The match scratched noisily across the matte-black tabletop, the noise unnaturally loud in the small, quiet room where two men sat facing each other across that same table. It sputtered then flared, and the hand holding it lifted the flame to the tip of a long, dark cigar. Bridelow’s gaze moved past the cigar to the face of the man lighting it. Odd, he thought, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that face. Even, regular, but unremarkable features, a strong jaw, hazel eyes that gave off a disinterested, almost distracted look – a person had to be extremely perceptive to be able to tell the left one was not the eye the man had been born with. A full head of short, dark brown hair, a neat, closely-trimmed beard and mustache that were peppered with bit of salt. An almost ordinary face, one that most people would never look at twice. It was hard to believe that its owner was one of the most dangerous men in the world.
Which, of course, was why, at that moment, Brian Bridelow was absolutely terrified.
“Right then, one more time from the beginning.” The man’s voice was surprisingly deep, given that he was barely above medium height; despite a somewhat stocky build, he was not a particularly big man. The Scottish burr was unmistakable. “When exactly were Chastain and Chamblee killed, and who killed them?”
“The DisCom goons. They caught us while we were still in the data center.”
“Caught you? Took ye by surprise, you mean? You hadn’t posted a guard, somebody to watch your back?”
“We got in clean, we were still clean, we were getting ready to leave – nobody knew we were there!”
“Obviously somebody did, now, didn’t they?”
“What happened next? Tell me again.”
“It was a running firefight getting out of the underground complex. DisCom didn’t seem to know how we got in, so they didn’t know how we got out.”
“Did ye lose anybody else on the way out?”
“No, we got out of the park, onto the freeway, and made it to Herndon. Once we got out of the tunnels, the DisCom goons had lost us completely.”
“Really?” Inwardly Bridelow cringed at the sarcasm dripping from that single word. His eyes flicked downward briefly to the HSc automatic lying beside the ashtray the other man was using; Blade had gently, wordlessly, placed it there when they sat down, an unspoken message in its presence. Slowly, Bridelow brought his gaze back to his interrogator’s face. He held up his hands, palms out, in a sort of conciliatory gesture.
“Hey, aside from that run-in with the security people, everything went like clockwork. We got in, got the data crystals, got out. Yeah, the shit hit the fan at the data center, but by the time we hit I-4, it seemed like it had all blown off. The only things that weren’t part of the plan were finding Red in the data center when we got there, and leaving Chastain and Chamblee behind. When we left, Red said she was coming with us. She held together pretty well in the firefight, so I decided, why not?”
The other man cocked an eyebrow, and as Bridelow continued, he began to sweat. “I know what you’re thinking. But when we got to the van, I did a complete RF scan on her, and it came back negative. And the van was shielded. Even Radome gave her a clean bill of health – and if she says someone or something is clean, it’s clean. So even if Red was a plant, there’s no way DisCom was tracking her. I know my job, MacLaren!”
At the tightening around the eyes of the other man – MacLaren – Bridelow realized he’d just made a tactical error. “Sorry. I meant ‘Mister MacLaren.’ Or should it be ‘Major’?”
“Just go on. I can’t say I’m enjoying this, but I am finding it extremely entertaining. Ye reached Herndon and….”
“And that’s when things blew up, literally. The AV6 was on the apron, Ang had the engines fired up, and just as we cleared the terminal, it blew. I don’t know what it was – I didn’t hear any shots, didn’t see any rocket exhaust, no laser flicker. It just blew. Then the DisCom goons opened up on us.”
MacLaren drew heavily on his cigar. “Ye’re sure they were DisCom?”
“No mistake. The black uniforms, you know – the Big Black Rat’s Little Black Rats. They tried shooting the hell out of the van, but they were using pretty lightweight stuff – whatever they did know about us, I’m guessing they didn’t know that the van had been combat-prepped. Polymer appliques, solid tires, armor around the engine, the works.”
Bridelow took a long pull from the water bottle he had brought with him, then continued. “We busted ass out of Herndon, got on the East-West Expressway, hit the Turnpike and then I-75. We had about eight Rat-vans follow us onto the 75, I don’t know where they came from, but at least one of them had some serious firepower. A .50-cal or larger – we took three rounds that were through-and-throughs, back to front, even with the polymer. One of them went through Esposito on its way. So then it was just the six of us – me, Compton, Radome, Hadley, Houston, and Red. The Rats didn’t give up until we were past Gainesville – then they just went away.” “Any police pursuit? There was a lot of lead flying about.”
“Are you freaking kidding me? In Florida? DisCom has at least half the law enforcement in the state on its books. If DisCom doesn’t want somebody pursued, they don’t get pursued.”
“So the ‘Rats,’ as ye call them, apparently gave up and the police left ye alone as well?” Bridelow nodded. “Doesn’t that strike ye as rather odd?”
“Mr. MacLaren, with all due respect, is there anything about this entire charlie-fox that doesn’t strike you as ‘rather odd’?”
MacLaren nodded an acknowledgment. “A point. Definitely a point. Go on. Were there any other…incidents before ye got to Atlanta?”
“None.” Bridelow began to relax a bit, as MacLaren had taken some of the edge off his voice. “We crossed the Georgia line and dropped back to a sane speed – about 80. We’d been doing almost 130 up I-75 in Florida, but decided that whatever arrangement DisCom had with Florida police, we didn’t want to attract the attention of the Georgia State Patrol, especially with a dead body aboard, so we did our best imitation of a van full of normal people.”
“That must have been quite the challenge.”
Bridelow bit his lip at the barb: the last thing he wanted to do was piss off this man. Nonetheless, he mustered sufficient courage to get a bit of his own back. “We managed it well enough to get all the way into Underground Atlanta without attracting unwanted attention from anyone.”
“Tell me about that.” Bridelow closed his eyes and slumped in his chair, his head falling back on the headrest. “Everything was already arranged. We were supposed to meet Calvin here, at Bits – he owns the place. We left the van at Five Points and headed straight for the intersection of Upper Alabama and Pryor Streets.”
“Ye left Esposito’s body in the van?”
“Hey, it’s kind of tough to be inconspicuous when you’re carrying around a dead body, you know? What else could we do?”
“Nothing, really. But it does mean one more loose end I’ll have to tie up eventually. Go on.”
“We got about halfway there when about a dozen Rats closed in on us from behind. They were pretty blatant about it, too, they wanted to make sure we knew they were there. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were the ‘beaters’ driving us toward something or somebody.”
“That makes sense. Ye were boxed in inside an underground mall, with a very limited number of exits, only two directions in which ye could go. It’s what I would have done. Go on.”
“Well, they sprang the trap about fifty yards short of Bits. Another squad of DisCom goons came strolling around the corner at Pryor, right ahead of us and right in front of the club. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize a fresh load of fecal matter was about to strike the rotary ventilator. If we could have turned it into a firefight, it would have been no problem, we were all packing and loaded for bear….”
“But there were too many civilians around, enough that some of them would have been caught in the crossfire, and that would have drawn too much attention. If it had been just us and the Rats we could have made it look like a gang brawl – APD would have just stood to one side to wait for the smoke to clear. But when civilians get involved in something like that, APD gets real twitchy. Seemed like the Rats knew that, too, because nobody drew down on anybody. They just closed in like they were looking for good, old-fashioned rumble.”
MacLaren said nothing for few moments, just puffed on his cigar, seeming to stare off into the distance at something only could see. Finally, he turned back to Bridelow.
“Tell me about it.”
“The Rats made a mistake. I think they’re too used to busting the heads of teen-age hackers and strong-arming writers and animators to know how to really fight hand-to-hand. All five of us, Compton, Radome, Houston, Haley, and me, are pretty well-trained and have a lot of experience – especially Compton.”
“I know about Compton. Go on.”
“You do? But how – ” Bridelow began to ask, then stopped abruptly when he saw the other man’s eyes narrow dangerously. Hurrying on, he said, “But it was Red who surprised the hell out of us.”
Both of MacLaren’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”
“For one thing, she definitely knows savate, and I think those shoes she’s wearing have been modified for that. Plus she pulled this spring-loaded ASP baton out of her handbag, and then she just went to town on the Rats. Fractured skulls, broken arms and legs, a couple of busted kneecaps. God, is she fast! Let me put it this way, Mr. MacLaren, there’s obviously a lot about that woman we don’t know, but I do know I was glad she was on our side. The DisCom goons had us outnumbered about five-to-one, but it wasn’t long before they were ones pulling back.”
“I take it that events followed the same pattern as they had previously in this little escapade: just when ye thought ye were clear, something else went wrong.” The edge was back in MacLaren’s voice, but this time Bridelow didn’t notice.
“We almost made it, dammit! Most of the civilians had scattered by then, and we were about to unload our hardware on the Rats when somebody somewhere opened up full auto on the entire corridor – they didn’t care who they were shooting at. Us, the Rats, civilians, it was ‘spray and pray.’ About thirty, maybe forty, of Arasaka’s reisen, it turned out. How they got there, how they knew we were coming, I have no idea. It was like they materialized out of thin air.”
“And ye did what?”
“We ran for it. Hell, it was a twenty yard sprint to the front door of Bits. Compton had the security codes and got the doors open, the Rats and the Arasakas tried to rush us, but we got inside before they could get to us. Well, most of us did. Haley went down right in front of the club. It was bad, it was pretty obvious that there wasn’t anything we could do for him, so we left him there.” “Ye’re rather good at that, aren’t ye?” MacLaren asked coldly, and inwardly Bridelow cringed at the barely suppressed fury in the other man’s voice. Wisely he said nothing in return but just took another long drink from his water bottle before he continued.
“Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell. We’ve been holed up here, in these three saferooms Calvin had built into the club, for just over eleven hours now. DisCom’s storm troopers took over the club, the Arasakas set up a perimeter around them, and according to the newsfeeds APD has sealed off all access to the Underground and brought in SWAT teams. Nobody has gotten in or out – well, except for you.”
“Except me. And if ye were watching the video feeds, you know that I left the Swatties alone, but there aren’t nearly as many storm troopers and Arasakas out there as there were before I arrived.”
Bridelow frowned, puzzled. “Yeah, well, that raises a question, doesn’t it? Just how the hell did you pull off that trick? Getting in here, I mean.”
“Let’s just say it was messy, because none of the DisCom people or the Arisakas were really professionals, at least not in my book, and leave it at that.”
“All right. But then how do we get out of here? I mean, you do plan on getting out of here, right?”
MacLaren leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and appeared to be lost in thought for several moments. Finally, he sighed, brought himself forward and looked intently at Bridelow. “Yes, I do have a plan, and no, I haven’t any intention of telling ye what it is, so don’t ask.”
“What do you mean you won’t tell me? I’m the one running this op!”
“Brian, you stopped being the HMFIC the moment I walked through that door. Hobbes called me in to debrief you, to learn what went wrong, where, and why, and then take over. And I’ve done just that. I’ve been in this line of work in one form or another for fifteen years, and as it happens, I have never – never – met anyone who could bollocks up by the numbers the way you do – if that’s what ye really did! On the face of it, ye’re a bloody walking catastrophe. It so happens that I know a bit more about what took place in Florida and here in the Underground that ye realize I do. I also know quite a bit about you. To all appearances, ye don’t plan for contingencies, ye don’t anticipate, ye just react. Ye don’t think, ye think ye think. If there is a single thing ye did right in that entire extraction op, I don’t know what it was. God help ye, ye could find a way to shoot yerself seven times with a six-shot revolver!”
Bridelow began to come out of his chair. “Now just a goddamn minute, MacLaren! I ran a good op! You know damn’ well that sometimes none of the breaks go the way you want them to!”
“Sit down!” For the first time, MacLaren raised his voice, and the two words were as sharp and harsh as a pair of pistol shots. Daunted, Bridelow quickly settled back into his seat.
“It’s possible that on a really bad day, the Keystone Kops coulda done a worse job of running an op than you did, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Ye didn’t post an overwatch on the corridor outside the data center at DisCom, so ye had no warning when the Rats arrived, which meant Chamblee and Chastain had their backs to the door when the bullets started flying. Ye brought out an unknown – Red, ye call her – when ye left the data center, and assumed that because Radome said she was clean and that the van was a rolling Faraday cage she was harmless. Ye had no overwatch at Herndon, so ye hadn’t a clue ye were walking into an ambush there. It never seemed to cross yer mind that there was a reason why DisCom stopped pursuing ye long before ye got out o’ Florida, so ye merrily drove straight to Underground Atlanta, where upon arrival ye promptly swanned your way into yet another trap – the third such by my counting. There’s an old saw of which you Americans are very fond: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.’ That’s what we have here. Ye’re not incompetent, Bridelow, ye’re a liar, a Judas, and ye tried to stab Hobbes in the back.”
“That’s enough, you son of a bitch!” Bridelow sprang up again, lunging toward the table. “I don’t care who you are, I’m not going to let you accuse – ”
The impending torrent of words was cut off abruptly as MacLaren’s left hand swept up the HSc and leveled it at a spot between Bridelow’s eyes. Bridelow froze in place, staring at the muzzle of the automatic: it never wavered, never quivered, never moved, and seemed to grow in size with each passing second. Very slowly and carefully he moved his hands away from his body, palms out, and raised them to shoulder level. MacLaren resumed speaking, his voice calm, almost conversational.
“I don’t like people who betray their friends or their employers, especially when they betray both. I don’t have the time – actually, you don’t have the time – for me to explain why, so just take my word for it. But even worse than being a Judas, Brian, is the fact that ye aren’t even very good at it. And I hate incompetence. To me, ye’re the worst thing of all: an amateur.”
The HSc fired twice in less than a second, and two holes appeared in Bridelow’s forehead, the first at the bridge of his nose, the second a half-inch above the first. He collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Barely two seconds later, Compton burst into the room, pistol at the ready. He found MacLaren standing behind the table, the still-smoking semi-automatic in his hand, staring down at Bridelow’s corpse. Compton followed MacLaren’s gaze and lowered his pistol, muttering as he did so, “Aw, shit, there goes my paycheck.”