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He Who Laughs Last

Part III


"Shaved head, green beard," Cash summed up, then spat angrily into the gutter.

"You know the man," I stated. There was a mist off the sea, pale and wispy, something we didn't get in Camineet.

"Trenton"--he spat again--"Griggs. Fixer. Middle of the food chain." Rival, I decided, and probably a bit above middle.

"You were hacked," I said. "Someone knew you were hiring me, what the codes were. I was followed in Camineet and the guy turned up here. I wondered how the heck that could happen. Now I know. He knew where I was going. When he couldn't get the chip the hard way, Griggs cut in and got it for cred by completing our contract. You need to up your phone security, Cash."

"Don't wise off at me, Marshall. You screwed up. You gave my data to the wrong guy."

"Who gave me the password you set up," I said. "If you were going to make the pickup yourself, you should have told me. Then you wouldn't have had to worry about fakers cutting in on your action." I sighed, then added, "Look, I'm tired, it's late even on Camineet time, and I've had a hard day. There's no point trying to fix blame."

"You're right," Cash said. "Griggs is the one at fault; anything you or I did is incidental. What matters now is getting the chip back before Griggs gets the chance to sell it. He'll be moving fast, so we'll need to go after him now."

"We?" I asked.

He rounded on me.

"We," he said flatly. "I need another gun, Marshall, if I'm going to make this work. You were hired to deliver the chip. It didn't happen. Let's fix that."

Cash grinned. I didn't feel like smiling. Smug worm; he knew exactly what I'd do. Probably had a full report on me from his contacts before he hired me in the first place--you don't throw five K away because you like the sound of a man's name. He knew that given that the chip I'd been hired to deliver had wound up in the wrong hands, my fault or not, I'd have a responsibility. Especially since I'd been paid by the wrong side (which I certainly intended to keep; it was a fitting payback for using me).

"All right. You have a plan, I hope?"

"The start of one. Come on; I'll explain."

Cash's skimmer wasn't quite a limousine, but it was the next best thing, a Palman Motors Microglide, the kind with the hoversystem that let it float above the ground instead of riding on wheels or treads for the ultimate in smooth rides (I must be sleepy; I sound like a flipping promo spot). I noted the not-entirely-subtle body armor and the windows made of advanced polymers, though I wondered what good that did, given the extreme vulnerability of the underside. The security-conscious attitude extended to the driver, a uniformed hulk of a man. When he got out to open Cash's door, I saw that he stood at least six-five and had to weigh over three hundred pounds of pure muscle. The uniform he wore was definitely a carbonsuit, and probably was augmented with armor as well. He looked as if he could snap me in half with a pinky finger.

We got in the back and the driver shut the door before getting back in. It struck me that if my client was the petulant type who liked to extract his pound of flesh from his own people when things went bad for him, I was not in a good position. Oh, well, too late to do anything about that now except keep the Marksman ready.

"Adam, take us to the harbor district. We need to pay a call on Trenton Griggs."

"Yes, sir," replied the hulk in a distinctly unhulklike, even educated voice.

The Microglide hummed to live, sweeping through the Scion city streets. The ride was as luxurious as I'd imagined; only the inertia of stopping, starting up, and changing direction told my body it was in motion at all.

"As I said," Cash told me, "the nature of the data you--inadvertently, I grant--delivered to Griggs makes it evident that he'll be moving it quickly. The time to strike is now. He operates out of various places, but his 'home base,' so to speak, is an old hotel in the dockside section. He'll be there, making his connections."

"So we're going in and taking the chip?"

"Got it in one."

Well, at least Griggs wasn't likely to call the DLE and do anything that would screw up my record, since it would mean exposure of his own illegal biz. On the other hand, he was very likely to have a fair number of armed goons around who would no doubt be happy to do things to me that would show up in my citizen file under "cause of death."

"He'll have security," I warned.

"Don't worry; I came prepared."

He touched a button, and a section of the partition between the front and back seats recessed to reveal a vidscreen. Another touch made a keyboard slide out. Apparently Cash had sunk some heavy meseta into the complete option package. A few keystrokes brought up a 3-D schematic.

"What we've got here is the plans for Griggs' little hideyhole, fished out by a helpful gridrider." A few more keystrokes caused various points to light up in red. "The main door and the old service entrance to the kitchens are both out, but there's a third-floor fire escape that's not rigged, mainly because the fire escape is gone now."

From the looks of the plan, which showed internal sec-systems that definitely weren't what the hotel had originally come with, Cash's gridrider must have hacked into the files of the security firm that had installed the cameras, alarms, and auto-defenses. This, as you can guess, wasn't easy but serious neon angel stuff, given that most security firms are into datanet security as well.

"Going to climb the wall?" I asked.

Cash chuckled.

"You are. I'm sure you can handle opening one door."

"Yeah, if I don't have to fly up to it."

"That, Mr. Marshall, is why we live in a world with ladders."

Ladders.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn't that just a little bloody obvious?"

He grinned, showing lots of teeth, like a Burnwolf contemplating its latest target's throat.

"Oh, I'm thinking his muscleboys will have more to worry about than that."

He typed a few more keys, initiating the porta-visiphone function of his onboard comp. It rang twice at the far end, and an amber-skinned face decorated with light-get tattoos on both cheeks appeared.

"Yo, you know what time it is?"

"Time for you to make some money, Stinger. Remember that job we discussed?"

"Yeah..." the punk said. I noted that the tattoos were both of scorpions, tails poised to strike. "I remember the price, too. Aura Scorpions don't come cheap."

"Fifteen K for you and your boys," Cash said. "You strike in exactly twenty minutes from the time I hang up. Hit the front and back, and"--He favored Stinger with that toothy grin.--"don't be nice about it."

Stinger grinned back, looking just as feral.

"You got it, man."

Cash hung up on him.

"You've been planning this for a while," I noted.

He smirked.

"Let's just say that I've been planning extensive business negotiations with the competition for some time. Those gangers will hit Griggs front and back, both of his doors. Something nice and noisy to occupy his muscleboys. DLE response time in that district is about twelve minutes, 'cause they're gonna come in with a rover and tac-teams, not a patrol, to a major violence call."

"You've done your homework," I said approvingly. What I didn't like was the style of the operation. People were going to get killed. Sure, we were talking about a fixer's hired muscle and a pack of gangers, none of whom had much of a life expectancy in their current careers anyway, but still, they were Palman lives. I don't mind working for the underworld now and again (hell, a good ninety percent of bag runs come from guys like Cash and Griggs and are gray areas at best), but getting into the middle of a scene like this was hunter stuff. Show you what a bloody sense of professional honor will rope you into.

"I have, which makes me twice as angry that Griggs cut in on my action this way. In case you were wondering," he added, "I didn't make the call to you from the car phone."

I had been wondering that, as a matter of fact.

Cash returned to the schematic.

"Here's what happens. When the fur starts to fly, we go in this door. We make our way down this hall to Griggs' office and bust in. He'll have the chip with him; there's no way he'd let it out of his sight. Then we get the hell out in under ten minutes. If we're really lucky, he's bribed the cops to leave him alone, but I wouldn't bet on it."

"Sounds straightforward enough."

"It should be. Adam, you, and I ought to be enough to deal with any of Griggs' boys we happen to meet."

Frankly, I figured Adam was enough by himself to deal with the enemy fixer's whole crew.

"You have any questions?" asked Cash. "Now's the time to ask."

"Nope. No way to plan past the start, anyway."

"Okay, then. You need a gun?"

"I've got mine." Luckily, a sonic gun didn't leave traceable evidence behind the way vulcan rounds could be matched to a weapon by ballistics.

Cash nodded.

"Just figured I'd ask."

He pressed a couple of more buttons, causing the computer to close up and another compartment to open. Cash took out a titanium chest-and-back armor set, which he buckled into place, then donned titanium headgear. Next he took out a bulky laser shot, a heavy-frame version with a little more power than the conventional one-handed pistol. This went into a hip sling on his right side, while a long ceramic knife with an eight-inch blade was sheathed on the left. The professional way he handled the gear told me that my client was more than familiar with the tools of the soldier's trade. That was good, considering that he was going to be the one backing me up in a fire zone.

The rest of the drive passed quickly, which was good. It kept me from worrying about what I was about to do. Commando raids weren't my style--I'd pulled exactly one in my whole bloody career, and it hadn't been this big. Punch-ups like the one I'd had in the alley were more my speed. I was glad when the Microglide slid into the side passage--an airshaft, really--next to what an old, burnt-out neon sign identified as having once been the Harborview Plaza Hotel. Of course, the only plaza in sight was the narrow street out front and the view was of decrepit old brownstones and equally decrepit new concrete blocks, but hey, what's a little poetic license among friends?

"Let's go," Cash said, cutting short my thoughts. Adam hit some control in the aerospace control panel Palman Motors called a dashboard and the trunk popped open. We were just getting the ladder out when it all hit the fan. Shouts, explosions, the high-pitched screams of sonic guns and the dull booms of combat shotguns told me the Aura Scorpions weren't doing things by halves. I checked my chron; it was 2:07.

I clambered up the ladder, feeling my gut lurch every time it flexed or swayed. Falling twenty feet to the pavement wasn't as exotic as getting lasered, dumped in the bay as ammonite food, or standing at ground zero for somebody's NAGRA technique, but it would make me just as dead. I got to the top, though, and started looking at a locked door with no handle on the outside.

Some inquiry agents of my acquaintance could give B and E lessons to a cat burglar. It is, after all, a handy talent for collecting evidence, planting electronic surveillance toys, and otherwise forcibly inserting oneself into the information loop. I am, however, not one of those inquiry agents. Figuring that one more gunshot wasn't going to attract anyone's attention at this point, I drew the Marksman and blew out a fist-size chunk of the door, specifically the part where the lock had been. With my free hand--which meant letting go of the ladder, ugh--I pulled the door open so I could clamber inside. Cash and Adam followed me in, the big driver carrying a laser shot like his boss', only in one hand, and even that dwarfed the gun, making the normally two-handed weapon look like a pocket pistol.

Cash told Adam to lead the way, and we followed along. I slid my hand into my coat pocket and palmed my backup piece, ready for anything. I hoped.

The Harborview had apparently been designed with fake old-school luxury in mind, with dark red carpeting (now faded), wood-paneled walls (cheap plastic veneer), and exotic fluted-glass light fixtures extending from iron sconces (also plastic) all designed to present an image of sumptuous elegance (such as that found in cheap bordellos). The battle raging outside was clearly audible through the thin walls, and I could feel every second tick down as we climbed two flights of stairs. Trenton Griggs has reserved what passed for a penthouse suite in this joint for his own. It occupied about one fourth of the top level's floor space, according to the schematic, and was at the end of a short hall near the stairs and elevator both.

Unfortunately, straight down that hall was the only way to go, so that's what we did. Two members of the usual goon squad were on guard in front of the door, guns in hand. We fired more or less simultaneously, and I couldn't suppress a wince as the two men slumped back against the door and crumpled to the worn red carpet. Adam had taken a couple of hits, but apparently whatever armor he had on was up to the job because he barely slowed down, throwing the doors open and storming into the room. Another guard was there, his attention on a security monitor, but Cash shot him down before he could get his gun out. We headed into what must have been Griggs' business office, barely pausing to acknowledge another death.

Unlike the rest of the hotel, I noticed, the furnishings in the fixer's penthouse were neither replicas nor cheap. The carpet, for example, was an exotic Motavian weave with golden dragons twined on a scarlet background, and the huge desk behind which Greenbeard himself (yes, we were in the right place) sat was clearly real wood. He was still wearing the carbonsuit, but had at least gotten rid of the jacket.

Griggs clucked his tongue at us.

"Really, Cash, I'd have thought this evening would have taught you to keep out of my affairs, and instead here you are, interfering again." He still had the accent of the Scion streets, but this time it had a supercilious tone that didn't jive with a man who had a war on his doorstep and three guns pointed at his head. "Slow learner?" he inquired pleasantly, lifting a thin cigar to his lips. Griggs picked up a heavy desk lighter with a cut-glass base and snapped it into flame, touching it to the cigar.

"I want the G-Tech data," Cash said. I'd been calling him that because I had no other name to go by, but since Greenbeard had used it too I realized that it was his actual name (or actual nickname, at least).

"I'm sure you do." He took a drag on his cigar, sighing blissfully as he drew the smoke from the Dezolian tabak into his lungs. Then, with a deft flick of his wrist, he tossed the lighter onto the carpet at our feet.

Where, predictably, it exploded.

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