In her dream a guy was saying her name while a jaunty theme played in the background.
“Layla,” he said to the beat. “Layla wake up! You’re suffocating me.”
Layla squeezed a little tighter. Nope. She wasn’t doing it. Outside of her mind could go suck a dick. The minute she opened her eyes the hangover would hit and ruin the rest of her day.
But it only takes a little pressure to crack into a sleeping mind.
“Huh?” Layla’s voice was fuzzy with sleep and the bazillion bourbon whiskeys she’d thrown down yesterday.
“You can let go, I’m not gonna go anywhere.” The voice from her dream! It was here and in real life, attached to the guy that was in her bed. “Also, your phone is ringing.”
“S’not mine,” she mumbled into his back.
“It’s not mine either. Could you get off me, please?”
She had her arms wrapped tight around a guy, not a bad way to wake up all things considered. A few cobwebs cleared up, not all of them, but enough for Layla to remember some pieces of last night.
“Ugh, I changed my ringtone didn’t I?” she asked.
The guy shrugged. Or at least, he tried to. Layla had his arms pinned too tight for him to move very far.
“Oh shit, sorry dude.” The two of them were sticky with night sweat, so extricating herself was kind of a chore. But she managed to free the guy in the end. He shuffled off the bed and clutched his left arm, which had gone a little paler than the rest of him. “You should’a just elbowed me or somethin’.”
“I dunno what to tell ya, man.” Her phone was still ringing. Whoever was calling was persistent. “Maybe elbow me harder?”
Layla’s sword-belt was under the covers just behind her. She wasn’t wearing anything so she had to throw it over her shoulder rather than fastening it around her waist. She carried it with the phoenix shaped hilt within grasping distance as she picked her way across the beer cans and used condoms to the pizza box where she’d left her phone last night.
She didn’t recognise the number on the display. If this was a telemarketer…
“It’s daylight. Too early to call me.” Layla punctuated her point with a jaw-creaking yawn. “What’dya want?”
Layla didn’t recognise the woman’s voice. She was Issolarian, but one of those really posh ones who sounded like she was born with a silver plum up her ass.
“Eleven in the mornin’. Too early.”
“I’m sorry is this…” Layla heard the rustling of papers down the line. “Layla Redford?”
“Mmm-hmmm.” The guy was getting up out of the bed and rubbing at his bruises. He was young and packed full of lean muscle. A little on the skinny side for Layla’s tastes, but on the whole she hadn’t done too badly.
“Ms. Redford, my name is Helena Billingsley.” Just the one surname? Usually these cats had like, three or four. “I work with Gregory? He told me you were looking for more local work.”
“Sorry, was I rude to you when I answered the phone? Because I didn’t mean it.”
“Not at all, Ms. Redford. Now, there’s a job available today. One of the original crew dropped out. Your usual rate is three thousand pounds a job, correct?”
She knows my usual rate but she had to consult her papers to remember my name, Layla thought. Sounds about right.
“Usually, yeah. But this is kinda late notice so I reckon a few extra thousand’d be enough to cover the inconvenience. Would that be okay?”
Helena chuckled. “Gregory told me you’d try and negotiate.”
“That’s not a yes.”
“It’s not a no, either. Come to the Elias Building at four if you’re interested. We can discuss the details there.”
Layla opened up the pizza box with her foot. Nothing but crumbs. Now she’d have to go out for breakfast. “Sure, thanks for calling.”
“Take care.” Helena hung up.
It was pretty vague, but it was local work. Whatever it was it couldn’t take longer than a week so long as she lived through it.
The guy was reaching for something across the bed. Layla retrieved the shotgun propped up behind her desk and gave it a loud pump before pointing it at the guy. He stopped reaching.
“Sorry dude,” Layla said. “I don’t wanna be that girl but I had a shitload to drink last night. Who are you again?”
The guy’s name was Jeff Tuttle, a computer engineer from Bejion Village. Layla remembered him as soon as he’d started speaking. How they’d met at Gator’s Bar and Grill, shared a plate of BBQ ribs and about a dozen pitchers of beer before Layla had rammed her tongue down his throat.
It didn’t matter anyway. After having a shotgun jammed in his face, Jeff wasn’t interested in getting breakfast and they hadn’t swapped numbers so there wasn’t much chance of sharing any meal again.
Layla promised herself that next time she had any off time she was going to be better. Stop drinking so much, stop going home with random dudes, maybe go out on nature hikes or take up those flying lessons she’d wanted since she was twelve. But she knew it wasn’t much of a promise. Nature hikes were boring and flying lessons were expensive; fucking and getting blackout drunk were both way better uses of her time.
Instead of the work-out she had planned, Layla hit the diner in town for bacon, sausages, and waffles before heading for the Elias building. She had her sword on her hip, her p-cannon on her wrist and not enough cash in her pocket to justify taking any more time off.
Everyone in the crew knew the Elias building. It was one of six or seven offices scattered around the city where Gregory, or his many lieutenants, did their business. It was a pre-war concrete block in the business district. Bland yellow paint peeled from its brickwork and fell beneath blacked out windows. The ground floor walls were covered with white smears from the many posters that ‘d been put up and torn down over the years.
It looked just any other building on the street, if a little bit older and more run-down. You could walk past it every day of your life without ever once knowing what it was for.
Layla swiped her pass and went through the revolving doors into the lobby. It was here where the tech and the decor ramped up a bit. If you didn’t know this was the admin site for a mercenary crew already then you’d be pretty impressed, that’s assuming you weren’t gunned down by one of the many security guards patrolling up and down.
Layla didn’t recognise any of the guards but she hardly ever did. The security jobs were entry level for a lot of mercs starting in the trade. With demand the way it was you didn’t get long as a flatfoot before you got bumped up to something more exciting, something that might even bump you back down if you weren’t careful. All the way down.
Good thing Layla had bypassed this step in the process. She had a rep before she’d ever signed on with the Fleming’s Falls Crew, and a good rep was worth at least two or three years in security. Thank the gods for that, Layla wouldn’t have been able to put up with even a few minutes wandering up and down these hallways. She didn’t care how pretty the decor was.
That rep, and the one she’d acquired since starting here, meant that none of the guards challenged her in the hallways. They knew her by sight and legend alone. Not a lot of women in this organisation, much less any that were six feet tall, covered in tattoos, with a gold-hilted rapier strapped to their hip. Layla got through most security in Oparis without ever actually being stopped.
But the two guards outside the second floor conference room were new; not to mentioned armed with assault rifles and cattle prods. One of them held up a hand to stop her from going in.
“Pass please, m’aam.”
“Sure.” Layla handed it over. “How’re you guys likin’ it here so far?”
Neither of the guards answered her question. The one she was speaking to squinted real hard at her pass, like he was trying to drill a hole in it with the strength of his gaz.
“This is all in order.” There was almost a note of disappointment in his voice as he handed the pass back to Layla. “But you’ll need to surrender the sword to me.”
“Ah. That’s…not gonna work for me, buddy.” Layla never gave up her sword to anyone. It was with her all the time. Except for sometimes when she was drunk. Or she was asleep and it fell off the bed. Or she forgot it. But whenever she had a choice, she always kept the blade on her. “I appreciate you’re just doin’ your job though. But trust me, it’s better if I keep it.”
“I’m gonna have to ask you to leave, m’aam.”
“Look, here’s a solution. I’ll stand back a bit, you knock on the door an’ tell Helena Billingsley that I’m here. If I get enough distance then I’m not likely to do much damage with just a sword, am I?”
That wasn’t strictly true either. Layla thought she was dangerous at any range. Her p-cannon was strapped to her left wrist. If she disengaged the safety and pressed the button on her palm she could put a steel bolt through any target at almost any distance.
“You’ve been asked to leave.” The guard reached out to grab at Layla’s arm.
Layla didn’t have time to play grab ass with the guards. She waited until he’d put most of his bodyweight onto his right foot before she slipped to one side and put a boot against his shin. Not hard. Just enough to knock him off balance.
Layla grabbed his assault rifle as he fell, wrestled it out of his grip and ducked behind him with the strap still looped around his arm. She used the strap to wrench his arm up behind his back and aimed the rifle over his shoulder at the other guard, who was still fumbling with his safety.
“Sorry,” Layla said. “Don’t mean to devalue your good work here. I can see your side of it. It’s nuts to let anyone through here with a weapon. But could you knock on that door for me? It’ll save us all a tonne of grief.”
The guard thumped on the door with his foot, never taking his eyes off the assault rifle pointed at him. Probably a smart move, that.
A short middle aged woman answered. She took one look at the scene outside and went for the pistol on her hip.
“Wait, wait!” Layla said. “Are you Helena?”
“Why are you manhandling my guards?” Yeah, Layla recognised that plummy voice alright.
“Would you believe they started it?” Layla hoped that Helena had at least done enough research to recognise her.
“Whatever it was, it’s finished now. Unhand them,” Helena said. “You two, let her through.”
Layla unhooked the guard’s arm and nudged him away with her elbow. She placed the rifle back in his hand but unsnapped the safety on her p-cannon just in case he felt like revenge.
Helena jerked her head at the room behind her. “Inside. Now.”
If Layla didn’t need the money then she’d have probably walked away just from the tone of that voice. But she did as she was told, at least for now. She only paused long enough to mouth “I’m sorry,” to the guard as he retook his post outside the door, but he didn’t even make eye contact long enough to say it.
Helena shut the door behind them. “What was that in aid of?”
“They wanted my sword.” Layla nodded at the pistol, and the pair of machetes, Helena had strapped to her hips. “Looks like they didn’t give you any trouble about that, eh?”
Helena breezed past Layla to the flatscreen TV taking up the entire far wall. “You’re the first here. Do take a seat.”
The room was full of the sort of wooden chair/desk combos that Layla thought she’d left behind after high school. She found one near the back and fought the urge to carve her name into the woodwork and smear gum on the underside.
“What’s the job?” Layla asked.
“When the others get here.” Helena pulled a wire out of the TV and connected it to a laptop on the front row.
Layla thrust her hand up in the air. “Teacher, teacher! I need to go the bathroom.”
Helena looked up through her eyelashes. “Gregory warned me you could be annoying.”
“Only when I’m bored. I don’t want us to get off on the wrong foot here, Helena but–”
“–my inferiors address me as Captain Billingsley, or m’aam if they want to get on my good side.”
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen any time soon. I hate people who pick their own nicknames.”
Helena rattled a few keys on her laptop. “You weren’t a military woman were you. Ms Redford?”
“You can tell that already? Man you’re good.” Not only had Layla gotten off on the wrong foot, but it seemed like she’d hopped a few extra paces as well. “Sorry, I’m bein’ a dick. I get crotchety when folks try an’ take my sword away.”
“They shouldn’t have done that. But you have to admit, you don’t look like one of us.”
“Tryin’ to work out if that’s a compliment or not.”
Someone knocked on the door before Helena could respond. It was a shame, Layla was just starting to enjoy herself.
The guard that came in was the same one Layla had tussled with outside. She waved at him but he refused to face her.
“Two more,” he said to Helena.
Helena nodded. “Send them in, please.”
“M’aam.” He held the door open for two more men. Both of them were well-padded in thick body armour with enough guns between them to destabilise an entire nation-state. If the guards told these two to hand over their weapons then it’d probably take them the rest of the week.
The first guy was a tall bear of a man with ruddy cheeks and puffy grey hair paired with an enormous beard, the whole thing made him look like he was surrounded by a cloud. And the second guy was…
“Holy shit, Bertie?” Layla sprang up to her feet and wrapped the second guy in a tight hug before he could say very much about it. “They sendin’ you on this one too?”
“How’re you doing, Layla?” He hugged her back just as tight. That was part of of the reason she liked him so much.
Helena sniffed. “You know each other.”
“Nope.” Layla gave Bertie one final squeeze and let go. “I just hug random strangers for the fuck of it.”
The kid nodded. “She actually does.”
Bertie was older than Layla, but she couldn’t help but think of him as the kid. He’d only been out of security duty for a few months and was still a little green around the gills. It didn’t help that he had big blue eyes and freckles dotted all over his blue-white skin. Plus, it was easier to feel older and wiser than someone you towered over. Bertie was only about five and a half feet tall and built like he was made from wire hangers.
“Hi, I’m Layla.” She said to the fluffy faced man. He grunted once and clomped down to the front row in his heavy boots, the guns on his back rattling together like wind chimes. He grunted to Helena and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Layla.
“Layla Redford meet Robin Church,” Helena said.
Layla was talking before she could stop herself. “Not a lot o’ money in that. You should try Robin Bank instead.”
The bear guy threw his head back and laughed big enough to fill the room.
“See?” Layla said to Helena. “Someone’s a fan.”
“If we can all take a seat and dispense with the comedy.” Helena narrowed her eyes at Layla. The old girl had a point, Layla would be the first to admit she was behaving like an asshole. Some people just brought that out of her. Not their fault or hers, just the way she was wired.
But if Helena thought Layla was going to keep acting like the class rodeo clown during the important bit then she was badly mistaken. Layla did as she was told and Bertie took up the seat next to hers.
Helena powered up the laptop and a map of Oparis appeared on the big screen. There were only two cities marked on it: Fleming’s Falls in the north, where they all were; and a place called Joulienne in the south-east corner.
“If it’s okay with everyone, I’d like to quickly get Layla up to speed. Normally we’d have more time, but the nature of the job changed last night and we need to get moving before it changes again. We need to discuss this quick, then get on the road.”
“Don’t worry about me, honestly. I don’t wanna be the one to slow you guys down.” Layla didn’t even know where they were going, but the downside to being a pain in the ass was that you had to be twice the professional everyone else was if you wanted to be taken seriously. It was annoying. Layla would stop being a pain in everyone’s ass if she knew how. “Should we just hit the road an’ talk things over on the way?”
“I wish it worked that way, Layla. But I have to protect my people. That means keeping them all informed and ensuring consent. It’s part of being a captain.”
“Also a big part of sex.” Layla raised her fist to Bertie, but he didn’t bump it. He was right not to. “Sorry.”
“Gregory set this team up to track down this man.” Helena tapped a key and a man’s mugshot popped into view just under the map. He had a broken nose, a thick neck, and about five days of beard stubble. Layla reckoned he was worth a fuck or two. “Meet Jack Cobalt, wanted in two dozen provinces in Levinia. He’s got a list of offences longer than my leg. Armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, murder, unlawful torture, unlawful slavery, and a litany of child abuse offenses too heinous to even list.”
He was no longer worth a fuck. Not even if Layla was drunk. Slavery, rape, and child abuse meant you were worth a bullet in the head and nothing more.
Still, Layla had to ask. “You say he’s wanted in Levinia?”
“Yes. I read a little of your history, Layla. Will this be a problem?”
“Debt’s paid on my end. So long as the Gentle Guard and the Levinian army know that too then I’ll be cool.”
“I meant, will Cobalt’s status as a Levinian criminal be a problem?”
Layla could see what Helena was pushing at and could tell why. But it still seemed like a dick move to wait until everyone else was in the room before she outed Layla as a former Levinian fugitive.
“You said he was wanted for rape, torture, and kidnapping right?”
“Among other things.”
“Then I’ll be happy to bury him myself. I don’t associate with folks like that. Hell, even murderers are a bit much.”
“Good enough.” Helena nodded. “Now, Cobalt escaped a prison transport in Levinia last year and nobody has seen a hair of him until last week, when Oparisian forces connected a string of home invasions to him and his gang. If it’s okay with everyone, I’d like to show Layla the pictures.”
Bertie paled a little more than usual. Down in the front, Robin grunted and waved his hand. Helena tapped the keys on her laptop and more pictures appeared on the screen.
“Lord.” Bertie looked away. Robin belched and covered his eyes.
Layla didn’t have the stomach to absorb all the pictures on the screen, just the worst ones. One was of a suburban house riddled with bulletholes. One was an upscale bathroom bathed in blood with a human head in the sink. Another showed a skinned and eyeless corpse hanging by the wrists from a pipe in a mouldy basement. The final picture Layla could take was of a young man and child lying side-by-side inside a police cordon. They both had a single bullet hole through the forehead.
“Cobalt and his gang stayed undetected by moving from town to town, taking over a random house and holding its occupants hostage. They’d plan a robbery or two from there, and when the job was done they’d have their fun with the hostages. The last victims were that man and child; Lamond DuChard and his son Edward. Edward was eleven. Forgive me if I don’t look.”
“Fuck.” Layla had no problem with robbery, it was where she’d gotten her first big break after all. But she drew the line at hurting folks, especially innocent folks, for no reason. She couldn’t imagine any way that an eleven year old child could be a threat to anyone’s heist. It was disgusting, not to mention amateurish, behaviour. “An’ we know this was the same gang?”
Helena nodded. “Samples of Cobalt’s semen were found at the last few crime scenes. It’s what pushed the Levinian government to up the bounty and get Gregory’s interest. We were planning to start beating the bush down in southern Oparis to try and catch this monster. But last night Cobalt was captured here…”
Helena cleared the crime scene pictures from the screen, which Layla appreciated. Helena tapped at the town at the south of the map.
“Joulienne, population forty eight thousand. Cobalt and his gang invaded the home of Police Chief Angelo Indira, his ex-Special Forces wife, and their four grown sons. They gave Cobalt a fight and got the rest of the police force involved, not to mentiona a posse of Joulienne citizens. Indira managed to capture Cobalt and run the rest of his gang out of town.”
That was pretty impressive, even if Cobalt and his gang sounded like your average run-of-the-mill thrill killers. It must’ve taken some skill to take down a guy that’d hid himself Levinian government for a year. Those Levinian boys were relentless.
Layla knew that all too well.
“Currently, Jack Cobalt is under guard at the Joulienne station house and about half the town are camped outside waiting to hang the bastard the instant he shows his face. Can’t say I blame them, frankly. And this is where we come in. Chief Indira doesn’t care about the bounty, he just wants Cobalt out of there before a riot breaks out in his town. He’s happy to surrender Cobalt to us so long as we transport him ourselves.”
“Transport him where?” Layla asked.
“Back home, Fleming’s Falls. We’ve got the only airport big enough to handle international flights and it’s where the Levinian authorities are expecting to meet with us tonight.”
“Gentle Guard?” Layla asked.
“I assume so. I’ll ask you again if that’ll be a problem.”
Layla shook her head. Bertie, who knew some of her history too, reached out and took her hand. She didn’t need it, but it was a nice gesture.
“Does anyone have a problem with how the job is now?” Helena’s eyes settled on each of them. Nobody said anything. “No shame in speaking up. As you know, Jennifer dropped out of the team this morning and now Layla is with us, so you won’t inconvenience the job by leaving it now. There’s still time to find replacements, but I can’t afford anyone getting cold feet on the road. So while we’re here, does anyone have a problem with the job?”
Nobody seemed to. Layla certainly didn’t. Three grand was worth a lot of bottles of Triple B.
“Alright, get your gear together and meet at the motor pool in one hour or less. Call the number I gave you if you have any issues. You’re dismissed.”
Layla swung back around to the house before heading to the motor pool. She didn’t have a great amount of gear to bring with her. She thought about taking one of her guns, but that’d just be one more thing to keep track of. Plus the ammunition, oil, silencers, and whatever else. It was cheaper to just leave them all behind.
She did grab a handful of comics, the book she was reading, and her MP3 player. It was a four hour drive to Joulienne and she needed entertainment. She couldn’t be an asshole to her fellow mercenaries the entire drive.
Layla was the first to get to the Fleming’s Falls motor pool. She signed herself in and loitered around the security checkpoint while she waited for the others.
Like most of the things Gregory owned, the motor pool was retrofitted. This place used to be a commercial car park. All Gregory had to do was install a few security cameras, spread some guards around, reinforce a few doors and he had a secure place to secure his vehicles.
The vehicles themselves weren’t exactly built to strike fear into the hearts of the Crew’s enemies either. Gregory had a fleet of Vikung horse trailers reconfigured to act as long haul transports for merc crews working outside the country. A few modified station wagons for those sneaky incognito jobs. One or two cheap motorcycles. Even an electric scooter.
Not that Layla was complaining. She actually kind of admired Gregory’s frugality. He’d started out in this business with a fortune and Layla happened to know that he’d only grown that cash pile since then, and all that was down to how careful he was with his money. He’d never spend ten dollars if he could get away with paying five.
He was even a skinflint with his employees. Layla had already done the math during her walk to the motor pool. 99% of the time the Levinian government would give up the ladyhunt on any fugitive that crossed a border. That included the borders inside the country itself. Layla had made a lucrative career of taking one province for everything it had then just hopping across to the next one.
The borders were so close that some of the time Layla could even wave at the cops from one province while she hid behind the protection of cops from another.
It was a lot of effort to police, so if the Levinian authorities wanted a guy who’d slipped the country then they’d be spending top dollar. A hundred grand at least to get Jack Cobalt back in the slave pits that they called a prison.
Even if the Levinians were paying the minimum, Gregory would be personally clearing eighty-six thousand in profit. That assumed Helena was getting the standard captain’s rate and that the rest of the crew were getting the three grand a job deal that Layla had taken.
For now all Layla needed was rent and bills, food, booze, and a little bit to kick back up to her parents in Levinia every month. Three grand a job more than covered that. But one of these days Layla was going to have to hit up Gregory for more money. He could afford it.
Bertie strolled into the garage. “Early again? Whatever happened to the Layla I worked with on the Xipang job?”
“A hangover? Also, y’girl Helena runs a pretty tight ship. I didn’t want to show up late an’ get my knuckles rapped.”
“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that.” Bertie took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Layla. She shook her head. “Lay off Helena.”
“Was I goin’ too far? I can never tell.”
“No, no.” Bertie lit up. “But Helena Billingsley is kind of a big name. Even we’d heard of her up in Ji-Hi Veron City. My parents used to tell stories about her.”
“These the same ones they told about Gregory?”
“Different stories. But I tell ya, they made me eat my vegetables.” Bertie blew a smoke ring, the show off. “There’s three of these Issolarian ones you want to watch. Gregory, you already know about him. Nate Thornton–”
“Everyone keeps talkin’ about how scary that guy is but I ain’t even met him yet.”
“Trust me, he is. And then there’s Helena Billingsley. You don’t want to be on her bad side. She led the invasion of Bonoi, assassinated Admiral Kissangei, and her forces took over Busil Pass and held the Sanni region for six months during the war.”
Those names meant nothing to Layla. “Doesn’t matter what a person was. All that matters is what they is.”
“Speaking of what they is.” Bertie jerked his head and pointed with his eyebrows at the entrance, where Helena and Robin were coming.
“What time do you call this?” Layla called at them.
Helena marched right past her. “Is everyone ready?”
“Actually, I could do with tying my shoe,” Layla said. Helena just kept right on walking. “How’re you doin’, Robin? You okay?”
Robin stuck one big thumb up then stomped after Helena, his guns rattling with every step.
“Did you not hear a single word I said?” Bertie said.
“I heard ’em. I just didn’t care. You nervous?”
“Why would I be nervous?” Bertie jogged a few steps to keep up with her. Even he; with his one rifle, two pistols, and a knife; was making too much noise.
“Shit man, I’m nervous an’ I’m a marginally less rapey version of this Jack Cobalt guy. Plus, I’ve been in this game since I was eighteen. T’ain’t no shame in feelin’ a little skittish on a gig like this.”
“I guess I am. A bit.”
“Just a bit?”
“Maybe a tad.”
“Shit, dude, you better sit this one out if it’s a tad.”
The four of them arrived at a boxy blue and white armoured car. Layla reckoned it looked a lot like some of the armoured trucks she used to steal from when she was on the other side of the law.
“Are we all ready?” Helena asked.
“Quit asking,” Layla said. “Unless you need a minute?”
Helena gave Layla a weak smile then put a hand on Robin’s arm. “Robin, are you sure you’re up for this?”
Robin grunted and shrugged her hand off.
The middle of the truck had a steel cage enclosing a single padded chair. The rest of the seats were plush leather, four rows of them running from front to back. Layla skirted the cage and sat at the back with her boots on the row in front of her.
“I assume you’ll want me here at the back so I can perv on your man’s backside the whole ride.”
Helena nodded. “Also so you can be the first to respond in case anything goes wrong. Assuming that you’re as good with that sword as you are with your mouth.”
“Ask my last boyfriend, I’m shit with my mouth. But my bladework is slightly better.”
Helena’s jaw twitched. If Layla didn’t know better she could’ve sworn that the older woman was fighting a smile. “Robin, the wheel is yours.”
Robin grunted once and sat down at the driver’s seat, Helena next to him, and Bertie in the back row a few seats from Layla.
Layla closed her eyes as Robin pulled them all out of the space and headed onto the road. She might as well get some shut-eye while she could, it might chase away a little bit of this hangover.
“What’re you reading?”
Layla looked up from her comic. “Tentacle porn.”
Bertie shook his head. “Every time I see you, you get wierder. Is it any good?”
“I dunno. I mean, I get it, the whole tentacle thing. It’s not my thing, but I’m not in a position to judge. But it’s when that start penetratin’ people that I get squeamish,” Layla said. “What’s your take on it?”
“You mean, as a gay man?”
“I mean, like, in general. Tentacles, yay or nay?”
“I think I regret trying to start a conversation with you.”
“So do I.” Helena yawned and sat up straighter in her seat. “Are we nearly there?”
Robin grunted once and stuck up his thumb. Layla hadn’t heard him say a word yet, so she put her comic away and leaned forward in her seat.
“What’s your preference, Robin? Tentacles your thing?”
He let out another one of those cannonfire laughs. Layla was scared he’d throw them right off the road and into the forest closing in around them. There were a lot of tight turns in this part of Oparis.
“Robin doesn’t speak,” Helena said. “I wish I could say the same about all of us.”
“Say what you mean, Helena. We all know you’re talkin’ about Bertie,” Layla said. “Robin, would you prefer it if I didn’t talk to you?”
Robin grunted and shook his head.
“Good enough.” Layla leaned back. “So…tentacles?”
Robin chuckled again. Layla guessed that was his answer.
“By the king.” Helena shook her head.
There wasn’t a great deal of scenery to look over. The greenery of the woodland had fallen away some time ago, replaced with high concrete walls topped with barbed wire. Occasionally there’d be a smoke stack or a water tower peaking up just behind the wall. Layla guessed that these would be factories or warehouses, the sort of shit you plant on the outskirts of a town.
Layla heard the screaming not long after the concrete walls had given way to the first flat-roofed bungalows of the town itself.
“Anyone else hearin’ that?” she asked.
“Is this a joke, because I swear…” Helena cocked her head a little and squinted, as if closing her eyes a bit more would help her to hear better. “They sound–”
“–angry,” Layla said.
They rounded a corner and saw them all gathered around the police station. Hundreds of people clamouring for attention behind the flashing lights of a police baricade. Some of the people had homemade signs depicting Jack Cobalt’s mugshot in various states of hellacious pain. Most of them just had a picture of a stick figure drawing with Cobalt’s face instead of a head, a noose around its stick neck.
It wasn’t going to win any awards for modern art, but as a symbol of what this group wanted it couldn’t have been any clearer.
The cops behind the baricade were all young, tired, and almost all of them looked just as angry as the protestors.
“How’re we gonna get through all that?” Bernie already had his rifle in his lap.
He needn’t have worried. The police were already ushering the people off to one side to give the truck room to pass. For the most part, the crowd was cooperating.
“I gotta admit, it’s a lot more civilised than I thought it’d be.”
The words had barely left Layla’s mouth when one of the protestors, a burly man with a copper red beard, broke from the crowd and charged the station. The cops down by the front went for their guns. The man sprinted past them and pulled a knife from his belt.
“I don’t wanna backseat drive this one, but shouldn’t we help…someone?” Layla asked.
Helena shook her head. “If we show our hand now it’d only piss them off more.”
Layla had to admit, she had a point. But something in her guts tugged at her to get out there and try to calm things down. Or at least take out the guy with the beard without shooting him in the back.
A wiry man in a rumpled brown sheriff’s uniform emerged from inside the police station. He took one look at the bearded man and held up his hand. The sheriff said something, the man nodded once then turned back towards the crowd. One of the cops stepped into the man’s path, but the sheriff just shook his head. The cops put their guns away and the bearded man was absorbed back into the crowd, where they’d presumably crack his skull open with one of their signs for being such a sellout.
Layla kind of felt a bit like a sellout herself. If Cobalt was guilty of even half the things he was accused of then these people had every right to demand some good old fashioned frontier justice. She wished she could explain that they weren’t here to give him an easy ride. Far from it. Layla doubted that any of these people knew how bad a Levinian jail was.
If Layla knew beforehand, she might’ve been tempted to take the noose instead. Presuming she was even given the choice.
Once they had the room, Robin eased the truck through the middle of the crowd. Bottles and bricks dinged off the roof and the sides, but he kept his pace steady and even. None of the protestors or cops got caught under the wheels, which was about as well as things could’ve gone so far.
Helena retrieved a duffel bag from under her seat and slid it across the seat towards Robin. “Once we’re inside, we’ll need to move fast. Robin and Layla, your job is to get into the cells and secure the prisoner. This bag should have everything you need. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just get him out of there. Bertie, you’re with me on crowd control. If anyone breaks from the crowd like that last arsehole, our job is to dissuade them from getting too close.”
“You’ve got the rifle,” Helena said.
“I dunno, the sheriff dude seemed like he had things under control, considering,” Layla said.
“Sheriff Indira knows these people, we don’t. I hope we don’t have to resort to violence, but hope doesn’t win wars. Our only job here is to get Cobalt out alive.”
“Yeah, I understand that but–”
“–it doesn’t matter. We’re up.”
Layla hated being interrupted. She would’ve made an issue of it if she’d had anything to follow that ‘but.’
Robin circled around and backed the truck up to the station. The back door folded outwards and descended like a ramp and the sheriff was right there to meet them, flanked by a pair of burly officers with shotguns.
“Captain Billingsley?” The sheriff didn’t sound at all like Layla had thought. His voice was reedy and thin, like there wasn’t much air behind it.
“Here. It’s nice to meet you in person.” Helena went out and Layla followed behind her with the others in tow.
“I wish I could say the same.” The sheriff and Helena shook hands. The sheriff looked about ready to keel over under the weight of the bags under his bloodshot eyes. The other two cops didn’t seem much better. “Come on, the prisoner is just through here.”
“This is Layla and Robin.” Helena stepped aside to let them through. “They’ll be responsible for bringing the prisoner through.”
“Good to meet you both.” The sheriff nodded. “Follow me, I want this man out of my cell.”
Layla could barely hear the guy beneath the screams of the crowd. She looked back at them. They seemed different from this side. More numerous. More red-faced. And their placards and broken bottles seemed a great deal more threatening.
The inside of the station was deserted. Row after row of empty desks and cold cups of half-finished coffee. They passed the ubiquitous corkboard full of faded wanted posters. Only a handful of the faces had been crossed off. Jack Cobalt’s picture had been defaced. It almost looked like one of the placards from outside. There was also a hand-drawn sign-up sheet for a police five-a-side football team, which struck Layla as kind of depressing.
The only sounds were their shoes clicking on the floor, the rattle of Robin’s many guns, and the crowd screaming for blood outside.
Layla could hardly stand it. “They seem happy.”
“No one in this town is happy.” The sheriff didn’t even look over his shoulder.
Robin elbowed her in the arm. He shook his head. If he was telling her to stop talking then he’d need to be a hell of a lot more persuasive than that.
“I’m guessin’ that you’ve been after Jack Cobalt for a while then,” Layla said.
The sheriff pulled up short and wheeled around to face her. His eyes were wet. “That monster has murdered dozens of innocent people, with people who love them and miss them and will never see them again. Yes, we’ve been after him for a while. Maybe if your organisation was a little faster…”
The sheriff sniffed, wiped his eyes and stalked off towards an iron-bound door at the back of the room. “Come on.”
Layla sprinted a little to keep pace with the sheriff. “For what it’s worth, man. I’m s-s-s…” she rapped on the door with her knuckles and recited tongue twisters in her head until the word came to her, “…s-s-sorry.”
Damn, Layla had been doing so well. She hadn’t stuttered in days.
The sheriff snorted. “Sorry? Fuck your sorry.”
“That sounds uncomfortable.”
“I believe everybody has the right to a fair trial, even him. That’s the only reason I’m handing him over to you people instead of tossing him to that mob outside.”
That seemed a silly thing to believe in. In Layla’s experience, nobody got a fair trial. Especially not in Levinia. The prison corporations made a fortune off the backs of every prisoner, and the prison corporations owned the courts. If they decided that you were guilty then you were going down for a bid, didn’t matter if it was fair or not.
But Layla kept that thought to herself.
There was no handle on the door, just a card reader on the wall alongside. The sheriff swiped a pass through and the door rumbled open exposing a narrow room lined with free standing iron cages. Jack Cobalt was the only occupant, lying on his back in the cage furthest from the door. He didn’t even look up as they approached.
Robing rifled through the duffel bag. The clanking of chains echoed off the low walls. There were no windows in here, just a strip of phosphorescent light running across the ceiling. All in all, it was one of the nicer cell blocks Layla had been in. Although that may have been because she was on the right side of the bars for once.
The sheriff banged on Cobalt’s bars with his palm. He didn’t even stir. “Wake up, Cobalt. Time to go.”
Cobalt stretched out on the floor. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, exposing the stacks and stacks of muscles on his torso. There was a time when Layla may have enjoyed watching him stretch out like that, but it was kind of hard to get turned on when you knew what he’d done.
“Is that you, Sheriff Indira?” Cobalt blinked up through his long eyelashes. “I was having the most wonderful dream about your wife.”
The sheriff took a deep breath then lunged at the cell door, hammering it with his boot. Layla didn’t know what language the sheriff was yelling in, but she knew cursewords when she heard them. It didn’t matter anyway, the sheriff’s rant was drowned out by Jack Cobalt’s booming laughter.
Layla put a hand on the sheriff’s arm. She expected him to swing around and try to smack her across the mouth, instead the strength ran out of him and he slumped against the bars with his eyes closed.
“You’re so easy, sheriff. Just like your cunt of a wife.” Cobalt rolled back onto his shoulders so that his feet touched the floor behind his head, then with one spring he was back up on his toes. He gripped the bars and leaned forward. “Look at this, you’ve brought me more toys to play with. Just when I thought you didn’t like me.”
Layla helped the sheriff away from the cage, it was like moving a bundle of sticks. “Just gimme the keys and take a lap, dude. We got this.”
“I have to watch,” the sheriff said. “Make sure he doesn’t escape.”
Cobalt chuckled. “And we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
Layla ignored him, at least for now. “He’s not gettin’ past us, don’t worry.”
“You sound sure of yourself, girl,” Cobalt said.
“An’ if he does get past us?” Layla said. “Then you feed him to your mob.”
Cobalt scoffed and spat a wad of phlegm onto the floor of his cell. Layla’s guts clenched up and she swallowed to fight the building nausea. She couldn’t abide people spitting. At least Cobalt had aimed it away from her.
“I s’pect that mob of yours won’t be so brave once my boys come back.” Cobalt knocked on the door of cell. “Girl. Hey, girl. You’re from Levinia too, ain’t’cha?”
“Go ahead sheriff.” Layla nudged the smaller man along just to get his feet moving. The sheriff did the rest. “I imagine you don’t wanna see this part.”
Layla’s imagination was right, the sheriff went back into the main station without another complaint.
“Go on, sheriff. An’ tell your wife that she was delicious.” Cobalt clenched his jaw and hissed laughter through his tobacco stained teeth. Bubbles of spit rolled down his lip and caught on his stubble.
If the sheriff heard that, he gave no sign. Then he was gone and Cobalt was alone with Layla and Robin.
Robin handed an armful of chains and a leather belt to Layla. He pulled a heavy revolver from his hip and pointed it at Cobalt. Layla found where the cuffs were and tossed the chains over her shoulder with the cuffs in easy reach.
“You’re gonna wanna lie back down on your stomach with your arms over your head,” Layla said. to Cobalt. “Job said you had to be alive, but didn’t say shit about what state your kneecaps had to be in.”
Cobalt mimed biting his nails. “Oh dear. I’m so–”
Robin fired, blasting a hole into the wall at the back of Cobalt’s cell. Layla’s ears were ringing, but it was worth it to see Cobalt getting down on his belly like he was told.
Layla unlocked the cell with the sheriff’s key and Robin went in ahead of her, gun first. Robin’s broad back filled the entrance to the cell for just a second.
He fired again, this time into the top of the cell. A half-brick clattered to the floor, wicks of Robin’s blood trailing off it. He reeled back, pushing Layla further out of the cell. Cobalt was up on his feet. Robin brought the gun back down but Cobalt was faster. His fist whipped out, socking Robin across the cheek and knocking him sprawling to the floor.
Cobalt hopped over the body and smashed into the cell door. Layla had to hop back to keep from being knocked down and Cobalt was on her by the time she’d landed.
Man, he was quick.
He threw a hook for her face and Layla dropped under. She loosed one fist into a kidney that felt encased in granite and another into Cobalt’s groin. Cobalt snatched her wrist before the punch could connect. His other hand clapped around her throat and he charged at her, shoving her back until she struck the bars of the cell behind her, punching the breath out of her lungs.
Overall, this could’ve been going better.
His hand closed around her windpipe. Red curtains pulled in at the corners of her eyes. He leaned in close. She could practically taste the sour stench of his breath.
“I wish we had more time together darlin’. The things I could do to your eye sockets before I sawed you in half.”
Typical, boring, serial killer shit. Layla had heard it all before. She kneed him right between his open legs. This time it connected. He groaned from deep within his throat and his eyes bulged out of his head, but he didn’t fall like most men would. His grip loosened around her neck a tad, just enough for her to smack his hand away and grab a handful of thick dark hair from the back of his head. She yanked his head back and snapped her forehead into his windpipe. He backed off completely, wheezing, with his hands around his throat.
Layla whipped her sword out of its sheathe and cracked him across the ear with the flat side of the blade. He circled on his toes and hit the ground face first, blood trickling out the side of his ear. She put the business end of the blade against his throat and crouched down to check if he was still alive.
He was breathing, albeit with a bit of a wheeze. And she’d whicked off a tiny piece of his earlobe. But other than a little light bleeding, Cobalt was fine. Completely stone-cold unconscious, but fine.
Only then did Layla let herself breathe out. It came in a shallow, biting cough. She knew that was coming, but she didn’t want to give Cobalt the satisfaction of seeing it. He was fast and strong, but Layla had put down faster and stronger.
He just seemed like the type to gloat about it is all.
Layla’s back hurt a bit from the impact against the cell and her throat would bruise up before the end of the day, but all in all it wasn’t so bad. Nothing she couldn’t heal from.
She got Cobalt cuffed up while he was still out cold. It was a novelty being the one to cuff prisoners for a change. A stiff leather belt fastened around his waist, one set of wrist cuffs attached to it by a short length of chain. A longer length of chain went up his arms where there was another set of cuffs to fasten around his elbows. Finally one set of leg irons for his ankles to keep him from moving too fast.
Robin sat up and grumbled. Flecks of blood stained his thick grey beard and his eye was swolen. He’d be as good as blind on his right side before the day was through.
“You okay, big man?” Layla asked.
Robin stuck up his thumb, the forefinger next to it was bent the wrong way and dribbling blood out the fingernail. His flipping people off finger was the colour of a fresh plum.
“Dude. Your hand.”
Robin squinted at it, nodded once, then gripped his finger in the other hand. He took a deep breath and yanked it back into place with a wet smacking sound. Robin didn’t even cry out.
He wasn’t the fastest, but Layla had to give him props for being one tough son of a bitch.
Layla squatted down and hoisted Cobalt upright like he was a barbell. It was like trying to pick up a dead star. He was taller than Layla, broader, and dense with muscle. This was going to be tricky. “Can you help me out here, buddy? This prick is heavy.”
Robin nodded, used the bars of the cell to haul himself back up onto his feet. He wobbled a bit, but didn’t fall. Together they managed to get Cobalt upright. Robin even went one further and lifted their prisoner up over his shoulder. Robin was strong, no question. It was amazing that Cobalt had been able to knock him out with a single blow.
Layla stayed close behind Robin just in case Cobalt had any more tricks to play.
“Tell ya true, man, I don’t trust those cuffs. They’re Cartwell-Webbs, old ones too judging from the markings by the lock. Prolly from before they started using mag-seals an’ carbon steel.”
Robin paused and squinted down at her.
“Don’t give me that look. I was a fugie once. I’d have been screwed if I didn’t know my way around handcuffs.” Robin wasn’t moving. “It wasn’t a sex thing if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Okay, it might’ve been a sex thing. Cartwell-Webbs are about the only half decent handcuffs you can get for cheap as a private citizen. Figures Gregory’d shop for our gear on a budget.” Layla slapped Robin across the back, like driving a stubborn mule, and it got him moving again. “Cobalt’s slippy. I’m not gonna get strangled over Gregory’s penny pinching.”
“Did that bother you, girl?” Cobalt looked up at her and winked. He didn’t even seem to mind the piece she’d taken out of his ear. “I know it scares you women when someone brings you close to the abyss.”
“Honey, I’ve paid for chokejobs from tougher men than you.”
“Don’t be scared darlin’. I don’t want you panicky. Ruins the meat.”
Layla smiled at him. He smiled back. Layla hooked an uppercut into his chin and he wasn’t smiling anymore. His head sank against Robin’s back. The big man didn’t even break his stride.
“O’ course, I could just punch him out every time he opens his mouth. That’ll be fun for me.”
The sheriff was sat at a desk by the door, staring at his phone. He sniffed and wiped away the tears when he saw them.
“Here’s your key back, man. Thanks.” Layla stuffed the key back in Sheriff Indira’s limp hand. “I’m s-s-sorry again. For whatever this asshole did to you.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Layla supposed he didn’t have to. Helena had mentioned that Sheriff Indira lived with his wife and four sons. They’d fought Cobalt’s gang off together. She figured that after a fight like that all the surviving members of the family would want to stay close together. Layla hadn’t met any of them.
She thought about giving the sheriff a hug. A pat on the arm. Some kind of human connection to comfort him. But nothing would help. Not if he was suffering the kind of loss Layla thought he was.
They stepped out of the station and the roar of the mob hurt Layla’s ears. Granted, not as much as Cobalt’s ear would hurt when he woke up. But they were still loud.
Helena and Bertie still had their weapons drawn. The tip of Bertie’s rifle was shaking. Hell, all of him was shaking. Meanwhile, Helena was tapping the barrel of her pistol against her leg and yawning.
“You took your time.” Helena’s eyes went wide when she saw Robin. “By the king, what happened to you?”
“His husband got tired of his day drinking and popped him one, but we’re supposed to tell you he walked into a door. The fuck d’ya think happened?”
The screaming and howling rose, drowning out Helena’s comeback. Layla reckoned they’d just seen the man Robin was carrying out of there.
Layla didn’t see who threw the bottle. She just saw the cop go down. Then the gun went off and the mob scrambled over the barricade, like it had been a starting pistol. A few other cops lifted their guns and fired warning shots into the air, Helena tried that too. Screaming, the pop of gunfire, then the violent clap of thousands of shoes hammering the tarmac as the mob came forward.
“Not working!” Layla didn’t think anyone heard her. She pushed on Robin to get him up the ramp and into the truck faster. Helena’s gun dropped towards the crowd. Layla doubled back and rammed her shoulder into it, throwing it wide as Helena fired. The bullet whicked a stick of wood from the police baricade and the recoil nearly hurled the two of them over.
Layla grabbed Helena with both arms and hustled her into the truck. Helena got the message and ran for the driver’s seat as Layla heard the rifle go off.
Behind her, Bertie’s rifle was smoking. One of the women in the crowd was face down in a pool of fast spreading blood.
To Bertie’s credit, he had stopped the crowd. Their screaming had dulled to a low murmur.
“Get on the truck.”
This wasn’t the time to be nice. Layla grabbed him by his shirt collar and pushed him towards the truck. His legs got the message. Robin was locking the cage in the middle of the truck with Cobalt inside. Helena was in the driver’s seat. The engine kicked into gear.
“Go home!” At least they could hear Layla now. Even if they didn’t seem be listening. “You think this prick is goin’ to a day spa? You guys keep actin’ like psycho’s an’ he’ll wind up gettin’ away. Is that what you want?”
An elderly man with a face like a sundried tomato stepped forward at the centre of the crowd. Layla swung her p-cannon up and fired. The bolt whistled through the air and hit the road at the man’s feet with a crack of broken gravel. He hopped back into the crowd.
He had seen sense, but he was just one red-face out of thousands. It wouldn’t be long before another one of them discovered their backbone. Layla drew her sword. It wouldn’t be much use against a crowd this size, but it felt good in her hand.
Layla scanned through them, tried to meet all their eyes. “Go home. Please.”
Two men pushed their way to the front of the crowd and went to their knees at the injured woman’s side. Poor woman still hadn’t moved yet.
Layla got onto the truck and left them to it. The back door rolled up behind her. Layla caught Helena’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Go then.”
Helena didn’t argue. They peeled off and the crowd was even good enough to move for them. Layla got a last look at the woman. One of the men at her side was praying. The other was preparing a Panacea injection. Then all of them, the crowd, and the whole town of Joulienne was in the dust.
“They had Panacea. They wouldn’t be wastin’ it on a dead woman.”
Bertie was sat at the back seat with his arms and legs wrapped around his rifle. He looked like he was drawing up into a ball. “I didn’t have a choice.”
He did. He really did. But the choice he’d made had gottan them out of the town with their cargo. It was hard to tell what the other choice might have led to.
Layla watched the concrete fences pass by the window. Bertie was on a fast track to become Helena’s favourite. Not only had he got them away with Cobalt intact, but he’d also found a way to shut Layla up.
Cobalt’s lips were moving. In fact, a lot of lips in this truck were. But Layla couldn’t hear a word any of them were saying. Cobalt was still strapped into the rubber seat in the middle of the cage with his cuffs still locked on. Nobody was going for weapons. There was no reason why Layla should stop listening to Aurelius and the Noisemakers at the loudest possible volume her mp3 player could muster.
Typical of people in general, always telling her to shut up when she had things to say. But as soon as she wanted a moment to herself they were all over her, desperate for attention.
Layla flicked the buds out of her ears.
“Can you hear me now, tattooed lady?” Cobalt broke into a grin. He had one less tooth than he’d had when they’d first met. That cheered her up, at least.
“Shut up.” Helena glared hard into the rear view mirror when she really should’ve been watching the roads. There were a lot of hairpin turns up here and Cobalt wasn’t even listening to her.
“What?” Layla decided not to even look at Jack Cobalt. She was just going to watch the scenery fly by, such as it was.
Cobalt smashed his head into the bars of his cage. Up in the front seat, Robin flinched. “I’m talking to you!”
Layla feigned a yawn. “Were you?”
“Those tattoos are too colourful for me.”
“Well, that’s my dreams crushed.”
“They’d clash with my eyes.”
“This buildin’ up to some kinda ‘I wanna wear your skin’ gag?”
“It’s no gag, woman.” Cobalt’s chains clanked as he shuffled himself up in his seat a little more. “My boys are gonna be along soon. They’ll make you beg as they tear the skin from your bones.”
“I told you befrore, shut up,” Helena said.
Layla leaned a little closer to Cobalt’s cage. “How would that work, logistically?”
Cobalt furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, like, have you ever tried to skin a deer? It’s fuckin’ hard work. Plus, you can’t exactly do it while the deer’s alive, it’d buck you right in the chops. So you’d have to kill me first.”
“Don’t worry, tattooed lady. You are going to die.”
“Sure, eventually. Maybe. But you’ll have to kill me before you peel my skin off, otherwise even in a best case scenario for you an’ your boys I’d be wigglin’ around too much to make a clean cut. That’s even assumin’ I cooperated. An’ cooperation ain’t in my nature, just ask my boss up there.”
“It’s true,” Helena said.
Cobalt opened his mouth but Layla didn’t let him speak. “Your ultimate aim seems to be findin’ a way to wear my skin, which wouldn’t even be possible unless you get a butt load of clean cuts with a good knife. In which case I’d be dead. In which case I wouldn’t give a shit what happens to my skin. Have at it. That’s even assumin’ you can kill me. Write some better material, dude. Your cliche is sh-sh-sh-showin’.”
She really wished she hadn’t stuttered there. It made Cobalt get the wrong impression. His grin widened. “You’re scared of me.”
Layla laughed. “Sweetheart, you play at bein’ a scary cannibal but I’ve made legit scary cannibals shit their pants and run.”
“I have eaten the flesh, tattooed woman and–”
“–yeah, real cannibals don’t talk like that. I imagine you, with your pussy digestive tract, just had a mouthful of corpse one time an’ then spat it out.”
“We’ve all tasted the flesh.”
“Tasted.” Layla chuckled and shook her head.
“I’m looking forward to tearing you apart, tattooed woman.”
Helena slowed down to take another of those hairpin turns. “I wish you wouldn’t antagonise the prisoner.”
“He started it.”
“I don’t care who started it. Another hour and he won’t be our problem anymore. Until then try and–”
Layla didn’t even hear the bullet. There was a plink of broken glass and then Helena was bleeding. She let go of the wheel to plug the wound and the truck held its course, sailing straight over the hairpin turn and into the woods.
Layla was tossed out her seat. She heard Cobalt’s laughter for a second before her head smashed into the seat in front of her and she didn’t hear much of anything else for a long time.
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