Nick wanted to be a secret agent all his life. Unlike his father, who was
content to mind the family farm, Nick wanted action. He wanted adventure.
He wanted so much more than his small town had to offer, and exactly what
the NSA made possible.
But this - he hadn't wanted this.
Nick blindly threw himself into the mass of party goers before his
brain had time to think about it. His tux must have stood out amidst the
leather and rags of every other person in the club, but disguise was not an
option at the moment. He had the chip, he needed to get out.
And they were close behind.
He glanced back. Thug and Dementor (he knew, of course, their proper
names, but preferred the nicknames he came up with so much more) were hard
on his heels. He couldn't see Yorgi but the bastard had to know about the
chip's loss by now. Though he hired stupid men, Yorgi did not reward those
who kept him ignorant. Nick pushed through the people faster, heading for
the stage. It brought him in the open but it was his best chance for
One of the musicians blew a stream of fire from the muzzle
contraption on his mouth and Nick ducked as he climbed on the stage. Just
a little ways more and he could complete this mission and get out of this
His chest went tight at the exact moment he heard the sound. It was
an odd noise, half way between a sigh and the odd 'schlooping' sound a
knife made when pulled out of half-done brownies. His sister loved to make
As the noise faded the pain came, sharp, sudden, and dry, evaporating
any remaining air in his lungs. Nick fell back, onto the ignorant arms of
the party-ers. One last thought crossed his mind as a consuming white
light blocked out all else: But James Bond never gets shot.
Deep underground Mt. Weather, in the NSA Remote Intelligence Facility,
Augustus Gibbons was slowly counting down the seconds in his mind until he
snapped and ripped the speaker out of the ceiling. It seemed no place was
too far or too remote to escape the horror that was elevator muzak. If he
had to listen to 'The Girl From Epanima' one more time he was going to take
a bath with a toaster.
Fortunately the doors opened before that became a necessity.
All he had been told was that at 0030 hours the mission deviated from
the set parameters. Which, he knew from experience, was all he was going
to be told until he arrived. But more information was spurious at best.
Everyone knew what happened.
They failed again.
Hell, they might as well send Yorgi a gift basket and a free
invitation to take over the world, because any attempts to stop him were
obviously futile. Gibbons wondered if Yorgi preferred fruit or candy. He
seemed like a candy guy. Adhering to a healthy dietary regimen might be
too conformist. Harry and David's made up a lovely basket of seasonal
treats this time of year.
Gibbon's paused before the sealed doors and held up his right hand.
That part always amused him - like Pledging Allegiance every day. It felt
like he never escaped grade school. A soft voice acknowledged, "Identity
confirmed." The doors opened.
He entered in time to hear: "McGrath was uploading some data to us
when he was killed. Take a look at this. I'm not sure yet exactly what it
Gibbons ignored his coworkers and headed straight for the monitor.
Honestly, despite all their technology, it looked like a rotating misshaped
Kinex project. "That's a fragment of a complex molecule."
"Gibbons." Harry was a short man; medically he was well within the
normal height for a man of his age and build, but practically he was just
enough shorter than everyone else for all to notice. As a result he had
excellent posture and a strange manner of looking up at someone and down
his nose at the same time. It must have given him neck pains, but Gibbons
never thought too long about it as he was not a masseuse. Nor, did he
think, Harry would let him touch any part of him aside from the traditional
high-fives and completely-heterosexual-hugs exchanged freely among the NSA
whenever they saved the world. Which was about once every nine days.
"Some of our analysts think it may be linked to a Soviet bio weapon,"
Gibbons continued, "called Silent Night."
Harry ignored Gibbons, addressing instead the man standing across
from him. "James, what is he doing here?" It was well known Harry did not
like Gibbons, primarily for his refusal to let anyone refer to him by his
first name - even upon strict promises that they would not call him
'Auggie' - and secondly due to the company picnic of 1994, when Gibbons
snatched the last turkey burger right from under Harry's nose.
James was equal to Harry in both height and age, but he seemed older
and taller because of his clear advantage in maturity. He was fond of and
had an amazing palate of tie colors; today's was cranberry. James was also
going prematurely grey, giving him a startling resemblance to the current
Speaker of the House, of whom he had a dead on impersonation. "I called
him in. We've lost three agents on this already," James reminded Harry
casually, the meaning anything but casual. "You could use the help."
There wasn't an audible 'bitch' at the end of the sentence, but it
was there all the same.
"It took a little digging, but we discovered your agents were killed
by a group calling themselves Anarchy 99," Gibbons informed the two. (But
mainly Harry. Harry was the idiot.) "They're ex-military. They can smell
the training on our agents a mile away. Sir," he added, turning to James,
"I think it's time we tried something new." Gibbons retrieved a chip from
his pocket and handed it to - Lord, who was that guy? The turn-over rate
in this place was ridiculous, with people always either getting married or
transfer or horribly murdered by terrorists. Gibbons just couldn't keep
track of it anymore. He handed the chip to Random Lackey, who assumed a
somewhat competent seat in front of the enormous motherboard and inserted
the chip. Harry and James looked up at the screen and Harry put his hands
on his hips in his traditional 'I-don't-care-what-you-brought-I-am-so-not-
Immediately pictures began flashing on the screen; most, Gibbons was
proud to say, mug shots.
Harry kept his eyes on the screen but asked, "These guys aren't ours.
Who are they? CIA?"
Gibbons maintained a casual response, knowing that would piss Harry
off more than a spectacular tap dance number. "No, civilians. Convicts,
mercs, contract killers. The best and brightest of the bottom of the
"They're the scum of the earth," Harry concluded, taking this far
better than Gibbons expected.
"And they're programmable, expendable, and they work. I think it's
our best shot."
"No," Harry replied sharply, "our best shot is - "
"McGrath's information, fragment though it may be, implies Anarchy 99
intends to strike soon," James interrupted mildly. "I'd be willing to lay
money the most we have is a few days. A week at the utmost. Now Gibbons
suggestion is.unorthodox, I admit. But it may buy us the time we need."
Gibbons crossed his arms in front of his chest and smiled, wide and smug.
He had them. "You have to give the orders, Harry; what will it be? Do we
want to drop another mouse in the snake pit? Or do we want to send our own
snake and let him crawl in?"
The Capital Country Club was known for catering to the most prestigious and
influential politicians and businessmen on the west coast. It boasted,
among other things, an Olympic size pool, three secluded Jacuzzi nooks, a
professional staff of masseurs, a tasteful yet vibrant dance club, a
lovingly tended PGA certified golf course, and a clientele that could not
swim, dance, or golf if their lives depended on it. Most of their
auspicious patrons enjoyed the Yellow Room, an open relaxed arena where
they could socialize, enjoy cocktails, and indulge in the communal guilty
pleasure that was Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton's Twister.
Such was Richard's intent when he sped up the driveway one charming
autumn afternoon. Traces of the Indian summer could still be felt in the
golden light and the air still warm enough to drive with the top down. It
had been a rotten day so far, but Richard was looking forward to its
improvement, due in most part to a certain number of computer generated
tornados. His wife was in bed with an absolutely horrible cold that was
best served, as she told him, by: "getting out of the freaking house
instead of bothering me all day." Richard knew better; she was using the
cold as an excuse to cuddle up in bed and watch Waiting to Exhale and How
Stella Got Her Groove Back in a teary-eyed, frilly, feminine double
feature, and when he returned she'd be surrounded by a mound of tissues
with an empty pot of raspberry tea on the nightstand, right as rain.
With the youngest daughter having just flown the nest and Richard not used
to being alone, he invited his son and daughter-in-law along, knowing that
they would both enjoy the grounds. David regretfully declined, needing to
spend the day chained to his desk to manage his books. The boy had always
been sharp in math and after opening his own business - garden supplies,
who would have figured - he insisted that doing his own books was better
than hiring a "scum-sucking accountant". Janelle, however, said she would
love to come along as a relief to listening to David yell at the calculator
that there was too a square root to 364.
By the time Richard rolled up to the entrance of the CCC he was
feeling, for the most part, human. Human, but in a hurry. The next
showing of Twister started in a minute and a half, and he hated to miss the
opening. But, unlike every other time he'd arrived, Pepe was not there to
take his car. Of course, perhaps he did not see the tiny parking
attendant, as Pepe was a Little Person. Richard glanced around his car to
no avail. "Come on, Pepe," he muttered. "This is unbelievable." He
turned his car off and got out, calling, "Hello! Hello?"
The man who responded was definitely not Pepe. For one thing, the
height. This man was definitely not an LP, though he was a few inches shy
of true intimidation. And unlike Pepe, he had a sullen look on his face,
though in all honestly Richard couldn't tell if it was the man's attitude
or how his face was all the time. In all honesty he looked like someone
dropped him on his head a couple of times as a child.
Richard checked his watch. Uh-oh. Thirty seconds. "Well, it's
about time. Now, listen.Where were you coming from - Tijuana? I don't
mean to be rude," he apologized quickly. Dammit, he should just buy
Twister already and not go through this. "Listen," he continued, "Keep it
out of the sun. I don't want the paint to fade. Do you understand
English?" Pepe was, oddly enough, Peruvian but fluent in English, Spanish,
German, and Ancient Greek. Richard couldn't determine this gentleman's
ethnicity. "I pay enough for you people," he finished handing over his car
When he turned to help Janelle out of the car she had that look on
her face. She must have learned it from David because it ran through his
family. He could have taken her for any one of his genetic daughters or
his son in drag. His brain winced, and Richard made a mental note to
apologize to the valet on the way out. After Twister. "Come on, Janelle.
You're going to love this place."
Fred stopped him by the door, greeting him but his eyes on Janelle.
It made little matter to Fred that his wife was standing right next to
them. "Dick, how are you?"
"This is Janelle," Richard began, ignoring the fact that Fred refused
to stop calling him 'Dick'. "She's my daughter-in-law."
Fred's response was cut off by the screech of tires. They all glance
back to see Richard's bright red Corvette spin around and streak out of the
parking lot. One of the side mirrors was knocked off as the car raced
through a series of columns.
Janelle spoke right before he did, her low steady voice cutting off
most of his panic. "Call 911."
"Who's - who's driving my car?" he sputtered.
The car turned a corner and disappeared onto the main road. Richard
grabbed his cell phone and dialed 911.
"911 Emergency. Who's calling please?"
"Hotchkiss! Senator Hotchkiss! California State Senate! Listen,
somebody just stole my car!"
Xander hummed cheerfully to himself as he zipped along the road. It was
one of those beautiful days when people spent all day indoors talking about
how they should go outside. The roads were empty, though not for long now,
and 'I'm A Little Tea Pot' was bouncing around in his head. Xander took a
sharp turn without slowing down, his free foot tapping merrily with the
melody on the spotless carpeting. Another quarter of a mile and several
cars came into view, his people already out and ready to rig the car for
the next Astonishing and Death-Defying Stunt of the Amazing Xando! (As
Peter liked to refer to them.
As Xander pulled in the middle of the cars he quickly switched from 'I'm A
Little Tea Pot' to 'Kick Those F&$#ers When They're Down'. If J.J. heard
him singing 'tip me over and pour me out' she'd never, ever let him forget
it. She'd have it carved on his headstone.
His crew was good - well trained and, most important, experienced. In less
than five minutes Xander was back on the road, racing past scenic vistas
with the cops hot on his trail. Hot on their trail were Byron and Allen,
getting some filler shots. The sirens help him stifle any remaining verses
of teapot songs and focus.
"You, in the red Corvette! Pull over immediately!"
Xander grinned. Show time. "Yeah, yeah." He tossed the cameras an
exasperated look. "These monkeys are following me because I just took this
car. Obviously the car doesn't belong to me, it's not my style." Corvette
were a bit too 80's for him; they always made him want to burst out into
"It belongs to Dick, Dick Hotchkiss, a California state senator," he
continued. "You remember Dick. He tried to ban rap music because he feels
that the lyrics promote violence." Xander leaned closer to the camera on
the passenger door. "It's music, Dick!"
And now for the part that personally pissed Xander off. "He also
wants to pull every video game off every shelf in the country because he
feels that the video games diminish the intelligence of our youth." There
was no way in hell anyone was going to tell Xander the 68 hours he spent
busting his ass to get through Zelda: Ocarina of Time diminished his
intelligence or did not make him a better person. "Come on, Dick. It's
the only education we got."
He made the turn up to the bridge. Time to wrap it up. "Dick,
you're a bad man. And you know what we do to bad men. We punish them.
But, since he's already in the California state senate - which is as close
to prison as yuppies get - we've thought up something else. Dick, you've
just entered the Xander Zone."
Xander picked up his walkie-talkie. "Okay, I'm coming in hot with a
side of bacon!" This was the easy part. Everything was set up, the
cameras were in place, and his crew was prepared to get their asses out of
there before the cops realized what was going on.
The car headed onto the bridge; Xander fixed the gas pedal before
stepping up onto the seat. He turned the wheel, heading for the ramp in
the middle of the road leading to the edge. With the wind and the noise
and the hundred or so foot gulf rapidly approaching the familiar rush of
adrenaline hit him, with it the understanding why he did this time and time
again instead of being a fricken banker.
The car shot off the ramp and over the bridge, straight into a free fall.
A sense of weightlessness scooped Xander up and he let himself be lifted up
and away from the car. He reached back to his parachute as the car drifted
down from under his feet.
What a wonderful day. What a great day. Xander was going to go home
and have some pie. This was a great day.
He jerked the cord and the parachute sailed up over his head and
snapped open. Black and yellow, matching his outfit and contrasting with
the car in a complimentary way. J.J. always insisted on proper color
And the car fell front first into the ground, rewarding them with a
huge fireball as it burst into flames upon impact.
Pete, Gorge, and Aloysius sped up as Xander floated to the ground.
Gorge grabbed the camera, capturing Xander's triumphant return to earth.
"Moral is," Xander shouted straight into the camera, "don't be a
He touched down. "You guys got the cameras?" Aloysius nodded,
helping him drag in his parachute. "All right, let's go, let's go!"
On the bridge above them dozens of cops peered over, identical
confused irritated expressions. Aloysius grinned up at them and yelled,
Yes, Xander decided, he was definitely going to have some pie.
That night, after a stop at his favorite pastry/bread bakery where his Aunt
Gina'd given him an extra big slice of blueberry pie - a'la mode, no charge
- Xander headed on home. He was feeling very contented and looking forward
to an evening of Scooby Doo minus Scrappy. Scrappy was a fricken pain in
the ass. He headed up in the elevator, trying to remember where he'd put
Scooby Doo and the Mystery at Aunt Maude's Motor Inn, and pulled the door
up to a dark, quiet apartment. Hanging his jacket up on the coat hooks, he
switched the lights on.
And everybody cheered.
Seemed J.J. had other plans.
Looked like Scooby'd have to wait. Ah, well. Xander smiled for the
guests and headed into the throng for proper host mingling. With any luck
he'd be able to throw them out of here in a few hours. People rushed over
to greet him and congratulate him on the day's work. He deflected with a
few thanks and caught J.J.'s eye, knowing the look alone would get her
J.J. was one of his oldest friends; when he'd been jumping over cars
on his bike as a ten-year-old she was right there with him, selling tickets
to the neighborhood kids. She was the only one who could push in front of
him in a bathroom line and live to tell the tale, and was able to wear
bottle blonde hair like it was the height of fashion. She was one of the
sharpest people Xander ever knew, and that included his Uncle Walter, but
she played it ignorant when she came over; they both knew what was on his
mind. "What's up?"
"You invited these people?"
"Of course not," she replied in her 'how-stupid-do-you-think-I-am'
tone. "I came over looking for you and they came over looking for a party.
Was I supposed to disappoint them?"
Xander rolled his eyes and J.J. grinned, patting his arm. "That's my
boy. I'll hurl them out of a window if it gets too much for you." She
shoved him into his guests.
Fortunately Aloysius caught him first. Aloysius was one of those
lucky few people who could take a hint and would probably disappear back to
his own domicile in twenty minutes. He also insisted on speaking in what
he thought was hip slang; for the most part it proved amusing. "That's my
dog! What up? Today was off the hook! You're psycho, bro!"
Sam, Aloysius' actual 'bro', picked it up. "Psycho? That was off
the chain, man!"
Javier cut the rest of them off. Javier was, as he put it, 'way into
biking' and was Xander's highest competition in that arena. "Yo, yo, yo!
What's up with that crazy trick that we've been hearing about? Pull that?"
Xander shrugged. "My Superman seat-grab barrel roll?"
"I'm still working on it." In reality he wasn't, he just didn't feel
like getting into a contest with Javier tonight. Those things were known
to go on for days at a time. Xander continued past them, heading for the
bar at the back of the room. It looked like the least amount of people
A tiny woman grabbed his arm. She smiled, the movement offsetting
her heavy lip liner. Her huge head of fake curls contrasted wither the
black dress that was too small even for her. "You're a hard guy to get
ahold of, Xander Cage. You know," she said, tossing a look up and down his
body, "an athlete like you should really have his own video game. Jordan
King. I can make it happen." She handed him her card.
Xander took it, pretending to give the matter serious thought. He
found the easiest way to deal with these people was to let them think
they'd get what they wanted. "I'm gonna hold onto this for later."
"You do that."
He grinned and kissed her cheek. Oh, yes, it was definitely easier
to let them think they'd get what they want.
And then let J.J. handle them.
As he walked away he heard, "You know he's never gonna sell out.
That's why he is who he is. So you need to relax. Who invited you,
"Excuse - "
"Shut up. Somebody throw her out, please?"
Xander was still laughing over that little exchange when J.J. popped
into his view again. She had the 'work' look on her face, meaning they
were going to talk business, meaning she was going to tell him to go on
vacation. Xander hated vacations. His whole life was a vacation.
"Listen, this is for real," J.J. began. "I can get us an advance on
Internet pre-sales. So you need to just go to Pago Pago or something. Get
some girls, do them all. I don't care. Go on vacation." The last was
almost a beg. It might have qualified as a beg if Xander hadn't know she
was fully capable of castrating him with her bare hands at any moment she
"It's Bora Bora, J. I got enough girls here. Since when did you
care so much about money?" he teased.
"Look, I just need you to lay low till the heat's off, okay? I gotta
an underground website to run. I got tapes to make and I can't do that
with you in jail."
He pointed a tv in back of her running the day's stunt. "Did you see
"I don't care." She was weakening. "Listen to me - "
Xander held out his arms. "I'm untouchable."
Obviously the wrong thing to say. Xander watched a lot of action
movies, he should have known that. It was stupid, and he didn't think he
was that stupid. The words were barely out of his mouth before the lights
went out and the windows exploded. A bunch of guys sailed in, and another
bunch burst through the front door. All were dressed in high-tech black
gear that gave no clue as to what they looked like. They immediately began
herding people around, primarily away from Xander and out the door. Shouts
of "Let's go!" and "Move!" could be heard above the shrieks and yells of
Not good. But Xander played it cool. "Okay, okay, I'll turn down
A sharp pain conspired with the sound of a shot, surprising Xander
that they'd actually shoot him. However, the pain was much less than he
thought. In fact.he pulled out the small metal object stuck to him. A
His knees suddenly got woozy, but he managed a feeble protest before
he fell. "It was only a Corvette."
"Let's go, baby. Your order is getting cold."
Xander was never the kind of guy to take his own life. He enjoyed
life far too much. And if he occasionally ended up in a situation with
more pain that he bargained for, such as the time he broke all the ribs on
his left side diving into the ball room at Chuck-E-Cheese, well, he always
figured it was worth it. Xander understood that with pleasure came pain,
and sooner or later pleasure had to be paid for.
But goddamn did he want a bullet through the head right about now.
He hadn't felt this awful since Aaron convinced him to join the Midnight
Nude Polar Bear club. Xander, being drunk of his ass at the time,
immediately agreed and ended up in the hospital with double pneumonia and a
tequila hangover. His head seemed to be caught in an argument over whether
to explode or implode, someone was ringing the bells of Notre Dame in his
ears, and his stomach was sinking like the Titanic. He didn't even know if
he could move.
He tried lifting his head. It worked. Man, he wished it didn't as,
he suddenly discovered, movement increased his symptoms exponentially.
Xander waited for a second, and when he thought the pain was fading tried
again. That was much better.
Only now he could hear. Geez, anything but Muzak.
"Can you give me some hash browns?"
Xander pulled himself up and rubbed his face. He was rapidly feeling
better, but with the symptoms dissipating he still felt like fricken Rip
"Make them sloppy. I like them runny."
Diner. He was in a diner. Not a diner he'd seen before, but diners
on the whole were rather safe places to be. Why the hell would those guys
leave him in a diner, though? Had the whole SWAT team decided to come in
for a bit to eat and forgot about him? Or were they all in the john?
A waitress with a friendly face passed by him after taking an order.
Xander caught her eye. "How did I get here?"
She gave him a wry smile that said she'd seen far too much for a
drunk bald guy in odd pants to register on her Richter scale. "Two big
guys dropped you off ten minutes ago. Told me to look after you. Want
some coffee?" she added, almost as an afterthought. "You look like you
could use some."
Xander nodded mutely. If there was one thing he knew in this world,
it was to never, ever turn down coffee. Coffee was always a good thing.
A strange noise drew his attention in the lessening fog of his mind.
He looked over sluggishly and immediately his mind began to clear. The
strange noise was the clicks of the waitress' high heels on the tile floor.
Xander took a good look around, forcing himself to focus. He didn't
know what the hell was going on, but he needed to find out all he could.
Across the isle a man with a perfect profile in a business suit read the
Financial Times. He silently filed that away. The waitress rounded the
counter to him and poured his coffee with a shaky hand. He filed that too.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Fine." She didn't look fine. As she finished pouring she pinned
Xander's eyes, then glanced quickly at the man seated next to him. A
trucker type who stared straight ahead as he drank his coffee, as if he was
trying to remember his lines. The waitress pushed his coffee to him and
left. Xander picked up his cup; on a napkin underneath were the numbers
Xander glanced back over at the trucker, who was now staring directly
at him. That was creepy. Xander wondered if it was in the script or that
was a little improv on the trucker's part.
"I said, you got a problem, boy?" the trucker demanded.
Well, Xander couldn't remember him saying it the first time, but what
the hell? He shook his head. "No. No problem."
The businessman and the trucker exchanged glances. The trucker
nodded. Both stood, whipping out weapons; the trucker - a pistol, and the
businessman - a shotgun.
"Nobody make a move!"
"Just couldn't let him leave."
"Keep your goddamned mouth shut!"
They gestured with their guns for everyone to get on the ground. The
trucker pointed his gun at Xander's head. Wow. God usually didn't answer
his prayers that quickly. "Keep still or you'll stop breathing," the
The business man moved onto the waitress. "Empty the goddamn register!
Now! Empty that register!"
Okay, he was starting to get tired of this. So Xander grabbed the
truckers arm and jerked it behind his back, then slammed his head into the
counter.and the full coffeepot. Immediately the trucker started hollering
and crumpled to the ground, holding his face.
The businessman turned to him, shotgun aimed. "Get back! Get back.
Get back?" The statement became progressively a question.
Xander grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and smashed it into the
businessman's face. The businessman fell to the floor and clutched his
nose. It was probably broken. Xander hoped it would heal wrong and
disturb his perfect profile.
He turned to leave when applause drew his attention. A black man
with a massive scar on the left side of his face and a tastefully expensive
suit not seen in most diners sat in a back booth. He'd escaped Xander's
notice, but his quiet authority pegged him as the ringleader. "Well done,
"Who the hell are you?" Xander replied, slinging the shotgun on his
"The name's Gibbons. Augustus Gibbons." He rose, straightened his
jacket, and strolled over. "You seem upset. Is there a problem?"
Xander cut straight to it. He was tired of fooling around. "What is
"Looks like a diner."
He grinned. "That's clever. You know you almost had me going there
for a while," Xander admitted. This seemed to peak Gibbons' interest, so
he continued. "I was a bit groggy before, then I started noticing thing.
Like, you got a stockbroker over here, all dressed up, reading the
Financial Times on a Sunday when the market's closed. Unlikely, but okay,
I can go with that. I could even go with the stick-up man packing a cop-
issue Beretta. It's known in a few circles that carrying a cop-issue is a
sign of achievement, though unlikely Jim-Bob here would socialize in those
"But you want to know where you blew it? With her." Xander pointed to the
waitress. "My aunt has been in the restaurant business all her life.
There's no way in hell a career waitress comes to work in high heels.
She'd have blisters the size of pancakes before lunch. And if she ain't
real, then this whole thing ain't real." Xander was starting to enjoy
this. It was a show of his own. If he had sparklers and couple of dancing
doxen they could go on the road. "That's how I knew that this bozo over
here wouldn't get a shot off even if we waited till St. Patrick's Day." He
cocked and fired the gun at the menu on the wall. Four dollars for hash
browns, my ass. Unfortunately, the price stayed. "Cause there's nothing
but blanks in these guns." He tossed the gun on the counter, adding with a
touch of humor, "Oh, and no offense but their performances were terrible."
Gibbons surprised him again. He laughed. He obviously had a great
dentist because his teeth were flawless. "That's good. That's very good."
He sounded impressed.
Xander didn't know why, but he liked the idea of impressing this man.
Particularly since he was just being his charming jackass self. "It's your
turn," Xander said, "pretty boy. What the hell is going on here?"
"It was a test, Mr. Cage, that you aced." His smile was still there,
though the 'pretty boy' comment diminished it significantly. Xander filed
"He seems to have a poor attitude." Xander glanced back; a fresh-
faced man about his age strode up the isle giving him a bare once-over. He
stopped next to Xander but addressed Gibbons.
"Excuse me?" Xander demanded.
"Should we throw him back?"
"Hell, no," Gibbons replied, heading past them to the other side of
the diner. "I love his attitude. Let's take this to the next level. Get
on the Sat-Com."
"Take what to the next level?" Xander called after him.
Gibbons continued as if he hadn't spoken. "I want a full debrief in
"Yo! Take what?"
"I want everybody out in ten minutes."
"I don't know who you think you're playing with," Xander said,
backing up to the door, "I don't play this game."
"Get Mike a doctor; don't want him looking like me."
"I got a party to go to."
Gibbons nodded towards Xander. "Shut him up." He sighed. "Why is
it always the assholes who pass the tests?"
"And don't forget to pay for my windows!"
That was when the waitress pulled out a gun and shot him the second
time in - it must have been the same number of days. Xander checked; there
was a sharp twinge as he pulled the dart out. Yup. Same one. Dammit, why
didn't they just got for the painless approach and shoot him in the head?
That's it, Xander thought as he regained consciousness with all the grace
and ease of a drunken yak trying to belly dance, I'm going to die. If this
goddamn fricken dart coma thing doesn't end it for me in the next five
minutes I'm going to chew my own head off. I've kept up to date on those
yoga classes J.J. forced me into, I should be flexible enough to do that.
He blinked. Where he sat.okay.from where he was chained to the floor
the sun was in his eyes. The floor, come to think of it everything around
him, was shaking with a deep steady rumble, like a starving lion. Like he
was on a plane.
Xander's head cleared incrementally. Perhaps that was because he was
on a plane. A cargo plane at that.
He had a terrible feeling he was the cargo.
An assortment of armed personnel mingled by the cockpit, chatting in
a casual and cheerful manner as they prepped their gear and smeared on the
classic black-and-green army look. Not a good sign. Next to him, a couple
of guys were bound to the floor like him. Both with shorn hair, like his.
Were they targeting bald guys? On second glance, (Xander immediately
tagged them Zip and Pip for clarification purposes, as he just saw Down
With Love two weeks ago and was a closet fan of Great Expectations) Pip had
a nice helping of fuzz on his head; as it was platinum blonde and Xander
was groggy he didn't notice it right away. Zip was Mr. Clean clean-shaven;
his well tended skull indicated he was snatched up the same time as Xander.
Xander caught Zip and Pip's eyes and grinned to himself. "You guys
haven't been to any diners lately, huh?"
Pip and Zip shared a look and shook their heads, laughing. "Diner
finalists," Zip announced. "And I thought we were going to win a car, not
A second or two later the soldiers stopped talking and headed
straight for them. Business time.
Four soldiers helped them to their feet and roughly shoved them to
the back of the plane. "Here we go, boys."
"Where's my peanuts?" Xander demanded, following the not-so-gently
shoves. "Can you ask for the stewardess?" Parachutes were strapped onto
them then hooked to the floor. He felt the plane dip. They were getting
ready to drop the cargo.
The radio hissed to life in the cockpit. "Standing by to deploy
"Roger," the pilot announced, "deploying drogue parachute."
One Buck Rogers off to the side jerked a lever and the bottom slowly
opened up. "This is gonna hurt!" Buck announced.
As one, Pip, Zip, and Xando the Magnificent glanced backwards then
stared as the back hatch opened up to reveal a sun-baked scraggly forest.
Though Xander was quite familiar with hot, sunny places he'd never been
here before. Wherever it was.
"What the hell?" Pip murmured.
A white parachute shot out and the plane glided to the ground with a
jostle. Xander turned back to the far too smug soldiers. What the hell
Another crackle from the radio. "Release drogue now."
Mr. Rogers jerked another lever. Line started zipping out the back,
onto the dry brown earth. Pip clutched a handle, panic touching his face.
"This ain't right, man!" he shouted to no one in particular. "This ain't
No really? Xander thought it was the most proper thing in the world
to be kidnapped, put in a fake diner, kidnapped again, then put in a plane
and dropped into a foreign region for.who knows what. He did it every day!
He liked to get it done before breakfast.
The smug soldiers waved 'bye-bye' to the little bald men. Xander
could have easily decapitated them with his bare hands. Of course, he
recognized that as not simply his masculine pride, but a rather healthy
dose of fear. Army personnel though this seemed to be, and the logical
part of his mind insisted they would be quite familiar with their
equipment, especially when using it on civilians, Xander had an iron clad
rule to never let anyone prep or even touch his equipment before a stunt.
That way, if he fell to his death or suddenly exploded for some reason,
there was no one to blame but himself.
But with no options available to him Xander simply satisfied himself with
bellowing, "I live for this shit!'
Yes. That would indeed show them.
Because it was about that time he was yanked forcibly backwards, out
of the plane. He rolled to a quick stop on the rough ground, the hot
pebbles working its way under his clothes. Crap. He was never going to
get all the sand out of the nooks and crannies. Xander immediately got to
his feet and wiped off his face, the familiar rush sweeping through him, as
if he had just chugged a barrel of Boost. "Not bad!"
And the plane soared off, leaving them in the dust.
Xander grinned. "Let's do that again!"
Zip and Pip looked at him like he was nuts. So Xander repressed his
little happy dance.
Once they got up and stabilized - Zip's legs were a little shaky
after their landing - they picked a random direction and headed off. It
was not a long walk but it felt like it, particularly because Pip cut Zip
off rather abruptly right as he was getting into a rendition of "This Is
The Song That Never Ends", a particularly moving rendition if Xander did
say so himself. Pip's rudeness was understandable, though; Xander was
enjoying a general 'amusement at life's oddities but he knew not everyone
shared that point of view.
Apparently Zip was T.J. and Pip was Verg. Xander responded to their
introductions cordially - jumping out of an airplane with someone tended
for form a bond, especially if leaving the airplane was not one's choice -
but he preferred Zip and Pip. T.J. and Verg just didn't give off the happy
joy-joy feelings of the Rhyming Duo. But it did amuse him to later learn -
after Virg had grown a bit delirious because of the heat, and T.J. affable
because of the conversation - that his companions' hip nicknames actually
stood for Thaddeus Johan Eisenwhit and Virgil Mortimoore. Not one to leave
his buddies hanging like that, Xander quickly confessed he was, on all
legal documentation, Alexander Harrington Cage IV. The group quickly
agreed Xander had the sweetest end of the stick, and promised that if any
should reveal what they heard today the other two were fully justified in
Verg's demeanor took a turn for Happy Land, however, when they came
upon the cocaine field.
The workers ran off before they set foot anywhere near the fields.
From what Xander saw of their backs the staff was comprised mostly of
little kids and elderly people. Cries of "Gringos!" and "Andale!" burst
out of the greenery as the bushes rattled back and forth, reminiscent of
the raptor introduction in The Lost World. Truly terrible movie, but truly
"Holy shit," Verg muttered. "This is Colombia. Not the college, man, the
"How'd you figure that one out?" T.J. inquired wryly.
Verg ignored him. Verg apparently ignored most everything.
"Cocaine, man. Those are coke plants!"
"Great," Xander said, rubbing his hands as if he whole-heartedly
agreed with Verg. "I love Coke. It's so much better than Pepsi. Though I
have to admit, I was a fan of Crystal Pepsi. Never should have taken that
stuff off the market."
T.J. chuckled. Verg shot him a confused look, then gave up on trying
to understand his companion's enigmatic speech and dashed across a shallow
pond to the edge of the field. He immediately began breaking off branches
and stuffing them into his pockets. Xander paid him little mind, it was
best to give idiots as little attention as possible, but went directly to
the rickety yellow vehicle and checked the ignition. "No keys." Dammit.
"What the hell are you doing?" T.J. demanded, glaring at Verg.
"You know what this shit's worth on the street?"
"Not exactly what he meant," Xander replied, subtly rolling his eyes.
"The guys who own this field aren't going to be happy with you tearing it
up for pocket change."
As if to emphasis his point, trucks barreled down the dirt paths
between the neatly trimmed plants, dust rising up in the sky under the
churning wheels and nearly obscuring the trucks altogether.
"What now?" Verg yelled at the approaching trucks. "Is this another
"Let's go across the river," T.J. suggested. "Let's go!"
"Yeah, good idea. Good idea!" Xander called after their retreating
He stayed put.
Xander was tired of playing these games. He just wanted to go home and
watch Scooby. So he waited patiently as a group of shabbily uniformed me
circled him on scooters. They were hairy and smelly and covered in dirt -
these cops took their roles seriously. One man in particular came up to
him; he was a good foot taller than Xander, and had more than enough hair
to make up for Xander's lack of it.
"Guess you monkeys are just too good for me," Xander said. "Guess I
failed this test."
The man grinned, showing off a front row of shiny gold teeth.
Xander turned, putting his hands on his head. "You guys got
something to drink?" Hey, maybe they had some Crystal Pepsi. Cops were
supposed to be able to get stuff like that.
He'd find out later, because right then Gold Tooth rammed the butt of
his gun into the back of Xander's head. Turns out it was just as effective
as those little darts.
Well, he had to give them something. The blow to the back of the head was
far more compassionate than the little green dart. Instead of the all-
consuming fog of pain that made him want to claw out his brain with a
plastic spoon, there was on centralized piercing sensation at the base of
his skull, as if someone was poking around in there with an extra-long ice
pick. He had to say, of the two choices, he preferred this.
Of course, on top of that his shoulders were about to dislocate as he
was hanging by his arms from a wooden beam. His eyes adjusted to the dim
light, and Xander made out forms, then faces, of T.J. and Verg. He smiled
as best he could with a bitch of a headache, a laugh escaping awkwardly.
"Nice to see you again, fellas."
Verg looked up at him like he was an idiot. "Mah, mu-mu." His mouth
was duct taped.
"Boy, they went all out on this one, huh?" Xander muttered, swinging
back and forth like a Christmas ornament.
Wind swept quietly past the thin tin walls, and a car - probably an
SUV considering the engine - pulled up outside. A single car door opened
and closed. Voices, speaking too softly for Xander to catch. He was
fluent in Spanish, but he all he caught clearly was 'que' 'hombres' and
They were about to make a new friend. Xander didn't think it'd be
The doors opened and shut, bringing a shadowy figure into the room.
The figure moved into the light and paused.
It was a man, small, with a greasy ponytail and mustache, and a face
like a road map. Obviously they did not believe in moisturizer here. The
man reached up and removed his sunglasses in the most menacing fashion.
The rhyming duo started laughing. Xander alone did not find this
amusing. He was really tired, in both the sense that he wanted to go to
bed and the sense that he didn't want to learn any new ways to render
someone unconscious. He shook his head. "You got to be kidding."
Teeny either didn't get the joke or didn't find it as amusing. He
strode past Verg, kicking his ankles hard enough to stop the laughter.
"Okay, funny guys." He had a heavy accent; pretty good for a cop who's
closest association with Columbia was probably Juan Valdez. Teeny headed
to a table in the back and jerked a cloth off of it. Xander watched him
out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't see what was on the table.
"I'll show you what we do with funny guys who get in our business." He
picked up something, metal clanged against metal.
Now Xander laughed. "What, hog-tie us and force us to listen to your
T.J. and Verg giggled best they could through the duct tape.
The tiny man laughed with them. That didn't make Xander feel good.
"No," Teeny replied with a charming smile. He carried a machete covered in
red smears; Teeny ran the blade along Xander's ankles. "We cut their
Achilles tendon and watch them flop around like a marionette. Unless," he
added, a threat in his words, "you have something to tell me, something I
need to know?"
"Okay," Xander replied. "You're short."
Verg nearly fell over with laughter. With his chains he hung
awkwardly at a forty-five degree angle.
"My friend says you could use a hair cut to update your style,"
Xander finished. "Get off me."
Teeny nodded thoughtfully, then kicked Pip to the floor, bellowing,
"Two seconds ago you told us to talk. Now it's 'shut up'?" Xander
grinned. Come to think of it, he was actually enjoying this thing. It was
kinda fun. He'd have to work it into his next gig. "I don't mean to
nitpick, but you're the worst at this torture thing."
Teeny smiled again, which Xander was beginning to understand was a
bad thing, and punched him hard enough to send him swinging around
Xander's amusement died quickly. "You slap me again, I'm going to
throw you a beating."
The tiny man seemed to take this as a challenge. He slapped him
again. Around Xander went the other way.
"Boy, I hope they're paying you extra for this," he murmured. Verg
shifted uncomfortably; even J.J. knew not to mess with him when he used
Teeny grabbed his shirt, held him in place, and raised the tip of the
blade to Xander's nose. "You know what, funny guy? Maybe I'll cut off
your nose first. Huh? Funny guy."
Xander only really paid attention to about half of that. Because by
the time Itsy-Bitsy got to 'cut', Xander realized what was bothering him
about the situation. And it was a bad realization. A five-year-old's
'girls are different that boys' realization, as opposed to a sixteen-year-
old's 'girls are different than boys' realization. "What's funny is," he
said, more for T.J. and Verg's benefit than anything else, "this actually
smells like real blood."
Teeny grinned triumphantly, glad to finally have gotten through to
these idiots. "I hope you like it, because it's the last thing you're
If Xander was in a more jovial mood, he might have suggested the
Jolly Green Giant getting some better come-backs - he might have even
pointed him to a couple of helpful movies. Maybe later. For now he caught
T.J.'s eye; T.J. nodded.
Teeny swung back to slice off his.whatever and Xander reacted
quickly, kicking him in the chest. Teensy tumbled to the floor and T.J.
pinned him, driving a knee into his abdomen. As T.J. handled the pint-
sized warlord, Xander hooked his legs onto the beam above him and unhooked
his hands. He jumped down and wrapped his bindings around Itsy's neck,
pulled him off of T.J., and slammed his head into a post. Teeny went down.
.at the same time the gunfire erupted. They all ducked. Another
sound beat rhythmically in the background of the bullets: helicopters. The
shed was not a safe place to be. Xander yanked off his bonds easily enough
and headed for T.J.; Virg was already making his way to the door as T.J.
had yet to get up. He yelled something through the tape, but the shots and
confusion overwhelmed it. Xander pulled off the sliver tape, like taking
off a Band-Aid. "I'm hit!" T.J. gasped. Blood oozed from his knee, and
Xander was pretty sure the bone was not supposed to bend that way.
Virg came running back towards them. Through the open doors Xander
could see helicopters taking out vehicles and anyone they could see
properly. "Virg! Give me a hand!" he shouted, unknotting Virg's wrists.
Together they were able to get T.J. up and moving.
A stream of Spanish came loud and echoing, over a speaker. Virg
glanced up, his eyes darting around. "What? What is it, man?"
"The Colombian army," Xander muttered.
"Shit, man! Man, this is total shit!"
"Virg!" Xander bellowed. The other man quieted instantly. "We gotta
get out of here." Xander half-carried, half-dragged the injured man to the
door, which was much more difficult than it sounded, even considering the
door was less than ten feet away. "Try to walk, T.J. Try to walk. Virg!
Get out here!"
Virg appeared momentarily, clutching a bag of cocaine as big as his
head. "To hell with this," he declared, rather like Jean Val Jean,
only.not. "Every man for himself."
And off he went.
Xander didn't waste time thinking about it. Obviously T.J. was not
going anywhere on his own. Xander shifted him so he rested on his
shoulders and scuttled out into the open, doing some sort of half-sideways-
run thing in an attempt to keep T.J. steady and dodge the increasingly
frequent passes of the helicopters. He headed for the bushes, the only
place with marginal cover and safety.
When a huge fireball unfurled, blossomed like one of his mother's
rose bushes, just to their left, Xander and T.J. ignored it by silent
Crouching in the sparse brush, Xander set his companion down as
gently as he could manage. T.J. stifled a groan in a very manly fashion;
the Board of Testosterone and Masculine Decorum was sure to award bonus
points for that. "I'm gonna get us some wheels." Xander glanced around to
make sure the way was clear and patted T.J. on the shoulder. But in
perfect heterosexual fashions, according to section 47 of the Board's
manual - Rules for Straight Guys. "Hang in there."
T.J. nodded, his fingers clenched around the worst of his leg to
staunch the bleeding. "Good luck."
Xander headed back out into the open before his mind could enter in
various logical points, such as the enormous number of bullets that were
whizzing through the air at this particular moment. Apparently the
Colombian Army wasn't one for long heartfelt talks. He hurried past the
panicking drug dealers, running his eyes back and forth quickly, trying to
locate anything that could be used to get the hell out of there. He race
back to the shed, along the perimeter. He hit luck in the back. Trucks -
old, but sturdy enough. And, the most important thing, they were there!
And in the next moment, thanks to the Colombian Army, they weren't!
Course, as a guy, he had to appreciate the sheer power and aesthetic
qualities of the explosion, but practically thinking it screwed him over
Xander rushed back into the open and dashed across the camp. The
helicopters turned in a wide arc, giving him some time to move. As the
copters passed over again Xander ducked by an up-turned truck. Flames
licked the tires, but Xander judged he was in little danger of witnessing
another explosion. He raked his eyes across the buildings, the rubble, the
Cradled in shadows, by the edge of the coke fields, was a bike. It
looked roughed up, but okay. Xander hurried to it, lest the Colombian Army
decide they hadn't blown up enough stuff, and raced off.
He was a good way down the field when the helicopters turned back and
headed in his direction. Xander glanced back and hunkered down, hoping his
dark jacket and the shadows would make it hard for them to see.
No such luck. Twin trails of fire shot down by his bike, clouds of
dust rising up on either side as the bullets hit the earth, like a twisted
escort. Xander kept as straight as possible as the fire and the
helicopters edged in front of him, then arced backwards as they reached the
end of the field.
Soon as they were out of range Xander began shouting for T.J. No
response, but he could have not heard it over everything that was
happening. There was still another portion of the field left to cover.
And the helicopters came back.
Why were they so focused on him? There were lots of other, more
interesting people to shoot at. As they closed in he headed for the fence
circling the perimeter. It was tall and, like most else around here,
heading towards ancient. It shouldn't be too difficult to overcome.
Xander pressed on the accelerator, leaning back on the bike to give him the
leverage he needed.
Turns out he didn't need that much. Another little incline on the
gas and the bike took off like a rocket. Sailed him straight up and
forward. Xander expertly twisted the bike in the air, sliding horizontally
through the barbed wire.
The landing was easier than he expected. Xander skidded along, just
outside the compound. Helpfully, one of the few remaining drug lords had
gotten atop a tower and started firing at the helicopters, which took focus
off of Xander.
"X! I'm over here! X!" T.J. rose out of the bushes as best he
could, waving his arms in a desperate attempt get his attention. Xander
nodded, turning the bike. Unfortunately the commando on the rooftop
noticed as well and started firing in T.J.'s direction. Xander pressed on
the gas and leaned back on his bike, sending it in the air a second time.
And just before he plowed into the fatigued commando, Xander noted it was
his friend from earlier. Goldtooth. Hmm. Small world.
Goldtooth landed just a few moments before Xander. Sadly, Mr. Tooth
had nothing to break his fall.
Okay, the helicopters were definitely following him, Xander decided
as he raced down a meager path through the cocaine bushes. He didn't
really care why, he was pretty sure he wouldn't find out. He was just
finding it rather annoying and wanted it to stop. Xander headed across the
camp - he'd been back and forth enough times by now he could have crossed
it in his sleep - leading the copters away from T.J. Last thing that guy
needed was another bullet. Past burning vehicles, past the last stand for
the coke dealers, past the main building. Xander turned and slid to a
stop. He glanced at the building. The roofs were the right angles and the
upturned car would give him the right lift he needed.
Xander thought about it. He was stupid enough to attempt it, and it
was stupid enough to work.
No choice. Helicopters were headed his way. Xander floored it,
sending the bike up the car and flying over the roof. The helicopters
fired, exploding - yes, that was right, exploding; what the hell did those
Columbians store in their skeezy back-water cocaine field headquarters,
anyway? - the building. Xander felt the heat eating up his back; he was
never going to be able to wear this jacket again. It was a good coat and
had been through a lot, but he had a feeling this was it for the lad.
He flew along the porch, touching down with relative safety and for
the first time thankful he shaved his head regularly. If he had hair it
would be on fire at this point.
But first things first. Xander twisted, dragging the bike to its
side, and skimmed into a large section of tubing. He watched the
helicopters soar over head, circle once, then disappear into the night.
Xander peaked his head out to check; they were gone. In the confusion he
quickly located T.J. Xander dropped the bike and hurried to him. A glance
told him his companion was no worse for his wait. "I got us a bike."
T.J.'s eyes were grim. He shook his head.
The bushes around them rose. Not bushes. Men, dressed as bushes.
Dressed as well-armed bushes.
As they grabbed him only one through escaped into words. "Pussies!"
Xander easily recognized the figure crossing the rubble of the grey
morning. He sat on a chunk of burned car, quiet as could be considering
his arms were handcuffed behind him at an angle that was most certainly
screwing up his bone structure, framed on either side by a de-bushed
soldier. Their fatigues were lighter, because of the heat, but not their
As Gibbons approached Xander glanced over at one of the soldiers,
looking for some support. A connection - hey, buddies, we're all in this
together. No such luck. "Look who it is. Frankenstein." Gibbons smiled,
acknowledging it as he stopped in front of the prisoner. Xander shrugged,
burying an urge to return the smile. Guy was a jackass and probably
responsible for all the crap Xander'd just gone through, but he didn't seem
too bad of a guy. "Uncuff me so I can beat the hell out of you."
"Relax, X," Gibbons replied, "you just graduated at the head of your
"What the hell are you talking about?" Xander demanded, charging to
his feet. If there was one thing that pissed him off, it was careless
treatment of life. If he wanted to risk his own life, that was his choice
and nobody else's. "You almost got us killed out there!"
"We knew the Columbian Army was moving in," came a new voice
Xander cast a look aside. It was the fresh-faced man again. He looked
remarkably chipper for being in the middle of the smoldering ruins of a
Colombian drug ring this early in the morning. "Excuse me?"
Aside from being perky he was smug too. "It was my idea to send you as a
decoy. How do you like tha - "
The fresh-faced man didn't manage the last part of his thought, seeing as
Xander head butted him. He went flying back, sprawled spread-eagle on
ground. Probably ruining his J.Crew tastefully color-coordinated outfit.
Next thing he knew, Xander was on his knees. And being on his knees
was not the best location considering how many fierce looking men with guns
were around him. Still, he maintained his cool. "Pretty fast for an old
man," he tossed at Gibbons. Because naturally Gibbons would seize the
chance to hit him above anyone else.
"See what I mean, Gibbons!" the not-so-fresh-faced man yelled,
scrambling to his feet; a clumsy maneuver as he tried to keep his hands
protectively covering his nose. "Harry's right - La - "
"Todd, I think you'd better get that nose looked at," Gibbons
"Get up." The amusement was gone from Gibbons' eyes. Damn. Xander
hated when people started to mean business. Meant they were in danger of
With not much of a choice, Xander got up.
"Walk with me."
"You know I'm the kind of guy that believes under the right
circumstances, a man can change," Gibbons began, strolling along as if he
were in a garden or at a street fair. "For instance, last night you
exhibited courage, leadership, and a willingness to protect a man you
Xander didn't think it was the time to mention T.J.'s offer to let
Xander visit his Hawaiian mansion, complete with pineapple shaped hot tub
and eight-foot walk in closet in every room. Instead he remarked, "So give
me a medal."
"I'd rather give you a job."
Xander stopped; Gibbons halted at the same time. "Look at me. Do I
look like a fan of law enforcement?"
"This is your lucky day, Alexander." Gibbons grinned and kept
moving; Xander stayed put for as long as he could manage then tottled along
after him. "This is your chance to pay back your Uncle Sam for all your
wonderful freedoms you enjoy. The job's not that difficult. I just want
you to meet some people and find out whatever you can about them."
"What type of people?" He was so not joining the circus. Xander
hated the circus. Fricken elephants.
"Dangerous, dirty, tattooed, uncivilized. Your kind of people."
Honestly it sounded like fun. But Xander wasn't going to let himself
get carried away. He moved in front of Gibbons, cutting him off. "Hold
up." Xander took a moment to consider the appropriate response and
finished, "My kind of people would say: kiss my ass, scarface."
Gibbons passed off the rejoinder without acknowledgment. "See, this
is usually the part where I'd take my gun, press it to your temple, and ask
you very politely to do what I want. Politeness gets you everywhere in
this world, don't you think?"
"Yeah, sure. Would you please kiss my ass, Mr. Scarface?"
"But," Gibbons continued, "you're not the type that's afraid of
death. You're afraid of life, so the end of it shouldn't cause too much
alarm. That puts us in a quandary. You are familiar with what 'quandary'
means, aren't you?"
"Naturally. I play a mean game of Scrabble," Xander replied, hoping
he was as skilled at ignoring the cutting remarks as his friend there.
"Guess we better call this a day, then."
"Not just yet." Gibbons moseyed up to him, his manner relaxed but
his eyes focused with an almost dangerous intent. "You ever watch lions at
the zoo?" His voice dropped to a sweetly ominous lull. "You can always
tell which were captured in the wild by the look in their eyes. The wild
cat. It's always the female; she's the one that tracks, that hunts, that
kills, that nurtures. The male just lies around waiting for food. Some
people think of it as misogynistic, but I see it as so wholly appropriate.
Species aren't that far apart, don't you think?"
Gibbons didn't wait for him to reply. "She remembers running across the
plain, the thrill of the hunt. Four hundred pounds of killing fury locked
in a box. But after a while their eyes glaze over and you can tell their
soul has died.
"The same thing happens to a man. Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary is no
joke, Alexander. They'll take a wild man like you and throw him in
solitary just for the fun of it. No more mountains to board, no more
oceans to surf. Nothing to take you away from the fact that you are a
little man with no idea what to do with your life. Just a six-by-eight
cell with no window and only a bucket to crap in."
Gibbon's voice suddenly took a turn for a lighter. "But you can avoid that
by doing me this small favor."
"You don't have shit on me," Xander growled.
"I noticed you have three X's tattooed on the back of your neck," Gibbons
replied, strolling around Xander. "I think that's rather appropriate since
you're looking at three strikes. Grand theft, reckless endangerment, and
that little bridge stunt of yours makes you a three time loser. Maybe you
ought to call yourself 'Triple X'. But," he finished, making it sound oh-
so simple, "if you do what I want, I'll make all your little recent
criminal transgressions go away and let you get back to that pathetic
excuse of a life."
"Or you think maybe I should be like you," Xander challenged, though his
voice was weaker than he'd like. It was difficult for him to look at
Gibbons so he forced himself to. "Get all shot up for the old Stars and
Stripes. I bet that flag is a real comfort every time you look in the
Gibbons' spine tensed minutely and he stepped forward, his words sharp and
bitter enough to inflict scars of their own. "A small price I paid for
putting foot to ass for my country." He walked away, to the edge of what
little space they had, as if he needed space of his own. "Don't tell me
you're afraid of this," he taunted, brushing a finger across his marred
cheek. The mildness of his voice egged Xander on even more. "I hate to
break it to you, Mr. Cage, but you aren't exactly in the running for Miss
"I ain't afraid of nothing!" Xander spit out.
He didn't think Gibbons bought it. "Is that so? Well, let me
reassure you on that score at least. Should you decide you don't want to
spend the prime of your life in a cell half the size of my walk-in closet
and agree to this little favor, there is a program in place designed to
increase the possibility of your survival. Bear in mind I said increase,
Xander thought back quickly. "That's what Todd was talking about.
Gibbons grinned. "I think you'll do just fine, Alexander. What my
associate was referring to was the - hey, Bob! Don't do that, don't do
that thing there!" Gibbons waved a random guy away from a hunk of rubble.
The guy, Bob, Xander supposed, looked around as if he wasn't sure who
Gibbons was yelling at. Then he shrugged and moved away from the pile.
"Todd was referring to the.Latent Attack Reserve Array - or L.A.R.A if you
prefer anachronisms. Or 'Lara' if you're lonely for female companionship.
Chances are you're not even going to need to use it.
"So, what's it going to be, Triple X?" Gibbons called back to him, his
impatience for an answer overshadowed by his polite, civilized tone. "You
want to get on a plane, take a trip, meet a few people.or is 'would you
please kiss my ass, Mr. Scarface' your final answer?"
Xander was silent for a while. Two equally unappealing choices. He never
saw himself as a patriotic man. Then again, he never saw himself as a
prison man either. Patriotism, prison, patriotism, prison. God Almighty,
he hated the letter 'P'.
There was nothing else to do. So Xander swallowed his pride -
fricken' 'P' again - and called out, "I fly first class!"
He flew coach.
And not just regular coach, but the ass end of coach, the seats that no one
would want to fly in if they were paid and held at gunpoint.
In first class they had a choice between lobster and Welsh rare bit.
In second class - pasta primavera or New York Strip steak. In coach it was
Unidentifiable Meat Object Number One or Number Two. Xander's seat, as it
turned out, had not been purchased with the meal option. But Tammy, the
stewardess, had given him an extra packet of peanuts after a half-hour of
assuring her he was not allergic to peanut oil.
They didn't even get a movie. Cheap bastards.
Which was fine. Xander was finding plenty to occupy his time with,
surveying the data Gibbons set along about Anarchy 99. And at least he
could use his computer, and there was no large smelly person sitting
nearby. That in itself put this trip above numerous others.
The plane was silent, most of the passengers gone to sleep a while
ago. Xander enjoyed the quiet and the dark, and the illusion of solitude
that went with both. Cheering the gloomy passage, in his CD player Bob the
Tomato and Larry the Cucumber translated and sang (respectively) The Dance
Of The Cucumber - with Larry dressed in Authentic Argentinean Garb.
"What game is that?"
Xander pulled out his earphones and looked up. A young man, in his
teens, blonde hair, kinda chubby, stood by the bathrooms - which were
located directly behind Xander's seat. "What game are you playing?" the
young man repeated with the amiability of one gamer to another.
Telling the truth was out of the question. An impulse came and went,
carrying Xander on its crest. "Anarchy 99."
He made to put his earphones back in and the kid headed down the
isle, presumably back to his folks. Xander hesitated, then took his
earphones back out. "What's the matter, can't sleep?"
The kid grinned, reminding Xander in an instant of someone he knew
when he was much younger. "I'm stuck between my mom and step-dad, who
Xander laughed, the sound coming out as a single expulsion of air.
The kid nodded, and turned back.
"Come back here, sit down, check this out." Okay, so his invite had
more the taste of an order, but the kid seemed to get it and headed back
with a promptness that said he was grateful for the summons. Though the
seat across the isle was empty the kid chose instead to sit on the arm
rest, hands on his knees, so he could lean in and get a better look.
"Is it first person shooter?" he asked.
Xander played with the keys, seeing what information there was to be
had that he hadn't ferreted out already. "Unfortunately yeah. Your guy's
an undercover agent who deals in stolen cars."
"Cool." Only teenagers could say cool and make it sound as if it
were the highest compliment to be had. "So Anarchy 99 must be the bad
Xander nodded, licking his lips anxiously. "99. It says here that's
how many people they killed taking over a crime syndicate. In one night."
Xander hesitated, murmuring, "This might be harder than I thought."
He ran the file of photos, black and white shots clearly taken far
away and with subjects unaware. Lots of big, bulky men, but to be fair
some skinny, scrawny men. And a good deal of women. Women who seemed
incapable of wearing proper clothing. Anarchy 99 seemed to think of
scantily clad females as not simply proper but vital interior décor.
Not that Xander was complaining.
"Damn!" the kind muttered. He caught Xander's eye and quickly
amended. "Uh.I mean.nice.social group - they have going."
Xander grinned. Yeah, this kid definitely reminded him of someone.
"They're hot," he admitted, then asked, "You got a girlfriend? No?"
The kid smiled through his denial. "No."
"Nothing wrong with appreciating some beautiful graphics," Xander
The kid nodded. "What weapons do you have?"
"Let's see, what weapons." Xander accessed the list of weapons. The
'inventory' promptly appeared on screen and scrolled quickly to display
all. Damn. So that was where the money for his first class seat went. He
grinned. "Just about anything I want."
"Sweet," the kid commented. Sweet almost ranked as high as cool.
Xander's smiled faded but he kept up good humor for the kid's sake.
"Gonna be tough, though." His voice died down to where he wasn't sure the
kid heard him. "I never played this game before and I gotta get it right
the first time." He glanced at the kid and fibbed easily, "No game short,
no strategy guide - "
"Dude, that's medieval."
"Yeah," Xander agreed, swallowing a smile. Both paused as someone
pushed past them to the bathrooms. "Hey, you better get back over there
before your step-father comes over here and I gotta drop him or something."
The kid laughed and headed off, pausing a few seats down. "What does
your guy get out of it when he finishes?"
Xander shook his head. "I don't know."
"I bet by then he gets something out of it," the kid said, turning
Xander shouldn't have asked; he couldn't help it. "Like what?"
The kid stopped and thought, but the answer came to him as naturally
as it didn't come to Xander. "He gets to be the hero."
Just as simple as that.
And the kid returned to his seat.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague was a beautiful, historic city with much to offer its guests, but as
Xander had a vicious headache nursed into fruition by serious jet lag and
over eighteen hours of an empty stomach he didn't give a rat's ass. It was
bitterly cold, the kind of cold that was a living thing, forcing its way
inside the car, swallowing them whole and then pointing and laughing. The
tiny car in which he rode had no heating. Come to that it had no seatbelts
either; Xander had the feeling he was lucky it had doors.
He rode in the back; if it wasn't for the crappy car he could have
leaned back and played make-believe that he was a rich mogul on a long ride
to clear his head of Dom Perigone and extravagant evenings.
The two men that picked him up sat in the front, large and silent. Like
potatoes. Xander tried his hand at cordiality. "Yo. What's your name,
The driver glanced in the rear-view mirror. "My name is Ivan," he replied,
a hint of pride in the name.
"Ivan?" Xander hadn't expected to meet an Ivan this fast. "What's your
name, buddy?" he called to the other guy over the dying transmission.
The second gentleman turned around to meet Xander's eye. He had a day's
shadow of beard and looked like a guy who ate red meat straight off the
bone. "My name is Ivan."
Xander waited a beat before asking the obvious question. "You're both
As one the men grinned and nodded, their heads bobbing up and down like
The car slipped along the streets, taking Xander past increasingly solitary
roads until it turned down one alley and stopped in front of a building
that had to be, Xander determined, the butt-end of Prague. From the
outside it was the kind of place homeless wouldn't enter even to save
themselves from frostbite and certain death.
Inside didn't look much better. The Ivan's helped him with his bag,
muttering in Russian as they did. Down a corridor and through a door was a
dingy room, sparsely furnished, with a tiny, smarmy man with a rat-like
face sitting in wait. He rose as they entered, giving Xander a cursory
glance and word. "Take a seat." Immediately he turned to Ivan and Ivan,
speaking softly in Russian.
Xander had no idea what was going on, but he was sharp enough to know the
smarmy man didn't like him. He gave them a moment or two before clearing
his throat. "Guys, what's up?"
The smarmy man turned back to him, clearly annoyed at the interruption by
this idiot American who had no idea what was going on. "I told you to sit
"I've just been on a plane for 12 hours. I think I'll stand, thanks."
The tiny man absorbed and, if not accepted, seemed to tolerate this. "My
name is Milan Sova. Czech secret police. Here, you are under my
jurisdiction." With his accent it sounded like 'my yurisdiction'. "You
take my orders, you do what I say. If you become any kind of an
inconvenience, I'll shoot you."
Does he think this actually works on people? Xander exhaled and nodded.
"That's great. Is this where I'm staying?"
Milan glanced back at the Ivan's and continued, following Xander around the
bed like they were in a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. "You are here because
your government is putting pressure on my government. This is an internal
affair - Czech affair - that you are interfering with!" Boy was he pissed
off. He'd probably been dealing with Gibbons; Xander could understand how
that man would piss anyone off. "I will warn you only once: don't shit in
my lawn. Get whatever information your government seeks" - he grabbed
Xander's arm to emphasis his point - "and get out."
Instead of raising himself up to his full height, which he knew people were
fond of doing when making a point, Xander lowered his head a bit to look
Rat Boy in the face. "Let's get this straight. You may not want me here,
but I definitely don't want to be here. Two: I've never been under
anyone's yurisdiction. And three, if you're going to shoot anybody shoot
that monkey that sold you the suit." Milan glance covertly down at his
suit, presumably to figure out what was wrong with it. "Now I'm tired.
I'm going to sleep." He headed to the bed and lay down.
Milan wasn't deterred. He was definitely going to be a thorn in his side,
and Xander sure as hell didn't see either of them as Androchles. "Be ready
in three hours."
Great. With the time it took him to get ready he would have two hours and
fifty minutes of sleep. Barley enough, but enough. He pulled his coat
over his head and shut his eyes.
"Everybody in this club has two things in common: they're filthy rich and
they're criminals." Milan strode in the entrance, carelessly and purposely
letting go of the door.
Xander barely caught it on its sharp swing back before it knocked him in
the face. "I'll fit in, except for the rich part."
Cheerful, annoying music beckoned them as they entered. The lights were
all a soft technical blue, casting an uneasy, unwelcoming tone to everyone
and everything. Xander stopped Rat Boy in the cold stone hallway before
the main entrance. "Remember, we don't know each other."
"I wish we didn't," Milan answered, completely sincere.
Walking down the main staircase the music gradually blended into a
more up-beat, hip tune. Xander made his way to the bar, smiling at the
pale, unsmiling bartender. "Yeah, can I get a cranberry club soda?" He
took of his jacket, the club was noticeably warmer than the outside, and
held the puffy coat out. "Throw this back there?" he asked. "I'll tip you
The bartender ignored him and called to someone.
"Put it in the back, please?"
A girl appeared next to him, holding out her arms in a silent offer
to take his coat. He gave it to her and she wandered off. "How much? Do
I get a ticket?" he called after her.
No response. The bartender placed his drink on the bar before him
with a 'thunk'.
Friendly people, these.
Milan eased next to him with the stealth of an exploding monkey.
Xander eased away from him, not liking the idea of touching they guy any
more than necessary. Not that he was worried about the homosexual
undertones, Sova just seemed to have not bathed in a while. "That's them,"
Milan announced in a stage whisper. "Anarchy 99. You see the guy on the
couch in the center?"
He could only mean one group, the only group afforded a comfortable
amount of furniture. They talked, drank, and laughed in a small private
alcove that gave a great view of the entire club. "That's Yorgi. He's the
leader. He owns this club and five."
That's about as much as Xander heard. The moment Milan got to 'he's
the leader', Xander pushed his way expertly through the crowd, up a slight
set of stairs to the alcove. Two guards manned the entrance. He slapped
them on their backs, announcing in the perkiest manner he could manage,
"Guys, I'm American. I'm going to see Yorgi. Yorgi!" he called out,
shoving through them and jogging into the alcove. "Hey, Yorgi! I hear
you're the guy - "
The click of a gun behind him cut Xander off in mid-sentence. He
glanced back at the pursuing guards with mild irritation. Bad little dogs
followed him. He dismissed them and kept talking. "I heard you're the guy
to talk to about cars."
Yorgi, despite the wuss name, couldn't be more than mid-thirties.
Young for a guy trying to take over the world but then kids were smarter
these days than they'd ever been. He was average height, slim, and held
himself like he had a PhD. in getting in and out of trouble. His dark suit
and hair were expertly tailored and his eyes were small and cold as the
weather. Yorgi's look was one of distinct uninterest. "Take yourself
"Take myself outside? I'm just - " A giant rose on either side of
him, the black leather and large muscles obviously designed for
intimidation. As they approached Xander tossed off casually, "Okay. I'm
not welcome." He turned to leave. "Guess you'd rather have cops in your
Angry Russian behind him. One of the guards indicated for him to
step inside once more. "Want to talk?" he asked, hiding his smile. If
there was anything he knew it was how to crash a party.
One guard, heavy beard, odd musky smell, threw an arm around his
shoulder and walked him towards one of the windows. "Hey, you silly boy.
Come with me and show me the cop and don't be mistake."
Xander didn't hesitate. He pointed to Milan, sitting at the bar like
he had an atomic wedgie, taking tiny sips of his drink. "See that guy over
there? With the suit made out of hotel drapes? That's a cop."
Beard-O pointed to Milan to make sure he understood Xander, then
gestured to subordinates for the rat-faced individual to be brought up.
From where he stood Xander could hear Milan trying to talk his way out of
coming and unconsciously dig himself deeper.
After his kind escort led him into the alcove, Milan stood there
uncomfortably. Yorgi and his pals stared at him, letting the silence
stretch on until finally Sova broke the ice. "So, what is this all about?
I've done nothing."
"You've done nothing?" Xander repeated, throwing a hefty bit of
mocking in his tone, thanking J.J. for forcing him to watch all those hokey
cop shops. "Who do you work for?"
Milan's arms flapped in a weak imitation of a shrug. Xander wouldn't
be surprised if he passed out. "I work in a bank. So what?"
Xander headed over, shaking his head. "You've got to be."
He didn't finish what was on his mind, choosing instead to rifle through
Milan's coat. Mr. Sova batted him off ineffectually. "What are you doing?
Stop it! Stop it - "
Ah-ah! Right next to the Tic-Tacs. Xander yanked out Milan's badge,
flicking it open in the smarmy man's face. "What's that, your bus pass?"
Immediately Yorgi was up off his seat; the rest of his colleagues followed.
Xander held it out for them to see. "Czech 5-0."
Yorgi took the badge from his hand, giving it a quick but thorough glance.
His eyes rested on Milan. "Leave my club." He did not deign to mention
what would happen should Milan not takes the kind suggestion to depart, but
the clear implication was Milan would depart one way or another.
Milan intelligently took the hint when they shoved him down the stairs.
Yorgi was kind enough, however, to return his badge to him. Yorgi then
turned to Xander. "How did you know?"
Xander shrugged, as if it should have been obvious. "When he was paying
for his drinks, he was flashing his badge to half the bar."
"Cops are like plague." Yorgi made them sound lower than the plague. "No
matter how many you pay, there's always another with his hand out."
"I'm from the streets," Xander replied, glancing back at the duo behind
him, who were arguing fiercely. Two of the guards apparently were either
angry about the cop or in a lover's quarrel. "I know cops, believe me."
"I appreciate you bringing this to our attention," Yorgi said with the cool
amiability of a politician. "My question to you is: why?"
"I figure no one likes cops crashing their party. I figure, I do you a
solid, we could talk." The pair behind him were getting a bit too much to
Yorgi's eyes rested on the two of them for a moment. "Kolya!"
They quieted down instantly. Xander waited until he was sure they wouldn't
start up again, and concluded, "I just want to buy cars, man." Kolya edged
closer to him, clearly invading Xander's personal bubble. He backed away a
bit, just a notice to Kolya that he was uncomfortable. "Is this guy going
to hump my leg?" he asked Yorgi.
Kolya rattled off something, nodding to Xander.
"What's your name?" Yorgi asked.
Xander glanced at all of them; Kolya especially seemed to be awaiting the
response with eagerness. "Xander Cage."
"I knew it!" Kolya cried, slapping his bearded friend for good measure.
"You are amazing! On snowboard, motorbike, everything! You are awesome!"
"Thank you, man." Well, it was nice to know Kolya wasn't trying to hit on
him. He shook Kolya's hand vigorously. Xander loved meeting fans.
"My brother is crazy, too," Yorgi put in quietly. "And a great admirer or
yours. He has seen your tapes many times. Kirill - Olga." One sentence
blurred into another and it took a moment for Xander to realize he didn't
know who Kirill or Olga was. A skinny man with a cigarette hopped off
through a back door. Was he Kirill or Olga?
Kirill, Xander bet. The guy didn't look like an Olga, which he saw as
primarily a feminine name and. Xander took a long look around. And come
to think of it there weren't any women in the room. Odd, considering the
pictures; this group allegedly used women like pillows. So no pillows
meant this was the business room. Even with the implied femininity of
'Olga' it was rather misogynistic.
He'd have to tell Gibbons he found a use for his word.
Kirill reentered, Olga - presumably - after him. Xander wasn't sure what
he expected - 'Olga' immediately brought to mind images of large women with
ill-fitting dresses and mustaches though he knew the probability of a woman
like this amongst Anarchy 99 was negligible. In a way she was both it and
not it. There seemed to be an age limit (later twenties, early thirty-
ish), and a general dress code among the group which all adhered to:
alternative style clothes in dark colors. Mainly black, but in the blue
light any darker color blended into black. Olga's taste, like Yorgi's, ran
to more professional than biker-punk. Cleaner lines, opaque materials,
cuts that hinted rather than revealed. Lighter hair than the others but
the colored lighting made determining the exact shade impossible. It was
pinned back neatly, contrasting with the dangly spangly glittery earrings
that danced from her ears.
Amazing legs, though.
And a kind of down-to-the-bone aloofness that gave Xander the
impression Kirill had been sent not to fetch her but to carve her out of a
block of ice. Like the sculptures in the town square at Christmas. That
she wouldn't blink an eyelash if someone hauled off and shot sweet old
Nonna in the head right in front of her.
She afforded him no more that a cursory once-over as she halted in
front of Yorgi with near military precision but for an underlying seductive
element that added poise to her movements. When she spoke he noticed her
voice more than her words - not that he understood, anyway; it was all
Yiddish, uh, Russian to him. But her voice was low and smooth and smoky,
like costly brandy, and gave Xander odd tingles throughout his hands.
Tingles that spoke: move, touch, tickle.
Yorgi replied to her statement, glancing as he did to Xander.
Finally she looked at him, her eyes settling on his with the intensity of
an anvil. Olga took a long lingering walk around him, inhaling silently as
she came to a stop just off his right shoulder. For the first time Xander
was grateful J.J. taught him the importance of proper cologne.
Olga turned to Yorgi. "Throw him back." The tumbling Russian accent sent
a sudden image of silky dark chocolate.
And what with chocolate, which Xander was quite fond of even if he wasn't a
girl, it took him a moment for her words to register. "Excuse me?" he cut
in. The second time in three days someone said that about him. He didn't
like it anymore.
She ignored him, addressing Yorgi once again. Her refusal to pay him
mind made him want to dance naked on the table, anything to get her to look
at him. "There are bigger fish out there," Olga continued.
Xander laughed, loud enough to draw her attention. Her eyes were
green slants in the dim light. He hooked his thumbs in his pant's pockets
and replied, "Not many, sister." Let the implications speak for
Then Olga did something he didn't expect. She smiled. She laughed,
melting some of the frost that emanated from her like a fog machine. "How
very clever of you, Mr. Cage. Is good to know American educational system
does not go to waste." Another look to Yorgi. "Niet."
Yorgi lifted his brows. "Niet?"
Olga inclined her head.
Yorgi gestured for Olga to come close, then took her arm and led her
to a secluded part of the room. The undercurrent of their words whispered
across the room like smoke off dry ice. Olga's earrings grew more animated
as she grew vehement at Yorgi's refusal to acquiesce. The only word that
kept coming up was niet; Xander already knew what that meant. Olga hissed
something from between her teeth; it sounded like Yorgi-no-vich.
Kolya whistled, and Xander stretched up a good foot and a half to whisper
in Kolya's ear. "What'd she say?"
"Olga call him Yorganovich," Kolya informed him, sotto voce.
"Is.Yorgi does not like that name."
Xander nodded thoughtfully. "She doesn't like me, either, huh?"
Kolya shook his head, grinning and slapping him on his back. "No, my
friend. But we do, da! That good?"
"That good," Xander agreed, his eyes traveling back to Yorgi and
Olga. "If Olga doesn't like me, does that mean Yorgi doesn't like me?"
"Pah!!" At least it sounded like 'pah'. In reality it was simply an
audible outburst of frustration and anger as Olga turned away and headed
for the small office area at the end of the alcove. Clearly she'd lost the
argument, answering Xander's question. But if she was displeased with the
outcome, no evidence was apparent within a few moments. The icy composure
reasserted itself with rapid ease.
"See, Mr. Cage?" Kolya whispered. "Yorgi, he not like people to
forget who is boss."
"Right," Xander answered, then smiled suddenly at Kolya. We're one
happy family. "Great, man.'
Yorgi turned to Xander with a smile. "Now we can talk business.
This way, please."
Kolya grinned at him as they walked away. "Welcome to the Xander
Xander shook his head, giving the large man with the maturity of a
pre-teen a thumbs-up. "Now, that's funny, man. That's funny."
Yorgi took a seat behind the desk and gestured for Xander to do
likewise in the chair across from him. "Sit down, Mr. Cage."
"My friends call me X," Xander replied, taking his seat.
"So, X, what exactly are you wanting?" Yorgi inquired.
Xander retrieved a list from the back pocket of his pants and set it
on the table. "Ferraris, high-end pasta rockets, 10 to start."
Yorgi picked up the list, skimmed it over, then stood and handed it
to Olga. "This car, number 10, will be very difficult to find in Europe."
Xander watched Olga read over the list. Her face displayed nothing,
even when she got to car number 10. "Oh yeah," he said, trying to catch
her attention and he didn't even want to think about why. "That one's for
me. I put it in there to get something out of the deal."
"Well, you certainly know your cars," Yorgi remarked. Approval.
Approval was good. Approval was very good.
"Yeah. Cars, bikes, boards. You name it. I like anything fast
enough to do something stupid in."
Olga caught Yorgi's eye, her gaze far more expressive that words.
She held up the list, emphasizing her silent point.
"Ten cars is hardly worth the effort," Yorgi continued, a trace of
reluctance in his voice. "Barely two million, U.S."
"Now, hold on a second," Xander said, "the American buyers I
represent, to them, 10 cars is an appetizer. And it's a mil max, sister,"
he finished, tossing a look at Olga that expressed how freaking thankful he
was for her intervention.
Her smile was a ghost, flitting in and out of life. "You don't
actually think you can cut price in half, do you, Mr. Cage?"
"Two mil for ten cars - you gotta be kidding me."
"Is starting price, Mr. Cage. Negotiation is not out of the
question." She templed her fingers, rolling the next words off her tongue
with slow consideration. "We would not object to lowering price to.a
"I was thinking more like a mil two," he responded. Gibbons hadn't
given him a gold card. In fact the prom queen'd threatened to castrate him
if he treated their funds like a personal checking account.
"This is an expensive business to run."
Xander grinned. "Smile for me one more time I might push it to a mil
Her smile was a razor blade. "One million seven."
"You're not getting anymore than one four."
"Extravagance is what makes life worth living. One million six."
"One point five."
Olga's casual glance to Yorgi was rewarded with a nod. "I assume you
are familiar with wire transfer," she said. "Unless this is your first
time. In which case, don't worry." Wuuur-rie. Olga leaned forward, eyes
sparkling. "We'll be gentle."
"Sweetheart, is there anything else you need to do?" he asked, his
attitude puffed up like peacock feathers. Geez, the only people that ever
got him on edge like this were cops. And this was even worse; if he had to
hang around these guys for any serious length of time he was probably going
to have to kill her. "Why don't you run along, paint your nails; we big
boys are having a conversation."
A piece of paper appeared in her fingers without him aware of how it
got there or where it came from. Her skin was expensive porcelain when he
slipped the paper from her hand, fine and cold. Xander unfolded the paper;
it was an account number. "You have 48 hours to complete the transfer. I
advise you to be prompt, Mr. Cage." She stood and made to leave.
"Or else what?" Xander asked, needing to throw one last thing in her
"Or else we roll dice to see who gets to kill you and how." She
slipped away like a shadow.
Xander turned to Yorgi, not giving in the nagging voice that wanted
to watch her go. "She's joking, right?"
Yorgi smiled and stood. "Olga never jokes. I do not believe she
knows how. So, X, now that business is finished, we party." He called out
something - Xander resolved to get Russian language tapes at the first
opportunity - and led Xander back to the main seating area.
Kolya, quite perky at his brother's command, hopped over to the door.
"Bitches, come!" Girls began to stream through the door, far more than all
of them could handle. But it was nice to know they had a choice.
Xander settled back, satisfied at the beginning of what looked to be a
prosperous evening. Much better now that there was something to battle the
overt testosterone in the air.
Seven in the morning was an ungodly hour to be woken from a blissful sleep.
Hell, it was an ungodly hour to be awakened from any sleep, even if it was
the crappiest, most horrific nightmare of one's life. Particularly if one
had been awake until 5:37 am that morning, knocking back vodka cranberries
and arguing with the coat-check girl over whether or not he really did own
At the high-pitched, piercing ringing Xander groaned and reached for
his phone. As his body pitched and he nearly fell off the bed he
remembered he wasn't at home but in a tiny freezing shack somewhere in
Prague doing something that could likely get him killed and he wasn't even
getting paid for it. He pushed himself up, rubbing his eyes and searching
for the source of the ringing. The beeper on his end table. He grabbed it
and after fiddling with it for a moment it flipped open.
Gibbons stared back at him from the tiny screen, looking as happy as
Xander'd ever seen him, which meant he looked like he had severe bowel
blockage. "Dammit, Gibbons, I thought this was a cell phone."
"Wakey, wakey, Alexander. Have a nice rest?"
"Dial it down, Gibby. I got to sleep an hour ago."
"Call me Gibby again and I'll have you killed. You were given a
specific list of cars to go after, Triple X. Who told you to alter that
list?" Uh-oh, he sounded pissed.
Xander sighed and sat up more. "You know 'Triple X' sounds like I'm
lord and master of the curtained room in the video store. If you insist on
giving me a nickname could you think of something better? Something that
doesn't make me sound like a porn king?"
"Sure, Bambi, I'll try. The list?"
"The cars on that list sucked. They would've seen right through it. You
know you guys should switch travel agents." He pulled himself up out of
bed. "I got that info you wanted. Hang on a second." Xander whipped his
coat on. They didn't believe in heating his room either. He went to the
computer on his desk and accessed the information. "You ready for this,
"Anytime you are, honey-buns."
Xander hit the send button.
A moment later Gibbons whistled. "Names, birthdays, ranks in the Red
Army. Favorite foods?" He whistled. "Chesty LaRue, what did you do? How
the hell did you get all this?"
"Kolya, Yorgi's younger brother, happens to be an action sports
fanatic. So naturally, he's a fan. But when you kill a bottle of vodka in
three swings, you're gonna talk too much."
"I never pegged this bunch as Ding-Dong fans."
"That's just Kirill. Apparently he's got a major problem with the
A surprised look crossed Gibbons' face. "Cocaine?"
"Sugar. Oh, I got something else."
"I wait in breathless anticipation."
"Their personal bank account number. Where did I put that?" The
scrap of paper was deep in the pocket of his coat. "Okay, wait a second."
Forcing himself to focus on the swimming numbers, Xander checked twice to
make sure he'd gotten it right before he sent it on over. "Stolen cars,
nightclubs, prostitution, extortion. What's the big deal with these guys?
We got criminals like this in the U.S. And Big Macs."
"In case you didn't get the memo, Hootie McBoob, your job is to
gather information, not to ask questions."
"Well, I did my job, and you're quite welcome, by the way. I'm
"Not just yet," Gibbons informed him, that annoying smirk on his
face. "You're a victim of your own success. I want you to get closer to
"Wait a minute. These guys are cool, but they're not that cool." An
involuntary thought of the Ice Queen sent a shiver up his spine. Her hair
was golden-brown. The lights came up at the end of the night, giving him a
clearer, though alcoholic, gaze of everyone.
"Go deeper. Tell you what," Gibbons offered, "I'll send a guy over
with a care package to help you out."
"I thought we had a deal," Xander reminded him, non-too-gently.
"You change the cars, I change the deal. Do this for me and you can
Xander rolled his eyes. "Just do me a favor. Next time you send
someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is."
The Ivan's drove him again. They were nicer than he thought. Suspecting
he'd have a hang-over (as Ivan explained, it was to be expected when
spending any length of time with a group that owned fourteen nightclubs)
Ivan brought him a thermos of coffee and Ivan sneaked him a couple extra-
Milan met him at the door and led him through a series of
laboratories to a twenty-something guy, this-shy of geek, trying
desperately to impress a girl. Said girl was trying desperately to
convince him she didn't understand English so she could escape. Well, at
least the poor boy tried. "That's him," Milan said.
The guy looked up, his eyes wide behind his glasses. "Wait, you're
"You're the care package?" Xander replied skeptically.
"That's right. Agent Shavers, Agent Toby Lee Shavers. Come on."
Toby put his glasses away and nodded for Xander to join him as he hurried
away. Toby walked with the natural quick bounce to his step that bespoke
too much caffeine. "You have to rate high, and I mean high, to get Agent
Gibbons to send all this stuff over here, man. I kind of wish I was going
with you, mixed up in the fury of the situation. That's just crazy.
License to kill, death, destruction, mayhem. Got a gun under your pillow.
Never know when some freak villain just gonna pop out and - BLAM!!" Toby
bounced around, waving his arms. After taking a moment to calm down he
asked, "How long you been with the agency?"
Toby stopped dead. "You're shitting me! No way - that sucks!!"
"Yeah, it sucks, but it beats jail."
"No," Toby replied, "it sucks because I spent six years in the
basement of some windowless NSA, gadget freak room, man. And I got a
degree. I got a degree from MIT. Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude." He
shook his head, grinning. "And they probably picked you up, what, pumping
iron in San Quentin?"
Xander grinned right back. "You ever get punched in the face for
talking too much?"
Toby's smile disappeared.
"Show me the stuff."
Toby showed him the stuff.
First the gun. Toby opened the silver case like a father showing off
a new baby. "This one made my career, the definition of perfection: my
multi-purpose, multi-function field revolver."
He looked a bit too proud of it. Xander grabbed it out of his hand
and examined it. He had to admit he was impressed. "Oh, I like this."
"Then you'll love these." Toby held up a set of multi-color
projectiles. "These are all attachment darts. Darts for everything. See
the green ones? See the green ones? Datura knockout darts. Pow! The guy
goes down for 12 hours, wakes up, doesn't know who the hell he is, where he
is, and his head's splitting like a cord of firewood, man."
Xander cut off Toby's chuckling. "I was shot twice by those."
"And.the red ones are tranquilizer and blood splatter darts. All the
appearance of a kill shot without the nasty aftereffects. Like death, for
one. You've got exploding and surveillance darts and your standard .44-
caliber bullets, if you want to get nasty. A little wet work. You know
what I'm talking about, right?"
Xander hid a smile, flipping open the chamber, spinning it, and
clicking it back in with a flick of his wrist. He tested the weight and
aim. Good. Real good.
"Ah," Toby said, "knocked over a few 7-11's have we?"
"Nah, I had me leg in a cast for three months. All I did was play
first person shooter video games." Got to be an expert duck hunter, too.
Toby nodded, as if he understood. "That's a really sad story. Okay,
check this out. On to my baby." Another case, this one holding a set of
binoculars. "Eagle Eyes," Toby declared, holding it like it was an infant.
"Nine enhanced-vision modes." He pressed a button and a high-pitched
whine sounded for two seconds. "Every little boy's dream: the penetrator
mode. Check it out."
He gestured to a woman practicing her shooting across the room.
Blonde. Orderly. Handled her gun like it was an extension of her hand.
And when Xander lifted the goggles to his eyes he could see through
her clothes. Hell, he could see right through to her skeleton, but
twisting the focus knob lessened the intensity and gave him a perfect shot
of her as a lingerie model. He felt twelve again. "Oh my god."
She glanced back, as if she heard him and knew what he was doing.
Toby tugged on his sleeve. "She's checking you out, man."
Xander put the binoculars away, marking in his memory where he put
them. "I'll hang onto these."
"Now onto my latest achievement." Toby started walking away and
Xander followed, suddenly interested in what the geek had up his sleeves.
"I just put the finishing touches on them last week." He dug through a box
and held up a package of bandages like he was a hostess on The Price Is
Right. "Huh? What do you think?"
"Bandages?" Xander declared, wanting to make sure he got it right.
"Great, if I get a boo-boo."
"No, Mr. X," Toby replied. "Watch and learn." He pealed back the
adhesive, revealing a coiled set of miniature wires. "There's enough
primer cord on this little bandage to blow a hole in a bank vault, vaporize
a human being, or whatever agents such as yourself might find a use for.
Check this out." Toby pulled a silver remote control out of his jacket
pocket. "This is the detonator. How cool is that?"
Xander shrugged. "Let me see."
So Toby let him see. He plastered the bandage on a stack of wooden
crates, apparently there for the sole purpose of being blow up, grinning
like a little kid. "You might want to back up for this."
"It's a bandage," Xander told him, obediently taking a few steps
"You know what, just go on and get behind the wall there. Go, go."
Toby waved at him. Xander rolled his eyes but did as he was told. He was
willing to give the guy some credit after those spectacular binoculars.
"I've always wanted to say this." Toby took a deep breath. "Fire in
He pressed the detonator. Rhythmic beeps.
And the crates exploded. Xander'd never seen anything like it. Toby
was soaked in wooden fragments and Styrofoam popcorn and everyone within
twenty feet ducked. Xander himself jumped behind the wall, clutching his
Toby came bounding over like a puppy. "You like?"
"I really like."
Yorgi had been watching him from the office on the second floor for the
past ten minutes. The man was like a machine, just standing by the window
And in a moment he was gone, back into the depths of the office.
From the first floor of the warehouse, where Xander stood admiring his new
cars with Kolya and the others, he could see the back of Olga's head. Her
hair was in that same neat binding again. He wanted to pull it out just to
piss her off. After a few seconds she moved near the window and peered
down at him. The lighting hadn't lied last night; sharp green eyes. Her
lips parted as she sucked in a breath, as if she wanted to say something;
for a second it was like she was standing next to him, not ten feet above.
Then she turned away and Xander turned back to his cars.
"So, what do you think?" Kolya asked, eager to please his idol. He
held out his hands and answered his own question, as if it was agreed upon
"You like the cars?" Yorgi called, striding towards him. His face
was a mask, but if Xander had to guess it was a pissed off mask.
Xander walked over to him. "I love the cars, they're dope. You like
Yorgi halted by him, surveying the row of automobiles. "I love
money, but I do not have it."
"Really? You look like you're doing extremely well. All these
employees, beautiful cars - "
"This is not time for being funny."
Rapid clicking drew their attention; Olga headed towards them, her
spiked boots resounding on the stone floor. They had to be painful to
wear. She stopped just off Yorgi's left shoulder and whispered in his ear.
Xander grinned. "What - you didn't think I wasn't good for it?"
"Never crossed my mind," Yorgi replied. They laughed together in the
companionship of two men who nearly killed each other.
Xander handed over a piece of paper. "There's a cargo ship waiting for you
in Rijeka. Here's the address." He pointed to the one car cloaked in a
sheet. Like it was dead. "This one's mine?"
Yorgi headed up to it, doing a fair if unconscious imitation of Vanna
White. "Car number 10. Kolya found it hiding in Berlin. It was very
difficult to find." Xander reached for the clothe, but Yorgi waved him
away. "No! Please. Allow me. You were kind enough to give me the
money." He jerked the sheet back.
Love at first sight. It was all Xander could do not to fall to his
knees and start making out with the thing.
Deborah. He'd call it Deborah.
"Now, please.drive." Yorgi tossed him the keys and went to open the
Xander glided his hand along the side, flicking the hidden lock for
the doors. "Now, allow me."
Turning the key in the ignition nearly undid him a second time. Oh,
Debbie, baby, purred like a kitten. He was happy with everyone. But only
Yorgi was in the car. "You're all right, Yorgi."
The man smiled. "Everything's all right with vodka. You must come
to party tonight. Big party at one of my clubs."
Right before Xander could accept the invitation a large section of
windows fell from the ceiling and shattered on the floor. Immediately nine
car alarm systems started blaring. Xander and Yorgi got out at the same
time; a silhouette raced along the roof, hidden from sight through grimy
Yorgi and Xander moved at the same time once more, spinning around
and aiming laser-sighted guns straight at each other. "What's going on, my
friend?" Yorgi demanded.
"You tell me," Xander replied with dangerous calm. "You got a sniper
up there or what?"
"He's not with us! He must e with you!" Yorgi yelled.
"Bullshit! Tell you men to get down or I'll give you another hole to
breathe out of. Are we clear?"
Then came one of those tense moments in which Xander questioned his
career choices. Sure, he had weapons pointed at him before. Sorta. Cops,
mainly, and he had always been prepared to do what they asked rather than
face the possibility of getting shot. A bullet hole was not a desirable
thing in his opinion. And here he was with a man who had no qualms about
blowing away most of his head. That could give a man some unhappy thoughts
to think on. Thankfully Xander had mastered control over his urinary tract
many years ago or this would be a different situation.
"Yorgi!" Olga charged over, managing to look refined even as she
looked homicidal. Upon reaching him she lowered her voice to an urgent
whisper, a stream of hot Russian that steamed the last hairs off of
Xander's head. Yorgi's jaw worked as she spoke.
As quickly as he aimed the weapon, Yorgi pulled his gun away. "All
right. It's not yours. Let's go and get him together."
So they went on a car chase.
Yorgi kindly let him behind the wheel, what with it being his car. As was
expected, he ruined his new tires racing out of there, but one couldn't
think of preserving such things as tires when chasing a prowler down like a
dog. With his long tan coat their prey was all too easy to spot on the
dark streets, particularly with the extremely cool headlights that came
Xander pressed down the gas pedal; with his free hand he spun the chamber
of his gun until a blood splatter dart hit the top of the list. The
prowler glanced back, once, twice, as if he wanted to check that the car
was really there, not some vodka-induced hallucination.
"Son of a bitch!" Yorgi exclaimed. "That same cop from the club!" He
leaned out the window and took aim. Xander kept his cool, a skill her
perfected after countless death-defying stunts. Real gun. Real bullets.
Xander jerked the wheel, spinning the car to the right and taking Milan out
of Yorgi's line of fire. He aimed, the laser-sight helping immeasurably,
Milan's body stopped functioning but his momentum carried him into a crate.
The shot a convincing red wet mark on the back of his coat, he slid to the
Kolya zipped by on his bike, Olga and Kirill following in a car. Kirill
caught his eye and grinned, giving Xander a thumb's-up. Olga kept her eyes
on the road. As their silver BMW slid up to Milan's prone form Xander and
Yorgi sat in silence. Xander tapped the handle of his gun nervously; he
glanced at Yorgi, who smiled at him companionably. Xander smiled back.
Olga stepped out of the car and knelt by Milan, pressing her fingers to his
neck. In another moment she looked up, shook her heard, passing a finger
cross her throat.
Yorgi's smile spread. "Most people talk a lot. Few are up for the
moment." He paused, not - Xander got the impression - for effect but
rather to contemplate his happiness at the occasion. "Welcome to Anarchy
The club they went to this night was much hipper than the one in which they
first met. Flashing lights, loud heavy music, scantily clad people.
Things that shot.other things.that looked like electricity but without the
nasty electrical shock part.way cool.
Xander hung by the bar, waiting for Yorgi as instructed. The drinks
were good and he had an unlimited free ticket thanks to the Big Y. He
glanced over at Kirill, who smiled and puffed away on his cigarette. The
music was too loud to hold a conversation, but as the band ended a song
Xander leaned over and shouted, "Why do you do that to yourself? That
cigarette's gonna kill you one day."
"I like smoke better than air," Kirill replied, laughing. His voice
was wheezy and thin. "If I could, I'd smoke in my sleep. I would still do
it after it kills me."
Xander smiled and nodded as Kirill wandered off to speak to Kolya.
All of Yorgi's men stayed close by - even his one woman. Olga laughed at
something the large man said, then greeted Kirill's entrance with a bright
smile that brought a sudden, swift bite of jealousy.
Xander frowned and pushed it away. He didn't have time to think of things
like that. He needed to focus on Yorgi and remember that he'd been
extremely lucky Toby's dart was enough to fool his gang.
Speaking of Fearless Leader.Yorgi stepped up to the bar and ordered a
drink. Xander waited until they both had a sip to speak. "You were
talking about Anarchy 99. What is that, some motorcycle gang of yours?"
"Niet. It's what we've been living since 1999 when we left the army of
Mother Russia. Many of our comrades died in combat, and we said: to hell
wit this shit. They die for what? Politics? Whose politics? Not ours!
So we decided from then on to do what we want, when we want. It is in
their honor we call ourselves Anarchy 99." Yorgi held up his glass and
Xander toasted with him.
Yorgi set his glass on the bar and started walking. Xander followed; this
was starting to feel like his relationship with Gibby. "You know," Yorgi
continued, "there's an old punk song. It says: America stands for freedom
Xander immediately joined in. He always found that song amusing. "But if
you think your free/ try walking into a deli/ and urinating on the cheese!"
"You got it!" Yorgi exclaimed.
"Anarchy Burger by the Vandals. Way cool."
"Yes, incredibly cool, X."
It was a good thing when two people could both agree that something
"Look, I'm with you, but what are you going to do? You got rules and
government everywhere. Always was, always will be."
His less than discreet probe for information was successful. "Maybe
not always." Yorgi caught his eye, a sudden excitement and secret adding a
creepy kind of joy to his face. Xander suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
Yorgi wandered over to Kolya, Olga, and Kirill's trio, nodding for
Olga to join him. She stretched out her arms to the younger brother and
Kolya picked her up grandly from where she sat on a banister, depositing
her down right next to Yorgi. She leaned up on her toes and planted a
smacking kiss on Kolya's cheek. "Olga," Yorgi prompted, holding his hand
She placed her fingers in his. "Da?"
He pulled her towards Xander. "I want you to make friends. I'm
making it your job tonight to make sure he doesn't get lonely."
Olga raised her eyebrows.
"We are family," Yorgi reminded her, his voice more than slightly
reprimanding. "We must all get along even if we don't like each other."
"Da," she replied.
"Don't be shy."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
"Miska, Yelena." Yorgi snapped his fingers at two women. The girls
instantly extricated themselves from what they were doing and snuggled
under his arms and all three sauntered off.
Olga looked at him - finally and for the first time turned her eyes
and her complete undivided attention on him. She stepped around a tall man
with his arms full of drinks, one languid movement that brought her right
up against him. "What do you want to play?" she asked over the music, her
eyes piercing and shadowed in the flashing lights. "Yahtzee? Jump rope?"
Xander ground one foot on the floor, then the next. It was a nervous
tic, one he'd never conquered but learned to subdue. "Do you want to
dance?" he asked, feeling like a twelve-year-old at a grade school dance.
She laughed. "You know how?"
"I'm really a good dancer. I swear."
"Well, if you swear. Da." She nodded to the dance floor, taking his
The room was packed; it was a feat simply getting on the dance floor,
let alone dancing once on it. Somehow they managed even though what they -
and countless others - were doing couldn't technically be called dancing.
According to his cousin Lydia nothing could be considered dancing without
years of training, but then Lydia was a part of the New York City Ballet
Company and at twenty-seven had the figure of a fourteen-year-old.
Olga rippled against him, oh-so close not because of any indication
of romance (which, in his head, was always translated to roh-maahnce) but
for economy's sake. There was really no other place for her to move. And
Xander ran his hands down her back and sides to keep them dodging the
idiots that constantly insisted on moving around or shoving their way
through. With all the spikes and metal this group was wearing it could be
dangerous bumping into them.
They danced for a while in silence, with Olga, close as she was,
doing her best not to look at him. She was good, too; she nearly had him
convinced it was not on purpose. It was quickly turning out to be a proven
way to piss him off, but Xander consciously ignored it this time and
instead focused on the pros of being this close to an attractive female.
Pro: He enjoyed being close to attractive women, because occasionally he
could touch them, and that made him think of sex.
The music was fast-paced and loud enough to make his eardrums bleed.
Gradually, as the songs progressed, he began to pick up on little things
that made dancing with Olga more pleasurable. How he could step to the
side as she stepped back to avoid getting his toes stepped on. How if he
moved just a bit when she tilted her head back he wouldn't get a mouthful
of hair and instead could take a moment to ponder her scent.
Pro: Women smelled nice.
Xander inhaled, exhaling loudly without realizing it. "Sandalwood?"
"Da. May I give you a piece of advice, Mr. Cage?" Her voice was low but
cut through the noise with ease; it made him wan to say yes even if he
didn't want to know the question.
A large sweaty man pushed past them, shoving Olga closer into him.
Xander tucked his arms around her waist quickly, hoping to catch her if she
fell. She didn't, but neither did she punch him in the face and tell him
to take his capitalist pig hands off of her.
Pro: When dancing with a woman, sometimes you get close to her
breasts. Breasts are good.
Pro: It's also good when she doesn't punch you.
Xander contemplated her request, grinning partly because of the
proximity and partly for the power that came with her desiring something of
him. "Only if you call me by my first name."
"What kind of a requirement is that?" she asked.
"I don't know." Xander shrugged. "I guess all this 'Mr. Cage' crap keeps
making me feel like a principal. The only people who've ever called me
that are teachers. And cops."
She smiled, hiding it almost as well as she hid everything else.
"Alexander." The word rippled on her tongue like water over riverbed
stones. "You are a sportsman, da?"
"What is word in your sports world for man who is not experienced?
"A virgin?" he suggested with a smile.
"Da." The word weighed on her face. "Niet. A sportsman who is not
experienced. Has not training. And amieature?"
"Amateur. You" - the word fell into their conversation heavily - "are an
amateur in this world." As the music arced she slipped under his arms and
turned to face him, ducking back in his bubble of personal space to
maintain the privacy of their conversation. "If your money for the cars
had come in two seconds later today Yorgi would have put a hole in your
head. And I know from experience blood is very hard to get out of leather
"No, no, no, wait a minute," Xander said, shoving her a good two feet
away from him.
Con: Women screw with your brains, even if you try to prevent it.
"If this is some sort of scam to get me out of what you see as infringement
on your territory," he continued hotly, "I hate to break it to you, sister,
but I ain't going anywhere." He stuck his smug face in hers on purpose.
"I like you people."
"God help you," she replied, the abundant frost eating its way through his
hearty enjoyment of the honest American tradition of showing other people
Xander set back, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "And I
don't take kindly to threats."
"It is a foolish man who mistakes a warning for a threat," Olga responded,
her voice as quietly dangerous as his.
Con: Because women are smart. Smarter than men.
"You would do well to listen, Alexander; the chances are pale that
you will make it out of this alive." A'ly-vah.
He shrugged. "How is that different from one of my stunts?"
Xander took the volley of Russian she hurled at him as indication she was
displeased with his response. She pulled away from his grasp with a force
that caught him unaware. "I have spent enough company with idiotic men
determined to find - dig their own graves. Do as you see fit, Mr. Cage.
My apologies for this distasteful conversation." Olga turned, pushing her
way through the crowd.
Xander struggled after her. "Hey, hey! I thought we were supposed to be a
happy family!" He grabbed her arm; she was strong, much stronger than
anyone would have thought to look at her, he could feel her muscles
bunching and flexing under his hand. "What's with the ominous
conversation? What, are we suffering from PMS?"
Con: Because at some point men are stupid enough to bring up PMS, and that
is a guaranteed anti-lay.
"Niet! Forget we talk. Your skull is obviously too thick for conversation
"Watch the stupid comments, sister," Xander growled. "Only immediate
family has that privilege."
"What are you going to do?" she hissed back, taunting. He didn't register
her movement, only that the next instant her face millimeters from his, the
entire impression of a sleek sizzling razor blade. "Spank me?"
Spanking - interesting concept. But Xander didn't think they knew each
other well enough, and what with his being a secret agent and all...
So he thought, What would James Bond do?
So he kissed her.
It was, in retrospect, an odd thing to do. But it had been a very
odd conversation and he was having trouble keeping up, and how was it she
didn't like him so much - he'd never met a person that didn't like him so
severely upon so little acquaintance; it wasn't as if he'd stolen her car
or anything - and now that he thought about it not a lot of it made sense
but not that he really thought about it he didn't care that much, or at all
really, except for the simple idea that he'd never knew what sandalwood
tasted like even though he'd caught the scent on numerous occasions.
Sweeter than he expected, but spicy too, with a touch of mint or something
that cleared his senses with a cool rush. And if he thought the itchy
tingles were bad when she spoke they were even worse when he actually
It was he who pulled away, which surprised him, and she again passed
on the opportunity to punch him, which surprised him more. Olga simply
watched him for a moment with a quietly piercing gaze. She didn't speak
because it wasn't necessary, her eyes all that was necessary. Xander
wondered fleetingly if this was what Yorgi's shoes felt like, then pushed
the idea aside when it left a bitter taint.
He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. "What? I couldn't
think of a snappy comeback. Come on." Xander nudged her, disconcerted at
her unchanging expression as he hadn't been before. "What's with the long
face? Don't tell me I just infringed on somebody's territory."
"I am no one's territory," she told him. TerRi'toorh-y. But it
lacked the bite he was growing used to. "Excuse me, Mr. Cage." Olga
slipped away, soon enveloped in the masses.
Xander did not follow her. He didn't think it smart, and if he
didn't think something smart he made sure to pay attention and not do it.
Instead he hooked his thumbs in his pockets and whistled, long and low.
"Yep, one big happy family."
Yorgi's house was a very very very fine house. In fact, it was more of a
palace. Renaissance architecture and so forth. Cascading fountains,
elegant statures, sweeping stone staircases. The darling little cherubs
decorating the place were unexpected. The security cameras and guards all
over were not.
Neither were the pillows. In the fountain, lounging around the door,
a few even taking turn sliding down the staircase railings once a dip in
the fountain got them nice and slippery. Not a one seeming to care that it
was below zero and they were in bikinis. None of the guys seemed to mind
either. Kolya, clearly the most eager of their happy band, rushed up to
one in particular and tossed her over his shoulder, bouncing her up and
down gleefully before he bounded up the steps into the mansion.
Xander inquired as to how Yorgi located such a magnificent pad as
"The original owners just one day decide to move out," was the reply,
complete with the trademark Yorgi Sneaky Smile.
Xander shook his head and tilted back to see the muraled cathedral
ceilings. "This is amazing, man."
Yorgi patted him on the shoulder. "Make yourself at home."
Xander wandered around the main area, giving particular but not
noticeable attention to the cage where a rotating schedule of Yorgi's men
sat and watched security cameras. People settled into talking on the right
side of the room - if they were guys - or talking on the left side of the
room - if they were gals. While each side would occasionally glance at
each other, neither crossed the invisible boundary of the middle of the
room to speak to the opposite sex.
Geez, it really was a high school dance.
No one except for Kolya and his snow bunny, that is. He seemed to tend to
the obvious frostbite that must accompany prancing around in a wet bikini
in Czech's weather by snuggling her close. Kolya's laugh, rambunctious and
frequent, broke the polite buzz of conversation, his companion's soft
murmur a pleasing antithesis. The self-proclaimed womanizing Kolya was
surprisingly tender and focused on the petite brunette; she in turn giggled
and cooed and in short didn't even seem to realize there were other people
in the room, let alone other men.
Xander sensed Olga approach and smiled to himself as she came to a stop at
his side. The watched the couple in companionable silence, before Xander
said, "You know, what with all his talk about bitches and so on I really
expected Kolya to be more of a ladies man."
"Kolya likes to talk big but in the end he is marshmallow. Soft and
cuddly." Xander glanced over at Olga to confirm the smile he heard in her
voice. Genuine and warm, it made Xander remember he was talking to a
person. "Is for Yorgi he likes to pretend. He wants his big brother to be
proud of him. Is common enough."
"And the girl?" Xander asked.
"Katya - Koyla's engaged," Olga informed him. At his surprised look
her smile grew. "Is not what you expected, yah?" Not waiting for him to
answer she continued. "They were friends as children and when Kolya
departed from Mother Russia with Yorgi, Katya left her family to come with
them. They plan to get married as soon as Yorgi gives permission."
Xander turned to her completely, crossing his arms in front of his
chest. "Yorgi has to give permission?"
Sympathy and humor touched her face, as if she though he had no idea
what he was getting into. "We all belong to Yorgi, Mr. Cage; one way or
another. Even you, now."
"X!" Yorgi's voice called out behind them, as if to emphasize her
point. He clapped Xander on the shoulder, looking quite merry. "Time for
bed. It's getting early. Olga," he continued, turning to her. "Since you
two have become such good friends, would you kindly show him to his room?
Is the red room, X - I think you will enjoy it."
"I'm sure I will," Xander replied, getting the distinct impression
there was something Yorgi was leaving out but nevertheless getting much
After everyone bid goodnight, Olga led him out of the main foyer/
living room to a circular hall with doors to the east and west and a longer
epic hallway continuing in front. Olga turned east towards the dark
doorway and indicated for him to enter.
He stopped instead by the entrance. "Ladies first."
She swept past him, tossing back a light, "And chivalry is supposed
to be dead." Olga flicked the lights as she entered, revealing a tasteful
room done in an unexpectedly manly purple. "You have several rooms in
which to play. You're sitting and living room" - the living room was back-
to-back with the sitting room, this time in a soothing blue - "full
bathroom to the back and a small study. Has books but is not requirement
for you to read. And this." She patted a dark mahogany door, the only
closed door in his area. "Is your bedroom. Another bathroom is attached
Xander leaned against the doorframe, intentionally edging in on her
bubble of personal space. "Anyone ever tell you, you would make a great
real estate agent?"
"Niet. But I will take it as compliment." She didn't back off.
Xander didn't know whether to take this as a good or bad sign. "Is there
anything else you need, Mr. Cage?"
He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "What about something to
"Call the kitchen; they will send you whatever you want, at all
"What if I'm hungry now?" he replied, leaning closer - leaning but
She arched a single imperious eyebrow. "Do you find this actually
works on women?"
"Would you believe I have no trouble making friends?" he teased.
"Really?" she responded with subdued mock-astonishment.
"And that some people even find me mildly entertaining."
"I cannot believe that is so!" Olga teased, waving the idea off with
a flick of her hand. And Yorgi said she didn't know what a joke was.
"You don't find me entertaining?" Xander challenged.
"I find you many things, Mr. Cage, but entertaining never entered the
list," she dashed back smoothly.
He leaned in again, eyes lingering on her mouth as he smiled.
Olga shook her head even as her lips curved. "Is true."
"Then what's that?" Xander said, nodding at her smile.
"Is general sense of amusement for the ridiculous."
"Is that so?" he asked, coming closer until only a hair's breath
Xander shook his head, muttering, "Liar."
"I am tell - " He didn't wait for her reply. He didn't even listen
to her reply. He just did what he'd wanted to do since he first got her to
smile; cupped an arm around her waist and pressed his mouth to hers,
absorbing the subtle curve of her smile as if trying to memorize it.
It was so freakin' suave, he'd have to reward himself with a brownie
later. Two brownies.
And then the cool spiciness hit him and he forgot all about brownies
as the itches in his hands made him guide her arms up around his neck - or
did they move there of their own volition - and jitters started running up
and down his nerves like he'd drunk too much caffeine. Like that time J.J.
bet him he couldn't drink a straight gallon of Boost and he won and
couldn't walk straight or hold a cup without spilling it for three days.
He'd ruined five good dress shirts just trying to drink his morning coffee
(decaf, at J.J.'s insistence) that first day and some part of him
remembered this and whispered, don't spill her. Another part of him
recognized this didn't entirely make sense, but as the jitters and
imperceptible trembles that came with it made him feel susceptible to most
anything, and as he really didn't want to spill her and ruin another good
shirt (he wouldn't even try to ponder the sense of that) Xander wrapped his
arms lower and hefted her closer, bringing her slightly up and over him.
He leaned her into the doorframe for support and in a movement so naturally
he barely noticed it she wrapped her legs around his waist for balance.
And the cool rushes of sandalwood cleared his head and made him dizzy at
the same time and he held her closer, searching for the sweetness he'd
found earlier that now ran along the edges of her spice. Tantalizing.
She gasped, leaning back her head against the frame and breathing in
deep, like a diver breaking the surface of the water. She looked down at
him with eyes like night mist and seemed to have words at the edge of her
throat, but then his hand ran up her side and with a slight murmur of his
name she closed her eyes and dove again.
Noises. She made noises. And not the horrid screeching noises his
college girlfriend made - sounded like a cat giving birth while being run
over by a truck. But a soft moan deep in the back of her throat that
nearly made him drop her as the jitters suddenly and severely spiked.
And then Olga pushed him away and jitters turned to shivers as he
became aware of the icy air conditioning. She sucked in deep, heavy lung-
fulls of air, but Xander couldn't tell whether she was trying to take in
the oxygen or the cold. "Niet," she said again, the word racing out on a
rush of air. She covered her mouth with her fingers, as if trying to hold
something in. Avoiding his eyes, she rushed out of the room.
Xander tried to say something, but it came out an unintelligible
wheeze. It didn't matter, though, as she was gone. So, he stood there
until his head cleared and he was able to pick up his coat successfully,
then entered into his bedroom.
His first impression was surprise that the entire room hadn't burst
into flames. Whoever Yorgi's decorator was, they loved candles. They were
everywhere, decorating the room like pillows decorated Yorgi's club.
Perhaps the nice young lady hanging off his bed post was the
Music played softly in the background and she writhed against the
post in what Xander presumed she thought to be a seductive manner. Her bra
and panties were nice - red lace - and it warmed his heart to know Anarchy
99 was able to keep up to date on the Victoria's Secret fashions.
Yorgi had left a present for him.
This presented a dilemma, which Xander pondered as the lady danced to
her heart's content. Yorgi would be mad if Xander turned down his present.
But would Olga be mad if Xander turned down Yorgi's present? Or, would
Xander be dead if he turned down Yorgi's present?
As Taila crawled onto the bed, Xander knew what he had to do.what was
going to go down.um.dammit! He scrambled for the appropriate vocabulary.
What interaction he would be in the process of participating...yeah, that
would work. With sandalwood still racing through his veins, he pulled off
his shirt. "The things I'm gonna do for my country."
Xander had never been an early riser, but in such cases as these it was not
wise to wait until everyone else had experienced a full night's sleep.
Being a spy apparently meant excellent toys but horrid hours. While the
rest of the castle still had dancing sugar plums in their pretty little
heads - Christmas wasn't for another few months, but with all the snow
outside he felt the sugar plums would make an exception - Xander snuck into
the main foyer to get a closer look at the video hook-up Yorgi had, to see
just how tight a ship Yorganovich ran.
It was unmanned and the cage was unlocked; Yorgi either trusted his
people or didn't know enough not to trust them. Considering what he knew
of Yorgi so far the first seemed more likely, and therefore the station's
abandoned state put Xander's nerves on edge. He probably wouldn't be alone
Ten screens with rotating pictures gave a complete view of the
compound. Guards were up and about; Yorgi obviously provided them with top-
of-the-line alarm clocks. Xander circled the monitors and examined them
from the back. There were wires connecting each screen to the others, but
none that he could see where a feed would come in. Antennas on top of the
set-up, though, and he followed the direction of it to a window. Outside a
signal tower was tucked safe and near invisible in the snow, a little ways
up on a mountain.
"It is to help sort out the signals for the cameras."
Xander didn't even turn around. He hadn't heard her come in, but
then it wasn't that surprising. He wondered if Yorgi found her Batman-like
persona, specifically the entrances and exits, irritating. He wondered if
Yorgi was familiar with Batman. He wondered what the process would be to
ship American comics to Prague, and if what sort of interesting bloopers
came from not-quite-correct translations, such as the in Ocarina of Time
when everyone ran around calling Link 'Fairy Boy'.
He wondered if she knew about last night. He didn't want to know.
"Wouldn't it be simpler to have it hooked up through here?"
"Yes, if these were the only cameras installed," Olga replied,
indicating the ten orderly screens. She hooked her fingers in the chain
link fence surrounding the station, which made her look much farther away
than she actually was. "There are more cameras, hidden everywhere. It
would require too many wires to have it hooked up directly here, so the
signals are simply redirected to the tower, which sorts them out and sends
them back here."
Xander leaned back on the windowsill and crossed his arms in his
favorite let's-see-how-far-we-play-this-game stance. The one he used
whenever J.J. whipped out the Princess Bride Rhyme-A-Palooza. Does anybody
want a peanut? "How many cameras does Yorgi have?"
Olga shook her head. "I do not know. Yorgi has them hidden
everywhere with specific monitors set up in his rooms alone. No cameras in
personal chambers, though."
"It would seem."
Xander, tentatively, got up and strolled over to her, stopping right
before the fence. "Guards?"
"Twelve groups of four on a rotating eight hour schedule beginning at
midnight. Nine are stationary posts, the other three travel in an
expanding counter-clockwise circle around the perimeter."
He started walking towards the cage door; Olga took up step along
side him. "What else?"
She remained silent, though her eyes prompted him to ask another
"Where does Yorgi keep his valuables?"
Olga caught his gaze with a sidelong glance, and a bright smile
spread across her face. "What, do you plan on robbing him?"
"Where would he keep the stuff he doesn't want anyone else knowing
She tilted her head towards him and lowered her voice. "Yorgi has secret
compound underneath the house. In the past few weeks he has spent much
time down there, but he is the only one allowed. For now," she finished.
"You lookin' to expand?"
"I may be," she replied in a closed tone.
Xander hung on the fence. "Maybe I want to come to."
Olga smiled. "That depends on Yorgi."
"Can't you put in a good word for me?"
"Maybe I don't want to."
Xander reached the door, swinging it open with a gentle push. "This
is all very kind of you."
With reflexes heightened through years of playing Mortal Kombat with J.J.
(who was not above cheating but refused to admit it even under bribery of
brownies), Xander grabbed her arm, twisting to immobilize but not hurt.
"Why are you telling me all of this? Did Yorgi tell you to do - "
He felt the cold tingle of metal against his neck before he even saw her
move. She was fast; if nothing else he had to give her that. He ran his
eyes over her ensemble this morning. He supposed it was possible to hide a
gun in that, but he still was curious as to where. Xander stretched his
neck, which he supposed gave the bullet more room to enter, but it made him
look wonderfully arrogant. Maybe the wrong thing to do, for when she spoke
icicles jabbed into his brain, but he was tired of these games and cloak
and dagger stuff. "It is better for you to figure it out this way than to
get yourself shot trying to do it yourself," Olga hissed. "Da?"
"Da." Xander snatched her gun and twisted it. He tried to get it just out
of range, not confident he could jerk it out of her hands completely.
Besides he didn't want to risk the gun accidentally going off.
But, to his surprise, it came out of her fingers easily. Xander was
about to make some sort of triumphant remark when he noticed a strange
sensation.some kind of unnatural nudge.below the Mason-Dixon line. Olga's
smile suddenly reminded him of a wolf - odd, as he always thought of the
wolf (and the lion, the shark, and the ferocious armadillo) in terms of the
masculine, but right now every scary thing he'd ever encountered was
getting an instantaneous sex change.
He cleared his throat. "Is that really necessary?"
Olga shrugged. She could do a pretty convincing 'innocent' when the
occasion called for it.
"So, what, you go from spouting vague threats last night to tossing"
- he shrugged - "information in my lap?"
"We are on big happy family, remember?"
"We would be, if it weren't for your .45 south of the border."
Olga inclined her head and slipped her second weapon back into its
"Do you even like me?"
"I think you are Neanderthal."
"Big word. Very impressive."
"I looked it up in dictionary just for you."
"Nice to know you thought of me."
"Take me to breakfast."
"What?" Xander asked.
"Take me to breakfast. The next shift starts in five minutes," Olga
continued abruptly, turning and heading towards the exit. "It would not be
good for you to be found here. Come."
"What makes you think I will?"
"Because I told you to."
"I hate to break it to you, babe, but I don't even do what my Ma
tells me. Okay, I do," he amended quickly, "but that's only because she
had that alligator accident two years ago. And last time I checked there
weren't a lot of alligators in the Czech Republic."
She paused by the door, she seemed to be enjoying this. "You will
"Ever get those hallucinations checked?"
"I know something you know."
Xander frowned. "Isn't it 'I know something you don't know'?"
"Not in this case."
"Okay." He sniffed and shrugged. "I'll bite. What do you know?"
"That cop you shot." She tossed a glanced back at him. "He is not
Yorgi was a habitually early riser, same time every day - excluding
weekends. His wakefulness stemmed from a serious jones for Sailor Moon,
which only ran in the Czech Republic at the crack of dawn. So every
morning he would wake up, catch a half hour of the Sailor Scouts defeating
yet another cartoon villain whilst wearing all-but-non-existent skirts, and
go back to sleep.
This morning, right before the Sailor Moon theme started, his phone
rang. Yorgi picked it up after a brief mental debate. "Moshi,
moshi.Informacia. I can always use information. Who is this? How did you
get this number?"
"It's a blood splatter dart."
Xander let Olga chose the restaurant as she was more familiar with the
area. And upon entering he wished he's had more of an input. It felt
slightly uncomfortable wandering in and demanding a table in a place that
looked like catering to the Premier of China would be a step down. So, to
hide the discomfort he piled on the cockiness and they got a table only by
the grace of Olga. He wasn't sure what her long conversation with the
maitre 'de was about, but he was certain it wasn't flattering.
The restaurant certainly wasn't what he was used to. Waiters in full
uniform, chandeliers, eight different forks. Olga ordered for them both,
and Xander was pleased to find his meal was just a high class version of
bacon and eggs.
Xander held it up for Olga to see. She smiled like a child as she
took it from his hand, then carefully examined every particle o it. She
shook her head softly, muttering in Russian. She didn't sound happy, but
at the same time it didn't look like she was going to kill anyone.
"It's good. It's very good. Whatever is in here made his breathing
so shallow I had trouble detecting it. But his pulse, that it could not
hide. You get it too low, bad things happen." She dropped the dart into
his palm. "But you should have killed him. In this world you can't take
"Yeah, you're probably right. Why didn't you tell Yorgi and the
others he was alive?" Xander asked.
She ignored his question. "Where did you get that?"
Xander glanced around at the restaurant's other patrons, but they
were focused on their meals in the single-minded way of people so well bred
that other human beings could hold no appeal for them. "Can you keep a
Olga met his gaze head on. "You will have to answer that question
"What would you say if I told you that I'm not what you think I am?"
"Oh, did you actually graduate from high school?"
"I am being serious." Olga laughed, then schooled her face. "I
apologize, go on."
Xander hesitated for a moment before blurting out. "I'm a secret agent."
"No, seriously, where did you get it?"
"No, really." He leaned across the table and whispered, "I'm a
"Of course," she replied, her agreement a little too energetic to be
sincere, "because governments make a practice of sending untrained, albeit
skilled, sports stars to handle issues of world security."
"Very well, then, who do you work for?"
"U.S." she scoffed, as if that answered everything. "Of course.
They would be stupid enough to send someone like you."
"Thanks for the compliment."
"Welcome." Her phone rang and she held up a finger for him to wait
as she answered it. Xander turned his attention to his food; for such a
snooty restaurant they laid a good plate, but he supposed the flower
arrangements alone were not enough to spawn that level of snootiness. The
bacon even tasted like it came from a real pig - so as far as he was
concerned it had.
Olga started giggling like a schoolgirl, chattering at a rapid-fire pace.
It must have been a girlfriend or something. Yeah, a girlfriend.
She hung up neatly, laughter evaporating immediately. "Yorgi knows
you're an agent. Kirill is waiting with his rifle outside the entrance."
A few quick glances took up the entire area. "There is a back door."
Xander shook his head. "I go out the back door they'll know you
"You'd rather die?"
"Nah, I'd rather think of a more interesting way to get out of here."
Olga nodded, for once the mask dropping to reveal frustration and worry.
"I will tell you what you need to know. Then we will figure a way for you
to get out of here and you go back to your people. If you show your face
in Prague again I'll kill you myself."
Xander nodded, recognizing her seriousness, but doubtful Gibbons
would just let him go home. "I need to know more about Anarchy 99."
Olga took a moment to gather her thoughts before answering. "You've
seen the clubs, the parties, the girls. What Yorgi hasn't introduced you
to is what goes on during the day. He has been gearing up for something -
big. There's been a lot of activity, especially in the last three weeks.
I told you there were people coming in and out. Far as I can tell they are
"What are they up to?"
"Yorgi has a laboratory set up in the underground compound. There
has been a brief tour, but he has not told even his inner circle what is
going on yet. He has planned a private celebration for us tonight. No one
has been allowed to speak to the scientists but Yorgi, but there are
rumors. Rumors that they are genetic scientists, the ones that worked with
infectious diseases in the underground mountain laboratories." She paused,
then continued with difficulty; her fingers slipped around his wrist. "I
don't know what is going to happen, or when it will happen. I do know,
Alexander, that your people do not have much time. Tell them to keep their
eyes painfully open for the next few days."
Her fingers tightened. "We have to think of a way to get you out of
Xander nodded, swallowing. He knew he wasn't going to like this
game. Next time he saw Gibbons he was going to.well, not really do much of
anything because the dude could put him in the hospital faster than Granny
Fanny Cage could suck down a pint of Hagen Daaz, but he would think some
very mean thoughts. Sure, he put his life in danger with reckless
disregard for its worth countless times before, but if he died least he
could blame it on the harness or something out of his control rather than a
skinny, slightly smelly guy with a high-powered scope taped to his rifle.
Well, dude, you're a sports star. Think of something!
He turned to her. "Anarchy 99 doesn't have a policy of taking out
its own - ends justify the means kind of thing?"
"I am not liking that question."
"But would he," Xander asked, "go through you to get to me?"
Olga was silent for a long moment. Then Xander rose and pulled on
his jacket and she with him. Olga slipped in front of him, and Xander had
to duck his head so it was even with hers - and Kirill didn't have a clean
shot - but neck pain was much better than sudden and violent death. At
least in his dictionary.
They neared the entrance; Xander glanced out the huge window
alongside them. A flicker of light marked Kirill's position on a rooftop
across the street. He hadn't fired yet, so odds were good he'd wait until
he had a clean shot. Thank goodness Olga was such that Kirill thought
twice about blowing through her to get Xander.
Olga glanced back at him as she reached the entrance. From what he could
tell they were still in Kirill's line of sight. Now or never.
"Draw!" Xander bellowed. Both weapons were in her hands before the word
was out of his mouth. He grabbed her arms and she helped him take her
weapons in a realistic fashion. Xander grit his teeth and elbowed her,
hard, in the stomach. He both felt and heard the blow connect, and Olga
stumbled back on a hard rush of air. Her slight nod told him she was okay.
She charged at him, putting on a good show, but effectively ending up in a
tight grip, held at gun point.
Xander hauled her out into the street, Olga clawing like a cat and
struggling enough that he worried about hurting her. But somehow, between
them, they managed to keep Olga in front of Xander, and keep Kirill from
shooting anybody. Pedestrians screamed and ran for cover, and Xander
ignored them like he ignored most people. He ran, well, as best he could
towards a back alleyway he'd seen when they arrived. Shots echoed behind
him as they bounced off stones where he'd been seconds before; Kirill must
have decided he needed to have something to report to Yorgi other than him
sitting on a rooftop watching Yorgi's only connection to the female mind
get carted away by a bald ox. Xander turned down the alley and hurried
down the winding staircase, buildings looming up around him and shielding
them from Kirill's sight.
Deborah was parked quietly in the parking lot at the rear of the
restaurant. Xander pulled out his keys and glanced at Olga, who was
breathing heavily, her eyes darting around the open area, ferreting out any
"Come with me," Xander said.
He knew she would turn him down. But he had to ask.
And as it was she never got the chance to say no. That second he was
thrown up against Debbie's hood, a burlap sack tied over his head and his
hands bound behind his back. Three men, far as he could tell. He heard a
scuffle by Deb's trunk - Olga - and an American voice shout, "Come on!
Xander was shoved in the back of a car, and it sped off.
Not an opera fan, but Xander made the best of it seeing as he had no
choice. Two men marched him along, one on either side, until they came out
into a larger space - the sound reverberated around them as it hadn't a few
moments ago - and his feet sank into plush carpeting.
The sack was pulled off his head and his hands were unbound.
And right in front of him Gibbons sat, solemnly listening to what
appeared to be a rehearsal of the Marriage of Figaro.
"Gibbons!" Xander called out, in no mood to play their little games.
"My favorite kidnapper. Next time could you see about sending a limo?
Where's Olga?" he demanded.
Gibbons put a finger to his lips as a slight woman appeared on stage
and began a (even to Xander's untrained ears) superb aria. It was quite
beautiful, but Xander needed answers, and he'd discovered the best way to
get Gibbons to talk was to egg him on. "Oh, come on, just tell me what
happened to her. What, did you guys take her or something? I'm not that
stupid; she was right there, she saw what happened. You really going to
risk her running back to Yorgi and telling him - "
"Telling him what?" Gibbons finally spoke. "That you were abducted.
Considering Yorgi wanted you out of the picture already he might send us a
Xander glanced at the stage again as the soprano climbed a particularly
high scale. He hadn't been to the opera since his cousin Lydia dragged him
two years ago and he made completely undignified gagging noises through Don
Juan's dying libretto. "Is this really necessary? You already broke me;
no need to get cruel and unusual."
"Even you are not beyond a little culture, Mr. Cage."
"Oh, so it's Mr. Cage, now, is it?" Xander teased.
"Where is Olga?!" he bellowed.
"Fear not, Mr. Cage. We don't need her mysteriously disappearing and
alerting Yorgi that we're onto him. We shot her with one of those helpful
green darts you're so familiar with. When she wakes up the pounding
headache will most likely cloud any memory of your abduction. She'll be
headed back to her little gang of cut-throats, safe and sound." Gibbons
reached into his pocked and held out a plane ticket.
Xander took it and laughed. "A ticket? Now that's funny. Where am I
The word was so quiet Xander wasn't sure he heard correctly. "Home?"
"Your cover's been blown," Gibbons informed him, no audible
variations in his voice. "You're no longer useful."
"That's it? I'm done," Xander checked.
"No tricks. We have enough intel to move forward."
"With what? What, that L.A.R.A.?"
"Quick, clean, effective," Gibbons answered. "Can you think of a
better way? Don't worry about it. It'll all be over soon."
Xander didn't want to think that meant what he thought it meant.
"You mean this team will come in and kill everybody," he checked.
Gibbons was silent. It was answer enough.
"Not all of them are as bad as you think."
"You had to shoot a cop to get in with them. How 'not as bad as I
think' could they be?"
"Olga - "
"There's not time to play favorites. The cards have been dealt."
"What the hell do you mean the cards have been dealt? Have you even
been there, man? I'm the one hanging with these people twenty-four hours a
day. You don't even know - "
"Oh, by the way, that bank number you gave us? Your friends have
made some large cash transfers to a group of Russian scientist known to
specialize and traffic in biological weapons."
"Yeah, yeah! Those are the guys Olga told me about!" Xander
exclaimed, trying to convince Gibby of - he wasn't even sure what of.
"You knew this and did not inform us?" Gibbons sounded like nothing
more than a pissed off school teacher.
"She told me about it this morning. Right before she saved my life,"
he threw in Gibbons' face pointedly. "I was going to relay it to you as
soon as I had time."
"Go home. That's an order," Gibbons continued as Xander tried to
One really couldn't argue with the NSA. They were pricks like that.
And trying to beat Gibbons senseless with his own arms would probably be
messy and painful, and wouldn't really change anything except to maybe get
Xander shot with those damn darts again. So instead Xander hollered in
frustration and kicked a charming red velvet seat before storming out.
And since he was concentrating on storming and not paying much
attention to the NSA pricks that ruined his day, he didn't see Gibbons
The Mission Impossible theme would not stop running through Xander's head;
nor should it, he thought, considering how appropriate it is for the
Olga liked to use the word particular.
If this were a crappy romance novel - the kind he wouldn't admit to
reading under ritualistic torture or pain of death, just as he'd sooner
chew off his own legs than confess to being an avid Passions fan - he'd say
he came back for Olga, to see if she was alright and try to get her out of
here. But deep down he knew that he was doing this to piss of Gibby even
if the ticket he had been kind enough to provide Xander with had been first
class, champagne brunch included. Xander knew it would get back to the big
man on the NSA campus that the Cage idiot had gone and screwed up the whole
attempt at saving the world thing and millions died horribly as a result
and that would show him.
On second thought, Xander entertained the possibility that maybe it
wasn't such a good idea anyway. But can't be helped now, Xander thought,
crawling over the edge of a cliff to a sentinel's point and taking out the
guards there like a bunch of hammered Rednecks on Super Bowl Sunday.
At least he'd worn all black. He'd learned that much from James Bond
movies and Toby had been kind enough to provide a comfortable yet practical
bodysuit that did not impede upon his masculinity nor did it make him look
like a gymnast.
Xander scurried down a winding staircase, glancing around for the
cameras he knew were there, and ducked behind a row of motorcycles as a
camera panned across the courtyard. While waiting for it to rotate away
from him, Xander made use of the explosive bandages, curtsey of Toby
himself - who acted like a five-year-old with a shopping spree through Toys-
R-Us when Xander told him what was going on. Awkwardly stooped and walking
like a midget with a bladder infection, Xander ducked along each individual
motorcycle, slapping a bandage on each of them. Then he moved onto the
cars. No sense leaving anything to chance, especially when I'm were
pulling all this out of my ass, Xander thought.
The front doors opened and Yorgi exited, along with his entourage.
Kolya helped Olga along, who hid a limp better than she hid the multi-
colored bruises along her face, neck, and arms. Rage swept bitter onto the
back of his tongue, but reason shouted to Xander that she would never have
come back claiming to have lost a fight with him without something to show
Yet, other than the injuries of one member, the entire party seemed
merry and gay. Several, Yorgi included, were wearing party hats and Kirill
tossed confetti out as he pranced along.
They stopped by a door leading under the great staircase and Yorgi
said a few words. The Russian tapes were helping - Xander thought he said
something about a moose walking softly. Didn't make much sense, but with
these evil megalomaniac types you could never tell. The others responded
to his moose proclamation by cheering loudly and Kirill went absolutely
crazy with the confetti. Yorgi nodded, unlocked the door, and they all
disappeared into the darkness beyond the doorway.
Xander fetched his gun as the door shut and rotated the chamber to
select a tranquilizer dart. The single sentry guarding the door was taken
down too easily. As he dropped Xander grabbed his stuff and ran into the
He hadn't had a rush of adrenaline like this for nearly a week now.
His brain must be going soft.
So Xander picked up his stuff again, shook his head to clear the
pain, and turned the handle. The door opened and he went inside.
A long, sparsely lit tunnel greeted him, the kind required for every
underground secret laboratory, and rusty metal set of stairs led deeper
underground. Xander hurried down it, trying to remember what Lydia had
said about walking quietly - balls of the feet, balls of the feet - and
hesitated at the bottom. Two guards traveled further down the hallway,
then disappeared as they turned a corner. Neither seemed to have seen him.
Not really sure where he was going, Xander wandered around, doing
professional secret agent things like jumping in to dark corners and trying
not to scream when he saw a rat. Soon, however, he heard Yorgi's voice and
followed it. He caught sight of the gang just as they entered what looked
like a vault.
With no chance of getting inside, and not wanting to risk someone
catching him hanging around outside the vault - vaults were very important
things and people tended to be touchy about who had access to them - Xander
located a hallway that ran alongside the door. It led to a boiler room,
and along the back wall Xander could hear banging and shouting coming from
the other side. He took out his binoculars and fiddled with them for a
moment before peering through them.
The room on the other side came through clear as day.
Talk about a lab. The room was huge, taking up mostly by a large
vessel. It looked like a boat, but a very cool boat. Solar panels
glittered on the top and the pointed nose reminded Xander of a swordfish.
Scientist-looking fellows crawled all over the thing, doing very scientific
things. Adjusting, twisting, painting the name 'Ahab' on it.
Yorgi stood by the back of the room, and on his command the
scientists scrambled about and put a neon yellow and blue torpedo in the
sub and a cage of mice on a table next to it. They handed Yorgi a small
box with a red bow on it, and Yorgi accepted it in a gentlemanlike fashion.
Then all the scientists started celebrating as Yorgi slipped away to
a glass room at the back of the lab. His immediately friends followed, and
they closed the doors. Xander couldn't see clearly what they were doing as
all the scientists were in the way, drinking champagne, slapping each other
on the back, exchanging manly and totally heterosexual hugs.
But then the torpedo began to rise in the sub, pointing towards the
ceiling, and all the scientists quieted down. They seemed rather confused,
especially when bubbles started rising from the blue half of the torpedo.
Several gentlemen dropped their glasses and all started yelling at each
other. The yellow and blue liquids slowly mixed to create a violently
green fluid and panic erupted among the scientists. A few ran to the back,
pounded on glass behind which Yorgi hid.
When they realized he wasn't going to do anything the started
running, trying to get out. A group grabbed guns and fired them at the
heavy vault door. It didn't open. They started pounding on it, jerking
the handle back and forth. Yorgi must have locked it.
Xander rose automatically, jerking towards the door, his mind
suggesting and dismissing alternative ideas for opening the damn door. But
a bright flash of light through the binoculars blinded him for a moment.
And he knew Yorgi must have detonated the torpedo. So he looked again.
A white mist filled the room, like someone had been running the
shower too hot and too long again. And gradually, as it swirled and curled
around the scientists, they collapsed, and stilled, and grew silent.
After all were dead the mist began to clear, sucked up into vents
near the ceiling. Yorgi and his crew stepped out of their shelter to view
the damage. Yorgi was laughing.
And that was about the time the guards walked in on Xander.
There was nowhere to really hide, which, in Xander's mind, distinctly
registered under the SUCKING MAJORLY category. He charged at them,
figuring their two against his one would be slightly upset if he caught
them by surprise. It kinda worked. He managed to knock one guy
unconscious, but the other one - and his high powered weapon; dammit, why
didn't Xander remember he had a gun too? Not that he wanted to kill anyone
and not that he had any tranquilizer darts left and not that he had the
time or the energy to beat the man senseless with, say for example, his
shoe - oh great, now he forgot what he was thinking and had to start all
over again. But the other one hit an alarm, and then managed to convince
Xander that the best way to escape immanent and painful death would be to
follow his rather helpful suggestions.
They dragged him into the vault and threw him on the floor. Yorgi
and Co. were lingering in the aftermath of their little soiree. Yorgi
surveyed the room - and the corpses - with clear satisfaction. Kirill,
Beard-o, Koyla, and.Olga hung back a bit, laughing among themselves as
Kirill imitated the dying screams of the men. Even from this distance he
could tell her face was drawn behind the mirth. She knew what was going
on, even if she didn't look at him.
He was starting to figure out that happened a lot.
Yorgi yelled at the soldier as he was kicked to the floor, his tone
one of surprise and anger. Xander had only learned a few words so far,
most of them explicatives, but fortunately that's mainly what Yorgi was
using. Beard-o laughed - he was always laughing - and muttered something
that the soldier vehemently agreed with. Kirill took a drag off a new
cigarette deep enough to burn it down to the filter.
Kolya and Olga hung back, her head tilted towards his, whispering.
"Mr. Cage." Yorgi cut into his ponderings, kicking him hard enough
to sprawl him on the floor. "So nice to see you again." He kicked him,
again. It was probably required in the Evil Doer's Handbook For Conquering
The World. "Did you really expect to fool me?" Not very good, but
appropriately menacing under the circumstances.
Xander shook his head to clear it and spat as blood tainted his
mouth. He supposed the situation called for some sort of snappy comeback.
Bond had them in store, and as he was so successful at this whole 'saving
the world thing' Xander thought it wise to emulate him. However, Xander
wasn't British and he didn't have a tuxedo and in actuality all he'd been
trying to emulate in Bond was his track record with women. So he gave the
best he had. "Eat me, Commie."
Kolya passed by them, muttering something to Yorgi. His brother gave
a vague nod; neither Yorgi or Xander paid him much attention. They had
things to do, like glaring at each other as if the fate of the world was
dependent upon a staring contest.
But they both blinked, and lost, when shots echoed in the large
chamber and the soldier and Beard-o dropped. Though both surprised, Yorgi
was faster than Xander; his weapon was immediately in his hand. Xander
blinked rapidly before it registered what he was looking at.
Olga's eyes narrowed as she aimed, guns in both hands, focusing on
Kirill as he struggled to maneuver his sniper rifle into a position to
fire. Another shot, but this time it was Olga who jerked back as if hit.
The weapon dropped out of her right hand, blood streaking down her shoulder
Xander didn't stick around to think. He charged Yorgi, tackling the
bastard like his cousin Lydia tackled that snotty babysitter Mrs. Rothchild
after she kicked Lydia's Pomeranian, Muffy. Yorgi fell backwards,
thwacking his head good and loud on the floor. The weapon skittered from
his hand. Xander scrambled for his bearings and immediately commenced with
a plan of beating the hell out of the greasy-haired idiot. Army, my ass
Xander thought. Aunt Euginia had been in the army and she could still
bench press twice her weight at the ripe age of 60. Yorgi succumbed to
unconsciousness after a feeble two punches. While his mother might insist
he was because he was a big, strong boy, he was more inclined to think it
was because Yorgi was a puss.
At the sharp hiss of, "Don't move," he knew Olga was okay. He glanced over
and grinned at the sight of her pinning Kirill to the floor with his rifle.
Kirill clutched his nose, the blood on the bottom part of his face
indicating it was broken. "Xander, how's it going over there?"
"I don't think he'll be giving us much trouble," Xander replied.
"Least, not for a while."
"Good. Nighty-night, Kirill," she muttered, slamming the butt of his
rifle against the skinny man's head. His body relaxed, his mouth slightly
open, revealing his nicotine-stained teeth. She bent over and picked up
her gun, aiming one at each upstanding member of society. "Alexander."
He looked at her, not sure he heard right. Her voice had lost the
rolling lilt of Russian, gained a clipped, brisk accent. "Olga?"
"We have to go. Now. You first. Hurry, please."
Xander jogged up the stairs to the vault door; she scurried quickly
after him. "You're not going to just leave them there?"
"Yes, we are," she answered firmly, waiting until he was outside to
swing the massive door closed and secure the lock.
Considering what trouble the scientists went to - and they still couldn't
get the door open - Xander didn't think either Kirill or Yorganovich was
going to get out of there any time soon. But he still wasn't satisfied.
"What about all that 'you should have killed him when you had the chance'
"I don't have orders to kill them. For the moment." She raked her eyes
across their surroundings, searching for any back-up that might have been
"Dammit - "
"Much as I love standing here, arguing with you, Alexander, we dearly
need to get the hell out of here. Perhaps we should postpone this
stimulating discussion until we are both ensured of our safety, if that is
perfectly acceptable to you?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Fine. Whatever. You're the one who can kick
She grinned at that.
Neither of them knew the tunnels very well, but under Olga's
direction they hurried along corridors that seemed familiar. The alarm
blared loud and painful against the damp bricks. Shouting and footsteps
behind them indicated someone was following them. Company was coming.
Gunfire erupted around them and Olga jerked him down as a pipe above
their heads exploded into searing steam. The ducked around a corner and
Olga returned fire, Xander joining her quickly as he reloaded.
The fire lessened but didn't stop and Olga grabbed his arm. "We're
not going to win this. Come on." Crouched low, she hurried down to the
rusty staircase. Xander recognize it as the one that lead to the surface.
She waved him to a halt as they reached the thick wooden door marking
the entrance and put her ear to the warped oak. Olga gripped her weapons
anew and indicated there were two guards outside, then put a finger to her
lips. Before he had the chance to make a sound, she fired several rounds
through the door. She listened again, then kicked it open.
Gunfire forced them to seek shelter amidst the row of cars and bikes.
Never one to give up opportune transportation, Xander grabbed the nearest
bike. He looked around and quickly scraped off the bandage/bomb. Wouldn't
do to have them blowing up, no matter how really cool the explosion would
be. He grabbed Olga's arm and they both ducked as one of Yorgi's helpful
little assistants reached a machine gun. "Get on!"
She needed no more persuasion. Olga swung onto the back, clutching
him cross the chest with her bad arm, leaving the good one free to handle a
weapon. And, taking into account the situation, Xander left off the manly
revving of the engine and just took off.
The rain of bullets lessened for a brief moment as their pursuers
reached the row of automobiles. This was better - if there was a better in
all this. But Xander was used to having people chase him at high speeds,
even if they were usually cops, and the familiarity of it washed away some
of his nervousness. Bullets soared passed them and he was sorry to report
that unlike the movies occasionally they did get too close for comfort.
There was pain, but even though Xander had never been shot before he didn't
think he'd been hit this time. Anyway, it wasn't as if there was the
opportunity to pull over and check everything out.
The wide double doors for the fence was fast approaching in front of
them, and Xander stepped down on the pedal even faster. He could feel Olga
behind him, her fingers digging into the thick material of his jacket as
she leaned back, returning fire, doing her best to ward off the most
adventurous of their pursuers.
A section of the ground rose up ahead of them; Xander recognized it
as a plate of spikes used to puncture tires. The spikes were facing the
wrong way, but they probably intended to use it to block his way.
Little did they know they were facing the Amazing Xando!
Xander leaned back on the bike, drawing up the front. Which made it
all too easy to ride up the side of the raising platform and soar over the
top of the fence. (Gee, hadn't he done something like this a few days
The bike landed hard, bounced a few times, and Xander stopped as
quickly as he could as Olga nearly fell off. "You okay? Olga, are you
okay?" he demanded.
She nodded, swallowing hard.
Xander pulled the detonator from a pocket and grinned. "Watch this."
He pressed the shiny red button. Naturally it came with a shiny red
The explosion was so much more than he hoped. It was the most
perfect thing he - as a man - had ever seen.barring, of course, naked
women. Xander glanced back at Olga and grinned.
She shook her head but smiled nonetheless. "Men."
Xander started up the bike again and turned it towards town. And the
safe house. "I suppose we're gonna have to tell Gibbons about this." He
tossed a look over his shoulder. "Huh, Lara."
She was silent long enough that he had to turn back to the road.
Unlikely as it was that there would be another vehicle on the road he
didn't want to risk ramming them into a tree. Splinters gave him the
little nails-on-blackboard shivers up his spine.
Then she laughed, and he felt it tickle the back of his neck. "Well,
you are smarter than Gibbons or I expected, I must give you that." All
traces of the rich Russian slur to her words faded away into the sweetly
clipped accents of someone born and bred next to Bond himself.
"Like the video game," Xander said suddenly, surprising himself as he
said it outloud. It had been intended as an introspective.
She responded to it anyway. "Yes. Like the video game."
Xander headed the bike back to the safe house in Prague; he didn't know
where else to go and he didn't think it wise to waste any time introducing
Gibbons to Olga. Though he had the feeling they already met.
Olga, for her part, clung to him quietly as they traveled the wet
streets. She didn't say anything, but the breathing the echoed across his
back was heavy and raspy. He only had to glance down at the red streaks on
her right hand to remember that awful sick sound in the laboratory when
bullet met flesh.
Outside the safe house, Xander helped Lara off the motorcycle -
despite her protestations that she was fine - and let the bike fall where
it lay. There were lights on in the entrance and the barren hallway when
they entered, almost making it seem like someone was waiting up for them.
Xander opened the door to his room and flicked on the lights, Olga
following behind against his orders. "I thought I told you to stay," he
muttered, taking her arm.
"I can walk - " She stopped and nodded behind him.
Milan sat in a chair directly in front of the entrance, a pleasant
smile on his rat face. Xander helped Lara sit on the bed and pulled off
his pack. "Sova. What are you doing here, man?"
"First you set me up in the bar," Milan began. "Then you shoot me in
"My boss does it to me. I did it to you. It's a vicious circle,"
Xander explained, digging through the boxes by the door to find the first
"You think it's funny?"
"No, I don't think it's funny. You didn't take it personally, did
"I always take it personally when someone shoots me."
Xander was starting to get a bad feeling about this conversation. He
tossed the med kit to Lara and turned to Milan. "I did what I had to do to
get in. We're on the same side, remember?"
"I'm sorry," Milan replied. "I switched sides." He pulled out a
gun. "There's only so far a person can be pushed, you know? And I have to
say, X, you might not be aware of this, but you can be a real jackass
sometimes. Most of the time. Alright, all the time, but it doesn't matter
right now. My government doesn't pay quite as well as Yorgi."
"My government pays twice as much," Xander said, keeping it cool,
"and - "
Milan laughed. "And that money would come without a price? Did you
think you could just walk into the spy business and have all the angles
Xander fought the urge to glance behind him at Lara. Enough playing
around. "What are you going to do, shoot me?"
"That was the plan. Where do you want it? In the head, to be quick?
Or in the chest for an open casket, so I can see your heart?"
"Technically, if you shoot me in the chest, you won't be able to see
my heart. Bullet hole's not large enough."
"Not with this little baby. It's blow a hole in your chest large
enough for me to walk through."
"Well, then you wouldn't see my heart anyway," Xander pointed out,
buying all the time he could. "You'd be showered in bits of it, along with
my blood and guts and fragments of bone, but the actual heart would be
"Alright, so I'll just still see your chest cavity. It doesn't
matter either way to me. Hurry up and decide."
"What were my choices again?" Xander asked.
"Head or chest."
"Can I have a little while to think about it?"
"No - "
Then there was a crack, and Milan fell backwards, his chair crashing
to the floor with him.
Xander took his hands of his head and glanced around. On the bed,
Lara shook her head and put her weapon away as she caught Xander looking at
her. "Always go for the head. It is quicker and it doesn't necessarily
mean a closed casket. Morticians can do amazing things these days." She
looked down at her shoulder and winced. "Would you mind helping me with
this? I'm not sure I can do it on my own."
Xander nodded. "Uh, can I take him out of here first?"
"Please. Oh, get the Ivans to do it," she amended. "They'll.know
how to handle this sort of thing."
As it turned out, the Ivans were already headed to his room to check
out the gunshot, and were only too glad to get rid of Sova's body. They
left in a cheerful mood, arguing amiably in broken English about the best
places to hide a body.
"So," Xander said, kneeling in front of the bed and staring up at
Lara. He tugged at the material around her shoulder, and the sleeve came
away cleanly. His fingertips accidentally tracing its progress down her
arm, drawing his attention to the subtle lines of muscle. "You're, um,
you're an agent too, huh?"
"That's right." She winced as he peeled the fabric from her wound,
sticky with drying blood.
Lara passed it off with a shake of the head, holding his eyes with
her own. Circles were beginning to form under her eyes, making them appear
He doused some cotton balls with iodine, fumbling a few times, and
dabbed her shoulder. "Sorry, sorry," he apologized as the iodine bubbled
up in the wound. "I don't know anything about how to do this."
Lara smiled down at him. She had a nice smile, when she used it.
"Don't worry," she whispered.
Xander nodded. "I'm sure Gibbons will send somebody over later, to
fix you up properly."
"I'm sure he will," she replied wryly.
Xander paused. "Here I don't - " He brushed her hair, loose and
wild from the bike ride, away from her shoulder with the back of his hand,
doing his best to avoid dropping the stained cotton ball. "I don't want it
to get in you wound." His knuckles traced the line of her neck and the
curve of her jaw. "How long have you been doing this?" he asked.
Lara tilted her head back slightly under his touch. "This job or
this agenting?" The question came out a soft sigh.
"Both, I guess," he murmured.
"I've been working on Anarchy 99 for the last five months."
"Is that a normal time for a secret mission?" Xander wiped away the
last of the blood from her flesh, his hand finding its way onto her leg as
he went to drop the rest of the cotton balls on the floor with the others.
"It's a bit long." Lara shifted anxiously as his hands traveled up
her legs, towards the first aid kit in her lap, and continued, "I needed
time, though, to - to work my way up into Yorgi's secret circle. He shares
general information with just about everyone but is very particular
Xander swallowed hard and ripped open the packets of gauze bandages to wrap
up her shoulder. "And now?"
"Now?" she echoed. With her with the shredded part of her shirt giving
agonizing glimpses and her damp and dark from their wet ride, and her eyes
luminous green slants in the fluorescent lighting, she appeared more than
half witch, or like some mystical sea creature he'd dragged from the deep.
Her words rode on the waves of her breaths, deep and hypnotic. "Now, we
contact Gibbons. He has to know what we found."
Xander nodded, mesmerized. "We should do that right away." He pulled the
first aid kit out of her grasp, then cupped her chin, brushing the hair out
of her eyes so he could see them better. "So, you're like Bond?"
A wicked smile crossed her lips. "Why is it Americans always think British
agents are like - "
He closed the distance between them. And it was just like he remembered,
only better. Warm and soft and spicy and cool, all mixed together in a way
that had him aching with hunger. A growl caught low in his throat, and he
eased her back on the bed - or she pulled him down. He wasn't sure which
and he wasn't about to stop and think about it.
The world was quiet, with soft sighs and low moans and murmurs of things
that were not quite clear. She opened for him under his touch, and the
last of her ice melted away with their clothes. He explored her, his
discoveries like opening a treasure chest. Xander found so much to love
about her; the smooth skin of her belly, the gentle ridges of her ribs, the
tender part behind her knee, the line of her hip - the taste, the sound,
the touch of her.
And her hands crawled over him, seeking out secrets he hadn't known were
there. She laughed as she nipped at his shoulder, and her nails traced
fine tingling lines along his back. Her questioning touch on his scars,
and his solemn kisses on hers - far more than he'd have liked. And her
wicked smile traveled down his body, down the planes of abdomen, down his
sides and his legs, straight down to his big feet that he'd been teased so
often for as a child.
She was fragile underneath his hands and he was gentle, caring for her like
a precious object. And she gasped and watched him with those witch-green
eyes, and she knew him.
And he loved her.
"The purpose of the submarine is to deploy a binary nerve agent called
Silent Night." Lara licked her lips and continued. "It's been missing
since the collapse of the Soviet Union in '91. And it can kill millions."
Over the miniature TV thingy, Gibbons sighed. "We knew they were up to
something. You found out what it is. That's excellent work, Porter."
"There never was a sweeper team, was there?" Xander asked. He had
the feeling he already knew the answer.
"If I told you not to jump off the Empire State Building."
Xander grinned. "Yeah, you're right. I'd definitely do it."
Gibbons held out his hands. "I inspired you. I'm an authority
figure, that's what I'm supposed to do."
"Then tell me one thing. Why am I here? What the hell is the point
of sending me here if you got her?"
"Yorgi knew there was a spy in his mix. We had to throw the heat off of
Porter, and bringing in someone Yorgi'd easily spot as an agent seemed the
best bet. Our guys kept dying, though; I though at least someone like you
would have a chance. Look, you've done a good job. Better than we ever
expected. It's time for you to come home."
"What about Lara?"
"Porter's on this now; she can handle the rest by herself. The Ivans
will take her in for proper medical attention tomorrow morning. Come home,
Xander. That is an order."
"Sure." Xander switched off the high-tech pocket protector and
flipped it shut.
Lara stood, strolling over to the edge of the roof, and leaned on the
railing. They had to come up here to get a good signal. Xander followed
her, putting an arm about her shoulders. She turned into him, the cool
night air blowing the hair away from her face.
"How soon can Yorgi launch this thing?" Xander asked casually.
Lara looked up at him; she was far too clever for her own good. "You
were told to go home. You're under orders, here, Alexander. No more
playing around at being a spy."
"How soon?" he repeated.
"Now that Yorgi knows about me," she answered hesitantly, "he'd push
the launch to as soon as tomorrow. But I wouldn't expect it so soon. I
have perhaps a day or two and that's all I need. This is not your problem
"If Yorgi gets paranoid it's everyone's problem."
"I know that. But Yorgi will be on the lookout for you - "
"Not to mention," she overrode his interruption, "that you have not
been trained as an agent. You could die."
"So could you," Xander fired back. "I've risked my life for a lot of
stupid reasons. This is the first one that finally makes sense to me."
"This is not once of your stunts," Lara hissed. But her eyes were
bright. He knew what that meant.
"I know. And I know I might die in there," he replied. "Funny,
isn't it? After all my death-defying tricks, all my hiding - I finally
find something that makes me want to stick around."
"And now you want to go and throw it away?" Lara responded quietly.
"No. But you do what you have to. And so will I." Xander tossed
her a grin, the charming boyish one he used whenever he wanted to get his
own way. Hadn't failed yet. "I just thought we could.do it together."
Toby was flirting.
It was a horrible sight to see.
"But when you break it down, I'm a simple man, you know? I'd be
happy with a beautiful Czech girl, house, kids - "
Xander pulled Debbie to a screeching stop next to Toby, breaking up
the junior agent's little Dating Game. "Hey, geek!"
Toby glanced over, and grinned. "Hey, X. How you doing? Hey,
Lara," he tossed over, nodding to the woman in the passenger seat.
"No time for chit-chat," Xander interrupted. "Got new orders from
Gibbons. Get in."
Lara turned around in her seat and smiled at the young man as he
closed the door. Xander pressed on the gas, heading towards the back of
the facility. "Hello, Mr. (what). How are you doing?"
"I was just about to get her number. You guys have the worst
"So sorry to hear it. Now, we're going to need your help. We want
all of that in here."
Toby glanced around, confused. "All of what?"
Debbie rolled to another stop, this time in front of the weapons
compound. Xander took the keys out of the ignition, tossed them over his
shoulder, and smiled.
A smug look crossed Toby's face. He shrugged. "Done."
"The castle is covered with surveillance cameras."
"That's why we cannot get close enough," one man said.
"That's why someone needs to knock out the communications tower at
the base of the mountain," Lara explained. "Mr. Cage has volunteered for
A murmured passed through the crowd in front of them.
"Now is there anyone here who knows how to fly a plane?" Xander
One woman stepped forward at Lara's translation. He knew her. He'd
peeped at her through Toby's spyglasses. "I can."
"Too much turbulence around these mountains!" Inga shouted.
Really, I hadn't noticed. The plane was bouncing around like a
kiddie ride. It was a good thing Xander hadn't eaten before they set out.
"Just get me in line with that tower!" he hollered. "I'll do the rest."
He peered out the window. Yorgi's castle was shrinking the further they
got to the mountains.
The day was perfect for this kind of stunt. It was going to be
perfect - well, as perfect as a day could be when one was storming the
castle. J.J. would kill him for not getting this on tape.
Inga glanced over her shoulder. "Go now!"
Xander always like sky-diving. The rushing wind, the moment of
weightlessness, the great emptiness around him, the feeling of his stomach
hurtling out of his body. Even the ever-approaching ground, the impending
sense of doom that came from the idea of slamming into the ground at a high
speed. It reminded him of Lara.
He pulled the zip cord and the chute rocketed out behind him. From
there it was a simple matter to glide down to the mountain, and when his
ski board hit he unlatched the harness and the parachute floated away.
The powder was fantastic, it was more like flying that skiboarding.
Xander knew they had to have him on video by now. And they wouldn't wait
long before coming after him. Even the idea of violent and torturous death
did little to damper his mood. It was just such a great day.
Violent torturous death.violent torturous death. Xander swallowed
hard as he skidded to a stop and rethought that last part. Mentally he
reorganized his 'to do' list. Appreciate beautiful day. Avoid horrid
death if possible. Digging into the pockets of his jacket, Xander
scrutinized the valley before him. Perfect.
The small detonating devices were hiding deep inside his front
pockets. Two identical grey tubes. He flicked off the tops and pressed
the large red buttons, then flung them behind him into the snow.
And pushed off again to get the hell moving before those things blew
He was just gaining speed when a boom echoed across the mountain.
Xander glanced back quickly; a tunnel of flame and smoke wormed into the
air. A ripple shot through the ground. The snow began to break up under
his board; he was having a hard time staying up right. Xander urged his
In the distance he finally noticed Yorgi's men heading towards them
on bikes. He guided his board off a break in the rock and it twisted under
him, turning him around. Just in time to see a wall of snow speeding
silently after him. A sick chill hurtled down past his stomach to his
toes. He'd done hundreds of stunts, and Xander always counted on
adrenaline to carry him through. This wasn't adrenaline, this was fear.
Xander threw himself right ways around, even as the air forced out by
the snow propelled him forwards and sharp tingles of ice licked at his
He shot by Yorgi's boys, who were suddenly far more interested in the
mountain of snow and ice chasing him than anything else. Several saw it in
time to turn around and flee. Most didn't. As they raced one by one the
snow swallowed the fleeing men. The landscape blurred into unrecognition
as the snow and air drove them faster than Xander could handle. The tower
loomed in front of him. If he could maybe dash around it -
At the last moment he shifted, and the next thing he knew he was up
in the air. Like backwards skydiving. Xander blinding waved his arms
around, desperately searching for something to grab onto. Sure luck was on
his side, and his left hand closed around the antenna that stood on top off
the tower. He clung onto it, the snow plowing into his body. Like a
blanket of ice, it curled around his toes, then knees, then shoulders in
the space of a few seconds. Xander squeezed his eyes as the snow slashed
through crevices of his clothes and brushed his ears.
Then he stopped, blinked, and shook his head. The snow had stopped.
Wriggling, Xander was able to work the snow from around his arms and chest.
He tore off his smoked goggles and took a good look around. The avalanche
had not only taken out the tower, but all of his adversaries.
An engine kicked up to his right.
Alright, maybe not all his adversaries. Three snowmobiles rumbled
over the new hills, headed straight for the remnants of the tower. Towards
him. Xander struggled more, fighting to free himself. But the snow clung
to him like a giggly prom date. There was no getting out on his own.
The snowmobiles pulled to a stop behind him, the plows hovering over
Two goons brought him to the library. Yorgi and Kirill were waiting for
him, Kirill smoking a cigarette. Both had bruised faces, Kirill had a
swollen eye. Xander's gentlemen escorts jerked him into the center of the
room and threw him down in a chair.
"Mr. Cage," Yorgi began, staring out the window. "How nice to see
Xander wasn't in the mood for it. "Yeah, yeah, stuff it."
"Very well. No chit-chat." Yorgi hurried to him and leaned over his
chair. "Where is Olga?"
Xander grinned. "Didn't see her coming, did you? Neither did I.
Its chicks, man."
"Where is Koyla?"
"He's your brother, you tell me." Understanding caught up with him
and stared up at Yorgi. "He's not here?" No answer. Xander laughed. "He
Yorgi spit on him. "Of all people, I thought you'd understand what
I'm trying to accomplish. Can you imagine it, X? Imagine a city like
Prague vanishing in a cloud of poison gas. Then Hamburg, London,
Washington. Imagine not knowing who did it, or why. And so they turn on
each other. These guys attack those guys. Those guys invade these guys.
Soon, whole world implodes. Imagine government disappearing. And in the
end imaging facing absolute, beautiful freedom." He slowly turned,
settling his eyes on Xander. "But you will not be there to see it. Like
He held out his hand. Kirill placed a laser-sighted revolver in his
And that's when the whole back wall exploded.
The cavalry had arrived.
Pain throbbed in Xander's head and he forced it clear. Yorgi and his
homies were still on the floor. Xander ran and ducked behind and
overturned table. Shots rang out, both out- and indoors. Xander eased
lower, trying to get out of bullet range. The flood of bullets lessened,
and he heard Yorgi shout, in English no less, "Cover me!" Naturally Xander
tried to peek, and immediately got his head nearly shot off by Kirill.
This time when the firing faded, it didn't start up again. Xander
heard it ongoing in the distance, but not in the immediate area. He eased
himself up, and cautiously peeked over the table.
Running steps in the hallway, crunching on broken glass from the
windows. "Alexander! Xander!"
"Lara! In here!" Xander shot up and jumped over the table, falling
spectacularly when his foot caught the table's edge. Holy cow, what am I
in the sixth-grade?
Lara didn't seem to notice, however. Her pistols pressed into his
back as she embraced him, caught his mouth with her own. She pulled back
suddenly, running her eyes and hands along him furiously. "You're alright?
You're not hurt?"
He cupped her face. "Lara, I'm alright."
She nodded with a smile and a sigh. Then something flickered across
her face. "Where's Yorgi?"
Xander glanced around. "He left. Kirill too. I didn't see where
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no." Lara raced to a large set of cabinets
by the door and flung them open, revealing a complex array of computer
equipment. Her fingers tore across a gaping space. "He took the hard
drive. He's going to launch Ahab."
Xander stared at her.
They ran out of the room.
Lara took him to an ornate panel in the hallway, which opened to
reveal a drastic array of weapons. "Pick one."
Xander, of course, selected something large and wicked looking. Lara
merely took ammunition for her basic pistols. Outside the sounds of battle
were elevating; for now Xander couldn't tell who was winning. He really
hoped it was his guys, but he had always had awful luck picking sports
He went first but Lara led, taking them quickly and quietly along the
path to the underground facility. As they turned one corner a set of doors
burst open and a group of Yorgi's followers spilled out. Xander aimed and
- and nothing. The gun clicked as if empty.
Lara shoved him out of the way, firing rapidly and repeatedly. Clearing
the hallway in seconds. Then she leaned over and flicked a switch on his
weapon. "Just a suggestion - it would work so much better if you turned
the safety off." She patted him on the head and they continued.
They entered the stairway leading under the door to find their guys already
there, rooting out whoever they could find. Grabbing several, Xander
headed with Lara to the laboratory. The doors were already open, not a
good sign. And though there were some of their guys already in there, most
were not responding. As if to confirm their fears, a shot whizzed by them,
nearly taking Xander's ear off as he entered. The next shot felled a guard
to the right, and the next a man behind them.
"Stop!" one soldier hissed as Xander crawled up next to him. "He's got us
Xander's mouth pressed into a grim line. Kirill. Think, dude, think,
think. He looked down to see if the soldiers dropped anything useful.
"Hey, you got a bazooka! Cool! I mean, why's it lying here?" he corrected
immediately. "Stop thinking Prague police and start thinking Playstation.
Blow stuff up!"
"Is not bazooka," the man answered, distracted. "This is heat-seeker
"Heat-seeking?" Xander glanced over at Lara. "The son of a bitch is
smoking." He hefted it up onto his shoulder. "Set it," he told the
It took just a moment. Then Xander edged out into the open, adjusted
his grip on the rocket launcher, and fired. And prayed. I told him that
cigarette would kill him. Please don't make me a jackass, Lord. And if I
have to be a jackass, please don't make me a liar.
As the smoke and the sparks from the explosion died down, Xander
stepped into the clear. When he wasn't shot down by a sniper he waved for
the rest to come.
Ahab had already taken off when they arrived at the dock, and Yorgi
was just speeding away in his boat. As he exited the mansion cave, Yorgi
turned around and fired at those spilling onto the dock. Big Ivan twitched
as three shots hit him and tumbled into the water.
On the water, Ahab's engines flared to life and the sleek boat
rocketed down the river and out of sight.
The dock door started to roll shut.
Xander ran and jumped, skidding to a stop on his stomach on the
outside of the door. He fired. Yorgi laughed and favored him with a
finger gestures. Xander shut his eyes briefly, then focused. Act like
it's Duck Hunter, man. He fired again.
Yorgi went down. His boat careened out of control and smashed into
rocks, exploding as the gas tank was ruptured.
The Xander felt himself being pulled backwards in one big yank. He
slide back into the dock, and Lara helped him to his feet. "How long until
Ahab hits the city?" he demanded.
"Thirty minutes." Lara's voice was grim but determined. "Let's go."
They flew back outside; Xander grabbed the first person he saw.
"Where's the helicopter? We need the helicopter."
The person - some unnamed lackey - shook his head.
"Then any transportation. A tank, a bus, a pony, a couple of really
pissed-off ferrets - "
Deborah roared to a stop beside him. "X!" Toby called out, hopping
from the driver's seat. "There you are. I gave you everything you wanted.
This thing will damn near fly now. And I just want you to know, I know
that you screwed me. Gibbons didn't authorize any of this. But seeing as
he's going to kill you as well as me, I forgive you."
"You're a very generous man," Xander replied. "Agent Shavers, I'm
giving you a field promotion." He handed Toby his gun. "Take over,
finished the mop-up. You're in charge." Xander got in his car, nodding
for Lara to take the passenger seat.
Toby waved at them through the windshield. "Yes, sir! I'm the man
for the job! I won't let you down! Wait, wait, wait, wait!" He shoved a
thick pamphlet in Lara's hands. "Almost forgot the manual. You'll need
this. And, X? Go kick some ass."
"I fully intend to." Xander waited until Toby backed off and pressed
on the gas.
Debbie really was a magnificent car, and it wasn't long before they
had Ahab in sight. Fortunately for them there were a lot of short-cuts
ending in a road that ran directly parallel to the river. Xander urged
Debbie faster. "That thing must be going 80 miles an hour. How do we stop
"The controls are on the bubble panel on the top. You see it?"
"The hard drive's in there. If we remove the hard drive than Ahab
will not be able to function."
"You got the manual," he said. "See if Shavers put in anything we
Lara skimmed through it. "His handwriting's atrocious. If we live
through this I'm enrolling him in a course on penmanship." Pages flipped
faster. "Flame throwers, mini-bombs, exploding hubcaps, rocket launchers -
"There's no way to aim it correctly at this speed. We'd never hit
it. You have a tank on your hands, Mr. Cage. We can't use any of this on
Ahab. And Silent Night only breaks down in deep water." She hesitated,
the wind whipping her hair around her face. "I'm going to have to get on
"I have to get on it. Alexander, listen to me, I know Gibbons. I've
worked with him for years. If we don't stop Ahab on our own then he'll
blow it out of the water."
"But that will destroy Prague."
"Yes, but it will save countless other cities. Now, in order to
avoid that I have to get on that ship."
"Like hell you will."
"Oh, and you have a better suggestion?"
"Yeah. I'm going to get on it."
"You must be joking."
Xander flashed her a razor-sharp smile. "How's your shoulder?"
"Well enough," she lashed back.
"Is that so? You got shot yesterday and today you're well enough to
go jumping onto boats. Come on, Lara," he said, gentler despite having to
yell over the wind. "Let me play the hero for once."
She watched him, then shook her head. "If you die on me I swear to
God I'll shoot myself and come after you."
He laughed. "That's the best argument against death I ever heard."
"Alright. Let's say you will do it. The next question is: how?"
"What else did Shaver's load into this thing?"
"Weapons. Hand-held." Lara pressed a button and the back seats
rotated into a weapons tray. "Harpoon gun, parachutes built into the
seats, ejectable roof."
"Perfect." He unfastened his seatbelt. "You're going to have to
take the wheel."
Lara didn't ask, she immediately began to move. "It's a good thing
I'm so flexible."
"A damn good thing," Xander agreed, squeezing into the passenger
seat. He pulled the parachute straps out of the seat cushion and hooked
them around him, then took the harpoon gun from the back seat. "Where's
the ejectable roof?"
"Here." Another button, and the roof flew off.
Xander couldn't help but wincing at Debbie's baldness. But as it was in
pursuit of world peace, he could live with it. He snapped the end of the
harness line to his parachute and stood up, very carefully. "You're going
to have to cross that bridge for me to get into range!"
Under Lara's guidance, Deborah zoomed up and across the bridge. The
road on the other side brought them much closer to Ahab. Xander pulled the
When he felt a sharp tug, he knew he'd hit his mark. "I wish I had a
video camera," he muttered. "This is going to be one hell of a trick."
Xander pulled the ripcord. The parachute blossomed behind him, and
he shot out of the car. Ahab was fast, and Xander was soon dangling
several hundred feet in the air. It was like Xtreme Parasailing. With
another bridge looming in sight, Xander latched a metal thinga-ma-hoochie
(it probably had an official name somewhere) and untangled himself from the
parachute harness. Then he fell, sliding down the line on the thinga-ma-
hoochie, straight to Ahab. Straight into Ahab, as it turned out. Xander
landed on the slippery metal plating with all the grace of a belly flop.
Despite the pain he clung on as the parachute wrapped around the bridge and
the ship lurched and the harpoon was torn out.
Xander inched on his belly to the bubble, then straddled the boat
carefully. The bubble top was easy enough to open, but all the flashing
lights and switches and buttons inside confused him.
As he was thinking about it, a panel opened up in the front of the
boat and a missile array rose out into the air. Those same yellow and blue
missies Xander recognized from the laboratory. With mechanical whirrs and
clicks, they positioned themselves to point straight up into the sky.
Instantly, the liquid began to bubble and mix.
Thinking time over. Xander yanked one of the missiles out of its
holder and stuffed it back in upside down. Then he took hold of the hard
drive and ripped it out. Shards and sparks accompanied it.
Then he fell off.
Not a gracious end, but as he was considering getting off anyway, it
was infinitely practical. Still clutching the hard drive, Xander pushed
against the current as Ahab, without proper navigation, propelled into the
deep. Then there was a surge, and he was pushed up faster than he sunk
down, and broke the surface.
Gathering his bearings, and most importantly confirming that the
world was not destroyed, Xander swam to shore.
"Well, Busty St. Clare, I have to say, I haven't seen heroism like that
outside of the movies."
Xander flinched as a paramedic applied antiseptic to scratches on his
forehead. "And I bet it was a lot cheaper than paying nine bucks plus
whatever for stale popcorn. More entertaining too."
Gibbons laughed. "That's for sure."
Xander held still as they applied plastic sutures to his temple.
"She's getting checked out, too. Sure, she didn't have the ride you
did, and the doctor at the compound did a good job with her shoulder. But
she tore it open again during all the excitement. I ordered her to have
someone take a good look at it. You know," Gibbons continued, "I've
decided to forget the whole thing about you disobeying my orders, I'm so
thrilled with what you did today."
"Even though it wasn't necessary."
This gave pause for thought. "What?"
"I had this young man, name of Kolya, contact me a day and a half
ago. Claimed to be Yorgi's brother."
"Yeah?" Xander replied.
"Turns out this Kolya wasn't too happy with what Yorgi was planning,
so he left. Only he really wasn't too happy about what Yorgi was planning,
so apparently some time after I spoke to you he snuck back. Seems no one
really knew he was gone to begin with, so nobody noticed. Went down into
some sort of underground laboratory Yorgi had and made a few changes."
Gibbons nodded to someone, and a nameless lackey sauntered over, carrying
one of the vicious blue/yellow missiles. Gibbons took it with a word of
thanks, then unscrewed the bottom, revealing the blue liquid.
"Are you crazy!" Xander yelled, scrambling back on the stretcher.
"Do you know how much trouble I just went to, trying to stop that thing??"
Gibbons eyed him humorously, then poured some of the blue liquid into
a Styrofoam cup. Toasting it to Xander, he drank.
"What the hell - "
"Care for a little refreshment?" Gibbons asked, offering him the cup.
Xander took it with suspicion, and sniffed. It smelled.sweet.
"You're not trying to poison me, are you?"
"What makes you think I'd do something as cheating as poison?"
Xander nodded and drank. And nearly choked. "It's blue-raspberry?!"
"Kool-Aid. Seems Katya loves the stuff so Kolya got her a bunch a
while ago. Turns out blue-raspberry and lemon-lime match the colors of the
ingredients for Silent Night perfectly."
"And all the Silent Night?"
"Submerged. Kolya didn't want it getting out."
"Very nice. We may have to hang onto him. So, now there's just the
matter of the favor."
"You saved the world."
"So you owe me for that."
"What do I get?"
"What do you want?"
"Really?" Xander asked. "Anything?"
J.J. was a very smart woman. Much smarter than Xander, so he'd always
found it paid off to follow her orders.um, advice. Sure he liked to harass
her a bit, she looked like an extended puffer-fish when he pissed her off,
but in the end he gave in. He always gave in; it was the best thing to do
- for everyone involved.
This time he was particularly happy he did so. And that Gibbons was
so accommodating with J.J.'s demands. But it turned out that Gibbons had
three sisters of his own and understood the wisdom in taking female advice,
especially when those females knew where you lived and had no qualms in
pestering you until your head exploded.
Not to mention Bora Bora was beautiful at this time of year.
Though Xander thought it was a particularly nice, unnecessary gesture
for Gibbons to reserve a whole beach for him.
And to provide the company.
Like Venus rising from the waves, Lara broke the surface of the warm
blue-green water, flipping her wet hair away from her shoulders and out of
her face. Her swimsuit, more modest than was expected at a tropical
paradise but not terribly so, clung to her skin with the water, as if she
was wearing nothing but a splash of green body-paint. Xander grinned and
strolled over to the edge of their dock with a contented sigh. This spy
stuff was better than he thought. Lara swam over to the dock and Xander
grabbed her arms, pulling her up onto the sun-bleached planks of wood. She
laughed and flung her arms around him, cool, wet, and slippery in his
He was pleased to see the bandages around her right shoulder were still
only orange, from the iodine he'd applied that morning. Xander checked
anyway. "How's your shoulder?"
"It's fine." Lara flicked his nose. "Mother. Stop worrying; the doctor
said it'll be as good as new in a few weeks. Besides, worry about
yourself. You keep forgetting sun tan oil and you'll get burnt to a
"How about I just stick to worrying about you, okay?"
A sharp trill sounded from inside their cottage. Xander groaned.
Gibbons. "Xander." Even through his mini-computer's small speakers,
Gibbons' voice was imposing. "Xander, you there?"
He hugged Lara tighter. "I'll ignore it if you do."
"I know you're there," Gibbons continued. "I've got you here on
Lara shook her head and muttered, "I do hope he hasn't been watching
us all this time."
"Listen, when you two are finished with your vacation you need to
call me. We've got a something interesting to talk about. Turns out we're
all very pleased with the work you've done, and an offer has come down from
on high - to make this more of a permanent job for you."
This stopped Xander.
"Course," Gibbons finished, "you'd have to pass spy school first.
But I have a feeling that'll be no problem for you. Call me when you get
back." The abrupt crackle and silence marked the computer shutting down.
Xander blinked, then jerked away, gaping at Lara from arms-length. "He
doesn't mean - "
Lara nodded, her smile like a beacon.
"Wait a second, you knew about this."
She shrugged, still beaming. "They passed it by me, to see what I
"And what did you think?"
"I couldn't quite say. I never had a partner before. Suppose I'll
Xander hollered happily and hefted Lara up in the air, spinning her
around. Abruptly scooping her in his arms, he toted her into the cottage.
"That's it. This calls for a celebration."
"Oh really," Lara replied, laughter riching her words. "And what
exactly did you have in mind for this celebration?"
Xander winked. "You know what I had in mind." He plopped her down
in front of the table. "Aunt Gina just sent it."
Lara shot him a skeptical glance. "Pie?"