A fictionalised adaptation of the original Cyberpunk 2020 scenario.

It is 2027

Some would say that the high spot of the century so far came at one minute past midnight on January 1st 2000. The 21st century arrived, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the collective sighs of relief of tens of thousands of IT professionals around the world as the Millennium Bug failed to cause "The End Of The World As We Know It". Everything went to Hell in a handcart after that, say the cynics, and with good reason.

The European Union ceased to exist as a coherent political entity about five years ago. Immense civil unrest followed which continues to this day. Civil war is a distinct possibility in China as the remaining Communist hardliners (kept alive by the miracles of modern medicine) unleash the Army on democracy campaigners, while taking bribes from the corporations who are exploiting the largest captive market in the world. The Middle East is, as ever, a battlefield: Israel is effectively under siege and Iraq is rattling sabres at both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In America, the President sits hamstrung in the Oval Office. Promises made and deals cut during the election campaign have come back to haunt him and he has seen Presidential power eroded by the power of the corporations who backed him. Consider this: by 2010 there were only four major computer companies in the world, only four major oil companies, six automobile manufacturers, maybe five consumer electronics firms and four pharmaceuticals corporations. Less than two dozen multinationals control most of the world's major industries. As for the media, in the USA there are just three main corporations controlling the vast bulk of television, radio, music, the movies, magazines and Net content.

In the USA today, you either punch a clock for a corporation, or you fall through the cracks. But, hey! This is America, the land of the free, and the land of infinite possibilities. And we still know how to party!

Saturday night in Downtown Seattle, the end of a long, hot day. Temperatures hit 110F and a vicious smog enveloped the Downtown District. A series of road accidents brought gridlock to the city centre. At least three murders have been attributed to motorists going berserk from a mixture of heat, the poisonous atmosphere and the incessant sounds of car horns.

Earlier today two street gangs came to blows over a truck full of mineral water that had broken down in the buffer zone between their respective turfs. It took a Police chopper and riot squads to break up the fighting. A psycho went berserk at a rail station, murdering 12 people and injuring 20 others before being mown down by the cops. The crime rate has soared along with the temperatures and the City Government is already preparing contingency plans should the heat wave continue.


Now the good citizens of Downtown are out to party. The heat is no longer so oppressive and thrillseekers, party goers, corporates and street gangs are heading for some well-earned relaxation in the City's night spots. Along with the crowd are those who make their living from the general populace: muggers, pick-pockets, car thieves, drug dealers, hookers and hustlers. All drawn into the melting pot that is Downtown. How many will see dawn?

Charles Baxter - "Chaz"

Charles Baxter paces his office. Not normally a man given to nervousness, Chaz is nevertheless edgy: there's a lot riding on tonight, the opening night of The Delta, the City's newest and hottest night club. At least it better be the hottest, Chaz thinks ruefully, otherwise I'll be in even worse hock to my Italian friends than I am already.

Forcing that gloomy thought from his mind, Chaz pours himself a drink, sits back behind his desk and reviews his preparations.

One, he got into the country from Britain. The Immigration Department here can be a headache to deal with but, as is increasingly the case in all parts of the modern world, money talks ... and the Swiss Franc still talks rather more loudly than the rest.

Two, he's got the venue. This turned out to be pretty easy. The real estate was cheap, considering the previous owners had been fire-bombed out of the premises a few months earlier.

Three, he's got the staff. Twenty or so eager-beavers are waiting to serve drinks, bus tables, take coats and generally act hospitable to the punters. Of course, Chaz wants to foster a team spirit here in The Delta, so the table-wait staff are also good bar-staff and vice versa. And, if any drunken punter gets 'over-friendly' with the girls, the boys here will stick up for their colleagues.

Four, he's got the local cops in his pocket. More correctly, the Captain at the Downtown Precinct is a close friend of The Family, so Chaz expects no trouble from that quarter. Corporate cops are another matter, the megacorps effectively being a law unto themselves now; some companies have even re-instated the death penalty for offences like industrial espionage! Chaz regrets his lack of contacts in that area. Nothing can be done except to play that one by ear.

Five, he's done all the publicity he can. He's been on local radio and cable TV. He's had flyers passed out; posters slapped on every available billboard; Hell, he's even had gangers and winos out on the Street, spray-painting bright red triangles, the club's logo, on walls, windows and doors, wherever they may have been.

Six, he's had the best air conditioning system money can buy installed in the club. This system was developed in London, a city whose smog problem is getting exponentially worse each year. Given the recent heat wave, Chaz can scarcely believe his luck.

With a satisfied grunt, Chaz puts his problems behind him, stands and buttons his tux before going into the club proper to brief his staff one last time before the doors open.

Catherine McDonald - "Gemini"

Catherine stands in the Ladies' Restroom near the rear of The Delta. The smell of pine disinfectant and cheap perfume pervades the air. A mixture of music and raised voices is thumping through the wall behind her. Tonight's bands are warming up in their dressing rooms.

She chooses a comb from her bag and tidies her shoulder-length auburn hair. Her blue-grey eyes sweep the large mirror in front of her, coincidentally providing an excellent view of everything behind her. Such precautions are second nature to her now, even here, where she's among friends (the 9mm auto she normally carries ruins the cut of her suit jacket and so has been left in her hotel suite). Maybe if she'd taken a few more such precautions in New York she wouldn't be here.

David ... I'm sorry, honey.

Gemini thinks back over the course of seven sleepless nights. She remembers irritation first of all.

A phone call had her away from her home until the small hours: a local politico with connections in the Mayor's Office had fallen foul of a sex/blackmail racket and needed someone to help fix the problem. It would probably have cost a small fortune to hire the muscle necessary to intimidate the blackmailers and/or pay off their backers but Gemini had figured the political influence she could net for making the problem go away would be well worth the expenditure. The meeting she had scheduled didn't materialise and, a few calls later, she realised she'd been set up.

Angry at herself for making such a basic mistake, Gemini drove back to her Manhattan apartment. The instant she set foot in her home she knew something was wrong. The place felt empty. Then she saw the envelope, melodramatically perched on her mantelpiece. The note was short and to the point:

"We've got your son. If you don't act stupid, you'll get to see him

again in one piece. Otherwise, you well know the consequences of

stupidity. We'll be in touch about what we want you to do."

An icy knife slid into Gemini's heart. Waves of despair and exhaustion flooded over her. Her son, David, kidnapped. Tears rolled down her face and a single anguished sob burst from her lips.

BASTARDS! No way would she take this without a fight. Her reputation demanded she do something. Gemini fought down a wave of nausea, controlled her breathing and choked back her sobs. Then she began working.

The next 48 hours were a blur, a series of phone calls, meetings and anonymous message drops. She spent money like water. She asked questions, sometimes very pointed questions, forcibly asked with a gun at someone's head. Who had done this? Who was behind whomever did this? Where are they now? Where is my son? All throughout this 48 hours, Gemini's guts felt like ice. Her enquiries had to be subtle lest the kidnappers realise she was looking. But time was of the essence. She needed information before these bastards called her with more instructions.

One question she did not ask was "why"? Catherine McDonald, Gemini to her associates, had been an inhabitant of New York's criminal fraternity for nearly ten years now and she had made a number of enemies, some openly hostile to her, others more covert. The question of "why" could wait. Her first priority would always be David.

No answers were forthcoming to Gemini's inquiries so she made a request to "higher powers". Such things do exist in the underworld and Gemini dreaded the price these powers would demand in return, perhaps years from now. But this is David and Catherine could no more abandon her child than stop breathing.

Technology and good fortune came to her rescue. Traces of sweat from the kidnappers' note were analysed. The author was a man: his pheromones were all over the note and matched the signature of a free-lance bodyguard and hitman known by the name Anvil. Gemini thanked God that the back-street doctor who had patched up Anvil after a gunfight also kept an extensive database of his patients' body chemistries.

Now with a name to work with, Gemini ran down Anvil's known associates and last known location. Hackers penetrated the networks of airports, train stations, car hire firms and bus companies. A man matching Anvil's description and a boy of about twelve (David! Catherine's heart leapt) had boarded a plane to Seattle. An enervated Catherine McDonald left New York for the West coast two hours later. The call from the kidnappers came through while she was on the plane. The voice was flat and emotionless:

"We have your boy in Seattle. Check in to the Hilton under the

name Jensen. You will be contacted."

They wouldn't let her speak to David. Was he still alive? Was she merely on another wild goose chase? Was she walking into a trap? Catherine fretted over these questions until, somewhere over the Midwest, sleep overcame her.

In Seattle, Gemini's luck improved still further. An old friend from London, Chaz Baxter, had contacts in the city. Discrete enquiries were made through Chaz's network. Anvil and three other men were holed up in a slum district south of the city.

Anvil contacted her at the Hilton and a ransom drop was arranged. Two million dollars was the price for her son's safe return. That figure almost made Gemini laugh out loud down the phone. She must have spent close to half a million already, tracking these characters down! The amateurs even gave Gemini a few days to get the cash together. That will be your last mistake, Gemini vowed, I'll break you for what you've done.

Now Gemini is in The Delta. Chaz has given her a short list of "names and faces" to watch out for in the club tonight. Adventurers, mercenaries and gunslingers. She needs to recruit her own team to turn out the lights on her son's kidnappers. And to Hell with the cost!

Teresa Cortez - "Chilly"

Hundreds of miles from home, Chilly stands in a crowd of two-dozen or so uniformed waiters, waitresses, bartenders and cloakroom attendants. They are assembled on the dance floor in front of the stage. Black trousers or skirts, white shirts and burgundy waistcoats seem to be the order of the day, except for a knot of four chunky-looking guys in tuxedos. Chilly flashes a quick smile at one of them, a tall Anglo, introduced to her earlier only as Shadow. The man nods back in her direction and folds his arms across his chest, the better to conceal the bulge made by his handgun.

Chilly herself is not in uniform. Her job, explained to her earlier by Chaz Baxter, is to be a 'civvy', to blend with the crowd and keep her eyes open for drugs, weapons, petty thievery, and any of a broad array of hookers, shysters and con-men who might be tempted to rip off Baxter's more legitimate customers. To that end, she's spent nearly five hundred dollars on party-clothes for tonight: a black mini-dress belted at her trim waist with a gold chain; sheer stockings; black high-heels; a microscopic accessory bag of real black leather (not that cheap plastic stuff) that's barely big enough to contain a packet of cigarettes, let alone a gun. She spent thirty minutes in the Ladies' room trying to work out how to conceal her 9mm automatic before reluctantly conceding defeat.

She keeps make-up and jewellery to a minimum and has had her hair cut and styled.

Here's the man himself, thinks Chilly, as Baxter climbs onto The Delta's stage and launches into a pre-opening pep talk. Chilly screens this out, having heard it all earlier. Instead, she thinks back to the meeting - audience, really - she had two nights ago.

Mr. Giarritano is a powerful man. In his 50's, he owns several casinos and other diverse business interests in the districts north of Seattle. He is a respected member of the Seattle business community, known for a number of highly-publicised charitable donations. He has even been photographed with the Mayor. Many people refer to him as 'Don Giarritano' and treat him with the utmost respect. He never dirties his hands but is rumoured to have signed the death warrants of nearly a dozen people over the last 10 years. Because of this, Chilly even puts up with him calling her "my dear".

So how the Hell did this guy end up owing Chilly's father a favour? This is, of course, one of life's great imponderables. Miguel Cortez never told her the reason. He simply said, "Once you get out of here, head to America, to Seattle. A Mr Giarritano there will take care of you."

Soon afterwards, Chilly skipped the corporate farm outside of Mexico City where she and her parents had been virtual prisoners for five years (again, for reasons that were never adequately explained). She hitched and stowed away on trains as far as Tijuana, then smuggled herself over the border to San Diego, hiding away in a truck full of cabbages. After that experience, a Greyhound bus from Dago to Seattle was the height of luxury.

Less than a week later, she's here in The Delta. Mr Giarritano had a job offer for her. A single night's work for "a friend from London". A simple thing, just keep an eye out for trouble.

Sure, easy, thinks Chilly, snapping back to the present. Along with all the usual creeps she's been told to expect representatives of a few local gangs and, worse still, the local corporations. There's nothing your average gang-banger likes more than to ruffle corporate feathers and many employees of the City's biggest companies are such arrogant shit-heads that they'll willingly respond to the provocation. Particularly the security-types. Chilly expects that keeping the two groups apart will take a lot of her time tonight. Which is a pity, really. She'd wanted a little R&R and the bands warming up for tonight's gigs sounded pretty good. No rest for the wicked, she grouses. And to complicate matters, she's almost certain that Baxter will report back to the Don on her performance tonight. If she does well, her standing with Giarritano will be improved; if she screws up, well, one night she might end up sleeping with the fishes.

At the tender age of 19, Chilly is up to her neck in more trouble and stress than most people with safe, nine-to-five lives in corporate America will see in 30 years of punching a clock.

Lucien Corlioni - "Firestarter"

It's a long, strange road from Boston to Seattle. Particularly when you are running from diverse family problems. And, he reflects grimly, you can read "family" at least two ways. First is as "The Family" and a serious misunderstanding with Sam Brazzi, Capo to Don Giovanni Spinotti of Boston, who has vowed to castrate Firestarter after his dalliance with one of Spinotti's nieces. The second is as "siblings": the feud between the Brazzis and Corlionis boiled over into open aggression forcing the latter to flee Boston, leaving behind familiar neighbourhoods, careers, friends, lovers. It's hardly surprising that three of Firestarter's sisters hate his guts now and relations with his brother, Michael, are shaky at best.

They fled Boston one panicked night. North to Canada? No. Too cold, bitched Maria, his eldest sister and most vocal critic. South was out of the question: the nearest big city would have been New York and Don Spinotti had many friends there. They went first to Cleveland then, skirting the Great Lakes, ended up in Minneapolis. There the Corlionis hooked up with the Warner Pack, a group of consisting mainly of farmers who had been ejected from their land when banks had foreclosed on loans and mortgages. Now they travelled round in a ramshackle fleet of RVs, trucks, buses, cars and bikes, looking for work whereever they could find it. Run-ins with other packs of the displaced, and local townsfolk who saw the Warners as trouble, caused them to drift west into Washington state.

Now Firestarter is an outrider for the Warner Pack. His job is to get into town and scout out work possibilities for the rest of the Pack. Any work will do: casual labour on building sites, farms and factories; driving jobs; courier work; mechanics; Christ, even flipping burgers will do so long as we can pay for fuel. Old Man Warner always says, "Try to keep it clean. Try to keep it legal." But this is the USA in the 21st Century and that's not always possible.

Some members of the Pack (Firestarter included) are not above a little physical rough-housing: for a small fee, an anonymous punishment beating can be adminstered to a rival. Having half a dozen hairy-assed bikers backing you up gives your words an air of authority in local small-town politics. They've done a fair bit of 'small-packet trade' in recent weeks, taking consignments of stuff (questions are rarely asked as to the nature of the stuff in question) from place to place, usually for those who don't want to involve what's left of the Federal Post Office.

This is the life Firestarter has led for the last few months. Christ! And they say the cities are dangerous. The sociologists should try living in the country for a couple of weeks.

Firestarter is about a week ahead of the Pack and has a list of contacts and some reasonable promises of work ahead. He himself has been working a really shitty job on a construction site, knocking down walls, mixing concrete, lugging bricks and cleaning out what smelled suspiciously like an ancient septic tank. What the Hell happened to that nano-tech stuff that was supposed to 'grow' buildings using tiny machines? That's what Firestarter wants to know.

In desperate need of some relaxation, Firestarter is standing in the queue outside The Delta. A new nightspot. There might be some work here as riggers, roadies or barstaff for the Pack. It's always worth a shot, he thinks, and besides, the scenery's got to be easier on the eyes than the crew of uglies I've been heaving bricks for all week.
What's the dress code in this dive, anyway? Firestarter is briefly worried that, in biker leathers and jeans, he'll get a less than polite rejection at the front door. He looks around, somewhat nervous. The Brazzis can't have any contacts this far West, can they? But he will always assume that they do. Then he clocks half-a-dozen guys in long coats of bright red, orange and yellow. They go in heavily for flames and some sort of sun-motif on the back of the coat. These guys are all Afro or Hispanic (not often you see that sort of mix) and have the tight-knit cohesiveness of people who have fought shoulder-to-shoulder. A name comes to him: the Solar Angels. Bad rep. But if the club is letting gang-bangers in, then one biker should be harmless, right?

The security team at The Delta consists of four inconspicuously armed guys in black tuxes. Firestarter spots the handgun (probably a Colt) snugged under the right armpit of one of the bouncers. He files this for future reference: it means the shooter is probably left handed. Lefty pats him down and finds Firestarter's own piece (he misses his switchblade, though). "Check this here," Lefty grunts, "you'll get a receipt and can collect it when you leave."

The entrance fee is twenty dollars. Twenty! But there are three separate acts on stage tonight (Firestarter can already hear the DJs warming up the crowd) and cut-price drinks. Better yet, the air-conditioning is working overtime, judging by the icy blast that hits him on the back of the neck as he walks into the club. Music assaults his ears; ladies' perfume makes his head spin; he walks up to the bar and orders a large JD with coke. I could become a regular, Firestarter thinks.

Saturday Night in The Delta

Firestarter leans back against the bar and surveys the scenery. Half a dozen tables are neatly arranged in front of the bar. They look heavy and sturdy, difficult to break and even more difficult to pick up and throw across the room. The chairs are similar. Just past the tables lies a row of leather-upholstered booths with rectangular tables firmly bolted to the floor. To his left and right are broad flights of stairs leading down onto the dance floor. He walks to the left hand stairs and leans against the brass railing. From his vantage point he has a clear view to the stage which is crammed with keyboards, a drum kit, a drum-synth array, several guitar racks and numerous computers. Two DJs are working a mixing desk, cranking out recent hits from artists owned by the media conglomerates. A handful of people are already dancing to this pap. They think it's a good noise. Why? Because the media-corps have told them so, an insidious form of brainwashing designed to shift 'product' in vast quantities.

The real music will start later, when the live acts go on stage. Firestarter fishes the flyer that came with his ticket from a back pocket. This lists the three acts that will be playing tonight. First up is Shock a new techno-rock act known for putting a new spin on many "classics", from the Heavy Metal bands of 20th Century to Wagner, Beethoven and Bach. Helluva mix, that, he thinks. Mack the Knife is a well-known solo Blues artist who should provide an interesting counterpoint to both Shock and SuperHoney, tonight's headline act. They are an all-girl outfit from Seattle who are getting a lot of airplay on the city's underground and pirate stations. All in all, well worth the twenty dollars it took to get in the joint.

He turns away from the stage and surveys the crowd. It's still early and most of the people here are have the look of young corporate employees and habitual club-goers. The corpers are those who aren't yet fully embroiled in the cutthroat world of their companies. Their more senior colleagues are probably still at work (even at this time on a Saturday) or are playing games of one-upmanship in smarter corporate bars, restaurants, gyms and members-only clubs. These people will either be burned out by the age of 30 or will be running the show in ten years time. The regular clubbers are here to check out The Delta and, if it proves to be a dead loss, will complain loudly before moving on to somewhere cooler.

Of course, you can add the gangers to the list, too. That thought is just depressing enough to propel Firestarter back to the bar for another drink.

Chilly emerges from the Ladies' Restroom having given it the once over. You never can tell who'll be shooting up or doing a line of something in places like that. The restroom is clean, for now. What a creep-ass job to be doing, she thinks. Ambition burns brightly in Chilly's heart and lurking in lavatories is not high on her list of priorities. It is a necessary evil for tonight, however, so she swallows her pride and strolls casually through the crowd.

Amongst all the glitz and Saturday night finery, two groups stand out. The first is a knot of Afro and Hispanic males in bright orange/yellow/red long-coats. Chilly has been warned about this group in advance. The Solar Angels are a gang with some bizarre religious beliefs. Mixing Christianity with ancient Aztec mythology, they venerate some sort of Sun God and, if the Word on the Street is to be believed, aren't above making sacrifices to this being. Chilly has seen something similar on the streets of Mexico City. In an age where there is a yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the latter group occasionally gets desperate enough to try anything to boost themselves into the former category. Weird religious cults are just one avenue they might try. Most often such movements fragment and the members become crazies ranting on street corners. Those few groups whose leaders are more charismatic or cunning are the dangerous ones, becoming fanatics who cause more damage than their mere numbers would logically account for. The Solar Angels were formed about five years ago and that probably makes them one of the more dangerous cult-gangs around.

The other group that draws her attention are kitted out in black. Leather, velvet, high-gloss PVC, silk, the occasional flash of crimson, purple, silver or white. Chilly pegs them immediately as the Death's Jesters. The Jesters are at the leading edge of the New Glam-Goth Revolution. She supposes the Capital Letters are necessary to distinguish this revolution from the four or five previous glam-goth revolutions. They are way off their normal turf and such boundaries are not crossed lightly in this day and age. It's possible that they have special dispensation to be this far Downtown. If not, and they're here without permission, that could be a flash point. Downtown gangs like the Solar Angels will not be happy to have these out of town interlopers on their territory. The Jesters outnumber the Angels two-to-one so maybe that will keep things cool.

Chilly checks her watch. It's still early and there's no sign of either the Silver Lions (a bunch of poseurs who care more for their haircuts than anything else) or the Wasted Youth (one of Downtown's largest gangs, they have members and ex-members all over the city). With little else to do, Chilly orders a drink and sits at the bar, watching the crowd (and her back) in the large mirror behind the bar.

The DJ muzak fades and Chaz Baxter's voice sounds over the club's PA system.

"Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to opening night at The Delta, Seattle's newest and hottest club. Without further ado, it's my pleasure to introduce Shock, the first band of the night, and the first of many who will be performing at this club."

Firestarter and Chilly, at opposite ends of The Delta's bar turn towards the stage as the lights dim. At first it seems as if nothing's happening but slowly the strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries emerge from the sound system. This is Shock's opening number and is not an easy one to dance to. A few of the crowd on the floor immediately walk off to nearby tables, the rest stand in front of the stage, Wagner's awesome music pounding through their bodies via Shock's instruments and The Delta's state-of-the-art sound system.

Firestarter walks towards his previous vantage point at the stairs. Despite the strangeness of the opening track he feels himself getting into the music. Not many people seem to know who Wagner was but the Steel Valkyries are an all-female gang he remembers from back in Boston, so the mythology has survived. OK, so the SV's didn't exactly guide the souls of fallen warriors to Valhalla, they would be more likely to shoot you in the face. But it's probably the thought that counts.

The Valkyries finish their Ride and Shock segue seamlessly into a track Firestarter doesn't recognise. The Death's Jesters do, however, and flood the dance floor en-masse. Something about a woman called Elise, perhaps?

Chilly's still perched at the end of the bar, alternately watching the crowd and deflecting passes from guys. Her attention is divided between a couple sitting at a nearby table and a youngish Anglo male lounging in a corner booth.

Looking at the couple, the woman's body language screams hooker to Chilly. Her clothing could be described as 'tastefully revealing', a long skirt which is slashed almost to the left hip, a pale blue silk blouse which clings to her body while simultaneously baring a generous amount of cleavage. The man, in expensive casuals, is talking work and a plasticky smile is fixed to the woman's face. It looks like she's trying hard not to fall asleep. Chilly gives the woman the benefit of the doubt: not a hooker, an escort girl. Subtle difference but, so long as she's not actively soliciting in The Delta, she's outside of Chilly's remit.

Bored with the tawdry liaison going on at the table, Chilly glances over at the Anglo in the booth. Tall, pale skinned, with mirrorshades and spiked electric-blue hair, he has sat up straight now and is chatting idly with a guy in a white shirt and black jeans. White-shirt laughs uproariously at something Spike says and shakes him vigorously by the hand. As the shake breaks, Chilly catches a glimpse of something silvery changing hands.

Dope deal! Chilly rivets her attention on the Anglo and, sure enough, with his next motion he stuffs a wad of cash into the pocket of his leather jacket. White-shirt retreats from the scene, looking pretty pleased with himself as he struts towards a group of his friends.

She rapidly averts her gaze as Spike leaves his seat and walks towards the bar, taking a seat a few places down from her. Spike has the extremely self-possessed air of a man who knows exactly what he's doing, enjoys doing it and doesn't give a rat's ass who gets hurt as a consequence. Having seen one friend in Mexico die from an OD, Chilly hates Spike on general principle. On a more specific principle, Chilly can tell he's eyeing her up from behind his shades. His eyes seem to slide up the length of her legs, his gaze clinging to her like dirty oil. She feels slightly nauseous.

Mr. Casual and his rented escort walk up to the bar, breaking Spike's line of sight to where Chilly is sitting. Madre de Dios! She never thought she'd be glad to see him standing there! She takes her chance, gulps down most of her drink, spins off her barstool and loses herself in the crowd. Thinking on overdrive, Chilly takes just a few seconds to put things together. Spike is the dealer; White-shirt and his friends the customers; find White-shirt; observe for corroborating evidence; then alert security. Good plan, she congratulates herself.

White-shirt is with a group of maybe a dozen people, men and women in smart casuals, off duty corporates, probably. They have taken two booths at the rear of the dance floor, hidden from casual view by the press of the crowd who are jumping crazily to Shock's set. Chilly sidles past the booths trying to avoid the war-zone that is The Delta's dance floor. The glances she takes of White-shirt's group is enough to confirm her suspicions: they are surreptitiously passing around a silver-wrapped roll of small pills, taking one each and washing it down with a shot of tequila.

Chilly decides to do her job, sleazy as it is. She wanders through the crowd, looking for Shadow. He's not difficult to spot, an Anglo, pushing 6' 4" and 250lbs, his blond hair streaked with red. Two girls are giggling nearby, trying to catch the handsome doorman's attention. That will never do! Chilly squares her shoulders and swans through the two girls, straight up to Shadow and hugs him hard, disappointed that, even in heels, the top of her head barely reaches his shoulder.

Shadow grins down at Chilly who shoots a "you wanna mess with my fella, little girls?" glance over her shoulder. Of the two, the brunette looks most annoyed. Breathing heavily, she takes a step past her friend, towards Chilly, who disengages from Shadow and turns to face her assailant. Shadow's bulk behind her is like having a wall at her back.

"What the fuck d'you think you're doing, bitch?" the brunette screeches. She balls a fist and swings at Chilly. Things happen quickly after that.

Chilly's right hand twitches towards where her gun would be, if she'd been able to carry it tonight. After this split second of indecision, she reverses her hand movement and brings her arm up to block the punch, way too late. The fist comes straight at Chilly, only to be stopped two inches from her nose by Shadow's outstretched palm. There is an audible smack as the two hands collide.

Shadow takes the hit impassively. The brunette shrieks, drawing back her stinging fist. The brunette's friend, a tall, skinny blonde in a black dress, steps into the middle of the confrontation and shoots what she hopes is a withering glance at Chilly who merely grins back up insolently.

When Shadow speaks, it is with a calm authority. "Take your friend to the restroom. Get her cleaned up and calmed down. We don't want trouble here tonight."

The blonde looks from Chilly to the bouncer. "Yeah, I guess you're right. C'mon, Michelle." With a last caustic look over her shoulder, the blonde leads her friend away. Michelle is cradling her right hand and tears are ruining her make-up.

"What was her fucking problem?" asks Chilly. Her fight or flight reaction is leaning heavily towards the fight option right now.

"Dunno," answers Shadow, "probably one too many early drinks on her part. That was a dumb thing you did, too. For all you knew she could have been my fiancee."

"And what would your fiancee have done?" Chilly says testily, gutted that Shadow has a significant other.

"Probably much the same as blondie's friend did," replies the bouncer, "only I'm not sure I would have been fast enough to stop her spreading your nose across your face."

Chilly lets her irritation drop at that point and gets back to business. She explains what she's seen to Shadow who listens attentively. At the end of her story, he says simply: "Leave it to us." There is an air of finality in the way he delivers this line. Chilly looks up into Shadow's pale grey eyes. He returns her gaze steadily and Chilly feels her blood run cold. Clearly, Shadow is a man not to be crossed lightly; she's glad she's on his side.

Shock are drawing to the end of their set and the dance floor is crowded with bouncing bodies. The band have obviously found their audience's level and are thundering out a positively ancient rock anthem which they credit to a local band. Firestarter is thrashing around in the middle as the track slows. Some of the crowd begin singing along. A girl backs into Firestarter, turns and flashes him a grin, her head cocked slightly to one side. Then she grabs his arm and pulls herself closer for the slow part of the song.

As they move in time with the music, she rests her head on his shoulder and slips her arms around his neck. Her breathing causes her breasts to rise and fall against his chest. His hands find her waist and she clings tightly to him. Firestarter's luck doesn't last long. The music speeds up and she pulls away, holding him at arms length as she starts jumping with the rest of the crowd.

There's a shout from somewhere behind him and a mass of people surge towards the stage, pushing Firestarter back towards the girl, who grabs him again, laughing. Something (a beer bottle, perhaps) thuds against his heavily leather-armoured shoulder. Then the fight spills across the dance floor, raised voices sounding even over the music. Another hard shove sends Firestarter into the girl and he narrowly avoids taking her to the floor.

He spins around to find one of the Solar Angels squared off in front of some Anglo guy dressed all in black. Two more black-clad Death's Jesters are helping one of their companions up off the floor. Firestarter steps forward only to be stopped by another Angel. "Leave it, bro," warns the Angel, making it perfectly clear that this is none of the biker's biz. Firestarter balls a fist and gauges the distance ready to swing at the Angel but his anger is checked by the feel of the girl's arms around his waist. Her huge brown eyes implore him to stop. He uncurls his fist and glares over the Angel's shoulder at the frozen tableau of the stand-off.

The freeze-frame ends when the Jester pulls a knife on the Angel, stabbing straight for the heart. The Angel dodges and the razor sharp steel slices into the left arm of his jacket. No blood is drawn, the combination of thick leather, ballistic padding and a knife-proof weave stops the blade. The Angel continues his dodge, spinning on his back foot and snapping a wheel-kick to the side of the Jester's head, the impact dropping the knife-man to the floor. Without hesitation, the Angel pulls his own knife, kneels beside the fallen Jester and puts the switchblade's point against his attacker's throat.

This whole thing has taken maybe five seconds. A man in a black tux pushes past Firestarter and puts a gun to the Angel's head.

"Easy, mate," Baxter says in his best East End bully-boy accent. "Drop the pig-sticker and stand up nice and slow." Gratifyingly, the Angel's knife clatters to the dance floor and the ganger does as he's told, the cold muzzle of Baxter's automatic just behind his left ear. Two more of The Delta's security team arrive to back up their boss, guns holstered but visible under their now open jackets. People are moving away from the scene of the fight. Black-clad Jesters pick up their stunned brother who is shaking his head and wondering what hit him. The Angels gather in a small group casting venomous glances at larger Jester contingent. A simmering hatred has been born tonight.

The tension drains slowly as Shock's set draws to a close. Baxter, on the dance floor in front of the stage, swaps his gun for a radio-mike. "Ladies and Gentlemen, let's have a huge round of applause for our opening act: Shock!" The crowd whoop and holler appreciatively as the band clear off the stage. The lights dim and roadies are soon scuttling around the stage preparing for Mack The Knife's imminent appearance.

"My, that was exciting. Are you gonna buy me a drink? Or do I have to die of thirst where I'm standing?" The girl looks up at Firestarter with a raised eyebrow. She's breathing heavily and her lightly tanned skin is glistening with perspiration. Without waiting for an answer she moves off towards the bar. Firestarter shrugs and goes with her, appreciatively watching the swaying movements of her lithe body as she walks.

Baxter mutters, "I'm getting too old for this shit." His two bouncers have moved off into the crowd, now with express orders to keep an eye on the Angels and the Jesters. He walks towards his office, noticing Gemini in one of the side booths. A guy in a cheap looking suit is obviously trying his luck. Gem lets her gaze sweep the crowd, spots Chaz but doesn't let a hint of recognition show. Baxter likewise keeps his look neutral. They're both professionals and have played this game long enough to know that someone might be watching them. Better not to broadcast their connection.

Gemini toys with her half empty glass trying not to look too bored. What's-his-name is getting rather too close for comfort. He comes over all conspiratorial about his job, some guff about security clearances, need-to-know and access to what his firm can supply, then asks what she does for a living. I get cretins like you compromised or killed for revealing facts like that, Gemini thinks with a smile. The smile is a mistake; what's-his-name takes that as a signal to move. He takes her hand and his palm is all clammy. Gemini recoils, knocking over her glass, breaking the fragile stem, spilling ice and orange juice across the table.

One of The Delta's omnipresent barmen materialises at the table. "Can I help you with that, Ma'am?" he asks. Aussie accent, robust surfer's good looks, twenty or twenty-one; she'll make sure Chaz gives the guy a bonus. Gemini takes the opportunity to stand and put some distance between herself and her would-be suitor.

"Look, thanks for the chat and everything," Gemini says, "but I'm really just waiting for my friend. She should be here by now. I must look for her." Turning on her heel, Gemini walks off towards the bar.

"Frigid bitch," what's-his-name growls, just loud enough for Gemini to hear. For a second Gemini thinks about killing him but then lets the insult slide. She's been called a lot worse in her 32 years (sometimes deservedly, sometimes not) and life's too short to let idiots like that get to you.

Mack the Knife's set begins. Chaz is anxious to calm the frayed nerves of his audience and Mack's mellow blues should be ideal. The Blues Man, wreathed in cigarette smoke, sits centre-stage in a dim pool of light from an overhead spot. Backing musicians on drums and bass complement Mack's own guitar. The dance floor fills with people, predominantly couples, getting together on the Mack's soul-rending ballads.

Firestarter leans back in one of the booths facing the bar, mellowing out to Mack's music. He's still edgy from the encounter with the Angel on the dance floor and, as if that wasn't enough, he's now got something, or rather someone, else to worry about. Lisa, the girl from the dance floor, leans against him, snuggling under his arm while sipping a tall, iced, luridly-coloured cocktail through a straw.

"Would you really have hit that guy?" she asks, referring to the Angel.

Firestarter tries to think this through: "Someone had just crashed a beer bottle off my shoulder, a brawl had kicked off on the other side of the floor and I nearly took you out because of it, so, all things considered, yeah, I'd have decked him."

"Even if that meant all of his friends joining in?"
Firestarter merely nods in reply.

"And you'd do that for little me?" Lisa says with a giggle. "My hero!" She kisses him warmly on the cheek. The next kiss is fully on Firestarter's lips; she presses close, her hand moving down to his crotch. Then she breaks the kiss with a pleasantly surprised gasp, her dark brown eyes wide. "Let's dance, lover boy," Lisa says insistently. She stands, takes his hand and leads him back onto the dance floor.

Chilly is in the Ladies' Restroom again, this time not checking for dope-fiends. Instead she's tidying her make-up, watching her back in the mirror, when one of the The Delta's waitresses moves into her field of vision. The girl takes a place at the next sink and smiles quickly at Chilly. "Shadow asked me to find you," the girl begins. "He says to meet him outside as soon as you're done here. Use the back door into the alley." Chilly nods and the girl saunters out.

Her curiosity piqued, Chilly does as Shadow has asked. She leaves the Ladies, turning left to go past the stage (the bass beat from the speaker stacks sets her guts vibrating) and then left again, past the dressing rooms. The double doors of the rear fire exit are slightly ajar, allowing her a peek into the rear alleyway. There's an anonymous-looking van parked there and she can hear a groaning sound. Taking a deep breath, she steps through the door.

"Shadow?" Chilly enquires quietly.

"Just round the corner, Chilly," the bouncer replies.

Shadow and another of The Delta's tuxedo-clad security guards are there along with two other men Chilly hasn't seen before. The latter pair are holding Spike against the alley wall. Even if Spike has the sense to be scared, he's in no condition to show it. His mouth is a bloody ruin of split lips and broken teeth. An ugly purple-yellow bruise covers his left eye. One of his captors is wiping blood off a wicked-looking set of brass knuckles.

"This is the guy you saw in the club," says Shadow, and it's not a question. Chilly's nod is all the confirmation Shadow needs. In one smooth movement, he raises a silenced automatic in his right hand, presses the muzzle against Spike's forehead and pulls the trigger. Blood and brains splatter against the wall and the two men drop Spike's corpse as Chilly stifles a scream.

Afterimages of the muzzle flash are burned on Chilly's retina. She blinks, trying to clear her vision but each blink causes the moment to replay itself like some obscene movie projected on the inside of her forehead. It takes several moments to bring her heaving stomach under control. When she regains her composure the two men have bundled Spike's headless body into the van and the other Delta security guard is spraying the bloodstain with disinfectant and bleach.

Shadow is talking quietly with the two men near the van. Chilly sees money changing hands, the two men grinning broadly as they take their pay-off. Shadow strips off a pair of thin surgical rubber gloves and hands them to one of the men. Then they drive their gruesome cargo away, adding the stink of exhaust fumes to the smell of blood, cordite and excrement in the alley.

Chilly puts her back firmly against the wall as Shadow turns to her. Though she can't see the murder weapon, she's in a state of mild shock at the moment, and a little voice in the back of her head is screaming YOU'RE A WITNESS! YOU'RE NEXT! Even in the gloom of the alley, Shadow can see how scared Chilly is. He keeps his distance from her and holds out his hands, palms open.

"If it's anything to you," he begins, "that sack of shit had about three grand in cash on him and at least six different types of drugs, including coke, amphetamines, Silver Angel and acid. A regular pharmaceuticals factory. One of White-shirt's friends is in the Mens' Room coming down off a real bad trip."

"Why?" Chilly asks simply. She can't think of anything else to say. She has her arms folded across her stomach and is shivering despite the warmth of the night air.

"Boss's orders," answers Shadow, equally simply. He could justify what he did. He could tell Chilly how he came home one day, half a lifetime ago, to find his sister dead in their living room, a filthy needle still in her arm, dried vomit staining her face and clothing. He could tell her, but that would be patronising. Instead, he nods at his colleague and says, "Come on, Chilly. I'll get you a drink."

"Coffee," Chilly croaks before following Shadow on numb legs back into the club.

Their dance doesn't last long. Halfway through the second track, someone steps on Lisa's foot. She rounds on the guy, anger flashing in her eyes. "Watch what you're doing, shit-head!" Lisa screams. The guy's girlfriend, taller than Lisa by a good six inches, pushes Lisa back into Firestarter, casting a withering look in their direction. She and her boyfriend laugh it up.

"Don't just stand there, fucking kill him!" Lisa's voice is a high-pitched screech, like fingernails scraping down the blackboard of Firestarter's soul. He steps forward and the boyfriend fronts up to him. There follows an undignified bout of pushing and shoving, like boys in a school yard. Firestarter's head is spinning, he wants to deck this punk and Lisa is urging him on; given the state of mind he's in, he'll do anything for her at this point. He clenches a fist ... NO! Firestarter comes vaguely to his senses. Something's not right here. He spins, grabs Lisa by the wrist and pulls her off the dance floor, the laughter of their antagonists tearing into him like automatic weapons fire.

By the time he dumps her into a vacant booth, there are tears streaming down Lisa's cheeks. She buries her face against his chest and sobs wrack her body. Slowly she calms down, clinging tightly to him. She keeps repeating, "I'm sorry." He kisses the top of her head, her black hair damp with perspiration.

Chilly is onto her third double espresso and is rallying well. Shadow has drifted off into the crowd to check on the rest of his team. Mack's set is finishing to hearty applause and cheers from the audience. I've got those "just seen the first cold-blooded murder of my life" blues, Chilly thinks. It's a poor attempt at levity, particularly as she's just seen another altercation on the dance floor, this time between a biker-type and his girl and a corporate-looking couple. What the Hell is going on here?

Firestarter is concerned. Lisa has finally stopped crying and is leaning against him in the booth. She has been silent for nearly ten minutes now and Firestarter has been using the time to go over what's happened tonight. He can't explain the two incidents where he's nearly attacked people. He's normally pretty easy-going; random acts of senseless violence like that just aren't his style. Yes, he's been in bar brawls but those largely were 'Pack versus Pack' or 'Pack versus Locals' affairs; yes, he's kicked a few heads in but he was getting paid for those so that makes it business. And even with a few of The Delta's cut-price drinks in him, he's not that drunk. And what about Lisa? She has veered from fun and energetic, to plain horny, to being a screeching harridan baying for blood. Maybe she's on some medication or other that has reacted badly with alcohol?

His attention wanders as a Hispanic girl in a black mini-dress walks past his booth. Nice ass, he thinks but then this train of thought is interrupted as Lisa thumps her fist down onto his thigh. "Bastard. Take your eyes off her. You're supposed to be concentrating on me!" But Lisa says this without her earlier vehemence and humour is again sparkling in her dark brown eyes.

Chilly sashays past the biker and floozie she saw on the dance floor. Shadow is standing guard outside the Mens' Room. More trouble, she thinks. The bouncer guides her away from the restrooms and around behind the stage. SuperHoney, the headline act, are about to go on stage and roadies are setting up kit. Chilly notices the band's keyboards player, Suzi Blake, currently in blue overalls, arguing with one of The Delta's resident techs. The woman is counting off points on her fingers, punctuating her sentences with stamps of her booted foot. Suitably cowed, the tech raises his hands in an "Okay, okay!" gesture and slinks off to do the job right this time. Go, Girl! Chilly thinks with a broad grin. Suzi leaps off the stage, satisfied now that, when the pyros go off at the end of their set, nobody will get hurt, and retreats to the dressing room with her band mates.

Shadow is in pensive mood when Chilly turns to face him. "They're mopping up the blood in the Men's Room right now," he says. A pause, then: "How many fights have you seen tonight?"

Chilly totals them up. "The Jester and the Angel, the brunette who took a swing at me, the biker near the stairs, egged on by his girlfriend. Oh, and one in the alley out back."

"The last one doesn't count," Shadow says with total sense of humour failure. "But what you've seen is just the tip of the iceberg. A couple of Angels nearly wasted a Jester while we were outside, two company types kicked off over some girl, and the Silver Lions had a go at the Wasted Youth near the bar. They're just the edited low-lights and don't even begin to cover the other weird shit that's been going on."

"Define weird shit."

"People dozing off, even near the speaker stacks during Shock's set. Supposedly intelligent people falling for the dumbest con-tricks you've ever heard ..."

Chilly cuts him off: "Girls who are psychotically aggressive one minute then bawling their eyes out the next." Shadow nods. Creeping horrors fight their way up and down Chilly's spine before she makes the next logical leap. "LSD in the air conditioning." She can't believe she just said that.

"That's what we thought, too, but there's nothing hinky with that. Baxter has had techs check it over."

"It would take a small army of pushers selling all sorts of shit to produce the mixture of effects we've seen." There's an uncomfortable silence between them until Chilly utters: "The drinks. Oh shit."

"Let's go see the boss."

Baxter's office is sound-proofed. The door closes on SuperHoney's opening number, cutting off electro-rock and female harmonies. Chilly and Shadow lay it all out for Baxter, missing nothing, telling it like it is. Chilly is amazed Baxter takes it so calmly, but Chaz is obviously used to crisis-management on this scale. He is, after all, from what's left of the UK, so such things must be pretty normal to him.

Baxter makes things happen. "Shadow. Get samples of all the different drinks we've got behind the bar. Include soft drinks as well. If any of the staff ask awkward questions, tell them it's for a private party. If they push the matter, tell them they're fired. Chilly, back onto the floor and keep your eyes peeled. You see anything untoward, you tell security straight away. You understand this? Whatever's floating around in the drinks causes psychosis, and the last thing we want is someone sticking you with a blade or a bottle. Okay? Now scram. I've got calls to make."

Shadow nods once and departs. Ordinarily Chilly would have slapped Baxter down for talking to her like that but she recognises the seriousness of this situation. She files his attitude away for future reference: in a shit-storm like this, professionals rely on the only people they can really trust, other professionals. Personal prejudices are set aside and the job gets done. As she leaves Baxter's office into the howling maelstrom of SuperHoney's set, she realises that she owes Shadow an apology.

Lisa by now is sitting straddling Firestarter's lap, kissing him in short bursts in time with the music. He comes up for air and brushes her hair from her face, and, looking into her eyes, can see none of the fear and anger she showed on the dance floor. In fact, she looks sensational. He feels relaxed, well, most bits of him do. And Lisa knows exactly how to fix that problem. She slips from his lap onto the floor, under the table. Suddenly, everything is right in Firestarter's world.

Watch out for anything untoward, eh? Everywhere she looks Chilly sees scowls on the faces of men and women alike. Any of these people could turn into raging psychos at a moment's notice. She notices the biker sitting in his earlier booth, a stupid grin plastered over his face. Oh, no. Not him now. Where's his bimbo? Then she sees the girl's foot poking out from under the table and puts two and two together. Add aphrodisia to the list of effects, Chilly thinks, faintly disgusted.

He Just Wants Me

Angela Chester stands at the front of The Delta's stage. The lead singer and guitarist of SuperHoney beams at her audience who, only three tracks into the band's set, are already screaming for more. This is how it's supposed to be! Angie thinks delightedly. She scans the audience quickly and winks at Luke, her boyfriend of six months. Luke grins back, unable to hide his pride in the beautiful songstress.

Angie, pumped up on adrenaline, leans into the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, this next song is called He Just Wants Me." There are cheers from the crowd. This is the track that has gotten SuperHoney most of their airplay in recent weeks. Angie swings her guitar around to the small of her back - Suzi's keyboards will be providing most of the music for this track -and begins to stroll around the stage to each of her bandmates. She begins the first verse, hyperactive and giggly.

Chilly's attention is drawn to the stage and she picks up the sense of the first verse. Angie is acting up in the style of a 'girly chat'with her friends on stage. She has a new boyfriend. What a hero he is! Kind, considerate, romantic, he makes her laugh. He sees things in her that she doesn't see in herself. He makes her the centre of his universe and, as Angie sings "He Just Wants Me". The girls move harmoniously into the first chorus.

Things change part way through the second verse. Angie is still happy and giggly but Chilly and the rest of the crowd detect an edge of nervous hysteria in the singer's voice. Her relationship is changing, the words "choose", "better than them" and "them or me" figure prominently in the lyrics. Electronics are used to deepen Angie's voice for the 'male' parts of this verse as she carries out a blazing argument with her unseen boyfriend: "But I want to see my friends!" Angie screams.

Maria Morales, the group's bass guitarist, her voice dripping contempt: "We're not good enough for you now. Your golden-boy says we're nothing but trash." She pushes Angie away from her. Angie stands centre stage, a look of bewilderment on her face as her bandmates, her former friends, pick up the second chorus, flinging filthy looks in Angie's direction. The singer unlimbers her guitar and howls into a lead-break of soul-searing intensity.

The audience have stopped dancing. They stand there, mesmerised by Angie's performance.

Lisa, tense, pulls away from Firestarter, spilling a drink across their table. "Keep your hands to yourself!" she hisses.

Chilly feels icy fingers playing up and down her spine. A song like this is like a match thrown on dynamite.

Catherine McDonald, staring at the stage, is twelve years into the past, hearing those same words coming from her own lips. She's at Harvard Business School and has just found out that she is pregnant with David. The father, Simon Morell, her corporate sponsor, took the news emotionlessly, but immediately began to put the brakes on Catherine's life, arranging things his way. Less than two weeks later, the scandal will have cost Morell a big promotion. In her head, Catherine can hear the screech of car tyres as Morell, drunk, aims his Porsche at her on the sidewalk. She escapes with cuts, bruises and shock; Morell dies in the crash, a fitting reward for the attempted double-murder of Catherine and her unborn son. BASTARD! Catherine flees Harvard and gives birth in New York, in a backstreet clinic better known for carrying out illegal abortions. When Gemini opens her eyes on the present, her vision is blurred by tears.

Angie is standing at the front of the stage, lit from below by a single bluish spotlight, leaning heavily on her mike-stand. Something in Angie's cosmetics is reacting with the stage lights, creating dark shadows under her eyes. In this light, the blonde angel of the first verse is gone, replaced by a sunken-eyed daemon. The lights have dimmed and her bandmates, her former friends, are in shadow; they may as well be a million miles away. Angie stands alone for the final verse, surveying her ruined relationship, friendships in tatters, her heart broken with loneliness. Her voice drips venom as she reaches the last line ...

"... but after all this time, I still believe, He Just Wants Me."

There is a long moment of silence in the entire club. Chilly straightens, looking over the crowd. She can see women glaring across tables at their partners, turning away from their guys on the dance floor. One woman slaps her man across the face before storming towards the Ladies' Restroom. How many relationships have hit the rocks in the last few minutes? Chilly wonders. The biker and his girl are engaged in a tense, whispered argument at their table.

Applause and a high pitched whistle sound from the other side of the dance floor. Chilly looks and can see Chaz Baxter with his fingers in his mouth, the source of the whistle. Half a dozen Delta staff are applauding and the sound ripples across the dance floor, draining the tension as it does so. Seconds after Chaz's whistle, the crowd are directing tumultuous applause at the stage.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Teresa Penn on the drum kit!" Angie introduces a blistering drum solo. Teri Penn is from Louisiana, a lean Afro-American who stands just under 6' 6". This is her showcase moment and she mixes influences from Africa, Asia and America, bringing a multi-ethnic feel to SuperHoney's music. The frenetic beat brings the crowd back to its senses and, as the drum solo ends, Maria Morales is standing front and centre, ready for her vocal slot.

Maria lacks Angie's vocal range, even when electronically assisted, but she makes up for it in sheer emotional intensity. She takes her cue from Angie's song but liberates the theme and calls it Independence: too many people are out take advantage of you - corporations, friends, lovers - and maintaining your independence is a healthy and sensible thing. The audience love it and SuperHoney storm into the rest of their set.

The Shooting

Sitting diagonally across from Firestarter and Lisa are three suit-types, all Anglo males. Two of them sit stunned during Angie's song, but the third is fidgety, sweaty and argumentative. SuperHoney's set is drowning out his voice but it's plain to Firestarter that Suit-boy is pissed about something. A football game he had money on, perhaps?

Firestarter turns his attention back to Lisa who is describing her job as a secretary for a local electronics firm. She has calmed down again but is distant and hasn't touched him since SuperHoney finished He Just Wants Me.

"FUCKER! Listen to me!" Suit-boy is on his feet in front of his friends. Heads turn in his direction.

Firestarter sees Lisa's jaw drop. "G ...," she says, unable to finish the word "gun" before two shots ring out from Suit-boy's table. Firestarter jerks his head round in time to see one of Suit-boy's friends thrown back against the upholstered booth, bright blood staining his shirt from the twin entry wounds that have punched holes in his chest. At that range, the exit wounds will be the size of a man's fist. Without thinking, Firestarter is on his feet.

Chilly hears the gunshots, her worst nightmare coming true at last: some psycho has gone ape-shit with a gun. She's maybe 20 feet from the gunman. She reacts, perfectly clear in her own mind what has to happen. She closes the distance, aiming to grapple the psycho's gun hand and point the gun at the floor.

Suit-boy is levelling the gun at his other friend when Chilly collides with him, spoiling his aim and forcing the next bullet into the ceiling. Glass tinkles down from a ruined spotlight. Her ears are ringing from the proximity of the 9mm gunshot and her heel hits a puddle of spilled beer making her crash unceremoniously to the floor, landing hard on her butt.

The next second stretches into eternity for Chilly. She looks up into psycho's face and is amazed to see tears streaming down his cheeks even as a maniacal grin distorts his blandly handsome face. He's laughing a deeply sick laugh as he points the gun down into Chilly's face. A 9mm isn't that big a calibre weapon but as Chilly looks dazedly upwards, she thinks she could fit her entire fist into the pistol's muzzle. Her blood runs cold as the psycho's finger tightens on the trigger once more.

A leather-clad elbow obscures Chilly's view of the psycho's face. His head is snapped back accompanied by the sickening crunch of breaking bone. It's the sort of blow that, had it been delivered by a martial arts expert, would have driven the guy's nasal bone up into the base of his brain, killing him instantly. Blood floods down over the psycho's chin and he lets out an animal scream of pain. Firestarter grabs Suit-boy's gun hand and wrenches sharply. There's the grinding sound of tortured bones and the gun falls from suddenly numb fingers into Chilly's lap. Suit-boy's knees give way and he falls to the dance floor.

Chilly scrambles to her feet covering the psycho with his own gun. The biker is kneeling on the fallen psycho's chest, patting him down for ID. The Delta's security team is converging on the battlefield and people are only just beginning to react with screams and shouts, questions and panic.

Chaz is sitting in his office, his PC lit up, in a video-conference with a chemist of his acquaintance. The link is secure. Even the government would have problems breaking the encryption he's using. He's barely breathing as he listens to what the chemist has to say.

"I make out traces of at least three additives in a range of the drinks you sent me, everything from whisky and beer to coke and bottled water."
Baxter asks the question, even though he doesn't want the answer. "What sort of 'additives'?"

"Dexedrine-gamma, Zybenzaphrene and Thymoglandin." Chemistry is not Baxter's strong suit so the chemist precis the drugs.

"Dexedrine-gamma is an amphetamine-derivative. It increases alertness and heightens sexual desire, causes clumsiness in large doses. Zybenzaphrene is a depressant, sometimes used to treat hyperactivity in kids; an OD causes lethargy. Thymoglandin is the interesting one, a tailored synthetic hormone analogue which is known to increase aggression. The first two could be made in a kitchen by anyone with a year's college chemistry under their belt. The last one requires a bio-lab and clean room facilities. These three are bad enough individually. If someone got a mixture into their system, God knows what would happen." The chemist is silent for a while; on his own PC, he can see Baxter is scribbling notes. Then he continues. "You realise this is the most sophisticated case of chemical sabotage I've ever seen? There can't be too many people capable of pulling off a stunt like this."

Baxter rapidly draws up a mental short-list of possible suspects. He doesn't like what he comes up with, not one bit. Chaz closes the conversation quickly. "Yeah. Thanks, mate. I want a full analysis and breakdown of all this. We'll handle the payments the usual way, with a bonus if you can get the data here by Monday."

The chemist smiles over the video-link. What Baxter's asking will involve rescheduling some of the legitimate Police forensic work his company's lab should be doing but the hassles will be worth it for what Chaz is willing to pay. "It'll be on your desk Monday morning," the chemist assures him.

Baxter cuts the link as one of his security people comes in, without buzzing. Baxter is about to bawl him out when he hears screams from outside. The bouncer fills Chaz in on the shooting. Paramedics are on the scene. The guy who got shot worked for Mitsuhama Computer Technologies, one of Japan's largest corporations. The shooter was his boss. Normally it's the other way round, Baxter thinks humourlessly. Chaz now has a perfectly clear idea of what happens when Dexedrine-gamma, Zybenzaphrene and Thymoglandin get mixed up in a single bloodstream. He has work to do.

Climbing onto the stage, Chaz excuses Angie from the mike. From here he can see the paramedics wheeling two trolleys past the dance floor towards the rear fire exit. The front trolley has IV hookups hanging from it and blood is already staining the white sheets. The guy on the trolley looks in a very bad way and is being tended by two paramedics.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Please relax. Our security people have handled this little emergency and I'm sure the paramedics can deal with their side of things." Baxter turns to Angie and covers the mike. "Bring the crowd back around. Take their minds off this. Got that?" Baxter jumps off the stage and into the crowd.

Angie flashes a reassuring smile at Luke - I'm okay, baby - before turning to her bandmates. They decide on a cover-version of the old Dynamix track Shit Happens and begin playing without delay. In what is a damning indictment of modern American culture, the combination of Angie's vocals and the band's music sways most of the audience back towards the stage; it's not their problem that some idiot got shot, is it? Those that don't start dancing again are too busy gossiping about the shooting.

Chilly pushes through a crowd of people, all of whom seem to want to ask her questions or congratulate her, or, or ... whatever! She's seething inside. She's seen two shootings tonight; God knows what sort of official heat she'll draw for her role in this second incident; she herself has narrowly avoided having her brains scattered over the floor; and, to cap it all, the shooter's blood is soaking her dress. Two hundred dollars down the tubes. She's so angry that she walks right into Shadow before she even notices he's there.

The bouncer calmly reaches for her right hand, making her recoil until she realises she's still carrying the shooter's gun. She lets him take the pistol and watches as he ejects the clip and pumps the round out of the chamber. "You might want to keep this," he says, handing her the individual round. "This is the one that had your name on it."

For a second, Chilly is dumbfounded. Then she laughs as the tension finally floods from her body. She throws her arms around Shadow and hugs him tightly, still laughing.

"Take it easy," Shadow murmurs, mildly embarrassed. "It's not me you should be thanking." Chilly looks up and follows the direction of Shadow's gaze. The biker and his girl are near The Delta's main door. He's helping her into a coat. She looks awful, Chilly thinks, like she's been crying. Chilly watches as the girl scribbles on a scrap of paper and hands it to the biker, before kissing him on the cheek and turning to leave. The biker collapses into a nearby chair, looking somewhat dejected.

"You saved my ass back there," Chilly says matter-of-factly. The biker looks up and Chilly holds out her hand. "Thank you."

He shakes her hand. "Firestarter," the biker introduces himself.

"Chilly," she replies. Silence for a few seconds. After what they've been through, making idle small talk is a tough project. "How's your girlfriend?" Chilly asks, a little weakly.

"She's not ..." Firestarter begins, meaning to say she's not really my girl, but then he changes his mind; he got her phone number, after all. "She's not used to seeing people gunned down in front of her. Unlike your friend, the bouncer."

That last comment almost gets a rise out of Chilly. She blinks and the horrible image of Spike's skull exploding against the alley wall flashes in front of her eyes again. But Firestarter can't know anything about that (can he?) so Chilly assumes he's not goading her. She lets the statement slide and sits down opposite the biker.

Uh-oh, here we go, thinks Firestarter, as two uniformed cops enter The Delta. Chilly follows his look and shakes her head worriedly. But Chaz and Shadow step up to the officers, Baxter talking quickly. The cops are suspicious but one of them gets onto his radio. There's a brief conversation and then, with shrugs all round, the cops leave. Firestarter is, frankly, amazed. He expected to be at the local Precinct House with numbers under his mugshot by now. Chilly looks at Chaz with profound respect. The man is obviously a skilled negotiator but to give two street-cops, who are investigating a shooting for Christ's sake, the brush-off so easily, speaks volumes. Baxter is a player.

Baxter, with Shadow in tow, walks past Chilly and Firestarter without so much as a glance in their direction. Chaz is too preoccupied to show gratitude at the moment. His next meeting won't be nearly so easy. He's expecting MCT heat down here within minutes and the megacorp's security goons are notoriously heavy-handed. That's why Shadow will be acting as his bodyguard. He has barely reached his office when his phone rings and the girl in the club's Reception tells him Investigator Hori, MCT Security, has arrived. Showtime, thinks Baxter grimly.

The night is winding down. SuperHoney finish their impromptu second set to wild applause. Chilly and Firestarter are chatting awkwardly. She has dissuaded him from having any more to drink, thankfully without having to tell him what has been going on. She's not sure she could explain it anyway.

The conversation is interrupted when Shadow sits down at their table. "Mr. Baxter would like to invite the two of you to the office for a quiet drink. He wants to show his appreciation for the trouble you both went to tonight."

Chilly restrains herself from flinching when Shadow says the word "drink". At first she thinks he's making a tasteless joke but the bouncer smiles pleasantly and Chilly lets herself relax.

"I don't know about you," says Firestarter, "but I could seriously use a drink right now. It's been a really dull night so far," he continues, deadpan. All three of them laugh. It's not a great joke; it's the way he tells them. "Just one question, though. How did he get a gun into the club in the first place? You guys got mine at the door."

"Corporate permit," Shadow answers with a shrug. "Nothing we could do about it." He leaves the rest unsaid but knows exactly what the others are thinking: Fucking corporations!

Gemini's Briefing

Chaz Baxter is tired to his bones. He's just taken a call from the ER of the nearby hospital. The guy who got used for target practice died from his injuries ten minutes ago. Well, at least he didn't croak in the club, Chaz thinks. That's the sole piece of good news he's had tonight.

Investigator Hori grilled him for a solid hour. Chaz played dumb for as long as he could. The last thing Chaz wanted was for Hori to suspect the club's drinks supplies were contaminated. MCT medics will probably do a full toxological work up of the dead guy and the shooter. They will know the contaminants and their effects. What they will lack is any sort of proof that the problem was more widespread. By then, Chaz will have solid evidence to back up a counter-case that some sick joker had spiked only those drinks, no matter how much that evidence costs! The MCT heat will make life difficult in The Delta for a while, Chaz knows. It will take big brass ones to play hardball with the megacorp but Chaz has never backed down from a fight and doesn't intend to start now.

He looks up at Gemini who is sitting in one of the high-backed leather armchairs in his office. Gem smiles. "Rough night?" she asks, concerned for Chaz, who merely nods slowly in reply. "It could be about to get a lot worse, you know," Gemini continues. She lets that remark sink in before saying: "If I'm taking a liberty here, just say so and I'll go. I'll find some other way." Gemini knows Chaz is tempted to wash his hands of her problems and she really wouldn't blame him if he has her thrown out of the club right this minute.

"There is no other way, Gem, and you know it." But Chaz knows Gemini has seen right through him and he feels like a rat. "I owe you for that time in Paris," he says, raking up ancient history and making Gemini wince at the memory, "but even if I didn't, your David's a good kid, a really smart boy, and I'd help without question."

Gemini raises her wine glass. "God bless you, Chaz," she says with a warm smile.

The buzzer sounds. There's no point knocking on the door of a sound-proofed office. That'll be their guests. Chaz stands and walks to the office door, leaving Gemini with her thoughts. Baxter is genuinely delighted to see Chilly and Firestarter. He lightly embraces Chilly, pecking her cheek and getting an embarrassed smile in return. Then he turns to Firestarter and grasps his right arm near the elbow. The biker returns the strong shake, clasping Baxter's own forearm. "Diamond geezer!" Chaz says loudly, proving that you can take the boy out of the East End but never the East End out of the boy. He nods briefly at Shadow. "You all look like you need a drink."

Over drinks and snacks, Chaz congratulates and thanks each of them for their efforts that night. Chilly relaxes properly for the first time in several hours. So this is what it's like, being treated like a professional, she thinks. It's something she could get used to. Her attention is drawn to the woman sitting quietly on the periphery of their gathering. Late 20's probably; auburn hair, blue-grey eyes; smartly dressed in a neatly tailored, pale grey suit, a dark blue silk blouse showing in the jacket's deep V; the woman looks calmly over the festivities. It feels to Chilly like she's taking snapshots of each of them.
Chaz sits back behind his desk then looks over at the mystery woman. "The floor's all yours, Gem."

Gemini stands and smooths her jacket. She nods thanks at Chaz. When she speaks, her voice is quiet but carries authority. Another player, thinks Chilly. And that thought makes her pay attention.

"My name is Gemini," she says simply (back in New York, those four words have been known to cause psychotic gang-bangers to whimper for their mothers) "and I have a problem that I am hoping you people will help me solve.

"A few days ago, my son was kidnapped from my apartment in New York. The team who did it were professional in the extreme. I have some of the best electronic security money can buy installed in my home and the building's computer system is similarly intrusion-proof. Or at least that's what I thought. The kidnappers walked past my security like it wasn't there. They took my boy and disappeared like vapour.

"I would like ... no, I need your help to get my son back." Gemini has remained remarkably cool during her speech but she now takes a deep breath. The question of money will surely raise its ugly head and she decides to forestall the unseemly bartering right now. "I am willing to pay you each five thousand dollars and I will front for any equipment you may need. Furthermore, I will owe each of you a favour. Chaz will back me up on this: I have never reneged on my word. My son's safety is paramount. Money is no object. I will honour my word even if you call in the debt ten years from now." She pauses. "Will you help me?"

Shadow leans forward. He's heard briefings like this before, usually couched in corporate double-speak and bullshit. This is the first time he's heard such searing honesty in a situation like this. He glances at Chilly and Firestarter; their attention is locked on Gemini. "What's the opposition like?" asks Shadow, speaking for all of them.

"Very professional. I only have intelligence on one of them, a shooter by the name of Anvil. He has a rep on the East Coast, mainly as a freelance hitman and bodyguard. As for the rest of the team, I know there are three more, one of whom probably bypassed both the computers in my building and the electronics in my home. The others are unknown quantities at this time. I'd expect them to be muscle." Gemini pauses. She can see what Shadow's thinking, weighing his skills against one known opponent and three others. "I also know where they are."

"So why haven't you taken them out already?" It's Chilly's turn to ask the questions.

"I only found out today," Gemini replies with a glance at her watch; it's the small hours of Sunday morning. "Or rather yesterday, as it is now. I'm supposed to deliver the ransom this evening. I don't intend to make that delivery."

"Why us?" Firestarter asks.

"As I told you, the ransom drop is tonight. That puts me under a lot of pressure to do this quickly. I need team players or this whole thing will unravel and David will likely die. I saw you all in the club. The way you two," she directs this remark at Firestarter and Chilly, "handled the shooting incident was impressive. You hadn't even met and still worked as a team. Now I want you on my team."

The three exchange glances.

"I'm in," says Firestarter earnestly. The others stare at him but he continues: "The boy's part of your Pack, Gemini, and nobody gets away with hurting a Pack member, right?"

Gemini nods.

"Okay, I'll do it," says Shadow. "You just make sure you watch my back, Fire-man."

Relief floods through Gemini's whole being but she can't show it. All eyes are on Chilly.

Chilly is undecided. Volunteering to walk into a gunfight doesn't seem like the sensible option. Firestarter agreed out of some sort of misguided "Pack loyalty" and Shadow is going along because he'll never work in this town again if it becomes known that he backed down. And Baxter is just the man to see to it that word gets out. Still, the money is attractive and Gemini is a player herself, a useful contact to the young, ambitious Chilly.

But still she wavers, her narrowly avoided encounter with a 9mm slug to the forehead vivid in her memory. As ever, the men are thinking with their balls, so it falls to her to use her head. She says: "You know where these people are. What do you know about the place? What sort of neighbourhood is it? What's the Police response time if there's a firefight? Can we even risk an assault or do we have to stealth the bad guys?"

Chilly locks her gaze with Gemini but with her peripheral vision, she can see Firestarter gaping at her; Shadow is looking at the floor in mild embarrassment; and Baxter is observing with keen interest. Something passes between the two women, an instant of mutual respect. Chilly senses she's said just the right thing.

Gemini smiles with genuine satisfaction. "Chaz, do you have those maps?" she asks.

A few minutes later, they are crowded around Baxter's PC, going over street maps, a building floor plan and a map of the target apartment. Gemini's sources have worked overtime preparing these plans; they are accurate to within a few feet; the apartment map is accurate to the foot. Baxter runs some software that generates a 3D wire-frame model of the kidnappers' hideout. The neighbourhood is one of the worst slum districts in the city. Police presence is almost non-existent and when they do show up, their response time is measured in days, not minutes.

Everyone brings their expertise to bear on the problem. Shadow is obviously ex-military, some of the terminology he uses is a dead giveaway. Firestarter, with experience of rolling combat, draws roadblocks onto the street map, blocking the kidnappers' escape routes. Baxter makes phone calls to some "mates of mine on that manor". Chilly surprises everyone when she says:

"You know, a shaped charge of C6 could blow a door-sized hole in this wall," she traces a line on the screen with a fingertip.

Gemini stiffens. "Explosives! In that confined a space. May I remind you that the purpose of this job is to rescue my son, not spread him over the walls." She quickly regrets her high-handed tone but she's been on the go 36 hours now and the emotional stress is beginning to take its toll.

Chilly stands her ground and says: "The shaped charge concentrates the explosive force into the area we want it to go. In this case, we need access to the apartment next door and a metal framework to hold the plastique in place against the wall. With respect, there would only be a risk to your son if he's sitting on the other side of the wall where we plant the charge."

Shadow backs up Chilly. "And we use thermographic sensors to determine who is where in the target apartment before we place the charge. David will probably be immobilised and will have the smallest heat signature of all the occupants. If we take our time with this, I agree with Chilly: the risk to David is minimal."

"Who goes through the hole first?" Firestarter wants to know. "If the bad guys are as sharp as Gemini thinks they won't panic, but they will be confused. We won't have long to press the advantage. We also have to cover this bedroom here," he says, indicating the suspect area on the wireframe model. "It's not easy to get to from Chilly's proposed breach point, nor from the front door. If they've got David here, a single guard can kill him before we reach him."

"I go in first," says Shadow. "I can reach the bedroom from the breach point faster than they can react. Believe me. I'd bet my life on it." I might be doing just that, he thinks, before continuing. "You two would have to deal with the rest of the opposition."

"Three. You three will have to deal with the opposition," says Gemini firmly. Everyone looks at her with varying degrees of shock, amazement and concern. "You don't expect me to sit on my hands here, do you?" Gemini and Chaz trade a long, somewhat frosty, look. Gemini's mind is made up and Chaz can see there's no point in trying to convince her otherwise.

"Okay, so here's the plan," Shadow brings them all back to the agenda.

The Raid

From the bright lights of the Big City to the rat-infested squalor of the squatter district is only a 30 minute drive. Baxter is driving a large off-roader that they found in the alley behind The Delta. ("Wonder how this got here?" Chaz wise-cracked. The four-by-four had been stolen to order and delivered to The Delta, print-wiped and fitted with false license plates, less than one hour after Chaz had made a phone call.) Gemini is in the front passenger seat; Chilly, Firestarter and Shadow are in the back. The five of them are close enough to touch but each one is lost in thought and might as well be a thousand miles from their team-mates.

Shadow tightens the velcro straps on his Police-grade body armour. Rated to stop pistol and SMG rounds, it should also slow down 7.62mm assault rifle ammunition, at least to the point where he can take a bullet and live. He has a kevlar helmet, too. His weapon of choice, a silenced Ingram SMG, is on his lap and he also carries a .45 automatic and combat knife. Shadow is not nervous. This is his job and he intends to do it.

Chilly checks her own gun, a 9mm similar to that which nearly killed her recently. It has been fitted with a laser sight, calibrated to about 50 yards. Over her still bloodstained party dress, she now wears a heavy jacket which reaches almost to her knees. It is hot, bulky and uncomfortable, with ballistic padding and some sort of spider-silk derivative designed to stop pistol and SMG rounds. She shoves her hand into one of the pockets and pulls out a small black control box, the remote detonator for the C6 shaped charge. Two buttons, one to arm the detonator, the other to blow the charge.

Firestarter checks his SMG again, hefting the unfamiliar weapon and getting used to its weight. He'd have preferred a decent rifle but even Baxter's contacts can't get him an assault rifle on such short notice. He is also armoured in a bulky jacket like Chilly's (though his fits him better) and has a helmet. He checks the SMG's safety and tries to relax.

Gemini sits silently in the passenger seat. She has traded her suit for black leather trousers and boots, a black roll-neck sweater and a dark grey armoured jacket. Her blood is like ice-water in her veins. The moment of reckoning is close. Firestarter, with his simplistic world-view, was perfectly correct. David is part of her Pack but it's a Wolf Pack - and the she-wolf will fight, and kill, to protect her cub.

Baxter surreptitiously watches Gemini as he drives. Gem is one of the most gifted professionals he has ever met but he worries about her objectivity on this one. She's too emotionally involved. Far better to have let her team handle the rescue than to go in with them. Chaz has never had a family, though, so he will never understand just what is driving his friend right now.

All the preparations are made. Baxter's contacts have provided the weapons, ammo, armour and explosives. Gemini's money has paid for the whole lot. Those same contacts will ensure that all the gear disappears after the operation. No traces will be left to connect the team to whatever is the fallout from this raid. An engineer has hurriedly welded together the framework for the shaped charge. Thermographic sensors were bought for an exorbitant fee from a local electronics black-marketeer who also provided secure comm-links. Team-A will be Shadow and Chilly; Team-B, Firestarter and Gemini; Baxter, and some of his friends in the area, will be Team-C.

As they approach the target area, the car behind them blinks its lights twice. That's the prearranged signal. Members of the Iron Eagles street-gang, who largely run this area of town, are now blocking the streets indicated by Firestarter with cars, dumpsters, rubble and other makeshift barricades. The area is sealed off more thoroughly than the Police could have done it. Chaz pulls over at the side of the road. "Party time," he says simply.

The first thing Chilly notices when she emerges from the four-by-four is the stench. The recent heat wave has been cooking the streets and created a stinking miasma of rotting food, decaying garbage, and unidentifiable chemical odours from supposedly biodegradable plastics. Even now, at 4 in the morning, the smell turns Chilly's stomach. What would it be like at noon?

Baxter watches the team head for the apartment building where their quarry are holed up. He bids them all a silent good luck before getting back in the car. He has two cellular phones set up on the car's dash. One has a speed dial setting to the boss of the Iron Eagles: if the shit hits the fan, the Eagles - a group of paramilitary nutters - are the cavalry. The second phone has an emergency line to the paramedics.

The team make cautious progress through the semi-derelict building. The target apartment is on the third floor. Chilly and Shadow approach the neighbouring apartment's front door. They know it's occupied but can hear no sounds from within. Chilly kneels and begins working on the lock. Ten seconds later, there is a quiet click and the door is open. God bless you, Daddy, for teaching me that little trick, Chilly thinks.

Shadow takes a sedative-loaded hypodermic from Chilly, steals through the door and moves towards the bedroom. The single occupant is snoring. Chilly covers Shadow from the door as he puts the hypo to the sleeper's exposed arm. There's the slight hiss of compressed air from the hypo and the sedative is forced through the skin into the sleeper's bloodstream. He breathes deeply, more easily now, and the snoring stops. Shadow checks the man's pulse and finds it steady. Good, he'll sleep through an earthquake now, thinks Shadow.

"Team-A in position," Shadow whispers over their comm-net. Acknowledgements come in from the other Teams.

"Team-B on station." This is Gemini's voice. She and Firestarter are about 15 feet from the target apartment's door.

"Team-C, all quiet."

Chilly is setting up the shaped charge framework while Shadow prowls the apartment, the thermographic sensor-rig in front of his eyes. "Okay," he says. "I count five thermal signatures, as expected. Two in the bedroom, three in the living area. In the bedroom, one of the signatures is smaller than the other; without any other indications, I'd say that was David plus guard."

Gemini feels a restraining hand on her shoulder and turns to glare at Firestarter, who merely shrugs off the woman's anger. Then Gemini realises that she almost ran straight into the target apartment when she heard Shadow's appraisal of the situation. She relaxes slightly and smiles at Firestarter.

They keep comms discipline tight. Only Shadow and Gemini are speaking at the moment in case they are being monitored. Chilly turns and gives Shadow the thumbs-up. "Charge is in position," he reports, then walks to the opposite side of the room. "Go on my mark. Five ... Four ... Three ... Two ... One ... Mark!"

With that signal, Chilly blows the shaped charge. The explosion, as planned, rips through the wall, tearing a man-sized hole in the thin plaster-work. Shadow is moving even before the noise has stopped. He jumps through the hole, turns left and after three rapid strides kicks the bedroom door off its hinges. A man is fumbling for a gun; there is no sign of David. Shadow raises his Ingram and snaps off a short burst. Two heavy-grain rounds catch the man in the chest and he is flung back against the bedroom wall.

Firestarter's armoured shoulder smacks into the flimsy door of the target apartment, breaking it down in one smooth motion. The dust hasn't settled yet from the explosion but obviously its shock value has been over-rated. Someone has recovered quickly enough to offer some resistance but the shots are wide, blasting gouges out of the wall to his left.

Gemini is at Firestarter's side. A man is sprawled on a sofa near the door, holding one of those old Russian assault rifles. She turns and fires without hesitation, drilling the attacker twice through the chest. The body jerks and the rifle falls to the floor.

Chilly can barely see what's happening through the dust-cloud her handiwork has caused. She could shoot at shadows but might hit one of her team. The decision is taken out of her hands as a burst of auto-fire rips into the wall beside her head. Recoil stings her hand as she fires two shots back in the presumed direction of her attacker.

Gemini sprints past Firestarter towards the bedroom where her son is held captive. In doing so she collides with Shadow who is coming back into the chaos of the fight. In the narrow corridor there is little room to manoeuvre so Shadow grapples Gemini and pushes her behind him. There is the ripping sound of another automatic burst and Shadow staggers back into Gemini. Two rounds to the chest, stopped by his armour! He is winded and dazed by the impacts but still standing.

Firestarter has scant seconds to collect his wits. The man matching Anvil's description is in front of him, swinging an Uzi in his direction. Firestarter sees his whole life pass before his eyes in the split second before Anvil pulls the trigger.

Chilly fires at Anvil, her 9mm barely able to penetrate the man's armoured jacket. The impact knocks him back and his aim goes wild.

Firestarter isn't dead. It's amazing! Instead a burning pain lances through his left thigh as one of Anvil's wild 9mm rounds tears into it. The bullet exits his leg, narrowly missing both the femur and femoral artery, taking a large chunk of bloody muscle with it. Firestarter howls and hits the floor, rolling to his right, trying to keep his weight from crushing his wounded leg. He's vaguely aware of another man stepping over his prone form and running for the door.

Shadow hears Gemini's voice over their comm-link. She's in the bedroom shouting David's name. He doesn't have time to help her. Shadow steadies himself against the wall and aims his Ingram at Anvil. The bullets that nearly killed both him and Gemini came from the hitman's Uzi, so now it's payback. Anvil is not wearing a helmet. There is a short phut-phut-phut noise from Shadow's weapon. The bullets speed on their way, covering the short distance in microseconds. The first bullet strikes Anvil in the chest, the next two in the face, turning the hitman's head into a red haze.

There is a crash from the bedroom: Gemini has torn the closet door from its hinges. David is there, bound and gagged. There are tears staining his face and, now, tears staining the face of his mother. Catherine hauls her son out of the closet and hugs him tightly to her body. She is sobbing uncontrollably, rocking David back and forth.

"Sound off," Shadow calls over the comm-net. "I'm okay."

"Chilly OK, but we've got a man down." She's kneeling beside Firestarter, her hands covered in his blood as she ties a tourniquet around the top of his thigh.

"Firestarter, still breathing," he manages to say, through gritted teeth.

"Chaz OK. I have someone here you may want to meet." Outside, Baxter has some punk face down over the hood of the car. "Gem, are you all right?" No answer but a keening wail over the comm-net. Baxter's guts tighten. Did they kill the boy? Did he catch a stray round? "Gemini! Answer me. Are you OK?"

Shadow is standing silently at the bedroom door. It takes Gemini a while to answer Chaz's frantic questions. When she finally does respond, her voice sounds like it's coming from the Moon: "He's okay, everyone. David's fine."

She ignores Chaz's questions about her own safety. It is left to Shadow to report in. "Mother and son are both doing well," he says.

How long have I been here? Gemini asks herself, it feels like a year. Her sobs have stopped now and she clutches her son's warm body to hers. She can hear his breathing and feel his heartbeat even through her body armour. His soft voice cuts through her turmoil: "Mom. Mom. This man says we have to go now."

The End

Chilly helps Firestarter into the back of the four-by-four. With some rearranging of the seats, there's enough room for him to rest his leg. Firestarter shakes Chilly's hand. "I think we're quits now," he says. "Your bullets spoiled Anvil's aim." Chilly nods. Firestarter quite obviously drew Anvil's fire, taking bullets that should have been aimed at her. Whatever he thinks, Chilly feels her debt is only half-paid.

Two cars have arrived now, disgorging four men with whom Baxter is in conference. Cash changes hands, Gemini's money greasing the skids with Baxter's contacts.

People are looking out of windows but rapidly withdraw when they see a dozen Iron Eagles gangers standing menacingly around the group in the street. The general consenus seems to be to keep out of any biz involving the Eagles.

Shadow has his back against the wall of the apartment building, his .45 held inconspicuously at his side. They spent five minutes looting the hideout, finding the kidnappers' gear: ID (probably faked); cell phones (to check call records); weapons (these are in plastic bags ready to be dusted for fingerprints at Chaz's suggestion); and a rather expensive laptop (on screen after the fight was a 3D wireframe model of the apartment and surroundings; the graphic showed the positions of motion sensors in the corridor and fire escape, explaining how the bad guys recovered their poise so quickly). Gemini will be making intensive inquiries into the kidnappers' backgrounds to see if there was anyone else behind them.

The laptop probably belonged to him, thinks Shadow. He's standing guard over a guy who's lying handcuffed in the gutter. Baxter caught him running from the building. Short and wiry with unruly blond hair, he's wearing denims and sneakers and looks totally lost. He knows his team mates are dead and realises deep-down that the same fate probably awaits him. Baxter has slapped the weenie about a bit.

Gemini and David are huddled beside the four-by-four. She has wiped her son's tears away and is looking worriedly at the bruises and angry red chafe marks on his wrists and ankles. Something snaps in the mother's heart and the red mist she saw during the firefight descends again. Gemini pushes away from David and stalks towards their captive, drawing her gun, murder in mind.

Chilly and Shadow look at each other and share the same thought: Oh shit!

Gemini puts the muzzle of her gun to their captive's forehead and the pressure she exerts forces his head back into the gutter. His pale blue eyes flood with fear and he stammers "D ... d ... don't. Please!"

Chilly can see the murderous intent in Gemini's eyes. She wants to object but her attention is distracted by David's movement. Instinctively, she grabs the boy's arm and cradles him against her. The last thing he needs to see is his mother become a murderess right in front of him. That thought brings back the memory of Spike's head exploding and, still queasy at the shocking experience, she relaxes her grip on David.

"Get off me!" the boy shouts, squirming out of Chilly's grasp. He runs the short distance to his mother and flings his arms around her. "Mom! Mom!" He's yelling at her, repeating what his former captor was saying, "Don't! Please! Mom listen to me, please. Don't do it. Don't do it." David is sobbing again.

Hatred! The man on the ground isn't a person, he's a thing. And all she can feel is pure hatred for this thing who could hurt her child. Thick black fog is boiling at the edges of her vision and in front of her, all she can see is her own pale fist pressing a gun against an equally pale forehead. She's shaking ... no, she's being shaken. Somewhere a million miles distant, in a dark and truly awful place, Catherine McDonald hears her son's voice.

Her senses snap back at the sound of David's hysterical cries. She looks down into his eyes and returns fully to the real world. Gemini staggers back a few steps and drops her gun. David hugs her and she returns his embrace with an intensity born of overwhelming love, tinged with relief, fear, and shame for what she almost did. Something heavy and warm is draped around her shoulders. Through tear-blurred vision, she can see Chaz wrapping her and David in a thick blanket. The Londoner looks more afraid than she's ever seen him before. And if her rage has scared Chaz, God only knows what it would have done to David had she pulled the trigger.

"Come on," Chaz says, "I think you've been through enough for one night. Let's get out of here."

The Iron Eagles take temporary custody of the captive hacker. Baxter gives the Eagles' boss strict orders - reinforced by another two grand of Gemini's money - not to harm the captive. It's almost certain that Gemini will want to question him very soon and they don't want to have to hold a séance to do it.

Two of Baxter's friends drive Firestarter across town to a discrete clinic where no awkward questions will be asked about his gunshot wound. They will dispose of the four-by-four in a wrecker's yard. By morning, all that will be left of the car is a three-foot cube of metal.

The other two collect all the weapons and body armour the team have used. These go into the trunk of one of the cars they arrived in. The weapons will be stripped to their component parts and the car will be burned out before sun rise.

Shadow drives the last car back to The Delta. Chaz is in the front passenger seat. Gemini and Chilly sit quietly in the back, with David between them. Catherine puts her arm around David's shoulder and draws him closer. Moments later her son is asleep. The two women look at each other in the dim light of a slowly approaching dawn.

"Why?" Chilly asks.

"One day you'll understand," Gemini says, hoping she doesn't sound condescending, "that there are more important things than money, fame or one's reputation."

Yeah, right, thinks Chilly. But there's something about the look in Gemini's eyes that makes Chilly feel unsure.