March 1 - Carla Joy by jizhen1947


									                         Hera: The Self-Involved Assassin
Hera: Named for a Goddess, the assassin contemplated a chip in her nail while waiting
for her mark to appear in the window across the alley.

1:00 p.m. was the perfect time for murder, but the traffic, a two-martini lunch and the
lack of a wristwatch had delayed her. Where was he?

The mark wasn‟t really a businessman, of course, any more than Natural Chestnut was
her real hair color. She raised the sight on the M40A3.

A quick scan found no sign of her target. If she screwed this up, her project manager
would have her pulling "clean out the freaks" duty.

As far as Hera was concerned, the only thing worse than being "normal" in a ruined
world was hunting down the mutants the wars had created.

A change in lighting in the room she was watching alerted her and the M40A3 snapped
back up. Five seconds later she was dismantling the gun.

She waited until she was back in her car three streets away before calling in the success
to her PM. A delayed hit was better than failure.

She dialed the hotline number and waited for the beep. "Confirming successful action,"
she stated, then punched in her identification code.

She drove with her left hand, checking traffic as she merged onto the highway, digging in
her purse for a blotting paper for her shiny nose.

When she looked in the mirror, she still saw the unlined and serene prom queen she once
was, before the cataclysmic events ten years ago.

It was a natural process to go from the adulation of her fellow teens to a survivor to a
properly managed killing machine with an attitude.

She passed the security gate, nodding to the guard, and turned into her own parking
space. Her phone rang as she walked toward the elevator.

"You were late." The crisp, cool voice of Twelve, Hera's project manager, would never
be accusatory or evince any other particular emotion.

"I've lost my watch." Hera lied. She wore one once and didn't like the indention in her
wrist when she took it off, like a shackle removed.

"You'll find a replacement on your dresser. Three times late and you get Freak Duty.
Understood?" Twelve hung up before Hera could answer.
Hera wasn‟t surprised at the violation of her privacy. Her apartment was Company-
owned, as was her life, by the terms of her ten-year bond.

Once inside her apartment, she dropped off the gun case on the table and found the watch
on the dresser. Expensive, and undoubtedly bugged.

She pulled a metal box from underneath her fridge, put the watch inside, and pressed a
button on the box. That should take care of the bug.

She tossed the watch aside and flipped on the TV to listen while she changed clothes and
cleaned her weapon. Maybe she made the news again.

The latest scores in The Hunt scrolled across the flat screen as she oiled the gun. “Miller
Cap of the Westies scores 50 for two kills!”

Hera glanced at the unsmiling face on the handsome, bald man on the screen, with a scar
from chin to cheek. She wondered what they paid him.

Most gossip said that Miller Cap was a writer before economic and natural disasters split
the world into those who have and those who don‟t.

Hera didn‟t believe the gossip. Cap‟s skill at tracking criminals in the North Forest
proved him a killer born and a natural at the game.

She saw no hypocrisy in viewing her own murderous skills differently than those of Cap
and had no interest in fame, just the money and fun.

Putting away the gun, Hera checked her Soul for messages. A green light on the small
device indicated that her pay was in her bank account.

She typed a quick message on the Soul to her friend Quint to meet her at Boxer‟s for a
drink later, then left to find a new pair of jeans.

The malls, department stores, and designer shops of the previous era were gone, but some
goods remained, at stores inside the Green Zone.

Paradise Square, where those with the means met to shop, eat, drink, and deal, was
walking distance, if Hera cut through the steam tunnels.

She emerged near the Smock Wok to the smell of miso and sweet sauce and entered The
Boutique, where some of the clothes had never been worn.

A black and silver designer t-shirt caught her eye. She paired it with black boot-leg jeans
and red dancer flats, easy to run in or fight.
She punched a code in on her Soul and passed it to the bored clerk to deduct her purchase
from her account before changing into the clothes.

She walked past outdoor tables, populated by well-dressed people talking quietly, and
small stores selling everything from wine to condoms.

She made note of those who watched her as she passed, on a bench here, at that table
there, in the shadow of the doorway across the street.

In such a wary world, everyone watches everyone, but Hera was aware that one shadow
glided away from a storefront and moved to follow her.

Quint was waiting for her at the busy dive known as Boxer‟s, pushing over a glass of red
beer as she slid onto a seat at the window table.

Hera knew her shadow had stopped a door down. She had been followed before, but she
wasn‟t sure if this was a work stalk or something else.

Quint raised his glass. “Here‟s to dying with a smile on your face and a knife in your
hand,” he said, obviously a few glasses ahead of her.

“Having a bad day?” Hera tossed back half of her beer. Quint could be moody, but they
had been friends since her first year out of training.

Quint finished his glass and waved for another. “Just a deal gone south, as they say.” His
mouth twisted bitterly. “I lost a friend today.”

“I‟m sorry, Quint. You want to tell it?” She was starting to feel a little uneasy. Something
in the way Quint was not really looking at her.

“Oh I think you might know it already.” He still wouldn‟t look at her. “Do anything fun
this afternoon? Maybe you went downtown for a bit?”

Hera kept her expression sympathetic. Quint wasn‟t in her project but he knew what she
did for a living. He did the same for a different PM.

“Actually I was out on the Edges doing some recon.” She wasn‟t about to lose a friend
and her employment by talking about details of a job.

“Give me a break, Hera! Distance shot? Only one, and through a window in the middle of
the day? That had your name written all over it!”

He was looking at her now, eyes boring into her. “Do you even know or care who you
cancel or is it always just a mark in a distant window?”
“We do the same job, Quint.” She replied sharply. “You know it isn‟t personal, the same
way you know I can‟t talk about a mark or any job.”

“I know because I read the fucking file, Hera! I read beyond „where‟ and „what time.‟ I
make it part of my job to know who I kill and why!”

Quint slammed his empty glass back on the table. “I thought you would‟ve learned by
now that it isn‟t just figures in a bank account, Hera.”

She blamed herself for not understanding this part of him. He had always been an idealist
looking for reasons and that would get him killed.

He stood up to leave. “Quint,” she touched his arm, “you know it isn‟t personal. I just do
the job they give me. That‟s all it‟s ever been.”

“Right.” He pulled his arm away from her. “As long as it doesn‟t break a nail or get a
drop of blood on your high-priced blouse, it‟s fine.”

Hera let him storm out, leaving her alone in the window. They had argued before about
the job, but it had never turned personal like this.

She finished her drink, reminding herself of her new jeans, and headed back home. She
saw the shadow follow from the alley as she passed.

When she reached the Smock Wok, she ducked into the alley, wanting to take the tunnels
back to her place, but not with the shadow following.

She stood at the edge of the alley, looking through the small gap between the shop sign
and the wall of the store, finally seeing the man.

He had the cropped hair of a soldier and was scanning the street while perusing a menu in
the window of Café Ridiculous across the street.

To remove the threat, Hera needed to get him into the alley. She waited for a man and
woman to pass him so that he would be sure to see her.

The soldier found her in the reflection of the window he was facing as she stepped into
the light of the store sign and he turned quickly.

Hera was staring into his eyes, preparing to back into the alley, when he toppled forward
in slow motion, staggering lazily into the street.

She froze for a second as her possible assailant fell to his knees and collapsed. No chance
to look him over. She headed for the tunnels.
Hera‟s thoughts raced. Who was the man following her and who, or what, killed him?
She reached the concrete box with its round metal lid.

She jerked as a hand suddenly grabbed her arm, cursing herself for allowing the argument
with Quint and the stalker‟s death to distract her.

“Where ya off to, lassie?” She didn‟t recognize the slim, blond man. “Back through the
tunnels, eh?” Hera broke his hold and shoved him off.

“Not very polite,” a female voice said behind her. Hera jumped on top of the concrete
box, pulling out her yawara and pivoting to face them.

“Oh, calm down.” The woman stood level with the man, slim with short, blond hair, alike
enough to be a twin. “We just want to talk to you.”

Hera recognized them now as the couple who had passed her stalker just before he
collapsed. “Had enough of killing tonight?” She taunted.

“You can thank us for that one later,” the man said. “But we‟ll charge for the two in the
tunnel, if it come to that. I‟m Adam. She‟s Eve.”

“Seriously?” Hera eyed the manhole under her feet, wondering if there were really two
more stalkers in the tunnels. “Should I call you dad?”

“Assassin humor.” Eve didn‟t smile. “Let‟s just say you‟ve been naughty and we‟re here
to see you ain‟t punished for it. Know what I mean?”

“I‟m afraid I don‟t,” Hera replied. She hated close combat and wondered if she should
run. “How about we call it a night instead, mother?”

Adam waved his hands. “Don‟t be disgusting! She‟s my sister, ya daft hole.” He glared at
Hera. “Enough of this. We need to talk to you now.”

Hera couldn‟t see a way out of the alley without a fight, and they didn‟t seem to want to
fight, so she finally nodded. “The Market it is.”

Adam made a face, but nodded. The Market would be crowded still, giving them time to
find a corner and talk without attracting attention.

Eve led as Adam and Hera followed her back out of the alley and across the street, up
another few streets to the row of late night hawkers.

Officially sanctioned or illegal; everything was for sale in the Market. The innocuously
legal front booths led to rows of…everything else.
Eve found her way through the rows of booths inside the warehouse to a seedy pub
selling homebrew, choosing a table at the back of the tent.

“Good choice,” Hera said lightly. She had noticed the hand gesture made to the pub
owner, as well as the loosely tied corner of the tent.

“The brew isn‟t bad, actually,” Eve said. “Not laced like some.” Three glasses were
brought to their table while they stared at each other.

Hera took a sip. Not too bad. “What do you want?” she asked bluntly, tired of the game.
Adam grinned suddenly. “To give you a job, lassie.”

“I have a job.” She kept an eye on the people passing through the rows of market stalls,
savoring the discomfort of not being in control.

“What, your „accountant‟ job? Crunching numbers, are you? You don‟t think we‟d be
talking to ya if we didn‟t know who, and what, you were?”

Hera ignored the obvious, her mind racing. Twice before someone had figured out who
and what she was, and her PM took care of the situation.

“I don‟t know you,” she said simply. “And I‟m not inclined to like you, considering how
we met. Tell me what you really want or bugger off.”

Eve nodded. “I‟m not much for playful talk, myself. So here it is. You won‟t live out the
week if you don‟t listen to what we have to say.”

“You‟ve bent the rules until they are same as broken, and so now you are marked for
removal if you step outside the bounds one more time.”

Hera thought guiltily of the small, black box that disabled the bug in her watch, and of
the watch not on her wrist but back on her dresser.

“We know these things because the man who hires us, who wants to hire you, tells us this
is so.” Eve explained. “And he was a Company man.”

“Why me?” Hera demanded. “Surely there are others who bend the rules a little.” Even as
she asked the question she knew it didn‟t matter.

“Let‟s just say we‟re in need of a distant shot,” Adam said, tipping back the rest of his
brew. “Besides, think of it as a side job, right?”

“What do you mean „a side job‟? I thought she said I wouldn‟t live out the week.” Hera
huffed. “How do I know my next job won‟t be my last?”
Eve snapped her fingers in front of Hera‟s face. “I said you‟d die if you didn‟t listen to
us. Surely you haven‟t bent another rule today?”

“Well…” Hera started to confess about the watch and bug when a small wad of paper
landed in the middle of the paper. “Is that a spitball?”

Eve was already moving. “Here!” she snapped, lifting the loose flap at the corner of the
tent. Adam grabbed Hera and pushed her through.

A narrow aisle led away from the tent between the wall and the backs of the other tents
and stalls. Eve opened a door behind a wooden stall.

“What the hell?” Hera said, yanking her arm away from Adam. She turned in time to see
Eve slip money through the back of the wooden stall.

“We don‟t know who or what. We just go when they tell us,” Eve said, closing the door
as they emerged in another alley. She turned left.

“I saw,” Adam muttered, his smile gone. “Ministry goon.” Eve grimaced and began
running down the alley, leading them through multiple turns.

Hera ran with them, unsure what else to do. She hadn‟t seen anyone back at the market,
but she trusted the look of concern on Adam‟s face.

She slowed when she saw where Eve was taking them. They had left the industrial streets
behind in exchange for quiet rows of small houses.

The streets here were empty of walkers and talkers, but Hera saw an occasional small
movement of a window curtain in the silent darkness.

“What are you stopping here for, daft girl?” Adam demanded softly, coming back to her.
“Keep moving and stop looking „round at everything!”

Eve waited impatiently for them, standing plainly in the emptiness beneath the glow of a
street light. As they reached her, shadows moved.

“Just keep walking,” she snapped. The shadows resolved just beyond the lights into the
armed civilians who kept the candy-box lane secure.

Hera thought longingly of the weapons in her apartment. She rested her hand on the
yawara inside her pocket. Adam shook his head slightly.

“Get the dark thoughts out of your mind, girlie.” He said in a soft voice. “Them won‟t
mess with us unless we stop or move circles to them.”
They set a rapid but respectful pace down the ordered streets, shadowed by the others,
until they reached the boundary of the rail yards.

Eve kept to the edge of the yards, skirting along the tracks back toward the warehouses
until they reached a red boxcar in front of a fence.

She whistled sharply at the door of the boxcar and an ancient man opened the door.
“Well, well, hello, pretty little things. How‟s kicks?”

Eve actually smiled. “Picking up and passing through, Gammer.” She pulled open her
backpack. “Got something for you, though, if you want.”

She handed the old man a blonde Barbie doll and he gasped. “Oh my, she‟s a beauty,
Evie. Where did you find her? Nellie will love this one!”

Eve jerked a thumb toward Hera. “This is Hera. She‟s a pick-up for Mister. Got a pass for
us through the Wire? We need back to the Stacks.”

Gammer eyed Hera. “Pick-up, eh? Well, if you say she‟s gold, then she‟s gold, Evie. You
know I won‟t turn you down on a pass, dollie or no.”

He ducked back inside the boxcar and returned with a round piece of metal on a chain.
“You can leave it with Carson at The Fryer on Fifth.”

“Thanks, Gammer. We‟ll stay longer next time,” Eve promised him. Adam shook his
hand before Eve gave him a quick hug. “Let‟s go,” she said.

“Take care, babies,” the old man called out. Eve put the long chain around her neck as
she led them along the fence toward the warehouses.

The fence that started at the rail yards got more fanciful as they went. Built of multiple
layers of wire, it was getting taller and higher.

Eve followed the fence as it became a hall of twisted wire, enclosing them on both sides.
Hera was getting tired of this all-night escapade.

“Look, I realize you‟re trying to help me, but I have to get back to my apartment. I need
my weapons and I want my clothes,” she told Eve.

Adam laughed behind her. “And just what do you think we‟re doing, ya daft cow? Taking
a walk in the breeze, through all this lovely Wire?”

Hera stopped in her tracks. She was over this little unexpected adventure, and she was
over Adam‟s mouth. “Start talking or here we stand.”
Eve stopped and walked back. “We are going through The Wire, and around about the
Wares, to get back to your place in the Stacks. Got it?”

“And when we get there, we will clean out what you need and kill anyone who tries to
stop us.” Eve glared at her. “Seems like common sense.”

“And then what?” Hera wasn‟t going to be put off again. She wanted the big story, not
just the „we‟re saving you‟ bits they wanted to share.

“Then we go to Mister and you get a life. That‟s the whole of it. So, do you want to stop
and die or go back and get your kips?” Eve asked.

“Not really the whole of it, Eve. There are big bits left out after the part where we get my
stuff. So we‟ll probably have this talk again.”

Hera smiled a little as Eve gave an exasperated sigh and headed off again. She felt like
smacking the smaller woman on the back of the head.

The tunnel of wire finally narrowed to a large gate, guarded by two enormous men, each
lowering an AK47 at them as they approached. “Speak.”

Eve answered the goon on the right by lifting the metal disc strung around her neck.
“Gammer set us the path. We just need through is all.”

He looked at the other. “Gammer‟s word still good?” The other nodded and banged twice
on a large pipe next to him. The gate began to open.

Eve started through and stopped at the second man, lifting her arm, palm forward, to
show him something on her wrist. Adam copied the move.

When Hera passed, the guard grabbed her arm and twisted it to see her wrist. “She ain‟t
marked,” he said, stepping back and lifting his gun.

Adam took her arm and pulled her away. “Well she ain‟t been through before, has she?”
he said. “She‟ll get her mark at the door, won‟t she?”

“No worries,” he said to Hera as they walked on, the goons still watching. “You‟ll just
get a bit of a scar, little blood loss, that‟s all.”

“What?” Hera yelled. Adam turned up his wrist so she could see the three interlocked
triangles there. “Keep yer voice down. It don‟t hurt.”

Eve hurried them along the path between large bales of wire, wooden flats, and piles of
pipe toward an enormous door closing off an alley.
She pushed a button on the wall. One of the doors swung out and they walked through to
what looked like an office at the start of the alley.

A wrinkled elderly woman sat a desk inside the door. “We have passage for three, but she
needs marking,” Eve said, jabbing a thumb at Hera.

“Okay dear, bring her over.” The little woman piped, taking a bottle and cloth from her
drawer and a metal device the size of Hera‟s yawara.

Hera muttered to Adam that she wasn‟t getting any stinking mark on her arm, but he
tucked her right arm under his left and pulled her over.

“Now, now, it‟s all right, dear. Won‟t hurt a bit, and next time we‟ll know you, okay?”
She smiled and swabbed Hera‟s wrist with the cloth.

Placing the metal cylinder on Hera‟s wrist with the knob up, the woman put both hands
on the knob and pushed it down as hard as she could.

Hera didn‟t feel anything but pressure from the push, but when the metal was taken away,
blood oozed from a cut on the inside of her wrist.

The elderly lady wiped it again with the cloth, and three red-lined triangles interlocked on
Hera‟s wrist. She was furious but kept quiet.

“Thank ya, mum,” Adam said, leading Hera toward Eve, down the alley and out to the
street. Two more goons watched as they left the alley.

Hera yanked her arm away from Adam and looked at the symbol on her wrist. “You
stupid idiots! They can‟t see this at work! I‟ll get fired!”

Adam nudged Eve as they walked. “Bloody bitch. Still don‟t realize she already quit,
does she?” Eve laughed as they crossed the next street.

“We‟re back in the Wares,” she told Hera, “and heading back to your place in the Stacks.
Should be there before dawn, and then you‟ll see.”

Hera didn‟t see the need to be pleasant any longer since they were back in the warehouse
district. She was over this little side adventure.

She fumed to herself as they circled Paradise Square. All she had wanted was a new
outfit and a drink, not a blasted walk all over the city.

It was just before dawn when they stopped across from her building. “Okay now we have
to....” Hera ran for the gate before Eve could finish.
The guard came out of his shack when she rang the gate bell, and she held up her pass.
She knew without looking that she was finally alone.

He hesitated briefly, then nodded and buzzed her in. Just a brief hesitation, but it told her
volumes. She stopped at her car for supplies.

She grabbed a couple of CDs for show while pocketing her throwing knives and the SIG
Mosquito and extra clips taped under the dashboard.

She got out holding the CDs in her hand. Once inside the building, she popped in the
elevator just long enough to punch her floor number.

As the elevator doors shut, she headed quietly up the stairs, SIG in her hands. Her legs
were burning by the time she reached the last bend.

The man just inside the stairwell door was looking through the window at the elevator, so
he never saw who put the knife through his neck.

Hera took his gun and put it in her pack, checked his pockets and took a paper and some
gum, then took his earpiece and put it in her ear.

She took off his left shoe and sock. Even though she expected it, the Company barcode
tattooed on the bottom of his foot made her go numb.

She knew there would be another one in her apartment, but she had to get some things.
She wiped off her throwing knife on the man‟s clothes.

She dragged the body away from the door and peeked through the window. She could see
the edge of her apartment door. The hallway was empty.

As she put her hand on the doorknob, a rapid series of clicks in the earpiece almost made
her drop her gun. Old school Morse Code. Perfect.

It was a request for the “all clear” code. If she got the wrong code, the killer in her
apartment would have the warning she was avoiding.

Hera decided to wing it. She opened the door just enough to slip through and ran in a
crouch to her apartment door. The Morse Code repeated.

She had her key in hand, easing it into the lock, when an apartment door down the hall
opened and Adam and Eve walked out, chatting loudly.

It took Hera a second to realize they were providing her with the cover noise she needed
to open the lock without the man inside noticing.
As they came closer, the lock clicked quietly and Hera nodded to Adam. His hand flicked
as he motioned her back and Eve kept chattering.

Adam swung the door open, rolling in and pulling out his gun at the same time. Eve and
Hera waited for a moment on either side of the door.

A series of muted “pops” came from the apartment and the women ran in, weapons
raised, to find Adam at the end of the hallway, grinning.

“Sure and he was waiting by the window. Can you figure?” Adam laughed. “Always wait
by the window. Daft buggers.” He unscrewed the silencer.

Hera took a moment to admire his cool. “Quick, girl, get what you need now!” he said.
“And who left the bloomin‟ door open?” Eve ran back.

Hera gathered what she needed in a black duffel bag she knew to be free of trackers. She
started in the kitchen, retrieving the metal box.

A pile of clothes, beauty products and weapons quickly grew on her couch. Adam
watched for a few moments, then jerked his head toward Eve.

Eve pulled a wheeled suitcase over, finding and removing a bug from under the designer
logo, and rapidly editing the pile into the suitcase.

“Hey!” Hera yelled, as she saw the high-ticket Lamont dress, almost all of the beauty
products, and her third favorite pistol tossed aside.

“You‟ve already two dresses in here, and you only need soap, lotion, and shampoo,” Eve
smirked, gesturing expansively at her own fresh face.

“Besides, you take the duffel and it looks to the guard downstairs like you‟re running.
You take a suitcase, and maybe you mean to return.”

Eve finished repacking Hera‟s stuff, and Adam said, “Let‟s go.” He picked up the pistol
Eve had discarded. “Sure and I‟ll take this for ya.”

“How kind.” Hera took a final look at her Company apartment. She consoled herself with
the thought of purchasing new items for a new place.

“We‟re down the stairs,” Adam continued. “You take the lift. Take the car and pick us up
at the old bank four blocks over. Don‟t forget us.”

He grinned at Hera‟s blank stare and they headed out. Hera pocketed the stone necklace
she was hiding and left, locking the door behind her.
The security guard was waiting for her when the elevator door opened in the lobby. He
smiled, resting his hand on his gun. “Need any help?”

She pulled the suitcase forward and offered him the handle. He reached for it with his
gun hand, leaving a space in his ribs for her knife.

As he collapsed, she eased him into the open elevator and pushed the top floor. “That
won‟t actually kill you if you stay still,” she said.

As the doors closed, she ran for it, throwing the suitcase into the back seat of her car and
speeding toward the pick-up at the old bank.

There was no longer any question in her mind about sticking with the others, at least until
she figured out how this all happened, and why.

As she turned down the block in front of the deserted bank, a black sedan coming toward
her pulled over. There was no sign of the siblings.

She drove past the sedan and pulled over to the curb, watching in her mirror as a man got
out on the passenger side and headed toward her.

It was Adam. “Come on then, unless you want to sit here „til it‟s full light,” he barked as
she got out. He opened the trunk on the sedan.

Hera grabbed her suitcase and every weapon left in her car and threw them into the trunk.
Adam gestured at the trunk. “In ya go,” he said.

“No fracking way.” Hera avoided him and opened the back door on the driver‟s side.
Adam was laughing at her when he got back in the car.

“You take life too serious, I think.” He said, and tapped Eve on the shoulder. “Well, are
you waiting for an invitation or should I drive?”

Hera was pretty sure they were going to die as she slid around in the back seat, losing
track of the turns they made in her bid to hang on.

Eve finally slowed the sedan as they approached the bridge that separated New Town
from Old Town, pulling up to the gate halfway across.

“Now you keep quiet,” Adam said softly. “These ones don‟t like a joke.” Eve rolled
down all of the windows as the armed guards walked over.

These men wore the neutral blue of what passed for official city guards. Supposedly they
were not to be bought, but Hera didn‟t believe it.
The guards looked inside the car, but not the trunk. Evidently “free pass” ruled here.
They marked a chart and waved Eve through the gate.

No one spoke until they were across the bridge and into the maze of small streets that was
Old Town. “So, free pass rules here?” Hera asked.

“Bridge goons only care how many people they can see,” Eve explained. “People can die
if trunks get opened, and Bridgies like to live, see.”

Adam rolled his eyes conspiratorially at Hera, but she wasn‟t buying his attempt at
cozying up to her. She watched Old Town slid by outside.

The squat, broad buildings were brick and stone, sporting mostly empty storefronts on the
first level. Hera looked around for street signs.

She finally found one, draped in blue ribbons so that the words were masked. The people
here moved slowly, cautiously, aware of everything.

Five streets later, the signs sported green ribbons. “What‟s with the ribbons on the
signs?” she asked Adam, gesturing as they passed one.

“That‟s just to let you know where you are, love. Green for the mids, blue for the outs,
red for the ins. Got to keep your place, ya know.”

“Keep your place?” Hera asked. He leered back at her. “Well, now we wouldn‟ want
those as not to be so trusted in the inner keep, would we?”

She rolled her eyes, both at the leer and at the thought of dividing a city into groups of
those you could trust and those you couldn‟t.

“Right,” she replied. “And is there some test to pass to get to live in a new color? Who is
it gets to do that choosing and set that rule?”

“Himself, of course.” Adam stated, turning away. “Old Town belongs to Mister and he
says who‟s fit for the red and who itn‟t. And it works.”

“Yeah?” Hera scoffed. “Sounds like the Company, alright.” Adam laughed. “Not even
full hired yet and already blaming The Man for all of it.”

Hera noticed the first red ribbons on a passing sign. The buildings on either side of the
brick streets were stately houses under repair.

The square front lawns were planted with what appeared to be vegetable gardens, staked
and heavy with food, intersected by concrete walks.
A few turns later, Eve pulled the sedan up to a gated wall. The gate opened and Hera
finally spotted the camera perched atop the stone wall.

An old sign on the wall read “Military Hospital,” and Hera believed it as the huge stone
structure, built in a giant curve, came into view.

Years before, on a boating trip off the coast, she had seen this building from the other
side and wondered what it was and who lived there.

Eve pulled up in front of the steps leading up to the front entrance. “Adam will bring your
bags up,” she said, as he grunted irritably.

“Don‟t complain,” Eve told him. “He likes me better anyway.” She tossed him the keys.
“Well, come on,” she told Hera. “No need to be shy.”

Hera glared at her and got out, brushing down the front of her pants absentmindedly.
Captive or not, she still was mindful of appearances.

She followed Eve up the broad stone steps to the front door, guarded by a massive man
with a red armband and a smirking grin on his face.

“Just one?,” Hera asked. “That‟s all we need,” Eve replied. She stared the grin off of his
face as he blushed and opened the door for them.

She led Hera across the huge, almost circular hall inside. A staircase curved upwards on
the right, crowned by a row of doors at the top.

Hera had glimpses through a few open doors on the edges of the hall as they passed. One
room looked like an office, with a man at a desk.

She saw few other people until they walked through a smaller hallway beyond the
staircase and entered a long, curving room facing the ocean.

A handful of people lounged in the room, some talking quietly, a man reading, two
women playing chess and several cats stalking the humans.

Eve led her to a gray-haired man speaking animatedly with another woman, waiting by
his elbow for him until he finished his conversation.

“You know the reasons. Just make it happen.” He sounded almost pleading. Turning to
them, he grabbed Eve in a quick hug. “You‟ve returned!”

“And this must be the infamous Hera,” he cried, grabbing and pumping Hera‟s hand
vigorously. “I‟m so glad to finally meet you in person!”
Hera was momentarily at a loss for words. This couldn‟t be The Man. He looked like
some happy scientist, with his messy hair and silliness.

“Cat got your tongue?” He laughed, with her hand still captive. “Well, no doubt you‟re
confused, but we‟ll set that to right soon enough.”

Eve gave her a lopsided grin. “Hera, this is Mister.” She touched him on the arm. “I‟m
going to get cleaned up, okay? Dirty couple of days.”

“Of course, of course! We‟ll see you at supper.” Mister waved her off. “Hera and I have
some catching up to do. Wear the red dress tonight.”

Eve laughed as she left, with Hera staring after her. Eve laughing? Hera was stunned.
Mister released her hand. “Come with me, dear Hera.”

Hera thought he bounced rather than walked as he led her to a door at one end of the
room and into what was obviously his personal office.

“Welcome to my private space, such as it is. Have a seat!” He gestured toward a chair in
front of the desk as he sat down on the other side.

Hera glanced quickly around the room. Books, cabinets, windows on the ocean…not a
bad job. A few possibly valuable antiques here and there.

“No need to case the joint, as they used to say.” Mister said, quietly for a change. “You
can have anything here that catches your fancy.”

“I fancy some answers,” Hera said. “Of course! Ask away!” Mister leaned back in the
chair with his grin back in place. “I bet I can help.”

“How do you know me?” Hera asked bluntly. “Because I don‟t know you. I‟ve been
running all over town with them, at your command I believe.”

“Right. Good start! Well, you‟ve killed some of my people, you see. So of course I‟ve
done my research to find out what I could about you.”

Hera tensed. Suddenly his affable nature seemed to hide something much more
dangerous. “Killed your people?” She hated being on the defense.

“Oh yes, you certainly did. Most recently a „businessman,‟ through a window on his
lunch I believe. And about 10 others over the past year.”

Hera suddenly recalled her strange conversation a day ago with Quint. Something about
him knowing her mark. “Do you know a man named Quint?”
“Ah, very insightful,” he replied. “One of the reasons I wanted you here was for that
quick mind, Hera. Yes, I know Quint. And he knows me.”

Hera opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a finger. “No more about Quint right
now, though. Some things are still secret, after all.”

“I think this might be easier if I gave you some background,” he said, jumping up and
starting to pace. “Let‟s see…where should we start?”

“I used to be Company, just like you, starting with assignments and ending with a
management position. I know that organization intimately.”

“Like Twelve?” Hera interrupted. He nodded. “Higher than that, actually. Upper
management. Keys to the kingdom, when you get to that level.”

“I had access to…let‟s just call it the big picture. A picture of control, domination,
calculated removal of certain elements from society.”

“Like criminals?” Hera felt slightly offended without knowing why. “Like terrorists,
freaks and traitors?” At least the company paid well.

“No, more like scientists, doctors, artists, writers...anyone who believed too strongly in
more free will than the Company wanted to offer.”

Hera struggled to not roll her eyes at him. Standard company recruitment included just
such claims, against other organizations, of course.

“I know,” Mister said, waving a finger. “I know what you‟re thinking. Same old
Company line, same old Company logic. But I tell the truth.

He turned to a cabinet and pulled out a stack of files. “Here, read these.” Hera took the
stack from him. “What are they?” She opened one.

The face of her last mark stared up at her, smiling. “How do I know these are true, or at
least any more truthful than the Company‟s tales?”

“Just read them. You‟ll see the truth of it later.” Mister clapped his hands together.
“Okay, then. No hard feelings, right?” More smiles.

“How about I steer you to your room and you can settle in before supper. I think you‟ll
like it here. Room with a view and all, you know.”

He steered her out of the room and back through the lounge to the main hall, stack of files
in her hand, chatting about décor and antiques.
“Second floor to the right and down the hall, fourth door on the left,” he said, pointing up
the staircase. “The Goddess Suite,” he laughed.

“Supper at 7:00 pm sharp!” he called after her as she headed up. “Through those doors!”
He gestured toward the back of the hall to the left.

She felt like a mythic Alice as she ascended the stairs to find her room. When she opened
the fourth door on the left, she saw her suitcase.

Wide windows looked over the ocean, with a door opening to a small balcony. Further
investigation revealed her own small bathroom as well.

Hera tossed the files down and headed in for a shower. Once clean, she changed into her
Martin Calvano blue dress with her black Doc Boots.

Feeling slightly more like herself, she opened the door to the balcony for a breeze and
pulled a chair up to the desk to tackle the files.

A lot of her marks were in the files, as well as others she didn‟t know. The
“businessman” was really a physics teacher at the university.

There were authors, scientists, religious leaders, activists…She put down the final file as
the sun set over the beautiful view outside.

She felt unsettled. Somehow, looking through the files, the idea that these people were all
dead began to seep in, along with discomfort.

When she finally headed down to supper and found herself seated at a long table filled
with people eating wonderful food, she felt…alone.

She saw Adam and Eve, seated to the right of Mister. She half hoped that Quint might
turn up, looking up hopefully when a man entered late.

“Sorry I‟m late,” he said softly. He looked down the table as he sat, catching her glance
briefly. It was Miller Cap, leader of the Westies.

Somehow even after the past two days, she was surprised to see a “sport killer” here. Her
thoughts of right and wrong were hurting her head.

By the time a lovely apple crisp was passed down the table, she had no more appetite, nor
interest in mingling with a long row of strangers.

Mister‟s voice in her ear startled her. She hadn‟t seen him move. “A word before you go
to bed?” he asked. She nodded and followed him out.
Hera was aware of the sideways glances from the others and lull in conversation, but she
didn‟t care. She just wanted away from all of them.

He stopped in the hall. “Hera, I know this is confusing, but we do need you here. And
you need us as well, whether you accept it or not.”

“And if I just walk away?” Hera demanded. He smiled. “You can do that. We won‟t stop
you. And you may find a way to survive for a while.”

“But what will you do? Where will you go? You know the Company will erase you. Stay
here and help us. Think on it for the night, at least.”

Hera nodded again. She was too tired to argue. Mister beamed as he waved her on.
“Excellent! We‟ll meet in the morning and figure it out!”

Back in her room with the accusing files, she fell asleep thinking of prom and, for the
first time in years, the last time she saw her mom.

The next morning, after a shower and a distressingly limited choice of clothing, she had
decided to stay a while. As long as they paid her.

She headed down for breakfast, coming across Adam in the hall below. “Well, lassie,
looking for some porridge?” She couldn‟t help but smile.

Adam was the closest thing she had to a friend here. “I‟d prefer coffee,” she said. He led
her through a maze of rooms to a large kitchen.

Hera wasn‟t surprised to find Mister and Miller Cap talking over plates of food at a long
counter. “Goddess Hera!” Mister sketched a bow.

Adam gave her a cup of coffee as she tried not to look at Cap. “Get her a plate of eggs as
well,” Mister said. “She‟ll need her strength.”

“I really only want coffee,” Hera protested. She could feel Cap staring. Adam was
already heading for the chef at the far end of the room.

Mister pushed over cream and sugar. “But you‟ll need your energy for The Hunt today.”
He smiled gently. She fumbled with the cream pitcher.

Of course. It all made sense now. They wanted a shooter. “Smooth,” Cap told him. Hera
eyed Cap over her cup, wondering how he was in bed.

“Well, time is short,” Mister said defensively. “Hera, you know the Game, right? The
Hunt? Two teams tracking a mark through the woods?”
She nodded, and kept her hands away from the knife and fork Adam placed in front of
her with her food. Who didn‟t know the flippin‟ Game!

“The marks are sold by the Revelers, who bring them from Hell‟s Gate Prison.” The
same script began every Game. “Criminals chosen by lot.”

Mister nodded. “Yes, yes, and innocence will be proven by right of flight. So they say.
But who picks the criminals? Who are these people?”

Hera shrugged. “I don‟t know. Who cares?” Mister frowned. “I care, Hera. The Company
owns the Revelers, the Prison, and the criminals. All.”

Her brain woke up. “So…if the Company puts the criminals into the game…” She tried
to work it out. “The Company must own the teams as well.”

Cap nodded approvingly. “Good job,” he said. “But they only own one team. The one my
Westies are to play today. So what does that tell you?”

“That they have a mark you want.” Hera had a question. “But aren‟t you a Hunter too?
I‟ve seen you kill during the Game, not save the prey.”

“What you see is what we show the Company.” Cap looked at Mister, who nodded
permission. “Sometimes the prey ends up outside the Boundary.”

“A Right-by-Flight win? No way! I‟ve only seen four wins in more than ten seasons of
the Game!” She had seen blood spilled and the bodies.

“I‟m not saying we save every prey in the game,” Cap stated. “Some truly are criminals,
and are killed. But we do save more than you know.”

Hera tried to put it all together. “So you must have a way to know the prey, who they
are.” Mister nodded again. “We have someone inside.”

“Or I should say „had,‟ I suppose. Our man went missing the same night we picked you
up, and I‟ve had a tip he‟ll appear in the Game today.”

“Where do I fit in?” Hera asked. Mister‟s smile was gone. “At first we just knew you
were in danger, and that we needed a good long-shot.”

“Now we need you to help rescue Quint.” She stared at him. “Yes, Hera, Quint was my
inside man and he will be the prey in today‟s Game.”

Suddenly Hera didn‟t care about the money any more. “How will I know what to do?”
she said quietly. “I only know the Game from the outside.”
“Miller will show you what to do. You‟re with him for the rest of the day.” Cap smiled at
her. “I think we can find an outfit in your size.”

“There, see? It will all work out,” Mister patted her hand. “You didn‟t eat your eggs.
Take this.” He handed her a napkin-wrapped sandwich.

She glanced inside. Toast and bacon. It would have to do. “Come on,” said Cap. “We
have a lot to do before noon. And you need to change.”

Hera thought she had changed quite a bit in just two days, but she followed him, waving
a farewell to Mister and the strangely quiet Adam.

“Don‟t worry. You‟ll see them both again soon enough if you stay alive.” Hera stopped
short. “Stay alive? Is that Westie humor? Very funny.”

He grinned at her. “We‟re a funny lot. Keep up. I have a lot to explain, and we have to fit
you in a new outfit. Maybe some new hair, too.”

“I don‟t think so,” Hera said, catching up with him. “Oh, yes. The Nighthawks will have
your face memorized,” Cap replied, taking her arm.

“The Nighthawks are the Company‟s team, and you‟ve just gone missing. Easy to figure
they‟ll mark you to be wiped. We‟ll trick you out.”

Hera wasn‟t reassured. The Westies looked like barbarians when they stepped into the
Meadow. She followed Cap out a side door to a garage.

The place had room enough for at least twenty vehicles, but was filled with exercise
equipment, mats, weapons…everything a Westie needed.

Hera eyed the weapons. They had everything from guns to swords, including a few items
she didn‟t know. Cap whistled to get her attention.

“Over here.” He was standing by a short, broad man. “This is our Weapons Master,
Branson.” She nodded to him. “What do you have with you?”

“Five or six autos, one revolver, a few knives, my yawara…I‟m missing my M40A3,
though. Eve wouldn‟t let me pack it,” she said defensively.

“We have one,” the short man said gruffly. “I‟ll get it to you before times.” He looked her
over. “Eve should fit her. I‟ll do the rest.”

“Get her a light, just in case,” Cap told him, “and a brace of throwing knives.” He steered
Hera away as the man started a pile of weapons.
“Ever fought in the woods before?” He asked. She shook her head. “Okay, listen. The
players gather at noon, and are allowed two Wild Cards.”

“The Wild Cards can remain masked, but have to present their weapons. After inspection,
the prey is brought and the watchers come at 2:00.”

“We have to stay in the bunker for 30 minutes after the prey is released. It takes four
hours at an unobstructed run to reach the Boundary.”

“So, we have between four and six hours to reach Quint before the other team and make
him look dead, all in front of the roving cameras.”

“How do you make him look dead?” Hera asked. “We have a drug. And we have to mess
them up some to make it believable, add some bloodiness.”

“No problem,” Hera said. He laughed. “Ah, here‟s Eve. Take this beautiful creature and
turn her into a frightening mess of a Westie, Eve.”

Eve was wearing the black pants and vest and dark orange shirt of a Westie, but didn‟t
sport the spiked hair and face pant of the Gamers.

She gave the blushing Hera a knowing look. “I‟ll mess her up, alright. Come with me,
wench, and prepare to be transformed into a fright.”

Hera rolled her eyes, but had to laugh. She was starting to like these ruffians. An hour
later she was rethinking her friendship, though.

She didn‟t recognize the woman in the workhouse mirror. The black and orange garb,
black spiked hair, a tight, ornate mask over facepaint.

 “Where did you learn these designs?” she asked Eve, pointing to the intricate designs on
her face. “My da taught me,” Eve said. “Your da?”

“Mister.” Eve handed her a weapon belt. “He picked me and Adam up from the
poorhouse when we were just wee babes. Adopted darlings, we are.”

“That explains the loyalty,” Hera mused aloud. Eve laughed. “He‟s a good man, Hera.
You‟ll know it if you make good on your skills tonight.”

Branson brought her the gun to practice on the floating targets just off the coast until Cap
sent Eve down to bring her to the waiting van.

Branson took the gun back before she left. “You won‟t need this yet. Cap‟ll tell you
where to pick it up.” She looked at Cap for an answer.
“We don‟t want anyone to put you together with that gun, so Creeper gets it after
inspection.” He jerked a thumb to the man on his right.

Creeper‟s face paint enhanced rather than hid his scars. “They‟ll expect it of me. Switch
weapons all the time.” He was missing four teeth.

“He‟ll give it to you just inside the forest, so stay close to him,” Cap told her. He
introduced her to the other five people as they rode.

Each player had a look Hera was to memorize, like the four points in Creeper‟s hair. She
also had to remember the landmarks and directions.

By the time they reached the inspection building by the Meadow, Hera‟s head was
swimming with details she hoped she would remember later.

The inspection went quickly, with each player‟s weapons tested and Hera added to the
player rolls for statistics, under the name “Goddess.”

Finally they gathered at the edge of the Meadow under the Westies banner, and Hera got
her first look at the eight red-dressed Nighthawks.

“Wow, what did they do? Pull Freaks from the borders?” Hera muttered to Cap. The
Nighthawks leader, bald as Cap, wore a necklace of bones.

Cap didn‟t smile. “Yes. And they will kill you, same as the Prey, if you falter.” He looked
down at her. “Do you know what you need to do?”

“I‟m ready,” she said. He stared at her for a long moment, then smiled, starting to speak,
but a roar from the restless crowd stopped him.

The gates opened and the Revelers brought in a battered man in chains, while the voice
on the loudspeaker announced the arrival of the Prey.

Hera barely recognized her friend. Quint was dressed in rags, walking with his head
down and limping, defeated before the Game even began.

The Westies gathered as the announcer spoke the rules and the crowd hissed at a weak
Prey. “Honor to the Prey,” Cap said, and they yelled.

Quint was freed and led to the Countdown Clock at the edge of the Meadow. When the
start gun fired he took off suddenly, no limp evident.

The crowd roared its approval and the teams waited on the clock. Quint had disappeared
into the forest when the gun fired a second time.
Hera ghosted Creeper across the Meadow, grateful he was allowing her to keep up with
him. She heard her “call” name announced as they ran.

She almost forgot Cap‟s second rule, remembering just in time to see where the
Nighthawks entered the forest, in what direction they ran.

Creeper raced toward the right, taking her with him. They passed the first landmark, a
boulder with a dead white tree beside. One hour in.

At the second landmark of the second curve in a creek, Creeper passed her the M40A3
without stopping. He veered left as she stayed right.

Hera was on her own now. She hadn‟t seen anyone but Creeper since they entered the
woods. She found the third landmark, surprising herself.

“Pass a cliff on the right, then follow the creek to a deer trail leading north,” Cap had
said. She followed the creek, slowing a little.

She was beginning to feel the tiredness seep in. As she looked for the trail, she dug an oat
bar out of her belt. Two hours, she thought.

She found the trailhead, but following an almost invisible trail slowed her further. She
had to make the next landmark before it got dark.

A distinct “click” was the only warning she had to throw herself to the ground as a bolt of
metal passed over her. She rolled off the path.

Hera had seen that modified pistol crossbow on the Nighthawks leader‟s belt. She got up
running, dodging trees, hoping he was on the move.

She lost the path as she ran, cursing to herself, but stumbled across her landmark by
accident. She zigzagged across the broken boulders.

Climbing the ridge on the left, she knew she hadn‟t lost him and that there were probably
two others in the area. She kept moving upward.

At the top of the ridge, she stopped, looking back along her climb and trying not to
breathe so loud. No one followed. She started to rise.

Her legs cramped. Stupid, to stop and crouch after running for hours. As she tried to
stretch her legs, she saw a piece of red in the trees.

Hera rose slowly, ignoring the pain in her legs. Moving carefully, she circled away from
the ridge, finding a massive log to hide behind.
Whoever it was hadn‟t moved. She tried to find the Nighthawk again, and when she
glanced back at the ridge, the leader was standing there.

He didn‟t see her. A whistle came from the trees and the other Nighthawk joined him on
the ridge. She couldn‟t hear what they said.

Finally they split, the leader following the stony ridge and the other melting back into the
trees, but Hera saw where he was this time.

She eased herself up, glad for the regular workouts that kept her muscles from quitting on
her. She kept to the left of the tree hiding him.

When she was within range, she slid one of the knives from her belt, crouched again, and
mocked the whistle they had just used in greeting.

The Nighthawk came out, firing his own crossbow in her direction, and catching her
knife in his throat. One down. She took the crossbow.

She tried to hurry along the ridge, ignoring the pain at the top of her shoulder where the
bolt had grazed her, cursing the Nighthawks‟ aim.

Her final landmark should be close, but she had to search every turn of the ridge for the
Nighthawks leader. She kept thinking of Quint.

It was getting dark, but she didn‟t dare use the light Branson had provided. She kept
along the ridge, looking for the trail into the gorge.

When she found it, she also found Creeper, crumpled along the ridge with a crossbow
bolt through his neck. She stopped and closed his eyes.

Heading down the trail, Hera realized that the most likely place the Nighthawks leader
would be was exactly where she was supposed to go.

Cap told her to find a narrow ledge, halfway down into the gorge, to lead her to a lookout
point. She found the ledge. “Narrow” was right.

She eased along it, following the bends with her gaze and realizing that she had a chance
if she could find a place with a clear sightline.

She eased around each curve, looking at the point of the opposite bend. She finally saw it
several bends ahead as she started to descend.

Hoping she hadn‟t been seen, she backed up, out of sight. There wasn‟t enough room to
crouch here, but she was within range of the lookout.
She carefully unslung the M40A3, hanging onto the cliff as she passed it from hand to
hand. Raising it, she slid around the bend, sighting.

The Nighthawk was on the boulder at the lookout, scanning below him with a rifle. Hera
remembered Cap‟s last rule. “Don‟t kill the leader.”

Silly rule, she thought. The unarmed Prey could kill a leader, but other combatants
couldn‟t. Something about interfering with the Game.

But Hera didn‟t hear anything about wounding a leader. She aimed carefully and took the
shot. The Nighthawk jerked and dropped the rifle.

Hera slung her gun and hurried along the ledge, carefully approaching the lookout. The
Nighthawk was trying to wrap the wounds in his arms.

“Truce?” she called out. “I can help you.” He nodded, and made no move toward his
weapons as she approached. Hera kept a knife in her hand.

The Nighthawk pointed to the cloth he had managed to pull from his belt. She stayed
almost behind him as she wrapped, laying down her knife.

Her shot had gone through both arms above the elbows. When she was done, she quickly
put a knee into his back and tied his arms behind him.

“No offense,” she said. “But I‟d rather not wonder what you‟re still able to do when I
have my back turned.” She dragged him off the rock.

He spat on her when she laid him down on the ledge and took off all the weapons she
could see on him. “Fracking bitch.” She wiped it off.

“So you can talk? Too bad your arms don‟t work right now.” Hera laughed in his face. “I
don‟t know how you got to be leader. It‟s just sad.”

She didn‟t feel sad when he started screaming obscenities at her and she had to punch
him, though. His sudden silence made her quite happy.

She ran back to the rock, easing out the same way the Nighthawk had. The setting sun
was shining into the canyon below, just like Cap said.

She hoped she was in time. She put the rangefinder to her eye and covered the ground
below on both sides of the creek, looking for anyone.

For the first time, she saw a roving camera. It circled her rock, showing her face to
anyone watching. She was glad for the Westie make-up.
She was beginning to get nervous the Nighthawk leader was awake, or that she had the
wrong boulder, when she saw two flashes of red below.

Sighting with her gun, she switched back and forth between the two. She couldn‟t find
Quint, but the Nighthawks were definitely in motion.

Taking her eye off of the gun, she scanned the ground ahead of the two runners. Suddenly
she saw Cap as he took out the first Nighthawk.

The man fell, and the second raced in. Hera found him quickly with the gun, and got a
round off just as he closed with the Westie captain.

Both combatants fell. She quickly scanned ahead for Quint, finding him finally, thanks to
a man in black with a white stripe on his back.

That had to be her teammate, Badger, kneeling next to a naked body. No wonder she
hadn‟t been able to find Quint. She could barely see him.

Hera swung back to find Cap, almost falling off of the ledge when the red signal flare
went up, signaling the end of the Hunt with a kill.

She couldn‟t see Cap, or the one she had shot. It was just too dark. She got up, grateful
that it was over but worried about Cap and Quint.

Her muscles were already complaining when she stood up and she still had to make it to
the meeting place for the pick-up by helicopter.

Suddenly she was grateful that the meet-place was in a clearing at the top of the gorge
and that Cap had insisted on a light from Branson.

Turning, she felt a shock at the sight of the Nighthawks captain. Somehow he had
crawled backwards along the ledge, almost to the boulder.

Had the flare not gone up when it did, he could‟ve easily kicked her over the edge while
she was busy sighting for the Prey and the gamers.

Hera had forgotten all about him. She had forgotten an enemy at her back. That shocked
her more than anything else she had gone through.

And it made her mad. She advanced on him with her gun raised. “Here‟s what‟s going to
happen. I untie your arms and you walk ahead of me.”

“If you even blink so I don‟t like it, I will push you over and tell everyone you slipped.
No more cameras now, right, so who would know?”
The Nighthawk glared, but rolled onto his stomach so she could cut his bonds. She pulled
him up roughly by his belt, facing away from her.

“Start walking,” she said. It took a long time to go back around the ledge. She had to
steady him and practically pushed him up the trail.

At the top, he sat down. “Go on, bitch. They comes for me here.” He grunted sourly.
“Nice meeting you,” Hera said airily, and headed off.

She was lost by the time she was out of his sight. The trail didn‟t look like one by
flashlight and the landmarks were lost to the night.

Way past the point where she thought she might wander the forest forever, a light came
through the trees toward her. She unslung her weapon.

“Going to shoot at me again?” It was Cap‟s deep voice. Losing all sense of shame, she
ran toward him. In five steps, she tripped on a root.

By the time he reached her, she was lost to laughter. “Oh, man, I‟m so glad I didn‟t shoot
you,” she giggled. “I‟m so glad to see someone!”

He helped her get up. “Well, I figured the way back would be harder for you. You were
pretty close, though.” He kept her hand as he led her.

“And Quint?” Hera asked, trying to fight back the giggles she hoped were due to
tiredness. This was serious business, after all.

“The Prey was caught and killed by the Westies.” Cap smiled back at her. At least she
hoped he was smiling. It looked like he was smiling.

“Oh, so you mean, I mean…okay, that‟s great. Go team!” She was babbling now. Maybe
those roving cameras didn‟t actually leave after the win.

She felt a little nervous about how close she came to kicking the Nighthawk captain off
of the ledge. Cap squeezed her hand. “You did good.”

After that, she didn‟t remember many details about meeting up with the team, or the
flight back to the Meadow, or the ceremony afterwards.

When the Prey was shown to the crowd, his body stretched out across Judgment Rock for
inspection, Hera wondered if she should be concerned.

But she just couldn‟t be concerned. All because Miller Cap had held her hand, told her
Quint was okay, and had rescued her from the woods.
On the ride back to the mansion, the team was somber. They had lost Creeper and others
were injured. Hera tried not to look at Eve or Cap.

She felt drained, so tired yet so alive. And she wanted to see Quint. Cap had explained in
the „Copter that she would see him by morning.

When they got back, Mister was waiting with a full meal in the kitchen. By the time Hera
had a meal and a shower, she couldn‟t stay awake.

As she slept, she dreamed of a Hunt where she was the Prey and the gamers were all
dressed as sad clowns, and Miller Cap was the announcer.

It was well past noon when she woke and she raced through a shower and hardly thought
of which shirt went best with her best boot-cut jeans.

Eve came to get her just as she opened her door. “Come on, then. We‟re going to watch
the Hunt and get crap-ass drunk, if you‟re up for it.”

Hera thought Eve‟s eyes looked swollen. “Are you okay?” she asked, out of her element.
She thought that‟s what one woman might ask another.

“Creeper was my man,” Eve replied quietly. “And that‟s about as much as I want to say
for it right now. So are ya drinkin‟ or yammerin‟?”

Hera didn‟t know what else to say. “Drinking, of course.” She couldn‟t figure this petite,
lovely woman with the scarred, gangly Hunter.

On the way down, Hera put an arm on Eve‟s shoulders, feeling awkward but filled with
sudden sympathy and wanting to show some support.

“Thanks, lass,” Eve said softly as they entered the lounge. The team was there as well as
others. Several long tables held food and drinks.

“Hera!” She was swept up in a sudden hug by the very much alive, and drunk, Quint. “I
told you life was other than what you knew, didn‟t I?”

Hera hugged him back, laughing. “Okay, okay. Don‟t go thinking me all converted. I‟ve
an eye out for myself still, and don‟t you forget it.”

“Never!” he beamed. “Though I hear you almost shot Cap. Ha! Wish I could‟ve seen it. I
was already long gone by then, thanks to the drugs.”

“Um, Quint? I think we‟re all getting ready to see it. The show, right?” Hera laughed and
suddenly felt she was exactly where she should be.
Twenty minutes later, she watched Quint cozy up to Eve and make her smile. She
watched the Westies fill up on Boxer‟s Ale and fried chicken.

And she watched herself melt into the arms of famed Westies captain Miller Cap in a
hidden alcove by the window, overlooking a sunlit ocean.

                                       The End

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