Hey! I’m still alive! Not that my being alive is, in itself, justification for all these exclamation points!
So here’s a snack-size story. It bubbled up out of my subconscious and demanded to be shared. Send all complaints to Claire’s Brain.
I was coming down the stairs at the Teatre de L’ànima Català, carefully sliding the stiletto back into its sheath on my thigh, when I saw her; only luck saved me from pinking myself and dropping dead. I caught myself and slipped behind a pillar, resting my cheek on the cool stone. She didn’t see me, of course – even shocked to my toes I’m fairly nimble – and although I had no idea why she was here, or what she was doing in a restricted area dressed like the sort of French maid that frequents late-night cable movies, I didn’t want her to know I was there. For one, we hadn’t parted on the best of terms; for another, if I tried to cross the hallway without one of those fancy bracelets, the laser systems would cut me to ribbons before I made it three steps. It wouldn’t do for the “ambassador’s cousin” to come rolling down the stairs like a sack of old laundry, after all; especially since my death would draw immediate and unfortunate attention to the room full of extremely important (and now extremely dead) men in the conference room upstairs. What the hell did she think she was doing? We broke up over a year ago because of work – apparently, contract killing is not the moral grey area for her that it is for me – and I left her sitting in an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, the late-afternoon sun in the window behind her setting her auburn hair aflame like the head of a Renaissance saint. Now here she was, 14 months and 4500 miles away, looking like an extra on Benny Hill. I listened, straining to make out what was happening; somewhere down the hall, a door clicked shut. The upper floors of the theatre were like a mausoleum, and a careless footstep made a sound like thunder. I counted to 300, then slipped my make up mirror from my clutch and did a quick check…she was gone. Shoving the mirror back into my purse, I hurried down the steps and ducked into the room where I’d entered this floor; I glanced at the antique clock on the mantle, satisfied that even with the slight delay I would make it back downstairs before intermission was over. I stepped out onto the balcony and paused; my grappling hook and line were gone. I did a quick check to make sure they hadn’t simply fallen back onto the lawn (an unlikely occurrence, given that I use lithophage tips that bury the hook four inches into solid stone at four points); both the hook and the coil of line had vanished, including the damn anchor I planted so I could slide back down without bumping into the heavy stone walls like a cut-rate Zorro. The only thing on the lawn below was a series of almost aggressively ugly modern art sculptures and a broad square of some faintly luminescent material.
I’d have to take the long way ’round…a problem, since my intel for this little adventure had revealed that the human trafficking ring that used this place as both its front and headquarters had taken a “most bang for the buck” approach to securing their little fortress in the Pyrenees. The lower floors were strictly state-of-the-art: laser-tracking; DNA-nippers at the main and ancillary gates (including the damn dog doors…I felt sorry for the stray that tried to sneak a treat in THAT kitchen); the usual squadron of mercenary man-mountains armed to the teeth with guns smarter than they were; and, naturally, a whole pack of those be-damned Überhounds, genetically modified with speech and reasoning capabilities. None of which mattered that night, in theory at least – the bastards had kennelled their Frankenmutts and turned off the laser grid for the duration of the evening’s performance of Pippin for the Andorran jet-set. There were patrols on the perimeter, of course, and the laser grid remained active on the upper floors, but since I had arrived as an invited guest of the Spanish government and had close blood ties to the Bishop of Urgell (as far as anyone else knew), I didn’t have to worry about the travelling circus and had used a micro-EMP to disable the grid in the hallway I’d used to access the targets. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and everything had gone smoothly until I came back to the damn balcony and found my only way out had vanished.
I was trying to calculate my chances of surviving a seventy-foot drop to the clay tiles when I heard the doorknob turn behind me. Whirling, knife already in flight, I launched myself off the balcony, praying for a miracle….
Then I jerked to a halt, swaying wildly, six feet below the balcony rail. My zipline was looped around my waist, the heavy grappling hook tearing at the fabric of my dress as I tried to avoid scraping my face off on the rough-hewn castle wall. I’m not normally afraid of heights, but hanging like a Christmas ham six stories above the unforgiving earth left me somewhat less than thrilled. I watched with a kind of sick fascination as one of my Jimmy Choos slipped off my foot and plummeted to the ground, throwing up a small puff of dust I associated with Saturday mornings and Wile E. Coyote. There was a figure at the railing above me, rapidly tying off the zipline; after a moment, a familiar silhouette appeared, the face shadowy in the soft blaze of the argent moon. “Jesus Christ, Cat, what’re you trying to do, kill both of us?”
The face was in shadow, but there was no mistaking the cloud of auburn hair framing it. Luci DuFresne, in clear defiance of all logic or probability, regarded me coolly from the railing. “Lulu? Lulu, what…what the hell are you doing here?”
She didn’t respond for a moment, then sighed and began pulling me up with surprising strength; clearly someone had taken their Pilates a bit more seriously since I left. After she yanked me up to the rail, I grabbed on and boosted myself over, landing awkwardly…after a moment’s thought, I kicked my other shoe off the balcony. Let them smirk, picturing some Andorran diplomat’s daughter kicking off her heels on the way to a secret rendezvous in the shrubbery. I untied myself and turned back to Luci; our eyes met, and I held her gaze, captivated as always by the flecks of gold that danced in the deep green irises. “What are you doing here? What’s with the Annie Oakley business with the zipline? Why are you dressed like that?” I paused, looking her over. “Wait a minute. Why aren’t you dead? That knife wasn’t thrown to miss.” She sighed and walked back into the room, then returned a moment later with a stack of Pippin playbills six inches thick, pierced neatly by my stiletto. The paper was browned and curling at the edges of the cut; I pulled the knife and re-sheathed it while she threw the stack of playbills into the small fireplace and flicked the switch. We stared for a moment at the flames, then Luci broke her silence. “I…Cat, I…I’m so sorry. After you left, I was lost. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of you as a killer with the woman I know. It felt like you’d betrayed everything – me, our love, our future – by pretending to be someone kind and gentle and amazing.” She had tears in her eyes; I took a step toward her and stopped myself, one eye on the door, one ear cocked for any signs of alarm. “Luci, I almost died the day I left you; first from a run-in with a very, VERY bad man, and then again when I realized I had to let you go.” She wiped her eyes and stepped to embrace me; I stiffened, then relaxed as she laid her head on my chest, her spicy-flowery scent filling my senses. “I realized that later, along with a lot of other things.” she said. “About a month after you left, I got a call from someone at your company – which, before that day, I didn’t realize was actually YOUR company – someone named Ricardo.”
I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back, looking her full in the face. “My assistant? He called you?”
She nodded. “Yeah, a little over a year ago. He said he thought you’d made a mistake, that I was the best thing that had ever happened to you and that he couldn’t stand the idea of you ending up like your father. He told me about what you do, how you pick your targets.” She smiled and looked up at me through lowered lashes. “He may also have mentioned a desire to see you or speak to you without having his head gnawn off every two seconds.” I frowned, then rolled my eyes, blushing. “OK, so maybe I was a little cranky. But what did you expect? I was ready to settle for being dead inside, I didn’t have time for morale boosters. What did he want me to do, sing show tunes and do handstands?” I smiled and stroked her cheek. “Lulu, it’s really great to see you again, but you still haven’t answered my question. Why are you here? HOW are you here?”
She grinned and did a little pirouette, the flouncy skirt of her maid uniform flaring. “I’m undercover! I got hired in for the big shindig; the manager spent most of the interview looking down my shirt. Judging by the other girls here, I’d say this place is a brothel as well as a front for the trafficking operation.” She smiled as I blinked, mouth agape. “I’ve been in training with Ricardo, Steven, and Hillary for almost six months now.”
I just stared. “You’re WHAT? You’ve been doing WHAT? With…why is my team – my SECRET TEAM – training my girlfriend?” But of course the answer was standing right in front of me. They’d put her through the op training, the same training my Dad gave me the whole time I was growing up. Suddenly her little rope-a-dope with the zipline and agility with the playbills made a lot more sense. “Dear God, Luci, this isn’t a game! You can’t just take a few classes in skullduggery and infiltration and think you’re ready for a major op like this!” She stepped forward and slapped me, hard.
“And why not? It doesn’t seem very difficult! It can’t be any harder than, say, lying to your girlfriend for seven years about your job, right? And excuse me, but who’s the one who left her toys laying around for any old body to come along and scoop up? What if it had been one of those mercs with an Überhound or two instead of me?” I rubbed my cheek, feeling the flesh puff where she’d struck me. She wound up to do it again and I grabbed her arm, grunting in surprise as it took real effort to stop her. “All right, all right. I’ll admit that the Kids in the Basement know what they’re doing, and you’re clearly an excellent student, or you would’ve been dead before I even got here. But why, Luci? Why not just wait for me to come back home and see me there?”
She sighed and let her arm drop…I was glad, because between her anger and my adrenaline crash, I wasn’t sure I had the strength to hold her much longer. “Because I’m tired of being left out. If we’re going to be together – truly TOGETHER, Cat – then we need to share everything in our lives. I’m not going to play Suzie Housewife, sitting at home waiting to find out you’ve been killed by some goon or – worse yet – never finding out what happens to you at all. If we’re in this thing, then we’re in it 100%.”
I pulled her to me again. “Lulu, we’re not Mrs. & Mrs. Smith here. What if you get hurt, or killed? I’ve never worked with a partner. I can’t protect you and do my job.” She took a deep breath and then grabbed my shoulders, holding me at arm’s length. “Cat, neither of us wants to live without the other. I don’t need anyone to protect me, or take care of me, or shield me from the big bad world. What I need is someone who loves and respects me for ME. I need someone who – ”
“Weeping, creeping Jesus, it’s like a Lifetime movie in here.” The door crashed open, revealing two mercenaries, each toting what appeared to be a small cannon. The were flanked by a pair of Überhounds, angry-looking Rotts with unsettlingly bright eyes. “INTRUDER! INTRUDER! VIOLATION! VIOLATION! KILL! MAIM! KILL! MAIM!” The dogs were screaming, their voices hoarse and full of malicious glee. I grabbed for Luci, my knife leaving its sheath for the third time that night; but she was gone. I dodged the first shot from the merc and was reaching for the zipline when the other merc’s maser ripped through the cable, disintegrating it and bringing the grappling hook head to a white-hot glow as I rolled away, crouching beside the fireplace. I pulled a poker from the stand and hurled it, rolling across the room to land behind an old-fashioned safe. The poker took the shorter merc in the inner thigh, severing his femoral artery. He went down, fountaining blood; his dog howled, then turned to run for medical attention; enhanced dogs are smarter than the originals, but they’re also subject to more complicated emotional entanglements than their unmodified brethren; the Rott was crying as it ran off, yelling for “white coats.” I was preparing myself for another dash at the balcony when I felt, rather than heard, a high-pitched blast so intense the lamps in the room all shattered at once, plunging us into darkness. The remaining Überhound screamed, an unearthly sound that went on and on…it ran blindly, crashing into walls and doors, slamming its head against the railings of the bannister as it wailed. Behind me in the dark I heard a muffled thump as someone leaped down from the rafters; I knew it had to be Luci, just as I knew the grey metal egg pulsing on the carpet nearby was a sonic grenade. Her fingers brushed my neck as she vaulted the safe…the merc raised his maser and fired; the only result was a small tinkling sound as the actuator and lens, shattered by the grenade, tumbled out of the barrel.
And then she was upon him.
Hillary had trained her well; I had, in turn, trained Hillary, and so I knew what to expect. I knew that she’d spent hours a day, for months on end, blending capoeira, judo and something my dad had called “Manin Vacuta” into a deadly dance. Everyone danced the dance differently, of course – adjustments and allowances had to be made for individual style and skill – but I had never seen anyone dance the way Luci did that night. The merc had some training (the slave cartels don’t hire bumpkins fresh off the turnip truck, they hire deadly and efficient killers), but he might as well have been standing still. Luci’s fists took him first in the throat, then the groin; she slithered away from his meaty grasp, her ludicrous maid’s uniform flashing black and white as she slid around, under and above him. Within seconds, he’d crashed to the carpet, his windpipe crushed, bleeding from his eyes and ears. Heavily armored, he made quite a racket falling; Luci was stepping off his back when other merc raised his side arm, his face pale, his eyes unfocused with blood loss, but his arm rock-steady as he pointed at her head. No time to warn her; I leapt and released my knife in one smooth motion, flying along side it; I heard the merc scream as I tackled Luci, spinning her around; there was a small thunderclap and the rank smell of cordite.
I clutched her to me, my hands running over her body, searching for wounds, tears already forming in my eyes, certain I’d been too late. Below I could hear more dogs and men ascending. Nothing mattered anymore if she was dead; they could do their worst. I’d done my job.
“Are we going to lay here all night, or can we boogie? It’s pretty clear that they’ve discovered your handiwork, and I don’t think those guys want to discuss technique with us.”
I opened my eyes, laughing, as Luci pulled me to my feet. Through the gunsmoke, I could see a ragged hole torn in the ceiling of the room, the moonlight catching the plaster dust and making it sparkle. “I think we’re going to miss the last half of Pippin” I said, running to the balcony. I pointed to the grappling hook, now little more than a twisted hunk of ragged metal. “I think our ride went up in smoke,” I said, smiling despite the fear clawing at the back of my neck. “Oh ye of little faith,” she replied, pushing a button on her bracelet. Below us on the lawn, the flat grey square began to shimmer and twist; abruptly it flared into eye-searing light; when it faded, the square had become a window into another place; the brisk Andorran night now framed a twenty-foot square of rust-belt sunshine and sparkling chlorinated water. I could just make out the fence surrounding the pool outside our old apartment building. “Luci, what the hell? That’s not the Omniport, is it? Gordon said it wouldn’t be ready for another year!” She put her finger on my lips and took my hand; together, we climbed to stand on the railing. Behind us, the dogs and men were skidding to a halt outside the room, weapons at the ready. She smiled at me then, my beautiful, crazy love, her hair whipped by the mountain wind, her eyes shining like emeralds. She kissed me, her lips soft and tasting of strawberries. “C’mon, Jane Bond. Let’s go home.”
Together, we jumped into Ohio sunshine and the future.