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Misdirection

Anonymous

Guest
She was just so tired.

They’d patched her up somewhat on the boat. Slapped a few bandages on the worst of her wounds, and there were plenty of new holes to choose from. But, the boat held too many injured folks. Too few supplies to treat them. Same for medics, poor bastards were working desperately to keep glassy-eyed children from bleeding out. If she got what she needed, someone else would go without. Someone else would die for her.

She clutches her rifle tighter and stays in her corner. She was fine. Sure, she feels something broken inside, but people have been calling her that for years. Maybe this is what they meant. She was paler than the gauze wrapped around her torso, but the comparison didn't last long. Red suited her better, anyway. Any medic that walked past got the same answer. Wave them off. Joke, maybe. What do you call a hundred politicians on a sinking ship? A good start. She was fine. They left.

You left.

Darn right, she did. She’d made it. She was free. Used to be, the only escape was a needle, a pipe, or a bullet. Might as well have been a pile of bodies in the slums, no different than the piles in the sewers. Sure, a few could climb to the top, but then you’re just another weight crushing everyone underneath. But she’d gotten out. Didn’t cost her anything she hadn’t already lost. One of the Rangers is saying something to her. He gets another joke. There’s no ‘i’ in denial. She laughs. Good joke. Bad idea. She knows a busted rib when she feels one. The Ranger leaves. At least they aren’t trying to put her in a cell again.

Getting caught was a mistake. Coming back at all was a mistake. This mission to the club was the first she’d dirtied her boots on Pittsford’s streets for years. Somebody had to do it. She knew the territory, knew the people. When their targets pulled attention, she was the one who could get caught and have plausible deniability. No mission here, just a stupid former local with a private grudge. Her squad got away, free and clear. They were safe, the mission was safe. They abandoned her.

You abandoned us.

Like abandoning a sinking ship. Had to be done. That’s what people do. Drop the dead weight, drop what slows you down, drop what holds you back. That’s how you survive. Like that Nat person they left behind to take the bullet for them. She knows she could have done something to save them. Could’ve even taken Nat’s place. So far as the CPF knew, she was neutral. A prisoner, a conscript. Could have bluffed them for a few minutes, kept them busy, might not even have gotten executed for the trouble. Worst case, she could’ve introduced them all to Pepper just like she did in Canada.

She did nothing. Just like she did in Canada. Just like these people. These people had abandoned Nat. They’d abandoned that ship, probably their home, probably not even the first home they’d fled from. That’s what people do. That’s what she did. Does. There’s a hand on her shoulder. Another of the Rangers. Wants to know if she needs a hand disembarking. She tells him that she was thinking of telling an orphan joke, but realized it wasn’t wanted. He shakes his head. Leaves. Good. Plenty more orphans after today. Help them. It wasn’t even their fault.

Might have been hers. It’s usually hers. Her rifle helps her stand, queue up in line to leave the boat. The Rangers told her that her targets, her captives, the two that had been arrested with her were hit in the shelling. A coincidence, maybe. Or sacrificing a pawn from the board. Nobody will notice two dead Brighton agents amongst a pile of civilian corpses. Whether or not she agrees with the secrecy, she’s not supposed to let them know what she was doing. Can’t let them know how important those targets were. How much those spies might have known or revealed. Monroe was neutral. Not taking sides. Not getting drawn into a civil war and leaving more orphans to joke about. She tells the Rangers her cellmates must have been saints, because they were cannonized. They ignore her. Good. They want to take her to their outpost, treat her there. Not so good. She refuses, watches them leave her on the shore, waits for them to be out of sight before collapsing. No telling what she might reveal under anesthetics. No telling. The last of her mission she hasn’t fucked up yet. Not for lack of trying, she was still alive. So long as she was alive, the mission was still on. Nothing’s changed.

You haven’t changed.

Nope. Nobody’s changed here. Still the same old smile. Same old jokes. Same old Missy. She hasn’t changed a bit.

She’s just so tired.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Anonymous

Guest
Kaari had been having a good dream.

Technically, all of her dreams lately were good. The Crowmother’s teachings and her own continued practice gave her an enviable control over the unexplained unconscious phenomenon that came with being ‘evolved’. One part lucid dreaming, one part prophetic visions, one part spiritual connection from beyond the grave, with a side of telepathy or some kind of shared mental connection thrown in for flavor. There was surely a scientific answer for how it all worked, one she would find in due time. She could prove it worked–had proven that on numerous occasions–but for the precise chemical mechanisms in action she had only theories.

Religious and biological connotations aside, it did allow her a certain level of awareness even while presumably fast asleep. Therefore, while it was a surprise to have her dream interrupted by a frantic psychic cry for help, it didn’t take her completely off guard. She ripped herself from the tropical vista she’d been enjoying and was out the door of her lab before the sound of the waves faded from her ears.

“Gerald, stop!” She commanded. The scene she’d burst into in the patient ward was a precursor to violence. Crumpled on the floor, an unmoving body. Cowering in the corner, the twisted and unnatural form of their resident skin dog mutant. Towering above with his fire-ax raised high, the enraged acting minister of Monroe. Before Gerald could bring his ax down upon the cackling dogman, Kaari’s symbiote snake children burst free from her flesh and bit down on the wooden handle. The gleaming blade of the ax shook from the impromptu tug-of-war, but did not fall. Gerald turned to face his ward; Kaari still had trouble sometimes identifying body language, but there was no mistaking the betrayal and hatred in his face.

“He killed her!” The man roared, and the snakes strained to keep hold of the ax in his hands. The dogman skittered backwards into the cabinets, cups and bottles above clattering around in as it tried to get some distance, but a heavy combat boot splintering the wood next to its lipless grinning face made it think twice about fleeing. “Your fucking mutt killed Missy!”

Kaari gave the body on the floor the briefest of glances, noting the sodden bandages. She didn’t dare tear her eyes away from Gerald for long. Years, she’d known the man. Maybe twice she’d seen him like this. With a fury that did not suit a kindly priest. Gerald was like an old tree; slow to move, but when he fell the whole forest would shake. “Gerald. Listen to me.” She put as much steel in her tone as she could when he didn’t immediately turn. “Listen! Look at her. You know the look of gunshot wounds. You know it.”

Gerald hesitated, glancing down at Missy’s prone form. His eyes were still wild, dilated. But he was looking. Kaari continued. “Where are we, Gerald? Where do you take someone who has been shot?”

“B-but he .. “ Gerald swallowed heavily. The rage was seeping away, axe slowly falling from his grip. The snakes bore it away, curling back around their mother and hissing unhappily. Guilt and shame overtook the old man’s face, confusion mixed with a deep remorse. “I .. girl, I didn’t-”

“Not the time,” Kaari cut him off, gesturing at the body. “Time for work now. She’s not dead. Take her to surgery room.”

“She’s n-” Gerald started to mumble but she cut him off again.

“Now!” She hissed, her children echoing her. That was enough to get him to move, as Gerald knelt down to cradle Missy, to lift her off the white tile that very nearly matched her skin, and spirit her away. Kaari turned to the lobby and shouted with the same steel she’d used on Gerald. “Joy!”

“Already on it,” muttered the crotchety old Nurse as she passed by without giving the cowering monster in the room a second glance. “Like I could sleep through this commotion. I rang up Alexis, she’ll be here in two.”

“Mm. Prep. I will be in,” Kaari said, leaving the older woman to her work. She started scrubbing, lathering up her hands and arms. As she does so, she glances down at the sniveling creature, sat on the floor with an all-too-pleased look. “Speak.”

“On the beach! Kaaaaari! Felt the hurt, felt the pain, felt the fun!” Its voice was shrill, like nails on a chalkboard. The dogman’s mandibles clacked together and it shuddered in ecstasy. “I knew it. Knew her. Found her. I did! Found her on the beach, yes yes! Brought her to you. Ek-ek-ek-eeee! For the pack leader!” It twitched and clawed at the tile, leaving furrows that Joy was sure to complain about later. “I did not hurt, not me. Rulessss. You said, no hunting. I listened! Mee-eehehehee!” Its shoulders scrunched and even without eyes Missy could tell it was glaring at the other room. “Ffffat one tried to hurt. Bad. Bad! I am good! Ek-ek! Listened, yes!”

“Mm. You did good to bring her here. Very good,” Kaari murmurs as she scrubs. She gives her monster minion a long look. “But you could have reached me even from the beach. You wanted Gerald to think you harmed her. You wanted him to attack you, so that I would yell at him.”

At that, the dogman shrank down like a puppy caught in the act. Here he was, thinking he’d been clever. Even now, trying as she might to keep the creature from being an active threat by acting on its base nature, he was still finding loopholes to cause trouble. He might not have been killing people, but his kind delighted in suffering. Kaari huffed. “For you to annoy Gerald, that is fine. Maybe try not to annoy him where he wants to hit you with the ax.” Her eyes narrowed. “But more time for me to know Missy is hurt is more time for me to prepare. Next time, you will tell me sooner. Yes?”

The dogman nodded so violently that spittle flew from its mouth. Joy was going to complain about that, too. A shriek from the doorway announced that Alexis had just arrived. Kaari tossed a blood kit at the dainty nurse. It hit her square in the face, so fixated she was on the monster in the room.

“Alexis! Focus,” Kaari said, snapping the nurse’s attention to her. “We only have two spare bags of B-pos in storage. That will …. Mmph … not be enough. Go to the house of Elena Crowley, she does the bread, yes? She is of that blood type. And that trader that sells the seeds, I do not remember the name, he is B-negative. And Liam, the one from the forge. Find him, he is O-Positive. Get four hundred milliliters from each of them.”

“Can I help?” Gerald asked contritely, coming from the surgery room.

“Go with her.” Kaari waved him off towards Alexis, who was still trying to pick up the blood kit without taking her eyes off the dogman. “Find those three. We will probably need more, but some blood now is needed first. Go.” They left in a hurry, Gerald eager to make amends and Alexis eager to make distance between her and whatever was happening. To the dogman, Kaari gestures to the ground. “Aa’tiami, you will stay for now. I will need you soon, I think.”

“Ek-ek-ek, I listen,” it responded with a malicious grin. “You .. will make her laugh, yes yes? She laughs. Eeehehehe, she is fun. Fun! Not fun silent, not fun still. Kaaaari! You will make her laugh again?”

Kaari ponders its words. That might be the closest she has ever heard to concern for another living being from the creature. Another reason not to fail. “It will fine,” she consoles the dogman as she moves towards the surgery room in grim determination. “I will help.”

Inside, Joy’s preparations continue in a whirlwind of efficient and practiced movements. A catheter was already threaded into a vein near Missy’s collar bone. The Peacekeeper was stripped of her garish orange attire, at least orange in the few spots not stained in blood. Bright lights from overhead paint a dour picture. From head to toe, she was covered in minor lacerations, some with shards of glass still embedded. One puncture wound dotted her left shoulder. Bruises covered her torso, blunt force trauma consistent with a vest taking fire. Her chest barely rose and fell. Her abdomen was riddled with holes, with a faint sour scent emanating from them. Several showed signs of having been stitched together, partially healing, only for the sutures to have been pulled free. Same for her right thigh, where if she squinted hard enough she could see a hint of white from the femur.

“Haven’t seen a blood pressure that low since residency,” Joy said with a scowl as she scrubbed at Missy’s abdomen with a cloth. The wounds had begun to bleed freely again. “You get that dogboy of yours out of my clinic?”

“Aa’tiami will stay for now,” Kaari responded as picked through an assortment of scalpels on a tray. “I will need his saliva for the cyanophage.”

Joy’s eyes narrowed behind her horn-rimmed glasses. “You know how much I like the forest herbal remedy bullshit.”

“I know you like it more than to lose a patient,” she said bluntly. “It works to speed healing, and she has been in hypovolemic shock for .. too long.”

“Internal bleeding. Not like that’s a surprise,” Joy grunted. “Don’t look like anything got through above. Trauma laparotomy?”

“Mm.” Kaari focused on her other senses. They might not have had time for traditional x-rays, but she had a few tricks up her sleeve. ‘Marked’ individuals such as her could detect concentrations of the virus. It called to them. Every person held some amount of Oculorubrus within them, which would spread and take over if the host were ever to die. Even Missy’s blood carried the virus. She could see it. Feel it. And she knew exactly where blood should and should not be. “There is a break in the fourth rib. Lateral. Blood filling the thoracic. Tube her, we’ll deal with it later.”

While Joy worked to cut an incision in the patient’s side, Kaari cut her own across the midline abdomen. Her snake children acted as assistants, delicately holding suction tubes or providing clamps and forceps exactly when she needed. The initial cut barely even bled, a sign of just how low her volume had dropped. No wonder she’d been unconscious when the dogman found her. As Joy was essentially jamming a drainage tube between the ribs beneath the armpit, Kaari was peeling away tissue and fat to get at the peritoneal cavity where all the squishy vulnerable organs lived. What she found was not exactly promising; pools of clotted blood, weeping ruptured organs, and the stench of perforated intestines.

She got to work.

Hours passed. Hours of waiting, with Alexis occasionally running supplies into surgery and returning looking queasy. At last, Kaari trudges out of the room, stripping her matted scrubs and throwing them towards a bin. Her children are withdrawn, as exhausted as she but with the benefit of not having to stand up. Waiting for her in the patient recovery ward are Gerald and the dogman, both glaring at each other from opposite sides of the room. Gerald breaks the staring contest first, standing and moving to Kaari’s side.

“How is she?”

“Stable. For now. Joy watches her.” Kaari moves past him to wash her hands in the sink. She washed up in the surgery room, but it just doesn’t seem like enough. “Hemostasis was …. Mmph. Difficult. Hepatic bleeding. There was damage to the vena cava that I could fix. Electrocoagulation for the kidney. I think the vascular line is clear. I tied off or re-sectioned the damaged parts of the bowel I could find, but I will have to go over the retroperitoneum again. I had to pack the liver and close up because she was starting to suffer from hypothermia. I will have to let the hemostatic clots time to stabilize and mature before I go in again.”

“You gonna need to cut on her again?” Gerald says, trying to translate the medical jargon. Kaari nods.

“I stopped what bleeding I could so she will not die from exsanguination, but she went septic. That means antibiotics for fight the infection, vasopressors, corticosteroids. Her organs are at risk of more damage now, to cut on them will only worsen it. There are still repairs to be done. But later.”

“So long as there’s gonna be a later,” Gerald assures himself.

Ue’kai i’peesu, Gerald,” Kaari says as she takes a sample from her groveling dogman companion, who is trying very hard to make itself look the willing and loyal abomination under the acting minister’s watchful eye. She takes a vial of its spit to her laboratory, feeling the pressure of time building overhead. She had more work to do. “I will not let her die.”

It was going to be a long night, with no happy dreams to be had.
 

Anonymous

Guest
The club was bumping tonight. Something about the upcoming war and their almost certain annihilation was making people party like it was 2015 again. The establishment was filled to capacity, bodies jammed together like a mass grave. Really, it almost made it too easy for her–so many pockets and so little sobriety.

Melissa Nelson slid into one of the few air pockets in the pool of party-goers intent on drowning their sorrows; in a dim corner, a gap had formed around a young man who stood so tall that he had to duck to avoid the occasional flashing stagelight from overhead. The boy was an island in the sea of people, looming but lanky in a way that suggested his proportions hadn’t yet caught up to his growth spurt. In time, he might become a brute of a man, but for now he was only awkward and his uncoordinated flailing had earned him a few feet of clearance in any direction.

“Hey!” Missy had to shout to make herself heard over the .. well, it might have been music. Droning ambient noise was more appropriate. There was certainly a beat to it, but it had all the harmony of the last Fairpoint skirmish. Chaos, anarchy, screaming, and there was a certainty that somewhere in the smoke and bodily fluids someone was getting stabbed. Her voice still didn’t carry, as she was not tall enough to swat at passing clouds, so she clambered up his back like a monkey to shout directly into his ear. “HEY!”

The boy jerked in surprise and for a moment she had to hold on for dear life lest she be flung like a rodeo clown. He caught sight of her and gave a dopey smile and a thumbs up with a hand the size of her head. She pressed a wallet into his palm with a cheshire cat grin of her own, full of pride. One look at the mark on the wallet changed his tune and he shook his head with a nervous darting glance around them.

“What, are you crazy?!” He hissed as he pushed the wallet back at her, desperate to be rid of the thing.

“That’s what they say!” Missy’s laugh might as well have answered his question. “What’s the matter, you big baby?”

Her humor was not infectious. “You know the rumors about Con-” He cut himself off with another paranoid look around him before speaking up quieter. With the din around them, quieter was a relative term. “And your plan is to rob him? Really?!”

“You gotta dream grand!” She waved off his concern and pocketed the wallet again as she dropped back to the ground. “Your loss, Tiny! I’ll catch you later!”

The walk to the exit, squeezing her way through the crowd, crawling under a forest of legs when no other path presented itself, earned her another few coins from generous and oblivious benefactors. She tipped the bouncer his due as she left, always good to keep the help friendly, and broke free into the alley outdoors to smell the fresh air. It smelled of piss, pollution, and decay. It smelled like home.

She set off down the alley with a jaunty whistle, which faltered when three rough-looking muscle types stepped in from around the corner. “Uhhh … hiya, boys. I must’ve taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.”

She turned around only to see the other end of the alley covered by three more. Two sets of triplets, what were the odds? The backdoor of the club opened, for a moment letting the frantic music escape out before slamming closed again and leaving the alleyway in silence. In front of her stood a heavyset black man, three hundred pounds at least, his hair and beard worn in long meticulous cornrows. He dressed garishly, with bright colors, dangling golden chains, and precious jewelry. The man wore his wealth and his weight on him like a badge of honor, a status symbol, and to flaunt it in a place like this meant he held power–or at least confidence.

Missy was maybe a third his size, and an impoverished family would have used her clothing as cleaning rags or burned them entirely. But she could at least match him in confidence. “Why, as I live and breathe, are you THE Conrad Ladd? Totally legitimate business owner and part-time gang leader? Wow, I have always wanted your autograph. What a coincidence, meeting you here, in the back of your club, surrounded by your goons!” She smiled apologetically at the men that were slowly advancing, cutting off precious avenues of escape. “Sorry, that might not be politically correct. Do you all prefer the term minions? Underlings? Ambitiously impaired?”

“You,” Conrad cut her off with a deep voice. “You stole from me.”

“What? Stole? Me?” Missy laughed and cleared her throat. “Noooo, no, that doesn’t sound like me. Objection, I think we have a case of baseless slander here. Could a face this pretty be up to shenanigans? I think not.”

“You think me a fool?” The totally legitimate business owner’s meaty jowls frowned, making him look something like a bulldog but with far more propensity to bite. He ran a gem-encrusted hand down his beard as if he were a James Bond villain stroking a cat. “Nothing happens in my block without my knowing it.”

“Whoa, let’s not go putting words in my mouth.” With a flourish, Missy produced the wallet with the man’s ensignia emblazoned in gaudy gold trim, a stylized eye. “I was just saying, you don’t have the whole story. You see, I found that, uh, on the ground, and here I was wondering however would I find the proper owner to do my duty as an honorable and upstanding citizen to give it back! But I must be some kinda blessed tonight, cause you went and saved me the trouble.”

“So, uh, here’s that back,” she said as she tossed the wallet at his feet. Not that he could see it past his gut. “Minus the cash, cause that was already gone by the time I found it, sorry to say. But is a nifty wallet, I bet you’re all sorts of grateful to have it back and you probably have a bunch of totally legitimate business practices to get back to, so I’ll just be on my way.” She took a step backward only to be stopped completely in her tracks by the bruiser behind her. “Oh, hey, is there a reward?”

“You .. gutter trash,” Conrad spoke, fat lips twisted in a sneer of derision as he stepped over the wallet as if it were nothing, “are all the same. Like rats. Always crawling up from the underground where you belong. You never know your place.”

“Oh, what, you think you’re better than me cause you’re pretending to be gangsta?” Missy giggled, ending in a snort. She was already going down. The only thing she could do at this point was make it interesting. “For being such a fatass, you’re small potatoes. The waddling, wheezing, weekend warrior of the wasteland. None of the other gangs take Conrad Ladd seriously. The only street cred you have is the sound you make backing up.”

If she could stab the man with a combat knife, it couldn’t push past enough blubber to hit something vital. But Missy never needed a blade to cut. Conrad’s many folds flapped in fury. “Teach her a lesson. But keep her alive, so the block knows what happens to those that insult me.”

“They already do!” Missy shot back. “With all the back you got, EVERYBODY’s been talking behind it! They ca-oof!” A fist slammed into the side of her face and her vision blurred as she tumbled. She rolled to her feet as another of Ladd’s goons was closing in. A wild haymaker into the dangly bits dropped him, and he curled into the fetal position in the trash as he clutched at his junk. “They call you the Fat Faker! They call your gang the Christmas Club ca-urhg-” She had dodged the first hit but the accompanying hook knocked her back into the arms of the minions behind. One of them lifted her up, crushing her ribs in a vice-like grip, but an elbow to the bridge of his nose made him reconsider his decision. The cartilage gave way and Missy dropped back to her knees. “Cause these guys do all the work but the fat man in the suit gets all the credit!”

She expected them to kick her while she was down, but expecting the blow didn’t make it hurt any less. Missy swore she might have caught air like a football before slamming into a garbage bin.

“The only drugs you’d get caught carrying is ten pounds of CRACK!” She ducked a follow-up punch and the grunt howled as his knuckles met metal. Her hand landed in something she really doubted was mud and she flung it into the eyes of an incoming mook before jamming her head into the chin of the one above her. He cartwheeled backward, leaving her open to get tackled from the side. Missy covered her head with her arms as the man above rained blows down. She could barely see out of her left eye, swollen as it was, but she caught a gleam from her right. The broken glass bottle made a lovely impression in the meat of the thigh straddling her and the scream was like music to her ears.

“C’mon, Ladd!” She slurred as she pushed herself unsteadily to her feet, arms raised in a guard. “Let’s see what the Notorious P.I.G. can do!”

Conrad was nowhere to be seen. Missy didn’t have time to celebrate as something impacted the back of her head and the world swam again.

Flashes of a room. Panicked voices. Bright lights. Searing pain. Figures above her. She thrashes and fights against them, determined to give as good as she gets. ”Keep her steady! She’s tear- …”

”... -oes it fuckin’ look like I’m doin’?!” There’s something holding her arms down. She laughs. She’s been freeing herself from cuffs ever since they were able to fit her. Manages to connect with something or someone before they get hold of her again. “ …said she was half-dead, girl!”

There’s a sharp pain in her neck and then-


“Uh .. Missy?” She’s back in the alley, her friend looming over her with a concerned look on his dopey face. It’s been long enough after the fight that some of the swelling has gone down, though every breath still brings a twinge of pain. Kind of a problem for someone who laughs as much as she does, but fortunately pain is the essence of comedy. Not long enough for the bloodstains to be washed away, but blood in a Pittsford alley was more of a permanent decoration than the graffiti.

“Right,” she mumbled as the fog in her head cleared. She grinned, displaying a new gap in her smile. That tooth was probably a baby tooth anyway, she won’t miss it. “Yeah, the plan. It’s all coming together. Gimme a boost, will ya Tiny?”

Nothing about this situation seemed comfortable to Tiny, but he stood like an obedient stool. In a dazzling display of acrobatics, in her opinion at least, she vaulted over him and leapt to grab the metal railing of the fire escape overhead. Some acrobatic grunting and heaving later and she pulled herself up, letting the ladder down so Tiny can follow along. The old rusted metal groaned at his bulk but held. The threat of the balcony collapsing certainly didn’t help Tiny’s confidence, but Missy had just the solution for that.

“Hey, you know what they say about gravity. If you get rid of it, you get gravy.” There are a couple of confused blinks in response to that, but confusion was better than fear. Missy shrugged it off and headed for the roof. She added with a mutter, “It’s funnier if you can read.”

“That’s not what I don’t get,” her friend replied quietly. If they were found now, a several-story fall would be a kindness. “What I don’t get is why are we here?”

“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Missy replied as she clambered over the top of the building and onto the roof. She winced when the motion poked at a still-healing bruise, but managed to turn the expression into a winning smile at the last second. “It’s all about reputation.”

“I’d rather not have one,” was the mournful response. Missy had to roll her eyes.

“Of course you wouldn’t, Tiny Tim. If you had a family for a family picture, you’d be the background.”

“ … my name’s Dale,” he mumbled. The orphan barb didn’t bother him like it still got to her. Missy prodded him right in the chest, though she had to stand on her toes to reach.

“That, my ginormous friend, is exactly my point.” She padded over to the decrepit air vent and started working at the rusty screws with a jagged bit of metal. The HVAC system for this building hadn’t functioned in years, which made it perfect for her plans. “What kind of a rep is a name like that gonna get you? Dale the Snail? Dale the Whale? Trust me, you’re way better off with Tiny Tim.”

“Tim the Dim?” He suggested.

“Psh, that’s a dumb handle, nobody would come up with that.” The first screw came loose and she pocketed it. A little spitshine and that might be worth a copper later. “It makes it an irony thing, see, cause Tiny Tim in the book was broke as .. well .. we are. But you are anything but tiny, so it stands to reason you would be anything but broke, too. Simple logic.”

“Never read the book. Dunno how I’m s’posed to get paid for changing my name, neither,” Dale said, though his tone was already defeated. He’d lost this battle before it even started, and now it was only a matter of how much fighting he would do until giving up.

“It’s all about perception,” Missy said with the full confidence of someone too important to be wrong. “How the world sees you and how you see yourself. That’s how you get respect around here. If the world sees a badass, it’s gonna treat you like a badass. If the world sees a tool, it’s gonna treat you like a tool.”

There’s a moment of silence and then a hesitant, “ .. do you see me as a tool?”

“Hey!” Missy retorted sharply. “I said the world, not me. Is that a dig at my weight? Are you calling me fat?”

“No, it’s just, you were talking abou-”

“I was talking about perception,” Missy cut in. “Thank you for reminding me, I always get lost on a tangent. But yeah, it’s how you see yourself. It’s not how I see you, it’s how you see yourself.” She pried the cover off the vent and set it aside. “Fake it ‘til you make it, Tim. Wear a mask long enough and nobody’ll know there’s anything underneath. That’s a free lesson for you, I oughta be charging for this.”

“Still don’t explain what we’re doing here.” Dale sighed heavily and tried to wedge himself into the vent behind Missy, who had already disappeared inside like a rat to a hole. It was considerably more difficult for the gangly boy.

“Simple,” Missy hissed, her voice even lower. It didn’t take much for sound to carry in these old ducts. She scuttled along, trying not to sneeze as disturbed dust floated around them. “Conrad’s got himself a reputation, right? He knows what everybody is doing in his block, and everybody knows he knows. Like he’s got eyes on the back of his head.”

“I heard he’s a psychic,” Dale added with an edge of fear.

“Don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing as psychics,” Missy retorted with a roll of her eyes. And people called her crazy. “He’s just got informants and cameras. And now I know where and who those are.”

“From getting your ass kicked?”

Missy stopped crawling forward and looked over her shoulder with a wounded expression. “No. No, Tim, I did not get my ass kicked. I beat a dozen henchmen senseless and then got the heck out before reinforcements arrived.” She resumed her crawling, not able to see the doubting eye Dale cast her way. “I had to figure out how I got nicked, so I’ve spent the last few weeks casing the joint and the jolly fat man himself.”

“And stealing from him is gonna make your reputation better?”

“Now you’re catching on.” Missy came to a halt, glancing out the slats in the vent. “Ah, here’s the one.” She awkwardly rolled over and brought her feet up, then kicked out against the vent. The cover came free and she slipped out and dropped soundlessly to the floor. Moments later, Dale followed, not nearly so soundlessly.

“But he’s just gonna come after you again,” Dale whispered, staying low. They were in some kind of lavish bedroom. Lavish by post-apocalypse standards, at least, which meant a large, unsoiled mattress and clean sheets. There were some furnishings, but they were humble enough to suggest Conrad must have rarely entertained guests. “What does he have that’s so valuable to make it worth it?”

“His reputation,” Missy said as she opened the door. A glance outside the bedroom caused Dale to freeze up, fearfully grabbing at Missy to hold her back, but she slipped his grasp and walked into the adjoining room. Here, a dozen old CRT monitors showed angles on the club below. They cast a flickering light upon the solitary chair, and the man sitting in it. Dale almost had a heart attack as Missy walked right up to Conrad Ladd and waved a hand in his face. The corpulent man didn’t stir, slow rhythmic breathing continuing unabated.

“He’s .. asleep?” Dale asked, quiet as a mouse in spite of his size.

“Well, y’see,” Missy explains with an ear-to-ear grin, “The last time I was downstairs testing the cameras, I came across a real Romeo. Some poor fellow who was so in love, he can’t help but get a little of it on ya. I dunno what he put in the drink of his dear Juliet, some Cosby special I guess, but I swiped it while they weren’t looking.” She gives a wistful sigh. “Poor guy must be wondering right now how he struck out with his winning personality. The drink went to a good cause, though. I just had to swap it for one heading to Conrad’s penthouse suite.” She cackled maniacally and dug out a blade from her pocket. “Just keep an eye out for me, this won’t take but a minute.”

“Whoa. Whoa, whoa.” Dale shook his head. “That’s the plan? Missy, I’m not just gonna sit here while you kill somebody. No matter who it is. I’m .. I’m not that guy.”

Missy snorted and smiled back at him. “ .. what, and I am? Tim. Timmy. Timothy, my oldest and dearest friend. Who do you think I am?”

Dale looked at her face. At the mask. He hesitated.

“Besides,” Missy went on, as if she hadn’t noticed. “That’s not the plan at all. What kind of a reputation does he have if he’s dead? Right now, everybody thinks he knows everything on his block, right?” She brought the knife down to Conrad’s neck. Then she pulled at his ridiculous beard and sliced clean through at the roots. “Well, they’ll have something new to think tomorrow. I’m gonna show up at his front door wearing his own freaking mustache.”

Dale took several failed attempts to reply to that. Finally, as he was helping her back into the vent, he managed, “And .. that will be .. good?”

Missy would have shrugged if she had the space to. “I dunno. But it’ll be funny as hell, don’tcha think?”

Dale gave the unconscious mob boss a long look. He sighed. “I think you’re gonna get your ass kicked again.”
 
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