Sweet Oblivion

by Rand Ratinac

Anthony glanced up as the Phaeton drew to a halt. The other two occupants of the passenger cabin became suddenly attentive as he did so. The first, Carl, was clad in a splendid pearl-grey Armani-Versaci suit, just slightly less spectacular than Anthony's. Unlike Anthony, he did not wear a tie and the collar of his powder-blue shirt was unfastened. Rather than a concession to Carl's admittedly unconventional idea of fashion, the somewhat casual dress left him with quick and easy access to the tools of his trade. The most obvious was the jewelled amulet that hung from the thick, golden chain around his neck. Anthony did not know exactly what it was for, but he had seen Carl clutch it on occasion and then throw up a magical barrier that could stop anything dead in its tracks – be it a raging troll or a speeding bullet or something in between – or toss a spell that could burn the toughest, deadliest street samurai to ashes.

Anthony knew that there were many other, similar objects of power pinned to both the inside and outside of the mage's shirt and double-breasted blazer. The varied rings that adorned his fingers also contained many magical talismans among their number. Anthony did not know what they were all for, but he knew they let Carl react with inhuman speed to any threat or hear the faintest sounds at great distances or even dodge a bullet aimed directly at his heart.

Anthony had never understood magic, but he knew it let Carl perform his job – which was to protect him. And Carl was very good at his job.

As Anthony moved, Carl raised his own eyes and fixed them on his charge. He made no other movement, however, content merely to watch.

The other person was both more and less remarkable than Carl. Amelia was dressed smartly, but plainly, in a black Vashon Island skirt-suit, with a white shirt and a slim, black tie. Dark mirrorshades, sheer black stockings and high heels completed her ensemble. Her outfit was ordinary and bland, the image of a typical corporate bodyguard. In a place like this, downtown Seattle, she would fade into the background completely. On the other hand, while Carl was a plain-looking man at best, Amelia was possessed of a striking beauty. With her sparkling green eyes hidden behind her shades and her dark blonde hair pulled up into a severe topknot, however, she looked more intimidating than lovely. Anthony knew that was the idea.

Like Carl, Amelia's job was to protect Anthony from any danger. She coordinated the actions of the four-man team; herself, Carl and Robert and Paul, the two heavily-cybered men in the front of the Phaeton.

Amelia also carried a large amount of cyber and bioware within her shapely body. One of those items was the cause of her previous distraction. Her cybercomm link allowed her to communicate with the rest of her team merely by thinking. Constantly in touch with her fellow team members while on duty, Amelia monitored everything that any of them heard or saw.

Once Anthony began to move, however, her full attention returned to him. One hand came up to remove her shades as she turned towards him. Her green eyes flashed and she smiled. Anthony paused for a moment, before smiling in return. Sometimes he thought he saw something in her eyes, a feeling he knew couldn't possibly be there. Then he realised he was just imagining things and things were back to normal again. "Ready, sir?" she asked politely.

Anthony grinned. "Please, Amelia, it's just Anthony; and yes, I am. Shall we?"

She nodded and replaced her shades. A second later he heard the front doors open and Robert and Paul exit the Phaeton. Through the one-way window he saw Paul slowly and carefully scan the busy, well-lit streets as Robert moved to open the rear door. A brief nod from Paul confirmed that it was safe for Anthony to leave the refuge of the armoured vehicle. The door swung open and Amelia hopped out. She took the time to make her own inspection of the surrounding area, then leaned back inside. "Let's go."

Anthony exited the confines of the Phaeton as quickly as humanly possible. Carl was right on his heels, the mage ready to neutralise any magical threat that might present itself. Anthony stretched to his full, impressive height and sighed in relief. He wasn't exactly an extrovert, but sometimes it just felt so good to get out! Amelia reached out immediately to pull him down into a slouch, so that any sniper would no longer have a clear shot at him, but drew her hand back as he grinned rather impishly at her. "Damn it, sir, are you trying to make my job harder than it already is?" she snapped.

Anthony laughed. "I wouldn't dream of it, Millie-cakes."

She frowned at him. "Then stop clowning around and get inside!"

Anthony gallantly offered her his arm. "Certainly, my dearest Amelia. Would you care to accompany me?"

Amelia sighed in exasperation, but that didn't stop her from taking his offered arm. "Now is it too much to ask that you stop fooling around out here?"

"Oh, no, not at all." With a broad smile, Anthony waved Paul and Robert towards the restaurant. "After you, boys."

The two bodyguards glanced at each other, their eyes hidden behind their mirrorshades, then preceded Anthony and Amelia inside.

The Other Place was essentially a Seattle landmark. Having been in business for nearly a century, it was one of the most popular first class restaurants in the city. It also had the distinction of being Anthony's favourite restaurant in the entire city. As their eyes began to adjust to the somewhat dim light inside, the máitre d' bustled up to them with a genuine smile wreathing his face. "Master Anthony! It is so good to see you! It has been too long."

Anthony smiled in return and reached out to grasp the smaller man's hand. "It has indeed, Marcus. Unfortunately, sometimes such things cannot be helped." His smile became somewhat apologetic. "I'm sorry about dropping in unannounced like this, but again, some things cannot be helped. Would it all be possible for us to get a table?"

Marcus gasped, his expression nothing short of horrified. "Master Anthony! I'm so sorry! There is already a young lady seated at your usual table. Had I known you were coming…"

Anthony waved his concerns away. "Forget it, Marcus. It's my own fault for not calling ahead." Then he grinned at Amelia. "Actually, it's the fault of my chief of security, but we won't belabour the point in the interests of my continuing health." He laughed as Amelia screwed her face up at him, but Marcus was already scuttling away.

"No, no, no, we can't have this!" he cried over his shoulder. "Follow me, please, Master Anthony!"

Anthony sighed and glanced over at Amelia. She just shrugged. "You know he won't stop until he's evicted this 'young lady' and gotten you your rightful table."

Anthony shook his head. "I know." He sighed again. "Come on. We'd better go after him."

Amelia grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "Price of fame, sir," she said in a remarkably unsympathetic tone. Anthony just grunted.



Shannon glanced up as she swung her Dynamit into the crumbling parking lot. Teacher Trading Company, the sign on the equally decrepit warehouse next-door read. This is the place. She parked the electric blue SAAB in the far corner of the ground floor, out of sight of anyone in the street and under a part of the roof that didn't seem inclined to collapse within the next five minutes. The 2060 model was only a few months old, so she was normally rather protective of it. Unfortunately, this was really the best she could hope to do under the circumstances. She hated it when her Johnsons picked places like this to meet. Quite apart from the fact that it was almost impossible to find a decent parking space, it was terribly pretentious and clichéd.

Setting the security system with a touch of a button on her key ring, Shannon walked away unconcernedly. An absolutely state of the art model, the Dynamit would send a high voltage shock through the body of anyone touching it before it was deactivated. A second attempt to break into the vehicle within ten minutes would result in the offender receiving a lethal dose of electricity. After ten minutes the system would reset, returning to delivering merely a stunning charge once again. As far as she knew, no one had hung around for a second dose since she'd bought the car – at least, she hadn't found any charred bodies scattered around the vehicle.

As she neared the Teacher warehouse, Shannon slowed her pace, casting her gaze around, searching for anything out of place enough to indicate that something was wrong. She half-closed her eyes, ignoring her sense of sight for now in favour of her preternaturally sharp hearing. She knew that any potential ambushers would be well hidden and were more likely to betray their presence with an accidental sound than by moving into her field of vision. She heard nothing, which was, in itself, rather odd. Even in the concrete nightmare that was Seattle, vermin of all kinds, both two- and more-legged, thrived. It was almost inconceivable that no living beings would be present in any particular corner of the sprawl, yet that seemed the case here. Shannon's lips quirked into a wry smile. Chances were that her Johnson's people had just cleared the area very effectively and that she was just being paranoid.

Stopping outside the gaping doors of the warehouse, Shannon cast one last glance around before stepping inside. With a grating clang, the doors slammed shut behind her. Shannon just managed to avoid jumping and waited calmly for the reception committee.

The interior of the warehouse was black as night – or so it initially seemed. Enough light seeped in through gaps in the walls to paint a dim, but accurate picture for her. The warehouse floor was bare. Dust and grime covered all she could see, but numerous, recent footprints overlaid the dirt. She couldn't see much beyond a thirty-metre radius, but her augmented hearing picked out the sound of a number of people moving around her quite stealthily. In a combat situation, she would have activated her thermographic vision rather than her low-light, but expressions, postures and attitudes all melted away in the infrared spectrum and those were the things she would need to know in order to successfully negotiate the contract.

To her left, three men suddenly stepped out of the gloom and walked towards her. Shannon looked around blindly, pretending that she could neither hear nor see them. It wouldn't do to reveal her edge this early in the game. As the men stopped before her, Shannon jumped and gazed up at them with what could only be described as an innocent expression. The three men could have been clones. Even in the darkness of the unlit warehouse, all three wore wraparound mirrorshades. Tight, black suits displayed deep, muscular chests and broad shoulders. All somewhat over six feet in height, they glared down at her with almost identical sneers of contempt.

Shannon knew what they were, so she knew why they held her in such low regard. None of them believed a woman could perform her difficult job successfully. Each one was sure her street rep was nothing but hot air. She also knew that her appearance decidedly enhanced their perception of her as nothing but a weak woman. Above average height for a woman, Shannon was still at least six inches smaller than the shortest of them. Her billowing hair was a silky honey-blond. If they could have made out her eyes, they would have seen that they were a brilliant sapphire blue. Her features were slim, but gently fleshed rather than hard and angular. She was, in short, gorgeous.

Shannon realised this and she made the most of it. Staring up at the goons in a girlish fashion, she fluttered her eyelashes. She knew that such a coy expression would have put anyone else on their guard, but to these men it only made her appear weaker. She was counting on that.

After a long, almost interminable wait, the lead man spoke. "Weapons."

Shannon barked a harsh laugh. "What are you, defective? You really think I'm going to surrender my weapons in a place like this? Take me to Johnson or get out of my way."

The razorboy's frown deepened. "I don't know who you think you are, but no one sees the boss while they're packing."

Shannon's smile twisted. "Don't give me that. You know who I am, or none of us would be here."

The razorboy conceded the point with a grudging nod. "True – but that's just another reason why you don't go any further until you give me your weapons."

Shannon just grinned. "Give it a rest, meathead."

"I don't think so," the goon growled. "Either give me your weapons or I'll take them myself."

Shannon snarled and dropped into a rather wobbly combat stance. "Just try it, big boy."

The razor smiled and swung a roundhouse right at her that would have smashed a bone or two had it connected. Shannon dropped beneath the arc of the blow rather clumsily and thumped an ineffective jab into the goon's side. The big man just laughed and, clenching his fists together, slammed a hammerblow into the base of her neck. Shannon rode the force of the strike into the ground, where she gasped and rolled away. She staggered to her feet and assumed her combat stance again.

Laughing in a low, throaty voice, the razorboy was advancing on her once again when a voice cracked out through the darkness. "Enough!" The big man's head snapped around like a whip as the speaker continued. "Frankie! Stop jerking around and bring her over here!"

The razor frowned, but did as he was bidden. Stalking across to where Shannon was straightening up, he leaned down and growled, "I'm surprised my boss would even give you the time of day. You're nothing, slitch! You're just lucky I was going easy on you. If I'd really been trying, you wouldn't even be breathing now." He gestured curtly towards the rear of the warehouse. "Follow me."

Shannon dusted off her clothes and followed Frankie as he led her deeper into the warehouse.



Anthony suppressed a groan as he followed Marcus to the table. He'd been hoping for a nice, quiet meal at his favourite restaurant, not a major production like this was shaping up to be. He knew Marcus meant well, but sometimes he just wished he were an ordinary person, just like anyone else.

Marcus stopped and began to speak in the rapid-fire fashion that betrayed his nervousness. Anthony couldn't catch all his words, but he gathered that Marcus was telling the woman that there had been a mistake, that her table was actually on the other side of the restaurant, that this table had been reserved for someone else and would she mind if she was moved quickly, in order that they not inconvenience the other patrons further?

Her reply was all but inaudible, but the murmur of her voice dripped with liquid honey. With Marcus blocking his view, Anthony couldn't see her until he was standing at the máitre d's shoulder. He looked up at the woman and stifled a gasp. While Amelia was beautiful, this woman was absolutely exquisite. Her face was slender and softly rounded, her skin a tawny bronze that set off amazing sapphire eyes to perfection. Light brown hair tumbled in glistening waves around her shoulders and down to her waist. Her outfit, like Amelia's, was a Vashon Island skirt-suit, but the similarity ended there. Where Amelia's was black and nondescript, the woman's was a shimmering blue – a perfect match to her eyes. The design was on the cutting edge of current corporate fashion and Anthony found that it displayed her svelte, curvaceous figure perfectly. Those glorious eyes suddenly widened as they fell on Anthony and a faint, rosy blush rose to her cheeks.

Standing slightly off to one side, Amelia caught the glances passing between Anthony and the young woman and sighed. Not again. It didn't happen often, but every once in a while Anthony would fall instantly, madly and passionately in love. At least, he called it 'love'. Amelia thought 'lust' would be a more apt description. Unfortunately, however, it seemed that in this case his feelings were returned in equal measure by the object of his affections – and that could be dangerous. Carl, check the girl out, she thought, her cybercomm link translating her thoughts instantly into words that then manifested themselves as sounds. Those sounds were transmitted directly to the inconspicuous transceiver mounted in Carl's ear.

Carl's abbreviated nod and the vacant look that came to his eyes told Amelia that he was doing as she had ordered. The mage, almost hidden between the bulky shoulders of Robert and Paul, was examining the woman through the medium of astral space. Amelia, like Anthony, didn't understand exactly how it worked, but she knew by doing so, Carl could discover many things about the subject of his examination – their general health and wellbeing, their state of mind and emotions and the like. What she was most interested in, however were two other pieces of information that could be gleaned in this way.

Carl's eyes suddenly snapped back into focus and, glancing at Amelia, he gave a small shake of his head. His fist came up to cover his mouth as he coughed and a moment later his voice was reverberating in Amelia's ears, his subvocal microphone translating the tiny vibrations produced by his mutterings into full-fledged words inside Amelia's brain. "She's clean," he reported. "Not a shred of magic on her. Lots of cyber, but it's almost all located in her head. Cybereyes and ears, datajack, lots of headware memory. She's also got a matched set of hand razors. Self-defense, maybe? My guess is that she's an executive secretary or the like to some big-shot suit. Could be a snoop, I guess, but a reporter ain't gonna find out anything incriminating from Anthony. You know as well as I that he's kept out of the loop on important issues." Even behind his hand, Amelia could see Carl's lips screw up derisively. "He's too damned nice to ever go anywhere in this business."

Shut it, Carl! Amelia mentally snapped. I know you feel like you're being wasted protecting somebody like Anthony, but being nice is one of his better qualities. And it's a quality that's too damned rare in this world.

Carl snorted and covered the noise with another cough. "Right, boss, whatever you say," he drawled sarcastically.

Amelia suppressed a sigh. Mages! she thought, projecting scorn into the word and making sure they carried over the transmitter to her team. Carl stifled a gasp and she could see Robert and Paul hiding their smiles. This was as close as she would ever come to giving the prima donna mage a reaming and she could tell they were enjoying it.

Ignoring Carl's outraged glare, Amelia stepped forward to Anthony's side. Glancing up at Anthony, she saw that his eyes were still firmly fixed on the young woman. Marcus was obviously puzzled by their behaviour and seemed about to speak, but Amelia waved him off. Instead, she nudged Anthony gently with her elbow. He jumped somewhat guiltily, then blushed furiously as he realised he had been staring. The sudden motion seemed to break the woman's reverie as well, and she quickly hopped to her feet. "I'm sorry," she murmured, her cheeks flushing a bright crimson. "Please, excuse me."

"No!" Anthony blurted. His smile was rather weak. "Please stay. I'd…we'd be very happy if you would stay and eat with us." He paused, then smiled again, a bit more confidently this time. "Please."

A slow smile crept across the woman's face. "I'd love to."

Anthony hurried around the table and offered her his arm as she sat once more. He quickly appropriated the chair beside her, leaving Amelia and the security team to seat themselves as they chose. Marcus seemed as puzzled as before by this turn of events, but once he had regained his customary imperturbability he took it in his stride. He quickly moved to assist Amelia as she took the chair to Anthony's left, then snapped his fingers to summon one of the waiters. "Pierre will take your orders," he stated, then, bowing his head, he took his leave.

Amelia was sure neither Anthony nor the young woman noticed, engrossed as they were with each other. She sighed and snatched a menu from Pierre peremptorily. Damn. Not again.



A brilliant, blue flame flared to life before Shannon's eyes. She winced and brought an arm up quickly to shade her eyes. The action was, in fact, totally unnecessary, due to the flare compensation system implanted in her eyes, as was the pained squint. She had, however, been trained to react to such stimuli in that fashion. It wouldn't do for people to realise she possessed such an enhancement. Flare compensation was generally considered a combat augmentation, and rightly so. There were very few people in legitimate lines of work who truly required such a system.

Shannon blinked and slowly lowered her arm as the light receded. The flame came to rest in the hand of a man seated on what could only be described as a throne. The heavy, wooden chair sat upon a raised platform in approximately the middle of the warehouse. The man was tall and lanky. Dark eyes glared at her balefully in the glow of the cerulean blaze and his entire demeanour was foreboding. God, that's pretentious! Shannon thought.

The light provided by the flame was just barely bright enough to illuminate an area about twenty metres in diameter. Normally that would have been enough for Shannon's low-light vision to make out just about everything in the warehouse. Somehow the edge of the magical fire's glow was almost a solid barrier, though, and Shannon could see nothing past it. That, she had to admit, was a neat trick.

"You are Sweet Oblivion?" Shannon could instantly tell that the voice of the mage seated on the throne was not that of the man who had berated Frankie the Goon earlier. She nodded once, firmly, and the mage smiled humourlessly. "Not a particularly impressive performance against Frankie," he observed.

"If you want to hire me, it's not for my fighting abilities," Shannon replied.

"True. Quite true. I do want to hire you; and you're right – it's not for your combative skills."

Shannon's answering smile was rather sour. "Do tell."

"There is a man," the mage informed her. "He has become troublesome to me."

Shannon's lips quirked. "I wouldn't think that would prove a problem to a man of your obvious power."

"Ordinarily, no," the mage said, choosing to ignore her sarcasm. "However, I cannot be seen to act against him. There are other people, even more powerful than I," he admitted, "who would frown upon such actions."

"So instead, you wish for me to…act against him."

"Not exactly. Even that could prove too dangerous. It would not be beyond the resources of these people to discover who you are and my involvement in the matter. And that would be unacceptable."

"Totally. So what is it that you actually wish of me?"

The mage paused, then smiled again. He waved his hand and a ghostly image appeared in the air between them. "Tell me, have you ever seen this man?"



Amelia's expression was the veritable essence of sourness as she endeavoured to focus on her job, rather than the two young people in the back of the Phaeton who were busily becoming better acquainted with each other. She muffled a sigh for what felt like the millionth time as the woman, Sage, giggled at something Anthony had just whispered in her ear. She stared fixedly ahead, immersing herself in her role as chief of security, ignoring Anthony and Sage's goings-on and the amused smirks Carl kept casting her way. It was quite obvious what he thought of the whole matter.

What really bothered Amelia about all this was the speed at which Anthony and Sage were travelling in their relationship, if it could be called that. They had progressed from covert glances during the entree to casual, almost flirtatious touches throughout the main course, to openly holding hands by the time they were being served dessert. When they had begun to feed each other from their respective dishes, Carl had barely been able to contain himself. Amelia, however, was becoming more and more concerned. It was in no way because she felt any jealousy, she was sure of that. What worried her was that this was totally out of character for Anthony.

As long as she had known him, Anthony had never shown any interest in casual relationships of any kind. Even his sudden infatuations never lasted less than a few weeks and he'd never invited a woman home with him on the first date. Yet here he was, with a girl he'd never met before, a girl he'd only known for a little over an hour, and that was exactly what he was doing. Amelia had seen this kind of behaviour before – in people engaged in one-night-stands. Anthony had never been interested in anything like that, however. He had a romantic soul, something that was an anachronism in this day and age. Amelia just didn't understand it and as far as she was concerned, anything she didn't understand was dangerous, potentially fatal in fact, for her team and her client. Aberrant behaviour certainly fell into that category. Unfortunately, in this case there was nothing she could do about, save watch and remain alert.

"We're here, boss." Amelia's head jerked up as Robert's voice filled her mind. She nodded once to herself. Okay, boys, stay alert until we're inside. I'll let the lovebirds know. Carl snorted, coughed and almost choked trying to suppress his laughter at her words. Amelia favoured him with a particularly nasty glare that swiftly dampened his amusement, but neither Anthony nor Sage seemed to notice. "Sir" Amelia said, leaning forward to gently shake Anthony's knee, "we've arrived."

Anthony glanced up from his contemplation of Sage with a smile. "What? Oh, thanks, Amelia." Sage also smiled, a gracious expression. Amelia had to admit that she was a particularly beautiful young woman, but that still didn't explain Anthony's eccentric behaviour to her satisfaction. She slumped back into her seat and unconsciously assumed a petulant expression, much to Carl's amusement.

The mage couldn't believe the night he was having. He'd thought it was going to be another exercise in sheer futility and a total waste of his time. Then all this had happened. Carl could hardly believe his luck. Anthony had fallen head over heels for a beautiful woman and Amelia had her nose severely out of joint about it all. Carl's amusement didn't stem from dislike of his team leader, but rather from the fact that he was a remarkably selfish and petty man – something he would only admit to himself and then only in rare moments of total honesty. In truth, he found Amelia extremely attractive. However she had rejected his advances on more than one occasion, an occurrence that did nothing to endear her to the egotistical mage. That and what Carl saw as Amelia's 'holier-than-thou' attitude meant he was constantly torn between desire and a state of irritation as far as his dealings with her went; and so anything that annoyed Amelia had a cathartic effect on Carl. That wasn't something Carl was particularly proud of, but on the other hand he wasn't really a big enough man to try to change himself for the better.

The ironic thing was that Carl's clear knowledge of his own flaws and desires made him more perceptive to those of other people. He had known of Amelia's attraction to Anthony for years, which just served to make his own scorn for his charge all the more galling. The fact that Amelia wouldn't consciously admit that attraction to herself just made the situation even more ironic. Anthony, on the other hand, was as thick as a lump of wood as far as Carl was concerned. He'd never recognised Amelia's feelings and would never return them even if he did notice. He just didn't think of her in that fashion.

So now Amelia was beginning to slip into a funk over Anthony and she didn't even know why. Carl smiled to himself and shook his head as Paul drove the Phaeton into the underground parking lot of Anthony's Bellevue apartment building. It was just too rich. Sometimes he despised himself for his pettiness, but most of the time he just had too much fun to care.

Once the limousine was once again secure within the garage, Amelia and her team quickly bustled their two young wards into the building proper, where numerous security guards and automated systems meant they could relax – to a degree, at least. Sage giggled as they moved, Paul taking point and Robert, Amelia and Carl arrayed in a loose triangle around the two noncombatants. "This is so exciting!" she informed Anthony. "Do you always do stuff like this?"

The comment elicited a frown from Anthony. Normally a very amiable and even-tempered person, the issue of security was a sore point between him and his family. As the leader of his security detail, Amelia was always caught in the middle of the mess, so she wasn't particularly appreciative of any mention of the matter either. On the other hand, Carl, petty as always, found it extremely entertaining and satisfying, mainly because of the friction it caused between Anthony and Amelia.

It seemed that with his new love-interest taking notice Anthony was feeling more belligerent than usual and not at all inclined to let the matter drop. "Unfortunately, yes," he replied. "Actually, it's not all that exciting when you spend your entire life like this."

"Really? It's like this all the time?" Sage giggled again. "That must make going to the bathroom sort of difficult."

"Yes…you're right. It's not easy to get any privacy around here," Anthony said, glancing archly at Amelia.

Amelia sighed. "It's not my decision, sir, and you know it. But why do you ask, Sage?" she queried, suspicion evident in her voice. "This mustn't be anything new to you."

Sage didn't miss a beat. "Well, my boss does have his security people around all the time, but I never really have anything to do with them. I had no idea that it was anything like this for important people."

Anthony sniffed. "Huh. Important people. I don't feel important. I just feel like a lab rat in a cage."

Sage gently slapped him on the arm. "Now that's not really fair on Millie and the others, Anthony. They're just doing their jobs, aren't they?"

Amelia's expression was a mixture of surprise at the insightful comment coming from someone she had believed to be little more than a pretty office decoration, distaste for the nickname Sage had bestowed on her and stunned astonishment at her unexpected support. Her gratitude faded in the next moment, however, as Sage looked up at Anthony almost slyly. "If you're their boss, though, Anthony, couldn't you just fire them?"

Even the normally imperturbable Robert and Paul looked shocked at the suggestion. Amelia was dumbfounded and Carl was hard pressed to contain his mirth – as far as he was concerned the job had stopped being worthwhile long ago. The only thing that kept the mage here was the fact that you did not walk away from the people who had hired him.

Anthony sighed. "Well, I don't actually employ them, honey. It's family money. I'm very rich, but I don't control my own life." Then he grinned craftily. "Of course, I'm still their boss, aren't I?" He glanced at Amelia. "Why don't you guys take the night off? I'm sure we won't need you until morning. Will we, Sage?"

The young woman tucked in under his arm smiled up at him. "Of course not," she purred. "I know how to dress myself." Her wickedly dancing eyes made it quite clear it wasn't getting into clothes that she was concerned with.

"But…sir!" Amelia protested. "I don't really think this is a good idea-"

Anthony cut her off with a laugh. "Look, Amelia, we're in one of the most secure buildings in the entire city. You can stay in your own suites for once. You won't be more than a minute or two away – and I'll get some privacy for once. It's a good idea." Amelia looked like she was going to continue to protest, but Anthony glared at her. "It's a good idea, Amelia. Take the night off." He looked down at Sage and suddenly he was all smiles again. "I'll see you guys in the morning." He draped his arm around Sage's shoulders and the two of them turned as one and headed off towards his apartment.

Robert and Paul glanced at each other, then shrugged and left Amelia to stare forlornly at Anthony's retreating back – and Carl to do whatever it was that took his fancy.

Carl grinned, then, schooling his features into solemnity, slid his own arm around Amelia's drooping shoulders. "Seems our boy's growing a backbone," he observed.

Amelia shook his arm off and glared at him angrily. "Anthony's always had a backbone, you drekhead! That's not what I'm afraid of."

"Oh? And what are you afraid of, then?"

Amelia's eyes grew distant as she stared off along the corridor. "I'm afraid he's not thinking with his head anymore."



Shannon peered closely at the image before her. The man was quite tall if, as she suspected, the illusion was life-sized. He stood nearly six-and-a-half feet in height and his body was obviously slim but wiry beneath the suit he wore. His features were regular and handsome, his jaw square and his lips full. His skin was a light olive hue and the few exposed areas bore a scattering of fine, black hairs. His mid-length hair was a shining black and he wore a friendly smile that carried on up to his soft, brown eyes. Shannon glanced up at the mage. "No, can't say I've ever seen him before. What's his name?"

The mage slowly shook his head. "You don't need to know that. If anything… untoward happens, it would be best for all concerned if you as little as possible about all parties involved."

Shannon shrugged. "Fair enough. I've gone into action with less knowledge before. Not often, but I guess that doesn't really concern you, does it?" She continued before the mage could attempt to answer the rhetorical question. "Okay then, tell me this? Who is he? How is he connected to the man you're having difficulties with?"

"This is his nephew. For some strange reason, the two are quite close. That isn't something that can be said of most of his relatives and acquaintances. The boy's uncle is a rather difficult man. He has few friends and he doesn't seem inclined to make more." The mage smiled ruefully. "That's one of the reasons why we're having such problems with him."

"Uh huh. Makes as much sense as a lot of things I've heard in my time." Shannon glanced around idly, but still could not pierce the edge of the lit circle. It seemed whatever spell the mage was using to block her vision beyond the rim of light was in no way affected by the strain of his other spells – the light itself and the illusion. The mage himself was showing no strain at sustaining at least two, probably three spells at once. That would be something to remember in case her prospective employer intended to screw her. A mage who could cast spell after spell was bad enough. A mage who could maintain multiple spells without even cracking a sweat could give anyone serious trouble. "And the other reasons?"

"Again, that's something you don't really need to know."

"All right then, what do I need to know?" Shannon queried, her expression and pose portraying exasperation.

The mage's smile was somewhat apologetic this time. "I was hoping you would tell me that."

"What?" Shannon exclaimed. "You want to clarify that for those of us who aren't psychics?"

The mage shrugged slightly. "Obviously, I can't divulge any information which would link me to your target or his uncle. On the other hand, your talents and requirements are somewhat unique and, quite honestly, I don't know what information you need in order to fulfill your assignment."

"Oookay. What information can you provide then?"

The mage paused for a moment, as if marshalling his thoughts. "I can provide details of the target's movements, habits, favoured haunts and the like. In addition, I have detailed information regarding his security team, his place of residence and his likes and dislikes."

Shannon's mouth dropped open. "Frag me," she blurted, "if you've got data like that, why can't your boys handle the job?"

The mage's lips curled downwards disdainfully. "Because, as I stated before, I cannot afford to have this operation linked back to me in any way."

Shannon waited expectantly for a moment before speaking. "And?" she asked finally.

The mage sighed. "And his security team is very good," he said reluctantly. "And he lives in one of the most tightly guarded locations in the entire sprawl. The situation just isn't conducive to assault tactics. My boys might – might, mind you – get to him and take him out, but chances are they'd leave at least a few bodies behind. And chances are that would be enough to link them to me."

Shannon nodded. "An occurrence which would not be conducive to your continued health."

"Exactly. Now if you tell me what you need to know, I will provide the relevant data – as long as I do not deem it a risk to myself or this operation."

"All right. I assume that if you wish to hire me, the job will require getting close to the target." At a nod from the mage, Shannon continued. "For that, I'll need to know such things as his favourite bar, restaurant, club and the like. Where he goes to work – if he works, of course, and doesn't just sponge off his uncle. Times, standard security procedures, histories and capabilities of his guards. Does he go to church, the mosque, the synagogue, whatever? If he does, then I need to know which one. Is there anywhere that he always, for whatever reason, goes to? If there is, I need to know that too." She smiled and pointed a finger at the mage. "Tell me what kind of women he likes."

The mage blinked. "What?"

"Tell me what kind of women he likes. Show me what you know."

"Well…of course." The mage tilted his head back and slowly tapped on his chin. "He has a penchant for women of Spanish or Italian heritage. Slim, tan skin, somewhat curvaceous. Beautiful, of course. His tastes run towards the finer things in life and that includes his women. Within that range he likes slightly exotic women. Blond or light brown hair rather than black, blue or green eyes instead of your more average dark ones." The mage smiled as he looked at Shannon's pale, milky skin. "I don't know why that concerns you. While your hair and eyes do qualify, I'm afraid you don't exactly have a Southern European look."

"You let me worry about that." Shannon paused and ran a hand through her golden locks. "You've got good details there," she observed. "If they're right."

The mage nodded. "I assure you they are. We've been investigating your target painstakingly for a number of weeks now."

"That's easy enough to say."

The mage smirked. "True enough. I assume you wish to discuss the question of reparation?"

"I wouldn't say your assumption is in error."

The mage nodded. "I'm willing to pay you two hundred…" His voice trailed off as Shannon shook her head.

"One million. Half up front, half upon completion." Shannon raised her hand as the mage began to protest. "That's non-negotiable. If we agree on this, you'll have one week to make the initial payment into an account I'll specify. If you do not do so within that week, I will assume the offer has been withdrawn. As soon as I've received and confirmed the payment I'll go to work." She paused and planted her fists on her hips. "Do we have an agreement?"

The mage nodded reluctantly. "We do. You'll have your money before the week is out."

Shannon smiled graciously. "Pleasure doing business with you, sir."

"So you'll you take the job?"

"First things first. I want you to prove to me that your information is good. If it isn't, this job is blown from the start."

The mage smiled. "I would agree to that condition, but there isn't really any way I can prove it to you right now. This isn't the kind of information that you can check up at any old dataterminal. But how does this strike you? I will give you sufficient time to judge the veracity of the data yourself and if you aren't satisfied you can just walk away."

Shannon thought about that. "And the money?"

"You keep the half million you've already been paid. All I ask in return is that you never speak of this to anyone."

Shannon allowed a broad smile to appear on her face. "Thank you."

The mage looked puzzled at her incongruous statement. "For what?"

"You just proved to me that your data is good. Either that, or you're a fool. No one risks half a million nuyen on something like this unless he's crazy. That means you're either a fool or you know your information is good and that this isn't a gamble. The fact that you're hiring me leads me to believe that it's the latter case, rather than the former. Of course, that could just be bias on my part," Shannon said depreciatingly.

It took the mage a second to sort through all that, then it was his turn to smile. "You said 'hiring', not 'trying to hire'. Does that mean you'll take the mission?"

Shannon held up her forefinger. "Just one last thing. What exactly is it that you want me to do?"

The mage looked surprised. "Why, kill him, of course."



Sage giggled as Anthony's back slammed into his apartment door. Anthony grinned, then joined her in laughter. His lips found hers again as he fumbled for the doorknob and, locked in a passionate kiss, they stumbled inside.

Once inside, Anthony gently began to manoeuvre Sage towards his bedroom. Suddenly she pushed him away and leapt back, slamming the door shut with her shoulder. As Anthony staggered back incredulously, Sage lowered her head and pressed her ear against the door. After a moment, she looked up and met his staring eyes. "No one there," she whispered in an astonished voice. "I can't believe Millie didn't have Robbie or Paulie follow us."

Anthony's mouth gaped open, then he burst into laughter once again. Sage grinned impishly, then hurried across the room to him. She came into his arms at some speed and they tumbled back onto his sofa, laughing uncontrollably.

Sage managed to come out of the jumble of limbs on top of Anthony. With a wicked grin she pinned his arms down, then bent to kiss his nose. Anthony was surprised at how strong she was. She trailed her tongue softly around his throat then up to his ear. "Do you love me?" she whispered.

Anthony's heart pounded as he pulled his head back and stared into her soulful, blue eyes. "What?"

"Do you love me?"

Anthony's head swam. He could hardly breathe. As he looked at her, a slow smile spread across his lips. "Yes. Yes I do."

The smile Sage bestowed on him in return seemed to light the room. "Oh, good." She leaned forward and kissed him again and Anthony lost himself in the wonderful sensation of her touch.

All too soon Sage pulled away again and stood. Anthony's frown faded as she held out slim, bronzed fingers to him. "Come with me," she breathed. He rose and took her hand. She pulled him close and wrapped his arms around her waist. Smiling he bent his head down to hers and their lips met. They stood there for a long moment, the heat of their bodies mingling, their hands exploring each other. The Sage stepped back. Never releasing her grip on his hand, she smiled at him coyly. He stepped towards her again, but she pressed a finger against his lips gently, then turned and led him unerringly to the bedroom.

Sage pulled up short as she caught her first glimpse of the room. Anthony's apartment was, on the whole, tastefully, but richly furnished. A number of landscapes took pride of place on the walls and a scattering of antique statuettes rounded out the decorations. Nothing glitzy, nothing overdone – just enough to demonstrate the occupant's refinement and to hint at his wealth.

His bedroom, on the other hand, would have given even the Spartans pause for thought. A king-sized bed dominated most of the room, covered by crisp, white sheets, a thick, fluffy quilt and four pillows. The only other decoration was a small, wooden wardrobe, surmounted by a large mirror. In-built closets lined the walls of the room, a last concession to functionality.

Sage pouted as Anthony wrapped his arms around her from behind. "Why is your bedroom so boring?" she asked.

Anthony glanced up in some surprise, as if noticing it for the first time. "I don't know. I mean, it's just where I sleep. Nothing special."

Sage giggled wickedly. "Then I think you'll have to redecorate after tonight."

Anthony burst into laughter as Sage pulled him into the bedroom and pushed him down on the bed. She stood there, looking down at him appraisingly, then slowly, almost sensuously, kicked off her shoes, dropping from six feet down to about five feet and nine inches in seconds. Her eyes locked onto Anthony's, she discarded her skirt-suit and blouse just as gracefully. All of a sudden she was standing there under his gaze, nearly naked, almost vulnerable, clad only in scanty scraps of black lace.

She raised her hands to Anthony and his blood caught fire. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes travelled up and down her firm and supple body, drinking in the sight of her soft, tawny flesh. Her heady fragrance filled his nostrils and he knew at that moment that he had never wanted – no, needed – a woman as much as he needed her. "Sage," he whispered, his voice nearly breaking as that one word conveyed all his desperate longing.

She came into his arms and his heart nearly burst from sheer ecstasy. His eyes closed and their lips met and hers parted. Her sweet taste was momentarily obscured by a cold, plastic tang, then he felt a tiny sting at the back of his throat.

Anthony pulled back in shock, just in time to see a small, plastic cylinder retract into the roof of Sage's mouth. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound would come. Suddenly his throat was tight, a very different sensation to what he had felt earlier. He tried to reach up to her, but his muscles betrayed him. His right hand lifted slightly and he could see it trembling for an instant. Then it dropped away again. Sage caught it and squeezed his fingers before laying it gently across his chest. She leant forward, her expression sad, and kissed him softly on the forehead.

"You won't feel any pain, Anthony," Sage told him quietly as she laid his head in her lap. She was right – Anthony could feel no pain, only a slowly spreading numbness, starting in his extremities and gradually travelling up his limbs. His face twisted as he began to understand what was happening, then smoothed away into lines of regret. He tried to speak again, but still could not force the words out.

As he lay there, looking up into the face of his killer, the woman he realised he loved more than he had ever loved anyone before, he found the strength to speak the question he had to ask. "Why?" he croaked, his once smooth voice failing him as did the rest of his body.

A single tear rolled down Sage's cheek. "It's what I do," she whispered. Cradling Anthony's head in her lap, she gently stroked his forehead. The last thing he heard as he slipped away into blackness was her voice, murmuring over and over, "I'm sorry, Anthony. I'm sorry."



Amelia pounded ineffectually on Anthony's door. "Anthony!" she cried. "Let me in!" She screamed in frustration and slammed her foot into the solid ballistic composite that simply refused to give. A curious head popped out of one of the other doors in the corridor, but retreated just as quickly after receiving a ferocious glare from Amelia.

She'd come to Anthony's door a few minutes after nine a.m. but received no answer to her knocks. Now, more than five minutes later, she was becoming desperate, almost hysterical in fact. She didn't know why, but she was sure something terrible had happened to him.

Leaning against the opposite wall, Amelia pushed her hair out of her face and drew a deep, panting breath. Calm, girl, stay calm, she thought. You have to focus or you're no use to anyone. If you can't get through the door, then who can? A terrible smile came to her lips as a thought struck her. Carl! she screamed mentally, activating her cybercomm link, get your fragging hoop up here right fragging now, or so help me, I'll kill you myself!

It only took Carl a couple of minutes to arrive. He was only half-dressed, scarlet robe flapping open around track pants as he raced from the lift, a wild expression on his face. "What?" he yelled. "What the frag is it?"

Amelia allowed herself a tight smile. The first thing Carl did every morning was put on his ear-mounted microtransceiver – just in case of an emergency. She pointed at the door and whispered, "Get this down."

Carl looked like he was going to question her for a moment. Then he caught a glimpse of her face and his jaw clamped shut. Stepping across the hallway, he placed both hands against the door. His eyes rolled back for a second as he murmured a soft incantation. Then the door blew in, tearing away from its reinforced hinges with a screech and flying across the room in a crumpled mass.

Carl went staggering back in the opposite direction as Amelia wrenched him out of the way and darted into the room with inhuman speed. Her Colt Manhunter was out and sweeping the room, the red dot her smartlink superimposed over her vision telling her exactly what the heavy pistol was pointing at.

"Clear!" she snapped, bringing the gun back into a guard position. "Carl, check the kitchen. I'll take the bedroom."

Even as the mage moved to obey her instruction, Amelia was kicking in the bedroom door. She took a single step into the room, then stumbled to a halt. Her left hand reached out to the bed, then she slumped against the wall tiredly and all the determination seemed to drain out of her. Carl, in here. Suddenly she didn't even have the energy to speak.

The mage pounded into the room and his eyes widened. He glanced around and saw Amelia and his face sagged. "Amelia, I'm so sorry," he whispered.

Amelia ignored him. She slowly approached the bed where Anthony lay. His body was drawn up neatly into the middle of the bed, his suit arranged carefully. She could have imagined he was just resting – until she looked into his face.

Anthony's empty eyes stared up at the ceiling. His features bore no trace of pain, only an infinite sadness, an expression of regret and loss. Amelia's hand shook uncontrollably as she slowly, painfully reached out to take his. Her eyes filled with tears as she crumpled to her knees and pressed her face into his cold, cold neck. "Goodbye, Anthony."



Shannon scratched her neck with a frown. It had taken a couple of days for the melanin treatment to wear off and her hair still wasn't back to its true blond colour. Long, brown locks with honey-gold roots was not exactly an inconspicuous look, so she didn't want to be out much until she got the chance to wash it out. Of course, her Johnson's message had said this was urgent and concerned the rest of her payment, so there was no question of her missing the meeting.

As she had last time, she left her SAAB in the decrepit parking lot by the Teacher warehouse. It had come through its previous experience there none the worse for wear, so she supposed it would be safe enough – safer than she would be, at least.

The interior of the warehouse was as dark as it had been on her first visit. Even though she was waiting for it, the sudden appearance of Frankie and his shadows made her jump. The big goon grinned as he looked down at her. "Ooh, lookin' tough, pretty lady," he commented.

Shannon sniffed. This time, instead of the dress she had worn previously, she was clad in clothes much more appropriate for this part of the sprawl. Tight jeans rode snugly on her hips and black leather boots protected her feet. Shining steel plates capped their pointed tips. Her thin, black T-shirt was stretched across her ample bust. A dark grey, figure-hugging longcoat draped itself over her, pulling tight at the waist, then spreading out to allow her legs a full range of movement. The sleeves were pulled halfway up her arms and skintight, palmless black gloves encased her hands. "Too tough for you, Frankie. Now, your boss said he needs to see me…?"

Frankie frowned and his expression became impassive. "This way."

As Shannon followed the big man, his clones fell into step beside her. She glanced up at them, but they stared ahead steadily. Their mirrorshades prevented her from telling whether they were glancing at her, but something told her they were not. The way they flanked her made her feel more like a condemned woman than a business associate. The unwelcome sensation made Shannon even more wary than before and she began to look around unobtrusively, searching for any signs of a trap. As before, however, the darkness was complete. That did not prevent her enhanced hearing from catching the slight scrape of armoured feet across concrete, nor her spatial recognition system from telling her that, based on the relative direction and proliferation of the footsteps, she was more or less surrounded. Her features became set in stone as they walked.

Once again, Frankie deposited her in the middle of the warehouse. Unlike last time, however, all three of the goons stayed with her, although they did draw back slightly. A bright flash announced the arrival of Frankie's boss. This time, there was no majestic platform, no gaudy throne. The mage's expression was neither stern nor foreboding. Instead, he wore a self-satisfied smirk that became something sinister under the glow of his blue flame.

Shannon's flat expression made it plain that she was not impressed. "You wanted to talk to me." It was not a question.

"Ah, yes, Ms. Oblivion. Or may I call you Sweet?" The mage chuckled at his witticism, but Shannon ignored it.

"You wanted to talk to me."

The mage cleared his throat and straightened his blazer, obviously disgruntled by Shannon's bluntness. "Yes, I'm afraid there's a problem with the rest of your payment."

"And that is?"

The mage frowned. "You know, you really take all the fun out of this."

"You're breaking my heart."

"Very well, let me put it succinctly," the mage said. "As I said the last time we met, I cannot afford to have anything linking me or my people to this matter. Unfortunately, you know exactly what has taken place – for obvious reasons – and could cause me considerable harm if you decided to speak of our little venture. Therefore, your continued existence has become an unnecessary complication." He glanced up at the goons. "Frankie, would you be kind enough to kill Ms. Oblivion?"

Frankie's answering grin was nothing short of vicious. "My pleasure, boss," he said, slipping off his mirrorshades and tucking them in his pocket. The three goons ranged themselves around Shannon, two drawing rather nasty-looking knives. Frankie seemed content to rely on his fists. That told Shannon that his skeleton had probably been reinforced with some kind of lacing, giving him the ability to shatter bones with his bare hands. Shannon slowly began to turn, never letting any of the goons get behind her for more than a few seconds. Hands curling into claws, her arms began to weave sinuous patterns around her body. The black, carbide blades that slid silently from beneath her fingernails and through the slits in the fingertips of her gloves went unnoticed.

"You know, Frankie, I really should give you a chance to surrender," Shannon said conversationally as she circled around to face the chief goon again.

Frankie just laughed. "You're very funny, you know? The only thing I regret about this is that I can't return the favour and entertain you in bed before I kill you."

Shannon smirked and beckoned him closer. "Don't worry about it, Frankie. I'm sure I'll get some laughs before we're done."

The rush came without any warning. Frankie feinted at her, then pulled back as his two compatriots leapt at her from behind. Shannon ducked away, then her arms flashed in a blur of motion, her razors glistening balefully in the reflected light of the mageflame. Scant seconds later, she came back into a combat stance, facing Frankie once more. Behind her the two goons lay on the ground, one screaming over the tattered ruins of his face, the other coughing out what remained of his life through the shredded hole in his throat.

Shannon's smile was ominous as she beckoned Frankie forward again. The bright blood shining on the blades and the fingertips of her gloves was a sinister counterpoint to the pale flesh of her forearms. "Your turn, Frankie," she whispered.

Frankie's expression was slightly uncertain as he glanced across at the mage. The mage, suddenly pale, waved him towards her frantically. "Kill her, damn you, kill her!"

Frankie's features hardened and he advanced on Shannon. "You heard the man," he growled. "You're gonna die, little lady. Now why don't you just stand still and make this easier on all of us?"

"Because I'm not as stupid as you, big ox."

Frankie snarled and rushed Shannon. One huge fist arced out over her head as she ducked low. Before she could take advantage of the opening, his left foot came around in a pounding stomp. Shannon was forced to hop back to avoid having her knee shattered. As she did, however, her own hand lashed out and gouged into his thigh. Frankie bellowed at the sudden pain and came on again with a fist, elbow and knee combination. Shannon dodged the blows, but stumbled as she did so, evidently unbalanced by the rapid strikes. With a grimace of triumph, Frankie clenched his fists together like a great club and brought them whistling down in a thunderous hammerblow aimed at the top of her skull.

Shannon swayed out of the way sure-footedly, then fired a stiff-fingered jab into the bottom of Frankie's jaw. The goon gurgled loudly as her razors found their mark. He stumbled back, his hands coming up to his throat as Shannon straightened. She rose to her full height, then, gritting her teeth and setting her shoulders, she lifted. Frankie's neck arched backwards as his feet slowly, but surely came off the ground. Shannon held the pose for long seconds in an amazing display of strength, then smiled at the weakly kicking goon. "Oh, didn't I tell you, Frankie? I'm not really very good at boxing – but I'm deadly with these."

Frankie's great fists clenched and unclenched pitifully as he stared at her with a pleading expression. "Please," he whispered through clenched teeth.

Shannon frowned as the big man's efforts pumped a fresh gout of blood over her hand. Her muscles surged and she abruptly twisted her wrist and ripped her razor claws free, along with most of Frankie's trachea. The goon's body crumpled into a pathetic, lifeless heap as Shannon flicked his blood from her glove and turned on the mage. "Next."

The mage's horrified expression dissolved into manic desperation. "Kill her!" he screeched, scrambling across the floor. "Kill her!" In his panic, he dropped both the mageflame and darkness spells, revealing the entirety of the warehouse to Shannon for the first time.

There wasn't much to see. Even without the spell of darkness, the warehouse was almost pitch-black. With the magic no longer affecting her senses, however, the darkness was no impediment to her. Her thermographic vision painted a picture of ten, a dozen, no, at least twenty heavily armed figures clad in light military armour all around her. The mage scampered to the rear of the warehouse where he lay in a huddled mass as the first of his enforcers approached Shannon.

AK-97s filling their hands, the goons sighted in on her. Shannon grimaced. She knew that at this range even the armour plating in her longcoat and the Kevlar in her T-shirt wouldn't stop an assault-rifle on burst-fire or full automatic. Her right hand slipped inside her coat and reemerged, clasping her Ares Predator. The grip of the pistol warmed in her grasp as the smartlink II circuitry in it mated with the induction pad implanted in her hand. A red dot swept across the visor of the lead goon's helmet in her vision. The goon, on the other hand, took one look at her pistol and burst into laughter. "What are you gonna do, throw that at me?" he chortled.

Shannon said nothing, took careful aim and fired. The goon was still laughing when the APDS round punched through his faceplate and blew most of his brains out the back of his helmet.

His partner loosed an enraged cry and lifted his assault rifle to his shoulder. His first burst missed as Shannon threw herself to the side. Rolling to her feet, she scrambled towards the thug as he lugged his rifle around towards her again. Even as he squeezed the trigger a second time, Shannon leapt gracefully into the air and the stream of lead passed beneath her flying form. In the middle of her somersault, Shannon lashed out with her left hand. The diamond-coated razors in her fingertips punched through the softer ballistic armour under the goon's raised arm and tore downwards. Her victim was drawing breath to scream as Shannon landed behind him and wrapped her left arm around his throat. She yanked the weakly struggling man down towards her and pressed her Predator against the base of his skull. The roar of the weapon was deafening in the confines of the warehouse.

As the corpse crumpled to the ground and the warehouse erupted with weapons-fire, Shannon sank down on one knee. She closed her eyes, taking a few moments to activate the incredible assortment of cyber in her head. Low-light vision superimposed itself over the thermal signatures of her opponents; her rangefinder calculated and recalculated the distances between herself and her targets. Hearing amplification, high and low frequency hearing, spatial recognition – the flood of information pouring in through her senses threatened to overwhelm her for a moment. Then she activated the tactical computer buried in her head and abandoned herself to the machine.

Using her enhanced sensors, the computer searched the warehouse for enemies. It marked them as it found them, tracking and predicting their movements. It then accessed the floor plan of the derelict warehouse loaded in Shannon's orientation system and projected those movements onto it. It was almost like a three-dimensional image of an overturned ant farm as the enforcers scurried across the floor, firing wildly as they moved. Shannon smoothly, calmly, watched the indicated movements of the goons as they were projected onto her retinas, aimed the red dot of her smartlink at the recommended target point and began to put them down.

It was a slaughter more than a battle. Even in their heavy armour, with their heavy weapons, the goons were no match for Shannon. She fired like an automaton, ignoring the screams of the wounded and dying men as they fell to the blood-slicked concrete. When they began to zero in on her position, Shannon abandoned it for another one and kept firing. She ranged through the building, slaying her enemies mercilessly as she found them.

She was almost surprised when the firing ceased. Replacing her half-empty clip with a fresh one, she looked around, listening carefully for any signs of life. All she heard were the whimpering moans and cries of dying men. Except…there. In the distance, fifty or sixty metres away, behind her and to the left. The sound of shoes, plain, unarmoured shoes, scraping across the ground as a man – the mage! – tried to sneak away.

Shannon ghosted up on the mage. The first he knew of her presence was when she safed her pistol with a loud click. The mage spun around in terror. His hands came up and he began to gibber out a spell. His concentration was ruined, however, as Shannon's arm slammed down across his own. Her arm continued up, snaking across the mage's throat, and clamped down, choking off his words. Her free hand came up before his bulging eyes. Her razors slid out again and before he could move, she plunged two of them into his eyes.

A bubbling shriek of absolute agony erupted from the mage's throat. He continued to scream as Shannon clicked her tongue reprovingly. "Oh, that wasn't very smart," she said. "You should really get a pair like mine. Nothing but the finest metal, you know, so they don't pop if they get poked." She tightened her grip on his neck again, choking off his cries. "Do be quiet." She paused, then smiled. "You know, you can't cast any spells at me now that you can't see me, can you?" She shook her head again. "Big mistake not getting the old eyeballs replaced. Tell me, does it hurt a lot?"

The mage gasped and squeezed his ruined eyes shut. "Why?" he moaned.

Shannon frowned. "People seem to be asking me that a lot, lately. Anthony wanted to know why I was killing him," she said, her voice wistful. "I expect you want to know why I don't just kill you. Let me put it this way. I don't like you. I didn't like you much when I first met you. Then you hired me to kill Anthony. Anthony was nice. I liked Anthony – but I still killed him, because that's what you were paying me to do. So that made me dislike you even more. Now, you tried to kill me just a few minutes ago. Tell me, how do you think that's going to make me feel about you?"

"Please." The mage's voice was weaker. "You don't understand. It was just business. My boss told me that I couldn't leave any loose ends."

"Ah yes, your boss. That's a funny thing. You know, while I was checking out your data on Anthony, I did some digging of my own. Did you know that Anthony's last name was Bigio? That he was the nephew of Maurice Bigio, the new Capo of Seattle? I'm sure you did. So that got me thinking. Who would want to kill the nephew of the Mafia's top dog in Seattle, and why? Well, to cut a long story short, what I turned up told me that you and your boys are Mafia too. I guess you wanted to send a message to Bigio, hmmm? Or maybe fan the embers of the mob war that's been going on? What was this supposed to be made to look like, a Yakuza attack? I'm sure that would have gotten Bigio's attention.

"That's not important though. You see, the only thing I couldn't figure out is who – who exactly you are? Ciarniello? Finnigan? Maybe even a disgruntled member of the Bigio family itself?" Shannon smiled tightly and squeezed the mage's neck again. "Let me make it easier for you. Tell me who you work for and I might let you live."

The mage clamped his mouth shut and refused to answer until Shannon slowly dragged her hand razors across his face, bringing bright spots of blood to his skin. "Ciarniello," he whispered despairingly.

"You wouldn't be lying to me, would you?" This time Shannon sliced a tiny incision into the flesh of his neck.

"No, no! I swear to you, I work for the Ciarniellos!"

"Hmmm…lucky Finnigans, I guess. I suppose I'll have to take up the matter of my reparation with your boss. I think my fee's just gone up."

"Please…will you let me go now?"

"Ah, I don't think so. You see, I really don't like you." The mage was just beginning to struggle as Shannon's razors tore out his throat. She released him and his unmoving body slumped to the ground.

Squatting beside the corpse, Shannon carefully cleaned her hand razors on its clothes. As the blades retracted, she paused, then reached out a hand and rested it on the mage's body. I'm sorry, Anthony.

Shannon stood and walked from the once again abandoned warehouse.

©1998, Rand Ratinac - used with permission