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R. King-Nitschke

"Sparq, you in position?"

"Ready to rumble, Boss." Sparq's voice came back quick and strong over the commlink from the unguarded jackpoint downstairs where he'd plugged in. Zack grinned a little to himself—anything less would have surprised him, of course. They'd worked together so long they almost knew each other's thoughts. "Give the word, and the power's history. I've got control of the backup systems, too, though I don't know for how long."

"Okay, good," Zack said. He looked around at the remaining members of the team—like himself, they were all dressed in identical drab gray Clarion Electric jumpsuits. Torque's bulged a little in all the wrong places (guns and vat-grown muscle would do that to a guy) and Elena's bulged (at least in Zack's opinion) in all the right places, though he'd never have told her that. He liked life as a human and wasn't quite sure she couldn't turn him into a frog.

He hefted his metal toolbox and nodded to the others. "You chummers ready to do this?"

Torque shrugged. "Milk run. We'll be in and out in fifteen, and down at MacArthur's by nine. That's if we take our time."

Zack didn't bother to tell Torque that things rarely worked like that, but privately he thought this time it might just turn out to be true. The job seemed ridiculously easy—their Johnson, a flashy media type, had offered them five big ones to break into some upstart kid's apartment and just mess the place up. Not even to steal anything, just to trash the place. "I just want to give him a message," the Johnson had said with that oily smile that made Zack want to punch him a good one in his perfectly capped teeth. Media types made him itch. But cred was cred, and Johnson had paid half up front.

The toughest part had been figuring out the building's security, which wasn't any cakewalk. Even then, though, a little research in the right places had taken care of that. They'd hunted up the plans for the building (it was a new one, built only a couple of years ago) and Sparq had taken only an hour or so of searching to find the rarely used jackpoint hidden in a maintenance closet in the basement. That had given rise to their plan to take down the power and get in disguised as electrical contractors. Right now they were in the parking garage in their van, and Zack was about to give the word.

"You sure he's not home?" Torque asked suddenly.

Zack nodded. He pulled a newsfax from the van's dashboard and tossed it in Torque's lap. Face up was an article with the headline Charity show to benefit apartment fire victims. Torque examined it. "Says he's gonna be there," he said, nodding. "Hope he didn't get a headache at the last minute or something."

"Quit worrying, Torque," Elena said, grabbing the newsfax and tossing it back on the dash. "In and out in fifteen, remember?"

"Milk run," Torque agreed again.

"Okay, Sparq, let's go," Zack said into the comm. A few seconds later the lights went out, plunging the garage into blackness. He opened the van's door. "Showtime."

They took the service elevator up, so nobody noticed either them or the fact that they had the only power in the building. When it stopped and the doors opened, Sparq's voice spoke over their comms: "Nobody in the hallway. Not surprising, since he's got the top floor. Can't see into the apartment, though. I'll hold the elevator for you. Make it snappy, okay?"

"That's the plan," Zack agreed.

The three of them piled out of the elevator and headed down the hallway to the set of double doors at the end. Zack was already pulling out his electronics kit—any security door worth its salt had to have its own backup power independent of the building's. Behind him he could hear Torque unlimbering his Predator. "Elena, can you see if anybody's inside?"

"On it," she said, already settling down against the wall. In a moment she was back. "Nobody here but us chickens," she reported.

"Wiz." A little electronic beep indicated that he had cracked the door's maglock. He turned the knob with a gloved hand and pushed it inward.

Sparq had restored power to the apartment's front room so they got a good view in the dim security lights when they stepped inside. Torque let out a long low whistle. "Must be nice."

Zack took in the room with its exotic wood floors, soaring windows, and plush furnishings and nodded. He didn't know much about such things, but he suspected the paintings and other objets d'art that dotted the room were probably real and probably cost more than the team made in years. Still, they were here to do a job. "Let's get on with it," he said with a briskness he didn't feel. "We're here for a reason—let's get it done and get out before somebody spots the lights on and asks questions."

Torque grinned and wrapped his big hand around a tall, thin sculpture of veined stone. He picked it up and raised it like a baseball bat, taking aim at its mate at the other end of a table. "Here goes."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," an amused voice drawled from somewhere in the shadows.

Torque stopped in mid-swing, and Zack and Elena whipped their heads around in stunned surprise. "Wha—?"

A slim figure stepped out from the darkened hallway. "Not a good idea," he said. He was smiling like he didn't have a care in the world.

"Oh, drek—" Elena started.

Torque's hand dropped to his holstered Predator.

"I wouldn't do that either," the newcomer said, his gaze flicking casually down at the gun. He was young, barely into his twenties, his stunning good looks so perfect they had to be fake. He lounged against the wall in his tres-chic clubwear, his arms crossed over his chest. "Suppose you tell me what you're doing here."

"What's going on?" Sparq's voice crackled over the commlink.

"Hang on," Zack subvocalized. To the kid he said, "I guess you must be Damon."We've still got the upper hand, he reminded himself. No need to hurt him. That's not what we're getting paid for. This just makes things a little messier.

The young man shrugged. "Good guess. This is my place, after all."

"You're supposed to be at a party," Torque blurted. His hand was still on the Predator, but he hadn't drawn it.

Damon chuckled. "So I am. Fortunate for me that I decided to come home early, isn't it?" His violet eyes moved over the three 'runners, settling on each in turn. "So let's talk. What are you doing here? I can guess, but I'd like to hear it from you."

Torque and Elena exchanged glances, and then both looked at Zack. None of them spoke.

Damon's eyes twinkled with amusement. "I see. You're better at making messes than you are at speaking. That's all right. Just tell me this—which one of them was it? Manetti? Yukizaka? Washington?"

The names meant nothing to Zack, but Elena seemed to recognize them. She was about to say something when Torque spoke up, apparently having had about enough of this grinning kid thinking he ran the show here. "Listen, chummer," he growled, finally drawing the Predator, "Why don't you just sit down like a good boy and let us finish what we came here to do. If you shut up and make nice all you'll have is a few rope burns for your trouble."

"Ooh, kinky." Damon laughed. "But you'll understand that I can't let you do that. It's so hard to find good furniture these days, and it would be criminal to let you destroy my art pieces. Oh—" He tilted his head, "—but you are criminals, though, aren't you?"

At that point, everything happened at once. Torque roared with rage and swung the Predator around to point at Damon. Before Zack or Elena could yell anything, Torque screamed and clutched his hand and the gun dropped to the floor. Elena spun, operating on pure instinct now, and flung a spell at Damon. It never reached him: instead, it flared up in a display of pyrotechnics and then fizzled out. The three runners stared, wide-eyed.

Throughout all of this, Damon had not moved. Now he pushed himself off the wall and shrugged. "I told you it wasn't a good idea." Something changed in his smile—a little less amused, a little more predatory. "You didn't do your research about me, did you?"

Zack took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was beginning to realize that they might be in over their heads here. Just keep him talking.. . "You're—new in town. Own the Odyssey Club that's opening next week. Came from back east somewhere, where you ran another club."

Damon nodded. "That's the easy part. But you didn't find the rest, did you?" He shrugged philosophically. "Not surprising. It's not public knowledge, but it's not a secret, either. Leads to tiresome problems when people find out." He moved toward them with casual slowness, still keeping them all pinned with his gaze. "But then, I've got another party to get to in half an hour, so I can't afford to take too long with this."

Zack stood very still as Damon approached him. The young man locked eyes with him for a moment, and Zack suddenly felt like the contents of his mind were being sifted through. There was no pain, but it was an unsettlingly crawly feeling. Torque and Elena remained where they were, watching silently. Then Zack's eyes got big as the exchange of information briefly switched directions. Something unseen passed from the young man to the shadowrunner, and Zack staggered back a couple of steps, mouth hanging open.

Finally Damon nodded, smiling again. "Okay, so that's who it was. Doesn't surprise me. I thought he might cause trouble, I just wasn't sure when." He glanced at Zack and waved toward Elena and Torque. "Go ahead, tell them. I can see you want to."

The whites were visible all the way around Zack's eyes. His mouth worked a couple of times but no sound came out. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead.

"What?" Torque demanded, shifting his attention back and forth between Damon, Zack, and his fallen Predator.

"He's—" Zack started, pointing at Damon.

"He's what?" Elena glared at Damon. "C'mon, Zack, spill it if you know something!"

"He's a fraggin' dragon! " Zack blurted. Then all the energy drained from his tone. "He...let us get in because he...thought it would see what we were up to."

Elena and Torque stared, first at Zack and then at the young man. "Did I hear that 'dragon' part right?" Sparq's voice, forgotten, crackled over the comm. Nobody answered him.

"Oh, drek..." Elena began. She took a step backward.

"You're—sure of this?" Torque murmured, as if afraid he would dislodge something if he spoke too loudly.

"Oh, yeah." Zack had found his voice again, sort of. "L-let's not ask him to prove it, okay? I'm convinced."

Torque and Elena exchanged nervous glances. Then Torque regarded Damon, his tone shaky. "So—now what happens? You aren't gonna...I us, are you?"

Damon laughed. "No. All that metal tastes terrible, and the cleanup's a bitch."

"So—what, then? Are you going to let us go?" Elena asked hopefully.

"Maybe," Damon mused. His hand was on his chin in a 'thinking' pose. Then he shrugged and flashed them a brilliant grin. "Sure, why not? But you'll have to do something for me in return. How's that sound?"

The runners didn't even ask what it was before they all nodded in unison.

The next day the four of them met over lunch in the darkened back corner of their favorite local bar and grill. Zack was late. When he arrived, he was carrying a newsfax which he tossed on the table. "Looks like we got away with it," he said, more than a little relief in his voice.

Elena picked it up. It was one of the local unsavory entertainment rags. "Club Owner's Home Vandalized," she read. Her eyes scanned ahead a little and she chuckled. "Bryce Manetti, owner of several novahot Seattle clubs including One Step Beyond and the Star Lounge, reportedly returned home last night to find parts of his Bellevue mansion defaced by unknown vandals. The investigation is pending—no details are available, but rumors say that the vandals' attacks included suspending Manetti's grand piano from the beams of his ceiling and dyeing his white carpets purple. These rumors are, of course, unconfirmed."

Sparq laughed. "They didn't mention the surprise I left on his dataterminal—wait until he tries to send email and discovers that every third letter changes to a 'D'."

"Or the note," Zack added, wondering what had been inside the sealed envelope they'd left prominently displayed on Johnson's mantelpiece. None of them had been brave enough to open it and peek.

"I thought the shaving cream in the bathrooms was a nice touch," Torque admitted. "Juvenile, but traditional." He sounded like he hadn't had this much fun on a run in years.

Elena took a deep breath. "So you think he'll leave us alone?"

"Johnson, you mean? Or—?"

"Not Johnson."

Zack shrugged. "Not much we can do about it if he decides not to. But I think he got what he wanted."

"As opposed to Johnson, who got what he deserved," Sparq said, unable to suppress a grin at the memory. "Beer, anybody? I'm buying."

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