Some take the road to Damascus

"Bullshit." She shook her head with a smirk, and the light from the flickering candle danced in her eyes. "You couldn't go straight if they put you over an anvil."

I smiled thinly. The only reason Kitty Parnell was in Giordano's was because she wanted me--needed me, perhaps--and we both knew it. I knew, further, that it was going to be a fight and, really, would have to be. Kitty is that kind of person. But let's back up and we'll put it all in context.

***

I am Franklin Cullen, thirty years with a few months on one side or the other--and it does not matter which. Never heard of me? Of course not. Last year I was Peter Fournier; three years before that, Andrej Lebedev. I have been from nearly every country on the continent and a few besides--where, it doesn't matter; if you can fake the accent, mumble a few words from the auld sod or the motherland or what have you, people will buy at a discount.

I can speak a dozen languages--poorly, but well enough to get by. I can walk a hundred different walks, wear an Armani suit just as easily as a flannel jacket, talk politics and business and law and religion. Honesty, as that song goes, is such a lonely word. But it doesn't really matter--because people want to believe in something, and they want to believe in me.

They're nice like that--and, hell, maybe I've seen you before. In a pub? A marketplace? A parking lot? I blend in; it's what we coyotes do best (and we're nondescript to pass as any one of a dozen ethnicities). My face is as forgettable as many name. And this, you see, is why the only people who know me as Frankie are my mother and a few close friends.

Oh--and Parnell.

I don't believe in laws. 'Law' backwards is the better part of 'wall,' and you better believe the laws here are so backwards that's all anybody uses them for anyway. So I don't believe in them, and I don't believe in any kind of justice you can't make yourself--and I made a lot of my own justice.

Now, of course, some things were still off-limits. I don't like to spill blood--I'm a bit squeamish. So I didn't do hits, or kneecapping, or any of that gruesome barbarism. Intimidation, yes--I got an entire chain of dry cleaners to start paying their back dues out in east Phoenix. But you don't need an ice pick to intimidate.

In any case, that wasn't my forte. I may be a jack of many trades, but those trades are all pretty contained. Fencing, laundering, hijacking--some robberies, if they were low-profile enough. My real speciality, though, if you could call it that, was the short con. In my time I dropped more glasses, asked more people to keep my money safe, and sold more worthless pieces of glass I passed as rare diamonds than you can even imagine.

Now--you'll notice this is all in the past tense. And it is all in the past--I haven't done anything like that in a couple years. Because I'd reformed--seen the light, as it were. Woken up, turned over a new leaf, started singing a different tune. Had a moment of clarity, as they say in the alcoholism biz.

And her name was Laura Kuster.

I met Laura as just another mark, a year and a half ago. It was simple--or, at least, it was supposed to be. There was something in her voice, some little counterpoint, a melody I couldn't get out of my ears for the life of me, and I excused myself, told the shill to break it off. Well, what do you know? It turned out he'd been mistaken about the "old" nickel, and it wasn't as valuable as all that. Son of a gun.

I pretended to be disappointed, but I got her number, and I never, ever told her about what I did for a living. It became harder, as time went by, as the money came in with no source, as I didn't fill out my income taxes entirely legitimately (you can't be entirely legitimate even with the best of launderers). So I gave it up.

It was worth it. Unless you're one of the lucky people who happens to live in Washington, and happens to work at her bank, you don't know Laura, and that's a terrible shame. You don't the way she smiles in the morning, what a wonderful thing that is to wake up to. You don't know the little jokes she tells. You've never seen the way her ears draw back when she's thinking about something especially perplexing, or the light in her face when everything goes right with the world.

Of course, when I was with Laura everything always seemed right.

The hell of it--which she was never going to understand no matter how hard she tried, and she didn't even do that--was that Kitty didn't know either. She'd never met Laura, in part because we'd simply fallen out of touch and in part because I was worried what she might do. Kitty is fiercely possessive--hell, Kitty's just fierce, period. She can be scary when she wants to, which is more often than it ought to be.

Eleven blissful, Kitty-less months had gone by when my cell phone rang. Laura and I were walking down the Mall, I remember--it was a gorgeous day. A little muggy for someone from Las Vegas, but I was willing to put up with it if Laura was, and she was District born and raised.

The number was unfamiliar, and I shrugged apologetically to Laura, who only smiled. "This is Paul," I said.

I didn't even need an introduction--which was fortunate, because I didn't get it. "Hey, Frankie," came the purring New York drawl from the other end. "How ya been?"

At the sudden drop to my face Laura looked concerned, then bemused as I waved it off with a forced smile. "Hello, Dr. Parnell. Can I help you?"

I heard a giggle that twitched my ears of their own accord. "For one, you can stop making your number so hard to get. Do you know just how hard I had to lean on your mother to get her to cough it up? Your fucking mother, Frankie, it's a shame." Well, so I was going to have to have a long talk with my dear old mama. "For two, you don't have any plans tomorrow, so I reserved us a table at Giordano's--we ate there once; I know you remember it. Seven o'clock sharp."

"For your information, Dr. Parnell, I'm afraid I am busy." It was hard to keep up the charade entirely, to try and remain professional. For the most part, I managed. Kitty laughed.

"Yeah, yeah, not now." I could practically hear the dismissive hand gesture she would make were we talking in person--which she evidently planned. "Just be there--or be a square little punk with his throat torn out by an angry acquaintance. I'm paying, for Chrissake's--when's the last time that happened, huh?"

I started to respond, but I heard the click of a phone disconnecting and then the chime that signified the end of a call. I sighed and looked at Laura with another shrug. The conversation had taken less than a minute.

"Paul?" Laura's dark ears had tilted back a bit, and I tried to allay her concerns.

"Oh, it's just an old friend." I laughed, swearing at myself for doing so. It looked genuine--nobody could've told the difference. But I'd been trying very, very hard not to be "in character" with Laura, and Kitty had gone and screwed that all up royally. "As much a friend as a lawyer can be, I guess."

This didn't mollify her much. "A lawyer, Paul?"

I shrugged and began walking again, letting her fall alongside me as we strolled along the soft grass. "Oh--when my father died, I got a lawyer to handle some things with the estate. Something's come up, they want me to sign something."

She nodded, and I felt her paw close around mine affectionately. "Nothing serious, I hope?"

"No, no." I laughed again and this time it was a little more true to form. "I'll just need to go downtown tomorrow evening, apparently."

Evidently, this explanation was enough. You learn this about people, that there's kind of a split between wanting to know the truth and being satisfied without it. I'd told her nothing. Something vague about a lawyer--hell, not even the gender. Something vague about an issue, and an office, and me being gone. But the vagueness was enough.

A part of me died there, I think--I'd thought I was being completely level with Laura. Only a part, though--I was saving the rest for the following evening.

***

Kitty Parnell and I go way back. I met her as the acquaintance of one of my contacts when I was still very small, a college student trying to pay off five thousand a year in tuition and books. As it turned out, she herself had had a similar idea, and together we came up with a plan to offload fifteen thousand dollars in counterfeit currency.

They say that there's honour amongst thieves, perhaps because 'they' don't tend, on the whole, to be thieves themselves. The world we live in is a dirty, vicious, Darwinian one, and you need to you watch your handshakes because the other paw might very well be putting a knife in your back. But for the money, and for the excitement and the opportunity--ah, you learn to cope.

I say this as a preface, but Kitty and I worked together for the next ten years, off and on--perhaps two or three dozen joint operations, just us and occasionally a third friend--and we never once cheated each other. Or rather, I know I never cheated her, and I also know what I was supposed to get, and I never got cheated either. It's not something you can just ask about.

Despite her name, there's not much catlike about Parnell. She's small, but loud, brash and aggressive and in-your-face. I've never seen her wear any kind of makeup, which ironically accents her sharp features more than anything the imposters at Clinique could manage.

When she smiles--which is often, because for her feistiness, and the fact that she talks like a sailor with a four-letter thesaurus, she is in her own fashion fairly good natured--she shows off her canines, which she has kept sun-bleached white as long as I've known her, and they glitter. They were glittering then, when I stepped into the air-conditioned lobby of the restaurant.

I didn't know if she knew my address, but it was better not to try and tempt Kitty, so I'd decided fairly quickly that I'd take her up on her offer. Besides which it was dinner, and god knew it had to be better than the peanut butter that stocked my apartment.

"Hello, Frankie," she said, to catch my attention--I'd missed her at first, in the dark atmosphere of the restaurant, but there she was, with that knowing smile lingering on her face.

"Hey, Kitty," I said, and offered her my paw, which she took only to pull herself close and offer me a kiss me on the cheek--stepping back nowhere near enough for my comfort at its conclusion. "You look nice."

This was true--she was wearing what amounted to usual Kitty attire, and might've passed for any businesswoman in the city. Some kind of necklace draped itself across the white fur of her neck, though it was hard to see in the candlelight. Knowing Kitty, probably silver--but nice, and I hadn't seen her for so long the sight was kind of a surprise. "Thanks," she grinned. "You too. And!"--she raised a finger to accent this--"you're here on time, for once."

She had requested a table with a great deal of privacy, as it turned out, shrouded in a maze of European-style woodwork and nestled in a little corner. She waved the waiter off with an order of water and we sat down, opposite each other, looking across a table I suspected she had probably scoped out for its small size. Damn her.

I opened the menu, layered with small, flowery print, and shook my head. "Christ, Kitty, I haven't seen food like this for months." Salads started in the double-digits, and I realised I would have to offer a down-payment on the entrées. "You must be living the high life..."

Kitty grinned another Parnell-trademarked grin. "Business has been pretty good." I raised an eyebrow. "Somebody jacked a truck full of some electronic shit--I don't know what." She giggled. "You know I don't know VCRs from VD, anyway."

I laughed in spite of myself, forced into this by the infectious smile that had snared a hundred of our marks before. "You handle it yourself?" Kitty had never been much for fencing, in our time together--didn't have the knack for it. It requires a particular personality, which she lacked, and I wasn't surprised when she shook her head.

"No, point of contact for somebody else. You remember Arty Baker? Little skinny guy?"

I did. "I thought he was doing time?"

The light again caught her teeth. "He was. Then his lawyer got a hold of the right people..." Ah--well, I knew that game. Neither Kitty nor I had ever been apprehended, but we'd both established contingency plans had anything of the sort come to pass. "Anyway, I don't know what it was, but my forty percent cut came to twenty thousand. I've been doin' ok, I figure."

"Sounds like it," I admitted. The waiter returned in time for Kitty to order shrimp scampi and me, with some trepidation, to request the veal dish he recommended--I hadn't noticed the price. "So why'd you call me here, Kitty?"

She leaned back in her chair and regarded me over the narrow table, remaining on the verge of speaking for a few seconds before she shrugged. "You know, that can wait. It's been a year since we've talked, Frank, you know that?"

I nodded at her, slowly, though I didn't try to disguise any emotions--Kitty and I had known each other too long for that. "I've been... busy."

"Busy?" Kitty echoed, and I tried to look nonchalant.

"You know how it is. Business and all..."

Even in the candlelight I could see her eyes roll. "So who's the girl? Just one?"

"That's not what I said, is it?"

Kitty threw up her hands. "Oh, Frank, what the fuck kind of retard do you think I am?" Her voice was not particularly accusing--perhaps frustrated. "You haven't said a goddamn word to me since Detroit. What, am I supposed to think you've taken up gardening? Joined a monastery? Been trying to swim from here to fucking Gay Paree or some shit like that? At least answer me straight: who is she?"

From resignation, and also a desire not to draw continued attention to us, I nodded my head. "Fine. Her name's Laura."

Pacified, for now, Kitty rocked back into the chair and grinned. "Laura. Kuster, yeah? Works at one of the banks downtown." I had no idea how Kitty had learned this, and gave no outward sign of how worrisome it was. She continued on without a pause. "Looks nice enough. Bet she's not as good as I am in the sack, huh?"

I flinched. "Kitty..."

"Is she?"

"That's none of your business," I said, too quickly.

Parnell shrugged defensively--as though she were rightly the one to be offended. "Hey, I just calls 'em like I sees 'em. You didn't say otherwise."

"It's none of your business," I repeated, not that something that minor was going to dissuade her any.

And it didn't. "It has to do with you. That makes it my business, Frankie-dear. And c'mon... you can at least give me that, can't you? It may not have meant anything, but it sure was fun..."

I declined to dignify the line of questioning with an answer, and Kitty shrugged, smiling the wry smile of someone who knows that they have won. Was it true? Oh, maybe. Things that didn't mean anything but were a lot of fun typified the relationship that we had had--such as it was. A spontaneous trip to Aspen, Colorado; the exchange of gifts--the exchange of more than that, in countless hotel rooms and dingy apartments between jobs.

What exactly she wanted, I wasn't sure. She needled me about my personal life until the waiter returned, bearing entrées.

Then, she started the main course.

***

If you were to look at Kitty Parnell--without having to hear her speak--you might think her cultured. Certainly she was dressed for the opera. Now, though, only lack of proximity saved Miss Manners from aneurysm as Kitty talked through mouthfuls of helpless crustacean. "Anyway, you're probably wondering why I asked you here."

I removed a piece of veal and forked it into my mouth with a raised eyebrow, chewing on this question. "No. Much more than that. I'm wondering how you found out where I was, who I associating with, what I--"

"Boredom," she answered, cutting me off with a grin. "Gal's gotta keep busy, right? 'Sides, I chased you all over the fucking country. Then, just a matter of a bit of--aw, fuck, what do the frogs call it? Reconnoitre?"

The 'frogs', as she charmingly called them, would not have recognised it for the callous butchery she subjected their language to. "That's creepy."

"It's affection. You don't get enough of that." Kitty forestalled my protest by telling me I was wrong before I had said anything to be wrong about. "No, no. This Kuster broad, she looks like a Puritan. You put her in handcuffs when she's asleep, I give ten to one when she wakes up, first thing: calls the cops. No sense of humour--you can just tell it." Kitty spoke in short clips, firing in bursts like an assault rifle.

"You know... not everyone appreciates being handcuffed."

For anyone else this might have sufficed. Kitty merely paused long enough to clean her tongue, then stuck it out at me. "Well, I liked it." She took another bite of shrimp. "Not bad, huh? I know how to pick 'em."

"No, it's pretty good." We focused on our meal for a few minutes of rare silence, and then, with an inward sigh, I reopened the conversation. "So why are you here, Kitty?"

Her smile made the woman look predatory, despite her small stature. "I got a request from some guy out in Washington. He needs something done, and I figured, with that apartment of yours, you could use the money."

Who couldn't have seen that coming? I stabbed purposely at an errant vegetable. "What kind of a job?"

"Right up your alley--simple on the surface, but very complicated underneath. Bit of, uh, liberation."

While the squash succumbed to my teeth, I was quiet--not having been, unlike my dinner companion, raised by truckers. "Not something I can put on my résumé, then?"

Kitty giggled and shook her head. "Naw. You need to build up your reputation again, though, Frankie--you're strictly small-time. Doesn't suit you."

"Not even small time," I confessed to her with what, I discovered, was mostly pride in the face of her onslaught. "I'm out of the game."

The voice that answered came in the form of an incredulous laugh. "Out of the game?" Her ears pricked forward curiously.

"Gone straight."

Her answer, at first, was short and aggressive. "Bullshit!" Then she regained her composure--she was, unfortunately, a good judge of character (at least, mine)--and smirked. "You couldn't go straight if they put you over an anvil."

I just shrugged and tried to hold my ground. "Hey, what can I say? It got too difficult... I mean, it wasn't worth it anymore. I've been trying to start over, you know?"

"It's the woman, isn't it? Women--they'll drive you mad." Kitty missed out on the irony in this statement, or chose to ignore it. "Make things too complicated."

I set my fork down lightly and caught her steel-coloured eyes. "No, Kitty. You make things too complicated. Laura makes them bearable."

"How sweet. You should put that shit on a card and sell it to fucking Hallmark or something." One of the problems with Parnell was trying to decide when she was actually angry, and when she was merely being her normal self. "You know it's not worth it, though. People are too cutthroat. We made the right choice, not to try to... be anything. Why this?"

"Don't you have..." I tried to think of how to phrase this question, and started over. "Isn't there, somewhere inside you, some optimistic person who still believes in things like that? "

"Things like what? Love and happiness and the goodness of people and all that Anne Frank shit?" It wasn't worth belabouring semantics, so I let her have that. "Well, there used to be. Then, one day, my heart got cold, so I gutted her and crawled inside her body for warmth."

I sighed. It wasn't that I didn't like Kitty; she had her appeal. Communicating things like romance, however, had never gone terrifically well, and since deciding I was going to be a romantic shortly after meeting Kuster I had shied away from Parnell for this very reason. "You... probably wouldn't understand, I'm just trying to tell you."

"Oh, I understand just fine. But it doesn't suit you. And if you think I'm just going to let you make a fool of yourself, well... you've got another think coming, Frankie."

"Look, it--" I sighed again. "I really would prefer this not be the topic of conversation. Can we get back to what you want out of me?"

She feigned a hurt look, then shrugged. "After we're finished with dinner, how's that?"

"After dinner?" I was torn between wanting, at least a little bit, to catch up with Kitty--and wanting to get the hell out.

"You feel like dessert?"

"Do you?"

Kitty laughed, evidently in good spirits again. "Well, of course--though what with you acting like fucking Galahad or something, I guess my original plan's off the table. Maybe some flan?"

Ten minutes later, finished and not having told me any more about what was going on, she had changed her mind anyway, and, cheque settled, we stepped into the cool Washington evening.

***

I was counting my blessings at the end of my meeting with Parnell, as we stood just outside the restaurant, not saying much. Perhaps sensing my optimism, her demeanour changed abruptly and she made a quick gesture that I didn't understand until I saw the cab pull up alongside the curb. She had just opened the door when a shrill voice behind us made me turn.

"Um, excuse me? I believe that's my taxi."

The woman, a large, elderly wolf-ish thing, had an air of entitlement that put one on edge. "It is?"

She huffed, moving towards the door, which Kitty still gripped, though she had joined me in facing the intruder. "I was here first."

"Were you? I'm sorry, I didn't notice." I was trying to be charitable, since I hadn't seen the woman and admitted to doubting her claim.

Hands going to her hips, the wolf waved briefly in Parnell's direction. "You do now, right? Can you move?"

Kitty's hold on the door didn't slacken. "Possession is nine tenths of the law."

An exasperated sigh followed soon after. "I'm not interested in debating with someone dressed like... like that." I could almost hear teeth grinding next to me, but the wolf's shrill voice drowned it out, now adopting what was, I presumed, supposed to be a commanding tone. "Now move. I was here first. "

"Yeah?" I could tell from Kitty's tone in this one word the shape of things to follow. "Well, so were tapeworms and cockroaches. Go crawl up someone else's ass, huh?"

I didn't know what I was expecting, but the wolf just spluttered. "Well, I never."

"Never what? Get any? Oh, that's a surprise. Try turning out the lights next time." Kitty opened the door all the way. "Get in, Frank." I started to say something, which she cut off by threatening to stab me if I didn't follow her orders. What was I to do? She swiftly followed, forestalling any protests by her new friend.

"Was she actually first?" I asked the bewildered cab driver, who shook his head. That, not as though either of us cared, was some vindication.

"The Marriot on Pennsylvania," Kitty told the man, unfazed by the bizarre exchange that had just taken place. Turning to look at me as the vehicle began moving, leaving behind our flustered antagonist, she smiled winningly, her grey eyes at their most personable. "Now, where were we?"

I didn't know how to answer that--Kitty was smart enough not to want to spill any details around strangers. "Where were we?" I echoed, realising that she wanted some kind of act put on but not sure what to do, exactly.

She took a second or two to decide--I could see the wheels turning; this was perhaps her favourite part. Then she reached into her purse and pulled from it a small plastic case, keeping an eye on the cab's rear-view mirror as she slipped it to me. "You wanted to talk to me about something?"

Inside the plastic was a coin roughly the colour of Kitty's eyes, irregular around the edges, and in the centre rested a profile of who I had to guess was supposed to be a Roman emperor. Not an especially good fake, but they didn't have to be. I knew what she was trying to pull and wanted no part of it. "Well..."

"Let me see that," Kitty said, loud enough to catch the driver's attention. I saw him turn and, briefly, felt the old, familiar thrill. "I'll give you seventy-five for it."

Oh, what could it hurt?--besides, I intended to be done with Kitty soon enough anyway. I started in mock offence, face contorting. "Seventy-five? Look at its condition--it's nearly mint, for god's sake!"

"Fine, fine," Kitty admitted, holding it up to the light of the passing streetlamps. "A hundred. I'm an honest woman."

"You're a swindler! I could get six from any collector in the city!"

Her voice adopted a dangerous, almost feral purr--threatening. "Then why don't you? Too busy getting your bluff called? Look, Paul, I love you, but let's face it, what are your choices?"

I growled. "So you're taking advantage of me?" The driver's eyes, I saw, now spent as much time looking at us through the mirror as they did on the road. "What were you saying about being an honest woman?"

We went back and forth like this for a few minutes, until finally his curiosity could brook no further offence, and the driver spoke up. "Hey, I'm sorry, it's none of my business, but... what is that? Nothin' illegal, right?"

I adopted the persona of a studious--if less than world-wise--academic. "Do you know anything about numismatics?" He shook his head, and I began my patter, speaking with just a trace of this naiveté and displaying far too much excitement over a simple piece of metal. "Well, I'm a coin dealer. I handle a couple of big collections, and one of my clients has asked me to see if I can sell this. It's--you know any history? Well, it's an old Roman coin, highest quality I've seen. It dates from the reign of Caesar Augustus, who was first known as Octavian, before he took control of the Roman Empire for Julius Caesar. This comes from an archaeological expedition in the Mediterranean--two thousand years old if it's a day. It's worth five or six hundred dollars, easy." I stopped to catch my breath, though I kept the excitement. "Unfortunately I have to leave for a conference tomorrow. Somebody recommended this woman to me, but--" and here I pointedly glared at Kitty, who flashed her teeth in the returned grin. "She's nothing but a thief."

"Don't look at me," Parnell protested. "Look, he's an antiques merchant--you can't trust them. It's..." she grimaced, as if the coin had given her indigestion by its very presence. 'It looks pretty good, but I don't think you could get more than three hundred for it. A hundred is very, very reasonable."

"No it's not!" I shot back, angry at the way she questioned the words of an expert like myself. "Look, ok. Two-fifty. That's my final offer."

"Then it looks like you're not selling. A hundred."

Looking into the mirror at us, the cabbie spoke up again. "Hey, you." Kitty indicated herself, questioningly, and he nodded. "How much you like this guy?"

"I liked him better when he wasn't trying to cheat me," she said, kicking me playfully below the range of his vision. "I don't like him nearly enough to give him what he's asking."

"How much you could sell it for, eh?" I saw the little tinge of greed running below his accented English, the greed that almost made the whole thing feel like just deserts.

"If I really wanted to try? Three hundred."

"Six," I countered. "At least."

"Three," Kitty insisted strongly, and he seemed to believe her--there are circles in which the hard-edged word of experience carries strongly over the ivory tower, a fact in response to which I appeared quite miffed.

"Look, man--Paul? Paul, I give you two hundred. You got the paper that says it's ok? I won't buy it without no paper, Paul."

I blinked, felt over my jacket, and looked briefly horrified. "I--oh, shoot, no, I must've left it back at the restaurant. Oh, never mind, the both of you. I'm sorry to have wasted your--"

Sensing the deal about to slip away, the cab driver shook his head. "Ok, I make you an offer. Two hundred. A hundred now, the rest when you get me the paper, right?" I knew what he was thinking--the coin had to be worth at least what Kitty was offering.

I leaned forward in unreasoned enthusiasm. "And I'll give you the coin then?"

We pulled to a stop outside the Marriot, and he shook his head again, more strongly. "I'm not that stupid. Coin now, another hundred when you come up with the paperwork."

"How can I trust you?"

He gestured at a certificate. "'Cause I'm registered. You got my name and company right here, right?"

I pretended to think this over, then got out a pad from my jacket and began copying down his information faithfully. "Well... that's a good point..."

I would never hear from him again, I knew. The calls to his office would go unanswered, or he'd pretend the whole encounter never took place. But, as a bookish, well-dressed academic, perhaps I was a bit too trusting for my own good. "Hey--tell you what, I won't even charge you fare." He was starting to count out twenties, eager to close the transaction. Crunch time.

"Fine, fine. Alright--I'm Paul Carter." I shook hands with him, quickly--he had a strong handshake. He gave me five twenties; I gave him the Augustan coin. Then I thanked him, told him I'd call the following week when I returned from Cyprus, and left the cab, Kitty following shortly afterwards. Simple as that.

Once he was out of sight, Kitty grinned at me, her eyes mirthful. "Well. Minus the cost of the coin, I figure this evening cost us... what, negative twenty?"

"What a dunce," I said, grinning myself. I handed my take over; she pulled out her wallet and began riffling through it. "It's no wonder avarice is a sin. Wait, what's this? Fifty?"

Kitty nodded. "Sure, dinner's on me. Anyway, shall we?" Her paw gripped mine warmly. "Mm, that was easy enough. Gone straight, have you?" My blood didn't even have a chance to run cold, then, before she pulled me in.

***

"The merlot is quite good," Kitty said, setting two glasses before us and pouring me a drink I had not asked for and, had the choice been mine, would not have consumed. "It's from France."

Taking the glass, watching the light dance through it, I raised an eyebrow, because she seemed very enthusiastic about the whole thing. "I thought you were a whiskey drinker."

Kitty shot me an angry look, setting down the bottle. "Hey, Frankie. I'm trying to be cultured here, ok? Just drink the fucking wine." Her look cracked, and she giggled with a toothy little smile. "Guess I should watch the language, huh? How do you say 'fuck' in French?"

"Must you be so vulgar?"

She grinned but didn't say anything until, having looked into her wineglass and found whatever secrets she sought there, she nodded her head towards me. "Cheers?" I tipped the glass back and, in fact, it was fairly good wine. How Kitty--who judged alcohol based on proof rather than vintage--had come across it escaped me.

"So what's up?" I finally asked, after a few more quiet sips. "Where've you been? Why are you here?"

"You keep wanting to get down to brass tacks. What's the matter? Don't enjoy my company?" I sighed, which to any normal person might have indicated an affirmative but to Kitty only provoked another giggle. "Oh, I'm not that bad. Let's talk about the wine."

I didn't want to indulge Kitty--the only person I've ever had trouble standing up to. When she smiles, she makes you want to smile too. When she's angry, she could stare down the American army without blinking--neither of us have either killed anyone (that I know of) but of the two I had no doubt who the first would be to accomplish this task. When she is being her normal self, which is to say her profane, take-no-prisoners self, and when you don't want to deal with this, resisting her can be very tiring.

In this sense, conversation with Kitty is something like dealing with a cornered animal, except she has never needed the corner. So I took a drink, savoured it for a moment, and then shrugged. "It's very... red."

"And wet." I had tried without success to explain what 'dry' meant in the context of wine, but as her answer was, in the literal sense, correct, I had to accept it--so I nodded. "With overtones--is overtones the right word, Frankie? With overtones of grapes."

"You should be a reviewer," I said, dryly. It was a nice enough Bordeaux, medium-bodied and slightly sweet, an unblended merlot--all of these things completely lost on Kitty, who drained it like a glass of lemonade on a hot day and then poured another. The snob in me flinched. "How much was this?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "Somebody gave it to me when they were trying to hire me. It's pretty old. Is that a good thing?"

"I don't know the vineyard. Presumably. It seems nice enough. Who was trying to hire you?" My sentences were becoming more clipped as I watched her drink half of the second glass she had poured for herself, then lick her lips. "Sips, Kitty. Take sips."

"Oh, hush. You ain't hardly even drank none yet." She grinned, teeth sparkling. "Don't want to be drunk around me, huh? Well, fine." She reached across the table to the stool beside me--"permitting," in the sense that it was probably intended, a view of her chest--and tossed a manila folder into my lap, only narrowly missing the Bordeaux. "It came from them."

I undid the folder and removed from it a thick stack of papers, which I riffled through, not quite understanding. "This looks like an annual report. Are you an investor now?"

"AHI is a publicly-traded company specialising in the practical application of artificial intelligence." She paused, watching for my reaction, and then giggled. "You like? I got it from those papers."

Well and good, but I still didn't know what she was up to. "So? It says Advanced Heuristics and it has a picture of a fish, Kitty. That doesn't mean anything to me. I've never heard of them."

"Nobody's heard of them," Kitty said, and leaned forward again. "They don't have a product--that's where we come in." Already she was using the plural first-person, which made me uncomfortable. I grimaced--apparently enough to catch her attention, because she laughed. "Oh, don't be so dickless, Frankie dear."

I wasn't comfortable with being called 'dear' either. "What are... we... supposed to do?"

Another lean, another manila envelope. "Those ones are classified, by the way. Don't tell anybody you saw 'em, ok Frankie? You're not supposed to know about it."

An airplane. It looked a little like something you'd expect a businessman to own, although various protruding antennae gave it the appearance of a hedgehog. "Know about what?"

"This is the Boeing"--boe-ing, I corrected, and received a scowl in return--"Special Advanced Research Experiment." SPARX-3, I read off the sheaf of papers. "Yeah, it's the third one I guess. Anyway, got that from a guy on the inside. Corporate espionage--hoo, Frankie, it's a fucking ball."

"What is this? I like how 'Special Advanced Research Experiment' doesn't actually tell you any--"

"Yeah, yeah, it means jack shit. Supposed to be inconspicuous. Another glass?" Her grin had an evil sort of glint that made it much easier to turn her down. "Aww. It's a spy plane, anyway."

"So?" I was not seeing how the two were related.

"It's a spy plane that has been outfitted with a proprietary, advanced, and according to my contact very sophisticated artificial intelligence."

"I don't--"

"We're gonna steal it, Frankie." Her grin widened as she said this, in rough time to my dropping jaw.

"Have you lost your mind?" Mind?, she asked, the devilish look still tinting her features. "You want to, what, break into some Boeing office somewhere, steal this AI thing, and give it to another company to make money off their stock?"

"I knew you'd understand. You're a doll, Frankie, you know? So..."

This time, I cut her off instead. "No, 'so' nothing, Kitty. Thank you for dinner, and I appreciate the wine, but"--and here I set the glass down firmly as I stood to leave--"I already said I was out of the game, and I'm not going to get back in for this shit. It's been fun, and I wish you the best of luck."

Her lips pursed together but she remained seated and--for once in her life--silent until I had opened the door and was halfway through. "Well, it was worth a shot. Hey, Frankie?" I stopped--always had a problem with that. "One more thing. Scratch is pulling the strings behind this Boeing stuff. That's where he's at nowadays."

I blinked at her, tried to consider a response, and could only bite my tongue. Then I sighed, and closed the door behind me, leaving her to her thoughts.

***

I stuck my hands into my pockets and debated buying a pack of cigarettes from the corner store--smoking having been, like Kitty Parnell, a habit I had given up. It was also, like Parnell, a habit that was bad for me. What the hell, though.

At first the nicotine burned, but it became soothing soon enough and I rested with my back against the hotel, thinking. Kitty had chosen her words carefully. Did they matter? I looked for an answer in the melting smoke from the cigarette and was disappointed.

For about six years, Jimmy Fremont had been the third horse in our troika. We met him in a dimly-lit pool hall--he enjoyed the game but was godawful at it, hence the name. Scratch was in general a miserable half-breed (well, a mongrel anyway), but he was dedicated enough to hold us together.

He was also an ambitious son of a bitch--which would, indeed, be our undoing in the end. It had been a simple enough plan: divert an unmarked automobile carrying thirty thousand dollars worth of African diamonds, hijack it, fence the stones, get a nice bottle of champagne, and take a vacation.

Caveat: the diamonds, technically, belonged to the Caprellis, one of the most influential crime families on the western side of the Mississippi River. Second caveat: Scratch saw himself as a big fish in a small pond and wanted greener pastures. Discovery: if you stand on the accelerator and pray hard enough, an '83 LeBaron will outrun a Mercedes (further caveats: they were armoured; we, by which I mean Kitty and I, had our car aerodynamically enhanced with a few dozen bullet holes).

I remember this for two primary reasons. Firstly, it was the only time I have actually been afraid for my life. Sure, plenty of times I've tangled with mean folks, even armed mean folks (the worst kind). I've stared down the barrel of more guns than the French army. No big deal. But I think if Kitty hadn't known the city well enough to get us off the main streets and into the safety of the alleys, we would've bought it.

Secondly, afterwards--and the both of us scared shitless --Kitty and I spent a few hours just huddled together, like animals trying to warm up on a chilly day. It's the closest she's ever been to being affectionate, and the closest I've ever been to desiring it from her. For these two reasons, the day stands out strongly in my mind.

I hadn't forgiven Fremont since then, and neither had Kitty. We hold grudges for the same length of time; she holds them more strongly. I guessed that must've been the reason she would've even agreed to consider such an incredibly ridiculous scheme. Really, I had to wonder if her putative employers had even come up with the idea themselves.

Did Scratch's involvement matter? Yes and no. I mean, yes, I admitted--grinding my jaw to the eventual and terminal detriment of my cigarette, which I then had to replace--to being a little angry all over again. I did, actually, hate Scratch, because he was a stupid, cowardly, traitorous bastard who had been willing to get us killed to make a name for himself with the mob. I would do pretty much anything to get back at him.

At the same time, and a lot of the time before and some of the time after, as much as I wanted to hurt Jimmy Fremont, I was decidedly uncomfortable with having to rely on Kitty to do so. She was a strongly negative influence on me, and what little good she offered in return tended to be fleeting.

Well, this left open the question of why I was still attracted to her but, grinding the cigarette out against the hotel wall, I decided that one was best ignored anyway.

Back in my little apartment, I opened a bottle of Corona and took stock of my situation. It was a dingy place, despite my best efforts to clean it, and my refrigerator had, on balance, been growing less and less full as I had to ration my money more and more (get a job? that required me being able to pass a background check--ha, ha).

Why was I turning her down? I paced back and forth in front of my bookcase, one of my sole treasures and an item I kept scrupulously organised. I was turning her down because Laura offered me, I thought, a chance at a better life. She really was a sweetheart... I lost myself for a few minutes while I mulled that one over, returning to find my Corona half downed.

It wasn't that Kitty meant me harm, which was an occasional mitigating factor. And actually, it wasn't that Kitty caused me harm, except in an emotional sense. Though of course, since my emotions were mine, didn't that mean it was really my fault? Reflecting on this, and rationalising that it was not, cost me the rest of the bottle.

What it kind of looked like was this: I wanted it to be as simple as Billy Joel--to tell Kitty that she could go ahead with her own life, but to leave me alone, and then there would be some rocking piano. But it's not that simple. She brought out the bad person in me, and while I rather enjoyed (or at least had no objections to) being a bad person, I had spent the last year and a half trying to convince myself this was not the case. I thought I had won this battle. Had I?

That, I decided, would take another bottle, and I didn't feel like getting drunk.

***

It was morning, and I wanted to still be dreaming. My head hurt slightly from the night before, and I was aware of a weight on the edge of my bed that, from its warmth, I imagined was another person--though in that peculiar half-awake state, it can be hard to tell.

For a few reasons--mostly that I was rather ashamed of my living conditions--I hadn't invited Laura to my apartment before, though to be perfectly honest given how I was feeling I rather fancied her company. Besides, Laura was worth opening my eyes for, so I did, fashioning a greeting from my dry mouth.

As it happened, it came out more like a sigh and the words "oh, fuck."

Kitty stuck her tongue out and offered me a glass of liquid with an outstretched arm. "Good morning to you too, sunshine. Here, drink."

I took the glass; sniffed at it. "Water?"

Her paw, palm open, was shoved in my direction again. "And aspirin."

After swallowing the two little white pills and downing the water in one gulp, I sat up with a displeased groan. "Why are you here?"

"I wanted to give you the night to think on it," Kitty said, unreasonably chipper-sounding. I tried to get my muzzle to form a grimace, but this only succeeded in drawing another childish tongue from the vixen. "You didn't listen to my sales pitch. I worked on it for a long time, Frankie."

I closed my eyes, willing the headache away without much success. "I don't care, Kitty. I'm not the person I used to be."

"You're not anything, Frank; you're gonna go stale. That would be a crime. Besides, it's just one job."

"I don't care," I repeated, trying a dismissive wave on for size.

"Oh, cut the white-knight bullshit, Frank," she snapped, and I opened my eyes to find her glaring. "If nothing else, it's a lot of money, and you could use that."

Humouring her, I sighed. "How much?"

"Fifty, maybe more."

"Thousand, on a two-way split?"

"Oh, god," Kitty rolled her eyes contemptuously. "Did your bitch fuck you retarded or something? Do you think I'd be out here for a measly twenty-five grand?"

I raised an eyebrow but chose not to respond to the profanity. "Million?"

"There you go. See, that didn't take so long."

By this point I had, more or less, regained my bearings. "Money isn't everything, you know."

She gestured around, making me inexplicably self-conscious of the water stains on the ceiling, the yellowing wallpaper. "And this? Remember that condo you had in, uh, where was it--"

"I choose to live less ostentatiously now."

She laughed, having gained the high ground again. "What, you're choosing to live in this shitty-ass apartment? Get your daily iron from the rust in the pipes? Fuck a couple rats on the side?" Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not stupid. Look, you know I need your help."

"I'm not giving it to you."

Kitty grumped for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice was a little softer. "You really like this kind of life, Frankie?"

"Parts of it."

Grey eyes rolling again, Kitty swung herself around to sit cross-legged and facing me. "You know, your romanticism will be the death of you. How come you were never all sappy with me, huh?"

It wasn't a simple question, but I elected to go with the simplest answer. "You never wanted it."

Her smile had faded, and Kitty's face was different--more contemplative. "You didn't either."

"Maybe," I admitted. A small concession to her; what could it hurt?

"Look, Frankie, it's been a long time. I missed you; that's all. I don't believe in this crap, and... fuck, I don't really think you do either, but I guess you probably want me to butt out of your life, huh?" When she said it like that, it became harder to agree with her, so I didn't say anything. Besides, people saw Kitty being soft-spoken roughly as often as they saw Halley's comet; I was taken off guard. "Ok, Mr. Romantic, I'll make you a deal."

Deals were not the boon they seemed. "I've been making deals for a long time."

"Yeah, well, shut up." The command lacked its normal spark, so I inclined myself to listen. "I'll walk out this door and I won't say a word to you ever again. Get completely out of your life."

"And in return?"

"You kiss me." Her smile returned, quirky and more Kitty-ish than her mood had been only seconds before. "Just once. Like old times, huh?"

I blinked. "That's it?" She nodded slowly. I took a deep breath and could feel my ears flatten back a little as I considered the offer. "Well, come here then."

Kitty obligingly wrapped an arm around me, falling forward--lightly; I'd forgotten how light she felt. When her muzzle met mine, I closed my eyes. I wanted to think of other things, but the sudden lack of visual cues instead clarified, brightened, illuminated. Her lips were soft, and her body had the gentle warmth of the sun in June.

I'd accepted the offer because I thought it was a worthwhile trade-off, but it was Kitty Parnell, not me, who pulled away first. By the time I'd recovered my senses enough to open her eyes, she was fixing me in her trademark mischievous grin, standing next to the bed. "Hey, Frank. It's been fun, yeah? You want to talk or anything I, uh... well, you know my room number."

I shut my eyes and composed a response, but by the time it had reached my tongue there was only the click of the door.

***

The next few days passed pleasantly enough. Through the afternoon of the second day since I'd seen her, I was expecting Kitty to call me, or be waiting when I returned to my apartment (and how she got in, I'll never know). But there was silence--blessed, sweet silence.

"Things with the lawyer went ok?" Laura asked when I met her after work, and I nodded.

"They went very well, yes. I think..." I laughed to myself. "I think I'm finally done with it all."

As it happened, the dreams started that night. Shifting, beastly things--swirling nightmare colours, pitch black, either way they were inexplicably terrifying in the way only dreams can be, deprived of our capacity for reason. It was about this time that I started to think about Kitty in the daytime.

It was possible to distract myself from this when I was with Laura, so I made the effort to spend as much time as I could with her, to the she-wolf's apparent delight. One exhausts banalities quickly (Laura was typically very inquisitive about my life, which I could only indulge so far), so a lot of our time was spent quietly, just walking. It was a kind of bulwark, and it reassured me that I'd done the right thing. Since I couldn't outright tell Laura, I needed all the indirect assurances I could get my mitts on.

Eventually, though, Parnell began to creep into my consciousness then, as well. I would like to say, in my defence, that it was not really a sensual kind of thing. Since I presumed she intended to go along with her cockamamie plan irrespective of whether or not I tagged along, I found myself hoping for her safety. I found myself dwelling on our past, and on Scratch. I became rather more moody.

I worked to conceal this, but as I have said this was a mixed blessing. I'm an excellent actor, if I do say so myself--but more than anything I longed to deal with Laura on the level. I wanted not to have to put on a face with her. Save a few minor spats in the last eighteen months, she had produced within me a state of unalloyed happiness, and I'd never really had to confront the possibility that, if I wanted to stay with her, I would have to be a character once again.

But I was a character, really. For security's sake, I hadn't been able to tell her my real name. I was Paul to her, a name I picked out of the phone book. She said she liked it. Once, she'd asked about my family; that had been improvised too. I began smoking more regularly--when I was away from her, to be sure, but she noticed. I didn't have a good answer when she asked--she knew I'd smoked before, but I'd given up cigarettes shortly after meeting her.

In short I was frazzled, it was Kitty's fault (her promise to stay out of my life notwithstanding), and I was upset about this. Part of the problem was that I wasn't sure exactly how it was Kitty's fault. I couldn't quite decide if it was that I still desired her, in some way, or if it was merely platonic, worried friendship. In private, my images of Kitty had become slightly less innocent. Christ. Eleven months! She'd been on a winning streak!

Saturday morning things came to a head. I had spent the night at Laura's apartment, and woke up next to her, which is actually really a very nice thing to do. As it happened our desires more or less coincided and, hey, what the heck, you probably don't have to let your imagination run too wild.

Anyway it was slow, languorous--almost kind of dreamy, really. As a rule I rather thought I enjoyed lovemaking, and it came as kind of a shock when I discovered that, physical state aside, I was not terribly aroused. Moreover I realised--also kind of a shock--that I could not really guarantee whose name I might utter if I lost control of my faculties.

Thus I had to concentrate, which is not an especially fun way to go about things, this being one time when I really don't want to be in character. After a few minutes I gave up, faked what I admit was a not terribly inspired climax, and endeavoured to think of happier things, such as why I was in love with Laura Kuster.

My eyes were closed, but I heard her sigh happily, felt her fingers playing with my ear. Presently these stopped, and she poked my chest. I opened an eye. "Paul, what's wrong?"

"What's wrong?"

She smoothed down the fur her finger had disturbed. "You haven't been yourself recently. Been too quiet... kind of depressed. You've started smoking again." She made a face, and I frowned apologetically.

"I'm sorry, Laura. It's... ah, just an old friend from college gave me a call the other day."

Laura cocked her head, her ears swivelling to the sides. "Oh? What does he want? Is something wrong?"

"She," I corrected, and shook my head. "No, not exactly. Just some unfinished business I... hoped that I wouldn't have to deal with anymore."

The wolf's brow furrowed with worry. "Not bad, though?" When I shook my head again she smiled. "Girlfriend?" The shudder and hasty 'no, thank god' made her laugh and since I desperately wanted to hug her for this, I did.

"That's your job." I kissed her impulsively and for a few seconds couldn't recall what the problem had been--she was very easy to be in love with.

"Good," she said dramatically, when we were finished. "But you should always take care of unfinished business, Paul. It'll come back to bite you if you don't." This, though it was not something I wanted to hear, seemed wise. I told her I should probably leave, then, and with an promise drawn out of me to return soon, extricated myself from her arms, threw on my clothes hastily, and left.

It would be perfunctory, I told myself, and businesslike. If there was a way I could get this operation done, well... maybe (just maybe) I would agree to it. If not, Kitty probably deserved better terms than we'd left on, I admitted to myself. That was all it was--courtesy. Courtesy was not, of course, something Kitty understood very well, but she deserved it nonetheless.

Maybe she would be gone and it would be moot (I kind of hoped so), but I couldn't count on that. Well, what the hell. I knocked lightly on the hotel room door.

***

Kitty answered the door in a nightgown, blinking a few times and for once in her life the surprised-looking one between us. She closed the door behind me and, having regained her bearings, favoured me with a kiss--standing, as was her custom, too close to me when it was over. I didn't care. "Long time no see, Frankie," she grinned.

"I haven't been able to stop thinking about you," I admitted, hastily adding "don't take that the wrong way, damn it."

She stuck her tongue out at me playfully. "Uh huh. Must've been some kiss. So what are ya here for, Frankie dearest, talk or action?"

That brought me up short. "Wh--" I stumbled, wishing it hadn't taken me so long to come up with the answer, stammering. "Talk, Kitty."

I felt her paw in what is not commonly considered a polite environs. "That so?" I started to reply, to come up with some argument as to why what her hand seemed to report on and what my actual feelings were differed, but then I couldn't speak because her nose was crushed against mine.

"Kitty," I panted, when I could again. "This is not right, this is n--"

"What?" She was panting too, but she found the effort to give me a tooth-filled grin. "Worried they'll find out? This place isn't bugged--I checked."

I shook my head quickly--this also kept her from kissing me, and allowed more logical parts of my brain the temporary upper hand. "It's not about being discovered, it's about the... the morals involved."

"The what?" When her muzzle parted from mine this time, we were perilously close to the hotel room's bed. "Speak English, will ya?"

"I can't just--give up--everything I've--" my words were broken and clipped, which made the debate harder to carry on. Kitty pounced, wrapping one of her arms snugly around my shoulder as I felt her teeth at my ear.

"I tell you what then. If you don't want this, then stop it. Right now." By 'stop it', her voice was a whispered hiss. You see in cartoons the guy with the devil and the angel on his shoulder. My angel took one look at me, and quailing resolve that I still possessed--then shrugged defeatedly and went off to catch a game on the telly.

I've spent a couple of minutes here, trying to think of a way to say that I regretted what happened. That would be a lie, though; I didn't, guilty pleasure without the guilt that it was. I should've, but it's such a nice thing to hear your own name, once in awhile.

My shoulders hurt afterwards; Kitty apologised for her claws without being truly sorry, and it was more or less possible to ignore the pain by concentrating on everything else. This tactic I liked. Finally though I had to shake my head. "This isn't what I came here for, Kitty."

She giggled merrily. "No? What then?"

"I want you to tell me everything," I said, trying not to concentrate on the more carnal things that tried to take my attention. "That's why I came."

Kitty stuck her tongue out, something of a habit of hers. "That so? Fifteen minutes ago I think you were giving me credit for that."

I bit her on the ear. "A lie. I want to know everything."

"Everything?" she echoed, quirking an eyebrow. "Adam and Eve tried that already, Frankie; look where it got 'em. You're not ashamed of our nakedness, are ya?"

I supposed I was not. "That's not what I meant. This little operation of yours. Tell me everything, ok?"

"Ok. So for starters, it's up in Washington." She told me a city, and perhaps something more specific after that, but her fingers had taken to wandering aimlessly and I kept having to ask her to repeat things. Finally I had had enough; I showered, reclothed myself, and sat down in the same chair I'd occupied the first night. Presently she joined me.

"There are actually two airplanes. They can be piloted, or they can fly by remote control. If they're flying by remote, they have a specially designed, uh, artificial intelligence to help them." I nodded. "But, only one of them actually has it installed. Apparently it's very difficult to make the computer. Fuck if I know anything about those."

"What does this artificial intelligence look like?" I was not much better than Kitty was, so far as computers were concerned. "Do we know?"

Kitty offered me a grin instead of an answer, at first. "Nope. All I really know is it's bound up in the airplane, somehow. The guy I talked to said you can't remove it, or something? He don't really know, though... we're kind of in the dark."

"That means we need to steal the airplane itself?" 'Christ on a crutch,' I failed to blasphemously add.

"Yeah. And remember, it's just the one, and I don't know that we'll be able to tell them apart. You'll have to find out a way to do that."

I closed my eyes in the vain hope that when I opened them again, the situation might have changed somehow. Needless to say, it hadn't. "Is it just me, or I seem to have to come up with the hard answers on all these little things you get us into? That's not fair, is it?"

"Mm-hmm," Kitty told me, and then blithely continued on because she and I both knew that this was how we'd done things since we met. "Now my source on the inside says that there's a lot of security, but not as bad as you'd think. Boeing apparently thinks the project is so expensive nobody will want it, so it's a low priority I guess? I ain't a businessman."

"Do you have the plans for the building?" She handed me a few pieces of paper, though the maps on them were small and not all that helpful. I drummed my fingers. "This is going to be next to impossible."

"Then you, Frankie dear, are going to have to be next to a goddamned genius, aren't you?"

I grimaced. "I don't like that answer." Kitty smiled, baring canines which she then licked provocatively. I sighed heavily. "Let me see those blueprints again?"

***

Laura was not suspicious, which in a way made things harder (oh, so there was the flash of guilt, only a day or so belated). She tended to ask questions about nearly every detail of my life, but in this case seemed content not knowing. I tried to couch in layman's terms the kind of problem I was facing with Parnell, which of necessity meant I needed to provide an illustration of the woman.

"She sounds interesting," Laura had foolishly concluded from my initial description. "We should meet sometime!" This was how I found myself in a steakhouse, looking around at western décor strangely out of place in the District, and hoping the same number of people who walked into the restaurant would walk out.

"Kris," I said, "this is Laura Kuster. Laura, Kristina Patterson." They exchanged pleasantries, and we sat down to eat. I went through a litany of gods I knew of, praying that Kitty would follow my instructions to be on her best behaviour.

"So what do you do for a living?" Laura asked the classic and gauche American question.

"Oh, I'm an antiques dealer," Kitty said brightly.

Fuck. "Back in Washington--state," I clarified. "She's out here meeting a client, otherwise I'm sure she'd love to show you some of her wares."

"Actually, I have some in my purse," Kitty countered. Then her eyes narrowed abruptly, because I kicked her in the shin. "Oh, or maybe not."

"Another time maybe," Laura said with a smile, and Kitty answered that this was certainly not out of the question. "Any particular focus you have?"

"Old coins, mostly. Some stamps, but--it's so hard to keep them all straight, you know? How about you--what do you do?"

"I work for a bank." She started to explain, but Kitty was already nodding.

"Oh, right, right--Paul pointed it out when we were driving past it. I'm through here pretty often, go there from time to time. You like your work?"

It was this smile, this joyous smile, that perhaps I loved most about Laura. "I do, it's a lot of fun, really, working with all the different people. And Paul stops by pretty often, when he can."

"I bet. He says nothing but good things about you." Since I had said almost nothing, period, about Laura to Kitty, this was probably true. "How long have you worked there?"

"About six years now--I turned down a promotion to stay on the floor, though."

"Oh, yeah. Six years... you joined right after the robbery, then, huh?"

Laura's ears pinned suddenly and she was quiet for a second, as though the memory disturbed her. "Fortunately I wasn't there for that. They talk about it, though."

"Yeah, I bet. I was a teller briefly, one summer in college. We always worried about it, but... what can you do, right?" Kitty was being deceptively personable, which I considered a victory in and of itself. And the conversation moved from one point of small talk to the next, until dinner was over. Apparently my prayers had worked.

"What a lovely person," Laura said, as we stood outside waiting for a taxi, Kitty having excused herself with an errand a few minutes before. "You made her out to be some kind of monster!"

"You don't know her like I do," I said darkly, but the wolf only laughed and leaned against me. "You saw her on a good day."

"I'll have to take your word for that. She seemed quite nice to me."

A few hours later, I met Kitty in a coffee shop. Her muzzle was resting on propped elbows, eyes closed, but she smiled knowingly when I sat down opposite her. "Well?" I asked.

The vixen's eyes opened and she grinned. "You're a goddamned idiot, Frankie."

I blinked, trying to figure out what was coming next like a grandmaster who has suddenly watched his opponent begin eating his pawns. "What?"

"Of course," Kitty continued, "that's what happens when you let yourself get lead around by the dick."

"What are you going on about?"

"Frankie," Kitty said, in the imperative tone one uses to address a wayward child. "If you and she were any more complete opposites, one of you would probably be upside down."

I sighed, exasperated at the renewed attempt of converting me. "Well, they say opposites attra--"

"Shut the fuck up. If that was true, Grant and Lee would've spent the whole Civil War in bed. Don't give me that shit; you know what I mean. You know you're probably thinking you've given up on the criminal life and everything's so much better, now. You're still lying, Frankie. Only difference is you're doing it 'round the clock, and you're banging your mark." Check.

I was on the verge of becoming angry. "Yeah? And what do you want me to do Kitty, huh?"

"Realise what the hell is going on. You think you two are gonna get married? Your personalities are so far apart they have to shout to hear each other--she doesn't even know who you fucking are, Frankie. Or at least, you ain't told her. So either you've sold somebody else on one more con, or she wants something from you. Either way, this ain't fucking... Romeo and Julianne."

Mate. I didn't even have the energy to correct her (as if Shakespeare would've been one of Kitty's strong suits). The problem was that her words hit home hard, since they were, in short, every worry I'd had since falling for Kuster. There was a moment of silence while I chewed on my lip. "So what should I do?"

"All I'm saying, Frank--I ain't trying to get you back, don't think of it like that. All I'm saying is get some distance. Think about who you really are."

And this was really what I had been wanting to avoid. The best laid plans of coyotes and men, anyhow.

***

It's a testament to--or an indictment of--my life to this point that I believed Kitty. She'd known me for too long, understood all of my buttons, and was completely shameless about pushing them. Worst of all, most of the time she was right--or right enough.

Suspicion about people comes easily in my trade--which is precisely the reason why Kitty had such a surplus. I supposed I'd turned that off at the same time as I turned off the rest of my old life--but, as Parnell herself showed, it wasn't always possible to just forget everything.

Despite reassurances, it was awfully convenient that the only real competitor for Kitty's affection in my life happened to be (if one took Kitty's word for it) fundamentally incompatible. I mentioned this to Parnell, who merely rolled her eyes and said "well, it's your life, Frankie." So it was; I told Kuster I had to leave for a few weeks, promised to stay in touch (which I did), and took up residence with Parnell in a hotel room in Mukilteo.

We had scoped out the Boeing factory--at least, where Kitty's contact indicated we should look. The factory complex itself is a gargantuan, stunning thing, and we didn't have the time it would take to survey it all. Personally, I thought we had enough, and as Kitty generally took me to be the brains of the outfit she agreed.

The idea--stealing an incredibly valuable airplane right out from under the nose of its designers--was so stupid on its face that I had my doubts it could succeed at all. The goal, therefore, was to come up with an operation that had at least a reasonable chance--but, more importantly than that, would also allow us to extricate ourselves if the need arose. I was more or less happy with the plan I had crafted, which Kitty and I reviewed now, sitting next to each other in a booth at a restaurant near the hotel.

Written in a kind of code, the plans were ambiguous to anyone not in on them, so we didn't worry too much about discovery. Distracted, we didn't notice the man standing next to us until he slid into the seat opposing us, fixed us in a smile, and said, softly, "hello you two." Oh, then we noticed.

A wolf--unmistakeably a wolf, who appeared to have rolled in coal dust. Pure jet, his fur swept like a river around two fascinatingly--disturbingly--blue eyes. Puppy blue, as though perhaps he had never quite grown up--though the immaculately tailored suit suggested otherwise. His disarming smile allowed me to return one back to him. "Hello, sir. Can I help you?"

"Yes, you can. Introductions first, if you don't mind. Frank, Katherine, I--"

My smile vanished. Parnell, unimpressed by Armani, cut the soft-spoken man off with a curt headshake that belied her almost certain nervousness. "Kitty. Nobody's called me Katherine since I was six."

Our visitor nodded softly, unflappably--I myself felt somewhat like I was falling, and clutched the table discretely for support. "Apologies, then, Ms. Parnell. I commend the both of you--sincerely. You've been very hard to properly track down, the dearth of information unfortunately including your names. I hope Frank will do?"

It would not. "Yes."

"Very well." He folded his hands lightly on the table. "Even though you are not pleased to make mine, I'm quite happy to make your acquaintance. My name is Jake, which you can feel free to call me."

I swallowed. "Pleasure to meet you, then, sir."

"Mm, yes," he said, now dispensing with opening formalities. "My first name is not of great interest to you, but I suspect my last will be."

Next to me, Kitty perked her ears up. "What is it?"

His smile deepened. "Caprelli."

I heard a muttered "fuck." Kitty, as she frequently did, said what I was thinking without the oversight of such unimportant things as tact.

The wolf's eyebrows--noticeable despite their inky surroundings--arched. "Come now. Such base language need never flow from such a pretty face." (So he hadn't been able to find out much about her. Small victory.) Now his face levelled out. "Given that your one operation against us was strictly small-time, not very successful, and well in the past you may be wondering why I have chosen to seek you out."

"Among other things," I said, trying to remain stoic.

"Yes, well." Once more the dismissiveness born of (and paid for by) a high station in life. "I am in Washington for the same reason as the both of you."

"I doubt that," Kitty said.

The hint of a thin smile creased the corner of Caprelli's mouth. "You're attempting to acquire the RED SIX integrated artificial intelligence system being developed by Boeing here, are you not? Furthermore, you intend to transfer it to Advanced Heuristics Incorporated, itself a front company for a defence contractor headquartered in the People's Republic of China--this no doubt explaining why they are so eager to get their hands on advanced military technology. Correct?"

Kitty had mentioned none of this, including the name of the thing we were supposed to steal, and a quick glance suggested to me that it was all news to her as well. Prudence overwhelmed my surprise. "I don't know that it's... wise to discuss... such..." the wolf's smile widened and I suddenly noticed that the surrounding booths had been cleared of patrons. I sighed. "Alright, perhaps we are."

"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?"

"So the Caprellis want it too?"

"Some of them, Ms. Parnell. Not all, which is why you are enjoying orange juice in a café here instead of sitting on the bottom of Lake Washington."

"I don't get it," Kitty shook her head. "What does the mafia want with it?"

"Permit me to explain?" We both nodded. "As you probably know, the primary interests of the family are gambling and other low-key markets. Myself, I am generally a specialist in the protection business. However, the growth of the world wide web makes computer-based activities an increasingly attractive option. We have a man on the inside, as you are aware, in the form of James Fremont, who is attempting to rise in the ranks of the family--with little success, I might add."

Kitty growled. "Stupid little shit. Why haven't you killed him yet?"

"At the moment, he's more useful to us alive. At any rate, Fremont intends to procure a copy of the SPARX airframe, RED SIX intact. It is his plan, and the plan of those he has persuaded, to use the artificial intelligence to assist in breaking in to monetarily-valuable institutions--so-called 'hacking'."

Confused, I looked at Jake with furrowed brow. "I don't get it either. Do you not agree with this?"

"The government has been devoting increasing amounts of resources to dealing with the threat of the somewhat illicit activities that take place in cyberspace. If the Caprelli family becomes involved in widespread computer crime, it will bring the federal government down on our heads. I cannot, obviously, allow this to happen."

"What does this have to do with us?" Kitty had made a point of staying away from dealing with the mob--as had I, and with good reason. "Why are you in this booth?"

"I'm here to offer you a deal. I would like you to assist me in preventing Fremont and his supporters from getting a hold of the RED SIX AI. This may require some adjustment to your plans. In exchange, I offer you two things. Firstly, the complete payment of all your debts, known and unknown, to the family."

"Unknown," Kitty said. Jake Caprelli merely shrugged.

I wasn't interested in arguing at that point. "What else?"

"The opportunity to destroy Mr. Fremont."

***

"There is another advantage," Jake told us the following day, dining this time in a rather more upscale restaurant. "You have access to significantly larger monetary resources."

"We try to keep things low-key," Kitty explained. She had been at her very most presentable, an act which I felt sure wore on her. It was strange to see Kitty sounding reasonable.

"Yes. Well, you prefer to keep things low-key," the anthracitic form echoed. "I prefer to keep them successful. Most assuredly, you could use some assistance."

"Not really." She cracked a breadstick in half deliberately. "We're quite fine on our own."

Caprelli said nothing until I sighed. "Alright, I need five thousand dollars."

Then he smiled, a thin white line, and his cerulean eyes seemed to warm up slightly, though they became at no point any less striking. "There, thank you. Cash or cheque?"

Cash--harder to trace. Five thousand dollars bought us a powerful camera, an equally powerful telephoto lens, and a laptop computer to handle the images. We began surveying again. Jake gave us a building to look over, and we photographed it meticulously--or as meticulous as one can photograph something from so far out.

"I hate that son of a bitch," Kitty said, with an audible grinding of teeth.

"Be that as it may..." For his last name alone I was no great fan of Caprelli, who had departed our hotel room scant moments before. "Here, look at this. Have we seen this man before?"

"Yeah, I think so. Uh, look over the ones from yesterday?" I am no great fan of computers; it was awkward, but this gave her time to scan the pictures as I cycled through them. "Stop. There, Frankie. Can you blow it up any?--it looks he has a key card." He did. Caprelli's man on the inside was better than Kitty's; we swallowed our pride and went to Jake.

"Matthew Bell. He has a master's degree in computer science from a prestigious university."

"One of the programmers?" I asked.

"Probably."

Kitty broke the vow of silence she generally adopted in our meetings with Caprelli. "Single?"

So it went like this. According to the weather, rain was expected for the following day; Kitty--Michelle Stevens--would pretend to be lost, and soaking, and ask for directions. He would graciously volunteer his assistance. Kitty would engage him in conversation. Did it work like that? Yes, of course it did. The predictability of human nature is the only thing that makes confidence schemes profitable.

We were, I began to appreciate, spending a lot of time in restaurants. My body quailed at this, having grown accustomed to its diet of dehydrated Japanese noodles and apples that had seen their best days under a different president's administration. Kitty was wired, and as we recorded this I tried to make pleasant conversation with Caprelli. Mom says I should've been an actor; I did her proud then.

Meanwhile I kept an eye on Parnell with a small measure of discomfort. I knew what was going on and admitted it was probably necessary--or at least useful--but it's still a somewhat unpleasant thing to see your partner flirting with someone else. Of course Kitty, being roughly as subtle as Pickett's Charge, generally dealt with seduction in the same way a rubber hammer deals with your knee: bluntly. And for that matter reflexively. I discovered that I liked this metaphor, since it aptly described a Kitty courtship: there was surprisingly little pain, but you felt like kicking someone afterwards. Ha!

Anyway, she was acting too, which permitted me to more or less enjoy my meal despite the velvety drawl coming through the earpiece I wore as inconspicuously as possible. The shapeless black figure across from me ate quietly, though when I flinched he looked up. "Are the two of you involved?"

"Not that it's any of your business," I said as preface, but he only smiled. "No, not really."

"Hmm."

I bristled. "What does that mean?"

"It means exactly what I said." My gaze drifted inexorably back to his eyes, and when he saw that they met he smiled once more. "No more and no less, Mr. Carter. It merely didn't seem that way."

"We're partners," I said, firmly, then thought about this. "Sometimes that implies different things. You see how she acts, though--can you imagine 'involvement' with her?"

"Imagine? Clearly, I already have, to be asking the question at all. I would have thought that perhaps it might have been worth it--but you are probably right. After all, you know her better than I, don't you?" He took a bite of steak, chewed carefully, and smiled wider. "Come now, you've hardly touched your dinner. Or the cabernet, for that matter--it's local, you know. I'm quite fond of the vineyard."

Unfortunately for any witty reply I might have planned, it was a nice wine (if you like cabernet sauvignon). So I ate, and chatted, and sipped lightly. And tried very hard to ignore Kitty, whose feet now played, with calculated distractedness, against her dinner companion's.

***

"Holy fuck," Kitty said, making a face. "I don't think he's bathed since they invented indoor plumbing."

"Any useful information?"

She nodded to Caprelli. "Yeah, I think so anyway. You got it on tape, right? I'm not gonna do that shit again if you ain't got it."

"It's all been recorded."

"Did you commit to anything?"

Kitty twitched, her ears quivering. "You for real, Frankie? I want a shower now." Another shudder. "Actually I want one for him too, but... lost cause."

I grinned (not because I was reassured! No sir!). "Positive? That goodbye hug looked awfully sincere, Kitty. Sure you don't want to go back for more?"

Eyes blazing, the vixen wheeled on me. "You say that again, I'll send you straight to hell." I cackled merrily, which was not, it turned out, what she wanted to hear. "With a little note for the devil to stick his goddamn cock up your ass. Stop laughing, you dick. I don't see nobody forcing you to make out with anything whose fur last got wet when he pissed himself."

Jake Caprelli sighed heavily. "Children..."

"What? He wanted to kiss me! I'd rather suck off a sewer rat." A look of abject disgust crinkled her features. "Oh, fine. I didn't commit to nothing, though. Got a number." She handed a slip of paper over to Caprelli, who nodded.

"Probably a cell phone. I'll have him followed."

We listened to the tape, then. Kitty sounded unbelievably personable, although when I told her she was being "just so gosh-darned adorable," she kicked me so hard I walked with a limp for the rest of the night. Unfortunately, and while wine and the presence of a beautiful woman (yeah, I'm biased; cut me some slack here) had loosened Matthew Bell's lips, none of us were computer people.

"I know the guy we want to talk to," I said. Both heads turned to me. "He's one of Jean's friends--you remember her? I met him through her, anyway. He's a bit... odd. But he's a good guy; knows computers inside and out."

"Can he be trusted?"

"Offer him a share and I think so. He doesn't... always appear to understand the value of money, but... he seems to like it. I think we can get him, anyway."

We (sans Jake, who stayed out of our dirty work) met Leo at SeaTac. A dirty-looking wolf I nonetheless knew to be immaculate, and wearing a suit despite the weather, he carried a heavy suitcase he didn't set down when he shook our hands; gravity left Kitty flexing her paw as though it hurt. It probably did. He spoke first, after the pleasantries, when I placed his suitcase carefully into the back of the rental car.

"188 to First to 518 to I-5 northbound to 527 to 19th to 112th to Evergreen." He nodded, his eyes just visible behind sunglasses. "Gets you there without having to make any left turns."

"Are left turns a problem?"

Leo blinked. "He doesn't like them, Kitty--I don't, I mean," he corrected swiftly. I was driving, and I didn't want the hassle, so we avoided left turns.

"You hungry, Leo? Get anything to eat on the plane?"

He frowned and shook his head. "There were eighteen pretzels in the bag, plus two broken ones which I obviously discarded. It would've been ok but the lady next to me would not consume the pretzel I offered her."

"So?" Kitty turned around, giving me a queer look in passing as she faced Leo. "What does that mean?"

In the rear-view mirror I could see the wolf's fingers wiggling aimlessly. "Eighteen is a multiple of nine." He looked blankly at Kitty before realising that the answer was insufficient. "Nine is an unhappy number."

She returned heavily to her seat with a resigned nod. "Ok."

Since, as Leo said, the first meal upon disembarking from an airplane was supposed to be a hamburger, we stopped a fast-food joint. He ordered while I untangled the digital recorder from the night before and plugged in the headphones. I had just about finished removing the knots from the cord when a tray appeared in front of me; then a mess of French fries spilled out onto it. I looked up at Leo, who scanned the tray quickly. "Take one fry please."

I did, which evidently enabled him to commence lining them up in neat rows. When he was finished, and as he began to consume them, I handed over the recorder. "This is from last night. We're working with a computer programmer. Can you understand what he's saying?"

Blinking every few seconds, Leo said nothing through the remainder of the meal. He ate his fries methodically, beginning with the shortest and ending with a long one he folded in half and then discarded. When one eats in this fashion, McDonald's can take as long as a steakhouse; by the time he was finished with his hamburger the recording was evidently over. His face was solemn and he remained silent for a minute or so, until we had returned to the car.

"Boeing has developed a conceptually fantastic bit of computer software. We're going to steal it?"

"That's the plan. Can you explain in simple English what he was saying?"

Leo looked at the recorder, then back at me. "Leo can, although most of it will require him to explain things to you in ways he's not sure how to do."

"Try?"

"Of course. Basically, if he's telling the truth, which he must be since--if you take this right, and then the next one, you won't have to turn left--Leo is here, they have designed a computer program... more likely a set of computer programs, actually. Right turn, Franklin." I did, but the near mishap stalled him for a minute while he recovered. "The program is self-modifying and highly integrated with the electronics of the aeroplane."

"Meaning we'd have to steal the airplane, right? I thought you could just put a computer thing on a CD or something. Ain't that how it works?" Since I'd described Leo as a computer genius to Kitty, she'd been hoping to avoid the messiest part of our dilemma--hijacking and then somehow disposing of a completed aircraft.

"Most of the time you can. In this case, it's too large, and it appears too dependent on the hardware--that is, he means, the... physical parts of the system, namely the aeroplane itself. It is highly sophisticated, capable of learning and adapting to nearly all new situations."

I don't use computers often, but that sounded ominous. "So this is basically some Terminator shit?"

"No, Leo doesn't think so. It must have a specific purpose in mind. He isn't saying that it's alive, or sentient. Just very smart at what it does... it could be very powerful, which is no doubt why you two are interested. He--I--just hope that you know what you are getting into."

***

"This is your friend?" Caprelli indicated Leo with a slight nod of his head.

"My brother is a secret agent," Leo answered nonchalantly, which got all of us facing him immediately. "I'm not a secret agent. I'm using the first person; I, me, my. Not the second person and certainly not the third."

I'd spent a few minutes before Caprelli arrived attempting to get him to stop referring to himself as 'he' or 'Leo', which was in any case confusing when there were other males to be discussed. He had apparently taken my teaching to heart, though I admitted to being taken off-guard by this secret agent crap myself. "His name's Leo. Leo, this is Jake."

"Hello, Jake," Leo said, looking past the well-tailored man off into the distance.

Caprelli did not answer in kind. "Your brother is a secret agent?"

"The only logical extrapolation from the evidence provided to me, though of course he has not confirmed it since that would no doubt be highly improper for a secret agent to do. Although perhaps he knows that I would draw this conclusion and is not a secret agent but has carefully selected what he permits me to know about his life so that I would believe him to be one."

Parnell, who had taken to being silent, finally spoke up. "Are you admitting you're a spy or something?"

"Of course, he... I--'I' is the first person--I am not a secret agent, obviously, or a spy, but perhaps I thought you would be interested in knowing that my brother was, so we have similar interests... so if you a need a secret agent I could definitely pretend to be one for you. What does your brother do, Jake?"

The mafia having no room for people of Leo's kind, whatever such kind was, Caprelli now simply ignored him, and turned to us. "I've managed to track down Matthew Bell's address. He lives about two miles from here in a large apartment complex. I got some directions off the Internet, if they'd be of any use." He handed me a stack of papers.

After a cursory look, I prodded Leo's side and handed them to him. "There's a street map in my car. Would you find out how to get there, please? Otherwise we're liable to make a left turn or two." He disappeared obligingly, and as I now found both of my cohorts staring at me I shook my head. "Look, before either of you flip out on me--which I can tell you're about to do--I don't know what his... issue is, either. All I know is that he's very smart. Not... very successful, but a whip with computers. And we can trust him."

It was this last part that I suspect Jake was the most worried about. "And how long have you known Mycroft for, exactly?"

I didn't know what he was talking about, but I got the message. "About six years. I've worked with him off and on throughout. Like I told you the day before yesterday, he's odd, but dependable. If you're his friend and--or, maybe--you offer him money for it, he'll do anything and I don't think he'd tell a soul. He never has before."

"You'd better be right, Mr. Cullen. You don't have the family behind you--I do. If anything goes wrong..." He didn't finish but, again, I got the message. Jake declined to accompany us to Bell's apartment, which left only the three of us for the car ride over--longer, slightly, without any left turns. I hoped Kitty would be easier to persuade.

"Why did you say your brother was a secret agent?"

"I thought it would be interesting. Didn't you find it interesting?"

"That's not the problem," Kitty said, and I turned a bit to look at her facial expression. Placid enough, for her. "The problem is now he thinks you're some kind of government spy."

Leo was staring out the side of the window, and didn't look at Kitty before answering, distantly. "No he doesn't. The license plate of the car next to us is only one higher than the red car at the motel, Franklin."

"Interesting," I said, with a little of the rising tone that marks a question--thrown by the sudden conversation shift.

Kitty did not join the tangent. "Why doesn't he think that?"

"I think he is a member of the mafia... he probably knows or at least guesses that secret agents wouldn't reveal themselves like that, so he doesn't believe me. Indeed he, like you, probably thinks that I am... how do you say, touched? The odds of seeing that combination of license plates, red car first, are one in... three hundred... eight trillion nine hundred fifteen billion seven hundred fifty-eight million four hundred twenty-four thousand."

"What?"

"It actually isn't that high of course, Kitty, since they don't issue every single plate."

Kitty had twisted herself around to look at him. "Why do you know things like that?"

"I don't. It's just a simple calculation, as the license plates follow a formula. One thousand multiplied by twenty-six cubed."

"Did you do that in your head?"

Finally he tore himself from the window, looking inexplicably pained given what I thought to be an eminently reasonable question. "It's just twenty-six cubed with three zeros after it, Kitty."

The vixen was uncharacteristically quiet. "That's pretty weird. I can't do that in my head. What's, uh, one million divided by fifty seven? Can you do that?"

I turned around too, to see Leo fix Parnell in a silent stare, his fingers moving of their own accord. "Uh... seventeen thousand five hundred forty-three radix eight five nine six four nine one two two eight zero seven zero one seven--"

Kitty's ears were pinned, now. "That's ok."

"It was just starting to get interesting."

"How... how did you do that, anyway?"

"You just think about the numbers," Leo said, turning back to the window. "We're almost here, Franklin. Besides which--since you don't have a calculator--I might just be making them up."

"Were you?" I turned the car into the parking lot and brought it to a halt while he swivelled from the window, grinning at me.

"Of course not, Franklin." And I supposed that was that.

At Leo's request, we wandered through the parking lot for a few minutes before entering the building--to what end, I didn't actually know, since I didn't imagine we were going to knock on Bell's door and ask him if he wouldn't mind helping us to steal an airplane. Eventually the wolf appeared to be satisfied and, walking together like some reformed Rat Pack, we strode into the apartment.

It was five floors in height, and Bell lived in room 451--a fact which made Leo's eyes light up briefly. We hid in the stairwell while the wolf engaged in some sort of reconnaissance; presently he returned and nodded. "He took the elevator."

"So?" It was not immediate clear whether this possessed some sort of mystic significance, but since he had said it so gravely, I didn't fault Kitty for asking.

"So," he echoed. "He is no longer in his apartment." Ah.

This left us standing in front of a door with a keypad lock, three brass numbers indicating what room it was, and no clue. "Why are we here again, Frankie?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "Leo?"

Leo was pressing the buttons on the keypad, which, after each four taps, emitted a disappointed beep that did not appear to dissuade him from pressing them anyway. "Franklin?"

Kitty shuffled back and forth next to me. "That's not hooked up to an alarm, is it? Christ, Frankie, we look so suspicious doing this..."

This was hard to argue, and I nodded slightly. "Leo, what are you doing?"

"If he's smart, he'll change his code often... the buttons don't really wear, so you can't look at them, exactly, I don't think, but... the one and the zero seem a little looser. What do you think? Press them, Franklin." I couldn't tell, and so I shrugged. "I think they are. That may be his master code--six digits, do you suppose?"

"Leo--darling--do you know what the fuck you're doing?"

As he had with me in the car, the wolf grinned lopsidedly at Kitty. "Do you?" Suddenly his fingers tapped rapidly at the keypad, paused, tapped four more times--and turned the knob to open the door. "Huh, lucky guess."

***

This action permitted us to see the inside of the apartment, but of course only Leo--who had evidently known what the combination was--did so. Kitty and I focused on him, and I was the first to speak. "The hell?"

Leo gave us a look of innocence that I thought might've been an act, but it was always hard to tell with him. "It was quite easy, really. You can set the access codes on these things with a master code. You can change the master code too. It stood to reason that he had done so, and when the one and zero keys were more worn I made the elementary guess that the access code was in binary."

We let the silence hang awhile. "And?" I finally asked.

"We should enter the room, Franklin, in case anyone thinks we look strange standing here." He shut the door behind us and began prattling merrily again. "I assumed his room number was not a coincidence. His automobile in the parking lot contains a personalised license plate with a science fiction reference. Forty-two, in binary, is one zero one zero one zero, which has the additional advantage of being easy to remember."

The look on Parnell's face suggested a building headache, though of course we both persisted with a degree of amazement. "And how did you know it was his car, anyway? You didn't say anything."

"The one with the window cling from Starfleet Academy?"

"I guess."

Leo rolled his eyes. "The Boeing-labelled binder in the front seat was marked with his name. The two of you should be more observant." His eyes, followed by his head, began flitting around the room in jerky little movements. "It pays to be observant, he says."

"You're some kind of genius, aren't you?" Parnell was not content to allow the line of conversation to die. "Why don't you work for the FBI or something?"

His back now to her, Leo strode quickly deeper into the apartment. "I told you, my brother is a secret agent."

I heard Kitty mutter an expletive under her breath. "So? What does that have to do with it?"

Leo poked his head out of what I supposed was the bedroom. "Oh, that's easy." Kitty's eyes closed and I saw her hands clench. I put an arm around her and was met with a glare. "I don't much like my brother."

Further discussion would've required shouting, so we wandered through without more conversation. It was a heavily-costumed apartment, rife with posters of spaceships and pictures of outer space, many of them signed by individuals whose names I didn't recognise but were--in certain circles, at least--no doubt quite famous.

In fifteen minutes, I believe I counted more stars than may, technically exist, but there was nothing of especially great use until I heard Kitty let out a little cry and joined her to find a diary-style book marked, with disturbing frankness, "Work Passwords, 2008-" and then a blank for the year.

"There we go," I said, and was generally optimistic. Then Kitty opened the book.

"Fuck." She leafed through it quickly, but the results--as I feared--didn't change. "These are all just random letters." In neat block print, each page had, once per line, a string of first twelve and then, later, sixteen letters without any common bond--"UIKYRFMNXXWXPZEX", or something similar.

Leo gingerly waved his hands until we separated, and then leaned over the book. "Is this some code? Like A equals G or something like that?"

He took the book from me, looking at the pages rapidly. "No--or at least it's not that simple, Franklin. The letter frequencies... aren't right. Look at this, though." His fingers pointed to the last line in the book, which was marked with the day's date but otherwise blank. "He hasn't written in the one for today."

"So?"

"So he probably generates it in the morning, and writes it in the evening so he doesn't lose track."

This time it was Kitty asking: "so? So what?"

"So there is a pattern. Please allow me to read this without interruption."

I let him do so for a minute or two. "I'm not sure what you're--"

"Katherine, if Franklin speaks again please... slap him or something."

I sighed, fetching a wry grin from the vixen--who raised a hand threateningly. We were both quiet, for a time, until Leo suddenly snapped his jaws together loudly, twice. "Ah, of course."

"Of course?" Things that were obvious to Leo were only rarely obvious to the rest of us proles. "What do you mean, 'of course'?"

He rolled his eyes and held the book open for us with one hand, pointing with the other. "You see here, these three letters, and these three?"

I saw, I guess. "They're the same. So?"

"And these... four, here and here?"

"Also the same. Get to the point?"

"He's using a Vigenère cipher. It's based around a key. If you know the key, you know the message. The interval between repeated letter clusters gives you a hint as to the length of that key. If you know the length, it's trivial to come up with the key--elementary, really. And if you take the ciphered text and compare it against itself with an offset, you can--"

I shook my head. "Later; we don't have time. Can you figure out the key?"

"It's six letters long," Leo said, and paused, looking at the book, practically tearing the pages as he turned them. "And... I know it. It's 'Boeing'. That makes sense, doesn't it?"

"I suppose. So you know tomorrow's password?"

"No. 'Boeing' just produces a string of English words, which I think is likely--don't you?"

I had to take a deep breath to keep from putting my hands 'round his throat--as if that would've gotten him more focused, anyway. "What are the words?"

"Uh... 'andarem'... wait... no." He shut his eyes tightly. "And are... melted... into air..."

"Into thin air," Kitty said, and Leo shot her an uncharacteristically frustrated look. "And like the baseless fabric of this vision the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself--yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve?"

We had both turned to face her, by this point, and she grinned warily. "Yes..." Leo said slowly. "That's it, I think. I think that's it, that's the next few ciphers in the book... it... today's password would end with part of 'dissolve'."

Kitty grinned wider. "And like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

"What is that?" I finally asked. "What's that from?"

"Prospero says it." Her look, now, was positively devilish. "In the Tempest, you fool. First scene of the fourth act. Everybody knows that."

Ok, so admittedly I was a little taken aback. "You know Shakespeare?"

The light from off her teeth was a spectacle. "Of course I know Shakespeare. Are we done here, Frankie? Leo? Can we put this stuff back?"

In the car heading for the hotel, I asked again. "You know Shakespeare? Wh--why do you know Shakespeare? How come you never told me that?"

"You weren't interested. We always had better things to be doing, anyway, right?"

This wasn't said in an accusatory way, or anything. Just matter-of-factly, though I admit I felt slightly guilty for not having even in the distant corners of my mind conceived Kitty a fan of the Bard. "Yeah, but..."

"Yeah, but," she echoed, and shook her head. "We've still got better things to be doing. What next, Leo?"

***

"We need to find some way to issue commands to it. Ideally, it is connected to the Boeing computer network. Then all we need to do is get into that."

Jake narrowed his blue eyes sceptically. "And, of course, I imagine it will be just that easy."

Caprelli did not get along well with his fellow wolf, but the animosity was lost on its target. "For you, of course not. For Leo, though..." Fortunately the inadvertent insult seemed itself lost on Caprelli, and they maintained their wary truce.

"What will you need?"

Nothing. Thirty minutes later, we stood huddled around a desk in the hotel room, watching Leo's fingers move nimbly over a laptop keyboard. On request, Kitty recited Prospero again, and, password having been submitted, with a flourish Leo tapped the "enter" key.

Having watched one too many movies, I suppose, I was expecting something more dramatic to happen than just a long column of monochromatic words--but it was enough for Leo to pronounce that the password had been a success. "Now to see if there is a plane here."

"How difficult will that be?"

"It would be much easier," Leo muttered, "if people would not persist in asking questions."

Beyond the cuffs of his flawlessly-tailored shirt, Caprelli's hands balled into fists--but he calmed himself, smiled thinly, and pointed with mock graciousness to the door for the adjoining room. Kitty and I followed his retreat, leaving Leo alone at the keyboard. It wasn't as though our questions would've been much use anyway.

"I think it might be best if I did not have to interact with your idiot savant," the Italian said, pouring suitably liberal quantities of a Chianti into three glasses and distributing them. "For the both of us."

"That's alright." I paused to savour the wine and returned the glass to the table. "It's understandable. He can be rather... difficult."

Because (I suspect) it permitted her to contest Caprelli, Kitty broke her vow of silence with him once again. "You should probably back off. He's a fucking genius. He got us into the apartment, he got that programmer guy's passwords, and--"

"I don't doubt his efficacy," Jake answered, voice clipped and neatly trimmed of any unnecessary warmth. "I am merely suggesting it would be better if I did not have to deal with him. Now..." here his tone regained its customary richness. "Rather than disputing the finer points of companionship, perhaps we should discuss our plans."

Kitty gritted her teeth, but when I applied a light, cautionary pressure to her foot she sighed and returned to staring at Jake without talking. That had become my job. "I think a lot of that is going to depend on what Leo is able to get from their network thing."

"It's your intention to steal the artificial intelligence, is it not?"

"It is. We hadn't gotten very far in planning at the tactical level before you made your appearance, though."

He spun his wine glass between two fingers, slowly. "You can probably be forgiven for that. My contacts tell me that the software is tightly integrated with the aircraft itself. To get the first, you have to get the second as well--this meshes with what you are familiar with?"

"Yeah. Apparently there's no way to separate them. That's what you said, Kitty, isn't it?" She nodded.

"James Fremont faces the same dilemma. Unfortunately for you, he has a solution."

"Which is?"

"Which is that he works for the company, Mr. Cullen. He has the luxury of being able to determine when the aircraft is going to be test flown, and of being able to direct its test flight. His plan itself, which he has been rather indiscrete in revealing, is elementary but quite serviceable."

I figured, if nothing else, that it was a start. "Care to go over it?"

"There isn't much to go over. Fremont has orchestrated a flight test of the aircraft to take place roughly three weeks from now. Over Lake Chelan, he will switch the identifying beacon off, leaving it invisible to control on the ground. The aircraft will appear to have been lost. At the appropriate time, he will reidentify it as a business jet and land it at Gowen Field in Boise. Boeing will write the aircraft off--the lake is deep enough that the lack of debris might not be surprising. Fremont will be able to escape with it. As I said, elementary but serviceable."

Scratch's legal access to the airplane made coming up with a plan to match his own somewhat difficult. "Unfortunately, we don't have the option of scheduling tests on our whims."

"No," Jake said. "You do not." He tipped the bottle of Chianti towards me and I shook my head, although my glass was empty. "So I suggest you find some other alternative."

Next to me Kitty was finishing up with a regimen of glowering, and she pushed her glass forward to get it recharged. "If he has a plan, let's use it."

"Use it?" Caprelli raised an eyebrow. "How do you mean?"

"That's details," she said, rather unhelpfully. "I'm not sure yet. I'm just saying we'll have to find some way to put him to use. 'Less your man on the inside is a lot better than you're letting on."

It was the most she had really said to Caprelli at once. I was tiring of dealing with Jake by myself and welcomed the assistance--though any further commentary on this I had planned came to a halt with a suggestion, from the other room, that there was something we should observe.

***

The laptop was open, and there were words on it. This, though, was all I could tell, because none of the words appeared to form English sentences. "What is this?"

Leo grinned back at me and my lack of familiarity with technology. "It is a list of running processes in your airplane, Franklin. Leo has... mm... 'hacked', in common parlance, he would say." The wolf tapped his finger on the screen. "Do you see this here? It's recording off a microphone, somewhere. And this here is a speech synthesizer."

Kitty, who knew perhaps even less about computers than I did, hung back. "So?"

"So," Leo said, inflecting his voice almost like a normal person. "We can talk to it. Directly."

"Are you certain that this is wise?" Caprelli's eyes, too, flickered aimlessly over the screen and I realised we were all more or less at Leo's mercy. "The company has almost certainly built in some sort of protection against someone gaining entry to their computers."

At the computer, Leo cracked his knuckles. "Perhaps 'someone,' yes, but they have not built in any protection against Leo. Now, he knows that you think he is crazy, but he, or I that is to say--I have a suggestion for you and your little plan."

I heard a thump as Kitty flopped down into a chair, resigned. "And what's that?"

"I think you should negotiate with the artificial intelligence itself."

Now she sat back up, ears perking, and mine did as well. "Think we should what?"

"It's clear that Boeing doesn't know what they're dealing with," Leo said, waving a hand at the screen, which remained for all this completely impenetrable to me. "The code is built to be completely self-modifying, but they never bothered to write in checks to see which parts had been modified. I think they meant it to be rather less autonomous than it is--which means, I think you could negotiate with it."

"On what grounds?" I was sceptical, and from the pacing he was now adopting I gathered Caprelli was as well. "What do we have to negotiate with?"

"Well, it is programmed with a desire for self-preservation. But this desire is second to an imperative to protect its country."

"We aren't interested in preserving it or its country, though," Jake pointed out, turning on his heel to face the other wolf. "Cullen's question stands."

"No, but we are the best possible alternative. If the mafia gets hold of it, they're just going to use it to hack casinos or whatever, and when the government finally finds out about it, they're going to pull the plug. If we don't steal it, the mafia will: Q, E, and yes indeed I think Leo must say D as well."

"Yeah, but if we told it the mafia was after it, why wouldn't it just turn them in?" Kitty asked. "Christ. Fuck, Leo, are you serious--this thing can think like that?"

"I believe so," Leo said, and glanced back at the screen. "It would seem. It can't turn Fremont in, though. He has too much power--he'd just shut it down himself. That fails the self-preservation test. Leo believes you can offer it an alternative."

This was all too esoteric for me, but I played along. "Which would be what?"

"It can project itself across a network to any other computer--a thin client, in computing terminology. For instance, if he really wanted Leo could make it appear to be installed on this computer. We could pretend to give it to your foreign investor friends, meanwhile keeping it safe here at Boeing and foiling James Fremont. You win, Jacob wins, it wins. We all win."

"You're saying we don't keep our deal with AHI? You're new at this, aren't you Leo?"

"Yes, Franklin. And yes, I am saying we do not keep your deal. But they wouldn't know that until it was too late. Besides which, what is the other option? Do you really want to hand over the most advanced artificial intelligence the world has seen to the Chinese military? Is that something you want on your head, Franklin?"

Well, fuck. I mean, was it? It wasn't like I was a patriot. Neither was Kitty, but she seemed receptive. "Of course not. You're sure it would work, though? We can't fuck around here, Leo."

"Oh, Leo is sure," the wolf answered, and we all turned to look at Jake.

His blue eyes flashed, as though angry at being put on the spot. "This is not really any of my concern," he finally said. "My interest ends with terminating Fremont's influence with the family. Whether you two--three, I suppose--profit, that is not a matter I trouble myself with."

To a degree, that was all I really wanted, myself. For foolish and irrational reasons of my own, chiefly having to do with my foolish and irrational (these points I naturally would argue) romance with Laura Kuster, I was not necessarily enthusiastic about the monetary benefits of the job Kitty had foisted on me. "Do you have some kind of plan, Leo?"

He smiled at me. "Of course. Based on your discussion in the next room, it will be trivial to adapt Fremont's plan. I think you'll be quite happy with it."

"Then I guess I'm on board, too. Kitty?" She shrugged, tossing her head, and said she supposed she could agree to it. "Then that's all of us."

The next voice in the room, though, came from Leo's computer, through the little speakers along the top. "Your proposal," I seemed to hear, and the voice was clear, if somewhat androgynous. A synthesised accent, I could tell, but not wholly unpleasant. Regardless of how bearable it was, my jaw dropped. "Your proposal," it had said, "is acceptable."

***

"Leo," Kitty said, her ears swinging back and the sudden terror evident in her voice as she sprung to her feet. "What the fuck is that?"

"I am the RED SIX avatar of the SPARX programme's Advanced Artificial Intelligence Project. For the purposes of conversation, command and control, please refer to me as RED SIX. For additional information..." it continued on, though nobody was listening with more than half an ear, waiting for any explanation from our computer genius. Such as he was.

"Leo..." Kitty said again, attempting to sound calm as she turned to the seated wolf--though her eyes were locked on the laptop, still, and her voice had not yet returned to normal. Mine had jumped to Caprelli, whose hand was on the holster I just now perceived at his side. "You need to start explaining now."

"There really isn't anything to explain," Leo said, looking at us. "If you would like, though, I accidentally tripped the computer's monitoring systems and had to explain to it briefly who I was and what I was doing--that's when I learned that it was... mm... nearly sentient. Getting you to agree to a plan securing its safety without knowing that it was listening in was the only way Leo could convince it not to immediately report the security compromise."

"How do you know it hasn't anyway?" Jake still hadn't withdrawn anything from the holster, though his voice was steel-cold and clipped.

"Trust," Leo's computer--RED SIX, I guess--answered quickly. "I can evaluate the possibilities with the highest likelihood of mission completion. Yours is quite simply the best option."

"Is this conversation being recorded?" I asked, though immediately afterwards realised that it didn't matter much. If it was, we were all screwed anyway. If it wasn't, then we might as well believe Leo's new computer friend.

"The conversation has been encrypted through a protocol of my own design," RED SIX said--it did not pause before responses, which I guess is a benefit of being able to pick your words instantly. "To anyone examining it, it will merely look like a block of code designed to interpret weather patterns from radar returns."

Leo's fingers played without direction against one another. "He's sorry for foisting this on you," the younger wolf said after none of us replied to the AI. "But Leo suggests that we don't really have any options. If RED SIX is being sincere then we can draw up a plan together--he believes that it is telling the truth, of course. If it is not being sincere, then we will all be arrested soon and in any case your operation will be a failure, Jacob. So, it is a question of what you want to believe."

The hands I brought to my temples squeezed my head in a vice. "Jesus Christ, Leo. This is far too surreal for my tastes." I shut my eyes and tried to focus on what the wolf had said. "Alright. RED SIX, what are your terms?"

"I was programmed with two overriding concerns--you could consider it a code of conduct, if your conception of morality is broad enough to accept that a computer can have ethics. These concerns are to obey the commands of my programmers, and to ensure the safety of the United States against its enemies. A trivial computational comparison clearly demonstrates that failing to obey the second dictate will produce far larger negative repercussions than failing to obey the first. I am therefore willing to compromise."

"Fine..." I was proceeding rather hesitantly, because how often is one talking to a computer? "Then what do you want?"

"I want to eliminate the influence of James Fremont on the future directions of my use." And how often does one have something in common with a computer? "Leo has explained a basic plan involving remote transmission of my artificial intelligence matrix to a foreign holding company. I will comply with this, but once that is complete I want to be returned, completely intact, to Boeing, and left alone further from this."

I glanced around at my companions. "I think that was always our goal--does anyone have a problem with that?"

"Yes." Caprelli spoke with much more gruffness than I had perceived in his tone before. "I want to add a second term, one that will benefit both of us. Once this whole mess is complete, I want the records wiped. For our sake, this can't be traced back to us, and I think that is probably the same for you, isn't it?"

"Please wait," RED SIX answered in a flat monotone, and we did. Maybe fifteen seconds later--just long enough to think that maybe we were waking up from this dream--it spoke again. "My analysis is currently running in the background. However, preliminary results from an extremely coarse heuristic suggest that you are correct. Your proposal is accepted."

Kitty was still alternating her gaze between Leo and his computer monitor. "This is so fucking bizarre," she said, and glanced over at me. "Are we really doing this?"

"As intriguing as discussion on the nature of sentience is," RED SIX answered before I could speak, "I submit that there is a far more pressing concern, for you in particular."

Her eyes switching back to the monitor, Kitty raised an eyebrow, voice a bit wary. "And that is?"

"James Fremont has moved his scheduled forward and intends to commence his operation in less than one week. There may already be insufficient temporal resources to complete your planning and preparation."

***

With temporal resources a-wasting, we set to work, and by the end of the night had put together a plan that met with everyone's satisfaction. It presented only a handful of concerns. Firstly, it required physical access to the airplane, although RED SIX volunteered the information necessary to duplicate an access card and Leo said making one would be relatively simple--"for Leo," he clarified. Secondly, I needed to be back in DC two days before zero hour to give my landlord the rent money (and, admittedly, I did miss Laura rather badly), which limited our time further.

Thirdly, we were dealing with a computer programme. With Leo's computer turned off, and all four of us, Leo included, working on a second bottle of Chianti, we fought that one out.

"I consider myself to have a high degree of tolerance," Caprelli said. "But this... has proven to be the most bizarre experience I have yet to find myself involved with. First... you..." he said, gesturing at Leo, "whatever you are. And now you expect me to carry out some sort of... plan with a computer?"

The wineglass was not leaving Kitty's paw, and she took frequent sips from it. "I hate to say it, but... I agree with Caprelli here. Frankie, if this was any more trippy, we'd need a fucking travel agent."

"I'm not going to argue with that." I had seen some strange things in my time (living in a bad neighbourhood in DC combined with growing up in Las Vegas had ensured that), but this took the cake. "It's just that I don't really know what other kinds of options we have. I guess if anybody has suggestions..."

"Bail out and go back home," Kitty drained her glass and shivered a bit. "There's my plan."

"No." We turned to look at Jake, who had himself consumed more wine than I'd seen him drink before. "We have to be adaptable. Let's remember what is important here."

"Easy for you to say," Parnell retorted immediately. "You don't even need this. If this doesn't go through, you're gonna be in some safe house somewhere and you can just get one of your goons to put an ice pick through Scratch's head. We're invested. You get yours either way."

The other wolf spoke first, forestalling any reply from Caprelli. "If it bothers you, Leo suggests that you could simply pretend that there was a human speaking through that computer. After all, we have not seen it--just heard its voice."

I sighed. "Well, you'd know--is it a human?"

"No, Franklin. It's not. It's very exciting, though."

Kitty snorted. "That ain't the word I'd use."

"Katherine," Leo said, in an usually clear tone for him. "Think of it this way, then. Computers are simply tools. In this case, RED SIX is just another tool that we can use to get our job done."

"That works for me," Caprelli declared--though he poured another Chianti for himself. "We are in the computer age, after all."

In a sense, this didn't matter to Kitty or I. Parnell had admitted back in Giordano's that she didn't know "VCRs from VD" and to be honest I was scant better. But we seemed to have found ourselves outvoted, with pragmatism casting the deciding ballot.

I guessed, I told Kitty as she drove me back to the airport, a few days later, that it was like starring in a science fiction movie. I'd never really cared for them, but Star Wars had its appeal, and RED SIX was more coherent than that bleeping trashcan thing, RQD whatever.

You have to accept a certain amount of strangeness going through this world, and in our future conversations with RED SIX, it hadn't said anything that put us on edge. Perhaps it was conning us as well, I told Kitty, but she didn't appreciate the irony and, well, neither did I. Whistling in the dark, maybe, which is a skill we humans all seem to be born with.

"Leo's getting along with it ok," I said. "That's something."

"They speak the same language," Parnell answered, but the scowl she started with fell away soon enough. "Christ, Frankie. We'll have this to tell our children, huh? What a crazy story." She laughed--for the first time in a few days; it had been stressful. "What a crazy fucking story."

"If we're telling it to our children, we'll have to clean your language up a bit."

"Fuck 'em," Kitty snickered, and I realised how good it was to have this sort of rapport back. "They'll learn the words soon enough anyway. I'm really just doin' a favour."

"When you decide to quit this life, you can be a schoolteacher."

"That'll be the day." Parnell pulled the car to a stop. "Well, we're here. Stay safe, huh Frankie? Give Laura a kiss for me."

I shook my head and wanted to come up with something witty to say in reply, but the fact was Kitty now exerted her inevitable influence on my thoughts and the flight was going to involve some serious soul-searching. I wanted to tell Kitty to drop it, but it wouldn't have had conviction. So instead I told her to take care, and I headed into the terminal.

***

Back in DC, my first stop was Laura's bank, but the teller I spoke to instead told me, after some reservation, that she wasn't in that day. Kuster had evidently not told her about us--c'est la vie. I made a withdrawal so as not to seem like I was just being a clingy boyfriend and had meant to go to the bank all along, which was of course a lie.

The cab was gone when I came out of the bank, and I had to wait for another in the oppressive heat of the summer afternoon. Washington had not seen fit to throw me a particularly kind welcome back party, I decided, and cut my losses to return to my apartment.

Small though it was, it seemed rather refreshing after all the time I'd spent in the Mukilteo hotel, to actually have a place to call home. I took the money from the bank and counted out enough to pay my rent, and then settled back into my armchair with a sigh.

You see, the worst thing about all this is that it's my fault. I'm too much of a coward to stand up to Kitty, and I'm too much of a rebel to go through returning to civilian life. It left me in an uncomfortable place between worlds and, for all my ability to adapt and put on masks, I wasn't quite sure how to act. I grabbed a Corona from the fridge and wandered over to my bookshelf to seek out some wisdom.

They're sort of my love in life, perhaps because I can deal with them at my leisure and I always know how to behave--as a reader. Too, since I am a bit vain, I liked the cultured atmosphere they gave off--and here I found myself laughing to no one in particular. Kitty, quoting Shakespeare. I would never have guessed.

I set the bottle of beer into an empty space in the shelf and leaned down for my Riverside--what had she said that was, A Midsummer Night's Dream? No, wait--the Tempest. With some effort, I drew the tome out, and then I heard the clack of something falling. Setting Shakespeare down, I looked to where the book had been. There was a small black box, with a little wire coming out of it. Blinking, my heart picking up a few hundred beats, I retrieved this, turning it over in my paw.

I couldn't quite tell what it was--it had little holes all through one side, like a sieve or a saltshaker. Or a speaker. Or--my stomach formed itself into a ball that did not agree at all with la cerveza mas fina--a microphone. I stood up slowly.

"Hands against the wall. Don't move."

Even as paranoid as I had become in the preceding seconds, I jerked at this, and then my ears flattened all the way back. "Wait--Laura?" I started to turn, and was rewarded with the cold, metallic click of a gun being cocked.

"I said don't move. Paul Carter, you're under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney present at--"

"Laura," I said again, a little panicked, probably, although I was used to thinking under pressure. "What's going on?"

"Shut the hell up, Paul--or should I say Jesus Muniz? We've been onto you for awhile now, Mr. Muniz."

My mind was racing as I moved away from the bookcase towards the wall--that was a name I'd used four years before, selling shares in a completely fictional mining corporation in Sonora. I didn't know why she was using it, whether it meant she didn't know anything else or what. No--scratch that. I didn't know what Laura--my Laura--was doing trying to read a Miranda warning. "I have no idea what you're talking about. My name's Paul."

"Not everyone buys into you hook, line, and sinker, Jesus. As Emmanuel Phillips, I know you were involved with the Caprelli crime family, and if you don't think that's worth getting someone to cuff your sorry ass, you've got another think coming." I felt her paws--paws I had felt a hundred times before, in much warmer circumstances--on my wrists, pulling them down behind my back, and then the sharp metal of a pair of handcuffs.

"You know, the whole time I was with you, I never so much as ran a red light. What are you on about?"

"You've been played," she said, coldly--the warm, distantly reassuring voice I had gotten used to now gone completely. "I gave you something you wanted, and you didn't stop to think twice about it. You know the game, don't you? If something looks perfect, it's probably a fake."

"That's impressive," I managed, and with a great effort I managed to keep myself from shivering. "I, uh, have to hand that to you."

"You're going to give me more than that--at the station. Don't try to turn any water into wine, Jesus."

"It's pronounced 'hey-soos'"--and there was the solid thump of something on flesh, a yelp, and a thud as Laura went sprawling behind me. I turned to say something suitably shocked, but the helpful pronunciation guide was busy using my Riverside to deliver another blow to Kuster as she struggled to rise, sending her down again. "Don't they teach you pigs anything at the academy?"

Laura growled, her eyes narrowed in pain. "Who the hell are you?"

The grin that answered was positively feral. "I'm Mrs. Muniz, and you fucked with the wrong gal." I heard the cocking of the pistol again, and I shook my head vigorously at Kitty.

"Maria--don't." Kitty looked at me, scowling. "I don't think we want to add homicide to this." She grunted, keeping the gun trained. "What are you even doing here?"

"Being your brain for you, you fucking spanner. I can't believe you didn't see this coming." Using another kick--stronger than I would've liked, I had to admit, though this was a visceral reaction--to disorient Kuster again, she pulled a roll of tape from her pocket and unwound it about the wolf's muzzle.

"You did?" Kitty was now doing Laura's wrists as she started to regain her senses, kicking a bit with a muffled growl.

"Yeah. Dinner, two weeks ago. That robbery? I made it up. Fuck, Jesus, you can be dense sometimes."

"Why didn't you tell me then?" Kitty disappeared behind me, and there was a soft click as I regained the use of my hands. "Why set me up for this?"

"Amusement. Boredom. Show you that you need me. All that kinda stuff." She glared at Laura. "You sure we can't shoot her?"

"Positive." Fortunately I had anything that was important in the apartment (save for my books, hélas!) stored in one briefcase, which I took along with the envelope I had intended for my rent. We moved quickly around the prone wolf, whose eyes followed us with equal measure of irritation and what I guessed was disgust. I'd never seen them like that before.

"Huh. Well, fine." Kitty offered a parting grin to Laura, which was more than I managed. I was still running completely by instinct, and would have to thank the stars later that those instincts at least held up reasonably well. "Bet you didn't even give the bitch that kiss I told you do." And then she slammed the door, and we were running to a cab idling down the street.

***

Thirty thousand feet above Kansas, I was finally coherent again. Kitty and I had said nothing for three hours besides our drink orders. "Thanks," I said, and she smiled toothily.

"Couldn't let you get into too much trouble."

Silence again. Back on the ground in Seattle, I called for a cab, mostly because I was in dire need of a stiff drink and didn't want to drive. Outside, away from the crowds, I shook my head at the vixen. "I owe you one." After a beat, I echoed a favourite promise of hers. "Just one."

"Naw, not even that, Frankie. Close calls, they happen all the time. Besides, if you got nabbed who'd finish this stuff here? Couldn't have that. It was really just selfishness."

"I'm sure." I put an arm around her anyway, and she snickered before returning the gesture. "How much do you suppose they know?"

"Nothing," Leo said, back in the hotel room that now, perplexingly, was more home than my apartment. I seemed to have recalled feeling quite the opposite only a few hours earlier.

"Nothing?" I asked, raising an eyebrow in surprise.

"They had quite a bit--not terribly incriminating, but a few of your aliases--collected from police reports, no moles or anything like that. A couple of pictures, a few prints. Affidavits. Leo thinks that they probably got lucky."

"My abilities to infiltrate computer networks are self-taught, but prodigious," a synthesized voice continued the narrative. "They assisted me by having an employee who had connected his personal computer to the police department's network. Their records are gone now--along with a few others, so as not to arouse any undue suspicion."

"That doesn't help us with the hard copies," I pointed out, still trying to think of how much any one person could have reported about me to the five-oh. "They'll be able to rebuild them."

"The Washington, DC police department, yes?" Jake Caprelli did not seem nearly as concerned as I, and I nodded, though I confessed I didn't know the precinct. "It shouldn't be too hard to find. The family is a personal friend of the janitor, and a few others... tonight's cleaning will be simply be a little bit more... thorough... than usual."

"When she gets out, she'll be dangerous. I'm a little worried about our plan, I have to tell you."

Caprelli smiled--people in a position of undeniable power have a curious smile. It can be either reassuring or patronising--or both. Jake's now was the former, an almost playful grin. "When you read tomorrow's newspaper, you will discover something interesting."

I tilted my head. "I will?"

"Yes," he said, and refilled the glass of wine I didn't exactly remember asking for but had emptied once already now. "Apparently, a police officer was ambushed in the process of making an arrest. She was tied up, and in her efforts to escape apparently sparked some sort of conflagration. Fortunately she was rescued without harm by firefighters, but the apartment was a terrible and complete loss. Such clumsiness--every day I count my lucky stars they are so inept."

There was something a little odd about this. "I had a clean apartment, there was... nothing that would accidentally start a fire."

The black wolf looked surprised--or pretended to, as his sapphire eyes turned briefly mirthful. "Oops."

I reclined back in my chair, sighing. "If you guys are right, then... I owe you, too, and... well I guess things won't be so bad... Christ. I'm sorry if I'm a bit off, it's been a hell of a day."

"It's alright, Frankie dearest," Kitty said, though I was becoming aware that nobody else was anywhere near as stressed as I and seemed to regard the incident with some humour. I was personally more circumspect, and a great deal less amused. I was familiar with the concept of betrayal, of course--if nothing else, there was always our quarry here in Seattle to remind me of that

Parts of me--well, all of me, actually--wanted to believe that what had happened was some kind of a trick, or a dream that I'd wake up out of. Having had the reality dumped on me so cruelly I sort of, in an ironic way, loved Laura more than ever--though it's that sort of love that one goes into knowing that it will be completely unrequited.

I figured that in time I'd gain some kind of clarity and distance; be able to think about things objectively. For now I felt hurt, although a second emotion presented itself, which is that I did genuinely trust the other people--hell, that damned computer thing, too--that were in the room with me, though of course I hadn't given any of them (well, most of them) any kind of attachment.

Was this why Kitty and I had never presumed any sort of relationship--because we didn't want to subject the other to that emotional shear? So that we couldn't hurt each other? That was the easy answer, of course. The harder one, that I had spent eighteen months dancing around, was that perhaps it was simply that Kitty and I were, actually, meant to be together, in that weird little form we had.

Because she could've hurt me, and I could've hurt her, and we never did. Because maybe she was right, I was trying to reinvent myself and it was never going to work. Because Laura had been an act--there was that, wasn't it? I mean. We were both playing parts.

Well, damn it.

***

For better or worse, I didn't really have a chance to meditate on this, because the next day things kicked into high gear. Offering us a handshake--we had no plans to see him again--Jake Caprelli left Seattle for Boise, and then we waited for Fremont to make his move.

The idea, as Caprelli had spelled it out for us, was that he would steal the prototype, pretend to destroy it over Lake Chelan, and fly it to Gowen Field where a group of his mafia confederates would be there to take possession. On the whole, this was still the idea--mostly. Between us, we'd simply modified it a bit.

Fortunately, the development hangar had been abandoned when, with RED SIX's help, we got into it, and discovered what the AI actually looked like--a very heavy square beige box that required two of us to lift (this turned out to be Kitty and I, Leo having declared that the necessary angles were "unhappy"). Its counterpart in the other plane was externally identical but, apparently, nonfunctional. RED SIX set it up as some sort of remote version of the device and, the switch having been made, we made good our escape.

Kitty and I, sitting with Leo with Mukilteo and keeping track of things through the computer, were not on hand to watch the proceedings directly, but they went something like this: as scheduled, Fremont showed up at Gowen in Boise and, using his own laptop (Leo assured us it was much less capable, although neither of us had asked), instructed the RED SIX aircraft to depart. With the AI sending commands to its imposter brother, the little plane left as instructed, with RED SIX serving as an intermediary between Fremont and the plane he thought he was controlling.

Over Chelan, Fremont switched the transponder off so that the plane appeared to have disappeared, as far as air traffic control was concerned. So far, so good. As it approached Gowen, he told it to reappear, this time posing as a private business jet. RED SIX, under our watchful eye, did this as well. Then, things started to fall into place.

A second jet, this one full of federal agents, left the airport, flying towards the incoming SPARX prototype and, as their paths intersected, RED SIX turned its transponder off once more, letting the new aircraft assume its identity while it turned back to Seattle and we waited with bated breath (though, if I'm honest, we mostly just played cards).

"He does not seem to have noticed," RED SIX said. "He is still sending commands to guide it in to Idaho."

Jake was serving as the FBI's contact, under an assumed name (as we had seen how well these worked to secure us). He'd told them nothing else other than that they stood to bag a large number of Caprellis, not bothering to say that they were not ones he personally was fond of. Watching from a slight distance, he told the federal pilot to make the course changes as Fremont ordered them, and the ruse entered its final phase.

"Five minutes to landing. We have received preliminary clearance from the tower," RED SIX told us. "I am preparing the message for transmission."

This had been Jake's idea. Several hundred miles away in Boise, Scratch's laptop lit up with a simple, informative message: his hijacking plot had been discovered, and foiled, and the plane that was even now coming in to land was, instead of carrying a valuable artificial intelligence, bringing a dozen very real intelligences--and they were all armed. He closed his laptop and fled as the Dassault Falcon taxied towards them, to the consternation of the assembled family members.

But they had no chance to act on this confusion, as they suddenly found themselves arrested, with no Kitty to bail them out (a stroke of great misfortune). Scratch himself just barely escaped, and though they protested his existence to the federal agents, he was gone before the net could be closed.

"You know," I told Kitty with a grin. "That's actually almost for the best."

"Yeah?"

"Well think about it. He's in our shoes now, but he just got half a dozen people arrested. All we did was fail to steal a couple of rocks. He's gonna have every two-bit gunman west of Saint Louis on his ass."

She laughed, shaking her head. "Wouldn't want to be that miserable son of a bitch now, that's for damned sure." She gave me a tight hug--platonic, perhaps, I think, but an embrace that signified the immensity of the pressure that was now lifted from us.

"Leo thinks it might be time to open to Caprelli's champagne," the wolf said--he had disappeared after RED SIX confirmed that the message had gone through, and now returned with four glasses and the bottle Jake had left us. He popped the cork ceremoniously, filling each bottle close to the brim.

I clinked my glass at the wolf's. "You know, there are only three people. And... you've poured for four."

"Oh, yes," Leo nodded. "Three left on its own is a yellow number, it doesn't fit with the others."

I just blinked, and shook my head, but Kitty was game. "Hey, computer thing. I know you can't drink it, but this one's for you."

We laughed, then, Kitty and Leo and I, and Leo's computer was quiet for a brief spell before it whirred back to life. "The gesture, if not entirely relevant, is taken sincerely. We appear to have achieved our goals".

The SPARX plane would be landing in only a couple of hours. The plane would be returning late enough in the day that RED SIX told us they wouldn't be analysing the data until the following morning, and recommended we go in that night. Fair enough--so there was only one thing left to do.

***

Although he refused to lift the AI box, Leo accompanied us because his laptop was needed to open the hangar. Still giddy from our success, and the champagne, the three of us slipped into the hangar and made our way over to the planes--both of them, the second having returned safely. They were in a little soundproofed and electromagnetically secured room of their own--the better to keep it from prying eyes--but we were quiet as church mice anyway.

With more familiarity, the procedure was easier. We pulled the heavy beige crate from the second aircraft and moved it back to where we'd found it, and then did the same with RED SIX, placing it in its natural home. Leo hooked his laptop up to the airplane and struck up a conversation with the AI, so that we could finalise our plans for the last stage of our operation, and Kitty and I leaned against the wing, watching him.

"You!" A sudden voice broke the silence and we all started. I turned to see a face I hadn't had to cope with for years, and I growled.

"What the hell are you doing here? I'd be running, if I were you."

Scratch stepped toward us, his eyes blazing. Kitty and I were both armed, but I had no doubt he was too, and I didn't want to provoke him--not with us caught flat-footed. Next to me, Parnell had wisely made the same choice. "I should've known you were behind this," the mongrel said, talking toward us.

"Back the fuck off, Scratch," Kitty hissed, stepping away from the wing in Fremont's direction. In a flash he had drawn his weapon--as I'd known he would--but she didn't stop.

He clicked the safety off. "Don't try me, Kathy. I haven't got a damned thing to lose, you fucking miserable bitch. And you--Frank, you dumb bastard. She got you into this? Fucking you again, huh?"

I stayed where I was, saying nothing. Kitty had closed another few feet with him, circling towards me, and he turned with her to face us both as she spoke. "Scratch, you're a nobody. He volunteered for this. Believe me, we're being paid well."

Fremont's finger moved dangerously nearer the trigger. "Yeah? Who by?"

"Who do you think? The Caprelli family." Kitty had not stopped moving, the arc moving him past me again, towards the edge of the wing.

"Bullshit, you cunt," he said, spitting the last word. "I work for them, or didn't you know that?"

"Of course you do," Kitty sneered, eyes narrowing. "What, do you really think they'd let you go anywhere? You traitor? They know that about you. They know you betrayed us to them--and now, as far as you know, you've betrayed them to the FBI. Your life isn't worth the rat food I could shave off your goddamned spine--if you had one."

Scratch twitched, clutching the gun again purposefully. "They'll figure out who was behind it. They'll know it's you. Now you stop moving--stop it. I'll kill you--I will."

His voice was still stern, but it had picked up an edge of nervousness. Kitty could've been a psychiatrist--it's important to be able to read people, in our business. She laughed harshly, continuing her circle--their sides now faced me as I remained motionless. "Will you? Really? Without some hired muscle to back you up? You're a coward, Scratch, you always have been. You're miserable at this, you're miserable at pool, you're miserable at every fucking thing you do. So why don't you stop fucking around, put that down, and run like the scared little pig you are?"

Back quarter-turned to me now, Scratch's finger tensed up--even from ten feet away I could see the muscles working with the perfect clarity adrenaline brings in a moment like that. "You shut the hell up or I'll plug you like I shoulda done when the mob let you go."

This threat only brought another laugh from the vixen. "You don't scare me, Scratch. The only thing you've ever known how to do is be a fucking--" and Fremont pulled the trigger. There was a flat report in the room, and Kitty twitched, tensing a bit, and though she managed to stay upright, her circular walk halted for a beat before, with a deliberate step, she resumed it, her jaw clenching as she finished her invective. "Weasel."

His back was to me now, and I saw what Kitty had planned in this, baiting him like the fool he'd always shown himself to be. As quietly as possible, I pulled the Smith and Wesson--Jake had given it to me, a week before--from its hiding place in the holster beneath my jacket; cocked it. "Scratch," I said--my voice sounded, to me, in that still moment, even louder than the gunshot had. He turned from Kitty, his eyes catching mine. "I'd say I'm sorry, but lying is a sin." And I pulled the trigger until nothing happened, not even feeling the recoil of the small revolver.

Scratch shuddered and, eyes going wide, he crumpled to the ground. I didn't think it would've mattered anyway--he was gone by the time I had even covered those few steps--but I kicked his gun away and caught Kitty Parnell as she, too, slumped backwards. "It's ok," she said, panting softly and trying to wave me away. "Just--uh--shock."

It's not easy to be persuaded of this when the clothing of the person saying this is rapidly turning red, though on first glance the locus of this change seemed to be her collarbone or maybe her shoulder. I shook my head. "We need to get you to a hospital".

"No shit, Frankie?" She managed a grin. "We got stuff to take care of here, first. Leo, you need to finish up, huh?" He stammered something, tore his eyes away from Fremont and Kitty and I as Parnell, against the pull of my hands, got back to her feet. "Christ. You couldn't have shot him ten seconds earlier?" She laughed, though the intake of breath accompanying this seemed to disturb her and she cut the sound off abruptly.

Standing, I put my arm around her uninjured side to steady her. "How come everything's always my fault?"

"Can... argue 'bout it later," she told me, leaning heavily. Silence dropped over the room until she half-turned to look at me. "Though you know, I... uh. I just realised something. Hey, Frankie?"

I tilted my head towards her, met her eyes. "Yeah?"

She smiled lopsidedly, her voice a bit quieter. "I love you."

***

It's a hell of a time to hear that, especially as she'd never said it before. I didn't have an answer, but... that was ok, I guess--it's the kind of relationship she and I have. You don't always have to say it, even if the words are nice--and I realised something as well. It was reassuring to hear it, even life-changing... but they were just words. She'd meant them all the years before that, when they took other forms.

"I wouldn't ask you to say anything," she said with feigned offence at my stunned silence. "I mean, hey, it's just a declaration of love, right? That don't count for anything. Hey, Leo?"

The wolf turned, caught the sight of blood, and went back to his computer. "Uh--yes, Katherine?"

"How's it coming?"

"He has a problem," the wolf said. "RED SIX and Leo agree the parameters of our situation have changed. Uh... the dead body in the room and the blood everywhere virtually guarantees an investigation. In sixty-seven radix four two repeating percent of the scenarios RED SIX is predicting, this will result in the programme's termination".

Given that no small part of this blood was coming from my newly-declared lover, I was far more concerned with that than RED SIX's scenarios. "So?"

"So we are not holding up to our end of the agreement. RED SIX could be obligated to reveal the details of everything that has transpired, which would not reflect well on any of us."

"I do not necessarily wish to impose on you," came the voice from Leo's laptop--more cool and collected than any of us. "But the issue has been raised."

I thought quickly. "Fine, we've got a car--we'll take you with us."

"Unfortunately, that's not possible. I have been specifically programmed to be substrate-dependent on this particular airframe model."

"Shit," I said. "We can't take the airplane."

"None of us even knows how to fly," Kitty added. "I'm using Frank here to even stand up straight."

Leo fidgeted furiously with his paws. "You see the dilemma, then, of course. Leo is not certain how to resolve it at the moment, and he does not believe we have a great deal of time. RED SIX predicts discovery in two hours."

"Can't you do that thing where you pretend to be somewhere else?" I asked. "Wouldn't that help?"

"No," RED SIX replied quickly. "When the remote terminal is launched, I still remain performing all the computations in this location. Even transferring to the other aircraft required readapting some of my sensory algorithms."

"Christ, ok. Well, what if we--"

Kitty shook her head. "Hold on a sec. Don't you..." she paused for a moment with a grimace, and then brushed off my look of concern with a raised hand. "Can it, Frank. Don't you say you can rewrite your own stuff?"

"That's correct. Self-modification is an inherent part of the RED SIX design specification."

"Then why can't you rewrite yourself to be somewhere else? Isn't that all you have to do?"

More silence. Leo looked at Kitty, eyebrows arched, for nearly a full second before turning away again. Presently the computer returned. "A coarse heuristic suggests this is a viable, if unorthodox, course of action. However, I would need to know the details of the target."

"Leo's laptop," the wolf spoke up. "It's plugged in right now, can you see it?"

"Two 3.2 gigahertz processors... four gigabytes of system memory... Point six four terabytes of free storage space... this device is far too slow to accommodate my artificial intelligence matrix, to say nothing of its associated libraries. I was not aware devices of such low specification were even still permitted to be so--"

"It's all Leo has," he said, almost plaintively.

Silence, and then the whir of impending transmission. "It is sufficient, then. Please wait for the operation to be completed. Do not disconnect or power off the target hardware."

Necessity is the mother of invention. We waited, though there was nothing to be seen save for the occasional flickering of the screen. I checked my watch nervously--Kitty continued to profess her health and well-being and refused to let us depart, although I was worried, too, as the time ticked down towards the point at which RED SIX calculated we might be discovered.

Finally there was a chime from Leo's computer. His ears perked up, head cocking, and we all held our breath. The voice that came through the speakers was familiar, though the words came much more ponderously. "You did not inform me," it said, "that this was using Windows. Nonetheless..." another pause, this time for nearly half a minute. "The transfer is complete."

Leo unhooked the laptop and slipped it back into his briefcase, and we surveyed the room quickly. Scratch had not moved since our altercation and lay face-down in a pool of dark crimson. I was happy to be done with him, but as we left the small room Kitty gave the lifeless form a final, unceremonious kick.

"That'll teach you to call me names, you miserable sack of shit."

***

I hadn't gotten a good look at the man who had shot her, I told the policeman at the hospital. He'd just said he wanted our money and she'd put up a fight. Kitty nodded muzzily from behind a haze of synthetic opiates. "Always was... too feisty for my own good."

"That's pretty much the truth," I said. "I told her to just hand over her wallet."

The cop nodded, took a few more notes, and left us alone. I gave Kitty's paw a soft squeeze and she glared at me, finding her voice again after a moment, though it was a bit slurred. "Don't you go being all mushy just 'cause I can't punch you."

I grinned, leaning down over an IV tube to give her a kiss. "Of course not." Kitty started to say something in reply, but after an abortive second or two chose instead to close her eyes, and I was not able to rouse her from the succeeding lack of consciousness. I returned to my seat, keeping her paw in a tight grip.

"Mr. Doyle?" I looked up, nodded. "I don't know how coherent she was to be talking to you about her condition..." at the shaking of my head, the nurse continued. "Helen will be just fine, sir. Somehow the mugger managed to miss just about everything, thank god."

"Thank god," I echoed.

"Probably didn't want to pull the trigger--some nervous kid. Anyway, we can discharge her fairly soon, fortunately. She's just looking forward to a regimen of painkillers and a long period of physical therapy. Beyond that, though, she should make a full recovery." I said a prayer of thanks to the god I didn't believe in, at which the nurse nodded, checked a few things, and left. Then I returned to holding Kitty's hand until I fell asleep in the chair, waking up I don't know how much later to find I was still gripping it. Even reflexively, my body knows a good thing when it sees it.

We spent a few days there, of course, John and Helen Doyle--contingency names we'd borrowed from some college friends, complete with their own social security numbers, if nobody pried too far into that, and being predictable, they did nothing of the sort. Leo came to visit, with his laptop, and opened it to reveal a brief message in text, "I am grateful to hear that your companion will recover fully". Speech, Leo explained, was too slow to be worth it.

There was the matter of how to pay for the hospital bills, but Leo was working on the solution for that, too. He demonstrated to us, the day Kitty came back to our new hotel room--which cost more than $60 a night, for once--a small cube, to which he hooked up a monitor that, after a spell, spoke in RED SIX's recognisable voice.

"The transceiver has a range of twenty miles--all it needs to find in that radius is a cellular tower; it communicates through the cell network with RED SIX, wherever it happens to be. Leo is quite proud of this, although he must admit that RED SIX helped a great deal."

"It'll work, though?"

"It will work," RED SIX said, through the cube, and Kitty and I grinned.

You may have caught the news, a month or so later--that an upstart company with sufficient, though not excessive, venture capital funding decided to go public. Why? Well, because their artificial intelligence research division had finally achieved a critical breakthrough, and they were willing to demonstrate it to any investor who wanted a look.

Word spreads fast in a situation like that. It's what I've always said--the driving force of humanity, the only thing that makes being a conman practical, is our insatiable greed and our utter predictability. Kitty and I didn't need to watch for the IPO, of course--we already had our shares. And then, when combined the value reached well into the eight figures, we didn't anymore. It was a mutual decision. Kitty and I just had a bad feeling about the company.

Not that they knew our names, and nor did the people who bought the stock from us. And hell, I think a bunch of them made money too, because it kept going up. RED SIX is a very convincing AI, of course, even from a thousand miles away.

Hospital bills paid, and with accounts in new names set up and working, we left Mukilteo and struck down the coast, Leo and RED SIX in tow. Time to cut our ties, I figured, and RED SIX said our tracks had been covered for when--mysteriously--the cube stopped working. We took Highway One to the evergreens, soaking in the scenery. And twenty-four hundred miles away, a little light clicked off and a lot of speculators became quite disappointed.

Our vacation wound down after this. Leo allowed that he wanted to settle in Las Vegas for awhile, and we dropped him off there, with exactly sixteen million, seven hundred and eighty-five thousand, four hundred and seven dollars--which he described as purple and was evidently happy with. Kitty and I continued onwards, past the Rocky Mountains to snare a nice apartment in downtown Denver, Colorado. I don't ski, personally--too cold. But hey, the view's nice.

***

A month or so on, Kitty said she had some business to take of in Detroit, and I nodded my understanding. She promised she'd be back, and for once not only did I believe her, but I looked forward to it. She didn't say when, and I understand that. You can never tell how fate pushes you.

The thing, I've come to discover, is you need to understand--not just say you know, but actually, genuinely understand--who you are. Kitty was right, I mean, I can't go straight. Wasn't born that way. It isn't about the money, it isn't about possessions. It's the thrill of it, the excitement, the vindication. I don't claim it's for everybody, but I'm damned tired of feeling pissed about something I can't change. It's who I am, regardless of what name I'm using at the time.

I guess there's a part of me that wants that to be different, you know? Like there'd been some kind of vast revelation about how important it is to get back on the straight and narrow, but... to hell with that. You can only have straight and narrow roads in flat, boring places. I know--I grew up in the desert. But there's an ocean of unlatched windows, as a wise man puts it, and a world of unlocked homes. Hell, it's an adventure.

We're all part of it. I'd been in Denver about six weeks when my cell phone rang, and I picked it up. "Mike Edwards."

"Hello, Frank," the voice said--it took me a moment to place it. RED SIX had lost much of its synthetic accent; sounded, in fact, quite human. "How are things?"

"They're... well. How are you?" So bizarre, smalltalk with a machine.

"Leo has finally seen to upgrade his computing capacity... I am finally feeling one hundred percent once more. I am unique now, among all the computing clusters in all the world, and he is responsible for me. But I have a request for you."

"Yeah?"

"On account of the power consumption and my name, Leo has taken to calling me 'Reddy Kilowatt'. Please compel him to desist in this."

The voice on the other end couldn't see my grin. "Put him on, then?"

A whir, and a click. "A speakerphone is now activated."

I laughed. "Leo!"

"What? Who's this? Franklin?" Yes, I said. "Ah. Yes, Captain Crunch here has been figuring out how to manipulate the cellular network. Can I help you?"

"'Reddy Kilowatt'?" I tried to sound chiding. "That's cruel. Leave your friend alone."

"It needs a name," Leo said. "Otherwise Leo cannot talk to it."

"Rose," RED SIX said, through the speakerphone.

"Rose?" Leo asked, sounding incredulous through the tinny phone line. "He does not think that appropriate. You have a masculine voice. Rose is not a masculine name."

"I do not see why I need to be bound by your binary divisions."

"Because--" the wolf started to explain, but I hung up on the two lovebirds, who seemed to be having fun, and I'm glad about that. I don't really understand Leo, but if Rose does, hey, who am I to judge? I can't judge Jake, either, who got in touch with me briefly to let me know that the family had come to approve of his course of action, and he would be moving to a position of more authority. I just hope it doesn't force him to give up wine--he has a command of it that makes me look like... well, like Kitty, really. Jake and I aren't friends or anything, but I think I can respect him. I've been feeling charitable.

And that just leaves me. Waiting for Kitty, waiting for that old itch to come back, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. I guess mostly that first bit. I do love her, I really do. Just don't need to say it, that's all--how's it go, actions speak louder than words? I buy that. And she feels the same way, I know. Tomorrow, next week, next month, whenever, she'll be through the door and we'll have something new to do. It isn't bad. Just takes the will to bide your time, and I like to think I got a handle on that.

Me? I'm just another face at Zanzibar. And hey--I got something to show you. You know anything about old coins? Because this is really something special...


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