Open Season
Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

        They ascended the worn stairs carefully, avoiding the shards of broken glass strewn over the steps and stepping around the drunken form passed out in the corner. The hallway was narrow and poorly lit, casting a pallid glow on the sagging ceiling and moldy walls. The vinyl-tiled floor was chipped and uneven, littered with empty bottles, discarded wrappers, dusty bits of plaster that had fallen from the cracks in the walls and ceiling, and water that trickled down from leaky, exposed pipes. The sounds of televisions, stereos, arguments, and screaming children echoed down the hallway through the thinly insulated walls, mixing together in a chorus of chaotic noise. A cold breeze swept through the drafty hallway, carrying with it the stench of rotting food, clogged pipes, and booze.

        None of this seemed to affect the man in front of him, though. The rat made no pretense of explaining away the mess or glossing over the facts. The place was a slumlord's dream -- anyone with eyes – or a nose – could see that – but then again, so were most of the slums in this area. Those who stayed did so only because they could afford nothing more – or because they needed the anonymity. The slumlords didn't care *who* stayed in their filthy excuses for apartment buildings, as long as the rent was paid.

        The rat stopped in front of a beaten door, fumbling with a ring of keys as he undid each of the door's four locks. Hrmph. As if someone would squat in *this* hellhole.

        Finally, though, the last latch clinked, and rat let the door swing open, motioning his prospective tenant into the space inside. The bird stepped into the tiny apartment, stopping in the middle of the room and scanning the layout, beak curled in disdain. Ignoring this, the rat entered as well, closing the door in a sorry attempt to keep some of the noise and chaos out.

        “So, what you think, eh? Kitchen, room, and bath. Nice, yes?”

        D'Gal laughed – a short, humorless bark. The 'kitchen' was hardly more than a beaten refrigerator, rusty sink, and broken-down stove, crammed together in a corner of the lone room that was just barely sectioned-off by a waist-high slab of crumbling plaster. A beaten mattress occupied the room's opposite corner, and he didn't even want to *look* at the bathroom – no doubt it was just as small and filthy as the rest of the place. Honestly, holding cells were bigger than this flat! But, then, he wasn't really concerned with any of that. All he needed was four walls and a ceiling - and, preferably, a floor. The weather had started getting colder, and he'd promised himself a long time ago that he'd never again winter a season out-of-doors.

        The rat shifted his weight uneasily. The newcomer wasn't looking very impressed. “It of course comes with all this nice stuff you are seeing here, no?” He indicated the worn furniture – a wobbly, broken-legged kitchen table, some mismatched chairs, an ancient TV perched on a crate in front of a collapsed couch, and the mattress lying on the floor. He'd ousted his last tenant after the bird fell three months behind on rent, and hadn't gotten around to tossing the furniture yet. Best to leave that to this duck.

        D'Gal ignored the fidgeting rat, leaning out the apartment's small, broken window to inspect the rusted fire escape. It *looked* sturdy enough, and the window faced a cluttered back-alley street that twisted and turned around the other derelict buildings lining the block. Perfect. Not only could he come and go unnoticed, but the twisting alleyways would provide him with an easily-accessible escape route that would make tracking him nearly impossible. He supposed the place would do.

        “What's the rent?” he ventured.

        His interest in the fire escape hadn't gone unnoticed, however. The rat shifted his weight again, wringing his hands nervously. “Now, you…you's not in drug business, are you? This is no crack-house. I don' want no trouble wit' dealers, you know? No police, neither. You thinking of causing trouble, go someplace else. I don't want no trouble, you hear? No drugs. You in drugs?”

        D'Gal smirked. The dingy apartment was better-lit than the hallway, and the rat had evidently noticed the lack of grime on his clothes. And, doubtless, the black leather jacket – quite an expensive commodity for someone in these neighborhoods. That and the absence of booze on his breath marked the black-plumed duck as someone with money, and the only people in this area with money were gangsters and dealers. Evidently it was only the latter that the overweight rodent found objectionable. He shook his head, waving the question aside.

        “I'm not into that. What's the rent?”

        The rat had been waiting for this. Here was a guy with more money than the rest of his tenants combined. Regardless of where he got it – and Rissoti knew better than to ask the duck where he got it – he *had* it, which meant he could pay more than the rest of the scum living in the building. Which meant the rat would have a little more for horses and beer when rent came due.

        “Rent is…$400 a month.”

        “Ha! I think *not*. Not in this neighborhood, it isn't. Try again.”

        The rat sighed. It had been worth a try, anyway. “Okay. Three-fifty.”

        D'Gal scowled at the rodent.

        “Two?” the rat tried.

        “I can get a better place for half that a block from here.” Not really, but it was a safe bluff - the rat was as meek as any other slumlord he'd known. Moreover, the rodent needed the money, if the 'discussion' with the ill-disguised loan shark in the lobby had counted for anything. He wouldn't call it. “I'll give you a hundred a month, including utilities.”

        The rat's jaw dropped. “A hundred a month?!? With utilities? Ha! You pay me one-fifty a month, *plus* utilities, or you go somewhere else.”

        D'Gal shrugged. “Somewhere else, then," he echoed, turning to leave.

        The rat gaped for an instant, then bolted forward and blocked the duck's path to the door. “Wait, wait, wait! Perhaps I was too hasty. A hundred a month is good! And you will of course be putting down one month's advance and a security deposit-”

        “The extra month's rent *is* the security deposit,” D'Gal growled. “Stop trying to con me before I take offense. You want the money or not?”

        The rat nodded meekly. The big bully! This was why he hated this block – it was overrun with druggies, deadbeats, and crooks. And more than its fair share of bullying guns. But, as long as they paid the rent…

        D'Gal reached inside one of his jacket's inner pockets, producing a wad of bills and counting out $200-worth. He handed the money to the rat, who promptly surrendered the apartment's keys, then edged to the door.

        “You…you not tell anyone what you pay for rent, okay? They get mad at you, they get mad at me, bad things maybe happen. Okay?” he asked.

        The duck smirked again. “I don't intend on telling anyone anything. As long as they stay out of my way, I won't speak with them at all.” Now leave, his glare added. This the rat was all too eager to comply with, and he quickly slipped out the door, leaving his newest tenant to himself.


        D'Gal listened to the rat's retreating footsteps as his new landlord scurried out of the building. Hrmph. Weakling.

        He looked about the flat again, trying to find *some* redeeming quality about this hole in the wall besides the fire escape. He couldn't. The walls were faded and peeling, the ceiling was yellow and sagging, and the floor was just as sorry. And the furnishings...well, he didn't care enough about them to be bothered. Leaning against the crumbling mini-wall, he considered his next move.

        He'd been stuck on this rock for a while now – over two months, by his count – and was still no closer to getting off it than he was the day he had landed. Crashed. Whatever. The fisherman who'd originally fished him out of the bay had been more than hospitable, but D'Gal had soon tired of the beaten trawler's cramped quarters and constant stench of fish, and when it became obvious that a salvage mission to retrieve the downed yacht was impossible, he'd left. The city had – as all cities do – a rather large criminal underbelly, and D'Gal had quickly slipped into the anonymous mass of thieves that populated the downtown area. The move made sense – Mallard might not have sent a team down to find him immediately, but he didn't think for a second that the Ducks would leave him alone for long. When they did finally come looking, he wanted to be as hard to find as possible.

        *That* certainly wasn't a difficult task. This city was huge! He'd yet to find where it ended - it encompassed the entire island, and quite a stretch of the mainland as well. There were millions of people living in the city, and thousands more that commuted in to work or travel or tour each day. As long as he remained anonymous, he had a chance. Provided, of course, the Ducks' copy of his biosignature was as out-of-date as he thought it was. Assuming they hadn't had the sense to scan him during his brief incarceration on their ship – and he doubted they had – then they had only the scan from back in his 'academy' days, and thus wouldn't be able to pinpoint his *exact* location with their scanners. The less people knew of him, the harder tracking him down would be.

        He'd acquired local weaponry quickly – guns and knives were easy enough to come by, provided you took their bearers by surprise – and avoided drawing attention to himself, slipping into homes for the food and valuables they housed. But burglary had neither the perks of espionage nor the thrills of military strikes - and he was a lazy thief, at best - so he quickly switched from preying on the sheep to hunting the wolves. Police didn't put much effort into investigating the mugging of a mugger or drug dealer - most of whom couldn't report the theft without implicating themselves in crimes as well. And it was *so* much easier to overpower them than to thwart security systems! They never seemed to see him coming. And those that fought just a bit too well and wound up dead instead of unconscious were of no concern to the police – if someone wanted to take out drug lords, then they were welcome to it. Besides, they had no leads.

        Thus, how he'd come to have a wad of cash stuffed in a new leather jacket. Preying on the predators had become a sport, and since he couldn't use the money to buy a ship – this world was, sadly, still pre-warp – he found himself with a bit of a surplus. When the weather started to chill, he'd 'acquired' the jacket to keep warm; but spending the nights on the prowl and the days dozing in trees and on rooftops was getting harder – it was now early winter, and in addition to below-freezing nights, the winds and rain had picked up, necessitating more substantial shelter. He did have money for rent, after all, and landlords like Rissoti couldn't care less about their tenants – they'd keep their mouths shut as long as the rent was paid. People in this part of town knew it was best to mind their own business.

        He glanced out the window. Twilight. Time to start working. It was a Friday, if he remembered correctly, and that meant that for the working class, it was payday. Which meant more muggings and drug sales. Which, in turn, meant his prey would be carrying better payloads today. Fridays were fun. Among other things, of course.

        He headed for the door. The nosier of the residents had, no doubt, taken notice of his arrival, and he wasn't about to lead them into thinking they wanted to meet him. Besides, he needed to get an idea of what the local gangs of this street were like – and he wouldn't find them in the back alleys at this time of day. They'd still be out on building steps, just starting to converge on street corners and alleys.

        They'd target him, of course - new face, new jacket, new prey, right? But they'd leave him alone until the sun set. So he'd best eat now. No fun playing on an empty stomach.


        Rez sat at his customary perch – the concrete slab topping off the bricks that separated his building's stair-step entrance from the sidewalk – and took a long drag off his cigarette before gulping down another mouthful of beer. Around him – seated on the stairs or leaning against the building – were his buddies and fellow gang-bangers. The six of them didn't live in the building they clustered around, but a stronger gang had pushed them off their turf some time ago, so they'd moved their hangout to this one.

        As far as gangs went, Rez's wasn't all that tough, which was probably why the dealers let them stay around. The gang used their products, after all, and showed no interest of selling them – they were almost entirely dedicated to their dice games and alcohol, setting up shop in early evening and playing their dice, drinking, and getting high until they'd lost all their winnings. Then they'd retreat to the steps to hang. This was really the only time the gang was dangerous – after hours of drinking, snorting, and shooting up, they were quite a rowdy bunch, charging pedestrians 'tolls' to pass them on the sidewalk or enter the building – and anyone who wouldn't comply usually got themselves clobbered.

        Rez, of course, got to tell them which ones to go after. Street bums had no money but usually didn't go to the police if you beat the crap out of them; returning workers usually had money, but most had learned to walk on the other side of the street, or in well-armed groups. Residents, on the other hand, had no choice but to pay whatever toll the boys wanted, because they had to get into the building the gang blocked. So it was all a matter of learning the residents. And Rez knew *all* of them. Well, 'cept for a guy who'd left the building earlier, but he was too pressed to be a resident – probably a new dealer, or someone's pimp, or something. But…if he *was* a resident, he'd have to pay one heckuva toll if he wanted to keep that jacket.

        Suddenly, the squirrel on the opposite stair-slab pointed excitedly at an approaching figure still half a block away. Rez squinted in the poor light – most of the streetlights here were more or less permanently busted - trying to identify the figure. Definitely avian – he could make out tail feathers. The figure spotted them and slowed their pace – which marked them as a resident, as anyone else would've crossed the street instead – and turned their head to scan the area for possible ambushes. This, in turn, gave Rez a look at their beak. A duck. Great! The only duck in this building was…

        “Hey, Win!” the squirrel shouted, taking a swig from his bagged bottle and waving drunkenly at the figure, “Welc'm home!”

        The others turned to face Rez at this, to see if a toll was authorized. Win almost never had any money; but then again, Win always snuck by them somehow – even going as far as vaulting over the step-wall once! Yes, there would be a toll, he nodded to his gang. And if Win couldn't pay in cash, they'd just find other methods of payment.

        He moved to block the door as Win reached the steps, the gang quickly closing a semi-circle behind the duck, who sighed tiredly.


        Winni sighed. She didn't have time for this. Well, yes she did, but she wasn't in the mood to play Rez's stupid game. She'd been working since sunup and was dead on her feet. Besides, she didn't have any money, and Rez had to know that. She never had money at the end of the month – her paycheck didn't stretch that far, and the tips she earned she counted on for food and rent. If the gang wanted beer money, they could just go mess with someone else. Now, how could she phrase that in a way that wouldn't get her pummeled?

        “Hey, Rez, how's business?”

        That caught the drunken rat off guard. “Umm…fine, I guess. Did pretty good on dice today.”

        “Yeah, we whooped 'em all!” one of the mice behind her cheered.

        She smiled sweetly. “Then I guess you don't need to try to take money I don't have, do you, Rez?”

        The rat actually hesitated. Must've been the drugs. “Umm…no. BUT you haven't paid a toll in a while, so we're taking one tonight anyway.”

        Damn. “I already told you guys I don't have any money,” she growled.

        “That's okay,” someone behind her muttered, cracking his knuckles, “We'll just take it out of your hide.”

        “Then again, if you'd like to keep that pretty face of yours, you could just make nice,” another added, leering at her.

        That did it. No more Ms. Nice Duck. Tightening her grip on her keys, Winni unobtrusively slid her other hand into her pocket, gripping the mace canister therein. Last time she checked, this gang carried knives, not guns. Knives were short-range weapons, so as long as she did this right…

        Whirling, she pulled the mace from her pocket and depressed the head as she turned, spraying an arc of the deterring liquid and managing to startle, if not blind, most of the gang long enough for her to bolt up the stairs, shoving Rez aside even as the rat drew his switchblade. He lost his balance, toppling into the sitting-slab and giving her the seconds she needed to open the worn lock, throw open the door, and dart inside, slamming the door behind her.

        Once inside, she paused for breath, gazing at the door uncertainly and wondering if the weathered wood would hold if the gang rushed it. Probably not, but they seemed to be doing nothing more that shouting insults and cursing her right now. Eventually, though, they'd try to get her back for this.

        Oh well. She would have to let Marcello know she wouldn't be able to work late for a while. Pity. She liked the late shift – people tended to tip more and order less – and her boss liked the extra business he felt he got when tipsy customers bought more food or drinks just so they could flirt with the 'cute' waitress. Bah. She headed up the stairs, stepping around the rubble.


        D'Gal ducked to his left, dodging the poorly-thrown punch before grabbing the vulnerable arm and snapping it. Using its owner's momentum to pull the screeching starling off-balance, D'Gal pivoted, jerking the bird in arc and sending him sprawling into two others that had been charging from behind. Another two gang members charged from the left and right, and as he darted out of their path, another three ambushed him – one head on, two from behind.

        He fought the desire to laugh at the move. Dodging half a step right to avoid the rat in front of him, he whirled, swinging his right fist back into the face of the first rear-charger and flicking the blade out of his left sleeve an instant before burying it in the throat of the second. He completed the turn with a roundhouse kick to the charging rat.

        Silence. He did a quick visual sweep of the alley, tensed to attack the next fool that charged him. All that met his eyes, however, was the sight of a single fleeing silhouette. He debated flicking the knife at the form's back, but decided against it. Let them run.

        He turned back to scene it the alley, chuckling softly to himself. This gang had attacked him - a pleasant surprise - but had fallen in under a minute. Hmph.



        “Dammit, Win, you'll pay for this!” Rez yelled, brushing himself off and looking to his friends, who were still blindly clawing at their eyes.

        He kicked at the steps, taking a swing at one of the blinded gang members just to hit something. The mouse fell back into some rubble, which gave Rez something else to take his frustration out on.


        Upstairs, Winni heard the sounds of breaking glass – evidently Rez and company had found some rocks – and paused when a familiar pair of bespeckled eyes peered out from behind a chained door.

        “Sorry, Mrs. Averly. I didn't have any money. I didn't think they'd get this loud.”

        “That's okay, dear,” the graying squirrel replied, “It's time someone stood up to them, anyway. I called the police for you.”

        The duck smiled wanly. “Thanks, Mrs. Averly. I don't think they'll come, though.” They never do, she added silently.

        “That's okay. I yelled at them about the cops, and that'll be enough to make the stronger gangs around here think about shutting them up. They've got more at stake, after all.”

        Winni nodded, not following her friend's logic in trying to spark a gang war, but unwilling to tell the old lady that she might be asking for trouble.

        “Oh, I almost forgot,” the squirrel chuckled, leaning forward conspirationally and opening the door as wide as the chain would allow, “You got yourself a new neighbor.”

        “What, Rissoti finally conned someone else into living here? In what, 312? Mackenzie's old place?”

        “Yep,” the old woman nodded, “Got a pretty good look at him, too. Looks like he might have some money, but he don't smell like a dealer. Gangster, maybe, but most of them have enough cash to live elsewhere. Definitely a night owl, though. Left a couple hours ago and hasn't come back in yet.”

        "Anybody warn him about Rez?"

        A shake of the head. "Not that I heard. He'll learn soon enough, I suppose."

        Winni yawned, barely following the conversation. She was just too tired. “That's great, Mrs. Averly. Maybe we can talk *him* into getting rid of Rez's gang. G'night.”



        D'Gal made his way through the streets, back to the slums. Yet another lucrative night, and one in which he'd gotten to practice his fighting skills, too. No less than three separate gangs had mistaken him for a lost tough-guy-wannabe yuppie on these streets – both on his way out of the neighborhood and on his way back in – so he'd had three separate sparring matches. What the cops made of it when they found what was left of them – or what rival gangs would think if there were any survivors still capable of forming sentences – was not his concern. He'd had fun. Battling a group of street fighters was *ever* so much more stimulating than taking on a single man – even if the gangs had merely been groups of untrained, mediocre fighters relying *entirely* too heavily on their guns.

        He'd also stopped by a Chinese Laundromat he'd stumbled across. The dozing kid tending the shop hadn't looked a day over twelve, and had evidently been on-duty all night. At this hour, she was so incredibly tired that he doubted she'd remember anything as routine as a common sale – which was why he'd actually paid for the sack-ful of linens he now carried. The apartment's furniture was ratty and disgusting, but at least he'd be sleeping on clean sheets.


        Dawn. Cold, cruel dawn. Well, at least the storm had finally ended. The past week had been practically non-stop rain, sleet, and icy winds. Nights were frequently below freezing, and the building's power had failed three days into the whole mess, making things even *more* miserable. With any luck, Rissoti had finally gotten the damned lights fixed - not to mention the heat.

        Winni stumbled sleepily down the streets, homeward-bound at last. What a night.

        The diner had caught fire around one. The cops were pretty sure it started as a grease fire that went unnoticed until it reached flammable materials, but Marcello was convinced it had been a deliberate act of arson. After a brief battle with the blaze, the firefighters had subdued the fire, but the kitchen was so badly damaged it would need to be completely redone, and there was a lot of smoke damage to the ceiling of the dining area as well – not counting the destruction the sprinkler system caused. After a few hours of observation for smoke-inhalation-related illnesses, the hospital had released them - and then the police had started their questioning. It was nearly dawn when the cops were satisfied that neither she nor Marcello had set the fire – which they were, of course, still convinced was accidental – and then Marcello had insisted she accompany him to the smoldering ruins to see what could be salvaged, in case looters decided to sack the diner while it was closed for repairs.

        Winni sighed. Marcello had been very understanding – he promised to cut her a check with the money she'd made so far during the month. Optimistically, that meant that for the next six weeks – the time the contractor Marcello had dragged out of bed and immediately hired to do the repairs had quoted them - she had a week and a half's pay to live off of. And rent was due in another week.

        If she hadn't been so tired, she would have cried.

        As it was, she could hardly see straight. Exhaustion and stress-headache aside, she kept wondering if this was Rez's way of “making her pay.” Sure, the toll incident had been weeks ago, but still…

        Rez had been run off the building's stoop in the past weeks. She wasn't sure who'd done it, but whoever it was seemed content with their presence three doors further down – although they no longer collected tolls. Mrs. Averly had even shared with her that she'd heard Rez now sported a rather nasty new scar and that the gang's size had been halved. The squirrel took credit for this, saying that rival gangs had “given 'em what they had coming,” as she put it.

        Although said rival gangs also seemed to be dwindling. It had been *days* since anyone had been mugged in the neighborhood. A most interesting trend.

        She shook herself out of her reverie, reminding herself that, even in the morning light, muggers were still out and drunken lunatics were still out setting land speed records on the streets. She concentrated on getting home.

        Which was probably why she heard the shouting before she reached the building. Rushing to the door, she found it had been knocked off its hinges.


        “Stop it!” Alice Averly yelled from behind the safety of her chained door. “I – I've called the police! They'll be here any minute!”

        “Mrs. Averly?” a familiar voice called urgently, “What's going on? Are you okay?”

        “Winnifred! Come quickly! Those hoodlums are tearing up your place!”


        Winni bolted up the stairs. The heck anyone was gonna mess with *her* place! She worked damned hard for what little was in there! She was going full tilt by the time she reached her floor, and in her haste (and exhaustion) forgot about the drunken bum permanently stationed there, tripping over him and sprawling into the hallway.

        Picking herself up, she saw who it was Mrs. Averly was yelling at. Rez was standing outside her door, and judging front the crashes coming from her apartment, his gang was in there destroying everything they didn't think they could pawn off.

        “Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing, Rez!” She charged forward, but only made it a few steps before falling again as a sharp pain shot through her ankle. Ah, the joys of falling up stairs…

        Rez smirked. “I think not, Win. You owe us a toll, remember?” As he spoke, one of the gang exited the apartment – with her TV, no less! – and proceeded down the hall with it.

        To her credit, Mrs. Averly tried to help, batting at him with her cane through the still-chained door. The squirrel merely paused and gave the door a sharp kick, conking the old lady unconscious, before heading for the stairs.

        Winni was furious. How *dare* they? She screamed at Rez, and at the gang members, cursing them back to their single-celled ancestors and speculating things about their relatives that were simply *not* physically possible. Hopping to her feet, she balled a fist, ready to clock the squirrel carrying her TV, but another gang member caught her from behind.

        “Hey! Let go of me! Put me down! Leggo!” She struggled to free herself, kicking and yelling as loud as her lungs would let her, “Get your hands off me, you filthy rubber-nosed son of an inbred goat!” she screeched, “And let go of my stuff, ya wiry-tailed weasel!”

        “Why you little…” the squirrel started, glaring over his shoulder and cursing a blue streak as he made his way to the stairs…

        …only to find himself face-to-face with a black-feathered duck.


        “You know,” D'Gal started, forcing the now-pale squirrel back up the stairs, “I don't think that's yours.”

        “In fact,” he continued, “I'm pretty sure she said it was hers. So,” he grabbed the rodent's shoulder, spinning him around and shoving him down the hallway, “why don't you just go put it back?”

        The squirrel lurched forward, stumbling down the hall in an attempt to keep his balance as the TV's weight pulled him forward, and plowed into Rez, sending them both toppling to the ground.

        Winni took the opportunity to deliver a devastating kick to her captor's midsection, stepping to turn and deliver a follow-up - only to have her leg buckle as she shifted weight onto her ankle. Improvising, she dropped to the floor and swept the mouse's feet out from under him before hobbling back to her feet. She needn't have worried, though – her first kick had landed lower than she'd thought, and he writhed on the floor in agony.

        Rez and the squirrel had gotten to their feet again, and the remaining gang member had joined them for whatever show of force they were planning. Not that they could do much, other than search for an alternate exit. But a smug-looking D'Gal blocked the only one.

        A siren sounded, drawing near the building. Winni allowed herself a predatory smile. “Sounds like Mrs. Averly's cops are *finally* here,” she informed them.

        The gang froze for an instant, then turned pleading eyes to D'Gal, begging him for a reprieve. They could still get away if they left the building now, and he knew it. His response to their unspoken plea, however, was what it always was when asked for mercy – an evil grin.

        Below, cars pulled to a stop, and the sound of doors slamming drifted in through the still-broken windows.


        D'Gal sat at Rez's old post on the slab above the stairs, dozing. It had been a long night, and he'd been looking forward to getting some sleep – but the cops simply *refused* to leave. After placing the gang under arrest, they'd proceeded to talk with what appeared to be everyone in the building. Twice. The fact that the elderly squirrel had been injured didn't help any, either – it required an ambulance be called, and even *more* interviews be conducted.

        He yawned. Another prime example of no rest for the wicked, he grumbled. And *excellent* proof of no good deed going unpunished. Three hours' sleep lost, all because *you* couldn't be bothered to come in the back way, he chided himself. He really needed sleep, but the third floor was crawling with cops and residents, all talking at once and crowding around and just generally making rest impossible. Which was why he was trying to rest outside. Without luck, he added silently. Oh, cat-napping he could do just fine. But napping in the sun never *had* been something he was good at.

        “Tired?” a voice inquired.

        “No. Whatever gives you *that* idea?” He growled, turning to glare at the intruder – who turned out to be the female whose flat had been broken into.

        She ignored his glare, though, instead smiling tiredly. “I know what you mean. I- (yawn!) was out all night too. Why can't they just leave already? They've asked everyone here the same questions a dozen times, and it's not like there was all that much in my place to begin with. I just (yawn!) want them to leave so I can get some sleep!”

        “Agreed,” he nodded, a hint of wary tolerance creeping into his glare as she slumped tiredly against the wall with another yawn, more exhausted than she cared to admit. Which wasn't all that surprising, he realized, studying her. She was young and pretty, yes – but on closer inspection, her slender figure was *too* thin; her chocolate feathers and frizzed black hair, faded and dull; her gold-brown eyes, more bloodshot than a single day without sleep could cause. She was under-nourished, overworked, and over-stressed, burning herself out - and unable to do anything about it even if she knew. There was something else, too. “How's the ankle?”

        “Hmm?” She sounded surprised.

        “Your ankle. The one that buckled your leg back there. The one that's making you limp.”

        “You noticed that?”

        He nodded. “You cover it well – well enough to fool the medics, anyway – but if you know what to look for…”

        “It's…sprained, I think. I'll be fine.”

        “Stay off it for a few days. Catch up on your sleep.”

        She eyed him suspiciously. “Why all this concern over my health?”

        D'Gal blinked. Good question. Why the hell *did* he care? He shrugged. “You woke me up. I'm not coherent enough to be myself.”

        “Sorry.” She wasn't. “Hey, how do you think they got in? I've got more locks on my door than-”

        “Doesn't matter. A skilled thief can pick a lock faster than you can open it with your keys. You'd be better off just locking half of them, so they're locking the other half when they pick them. Frustrates most thieves into giving up.”

        “Ah. That what you do?”

        He raised an eyebrow. “Me? I don't lock my door.”

        “You don't lock…*why?!?*”

        “Nothing of value in there,” he shrugged, “and ambushing me is *not* a smart thing to do.” He flashed her a predatory grin.

        She paled and shuddered – the very reaction he'd been shooting for. “Oh. Well…thanks, I guess. For helping me with Rez and company.”

        “Think nothing of it. I don't.”


        Drake dashed down the corridor, streaking past crewmates and station personnel along the way. Finally, he caught sight of the duck he'd been searching for.


        Commodore Mallard turned, watching as his second in command attempted to slow to a more dignified pace. Obviously, the rumors had reached him. "Ah, Commander. I take it you've heard the news?"

"The ship - repairs are really finished? We're going back on patrol?"

        Mallard smiled at his compatriot's enthusiasm. "Yes and no, my friend. The ship's fixed, for the most part, and we'll be leaving port in a few days - once everyone who hasn't yet had a chance to chew me out for the damage finishes up their lectures. But we won't be heading out on patrol this time."

        Drake winced at that. The brass at SpaceFleet had gotten their tails tied in knots after they'd limped into Federation space months ago – to say nothing of how the Navy had taken the news - and if the rumors flying around the space station were even half true, then Mallard had been lucky not to lose his commission. But, still - to send a battle-ready Duck ship on anything but a patrol mission was a waste of resources. He sighed. "Might have figured as much. What will our superiors be wasting our time on this time?"

        "Careful, Commander, that kind of talk can be interpreted as insubordination," Mallard cautioned. "But to be honest, I haven't received any details yet. Our orders are still being discussed. All I can tell you is that the brass wants us as *far* from the Bagels as they can send us. Those repairs were rather expensive, you know."

        Drake sighed again. Another boring mission. It wasn't fair! They had survived what no other ships had - a direct attack from D'Gal - and what was their reward? Missions even a cadet couldn't muck up, and pay cuts to help recover repair costs.



        Winni startled awake, jumping as the harsh pounding on her door continued. Someone fiddled with the locks, but the door held - the extra two locks she'd installed kept the would-be intruder at bay. Which didn't seem to thrill them one bit.

        “Open up!” Rissoti bellowed, pounding the door again, “Rent's due!”

        Winni gasped, leaping out of bed and reaching for the day's clothes. Rent! Oh, no, had a week gone by already? Normally, she'd've had a month's worth of tips saved to pay the rent, but since the fire at the diner, she hadn't been getting any – no diner meant no waitressing meant no tips! Rez and company's romp through her apartment hadn't helped, either – they'd destroyed most of the stuff she could've pawned - and with only a week and a half's tips, she didn't even have half what she needed! She undid the remaining locks, opening the door to face her landlord.

        “Um, hi, Mr. Rissoti. About the rent…”

        “Rent is *due*, today! Plus security deposit from you – to pay for damages to door from break-in!”

        “Yes, but, well…can I give you some of the rent now and the rest later? The diner had a fire, remember? I haven't gotten paid yet – could I just be late this once?”

        “Late? No, you not be *late*! You pay rent now! With new deposit!”

        “But I don't have enough!”

        “Then you out!”

        “No! Mr. Rissoti, I've never been late with rent before! I swear I'll pay you, I just-”

        “No! Gang broke in because of you! Broke door! You pay for that now, or you leave!”


        “No buts! Out!” The rat grabbed her wrist, yanking her out into the hall.

        Or trying to, rather. Winni braced her feet, planting herself firmly in the doorway, “No! Wait! I can get it to you tomorrow!”


        “This afternoon! I'll have it by this afternoon!”

        “It will not matter, because you go out *now* if you no have rent *now*!”

        “That's not fair! Please, give me an hour, I'll have it then!”

        “No! NOW!”

        “What the HELL is with all the SCREAMING out here?!?


        For an instant, the argument stopped. Rat and duck froze, turning to the unexpected – and undeniably *angry* - source of the outburst.

        “Well?” D'Gal growled impatiently, leaning back against his doorframe. Barefoot, feathers ruffled, and minus his beret and jacket, the ebony-feathered duck looked none-too-thrilled about having been so rudely awakened. Or, more accurately, he looked like he'd be thrilled to find the cause of the noise, rip them to shreds, and go back to bed. Bloodshot eyes added a frightening element to the glare of bloodlust.

        Rissoti recovered first, greed overpowering the apprehension over the murderous look in the black duck's eyes. “Rent due! No rent, no stay! Out!” He jerked Winni's arm forward, catching her off guard and hauling her into the hallway for an instant before she recovered and leapt back into her apartment.

        “No! Please, Mr. Rissoti, I swear I'll get it!”

        “No! Out!”

        “Oh, for the love of – Rissoti! How much does she owe?”

        “Huh?” Again, the argument came to a halt.

        “Rent, Rissoti. How much money does she owe you?”

        “$500.” The rat stated matter-of-factly.

        “Five?!?” D'Gal blinked. “You're bilking her *five hundred dollars* for that hole in the wall?”

        “No. I charge two-fifty rent and two-fifty new deposit for breaking door!”

        D'Gal rolled his eyes, reaching for his jacket. “It's *still* an outrageous amount.”

        He thumbed through the bills, counting out six hundred dollar's worth and handing the cash to Rissoti, whose eyes went wide. “Here. Everything she owes, *plus* my rent. Now, *SHUT THE HELL UP*. And let me sleep!”

        He slammed the door shut, leaving the drooling landlord and dumbstruck tenant to themselves. Winni stared at 312's door for a moment, then jerked her arm free of the rat's grip, retreating to her apartment and slamming her *own* door, leaving Rissoti alone in the hall, caressing his money.


        Winni spent most of her day pacing, puzzling over a dozen different things. What was *with* this guy, bailing her out like that? What was he doing with that much cash *here*? This was the slums, for crying out loud! You didn't live here if you could afford not to! And how'd he get it all? And, more importantly, why'd he just hand it over to her?!? That sort of thing just wasn't done in this neighborhood – no one cared to help anyone. Even Mrs. Averly, friend and police-caller that she was, hadn't come out into the hallway to defend her. But this newcomer had.

        And what was his name, anyway?

        The hours of intensive thinking wore her down, though. Eventually, her head began to throb, and she gave up pacing in favor of visiting Mrs. Averly. The elderly squirrel was more than a nice friend and a good source of advice – she was also the best gossip in the area. Making no excuses for her failure to put in an appearance for the morning's episode, she eagerly listened to Winni's story - it made for excellent gossip material - but could answer none of the duck's questions.

        Oh, the squirrel was an accomplished snoop, and she had been garnering information about 312's resident since the day he moved in – but she had precious little to show for it. Their new neighbor spoke to no one in the building, got no mail, and was never seen with friends - or anyone at all, for that matter. He was very much the night owl, that they knew, but no one had any clue what he did, where he was from, or even what his name was. That was bothersome. So much so, that Mrs. Averly had actually enlisted one of the building's young boys, paying the sparrow to follow him. And yet even this tactic hadn't panned out – the duck had either realized he was being followed, or always took the precaution of making sure he wasn't, and had lost his 'shadow' in the labyrinth of alleys behind the building. About the only thing Mrs. Averly *could* tell Winni was that he usually headed out at about six or seven in the evening, and never got back in before 2. Which was about the only thing Win had already known.

        Hours later, still puzzled, Winni bid good evening to her friend and decided to go out for some fresh air. She made it all the way to the stoop before she realized she wasn't the only one with that idea.


        “You!” she startled at the figure on Rez's old perch, “What are you doing out here?”

        D'Gal cut her a sidelong glance. What business of hers was it, what he was doing? “Waiting for the sun to set,” he shrugged in reply, “Didn't see any reason not to do it out here.”


        “And what are *you* doing out here?”

        “I…don't see how that's any of *your* business.”

        He shrugged. “It's not, and I don't really care to know. But I answered your question, regardless.”

        She ruffled her feathers indignantly. How rude! “Better make sure Rez doesn't see you up there. He tends to get territorial about things.”

        A snicker. “The last time that rat 'got territorial' about things, he damn near lost his eye.”

        Waaaaaaaaait a minute…Rez's scar! “You're the one who kicked them off the stoop!”

        “I rather *like* this jacket.”

        She laughed at that. No wonder Rez hadn't tried to fight his way to the stairs before! But then, Rez was pretty good with that blade of his, which meant… “So, you a gangster or something?”

        He swung around to look at her, annoyed. “No, I'm not a gangster. Or a dealer. Or a cop, or a conman, or serial killer, or-”

        “Okay, okay!” she threw her hands up, “I'm sorry, alright? I just thought – well, Rez is a good knife-fighter-”

        “-Only if you don't know how to fight with a blade.”

        “Well, I don't.”

        “No?” He cocked his head at her, surprised. “You should learn, then. In this neighborhood-”

        “I'll stick to distance weapons, thanks.”

        He frowned. “Guns are loud and expensive. And if you're using them strictly as a defensive weapon, you'll be using them at close-range anyway.”

        “I…I was talking about mace.”


        “Yeah. You know, like pepper spray, but more effective.”

        He smirked. “Bleach would be more effective. But I guess if you're just looking to buy yourself time to run, mace'll work.”

        She looked at him oddly, a thought forming. “You're a hitman, aren't you?”

        A short bark of a laugh. “Ha! No. But I am a mercenary.”

        She wrinkled her beak, disapproving. “There's a difference?”

        “Of course!” He looked offended. “Mercenaries are soldiers. Professionals.” He waved dismissively. “Hitmen are thugs.”

        “Well, that explains the money, I guess,” she sighed. “Any of your work I'd recognize?”

        “None that you'd mourn." Seeing her feathers fluff in anger at that, he added, "Though I haven't had a contract since I got here." He leaned against the wall, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. "Been living off the lower elements of society.”

        Her eyes lit up. “Which explains the drop in the gang population,” she grinned. “Okay, you've won me over. I was going for a walk.”

        “Hm?” One eye opened to regard her curiously.

        “You asked me what I was doing out here, but I wouldn't tell you.”

        “If you say so.” He shrugged, checking the sky – the sun had set, and while it was still light out, the stars were beginning to show. He rose to leave.

        “Hey, wait!” Winni called. He half-turned, regarding her curiously.

        “I…I wanted to thank you. For the rent money. I'll pay you back, I swear!”

        He shook his head. “Don't bother. I don't need it. You, however, do. Besides, if it keeps the mornings quiet, it was worth it.”

        “Well, then I owe you one.”

        He scowled. “I don't collect favors. Just forget about it.”

        “But…hey, I know! I waitress at the Greasy Spoon – it's a diner near here. It's closed for a while, but when it opens, your meals are on the house.”

        D'Gal sighed, casting his eyes skyward. No good deed went unpunished. He didn't need her thinking she had some sort of obligation to him - it was one more complication he'd have to watch out for. But arguing wasn't getting him anywhere. “Fine. As long as it's not taken off your checks.”

        “Great!” She stuck her hand out. “Winnifred Wells, by the way. But everyone calls me Winni.”

        “Mm-hmm,” came the guarded reply.

        She rolled her eyes, prompting him. “And you are?”

        The guarded look turned suspicious now. “Why do you want to know?”

        “Look,” she sighed, frustrated, “I'd just kind of like to know the name of the guy that's saved my tail twice this month. You know, instead of just saying 'You!' when I see you. So? What's your name?”

        It was D'Gal's turn to sigh now. This duck was impossible! And even though it was doubtless a very, very bad idea…. “D'Gal.”

        She cocked an eyebrow at him. “That come with a first name?”

        D'Gal scowled. Why didn't she just ask for his rank and serial number while she was at it? Mallard's crew would *definitely* appreciate that… “Charles, okay? Charles D'Gal.”

        “Nice to meet you, Charles.” She reached over and grabbed his hand, giving it a hearty shake. “And now I'll let you go do whatever it is you're so desperate to escape to. Bye!”

        With that, she pivoted around and retreated back into the building, leaving D'Gal standing there, kicking himself for revealing his name and wondering just when *this* fine development was going to backfire on him…


        For the first time in months, they were aboard their ship again. Behind them, the space station that had served as home during repairs glimmered faintly. They could not yet leave for deep space, but at least they'd be on their ship while the testing and fine-tuning of their new equipment proceeded. What's more, the captain already had their orders.

        And Drake couldn't wait to hear what they were. "So, tell us, Captain, what's our penance? Asteroid relocation? Colony assessment? Perhaps something with a little excitement, like," he paused dramatically, "convoy escorting?"

        "No, Commander," his captain laughed, "Nothing nearly so tedious. We're merely being sent to settle some unfinished business on a pre-warp planet."

        Drake flashed a predatory grin. "We're going after D'Gal."

        Mallard nodded. "If nothing else, we need to know for certain that he perished in that crash."

        "I doubt it," Drake growled, "D'Gal wouldn't allow himself to go out like that. Not unless he could take a few thousand of us with him, anyway."

        "All the same, we haven't heard anything from our friends down there, and Arcadia would've let us know if D'Gal was causing trouble."

        Drake frowned. "Although if I remember correctly, his ship was also crashing at the time. Assuming he's okay - and we never made sure he *was* - he might not have any way of contacting us. Will we be bringing him a communicator while we're at it?"

        It was Mallard's turn to frown now. "No. SpaceFleet was…rather less understanding than we'd hoped. The Council felt that, regardless of how long he was marooned, Arcadia' failure to avoid contact with natives - and his outright refusal to return with us - amount to a violation of the Directive and a dereliction of duty."

        Drake blinked in surprise. That was a rather harsh ruling from the Council - due, no doubt, mostly to the fact that they'd realized the bright young captain they'd so prided themselves on would no longer serve them. "But, Cap'n - you said no one was going to be court-martialed!"

        "No one will be," Mallard smiled bitterly, "Squeaks' been discharged, stripped of all benefits - and they've officially seized his assets and frozen his accounts."

        "Of course,” Mallard continued, “as long as he stays on that planet, none of that will affect him."

        "But he's effectively marooned," Drake finished. "He won't be too happy about that, sir."

        "I know," Mallard sighed. "Which is why *I* am going to be the one to tell him. *You* get to follow up on D'Gal."

        "Me?" Drake squeaked, "Handle D'Gal? Sir, have I done something to offend you?"

        "Eh? Of course not, Commander. He went down in the yacht, remember? Light shielding. He's probably nothing more than a handful of ashes in a scorched crate now."

        Drake wasn't convinced. “I certainly hope so, sir.”


        D'Gal leveled the Eagle at the car's windshield, squeezing off two shots before pivoting around and darting down another alley. One that had fire escapes. All the driver saw, though, was the dead end, and the car accelerated, intent on crushing the duck in front of it. Which was just what D'Gal wanted them to do. He leapt, grabbing the fire escape's end rung and swinging himself over the guard railing, then turning and firing after the vehicle. At least one of his targets found its mark, and he was rewarded with the sight of blood splattering across the driver's window. The car swerved, plowing through a mess of piled trash before hitting the brick wall rising before it.

        D'Gal watched the scene with detached interest. They'd never come after him with one of those before. But he was pretty certain that had been the last of the gang. Worthy adversaries, he had to admit, but they'd've lived longer if they'd stopped trying to mess with him. Ah, well.

        He climbed up the escape to the roof, pausing to survey the area as he planned his next move. Slim pickings tonight. Which made sense – it was a good ten degrees below freezing outside, and the icy wind whipping through the city wasn't helping that any. It – and the snow – had been enough to persuade most people to take warmer travel routes, and had driven muggers into shelters and dealers – and their buyers – into cars.

        No use freezing his tail out here, then. Oh, down feathers were a wonderful thing – between them and his jacket, hypothermia wasn't anything to worry about - the cold couldn't do more than freeze his legs and beak – but it was still freakin' *cold* out, and he hated the cold. The thought of going someplace warm was an appealing one.

        Too bad he didn't have anyplace warm. The building's heat was broken – *again* - and the thin walls didn't do more than block the wind. Hrmph. The wind. He turned his back to it, watching a flock of small birds hurriedly winging their way through the chunks of snow. South. He should have gone south. It was warmer down there, and surely he could have found a settlement or two big enough to hide in.

        Bah. Too late for that now, he supposed. But there *was* at least one warm place he could think of…


        “Charles!” Winni waved from the back of the diner.

        D'Gal grimaced. “I've asked you not to call me that-”

        “Bother. I'm not in the habit of calling people by their last names. Well, not friends anyway,” she finished serving the mouse at the end of the bar, crossing the length of the diner and motioning him to a stool. “So, what'll it be?”

        D'Gal remained by his post at the door. “Actually, I just came in for the heat.”

        “Can't do that,” she scolded, “Marcello's rules. Ya gotta order something. Sit.”

        D'Gal rolled his eyes, but complied. When Winni remained in an expectant let-me-take-your-order pose, he sighed. Impossible. “Fine, fine. What do you recommend?”

        “The deli across the street, actually. But they're closed right now. I'll bring you a Special.”


        Winni hurried down the darkened street, avoiding as mush of the slushed snow as she could – both to keep her feet warm, and to keep her journey as quiet as possible.

        D'Gal had left the diner hours ago. Oh, he'd stayed about an hour or so – she'd even managed to goad him into conversation for a bit. Reluctant conversation, yes, but with him, any type of communication was reluctant – the suspicion was gone, but the caution remained. Marcello had popped out of the kitchen not long after that, while she was waiting on another customer, and had no doubt given Charles the 'buy somethin' or leave' spiel – at which point the duck had left. He'd left her a tip, though. She'd have to talk to him about that. One does not pay for free meals.

        Ah, well. She supposed she could use the money. She had enough for food now – Rissoti had lowered her rent (for reasons she couldn't quite figure out, but nonetheless attributed to Charles) and without the drain of Rez and company's tolls, she was finding herself with a little bit of extra money at the end of the month. She'd even had enough to buy a small space heater – to deal with the ever-increasing times when the building's heat failed.

        A footfall behind her brought her thoughts back to the present. She quickened her pace a bit. Her building was only about a half a block away – she could make it if she ran. Well, maybe. The sidewalks were icy where snow had been shoveled away, but not salted. Her shoes – treads worn smooth with use – wouldn't give her nearly as much traction as the boots behind her gave their owner. Anyone that relied on speed had good-traction footwear – it simply would not do to slip and fall while chasing a victim or fleeing authorities.

        The footsteps behind her were joined by others, and a nervous – yet malicious – murmur sounded behind her.

        “Hey, Win.” Rez. “You owe me a toll.” Click.

        She didn't need any encouraging – she broke into a run, dodging the ice patches as best she could and using her momentum to propel her forward and keep her balance whenever she hit a slick spot. She charged up the stairs, keying the lock open with speed that would have impressed a locksmith, and was darting inside when Rez tackled her. High school self-defense training kicked in, and instead of catching herself, she twisted around, placing Rez between her and the floor as she hit the ground in a shoulder-roll that left the rat stunned. She kicked him away, darting up the indoor steps as fast as her legs would take her. To hell with the door – there were more gang members out there, and she needed to put as much distance between her and them as possible. She'd fortified her apartment after they'd broken in – once she got inside, there was no way they were gonna get in. She cleared the stairs, fumbling for the key to the first lock.

        Then it hit her. She didn't have the keys. She'd dropped them when Rez tackled her. Halfway down the hallway, she skidded to a stop, her mind screaming for a way out. She didn't have her keys, and she couldn't pick the locks. The door to the stairs at the far end of the hall was welded shut – the stairs had long since collapsed, creating a dead-end hallway Rissoti paid building inspectors a small fortune to overlook.

        The thundering on the stairs announced that the gang was continuing their chase. Winni ran back a bit, pounding on Mrs. Averly's door. No answer. Panic started setting in. No. For crying out loud, it was 3am on a Thursday night! Where the hell was she? She had to be in there! She pounded harder, struggling to force the doorknob to turn.

        “Help! Mrs. Averly, please, let me in!” She pleaded. No answer. She tried again.

        The molding on the doorframe above her head exploded. Guns. They had guns. With a yelp, she took off down the hall. Surely someone would let her in! No, wait - in this neighborhood, you lived longer if you minded your own business. No one would let her in. Well, Charles might. But he wouldn't be in. The heat was broken, so every room in the building was cold, and Charles hated the cold, so he wouldn't be here. He'd be somewhere warm. Somewhere –

        Wait. What'd he say weeks ago? When she'd asked about locks? Geez, it was important, wasn't it? He'd said – he'd said -

        He'd said he didn't lock his door.

        She charged door 312, wrenching the knob around as she rammed into it full-force. Instead of the recoil she expected from what was surely a stationary, locked door, she felt the door swing away from her as she plowed into it, dumping her onto the floor.

        The poorly aimed shots behind her nullified any shock she'd had, and she scrambled to her feet, kicking the door shut and fumbling with the door's top lock. A perfectly familiar chain lock, she was shaking so badly she could hardly thread the damned thing. She'd just secured it when the gang slammed into the door, knocking her to the ground as the door swung again – only to be restrained by the chain. Rez and company backed up to rush the door again and break the strained chain – only to have the door slammed shut in their faces, cutting their charge short with a satisfying thunk!



        “What is it with you and these guys?! Trouble just come looking for you?!” D'Gal snapped the locks shut, siding up against the wall closest to the doorknob.

        “I'd say it pretty much knows where to find me.” She caught the dark object he tossed at her before she realized what it was. “I don't use guns.”

        “Then just point it at them,” he flipped the safety off the handgun he still held.

        “What good'll that do?” she took up a position on the opposite side of the door.

        “Always expect someone with a gun has it loaded and is capable of and willing to use it. You'll live longer.” They ducked as bullets ripped away chunks of the door. D'Gal grunted. “High caliber, eh?” The door swung to the chain length as Rez's crew charged it again, and he fired a few shots before kicking it closed again. “Alright, Plan B. Fire escape.”


        He jerked his head towards the window. “Down the fire escape. It'll hold, I've done it before.”


        He ignored her. “You first. I'll cover.”

        “You're military, aren't you?”

        The door shuddered as Rez and company rushed it again, and a huge crack formed down its center. “Look, we don't have time for this!”

        “I asked you a question!”

        “And once we're safely out of sight, I'll answer it! Now move!”


        Winni looked back over her shoulder, trying to track the winding path they cut across the maze of alleys. After a few minutes of searching, she finally spotted their building, far off to the left. “Bet they're pillaging my apartment right now.”

        “Doubtful,” D'Gal snorted, “Right now they're either searching the alleys or tearing up the flat looking for us. The fact that they've got your keys probably hasn't even dawned on them.”

        “Oh. I'm sorry. I'll pay for-”

        “Nothing in there to pay for. Everything I own, I carry.”

        “But Rissoti'll kick you out for the damage!”

        D'Gal shrugged. “I'll find another place to sleep.”

        “At this time of night?”

        “The sun'll rise soon enough.”

        Win furrowed her brow. “You are military, aren't you?”

        “Does it really matter?”

        “Hey, this is the third time in two months that you've saved my tail, and all I know about you is your name and the fact that you hate the cold and winters are warmer where you're from – and even that took a lot of prying!”

        “Fine, fine,” he waved her back, checking to make sure the next alley was empty before darting into it, “I'm military.”

        “What branch?”

        D'Gal groaned. Again with the curiosity. Did they not have that saying about curiosity here, or did she think it only applied to felines? “It doesn't really correspond with things here. Think of it as a combination of Navy SEALS and Marines.”

        “Oh. Wow.”

        Silence reigned for a few minutes, as Winni took some time to scan the street they had emerged onto.

        “Hey…” she started, “This is-”

        “The way back to the building. Yes.”

        “But Rez! He's-”

        “Gone or arrested, by now. If your keys are still in the door, you can get back into your place.” He paused for a minute, correcting himself. “Or if they're not, I could pick the locks.”

        “What about you?”

        “I've still got a flat. It's probably a bloody mess now, but it's still a flat.”

        “With no door.”

        “I can live with that.”

        “Want your gun back?”

        “Eh, keep it. Although I would recommend learning how to use it.”

        “So teach me.”

        “Aim. Fire. Repeat. It's easy, really.” They climbed the outdoor steps, inspecting the still-open door. “No keys.”

        “There they are!” Winni darted to where the cramped lobby met the stairwell, retrieving her keys. “Now I guess we get the damage report.”


        The damage report, all things told, amounted to a hallway littered even more than usual with bits of plaster and chipped molding. Winni had put quite a few dents in Mrs. Averly's door, and by the looks of a few fresh bloodstains on the wall, D'Gal had at least hit one of the gang. Moreover, his apartment was not devoid of a door – the door had merely been knocked out of its frame and was lying, split, in the center of the floor. The furniture had been shot, slashed, bled on, maimed, and set on fire – however, evidently one of the residents that couldn't care less about a murder in the hallway had cared enough to extinguish the blaze, as a coating of white foam covered the worst-burned patches.

        Having unlocked her door and determined all was safe, Winni peered into what remained of 312. “You are not sleeping here. Look, there's a dead guy on the carpet!” She motioned to a still form lying in a congealing pool of blood on the floor.

        D'Gal shrugged. “So? He's dead. He won't bother me.”

        “You are *not* sleeping in there!”

        He leaned against the ruined doorjamb, crossing his arms defiantly. “I see no reason not to.”

        “You want a reason?” She grinned deviously. “I'll give you a reason.”

        In one swift movement, she grabbed his jacket lapels, jerked them forward sharply to haul him down to her height, and kissed him full on the beak. Caught off-guard by the move, a shocked D'Gal could only blink in surprise for the seconds it took his brain to sort through its confusion and reach the conclusion to kiss her back. At which point Win backed up slowly, drawing her catch into her tiny apartment and closing the door.


| Run Away! Run Away! | Onwards to Part 2 |