Rat, my little sister, driving forward, taking point. Adrenaline pumping in her veins, feeling her way through the shadows, dodging around the dark. I could feel her determination like it was my own. Cassie, leaning low into the wind as it shaped her for purpose. I knew she had the speed to take this run up to the next level, but we were here on black ops. Girl knew subtlety when it was needed.
Finally, there was Mar, the wings of the Triad. Everywhere I looked, she was there, behind and to the sides. She glided in and out, never in your sight but always in your mind. The sweetest nightmare, this avenging angel.
They would die for one another, I knew. I was just hoping it wouldn't come to that.
We played it low-key, least as far as we could. The clouds were lined with grey and we went from desert to town, the hum of sand-blown engines the only sound we made. In our wake, the curfew torches were lit on the corners and we could hear voices calling to one another, echoes on the empty streets. Hole Town snarled, sweated in the heat and tempted the flame. The whores lingered on the dark sides of their doorways. Gangmasters waited for danger to pass and sent their charges, the orphan boys, out in the night to make deliveries and do business. You never saw a damn thing, but you knew it was there. The town kept turning over, smooth as a snake on its belly. Weren't no-one gonna tell them what to do.
When I got to the barber shop, I didn't come in the front. I figured no-one who was a friend would be doing that from now on. So instead, it was round the back, over the fence and in the courtyard, in the space right up next to the door where we couldn't be seen from the roof. Cassie was the tallest of us by far, and as far as the fences around allowed, she stood lookout, her rifle poised.
Pressing my face to the cold corner of a window, I couldn't see or hear a thing. Up to that point, I'd believed that Jayci would wait for me - thought that we'd been through enough together by now that she would stay. But it was clear that stakes were rising, and that girl was sharp. Suddenly, it didn't seem so likely that she would have waited for Jensen and his goons to bust in.
I was a little hurt, but also a little proud. Jayci could take care of herself. They'd need more than their showy foot soldiers to bring her down.
Still, I had to know for sure. I left the window and knelt down by the door. Mar knelt beside of me and whispered, 'Why are we stoppin'?'
'There's a door in the way,' I said.
'I can see that. I just wasn't bankin' on it bein' an issue.'
'You can pick a lock, right?'
I could hear Mar's scorn, even if I couldn't see it. 'Why would I be able to pick a goddamn lock? I live in the middle of a desert. Where in hell you think I'd get the practise?'
'I really thought there'd be more to you than your shooting and your singing.'
'They get me by. Why don't you have a key?'
'It's not my house.'
I was glaring at her, or at least vaguely where her eyes would be if I could have seen them. A hot breath and a swaddle of loose clothing on my other side heralded Rat's arrival next to me. 'Stand back. I can do this.'
A small light clicked on and a dull piece of wire appeared in Rat's hand. It rattled back and forth in the lock as she cursed and twisted. I was a little surprised, but also kind of thrilled that my little sis had life skills. Still, as her older sibling, I felt obliged to make sure that she used them judiciously.
'Say, you wouldn't have learned these skills from carrying out illegal activities, would you?'
Rat carried on looking at the lock and then spat into the mechanism. It clicked again when she began to turn the wire. 'Sometimes you gotta get into places, brother, and sometimes you gotta get out.'
'Might come a day when we're thankful for that,' Mar said.
'Like today?' Rat beamed as the lock clicked a final time, and the tiny light turned off, plunging me back into darkness.
'Okay,' I said, gently. 'This one's on me. Be ready, but let me lead the way.'
I tugged gently at the handle and slid through on the dusty floor on my heels, ready to spring up if needed. Bars of light and colour slanted across the room as the door opened. At first, a slow creak from the door was all I could hear, and then there was a curious sound from the corridor up front, like a shuffling or snuffling. I reached for my pistol and -
The air parted with a swipe and crashed down full into my face. At the same moment, the room was flooded with light and I looked up to see Gregor standing over me, clearly petrified, broom in hand.
'G!' Jayci seemed to swing in through the door on her lengthy braids, and she brought her own gun round as Mar and Rat did likewise.
'Jayci, it's me!' I called. My voice was muffled as my lip was already starting to swell. That broom handle in Gregor's meaty fist had all three hundred pounds of his weight behind it. It felt like I'd run face-first into a wall.
'Phoe-Phoe? Oh my god!' Jayci ignored the others and bounded over, no other word for it, and practically leapt into my arms. 'I thought Jensen got you in the tunnel.'
That girl's eyes were swamp-dark, and for a moment, her long nose and crooked teeth were my whole world. 'Did you miss me?' I asked.
'Oh, for sure,' Jayci disengaged with her usual nervous energy. 'Had to make my own coffee, and you know that no-one wins in that situation. But anyway, you gotta introduce me to your new friends!'
Rat had lowered her gun and smiled as she nudged me. 'Brother, you didn't say you had a girlfriend.' At the far end of the room, I saw Gregor twitch.
'Brother?' Jayci raised a chaotic eyebrow.
'Long story,' I said.
'Don't worry hun,' Jayci said to Rat. 'He never told me he had a girlfriend either!'
I did the introductions. 'Jayci, Gregor. She's the looks, he's the brains. Rat, my sister. No, don't ask. Marig...Mar. She saved my life once. Girl out back by the wall is Cassie.'
Introductions made, Gregor dumped his broom and went through to the front room where his telescope and other instruments were all bagged up and ready to go. I wasn't expecting an apology for the broom, and I didn't get one.
'How much longer were you going to wait for me?' I asked Jayci as the others headed outside.
She waited for Gregor to lumber past, turned the light off and vanished into darkness. 'As long as it took,' she said.
'Saying you wouldn't have waited for me?'
I would have waited. As long as it took. I knew that now.
'I guess I would have,' I said.
'Well, now Gregor broke your face, you ain't charming anyone new!' She danced past me, giggling to herself in her manic way, and I let it go, because I was just so damned thrilled that she'd stayed and I was here and so was she.
'What's going on?' I whispered.
It was Cassie, frozen in the far corner of the tiny yard, who answered. 'They're out there.'
I pressed my foot down on the vertical side of the wall and lifted myself up so I could snatch a glance over the top of the wall. It was like staring out across the desert. 'Where?'
Cassie was perfectly motionless, except for a single hand which gestured one direction and then the other. I found that the longer I stared at her, the harder she became to see. With that and her eagle eyesight, I was starting to see what Cassie brought to the party.
'Don't doubt Cassie's eyes,' Mar warned. 'If she says there are people out there, there are people out there.'
'Jensen,' Jayci growled.
'Should we go out the front?' Gregor asked.
'The curfew torches are lit,' Jayci replied. 'We'd be lit up like Christmas.'
There was a few seconds of quiet before Mar said, 'No choice then. Suit up. We're going to have to go through them.'
I already had my hand on my pistol when I stared down the passageway and Piano Man's words from earlier came back to me. 'When you're faced with a choice between left and right, choose straight ahead.'
I looked directly across the passageway to the two-storey warehouse wall opposite. 'No,' I said. 'There's another way.'
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