by Jeff Somers

"You're awfully picky for a guy with your face," she said sweetly.

I bent my knees a little out of habit, the glass of cloudy, eyebrow-singeing gin halfway to my mouth. I didn't get out much, these days—being the System Pigs' Public Enemy Number One made it hard to move around unmolested. I spent most of my time with two men twice my age, and the smell of her perfume made me swallow reflexively. She'd just asked me if I wanted a date, but if this girl was a hooker, I was the fucking King of the Monks.

She was short and lithe, street-skinny. Not augmented, either—not top-heavy with impossible eyebrows, rubber-lipped and incapable of expression. Her red hair hung in her face, and she leered at me with a crazy, pissed-off brand of lust that no professional would have advertised. Her perfume stung my nose, too heavily applied, as if she'd doused herself quickly just a moment ago, inexpertly. Everything about her was wrong.

I tipped my head back and swallowed my shot. It burned all the way down, and my eyes watered briefly as I fought to hold it in. When I finally felt stable again, I slammed the glass down and managed to choke out "Another!" to the smiling bartender, a small, round man, built like a barrel with a round, scarlet face. He was named Rolf and I'd met him before, though he didn't seem to remember. He was one of the older illegal bartenders, popping up every few weeks like a mushroom in a different burned out place.

I didn't look at her. "I don't like your hair," I said, my voice like dragging something over gravel, my throat ruined by whatever the hell Rolf made his booze from. I stayed on the balls of my feet, pushing my elbows out slightly to clear up my overcoat so it wouldn't get in the way of my guns.

I had a perfect image of the place in my mind—some things you did without thinking or you died young. It was just another illegal ginhouse up and running overnight and open for a few weeks until the Crushers got bored taking bribes. The building was a shell, the floor a pitted and cracked cement, the walls stained with mold and bullet holes and brown blood splatter. It smelled of char, permenantly.

Without looking, I knew where the back exits were, and I had a vague notion of where they led. I saw the cut-out in the floor which led to a crawlspace, where Rolf thought his precious lethal booze hidden. I saw the collection of rotted, sagging furniture, seven tables and thirteen chairs, kicked and scattered about carelessly. I saw the ruined remnants of a stairway that ended halfway up a wall, just high enough for a determined person to leap up onto the second floor if they wanted to, assuming the stairs didn't just collapse under them.

I'd always been able to do this. It had kept me alive for thirty-one years, so far. My hair was turning gray and my back ached constantly—I was ancient. I was no Wa Belling, or Pick, but I was older than I'd ever been.

Rolf, beaming, poured another shot into my glass with the care of a man handling dangerous chemicals and stepped back with a flourish.

"I would've thought an old man like you would be happy with anything. Shit," she said, nodding at her own glass to Rolf's delight, "I was gonna offer a free sample."

I smiled as I plucked up the glass with the care of a man who didn't want to burn his skin. A pro would have offered to change her hair. Hell, a pro probably would have whipped off her wig and asked me what the fuck I wanted, and a serious pro would have had her hair augmented to shift color when necessary. I thought if I were here to kill me, this would be the moment: I was distracted, my hand was full, and my eyes were on the glass.

"There's nothing free—"

I saw her move in my peripheral vision. Something about the angle of it, the motion, her posture—I dropped the glass, leaned backwards, and reached for my gun all in one move, my back protesting as I bent it, struggling for balance. The knife, a narrow, long blade taped to a simple wooden handle, flashed in front of me, where my throat had been just a moment before. It was the sort of blade a pro would use—homemade to spec, lethal but no loss to discard.

I let momentum keep carrying me backwards as I freed my gun. When I hit the floor with a bone-rattling jolt, I rolled three, four times and came up firing. She was already moving, of course, and I snarled as my shots trailed her, a nanosecond behind, little explosions marking her path until she disappeared through one of the back exit doorways.

"Please," I heard Rolf whimper over the sound of my breath sawing in and out of my nose, "not again."

I pushed myself up, a slight twinge in my back making me stumble as I regained my feet. I backed towards the nearest wall. Whether there was a follow-up depended solely on how much she was getting paid. If I worked the job, I knew that for less than ten thousand yen I wouldn't break a sweat, and at the first sign of trouble I'd just drop my weapon and walk. But for a big payday I'd hammer on the motherfucker until one of us was dead, and I'd be prepared for it, too.

My mind raced with questions—how many pro Gunners were women, why I hadn't noticed her in the place when I walked in, whether she was purely a blade person or if she packed a cannon as well, what the chances were that Rolf was getting a few yen out of the whole deal—but my immediate concern was the chances she'd have someone waiting out front for me to try an exfiltration. Gunners as a rule worked alone, because partners usually wanted to get paid, but there were exceptions. Especially when the payday was big, and I flattered myself that I'd climbed to the top of the price range over the past few years—I could think of a lot of people who would want me dead, and one man in particular who might be motivated to pay over market price for it.

I began working my way around the edge of the room towards the back exits where my own personal assassin had disappeared. My philosophy was, when in doubt, get the fuck out of there. There was a fucking reason I was the oldest bastard on the block in almost every situation, these days. My other philosophy was, always choose the evil you knew.

When I was flat against the wall next to one of the exit doors, I steadied myself and dashed across the two openings, hoping to draw some reaction, but there was nothing. There wasn't going to be anything easy about my afternoon. I ducked down and leaped into the shadows where my new friend had disappeared. Something whistled over my head and sank into the soft brick behind me, approximately where my head would have been if I'd been born stupid. I couldn't see shit yet, so I just fired blind in the general direction of everything, making a lot of noise, and then rolled back out into the light, dropping my clip as I rolled.

When I had my back to the wall again, I reloaded, and eyed the front door. If I were her, I'd guessed right that my mark would come after me, but then guessed wrong on his approach and wasted a chance. If I were her, I'd sneak around front, wait for me to come out that way next. Why in the world would the mark go back into the shadows?

I braced myself and rolled back. I didn't fire, but I rolled about a foot further than I would have normally, and then stopped and waited. There was nothing, no blade in the air, no scrape of a boot. I got up onto my feet and made out where the darkness was a little less and moved towards it, moving fast and quiet, bent low, finger on the trigger. If I was a little lucky, I might catch the bitch with her back to me.

Within a few steps, I found an old, rusted metal door. I put myself against the wall next to it and gave it an experimental shove; it opened easily, letting in shafts of rainy light that seemed incredibly bright. I slammed it open and pulled back, but there was no reaction, so I spun around, kicked it back open, and stepped quickly out into the alley behind the building, and moved, throwing myself across the way where an inviting pile of ancient trash waited. Gunshots behind me, creating divots in the soft old pavement as I leaped into the shadows, crashing through rotted wood and rusted metal.

I waited a moment, feeling old. My lungs burned and my back ached. I thought, should have followed orders and stayed in, old man.

Three more shots pinged against an ancient wire mattress, and then silence. The shots had felt wild, something to keep me thinking, and had come from the entrance to the alley. Fuck, I wasn't going to live forever. I got my legs tucked under me and launched myself back out into the watery light, throwing myself painfully behind a row of metal barrels. One heartbeat and I popped up, seeking her, and then down again. There was no reaction. I was alone.

I stood up and looked over at the opening of the alley, which framed the sea of people trudging this way and that, purposeless, gray. Shots fired, I drew some looks. I gave the street my best hard-assed stare. There were Crushers everywhere, not much better than the street trash flowing by them but it was surprising to see so damn many of them in their shabby uniforms. There were more Officers, too; used to be the System Pigs kept everyone terrified, but the shine had worn off the System Security Force of late—it was as if people realized they were humans, just well-trained and well-fed humans, and had decided to shove back a little. The fucking System was ripping at the seams.

I noticed an impossible arrangement of old crates and barrels set up against the wall of the half-ruined building, forming a crude, fragile ladder up to the second floor. I smiled, leaping for it. Whoever it was, she was a pro, and she'd scouted this place earlier and arranged a few things to her liking. Sweating, my back spasming, I tried to ascend the makeshift stairs quietly, creeping. It ended at one of the half-crumbled, empty window frames, the bricks soft as clay.

There wasn't much left of the floor—rotted planks of wood, warped and pitted, likely to tear like paper beneath you. You would have to stay on the joists to have any chance, so I picked them out and marked them in my mind. There was a load-bearing wall ten or twelve feet across from me, a dark doorway leading a few feet to my left leading to the other side. I rolled myself in, testing my footing, and crept as silently as I could for the doorway, choking on my own air as I fought to keep my breathing slow and quiet.

She was waiting, patiently, at one of the empty windows that faced out onto the main avenue—where the front exit of the bar was. Where she expected me to appear, scratching my head and squinting like an idiot, my balding head a perfect target. Her gun was a fucking hand cannon—a revolver. It was harder and harder these days to find a good gun, a Roon or anything automatic that was pre-Unification. It was harder to find everything, these days. Where shit had been scarce not long ago it was fucking vanished now.

I needed to surprise her, take my shot before she noticed me. It would have to be fast. I allowed myself a deep breath, sucking in the gritty, dust-stirred air, bunching my aching leg muscles in preparation for a swing into the doorway that would put me in good position for an instant shot. My lungs betrayed me: my chest seized up and tried to convulse into a storm of coughing. I swallowed it down, but a snort escaped me as I quaked, and she whirled instantly, firing, the gun so loud my ears popped as I threw myself desperately across the opening, the doorframe exploding into splinters and rocky shrapnel where my face had been a second before.

I hit the rotting floor rolling, sputtering and coughing, lungs tearing at the air. The floor almost gave way, groaning and splintering, but held. Still sputtering, I did what I thought would be the opposite of her expectations, and threw myself right back at the doorway, emptying my clip with six rapid squeezes of the trigger.

I'd caught her out, and tagged one leg, but that was it. She was up, limping fast for the window. She didn't know I was out of ammo, and I didn't move to reload for fear she'd hear the dropping clip. Without a sound beyond her fluttering coat, without hesitation, she climbed into the window frame and dropped out, arms spread, disappearing downward. I spent a second admiring it.

Panting, I dropped the empty clip and struggled to my feet. I fished a fresh clip from my pocket and slammed it into place as I huffed my way to the back windows. I swung my legs out onto the barrels and jumped down, sending the whole pile of trash down as I slid to the alleyway, slipping on my heels and falling on my ass. My back screamed again as I pushed myself up, limping around to the front. I didn't need to push—the gun in my hand made people form a lane for me. I rounded the corner and stopped. She was gone. I leaned over and stared down at the ground, sucking in air.

"SPARE some yen?"

The Monk danced between me and the tavern, limping on a damaged leg that had been repaired with a lead pipe welded at the knee. It wore a ragged suit of clothes plucked from some dead body in an alley, but its white plastic face was still perfect, clean and unmarred, floating like a moon in front of me.

I gestured. "Step aside, Tin Man." It was the way of The System of Federated Nations: If you ever paused to have mercy on anyone, your most likely reward was a knife in the back and a thousand hands in your pockets.

It jumped sideways and accosted another unlucky fellow without hesitation. I straightened up and stepped back into the deserted tavern, where the glasses and the stainless steel carafe remained on the bar. I placed my gun on the bar next to the glass and poured myself a blast on the house. Knocking back half of it with a shiver and a sputtering cough, I smiled down at my hands, trembling with reaction and adrenaline, and thought this is why I don't get out much.


Copyright © Jeff Somers.