The explosion knocked his world off its axis.

Light blackened his vision. A whoosh of hot air burned over his skin as 494 lifted his arm automatically, protecting his face. The sound was deafening at close range and distantly, he could hear screaming through the rain of shrapnel. His eyes opened just in time to see Rachel's head bounce off the cobblestone of Berrisford's fancy driveway. He was too late even as he ran toward the burning car, ignoring years of training and every instinct of self-preservation. The world blurred around him as he moved, though whether it was from the speed or the burning in his corneas, he couldn't tell. Neither did he care.

He had seconds, if that. The bomb had been planted under the passenger door. It wouldn't be long before the fire hit the gas tank and set off another explosion, an intentional design to keep people away and prevent exactly the kind of rescue attempt that 494 was trying.

Blood pooled under Rachel's head and her eyes were closed almost peacefully, as though she'd decided it was time for a nice nap before her piano lesson. He threw his body over her, protecting her face from the second blast that burned it's way up his body, singeing the hair from the back of his neck.

He could hear footfalls approach from a distance at a run, but didn't get up. They had numbers, a plan of attack and significant experience dealing with soldiers of his skill set. They would know, as he did, that their only real means of controlling the situation would be a taser, either up close or fired at a distance. Twelve feet out, they stopped.

But it wouldn't have made a difference for them either way.

Carnal Knowledge
by scarlet (superscar)

Chapter One

Seattle, Washington - 2019
Harbor Lights Hospital

Even as 494 ran through the doors of the Emergency Room with Rachel in his arms, screaming for help, he took in every detail of the space surrounding him. He'd been trained to keep thinking, to re-evaluate the situation at every moment in a changing environment. People filled the small room. Some sat in chairs in the lobby and others complained loudly at a desk surrounded in glass that he could only assume was bullet proof.

He nudged his way to the front of the line, kicking those who wouldn't move voluntarily.

"You think I'll call a doctor or security?" an overweight nurse glared at him.

"Donna," he read the nametag haphazardly pinned to her faded pink scrubs. "She needs help. She's barely breathing." He shifted Rachel's legs in his arms as though she weighed him down, though in truth he barely noticed the burden.

"And what is it that makes her emergency so much more important than all these others?" Donna asked. There was a dead weight in her eyes, like he could see in the soldiers he'd spent his life around. She wasn't going to give in out of sympathy. She didn't know Rachel like he did. Hadn't seen her light up the room with a smile or curl a finger around his heart with her innocent playfulness.

If they'd been alone, it would be easy to convince Donna of Rachel's importance. But there were too many witnesses.

"There's a silver locket around her neck. Consider it yours."

Donna picked up the telephone in front of her. "I need a gurney."

He could only distantly hear the complaints of the people around him as he circled the desk and armed security guards let him pass through the doors into a long, white hallway that smelled like Manticore. All sweat, blood and antiseptic.

Nurses in pink pulled a padded bed on wheels to a stop in front of him. The sheets were old, almost yellow from overuse and the idea of them touching Rachel's body was hideous to him. She was supposed to be in her fancy mansion, hidden from the ugliness of what the rest of the world had been dealing with since the pulse.

"Put her down," a nurse instructed. "Try not to move her neck if you can help it."

The others tried to help him as 494 slowly lowered Rachel's body to the padding. The moment he was clear, they shoved him aside, braced her neck and wheeled her down the hallway. He could easily fight them, but it would only distract their attention from Rachel.

"We need paperwork," Donna interrupted his thoughts, shoving a wooden clipboard into his chest until he grabbed it automatically.

"Incoming!" Nurses scattered around him, getting ready as double doors opened directly from outside and the group pulled a stretcher out of a dented red ambulance. There was widespread commotion, or what 494 interpreted to be organized panic. Also, as a hell of a lot more attention than Rachel had gotten. "Male, 34. Bullet wound to the back. Possible spinal cord injury."

He grabbed Donna's wrist before she could escape, yanking her to his side. "Who is that?" he nodded to the new patient, being prepped for surgery even as they moved him.

"Someone who can afford an ambulance." She tried to back away, but he dug his fingers into her skin and felt her pulse accelerate against his skin.

"There's nothing we can't afford. Make sure she lives," he said, holding eye contact until he was sure she understood him. Then, he smiled and let go. "I'll just finish this paperwork."

With that, he walked slowly down the hallway, his heart thundering in his chest as he tried not to run into the Operating Room where they tried to save Rachel, or turn around and make it even more clear to Donna that her life and Rachel's were now inextricably entwined. But a lifetime of training held him together. He sat down on a plastic chair outside the O.R., put the clipboard in his lap and started reading.

The first problem and, coincidentally, also the first blank he was required to fill, was 'name.' Well, he couldn't very well write Rachel Berrisford, could he? Sandoval would be looking for him. If he was lucky, Manticore would initially assume that Rachel had died in the blast, but eventually, their forensics teams would put it together. In the meantime, she needed a new name. Hopefully she'd be better before they started looking because Seattle didn't have that many hospitals anymore. Well, they existed, sure, but they housed more squatters than medical personnel.

So he had to make up a name. The only thing in his head was Donna which was definitely out. What would Rachel like? The names of various composers danced through his head, though he seriously doubted he could get away with calling her Beethoven without raising a few flags and eyebrows. Lucy. The first time they'd met, she'd played that goofy, fun song from a cartoon and forced him see her as a person. He wrote it down.

Lucy... Brown? Mozart? Lehane? Simon? Simmons?

He'd always been weirdly suspicious of common names on solo ops. Whenever he met an Agent Anderson, his automatic thought was lazy alias. John Smith? Must be CIA. What he needed was something weird. Hard to pronounce or too unbelievably awful to be made up. Like something that rhymed with genitalia. But he also didn't want it to stick in anyone's head.

So he wrote 'Fulk.' First sequence of letters that came to him.

He moved on. Social Security Number.


More difficult, 494 found out, than pushing his brain to work overtime coming up with possible solutions to trivial problems was letting it wander on its own. He knew that most of his fellow soldiers at Manticore had made it their life's goal to focus on nothing, to shut down every part of themselves that wasn't a soldier 24/7, but he'd never been able to do it. Put on a good show of it, perhaps, but his mind was always whirling with something. Generally, his thought process was consumed with what he would like to say.

Early in life, it became clear that no one was much interested in listening to him. On very rare occasion he'd been able to suggest alternatives to any given game plan that wasn't met with some kind of negative consequence. But the temptation to try had been more or less beaten out of him over the years. It hadn't stopped him when Rachel's life was on the line, but it gave him the experience to know when he was fighting a losing battle.

The monumental fuck up he'd made that morning wasn't lost on him. He'd chosen to fight Manticore and the best case scenario he could see was a sniper shot to the head. Wouldn't see it coming. Of course, it only meant that instead of having his life flash before him when he died, it flashed before him every time someone new walked up the wide corridor toward the operating room. He'd wait for them to pull a gun, wondering if that second would be his last.

Re-capture wasn't an option. Even if he negotiated turning himself in, the best he could hope for was months of torture. He'd heard the stories, just like the rest of them, back when they were kids. Almost an entire unit had tried to escape. They'd been taken apart to find their malfunction. Psy-ops personnel said he was lucky he wasn't part of that unit, even as they probed every disloyal thought he'd ever had, punishing him for all that and more. He couldn't have been more than eight years old, though the actual date of his birth was a mystery.

Even if he somehow managed to evade capture, they'd made it clear that it was impossible for a transgenic to survive outside. What made them superior, their strength, quickness and durability was their DNA, an unnatural balance that couldn't maintain itself without medicinal supplementation. Only Manticore had the meds, so only Manticore could keep him alive.

494 was going to die.

But he had to be sure, first, that Rachel wasn't.

"Mr. Fulk?"

The voice penetrated his perception, but it meant nothing to him. He blinked at the intruder, a weary woman in pink scrubs holding a clipboard.

"Your wife made it through surgery. We repaired the internal bleeding and dressed the burns but there's not much we can do about the head injury. She's lapsed into a coma."

The term wife, he'd come to understand only through his verbal classes at Manticore. Robert Berrisford's wife had died long before 494 posed as Simon Lehane, inserting himself into their lives as Rachel's piano teacher. So in theory, he was aware that a wife's role could range from shared responsibility and property consolidation to decorative trinket and event planner. Much like the surrogates at Manticore, they also provided a much needed home to future offspring, fulfilling an apparent biological imperative of the species. None of these things appealed to 494 in respect to his own relationship with Rachel. He had no property to share, business to consolidate or events to plan and procreation of any kind was forbidden by Manticore and dangerous enough to kill Rachel.

However, legally, a marriage in effect fused the decision making process between people, leaving the strongest of will to dominate the partnership. Medically speaking, it gave him the decision making power he needed to save Rachel's life.

"What about a neck injury? Paralysis?" The words came to him without conscious thought. It was a worry that plagued him. Almost worse than seeing Rachel gone would be to see her diminished, to never be able to move freely. Confined to a prison of her own body. It was a nightmare he'd only heard stories about at Manticore.

"We have her neck braced, but other than severe bruising and whiplash, it's not our main concern."

"She has brain function? She could wake up?"

"It's possible, but..." The nurse kept talking, but 494 heard nothing else. He'd been forced all his life to embrace the very limits of his physical capability. Now he'd make Rachel do the same.

"Where is she?" he interrupted.

"We're preparing her for release."

"That's unacceptable." He couldn't take care of her himself. He didn't have a place to live, much less a medical degree. It would take him weeks or more to learn everything he needed to treat her condition, let alone make steps to heal her.

"You didn't list an insurance provider, unless you're able to pay out of pocket -"

"I am."

Dubiously, the nurse flicked her eyes over his attire. So it wasn't a fucking business suit, he'd been feet away from an explosion.

"Look, I don't care if you believe me. I care that you give my wife a hospital room."

"Sir, our policy is to receive payment up front."

"How much?"

She gave him a number, one that he wasn't sure how to come up with, but he'd find a way. Assassination was a marketable skill.

"If you give me until the end of the day tomorrow, I'll give you twice that."

Unlike Donna, this nurse looked offended. Oh well, he'd tried the easy way.


Idiot, Max Gueverra had repeated in her head over and over ever since she'd watched Logan Cale get shot in broad daylight on the news footage that afternoon. If you wanted to be a hero, you couldn't get your ass shot off. Granted, he'd tried to bring in the big guns, namely herself, to protect him, but just the fact that they'd been caught on camera by a hoverdrone proved she was right not to be there. Idiot.

There was something admittedly attractive about someone wanting to save the world and all that, she could see why he'd want to take the country back before the pulse when he probably spent his summers on a yacht anchored off Sicily. Or maybe he liked everything as it was so he could run around bringing light to the masses. Suddenly, his life had a point and he wanted to guilt everyone else into his personal battle.

Max didn't mind the state of the world. Yeah, bad guys ruled the show, but how was that different than before? Some big corporation slamming on the little guy? At least gangsters were straight up about it. Plus, the whole decline in technology and infrastructure made it a whole lot easier for a girl to hide from the government agency that created her.

It was rare to meet a person defined by their ideals. She, herself, had very few, so there was something appealing about the idealist thing Logan had working for him. Provided she could get over the total violation of him going through her stuff uninvited. Or what he'd done next.

Perhaps the most annoying part of her genetic engineering was the fact that she rarely met people that weren't attracted to her. It made laying low difficult and created a lot of problems. But it was always a weapon at the ready, usable in any given situation.

But Logan had twisted it on her. She'd assumed his interest was in her as a woman and he'd catered to that assumption, albeit in creepy ways, leaving her gifts, cooking her dinner without bothering to actually invite her. He'd seemed like a normal guy, ignorant of those things that actually attracted a woman, but still just trying to play the dating game.

Just remembering the smug satisfaction on his face when he saw the barcode Manticore genetically engraved to her neck made Max's stomach drop to her toes as it had in that moment. She'd been the idiot then. Off her guard, off her game. It had been so long since someone had seen her barcode, she'd almost forgotten they could.

Not that most of them would have understood it if they had. Apparently, she'd just happened to break into the apartment of the one person who did. She'd been too angry at herself to offer him alternatives to his suicide mission.

It was hardly her fault that his plan was tactically flawed and all around stupid. Unfortunately, she still felt bad that he'd nearly died, which was why she was sneaking down the hall of Harbor Lights hospital, looking for him. Most of the rooms were dark, but she could see just fine. Even so, a small table light illuminated Logan's face in the doorway of room 314. She could see the tubes running to his nose.

"You idiot!" she couldn't help erupting at the unconscious man as she walked through the door.

Of course, the second she actually walked through the door, Max really wished she'd kept her mouth shut.

Apparently, Logan had a roommate. A pretty brunette girl that couldn't have been older than eighteen was laying in a bed a few feet away from Logan's and was hardly in a position to care about Max's outburst.

But her boyfriend, an extremely good looking man in his early twenties, looked kind of pissed. "What?" He was staring at Max in confused surprise from his seat next to the girl's bed, where his thumb continued to massage her pale hand. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. She could see the tears making his eyelashes clump together and his pupils dilated under the glow of the small light, piercing Max's heart with immediate empathy. He looked like he'd been through hell. And great, apparently she was yelling at him.

"Visiting hours are over," she said, the dumbest possible thing she could have mentioned, given her own presence.

"I'm sure you'll be the first person I tell when I care."

Smart ass. Max couldn't help being annoyed with herself for walking into it. Especially when she'd meant to go a much gentler direction. "Sorry. I wasn't expecting anyone else to be here."

"Yeah, I threatened a nurse to get Rachel a bed. Sorry if it styles your cramp."

"Cramps your style?" Max tried.

Terror crossed his face momentarily, as though she'd caught him in a monumental lie, but he shrugged it off. "Yeah, that. I'm... tired."

"No shock there. She going to be okay?" Max asked, wandering over to the window to avoid the look in his eyes.

"Yes." But he didn't sound like he believed it, more like he wanted to.

Max lifted one of the venetian blinds, looked out over the cityscape ... and froze. "I need you to do exactly what I say." She turned to find him on his feet, alert and waiting. "Grab her IV and wheel her out of the room now. I'm right behind you."

He moved immediately, without question. It was both a shock and a relief. There was nothing worse than someone wanting explanations when there was no time for them, but in her experience that rarely stopped people from mouthing off with any stupid thing that occurred to them. He was out the door with the girl almost immediately, clearing the way for her to push Logan's bed out after him.

Five seconds later, the room exploded.

Light flashed brightly down the hallway, before the overheads crashed, covering them in darkness. Max felt her legs lift from the floor just before her back hit the wall and she found herself staring into wild eyes that reflected the orange light of the fire deep in their pupils. "What do you know?" he whispered.

Normally, she'd push him off her and kick his ass for the attempted threats and manhandling, but Max relaxed instead. Not like he was hurting her. "Logan was shot today. Guy outside tried to finish the job."


"The one in the other bed? Doesn't talk much?"

"Right." Boyfriend nodded, relaxing, but not pulling away. The automatic sprinklers popped on, and cold water poured down over Max's face and hair, under the collar of her jacket. Her breath hissed as it trickled between her breasts and lower. If she had to cut back to her place and change before she schlepped to Logan's, her night was going to last forever.

In front of her, Boyfriend slumped, the water adding yet another level of discomfort onto his misery and despite the fact that he seemed fairly willing to choke her just a few moments ago, Max couldn't help feeling his pain.

"So whadja do?" she asked, unwilling to pretend she was stupid enough not to pick up on the obvious.

He winced and, if anything, she'd drawn his attention away from the fact that the ceilings were raining on his comatose sweetheart. "Nothing you need to worry about."

"We should probably keep walking," Max suggested as, despite the water, the fire continued to rage in earnest.

The poor guy looked like he was about to collapse from either despair, exhaustion or pure disorientation. Gently, Max pushed him toward his girlfriend's bed even as security ran toward the fire with buckets, yelling about the fire department.

"Take them to the lobby!" a nurse yelled at Max, holding an elevator door open for them to wheel in Rachel and Logan's beds.


494 was fucking up left and right and he was debating just killing the curly haired brunette to end the frustration. Not that she seemed like a particular threat, as she'd treated everything that happened with a serenity that made him jealous. And it wasn't all that likely she'd run to the police, given that her boyfriend was getting blown up too.

"So what's your name?" she asked as the floors ticked down toward L.

Yet another thing to pull out of the air. "I don't know." He should of just made something up. Tom, how about that? Joe. Nice and generic. What was it about this girl that dragged him into all this uncomfortable honesty?

"I'm Max."

That, he was fairly sure, was largely considered to be a boy's name. But it fit her. Energy exuded from her smile and he couldn't help hating her a little bit just for being alive. "Hi, Max. Nice weather, huh?"

"You know if you don't tell me, I'll just make one up for you."

"Could you?" He asked sarcastically, but it didn't stop him from hoping she would. It would be really nice to have someone else making up bull shit personal information for a few minutes.

The elevator dinged and they pushed their respective coma patients into the lobby. "Well, this is my stop, but it was great to meetcha... Alec."

She punched his arm, getting some serious muscle behind it. He watched her depart, hips swinging as he let the name wash over him.

Alec. A common nickname for 'Alexander.' But he'd heard it in other contexts. In Manticore, during his classes on common verbal usage, the teacher had called him a smart aleck. When he'd found out what it meant, he'd been pleased. He'd also been cleared to the next level of speech preparatory classes.

"What do you think, Rachel?" he asked softly. "Am I an 'Alec'?"


It was a long night for Max. Also rewarding in that superhero, help others sort of way. She tried not to think too much about how close she was to being caught. How inches had separated the space between herself and Col. Donald Lydecker, the man who wanted her brought back to Manticore, either kicking and screaming or broken and cold. It probably didn't matter to him which. After he'd shot Eva, another child in her unit, Max had stopped believing he was in it for their best interests.

That was the night they escaped. She hadn't stopped running until she landed in Seattle.

Despite the close call, she wasn't caught and didn't have to go back to the cold, cement military compound that mixed her up a unique genetic cocktail of different cats, animals and who-the-hell-knows. So she was on a high. Spent a few hours zipping around the city on her Ninja 650 before finding herself pulling up in front of Harbor Lights for the second time in twelve hours.

She wouldn't mind telling Logan she'd singlehandedly worked his miracle for him while he was out, but of course, he'd probably still be out by the time she got there. Really, the only person she'd be able to talk to was Alec, and he hadn't seemed particularly thrilled by her presence.

People so rarely recognized what was good for them. He was a wreck. Probably hadn't even eaten yet.

With that in mind, Max hid her bike in an alleyway and approached the nearest food stand. She'd heard of a time when you could pull up to McDonald's any time before ten am and get anything you could imagine. Eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes and hashbrowns. Any of that pore clogging beauty. That wasn't the case in post-pulse Seattle. So, she got what they had. An energy bar, bacon jerky, few rice cakes and coffee. It was still Seattle. There was an unending supply of coffee, it just wasn't particularly great anymore.

She doubted Alec would appreciate her efforts in respect to taste, but maybe he could hold Rachel's hand for a few more hours without fainting.

It wasn't until she was almost up the steps to Harbor Lights when it caught her eye.

Hidden just outside the view of most people, parked on a sidestreet, was a black Mercedes SUV in absolutely mint condition. 2018 model at the oldest. No head in the window. No guard.

Alec would have to wait.


He didn't want to be too obvious. It wasn't like he could just park in the marketplace. There were plenty of people that would want the fine piece of machinery he'd lifted from Manticore. But he couldn't let just anyone steal it. He needed someone with connections, who knew where to go to fence it and wouldn't mind letting him take the lion's share of the profit off their hands.

When he made it clear what the alternatives were, Alec was pretty sure that would be the easy part.

So he'd hidden in plain view, hoping it would take a somewhat experienced thief to notice and take advantage.

But it had been hours and he was sweating from the stale heat and nervousness as his stomach growled at him in annoyance. One thing Manticore had been good at was regular feeding. They had to keep their soldiers in top condition, so they each had perfectly nutritious meals catered to their specific genetic traits. Even on missions, they stocked his cupboards with MREs and eating instructions. When he'd been with Rachel, food seemed unimportant, but as he lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling of an SUV, it was all he could think about.

He was so involved with the pain in his stomach, the sound of the locking mechanism turning in the driver's door took him by surprise. Finally. The fact that he hadn't heard them approach was a positive sign, though. They were good. Good thieves knew people.

The door opened and Alec could hear the slosh of liquid as something thunked none too gently into the cup holder. Coffee, he realized, as the smell hit him. Before he'd gone on the Berrisford mission, he'd never tasted coffee. Or beer, for that matter. At the present moment, he could have gone for either... or both.

Plastic bags bounced one by one on the passenger seat before the thief settled into the driver's seat and Alec noticed dark curls flowing over edge of the seat, past the head rest. A woman, he realized, before his mind narrowed further. Not just any woman.

He sat up to confirm the theory just as she leaned forward, popping the casing below the ignition.

"Don't bother, I have a key."

Max spun, drilling Alec's neck to the arm rest behind him. Just as quickly, she released him. "God, Alec, you scared the shit out of me."

"Good morning to you too."

"What are you doing here?"

"Waiting for you, Maxie." He tossed her the keys. "I figure I provide the ride, you take it to your fence or whatever you kids are calling it these days, we come up with an equitable split for both parties, whattayasay?" He'd practiced just that word slur in front of a mirror until he got it right to pass a common verbal usage test at Manticore. The obnoxious salesman grin he threw her way was just for fun.

"50-50," Max negotiated.

"70-30, it's my car."

"You gave me the keys," she pointed out.

"Because I knew you couldn't resist. 60-40."

"What is this, charity? I give you a connection for the future, you take away my business? No deal."

Alec smarted over charity though he supposed that would be exactly what it would be if she agreed to the deal just because she felt bad for his situation. He appreciated that she was hard lining the negotiation, it put him at ease. "50-50," he agreed. Though he figured once the money was actually in front of them, there was strong potential for renegotiation.

He climbed into the passenger seat, clearing her rubble when he noticed what it was. Food. "Hey, are you going to eat this?"

Max turned the key in the ignition and shrugged. "Go for it."


It was gratifying to watch Alec tear through the food she'd bought with him in mind without actually having to admit she'd done so.

"Coffee?" she offered, looking into the rearview as she backed onto the main street.

Slurping was her only answer and Max struggled to keep her smile to herself. "This thing have bullet proof siding?"

"Doesn't everything?" Alec asked between bites.

"Only stateside. This one's a Euromake."

"It's got it."

Car wasn't worth it's weight in Seattle without good siding. Most people tore apart their old car doors and stuffed it with paper, blankets, whatever would fit that had a chance of working. Not perfect, but more or less effective. This one hadn't been ripped apart and re-worked like a quilt, so it either had it or it didn't. Had to be worth some serious dough. Though Max and Alec would probably only see a fraction of it.

"Rachel get a new room?" Max asked, though even as the words left her lips, she wanted to swallow her tongue.

Alec wilted. His enthusiastic crunching quieted and he swallowed, just staring at what remained of his bacon jerky. "Yeah, stuffed her in some other room with a cancer patient and amputee. Not sure what happened to Logan."

"I'm sure he's got the penthouse view," Max shrugged it off. Logan had more money than God, as far as Max had observed. She was sure he'd get the royal treatment.

"Heard a doctor say he might not walk again." Alec was shifting the focus of the conversation and not very subtly, but Max let it go.

"Doubt that keeps him out of trouble."

"As long as no one tries to blow up the hospital."

"Oh, I took care of that last night. Next fire bomber will be a character in your little drama."

Most people Max knew would take the opening in the conversation to bitch about whatever was going on in their lives. Alec wasn't most people, though. "So what are you, his girlfriend? His bodyguard?" he asked instead.

"Robbed his place couple days back. Not sure where that puts us on a relationship front."

"Where'd you say he lived again?" Alec asked.

"You just gonna keep moving in on my cash flow? Case a score yourself, lazy ass."

She would have sworn he smiled, but it was gone too quickly to be sure. "So, who are we meeting?" he asked.

"A fence."

"He have a name?"

"Statistically likely."

"Well, this is great intel, Max. Nice to know what we're driving into."

"God, you sound just like my brother."


Alec wasn't sure what to say. What could he say about this brother he didn't know or a familial construct he didn't really understand? Like wives, he knew what brothers were, but he'd never had one. Neither did Rachel, she was an only child. She once told him she'd often wished for a little brother or sister for Christmas, but Santa hadn't given in to her demands and apparently it had something to do with her making the Baby Jesus cry. He'd bailed on the conversation rapidly. Rachel never wanted to talk about anything easy, like tactics or gene-splicing. It was all pop culture mythology. She'd once pulled him out of a discussion on genetics to go swimming, literally leaving him to tread water.

Of course, that had been the best night of his entire life.

"Alec?" He left his reverie as Max turned the car abruptly, driving them into a large garage Alec could only assume was a chop shop. This was it. As she came to a stop and threw the car in park, Max's eyes ran over him, though what she was looking for wasn't clear. "Just don't... talk, okay?"

With that, she gave him a big smile and exited the vehicle.

Obviously, Alec had done a crap job of impressing upon her the fact that he was actually a dangerous criminal. Or, he had the potential to be. Once he got the money, he really ought to rectify that problem.

As he stuffed the rest of his breakfast down his throat and stepped out of the car, he noticed a rotund, middle aged black man approaching Max. In other contexts, Alec was sure that the man could probably look threatening as hell, but there was a giddiness in his expression that had nothing to do with the car in his garage. "Hey, sugar, what do you have for me?"

"Only the best, Jimmy. Practically off the assembly."

It was then that Jimmy noticed Alec and his expression soured. "You know this ain't no red district, baby doll."

"He's not what I'm selling."

The fence refocused on the Mercedes, but Alec had the disturbing feeling that Max had just saved him from something horrible.

"You're breaking my heart, Maxie, bringing your toys 'round here," Jimmy said as he circled the car.

"Who, Alec? Professional courtesy, seeing as he introduced me to this fine lady." Max ran a loving hand over the hood of the SUV.

It was a challenge to follow their conversation and most of what he did interpret was from body language. Jimmy had a more than businesslike appreciation for Max, saw Alec as a threat and Max played along with it, undoubtedly to get a better price on the car.

"3 G."

G was grand. It was a relief to finally understand the flow of conversation but also insulting. "Are you kidding? She blue books 50, minimum."

Jimmy turned to Max in amusement. "You get this one off the boat? Simple economics, kid. Can't pay out more than you can bring in. This is a prime model, for sure. Someone out there will be looking for it. I cut it down, I lose value. Deal here or take it elsewhere."

"Alec," Max said carefully, glaring at him. "Shut up."

He ignored her. "I ripped out the GPS, filed the VIN."

"So it's damaged, then?" Jimmy smiled. "3 G. Only offer."



Somehow, she had expected Alec to listen to her. Possibly because he'd done it so well the night before, but apparently he was new to the game and felt the need to make everyone else suffer for it.

"You're killing me, Jimmy," Max told him, knowing it would in no way affect his price. That's what she liked about him, she didn't have to beat him into a better offer. Or, she hadn't had to do it more than once.

"You could supplement that income, I suppose." Jimmy gave her a toothy, suggestive grin.

"I thought I told you he's not for sale."

"How you wound me." Hand to heart, Jimmy winced. "No. I know of a two-man job. You trust this one?" He nodded toward Alec. "It's an easy fifty large."

Suddenly, Alec's newness to the game and mysterious situation seemed meaningless as Max considered all the beautiful things she could add to her motorcycle. She could definitely trust him. He was caring for his sick girlfriend... and had no name. "Oh, you know, he's just getting back into the swing of things, but we go way back, me and Alec."

"Practically grew up together," Alec agreed.

"He'll be fine," Max insisted.

Or she'd just kick his ass until he was.