Sample of my work: A Gunfight in Heston City

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    Oh-how boy! So this is something I’ve been working on for the better part of six years (distantly shouts “Jesus Christ!”) as the debut piece for one of a cast of characters I built in high school.

    Forewarning, things get pretty graphic.

    “A Gunfight in Heston City”
    Personal Apartment of Kael Joss, Affiliate Mercenary
    September 18th, 2039 – 02:28:58 Hours

    Sleep doesn’t come easy tonight. Wraiths swarm from the void of my repose, writhing themselves about me, dragging me relentlessly down, down…Down into a place I don’t want to go. Flash of gunfire over the scream of dead men. Standing in a field of littered bodies, some strong and virile, others young, old, sick and infirm. How long I struggled with nightmares, I don’t know, but I am tugged from my troubled slumber by the sound of a violent metallic squeal that chases away demons and makes the dead tremble in their graves.
    Ears ring with the whine following the passage of the 2:30 train Downtown. The entire building shutters in the thundering wake of the metal tube ferrying the John and Jane Pencilpushers to work under high-class movers and shakers in fancy gender-specific Armani and Prada suits and upper-class salaries in their ladder-climbing careers. Some of them are respectable. Some of them are actually pleased with their route in life as a cubicle resident, working behind the lines of stylish billboards and Rolex clad CEOs and corporate presidents to accomplish a very intricate and intriguing espionage-esque fetish. Others despise their superiors and those who do well while they are left to wither on the vine, caught in the endless rat race of American life.
    Most nights I sleep great. Not that I don’t have any regrets, granted, or that I have never done anything I wish I could take back; I’m at peace with the things that I’ve done. Tonight is just one of those times my conscience just decided to drag me on a private Best Of tour through my personal hall of horrors.
    Eyes now wide and bed soaked in cold sweat I groan and throw my arm over my face. “God damn it.”
    Well. At least I nabbed a good five-ish hours of shut eye. Not quite what I need to get me going in the A.M. but enough to keep me on my feet. Begrudgingly accepting that I won’t be getting anymore sleep, I lift my arm and glance first at the shoulder harness that hangs limply on a post of the headboard, and second to my desk. Laid about on its surface are the objects of my predicament, my last bottle of Irish malt standing proud and devoid of contents after I finished it off the previous evening, and a silvery pistol glinting in the dim light of my bedroom like the fangs of some hidden predator. With a groaned curse and a long yawn, I grab the holster and approach the desk where my gun rested.
    One of my most favorite weapons in my collection is a Kimber Arms Custom II Model M1911 that had been given to me by my commanding officer. Back when I was still running around with the Special Activities badge pinned to my collar. Everyone in my unit got one of these guns.
    This one, she was given to me late-2011 and built pending my design instructions to make major improvements to the design.
    I call her Sawyer.
    My stainless steel beauty.
    My ivory handled goddess.
    Standard features of her model include raised adjustable tritium sights, beavertail grip safety, a combat hammer, extended ambidextrous slide stop safety, extended slide release, beveled magazine well, a simplification of the model-standard firing pin block safety system, and long type combat trigger.
    Not including the above, I gave her the works.
    First and foremost was adding a half-cock notch. Instead of the old hook style, the flat top style was made to eliminate the problem of the hook breaking when the hammer slipped and fell to half cock. You can tell the gun has this feature by pulling the trigger on half cock. Since the hammer doesn’t have a sufficient distance to fall on half cock, the weapon won’t discharge. It’s not seen a good deal of use-to which I attribute-years of firing drills, but it’s good to have when you’re demonstrating to a novice shooter. Or to spook someone to your advantage. The only drawback to the system is it makes field stripping a bit more complicated, but I manage.
    Second, I swapped out the stock barrel with a five-inch aftermarket Kart Precision Match barrel with a one-sixteenth twist, fitted bushing, and a titanium carbo-nitride coating that yields lower friction and high lubrication to the barrel as each bullet is fired, almost doubling the accuracy. The shooters at the gun shop where my mentor had these fine pieces of American engineering assembled-strictly of U.S. made parts-gave an absolute guarantee that the barrel can range anywhere from and below a 1.5″ grouping from even a novice user at fifty yards. In ideal circumstances I can group a hole the size of a dime into a bulls-eye at that range. Three hours of target practice a day and boot camp at BSO turns you into one hell of a good shot. In short, I don’t miss.
    The third is an integrated muzzle brake compensator to reduce climb and forward movement by over seventy-percent, along with two small cuts fitted into the muzzle of the gun a tiny eighth of an inch wide each, allowing for a special sound suppressor to be attached and detached with a simple turn of the wrist.
    My final touch was having her chambered for the improved .45 Super cartridges for added punch and incorporating low-profile ten-round stainless steel Wilson Combat magazines. “Low-profile” here means the spring that pushes the rounds up the clip is a mite more malleable, allowing for another two rounds to be inserted into a magazine that’s equal in length to standard seven- or even eight-round clips. Modern technology, isn’t it grand?
    Out of habit I drop the magazine and draw the slide back to inspect the magwell and interior of the barrel a moment. Satisfied by my cleaning, I replace the clip and thumb the slide release, carefully uncock the hammer, click the safety on, and slide Sawyer into the vacant holster with a few pats.
    I manage to make my way to my kitchen and pop open the fridge and pantry to get some semblance of breakfast in my gut whilst staring out the kitchen window in a hungover daze at the waking city of Heston as a week of work crawls out from the weight of the weekend. How long have I been cooped up here? Four, maybe five weeks?
    Yeah. Time to go for a walk.
    After I get in my morning workout and a hot shower I throw on a basic street-casual outfit of a shirt and a pair of jeans, loop the holster over my shoulders, snatch on my jacket, pop my humidor open to snag a stoogie, and stride to the elevator in the middle of the hall. It takes all of a minute to descend the twelve floors between my apartment and street level without so much as a gurgle of protest from my stomach. Modern technology is certainly grand. I pass through the sparsely populated lobby and offer a wave to the folks at the desk before stepping out into the early-morning life of Heston City.
    A two-hundred-year-old urban development that boasts a population just pushing five million split across two islands off the coast of the fourth largest lake in southeast Minnesota, Heston City is on par with Chicago in the East and Minneapolis in the North in terms of sprawl and lethality. If Hell erupted through the pavement and built a city, Heston was a pretty good idea of what it would look like. A pale shadow of the American Dream limping its way towards rehabilitation one wincing step at a time. A stunning metropolis scarred and corrupted by ambition without ethics; greed without restraint. For so long Heston had been a place where crime had such a stranglehold on every part of life that there weren’t even rules for how buildings were supposed to work. Crowded together, stacked on top of each other, sprawling in every direction, blotting out the sun like the giant glass fangs of some impossibly huge metal creature. Sinister clouds of cotton white steam boil up from the sewers, the sidewalks empty save for the occasional vendor or dealer that sleepily hover their turf to make sure they don’t lose profit to the cheer of distant sirens echoing in the rainy blackness. The night is yet to wither away into dawn but already the stirrings of the daylight hours have begun to break through its dark curtain. Coupes and sedans zip by on the water wretched roads, office stiffs and wage slaves hurry to their posts as fast as their modern chariots will take them, never intending to stop unless absolutely necessary. Helicopters ferrying the wealthy and affluent buzz overhead. The smell of soggy concrete and diesel hang in the air, drifting in from the north where the high-class entrepreneurs and business-men and -women putts about in utopian playgrounds of their own make and design. It stinks of luxury, privilege and power, giving a bad name to hard-worked and highly respected names such as Kline and Gucci and Lauren and Prada as they prance about making meaningless small talk of the latest rumor and portfolio standing.
    That is Heston City.
    I’ve returned to my home-away-from-home out of necessity this time around. For the past month or so I’ve been on the lamb, spending the wealth of my time keeping my head low and my boots planted firmly into the ground, ready to snuff out any idiot who thinks they can do me in for a quick paycheck. So far the only snuffing being done is by me. Solstice to Equinox transitions brings out the worst of my allergies, wherein my sinuses fill up with a fluid of a color I don’t even know how to describe what it’s supposed to be and runs like the waters of the Mississippi.
    My self-imposed hermitage is the end result of my latest batch of work. The details of which you can still find listed on the front page of today’s Pioneer and the Tribune, full color photos and stark black letter galore when I pass by a news and tabloid kiosk a few blocks away. The story follows the high-profile assassination of the San Francisco City Council president Brody Mann, a seemingly untouchable politician with a wicked secret that a few hierarchy members in the city’s government didn’t approve of. Said hierarchy had expended a sizeable fortune to procure the services from several of the world’s best assassins with the intent of eliminating Councilman Mann. Not surprisingly none of them had succeeded in doing the only job they had ever been any good at, only getting their asses caught, shot hell-and-gone, and put up like trophies.
    Everyone who hadn’t been on the inside was told that the recent target painted on Councilmen Mann’s chest was because of a pending mob investigation following the results of the murder trial of a census taker in LA last February.
    For the dozen people who did know, it was because of Mann’s affiliations with San Fran’s very own child prostitution ring. A secret he kept hidden in the guise of investigation interests and future Council projects to anyone who came across the multiple files and archived photographs of the tortured, raped, beaten and butchered little girls he had on tab. Mann was quoted as saying they said they reminded him of, “The next step forward in the Council’s program to reform the city,” end quote.
    Mann kept his identity secret from the ring’s managers. How, I didn’t care to find out. Hadn’t cared. All I had to know was the pay and the place, and he’d be dead. Mann’s men were smart, I’ll give them that; setting up parameters so far outside the range of most marksmen-for-hire that the only way to take him was up close and personal. And for the guys first brought in it worked like a charm. No one was stupid enough to risk a mile-long shot at a target; not even the hitmen that were raised in the various organizations specifically for long-range-kills. Somewhere along the lines of frustration and diminishing patience they got wise and contacted an old friend of mine with the job. He had been forced to refuse as he was already on an assignment, but kindly recommended me as their solution and how to get in touch.
    So they did, much to my chagrin. But hey, money is money. And they really wanted this guy dead.
    Forty-six days ago I flew in from Brazil where I was relaxing on a white-sand beach along Sugarloaf Mountain four miles from my hotel in Rio, was given the target’s name and was delivered an extensively detailed dossier and told my pay was to be delivered if-and they stressed the ‘if’-I succeeded on my contract.
    I told them to add another figure for every guy that failed and we’d have a deal.
    That afternoon I called my handler and told her to turn on CNN and the story of the next decade was ensuing: Councilman Brody Harold Mann had been shot, in the head, and killed instantly.
    The report went on that the bullet used to kill the Councilman had been paper wrapped and had deformed on impact, making it impossible to identify the exact gun that fired it, but metallic signatures matched the custom-made .408 CheyTac rounds used in Cheyenne Tactical’s CheyTac Intervention rifle series. The most impressive part was that the shot had been taken from over three miles away, based on the carbon decay of the bullet as it traveled from point A to point B. The autopsy report dictated that the bullet had entered Brody’s brainpan not quite center on his brow and an inch above his eyes, effectively turning his head into a salsa bowl and emptied everything out the back with the force of a runaway freight train. Normally I’d be doing a bit of chest pounding but–and I’ll be wholly honest–I did not intend on doing that. I had meant to catch him in the lung, let the fucker bleed out and drown in his own blood or something poetic to that degree. Aim small miss small; shoot for a button, you might hit the shirt. Shoot for a lung and you might catch a pedophile between his baby blues.
    But the end result was the same. One dead politician and no way to tie the hit to the higher parts of the city government.
    After a low and impressed whistle my handler told me she would call my clients. But the story doesn’t end there.
    The whole city erupted in panic within ten minutes, everyone demanding to know what the hell happened to Mann’s award winning security team and its former SAS coordinator–the name escapes me, MacCormick or something blatantly Scottish–but the sad truth of the matter is that no one could ever calculate a hitman being a good enough marksman to calculate all the variables that could factor into a sixty-two-hundred yard cold-bore shot. It wasn’t what a conventional hitman would attempt.
    But I’m not conventional or even a hitman.
    I’m a mercenary who went to San Fran for some easy money and scored a few brownie points for a job. Though now that I think about it, I’m not sure whether or not that should say something about my career if I say a headshot from three and a half miles away qualifies as “easy”. Maybe I need a few more contracts overthrowing governments in former South American banana republics and killing warlords in Africa.
    Less than an hour later a hefty sum was dropped into my account. Labelled as ‘For services rendered; City of San Francisco Department of Municipality’, and shuffled back around the League until my cut came in. I got all of a hundred grand out of it so I can’t complain.
    But I digress.
    A few blocks away from the bus station next to the Walgreen’s closest to 494 is an old restaurant building that’s been “repurposed”, as the owner Macie Cotter claims. For sake of argument let’s call it ‘Cattail Thursdays’. Officially the place doesn’t have a sign or title to it like one of those new-age hipster joints that dot Seattle or San Francisco after the New-10s. The Cattail is my kind of joint; great food, pretty women, hard liquor, gambling, and heavy metal–the good kind, all thundering noise and songs about death and life and love and loss and faith or lack thereof, shrieking guitar solos and lead singers that can actually sing, not the growly Satan-is-our-salvation bullshit they call metal these days. Songs to sing along to, songs to drink to, songs to fight and form brotherhood to. All found in the same general area of access and the muscle to handle the troublemakers. Macie uses it as a front for her more prominent-and profitable-business as an information broker.
    Mike’s at the door tonight, nice fellow, built like a tank but not quick to lay a finger on anyone that crosses him. What makes him is that wicked evil eye he’s got; I swear God Himself gets goosebumps every time he casts it. I know I do, I’m shuddering just thinking about it.
    I give him a quick wave and Mike returns with a nod and a jerk of the head he signals approved passage and wraps a basketball sized hand around the shirt collar of some punk trying to sneak in. I almost feel sorry for the poor guy.
    Pushing open the second set of doors inside I’m promptly greeted by the few conscious regulars at their posts, filling the silence between songs and shows with idle chatter and refills for their orders. I return in kind and they go back to their drinks or what have you. My gaze shifts around and lingers on the lady of the hour chatting up one of her bartenders. She notices me and sends a wink my way. I cut the cap off the cigar and send it into the trash bin left of the door and drop it back into my jacket–in the tube, of course. I’m not an idiot.
    “’Mornin’ Macie, not interrupting am I?” I say after crossing the room, feverishly running my hands through the short crop of hair atop my scalp to rid myself of the majority of moisture.
    “Kael, always good to have you around,” Macie returns. “What’ll be?”
    “Could do for a hard one. Double of the usual?”
    Macie nods and looks at the bartender. “Danny?”
    The bartender reaches under the counter to produce a bottle of thirty-year-old bourbon and a polished crystal glass as I pull up a stool.
    “What’s my tab at at the moment?”
    “On the house,” Macie answers with a commandingly playful tone that would just as soon break my arm as make my fork over my wallet. “No tab for you, Kael. Your money’s no good here.”
    Not without good reason, mind you. Macie’s had a lot of people taken out over the years. Be it the self-positioned “social order reformists”, mafia bosses that want a cut of the pie, lawyers and cops looking to make their careers, or bent loan officers from whatever bank she’s financed from. Once upon a time, any of the above had forced her hand to charge ten bucks a drink, playing keep-away from the self-righteous pricks on their high horses of might and justice that demanded top-tier bribe money to let the not-so-legal activities that make Macie’s living continue, or the scheming casa nostra assholes in an uphill fight to keep this place from being taken over or boarded up.
    There’s an army of bodies that Macie Cotter has had buried to secure her independence. I being the one that did most of the killing and all of the digging. I still have the shovel on standby in case that twitch ever comes back around. Needless to say she owes me one and free hooch is the humblest of her offers.
    “How goes the paid vacation?”
    “I think the walls were starting to conspire against me.”
    Macie grimaces and laughs. “That bad?”
    I drink, spreading the sharp taste around on my tongue while it lasts. “‘Think’ is the operative word. I need to get out of the house for a while and do something.”
    “Could go to a party,” Macie offers as Dan fills a mug with a steaming pot of toffee colored coffee that smells like butterscotch. “College kids just wrapped up their midterms, there are festivities all over the U.”
    I decline with a scoff. The “party scene” loses its charm when you realize you do not generally care for anyone else attending, like me, don’t care for house music, like me, or you have a specific pattern of actions when you do attend, also like me. I, at every party or social gathering I’ve ever been to, deploy two very simple tactics: Support the wall and hit the booze. Hard.
    “Fair enough,” Macie tipped her head. “So, what, you looking for work?”
    I shrug. “Sure.”
    “I think something crossed my desk the other day, still got,” That’s Macie’s way of saying that the job hasn’t been on the table long and is still fresh. “Hot out of the oven”, something like that.
    I take mother drink. “What’s it say?”
    She leans back a bit and takes a sip from her mug. “Not much, but it seems up your alley.”
    I peer at her from the rim of my glass and squint.
    “Small and local, I swear.”
    “Right,” I draw out with a paired pointed look and nod. “Like that Florida postcard thing with the dead strippers last year?”
    “You got yourself into that mess, pal.”
    “They set me on fire, Macayla.”
    “You got better.”
    “Ugh,” I shake my head and gulp down another load. “Okay, alright. I’ll take a look. It’s not like I got anything better to do.”
    Macie grunts a laugh when she turns and reaches to the register. She leafs through a an old Rolodex–I kid you not–near the drawer before pulling a card out and tossing it my way. It’s simple thing, folded lengthways with my name scrawled on it in thin and decidedly feminine script, appended by a question mark between parentheses.
    Oh, thanks, Macie. Because you only get to know someone so well when he is disappearing stiffs on your payroll for fifteen goddamn months.
    “The fuck is this? High school?”
    Macie shrugs. “It’s what I got.”
    With a snort I drain my glass and flip open the note.
    Three-twenty, any day, both hours, Old Westbrooke center east side. Now-and-after payment.
    Vague, but interesting. Not too many folks these days pay upfront anymore. Either this is a setup or a lucky break and just what I needed in a time like this. But Westbrooke East? Nobody worth their weight operates out of there, not anymore. I don’t think. Whatever is happening there’s a stony pit in my gut that spells danger and opportunity.
    “When did you get this?”
    Macie flicks her eyes to the ceiling in thought. “A little before happy hour on Sunday.”
    “Any other takers?
    “Dead as week-old pizza.”
    Meaning no. I down the last of my drink in a large gulp that gives my gums a tingle and step off the bar stool, exit the doors, and head back out into the storm.
    As much as I hate to admit it, this isn’t the exact weather to be traveling in. Especially on the side of town where all the bangers and hoods dominate with greasy iron fists. That’s not a metaphor. Turf changes hands either fluidly through pacts and deals or slips out and goes to the gang that can get to it the fastest, and nine times out of ten the latter ends in bloodshed. Have to get a support gun, a big one, and my chest rig. As much as my augmentations help, getting shot isn’t the most pleasant of experiences.
    And I’d rather not ruin my favorite jacket.

    Home’s on the top floor of an architectural office filing cabinet; obviously designed for the middle-class bachelor before he makes it big. More so for tactical purposes than practical, really, if any of my many competitors or rivals ever found out where I was and came after me en masse, I’ll start at the top of the building and work my way down without worrying about a shot in the back from an ambush coming from the roof. In which case, I have a very ready and able grenade launcher on standby to take out whatever kind of helicopter they use to infiltrate me from above. Paranoid? Maybe, but after two decades of black ops, you stop thinking rationally for the rest of our life and thinking like a strategist.
    You tend to live longer.
    Punching in the passcode to the board above the handle, open the door and grab my keys from the holder on the wall and check my watch. Half-after three, a little over an hour before morning rush hour starts up and enough time to get across town before I’m cut off from the usual habits of American freeway traffic. I grab the magnum from its case in a gun cage in the back room and pull the ballistic vest on over my chest, and my combat rig over that. It’s a marvel of technology, this thing.
    The rig is built for low-profile concealment but doesn’t infringe on comfort. The two magazine pouches stack up to two clips for Sawyer per slot, and since her sister will be joining us tonight I loop a few speed loader pouches onto the webbing in place of the ones I dedicate for my Six8, leaving a little more room for my knife, it’s sheathe, and a field med kit. Technical rig building mumbo jumbo, mostly uninteresting.
    It’s the bulletproof vest that’s the kicker. Traditional bullet vests are usually padded with densely packed Kevlar or other nylon descendant fabrics and metal plates to increase bullet protection, but with the advent of APBs and heavy caliber guns like the five-round Howitzer I’m grabbing rounds and speed loaders for, steel plate just doesn’t cut it anymore.
    Hence this nifty little invention I’m wearing. Because of the limitations of the technology a distinction is made between handgun protection and rifle protection. The theory had it that by arranging ceramic disks in a pattern akin to reptile scales that can not only stop a bullet from entering my body cavity but and that if they are placed right they can deflect and disperse the impact of the bullet across a wider area, so I only stagger a bit when I’m shot instead of getting the wind knocked out of me. Usually civilian body armor is somewhere in the area of Level II or III on the Ballistic Protection Scale, offering coverage from small .22s to large caliber handgun rounds, .44 magnums and the like. The one I’m tightening to my person is in the Level V BPS, which encompasses pistol and rifle cartridges from the lowly 5.56 NATO all the way up to the devastating 7.62×54 Russian, and has been was designed to stop a 647 grain .50 Cal Browning with little more than a bruise.
    Before you ask, no. I haven’t had a chance to test out that theory, as I’m not keen on providing myself with one. When it comes to guns, I’m a skeptic by default. Oh sure, I can bounce back from a small arms shot that would normally put most regular people either in a hospital or a morgue. Hell, I’ve survived jumping on Goddamn grenades and came away with a few cracked ribs, a perforated liver and a collapsed lung, but there’s something about willingly walking into a bullet that could cut through the armor plating of a battleship that deters my otherwise implacable gung-ho instincts.
    And now, for Nancy.
    The magnum is one of my few pre-service firearms. Smith and Wesson Model 500, eight and three-eighths inch barrel, “classic style” three inch under barrel ejector-rod shroud, molded rubber grips, and sporting a nickel finish. She was an anniversary present from her namesake, a sassy blonde that that I dated in high school. One of two magnums in my armory, I carry her for times when I need to make an impression, need a bigger punch, or just want to blow something to bits. Nancy slides into the holster on my hip.
    With that, I exit the building of my abode and cross the street to the parking ramp and another elevator up to the residential parking level.
    The lift come to a gentle stop with a chime accompanying the parting doors. I take all of three steps out and behold a group of hoods hanging around this blue ’97 Chrysler with gang colors. I pass that car every time I leave the lot and venture off into the city proper, haven’t seen these punks before. Hopefully it’ll stay that way. Sawyer’s in my hand, just in case, and I consciously click the suppressor into place, adding a bit of accuracy with the barrel extension.
    Now the problem with most sound suppressors–or ‘silencers’, their inaccurately colloquial nickname–is that they aren’t rifled like the gun it’s used for. The term ‘rifling’ being the very small spiral grooves in a gun barrel that allows a bullet to fly accurately without straying off course. The lack of this reduces the range of the weapon, or how far it can travel accurately. The one I have, of several I hired a very talented Chicagoan weapons tinkerer build for me, is rifled perfectly to match this gun, and only this gun. Hence the slots cut into the base of the muzzle.
    I ready the hammer and tuck my hand behind my back. Easy, Kael, just keep walking. All casual like. Chances are th–
    “Hey white boy!”
    Well. Fuck me I guess.
    My head jerks to their direction and I come to a full stop. “What? Me?”
    “Yeah, yeah,” two of the hoods, one an acne ridden white kid with strawberry colored hair and an expensive-looking brown coat, the other a lanky and shirtless black kid in his upper teens with a blue hoodie, come away from the group while the others simply glance up and stop their fucking around and spread out. “That’s a nice jacket you got there, homes. That real leather?”
    My eyes wander over the group, tagging three others in various color hooded sweatshirts and jackets, t-shirts and trousers that didn’t go past their knees. Low-level bangers in a low-level gang, hardly anything on their person that identifies them as a group. I play along with the ruse, plotting out my course of fire. “Yeah. Had to get it ordered custom. That vinyl shit gives me the hives. I can give you the number of the guy I had make it if you want.”
    He shakes his head. “Nah, nah, how bouts we take it off your hands for a while? We’ll take good care of it, I swear.”
    “And if I say no thanks?”
    He grins and his hood trash friend laughs. The others laugh too. “Then I guess we’ll just have to make you. Eh?”
    “Uh-huh,” I nod, clicking my teeth. The whole place goes quiet as a church after mass; far in the distance you can hear a clap of thunder. There’s no way in hell I’m tossing my jacket to these deadbeats. Even if I give it over willingly-which is not going to happen-they’ll still beat the shit out of me for crossing through their turf unannounced and because they didn’t bother to cover their faces, they can’t afford to let me walk away breathing. No matter how much I promise not to run off to the cops. It’s only a matter of moments before the silence gets to them and they pull whatever hardware they bothered to carry with them and try to put me down. Bad news for them. Bad news for me. The seconds tick by like hours. The hoodlums shift glances to each other for an idea of where they should go from here and slowly lift their arms up to their waistbands all the while focusing on me.
    My head tilts over slightly. “Well, shit. And here I thought I wasn’t going to have to kill anyone today.”
    The black kid’s eyes go wide and I whip my arm out and up to eye level. I take aim at the white kid in the coat as he draws a gold-plate magnum and fire.
    Sawyer bucks in my hand with a metallic clack! and the round hits him in the face an instant later. Cheekbone below his eye, a thin tower of blood plumes out the back of his head and he falls to the ground lifeless. She barely has time to cycle in the next round before I swing to the next hood and fire a few more rounds and striking him in the chest, ending his short life in a series of jerks as my left hand whips up to support the grip. One of the thugs manages to flank me and tries to send a fairly long knife into the unprotected area under my arm, but with a quick grapple of my free arm I dislocate his shoulder, plant two rounds in his head and kick him away. The next two each take a few slugs in their upper chests in their lung area, not immediately mortal, granted, but I figure shock and blood loss will take care of them, unless the EMTs got here quick enough. Or at all.
    The whole encounter lasts less than ten seconds, much to the surprise of the black kid whose pants have been dirtied multiple time over. “Holy shit…” are the only words he can use to voice his amazed horror. He struggles to form an intelligible stream of vocals to dispel his utter terror and describe the scene before him. I almost feel sorry for the guy, but he did try to swipe my favorite jacket.
    I plant two into his temple and he slumps over with his buddies. Fucking bangers, how any group of punks like this could exist and be any sort of threat is beyond me. I pause for a moment canning clips, taking a minute to trace over my shots and count them off in my head. My mathematics skills being as spotty as they are, I do most of the thinking out loud.
    “Let’s see, one for the kid at bat, another for the guy on deck, three for the runner on first, and four between the guys on second and third. That’s…what? Eight? Nine shots? So one left in the chamber.”
    I pull the magazine out and pull the slide back for a brass check, beholding a single bullet and an empty clip. “Nailed it.”
    I swap the empty magazine with a full one on my rig and tuck it into the back of the clip pouch and proceed to collect the spent casings before I resume making my way to my car. I call in to my handler. It rings twice and goes to voicemail, code for she’s busy. I leave a message telling her there was a fairly one-sided shooting between a few hoods and me near my apartment and to send a cleaning crew out to the parking structure across from it and head for the high-security vehicle storage, ending the call before I punch in my code.

    Parking lot of the shopping center turned fossil thanks in part to an increased street gang presence and a thinning grip of the mafia in this sad little world, I place bullets into the cylinder of my back up after cleaning it out and slide it into the holster on my side before moving onto the speed loaders.
    My chariot for the evening, a plum crazy ’73 Hemi Barracuda, rests calmly in the downpour, massaged into a level sleep by the staccato of raindrops across her armored hull.
    Outside lighting flashes and thunder snarls in annoyance of the crashing of water onto hard, black pavement. Headlights dance and cross in the rear view mirror as passersby scuttle around town in the endless curtain of water. The air in the confines of the cockpit shifts and I feel the eyes of someone else on my work. It’s not a threat, I can tell that much right away. It’s something like the feeling of a hug; warm and soft and filled with unconditional and unfettered affection.
    The toe of a shoe prods my shin. “Hey.”
    I immediately jerk upright and whip my head to the soft, husky voice just as my heart makes a leap into my throat. Blood rushes to my face and gold-flecked green eyes smile at me under a corona of dark auburn hair. The dark locks frame a drop-dead gorgeous face of a woman forty ways out of my league staring at me with adoration in her bundling cheeks as a broad and toothy grin stretches her button lips.
    “Sawyer!” I say with quiet surprise.
    “Hello, Kael,” says the projection of my fractured psyche, looking far too good in the slate, modernized power suit that hugs her frame. “You might want to close your mouth before something gets in.”
    I swallow hard and shake my head. “W-What are you doing here?”
    “I’m checking in on my man, you object?”
    I snap out of my daze with a scoff. “Most women call their men, not materialize out of the ether.”
    Sawyer chuckles and crosses her legs, hooking her hands around her top knee and glances down at what I’m doing. “Taking Nancy out on the town tonight, are we?”
    “It’s a precaution. You know how bad this part of the city is.”
    “Mmm, point,” Sawyer folds her arms over her chest, shifting her lean figure to one side as she raises one shoulder. “But then, what are you doing out here?”
    My eyes roll. “Like you don’t know.”
    She shrugs. “I’d like to hear you say it anyway.”
    “Somebody ripped off somebody else, I’m going to rectify the situation.”
    She taps her thumbs twice before asking, “Then you’re working again?”
    “I needed to get out of the house for a while. This isn’t a League contract,” I stop and blink, realization coming to me. “Why are you even asking? You already know what I’m doing. You’re literally in my head.”
    “I’m just being polite.”
    Another scoff. “Uh-huh.”
    “I’m a good girl at heart,” she makes a puppy pout at me, her lip thrust out and eyes wide and pitiable. I glance at her from under my brow, unimpressed.
    “Is there anything else you wanted, or did you just stop in to tease me?”
    “You’re so mean.” Sawyer slides closer to me and lays a hand on my chest, pressing a nail tightly against the skin under my jaw. She pulls me closer into her, to the point where her brow presses against mine. “Just know that no matter what you do or what you tell yourself-or what those ‘professionals’ with their wooden clipboards and stethoscopes and doctorates preach at you-we’re meant for each other. And I am truly, deeply in love with you,” she whispers into my ear, scanning the features of my face for a moment before she moves her plush lips over mine.
    And for a moment, I’m in paradise; lost in a tropic haze and struck by a warm breeze that carries the tickle of palm trees lingering in the distance. I pull her into my lap and tighten my arms around her shoulders.
    I’m not crazy, I tell myself this as my hand crawls up her arm and wrapping around her neck, my thumb gently stroking traces the outline of her jaw before pushing a few rogue strands of hair away from her face. No, I’m not crazy. I’m absolutely bat-shit insane, whack out of my mind with a one-way ticket for the Disorient Express. I’m one for the deepest padded cell in the blackest part of a white-walled asylum.
    And I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.
    A loud clap of thunder snaps me out of whatever daydream I’m having. Once again I’m alone, in the car, convinced of my own insanity…until I rub the flesh of my neck and feel the crescent mark where a fingernail might have been pressed. The feel of its shape is fine and feminine; no possible way my wide and flat claws made it. My eyes shift to the passenger seat, and find a shining forty-five on the smooth leather.
    My brow tightens into a scowl. Reaching for the troublesome weapon and slamming it into the holster under my arm I pop open the door and walk out into the rain stricken darkness of the early morning.
    Softly someone whispers, “Be careful.”
    The words carry faintly, in the back of my mind like they had been caught on the wind.
    Aren’t I always?
    Rain only comes so often to Heston City during the Spring and Summer months. What these people classify as ‘rain’ at least. Pitiful little spits of moisture, warm as piss and lucky if it doesn’t evaporate before it even reaches the ground, as it happens a good fifth of the time. But there’s a reason the settlers and natives called it ‘Land of Wet Autumn’. Among other things.
    Every year, roughly between September and November, Mother Superior pushes a hot, mean torrent over the Appalachians where the mighty winds of the Great Plains carry it to the brewing gales of our little corner of Minnesota, where the cold air of Lake Juniper hits the hot with the force of a ten kiloton bomb and opens up the floodgates over a cheese grater. The storms that follow sends out raindrops that strike like bullets. The onslaught from on high turns the streets to glass and chills you to the bone. And it doesn’t let up for days. Weeks sometimes. The longest on record started on Labor Day and went straight through Thanksgiving.
    This particular storm’s lasted for about two days, and it’ll likely keep going. My jacket does its job, thankfully, taking a great deal of the torment of icy liquid to protect the expensive combat rig beneath it, and my all-to-delicate torso that rests underneath it all. On any other night I would’ve just walked here and most people would call me crazy. Then again, most people hate when the rain’s nasty like this. I love the rain; the way it slams on the back of my neck and rolls down my shirt and along my back, sending my skin into a frenzy from the chill.
    But not tonight. No, not tonight.
    Tonight I’ve got something on my mind. It’s something like a cold knot forming in the back of my mind, a tugging sensation that tells me that something big is going down and I’ve somehow found myself in the middle of it.
    I should put that on my business card.
    Graffiti covers one of the docking-bay doors well enough to make me look closely, but with a little trial and error I manage to pry off the plywood boards and rent the thing open. The inside’s dark as pitch for a moment before I reach into my jacket and produce my shades from my fine friends at Ray-Ban and power on the low-light vision for the Heads-Up Display. The dark given way to the might of amplified light, I continue down the deserted hall.
    Once upon a time this place was the one to be for every kind of social event imaginable. Parties, get-togethers, birthdays, reunions, everything and anything you could do was done here. Built to honor the passing of the last living town founder, it lasted right up through the Depression and the War, and ten presidencies until it was finally shut down. Not because of recession or the increasing national debt that plagued the 70s and 80s, or the expansion during the Clinton administration or the economic butchery from the Bush. No, this titan of commerce fell instead to the increase on gang activities this side of the Mississippi boasted at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Bloods and Crips, Vice Lords and Latin Kings; all divulged into this section of the old city and tore apart one of its oldest landmarks in the ensuing gang wars.
    Once this place was a thriving ecosystem, filled with the laughter of friends, lovers and strangers in a chaotic blend of conversation and trade. Now, it’s an empty shell, a skeleton of a once great creature that sits and rots in the passage of time. If you listen close you can still hear the echoes of its glory days.
    Of course a new center was built. Lavish and breathtaking and displaying the wonder of modern expressionist architecture. The Curshing Center, home to roughly eight-hundred businesses and thousands of customers every day, rivalling the Mall of America back east towards the Twin Cities. It has done its part as a suitable replacement, but a replacement is all it will ever be to those who lived before it.
    It takes a minute of monkeying with the wiring of a powered off terminal in the plaza near a deserted food court before the tall touch-screen pops on with a humming, five-tone jingle. I cycle through ads and brochures before finding map of the current floor that tells me I’m on the North West area of the center. Around me whole storefronts lay unchanged from the days of decades past, abandoned in haste from whatever economic threat plagued this Post-War example of American endurance. Contrary to some pundits and cry-bully economists online, Westbrook’s demise was by the hand of gang violence and occupation, brought on by the influx of low-income families that rushed into the cheap homes of retired Baby Boomers that moved to more tropical climates to enjoy their twilight years. Like cholesterol in an artery, these poor-man armies are slowly killing a way of decent living because of old hatreds and stupid decisions made hundreds of years ago that persist to this day.
    But unlike the little cells of fat that build up as a result of habit and genes, most of them are just trying to get by in an unfair world. I understand that; after twenty-five years of slinging lead and death I’ve gained a carefully crafted perspective into the life of the urban class.
    A perspective I try to draw upon as I approach the meeting point and a few hoods in neoprene sports jackets and toddler jeans come into view, flashy handguns and machine pistols laid out or next to a flimsy plastic patio table.
    One of them notices me and snatches up a flashlight, shining the torch my way.
    “Hey! We got one comin’ down!”
    A lean fellow with gold teeth with a wry smile approaches me. “Where y’comin from, my man?”
    “Picked up a tip that the head of space has work for me,” I say, carefully. The others shrug and go back to their game.
    “Or have I been mistaken?”
    “Nah, nah,” he waves his hands and jerks a thumb back into the store he came from. “Sticks is in the back, y’all wait here, I’ll go’n tell’em. What’s yo’ handle?”
    “Kael Joss.”
    The banger retreats back into the rat hole as a few of his friends play cards on a table no doubt stolen from one of the furniture outlets somewhere in the man-made cave system. Sloppily modified MAC-10s lean against their chairs with muzzles pointing at the respective owners while they snicker and flash signs and make nervous and cheeky faces at the outsider in their midst.
    It’s a shame what accounts for a gangster these days.
    One of them points at Sawyer.
    “Forty-five, right?”
    I nod. “She gets the job done.”
    “Helluva piece you got there, man. All flashy and shit,” he half cackles. “Don’t be a stranger. Get the fuck in here, fire’s warm.”
    A few brisk strides and I’m looking over their poker game. Their cheery grins falter a moment but they don’t break completely and after offering me a seat they go back to their game. I imagine how intimidating I must look, even if the Ray-Bans weren’t effectively covering the upper middle of my face, the blaze from the fire pit behind me probably veiled my entire face in deep shadows. Eye contact is one of those things most folk like having when in conversation, the ability to gauge the emotions of the other person involved helps to formulate an adequate response. Rob a body of that ability, apply the right tone of voice, and you can reduce the toughest son of a bitch in the world into a bawling child.
    Hence their sudden reluctance to keep relative eye contact. It’s a shame, what passes as a gangster these days. “You, uh, you need anything? While you wait, I mean.”
    “Got anything to drink?”
    “Yeah, like, Coke and shit.” He flips his head indicatively behind him. “All the hooch is back in the cooler. Sticks likes the drinks on the shelf unless needed, no boozing during shift.”
    I shrug. “I’ll take a Coke, sure.”
    He digs into a big blue cooler and fishes out a can and tosses it to me. It opens with that distinct crack all pop cans have and I take large gulps watching the quartet play for a while.
    I’m below the label on the bottle when the guy from the front comes back. He takes little time moving to me, a gigantic motherfucker with a silver grill over his mammoth teeth.
    He chuckles a bit before he motions me to follow. “C’mon down this way, fam, Sticks be in his office.”
    I do as I’m told, following along quietly and trying not to wander my eyes. Mister Teeth here breaks the ice with, “I gotta say, Sticks is pretty freaked you’re here. I guess he didn’t know you was back in town. Said something about wanting to clean up a bit.”
    “A good host always wants to impress company,” I nod. “Even if there’s no real point.”
    “Ain’t that truth,” he cackles again. “So, how you know Sticks anyhow?”
    “I don’t actually. Scuttlebutt passed word along to me. I’ve been in town for a while and been itching to get my hands on some work, they said this was just up my alley.”
    “They right?”
    “Depends on how likely it is I’ll end up on the six o’clock news.”
    He cackles. The rest of the walk is done in silence. A few feet later and we’re in front of a pair of heavy, off-white powered storm doors. I offer my escort a curious brow and he approaches one side of the door, flipped down a small pannel that was at waist level, and pressed a hand to the reader it sheltered. I scoff.
    He smiles again and the beam of a biographic reader spits out from a black dome above the doors, the sputtering blue infra-red reader takes three passes over my guide and me before it blinks out with an affirmative chirp.
    An archaic alarm horn blared twice and the doors opened, Mr. Teeth here takes the lead again and we pass through a brief decontamination field, entering what I can only describe as a storage bay converted into a barracks and armory. The security is much tighter here; the guards look a great deal more confident and competent in their ability to hand any trouble. Whole mess of shit tossers make up the outfit, semi-incorporated mercenary types like me, the sort with carbines and shotguns on slings or on racks within easy reach and decked out in matching uniforms toting an insignia I don’t quite recognize; a few come across as special forces by the cut of their jib. I pass them by with a saluted wave that they acknowledge with curt nods and crossed arms thicker around than oak trees.
    “We had a breach a few days back, some guys got killed, the boss’ll tell you the story,” the odd turn in voice throws me and I look back at my guide and see he’s decked out in the same tactical gear and branding as the guys running the shop. My mouth drops a bit.
    “Sorry about the pony show, sir. We take ‘clandestine’ to weird extremes here.”
    Hey! Yeah! God damn glamour tech gunmen posing as Compton’s Most Wannabes–shit what did I get myself into?
    “Boss Lady’s office is through there,” Mr. Teeth says, pointing down a long, empty hallway that sheltered an otherworldly presence so powerful the space around it rippled.
    “Well that looks safe.”
    He chuckles. “It’s mostly for show. I gotta get back to my post. You have a good rest of your night.”
    I nod and he goes about face, heading back the way we came at a quick trot, leaving me to stare into the spiral-energy hallway and wipe my hand over my face. Let myself have a good think before I commit myself to whatever force I’m about to confront.
    “Fuck it.” I suck in a breath just before I hit that eye-screwing wall of mind-fuckery, and squeeze my eyes shut. Going through things like this is like getting your chest waxed. Best just to brace for impact and hope it’s not too painful.
    Now I’m not quite sure how to describe what happens next. If there is a way to describe it.
    One moment I’m stepping through something with the consistency of a bowl of jello only to be bombarded by a maelstrom of air-raid sirens and flashing lights, and the next I’m standing in a private office. Said office is furnished with intriguing paintings and statues and comfortable furniture that gives it the appearance more of a living space rather than a working one. If it wasn’t for the dark stained oak desk resting in the very center of the room, behind it an immense Victorian fireplace takes up a third of the wall space form floor to ceiling.
    I turn my head around and find that I’m in front of a rosewood door, the pulsing cloud of energy and sounds and lights faded from my mind in a welcomed exhale.
    “Well, now isn’t this a surprise?” Someone giggles from all around. From the shadow consuming the desk chair emerges the slender figure of a being I haven’t seen in years. “The fantastic mister Kael Joss. Back again from the dead.”
    “Farrastycletes,” I grunt, caught somewhat off guard and surprised. A friendly smile tugs at the thin lips of the Archduchess of Hell as she steps around the desk.
    “How is it you’ve managed to find your way into my office?”
    “Business,” I laugh a little. “I’m in town laying low after my last gig. Needed some time out of the apartment and a contact of mine pointed me here.”
    Ferra spiritedly pulls a pair of glasses from her form-fitting suit and looks up at me with mild surprise molded to her features. “Oh? That is something. I didn’t think there was anything you’d need to hide from, Kael.”
    “When you cold bore a three-mile headshot to take out a fairly popular public figure, it’s wise to disappear for a few months.”
    “You mean Councilman Brody Mann?” She tilts a brow upward and folds her arms across her chest. “You pulled off that shot?”
    I nod and she curls her lips into a wicked toothed smile that her sort has genetically programmed. Remember, Archduchess of Hell. “It seems daddy dearest owes you another favor, Kael. He’s had a special rack set up for Mr. Mann for some time now. Filthy creature he was. But I’m sure you’d care less for the details.”
    “I did my job and got paid,” I make my way to the fireplace and raise my hands to it. “You know how I work.”
    She laughs. Not an unpleasant sound but an uneasy one. “All too well, I think. Now as for the job, I assume you mean the one pertaining to the little note I put out? Did Dan give it to you or did you stumble in on it like last time?”
    “Oh, hardy-fucking-har. Yes, Dan passed the word along. I have some sense of grace.”
    “Some,” she grins in agreement.
    My eyes roll. “Noticed the new troops, didn’t realize you were in the market for uniformed guards.”
    “I’m going through some expansion. Before you ask, no, they’re paid help. I’m not calling favors for the Service of your fellow mercenaries-in-arm,” I dislike the turn of phrase. It’s not helped by the knowing wiggle of her brows. “Besides, I’ve had something of an issue.”
    My head rocks back and my brows pop. “You’re kidding.”
    Ferra snorts, turning her head to the side. “It’s the why behind the job, actually. I’ve had a rather nasty deal with a group of militia go sour and now they’re staged out in a house in Eastburbs. ‘Sovereign citizen’ ex-Special Forces trained types.”
    “Latter Day Patriot types?”
    Ferra nods. “They have their merchandise and my payment instead of one or the other. I can’t let them get away with crossing me, reputation and what.”
    “So, break in, kill the mooks, grab their-slash-your stuff and bum outta Dodge before anyone catches on?”
    “The pay good?”
    “Of course. You can have the money intended for the deal, in fact.”
    I scoff. “Considerate of you.”
    “I’m an archdemon, Kael, but I’m not all bad. I’ve not so many friends in my line of work that I don’t appreciate their help,” she turns back to her desk, swaying her hips in deep arcs that tighten the skirt around her waist. “I’m forwarding the address to you now, you should get it by the time you pull out of the lot.”
    “Sounds good,” I say and turn to leave back through the portal. “I’ll send a line when the job’s done.”
    “And Kael,” the tone of her voice has me stop and I turn my head to her, the light from the windows illuminating the side of my face facing here. “Stay safe.”
    Maybe she sees the smile tugging at the corners of my mouth, maybe she hears the sigh of a laugh escaping my throat. As I open the door and step into the black expanse beyond its frame, I say over my shoulder, “Aren’t I always?”
    I find myself back in the parking lot after the black veil recedes and begin a swift march through the still-pouring rain that cannons from the heavens with confident force. The Barracuda sits quietly in the rainy night, patiently awaiting my return. I thumb the ‘unlock’ pad on the key fob and climb into her armored shell, and with a single turn on the ignition she comes to life with a heavy metal roar. Her supercharged engine rattles the resonator and makes the whole car tremble, delicately irritating my eardrums for a moment before I slam my foot on the accelerator and throw the shift into first gear. The Barracuda roars and lurches forward, the speedometer climbing rapidly and in less than two seconds I’m in third gear at sixty, ripping down the rain covered street.

    The East Suburban Block and its sister community to the north-west–Heidely–was one of the first housing communities ever set up in Minnesota, and one of the many Lustron housing developments in the Midwest that sprang into existence after the housing shortage that came about the tail end of World War 2. With a huge numbers of GIs returning home, the demand for private homes skyrocketed. Enter the Lustron Home, a fashion of prefabricated housing that had a keystone design element dedicated to enameled steel. The extreme durability and low-maintenance of baked-on porcelain enamel finish made so that the arrays of colors could withstand any bleaching sunlight and destructive seasonal storm while being low maintenance for the average homeowner. It was a fad, of course, and Lustron houses went out by the mid-1950s, but the proof of their success and low maintenance is palpable when you drive past Brackett Avenue and look on at the myriad of colored houses that haven’t lost a hue of color in ninety-two years of glaring sunlight and seasonal storms.
    This was, of course, some time before the civil wars in Ecuador and Panama that forced so many of the Hispanic descendants northward into the open arms of the US and the safety of our borders. Twenty-five, thirty years later, the once sparkling jewel of the Suburban Twin Cities Metro is tarnished by the stain of out-reach program subjects turned wannabe gangsters and wise guys. They came here under the promise of temporary care, and when the war went south on the side of democracy, they stayed here, fleeing from the mouth of hell like the life-coveting sacks of meat they are. Heston City is festering with street gangs now. You name pull a name of a gang worth its mettle they’re here with at least one block to their name, plus a few of the local flavors for good measure. This once proud city is now blighted with the walking plagues red and yellow and blue and green and gray banners that stain my town with their fear and loathing.
    Call me old fashioned. My apologies for any jarring that may have occurred.
    The address of the militia’s “stronghold” that Ferra passes on ends up being a two story boarding house at the end of 23rd Street, flanked by a sycamore on one side and a detached garage on the other. It’s one of those art-deco types that muscled its way out of the Great Depression and Post-War Rebuild with its share of black eyes and missing teeth only to be abandoned to the elements when the housing market tanked at the turn of the millennium. I bring the Barracuda to a stop in a mom-and-pop style gas station adjacent to the building by a good block and grab a set of white-hot/black-hot thermal binoculars from a slot on my rig, taking the opportunity to run through some last-minute reconnaissance.
    Guard posting is basic but logical. Four guys out out at the entrance, a few of three man teams on patrol around the perimeter with almost complete coverage. It’s their getup that catches my attention: double-thick body armor, helmet mounted flashlights and radios, carbines and mid-power pistols, and identity badges on the front and back of their chest rigs. Serious para-militarists, but I spot a silver lining in the form of solid color helmets that cover the whole of the head, but no face shield. Whoever is running this outfit has leafed through the To-Do List For Evil Overlords once or twice but didn’t dedicate themselves to learning every code and trick. For once a lack of oversight is good for me, real shitty for them.
    A quick twist of the key puts the Cuda to sleep and I jerk the door open and step out. The intensity of the storm had receded in my drive across town. The rain was still a far cry from a romantic drizzle, but it had stopped bouncing off gutters like a load of buckshot. There’s a good fifteen yards between me and the house, a good chance to plan out how I want to make my approach. Experience tells me to clear out the perimeter and move into the house as quickly and quietly as possible for as long as I can push the clock, as good as I like to set myself up someone is eventually going to notice there’s something off when the bodies of their comrades are lying on the ground in pools of their own blood. That’s when I figure the alert’s going to get out. Play it safe and quiet, improvise when it goes loud.
    Good plan? Great plan.
    Playing it quiet likewise means dear Frankie is getting a moment in the spotlight. Standard issue USMC Mark 2 Combat Knife, famously named the KA-BAR. Practical, all-purpose fighting-utility knife with a seven-inch matte blade sharp enough to shave with. Frankie’s specialty is soft and hard tissues and the destruction thereof, she works best in dark, quiet places where she can get in close and cut through Kevlar stitching and weave between steel and polymer plating. But Frankie’s never been one to talk and not walk, allow me to demonstrate.
    Frankie catches the first poor sap in the neck just below his chin, punching through his trachea, pulmonary artery, and jugular vein like wet cardboard. I retrieve Frankie in a tearing motion, he gurgles his last breath as he crumbles to the ground. His two friends don’t fare much better, the one gets my knee to the small of his back to stun before Frankie digs into the top of his neck, cutting clean through his spinal cord, I give her a twist for good measure before letting him drop to the pavement.
    Sawyer dispatches the last of the bunch, the chatter of rainfall drowning out the crash of the slide. Three guards dead in the span of a minute, quietly and with minimal mess. I spare a moment from stalking the grounds to wipe Frankie off before moving across the lawn. After all, it is a poor workman who doesn’t care for his tools. The other patrols go down along a similar vein, Frankie nixes the guys up close and Sawyer sweeps up the rest. It’s so nice to see siblings working together.
    It’s all light work, really; whoever is in charge of these monkeys either neglected to train them for infiltration blitz plays or had a very expendable bunch of undesirables camped as deep into the shit house as he could put them. The longer I think on it, the more I’m inclined to the later.
    The four guys on the deck are the hardest of the bunch. Granted the patrols were no picnic, but those guys weren’t standing within each other’s peripheries, where one flash of movement could catch their attention and send up the alarm. Doling out my options, the ideal approach available is less so than I would prefer. Normally I’d have one or two other operators with me to divvy up the targets and we’d flag our respective marks, take aim at or above the sternum and try not to jerk the trigger. Being on my own severely limits that ability if I want to maintain some level of a low profile.
    On my own, I could try and draw them from the group, throw a rock or a bottle or something.
    I flip a mental coin. Tails.
    “Fuck it,” I say just under my breath. I was tired of sneaking around anyway.
    Sawyer bucks as she fires, the round smacks the guy standing closest to me, the bullet catching him in the jaw and punching out the back of his head, leaving a significant crater. The spray of cranial matter and fluid catches the attention of the others, who leap up and shout in alarm. Or try to anyway.
    I jump the sights from one guy to the next. The guy at the far end catches the three rounds I had meant for him in his back as he jumps the railing of the porch and collapses in a heap on the lawn. The next one gets the first shot in the chin and the bullet blows apart his jaw, leaving a dangling mess of cheek and teeth and tongue. Two more cut off his gurgled scream and he slumps over.
    The last guy rushes me with a shotgun. His arms reared up and angled so that when he brings them down he smacks me with either the lug of the magazine type or, more likely, the end of the barrel. Dumbass. He’ll bust the barrel out of alignment before he knocks me out. Luckily, some quick thinking has me grabbing the fore grip and racking the pump-action back, ejecting an unfired shell out of the chamber to land on the ground with a heavy thud of brass, lead, and plastic. I thrust Sawyer up under his chin and fire once, yanking the shotgun out of his hands and pushing him over when he goes limp.
    I take a step back as the adrenaline dies off a bit and take in a few heavy breaths, releasing one of them in a short whistle. “Well, that went far better than anticipated.”
    Tucking the shotgun under my arm a moment, again stepping through my shots. One in the pipe, two in the clip. That’s the best I can figure anyway. I open my hand up, discovering to my dismay a single cartridge at the top of the magazine.
    “Eh, one off ain’t bad.”
    I tuck the magazine into the back of the pouch on my rig, slap a fresh one into Sawyer, and inspect the shotgun after tucking her back into the holster on my hip. 12 Gauge Maverick 88, the “economy-class” shotgun manufactured by the O.F. Mossberg & Sons company. It’s the cheaper variant of the venerated 500 model–you can tell the difference by the safety placement–built for the civilian home-defense sector. Granted, “cheaper” might be a relative term. The gun will run you one to two and a half bills, but it beats laying down a grand that 500 models go for. This particular example comes with a pistol grip, sans stock, single bead sight, a heat shield that runs from the front-end of the receiver to just ahead of the fore grip, and an eight shell tube magazine–well, seven shell tube plus one in the chamber, loaded with twelve gauge #1 buckshot of some brand I’ve never heard of, based off the detailing of the shell I had ejected. Not great against body armor–like most buckshot–but it’ll do wonders on soft clothing.
    Slotting the shell back into the chamber I grab one of the stiffs and prop him against the door, keeping an eye on the door handle. Once I’ve got him propped up in a somewhat stable condition, I carefully set the shotgun on the ground with the muzzle pointed at the door knob. Now, here’s a question for you: Why is it that you never see action-heroes using ear plugs? I’ve narrowed it down to Hollywood oversight or misdirection so some fool doesn’t go popping off trying to be a hero.
    The report of a firearm does hell to your hearing in open space, the thunderous boom of a shotgun being fired even more so. Purposefully shooting in an enclosed space without eardrum protection is a good way to go deaf in a hurry. While the little wax stoppers I’m pressing over my ear canals won’t completely cancel out the gunfire, they’ll nix enough so I don’t lose my hearing for the next few hours.
    To counter the effects of the plugs I activate the parabolic microphones on the earpieces–or temple tips, whatever–of my Aviators. They pick up any little sound within a certain acoustic range and relay it to the lens’ HUD as arrows in one of the Cardinal directions. The opaquer the flash, the louder or closer the noise. The more times an arrow flashes and the more arrows that flash, the more times that noise is being made and how many times it’s being made. Simple stuff, really, but it’ll save your live.
    With everything set for my arrival, I set my feet apart at shoulder length, bring my arm up slightly, and squeeze the Maverick’s trigger.
    The first shot’s always the oldest, my mentor is fond of saying. Though in this instance the shot, being under two-hundred-plus pounds of literal dead weight, sounds more like a muffled M80 than the intimidating BOOM! one associates with a shotgun. The #1 blows the handle and deadbolt into pieces with the aforementioned explosive report, sending shards of metal in a cone of debris into the opposite room. The door swings open under the weight of the dead man leaning against it, his body further gored by ricochet door and lock fragments, he falls to the ground in a bloodier heap.
    “Hello, Avon calling!” I call out to the hallway at the top of my lungs, cycling the Maverick.
    To my right someone fights to open a door a room across from me. Realizing the door leads into the garage–and thereby, escape–I step that direction with the shotgun up at eye level and fire, the cloud of shot knocking the poor sod off his feet and checking his head against the door with a heavy thud. I send another volley into him and he slides to the floor, a smear of blood marking his wake.
    Two more, both men, one a dirty blonde and the other suffering from a severe case of male-pattern baldness, come out of a room further down the hallway with guns in their hands, firing off bursts and curse at me as I duck back into the room leading to the garage. Since neither of them were in tactical gear like their friends outside, I wager this was the morning shift. Poor sops. I switch the gun around in my hands and dip out, snapping onto the toe-head and putting a load in his gut before stepping back into the hall and ghost another idiot rushing from another room to the right.
    “Farrah Strickland sends her regards, assholes!” I holler, racking the pump again. Bald guy pops off a couple shots from around the corner. I aim a bit into the drywall and fire, knocking him off balance and onto his ass, finishing him with a blast to his brain pan that leaves a mess on their carpeting. Peaking he broken corner on the wall gives me a look into the house’s kitchen, barren save for a few scattered dishes and the open maw of the oven. Devoid of any signs of human life, present or otherwise, I consider it clear.
    A peek into the room baldy and his pal rushed out of reveals a home office, complete with walnut desk, desktop PC tower and monitor, various file cabinets, cork board with menial post-it notes and a calendar, but otherwise empty. Hurried footsteps drum down the stairs and a pair of voices shout obscenities after me, followed by the clatter of automatic fire that chews up the walls and fills the air with chunks of gypsum. Scrambling amongst the flights of lead and lobbing shots of my own I make it to the living room and mantle into cover behind an overturned coffee table.
    “You fucking son of a whore!” Someone with authority in their voice addresses me in a pause in the gunfire accentuated by the unmistakable clangor of empty magazines dropping to the floor. “We’re gonna make you pay for what you did to Matt and Greg!”
    “Only the two guys?” I yell back, digging out a fistful of shells and quickly thumb them into the Maverick’s loading port. “I thought you ultra-conservative nutjobs were supposed to be above favoritism. Then again, I also thought you’d be smarter than stiffing one of the biggest fucking information brokers in Heston City!”
    More machine gun fire. Loud, metallic, and nearly as cantankerous as either of my grandfathers – God rest their souls – gores up the wall and floor across from me. And of course when I think “militia”, I think Armalite. My prejudice is confirmed as one dumb bastard rushes down the stairs screaming at the top of his lungs, blasting away at me with a chopped down AR-15 thinking he’s some action hero from the ’80s, like an idiot, hitting almost everything except what he’s aiming at. Oh sure, the occasional round bounces off the table and sends up a flurry of splinters that I shield my face from, but by and large the guy’s a worse shot that the A-Team.
    Seconds into his screaming adrenaline fest he bottoms out. I take the opportunity to pop up on a knee and fill his chest cavity with a whopping three shells worth of No. 1 buckshot before he goes down, a plume of Kevlar fiber erupts from his chest and knocks him off his feet with the first shot, the second and third sends him skittering across the floor.
    Overkill? Maybe, but like I said buckshot is notoriously ineffective against body armor. The sheer force of the ballistic impact finishes him off. Quickly, I hope, threat against my life aside I would hate to make the guy suffer for defending his home and friends.
    I quickly step around the ruined coffee table and tentatively advance to the wide maw of the stairway, taking a moment to switch the shotgun around in my hands and lob another volley up the short flight to the landing, catching Fearless Leader in the chest trying to duck up to the second floor. There is suddenly an uproar of muffled pops beneath me and I dive out of the way of what I interpret to be gunfire. You can imagine how surprise my dumbass was at the absence of flying bits of plywood and lead where I had previously been standing. Two more goons emerge from a doorway with Uzis in their hands, immediately take aim at me and start shooting right out the gate.
    I scramble across the vinyl tile floor at it erupts with the previously mentioned storm of lead and plywood. These ones actually make contact, cutting across my arms and hitting me in the side and along my back as I scoot my ass behind a counter top extending out from a wall, ripping Nancy out of her holster as I attempt to force back air into my heaving lungs. Christ, that was terrifying.
    This part that happens next happens quickly. Very quickly. Nancy’s hammer comes back at the behest of my thumb and settles into place with a sharp click. I spin on the balls of my feet and pop up from behind the counter with my arms thrust forward to form an isosceles grip and very nearly gouge the sternum of a guy flanking my right with her muzzle.
    He yells defiance.
    I pull the trigger.
    Nancy bellows a brain-jarring POW! that I feel in my bones. There’s enough force behind the shot to knock me back a step and send rattles up both of my arms but it is nothing–I repeat, nothing–compared to the other guy. Nancy effectively reaches out and smacks him with twenty-eight-hundred pounds of force and blows a hole roughly half again the size of quarter into the goon’s breastplate. The 350 grain round punches through bone and lung and muscle, erupting out his back in a spray of body fluids with enough force left over to carry the topple of his body to the floor. I swing my arms over to the second guy as he frantically swaps mags. I fire again, this time Nancy strikes him just above and to the left of his nose. Skin stretches and morphs in a feeble defense against the mass of bullet that splits open his face like a melon, the shear force behind it rips apart his skull and scatters blood, brain and bone across the room in a literal meat shower. Not a sight for the squeamish.
    There’s a stillness that lingers after the smoke from Nancy’s maw dissipates into the air and I am confronted with how quiet the house has become. There’s no scuffle of feet across floors, no shouted curses or the reports of firearms. Only the clatter of the rain against the house. It’s over. My arms drop down like dead weights and I realize my breath comes in and out in rapid and irregular bursts, heart throbbing in my ears. I take a deep breath in and hold it for a few seconds, releasing it in a heavy sigh that sends a tremor down my back and shakes the tension out of my shoulders.
    My hip rests against the throttled counter while I replace the spent casing in Nancy’s cylinder and pull the plugs out of my ears to return them to their pouch on my rig. I move to the doorway the last two militia burst from and descend the narrow stairway, Nancy tucks back into her holster with a snap and Sawyer takes point for her while I tentatively take each step to the basement level, eschewing my usual Weaver’s grip in favor of the close-quarters oriented center-axis relock method with Sawyer floating just ahead of my chin, eyes and ears peeled for any sort of movement or noise out of place. The ten steps are silent as a church after mass, carrying over that stillness from the upper floor. The only thing I hear is the rattle of the ventilation ducts rumbling cool air through the house.
    I clear the final step and sweep out the corners of the room with Sawyer’s muzzle and clock the three other doorways leading to other areas before taking in what awaits me there. My immediate “Whoa.” understates the situation. Four folding tables make up small stations of terminals run off of old tower and monitor PCs. The monitors are broken in and the towers lay in smoldering ruins, circuits still snap and hiss while being consumed by fires caused by what smells like burning aluminum foil.
    “Thermite charges,” I conclude, looking at the hole on the case panel of one tower. “Explains the racket.”
    Ahead of the tables a whiteboard dotted with my images and rooftop photos taken of buildings and landmarks accompanying scribbled notes that had been hastily erased. I can make a few assumptions based on the pictures of landmarks between her that were left behind. Some were of obvious import to anti-government nut jobs; the precinct across from the baseball fields off Acklen Boulevard and headshots of the cops staffed there, the Merchants’ Bank and the library, for the money and the ability to print driver’s licenses and IDs. Something that caught my attention especially was a long and blurry smear that was once a list of details about the medical clinic on Kisly Court. A small place, only four doctors and a dozen dedicated nurses, more than likely you’ll get sent over to HGH or Corbin Med after a detached once over. It’s not surgery capable but there’s enough first aid equipment in stock to supply a small army for a while.
    At one corner is a small gun cage that takes up about a fifth of the rooms. Long arms line the racks in groups based on type, length, caliber, you get the idea. Top racks are stacked with pistols in a similar arrangement of the rifles. Armored inserts of various make are lined up along one shelf, hanging below are utility vests from several brands of outfitters in vacuum-sealed packaging with neat little stripe tags designating the approximated size of person ideal for wearing it. Impressive. Amateur, but impressive nonetheless.
    “Planning something big here,” I mumble to myself, resting my knuckles on my hips as I take in the map. “But what?”
    The board offers no answers, I shake my head and proceed to check the adjoining rooms. Compared to the excitement of the microcosm intelligence network and the miniature armory, the other rooms are very plain; one is a cramped barracks, with metal frame bunks stacked four beds high line all four walls and two more columns covered the center of the room with maybe a foot of clearance between the rows on any one side. Devoid of anything that I find relevant to my intrigue, I move on after flicking off the light. Room two is a storage closet, oddly enough. Flimsy dime-store metal shelves are filled with old cardboard boxes labeled up with shipping instructions or logos of long-gone paper manufacturers written over by garish handwriting denoting their contents. A tall Craftsman tool cabinet sits at the back wall, flanked on either side by plastic bins stacked to the ceiling labelled ‘Decorations’ followed by the appropriate holiday in thick block letters.
    “Nothing,” I confirm. “Alright. What’s being door number three.”
    The final room is the only one that’s otherwise shown any signs of being occupied recently. A pasty yellow light is cast from the sizable gap under the door. It’s a cheap hollow plywood thing that takes all of a good kick to break in after I try the knob and discover that it’s locked. Light bulbs dangling from the dirt ceiling lead down a short hallway to a portal cut out of the dirt with a cement pipe five feet wide clotted shut with an impressive load of dirt. Collapsing escape tunnel. Cliché and maybe a little overzealous, but effective. B for effort.
    The blue aluminum faceplate of a Zero Halliburton attaché case peeks out from the blanket of debris a short distance from the tunnel. I run my hand over the case to brush the dirt away to reveal Farrah’s seal pressed in the center of the plates on either side.
    “Bingo,” I say and heft the case up and that’s when my brow pops at the curiously light weight of the case. Concerned, I fish my phone out of my pockets and hold my thumb gently down onto the center of the screen until a few spinning lights blip onto screen. “Connie.”
    “Morning Kael,” the avatar of my IPA frame blinks several times, in tandem to the syllables of each word.
    “Connie, I need you to call up Farrah for me. No small talk today, I’m in a hurry.”
    “Gotcha.” The set of lights vanishes and in their place snaps a selfie of Farrah and me outside of her house in Hong Kong that’s several years old. A set of ellipses draws out with the dial tone before being replaced with the call timer when Farrah picks up.
    “Hey it’s me.”
    There’s a pause that runs for about a second and I can hear the gears in Farrah’s head turning to peg my voice. “Kael?”
    The uncertain inflection in her voice makes one of my brows pop. “You were expecting someone else?”
    “I was expecting you to call my office, not my cell. I didn’t even know you still had my number.”
    “Why wouldn’t I have your number?” I shake my head. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter, how much were you paying in your deal with these guys?”
    “Quarter million USD in unmarked, non-sequential, lightly used twenties.”
    I blink and heft the case up with my free hand. Best guess it weighs like thirty-some pounds. Lightweight considering that a million in bills would be upwards of fifty–plus the case. “Okay, so I’ve got your money and nixed the militia guys,” I glance at the debris clogged portal. “Most of them anyway, looks like a few of them made out through an escape tunnel and collapsed it on the way out.”
    “Really? It’s been like,” she pauses, I assume to look at her watch and add up the time, “an hour since you left.”
    I shrug. “I work fast.”
    “I’ll say. Did you get the weapon?”
    I shake my head as I say, “No. I’m guess when they made like rabbits they took it with them.” A heavy thud resonates from the upper floors followed by muffled expletives and I whip Sawyer out in a flash. “I haven’t finished the sweep of the house so I could be wrong.”
    “Mhmm. Look for anything you can find on these guys, ATFE have been looking at these chuckle fucks for a few weeks now and I could use the brownie points with my contacts there,” I can hear the smile in her voice when she adds, “and I’ll be sure you get a nice bonus for your efforts.”
    I look over to the doorway separating this room from the main section of the basement. “When they get here they’re gonna have anything they need under their feet.”
    “Why do I have a feeling you’re not talking metaphorically?”
    “If you could get down here to see what I’m seeing, you’d know it for a fact, Farrah. These guys weren’t fuckin’ around. They’re planning something.”
    “Shit. Alright. I’ve got to make a few calls but I want you to get the hell out of there. Now. We’ll meet when I can.”
    “Way ahead of you,” I reply. The phone buzzes in my hand and I roll my eyes. “And Connie says ‘hi’.”
    Farrah clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth and laughs. I thumb the red end call prompt on the screen to end the call. Something tumbles and clatters from the upper floor as I come back up the stairs, it’s a hollow and metallic sound with smaller parts scattering a good distance away. Impulsively I draw Sawyer and eyeball the orange peel ceiling for the source of the disturbance.
    “That’s not good,” I say with a tired sigh and steadily tread my way up the stairs. “Let’s go find the one that got away.”
    Long and wide smears of blood and hand prints along the wall of the mid-floor landing direct me to the second floor. They continue in limped arcs down a hallway decorated by the typical homely furnishings like paintings or family pictures tilted, one of two end tables of knickknacks turned over by the weight of a wounded man haphazardly throwing his weight onto their ill conditioned frames and thin legs. My eyes are guided by Sawyer’s sights until I step into a bathroom where a good deal of bloody gauze pads and first aid utensils have been discarded on the floor, a black-clad man in his early fifties wrapping gauze around his midsection at the epicenter of the medical supplies. He looks up when I step into the room and set the briefcase down.
    “Don’t stop on my behalf, do please finish up.”
    He snorts. “I take it from your entrance and your lip that you’re not a Fed?”
    “Just a humble mercenary pal.”
    He winces painfully when he laughs and starts into a fit of coughing. “What was it that you shouted on your way in? That Farrah Strickland sent you?”
    I nod.
    “Figures,” he shrugs, and my head tips at his arguably understanding tone of voice. “Can’t say I blame her. Girl’s got a business to run after all.”
    “Awful chipper for having your boys and girls slotted by a hired gun. Don’t you militia types stick together?”
    He shakes his head and sits up a bit, picking a pair of scissors of the bloody tiled floor and cuts off the gauze tape off at the roll. “Son, you actually think you’ll get away with this unscathed? Sure, the bitch has protection, resources. Money to shuffle around and friends in high places to stay safe. But you? You’re just a merc.”
    I almost scoff. Dude has no idea. “A merc that stealthed his way through, what? Twenty- or thirty-something of you paranoid nut jobs, killed everyone outside and most of you inside, and made everyone else take to the mattresses.” His lip twitches and he flashes a snarl. “Okay, so I didn’t completely clear you out. Good for you. But I bet that come,” I glance at my watch, “noon this place is gonna swarming with every badge and agency operating on U.S. soil. DEA, FBI, NSA, ATFE; the whole Alphabet Soup digging around your forward base here for all your little secrets, and with the happy little invasion plan you guys have in your basement, my well-being henceforth is going to be the least of your worries if you’re smart. But by all means, send in your reserves. I’m happy to sever the wheat from the chaff.”
    He sucks in a breath as he goes to reply but I’ve said all that I deign needing said. Sawyer barks when I pull her trigger. His head snaps back and he slumps over. I pick up the briefcase when I turn and tuck Sawyer back into her holster. I’m halfway down the stairs when I pull my phone out again and tap Farrah’s name at the top of the Recent Calls list. She picks up on the second ring.
    “Kael, what’s up?”
    “Hey. Got some passing info from a militiaman who’d seen the error of his ways. You want I can swing by and you can decode it over breakfast.”
    The pause before her response causes me to smile. “Kael Joss, are you asking me on a date?”
    “Yes. As a matter of fact,” I carefully open the driver’s door to the Cuda and climb in, setting the briefcase into the passenger’s seat. “I haven’t eaten yet and would much rather spend the early part of my day with a pretty girl that I haven’t so much as talked to in four-ish years versus sitting in my apartment all by myself.”
    “I’m clear on my schedule today, I think. And it’d be nice to catch up,” she reasons. There’s no hiding the beaming smile in her voice. “I know this breakfast parlor in the Market. It’s a bit ritzy but they make good food. You up for high class dining?”
    I scoff. Like I can deter divine royalty when she’s set her mind on something. “I’ll follow your lead.”

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