Chapter Five

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Five

Surebleak Port

Captain Waitley wasn’t quite what Portmaster Liu had been expecting.

No, scratch that, in a lot of ways, Captain Waitley was exactly what Portmaster Liu had been expecting: short for a Terran, tall for a Liaden, lean for the height she did have; shoulders showing attitude under a Jump jacket older and bigger than she was. Whatever else she was–and recklessly negligent wasn’t off the table, in Portmaster Liu’s not-exactly-objective opinion–Theo Waitley was definitely a member of Boss Conrad’s extended family, Clan Korval. Portmaster Liu had been spending a lot of time lately with the Boss and the Boss’s little brother, the Road Boss; she knew the family look when she saw it.

What did surprise her was the wild scramble of wispy fair hair, the pale skin, and the obvious frown. Captain Waitley was ticked off, which was fair enough. What was interesting, though, was how plain she let that bad temper show.

On several occasions over the course of their profitable, if not exactly placid, relationship, Boss Conrad had reason to be annoyed with Portmaster Liu, which she’d never known from his face. Crisp over-politeness was the first clue, followed by frozen good manners, and a toxic increase in irony levels, if whatever was making him peevish didn’t subside straight off.

Well, and maybe Captain Waitley had found that a frank and open display of temper got her the results she wanted. It probably took a fair amount of practice to perfect Boss Conrad’s style. . .

“Portmaster Liu, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” the captain said–well, snapped. “You wanted to talk with me about the drones we dropped off?”

She blinked.

Got right down to the business at hand, did Captain Waitley, without even so much as an inquiry into the Portmaster’s general health and the state of the port. Nothing rude about it–a classic Terran approach, really. Some of the kids attached to Conrad’s family were taking up the Terran mode, from what she’d seen and heard, so–fair enough, again.

“I appreciate you coming so quick,” she answered. “Good timing, as it happens. I got a survey team on my hands. They’ll be wanting to have my attention in about twenty minutes. So we’ll need to settle our business fairly smart.”

Captain Waitley nodded briskly.

“I won’t waste your time. I’ve come to pay my fine.”

Well, now–the fine. On the one hand, it was good that she knew she’d be having to pay a fine and wasn’t making the smallest suggestion that it could be lost, friendly-like, in the paperwork.

You’d think, though, given a captain with a reputation of a certain kind, attached to a family that valued its ships more than the lives of their children–you’d think that captain’d consider the fine–hefty as it was–the least of her problems.

Which maybe meant that Captain Waitley hadn’t quite reasoned her way into a full set of understandings.

Well, Portmaster Liu thought, consciously bringing herself taller in the chair; this’ll be fun.

“Have a seat, Captain,” she said, nodding at the smaller chair by the side of her desk.

Captain Waitley’s frown got frownier, but she sat down, civilized enough, and, as a seeming afterthought, folded her hands on her knee.

“The fine now,” the portmaster said, forcing herself to talk easy in the face of that visible increase in bad temper. “You’ll take care of that with the bursar. I’ll point you in his direction after we get done talking about the citation.”

Space black eyes blinked.

“Citation?” she repeated, real quiet.

Right, thought the portmaster. This was the street Captain Waitley was willing to die on. Money was only money–well, Portmaster Liu could agree on that point, most times. But a citation, now–that was an assault against honor–and, the little gods of nuts ‘n bolts save her, she might’ve just let it go with a stern talking-to, rather than fight that fight with one of Conrad’s own, but–

“Citation?” Captain Waitley said again, even quieter.

“That’s right,” Portmaster Liu said, giving the thing weight with a brisk nod. “We’re laying a grava cita?o–a major citation–for violation of spaceway protocol for one Standard Year against your personal license, and a six-monther against your ship.”

“That’s. . .steep,” Captain Waitley observed, which as a response was a lot milder than the portmaster had braced herself for, considering that it was going to be damned spensive in terms of hazard fees and dangerous-docking levies. Small trader was gonna feel that.

“It is,” she agreed. “And I’m sorry to say that I can’t let either one slide off the table.”

Another blink; the frown fading into thoughtfulness.

“Aren’t you the portmaster?”

Quick on the pick-up–well, that was the family, too, grandpa to babe-in-arms.

“That’s right,” she said equitably. “I’m the portmaster.”

“Well, then, why can’t?” the captain asked, which was a reasonable enough question. “I admit that we–theoretically–imperiled traffic. I have no quarrel with being fined. The drone didn’t cause an accident; it’s gone by now, and even if it had collided with a ship, the most they would have thought was they’d caught a patch of dust. Still–you’re the portmaster, and I was out of line. We agree.”

She took a deep breath, visibly settling into being calm, and Portmaster Liu took a similar breath, in solidarity.

“Typical offenses that merit a grava cita?o are: law-breaking, port-breaking, child-stealing, illegal dealings, piloting to endanger–“

Girl knew her regs, plain enough. Portmaster Liu held up a hand, palm out.

“You’re right. I’m calling down a blizzard where a squall would do, like they say out in the city. Between us, if you’d dropped your little party favor in my shipping lanes on any other day, I’d’ve fined you, dressed you down like you’d never worn clothes before, and we’d’ve parted on good terms.

“But you happened to pull this stupid stunt at the exact same time we got a TerraTrade survey on-port, trying their best to figure out how to hold back that upgrade you might’ve heard Boss Conrad is so set on us getting.”

Another frown, and a speculative look.

“You’re saying that you not only have to go by the book, you’ve got to go by the strictest reading possible, or the survey team will find cause to withhold,” Captain Waitley said with a slight nod. “I see that; I don’t have a problem with the fine. I won’t like it, but knowing the reasons, I’ll even swallow the six monther against the ship, but–“

Portmaster Liu held up her hand again, and glanced at the clock on the wall.

“There’s another factor that you’re not taking into account, Captain. This is gonna sound brusque, but I’m getting short on time. The reason the survey team is looking so hard for reasons to deny this port its upgrade is because of what happened at Solcintra. At least one member of the team has it as his stated opinion that Clan Korval is outright pirates and all Surebleak Port deserves is a Do Not Stop until such time as you and yours leaves the planet.”

She paused, and tipped her head slightly.

“Pardon?” she asked politely.

Captain Waitley shook her head.

“Nothing; sorry. Why are they even bothering to survey, if that’s their opinion?”

“It’s only one opinion out of a possible three. The other members of the team state that they’ve brought no preconceptions to the survey. Which might be so, but even if it is so doesn’t necessarily mean that TerraTrade thinks the same. In which case, they’ve got the team doing the survey so’s to have the record full and proper, and no questions, this time. Nor any appeals.”

Captain Waitley’s frown was back; she fluttered her fingers, pilot-sign for go on.

“Right. So, what I have to make plain as the snow in front of your nose is that the portmaster’s office doesn’t put up with any kind or size of shenanigans, and that we’re particularly keeping a very close eye on the members of Clan Korval. Any of ’em step outta line, and they get slapped, fast and hard.”

She took a hard breath, aware that she’d been getting a little emphatic, and finished it off quiet.

“On account of this is Surebleak Port, not Port Korval–nowhere even close.”

There was a little bit of silence, which she didn’t interrupt, despite the time.

“I’m not a member of Clan Korval,” Captain Waitley said eventually. “I’m a citizen of Delgado.”

Right or wrong, Portmaster Liu couldn’t help but feel some sympathy. The captain was doing a good enough job of holding on to her temper, and working through the possibles, as clean and crisp as if the whole of it was a problem out of ethics class. Unfortunately. . .

“That might work as a dodge on another day, Captain,” she said kindly; “but I’m betting the survey team’s not ignorant of the fact that you’re the Road Boss’s sister. You being a Terran and a citizen of Delgado–all that’s aside. You’re family, even if you aren’t clan.”

There was a longish silence.

“I pulled an extra-heavy fine and two grava cita?os because I’m Val Con’s sister,” Captain Waitley repeated, seeming like she just wanted to be sure she had the info right.

“That’s right, Captain. I’m real sorry about it, but we got a lot riding on getting this upgraded certification. Ain’t just your family wants it. All Surebleak needs it.”

Deep breath, then; muscles visibly loosened. Captain Waitley inclined her head just like Boss Conrad would have it, and said, in an over-dry voice.

“Thank you again for seeing me, Port Master. I’ll leave you now to your business. If you’ll just point me toward the bursar’s office?”

“Sure thing; it’s right on the way out, at the bottom of the stairs.” She hesitated, eyeing the captain as she got to her feet.

“You take care now, hear?”

* * *

“Because the idea of an open supply system from the port throughout the city and to the settlements beyond the city is a relatively new one, the Road Boss does, as you see, hold open office hours. Our object is not only to answer questions regarding the rules of the road, and to share information, but also to learn from the native population. We have had valuable input regarding the history of the main supply routes–of which the Port Road is merely the longest–how the costs of maintenance and patrol were apportioned before the colony was abandoned by the Gilmour Agency, and the local culture devolved.

“The Road Boss and others of the Council of Bosses are working in committee to identify the secondary routes, assess their value, and to produce a timeline for the establishment–I should say, re-establishment–of those routes, in cases where it is warranted.”

“Then the Road Boss’s office primarily benefits the city?” asked Soreya Kasveini.

“Supply flows in both directions,” Val Con said patiently. “Goods move from the port to the city. Likewise, goods and workers move from the city to the port. It is a symbiosis; the success of each depends upon the vitality of both.”

“The file on this office which was provided by the portmaster indicates that there are protocols in place for ensuring that the Port Road remains open. One of those protocols involves armed enforcement. Does your office employ soldiers? Mercenaries, perhaps?”

Val Con took a careful breath, and produced a Terran smile for the benefit of the interviewer.

“Surebleak has been enjoying a period of population growth. Among those who have chosen to establish a base here are a number of active mercenary units. In addition, Surebleak has in its native population a significant number of retired military. This is to say that, should it become necessary to keep the Port Road open by force of arms, then the means to implement that protocol is close to hand.”

He moved his shoulders, and looked wry.

“Speaking as Road Boss, I do not think we will find any necessity to use such means to secure the road. We are fortunate, that those who live in the city largely see the Port Road as a benefit. There is some complaint with regard to the usage fees, but it is traditional, after all, to be aggrieved by the fees.”

Team Leader Kasveini actually produced a smile of her own.

“It is, isn’t it?” she said, and sighed, looking up to meet his eyes.

“What is your estimation,” she said, “of the possibility of an attempt to close the road from the port side?”

He lifted an eyebrow.

“An invasion, you mean?”

“Something along those lines. Clan Korval is not, I think, without enemies. It must have occurred to you that your presence endangers not only the port but this entire planet.”

Anger flared, though she spoke nothing but the truth. Jeeves had done what he could, given the meager infrastructure that had been in place. Certainly, there was nothing like a planetary defense net in place on Surebeak. . .one might, without exercising undue optimism, add yet to that statement. They had plans, and a design, but that was well outside of TerraTrade’s need to know.

He took another careful breath and met Soreya Kasveini’s eyes as calmly as he was able.

“Clan Korval has never been without enemies. It had long been our practice to extend such protections as we had to the port and the planet on which we were dependent. That is, after all, both good business and good husbandry.”

Her gaze remained firm, and for a moment he thought she might ask further.

Self-preservation, or a simple realization that this line of questioning was. . .somewhat aside her mandate, brought a sigh to her lips, even as she glanced down and touched the button of her recorder.

“Thank you; I believe that those are all of my questions. If a need for clarity or expansion arises, I or another member of the team will stop by to speak with you again.”

“I understand.”

He stood when she did, and bowed.

“I appreciate your efforts,” he said, “on behalf of Surebleak Port.”

She returned the bow, but not the sentiment, which he supposed was fair enough. He touched the plate on his desk and the door to the anteroom opened to reveal the largeness that was Nelirikk.

“Team Leader Kasveini is leaving,” Val Con told him. “Pray see her out.”

* * *

The day was fine and clear, warmer here than in Surebleak city, on this little bit of land surrounded on three sides by the creamy waters of the lake. It was a large lake, and showed admirably clear in the maps left behind by the Gilmour Agency. It had no name, merely a geographic designation, though someone had taken the trouble to make a brief note: “fresh, mineral.”

Near the center of the little pennisula were various markers and machineries–the tools of architects and surveyors. There were, this morning, no workers at the site, though they had been about recently, leaving behind items associated with their trades in neat piles, and sections of cleared land marked off with string and stakes.

The land toward lakeside was grassy, sloping gently down to the water. The work site was at the height of land, closer to the treeline on the mainland than the lake.

There was very little sound–a small breeze dancing through the grasses, a slight crackling where a tarp that had not been fully secured fluttered in that same breeze; the playful plash of small waves against the edges of the land.

And the sound, faint at first, but growing rapidly louder, of an engine.

A shadow moved over the tree tops, branches bent and flailed as the shadow became a aircraft, swooping in low and fast.

Three bombs and the peninsula was no more; the lake turgid with mud, as the shadow flickered over small, outraged waves, cutting hard to the left–

. . .and was gone.

* * *

Well, Val Con thought carefully, it wasn’t as if the survey team leader had stated in so many words that Korval’s mere presence on-world was being weighed as an on-going, and active, threat to the welfare of the port.

On the other hand, she hadn’t had to; the insinuation had been more than enough.

His temper was beyond frayed. A glance at the screen showed Nelirikk alone in the anteroom, the door that opened onto port decently closed, and no one waiting for a moment of the Road Boss’s attention.

Good. That was good.

He considered closing the office for an early lunch, but the thought of going into the Emerald and perhaps having to tell Pat Rin. . .No. Best simply to sit, and collect himself. A cup of tea would not be amiss, and that he could provide for himself.

Closing his eyes, he worked through a mental sequence meant to impart calm and clear thought. After the exercise was done, he sat for several more minutes, eyes closed, just. . .breathing.

Somewhat calmer, he rose, and moved to the back of the little office, stepping ’round the partition into the private area. The door to the utilitarian facilities was at the far left; quick oven, tea-maker, and cold box, grouped as a small galley, center; and the back door, or, as Miri had it, the bolt hole, at the right.

He touched the tea-maker, and waited while it brewed a cup of heavily caffeinated tea. It was a compromise beverage, preferred by neither Road Boss, but grudgingly pronounced drinkable by both. It was possible that caffeine was not precisely what his temper needed at the moment. Perhaps he ought to see if they might expand the pantry’s holdings so far as mint. . .

The ‘maker pinged, announcing the end of the brew cycle, and he drew off a cup, taking it with him back to the main office.

Carefully, he set the cup on the desk and stood by his chair, considering the song of Miri, which he heard, always, inside of his head. He detected no discord or signs of distress, which was good–one of them ought to be enjoying a calm interlude. It did, however, give rise to the question of what had occurred–or was occurring–with Emissary Twelve. If that person was indeed one of the Short Lives. . .

The bell over the port-side door rang. With emphasis. Val Con looked to the screen as Theo strode into the outer office, stopping before Nelirikk’s desk, legs braced and face set.

“Is my brother in?” she snapped. “I need to talk to him.”

The image of the bolt hole flashed before his mind’s eye, but really, there was no choice. To turn Theo out onto the port in that face was to be an accessory to murder.

He crossed the room and opened the door to the front office.

“Good morning, Theo,” he said, keeping his voice smooth and his face only pleasant. “I was just having a cup of tea. Will you join me?”

* * *

“I understand that the port’s expanding,” Theo said, “and that’s why they needed to lay a cantra fine against us. But to hit us with those citations–survey team or no survey team! That’s not just reading the regs with a heavy eye; it’s inventing whole new paragraphs!”

Val Con was slouched at ease in his desk chair, ankle on opposite knee, tea cup cradled in his hands.

It was, Theo thought, not very good tea. Surprisingly bad, really, with ‘way too much caffeine and an oily texture–more like coffee than tea. Despite which, she had a swallow, hoping to loosen her throat.

“The regs,” Val Con said, apparently having decided that she’d finished saying her piece, which she guessed she had. “The regs do give the portmaster’s discretion rather wide scope. Necessary, as I think you would agree, as all ports are not one port, and conditions even at sister ports may vary. . .significantly.”

Theo slumped back in the visitor’s chair and fuffed her hair out of her eyes.

“But this portmaster–“

“Portmaster Liu, as all of us, very much wishes for TerraTrade to find Surebleak Port worthy of an upgraded certification. The survey team has many reasons to find for us–there are not so many full-service ports in this sector.”

“There isn’t any trade in this sector,” Theo pointed out.

“No; you are harsh. There is some small amount of trade and traffic in the sector, and the presence of a certified port can do nothing but increase trade. Which is an attractive proposition to TerraTrade.”

He sipped his tea, carefully, Theo thought.

“However, it does not benefit TerraTrade, which is to say, it does not benefit trade to certify an unworthy port. Above all, the process by which ratings and upgrades are determined must be beyond reproach. If the portmaster on a given port is known to read the regs with a heavy eye, as you have it, that is acceptable. A lax portmaster on a port which will, appropriately rated, become the primary draw to trade in the sector–that endangers the process, and TerraTrade’s melant’i, as well as Surebleak’s chances for an upgrade. So Portmaster Liu has reasoned–and I think she is correct.”

Theo shook her head.

“She said she came down particularly hard on Bechimo because I’m your sister. That’s not running a tight port, that’s reading the regs out of one eye for me and the other eye for everybody else.”

“Ah. Do you have evidence that she has imposed lesser sanctions on other ships which have compromised the shipping lanes?” Val Con asked interestedly.

Theo frowned at him.

“Where would I find evidence?”

“The portmaster’s log, naturally,” he said, mildly. “We might easily find if you are the first, and a warning to others–or if you have been shamefully mistreated solely because you are my sister.”

He raised his voice.

“Nelirikk, would you please send the current portmaster’s log to my screen?”

“Yes,” came the answer over the intercom.

Val Con extended an arm and turned the portable screen toward her.

“Please,” he said, rising with effortless grace. “My resources are your resources. Will you like more tea?”

“No, thank you,” she managed, and added. “What is the blend? So I know to avoid it.”

It was honest, but it wasn’t polite, and Theo bit the inside of her cheek.

Inner calm, she told herself, biting hard, and raised her eyes to Val Con’s face, expecting at the least a cool glance, and an upraised eyebrow.

But Val Con was laughing.

“I shall make you a gift of the tin, so that you may always have it before you as an example.”

“No, I–“

She took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Sorry? For being Father’s daughter, and a member of this family?” He shook his head, grin lingering. “Allow me to compliment you, Theo. That was perfectly done.”

She glared at him.

“Why’re you drinking it, if you don’t like it?”

“It is a compromise. Here, let me clear these away so that you may have room to work. A moment. . .”

He vanished ’round the partition in the back of the office, boots making no sound at all on the plastic floor. Theo adjusted the screen and entered her search terms.

#

The log showed that Master Liu ran a balanced and reasonable port–or at least she had for the last half-year, local. It would be interesting, Theo thought, to do a compare and contrast of port conditions and penalties before Korval had settled on Surebleak and after.

It would also take some time, and she was on a borrowed computer.

Bechimo, she said in bond-space.

There was no answer, though she thought she’d felt the barest brush of attention.

Right. She was being censured. She sighed. Another thing to fix, but–

“Has your search yielded evidence?” Val Con asked from too near at hand.

She shook her head and looked up.

“Nothing in the last half-year. Probably nothing at all, though to be thorough, I’d have to read the whole log, since Korval arrived on planet.”

“Ah.” He looked politely interested. “And will you do so?”

“In my spare time,” she told him; “when I have access to my own computer.”

“As you will.” He placed a tea tin on the edge of the desk, and sat down in his chair. She turned the screen back to him, eyes on the tin.

Bitter Truth?” she asked, feeling her eyebrows rise. “Who names a tea Bitter Truth?”

“Obviously, the White Wing Beverage Company does, though in earnest or in jest, I dare not speculate.”

He paused to glance at the screen, then turned a serious look in her direction.

“I wonder, Theo, if you wish to. . .emancipate yourself, so that you might establish your own family, or corporation. As you point out, being known as Korval kin is not necessarily advantageous, and in fact has been dangerous for you and for your ship.”

She stared at him. Emancipate herself? Repudiate Father, and Luken, Miri, and, well–Val Con? Even Lady Kareen was–

“Um, no,” she said carefully, to her brother’s speculative green gaze; “I don’t want to divorce myself from the–our–family.” She sighed. “I just wish you were a little less prone to trouble!”

He grinned.

“One might return the compliment, were it not well-known in the family that we are, as individuals and as a unit, prone to trouble.”

She felt her mouth soften, and gave him a nod.

“Point. But, even if I did start my own family, and formally. . .divorce myself from Clan Korval, I don’t think the people who’ve been hunting Bechimo are going to see–or care about–that level of detail.”

“They do seem to find the fine print a challenge,” Val Con agreed. “And here we approach my topic. As you are yourself kin without being clan, it may have escaped your attention that Clan Korval is a very small. . .family, indeed. Dangerously small, one might say. For our own security, we need to improve our situation. The choices before us are to disband, and allow each member to form their own alliances with other families or clans–or we might merge with another small clan and thus form a larger, to the benefit of both.”

He gave her a wise look.

“However, as we have just discussed, Clan Korval’s marriage portion will inevitably include trouble; and there are not many clans–of any size– who seek to add to their stores of trouble. As we are now placed on Surebleak, and as Surebleak will, sooner rather than later, so I believe, evolve a hybrid culture, Miri has proposed a third solution, which looks toward the future, rather than seeking to accommodate the past.”

He paused, head tipped to one side.

“I wonder if this might not be better discussed over an early lunch at the Emerald. If you have time, of– “

“Scout, attention,” Nelirikk’s big voice came over the intercom. “Status reports incoming. There have been explosions on several streets in the city, moving in toward the port. Jeeves–“

The bell over the front door shrieked and clanged as it burst off its hanger. In the screen, the port-side door burst open, admitting one man, weapon ready. Neilirikk surged to his feet; There came the sound of pellet fire, and a second figure, throwing a smoking–

An alarm went off, wailing like a sackful of cats in a fight to the death.

Theo was on her feet, turning toward the door–and was jerked to a stop by Val Con’s hand around her wrist.

“This way!” he snapped, and pulled her with him toward the back of the office.

#

They emerged into a thin, smelly alley. Val Con glanced over his shoulder, and let go of her wrist.

“Stay near,” he murmured, and moved, silent as a shadow, to the right, down-port.

Theo followed, astonished to find that she still held the stupid tea tin. She thought about dropping it, then didn’t. No reason making it easy for them, if they got through Nelirikk and out the back door.

It didn’t, she thought, look like the alley had much use. From her mental map of the port, she thought they were heading to the Emerald. Given Pat Rin and the whole rest of the family, they could probably seal the Emerald up into a fortress if they needed to, and–

“Theo,” Bechimo said inside of bond-space. “There is a group of armed individuals waiting around the corner your brother is approaching. Hold back, let him distract them, then run. I will guide you to safety–“

Theo increased her stride, and was very nearly on Val Con’s heels as he stepped ’round the corner. . .

A heavy, meaty sound, followed by a grunt–that was what she heard before she leapt around the corner, going wide, so she didn’t crowd Val Con, or trip over him if the sound had been him going down. . .

One stranger in leathers was on the ground, and Val Con was dancing under a blow from a second leathered person when Theo joined the fray.

“There she is!” somebody shouted, and Theo was dancing and ducking herself, turning hard on a heel and kicking backward, hearing a kneecap crunch.

“Theo!” Bechimo wailed. “Save yourself!”

“And leave my brother?” she demanded, before her attention was grabbed by another thug, swinging down hard, like he meant to flatten her. She ducked under the descending fist, opened the tin, and threw the contents into face and eyes, eliciting a satisfying yelp, even as she kicked another assailant.

Val Con, she saw in a frenzied glimpse, was holding his own, having knocked down another opponent.

It was an ugly fight; though nobody, thank the gods, was risking a gun. There were too many bodies in the thin alley, and the only way to go on was to go through. Six to two, Theo calculated, but two of them were down already–

“Behind you!” screamed Bechimo, and she hit the ground, rolling, hearing something strike the ‘crete with shattering force.

A boot came out of nowhere, aimed at her head. She kept rolling, and grabbed the braced leg, taking him down, half on top of her. She kneed him, pushed him off, and managed to snap to her feet. She was on the outside of the fight, she saw, with three assailants concentrating on Val Con, though one was hanging back.

She saw something gleam in that one’s hand, and lunged forward, thinking knife even as a pop sounded, and the alley began to fill with acrid-tasting smoke. Theo coughed, backing away. The assailant with the canister dropped it and turned, kicking hard and fast, connecting with her knee. Agony flared, but she kept her feet, swinging–blinded by tears, and the alley was swimming out of focus, bordered in black.

Something struck her in the right side; she gasped, her lungs clogged with smoke.

* * *

Lisle raised the butt of her gun again, then held back. The skinny blondie was down and out, crumpled up small on the sticky alley floor.

She turned in time to see Benny and Jake rush the guy, who was still fighting, despite the gas, and despite the fact that his right arm was hanging limp. She raised the gun–and thrust it in its holster, as the security siren wailed toward them.

“Leave him!” she yelled, reaching down and hauling the unconscious woman up over her shoulder in a rough carry. “We got her, that’s good enough!”

Benny got in one more kick at the guy’s head–not a solid blow–and the three of them were running, leaving their fallen to the mercy of the gas.

Behind them, the guy rallied, straightened, and threw, the knife flying true, as the thrower slid down the wall and collapsed.

* * *

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