Salem Song stopped quickly and tucked herself tight against a shadowed wall as a door ahead burst open, light and voices spilling into the dim street. A mass of three people stumbled out, boozy laughter rolling out from them, breaking the silence of the otherwise deserted street. Past them she saw her quarry look back as well, startled at the sudden noise and possible attention. The heavy man paused long enough to see them walk toward a car parked in front of the building, seemed, for a split second, to look past them, toward her in the darkness, then turned and continued on his way. Salem stood, stock still, until the group piled into their car and drove off, nearly invisible outside of the dim pools lit by the weakening street lamps. The heavy man was still in sight, walking slowly but breathing heavily, throwing clouds of steam into the cold night air. She waited a few breaths, until he was nearly out of site, before carefully resuming her slow, methodical chase.
She turned up the collar of her leather jacket against the evening’s chill, and her well-worn boots barely made a sound against the cement as she carefully worked her way around loose stones and stray bottles. She’d been tailing this mark for hours, from the moment he left his high-rise office building in the South Loop, and wound a path through a string of high-brow cocktail bars on his way down through to Hyde Park. Now, at two in the morning, he’d reached a neighborhood for which gentrification was still a far-off rumor, and into which the city had spent considerable effort and money funneling the remaining poor and homeless. The face of this Chicago had been unchanged for decades, not neglected as much as willfully ignored.
He’d started moving faster, already at the edge of Salem’s vision, forcing her to move recklessly faster in case she lose him in the gloom. She tried to keep her noise to a minimum, and match her footfalls to his, but he was clearly spooked by something and broke into a run. His heavy steps echoed down the street, masking her quiet curse, and she ran to catch up. She’d followed too long to lose him now, and if her cover was blown so be it. She’d get the information she needed somehow. She was closing the distance, but was still a block behind when he quickly ducked into an alley. She swore again and sped up to a sprint already knowing that once she reached the turn he’d be long gone. She slowed as she reached the corner, reaching out with her right hand as she sidled toward the edge, feeling the rough brick under her fingers. She listened closely for a moment before slowly craning her neck around. The alley was black, with windows either unlit or blocked on either side, and city lights long since burned out and never replaced. She reached her hand up to nudge the controls on her glasses to increase the sensitivity in hopes to see something in the darkness, but it barely made any difference.
She steadied her breathing, and with practiced ease slid around the corner and slipped quietly into the alley. She moved slowly, deliberately placing one foot silently in front of the other, scanning the ground for anything luckily dropped by the heavy set man. Seconds passed like minutes as her eyes and ears strained for any sign of him.
She jumped back and twisted left the instant she heard the crackle of wingtip on broken glass. The man was faster than she would have guessed, his knife grazing her upturned collar. He swore as he rushed by, off-balance and scrambling, and she quickly regained her footing, her hand hovering over the gun hanging at her waist.
“You’re quick, sweetheart, I’ll give you that,” a voice growled from the dark. “Should have turned by at that alley, though. Quick or not, you’re not getting out of here alive.”
Surrounded by deadly, armed blackness Salem made a mental note to upgrade to a pair of glasses equipped with infrared. “You’ll want to drop that pig sticker and answer some questions if you want to make it through tonight upright and breathing,” she said, her voice sugar over steel.
He laughed harshly and she heard the crunch of gravel as he lunged at her again. She dodged blindly, feeling his knife arm pierce the air to her left, and as she prepared her counter he, faster than she would have imagined, planted his feet and swung a knee into her stomach. She gasped, doubled over, and rolled, the weapon in her shoulder holster digging into her side. She heard steps coming closer and drew from her hip, thumbing her pistol’s light, revealing her attacker’s face in the small cone of light. A bent nose hung over a large-mouthed scowl. His jaw was wide-set, like his shoulders, and though he’d looked clumsy the entire night he now stood solidly and balanced in front of her. He was balding, his breath came now in pants, and despite his girth his grey suit hung loose around him. He grinned wide, the smile of a shark approaching a wounded diver, and slowly advanced. His face was predatory, his smile profane, and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve as he advanced.
“Like I said, doll, you should have went home. I don’t know who you are, and don’t care, but you’re lucky I don’t have more time to spend dealing with you.”
She slid away, clawing the ground with her left arm, willing air back into her lungs. Her back touched a building and she used it to get back to her feet, breathing in ragged gasps.
“One more step,” she rasped, gripping the weapon in two hands, “and you’re in for a world of hurt.”
He paused, smile fading slightly from deadly to patronizing, sizing her up.
“OK, darling, you win,” he said, tossing his knife off to her right. As her eyes followed it he charged with impossible agility, but without looking back she squeezed the trigger twice. He’d probably braced himself for the shock of standard civilian electrified non-lethal rounds, and maybe even hid some body armor under his ill-fitting suit. He certainly did not suspect that Salem was was carrying police-grade firepower with enough juice to short out a linebacker shooting designed drugs with rounds that would arc through anything short of a Faraday Cage. The sheer projectile force stopped his advance and the pain dropped him, convulsing, to the ground.
Salem moved away from the wall, keeping her weapon trained on him, and steadied her breathing just as he regained enough muscle control to scream in pain. She dropped another round into him and he vomited, the stench of stomach acid and cheap vodka filling the alley. She stood nonchalantly as he shouted and cursed, writhing on the concrete. He’d lured her to one of the only neighborhoods in the entire city that wouldn’t give a damn about his screams, and he knew it. Whatever happened from here on would be uninterrupted.
“The way I see it,” she said coldly,” you can answer my questions, or spend the rest of the night ruining your suit, and wishing I was holding something more deadly than this gun.”
He looked at her, coughed, growled something that might have been “Fuck you,” drew a shallow breath, and spit at her feet. She kicked him in the mouth, and then in the stomach, and he gasped and writhed. She kneeled on him - one knee in his back, the other on his head - and buried the barrel of her gun in his neck.
“You do not want to feel what this is like point blank on bare flesh,” she said.
He gurgled a response and weakly moved an arm.
“…Pocket,” he managed.
“Slowly,” she said, easing her pressure on his back.
He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small piece of plastic. She recognized it as an old flash drive, the kind people used to use to transport files before the Cloud, and before wearables could carry large amounts of data.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she said, taking it from his shaking hand. “Where were you taking this? A museum?”
“There was a drop house around the old U of C campus,” he said through gritted teeth. “I saw you following me, but I was supposed to dump the drive up there. I swear that’s all I-“
“You know what? I don’t care,” Salem interrupted. She squeezed the trigger and got to her feet as the unnamed man convulsed below her. He passed out from the pain as she turned her back and made her way back into the dim light of the street. As she reached the alley mouth and turned left she heard a rustling behind her and guessed that when her unfortunate mark awoke he’d be missing anything valuable on him, including the terrible suit. Even automated taxis wouldn’t be cruising this neighborhood so she started walking north to the nearest L station, this time striding directly through the weakly illuminated circles in the street. She thumbed her glasses again, and clicked through to her contacts.
“O’Connor,” a voice growled, answering on the third ring.
“Detective,” she answered smoothly. “Salem Song. You’re probably going to see an alert soon for a weapon discharge. That was me. I’ve got another one for you. GPS tags of the slugs should be in the system by now.”
“Another completely unprovoked attack, I suppose?”
“You just can’t walk the streets safely these days,” she said, disconnecting the call.
On the way to the L she spotted a bar, and popped in. The Blarney Stone. It was one of a million nondescript “Irish” pubs that dotted the city, and one of several unrelated Blarney Stones. Bars whose only claim to Ireland was the Guinness on tap, with the only thing shorter than the whiskey list being the actual pours of liquor. The place was empty, the 4am liquor license wasted on a Tuesday night, and the bartender looked tiredly up from his tablet as she walked in. He wore the black t-shirt and black jeans that seemed to be the uniform behind bars like these, though the disheveled beard and sullen eyes were probably his own addition. She strode up to the him without taking a stool, pulled her credit chit out of the holster on her left wrist, and placed it in front of her. No tiredness in her movements, no shaky hands, no nerves. Just practiced precision and grace, even after the dust-up in the alley.
“Whiskey,” she said. “Neat. Keep the tab open.”
He produced a half empty bottle of Powers and a reasonably clean glass and poured in a finger and a half. She looked up and him and raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged and tipped the bottle again. She picked up her drink and chose a table near the wall, and sighed as she sat, feeling his eyes following her. After her first sip she reached up and thumbed off her glasses’ recording. Just a simple drink after a dicey encounter, nothing more. The dim, dinginess of the bar matched her mood, though the atmosphere was no doubt completely manufactured. Dank drinking holes made to order. She pulled out her handset and pinged her client that the job was complete, and included the bar’s address to make the exchange. She heard footsteps on the machine-scuffed floorboards and looked up to see the bartender approaching, bottle in hand. When he arrived at the table set the bottle down, and reached to pull out a chair. She hooked a booted foot around the leg, stopping him.
“You know,” she said carefully eyeing him up and down,” most nights I’d probably be all for this, and we’d have some fun, but tonight is all business and this seat’s taken. Maybe next time.”
He tried to hide the shocked look on his face, tried to maintain the air of bartender cool he’d no doubt been working on since his first night on the job. He feigned apathy and shrugged.
“No harm, darlin’,” he said in a passable, yet fabricated, Irish accent. “You let me know if you need anything else. You can call me Patrick.”
“Sure, Patrick. You can’t call me darlin’,” Salem responded with an insincere smile.
He raised his arms in a sign of defeat and retreated back behind the bar and lost himself back into his tablet.
Near the end of her drink the door opened. Salem looked up and saw a portly older man walk in, leaning heavily on his cane. His bright white hair was perfectly styled, as was his cirsp grey suit, and his cheeks were slightly red from the cold and wind outside. He walked to the bar, ordered a gin, and reached into his pocket to pay with $20 in real, hard currency. He waived away any change, which the bar probably couldn’t make anyway. Patrick raised an eyebrow, and then when the old man turned around pocketed the bill.
As the gentleman walked over to Salem’s table she lifted her foot and pushed out the chair across from her. He nodded his head and gingerly lowered himself into the seat, letting out a breath.
“Hello again, Ms. Song. I trust everything went smoothly?” he asked, with an old, gruff yet genteel sort of charm.
“Not at all, actually,” she responded to the man she only know by the fake name Mr. White. She could have found out the name behind the alias, but that wasn’t her style, and that style was what kept her in work. “It went pretty rough. He didn’t give up the data easily. Almost left me talking out of the side of my neck, and I had to put three rounds in him.”
“So the police are involved?” Mr. White said, slightly alarmed.
“It’s not a problem. I involved a detective I’ve worked with before, he’ll walk away from this. That fuss, though, does make me a bit curious about what could be on here,” she said pulling the flash drive out of her pocket, and studying it.
“Your curiosity, though, wasn’t part of our deal,” he replied softly, with a practiced pleasantness and patience. “I’ll have that, you’ll have your payment, and our business will be over.”
Salem continued to look at the drive for a moment and sighed. She’d made a choice that, in her business, she didn’t always get to know the answers to the million questions rattling around her brain. Despite the fight, and the inconvenience of dealing with the police, she had agreed to deliver no questions asked. Meeting Mr. White’s eyes she placed the drive in the middle of the table, keeping a single finger on it. He smiled, nodded, and tapped his wrist through his suit. Her handset vibrated in her pocket and a notice popped up on her glasses that payment had been made to her account. He’d tried to negotiate a cash payment, but she didn’t want the trouble and suspicion of bringing that much currency into a bank. She took her finger off of the drive, picked up her glass, drained the last of her whiskey, and without another word stood and walked to the bar to settle her bill. As she walked out the door she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Mr. White calmly nursing his drink. Outside she saw a black car with a study, square-shouldered, plain looking brown-haired man leaning against it. Inside, she saw a flesh-and-blood driver behind the wheel. The old man really liked rolling old school.
Salem turned up the street towards the L train and home.