Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Mosovich woke up in the single good hotel in North Chicago, Illinois. Good was an understatement. Most of the town, like any base town, was devoted to separating soldiers from their money. Bright Lion Boulevard ran from Horner Highway to the front gates of the Great Lakes Fleet Training Base. The main street through town was officially named Happiness and Harmony Way. The strip north of the Lion was more popularly known among Fleet's recruits and lower-level personnel as the H and H, short for "Hooch and Ho." Horner Highway had the obvious informal designation.
The Serenity Hotel stood to the south of the Lion on the H and H, right between the two decent restaurants and across from a full-service dry cleaning and tailor shop. Jake had known he was in Fleet territory as soon as he saw the gardens in front of the blindingly white facade of the hotel. It had political correctness committee written all over it.
The sidewalk split to circle around a large, top-heavy rock that looked like someone had gone to the trouble of drilling it full of holes. Raked gravel paths curved around miniature fruit trees, classic bonsai trees, and a few canes of bamboo growing up against another large-ish rock. A small waterfall on one side flowed into a small, round pool full of koi and not one, but two, very small islands. Each had its own tiny maple tree and, he had looked closer to be sure, its own by God holey rock. It was meticulously laid out, and each element might have been pretty by itself, but the whole effect was so cluttered it made his eyes ache.
The lobby and interior were better, thank God. His room was comfortable, the bed modern and adjustable, the bath large and deep. In place of the more usual, and cheaper, holoscreen was a full-featured holotank. The tank hooked up to a server of exclusive vids, most of them featuring girls that couldn't have been older than about twelve. The selection was pretty broad, so he did find some adult movies that had, well, adults. But he hadn't stayed up too late, and had restricted himself to two of the little bottles of Maotai in the liquor cabinet.
Decades in the service had trimmed everything unnecessary from his morning routine. He was in the lobby in his silks, looking sharp and professional, when General Pennington's driver phoned his PDA to say they were out front. Like many Fleet officers, Mosovich carried a PDA as well as an AID and frequently tended to "forget" to carry his AID around. Nobody talked openly about the problems with the AIDs during the war, because those who did had a short life expectancy, but not even the Darhel could stop the military grapevine. And, of course, being on detached duty to SOCOM for the duration of this command, he'd be using the most convenient mechanism for staying in touch with his own CO, who was non-Fleet, as well as his mostly non-Fleet men. It wasn't that none of them had AIDs. It was just that the idiots in procurement and those in the know fought a constant, covert war over the little menaces, which made distribution spotty.
Mosovich stood facing his new XO in front of the troops that would momentarily become his responsibility and privilege. The XO, as acting, was standing in the position of the outgoing commander at the Change of Command Ceremony. The Atlantic Company guidon stood in for the Battalion Colors, snapping in the crisp, October-morning breeze. No one was cold. Their dress uniforms, gray silks with the dark, jungle green stripes that DAG had adopted from the U.S. Special Forces, kept them warm easily, despite the chill that frosted their breath. The silks, made of a Galactic fabric that was incredibly tough, soft, and absolutely wrinkle-proof, looked better than the prewar Army dress uniforms, while being more comfortable than most civilians' pajamas.
A full Change of Command Ceremony was unusual for a company, but DAG was the elite of the elite—a combined service special operations organization that dealt with the most serious terrorist, pirate, bandit, and insurgent threats for the entire globe. Ranks tended to be inflated with a special operations command like DAG. Company command, whether in the U.S. Army or in Fleet Strike, was ordinarily a captain's slot. No DAG company had ever gone to less than a major, and that only once—a major of unusual excellence who had been too far outside the zone for immediate promotion had gotten command of South Pacific Company. The platoon designation had been kept for the sake of the DAG table of organization and equipment, and was used on formal occasions. Informally, DAG personnel and their chain of command referred to the operator units of each company simply as Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Given the ranks of the officers and men, platoon wasn't the best description. Harkening back to some of their organizational antecedents, they thought of and referred to themselves as teams. Still, the bean counters had won that battle on paper, so far, so platoons they were.
Major Kelly, a pale, black-haired guy the size of a small tree, took the company colors from the Charlie Platoon master sergeant, acting in place of the command sergeant major, and passed them to General Pennington. One of the men read out the orders giving him command. General Pennington passed the standard to Jake. He took them, formally accepting responsibility for his new command. He handed them back to the master sergeant, wishing again that Mueller hadn't been off-planet when their orders were cut and had been able to arrive before he did. He hadn't seen him in two years, and it would have been good to have him here.
Pennington was an interesting man. Younger than Jake was, he had for some reason kept his white hair when he rejuved. Medium height but solidly built, he probably wouldn't have made the height-weight standards before the war. But after they'd been relaxed in the war, everybody's militaries had just neglected to put them back in place for juvs. Juvs had to work hard at it to get fat, so the bean counters and brass just assumed extra weight on a juv was muscle mass. Jake had met an exception or two, but the general wasn't it. Still, the hair made him look like a babyfaced old guy. Mosovich let his mind wander during the speeches. They were all pretty meaningless. It was important that you have speeches. Solid military tradition. What was said in those speeches was much less important than having them in the first place. It took a really charismatic speaker to hold the attention of a group of soldiers overdue for their chow. Pennington wasn't that speaker. Not today, anyway.
". . . You men have a vital mission in today's Special Operations Command, hooah? You form the backbone of Earth's defense against pirates, insurgents and terrorists. Perhaps more importantly, you serve as a living example of the best traditions of interservice cooperation, and the inclusion of Galactic forces in the SOCOM family is an inspiring step into tomorrow for the armed services, hooah? As I stand here before you today I am awed, awed by . . ." Pennington's words flowed over him as his eyes scanned the ranks, noting the sharp, immaculate appearance of his new troops and their officers. Pennington did occasionally draw his attention back, making Jake suppress a smile. The man used "hooah" the way most Canadians he knew used "eh."
Bravo Platoon was on the obstacle course this morning, stretched out across the obstacles as much by the staggered starting times as by the different speeds of the officers and men. Most of the wood components of the structures were weathered and graying despite originally being pressure treated. Some things, like the wall and team-climbing tower, were obviously new, as they gradually replaced aging equipment. The cargo netting was also new, but someone had judged the wood frame able to withstand yet another replacement net. The rolling logs were original to the course. For some reason logs just didn't wear at the same rate as the rest of the wood. And, of course, the rusty barbed wire was added incentive to do the low crawl right. The ball buster carried a risk of splinters that also provided incentive for good performance. Bravo's CO, having started in the last third, made a point of finishing in the first third. He'd pay for it tomorrow, but what the hell, it was only pain.
Captain Jack "Quinn," born Jack O'Neal, was a short, homely, young-looking man with carrot-colored hair and so many freckles that it was hard to tell whether he was a fair-skinned man with brown dots or a brown-skinned man with fair spots. Anyone who at first made the mistake of classifying him as a little shrimp would be surprised at the strength built into his wiry frame. His team favored "Blackjack" for any mission that involved moving around underwater. The man simply would not float, but had the stamina to be one of the strongest swimmers in DAG. This might have had something to do with his having swum daily in saltwater since before he could walk.
Right now, he was rubbing an army-brown towel over his sweat-soaked hair and squinting into the sun across the O-course to the massive brigade XO, Major Frederick Sunday "Kelly," jogging across the turf to meet him. One or two of the men looked up as the XO approached. Most hid their curiosity, jogging back to the barracks or the gym for a quick shower and a thorough check to make sure, again, that absolutely everything was clean and squared away for the first look by the new CO. And their first look at him, of course. The ubiquitous PDAs had improved the speed of the ancient grapevine system by leaps and bounds. Captain Quinn and all of his men knew exactly when the colonel would be looking them over, and were determined to ensure that their customary excellence was improved to perfection. He had George O'Neal "Mauldin's" first impression of the new CO. Now he wanted Boomer's. He loped down the side of the course to meet the major halfway.
The excessively large officer stopped in front of him and returned his salute before turning to walk beside him back in the direction of the HQ.
"Okay, Boomer, what's he like?" Quinn said.
"I dunno, Jack. As first impressions go, I don't think he's gonna be a bean-counting weenie, and he doesn't come across as a weasel, but he was kinda quiet. Didn't give me a lot to go on. His record looks really good, but what the fuck can you tell from them these days? Likes his coffee, but how much can you tell from that?" Major Kelly shrugged. "Speaking of coffee, let's check out the mess hall and grab a cup. Make sure they got the word. This week would be a hell of a time to burn the stew."
"Think he's likely to be too good?" The captain scratched the end of his nose, looking sidelong at his childhood friend.
"Your guess is as good as mine. In case anybody didn't get the memo, remind them that their opsec has to be flawless until we have a much better idea of what we can get away with." The major lit a cigar and blew a stream of smoke towards the sky, "Wouldn't do for him to twig and us lose all this free training. Wouldn't do at all."
"I'll take care of it. Not like I should need to, but I'll make sure. Doesn't do to tempt Mr. Murphy," Jack said.
"Okay, now what do you think of our new Command Sergeant Major?"
"Well, they obviously know each other from way back. I think he's sharp, he's going to be the colonel's eyes and ears. He's going to be around more; we need to be twice as careful around him," the captain said. "The good news is, he seems like kind of a blow-hard, you know? Think a thought, say a thought. Subtle ain't his middle name. So we should be okay with him." He nodded to the XO and broke into an easy lope, leaving Kelly to his cigar and his thoughts.
Like most DAG personnel, Quinn didn't live in the barracks. Unlike most of them, one of the privileges of rank he indulged in was keeping a couple of fresh uniforms in his office and taking advantage of the small cubicle shower at the end of the line of stalls in the head down the hall. Before cleaning up, he took out his PDA and phoned the master sergeant who was Bravo's senior NCO.
"Harrison, go through and remind everybody one more time that with a new CO this is absolutely not the time to get sloppy about anything. It's probably overkill, but be sure they understand. I'd hate to have to put everybody on corn and soybeans for a week." The captain said the last in a joking tone, but it was the most serious part of the message, telling the NCO that Bane Sidhe OPSEC was what he most wanted his people to be careful about.
"Hooah, sir," Harrison acknowledged.
Security taken care of, Quinn headed for the shower. Wouldn't do to be all sweaty and stuff when the new CO arrived.
It was a brilliant, cold, windy fall day. The kind of day at the coast where you didn't dare step outside without a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the bright reflections of the sun and the grit in the air. Cally had accompanied Shari on an island-only shopping trip that was really an excuse to wander around the store and buy some of Ashley Privett's best fudge. Most of the things they needed themselves were either already back at home, or were on a list for Cally to pick up on the weekend trip to Charleston she had announced that morning at breakfast, telling the kids that no, they couldn't come this time. It was a mommy trip. She felt a little guilty that Shari assumed that, going alone, she was going to confession—but only a little. She really was going to take at least a little time to shop for stuff to wear at the family reunion next week like she'd said. She'd just probably shop, well, quickly.
Another purpose of this morning's trip to, as Shari put it, "beautiful metropolitan Edisto," was to let them discreetly gawk at the changes in the store. On the island, frequently you had to make your own excitement. Cally waved and smiled at Karen Lee, the wife and coconspirator of an active Bane Sidhe agent. Karen's family were local for a few years to give the authorities time to forget about them before they went back out to a new posting with fresh, young identities. Karen was a quiet person, who seemed to find the Clan O'Neal personalities on the island a bit overwhelming at times.
True to type, and probably for the best, Granpa had handled the negotiation with the Bane Sidhe over the code key sale. She looked around at the changed store, impressed. Papa O'Neal could get things done in a hurry when he decided he was On A Mission.
With so many FedCreds at stake, they had been remarkably easygoing about the sales commission. As soon as the keys were flown into Charleston, Cally had made delivery to Michelle. The payment, in cash and small denominations, had come in the kind of briefcase that made her feel like the holodramas' stereotypical drug dealer. She'd paid out their commission to Granpa, who had come back home with a trailer full of trade goods for the store. Charleston being a main port, his large purchases hadn't caused so much as a raised eyebrow. Similar large cash buys of available light consumer goods were routine there.
Postwar, areas around the world where unusual things could grow or be mined had been rapidly recolonized, leading to the rebirth of the coastal or river-based city-state. Off-planet migration being the poor man's route to rejuv, that interesting development looked like it might even last awhile. The population to rebuild genuine nations just wasn't there. The city states' greatest need, besides essential trade goods, was for the basic end-user products and small comforts the residents couldn't make for themselves—which was rather like the O'Neals on Edisto, now that she thought about it.
Island finances being what they were, the end result of all this was Granpa becoming a silent partner in the store. Before, Ashley had had to make the store look full, or at least not empty, by spreading the off-island goods out at the front of the shelves, interspersed among locally made home crafts. Now, the shelves were actually full, and with manufactured goods and things that weren't merely regional. There were frozen turkeys and canned cranberry sauce to be had for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Mike and Duncan Sunday—who of course still thought their last name was Thompson—were happily applying an olive drab coat of paint to the store's exterior walls, no doubt for exchange credits to apply to the purchase of some of the goodies inside.
Shari was flipping through a fashion magazine on the rack that Ashley had for some reason installed at the back of the store, cooing shamelessly over the fall runway photoshoot from Chicago. Tommy had hacked them a back door into the online version of the same magazine, but there was just something about holding the glossy pages in your hands. Cally was keeping half an eye on the clothes on the pages and half an eye on Morgan and Sinda, who were nudging and whispering to each other near a batch of toys. None of the toys looked breakable, at least. Sinda was eying a doll in a lacy blue and white dress with equal measures of childhood greed and love.
A quiet, irritated buzzing from the front of the store escalated in volume to two clearly audible and irate female voices.
". . . just because I had to punish your kid over that disgusting frog mess . . ." Yep, Pam again. She was starting to get shrill.
"Nobody gets credit in my shop. . . . and if you didn't spend all your money on that trash you read, you'd be able . . ." Whups, Ashley already biting her words out like that. Not good. Cally walked over to Morgan and Sinda and grabbed their unresisting hands, leading them back towards Shari, who hadn't even looked up from her magazine. She absently gathered her great-grandchildren in with one arm while Karen edged slightly behind her.
Cally walked around her small collection of people, assassin-turned-mom securing a ready exit by moving a dolly of soft drink cases so that instead of blocking the back door it was blocking one of the aisles.
". . . know a book if it bit you on the . . . and you just know they'll all be gone by the time . . ." Pam was shrieking now. Pretty soon she'd be fainting and making a great show of looking all over her body for her inhaler.
". . . into my shop, driving off my paying customers . . ." If Ashley didn't watch it, she was going to lose her voice again. Probably for days this time. Cally nudged a box of something out of the way with her foot. Shari still hadn't looked up from her magazine, lifting her arm from around the children to turn the page, returning it to pat Sinda on the shoulder. Karen just looked frozen in shock.
Another voice joined the first two, querulous as another woman started to complain about the inequity of ever-rising prices for people on a fixed income.
"Time to go." Cally scooped the magazine out of Shari's hands and dropped it back on the rack. "You know with Louise joining in they'll be lucky to get it over without coming to blows." She put her hands behind her charges and made gentle shooing motions as she ushered them out the back door, moving Karen along with the group. Emerging into the sunlight seemed to shake Karen out of her daze a little.
"Are they always like that?" she asked in disbelief.
"Nope," Cally answered, "sometimes they're worse. Welcome to family politics 101."
They walked around the side of the building towards the front. Shari waved to Mike and Duncan, who hadn't missed a beat, spreading paint onto the freshly-bleached boards with smooth, even strokes. "There they go again." Mike rolled his eyes and scratched his nose, leaving a smear of green paint.
In front of the store, they paused near the small group of older children who were gathering from across the street to observe the entertainment. A coconut came bouncing out the door at speed. Cally sighed and handed her purse to Shari.
"Welp, the imports have started flying. Better go in and save Granpa's stock." She disappeared through the door, emerging a moment later holding onto a short, red-faced woman with dark, frizzy hair, glasses askew on her face. The woman was cursing fluently but cut her one attempt at a struggle short when Cally subtly tightened her hold on the joint lock and took her to the ground. She looked down at the sputtering woman.
"That's it for you, Pam. You're banned from Ashley's shop for a month," she said.
"I don't have to answer to you, bitch. I'm not even Clan O'Neal!" The woman glared up at the blonde juggernaut looming over her, but didn't try to get up.
"Sundays are the same difference. And if you can't be trusted to be discreet in front of the children, I'll take it straight to Granpa." The assassin's eyes were flashing now.
The woman paled and stood up, dusting herself off. "No! Uh, you don't need to do that. I'm going. Look, I'm going." She edged down the street back towards the neighborhood holding the small house where she and her kids lived. "But you're still a bitch. Always throwing your weight around . . ." The woman said the last under her breath, but she didn't say it until she was a good twenty meters from Cally.
Cally stood her ground for a moment, then sighed and appeared to deflate. She walked back over to the kids and picked Sinda up, bouncing and nuzzling her until the tears no longer threatened to spill over from the little girl's eyes. "It's okay, Mommy's not mad at you. Mommy's not mad at anybody. It's okay, it's all right . . ."
"Yeah, definitely time to go home." Shari nodded. "Karen, why don't you come home with us for a cup of tea and put your feet up. You look like you need it."
"Okay. Okay, I will." She looked at her watch. "The babysitter doesn't expect me back for an hour and a half, anyway."
"Y'all go ahead. I'll just get the fudge and catch up with you," Cally said. "What do you think, chocolate mint or rocky road?"
"Go for the rocky road while she's still got the marshmallows and almonds," Shari said, already walking off towards the truck with the children.
By the time she got back with the fudge, Shari already had everyone in the truck. Cally climbed in the back with Karen, leaving the girls in the front seat.
"Why didn't you sit up front? The girls could've ridden back here," she asked the smaller woman.
"After all that I needed the fresh air. Besides, Morgan called shotgun." Karen shrugged. "Can I ask you about one thing?"
"How did the Sundays end up being in Clan O'Neal?"
"Hell if I know," Cally said.
"Huh? That doesn't make sense."
"Exactly." The blonde grinned at her quieter friend. "It's an inexplicable, alien, Indowy thing that pretty much none of us understand." The truck was bouncing across the island road by now and she settled herself more comfortably in the bed of the truck to tell the story.
"See, when Tommy and Wendy first joined the Bane Sidhe, Granpa invited them to come live down here and bring the kids. We had plenty of space, and we pretty much needed the help and the company, anyway. Shari and Wendy are friends from way back in the war. And me too, sort of. So anyway, some time after that, and we haven't been able to pinpoint when, the Indowy started referring to the Sundays as O'Neals. And we all thought it was weird, so Granpa sat down with Aelool and got him to explain five times, and he still didn't understand it. You've met Granpa, you know how stubborn he can be when he doesn't understand something. In the end, he quit because Aelool started to get really anxious and upset. Turns out he thought Granpa was trying to disown the Sundays, which would have been an unthinkable dishonor by Indowy standards." At Karen's puzzled look Cally paused and thought for a minute. "Okay, like for humans if you recruited some soldiers to do a job, and the mission started to go sour, and you just walked off and left them but for no good reason but you didn't have to, see?" When the other woman grimaced she nodded and went on. "So finally Granpa got him convinced that it was all a misunderstanding and he'd certainly never meant to sound like he was trying to disown the Sundays. And the upshot was that Tommy and Wendy didn't mind, and Granpa grumbled a bit around the house for the form of the thing but he didn't really mind, either, and the Sundays are O'Neals."
"So the Sundays are O'Neals and nobody knows why."
"Yup. Nobody human, anyway. Oh, apparently something about what Granpa did or didn't do or something made them think he meant to adopt the Sundays, and over some length of time occasionally an Indowy would ask Granpa a strange question that didn't seem related to anything and Granpa would just answer it without thinking about it much, and we never knew if they asked Tommy anything they thought was significant. Not anything Tommy could remember, anyway. But yep, there it is. It's an Indowy thing. Aliens. Go figure."
The man in the hotel bed had dark hair and recognizably Asian features, but it would have been impossible, even for someone from Fleet, to place exactly what part of Asia his ancestors had originally been from. The typical response would be, and had been, to shrug and assume his parents had been of mixed extraction before the war and that, in all the chaos and global upheaval of that time—upheaval that the world had never seen the like of before that horrible catastrophe—the records and even family legends had simply gotten lost, as they had for so many. Nobody would have guessed that the "Asian" man had begun life as a Latino gang leader named Manuel, and finished it, after a fashion, as an Anglo Fleet Strike general named James Stewart. Nobody but the stacked blonde in the sheer red pegnoir crossing the floor towards him from the suite's bathroom. With the silvery highlights of her hair caught in the glow of the lamplight, the room otherwise darkened by the heavy drapes drawn across the windows, she looked like a fourteen-year-old boy's wet dream of a Scandinavian goddess. He rolled up onto one elbow to watch her better, brushing a stray wisp of hair back from her cheek as she climbed into his bed.
"I never really thought I'd end up in a marriage that would feel so much like an affair," he said, not for the first time. For either of them.
"I know," she said, kissing his cheek and trailing her kisses back up around his ear. "I'm glad you could make it down for the weekend."
"God, I missed you, Cally." Stewart turned his face into her kisses and took her in his arms, giving himself up to the moment of having his beautiful wife in his bed again, no matter for how short a time.
Later, he tried to keep his damned eyes from misting up as they watched the latest home holos she'd brought him of the daughters he'd never been able to meet, who had and would grow up believing their father dead. Somehow, Cally always arranged it so that she could be in the holos with the girls. He wondered if she suspected how many lonely hours he spent, late at night, playing over those bits and scraps of the lives of his family, again and again, until he could see them behind his eyes as he dreamed. Many of the dreams were not pleasant. They were, in fact, about what you'd expect. On the whole, those were less painful than the happier dreams that put him in the holos with Cally and Morgan and Sinda, only to wake up alone in bed in the perpetually recycled air of the moon, with the metallic tang of machinery at the back of his throat. He'd thought about getting a dog, but it was hell getting them through quarantine, and getting a puppy from a licensed breeder was expensive. He'd do it when he got back though. It was no substitute, but at this point . . . He shook his head and reminded himself of his oft-repeated resolution on these visits, never to leave in his head until the visit was actually over. The time was too precious to be eaten up with regrets. He felt a deep sympathy with Mike O'Neal in bearing his curse. He was often thankful that, even though unlike Mike he knew he was in hell, at least he could look forward to the occasional weekend pass in heaven.
They were about fifteen minutes into the latest pack of holos—she must have hidden cameras all over the place, because she always brought hours of them, even though they only watched a few together—when dinner arrived from the seafood place across the street. Yes, the room would smell like fish afterwards until the filter in the air unit cleared it all out, but one thing he had learned about Cally over the seven years of stolen moments that comprised their marriage was that the woman loved seafood more than any three other people. He had decided to try some bizarre local dish called shrimp and grits at her behest, but spent most of his time feeding her strips of calamari just to feel her lips close over his fingers as she took each tidbit. The shrimp dish certainly wasn't bad, but he had never understood why anglos from this part of the U.S. had to call polenta something as undignified as "grits." His own colleagues in Noble Lion Tong tolerated his unusual fondness for Italian cuisine with a certain degree of amusement. Mostly, he'd learned to cook it for himself, although it did occasionally require him to import some unusual ingredients from Earth. She was right. He did like the shrimp dish. With the polenta.
"I feel guilty, a lot, for the girls growing up without a dad," he said.
"It's hard. But there's nothing we can do differently, so I try not to think about it," she said, looking away and picking at the worn bedspread that would never have passed muster in a decent prewar hotel.
"I'm just glad you live with your grandparents. At least they've got a grandfather around."
"Yeah," she sighed. "It's not the same, though. Growing up I always missed Daddy, and I never really got over losing my mom. But for having been a kid in the war years, I had it really good."
"I noticed a lot of the clothes you and the girls were wearing had seen better days. Same with Papa O'Neal and Shari." He didn't like broaching such an awkward subject. But having grown up poor himself, he couldn't let it lie. This was his family. "Are you guys having money problems? What's happening? It looks to me like those people aren't paying you nearly enough for what you do. Okay, there isn't enough and I wish you'd quit, but I understand why you can't. Almost. Still, how bad is it?"
"Money was pretty tight for awhile. The salaries took a severe dive after I got back, for various reasons. They'd pay more if they could. Anyway, we just had a windfall and things are better now. For awhile at least. Enough to get everybody some decent clothes and stuff. Besides, there's not a lot we could do if they weren't. They're extra paranoid about people with too high a lifestyle for their salaries, what with Jay's defection."
"Sorry about that." Stewart winced. He hadn't turned Jay, but he had provided the money to keep him turned.
"Not your fault. He would have found someone to buy his information. Traitors do. Anyway, we made a commission on finding a buyer for something for them. Brokering isn't usually in the scope of what we do and the sale was too much money to argue that they couldn't afford the commission. It was . . . large."
"Cally, what do you think would happen, really happen, if your organization found out about me?" he asked.
"Uh . . . bad things. They're really paranoid right now and they'd probably believe you were on deep cover for the Darhel and I was compromised. I'd probably be able to keep any of it from spilling over onto Granpa or anyone else in the clan, but, well, don't ask."
His lips tightened. "And you still won't leave, right? We could go under deep enough cover that they'd never find you. The Tong is good at that. But it's still no use asking, right?" He sighed as she shook her head. "You're going to invest your windfall, right? Is it enough for that? How much are we talking?"
"A bit over six thousand FedCreds."
"Okay. That's enough to stake you for some investments." He stared off into the distance. "I . . . know some things about some businesses that aren't common knowledge. Things that will influence share prices. If I was careful to keep the tips to businesses where you could rationally decide to invest in them if you were a shrewd investor and good researcher, and tell you where to look so you could leave an electronic trail in your systems of doing your homework if they asked any questions, that's some help I could probably safely give," he said. "My boss wouldn't mind one or two people going along for the ride—just keep it in the immediate family. Really keep it close."
"I'd have to lay some red herrings by doing similar research of other companies I don't invest in," she mused. "Yeah, it could work. I could even just take my results to Granpa and suggest an investment. But how would I get him not to share with the immediate world? What am I thinking—it's Granpa. If I buy an investment book that's already well thumbed, like at a used bookstore while I'm here, I can just flip through it to learn how to leave plausible trails and talk the game. It's not like I'm stupid and couldn't learn it on my own. And even if Granpa suspects I've got a source for stock tips, that would just make him more likely to keep it closer than close and not mention to anyone—especially not the Bane Sidhe. Not as upset as he still is with them about money." She leaned over and kissed him by way of a thank you, which pretty much led to the end of that conversation.
"So, back to the moon with the commuters on Monday. What about you? Off to kill people and break things, or do you get a really tough week chasing the girls?" he joked.
"A week off, then a family reunion, of all things. Wish you could be there," she said.
"That might be a bit more reunion than your family bargained for."
"I think the O'Neals would keep it quiet. But we've got a lot of miscellaneous folks around from the organization, whose loyalty is more to the Bane Sidhe than to Clan O'Neal. I do wish, but wishing doesn't work, does it?"
"Clan O'Neal. Sometimes I wonder if you realize how much Indowy has rubbed off on you."
"Hmph. Not as much as you'd think. We Irish have been big on family ties for a long time. Okay, well, maybe there was some Indowy influence there, too, but it was long enough ago that it doesn't count," she said. She sure was cute when she pouted. But maybe they should watch a movie or something before getting into that again. Nah . . . well, okay, maybe. She probably didn't need a break, but a couple of hours of holodrama and some microwave popcorn would almost feel like a date.
Before she left Sunday evening, he put a large enough load of sure thing tips in a read and destroy cube that she could set up a convincingly diverse portfolio of rapid gainers, with one or two modest growth stocks, to hatch her share of that commission nest egg into a chicken or two, and soon. He knew she'd memorize them later. It helped him more than she could possibly know to finally be able to do something concrete to take care of his family.
Before she left, they showered. It was one of the sad little rituals they'd developed through seven years of goodbyes. The driving rain of the shower quickly changed to sex. Then, with the carpet outside the bathroom soaked, they climbed back into the shower. He rinsed the fluff from the carpet off her back while she rinsed her sweat off his skin. Soon, there was no trace of her on him at all, with only a damp floor and her scent on the hotel sheets to remind him that he had a wife. He slept on her pillow that night.
She heard them before she saw them. The nasty half-juvenile male laughs, several, and the higher pitched whimper. Her lips thinned and she dropped her leather jacket on the sidewalk, deliberately relaxing before rounding the corner of the crumbling brick wall that had once fronted the alley on this side, pretending to look in her purse for something and coming out with paper that might have been a map and a small flashlight. Six. She'd caught them out of the corner of her eye. The girl was small, either a teen or just short. Cally looked up and startled slightly, pretending to see them for the first time, silently noting that the alley was open to a parking lot on the other end.
"Hey! What do you think you boys are doing? Let go of her!" She let some of the nasal, staccato character of a northern Urbie accent into her voice, indignant, stupid. They looked up, still holding their victim. No need to guess what they'd been starting on. A couple of them looked back at the girl, undecided. Cally advanced into the alley a few steps, trying hard to project a sense of indignation and a tourist's naive certainty of personal invulnerability. They bit.
"Hell, I never did like sloppy seconds, anyway." Four of them detached from the girl and advanced in a pack, breaking into an easy lope as she shuffled back a few steps, eyes wide, turning to run.
As they caught up with her, her back kick slammed hard into the lead thug's knee, snapping it backward with all the force her upgraded strength could deliver. He fell, his scream subsiding into pained swearing that she barely heard. She pivoted on the ball of her foot and slammed her palm heel into the throat of number Two, splintering his adam's apple, dancing back to plant a sidekick to his gut that threw him back a couple of yards to choke somewhere out of the way. Thug Three landed a hard punch to her head as Four grabbed her wrist. Bad mistake. Ducking under his arm, she brought it up behind him, keeping his body between her and Three for the crucial moment it took to snake her arm around his neck, pulling his head firmly against her breastbone before dropping straight to the ground. Four's neck made a satisfying crunch, but Three had had a chance to pile on top of her, which ordinarily would have worked on a woman her size. Bad luck for him, Cally O'Neal was anything but ordinary. She grabbed his head and twisted, but this one had the good sense to roll with it, bouncing back up to his feet as she reached her own, to see that thugs Five and Six had joined the party.
She grinned as she jumped into the air, slamming the front of her left foot on the side of Three's head hard enough to rattle him, but too high to kill him. She landed with bent knees on the way down, taking a fist to the jaw from Six as the price of getting another sidekick into Five and sending him tripping back over One, eliciting another scream. She danced back, rubbing her jaw. If anything, her grin widened. Six hesitated and she blocked a punch as Three came in without waiting for the other two—his first mistake. It cost him a blindingly fast pair of punches to his gut, which knocked the wind out of him right before he got a hard round punch to his nose. Predictably, blood spurted out. She didn't think she broke it, but it was going to be hell getting all the stains out of her blouse. While Three was hunched over with his hands on his knees, out of the way, Six came back with Five right behind him. The jumping backfist blacked Six's eye, causing him to hesitate again as another sidekick cracked a few of Five's ribs and knocked him out of the way.
She and Six fenced, with her absorbing the occasional hit just to get in a really pretty combination move. She seemed to be enjoying it more than he was. For the moment, Three and Five were just watching her play with Six, each grabbing an unexpected hurt but obviously not quite out for the count. Street fights seldom have lulls, but sparring matches do. For a moment, Six was paused, fists up, looking for an opening, catching his breath. She stilled, in the kind of absolute stillness that any fighter knows is one of the most dangerous moments in a fight.
"It's been fun playing with y'all, but I'm going to have to finish up now and get home," she said, the slight natural southern drawl at odds with the persona she'd worn coming into the alley.
Whether it was the stillness itself giving them a chance to think, or the recognition that three of their friends were on the ground, two corpses and one crippled, or the deadness that entered her blood-spattered face as if someone had flipped a switch and turned off all humanity inside her, Cally would never know. What she did know was that all three suddenly turned and made tracks down the alley faster than she would have figured they'd still be able to move, especially the one with the cracked ribs. She had somehow ended up facing a pile of soggy cardboard boxes, partway between the live kid and the girl.
She looked over at the crippled survivor, a kid, maybe in his early twenties, with dirty blond hair and a ratty bandanna around his neck. Blood soaked his jeans where she'd kicked him, but to her practiced eye it looked like he was in no danger of bleeding out. A foil packet flipped out of her hand, landing on the thug's stomach.
"Have a morphine. Hold you till the ambulance arrives." She fixed him with an icy stare, "Dude. You may not believe this, but I just did you a favor." He was too busy gritting his teeth to reply. Or too scared. "You're alive. File for disability, learn a trade, find another line of work. You were really lousy at this one, anyway." The cripple might have been swearing under his breath as she turned away.
Cally looked over at the girl, who had to be about fourteen, and blinked. "What the hell are you waiting for? Scram!" The idiot tried to run out the alley the same way the remaining thugs had gone. "Pfweet!" she whistled, jerking a thumb over her shoulder as the girl turned back around. "That way."
The assassin shook her head as the girl edged past her, skittering down the alley, obviously trying not to look at the bodies or the last guy. Cally rubbed her jaw. Definitely gonna bruise. Ick. She wiped the blood off her hands on her blouse, and off her face once she found a clean spot, picking her way past the cripple and the corpses, which were beginning to smell strongly of recent deadness.
"Oh." She turned back to the guy on the ground, coldly. "You never saw me. None of you. You're really sure you never saw me."
"Right. We're going to say a girl did this to us. I don't think so," he said, bitterly, muttering "bitch" under his breath.
She nodded once and picked up her purse and the stuff that had spilled from it, retrieved her jacket, and zipped it up to the neck. She got about a block away before pulling out her PDA. "Buckley, wait fifteen minutes and route a call to emergency services from the nearest pay phone." Uncharacteristically, the buckley was silent, merely acknowledging the command on the screen. Muttering, "I hate rapists," she walked the rest of the way to the parking lot and her bike without incident.
Home, on the other hand, wasn't so great. She was in her bathrobe in the laundry room, rinsing the blood out of her clothes, when she heard someone clear his throat.
"Good morning, Granpa," she said.
"Yeah, I suppose it is morning. Technically. Any of that yours?" His voice had a certain long-suffering quality to it.
"Like you really need to ask," she said, shaking meat tenderizer on the stains before adding the white blouse to a load of wash.
"How many times am I going to have to tell you that you can't depopulate the criminal element of Charleston single-handed? People would notice," he griped. "How many bodies?"
"Only two. Gang types. You and I both know the police are too overworked to investigate it. Besides, I really hate rapists."
"I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, just that if you keep running in there like some comic book Valkyrie avenger, people are going to talk."
"Gampa, what's a ape-ist?" They both turned to see Sinda in the doorway clutching a bedraggled plush penguin. She dropped her fist from the eye she'd been rubbing when she saw Cally's face, "Mommy? You gots ouchies."
"I was in a little accident on the way home, sweetie. It looks worse than it is," she said.
"Were you wearing your helmet?" the four-year-old asked suspiciously.
"Yep. Just a few bruises and scrapes. Why aren't you in bed?"
"I skinned my knee when I fell offa my bike. You musta falled on your hands."
"Bed, Sinda," her mother ordered, glancing down at her raw knuckles. "Not one word," she said to Papa O'Neal, in response to his quirked eyebrow and the quivering corner of his lip as the little girl disappeared down the hall.
"Didn't say a thing." He walked off, whistling softly.