by Bryan Cole
“Hope you’re not too upset with it.” Dragon probed, trying to decide whether or not to chide Hatch with the squalid living conditions he had picked out for him.
“You kidding? This is still roomier than those barracks at Camp Sushi.” Hatcher wasn’t the kind of person who cared too much for where he slept, long as it was somewhat isolated and he could control access to the area if needed. Camp Sushi had been their unofficial term for the jump-off point in Northern California before they had deployed to Malaygay.
“Well, we need to up your street IQ a tad, and the best way to do that is to immerse you in the street as thoroughly as possible. No better way than have you live in it, breathe it, find out where the pulse is and how to get a finger on it.” Dragon knew Hatcher was a capable student and, as with all good lessons, he would have to learn the finer points of this one on his own. Dragon had to also admit to himself, Hatcher would do well to be surrounded in this blanket of the faceless. It would greatly supplement the anonymity he would need. It might also quiet Dragon’s continuing doubts about Hatcher’s recent arrival and, more importantly, from where he had departed.
“It’ll work.” And with that Hatcher and Dragon left the sleepbox-cum-efficiency. Moving to the elevator on the thirty-first level, Hatcher turned to face Dragon. “You taking requests on my attire or do I need to scrounge for my clothes?”
“What’d you have in mind?” The older of the pair asked.
“I need something with some kick. One stop. Preferably like I had in-country.”
“Not a problem.” Hatcher had always been fond of the 14mm. Dragon had anticipated this, but he’d still make the kid sweat it a little. “You want something a little less formal for those casual events?”
“Yeah. Been thinking about that. Maybe something ‘tech? The 10 is my favorite, but that’s only because you can accessorize the living hell out of it.” The Ronin Militech Assault Rifle in 10mm was a mainstay of most of the armed forces of the world. Owing to this widespread employment, there was an avalanche of custom and not-so-custom modifications that had been designed for and around its unique chassis and specifications. Hatcher had a few in mind, but he’d need the tree before he could put the decorations on it.
“Not a problem, kiddo.” The elevator announced its presence with a ding and the screechy movement of its doors. Thankfully, it was unoccupied, except for the stench of the last occupant, who had apparently purged his stomach all over the back wall.
Hatcher and Dragon took little note of the stench or the puddle responsible for it. They had trod through far worse in their time.
“Gonna get you some freebies as well. Call it a welcome-back present.”
“Well, gosh, I don’t know what to say. I…never knew you had these feelings.”
“Can it, you confused sumbitch. I need you looking as pretty as your ugly mug is capable. Since I can’t convince you to get some plastic surgery we may as well dress up that carcass of yours.” Dragon knew Hatcher’s sense of humor for what it was, but sometimes the kid could ramble on if you didn’t put your foot down.
Hatcher stifled a smile. He had been able to ruin Dragon’s briefings back in the day. The old dog had gotten a new trick under his belt.
Since they were at the tenement at one of its less-busy times (10:00 hours) the pair were relatively unbothered on their exit past the now-faded foundstone and into the busy streets of Madrid. Homeless in the sprawl of the modern cities tended to gather in areas where the corporates would never see them. Whether that was entirely the choice of the homeless or not was a memorandum that would never see the light of day.
The streets of Madrid, like any metropolis, were bustling with the odd assortment of life that one would expect at an aquarium. Rigid, sharp spikes of hair and dermal modification on some of the younger, more outlandish youth. The smooth, sure footed and slickened exteriors of various levels of corporate employees moving to and fro. BioTechna, GeneTech, Arasaka, Militech, Geodyne, Aerodyne, EBM, it read like a shopping list. Interspersed between the upper and lower extremities of the midlife in Madrid were the rent-a-cops, the corporate enforcers, and the city’s own beleaguered peace officers.
Hatcher and Dragon caught a cab three blocks from Hatcher’s new apartment, following security procedures that they both knew as instinct to try and either dissuade or lose someone who might be following them.
“So what are we looking at then? Am I going to be your manservant or something?” Hatcher was getting into a familiar routine now, and feeling comfortable and bored, decided to push his old mentor’s comfort level.
“Yeah. I want some walking tincan with a hard-on around me to liven up my entourage.” Dragon shook his head. “You’re going to do well by learning some patience, grasshopper. We’re actually heading to a gig I’ve got lined up for you as we speak.”
“You getting your fiber there, grandpa? Awfully cranky today.”
Dragon had learned that counting to ten was futile. Twenty was a much better number for some people.
They stopped in front of a pawn shop and paid the cab fare. They crossed the street, and after a short four block walk arrived at a nondescript storefront flanked on both sides by alleyways. Heading into the alley on the right-hand side of the storefront, they walked for fifty meters to an inset door with a sliding viewport and what looked to Hatcher to be about an inch of reinforced steel comprising the rest of it. Dragon gave two knocks in close succession.
The viewport opened. Dragon dropped his shades long enough to look into the pair of eyes that greeted them. A half-second after the viewport closed, Hatcher heard the metal sounds of dead-bolts and then the door swung away from them. He noted the door had no connections, no internetworking, no displays or sensors of any kind. The door was as dumb as an appliance could come. It could be opened by hand, and by hand alone.
Beyond it was a spartan room and a handful of people. Entering after his mentor, his eyes began to adjust to the smoky, neon haze. It looked like a coat-check to one of those clubs that the Corporates might have frequented. Hatcher said nothing but kept his arms as loose and as close to his person as he could manage.
Dragon finally spoke up, “Ole, Mi companero y buen amigo…” Hatcher bit his tongue briefly and gently rocked his head backward to slot the Spanish chip he had installed earlier. “..cher, and he’s going to be assisting us with security here. He’s an ex like myself, so keep a hand on your wallet and don’t leave your drink unattended around him.” There were a couple of half-chuckles.
“Nobody is being dismissed, I just need a little extra for the immediate future, and Hatch is going to fill in. I can vouch for him, so you don’t worry about him in a stretch. Just get him familiar with the regulars, and walk him for a bit so he doesn’t get himself lost.”
Dragon made a cursory introduction of all parties present, revealing very little in detail other than name and a rough idea of the pecking order at work here. Two of the four guys in the room were definitely wired and chipped as far as Hatcher could tell. The lieutenant of the group looked like what the Spanish called a Solo, an ex-military man like himself or Dragon. He was an anvil of a man with the name DeSantos, who looked like he had more muscle than flexibility, but Hatcher knew better than to waste his time with that assumption. The lead of the security group, a well-shaped but leanish man by the name of Guillermo, could have been a Solo but Hatcher suspected he was definitely ex-corporate or ex- police by his demeanor and appearance. Ex-soldiers and especially grunts didn’t give a rat’s ass how they looked. That was the side-effect of having people yell at the way your laces were tied for eight weeks at boot camp.
The other two, Haviland and Cruz, weren’t much to look at. Cruz in particular must have really impressed Dragon somehow, because he had the nervous and roaming eyes of a teenager. Hatcher couldn’t read Haviland because he avoided eye-contact almost to the point of ridiculousness. His stance revealed even less. Hatcher had been in the business too long to let these initial impressions blind him though, but his curiosity would have to wait for now.
They weren’t a talkative bunch, which suited Hatcher just fine. The gig turned out to be bouncing for a gambling establishment that Dragon had one of his fingers into. The casino, which catered to a relatively respectable crowd, probably served several purposes other than income for Dragon, but Hatcher wasn’t concerned about business and enterprise. It gave him a legitimate paycheck and more importantly, it gave his new identity, Arturro Villareal, less of an unusual profile for anyone who might make an inquiry.
Dragon finished scribbling on the tablet he’d picked up and handed it to Guillermo. “Let me know if these are doable. And I’m not too concerned about cost.”
Guillermo didn’t look at the pad more than once and simply nodded. “No problem, we’ll have them ready for his shift tonight.”
The Dragon turned to his newest employee. “Come on, kid. Let’s go get a coffee while the boys run your shopping list.”
The younger of the pair smiled at him. “And here I thought nothing was free in life.” Hatcher followed Dragon back through the reinforced door to the alleyway.
“It’s not, you know.” Dragon half mumbled as they neared the street.
“I know,” Hatcher said in reply. “Just tell me they’re not going to be doing my grocery shopping.”
“Guillermo will get your duds for tonight and the uplink for your comms and that’s all.” Dragon paused, and turned to Hatcher to emphasize his point. “I don’t trust anyone to handle my weapons except me, and I’ll be damned if I think you’re any different. I went ahead and messaged my contact about your list, and after the coffee we’ll be going uptown to get your stuff. Are those acceptable terms?” It was Dragon’s turn to be a smart ass.
“Yeah. I’m just having some trouble settling in is all, Sarge. I’ll calm down in a few days.”
“Don’t sweat it. You’ll want to keep that edge. It’s the part you cut with.”