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Zach

“Littleford’s dead, isn’t he?” says Zach. “Guess I have to find a new job.”

“Not necessarily.” She rubs her buzz cut. “I, um, inherited the business from him.”

“Oh,” says Zach, parsing that. “Oh! So, is Phalanger your mom’s last name, or–”

“It’s not anybody’s name, Zach.”

“I knew that,” he says.

“The guys at the agency, they may… object to me taking over. I could use a lieutenant. Somebody tough. Somebody like the man who killed Hidebound.”

A pause; the plane’s engines are singing.

“I just did the website,” says Zach.

“Not anymore,” she says, and kisses his unscarred cheek.

Zach

Zach is only just off morphine when they deport him.

In a fugue and handcuffs, he nods in response to dour questions in Hungarian. He spends sixteen hours in a cell, touching the bandages lightly. He thinks about Sara.

On the plane, the Vulpine Phalanger sits down next to him.

“Oh,” he says.

“Hey,” she says. He’s never seen her in civilian clothes; she seems younger. “I know a little about scars. Want me to take a look?”

He shrugs.

She peels back the gauze, and she is kind. She purses her lips.

“Those,” she says, “are going to look badass.”

The Vulpine Phalanger

This guy Iakob has had a bad day: the girl’s enforcer crippled him and dragged off his boss in a dynamite undershirt, and Hidebound must have followed to torture said boss’s whereabouts from him. This would explain why the Vulpine Phalanger finds him huddled over the toilet, choking and snorting.

“You know why I’m here, right?” she says gently.

He shudders and nods, but something’s wrong: a chink of metal on porcelain. He’s cuffed here. A reflection, in the bowl, of something white and doughy wired into his mouth.

Three steps; the blast hits. The Vulpine Phalanger tastes blood and darkness.

The Vulpine Phalanger

Most fights go to the ground, especially fights that begin with tackles, and on the ground strength beats quickness. The Vulpine Phalanger knows this, which is why she’s got her punch dagger out. Hidebound’s block is insufficient. He and his ear come to a parting of the ways.

He levers her off and several yards back in a fit of screaming strength. The police, single-tracked and spooked, spray them with rubber bullets. Rubber bullets hurt like regular bullets without the common decency to break your skin. The two withdraw in haste and opposite directions.

One of them leaves a trail.

Zach

“Oh Jesus oh fuck,” says Zach, stumbling through a panicky crowd. The police, hair-triggered, have pounded into the square with shields high; kids with vinegar kerchiefs are squeezing through gaps to whip masonry at them. Gas and smashed vegetables underfoot. One of the cops pulls off his mask and becomes Hidebound, looming, grinning, aiming, and then the Vulpine Phalanger hits him so hard they both tumble back into the ranks.

Zach scrambles up, takes a rock to the head, blinks away light and blood and gets up again. There. Finally.

The kid he shot makes a mess of his shirt.

Zach

Had Zach completed the training Hidebound claimed to have given him, he would have known that the impact of a bullet while wearing a vest is like a kick to the breadbasket by a medium-sized ungulate with smallish hooves. Had Hidebound been trying to show off, he might have used his favorite example, the okapi.

This would not have helped Zach, who believes that okapis are total nerds from Japan.

“Whough,” he says, falling gracelessly, denied any useful point of comparison. The Vulpine Phalanger has already vanished. Hidebound curses himself for aiming at the center of mass: training, you know.

Zach

“My hands don’t hurt,” says Zach, staring at them. “Why don’t my hands hurt? Or my feet–”

“Shut up,” says the Vulpine Phalanger, hustling him down an alley constipated with protesters. “Don’t talk. Don’t question. Do exactly as I say and you might get to bore your grandchildren with this story, understand?”

Zach opens his mouth, shuts it, and nods.

She stops and turns back. “No talking. No questions.”

Zach nods again.

“No. Talking.”

Zach nods, slowly, one final time. She turns to start walking again.

“But why don’t my hands–”

“I don’t know why he didn’t kill you,” she says.

Zach

At length, Hidebound retires.

Zach doesn’t actually cry until he’s alone in the darkened room. He stops crying after a while, and gets angry, as his hands and feet pulse with the maddening pain-tingle of blistered burns. He explains aloud the reasons that this whole situation is so stupid, and whose fault it is, and why, and fuck them. Then he cries some more. It’s awkward, trying to wipe his eyes and nose on his shoulders.

Zach sleeps. A woman enters, unbinds him, and mists lidocaine onto his wounds.

She is the Vulpine Phalanger.

She is going to kill someone.

Zach

“Quite a selection,” says the man in the black suit.

“We maintain the finest merc stable on the continent.” Littleford gestures. “Black Eye. Recoil. Hidebound. The Vulpine Phalanger.” The men and women in their piecemeal armor nod in turn. “The one with the chainsaw is Slapjack; that’s Psyclown and his partner Scarnage. And this is Zach.”

The black suit takes him in: lanky, glasses, no armor, no gun. “The most lethal of all,” he breathes. “Yes. Give him the contract, no matter the cost!” He strides out.

“I just–I just run the website,” says Zach hesitantly.

“Not anymore,” Littleford snaps.

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