“Bizarre,” muttered Becks.
“Awesome,” I countered.
“Expensive, so don’t touch anything,” said a voice. I turned toward the kitchen, where a brown-haired woman was standing, arms crossed, a stern expression on her face. She was wearing jeans and a tank top, and her hair was cropped short, leaving nothing for a zombie mob to grab hold of. She looked more like a normal human than the girl from the driveway, who was now sitting on the counter, drumming her heels against a cabinet. Somehow, that made her more difficult to trust. Nothing that looked normal in this place could possibly be what it seemed.
Mahir had turned along with the rest of us. He recovered quickly, stepping forward and offering his hand. “I’m Mahir Gowda. It’s a pleasure to—”
“You’re not here to meet me,” said the brunette, in the same disapproving tone. “No one comes here to meet me. You’re here for the Monkey. Well, he’s not sure he wants to talk to you just yet. Who sent you?”
“No one sent us. We came—”
“Whoops! Wrong answer!” The Fox was suddenly holding a pistol in each hand. I hadn’t even seen her draw. “Somebody told you who to look for, and somebody told you where to look. So who sent you?”
“Alaric Kwong. He said the Monkey was the best in the business,” said Becks.
The brunette blinked. Then, to my surprise, she smiled, a little wistfully. “Alaric? Really? You’re the people he’s been working with?”
The four of us stared at her for a moment. Slowly, I nodded. “Yeah. He’s part of my crew. I’m Shaun Mason, After the End Times.”
“I know you,” she said, smile fading as fast as it came. “I’m the Cat. You’ve met the Fox.”
“ ‘Met’ is a word,” I agreed. The Fox lowered her guns. “Do we pass the security check?”
“For the moment.” The Cat turned, picking up a bread knife from the counter. “Why did Alaric send you?”
We could have tried for diplomacy. We could have tried for plausible deniability. In the end, that seemed like too damn much trouble, and I did what Georgia taught me to do: I went for the truth. “There’s a good chance we’re going to need to run for the border pretty soon, since the CDC is trying to kill us—”
“—we think,” Becks interjected.
“Right, we think. Anyway, they probably released bioengineered death mosquitoes and accidentally wiped out the Gulf Coast trying to get us, so they’re a little pissed right now. That means we need IDs the CDC won’t be watching for.”
“Why?” asked the little redhead, guilelessly.
I hesitated. I could give the answer we’d been giving everyone else—so we could get out, so we could run and escape and live—or I could tell the truth. I looked toward my team. Mahir was still watching the two women, the redhead drumming her heels, the brunette slicing obviously home-baked bread. Becks and Maggie were watching me, waiting to see what I would say. I took a breath.
“Mahir needs a new passport to get him into Canada, so he can get back to Europe alive. Becks needs an identity that can get her out of the country, wherever it is she wants to go. Alaric needs IDs for him, and for his sister, Alisa. We’re going to get her out of Florida. Maggie—”
“Is paying for all this,” said Maggie.
The Cat turned to me, knife still in her hand. Raising an eyebrow, she asked, “And what about you? What are you planning to get out of this deal?”
“Assuming this dude is as good as Alaric thinks he is, I’m going to get an ID that doesn’t set off any alarms. I’m going to stay low until we finish finding the people who killed my sister. And then I’m going to walk right in their front doors and shoot them in their f**king faces.”
“I like this one,” said the Fox, giggling. “He’s funny.”
Maggie was staring at me, clearly aghast. Becks and Mahir, on the other hand, didn’t even look surprised. Becks looked a little sad; Mahir just looked accepting, like he’d been waiting a long time for those words to leave my lips.
Seeing them like that made me feel slightly ashamed, and more determined than ever to set things right. I all but glared at the Cat. “So? Are those reasons good enough for you people, or do we need to find someone else to help us?”
“You’re doing this out of a suicidal need for revenge, even though it may not change anything,” said the Cat coolly.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “Pretty much.”
You’re an idiot, muttered George. I ignored her.
“Okay,” said the Cat.
I blinked. “What?”
“I said okay. The Fox likes you, and I think you’re a suicidal idiot with friends who will pay to let you kill yourself in an interesting fashion. She”—she gestured toward Maggie with her knife—“can give us obscene amounts of money without thinking about it, and the other two are nonoffensive enough not to matter. Besides, you work with someone that I owe a favor.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Alaric Kwong.” She smiled at our expressions. “He doesn’t know I ended up here. Probably break his heart if you told him. I may as well pay him back by passing you through.”
“A favor? For what?” asked Becks.
The Cat smirked. “I broke up with him when our Quest Realm guild was in the middle of a raid, and then I kept making him heal me without answering any of his whiny whispers about why, Jane, why would you break up with me, I loooooooove you. So we’ll get you your IDs. Cost is fifty thousand each, up-front, before you leave here today… and a favor.”
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