A Fine Line Between

[Author's Note: Written for the Feb 27th 31days theme of "thieves and liars". Credit for the particular description of Swindle's weaponry goes to an offhand comment made by Domon. XD

"He's got another job for us, 'Latch." An orange and dark blue minibot stuck his head into Rattlelatch's makeshift room.

"Which 'he'?" the green mini asked, sitting up and setting aside the CPU he had been tinkering with.

"Think back a month."

"Oh, that he. Hn. Did Blazejump handle the negotiations already?"

"I think so. You can never be sure how things have actually turned out with the way he deals. But we always do well so I won't complain."

Rattlelatch nodded; his expression, however, was vague. He couldn't be critical of their varied clients since anything that brought in the energon counted. Yet that didn't mean he had to i like /i all of them.

Tunnelbracer leaned against the wall. "It's just a quick dash into a warehouse, find a certain shipment, procure some of it, and leave. He's already paid seventy-five percent up front. We just have to meet him and get the specs."

"When and where?"

"A block from the warehouse in about five breems."

Rattlelatch frowned. "Close enough to get us caught if we refuse."

Tunnelbracer raised an optic ridge. "Y'know, I shouldn't be surprised you're going to be paranoid about it."

"Well then, which warehouse is it?"

"If I tell you it's got a big red symbol on it, would you be even more worried?"

"No, actually, I honestly worry less about being caught by them."

"As opposed to the other them?"

"You got it."

"An arrest and temporary incarceration or community service as opposed to instant death. I see your point."

"Not like we haven't been over this before." Rattlelatch put the CPU on the pile of quasi-functional gadgets filling one corner.

"True. But as I said...never know with this guy."

The three minibots arrived at the rendezvous point early. Their contact had been earlier. The yellow mech casually strolled out from between two storage containers, his large purple optics holding a cheery gleam and a friendly smile -- or was it a friendly smirk -- on his face. "Hello, mechs, how's biz been?"

"The same," Blazejump replied, optics partially dimmed. The navy blue and dark red mini was the unspoken leader and his tone warned their client not to stray off the subject. They all knew not to give this one any leverage over them.

"Fair enough," Swindle said with a grin. "So, is everyone in?"

Blazejump exchanged furtive glances with the other two. They nodded.

"Yes."

"Great!" The yellow mech clapped him on the shoulder. "My guy already scouted out the place. Nobody around as of two breems ago. You all ready?"

"What is it we are to acquire?" Blazejump interjected before Swindle got any further ahead of himself.

"Just some standard bulk parts. They'll think the order got shorted or something like that. And by 'bulk' I mean things like five hundred-count nuts and bolts. Don't worry, you won't have any trouble transporting them. I've got a map with the layout and your items checked off -- now have a look!" He held out a datapad and Blazejump reviewed it before handing it to the other two. Swindle stopped himself from hopping on the front part of his feet, an encouraging smile broad across his face.

The minis would be fools not to notice that look and wonder what this cargo meant to him. They conferred over a private comm frequency, Blazejump initiating it. "So...think he's gotten into some 'specially refined' energon or he's too interested in this stuff to hide it? And all too much for our good."

Rattlelatch echoed his sentiments from his earlier conversation with Tunnelbracer. "Either he's trying to throw us off or he's lost his touch for 'The Art'. I'm not sure I like this. It feels too risky."

"Of course you'd say that,"Tunnelbracer teased over the line. "Maybe he's just giddy at how easy this will be. He doesn't have our talent for extracting items but he knows the potential in the goods. An easy mark that promises profit."

Blazejump wasn't so certain. "Except we don't know yet how useful these goods are. I'm backing 'Latch on this one."

"Then let's find out." Tunnelbracer couldn't help giving him a frustrated look but kept the conversation on the line. "We can always check and if it's too dangerous, we'll trip an alarm and bail."

"Gentlemechs...?" Swindle looked at them expectantly, aware their silence and facial expressions indicated a discussion he wasn't privy to. He began to wonder if he had given anything away. He shouldn't have been so enthusiastic. "Time is money, after all. We don't have all night." He took out a small energon cube and shook it for emphasis.

Tunnelbracer eyed his cohorts, wanting to berate Rattlelatch for his paranoia and hoping Blazejump would see the sensible side of this. At last Blazejump nodded and tucked away the datapad to use for reference once they were inside the designated warehouse. "Lead the way."

"Good." Swindle contained a grin this time and tossed the cube to Tunnelbracer, who caught is easily and also promptly ignored Rattlelatch's irritated glance. The three then followed as Swindle moved into the shadow of the next building.

One block later they stood at the edge of a pool of light cast by an overhead lamp across from the warehouse. It did, indeed, have a big Autobot symbol plastered over it, albeit sloppily with no apparent attempt made to align it correctly. Tunnelbracer stared at the target building, head moving quickly as he located every potential door, vent, window, and anything else that could provide a way in, particularly the best and closest to where they needed to be. Rattlelatch flicked open a panel on his right arm and double checked the calibration on the micro-precision laser attached there. Blazejump regarded Swindle then suddenly slapped something onto the yellow mech's arm. "No calls to alert either friends or authorities," he warned. Swindle knew this was coming -- and knew he couldn't do anything about it -- but he instinctively pried at the little jamming device anyway. He soon relented and offered another smile, nodding. One day he'd figure out the device and create some for his own use, but not until he could preserve it from disintegrating at a command only Blazejump knew.

Swindle then withdrew back into the alley and the three put him out of mind for the time being. Blazejump took out another device and triggered it, emitting an EMP wave to foil any cameras in the vicinity. They waited. When no alarms sounded they moved along the side of the street they were already on before crossing, and slipped in and out of the alleys between buildings until they reached the intended mark again. They crept along its left side and Tunnelbracer scanned again for a good entrance. He chose a vent beside the generator shed. The grate was easily removed and they crawled inside.

After stepping out into the half-lit space within, Blazejump took out the datapad and oriented it to their position. A short walk along the left of the neat stacks of crates they currently faced and they would be at the intended cargo. Wary of guards no matter what Swindle had said, they crept close to the wall. The end of the row presented an extra challenge: The crates indicated on the datapad were in a caged-off area. Rattlelatch silently cursed Swindle for leaving that out -- it wasn't very apparent on the map -- then flipped down an extra set of lenses from the sides of his helm and took a look at the lock on the door. He jimmied its panel open enough to insert the laser then carefuly began to enter codes on the keypad. After three combinations it confirmed access and opened. He stepped back as the door swung open on its own.

Blazejump consulted the datapad again, tapping at it to enlarge the images. A list of instructions appeared which he related over a secure comm line. "Open these two here and that one over there, remove the first layer of supplies and take three each from the containers in the next layer." They each picked a crate and followed the instructions, and every time they removed something they stopped and studied the supplies in question. Being as they sometimes fixed up equipment before selling it to an interested party, none of them could piece together what the items were for.

As they were putting the crates back as they were, minus several dozen occupants, Rattlelatch proposed that these were just part of something else. Since this was Swindle, after all, he must have someone else stealing the rest for him from wherever else they were stored. It was a theory they agreed on and henceforth resolved to not think about it; and certainly not ask about it. Not their business, as long as they were paid.

Rattlelatch reconstructed the lock on the cage and they quickly left the way they came in. A light bulb flickered somewhere to the right but nothing indicatd that anyone had ever been there.

They met up with Swindle again and handed over the goods. He came through with the remainder of their pay. "Excellent work, my friends. We should do business more often."

"Thank you, but no," Blazejump refused with a downward wave of his hand, understanding what he meant.

"Well, this is, what, the ninth or tenth time we've teamed up. I could use some partners. Whaddaya say? I'll make it worth your while."

Before Blazejump could respond, Rattlelatch spoke up with finality, "We're staying freelance."

"A good policy." Swindle nodded. "I'd hate to see you guys side with the Autobots or the Decepticons. So much less fun that way. Although who knows, maybe we'll all end up choosing some day."

"You have plans?" Blazejump sent a signal to the jamming device on Swindle's arm and it promptly burnt itself out.

Swindle pretended to be unphased as he brushed off the charred bits of the device, keeping his disappointment over it to himself. "Not anytime in the near future."

Rattlelatch worked shakily to extract the databank from the console. The room was deceptively dark and calm. Out in the corridor beyond mechs went clomping past, lasers whining, and more noise went on beyond there. It was all a distraction so he could complete his mission. He paused to consider the next tangle of wires.

Then he felt the edge of a canon come to rest against the side of his helm. His optic cameras shifted to view the weapon. He dared to turn his head enough to see who wielded it. The barrel itself was long and the rest of the weapon looked like it was ridiculously oversized in comparison to the mech holding it, someone with a yellow paintjob and the Decepticon symbol emblazoned on his chest. Large purple optics looked down at him, a gloating smile on the mech's face. Then recognition entered those optics.

"Rattlelatch! Well, well. You're a long way from home. Didn't know petty thieves were around down here. How's biz?" Swindle lowered the gun and babbled on without waiting for him to answer. "Of course, with the wealth of resources on this planet it was only a matter of time before other Cybertronians found their way here. I was out for a while at home, myself, but I think I like it here." He leaned on the gun and grinned away. "How's the rest of the team?"

"Dead." Rattlelatch lowered his arm and retracted the micro laser.

Swindle looked sincerely sympathetic. "That's a shame. Sorry to hear. When?"

"A while. I stopped counting the years."

"I hear ya."

Rattlelatch's processor raced. Was Swindle trying to trick him by being chummy? Was there another Decepticon waiting to shoot him the moment he stood up? Was Swindle really so stupid as to not realize he was here with the opposing force? Either way, he had to do something. He shifted his left hand and drew out his modified pistol. He couldn't shoot to save his spark but at this close of a range he couldn't possibly mess up.

He quickly stood and braced the pistol in both hands, aiming it in Swindle's face. The Decepticon was genuinely startled for a second, then his gaze fell to the Autobot symbol at the bottom edge of 'Latch's chest. He chuckled. "So the future is here." He whipped his left side backward to bring the big gun up with his right hand, leveling it at the minibot.

End

(c) 2007 Autumn L. (aka Shiri). This work may not be copied, distributed, or reprinted without the author's permission. Character of Swindle is property of Hasbro and Takara. Characters of Rattlelatch, Tunnelbracer, and Blazejump belong to the author.