“There she is! Get her!” the leader of the private army belonging to one Edward Bernstein shouted. 

    He pointed between the two massive air handlers on the roof of the building with the index finger of his left hand, the little submachine gun in his right held at an oblique angle to the floor. It wasn’t pointed at her, but it didn’t need to be on account of the ten other armed fighters charging past him in the direction he was pointing. 

The issue with all of the shouting and pointing was that Ocelot’s retreat down the narrow gap between those same air handlers was still very much under way. When the weapons started to chatter, their tiny but surprisingly lethal projectiles boring holes into the metal of the roof’s machinery, she only just managed to slip around the corner and out of their line of fire. Fragments of bullets and torn-up sheet metal showered the area for a moment before the guns went silent again, replaced by the sounds of tromping boots and whispered directions. 

Leaping forward, she twisted around to fire a couple of covering rounds back toward her pursuers, while she charged another ten feet to the increased safety of the small, concrete and metal structure a few paces from the air handler she had paused behind. Another round of chatter from their little submachine guns followed her, tearing out chunks of concrete and sending pea gravel from the roof in every direction as she spun around the corner, grabbing a protruding cable riser to change the direction of her full-speed dash and launch herself into the wall. The gunfire ceased the moment she was behind cover. 

For the first time in a long time, she physically checked herself for evidence of bullet wounds. Most rounds would leave no doubt about their impact, but these guys were using top-of-the-line equipment and sub-sonic rounds that had some kind of armor-piercing enchantments on them. Something like that could pass through a person’s body so cleanly that it would feel like a splinter or like they’d caught their shoulder on something while running around a corner. Under those circumstances, they might keep running, fighting, and exerting themselves—keeping their heart pumping at maximum. Then the next thing they’d know, they’d be bleeding to death from a through-and-through that clipped an artery.

Theses guys were professionals, there was no doubt. Ocelot could tell they had trained and worked together for a long time. Probably years, if not decades, as a unified fighting force, working under life-and-death circumstances in every godforsaken shithole in the world. They knew one another in the way only people who trusted their lives to someone else in the most dire of situations could. They would act as one unit. One organism with but a single goal in mind: the elimination of the foreign body. 

The problem was, they were a professional hit squad, not a professional protection detail. Their movements, their attacks, their communications, even their presence on the roof at all were indicative of the fact that they were killers. Defenders would never have left their client behind to go chase down a threat. Defenders would have formed a protective wall of muscle, armor, and return fire to keep their client alive. Killers, on the other hand, knew only how to cover their advance and mow down what got in their way.

Ocelot counted the footsteps moving toward her, picturing the locations of the bodies the boots were attached to in her mind’s eye and plotting courses in her brain while her hands moved of their own accord to follow the results of the calculations. Her back was pressed up against the side of what she suspected was an elevator equipment room on the roof, preventing anyone from sneaking up behind her, while she focused her entire attention on calculating and listening. The sounds of her opponents were mild by any standard. They would have gone unnoticed by most people in the world. But she had more time in the field hiding from people and sneaking into places she wasn’t supposed to be than most world-class thieves. She’d turned breaking and entering into a sublime art form and killing her opponents into a ballet that would have put the Bolshoi to shame.

Her handgun barked, a dozen boots stopped moving, and one pair left the ground, their owner diving for cover behind a large exhaust fan housing and sliding to a halt in the gravelly media covering the roof. A tiny, five-point-seven millimeter hole in the center of his vest trailed a bit of smoke, and the dented metal plate inside pressed harshly against his sternum. Taking a half-step to the side, Ocelot shifted her aim to the left and squeezed off another round, sending a second mercenary to the ground, scrambling for cover with a dented chest plate. As she moved, her left hand spun the blade of her sword through a short arc, shifting it into an earthward grip with the weapon’s pommel pointed upward, then drove the rounded, blunt end forward as she turned the corner. The pommel slammed into the gut of the mercenary who had been sneaking around the elevator structure, trying to get behind her, catching him just under the lower edge of the metal plate in his armor and forcing the air from his lungs in a great heave.

“Sorry,” she frowned at the man as he dropped to his knees in front of her, hands wrapping around his abdomen in shock. He looked up at her and for a brief moment, their eyes met through the yellow lenses of his shooting glasses. Then she hooked the blade of her sword around behind his neck, trapping him between the hilt and her forearm and yanked him forward, raising her knee as she did so and driving it into his advancing face with the force of a jackhammer. 

The man sagged out of her grip, blood pouring from his nose, but his eyes were still safe and intact beneath the safety glasses and his breathing strong, if unsteady from the impact. Letting him drop, she pointed her pistol toward her next target and loosed a third round, sending one more soldier scrambling for cover in surprise.

“You know, it would be kinder to them to just kill them, right?” she thought, putting as much vehemence as she could into the unspoken words.

“I don’t understand how you could even begin to think such a thing,” Bennu’s voice replied, filling her head with its lilting tenor. “They will live. Which means they will have opportunities and not have their lives cut short.”

“Clearly you do not understand how this business works,” Ocelot thought back, rolling behind an arch of ductwork to avoid a spray of gunfire.

“What is it, exactly, that I am not understanding, then?” Bennu responded.

“When I kill their boss, they will have failed—” Ocelot thought as she scampered from cover to cover, firing a couple more shots as she ran. Most of her shots drilled into the heavy armored plate on the targets’ chests or backs, forcing them to take cover from her and allowing her to advance toward her objective in relative peace. The rest were intended to break apart some bit of the scene and send fragments and shards at the mercenaries, peppering them with smaller, slower-speed projectiles that wouldn’t kill them, but would make their lives less comfortable for a while. “The news of which will precede them for the rest of their lives and make getting work difficult or impossible,” she continued.

“What does that” Bennu’s disembodied voice began, but Ocelot’s thoughts cut her off as they continued.

“Before long, they’ll be destitute, desperate, and dispassionate. They’ll take whatever work they can get, and it will lead them into a situation where they will be either betrayed by one of their own and killed, or just outright slaughtered in some backwater nowhere, never to be seen or heard from again.”

“That doesn’t—”

“If you’d let me kill or maim at least one of them, they might have a chance of a comeback down the road. It’ll send the message that they tried and suffered a loss for their client. But if they all make it out alive, it’ll follow them around like an albatross for the rest of their days.”

“As I recall,” Bennu retorted, “the albatross was a good-luck charm until some damn fool killed it and strung it up on their bow.”

“Makes no nevermind to me.” Ocelot shrugged, squeezing the trigger again and twisting around behind the last structure on her side of the building. Her eyes narrowed at the open expanse of air in front of her. Filled with nothing but the dusky skyline of Indianapolis and the Oiler’s stadium a few blocks away. “I get paid either way.”

“I’m still not comfortable with the idea of killing even one person, Ocelot. These others deserve a chance at lives of their own. We haven’t the right to take it from them.”

“This one person is a killer of thousands, Bennu,” Ocelot thought. “We talked about this. His operation here is poisoning the area with lead-arsenic waste which is causing birth defects and untimely deaths.”

“I know. And that is the only reason I agreed to help you with this.”

“And I am forever grateful. Are you ready?”

“I’m ready,” the mage confirmed.

The crunching of gravel under combat boots approached Ocelot’s position as she paused to think at her friend. With calm, steady hands, she ejected the magazine from her pistol, returning it to one of the many magical portals scattered around her person and removed another, one with a yellow stripe on it, and slid it home into the weapon, thumbing the side release to chamber the first round from the new magazine. “Okay,” she thought, jamming the tip of her sword into the side of the structure. Its blade came to life with a faint blue glow and it moved through the metal of the duct work like a hot knife through butter, carving an Ocelot-sized hole in a matter of seconds.

“Those guys are almost on you.”

“I know,” Ocelot responded, sheathing her sword and peeling the metal flap open with her free hand. “Is he there?”

Bennu’s response was hesitant, as if she considered not giving it before her thought came back in halting fashion. “Yeah.”

“Here we go,” Ocelot replied, lurching forward into the dark hole she’d torn open in the roof.

Darkness surrounded her as she fell down the shaft, her hands and feet pressing against the inside walls to create drag and slow her descent. The drumming sound of metal being bumped against followed her in the darkness, but she expected that to be the case. It was just sheetmetal after all. Her eyes narrowed in the darkness, watching darker splotches go by as she descended, counting them off in her head until she was coming up on the fifth one.

“Five,” she thought, a grin spreading across her face as she switched her feet to  the narrow width of the duct and her left boot immediately caught on a side duct, arresting her fall. “I’m telling you, it’s like child’s play,” she thought. Working to crouch down in the awkward space and move into the horizontal shaft, an almost casual conversation from above her drew her attention for a moment as she dangled in the shaft. 

“Good thing I brought my grenades this time,” one of the voices announced with a tone of defiance.

“I am never going to hear the end of that, am I?” another sighed, just before her ears shifted to the sound of several objects rattling down the duct above her. She glanced upward in time to see half a dozen small objects rattling down the duct above her, silhouetted by the light form the roof above.

“Grenades,” she groaned, hastening her movements to exit the death trap. Lunging into the smaller horizontal passage just as the tumbling explosives dropped past, she pulled her legs up tight to her chest, pressed her hands into her ears, and closed her eyes, preparing for the concussive blast that was about to abuse her body. A second later, there were several loud popping sounds, followed by what sounded like a hail storm. Several small bits of hard rubber peppered her naked legs, causing her to grunt, then frown at the realization that she’d been fooled by a half dozen riot grenades. Uncurling herself, she pressed forward, low-crawling her way to the third vent with a sour expression on her face.

“Did you say grenades?” Bennu’s mind called out with a tone of panic.

“False alarm,” Ocelot shook her head. “They were just party favors. Nearly there now.” Punching the next vent out of the floor of her raceway, she followed it out of the hole like a snake, unfurling herself on the other side in a great, rolling wave, hands still gripping the edge of the vent as her feet swung downward, pendulum like. She caught the door guard in the bridge of the nose, dropping his form to the ground in a single hit. She dropped herself to the ground, nearly silent in the wake of the rattling grate and the slumping body.

Reaching for the knob of the door the man had been standing next to, she twisted it as she thought, “I love it when a plan comes to—” Stopping, she eyed the knob and raised a platinum eyebrow at the fact that it had stopped without opening the door.

“What was that?” Bennu asked.

“Standby one,” Ocelot replied, trying the knob again. It rattled but wouldn’t turn past the tiny fraction of an arc it had moved previously. Locked. Growling, Ocelot stooped to the unconscious guard and rifled his pockets. In a second the floor was littered with the man’s sidearm, several spare magazines, a backup pistol, a flashlight, his wallet and car keys, and one frustrated feline assassin, eyeing the offending doorknob through narrowed eyes.

“Everything okay?” Bennu’s mind called out to her.

“Door’s locked,” Ocelot sighed back.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The door,” Ocelot responded curtly, “is locked.”

“Did you just say the door is locked?” A trickle of mirth was unmistakable in Bennu’s tone.

“They weren’t supposed to lock the door when they left,” Ocelot growled more.

“Because heaven forbid they protect their boss like they’re supposed to!”

“That’s not helping,” Ocelot frowned, trying to bash the door open with her shoulder. It rattled a little under her slight weight but remained stubbornly locked and solid.

“I can see the headlines now,” Bennu giggled. “’World-class assassin defeats ten armed soldiers only to be stopped by a locked door.’”

“It hasn’t stopped me.” Ocelot cast her eyes around for anything that might be of use. There was a fire extinguisher nearby, but that was about it. Sighing, she slid her sword out of its sheath on her back once more and shook her head as she drew her pistol in the other hand. “Just be ready.”

“Oh, I’m ready, just as soon as you get past your implacable foe, the door,” Bennu giggled back.

With a grunt of frustration, Ocelot sliced her sword downward, making a clean cut through the metal door jamb and separating the door’s bolt from the rest of the mechanism. One swift kick later and it was swinging wide on its hinges, the assassin stalking through in a cloud of frustrated anger.

A tall, girthy figure within was clearly surprised by her entrance, despite the rattling she’d given the door. He had a phone pressed to his ear and his pants around his ankles as his dirty, brownish eyes met hers. Three half-naked women and two similarly undressed men could be seen around him, running and diving for whatever cover they could find in a hurry. It was a scene right out of any college frat film, except for the part where the man on the phone saw Ocelot, gun pointed right at him and an ear-to-ear grin spread across her face as she broke into a sprint right at him.

Their eyes locked for a moment as she thought, “Here I come,” and squeezed the trigger.

The window behind the man spiderwebbed as the enchanted, armor-piercing round drilled through his skull, leaving a perfectly round hole in its wake, and continued on through the pane. The man dropped the phone and it began to accelerate toward the floor, much like Ocelot toward the window, as the man stared at her dumbly, not yet realizing he’d just been killed.

By the time his lifeless body slumped to the floor, Ocelot was already through the shattered window, holstering her pistol and latching it in place as she twisted her body into a somersault thirty stories above the ground. “Now,” she thought.

“Incoming,” Bennu returned.

Ocelot closed her eyes, reveling in the brief free fall and folding her arms across her chest. Her ankles locked together, and she tried to relax her muscles as she prepared for the mage to do her work.

“Now,” Bennu said.

A blinding flash of light pressed through Ocelot’s closed eyelids and she felt the world close in and grow cold around her. Every muscle in her body clenched, despite her best efforts. She felt as if she were being pulled, feet first, through a drinking straw.

An instant later, the world returned to her senses and she felt the comforting embrace of the deceleration airbag they had set up in the Oiler’s stadium on the opposite end of the field from where the annual gaming convention had set up its operation for the weekend. Air escaped the structure beneath her, bleeding energy away from her fall until she felt the slight thump of her body hitting the ground beneath it. Not taking even an instant to thank the stars for her survival, she rolled out of the airbag and smiled at her dark-skinned companion, who stood there, arms crossed over her chest and foot tapping in expectant, silent anger.

“Nice shot!” Ocelot beamed. “You feel like dancing? I hear there’s some kind of gaming convention in town and they have a ball tonight. Could be lots of people in crazy costumes getting their freak on. Want to check it out before our flight back to Denver?”

“You are impossible,” Bennu growled. “And you have made me complicit in a murder.”

“You agreed to help me,” Ocelot shrugged, rolling her yellow eyes. “I wasn’t exactly begging you to tag along.”

“You said you were going to swan dive off a forty-story building into a glass of water if I didn’t help,” Bennu challenged, throwing her arms up in the air. 

“And you believed me?” Ocelot raised an accusing eyebrow at her companion.

“Of course not,” Bennu protested waving her arms in frustration. “But you’d have done something just as stupid if I hadn’t helped.”

“You know, I was at this a long while before you came along,” Ocelot challenged, raising a finger to her companion as the pair of them began moving toward the exit from the field where their car was waiting for them. “Always managed to make it work in the past.”

Bennu glared at the assassin for a moment.

“This isn’t some Spy vs. Spy cartoon, Ocelot. People don’t dive off buildings without backup plans and live to brag about it.”

“Good thing I’m not people then, right? I’m the incomparable Ocelot!” She struck a haughty pose, holding it for a moment as if there were a thousand paparazzi shooting pictures of her to put on the covers of every magazine that meant anything to anyone.

“You mean the incompetent Ocelot,” Bennu snarked, turning a feral grin on her companion. “The keyless killer,” she carried on, taking shots at her friend as she started marching toward the street again.

“That’s not fair,” Ocelot groused, trotting to catch up to her companion. “They weren’t supposed to post a guy there without the key when they left.” 

“The uncentering Ocelot,” Bennu continued, a wide grin plastered across her face, chest swelling with pride at her jabs.

“I know where you sleep,” Ocelot grumbled.

“Maybe, but I keep my doors locked,” Bennu cackled.

Clearly done with the gag, Ocelot pointed across the street toward one of the larger hotels connected to the convention center and asked, “So, straight back to Denver? Or do we take that left in Albuquerque and swing by the GenCon ball on the way out?”

“I don’t know,” Bennu replied as they stood on the sidewalk next to one another. If it’s already started and they’ve locked the doors, we may not be able to get in.”

“Assassin, remember?” Ocelot snarled at her friend, indicating herself with a wave of her hand. 

Rolling her eyes, Bennu sighed and motioned toward the dance. “Let’s go check it out. I’ve never been to a dance before.”

 

Chapter 2