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Freedom's Price

Part XI

The rain had slackened off through the evening until it had become only a steady, depressing drizzle that spattered against the buildings and streets but did nothing to wash the grime away. Risa and Tyler waited in Melora's darkened apartment, the same pale light Tyler had seen the night before coming through the rain-streaked main window.

"Waiting," Risa murmured, "isn't one of my strong points."

Tyler smiled at her from where he stood next to a window that overlooked the front of the building. His body was off to one side of it, so that he would be more difficult to see if anyone thought to look up.

"Waiting is when all the doubts come to plague you, and when your conscience speaks loudest."

"Damn, Tyler, you are such a downer sometimes. I just don't like to sit still. I want to be out doing things. Y'know, your problem is that you think too much."

"Well, you might be about to get your wish for action. Come take a look."

He beckoned her over to the window and indicated where she should look down. A dark-colored landskimmer, navy blue or maybe black, had pulled up across the street. The doors slid open and three men got out, with a fourth remaining in the skimmer. The vehicle's lights and engine stayed on for a moment, then one of the men said something to the driver and the skimmer shut down. A search rarely required a quick getaway.

"Those look like your pals from two nights ago?" Tyler asked.

"That's them, all right; at least two of them. I guess they brought a friend."

Even in the dim glow of the streetlights and the bright neon advertising signs that studded the block, Tyler had been able to make out the brilliant chartreuse mohawk sported by one of the men, and the dark gray coat and sunshades of a second. The third muscleboy was thin and wiry, almost scrawny, and had spiky white hair. The rat pack made its way to the apartment door and managed to finagle their way past it, which didn't take much doing.

"Get ready," Tyler said, "and remember, dead men don't answer questions." They took up their positions by the door. It didn't take long before they heard footsteps in the hall outside. The doorknob turned under the pressure of a hand.

"Hey," a voice chortled, "it's still unlocked from the last time we were here."

"Shut up, you moron," another one hissed. "You maybe want to tell the whole bloody planet what we're doing?"

The door sprang open, and Tyler and Risa exploded into action. Tyler used a variant of the same trick he had tried on Risa when they had fought here the night before, sliding a tipped-over floor lamp in front of the open door. The first man through stumbled into it, the lamp's neck catching him at the ankles and sending him sprawling. Tyler's hand lashed out and caught the second man, the mohawked one, by his leather vest and jerked him forward. Risa's foot launched up from the floor simultaneously and buried itself in the thug's midsection, the heavy boot crashing into his solar plexus and driving the wind from his body. That left him powerless as Tyler dragged him into the room and dumped him on his spike-haired friend.

Fast as this happened, it wasn't fast enough to keep the last muscleboy from realizing something was wrong. He jumped backwards, not exactly sure what was going on but aware that it was bad, and swept aside his coat. He was wearing the duster for a good reason; its length helped hide the Inverness combat shotgun hanging in its shoulder sling.

One benefit to experience was that Tyler knew instantly, almost instinctively, that the corp-styled thug would have his gun out a half-second or so before Tyler could draw the Marksman. That being the case, Tyler didn't even go for his sonic gun, instead thrusting his hand out, leveling his first two fingers at the goon. The moment it took him to focus his will let the muscleboy get the shotgun in his hands, but that was all.

"TSU!" Tyler commanded, and a searing blast of energy lashed out from his fingertips, slamming into the thug's chest, the white-hot beam not unlike the fire from a laser shot. The impact from the technique's energy surging into the muscleboy's body catapulted him onto his back in the dimly-lit hall. The shotgun flew out of his hand and landed five feet away. Tyler grabbed it, yanked the stunned thug to his feet, and forced him into Melora's apartment with the muzzle of the Inverness rammed into his back. Predictably, no one so much as opened a door to see what was going on.

"I didn't know you were a tech-user," Risa commented. Her claws were pressed into the throats of the two men on the floor, providing them with a good reason to lie very still.

Tyler removed a heavy steel baton from the fibercoated muscleboy's belt, thrust him onto the couch, and snapped on the overhead light.

"Standard training. No area of potential is overlooked, including tech use."

"Yeah, I can see how that would work."

The muscleboy on the couch groaned, his senses clearing.

"Hey, what is this? What're you talking about?" babbled the spike-haired thug.

Tyler snarled. Looking at the three of them lying helpless, he was growing angry. This was what he had been acting like ever since coming back to Camineet, a second-rater squeaking by on guts and luck. It was a realization he'd had half a dozen times before, but this time instead of depressing him it just made him mad.

"What this is," he snapped, leveling the barrel of the Inverness at the punk's face, "is not a debate. Let me spell it out for you. You skags came up here a couple of nights ago and made off with a friend of ours. You came back to search the place. Now, here's a little tip: I'm a professional and you three are not. Here's another: this is not business for me. This is personal. It's called revenge. What that means is, if any one of you tries to be a wise guy, tries to lie to me, or just generally ticks me off, you're dead and there's nothing you can do to stop me."

He swung the shotgun up so that it pointed directly at the wannabe's face. The hand he was groggily raising, possibly to try a technique, dropped back into his lap.

"Good choice."

"W-what do you want to know?" babbled the spike-haired thug.

"Shut the hell up, Boz," snapped the mohawked one.

Risa applied a little more pressure with her claws, just enough for the middle bars to break the skin and draw a rivulet of blood that trickled down the side of his neck.

"Don't give me that 'code of silence' crap," she said. "You're not good enough to be playing in the loyalty-or-death leagues."

"Hey, we did this job right, didn't we?" the one on the couch protested, his voice full of wounded pride.

Tyler laughed at him.

"Not likely. You did half the job. You kidnapped the woman. You didn't find the record of what she knew, though. That's hard data out there where anyone might get his hands on it. You're back here now in a last-ditch attempt to find it and maybe, just maybe, earn some of the meseta your payoff got docked because you blew it the first time."

It was a shot in the dark, admittedly, but it paid off. The faces of all three winced at once at the memory of their humiliation. These muscleboys were the type who wanted to build a big rep on Camineet's gray side, and getting chewed out by a client worked directly against that.

Tyler glanced at Risa, still keeping his attention mostly on the seated thug. "Let's get those two over on the couch with their hands tied so you don't have to pin them to the floor all night. Don't block my line of fire, though."

"Hey, give me some credit."

In a matter of minutes the three were side by side on the sofa, hands tied behind them, their various knives, daggers, knuckledusters, and other weapons in a small pile on the floor. The Inverness had been the only gun they carried, which gave further confirmation to the already obvious conclusion that they were street muscle, hired largely because they had no official link to their client and because they were fully expendable.

"Hey, if you skags don't let us go, there'll be a half-dozen guys up here in ten minutes who'll rip your spines out," threatened the mohawked thug, who was apparently the leader and definitely the mouthiest of the rat pack.

Tyler reached out and snatched the dark glasses off the wannabe's face.

"Now, how about we stop playing games before I run out of patience?" he snapped, crushing the sunshades in his fist and letting the pieces trickle into the big talker's lap. "You don't have six guys, you've got two, and one didn't come with you. So stop worrying about how damn tough you're trying to be and get it through the stale perolymate you use for a brain that your only chance of walking out of this apartment is to make me a happy man."

The problem with talking tough in an interrogation like this was that every so often there came a time when you had to either back down or kill someone to prove you were serious. Tyler knew people who would have slashed a throat by now just to make a point. Melora probably wouldn't have, but she didn't have any objections to roughing a guy up a little, either. Tyler didn't like to operate that way; beating up on someone helpless--let alone killing them--made his stomach turn no matter what they had done.

This attitude, though, was not one the trio was used to. In their lives, people had been either powerless victims or predators like themselves. People who had the ability to kill didn't hold back, unless they were the cops. They believed Tyler.

"Look, all right, man, it was just biz! No reason for anyone to get killed over biz," the spike-haired one said, words spilling over his tongue in a rush. The mohawked thug glared at him, but kept his mouth shut this time.

"I want specifics. Who hired you?"

"Some guy. I don't know his name!"

Risa grabbed him by the hair, jerked his head back, and pressed the tips of her claws to the soft underside of his chin.

"Try something a little more useful," she advised him.

Beads of sweat stood out on the thug's forehead.

"H-he was a corp guy--you know, fancy suit, boring hair, all business? Rach did the deal--ask him!" His eyes turned all the way to his left, staring as best he could at the one with the mohawk.

"Well, I guess that puts it all onto you, Rach," Tyler announced. "Talk to me."

Rach didn't want to talk, but eventually the force of Tyler's cold gaze made him look away, and he gave in.

"He didn't give us a name, but he worked for Luveno," he said sullenly.

"How do you know?"

"He bought us a round of drinks. He paid cash but when he opened his wallet I saw his corp ID."

"Describe him."

"A little shorter than you. Brown hair, clean-shaven. In his thirties, maybe, it's hard to tell with those guys."

The face didn't ring any bells with Tyler, but if the man really did work for LIM he'd be traceable.

"What did he tell you?"

"He gave us this address and told us to grab the woman and search the place for any records, datachips, anything like that. He even had a silentshot delivered to us so we could do the job the easy way. He was especially hot for computer stuff. We figured she was a gridrider, but that was way off."

That tracked with everything Tyler already knew, but it wasn't getting him anyplace.

"So what happened?"

"It went like clockwork," Rach said smugly. "We sleazed our way past the front door, went up the fire stairs, kicked in the apartment door and shot her with the silentshot. We took her down, got her out of there before she could wake up, and started to toss the joint." He growled ferally. "Then that damn kid hit the alarm and the whole job blew up in our faces."

How Melora could have left herself wide open like that Tyler had no idea. The least she should have had was some kind of security camera in the hall to warn her about possible threats right outside the door. Then again, an independent operator had to spend her meseta where she could, not where she wanted to. Melora had always believed the best defense was to take out her opponent fast; she'd buy weapons, computer equipment, information, and hire associates before establishing a secure base.

Which, he supposed, was part of why the two of them had been such a good team. They not only had complimented each other's strengths but had covered for each other's weaknesses. Maybe, Tyler thought, it's time to stop assuming I'm the only one who isn't up to form.

He looked at the three men and forced his voice as close to frozen as he could make it.

"Now, it's time for the big question. Think carefully, because this is the one that settles whether or not you have a future. What did you do with the woman?"

Tyler could see the fear in their eyes. They were trying to hide it, but the nervous glances, the twitching of facial muscles gave them away. Tied, they couldn't even use techniques, presuming they knew any. They knew their lives hung on Tyler and Risa's whims.

Frankly, it made the ex-agent sick.

"T-the guy wanted her alive!" the spike-haired one exclaimed.

"Yeah; we sure as hell weren't going to screw with that," the wannabe added. "All we did was tie her up."

Risa snarled at them, lips actually drawn back from her teeth in an expression similar to the one Rach had tried to use a moment ago. The difference was, she was much, much more frightening. The claws she wore only exaggerated the animal-like effect.

"Not like that!" the muscleboy gasped. "Hands and ankles, that's it! She wasn't hurt at all, even the paralysis had worn off when we handed her over."

"I want details," Tyler stated.

"We met the guy in a parking lot a few blocks from here, out behind a MultiMart. There were these guys with him, two men and a woman in white coats. They loaded her into a big white van and drove off with her. Then the guy gave us half what he promised and said that we'd get the rest--maybe--if we finished the job." Rach cursed under his breath and added, "I told him about the alarm, so all we had time for was to grab the lady's computer and run, but he just said he paid for results, not excuses. We were gonna mess him up, but then a couple of goons pop out of his skimmer, hardcases with bloody vulcans."

"So you backed down," Risa taunted.

Rach stayed silent for a few seconds, then said grudgingly, "Yeah, all right, we backed down. What did you want us to do? Get cut down?"

"Yes," the angry girl hissed. "I'd have liked that very much."

"Yeah, well, we preferred otherwise, so we gave him the woman's computer and left. We let any cop heat die down and came back tonight. End of story." He looked up at Tyler. "So what's it going to be?" he snapped defiantly. "You going to blow us away or let us go?"

His head snapped back with the force of Risa's punch. She had retracted the claws before lashing out, but the muscleboy's head cracked off the wall behind the sofa and he dropped off into dreamland.

"To answer his question," Tyler said as the others looked on apprehensively, "get the hell out of here. When he wakes up, you might tell him that should I ever see any of you again, I'll assume you're out for payback and shoot to kill without asking questions." Ironically, this last threat was the only one Tyler had really meant during the entire interrogation. "One last thing," he said to the wannabe as an afterthought. "Take off your coat."


"I've got a date to go dancing tonight, and mine isn't exactly in fashionable shape."

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