Author's Note: I'd like to take a moment to thank my friend NanoMoose for letting me use her Courier in this story, and also helping me with the lines. Seriously, she's the writer I want to be when I grow up. I just hope I can do her and her character justice!


Alex watched with keen interest as the pair unwittingly continued towards the ambush.

He wasn't going to interfere. The thugs might have outnumbered their prey, but the other two were armed, and that changed things. They had a chance; whatever happened now was fair game.

In his mind, he was working out the numerous different ways this could play out. The thugs were poised to get the first strike, and that was a big point in their favor, but were they aiming to kill or merely rob? Were they seasoned criminals, or were they fresh enough to hesitate at the critical point? The other two were experienced, if the way they carried themselves was any indicator. The man had a knife for close quarters, but most of the thugs had small handguns, the sort of thing that could be easily used in close quarters. At a distance, the armored man probably had the most powerful weapon, and the woman's rifle was likely second to it, but the lowlifes were almost certain to strike when the pair were right in front of them, milking the element of surprise…

So he was shocked when the quartet dashed out from their hiding spot when their targets were only halfway to them.

Everything happened quickly, but the rooftop observer missed none of it. It was one thing to make amateur mistakes. But Alex was a predator, sharp and ravenous, and he knew how these things worked, how they looked and sounded and felt. This… was not right. That tension, that readiness to kill – some intangible something wasn't there. A closer look at the four unveiled that only two of them had their weapons up – one of them was still drawing and the last still had a holstered pistol. And the two that weren't being fatally slow… they weren't aiming, weren't tracking the targets with their guns. They were posturing.

And they'd said something about a boss…

Now suspicious, he looked back to the other two. The woman was in the process of aiming, leaning back in a shooter's stance, but the man was quicker. He reacted instantly, firing off three very wide shots before they had even stopped. The four men crumpled to the ground, clutching their chests; a brief burst of red sprayed out from each.

Yep. Definitely a setup. And not even a particularly good one. Alex knew what it looked like to be shot, and this wasn't it – hell, the guy didn't even fire enough times to take them all out. He was holding up a hand now; the woman hesitated, but eventually lowered her gun.

"I knew this place was trouble," he said, just smug enough to make Mercer's teeth grind. "But no worries. Nothing I can't handle. See, if you'd hired one of those other hacks at the gate, well… who knows?"

Alex sighed mentally. People were blunted, any trace of instinctive keenness washed out of them by simple lives and lack of adversity. They blundered through those little clues, the tell-all details, only seeing when the truth bit or clawed or screamed at them. Of course, she'd buy the gallant rescue, accept that her quick-witted bodyguard had saved the day without a moment's doubt. He didn't know what the other guy was getting out of it – money, sex? Definitely something. The whole show wasn't just for fun.

He could still jump down and call the man out on his ruse, but really, what was the point? If people were going to be morons, that wasn't his problem. And he had no desire to give anyone around here a reason to remember him.

"You fired three shots and four of them fell down. Neat trick!"

He looked down, surprised. She'd noticed. The woman's voice was high, clear, and breezy; colored with amazement and admiration, but he could hear the sharp edge beneath. She was putting on airs – just as much a show as the one that her 'bodyguard' was trying to pull on her.

"Er, noticed that, did you?" A human might have mistaken her keen gaze as he spoke as rapt interest, but Alex recognized it as a fellow predator's stare. She was spotting a weakness and picking it apart. "I aimed for the soft tissue of one of the thugs to hit the man behind him."

"Wow, you must be really good. I've never done that before!"

"Yes, well, I am a professional." Alex didn't miss the way he hesitated before he said that, and he was fairly certain that the woman didn't, either.

"How did you know they'd be trouble?" she asked innocently, tilting her head; a lock of deeply red hair slipped out from underneath her hat. "You know, when you saw those guys on the main road. And then when you ran ahead."

"I've seen their type before. Never up to anything good. Shame they had some guys here, too, but I took care of that. Saw them from a mile away, too. I have very good instincts. Comes with being the best in the job, right? Heh heh."

Alex almost laughed aloud. If you had any idea what instincts were, you'd look up.

"Wow. You think we should get moving, then?"

"Much as I enjoy your company, I'm afraid we should." He smirked at her; the expression could best be described as 'greasy'. "But you can look me up again any time you want." Okay, Alex definitely didn't miss the wink there.

He waited for the inevitable blow, for her to pin the conman with all the information she'd amassed and call him on his ruse. But she just kept smiling beatifically, nodding and lining her words with just the right amount of awe.

The man was heading off, but the woman wasn't done yet. She hung back, lingering around the bodies. Intrigued, Alex watched her closely. She knelt over one of the fallen thugs, feeling at his vital points. Then she rummaged around on his chest, fingers nimbly darting across his clothes. After a few seconds, she picked up something small and plastic and inspected it. She wiped off the red drops that still clung to it, lifting them to her face. Alex didn't miss the small grin that played across her face before she stood up and hurried back to the faux bodyguard.

He had to strain to hear the words, distant as they were now. They were as innocent and airy as the breeze.

"Thank you so much! You're a marvel. Never felt safer. I'll tell my friends all about you."

Alex was no literary buff, but he had no doubt there was a double meaning to that last bit.

He didn't hear the other man's reply, not over the crackle of trash fires and garbage rolling in the breeze. And then they were gone, on with their lives. He sighed. The game went on, and he didn't even get to see the ending. And it had been interesting enough to watch, for once.

The woman had surprised him with her shrewdness – perhaps even impressed him. But it made sense, really. The people here were much more rugged than the soft, complacent idiots he'd known back in his world. They knew death, just as he knew death and the rest of Manhattan had tried to pretend it didn't exist. There was a certain keenness that came with rough living.

Well, it was good to know that intelligence wasn't dead. Even if people's general stupidity played to his advantage, there was something heartening to knowing that not everyone was a complete idiot. Things would be too damn boring otherwise.

"Are they gone?" somebody hissed from below.

Alex glanced back down. The thugs were getting back to their feet, their role in the whole misconstrued setup done with. And they were alone. Alone was good. Alone was… he licked his lips. Alone was promising.

But it was probably a better idea for his continued anonymity to hunt at late night or early morning, even if whatever passed for his stomach gurgled in complaint at the prospect. People were apparently pretty used to murder here, but he doubted his particular ways of committing it would be so banal to any witnesses. If any of them managed to scream, their leader and that tricky woman might still be close enough to be in earshot.

Might be…

He almost left. Almost. He was ungodly hungry and the whole situation just dripped opportunity, but there could be people nearby and he was probably due for some of that Rad-Away stuff again, it was broad daylight out, and a hundred other nagging things told him what he didn't want to hear – that he should just slink away and wait for a better time.

The lowlifes were talking amongst themselves. "And just like that, the boss nails another sucker. Hah. It never gets old."

"I don't know, man. Did you hear that bitch? Way too fucking cheerful. Didn't like the sound of her. She's trouble."

Alex glared down at the particular offender. It seemed that not everyone was as easily fooled as their ringleader had been. Maybe they were just throwing insults around, but at least one of them had felt something was off about her act. If they felt threatened by that woman, they might try to kill her later to ensure her silence… if they were still around to try it. He was present and wholly armed with the means to correct that. It wasn't like anyone was going to miss them, save one asshole… oh, forget the justifications. He wanted to eat somebody, and he wanted to eat somebody now. Maybe several somebodies. But definitely now. The 'now' part was non-negotiable.

It was a group of thugs. He'd seen their like all over Freeside. Arcade had given it straight – it was criminal activity that kept the city broken. He'd be doing everyone a favor by cleaning up the streets. If anyone objected to that, he'd either break for it or stay for dessert, depending on who caught him.

His stomach growled its agreement, and his conscience could find no logical objection to that.

"Aw, drop it."

"I'm serious," the second speaker insisted. "She was feeling me up like a doctor or some shit. And I think she found the blood pack."

"You sure, man?"

"Completely. We should get Orris before she goes too far."

Alex made up his mind and slid his legs over the edge of the building, dropping down to the street with a deceptively casual air. Yet another act - one he donned just for the relish in casting it off.

"Hi, guys," he grinned.

Lunch is served.

0o0o0

Cain grinned as she hurried out of the alleyway, coat pockets jangling behind her.

Okay, maybe the bottlecaps stuffed down her coat had been a bit over the top. But it had just been too perfect of an opportunity. The guy had his eyes closed and couldn't move to stop her without blowing the gig even if he had felt her picking his pockets. Besides, it wasn't like he'd gotten them honestly. And he'd have other things to worry about soon enough.

The whole thing had been too easy, almost easy enough to be suspicious. The way the Kings had described Orris, she'd come expecting a professional, not some amateur with an act so thin a blind mole rat could see through it. It was something about Vegas; it attracted suckers, dupes and patsies like a bright light attracted insects. Maybe that explained all the neon. She could understand the Kings' antipathy toward Orris better, at least - losing business to that class of scum really had to be humiliating.

The only thing about any of it that hadn't been second-hand embarrassing had been... strange. Bad strange. There had been the slightest feeling of discomfort back there, almost like she was being watched. That might have just been the holes in her head acting up, though. Could never be too sure these days.

But it was all over now, and her part in the whole job was done with. All save for the shouting and the money. Blue coattails flapped after her as she made her way down Freeside's main street, back towards the old school that the Kings called their own. A few peddlers called out to her as she hurried past, picking her way around wrecked cars and debris.

It was mercifully cooler inside the King's School of Impersonation, and she lifted up her shades, tucking them under her hat. Pacer scowled as she passed, and she gave him her sweetest, most syrupy smile in return. So the King had talked to him about that little habit of charging visitors to see him. She'd have paid good caps to see the look on his face during that little chat.

She made her way into the theater, quickly spotting the King. She gave him that; the man knew how to own a room. Rex, his cyberdog, lay curled at his side; he shifted his head and whimpered softly at her approach. Another one of the gang members was speaking with him, and she hung back around the door, casually eavesdropping.

"…turning up lately," the guy was saying.

The King looked up, following Rex's line of sight. His eyes quickly landed on Cain; she looked away, rather than try to interrupt him. He had to know the conversation was quite audible from where she stood. He motioned for her to wait, then continued.

"Any of ours?"

Whatever it was, he didn't think it needed to be concealed from her. That was interesting. The man shook his head. "No. Just street trash so far. But whoever it is, they're… it's not right. Violent doesn't begin to describe it... You haven't seen these bodies..."

The King frowned. "I don't like this. You sure this isn't a one-time thing?"

"No. It's been going on for the past few days. Whole gangs, just torn apart."

"I'll send some lookouts, then. I really don't like having somebody like this running around Freeside… but there's not much else we can do, unless our mystery killer moves on from lowlifes to upstanding people. You did good in bringing this back to me. Go out, buy yourself a drink."

The unknown King thanked his boss and quickly left the room, hands stuffed in his pockets. Cain took it as her cue to step forward.

The King ran a tired hand across his face as she approached. "Ah, you're back. What did you find?"

Cain launched straight into it. "Orris was running a scam. Not a convincing one, either. He had a bunch of lackeys and he was staging attacks on his clientele, then pretended to save them." She tilted her head. "Personally, I don't know why they'd re-hire him. He was a dick."

"Oh?" The King reached down to Rex, scratching the dog between his shoulderblades. "That'd definitely match up with what we've heard. I'll send some of my boys to pull him off the streets… you've done good work here. I won't forget that."

Cain smiled and nodded. This was either the part where she got caps, or the part where she got shooed away.

"All right, so that's just the trial run…"

She tried not to look too disappointed. The King's regard was worth something, but she'd been hoping it would be the kind of something that clinked.

"Now I know I can trust you, so the real work can begin. Truth is, I got another job for you, but I need to run a little investigation of my own first." The King leaned back, frowning. "Got different people telling me different things, and I need to clear it up. Come back to me in a day or so, all right? I should be ready then."

"Okay. I'll swing by again tomorrow."

She gave the King a little wave and Rex a quick pat before walking away. Okay. Caps were still on the table. She could live with that.

Freeside's sweltering, heavy air rolled across her as she stepped out of the Kings' school and into the Mojave heat. She adjusted her sunglasses a bit, trying to lessen the glare, but that only made the Strip's brightly-adorned front gate leap out instead, a few hundred meters away. If she didn't know any better, she'd swear it was taunting her. She glared back at it, the pompous bastard.

So close, but so far away. She knew that, but fuck if it wasn't irritating as all get-out right now.

Well, if she had a day to kill… she sighed. She'd plumbed Freeside for every paying job she could find, and she still didn't have the two thousand caps she needed to get into the Strip. The King was the only decent lead she had around here at this point for work, and if he wanted her to wait, she didn't really have a choice. Which left her with another day spent hanging around Freeside. And she'd never liked lingering in one place for long.

She could spend the day at the Atomic Wrangler, but that would probably be detrimental towards the whole 'saving caps' thing. Everything fun was.

There had been that little nugget of information – that there was apparently some kind of crazy killer around Freeside. Cain pondered this. On one hand, it probably meant caps. But on the other, she'd already dealt with enough of 'crazy killer' types to last several lifetimes over the past few weeks. She wasn't sure when her life had gotten so insane – okay, she did know when, that fucking bullet probably had a curse on it or something – but it was welcome to stop any time now.

So no. The crazy killer guy could go and keep doing his crazy homicidal stuff as much as he wanted. Preferably somewhere far from her. She was a courier, not a vigilante, for god's sake.

At this rate… unless the King had a lot of errands he needed run, she was going to have to leave Freeside to get the caps for the gate. That really rubbed her. She'd slogged her way through all kinds of hell to get here, and having to walk away when she was so close to Vegas that she could taste it left a nasty taste in her mouth. And Benny was a slippery bastard; she'd only made her way this far after a roundabout chase all over Nevada. The longer she stalled, the more time he had to move on. Again. She had her reasons to expect Benny to stay, but if she finally showed up at his casino and she didn't see his checkered ass right there, ready for some karmic brain surgery, she was going to do… something. Probably a loud and screamy something. She'd figure that out later.

She just wanted this whole chapter of her life over with. With a sigh, Cain checked her packs. She was running low on stims, and given how many things in the Mojave seemed hell-bent on biting her, shooting her, burning her, slicing her, and beating her with rolling pins lately, getting some splints probably wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Well, she had time to kill, and she knew the best place to get those things. She liked the Followers. They weren't trying to beat her up, extort her for caps, throw her in jail, or tie her up and shoot her over an unbelievably sketchy casino chip, and that was more than she could say for pretty much everyone else in the desert. It was a refreshing change of pace from the norm. Especially in Vegas.

From what she could tell, they genuinely wanted to help people – real cures and real results, not just peddling snake oil to the masses. And they threw their whole lives into it; hell, they only charged patients that could afford to pay. She could never live that kind of life, but she respected them greatly for it.

…With any luck, they might have some more work that needed doing, too.

She slung her pack back over her shoulders and began the walk. The Fort it was.