Pet was glad Kelly couldn't see the surprised look on her face from the other side of the door. "Hold up a minute," she said through the speaker. She quickly slipped her knives in the back of her waistband, and locked the kittens in the bathroom. Then retracted the wires, pulled the drape aside, and opened the door and stepped into the doorway. Drawing the door mostly closed behind her, she nodded politely at KK. Then turned to Kelly. "Too what do I owe the honor?"
The two gangers stood on the far side of the fence and showed no sign of wanting to come through. "Rent day," said Kelly. When Pet returned with the scrip, Kelly added, "You've got cats, right?"
Pet raised an eyebrow, then simply nodded yes.
"You might want to keep them inside," said Kelly.
"I always do," Pet replied looking even more puzzled, "and I thank you for your concern though I admit to being just a bit confused by it. Might I ask why you're telling me this?"
Kelly looked a little uncomfortable. "Just a feeling." KK grunted. "Alright," she said. "A little more than that. Some cats have gone missing. There was that little nest of feral cats over by the park? All gone."
"I like cats," said KK. "I liked those cats. Someone took 'em." He flexed his enormous troll hands.
"A couple of dogs, too," said Kelly. "So ... just be careful."
Pet instantly became more focused. "The cats over by the park are gone? I... eh..." she hesitated, then continued "used to feed them. When did they disappear?"
Kelly shrugged, but KK spoke up. "It's hard to tell for sure- they're so skittish. I thought a few were missing a couple of weeks ago. A couple of days ago, I was sure ... not one left."
"And the Moores? The orcs over on Delaney? Their dog went missing about a week ago," added Kelly.
Pet stared at the ground and thought over what they had said for a few moments.
"Thanks for the info. I'll make sure to watch after my cats, and keep an eye open if I happen to be out and about at night. Kelly, I'm glad you happened by today...however odd the reason. I've been wanting to discuss something with you. Eh," she hesitated a moment, looked over at KK, shrugged, then continued "this isn't something I want getting about you understand." Distinctly uncomfortable, she looked at the ground. "There's a bunch of young kids squatting in a building north about half a dozen blocks from here. The oldest can't be more than ten or twelve. I want to ... help them." Pet looked up at Kelly very directly as she continued. "As I'm sure you know anyone connected to a runner is in danger, so I don't want there to be any connection between me and them. Plus I don't suppose it would do my rep any good if it got out." She laughed. "I can hear it now: Pet the Babysitter." She turned serious again. "But I do want them to have some supplies, and to be as safe as they can be under the circumstances. Think you might help me out with that?"
"Not my job, Pet," said Kelly. "British Steel isn't a bunch of babysitters, either. We'll make sure the chickenhawks stay away, as much as we can. That's bad for biz. I'll have Marcus keep any eye on them, though. The Steel can always use new blood."
Pet nodded as this was about what she had expected. "Good enough Kelly. They could do a lot worse than hooking up with you. And if you do notice anything... unusual over there, send the troll over!" she finished with a grin for KK.
Checking out her retinal clock, she suddenly realized the morning had gotten away from her. "Damn! Thanks again for the info. I've got to hustle! The sensei gets testy when I'm late! Nothing worse than a testy sensei. Training really tends to hurt more those days!"
Kelly looked faintly interested. "Good workout there, with Meegai?"
"The best!" Pet replied. "Well, the best if you are into the Coup. Which is best if you are into crisp, precise and," she grinned tightly "deadly martial arts! No muss, no fuss, your opponent is down and usually unlikely to get back up. If you want to "play with your food," she shrugged, "you study something else."
Kelly nodded. "Is it one of those," she waved her hands, "mumbo-jumbo, way of the spirit things? No offense. Or is it for ass-kicking pure and simple?"
Pet laughed. "The ass-kicking one - definitely! I mean, you can if you want, get into the "way of the spirit" thing with any martial art. But with this one, first you kick butt! You interested in trying it out? It's handy sometimes," and here the shadow of old pain crossed her face, "to be able to take someone out when you can't get to your weapons."
"Yeah. Yeah. Alright. See you 'round," she said. "C'mon, KK."
Pet watched them walk briskly away, probably toward their next rent collection. Turning away and hurrying into her own house to get ready for the afternoon's training, she realized Kelly had obviously seen something she didn't want to see. "Damn. I've got to get a better poker face. Who would have thought that's still bothering me? Oh well, it's the sensei who will be bothering me if I don't get a move on!"
Checking her retinal clock again, she decided she just had time to drop off a couple of canolli to Shar-Chi on her way. "I probably don't have time for tea though. Just as well since I still haven't figured out that last herb!"
Pet smiled at the old man. In addition to him being useful, she actually did like him. "A short visit I'm afraid. I'm going to have to hustle to make it to my training this afternoon. Madam Meeagi isn't as... mellow as you. And it hurts when she lets you know she's unhappy about something." She sat down across from him. " Did you enjoy the fish I brought the other day? Was the sauce too spicy?"
"It was good." He leaned in, "what do you want, hmm?"
Pet held up her hands out palm up in an "I'm innocent" gesture and shrugged. "Nothing. Just a quick visit is all. You're getting suspicious in your old age."
"That's why I've got an old age to get suspicious in." He sniffed at the cannoli. "You want tea?"
Pet stood up. "Next time. I really do have to get going."
She often made her drop after class with Madame Meegai. Her class was eight moderately advanced students and usually met in the early evenings. Sometimes she stayed late to cook for Meegai as part of their agreement. As she served the stir-fried tofu, Meegai gestured for her to sit and join her, an unusual event. After Pet served herself and sat, they ate in silence for a moment.
Finally, Meegai spoke, "Two new students came yesterday. You know them. Kelly Edge and William Bonner, the one they call KK."
Pet was listening to her sensei with barely half her mind. The other half was skipping from one topic to another:
She still hadn't figured out the last herb in Shar-Chi's last tea and they were both getting tired of the blend. But the rules of their "game" didn't allow for change until she'd guessed them all.
Should she have put in more of the seeds from that astonishingly hot pepper she'd used to spice the tofu? Meegai did like her food fiery, after all.
The chopsticks she was using, like all the sets Meegai owned, were gorgeous. She especially liked these: an iridescent green painted with elegant golden dragons.
And why had her sensei invited her to dinner? Had she done something wrong, or far less likely - right?
The words, "Kelly Edge and William Bonner, the one they call KK," snapped her full attention back. She put down the bite of food she had been about to raise to her mouth, and looked at her sensei for several moments.
"I am surprised, as I'm sure you noticed. A little while back, Kelly and I passed a few words back and forth in casual conversation, and I got the strong, but obviously wrong, impression that she wasn't at all interested in all this ... how did she put it mumbo jumbo.
"And KK ... well trolls in general aren't usually into martial arts just because they are so much stronger than most of the folks they meet. They just don't see the point. Although he might just be protecting his leader.
"I suppose more students are always good. I wonder ..."
She realized suddenly she was babbling, a quality Meegai had more than once let her know she didn't appreciate. She stopped talking, picked up her lovely chopsticks and started eating again.
"You must stop judging people by their appearance. Kelly Edge, she is so angry. I can teach her to fight, but ..." Meegai took another bite of food. "but William, I think he might be able to become a warrior." She looked up sharply, "how many trolls have you known? Why do you think they do not study?"
Remembering Kelly's exact responses when they had talked, Pet wondered if the tough gang leader might have had some experiences similar to her own. But that wasn't something that was hers to share. So she said instead "Respectfully Madame, it's unlikely Kelly would be where she is, leader of the Steel I mean, if she didn't have some anger. So perhaps "some anger" has "some" usefulness. As far as trolls," she smiled, "I've.. worked with a few. So far, none of them have had any use for the Art. But I don't know KK very well. Though he generally visits me once a month, he doesn't talk much." And she took another bite of food, deciding that more pepper seeds would have been too much.
"Anger has it's place, but for the warrior anger is a distraction." Meegai sipped her tea. "So, most of the trolls you know have no interest in studying. Whereas all the humans do, is that right?"
Holding back a sigh, Pet replied "No Madame, I do not believe I said that. If I did, I apologize. It is not what I meant. Only that I have observed that sometimes, those who are smaller or weaker, including humans, may have more motivation than those who are stronger, like many trolls."
"The food is good," said Meegai. "I must teach now." She stood. "I will see you tomorrow."
Pet stood and bowed respectfully. After Meegai left the room she sat down and finished her meal, then cleaned up before heading home. "I'll pick up the food I left there for the kids and drop it off. I think I will turn in early tonight. Meegai was pretty tough on us tonight. I wonder if Kelly and KK would be up for a little extra sparring time?" thought Pet as she left.
"Frell," she said softly. Then immediately began a careful search of the area. She found nothing. The kids and their minimal possessions were gone.
She swore again - less softly this time. She decided to see if there was anyone still out on the streets in the blocks around the building. "And maybe Kelly is still up and about."
No one was out and about, so her next step was to head for "Sin After Sin" the bar that was the unofficial headquarters of British Steel. The bouncer at the door recognized her, but she couldn't remember his name. "Hi Pet," he said in the usual piss-poor English accent. "Whaddya need?"
"Hey darlin'," she said using her best CAS bimbo accent which she hoped sounded vaguely British, "you seen that Kelly girl... or KK ...or," she suddenly remembered something Kelly had said earlier about having someone watch the squat, "Marcus"?"
"Hmm," he turned to yell over his shoulder, "Marcus, someone to see you."
A moment later, a rather more punked out than usual Steel walked out the door. "Yeah?"
"Hey there," Pet greeted him, "nice look." She moved her head a little to left. "Think we could have a private word?" He followed her a few steps away, and she continued, "Kelly told me you was gonna watch that squat - the one with the little kids. Any idea where they are?"
"Not exactly. This afternoon a van and a couple of cars rolled up and a slick type - screaming corp, you know? - got out and talked to Jimmy, he's the one they kind of look up to, you know? They talked, then Jimmy went and talked to the others, then they all came out with their stuff and got in the van. That's it," said Marcus.
Figuring it was pointless, Pet had to ask anyway. "That's it eh? No point in asking, I suppose, if there was any kind of ID on the van or the cars ... or the guy? Or if you'd ever seen anything out of the ordinary before going on around the building?"
"Back off!" he snarled. "I got there, three vehicles, no markings I saw. The kids had been going into the City, hustling I guess. Someone came back, they cut a deal. Whadday want me to do?"
"Hey, don't get your shorts in a twist! Just asking." She paused. "How about I buy you a brew? Sooth your throat from all this talking."
"Yeah, alright," he allowed himself to be calmed.
"Your friend gonna let us go inside?" Pet asked, glancing at the bouncer.
"Depends, are you packed? No one but the Steel goes in packed," he said.
"Ah well," Pet replied "and as it happens I don't go anywhere without my metal friends. Perhaps," and she unobtrusively pulled out a couple of bills, "this will substitute for my company?"
"Wait here." He took the scrip and went inside, and came back with two bottles. "Cheers."
Pet was a bit surprised. She'd expected Marcus to just take the money. "This is really pretty decent of him," she thought. The brew in the bottle was vile, but she acknowledged the toast and took a couple of good swigs anyway just to show she was appreciative. Casting around for something "small talky" to say, she came up with, "The Steel runs a pretty tight ship around the neighborhood. Impressive."
"It's our turf, innit?" he said.
"It is indeed. Just giving ya a compliment," she said. "Not a great conversationalist doesn't even begin to describe it," Pet thought to herself. "Since Kelly isn't an idiot, I have to assume he has other assets." She decided to give up on the small talk and finished choking down the beer as quickly as possible.
As she left Marcus called out. "Thanks for the beer ... and if you learn what happened to the kids ..." his voice trailed off.
"Yeah," she called looking over her shoulder as she settled herself on her bike and rode off. "Maybe I'll check in tomorrow with Shar-Chi. If anyone knows anything, he'd probably be the one. At the very least I'll be able to check for new jobs and have another run at the herb in that damned tea!"
The next morning, Pet found she couldn't settle down so she cut short her morning exercises and used the time for some target practice with the Predator instead.
After that she picked up some fresh vegetables for Madam Meegai's dinner from the outdoor market. Around noon she headed to Minelli's and picked up some canolli. She was pleasantly surprised to find the shop had fruit tarts that day as well. Minelli's didn't have the tarts every day as the supply of fresh fruit was erratic, but she'd learned Madam really liked them so she picked up a dozen of those as well. Minelli's tarts were different - small, no more than a bite or two with an excellent flakey crust and a tart, puree fresh fruit filling. They were usually each made of a different fruit and figuring out what fruit it was, as they melted in your mouth, was part of their appeal. They were amazing and Pet loved them too. She polished off a couple before she made it back to her bike. "Peach," she thought after the first. "Apple," after the second. She eyed another that she thought was likely her favorite lemon, but then closed the box and stowed it away carefully. "I'll eat them all," she thought, shaking her head. "I''ll be sluggish during training, especially if Shar-Chi shares the cannolli. Although that may not happen." She grinned as she got on the bike. "And then if Madam asks me why I'm so slow and she finds out I ate all these tarts, and didn't bring any for desert," she shook her head again I'll be one sore baby." Still grinning she took off in the direction of Shar-Chi's shop.
Thinking of the main reason she wanted to see the old man wiped the grin off her face. She sighed heavily. But Pet was nothing if not pragmatic. She'd never have survived if she had not been. "Even if he doesn't know anything about the kids... or the cats... maybe he'll have a line on another of these baton-swords. Or two traditional ones. I'd really like to learn that dual sword kata Madam mentioned."
When she arrived at Shar-Chi's and buzzed, she got a recorded message saying the shop was closed. That usually meant that Shar-Chi was with a "client."
"Frell!" Pet muttered under her breathe, realizing she really should have called first. She stalked angrily back to her bike, then took a couple of deep breaths to calm down. She decided to head to Madam's and put away the food for tonight's dinner. Once that was done, she'd comm Shar-Chi and see if he'd become "un-closed."
Come to that, maybe she'd give Spike and Luce a comm as well. "No stone unturned and all that." she thought. "Anyway, couldn't hurt. And we might be able to have another great meal at Toby O'Brien's," she snorted, dissipating some of her grimness with the thought of the barely edible food served at the bar.
Safely back at her place, Pet put in the call to Shar-Chi, got an automated response and killed some time doing katas and on the range. Then her phone chimed and Shar-Chi's number showed up on the ID. She answered and Shar-Chi's face appeared. "So pretty lady, you stop by, you call. What you want from Shar-Chi?"
"Three things. One, canolli - I have some for you. Two, I have another guess about what's in the tea. And three, I'd rather talk about in person."
He gazed at her shrewdly. "Tomorrow, 9:30 am. OK?"
Bright and early, Pet went through the usual routine with Shar-Chi's security and sipped her tea across the table from the old man. "Tea and cannoli, that's two. What's three, hmm?"
"Three. A couple of things have disappeared from around here lately. Probably unrelated to each other, but you know everything that happens in the neighborhood," she complimented the old man with a smile. "A bunch of cats and a bunch of kids. Have you by any chance heard anything about what might have happened to either of them?
"And relative to two... wild cherry bark?"
He shook his head sadly, "If I had, you'd have to pay, but I tell you for free, I haven't." He gave her a hard look, "If you want me to poke around, I can. It might not be cheap."
Pet stared at Shar-Chi for a few moments, then shook her head slowly. "Unfortunately, much as I'd like to know, I'm sure I can't afford your most excellent services."
Looking down into her cup, with a small sigh, she continued, "how about the tea? Did I at least guess that right?"
"Close enough - leaves," he sighed with evident relief. "But not too much! They contain cyanide."
Pet nodded. "Some tribes used to add it to their victory celebration drinks. Maybe the cyanide gave it a little extra kick."
"Used judiciously, it can be helpful and cleansing," he said.
She took another swallow. "It's a good tea, but I have to admit I am looking forward to something else. " She looked across at him with a little smile. "I hope you'll be calling me again soon... for tea."
"Maybe. Maybe in a week or two," he said. "We'll see."
Once Pet was outside straddling her bike, she let her disappointment show. Shar-Chi was extremely good at what he did, but way out of her price range. "Maybe... Spike? Oh what the heck," she thought. She pulled out the pre-paid and called his number.
"Pet, what's up?" said Spike.
"Hey ho. Couple of weird, probably unrelated, things have gone down around and about lately. Wondered if you might have any info on them. Bunch of cats and a bunch of kids have disappeared? I'd owe ya one." Pet replied.
"Umm. Pet? I don't know where you live but I'm pretty sure it's not too close to where I live," he said. "I have no idea what you're talking about ..."
Pet sighed. "I'm an idiot. I guess I have been so worried, I lost track of that. Sorry to have bothered you!"