Instead of my regular (but not really) Dare to be Bad challenge, I’ll be posting from my current novel in progress. No title yet, it’s set in the Tales from the Square universe. I don’t plan to have this up forever, so enjoy the book while it’s free to read. You can find the rest of the chapters here.

***

The front door across the street was a regular old fashioned door with a rusty handlebar, chipped blue paint falling off in long peels, and a transom that hadn’t been cleaned since the dodo fish died out a decade ago. Other than the “No Soliciting” sign pasted over a poster of Jericho McGamly with a red “X” on his face, this seemed nearly a hospitable door. Every last window of the house — the front facing Burmont Street, the side alley next to the pawnshop, and the back alley facing the brick wall of a lawyers’ office — was nailed shut with a hodge podge of recycled and salvaged composite boards. Something told me the occupants didn’t get a lot of sunlight.

For the fifth time I checked my lock-picking tools.

“When do we blow something up?” Gavin wiped imaginary dust off the sniper rifle between his legs. He sat on a case full of smart bombs and sticky shells. Another, bigger rifle was already set up at the window. The moth-eaten lacy window curtains were wadded up and tossed in the corner.

I peered through the monocular at the door and wondered how I got this assignment. “If all goes well, there will be no explosions.”

“Brin, come on.”

“You know your target. If he answers the door.”

My pager went off. OITT headquarters — the Office of Intergalactic Trade and Tariffs. I stole another glance out the window of our third-story apartment. Newsboys on the corner, missionaries with clapboard signs strapped on their shoulders, cyclists delivering packages — the scenery seemed so… Quiet.

Quiet for a midmorning in the East Tonrow district. I had passed through a hoard of peddlers, gamblers, and con artists on the way to the stake-out. A pebble couldn’t pass through this burnt-out, over-crowded mess of urban sprawl without hitting someone. This block of Burmont Street practically echoed with the relative calm.

I tucked the monocular back in its pouch on my belt and strode to the antique wired telcom. I dialed HQ and tossed my pager to Gavin. He didn’t need it, but neither did the bad guys.

A cool, sexy — oddly hypnotic — female voice answered. “McGamly nodded.”

“Righty then.” I hung up.

Gavin held a pistol handle first to me.

“The moment I need a gun,” I said, “I’ll already be dead.”

He shrugged and stuck the pistol out further, practically putting it in my hand. “Doesn’t hurt. You know, just in case.”

I smiled and walked away. Before shutting the door on him and the one-room apartment, I turned my head enough to see him in my periphery. “Don’t miss.”

On the way down the stairs I buttoned my jacket and adjusted the red beret on my head. At the door I pressed the ear-piece deeper into my ear and coughed into the wireless microphone cuff-link.

“Check,” Gavin replied, his baritone voice sounded like a gnat buzzing in my cochlea.

One hand on Old Betsy — the sonic screwdriver I keep at my hip — I opened the door with a quick twist of the knob and a push with the shoulder. I cupped one hand over my eyes. The sun had the bright idea to shine this morning, not bad for grand old New Ipshiph, especially in East Tonrow. Normally hazy green clouds blotted out the sky and yellow fog covered the streets. Today, I could see to the end of the next block just fine. Maybe those urban reclamation projects were working.

A juggler on a unicycle rode past me and spun in a tight circle while throwing and catching five miniature bowling pins. A tall lanky girl with long brown braids and face covered in white paint, she sported a fancy neon red clown-nose and a purple and green dyed muskrat hat. Funny I hadn’t noticed such a freak from the stake-out position. Must’ve come from the alley to the north-west of our building. Too many blind spots in this tossy-turvy neighborhood. I’d bring that up to Jeane — McGamly’s secretary — before being sent on another suicide assignment.

But that’s what Gavin was for. Sure, we planned on assassinating Jory the Spine, but it was the wacko back-stabbers and the occasional angry citizen he was good at taking out before the point-girl — me — got taken out. Except for the small of matter of how much Gavin annoyed me, we made a pretty good team most days.

The juggler girl winked at me in the creepy way only clowns have perfected. She had captivating lilac eyes. I arranged my facial muscles into the mask all OITT agents are talented with. I scowled at the juggler. She had sense enough to ride the other way.

“Loony on the cycle,” I whispered into my cuff-link.

“In my sights,” Gavin said. I imagined him with an eye at the rifle-scope, one brow raised, finger on the trigger, and that stupid half-grin on his face as he whispered, “Pop.”

The Spine’s tenement up close didn’t look any better than it did from across the street. Dead vines held loose bricks in the facade. An overgrown rosebush dominated the left side, complemented by a plaster statue of a wolf with its ear broken off. Up close, the poster of McGamly looked pretty good for a piece of propaganda featuring one of the top commanders of OITT — sharp cleanly shaved jawline, crew-cut hair, wide-set eyes, fingers underneath chin in a reflective pose. The red “X” had words written on it I couldn’t see from the apartment: Don’t tread on me.

The three steps up to the front door were rounded and chipped with the ravages of age. I chose not to cling to the rusted iron rail while climbing them. Body askance and to one side — far enough from where I expected a bullet to fly by soon — I knocked on the door.

On the other side of the wall, cogs and wheels turned. Something big and mechanical whirred to life and vibrated the concrete stoop I stood on. The job at OITT had always come with risks and certain drawbacks, but at that moment I wondered why McGamly had been so insistent on taking out Jory the Spine in this location.

“Plan B,” I spoke softly into my cuff-link.

“Keep it cool, Brin. I got this under control.”

“No. Plan B. Plan B.”

A peephole to the side of the door opened and a red inflamed eye peered out at me. “Which one are you?”

I stood up straighter and folded my hands in front of me. “Jory Spinelof, I’m Agent Callahan. I am here to discuss your options under Regulation Twelve, Subsection C. If you wish to step outside, I will escort you to a neutral location to negotiate your…”

“I’ll never surrender to you tyrants!” The peephole slammed shut. “Never!”

Gavin piped up in my ear, “Brin, whatever is going on in your head, don’t.”

Running and calling in the goon squad to ransack this dump sounded like a good idea, and it was a thought certainly going through my head. I gingerly stepped away from the door and set one foot on the first step down. A loud firecracker bang pierced the air behind me and shards of concrete bit my ankle, the shock jolting most of my bones from my big toe up my spine. Like some weird first-person horror cinema special, my eyes turned down to my foot. Embedded in the stoop was a bullet, a mere two hand-spans away from my sole.

“Brin. Don’t.”

I spun in place and looked up at the stake-out window. Gavin was off to the side, at this angle I barely saw him and his guns. I hardly registered the door opening behind me. Not entirely sure what the Spine was yelling about. I definitely felt the cold, clumsy metallic hand grab me by the collar and yank me into the building.

It threw me into a rickety table next to a rather posh faux wood cabinet with a padlock on the bottom doors. I landed well enough on my back — I learned how to do that on a high wire under the big top. The rest of my bones hurt, including my thick skull which had landed sideways next to the cabinet. The room was rustic and reasonably comfortable enough for two people and a robot to co-exist. What must have been the kitchen door was to the right, to the right of that was a staircase going up.

Jory the Spine kicked the front door closed and pumped a shotgun. Click click.

“Agent Callahan,” he said, “I want to send Mr. McGamly a present and you get to choose what it is.”

I sat up, rubbing my neck. The robot with the grabby arm spun its torso ninety degrees to face me and flexed both arms. Its fist was the size of a frying pan with four double-jointed fingers, the torso a giant cylinder on top two legs inverted bird-like at the joints.

“Let me guess,” I got to my knees, “one of those options is my corpse.”

“Smart one are you? I’ve heard good things about you.” He jangled a key from a long red ribbon in his meaty fist. He was a tall, lanky man dressed in layers of rags and a patchwork hooded cloak. The Spine had a crow’s peak and bushy sideburns tinged with gray, a lot older than I imagined. He had outsmarted OITT enough times to be at the top of our most wanted list ever since I started my current job, but I’d never had the pleasure of meeting him face to face.

With a curled lip sneer, he tossed the key at me and I caught it one handed. In the dim lights the polished brass shined unnaturally, like it was covered in a dull gold aura.

“Hope you figure it out. Good luck.”

Two consecutive high pitched whistling noises preceded the tiny canisters that punched holes in the front facade. Smart bombs. Gavin always came prepared for everything. What exactly had he prepared for this time?

The sticky bombs were likely next.

The Spine trained his shotgun on the canisters, alternating his aim from one to the other as they cracked open with a hiss of steam. I got to my feet and got busy pulling the cabinet away from the wall. There wasn’t much else furniture that would do. A ratty stool next to what appeared to be a high-top table stolen from a bar and a rickety bookshelf full of bullet boxes and shells.

“What’s your partner doing?”

The first smart bomb broke out of its shell and crawled up the robot’s leg. The machine swung its clumsy arm in a pointless effort to dislodge it.

I squeezed in behind the cabinet and crouched down with hands over my head and neck. “You might want to seek shelter now.”

He dived behind the cabinet right as the next missile shattered the door and a second whistled and exploded next to the robot. The Spine fired a round at the second smart bomb as it skittered past us. The recoil from the shotgun hit me square in the shoulder, at least it was somewhat padded by his body.

“Damn it,” Jory shouted as he primed the next shell. The smart bomb climbed the staircase on spindly legs.

The floor shook and the cabinet got shoved back with the force of a mechanical arm, squashing me and the Spine into the wall. My tender shoulder compressed into my hurting neck, which made my back and hips pop. A high pitched whistle warned me to keep crouched a full second before the entire building shook.

Wood splinters and brick shards blew towards us, clanking off the robot and making dents and holes in the wall around me. Thankfully, the cabinet held up. The building, unfortunately, creaked and groaned from the damage. Gears and metallic sockets groaned as the robot was apparently rotating its torso, looking for oncoming threats.

I wiggled my way out from behind the cabinet — praying Gavin was done shooting for now — and spun around on my heels. The Spine heaved and pushed the cabinet forward with brute strength, breaking open the sides as it landed on the floor between him and his robot.

“Damn it!” He shouted again, this time his mouth foamed a little as he pointed with the gun. “It’s on the processor.”

The smart bomb had attached to the robot’s “neck”. Smart bombs are good at three things: reconnaissance, stealing small valuables, and infecting machines with viral code. When the bomb actually explodes, it’s more for covering tracks.

Jory the Spine fired right as the robot slammed its fist into the floor. He teetered on his feet and the shell scraped past the robot’s left shoulder.

“I still have to arrest you,” I crouched near the upturned bar table.

Metal shields raised around the robot’s processor and the smart bomb. Another shot fired, bounced off the shields and ricocheted past my ear.

“Spinelof! Watch it!”

“I need to shoot the head.”

I tumbled to the side, away from the robot foot stomping right where I had just been. Dust and strips of fiberboard exploded around me. I grabbed a stray piece of flooring. “How many shots you have?”

“One.”

The robot slammed its fist into the floor two steps away from the Spine, making a giant depression. The floor creaked unnaturally. I smacked the machine over the head with my board and ran around it, following the indentation it had made. It spun around to me fast. The fist hit the wall, slowing the momentum at least.

Sirens wailed in the distance.

“Get behind me.” I rounded close to the Spine, but he kept running away from me. This wasn’t going to work out so well. Against better judgment, I jumped on to the cabinet and smacked the robot again with the board. This time it grabbed the board in one fist and yanked, the other fist struck down hard on the cabinet as I leaped to the side and tumbled. I don’t think it calculated me letting go of the board. It must have expected me to be a bit slower and stand there while it bashed me into a pulp.

The robot stumbled backwards from the momentum of pulling the board out of my hands. The Spine spent his last round directly in the machine’s head, where the equivalent of a real person’s temple would be. Off balance, it fell over with a thunk and a crack.

I pushed the Spine to the outer wall right as the floor caved in under the weight of scrap metal. Instead of thanking me, the bastard elbowed me in the gut and ran to the ruined cabinet. He bent over, one eye on me as he pulled apart the sides and rummaged through the mess.

He stood up and pointed the shotgun at me while inspecting what appeared to be a computer memory disk between his thumb and finger.

“You have no more rounds,” I said.

“Agent Callahan,” he squinted at me and shoved the disk into his pocket, “catch me if you can.”

I charged at him with a lame tackle move, using my smaller stature to avoid the blunt end of the shotgun. I had no intention of catching him exactly. Nor did I mean to slip and fall in the hole in the floor. I held on one handed to a jagged floorboard.

The Spine ran away. I threw one leg up to buy some leverage, then the edge creaked and broke off. I landed on the damned robot.

“You better be worth the pain,” I kissed the disk. I ripped the disk out of the smart bomb attached to the robot and kissed that too. I managed to find my way out of the cellar before the building collapsed. Didn’t manage to disappear before the police and fire departments arrived on the scene.

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