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CHAPTER THREE

Tim Mason cast his line into the stream, hoping to find a fat trout
ready to strike. There was no sport in the world that Tim enjoyed more
than fly fishing, given that Marathon Slacking had never been officially
declared a bona fide sport. It was a hobby he'd come across only a few
months ago, but he'd quickly developed a passion for it; it probably
helped that most of the major components of the activity -- beer,
napping, more beer -- had a lot in common with slacking, except that
large bodies of water were involved.

Certainly, some of his passion could also be attributed the fact that
he'd been exposed to the manifold joys of the sport in the picturesque
wilderness outside of Jerome, Montana (population: 150, if you count
the chickens). This particular area was graced with a pristine beauty
that was rarely seen in this century, outside of certain beer and
cigarette commercials featuring rugged mountain men who presumably
maintained their cutting-edge physiques via a strict regime of alcohol
and nicotine. Yet another factor which weighed heavily in his
attachment to the hobby was his memory of the man who had introduced him
to it. A quiet, soft-spoken fellow who had lived in a private cabin a
few miles from town, Dr. Richard Long had been the first friend Tim had
found in Jerome (and, given Tim's track record for getting people
killed, probably the last). The doctor had been a truly gifted
all-around fisherman, and an absolute genius at casting flies.

He'd been pretty good at formulating deadly chemicals, too.

Dr. Long's invention had, in fact, far surpassed the alcohol-and-nicotine
level of chemical deadliness, approaching more of the bubonic plague
level. Tim still couldn't reconcile how his mild-mannered, good-natured
fishing instructor had also been responsible, albeit accidentally, for
creating the most devastating weapon known to mankind. Then again,
the men who split the atom no doubt enjoyed miniature golf, aluminum
siding, and 2.5 children as much as the next fellow. Average-seeming
individuals were sometimes capable of truly mind-boggling things.
Take, for example, the story about the aimless drifter and the ice cream
deliveryman who'd saved the free world. Admittedly, Tim would have
found that tale a bit harder to swallow than your average fish story,
except for the fact that he had been the aforementioned aimless drifter.

Gathering up his day's catch (of empty beer cans, mostly, supplemented
by a tiny trout), Tim headed back to Dr. Long's old cabin. He looked
oddly appropriate, as if he belonged there in the backwoods; not in the
macho Marlboro man way, but in an anemic, unshaven, mildly buck-toothed
and not-too-bright, overly-intimate-with-his cousins sort of way. His features
appeared as if they had been designed for a head much smaller than his;
he had the look of a man who'd been nicknamed "Skeeter" as a toddler,
and had lived down to the stigma all his life.

All things considered, Jerome made a good home.

The cabin didn't actually belong to Tim, of course. After the doctor
had been killed by renegade mercenaries plotting to steal his chemical
weapon, the place had passed to Long's only relative, a nephew who lived
on the east coast. Having heard a bit about Tim (and about Montana)
from his cousin's letters, the new owner gave Tim a job as caretaker of
the property, partly out of generosity, and partly out of his reluctance
to personally travel to a state which he believed to be populated
entirely by beady-eyed, shack-dwelling, trigger-happy survivalist
nutjobs -- a very unfair stereotype, to be sure; recent figures released
by the Montana Chamber of Commerce estimated the actual nutjob
population at only 95%.

Give or take 4.9%.

So here he was, maintaining his first steady job in recent memory which
didn't involve wearing a paper hat and asking people if they wanted
fries with that. Although Tim's new position only paid room and board,
that was still more than enough to greatly improve the former drifter's
lifestyle -- or lack thereof. Food and shelter constituted quite a
pleasant novelty. Even so, his ambitions inflamed by his recent brush
with accidental heroism, he had lately begun to entertain even bigger
and better hopes for the future.

While the army officers who had debriefed him after his harrowing
adventure had stressed the fact that none of what he knew could ever be
made public, Tim believed he'd finally hit upon a way he could turn a
profit from the experience. He'd recently begun to write a screenplay
which he was sure would be the biggest action blockbuster of all time.
The government couldn't possibly object to a fictionalized treatment of
the whole story, he reasoned, especially with the clever changes he had
made.

First and foremost, the story would be focused around one lead hero, not
two. Buddy pictures were *so* passť. The hero of Tim's script (modeled
on himself, naturally) would still need a sidekick, but a hot babe would
fill that role much better than a smart-mouthed deliveryman. Tim
pictured someone sexy but classy as well; who could fit that bill better
than Pamela Anderson? Or maybe Anna Nicole Smith, with her
prodigious . . . talents. If things worked out that either one would take the
role, Tim would insist that he play himself. He could request private acting
lessons from his leading lady.

*Note to self,* Tim thought. *Include many love scenes for hero and babe
sidekick.*

Yawning slightly, Tim shoved his copy of *Soldier of Fortune* into the
back pocket of his faded blue jeans. He'd recently subscribed to it as
research for his script, to get a better feel for the devious workings
of the mercenary mind, and had circled a few likely interview contacts
in yellow highlighter. He'd call tomorrow, and maybe order some
firepower while he was at it; after all, if his recent near-death
experiences had taught him anything, it was that you could never be too
careful. As Dr. Long (who occasionally suffered from delusions of
philosophical grandeur) had taught him, life was like fishing: sometimes
the prey just had to bite back.

Besides, this Benny guy looked like he had great prices. And his
picture, in some strange way, reminded him of Dr. Long. That was a face
you could trust.

Pondering other changes he'd have to make to the story, Tim decided to
make no mention of the female mercenary he'd decked in the tunnel. It
just wouldn't do to have one of his climactic scenes consist of him
sucker-punching a woman who'd just staggered away from a car crash. He'd
replace her with a big, muscular bruiser. That would make a much better
impression onscreen.

As he approached the cabin, still contemplating his future cinematic
triumph, Tim was surprised to see a strange, dark car parked in front.
Not to mention a big, muscular bruiser with a strange, dark look in his
eyes standing beside it.

"Yo, Mason!"

Still keeping one wary eye trained on the stranger, Tim turned towards
the sound of the familiar voice and saw another man whom he recognized
immediately, a black man with a small moustache and a staggeringly loud
voice, as hyper as Tim was laid-back. Even blindfolded, he'd recognize
that man from the constant level of ambient noise he emanated; this man
talked like other people breathed, his voice an annoying buzz-saw in the
peaceful wilderness.

"Arlo!" Tim called out as he hurried to greet him. "What are you doing
here?"

"Oh, after all we've been through together, that's all you can say? I
am wounded, my man, I am well and truly hurt," Arlo declared with mock
indignation as he stepped off the porch and ambled towards Mason. "Hold
on. Let me show you how you *should* have handled the situation." Taking
a step back and clearing his throat, Arlo repeated his earlier greeting.
"Yo, Mason!" Then he turned around and spoke to empty air. "Arlo! Arlo,
my good friend! I'm so happy to see you! I've missed you and your witty
conversation so very much. My life has been an empty, meaningless shell
without you! Quick, let me open up the cabin so you can come in and sit
down, and I will pour you a nice cold beer. Frosted glass? Why,
certainly, no problem! Won't you stay and share my trout dinner? Even
though it's a . . ." Nose wrinkling, Arlo paused to inspect the small
fish disdainfully, dangling the line between his thumb and forefinger.
"A damn pathetic excuse for a fish." Turning back around, he slapped a
hand on Tim's shoulder and shook his head. "Now, *that's* how you're
supposed to greet someone. Man, do I have to tell you everything?"

"No, but you *try* to tell me everything," Tim deadpanned. "Come on, I
guess you can come inside. Just don't steal anything."

"Oh, oh, that's just beautiful!" Arlo responded with a fine show of
outrage. "Racial humor. Say the black man's a thief. You working
stand-up comedy, now, Mason? *You're* the one who stole *my* ice cream
truck, if I remember correctly."

"Gentlemen," called out the man still standing by the car, his voice
serious and colored with an undertone of urgency.

"Who's that?" Tim queried Arlo, regarding the speaker critically. Given
how the man's subdued suit and small ear wire practically screamed of
shopping at Monsieur Claude's House of Conspicuous Government Attire, he
had a bad feeling about the situation. Dark suit and dark car added up
to dark futures.

"Uh, yeah," Arlo replied in an unusually subdued voice. "He's the reason
I'm here. Some serious stuff is happening. He's a federal agent."

Full-blown dread welled up within Tim, along with quite a bit of beer.
Whatever 'serious stuff' was happening, he knew it couldn't be good.
All involvement he'd had with the government lately had been, without
exception, very bad, and almost fatal. Heck, "Government = Bad!" was
pretty much Montana's Official State Motto.

He sighed, and stared at his sad fish. This had better not be his last
supper. "All right. I guess both of you better come in."

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

The cabin conformed to rustic notions of manliness, with stuffed and
mounted fish everywhere and more plaid flannel than a lumberjack
convention. Tim sprawled out on an armchair in the middle of it all,
looking confused. Not a big change of pace from his habitual stuffed
fish expression, actually. "Look, the thing I don't understand is, why
us? Why would anyone be after us? We're civilians. We don't know
anything anyone can use."

"I am quite aware of that, Mr. Mason," the grim-faced agent repeated for
what felt like the hundredth time. "But as I already explained to you,
when these terrorists hacked into our computers, they were only able to
retrieve part of the information they were after before our security
protocols took effect. Unfortunately, the information they did obtain
included both your names."

"Yeah, just our names," Arlo added, having already heard the disturbing
news explained to him multiple times, and being slightly swifter on the
uptake than Mason. "What they *didn't* get was the fact that we were
just two guys who got mixed up in the whole mess by accident."

Tim blinked, and frowned, and thought. He did all this sequentially,
one thing at a time, so as to avoid overtaxing himself. "So now there
are these international terrorists running around out there who think
Arlo and I have the formula for the ultimate weapon or something?"

"That's correct, Mr. Mason," the agent replied, obviously surprised and
gratified by the slow dawn of comprehension illuminating the man's
limited intellectual horizons.

"Well, that's just great," Tim groaned as he leaned back in his chair,
clearly suffering the onslaught of a major stress headache.

"I understand how upsetting this must be for you," the agent continued.
"But you two gentleman are owed a . . . debt, shall we say, for your
actions in the Major Brynner incident. You're going to be taken care
of."

"We damn well better be!" Arlo griped. "I've already had international
terrorists shooting at my ass once. More than enough, thank you."

"You're in good hands, gentlemen, I assure you. I'm taking you to a
safehouse right now. We must leave immediately."

Arlo perked up a bit. "Government-paid vacation? Now, that's more like
it. Just let me call my boss--"

"No. Speed and secrecy are of the essence. We're going to leave now."
The agent's tone did not invite debate.

Tim considered the scenario in silence. *It could be a lot worse,* he
mused. *At least the government is looking out for us. And if the other
agents they have protecting us are half as scary as this guy, I don't
think any terrorists are going to come anywhere near us.*

Finally, Tim extended his hand to the agent, thinking it wise to stay on
the good side of anyone who might be in a position to take a bullet for
him in the near future. "No arguments from me. I appreciate all that
you're doing for us, Agent Van Cleaf."

The imposing man smiled as he shook Tim's hand. His smile and his
handshake were every bit as imposing as the rest of him.

"Please, call me Pik."

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

"*This* is a *safehouse?* You gotta be kidding me." Arlo gaped
disbelievingly at the ramshackle building in front of them, as offended
as if each speck of peeling paint and splintered lumber represented a
personal insult. "This shack looks like it got condemned twenty years
ago. And it probably wasn't anything to put on a postcard before that,
either. This is a joke, right? You pulling my leg?" He peered up
hopefully into the agent's inscrutable face, searching for some elusive
hint of a sense of humor tucked away among its strong lines and stern
features.

Pik's next words proved he had a sense of humor, although not of a sort
Arlo could readily appreciate. "Looks can be deceiving, gentlemen."
His voice, like his weapons, remained carefully controlled. It was a
true testament to his self-discipline that he had managed to listen to
nearly a half-hour of Arlo's ceaseless prattle without killing him.

Thankfully, Pik wouldn't have to put up with it much longer.

"But what kind of place is this to hide out?" Arlo went on. "It's--"

"Ideal," Pik interrupted, struggling to keep the edge of annoyance out
of his tone. Following thirty minutes of exposure to Tim and Arlo's
self-absorbed, male-bonding bickering, he felt besieged by sudden waves
of doubt. Formerly unknown to his overconfident persona, these
existential aftershocks had become disturbingly familiar after his
encounter with Boudreaux. This time, their cause was Vaughn. He'd
thought himself a keen judge of character, and had perceived an
attractive ruthlessness in the young mercenary, a killer flair which
justified her formerly impressive reputation. But these two clowns . . .
how could she have allowed herself to be defeated by the Two Stooges?

Then again, his Special Forces training notwithstanding, Boudreaux had
not exactly been a brain trust, either. Combine that with his hillbilly
uncle and his whining girlfriend, and Pik had no room to carp about
stooges. He ran one hand over his crew cut, shaking his head
reflectively. Time to face the ugly truth: both he and Vaughn had been
done in by transient drifters, thanks to a humiliating one-two punch of
bad luck and bad bosses. What the hell was it about drifters? Was
there a jinx or something?

Noting Arlo's mouth opening, Pik hastily resumed speaking before the man
could seize the moment to launch into another monologue. "Believe me
when I tell you that there is a reason for everything." He watched with
a sinking sense of fatalism as Arlo's lips twitched, obviously
formulating a counterargument. The way he could talk, it seemed as if
he didn't even need to breathe. Fighting a smile at the thought of how
much fun it would be to test the "no-breathing" theory, he groped for
plausible reasons for the safehouse. He had to lure them inside, alive
and unharmed; that was the bargain. "Think about it. A battered old
farm house, miles from the nearest neighbor. If you were a terrorist,
would *you* think the government would hide anyone here?"

"The man has a point, Arlo," Tim sighed. So long as the place had a
working refrigerator -- and beer -- he wasn't picky. He'd lived in
worse. Hell, by his usual standards, this place qualified for the cover
of *Architectural Digest*.

"Shut up. I'm still not speaking to you. I can't believe you wrote me
out of your script for some blonde bimbo." That particular revelation
had been the cause of much friction during the car ride.

The threat elicited a skeptical snort from Tim. "You're not speaking to
me? Can I get that in writing?"

Arlo steadfastly ignored him. "Man, why couldn't we be put up in a nice
safehouse resort in Hawaii? You know, I got a cousin who lives there.
Nice house. He'd probably let us stay. Only if the feds paid him,
though. Never gives anything for free. Cheap bastard's loaded, too -
you gotta be to live in Hawaii. I mean, the guy's a pharmacist, it pays
well. Which reminds me, Pik, my man, I think he could probably get you
a real nice wholesale deal on some Rogaine. You look like you're
starting to lose some hair on the temples, there. Cutting it short don't
fool anyone, anymore than a comb-over does."

A muscle twitched in one patrician cheek, and the stoic set of Pik's
lips tightened into something slightly more malicious. Vaughn got to
kill Tim Mason. Fine. But Chatty Cathy over there . . . that one was
all his.

"Can it, Arlo," Tim finally snapped, not liking the way their bodyguard
was being so thoroughly alienated. Far from *taking* a bullet for them,
the look on his face intimated that he'd much rather be *giving* one to
them. "Sorry about him, Pik. He'll talk your ear off, if you let him."

Visions of scissors dancing through his head, Pik smiled enigmatically.
"I'm not always easy on the ears myself."

Arlo still sulked, arms crossed. "Fine. Great. You save the free
world, and they stick you in a shack. Sure, I'm all right with this."

"Gentlemen, I assure you," Pik asserted as he ushered them towards the
door of the old building, "this house may not have an impressive
exterior, but you won't believe what's waiting for you inside."

With those provocative words, Pik opened the door and stepped back to
allow Tim and Arlo to enter. No light came on when they flipped the wall
switch, but the slanting rays of afternoon sun filtering through the
dirt-encrusted, unshuttered windows provided more than adequate
illumination. As a result, it was painfully clear that the abandoned
interior of the house looked in no way like a well-prepared government
hideout, or even a poorly-prepared one. Before either man had a chance
to question this fact, a black-clad woman stepped forward with a gun in
her hand, a smile on her face, and pure hatred gleaming from the moist
depths of her beautiful doe-brown eyes.

"Hi," Vaughn said, chipper and bright. "Miss me?"

There was a moment where everything seemed frozen in time, and
Vaughn fervently wished she had a camera to commemorate the
priceless panic of Tim and Arlo's expressions in a sort of sadist's
scrapbook. Then both men whirled back towards the door, stopping
short at seeing how that door had been closed tight, while 'Agent'
Van Cleaf had stationed himself in front of it, gun drawn.

"Shoot her!" Tim shouted as he jumped awkwardly to the side, out of the
direct line of fire. "Now! What are you waiting for, you big idiot?"

"Shoot! Shoot!" Arlo added emphatically as he also dived to the side.
"Shoot her! Shoot the bitch!" he added, just in case further
clarification was needed. His yelling stopped abruptly, however, when
he beheld Pik's gun aiming not at Vaughn, but at Arlo's own head.

"Aw, no," Arlo finally said. "No, this ain't happening! This IS NOT
happening!" Unfortunately, no amount of denial seemed to make either
Vaughn or Pik vanish into thin air. In retrospect, Arlo could only curse
the fact that neither he nor Tim had thought to question why an agent of
the U.S. government would sound like a spokesman for Dutch Boy Paint.

"You're dead!" Tim shouted at Vaughn. "Y-you're in the tunnel! You're
buried! And melted!"

"In the tunnel where you left me?" Vaughn responded, her tone pure
sugar-dipped steel, like a candy-coated revolver; sweetness notwithstanding,
it'd kill you all the same. She pursed her lips into a sensual,
pseudo-sympathetic pout, savoring the exhilarating tang of raw terror in
the air, her kittenish demeanor both playful and cruel at the same
time. "Poor boy, you never were very bright, were you?"

"H-h-how the hell did you get out?" Tim stammered. This was not the
ending he had visualized for his script. No, not the right ending, or
the right beautiful blonde, at all.

"No, now's not the time for questions," Vaughn chided firmly as she
approached Mason and pressed the barrel of her gun against his chest hard
enough to leave a circular imprint underneath the cloth of his shirt. "It's time
for your apology."

At she spoke, Pik grabbed Arlo from behind and wrapped one powerful arm
around his throat, squeezing tightly. "That would mean it's time for us
to get better acquainted. Hmm? We could chat about . . . oh, I don't
know. Rogaine, perhaps?" He watched the horrified grimace on Arlo's
face with satisfaction. "Try anything and I'll break your neck," Pik
snarled. "*Say* anything and I'll break your neck."

"I'm not trying anything," Arlo choked meekly. "Not saying anything."

By then, Vaughn had backed Tim into a wall, not easing up on the
pressure of the gun at all. "So, get to it," she ordered, smiling in an
eerily cheerful fashion. "Say you're sorry."

"S-sorry?" Tim looked as if he'd be willing to apologize for anything up
to and including the Korean War, the National Debt, and possibly disco
music if it would save his skin, but he had a sinking feeling that the
most heartfelt groveling wouldn't dent her anger half as much as that
gun was already denting the flesh of his chest.

She sighed, gazing at him reproachfully, like a wife whose husband has
forgotten their wedding anniversary for the fifth time. Unfortunately, the
retaliation she had in mind for Tim's transgression was far worse than a
night of sleeping on the sofa. "For running out on me in the tunnel, of course.
I wasn't done with you yet."

Tim swallowed hard, and tried his best to look defiant as the last of
his testosterone led a final, feeble pep rally. This was a *woman.*
He'd beaten her once before. He could do it again. He was bigger than
her. He was stronger than her. He was smarter -well, okay, he was
bigger and stronger. More than enough. Just had to get the timing
right. "You looked done to me," he sneered, watching the gun
carefully. "See, there's something you forgot."

"Really? I thought I remembered everything," she retorted, the grudge
within her eyes showing forth clear as insects trapped in amber,
precious and preserved forever. She concentrated on that grudge to the
exclusion of all else, ignoring Pik's concerned frown. "What did I
forget?"

Tim thought about Dr. Long, remembered all their fishing trips together
down the river of life, replete with beer-soaked ruminations on the
meaning of life. What was it Dr. Long had said about fishing? Wait for
it, wait for it . . . Now! "Sometimes the prey bites back!" Tim yelled,
simultaneously thrusting his hand toward Vaughn's gun in a desperate
attempt to knock it aside.

Much to his surprise, Vaughn jerked her gun away before he could touch
it, seemingly unconcerned that it was no longer aimed at him, and
seemingly equally unimpressed by his defiant fishing metaphor war-cry.
Before Mason could try to take advantage of the situation, Vaughn
delivered a lightning-quick backhand to his face, shocking him
effectively as several hundred volts to the brain. As Pik watched,
eyebrows raised in mute approval, she re-aimed her gun at the stunned
man's chest, all sugar and smiles long gone.

"Did you honestly think for one moment that you'd EVER get the drop on
me again?" Vaughn hissed, her voice saturated with contempt, cropped
blond hair glowing in the weak sunlight like the halo of an avenging
angel. "Even half-dead, I almost got you. Now, you don't stand a
chance. The prey can bite back all it wants, Mason. Just remember that
the predator has bigger fangs." She smiled viciously in illustration,
delicate nose wrinkling over her bared teeth. "Now, I have a question
for you, since you're in such a talkative mood - your friend must be
rubbing off on you. And the question is - listen carefully, now, or you
won't win the prize -- what was the last thing I said to you back in the
tunnel?"

Tim remained silent, being far too preoccupied with watching what passed
for his life flashing before his eyes.

"I think you remember," she whispered, her cruel smile twisting to a
frown. "SAY IT!"

"'I'm a professional, this won't hurt a bit!'" he blurted out, reluctantly
quoting the last words she had said to him on that fateful day.

"There, now, that wasn't so hard, was it? And what was the last thing
you said to me?" She waved the gun encouragingly; no cue card had ever
been quite such a motivational prompter.

"Um . . . 'I'm an amateur. This'll hurt like hell.'" He found himself
beginning to regret his choice of words. A lot.

Vaughn smiled again and took a step back, keeping her gun pointed
directly at Tim's heart. "Very good," she enthused. "You win the prize!
Thing is, I'm not feeling very professional today. So this time, Mason,
the prize is going to hurt."

And Vaughn fired five shots.

But first, she shifted her aim from his heart to somewhere quite a bit lower.


"Oh my God . . . she . . . she . . . the bitch shot him in the . . .
between the . . . " Arlo gasped, his expression of shock and revulsion
only slightly more extreme than Pik's.

"I know. Shut up," Pik growled, tightening his grip around the
screaming man's throat. Sure, Pik specialized in demolishing
appendages: an ear there, a tongue here . . . especially here, he thought
wistfully, watching Arlo's mouth move . . . but there was one appendage
even *he* couldn't help but be a little squeamish about.

"Will you shut him up?" Vaughn jerked her head towards Arlo, thoroughly
annoyed, as she stood over the prostrate Mason. "I'm trying to enjoy
myself. He's ruining the mood."

"Thought you'd never ask," Pik replied. Grateful for the distraction,
as well as the silence, he released Arlo's neck, spun him around, and
punched him in the throat. "Rogaine, indeed," he muttered.

Muffled, wet, gurgling noises were Arlo's only reply.

Vaughn glanced over at Pik and raised an eyebrow. "Crushed his larynx?"

Pik nodded, impressed. "You have a good ear for pain."

Vaughn turned back to Mason, who lay on the floor, moaning in agony.
She knelt swiftly and gracefully to speak to him, clasping his face with one
hand and tilting it so he was looking directly in her eyes. In some ways,
that look was almost worse than what had gone before.

But not quite.

"I'm going to wrap this up now, since your friend only has a few minutes
before he drowns in his own blood. And *you* have even less. Just take
this as your final thought." Vaughn paused and let her smile grow
psychotically wide as a child who's bumped off all her siblings just in
time to claim all the gifts on Christmas Eve. "No punk amateur *ever*
beats me."

With that, Vaughn stood and fired a single shot into Mason's skull.
Turning on her heel, she did the same to the still-choking Arlo.

And silence fell.

Pik simply watched her for a moment, watched the light play on her
golden hair, her autumn eyes. A radiant creature crafted of sunlight,
crackling with energy that could burn the living hell out of you.

He liked it.

Then she turned to him, eyes dancing, and casually wiped a spot of blood
from her cheek. Biting her lip with concentration, she emulated the
flamboyant little gun-toss he'd shown her the other day. "Two down,
three to go."

He applauded dutifully, face breaking up into appreciative laugh-lines.
"Very nice. And nice shot," Pik commented. "But you were far too quick
with the loudmouth. You couldn't have let him choke awhile longer?"

"I was feeling generous," Vaughn replied, doing a fair imitation of his
smirk. "To tell the truth, Mason was the one I really wanted. His friend
was just a bonus."

"A rather large bonus, in my opinion," Pik shrugged, even that small
muscular movement seeming impressive on his large frame. "I hope your
final revenge was . . . satisfying," he remarked, still contemplating
Mason's bullet-ridden corpse. Vaughn noticed a barely perceptible wince
on her partner's infamous stone face, a miniscule tensing of his massive
thigh muscles.

"Got a problem with groin shots, Pik?" Vaughn teased. "That is just SO
damn typical. What is it with you men? Do you all have some sort of
testosterone-based empathy or something?"

"Oh, very amusing," he replied, but couldn't help chuckling. "You
seem cheerful."

"Why shouldn't I be? For a change, tonight, I'm not gonna dream of that
little bastard getting the drop on me. It went perfectly! And
Boudreaux'll go perfectly too, you'll see. Oh, no, don't give me that
skeptical face. Your eyebrows almost touch each other when you do that,
and you look silly. C'mon, let's go have a drink. And I don't mean get
tanked. Just a sip or two, in celebration, right?"

A flawlessly executed mission, even one as simple as this had been,
never failed to put Pik in a good mood. Hence, he allowed himself to be
caught up in her high spirits as they returned to the car, pausing only
to set a match to the tinder-dry shack. In the back of his mind,
however, he recalled another building going up in flames, and the ghost
of the veteran who had returned to haunt him in the person of Chance
Boudreaux. Deep down, he knew that their next mission would not be
quite so easy.

Drinks notwithstanding, that knowledge was enough to keep him very
sober.

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