The dark-haired man leaned back, lighting a cigar. Around them, the other occupants of the dingy bar very deliberately ignored the two men. When the blonde-haired man came, it was wise to. “So, how can I help you?”
The blonde haired man looked at him impassively. “Pelar is dead,” he said factually. There wasn’t any concern there, no sadness, just surgical notation of fact.
The dark-haired man was only a little more moved, leaning back and sipping his wine with a frown. Insofar as the bar had any sophistication, it was all offered to these two men. “That’s the third this month,” he said reflectively. “You people have run into something too hot for you, yes?”
“That’s not your business,” the other said.
“He was a good lad,” the dark-haired man continued. “Damn sharp, and knew his business. Streets made him, didn’t break him. He was one of the few in that respect.”
“He always served with remarkable skill,” the blonde one conceded. “And remarkable self-interest.”
“You can trust the self-interested,” the dark man said.
A fractional nod of agreement. “That is correct.” For perhaps the second time in half an hour, he sipped is own wine. Perpetual tension was his given state of existence- it was nothing new.
“Well, he knew the risks,” the first man said. “So, how can I help you?”
The mere arc of an eyebrow was his only reply.
“I know you wouldn’t trouble yourself to come all this way just because one of my commissions was dead,” the dark-haired one said simply.
Those almost babyish yellow eyes weighed him up. Physically, the blonde was uninspiring, lanky and excessively long-fingered. But that meant nothing. Truly, nothing at all. Those child’s eyes couldn’t be read. That was enough. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said softly. He stretched the silence out for a few more moments, then spoke again. “I believe you have a commission in progress.”
“That is so,” the dark-haired one said. “But I always do. I presume you refer to the one close to completion.”
“Naturally,” the blonde-haired man replied.
The dark one leaned back. “The word is close. Close, not finished. I’d want another two months before that commission would be ready for service, and even then I’d recommend another six in your establishment before she’d be ready for basic fieldwork. You may be pressed, but compromising the quality of your applicants will achieve nothing except hand them more of your men.”
“I know that,” the blonde one said. “That’s one reason why I need her to do one thing, ahead of time. This is a domestic assignment only.”
The dark one frowned. “I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to,” the blonde one said bluntly. “If she succeeds, she has talent. If not, she would have been no use to us anyway.”
“I understand. Now talk the goal.”
“Twelve and a half thousand to her for taking it on,” the blonde said, ignoring the question for the moment. “Twenty five thousand for each of you, apon receipt of the package.”
“Then I’m not going to like the goal,” the dark one said slowly.
“No,” the other one said slowly. “You aren’t.”
* * *
Rehab scowled, drawing her cloak tightly around her shoulders. Considering all weather in the city was artificial, it could only be symbolic that the aristocracy chose to grace the Maw with miserable, clinging drizzle. Leaning against the shear metal pillar, she watched the world pass by, steadily staring down any part of the world that chose to watch her. Everything about her was tight
. She had corn-blonde hair, twisted into a ferocious knot at the nape of her neck, sharp features and unfriendly eyes. Gangly, she was dressed in grey, though her swaddling cloak concealed the exact features of her clothes. Looking at her, the only thing to be certain of was that she wanted you to be certain of nothing, but not even the hood could conceal the youth of her face. She was but sixteen, with a perpetual air that she knew and detested that fact.
Rehab reflected that they hadn’t been spinning her a line after all this time. The down payment was more than a line leader in the factories earned in a year, and when she completed the mission, they’d double it. And that was, apparently, only the beginning. She’d left the shallow end, that was for sure. Naturally, the mission was appropriate to that… this wasn’t going to be easy. On the other hand, they’d done a lot of the thinking for her, and given her what she’d need. Hence she was waiting here.
She watched impassively as three men staggered by. One of them saw her and made the obvious presumption about girls hanging around dark alleys all alone. In reply she drew her cloak back and pulled her sword a foot out of the scabbard, to demonstrate that she was with the other business a teenage girl in the Maw attended to. With the gangs. Nine-tenths of the time that’d be enough. This was the one-tenth, as they closed on her, and recognition dawned in both.
“Haven’t seen you in six months, bitch,” their leader rasped. He had a cruel, twisted face, about her age. “Too high and mighty for us?”
Rehab leaned back, apparently unfazed. “Just piss off, Untak. I got better things to do than hear you slur.”
“You hanging around, you can’t have much to do,” he reasoned. “I guess you’ll be wanting our pleasant company.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” Rehab scowled and folded her arms.
“For an old friend, I’ve got all evening.”
“I'm not pissing around here,” she said irritably. “I’ve got a job to do and you’re getting in my way.”
“I’m so worried…” Untak said sarcastically.
“I’m serious,” she said. “So what the hell do you want?”
They tossed out a few suggestions, which she ignored. She drew out a fifty Falvin coin, instantly focusing their attention. “This,” she said, flicking it up and catching it, “if you bugger off and don’t come back.”
“You bitch,” Untak said quietly.
“Did I mention you were right?” she asked. “I’m not part of your little league any more.”
“Well, we’re going to bring you down a peg now,” he muttered.
Frowning, she flicked the coin high into the air. Then in an instant she drew her short sword and stabbed Untak through the chest. Gurgling, he collapsed. The other two stared then went for their weapons, but she’d already drawn her arc-carbine. “Bugger off,” she said quietly.
“You killed him!” the first yelped, staring at her in disbelief.
“Mako, you really are stupid,” she said. “Just go. Don’t think I wouldn’t shoot you.”
There was a genuine incomprehension on their faces, and an awful lot of fear. She’d known them since childhood… as if that meant anything.
They went, leaving Untak- dragging a stabbed corpse through the street would arose attention. They got ten meters, then two muted hums rang out. The sound arc bolts made just before they slashed through the air, as fast as light.
“You really were stupid,” Rehab chided, clicking the safety back on. She slung her rifle, retrieved her blade and slashed their throats, just in case. Her new associates had taught her well, after all.
Relocation was naturally a necessity after that particular incident, but her associates always furnished her with a backup plan. The charm of the Maw was that three dead gangers meant nothing to the nominal authorities, nor did the gangs themselves really care about three grunts. Nonetheless, hanging around corpses might attract attention, and put the objective needlessly at his guard. Her vigil continued in its new position for some twenty minutes before the objective passed the walkway below. Very quietly, she moved across the road and looked down, hoping her interest would go unnoticed. Nondescript clothes, the usual cloak and hood. He had a confident, self-assured walk, and wasn’t as cautious as most would be walking these roads. That was something she’d been gambling on. But that didn’t confirm anything. Experimentally, she placed a hand on the hilt of her sword and drew it a few inches.
Instantly his head snapped round, looking up at her. He had dark blue hair that would be bizarre on anyone else, but on him it was mere detail. His eyes were dark blue as well. Pure blue. No whites, no pupils, just a shadow-azure sea that pierced her. Of course, the halfblood could see without facing her; pure eyes were no good for conventional sight, but old habits apparently died hard. She just stared back blankly, lowering her hand from her blade. He grunted and turned, walking away.
* * *
Following a halfblood was actually suprisingly easy. The streets were dark, crooked and narrow, you could stalk an objective from above and below, and at the end of the day, he was conceited. Where any other, Rehab included, was painfully careful to watch their back and everything around them, he simply walked through it all uncaring. That was a dangerous weakness, and the only thing she had to exploit. And her greatest strength- she knew this place, having been here all her life. She slid down a staircase and walked through an alley running parallel to his course. Two men lying in wait, but the sword was enough. The sword was a symbol, and it meant that she was worth something to someone. They backed off, wondering why on earth some kid could be worth anything to anyone. Perhaps the obvious, they’d think, and how little they knew. Right, up those steps there… climb up here and across the roof, down that gantry, jump here, land on that outhouse, into the next alley… being bodily picked up and thrown against a wall wasn’t part of the agenda.
“You must think I’m stupid.” Blue eyes regarded her coldly.
She would have laughed if it wasn’t for the fact that was no air in her throat.
“So, who are you with?” He loosened his grip a little.
“What’s it to you?” she said quietly.
“I’ll crush your throat if you don’t tell me,” the halfblood said calmly.
“Okay,” she said, feigning fear. “I’m with the Hydras.” If he really wanted her dead, he would have killed her anyway. Probably. She didn’t feel afraid, anyway, though she probably really should.
He grunted. “Nice one. Now shoot for truth.”
“Venators, then,” she said. “Recently, anyway.”
“They tried to recruit me,” he said. “They weren’t the only ones. And whom do they front? I know they front someone.”
“You think I’d know? Someone with more money than you’ve ever seen in your life, that’s enough for me,” Rehab related. Her fingers fluttered idly at her belt.
He’d been holding her entire body weight at arm's length all the time, and didn’t look like he was tiring. “I value my independence, myself. What’s your task?”
“Just watching you,” she said innocently. “Watching and reporting. It’s no crime.”
“It is if a man values his independence.” He tightened his grip for a moment, letting her struggle breathlessly, then relaxed it a little again. “What’s your name?”
She hadn’t expected that, which was probably why he asked. “Rehab.”
“Rehab?” He burst out laughing.
“It’s a name from some ancient scripture, already,” she said impatiently.
“Whoever named you had a weird sense of humour.”
“So it’s a stupid name,” she said. “You don’t believe me if I say I’m still with the Hydras, but you’ll buy the name Rehab at once?”
“Your pulse accelerates when you lie,” he said calmly. “Even in a seasoned liar like you.”
“What do you want?” she asked irritably. “I’ve told you everything you need.”
He looked like he was musing on that question himself. “Oh, I’ll probably kill you. I’ve still got a job to do and I’m not scared by your little clan and their contacts.”
Rehab had expected that answer, and had known it had always been coming, but it was a lot scarier when vocalised. That made it somewhat inescapable.
“You’re good at hiding fear,” he remarked inconsequentially. “It’s a pity, because I like people to fear me. It’s also the only appropriate state of mind when you’ve been caught stalking a halfblood.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint your expectations,” she said dryly, brushing her hair back with one hand.
“Of course, fear is so much in this place,” he mused. “It’s something I learned quickly. Well, I’m bored, and I’ve got an assignment to complete.”
She looked down. “Halfblood, one thing.”
“Yes?” he asked playfully.
She took a breath. “You must think I’m stupid.”
The motion was deft and completely unexpected, the silver barb shining in her fingers and stabbing into his chest before he could so much as move. There was an unpleasant moment as he stared at her in sudden fury, hands closing around her neck… then the tranquillisers took hold, ripping the strength from his limbs. He staggered, gasped, and fell. Rehab picked herself up, ineffectually brushing the dust from her clothes. Then she reached for the communicator she’d been cautiously given. “Hello? Rehab. I’ve got the objective, he’s unconscious. I’ll send your associates the co-ordinates. Do I get paid yet? Hmm? I can handle it,” she said coolly. “Things didn’t go exactly as planned, no, but he was inattentive. Huh? Okay. If you insist.”
Someone else took up the other end. “You could call me an agent of the Venators' employers. We’re interested in commissioning you.”
“And you’re?” she asked.
“You might know of us as the ICA.”
Rehab tried to remember. “I was told about you. Internal Corporations Agency. What does that even mean?
“Not much. That’s what most people know, but it stands for something else, actually.”
“Hmm?” she asked, trying to sound interested.
“Intelligence. Counterintelligence. Assassination.”