Marcus slapped the alarm button on the bedside clock a half-second before it would've gone off. As she did every morning, his wife, Stella, rolled over and kissed him on the cheek despite his best efforts to not wake her.
"Big day today," she murmured in his ear. In the past ten years, the sound of her voice had not failed to make his heart give an extra-hard pump of sheer joy. He rolled over suddenly on top of her, settling his elbows on either side of the ebony spill of hair framing her pale face; his own dark skin was a contrast against the stark whiteness of the linen. Stella giggled as he kissed her on the forehead, cheek, and throat before pistoning himself off the mattress to stand, clad in boxers that read, in the morning light, "No no no no no..." Last night, a very different design had been visible.
Stella sighed contentedly, and leaned her head on her hand to admire her husband. Even now, relaxed after a night of deep rest, it seemed she could see every muscle rippling beneath his skin as he stretched. The sliver of sun backlighting the distant Seattle skyline through the bedroom's bay window formed highlights on his scalp beneath the nightly layer of stubble, which he would shave off in a few minutes as he did every morning.
Marcus laughed deep in his throat, fully and luxuriously. Dropping his arms, he turned to face his wife with a smile.
"Let me get ready," he told her, "and we'll have breakfast together."
"Strawberry pancakes," Stella promised, pulling a satin robe over her lace nightie; Marcus' smile widened further, until it seemed every tooth in his head was on display.
Five minutes later, he stood dripping and wrapped in a towel in front of the bathroom mirror with shaving cream slathered on his skull. Drawing his straight razor carefully down from the top of his head to his brow, he looked himself in the eye.
It all gets better from here. No more worry about where the money will come from--no more regret for the old job. Life was good, then; it will be great, now.
Something small, warm, and energetic slammed into Marcus' thigh, and he paused with the blade of his razor barely touching his throat.
"Dad! Coach Bonardi says we got a scrimmage tomorrow an' he wants the parents to come watch!" Marcus set the razor down and scooped up his son, Jonny.
"Well, then, I guess I'll just have to be there, won't I?" he asked his son.
"Really? You won't have a job?" Jonny's eyes grew wide. "Mom said you won't be able to come to my games no more 'cos you're gonna get work again."
"She's right; I will be working, but it'll be a lot better than when I had my old job. Now, I can control my own schedule a little bit--so I can come to lots of games!"
"Wow," the ten-year old breathed, "the new boss must be soooo cool!" Marcus laughed again as he set his son down.
"Go on, now, get ready for school. We're having strawberry pancakes for breakfast!" Jonny yelled aloud and took off at a dead run, and Marcus set to work trimming his half-inch beard and mustache.
Entering the dining room with one arm in the sleeve of his starched white shirt, the smell of pancakes and cooking strawberries filled his nose; he stopped short, taking a long, deep breath. The smile that had not fully left his face since he woke up returned in force.
"Sit down, sit down," Stella scolded, setting out the silverware. Buttoning his shirt, Marcus did so as Jonny helped himself to the pile of pancakes stacked on the plate at the center of the table. Marcus reached to do the same, but just then the telecomm beeped softly.
"I'll get it," Stella said as she stepped from the kitchen and through the door that led to the living room.
"Think I can beat her?" Marcus asked his son with a grin.
Stella squeaked as her husband dodged around her, springing over a footstool Jonny had pushed askew while playing. By the time she'd reached the telecomm, Marcus had already answered.
"Dad!" he greeted his father-in-law.
"You got-a that job-a interview, boy?" the old Italian asked.
"Sure do, Dad."
"Good! I'm a-sorry I couldn't-a do anyt'ing about-a your old job, boy. They don't a-listen to the old man, eh?"
"No worries, Dad." Marcus smiled suddenly as he remembered the trouble he'd had getting Stella's parents to allow him to marry their daughter. The fact that Marcus was in the same line of work that Stella's father had retired from had helped immensely.
"Get off-a the phone, boy. Your mother-in-law wants-a to speak with her a-daughter."
"Good, talking to you, Dad."
"Eh, whatever," the old man said with false sourness as Marcus handed off the portable unit to Stella.
"Mama?" his wife answered, and began to chatter in rapid Italian; Marcus returned to his breakfast.
Sitting down, he slid a pancake onto his plate, then smothered it in strawberry sauce made by cooking soyfruit strawberries in a saucepan with sugar. Next, he dolloped on a spoonful of sour cream and spread it with his fork; atop that, he sprayed whip cream from a refillable pressurized can. He then plopped another pancake on top of the mess, and repeated the process; then, a third.
It was worth every bit of the effort. The light sweetness of the pancakes combined with the syrupy strawberries and airy whip cream before meeting the sour cream's contrasting blandness and becoming the best breakfast Marcus had ever eaten. He shut his eyes and groaned aloud through his first mouthful as Jonny looked on in mock concern.
"Dad? Are you okay?" he asked as Marcus swallowed.
"Too... good..." Marcus gasped, swaying. "Can't... take... much... more!" He flopped to the floor as his son shrieked in laughter.
"Mom! Dad's being dumb!" "Marcus!" Stella scolded, "get up! Look at the time--you'll be late!" Seeing that she was right, Marcus wolfed down another three delicious bites and rushed to grab his jacket and suitcase.
"Be careful, honey," Stella told him as he reached the door.
"Always," he replied, kissing her lightly on the tip of her nose, but she grabbed his arm.
"I mean it," she warned, a hint of worry in her eye.
"So do I," he said seriously, before leaning forward to kiss her again, this time on her lips. "Love you."
"Love you, too." Marcus stepped out the door into the morning sun.
"Italy," a hoarse voice called. Vision unhampered by the one-way lenses of his wraparound sunglasses, Marcus looked into the depths of the dim coffee shop and spied the plump form of his friend and former co-worker, Vinnetto. Opposite Vinnetto sat a young woman Marcus didn't know, looking back at him through sunglasses of her own and dragging on the cigarette that hung from her lips.
She continued to watch him as he strode forward and set his attach?down next to the bench seat. Smoothing the legs of his slacks, he sat next to Vinnetto and folded his hands on the table.
"I wanna start by sayin' I'm sorry I have to do this for you," Vinnetto began. "You did good for ol' man O'Malley, an' I told 'em that. But they says you did too good, y'know? Like, maybe you was gonna not do so good for them, 'cause they wasn't O'Malley."
"I'm just glad to be working again," Marcus said without inflection. "I'm even more glad that they... allowed me to seek other employment."
"Yeah, yeah, they want you t'know there's no hard feelings. Just good business sense, y'know?"
"I'd have done the same thing," Marcus replied.
"Good! Good, I'll tell 'em you said that. In th' meantime, this here's Val. She's good people, y'know? Like you--reliable. Val, this is my good friend, Italy."
"Pleased," Marcus nodded.
"Charmed," Val replied easily, leaning back. "I got a bit of a rush job for you--nothing big, just something to let me see what you've got."
"Tengo Pharmaceuticals makes a prescription antidepressant called Valitol, which they sell to vendors all over the place. Most of the vendors 'lose' a good percentage of their stock, but it's nothin' to Tengo--not their fault, not their prob.
"Anyway, there's this Seoulpa ring, the 332's, and they make the same shit in this lab. It's starting to cut into Tengo's black ink; Tengo wants the 332's out of biz the hard way, and they want it done yesterday. That's what the Johnson said--'I want it done yesterday,' like he is wiz on the street." Marcus smiled thinly--he knew the type.
"There's only six of the Seoulpas, and none of them are worth shit. For that many, I usually hire a team, but that gets expensive. So I thought I'd get a guy--one guy--who can get the job done, who comes recommended. He gets a better chunk of yen than he'd get on a team, and save my own self some yen and some hassle."
"Ten, and you cover ammo," Marcus said after a moment. Val took another drag, blew it out slowly.
"Tough, but not too tough. Are you good to go now?" Marcus tapped his suitcase in reply.
"Deal. Here's three, and the address," Val said, pulling out a certified credstick with a slip of paper wrapped around it; Marcus accepted the package and placed it in his suit jacket's inner pocket.
"What's Vinnetto's cut?" he asked.
"Make it ten, take it out of mine," Marcus instructed.
"You're too good t'me," Vinnetto protested, wheezing slightly.
"You were better to me. I know it took more than a kind word to keep them off me."
"Yeah," Vinnetto agreed, "yeah."
Marcus crouched, perched on a steel I-beam among the rafters supporting the warehouse, and looked down through his sunglasses at the six men below, who were busily engaged counting red-and-yellow caplets into unlabeled prescription bottles. Two of them had pistols tucked into the back of their pants, Hollywood-style, and a pump-action shotgun rested on the folding table next to the pile of uncounted caplets.
A tiny cable ran from the rearmost tip of the right earpiece on Marcus' sunglasses, terminating in a small port adjacent tot he trigger off the Heckler and Koch security variant model 227 submachine gun that he now raised to the level of his chin. A hollow, translucent circle appeared on the inner surface of his sunglasses, and settled after a moment on the joint connecting one of the folding table's legs to its top. Behind his lenses, Marcus' pupils shrank to pinpricks, and his field of vision deepened in a way he had once described as switching from a 13-inch trideo display to wall-sized. The sight pip circling his target now appeared to be nearly three inches in diameter; steadying it on the now-oversized leg joint was simplicity.
The mechanical clack of the submachine gun's action was lost in the confused clash of the table's sudden collapse; the baffles built into the barrel absorbed the weapon's report almost completely. As the criminals below yelled and scrambled to gather up the drugs that spilled across the age-polished cement floor, the criminal above stood and kicked the coil of polymer rope beside him off of the rafter. Before looping in a lark's head around the I-beam, the doubled line wrapped around and through the figure-eight on Marcus' descent harness. Grasping the line to the small of his back with his left hand, he extended the 227-s straight out with his right and dropped himself off the rafter. Halfway down, he filled his sight picture with the head of the closest armed 332, and squeezed the trigger long enough for the action to cycle twice. This time, the other Seoulpa members heard the muted double pop of the weapon, but it was too late to matter. As Marcus' feet touched the ground, his left hand came up to grasp the 227-s's foregrip, and his smartgoggle pipper centered on the only other man in the room with a firearm.
As the second Korean fell, one of the four remaining dove for the shotgun while the other three tried to escape into the crates and darkness of the rear of the warehouse. Marcus put a burst into the first man's shoulder, ribs, and kidney, then spun to pursue as the descent line slid out of his harness. A two-round burst sent his rearmost target spinning to the ground as the other two 332s ripped away a tarp to reveal a dilapidated Ares-Chrysler K Model. Pausing, Marcus put two more rounds through the neck of the Seoulpa member closest to the driver's side door, then moved his point of aim to the face of his last target.
As he did so, the garage-style door that had been intended as an escape route for those in the K Model screeched as someone worked to throw it open. Counting five pairs of feet behind the widening gap, Marcus ducked away and slipped into the shadows behind a large storage crate before turning to search for his final target. He spotted the man crying and shouting among the five newcomers, whom Marcus took the opportunity to study.
Three of the five were armed with UCAS Army Urban Ops-issue Benelli combat shotguns, while the other two carried Ingram Smartguns. All five wore milspec armored fatigues similar to Marcus' own, as well as hands-free communications equipment.
Marcus allowed his gaze to linger on one of the two Smartgunners before acting. From the small of his back, he produced a 5-inch black ceramic blade, while from the bandoleer built into his vest he pulled a compact flashbang grenade. Working quickly, he used the knife to carefully separate the grenade's trigger mechanism from the main explosive, which he placed in an empty pocket for safe keeping before sheathing the knife. Next, he pulled out the catalyst stick with which he had planned to disintegrate the line he'd used earlier. Instead, he jammed the grenade's trigger mechanism into it; holding it away from his body, he pulled the ring which would begin the two-second countdown to the electronic ignition of the priming explosive, which was half-buried in the material of the catalyst stick.
A minute later, Marcus heard the careful step of two of the five newcomers. The footsteps paused, and one of the pair whispered something into his wire-thin boom mike. By listening carefully, Marcus' magically-enhanced hearing could detect what was said.
"Got a heat sig, boss. He's hiding in one of the crates. ...No, the crate's pretty warm--he ain't moved in at least five minutes. ...Roger."
Marcus closed his eyes and thought of his wife and son.
"Okay, boys." A new voice, that of the second Smartgunner. He seemed to be about to instruct the rest of his team.
Marcus opened the crate he was crouched in and looked down at the enemy team from his position above and behind the crate that they had surrounded. He threw the flashbang he'd been holding--pin pulled, spoon held--in their midst and brought up his submachine gun. The fresh clip read 30/30 on the display of his sunglasses as he centered the firing pip on the closest target's head. A split-second after the muted double report, the flashbang exploded and the five remaining targets reeled and stumbled toward cover. Marcus, protected by the magic inherent in his eyes and ears, methodically moved the sight pip to each target in turn, taking out the first Smartgunner, the remaining two shotgunners, and the last of the 332s. The second Smartgunner recovered more quickly than Marcus had expected and fired a long burst into Marcus' crate as Marcus twisted his body backwards out of it. He landed hard on the floor ten feet below with half his chest numb and immobile from the hammering impact of a hit against the armor of his fatigues. His lungs protested when he tried to draw breath, so he stopped trying and kicked himself into a crouch before throwing himself into a sideways dive. As the last gunman came into view, bullets spattered the cement in an automatic line toward Marcus' body. Marcus hit the ground shoulder-first and rolled, barely curling himself out of the line of fire as his lips drew back in a skull's grin and his sight picture filled with his target's center mass. The muted staccato of his weapon was a jackhammer, and Marcus did not let the trigger slack.
A wretched cough was the first thing Marcus became aware of outside his own breathing, after lying sprawled on his back staring at nothing for a thirty-second eternity. It took him almost ten seconds to strip out the old clip and push in another. Whether it was fresh, or the one he'd used earlier tonight--ten minutes ago--he didn't care.
"Italy?" a wet voice called. "That you?" Pushing himself slowly to his feet, Marcus looked up to see the dark form of the second Smartgunner tumbled against a fallen crate, framed by dark splashes of blood.
"Yeah," Marcus replied, limping forward. "Arno? The new bunch oust you, too?"
"Sure did," his old friend and sometime partner groaned. "Me an' my crew, we figured to throw in with these guys, maybe make 'em somethin'. You?"
"I might be in with a girl named Val. Did she set me up?"
"Val? Naw, she's good people. Do 'er good, man, she'll do you good." Arno turned his head and spat a chunk of tissue.
"You want...?" Marcus asked, motioning with his weapon.
"If I'm worth the bullet," Arno tried to laugh. "Lissen, my girl, Liza..." He coughed, then continued. "Don' tell 'er, she'll hate you. Revenge is over..." he paused for breath, "overrated. Take care of 'er, awright?"
"Least I could do," Marcus said, aiming.
"She's... she's a good girl. Peace out, man."
Marcus shot him in the forehead. In the crate Arno was crumpled against, Marcus' catalyst stick, ignited to a slow burn by the primer explosive, burnt out and began to cool.
"Hi, honey, I'm all done here. ...A few bruises, but I'll be okay. Need a new worksuit, though. Listen, remember Arno? ...Yeah, Tatonelli. No, no he's not. I had to--he was on the other team, understand? ...Yeah, Liza. I told him I'd take care of her. ...He asked me not to tell her. ...That's how it is now, Stella. He probably won't be the last of the old crew I have to go up against.
"Tell Jonny I'll be at his game tomorrow, and give him a hug for me, okay? ...I love you, too. See you soon."
Marcus wiped the tears from his eyes before starting the car and driving home to his family.