|Gamble Prologue: Gathering
Author: Guede Mazaka
"So how good are they?"
She shrugged and studied her nails. "Good enough, by reputation. I haven't really gotten to know them yet."
In the corner seat of the wrap-around couch, Ahmed briefly emerged from Dean and Fred's necks to glance over the blueprints. He pushed past Miguel's hand and tilted his head. "It'll be a challenge."
"Which you're sitting out." G shot a half-scolding, half-envious glance at Ahmed, who very nearly smirked. "Guess you've earned a break."
"After that last job, I'd think so. Hellhounds, for God's sake." Dean flopped behind Ahmed and wrestled into Fred's shirt. His mouth snaked up exposed skin to cover the neck pulse-
--something jarred G's elbow, and she almost spilled coffee all over the building plans. Miguel could be a real bastard when he wanted to, and right now was one of those times. His eyebrow was arched nearly to his hairline, and an arrogant grin played about his lips. "I know they're pretty, but you've been watching them for the past century. So could we have your attention on the matter at hand?"
"And that would be our cue to leave." Ahmed stood, one hand reaching behind his back. A second later, Fred and Dean were grudgingly getting up, mostly by grabbing onto various parts of Ahmed and clinging like limpets. Very cute and decorative-so much so that G often found herself forgetting how formidable they'd become. Not that that ever was too big of a problem, as Dean had a particular fondness for reminding her about it.
Like a true gentleman, Miguel shook hands with Ahmed and smiled in sardonic gratitude. "Thank you very much for the help with the background research. I hope your vacation is a relaxing one."
"I doubt that, but we'll hope." Ahmed, G was pleased to see, wasn't taken in a bit. On the contrary, he was beaming back with equal insincerity. Then he gestured to the side. "Would you mind if I spoke to G for a minute?"
"Not at all." Miguel stepped back and resumed his perusal of the various papers and books that blanketed the coffeetable.
Ahmed had a quick exchange of looks with Fred, and then a short word with Dean. After that, those two quietly headed out to the car while Ahmed led G into the hallway. He flicked out a cigarette and offered her one, which she promptly took. Then he glowered until she handed back the rest of the pack. A sharp fingersnap, and they were contentedly blowing smoke until someone decided to say something substantial.
Which, given Ahmed's terminal case of seriousness whenever his pair weren't near, wasn't too long after. "So. How long before you two try to kill each other?"
"Is it that obvious?" G made a face, then poked her butt through the sculpted smoke till it disappeared. "Very impolite of me, isn't it."
"You have my phone number. And the other ways to reach me. If you want to complain." Ahmed was uncomfortably adorable when he tried to be nice.
"Will remember that. Well, who knows? Maybe the mortals will be distracting enough so that I'm too busy to rip out his snark. Throat. Balls. Et cetera." She dragged long and hard on her cigarette, watching it go to ash in the blink of an eye. "Never mind. I'm keeping you away from the first days off you've had in at least a decade. See you in a few."
The corner of Ahmed's mouth quirked up, and his cigarette butt suddenly poofed into fluffy gray dust. He waved it out of the way as he came forward and hugged her, tight but brief. "Have fun."
"I always do." She gave him a little push towards the door, and her best innocent face when he favored her with an admonishing expression. It was a nice behind, and even if it was virtually off-limits, there wasn't any harm in a little goosing between friends. "Go fuck 'em senseless."
Ahmed didn't do blushing. But he did grunt in an embarrassed manner and hustle off, which gave G a moment of amused satisfaction. She wondered how long she could stretch it.
Rusty dug into a mound of pure grease stuffed between two oversize buns, pickles and lettuce spilling everywhere but somehow not leaving a mark on his pristine cuffs. He wiped his mouth, then looked Danny in the eye, dead serious. "So. This girl-"
"Her name's Tess." Danny tried not to sound touchy about it, but Rusty gave him that face and he knew he hadn't succeeded.
"All right. Tess." Another gargantuan bite of sandwich. If any other man had done it, he would've resembled Pac Man at a truckstop bar. They were, in fact, at a truckstop, but Rusty still made himself look as smooth as vanilla gelato. "What does she do?"
This wasn't going well. Only a few words in, and Danny could already tell. He'd gotten an identical vibe when he was breaking up with his last girlfriend, seconds before she'd tried to dump a champagne bottle on his head. The bottle only, not the champagne. Distinctions were very important when it came to such matters.
He took a moment to smoke a cigarette and revise his plan of…reconciliation…before he tried again. "I met her in that modernist exhibit last week. She's a curator."
Rusty's face suddenly cleared up. "Where our next job's going to be?"
"No." That was a little too forceful, and Danny did his best to soften his sharp tone with a pleading smile. It didn't improve the situation. "She thinks I sell insurance."
The other man coughed into a napkin, then stared at Danny.
After a wordless while, Rusty returned to eating, and Danny fought the urge to drop his head into his hands. Unprofessional, and even if they were in the middle of Highway I-Bumfuck, it still wasn't wise to lose focus. "Rusty, I like her. And you're-"
"'scuse me." At the gruff rumble, they looked up into the face of Mohammed, right after the prophet had been blasted by the wind of an approaching mountain. The man shyly dropped a set of keys onto the table. "Everything's like you wanted."
"And early," Rusty approvingly commented as he checked his watch. His eyes briefly met Danny's, and they got up at the same time. "Well, let's take a look."
"Sure." The truck-driver escorted them out into the parking lot, where a big black gleaming hulk of vehicle perfection roared out of nowhere. Headed straight for them.
Danny had an idiotic moment of regret for his new suit, but his body was somewhat more practical. He grabbed for Rusty's shoulders and threw the other man out of the way, so Rusty skidded onto the strip of anemic green at the lot's edge and rolled. Danny would have followed except for the matter of a rather nasty blow to the head, which slammed him sideways so he landed on a shiny coal hood. And that should've plowed him over by now, if the law of physics were still in effect. No brakes outside of military research labs were that good.
"Damn it, Barry, I paid-" Rusty snapped, his voice a lot more edgy than it should be. He sounded almost frightened.
"I know, but he pays better." The grinding-class accent suddenly dropped, and the voice was the kind of dangerous culture that always meant someone was about to get screwed six ways down the family line. "Not in money, so no offense, but you can't compete."
Danny wrenched his dizzy head up just in time to see a Spanish-looking son of a bitch clock Rusty over the head. His friend and partner went down, and Danny shot up into another punch. A minor explosion disrupted his brain, and then the pain kicked in. When the blackness followed, he wasn't at all thankful. Rusty-
"Is this seat taken?"
"No…" Tess' voice trailed off when she saw the woman smiling down on her. Blonde, thin but amazingly curvy, and tall. She instantly froze her face into the politest mask she could manage. "Not at all."
"Thanks." The other woman sat down and positively lounged on the bench, shameless as a cat in a sunbeam. Men were already tripping over the stairs at the far end of the courtyard as they stared. "Not one of his best works," she muttered, pointing at the iron sculpture dominating the pavilion. "I liked his No. 5 Fish better."
That momentarily melted Tess' defenses. "You've-you've seen it? Before he melted it down?"
Green eyes flicked over, then down and up. Tess suddenly noticed an odd warmness at the base of her throat, which if she were talking to an attractive man might have been due to flirtation, or persuasion. The woman did have an unusually husky voice, with a slight trace of some northern European accent, that was playing gender tricks with Tess' hearing.
"Yes. You're interested in art?"
Before Tess could answer, her pager began to buzz. "Sorry, but I have to…" she mumbled as she got up and juggled pager, cell phone and purse.
Some guy accidentally bumped into her, and she nearly dropped everything. Luckily, a quick grab snagged the mercilessly beeping pager seconds before it would've shattered on the floor. The man handed it back to her with an apologetic mutter and hurried off before she could even react. And there just were a few people who didn't deserve to be in a museum, Tess irritably thought. Rushing around as if he were in the subway, or…she reached for her purse and found only empty air.
She jerked up and stared wildly about the courtyard, but nothing else seemed amiss. Nothing…except for a flicker of coat at the end. "Prick."
Tess hastily shoved her things under her arm and took off as fast as decorum and high heels would allow. She rounded the corner into the hallway and glanced about, then started forward again when she saw the blonde arguing with an anxious-looking man. "Hey! That's my purse."
The woman's eyes slid to her, then to a bulge in the man's coat that corresponded perfectly to Tess' missing belonging. "Give it back."
"Look, lady, I don't know what you're talking about." Delicate spectacles bobbed as nervously as the man's Adam's apple.
"Well, I do." Tess marched over and made a grab for her purse. When the man instantly backed off, she whipped around and got ready to scream like murder. To hell with proper behavior.
That was when the woman hit her on the temple. The last thing Tess heard was the man hissing, "Oh, my God," and another thump like a vicious punch. The last thought she had was that now she was going to be late not only for her meeting, but for her date with Danny as well.