By Russell Zimmerman
劇透 - :
“I,” the elf said with profound deliberation, “am going on holiday.”
“You’re doing no such thing,” his supervisor, also an elf, replied, barely looking up from her desk.
“Sorry, I forgot where we are,” he waved to nowhere in particular. “I meant I’m taking a vacation.”
“You are not.”
Instead of falling into that ancient trap, she gave him The Look. He faltered beneath it for just a heartbeat, decades of bluster and confidence peeled away by the expert sharpness of her faint disapproval.
“We are entirely too busy for that,” she said, eyes back onto the virtua-touch surface of her desk, scanning a dozen headlines and stock tickers at once, fingertips dancing through augmented reality, composing emails, buying, selling, and maybe ordering lunch.
“Nonsense, it’s been weeks since you had me shoot anyone. And besides, I read over my benefits package, and it clearly states my allotted annual vacation days. I’m overdue.”
He had long ago convinced himself she found it charming, so he let some of his natural Irish accent slip out, though both of them knew full well he could mask it effortlessly.
“You’ve been employed here for three years, and you’re just now reading your new hire paperwork?”
It did not entirely seem to be working.
“I’m owed vacation time! Overdue, especially with the holidays coming and the end of the calendar year and all that,” he said, reaching into a pocket. “And I’m not busy, anyhow.”
“You know the nature of the business.” She shot him a disapproving glance as he plucked a packet of cigarettes out, narrowing her eyes. “And since you just acquainted yourself with your contract and job description, you’ll no doubt recall that you’re here for reactive, not only proactive, assignments. Corporate security waits for no man.”
“So, bring someone else to this office to cover for me.” He tossed an unlit cigarette into the corner of his mouth, then gestured airily with a lighter. “WWT can come up.”
“Mr. Terminus is on his honeymoon.”
“Still on assignment.”
“He ain’t blown it yet?”
She didn’t answer.
“Fine, then get Blue up here.”
“She’s working the border, outside Austin. Death squads. Too delicate to reassign her recklessly.”
“Blue?” he snorted. “Delicate?”
Another glare, making it clear that she knew full well that he knew full well what she’d meant. “Are you just naming every killer you know, now?”
“Sure and we’d be here all day, if so! Don’t be silly. Transfer over Italy, then.”
“Long term contract with Connor.”
“Fine, call up Connor, too.”
“You know full well where Connor is, and that he can’t leave that post,” she sighed as he started to work his thumb on the lighter. “And, much like you can’t go on vacation whenever you feel like it, you can’t smoke in here.”
He inhaled deeply, held it in as he held her eyes, then blew smoke — not at her, no, nothing quite so crass and challenging as that, but in the right general direction.
“And yet,” he said, waving his lit cigarette, “Here we are.”
劇透 - :
“Merry fraggin’ Christmas,” the burly man said with a glower as he handed the elf a suitcase.
He’d been prepared for that, just a bit. The glower, more than the suitcase, that is. He knew who they were, knew why they were here, knew how they’d feel about his pointed ears and sharp features. The Knights of the Red Branch didn’t much care for elves.
Truth was, the elf didn’t much care for elves, either.
“Wren Day,” he said, forcing a smile and ignoring their rudeness, just as surely as they’d ignored his proffered handshake and thrust baggage into it instead. “Christmas was yesterday. Sure’n jet lags a pain, aye?”
“Whatever, faerie,” the redhead said, older than the other two. Burly, Redhead, and Dark, that was the trio. Accompanied by the elf, they made their way through the crowds at Dublin International, fresh off their Aer Lingus flight, nonstop from New York. Where would it stop, really, along the way?
“It’s great to see you lads here,” the elf pressed on, smile sharp as ever, a flick of his head tossing his hair out of his eyes as he grunted along ahead of them, wheeling one suitcase, another tucked under his arm, carrying a third by the handle.
None of them replied—same as when he’d introduced himself, truth be told—so he just hummed a holiday tune and continued leading the way.
“We’re just up here,” he said with a sunny grin over his shoulder. “Lucked out, you did, and caught us in between rain drops. Been miserable all week with it, y’know. Wet and cold, worst sort of muck.”
He chattered on as they clambered into the Land Rover, as he loaded their luggage, as Burly and Redhead and their thick Boston accents grated on his nerves, as they parried his every friendly word with an anti-elven slur, as they drove and drove and drove. Round-about a hundred and fifty kilometers, all told, with him nattering away all friendly-like, Redhead and Burly talking about him like he wasn’t there, Dark just sitting quietly, glaring at the whole green island like he hated it.
“We’re gonna do big things, ye’ll see,” the young elf said. “We get you Boston lads on board, we start trading guns and money back and forth, the INLA will show those bastards what’s what. We’ll take back Éire in no time!”
He said it like they were planning a football game. Like the Knights of the Red Branch weren’t a violent UCAS policlub that was just as likely to cut his ears off as talk to him, like the Irish National Liberation Army wasn’t a band of freedom fighters turned gangsters. He said it like they had a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever listening to him or respecting him, like he wasn’t Rory Caolain, the bloody right hand of the INLA, who knew better than most just what sort of devilry they got up to, and just how overwhelming their opposition was.
He said it like it made the slightest bit of sense. Like they could really, somehow, ever, overthrow the powers that ran Tír na nÓg, the little emerald island that no one but him called Éire or Ireland any more with a straight face. He said it like if he just kept killing, it would someday all be worth it.
Redhead ignored him. Burly grunted. Dark brooded.
So Rory just kept driving, and told himself over and over again not to murder them, every one.
劇透 - :
Belfast Harbour’s always been a terrible way to get a person on or off the island. Great for general cargo. Wonderful for the underpaid lads handling that cargo. Reasonable for weapons and other illicit gear, because it’s got to land bloody somewhere, right? But passengers? Never fantastic.
So there he was, giving every appearance of being one of those underpaid lads. At his age. Wrong side of sixty but looking less than half of it, peacoat, turtleneck, and watch cap like all the rest, aching and should-be-exhausted from working his way across choppy waters. Altogether too old for such nonsense, at an age and level of corporate respectability he should be able to fly wherever he’d like, and struggling under layers of wet wool and a fake SIN, he should have been tired as could be.
Instead, as he stepped off that gangplank, bounced in line at customs, nattered away with the other lads while collecting his pittance of pay…it was all he could do not to dance.
Home again, home again. It had been entirely too long since he’d set foot here. Sure, it was just the docks; all moody lighting and whirring autolifts, terrible chill in the air and a perpetual drizzle, a dozen different accents in a half-dozen languages, nary a one the lilt he’d grown up around, but it was Éire. Home. He, more than most, felt something magical about the place.
So there was a spring in his step long after the crowds of workers had frittered away, despite the dodgy lights flickering overhead and the heavy knapsack he had slung over one shoulder—at least it was his luggage, not someone else’s, right?—and the weight of decades atop decades of murder for hire. He was home again, and to Hell with that old saying. You could go back. Or, at least, close enough. He didn’t have much of a plan, but didn’t want one. He was just after a few weeks off to soak up the place, some long walks and tall drinks, proper pub food, a few huge, greasy breakfasts. Being home was what mattered.
The long-term parking lot was empty and cold, covered in soft rain and a sharp wind, just a few abandoned vehicles parked here and there. There was a not-abandoned one closer, with a couple long shadows near it.
Three of them were waiting for him. It shouldn’t have been a tremendous surprise, really, and he didn’t treat it as such. Someone was going to bloody well notice him showing up, no matter how he juggled fake names and faces, how he used his adept powers to tweak his features and posture here and there, no matter how he dampened down his aura and tried to look like who he wasn’t, be who he wasn’t. Someone would know. He’d been in the game long enough to be great at it, but he’d been in the game long enough to rack up enemies who were, too.
“Merry Christmas,” he said with a smile, setting his rucksack on the ground next to him. “And God bless us, every one.”
“Wren Day,” a lean elf said, sharp little beard making his face pointed and faintly devilish, his accent far from home. He was from the other Tir, unless Rory missed his guess, and with that sort of thing Rory didn’t. A kilt rustled around the lad’s knees, all the fashion around Portland for the last few years.
“Christmas was yesterday,” the dwarf next to him nodded, burly even for his metaspecies, almost as wide as he was tall. He hardly glanced up at Rory, busy as he was with a bit of hardware strapped to his wrist—a cyberdeck, Rory knew, but not much else at a glance—and the lights nearby dimmed, a security camera’s steady red light blinked off.
The third one, the fomori, didn’t talk. She loomed over the other two, and Rory himself if he was going to be honest, all out of scale with the rest of the world. A special breed of troll, and a sort you saw far more often near here than half a world away, they looked less monstrous than their cousins, but were every bit as strong, every bit as tough. She wasn’t hard to look at, he gave her that much, but her scowl at the moment was all professional, and, given her size, a bit more threatening than the business faces on the other two.
“My mistake,” Rory said, a half-smile tugging at his lips. Only three. Either they were very good, or everyone here thought he was getting old. “I don’t suppose I could persuade you three to take this inside somewhere, can I? Give us all a few minutes out of the cold, maybe share a pint and a bit of grub, get acquainted?”
“Cateran,” the younger elf said with a nod, like Rory should recognize the name. Beneath his suit coat, collar flipped up against the rain just like Rory’s, he had some sort of double-gun rig.
“Kern,” said the dwarf, satisfied with his hacking because all of a sudden he’d tugged a collapsible baton from a cargo pants pocket.
“Gallowglass,” said the fomori in a husky, but not altogether unpleasant voice. “And you’re Rory Caolain, before you try to sell us otherwise.”
Of the three, only the dwarf had a proper local accent. One was from the wrong elf country, the other closer to home, but Rory recognized the troll’s Glasgow patter when he heard it.
“So an elf wandered halfway ’round the world from Tir Tairngire, a Belfast dwarf, and a Glaswegian lass walk into a bar, and the barkeep says—”
“Stow it,” the dwarf rumbled, all business. “Ye’ve a bounty, we’ve a job. Let’s not make it rude t’boot.”
“Ah.” No wonder they’d thought maybe their name would get his attention. Bounty hunters. In territory like this, times being what they are, that covered a lot of ground. Army folks down on their luck, shadowrunners moonlighting, mercs trying to stay halfway legit and a pinch less bloody?
“Well,” Rory said matter-of-factly as the three started to fan out. The other elf was quick, and moving smooth as silk. The fomori’d had some work done, she wasn’t nearly lumbering like a girl her size should. The dwarf didn’t sport any obvious combat augmentation, but Rory didn’t like the look of those shoulders and how comfortably he twirled that baton.
“Ye can’t say I didn’t try to be nice first.” He sighed, then tossed his rucksack at the fomori, just to buy himself a split second and lunge the other way.
劇透 - :
“No kiddin’? The faerie’s the one killed McManus?” Redhead’s bushy eyebrows shot up, talking to Rory’s boss—Jeremy O’Neil, a stone cold sonovabitch—like Rory wasn’t sitting right there. Still.
“I talked with Stevie-boy,” Redhead kept going, his harsh Boston accent grating at Rory, scratching at his ears, getting louder the more the man drank. “You know that, right? McManus was the one first reached out to us.”
“Aye, well, Rory did what we told Rory to do. They’d pinched Stephen, the TRC bastards, and we didn’t have a way to get him out. It was the right thing to do,” O’Neil’s voice was calm, almost placating, but Rory was pretty sure he hated him, too.
He was tired of listening to it. The same voice that had ordered him to kill one of his friends was explaining why and how he’d ordered it to these bastards?
They were in the basement of Shivers’ Place, a corner pub that everyone knew was INLA turf and everyone pretended wasn’t. Topside was comfortable, sociable, so long as you were human, and local, and said the right things to the right people. Still cold, mind, Shivers had earned the nickname for being a penny-pinching bastard who never turned the heat on. Down here, where they kept Rory because his elven ears would embarrass the lot of ’em upstairs? Down here was crowded, with Redhead and Burly and Dark. Crowded and claustrophobic and echoing with their stupid accents and ugly sentiments, a half dozen other INLA boys hanging around, treating these Yanks like bloody royalty. They’d muttered half the night away, shooting him ugly looks, talking like any minute Rory’d find a gun to the back of his head.
“Well,” Redhead glared at Rory across the room like he’d just killed Stephen McManus, like Redhead had grown up with him and Rory hadn’t, like Rory’d done it because he’d wanted to, like Rory owed Redhead a blood debt for it, in the old way. He downed another shot, glaring the whole time, right at Rory. “I guess he ain’t the first elf to kill a good man, huh?”
Rory’s hand tightened around his own glass, expression carefully, perfectly neutral. He’d gotten good at that, lately. Neutrality.
“Fraggin’ A,” Burly said, raising his glass.
Dark didn’t say anything, just kept looking around the place—‘the place’ being Ireland—like he’d bitten into something sour, or like he wanted to burn the whole world down, or maybe a bit of both. There was something about him that Rory might’ve almost said he was afraid of, if ever he’d admitted to feeling much by way of fear. Something dangerous and…and…what’s the word? Malevolent.
Rory’s friends, Rory’s mates, the lads Rory’d trained with and fought with, all called out a toast and lifted their glasses, toasting poor Stevie McManus and throwing his blood right in Rory’s face. Every lad there had bought him a drink and patted him on the back, those months ago, told him how he was a hard man, and had done the hard thing, the right thing. And now here they were, with these three Red Branch twats, looking at him like he was just another murderous elf.
He was. He knew that. But damn it all, he was their murderous elf.
O’Neil raised his glass, too, and threw back a warm slug of Bushmill’s. His eyes weren’t hateful on Rory like the rest, but Rory hated them. Watery blue things, bloodshot ’round the edges, whites turning yellow from whatever new junk O’Neil had found to push into himself. Plus, of course, O’Neil was the one that had killed little Stevie, really. It had been his plan that had fucked up and gotten Stevie caught, and then his plan for Rory to silence him.
“Hey,” Redhead tossed his head Rory’s way, following O’Neil’s lead and reaching for a shot now that he’d drained his beer. “Hey. Fill us up over here, faerie. Make yourself useful while y’can.”
A half-hearted flick of his wrist sent the dry Bushmill’s bottle sailing Rory’s way, and he didn’t bother to flinch or duck, just let it fly wide and bust against a wall. They laughed. Burly, first, and Redhead behind his sneer, then the handful of Rory’s friends — his mates, his lads—all standing around, and then O’Neil, too. Dark didn’t laugh, but Dark didn’t seem to know how.
Shit on this.
Rory heaved out a sigh, arms moving slowly, heavily, like he was tired. Methodically, unhurriedly, he reached for a fresh bottle, came out from behind the bar, twisted the cap off. Redhead’s lip was curled in disdain, O’Neil’s weak eyes looked full of pity, Dark and Burly glowered and smirked, Rory’s mates all snickered. He’d turned into a house elf. Him. Him. Their best, worst, killer. Their only adept. Their best hope. They all hated elves enough to hate him, too, and then bluster and brag and show him off to their new friends, these “Knights” from Boston who just looked like more thugs and junkies to him.
He filled their glasses, then lifted his own.
“Sláinte,” he said, almost like a prayer, almost like a goodbye, and gulped it down, hot and rough on his throat, all in one go.
His adept powers kicked in, and as everyone in the room—everyone in the world—slowed down but him, he raised the heel of his left hand and smashed Redhead’s shot glass into his face, his mouth, his teeth. Shards of glass and a spray of blood shot out, and he fell back, coughing and sputtering. The half-full bottle swung, in slow motion, almost lazily, at O’Neil’s head, and clipped him on the temple just so with the corner. He dropped like he’d been poleaxed.
Everyone else, almost about that time, stopped drinking and noticed something was wrong.
Rory sprang over the bar, where he’d long since stashed a good Browning pistol.
劇透 - :
The younger elf was the quickest, which was hardly a surprise. The lad moved faster than boosted reflexes, smoother than wired. Move-by-wire, then. A little herker-jerkier than he should be, though, which made Rory think there might be combat drugs involved, too. He was quick, though. Almost as quick as Rory.
There was the slightest twitch of movement, and he had a big Savalette Guardian in each hand—presto!—leveled square at Rory, mental commands as much as trigger squeezes starting them firing, silencers big and dark and always less welcome when you’re on the wrong end.
Rory twisted just a hair, leaned a smidge, reached out flicker-quick himself, and brushed at one wrist to knock a shot just barely off-line. Rounds plucked at the edges of his peacoat, one tugged at a dangling string from one cuff, Rory felt one whisper to him as it flew just barely past his ear. They were close. Closer than most. But Rory was very, very, good at this.
He swatted at the younger elf’s—Cateran’s—arm again, threw more power into it than the first parry, and this time the whole limb flew wide. Cateran backpedaled, creating distance almost as fast as Rory could keep closing it, kept firing, muted gun spitting round after round, but never quite connecting. The older elf spun and ducked, twisted, always, but always just barely, getting his torso out of the way, leaning so that he was not quite where the barrel was pointed at that split-second.
It was impossible.
It was magic.
Rory had a lot of it.
He snapped up a front kick that knocked Cateran back two steps until his heel caught on something, and he almost-gracefully had to pinwheel his arms to stay standing. A rib or two might’ve cracked from it, too. Before Rory could follow up, though, the dwarf slammed into him pretty much like a forklift.
No shift of his shoulders could get out of the way of that, no dancing footwork, no twist of his hips. He went down like a rugby player, twisting and wriggling, catlike, stronger than he looked and mad at being tackled in the first place. Kern still ended up on top, the little bastard just had weight on him, mass and muscle and a born wrestler’s physique, and Rory was half-pinned and spitting nails about it.
The baton lifted and fell, blasted a chip out of the pavement as the elf twisted just barely enough to one side so that it missed his face and threw up a few bits of parking lot in his ear, instead of getting his head caved right in. Kern’s strong right arm lifted again, and this time Rory couldn’t quite dodge, caught the butt of the baton on his face, but then lunged up against the smothering, pinning, weight of the dwarf, and looped an arm just so, other hand snaking up, and—like magic—the dwarf’s wrist was broken and the baton clattered to the pavement. Kern’s other arm came down, an elbow hammering into Rory’s head, Rory’s head hammering into Belfast.
Rory groped and grabbed for the dwarf’s cyberdeck next.
Kern lurched up and scrambled away like a startled cat, ridiculously quick for his bulk, protectively cradling that arm; not for the shattered wrist, mind, but for the hardware strapped there, and for the ability and investment it represented. Rory snickered as he started to clamber to his feet. Deckers. They all had the same soft spo—
A fomori-sized boot slammed into him and sent him flying like she was a world-class forward and he was a football, right past Cateran, who’d just gotten lined up to shoot at him again. Rory didn’t let the blasted ribs slow him down, though, just twisted with the kick, righted himself in mid-air, came down on his feet, rolled once, and then back to his feet. She was stronger than she looked, which was too bad for him ‘cause she already looked pretty damned strong.
He surged right at her, the last place in the world they’d expect him to go, but he had to get in close so the other elf didn’t start unloading again. Ducking Gallowglass’ big overhand swing, he planted one foot on her oversized thigh and launched himself airborne, leading with his rising knee. It clipped her jaw just so, snapped her head up, made her stagger back a step in a spray of blood. He knew she’d be seeing stars for a tick, and couldn’t waste the time to finish her off by doing something terrible to her neck. No, he had to move.
Rory hurled himself away from her and straight at Cateran’s leveled Guardians, a fresh pair of rounds whipping past him and into the Belfast dark, then flowed in close and the pair of them started dancing again. All knees and elbows, chops and sharp little punches. The younger elf’s nose got smeared about halfway across his face and Rory grinned around a split lip and broke an arm for it. He kicked Cateran’s knee sideways and made him flow with it to keep the thing from shattering, then got a solid punch in. The elf crumpled, and Rory had made it a two-on-one fight.
Kern was all over him again with that fucking baton, next thing he knew, and even in the dwarf’s off-hand it was a real pain. Spinning and twirling, coming in harder, faster, while Rory wondered how many days or weeks of his sixty-one years he’d spent fighting people for no good reason. He fended the dwarf off with a few good kicks, using his legs for reach, trying to make up for the extra half-meter the baton gave Kern, when suddenly the dwarf’s eyes widened and he dove sideways.
Deep down inside, Rory knew he should’ve done the same…but he couldn’t help spinning around, just to see what it was.
Gallowglass hit him with a long-abandoned scooter, swung sidearm, light as a hurley stick or a cricket bat.
He rolled with it, of course. A lifetime of violence had given him that instinct, and his magical prowess—honed sharper than sharp—lent him impossible speed, impossible dexterity. He had other powers, too, an unwavering durability, magically enhanced, a toughness that rivaled any sort of dermal plating on the market, mystical reinforcements that made his bones tougher to break than most.
He managed not to die, but that was about it.
劇透 - :
They’d all missed. Rory’d danced through the hail of bullets somehow, like he was cursed to always do, it seemed. Bottles had exploded behind him in waves of spirits and glass, the wood paneling of Shivers’ basement bar had splintered, walls were pockmarked, lights were busted out. But Rory was still in one piece. Eight, maybe ten guys blasting at him with cheap pistols and Shivers’ own side-by-side scattergun, and not a scratch on him except for falling glass and the like.
The devil’s own luck, he had. Able to kill the only friends he had left in the world, and not take a bullet in the doing of it.
Redhead had crawled across the floor and died slow, still crying, still dribbling blood and spitting teeth and glass until he’d caught a round in the neck. Burly was dead—Rory’d clubbed him in the face with his big Browning semi-auto, then wedged the barrel right into his eye and pulled the trigger. O’Neil was plenty dead, three shots in his belly from Rory, and then torn wide open by a wayward blast from Shivers and that shotgun of his as Rory’d ducked just in time. Shivers, too, mind. Rory’s Browning had been empty by the time those last couple from upstairs had come running down, so he’d had to wrestle the gun from Shivers, whack him with it, reload it, then give him a taste, point-blank.
No bullets had hit him, maybe, but Rory was something of a blood-covered mess, all the same.
The basement bar was mostly full of corpses, now. Redhead and Burly were soundly dead, Jeremy O’Neil and Shivers with ’em, and a half-dozen—and more—hard INLA boys. Rory’s best mates, Rory’s best lads.
Rory’s only friends.
They’d used him and used him and used him up, lying and smiling and laughing at him for years, sent him off to kill and learn more killing, then snickered at him and insulted him square to his face. They’d used him to kill cops, then little Stephen McManus, then bank tellers, then rival drug dealers and pimps.
Irish National Liberation Army, Hell. They were just thugs. They’d started out thugs with a cause, maybe, but how long had it been since they’d pointed Rory at the occupying Tir na nOg military? How long since it had been soldier’s blood on his hands, besides their own?
Dark was all that was left. The only other one in the basement, maybe the bar, maybe Belfast for all Rory knew, for all Rory felt. Dark was left, and he was some sort of wizard. Rory hated wizards. He’d seen Dark start casting, so he’d vaulted away, chop-chop.
The elf was behind the bar again, knowing — better than most — that Dark’s sort needed line of sight to murder you. He popped open Shivers’ shotgun and had just the one shot left in it, his own Browning who-knows-where and empty to boot. Between the madness of slaughtering his own, Rory’d lost his knack for keeping track of who had how many bullets left in what gun. Who, how many, what, all gone. Damn it. He lifted a broken piece of mirror, peeked over the bar as if his life depended on it. In fairness, it did.
Dark was gone. An earth elemental rumbled to life, pouring itself upward, impossibly fluid, impossibly real, making itself out of the concrete of Shivers’ basement floor.
“Oh well,” Rory flipped the mirror away with a careless flick of his wrist, picked up a startlingly-whole half-bottle. He gave it a twirl and a peek, didn’t see any glass glittering in the whiskey, and tossed it down. One last toast, maybe? Or a bit of liquid courage to go back out there?
“Y’only die once.”
He vaulted up and over the bar, blasting pellets at the spirit, which seemed hardly put out. Then he wrapped up both his fists in all his young anger—at them for taking her, at her for recruiting him in the first place, at the INLA, at the elves, at the Fucking Knights of the Fucking Red Branch, at Jeremy O’Neil and the other bastards who used this sickness to make themselves rich, at Stephen McManus who’d gotten caught, and at himself, who’d killed the boy for it. There was a lot of anger there. Enough for an adept to turn his own hands into something dangerous, as it turned out. Something downright lethal.
The spirit lumbered and swung, implacable but clumsy, unstoppable but slow. It missed. Rory didn’t. With all his hatred, his hopelessness, fear and guilt wrapped tight around his murderous hands and knees and elbows, he hit it. Kicked and stomped, clawed and punched, bit and headbutted, shouted and lashed out like a child in a tantrum.
It was impossible.
It was magic.
The spirit crumbled under the onslaught, chipped away, broken, then lying there as shattered as the leadership of the INLA and the Knights in one fell swoop.
Rory snorted and spat, gasped, panting, and just fell onto his butt like an exhausted puppy for he-didn’t-know-how-long.
After catching his breath, he got up, and grabbed a few credsticks and a half-loaded gun, and left. At the time, he hadn’t known he wouldn’t be back for two and a half decades.
To be honest, he’d fully expected not to last that long.
劇透 - :
“I can’t help but feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” the elf with the tied hands and the bag over his head said, trussed up in the back of a car with broken ribs and most likely a concussion.
“Nonsense,” said the other elf, younger but sour-faced, one hand holding a bloody handkerchief to his bloody nose, one arm wrapped in a plastic-and-gel cast. “We all introduced ourselves.”
The dwarf snickered, driving one-handed. The fomori shook her head and smiled, not talking much because she’d recently chomped off the tip of her tongue.
Rory had been in worse spots, in fairness. Many of them had, matter of fact, also included black bags over heads. This was the worst one with a scooter, though.
“Fine, fine. Proper introductions were made, I’ll grant you that.” He grunted and tried to right himself, felt one of the fomori’s big hands just give him a little downward shove, like a building reaching out to hold you down. “But what I’m saying is we’ve hardly been civil.”
“Cat was just shooting stick-and-shocks,” Kern piped up, wincing a bit as they trundled over a bump that must’ve jarred his wrist uncomfortably.
“I gueth maybe I thouldn’t have hit you tho hard,” Gal admitted, almost sheepish.
“Not that you did us any favors back,” Cateran said, sounding a little hurt. In fairness, he was.
“Not true,” Rory sang out, “I could’ve killed you and didn’t!”
“Sure you could’ve,” Cat shot back, scowling.
“Actually…” Kern started. Or tried to.
“Oh, thove it. I’m tho over that ‘local leghend’ thtory.” The fomori reached up to thump the back of the driver’s seat.
“We kept him from any pistols,” Cateran said, glowering sidelong at the Belfast-raised dwarf. “That’s what you said he was hot shit with.”
“Oh, aye. Wouldn’t’ve wanted two of us shooting up the parking lot, would ye?”
“Huth.” The command came with another big hand giving him a nudge.
It worked and kept him quiet for a few more turns, a little more driving, a couple more bumps. Rory wasn’t sure where they were taking him, but it wasn’t close and that wasn’t good.
“Which of you got into my pants?” he asked a little while later, just to break the silence.
Cat sputtered, Gal snorted, Kern shot a look into the rearview mirror.
“And took my commlink, I mean,” Rory said, black bag hiding a grin. “Those Fairlight Calibans aren’t cheap, are they, Kern?”
He’d guessed it right in one. The dwarven decker blinked, then scowled. “Shush.”
“What, you holding onto my ’link so I can’t call Nadja Daviar?”
In the front cupholder, there was a little rattle as the Caliban commlink buzzed to life, responded to the verbal command, made an outward call, blinked and buzzed obediently. The elf in the passenger seat grabbed for it with his one good hand, but everyone else started chattering at once.
“You didn’t thut it oth?!”
“Fuck me, I forgot!”
“Relax, there’s no way it’s gonna be Nadja Davi—are you fraggin’ kidding me?!”
Cateran dropped the commlink like it was red hot, or a snake, or maybe a red hot snake. It clattered back into the cup holder, jostled around a bit, screen crystal sharp, her disapproving glare clear even from halfway around the world. Those Fairlights had great sensors, and she seemed to take in the picture pretty quickly. One slender arm reached just off screen, adjusted something on her end, maybe rewinding the last few seconds and playing them back, slow-motion. Maybe bringing up world-class facial recognition subroutines. Maybe calling someone else. Maybe a bit of all three.
“The Draco Foundation,” she said very methodically, very calmly, after the slightest pause, “Does not negotiate with terrorists.”
And the call ended.
“Terrorists?” Kern sniffed.
“That’th hardly fair,” Gal muttered.
“We’re freelancers,” Cateran said, sounding aggrieved. “Not terrorists.”
“She’s all bluster any way, don’t you worry. The Dee Eff negotiates with terrorists all the time.” Rory piped up helpfully, “It’s honestly about half of my job, I’d say.”
Kern didn’t seem very comforted by that. Gal leaned a little to try and peer skyward, like she was expecting a Thor shot. Cateran puffed on an inhaler, giving himself a reassuring hit of Novacoke. Rory gave them a few seconds to gather their thoughts—and gave Nadja the same, not that she needed it—before clearing his throat.
“Redial,” he said, feeling very pleased with himself under his hood.
“Is this your employer?” She wasn’t big on manners, Ms. Daviar, when she didn’t have to be. None of the three could help but look at the screen, curious, though. A dark face, human male, lean, with a bit of a wolfish look, glared at them.
They exchanged glances, and Kern pulled the Land Rover to the curb, idling. Half a world away, Nadja Daviar sighed at the waste of her time.
“Street name Kern,” she said simply, nodding a bit. “Osye Dempsey. Gutter hacker and shadowrunner, rap sheet as long as you are tall.”
The dwarf wasn’t surprised at the details, but wasn’t crazy about his friends knowing his real name, truth be told.
“Street name Gallowglass. Cadha McMillian. Do your little friends know about your brother, I wonder?” The fomori’s furrowed brow told them that they didn’t. Or rather, hadn’t.
“And that leaves Cateran,” she said, eyes a little more narrow this time. “Portland brat. Convict. Strangely enough, despite my clearance levels, I can’t find your real name anywhere at all in this Ares undercover operative file…”
And she drifted off just enough to draw startled glares from the other two.
“But enough about you,” she said, ruder than normal. “Is. This. Your. Employer?”
She sounded more impatient than normal. In fairness, she was. The scandal! One of the world’s most powerful people, and having to ask a question twice.
“I’m fine, thanks,” Rory sang out from his hood. “No worries here, totally fine.”
“Hush,” three people said at once, along with Gal’s fourth, a “Huth.”
There was a pregnant pause, then a few curt nods.
“Aye,” Cateran said, still warily eyeing his friends, not at all sure how they’d take his corporate status. “That was him.”
Daviar didn’t miss a beat.
“And how much is he paying you for Agent Thorn?”
“Thirty-thixth,” Gallowglass mumbled.
“Total?” Nadja confirmed. “Thirty six thousand, for him?”
“Yeah,” Kern said, like twelve thousand nuyen had sounded like a pretty good price at the time.
“Fine. Three-hundred sixty thousand.” Flipping on a contract was a big shadow no-no, mind you, but the Rule of Ten was pretty inviolate. Betraying an employer for double was a movie cliché, but doing so for tenfold the starting pay was almost respectable; someone making that sort of offer made it clear who held the power in any rivalry, and there was no shame in jumping ship in the face of that sort of disparity.
“Bring Agent Thorn to the planned drop-off point, arm him, release him, and help him kill Melehan.”
“Melewho?” The black bag barely muffled him any more.
“A mid-ranked Black Lodge operative, Thorn. A combat magus of no small power, and we believe he owns several…trinkets…we’ve been after for quite some time.”
“Sit him up, please, and take that ridiculous bag off.”
Gallowglass hauled him upright effortlessly, almost carefully. Rory blinked, then peered down at the screen. It was Dark. Dark, from that that day, Dark, from decades ago. A few gray hairs at the temples, a natty little beard shot through with a touch of silver, hints of crow’s eyes…but him. The wizard. Still hating him and fearing him, still running the INLA, still in Belfast after all this time. Small world.
“Oh. Him. Yeah, I hate that guy.”
“Excellent. So take one of Mr. Cateran’s guns and kill him, would you?”
“We’re a wee light on mojo for that sort of thing.” It wasn’t quite a no.
“But heavy on surprise.” It wasn’t quite an order.
“I’m on vacation,” It wasn’t quite a whine.
“Are you really?” It wasn’t quite a smirk.
Rory glowered at his commlink. Vacation. Harrumph. No wonder she’d said yes.
Kern, Cateran, and Gallowglass fidgeted a bit, like they were listening to their parents argue, but were also still maybe expecting a Thor shot, but were also each thinking about ten times the payment they’d expected. In fairness, it was a lot to fidget about.
“You’re a terrible, canny hag, Ms. Daviar,” Rory Caolain said, shaking his head and sighing, but fighting a smile. “And you should feel bad.”
“Bring your new friends back to the office when you’re done playing. I’ll contact you shortly with extraction details, but things will be…unpleasant…near there, for some time.”
And then the screen went dark, and the inside of the Land Rover with it. Kern wasn’t sure what else to do, so he reached out and flicked on the overhead light.
The other commlinks in the car buzzed, chirped, and beeped about incoming payments.
“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Rory smiled at them, holding out the handcuffs and zip-ties they’d secured his wrists with, as though they were things he’d borrowed and was politely returning.
“Wren’s Day,” Cateran said as he gawked at his account balance. “But who’s counting?”