Chapter 2: Rings of Interferrance

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Chapter 2: Rings of Interference

 
 
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What? Earthtech?

Yeah, it pops up on occasion. I wouldn’t exactly call it a regular occurrence, but it does tend to keep someone in this line of work on their toes.

Story goes that some of Earth’s cities survived the war after Moses under big domes or shields or something. Anyway, supposedly they’re still maintaining a much higher level of tech than we are in the colonies.

No, I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t even know anyone that’s ever been to Earth. All I know is Earthtech is very real, and it’s very impressive, wherever it comes from.

And that’s not even the fanciest stuff. I’ve heard stories of one-of-a-kind pieces of tech out there custom made by Moses himself. We call ‘em Miracles, and if you run into a Miracle, you know it’s about to get weird.

Xuan Nguyen
Freelancer, operated out of Ceres
Died 70 AM

 
 
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“Come on Benny. You’ve got to have something for me.” Matthew sat in the pilot's chair of the Sparrow, boots off, feet on the console, staring at the blue-lit monitor. “There are hundreds of jobs out there for a competent freelancer like me.”

Benny’s nasally voice crackled over the speaker in the Sparrow’s cockpit. “No, there are hundreds of jobs out there for competent freelancers. Not hundreds for you.”

“Ouch. That kind of hurt…” That was a lie of course, but if he could get a little sympathy out of Benny, maybe he’d get a job. “I seem to remember that you liked me for having a high job completion rate. You do like getting paid don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah, we all do. Here’s the thing Cole. You’re too picky for your own good.”

“Just because I don’t like taking jobs involving murder, sabotage, illicit substances…”

“You’re making my point, not yours,” Benny challenged. “Look if you’d at least let me set you up on some team contracts.”

Matthew shook his head, knowing that Benny couldn’t see the expression. “It’s not my thing. You know that.”

Benny made an exasperated grunt and there was a clatter of noise. Matthew imagined him knocking something off his desk in frustration. He had that effect on the contract broker. After a moment’s silence, he heard Benny’s voice again. “Well then you better get used to being hungry, because you’re going starve at this rate.”

Truth be told, Matthew would rather not even work with a broker at all. Having a ten percent cut taken out of a job downright hurt. The problem was, most of the good freelance jobs weren’t even posted to the public boards. You wanted the big payouts you had to go through a broker. To make matters worse, the profession was getting more dangerous by the year, but then that basically described the general state of the solar system too.

Matthew decided he would wait Benny out. He could hear the clicking of a keyboard and then a sigh that Matthew thought was greatly exaggerated. “Okay. Okay. New job just hit since we started looking. It’s…” More key tapping. “It looks like a ‘Cole’ job,” Benny grumbled in a way that didn’t sound too convincing.

“Send it to me.”

Matthew glanced at the monitor as the overview of the contract popped up.

   Job Type: Retrieval of Stolen Property, location known.
   Danger: Medium to Low.

That was more like it. He tapped the entry, entered his credentials, and pulled up the expanded details. Perfect.

“See that wasn’t so hard was it?”

“Actually…”

“Thanks Benny, you’re the best. I’ll pay you when the job’s done.” Matthew turned off the monitor, cut the comm to the broker, and picked up his campero from the co-pilot’s seat, placing it on his head. Leaving the cockpit, he stopped at the first door on the right, his cramped cabin, and strapped his gun belt around his waist. He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror as he turned to leave.

“Time for a shave,” he said putting a hand to the week-old stubble covering his face. “Tomorrow.”

He exited the Sparrow and stepped out onto the concrete landing pad of the Kyoto spaceport. One of the bigger cities on Mars, Matthew had thought it would be easy to find a job here. But after he landed he remembered that was part of why he hated the place. Ugly, close-set skyscrapers, garish neon lights, and people around every corner, nothing like the quiet frontier towns of the Jupiter Neighborhood he’d spent so much time in. Of course, If you needed something, anything at all, Kyoto was the place to get it. Didn’t matter how legal or illegal.

Matthew lowered the cargo lift and mounted his grav bike. Luckily the contact for the job was just a few minutes ride from here. He raised the lift and fired the engines on the bike, the familiar deep rattle a comforting sound, and took off across the spaceport.

 
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The contact lived on the thirty-fifth floor of an apartment building. Matthew was surprised to find it was the top floor. Must be the penthouse then. Explained why she was willing to pay so much for an object retrieval.

The elevator opened and he walked the short hall leading to a deeply etched oaken double door. He knocked and stepped back. There was a popping sound as an intercom came to life. “Yes? Who is it?”

“Matthew Cole, ma'am. Freelancer. Here for the job.”

“Excellent. Come in.” There was a mechanical click as the door unlocked.

Matthew pushed it open and stepped into an apartment that was lavishly decorated in traditional Japanese style, complete with sliding shoji doors, Noren hangings covering the windows, and tatami mats on the floor. He stopped and glanced at his boots, hoping he wasn’t about to track mud into the apartment.

“Take them off,” a matronly voice commanded.

“What?” he said looking up.

“I said take them off. There at the entrance.” A stern-faced Japanese woman had entered the room. For her apartment being so traditionally arrayed, Matthew had half expected her to be dressed in traditional fashion as well. He was a little disappointed to see she wore a modern business suit.

He obeyed, pulling his boots off, and then stepped up from the lowered entry area into the main part of the room. “Mrs. Ishii? Matthew Cole. I’m here for the job.”

“Yes. You said that already. Please be seated.” She gestured to the floor, and Matthew had to bite his tongue not to say something he’d regret. He understood respecting traditions, but this was starting to get a little out of hand. He sat on the floor and smiled at Mrs. Ishii, hoping it didn’t look too forced.

“Now then...”

She was interrupted almost at once by another knock on the door. Mrs. Ishii stepped to the door and pressed a small button. “Yes, who is it?”

“Abigail Sharon. Freelancer answering your job posting.”

Matthew grimaced. Great. Competition.

“Ah very well, I suppose there’s no harm in letting more than one of you onto the job.” She opened the door and stepped back in shock as a 7-foot tall woman entered the room.

Matthew frowned. The freelancer wore a floor-length coat that obscured most of her features, but her proportions were... wrong. And aside from being the largest woman he had ever seen, she looked strangely stiff under the coat, almost as if she were wearing an awful lot of body armor underneath. Didn’t matter who or what she was; a competitor wasn’t welcome.

The newcomer glanced around the room and then looked down at Mrs. Ishii nearly two feet beneath her. “You’ll forgive me, but I can’t exactly remove my shoes. I’ll have to stand here at the door if that’s okay with you.”

Mrs. Ishii looked up at the woman and nodded. “That is acceptable, Ms. Sharon.” She eyed the woman once more before walking to a desk and picking up a tablet monitor. “Thank you both for answering my posting. The job I have in mind should be relatively simple for skilled freelancers such as yourselves.”

Matthew tipped his hat to the newcomer, intent on being polite no matter how suspicious he was of her. “Matthew Cole. Pleased to meet you.”

The woman shrugged and waved him off.

Mrs. Ishii continued undeterred. “I need you to retrieve a… family heirloom of sorts. A ring that has been in my family for several generations now.” She showed them the tablet screen. It displayed a picture of a finely etched gold ring with a green gem. It was a bulky design with sharp edges and looked as though it would be rather uncomfortable to wear. He also wasn’t sure it was worth what Mrs. Ishii was paying for it to be retrieved, but then again it’s hard to appraise sentiment.

“An employee of mine stole it two days ago, after learning of its value to me. Unbeknownst to him, the ring has a weak signal tracker in it. Unfortunately, it’s low-power transmitter isn’t very accurate. I can only narrow its position to an area of about a one kilometer radius.”

Sharon frowned. “I think you oversold us when you said you knew the location. That’s a lot of ground to cover in a city like Kyoto…” Matthew agreed and looked back at Mrs. Ishii expectantly.

The older woman scoffed. “Allow me to finish before you file your complaints. The indicated area contains the notorious Kashitoma Market. It’s a well-known location to fence stolen goods. I have little doubt my ring is there.”

“Hmm,” Matthew said scratching his stubble. “This could still take some effort to find. Do you have any other information that could help? The whereabouts of the employee, perhaps?”

“Takaya Ito has not been seen since the theft, but I suppose I could give you the address to his apartment. The Kyoto City Police found nothing of interest there, but perhaps a seasoned freelancer might find something that they did not.”

Mrs. Ishii printed a slip of paper from the tablet and passed it to Matthew. She looked to Sharon expectantly, but the woman only shook her head. “I’ll trust the KCP did their job and start at the market.”

“Very well. I don’t care which one of you brings back my family’s ring, only that it is brought back quickly. You may choose to work together or in competition, at your leisure. Good day.”

Sharon immediately turned and ducked through the door, her head barely missing the frame. Matthew grumbled to himself as he pulled his boots on in the entryway. He wasn’t about to let the other freelancer get an unfair head start just because she refused to take her shoes off. He sprinted out of Mrs. Ishii’s apartment and managed to stop the elevator just before its door closed.

In the confined space of the elevator, it was apparent just how large this Abigail Sharon truly was. “Well, best of luck to you, ma’am.” He offered her a friendly hand to shake. She looked at it and smiled, halfway between playful and menacing.

 
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Abigail Sharon took Cole’s hand and shook. She shook just hard enough to make it hurt but was careful to not actually crush his hand. That would be rude and would make things too easy. Cole managed not to flinch, which impressed Abigail, but she did notice the small twitch in his eyes.

“Quite a grip you have there.”

“Yes, thank you.”

They spent the rest of the short elevator ride in silence. When the door opened, Abigail walked through it, down the hallway, and out onto the street without a second glance. She had parked her grav bike beside a much smaller one, Cole’s presumably. She had mounted it and fired the engine, by the time Cole approached her again, his poncho and cowboy hat looking ridiculous in a city like Kyoto.

“What do you want, cowboy? In case you forgot, I’ve a job to do. I intend to be the one getting paid. I’m not here to make friends.”

“More of a gaucho really,” Cole said with an obnoxiously calm smile.

“Europa boy then? Huh, accent pegs you as an Arizona native.”

“Yeah, it’s a long story.”

“And I’m not interested.” She narrowed her eyes. “What do you want?” Abigail revved her grav bike’s engine to underline the point that she was in a hurry.

“Mostly just curious about that armor you’ve got on. Not sure I’ve seen anything like it, and I’ve got half an idea that it’s Earthtech.”

“Let’s hope you don’t have to find out, little cowboy.” She hit the throttle and sped away before he had a chance to respond. Of course it was Earthtech. What kind of a stupid question was that?

Abigail had spent a fair amount of time in Kyoto and was quite familiar with the Kashitomo Market. She’d been there on more than one job, and in fact gotten into more than one fight there. As she weaved through traffic across Kyoto, beneath the pink Martian sky, she tried to come up with a plan. She knew several of the fences by name, but not all of them, and she didn’t have any ideas where to begin other than to start talking to them, one by one.

She pulled up to the open air market. It was the usual hive of activity. Hundreds of people filled the narrow aisles between the street booths and storefronts, lit by the harsh glow of neon. All legitimate activity. But Abigail knew what happened behind the scenes and when no one was looking. Competing Yakuza groups, fighting over position within the larger structure of the syndicate here in Kyoto. She parked her bike and walked into the market with a simple plan. Talk to the people she knew. Rough them up if necessary. Somebody will have heard something.

Either way, this was going to be a long day.

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Matthew watched Sharon leave with interest. He’d heard a tale or two about a so-called Shield Maiden on Mars, a supposedly bulletproof freelancer that you didn’t want to cross on the job. He flexed his hand idly, remembering the crushing strength of her iron grip. If this wasn’t the Shield Maiden, he’d be surprised. Hopefully she was right; hopefully, he wouldn’t get an excuse to see her armor in action.

Mounting his own grav bike, he drove across town towards the thief’s apartment. Takaya Ito didn’t exactly live in as nice a part of town as Mrs. Ishii did. Piles of refuse filled every abandoned corner of the side street, making for a bad first impression. He dismounted and entered the rundown building. After a quick talk with the landlord in his office, Matthew walked the four flights of stairs to Ito’s apartment. Thankfully the landlord had been more than willing to offer him a key. He’d let the police in just that morning and wasn’t particularly surprised to see a freelancer on the case.

The apartment was a mess. Ito was clearly a bachelor. Laundry lay scattered around the room in heaps and bottles were piled in the corners. Matthew didn’t really know what he was looking for. Something, anything that might give him further direction. He’d rather not go to a notorious black market and talk to literally everyone that might buy stolen goods. That was a fool’s errand. After twenty minutes of searching the living room, he moved to the single bedroom and his luck was no better. He glanced into the bathroom.

A single pair of dress slacks lay on the floor. On instinct, Matthew riffled through the pockets of the pants and found a piece of paper.

“Jackpot.”

It was a handwritten note with a hastily scribbled name and a number. If that was a dollar amount, clearly the ring was more valuable than he had guessed. But Matthew was more interested in the name. M. Nakayama.

He shoved the scrap into his own pocket. He’d still have to ask around for Mr. Nakayama when he got to the market, but at least he wasn’t going in blind. Hopefully, Sharon hadn’t gotten lucky during his little detour.

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Abigail had exhausted nearly all of her contacts in less than an hour’s time with no leads. Not even the threat of violence had gotten any information out of the fences. No one had heard of or seen an ornate ring with a green stone. No one had heard of Takaya Ito. A few people had heard of Mrs. Ishii, but she was apparently a rather well-known businesswoman in Kyoto. Her family owned several mines and a refinery in the northern polar regions.

However, none of this got Abigail anywhere. She had retreated to a sitting area near the front entrance to reevaluate her strategy when she saw Cole entering the market. He stopped and talked to a vendor selling spices. The woman nodded and pointed. Abigail’s eyes narrowed. Cole must have learned something on his side trip, and she was in danger of losing the payout to the little cowboy.

Cole began to pick his way through the crowd. Abigail fell in step fifty feet behind him, doing her best to keep to cover. What advantages her exo-suit lent her in a fight were quickly erased when stealth was required. There was a reason she tended to stick to jobs that allowed a bit more brute force. This simple mission had turned into something of a headache.

Abigail watched as Cole glanced around him and entered a butcher’s shop. She frowned, torn between following him and sorting things out her way or waiting for him to reemerge. In the end, she decided to try and intercept Cole on the way out. If she interrupted him too soon, the ring might slip through her grasp.

She leaned against a brick wall, pulling the coat around her to ensure it still concealed her armor. Hopefully, this wasn’t going to take long.

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Matthew walked to the butcher’s front counter, making note of the terrible sanitary conditions. He certainly would not be back to patronize the business front for this fence.

An old man with a bent back stood at the register and smiled brightly when Matthew approached. “How may I help you, young man?”

“Here to see Mr. Nakayama. He has something I’m interested in buying.

“Of course, let me take you to him.” The old man opened a back door and led Matthew down a dimly lit hall. He knocked on a side door. “Someone to see you, sir. A Mr… What was your name?”

“Cole.”

“A Mr. Cole.”

Matthew heard a muted response from behind the door, and the old man opened it and gestured inside. He entered into what appeared to be a nicely furnished office at first glance. On closer inspection, he saw something different. Someone was trying too hard to look professional. Fake plants stood in the corner, and the room had been haphazardly painted a few too many times, as evidenced by the wall that had a serious peeling problem. As for Nakayama himself? Matthew knew a cheap suit when he saw one, and the cologne was so bad he could have smelled it a mile away.

Nakayama offered him a seat. “What can I do for you, Mr. Cole?”

Matthew sat and tried to look like he was relaxed. This was one of those conversations that he was going to bluff for as long as he could as hard as he could and then go from there. Worst case scenario involved his revolver. “I’ve heard from a friend that you’re the kind of man that procures… unique goods. It just so happens I’m in the market for something specific.”

“Oh, that is very good. And what might that be?”

“I’ve heard you’ve come across a certain ring. Green stone, detailed etching. I’m sure you know the one.”

“Yes, yes. Though I admit, you’re a bit earlier than I thought you would be. I wasn't expecting you for at least another hour.”

This was the best thing that Matthew had heard all day, and it took an enormous act of will not to show it. “I’ve got a schedule to keep.” He looked Nakayama in the eye and took a chance. “The bosses like things nice and crisp. I’m sure you understand.”

“All too well, my friend. Tell Sugimoto I said hi.”

Matthew nodded “I’ll do that.” He desperately hoped that this Sugimoto wouldn’t come up again or else this little game was going hit a wall real quick. He did, however, file the name away as a curiosity. Never knew when that kind of thing might come in handy as a freelancer.

Nakayama opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out the very ring they were looking for. “I wasn’t aware that the syndicate had started hiring…” He reached up to touch the brim of an imaginary hat. “I admit, you caught me a bit off guard.”

“Well, I’ve not been around too long. I’m still getting my feet wet, so to speak, and I just do what I’m told.” Matthew tapped his foot nervously. Maybe this wasn’t going to work out so well. He pressed on using the first rationalization he could think of, hoping Nakayama would buy it. “But if I had to guess, the bosses probably thought a little bit of diversification would open up new doors. “This,” he said repeating the hat touching gesture, “will get me into places that you could never go.”

Nakayama nodded sagely and Matthew knew he had bought the ruse. “The grand strategy isn’t my business, of course, but I can see the wisdom there.” He looked at the ring in his palm one last time before handing it to Matthew. “I wouldn’t handle the thing too much if I were you. It gave me all sorts of nightmares last night.”

“Never really been the superstitious type,” Matthew said inspecting it closely for himself. It was without a doubt Mrs. Ishii’s ring. He pocketed it.

“Take my word for it,” Nakayama insisted. “That thing is bad news. Sooner you pass it off to whoever you’re supposed to give it to the better. Now if that’s all, I have other business to attend to. Oh, and remind Sugimoto to wire the payment over on time. I’d rather not have a repeat of last month’s little incident.”

“Of course.” Matthew stood and offered a hand to Nakayama. “If that’s all I’ll be on my way.”

Nakayama shook his hand and waved him off. Matthew left the room, doing his best not to laugh aloud. Nakayama was going to be in hot water when whoever he was actually supposed to pass the ring off to arrived, but then Matthew didn’t have a lot of sympathy for his type.

He’d had astronomically good luck, and he wasn’t quite used to that. Sure, he still had to deal with Sharon, who was undoubtedly casing the shop after she’d followed him here, but it never hurt to be grateful for the little things.

Matthew exited the butcher’s shop and glanced around. Sharon was right where he’d thought she would be, vainly trying to conceal her seven-foot frame in the shadows of a nearby alley. Briefly, he thought about trying to lose her in the crowd, but she would surely get suspicious and come for him if he even hinted at moving towards the front gate of the market.

Idly, he tried to pull up any memory he had on this supposed Shield Maiden. He couldn’t remember if she had a penchant for using lethal force or not. If so, this could get messy. Oh well, he thought glumly. May as well throw her off balance.

He looked over at where she leaned against a grimy brick wall, waved, then gave her a thumbs up. Immediately following this he took off at a run, away from the entrance of the market. Matthew resisted the impulse to look back as he darted through the crowd knowing it would only slow him down. Besides. He knew Sharon was coming. The heavy clomping and the whine of servos attested to that.

As he twisted and turned through the market, curiosity finally got the best of him, and he glanced over his shoulder. Sharon had ditched her long coat so that she could run freely. She was armored head to toe in a bulky gunmetal gray exo-suit. Matthew had seen a few mining and construction suits that amounted to little more than hydraulic assists for lifting heavy loads, but what he saw barreling at him, at far faster than he liked, was clearly meant for military use.

“Definitely, Earthtech. Definitely not my day,” he muttered starting to regret that he had been coy about things. Thankfully, it looked like the crowd was slowing Sharon down, as they were unable to get out of her way nearly fast enough. He’d also noticed she wasn’t trampling anyone, so that was a good sign. Probably.

What she was doing was gaining on him. Matthew could tell by sound alone. He stole another look behind him. In fact, she’d be on him in just a few seconds. Suddenly, he spotted the opportunity he’d been looking for. He darted into a dense crowd of people and then crouched to the ground, turning and waiting for Sharon. When the crowd tried to part for her, Matthew moved with them towards the row of booths lining the street. Sharon passed, and he rolled under the nearest booth. The woman tending to the booth, who ironically enough sold cheap costume jewelry, opened her mouth to shout when she saw Matthew lying on the ground, but paused when he pointed towards Sharon and shook his head no. He did his absolute best to look terrified.

The woman hesitated, looked up at Sharon, and then back at Matthew lying on the concrete at her feet. He pointed in Sharon’s general direction again then wrapped both his hands around his own throat and mimed being strangled.

The woman nodded once and then went about her business.

Matthew went limp with relief, pleased that his ruse had worked, at least for now. He could hear Sharon clomping around the nearby market. Hopefully, she would think he had slipped elsewhere to better cover and would move on herself.

After a few minutes, the sound of Sharon’s exo-suit faded into the distance and Matthew breathed a sigh of relief. Now that he’d lost her, he stood a chance of getting out of this market. He cautiously crawled out from under the booth and poked his head out. The coast looked clear. He dug into his pocket and tossed a handful of coins to the woman for keeping quiet and then crept into a side alley.

Going back to his grav bike wasn’t an option. He’d have to find another way out of the market and back to Mrs. Ishii. And quickly too. He didn’t want Sharon thinking the easiest way to get the ring was to camp out at Mrs. Ishii’s apartment building. Then again, maybe she would expect him to find a different exit from the market. Perhaps by going back to the bike, he’d avoid her entirely.

Matthew scratched his stubble and sighed. This was probably a bad idea.

He turned and began to work his way through the crowd back towards the front entrance.

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Whatever disappearing trick Cole had used was a good one. By the time Abigail realized he had dissolved into the crowd, it was too late, and there were a thousand hiding places he could have slipped into. Abigail had prowled that part of the street for a good ten minutes before giving up and retreating in frustration.

She thought for sure she’d won the day when Cole foolishly waved to her. The fact that he’d known she was following wasn’t too surprising in and of itself. Some days she hated her complete and utter lack of ability to disappear into a crowd. But that he’d managed to escape her was baffling. Chases were usually one of her strong suits.

Abigail paced a back alley. She had to outthink Cole. She could go back to Mrs. Ishii’s apartment building and wait for him there, but if Mrs. Ishii saw the ensuing scuffle, it’s possible she could refuse to pay her and pay Cole instead. He had done the hard work after all. She clapped her enormous metal hands together in frustration. No, she’d have to catch him in the market, and by now he was probably trying to find some side exit to slip away.

Unless he wasn’t. Cole seemed a clever man, and sometimes clever men overthink things. What if he went back to the front entrance thinking she would be elsewhere? It was a horrible risk, but Abigail had a feeling she was onto something.

She turned to head back to the entrance, knowing she would have to beat Cole there if this was going to work. If he saw her first, she’d never lay eyes on him again, and she could kiss this contract goodbye.

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Matthew watched the front entrance of the Kashitomo Market for a full five minutes before making up his mind. He’d lost Sharon, and she certainly wasn’t anywhere in sight of the entrance. Taking the chance, he joined a group of people leaving the market, falling into step behind them.

His pulse spiked with each step as he drew nearer to the gate. If he’d misjudged and Sharon was sneakier than he thought…

He walked out of the gate and breathed a deep sigh. This had been the right call after all.

And then a metal hand fell heavily on his shoulder.

Matthew didn’t move, didn’t turn around. He just bit his lip at how unfair the universe could sometimes be.

“Oh look, I found the little cowboy.”

“Gaucho,” he corrected.

“Right. Still don’t care. You’re going to give me the ring, or do I have to start digging through your pockets?”

Matthew turned around to face his captor. He was surprised again by how far he had to look up to see her face. “Abigail, right? Can I call you Abi? Look, let’s talk about this. Maybe over a drink. I’ll buy. You’d let a nice guy like me buy you a drink, right? Do you like cherry soda?”

Sharon leaned forward and spoke a single word.

“Ring.”

He shrugged his shoulder. “Look Abi, I don’t have it. I was just on my way to…”

Sharon pulled a large post like object from her back and hit its base on the concrete. It widened into something that resembled a riot shield. Well, that explained why they called her the Shield Maiden, he thought. Nope, he wasn’t getting paid today. Not one filthy cent.

May as well twist the knife in.

“Look, you wouldn’t hit someone smaller than you now would you?”

He heard the faint hum of a grav plate warming up right as she swung the shield at him. The grav field hit him and tossed him across the street as easily as a child could throw a stone.

The good thing about getting hit by a grav field is that you don’t really feel the hit. Suddenly, you’re just falling away from it at a bizarre angle that gravity isn’t supposed to send you.

The bad thing is that no matter which direction you fall there’s still the sudden stop on the other side.

Matthew laid on the street, seeing stars, laughing to himself at a joke no one had told. Concussion probably, but he didn’t seem to have any broken bones. Sharon stood above him, hand outstretched.

He laughed one more time and dug the ring out of his shirt pocket and placed it in her metal hand. She turned to leave, and he called after her. “It was fun. Maybe we can do this again sometime, only next time, you can dress nice. Leave your work clothes at home.”

He couldn’t see her face, as she walked away, but he imagined her rolling her eyes.

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There was a knock on the door to Mrs. Ishii’s apartment. She stood from her office chair and let Mr. Cole in again. This time he took his shoes off without being asked.

“Just making sure the job got done, Ma’am. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to return the ring to you and I don’t expect to get paid, but I thought I would check in to make sure Ms. Sharon completed the job.”

Her face creased with amusement. Most freelancers weren’t nearly so dedicated. “Why yes, she did.” Mrs. Ishii gestured to a nearby table where the ring sat. “Abigail Sharon left only a few minutes ago. You barely missed her, and, in fact, she thought you might come by.”

The man nodded and tipped his campero to her. “Well then, I think that’s all. Good day, Mrs. Ishii.”

“Actually, she left something for you.” That got the freelancer’s attention. She held out her hand, and he looked at the bright and shiny twenty-five dollar coin in surprise. “She said she owed you a drink. And an aspirin.”

He laughed and took the coin, then thanking her one more time, bowed his head once and left.

Mrs. Ishii stared at the door for a moment then took the ring in her hand. She walked to her office and pushed aside a noren, revealing a safe. Hopefully, it’s thick lead-lined walls would be enough to prevent the ring’s rather fascinating side effects from causing any problems. She knew better than to mess with things she didn’t understand.

She activated the comm on her desk, calling up an old friend.

“You’d better be calling me with good news, Ishii,” a gruff voice came over the speaker.

Mrs. Ishii smiled slyly. “You worry too much. Of course I got it back. You’d better get one of your people over here to take this thing off my hands. I don’t want to be near it any longer than I have to.”

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