-Prelude-

Ocelot skated through the encroaching darkness, a ghost in the failing light of the evening.
The sounds of shouting and gunfire echoed around her like a symphony, titillating her senses and bringing a smile to her lips. She streaked over rooftops and bounded off of parked cars, turning flips in the air and always hitting the ground running, leaving everyone else wanting for a target to train their weapons upon. The long front edges of her stark white, exaggerated a-line hair cut flowed over her shoulders, trailing behind her like the feeding tentacles of a giant squid on the prowl for prey. Her athletic body making short work of the evening’s running, jumping, and dancing.
And it was a dance; no question.
Vaulting off the edge of a garage roof, she twisted around in mid air, angling her feet toward the ground and landing between two spooked guards bearing automatic weapons. Her arms opened like wings as she descended, bearing the pair to the ground with her momentum and using their bodies to break her fall. Pushing herself, and them into a forward roll to bleed off the rest of her momentum, she came up to a crouch, hands twined up in her targets’ shirts, binding them to her. A few well placed kicks and they were unconscious, drooling on the ground.
“Sorry, boys, but you’re not on my list. Maybe we’ll get to dance another day. You’ll have to promise to be really bad though. That’s the only way to get on the list.” Grinning, she patted them each on the shoulder, then tumbled forward, coming up at a dead run with a line of bullets following her as she went.
“Did you see that?” One of the estate’s guards asked a companion. “She dropped those two like a sack of hammers.”
“Yeah,” the other replied, narrowing suspicious eyes behind yellowed shooting glasses. “But she didn’t kill them. I wonder why…”
“They aren’ ton my naughty list,” Ocelot responded from her perch on the wall behind them.
“What the hell?” The first guard shouted, the pair turning toward the sound.
“Luckily for you two, neither are you…” she added, detaching her tail and shaking it loose to reveal it as a long, braided whip. “Unless you make me pencil you in.”
The two began to raise their weapons toward her, but she slipped off the wall, dropping like a shadow toward them. The tip of her whip slashed through the air like a blade, wrapping itself around one of the guards’ necks and as she approached them she planted her feet on the other guard’s shoulders and pushed off, while pulling hard on the handle of her whip. The two guards collided with enough force to stagger them both back form one another. Taking advantage of their stunned states, Ocelot kicked one in the chin, yanking on her whip once more to draw his companion closer, then driving her knee into his gut, taking only a second to uncoil her whip from his neck before moving on form the unconscious pair.
“Man, this Adrian guy needs to hire some better thugs,” she mused to herself, returning the re-coiled whip to its resting place at her tailbone where it resumed looking like the tail of some great cat. Checking her watch, she frowned at the count-down timer currently on its face, then shook the screen back into darkness and dashed off again, angling toward the central building of the Malcone estate.
Adrian Malcone was a paranoid of extreme magnitude. Almost certainly not without plenty of cause, but still. The man had built a fortress around himself and populated it to overflowing with armed toughs, most of whom were obviously over paid for their services. Still, it was a lot to get through, between the high, razor wire-topped walls, remote gun turrets, wandering guards, and tiered internal wall defenses, he’d made it nearly impossible for anyone to get to him. He’d even gone so far as to have mages enchant his grounds, walls, buildings, and even vehicles, to prevent teleportation, and a host of other transportation magic. And in the unlikely event that anyone made it through all of that, he had setup a panic room in the main house. A panic room with a specially built one-way teleport that would allow him to escape to safety through his own wards without being torn to pieces by the magic that prevented people from teleporting back in.
All of that meant he was more or less untouchable. Except that he was a consummate gambler. He gambled with everything, from money, to cars, and even houses and sexual partners. If he could bet on, with, for, or about it, he would. Anything was fair game, except his own life and safety. Because of this primal urge, he had setup a long-standing poker game at which he could satisfy his compulsion whilst keeping a relatively low profile. However, being utterly paranoid meant that options for a venue were limited, at best. He refused to play in anyone else’s home or other facilities, but also refused to have potentially traitorous guests in his own home. The only compromise he’d been able to arrive at was to host the game on his property, in a small, out-building near one of the inner walls, about five hundred yards from the main house.
It had cost Ocelot a lot of time and only to learn about the game, where and when it was hosted, and the particulars of Adrian’s defenses, but the payment for filling his contract was going to be more than enough to make it all worth while. Assuming she beat him to the panic room.
Because, while he had given in to his baser need to gamble, he had done so in the safest way he could manage. His game room sat atop a secret, underground tunnel that led, via several secure, armored doors, directly to the antechamber outside his panic room. And if he got into that room, without her, then she would miss her mark, be shamed in her industry and, worst of all, wouldn’t get paid. She couldn’t finish him in the game room because he had fifteen armed guards in there with him, plus all his fellow players and their people. The place was built like a bank vault, with now windows, one door, at the end of a guarded hallway with but one other door in it, and none of those totally fake person-sized air vents that were always depicted in films for heroes to crawl through and infiltrate the bad guy’s lair.
No, she had to get him alone, and the only place he was ever truly alone was in his panic room, since he would never allow anyone he didn’t trust in there with him. Which ruled out all other persons, both alive and dead.
Well, she mused, he probably went to the bathroom alone as well. But there was no way she was going to kill someone while they were taking a dump. That was just mean.
She knew it took him four minutes, thirty-one seconds to get from the game room to the panic room, using the tunnel. He could do it in two, but his own paranoia worked in her favor there, because he’d set it all up in such a way as to need to go through security at each reinforced door in his escape tunnel, rather than just run by and close them behind him. Turns out, a person can actually be way too paranoid.
Because of that, she had just over four minutes to get into his panic room before he did, and she’d started the clock just before she’d started her ruckus and set the alarms off. Now, she had just over two minutes to finish her charge and collect her coin.
Adjusting her course, she darted toward the main house, where the only other physical entrance to the panic room was located. Her path was winding, with frequent adjustments to carry her around confrontations wherever possible due to the shortness of time. More to the point however, avoiding fights wherever possible was her preferred method of operation anyway. Fights stole time and cost energy and she had neither to spare at the best of times. Not to mention the cost in ammunition and supplies that cut into her pay dealing with them.
The winding path to the main house took little in the way of time though, given her regular physical conditioning. She spent a lot of time running and exercising when she wasn’t working. Between that and her others extracurricular, activities, she was more fit than most professional athletes, which allowed her to eat up the distance in mere moments. She caught a pair of armed goons just as they were pulling the doors shut and waylaid them with relative ease. Taking people by surprise made life so much easier, and them so much easier prey.
The interior layout of the house was exactly as her bribe-liberated information informed her, allowing her to easily dart through rooms, around corners, and keep from sight as much as possible. Wherever it was an option, she used staff hallways and stairs, knowing they would be less likely to be used during an emergency and that most of the thugs and important people would avoid them, if they even knew where they were. Or that they existed at all.
Down two floors, through the wine cellar with its hundreds of dusty bottles lining either side of the long, cool corridor, and the door was in sight!
The huge metal vault-style door stood open, with two armed guards outside. The pair stood, hands on weapons and radios, ready for trouble and able to call for backup in an instant, should the need arise. Which meant that she needed to deal with them both at the same time, and as quickly, and quietly, as possible. Before they noticed her, she slipped into the shadows between two wine racks, then slid behind them, pressing her back against the wall and side-stepping down the row of racks as quickly and quietly as she could. Her internal countdown continued, as accurate as any watch she’d ever owned, after of years of timing things in her head, and she knew she had mere moments to get through the door before Malcone would arrive and seal himself inside. If he made it and she wasn’t already through the door, then her chance would be lost, possibly forever, and worse, she wouldn’t get paid for her work.
Drawing nearer to the pair, she heard them talking quietly to one another, their words passing in careful whispers while they presumably darted their eyes around for trouble.
“How many do you think there are?” One of them said.
“Doesn’t sound like anyone has a good count. Robins announced a minute ago that he found a remote-operated turret with an AR15 on it.”
“Samuels said something similar as well just a moment ago. Probably a small group then, if they’re using remotes to bolster their ranks.”
“The only actual sightings I’ve heard reported are of a girl in a cheerleader outfit. You don’t think maybe…”
“No, I don’t think one little girl in a cheerleading outfit is in any way capable of successfully breaching our defenses.”
“Boss is headed this way though.”
“Yeah.”
“And Jurgen did say there was a cheerleader…”
“For the last time, we are not being assaulted by a cheerleader. The idea is preposterous, at best.”
“Are you implying that a cheerleader is incapable of conducting an assault?”
“No, man. I’m just saying it isn’t likely to be in a cheerleader’s skill set to go around during down people’s empires at gun point, you know?”
“I think that qualifies as profiling, man. That’s not right.”
“Hal, I’m not profiling just because I think it is unlikely that a cheerleader is singlehandedly assaulting one of the most heavily defended compounds in the state. I’m just saying that it is incredibly unlikely.”
“Unlikely because it’s a cheerleader? Are you saying cheerleaders can’t assault citadels?”
“No, man. I’m just saying that… Ugh. You know what? I’m not having this conversation with you. We just need to get the boss into the panic room, then we can go find out if its a stupid cheerleader or not…”
“Right, that’s it!” Ocelot growled, leaping out of the shadows to stand in front of the pair. Her short, pleated skirt swished around her hips as she moved and her tail slashed at the air behind her. Fixing accusing eyes on the guards, she bared her teeth and added, “I am not stupid!”
They both stood stunned for a mere heartbeat before one reached for his radio and the other began to raise his compact little sub-machine gun toward her. With a nearly feline hiss, Ocelot lashed out with one hand, punching the first of them in the throat hard enough that he started to gasp and wheeze, hands going to his throat to clutch it in shock. With her other hand, she grabbed the barrel of the rising weapon, lifting it up further, and faster, than the man had intended, then smashed it into his forehead several times in rapid succession.
“You really think I look like a cheerleader though?” she asked, twirling around to twirl the hem of her little skirt up and striking a heroic pose. “I always admired them.”
The gun-wielder dropped to his knees, tumbling over backward while Ocelot turned her attention to the gasping guard and said, “Although, I never was a cheerleader, so I guess I might have overreacted a bit. You really shouldn’t disparage people just for their interests though. I mean, do you have any idea how hard cheerleaders work? Between all the physical stuff and the need to keep their grades up? Most of them are fitter and smarter than a good portion of students.”
The gasping man gave her a puzzled look as his face turned blue. After a second, his eyes rolled back into his head and he followed his comrade to the floor in a heap.
“Not to say that football players are stupid or anything. I met a couple smart ones,” she carried on as she bent down and hooked a hand in the combat webbing of each man then dragged them through the open metal door of the panic room. “It’s just a bit presumptuous to say they can’t do something just because they’re cheerleaders is all.”
Making sure the area in front of the door was cleared of any signs of the guards, and her own passing, she hid them under the bed in the panic room and settled into a good spot to cover the door from. As she reached zero in her mental countdown, she heard the sounds of footsteps outside, followed by a terse remark from a man who sounded like he was used to giving orders, and having them followed.
“Where are the guards?”
“Probably outside, sir. It’s still pretty crazy out there. Radio chatter is asking for assistance to shut down a half dozen more remote guns and they just found two unconscious men out by the garage.”
“Fine,” the commanding voice responded. “As soon as the door’s closed, you go help them sweep the property.”
“Yes sir!” Two voices snapped back in unison.
Ocelot watched a man in his forties step through the door and press the button that caused it to close with uncanny speed given its obvious bulk. He kept looking at it until the panel next to the door announced that it had locked and sealed, causing the lights in the room to come on, then he turned around to take in the room, finally spotting her silhouette in the corner, gun raised in his direction.
“Who the hell…”
“Mr. Malcone,” Ocelot nodded at him. “I’m not here to monologue about what a douche you are, or how many lives you’ve ruined with your drugs and your gun sales. I’ve been paid to kill you and that’s just what I’m going to do. But first, I have one question.”
His eyes darted around the room, one hand twitching toward the holster under his jacket, but a subtle shake of her head changed his mind and the hand froze. His emergency teleport was across the room from him, a raised circular dais about two feet from where she stood in the corner, leaning against the wall with flippant casualness. Scanning the room in the bright overhead lights, his eyes came to rest on the still hand of one of his men under the edge of the bed and his breath caught in his throat. Looking back up at her he asked, “What?”
“Do I look like a cheerleader to you?” she asked, raising the barrel of her pistol toward his head and taking a purposeful step forward.

 

Interlude 1