Chapter XV:

Cloak and Dagger

Despite my varied, and in some cases justified, complaints I have a fairly good life. No one’s got authority over me. I’ve got my own business. I’ve got my own place. I’ve got my health. I’ve got a purpose in life. And I live in one of the greatest cities in the world.

This city is a beast, an anthill, a stew pot, a crucible, and every other cliché thought up by poets who ran out of things to say ages ago. But it’s my home. I’ve crossed it time and time again; from the palisades, to the streets, to the skyways, to the under tunnels. I won’t lie and say I know it like the back of my hand. No one can say that. The city claims almost as much sky as it does land. There are people here who have never been to the country and children who couldn’t even dream of such a thing. I’ve been out there only a few times, but I always felt uncomfortable. I need the walls and to feel the crush of civilization.

Sometimes, I walked along watching the other residents of the city. I would wonder about the choices they had made. Presented with the same circumstances, could I have become like them? Could they have been like me? Or was it simply that some people were constrained by a bad attitude. I could have been an office clerk or a shop boy and eventually get into an argument that left me destitute and unemployable. I could have started a family with a childhood sweetheart, but then slowly alienate myself, because I couldn’t handle the weight.

No. For good or ill, this is who and what I was meant to be. It wasn’t pretty or nice, but I could look myself in the mirror. Maybe along the way I could make a difference. When the reaper came, I’d offer him a drink. Then when he’d passed out, I’d nab his scythe and set about doing a damn better job of it.

My mother and father were good people, but like every kid forced to live in the world their parents made, I did my best to break it. I got in with BGO early. I skipped out on my responsibilities at home in order to join the family of my choosing. While that choice lead to even dumber ones, it gave me the skills I needed to survive against a world that turned good people into interchangeable parts and surrendered control to those with little regard for their neighbors.

Me, I wanted to see what the city had to offer. I wasn’t disappointed. My BGO crew and I lived the streets and corridors. We’d nip through the thoroughfare markets, snatching what we could. We’d find a vent we could squeeze through and use the tower arteries to move anything we couldn’t carry out in the open. Once we even managed to hijack an out of service freight tram, shifted a huge load from a retail depot, and then scrapped the whole thing for parts. He had some prime runners till we couldn’t keep them working anymore. The Lumpers worked muscle, Sheilas bagged cash and food, the Cubs too young for their big shoes watched for the cops and easy scores, and the Jimmies kept us all together. Of course that was all before Keys took over. But while I may have gown out of my hooligan days, I still knew my home turf and could exploit the protection it gave me.

Using every trick of urban observation we had, Sifu and I had managed to surreptitiously identify our tails. It wasn’t as if we had made it hard to spot us, even if you discounted the fact that one of us was a preadolescent boy blatantly packing a three-foot chiv. There seemed to be five of them, dressed casually, walking separately behind and to the side of us. They may have been thugs, but they were canny. Moving in that formation allowed them to keep a good eye on us. There was no way we would be able make a break for it without them immediately running us down. I didn't want to put Sifu into a foot race if I could help it. He'd be able to sprint and hide, but I didn't know how much stamina he had left. Our best bet was to lead them someplace where we had the advantage, so that we could make up for numbers.

The café Sifu and I sat in was not one of my favorite places to get grub, but for my purposes it was perfect. Little more than an open-air diner in one corner of a large atrium; the eating area was a collection of pedestal tables with continual foot traffic moving by. As we sat down and ordered, they began walking in patterns around the diner. One of them even sat at another table not far from us. I ate a sandwich and casually watched the crowd, while Sifu, refusing to release his grip on his sword sheath, sucked on the straw of a smoothie since he couldn’t grasp anything with his bad hand.

We waited.

I was banking on the hope that if they did have guns they would be smart enough to not open up with some many bystanders around. They would try to get us to go quietly, relying on strength in numbers to intimidate us. We were intimidated, but Sifu and I were past the point of caring. Still it was only a matter of time before they made some sort of move.

While eyeing the guy sitting at the other table, I saw Sifu’s knuckles go white as he gripped the sheath harder.

A voice accustomed to being obeyed said, ”Come with us.” from behind me.

”I’m in the middle of lunch.” I said. It was the best comeback ever.

”Now.” the man ordered. It wasn’t as good as what I said, but it played well.

I watched Sifu blink twice at me and then once emphatically with his left eye. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was supposed to mean, but I had been improvising to begin with.

”You know what I like about this restaurant?” I said to Sifu. His eyes narrowed as he slide his hands away from the table top.

I took another bite of my sandwich and picked up Sifu’s smoothie. The man didn’t interject, so I decided to just continue through.

”You can steal pretty much anything that isn’t nailed down.”

In one motion, I slipped off my chair, grabbed the single leg of the table, and swung it, overhand, around to my right. The table wasn’t heavy, but it was hard, and it connected with enough force to the face of one of the three guys behind me that he just buckled over backward. For extra measure I threw the smoothie at another guy. It wasn’t as effective, but served as a nice distraction.

The third man bull-rushed me. I used his momentum to help carry myself away from the other two. We ended up tumbling over someone else’s lunch.

Now that we’d made enough of a scene, people were up shouting and scattering in a confused torrent of shifting bodies. I didn’t see Sifu when I glanced away from my attacker. He was smart to get away.

The guy obviously had some training, possibly a formal martial regimen. He was a better scrapper than the average cop, but not as directed as some ex-soldiers I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to tussle with. That didn’t matter. A person could have all the training in the world, but when it came down to the fur ball all that mattered was how much damage they were willing to dish out versus how much they were willing to take. If you ended up being more squeamish than your opponent you would loose.

Kids, don’t get into a fight with a drunk. They are too stupid to know their limits.

The guy had me on my back giving me the gift of heavy punches to the sides. I’d bruise badly, but nothing had broken yet. I grabbed his ear with my left hand and gave him back a few quick knuckles jabs to the side of his throat with my right. He tweaked sharply, then when he reached up to protect himself, I used my leg to leverage him off me onto his back. Before he could recover, I slammed my elbow down hard into his solar plexus. With mild satisfaction, I watched his eyes bulge as he curled up on his side retching.

With two guys down, I got to my feet. Too bad the other two had managed to get through the thinning crowd to me. The one, who had been sitting at the table, slide into my field of vision followed closely by a fist to my cheek. My momentary dizziness was offset by an impressive punch to the stomach. Fortunately, the smack to the noggin numbed me a bit; I was just unstable enough to falter back while retaining my balance, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Still, I bent forward like a kid with a bad tummy ache. I felt slightly nauseous myself, but the adrenaline was flowing nicely now that the ol’ fight or flight instincts had kicked into high gear. I did the natural thing and bit the fucker in the thigh. It seemed people didn’t like it when I did that sort of thing; he screamed and batted me away.

I took the small window to edge away, but Smoothie-face came up and kicked me in the ribs. After the second kick, I felt like something exploded in my chest. All my breathe washed out accompanied by a pathetic raspy squeak. I was on my back again, sucking in breath. Smoothie-face tried stomping down on me. All I could do was grab onto his leg weakly and hold on to avoid being crushed.

Leg-bite came over and lifted me up. He was strong, and I was too limp to give him an adequate struggle. Smoothie-face wound up to give me another beating. He pounded my stomach a few more times. I just took it.

Finally, my backup arrived. A bald man with a snake tattooed around his neck barreled out of the crowd tackling Smoothie-face. A teenage boy and girl, who appeared to be twins, came around some overturned tables and beat on Leg-bite with what looked like ketchup bottles. He shrugged at most of the hits, though I could tell they were getting to him. Using the closest thing to a second wind I had, I hooked his leg with mine and pushed. We fell. When he landed flat on his back with me atop him, he probably felt as bad as I did. Probably even moreso now that he had two kids wailing on him harder with improvised truncheons.

I scrambled to my feet, clutching my side, and shouted, “Leg it!”

The teens needed no convincing. They bolted back down the hallway next to the kitchen. I put a knee to Leg-bite's neck, pressing firmly till he stopped squirming. When I looked back, I saw Snake-neck putting the boots to Smoothie-face.

”Don’t! Fuck! With! Keys!” he shouted, punctuating each word with his heavy stomps.

That’s when I saw Pukey raise a gun and blow a hole in Snake-neck’s head.

He leveled at me, fired, and missed.

I dodged another shot, grabbed up one of the ketchup bottles, dodged again, and threw it at Pukey. As it collided with his head I saw a burst of red. I couldn’t tell if it was the bottle or his skull breaking.

Aching the whole time, I ran down the hallway I saw the twins go down. I knew at the end of that hallway there was a floor panel that, if kicked in the right spot, would allow access to the utility corridor below. I knew this, because I was the one who first found it. I was just glad that after all these years Keys was still using it, so it hadn’t been fixed. While looking around behind old crates trying to remember which panel I was looking for, I was reminded of something else that had slipped my mind.

”Think you’re clever don’t you?”

I really wished bad guys would stop coming up from behind me.

I slowly turned around to see the fifth thug who had been following us. He had a pretty nice gun.

”Okay. You got me.” I said, raising my hands. “Where are we going?”

”You’re not going anywhere.” the man glared at me. “We were just looking for a good place to kill you. Thanks for finding this dead end.”

”Oh…right. Do I get any last words?”

The man shrugged. “Does it really matter? I’m not going to tell anyone.”

”Kinda matters to me.”

He let out an annoyed sigh. “Fine. What are they?”

”I’ll let you know when I come up with some.”

”Stalling isn’t going to—“

That’s when Sifu slipped his sword through the man’s hamstring. He immediately fell to the ground with a scream and a wild shot that landed a foot to my right. Sifu stepped down on the guy's gun hand then sliced through the tendons on his forearm; he screamed again. I jumped down on his other arm, and covered his mouth to get him to shut up. The bastard nearly bit my hand off.

Sifu put the tip of his sword to the man’s belly and began to press in.

"Sifu," I asked slowly, ”what are you doing?” The man under me tried to writhe free without slicing himself further.

Sifu shifted his eyes to me. They were not friendly.

I stared back at him, trying to think about who my friend was. What did I actually know about him and his past? Granted, It didn’t add up to much. He was just some kid who walked in my door one day and never said a word to me. Nevertheless, I had come to view him in a certain way, which was predominantly colored by his age. I knew he didn’t need me; he’d managed to fend for himself so far. I hadn’t met anyone else who’d known him accept in relation to me, but that didn’t mean he was mine. I wasn’t his father. I had no right to tell him what to do with his life. I was just older. I could only guess at his life experience. But I had on occasion taken responsibility for him, and he was only here because I had made him a part of this. The obvious intention of his stance made my stomach turn a litte.

”You’ve done this before?”

Sifu’s eyes narrowed. He was still angry, rightfully so, but ever so slightly he diverted his gaze from me.

”Is this man worth it?” The man mumbled something behind my hand. He was bleeding badly, If we stayed like this much longer my...ethics, whatever they were, wouldn't matter.

Sifu looked down at the man and grimaced. After a moment Sifu lifted his bandaged hand and glared back at me.

”I know. Was it him?”

Sifu’s head tilted away once.

”Save your hate for the one who deserves it.”

I'd be the first to admit that wasn’t the best advice to give to a thirteen-year-old. Like I said, I wasn’t his father. But Sifu pulled the sword away. It was a very small victory.

I pulled my hand from the man’s mouth and asked, ”Who sent you?”

Fuck. You.” he answered weakly, then passed out. we applied tourniquets to his arm and leg. They’d keep him alive for a while at the very least. A chance to live was enough for my conscience.

I pocketed his gun. I could clean it later; remove the serial, change the barrel, get rid of any tracking ID. I had the feeling I might need a drop gun.

Found his wallet.

Found a work ID.

The Aton Regency.

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