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"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
-Hunter S. Thompson
Suited for Crime
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Saturday, August 15
Daria woke up, opened her eyes, and stared bleakly at the padded ceiling of her bedroom as she reflected on how waking up was a horribly cliche way to start one's day. With her cynicism levels thus properly tuned, she took a moment to stretch the sleep out of her muscles and swung her legs out from under the covers.
With bleary eyes and staggering gait, she made her way out of her asylum-decorated room and out into the rest of her apartment to find that most precious of liquids, black coffee. She naturally considered the kitchenette first on her list of places to look for that bitter nectar, but her memory slowly chugged out the image of a drink machine filter that hadn't been cleaned out for a few weeks. Her desire for any kind of beverage - caffeinated or otherwise - plummeted quickly, so she turned her reeling form towards the bathroom instead.
A few moments under the shower got her faculties kick-started. Not as much as a cup of joe would have, but sometimes pick-me-ups had to be taken where they were found. Once the sonics had the majority of the larger grit and grime and dead layers of skin from the previous day broken up, she switched on the water to sluice it all off of her and down the drain. Clean and somewhat refreshed, she stepped out, dried off, and set about the matter of clothing herself.
Underwear, shirt, jeans, glasses, socks, boots, shoulder holster, pack belt, jacket, gloves, Stetson. And, of course, her undersleeve specials. She performed a quick pat-down of her jacket and pants pockets to make sure she had her wallet and various bits of equipment on her, then stepped out the apartment's front door and into the only-just bearable heat of yet another summer morning.
Door locked, keys out, gravcar primed. Daria confidently backed the vehicle out into the skylane and set off to pick up Jane.
Though "confidently" was a bit of a stretch. So many years of driving and Daria has still never quite gotten used to it. She was good, of course. After having spent so much on defensive driving classes, she better have been. It simply wasn't a past time she particularly enjoyed. Sometimes she wondered if she could just sell the scrapheap better known as her car and just rely on public transportation to get everywhere.
Probably not in her line of work. And she couldn't rely on Jane to give her rides everywhere, not on that crotch rocket of hers. Barely more than a seat and two grav pads, it was hardly a fit machine for the driver, let alone an extra passenger. Which was more or less why she was picking Jane up this day.
Speak of the devilwoman, Daria mused, spotting her friend and co-worker waiting on the landing pad outside Jane's own apartment.
"What's up, white meat?" Jane asked brightly - for her - as she slid into the passenger seat.
"Says the woman who only knows of sunshine through tales passed down by her fore-bearers," Daria replied. "Honestly, you look paler every day. I'd start to think you weren't feeling well if I didn't know for a fact that you're part fungus and prefer dark, damp areas deep underground."
Jane smirked. "Never practice my street talk around you," she said. "Message received. So, to work?"
"To work," Daria agreed in tones usually reserved for funeral services. She pulled back out into traffic and the two of them lapsed into their usual routine of comfortable silence. A silence that Jane decided to break once they hit the commercial section of the city.
"I got a new bodysuit," she said, pulling back her red longcoat to show off the black, form-fitting suit that apparently covered her from neck to boots.
"Yes, that's very nice," Daria returned without bothering to look over.
There were another few moments of silence. "Do you think Tom will like it?" Jane asked.
Daria rolled her eyes briefly. "If this is going to be yet another Tom moonfest . . . "
"Just because you've apparently decided to become a completely asexual introvert doesn't mean the rest of us can't care about the opinions of the opposite sex," Jane groused and crossed her arms. "Besides, I'll have you know that my brother just moved back in with me until he can find a place of his own. Seems he's siiiingle agaaaaain . . . "
"Whoopee." Daria sighed. "Fine, if it will get you to leave me alone about Trent . . . your bodysuit is quite slutty and I'm sure it will turn Tom's head so fast that he will suffer from a broken neck and crushed larynx the second you step in the door. Further, going with the shorts but no shirt look over it really showcases your breasts in a most unladylike fashion that will make every sweaty man-beast on the planet salivate over you and promise to be your plaything and slave for all eternity."
Jane put her hands behind her head and smiled in triumph. "There now, was is really so hard to give a compliment?"
"Yes. The pain of it shall stay with me always. Now get your hussy train ready. We're here."
The interior of Slow Loan Bail Bonds was much like its exterior . . . small and old-fashioned. Whenever she came in to check for work, Daria often felt like she had been transported back to the late twentieth century, back when office buildings were run primarily on flourescent lighting, Formica countertops, and prefab office desks. The owner of the company, one Thomas Sloane, was a member of an old money family, but his business seemed to only ever accentuate the "old" part.
The snap of bubblegum brought Daria's attention back from the scenery. Andrea, SLow Loan's almighty secretary, stared up at her and Jane, chewing her gum unenthusiastically.
"Yo, Andrea," said Jane, leaning over the secretary's desk. "Mr. Sloane in?"
Andrea jerked a thumb behind her and went back to her work. As Daria and Jane walked around to Tom's office in the back, they could hear the slow, methodical tap . . . tap . . . tap tap . . . tap of Andrea's typing.
Tom was indeed in his office as promised, looking comfortably rumpled in his deliberately cheap suit and sorting through a few digipads on his desk. He looked up and smiled lightly as the two women stepped inside.
"Ah, Daria, Jane, just the two fugitive recovery agents I wanted to see!"
Both bounty hunters frowned. "Uh oh," said Jane. "What have you got for us now? Not more skiptracing, is it?"
"No, no, nothing quite so boring as that," Tom replied. He half-stood up and passed one of his digipads to Daria. "If you girls want some action, here it is. Two bail jumpers just ditched the reservation."
"Kevin Thompson and Brittany Taylor," Jane read over Daria's shoulder.
Daria frowned. "Aren't they the two imbeciles that got caught trying to rob the glue factory?"
"Adhesives facility, yes," Tom replied a bit sheepishly. "Not exactly the most exciting job, I know, but it's still better than doing computer searches and handing out subpoenas. They were out on bail courtesy of Slow Loan, but security cameras caught them knocking over a bank yesterday and they have since gone missing."
"Successfully robbing a bank?" Jane asked incredulously. "I'll have to see those security disks to believe it."
"Ah," said Tom. "That might be a bit of a problem. They did get away with the money, I know that for sure, but the copy of the disks that was handed over to us . . . for some reason it cuts off about halfway through their heist. It's possible they've picked up a third party. A hacker, perhaps."
"So it is going to be exciting," Daria said darkly. "Hooray."
"The pad has all the information you should need," said Tom. "The bank security video, known addresses, families, associates, so on and so forth. So onward, my contract workers! Bring back our two escaped criminals so my business doesn't go bankrupt!"
"Gosh, with a rallying cry like that, how could one possibly not get into the spirit?"
Jane took Daria by the arm and started to lead her out of the office. "Okay, come on, Little Miss Sarcasm, before you start peeling the wallpaper with your razor sharp wit. See you later, Tom."
"You too, Jane," Tom shot back. "Oh, and hey, is that a new bodysuit?"
Jane stopped, smiled, and pulled her longcoat back a little. "Why yes," she said, "yes it is."
"Looks good on you."
As Jane and Daria walked to the front door, Jane jabbed the other woman in the ribs. "See?" she said with a big grin.
"Yes," Daria replied dryly, "you could cut the sexual tension with a knife. Someday you will marry that man, and all because of your leave-nothing-to-the-imagination slutsuit. Can we go catch some bad guys now, please?"
Lawndale City stretched out below like a shiny pearl that had been hammered into an odd shape and filled with too much traffic.
The history books and tourism guides liked to tout the majestic natural beauty of Lawndale, but whatever such beauty there had been had long ago been trampled under by industrial progress. The rough center of the city was covered with supersized sky scrapers that one could truly imagine scraping said sky, casting shadows into the undercity that no beam of natural sunshine had dispelled in at least a century or two. Even out on the city fringes, the lower-lying suburbs had little in the way of lawns, much less dales.
It was a rotten place, much of it filled with various sorts of crime, both organized and disorganized. Street gangs, mobsters, and - perhaps worst of all - politicians ran rampant in the streets and corridors of Lawndale, causing mayhem and destruction upon the less corrupt citizenry.
Or perhaps that was just Daria's pessimism talking again. She knew she had a tendency to over think such things. But darn it, such musings so often turned out to be the truth. Sure the skyscrapers were spotlessly clean, but she and Jane had seen the creeping underbelly of Lawndale often enough in their line of work that it wasn't hard to imagine filth and decay lurking just beyond those shining edifices.
But it was to the creeping underbelly the two bounty hunters were now turning their attention. Daria turned her car down a skyramp that would carry them down into the eternally dark undercity as Jane read off the bail jumpers' info dump.
"Brittany Taylor," Jane said as she tapped the low-light controls on her sunglasses to combat the darkness rising up to embrace them. "Twenty-seven years old, graduated high school 2163, went to Great Prairie State University but dropped out after two years and moved back to Lawndale. Kevin Thompson, same age, graduated 2165, ouch, and attended college locally on a football scholarship."
"Sounds like the American dream couple," Daria scoffed.
Jane chuckled. "Here's where it gets interesting," she said. "Thompson didn't last a full semester. After he flunked out, he and Taylor hooked up - or back up, I should say - and turned to a life of crime. Just all of a sudden, it looks like. No priors, no juvie records. In high school he was a quarterback and she was head cheerleader. For all intents and purposes, they were the American dream couple."
"Huh," Daria grunted thoughtfully. "Dropping out of college shouldn't have been that horrible of an ordeal. Or did they take classes in being petty thieves with a minor in getting high from glue fumes?"
Her partner looked up from the digipad and shook her finger. "Now, now, Daria," she said. "We went to college, too, as art majors . . . and look where we are now!"
"Yes, all those creative writing classes have helped tremendously in the apprehension of fugitives over the years," Daria replied bitterly. "Jumping from rooftop to rooftop was an especially valuable skill I picked up in poetry class. What about the bank footage?"
Jane looked back at the pad and cycled through a few files. "I watched it, but Tom was right, there's not much to go on. They broke in after closing hours, walk by the camera, and then step up to the vault door and the feed cuts out. It was all the cops could give us, it seems . . . the pics of the aftermath are still being studied, and they'll be released to us as soon as the forensics team can make sense of them." She frowned and shook her head. "There's even a note from Tom here saying that the officer he spoke to said specifically that, like there was something particularly unusual about the situation."
"Mysteries abound," Daria said humorlessly. "Besides the cutoff, was there anything else weird about the security disk?"
"Just the outfits. It looks like Taylor and Thompson are wearing some kind of circuit cloth." Jane shrugged. "They're probably just on that techno-phile kick. I saw a guy wearing a old-style transistor radio strapped to his head the other day."
Daria turned on the car's headlights as the last bits of filtered sunlight disappeared, denoting their full descent into the undercity. Building-mounted high powered lamps dotted the skyway, but only just enough to give their surroundings an eerie twilight quality.
"I hate coming down here."
"Everybody hates coming down here," Jane returned. "Even the rats and cockroaches hate coming down here. That's why they don't sell luxury condos in this part of town. But this is the perps' last known address, so here we are. Oh . . . literally, here we are. The complex off to your right here."
Turning the wheel sharply, Daria pulled into the halogen-lit landing pad and parked amid a sea of jalopies even worse off looking than her own. The building looming above them was actually a smaller chunk of the larger skyscraper to which it was attached. This and its dilapidated appearance made it look like some sort of inorganic parasite feeding off the underside of a metal whale's hull.
Jane and Daria approached the filthy front door and pressed the buzzer for the apartment marked as belonging to the landlord. A cracked, screeching voice emanated from the grilled speaker next to the row of buttons.
"Yah, waddaya want?"
"Shall I?" Jane asked softly.
"Please," Daria replied, "be my guest."
"Yah, okay, hi there," Jane said more loudly into the speaker. "This is Lane and Morgendorffer, fugitive recovery agents for Slow Loan Bail Bonds. We need to enter one of your units."
"Oh, yes," the voice blared, still grating on the ears but much more contrite. "Your Mr. Sloon called earlier. Do you . . . have a warrant?"
"Ah, no, ma'am," Jane said, frowning slightly. "Bounty hunters don't require warrants to search a fugitive's private property in this state."
The voice suddenly regained a bit of its former edge. "Are you sure?"
Jane sighed and glanced at Daria, who just shrugged as if to say hey, you're the one who wanted to talk to her. "Yes, ma'am," Jane finally said, "quite sure."
There was a brief pause, but to the women's relief, a short tone sounded and the front door slid crookedly open. They stepped inside and found themselves standing in a rather plush hallway.
"Wow," Daria said with the faintest hint of wonder in her voice. "Nice carpet."
Daria turned to see an old woman with a wizened face and dumpy body stepping out of a nearby doorway, carrying a large ring of magkeys. Any thought that the screeching quality of the landlady's voice had come from the rusty speaker outside was immediately dispelled as she continued to talk.
"There ain't many ways to take pride down here," she said, "but keeping this hall clean is my little attempt. Now, you said somethin' about being bounty hunters? You got any ID on ya?"
Both of the young women pulled down the thermasealed straps on their coat breasts to reveal their licenses. The landlady shuffled forward and peered intently at each until she was satisfied everything was legit.
After re-covering her license, Jane said, "We need to get into the apartment being rented by Kevin Thompson and Britta-"
The old lady's face darkened noticeably and she turned to spit violently on the wall. "Thompson and Taylor!" she creeched angrily. "Renting! Freeloading is more like it! They ain't paid rent in three months! If I see 'em before you do, I'll give those two a beating they won't soon forget! And then you'll be welcome to 'em!"
Jane backed up a step as the landlady started gyrating a flabby arm around in the air. "POW!" the old woman yelled. "Yah, I'll get you into their place. And you'll be welcome to take anything of theirs that you like while you're in there! I'm gonna be tossing it all in the garbage tomorrow anyway!"
Daria rolled her eyes and Jane tried to suppress a laugh as they followed the grumbling old lady to a large, open faced elevator and up three floors. After stepping out, she led them to the last door on the right, swiped one of her magkeys through the door's cardreader, and left them with an explosive "BAH!"
As the elevator jerked and started carrying her back down, the old lady shook her fist and screamed, "If you find 'em before I do, shoot 'em once for me!"
"That is one crazy old bat," Jane laughed.
"Crazy or not, she got us in," said Daria as she opened the door. "It looks like no one's home, too. Ready to have a look around?"
The light switches were conveniently located just inside the doorway, but the lights remained inconveniently off when Daria tried them. There was just enough light filtering in through the windows to give the place a bright nighttime look, but not enough to make out any details. Jane and Daria both cranked up the low-light on their glasses and moved further inside.
The apartment was constructed to resemble loft-style. Footsteps echoed off the high ceiling and the bare concrete floor as they walked around. Straight ahead and off to the left was a spread out living room/dining room set of furniture, all of it old and a bit worn out. To the right was an open kitchen, stocked with all the usual high-tech machines required for modern cooking.
Or at least it was high-tech about twenty years ago, Daria mused as she slowly paced towards the stairway in the back. The steps led up to a wide second floor balcony that hung directly over the kitchen. From the absence of any doors on the first floor, she assumed that the apartment's bedrooms and bathroom were up there.
"Who in the hell buys this stuff?"
Daria looked over her shoulder to see Jane holding up a small nick-nack that she had grabbed from an end table next to the couch. The exact colors were difficult to make out with the nightvision, but she could see that it was a figurine of a very odd looking little man wearing a floppy little hat and a green shirt covered in crosses. Though she couldn't put her finger on why, the figure struck Daria as being a leprechaun. Definitely Irish, in any case.
"Glue huffers," she replied. "I'm telling you."
Jane shook her head and set the little man back with the rest of the strange little figurines. "Do you really think we're going to find anything here other than cheap novelty crap?" she asked as Daria continued walking.
"If we're lucky, we'll find the two of them upstairs already handcuffed."
"Kinky," Jane said, raising an eyebrow. "But come on, no one's ever that luck-"
A high pitched wail coming from the hallway interrupted her. Daria and Jane glanced at each other in confusion for a moment before recognizing the caterwauling as coming from the landlady, who was cursing up a storm. Before they could say anything, there was a soft beep and the door opened slightly.
"Yah, yah, Mrs. Binkly, we'll get you your money, don't worry, sheesh!"
The voice drifting through the open door, barely audible over Mrs. Binkly's screeching, was male and devoid of any serious intelligence. It was joined by a chorus of agreement sounds wrapped in bubblepop tones.
"No way," Daria breathed. She and Jane quickly unholstered their guns and turned down their nightvision.
"I'd like to point out that as lucky as this might be, it's still not handcuffed upstairs!" Jane hissed.
As the landlady's screeching voice receded, the door opened fully and in stepped the two fugitives. Thompson was a wiry looking man with thoroughly conventional good looks framed by black hair. Taylor looked like she had stepped straight out of a jock's fevered wet dreams. Both of them were wearing silver-grey suits that covered their entire bodies except their faces and hair. The suits appeared to be covered entirely in circuitry diagrams and had some rather unusual accessories, namely huge shoulderpads on Thompson's and a little skirt on Taylor's.
"Aw, the lights still don't work, Kevie!" the blonde woman whined as she flicked the light switches on and off.
"That's okay, babe," Thompson assured her. "We've got enough money to pay off a hundred electric bills! But for now . . . " Closing the door with one hand, he held the other up in front of him. A comical mask of concentration contorted his face and he was rewarded with a glowing ball of light that gradually swelled out from a circular pad on his palm. Once it was about the size and shape of a football, he relaxed. "Ha ha ha! How's that, babe? Pretty coo- . . . hey, who are you guys?"
Jane, now fully lit by the glowing ball in Thompson's hands, tightened her grip on her pistol. "Um . . . freeze?"
Taylor gasped and started tugging on her partner's arm. "I think they're cops!"
"I dunno, babe . . . they don't look like cops. Hey, are you guys cops?"
"We're fugitive recovery agents," Daria said as she and Jane aimed their weapons carefully at the criminal duo. "We are invested with the authority to detain your persons, so please come along quietly."
Both of the perps looked even more confused than before. "If you're not cops, I don't think you can arrest us," Thompson said stubbornly.
"Dammit, we're bounty hunters!" Jane spat, already getting irritated. "And yes, dammit, we can arrest you! Now place any weapons you have on the ground, put your hands behind your back, and get up against the wall!"
The confusion suddenly lifted from Thompson and Taylor's faces, replaced by looks of swaggering confidence. Uh-oh, thought Daria. That can't be good. She started edging her way over to the opposite side of the couch from Jane so she could get a clearer shot just in case.
"I don't think you chicks get it," Thompson said with a grin. "We are the weapons now!" He pulled back his arm and lobbed his ball of light at Jane, who stood for half a second in shock before diving to her left. As she landed on the kitchen floor, the ball hit the stairway railing and exploded.
The sudden darkness following this only lasted for a moment. Thompson immediately started charging up another ball and Taylor had already deployed her own surprise. Both of her hands were surrounded by crackling yellowish energy that bobbed furiously in Daria's vision. She advanced on Daria, holding the bright blobs of light to her sides.
"Stay right where you are!" Daria yelled, aiming directly at the threatening cheerleader's torso. "Stop or I'll shoot!"
Another explosion lit up the kitchen area, but Daria couldn't take the time to look over. Instead, she cursed under her breath and fired two shots at the still-advancing Taylor.
If she hadn't seen it herself, she wouldn't have believed it. With preternatural speed, Taylor shifted first one energy ball and then the other and seemingly caught the two bolts of coherent light that Daria had fired. The blasts had simply melted right into the weird blobs surrounding the criminal's hands.
She heard Jane snap off a few shots of her own, but apparently she wasn't any more successful. Thompson's jerky laugh was quickly followed by another small kaboom. The distraction of the other fight was quickly forgotten, however, as Taylor closed in and took a swing. Daria wasn't sure exactly what would happen if Taylor connected, but she certainly didn't want to find out. She began to backpedal, jerking her head and upper body back every time one of the light balls flew her way.
Things were definitely going sour . . . and then they got worse. Daria risked a glance to her left to see how Jane was doing just in time to see her partner take one of Thompson's energy footballs square in the chest. The explosion burned an afterimage in Daria's eyes, but she could still make out Jane's limp form flying through the air and hitting the apartment's back wall.
Her own predicament reasserted its hold on her attention when Taylor took advantage of the distraction and plowed a fist right into Daria's face. Dark imaginings of her head exploding or melting away flickered through Daria's mind just before the full effect hit her and made her wish that one of those two things were what was actually happening. The reality felt like someone had taken a stun gun and set it at thirty times its max setting. For one second that felt like hours, Daria's entire world was buzzing, crackling pain, vibrating her skull until she was sure it would break apart into dust. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the buzzing stopped and she, too, was flying backwards.
She hit the ground on her shoulder and rolled around for a moment, completely disoriented. The pain was rapidly receding, but she still couldn't focus or get any of her limbs to cooperate with her. She could just barely make out the sound of the two fugitives talking.
"I think I mighta really hurt that chick, babe!"
"So? We're criminals, Kevie!"
" . . . oh, yah! Ha ha! Take that, you stupid cops!"
"Keeeevieeeeeee! Let's get out of here before they wake up!"
By the time the two of them had left, Daria was able to manage propping herself up on one arm. She tried to call out Jane's name, but her mouth felt like it was full of cotton balls and her tongue seemed to be going every which direction all on its own. After several minutes she was standing somewhat upright and lurching over to her partner's body.
"Jane!" she slurred. "Jane! You . . . okay?"
Jane's eyes flicked open and she bunched up in a coughing fit before answering. "Sweet monkey, that sucked," she wheezed. "Did you ask if I'm okay? Hell no, I'm not okay. I just got the shit beat out of me by some kind of energy grenade!"
Daria nearly broke down in tears at the sound of her friend's voice. "I thought you were dead!" she said as she wiped a sleeve across her nose.
"Well, don't get all weepy just yet," Jane replied as Daria helped her stand up. The two of them wrapped their arms around each other's shoulders and started limping toward the door. "It'll take a little more than that to take me out. Damn, my face hurts. How's my face?"
Daria looked up and winced a little in sympathy. "You might want to hold off on flirting with Tom until we stop by the hospital and get you a dermal patch," she said.
"That bad, huh? Aw, jeez, they got my coat, too!" Jane picked at the singed thermaseal edges of her longcoat. "Alright, this is personal now!" she vowed, shaking her fist.
As they made their way out of the building, only one or two doors along the way opened and quickly shut after a sneak peek. Even the rambunctious landlady was conspicuously absent from the scene. If nothing else could be said about people who lived in the undercity, at the very least they knew when to keep to their own business.
Back outside, Daria loaded Jane into the passenger side of her car and then plopped herself into the driver's seat. After taking a second to further collect themselves, she pulled out of the landing pad and punched up directions to the nearest hospital. Course set, she turned to Jane.
"So, not wanting to pry or anything," she said, "but how did you just survive a point blank explosion to the chest? From those burns on your chin, it looks like I should be picking what's left of you out of the crappy furniture back there."
Jane, who had half-dozed off, snapped awake. "Huh? Oh, right," she said dazedly. "Um. Can you keep a secret?"
"No. Now spill."
Her partner sighed and started picking at her burnt coat again. "This new bodysuit?" she said. "It's not just for catching the eye of the less fair sex. It's, ah . . . it's military grade armor."
Daria grunted in surprise. "That's just slightly illegal," she said. "I should turn you in for the reward money. Where did you get it, anyway?"
"I have my sources," Jane said defensively. "I just thought it would make a good investment. And a good thing I thought that, too, right? Cleaning up pieces of Jane doesn't sound like much fun. I'm glad I wouldn't be the one that had to do it. Lucky me."
"If it were really lucky you, you would have bought it two weeks ago when that creep shot you in the shoulder."
"Why do you think I got it in the first place?" she said. "I like how we've got things set up - me the shooter and you the brawler - but it tends to get me shot back at a little more than you."
Daria held up a hand in mock defeat. "Hey, you won't get any arguments from me," she said. "Just try not to show that hardware off to people so much anymore. Especially Tom. Yes yes," she interrupted Jane before the other woman could speak, "I know you want to flash those ta-tas so bad you can taste it, but you know as well as I do that he'd make you get rid of the suit if he knew what it really was, no matter how deliciously trashy it makes you look."
"Fine, mother," Jane grumped. "Now get us to the hospital already. I'm feeling a hankering for some watered down Jello."
Daria sighed as she slumped into the uncomfortable waiting room chair. She took off her hat and laid it in the seat next to her, followed quickly by her glasses and the band that had been keeping her hair in a tail. After taking a few moments to just sit and breathe, she pulled out her commlink and dialed up the office.
"Andrea?" she said as soon as the line opened. "Put Tom on."
"Hello?" Tom's voice filtered into her ear a moment later. "Daria? Did you get them already?"
"Not exactly," Daria said wearily. She gave him a quick rundown of the fight back at the apartment building, being careful to tell him that Jane had been hit by a glancing blow and not mention the armor bit.
There was silence for a few seconds, and then, "Wow. I guess we know what's in those pictures the police didn't send now."
"Yes," Daria agreed. "A vault door blown off its hinges by an energy signature they probably can't place."
"Are you and Jane okay?"
She wiped a hand across her face before answering. "The doctor checked me out and I'm fine," she said. "They gave me a prescription for some painkillers in case my headache gets any worse, but they said I don't have a concussion. Jane's got first degree burns on her chin and along her jaw, and they're busy putting dermal patches on it right now. She's also going to be completely covered in bruises tomorrow, but she's fine for the moment.
"We've already notified the police of the incident and told them we'll be heading back in to the office when we're done here. I need you to stall them for as long as you can when they show u-"
"Whoa whoa whoa," Tom interrupted her. "Why would I need to stall them? You said you're coming back in and that's exactly what you're going to do."
Here we go. "We can't let the trail go cold, Tom. If we don't get right back on tracking them, they'll almost certainly run to ground or leave the city entirely and we'll never be able to find them."
"Then you'll just have to never be able to find them," Tom said sternly. "It sounds like these two are packing far more firepower than we expected. Just come back in and we'll cut our losses."
Daria frowned. "And what about the company going bankrupt?"
"I'm a liar," Tom said quickly. "A horrible, terrible, filthy liar. The company is doing fine. I'll just take out another loan-"
"Trying to do the whole 'make it on my own' thing isn't going to work if you keep running back to mommy and daddy for money," Daria argued, a hint of anger entering her voice. "You're not the only one who has to worry about making or not making money off of this anyway. Those skin patches aren't cheap. And we can do this. They just took us by surprise this time is all. We'll be ready for them next time."
"And what if you're not, Daria?" Tom insisted. "What if I not only lose money because the bad guys get away, I also lose my two best employees? What if I also lose two of my best friends?"
"You know as well as I do that there's always the chance of that when we go out on a job," said Daria, definitely angry now. "Pulling the friend card doesn't change that, and it doesn't change my mind, and it's not going to change Jane's. When I said we can do this, I really meant we are going to do this, and I'd hoped you'd be on board. You know the police will just bungle this up. Thompson and Taylor are our responsibility and we're going to see this through."
A long sigh came from the link's earpiece. "Why do you always have to be so stubborn about all the wrong things, Daria?"
"Because sometimes that's the right thing to do," she countered. "I'll call you again when we've caught them."
After saying their good-byes and good-lucks, Daria deactivated her link and buried her face in both hands.
"These damn things always itch."
Daria looked over at her partner. "They wouldn't itch so much if you didn't scratch at the edges," she said.
With a look of disgust, Jane started clawing lightly at one corner of the dermal patch covering her lower jaw and growled, "I wouldn't scratch at the edges if they didn't itch so much. And no, I don't care if I get scars. Shut up and concentrate on your driving. Nobody asked you."
A smile threatened to cross Daria's lips and she switched lanes. Jane had come out of the emergency room in full grouch mode, making sure everyone got a good helping of sarcasm before she was released. She said that the doctor had wanted to shoot her up with something, but she'd refused, leaving her lucid but very irritable. Normally she wasn't this bad, tending to be the more level headed of the two women, but something about getting surgery seemed to set her off, even minor things like getting a bit of skin regrown.
Daria felt that she understood how Jane felt, at least a little bit. She hated it when Jane was in the operating room, too.
After a few more minutes of silence broken only by the soft scraping of gloves against medical bioplastic, they reached their destination, The Lucky Llama.
The name and the exterior promised the tackiest of pleasures available inside, and the interior did not disappoint in the slightest. Velvet purple and llama-hair brown were the two predominant colors, all of the drinks were served with more umbrellas and crazy straws than you could shake a stripper at, and there were plenty of strippers on display to be shaken. Daria always felt a little dirty when they had to go into the Llama, but she was determined as always not to show it. The man they were there to meet could smell vulnerability a mile away and pounced on it at the first opportunity. He was a tough customer to deal with under any circumstances, and being here on his own ground turf was one of the worst circumstances possible.
Jane spotted their contact and the two of them slid into the booth across from him. A wolfish grin was already set in all its oily glory across his face. Daria felt herself tense up slightly, readying herself for the inevitable . . .
"Why hellooooo, ladieeeeeeees," trilled Charles Ruttheimer the Third. "I hear you've been . . . looking for me."
"Of course you heard that," said Daria. "From us. When we called you half an hour ago."
Clearly unperturbed, Charles licked his pinky fingers and used them to smooth his red-orange eyebrows. "Rrrrawrrr, feisty!"
"Okay, look, Upchuck," Jane said quickly, getting the man's attention before he truly got started. "We're here on business. We're looking for-"
"Brittany and Kevin, the latest Bonnie and Clyde pairing to hit these mean streets," he said, not missing a beat. "Yes, I know."
"And just how do you know that?" Daria asked.
Charles took an overly theatric swig of his obscenely fruity drink, smacking his lips in melodramatic satisfaction before answering. "Ah ah ah, ladies! Information you already know is free, but information you don't know . . . " He leered across the table and rubbed his fingers together.
Jane swatted at Charles' hand. "Fine, whatever, that's not important," she said. "What is important is that we get some deeper information about these two."
Propping his chin on laced fingers, Charles leaned across the table. His eyelids cranked down and his grin cranked up a few notches each. "Well, my dear, you know my fee," he breathed conspiratorially. "Tonight. The Chez Cur. You. Me. And her. All the champagne we can drink and all the caviar we can eat. Wear something conservative, yet flirty."
Both women stared at him, faces carved from stone. He straightened back up in his seat and threw his hands out in an expansive shrug.
"Or our standard agreement, if you wish," he said with a wistful sigh. "I do need funding for my many other conquests, after all. Still, something to keep in mind, yes?"
"I don't think I'll ever be able to erase the mental image," Jane said sourly. She reached into her coat, pulled out a small wad of hard currency, and plopped it in the middle of the chintzy tablecloth. Paper money was hard to procure anymore, but it came in handy in certain situations, so she always carried a little on her.
Daria and Jane just barely saw Charles' hand move as the money disappeared almost magically into a pocket in his brilliantly white suit jacket. "Please, do go on, ladies," he prompted. "But are you certain you wish to proceed along this particular path? Though your beauty is by no means diminished, it would appear that our two rubeish rapscallions have already roughly ravaged your fair countenances. It would dearly pain me to see such wondrous delights as yourselves fall permanent prey to their prodigious powers!"
"We can handle ourselves," Daria said with a scowl. "But we do need to know more about these suits they're wearing."
Charles unabashedly soaked in the sight of Jane's own bodysuit as he spoke. "Alas, dear Daria, I know nothing about the thieving villains' apparel. From all accounts, their techno-threads simply appeared upon their doorstep much like orphaned babes in a reedy basket."
Jane hummed thoughtfully. "We have reason to believe they're being assisted by a third party," she said. "A hacker, maybe. Could they have sent the suits?"
"I am unaware of their exact nature," Charles said, toying with the various trappings of his brightly decorated drink, "but there is a third party involved, yes. A hacker? Yes, no, maybe. The employer of our wayward friends? Most certainly, my lovelies. They may or may not have been responsible for the upgrade in apparel, but they are without a doubt responsible for the unfortunate turn towards theft and destruction of property."
Daria's eyebrows threatened to raise a millimeter or two in surprise. "Who?" she asked, leaning first forward and then back again when Charles sought to join her in the middle of the table.
"So many difficult questions, ladies!" he exclaimed, but without any true exasperation. His grin remained undiminished as he looked back and forth between the two of them. "Once again, my contacts and I are quite stumped as to the identity of this new player, try as we might to crack the delicious candy shell of their nefarious operation. I do know that they have their thumbs in many pies, with our Bonnie and Clyde story being but one precious plum hidden within the pie that is Lawndale City.
"And before you begin to think that Charles Ruttheimer III is not a man worth your money, time, and amorous affection, I also happen to know where our dear thieves receive their marching orders, even if I cannot unearth the who! The two of you have rattled the cage of the jailbird lovebirds and they have almost certainly flown off to find their betters for further instructions."
Charles produced a stylus and small piece of digital paper from thin air and quickly scribbled down an address and set of directions. "I'm afraid that your destination is not quite as high class as my own lovely Lucky Llama," Charles said ruefully as he handed Jane the piece of paper, "but it is only to be expected when dealing with those lower on the food chain than perfectly legitimate businessmen such as myself."
Daria and Jane scanned the address and slid out of the booth. "Thanks, Upchuck," Jane said, though her tone was filled with barely restrained disgust.
"You are quite welcome, my lovely lovelies!" said Charles as he himself stood and gave them a gallant bow. "But before you leave, what would you say to a kiss for good luck? No? Very well, but that simply means you owe me two kisses each the next time we meet! Au revoir, mes amours, et bon chance!"
"Yes," Daria yelled. "How could we have not seen this coming."
The Total Blitz Bar and Grill assaulted all the senses at once, and Daria felt certain that included more than just the standard five. Heavy, grinding music drowned out all but loudest of voices, which many of the most obnoxious patrons - that being almost all of them - possessed. A thick layer of grease filled the air, offending smell, taste, and touch equally. And most disorienting, the ceiling and every single wall was wallpapered with monolayer video panels showcasing about a hundred different sporting events currently in progress around the world.
The two bounty hunters carefully made their way to the bar, having to stop every once in a while when the light and shadows cast by the wall displays happened to shift a bit too erratically. When they finally reached their destination, there was at least one small comfort . . . a sound nullifying field left the area right up against the bar blissfully quiet except for the comparatively peaceful yet still horribly boisterous conversation of the barflies sitting a few stools down.
Just as Jane and Daria were readjusting to the sudden quiet, a young bartender slid over their way and gave them a brilliant smile. "Hello, ladies," he said cheerfully as he leaned on the bar. "Having a good one this afternoon?"
Jane put a hand to her mouth and made a guttural noise. "Please don't call us 'ladies' right now!" she nearly wailed. "I don't think my stomach can take it!"
"You'll have to excuse my friend," said Daria. "We met something disagreeable just before coming here."
"Oh, hope it wasn't too bad," the bartender said, adopting that level of fake sincerity that only bartenders seemed to truly master. "And I hope you don't mind me saying, but you're both looking a little rough. Are you okay?"
Daria and Jane glanced briefly at each other. Jane then waved off his concern and said, "Oh, no, we're fine. We were in a . . . rugby match, is all."
The bartender's face lit up. "Oh, you girls play rugby?"
"No, we were just watching," Daria said as evenly as she could. "Our team lost."
"Oooooooooh." The bartender nodded sagely. "Yup, that'll happen . . . whether you win or lose, am I right?"
Please don't ask for a high five, Daria begged silently. Please oh please don't. Her prayer was answered when Jane mercifully cut the man short before he could grill them any more about their day.
"Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?"
He shrugged at her and said, "As long as they're about sports statistics, alcohol, or food."
"Actually, we were wondering if you could tell us anything about these two." Jane pulled out a digipad and flipped it around to show pictures of Thompson and Taylor.
"Oh, yah," the bartender said after a studying the photos for a few moment. "God's gifts to women and men. They used to come in here a lot. Haven't seen 'em in a few weeks, though. What's the matter, are they in trouble or something?"
"No, no," said Jane. "We're just-"
"Yes," Daria interrupted, speaking matter-of-factly. "We're bounty hunters and we're here to stomp seven shades of crap out of these two morons after they nearly killed us. We have it on very good authority that they either came here or are going to come here because they receive jobs for illicit activities from someone at this bar. The day is barely halfway over and we've both already had quite enough trouble for several weeks. If you know their whereabouts, it would make things much easier if you'd just tell us, because if you don't we are going to go around this entire building shooting people in the left hand until someone coughs up a location."
Jane stared daggers at her partner, but Daria simply stared nonchalantly back. "What?" she said. "Honesty is the best policy."
The bartender apparently agreed with her, because he stood up straight and dropped the phony amiability. "They're in the back," he said. "Just walk to your left around the bar until you find a door with an 'employees only' sign. Go in and keep going straight until you see them."
The two women stared in shock for a second. Daria crossed her arms. "Well, that sure sounds like a trap."
A bit of the amiability resettled around the man, sincere this time. "I wish it were a trap," he said. "But you're right, they're morons, and we're getting a little tired of them around here. The boss told me to protect 'em, but not to protect 'em too much. They're all yours."
"Okay, but hold up . . . are you guys the ones who gave them those suits?" Jane asked.
"Lady, I've got no idea where those came from," he replied. "I really don't know about much more around here than the statistics, alcohol, and food. Now scoot. I've got customers to tend to."
"Do you think we should call the police and tell them to bust this place open?" Daria asked as she and Jane made their way around the side of the bar.
"Would we get paid for it?"
"Hmm. Good point."
The employee entrance led into the bar's long, narrow kitchen. As Jane and Daria squeezed their way between the tables, stoves, and various cooking machines on display, the very few workers who bothered to even look in their direction once didn't bother looking a second time. The second door left them in a hallway that led off to the left. Another door, this one with a rectangular window along one side, sat in front of them. Jane carefully peeked in through the window, cursed, pulled her pistol, and barreled through the door.
"Now what?" Daria grumbled and followed her partner.
The room beyond the windowed door was a sizable storage space. A ladder ran up the wall on the other side to a roof access hatch through which the afternoon sun beamed. Jane was already halfway across the room to the ladder, cursing and spitting the whole way.
"They just went up on the roof!" she yelled over her shoulder. "I saw 'em!"
Keeping a careful eye above her and with gun still in hand, Jane started crawling up the ladder, quickly followed by Daria who huffed, "So it wasn't a trap, it was just a ruse."
"After we're done up here, I'm going back and shooting that bartender! I don't care how cute he is!"
"You thought he was cute?"
"Not the point, Daria!"
When they reached the top, Jane waved a hand through the open hatch and jerked it back. A small explosion rocked some dust loose to flutter down around the two women.
"Ack! Thph! Bleh!" Jane spat and wiped at her mouth.
"Good job, Jane," Daria said as she wiped her own face with her sleeve. "They won't have to blow us up now, just make us sneeze to death."
Jane ignored her. "How long did it take that bozo to charge up one of his grenades?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," Daria replied. "A few seconds. Maybe six or seven."
"Okay, six or seven seconds, I can work with that."
A few heartbeats later, Jane waved her hand outside again. As soon as the energy bomb detonated, she yelled "Go!" and vaulted herself up the last few rungs and onto the roof. Daria heard a short stream of pistol fire as she followed suit.
The roof was mostly flat with a few environmental control and power units dotting the area, encased in rounded plasteel shells. Daria dove to the right and crouched behind one of these units as Jane laid down suppressing fire from her own spot of cover.
After making sure Daria had made it up safely, Jane ducked down and started pointing off to her left. Daria glanced out quickly and saw Taylor, her hands glowing brightly even in the midday sun, wending her way around in an attempt to flank Jane's position. Thompson was standing near the edge of the roof several meters away, waiting for a clear shot.
Daria had to admit that while the duo might not be the sharpest marbles in the pack, they were still clever enough to make the situation difficult. She counted silently to herself, building up the necessary courage, and then burst away from her hiding spot. She ran away from Thompson's position and angled around so that she could pull a semi-circle behind Jane. An explosion rocked the roof a little behind her; the tail end of the energy rush caused the hairs on the back of her neck to prickle up.
Jane had pulled her second pistol and was now spraying semi-automatic blaster fire at both criminals at once. It was poorly aimed, of course, but it at least caused both of them to seek cover.
"You cop guys are, like, really starting to bother us!" Thompson yelled across the rooftop.
"We're not cops!" Jane yelled back.
"Then stop shooting at us!"
Jane snarled and popped up to snap off a few shots at the EC unit Thompson was huddled behind. Daria, in the meantime, had dodged her way further around to the other side of the building. As Jane took out her frustrations on the poor, innocent machinery, Daria peeked around the corner of the unit she was currently behind and just a few meters away saw Taylor . . . who saw her. Taylor's look of utter terror at being shot at changed into one of savage fury, twisting her magazine cover perfect features as she launched herself at Daria.
The bounty hunter stepped out into the open to face her opponent fully and pressed the safety studs sewn into her fingerless gloves. Then, in one smooth motion, she spread her hands out fully and pulled them back in tight. There was a faint slide-click sound of ceramic/metal alloy moving through plasteel harness as the 15 centimeter blades hidden in her sleeves slid into place over her fists.
Taylor leaped into the air, bringing both of her own glowing fists down at Daria's head. With cat-like reflexes, Daria raised her hands up to block and braced herself as well as she could for a burst of buzzing, blinding pain.
The pain never came. Daria looked up in surprise to see the energy blobs being just barely held back by her blades. She could feel a low level pulse throbbing through her forearms, gradually numbing the nerves, but the materials making up her undersleeve specials seemed to be insulating the effect down to tolerable levels.
"Huh," she said to Taylor. "I wasn't sure that would work."
The other woman simply pouted back and stomped her foot. "You're cheating!" she whined, then pulled back for a fresh assault.
Now that she was capable of defending herself adequately, Daria was able to get a good feel for Taylor's fighting style. The blonde was a very flexible opponent, and capable of learning as well, which came as a surprise. Apparently realizing that using her perilous pom-poms alone wasn't getting anywhere as Daria continued to play a defensive strategy, Taylor started improvising with kicks and even threw a headbutt the bounty hunter's way.
And she was fast. The blocking moves seen back at the loft apartment hadn't been just a fluke. The few times that Daria decided to make an offensive strike, Taylor blocked and barely a split second later pushed forward with a counterattack. Daria was fast herself, but with glancing strikes that were coming out of nowhere and hitting her with the force of a cattle prod, it seemed she was dealing with speed on an inhuman level.
Already unable to take much more punishment, Daria pulled back to try a different tact. With a quick, wide swipe with one blade to push her opponent away, she disengaged and pushed back against one of the EC units. As Taylor moved back in for a second round, Daria leaned back, pushed up, and planted both of her boots in the other woman's face. She felt wracking pain travel from her calves up into her upper thighs as Taylor brought both hands up to block, but the satisfying crack of a nose breaking told her that she'd gotten the better end of the attack.
Taylor fell straight back, leaving a spray of blood in the air as she went. Daria fell hard on her butt and found herself unable to stand up as her legs refused to cooperate. Fortunately for her, the other woman was still, apparently unconscious.
Daria pulled her fists first inward and then out, splaying her fingers as she did so. The muscular contractions in her forearms signaled to her blades that it was time to retract, so that by the time her hands were fully spread out, there was nothing blocking the way. She pressed the studs in her gloves to reactivate the safeties and then twisted her body around to get a look at Jane's situation.
The machinery her partner had been hiding behind the entire fight was almost completely gone, whittled down bit by bit by Thompson's continuous bombardment with energy balls. The male half of the criminal duo had just jumped up from behind his own cover as Jane took a moment to switch fresh cells into her pistols.
"Hey, Morgendorffer," Jane yelled out conversationally. "I don't hear the glorious sound of meat getting tenderized over there anymore. You still standing?"
Daria shifted uncomfortably as pins and needles started shooting through her lower extremities. "Not exactly," she called back. "But I'm doing better than our little femme fatale. Please try to keep jock boy busy while I get her hogtied, will you?"
Before Jane could reply, she was cut off by a strangled shout. "Aw, babe!" Thompson cried out in concern. "Are you okay?! Like, talk to me, babe!"
"She's just fine," Daria called out to him. "She's just taking a quick nap. In the meantime, I don't suppose you'd be willing to see reason, realize it's two against one, and that everything would go so much smoother if you'd simply turn yourself in?"
As she talked, Daria dragged herself over to Taylor's limp form. She rolled the girl over, taking care not to cause any more damage to her nose, and snapped a pair of handcuffs across her wrists. When she looked up for a reaction, she saw that Thompson was caught in a horrendous moment of indecision. His fingers flexed convulsively, apparently itching to charge up another bomb, but he finally sagged in defeat and started walking slowly toward Jane.
Daria, finally able to stand on her own, pulled her pistol and held it loose as Jane holstered hers to slap cuffs on Thompson. That done, Jane pulled him lightly by the arm over to Daria and Taylor.
"Hey, aren't you chicks gonna read us our rights or something?"
"When you entered into an agreement with Slow Loan Bail Bonds, you waived all your rights," Jane explained patiently. "For the last time, we're-"
"-not cops, yah, okay!" Thompson said, managing to sound reasonably offended. "I mean, obviously you aren't, 'cause there's the cops!"
The faint sound of a siren drifted across the rooftop, and sure enough there was a marked car coming down the skylane where Thompson had nodded his head. Daria shook her head ruefully.
"Figures," she said. "Oh, well, at least we'll be able to offload these two quickly enou- hey!"
Daria snapped her gun up as Thompson jerked back a second step and started shaking his head violently back and forth. Jane pulled one of her own pistols out when Taylor sudden came to with a screech.
"Owie owie owie! What's going on, Kevie?" the blonde girl cried. "Why does my nose hurt and my everything else feel all prickly?!"
Thompson had stopped jerking around, but he still didn't look very comfortable. "I dunno, babe!" he said in a panic. "Ow! Aw, man, it feels like I'm being stepped on all over by cleats!"
"The suits," Jane said in understanding, keeping her gun trained on the prostrate Taylor. "Where did you two get those things, anyway?"
"They just showed up! I dunno!" Thompson started jumping up and down. "Get 'em off, get 'em off, get 'em off!"
"I think they're serious," Daria said, surprising herself with her genuine concern. She holstered her pistol and knelt down next to Taylor. She gripped the edge of the silvery suit where it covered up the girl's temple and tried to peel it back. The blonde gave out a little scream, and Daria let go when she saw the skin around the edge was pulling up with it.
"What, did you two take a bath in that glue you tried to steal before you put these things on?" she asked. "Jane?"
Her partner put up her own gun, then quickly doffed her gloves and leaned down to help. Both bounty hunters got their fingernails under the suit edge and tried to pull and scrape at the same time.
This time, it was the two of them that let out little screams. They jumped back with looks of absolute horror.
"Did you see that?!" Jane asked incredulously. She wiped her hands across the front of her coat and quickly re-donned her gloves.
"What?! See what?!" Thompson demanded, his panic rising.
"There were . . . little tendrils," Daria tried to explain. "They were . . . it looked like they were coming out of the suit fabric and digging into her skin! Have you ever seen . . . "
She trailed off as all three standing there stared as Taylor's bent nose suddenly straitened out on its own. A sickening crunch could just be heard as she started screeching again, and just the faintest hint of silvery metal shone at the edges of her nostrils before slithering back in.
"No way," Thompson breathed. "No waaaaaaAAAAAARGH!!!"
Daria and Jane backed away and pulled out their weapons yet again. Taylor and Thompson were no longer making any noise, their faces drawn in agony as their arms strained against the handcuffs with enough force that any person under normal circumstances would have pulled a muscle if not outright popped something out of joint. The plasteel restraints stretched to and then finally past their breaking point, both sets coming apart at almost the exact same time.
"Okay, this?" Jane said in wonder. "This is some serious shit right here."
Taylor snaked her way back onto her feet in a way that didn't seem entirely possible for a human body. Her and Thompson's eyes were both rolling madly in their sockets as the two of them turned and started marching toward the edge of the roof.
"What are you doing?" Daria yelled after them.
"We're not doing anything!" Taylor screamed back. "It's these suits!"
Thompson tried unsuccessfully to turn his head. "You guys gotta do something!" he yelled. "There's this voice, and it's saying something about a 'return protocol'!"
"Stun rounds," Jane advised, switching the mode on her pistol. "Take them down."
"Weren't you using already using stun rounds?" Daria asked with a frown.
"Um . . . it slips my mind sometimes. Are we shooting them or what?"
Blaster fire filled the air between them and their targets. Because of the slow, stilted gait as the two hapless criminals struggled in their silvery prisons, several of the blasts found their marks. Each hit caused a small stumble here and there, but the inexorable march continued unabated.
"Just what in the Sarah Hill is going on here?!" a piercing, nasal voice cut across the roof. Daria and Jane turned to see a middle aged woman wearing an LCPD uniform pulling herself up through the roof access.
"Officer Barch!" Jane called out. "We could sure use some he-"
She was cut off by the sudden whine of gravboosters lighting up. All three women turned to see that their quarry had reached the roof's edge and that Thompson's shoulder pads had deployed boosters and a set of ultra-light wings. Grabbing Taylor by the wrists, he dove off into space and blasted away with her dangling underneath.
"This has to be some sort of sick cosmic joke!" Jane said incredulously. She quickly switched the mode on her pistol again and started firing tiny projectiles at the rapidly departing fugitives. After five or six shots, she and Daria turned to run back to the hatchway that Barch was still occupying.
"Down! Down!" Jane yelled, almost having to push the older woman out of the way. All three of them quickly slid down the ladder and started running back out of the building. Jane pulled a digipad from her coat and fiddled with the controls as she dodged between tables in the kitchen.
"Would anybody like to explain just what's going on here?!" Barch snarled as she followed the bounty hunters.
"My erstwhile partner and I have been hunting these two sterling examples of humankind all day," Daria yelled over her shoulder, "but they've got some kind of organo-tech suits that have been making our job all sorts of wonderful!"
Jane crowed in triumph and tossed her pad back to Barch. "I managed to hit them with three tracers!" she said. "Plug that into your system and try to keep up!"
They split up when they hit the parking lot, going to their respective vehicles. As Daria piled into the driver's side of her car, Jane jumped up and slid across the hood before getting in herself. They lifted off with Jane rubbing her ribs.
"That . . . was stupid. Probably worth a few more bruises, at the very least." Trying to ignore the pain, she reached over to pull up the tracer program on the dashboard computer, then fed the information into the windshield display. Within moments the location had popped up in Daria's field of view and she shifted her trajectory accordingly.
Jane picked up the car's commlink and tuned it to the emergency band. "This is Jane Lane, fugitive recovery license 713-A, in pursuit of Kevin Thompson and Brittany Taylor. Requesting immediate backup from all police units in the vicinity; patch into Officer Janet Barch's navcomp for subject location. Be advised that subjects are wearing body armor, full capabilities unknown but include energy-based explosives, melee stunners, super-strength, super-speed, and flight. Also be advised that the subjects are unwilling participants and are being controlled by the suits, so use stun rounds only. And no, this is not a joke!" She clipped the link to her lapel and opened the sunroof. "Please try not to tear the top half of my body across a big rig," she said, pushing her seatback down and hanging herself halfway out the open roof.
Daria had to bite back any sarcastic rejoinder she might have had in mind as they approached their targets. The mid-afternoon traffic hadn't quite reached rush hour levels, but it was still getting a bit too dense for her tastes. She turned on the hazard lights and started weaving in and out of the skylanes while trying to get Jane within range.
The sound of gunfire told Daria that Jane had spotted the duo even if she hadn't yet. Fortunately Barch had finally fully caught up and her sirens started cutting some of the traffic out of the way. Thompson and Taylor were above her and slightly to the left, surrounded by the red and blue reticle of the tracer program. The personal jet on Thompson's shoulders was going full tilt while still weaving them through holes between vehicles with total disregard of the human lives in tow. Whoever had programmed those suits obviously cared more about their return than for whoever was wearing them.
Daria grimaced as she slid haphazardly between a mid-sized grav-van and a pair of economy model cars. "I hate driving I hate driving I hate driving I hate driving," she spat between gritted teeth.
More shots pealed out. She glanced over to see the perps faltering slightly and felt a moment of relief, but Thompson's suit quickly righted itself and pulled around to the other side of a freight truck. Barch angled her car to flank them on the other side and flush them back out, and Daria could see the older woman's own partner hanging out the side window of the squad car, much like Jane. Well, not exactly like Jane . . . the police car had a mounted stun rifle so the officer wouldn't have to lean out as dangerously far as Jane.
"Careful, careful!" she heard Jane shout over the wind into the comm. The thud of an explosion drifted in through the sunroof and Daria glanced over to see that Taylor was hanging by one hand, allowing Thompson's suit the chance to charge and throw energy grenades behind him. The hood of the police car was only a bit scorched, but Barch was still forced to pull back a bit.
Daria decided to take the initiative and pressed in on the fugitives while the suit was in its recharge cycle. Jane grabbed the sill of the sunroof and cursed as Daria pressed the car sharply to the left and accelerated until they were right underneath Thompson. Taylor cried out in surprise as she suddenly found herself laying across the car's windshield and roof.
Jane reached up and grasped Thompson by the back of the neck. Daria couldn't make out what the man said, but she clearly heard Jane say "G'night, Gracie!" as she shot him point blank in the face with a stun round.
Without a fully functioning nervous system to keep it going, the suit cut out and Thompson landed hard on the roof. Jane grabbed hold of him before he slid off, nearly losing her gun in the process, and cried out in alarm as Taylor stood up on the roof and jumped out into space.
Daria felt a stab of dread at having to repeat the entire airborne chase again, but apparently Taylor's suit didn't have flight capability. Instead, it had propelled her with inhuman strength and accuracy onto the roof of a car some way ahead of them. She hunkered down and repeated the insane leap to a truck even further along.
Just as Daria was about to get back into the pursuit, however, two more police cars came sliding out of a sidelane and adeptly maneuvered to either side of the vehicle upon which Taylor was precariously perched. Barch edged up behind them and between the three of them and with the judicious application of stun shots and grappling lines, they easily reeled her in.
Jane was doing her own reeling in as she pulled Thompson in through the sunroof head first and dumped him in the backseat. The ultra-light wings tore to shreds as she did so, ensuring that another escape like the last wouldn't be happening anytime soon.
"Okay," Jane said into the commlink as she buckled up, "what do you guys say we get these two on ice before anything else ridiculous happens?"
"That's a big affirmative, 713-A," came Barch's reply. "Just follow us in and keep that man of yours quiet . . . we'll take care of the rest! Car 83 out!"
Jane re-clipped the comm to the car's dash and let out a short laugh of relief. "We did it, partner," she said, putting a hand on Daria's shoulder and shaking her lightly.
Daria, for her part, kept her eyes on the road and allowed herself a rare smile of satisfaction.
"I'm sure you're wondering why I called you here this morning."
"Hopefully it's for another job, Tom."
Tom pursed his lips, hesitating for a moment before he replied to Jane. "Sort of," he said. "I just need you to sign a couple of things." He slid two digipads across his desk. Jane and Daria picked them up and gave them a quick glance.
"These are non-disclosure agreements," Daria said, frowning darkly.
"Well . . . yes." Tom fidgeted with his rumpled collar. "You two haven't . . . talked to anybody about yesterday's events yet, have you?"
Jane's frown matched Daria's. "Only the police," she said. "For six hours. What the hell is going on here, Tom?"
Tom sighed and rubbed his face. "Okay," he said. "Okay. I don't know everything, but I've been able to figure out some of it. It seems that shortly after you guys left the station last night, DENA showed up."
"DENA?" Jane asked in mild consternation. "The Department of Extra-Normal Affairs? Those nuts who try to protect us from little green men that don't exist?"
"Those government nuts, yes," Tom reminded her. "You might not take them seriously, but the guys in charge most definitely do. And you have to admit that these suit things are right up their alley. Anyway, they marched into the LCPD and took over the investigations. I don't know how they did it exactly, but I was told that they managed to get those things off of Kevin and Brittany . . . after which they promptly melted into piles of scrap."
The two women stared at him silently.
"Oh! No! The suits did!" he quickly corrected himself. "Our two little jailbirds are just fine, and I've been assured that they aren't going to be going anywhere anytime soon. They're still claiming not to know anything about the suits or who their employers were, but after all the mess they caused before they lost control of the situation, they'll be kept under heavy guard for a long, long time."
"That's great, but if there's no more hard evidence of what happened, what's with all of this?" Daria hefted the NDA with distaste.
"DENA still wants to keep everything under wraps for the moment," said Tom. "Just why they want to do that is one of the things I haven't been able to figure out, unfortunately. Whoever built the suits almost certainly already knows what happened. Maybe DENA knows something about the situation that we don't."
"It'd be the only thing," Jane huffed. "So, besides not being able to talk about something we can't prove happened, where does this leave us?"
"Ah, that's the good news!" Tom said brightly. "It leaves us filthy, stinking rich!"
Tom shrugged. "Okay, not filthy stinking, but still better off than before. For your services in capturing two dangerous criminals wielding highly advanced technology, DENA has authorized a large bonus for the company, part of which I'm passing on to you."
Daria's frown deepened. "Hush money."
"Yes," Tom said. "Hush money. But we're not calling it hush money. It's a bonus! Now, girls," he added with a sigh, seeing the looks on their faces, "I know what you're thinking. And trust me, I'm not too happy about it either. But we've got enough money to keep ourselves running for a while, two more criminals have been taken off the streets, the police were nice enough to not arrest you two for not reporting back immediately after your trip to the hospital, and really . . . what are the chances we'll ever have to deal with anything like this again anyway?"
"100% now that you've said that," Daria grumbled. "I don't suppose there's any way around this."
"Not this time," Tom replied, shaking his head ruefully.
After a few moments of silence, Jane and Daria picked up styluses and signed the agreements.
"So, what's all this then?" Jane asked with a grin when the door opened. Daria, still dressed in just a t-shirt and boxer shorts and looking as if she'd only just woken up, beckoned her into the apartment. "Damn, woman, it's almost five in the afternoon!" she said as she stepped in. "And you call me a shut-in."
"I've just been staying up late working on something," Daria said, stifling a yawn. "Want something to drink? Coffee?"
"Only if you've washed the filter, which I know you haven't, so no." Jane looked around the messy apartment. "So, seriously, what's up? You didn't just call me here to poke fun at your cleaning habits, though I'm perfectly happy to keep doing so."
Daria picked a digipad up from the couch and flumped down in the space it had occupied. "No, that's perfectly alright. I think I can do without," she said. "It's just that something you said the other day got me thinking."
"Everything I say should get you thinking," said Jane as she scratched at the small bit of dermal patch still left on her chin. "I'm a very thought provoking person."
"Yes, well, this was something that provoked thoughts other than 'oh dear lord please make her stop talking'." Daria started pressing the pad's controls. "It was the thing about college," she said. "About how we'd gone in to become artists. About how I'd wanted to be an author."
"What, that?" Jane said dismissively. "Nah, you shouldn't listen to that malarkey. I mean, we're doing great, right? I love my job. Don't you love my job?"
Daria looked up and frowned slightly, but there was more regret than malice in it. "My exact opinions on bounty hunting aside," she said, "I just started thinking . . . why can't we do both?"
"I don't follow."
Daria sighed and said, "You're right, we are doing okay working for Tom. It pays the bills, and we should definitely keep at it . . . but why don't we try to apply what we went to college for on the side?" She ran a hand along one side of her pad. "The thing I've been working on . . . it's a story."
"Oh," Jane said in surprise. "Wow. What kind of story?"
"A story about us," replied Daria. "Kind of."
"I'm liking the subject matter already. But why 'kind of'?"
"Because of those non-disclosure agreements, mostly," Daria said with a slight sneer. "The fact that we can't talk about the stuff we can't talk about still doesn't sit very well with me, so the story I'm writing is about that day, only I've been changing things so it can pass under DENA's radar. I figure we've had enough other interesting adventures to make a few more short stories, and I can make a few others up from whole cloth, and when I've got enough we can put it all together in a big collection and start publishing."
"Nice," Jane said in approval. "Very nice! So, how much have you gotten done?"
Daria handed the other woman the digipad she was holding. As Jane flipped through the pages, Daria said, "I've already finished the one about the suits, though I ended up changing them into full cyborgs. I started on a second one, but I'm not ready to show it off just yet, and I've got several pages worth of notes on other ideas written up."
"'Melody: Hunter'," Jane read from the title page. "'Built for Crime'. Wait . . . Melody Powers? That secret agent assassin chick you used to write about and read out loud to make people uncomfortable in social settings? The one that killed Communists while topless?"
"Yyyyyessss," Daria answered, glancing away momentarily. "She's gone through a few changes as well, though. She's a bounty hunter that kills cyborgs while topless now. And she has a sidekick."
"Oh, so I'm a sidekick now?" Jane asked, amused. "Do I get to pop caps in suckah fools, too, or am I just in there for comedic relief?"
"Both," Daria said, smiling slightly back at her friend. "But there's something else I'd like from you besides allowing me to use and abuse your likeness for my own sadistic amusement."
"Oh, yah?" Jane said as she continued skimming through the pad's text. "What's that?"
"Well, I did say 'why can't we do both' before. A book - even a digital one - isn't complete without some stylish cover art, and there could always be room for some scene art in between each story . . . "
Jane looked up in surprise. "I-" she started, then shook her head and began again. "I mean, I suppose I could come up with something. If you think . . . well, I guess . . . thanks? I mean, that's great! Yah, I think I could do that." She grinned as ideas already started flowing through her head. "Of course, I can't guarantee that everything I make will be in that same boring cover art style you see on most novels, but-"
Daria held up a hand to stop her. "I wouldn't have it any other way," she said. "You can go as Dada as you like, as long as it's what you want to make."
Jane flipped through a few more pages, her grin growing even wider.
"You know," she said happily, "I think this might be the start of another beautiful partnership!"
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
November 9, 2009