16 May 2014

By the Numbers - Chapter 7

The Safe House

(Language warning in effect.)

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Thursday, April 16, 2071
0833 hours

    Oswald set the stack of nuke and serve food on the makeshift table.  "Dinner's ready," he announced.  He grabbed the top container.  "The finest food from the Stuffer Shack."

    "Yummy."  Treehugger walked through the dim warehouse office to get to the table.  She looked through the stack.  "Couldn't it have killed you to get some AlmostEgg?"

    "It could be worse, TH.  They had a sale on NutraSoy Energy cakes.  I could have just stocked up on just that."

    Treehugger looked over at Tarkov.  "Got a preference, Mr. Johnson?  We've got fish-flavoured ramen, looks like a crab-substitute hamburger, and a couple of soy pasta dishes.  Numbers is dealing with the soykaf."

    Tarkov eyed the packages.  "Pasta, please."

    "Good choice."  Oswald handed Tarkov a warm container.

    "How's Charles?"

    "It takes far more to put him down," Treehugger said.  "He just needs a bit more rest.  If anyone had to get hit, best Charles."

    Oswald nodded.  "I've seen him come back from wounds that would have the rest of us out of action for months or even in the morgue."  The mage dug into his reheated meal.  "So, if anything happens, get behind Charles.  That's what you're paying him for."

    Tarkov opened his packet.  "Holden was worried about him."

    "Holden's a good kid.  Lousy taste in trid shows, though."

    "It's an indulgence.  Who knew it was truth in trid?"

    "Us?" Treehugger said.  "We're not heroes, Mr. Johnson.  We're professionals.  We have done and we will do jobs that the average Joe finds repulsive."

    "When Holden's older, he'll understand.  For now, though, I'll watch with him so I can point out fact from fiction."

    Numbers entered the office.  "Charles is up.  Medkit says his wound is healing."

    "Good."  Treehugger grabbed three nuke-and-serves.  "I'll take some food to him."  She left, heading into the back storage.

    Numbers sat down at the table.  "Today, hopefully, will be quiet.  I just finished another search for RFID tags on the truck.  Nothing.  Same with all of our equipment and clothes.  We're hidden."

    "I'll set up some watcher spirits," Oswald said.  "Full wards will get noticed.  Watchers, not so much.  They're common even around here.  Dumb, but common."  The mage finished his meal, then left the table.  "I'll shout if anything comes up."  He left to enter the main warehouse.

    Numbers grabbed the last warm package.  She looked at the label.  "Oh, good, artificial crab burger with artificial processed cheese food substitute and artificial flavouring."  The hacker looked over at Tarkov.  "Sleep well?"

    "Not really.  Worried about my family."

    "I understand."  Numbers opened her nuke-and-serve and pulled out a limp burger.  "Oh, great."  She took a bite, chewed slowly, swallowed.  "Do you have any questions about what we're planning?"

    "Yeah.  What the hell did I get myself into?"  Tarkov pushed away his empty container.  "Okay, real question.  You worked for a proper corporation before, didn't you?"

    Numbers hesitated before she answered.  "I did.  I'm not going to say which one."

    "Probably doesn't matter.  Why did you leave?  You fit in better back in Boeingville than being out here.  Hell, your shopping list showed more of an eye to fit in than any request I get from my own men."

    "With all respect, that's not something that's important.  Let's just say bad things happened out of my control and leaving for the shadows was the best of a small slate of poor options."

    "Does this mean you could be tempted back into a corporation?"

    "Every day.  And every day I remember why I'm in the shadows, why my hair is fibre optic cable, and why I moved so far away from friends and family."  Numbers smiled at Tarkov.  "I appreciate the implied offer, but not yet.  I have problems that need to disappear before I can reappear."

    "Call me when you're ready," Tarkov said.  "I'm sure I can find you a position."

    "Thanks."  Numbers softened her tone.  "Really, thanks."


0837 hours

    Charles rubbed his wounded shoulder.  He raised his head when he smelled the food Treehugger carried.  "Thanks, TH."

    The rigger set the packages down near the troll.  "No problem.  How's the shoulder."

    Charles rotated both of his shoulders, wincing when the wound opened.  "It's been better.  It's also been worse.  Everything quiet?"

    "Yeah.  Need help opening the food?"

    "Nah, I've got it."  Charles tore the lid off one of the nuke-and-serves.  "How's Johnson?"

    "Worried.  Can't blame him, really.  I bet last night was the first time a run was made personal."

    Charles picked up the ramen's disposable chopsticks.  "I don't think they were runners."

    "Not saying I'm disagreeing, Charles, but I'd like to know why you think that."  Treehugger leaned against the Humvee Civic.

    "No magical support, mainly.  I also don't think they wanted to kill Johnson or his family."

    "That, I'll agree on.  That first burst was too high to do much other than scare."

    The troll nodded.  "They weren't expecting resistance, either.  Even after we pulled Johnson's bacon out of the Rubber Suit the night before."

    "Different group, maybe?"

    "Same group, different people.  Gang weapons but no gang colours or markings."

    "Hmm."  Treehugger fingered the points on her ears.  "Still doesn't tell us who."

    "Tells us who it isn't.  One, not organized crime.  The Mob would have been far more brutal.  The Yaks aren't much nicer.  Two, not runners, at least, not experienced ones.  Sloppy leaving shit behind."

    Treehugger pushed away from the wall and started pacing.  "Newbs, maybe?"

    "Maybe," Charles conceded.  "Maybe.  The AKs are common weapons on the street and shotguns can be found in any gun shop.  Still, something tells me no."

    "Too uniform.  Same outfits, same weapons for the most part."

    "And rookies would have broke and run sooner.  'Fuck the bonus' and all that."  Charles finished his ramen and opened the second nuke-and-serve.  "No, not newb runners."

    "That leaves corporate, government, and military."  Treehugger shook her head.  "Not military, though.  But . . .."  She tapped her fingers on her leg.  "No, not military, but similar training."

    Charles looked up at the elf wannabe.  "Since when were you in the army, TH?"

    "Never."  The rigger smirked.  "Doesn't mean I haven't seen them in action.  Okay, sure, it was border patrol units up and down the coast, but I've outrun the Imperial Marines in Cal Free and dodged the Tir's Peace Force.  I've seen the Metroplex Guards on maneuvers.  The guys last night?  They'd be the jokers on the front line.  Hitting a corp, even just a double-A like FedBoeing, is something you give to special forces, not grunts."

    "And with Green Beret types, we wouldn't be around talking about it after."  Charles thought for a moment.  "Okay, military is out.  What about government?"

    "I'd say there were easier targets than a security manager.  Numbers would know better who to target, not me."

    "That just leaves another corp.  Too many out there to even guess at."

    Treehugger shrugged.  "So that brings us back to where we started."

    "Under someone's cross-hairs."  Charles chuckled.  "Story of our lives.  How's Numbers doing?"

    "Like the rest of us.  Why?"

    "Call it a hunch.  Did she seem different at Johnson's to you?"

    "Not that I noticed."

    Charles shrugged.  "She looked in her element, you know?"

    "Numbers enjoys logistics.  She balances bank accounts for fun."

    "She looked like you do when your in your Westwind."  Charles fumbled for the words he wanted.  "Content.  Happy.  At home."

    "I guess."  Treehugger sat on the Humvee's bumper.  "Okay, maybe.  I don't expect her to suddenly tell us she's quitting.  Numbers is the most professional around.  Leaving in the middle of a job?  Not pro at all.  Relax."

    "Just pointing it out."

    Oswald walked over to join the group.  "Charles, how's the shoulder?"

    "Should be okay for tomorrow."

    "Good, good.  TH, the car's ready?"

    Treehugger patted the Humvee.  "Better be.  I spent last night and all of this morning working on it.  Oz, cold feet, really?"

    "Just making sure, okay?  I'm getting bad vibes."

    Charles nodded.  "We just need to get Johnson to the meet.  With luck, it'll be public."

    "I hope you're right, Charles."


1014 hours

    Tarkov's commlink trilled.  He looked over at Numbers.  The hacker linked her wrist commlink to his, then nodded.  "Tarkov," he answered.  He placed the call over the 'link's speaker.

    "Mr. Tarkov," a woman said, "is it safe to talk?"

    "As safe as it gets."

    "Good, good.  The meeting has been booked at the Westin Seattle.  You can still make it, can't you?"

    "Of course."

    "How large is your security team?"

    Numbers held up four fingers.  "Four," Tarkov said.  "I'd like to avoid details."

    "I understand.  I'm sending you security codes to let you in tomorrow.  I look forward to seeing you."  The woman disconnected.

    "No trace," Numbers reported.  "In either direction.  No one tapped in.  The call was as secure as it gets."

    "That's something, isn't it?"  Tarkov sat down.  "Whoever's after me couldn't find me through that."

    "No.  Also means we don't know who called."

    "Doesn't matter.  I've met her online.  I may not know where she is or what her name is, but she's in the same position I am."

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