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CHAPTER TWO

Vaughn's injuries healed quickly in the weeks after her narrow escape
from death, although the wounds to her ego and ambition still rankled
fresh and festering as ever. While her body mended, her mind obsessed on
plans and preparations to exact retribution against the two men who had
been imprudent enough to ruin her entry into the Bill Gates ranks of the
obscenely wealthy.  Lear jets, palatial home gyms, men named Hans who
specialized in Swedish massage -- it had all been so rudely wrested from
her grasp.  She turned various bloody scenarios over and over in her
head, driven as a hamster in a wheel at a Surge Cola testing lab.

Her schemes would not, she reflected with a certain smug satisfaction,
be hard to accomplish; confirming the locations of two ordinary
civilians was mere child's play for her (particularly considering the
sort of child she'd been; but that's another story, involving --
coincidentally enough -- the infliction of yo-yo scars). In short, she
didn't anticipate the slightest difficulty in exacting her revenge.

So when she ran into a problem, she got very angry.

"Who the hell do you think you're dealing with, Benny?" Vaughn spat as
she leveled her gun at the seedy little arms dealer, savoring the way
his scraggly moustache twitched in terror.  The threat of bullets had
made the cocky little weasel sweat some bullets, sure enough, although
the profuse layers of grease which always coated his entire body,
possibly since birth, made it rather hard to tell. 

"Please, it was an accident, I swear," Benny pleaded, hands held high in
the air as he cringed behind the battered desk of his run-down office.
An office that would need a new door, thanks to Vaughn, as well as a new
doorman to stand outside. Also, if the situation didn't improve quickly,
the office might be in need of a new occupant.  Plus a very, very
efficient clean-up crew.

"How do you 'accidentally' sell someone half-spent ammo clips? There's
no way, Benny. You cheated me on purpose." Her index finger began to
exert a deliberate, steady pressure on the trigger, pointing the gun at
the slogan emblazoned on the grungy once-white expanse of his vintage
70's T-shirt: "Macho Man."

His already thin and whiny voice, an accent of indeterminate Eastern
European origin coating each word thick as goulash, squeaked up high
enough to set neighborhood dogs howling. "No, no!  Not you! That was the
accident!"

"What?" Just a trace of involuntary curiosity seeped into her tone as
she eased up on the trigger and gestured imperiously at him with the
gun. "Okay, explain. This ought to be good."

"I do sell some half-empty clips to some clients--"

"Oh, great defense, Benny," Vaughn interrupted. "Admit that you're a
crook. That's really going to convince me not to kill you."

"Not real clients!" he blurted out. "I mean, not quality customers. I
don't cheat professionals. The shorted ammo goes to militia guys. The
survivalist kooks. Anyone who gets in touch with me through the *Soldier
Of Fortune* ad, or lives in Montana. Half those guys can't tell an empty
clip from a full one until they try firing. And if they do find out,
what are they going to do? Sue me? This is all illegal merchandise.
Cool plan, huh?"  He grinned hopefully, begging her to see the humor in
it all.

Her mouth twitched in spite of herself.  "And none of them have ever
come looking to take it out on your hide?"

"A couple, but that's what Hugo was for," Benny replied, peering past
Vaughn and through the doorway to glimpse the remains of his former
employee, who'd surely earned his hazard pay that day.  He frowned in
momentary puzzlement.  He could have sworn he saw a shadow there,
lurking where a shadow had no business to lurk.

Vaughn shook her head and chuckled softly, drawing his attention back to
more immediate concerns.  "Fine. I believe you."

"So you're not going to kill me?" Benny ventured, a shaky smile wobbling
hesitantly across his face.

Vaughn smiled reassuringly in return, re-holstering her gun.  "No."
Then, just as he began to relax, she grabbed his shirt collar and hauled
his skinny form across his desk. "I won't kill you for cheating me, but
do you honestly think I'm going to forgive you for mistaking me for a
militia nut?"

"No!  Wait!  I'll give you a full refund!  Discount on future
merchandise!" he choked, scrabbling frantically at her constricting
hand. "It was a mistake! A complete fluke! Please, Vaughn! It was a
one-time thing!"

"Not quite."

Vaughn dropped the little man's collar and whirled to locate the source
of the voice, reaching for her gun, cursing herself for letting her
guard drop.  She saw immediately that she would have no chance to get a
shot in first, and carefully withdrew her hands away from her sidearm,
her mind plotting frantically for a way out.

A man was leaning in the doorway.  No; leaning was not quite the right
word.  This man *loomed.* He turned looming into an art form.  He looked
as if he'd gone to special looming schools, and earned advanced degrees,
writing an impressive dissertation on how a very tall, very masculine
human body could be positioned at precisely the right geometric angle
for maximum aesthetic and intimidation impact.  His clothes and form
were austere, severe; black shirt, slacks and peacoat, the collar
snapped up slightly to combine with a sharp widow's peak in a vaguely
vampiric effect that sank its fangs directly into the victim's
subconscious.  The shotgun he held leveled at their heads was equally
black, as were his shadowed eyes, and his subtle smirk.  Paired with
Vaughn, whose garb was similarly dark and harsh, Pik Van Cleaf looked
like a particularly nihilistic Calvin Klein commercial.

"Hello, Benny.  I didn't know you had company."  The threat in his tone
oozed icewater, trickling straight down the collar and onto the spine.
He cocked his head slightly, looking Vaughn up and down, from the top of
her black turtleneck to the toes of her black boots, pausing slightly on
key curves.  He could have -- and usually would have -- killed her
already.  He couldn't say precisely why he hadn't, in fact.  There were
any number of reasons.   Perhaps it was because he wanted to view her
oddly asymmetrical beauty up close, the enormous eyes and sulky pout
which seemed so prominent in her narrow face.  Although he generally only
approved of short hair for men, on her it worked, highlighting the
delicate strength of her features like a subdued frame sets off a
striking portrait.  Perhaps it was the way her ruthless execution of the
doorman and her gleeful game of cat-and-mouse with the arms dealer put
him pleasantly in mind of himself in his vicious prime.  Certainly,
curiosity had much to do with it; her name rang a bell, one whose tone
should have been a funeral knell.   "Am I mistaken, or did I hear Benny
call you 'Vaughn'?  I've heard of you.  You were involved in some top
secret debacle out west, if I recall.  Everyone's been saying that
you're dead."

"I get that a lot."  Vaughn shifted slightly, distributing her weight
evenly on both feet, subtly easing her limber body into readiness to
seize any opportunity to shoot or leap out of the line of fire.  "You a
friend of this guy?"  She jerked her head at Benny, who looked like
Custer wondering if the line of dust on the horizon marked the arrival
of reinforcements or the onset of fresh Indian warriors with flaming
arrows.

Pik chuckled and flashed a feral grin, the corners of his eyes crinkling
with generous laugh-lines, every laugh gained at the expense of someone
else's pain.  "Not really.  Actually, I'm here to kill him for selling
me half-empty ammo clips.  Such a coincidence."  As Vaughn regarded him
warily, and Benny groaned and slid a little further underneath his desk,
Pik pushed lightly away from the wall and sauntered closer.  "You know,
you really shouldn't let yourself become so focused on your anger, to
the point where it compromises your defenses.  It's very foolish.  I had
a friend who did that once."  He paused significantly.  "Someone dropped
a grenade down his pants."  Although he'd been unconscious at the time,
he'd heard through the grapevine that Boudreaux had bragged about that
particular aspect of Fouchon's execution quite a bit.

Vaughn bridled visibly at his condescension.  "You know, it's funny --
in my experience, whenever anyone tells a story about an anonymous
'friend,' they're usually referring to themselves."

Raising his eyebrows at her insult to his masculinity, he sighed
indulgently.  "Just offering a little free advice; you're welcome to
ignore it.  However, I am a busy man, so if you'll just step out of my
way, I'll be getting on with my business."

"Whoa.  Hold it.  Wait just one minute."  Vaughn confronted him, her
sharp chin jutting out in anger, looking remarkably fierce despite the
way the top of her head only reached up to the bottom of his chin.  "I was
here first.  I broke down the door, and I killed the damn doorman.  Just who
the hell do you think you are?"

He glared down at her ominously.  "I think I am Pik Van Cleaf."  People
did not talk back to Pik Van Cleaf.  Well, sometimes they did; but only
once.  "I think I am also the man with a gun ready to shoot.  And you're
the woman *without* a gun ready to shoot.  Any further questions?"

Although furious, she clearly recognized the name.  "Pik Van Cleaf?  I'd
heard you were dead."

The arrogant grin returned.  "I get that a lot, too."

"Yeah, I'd heard you and all your partners got completely blown away by
a Louisiana vagrant."  She smiled charmingly, crossing her arms and
staring directly into his eyes, hoping to goad him into doing something
stupid.  His gun might be large, but hers was fast, rather like her own
lithe body.  If he missed his first shot, she'd have him.

It worked.  He was losing his concentration, his amused detachment.
Unfortunately, his next remark made her lose her own.  "That Louisiana
vagrant had Special Forces training.  On the other hand, if the rumors
are correct, you were stopped cold by two untrained civilians."

"You son of a--"

Suddenly, in mid-curse, out of the corner of her eye, Vaughn saw a flash
of metal.  Benny, apparently not quite as stupid as appearances would
proclaim, had taken advantage of their squabbling to yank open a drawer
and pull out a pistol.  He was still moving, aiming, even as Vaughn
lunged for her own gun, hoping fervently somewhere in the back of her
mind that the big bruiser beside her had the sense to realize what was
happening, and not to shoot her instead of the dealer.

As she aimed her own weapon, she saw the gleam of Pik's shotgun out of
the corner of her other eye; both his gun and hers fired simultaneously.

When it was over, Benny was less a corpse than an interesting pattern on
the wallpaper.

Both were silent for several moments, watching bloody bits of plaster
patter down in a gentle hail.  Pik spoke first.  "Good shooting."

She shrugged, but looked gratified.  "Thanks.  You too."

He shook his head, eyes angry.  "Hardly.  I can't believe I almost
didn't see -- I mean, how could I have let myself get so distracted . .
. ." He trailed off, ejecting the used cartridge from the shotgun with a
single jerk of one powerful arm, the motion as abrupt and aggressive as
a blow.  "That never happened before.  Never happened before Boudreaux."
Vaughn felt almost sorry for him, standing there morosely cradling his
gun, his tone as defensive as a man trying to explain to his lover why
he has a medicine cabinet full of Viagra.

Against her better judgment, Vaughn found herself commiserating.  "I
know just what you mean.  Sometimes I dream of Tim Mason all damn night,
then wake up feeling as tired as if I hadn't slept at all.  Dream after
goddamn dream about wringing his miserable little neck."  Her fingers
flexed in illustration, prompting a smile from Van Cleaf.

"I think I need a drink."  The large man rubbed his neck and eyes
tiredly before heading for the exit, then turned back towards her once
more.  "May I buy you one?"

She bristled a bit.  "I'm perfectly capable of buying my own drinks."

"Fine.  Then buy *me* one."

*************

"You know . . . you know, you know what the, the thing is?"  Vaughn
wavered slightly, her scotch sploshing over the rim of the glass with a
gentle tinkling of ice. 

"Whatsit?"  Pik Van Cleaf peered at her owlishly over the rim of his own
scotch, blinking with the effort to make her resolve from two fuzzy
women back into one distinct one.  Not that two Vaughns would
necessarily be a bad thing, mind you, as some pickled part of his libido
whispered to his brain.  One corner of his generous mouth insinuated
upwards in time with other rising thoughts.

Momentarily distracted, Vaughn stared indignantly at the pool of scotch
dripping down the back of her hand, then slowly licked it off as an
afterthought, nearly causing Pik to drop his own glass.  "The thing, the
thing is . . ."  She blinked uncertainly.  "I forgot."

They were both quite spectacularly smashed.

They had begun drinking, of course, with the exquisite paranoia and
prudence which characterized a long-lived mercenary's every gesture.
Pik had ordered scotch, and she had mirrored his order, flashing him a
defiant glare as if to underscore the fact that she would be having no
sissy drinks, thank you very much.  He'd quickly realized that he was
dealing with a featured soloist for the "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do
Better" song.  She was like Fouchon with breasts. *Nice* breasts,
though.

Both had sipped their drinks and sized each other up, each keeping one
hand casually hovering near their respective concealed weapons, just
waiting for a false move.  Eventually, however slowly they sipped, drink
number one had been consumed even down to the ice. 

Drink number two went faster, as did the conversation.  Bit by bit, both
grudgingly conceded details of their respective defeats, each glaring at
the other, obviously prepared to blow the listener away at the smallest
hint of mockery. 

Drink number three went much faster, as did numbers four and five . . .
the bartender in the decrepit little dive eventually stopped counting.
He could see they'd both had enough, but something in the look in their
eyes -- however unfocused those eyes were at the moment -- told him he
should let them be.  He merely refilled their glasses periodically and
then retreated safely behind the bar, mildly surprised that the slender
woman appeared to be able to put it all away as easily as the hulking
human condominium beside her.  And all the while, the talk flowed fast
as the liquor, although the abundance of the latter was obviously
beginning to impact the fluency of the former.

"Wait.  I remember now," Vaughn continued, renewing her grip upon her
drink a bit more securely.  "The thing is . . . bosses.  Bosses suck.
Both of, of us," she slurred, stabbing at his massive chest with her
index finger for emphasis, rather liking the solidly muscled feel of
said chest,  "both of us got screwed.  Major Brynner was a goddamn
nutcase.  And your Foo .. . Foosh . . . whatever the hell his name was,
he sounded like a goddam lunatic too.  If . . . if't wasn't for them,"
she snarled, "we could've wiped the floor with Mason and Boo. . . Bow .
. . whatever the hell the Cajun's name was."  Her half-closed eyes
gleamed with misty hatred, the look of a tranquilized tigress on a
nature special, wondering muzzily if she can muster the tooth-eye
coordination necessary to rip out Marlon Perkins' throat.

Pik snorted in agreement, shifting awkwardly in his chair.  He seemed to
have entirely too many knees and elbows at the moment, and his fingers
all had grown at least an inch, by the feel of it.  It was odd,
actually, how it didn't fully register how very large he was until
alcohol had robbed him of his keen coordination, his striking
self-possession.  Far from indulging in any showy gun-flips, his manual
dexterity had deteriorated to the point where he would probably have
trouble just holding a gun so the correct end pointed outwards.  "It's
Boudreaux." The rolled "r" purred off his tongue, humming with hatred.

"Yeah, Boo . . . um, him." 

Pik exhaled heavily.  "Knowing they're out there . . . it throws you off
balance, doesn't it?"  He punctuated the statement with a handy visual
aid, dramatically gesturing himself half out of his seat.  Re-settling
himself a bit sheepishly, he clung to the small stool like an adult
hunches in a kiddie chair on Parents' Night.  "It . . . it makes you
doubt yourself.  Makes you angry.  Makes you stupid.  Makes you, makes
you *dead,* eventually."  He liked the word "makes," he decided,
repeating it with satisfaction.  Nicely short and monosyllabic and
compactly aggressive, it snapped crisply from his lips, although his
current pronunciation did seem to tack on a "shhhh" sound which had
never been there before, in the manner of a homicidally hostile
librarian.

Vaughn curled her lovely lip into a sneer.  "Know something else?
Accents.  Never trust anyone with a funny accent.  Benny, and Boo. . .
Bow . . . him.  Never liked guys with stupid accents."

Pik scowled, assuming a sneer of his own that would put the late Elvis
to shame.  "Thanks *so* much."

She rolled her eyes. "'Course, present company's excepted.  Your
accent's not stupid.  I like your accent.  Really.  I swear."  She
nodded firmly, finding herself staring at his gorgeous cheekbones;
combined with hers, they had enough acute angles to construct some very
interesting geometrical figures.  And his sensual hands, engulfing the
tumbler of scotch like a shot glass . . . those were definitely not the
hands of a common killer, she could attest.  A killer, yes, certainly,
but never, *ever* a "common" one.  She'd never seen anyone hold a gun
like him, supple muscles melding to its every metal contour, until he
*became* his weapon.  Blinking hard, she commenced chewing fiercely on
an ice cube.

Pik took another long swallow of scotch, apparently appeased, and
winked.  "Well, that's all right, then.  I know you didn't mean to hurt
my feelings."  Draining the last few drops, he laughed softly into the
ice-filled glass, a hollow, chilly sound.

"Wha's so funny?"  More than a bit belligerent, Vaughn's tone clearly
implied that, cheekbones notwithstanding, she'd still rip out his liver
for daring to laugh at her.

"Nothing.  Just . . . ever watch old movies?"

"Um.  A few.  Why?" In reality, Vaughn's idea of an old movie was
*Saturday Night Fever,* but she wasn't about to admit it to the cocky
bastard.

"It's just . . . all *this,*" he declared, waving his glass expansively
in a vague motion which could have encompassed her, the bar, his
preferred brand of scotch, his preferred method of killing someone with
a scotch glass, and/or the universe in general, "all this reminds me a
little bit of *Strangers on a Train.* Old Hitchcock film.  Funny
world." 

"Well, are you gonna tell me about it, or are you gonna make me wait for
the remake?" Vaughn quipped, remembering how horrible Gus Van Zant's
*Psycho* had been.  At least the gory bits had given her a few good
laughs, causing most of the other theatergoers to relocate to a position
several rows away.

"Don't even joke about that.  Anyway, s'pretty simple."  Or it *would*
be simple, he amended internally, if either one of them had any working
brain cells left.  "It's just two strangers on a train, hence . . .  the
title, right?  They meet by chance, and, and they both want some people
dead," he explained, his tone clearly indicating that such an agenda
qualified as boringly routine in his world, "and then one of them says
they should 'switch murders' so there's no motive.  Sort of, you know,
help each other out, sort of thing.  You should see it sometime, it's .
. . Vaughn? . . . Vaughn?"  He waved his hand in front of her face
uncertainly, not liking the enraptured, distant gleam in her eyes one
bit.

"My God.  Ohmigod, that's perfect.  Don't you see?  'Sperfect!"  She
looked poised to embrace him.  Appealing as that eventuality sounded,
his danger instincts were kicking in, dog-padding upstream through his
scotch-laden blood.

"Perfect?  Perfect how?  I don't follow--"

"For us!  For us!  Don't you see?"  She grinned maniacally and leaned in
close, hiccuping gently with excitement.  "It's like fate, or, or
something," she enthused, giving up on even attempting to pronounce
"karma."  "It's gotta be fate, the two of us meeting like this.  Both of
us nearly killed by stupid do-gooders 'cause we both worked for people
who had a whole lotta screws loose.  Both of us mad as hell, and dying
for revenge.  We could work together on this!  We could do it *right,*
and maybe get us both back on track.  If we put our heads together, I
bet we could make Mason and . . . and that Cajun guy wish they'd never
been *born.*"

He scooted his chair a bit further away from her, sobering up in a
hurry.  "Look, first thing is, I said it just reminded me a *little.*
Very, very little.  Then, the . . . um . . . second thing is," he
continued, pausing to concentrate on the complexities of counting under
the influence, "even if I *was* going to kill Boudreaux, and it's a big
'if,' I still wouldn't need to switch with you.  The police all think
I'm dead anyway, and a corpse is a pretty damn unlikely suspect."  He
paused, remembering his farcical encounters with the law during his
brief sojourn in New Orleans.  "Even for Louisiana police,"he amended.

"No, no, *no,*" she snapped impatiently, scooting her chair closer to
him again, almost smashing his foot beneath the chair leg. "Not
*switching* murders -- when Mason's blown away, it's gonna be me who
pulls the trigger, you better believe.  What I mean is, I'm talking
about helping each other out with the setups and, and that kinda stuff.
We're both so personally wrapped up in this -- c'mon, you see how we're
both getting pissed, and screwing up royally, and the two of them aren't
even *around.*  What the hell are we gonna do when they *are*?  Now, if
each of us had someone sorta neutral along we could depend on, someone
who's not a nut like last time --"

Pik's expression clearly communicated that he was rapidly leaning
towards aligning her with the nuts.  "Sorry to derail your little . . .
'train of inspiration' here," he interrupted coolly, committing one of
the worst puns in the history of the universe, "but *I* don't need
*anyone* to help me take care of Boo . . . Bow . . . ." He paused,
realizing in horror that she'd started to infect him with her speech
impediment.  "*Boudreaux,*" he finally snarled, "if and when I decide to
take care of him.  So, don't you go trying to recruit *me* to take care
of *your* damn problems."

She looked perfectly capable of stabbing him using only her chin; he
swore he could hear the faint whooshing sound of her blood pressure
skyrocketing off the scale.  "Like I really *need* help taking care of
those two losers -- d'you forget who *saw* Benny reaching for that gun
today?  Huh?"

He grabbed her wrist and twisted it, onyx eyes glittering with something
bordering on absolute sobriety, and much worse.  "Don't insult me,
Vaughn," he warned in a quietly dangerous tone, enunciating so slowly
and distinctly that the words failed to slur at all. 

"Me?  You're insulting yourself!  How could you possibly *not* want
revenge -- you see what's happening to you, what, are you too
chicken--" 

The table wobbled crazily with the explosion of motion triggered by both
of them drunkenly trying to lunge for their respective concealed weapons
while preventing the opposition from doing the same.  After a brief
flurry of limbs, a clumsy stalemate emerged:  Vaughn straddling Pik's
thighs, her chest crushed too close against his for him to reach the
sidearm strapped beneath his coat, while Pik grasped both of her wrists
in a brutal grip.

They both looked deeply into one another's eyes.

Then, in unison, as if in response to some unheard cue, they both began
to laugh hysterically.

"Oh, Christ, that was just *pathetic,*" she snorted, slumping back
against the table.  "I shoulda been able to blow you away before you
knew what hit you."

"You?  Ha!  I should've been able to snap your neck before you even
*thought* about your gun."  He shook his head in bemusement as he
released her arms.  "Haven't been this drunk in a long, long time."

"Me neither," she grinned, sliding off his thighs and back into her
chair in a way that was incredibly distracting.  She sighed deeply, her
face growing grave.  "Face it, Pik.  We're slipping. Can't even beat each
*other,* for chrissakes.  We really need to get our act together."

He rubbed his chin, pondering her words, or at least marinating them in
thoughtful pools of alcohol.  He had really believed that, unlike
Fouchon, he was going to be able to walk away from Boudreaux without
letting it consume him.  But consuming him it was; Vaughn's taunt of
cowardice -- so like Fouchon's accusation of being "soft" -- had proven
once again that the experience had left him with buttons which were far
too easily pushed.  It was a weakness a professional could not afford.
Not one who wanted to live long enough to take advantage of the
Mercenary Association's retirement plan, anyway.

Thrusting his hands into his pockets after a few failed attempts, he
cautiously nodded.  "What . . . what *exactly* did you have in mind?"

"Well, just hold on, I'm gonna tell you," she retorted, folding her arms
petulantly.  "I'm gonna tell you . . . soon as I wake up."

And with that, she slumped forward, forehead hitting the hard wood with
a gentle thud.

Pik clucked his tongue disapprovingly, leaning back a bit more
comfortably in his seat, until -- gravity being what it is, and
barstools being what they are -- a second, far less gentle thud resounded
through the bar.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold . . . .

They probably didn't mean *out* cold.

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