Seattle settled into night with an unusual calm. The Pacific winds were not blowing in, the humming rancor of highways and byways was somehow muted in the still air. Sirens were distant and lacked the shrill jarring screech of emergency. An annoying repetitive buzz still managed to encroach into Shari's sleeping brain. Her subconscious took drastic measure to embed the buzzing into the rather satisfying dream she was having about washboard abdominals and glistening pectorals without success. With blind inaccuracy her hand crawled from under the sheets and began slapping objects off the night stand until the small alarm clock crashed to the floor and gave up its duty with a digital beep of disgrace.

Shari knew it was time to get up but the synthahol headache from the morning was anchoring her head to the pillow. Nine minutes passed before the alarm clock began its electronic call again. With effort Shari pulled her head away from the pillow and sat up. Her head swam for several seconds until her equilibrium caught up with gravity. She peered around with sleepy eyes for her cigarette pack that had been knocked off the night stand. She prodded the alarm clock with her toe to quiet it as she caught a glimpse of the pack hiding under the edge of the bed.

"Aw, fuck," she grunted as she picked it up, realizing it was empty. Her head swam as she leaned over to see if a stray cigarette had fallen under the bed. No luck. With the graceless movements of the hung over she staggered out of bed and towards the bathroom. A quick hot shower began helping to repair the brain damage and she almost began to feel human again. She spent a few minutes stretching her long legs and bending her lean torso to remove the kinks of slumber. Images of dance floors and blue fruity cocktails flashed through her head as she tried to recollect getting home. There was a significant blank spot between leaving the Rot Spot and waking up naked in bed.

She let the thoughts flitter away and reveled in washing her long chestnut colored hair. Shari was pretty by societal standards. Not a model or a beauty but attractive enough to draw attention in a crowd. She had the fine cheek bones and sharp nose of classic nobility, large hazel eyes and soft brows curving gently over them. Her body was long and lean mostly due to youth and favorable genetics, but was once the toned body of an athlete. She was wasting a little towards skinny from self destructive behaviors like drinking binges and clubbing until all hours of the morning, but it helped her forget the work, and the pain. She was a little disappointed that her breasts were small and pointy, she would have preferred full and perfect like every woman, but some of her girlfriends had expressed jealousy once or twice anyway.

She felt much better after dressing and chugging a pint of water with a couple of quick release narcocaps. She searched for a cigarette in her roomy apartment. The place was more than she needed but less than she wanted. She had a quarter of a floor in an uptown high rise. Two bedrooms, two baths, living room, den, kitchen and private laundry facility, all for two thousand eight hundred nuyen a month. She even had a reserved parking space in the garage below. She hunted through drawers and bric-a-brac for any sign of a lonely abandoned cigarette. No luck.

Grumbling about her shortcomings as a good provider Shari grabbed her leather jacket and credstick and stormed into the hall. The elevator ride was tediously slow, seemingly more than usual thanks to the still lingering mild headache and nausea, aggravated by the wordless version of some bubble gum happy music piping through the single speaker.

She slipped out of the elevator sideways before the doors finished opening and walked fixedly toward her car. Her mid-heeled boots clacked loudly on the concrete of the garage and sharp echoes reverberated back. She looked the part of who she wanted people to see, a street entrepreneur. The clingy clothes of a young woman accentuated her curves, while spikes, chains, and studs paid honorifics to a rebellious youth. Underneath the facade though was efficiency of motion and direction that alluded to physical training in martial combat. Shari had been a martial artist years before. Her height and wiry strength had made her a formidable opponent to the others in her dojo, but she had stopped training and competing years ago after suffering a torn ACL in competition. She didn't quit because of the injury, the artificial ligament in her knee was stronger and more pliable than her original one. She quit because she lost the match. In her competition years it was her only loss. From the age of eleven she had gone undefeated in every competition for twelve years. She could have been famous for it, she could have been on a team somewhere, but it wasn't what she wanted. It was merely a talent for her, a skill developed to help her in her career.

Everyone knew about the people who didn't officially exist. They were mercenaries, corporate raiders, and thugs. Living on the streets, surviving on skill, power, and paranoia. Life on the streets was governed by the golden rule, he who holds the gold makes the rules, and for the right price anything and anyone could be purchased. Including Shari, she was a player, a mercenary, a shadowrunner.

She thumbed the pad on her nondescript lime green Forge Americar and it beeped happily as it unlocked and popped the driver's door open for her.

Welcome back ma'am. Where are we headed to this evening? The car asked in a disturbingly cheerful androgynous voice.

"Stuffer Shack. Let them know I'm coming for smokes... and uh, fuck, something to eat."

Yes ma'am. The car replied as it whirred its electric motors to life and began navigating its way out of the parking structure. Ma'am, may I suggest a Stuffer Shack quickie soy vita-smooth drink with a sour cream and mushroom nutrition bar? On sale today.

"Ugh. Hell no, a couple of sugared donuts and a large black soycaf. Two creams, four sugars. And don't forget the smokes, marlboro reds." Shari ordered as she watched the traffic on the street whizz past. The automated cars of the urban streets were controlled by the master grid program in the matrix. Shari's car entered a request for a traffic merge and waited for the grid to respond. Within milliseconds the oncoming cars shifted speeds and positions to allow for a merging vehicle and the green machine accelerated smoothly into the flow. Grocery order processed ma'am, is there anything else I can help you with this evening?

"Do I have any messages waiting?" Shari inquired tiredly. After a momentary pause while the communications passed over a half billion circuits the car responded, Yes ma'am, Mister Tower and Sir Warlock have each left you one message. Mister Tower's message is indicated urgent.

Shari briefly wondered why her home control system hadn't already given her Tower's message if it was urgent, she filed away the idea of running aprocesses check when she got back home. Her apartment's control program had been rather petulant and petty with her recently. She thought it had something to do with her asking it to start a housing search for her a couple days ago. Artificial intelligences could be very juvenile at times.

"Play Tower's message," she said to the car. There was a second of silence before her friend's guttural voice began playing through the car's audio system.

"Hey, Icy. I missed you last night at the be good event. Things were chill and still but I wish you could have seen it anyway. Call me when you get this, I have arrangements pending for a new party." the message ended abruptly, as Tower's always did, but then trolls aren't known for their impeccable social etiquette. Tower was named purely for height. From horn to toe he was just under eleven feet tall and sometimes seemed to be as wide. Shari was a tall girl at six foot one inch but always felt like a child around the monstrously large troll. Intimidation was part of the reason she hadn't gone with him last night on his breaking and entering job. She was glad to hear that he had gotten in and out without getting caught, and she briefly felt bad that she hadn't agreed to be his lookout. She contemplated joining him on his next job until the next message started automatically.

"Ice Lady, I hope everything is proper with you. I have some interesting ideas I would like to share with you about moving across town. I know your office is pretty big already but I think I could get you into one twice that size with minimal fuss. There may be some moving costs and a deposit to cover. Give me a call when your checkbook is ready." the voice was svelte and business like. Warlock was a corporate player and was offering her a job of an extraction at twice her usual fee. The target was asking to move which always made the process easier, and Warlock was willing to give her money up front to cover costs. The deal sounded too good and put Shari's fecal monitor on high alert. Warlock had a reputation amongst runners as a hard bargainer and a vicious executioner. Extractions weren't his specialty and Shari wondered why it was put in his hands at all.

Gutter revved his beefy motorcycle and roared between the commuter pod-mobiles with aggressive derision. He disliked the wage slaves encased in them and hated the corporate presence they represented. He was an independent, a private business man in an unfriendly competition for turf control. He was a go-ganger street boss. Motorcycles were the transport of choice for gangs because they weren't equipped with autopilots and were more mobile in the heavily congested urban streets. Gutter flicked a hand up flashing a signal to his followers and they all slowed their speed so that they were pacing with a car next to them. Navigating intersections in a computer controlled environment could be a tricky exercise. Traffic lights were long since a thing of the past. The control grid used precise timing to interweave cross traffic without stopping vehicles. They crisscrossed with dizzying and frightening speed with clearances sometimes of only a foot. Fortunately for the bikers every car had multiple collision avoidance programs that detected and compensated for their presence, usually. As long as they stayed at speed with a car they would pass through unscathed. Gutter fluttered his clutch and throttle and stared evilly into the commuter car window next to him as they passed through the intersection. He couldn't see into the car because of the window tinting, but it amused him to imagine one of the scrawny human bitches quivering in her business suit shying away from him in urine scented fear. All he could see was his green skinned reflection with his lower great canines jutting up towards his broad cheekbones. His coarse black hair whipping wildly in the wind and black wrap around sunglasses hiding his beady dark eyes. He pulled his left hand off the handle bars and directed a clawed middle finger at the window as he accelerated away. Some nights it was great to be an orc.

Shari didn't realize she was dozing until her car woke her. We have arrived ma'am. She rubbed her eyes quickly and checked her hair in the vanity before opening the door and heading in to the convenience store. The buzzing neon bulbs illuminated a store that would've been better served by darkness. The floors were covered with filthy and sticky stains camouflaging a green and blue tiled checkerboard. The plastic and aluminum shelves sagged with lackluster foods ranging from soft and moldy to downright poisonous. Despite the conditions several customers were milling about between the shelves and the kitchenette area of a microwave and a hot dog roller. Shari carefully circumvented the largest and most grotesque stain at the entrance and shot a look of annoyance into the cashier's cage. Wendy was working another double shift Shari noted. It made her sad to think about the cute young cashier trying her best to support a child of her own when she wasn't much more than a child herself. She should be partying with friends tonight or maybe doing course work if she had made it to college, but instead she was here wage slaving to try and feed another little girl who would probably never have the income or opportunity to do more than her mother could.

"Everyone makes mistakes, but it's a shame when the price is paid by the innocent," Shari thought with a shrug as she passed by. Maybe she would give the girl a nice tip. The thoughts had barely crossed her mind when a bellow erupted behind her.

"Everyone get the fuck down, the Concrete Pythons are here for dinner!"

Shari chided herself, she must have been tired if she hadn't seen the gang punks in the parking lot. She glanced back at the source of the bellow and saw an orc filling the doorway brandishing a sawed off shotgun in one hand. Behind him three human punks in leathers were drawing pistols and giggling like schoolgirls at their boisterous leader.

It took Shari a heartbeat to evaluate the situation as she turned her back to the orc and walked casually into an aisle to her right. Elsewhere in the store screams began to rise of panic and fear. Shari had long ago forgotten about what fear felt like in a situation like this. She plucked a tin can of beef substitute off the shelf and dropped into a ready stance.

"I saw you, bitch, you best get your little cunt on the floor if you don't wanna die!" Gutter hollered. He stomped heavily into the store flashing a fetid toothy grin at Wendy. She cowered behind the counter so only the top of her pink spiky hair was visible.

"Make sure you push the panic button back there pinky. We won't be that long," Gutter spat toward the cashier.

Shari closed her eyes and wished she had a cigarette. She spent a moment to focus her mind and ready herself for the fight she was about to start. She could hear the orc's foot steps, feel the vibrations of his heavy body coming nearer. She tensed herself in anticipation expecting him to lunge around the corner. An infinite second crawled by, then another, but the orc didn't appear. Shari cursed under her breath. He was smarter than he looked.

"Show me your hands bitch! I said I saw you," Gutter bellowed again.

"Fuck!" Shari thought acidly. She set the can on the floor silently and slowly stretched her hands out past the corner of the aisle.

"That's a smart bitch," Gutter chuckled as he stepped forward turning the muzzle of the shotgun on Shari. "Get some grub boys, anyone moves, waste 'em!"

"I just want some smokes, trog. Why don't you get out of my way?" Shari sneered.

"Shut the fuck up, bitch, or you'll be smoking hot lead," Gutter replied.

Shari had no choice but to crouch and wait while the orc had her targeted. Her mind flashed over times that she had faced guns before, big ones, small ones, automatic fire. She had no specific fear of a shotgun two feet from her face. Her eyes focused on the orc. He was big like all orcs, not much taller than a human at about six foot six, but he probably weighed three hundred pounds. He had a broad frame covered with a sleeveless fatigue jacket. Shari spotted a grenade tethered to the left breast of the jacket. His bare arms were thickly corded with muscle and tattooed with vulgar depictions of sadistic sexual acts. Shari felt herself staring at an image on his left forearm of an elven woman being savagely split by a comically endowed orc.

Gutter watched the human woman closely, she was probably just another street tramp but something in the way she was crouched struck an instinctive cord in him that he needed to be careful with her. He took a millisecond to glance at Spatter who had just come in the door.

"Splat..." Gutter started to speak, but as his eyes drifted from the woman she struck. Gutter was amazed at the viper speed of the blow that knocked his shotgun aside before his finger was finished squeezing the trigger.

Shari sensed, saw and reacted in the same moment as the orc's attention slid off her to his cohort. She snapped a foot up deflecting the shotgun up and away from her and in the same fluid action snatched the can off the floor to send it hurtling at the orc's jaw. His finger squeezed the trigger firing the weapon into the ceiling with a startling crack followed an instant later by the can impacting him directly on the left canine. The force of the can splintered through the large tooth and split the orc's lips causing him to reel in sudden shock. Shari got her feet beneath her and launched herself towards his chest. She caught the shotgun with both hands and planted both feet square in the middle of the orc's chest. As she was suspended there for an instant she focused on the three punks in the entryway.

Splat, presumably the lead punk, was human, might have been nineteen years old, and was almost albino pale. He had short, spiked, bleach white hair and no less than a dozen piercings in his face. He was thin and tall and jittered with the look of a BTL junkie. The pistol in his hand was attempting to track her but the kid clearly didn't have heightened reflexes or wires, and he wasn't old enough to have acquired the experience that would save him in this situation.

The second punk was another young human with strong asian traits. His skin was olive and his eyes were thin, slanted and calculating. His pistol wasn't in line to fire either but Shari could feel his calmness in the moment and knew that he was no stranger to battle.

The third punk was an older human and showed obvious cyber enhancements. Where his eyes should have been were gray metal optical sensors. Datajacks stood out prominently on his temple and despite the fleshy appearance of his arms Shari could see the impression of the striated metal cords of muscle augmentation hiding beneath the surface. Even as she was flexing the muscles of her thighs to launch herself back off of the orc's chest she could see the third punk reaching over his shoulder to draw a sword off his back.

Shari catapaulted herself off the orc's chest ripping the shotgun out his hand and twisting in midair to land on her feet back in the aisle. The force of her departure from his chest staggered the orc farther back and he stumbled back against the cashier's cage.

Shari pumped the shotgun with a practiced motion as she was leveling it in the orc's direction.

Gutter's eyes widened in total disbelief as the human woman kicked his shotgun and hit him with the thrown can at seemingly the same time. His finger reflexively jerked the trigger sending a slug into the ceiling. Before he could recover she had launched herself at his chest. She landed on him like a fly on a wall with her feet on his chest and gripped the shotgun in both hands. For a fraction of a second she scanned the store's entryway assessing, evaluating, and weighing her opponents before she launched herself off him again taking the shotgun out of his hand with her. The force of her departure sent him reeling back and as his back crashed against the cashier's cage he watched her spin through the air, landing perfectly, pumping the shotgun and leveling it at him before his balance had stabilized. It was in that instant that Gutter realized he wasn't facing a person, this thin human bitch was a crafted killing machine. She was the nightmare that haunted the streets of Seattle. She was the urban legend that the Matrix hacks argued about. She was the shade of death, known commonly as the Ice Lady.

At that moment something passed between Gutter and the Ice Lady so when he heard the blast that should've ended his life he instead was struck by something large, warm, and exploding with blood.

Splatter had never seen someone, something, move so fast in his chipped life. The woman sprang out of the aisle, disarmed Gutter, looked at him, Razz, and Slicer, and jumped back before he could squeeze off a shot. He took that instant as his opportunity to do something to help his boss and launched himself forward turning to bring his pistol in line with where he expected the woman to be on the floor. His brain didn't get enough time to compute that she wasn't on the floor as he expected. Instead she was standing with a shotgun aimed directly at Gutter and as he interposed himself into the line of fire there was a flash. He was redirected in midair by a tremendous force followed by a thunderous boom and then an odd silence. He continued to watch the events unfold through a gray haze for several seconds without sound, feeling, or comprehension.

Shari was already committed to pulling the trigger on the orc and even though she raised the barrel of the shotgun fractionally in the instant between the pull of the trigger and the movement of the pin the solid shot caught Splat just left of center mass separating most of his upper body from the lower. Blood, bone, and a puree of internal organs showered over the orc, and regrettably, the cashier cage. Shari pumped another round into the chamber without wavering her aim from the orc, but the fraction of a second was all the orc needed to dive laterally towards the store entrance. In a distant part of her brain Shari heard the screams coming from all around her. Wendy behind the counter, the elderly lady with what might be her grandson one aisle to her right, the middle aged man cowering beneath the microwave, the two pubescent teenage boys hiding next to the arcade machine in the rear corner by the door to the back room.

A pair of cans at the end of the shelf exploded with the impact of a bullet from the asian's pistol. Idly Shari watched the individual baked beans float through the air. He was two steps into the store and sliding sideways into the aisle to her left, she couldn't see him doing it but she knew it instinctually. She was turning the shotgun to anticipate his position when she heard the discernible metal on metal scrape of spurs extracting from concealed sheaths. The sound came from the entrance which told her the third punk was entering the fray.

"Fuck that cunt for me Slicer!" Gutter bellowed as the hardened street samurai stepped into the store wielding his vibroblade and snapping out his spurs. Slicer's head gave a barely noticeable nod in the direction of Gutter as he adjusted his stance. With a nanosecond of thought he reversed the hinges of his knees and hips, crouched into a ready position that made him look decidedly inhuman, and launched himself into the store. As many times as he had seen it Gutter was still disturbed by Slicer's cyberlegs. He knew the mechanical joints were reversible but it always reminded him of a kangaroo when the samurai did so. The cybernetic balance tail completed the mental picture of the kangaroo. Slicer's leap took him from the doorway to the top of the shelves separating aisle one and two. He landed nimbly just above the Ice Lady, and his impact sent a shower of cans and bottles crashing towards her and the floor.

Shari was surprised for an instant as Slicer appeared in a shower of falling products at the top of the shelf above her. She had to spin away as one of the cans came hurtling toward her face. Her movement gave him time to dart forward off the shelf and bring his vibroblade down in a deadly arc. Shari swung the shotgun up to deflect the blow and was disappointed to watch the blade cleave through the rifle. The blade was turned aside enough to keep Shari safe but the shotgun was worthless metal and plastic now. She flung the pieces uselessly at the samurai as she tumbled into a backward roll toward the cashier cage to put space between them. He casually flicked the stock of the shotgun aside with his spurs as the dismembered barrel glanced off his sword. Shari could read the death in his stance, see the precision in his movements, and took an instant to prepare herself for his next move.

There was a scraping sound like fingernails on slate as Slicer's boots fought for grip on the tile against the inertia of his lunge. Shari jumped backwards and up outstretching her hands over her head reaching for the chain link of the cashier's cage as the samurai was leaping towards her. The sword was coming in a low straight thrust and Shari barely had the time lift her legs over it. As the blade passed beneath her she extended a foot straight for the oncoming samurai's face. He saw the boot coming and turned his head so the kick glanced off his cheek taking a chunk of flesh with it.

Shari pulled her body upwards and came to rest for a moment in an upside down crouch clinging to the cashier cage looking down at the samurai who was already gathering himself for another lunge while bringing his sword up to a ready position. She took a millisecond to glance toward the entry and could see the orc picking himself off the ground scrambling out the door, while the asian punk crouched in aisle one desperately aiming the pistol in her direction.

She launched herself off the cage in an acrobatic twist while simultaneously hearing the pistol fire and watching the sword flash toward her. The bullet whizzed past pinging loudly off a bar of the cage. She slapped both hands onto the flat of the blade and used her momentum to redirect its arc twisting it out of the samurai's grip. She landed once again in aisle two facing Slicer's back but he was already spinning in her direction. She was still gripping the blade between her palms and took a second to fling it up into the ceiling. It flew with enough force to bury itself almost to the hilt into the sheet rock ceiling.

Slicer had turned himself around and was cocking his spurred left fist back for a punch while leaping in her direction again. Shari sprang upwards and spread her legs into a split for the samurai to pass beneath her. He reacted and managed to graze her inner right thigh with his spurs tearing through jeans and flesh narrowly missing her femoral artery. Shari clasped the hilt of the sword as fiery pain erupted in her thigh. She winced more in frustration than pain because she had really liked this pair of jeans. As her upward momentum ceased, gravity reclaimed its rightful direction and Shari descended drawing the blade out of the ceiling while twisting her body around and setting her feet for landing. The samurai had stopped and was turning himself again to take another swipe at her as she brought the blade sweeping down between his left shoulder and his neck. The turning of his body kept Shari's blow from being a life ending injury, limiting it to a dismembering one as his left arm was wrenched out its socket by the blade. A gout of blood sprayed across the shelf as the sword finished passing through Slicer's shoulder. His left arm wasn't completely removed but hung uselessly from thin strands of muscle and tendon. He shrieked in agony and fell to the floor spurting arterial blood.

Gutter got to his feet as he fled out the door toward his bike. He wasn't running in fear, he wanted to get to the Uzi in the saddle pack on his bike. He heard clashes and crashes of combat continuing in the store and then a shriek of pain from Slicer.

"Not good," he thought as he got to his bike. Slicer was the fastest human Gutter knew personally and if she was his better then they were in deep drek for sure. He fumbled past the latch on the storage bin and drew out the small autofire weapon.

"Are you faster than this, cunt?" Gutter wondered as he turned around.

Shari stepped past the fallen samurai towards the far end of the aisle. She moved with a feline grace making no more noise than the blood dripping off the sword. The screams of the other customers hadn't stopped yet except for Wendy behind the counter who had switched from mindless shrieking to a more frenzied repetition of "Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!"

She heard the footfalls of the second punk coming down aisle one towards her. She reached the end of aisle two and flattened herself against a synthahol poster of an elven woman in a bikini with obviously cosmetically enhanced breasts. The punk was trying his best to move with skill and stealth as he came down the aisle, but to Shari's trained ear she could just barely hear each footfall, each rasping panting breath, were it not for the screaming in the rest of the store she would've been able to hear the rustle of his clothes and creaking of his leather jacket. She remained still as the pistol came into view, followed smoothly by his forearms. He clenched the pistol in a two handed fashion. His white knuckles wrapped around the grip told Shari just how frightened he was, he may have been trying to stay cool but she knew he was scared as hell.

She snapped the sword up in an easy arc catching both his forearms on the under side. The blade bit into flesh but Shari moderated the force so that she wouldn't take his arms off. He yelped in surprise and dropped the gun. With viper speed Shari swung around the corner and placed the tip of the sword just below the asian's chin. His eyes shot wide in fear and he tried to stop shaking his arms that were just started to flow blood from their cuts.

"Run for your life, run from this life, and never threaten another soul. Do you understand little boy?" Shari asked him in a soft growl. She prodded his adam's apple just a fraction for emphasis. His head shivered up and down and he backed away unsteadily, a wet stain erupting in the crotch of his jeans. Shari smirked a little as the punk turned and fled with fear inspired speed.

Gutter cocked the slide on the side of the Uzi propelling the first of the thirty rounds into the chamber. He leveled the barrel towards the entrance as Razz came running out pissing himself, and kept running in wide eyed terror. He would've laughed at the sissy little human if he wasn't frightened himself at what he had already seen. A cautious rational part of his mind was counseling him on the greater good of mounting his bike and riding away, but his orcish instincts wouldn't stand for him to shy away from battle. With determined steps he approached the doorway again.

Shari sauntered back to the cashier's cage disinterestedly surveying the blood sprayed across the counter and floor.

"I ordered some smokes, a large black soycaf, and a box of sugared donuts. Are they ready?" she asked Wendy who was still shaking and muttering obscenities beneath the counter. Wendy peeked up at her with terrified eyes and stammered "ku... ku.. fuck. What?"

"On my way here I placed an order, is it ready?" she asked patiently.

"Uhh... hmmm... yeah one sec," Wendy was overwhelmed but started to pick herself off the floor and wiped a hand over her face. Her palm came away covered in sticky red blood and the color began to drain from her face as she realized it.

"Wendy, listen, that's not your blood. You're not hurt. Now forget it and get me my smokes," Shari tried to break through the girl's horror before it paralyzed her.

Wendy's eyes rolled toward Shari but there was no intelligence left behind them as the shock started settling in.

"Damn it, Wendy, don't go all stupid yet, pass me my smokes!" Shari howled at the girl.

The crackling of automatic fire began from the doorway and a blossom of pain erupted in Shari's left shoulder and across the bridge of her nose. She spun away and down as more rounds flew threw the space where her head and shoulders had been. She came around with the sword raised in her right hand to see the orc filling the doorway already walking the Uzi's fire in her direction. Without hesitation she hurled the sword with all her strength sending it twirling through the air and burying itself into the orc's open mouth erupting out the back of his skull with spray of blood. The orc staggered back and the Uzi continued to fire wildly for another second before he fell dead to the ground.

Shari raised herself slowly from her crouch giving a cursory glance at the samurai to make sure he wasn't going to surprise her next. She could see him squirming but he was desperately holding his arm to his body and presented no threat. She turned back towards the counter where Wendy had disappeared. Shari took a step closer and saw that the girl was laid out on the floor inside the cage. A neat dark hole stood out from the pale skin of her forehead just over her right eye. The eye bulged weirdly in its socket and a red pool was growing on the floor beneath her head.

"Fuck!" Shari screamed. She glared around the store at the terrified customers. They all hid their faces from her as her eyes passed by. She stomped over to the dead orc and ruthlessly yanked the sword from his head. She brought the sword back to the counter and with savage fury cleaved into the cashier's cage. Several powerful strokes opened a space for her to clamber through. She hopped down into the space and snatched the sack with her smokes and donuts up off the rear counter. She drew a paper cup from a dispenser and stuck it under the soycaf machine and jammed in the red button. The machine sputtered and gurgled a black fluid into the cup. Shari took a few seconds to focus on the wisps of hot vapor rising out of the cup and forced out the rest of the world around her. The distant wail of an approaching siren, the nearby howling of the terrified child, were suddenly drowned away by the rattling final breath escaping from Wendy's lungs.

Shari felt the hot tear sliding down her cheek and willed it to go away. Emotion wasn't part of who she was, it was a liability, it was a weakness. The tear was for more than just another senseless death, it was for more than Wendy the cashier, it was for more than another orphan in an already busted social support system. Shari pushed the thoughts aside and capped her drink with a plastic lid. She wiped the tear off her cheek and climbed carefully out the hole in the cage. Fleeting thoughts of fingerprint evidence, DNA traces, video surveillance, and witnesses coursed through her thoughts but she let them go just as fast. She knew instinctually that none of the customers would be able to give any clues of importance to the police, the events had been so fast and the results so shocking that the horror would wipe the important facts from the witnesses minds. As far the rest she had left those calling cards in a hundred other crime scenes before, this would be no different.

She walked purposefully out of the store and back to her car. She noted somewhere in her brain that every step on her right leg was causing a stinging pain and she dully remembered the spurs slashing her. Her left hand was throbbing clenching the bag she had come for. The bullet had passed through the muscle and fat on the backside of her left arm, it was bleeding but non-lethal. A thin trickle of blood was running off the end of her nose from the second bullet that had grazed the skin off the bridge. She pressed her thumb to the pad on the car door and grumbled as she left a bloody smear on the lens. The door obediently popped open with the same optimistic greeting, Welcome back ma'am. Where are we headed to this evening?

"Home," Shari mumbled as she dropped into the seat. The car took control and began working its way into traffic to carry her home as she fished the cellophane covered pack out of the paper bag. Her hands trembled slightly as she peeled the wrapping off the pack. She worked the box open and with a satisfied gasp drew one of the fragile paper cylinders out of the box and set it to her lips. She reached into her jacket withdrawing an antique brass zippo and flicked the cover open. Her thumb rolled over the striker and a flicker of sparks flashed but it didn't light, she tried again, and again. No luck. Finally the tears came.