWEL HEIST?”
Charters looked hurt. “Oh, hardly! You must understand, my b- er, dear, we aren’t talking about just a pile of pretty stones! The Bulgarian Crown Jewels are relics of the Second Bulgarian Empire, a time when the Bulgarians were a mighty empire that dominated the Balkans and the Black Sea. It was also the last time that the Bulgarians were something better than someone else’s puppet. That’s national pride, given form. National pride is a valuable commodity, at any time. And these days in the Balkans, national pride is hard to come by, and even more precious. Any political faction that could provide the Crown Jewels would have a decided advantage in gathering public support.”
“At any rate,” Caldecott took over the narrative, “once he was sure of where the Jewels and the vault were, Gordon found out about the Kunst & Wessler locking system. He knew were the plans and all for the vault where, but I don’t have to tell you about the security system at the Smithsonian. He knew that he didn’t have a prayer of getting them out all by himself. But, while he was negotiating with certain Balkan parties for *ahem!* ‘delivery’ of the Jewels, they recommended us, and that’s where WE enter the story.”
“And WHY do you need ME?” Kallie raised an inquiring eyebrow. She knew that it had something to do with that box, but she figured that if she kept these arrogant shmucks talking, then that gave Vangie, Chai and Kait more time to get there, before somebody got ideas that involved knives and welding torches.
“These vaults were designed at a time when the Security Community was losing faith in electronics,” Caldecott said. “Knowledgeable thieves of one stripe or another were routinely bypassing both computer and electronic security measures. So, Kunst & Wessler, a Swiss security measures firm, devised a locking system that couldn’t be tampered with by any electronic or software means. They took a step backwards; their locking system was completely clockwork. But, leaving the clockwork lock in the door just means that a lockpicker can work on it. So, they designed their Ultra-Security vaults with doors that could be locked, and the locking mechanism removed and stored. This vault has one of those systems built into its door. In order to move the restraining bolts, you need the ‘lock’ which moves the gears that move the bolts. And, just to throw an extra element of complexity, each door is unique, with a specific set of eccentric gears that have to move in exact coordination, or they’ll lock up.
“So, you don’t just need the lock-” Caldecott brought out a beige plastic carrying case, about the size of a hardbound book, and opened it. He produced the clockwork device that Pres had seen three days ago, “-you also need the code sequence, so that you’ll place the bloody thing the right side up, the right face in, and you’ll set all the little gear things to the proper setting. Get any ONE of those things wrong, and the whole works will jam up, and it’s as good as welded shut.”
“That’s kind of...over-complicated, isn’t it?” Kallie asked.
“I agree,” Caldecott admitted. “However, you must remember that these doors weren’t meant to be accessed regularly. They were to only to be opened once or twice a year. Convenience wasn’t the issue, a secure, literally air-tight seal was.”
“Okay, and you still haven’t answered my question - what’s all this got to do with ME?”
All humor fled from Caldecott’s face. “Gordon played things far too close to his vest. He didn’t tell us who his customers for the Crown Jewels were, and when we got into the Smithsonian, he memorized the coding sequence for the locking mechanism, and destroyed it.” Caldecott held the locking mechanism in front of Kallie’s face. “But YOU fished the bits out of the recycling bins, where Gordon threw them. You memorized them, didn’t you?”
“Then WHY are you playing your finger-keys?”
Kallie looked down at her hands. Subconsciously, she’d been touching her thumbs and fingers together, in the mnemonic device that she’d used to store the code on the scrap of Foto-Proof©. She abruptly hid her hands under her armpits.
Caldecott scowled at her coldly, all pretenses of charm and affability discarded. “Since your friend Blake so inconsiderately killed Gordon, YOU happen to be the only person who can key this locking system.”
“Oh?” Kallie said weakly. “That guy just said that he could bore a hole through that door - why not cut through it?”
“Because,” the Asian man said testily, “it took us the better part of a day, with a 6,000 Giga-Watt fusion-grade laser, to cut a hole the size of a Yen in that thing! It’s 30 centimeters thick, of one of the hardest cera-met compounds that they had back then! And we can’t keep tapping into the enclave’s power source to run that laser!”
“And in order to blast that thing open,” said another man, in a guttural, not-quite German accent, “we’d need a charge so powerful, that it would bring the entire island down on top of us!”
“Hardly the quiet In-and-Out that we were hoping for,” Caldecott said, some of his panache restored. He held up the locking mechanism to Kallie. “So, if you’d be so kind as to set this to the proper sequence, we can finally get to work.”
“And why should I help you?” Kallie asked nervously. “After all, I can identify you.”
Caldecott stifled an amused snort. “You, my dear, have been watching too much cheap television. No, there are three very good reasons why we won’t just kill you, after you’ve done our wicked bidding. First, in the real world, ‘Master Criminals’ don’t go about blithely killing people just to show off how evil they are. The American gangster Louis 'Lepke’ Buchalter was known for running the infamous ‘Murder Inc.’ But they could never pin anything on him, because he only gave his orders to Abe Reles, his main enforcer. However, the ONE TIME that he got angry and gave a kill order in front of anyone else, the FBI found out about it, and he and Abe Reles both went to the electric chair. What lesson we can learn from this? Never commit a capital offense in front of witnesses.
“Second, we want you to survive; how else will we get the word out, about what we’ve stolen?”
“What? You WANT people to know that you’ve stolen something worth millions of dollars?”
“Well, of course!” Charters said blithely, “After all, if WE go to the Balkans and start saying that we have the Bulgarian Crown Jewels, who’s going to believe us? BUT if your friends, the Erinyes, find you, and all this is confirmed, well then! That’s a completely different matter! Then everyone in the Balkans will know about it, and we’ll be in the middle of a bidding war! The price of those things will go up exponentially!”
“I thought that you already had a buyer,” Kallie said suspiciously (C’mon, Snake-eyes! Get the lead out!).
“No,” Caldecott drawled, “Doctor Gordon had a buyer. We all worked for Gordon. We’re not even sure who Gordon’s buyer was. So, we have no commitment, and we can sell our wares to whoever will pay the most.
“And Third-” Caldecott waved grandiloquently at the vault, “that’s a vault of the Smithsonian Institute. Like the Smithsonian people, we thought that everything except the Crown Jewels in there were a loss. But now? Just THINK of the treasures inside! Leslie?”
Charters picked up a folder of hard-text. “Let’s see now - hmmm...lots of documents...oh! There’s a sword that the Russian Ambassador presented to Emperor Meiji at the end of the Russo-Japanese War! The Americans seized it at the end of World War II. And you know how the Nihonjin are about swords, and prizes of victories, let alone anything that was owned by a Mikado! Especially Meiji. Let’s see... the battle-flag that Lee flew at Gettysburg - military aficionados would go mad for that. Oh! Oh! They have the spacesuit that Neal Armstrong wore, when he walked on the moon, in there!”
“Something a little more...marketable, Leslie, dear.”
“Very well... ahh...” Charters’ eyes lit up. “Faberge eggs. Really, Erskine, you can’t get more marketable than Faberge!”
Caldecott beamed at Kallie. “There you go. Historical treasures, beyond your young imagination. Open that vault, and you will be responsible for restoring countless treasures, which have been counted as lost for decades.” He handed Kallie the locking mechanism.
Oh well, Kallie thought pragmatically, at least if I open the damn thing for them, they’ll be so busy playing Ali Baba, that they’ll forget about me. Kallie took the locking mechanism and the instruction booklet, and cautiously set the dials that turned the cogs sticking out the edges of the ‘box’. She took her time, making a production of playing her ‘finger-keys’ over and over, to be absolutely sure. Then, when she couldn’t draw it out any further, she handed the lock to Caldecott. “The first letter in the code was ‘C’, so according to this book, the ‘C’ should be the upper-left hand corner facing out.”
Caldecott accepted the lock with a slight bow, and took it over to the vault door, where a slender African-American man was waiting for it. The slender man carefully fitted the lock into the recess, where a cover plate had been removed. He used a hand-key of sorts to fit it in, and then replaced the key with a power drill. When the drill was turned on there was a bit of movement, and then the drill growled frustrated.
“What’s the matter?” Caldecott snapped, “Did the little twit get it wrong?”
“No,” the slender man said with an intense but calm French accent, “it’s just the restraining bolts being stubborn. It’s been, what, over twenty years since this thing was opened last?” Then there was a *chunk!* sound, and then a sound of gears moving. After a bit, valves in the door popped open, and there was a sound of rushing air. It took as many of the twenty-five men as could fit into the doorway to do it, but they managed to wrestle the door open.
Together they peered into the darkness, pierced by the glare of their spotlights. “Well,” Caldecott said dryly, “no ‘wondrous things’.”
“The point,” the man with the guttural accent said brusquely, “is that the floor is bone dry. Besides,” he waved a hand at the rows upon rows of shelves and files, “it may not be a pile of gold, but at least we can FIND things this way.”
Kallie sighed and started walking toward the sled. “Where are you going?” Charters asked sharply.
“The sled. You don’t need me for anything, so I thought that I’d wait in the sled, where it’s comfortable.”
Charters gave her that cat-looking-at-a-mouse look. “Oh, of course. And find some way to contact the outside, maybe? No, little miss, we’re not taking any chances with you.” She leaned in and whispered, “And just remember, try any tricks, and I ‘out’ you to these men. And you wouldn’t last long, if I did that, duckie.”
Charters went and took Kallie’s tote bag out of the trunk. “Here. You can keep yourself busy reading a book or something, but stay where we can see you.” Then Charters all but dragged Kallie into the vault.
Charters and Caldecott’s main problem was that they didn’t have any pallet moving equipment. They’d assumed that they’d have to scuba in, move some rubble and exit with the Crown Jewels. But the way that the stores were arranged, possibly by design, all the small and valuable lots were packed away behind large, bulky lots. Their rubble moving equipment was some help, but most of it was still grunt labor.
Chai crawled out of the water first, shedding the ‘fins’ strapped to the shins of her Fury suit as she did. Once the fins were gone she filled her hands with the mono-knives and dashed to cover. No reaction. She tugged on the fishing line tied to her belt, and Vangie came out, a .45 in each hand, a Personal Assault System slung over her back, and her utility belt full of every dirty trick that she could lay her hands on.
Vangie did a five-count when she had cover, and Kait came out of the water, dripping in equal parts with water and firearms.
Vangie was trying to make up her mind what to do first, when a man came out of the ‘airlock’, struggling with a pallet. Vangie flickered her hand at Chai in the ‘Take Out Silently’ signals. Chai came around his blindside, blades ready when, “HEY!” came from within the airlock.
The man stiffened immediately, but he couldn’t drop his load quickly enough to dodge Chai’s blades. Kait ducked into the ‘corridor’, spotted a man holding something and let fly with a volley that put him down immediately.
Even given the lousy acoustics of the warehouse, everyone heard the sound of the gunfire. Suddenly, everyone had a gun in their hand. Except Kallie, and there were a couple of guys giving her ‘Aha! Hostage!’ looks.
“What did you do THAT for?” Vangie hissed at Kait.
“He had a gun!”
“He had a POWER DRILL!”
“It looked like a gun.”
“Why did I bring you along?”
As Vangie wiped the metaphorical egg off her face, Chai said, “They know that we’re here. We go NOW, before they get their act together.”
Chai, Kait and Vangie came barreling into the storage space, and Kallie saw her opening. Before one of the goons could react enough to use her as a shield, she bolted and placed herself between the Erinyes and the main body of ‘defenders’. “STOP!NOBODY SHOOT!”
Kallie flinched as she waited to see if anyone was listening to her. Amazingly, nobody shot. Okay, advantage: Wyecross. She turned to Charters and Caldecott. “You two! You do NOT want to start shooting! You don’t have TIME to waste with a firefight! You start shooting, and it’ll only devolve into a big mess that’ll take at least a half-hour! Do you honestly think that they didn’t call for backup? Vangie, how long before backup gets here?”
“Oh, two or three minutes, I’d say,” Vangie bluffed through her tac-helmet.
“In other words, we have at least twenty minutes,” Caldecott said silkily.
“Yeah, but you’re gonna need as much of those twenty minutes to get the Crown Jewels and get the fuck out of here, right? You can’t waste any time with a firefight, right?”
“The young lady is quite right, Blake,” Charters offered. “What say you let us leave with two or three packets, and you can live comfortably for the rest of your life on the finders’ fee on what’s in here?”
“It’s a forgotten Smithsonian Ultra-Secure Vault,” Kallie explained. “The stuff in here is worth Billions. Vangie, if you start shooting, the odds are that every single bullet will destroy at least a hundred thousand dollars worth of something.”
“There’s no way in HELL that I’m letting these bastards get away!” Vangie grated.
“There is WAY too much testosterone in this room,” Kallie offered. “OKAY! How about THIS? Everybody dumps their gun over here, and you settle this hand to hand? Chai, you leave your monoblade with the guns.”
“WHAT?” Kait screeched, horrified, “NO GUNS?”
Suddenly, Vangie’s .45 was pointed straight into Kait’s eye. “Drop ‘em. Now.”
“Hey, Screw this!” yelled one of the crew, and guns suddenly appeared, as if by magic, in Charters’ and Caldecott’s hands. As one, they cut him down.
“The Kid’s right,” Charters said in a ‘Dragon Lady’ tone of voice that suggested the Death of a Thousand Cuts to anyone who crossed her. “Everyone - drop your weapons.”
By a bizarre sort of ‘duel’ arrangement, both sides disarmed, and Kallie was appointed the keeper of the pile. Kait disarmed - at gunpoint - and gave Kallie a Mossberg combat rifle to guard the pile.
Finally, the last two armed combatants were Vangie and Charters. Vangie pointedly unslung her PAS, dropped it on top of the heap of firearms. As she started to drop the magazines from her .45s, Kallie said, “Hold on. Charters, would you hold this?” She handed Charters her bracelet.
“Sure, dear. Why?” Charters took the bracelet.
“Because, I’m not stupid.” The bracelet went off, and all the dirty tricks that Charters had hidden on her were suddenly super-magnetized. She fell on top of the also suddenly super-magnetized weapons. Kallie stepped away from the pile, and fired her shotgun into Caldecott.
Vangie and Chai were on top of Charters and Caldecott respectively, and Chai had Caldecott’s clothing in tatters from the mono-knives that she’d conveniently forgotten to leave in the pile. Kait, robbed of a more satisfying outlet, let out an Erinyes war-shriek and plowed into a crowd of seven large, burly men, the lightest of whom must have weighed 200 pounds.
The poor chumps never had a chance.
Once Charters was down for the count, and wrapped up like a mummy in MnemoPlast™ DermaDhesive© restraint tape, Vangie tried to get her .45 back, but when she checked the mechanism, the firing pins were still magnetized and sticking. “Shit,” Vangie muttered and she unlimbered her Jin Ren Sho™ OmniStaff©. With that, she went hunting any hostiles who might be hiding anywhere.
Finally, the last man standing was the stocky Asian guy, who was edging toward the vault door with a sack over one shoulder. He held up a hand-plunger, which was connected by a wire to a large block around his neck. As the Erinyes came his way, he brandished the plunger. "Dead-man Switch!” he yelled. “Try and stop me, and EVERYTHING goes up!”
Vangie looked at Kait, “That for real?”
Kait nodded grudgingly. “Yeah. Not bad. There’s enough C-6 in there to blow out this side of the sea-mount.”
“VANGIE!” Kallie threw her ‘web-shooter’ to Vangie, who caught it on the fly, and sent a glob of ‘webbing’ that firmly glued the man’s hand to the plunger.
Vangie, Chai and Kait again stood in a row in Diana’s office. But unlike the previous times in the past three days that they’d been in there, this time, they were reporting unqualified success.
“Very impressive!” Diana said with a lilting voice. “According to the preliminary inventory by the Smithsonian, the contents of that vault are conservatively estimated to be valued at roughly 17 Billion New Dollars, and change.”
Seventeen. BILLION. Nubucks. Vangie’s head swam. This was it! This was the Big Score that every Erinys dreams about! Even at the paltry fraction of the worth that would trickle down to her, she was looking at Eight Million Dollars, easy! Free And Clear, Baby, Free And Clear! MORE than Free And Clear! She was Rich! No more getting shot at! No more pinching pennies! No more writing %*!#-ing reports! No more-
“Unfortunately-” Diana cut in.
“-the Smithsonian is undergoing one of their periodic times of tight money. All they can afford to pay for the restoration of the vault is $100 Million.”
Oh well, 0.5% of 100 million is still a half million!
“And the Review Board has decided that since you took the option for the Antilles Duchess, we’re liable for the costs to the ship. But as that was an operating glitch, we’re deducting those costs from the entire reward, not just your cut.”
“ACK!” Vangie clutched her breast in pain.
“And the costs to the Xanadu Arcade-”
“Yarg!” The Pain! The Pain! The Pain Of It All!
“And then, there’s the Death and Dismemberment fines for the Gangers-”
Vangie made a noise like a strangling turtle.
“And the expense of fielding the Myrmidons-“
With a bland expression, Diana ignored Vangie’s sick sounds, and listed expense after expense, whittling away at the mountainous reward.
“Okay! Okay! Enough already! How much is left?” Vangie asked, tears in her eyes. That cybernetic optics were full of tears should be a measure of her suffering.
Diana tallied up the score. “You owe Twenty Thousand dollars.”
When Vangie was brought to, Diana said, “Of course, that’s just the *ahem!* reward from the Smithsonian Vault. There’s the rewards for Charters and Caldecott, your shares for the capture of three high-ranking Saints, that Justice Department reward for proof that the Saints were using Kwik-krooting, and various rewards for the arrest of some of those gangers at the Arcade. And, of course, there’s the finder’s fee for the Lieberman papers-”
“Sum Up, Already!” Diana printed out some Bonus Chits, signed them, and handed them out.
Vangie looked at the Chit. $5,000. Five Grand, for three days work. So, why did she still feel like she’d gotten gypped?
Diana dismissed them, and they filed out of her office into the Squad Room. “Wow! Five Grand!” Kait enthused, “Gee, if this is what you usually pull down, Snake-eyes, I’ll partner with you ANYTIME!”
Vangie wondered if she’d get fined for Lack of Proper Decorum, if she started pounding her head against a pillar.
As she staggered to her cubicle, to get away from Kait loudly wondering what new bang-bang toy she was going to buy with her bonus, Vangie passed Wendy’s desk and looked up at the Offering Board. The Trans-Atlantic Fish Poaching Case was listed as ‘taken’. “Hey! Wendy! What happened to the TA fish case?”
“Oh, Diana gave that case to Val and Darcy, in *ahem!* ‘reward for their fine work in finding the information leak to B&W. Apparently, Val and Darcy were leaking information to that Barnstable guy, over at Bozos & Wimps, and he was selling it to those two Brits.”
Vangie got to her cubicle, feeling much better. A fish poaching case required at least five months of enforcement, so it would be a while before she saw Val’s smiling face in the office again.
She sat down at her computer, to see what cases she’d left hanging when all this started, when a familiar voice said, “So, can I get you a cup of coffee, or something?”
Vangie almost jumped out of her hide, and turned to see a familiar smiling face, wearing a Themis Office Assistant’s uniform. “Kallie! What are YOU doing here?”
“What do you mean, sticking Kallie with a $15,000 debt?” Vangie demanded of Diana in her office.
“Well, to be honest, it’s all your fault.”
“Yes, that flesh mask, and the other trinkets that you loaded her down with, weren’t exactly cheap, you know.”
Vangie fumed. “Maybe. But did you HAVE to tell her parents about Kallie’s little secret?”
“Yes,” Diana said firmly. “Of course, they think it’s just a phase, and that working off that $15,000 debt here as an intern will help Pres work through it. And, of course, while they signed the papers allowing ‘Preston’ to work here after school-hours, they also signed papers permitting Kallie to Androgen Blocker therapy, and see Themis shrinks. Of course, with that extra expense, Kallie might wind up working here all through High School!”
Vangie folded her arms across her impressive chest. “What’s this, Boss-Lady? You thinking that maybe Kallie’s got what it takes to be an Erinyes? You greasing the way to get accepted in a few years?”
“An Erinyes?” Diana snorted. “That kid talked a pair of trained operatives and a crew of armed men into disarming themselves! That kid’s got MANAGEMENT POTENTIAL!”
Author’s Note: To the best of my knowledge, there are no ‘Bulgarian Crown Jewels’, and, again to the best of my knowledge, the American State Department never withheld any such treasure from the Bulgarian state. There was a row over the Hungarian Crown Jewels, which the State Department returned in 1979. The rest of those sketchy details in regards Bulgarian recent history, again, to the best of my knowledge, accurate, citing the Wikipedia entries in regards Crown Jewels.