Stolen Lives
By David R. McCalden aka PC Glenton

Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Fight for Survival.

I quickly ducked behind the table, putting it between my and my armed foes. I hit quick gun fire, and felt the bullets fly past, but wasn’t even touched. The sound of lead death stopped as soon as I put a barrier between myself and the human obstacles. I didn’t think the table was bulletproof, I only ducked to gain some cover. Must not want to damage the equipment, probably worth more then their lives.

But, while the deadly sound of automatic fire subsided, the sound of impending doom was replaced by the thump of footsteps on a hard metal floor. I pulled out a gun, and forced my nerves to clam down, breathing slowly, remaining in control, and suppressing the natural desire to panic. I focused my attention away from my own instincts, to my surroundings, focusing on the footsteps. I saw five guards, but it sounded like only two were advancing, one on each side. Most likely, hoping to surround me, and make a thief sandwich, with the remaining three blocking the only way out. Five against one… it was time to even out the odds.

The dogs probably knew about the trapped table, so they would go around the sides. If they didn’t… well, any loud painful screams would tell me of that. But, it was all thumps, purposeful, and menacing. And soon, to my predictions, I saw the tips of black, metal barrels peeping around the corner, like snakes tensing for the strike.

But, desperation and instinct beat out tactics, and I sprung, staying low, and underneath the gun on my right. Grabbing on to the barrel, I then sprung upwards, practically leaping, and pulling the weapon backwards, out of a surprised wrist, but it only had a few seconds to relax, as my smaller pistol took him down, making the odds four to one.

I shoved his corpse ahead of me, using it as a shield against retaliation from the three doorstops, while I ducked again behind the table, belly sliding toward the second guard, steeling my nerves against the gun pointed at me, and got in another low shot, ending another obstacle in my way.

The three in the back decided to stop holding their ground, and charged. Guess they still feared breaking equipment in their attempt to stop me. Crouching behind the table, facing the rampaging footmen, but keeping the deadly pillar as a wall, I waited. I knew once they saw anything, they would plug it. I needed them closer. I was at a disadvantage at this far a range, since they bested me in firepower.

That’s when I noticed several small, round ball bearings, like smooth steel marbles. Thinking quickly, and desperately, I grabbed a handful and throw them toward the charging footsteps, and was rewarded by a cry of surprise and shock, and then a loud clunk as something heavy hit they floor, but all sounds were quickly drowned out when I received a shock of my own…a human head appeared over man, looking down at me. At first I thought the maniac leapt, but then heard the familiar blue hum of the blue laser trap. It seems the marbles got him as well, and he had the misfortune of landing right on the table, split in half along the spine, and dead, due to a quick surgery with a high precision operation table.

I took this gruesome scene as a sign to get on with it. I sprang to a standing position, and quickly shot at the first movement to catch my eye. Namely, a confused guard, puzzled by his comrade’s sudden death, and his friend sprawled on the floor. I made sure he never suffered such confusion again.

As for his friend, he never got up. I couldn’t have him following me, and I figured I would have enough trouble as it was. I ran out of the room, only to be greeted by a loud klaxon activating as soon as I stepped into the hallway, screaming that someone unwanted was here. I did the only logical thing possible, and ran for it.

The urgency of my situation blocked out the memory of the path I took to get into it, so I went on instinct and chose a direction. I knew I would run into more guards, and that my position was already known, so I ignored the cameras this time, focusing on more direct threats. One that was approaching around the corner, near a turret trap similar to one I encountered earlier.

I ducked back in the corner, knowing they would not give chase, unless they wanted to be fired upon by their own trap. It was then I got a crazy idea, and proceeded to pull of my shoe, and hit the eye on the sword, activating it. And, acting in quick unison, I threw the shoe into the beams, while swinging the sword to just under the turret where it swiveled vertically, dodging back behind the corner as fast as I could.

I was rewarded by several screams, as the gun turret, no longer able to point down toward the shoe, was forced to fire in the closest position it could… straight ahead, at the guards working to bypass it. Allowing a small grin, I then crawled low, underneath the shots, to get my shoe back. It was bad enough I got detected, but it would be criminal to leave anything behind. I was forced to keep low while the gun fired, but I wasn’t concerned. It would keep others off my back for a short while.

I continued my crawling, unmolested, until I got to another door, similar to the one I entered the basement from. Well, staying here would get me no where, so I went through, thankful I kept the key card that got me in here. As soon as I came back in, the radio piece in my ear started yelling, deafening me worse then the bullets I avoided on my way out.

“Glenton, what the hell happened? Its going crazy in there, we got patrols storming the whole place, ready to kill anything looking unusual! What is this about a smell in the trash burner? What the hell are you doing?”

Must have been the bodies I dumped. Human flesh has a very distinct, and extremely unpleasant, odor when burned. “Look, screw what happened. I just need to get out of here. Where the hell is the nearest exit? And damn the details!”

“The closest one is the front door, but it’s heavily guarded! The only way you are going through that is as a corpse!”

“Well, do your job, and cause a distraction, or something! I can’t afford to gamble on a hiding spot that may or may not be there. Hell, I can’t afford the time to talk to you!”

I quickly ended the call, and ran down the hallway. It was against what I was taught, and what I wanted to do, but the instincts of a man knowing trouble are heightened, compared to one who is dulled by the doll-drums of repetitive quiet. Technically, with all the trouble I stirred, the old adage you can run but you can’t hide was proven here.

And so I ran. I left the basement by the door, so I knew I was on the first floor, and near the door. I didn’t see any guards in the hallway, but I kept running none the less, pistol on the ready. Either they were looking elsewhere, or not all were informed. But, I found the reason when I reached the door: they were all stationed at the exit, making sure the fool who dare stole from them never got at alive.

Since I took an alternative entrance, I never got a look at the most obvious entrance, but it was a mix of aesthetics and military efficiency. Marble pillars of grey stone, lining the way to the exit, and behind each one, a guard, with his gun primed, and very itchy trigger fingers. I stayed behind the corner, not daring to show more then the peek I gave. My breathing was getting heavier… and I felt my nerve slowly slipping away. I was outgunned, outnumbered, and more were coming. There was no way I could get by so many… disastrous thoughts kept pouring in, but the flood felt unnatural, like my mind was being crammed by such, in an attempt to crack it.

But, such a reverie was disturbed by an ear-shattering explosion on the other end of the hallway, accompanied by glass shattering, and ceramic tiles shattering on high velocity impact, with a smoke screen that could put even the worst volcano to shame. It seems Mia actually agreed with me, and decided to provide that distraction… and then some. The shock wave alone was enough to warp and bend some of those stone pillars.

The guards turned around, some cowering and running from the site, their instincts turning to panic. Good, I finally had an advantage. It was time to take it, and get out of here. Without even thinking, like my body remembered something, and was taking over, my left hand reached for my spare, arming myself with both weapons, and then pulling them upward, as I took a few seconds to regain my composure, and to mentally prepare myself, emptying a state of action, clearing my mind of any doubt or hesitation. Then, twirling around a corner, a tornado of black leather, I entered, pausing a mere second to see if anyone was facing my way.

Good, they were still distracted. I guess an explosion is more interesting then a guy sneaking to the exit. Well, should enjoy it while I can. It would only be a matter of time before I got in a gun fight.

I made it to the third pillar, before the hairs on the back of my neck rose. I felt three eyes watching me: two human and a third hollow, long and deadly. But, I quickly punished the human orbs for staring, with a scolding that sent him reeling on the ground, silenced forever by my cold, piercing argument.

But, that quick debate attracted the rest of the room, and I found myself in the spotlight for one heck of a roasting. But, I quickly used the pillars as a way to dodge the crowd, and their ringing, leaded arguments. The marble shields I was using as cover quickly chipped, turning the entrance way into a museum of abstract sculptures, but I had better things on my mind then commenting on art. I did take the time to add my own opinions, mostly to stave off the protests of my leaving to the artistic guards.

My decision to leave was obviously painful, and left several of my detractors on the floor, moaning in pain, covered in red flowing sheets of sorrow. I had no time to ponder on this, for the exit was up ahead.

I was on the last pillar, unhurt, and unharmed. The shattered door was ahead of me, the promise of freedom cheering me on. But, exhaustion was beginning to overcome me, as I spend the last of my adrenaline, and I felt fatigue become a time bomb, ready to go off, and leave me lying on the ground, at the mercy of my attackers. I shook my head, refusing to acknowledge that outcome. I was too close to escape to loose now. Spending only a second, again seeking shelter behind the pillar, I gathered what little strength I had left, and shoved myself out the door, leaping toward its gaping maw.

The guns and yells of the guards grew fuzzy, and I found myself landing on concrete, the world going hazy around me. In a world of fog, I tried to shoot, the basics of human will refusing to give up, despite the energy leaving me. I knew I had to get out… I had to escape…

Almost catatonic, I felt my mind grow heavier, my eyes losing focus, as I grew weary, the need to sleep. The gun was slipping in my hand. I needed to let it all go… to rest.

The final sensation before it all ended was a screech, and then the sound of rapid fire, coming from behind, as smooth, tan skin grabbed my collar, and flew me into a cushion of leather, surrounded by decorative metal. I felt a lurch, and heard another squeal, a noisy signal that I was out of immediate danger. My body did not argue, and just collapsed, entering sweet oblivion, the struggles of the night disappearing.

I had escaped, the last sight I saw before darkness clamed me was an angel wearing black, with olive skin. An angel one could love and hate. One I knew would be lecturing me like a house wife when I woke up.

Mia… why did you save me anyway?

Chapter Forty: The Angel of Death's Prophecy.

Blackness… everything was blackness. Existence itself was a dark shadow, a curtain hiding everything from the eyes of the curious, an endless cage made of void. A cage I have been locked into before, though it had been a while.

“Well, been a while since you been here, puppet.” I tensed… there was only one guy that called me a puppet… and sure enough, I saw the silhouette. The outline of black, somehow easy to perceive in this place, even though he was covered in it, and by all rights, should be impossible to see. Though, he did look a bit more defined, I could see the lines of pants, the appearance of lips, even though he was mostly an inky cloud of a man.

“What the hell do you want?” I felt strangled being here. Every time I entered his domain, I knew he was in the control, and the pain he inflicted, his punches and mocking, only reminded me of that. But, still, something seemed different, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“To remind you of your place. You have been spoiled, enjoying more time aware then you should. You need to remain humble to your true place. To feel what you are. Just a worthless puppet and my trash can!” The specter would up for a punch, and even though I knew what to expect, I did not fear it this time. Not out of any personal knowledge, but something I just felt. And, sure enough, when the punch connected, it only stung, and not the crushing pain I felt in the past.

The dark tormentor froze, and seemed stunned. After several seconds, he looked to his fist, and then back to me. And, after several seconds of this unnerving silence, the only word out of his mouth was “Interesting.”

I was then hit by a sudden flash of white, and it then felt like my mind was being yanked out of existence, and dropped hard, on the cold concrete of reality. Moaning, my brain banging on my skull, I adjusted to my new surroundings, the white daze giving way to a more serene, if grungy and dirty habitat. The smell finally clued me in. I was back in the hotel, and in one of its beds.

I got off the grimy sheets, and walked my headache off. The weight of my jacket, miraculously still on, told me all my gear was still intact. The only lightning was the sun shining threw the torn drapes. I did feel a pain in the back of my right heal, and the edge of my neck. Felt tender, like whiplash to the highest extent. I probably got winged, and shot in the heel.

Thinking of the pain brought my mind to the last few minutes of last night. I knew it was a miracle I was alive, and not a bullet ridden corpse. It may have been my training, and the focus on concentration and mental discipline Charlon advocated along with the physical trials, or it could have been instinct. Either way, I can’t deny it saved my life. Though, what tipped off the building? Was it the smell of the bodies, like I originally surmised, or some other alarm?

Approaching footsteps, nearing the front door, interrupted my reverie. I pulled out my gun… then both of them. After last night, I was not skimping on the fire power again. I aimed for the door, waiting for whoever would be approaching, and preparing to do what was necessary.

I ended up quickly pointing both my weapons up, toward the ceiling, as soon as I identified my intruder. It was my rescuer, the faint image of my final sight personified. Mia Koj, the deadly angel.

Mia, for her part, just nodded at my aggressive stance. I guess since she knew me now, she figured I wouldn’t shoot her. I quickly put my guns away, and just said a single word, one I haven’t said for a while. “Thanks.”

Mia gave a small grin, almost regretful, and replied. “Yeah, well, just delaying the inevitable. Figure your time is soon enough.” She let out a quick chuckle. “Hell, as far as Charlie is concerned, you’re a total failure.”

“Charlon? Where is he? And what do you mean…” Mia quickly cut me off with a hard stare.

“He left shortly after the alarms went off in the building. Didn’t say a word, just turned and went. Not surprising… its usual course to leave thieves who fail their exams to the wolves.”

“Wait… you mean, he expected me to die?” I felt an inner dread at this, like my escape at the Path compound was still in process. “I got the damn sword, after all. Doesn’t THAT mean anything?”

“Not to the Triads. To them, there is no partial. It’s succeed or fail. You may have gotten the cheese, but since you got caught, you became a filthy rat in their eyes. A filthy FOREIGN rat, to make things even worse. Seen it happen before.” She went to the bed, and sat, sighing a bit. “They give the poor bastards some hard task; make them do it alone… nothing but a body left. They then claim they worked independently, alone. End of the failure, and no loose ends.”

I just stood there silent. I barely got out of there alive, just to die again? No, I wouldn’t accept it. “Fine, I will run, hide. Do what I can to live.”

Mia gave another chuckle, scoffing at my desperate optimism. “For how long? In case you didn’t know, you have a piece of hot property on you, the answer to the government’s ballistic alarms. Any Dragon Head holding that will be the king of the Hong Kong criminal underworld. And, you are only one man, who lost the backing of his Triad. No, there will be no bargains…” She looked intently at me. “There will be hunters, chasing prey. Tell me, Glenton. Can you take on the city of Hong Kong?”

I paused, the enormity of my situation hitting me at once. I just met Mia, but she proved reliable, and I doubt she had any reason to lie. Though… “Why tell me this? Why do you care if I live or die?”

“Professional courtesy. You have promise, just got off to a bad start. Though, hiding bodies in an incinerator probably wasn’t the best idea.” So it was the smell. “Pity such a bright star had to end like this. It was nice knowing you, PC.” Mia stood up, obviously preparing to leave. “Besides, I have my own feelings about the Sunrise Dragon. Anyway I can make things more difficult for them, is just a bonus to me.”

Mia strode out the door, apathetic to my surprised and bewildered stare. “Oh, almost forgot. Your teacher gave me this, told me if you ever get out alive, to call him. For what reason, I think I already said.” She idly tossed me a business card, and left. I picked up, and then sat on the bed myself, head in my hands.

I knew I was promised the secrets of my past, and the knowledge of who I was. But, would it do any good if I didn’t have a future? Yes, sticking with Charlon and the Triad was the best bet to find out who I was, but it was obviously going to be a struggle to survive, to avoid the suicide mission that terminated a member’s career. There had to be a way out of this.

I felt a tingling in my head, the familiar sensation of a presence I detested, one that seemed to leave inside me. “Forget her… you spent how many months with Charlon? He saved you from the streets of LA. He gave you the skills you have. You owe him everything, even your life.”

“SHUT UP!” I felt myself getting angry. Those last three words, ‘Even your life’, seemed to strike a cord in my being, a dial turning up the heat to dangerous levels. “I owe no one my life. I fought for, ran, and survived on my own doing, even before meeting Charlon. I owe no one, NO ONE, my life.

And then, the presence was gone. Odd, every time the Voice spoke, it was always something about how pitiful my life was, or how I owed things to him, followed by loses of bodily control. But, it seemed this time, he just ran. Interesting.

Anyway, I couldn’t focus on my inner demons now. I needed to figure a way out of this. I was looking at Charlon’s card; number intact, to baa pitifully to him, like a lamb waiting slaughter. I then had an idea. I had a second card, one from a different source. The Fanged Tooth Triad.

I grinned, and made two phone calls, one to a dragon saying I had a sword, but was being followed; meet me behind the alley way of the hotel in two hours. I had to lose my pursuers. The second, to a fang, saying I changed my mind, and would take their offer. Meet me behind the hotel in two hours; I needed to lose the Sunrise Dragons trailing me.

I left, a little happier. Now, I just needed to find some ketchup.

Chapter Forty-One: A Quick, Dirty Escape

I found myself in the dumpster, surrounded by trash, and covered in a blanket of filth. I laid still, my body unmoving, my shirt torn with several holes, each one surrounded in red stains. My own face reddened as well. To the casual observer, I looked dead, another piece of trash thrown into the dumpster, to be forgotten.

I blinked once. I was here for several minutes, waiting for it to end, waiting for the final hour, where not only would I be free, but I would be able to leave the responsibilities of this life, and move on. I paused to think what will happen, and what to do. But, such thoughts where drowned out by approaching footsteps, lots of them, approaching from different directions. The two hours were up. It was time to act.

The footsteps stopped, and I knew what they were thinking, staring across the alley. Wondering why the others were there, wondering what was going on. It was then I made my move, popping my head out of the dumpster, like a corpse suddenly coming back to life.

“They got here first! They took the sword!” Followed by a quick collapse back into the can. The sounds of rapid gunfire added life to this dead alley, the zinging sounds of ricochets, the quick, many bangs of lead flying through the air. I couldn’t see anything from my hiding spot, but my ears told me enough.

And, just as quickly as it started, everything stopped, a sudden lull, like the world was pausing to reflect on the fight. But, despite my ears ringing from the combat, I picked up unsteady footsteps, only one set. It seems there was a survivor.

I peeked my head over the side of the rusty metal prison, and saw a limping form, dressed in the same black tunic I was, but in much better repair, even with the bleeding holes coming from his thigh and arm. Looks liked he was walking over to the other side, probably trying to find the sword. A good, dedicated thug. Too bad he seemed to forget about me.

The thug collapsed on the ground, a third now in his head, and blood pouring out like a geyser, soaking the alleyway, and making a red stain that will tell any unfortunate passer-bys of the dangers found in this area. I left my hiding ground, and quickly sheathed my warm gun, still smoking from the kill. I couldn’t have any witnesses, no one to tell the truth. Its way I hid in that grime in the first place, to keep an eye out for any curious bums that littered this alleyway.

I wiped off the dirt as best I could, as I walked toward the group carrying the briefcase, but I would definitely need the services of a dry cleaner. And, if the Fanged Tooth was true to its word, I would actually be able to afford it, and much, much, more.

I noticed one of the corpses had a briefcase handcuffed to his hands. I quickened my pace, knowing someone would hear something, and call the police. Using a pick, I rapidly freed it from its owner. Inside, I didn’t find the five hundred grand promised me, but instead almost double that, in Chinese bills. Good thing my time in the Triad made cash conversions a second nature.

I was wondering why the amount was doubled, when I caught a business card tucked into the top half of the case: Moheimadsajn ibn-Shumijksonirteds. A purveyor of electronics, machines, and other gizmos, located in the Kappa Bazaar.

The Kappa Bazaar. Charlon mentioned it before; it was a code name for a huge black market somewhere in Hong Kong, some kind of collective of marketers, or some such. The money must have been for something big then, and not for me. Probably only brought it here to wet my temperament. Bastards.

Still, I got paid for all of this, and I got to keep the sword. The only thing to do now was to lay low, and one more final thing.

I ripped off my torn tunic, covered in tears I made to look like bullet holes, mixed in with ketchup, oozing down, covering it like the thick, spilled blood I intended. Taking a lighter from the pocket of the handcuffed thug, I threw my former shirt in the dumpster, surrounding it with paper, and then lit up. With the help of the garbage, the shirt was quickly engulfed in the orange flames, the dragon on the back perishing in the blaze. I then quickly covered it with the dumpster lid, to minimize the appearance of smoke. If later found, it will probably be called a bum fire, or something similar.

I then helped myself to the wallets of the fallen Triad members. They weren’t going to need them anymore, might as well make good use of their contents myself.

I then left the alley, hoping the little scene I arranged was enough to point the wrong fingers. I was confident, though. After all, how could anyone even trace me? Only a few people from each Triad even saw me, and I technically don’t exist.

Now, the only thought left was how to spend all this money…

Chapter Forty-Two: Time Passes, Blood Spills

Four months had passed since I turned my back on the Sunrise Triad, and pitted them against the Fanged Tooth, and almost all of it in a drunken haze, seen through the bottom of a sake bottle, and stashed away in a dark room, trying to be forgotten, hiding from those I angered. And I didn’t mean just the Triads.

The two Dragon Heads, naturally, were pissed as hell, but both were blaming each other. They spent two weeks gathering their forces, arming their men for what would have been the rumble to end all rumbles, if it wasn’t for a couple of things they overlooked: The Enlightened Path, and the iron-fisted government.

The Path stormed out of their compound, none of their guards saying a word, none of their leaders offering an explanation. They just ran out, and started shooting. It seems they wanted something that was taken from them, something rumored to have been stolen by a foreign thief. They had been planning retaliation for days, but the news of the two triads planning war so soon after the heist painted a big sign they read as “Kill us, we Did it.”

But, they did not only attack the two Triads. Anyone not native to Hong Kong was targeted. Russians, Italians, Americans, even the English who stayed behind, were shot down and massacred without even batting an eye. Guess they wanted to make sure that foreigner would never cross them again. Must not have had a high opinion of visitors, thinking he wouldn’t have the intelligence to hide himself.

The Chinese conservatives in power just bid their time, stating, “The fighting in Hong Kong has not reached a level to warrant our concern.” Meaning they didn’t care about a bunch of outlaws undermining their economic hold, or a crowd not even from their country. Well, who could blame them? Without the Triads, they would have a tighter grip on trade, and have more money and power, just by sitting on their butts.

Then, once it seemed the Path would eliminate the feuding dragons, the government finally stepped in, to the beat of marching drums, sending their troops to finish off the Path, believing they were weakened by all the fighting. Their mistake, for they fought one Triad that was beyond any normal crime family.

The Path may have been reclusive, but they weren’t stupid. All their power, all their influence and technology was hidden behind their black walls. And when the law came expecting a quick raid, they were answered with war. Any attempt to restrain was met with lethal force. The army had to withdraw, but the battles ensued, with the remaining Triads split amongst the two sides. Some hoping to get government leniency, and to operate freely. The other hoping to force their hand, and push the law out of their territories.

In the end, no one received anything. The military rolled out, realizing the cost and damage of further operations would only damage their main source of income, and the organized crime in the city was pretty well scattered, anyway. Even the enigmatic Enlightened Path was pushed to their limit, the area around their compound a graveyard. They had to change their focus from killing personal, to recruiting.

As for the Triads, the major ones that had control were scattered, their base destroyed, and any contact to the Dragon Heads severed. Including the one known as the Sunrise Dragon, my former employer. I took a risk on exposure, and checked on what remained. It was all rubble and ash, blackened by the fire of federal vengeance. A distinct order polluting the alley of my former home, similar to a scent that gave me away during my escapade with the Path clued me in as to the fate of my unknown colleagues. The ranting of a wheezing bum filled in the rest. There were no survivors; no one associated with the Dragon remained in the world of the living.

I just walked away. I had no time to mourn those I never knew, or cry over a teacher that would most likely order me to my death. I had my own concerns to worry about, and didn’t want to risk being recognized just yet.

I used some of the money from the Fanged Tooth members to rent a cheap apartment in the poor side of Hong Kong, near the docks. Not the best place, but I doubt I would fit in some place friendlier. Besides, rats hide best in dirty holes anyway. Even sloshed rats, who were forced to go back to old habits just to get some sleep at night.

Yeah, the dreams returned, with the shadow taunting me. At least he stopped beating the crap out of me, though mental abuse, the insults, the swearing, the constant reminders I was not in control, and asking me why I trusted that bitch, Mia in the first place where enough to drive a guy to the bottle. I know it seemed odd, trusting a girl I barely knew, but it seemed to make sense. Like I somehow knew how things operate. He did have a point, though. My liberation did shove me against a dead end, and not only in searching for my past.

I had no identity, and thus, no passport, no physical ID… nothing to help me fit into society. As for living the old criminal lifestyle, I also had nothing. I couldn’t mug like I did in LA, the city was crawling with Chinese law enforcement, and no association to a “specialized” organization means hard time in one of the country’s many notorious prisons, where you were guilty, and never proven innocent. I was also tired of running, of drinking sake by the gallon, and trying to find a restaurant that wasn’t out of food.

It was time to stop laying low. I wanted to get out, stretch my legs. But, I needed a lead, I needed to know where to go, someone who had some information. It turned out such information fell into the palm of my hand, while reaching for more booze money from the briefcase

It was the business card, from the tech and info dealer in the Kappa Bazaar. It was a faint lead, but it was the best I could get. And I was in no position to be picky. I packed the rest of the cash to my jacket, securing it tightly. I had no idea how much green would need to flow to find the black market, so best to be prepared. I left my small, run-down apartment, and walked to the nearest bar, with a mind full of questions.

Chapter Forty-Three: A Trip Through Vanity Fair.

I entered the smoke-filled bar, and was immediately overwhelmed and amazed by the sounds of silence. I had been in many bars since this morning, and while most of them were in this same state: Dirty, wooden floors, littered with stains and knotholes; a layer of filth across the premises, sanitary only for vermin. But, this one lacked the one thing that identified the other bars: patrons.

The only two people here were definitely workers: A Chinese bartender, bald, arms crossed, looking at the door, measuring up anyone who walked inside, an intense stare at anyone who dared ask him for business. The other was all in a black short-sleeved shirt, and black pants, standing guard next to a door, still as a statue, shades similar to the style I wore covered his eyes, adding to his cold, unmovable appearance. This, along with his sheer mass of muscle told me he was either a guard or a bouncer.

Despite the ambience of this run-down hole, all the information, all the drinks and bribes, pointed to this location. I took a deep breath, and approached the scowling bartender, placing my order. “Sake and scotch, no ice.”

The man just nodded, the expression of anger never leaving his hairless face. “We only have dirty glasses.”

Good. This was going smoother then I originally thought. “I prefer the dirty ones.” The man handed me, true to his word, a dirty mixture containing an unholy mixture of two different cultures, only consumable by either the masochistic or the highly inebriated. I took this glass to the bouncer in the back. He looked intently at it, shaking it up, and then nodded. He stood out of the way of the door, and gestured me through. With a loud creak, I took my first steps into Hong Kong’s underground catacombs, the housing of its black market, the Kappa Bazaar.

And, what I saw was beyond what I expected. Instead of a quiet, paranoid group of shady businessmen, working in dark corners, it was a true, open market Bazaar, looking more like a flea market then a criminal mall. There were farmers, artists, even sellers of fine leather jackets, all yelling out, extolling their wares to passersby. If it wasn’t for the catacombs hiding everything from public view, you could mistake this for a city event.

I found it amazing that so many would sell their goods on the sly like this, but it did make sense. The government controlled the flow of merchandise and money. If you wanted to make the most for your buck, you had to go where the control was less fierce, and where economic freedom was outlawed. I am surprised the same government that risked half the city to kill a few gangsters would tolerate this. They had to know something. Maybe it was the risk of pissing off all these people.

I just shrugged, and kept walking. I didn’t have to pay much to get this location, nor learn the codes to enter, and even got an address for a bottle of vodka. Hell, for booze, the only thing I couldn’t get is how to pronounce the merchant’s name. This guy the Fanged Tooth were buying from must have been good. I just hope he wasn’t too expensive, or held too much of a grudge, considering that briefcase I have been living out of held HIS dough, after all.

His street was on Tech road, so named because it was where the technology marketers gathered, and performed their business. That was how things were arranged here, in these catacombs. The streets, or hallways, depending how you looked at it, where named after the markets. I continued walking, hands in my pockets, and glad I carried everything inside my jacket. This would be a pick-pockets haven, with the crowd of shoppers everywhere. I soon found myself at the corner of Videos and Servants, next to a store selling DVD copies of Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix, Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Apprentice, and other releases, all marked in black Sharpe. Bootlegged, without a doubt.

The large shack on Servants had merchandise in the open as well, obviously smuggled in from all over the world, and all female, with clothing strategically ripped off, turning their outfits into nothing more then barely concealing rags, accessorized with chains and shackles, complete with sad eyes hinting at broken spirits. What caught me by surprise was the variety. There were Caucasians of different builds, but also Chinese, Korean, and Thai. Living in this country made me more sensitive to Oriental genetic differences then other human types, though I would say the Caucasians were European and American, offhand.

I continued walking, ignoring the wares. I had my own goals, and had no time to view his wares. Besides, dealing with slavers was always risky. You never knew if they were interested in doing business with you, or over you. I was better prepared for confrontation then I was four months ago, thanks to the old TV set showing nothing but Bruce Lee movies over and over, a continuous homage to the hometown legend, and my own desperation to keep in shape. But, it was sheer stupidity to get in fights that had no reward, to waste energy on pointless battles. I rather save it for when fighting means something.

Finally, after a lot of walking through the crowds, I found myself on Tech. This area was different. It wasn’t shacks or temporary markets, but actual doors carved into the ancient stone, with signs hanging out, advertising the different merchants. No windows, but there were numbers outside the niches. I walked down the road, quickly finding what I was looking for: Lot number 2611, and hanging outside, was a metal sign advertising the merchant: Moheimadsajn ibn-Shumijksonirteds. This was my man.

I entered the shop, the door creaking loudly over the crowd, into a site that was truly amazing and chaotic at the same time. Spread everywhere, with paper price tags, and secured behind locked and secured glass where a wide variety of different tools of the criminal trade were presented. Devices designed to bypass retina scans. A tool kit for hacking into surveillance. Everything a crook or ne’er do well could want. For a fairly high price, unfortunately.

I was looking at a pair of night vision goggles when I heard heavy footsteps approach from behind. I turned, to find a heavy set Arabian man, his face wreathed in a black beard, and his eyes covered in thick glasses. He had an air around him, one that said he knew he was smart, and wasn’t afraid to show it. This must be my man.

“Mr. Shumijoke…. Er, Shumjerk… I mean…” Damn, this name was impossible.

The man just sighed, and rolled his eyes, obviously a common witness to the butchering of his name. “Look, just call me Iban, ok? I am much to busy to be hearing some bastard stutter like a drunken monkey. Now, what do you want, or are you here just to piss me off?”

Whoa… guy had an attitude. But, I was here on business, so I maintained my control, and prepared to deal in business. “I heard you were a broker of information, Mr. Iban. And, I have some questions that need to be answered.”

“Yeah? Well, answers don’t come cheap. I doubt my price could be met by off the street bums like you.” Shit… what was with this bastard? Well, I guess I better get to the point.

“I need to know more about a certain company, one that had been giving me trouble.” A gross understatement, but I didn’t want to over blow my problems. A desperate man is a gullible man.

Iban just snorted. “What, forget to pay your bills? Why should I get involved in your personal affairs? I have better things to do then dirty my hands pointlessly. Now, get out of here, you worthless man!” He quickly pulled out a piece, and turned off the safety, obviously trying to scare me. Well, I had enough of this. It was time to get him a bit more curious.

“You know, I expected more from a man worth over a million to a Triad.” The look on his face was worth all this abuse so far. I think I finally got somewhere.

“How… how did you find out about that?” His former arrogance was melting away, the gun dropping. When dealing with the intelligent, the most effective weapon to wield is knowledge, of any sort. “I have my sources. Now…” As I dropped five hundred on the table. “I think I am worth more, yes?”

Iban quietly took the money, and gestured toward the back, I followed, my eyes quickly looking for windows or cracks. The memory of a similar situation, with DNA Doug, was on my mind. And his death, after opening the door to more questions, was quickly overshadowing this moment. I needed Iban alive.

I just hope history didn’t repeat itself.

Chapter Forty-Four: The Shroud of My Enemies.

I was lead to an old cargo elevator, decorated in rust, with hanging chains adding much to the urban decay atmosphere. Iban closed the doors, and lowered us down into the dark tunnel. While descending, I thought about my companion, evaluating who he is, and what his true intentions are.

While the Kappa Bazaar does have its own set of rules, they are only loosely enforced, and angered mobs, or armed thugs make most major decisions. In the end, it was survival of the fittest to the extreme. Feel like your got ripped off? Settle it with a 2x4. Think someone lifted your merchandise? Get a tire iron. Of course, most merchants usually hired some security, or knew how to defend themselves.

Which puzzled me about Iban. His items were hot, and in demand by those of my profession. And, considering our methods, I would of thought more was needed then glass. Also, the Arabian worked alone, and his chubby frame did not seem to accommodate any unusual strength, unless you counted Sumo.

Yet, he had his own shop, made his own gear, and had a secret addition deep underground, judging from the time this trip was taking. What was his secret? How did he manage it all?

I shook my head from such doubts, and waited out the rest of the ride. I took to suspecting everyone lately, mostly out of paranoia, and fear of Triad retribution. I closed my eyes, and tried to focus a bit, to clear my mind and stay in the present.

The elevator stopped with a lurch, nearly bringing me to my knees. Thankfully, I kept my balance, and only ended up skidding a few inches. My guide seemed unaffected by this. Well, this was his territory, and he probably used this machine several times a day. In fact, judging from his sudden smug look, I think he enjoyed seeing others get caught by surprise. Asswipe.

I followed him down a dark tunnel, lighted only be a few swinging bulbs, moving shadows to one side from another, back in forth, making a wave out of the darkness.

I was soon led out of these shadowy tunnels, into something that looked like a cross between Goth and Sci-fi, like Dr. Frankenstein got an Internet setup. Five workstations circled the chamber, each containing nine screens, and each screen showing different lines of code. It then struck me how Iban protected himself, and did business. He was a hacker, a big one. His weapon was information, shot by the guns of blackmail and manipulation. The hardware store was probably a front, albeit a profitable one.

Iban sat at a terminal, and began typing away. I took the liberty of looking around, trying to pass the time. That’s when a rather interesting schematic grabbed my attention, and bribed me with a sense of awe. It was a long device, a narrow tube connected by a base with heavy engines, enough to speed an asteroid up to speeds, which could leave a visible mark on Jupiter. Unfortunately, from the computerized wire frame, I couldn’t tell what exactly it was, but the long barrel reminded me of a rifle.

“One of my most brilliant works, if I may say so.” I turned around, to see Iban looking right at me. It seems my nosing around didn’t go unnoticed. “An orbital satellite capable of leveling anything in a five mile radius.” A weapon of such potential in his hands. The very scope of what this guy was capable of was enough to squeeze the sweat out like a sponge.

“How the hell do you expect to launch this undetected? You know the noise these things make.” And, anything shot like a rocket these days was screaming for political action. Ever since the “incident” in the Korean neutral zone, when a inactive, unmarked nuclear missile was uncovered, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to form a new department to regulate launches of any kind, including such procedures as filing for permits, and scheduling an investigation thirty days in advance. This applied to not only countries, but also corporations, or anyone planning on launching a rocket device over a certain mass.

“Meh. It was barely small enough to be considered a last-minute addition to the PPNC’s latest satellite, with the appropriate bribes, of course.” Made sense. The People’s Party News Channel, as the non-Chinese called it, while controlled by the government, was also controlled by corruption. If you had enough money, like Iban seemed to, you could make anything news, or have them work around anything. Even though getting by the UN wasn’t exactly a challenge. When you push papers for the planet, little details keep sliding through the pages.

“I originally was receiving payments from the Fanged Tooth for the rights to the controls. Until some bastard killed and robbed the messengers delivering the cash!” I kept my mouth shut. The less I mentioned about that, the better. Though, the irony that I was paying for my information with that same money was almost too much to contain. “Whatever, now that the Triads are merely fancy gangs, I may put it back on the open market soon.”

I then noticed what looked like a credit card reader, attached to the wall. I turned to its owner, a look of puzzlement on my face. Checks and cards were dangerous to pay with. They could easily be tracked, its why everyone in Hong Kong’s criminal side preferred cash, to avoid being caught in an embarrassing transaction.

“Heh. You think its only card locks that can be manipulated? This little baby can randomize transaction codes; scramble the outgoing data into a new corporation. Buying smack can quickly turn into buying snacks. A card from a Don can quickly come from a Dan. Its easy to use, and I only charge a ten percent markup, plus handling fees.” Very heavy handling fees, I mused

Iban’s face turned red quickly, like someone just dumped a bucket of paint on him, his tone changing to that of an angry paranoid.. “What the hell are you doing looking at my stuff, anyway?! Mind your own damn business, and keep your hands to yourself, grubby little rat!” Talk about split personality, shifting gears from arrogantly informative to bad-tempered know it all. His ego must have made all the stops on the vanity train.

“Anyway, this is all I have. Stalter was a United States supplier of medical gear, back in the early Nineteen eighties. They got caught up in the whole Savings and Loans scandal the country had. Seems the good doctors took out a bill of thirty five million.”

That didn’t make sense. The Stalter I knew was definitely in full force, and from what I have seen of their gear, it wasn’t mere hospital gizmos. “What else?”

“That’s it. Nothing. They just disappeared, off the map. Money, stocks, tongue depressors… everything. Like they were mist in the Wall Street Fog.”

Odd, but hardly a news flash. It was obvious they were secretive, considering how little I heard about them from common conversation, despite the headaches they gave me, and from the full force I had on my tail in Glenwood. It seemed this avenue was a waste of time. “You expect to be paid for this?”

“Hey, cut me some slack! I can’t make anything from nothing! You think I like turning up shit?!” The man kept whining, over and over, until my nerves had enough, and I handed him about a hundred, American.

“This is all you get. If you want more, give more. I will be back in a month” With that, I turned my back, indicating the conversation was over, and I was through dealing. I didn’t bother leaving any phone numbers. The last thing I wanted was that fat bastard bothering me.

I helped myself out the door, leaving Iban to wait for his own elevator. This trip wasn’t worth the effort I invested in it, and while I admit the man was skilled with machines, his facilities for information were lacking, though I had to admit he did dig up more then I managed in bar conversations since this all started. Maybe it wasn’t the help, but the enemy?

My ponderings on my situation stopped, as I froze mid-step. I got a familiar feeling radiating down my skull, one that any thief would dread, especially one hiding from two defunct Triads. Someone was staring at me. No doubt, I was recognized.

I pushed my way through the shoppers, swimming against the current of customers, looking for a spot to hide, to get away. I couldn’t risk fighting here, not when I couldn’t see my pursuers. My desperate eyes finally spotted an empty alley, locked between two of the ancient catacombs. I practically dived in, ignored by the crowd, who were obviously used to such actions. Tensing up, preparing my body for anything, I pulled out my guns, bracing myself for any sign of trouble.

And, in the sight of my guns, appearing confidently at point-blank range, was not an assassin, but perhaps something just as troubling. “We meet again, it seems.”

“Yeah, and in the same way as last time. Why the hell do you always have to point your weapons at me?” I couldn’t help but give a slight grin. Despite the fact she could be an annoying, demanding bitch, it was good to see Mia again.

Chapter Forty-Five: Teacher of a Different School

The techno beat of the bar music screeched in my ears, already beaten by the wailing of the singer that couldn’t hold a melody even if it landed in his arms, clutching him like a desperate girlfriend. But, I was able to hold through this poor excuse for harmony, wallowing in the cheap Chinese beer, by focusing my hearing on Mia, at home in such unusual locales. Personally, I preferred more subdued hangouts, where the only noise was the gossip flying around. But, to each their own, and I would indulge her this time.

“The government getting in your way, hurting your business?” There was a heavier military presence on the streets, and the police had been replaced by soldiers, and the arm of the law had been replaced by itchy trigger fingers. It was dangerous to be on the other side of the line with such lunatics looking across.

“Actually, I’ve gotten more work lately. Everyone has enemies these days, people they want to kill.” I nodded, taking another sip. There was a lot of pressure on people when the government squeezed its iron fist, they needed some release. For some, that was usually the death of a human obstacle blocking their path to a promotion, a new job, anything. Hired guns like Mia could make a fortune firing their bullets, clearing the path for anyone with the money. “What about you? I thought you died with the rest of the Sunrise Dragon.” She said it matter-of-factly, like it was just more of the inane talk going around.

“Nah. I kind of made another deal.” I wasn’t ready to admit what happened, let her know that my self-preservation started a chain reaction to force the government’s hand. Best to keep quiet about it. “Otherwise, I’ve just been hanging low, playing it safe.”

“Sounds dull. And stupid.” I paused, my half-empty glass just millimeters from my lips. Stupid? Because I wanted to live? “This is the best time to be a player, PC. People with our talents are in high demand, thanks to the rules being enforced. And, you got talent. Why waste it?”

“I have two Triads that probably-“

“That probably don’t exist anymore, and are reduced to mere gangs. Damn it, you are practically hiding from ghosts. Get back out there, get a job.”

My brow furrowed. I had to admit, I missed it. I missed sneaking around, hiding in the shadows. I missed the thrill, the suspense. It was like a drug, entering your veins, giving a high that kept you coming back for me. I didn’t realize it until now, but I was addicted. But, still, there was one problem. “I live in a city that’s quickly turning xenophobic, and would probably be gunned down if it wasn’t for the fact I don’t attract attention. If I am worried about staying alive, how can I concentrate on my work?”

Mia smiled, gamely. I had a hunch she was up to something, and her next words proved me right. “You know, the people I kill aren’t scum from the streets. You don’t hire professionals for that. Too bad the corpses leave behind heavy security for all their worldly goods.”

I chuckled a bit. Was she asking me to work with her? Especially considering that last time we met, we were busy yelling and insulting each other. Hell, I was still wondering why she took me out for a drink. “Funny, Koj. You’d probably kill me once we get close.”

Mia’s grin tightened a bit, turning almost stern. “I’m not joking. You got a lot to learn, but it’s nothing a little experience won’t fix. And besides, it’s got to be better then dying a slow death by apathy, wasting away, having your mind grow old while your body rots, afraid to go outside.”

She had a point. I couldn’t just stand around getting drunk out of my mind, hoping my sleep is peaceful, and not plagued by my own internal demons, if they were even that. But, could I really trust her?

“Hey, there is a lot of hidden treasure in those mansions. I can’t get to it; I’m a sneaker and a killer, not a lifter. Besides, finding shortcuts, getting past security... I hate to admit it, but you’ve got more training in that then me. We could both get good money, and combine our abilities for even more gain. How about it?”

I was trembling with temptation, the beer glass shaking in my hands, as I took another sip. Steady work, a promise of good pay. I couldn’t turn this down. But, being her partner, so quickly? That didn’t seem like her.

“Partner? You’re still green, Glenton. We start 70-30. If you want the full 50-50, you have to EARN it. Got it?” Mia stared harshly at me. “If you think I am ripping you off, keep in mind I’ll be the one doing the talking. You just tag along, as my sidekick, while I do the dealing. And, I will have to be taking cheaper and easier jobs, because of your deadweight. Take it or leave it, but this is probably the best opportunity you can get.”

I hated to admit it, but I knew she was right. I was a nobody in Hong Kong, just another foreigner. I know I was being exploited here, but I would probably get worse from others, at least she was promising the possibility for more.

My mind was silent, with no protest. Good enough for me. I gave Mia a mock toast, and a nod, giving my silent agreement. I would work for her, but I would make sure she was true to her word about earning a better share.

Chapter Forty-Six: Work of the Thief and the Killer

Darkness. All around me were the shadows of darkness, swallowing everything in sight with its dark wisps, covering an invisible blanket over the eyes of anything able to see. It’s a time men subconsciously fear, for that is when we are vulnerable, when our preferred sense, sight, is weakened, leaving us at nature’s mercy.

But some have learned to become citizens of the night, to blend in with it, and take shelter in its arms, to hide from those who fear it. And no, we were not undead, vampires, or any of those other things that go bump in the night. We were normal people, trained to hide, and not be seen. And, with the dark paint of midnight’s brush, we can become just as invisible.

Both of us, Mia and I, were such, able to disappear in shadows, a common blur dismissed by the limitations of the human eye. But, shadows do not stay forever, and this is the liability of our version of sneaking. But, we are also adaptable, quick of foot. And simple tasks like these prove it.

Mia had a contract on a government rep, newly appointed and newly in charge of distributing the cargo from the ships to other parts of the country. But, like others in a position of power, some of that got distributed into his own hands, and his own pockets. Also, he had the power to order raids on suspected smugglers. Even if the targets didn’t even realize they were smugglers. Needless to say, he was fat and rich of the efforts of others.

It seemed someone had enough of this bastard, and decided it was time for a new raid, to end his sorry life. Mia managed to get the job, and for the first time in her life, hired a partner to do a little scouting and a few side jobs. Me.

We approached the building, a small mansion, about three stories high, located ten to twelve miles from Hong Kong. This wasn’t exactly the cave of the forty thieves, but should still provide a good bounty, with the price of the potential loot, and the price of the head.

Mia and I approached from the back, peeking out from the shrubbery. Their were guards, wearing black uniforms, but only carrying small peashooters, and obviously not the strongest around, judging from the guts hanging over the belts. Getting in would not be a problem, but once in the mansion, more evaluation would be needed.

We waited until the heavy footsteps of lumbering guards echoed away into nothingness, and staying low, quickly moved across the lawn to under a window. Mia kept lookout while I got to work, bringing out a glass cutter and making a circle in the low window, cutting an entrance big enough for the two of us. But, I was not yet satisfied. Reaching into my jacket, I then pulled out a packet of talcum, sprinkling it into the new hole. As I thought: red lights. The place was bugged and protected.

Well, nothing I couldn’t get by. I pulled out a small mirror, on a long stick, and moved it between the bars of damning light. I looked both ways, and found it clear. I then moved the mirror in front of the most obtrusive ray, and shoved it aside. I would need to relay on my body weight to hold the stick in place, while I went through.

I hoisted myself up on the sill, and pulled forward. The lasers were not too close, and I was able to squeeze through, with inches to spare. I looked around quickly, and saw it was still clear, but I had to hurry. I gently knocked on the glass, and motioned for Mia to enter. Soon, she was crawling through, but with much more ease then myself, thanks to her less bulky clothing.

We separated, and ducked under different sides of the same arch in the hallway. Like her, I quickly absorbed my surroundings. This was a lavishly decorated home, with fancy lights between the arches marking the hall every eight feet. Probably there for aesthetics, rather then anything functional. Taking a second to look at each other, Mia and I, striding toe-heel, to minimize the noise, ducked behind the golden painted cherry wood, until we reached the end of our cover, into what looked like a lounge, complete with old-fashioned piano, an empty fireplace, and an expensive chandelier. Looks like this guy might have a little more in his pocket then I thought. Most likely from bribes and extortion.

I quickly left cover to pick up a golden candlestick, and a few silver plates. I didn’t see any cameras, or hear any footsteps, so I felt like taking a chance. Mia hissed at me to stay, but I felt a risk was ok at this time. After picking up the goods, I crept back, the only consequence was my partner’s harsh stare. I just grinned, which seemed to irritate her even more. But, such antics were quickly forgotten, as we left from our cover, and proceeded to move.

The next hallway must of lead to something priceless, for the mechanical eyes of many cameras were lining the path, keeping a constant vigil in front of them. Well, this explains why it was easy so far. The budget for security was spent on just one area. Guy must be really paranoid about something here, but it might be something only he would care about, like his own neck.

Mia and I stared at each other, silently asking our partner for any ideas. The cameras were swerving in synch, parallel machines in constant view of the others blind spot. There was no chance to dodge this, but, from what I could see of the hall, it was the only way into the next room, save for a staircase leading up. This was a risk we needed to take.

Fortunately, there was another arch starting this hall, and thankfully, the cameras were pointing downwards, not focusing on what was above them. Probably not expecting a threat from above. A sign of over confidence in the walls you built.

I fired my grappling hook at the arch, and pulled myself up, hanging by its thin, but exceedingly strong, thread. I peeked underneath the wooden frame, and smiled. As I thought, there was a long piece of wood supporting the majestic archway. The owner of this place gave up security for a chance to look good. Well, vanity always had a price.

I gave myself some slack, lowering the line a little, and then swing forward, my right hand reaching out to the fancy log on the other side. My fingers almost touched, but I was still out of reach. A second swing did the trick, and I found myself hanging on for dear life, several feet above the ground, and a few feet above the cameras.

I dropped my hook in Mia’s direction, and then wrapped the other hand around the beam, and turned myself upward, making it look like I was riding an animal. I was glad this was expensive, will finished cherry wood. Any splinters now would be very painful.

I pulled myself forward with my hands, making slow progress across. It took a few minutes to get a mere quarter of the way there. But, my progress was halted by three rapid knocks, followed by one long one. That was Mia, knocking out our code for trouble. I then heard another knock, but one that was steady, and repetitive, and echoing down the hall. It was either a guard or servant, but I could not risk being seen by either, and I couldn’t count on them to look straight, and hot have their attention turned upward.

I acted quickly. I couldn’t help Mia and myself at the same time, in fact, would probably make things worse for the both of us if I played the hero. So, I concentrated on myself. With moves a gymnast would approve, I pulled myself upward with my hands, and then turned into a quick handstand. Then, sweating with this control, I cart wheeled to my feet, grimacing at the noise my landing made. But, the footsteps continued at their same pace, no sign of rapid approach, or cautious slow walking. I was safe, for the moment.

But, now came the hard part. I was good at keeping my balance, thanks to Charlon’s training, but even the best had their limits. And keeping one foot directly behind the other was a strain on leg muscles. On top of that, I had to avoid attracting attention, and that means make the walk in total silence, and with my hands at my side, unable to provide a center point. One thing about this job… it was always challenging.

The guard then walked in. This guy wasn’t a flab bucket like the ones outside. He was still only armed with a pistol, but he had muscle. Guess the true threats were reserved for when it was needed. He effortlessly walked passed the cameras. He didn’t fear them; he didn’t need to. He worked here, and was probably seen by many digital eyes each day.

I knew the best way to avoid his gaze was to stay right above me. The normal human eye could grab a lot of detail in one glimpse, and even a flicker would alert it to something else. I couldn’t let that happen. I had to stay right above him, and avoid his peripheral vision, while walking parallel to the board, forcing me to stand flat and sideways, not an exactly comfortable position.

The footsteps came closer, the resounding echoes perpetrating louder throughout the hall. The booming matching the beats of my heart, as sweat started to trickle down. I knew I couldn’t afford any mistakes like the Path compound. This wasn’t a Triads base, but a government employee. That was one gang I did not want to cross.

The steps appeared below me, and I started scuttling across, scraping on the board, going slow and silent, but struggling to maintain pace with a man going at a regular pace. I was agile, but even the greatest acrobats had limits in how fast they good go. And man was not made to walk sideways and flat heeled.

The steps stopped, and so did I. I peered over my shoulder and down, scared to add any more weight in front of me, and lose my already desperate balance. The guard was turning in circles. He must have heard something… please, not me. No, he continued, and so did I.

We were halfway through, and my legs were getting tired. I was losing my subtle step, and I feared I would make myself obvious after a while, or fall down, right into the sight of both an armed guard and several cameras, alerting more trouble to my location. The guard was stopping more. I knew he was getting suspicious. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep this up.

I kept it up, fear and adrenaline keeping me steady. I was only two feet away now, and drenched in my own sweat, from the pain in my ankles and thighs, to the fear of collapse and failure. I was near the end of this painful journey, just a few inches away, and by then I hoped the guard would turn away. But, it seems I was wrong. Instead of finishing his patrol, he just stood there, like a statue. Damnit… he wasn’t patrolling, he was just changing his guard. It seems my luck had run out for the day. It was only a matter of time before I did something to give myself away. So much for the first day on the job.

But, a crash echoed from the other side of the hall, echoing its destruction in a resounding melody. The music got the guards ear, and moved him to do a fast jig, away from his post, and out of my sight. Looks like Mia saw the problem, and conducted a distraction. Nice of her.

Taking a breath of relaxation, I slowly laid myself down on the beam, and then turned upside down, and released my now tired legs, letting them hang loose, inches above the down gazing cameras. I waited for the nearest one to turn away, and then dropped, and scattered, getting on the other side of the hallway, leaning against the corner, and catching my breath, sliding against the wall, melting in relief.

But, I snapped myself back to reality. I only got past one obstacle, I still needed to finish the job, and get Mia over here. She had my grappler, after all. To avoid detection, and give myself a little cover, I hit the nearest light switch, and engulfed myself in the shadows.

I needed to let Mia through, and I rather not risk the same danger twice. There had to be a way to turn off the cameras, some kind of override. I didn’t see anything on my way here, but it had to be close by, and in this room. Thankfully, I was rather perceptive in the dark. I may not be able to see colors, but I could discern shapes. I was only truly blind in absolute darkness, not in cased of mild illumination, like this one.

My fingers traced over the wall, lingering over anything sticking out, telling me what was hidden from my eyes. And, they found something that might be what I was looking for. I felt a grid of rubber buttons, depressible, with a smooth, fragile feeling screen to the right. I also made out letters on the side of this device. It was Chinese, but I know what it was… the Mandarin wording for this country’s version of Brinks. It seems I found the alarm console.

I pulled out my keypad decoder, imposed it over the rubber buttons, and let it do its thing. The beeps it made were faint, but the noise still put me on edge. I had no clue when the guard might be back, might turn on the light, and see me. I hoped Mia was doing her job, throwing bones to hungry dogs.

Finally, the beeping stopped, and I checked the displayed, after illuminating it with a special button. Good… it worked. I hit enter on the keypad, and the code was saved to memory, and the right buttons were activated. I disengaged the tool from the console, and went to check on the cameras. Good… that seemed to have done the trick. There was no activity at all from the digital sentinels. I knocked twice, hard. Our symbol for all clear. I then heard the quick pitter-patter of Mia’s walk, and then her form disappearing into the dark room, melding into the surroundings like me.

I gave her a few seconds to adjust to the lack of light, and then nodded, indicating I was ready. She returned the nod, and gestured to the stairs. She proceeded to rapidly slink toward the wooden path upwards, and I followed, but first grabbed what appeared to be a Ming vase. Now, to make sure I didn’t break it before I had it checked out.

The stair way was only a small flight, leading to just a single door on the second floor. Mia tried the handle, an old-fashioned brass turn knob, but struggled. Locked, obviously. I was about to offer my abilities, but she went ahead and did her thing to the lock. I quietly backed off. I should of known Mia was an infiltrator as well, and had the basics down pat. Meh, guess I was eager to prove myself. I was still curious about why Mia wanted me around. I figured it had something to do with the Sunrise Dragon. Sure, she took work from them, but one can’t be choosy when it comes to money. But, there was definitely no love lost between the two. Maybe she had a hint I had some hand in their downfall, or maybe we both were about to be crossed by them. There were a lot of maybes about this, but I couldn’t dwell on them. I needed to focus on the what is.

Mia got the lock picked, and silently opened the door. Good, only a slight groan from the hinges. Nothing that could cause a commotion. I looked over her should, and saw a huge blob in what looked like a very expensive bed, with the top rising and falling, like a flabby tidal wave. Mia grinned and gave the thumbs up. This was the guy she needed to kill. I nodded, and went back downstairs. I would let Mia do her thing, while I did mine. As I walked down the stairs, I heard the faint pop of her rifle, and then just shrugged, a tad disappointed. I was hoping for more time to loot, but I guess she wasn’t the type to wait. I would do what I could to delay her, while I helped ourselves to a few bonuses. After all, she was taking a huge cut out of my share. I needed to get as much as I carried, to even it out.

As I started scanning the room, I heard a quick pop from behind me, and then a very heavy thud. I didn’t turn around; I knew what it was. Mia just finished the contract. I quickly grabbed some silver and gold looking figurines, stuffing them in my padded jacket, knowing she would be wanting to leave soon. Oh well, at least this time, I didn’t get chased out by armed thugs.

Chapter Forty-Seven: Idle Hands

This job wasn’t the highest paying, in terms of the bounty and booty, but it started a chain reaction. Mia was not happy with some of the “unnecessary risks” I performed, but I just took it in stride. I was there to add extra money to the pot, and what better way then lifting some valuables? Besides, I trusted my instincts enough to continue.

But, we worked together for five months, working in both killing and stealing. The Silent Pillagers. That became one of our nicknames with our criminal peers. We killed the target, and went off with as much of their riches our pockets could carry. Mia was good at getting by people, and I was the one who got by the machines.

Still, I felt more like her assistant then her partner. I managed to work my way up to thirty-seventy in only one month, and she was lingering forty in front of me like a dog with a bone. I think I figured her game out. She wanted the best, she knew what motivated them, and worked to make them better for her. We may have known each other for a short while, but Mia had great eyes for the unseen. I may be better in the dark, but in full light, she could sense anything out of place, even by a mere inch. It was like she was in tune with everything around her. We were indeed two different sides of the same coin. Light and Dark, also called by our peers as the Angel and Devil of Death.

I became more and more sullen, rarely smiling, always focusing on the job. I am not sure why… it felt like something was slowly dying inside me. Not like depression, but more of apathy. Like something that used to care was just fading. As a result, I was becoming more detached from my emotions, and the people around me. I figured it was helping Mia with her targets. In order to end life, you really can’t get attached to it.

Mia, on the other hand, was driven as well, but always contained a level of protectiveness about those around her. Sure, she always gave gruff, and knew how to take it. But, it seemed once you proved yourself, she was a bit more open, and went out of her way to watch your butt. I noticed how she reacted to our informants. She gave the newer ones crap, and was nasty, while trusted ones got a relaxed smile and a slap on the shoulder. It was like she had a shell similar to mine. Not sure what to do about something inside, so she cornered it off. I doubt it was as literal as my issue, but it was something I could relate to.

Still, I did not know a thing about her past, nor did I tell her anything about mine, or what little I knew of it. Everything I learned about her she played in front of me. It was like a game of stud poker. We only saw one card, and we hid the rest from each other, only guessing on what it could be. It was almost a rule; we never discussed anything beyond last week. Everything we talked about was technique, politics; work… pretty much anything non-personal. Almost like we were desperately trying to avoid getting too close.

We were in her favorite place, the same techno joint where she recruited me, drinking in celebration of our last job, a Russian Mafia boss trying to take over the shattered pieces of vice the Triads left. The bastard had government connections, and was hoping to expand his control to the East. Should have kept a lower profile.

Just because someone is hiding, doesn’t mean he isn’t powerful, or able to pay for someone to do their dirty work. In any case, several weakened Heads, probably working together for the first and only time, pooled their cash together, and put a bounty on the invader’s head.

He was an easy mark, barely defended. It was more of a race to kill him, then any normal contract. But, it didn’t matter. Money was money. Mia and I proved ourselves quick, and the money was ours. I let Mia get the glory for this one. I didn’t want to be recognized by these guys. I was technically a casualty of a gang war, not to mention the guy who started it. Didn’t want to have all that violence coming back to haunt me just yet.

But, such thoughts were far from my mind tonight. It was a time to celebrate, to drink sake (I found I preferred this to beer, anyway), and just relax. Mia and I tapped our glasses together, and drunk deeply in the fruits of our success. We talked shop, our voices hidden in the blaring music and the crowd of dancers, and compared notes, laughing at each other. We were on our fifth bottle, when we finally lost our inhibitions, and started crossing the line.

“Say, Mia… how the hell did you get so good at this?” I must have been really plastered… I forgot the unspoken rule, and started going deep. But, it seems Mia was not exactly connected as well.

“Oh, just looking for a guy… couldn’t find him, so I thought I would practice on others. Made a lot of money on it.” She hiccupped after that.

“A guy, eh? Ex-boyfriend who stiffed you, or cheated on you?” I felt a sake glass pitched at my chest after that.

“No, stupid! Just… someone. Someone I owe a lot to. Don’t know his face, but I figure I’ll get him soon. Hell, killing everyone of his ilk here.” She laughed, and drained another glass.

I joined her in the glass, and resumed my drunken interview. But, it was odd… I felt some kind of tingling about this. “Fury of a woman scorned, eh?” I slammed the glass down on the table, hard. I’ve gotten drunk before, but that wasn’t to enjoy the pleasure of someone’s company, but to avoid mental suffering. I guess I was getting carried away in the fun of it all. “Must have been some bastard. Hope you find him out.”

“Oh yeah!” Mia suddenly perked up even more. “I hired a researcher to do some poking around a few months ago. The jerk finally came through.” Mia got a thoughtful gaze, and then smiled. “I could use some help on this. Why not join me?”

I chuckled a bit. “A personal job? Come on, Koj. You know I am only in this for the money.”

“Oh, come on. Hey, tell you what. You do this for me; I give you that forty percent. Deal?”

That convinced me. I raised another glass toward her, and chugged it down. I just hope she could remember all this in the morning. But then, it was her turn to get personal.

“Hey, PC… what about you? Why the hell you in Hong Kong? America not corrupt enough for you?”

Ok… I did NOT want to talk about this. I may be getting tipsy, but I was not about to blurt out my already convoluted past. “I was looking for something.” I stuck to being vague. It was best not to reveal I was an amnesiac escapee from a genetic lab that didn’t exist in any records. I doubt she would believe it, anyway.

“You find it? Any clues?” Mia leaned forward. She was smiling rather crookedly, and it looked like she was about to reach her limit. Damn, she was beautiful. A mixture of confidence, but an underlying need. A need to trust someone, to actually have a friend. Mia might isolate herself, but I was able to get that. She had walls, but she didn’t want them, unlike me. I couldn’t have enough.

“Some, but you know… it doesn’t matter. I just don’t care anymore.” I startled myself with those words, and how true they were. After all the sweat, blood and danger, after all the heists and break-ins, I lost all desire to find out my past, who I was. I guess this present, my new future, replaced whoever I might have been. And for some reason, that didn’t bother me.

But, as if to punish me for my apathy, I started to get a pounding headache, and my stomach felt like it was rotting inside. I would have blamed the booze, if I wasn’t already a heavy drinker, and if I didn’t feel something unpleasantly familiar in the back of my head.

I quickly left the table, saying I had to go to the restroom, and rushed to the men’s room, practically diving toward the porcelain throne. I knew what was coming up, and coming out.

“You think you can forget all that has driven you here? Just drop everything, and go merrily on your way?” I felt the inside of my skull tighten, like someone was trying to strangle me, but couldn’t reach my neck, so he settle for my cerebrum. “I got news for you… I am not letting you forget, jackass.”

I tried to argue, tried to talk, but something grabbed my throat, preventing me from speaking, so the Voice kept going. “I don’t care… I don’t care if that Iban person couldn’t find any more information; I don’t care if there are no more leads. Your only purpose is to know who you are… and I am going to make sure you never forget that again. You are nothing more but a puppet, just a toy pulled on strings. MY toy.”

With that final proclamation, I felt the mental chains loosen, and then, the pressure building throughout the whole conversation, I released my dinner and drinks into the toilet, the sickness going with the flow coming from my throat.

I should of known then that something was about to start. Something that would twist me into something darker, something harder. But, that started the next day.

The day I finally had enough of these games. The day the truth showed its ugly head.

Chapter Forty-Eight: Bullet Ridden Bonds.

It started like a typical working day. I was in my pants and T-shirt, waking up from another sake-induced headache, stuck in a hazy limbo somewhere between stupor and sober. The familiar sensation of reality chipping away at my skull slowly sculpted itself into my bare and run-down apartment, with tears in the wall, and springs coming out of the bed.

Not what I would call a masterpiece, but it didn’t bother me. I wasn’t one to live in luxury. Hell, after bunking with faceless strangers, and surviving in the streets of Los Angeles, this was almost a paradise. But, such reminiscing quickly dispersed as the phone starting ringing. There was only one person who ever called me, my employer/partner, Mia.

I picked it up casually, and just grunted a greeting, expecting some biting comment about last night and the drink, but to my surprise, she was to the point and gruff. “PC, meet me at the docks, corner of Chipai, and Wai-ton. Its time to work on that personal contract.” And, after that, she hung up. No jokes, no criticism. Just a cold, to the point message. I just figured she was in the same boat I was, completely hung over. I should have suspected more.

I took a quick look at my watch as I got dressed… Two in the afternoon. Late in the day, but not unusual. Just typical for a guy who works nights. I put on my jacket, checking my guns and other gear, quickly put on my shades, and walked out the door, the black leather flowing behind me like a cape. It was time to get to work.

The street Mia designated was a good walk away, about two hours. Again, nothing unusual. We always discussed our work in quiet and preferred areas where no one would listen. The docks Mia was referring to was more then just a shipping yard, but also several abandoned buildings left in decay after the new government started strangling its economy, taking control of everything it could. Only thing it housed these days were China’s unwanted, souls overlooked by the policy of sharing and economic division, left to fend for themselves. I didn’t really pity them too much. Least they were in this nation legally and not a foreigner sneaking in its borders, preying on the choice meats the country provided.

I trekked along the slums of the city, along its dirty roads. I walked everywhere. Buying a car, even if I could get the money, required some form of ID, which I lacked, and really had no hope of getting. And transportation, be it public or private, would never come to this place willingly. This was Hell’s Kitchen for Hong Kong, but the natives called it something else: Demon Town. It was said that when men walked into this town, and if they managed to ever leave, they came back with black souls. They became devils.

I just dismissed that as local gossip. Every city had its bad side, its slum. And it was always treated like some hellish waste dump, where common morality was left behind, and only animals that looked and spoke like men where left. They were just urban fairy tales told to children so their kids so they would live a good life, and be motivated to stay far away from our world. Like we wanted those bastards.

I finally reached the location, but saw no Mia, and I was alone, not a soul in sight. Only me, in the middle of an abandoned street. No eyes, no ears. I found this suspiciously odd.

We usually discussed business in private, a necessity with our work, but not to this degree of isolation. A bad feeling was building up, ballooning through my system, pushing me on the edge, telling me to forget everything and just get the hell out of dodge.

The zinging sound of a bullet hitting the pavement, just inches from the soles of my feet, before ricocheting to parts unknown, told me I was right. But, I had no time to admit it, as I followed blind instinct, and sought shelter in the closest structure I could find. In this case, an abandoned and rusty car, probably gutted out of everything making it move. But, the crackle of a hand-radio told me this was expected. And, it told me just how much shit I was in.

“You fucking bastard! You worthless, lying asshole! It was you all along! I’m going to kill you, you brainless, cowardly pile of shit!” I was stunned, but not by the swearing. No… what hit me like a jab out of nowhere was the voice. It was angrier, and pissed off, almost to the point of hysteria, but there was no denying it.

It was Mia’s.

The sound of a side-view mirror being shattered by another bullet broke me out of my shock. I could not Mia’s sudden spurt of violence catch me off guard, even though I knew she was just trying to make me sweat. I would be dead by now, if she wanted that. Mia was a pro with her rifle; I’ve seen her pull off shots that veteran snipers with 20 years on her would call impossible. No, she was planning on putting me through hell first.

But, I didn’t care. Mia may have been the closest thing I had to a friend, but I cared too damn much about my own survival to let feelings get in the way. I spent too much time and effort to let it all slide due to personal feelings. I had to live, even if it meant killing my partner.

First, I needed to get to safety. I had an idea of where the shots were coming from, but it was confirmed with a ricochet from the top of the bumper of the rust wagon I took shelter in, through the windshield. She was somewhere in that abandoned parking garage, placing her shots amongst one of ten stories.

Now… how to get there. Mia would be able to snipe me if I just made a run for it, the cement area was not large, but would leave me open for way too long. I could not leave cover, despite her best measures to flush me out, even with that last shot that whizzed past my ear.

Damnit, she was getting close. I had to move fast. Letting instinct take over, even if it was from the dark reaches of my mind, I slammed my foot against the bottom of this dead automobile, knocking a wide hole into his rusty bottom, and quickly put it in neutral. I then played the part of a Flintstone, and moved this machine forward using my foot power. Thankfully, I was on a downward slant, so gravity quickly took over. I then made myself small, curling into a ball, and rolling off the seat into the crevice near the pedals. Not very comfortable, but I rather have a pedal in my back then a bullet in my head.

I heard bullets hit through the roof of my mobile shelter, hitting the seat I was in previously. But, any fears I may have had quickly vanished as I felt my ride hit the wall of Mia’s impressive perch. I peeked out, and saw the nearest window was only a few feet above me. I didn’t even think twice, but somehow managed to get into a crouching position, and sprang toward the window, the gravity of my pounce giving me the momentum I needed to catapult my body through the empty square. I landed in a roll, and quickly pulled out my two guns, safety off, and ready to blast. But, I was alone.

Mia was higher up, and I know she would be expecting me now. I had no clue why she turned on me, and right now, I did not care. It was a matter of survival.

I cocked my guns in a ready position, and sought cover behind a pillar, looking past a concrete edge. It was clear, but I walked carefully, starting this hunt amongst partners.

Chapter Forty-Nine: And the Pieces Fall

I knew Mia was targeting me from a higher floor, and with that gun of hers, had the advantage of range. However, speed was on my side, with my lighter guns. If I did manage to find her, I would have to lure her out of hiding, and get her close. If I could even kill her… felt like something was holding me back. I shook it off. I had to focus on staying alive.

I approached a set of stairs, and walked up. Unsurprisingly, it was a complete duplicate of the first floor. Well, this was a parking garage. Creativity in design was not one of its notable features. At least I could count on shelter behind columns, provided she didn’t try any ricochets.

I quickly dived behind on, and paused for a few seconds, peeking around a corner, hesitating for a second. I could not rush out, just assuming it was safe. Mia was a trained sneak as well, and may also try the pillars, ambushing me as I crossed the elevated lot toward the second set of stairs. I took a few seconds to ponder: Why did Mia want to kill me? Why was she so ticked off, especially after our celebration yesterday? It sounded like something I did in the past… great, the first major clue to my original identity and it’s trying to kill me.

I cut my meditations short, and got back to the task on hand. I turned against the pillar, gun at the ready, finger against the trigger, ready to fire upon anything that even looked at me funny. But, there was only silence. I crept forward, walking toe-heel, behind the next pillar. But, there was no movement, no sounds, except my own footsteps. Ok, she must be higher. I made a quiet, but direct, line to the stairs, and approached the third level.

But, my caution proved unnecessary. Again, Mia was not to be found. Same for the fourth floor, and the fifth. I was starting to get nervous. Why hadn’t she tried to approach me? Since I was going uphill, she would have the jump on me, and be able to ambush me from above, the easiest location to ambush anyone. What was her plan?

It then hit me like a steel brick. She would want to finish this quickly. She knew her advantages, and how best to use them. She would want something wide open, allowing for maximum potential against her opponent, especially if he relied on cover like I did.

And, in a building supported by column after column, there was only one such location: the roof. Nowhere to hide, nothing to block her aim. As soon as I walked up, I would be falling down, dead. I needed another route.

I continued my trek upward, as I thought this. Still on guard, in case I was wrong, but not as wary. The walk continued, right up to the tenth and top floor. The lack of activity only proved my theory. She knew I was coming, and was waiting for me. And why shouldn’t she… I was on her turf, she had all the advantages. Mine were easily overwhelmed at this point. I needed to find a way to turn the tables.

I scanned this last floor, eyes searching for anything, my mind processing the surroundings, trying to picture possible avenues of approach… and then I found it: an AC duct, moving through the symmetrical system of columns, and curing upwards through the roof, like a metal, rusty chimney, on the other side of the stairs. It looked like I had my approach.

Thankfully, I always carried my grappler with me, so it was only a matter of hooking myself up to the edge of the metal tunnel, and quickly ripping off the grating. Nothing like rust to make screws and nails brittle. Thankfully, it seemed solid enough to hold my weight. I only hoped I was quiet enough to avoid getting Mia suspicious.

I slithered through the metal prison like a snake, making sure I was slow and soft when moving, to avoid any loud bangs or bumps, doing what I could to not attract the deadly attention of my assailant. It was a strenuous process, and felt like hours, trapped in a tight metal coffin, constricted in a tight, steel prison.

But, I moved on, and was soon rewarded, for the upward curve of the duct gave me standing room, and allowed me, through a grate allowing easy access from the outside world, I saw the profile of Mia Koj, laying on her belly, her head looking through the scope, pointed at the stairs, waiting for her victim… me. This was my chance. I pointed my pistols, getting her in my sight, and preparing to end this.

Or, at least I tried. My fingers were a mere millimeter from firing the two shots needed to kill her, but couldn’t press down all the way. I was shaking, trying to force myself to do the deed, mentally coxing myself to fire.

“Come on, do it, you coward.” The voice… why was he here at this time? “She betrayed you, she attacked you… kill her.” Sweat was poring down my brow, like I was pushing an immovable stone uphill, trying to push myself to end this. But, in the end, the weight was too much. For some reason, be it unknown guilt or sub-conscious camaraderie, I couldn’t pull the trigger, for some reason, I had to let her live.

But, I couldn’t let her kill me, either. I turned my guns around, and brought them smashing down against the rusty, barred grate, forcing it open, before ducking into the duct, keeping out of site, and out of harm. I heard a gasp, as a sniper’s legendary concentration was broken, and the cautious footsteps of an uncertain huntress, as I backed down the duct, muscles tensing for the pounce. I almost leapt at the familiar sound of a silenced gun firing, firing through an old metal sheet, but kept my cool.

The footsteps continued, moving silently, like a wolf approaching a deer that may or may not be dead. I held my breath, trying to plan my next move, and seeing what Mia had in mind. The steps got louder and louder, approaching the newly made opening to the outside world, and then silence, and a shadow. She was there, wondering if I was dead or alive. She pointed the barrel of her gun in the hole, in case she needed to fire the finishing blow.

I never gave her the chance. I quickly flung my own hand out, punching at the barrel of the deadly weapon. It fired, but missed, hitting only more duct. I took the opportunity to come out of hiding, and, in what seemed like only a split second, jumped out of the duct, tackling my attacker in a flying leap, knocking both of us on the stony ground of the cracked cement roof, our hands moving to get the advantage of the other, grabbing, pushing, shoving, the flurry of our fight rolling us across our cracked and hard arena.

But, despite her experience with the rifle, and her own street smarts, Mia did not have the abilities in close-quarters combat. And, just a few feet from the slightly raised edge of the high-roof, I managed to get my knees on her stomach, and point both my weapons at her face, this time without a sniper rifle pointed at mine. We just started at each other, looking in each other’s eyes, wondering what to do. I could see the hate and rage in hers, and I took off my shades on gun still holding her at bay, to let her see the confusion in mine. I slowly got off her, letting her stand, as I placed a foot on her gun, making sure she could not grab it, she stood up as well, cautiously, but still looking as though she wanted to rip out my internal organs. We stood there, quietly, before I broke the silence with just one word that asked everything. “Why?”

She snarled, before spitting on the ground, and mockingly replied. “Shove it. Don’t pretend ignorance with me. You know why. Or did you really forget my face, bastard? Was that just a Tuesday for you, murderer? Another day in your part-time job, blowing people to bits?”

I just blinked… but, felt something stir in my mind, a dark laughter. What was she talking about? “Look in my face… my eyes. Do you see anything familiar? Or was that helmet blocking it?”

I just stared at her, for several minutes… what could I say? I really had no clue what she was talking about, but I also knew that I had very little to go on. I only had a few years worth of memory. I took a gamble, and just gave her the truth. “Mia, I can’t remember… I just woke up one day, and forgot everything. Hell, I only named myself after a computer store and a hotel when pressed for ID.”

As expected, she didn’t buy it. To her credit, she gave it a full second before blowing up. “YOU FUCKED-UP PATHETIC ASSHOLE! CAN’T YOU THINK OF A BETTER LIE THEN THAT PIECE OF SHIT?!” He then gave me a quick jab to the stomach, which left me reeling, and raised her other hand to finish the combination, but stopped, quickly, like something struck her across the head, and caught her off guard. I recovered, rearming my guns, but then, to my surprise, saw they were no longer needed. For, in the middle of Mia’s stomach, was a long, thin, knife, piercing her all the way through her belly

My mouth opened slightly in surprise, my gaze focused on the weapon lodged in the stomach of my partner, slowly moving up to her face, as the anger melted away to reveal shock, mixed with sadness, as tears flowed from her eyes. For the first time, I saw Mia Koj cry. “Why… PC. Why like this… Daddy… sorry.” And then, she was silent, falling forward, onto my, where I caught her in my arms. And, while I held her there, her life ebbing out of her, I too, cried… the salty water leaking from my eyes. Why was I crying…? I can’t say. I’m not a creature of emotion, but I guess even ice has to melt a little.

“How touching, yet disappointing. I expected much more out of you then this, David.”

David? I followed the new voice, its familiar mocking tone breaking me out of my sadness, and instead of watering, my eyes now glared. He was dressed differently, a Japanese silk kimono instead of his white suit, but his hair and that all-knowing smile where still the same. I was surprised to see him, but at the same time, I was suspecting he would show up sooner or later.

My old teacher, Charlon. The bastard.

Chapter Fifty: Revealing Shadows.

My old teacher and I just stared at each other, the skies darkening above, turning gray, as if bearing witness to the scene below, and changing with the mood. Then, when the swirl above shadowed everyone in the city, the older man spoke. “Well, this disaster has gone on long enough. Time to come back to us.”

Then, his hands disappearing into a haze of speed, barely giving me enough time to even move my guns an inch, and appeared in front of me, another projectile shooting forward, rocketing toward me with speed that could rival bullets. I couldn’t even try to dodge his throw, and found my gut impaled with a piercing… syringe?

I looked up to the assailant with confusion, excepting something more on the lethal side, when it was more then just his hands that got hazy, but everything I could see. I shook my head rapidly, trying to get some sense back into my world, but to no avail. Everything was becoming a blur, but I didn’t feel scared. It was almost comforting… like this was supposed to happen. I stopped moving, and just knelt, letting it take over, allowing the blur to become ink, to slowly fade to…

Blackness. I felt myself cringe. I’ve been here before. For some reason, this emptiness, this void… it’s familiar. This is were I met… him, the voice, in my dreams. But, this wasn’t a dream… no, it’s real. But, where is he? Why am I alone? I have been here before. Yes, I remembered. I was locked away, ignored. Everything I wanted, everything I needed, shoved here, neglected… along with me.

Seeing the Matrix… good movie… no, it wasn’t. Its freedom, what you want. No, loyalty. Fight for myself... fight for a cause. Purpose is what you want… purpose is what others want. Authority…good… evil. Myself… others…

“My name is…”

“I am…”

“… … … Mia… dead…”


“No, not this time.”

“You have no choice… you are not real, just some figment.”

“Bullshit! I am what you want, you refuse to acknowledge me!”

“Damn it shut up and stay quiet, in the darkness, where you belong.”


He appears… the shadow, my tormentor. Only… he has more features. Fingers, he is wearing armor, not sure what kind, he is still encased in fog. But I recognize the eyes… my piercing eyes. He wants this, this is his chance, what he has been pushing me toward.

His chance to be rid of me.

I hate him… he is my jailer, preventing me from appearing, hiding me, pretending my desires, my existence, is only in his mind.

He hates me… I prod, I refuse to be quiet. I want to be free, out of this life. I want to exist, of my own accord, not under someone else…

My name is…

I punch him, and this time I connect to his cheek, with a resounding thud as it connections.


He counters with an uppercut to my stomach, knocking the air out of me leaving me reeling on the ground, struggling to catch my breath.


I sprung up, and we lock hands, each of us struggling against the other, pushing with all our might, fighting to be in control, fighting for dominance, our freedom… our lives.

I am…

I want to be free. Free of laws, free of orders. Yes, I have helped others, but in the end, it was always to help myself. That… is what I want. To be free of everyone, to live for myself, and not worry about what others think. To only think of myself, release myself from the burdens of others.

It’s my turn…

My resolve grows, and my world burns, the shadows get eaten away by red flame, inside me, and out… both are the same. I get blinded by them, everything is burning… I feel it… it fuels me. I will do anything to be free… anything…

The fire consumes me, but I only feel ecstasy, feel the joy of the heat, laughing like a maniac as I get covered in them. There is no pain, only pure exhilaration.

And I yell, as I escape this prison, the flames still burning, but only inside, and everything returns to what it once was. Lightning crashes behind me, and I yell out, in rage and victory. I have conquered, I have won… and, as the thunder roars its own encouragement, I yell to everyone in hearing distance, as drops start to fall, and rain covers the city.


Chapter Fifty-One: Knowledge on a Platter

The delusion died down, but the fires it sparked raged on, fueling my anger, my desire to fight, melting the mental shackles the Voice… no, David… his name was David, had imposed on me. And, for the first time in my very short existence, I had complete control. The skills, experiences, which were once slowly being absorbed by me, had shifted completely, won in a battle of wills and determination.

All thanks to the man who had hoped to imprison me back in that mental cage, Charlon. Whatever that shot intended, it backfired. Either I was stronger then they thought, or just too pissed off to go down quietly. No matter. Nothing was holding me back. And, while there were still quite a few blank spots, namely everything that David knew and kept from me, or tried to. The good thing about being created from a sub-conscious is that you secretly learn everything the guy in charge knew.

Yes… I was his hidden desires, the dreams and goals he hid from everyone, even himself. Whatever happened that day in the tube, or was supposed to happen, I broke free and took over. I wasn’t exactly welcomed in his mind, so he blocked off most everything. But, as time went on, I built my own lessons, made my own life. I became a different person, no longer fed the scraps by the original. But now things were different.

I was in the driver’s seat now… and hell if anyone else was going to take over.

But, there were still a few questions left unanswered…

I stared at my stun assailant, enjoying the look of shock on his face, but not showing any emotion, keeping a poker face as I approached my former teacher, guns ready to draw. “You know, you should have done this earlier, back in America.”

The surprised expression went to a smirk in almost no time at all. “Well, had to keep you busy someway. That medicine took forever to make. And, it seems even our most secure prisons seemed unable to contain you.”

So Charlon was from Stalter. No surprise, actually. Who else would be able to make a medicine to drive me crazy, and throw me back into that dark hell? But, still… “Why even bother with Hong Kong, then? Rather quick of you to go from persecution to manipulation.”

“Ah… Arnie. Too much of a damn bureaucrat to even think creatively. He just wanted to kill you again and start over, storing your corpse in some cold-storage. Failed to see, even as you are, there could be some use. Good thing higher management stepped in.”

Ok, I wasn’t expecting that. “Wait… kill me again? What do you mean, again?” I was beginning to think Charlon might have lost a few marbles since I last saw him.

“With the right tools, anything can be repaired, including living flesh and blood. But, it seems something happened with you the last time. You changed, forgot simple things, and acted oddly, and technically forced yourself out of stasis. We thought it was just trauma-induced amnesia at first, but after some examination during your absence, noticed two different sets of thought patterns. Seems you have a roommate in there, must be driving you… crazy.” He laughed at that joke, in a matter that sent chill down my spines.

“But, why Hong Kong, why the Triad… why the Path raid? Why such an elaborate performance?” My mind was whirling with all this information… I died… everything happening to me was planned… a lie…

“Quiet simply, we were curious. Curious to see what devils were under David’s skin. So, while making the medicine, we re-trained you, observed you, and made notes, so to speak. Made you useful while you slept. I must say, even with unexpected twists like escaping the druggie thugs I was to rescue you from, or meeting that flabby quack we had to kill, you came together nicely. You were quite the skilled infiltrator, but nowhere near the original’s caliber.”

“So… this was all some sick test? Even her?” I pointed at Mia, getting hysterical. This was too rich… finding out my life was a joke, a play put for the eyes of others. The anger within was building up, and I was practically fuming.

“No, we did lie about the raid, true. We had the saber technology for a few years, now. The Path just managed to get their hands on a prototype, so we sent you to get it back, saying it was a test. As for her… lets just say she was something you overlooked, and we wanted out of the way. I was hoping to get you into a situation where you would be forced to kill her. But, it seems you found a way around that."

"You’re welcome, by the way."

I was visibly shaking. I was losing my cool, wanting to rip this guy’s throat out of his neck and stuff it up his ass so deep that his lung would be fooled into thinking he breathed and talked out his rear. “You…little… I am so going to kill….”

Charlon quietly laughed, before pulling out a metal bar. “Please… David was no match for me, and you… are even worse then he was. He flicked his wrist and a blue light, very similar to the Dragon Tooth’s, appeared, but only this slightly curved, like a katana, and much longer. “Looks like Arnie was right. We have to start all over, right from readying the body. Pity.”

I aimed my two weapons at my former teacher, and got ready to plug him. I learned a lot today, but that didn’t change the fact my survival was at stake, in more ways then one. Rain started to drizzle down while the two of us waited for the other to make the first move. Lightning blazed as we both got ready for battle, followed by the booming thunder cheering us on, in this fight forcing me back to my unwanted past.

Chapter Fiftty-Two: From Canvas to Stone.

I moved first, confident my ranged weapons would be more then enough to take down someone relying on a sword, no matter how high tech it was. But, I underestimated the wielder of the weapon, and was caught off guard by the blue blaze slicing through the air, accented with small orange flashes, ending the flight of my bullets.

“How dishonorable, playing with guns. Should do something more civilized, don’t you think?” Then, becoming a white blur, Charlon raced across the roof at a speed that no human, or anything living, should be able to reach naturally. And, before I could even think about getting a shot in, I felt both my hands get whacked, burned, like a hot iron bar served time in an oven before being slapped over my wrists. The damage was only superficial, but the pain forced me to drop my guns, and shake my hands to get them cool.

But, any thoughts of curing the pain were interrupted by the same blur tripping me off my feet so hard, I was horizontal and airborne for a few seconds, enough time for a skilled fighter to strike at me again, and flip me backside up, before landing on me, adding his own weight to the impact, and flattening me on the roof. Hard.

“Come on, David… fight like a real warrior. I know you still have it, the blade we called the Dragon Tooth. Use it…”

I got up, bruised, but not cut. I dusted myself off, trying to look like I wasn’t hurt, when, in reality, I felt myself ache all over, lucky not to have a broken rib, or three. Odd, considering I was attacked with a sword… which I saw Charlon held sideways, blade side out. He was trying to keep me alive, or in one piece. Curious… but, I pushed it from my mind. I didn’t care about his true motives. I had to defeat him.

I pulled out the decorated metal bar, hidden from human sight ever since I liberated it from the Hidden Path. I never really used it, for the same reason I couldn’t get fence or otherwise get rid of it. It was too damn hot, and swinging it around in public would only mark me for revenge, arrest, or assassination. Best case scenario, it would get stolen from me. And while I wouldn’t mind losing this dead weight, I didn’t have much faith in luck.

But, I had to make an exception in this case. Charlon effortlessly disarmed me, and then juggled me for a very elaborate and quick combination, and the bastard was only playing with me. I was not a swordsman, since I preferred modern styles of defense, and staying out of trouble. Hell, even my home-made brand of hand to hand combat was only obtained by mimicking old martial art movies. But, I could not lose this, not now, when I was this close to the truth. I flicked my wrist, and the blue blade appeared, though I couldn’t help notice how small it was compared to my opponents. And, since it was a laser, intensified light, he could wield it with one hand, like I could. Well, it’s not the size of the weapon that matters, but how you use it.

I got into a combat stance, copied from an old movie called Kill Bill, and prepared for the next exchange. Which first consisted of a laugh, followed by another lightning fast charge, giving me about one second to get my weapon in a position to stop him.

But, it didn’t help. He managed to get under my weapon, and made an attack on my gut, making me gasp for breath as he deflated my stomach, before twirling around me, and doing the same to my ass, bending me over the other way, finishing with a quick stab at my back, like he was going for a killing blow. Instead, he sliced open my jacket, leaving a deep tear in the leather, between layers of my coat. “Humph… pathetic. I should of devoted time to showing you the basics of blade use. A small child could beat you.”

He pulled the blade out, and I tried a strike of my own, only to hear the fizzle of heat between our two weapons, and to see him quickly fall on his back, throwing me of balance, and right on to his raised feet, which he used to catapult me back into the air, take flight and land eight feet away, landing on my back again, and still very lucky to not have broken any bones, at least from my current observations.

But, I was sore, and knew I was outclassed. Charlon was beyond human limits, in terms of ability and physical prowess. Was it Stalters work? It was obvious from my experiences they worked on genetics. It would only make sense to have engineered employees. Still, I had to find some way to defeat him. I lost my weapon during that last flight, and knew I was no match with just my fists, considering I had trouble standing, and pain was giving gravity a hand in planting me on the ground. I could only lift my head to see Charlon stand over me, grinning like a serene lunatic. “Well… that was an interesting diversion, but its time to go home, David. Time to bring you back.”

I struggled, hands flaying, trying to get away, as my opponent raised his weapon for the killing blow, when I touched something long and hollow with my fingertips. Acting on pure survival instinct, I grabbed it and flung it with all the force my adrenaline filled body could muster. And, to the surprise of us both, my opponent got walloped not by a pipe, but the trigger end of a rifle. Mia’s sniper rifle. Maybe I should put more faith in luck.

Charlon was knocked back, staggering from the surprise. I forgot about my pain, and sprung to my feet, taking my opportunity to win to the fullest, turning the gun quickly, throwing it midair, before grabbing it and firing off a shot, pegging the bastard before he could recover. And, I quickly pulled back the hammer and fired off another, thankful Mia customized her gun to include clips. I loaded and shot, going off like a semi-automatic, making that jackass dance a bloody, lead-filled tango, shaking with every bullet until he reached the edge, bloody and breathing heavily, somehow still alive, even though he was pierced with bullet holes.

He stared at me, puzzlement and confusion in his eyes, as I got closer, my own face grim, and my injuries forgotten as I approached him. He didn’t even try to defend himself. Rather odd, considering he was super human earlier. But, I didn’t dwell on it too much. Just made it easier for me. I was just a few feet away, the gun held tightly in my sweaty palms, slowly closing the distance, just to make sure he didn’t do anything surprising.

He did, but it was made in words, not actions. “Remember… death is no… longer permanent… PC.”

I, however decided to speak louder then his words, and made a hell of an action. Like a slugger determined to bat the ball out of the park, I raised the gun, hands tight on the barrel, and swung it, putting every muscle I could into it, aiming for his heads, determined to mess up that ever smug face. The force of the blow was enough to knock his already weak form off the edge, free falling ten stories, onto the abandoned streets below.

I peered over, enjoying the large red stain surrounding a shrouded form on the sidewalk below, the rain increasing its flow, the drizzle turning into a downpour washing away the blood below. I kept watching, my gaze locked on his corpse, for a reason I could not comprehend. It was almost like I had to get proof he was dead; know for certain I wasn’t being fooled.

But, my reverie was interrupted by a hacking cough behind me. I turned, and then ran toward Mia, her face covered with the blood leaking from her mouth, her black top now stained with red all over the mid-torso. She was alive… but how? I kneeled down, looking down at her, not caring that she tried to kill me a few minutes ago. The girl kept coughing up the red plasma, and despite the downpour soaking us. I could see she was crying.

“Daddy… Daddy… I’m… sorry.” Each word struggled to get out, amidst a fountain of blood, like they were desperate to stay in, refusing to abandon this beautiful ship. She then turned to me, and her tears kept falling.

“PC… same… yet different. Wanted… revenge… Daddy.” She didn’t have much time. I tried to make her comfortable, raising her head, giving her the best support I could, but when I went to remove the dagger, she shook her head, and continued, each word separated by a cough sounding worse then the last... “Doesn’t matter… please… my home… pocket… video. Daddy…”

And, for what was probably the only time in my life, however short it was, or will be, my eyes got moist, threatening to betray my stone cold face. “Mia… I.. I’m…”

She interrupted me by placing her finger on my lips, and shook her head. “Please… Anya. Call me… Anya.” And, with that, it ended. Mia… Anya collapsed, whatever kept her holding on vanished, and her body went limp, the same second lightning flashed across the sky, announcing her death to the city, mourning over the death of a killer, just like the man cradling her, who just now realized he was in love with a woman, but was unable to realize until it was too late.

But, I did realize one thing… I was done with all this hiding and running. Ever since I came to this damn country, it was all I did. Sneak and hide like a worthless rat. I wasted my time after the Triads, just trying to survive, thinking I was safe from obstacles, forgetting that they couldn’t be ignored.

No, it was time to stop being the prey, and hunt. I was afraid of Stalter, of being captured. But now, it was their turn to fear. I was no longer their prisoner, but their executioner. They would pay in spilt blood.

A new man was born that day. A man freed, a man injured, a man enraged. All three emotions melded together, creating a new shell, rock hard, allowing nothing to exit, showing nothing, caring about nothing, except about what was needed to survive.

I picked up my lost weapons as the rain continued to poor, kicking Charlon’s out of my sight with disgust. As for Mia’s gun, I folded it up, and slid it into the rip made earlier. I might have use for it later. At least, that is what I told myself.

Continue to Part 4