MUNRO'S WAGER (1) by Richard Holliday

Creeping up the stairs from the bar, the mellowed thuds of the music blaring from below became softened into nothingness, to be replaced by an awkward, staccato buzzing from the apartment marked D. Joey didn't bother to knock, for the door fell open at the lightest touch. "What the hell happened in here, Quigley?" was all he could manage at the scene of utter devastation that greeted him as the metal door fell not inward on its hinges, but simply inward, wobbling as it struck the floor with a muted thump. The room was heaving with garbage, junk and a battered couch on which his friend and partner, Quigley Hubb, was sleeping in a drunken mess. Not waiting for an answer, Joey stepped over the broken door and shook the dishevelled man on the couch until he gurgled irritatingly. Signs of life had indeed been detected. Success! Now to attempt for something intelligible that resembled something like speech. "Quig?" The man in a heap stirred and looked up. Ah! The light! It was way too bright – but in reality it was just a dim glow. Damn, what had happened last night? For now, a hung-over slur was all he could get out of his vocal cords: "Whassur?" "Oh jeez," Joey sighed and pulled Quigley from the collapsed sofa. His clothes reeked and it was like he hadn't washed for days. A week's messy growth festooned his face like a fuzzy brown moss. Slightly more awake because of the blood flow, Quigley could look and found his glasses. "Now, who broke my glasses?!" he exclaimed, picking the broken frame and lenses from a crease in the so-called sofa and held them aloft. His face fell at the loss of his trusty companions, the Tumble-lenses. Finally he noticed Joey, in his crisp brown suit. It looked totally alien in this bomb site of an apartment. "Oh, hi Joey!" Quigley said cogently, before collapsing to the floor with another dull thump. Joey sighed and stood over his face. "You've got some explainin' to do, partner. What happened in this dump?" "I happened, duh! Basically, me and my five buddies had a little get together," Quigley said after prising himself up again. He looked left and right. "Hey, where're my buddies?" "What buddies?" Joey sighed impatiently. "They were here all night! I swear… hey, wait a minute!" Quigley said, but his attention was drawn to his wallet. It was empty. "Damn punks stole all my money!" Joey sat down on the couch beside his friend. "Good news then, I guess Quig. We've got a job. Now get the hell dressed and look presentable. I'll, er, prop the door up." The purple sky of the planet Imrek was vibrant and bright in the dusk, as the last vestiges of sunlight from the Great Star burned forth to put on a show before bed. It was late, all topsy-turvy, yet for Joey and Quigley, this was where their days began most usually. "Anythin' good?" Quigley asked. He's shaved, just about, and put on a creased pale-blue suit and clambered into Joey's battered old car as they drove to the scene. His friend deadpanned as he looked over briefly. "Anything's good these days, you dimwit." Imrek Mining Concern was missing a satellite, and wanted it back. That was all the briefing file had, and Quigley Hubb studied the eleven words very carefully before asking the first question. "Who's Imrek Mining Concern, and why'd they want us to find their tennis ball?" Joey sighed once again. "It's not a tennis ball and you'll find out soon. We're here." Their battered car pulled up beside a fountain in front of a ten-storey building that glimmered with flickering lights from the windows. It was totally glass, with neon lights punctuating the firm's name in great red letters. The duo walked calmly in, and bustled up to the desk. "Er, we're here about a missin' mining satellite?" Quigley asked. The receptionist looked over sceptically. "Mr. Munro's expecting you two. Report to the top floor immediately."

"Alright then, off we go," Quig remarked, and strode toward the lift door and pressed the button. Stepping into the lift, he and Joey were alone as it creaked up toward the tenth floor. "Where'd you say you got this job from again, Joey?" Joey looked slowly over. "Why do you care?" "I dunno," Quigley said. "Adds a bit of flavour to the job?" His friend rolled his eyes. "I've my sources. Yours all dried up, remember." "The hooch didn't though!" Quigley laughed. Joey just sighed once again as the lift came to a shuddering halt. The doors opened and immediately they found themselves in a plush office. Red velvet lined the walls and on the far end a desk made of a strange, brown material that looked suspiciously like some sort of carved organic compound that once was a haven for chlorophyll stood against a plate glass window that bathed the room in an eerie, purple light. A chair span round as Quigley and Joey walked toward it impulsively. "Mr. Munro…" Joey began, but was stopped abruptly. "Where the hell have you been? Two hours late! I'll have this from your final fee, I'm sure you're quite aware," the gentleman, Ronan Munro, spat out. He was fat and almost surgically attached to the chair he was sat in. He didn't bother trying to move, get up or shake hands: he either didn't feel like it or was physically incapable. Joey's head fell a little, embarrassed. "I had, to, er," he thought on the spot, "collect my materials to conduct the investigation." Munro looked across to the scruffy Quigley, who was a complete contrast to the rather neater Joey. "Look, fine, whatever. You said you could find out what happened to our new toy, without getting the federals involved. Did I state how important that was?" "Yep," Joey nodded with a cheeky smile across his face, "you did. Several times. Rather loudly." "Good stuff," Munro said. "Why's that important?" Quigley asked pointedly. Munro's gaze fell on him. He didn't look impressed. "This thing's untested… and I mean, untested. As in totally uncertified. If ya catch my drift?" Quigley did. "So why were you using uncertified tech? The fine's pretty high, with a conviction to boot. What's so valuable that you wanted it now?" "He's sharp, Federiko," Munro said toward Joey, who winced at the mention of his awkward surname. "Fine, you might as well know, but keep your mouths shut out of this room. There's a few tasty deposits of minerals on the Moon, and we wanna get a claim on them almost immediately." "What minerals?" "None of your beeswax, Hubb." "Alright," Quigley said, not pursuing this further. His mind made a mental note of this, however. "Go on?" "They're glaringly obvious of you look right. Well, obviously as a the premier mining concern in these parts, on this planet, we felt the need to capitalise on our discovery before others did so." "Oh, if I recall you're the only guys with any moon access anyway," Quigley shrugged. His knowledge of the inner workings of the mineral industry was rusty at best. "You'd be surprised how easy it is to get a freighter when you can guarantee the most untold riches would fill its hold at the end of the day… with the documents to prove it," Munro muttered. "Now, is there anything else you guys wanna discuss?" Joe looked to his partner and friend. "Is there anythin' you wanna say, Quig?" Quigley gazed studiously through narrowed eyes, pacing the carpet a little. "Hmm, nah. Fee's how much, again?" Munro answered diligently. "Fifteen-thou Prezcos. Goin' rate for this kinda thing?" "Cool, cool. Well, I see nothing further to discuss here, Mr. Munro. We'll be off then." Quigley summarised, before heading for the lift. Pressing the button, he paced on the spot waiting for the carriage to descend, but suddenly remembered something and swung around to face Munro's desk violently. "Any objections, sir, to myself and my partner havin' a bit of a nosey around your fine establishment?" The lift door dinged and clattered open. Munro was taken aback, not really expecting this question. But his need to have this matter closed quickly got the priority in his brain. "Sure, but why'd ya…" he started, but was

cut off. "Flavour, sir. Just flavour…" Quigley smiled, and the lift door closed before any more words could be exchanged. The lift began shunting down the shaft toward the bottom. Quigley however studied the directory peeling off the wall with intent for a second or two, before quickly pressing the button for the fourth floor. The lift shuddered and complied. "Fourth?" Joey asked. "You planning to abseil down to the car?" Quigley looked reticently at his partner and friend. "No, stupid," he pointed, "read the sign. Quick, we're nearly there." "Technical services?" Joey read from the typed and printed list of what happened on each floor. "Why'd we want that?" The lift shuddered to a halt on the fourth floor and the door opened to a dark brown corridor leading off and around a corner. Quigley led the way. "If anyone here's going to know about the various intricacies of that satellite, it's gonna be this lot." "So why didn't we just ask Munro?" Joey asked innocently. Quicgley stopped and looked sternly at his friend. "Ugh," he hocked, "you're supposed to be intelligent. But instead you're being quite block-headed." "Unblock me, then, sport." "If we'd asked his majesty upstairs we'd have just been told to come down here. Wasted time. Anyway, I'm assuming as we're technically under Munro's emply that we can just have a mooch around and find out what we need to know. Flavour, remember! It's always about the flavour. And you're decidedly vanilla at this point, Joey." Quigley puffed up his chest and walked off, pumped with self importance. Joey snorted in derision. "Hey, I like vanilla. It's very malleable. Can't go wrong with vanilla, Quig..." But Quigley had disappeared into a doorway. He reappeared a few seconds later, with a mop and bucket falling to the ground around him. He saw Joey's face almost crack with laughter. "Say nothing! Just getting a feel for the building, getting a little..." "...Flavour?" Joey chuckled. "Sure." Quigley stuffed the mop back into the cupboard unceremoniously and thrust the door shut before it could escape to the floor again. "Look, just see if you can find an office or a laboratory or somewhere where someone with a little brains might be hiding around here? Jeez... It's as if everyone's gone home for the weekend..." Joey walked up to his friend and tapped him on the shoulder as he investigated the myriad of rooms and cupboards further up the corridor. "It's Sunday." Quigley's eyes peered into his brows for a moment. He remembered, yes it was Sunday. That party had been a terrific do. Shame they stole his money, really. "So what's his maj doing here?" "Beats me," Joey shrugged. "Probably wife trouble. That enough flavour for ya?" "Oh shut up and help me find the office..." Quigley grunted, and threw open one more door. Unlike the others, it was the entrance ot a wide room that took up an entire corner of the building, and the lights were all burning brightly. "Aha, I think this is what we're looking for!" "It is?" Joey pondered, following up the corridor and poking his head around the door. "Ah, yes, I think you're right, Quig." Quigley smiled sarcastically. "Aren't I always, Joey boy?" The narrow door fell open at the slightest touch of Quigley's outstretched palm, and his body soon fell over the threshold. Joey stumbled in behind, and their eyes fought to readjust for the bright artificial light. "What'd you suppose they do in here?" Quigley's partner enquired to his friend. Quigley had no idea, and resented being asked such silly questions. Instead, he got over the shock of the light and looked around for a

few moments. There were three long benches that dominated this space that did indeed take up an entire corner of this floor; this was evident by the two walls lined with windows that were roughly perpendicular to each other that obviously made up the outer shell of the building. On each of the benches were a multitude of untidy masses of rock; some suspended above extinct gas burners, some dissolved in test tubes, and some just lazily tossed onto the bench to be chipped at and probed. "Lot like my school science lab," Quigley huffed. He was unimpressed. If this was was any sort of proper labaratory for a large mining company that he didn't expect their analysis room to be quite so... Amateur. Joey idly walked up to one of the rocks on the counter. He poked it with an inquisitive finger, and the boulder, the size of a football, crumbled around him. At that exact moment, he turned at the sound of a few unexpected, hurried footsteps toward him. "Who the hell are you?" the man who emerged from a storage locker said, brushing the crumbled dirt off of the bench and onto Joey's jacket. "Are you meant to be here?" "Yes," Quigley huffed quickly. "Why yes indeed we are. So who are you?" The man's mouth fell a tiny bit in surprise. He'd expected to get that question in first, not this person he'd only just met! "Alto Sakowski, head of quality control. Can you finally tell me what you're doing here." "Oh, we're no-one in particular. Just hired by Mr. Munro upstairs. Apparently you guys lost a satellite." Sakowsky narrowed his eyes defensively behind his frameless glasses. "Possibly." Quigley shrugged once again. "We're not gonna get anywhere without some decent answers. Either you lost the satellite or you're wasting my time!" "Fine, fine," Sakowsky said, giving in. He'd give these two ne'er-do-wells the benefit of the doubt. "We lost the Jupiter IV automatic mining droid three days ago." "This bein' the one you weren't legally ideally meant to have, right?" asked Joey. "Yes, but that's only because we can't wait! Regulations take so long to update. By then the impetus would've been lost!" Sakowsky bemoaned. He took a seat on a nearby lab stool and invited Quigley and Joey to do so as well. "What's this impetus about, Alto?" Quigley asked softly. "Tell me about it. What're you guys in a rush to get?" Alto Sakwsky sighed once more. "There's an asteroid moon. Laden with about a thousand tons of Helium-3..." "... The most coveted power source in the galaxy," Joey mused. "Yeah. Basically, the moon drifted into range of Imrek, and would drift out in a week or two. Nowhere near enough time to apply for a permit and all that stuff. They'd not believe it was He-3 anyway." "Why's that?" Quigley asked, curious. "Surely they'd want to buy some of the Helium-3?" "You say that," Alto continued, "but central gov's convinced that they already know where all the He-3 is. They'd just assume we were yankin' their chain and delay it." "So you got an illegally-untested satellite to mine the Helim-3," Joey concluded. "Yep. Better that way than letting the moon drift off and let two and a half million Prezco's float away into space." "I suppose that makes sense," Quigley said, getting up and looking away, out of the window. He mused for a moment silently before spinning around once more. "Say, who was controlling the satellite? Did you have access to it?" Alto fumbled. "N...no! It was all Gared Hajolt's job." Getting somewhere. "And where might we find this Gared Hajolt?" "You won't find him here," Sakowsky laughed. "He got terminated two days ago." Quigley looked past Alto and onto Joey. His face contorted into a grimace. "Lovely." "Well, what are you looking at me like that for?" Quigley Hubb looked suspiciously at his partner Joey, who was driving away from the Imrek Mining facility.

He stared straight on toward the road; his face filled with despair. After a few terribly long seconds, he turned to his friend with one eye. "I'm not looking at you, dimwit." "Oh, shut up," Quigley said flatly, though there was an alien glimmer in his eyes as he peered down at a slip of paper. "Aren't you gonna ask?" "Ask what?" Joey sighed. "How I got this?" "Why, you won't tell me anyway." "Indeed I won't," Quigley said sharply, "but you'll be glad I do have it. We're paying Gared Hajolt a little house-call. 1494 Nitrate Street is where we're headed. Left here." Joey snorted, barely containing a bellowing laugh. Quigley's brow furrowed once again. "What?" "Is that all that is? His home address? You could've just asked the receptionist on the way out when I went to get the car!" Quigley wished his seat would choose this moment to absorb him. He tried to draw attention away from, well, himself. "Good weather tonight..." "Ha!" Joey laughed, and all Quigley could do was roll his eyes and hope that 1494 Nitrate Street wasn't at the ends of the Earth after all... The wheels of the intrepid investigators car bumped and scraped laboriously along Nitrate Street. Obviously, the acid rain had eaten away at the smooth road surface leaving pitted potholes and chasms in the concrete. Imrek was a small, rocky world only five thousand miles in diameter, and as the car creaked along at walking pace, it felt to Joey that Nitrate Street indeed circumnavigated the planet - and would take a light year to do so. However, Quigley was hanging out of the open window and far too busy to be concerned with the ride; he was counting houses. "1491, 1492, 1493... Ah! 1494! Stop" he suddenly called, and threw himself back into the seat with a thump on the worn springs. Before Joey could do anything, Quigley had grabbed the handbrake and almost yanked it clean off the centre console of the car. Both of them were thrust forward with the momentum as it looked for some place to go. Joey ended up getting the steering wheel imprinted in his chest. "You shouldn't do that," he admonished his friend, but Quigley was already jumping out of the car and letting the door clatter shut behind him. "Shut up, we're here," was all Quigley could manage. He started at the property in front of hi, taking every last detail in. "What a dump!" Joey cried out. But he was right, 1494 Nitrate Street was a dump. The whole street was, to be honest. But 1494 was especially so. A round, prefabricated dwelling plopped onto the dark-red dirt of Imrek and surrounded by overgrown yellowed weeds around boulders that would once have constituted a 'rustic desert rockery'. The house had once been gleaming white when fresh from the factory, but years of neglect and lack of cleaning had left it caked in microscopic particles of the reddish earth, which made the house itself look rusty. "Door's ajar, let's have a look at what lurks inside," Quigley said excitedly, wiggling his fingers spookily as Joey gave him a deadpan look across the bonnet. Peering around the door, Quigley and Joey took their first looks inside 1494 Nitrate Street. "Looks like it's been inhabited by vagrants..." Quigley surmised as he took stock of what he saw in the hallway. Old papers and junk mail littered the floor, almost hiding the scuffed laminate; a matted rug that was bald in spots filled in where the discarded junk did not. "Let's have a look around." "Okay," Joey said quietly. He couldnt' ascertain whether the place was deserted or people of unknown origin were inside. He didn't want to bring attention to his presence until he was ready to. Under his jacket, a nervous hand traced the bumpy outline of his sidearm. The cold metal butt of the pistol was reassuring. To one side of the hallway was a living room that had only a collapsing sofa in the middle of it, looking over a tiny television, and otherwise nothign else but piles of junked papers and rags and clothes. This place was

filthy, Quigley thought. Obviously the occupants had gone through some tough times of late - and if Gared Hajolt did live here, these hard times had begun way before three days ago when he'd been "terminated". Joey was about to look into the bedroom when Quigley scuffled across to grab him back into the living area. There was an archway that led into the kitchen, and grimy tiles could easily be seen - the light was on! There was also a slurping, slapping sound coming from within, and the pair tiptoed toward the archway with great caution and trepidation. "Precautions, Joey..." Quigley said under his breath to his friend, who, knowing what he meant, took his sidearm from its holster and held onto it with both hands as they approached the threshold. "On my count, one, two..." A chair squeaked and Quigley panicked and took a sharp breath of stale air from the room. A figure straddled the archway and the shadow crept up both Quigley and Joey's figures in moments. "The hell are you doin' in my house?" "Ah, good. You're the owner, yeah?" Quigley asked, leaning back defensively. The figure walked through, with Joey and Qugley stepping back into the living room. "Yeah, Gared Hajolt, I own this tub. Hey, it's no dosshouse or anythin' like that!" "Yes, well, never assumed it was anything remotely like that," Quigley lied. Joey nodded over-enthusiastically. "Say, what you guys doing here anyway? I ain't got no money, if that's whatcha want. And nah, I ain't got any stuff, either?" "Stuff?" Joey poked inquisitively. "What kinda..." "...nevermind!" Gared quickly backtracked. "Ah, hell, take a seat..." Gared directed Quigley and Joey to the collapsing sofa. They sat down, and Joey almost lost his lower body into the creaking structure and manky fabric. Gared perched himself up on the little wooden TV stand with his feet stretched out. "So what can I do for you folks? Hardly get visitors." "Well," Quigley started, clearing his throat, "we've come about a satellite..." Gared's face filled with colour and rage. "Nothin' to do with me!" "Not sayin' it was, was I? Just after your take. We spoke with Alto at the Mining Concern, he said you were in charge of the satellite?" "Not true at all! He was the one behind it! He got me fired!" Both Joey and Quigley's eyebrows raised. "Really? I'm fascinated." Gared's demeanour seemed to shift as he shifted himself in the uncomfortable-looking position he was on the corner of the TV stand. "Look," he said, "I dunno what Alto's told you... But it's all lies." Quigley looked unmoved, stony-like. "What has he told you?" Gared asked meekly. Quigley consulted his scrawled, almost illegible notes. "He stated you were in charge of the satellite, Mr. Hajolt." "That's right, I was." "And the satellite disappeared." "Yes," Gared continued, his eyes darting about the room. Obviously he was wondering if he was making his position even more precarious. "It disappeared. But that's not my doing." "So," Joey asked, breaking his contemplative silence, "whose is it?" "Alto's! I told you!" Gared barked defensively. Joey's face twisted. "Can you back that up with any evidence? Any reasons as to why he'd do that?" Gared looked to the floor, lost in thought. Joey assumed he was cooking up some phony story, but Quigley studied his every move. Every twitch, every wince was observed and... Noted. Gared's head finally rose after a few seconds. "Yep, and I'm ready to tell you guys." "I'm all ears!" Quigley said enthusiastically, throwing himself back into the sofa in a fit of faux receptiveness, but the sofa knew better and buckled further. That'd teach him to be cocky.

"Well, I found out some stuff I wasn't meant to know. Alto was gonna steal the satellite on it's return trip to Imrek." "How'd you find that out?" "Shut up, I'm not done yet!" "Proceed then." "Well, he was all set up to divert the satellite to one of our main rivals, the one we were supposed to be racing to get the damned stuff from. They paid him - handsomely! 15,000 Prezcos - up front and in advance." "That's a lot of money, Quig," Joey said quietly into his friend's ear. Quigley hummed in agreement, and then turned back to Gared. "Again I find myself asking how you came across this information, Gared?" "Oh, dead easy. I was hacking corporate mainframes when I was sixteen. That Alto Sakowsky's a slippery bugger, but his password was simple as chips to break into. His daughter's rabbit's name. "And that is?" Joey ventured, leaning forward in trepidation. "Bubbles." "Bubbles?!" Gared could see that Joey, at least, looked sceptical. Getting up, he walked across the room to a lopsided dresser, opened one of the drawers on top and rifled through piles of stuff until his fingers located what he was looking for. He gasped with surprise; maybe he'd assumed he'd lost the key piece of this puzzle. It'd have been really unfortunate if he had. And in two days, too! Not good. Finally, the drawer was closed and Gared walked back over toward Quigley and Joey on the fast-disintegrating sofa. "Up, you two?" "Why?" Joey asked, reaching instinctively for his pistol. Maybe he was gonna get shanked; he'd really rather not. "Up!" Gared insisted. Quigley and Joey did so, and just as well; at this point, the sofa collapsed almost in on itself until it was nothing but a misshapen pile of wood splinters and mouldy upholstery. Gared shoved a small keyring into Quigley's hand. "All the files you need are there," he explained breathlessly. "Now, I think you guys had better leave. Trade secrets, an' all that." "Yeah, yeah...! Quigley tailed off, looking around the room after Joey. He was nowhere to be seen. But his location was soon apparent. The car tooted and the engine revved impatiently. Time to go, indeed. "So what's our next move, Quig?" Quigley swigged the last remnants of his coffee from the bottom of the cup and looked from the wide, bulbous windows of the diner. The Frontier Lodge, it was called, and it really was at the frontier, where the civilisation that had founded Imrek City simply stopped and rust-coloured dirt spread out as far as he could see, until it disappeared over the horizon and met the purple haze of early evening, only to be punctuated by a few lonely mountains. "Well, this is pretty easy, Joey," Quigley summarised. Holding aloft the data-cube, he stared into its very existence. "Dunno about you, but why would Gared lie? Seems our friend Alto's been a naughty, naughty boy." "Looks that way, Quig," Joey breathed, "but maybe he had his reasons. Suppose there's only one way of findin' out what those reasons are." "Hmm?" his friend motioned with his eyebrows raised quizzicly. "Ask him." Quigley was suddenly distracted. "Later. Grub's up!" Across the bar a grisly waitress almost spun two plates toward QUigley and Joey. A sloppy burger, grease lickign down the bun and turning it grey, sat in the middle, with a scattering of fries around it, though on one side of the oval-shaped, chipped plate was a great dollop of white, soulless sauce. Space ketchup.

Quigley immediately started to wolf his foot down. He was hungry; he'd not eaten since Joey had woken him up in such an impolite, noisy manner. He looked up, and the waitress looked down on him, her face stony and twisted. "Oh," Quigley remembered, and nudged his friend. "Pay this nice lady, please, Joey." "Me?!" Joey said with fake outrage. He'd kinda assumed already that he'd have to foot this bill. Handing over the money, he turned his eyes to his own food. He found it looked less appetising than maybe Quigley gave on himself, but food was food. His belly needed filling, too. Breaking the mood of the situation, a gleaming black car – one that didn’t belong in such a rundown, pedestrian, nay, working class end of the city appeared, and ground to an abrupt halt in a great plume of grey dust. The rear door opened, and closed again just as quickly and the carriage sped off into the distance. Quigley only happened to be glancing out of the concave windows of the diner when he saw that someone down on their luck was left in a heap on the pavement. "Let’s move!" he said to Joey, and abandoned their near-empty drinks and ran outside. Kneeling down, they helped the person – a young woman dressed for a night on the tiles, it seemed, to her feet. She was shaky and uneasy, and both men gently supported her. "Are you alright, miss?" Quigley gallantly asked. "Dumb trucks didn’t like it when I said I’d not do their poxy show! The girl answered breathlessly. Joey looked across to Quigley who was equally as curious as to what ‘show’ was meant. "What’cha mean, show?" Quigley’s partner asked gently. "Oh, on the other side of town, they wanted me to do all sorts to a load of sleazy business crims. I know I’m a party girl, but there’s one thing I hate, and that’s being leered over like a hanging piece o’ beef by those fat cats and their chummy mates." Quigley was curious about this establishment. Not because it was a place he’d like to frequent, but because of the rich pickings it would probably provide for his investigative work. A haven for sleazeballs and ne’er-do-wells? Gimme that address, please! However, he noticed Joey's attention was absorbed by the young girl’s exposed pins, a favourite of his. With a slap on the shoulder he reigned in his partner’s loose, drooling tongue. How unprofessional. "Act your age, Federiko," he scolded. Joey shook his head and regained full control of his senses, and straightened himself up. "Oh," he mumbled, obviously a bit embarrassed. "Sorrry, Quig." Quigley’s attention had long since passed his friend’s brief lust. Quigley turned back to the girl. "What’s ya name, might I ask?" Her reply was flat and well-rehearsed. "Dilly Diamond." A stage name, obviously. "And this club – don’t worry, I won’t get you in any trouble by asking its name – who runs it? Anyone noteworthy?" "Some fat bozo who’s always lookin’ at me. Brag Toni’s the name? Shall I tell him to expect ya to visit?" "No, no," Quigley said. "But thanks anyway. Want a ride into the city, Ms, er, Diamond?" She looked him up and down, and Joey too. She looked uneasy. "Don’t worry, we’re on a job. Nothing bad will happy," Quigley reassured, smiling weakly but totally genuinely. "Well, OK. Don’t fancy walkin’ these parts anyhow. "Great stuff," Quigley finished, and turned to Joey. "Get hold of your coat and finish your drinks, Joey boy. We’re hitting the road!" With a furrowing of his eyebrows, confused as to what had just happened, Joey just shrugged and slung his coat over his shoulder and walked with Quigley and Dilly to the car.

"Thanks," she said as the car door clunked shut behind her. Quigley was sure to keep an eye as she approached her small tenement and the door opened, a shadowy figure walked in, and the door closed once more. With that worry off his shoulders, he turned to Joey in the driver's seat. "Couldn’t just leave her, could I?"

Joey shrugged noncommittally. "Suppose not, Quig. That’s the cop in you tryin’ to break out again." Quigley looked sternly across. "’Nuff about that, cheers. Now, we go to Imrek Mining again, see what ol’ Alto has to say for himself." "What makes you think he’ll be there?" "Oh," Quigley started, leaning back and rubbing his hands in expectation, "he’ll be there. He’ll be spooked by us and I bet now he’s scrubbing himself clean of anything vaguely incriminating. It’ll be a long night for him. Didn’t you notice something about him?" "Shifty?" "Well, that was plain as day, but his shirt was immaculate – on his day off, too! When do you ever see someone with a shirt creased like that normally. Fingernails all uniform, and his hair, too. Classic signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder." "Right, Joey said, starting the car with a shudder, "and this is relevant to us because?" Quigley snorted again, unimpressed that his friend was so short-sighted sometimes. "If he’s OCD, of course he’s going to be obsessed with us and making sure there ain’t a single dime of evidence traceable back. But he forgot that some evidence isn’t his to destroy." He pointed to the memory chip in his pocket, patting it lightly. "You do realise how stupid we’re gonna look if that’s empty. Should we not check it first?" "Nah, don’t wanna do that. My guess is that Alto is equally as in the dark about its contents as us. Which must be absolutely killing him with worry inside. And that makes him vulnerable. He’ll crack like an egg, I suspect." Joey laughed as he drove. "Don’t suspect, prove. Basic policing 101, Quig." "Oh, shut up!" Quigley snapped. But the journey from Dilly’s little tenement to the Imrek Mining HQ was a short one, and the tower was deserted, all slumbering and asleep, totally dark and deserted. Apart from one very conspicuous light blazing across the night’s sky. On the fourth floor. "Gotcha!" Quigley laughed gleefully as the car rumbled again to a halt. Equipment clattered to the floor nosily as Alto Sakowsky tried desperately to remove any trace of his illegal payments and treachery from the computer system; his arms flailing so wildly that he sent beakers and piles of crust-ridden scientific detritus flying across the floor of the office that formed a corner of the Quality Control Lab. It was no use, it was all encrypted and he had no idea what the password was. He was too frantic and too frenetic to even contemplate trying to guess it. Four incorrect tries and he'd be locked out. Ever since those two guys - he'd not even gotten their names, and nor did he know what they were even doing there - had come in askin' questions that put him right on the spot he'd been cagey. Worried that his big secret would be revealed. Maybe pointing them to Gared's house, or even mentioning his name was a mistake. But anyway, what did Gared have on him? He couldn't be sure, and the beads of sweat that ploughed down his face, past his steamed-up glasses and onto his now damp shirt collar really did give it away. He was spooked, and nothing was how he liked it in Quality Control: predictable with a tinge of hazard immunised by a safety shield. The office was a mess upstairs where he'd torn filing cabinet after filing cabinet apart trying to find anything that might look remotely dodgy. Alto had thought all this nastiness had been done by the book, but Gared was dangerous. He'd rumbled him, and it was only the presumption that his story would not have any evidence, and be brushed aside as hearsay and speculation that would save him now. The phone in the office rang. Alto froze: no-one ever called here at this time, and definitely not an outside number. Instinct told him this was one call he'd need to take, and with a few breaths trying to drown out the panic he took a sweaty palm to the plastic handset and raised it to his ear. "H-h-hello?" he jittered through clattering teeth. A low, rumbling voice responded. "Don't be late, Sakowsky." "Er, problem," Alto nervously ventured into the phone. "Mm?" "Hajolt found out."

"You sorted him out." "People are poking around. I'm scared. I dunno what to... Whaddo I do?!" Alto quietly said, but at the end he'd broken all pretense of being subtle and was quivering. "Quiet, fool. Our team will be with you." Alto scooted as far as the coiled phone wire would let him. A rumbling outside, and a sudden change in light intensity of the otherwise-violet night had caught the corner of his eye. The purr of a car engine soon reverberated up and against the skin of his inner ear. "You guys better hurry up." The voice chuckled. "We're never late, Sakowsky. For your own... Benefit, remain still and silent." The phone went dead and Sakowsky dropped it to the floor with a thud. Still and silent would be a challenge, but the sound of two car doors thudding against metal had him dead alert as ever. "Gee, these stairs are quite shagtastic," Joey quipped bemusedly as his feet sank into the soft pile of the carpet that lined the stairs, and, conveniently, muffled the sound of his shoes on the bare floor. They'd catch ol' Alto Sakowsky red-handed, they hoped. "Yep, better than a noisy lift any day," Quigley Hubb whispered, "but keep your voice down. I wanna catch this clam-chowder-ball with his trousers down." Finally, Joey and Quigley arrived on floor 4. Interestingly, they could see light from the end of the corridor. "Heh, light at the end of the tunnel, Quig." "Keep it down!" hushed Quigley. He'd mentally prepared this whole approach in the car, and it wasn't going to be derailed now. The carpet quickly turned back to lino flooring, and muffled thuds of shoes turned to tap-tappering footsteps. If Sakowsky could hear them, Quigley surmised, he'd be freaked out by now. Though that was partly the intention. The Quality Control lab door loomed into view. It was shut but the light seeped around it with wanton abandon. Quigley took one side and Joey the other. "You armed?" Quigley asked of his partner. Joey nodded and took his weapon from its holster. Ten chambered rounds. Hopefully not needed but would do to scoop this meatball. "On my count. Three, two, one... Go!" The door almost fell off it's hinges as Quigley's had at the very start. Alto was busy feeding some documents into an industrial oven, and was completely taken by surprise. "The crap're you doing here," he lied. Quigley scoffed. "Bullcrap, you heard us pull up. You knew we were coming. You should've known the game was up. Suppose you just couldn't resist the compulsion to try to destroy... Evidence?" Alto's brow furrowed suspiciously. "You can't prove anything!" "Don't need to, now, do we. Of course, your behaviour here is purely circumstantial," Quigley chuckled, pacing the room with hands in his trouser pockets, "but of course, that ties neatly into a nice little package. With this little package!" Alto's face fell at sight of the memory chip. He knew what it was and what it probably contained. He couldn't take the risk, and ran for Quigley. But his sprint ended prematurely. "Freeze, dustbuster!" Joey barked; the mouth of his pointed pistol punctuating the point. Sakowsky slumped onto a chair, defeated. "Got something to say?" Sakowsky was silent for a moment, contemplating. Then he looked up, his eyes glossy and full of boyish wonder, falling right onto Quigley's equally intense gaze. "What did Gared have to say, then. Come on then, let's get this over with." His eyes narrowing, Quigley took a few steps over to Sakowsky. "You've been a bad little boy, haven't you, Alto?" "I guess, depends how you define 'bad'" "How about fraud, destruction of data, oh and taking illicit payments tantamount to industrial sabotage. I guess you've a backer - would'a said benefactor but I sincerely doubt their benign credentials at this point that's put you up to this." "Prove it, Hubb," Alto spat. He knew he had to keep it schtum. For his sake, at the very least.

"Oh, please!" Quigley scoffed derisively. "I could prove this one with my eyes shut dangling from the ceiling! Gared busted you for diverting the satellite, you panicked and fired his ass before he could report you to Munro, but you forgot that he'd access to the computer system and easily downloaded convenient copies of the various lapses in protocol and ethics you'd committed. Now, I may buy that you didn't do this intentionally, but then again, I don't really care. Your personal weaknesses are not my concern." Sakowsky breathed heavily. His eyes fluttered and Quigley could tell deep inside that he had spoken the truth. Sakowsky looked back up at him, pushing the point he'd left wide open. "Then what the hell is?" Quigley smiled. "Oh, I just wanna know where that damn satellite is. Tell me that and I'll be on my way." Again Sakowsky sighed and his gaze hit the floor. Joey wasn't going to let him stall. He wanted to get to bed, at the very least. "Spit it out, beach-ball!" "Fine, fine... It's on a slingshot orbit..." Joey's eyes narrowed. "The hell is that?" Quigley raised a hand to silence Sakowsky's explanation before it had even begun. "Slingshot orbit, to gain momentum to 'fling' the satellite somewhere... Far away?" "This guy's good," Sakowsky quipped to Joey, giving him a weak smile that was bounced straight back off Federiko's stony glare. "Shut up," Quigley commanded, pacing the room until he was by the window, looking over the starscape. Deep in thought for a few seconds, before he turned back. "Alto Sakowsky, you're both a genius and a bloody idiot." Alto's eyebrows formed humpback bridges over his eyes. "I'm both?" "Yes! That satellite's had three days to build up energy for the fling? Sawkowsky said nothing, but nodded shakily. Quigley looked over to Joey. "We're in the wrong place!" Thud-thud-thuds of heavy boots came up the stairs where Quigley and Joey had before creeped up, and the door to the lab flung open with such force that the glazed panel smashed as the door bounced against the wall, vibrating with the force as it slowly caned back around. Four heavy-set guys stormed in, dressed to the nines in combat armour, gas masks over their faces and police style helmets covering the tops of their heads. They looked like a bunch of drones, the only thing to distinguish them was the breathing coming from the vocalisers on their suits. "Alto Sakowsky... You're under arrest!" Joey protested, walking toward the lead cop. "Now, one second..." "Shut up, civilian!" the cop breathed angrily, pushing Joey forcefully to the ground with just a flick of the wrist. His attention - and submachine gun - turned back to Sakowsky. "You're under arrest! Come with us!" Sakowsky didn't want to. These weren't cops, despite the convincing uniforms. "Nah, no! Don't do this! I'll tell 'em!" The lead cop's head turned sideways a little in curiosity. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mr Sakowsky. Now I'll have to insist on detaining you..."

With a clap of gloved hand on Sakowsky's shirt, the cop lunged forward and grabbed him, pulling the scared technician back toward him, where the other cops swarmed around to make escape completely impossible. All the while Quigley and Joey watched from the side of the room, perplexed at this... Unorthodox arrest technique. "Wait, stop!" Sakowsky yelped from the huddle, just managing to get his head high of the four cops. "If you wanna see that satellite again, get to the space elevator in thirty minutes! You can stop Brag Toni from gettin' it but it's your only chance!" Quigley had only a few seconds to digest this new information before one of the cops - the lead cop, it seemed - pulled from his jacket pocket a retractable device with a button that was pressed to reveal a sharp, conical blade about ten inches long - an ice pick with a laser pointer at the end that went straight for the back

of Sakowsky's neck from behind. With a gentle prod it firmly entrenched itself, easily puncturing the skin and soundly shattering Alto's spinal column. A few pressurised spats of blood shot out of the wound as the ice pick was retracted, it's work done. The lead cop's unerring glare turned to Quigley and Joey. If there were eyes behind the goggles, they were cold and devilish; all the two investigators could see was their own reflections like rabbits in the headlamps of some great chomping dustcart. "Time to leave, Joey boy?" Quigley stuttered to his partner, backing further toward the panoramic window. "Think you're right, Quig!" Joey agreed. He looked around. The four pretend not-cops-at-all-cops noticed their reservations and advanced slowly. The lead cop's masked mouth moved again. "These witnesses need neutralising." Crap, thought Quigley. They'd just seen a bloody murder and they were next! Alto Sakowsky's twitching corpse lay flat on the ground, his dead eyes staring like fish toward nothingness. Their attention was quickly diverted as the lead cop raised the spooky retracting icepick toward them, the laser sight falling directly above Quigley's heart. Three more conventional pistol barrels followed suit and lined up. Soon, the two investigators were pinned against the window, staring defeat in the face. Wow, this job'd turned sour pretty darn quick. This Brag Toni must be quite a character; just a shame, Quigley thought, that he'd never visit that club and have a ball squeezing all those sources for the juiciest bits of info. Oh, how his life had been a waste. Though, as he stared death in the face, as it crept toward him, he made one final recollection: the previous night. What a party! But that thought was once again wiped from his forefront by a great shattering that immediately followed a crack of explosive against confined metal. Glass tinkled gently all around before a yank from a friendly arm took Quigley Hubb out of the great window, now shattered into a thousand tiny pieces by Joey's bullet, and down to the clattering, wobbly fire escape on the floor below. "God dammmit, Joey! Try to tell me when you're gonna do stuff!" There was no time for Joey to respond as he dragged his inquisitive friend down the rickety old fire escape, toward some kind of safety. They couldn't go back up; thumps of feet signalled that their pursuers and would-be assailants weren't going to let the two slip through their fingers that easily. Facing the biting chill of an Imrekian night, high up and descending, Quigley and Joey's coats flapped madly in the wind as they stumbled as quickly as possible down the metal ladders. Reaching the final platform before the relatively short drop down to the ground, Quigley shook Joey's shoulder. "What? It'd better be important, Quigley!" Quigley's face scrunched up. "It is and it isn't. Just, well, well done." Joey stood back in a we of Quigley's misplaced timing. "Congratulate me later, bud. We've gotta get out of this alive before you can buy me the first in many, many drinks you'll owe me." Looking down, Quigley saw their battered car. It was tantalisingly close, but of course, their pursuer's ominous black humvee stood next to it. Dying at the hands of some laser icepick was one thing, but in a high-speed pursuit by professional killers... This was less appealing. "Sakowsky said about getting to the airport," Quigley breathlessly reminded his partner. Joey nodded, pointing his gun upwards. He was studying the back figures clambering down the structure above along the iron sights of his pistol. "All in good time, Quig," he mouthed through gritted teeth. "Got another idea to lose these bozos." Joey's face contorted with concentration as he took aim, and with a careful squeeze of the trigger, fired a slug right upwards - but didn't hit any of the assassins coming down. They instinctively ducked for cover; none was to be found on the latticework metal fire escape structure. "Ya missed, Joey!" Quigley wailed angrily. "Ya damn well missed!" "Did I?" his friend smiled wryly. He took aim once more and fired for a second time. Another apparent

miss, but Quigley noticed a cloud of dust and fragments from a support on the wall that held up the fire escape. It was bending now where it hadn't done before. Quigley realised his friend's genius. "Do it again! One more should do it!" Joey took aim for this last shot, but one of the goons above blindly threw his weapon over the side and pulled the trigger. A great sonic boom ripped through the air and a red-hot shard of semi-molten ammunition coursed through the air and right past Joey, through the lattice panelled floor of their own platform and dug into the ground around the Imrek Mining Concern building with an almighty thud. If that had hit Joey it would've easily shattered his bones, or scrambled his brain. The goon then lined up for another shot! "Now, Joey!" Quigley commanded, but his friend was already there. Within a breath Joey had lined up and fired one more cool slug of metal right into the support. It creaked and groaned, the weight of the fire escape plus six occupants now too much for it to bear. The metal then went white with stress as it valiantly tried to remain in one piece but, just above the support plate whose fastenings had now been expertly shot out and damaged beyond the point of tolerance, but lost the battle. Metal squealed against metal as, from the top down, the fire escape snapped off and started to shear off from the building it had been latched onto. "Get ready to jump!" Joey instructed, and held onto the railing as the whole assembly finally snapped off at third floor, where the goons had clambered down to. The portal with a ladder to the ground seemed mighty appealing, and as the entire lower part of the fire escape tower twisted away, it moved until it almost lined up with the ground floor window of the building. "Now!" Quigley tumbled through the little hole first, and the ladder acted as a conduit, guiding his falling self straight through the window, which smashed as easily as the fourth floor one had before. Joey soon followed into the office that was covered in shattered glass and breathless investigator. Joey managed to get up and look outside just as the rest of the fire escape tower crumpled against the ground, sending the four goons into the ground in a mess of twisted metal. They were dazed by the impact of falling three floors to the hard ground, but then, unexpectedly, were dispatched as the rest of the escape tower descended - it being unstable and unable to support itself with a large portion of the bottom missing - and crashed down, leaving these faceless killers at the mercy of a few tons of twisted metal. The main thing was that they were no longer a threat, and this left the smashed window safe for Quigley and Joey to climb back through. It was the easiest way back to their car, anyway. Doors were very overrated after this escape. Small shards of broken glass fell onto the carpet in the car as Quigley picked them out of his hair, and from rips in his coat. His beige jacket had been one of his favourites, from back in his police days... but now, after jumping through two great windows, was torn and tawdry. Though on the bright side, he was speeding along with Joey to the spaceport, to finally grab that damn satellite. Then he'd be paid his 15,000 Prescos and could buy six damn new coats. This thought, the idea that all this running about might come to fruition, make him smile uncontrollably. Joey noticed this as he held the wheel with his right hand, his left resting lazily on the automatic gear shift. "Whatcha so smiley about, Quig?" "Almost there, Joey boy. Almost time to get paid, have a beer and relax for a while. Been a tough one, hasn't it?" Joey's mouth fell open half-jokingly. "You said it was incredibly easy! You said you could solve this with your eyes shut!" Quigley scowled. "I didn't know about jumping through windows then. I'm past all that, anyway." Joey snorted. His smile evaporated. "Fine, don't thank me for saving our asses." A few awkward moments passed. Joey's friend's head fell for a sec, before rising again. His face looked genuinely grateful. "Well, I'm a fool. And ya did well, Joey. Honestly, I wouldn't be alive without you..." Joey interrupted his friend's unusual gushiness with a tug on the wheel. Sharply the car turned to the left and the spaceport was in front. "We're here." Clambering out onto the tarmac, Quigley surveyed what was in front of him. He'd not been to the space

port for over ten years, and a lot had changed. Five great metal spires that held rocket ships were spaced out in a sea of concrete, with various lifts and service equipment buzzing around them like bees. A low terminal shaped like a crescent moon surrounded the entrance in front, but the five launching towers were dominating the purple skyline on this drifty, warm evening. Past the irregularly-spaced launch towers lay a great tarmac strip almost eight miles long - this was the runway, and where they'd been told to be if they wanted to see the satellite again. "Good, we're in plenty of time," Quigley said, consulting his digital watch. Fifteen minutes. "Munro's on his way." "Oh really" said Joey. "Yeah, send him a technograph in the car. He's got our money ready." "We'd better have his satellite then." A few extra moments passed, and a great black limousine sidled into the waiting area. It was Munro, plainly; who else would turn up in a place like this in such impressive manner. The door hissed open and Munro stepped forth onto the tarmac runway. Immediately his eyes looked around the place, surveying it. "Hubb, where's my satellite?" "All in good time," Quigley grinned. He noticed someone else was now clambering out of the limo, following Munro. Her hair flowed in a great bleached-blonde trail, and her dress style was impeccable. Aquamarine business blouse with a great golden set of high-heel shoes. Commanded respect and attention, certainly. "I don't believe we've met?" Joey stuttered in amazement. "My daughter, Cyglia," Munro shortly explained. "She deals personally with things of a legal matter." "I see... " was all Joey could manage. Again, his attention was diverted by Quigley's hawkish calling. "Satellite's coming into view now," he barked, pointing toward the mauve sky. A small trailing star, like a comet, was streaming toward them, getting bigger and brighter with every passing second. "What's going on?" Munro asked, puzzled. "That can't be it!" "It is," Quigley hummed. "On a slingshot orbit, ready to be flung to the furthest reaches of the Quadrant." "Yes, but is it meant to be on fire like that?" "Probably; I'm no astro-engineer, though." The great fiery ball grew larger as the moments passed, moments that turned into minutes until the satellite, glowing white-hot from atmospheric re-entry, became the dominant feature on the deserted skyline, illuminating all that preceded it on the runway. But something was wrong. The satellite was now coming in far too fast and at far too intense an angle. Suddenly Quigley could see that calamity was moments away. "Hit the deck, everyone! It's a decaying orbit!" Just in time, Quigley, Joey, Cyglia and Munro ducked and got a faceful of tarmac girt. The satellite, now burning to a crisp, the He-3 payload providing awesome, almost flawless combustible fuel torching it. Obviously this had been the intention all along. With a scream it thundered over the prone group and continued for about a mile down the runway before it finally met the ground, gravity finally retaining domination over it. There was an almighty percussion as the softened body of the satellite crumpled, which sent He-3 everywhere, which almost instantly erupted into a massive conflagration. What was left of the prized payload went up, and left the satellite as nothing more than a burned-out husk only larger than a truck smoking sadly in a great crackling crater in the runway, about four feet deep. "Quigley drove over. "Well, he said to Munro glibly, "there's your satellite." Munro was as incandescent with rage as the He-3 had been moments before. "What satellite! There's nowt left but this damn crater! You can't expect me to accept that!" "Hey," the investigator said, brushing down his coat sarcastically, "you told me to find the satellite that you'd lost. We found it. Here it is." Quigley said shortly, pointing into the crater. "So, technically, we've fulfilled our part of the bargain." "But, but!" Munro tried to protest, but his daughter shushed him with a glance. "You know they're right, Dad," she said softly, but with authority. Munro dared not argue back. "They got

your satellite back. You never specified the condition." "Quite right!" Quigley backed up. "Yeah, but the whole idea was to get it back intact. Get the payload, for sure! And now there's dead guys all over my office!" Sirens wailed in the distance. The emergency services and authorities were coming to investigate the exploding satellite smack-bang on the runway. "Well," Quigley said slyly, "maybe you should just make recompense for our trouble before the authorities arrive and start asking awkward questions I've no real reason not to answer." Munro gave him a crossed look for a second. His head dropped in resignation. The outcome had been poor, and now would get poorer. But Quigley Hubb was right, and, if he followed through on his promise, could land him in even more hot water. Time to cut his losses, he thought. "Give 'em the money, Cyglia, darling." She nodded silently and reached into the case she held in her hand. Out were pulled two green wallets credit chits - and handed them quickly to Joey and Quigley, one apiece. "7,500 Prezcos each there; now, I suggest we all leave rapidly." "Cheers!" Quigley said, and looked to Joey, who was equally as pleased looking, like a great space-cat, "couldn't agree more." It had seemed like one awfully long day, but finally the bar above which Quigley Hubb had made his home on the planet Imrek came into sight once again. He breathed a sigh of relief as Joey stopped the car outside, and both got out, eager to start burning their cash and taking a well-deserved break. Almost stumbling with haste, they went in and took up stops at the worn, scratched bar. "Ah, sweet, sweet bar," Quigley gasped once again, combing his hand through his hair, searching for a bit of relief. The bartender walked over, chucking his stained tea-towel aside. "What can I get you guys?" "Two Protons, man," Quigley said. He handed over the money and two tall bottles of golden, effervescent beer were coasted across. Quigley took a sip before looking back over the lip of the bottle. The bartender was there, looking suspiciously at him. "I did pay ya, didn't I?" "Oh, sure." "Then what can I do for you?" "Well," the bartender stuttered, unsure quite how to word what he had to say, "you don't live in one of the apartments upstairs by any chance?" Quigley's eyes narrowed apprehensively. "Which one?" "The one with the door propped up outside." "Why?" Quigley said slowly, trying to 'read' the bartender's face. "What's happened." "Oh, it's probably nothing, but I heard the sound of a door being flung to the floor about twenty minutes ago." Quigley leapt up and grabbed hold of Joeys's loose arm. He pointed to the two unfinished drinks. "Keep 'em cold." Both Quigley and Joey slowly ascended the stairway outside the bar, taking each step as lightly and carefully as possible. Joey led, with his pistol drawn. Seven bullets left. They'd have to last whatever waited upstairs. Quigley's unhinged door indeed lay flat against the filthy, matted carpet inside his apartment. The crispy, battered paintwork crunched as two sets of feet trooped across and back into the apartment. It looked roughly the same; still a mess and as if it hadn't been cleaned since Quigley had moved in many moons ago. There was no order, just chaos, and it was hard to discern if anything had been moved, modified, taken or left. "Hmm, maybe it was the wind?" Quigley mused. Maybe it was the wind that had blown the badly-repaired door back down again. Remembering that it was the very sound of that door flumping to the ground that began this whole thing.

But it wasn't, and Joey wasn't fast enough to stop the shadowy figure emerging from behind and grasping hold of Quigley and spinning a length of nylon cord around his neck. Quigley spewed and gasped for air, but with every second the air was becoming less and less able to penetrate the vice-like grip of the cord around his neck. Valiantly, Quigley's hands tried to prise the cord away, but the man was too strong. This was fast becoming a futile endeavour. "Hurry up and shoot this idiot, Joey!" Quigley spluttered with some of his last breaths, he thought. "Kill this guy!" Joey lined up for a shot, but the man's head was moving too wildly. He couldn't guarantee not hitting Quigley, and it wasn't a risk he was going to take. He'd wait as long as he could, trying to get a good shot. "This is what happens when you mess with Brag Toni!" the fiend snarled right into Quigley's ear. He let the grip on the cord go just a tiny, tiny bit. "I keep hearing that name...! Quigley said, but soon a great crack silenced all conversation. The assassin had been sloppy, and let Joey line up a perfect head shot. Quigley's apartment had suddenly become a lot redder, the blood shining on the wall behind. The man's body dropped dead, and thudded against the floor. Oh, how they'd be wondering what's going on in the bar downstairs. Again, awkward questions would be asked, and Quigley didn't feel like answering them. Catching his breath, he moved over to Joey. "Thanks again for saving me, Federiko." "Anytime, bud," Joey smiled weakly, "but what now?" "We gotta go!" "Where?" Quigley's friend asked. Quigley took a few gulps of fresh air and massaged his bruised throat. "Easy. Spaceport. We've fifteen-thou and we can go anywhere we like. Or wherever the next space flight's destined to." Quigley stopped to examine Joey's sceptical face. "You got a better plan?" Joey's sceptical look couldn't resolve itself, and a smile beamed across in its place. "Sounds like a plan! On the road again!" Quigley smiled back, looked back at the dead body of his would-be assailant and took one last look at his dump of an apartment. With a final sniff and arching of his eyebrows, he bounded back out of the door, Joey following him down the stairs. Yeah, back on the road. Much better that way.