The light was as dim as the glow of a dying fire as we stepped through the sliding doors to exit the Ottoman. Pitbull had to pull me back as I almost walked into the police barricade stretched around the body of the poor man who went off like a cheap firework earlier. The scattered crowd and news crews made navigation difficult, but we were able to duck through without causing too much of a scene, hopping onto the next subway train headed to Pacheco.
Approaching the Peach Trees hab block, I pulled Pitbull into a nearby alleyway, netting myself a low growl before it became apparent I had accidentally grabbed one of his injuries. “Sorry big guy. We should get those looked at when we get done snooping around here.” That got me a grunt of assent, so I unholstered my camera and began snapping shots of the block. A few of the ground floor shops were as empty as an Irishman’s whiskey bottle, but some of them had been fortified with mangled barricades of Quickcrete and metal bars. Spotting some movement amongst the fortifications, I quickly pointed it out to Pitbull. “Sentries? Is Skyberg like The Sultan of Swat around these parts? A real big league hitter?”
Pitbull glanced sidelong at me as he snatched the camera from my hand, peering downrange at the holdout. He snorted and began to play with his combat knife after lighting himself yet another cigarette. “They ain’t with Skyberg. He’s a two-bit hacker. This is just some boostergang staking their turf. Two men watchin’ over the main entrance, probably six others off-guard inside. Leader’s in, the rest probably out causin’ a ruckus.” His grating voice sent a chill down my spine as he told me exactly the best way to neutralize the entire holdout with minimal exposure to ourselves. Here was a man with a violent past, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, is the past is a tool to be learned from. If its lessons are not adhered to, one is doomed…
“Whoa, bo. We don’t need to go in with iron in our hands. We’re snoops now – if we tip our hand, start having a lead spat below Skyberg’s place, he’ll ghost and we’ll never find him.” There is a casual grunt and the sound of a pistol snaking back into a holster graces my ears, causing me to exhale sharply like I were out in a blizzard. We trade looks and I tuck my camera away before we break cover and saunter over towards the entrance. We’re mere steps away from opening the front door of the hab when a lanky, pipe-wielding booster steps out of the shadows, pipe dancing around in his hands. His arms are adorned with the worst ‘ware job I’ve ever seen boosting someone’s muscles. Didn’t make it any less terrifying, though. His mate comes out from the fortifications, and I feel Pitbull tense up beside me. His hand inches towards his knife, and that makes me inch slightly further away from him, towards the pipe-wielding bum. “’ey Cho, you just walk’d inna a world of hurt, boy..” Apparently, when the street doc was adding to his arm, he had to take the linguistic part of his brain to make room. I’ve seen apes at the zoo capable of better conversation.
Fast words, and my pulse beats even faster. Between the fact that Pitbull looks like he just tangled with a wrecking ball and walked away, he manages to convince the gangers to bring their boss out for a chat. Out comes a man who has a good seventy pounds on Pitbull, but not in a way that’s going to benefit him if he tries to throw down. There’s a dented metal plate that looks welded to his forehead, and his nose is so filled with jewelry he jingles when he sneezes. Pitbull mutters something quietly as I make some inquiries about the building and getting the runaround, and it goes unnoticed until he starts to chuckle.
It’s a bit unnerving, and the gangboss starts to get into his face, swearing up and down he’ll teach him some respect. Then, quick as sunshine, Pitbull’s fist snaps up, wrapping around the chain connecting the man’s ear and nostril, bending him over backwards until he was suspended like a dog on a leash. The thug to my side starts forward, but then rocks back as he’s not sure what to do. Maybe the doc interfered with his reasoning centers to boot. Pitbull barks at the gangboss, demanding he tell us about a man with Skyberg’s description and I cringe, waiting for the shoe to drop. The boss whimpers, then launches into a threatening tirade. A quick tug from Pitbull brings on the tears, then a promise to squeal, which brings a smile to my friend’s face, and a grimace to mine.
Pitbull flexes his arm in a quick, almost practiced motion, and the man lets out a silent scream as he falls onto his back. I cast my eyes aside as Pitbull wraps the bloody chain around his knuckles. It doesn’t take much more convincing than a quick application of gauze to get the man to spill on Skyberg. My notebook is hardly out of my pocket before a litany of curses and information flood forth from the bleeding crimeboss: Skyberg lives on the 12th floor, and this gang avoids it like the plague. After finding out the reason, I feel compelled to do the same. Skyberg has some friends living there with him now and they brought three nasty cyberhounds as guards, in addition to a few of them seeming to be well armed. The gang had one run-in with them, had two members chewed up badly by the hounds, and have been giving them a wide berth ever since.
The population of the apartment is a maximum of seven people all told, but only three – Skyberg, a dame with short cropped hair that was swept to the side, and some old geezer with a nose so sharp it could cut through steel, ware-d up glasses and long silver hair are in residence all the time – the others come and go. Sometimes they bring in crates and boxes – once a really big steel crate they used the freight elevator for. The gang knows they’ve been paying off the maintenance guy the City keeps in the block and that he’s got a small “staff” of droids and drones, or calls the department of housing if he needs more than that done.
I had a bad feeling that Skyberg, being a hacker, has subverted some of the buildings drones and possibly some of the fire safety and security measures, but there was nothing I could do about it but walk away. Until Pitbull grabbed my shoulder in one of his meathooks, pointing at the boss on the floor – the man had a cybernetic eye – I wasn’t keen on looking at his face after Pitbull got through with it, because sure enough there was blood everywhere. I thought for a second and asked about how much dosh it’d take to buy all of the footage of people they had seen come and go. The man seemed reluctant to sell until Pitbull introduced his already bleeding nose to the treads of his boot. After that, it was $300 to get the data, and a promise that I wouldn’t let Pitbull near him again. I tipped my hat to the man by way of thanking him and Pitbull and I skulked off back to the alley like urchins looking for some food to steal.
As we swung around corner after corner, Pitbull gives an incredulous look. “The fuck are we going this way for? Always found the direct approach works best.” I smiled. “Oh, you’ll like this then, my friend. The most direct way to gather intel there is.” I found the building I was looking for and we started up the stairs. When we hit the 12th floor, I could tell Pitbull’s patience was wearing thinner than a joygirl’s undergarments, I counted out a number of paces and pointed at a door. “If you would, my kind sir?”
Pitbull kicks the door open, training his pistol on all corners of the room, “Not getting the point of this little trip Mac. Care to explain?” Pitbull growls as he gives the all clear. Stepping into the room, I began looking around the abandoned room and walking towards the windows, pulling up two chairs on the verge of collapse. “Pitbull, the most direct distance between two points is a line, right?” I grin and dramatically spread the blinds apart for Pitbull to take a look through. “Right across the way there? That’s the target’s apartment. 12th floor, Apartment 12c.” I set my camera bag down and begins calibrating the camera for distance shots.
Pitbull smiles, finally getting what I was on about. “Y’know, you coulda’ told me that you found a bird’s eye.” Pitbull grates through his seemingly constant fog of tobacco smoke. I watched as it curled languidly around his holster, as though it knew where to find it’s soulmate. He snapped me out of my reverie with a statement that couldn’t help but make me grin. “Woulda’ saved me a lot of wonderin’.”
“Sorry – trade habit to keep ‘em guessing.” It took a minute, but I rerouted the feed from my camera to the holo-display on my pocket watch and popped it open so Pitbull could take a look at the data I was streaming. I popped the lens through the blinds and began the surveillance. Looked to be like a standard apartment complex, two bedrooms, a living area and a kitchen, although you wouldn’t know it at first glance in any of the rooms. The living area is hardly capable of being called such now – there’s an expensive multi-screen computer set up facing away from the window, and the majority of the rest of the room is dedicated to a massive black steel box, easily six feet to a side, with a red light glimmering at the lock like Satan’s own eyeball. Nothing about that room looks like any place I’d want to live. Pitbull stares at the watch/screen with a pensive expression. “That black box looks expensive. Probably even fragile. I wonder…” He growls to himself.
I scanned over to the kitchen and spotted a pair of legs on a stool, and lingered a bit longer than I should have before finding out who they belonged to. Imagine my surprise when I eyeballed one Bianca Klieber sitting at the wheel of a microscope, her hair carefully in disarray. The broad who had the brains to develop a virus that rewrote blood cells in the den of a hacker with Asberger’s? The money must be awful good or there’s some angle I’m not seeing here. I could tell she was a stunner, even behind her respirator. The rest of the kitchen was covered in equipment I’d need three degrees to identify, so I snapped as much data as I could in hopes that someone could figure out what she was up to. She seemed to be intent on her work until she began looking around the place like someone was watching her. I felt her eyes glance over me and my lungs froze as I kept still – her gaze lingered for less than a candle’s flicker, but it felt like a night in front of a blazing fire. Her eyes broke off of mine as she wheeled to one of the counters and picked up a pipette full of something blue and put two drops under her tongue. She seemed to calm down, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was still looking at me, so I gingerly pulled the camera back from the window. “Pitbull, do you think she made us?”
“Doubt it.” He intones. “But I do think we’re pushing our luck some. Maybe we can afford one more glance at what she’s workin’ on. A good shot might have some clues in it, right?” He says as he grinds his heel on his now spent cigarette, snuffing it out like so many uncertain futures. I nodded and slipped the lens through the blinds for the last time, just able to catch her closing the door to one of the bedrooms. I took the opportunity to focus in on the microscope and take a myriad of shots, the shutter blinking like it was trying to hold back tears. I might not be able to make heads or tails of it, but one of the Edgerunners might. I nodded to Pitbull, packed up my gear and we slipped out the door.
We quickly ducked out of the building, and when we hit the street Pitbull took us on a roundabout route to the Pacheco subway where a short ride later found us back at the Ottoman. Before we slipped upstairs, I made a point to drag him back to the medical bay to at least got him looked at. It was a battle, but one that I think we both won.