Ronnie sank his head in his hands. 'Go ahead, shoot me. I deserve it.'

I lifted the MP-9's muzzle to the ceiling. 'No, I think I prefer letting you wallow in your own mortification. Word to the wise, kid,' I shot back over my shoulder as I crossed to the door. 'Remember that you're not as tough as you think. Don't let your delusions of adequacy get you in over your head… again.'

On the way out I stopped The Chauffeur from going in. 'Don't bother.'

The plastic-faced man stared hard at me. 'I didn't hear a shot.'

I gave him a wolfish grin and licked my lips. 'You never do.' I patted his cheek. 'Ciao-no pun intended. Until it's just you and me.'

Quicksilver Sayonara

I normally define a 'rude awakening' as any that takes place before noon, but Kid Stealth gave that phrase a new depth of meaning. Stealth would maintain it was my fault because I was the one dreaming about cuckolding a chrome-fisted underworld kingpin when the Kid clapped his own steel hand over my mouth. The kiss of cold steel against my lips is not something I enjoy at the best of times, and two hours before dawn is seldom one of those.

My eyes focused on Stealth, and his identity registered in my brain a half-second before my finger tightened on the trigger of the Beretta Viper1I'd snaked from beneath my pillow and pressed to his side. Stealth gave me a satisfied grunt and dangled the gun's clip from his flesh and blood right hand. He pulled his metal hand away from my mouth and flipped the clip back to me. 'Good instincts.'

I pulled myself up into a sitting position, letting the sheets slip down from chest to waist. I pulled the slide back on the pistol, and one bullet popped out into the bed. 'I keep one in the chamber.'

Stealth nodded in the half-light, the laser sight built into his right eye making a small cross on his pupil. 'I know. Nine-millimeter, silver bullet with inertial silver-nitrate explosive tip.'

1Thing I like most about the Viper, as old as it is, is that I get fourteen in the clip and one in the chamber. Not that I need that many shots, mind you, but you never can tell when something will just be too stupid to die.

The matter-of-fact tone with which he delivered his assessment of the bullet that had been aimed at his stomach somehow robbed it of all its deadliness.I'd survived six years with Doctor Richard Raven, and I'd seen aides come and go, but Stealth had to be the strangest of them all. The bullet in my gun, he had decided, could not punch through the kevlar clothes he wore, nor get through the dermal plating that protected his body.

That, or he didn't care if it could.

'What the hell's going on? Is Raven back from Tir Tairngire?'

Stealth shook his head. 'Still there. No word on his return.'

I fed the loose bullet back into the clip, then reloaded the pistol. 'That answered the second question. What about the first?'

'La Plante.'

That one name, spoken in a sepulchral whisper like the rustle of a sidewinder slithering across dry gravel, answered lots of questions. Etienne La Plante was the local crime boss who'd played a cameo role in the dream I'd been enjoying. I'd recently helped liberate an elven princess2from him. Unbeknownst to me until the middle of that little adventure, it turned out that Moira Alianha was betrothed to Dr. Raven. Raven had returned her to Tir Tairngire two weeks ago, and then had been summoned back there again after the Night of Fire and the battle for Natural Vat. That meant he left Kid Stealth, Tom Electric, Tark Graogrim, Valerie Valkyrie, and I to watch the store while he was away.

La Plante held a special place in Kid Stealth's heart. Stealth had first come to Seattle to work as La Plante's

2I don't know that Moira was really aprincess per se-the elf I know best is Raven and he's not much on hereditary titles. Anyway, she was pretty important and after her rescue Doc had been bouncing back and forth 'tween the Tir and the sprawl. I gather there was a lot of palavering going on, but about what I had no idea at the time. enforcer. Inevitably, La Plante had assigned Stealth the job of killing Raven. Stealth was good enough to get two of Doc's chummers-my head missed being mounted on his trophy wall by a stroke of luck or two- before La Plante decided to put a pinch-hitter in for Stealth. That individual, known on the streets as The Chauffeur, had fitted Stealth's feet with a large pair of cement blocks, then dumped him into the Sound.

Setting the pistol on my nightstand, I threw the covers back, then turned on a light. 'What did our friend do this time?' Naked-'cept for the silver wolf's-head amulet worn at my throat-I padded over to the closet as Stealth puzzled over how to answer that question in his customarily taciturn manner. I looked at the clothes hanging there and almost chose a normal t-shirt and pair of jeans.

You 're going somewhere with Kid Stealth.

I opted for black pants woven of kevlar and a heavy kevlar sweater with trauma pads over my chest and back.

'I don't know. An ear says a VIP is sprawling and La Plante is calling in some heavy favors to make him happy.' Even as he spoke, Stealth moved his head back and forth, his cybernetically augmented senses scanning for the sound of anything out of the ordinary. I silently hoped the Blavatskys down in 2D didn't decide to play 'I've-Been- Bad, Teacher' while Stealth was monitoring the area.

'Your street source didn't know who the VIP was or why he was here?'

Stealth answered me with an exasperated expression that said, 'If I knew that, I would have told you.'

I refrained from answering with my you-never-know-unless-you-ask shrug and zipped up my pants. 'La Plante had been holding Moira for some Mr. Johnson from out of town. I bet there's a connection-I bet this VIP was the one who wanted her.'

Kid Stealth's eyes narrowed for a half-second and I knew he'd filed away both my conclusion and the fact that I'd made the connection. As tough as he was, and as much of a perfectionist as I'd seen him be, Stealth seldom advanced theories on his own. He'd study a situation and offer his observations, but he left the guesswork up to others. He'd made his living dealing in dead certainties before joining Raven, and since becoming one of the team, he'd found plenty of people to jump to conclusions for him.

Most of Stealth's body part replacements and modifications were made by choice, to eliminate as much uncertainty as he could. His mechanical left arm-the original, I gathered, he'd lost in an old accident-was tricked out with a gyromount that locked a sniper rifle in place rock steady and soaked up all the recoil from a shot. It could also punch through concrete blocks, but that was a bonus that came from its design specifications. Stealth's eyes had been modified to include a rangefinder, low-light, and thermographic vision-all the stuff any well-heeled assassin would love to have. I knew for certain he had some link gizmo in there, too, which fed him data ranging from the time of day to the distance to targets-I think he could also pick up Seattle Seadogs3games if he wanted to. He'd probably have replaced his right hand but he needed it for the 'touch'-be it to squeeze a trigger or throw one of the many stilettos hidden on his body.

He'd even gone so far as to have the upper left lobe of his lungs replaced with an internal air tank that eliminated his need to breathe when lining up those one-klick assassination shots. That special option had saved him the day The Chauffeur dumped him into the Sound-La Plante hadn't paid for it, so he didn't know about it. It had given Kid Stealth ten minutes to figure out how to get his legs out of a rock or become fish food.

On my list of things to do with a spare ten minutes, having to figure a way out of a deathtrap did not rank real high.

3Sure, they're really called the Mariners still, but only if you want to suck up to management.

I pulled on a heavy nylon jacket with kevlar and shock pads sewn into breast and back. 'Where?'

When I saw that hint of a smile on his lips, I felt an immediate urge to dive back into bed. 'The Rock.'

I let my jaw drop open. 'The Rock? Did they do a good-sensectomy when you went in for your last lube and tune?' The Rock was the nickname for what had formerly been a seaside resort hotel that La Plante had 'acquired' when his organization cannibalized another criminal cartel. It had previously served as a notoriously hedonistic retreat for criminal megabyters and corporate warlords deciding to 'do the sprawl.' After word of Stealth's survival leaked out, The Chauffeur, at La Plante's request, had fortified the place and made it into an open challenge to the local government, Stealth, or Dr. Raven to close down.

Stealth looked at me as if I were the one operating in an alternate reality.

I raised an eyebrow. 'We do have Tom Electric going with us, right?'

He shook his head. 'He'svisiting.'

Ihesitated. Tom occasionally dropped out of sight and that generally meant his ex-wife had come into Seattle.

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