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Endgame Chapter III: A Step Closer
by Felix Velcro

"The sailors and the pilots, the soldiers and the law,
The pay-offs and the rip-offs and the things nobody saw
don't matter if its heroin, cocaine or hash,
you've got to carry weapons 'cause you always carry cash
There's lots of shady characters and lots of dirty deals
Every name's an alias, in case somebody squeals
It's the lure of easy money, its got a very strong appeal
Perhaps you'd understand it better, standing in my shoes
It's the ultimate enticement, it's the Smuggler's Blues"

They were waiting for him on the boardwalk just outside the entrance of the Seaside Motel 8, flanking a seemingly abandoned Ice Cream cart, holding uneaten, melting ice cream bars, chocolate on the right and butterscotch on the left. They were big men in new, tight suits, had standard-issue military haircuts like the guy back in the lobby and standard-issue military-intelligence sunglasses. They were moving as soon as Skull left the hotel, strolling dangerously casually towards him. Skull made them for bad guys as soon as they started moving. They spread to the sides, blocking any avenue of escape short of running into the sea. Skull hated the sea. Left with no other options other then waltz with the gorillas, Skull took the better part of valor and fled back to hotel.

The only problem with the plan was that the doorway was already occupied when Skull came to it. The blond monkey in the suit from the lobby, smirking and shaking his frighteningly blond head in the negative. A shadow fell and Skull spun around to stare directly into the tie tacks of the two gorillas. The ice cream bars went down and the brass knuckles came up. Moving with a speed that belied his size, Blondie moved quickly to pin Skull's arms behind him. A feeling was building in the pit of Skull's stomach, the almost infallible premonition of pain.

Silently, the brass-clad fist of one of the goons snaked out and landed with surgical perfection in Skull's liver. A second blow followed and a third, falling into a hard, regular rhythm, with the following spasm of pain rippling out from the point of contact. Slow and methodical, they picked their targets with exacting precision and struck at precisely the instant the pain began to ebb from the last blow, never hitting exact same spot twice, so each blow was distinct and individual in precisely the way the men delivering them weren't. Skull may have cried out, he wasn't certain, but he had lost at least that much control. All he knew is that a great deal of air had left him very, very quickly, air he sorely missed.

It was a professional, impersonal beating and Skull could almost appreciate its purely communicative properties. Almost. The fact remained however, that he was in severe pain and this, and this alone dominated the vast majority of his thoughts during the beating, as it was meant to. He was being guided slowly but methodically to the outer edge of pain, his vision blurred, his ears rang, his head spun on the threshold of unconsciousness, something warm and thick, something he hoped very much wasn't his own blood, was forced out his mouth with every blow, ribs snapped and organs protested, then, all of a sudden, it stopped. The hold on his arms was let go suddenly and bereft of support, he sank to his knees and clutched instinctively at his midsection with arms that buzzed and ached as blood-flow violently returned to them. The ringing grew to a screaming in his ears, high-pitched, like sirens, but a single sentence, almost whispered to him, managed to make it through.

"Don't make the same mistake twice, Skullovitch." And then, mercifully, he passed out, taking the message with him. The blanket of sleep was welcome, but not the dreams that came with it, vague, disturbing dreams, amorphous shapes looming out of a dark void, reaching for him with slithering limbs that bent unnaturally and writhed obscenely through his mind. He tried to recoil in horror but seemed to posses no body which to remove, so he could only observe with growing horror the shapes taking monstrous form in the mist. Then, slowly, and as if they never existed, the dreams began to fade, and blessed oblivion again took control.

Gray. All that Skull saw when he began to come to was gray, slowly, as the sleep dripped from his eyes; lines began to form in the gray. The lines didn't help much. They formed the grim outline of a holding cell. Skull closed his eyes again. He was in pain. No mystery there. He whimpered slightly and closed the fetal position he was in tighter around himself. Dull voices could be heard in the distance, slightly tinny, probably from the other side of the steel door. Maybe if he waited, they'd just move on, just a couple of on-duties jawing. Maybe, but he doubted it, the thing about having an "S" at the beginning of your name, it makes it easy to pick out in conversation. Skull heard his name and cringed. His eyes squeezed shut as he caught the soft click of the door unlocking. He wanted to be unconscious again, in the worst possible way.

Heavy boots slammed hard against the cement floor, ringing in his ears. Combat boots, shit kickers, prisoner stompers. The three hit investigation: cop hits prisoner, prisoner hits floor, accident report hits Internal Affairs. Skull was already one strike behind; he was already on the floor. The boots stopped right next to him. And stayed. Skull braced himself for the kick that never came. A heavy, gloved hand grabbed him instead; some of those SWAT assholes liked their meat to be standing before they hit it. Skull hoped this wasn't one of those guys.

The hand shook him, roughly, but not so as to dislodge anything. A voice barked. "Wake up. Come on, wake up, man. Jesus, Gene, I saw you move when I came in, I know you can hear me, now wake the fuck up you little prick!" Harder shake this time, a lot harder.

"Wasn't too little for your momma, DeSantos," Skull pried one eye open dramatically and grinned weakly up into the face of Officer Rocky DeSantos, part of Captain Stone's pet unit, the ACU-SWAT. Now promoted to Sergeant DeSantos if the glittering bars on his collar were any indication.

"Hey, hey, Skullovitch, that any way to talk to the guy who just put up your bail money?" Rocky shook his head and smiled indulgently. "And it wasn't cheap, neither. Impersonating an officer, telephone fraud, invasion of privacy, trespassing, withholding evidence, you've been busy today, haven't you? You're just lucky that Cassie declined to press charges, or your ass would really be frying in the pan right now."

"Shit, how long I been out?" Skull grimaced, rubbed his sore spots and pulled himself up into a sitting position. "Who reported all this?"

"Anonymous source." Rocky managed to keep an almost straight face saying it, the result of years of police work. "Seriously, I don't know, wouldn't take much, though. Hemmings already has your name on his desk and you know how much he loves you. Most of this is coming down from his office you know." Rocky nodded gravely as he stood up to his full height and reached down a hand for Skull to grab.

"Really? Nice to know he remembers me, and after I forgot to send him a card last Christmas, too. He the one that set up that little surprise party for me?" Skull took the hand and let himself be yanked roughly to his feet. Another spasm of pain shot through his torso, he winced but ignored it. Removing his hand, he began to brush himself off and do a cursory examination for obvious damages.

"I wouldn't know." Again, an untrained observer could almost be fooled into believing that Rocky meant it. "Listen, we'll just pick up your stuff and maybe catch a bite, I don't have to be on duty until the next riot, so I've probably got 'till breakfast." He grinned lopsidedly and Skull smirked in spite of himself. Old joke. Old cop joke.

"Sure, what the hell time is it anyhow?" Skull's insides rumbled delicately at the thought of food. Both sick and hungry.

"'Round Midnight. Word travels fast in the department. Had a late night public disturbance down in Alientown. Boys in the lab think it was sorcery again. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Well, maybe the second or third damnedest." He stopped and looked around. "Listen, let's get you out of here, huh? Then we can talk shop again, alright." Pleading with his eyes, desperate to be out of the building. Skull nodded and they went.

It was midnight, so there was no line at the claims desk, but there was only one clerk working the whole city this time of night, so it was a couple of minutes until they could get him off the phone. Skull's shades were broken, his watch had gone "missing", there was an impound notice for his zip gun and the few items that inhabited his wallet were in the wrong order. Skull said nothing, heading quickly for the door, feeling lucky to be out at all, even if the chances were pretty good he'd back in as soon as tomorrow's patrols caught up with him. Rocky, still in SWAT armor, was waiting for him out at his new car, grim and impatient just behind his perpetual lopsided smile.

"Feel up to some coffee? That little place down on 24th and Ventura still puts cops' bills on the department tab." Rocky slipped into the sports car's driver's side and waited quietly as Skull made his way down the long, cracked marble steps of the police station. Skull followed quietly into the shiny, far too expensive vehicle.

It was a short drive, everything was close together Downtown, tightly packed and intense. Things were quieter now, the bright lights of the city were dimmed for the night, and even most of the big buildings were showing test patterns. The quiet electric motor purred like a kitten, the radio, turned low, played salsa tunes. The streets were almost empty but for the occasional hooker or drunk, serious people, people with reasons to be here.

"Nice car." Skull ran a hand lazily across the new, white leather seat, gazing sullenly out the window. "Sergeant's pay gone up since I was on the force?" The question became accusation.

"Gift." Rocky snapped back, "Hey, Gene, even you know how it is. Applied Technologies made sure it found its way my direction when I made Sergeant. You know the drill, they say its 'as a good corporate citizen with an interest in community safety'..."

"And you do strong-arm work for them on your off-days, right? Yeah, I know." Skull shrugged and finished for him.

"Bodyguard work, not strong-arm, AppTech's clean, man. I'm doing a public service, serve and protect, pal, serve and protect." Rocky snapped a little too fast and took the corner sharper then he had to, almost launching Skull into the car door, beaten and loosened ribs and bruised and battered flesh protested in one voice. But then, so did Skull.

"Hey! Watch it, huh?" He whined, rushed to fasten the seat belt and scooted back into a sitting position. "Clean, huh? Right. Clean like my..."

"Alright, here we are." Rocky interrupted and turned into the parking lot next to a converted fuel tank from the Shuttle. "The AG Diner. Did some of your best work here." Rocky got out of the car and Skull slowly, carefully followed suit.

It was a small place, all things considered, and smelled of the harsh cleaners used to cover up the rocket fuel smell that still haunted the place from its first life. The menu was framed with a flickering neon border that somehow always managed to keep the price of hash browns a complete mystery, shrouded in shadow, the kind of place where the lights were weak and the coffee was strong. A good place for off-duty cops, although the only other patrons when they walked in were a trio of downtown tower trash, out cruising in daddy's car with mommy's credit cards.

Rocky led them to a booth in the back where he could see the door and all that Skull could see was him. It was the kind of booth used for business. The alien waitress was kind of cute, in a hard, sterile way, and almost human looking, the only kind that could find work in these Downtown joints. She took their order, poured their coffee and was gone.

"Alright, Gene, here's how it is," Rocky started even before his hash browns, biscuits and gravy and side of bacon had arrived, a sign that not all was kosher in the state of the Deutschemark, as Skull's grandmother would say. "I don't know what you're doing, and frankly I don't care. But you need to be cutting it out, you understand?" Rocky gestured emphatically with his coffee and knit his brows sternly.

"Got it," Skull rolled his eyes like a petulant child and shook his head, "No more felonies on police time. I'll make sure my series of daring bank robberies next week all take place during your fucking donut breaks to keep from disturbing you." Skull started to rise with a pained slowness from his seat. Rocky's hand sprung out and gripped his arm, stopping him in his track.

"Jesus Christ, Skull, do you need me to sing a couple of verses for you?" Rocky slammed his coffee back down on the table and eased Skull back into his seat. "NASADA's made it clear they want you in the can and Hemming is more then happy to oblige, not to mention stunts like today's, making it so damn easy for them. So for God's sake, keep your damn head down, would you? Even pulling Sergeant's pay, I can't keep bailing you out like this." Even being serious, there was always a joke.

"No one asked you to." Skull sneered and spat out flatly as he gently tore his arm from Rocky's grip. "If the Big N's trying to put me in the can, there has to be a reason, I mean, after all these years, right? And I think you know what it is." So did Skull and he played the wounded innocent very, very poorly but it wasn't a good time to be giving Rocky any funny ideas. Rocky might not have been the shiniest penny in the jar but he didn't make ACU-SWAT Sergeant on good looks and charm alone. "What's going on here, buddy?"

"Hey, like I said, I don't know and I don't want to." Rocky threw up his hands in submission. "If I learned anything from you, pal, it's to mind my own business. It's a damn shame you were never able to teach yourself that. While we're on that subject, I think that was my question you stole there. 'What's going on here?' Why would the boys over at NASADA want your ass on a platter after all this time?" Skull sighed and gritted his teeth while he thought of a convenient untruth to tell him. No use to it at all. Once "Bulldog" DeSantos got his teeth around something, they generally stayed there. "Spill, Gene, you know you want to. C'mon man, this is Rocky! We damn near founded the damn ACU with Stone. Give me the scoop."

"I don't owe you shit, DeSantos! Besides, I thought you said you didn't want to know." Skull gritted his teeth and slumped down into his seat. The light flickered, filling the silence between them with a faint buzzing.

"Changed my mind." Rocky grinned apologetically and shrugged. "Now give."

"You want the truth?" Skull scowled and nodded. "Sure, I'll give you the truth. First off, do you remember why I parted ways with the force?" He spat out into Rocky's face. Rocky gritted his teeth and played along.

"Yeah, I remember, alright. I remember that you fucked up, Gene, disobeyed orders. You were told to let that thing go, let the case drop, but you got obsessed, you crossed the line, Skullovitch, you're not the law, you just work for it." Rocky pressed his attack, hard and fast, he was the kind of officer that learned his debating style on the battlefield.

"I was working for the fucking law! They were the one's that were shitting on it!" Skull screamed and slapped the table with bruising force as he leapt to his feet. His head was aching and his face was red, he'd had about as much of muscle heads as he was going to take today.

"I had McKnight and his cronies up at NASADA and the GSA as good as caught! Selling alien tech for the cold hard cash for your fucking car among other things! I damn near had the whole lot of them!" He was in Rocky's face, spraying it with spit and the truth and Rocky was starting to look around and grimace nervously, praying to god that nobody who would matter was listening. At very least the waitress would have to be paid off.

"Jesus H. Christ on a Corndog! Skullovitch, sit down right now, goddamn it! The GSA and NASADA are this town and you do not go around saying shit like that, not in public, you drunken little shit! Not here especially. Man, other cops hang out here!" Rocky hissed through his teeth and clamped his iron grip around Skull's bony arm and violently yanked him down into his seat.

"Hey, Waitress! Where's our food, huh?" He shouted suddenly. Skull hung-over and belligerent was bad enough to deal with normally. On an empty stomach it was damn near impossible and Rocky DeSantos did nothing on an empty stomach.

"Yeah." Skull growled, leaning across the table to lock eyes with the brawny SWAT man. "I know. I found out the hard way that there's no law in this town past what you can grab with your own two hands. Now, if you'd like to stop cutting off circulation to my arm, I'd like to go grab some."

"Not until I've got my answers you don't." Rocky's voice was as hard as his grip. "What do you mean by that? What's this got to do with your little party today? And your little joyride last night?" He added with real venom, something about last night was obviously eating at the big man.

"It means..." Skull hissed, his voice barely audible above the buzz of the fluorescents, "That I talked to Cassie and the Creeps. It means that they described a top-of-the-line military sniper rifle at Dojo last night, not that shitbag field bulldog that Castillo carries. It means no one else asked about a murder weapon and I got beat up and locked up as soon as I did." He paused and let the words sink in. Rocky slowly let go of his arm and stared at Skull blankly, so intent that he almost didn't notice when the waitress started setting his order on the table in front of him. Almost.

"Hey, thank you sweetheart. Here." He smiled up warmly and handed her a five-spot. "Sorry about yelling at you back there." She suppressed a smile and tucked the bill away suggestively. Rocky may not have gotten where he was on charm and good looks alone, but they didn't hurt him any either. He dug in as soon as she left, his eyes still following her backside back to the kitchen doors.

"You do realize that 'her' species is hermaphroditic, right?" Skull smirked and muttered spitefully, and Rocky snorted in laughter, damn near snorting hash browns out his nose.

"Shit, Skull, you couldn't just let me have that one, could you?" He snickered and saluted Skull with a forkful of biscuit.

"'Truth is Truth unto the end of reckoning' Shakespeare, Richard Two." Skull shrugged philosophically and then turned an evil smile on him. "Besides, you always did have a way with the herms, Rocky." Skull snickered his own nasal, high-pitched laugh. "Remember that time over in Stone Canyon?" Rocky winced in pain and clutched his chest in mock agony.

"Oh, oh, low blow, man, low blow, it was a shapeshifter, that doesn't count! But then," His voice turned serious and his gaze leveled with Skull's, "you seem to be specializing in low blows these days, aren't you? Listen," He grabbed Skull's collar and damn near dragged him across the table. "One, I don't buy your crackpot theory for a damn minute, we have the scumbag that shot Zack and us ex-Rangers'll see to it the bastard fries and two, I don't care what weird little delusions you're pulling out of the bottom of that bottle your living in these days, or what your real feud with NASADA is, but you keep it to yourself and you keep Adam out of it, OK?" It was a hard voice, a cold voice, plated in titanium steel, the kind of voice Rocky only used on strangers.

"He's got enough problems these days, what with him and Tanya and all that. He confided in you, he stuck up for you when everybody on the force had given up on you. He was the last real friend you had and you fucked that up, man, you really shook him," Rocky's voice may have wavered a little with emotion, but his eyes never did. "Adam's my best buddy, and he's going through a bad time right now. So you fuck with him again," He paused for a moment. "I'll kill you." He tossed Skull roughly onto the seat, just hard enough that Skull felt through his entire body. "Now get the hell out of here."

"Right." Skull said softly and carefully, slowly rose from the seat and headed back out towards the door. "Glad to." He shoved his hands into his pockets and hurried a little faster towards the comforting darkness outside. He hadn't the guts to tell Rocky that Adam was no longer suspect, that would invalidate what he'd pulled and only enrage the man even more.

"And hey, Gene," The name was starting to sound like a eulogy, "don't do anything else that'd force me to fuck you up, either." He shouted as Skull opened the door marked "exit", totally serious. Skull shuddered and let the door close itself behind him. He needed to get back home. He also needed a drink.

The walk was long and chilled, home sat at the end of a tunnel of flashing streetlights and claustrophobic alleyways. Bums scurried between sealed garbage containers, hookers walked the streets looking for johns and cops drove the streets, looking for hookers, arresting gangers, aliens, or the occasional whiskey priest, while doing their best to overlook the tower trash out partying and the pushers that supplied them. The Downtown at its finest, alive with the sweaty desperation born of loneliness and nursed on the slow decay that came with abandonment. Downtown was acutely aware that it had gone from being the jewel in the crown of the city to being the whole of the city and everything it did reflected that, from the way its gangs tried to emulate the greasers of the past to the blatant aping of alien ways in zones where all but the highest-clearance aliens were forbidden, from the concrete statues of the final Power Rangers in last of the well-kept deliberate park, in the middle of a city surrounded by areas slowly reverting to real wilderness to the LA-style oxygen bars in the midst of a city who's air had been rated the second or third cleanest in the world, and certainly the cleanest on the West Coast. Mainly, though it was in the eyes of the folk that lived here, that bloodshot, hollow look that the eyes took on, the kind of look that said that they took too many sleeping pills because their anti-depressants gave them insomnia, hollow and harried, mixed with the apathy born of overtaxed nerves and the kind of frenzied activity of those that try to escape into the moment, anything to escape the reality of the void that closed in around Angel Grove, the constant threat that came from the lack of a constant threat, the threat being of fading into the night of non-existence.

The Terra Colonies had, in a way, killed Angel Grove, the Angel Grove that had existed before the war-torn decade of the Nineties, but if they hadn't, something would have. The Angel Grove that had existed before could never really be again, not after what had happened. Mankind made first contact here, and first contact had been hostile. The experience changed the species and the species, in return, changed the place. It was ruled a suicide, a town that had volunteered to be gutted. It was, in retrospect, the only humane thing to do.

Head throbbing and hands shaking familiarly, Skull forced himself down the tarnished, garish side streets. Images flashed past his eyes, a slide-show from a nightmare. A group of stoned tower trash toke up and laugh as cops haul away a wagon full of TV Cultists for breaking city public assembly laws gathering outside one of the only all-night functioning building-sized video screens. A wan, sick-looking "gray" alien whoring out his probing skills to jaded hedonists in a secluded back-alley, trading its scientific skills for the hormones his race was addicted to. Punks with electronics glued to their flesh in mockery of cybertechnology hassle a hard-drinking posse of astronauts out slumming from their orbital construction projects. A madman babbling passages from the Book of Revelations and Better Homes and Gardens on a street corner. Busy, last-minute shoppers coming out of a mall casually step over the bodies of a dozen kids gunned down in a gang battle not fifteen minutes before. If there was anything all those years of constant alien attacks had taught Angel Grove, it was how to take death casually. After all, almost everyone knew someone who'd been crushed in some battle or another back in the old days. You paid your dues, you took your chances. Still did, dues had just gone up.

The quiet darkness of the abandoned districts came as a relief to overworked eyes and ears, giving him time to think. Duty came unbidden to his mind, his duty to his friends, to himself, and to a dead man that never really liked him much. It was pure coincidence that the road home was memory lane. Memories and squatters were the only real inhabitants of the mansion district, everyone else had taken the last spaceship out. Skull had it both ways, he was a squatter, but all his friends were memories. He was queasy with hunger and shaky with thirst, but it was the thoughts inside it that made his head spin. Was he just paranoid? Maybe it was just a lone nut job that happened on some top-quality hardware, did everything have to be about NASADA? No. But then why had the mayor's son taken such an active interest in the case? And why a nightclub owner? More importantly, why a former Power Ranger? Was that the key? If so, Skull smirked to himself, then maybe he was the best man for the job, after all.. He was one of the few men on-planet to pierce the shroud of secrecy that had surrounded the Power Rangers before the Space Rangers' Revelation. Him and Bulk. He felt like half a man, always had, without Bulk, the two had been friends since before either could remember. Bulk and Skull were a team, even the names were like one word, apart they sounded ridiculous, after all, what was a Skull except the empty head of a dead man. Which is exactly what he felt like. The ACU had helped for a while, being a cop had helped him not have to be Skull, and if he wasn't Skull he couldn't miss Bulk, right? The logic was twisted, but it had worked, for a while. But when he became too much a cop and not enough a man, it had been taken away from him, all of it. He no longer had that, he no longer had anything but revenge, maybe that's why he was in this, really, he just wanted to make someone else suffer. So what, he'd always wanted that, right? The explanation rang hollow, an old refrain, unsatisfying, he quickly turned his thoughts away, back towards the facts of the case. There weren't many. Maybe, just maybe, enough to clear Richie, but that was about it. Maybe that would be enough, just to clear Richie, to get his friend off the hook. It would have been enough for a real hero, he reflected, like a Power Ranger, to save a friend. He was no Power Ranger, he was no hero. He was Skull and Skull wanted his badge and Skull wanted blood.

He was still musing about all the people who were going to get theirs when he started down the walk to home. Home was an abandoned mansion way up on the hill, guarded by a pair of bullet-ridden garden gnomes. The door swung open easily, since the lock had been broken in the whirlwinds of looting that had broken out after the second or third Terra Colony had cleared Angel Grove's well-to-do out of their mansions. His footsteps rang hollowly as he walked down the mansion's empty, scuffed halls, counterpointing the unsteady hum and rattle of the generator that ran their few real appliances. The generator sat in the kitchen, right next to the fridge. The kitchen was nice, even with the sticky layer of spills and scuffs over the white tiles, one picture window replaced with cardboard and duct tape and the maze of battle scars and cigarette burns embedded into the wooden counter-tops.

Not tired, but hungry and unimaginably thirsty, he fished a bottle of old beer and some just-barely-expired lunch meat out of the fridge, the steady hum of the generator joined by the throb of a nearby stereo system turned up to assault levels. Skull winced slightly and reached for a knife embedded in the counter-top to cut the green spots from the bread.

"Skull! Man!" Skull stopped in mid-reach as the patio doors slammed open and his name bounced off all four walls. Junior stood there, arms spread wide, holding open the doors, grinning a little too wide, too-big pupils surrounded by the dark rims of his too-small irises. He was dressed in tight, black vinyl pants and a loose purple, silk shirt, his working clothes. The sounds of talking and moving blew in from the courtyard under the bone-shattering beat of the music.

"Sku-u-ull... Ma-an..." He repeated, rolling the words lazily over his tongue, just barely suppressing an almost girlish giggle. Junior was a man who really got into his work. "Where you been at? Lookin' alright, my man!" He nodded at Skull with a gesture meant to encompass Skull's monkey suit . "Like the collar, Dawg!" He howled with laughter and Skull pretended to crack a smile, sensing that was supposed to be funny. "So, Reggers tell you we havin' this thing tonight? That why you put somethin' on? Damn, but don' it beat that shit you usually wear?" He screeched and laughed again, pulsing in time with the music, not difficult since it seemed to be composed of pure backbeat.

"Uh, somethin' like that." Skull replied dully. It was a lame answer but he was in no mood for this, he wanted food, drink and sleep, in that approximate order and that was it. "More Shit from my idiot roommates" was conspicuously absent from that list. He grabbed the knife and started cutting.

"So come on out here, man... get some party goin' on, you know that this shit don't sell itself!" He laughed a little too hard, but the laughter ended at his mouth. His eyes grew a little harder, a little more sober.

"So, your meet with the asians go down OK?" The words were as dry as the bread, just going through the motions, since he knew from prior experience that Reg and Junior had gotten ripped-off. They always did.

"Hey, it was cool, man, it was cool." Junior grinned and nodded back to the party, "Real cool. Made a real killing." And gave a diabolical wink. Skull looked across curiously. Something was wrong here. This wasn't the usual scared, angry, desperate post-deal Junior.

"Cool?" Reggie appeared just over Junior's shoulder, weaving unsteadily but almost glowing from a combination of exertion and more then a little chemical relaxant. "We were more then cool, we were red hot!" He shouted and howled wildly at the moon, so jubilant it was almost surreal. "Damn, pickin' up that damn 'bot head the best damn thing we ever did, right my brother?" He slapped Junior on the shoulder and Junior playfully shoved him back into the courtyard.

"Damn right it was, you crazy bastard." He grinned and turned back to Skull, "we made a damn big score tonight, man! I mean really fuckin' huge, those slanty bastards couldn't give it away fast enough!" Curious, Skull put down the knife and took a lazy sip from the beer.

"Do tell man, don't you usually have to beg just to get the privilege of buying their leftovers? These are the same asians that left you boys empty-handed last time 'cause you couldn't pay your bills, right?" Curious now, he took another, larger swallow and plopped down on the broken barstool stolen from the Juice Bar and looked directly into Junior's dilated pupils.

"Yeah," Junior's expression soured somewhat. "Well, they was kinda S.O.L.," A wicked, bloodsucking grin creased his face, "deny it as long as you like, but they all end up comin' to us in the end, ya know?"

"Hear that ladies? They all come runnin' in the end!" Reggie shouted and gyrated his hips at a group of amused but uninterested soiled doves lounging behind their hulking employer at the far end of the swimming pool. Skull decided not to watch the courtyard anymore.

"S.O.L. eh? How so?" He took another sip of his beer and started making the sandwich again, glancing up at Junior just long enough to catch his eyes as he replied.

"Well, you know these boys, they only come to town for the xenotech, that's all anybody comes here for anymore anyway." He muttered and scowled a bit. "Anyway, their normal supplier couldn't deliver, so they was so damn desperate for xeno that they were more then happy to take that damn 'bot head for payment."

"Yeah, especially since I know for a fact the two of you couldn't have paid them off any other way." Skull smirked and Junior shrugged it off. Skull paused for a moment, then launched his question. "So, where'd the two of you pick up a piece of xeno? Really. And don't be telling me that you just picked the damn thing up, because nobody 'just finds' a piece of primo xeno that the asians'll take for payment, no matter how desperate they are, the big Xenotech firms would've had it in a vault by now, just like all the other good shit that was littering the streets back in the day. You boys ain't been scamming the companies now, have you?" He grinned expectantly.

"Maybe we did just find it, huh? How you know my man Reg just ain't that good?" Skull answered by hucking his empty beer bottle at Junior, who ducked as it clattered harmlessly into the courtyard and clattered into the empty pool, where it crashed and shattered. "Alright, maybe he ain't, but shit, bro.." he glanced nervously back at the company behind him, pimps and pushers to a man, not a one of them that wouldn't slit their own mother's throat, much less Junior's, for the price of a beer, and quickly stepped into the kitchen proper, letting the patio doors slam shut behind him. ".. don't you got no better sense then that? Why you care anyhow?" He made a sour face, his euphoria passing a bit.

"Why you think?" Skull smirked and let the bitterness and hunger drip from his voice. Truth was, he didn't know why, idle curiosity mostly, a little gut feeling on the side, but it was easier to let Junior think he was just another greedy street hustler, which wasn't far from the truth.

"Right." Junior grinned, seeing the hunger in his eyes, he knew greed, trusted it. "Well, you deserve yourself a break, so here's the real deal, a client who squats down by the old airport, he done put me wise to a pilot down there, was shipping to the Asian's man here in the city, but had got word that the connection was going to get iced last night and rather then just give it to the those greedy little asian fuckers, he done put the shipment up on the market and let us have it for a third of what the asians were offering, which, don't get me wrong, still leaves us with a real shitload of stuff."

"The connection got iced last night?" Skull's eyebrows suddenly rose with his interest. "Do tell?"

"Oh yeah," Junior shrugged, "Some rich-ass brother downtown, way downtown, I mean, those Asian dudes, they were dressed for clubbing. Fuckin' A. like he really needed it? Shit, we needed it, bro, you hear what I say?" Junior slammed his fist down on the countertop, trying to make his point. "Ain't nothin' wrong with what we did. Right? Right? After all, not like we killed him ourselves or nothin', he was dead anyway, we just made sure everyone got their cut. We're the good guys, ya know?" Junior was talking to himself now, trying to absolve himself of a sort of grave-robbing, he was hard-headed, but everyone in the abandoned sectors was a little superstitious, after all, no matter how much of a realist you were, there were only so many stories of ghosts, demons, alien sorcery and gypsy curses you could hear before you started believing, even if just a little bit. And since the wars, there was plenty of that to go around, especially with the flood of alien refugees, of all the worlds in the League, it seemed that only earth persisted in the disbelief of magic.

"Yeah. I hear." Skull heard far too well. Like it or not this might just be the lead he needed. "You say this pilot, he knew his 'connection' in the city was getting iced beforehand."

"Yeah, what about it? Man's well connected, real well, ya dig?" Junior smirked conspiratorially, as if somehow dealing with this man made him better connected, too. He completely missed the way Skull's eyes went sharp and predatory, missed his lips tighten and his fist clench.

"I dig, Junior, I dig. Sounds like a good man to know. What'd you say his name was again?" Skull caught Junior in his stare and Junior paused for a moment, surprised by the intensity of the gaze.

"I didn't. Normally, you know I don't give out my contacts names, but..." He paused, regarding his disdainful older roommate, who had always looked down on their drug dealing, relishing the fact that the Skull was finally coming to him for help, recognizing him as the dominant man here. He was the strongest now and he knew it. Strong enough to be generous. "...you deserve a break, so listen, maybe you want to do me a little favor, you can meet him yourself. What do you say?"

"I say 'keep talking, I'm listening'" Skull smirked, Junior was doing him a favor, just not the favor he thought he was.

"Well, you see, we still need to deliver his third of the take, dig? So, since I know you only get fucked up on shit brewed from sky blue waters, I know none of it'll go up yer nose. What you say? We got a deal?" He extended his hand gravely, as if he expected Skull to kiss his ring or something. Skull didn't. He took the hand and looked Junior straight in the eye.

"Deal." He intoned, his death's head grin slowly creeping up his lips. Junior was a little creeped out but it was worth it.

"Alright, that's what I like to here!" The glad-handing host was back and slapped Skull on the back as he shook his hand. "Then the place is the old airport and the man is Steve Hart." Skull nodded in assent, let Junior's hand go, still grinning, and headed towards bed.

"Don't forget the bring the shit with you." Junior shouted after him. Skull wouldn't forget.

The night's sleep was untroubled by any but the old, predictable nightmares, and by two in the afternoon Skull was up, dressed and at the elegant cement junkyard that was the old Angel Grove airport. Planes of various makes and models, mostly private, smaller, twin-engine jobs, still came in and out, but there were no customs officers to ask questions, no desk clerks to answer them and only a mob of desperately eager, unwashed local kids, mostly alien, but with the occasional human mixed in, who hit you up for cigarettes before you even left the plane for baggage handlers. It was patronized mostly by the kind of people who minded their own business, carried automatic weapons and had good reason not to use the shiny new air and space port in the Downtown.

The day was hot and muggy, with the kind of dull, white overcast that only a summer's day in Southern California can provide, and Skull writhed uncomfortably inside his sweat-stained "Work Suit", drenched in his own sweat and burdened with two different loads of contraband. The first was the pilot's "cut" of Junior's take, a hefty duffel bag of concentrated dope, bad stuff. The second was Reggie's ridiculously oversized IMI Eagle, swiped from under a sleeping Reggie's lawn chair carried in a makeshift sling under Skull's jacket, making him appear to lean slightly to one side, he felt silly just having the damn thing, but he would have felt even sillier coming up here to do what he was going to do without it.

Pilots, dealers and mechanics clustered in silent, sullen knots, islands of commerce served by steady streams of the kids, bumming smokes and spare change, fetching coffee, bullets, fuel, carried messages, served as lookouts and saw to a thousand other small errands that would provide their only meal today. Skull hadn't eaten either, so he knew how they felt, even though, as a courier, he was more customer then staff. A couple smokes and a couple grams of product bought Skull three different hanger numbers, only two of which turned out to be dead ends. Nobody was out front, but Skull could see the nose of his Cessna sticking out the front, long and lean with the tapered black spear of a laser battery welded onto the front, combined with the flag of the outlaw nation of Quebec painted along the side, it served as more of an address then the faded number stenciled on the side of the corrugated metal building. Skull slicked back his greasy, black hair with one hand and then straightened his glasses. The whole way here he'd been watching the other pilots, studying for this moment. Knocking was as likely to erupt in a hail of bullets as not, but there was a way to do this, just as certain and nowhere near as likely to turn ugly, all he had to do was wait. As it turned out, he didn't even have to wait very long.

"Hey, mister, got any smokes? Spare change?" There was a blond streak in the kid's unwashed, auburn hair that marked him as a Karovan, some of the most human-like of the refugee aliens. Without looking, Skull handed him a small packet of product and nodded inside, the child's eyes grew large with wonder and he sped into the dark interior of the hanger. Skull waited. Hart showed, his eyes narrowed behind his aviator knock-off shades, his right hand kept well within his battered, brown leather bomber jacket on a conspicuous bulge that looked suspiciously like the one Skull had under his jacket.

They stood for a moment, motionless, silent, regarding each other carefully, the ritual of sizing up. Hart set the mood with his opener.

"Didn't you used to be a cop, Skullovitch?" His hand tightened around his "lump".

"Didn't you used to be a pilot, Hart?" A smirk somehow got past security and onto Skull's game face.

"What's in the bag?" Hart was obviously not in a real sociable mood.

"What's yours. One third. Like in the deal. You do remember the deal, right?" That damn smirk just wouldn't go away and Hart was getting edgy. Edgy was OK, but edgy and packing heat was not.

"You from the boys on Mansion Row then?" He seemed to relax a little.

"Yeah, that'd be me. Wanna take this inside, or maybe I should start counting it out here in the street?" Hart scowled at Skull, he could already see the jackals starting to circle. He faded back into the unlit hanger, gesturing for Skull to follow.

Skull followed. The place was a maze of overlapping shadows. He moved carefully, stepping silently around the littered repair gear, listening to the steady hum of the overhead fans that allowed in the only light in the darkened hanger. The sounds of footsteps echoed strangely, multiplying rabidly in the hot, immobile air of the hanger, making it harder and harder to tell if he and Hart were alone. He doubted they were. Hart led Skull back to a card table behind the plane, littered with tools, catalogues and empty whisky bottles, lit by the filtered sunlight seeping orange through a single ceiling fan, which still failed to move the stale scent of heat, cigarettes and old motor oil that hung in the air. Hart was already sitting in one of the two folding chairs when Skull got there, his shades lay upside down on the table and he was rubbing the bridge of his nose, stifling a yawn. He looked tired.

"Lets get this over with." He nodded to the chair across from him without looking up and Skull stiffly followed direction, sitting down and sweeping half the table clear with a single swing of the duffle bag, followed by the clatter of glass and metal. He unzipped it and waited for Hart's signal, it was, after all, his shit now. "About how much is in there?" He took a deep breath and looked up. "Get you a drink?" He stood up and started towards a low-lying, portable fridge.

"A couple of keys worth, enough to keep you in fuel for quite a while and 'Hell, yes!' in that approximate order." Skull smirked and pushed the bag a couple of inches closer to Hart.

"Keys?" Hart raised an eyebrow and let his shoulders sink. "Those lazy little shits didn't even have the common decency to liquidate it before sending it my way?" He scowled, as if it left a foul taste in his mouth. Skull shrugged.

"Hey, they're having a bit of a delay moving it, they're playing a tight market, there just aren't that many people to sell to in the Abandoned Districts, the Companies run all the dealing Downtown and the Nejirejia don't take kindly to natives dealing on their turf down in Alientown. I suppose Taylor always paid you off in the cold currency, I suppose?"

"Damned Right he did!" Steve growled and pulled a pair of cold beers out of the small fridge, "Taylor didn't trade it for dope in the first place. Cash and tech is all he ever dealt in." Steve dropped Skull's down on the table in front of him, Skull grabbed it and popped it open on the table's edge.

"So?" Hart sat back down and nodded with smooth casualness, "Where'd you hear I was supplying tech to Taylor?" His smile had turned as hard as his eyes, and one hand had disappeared into the depths of his bomber jacket. Skull took notice and lowered the brewski from his lips.

"You know, How does anybody know anything?" He snickered falsely, his 'casual' wearing pretty thin. "You hear things, ya know? I still known a lot of people in this town." It was threat and excuse all in one.

"That a fact?" Steve smirked. Skull's turn to be edgy. Hart wasn't buying.

"Yeah." No choice but to hold onto it. Sometimes if you lied hard enough and long enough, you could lie falsehoods into truth.

"I'll bet. A lot of people." Hart took a cautious sip of his beer, his eyes never leaving Skull's face, reevaluating him, measuring angles. Skull took a deep breath, the problem with potential informants was always the same, they knew something you didn't. The trick was not letting them know it. Skull had the feeling that Hart was starting get an idea of his real business here.

"So," Hart put his beer down and was looking straight into Skull's eyes from over his shades. "what happened to your badge, Skullovitch? Someone catch you with your hand in the till?" No accusation, a friendly question among the irredeemably corrupt but his hand still deep in his coat.

"Naw, worse." Skull shrugged, his 'casual' slowly returning. "I caught someone else with there's in it. I was kind of confused about how things worked back then." He smirked sadly and took a healthy of mouthful of cold domestic hops. "So what happened to you? I remember when you used to do passenger work, when you start smuggling?"

"Long before you started chasing them." Steve shook his head, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He suddenly looked very old. "Listen, I'd been shipping, lets call them 'questionable goods', on and off since the eighties, I just didn't start doing it regular until the passenger trade started drying up, you know, the colonies," he shrugged, and nodded upwards, "no more people, no more money, meant no more joy riders. Hell, if it wasn't for the xenotech trade I'd still be running this crap." He nodded at the bag with real anger in his voice, real venom boiling in his eyes. Skull knew that look.

"But you didn't come here just to drop off Junior's payoff, did you?" His eyes were back on Skull and his hand had never moved from his jacket. "You've never been part of that outfit. Not really. Why are you really here?" Skull could see the muscles in his arm tighten as he tightened his grip on the piece in his jacket.

"Maybe I'm with them now. Maybe I just joined up." Skull met him gaze for gaze.

"Maybe I'm a Chinese interior decorator." Steve scoffed. "Make it quick, if you're not here for business, you're trouble, and the locals, they don't take kindly to trouble." Skull paused, weighing small pieces of truth and fiction to see which ones would fit this particular puzzle.

"Trouble? Me? Nah, just curious, you seem to be the man in the know this week." Skull nodded and raised his glass in mock salute to him. Steve regarded him with narrowed eyes and a renewed interest. That wasn't a good thing.

"Curious is how we spell 'trouble' around here, kid, and even if it weren't, trouble follows you like a stray dog, Skullovitch, always has. So, what did you mean by that last crack?" Hart's arm tensed up, like he was ready to draw. Skull threw up his hands in supplication.

"Whoa, whoa, alright, maybe I've come up on my own business, so what? Everything around here's got a price tag on it, right? Even information, especially information." He took on a more open, friendly look, hands still out and up.

"Yeah, so? I don't deal in it, I'm a pilot, nothing more, usually people pay me NOT to know things, dig? So what sort of information could I give you? And trust me, you can't afford to know who my shipments are for. Not on whatever shoestring pension the force doled out for you." His arm relaxed just a shade and his face turned into a hard, impassive mask for business. This was turf he knew.

"You shipments?" Skull broke into a huge smile, almost breaking into laughter, "Trust me, Hart, I couldn't give a marmoset's furry, brown ass about your shipment schedule or who hires you out! No, no, all I'm looking for is a little source of yours, all I want to know is how you knew Taylor was going to die beforehand?" His hands lowered to the table and he steepled his fingers absently. The smile on his face turned a shade more evil. Hart turned pale and his eyebrows shot up straight into his sun-lined forehead.

"The hell?!? What's your game here, Skullovitch? Who said I knew anything about the murder?" Skull could have sworn that he heard footsteps shuffle behind him, but he kept his eyes carefully on Hart, the man was so close to breaking that Skull could almost see the cracks forming, Hart was twitchy, armed and dangerous. Now he remembered why they used a bullet-proof glass down at the station.

"Junior did. Oh, he didn't mention nothing by name, but I could put two and two together. Your source got whacked, and you yourself said you dealt with Taylor. Its not a hard leap if you know the right people." Skull shrugged, but was sure not to make too many sudden moves. "Now, why don't you tell me how you knew about it?"

"Why would I tell you? How dumb do you think I am? You might be out doing a favor for you old buddies on the force. A cop's a cop, Skullovitch. Nothing for nothing, kid. You better have one hell of an offer." Steve steadied himself and glowered at the younger man, hand tight around his pistol's handle.

"Here's my offer, Hart. Tell me or I'll steer my old friends on the force your general direction, I'm sure they'd be more then happy to use what I already know to put you on the stand. If not for this, then for something, the boys at the DA's office can be awful creative." He grinned the grin of the cat that had just had itself a hefty serving of canary pie. He only hoped that it would cover his bluff well enough for Hart to buy it.

"Friends? You? You haven't known the meaning of that word for years, Skull." The reply came from behind him, low, sharp and feminine. He spun in his chair and the hand cannon was out before a target was acquired. There was cold steel in his hand to match the cold steel in her voice, but the gun raised by her voice was lowered by her face, and he sat there in near shock, too many coincidences in one weekend. There she stood, leaning against the Cessna, the main character in a thousand high-school daydreams, freshly emerged from a time two or three worlds ago, her face set harder, with a couple lines that added a knife-edged irony to her face, her eyes colder, but on the whole she was still the girl he'd never really known. Steve Hart's niece. Kimberly Ann Hart. His heart rose to this throat and his stomach dropped to somewhere below his feet. He had the feeling he was a step closer then he thought he was, and maybe just a step in over his head.