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Endgame Chapter I: Angel Grove Nocturne
by Felix Velcro

"... after suffering nearly a decade of constant alien attacks, the Terra colony projects, beginning with the ill-fated Terra Venture six years ago, came as a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for many residents of Angel Grove and sparked the beginning of a veritable exodus. Now, six years and six colonies later, once prosperous Angel Grove is a pale ghost of its former self, housing a mere one-tenth of the population that it did six short years ago. No other US city since the boom-towns of the 1890's has ever undergone this kind of dramatic reduction. Today, entire neighborhoods lay empty, deserted, among them some of what were once the most prestigious in Angel Grove, their inhabitants among the first to leave this besieged city. Mansions once occupied by Angel Grove's movers and shakers now stand abandoned, long since stripped of their expensive furnishings by looters and completely empty except for the occasional drifter or transient..."

"Hey, check it out guys! They're talking 'bout us on the TV..." Skull gestured vaguely at the slightly twisted, perpetually greenish picture still droning away on the battered old set sitting atop a long-exhausted keg in the sun-drenched courtyard of one of those aforementioned abandoned mansions. Skull himself sat with his back against its western wall, pale skin sheltered from the blazing Southern California sun by the lengthening blue shadows of evening.

"Whoop-de-shit Skull. I thought I told you to shut that shit off, a man's trying to get some fucking rest here..." Reggie muttered, not moving from his perch in the one good remaining lawn chair across the empty, concrete pit of a pool. His eyes, bloodshot from several days of debauchery, were clenched tight behind thick, black sunglasses and his long, brown hair brushed the ground behind him in long, greasy, white-man's dreads. Skull grunted and ignored him; intent upon oddly distorted picture playing out the media's strangely skewed view of his lifestyle.

"Man said to shut it off." Junior flicked off the set and growled in his basso profundo voice. The tall, rangy black man was an imposing figure compared to the two slender white men he shared the mansion with.

"Hey! I was watchin' that!" Skull cried and hocked the empty beer bottle in his hand at Junior, missing by a mile and adding another dent to the scarred plastic shell of the television set. His head was starting to throb and he'd had about as much of Reggie and Junior as he could stand.

"You want a piece of me, little man?" Junior growled and lifted his head slightly, letting the light of the golden California sunset gleam off of his newly shaved head, which combined with the dangling earring he wore in his left ear to give him the distinctive look of some primitive idol carved of stone, glaring down at the unrepentant heretic Skull. Skull got up unsteadily, his head starting to pound and grabbed another dead soldier to let fly at the giant.

"Goddamn you both! Did I tell you to shut your fuckin' mouths or don't you fucking speak english? Comprende this, amigos?" The click of a pistol safety grabbed both of their attentions. Reggie sat, just as before except for the fact that he had raised his hand to about waist level, and in that hand held his baby, his 1984 IMI Eagle, looking ridiculously huge in his thin fingers, chromed to the point of being mirrored, gleaming orange in the rays of the setting sun, aimed as close as Reggie could get it without actually opening his eyes.

"I don't have to put up with this shit, I need a drink." Skull grumbled, while reaching for his battered black leather jacket, scowling as the pounding in his head grew louder, stronger, "Coming kid?" He shot Junior a quick look of questioning.

"Nah, I gotta stay straight for a meet tonight, got some merchandise comin' in from my Asian connection." The larger man shrugged philosophically, "'sides your fool ass always needs a drink, you don't watch it, you gonna end up beggin' for change and drinkin' your fool lunch from a brown paper bag."

"Asian connection?" Reggie raised his head slightly, the first sign of real life they'd had from him in hours, "Think he'll have any of that primo Cambodian shit that we got that one time...?"

"Don't see how it matters if he do," Junior said sternly, "you ain't gonna see none of it, this deal gonna be pure profit and there ain't no profit in what goes up your goddamn honky nose!" Reggie rolled his eyes imploringly beneath his shades.

"Oh yeah, and you guys are so much better..." Skull scowled with disgust and threw on his coat, slipping out one of the doors into the massive house, the sound of the bickering still buzzing in the distance. The old house was dark and cooling, and a momentary relief for Skull's pounding head. Skull rested in the looted living room for a moment, but only for a moment. Too long here and he started seeing ghosts. The door slammed behind him and he was just glad it didn't hit him in the ass, this time.

The fires of hell seemed to glow in the sun tonight as it sunk beneath the lonely urban skyline; airplane trails cutting bloody red swathes across the wounded and dying sky. Skull smirked and nodded almost companionably towards the sky, tired and wounded, like him.

The evening was still young, barely just born, and Skull could still feel the daytime heat coming off the crumbling pavement in waves. It had been hot today. It was always hot in Angel Grove. Skull regretted the putting on the faded black jacket, it soaked up the infernal heat like a sponge, but it could get cold here at night, besides, next to the steady pulsing in his head, what'd it matter?

Parched and aching, he stumbled down the gentle hills of the eerily quiet mansion district into the slightly less abandoned, but just as run down, warehouse district by the beach, and he felt something uncoil in his neck. His throat was still dry, his head still pounded and there was still the taste of bile just short of his tongue, but at least he was home now. At least he'd left the gentle ghosts of the mansion district behind him for now.

The sky grew dark as he wandered the narrow winding streets, the shadows grew out from the sides of buildings to swallow up the last, orange-red slivers of light, as the sky grew dusty yellow and then a deep, shadowed blue that faded slowly, ever so slowly, into black. Every so often, he relieved his growing thirst with a shot from the flask he kept in his jacket, a wee bit of something to sooth the nerves and still the head, a godsend in this city of bright neon ghosts.

As he drifted nearer and nearer his destination, he began to recognize more and more of the buildings of his childhood and teen years. Skull had grown up not far from here. The buildings were boarded up, their plaster cracking, their paint faded from the blazing Southern California sun that pounded down so mercilessly day after day after day. The signs declared that his childhood had been condemned, along, he thought bitterly, with the rest of his life.

Skull stopped to scrutinize a sign lying in the street in front of the empty building who's face it once adorned, the last memory of what this place once was. He remembered when the sign, now faded and barely legible in the flickering glow of the street's single functioning streetlight, had told true, when the sidewalks would have been filled with revelers at this hour on a Friday night, when the walls would have rung with their laughter, not the lonely howl of the wind through the empty windows of deserted buildings, when not one but all of the lights of the city gleamed brightly, defiantly against the darkness of night. No matter, he passed over the sign, stepping on it as he drifted towards the end of the street. At the end of the street was a light shining alone in this godforsaken urban wasteland, a light in red and blue and green, a light that spelled out "Juice Bar" in horrid parody of the place who's weathered face had just seen the heel of Skull's boot. The only juice one would find there would be the orange juice in the screwdrivers.

He stopped just before the shadows dissolved into the half-light of the disconcertingly open parking lot, listening carefully, trying to decipher the muffled sounds coming out into the world through thick, bullet-ridden walls. The dim rumble of a crowd, the generic backbeat of a band, and, made out just barely under the din, the usual compliment of cheers, catcalls and claps. Skull nodded to himself, just another night in the pit. Steeling himself with a shot from the silvery flask hidden in his coat, he took his first tentative steps into the half-light of the parking lot. In the flickering neon glow the place was a post-industrial nightmare, machines in every state of disrepair were scattered haphazardly across the cracked, weed-infested concrete, decorated with various nightmarish ornaments, Hell's own parade floats, here flames roared across a rusted hulk of a van, there a cow's skull leered at Skull from some sort of hybrid muscle bike, guns stuck obscenely from a dull, bone-gray jeep. Colors and heraldry of a dozen different gangs flashed in front of his eyes as the throbbing in his head grew louder. He shook his head and slipped between a pair of spike-covered Harley's and into the flashing portal beneath the flickering sign and into hell itself.

Hell flashed with lights of red and purple, black lights alternating with colored ones on stage, flickering out of sequence with the dissonant, thundering music peeling away from the stage in wave after painful wave. Skull held on to his head with one hand, hoping to hold back the pressure he felt building, as if the damn thing meant to explode on him, and holding on to the backs of chairs and support beams as he propelled himself towards the bar, slamming into and dodging around a forest of denim and leather and vinyl and muscle and tattooed flesh, all melting into each other in a shifting, laughing, flirting, brawling mass of sweat and humanity. His head reeled from hang-over and from the monstrous noise coming from the stage, his nostrils stung from the tang of smoke, tobacco and otherwise, sweat, stale alcohol and other, less identifiable scents. Out of the ever-shifting, eye-killing sea, the bar loomed like a friendly shore and the flowing, changing organism seemed to thin out near it, dissolving into individual people. Skull grinned broadly and quickly put himself on a barstool, its familiarly inadequate padding giving way under his bony behind. He reached out and like a lemming seeking the Baltic, latched on to the arm of the nearest bartender. Rich turned his one good eye towards the unwelcome addition to his arm and broke out into a grin.

"Skull you sonuvabitch! How ya been? Where're the kids?" Rich tore his arm out of his regular's grasp and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Kids're out scoring some merchandise, probably getting screwed over again... You wanna know how I been? Ask me again after you get me that screwdriver you have for me..." Skull laughed thinly, he was in no mood to talk, at least not until he'd gotten the important business of drinking safely underway.

"You got it," He grabbed the waiting drink from the bar fridge and slammed it down in front of the expectant Skull. Skull took a large swallow of the vodka-heavy drink and sighed as the warmth rippled out from his throat, dimming the roaring tide in his head. Skull closed his eyes and let himself feel the relief it brought. One of the few things in his life that he trusted anymore.

"So, now you had yourself a little something to calm the nerves, how you been?" Rich asked again. The man was annoying, and probably a drunk, but dammit if Rich didn't like the little weasel.

"I dunno, things been pretty slow recent-like. Same ol', same ol'." Skull shrugged, "What's with these losers, huh?" He nodded towards the howling, gibbering lot prancing about the stage, "Usually, you're able to snag a real band..."

"Yeah, well, they're the best I could get for the emergency. Everybody else, and I mean everybody else is down at Dojo tonight, ya know..." Rich rolled his one good eye at the nameless, faceless garage band rejects and shrugged helplessly.

"Dojo? What for?" Skull looked askance at Rich, Alien Dojo, or just 'Dojo' to those in the know, never 'The Dojo', was the absolute hottest club in the city right now, way uptown where there were still people. Not the sort of place the Juice Bar would lose bands to.

"Shit, don't you got radio up in that rathole of yours?" Rich's jaw seemed to drop then he gathered it up into a knowing smirk and his eye shined knowing and mischievous. "The Creeps play Dojo tonight." That was all he had to say. Skull went even paler then usual and his eyes got wide.

"Hell yeah, fact is," Rich leaned in and whispered conspiratorially to Skull, "Soon as the night bartender gets in, me and some of the boys'll be heading up there to see it ourselves, I know a someone at the door that can get us in. Interested?" It wasn't really a question.

"When?" Skull leaned in and locked his two eyes with Rich's one.

So it was the twenty minutes later, Skull found himself in the sidecar of a roaring iron beast of a motorcycle, racing in towards Angel Grove's inhabited areas, at the head of a convoy of such machines, followed closely by Rich's primer-gray ex-military jeep, filled with howling ex-military buddies in their old, primer-gray jackets, with the one headlight deliberately put out to match the one Rich lost to that looter five years back.

"This is the life, eh Skull?" Eddie, the motorcycle's rider, shouted down to Skull. Skull could just grin and nod weakly. He hadn't ridden like this since his best buddy'd left him to rot on this mudball, and hadn't been looking to again, but it was the only ride open, after Emily, Eddie's girl, had suggested maybe she and Eddie could share the main seat and Eddie hadn't argued. Skull was under the definite impression that he was, at any moment now, going to become seriously ill. The impression was strengthened as Eddie swerved violently to one side, passing an incongruently expensive car at twice its speed. However, even Skull had to let out a whoop as they passed the driver's side window and he got a shot of the driver's expression, shock and disgust. Been way too long since he'd triggered any of that. He was loving it. The caravan of riders flowed around the car like a rock sticking up in a river of motorcycles, whooping and popping wheelies, showing off for the scared little suit.

Inside his car, Delmar Crandall fought back a mild amusement and let the passing thugs think they were frightening him. Then he caught a face, a sunken, pale, hatchet of a face, a familiar face, and let a small, subtle smile cross his lips. Skull. Perhaps this evening would pay off after all. So, as the battered army jeep and the last of the bikes passed him, he waited a moment, and then, kicked his german-engineered luxury vehicle into high gear, following them at a distance.

Up ahead, the lights of inhabited Angel Grove loomed higher and higher, sparkling and swirling, neon billboards and street-long florescents lit up the night with a stubborn fierceness, as if determined to make up for the shadows of the abandoned sections. As soon as they roared across Market Street, they found themselves in the neon wonderland of Downtown Angel Grove. Organic light fixtures sensed their presence and brightened as they passed under them, giving the impression of being in a spot-light constantly, piquing the bikers' natural sense of showmanship. They reciprocated, elevating their mood to match the scene, bringing their act up a notch. By the time they reached 'Dojo', they were damn near a riot in and of themselves, whooping, hollering, whirling chains and screeching tires, guns firing away into the maw of the night, shots fired against everything here they couldn't have and never would. Even Rich got into the act and was a one-man laser light show, firing a Space Agency-surplus laser rifle into the air, filling the air above them with bright neon death. All eyes outside 'Dojo', were fixed on these outlanders, the eyes of a line of the kind-of importants who were waiting, hoping to get in on this night of nights, a line that stretched all around the block. The bouncers didn't notice them, the bouncers didn't have time, they had to deny access to the one show everyone really wanted to see to people who could buy and sell them over lunch. Most of the bikers screeched to a halt and began to push their way through the thick crowd of techies and yuppies crowding the shimmering pavement, and to their surprise, the crowd pushed back, these were not people to be denied. Much of Angel Grove's remaining populace was employed at the local GSA and NASADA bases. Soldiers versus Townies. The pushing turned to shoving, the shoving to punching, the punching led to all number of things. War had been declared. Skull just looked on in morbid amusement, leaning up against Eddie's abandoned bike!

He didn't see Eddie or Emily and couldn't care less, hadn't seen a good brawl in awhile, he grinned like his namesake and took the cheap cigarette from behind his ear and placed it between his lips. Lazily, he reached into his jacket pocket and without thinking struck a match against the side decals of the motorcycle and brought it up to his waiting cig. Its dull orange glow lent a demonic glow to his wasted, grinning face. For a moment, there was a cruel glee at the chaos, and he savored the novelty of feeling something. Anything.

"C'mon slick, or do you wanna miss the start of the second set?" Rich melted out of the crowd and punched him on the arm. Slowly, reluctantly, almost sadly, Skull turned away from the brawl and followed as Rich led him out behind 'Dojo'. The alley behind 'Dojo' was a strange place, being Downtown, it was newly paved, and it was clean, too clean. Even though the freshly-painted dumpster was full to overflowing, it was still cleaner then most streets out in the 'Ghost-burbs' and was lit by a single blue light that hung over the mirrored door, marked "Employees Only".

Rich and Skull entered the alley and stood, silently, for a moment as Emily and Eddie, already there, had become lost in each other as only lovers briefly reunited can during the brief moment when Rich had left them, grappling desperately at each other, as if each was the only thing keeping the other from falling. For a moment they both just stood there, lost in the spectacle, too much like a film to interrupt, a single entity, totally self-referential, two faces, one person, turned inward. Skull took a lungful of the tarry gray smoke and let it go slowly drifting into the surreal blue light as he watched them, like a scientist or art critic, he watched with a curiosity born of his blossoming numbness, it had been so long for him, and never quite like that, so it was like watching something alien for the first time, like a new sort of starfish under glass at the museum. It was Rich who's head was in the future, who broke the spell.

"Yo, Romeo and Juliet! Save it for inside, huh?" Rich raised his single eyebrow and smirked indulgently as he tapped them both on the shoulders, breaking them into their individual selves, both looking disheveled and more then a little rattled. They hadn't planned that. They never did.

"Uh, yeah, right..." Eddie said, smoothing back his greasy, pliable hair, still in shock.

"Uhmmm.. Maybe you'd better knock. After, all, it is YOUR girlfriend who's getting us in." Emily said absentmindedly as she reassembled herself with the help of the chromed, reflective, back door of 'Dojo'. A hairpin stuck out of her mouth like a cigarette, surrounded by the smears of her cherry-red lipstick and her hands were behind her, reattaching her bra.

"HEY! She's just a good friend, OK?" Rich said with a self-satisfied smirk that belied his defensive words.

"Ri-i-ight.." Eddie and Emily said as one and then looked at each other and began laughing hilariously. Down the alley, Skull broke a small smile and knocked some of his ashes into the dumpster he was leaning up against. They all seemed so alive, so kinetic, he hoped it would last.

Pausing for a moment, partially to check his reflection in the door, partially to gather his courage, Rich put on his bravest face and gave a subtle pattern of raps at the door. The door swung open and in the shadows was silhouetted the outline of a woman, tall, lithe and graceful. She seemed to glide noiselessly through the open door into the bright, blue night, like a phantom in a dream. As she came into the light, Skull's jaw went slack and the cigarette nearly dropped from his flaccid lips. She had a face like the end of a dream, slanted eyes that spoke of her family's origins in the far east and jet black hair that reached coyingly to her sleek shoulders. She also had a face and a name he remembered. Trini Kwan.

"Hi Richie." She said, a smile in her voice, "glad you could make it. You brought friends. Good." She smiled slightly to match her voice and glanced around at his companions even as she began to caress his ear unconsciously with the tips of her thin, graceful fingers. "Hi Emily," She said nodding cheerfully to the blond girl. Emily nodded back and pinned her hair back into its former state, "and, of course Eddie," she said without quite the same enthusiasm. Then her almond eyes came to rest on Skull and she stopped dead.

"Skull." She raised a single eyebrow raised in surprise, her smile changing to one of contempt and amusement. "Long time, hasn't it?" Rich looked at Skull, then to Trini, then back at Skull. Skull just shrugged and took another pull from his cig. "I'd heard you were a policeman. Of course I'd also heard you were dead." she smiled with a subtle irony he didn't remember from their school days.

"Yeah, I'm dead," He sneered and maneuvered the cigarette to one corner of his mouth. "Now can we do this while the place is still open?" He pulled his head up, nodded towards the door and gave a wild, high-pitched cackle. Trini sighed demurely. To her eyes he hadn't changed much in all these years, although she could swear that there was less humor in his laugh and more bloodlust in his eyes. She shrugged. Like she cared.

"Sure. Rich? If you'd have someone close the door behind us..." She turned and sunk again into the sea of shifting shadows within. Rich followed with an easy shrug.

"Sure Trini, no prob. Skull, you want to do the honors?" He nodded back to Skull, who hadn't moved from his post by the dumpster. Skull shrugged indifferently, practically having to hold himself at gunpoint to restrain himself long enough to let Emily and Eddie through. They would've been happy anywhere, Skull on the other hand needed to be in there. He slipped in last and let the door swing shut behind him.

The door clicked shut. Darkness. Skull followed the soft click of feet and the dim orange ember on the end of his cigarette. At the end of the hall, and just on the edge of perception, he could hear Trini talking softly to someone.

"Its OK, Sean, they're with me." He could start to make out a couple of figures at the end of the hall, one obviously Trini, the other large and dangerous looking. The other three were holding back a bit, he joined in, just behind them. Behind the big man he could almost make out hints of flashing lights in the thin rectangular outline of a door, and hear the steady, driving beat of a familiar sound. Unconsciously, he began to move in time with the music in small, discrete ways. They all did. It was that kind of music. Trini turned gracefully towards them and nodded once for them to follow. Silently they followed her as she opened the door just wide enough and slipped through. They followed suit, and stepped out of the darkness and into Wonderland.

Alien Dojo was a strobing kaleidoscope of lights and sounds, bodies in motion, shimmering in their reflective, finned costumes, almost floating in the well timed strobes. The faces were a strange mix of alien, human and ones that couldn't be classified as either at first look. They weren't the faces of the most important people in Angel Grove, but they were of the most interesting. The management was very careful about who it let in, artists, both those home grown and those attracted by the elbow room of an abandoned city or tales of alien wars, the leaders of Angel Grove's growing alien community, the technicians that had been growing rich and powerful off of retro-engineered alien technologies left over from the wars of the nineties and the kind of characters naturally attracted by the so-called "Saucer Decade": crackpot scientists, self-proclaimed psychics, UFO cultists, alien mystics, refugees from the Onyx war zone, failed colonists, gypsy merchants buying, selling and stealing. It was a kind of cultural build-up, what some wags in the media had dubbed the "Other Crust". They were all here in profusion, and there was more, much more then Skull could take in at a single glance, the dual leveled bar, the strangely organic neon coating the walls that changed color with the subtle changes in the heavy pheromone mix in the air, the dim, center-lit tables harboring meetings of the bon vivant and the deathly serious alike. Not a hard place to get lost in, if you wanted to, and Skull wanted very much to. And in the center of it all, the stage and on the stage, the band.

Cassie and the Creeps had started out here in Angel Grove and even though they hadn't lived here in years, it still thought of itself as their home. They were the leaders in the new "Alien Rock" style, some commentators went so far as to claim that they WERE the new Alien Rock style. The band had originally been formed in the late nineties, when Cassandra Chan, the lead guitarist, had still been in high school, they'd had one brief hit, locally, a forgettable little number called "Confusion" then broke up. It wasn't until about four years ago, after the break-up of the Power Rangers that Chan, the Pink Power Ranger, now a planetary hero, had reunited with the surviving four Creeps, now revealed to be unregistered ET war criminals. Their first album was called "Reunion Tour" as an inside joke, a joke Skull had gotten. The move was instant news. Cassie and the Creeps had entered the public eye and never left it. They were the reason Skull was here, they were the reason everyone was here. They were that good.

The lead singer, a terran named Vicki who made up one half of the songwriting team, was a thin red-head with a plain face and unimpressive figure hidden beneath a plain denim jacket, but she had a voice that could melt ice and freeze blood. The lady sang and when the lady sang the crowd stopped breathing and walls began to, muscles moved, jerking and swaying of their own volition, in accordance with some ancient, unread plan, smoothly, time seemed to sway along, flowing with the beat of the music, the air filled with the electricity of her voice, her singular voice. She sang to mind, to body, to soul. The singer is an empty shell, everything she has is in the mike, making music long and low, filling the air. She takes another drink from the amber glass beside her and sings on. She has to, there is no choice, the song has life of its own, and singer is as much in its spell as the listeners who dance to it out on the floor.

In contrast to Vicki was the band's namesake, former Ranger Cassandra Chan. Chan was in a word, gorgeous, an Asian beauty who's ancestors had been Chinese, but who always listed her nationality as "Californian". A wild and untamed vision who's wild and untamed antics on stage won the hearts of crowds world-wide and formed the perfect counterpoint to her friend's impassioned singing. She played a spontaneous, emotional accompaniment style to Vicki's soulful voice that her critics called "advanced Air Guitar". In many ways, Vicki provided the emotion and Cassie provided the catharsis. Vicki provided the sound, Cassie the image.

Backing them up were the Creeps, a quartet of skilled alien musicians who's cords, eerie but oddly familiar provided the context for their music, a framework with in which the great work could be built. Alone, they were good, together, the six of them made magic. Skull shuddered and sighed as he felt the electricity surge through him. Had this been worth it? Oh yeah.

"Skull?" The question came from behind him. He stopped for a moment. He knew the voice, he didn't know from where. He jammed his hands deep into his jacket pockets and gripped the duct-tape zip gun he kept there. Even in the heart of Dojo, he didn't like it when people knew him. To know Skull was not to love him, not by a long shot. He waited, maybe it would go away, swept along by the river of people that flowed and eddied here.

"Skull? That is your cognomen, is that not correct?" There it was again, this one was not going away. Skull didn't remember it as the voice of one of his recent enemies. Of course, Skull worked hard not to remember things. Warily, he slowly turned around to face his petitioner and was shocked as a pair of strong, confident hands gripped his shoulders and he looked straight into the clear blue eyes of William Henry Cranston, Earth's premier ambassador to its ally Aquitar. It was a face that daily graced the news, and even in a room with Cassie and the Creeps, his was the most widely recognized face there.

"Billy? Uh... hi...?" Skull felt nothing but fear. He had known 'Billy' in school. They had not been friends. In fact, Skull and his best friend, Bulk, had spent most of their public education making Billy's life a living hell. They hadn't seen each other in almost a decade. Revenge, however, was a dish they said was best served cold.

"So, my surmise was correct. Yours is not a profile easily misplaced in one's memory Mr. Skullovitch. I am surprised to see you here on Earth..." Billy laughed lightly and hit him almost companionably on the shoulder. Skull had been a royal pain in the ass, essentially harmless and easily dismissed, but he reminded Billy of another, simpler time and for that, could be forgiven for a night, especially on a night like this. He was here to have a good time and would let no one, not even Skull, disrupt that. To that end, he was making this living symbol of his adolescent torments a part of that good time. Defuse the bomb.

"Er... yeah, likewise..." Skull tried a smile but every strobe of the lights shined off of the gold braid of the dark-red robes of his Aquitarin ambassador's uniform, reminding Skull of who and what he was now. Especially compared to who and what Skull was now.

"Indeed! I suppose you would be!" He honestly laughed at the jest and could feel himself almost unwind for a moment, "I heard that the Creeps were performing in Angel Grove once more and had to make use of the first available conveyance and transport myself and my wife here. But what of your presence terrestrially? Last I heard you and Mr. Bulkmier had been accepted aboard the Terra Venture colony. Was I incorrect?"

"Bulk got aboard...." Skull averted his eyes uncomfortably, it was something that ate at him every time he turned around and saw another reminder of the Terra Projects. Which was often in Angel Grove, the projects' inception-ground. "I didn't, those bastards left.." he snarled and then swallowed it, Cranston didn't need to hear his life's story. "..its a long story..." he finally ended, weakly, distantly. Billy nodded and let it drop. He wanted to disarm his old foe, not delve into his sordid past.

"I suppose it would be. We can save that for later. Have you met Cestria?" He asked, forcing joviality back into the conversation at gunpoint, Skull was surprised by his easy manner and social graces as he moved the two of them through the dense, shimmering crowd, but it was clear that his seven years as Ambassador had changed him.

"Er no..." Skull found himself following the ambassador through the crowd, dragged along like a sliver of iron after a magnet, as much because it seemed that Billy expected to be followed then anything else. In the hollow back of his mind, a primeval fight-or-flight voice screamed for him to run, but another pull on the silver flask seemed to calm the voice a bit.

"Good, I am absolutely certain that you will find her as.." Billy trailed off as they approached the bar, Cestria was there alright, but so were Tanya, Adam and Zack and as much as he loved each of them, together, they were trouble.

"Find her as what? Fishy?" Skull threw out another weak joke only to catch a look of almost murder from the ambassador. He'd crossed a line with the racial slur. His mouth snapped shut.

"Bil-ly! Where're you been at, my man?" A debonair-looking black man, a smile like a streetlight and eyes that glittered with good humor, dressed in a tailored tux that fit his muscular, well-toned body like a glove turned towards them, nodding a greeting in Billy's direction. His nod was a work of art, his stride was a veritable declaration of independence, it was obvious that he was having a hard time not being out on the floor, the man was built to move. Skull closed his eyes in pain as his head began to throb once more. Zachary Taylor. Another old face he'd rather forget. There was a reason he'd been planning on missing his ten-year reunion.

"Hey, whatcha got there? God! Is that Skull?" The smile died. Zack curved his mouth up into the position again but the smile was gone. It came out more like a bearing of teeth. Zack had no more reason to like Skull then Billy did, and was far, far, less tolerant. Skull took in a breath and considered making a break for it again. Reluctantly he answered Zack's question with a simple nod to affirmative and took a seat on the far side of Billy's alien wife who raised an eyebrow at Zack and Billy then looked askance at Skull. Billy took the seat on the other side of her. Skull ordered a scotch, looked over at Zack and made it a double.

"Skull, how'd you get in here?" Zack's question was harsh and to the point under the tailored silk suit of politeness it was dressed in. He was manager and MC here. He knew the entrance requirements. He'd written most of them and Skull fit none of them.

"I got friends who got friends..." He smirked and shrugged, bracing himself to get tossed out by one of the ubiquitous, monolithic bouncers. It was going to hurt. Much to his surprise, Zack ignored him and turned back to Billy and started saying something Skull couldn't hear over the music, something low and serious, with glances down the bar to where an asian man and a black woman sat arguing. Was that Adam and Tanya? Skull instinctively strained to make out what they were saying then stopped himself. He didn't know, he didn't care, he didn't want to. Ignorance was bliss. He trained in on the music, it was what he was here for.

"What is your personal designation? I was under the, apparently erroneous, conclusion that I had met all of Billy's terran friends." The voice was clear and curious, without the sarcasm Skull was used to in a question, but breaking into the middle of particularly good song. With no little impatience, he turned to find Cestria eyeing him curiously, not entirely unlike one would a curious bug or odd fungus. Skull let out a breath and pulled another cigarette from the crumpled pack in his jacket.

"Ahhh... me and Billy, we ain't seen each other in a bit, what with him being Ambassador and all..." He lit the cigarette and watched jealously as the barkeep served other patrons their drinks. A lame answer, but one that Skull hoped would shut this alien chick up. Fortunately Skull was used to disappointment.

"Of course. I do apologize though, for having missed your cognomen..." She pressed gently, a smile of wry amusement on her lips. Nobody denied Cestria of Aquitar, High Priestess of the Eternal Falls. She raised a single eyebrow expectantly under the elegant gilded mask Aquitarans wore. There was no escape, and Skull was too tired to run. Mercifully, his scotch chose this moment to arrive and he took in a welcoming mouthful of the amber paradise to steel himself.

"Skullovitch. Eugene Skullovitch. Call me Skull." It was a dumb thing to do, give her his real name, but he figured as long as he was trapped in this conversation, he might as well play with it. Besides, it was nice to talk to someone who wasn't hustling him. Everybody down in the Outer City hustled, Skull included.

"Ahhhhh..." she looked back at Billy in sudden understanding. He may have grown to be a subtle diplomat in his tenure as Ambassador, but he was as transparent to his wife as a shallow sea. This man, this "Skull", had been brought here as both for sentimental reasons, something he was given to on these trips to Earth, and as a distraction for her, to occupy her while he talked "Ranger Business" with Zackery. She smiled sweetly and shook her head gently at her husband, she would humor him, since these links to his past were so important to him. Besides, she might learn something. Like her husband, she had a keen scientific mind that passed up no opportunity to acquire knowledge. She looked back to find Skull sipping his drink and bopping his head in time with the music once more, eyes fixed on the stage.

"If I am not mistaken," she interrupted firmly, "you were in my husband's class during your education?"

"Uhm...yeah, I mean.." Skull snapped reluctantly back to the land of the living, "...well, not really, I mean, hell, nobody was in Billy's class, if you catch my meaning.."

"I certainly do."

"Uh-huh. But, yeah, we were the same year in school, 'cause I remember him graduating early..." Skull began to drift again, trying to get back into the music, but the fishy-woman just wouldn't leave well enough alone.

"Quite. My William always has been most intellectually advanced. If I remember his stories well enough, weren't you partnered with a man named 'Bulk' at that time?" She pressed. Skull rolled his eyes heavenward, took another mouthful of scotch and turned to face Billy's wife. Bulk again. There was no way around it, they were going to talk. He might as well try to lose his aunt Millie' fruitcake during the holidays.

"Yeah, I was. Bulk's gone now, Terra Venture." Skull said flatly, scowling, and threw the sky a less then loving finger. Cestria nodded to herself and stifled a laugh, just as personable and refined as Billy had described him.

"Really? You must be proud of him, as I had heard that the initial requirements for acceptance were rather stringent." She nodded politely, her mind only half there as she strained to hear what Zack and Billy were saying.

"Yeah. Proud." He glared low at her and lied. This was going downhill fast, so he took a sharp left turn. "So, you and Billy, how'd you meet?" He grinned falsely and tried his best to be charming, his head fuzzed with the scotch, which was quite, quite good. "Was it while he was still a Rang.." Her hand slapped over his mouth and her face went dark.

"You know of that? My husband does not tell many of his time as a Power Ranger. And you were not one of them. How do you know?" Her eyes were locked with his and she held him to the spot with her mild telepathy. It wasn't much but it was enough. Slowly, cautiously, once she was assured of her hold over him, she removed her hand and wiped it on one of the cocktail napkins.

"Its like this," Skull tried to think of a lie but something wouldn't click, his mind refused to produce any answer but the truth, he sighed and let it go, "me and Bulk, we did some footwork and, um, well, we came to some conclusions to who they might be, but couldn't prove a damn thing so we let it drop. Surprised the shit out of us when they revealed their identities at the end of the Last War and proved all our guesses wrong. I'd forgotten all about it 'till I saw a bunch of our original guesses hanging 'round here tonight... So, we was right? So how come Cassie and that bunch also turned out to be the real deal?" He squinted, his turn to ask questions.

Cestria mentally kicked herself and splashed herself with some more of the purified water in front of her as the stress of having given away her husband's secret dehydrated her a little. "Yes. I suppose since you already knew its alright. Cassie and the rest of the Astro Rangers were indeed 'the real deal' as you put it, but Billy was part of the original team. Your Power Rangers changed rosters as often as they went through Zords and costumes." She added with a gentle humor, the constant replacing of Zords was something that alien cultures like Aquitar, who had used the same Zords for centuries without losing any often ribbed former Earth Rangers about. "But to satisfy your original query, no, he was not a Ranger when we made initial personal contact, it was afterwards, when he was acting as scientific advisor to them."

"OK, sure, got it. Just after his Ranger days. You the reason he was on Aquitar in the first place? Put our boy Billy in orbit?" Skull guessed wickedly, a lewd grin putting an unpleasant spin to innocent words. Cestria shook her head slightly in disgust as the little man began to squander the benefit of the doubt she had given him.

"Something like that." Cestria replied flatly. William must have indeed been desperate for a diversion to pick this parasite off the dance floor. "William was... ill... and I was brought by our Power Rangers to treat him. We found each other then. He found himself in my care then I..." She smiled, lost in memory.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. The old story. Surprised Billy was able to hold on to you as long as he has, though... settling down I guess," Skull rolled his eyes and took another swallow as his eyes strayed back towards the stage where the Creeps were launching into their classic "Death from Above", a fight song that whipped the crowd into a frothing frenzy, pitting Vicki and the Ranger against the Creeps, a musical battle royale, Skull could already see fists begin hitting the air down in the crowd. If they were lucky, that would be all they hit, the Stone Valley concert had to be broken up by the riot police.

"Now what is meant by that? I had always heard that William was not overly romantic during his education." Cestria cocked her head to one side curiously. This might prove useful.

"Billy? You'd think so wouldn't ya? Geek like he was? Talked like a science book when he talked at all? You gotta figure a guy like that's gonna get nowhere with the chicks. Not so." Skull leaned conspiratorially in towards her, swaying slightly as the good scotch gently snuck up on him and tucked him in, "Ya see, ol' Billy had the touch, he was a god-damn chick magnet, I mean, they couldn't get enough of him. Hell, you oughtta know that better'n me. Thing is, he'd never make nothin' of it, just let it slide, I mean, we're talkin' some prime babes here! Like that Laura chick. Wow! What the hell was he thinkin'?"

"He was thinking nothing but the most honorable thoughts, I'm sure." There was no humor in that reply. Skull didn't care, the truth was a bitch, it had ruined Skull's life once and he had since lost his fear of it.

"Yeah, that was the problem, too honorable to do nothin' , never knew him to hold on to any of 'em for longer then a week or two. Guess you was diff'rent, huh?" Skull nodded bitterly at her, his eyes sinking lower and lower into chemically-induced animal degeneracy.

"Guess I was." Her response was guarded and as cold as the polar seas. Still, Aquitarins are not a people who let potential resources go to waste. She pressed on. "You and your compatriot, Bulk, must have been quite accomplished investigators to have uncovered my husband's secret and that of his team."

"Nah, let me tell ya a little secret, me and Bulk, we was right in the middle of it, always being chased by shome monster or kidnapped by shome villain, always being saved by the power rangers. I thihink that besides Zordon, nobody outsida the rangers saw more weird shit go down..." Skull was on a roll now, words slurred from the scotches he'd been drowning, eyes wide and wild. "Close as we was to the action, we'd have ta be blind, deaf and dumb not to see it, yah dig?"

"I suppose I do... Then you've had first-hand observances of their foes as well, I take it?" Cestria nodded seriously, this was what she'd been hoping to find.

"Oh yeah!" Skull downed the remnants of his third scotch and pounded on the bar for another, then swerved in her direction again, weaving visibly on his stool. "Hell, me and Bulk kept a couple of 'em round the house fer a while, had 'em doin' chores..." He shook his head and laughed just a little too loud. Cestria was quiet, listening. He and Bulk had dealt in captives? Perhaps slavery?

"Thanks a lot man, catch you later! Got some things to deal with." Zack's voice broke through the momentary lapse in their conversation as he clapped Billy on the shoulder and melted smoothly into the crowd, a panther in his native jungle. Billy nodded towards him and turned back to Cestria and Skull.

"Sorry about that, dearest, but I had..." Billy began apologetically, but Cestria shushed him with a simple shake of his head.

"I know, old business." She smiled slightly, indulgent, understanding. So much of Billy was still tied up in the Power Rangers and the years he spent with them. He smiled gratefully and his green eyes locked with her blue and for a moment there was nothing but each other. "I hope Skull was too much of a bother. Skull," He addressed Skull without tearing his eyes from his wife's, "you didn't say anything too embarrassing in front of my wife, did..." He glanced up only to see that he was addressing empty air, Skull was gone, "...you?"

"He did seem most anxious to return to the dance floor. But I found his conversation to be, although perhaps not eloquent, to be most enlightening." A mischievous sparkle gleamed in her eyes, "Now," she said, mockingly, "tell me about this 'Laura'..." Billy sighed and rolled his eyes, a smile dancing on his lips. Skull had performed admirably.

Skull, for his part, was out where he belonged, mixing it up to the beat of "Last Dance with Demons", a hard-edged dance song from their new album. The air was filled with fire and light and Skull's nostrils filled with the scents of perfume and sweat, his head spun and his body swayed, swept along by music and crowd and the internal motion of the alcohol. There was sound and there was motion and it seemed to him that for the briefest of moments that he was merely watching himself from somewhat outside, disinterested but amused, while his body gyrated across the floor and through the crowd, calmly observing as though his eyes were merely video monitors, somewhat blurry ones at that.

The entire scene seemed vaguely like something he had seen on television, indistinct but flashing with brilliant colors and stark contrasts. The crowd spun and blurred before him, a flickering work of abstract art, the clay of reality spinning wildly on some insane potter's wheel. Time stopped and the world spun faster and faster, there was eternity in that moment. The song wound down, a quiet chorus of lost and forgotten souls wailing softly into the empty, uncaring night, and he slipped, slowly and reluctantly back to his rightful place just behind his eyes. The world stopped spinning, his head did not, nauseous and disoriented, he blinked repeatedly and collapsed into a nearby chair, insensible to the protests of chair's previous owner. Sweat dripped down his face, his stomach churned with rebellion, his vision tilted and spun and a simple smile of joy flirted with his lips. The band wound down and Taylor was there, patting Cassie and Vicki on the back and grinning his neon grin into the enraptured and exhausted nightclub. The crowd was wild, hoots, cheers, clapping, which the band basked in, resting, letting the exhausted musicians wipe the sweat from their brows and soak the energy coming back from the club, recharge their depleted stores. Finally, with a single gesture, holding his hands before him like Moses parting the Red Sea, Zack brought the crowd to heel and brought the mike to his lips.

"Hey, now, how about that?" The crowd reprised their role, hooting and cheering in tired response, even Skull found himself standing again, slapping his numbed hands together like two slabs of meat hitting each other, grinning and shouting himself hoarse with praise.

"Alright then, on behalf of Alien Dojo and I feel safe to say, looking out at the crowd here, on behalf of all Angel Grove, I'd like to thank Cassie, Vicki and all the Creeps for gracing us with their.. What the Hell?" A snap second of darkness, a flash of harsh yellow light from the back of the club, an image of Zack, eyes open wide with fright, a new hole burnt in his skull, imprinted into the retina, a scream, then chaos. No one was sure what was going on but everybody wanted out. Skull lunged for a doorway, but his stomach revolted and he found himself doubled over on the floor, pouring his day's story onto the shimmering obsidian dance floor. New lights flickered to life, the harsh whites that lit every unflattering corner of the room, washing the color from the made-up cheeks of the masses pressing to get out, restrained by the hulking bouncers until the situation could be assessed. That was when someone, Skull couldn't see who, still didn't have the strength to lift his head from the steaming vista of his own vomit, finally got around to saying it, screaming it, ringing through the din, a single clear noise cutting through the confusion.

"Oh my God! He's been shot! He's dead! Zack's dead!" Skull sat still. He'd known that. He'd seen the shot. It had looked like a military laser, probably terrestrial in origin. He squinted hard and tried to think, focus on the details, forget the bigger picture, forget that a man had died here. His limbs trembled as they held him over his own vomit, weakened by the strain. Slowly, carefully, he coaxed unsteady limbs towards the vertical. And failed. He dropped again to all fours and came within inches of eating his own waste. He sat still for a moment, just barely able to hold himself above the floor. Eyes closed, he was left alone with the sounds. The sounds were mixed, the shuffling of a thousand impatient feet, the inevitable frightened whispers in a dozen languages, fearful but reverent, with the rumor mongering inevitable when death is present. Gathering his strength, he lifted himself up, so that his arms were straight and face was far from the cooling pool of undigested food and liquor. Then the sirens. Angel Grove Metropolitan Police department. Not exactly his fan club. Adrenaline replaced alcohol and Skull scrambled desperately to his feet. Fear covered his face, he was a scavenger and AGMP didn't need an excuse to take him down. The danger was real.

Staying low, he started sprinting towards the back door he'd come in through. His legs moved almost of their own volition, charging with animal instinct towards the only exit that held any chance of avoiding the dreaded representatives of law and order. He scurried across the floor like some sort of leathery vermin, scuttling between tables like an insect, his eye always alert for the tell-tale golden glint of a badge in Dojo's emergency lights. He was riding the razor's edge, nerves pulled as taunt as telephone wires, his eyes darting from one entrance to another like a scared rabbit, making sure he wasn't being followed. He was.

"Hello, Skull." The gloved hand gripped his shoulder from the front, the one direction he hadn't been looking. Skull jumped back a step, his zip-gun out, eyes leapt forward. It was the yuppie from the car they'd passed on the way here, gray suit, maroon tie, impeccably groomed, face as cold and as perfect as an ice sculpture, a sardonic glint in his eye.

"Hey, there..." He muttered under his breath. Did everybody here know him? Skull gritted his teeth and raised the gun to just between the yuppie's glittering eyes. The yuppie didn't look impressed.

"Put it down Skull." The yuppie sighed and grinned indulgently, as if scolding a mischievous child. He put his hand on the zip gun and gently lowered it to chest level.

"That's twice you called me by name. You've got me at a disadvantage." Skull glared into the yuppie's hard, empty orbs and muttered, almost under his voice.

"I have you at several. Not the least of which is that if we stand here discussing this much longer then you'll be discussing this with Angel Grove's finest. Which won't be pleasant, will it Mr. Skullovitch?" The yuppie had a laugh in his voice now. When he smiled, he seemed to drop at least a decade, maybe two, revealing a youth that his demeanor concealed. Skull lowered the gun and nodded towards the back door. Much as he hated it, the kid had a point.

"An excellent idea," The kid continued conversationally and gestured towards the rear. Skull hesitated a moment and headed towards the back quickly, the kid striding energetically at his feet. Sean seemed to be gone and the door was ajar, almost as if waiting for them, The kid carefully, silently closed the door behind them, cloaking them both in utter darkness.

"Alright, fess up, what's your scam? Spill your guts or I do it for you, pretty boy." Skull hissed, pressing the zip gun up against the kid's abdomen. He could feel the kid's muscles tighten as he spoke, tensing.

"Tut-tut, Eugene, you don't remember me, I'm hurt." The voice was tense, but mocking, and without the suit in his eyes, the voice sounded even younger, almost the voice of a teenager.

"You will be if you don't stop playing games with me." Skull snarled and shoved the snub barrel of the jury-rigged firearm a little harder into the flesh of his interrogator.

"You won't shoot me." The kid sounded less then confidant. Of course, he was the one with the gun in his belly.

"How so?" Skull tightened his grip on the gun, not convinced of this himself.

"For one thing, even muffled, the noise'll attract the police and we both know you don't want that. And, two things, I'm about to give you your life back." There was a smirk in the kid's voice, confidence returning.

"I've got a life. And even if I didn't..." Skull began defensively.

"Some life. Living in a borrowed house, slowly drinking yourself into a pauper's grave with a pair of Little League drug dealers, nothing you can legally call your own. Some life."

"I AM NOT A DR..." Skull snarled then got a grip on himself, and praying the cops didn't find him, continued in a harsh whisper. "..and anyway, how do you know so much about me? Who are you anyway?"

"Alright, first question last. No shame there, its Delmar Crandall. That's right, Mayor Crandall's son. You remember me now, don't you, Skull. Which should answer your first question. AGMP has quite a bit on you, Officer Skullovitch."

"I'm not 'Officer' anything. Haven't been for a long time." Skull stated coldly, his voice the cold granite of death, his finger caressing the zip-gun's trigger, thinking of it. Delmar Crandall, no wonder he sounded so young, the youngest of Mayor Crandall's two children couldn't be more then twenty if that, he just sounded older. Sometimes.

"Two years, four months to be precise. Isn't that right? Dishonorably discharged for conduct unbecoming an Officer or some such. Such a waste, you had such a bright future with Stone's Alien Crimes Unit, didn't you?" His voice had shifted to somewhere between mocking and sympathetic. A red film of rage fell across Skull's vision and he growled low and grabbed the kid by his tie, pulling him close so that he could speak into his ear, as he didn't think he could speak above the merest of animal whispers.

"Some future. After Bulk and the Prof left me on this mudball, all I had left was an opening at the Police Academy. I gave everything I had to that job, everything! And they took it all away, Stone, Hemming, with your old man standing over their shoulders, approving. And for what? Doing my job! Doing my fucking job! There's no way you could even understand what that badge meant to me. No way. Open your yap about it again and I'll shut it permanently, cops or no cops, Mayor's kid or no Mayor's kid." Skull shoved Crandall back against the door with a violence that should have brought the police, but didn't. Delmar didn't even sound fazed.

"Even if I was to offer you a chance to get your badge back?" He said simply, without the condescension that had run rampant through the rest of his words. Skull stopped for a moment, trying to comprehend what he had heard. His badge? The man had to be joking. Had to be. Skull was struck dumb and the darkened hallway was silent but for the sound of police boots stomping past outside, in Dojo and the sound of voices barking commands.

"How?" He finally croaked out, unbelieving. His eyes were wide in the darkness and Delmar could feel the hand that held the zip gun to his gut trembling. He'd hit paydirt.

"Just do as I say. Listen, Taylor's assassination was quite a surprise to you wasn't it?" He could feel Skull nod in the affirmative in the darkness, just as he could hear the confusion in Skull's silence. "Well, not everyone was surprised. Some of us knew something like this would happen, knew there was going to be trouble." He continued softly, his voice even and calm. Too even. Too calm.

"If you knew, they why didn't you..."

"Because we didn't know what form this trouble would take." Delmar continued, answering Skull's question before it was fully asked. "We were as ready as we could be. After all, don't you find it odd how quickly the police arrived, or in what numbers? Your biker buddies just gave us a convenient excuse to mass them nearby. If you'd been watching, you'd note that that's ACU-SWAT out there, not patrol cops and homicide detectives, although they'll be coming soon enough now that we know what happened here. But they won't find anything, not really, they'll jump on the first likely suspect, charge him and convict, a sacrifice to a public and a media that are going to want blood. The truth is likely to get lost in the shuffle." Delmar sighed and shrugged helplessly although he knew the gesture was wasted on Skull, who couldn't see him in the dark.

"Then you know who did it?" Skull asked suspiciously.

"No." Delmar let the answer stand for a moment, let it sink in. "We think we know what might have been behind it, but that's no concern of yours yet. You see, the police are caught in a bind, they have to appease city hall, which has to appease the public, or what's left of it. A crime this high-profile can almost never be dealt with truly objectively, you should know that."

"Yeah. All too well." It was a good night for bad memories.

"Exactly. I was sent here tonight to find out what was going on, maybe even to stop it." His voice trailed off slightly and suddenly he sounded very old, very tired. Skull almost felt sorry for the self-righteous SOB. Almost. "Obviously, I failed."

"Sent. By who?" Skull had coiled up slightly, like some sort of snake or mongoose, on alert.

"Really now, what makes you think I can tell you that?" Delmar laughed rather ironically, almost sadly. "What I can tell you is that we're going to need someone to find the real shooter, who will no doubt go out of their way not to be the most likely suspect. Someone unaffiliated with city hall. Someone private, unknown, who won't be driven by the need to please the media or swayed by public opinion." Skull loosened his grip slightly on the trigger. He saw where this was going.

"Someone like me." He finished Delmar's statement for him. "I give you the shooter you give me the badge, izzat it?"

"That's it exactly. You are quick, Skull." Skull could hear the smile in Delmar's voice. He was learning to hate that smile, even though he couldn't see it. "Here's the deal, you work for me, I'll pay you, well, not much, we do need to keep this quiet, but you find me the shooter, I'll get you back on the force."

"And how you figure you gonna get that done? Chief Hemming and me, we ain't exactly on each other's Christmas Card lists." Delmar was selling, but Skull wasn't buying.

"Call it a gift" he said sardonically, then his voice shifted, he was being serious for once, Delmar was through playing with Skull. "For god's sake, Skull, my father was chief of police for fifteen years before he was Mayor, I grew up with city politics. Oh, I think we can come to an...understanding with Bob Hemming." There were teeth in his voice now, bloody teeth. Young he may have been, but he'd still played the system longer then most guys walking the beat today. As much as he hated the man, there was a part of Skull that almost felt sorry for Chief Robert Hemming. The rest of him just relished the thought.

"We pay you a living wage, small unmarked bills, of course. " Delmar smirked, deliberately mocking the cloak and dagger games he was playing. "Naturally, you tell no one about this meeting."

"Naturally." Skull scowled in the darkness.

"So, what's the call, Skull? You in?" Skull stopped short for a moment and took a deep breath. His badge. The thought made his head spin like a circus ride. Everything was churning inside him, mentally and physically. He tried to calm himself and think. There was only one choice. There usually was.

"Yeah, kid, I'm in."