by Norsebard

Contact: norsebarddk@gmail.com





This hard-drivin' B-action drama belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me though they may remind you of someone.

This story depicts a rekindling of a romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.

This story contains a gigantic amount of genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

This story contains gunfire-related violence, some of which is directed at women. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.




Written: September 3rd - 18th, 2017.

- Once more, thank you very much for your help, Wendy Arthur :D

- No, this can't be counted among the fine arts… it's pulp literature, pure and simple. Think of it as a colorful B-movie in print ;D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

Description: During a late-summer heatwave, unemployed ex-convict Giulia Falcone is contacted by an old friend who gives her a job offer she can't afford to refuse: a special package needs to get from point A to point B with no questions asked. She accepts, but it doesn't take long before she is up to her neck in trouble when thugs want to grab the package. The only person she can turn to for help is her old cellmate, the fiery Heather 'Candy' Appleby - and once the dynamic two hook up and take to the mean streets, the bad boys on Giulia's tail better watch out…





Skid row. Every major city has one. Some have several. The seedy, run-down, graffiti-covered neighborhoods that always reek of garbage, urine and low self-esteem. They are populated by addicts, delinquents, social cases and people who cannot afford to live elsewhere, like single mothers who struggle to pay the rent despite working two jobs in addition to their full-time occupation of keeping their families afloat and on the straight and narrow.

As the temperatures go up during the summer months, the poorer neighborhoods always turn into powder kegs. Violent assaults, rapes and murders are all weekly occurrences during the hot months; sirens, those tell-tale signs of tragedy, are heard at least twice a day. The heat, the humidity and the abundance of recreational drugs and alcohol shared among the men sitting on the stoops are all ingredients of the vile concoction that threatens to boil over at any moment. It never takes more than a stare or a muffled curse to make the fists, the knives or the bullets fly.

Skid row is also where former convicts first set up camp after being released back into society. For most, their first stop will also be their last stop, but a precious few manage to move up in the world. Some through hard work and perseverance, but most through the lure of quick and easy money promised them by the dangerous men wearing the colors of the local gangs.

Giulia Falcone was one of those former convicts. She lived in a one-room apartment on the second floor of a poorly maintained, seven-storey brownstone. Her single window overlooked the inner courtyard that had been neglected for so long it resembled a South American jungle. The gang members and assorted drug dealers used the natural cover to conduct their evil business, and a steady stream of haggard addicts loitered about hoping for a quick, but expensive, fix.

She had plenty of neighbors, but none that she ever spoke to. She had only lived there for six weeks following her release from the South Carlyle Women's Penitentiary and had yet to find her natural spot in the neighborhood's hierarchy - not that she was interested in doing so. She was an outsider, a self-imposed loner. An observer who stayed away from the gangs, the addicts and the many domestic disturbances that occurred on her floor with alarming regularity.

Even at a quarter to eight in the evening, the merciless sun continued to beat down from a sky that was more hazy than blue. Shimmers of heat rose from the streets and the decrepit brownstones which only added fuel to the latent fire ready to burn among the residents. Now and then, angry voices could be heard shouting from the inner courtyard or one of the other apartments; a gunshot soon rang out from downstairs.

Though Giulia did step back from the window in case of ricochets, she didn't care about what her fellow residents did to one another. She preferred to remain independent which is how she had survived her seven-year stretch in one piece.

Grunting, she shuffled back to her unmade sofa bed and flung herself onto it. Her apartment had less creature comforts than the cell she had left behind at the penitentiary. She had a sofa bed, one chair, one table, one dinner plate, one tumbler, one fork, one spoon and one knife at her disposal. Although she did have a mobile phone given to her upon her release by the social worker assigned to her case - it was part of an ongoing state-funded rehabilitation project - she had no TV, no books, no magazines, no job and very little money.

The 'no job' part annoyed her the most. Born into a hard-working, blue-collar Italian-American family, the first twenty-eight of her thirty-six years on the planet had largely followed the norm: solid support from her family, a solid apprenticeship at a solid company, and solid jobs which included driving delivery trucks. When an interesting offer had come along from a company that owned a big fleet of armored cars and trucks, and who wanted to use her steady hands and strong skills behind the wheel, she had jumped at the chance. The company had given her a sidearm, a neat uniform and the heavy responsibility of hauling hundreds of thousands of dollars in the back of the armored trucks.

It had also left her holding the bag when things went south. A pair of crooked co-workers had used her as their patsy after she had explained to them in no uncertain manner that she wasn't interested in taking part in their score. The crooks had pulled off a heist worth six-hundred-and-eighty thousand dollars from one of the company's armored cars; a wrapped bundle containing fifteen thousand stolen dollars had been found in Giulia's locker a few days later on an anonymous tip. Though she denied any involvement in the heist, the judicial system didn't believe her and sent her up the river for a stretch in the South Carlyle Women's Penitentiary.

Her family had disowned her immediately and had never visited her while she served her sentence. They had erased her from their lives by selling her car, her apartment and even her clothes. After seven years behind bars and six weeks back in the real world in the one-room apartment that might as well have bars, she hadn't tried calling her parents - there was simply no point.

Another gunshot rang out from the inner courtyard. A short five minutes later, a police siren arrived out front. Doors were slammed shut, orders were shouted, heavy footfalls echoed between the houses during the short chase. Angry voices cried out as the drug-dealing, or gang-related, perpetrator was taken into custody and dragged out to the waiting cruiser.

Giulia sighed and ran her hands through her short, mahogany-brown hair. She needed a trim, but she couldn't afford it. She had always worn it to her shoulders by choice, but the rules and regulations set up at the prison had demanded a uniform look among the inmates to be able to tell them apart from regular, upstanding citizens. A forced buzz-cut was part of the uniform look, along with baggy, orange fatigues and paper-thin shoes that couldn't be used for running.

Even lying down doing nothing, she continued to sweat. Her white, state issue tank-top sported ungainly stains below her breasts, and she knew her back would be one, large damp spot from resting on the uncomfortable sofa bed. Her brand-new, state issue khaki cargo pants were less fresh than they had been when she had been given them upon her release, but she couldn't afford to buy a second pair of pants. At least she had several pairs of underwear.

A faint knocking on the door forced her into action. Swinging her bare feet over the side of the sofa bed, she rose to her full height of six-foot-even and shuffled over to the door. As she opened it, she kept the two safety chains in place though she knew they would never be able to withstand anyone who was determined to get in.

A short man in his mid-fifties stood outside in the poorly-lit hallway holding a brown envelope in his wiry hands. His salt-and-pepper mustache and receding hair formed a stark contrast to his dark-blue shirt and pants that marked him out as one of the caretakers working at the social housing block. The trembling hands and worried lines on his face proved that he feared that the task of delivering the envelopes to the occasionally short-tempered residents would be the thing that would send him into an early grave. "Miss Falcone… your application form," he stammered, holding out the envelope as he stared into the tall woman's intense, ice-blue eyes to look for signs of trouble.

Giulia sent the shorter man a half-smile as she took the offered item, but the smile seemed to have the opposite effect as the messenger hurried away from the door to get to the next point on his agenda. Sighing, she closed the door and tore open the envelope.

It turned out to be the seven-page application form that she needed to fill out and deliver to her case worker in case she was unable to pay her next two-week rent on her own. For the first three months following the release from prison, the rent would be provided by the City, but she would be out on the street after that if she could not support herself through a steady income. She was halfway there already - six weeks had gone by since her release.

She had to swallow her pride and fill out the form, but before she had time to do so, her telephone rang. Shuffling over to the sofa bed, she flung herself down into it and picked up her mobile that she had left on the table. The caller-ID said it was an Unknown Caller , but she accepted it nevertheless - chances were it was a telemarketer.

"Speak up, stranger," she said, putting her bare feet up on the corner of the rickety, old table.

'Hi, Giulia. Do you recognize the voice?'

Grunting, Giulia closed her eyes - she did recognize it; it belonged to Eduardo 'Eddie' Espinosa, a slick operator she had known back when she had been a delivery truck driver roaming the downtown streets. At present, she would have preferred to have spoken to the world's worst telemarketer. "Sure. Been a while, Eddie," she said, at least trying to keep a civil voice.

'It's been five to eight with a little time off for good behavior… or so I heard,' Eduardo said; an undertone of a chuckle was heard as he spoke.

"You think that's funny?"

'Kinda. Who'd ya blow to get out after seven?'

"Your mother. Is this a social call, Eddie?"

'Naw. Let's cut to the chase. You interested in making ten grand? Two up front and eight later.'

"Eddie, Eddie, Eddie… Jeez…" Giulia said, rubbing her eyes. "If you think I'll do any criminal business for you straight outta jail, we're done talking."

'Will ya wait a minute? It's not drugs or anything. It's just a package that needs to get from somewhere to somewhere else. The people I work with want someone low-key and dependable.'

"And you thought of this old ex-con? I'm flattered."

'I thought of you 'cos you're A, low-key, B, dependable, and C, the best damn wheelman I know.'

"I'm not a man, Eddie."

'No shit? Wheel-person, then… how about that?'

Giulia rolled her eyes. "Or something. Why not do it yourself?"

'I'm not low-key these days.'

"You've moved up in the world?"

'Sorta. You interested or not? What are you doing with your life at the moment?'

"Sweating. Staring at the ceiling. More sweating." As she spoke, Giulia let her eyes roam over the poorly-kept, whitewashed ceiling where several brownish stains from old water leaks had broken through the white. It was a mess like the rest of the building, the neighborhood and even the entire district.

'Oh man, that sure does sound exciting. I suppose there aren't many places who want to hire an ex-con?'



Giulia let out a deep sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. Ten thousand dollars would cure a lot of her ailments. Such a nifty sum of money would also bring her plenty of new ailments, so it was really a toss-up between the devil she knew and an even worse one waiting for her just down the road. "Ten grand?" she said without opening her eyes.

'Yep. Two up front, eight when the job is done.'

Putting her bare feet down on the stained carpet, Giulia peeled the damp tank-top off her back and ran her free hand through her hair. She grimaced when her palm glistened from the sweat it had found there. "Well… all right," she said and let out a sigh.

'You're in?'


'Okay. You need to be at an old meat-packing warehouse at four-seven-five-nine East Seventy-ninth Street -'

"Whoa, whoa, whoa Eddie… that's a no-can-do. East Seventy-ninth Street is clear across town. I don't have any wheels. Well, if you don't count public transportation… but I can barely afford the bus fare when I need to see my case worker."

'Man, I love it when a girl plays hard to get,' Eduardo said and broke out in a laugh. 'Where did those fuckers put you?'

" Twelfth Street ."

'No way… those bastards put you in the slums? Okay, scratch what I told you. Here's what we're gonna do. Be at the corner of Twelfth and Sunderland half past eleven tomorrow night. I'll get one of my men-'

"One of your men? Just what are you doing for a living these days, Eddie?"

'This and that. As I said, I'll get one of my men to drop off a regular delivery van that you need to drive to the old meat-packing warehouse at four-seven-five-nine East Seventy-ninth Street . I'll be waiting for you there. Once we hook up, I'll give you the package and tell you where to go. Oh, and you probably need to be packing heat… if you have one.'

"Look, Eddie," Giulia said, using an index finger to draw a pattern on the top of the abused coffee table, "I told you already… I don't want any part of your criminal-'

'It doesn't have anything to do with that, Giulia!'

"It sure sounds like it to me."

'Well, it's not. It's just a clean, green and fully legit package. No tricks, no traps, no bullshit.'

Now Giulia knew that something was up. Though it had been a while since she had been in contact with Eduardo Espinosa, he had never been involved in anything that could be described as 'clean, green and fully legit' in the years she had known him. "Mmmm?" she said, making a concerned face at her old friend's words. Her empty pockets needed the two thousand dollars, however, and beggars couldn't be choosers.

'Yeah. And I really think you oughtta be carrying. You know how the world turns.'

"Too well. But I'm still not packing heat."

'Can't understand how you can leave home without one, but all right. No sweat, Giulia, this is a cream cracker run.'

"Oh, I've heard that once too often, Eddie. But all right… I need the money. I'll be at the corner of Twelfth and Sunderland tomorrow night at eleven-thirty. Don't forget the two grand once we meet."

'I won't. See ya then.'

"See ya," Giulia said and closed the connection. She bopped the telephone against her forehead a couple of times before she put it away. She needed to fill out the application form, but her mind was too buzzing with thoughts to sit still for any length of time. Instead, she got up and moved back to the window where she hoped she would find a fresh breeze that would help declutter her mind.

Her jaw was set in stone as she looked out of the window. Despite Eduardo's assurances that she would not be involved in shady business, the feeling that she was about to jump into the proverbial deep end of the cesspool was too strong to shake. The promise of ten thousand dollars - if she was able to accomplish the task - spoke loud enough to quell most of her concerns, but even such an amount of money wasn't enough to snuff them out completely.

All in all, she needed to take care of her own, good self when she carried out the job, because no one else would - that was an undeniable fact.


The day following the phone call from Eduardo Espinosa turned out to be even hotter and muggier than the ones leading up to it. The seats and the rest of the interior of the number nine bus that Giulia Falcone rode to get back from a meeting with her case worker reeked of B.O. and stale sweat. Complaining about it was pointless, however, since she was fully aware that she added her own, fair share of foul odors to the inhospitable conditions.

To compound the misery of the hot days, the shower faucets in her bathroom had only delivered a nasty, brown slush when she had wanted to get cleaned up and wash her hair prior to the important meeting. She and just about every other resident of the brownstone had called the super who in turn had called a plumber who would only work at the social housing block if his employees would be under constant protection by riot police. No police units were available for such a trivial task, so the problem with the pipes went unfixed until another, braver, plumber could be located.

Up front, the overly careful bus driver made sure to hit every single red light along the route, and Giulia let out a series of tormented sighs that only grew deeper when the bus came to another whining halt. Instead of allowing herself to get riled up, she zoned out and cast her mind back to the meeting she had been in.

Her case worker - a friendly, but permanently overworked woman in her mid-forties - had once more evaluated Giulia's files that chronicled her life from the moment the sentence had been passed. The application form for the rent had been approved, stamped and sent forth for further processing in the non-transparent, frustratingly bureaucratic system that always left Giulia puzzled and weary.

The case worker had once again asked if Giulia'd had an income without declaring it, if she had a substance abuse problem that she needed help to kick, if she'd had run-ins with the law since her release from prison, and if she had considered retraining to have a better chance of finding a job. Giulia had once again answered no, no, no, and yes, but that she could not afford to go back to school in her present financial situation. To the final part, the case worker had once again replied that, unfortunately, the City could not pay for retraining since Giulia already had a completed commercial education behind her. Stalemate.

A sudden jerk that fell over the bus when the overly careful driver slammed on the brakes to avoid a car that was nowhere near the large vehicle made Giulia snap out of her stupor. Her right hand moved into her blue windbreaker's pocket to touch the piece of paper where the case worker had jotted down a short list of telephone numbers that Giulia should try in her efforts to find a job. She would call them, but she already knew the negative answers, or prevarications, she would get because she had already heard them all in the six weeks she had tried to find a job.

When her stop finally came into sight, she pressed the little button which made an electronic panel light up with a Stopping message. Getting up, she shuffled up to the center doors and waited for the bus to come to a halt.


Waves of heat poured off the cracked sidewalk as she walked along Twelfth Street to get back to the brownstone where she lived. The muggy conditions seemed to bind the exhaust fumes from the cars driving past, because the air was stale and held precious little oxygen. A headache had been brewing inside her all morning, and it chose that very moment to boil over and make itself a nuisance. She needed something cold and sugary to drink, but her refrigerator was as empty as her love life had been for the better part of a decade.

Yet another police cruiser was parked outside Giulia's apartment complex; its flashing lights proved that someone's day was about to get worse. Soon, a paramedic unit drove past as well with the electronic siren blaring into the suffocating heat.

Giulia came to a halt outside a convenience store she knew would be air-conditioned. She reached into her rear pocket to count the change she had left after the bus fare - there would be enough to buy a single bottle of much-needed sodapop, but not a six-pack. Spinning around on her heel, she entered the store and let the cool air fall over her like a blanket.

Though the owner of the store had put up several hand-written signs telling the customers - in tall, red letters - that loitering would not be accepted despite the heat, the three aisles all saw local residents loitering to their hearts' delight. Not so Giulia who went straight over to the refrigerators to find a sodapop she liked. Almost as she had expected, the shelves had already been raided by heat-plagued citizens, but she managed to find a bottle of mango-passion fruit soda that she had wanted to try ever since getting out.

Grabbing the bottle, she shuffled her way past the hundreds of colorful boxes, bags and assorted other groceries she couldn't afford to get to the counter. Before she was able to reach it and the sour-faced store-owner who was busy polishing the smooth surface by the cash register, a sudden commotion behind her made her look over her shoulder.

The loitering residents all defied the inclement conditions outside by storming out of the cool convenience store. The reason for their hasty departure was quickly revealed in the shape of a young man wearing a white, sleeveless T-shirt and black jeans. His bandanna - red and silver, the colors of one of the local gangs - was wrapped around the lower part of his face, and black shades covered his eyes; a nickel-plated twenty-two caliber revolver in his hand took care of the rest.

Giulia groaned inwardly. She was between the thug and the counter so she would inevitably find herself in the crossfire if the store owner decided to retaliate rather than hand over his hard-earned cash.

"Yo!" the would-be robber barked, storming toward the counter. "Gimme ya fuckin' money! All of it! Gimme wotcha got! Move! I'm gonna blow ya fuckin' head off if ya try anything, ya ugly motherfucker! Move!"

The sour-faced owner of the convenience store hesitated like he considered reaching for whichever weapon he kept underneath the counter, but he seemed to change his mind and opened the cash register instead.

It went too slowly for the jittery criminal who tore back and forth in front of the counter. "Yo, gramps! Hurry the fuck up or I'll blow ya fuckin' brains out!" he barked before he seemed to notice the tall woman who had stayed at her spot near the counter. "What the fuck ya lookin' at, bitch? You some kind of hero? Huh?!"


"Get the fuck outta my face, then!" the robber barked before he turned back to the owner of the store.

From one moment to the next, the gun-toting thug found himself at the receiving end of a fierce kick to the wrist that relieved him of his revolver. He only had time to let out a muffled grunt of surprise before his nose and teeth were introduced to the blue sole of Giulia's basketball boot. A single kick to the head was all that was needed to incapacitate him, and he slumped to the smooth floor with nary a sound. Soon, crimson blood seeped through his gang colors.

Giulia calmly put down her outstretched leg and relaxed her stance. With the store owner gawking at her with eyes as wide as saucers, she put the bottle of mango-passion fruit sodapop on the counter. "You better call the cops. He won't be out for long," she said as she dug into her rear pocket to find the change needed to pay for the soda.

While the owner nodded and reached for the old-fashioned telephone beneath the counter, Giulia spotted the thug's nickel-plated revolver that had careened under a shelf. After picking it up by holding her pinkie inside the trigger guard, she deposited the firearm on the counter next to the bottle of soda to make sure that it was out of the thug's reach when he came to. "What do I owe?" she said, counting her meager collection of coins.

"It's on the house," the owner of the convenience store croaked as he held the receiver in his trembling hand.

"Much obliged, Sir," Giulia said as she took the chilled sodapop and strolled back out of the air-conditioned store. The loitering residents who had stormed outside when the robber had entered stared at her like she was a two-headed goat, but she had no time for that.

As she crossed the street to get to the other sidewalk, the police cruiser that had been parked in front of the entrance to the brownstone made a squealing U-turn and raced back to the convenience store. She remained on the upper rung of the brownstone's stoop for a few seconds to observe the unfolding situation, but it didn't take long before she lost interest and moved inside.


At ten past eleven that same evening, Giulia stood at her open window running a napkin across her damp neck. The arrival of darkness had done nothing to ease the mugginess that hung over the entire city like a suffocating winter duvet. At least the plumbers had been able to fix the water pipes. The cold shower had done her good, but it had been a short-lived pleasure. Not half an hour later, she felt as sticky as she had done before.

Now and then, the dark sky was illuminated by zig-zagging, forked lightning bolts that tore across the heavens, but no thunder could be heard and no rain fell. She still had twenty minutes before she needed to be at the corner of Twelfth and Sunderland - which was only a seven minute walk away - but she had a feeling in her gut that told her she ought to get there early so she could keep an eye on the things going on in the street.

Eduardo Espinosa had always been a player conducting his business in the gray zone between fully legit and something else entirely. When Giulia had first come to know him a decade earlier, he was a young, independent operator with plenty of drive and ambitions, but where he had ended up on the spectrum of shadiness while she had been locked up was anyone's guess.

Grunting, she closed the window and reached for her blue, second-hand polyester windbreaker. Refusing two thousand dollars on a flimsy moral stand was out of the question, but the burning sensation in her gut told her that it - and she - had severe doubts over the whole thing.


On the corner of Twelfth and Sunderland , Giulia slipped into the shadows between a rundown building and one that appeared to be in an even worse state. Though the mouth of the alley where she waited didn't present her with the world's greatest smell after the recent heatwave, she stuck with it since it offered her a good view of the three-way T-intersection.

Her intense eyes scanned her surroundings but found nothing out of the ordinary. Two homeless people pushing top-heavy shopping carts shuffled past on the opposite sidewalk. The wheels squeaked irregularly as the two people went by a hooker who applied more lipstick to her already garish makeup. A dark sedan cruised past the hooker and came to a halt. After leaning down to talk through the passenger side window, the working girl got in, and the sedan took a right onto Sunderland with little drama.

In the distance, several police sirens could be heard cutting through the regular din of the big city. Random honking accompanied them; no doubt coming from taxi cabs and other vehicles that didn't appreciate getting out of the way. Whatever the action was, it had to take place on one of the parallel streets or avenues since few cabs ever went into the so-called 'dead zone' between Sixth and Fourteenth Street . On the rare occasions when one did, the driver always raced through without picking up any customers - there had simply been too many muggings and assaults for the drivers to feel safe.

Giulia's observations were interrupted when an older, white Ford Econoline van turned onto Twelfth Street from the south. The driver pulled over to the curb and switched off the engine. Soon after, he lit a cigarette and made a call on his telephone. The orange tip glowed in the dark whenever he puffed on the cigarette, but the pale-blue sheen that came from the phone overpowered it.

Giulia checked her own telephone to see the time. She was going to let the driver stew for exactly five minutes before she would approach him, so she slipped even further into the shadows so she could keep an eye on the van without being seen.


When the five minutes were up, the white Ford van was still parked at the curb, but the driver had turned jittery behind the wheel - illustrated by the fact that he was already on his second cigarette.

Giulia moved out of the mouth of the alley and strolled up to the driver's side door. When the man behind the wheel rolled down the manually-operated window, she put her elbows on the sill. "Hello. You working for Eddie Espinosa?"

"That's right… you were supposed to be here five minutes ago! Where the fuck 've you been?" the driver said, visibly nervous about parking in the notoriously criminal neighborhood. The second cigarette seemed to have lost its taste because he quickly stubbed it out in the van's ashtray.

"Watching you," Giulia said calmly, observing the driver. In his early to mid-twenties, the wheelman had a stylish three-day stubble that went well with his dark, shiny hair that had been heavily gelled. He wore a black jacket over a bronze-colored shirt of some kind, and all in all, he offered Giulia the same impression of an ambitious, young man that Eduardo Espinosa had done a decade earlier. All that was missing was Eduardo's trademark golden ear-ring.

The driver let out a mumbled curse before he reached for the lever to open the door.

Giulia pushed back which made the door slam shut again as soon as the latch had disengaged. "You're not going anywhere, friend. Before we go-"

"What do you mean 'we'? You're on your own-"

"Before we go," Giulia repeated, shooting the young man such an intense glare that he had to look away, "I need to check out the van. I need to see if Eddie is trying to set me up. I wouldn't put it past him."

The driver blinked several times like he was surprised by the woman's comments, not to mention her attitude. Shrugging, he pointed over his shoulder at the rest of the van behind him. "Be my guest. There's nothing there."

"Mmmm," Giulia said and walked around to the back of the Ford Econoline. The rear doors were unlocked, and she opened them both to get a good view of the hold. A look inside proved that it was indeed empty - no packages, no bundles, no conveniently forgotten plastic bags carrying dope that could be used as leverage against her in case she felt a need to turn rat. The bare, metal floor was filthy and hadn't been swept for a year or more, but the rest was in fine shape. Grunting, she shut the doors and went back to the driver.

"All right. Scoot over, friend. We're going on a little midnight drive," she said and clicked open the door handle.

The young man behind the wheel had a look upon his face that said that he would rather be anywhere else on the planet at that moment in time. "Now wait a minute…" he whined, but he was cut off.

"Scoot over," she repeated, stepping up into the Ford's cab to place her rear on the dark-gray upholstery. Despite the original driver's continued protestations, she turned the ignition key and selected drive on the column shifter. She let out a dark grunt when her eyes happened to fall on the sorry state of the gas gauge. "A quarter tank left? We're stopping to gas up, friend."

"But we're supposed to be at the-"

"And you're paying for it," Giulia said as she pulled away from the curb.


After checking the mirror, Giulia made a squealing U-turn across Twelfth Street and hung a right onto Sunderland at once. "Or Eddie is. You'll have to square it with him later," she continued as she began the journey along the street that was just as busy as it was during the daylight hours.

The original driver next to her continued to grumble, but soon piped down and settled for crossing his arms over his chest in a clear huff.


Giulia stuck to the speed limit so they could avoid catching the eye of an eager patrolman. All four northbound lanes on Sunderland were busy, so she kept the non-descript delivery van in the inside lane save for the infrequent occasions where someone had double-parked. With the cargo hold empty, the stiffly-sprung van tried to imitate a mountain goat by dancing about whenever they hit one of the countless bumps or potholes - another good reason to keep the speed down.

Both side-windows were rolled down and the fan was going at full blast, but the unrelenting heat and humidity made Giulia's windbreaker stick to her tank top. In turn, the tank stuck to her sports bra and her skin in an uncomfortable menage-a-trois that she wished she had time to do something about.

Most honest stores had closed at that time of night, but some of the sleazier parlors were still open for business. The neon-lit marquees above the entrances to a few movie theaters promised a non-stop cavalcade of triple-X entertainment for only five dollars; the customers had a choice between an All-American, an Asian or a Scandinavian show. According to the garish signs, it seemed that a pack of tissues came free with each ticket. The all-night liquor stores and pool halls also saw plenty of business. The Sisters Of Mercy mission house further down Sunderland was still open as well, but saw less business on the whole.

The tawdry night-time world hadn't changed while Giulia had been away, so she concentrated on familiarizing herself with the Ford's many knobs, switches and dials. It had been a long, long while since she had driven any kind of vehicle, but the old van - which was fairly similar to the ones she had driven when she had worked for a delivery company back in the day - was in a benign mood and thus offered no nasty surprises.

"There's a gas station coming up in a couple of blocks," the original driver said, pointing ahead like he thought he needed to assist the woman behind the wheel in finding her way. "Once we're done, I'm outta here. This was never part of the deal."

"Works for me, friend," Giulia said, having already spotted the bright-yellow neon sign advertising a well-known chain of service stations a short distance ahead of them.


Once the Ford Econoline had been gassed up, the young man with the dark suit, the heavily-gelled hair, the three-day stubble and the miffed look upon his face from having his credit card raided paying for the gas, took off like he said he would. He never once mentioned his name.

No other vehicles waited in line to use the pump occupied by the white van, so Giulia had time to observe where the young man went. As he crossed over the forecourt, he upped his tempo and soon blended into the human traffic on the sidewalk which was just as busy as the four lanes were out on Sunderland .

Giulia opened the Ford's door but kept standing by the gas pump for another minute to check if anything unusual went on around her. A car was parked in the shadows on the far side of the forecourt, but it seemed to be a wreck as it had a flat and a badly dented fender. It didn't pose an immediate threat to her. Apart from the police cruiser going past on Sunderland with its lights and sirens blaring, everything appeared quiet.

She eventually took off her blue windbreaker and flung it onto the far side of the bench seat. Climbing into the cab, she sat down on the heavy-duty upholstery and turned the ignition key. As the engine purred into life, the needle on the gas gauge rose to three-quarters full. Giulia let out a satisfied grunt and selected drive on the column shifter.


A short twenty minutes later, the empty van bucked mercilessly as it ran across a deep pothole in front of the Corman Bros. Meat Packing Co. warehouse at four-seven-five-nine East Seventy-ninth Street . The perimeter was protected by a fearsome-looking electric fence, but someone had conveniently forgotten to close the gates. Giulia accepted the silent invitation and drove onto a paved accessway wide enough for two semi-trucks to pass each other without bumping mirrors.

The accessway ran all the way around a hulking behemoth of a warehouse, but she didn't need to follow it for more than three hundred yards. Another open gate, this time a sliding door, greeted her, and she drove inside. She needed to turn on the high-beams to see where she was going, but her destination proved to be not too difficult to find.

A dark, late-model Cadillac was parked in an oblique angle close to an office that had been built inside the giant warehouse. As Giulia approached the expensive car going at a trickle so she wouldn't appear to pose a threat, one of the rear doors was opened and a large, well-dressed man stepped out.

She had trouble recognizing him at first, but when the light from the high-beams caught the golden ear-ring and made it dazzle, she realized with some surprise that it was Eduardo 'Eddie' Espinosa - except that he had gained at least seventy pounds since the last time she had seen him.

Coming to a halt a short distance from the Cadillac, Giulia turned off the engine and switched to the low beams so they had light to work by. She remained behind the wheel for a short moment to check out the surroundings. The warehouse was largely empty on the inside like it had been abandoned some time ago. The many support pillars that held up the vast roof created so many shadows that an entire battalion of soldiers could hide among them. Her fingers never left the ignition key during her scan, but when everything seemed to be quiet, she shrugged and got out.

"Right on time," Eduardo Espinosa said with a grin.

"But of course. Isn't that why you wanted me?"

"Yeah. But it's nice to see." As the large man clapped eyes on the tall woman who approached him wearing white and khaki, he put his hands in the air like the view had bowled him over. "Whoa, Giulia! You're just as hot as you were ten years ago!"

"Heh, thanks. But what the hell happened to you, Eddie?" Giulia said, giving her old friend a quick once-over. A dark suit, an ivory-colored shirt and a black necktie had replaced his casual Street Chic wear. Gone, too, were his smooth, suave, Latin Lover features; in their stead, wobbling double-chins and a considerable girth ruled the day. Though he still wore the same golden ear-ring he always had, it looked odd next to his meaty face.

"Eh. The good life happened, that's what," he said and ran a few fingers across his round, rosy cheek to underline his point.

"I guess you did move up in the world."

"Yeah," Eduardo said, stopping here and there during his close study of the tall, shapely woman before him. "I just had an interesting phone call… what's that I hear about you taking my boy for a ride?"

"Your boy?" Giulia said and cocked her head.

"Eduardo Junior. The young man you made pay for the gas. That was kinda cheeky, Giulia… and he's kinda pissed off at ya. He called you a couple of names I won't repeat."

Giulia let out a low chuckle - it had crossed her mind that the slick-haired youngling had looked like a fresh-faced version of Eduardo Espinosa. "I had no money for gas. He did. Had I known he was your kid, I would have told him to gas it up fully."

A few beats went by before Eduardo leaned his meaty head back and let out a belly-laugh that not only made his gut bounce around behind the dark suit, but sent the double-chins into doing a manic version of the Macarena. "Too fuckin' cheeky, Giulia… that's one of the reasons why I wanted you for this gig."

"Speaking of which…"

"A woman of few words. I've always liked that about you," Eduardo said and turned around to signal the driver of the Cadillac that he should pop open the trunk of the luxurious sedan. Once the hatch rose, the large man shuffled back to the rear of his car. "All right. The package is here."

Giulia grunted and moved over to look into the large trunk. The package proved to be a rectangular box ten inches tall, twelve inches deep and twenty-five inches wide. It appeared to be wrapped in dark-brown shelf-paper, and all corners were reinforced by several layers of gray gaffer tape. A white label carrying an official-looking stamp, a printed barcode and a doodled signature had been stickied to the top of the box. When Giulia leaned down to get a better view in the dim light produced by the LEDs inside the trunk, she could see that it said US Customs Service Verified & Approved.

"US Customs?" she said, furrowing her brow.

"Yep! That's proof positive right there that it ain't drugs," Eduardo said, pointing his thumb at the box. "Now with you being such a slender doll and everything, why don't you pick it out of the trunk so I don't have to play the fool by bending over."

Chuckling, Giulia reached in to retrieve the box that was heavier than it appeared. It felt rigid and made no sound that would offer any hints as to its contents. The label was meant to reassure her that it wasn't shady, but somehow she failed to be convinced about its authenticity.

"All right," Eduardo continued, closing the trunk after Giulia had taken a step back. His good-humored look faded and left a business-like mask on his meaty face.

For a moment, Giulia thought she could see more than that; she thought she had seen a certain amount of nervousness flashing across the large man's features, but if she had, it was gone just as fast as it had come. It made her question her call to get involved in the whole deal that had been somewhat peculiar to begin with. If Eduardo Espinosa was nervous, it could only mean there was something he wasn't telling her.

Eduardo's voice gained a no-nonsense tone as he continued: "I want you to deliver that package to a good friend of mine, Mr. Nathan Manning, in the underground parking garage of the Beaumont Building . It's on West Thirty-third Street in the financial district. He'll be waiting for you from one AM. If you're not there at three-thirty at the latest, the deal is off, and you can kiss the eight grand goodbye."

Giulia zeroed in on Eduardo's brown eyes to see how he would react to her intense glare. He lasted longer than his son had, but eventually had to look away. Nodding to herself, she turned around to carry the rectangular package back to the rear of the Ford Econoline. "I'll be there. Don't you worry about that. There's one thing I don't understand, though."

"Which is?"

"You already had the package in the trunk… why the hell don't you just drive it there yourself?"

"Well," Eduardo Espinosa said as he followed the nimbler woman at a more sedate pace, "like I said over the phone last night, I need someone low-key. I haven't been low-key for a number of years now."

Giulia let out a grunt as she balanced the rigid package on her knee while fiddling with the handle on the double doors. She managed to get the right-hand side to open without dropping the precious load, and she soon stepped into the cargo hold to deposit the package up against the wall to the cab. "Yeah, I can see that," she said as she jumped back down onto the dusty floor of the abandoned meat-packing warehouse.

After closing the double doors and giving them a little yank to make sure they were locked and secure, she turned back to her old friend and put out her hand. When Eduardo moved to shake it, she let out a dark chuckle and pulled it back. "Two grand, Eddie. Put 'em there. Then we can shake hands."

"Ah, Giulia… my kind of woman," Eduardo Espinosa said as he reached into his jacket to find a fat wallet. He soon counted twenty Benjamin Franklins and slapped them into Giulia's palm. "Will ya marry me?" he said with a grin as he held her hand tight.

"Naw. Not only would Eddie Junior be so damn disappointed, you don't have the right equipment," Giulia said, pulling herself free so she could count the money. While Eduardo chuckled at what he considered a good joke - though Giulia hadn't intended it to be - she rolled the twenty green bills into a wad and stuck the bundle into her rear pocket.

"And I can't convince you to bring some heat? I have a couple of spares in the Caddy… just say the word," Eduardo said, following the tall woman up to the driver's side door.

Giulia shook her head as she climbed into the Ford's cab. Shutting the door with a metallic clang that echoed through the large warehouse, she put her elbow on the windowsill and offered her old friend another gaze that was friendlier than the one from earlier. "No. I don't do guns, Eddie. You know that. Besides, why should I need one? Didn't you say it was a cream cracker run?"

"Aw, it is! But you never know. It's a mad world out there. Well… see ya later, Giulia," Eduardo Espinosa said as he took a step back from the white delivery van.

Nodding a goodbye to her old friend, Giulia started the van and was soon on her way out of the abandoned warehouse - her target: the parking garage underneath the Beaumont Building on West Thirty-third Street .




The first part of the trip to Eduardo Espinosa's mysterious friend at the Beaumont Building went by without spectacle or unforeseen snags. Giulia wasn't about to complain or even ask for more. Attracting undue attention to herself or the package she was hauling would be counterproductive, so she kept a low profile and just followed the stream of vehicles around her. Traffic was still heavy despite the lateness of the hour - the hands of time had just gone past midnight - so she needed to stay alert to avoid getting into any scrapes with one of her many fellow drivers who filled out the lanes ahead of her.

Holding the steering wheel with one hand, she tried to manually search for a station on the old, integrated stereo unit, but all she could pick up were various talk radio programs on the AM band. The radio was equipped with an old-school cassette player, but she was fresh out of cassettes. For the lack of anything better, she listened to one of the talk shows for a few minutes, but the host's monotonous speech patterns almost put her to sleep. Ultimately, she gave up and turned off the radio.

The man she was supposed to deliver the package to, Nathan Manning, wouldn't be waiting for her until one AM at the earliest, so she had the better part of an hour in hand to reach her destination; better still, the financial district and West Thirty-third Street was only forty minutes away from her present location driving along one of the major arteries.

As the group of vehicles she traveled with came up to a red light, she slowed down and came to a halt with the rest of them. She put her elbow on the windowsill to chill out while she had a chance to. Many different types of music could be heard through the open windows, but it seemed hip-hop was the dominant force in the neighborhood she was passing through as breakbeat drums and hard, aggressive lyrics filled the muggy air around the white van.

The traffic lights were agonizingly slow in changing back to green, so she did what came natural to her and checked out her surroundings in the mirrors and out of the windshield. There was nothing untoward ahead - except plenty of cars, SUVs and trucks - but a dark pickup truck three vehicles behind her and to the left caught her eye. It was in the next lane from her own so it didn't have to mean anything, but the two men inside it didn't look like they were out for a pleasure cruise. Both wore black T-shirts and street-chic facial hair, and the passenger even wore a pair of black shades which wasn't particularly necessary at ten past midnight despite the many bright neon-signs that graced the street.

Worse, they seemed to be looking in her direction like they were studying the rear of the van, or maybe even keeping track of it.

Giulia scrunched up her face and began to tap her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel. Seven years in prison had taught her to recognize trouble upon seeing it, and she just had. Maybe even a bunch of it. Above her, the traffic lights finally changed back to green. As the column of metal boxes she was in moved ahead, she hung a quick right onto the connecting street without using the turning signal. Once she had straightened out, she mashed the gas to get some distance between herself and her potential tail. The old engine whined from the unusual strain it was put under, but delivered the goods after some coaxing. She was going in a wrong direction to where she needed to be, but that was the least of her concerns if she really was being groomed.

Craning her neck, she looked in the right-hand side mirror to see whether or not the dark truck had followed her around the corner. She could hear frantic honking coming through the open windows, but she had no idea if it originated at the intersection she had just left behind, or if it was a coincidence.

After a few hundred yards, no dark pickup had turned onto the connecting street, and Giulia took her foot off the throttle to fall back to the speed limit. She let out a deep sigh. "Cream cracker run, my ass," she mumbled, shuffling around in the seat to get the cold trickle down her spine to go away.

She needed to apply the brakes to avoid an older, metallic-blue Chevrolet Camaro with dark-tinted windows that performed an illegal U-turn ahead of her, but it was no problem compared to what she had just left behind. Continuing to look in the mirrors for signs of trouble, she began to plot how to get back on course.

Her telephone was equipped with a GPS app, but it was of poor quality and she had no time to wade through the many confusing options - beyond that, she preferred to use an old-fashioned paper street map. The only one she could find in the Ford's cab after a brief search of the door pocket was one that seemed to have been there since the van had been delivered new in 1988. It wouldn't be much of a help, so she threw the useless map down into the footwell accompanied by an amused grunt.


Trouble did eventually find her, but it came from ahead rather than behind. At the next intersection where she needed to make a left, she narrowed her eyes down into ice-blue slits at the sight of a dark pickup truck waiting on the other side of the red light. It already had its turning signal going like the driver knew where Giulia was headed even before she did.

At first, she thought it was the same truck as before, but a closer look revealed that only one man was sitting in it, and that he wore red, not black. "What the hell is going on here…?" she mumbled, looking in the side mirror to check out any potential dangers behind her. The metallic-blue Camaro had pulled up to the Ford's tail, but the overlap was so narrow she couldn't see the person behind the wheel.

A persistent honking from one of the cars in the line behind her made her realize that the traffic lights had turned green, so she stepped on the gas and cruised across the intersection. The Camaro and the dark pickup followed her at no more than forty yards' distance between the three vehicles. Sometimes, the metallic-blue car was ahead; at other times, it fell back to allow the pickup to move closer to the delivery van.

Giulia's jaw was given a strong workout by the ceaseless grumbling that escaped her lips. If the people tracking her were trying to stay incognito, they weren't doing a very good job of it - however, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they were trying to stress her into making a costly, or potentially fatal, mistake. A lesson she had learned in her days driving the armored cars was that stopping would be such a mistake, so she was determined to keep going no matter the circumstances.

Spending more time looking behind her than ahead, she nearly missed the next connecting street that would take her back to her original route. With her two tails still close by, she decided on a different course of action.

The turning lane was packed which meant she would need to come to a halt. That would be far too risky, so she kept to the lane she was in and flew past all the stationary cars. Sitting up straight to be ready, she waited until she was halfway across the intersection before she made her move. With no warning, she spun the steering wheel left and mashed the gas. The old Ford's engine whined once more, but it got her around the corner accompanied by a concert of honking from the cars she had left in her wake.

The sudden move seemed to have confused her two tails because only the nimbler Camaro was able to follow her into the left-hand turn, and even that had been slow to react. Giulia kept the throttle to the floor - which didn't say much; the Econoline had never been the world's most powerful van - for several hundred yards until a smaller side street presented itself to her.

Turning right with tires that squealed from the abuse, she slipped into the deep shadows between two multi-story apartment buildings that she hoped would offer at least some protection from the metallic-blue sports car. A gap between two parked cars was just long and wide enough for the van, so she dove into it to get out of sight. Using her left foot to apply the brakes, she kept her right hovering above the throttle in case she needed to make another run for it.

Moments later, the Camaro roared past out on the wider street Giulia had just turned away from. The dark truck followed another twenty seconds later, after which the traffic on the street fell back into its regular pattern.

A hot flash rolled over her body at the potential implications of having people chasing her, and she had to rub her face repeatedly to calm down from the rush that was fueled by equal parts adrenaline and worry. Once the hot flash had settled down, she put the shifter into park before she reached into one of her windbreaker's pockets to retrieve her phone. Eduardo Espinosa's number was soon found in the registry.


"Eddie, you son of a bitch! What the hell kinda job did you send me on here?!"

'Giulia? I don't know what-'

"Don't gimme that shit, Eddie!" Giulia barked and thumped her clenched fist down onto the Ford's steering wheel. "I'll bet you know damn well what I mean! I got several trucks and even a Goddamned Camaro on my ass! Who are they? And what's in that package? What am I hauling? Drugs, money, weapons, kiddie porn… what?"

'How should I know who they are? And as for the package, well… that's for me to know… and for you not to concern yourself with.'

"What the hell?! What's to stop me from tearing it open to see for myself? Or to throw the whole, Goddamned thing in the trash and walk away?"

'I wouldn't do that if I were you, Giulia,' Eduardo said in a cool manner. 'Old friends or not, I can't allow that.'

"Or what?"

'You're smart. You do the math.'

Giulia's jaw got another strong workout at Espinosa's words; another hot flash rolled over her as she realized she would be on her own from now on. Closing her eyes, she fell against the backrest. "Look-"

'No, you look… you've been paid two grand to get that package from A to B. So do it! If anyone's on your ass, lose 'em!'

"Jeez, Eddie…"

'Don't call me again until you've dropped off the package to Mr. Manning. Goodbye.' - With that, he closed the connection.

Giulia spent several seconds staring out of the windshield without seeing anything before she turned off the telephone completely and threw it onto the seat next to her. "Dickhead," she growled, reaching for the column shifter so she could carry on.


After waiting for a few minutes to get her breath and her heart back under control, Giulia rejoined the busy traffic. Once she had returned to the multi-lane street, she slapped her cheeks to stay focused despite understanding the mind-numbing fact that she was alone against a group of faceless opponents who had it in for her. At least the other vehicles around her offered some level of comfort in all their sameness.

No matter how she tried to put a positive spin on getting away from her pursuers, the shine had definitely gone off her nocturnal assignment. The twenty-strong collection of Benjamin Franklins she felt in her rear pocket would do her good, there was no doubt about that, but the entire fiasco had proven with striking clarity that she could trust no one - not even the man she had considered a friend as late as six minutes ago. She sighed and tapped her fingers on the rim of the steering wheel when she realized the friendship was dead and buried after the telephone conversation she had just had with Eduardo.

She'd had very few friends before she had been sent up the proverbial river, and none following her release. In fact, the only other person alive who had never let her down at any point was Heather 'Candy' Appleby, one of her former cellmates. The blonde, whose supremely kissable lips were framed by a pair of cute dimples and fiery, hazel eyes, was the personification of the old 'wolf in a sheepskin' saying. Cute and cuddly on the outside like a pint-sized teddy bear, the short woman had an equally short fuse and had several times flattened much larger opponents when they had become too frisky with her in the grub-line or in the showers.

Heather had done time in the South Carlyle Women's Penitentiary for a bungled stick-em-up in a candy store while under the influence of a diabolical combo of vodka and prescription uppers . That fact, combined with her last name, had given her the nickname within a couple of days of arriving. She and Giulia had been a good match from the start, and the six-and-a-half months they had shared a cell had been the best part of the whole ordeal for Giulia. They had shared stories of their sad lives, laughed, emoted, kissed and made love when nobody was watching save for the people controlling the security cameras.

From one day to the next, Heather Appleby had been transferred to another wing after she had interfered with guards who were pacifying another inmate in a somewhat crude, violent manner. She had lost her temper and had caused a few bloody noses among the uniformed staff on that day. The warden couldn't allow that, of course, so he had thrown Heather into the cooler for ten days of solitary confinement. She never returned to the regular cells after that incident.

The last Giulia had heard of her old cellmate was that she had been handed a three-year extension of her original sentence which had been three-to-five; however, unless Giulia couldn't get her sums right - which wasn't out of the question considering the situation she was in - Heather would have been released back into the real world at some point within the past four or five months.

A strong urge to re-connect with the bubbly, fiery blonde fell over Giulia, but it left her shaking her head angrily. A distraction, no matter how sweet, was the absolute last thing she needed in her present situation. On the flip side of that, a friendly voice would be the absolute best thing that could happen in view of the mess she had voluntarily jumped into. Chewing on her lips, she weighed the pros and cons for a city block or two before she reached for her telephone to turn it back on - it was a start.

An annoying electronic jingle soon played, indicating it was ready for use. With the phone ready, all she needed to do was to make up her mind on whether or not she would try to reach Heather among the millions of people living in the Big City . She leaned towards doing so, but she didn't want to mess with the driving so she let the telephone be until she could find a good place to take a breather.


Giulia kept alert as she traveled down one of the many busy city streets. The yellowish-orange light from the lamp posts was reflected in the windshield and caused a flashing, almost psychedelic effect that was hypnotic in nature. She wished she could find some music on the radio to keep her company, but there wasn't much chance of that.

The traffic ahead was moving slowly so it gave her enough time to look for a return of any of the dark trucks, or perhaps even the metallic-blue Camaro with the dark-tinted windows. None of the vehicles near her were suspicious, but she continued to crane her neck at regular intervals to check out what was going on in her vicinity.

The stretch of road she followed was plagued by a series of traffic lights. No matter what she tried, she always ended up having to stop for the red light and then wait endlessly for it to change back to green. At one intersection, she had already gunned the engine to make it across on the notion of a faintly-red yellow, but a car ahead pulled into her lane and stopped like any good, law-abiding citizen should. Grumbling, Giulia stood on the brake pedal to make the near-empty van come to a rocking, creaking halt.

With nothing better to do while she waited, she kept alert and continued to scan her surroundings. A large, refrigerated delivery truck pulled up behind her which left her boxed in - she wouldn't have room to escape if they came for her now. The connecting street off to the right was a one-way street going in the opposite direction, so choosing that particular option would soon turn acutely suicidal.

Her eyes caught a glimpse of an older, metallic-blue sports car that trundled across the intersection. Her breath hitched, but it turned out to be a vintage Corvette rather than the Camaro with the dark windows. False alarm.

She let out a long, tormented growl. She had no idea why she even felt an obligation to deliver the package. Eduardo Espinosa had lied through his teeth about most of the details, so she was sure he had lied about the contents of the package as well. It hadn't rattled when she had shoved it into the cargo hold, so it probably didn't contain pills, but the square nature of the box would be the perfect hiding place for multiple bags of hard drugs. If she was apprehended hauling cocaine, heroin or any other powdery narcotic, she could kiss the rest of her life goodbye.

"Goddammit, Eddie," she mumbled as the traffic lights above her finally turned green. "You said you needed someone de-pendable… but you meant ex-pendable. You slimy bastard…"

Up ahead, a tall sign post displaying the familiar red-and-yellow logo of a well-known chain of fast food restaurants came into view. She sighed and chewed a little more on her lips. The package in the back of the van turned into a larger threat for each passing moment. She was obliged to deliver it, and she was determined to keep up her end of the deal, but she needed to at least try to get in touch with Heather Appleby to offset the negativity that had suddenly begun to radiate from the wrapped box.

Though the hour of the day wasn't exactly appropriate for such a social call, hearing the husky, though firm, voice in her ear turned into something she could simply not live without. The fast food restaurant beckoned, so she squeezed the van into the inner lane to be ready to hang a right.


Bouncing over the sidewalk, she turned the van into the vast parking lot and took the long way around the many parked cars to find a spot that was as secluded as possible. She found a good one at the far side of the lot where a tall, wooden fence and a busted lamp created a good cover for her and the white van. After reversing into the parking bay, she turned off the engine and let her eyes roam across the other vehicles nearest the van to check for possible foes.

A shiny, black pickup truck rumbled over the curb and drove into the lot. Giulia gripped the steering wheel tight until her intense eyes picked up on the fact that the truck was occupied by a pair of young people. The teens soon parked the truck and made for the entrance to the fast food restaurant. Another false alarm.

Her gut chose the moment to make its empty condition known to the world. An empty stomach and a pocket full of money should have been a match made in heaven, but she didn't want to draw negative attention to herself by buying an eight-dollar burger meal and paying for it with a hundred-dollar bill - the food would have to wait.

Instead, she reached for the telephone to check the time. It read twenty to one in the morning. In theory, she didn't even need to stress out to get there on schedule. She only needed to be at the Beaumont Building at some point after one AM to fulfil her part of the deal, but she had a hunch that the theory was about to be shot down in flames.

An image of Heather Appleby's cute face rolled over her mind's eye which caused a faint smile to spread over her features. Even expecting the blonde to still live in the Big City would be a long shot to say the least. Finding her would be an even more impossible task - but she still needed to try.


Giulia's quest to find Heather was off to a good start. According to the data displayed on her telephone's small screen, the look-up in various online registries had produced four Heather Applebys living within the city limits. The neutral lines of text didn't offer any clues as to which of the four would be 'her' Heather, but all four had listed telephone numbers so all she had to do was try them one at a time.

The four women lived in vastly different neighborhoods. One resided uptown, so chances were that it wouldn't be a former inmate - Giulia would try that one last. Another had a C/O address of an import/export company that was located in the artisan district, and Giulia didn't think it sounded like something the fiery Candy would be involved in. The two remaining women were better bets since they lived downtown.

The first number was soon punched in. Holding the telephone to her ear, Giulia took a deep breath while she waited for any kind of contact. It rang five times before it switched to the person's voice mail service. The woman speaking introduced herself as Heather Appleby, but Giulia could hear at once it wasn't 'her' Heather. Grunting, she hung up and tried the next number at once.

When she drew a blank on that as well, she let out a long sigh and put the telephone on the seat next to her. She wrapped her fingers around the ignition key intending to jump back into the proverbial frying pan, but she stopped herself and reached for the phone once more.

As the third of the four numbers - the one to the import/export company - began ringing, Giulia bared her teeth in a disappointed grimace that was meant to pre-empt the negative feelings that would surely come.

'Mmmm-who is this?' a sleep-impaired female voice mumbled at the other end of the connection. A few fumbling noises were heard; perhaps created by someone looking at a watch. 'And why the fuck are ya calling at stupid o'-fuckin'-clock?! Some people are trying to sleep on the fuckin' job, ya know!'

The pre-emptive negative grimace was swept off Giulia's face as she recognized the voice as belonging to 'her' Heather Appleby. For the first time since the bad evening had begun, her face cracked open in a smile and she let out a laugh. "Hey, Candy. It's Giulia Falcone."

'What?! No fuckin' way… Giulia? Girl! Are you out? I guess you must be 'cos the camp commandant don't allow phone calls at night!'

"Yeah, I've… I've been out for a couple of weeks now. Six weeks," Giulia said, grimacing at the statement and the stunned pause that followed from the other end of the connection.

'Six fuckin' weeks? Well, congrats, Giulia. Welcome back to the real world. Now why da fuck didn't-cha get in touch with me sooner, girl? I thought we were best buds!'

"I don't know," Giulia said and let out a sigh. "I just didn't."

'Yeah, okay. I know. It's great to hear your voice. So… whatcha calling me for? Let me guess, you couldn't live without me, right?'

Giulia's intense eyes made a quick tour of the fast food restaurant's parking lot while Heather spoke. As the clock continued ticking towards one AM, most regular customers had left since the restaurant would close for the night at a quarter past. The parking lot was already less than half full which created gaping holes in the lines. She furrowed her brow when she realized the van would now be visible from the street. There was only one entryway to the parking lot, so if the metallic-blue Camaro or any of the dark pickups found her, she would be boxed in and cornered in no time flat. "Something like that. I, ah… I'm kinda in trouble here, Candy."

'Shit! What kind of trouble? Can I help?'

"Not really. I just wanted to hear your voice while I had the chance."

'Hmmm,' Heather said, sounding like she understood there was more to it than that. 'I know you too well, girl… you wouldn't call unless it was real serious. Money trouble? Addiction trouble? Asshole trouble? You were so awesome with your karate-shit back in the slammer that I'm sure it can't be that.'

Giulia chuckled. Though Heather could best be described as petite, her preferred fighting style had always been head-down, fists-up bar-room brawling, so she had been mightily impressed whenever Giulia had shown her any of her kicks or moves. "It kinda is asshole trouble, and it kinda isn't. Have you ever heard of a crook called Eddie Espinosa?"

'No. Is he the asshole?'

"Oh yeah. A gold star asshole. He's an independent business man. I agreed to do a drop for him… a package that I need to get from A to B… turns out I wasn't told all I needed to know." While Giulia spoke, she observed another two cars leaving the parking lot. Whatever else was about to happen in her immediate future, she needed to get a move on to get to the Beaumont Building or at least a new hiding place somewhere in the financial district. She shifted the telephone to her other hand so she could turn the ignition key in a hurry if she had to.

'Fuck… drugs?'

"I don't know. Could be. I don't particularly feel like checking it, you know…"


"I might as well, though, 'cos my prints are already all over the damn thing from when I loaded it into the van," Giulia said as she turned around to look through the narrow window in the wall separating the cab from the cargo hold. The wrapped package had been bounced around by the hard driving, but it was still in one piece.

'Shit, no gloves? Girl… always wear gloves… I'm wearing gloves right now tho' this job is fully legit.'

"I know, but I still trusted the asshole then. Anyway, it could be drugs or it could be something else. Whatever it is, I've picked up a couple of tails."


"I don't know what they want, and I got no interest in finding out."

'Could be the Feds. Have you thought of that?'

"The vehicles don't look official, but I suppose it could be, yeah. Or it could be some of Espinosa's competitors. In either case, I'm fucked but good if they catch up with me. So I gotta keep running. Or driving, to be exact."

'What kind of wheels you got?'

"A thirty-year old Ford van that Espinosa gave me for the job," Giulia said, glancing around the old van's cab that had clearly lived a hard life transporting God-knows-what.

'Wow, so he's not only an asshole, but a cheapskate asshole… sounds like a low-rent operator if you ask me.'

"Yeah, but he pretends he's the Boss of Bosses. Black Cadillac, black suit, the works."

'Oh, I know the type. Listen… I want to help you, Giulia. Where are you?'

A smile flashed across Giulia's features, but it soon faded and was replaced by a frown set deep along her forehead. "I appreciate the offer, but that's not why I called. It's the middle of the night… didn't you say you were asleep when you picked up?"

'Naw, I said I was trying to sleep on the job… I'm a night watchman… person… whatever… in my brother's import-export company. Paintings and reproductions and shit.'

"That's great, Candy…"

'Yeah. Are you working?'

"No. That's why I accepted this rotten gig."

'Yeah… okay. I know I lucked out when my brother hired me. He didn't have to so I guess I owe the meathead a great, big fat favor. It's pretty good to be doing something useful. I guess the City is paying your rent for the time being, then?'

"They are," Giulia said and shuffled around on the dark-gray upholstery as a wave of embarrassment over failing to gain decent employment trickled down her spine. "I had a meeting with my case worker earlier today. Well, yesterday, but you know what I mean. I gave her the application form for the rent and it was approved, so… I guess that's good."

'Where are you staying?'

"In one of the social housing blocks on Twelfth Street ."

'No fuckin' way!'

"Big way…"

'What the fuck?!' Heather cried, yelling so loudly Giulia needed to move the telephone away from her ear. 'Girl, you need to get the fuck outta there before you end up in a body bag! Those fuckers down there are in-fuckin'-sane! They kill each other over a handful of fuckin' monkey nuts!'

"I know. I s'pose you've found a sugar daddy or something?"

'A sugar daddy? Heh… close, but no cigar. I got a small crib set up here at the company. Up in the attic above the main storage room. Nothin' fancy but it's what I call home and it sure as fuck beats a cell. The working hours suck big, hairy donkey balls and I can't sleep worth a fuck once I get off 'cos it's so fuckin' muggy all the damn time, 'specially up under the ceiling, but I get a somewhat okay amount of greenbacks for it and I don't have to pay rent… so… all in all, I can't complain too much. Hey, how about it, Giulia? It's obvious you need my help, so… just say the word.'

Another smile graced Giulia's features, and this time it stayed on her lips at the prospects of hooking up with Heather Appleby once more. "Well… I've missed ya. I can't deny that. I could sure use your company…"

'And that settles it-'

"Wait, Candy… it could get dangerous. I don't want to pull you into anything-"

'Oh, what the fuck? Let me be the judge of what I wanna be pulled into! That's it, girl, I'm locking up right this minute. You never said where you were?'

"At a junk food restaurant sorta halfway down Avenue C. It's opposite a used-car dealership… but listen-"

'I think I know the place.'

"That's cool, but I can't stay here for much longer. I need to keep moving. I could use a better set of wheels, though. Do you have access to-"

'I have a fourth-hand, piss-yellow piece of shit Hyundai that's just gone past two hundred thousand miles on the odo. Will that do?' Heather said and broke out in a snicker at the other end of the connection.

"Somehow I don't think that would be a step up," Giulia said, returning the merry chuckle.

'No, but if you gimme, oh, half an hour or so, maybe a little more, I can trade it with my brother's Chevy Silverado. It's almost brand new and it's got plenty of balls.'

"He wouldn't mind?"

'Sure he would, but he wouldn't know about it until later. So?'

"Well… yeah. I'd like that." Giulia nodded though Heather wouldn't be able to see it through the telephone.

'You got a deal, girl. We ex-cons have to stick together, ya know. It's a motherfuckin' ugly world out there, and it's out to tear our asses to shreds if we don't kick it in the cojones first. I got your number now, so I'll call you once I'm behind the big-ass wheel. Okay?'

"Okay. Thanks, Candy. I really appreciate it…"

'Aw, don't mention it. I'm only happy to help ya. Beats walkin' around dusty crates all night, that's a fact.'

"Oh, before I forget… would you mind bringing some food and sodas or something? I haven't eaten for a helluva long time…"

'Deal! The sandwich express is gonna come, girl! Talk to you later. Bye.'

"Bye, Candy," Giulia said and closed the connection. The telephone had grown quite warm after the lengthy call, so she put it on the seat next to her to give it a chance to cool off. After twisting the ignition key, she selected drive on the column shifter and pulled away from the parking bay at the fast food restaurant. The secluded spot had served her well, but she needed to move on before it would end up turning into a turkey shoot.


The window of opportunity had finally opened for Giulia. It was a quarter past one in the morning, and she was fifteen minutes away from the financial district, West Thirty-third Street and the rest of the fancy, tree-lined avenues in that part of the city. With the cutoff time still two hours and fifteen minutes away, weird things needed to happen in order for her to miss the strict deadline - however, she took it for granted that weird things would indeed happen.

Taking it easy for once, she drove along Avenue C in a laid-back fashion. Not only had the traffic grown considerably less during her extended break at the fast food restaurant, it had changed from regular family sedans and kids using their dad's truck for dating purposes to speeding taxi cabs and overloaded vans getting ready for, or carrying out, late-night runs.

Delivery vans in particular seemed to have multiplied by a factor of twenty while she had spoken to Heather. Everywhere she looked, vans of all makes, sizes and colors jostled for position on the wide open streets. From the sheer number of commercial vehicles on the streets, it appeared that every greengrocer, baker, news stand and/or florist in the Big City should expect a special delivery to arrive before long.

Giulia spotted countless white vans, and even several white Ford Econolines from roughly the same period as her own version. The coincidence suited her just fine because it meant she could hide among them. Even the direct route to the financial district that she was on saw its fair share of delivery vans and trucks though the need was less because there were fewer shops; her pursuers would run themselves ragged if they tried to find her in that maze of vans, she was sure of that.


Just when it appeared Giulia's luck had changed to the better, a weird thing did indeed happen. At first, it didn't seem like such a big deal to her, but it soon grew into an insurmountable, smelly puddle of trouble. As she drove across the Twenty-sixth Street bridge that spanned the numerous railroad switching tracks running to and from the freight yard down below, a wall of brake lights flashing red up ahead was the first clue that something negative was about to take place.

She barely had time to furrow her brow before all four lanes slowed down and came to unexpected, sudden stops at the most inopportune spot they could possibly find: almost at the far end of the bridge. Sticking her head out of the open window, she could see that an army of roadworkers clad in fluorescent yellow or green shuffled around up ahead. It appeared they were setting up road blocks and detour-signs alerting the drivers to find secondary routes to wherever they had been going.

A police van arrived on the wrong side of the bridge's impassable center island with flashing lights but a muted siren. Once it had stopped, several uniformed officers swarmed out and began to conduct the traffic using batons that were lit up by green LEDs so they would be visible through the semi-darkness. The four lanes had to be squeezed into one to get past the emergency roadwork near the intersection at the far end of the bridge, and it came as no surprise to anyone when it turned into a logjam within moments.

An impatient soul somewhere up ahead began to honk; others joined the first one in sympathy. Predictably, the scene at the bridge soon descended into a disorganized chaos of honking, chugging engines that continued to pump out noxious exhaust fumes, and heat-plagued drivers shouting out of their open windows that they were already running late so the dumb shits doing the roadwork needed to get their sticky fingers out of their fat asses or they'd be treated to a knuckle sandwich they wouldn't forget in a hurry. Giulia just fell back into her seat and let out a tormented groan. Picking up her telephone, she could see the precious minutes ticking away. One twenty-four AM and counting.


When she was finally able to file into the single lane and trickle along at five miles per hour, nearly twelve minutes had gone by. The roadwork turned out to be a cracked sewer pipe that had left the entire intersection submerged in what appeared to be at least a foot of a murky, chunky liquid. The smell could best be described as somewhat challenging, but it was far too hot and muggy to roll up the windows or turn off the fans, so no one did.

Signs illuminated by LED-lights instructed the drivers to take a left and follow a smaller street that ran parallel to the railroad switching tracks. Since Giulia had very little say in the matter, she followed the other vehicles ahead of her and turned onto the narrower side street where the snaking column of cars and vans looked out of place. Down on the tracks, several diesel locomotives pulling an endless line of refrigerated wagons rumbled toward the freight yard with their brass bells ringing loudly. The train's engineer stood at the locomotive's open window and gawked at the many vans up on the street.

Throughout the entire exercise, Giulia kept alert and scanned her surroundings for the dark pickups and the metallic-blue sports car. She hadn't seen anything suspicious since leaving the fast food restaurant, but she knew too well that it didn't mean her unknown pursuers had given up the chase.

Only once before in any of her careers behind a wheel had she acquired a tail - it had happened when she had been chauffeuring an armored car at the end of a long working day. She had been hauling nearly two million dollars in the back of the truck when she had spotted a dark sedan that followed the large, red vehicle through turn after turn. The people inside it had proved to be bad guys, and she had been given a commendation by her boss - not that it had done her any good in the long run as the boss was the same one who hadn't wanted to listen to her desperate pleas of innocence when the fifteen thousand stolen dollars had turned up in her locker a year later.

In those days, she had armored doors, bulletproof windows, blast-proof tires, a riding partner who carried a twelve-gauge shotgun, and a direct line to the police. She had used the latter to inform the authorities of the possible tail, and two cruisers had intercepted the dark sedan before anything untoward had happened.

But that was then. Now, she had an old, tired Ford Econoline with rusty doors, rolled-down windows, bald tires and a weak engine. She had nothing for her own protection save for her right foot that pressed down on the throttle pedal. She trusted her driving skills to be good enough to get her out of most bad situations, but whether or not the van would hold its own when push came to shove was another question entirely.


The sheer number of vehicles on the smaller side street meant the speed never climbed above ten miles per hour. At such a snail's pace, the heat and mugginess which still held the city in a choke-hold entered the Ford's cab despite the open windows and the fact the fan was going at full blast. The climbing humidity made her tank-top and cargo pants stick to her body in all the wrong places, and she shuffled around on the dark-gray upholstery to get some relief from the stickiness.

A connecting street that ran parallel to Avenue C finally presented itself, and Giulia turned onto it as one of the only vehicles in the line. She wasn't too familiar with the neighborhood she was driving through, and the odd fact that she was now mostly alone on a wide, three-lane street gave her an uneasy feeling that originated somewhere between her shoulder blades.

The street skimmed the edge of the financial district so it didn't hold any of the sleazy stores or parlors found closer to downtown. Most of the shops lining the street had closed down for the night, but one or two had kept their lights on behind their sturdy anti-burglary roll-front wire fences so the pedestrians populating the sidewalks would have something to look at - not that anyone was out at that time of night.

A smattering of taxi cabs and delivery vans were Giulia's only companions on the long, wide stretch, but she continued to take it easy so she wouldn't catch the attention of a patrol car out to fill their quota for the evening. She still had time to get to the Beaumont Building without needing to race through the city streets, but the delay at the bridge spanning the switching tracks had cost her dearly. Checking her telephone, she grimaced when she realized the clock had almost reached one forty-five AM already.

As her eyes moved back up from checking the time on the telephone's display, her breath hitched and an ugly grimace spread over her features. Several oh-so-familiar vehicles were parked on the opposite side of the street some three hundred yards ahead of her: three dark pickup trucks and a metallic-blue Chevrolet Camaro with dark-tinted windows. The men driving them were huddled up on the sidewalk, holding out a road map like they were trying to work out where the white van they were chasing could have gone to - they didn't have to look far.

"Sons a' bitches!" Giulia croaked, briefly taking her foot off the throttle. A moment later, she reconsidered and mashed the gas which made the tired engine whine. No side streets were available to save her this time, but all her pursuers were parked on the wrong side of the street so it would take them some time to get into their vehicles, start and head in the other direction - by then, she would hopefully have found a way out of the mess.

As the white delivery van whined past the stationary vehicles, one of the men clad in black - he still wore the black shades, too - stared at it like he couldn't believe what had just happened. Crying out, he pointed at the fleeing Ford, and that prompted that he and his associates flew into a frenzy. They all jumped into the waiting vehicles and began to move away from the curb.

Giulia kept her eyes on the left-hand side mirror to watch how the Camaro spun around from the sidewalk. The pair of fat, black lines it laid down on the asphalt as it peeled out produced an impressive amount of tire smoke that continued to linger in the air even after it had made its rocket-like start. The pickup trucks were slower in responding, but they were soon making U-turns to commence chasing her as well.

If nothing else, they didn't appear to be with the FBI or any other official bureau or department. Though Giulia had only had a brief moment to take in the men's appearances on her way past them, their desperado-style clothing, street-chic facial hair and thuggish mugs proved they were among Eduardo Espinosa's competitors - not that it made the mess she found herself in any easier to get out of. Had they been Feds, she would have been arrested and thrown back in jail faster than she could spell her own name. Thugs like the ones chasing her would just throw her body in the river after raping and murdering her. Neither option seemed particularly inviting.

In short, she needed to get away. Clenching her jaw hard, she slammed her boot down onto the throttle pedal and watched as the needle on the speedometer vibrated up to nearly seventy miles per hour.

Such a speed could perhaps keep the trucks at bay for a while, but not the sports car. Giulia bared her teeth in desperation as she realized that every last one of the connecting streets she raced past were one-way streets coming towards her, and chancing it would be too dangerous. Considering her recent spell of rotten luck, she would most likely be blocked by oncoming traffic within moments, or - worst case - find herself slamming face-first into the grill of a large delivery truck. Whatever else she did, she needed to come up with a miracle, and she needed to do so fast.


The old Ford Econoline wasn't built for racing, and it shook, rattled and shimmied like it was about to give up the ghost. No matter how hard Giulia squeezed the throttle, the needle on the speedometer gradually vibrated down to sixty-five, then sixty, then fifty-five miles per hour. A glance at the water temperature gauge proved why - it was nearly at the red line.

"Goddammit… Eddie, you cheap bastard," she growled, craning her neck to keep an eye on the vehicles following her. The metallic-blue Camaro was directly on her tail, constantly shifting left and right behind her like the driver couldn't make up his mind on which side to use for the final attack. The three trucks were a bit further back like they were waiting for something to happen so they could move in for the kill.

Just when Giulia thought the situation couldn't get any worse, it did. Up ahead, the next intersection turned yellow as she approached it. She had no intention of stopping for the yellow light, or even the red it was about to change into, but the choice was removed from her sphere of influence by a small group of homeless people who chose that exact moment to wander onto the near-empty street pushing their ubiquitous heavily-laden shopping carts.

"Aw, hell!" she barked, standing on the brake pedal to avoid mowing down the defenseless, and above all, slow, bunch of people who were blocking the street. The poorly-treaded rear tires locked up at once and sent out wild squeals and reams of white smoke. The van went into a careening skid as the balance was disturbed, and Giulia had to saw frantically at the steering wheel to stop the rear from swapping ends with the front.

The hard braking caught the tailgating Camaro by surprise, and it headbutted the taller Ford's rear bumper with its left-front headlight. As glass and bits of plastic trim shattered and rained onto the asphalt, the driver of the sports car stood on the brakes as well. He soon fell back some thirty yards to avoid damaging his car further.

Giulia had regained control of the Econoline, but the situation up ahead hadn't cleared - the homeless people had all stopped to stare at the spectacle that was headed their way. Thus, the street was still blocked save for the sidewalk on either side.

Baring her teeth in an angry sneer, she and the van came to a rocking, creaking halt in the middle of the street. The Camaro was almost upon her once more, so she slammed the column shifter down into first gear to utilize the full torque of whatever power was left inside the old engine. Mashing the gas, she spun the steering wheel around to aim for the sidewalk, but the tired, old Ford let out an equally tired whine before it backfired and gave up the ghost.

She stared wide-eyed at the dashboard that only read dead instruments. 'Dead' could soon be used to describe her as well if she couldn't get it started, so she moved the shifter into park and twisted the ignition key. The first attempt didn't catch.

Behind her, the Camaro and the first of the dark pickups came to screeching halts, and several men jumped out and ran towards the rear of the van.

"You fuckin' piece of worthless shit!" Giulia roared, twisting the key again with similarly meager results. When she heard someone yanking at the rear doors, she looked through the small window in the wall separating the cab from the hold. So far, the thugs seemed to be satisfied with trying to get their hands on the package, but it didn't take a professor of advanced algebra to figure out that if they couldn't get the doors open, they would come for her instead.

Then several things happened at once: In the left-hand side mirror, she spotted a bearded, blond guy wearing a red windbreaker and blue jeans come running towards the driver's side door holding a large, shiny pistol in his hand. Behind her in the rear of the van, another of the thugs had been successful in yanking the double doors open, and he stepped into the hold at once and went straight for the wrapped package. And finally, the old van's engine caught and spluttered to life on the third try.

Letting out a whoop of relief, Giulia slammed the shifter into drive and mashed the gas. As the van jerked forward, the thug in the cargo hold howled and flew backwards toward the doors he had opened only seconds before. His exit from the van was far less graceful than his entry had been, and he ended up tumbling end-over-end down on the hard asphalt as the van tore away from him. The bearded man wearing the red windbreaker and blue jeans gave up his original task to help the battered and bruised thug back on his feet.

Giulia aimed for the sidewalk to clear the group of homeless people who had still not budged from their vantage point in the middle of the street. As she bounced over the curbs, both rear doors flew open once more and smacked against each other and the van's frame several times. One of the impacts was hard enough to shatter the glass in the left-side door; shards were deposited all over the filthy bed in the back of the van. They didn't stay there long, but soon fell onto the street.

Sawing at the steering wheel, she narrowly missed a post for one of the traffic lights for the pedestrians. The next moment had her hanging a wild right onto the connecting street with a whining engine and tires that squealed from the abuse. The rear doors continued to slap against each other and the van's frame; if the wrapped package fell out, all her heroics would have been for naught, so she stood on the brakes once more hoping it would cure her immediate problem. As if by magic, the doors slammed shut in the correct sequence, and the latch engaged.

"Ha!" Giulia cried, looking at the package through the small window in the back of the cab. It had been flung about and had turned upside down by the harsh treatment it had been exposed to, but it was still there, and in one piece.

Five minutes to two in the morning, the wide street leading her back to Avenue C was nearly deserted save for the occasional taxi cab, so she could step on it to get clear of the chasing pack of hound dogs without worrying about losing time by ducking or weaving through traffic.

Or she thought she did. Unfortunately, the Econoline made a mess of her plans all over again. Four hundred yards closer to Avenue C, the needle in the water temperature gauge went off the scale. A bang was heard from up front, quickly followed by a squirt of water that sprayed onto the windshield. Soon, a tell-tale stench of hot water and warm metal spread through the cab.

Looking in the left-hand side mirror, she groaned out loud when she realized the busted hose or radiator was spewing out a dark, glistening trail of water and coolant all along the pale asphalt. Not only did it spell doom for the tired, old engine, it meant that even a blind boy scout would be able to follow the trail directly to her once the old van had expired.

"Fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck!" she barked, smacking her clenched fist onto the top of the dashboard for each expletive. As the engine started popping and banging up front, she glared at her surroundings to find somewhere to ditch the crate before she ran out of time.

A construction site on the left-hand side of the street was Giulia's best - or rather, only - option. According to the large advertising hoarding put up near the main gates, it appeared to be a new glass-and-chrome high-rise that was in the process of being erected by Dillon Construction & Demolition for the Greater Carlyle Banking Corporation. So far, only the first few floors of the concrete skeleton had been completed so the site would offer a good hiding place provided she could find a way in.

The main gates were closed and equipped with several rows of unpleasant-looking barbed wire, but a smaller accessway not too far from the gates was still open - better still, it was a dirt road which meant the trail of leaking water wouldn't be as visible.

Just as the Ford's engine let out a final, burbling splutter, Giulia bounced over the curbs and headed for the dirt road. Putting the shifter into neutral to allow the van to coast for as long as possible, she never took her eyes off the side mirrors so she could keep up to speed on the progress of her pursuers. The van's coasting was helped by the fact the dirt road sloped downwards toward several large piles of gravel that had no doubt been readied for the following day's activities.

Though the ruts in the dirt road were deep - they had been made by heavy, self-propelled construction equipment - Giulia managed to keep the Econoline going in a straight line by keeping a firm grip on the wheel. When she had milked it for all it had to give, it came to a creaking, groaning, ticking and steaming halt with its battered tail section just inside the shadow created by one of the tall piles.

Silence ensued. Giulia sighed and leaned back in the seat. There was no point in checking under the hood for signs of life as the smell of warm metal was so strong inside the cab she felt like plugging her nostrils. Instead, she took her windbreaker and her telephone and jumped out of the recently deceased vehicle.

Moving back to the battered rear doors, she opened the right-hand one and climbed up into the cargo hold. Crouching down on one knee, she flipped the wrapped package over so it was right-side up. "Eddie, you son of a bitch," she mumbled, giving the source of all her problems a fair whack with her fist. Despite her best efforts, the impact didn't even put a dent in the shelf-paper wrapping.

"Now what the hell am I gonna do?" she said in a mumble; her telephone told her in white digits against a crimson background that it was three minutes past two AM. She had an hour and twenty-odd minutes at the most to get to West Thirty-third Street and hand over the package to Espinosa's associate Nathan Manning. And she needed to do so on foot unless Heather could hook up with her first. That was a big ask; perhaps too big.

Sighing, Giulia put on her windbreaker and grabbed hold of the package with both hands. Before she could jump down from the hold, a figure wearing dark clothing and a commando-style cap stepped up to the open doors to block her exit.




Giulia and the figure lurking in the shadows both jerked to a sudden stop as they stared at each other through the van's square opening. Dropping the package - that landed with a hard thump - she clenched her fists and hunched over. If she had to fight her way free, she was fully prepared to dish out a busted nose and a few broken bones at the very least.

"Whoa, whoa, Missy!" the man in the dark clothes said, stepping back from the opening in a hurry as a counter-reaction to the one that had just taken place inside the van.

When his face was illuminated by an orange sheen that came from one of the work lights attached to the scaffolding throughout the construction site, Giulia could see that it was an older guy with a full beard that hadn't been properly kept for a decade or more. He was missing a few teeth as well, and the sorry state of his facial skin and clothing offered hints that he was a homeless person who had been using the site to sleep.

"I ain't done nuttin' an' I ain't gonn' do nuttin'! I ain't got no beef wit'cha!" the older man said in a slurry voice as he continued to stumble backwards.

Giulia let out the breath she had been holding and reached down to pick up the wrapped package. "Sorry 'bout that, oldtimer… I thought you might be some creep out to get me," she said as she jumped down from the back of the van. Holding the package tight, she sat down on the edge of the bed to appear less threatening to the shorter man.

The old fellow let out a cackling laugh. "Aw, that'll be the day… what's that thing yer holdin' there?"


"Right. Gotcha. Naw, I jus' saw you parkin' this here thing an' I thought… I don't know what I thought. I jus' wanted to see what was goin' on is all."

"The van's busted," Giulia said and tapped her knuckles on the filthy floor of the cargo hold.

"Yeah? Ain'tcha gonn' call some tow truck or somethin', then?"

"Nope. It's not mine. And frankly, it's a piece of shit anyway. You can have it if ya want. The key's in the ignition," Giulia said and pointed over her shoulder.

"Naw, ain't got no license or nuttin'. But, uh…" the old fellow said, finally daring to come closer to the van and the taller woman, "but if ya ain't gonn' use it no more, wouldya mind if me an' my buddy Charlie Two-Toes used it for sleepin'? Jus' for tonight?"

Giulia chuckled and got up from the edge of the old Ford's bed. The package was too heavy, not to mention its shape too clumsy, too keep it under one arm, so she had to use both hands to hold it. "Oh, you and Charlie can use it for anything you like, oldtimer. It's all yours," she said with a grin.

"Aw! Much obliged there, li'l lady. Or not so li'l lady," the old fellow said, breaking out in another cackle. Nodding a combination of thank you and goodbye, he was soon shuffling along on tender feet to find his sleeping buddy.

Giulia's intense eyes stayed with him for a short while before she let out a sigh. Turning back to the dirt accessway that led up to the street, she studied her surroundings carefully before she began the short trek. All was quiet. No thugs were waiting for her up by the sidewalk; she could hear neither shouting nor powerful engines racing along the streets looking for her.

Before she took off, she checked the time on her telephone. The fact that it read ten minutes past two in the morning made her groan. "I should be home sleeping… and how the hell can it still be so frickin' hot?" she mumbled, putting one boot ahead of the other as she began climbing the gently sloped dirt road.


The sidewalk was devoid of life. Charm was a quality sorely lacking as well though the area Giulia walked through was equipped with expensive flower beds, exquisite dark-wood park benches and matt-black LED display cases advertising the world's best known upper-crust brands of wristwatches, wines, cars, chocolates and lingerie for the world's senior managers' twenty-something mistresses who, according to the ads, spent their days between silk sheets wearing lacy minis, Wonderbras and sizzling come-hither looks.

As with most areas inside the financial district, the hyper-wealthy owners of the plots of land had made sure that no one who made less than ten million per year would feel comfortable, or even welcome in their kingdoms. The soulless glass-and-chrome palaces that stretched toward the heavens were all equipped with coldly lit lobbies in which beefy, armed security people made sure the locked doors remained thus. The guards - whose shaved heads, square jaws, black shades and bulging jackets made them look like members of a crime syndicate - kept a close eye on the lone woman walking past just beyond the locked gates to the land of milk and honey.

Giulia didn't feel either comfortable or welcome as she strode along the sidewalk in her basketball boots, her khaki cargo pants, her white, sweat-stained tank-top or her blue, polyester windbreaker. The neighborhood required a five-thousand dollar business or skirt suit at the very least; platinum-colored, of course, and obviously paid for by a platinum-colored credit card. Scoffing at the tasteless, gold-plated air of splendor that permeated the entire district, she hunkered down and soldiered on.


Now and then, she looked over her shoulder to keep a close eye on her surroundings, but she was still alone. She needed both hands to carry the heavy package, and it gave her an annoying crimp in the neck that she knew would turn into a proper headache before she was anywhere near the Beaumont Building on West Thirty-third Street.

Despite being inactive for most of the day because of her job situation, she was still in good shape. The six city blocks she needed to trek past shouldn't have posed too much of a problem for her, but the heat and humidity sapped her of her strength; it didn't help that she hadn't had anything to eat or drink for so long she couldn't remember when it had been.

The sight of a dark pickup truck turning the corner some three hundred yards ahead of her made her come to a hard stop. The truck drove onto the connecting street at such a slow pace that it could only be one of those she had seen used by her pursuers. As it got closer, she spotted the black-clad passenger who still wore his beloved shades.

"Sons of bitches… don't they ever give up?" Giulia growled, hurriedly looking around for somewhere to hide. Unlike the old Superman comics where Clark Kent could always find a phone booth when he needed to change into his famed Spandex outfit, Giulia had few options. Either she could try crouching down behind one of the dark-wood park benches and hope she wouldn't stand out too much in her blue windbreaker, or she could try making a run for a narrow alley that was located between one of the glass palaces and the cornershop café some one hundred yards ahead of her.

Grimacing, she weighed her options for a few seconds before she chose the latter of the two. Though it seemed suicidal to be running toward the approaching truck when the men inside it were on the lookout for her, the benches just weren't large enough to hide a woman of her height and breadth. She needed to make up her mind, so she did, and took off in a sprint which the wrapped package made far more difficult than it should have been.

She tried to stick to the shadows that were created by the gaps in the overhead LED lamps, but she had a persistent nagging worry right between her shoulder blades that told her it wouldn't be enough. After all, she was the only thing that moved on the entire street apart from the truck.

Putting her long, powerful legs to good use, she raced hard along the sidewalk until her lungs caught fire from sprinting in such high humidity and without the use of her arms. The mouth of the narrow alley came up fast, but so did the dark truck. It was far too close for comfort, but the alley won that particular duel, and she ducked into it at the very last moment before the truck rumbled past out on the street.

She leaned against the fence separating the high-rise's piece of real estate from that of the cornershop café. Panting and wheezing, she observed the dark truck as it continued down the street. The two men appeared not to have noticed anything, and they didn't stop at all before they turned another corner and went out of sight a few hundred yards further down the street. They hadn't even made it as far as the construction site where the Ford Econoline had been dumped.

If Giulia thought she was safe, she needed to re-assess her situation. She had barely caught her breath before she heard a familiar sound behind her. It was the metallic click of a switchblade being extended.

"Don't scream, bitch, and I might let ya live," a young, male voice said somewhere behind her. "Gimme that package… and all your cash and jewelry. And your watch and phone. Now!"

The muscles in Giulia's jaw got a strong workout listening to the mugger's threatening tone of voice. That a mugger even conducted his business in the financial district was sublimely ironic, but she didn't exactly see the dark humor at that particular point in time. "Look, friend," she growled as she turned around to take a look at the man near her. "I wouldn't push my luck if I were you… walk away. Just forget it and walk away."

Her would-be assailant was nothing but a street punk. A scrawny, skinny teenager wearing an ill-fitting tracksuit and a worn sports cap that carried the logo of one of the city's pro sports teams. His eyes were lit up from the inside, proving that he was under the influence of a drug of some kind. Whatever powder had coated his veins made him jumpy as a kitten, and he never stood still for more than a second at a time.

"What the fuck you talking about?" the teen replied, waving the switchblade around. "Can't you see I got a knife, bitch? Now gimme all your money! And that package!"

Giulia grunted. If the kid wanted trouble, he could have it. "You want the package?"

"Fuck, yeah!"

"Catch!" Giulia cried, throwing the heavy, wrapped box directly at the teen's face.

It struck him squarely across his nose and brow and flung his head backwards. As the sports cap flew clean off his head, he howled in pain and keeled over. A moment later, he came to an ungraceful landing on the ground that knocked the air out of him. He had managed to hang onto his switchblade through good fortune alone, but it was kicked out of his hand by a well-placed basketball boot almost before the dust had settled. The blade glinted in the LED lights as it made a perfect arc through the air and over the fence.

"You wanna get up so I can kick you down again? Huh?" Giulia said, clenching her fists. "Or do ya wanna call it quits while you're still conscious?"

The mugger looked at Giulia like he was about to break down in tears. A crimson line ran from his right nostril and onto his upper lip. "Fuck this!" he howled and jumped to his feet. In no time flat, he spun around and sprinted away from the dangerous Amazon.

Giulia let out a deep sigh. After rubbing her face, she retrieved the package - that hadn't even been dented after being used as a football - and turned back around. At the mouth of the alley, she peeked around the corner of the café to give the street a thorough check. She found no dark trucks, no metallic-blue Camaros and no black-clad thugs waiting in the shadows. Grunting, she carried on her merry way.


The upscale café occupied the corner of West Twenty-seventh Street and Avenue C. As Giulia followed the sidewalk around the bend to return to the avenue after the longest and most bothersome detour in the history of the world, she stopped to gaze through the burglar-proof roll-front wire fences that protected the window panes. The establishment's name had been painted onto the windows with plenty of artistic dips and swoops, but she could still catch a glimpse of the interior - though the café had closed at ten PM, the lights had been left on which helped.

Her empty stomach growled out loud at the sight of the neatly designed and decorated café, but mostly at the row of colorful advertisements that were attached to a lightbox above the counter. Five in all, they each displayed items that made her grossly neglected stomach whimper as her eyes wandered from one advertisement to the next: a bowl of whipped cocoa cream sprinkled with white chocolate shavings. A slice of German Sacher torte layer cake. Hot waffles and cool strawberry jam. A a slice of caramel fudge cake, and finally a pair of petite chocolates covered in icing sugar.

"Goddamn, I need to get something to eat…" she mumbled, reluctantly tearing her eyes away from the enticing advertisements. Moving along on feet that didn't want to leave the café behind, she shuffled the heavy package around so she could put her hand in her windbreaker's pocket.

The display on her telephone showed the time was eighteen minutes past two. An hour and ten minutes remained until the deadline. She had six city blocks to go which should - in theory - be manageable, but when she reached the intersection at Thirty-third Street, she still needed to find the Beaumont Building not to mention the mysterious Mr. Manning who was cooped up somewhere in the building's undoubtedly vast parking garage.

Shaking her head over the unfathomable, not to mention never-ending, sequence of dramas her life had turned into, she stuffed the telephone back into her pocket and carried on.


A hundred yards further up Avenue C, the telephone rang which spooked her so badly she nearly dropped the package. Before she understood it was her ringtone rather than a sneak attack by unseen opponents, she had already whipped her head around several times to scan for the bad guys she just knew would be close by.

"Aw, hell," she said, balancing the cumbersome package on one knee while she fished through her jacket's pocket to find the annoying gadget. "Yeah… it's Giulia."

'It's me, girl,' Heather Appleby said at the other end of the connection. While she spoke, noises produced by what sounded like a powerful engine could be heard in the background. 'I'm ready and I hope you are too, 'cos I'm coming… so to speak. Heh, heh.'

"Candy? Shit, it's great to hear your voice…"

'Oh, man… you sound down. More asshole trouble?'

"Sort of. The Ford crapped out on me so I'm walkin'."

A long whistle was heard through the telephone. 'Walking is overrated. Where are you?'

"Avenue C… just gone past the corner of C and West Twenty-seventh Street ."

'Okay, I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer all the time, girl. Been chased by any of your tails lately?'

"Yeah," Giulia said, peeking over her shoulder just to check one more time now that Heather had mentioned it. "One of them. A dark truck manned by a couple of crooks is cruising around somewhere around here. I met it a couple of minutes ago, but they didn't see me."

'Fuck, you gotta watch your cute ass, Giulia…'

"I know."

'So they're definitely crooks and not Feds?'

"They're crooks, all right. Classic, old-school crooks."

'Okay. I'm still only at Forty-eighth Street , but I got the boot to the fuckin' floor so it won't be long before I'll reach ya. Five, eight minutes kinda-sorta. Or thereabouts.'

The sound of an engine much closer to Giulia's spot on the sidewalk made her hurry into a shadow that was the right shape for such a job. When it turned out to be a taxi cab, she let out a sigh and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that sounds mighty fine, Candy. I'm getting too damn paranoid here. I just heard something but it was a cab."

'Can't have that… paranoia sucks, girl.'

"No shit. Oh, and I hope you'll bring a whole buncha sandwiches or something. I'm dying of acute starvation here… and that's not much of an exaggeration."

When the line went silent, Giulia checked the telephone to see if she had lost connection. It appeared the conversation was still going, however, so she put the phone back to her ear. "Hello? Candy? You still there?"

'I gotta make one, leeeeetle stop on the way, girl… I sorta had a brainfreeze and forgot all about the food.'

"Oh, man!"

'Yeah, I'm too fuckin' shtoopid sometimes. But don't worry, I got it covered, girl. Good thing you reminded me or we woulda had a crisis once we hooked up, huh? Oh, and when ya see a fire-engine-red Chevy chrome-wonder come racin' towards ya, don't freak out, yeah? It's me, Candy-Santa-fuckin'-Claus with the sandwiches and shit goin' ass to the grass to save ya. Okay?'

"Yeah, okay," Giulia and let out a chuckle at Heather Appleby's characteristic colorful language. "Talk to you real soon, yeah?"

'Real soon, girl! Bye.'

While Giulia put the telephone into her pocket and got ready to leave the relative protection of the shadow she had found, she could hear another vehicle close by. Unlike the steady hum produced by the worn engines in most of the taxi cabs or delivery vans that drove past, the one approaching was a finely tuned piece of high-performance machinery.

She held her breath while she waited for the car to come into view. Moments later, a one-eyed, metallic-blue Chevrolet Camaro with dark-tinted windows rolled around the corner and onto Avenue C not fifty yards from her position. The V8 engine burbled merrily under the dented hood as the sports car trickled along the avenue searching for the white Ford or its driver.

"Oh, fuck," Giulia whispered, pressing herself as far into the shadow as she would fit. She bared her teeth in a grimace as she kept her intense eyes fixed on the street.

The car trickled past her hiding place without stopping. She made a note of the fact that it didn't help much to have dark-tinted windows in the front and back when both side windows had been rolled down. The driver was the same blond, bearded guy wearing a red windbreaker she had seen at the intersection blocked by the homeless people; this time, he had a passenger who turned out to be the thug who had paid Giulia a visit through the rear doors of the Econoline before being thrown back out. The scrapes and bruises on his ungainly face were plainly visible even in the yellowish-orange light from the lamp posts.

To draw a fat line under the threatening nature of the two men, the bruised passenger held a dark-gray revolver ready in case they would bump into their prey.

Giulia tried to glare a hole in the side of the Camaro as it drove past, but even the dazzling intensity of her ice-blue eyes was no match for the metallic-blue paint and the Detroit metal underneath it.

The bearded driver of the sports car finally gunned the engine and turned away from the avenue in a hurry. The reason for his hasty departure became apparent a few moments later when a police cruiser out on patrol went past going in the other direction.

For half a second, Giulia considered flagging down the police car, but all logic screamed in her ear that she shouldn't - an ex-con walking the streets of an upper-crust neighborhood she had no business in, in the middle of the night, and carrying a wrapped package that was graced by an official-looking stamp and a doodled signature was an arrest waiting to happen. She let out a deep sigh as she fell back into the shadow to wait for the blue-and-white police car to drive past.

"Candy, this would be a really, really good time to show up," she mumbled as she stepped out of the shadow and continued along the sidewalk on her never-ending quest to get to the Beaumont Building before the deadline would be reached. She had one hour and two minutes to get there.


Giulia's wishes were finally heard some seven minutes later when a fire-engine red Chevrolet Silverado crew cab - the 'chrome wonder' as Heather had called it - raced northbound on Avenue C a short distance behind her. The broad-shouldered, square-grilled truck crossed over all four lanes in a hurry before it came to a stop on the wrong side of the street next to a grinning Giulia Falcone.

The short, spiky-haired blonde who commanded the wheel of the large truck wore a shit-eating grin that reached from one ear to the other. After she had rolled down the power window, she put her elbow on the windowsill and leaned her head out of the air-conditioned cab. "Hey sailor. New in town?" Heather 'Candy' Appleby said, trying to act all cool and sophisticated. A split second later, her face cracked open in an even wider grin, and she let out a whoop. "Damn, you're lookin' fine, girl! Get your cute ass over here and slap me some sugar!"

Giulia laughed out loud and strode across the sidewalk. In two heartbeats flat, she was at the large truck and leaned through the window to offer her savior a good, little kiss with just the right amount of tongue. "Been a while, huh?" she said when they separated.

"Far, far too long, girl. Yeah…" Heather replied huskily. The cheesy grin had taken a back seat to the kissing, but it was soon back in full effect as she studied the face before her.

Giulia didn't just study Heather in return, she flat-out ogled her and didn't even bother to hide it. The greenish eyes, the cute dimples, the kissable lips - all the elements were still there. That Heather now wore her hair short and spiky only added fuel to the fire that suddenly ignited within Giulia. The shorter woman's presence had been pretty alluring to begin with when they had first met each other behind bars, but she had somehow turned even more attractive during the time they had been apart.

"Yeah," Giulia echoed, thinking about the love they had made in the cell. By necessity, the intimate encounter had been anything but sweet and romantic, but the fire that had burned inside them on the few nights they had been one being underneath the coarse blanket had more than made up for the oppressive nature of the bare, gray walls and metal bars surrounding them.

"Phew, I got the A-C on maximum, but it's still too fuckin' hot in here! Or maybe it's me, I dunno," Heather said with a grin before she eyed the wrapped package. "So that's the object of everyone's desire, huh? Sure looks like drugs to me."

"And I sure hope it won't be," Giulia said, looking at the official stamp on the label.

Heather craned her neck to see what the small piece of paper said. When she noticed the stamp, she let out a puzzled grunt. "What the fuck, girl… US Customs?"

"Yeah. I don't know what that's all about."

"Well, in any case, you can dump that big fuckin' package in the back and get your cute ass inside, girl. I got sandwiches and Cokes and shit. You said you were hungry?"

"Starving, Candy," Giulia said and tore herself away from the blonde behind the wheel. She hustled around the front of the large vehicle and opened the narrow rear door that led to the crew cab's smaller back seat - though 'smaller' was a relative term when it came to the proportions of the Silverado. The wrapped package was soon put down in the footwell before she closed the door and climbed up into the truck. Sitting down, she and her butt couldn't help but notice the seats were made of soft, cream-colored leather.

The difference to the old Ford Econoline she had just vacated couldn't be greater. Where the old, utilitarian delivery van had been a study in drab with its tired, worn interior, the Silverado was a veritable cornucopia that featured leather seats, plush carpets, a space-age instrument cluster, chrome trimmings around the dashboard and the center console, a big, colorful multimedia infotainment system, and every other creature comfort a driver could possibly want for his or her driving pleasure. "Aw, this is a nice truck…" she said somewhat redundantly.

"My brother thinks so," Heather said and pulled the shifter into drive. "And get a load-a this!" she cried, slamming her boot down onto the throttle. The V8 engine let out a bellowing roar which made the two-ton truck shoot off into a start not unlike the Saturn V rockets used for the Apollo space missions back in the 1960s. Heather whooped out loud from the thrill, but eventually let off the accelerator so they could remain within the thirty-five miles per hour speed limit. Even so, the stores along Avenue C flashed past in a blur.

"Cool," Giulia said, having already eyed a six-pack of Coca-Colas and a plastic bag loaded with wrapped sandwiches and a few napkins. She tore the bag open in a hurry to grab one of the small boxes that contained the food. The first one she got was a cucumber and French paté sandwich, but she - along with her gut - had gone past caring about the ingredients. The smaller box was soon cracked open as well, and half a sandwich was stuffed into her mouth in one go. The food wasn't bad at all though it had only been snatched up in a To Go refrigerator at a gas station, and the other half of the cucumber-French paté -nirvana-mix soon disappeared through frantic chewing.

Heather stared at the way the muscles moved on her old friend's jaw as the food was being chowed down. "Girl… you really were starving, huh? Dontcha eat?"

"I eat. Just not enough sometimes," Giulia said, finishing off the sandwich before diving into the plastic bag to grab one of the napkins that carried the logo of the gas station where Heather had bought the midnight snack. After she had wiped her lips, she reached for the first can of Coke to quench her thirst. "The ebbing and flowing of my finances are kinda stuck at ebbing right now," she said as she cracked open the can and took several deep gulps of the dark-brown, fizzy liquid before putting it into one of the numerous cup holders.

"Yeah. I know what you mean. I didn't have two fuckin' cents to rub together until my brother offered me the job watching over his import-export shit," Heather said quietly.

The next sandwich beckoned, and Giulia soon unpacked a soggy tuna salad. A sweet pea covered in mayonnaise fell out of the box and tried to make a run for it, but she caught it with the napkin before the greasy runaway could stain the leather upholstery.

"But anyway," Heather continued, snapping out of her gloomy thoughts. "Enough of that negative shit. How ya been, girl? You look awesome. You always were bronzed, though… it took me three months to lose the big-house paleness."

"Eh. I've been all right. Up and down. Re-adjusting," Giulia said with a shrug. She cast a quick glance at Heather whose form-fitting blue jeans and black, long-sleeved sweatshirt - carrying a Jolly Roger skull-and-bones symbol and the words Never Mess With A Bad Grrrrl written in white on the front - made her look like any other regular citizen.

Giulia's chewing almost slowed to a halt as she looked down at her state-issue khaki cargo pants, her state-issue white tank-top and her old, blue polyester windbreaker that she had bought for five dollars in a thrift store downtown. There was no denying she still looked like an ex-con straight out of prison. Though she actually was, she needed to move on in life - that became painfully obvious to her.

" Thirtieth Street ," Heather said, pointing at the sign as they drove past it across a deserted intersection. That the lights had just turned yellow didn't seem to bother the woman behind the wheel. "Where'd'ya say you needed to go again?"

" Thirty-third Street . West," Giulia mumbled around the final mouthful of the soggy tuna salad sandwich. Once she had finished chewing, she wiped her lips on the napkin and stored the rest of the food for later. Turning around in the comfortable seat, she eyed the wrapped package that was still sitting pretty down in the footwell in the back.

"Okay. Not long to go now. Girl, once we're done here, I'm not leaving ya until I get a lowdown on what's been going on withcha. I still can't believe ya didn't try to get in touch with me once you got out. I woulda helped ya get settled and all kinds of shit! You live in the fuckin' slums for Chrissakes! Me and my brother coulda found something far nicer for ya!"

Giulia turned back to look out of the wide windshield. Although they were getting close to the destination with time to spare, a knot in her stomach told her that something nasty could still crop up - and if the night she'd had so far was anything to go by, it not only could crop up, it would crop up. "I know, Candy. I'm sorry," she said with a shrug as she took the can of Coke and began to toy with the small, metal flap at the opening. "It took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that I was out." She couldn't think of anything to add to that, so she took a sip of her Coke instead.

Heather nodded in understanding. "My second night out was almost my first night back in. The day of my release went by in a blur, but on the second night, I went to a bar to celebrate and I got so fuckin' loaded… then some douchebag skank provoked me into a fight in an alley behind the dump. I punched her fuckin' lights out and shit even tho' I was drunk off my ass. Never left my first pad for a month after that. Locked my door and threw away the key just to keep myself contained. You know? Then my brother sorta took pity on me and kicked my ass back onto the straight and narrow."

"It's not working that's bothering me the most," Giulia said as the red truck drove past Thirty-first Street . "I've always worked. Odd jobs or whatever, but I've always worked. Now, I'm on my sofa bed from dawn to dusk. And the nights too, for that matter. Nobody wants to hire an ex-con. Hell, I applied for a job cleaning the public johns down at the central station, but-"

"Ugh, that's too fuckin' gross, girl!"

Giulia shrugged. "It's a living. But they didn't want me. After an introductory meeting that I thought went kinda well, they called my case worker and said they didn't have confidence in my ability to get up in the morning. That was that."

"Aw, that's the worst pile-o' stinkin' bullshit excuse I ever smelled!"

"Yeah. But what can I do, you know? Slow down, we're almost there," Giulia said as they went across the intersection at Thirty-second street .

"Yup," Heather said, applying the brakes to reduce the speed to a quiet fifteen miles per hour.

The knot in Giulia's stomach had only intensified, and she knew it couldn't be for a good reason. Reaching into her pocket, she found her telephone which read seventeen minutes to three - they had just over three quarters of an hour to connect with the mysterious Mr. Manning and make the drop.

Her intense eyes scanned their surroundings for an unwelcome sign of the Camaro or the dark pickup trucks. So far, everything was quiet. The final city block went by at a far slower pace than the previous ones had done, but it only gave her more time to worry about the complications that still lay ahead. 'Quiet' was nice, but in her experience, 'quiet' usually didn't stay that way.


When they reached the intersection at Thirty-third Street , the traffic lights turned red. Heather pulled the Silverado to a halt at the line and activated the turning signal though they were the only ones there. The two women fell silent like they were both affected by the rising tension. As the lights turned green, Heather let her foot off the brake which sent the fire-engine-red truck trickling off the avenue and onto the connecting street.

West Thirty-third street was home to a great number of palace-like high-rises, so finding the Beaumont Building wasn't as easy as Giulia had imagined it would be. She and Heather went past four nearly identical, extravagant skyscrapers before her keen eyes picked out a row of shiny letters that spelled out Beaumont Worldwide on a marquee situated atop the lobby of the high-rise. "That's gotta be it, Candy," Giulia said, pointing at the building in question.

"Sure fuckin' looks like it. Now what?"

"Now we gotta find the accessway to the parking garage. It's gotta be around here somewhere," Giulia said while checking her telephone. Two forty-eight AM. They had forty-two minutes at the most before Nathan Manning would leave and the whole nightmarish evening and night would turn even messier.

As Heather brought the Silverado to a halt in the middle of Thirty-third Street while searching for the proper ramp, she turned off the air-conditioning so she could roll down the power window. "Eh. I don't know," she said, craning her neck as she checked the impossibly tall buildings next to them. "I can't see nothing… naw, there's something funky going on here, girl. None of those skyscrapers seem to have parking garages. There must be a parallel street running somewhere behind them… but where the fuck it is beats me."

While Heather spoke, the hot, muggy air seeped into the Chevrolet's cab through the open window. Giulia's ears picked up a familiar sound she had already encountered several times over the course of the night. The burbling of the Silverado's engine was so loud it drowned out most other sounds, but she was sure she had recognized the background noise - and it spelled trouble with a capital T. "Candy, switch off the engine…"


"Just turn it off. I need to check something."

"Whatever you say, girl," Heather said and turned the ignition key back to its upper stop. As the truck fell silent, the background noise revealed itself as a high-performance engine that was coming up fast. Within a few moments, several more joined in to create a wall of sound heading their way.

"Aw, hell," Giulia said, rubbing her face. "We gotta find that accessway now, Candy!"

" 's that the assholes?"


"Fuck!" Heather barked, craning her neck every which way to search for the ramp leading down to the Beaumont Building 's parking garage - but there was nothing to be found. "Are you sure you got the right fuckin' address, girl? I mean, there's fuck-all here! Nada!"

At the next corner, the metallic-blue Camaro with the dark-tinted windows came roaring onto Thirty-third Street with squealing tires and its tail hanging out wide until the driver had pulled it straight. Two of the three dark pickups followed close behind. When the lead driver spotted the large Silverado - it was hard to miss since it was the only vehicle on the street - he gunned the engine even further and barreled down upon his opponents.

"Fuck!" -- "Hoa-boy, fuck that!" Giulia and Heather cried at the same time.

"Candy, we need to get-"

"-The fuck outta here!" Heather replied, twisting the ignition key and selecting reverse. As the large truck lurched backwards, she put her arm over the backrest and stared out of the rear window. She kept her boot on the throttle, and the powerful truck flew back almost as fast as it had gone forward.

"Why are we going backwards?!" Giulia cried, watching her pursuers catching up with them.

" 'Cos this big-ass barge has the turning radius of the fuckin' Space Shuttle, that's why! It needs an entire fuckin' parking lot to come around!"

"Throw it into neutral, pull the parking brake and spin the wheel!"

"What the fuck good would that do?!" Heather cried, still staring out of the small rear window as she tried to control the large truck. The scenery flashing past in a colorful blur made it difficult for her, but she tried her best to keep it going straight.

"That'll spin it around! Then you can go forward!"

"I ain't no fuckin' stunt car driver, girl! That's your shtick!"

"Oh, Goddamn…" Giulia croaked, watching wide-eyed as the bruised passenger of the metallic-blue Camaro stuck half his upper body out of the sports car's open window to aim his revolver at the fleeing truck. "Gun! That asshole's pointing a gun at us!"

The words had barely left her mouth before the thug fired several rounds at the fire-engine-red truck. The first shot went wide to the left. Trying again, the thug sent the second one screaming straight over the truck's roof. He had more success with the third one that hit the left-hand side mirror and shattered it into a thousand pieces.

"Da fuck?! Oh-my-fuckin'-God, my brother's gonna fuckin' kill me!" Heather cried as she ducked down in an almighty hurry to get out of the firing line. While she was busy ducking, she lost her grip on the steering wheel which made the heavy truck change course with a jerk; a split second later, it aimed dead center at one of the LED lamp posts that lined the street.

Giulia noticed the imminent danger and spun the wheel back around. While Heather spewed out a constant, near-unintelligible stream of highly inventive cuss words that offered a colorful description of the lineage of the gangsters chasing them, Giulia took over the controls and got the Silverado back on course. With her superior driving skills - even from the passenger seat while going backwards - she got them safely away from the lamp post and back out into the middle of the street. "Swap! We need to swap! Get in the back!" she cried, shoving Heather's smaller frame out of the way with a firm hand on the butt of the tight jeans.

Howling, Heather jumped up from the driver's seat and flew back into the crew cab. Although she came to a soft landing on one of the cream-colored leather seats, it didn't stop her barrage of cursing.

Giulia shuffled her long legs around the center console and into the driver's seat. Dropping down behind the wheel, she conducted the drill she had tried to explain to Heather. The tires screamed out their displeasure at the sideways abuse, but she managed to get the heavy truck spun around and pointed in the proper direction. Mashing the gas, she and Heather took off with a loud roar from the engine that nearly matched the one coming from the petite blonde in the rear.

Twenty yards further down the street, she needed to spin the steering wheel first one way, then back in the opposite direction to evade and subsequently steer clear of the third of the dark pickup trucks that had tried to sneak up on them from behind. The other truck came to a screeching, tire-smoking, sideways halt to avoid being involved in a head-on collision, and for the briefest of moments, Giulia locked eyes with her counterpart who seemed ready to poop his britches - then they flew past each other.

Tearing around the corner on two wheels, the fire-engine-red truck was soon back onto Avenue C and going flat out. "Are they still coming?" Giulia said over her shoulder while she had her foot to the floor.

"O-yeah! And they still got guns, too!" Heather cried, looking behind them.

Giulia's only reply was to stand on the gas pedal even harder which made the Chevrolet race south on the near-deserted avenue at nearly one hundred miles per hour. She kept both hands on the luxurious leather steering wheel to avoid further dramas, but her eyes were out on stalks to find somewhere they could disappear.

"Aw yeah, now we're losin' those fuckers! They can't keep up! Hey-ho, Silverado!" Heather cried from the back.

"Good! Now hang on!" Giulia cried back, spinning the steering wheel left so they could race onto East Twenty-ninth Street . In the back, Heather let out another howl as she ended up ass-over-elbows after not having had time to 'hang on' like Giulia told her to.

Cursing and swearing all over again, Heather came up for air with a "Hooooo-ly fuck!" on her lips. It was quickly followed by a "Now where da fuck are we going?"

"When we drove past here before, I noticed a- here we are! Hang on!"

"Ugh, not that shit again," Heather said and tried her best to find something to hang onto. For the second time in a minute, she had very little success in her endeavor and ended up in a heap of arms and legs down in the footwell as Giulia spun the steering wheel around and flew onto a concrete ramp that led to a multi-storey parking garage.

The bar was up so she was able to race through without slowing down. Although the booth at the entry-exit point was manned, the fellow inside it never had time to react before the red lightning bolt had come and gone.

Giulia spun the steering wheel again and made a ninety-degree right-hand turn onto the next ramp which led to the second level. The truck's engine roared as it needed to perform a little harder going uphill, but it soon cleared as the vehicle crested the hump and flew around the first corner. The echoes that bounced around the concrete surfaces were deafening, and something that Giulia needed to take care of in a hurry.

Standing on the brake pedal, Giulia made the truck come to a rocking, squealing, dust-flying stop that made Heather bump down into the footwell all over again. Turning off the engine, she shushed the cursing woman in the back to be able to listen for their pursuers. When she had counted four engines racing past down on Twenty-ninth Street , she let out a sigh of relief and turned the engine back on. As the burbling V8 overpowered everything else, she took her foot off the brake pedal and let the truck trundle around at a few miles per hour to look for somewhere to park.

"Well, fuck me…" Heather croaked from the back as she was finally able to sit up straight. Her black sweatshirt with the skull-and-bones logo had been pulled crooked in the involuntary stunt show she had participated in: her left sleeve ended at her elbow while the right one appeared to be three feet long. Shimmying around, she got everything pulled back in place. "Talk about your rough 'n tumble sex and shit… hoa-fuck! Look at the mirror! Oh-my-fuckin'-God, my brother's gonna fuckin' kill me! With a fuckin' baseball bat!"

"At least he'll still have a chance to do so," Giulia said somberly, slotting the Silverado into a space just wide enough for it between a Cadillac Escalade and a BMW Seven-series sedan. Once the engine was quiet again, she let out a deep sigh and rubbed her face thoroughly.

Heather tried to clamber back up front over the seats, but she gave up and chose the safe route instead by using the door. Once she was back out - and had inspected the smashed mirror to much gnashing of teeth - she leaned against the driver's door and shot her old friend a dark look. "Okay, what the fuck are we gonna do, girl?"

"I don't know, Candy," Giulia said and took her telephone. It was three minutes to three. They only had little more than half an hour to deliver the package, and the entire world seemed to be dead set against them being successful.

"One thing's for sure, tho'," Heather said and tapped her knuckles on the truck's door. When she had Giulia's attention, she stood up on tip-toes and leaned through the open window to deliver a quick kiss to her old lover's lips.

Giulia broke out in a tired grin and reciprocated the kiss while they still had the opportunity. "Yeah? What's that?"

"We need some hardware. I'm not going up against gangstas with guns only packin' my winning personality. No way, José. I'm gonna call someone I know. Betcha he can help us."

"Man, we don't have time for that, Candy," Giulia said and let out a deep sigh. "We have half an hour at the most before the shit really hits the fan."

"Uh… why?"

"Because that's when the buyer… or whatever he is… will zip his fly and walk away. Three thirty AM. Which is too damn soon."

"Da fuck? There's a deadline? You never mentioned anything about no fuckin' deadline!" Heather said, throwing her arms in the air.

Giulia shook her head to sympathize with her friend's gesture. "We were gonna be there way before the deadline. Hell, we were there! If we had only found the stinking accessway to the parking garage, we would have been in the clear and on our way home by now."

"Shit… well. Okay. All right, but I'm still gonna call him. Maybe we'll get lucky and he's close by. Gimme my phone… it's in the glove box," Heather said and reached through the window.

Giulia opened the fancy, leather-clad glove box and rummaged around for a brief moment before she found Heather's smartphone. She scrunched up her face when she realized it was a far flashier model than her own basic telephone that she had been given by her case worker in the rehabilitation project. "Here ya go. I never expected you to need a manly influence in your life, Candy… who is this guy?"

"Haw, haw… manly influence. Haw, haw. I don't. But this fella isn't your average Joe Schmoe," Heather said as she rolled through the registry to find the right number. "He might not be able to make it here on such short notice, but, hey… if we don't try, we'll never know, right?"

"Whatever you say, Candy. I'm kinda lost, but okay. You go ahead," Giulia said with a shrug.


While Heather shuffled around the back of the truck and a bit further into the dreary parking garage talking to her unknown connection, Giulia went into the rear section of the crew cab and sat down next to the wrapped package. It, and its official-looking stamp, mocked her with its unimpressed state at the endless array of crises and dramas it had caused over the course of the evening and night.

It seemed almost impossible that it had all taken place during a single night - to Giulia, it felt like two weeks had gone by in the twenty-four hour period since the phone call where she had heard from Eduardo Espinosa for the first time in nearly a decade.

Her nostrils still held a whiff of his expensive, imported cologne from when they had met in the old meat-packing warehouse. Then, it had seemed like a straightforward deal. Two grand up front, eight upon delivery. She should have known he was only out to take advantage of her and her skills behind the wheel. Espinosa had known from the start the run would be compromised, or perhaps even doomed, she was convinced of that. All she was to him was a slab of living beef. An expendable ex-con that nobody would miss if she didn't come back from the job. Her mind turned gloomy thinking about the friendship she had lost, but she realized it hadn't really been a friendship at all.

Despite everything, she had to chuckle when she remembered the annoyed look on Eduardo Junior's face as she told him he was going to pay for gassing up the Econoline - that had been one of the evening's very few highlights. Hooking up with Heather Appleby once more was obviously the single biggest, best thing that had happened to her since the warden had scrawled his signature on the final page of her release papers.

A tired smile briefly graced Giulia's features as she turned around in the seat to look at the spiky-haired blonde through the rear window. If they both made it through the night in one piece, there was definitely something to build on. The spark was still there between them, and it only needed the tiniest bit of encouragement to turn into a raging fire. As Giulia watched, Heather finished the conversation with whomever she had spoken to and shuffled back to the truck.

"Girl, I got good news and better news," Heather said, putting her foot onto the truck's lower frame at the open door to the crew cab.

"Good news first."

"I found the accessway on my GPS," Heather said and held up her phone. "We went straight fuckin' past it, ya know, both comin' and goin'! But it's just a teensy-weensy little paved alley. Unmarked. It goes down a slope and shit until it connects with another accessway that runs parallel to Thirty-third Street . All the skyscrapers are connected to it on their ass-side. 's gotta be the entry to the garages."

"Yeah. Great work, Candy. I owe you one."

"Aw, you can pay me back later. With interest," Heather said and delivered a saucy wink just in case Giulia was a little rusty on her innuendo. "And the better news is that I got hold of the fella. He's just around the corner and he's promised to swing by as soon as possible. ETA five minutes or so."

"Okay, but… when are you gonna tell me who it is? Or is that some kind of state secret?"

Heather chuckled and moved up onto the back seat. She took the opportunity to run her hand up and down the thigh of Giulia's khaki cargo pants. "Nah, it's no secret. He's really nobody, just your average, friendly, traveling gun merchant."

"What? Like an arms dealer?"

"Sorta! On a smaller scale, of course. I don't think he's got any cruise missiles or attack choppers in his truck… but he may, I dunno," Heather said and broke out in a cheesy grin. "Eh, you know… we ex-cons can't buy firearms in gun shops because of our criminal records. He doesn't have such qualms."

"Well, that's certainly noble of him," Giulia said with a strong touch of irony in her voice. She continued in a more sober fashion: "You can pack all the heat you like, Candy. But you won't get me to do it. I don't do guns. Not now, not ever."

Smiling, Heather leaned in to rub arms with her old lover. "No worries, girl. I know it's not your thing."

The two women smiled at each other for a short while before they leaned in to steal a kiss - Giulia hoped there would be plenty of that in her future. Plenty of kissing and far less fearing for her life or limbs. "Yeah. Do I wanna know why you have the telephone number of a traveling gun merchant?" she said with a wink.

The long, sly, off-key whistling that came from Heather's kissable lips was all the reply Giulia ever would get.




An eternity went by before Heather's telephone finally rang and the fiery blonde answered it. It may only have been four minutes, but it felt far longer than that for Giulia who could feel each and every one of the seconds ticking away.

In the meanwhile, she had relocated to the fire-engine-red truck's passenger seat where she was busy chowing down a corned beef sandwich. Though it was an everyday occurrence for millions of people, it marked a first for her - until then, she couldn't stand the taste of corned beef, but an empty stomach screaming for nourishment was hard to ignore. She gulped it down with plenty of Coca-Cola which helped.

The next one down in the plastic bag was a simple, good, old-fashioned ham-and-cheese sandwich which, unlike the corned beef, had been a favorite of hers since childhood. She had particularly loved it when her mama had smeared a thick layer of genuine Italian mustard between the top-quality Parma ham and a hefty slice of Tuscan cheese, but that was perhaps too much to ask for when it came to a sandwich from a convenience food refrigerator at a gas station.

A couple of bites confirmed it. The yellow part of the ham-and-cheese looked like cheese, and it even smelled like cheese - at least to a certain extent - but the taste left plenty to be desired. Shrugging, Giulia reached for the can of Coke to help the sandwich down with some of the sticky, dark-brown fizzy water.

"All right," Heather said into her telephone as she walked past the open window. "Fuckin'-A, Stan. We'll be down in a flash. What? How long a flash is? How the fuck should I know? It's just a figure of speech. Anyway, we'll be right down. Yep. See ya." Pressing her index finger onto the display, she stuffed the smartphone into her rear pocket and ran back to her old lover.

Giulia put the can of Coke into the cup holder and wiped her mouth on the napkin. "Good news? I hope it is… we're running out of time fast, Candy," she said, looking at her telephone which read nine minutes past three.

"It's awesome news, girl. My man Stanislav is parked down on the street and he's ready to see us right away."

"Stanislav? The friendly neighborhood gun merchant's name is Stanislav?"

"Yeah, Stanislav Chapkanov. He fled the commies back in the 1980s and liked what he found here. He's a cool fella. Anyway, I know him from the old days."

"Not sure I wanna know about that," Giulia said and exited the truck. After shutting the passenger side door, she looked through the window at the wrapped package that was still safe down in the footwell. She considered for a moment or two if she should bring it along, but she decided that she had carried the heavy, cumbersome box too far already.

"You comin' or what, girl?" Heather said, holding her key fob ready. When Giulia let out an affirmative grunt, the fiery blonde pressed the button which activated the central locking.


Technically speaking, the booth at the sole entry-exit point of the parking garage was still manned by the time the two women reached it on foot, but a mile-long column of battle tanks, self-propelled artillery and other armored vehicles could have driven past the gates undetected. The uniformed guard was fast asleep. Sitting on an old swivel-chair, he was leaning forward so his head could rest on his arms on a small desk. His uniform cap, a can of beer and a paper wrapper holding the sorry remains of a half-eaten burrito had been shoved aside so he had better room to take a nap.

"What a fuckin' lazy bum… gives us night watch-people a bad name. Sleeping on the job? Whadda-fuck's the world comin' to?" Heather said with a wink and a grin as they walked past the booth. She pointed her thumb at the sleeping man whose tousled mop of hair gave the appearance that he hadn't owned a comb since his teen years. "Hey, wouldn't that be a good job for ya, girl?"

Giulia cast a quick glance at the sleeping attendant. The job didn't appear to require any special skills, and the man certainly didn't appear to have any, either. "Yeah. I'll give 'em a call if I live to see the dawn."


East Twenty-ninth Street was soon reached. Everything seemed quiet at first apart from the din of sirens, honks, and odd bangs, bumps and hums that always rose from any major city. The mugginess that still permeated the concrete jungle made the asphalt, the houses and everything else send out a highly unpleasant stench that made everyone crinkle their noses as they continued to sweat and suffer from the high humidity.

While Heather ran ahead to locate Stanislav Chapkanov and his traveling gun shop, Giulia remained at the entry to the parking garage to give her surroundings a thorough scan just to be on the safe side.

The part of the financial district they were in was home to smaller branches of international banks and insurance companies, so the buildings were far more modest compared to the extravagant skyscrapers that housed all the big corporations and conglomerates over in the western section. There weren't many cars parked on the street, and better yet, there were no signs of the one-eyed, metallic-blue Camaro or any of the other vehicles the thugs had used.

Taxi cabs drove past at infrequent intervals, but they were nearly all vacant since the zone was largely devoid of life at that time of night. The first signs of the approaching new day were evident in a red-and-white bread van that had turned on its hazard lights while it was double-parked some four hundred yards up the street, and a newspaper truck that slowly turned the corner from Avenue C. The large truck only stopped to drop off tightly-packed bundles of newspapers in two places before it chugged on.

A whistle that clearly came from Heather made Giulia duck out of her hiding place and run out onto the smelly street. A large, neutral delivery truck equipped with a full-size sliding door at the rear was double-parked fifty yards away from the parking garage, and it didn't take Giulia long to reach it.

When she got there, Heather greeted her with a wide grin. A tall, lanky man in his late fifties wearing a baggy, pale-brown boiler suit stepped into the light with his right hand already extended. "Giulia, say hi to Stan Chapkanov! He's from Bulgaria . A real friendly fella!"

"Hi, Stanislav. I'm Giulia. Nice to meet ya," Giulia said, shaking hands with the man who was a few inches taller than she. She had expected a gun merchant to be a sinister, swarthy, shifty-eyed type, but the man she shook hands with could have doubled for a mechanic, a janitor, or perhaps even a high-school metal crafts teacher - save perhaps for the heavy-duty army boots he wore. The upper hem of a pale-blue T-shirt was visible around the collar of the zipped boiler suit, and he had a pair of orange surgical gloves stuffed into his right-hand pocket. Clean-shaven, he sported two bushy eyebrows that looked odd next to the wispy strands of thinning hair atop his oblong head.

"Hello. If you want guns, you come to Stanislav," the man said in a voice that held strong traces of his Eastern European origins. "And since you are here, I guess you want guns!"

"Well, maybe just one…" Giulia said with a dry chuckle.

"For me!" Heather interjected, tapping her chest.

"Ah, I see. Then I need to find small gun. I joke," Stanislav said and flashed Heather a wide grin that was responded to by a hand gesture that couldn't be misinterpreted.

Giulia chuckled at the exchange, but she could still almost hear the seconds ticking away. "Listen, I'm sorry, but we need to do this pretty damn quickly… we need to be somewhere in less than twenty minutes."

"I hear. First, I need to see money. This is America . Nothing works without money in America ," Stanislav said and cocked his long head.

"Ain't that the truth," Giulia mumbled as she reached into her rear pocket. Retrieving the flattened wad of twenty one-hundred dollar bills, she unfolded it and showed Stanislav a few portraits of Benjamin Franklin. "Yeah?"

"Very good. I am satisfied. I will hurry," Stanislav said and reached into a pocket in his boiler suit to get a wad of keys. He quickly found the right one and unlocked the truck's sliding door to reveal the unlit cargo hold. A five-step, aluminum ladder was resting on the edge, and he pulled it down and attached it to the truck's bed so they could climb aboard.

"Damn, girl!" Heather said and nudged her old lover's shoulder. "Holding that kinda dough, why didn't-cha just call a cab? Woulda saved ya so much fuckin' trouble…"

"I need it to pay my rent so I won't have to live off the City's handouts," Giulia said as she stuffed the wad of money back into her pocket. "I hope he won't charge us too much for the hardware."

"Naw, Stan-the-man's cool. Trust me."

Climbing the short stepladder, Stanislav Chapkanov went into the dark hold. It only took a few seconds for him to flick a switch which made a row of strip lights flash to life in the ceiling. "Welcome to my shop," he said and held out his hands.

Giulia had to do a surprised double-take as she stared in wide-eyed awe at the interior of the large delivery truck.

The cargo hold had been split into five, color-coded sections that each presented a specific type of weapon: Blue for pistols and revolvers of all shapes, sizes and calibers. Red for pumpguns as well as single and double-barreled manual, semi-automatic and fully automatic shotguns. Yellow for sniper and hunting rifles with matching gadgets and equipment like camouflaged covers, laser guides, night scopes and flash suppressors. Green for submachine guns of a semi-automatic or fully automatic nature complete with the option of silencers, foldable stocks or rapid-fire conversion kits that would turn them even more lethal, and finally a white section for belt-fed, light and heavy machine guns on bipods, tripods or quad-pods for that extra protection against the recoil.

If even such a mind-numbing collection of firearms couldn't satisfy the gun-happy soul, a wire-mesh fence had been fastened to hooks attached to the truck's inner ceiling. Dozens if not scores of antique firearms raging from eighteenth-century muskets and dueling pistols to what appeared to be captured German, Italian and Japanese handguns and submachine guns from World War Two had been tied to the eyes of the fence with neat, red ribbons that made the whole spectacle look like something out of a demented Valentine's Day celebration that would have satisfied even Al Capone.

"Yeah. Okay. Whatever," Giulia said, chewing on her lips as her tired mind tried to parse the sensory overload. After staring at the umpteenth gun on display, she just plain gave up. "Candy, this is your game. Knock yourself out," she said with a shrug.

"You betcha!" Heather said and hustled up the five steps. She tore around the travelling gun shop like a big kid in the very same candy store that had given her her nickname, stopping at all the color-coded sections to gawk at the firepower before she returned to the blue one - the one that held all the various handguns. "Aw, I guess I better stick to a regular, old shooting iron this time. Do ya have any special offers today, Stan?"

"No, but Glock is good choice for you. Glock always good choice," Stanislav said, pointing at a row of dark-gray pistols hanging on silver nails on the wall.

"Mmmm-yeah," Heather said, rubbing her upper lip, "I was thinking more along the lines of a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson model Twenty-nine with a four-inch barrel, but I'm an open-minded girl, heh heh… okay, let's check 'em out."

While Heather was lost to the world, Giulia leaned against the side of the large delivery truck to gather her thoughts. Checking her telephone, she let out a deep sigh when she realized the clock had already made it all the way round to a quarter past three. They had so little time left it was almost no use to even attempt making the drop. Even if they didn't run into the Camaro and the chasing pack of dark trucks, they would only get there with seconds to spare.

How the mysterious buyer would react - or even how Eduardo Espinosa would react - if she failed her task would be anyone's guess, but she could well imagine that her former friend wouldn't be too happy with her. She wouldn't even put it past him to sic some kind of meathead muscle on her to press home the fact that she had screwed up.

Once again her mind returned to the contents of the heavy, wrapped package. If she really had been dragging what felt like sixteen pounds of hard narcotics all over town, Espinosa could use it as leverage against her to make her perform even dirtier jobs in the future. Not 'could.' 'Would,' she thought, letting out a sigh.

A couple of somewhat shady-looking young men walked into the parking garage across the street; Giulia recognized them as aspiring hoodlums at once, and zoomed in on them with her intense eyes. Though the men dressed like they wanted to imply an air of danger about them - dark hoodies, dark sweatpants with a pair of white stripes down the pantlegs, and sports shoes that had been tied with garish, neon-colored laces - they didn't appear to be part of the gang that had been doing their worst to snatch the package all night. Still, Giulia didn't like the look of them.

"Candy," she said over her shoulder, "we need to hurry the hell up. Don't buy the whole store, yeah?"

"I won't, mom!" came the inevitable reply followed by a husky snicker.

Up in the cargo hold, Heather held a Smith & Wesson model Twenty-nine revolver with a four-inch barrel in one hand and a Glock model Seventeen 'Gen-Four' semi-automatic pistol in the other. She weighed each firearm several times until she settled for the Glock. "Naw, you were right all along, Stan… Glock is the word. Don't bother gift-wrappin' it 'cos we gotta get the fuck outta here."

"Told you Glock is good choice," Stanislav said and took the pistol from Heather's hand. After checking it thoroughly, he handed it back to the shorter woman who stuck it down the back of her jeans at once. "You want two nineteen round magazines, or a single thirty-three round magazine?"

"Holy fuck, you got the high-capacity magazine? Definitely one of those!"

While Stanislav moved up to the other end of the truck to find the ammunition suited for the firearm, Candy walked down the short flight of stairs and came over to stand next to Giulia. "Hey. You look way too fuckin' gloomy, girl. Don't wear a frown… it taints your fuckin' gorgeous face."

"We're running out of time, Candy. Fast."

"I know, girl. But we needed something that could kick some fuckin' goon ass. Now we have it," Heather said and patted the Glock on her back. "You drive, I shoot. We each have our gifts… yeah?"

Giulia let out a tired chuckle. "Now where did I hear that before? Yeah, all right. How much will that thing cost?" she said, pushing herself off the truck so she could get to the money.

"Well, the price tag said three hundred bucks. Plus the ammo and the magazine. I'm guessing just shy of four C-notes," Heather said, staring greedily at the wad of dollar bills that Giulia was busy counting.

Four one-hundred dollar notes soon changed hands. "There you go," Giulia said before she stuffed the rest back into her rear pocket.

Up in the truck, Stanislav turned off the lights before he pulled up the stepladder. Grabbing hold of the sliding door's locking mechanism, he jumped off the edge which made gravity take care of the door. Once everything was locked and secure, he gave Heather the extra-long magazine that he had loaded with thirty-three rounds of nine millimeter Parabellum cartridges. "All set. Full house. Three-hundred-eighty dollars plus fast-service bonus. Four Benjamin Franklins."

"And four Benjamins it is," Heather said and pressed the money into Stanislav's open palm. "Here ya go, pal. Don't blow it all at once, yeah?"

"I never blow."

"Ey, figure of speech, Stan!"

"I know. I joke."

"Aw, you devious so-and-so," Heather said wearing a cheeky grin.

"Always pleasure doing business with you, Candy," Stanislav Chapkanov said and shook Heather's hand once the money was safely in his pocket. "Miss, you sure you do not want gun?" he said to Giulia. "I have solid guns for tall persons. Semi-auto or full auto fire. You only need to point out of window and bang-bang-bang. MAC-ten, mini-Uzi, regular Uzi, Heckler & Koch MP-five, MP-seven and M-twenty-seven, genuine Armalite AR-fifteen, Colt M-four short-barrel carbine, Colt M-sixteen regular barrel, FN Herstal model two-four-nine, Stoner model six-three, AK-forty-seven… my favorite. Made on license in Bulgaria !"

"Uh… yeah… well…"

"Oh, and I have very good special gun for you! Air-cooled, belt-fed Browning M-two fifty caliber heavy machine gun from Boeing B-seventeen bomber airplane that you can mount in back of truck. Candy told me you have truck. Eight hundred rounds per minute! I sell you five thousand rounds for price of three thousand."

Giulia let out a croak that was supposed to have been laughter. She studied the gun merchant's face to see if he was joking, and came to the conclusion that he wasn't. "Well, that's certainly tempting, Stanislav, but I think we'll settle for Candy's Glock this time."

"Okay, no worry. Call me again sometime. Yes?"

"Ah… yeah. Will do," Giulia said and took a step back to allow Stanislav room to walk up to the delivery truck's cab. Once he had climbed aboard, she turned to Heather. "We need to hustle something fierce, Candy!"

"My favorite way of hustling, girl!" Heather said as she and Giulia both took off in a fast run to get back upstairs to the Silverado.


They soon ran past the manned booth where the wild-haired parking attendant had finally woken up from his nap. However, he was so busy chowing down his burrito and drinking from his can of beer that he didn't even notice the two women running past him. "I think you're right, Candy," Giulia said on their way past. "I'm definitely gonna call them. Money for nothing, looks like."

"Told ya!"

Up the ramp they went while still running in a fast jog. As they turned right to go onto the final stretch back to the fire-engine-red truck, Giulia suddenly sensed trouble ahead - or rather, her nose picked up a scent beyond the ordinary smells of rubber, warm metal, oil and dripping gasoline that could always be found in any parking garage. The scent hadn't been there when they had parked the truck, and it didn't fit into the mechanical nature of the local environment. It was sweat. Male sweat, to be exact.

"Wait, Candy… there's something wrong here," she said quietly, grabbing hold of Heather's shoulder to get her to slow down. She had watched the exit to parking garage thoroughly while they had dealt with Stanislav Chapkanov, and the only signs of life had been the two, shady-looking young men who had entered on foot.

"Trouble?" Heather said and whipped out the Glock. "Ain't nothin' this fuckin' bad boy can't handle! The assholes?"

Giulia came to a full stop and performed a thorough visual scan of the floor of the parking garage. They were only forty yards from the Silverado, but her sixth sense howled in her ear that they weren't alone. "Not sure," she whispered, trying to peek around all the obstacles.

The numerous concrete pillars that held up the floors above made it difficult for her to see if they had picked up unwelcome company. If they had, the thugs could be hiding behind every single one of the pillars with their guns ready. Even if the two men were merely ordinary, garden-variety hoodlums like car thieves, muggers or rapists, they would still have the upper hand in a sneak ambush. The fact that a good portion of the floor's strip lights were faulty meant that deep shadows had formed in most of the corners. Giulia had spent enough time hiding in shadows over the past few hours to know how effective they were against people trying to find someone.

"See anything?" Heather said quietly, holding her pistol ready. The extra-long magazine looked odd as it reached several inches below the Glock's frame, but at least it would provide them with plenty of ammunition if it came down to a firefight.

Giulia let out a dismissive grunt as she got down on her stomach to try to look under the vehicles parked near them. The filthy concrete floor left rubbery stains on her windbreaker and cargo pants, but the small bother paid off as she spotted two pairs of sweatpants and sports shoes with neon-colored laces standing at the Escalade that was parked next to the Silverado. She could see the tips of their shoes wiggling back and forth, and that meant the two men were working on the Cadillac rather than Heather's truck. Still, they were where Giulia and Heather needed to go which could only be described as trouble.

They had no time for delays of any kind, much less dealing with car thieves. However, by the long and the short of it, it looked like they had to - they simply had to deal with them in a hurry. Getting back up, Giulia caught Heather's attention and put an index finger across her lips to illustrate they should keep quiet.

Heather nodded.

Giulia pointed ahead, and the two women ran forward as silently as they could. When they reached the square, concrete structure that housed the staircase for the fire escape, Giulia ducked behind it and waved Heather over to her. Peeking around the corner of the drab concrete wall, she was able to get a clear view of the two young men. As she had expected, they seemed to be regular car thieves rather than part of the gang of crooks, but it wasn't out of the realms of possibility that the real crooks had hired them to flush out the woman they had been chasing all night.

While she observed the two men - who had both pulled back their hoods to see better in the dim light; the scraggly beards and hairstyles that had become visible left much to be desired - they were working hard trying to get the driver's side door open on the Escalade, but it didn't seem they had much luck in their endeavor. One of them held a long, slender metal stick that he tried to squeeze down into the narrow gap between the door and the window, but nothing much came out of it. They soon gave up and turned to the truck behind them.

"Oh-ho, I don't fuckin' think so!" Heather whispered, jumping out of her hiding place with the Glock pointed ahead of her. With Giulia hot on her heels, the short, fiery blonde moved into the gap between the Escalade and her brother's truck in a flash.

"Yo, cocksuckers!" she roared which made the two car thieves jerk around to face her. "Getta-fuck away from that fuckin' truck, or Mista Glock here is gonna blow ya a new fuckin' hole in ya ugly mugs! Ya hear me? Getta-fuck away from it, now! An' I mean now!"

Instead of moving away like any full-witted individual would have, both young men pulled snub-nosed revolvers from their hoodies and pointed them back at Heather. "Fuck off, bitch! We got here first!" the first of the two men cried. "Yeah, there's plenty of cars here for all of us!" the second one added.

Giulia slapped her palm against her face and let out a long groan. So much for her plans of dealing with the hoodlums in a hurry. "We don't have time for this shit…" she croaked.

Heather seemed unimpressed with the comments made by the young man, and bobbed left and right on nimble feet to keep both men covered with her pistol. "Who da fuck ya callin' a fuckin' gangsta, ya fuckin' douchebag? I ain't no fuckin' gangsta! Now getta-fuck away from that fuckin' truck or I swear I'll blow y'all to Kingdom fuckin' Come! Git!"

"Candy…" Giulia tried, but she was outnumbered three to one by Heather, her pistol and her fiery temper.

"I got 'em! I got 'em covered, those fuckers!" Heather cried, waving the Glock left and right to aim at both men at once. "The moment they as much as fuckin' breathe, Mista Glock is gonna pop, pop, pop 'em in the fuckin' balls!"

The stalemate soon grew into a proper standoff where each of three gun-toting citizens waited for the others to back off while they still could. Since none of the three was even remotely interested in losing face in front of their buds, the outcome was inevitable. The first of the two car thieves pulled the trigger of his Saturday Night Special, and the snub-nosed revolver sent out a shower of sparks, a puff of smoke and a hot lead slug that screamed through the semi-darkness inside the parking garage.

"Aw, for fuck's sake!" Giulia howled, diving for cover on the far side of the Cadillac.

Roaring out her annoyance at being shot at, Heather returned fire with the Glock and used the high-capacity magazine to spray the narrow alley between the Silverado and the Escalade with round after round of burning hot lead. She managed to blast off a first volley consisting of nine rounds in roughly half that number of seconds, but by then, the narrow space between the vehicles was so full of pale-gray, foul-smelling gunsmoke it was impossible to see anything, much less anyone.

Sparks flew, men roared, ricochets screamed around. Heather roared even louder, and the gunsmoke kept on being created by the frantic firing. Somewhere in the background, a windshield exploded upon being hit by a bullet. A tire was blown to shreds and let out all its air with a wild puff. Car alarms began to send out their typically shrill, electronic warnings all around the battlefield; honking and flashing hazard lights soon followed.

More lead flew out of the clouds of gunsmoke, and a ricochet bounced off the metal door to the fire escape. It carried on with a wicked scream and ended up smashing one of the strip lights in the ceiling - the impact created a spectacular shower of orange sparks that rained down upon the concrete floor. Heather howled, roared and cursed even louder while she kept squeezing the trigger at the two shooters.

Through all that hellish business, Giulia had thrown herself down onto the filthy floor next to the Cadillac Escalade where she tried to protect her head with her arms. Spent casings from Heather's Glock jingled and jangled as they hit the concrete, but it didn't turn surreal until Giulia heard a cat hissing somewhere close to her. She did a double-take while staring into the clouds of gunsmoke, but she couldn't see anything and soon gave up.

The gunfight had lasted longer than the famed one involving Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clanton gang back at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone , Arizona , but the results were less impressive since none of the three present-day shooters seemed to have the skills required to hit much apart from the concrete and the cars around them.

The shooting died down eventually, and as the smoke cleared, Heather found herself all alone. "Ha! Those fuckheads chickened out and ran… the big, bad Candy taught 'em a fuckin' lesson!" she cried, blowing the smoke off the muzzle like a latter-day 'Shotgun' Sally Yarborough. "Hey… tall, bronzed and oh-so-sexy, ya all right down there?" she said, removing the Glock's high-capacity magazine to check how many rounds she had left. Less than before, but still plenty, was the short answer. Grinning, she slapped it back in.

"If you're talking to me, then yeah," Giulia said and sat up. The first thing she did was to hack and cough as the putrid smoke went through her nostrils and into her lungs, but the second was to check her telephone. Being part of what had felt like a re-enactment of the Battle of Baghdad - the first one with the famous CNN footage of the white tracers screaming across the sky - had cost them seven minutes. It was twenty-two minutes past three in the morning, which meant they only had eight minutes to complete their task. "But we're running out of time. We gotta hustle like we've never hustled bef-"

A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. Her teeth were soon bared in a grim expression. It seemed the two hoodlums Heather had fired at weren't quite done yet.


When Giulia fell silent in the middle of a sentence, Heather spun around and ran across the rear end of the Cadillac Escalade to check up on her. "Holy fuck!" she cried when she caught a glimpse of the first of the two car thieves. The hoodlum stood a few feet away from Giulia, flashing a nasty sneer and aiming his snub-nosed revolver at her head.

Giulia's grim expression soon turned even grimmer. The thug threatening her had already proved that he would pull the trigger, and although he had missed Heather at a distance of ten feet, even a blind gunman could hit his target at two feet. The fact that he was as nervous as a cat in a rocking chair factory only made it worse.

The young man with the scraggly beard and hair shuffled left, then right, then left, then right all over again while the hand that held the snub-nosed revolver showed a slight tremor. His beady eyes kept flicking between Giulia and Heather like he couldn't decide on which of the two to shoot first. "Jimmy?" he cried over his shoulder. "Jimmy? You dead?"

"No, but I got nicked by some glass," the second car thief said from somewhere within the clouds of gunsmoke that had only just begun to dissipate.

"Get over here! I got the two bitches!"

While Giulia took advantage of the lull in the drama to clamber to her feet and dust off her hands and knees, Heather growled and stepped forward with the Glock aimed at the hoodie-wearing thief. "Ain't-cha forgettin' something, shit-for-brains? Ain't-cha forgetting this baby here? How many bullets ya got left in that cheap-ass revolver ya holdin', fuckface? One? Maybe two? Well, that's fuck-all compared to my fourteen."

"No gun holds fourteen rounds!" the thief howled, turning even more jumpy at the news and the fact that the tall woman was now standing up.

"No shit, shamrock. But my high-capacity thirty-three round magazine does!" Heather said and tapped a fingernail against the long, metal clip. "How 'bout them pineapples, Mista Pudknocker? Like the odds yet? Why don't-cha be a good, little fuckhead and piss off back home to yo' momma before I let rip with my bad-ass toy here?"

The thief broke out in a cackling laugh at the threat. "You couldn't hit jack shit before, bitch!" he cried, spewing out the words with plenty of venom.

"Wha'? That ain't no fuckin' way to talk to a fuckin' lady, fuckface!" Heather roared back.

Though the exchange of heated, testosterone-fueled - even for Heather - barbs seemed to be able to go on forever if allowed to, the merciless hands of time meant it had to stop. Giulia was in no mood to listen to the trash-talking session beyond the low level it had already stooped to, so she clenched her muscles and took full advantage of the fact that the car thief's eyes were resting on the Glock in Heather's hand.

Jumping ahead, she grabbed hold of the young man's arm that held the snub-nosed revolver before he had even had time to blink. She disarmed him within moments by twisting his wrist to the accompaniment of gross crunching and an unbridled scream of pain. Once the cheap gun was clear, she threw it onto the concrete floor where Heather picked it up at once. The screams continued, but Giulia put a temporary stop to them by elbowing the young man across the jaw.

As the thief staggered backwards wearing an expression that said he had a hard time understanding what was going on around him, Giulia spun around and fired off a straight-legged roundhouse-kick to his face that sent him flying into a corkscrew spin. He landed on the floor like a ton of bricks some ten feet away, and made no move to get up.

Giulia let out the breath she had been holding but remained in a high-alert mode. She continued to bob on the soles of her basketball boots in the knowledge that the thief's buddy - Jimmy - was still nearby, and that he still carried a gun.

When the second thief came shuffling around the corner of one of the support pillars pressing a filthy handkerchief to his cheek, he stopped with a jerk and stared wide-eyed at the pile of humanity on the ground that bore a striking resemblance to his partner in crime. For a second or two, it appeared he didn't know whether to shoot at the two women, attack them fists-ahead, or run away. Another second later, he chose the latter option and spun around to get to safety.

Unfortunately, Giulia was far quicker and caught up with him after a five-second foot race. As she intercepted the escaping Jimmy and came around him, she shoved him back by slamming both hands on his chest. Once he had stopped with a yelp, she let her clenched fists do the talking by delivering a backhand across his mouth that made his head whip around.

Stupid car thieves do stupid things, and Jimmy could certainly be counted among that category. Instead of giving up in the face of such strong opposition, he tried to charge the tall woman by coming at her swinging and roaring out his frustrations.

Giulia sidestepped the first, clumsy charge and in fact helped him on his way by giving him a strong kick in the seat of his pants. As the raging thief came at her again, she stood firm in his path; a split-second before the moment of impact, she grabbed hold of his arm and flicked him over her hip with all the ease in the world.

Yelping even louder than the first time, he spun around in the air and landed face-first onto the concrete which didn't give all that much. He got up again, only slower, and shook his head several times to get the buzzing flies out. Once he had regained enough strength, he tried a final charge with his fists swinging like oars.

Giulia rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. She jumped into a bobbing defensive stance with her fists ready to pounce, but when her attacker was close enough, she simply pulled up her leg. As expected, the unfortunate thief steamed into Giulia's knee at nothing short of full speed.

Jimmy let out a braying burp as he crumbled to his knees clutching his gut and nether regions. His eyes rolled around in his head like they weren't connected to anything inside. Moments later, he keeled over but kept up a high-pitched whimpering as he snaked around on the filthy concrete.

"Wo-hooooo! You go, girl! Aw-yeah!" Heather shouted in between clapping, cheering, whistling and boogieing around in a victory dance for all she was worth. "Aw-yeah, I need myself a dry pair of shorts 'cos that was so fuckin' s, e, triple-x, e, h, girl!"

Giulia had no time to join her friend's wild celebrations. Instead, she whipped out her telephone to check what the clock said. Her face fell when she realized the fight had cost them too much time. It was three twenty-eight, AM. Even if she and Heather could sprout wings and fly over to West Thirty-third Street , they would never make it on time. She had been given a simple job that she had failed to accomplish. That alone irked her. It didn't even help that the simple job had turned all but impossible because of external influences.

That she had lost all chance of ever seeing as much as a snippet of the eight thousand dollars Eduardo Espinosa had promised her didn't just irk her, it made her flat-out furious. "Fuck! Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck and another fuck!" she roared so loudly that her voice echoed through the half-vacant parking garage. When even the heated outburst didn't help, she stomped around in a circle while clutching her head.

"Now whadda-fuck's going on?" Heather said, stopping her celebrations to stare wide-eyed at her enraged friend. "You beat the bad guys, girl… did ya break a fingernail? Or did your tampon fall out?"

"We're outta fuckin' time!" Giulia roared, pointing at her telephone. "Fuck!"

Heather let out a grunt as she checked her own smartphone. "Oh… okay. Yeah. I guess that's kinda shitty, huh?"

"I lost eight grand because of these… these… dumb dicks!" Giulia said and ran over to the whimpering Jimmy. She pulled her leg back like she wanted to kick him into next week, but reconsidered and stomped off instead.

A long whistle left Heather's lips. "Yeah, that does suck, I agree…"

"I gotta call Eddie," Giulia said and came to a halt. Espinosa's number was soon found in the registry and she put the telephone to her ear. While it rang, she turned back to Heather. "I gotta explain all this shit to him… maybe he can get in touch with the buyer or something… hell… he's not… he's not picking up. Fuck!"

As it dawned on her that it had all been a criminal waste of time, all the spunk escaped her in a single, long sigh. Bending over, she put her hands on her knees and shook her head repeatedly. "This has been the night from hell. From start to finish. One, giant, endless, relentless fuck-up to conquer all fuck-ups…"

"Aw, girl!" Heather said and put her hands on her chest in a mock bout of hurt feelings. "I sure hope you're not counting li'l ol' me among-"


"I didn't think you were. Okay. Now fuckin' what? What are we gonna do with that fuckin' package in there?" Heather said and nodded at the Silverado. "Take it back to where you got it from your pal Eddie, or…?"

"I don't know, Candy. I don't know shit right now. Perhaps we should. I need to think." Standing up straight, Giulia turned around and shuffled back to the fire-engine-red truck. Once there, she peeked through the window to the crew cab to see if the package was still secure down in the footwell. The wrapped package was safe and sound, so she turned around and leaned against the side of the bed while practicing her thousand-mile stare.

Heather followed her old lover at a couple of paces' distance in case the taller woman with the lethal kick would blow her lid all over again. When nothing happened, she went in deep instead and wrapped her arms around Giulia's waist. "Hey, girl… you wanna go home to my crib for a cold beer and some hot sex?"

"I'm not in the mood for either, Candy."

"Damn, girl… you running a fever or something?" Heather said, touching Giulia's forehead with the back of a hand. "Oh, you're hot, awright… but you always were, heh heh."

Rolling her eyes at the juvenile innuendo, Giulia pushed herself further into Heather's grasp now they actually had plenty of time to do so. As their bodies came into contact with each other - all the way down - her hormones remembered how it had been back in the old days. All in all, the memories were far from unpleasant. "Beyond the hot sex-"


"Beyond that," Giulia repeated, winking at Heather, "do you have any suggestions as to what we could do with the package?"

"Where'd'ya get it from your so-called pal?"

"An abandoned warehouse over on East Seventy-ninth Street . The Corman Brothers Meat Packing Company."

"Well…" Heather said before she moved up on tip-toes to smack a quick kiss on Giulia's lips. Once they separated - after the tiniest of body rubs just for old times' sake - she released her grip around the powerful waist and took a step back. "Perhaps we could go back there and dump the fuckin' thing in the middle of the floor? And pretend none of this shit ever happened?"


"Or," Heather continued, narrowing her eyes like she had just received a strong idea from the Great Beyond, "we could call the cops and say we've found a mysterious package right here… that way, our asses would be in the clear… shit! No, they wouldn't 'cos your fuckin' prints are all over that fuckin' package!"


"Fuck, girl… I told ya to always wear gloves! Didn't I tell ya to al-way-s wear gloves?" - For each syllable in the second 'always,' Heather tapped an index finger against Giulia's blue windbreaker.

"You did."

"I did. But you never listen!" Heather said and let out a brief chuckle that tapered off when she realized joking about it wouldn't help them get any further.

"I liked the first suggestion better," Giulia said and shot another glance at the wrapped package.

"Oooh, the hot sex?"

"The first after that, Candy. If we went back to the abandoned warehouse, perhaps I could get in touch with Eddie. The eight grand has gone bye-bye, I'm aware of that, but… anyway, he's caused us so much shit tonight it's high time we gave some of it back to him in a-"

"-neatly wrapped package, huh? Girl, I like that! Aw-yeah, the fucker better watch out 'cos the fuckin' dynamic two-some iz back in da bizz. But this time, I'm driving. My bruises got bruises after the last run!" Heather said and pressed the little button on her key fob. After the truck had responded by flashing its hazard lights, she opened the door and climbed behind the wheel. "Hope you don't have a problem with that, Miss Stunt Car Ace?"

"Nah. Gives me more time to chow down a sandwich while we're on the go," Giulia said and shuffled around the rear of the wide truck.

Before she could get in, a male voice shouted something unintelligible in her direction from down the other end of the parking garage. "Oh, for fuck's sake… will this bullshit never end?" she growled, jumping behind the neighboring Escalade's sculpted rear end to scan her surroundings.

"Now whatta-fuck are you doing?" Heather said, sticking her head out of the window.

"We got company! Male company!"

"I don't be-fuckin'-lieve it! Don't those fuckers know when to quit?!" Heather cried, jumping back out at once so she could shoot back if she had to. She whipped out the Glock and ducked down behind the Silverado's bed.

"Hello! Candy? Candy, you okay?" the male voice continued from afar. As the person it belonged to got closer, it soon became evident that it held a strong Eastern European accent which offered a quick and easy identification of its owner.

Heather let out a dark chuckle. "We're clear, girl. That's Stan-the-man. Wonder what the fuck he wants?"

Giulia let out a deep sigh and stepped away from her hiding place. Sure enough, the gun merchant came jogging towards them in his army boots and pale-brown, baggy boiler suit. That he was carrying an ammo satchel around his neck and an AK-forty-seven in his hands made her furrow her brow in a hurry and inch back behind the Escalade's wide tail.

"Candy! Ah! Good seeing you," Stanislav Chapkanov said once he got close enough to catch a glimpse of the two women. The assault rifle was soon swung over his shoulder so it was out of the way. He stopped at Jimmy's prone body to crinkle his nose at the whimpering thief. "He bad?"

"Yep, he very bad, Stan. The other one's even worse," Heather said with a grin as she pointed at the other human lump who had only recently begun to move after being roundhouse-kicked in the head. "What brings you up here? I thought you had left."

"I left. But I heard gunfire so come back. You okay? You and friend okay?"

"We're both okay, Stanislav," Giulia said, stepping away from the Silverado. "Thanks for asking. Nobody else seems to give a shit."

"Your work?" Stanislav said, nodding at the fallen thieves. When Giulia nodded, he broke out in a smile. "Very impressed. No bullet holes. Just bruises."

Heather butted in: "Aw-yeah, Stan! You shoulda seen Miss Glorious Azzkicker here. Fuckin'-A, it was beautiful, man! Chop-chop-suey-Hong-Kong-fuey, man! She shish-ka-bobbed both o' those fuckers with her bare hands 'n feet." - While she spoke, she illustrated her words with a few kung-fu moves that were only slightly exaggerated.

"I learned combat sam-bo back in Bulgarian army. Not messy, very quick. Very efficient," Stanislav said and crouched down next to the fallen thieves. He soon patted down their pockets, but when he only found Jimmy's snub-nosed revolver in the hoodie, he crinkled his nose again. "Oh… only shit gun. I take it anyway."

"I got another just like it here, Stan. You can have that too," Heather said and opened the Silverado's door to retrieve the other revolver that she had put down onto the carpet so it would be out of sight if they were pulled over by a patrolman.

"Thank you," Stanislav said as he got up from the crouch. His knees complained by creaking as he stood up straight which made him - and the two women - wince. Once he could move again, he walked closer to the fire-engine-red Chevrolet. "Ah, so that is truck? Good room for Browning fifty caliber. You sure you not interested?"

Giulia let out a dry, tired chuckle. "Y'know, Stanislav, with all the shit that's been happening to us lately, perhaps we oughtta look into buying one. Just for the sake of curiosity, how much would you charge for it?"

"Oh, bargain at ten thousand dollars. Top-quality, genuine American product! I think would look fantastic on truck."

"We'll think about it," Giulia said and let out another chuckle.

"Say, Stan-the-man," Heather said, putting on her most angelic smile while she handed the second Saturday Night Special to the gun merchant. "You wouldn't happen to have another high-capacity magazine in that truck of yours, would ya? I kinda popped off half of that bad boy already."



"I got magazine right here!" Stanislav said with a grin. After he had put the snub-nosed revolver into one of the many pockets of his boiler suit, he opened the ammo satchel he carried over his shoulder. Apart from five spare clips for the AK, he had brought a pair of fully-loaded thirty-three round magazines for the Glock. "For you, my friend… free of charge! Please don't tell, okay? People will think old Stanislav gone soft."

"Awright!" Heather cried, grabbing the two magazines. "Way cool. Ain't it cool, Giulia? Thanks, Big Man Stan! I'll definitely call you again some other time," she continued, pulling the gun merchant in for a quick hug before stepping back.

"Bye-bye, Candy. Bye," Stanislav said, waving at the two women before he turned around and walked back into the shadows.

Giulia shook her head as she watched the heavily armed man walking away. "Just when you thought the night couldn't get any weirder…" she said and put her hands akimbo.

"Yeah, but look at these babies!" Heather said, holding up the two magazines. "Woo-fuckin'-hooo!"


While Heather reversed out of the parking bay between the Escalade and the BMW sedan, Giulia had already dug into the plastic bag holding the food from the gas station to find something that would quell the big, empty hole she had in her stomach. The second-to-last box contained a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich that had turned a little soggy despite being stored in the air-conditioned cab, but she wasn't about to complain.

The Silverado soon followed the red line in the floor to head back to the ramp that would take them downstairs. The engine burbled merrily as the truck and its two passengers rolled down the slope to get to the ground level.

In the manned booth at the exit, the wild-haired, uniformed parking attendant was busy reading a comic. It seemed he had finished his beer and burrito snack because the empty can and the stained wrapping paper had been dumped out of the booth's small window and were littering the ground.

A sturdy metal bar painted in stripes that alternated between bright-yellow and fluorescent-red had been lowered to block the exit lane, meaning that all cars leaving the parking garage had to stop to pay the regular fare for the time they had spent there.

"Nah, I don't fuckin' think so," Heather said and drove the wrong way around the booth. Predictably, the attendant didn't notice the huge, burbling, fire-engine-red, all-chromed Chevrolet Silverado that trickled past him in the wrong lane going at no more than three miles per hour. "Now watch this," she continued, selecting neutral and dumping her boot onto the gas pedal. The V8 engine revved wildly just as the four massive tail pipes were at level with the booth.

The sudden roar was so loud the parking attendant jumped up, bounced against the glass wall and fell down upon his swivel-chair. The wheeled piece of furniture promptly took off with him and sent him sprawling onto the floor in a heap of arms, legs, hair and pages from the comic book.

"Well, good mornin' to ya, ya fuckin' lazy bum!" Heather cried, letting out a snort as she steered the Silverado up the ramp and onto East Twenty-ninth Street .

Behind them, the attendant jumped out of the booth and fired off a long barrage of curses that would have stripped off the wallpaper had there been any in the concrete building.

"That wasn't nice, Candy…" Giulia said, looking at the irate man in the right-hand side mirror - he continued to scream at the two women.

"Aw, it wasn't?"


"I thought it was kinda funny," Heather said with a grin. When Giulia didn't seem all that amused, she shrugged. "Eh. Call it my mischievous streak showin' through."


At the intersection that would bring them onto Avenue C, Giulia's telephone rang deep down in her pocket. She quickly gulped down the last bite of the BLT sandwich before she wiped her fingers and mouth on the napkin and grabbed the phone.

She furrowed her brow when the caller-ID revealed it was Eduardo Espinosa. A cold trickle ran down her spine at the potential implications, but she decided to accept the call to get it over with. "Shit's about to hit the fan. It's Eddie," she said to Heather before she pressed the bright button on the display and held the telephone to her ear. "Talk to m-"

'You better have one helluva good excuse for not doing what I told you, Giulia,' Eduardo said in a voice that spelled out quite clearly he was steaming angry but trying not to let it show too much in the opening volley. 'I just had Mr. Manning on the horn, crying in my ear that you hadn't shown up.'

"Yeah, that's true."

'May I ask why?'

"Why? Because the whole frickin' world is trying to prevent me from delivering that rotten package, Eddie. And who the hell is that bearded guy in the metallic-blue Camaro? He and his cronies have tried so many Goddamn times that I've lost count!"

'I don't think you understand how important it is for Mr. Manning to get that package. He needs to have it tonight come hell or high water!'

"Well, I can only suggest that-"

'I don't give a shit what you suggest, Giulia!' Eduardo Espinosa barked into Giulia's ear. 'You have one more hour to get that package to my client. Do you understand? We're granting you a one-hour extension on the deadline-'

"Slow down, Candy, something's up," Giulia said, putting a hand on Heather's arm. As the truck was brought to a halt at the curb southbound on Avenue C, she turned her attention back to the telephone call.

'-deliver that fuckin' package to Mr. Manning! Half past four, Giulia. Not a fuckin' minute beyond that!'

By now, Eduardo Espinosa's voice had lost all pretenses of civility, not to mention the coolness he had tried to convey at the start of the conversation. Giulia could well imagine how his face had turned red, and how his ungainly double-chins wobbled when he shouted into the telephone. "I hear ya, Eddie. All right. The new deadline is four-thirty."

Heather let out a grunt at the surprising news.

"And don't forget about the eight grand you still owe me, you Goddamned crook," Giulia continued.

'The buyer has been informed. He's got it. But I'm telling you right now, ex-con, if you pull another no-show, you fuckin' better be able to make yourself invisible 'cos I will hunt you down… and then you'll find out how a pinewood coffin looks from the inside, you fuckin'-'

Giulia pressed the red button on the display to end the call. A mask of steely determination fell over her face as she turned to Heather. "We're back in the game. And I'm driving."




Three-thirty-nine, AM, and the stores along Avenue C once more flashed by in a colorful blur as the fire-engine-red Chevrolet Silverado raced north. Giulia and Heather had only made it a city block south to Twenty-eighth Street by the time Eduardo Espinosa had called them, so it wouldn't take them long to reach West Thirty-third Street even after taking the time to swap over so Giulia could get behind the wheel.

The traffic was slowly getting heavier as the new day approached. New and old family cars and SUVs had once again returned to the city streets, and they were driven by semi-alert, half-sleeping people who needed to start work extra-extra early, like school janitors, members of cleaning teams, or technicians working at one of the hydro-electric power plants in the northern suburbs of the city. Other cars and SUVs were driven home by semi-alert, half-sleeping people who had only just finished their extra-extra late shifts, like bartenders, journalists or even projector operators at the all-night adult movie theaters.

Big, lumbering, smoking, smelly garbage trucks had taken to the streets and alleys as well, and they did their absolute worst to block the various connecting streets - and always at the most inopportune moments.

Giulia weaved in and out of the mounting traffic which made it a difficult ride for Heather. The fiery blonde had discovered she was hungry, so she had claimed the last remaining convenience meal, a smoked baloney sandwich that had been spiced with plenty of halved black peppercorn.

She sat on the passenger seat holding the plastic box in one hand, the baloney sandwich in the other, and a napkin stuffed into the hem of her black sweatshirt under her chin so she wouldn't get any greasy stains on her brother's upholstery. It was bad enough that the truck's left-hand side door mirror had been smashed into a thousand bits, but she just knew that her brother would flip his lid if she stained his precious leather seats as well.

Thirtieth and Thirty-first Street came and went. As the traffic grew heavier, the lights at the intersections entered their daytime programs in which the delays for the various phases were extended from pleasantly short to a few seconds shy of mind-numbingly, infuriatingly long.

When they got stuck at the yellow light at Thirty-second Street , one of Giulia's old, unwanted foes came knocking: the knot of worry in her stomach. To ease it, she scrunched up her face and kept up a strict regime of checking her surroundings with a near-anal attention to detail. There was nothing to see, but the knot refused to let up. It had to be there for a reason, so she furrowed her brow even further and craned her neck to look in all directions.

"See any assholes around?" Heather said, licking her fingers clean of the last greasy residue of the smoked baloney sandwich. When she didn't get an answer at first, she pulled off the napkin and used it to wipe her mouth. With the plastic bag empty save for the spent boxes and the equally spent napkins, she crumpled it up and shoved it under the seat so it would be out of the way.

"Mmmm… no. Not yet," Giulia said after a short delay, never taking her intense eyes off their fellow motorists. The traffic lights were slow in coming back to green which allowed her a few extra moments to check everything out. So far, so good, but her experience told her it wouldn't last.

A family station wagon occupied the lane ahead of the truck, but Giulia had stopped a good twelve feet back from its rear bumper. It was a precautionary measure she had learned during her stint driving the armored trucks - if there was a fair-sized gap between her own vehicle and the one ahead, it meant she had room to escape if robbers ever chose an intersection to jump them.

From one second to the next, the Silverado's cab was lit up like the sun had come out. The dark pickup truck that raced up behind them had turned on its high-beams as well as a pair of searchlights mounted on a stainless steel roll-over structure behind its cab. The combined wattage of the four lamps threatened to burn the red paint off the Chevrolet's tailgate.

"Whoa," Heather said, shielding her eyes while she looked in the side mirror, "look at that fuckin' moron! What the fuck does he think he's doing?"

Giulia didn't have time to reply verbally. Instead, she stomped her basketball boot down onto the gas pedal and spun the steering wheel to the right. Because she had stopped twelve feet short of the tail of the station wagon ahead, she had plenty of room to maneuver, and she took full advantage of that fact to head for safety. "Hang onto your ass, Candy! They found us!" she shouted as the V8 engine out front let out a bassy roar. Soon, the wild acceleration pushed the two women back into their seats.

The speed climbed to fifty, fifty-five, sixty and even higher as Giulia ducked and weaved through the traffic. The dark pickup truck behind them kept on shining all its lights to disturb her, and she needed the help of the automatic anti-dazzle feature in the rear-view mirror to be able to open her eyes fully.

"Those fuckers!" Heather barked, reaching behind her to draw the Glock with the high-capacity magazine. "Aw fuck, now I gotta climb over those fuckin' seats all over a-fuckin'-gain!" Groaning out loud, she got up, turned around and tried to get across the soft peaks of the small mountain range with a little more grace than the last time. She failed, but it wasn't for a lack of trying - the Silverado hit an uneven manhole cover just as she had squeezed her small frame between the seats.

As the truck flew over the uneven surface, it bounced up in the air. The pull of gravity meant that Heather went down at the same time - and the irresistible force met the unmovable object right at the halfway point of the journey. "Ooof! Owch!" she croaked as she slammed against the back part of the center console. To add insult to injury, her short flight continued downwards until she came to an ungraceful, not to mention hard, stop in the footwell behind the front seats. Her head was down and her legs up, and it took her several long seconds to wade through the mess to get everything sorted. "Oh, fuck this fuckin' shit! Whadda-fuck are those cocksuckin' motherfuckers doing, anyway? For fuck's sake!" she cried as she shuffled around to get her world back onto an even keel.

Giulia stared dead ahead with grim determination etched onto her face. She kept her foot on the gas, but because the traffic had increased so much since their earlier pursuits along the avenues and streets, the mad dash had become far more dangerous. They whistled past family cars of all shapes, sizes and colors, and most of those cars held down their horns as they found themselves unwillingly stuck in a ferocious car chase worthy of a direct-to-video B-movie from the early 1990s.

Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a second dark pickup truck come racing at her from the left. She managed to spin the steering wheel to the right at the last moment to avoid being sideswiped, but at sixty-five miles per hour, the large truck fishtailed heavily before she regained control. "They're trying to drive us away from Thirty-third Street !" she cried over her shoulder.

"Those fuckers!" came the inevitable reply.

Two seconds later, even Giulia's luck and considerable driving skills weren't enough to avoid a second attempt by the dark pickup nearest them to knock them off course. The two fast-moving vehicles slammed into each other's sides all along the Silverado's flank, and the impact nearly caused Giulia to lose her grip on the steering wheel. Glass shattered, chrome and plastic trim was crushed and broke off, sheet metal caved in, and the remains of the already battered left-hand side mirror fell off completely and rattled along the street. If all that drama wasn't enough, the tires squealed as they rubbed against those installed on their attacking counterpart.

"Oh, noooooooo!" Heather howled, dropping the Glock so she could clutch her head. "My brother's gonna fuckin' kill me! Again! And then he's gonna fuckin' dig me up and chop me into little, fuckin' pieces! Those fuckers! I'm gonna… I'm gonna…" she cried, clambering over to the other side to roll down the window.

Once she had, she stuck out the arm that held the Glock. The threat of being fired upon at close range made the opponent behind them slam on the brakes and turn away from the Silverado. The headwind was so strong it made Heather's black sweatshirt billow out and her spiky hair whip about. She enjoyed neither, so she dove back inside but left the window down so she could move to defend them in a hurry if she had to.

Almost as feared, the metallic-blue Camaro with the smashed headlight and the dark-tinted windows joined the fox hunt and began to weave left and right behind the Silverado as the two vehicles blasted north on Avenue C. It didn't have enough mass to shift the large truck so the driver of the sports car left that task to the dark pickups, but it hounded the two women into going faster and faster.

West Thirty-third Street , Giulia and Heather's original destination, was but a distant memory; Thirty-seventh Street came up fast, and the lights were red at the intersection. "I'm gonna run a red, Candy!" Giulia cried over her shoulder.

"Hoa-fuck!" Heather cried back, trying to find something to grab onto in case they were unlucky and were plowed into by a car or worse.

To warn the crossing traffic, Giulia's hand pressed down on the horn even harder than her foot mashed the gas. As the truck flew across the intersection, her horn signals were joined by many, many more as a cacophony of honking and squealing tires broke out in their wake. Halfway across, she needed to spin the steering wheel left, then right to drive around a white-and-turquoise 1950s Volkswagen Beetle that appeared out of nowhere.

The nimble Camaro tailing Giulia and Heather made it through in one piece as well, but the dark truck equipped with the two searchlights on the roll-over structure chose to go the other way around the old Beetle. The other way ended up being the wrong way, and the truck immediately paid the price for taking that route: at unabated speed, it plowed directly into the side of a number sixteen bus that had been following the Bug.

The violent impact caused the dark pickup truck to blow apart at the seams, and the intersection was soon covered in glass, twisted fragments of metal, shredded tires and several hubcaps that came out of nowhere. The afflicted number sixteen bus tilted hard to the side, but the pendulum effect caused it to swing back and crush the remains of the dark truck even further. As the bus settled down, the advertising banner on its side fell off and fluttered down to land atop the pickup's crushed hood - appropriately, it said 'Keep our streets safe - re-elect Mayor Goddard.'

"Aw-yeah!" Heather cried, smacking her fist down onto the backrest of the rear seats. "Nailed that fuckin' critter! Nailed him but good! One truck down, two to go, girl! And that motherfucker in the Camaro! He's still tryin' to squeeze up our asscheeks!"

Giulia shot a brief glance in the rear-view mirror. The large city bus continued to rock left and right as a result of the spectacular impact, but she soon turned her focus to the road ahead as they raced along at nearly seventy miles per hour. Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Street offered few problems and were dealt with in a flash, but they were coming up fast to Fortieth Street where Avenue C ended in a three-way T-intersection - it was time to make up her mind on where to go.

"Gun!" Heather suddenly cried from the rear. "The sonovabitch in the fuckin' Camaro got his fuckin' piece in his hand! Yeah, he's taking motherfuckin' potshots at us, that fuckin' creep… he's trying to blow out our fuckin' tires! I'll teach that fuckhead a fuckin' lesson!" she continued, leaning out of the open window to aim the Glock at the metallic-blue sports car behind them.

Although she fired several rounds, only one actually managed to hit the car chasing them, and even that only bounced off the roof. "Fuck! My aim is off!" she croaked, staring at the Glock, the metallic-blue Camaro behind them, and at the dark-gray revolver held by the thug in the sports car's passenger seat.

"Grab onto something, Candy!" Giulia roared from up front. She had made up her mind and had already committed to going down the west side of Fortieth Street . It would take them back to the far end of West Thirty-third Street eventually, but they would need to go through the city's northern industrial zone before they could return to the financial district. "I'm gonna hang a mighty fast left!"

"What? Oh, fuck that," Heather whined, once again looking around to find something to hold onto. The only things back there were herself, her Glock, and the wrapped package down in the footwell. Holding onto herself wouldn't bring her much in the overall scheme of things; she needed to hold onto the Glock in any case, but the risk of whacking herself over the brow with the hard gun was fairly big - and she wanted to stay as far away from the package as possible so her own fingerprints wouldn't end up all over it.

"Now!" Giulia cried, spinning the steering wheel left to head onto West Fortieth Street . As the heavy Silverado was unsprung, it leaned over to ride on its right-hand side tires that rubbed against the inner wheelhouses with plenty of squealing and smoking as the direct results. At first, it seemed to want to go straight ahead and mount the sidewalk across the street, but gravity relented and allowed it to go back into a straight line - more or less. Giulia had plenty to do sawing the steering wheel to keep the truck from fishtailing, but as soon as it was pointed straight, she gave it full throttle and blasted down towards the far end of West Fortieth Street .

Heather had resigned herself to another round-trip in the wannabe Vomit Comet, but for a change, the directional shift ended up on the easy side of things and she wasn't thrown around at all. "Ha!" she cried, sitting up straight - then the truck bounced over a manhole cover, and she flew up and thumped her head against the roof's liner. "Owch! Oh, for fuck's sake…" she growled, rubbing the top of her head.

Behind them, the nimbler Camaro had an easier time of getting through the three-way T-intersection, but its tail still stepped out, and the tires still lost traction and began to spin as it drifted through the turn. The finely-tuned high-performance engine roared out loud as the driver stepped on the gas once more.

"Candy, how many of those assholes are behind us?" Giulia cried over her shoulder.

"Shit, lemme see, girl…" Heather said and shuffled around. "Okay, the Camaro, and both remaining… no… fuck!" she cried, rubbing her eyes at the sight of an empty street where a dark truck had been before they had gone through the T-intersection. "Wait a minute… wait a fuckin' minute… only one of the trucks, girl! Where da fuck the other one go? It was right there a fuckin' second ago! What the fuck?!"

Giulia scrunched up her face as she mashed the gas even harder. Chances were the thugs were trying to set a trap for them somewhere in the industrial zone. They needed to get back to West Thirty-third Street , but they needed to lose their three tails first - and the latter seemed to pose a far greater problem for them than the former.


The north-western part of the city that had just witnessed a car chase that seemed to have lasted for the better part of three hours and forty-five minutes - give or take - was formed like the outer curvature of an oyster shell as it followed the natural flow of the Satchawahnee River that ran through the entire state.

It had housed the region's industrial zone ever since the city it was connected to had been founded. The first Western settlers who had arrived in the area had found the spot perfect for their needs and requirements, and had built saw and paper mills that processed the timber that came down the river from the endless forests up north.

Later on, coal-powered power plants spewing plenty of foul-smelling smoke - that colored the sky a sickly brownish-orange tone - from their tall smokestacks provided the city with electricity through a plethora of tall power pylons that littered the countryside. In recent times, vast wind farms and hydro-turbines harvesting the river's natural currents had taken over where the coal power plants had left off, but the pylons remained as giant pointers to the city.

The centuries that had passed since the city's foundation had seen the industrial zone grow from a few, scattered buildings to hundreds upon hundreds of factories, depots, cold-storage warehouses, garages and every other kind of small or large-scale businesses. Many of the companies had their own railroad side tracks that were connected to the major north-south lines that ran just out of town, and freight trains pulling scores of tanker, dry cargo or reefer wagons were frequent visitors to the industrial zone.

An extensive web of roads connected to several Interstates had been laid down throughout the zone as well, and it was seemingly home to every single eighteen-wheeler in the state. The large, lumbering semis filled the roads twenty-four-seven as they dropped off their cargo, or picked up new loads, at the many warehouses and production plants.

On one of those roads, a dented and abused fire-engine-red Chevrolet Silverado blasted out of the city itself and into the industrial zone, going far too fast for the amount of heavy traffic near it. The one-eyed, metallic-blue Camaro and the dark truck immediately behind it had also thrown caution to the wind as they hounded the large truck ahead of them.

The grim expression had never left Giulia's face as she sawed at the wheel to get around three semis that took up all the space in the inner lane. The V8 engine up front roared as she kept her foot on the gas, and she needed it - ahead, another semi-truck flashed all its lights at her as she crossed over into its lane.

Suicide-by-Peterbilt was not on her mind, however, and she swerved back into the inner lane as soon as it was clear. The Camaro and the dark pickup followed her like they were glued onto her rear bumper. The eighteen-wheeler going in the opposite direction offered them a long, angry stab of its airhorns as it went past, but the three speeding vehicles were long gone by the time the truck driver waved his hand out of the window.

Giulia checked each and every one of the side roads they went past in the hope that one of them would offer a possible shortcut back to where they needed to be, but none did - they all just led to the next warehouse or production plant. The few that seemed to go on for longer were almost all marked as dead ends as well. Cursing under her breath, she hunkered down and settled for looking at the road ahead.

Heather was still cooped up in the rear section of the cab, and still kneeling on the seat. She hadn't fired at the Camaro since the fiasco at the three-way T-intersection - she had come to the conclusion that something had to be wrong with the Glock's fore sight.

"Candy, what time is it?" Giulia said over her shoulder.

Reaching into her pocket, Heather whipped out her smartphone. "Ten to four, girl!" she said as she stuffed it back down the pocket.

"Goddammit!" Giulia barked, smacking her palm down onto the rim of the steering wheel. "We need to get back to the city… I don't believe this shit! Who the hell is that bearded guy, anyway?" she continued, but she had to cut herself short when a Coca-Cola truck began to trundle onto the road they were racing along. After clearing the large, red obstacle, she glanced at their pursuers in her rear-view mirror - they were still there, and still as close as they had ever been.

"Don't know, girl, but the fucker definitely got the hots for meetin' a couple-a tuff chicks like us!" Heather said, letting out a snicker.

"Yeah… but we need to act… not react. I'm growing tired of this shit…" Giulia mumbled, scrunching up her face into a thoughtful grimace as they began racing past a long line of semis lumbering along in the opposite direction.

To their right, a single pair of railroad tracks began running parallel to the road, and the signals at a grade crossing up ahead sent out a rhythmic ding-dong that meant a train was coming. In the middle distance, a quartet of strong headlights fifteen feet off the ground proved that a freight train was indeed approaching. "If we could only find a Goddamned connecting road back to the city, we could- aw, hell! Watch out, Candy!"

"Now whadda-fuck?!" Heather cried, jerking around to look out of the windshield.

The dark pickup truck that had gone missing before suddenly reappeared, and it came out of nowhere from behind the last of the lumbering semi-trucks. One of the two men in the pickup was the fellow with the black shades, and Giulia had to do a wide-eyed double-take at the fact that he still hadn't taken them off. A split second later, the dark truck slammed sideways into the Silverado which made Giulia lose her grip on the steering wheel.

The Chevrolet jerked to the right, going off the road and onto the railroad tracks at full speed. Giulia roared out her frustrations as she tried to steer back onto the asphalt, but the dark pickup next to her forced her to stay on the tracks by bumping, banging, squeezing and slamming into her flank over and over again.

Though she tried her hardest to avoid hitting the signals at the first grade crossing, the Silverado plowed straight through the wooden signs, sending them flying along with a good portion of the chromed grill.

Everything shook and rattled around inside the crew cab - Heather included - as the battered truck bounced over the countless railroad ties at full speed. Giulia kept her right boot hard on the gas for the time being while she constantly steered to the left to get off the tracks, but she had her other boot ready to slam on the brakes when the train up ahead would get too close.

Unfortunately, their opponents didn't seem to want to let up, because the dark truck kept slamming into the side of the Silverado which forced it further and further onto the tracks.

In the back, Heather let out a constant stream of howls and curses as she experienced life as a chunk of woman in an immersion blender, but her howls only grew in pitch and intensity as she happened to look ahead at the four strong headlights and the rest of the diesel locomotive the lights were connected to.

The engineer operating the locomotive had already applied every brake the train had, but the laws of physics meant the three-thousand ton train would never be able to get stopped in time. To warn others of the impending crash, he pulled the cord for the airhorns which let out a constant, dragon-like wailing.

"Girl… freight train…" Heather croaked, pointing ahead though she needed to hold onto the seats just to remain upright.

"I see it!"

"Freight train!"

"For Chrissakes, Candy…"

"Freight! Fuckin'! Train! Right! Fuckin'! There!"

"Quit yellin' in my ear!" Giulia cried, waiting, waiting, waiting until the very last second to spin the steering wheel to the right. The enemy truck on their left wasn't ready for such a bold move and kept on leaning against the red Silverado for just a second too long - once its leaning-partner had left, it jerked to the right and ended up squarely onto the tracks with the freight train bearing down on it less than a hundred yards away.

The battered Silverado bounced off the tracks, flew down a short grassy embankment and thumped into the ground at the foot of it. As it threatened to keel over, Giulia kept her foot on the gas which sent the V8 into a manic growl, and the truck into straightening itself out.

Behind them, the two men in the dark pickup truck tried to get back onto the road, but the wheels were hooked up on the rails. Instead, they came to a violent, screeching halt and jumped clear. The thug wearing the black shades sat on the right which meant he tumbled end-over-end-over-end all the way down the same grassy embankment that Giulia and Heather had just traversed.

Though the brakes on the freight train were locked solid and sending out impressive cascades of white, yellow and orange sparks, the sheer mass rolling along the tracks meant that an impact was inevitable. Moments later, the dark pickup seemed to be swallowed whole by the iron monster - then it erupted in a spectacular fireball that sent a mushroom cloud billowing into the dark skies. The sorry remains were shredded into little pieces of metal that flew left and right as the wreckage was forcibly pushed back by the diesel locomotive.

"Ooooooooh!" Heather cried, throwing her hands in the air. "Wipeout! That coulda been us, for fuck's sake! Holy fuckerooney, that big-ass bad boy almost fuckin' creamed us, girl!"

After the Silverado had bounced up onto a connecting road that continued on for a short half-mile until it ended at a vast warehouse and storage hotel, Giulia stood on the brakes which made the truck come to a nose-dipping halt. Spinning around in the seat, she glared at the burning wreck at the tracks.

The freight train had still not stopped, but its speed had been reduced to a few miles per hour. The brake shoes had caught alight all along the many wagons and were adding to the fiery inferno by igniting the vegetation along the embankment.

The next grade crossing after the one they had destroyed was fully blocked by the many wagons which meant the Camaro couldn't follow them. The last remaining dark pickup truck could, however, and in fact did as it raced around the front of the freight train and took the same route as the Silverado had done a scant minute earlier - down the grassy embankment, across the short, flat section and back up onto the road.

"Fuck!" Giulia barked, slamming her foot down on the throttle as the threat from behind once again loomed large in her rear-view mirror. The wide rear wheels spun around and produced reams of pale-gray smoke as the truck struggled to put all its power onto the ground. The tires soon found bite and made the whole thing shoot off like a Fourth of July fireworks rocket.

"I don't be-fuckin'-lieve it! It's those fuckers again! This time, I got 'em covered, the fuckin' sons-a-bitches!" Heather cried and leaned out of the open window. Trying to aim better by using both hands on the Glock, she fired off several rounds at the chasing truck which smashed the windshield, the plastic radiator grill and the right-hand side headlight. "Aw-yeah! Ya see that, girl? I got those fuckers where it- hoa-fuck!" she cried, ducking down at once when the driver of the dark truck stuck his own gun out of the smashed windshield to spray the rear of the already battered Silverado.

A bullet shattered the small rear window directly above Heather's head, but the safety glass held the shards in place. Several more shots rang out, and one grazed the bed before it went through the already smashed window, ricocheted off the inner roof, and finally embedded itself into the cream-colored leather upholstery of the passenger-side seat.

"Nooo-hoooo! Not the leather seats!" Heather howled, clutching her head.

"At least you didn't sit in it!" Giulia shouted back. "Hang on!"

"Aw, fuck no… not that fuckin' shit again… I'm gonna be so fuckin' black and blue come tomorrow…" - that's all Heather had time to say before Giulia had thundered through the gates and onto the forecourt of the vast warehouse.

A paved accessway ran all the way around the behemoth building, and she stuck with it, preferring not to get inside if she could help it. When a second connecting road presented itself as the perfect escape route from the warehouse, she spun the steering wheel right and went straight for it.

Only two seconds later, she slammed on the brakes and spun the steering wheel back in the opposite direction - she wasn't the only one who had thought of the second connecting road: the one-eyed, metallic-blue Camaro came blasting directly at her. Though it was still some two hundred yards away from the red Silverado, its intent was clear. To underline the fact, the passenger was already waving his dark-gray revolver out of the window to get a good aim. "Shit! We need to go inside, Candy!" Giulia barked.

"Inside? Inside what?!"

"The warehouse!" Giulia cried, stepping on the gas. The truck jerked around before it raced through one of the sliding gates and into the heart of the huge structure instead of heading for the open road home.

Giulia had been in luck for once and had chosen to go into the warehouse through the entrance that was used by the big eighteen-wheelers - it meant the concrete lanes were wide enough to not only duck and dive around the hundreds of people working in there, but also to have plenty of room to evade their two pursuers should they come close enough.

In the back, Heather ignored the potential threat from the gunmen behind them to sit up straight. She grabbed hold of the ruined seat as she stared ahead into the large, well-lit warehouse. "Whadda-fuck is wrong with this picture?!" she howled, shaking her head in disbelief. "We can't- We gotta- Ohhhhh, watch out for that fella! Jeez, ya missed him by a fuckin' inch, girl! Aw, fuck, this is so fuckin' insane!"

The interior of the warehouse was revealed to be a maze of gigantic proportions. Nearly eight-hundred by four-hundred yards big, it consisted of seventy-five aisles each lined with shelf systems five storeys tall. Thousands upon thousands of cardboard boxes, wooden crates, pallets carrying goods wrapped in plastic, and metal containers of varying sizes took up space on the shelves, and countless forklifts with flashing warning lights zipped in and out of the many lanes like ants working to restore a hill after a rainstorm.

Forty loading bays had been built into the western side of the warehouse, and the sliding doors to most of those were open, indicating that a trailer was being loaded. Two sets of railroad tracks entered the warehouse down at the far end. Concrete loading ramps had been built on either side of the tracks as well as between them so the countless rail cars that arrived daily could be loaded, or offloaded, by three crews working simultaneously.

All that went by in a drab, gray blur as the formerly pristine Silverado raced through the warehouse. Giulia worked hard behind the wheel to avoid all the workers who were trying to do their job, but there were so many of them it was a Herculean task. As they came up to what appeared to be a coffee stand of some kind that had a large group of men wearing boiler suits sitting in front of it while on a break, she turned right in a hurry and went deeper into the fearsome maze.

A quick look in the rear-view mirror told her that their two pursuers were still hot on their tail. Reaching the end of the aisle they were in, she turned hard left which sent them past an enclosure that held a motley collection of dusty, veteran cars and agricultural vehicles that were seemingly waiting to be loaded onto train wagons for further processing.

Everywhere they went inside the warehouse, workers ran for their lives as the three vehicles thundered past, and several tools, gloves and even safety hard-hats were hurled at them along with plenty of colorful, juicy curses.

"Girl, we seem to have lost that fuckin' Camaro somewhere!" Heather suddenly said from the back.

Checking the mirror, Giulia realized Heather was right - only the last remaining dark pickup truck was still close by, and even that hung back a little. "They're trying to set another trap for us," she said, squinting hard to look left, right and ahead at the same time. As the truck behind them fell back even further, she made a quick decision. "Gonna try something now! Hang-"

"Aw, fuck no!" Heather whined, but it was in vain as a large, unseen monster called gravity grabbed hold of her and thumped her against the left-hand side of the crew cab's wall.

Turning to the right so fast that the left-hand side tires screamed against the smooth concrete, Giulia went into one of the narrower aisles. She kept up the pace for a second longer while she checked the mirror. When she caught a glimpse of the pickup behind them coming to a four-wheel-screeching halt that sent it careening past the entrance to the aisle Giulia had used, she turned hard left - which made Heather fly through the cab and thump into the right-hand side wall as well - and disappeared down yet another aisle; it was labeled Class A Baby Hygiene Products.

Once Heather had picked herself up from her involuntary, head-first rendezvous with the inner walls of her brother's truck, she let out a chuckle at the odd fact that they, of all women, had ended up in the baby care aisle. If the fate of the human race would one day depend on Giulia Falcone and Heather Appleby to carry on the delicate strands of life, the human race would be shit outta luck.

Slowing down to a crawl, Giulia kept looking in the mirror to see when their opponent would show up. He didn't, so she slipped her foot off the brake to make the battered Silverado trickle along the diaper-aisle at a walking pace. "Let's try something different. I'm sick and tired of being chased by these assholes," she said before leaning her head out of the window to attempt to listen to where the others were.

The burble that came from their own V8 was quite loud among the shelves lining the aisle, but she was still able to follow the dark pickup and even the characteristic engine note of the metallic-blue Camaro as they continued to race around the warehouse on a quest to find the Silverado.

Heather chose the lull in the proceedings to climb over the backrests ahead of her and bump down into the passenger seat. The stray bullet that had torn shreds out of the back of the leather seat hadn't gone through, so at least the front cover was still intact. Shuffling around, she reached for the belts so she would be fixed in the seat for the first time all night. She looked at Giulia with a quip all ready to go past her lips, but the grim expression etched onto the driver's face told her to be quiet for a change.

They trickled out of the diaper-aisle and into one labeled Class A Dry Goods & Foodstuffs. The engine sounds created by their opponents seemed to grow weaker, so they moved onto the next aisle, then the next after that to try to follow them around the warehouse. After a while, they were back at the wide lane designed for semi-trucks, but neither of their two pursuers had come into view.

Heather had kept quiet for as long as she could, but she finally needed to open her yap to deliver a message that she knew Giulia wouldn't like to hear. "It's three minutes past four in the fuckin' morning, girl… we only have twenty-seven minutes to go," she said, putting her smartphone back into her pocket.


"Why don't we blow this fuckin' warehouse from hell and trickle down to the entrance while those fuckers are chasin' their own fuckin' asses?"

Giulia chewed on her lips as she processed Heather's words. Around them, workers scratched their heads at the unusual activity at their workplace. When a boiler-suit-wearing man who appeared to be a foreman of some kind stomped towards the fire-engine-red truck with the clear intent of giving the two women inside it a piece of his mind, Giulia turned the steering wheel left and drove off down towards the entrance they had used to get there.

As the truck went past the foreman, he put up his middle finger and made sure both women saw it. Then he smacked the same finger against his temple and twisted it several times like he was trying to convey that someone driving a certain truck had a screw loose - Giulia didn't really care about the man's antics, and Heather just chuckled and waved back at him wearing a broad smile.

They kept vigilant, and it paid off only a hundred yards further on. When they went past one of the narrower aisles, the black tailgate of the last truck was in plain sight a short distance away. The opposing truck was clearly on the prowl as well, but it didn't appear he had noticed he had become the prey rather than the predator. "There he is, the son of a bitch… and we got 'im by the ass!" Giulia said, spinning the wheel left to get up behind their opponent.

Heather bared her teeth in a nervous grimace as she checked her smartphone again. "Twenty-five fuckin' minutes, girl… do we really have time for-"

"I'm done being chased by these crooks. It's time to give 'em some of their own damn medicine," Giulia said and slammed her foot down on the accelerator. As the V8 came to life with a loud roar, the driver of the dark truck ahead jumped up in his seat; upon landing, he took off like a scalded cat to get away. Giulia stuck with him like a burr and stressed him into driving erratically.

The dark truck fishtailed left and right as it was being hounded by the red Silverado. The two powerful vehicles once more raced through the warehouse's many aisles going at far too high a speed for the conditions. Crates and boxes were flattened or knocked askew left and right as the dark truck tried to cut corners to get away from the avenging harpies on its tail.

Too many risks were taken for the frantic chase to last for any length of time, and the results were inevitable. Just as the dark truck tried to squeeze through a gap between the shelves and one of the forklifts in an aisle marked as Class B Kitchen Appliances , the warehouse worker - who wore hearing protection - operating the loading machine backed up without paying attention to his surroundings.

Though the driver of the dark truck slammed on the brakes, its right-hand fender and front wheel caught the edge of the forklift and were torn off. The truck jerked up in the air and came down hard on its left side. Sparks exploded everywhere as the metal was grated down by the harsh contact with the concrete floor.

In the same split second, the loader that had been hit wobbled so much the crate it had collected on the top shelf fell off and deposited a pile of aluminum kitchen sinks on the floor.

The destroyed truck continued to skid straight ahead until its progress was halted by a row of wooden crates. It gave them a strong whack, but the shelves the crates stood on withstood the impact far better than the other involved parties had.

Behind the unfolding accident, Giulia stood up on the brake pedal to avoid joining the dark truck in the junkyard. The chrome nose dipped down as they came to a tire-squealing halt - Heather's similar squeals were in fact louder - and they stopped with only inches to spare to the forklift.

"Whoa…" Heather croaked as she fell back against the seat. She gulped a couple of times before she let out a croaking laugh. "When the cops come for us, they gonna lock us up and throw away the fuckin' key, girl…"

The worker operating the forklift seemed to have fainted, but Giulia didn't have time to deal with that, nor with the aftermath of the wrecked truck. "That asshole shouldn't have messed with us," she said as she selected reverse and wrapped her arm over the backrest of the passenger side chair. Though she mashed the gas all over again, the Silverado drove backwards at a far easier pace than it had been at in the moments leading up to the accident.

After a short distance, she popped it into neutral, pulled the parking brake and let the steering wheel come back around. Once it had turned straight, she selected drive and took off at regular speed.

"Ooooh! Ya fuckin' showboat, girl!" Heather said, holding onto the seat belt. A moment later, she let out a loud laugh. "I kinda like that about-cha. Fuck, yeah! It's too fuckin' sexy, girl!"

"That's nice to know… but we're not in the clear yet, Candy," Giulia said, still wearing the same grim expression she had worn ever since they had entered the warehouse. "There's the small matter of a one-eyed jack that we still need to deal with."

"Aw, but he's gotta be the world's most fuckin'-dumb-ass moron if he can't see that he ain't no match for the fuckin' dynamic two-some, girl," Heather said and reached across the center console to rub Giulia's arm. "Trust me, he's already fucked off with his fuckin' balls in his hand."

"Mmmm… doubt it."

"Naw! Trust me! And if I'm proven wrong, you're free to call me a dirty, rotten motherfucker," Heather said with a wide grin plastered onto her face.

The mess created by the mad-cap chases through the aisles had caused so much disturbance and upheaval among the workers that the lane to the truck entrance had been blocked by forklifts and other heavy loading equipment out to clean up the mess. Dozens of men were hard at work trying to restore some sense of order to the shelves so they wouldn't suddenly face a huge backlog loading or offloading the trucks.

Grunting, Giulia had to turn right and try the exit at the far end of the warehouse instead - down at the railroad tracks. "From your mouth to God's ear, Candy," she mumbled as they drove off.


"Well… I guess I'm a dirty, rotten motherfucker, then…" Heather said flatly as she stared out of the windshield at the metallic-blue object further down the lane.

Giulia brought the Silverado to a halt at the starting point of the railroad loading ramps. They had reached the switching tracks, but it seemed they wouldn't be allowed to go much further. The reason for stopping, and for Heather's colorful descriptive, waited for them at the exit gates three hundred yards further down the lane: the one-eyed, metallic-blue Chevrolet Camaro with the dark-tinted windows.

"It was too good to last," Giulia said and pulled the shifter into neutral. The workers nearest the fire-engine-red truck sensed that something violent was about to happen, and they all took off in a hurry to get to safety before lightning would strike.

The V8 engine up front burbled merrily, but it was the only thing that broke the silence until Giulia let out a long sigh. "Well, I guess this is as far as it goes. You better get on out, Candy," she said without taking her eyes off the sports car ahead.

"Wha'? Da fuck for?"

"No point in both of us risking our liv-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, I don't fuckin' think so!" Heather said and turned around in the seat. "I don't know what the fuck's gotten into you all of a sudden, but that wrapped package back there, or eight fuckin' grand… or a hundred fuckin' grand for that matter… ain't worth getting splattered for, girl! If that mofo down there wants that fuckin' package so bad, let 'im have it, for fuck's sake!"

Giulia kept quiet until she let out another sigh and put the shifter into drive. The engine note changed as the transmission slipped into gear. "It's too dangerous for you here. Last chance to get out."

"Giulia," Heather said, grabbing hold of Giulia's blue windbreaker to make the taller woman look at her. It worked, and they locked eyes. Though Giulia's ice-blue orbs shone with their regular intensity, Heather's hazel ones gave as good as they got. It was obvious that thoughts of their common past flew between them - perhaps even thoughts that sketched out the possibility of a common future if things went their way. "Maybe you haven't been payin' too much fuckin' attention to anything lately, but I'm in this fuckery to stay, girl! And that's final. But there's no fuckin' way in hell I'm gonna let you drive off and get us torn to fuckin' shreds in some kinda wannabe-heroic suicide-shit. No. Fuckin'. Way!"

Though the two women looked at each other, Giulia said nothing.

"Please don't make me give ya one of those fuckin' you-got-so-much-to-live-for speeches, girl! They suck big, hairy donkey balls… but I'm gonna if ya don't switch ya fuckin' brain back on and come to ya fuckin' senses!"

"Suicide was never on my mind, Candy," Giulia said, looking up at the Camaro that seemed to wait for the two women's reaction to its presence.


"But standing firm was. Still is. We've both been pushed around too much in our lives. The time has come to push back."

Heather sighed and moved back from her old lover.

Down the far end of the loading ramp, the Camaro-driver's patience ran out. The metallic-blue sports car left its spot and began to drive closer to the Silverado at a walking pace. When he flashed his single headlight at the fire-engine-red truck, Giulia flicked the arm behind the steering wheel to mirror the gesture.

"Now fuckin' what?" Heather said, staring at their opponent with a puzzled look on her face. When that didn't offer any insight, she looked at Giulia's striking profile.

"Now we see which one of us got the bigger balls," Giulia said and mashed her basketball boot down onto the throttle. As the engine growled out loud, the rear wheels lit up and sent the truck off on a wild ride.

"Wha'… whadda-fuck?! Ya gonna play fuckin' chicken?! With my brother's truck?! With me in it?!" Heather howled; her voice gained another notch in pitch and intensity for each syllable she uttered.

"I offered you to get out…" Giulia said as she kept a firm, two-handed grip on the steering wheel. The drab, gray interior of the warehouse went by in a dizzying blur as the speed climbed to nearly sixty miles per hour.

The two vehicles, that were driven by equally stubborn people, raced toward each other at speeds that could only be described as insane. If neither backed down, an undoubtedly lethal head-on collision would be unavoidable. Even if one of the drivers did lose his or her nerve before the last moments, there would be no room to steer clear of the accident as the loading ramp they used for the battle of backbone was framed by tracks on one side and row after row of wooden crates on the other.

Closer and closer the two vehicles got; neither driver seemed the least interested in backing down. At fifty yards between them, Heather grabbed onto the seat belt and started hyperventilating. At forty yards, Giulia clenched her jaw and offered her opponent such an intense glare that the windshield nearly cracked. At thirty yards, she locked eyes with the bearded man whose ugly grimace proved he was teetering on the brink of jerking out of the way. At twenty yards, Heather'd had enough of her hyperventilating and turned to proper, high-pitched screaming. At ten yards' distance between the two vehicles, Giulia realized she may have bitten off more than she could chew. She kept her eyes open to take it all in.

A fraction of a second later, the driver of the Camaro jerked left and went off the edge of the loading ramp. As the metallic-blue sports car flew through the air, gravity took over and sent the car's heavy nose downward. Fifteen feet into the flight, it met the center ramp between the two sets of tracks head-on. Crumpling like a beer can in a crusher, the car was flung back into the air where it performed a lazy corkscrew spin that made it roll over onto its roof mid-flight.

At the ramp on the far side of the second pair of tracks, the crushed front caught some loading equipment which made the engine, the transmission and both front wheels break free of the chassis and tumble through the air. Escaping fuel made the flying engine assembly catch alight, but the lumps of metal thudded down in a spot where the flames couldn't harm anything. The remains of the car were flung around one last time up against the warehouse's outer wall until everything finally came to a rest as a smoldering, steaming pile of scrap metal.

While the accident was still unfolding behind them, Giulia stood on the brakes using such force the pedal nearly broke off. The large truck dipped down at the front as it tried to work against the forces that had been unleashed by the chicken game; after what seemed like an eternity, it came to a halt.

Heather's screams petered out as the Silverado rocked back and forth to get back on an even keel. Pulling her claw-like fingers out of the dashboard's soft leather with a plopp , she fell against the backrest. For once, she was speechless save for some inarticulate croaking, but she managed to let out a hoarse "Holy fuck!" after a few seconds of mumbling.

Giulia had no time to reply. Selecting reverse, she backed up to return to the smoking remains of the Camaro. Once they reached it, she pulled the ignition key and jumped from the truck.

"D- don't wo- worry 'bout me, g- girl," Heather croaked, trying to get her brain to function for long enough to find the little lever that would open the door. It proved to be a most difficult task that took her several seconds to accomplish, but she finally managed to do so, and she climbed out of the battered Silverado. Her knees almost buckled when she put her boots on the concrete floor, and she needed to lean against the truck's flank to get her bearings. "Goddamn… I think I got a fuckin' brown streak in my fuckin' shorts after that one… fuck-almighty," she croaked, gulping several times to get over the shock.

Giulia jumped off the edge of the loading ramp, crossed over the tracks and pulled herself up onto the center ramp. Smoking pieces of car littered the ramps everywhere she looked, but she was relieved to see - or rather, not see - there weren't any pieces of the other driver. She quickly jumped off the second ramp as well and ran over to the final one to get as near to the wreckage as she could. The Camaro had come to a rest on its roof, and oil, gasoline and other fluids dripped from the many torn hoses and joints. The strong smells emanating from the wreck did their worst to assault her nostrils, but she ignored them for the most part.

There wasn't much room next to the mangled mess, so Giulia stayed down on the tracks while she tried to peek past the crushed metal in the hope she could see the driver. A snippet of a red windbreaker came into sight on the far side of the wreck. Grunting, Giulia climbed up onto the final loading ramp after all and inched around what had been the tail end of the metallic-blue sports car.

Since the front of the Camaro had taken the brunt of the damage, the section that stretched from the wide B-pillar just behind the doors and back to the rear bumper was largely intact save for deep dents and cracked plastic trim. With the car being upside down, the red-hot exhaust pipes were out in the open, and Giulia made sure not to get too close to them with her polyester jacket.

She found the driver alive and in one piece. He had been thrown clear of the wreckage at the last impact, and had landed on his left side in the gap between the car's crushed roof and the outer wall. As workers from the warehouse began to arrive - their local fire team was already dousing the flames that rose from the engine assembly - she inched past the wreck and knelt next to the prone man with grim determination etched onto her face.

The bearded man looked back at her with pain written all over his features, not just from the many cuts and bruises he had received in the series of violent knocks, but also from the fact that he had been bested. Blood trickled into his blond beard from an inch-long abrasion at his right eyebrow, and he had several scrapes and cuts across his forehead and left cheek; his left eye looked like it would turn black before long. He nursed his entire left side like he had several broken bones, and several of his fingers had been bloodied. All in all, however, he was a very lucky fellow to still be breathing in the face of the destruction that had gone on all around him.

"Who the fuck are you?" Giulia growled, grabbing hold of her fallen opponent's windbreaker. "Who sent you? Why 've you been trying to get that package all night?"

"I'm Jason Burke…" the man croaked, looking paler by the second. "And… and… my b- boss… told me to…"

"Who sent ya? Who's your boss, Goddammit?!"

Jason let out a long groan; his features relaxed as he became unresponsive, but his heaving chest and thumping pulse point proved that he was still among the living.

"Fuck!" Giulia growled, smacking her fist into her open palm. The next moment, a pair of gloved hands grabbed her shoulders. She was about to dish out some of her special brand of self-defense martial arts when she realized it was one of the warehouse's workers carrying a first-aid kit over his shoulder. Grunting in annoyance at the unresolved questions, she moved out of the way to let the men have room to help the unconscious Jason Burke.


On her way back to the Silverado, Giulia reached into her pocket to find her telephone. It was fourteen minutes past four in the morning, so she and Heather had to hustle like crazy if they were to make it back to West Thirty-third Street before the extended deadline she had been granted would run out.

She let out a sigh. Every second of every minute of every hour since Eduardo Espinosa had given her the job in the abandoned meat-packing warehouse had been an insane scramble to either get to the Beaumont Building to make the drop-off, or to get away from their pursuers simply to stay alive - and by doing so, committing just about every traffic violation listed in the book.

Such a lifestyle had lost its attraction on her somewhere after the second attempt on her life by Jason Burke and his cronies - and she still didn't know who had sent them, or why.

"Hey," she said as she returned to Heather who was still leaning against the truck. "Are you okay? You look a little pale."

"Go figure, right?" Heather said and let out a croaking laugh. "They dead?"

"No," Giulia said, peeking through the window at the wrapped package that had been at the root of all their grief and heartache over the past four hours. Snorting at the innocuous look of the undoubtedly evil thing, she turned back to Heather to give her old friend a more thorough check-up. "Fainted, but still alive."

"Well, that's… okay, I guess. Kinda. Oh, what the fuck am I sayin'? They've been trying to kill us all fuckin' evening!"

"Yeah. Wait… 'they'? There was only one guy in the- fuck!" - Giulia suddenly let out a growl and spun around to take in her surroundings. She had forgotten all about the Camaro's gun-toting passenger in the wild bull ride they had just been through. The driver had been the only one at the wreck, so unless the passenger had been squashed into chunky tomato soup and meatballs underneath the twisted metal, he would still be out there.

"Oh… fuck… the asshole with the revolver," Heather echoed, stepping away from the truck to look in the opposite direction. She reached onto her back to whip out the Glock, but found that her hands were still shaking too much from the fright built up in the chicken game for the handgun to be of any use.

A metallic clank and a muted curse that reached her ears made her look toward the row of wooden crates only forty yards from the truck. She glanced back at Giulia, but the tall woman was too busy conducting her own search for the missing thug to have noticed anything. When the clank was repeated, Heather hunched over and jogged off toward the crates to get a better view of things.

Far too many men ran around the loading ramps and the accident site for Giulia's frantic search to yield anything useful. Although the workers typically wore orange boiler suits and not the black clothes favored by the thugs, it was impossible to see the forest for trees. The seconds were ticking away, so Giulia made a snap decision to let the workers deal with the last remaining thug.

Spinning around, she ran back to the truck intent on getting in and driving back to the city in an almighty hurry to meet the deadline. When she noticed that Heather had wandered off on her own, she threw her arms in the air in sheer frustration. "Candy? Where'd ya go? We don't have time to chase after the last fella… we gotta hustle! Candy?"

"Over here!" Heather said from her spot forty yards further down the loading ramp. She waved the Glock in the air to catch Giulia's attention, but it meant she took her eyes off the crates in front of her.

The armed thug who had been waiting for just such an opportunity jumped up from behind the crate he had used for cover. Aiming his dark-gray revolver at the back of the short, spiky-haired woman who stood not thirty feet from him, he clearly intended to cut her down.

Time slowed to a crawl for Giulia as she watched it all unfold. Heather waved her Glock again and began to turn back to face the crates. The black-clad thug realized he had to move fast, and he pre-empted the risk by squeezing the trigger.

Discharging, the revolver sent out a lead slug that screamed toward the short woman who stood in its path. Behind the flying lead, the recoil made the revolver jerk upwards. The slug continued straight ahead until it drilled through the black sweatshirt; the fabric puffed out like it had been caught in a storm. Heather cried out and went down. At the same time, Giulia took off from the truck at a furious pace that saw her close the distance to the crates at such a high speed the thug had no time to get a good aim on her. Although he fired once more, the bullet went far off course and embedded itself into one of the wooden crates where it created a shower of splinters.

Time returned to normal when Giulia reached the thug. Jumping over the crate he used for protection, she went into a flying double-leg kick that hit him squarely across the chest. He let out a braying grunt as he was thrown backwards, but he managed to stay on his feet even if his revolver was ripped from his hand. The dark-gray weapon rattled across the concrete, but neither combatant had time to look for it. Charging the thug once more, Giulia spun around and fired off a roundhouse kick to the man's chin that made his head whip around.

The thug was already dazed, but Giulia had only just begun. Moving into an offensive stance, she applied a straight-legged kick to his face; moving her leg down, she shifted her position and used her other leg to knee him across the ribs three times in rapid succession. When he staggered back unable to defend himself, she clenched her fists and punched him several times in the gut, the ribs and finally across the face.

It was clear to all involved the thug was on his last, but Giulia had no intention of stopping until he was fully down for the count. After delivering a reverse roundhouse kick to his chin, she ducked into a leg-sweep that caught him by surprise. Yelping, the man fell down in an unruly pile; Giulia jumped on top of him at once, grabbed his hair and snuffed out his candle with a single punch to his nose.

Once the man was flat on his back with his arms stretched out wide, Giulia unclenched her fist and flexed her fingers. The one-sided fight had taken less than thirty seconds. A whimper that emanated from Heather made her snap out of the warrior haze and clamber off the fallen thug.

She was at Heather's side in an instant and reached under the back of her old lover's head to cushion it from the hard, cold floor. She gave the shorter woman a brief inspection: a few drops of blood had splattered onto her right cheek, but no other gunshot-related injuries were visible.

Giulia knew it would be a different story under the black sweatshirt, but it didn't seem to be too soaked in Heather's blood. "Candy? Heather? Are… are you… where… where did you get it?" she croaked in a voice that turned strangled upon seeing the look of terror and pain that had fallen over Heather's normally so sunny features.

"The motherfucker shot me…" Heather croaked in a shaky voice.


"My sweatshirt…"

Giulia bared her teeth in a worried grimace. "Oh, who cares about that now!" she croaked.

"No, I mean… my sweatshirt caught it…"

"Heather…" Giulia tried, but she fell silent when it became obvious to her that the other woman had entered a state of shock. She ran her hand across the black sweatshirt to feel for the warm blood she knew she would find there, but only a small amount was transferred to her hand. The bullet hole was at Heather's right arm, but even that spot didn't seem too warm or bloody as she touched it.

"Girl," Heather said and let out a croaking laugh as she tried to wiggle out of Giulia's tender grip so she could sit up. "I fuckin' mean it… I caught it with my sweatshirt… okay, that fuckhead nicked my fuckin' skin as well 'cos it stings like a motherfucker-on-acid, but… but… I'm okay. I'm okay, girl…"

"No way…" Giulia croaked, staring wide-eyed at Heather who had fumbled herself into sitting upright - more or less.

Heather nodded as she probed the hole in the sweatshirt. She winced when she accidentally touched the spot on her right, upper arm where the lead had grazed her skin and had left an ugly abrasion. "O-yeah, big fuckin' way."

Giulia opened her mouth to tell the world how grateful she was, but found that she had run out of words and brainpower to do so. Trying again, she could only croak, so she gave up and settled for helping Heather back onto her feet.

"Where's my brand new Glock? Oh, man… where the fuck's my brand new Glock?" Heather said and looked around; though her voice was almost back to normal, she still moved a little slower. When she spotted the handgun with the high-capacity magazine lying on its side near the crates, she let out a sigh of relief. "Wouldya mind… thanks, girl," she continued as Giulia picked up the weapon and pressed it into the injured woman's eager hands.

Looking around, Giulia noticed that a large crowd of workers had gathered around them, but the last thing she wanted at that point in time was to explain the whole mess - or justify herself and her actions - to the people around her. "Anyone call an ambulance yet?" she said as she and Heather began to stagger back to the truck.

'Yeah,' one of the workers said.

"You better call another one. That crook there is down and out," she said, nodding at the thug she had flattened. Catching a glimpse of the dark-gray revolver on the floor gave her an idea, but she needed to help Heather back to the truck first. "Oh, and call the cops too. But not until we're outta here. We still got a job to do."

Heather let out a chuckle that turned into a hiss of pain as she was helped over to the truck and up into the soft passenger seat. "Fuck-almighty, girl, this is a night for the fuckin' record books, huh? And we ain't even done yet!"

"No, not even close," Giulia said and left the Silverado to get the thug's discarded revolver. Picking it up by the barrel that was still warm after the firing, she ran back to the waiting Heather and held it out like a rose. "Here ya go. A little gift from me to you."

"Awwwww! Does this mean we're goin' steady, girl?" Heather said, breaking out in a husky snicker. She cracked the revolver open to see how many rounds were left - two was the answer. It was in good condition and had been cleaned within the past few days. "Neat! Thanks! Slap me some sugar, baby… 'cos I need it so fuckin' badly!"

Giulia was only happy to comply, and the fact that Heather was already up in the truck eliminated the difference in height that always interfered with their kissing. The heated smooch that followed - featuring plenty of tongue - was fueled by relief and gratitude over the fact that Heather had only received minor injuries in the shooting incident, and they didn't even care that a whole bunch of people were gawking at them. "There's more to come," Giulia whispered, winking at her old lover.

"Oooh, can't fuckin' wait! Hey, that reminds me… what time is it?"

"We only got a little over ten minutes to get there, Candy."

"Fuck! Can we make it in ten?"

"Just about," Giulia said and ran around the front of the Silverado. Once she had climbed aboard, she twisted the ignition key and waited for the engine to settle down. "If we hustle," she added as she selected drive and stepped on the gas.

"Fuckin'-A, girl!" Heather cried as the fire-engine-red truck blasted away from the loading ramps and back onto the accessway that ran around the entire warehouse.


The accident scene at the grade crossing was awash in flashing emergency lights that belonged to plenty of fire trucks, ambulances and police cruisers. The fiery wreck and the smaller conflagrations along the embankment had all been put out by the fire department, and a tow truck was busy trying to pull the mangled wreck of the dark pickup off the tracks.

Giulia didn't feel a need to get caught up in any of that activity, so she stuck to the circular road until she reached the secondary exit. From there, it didn't take them long to reach the roads that would lead them back to the city, the financial district, and ultimately West Thirty-third Street .




The opulent high-rises that lined Thirty-third Street soon dominated the skyline. Giulia and Heather drove toward the heart of the city from the wide-open north-western suburbs, so they had a perfect view of the dark, night-time sky that had only just begun to fade at the eastern horizon. It wouldn't take long before it would turn into shades of bluish-purple that would eventually herald the new day.

With no opponents left who could pose a threat to them, the fast trip through the very-early-morning traffic had been a somewhat relaxed affair though the two women were still on a tight deadline as a result of all the trouble they had been forced into.


As the battered and abused Chevrolet Silverado drove out of the narrow alley that led down onto the connecting accessway at the back of the row of skyscrapers, Heather checked her smartphone one last time. "Yeah, this is the street, all right," she said, tracking her GPS app. "We made it with four fuckin' minutes to spare, girl. Just enough time for a quickie," she continued. Closing the app, she stuffed the phone back into her pocket.

Giulia chuckled. "Yeah, huh? I've always said, getting to know 'er real well is half the fun. Just undressing takes longer than four minutes."

"True," Heather said with a cheesy grin. "Hang a right down there, the next big-ass thing 's gotta be the Beaumont Worldwide or what-the-fuck-ever the building was called…" she continued, pointing at the next high-rise down the line of hugely tall buildings.


Once they got closer, Heather leaned forward so she could look at the skyscraper through the windshield. She let out a long whistle as her eyes kept moving up, up and up the impossibly tall structure that was just as much a glass palace as the others in the vicinity. "Holy shit! How many fuckin' floors do ya think that fuckin' overgrown dog house has? Six hundred?"

"Probably less than that, Candy…"

"I don't know, girl… I think it's gotta be somewhere around that. Ah, who gives a fuck. This is it," Heather said, once again pointing out of the windshield; this time at the entrance.

Nodding at her old lover, Giulia turned off the connecting accessway and into the well-lit parking garage. Unlike the one they had used on East Twenty-sixth Street, the first floor was at ground level so they didn't need to use any ramps - although 'ground level' was a relative term since the connecting street and thus the entire row of parking garages that had been built below the skyscrapers were actually one floor down from West Thirty-third Street.

An LED information screen integrated into a display stand at the entrance explained in easy terms how to find the correct parking bay: the garage consisted of three underground floors that had been divided into sections that matched the various departments of the Beaumont Worldwide company up in the high-rise. Employees or visitors to the company had to park in the section that matched the colored bars on their employee or guest card. Now and then, a bright-red message flashed onto the information screen informing those who read it that parking was prohibited for those without lawful business at Beaumont Worldwide, and that such vehicles would be clamped or possibly even towed away at the owner's expense.

"Okay…" Heather said, scratching her cheek. "And how the flying fuck should we know which of these fuckin' sections or departments the mysterious Mista… wotshisname… works for?"

"Manning. Hmmm. Can't say, Candy," Giulia said and took her foot off the brake to make the Silverado trickle deeper into the first level. Narrowing her eyes, she had a thorough look around. Hardly any cars were parked in there at that time of the morning, and those that were had a tendency to be imported sedans in the six-figure-bracket - they probably belonged to managers pulling all-nighters to finish up a contract, she thought.

It looked like any other underground parking garage anywhere in the world: all-concrete, it had strip lights attached to the ceiling, and plenty of support pillars around that offered the perfect place to hide from criminals, or even for criminals. The major difference to most other places was that it was squeaky clean. It didn't even have the ubiquitous pools of oil at the bays, nor did it carry the regular smells of rubber or gasoline.

The V8 engine up front burbled merrily as they trickled through the first and into the second section. They were almost at the far end of the garage when Giulia spotted a man in a steel-gray business suit trying to push himself into a shadow so he could remain out of sight of the people in the truck. "That's gotta be him!" she said, coming to an abrupt halt.

"Fuckin'-A, girl, we made it with two fuckin' minutes to spare! Wait… da fuck's he doing?" Heather said as she unbuckled and reached for the lever to open the door.

As the passenger-side door of the fire-engine-red truck opened, the well-dressed man spun around and hurried toward an elevator. After fiddling with a key on a metal chain, he pressed the button frantically. He only had to wait for a couple of seconds before the sliding doors moved aside.

"Is he trying to… he's trying to fuckin' run away from us! Like we're the fuckin' crooks or somebody! I don't be-fuckin'-lieve it!" Heather said, throwing her arms in the air. The gesture made her wound send a stab of pain racing through her arm, so she let out a hiss and moved it down at once.

"Mr. Manning! Wait!" Giulia yelled, but it was too late. As the elevator doors moved aside fully, the man in the steel-gray business suit ran inside and pressed another button. For the briefest of moments, he locked eyes with Giulia across the concrete floor - it was a look of pure panic.

"Da fuck is wrong with that fuckin' guy?" Heather said, smacking a palm against her forehead. "He did fuckin' run away from us! Aw, fuck that fuckin' shit… after all the fuckin' trouble we had gettin' here, the dumb-ass fuckerooney runs away from us… can you believe this fuckery?"

"No. But we scared him shitless," Giulia said surly, staring at the elevator doors that slid shut with a soft phlum . When they didn't reopen, she put her hands on her hips and assumed a severely miffed look. A few moments later, she turned around and walked around the rear of the truck. Opening the door to the crew cab, she grabbed the wrapped package and stared daggers at it like it would help.

"Now fuckin' what… fuck, that couldn't have been our guy. Maybe it was some other Joe Schmoe who thought we were fuckin' robbers out to get him… or somethin'. D'ya think that was our guy?"

"How the fuck should I know, Candy?!" Giulia barked before she let out a long sigh. "Crap. I'm sorry for yelling at ya," she said in a quieter voice.

Heather chuckled at the uncharacteristic fire in Giulia's voice. "Aw, don't bother me none, girl. But I think you should yell at him and not me."

"Oh, don't worry. I will. If we can find him again," Giulia said and shuffled off toward the elevator carrying the package. It turned out to be the kind of elevator that couldn't be operated without a key. A panel needed to be unlocked and pushed aside before the call button would appear, but no key was present - obviously.

As she scanned the area nearest to the elevator, she found no intercom panels or security cameras which she found somewhat odd. She came to the conclusion that whoever owned the elevator was most likely protected by security personnel whenever he used it, save perhaps for the presumably infrequent occasions when he needed to hook up with a couple of ex-cons at four-thirty in the morning.

There was no way to call the elevator car, and Giulia let out a long sigh. An idea formed in her mind, and she tried to balance the wrapped package on her knee while she snuck her hand down into her pocket. As the package keeled over and thumped onto on the concrete despite all her efforts, she growled and gave it such a hard kick it flew ten feet across the floor. "Motherfucker!" she barked, clenching her fists.

Heather let out a snicker over at the truck, but kept it to herself. She had seen what Giulia could do whenever she got into one of those moods, and there was no reason to trigger one of them.

Giulia counted to fifteen to calm down. Shaking her head in disgust, she made no move to retrieve the fallen package - she reached into her pocket to grab her telephone instead. Her battery was low, but there was still plenty of juice left to call Eduardo Espinosa and complain. The number was soon found; the telephone was soon put to her ear.

'It's Espinosa.'

"Eddie, it's Giulia. I'm at the Beaumont Building … but-"

'Oh… ya really made it?' Eduardo Espinosa said in a voice that held a fair amount of surprise almost like he hadn't expected to hear from Giulia Falcone again, or at least not in a positive context.

The sound of stunned surprise in her former friend's voice at the mission's success made Giulia scrunch up her face into a mask of annoyance - it seemed he had doubted her abilities, her effort and her steely determination to get the job done. "I made it. Sounds like you're guilty of underestimating me," she said in a surly voice.

'Yeah… I suppose. I honestly didn't think you'd make it.'

"It got close at times. Half the fucking world was on my ass at one point or another. Anyway… I'm here, but the buyer isn't. Or he was, but he ran away from us when we got here. Now what?"

'Who's 'we'?'

"I have a wingman with me, but it's none of your Goddamned business, Eddie. What do you want me to do? Leave the package here, or-"

'No! Keep your pants on, woman!' - Giulia rolled her eyes - 'I'll call Mr. Manning on my other phone.'

"You do that." As the connection went silent, Giulia let out a sigh and shuffled back to the Silverado - she didn't worthy the package a second glance. Once she reached Heather and the truck, she used the latter to lean on while she pulled the former into a sideways squeeze. "I'm talking to Eddie Espinosa," she explained to her old lover.

"Ah. Mista Big Kahuna. The big, stinky cheese," Heather said and let out a chuckle. She used the moment of inactivity to run her fingers up and down Giulia's arm. When the two women locked eyes, she winked and offered Giulia a tiny scratch through her polyester windbreaker. The wink was soon followed by a kiss that made the taller woman grin.

'Giulia?' Eduardo Espinosa said.


'I have the buyer on the other line. He's up in his office on the seventy-fourth floor. The deal is still on.'


'He ran because he was expecting a white Ford van. Apparently, you came in a battered, red truck?'

"We did. The Ford crapped out on me. I had to dump it," Giulia said, casting a dark thought or two at the sorry, old Ford Econoline that was presumably still parked at the construction site - her brain had turned so muddled by the night's countless violent activities she couldn't even remember which street that was on.

As she waited for Eduardo Espinosa to reply, an uneasy feeling rolled over her that originated somewhere between her shoulder blades. She furrowed her brow. When she had spoken to him in person at the meat-packing warehouse across town, she'd had the impression that he had been nervous underneath his cool, gangster-like veneer. That nervousness had not gone away, and it had perhaps grown even stronger since the last time she had heard from him - she could hear it as an underlying tremble in his voice.

Furrowing her brow even further, she turned to look at the wrapped package. Its starring role was almost over and she would be glad to see the back of it, but she could feel in her bones that it had a sting in the tail that she would not be happy to face.

'That was my boy's personal van!' Eduardo suddenly said in a miffed voice.

"Your boy's daddy should buy him a new one, then. It was a piece of crap. When are ya gonna tell me what to do, Eddie?" The connection fell silent again, but she could hear Espinosa mumbling in the background - presumably, he was speaking to the buyer on his other telephone.

'Mr. Manning will send down his private elevator. Get into it and ride it to the top. The seventy-fourth floor. Don't forget the package. I'll call you later.'

"All right, Eddie. And if your buyer tries to screw me out of my eight grand, I'll find ya and swing by to collect it," Giulia said, closing the connection without giving Espinosa a chance to reply.

"So?" Heather said, rubbing against Giulia's side.

"So the fella who ran away will send down his private elevator. We need to get on it and go upstairs with the package, Candy," Giulia said before she took the opportunity to steal a kiss from her old lover's supremely kissable lips.


One kiss became two before they moved over to the closed sliding doors so they would be ready for whenever the car would arrive. They both sensed the situation could escalate into yet another sequence of dramatic events, so Heather reached around to the back of her pants to whip out her Glock with the high-capacity magazine.

While she had waited at the truck, she had armed herself with all the weapons they had: thus, she had the Glock stuffed down her jeans at her back, the two spare high-capacity magazines Stanislav had given her free-of-charge in her front pockets, and the dark-gray revolver - that had been donated to the cause by the thug that Giulia had wiped out at the warehouse - stuffed down the front of her jeans.

An electronic ding heralded the arrival of the elevator car, and the sliding doors were pulled aside with a creaking whine that proved the bearings needed a few drops of oil.

Giulia's face was set in stone as she shoved the wrapped package into the car with her boot. Following it inside, she eyed the operating panel. It carried several buttons, but most were of a technical nature. Only four of them were stops at floors in the high-rise itself: Fifteenth, forty-third, seventieth, and finally seventy-fourth floor. The one for the seventieth floor stop was red and carried the label Research & Engineering . The final button was held in the same blue tone as Beaumont Worldwide's company colors, and it was labeled Senior Management, Penthouse, Atrium.

Grimacing, Giulia tapped a fast drumbeat on the panel. The tell-tale knot in her stomach had returned; it hadn't been wrong yet - and she just knew it wouldn't be wrong this time either. "I have an idea, Candy," she said, pressing first the blue button, then the red one.

Heather cocked her head and watched Giulia's long, slender fingers working the buttons. Behind them, the sliding doors closed with a repeat of the creaking whine. "Good… 'cos I don't have a fuckin' clue whatcha doin' right now, girl…"

"You'll see," Giulia said as she took a step back to keep an eye on the progress of the electronic counter above the doors. Soon, the elevator car began its rapid ascent.


The car was a study in opulence. Though the floor was a regular, dark-gray, heavy-duty carpet to ease the vacuuming, the walls and even the roof were covered in what appeared to be red velvet. The operating panel had a bronzed luster to it that was repeated in the hand rail that had been put on all three walls opposite the doors, and even the smoke detector attached to the inner ceiling had a housing made of metal rather than plastic.

A three-by-two foot mirror had been put on the car's right-hand side wall, and as soon as Heather noticed it, she began to pose and make faces. Hooking her good arm inside Giulia's, she pulled the taller woman over next to her. "Aw-yeah, look at those fuckin' gorgeous gals right there, babe! Don't we just have the fuckin' perfect classic looks or what? Tall, bronzed and awesomely butch, and short, blonde and oh-so-wonderfully-femme!"

"Who's the femme?" Giulia said, looking behind them to search for the mysterious third woman in there.

"Oh, har-dee-fuckin'-har!" Heather said, elbowing Giulia in the side as a payback. "Hey, ya suppose Mista wotshisname-"

"Nathan Manning."

"-got a camera behind that fuckin' mirror there? Ya suppose he's taping the girls gettin' ready whenever he calls for a hooker or something?"

"I don't know anything about him, and I don't wanna know anything about him," Giulia said and moved back to the sliding doors. "In ten minutes' time, he'll be out of our lives and we'll never see him again."

"Mmmm-yeah," Heather said and pressed her nose against the mirror to try to see through it. Though she couldn't see any cameras, her nose left a big, old smear mark on the glass that she only made worse by trying to wipe it off with her sleeve.

The elevator gradually slowed down from the high velocity it had been at. The first sixty floors had flown by, but the next five went by at a far slower rate. The final group of five until the car reached the seventieth floor moved so slowly that Heather put her hand on the Glock convinced it had to be an ambush of some kind. "Girl, when are ya gonna come clean an' tell me what the fuck's on your mind? Why are we stopping on the seventieth floor and not upstairs where we were supposed to go?"

"I got a bad feeling about it, Candy. About the whole, Goddamned thing. It's almost like they're still trying to draw us into a trap. Know what I mean?

"Fuck, don't I ever, girl!" Heather said and drew the Glock so she'd be ready for anything. "I've seen enough fuckin' shit tonight to know it's never as easy as it looks… and you saw plenty of shit even before I showed up! This fuckery is way too fuckin' easy."

"Yeah," Giulia said and picked up the wrapped package. "So I'm thinking that if we got off this thing and took the stairs… they gotta have one somewhere around here… maybe a fire escape, or something… anyway, that we walked the final couple of floors up, we would still have control over the situation. I don't wanna be a sitting duck in a shooting gallery, but that's exactly what we are in here."

"Fuck… I didn't think of that," Heather mumbled.

"The stage is all yours, Candy. Do your worst," Giulia said, stepping aside so her old lover could cover the hallway they were about to enter.

Heather assumed a far darker expression than her regular sunny disposition as she held the Glock ready in a two-handed grip. The electronic bell sent out a ding; the sliding doors slid apart a few seconds later - the set of outer doors in the Research & Engineering department didn't creak like those in the parking garage had. Giulia put her basketball boot to the door so it wouldn't slide shut again until they were ready.

Taking a deep breath, Heather stuck out her head and her Glock to check out their surroundings. She whipped her head left, then right, before she pulled it back inside. "Looks clear, girl. A corridor of some kind. Empty."

"Let's move," Giulia said, nudging Heather out of the door with her elbow. The two women hurried to the other side of the corridor where they crouched down. Behind them, the sliding doors closed, and the elevator car continued upwards on the final part of its journey.

Two further sets of elevator doors were next to the pair they had stepped out of; the one they had used had a sign above the sliding doors that said Private in all-capital letters.

Somewhere on the seventieth floor, someone was busy vacuuming. There didn't seem to be any activity beyond that, but it was still far too early for any of Beaumont Worldwide's employees to have come to work.

The corridor at the elevators was fairly non-descript with a maroon carpet and plaster walls that had been painted gray. Large, aluminum frames displaying photos of oil tankers and dry goods ships adorned the walls at irregular intervals. A plastic water cooler and a pair of real plants had been placed at certain points along the corridor to act as green oases in the otherwise featureless world.

Giulia looked for a door labeled 'staircase,' but she was unable to see one. When she finally spotted a green panel that was attached to the wall some fifty yards further down the line, she nudged Heather again. "Fire escape… the green panel," she whispered, earning herself a silent nod.

The two women had only just begun running toward the door to the stairs when a hard pop-pop, pop from somewhere above them reached their ears. The popping was followed at once by glass being shattered. Although the sounds had been muffled, they both recognized them at once.

"Hoa-fuck," Heather croaked, staring wide-eyed at Giulia as she came to halt in the middle of the corridor. "Some fuckhead just blasted the fuck out of that fuckin' elevator… had we still been in it, we woulda been plugged so fuckin' fulla lead… fuck!"

The muscles on Giulia's jaw were given a strenuous workout. "Yeah," she said in a steely voice as her intense eyes scanned the seemingly innocuous corridor around them. "So now we know what we're up against."


The door to the fire escape was soon reached and opened. The concrete flights of stairs and the metal center railing that came into view obviously weren't meant to impress, but to act as escape routes in case of fire - thus, the cold, pale-gray staircase lit by even colder strip lights was a study in drabness and non-flammable materials.

"Fuck this shit, it looks like the fuckin' South Carlyle Women's Pen all over a-fuckin'-gain. Gives me the fuckin' creeps just lookin' at it!" Heather growled as she closed the door after Giulia had gone through with the package.

"Mmmm," Giulia said, peeking over the edge of the center railing to look below them. The high-rise was so tall the sections of the fire escape seemed to grow ever narrower the further down she looked, but she knew it was an optical illusion. "Up we go," she said, taking the first step of the four-floor trek.


Reaching the top flight of the fire escape on the seventy-fourth floor, Heather cracked open the smoke and fireproof door an inch or two so she could peek through. The corridor was more or less identical to the one they had left behind, save for the color on the carpet - matching the buttons in the elevator car, the high-quality fabric was now sea-blue.

Like downstairs, the corridor had framed photos of bulk carriers and other big ships on the wall, and even a water cooler opposite the fire escape, but the strong smell of gunsmoke that trickled past Heather's nostrils did its best to ruin the noble facade.

Crinkling her nose, she pulled her head back but kept the tip of her boot on the heavy, fireproof door so it wouldn't close fully. "Looks like down on seventieth," she whispered into Giulia's ear. "There ain't no fuckers to be seen anywhere… and it stinks like fuck of gunsmoke."

"Okay," Giulia whispered back.

"Now fuckin' what? D'ya think it was wotshisname himself who killed the elevator? Or another fuckin' henchman like that bearded fella?"

Giulia sighed. "I don't know, Candy… but I do know I'm not here to get plugged. Maybe we gotta-"

The echoing sound of a door to the fire escape opening below them made both women pipe down in a hurry. Before long, a bunch of clicking footsteps could be heard hustling up the staircase. When what sounded like a pistol being cocked reached Giulia and Heather's ears, they looked at each other with matching deep frowns tainting their features.

The only way out of the trap they had fallen into was to go into the corridor, so Heather jumped up and pushed the door fully open. As soon as Giulia had made it through carrying the wrapped package, Heather whipped out her Glock and aimed it at the far wall of the staircase. The sounds of approaching feet from downstairs grew louder and louder until the group of people trying to get upstairs were just out of sight.

Baring her teeth in an ugly grimace and panting from the visions of impending doom that lay just around the corner - literally - Heather tried to hold the Glock steady. She gulped several times until her courage finally left her, and she spun around to follow Giulia into the corridor.

The taller woman had already made it halfway down toward the far end to find an office or something similar to duck into. She ran hunched over to present as small a target as possible in case a firefight broke out around her. She kept the package close to her chest, but the weight and the odd, hunched-over attitude had begun to bother her back.

Coming to a halt at a white office door, she crouched down while she waited for Heather to catch up with her. The door carried a wooden plaque whose row of golden letters proclaimed it to be the offices of Mr. R.W. Richardson, snr. mgmnt. , but she really couldn't care less about that. If the door was open, she would go in there even if it belonged to the Pope. "Try here," she whispered into Heather's ear.

Heather nodded and tried to manipulate the handle. It was locked. "Well, that's too fuckin' typical. Ya want me to bust down the fuckin' thing?" Heather whispered back, but Giulia shook her head.

Across the corridor, a pair of double doors caught her eye. They were painted in the same color as the walls so they were almost invisible if one weren't looking for them. Unlike those used for the offices, the double-doors were utilitarian in nature and could be a broom cupboard or something similar. "Try those," she whispered, nodding at the doors she had spotted.

Heather hurried over there and tried pulling the metal latch which was far more basic than the opulent handles on the doors to the offices. The double-doors clicked open and revealed an empty, and fairly large, cabinet designed for the cleaning carts typically used in hotels or large office buildings. Though quite dark and uninviting, it would offer plenty of room for two ex-cons and a wrapped package. Spinning around, Heather flashed Giulia a big thumbs-up and an even bigger grin.


While Giulia put down the heavy package on the floor so she could rub her tired hands, Heather stayed alert over at the doors. She held them half an inch ajar so she could have at least some view of the corridor without being seen by the people who had been hustling up the stairs. The Glock was ready to blast anyone to hell if they tried any aggressive moves.

The dark cabinet they were cooped up in carried a strong smell of disinfectants, window cleaning fluid, air fresheners and a wide selection of other forms of chemical solutions or products. The smells weren't unpleasant as such on their own, but became rather overpowering when combined - Heather kept her nose permanently crinkled as a result.

When the people who had hustled up the staircase finally entered the corridor with their weapons pointed ahead of them in correct, two-handed grips, Heather nearly lost her jaw in surprise. Staring wide-eyed at the heavily armed, but superbly dressed, men and women who split into perfectly ordered teams all along the corridor made a croaked, drawled-out "moth-er-fuck-er…" bubble up from her chest.

"What?" Giulia whispered, squeezing herself up next to her old lover to try to catch a glimpse of the corridor beyond the narrow crack in the doors.

"We're fucked, girl… fucked but good. Fucked up one wall and down the fuckin' other!"

"For Chrissakes, Candy… who's out there?" Giulia said and peeked past Heather's shoulder. It only took her a brief moment to realize the well-dressed men and women in the corridor carried all the signs of a Bureau strike team. The state-issue firearms they wielded, and the pale-gray, spiral radio cable they all wore behind their right ear only confirmed it. "Feds," she croaked, answering her own question.

"Uh-huh. Gun-totin', latté-swillin', Armani-wearin', honest-to-fuckness Feds. We're fucked. What the fuck should we do? We've fuckin' delivered our own incriminating evidence, girl!" Heather whispered hoarsely, pointing the barrel of the Glock at the wrapped package. "If we go out there all a-blazin', they're gonna Bonnie and fuckin' Clyde us to death, an' I don't particularly feel like chewing on more lead any time soon, thank-you-ever-so-fuckin'-much! And if we reach for the fuckin' sky, they're gonna book us, process us and throw us back in the fuckin' South Carlyle Pen! I don't fuckin' think so either, girl!"

"We don't have much of a choice, Candy," Giulia said glumly. "We gave it all we had. It just wasn't enough."

"So… wait… you're saying that we should…? Aw, fuck," Heather said and rubbed her face with her free hand.

"Smart gals know when to call it quits," Giulia continued, cracking the double doors ajar to an accompaniment of a whole row of annoyed mono and multisyllabic groans that emanated from Heather. "You out there! Don't shoot! We're coming out!" she said, pushing the doors wide open.


In no time flat, Giulia and Heather were whisked down the fire escape's staircase by the armed strike team. They were led into the corridor a floor below where a po-faced FBI agent bossed them around until they were face-down on the carpet with their legs out wide and their arms handcuffed on their backs. A pair of female agents body-searched them and confiscated their telephones, Heather's weapons and ammunition, and the wad of dollar bills from Giulia's rear pocket.

Once they had been left alone, Heather turned her head to the side and stared daggers at the agent who had frisked her. "Aw! Betcha can do better than that, Mizz Cocksucker! You only rubbed my fuckin' crotch once!"

"I did not!" the agent said while red blotches exploded onto her cheeks.

"The fuck you didn't," Heather mumbled, looking at the carpet like she had been told.

Giulia let out a sigh and turned her head to face her friend. "Let it go, Candy. Getting bitchy about it won't help us now."

"Yeah? I been here too fuckin' often, girl! I decide when I wanna get fuckin' bitchy 'bout anything. Next stop, cavity search."

A pair of black, high-quality shoes entered the hallway and came to a halt in front of the two restrained women. The shoes were part of an ensemble that included a pair of dark pants with creases sharp enough to use as hacksaws. Above the pants, a dark cotton coat, a dark blazer, a white shirt, a black tie, and a distinguished-looking special agent came into view. "Oh, I'm sure it won't come to that," the man said in a deep, authoritative voice. "Ladies, I'm Senior Special Agent Marvin LeRoy, and I do believe we need to have a word."

"Ya better off talkin' to my fuckin' asscheeks," Heather growled into the carpet, but her comment was ignored by the man standing above them.

When LeRoy noticed the handcuffs around Giulia and Heather's wrists, he cocked an eyebrow and pinned down the female agent who was responsible for putting them on. "Agent Whittaker, please remove the cuffs. I need to have an urgent word with Miss Falcone, but it needs to be under more civilized circumstances."

"Whoop-di-fuckin'-doo, it's the old fuckin' bad cop, worse cop routine!" Heather growled.

Once Giulia's hands had been released by Agent Whittaker, she pushed herself up to lean back on her thighs. Her hands had already been aching from carrying the wrapped package for so long, but now her wrists needed a thorough rubbing as well. She furrowed her brow when she studied the senior special agent. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties or perhaps even older than that. Though his short hair had turned gray at the temples and his skin had gained that lived-in look that often came with middle age, his dark-brown eyes were sharp and intense hinting at the intelligence that lurked behind them.

"Come, Miss Falcone," LeRoy said, putting out his hand at Giulia. "Let's go into one of the offices and talk. I have plenty to say, and you have plenty of things to decide on."

Declining the hand, Giulia got to her feet under her own steam and followed the man who was clearly in charge down the corridor.

Agent Whittaker's fingers fumbled a bit with the key to the other set of handcuffs so it took a while longer for the fiery blonde to be released. Once Heather's hands were free, she jumped to her feet and shot the female agent another angry glare. Turning around, she stomped after Giulia and Marvin LeRoy, but she was intercepted soon after by one of the younger field agents who put a hand on her arm. "Don't you fuckin' touch me, kid," she growled, pinning the younger man to the spot with plenty of hazel fire. Soon, a devious grin played on her lips. "Naw, on second thoughts… touch me. Go ahead. I'll make you wish you fuckin' hadn't!"

"Miss Appleby," Senior Special Agent LeRoy said, standing at an open door to one of the available offices on the seventy-third floor. Once he had Heather's attention, he continued: "This needs to be a one-on-one conversation with Miss Falcone. I trust you will understand. Please, have a seat in the meantime."

"Fine!" Heather growled, stomping off to sit in a chair that had been placed in the small oasis by the water cooler and a potted plant. "Can I at least have my fuckin' phone back so I can play some fuckin' Battle Planet?" she said, looking at LeRoy as well as the female agent who had uncuffed her.

"I'm afraid we need to keep your telephone a little while longer, Miss Appleby," Marvin LeRoy said before he left the corridor and closed the office door behind him.

Heather's already surly face grew positively thunderous. Leaning back in the chair, she harrumphed and folded her arms across her chest. Soon, she began to whistle though her teeth in the most obnoxious, off-key manner she possibly could.


Giulia sat down at a conference table inside the office and waited for the senior special agent to do the same. Once they were both seated, she cocked her head while continuing to observe the man sitting opposite her.

With the unexpected appearance of a Bureau strike team in the middle of the whole, flaming mess, it had dawned on her that the matter was far larger than she had imagined it would be. All she had been told to do was to deliver a package from A to B. Since then, the entire world had come at her guns a-blazing.

What kind of hodge-podge stew the recipe would ultimately produce, she had no idea, but the ingredients were wannabe gangsters, gun-toting crooks in fast cars, mysterious wrapped packages that contained God-knows-what, devious members of a global company's senior management who didn't think twice about gunning down people arriving in elevators, and now someone who was clearly a big number in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It all added up to one hell of a conspiracy. One of the stock characters in any conspiracy was the patsy. If it was an expendable ex-con dumb enough to play along for peanuts - and the promise of a few more peanuts somewhere at the end of the rainbow - all the better.

Before they could start talking, someone knocked on the door to the conference room. Marvin LeRoy got up at once and opened the door. From the outside, Heather's characteristic voice could be heard saying: 'Whadda-fuck ya mean I can't whistle? I whistle any fuckin' way I fuckin' well please, Mista Federale! It's a free fuckin' country, ain't it?'

Moments later, Special Agent LeRoy closed the door and came back to the table with the infamous package that carried the label, the barcode and the doodled signature from the US Customs services. "All right," he said as he pushed the wrapped package into the center of the table where its mere presence seemed to mock Giulia. "Let's start at the beginning. We've had you under constant surveillance since you received this shipment from Mr. Espinosa at the meat-packing warehouse earlier tonight. Well, late last night, to be exact."

"I should have known. How? I never saw any Feds anywhere-"

"I'm afraid I cannot divulge that information, Miss Falcone. I will say, however, that you and Miss Appleby have caused a mess throughout our fair city. Quite a mess," LeRoy said, shooting Giulia a pointed glance.

"I suppose," Giulia said with a shrug.

"Quite a mess," Marvin LeRoy said again like he was thinking about the situation with the homeless people at the intersection, or the accident involving the number sixteen bus, or the fiery wreck at the railroad tracks, or even the warehouse that had almost been turned upside down. "But we do admire your determination, Miss Falcone. Working against impossible odds throughout, you still managed to make it here. Remarkable."

"Oh, I'm flattered," Giulia said in a voice that proved she wasn't flattered at all by the praise. "It's not that my determination did me a whole lot of good."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say that, Miss Falcone. However-"

"There's always a however."

The special agent chuckled. "Indeed there is. And in this case, that 'however' is… your job isn't quite done yet. We want you to finish it. Right now, Nathan Manning is sitting upstairs in his office calling your old connection Eduardo Espinosa asking about why the elevator was empty."

"The elevator that he shot full of holes himself. The elevator that my friend and me were supposed to have been in."

"Indeed. Nathan Manning is also asking where the wrapped package is that he was promised. That he has been anxiously waiting for," LeRoy said, pointing an index finger at the package in question.

Giulia let out a dry laugh. "You have him wired for sound?"

"We have the entire building wired for sound, Miss Falcone. Video surveillance as well."


"Yes, that's why we were able to move in so fast after the shots had been fired into the elevator car. Manning is highly anxious… actually, that's putting it too mildly. He's entered a stage of rampant paranoia. That's why he ran away down in the parking garage, and it's why he fired into the elevator. Now that he's unable to get in touch with Mr. Burke, the fellow you took care of at the warehouse, he trusts no one."

"Jason Burke, yeah. He told me his name after the big wreck. So the whole damn thing really is connected?"

"Yes. That one there is the last of four identical shipments delivered to Nathan Manning over the course of the past three months. One shipment every three weeks. Need I tell you that none of the other couriers managed to stay alive?"

An annoyed frown developed between Giulia's intense eyes. "No. But you just did."

"Mr. Burke and his men worked directly for Nathan Manning. They were to intercept the shipments so we would lose our- well, that doesn't matter. Suffice to say they have intercepted the other three. As mentioned, this was the last one, and Manning has already booked a ten AM flight to South America ."

Giulia scrunched up her face even further as she looked at the package. The special agent's words explained a lot, including how the Feds had been able to keep her and Heather under surveillance throughout the night: there was some sort of tracker or homing beacon inside it.

That meant that Eduardo Espinosa was somehow involved in an FBI operation which seemed far-fetched to say the least, unless they had a major squeeze on him in connection with another of his many shady wheelings and dealings - that angle wasn't outside the realm of possibility.

Whatever the particulars, the facts were there: the three previous couriers had been killed trying to give the FBI the proof they apparently needed to build a case against Nathan Manning. Through her old 'friend' Eduardo Espinosa, she had been chosen as the final courier because of her skills behind the wheel, her dogged determination, and ultimately the fact that she was an ex-con nobody would miss in case she had her brains blown out as well by the thugs she was sent to flush out. It all fit, and it all added up to a big pile of stinking horse manure.

"Look," she said, jerking forward to lean against the conference table, "I'll deliver that rotten package for you and give you that son of a bitch on a silver platter, but A, I want something in return for helping you bring down a crook, and B, I think I've earned the right to know what the hell is in that thing. If your suspect is flying anywhere, it can't be drugs. So what is it? Funny money? Kiddie porn? What? And why is there a US Customs seal and signature on it?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss the particulars of the case with you at this point in time, Miss Falcone," Marvin LeRoy said, speaking the tired, old cliche in a well-rehearsed manner like he spent hours in front of a mirror every weekend to get it down pat.


"Call it whatever you like. However, I promise you will find out soon enough," Special Agent LeRoy said and got up from the conference table. Walking around it, he went over to the spot where he had put the evil package and took it with both hands. "Once you've completed the job, I can assure you Mr. Manning will open the shipment to verify the contents," he continued, holding it up so Giulia could take it.

Getting up as well, Giulia grabbed the package that she had come to hate with a vengeance. She stared at it like she hoped the intensity of her glare would be strong enough to make it burst into flames. When nothing happened, she let out a sigh instead.

"And as for getting something in return, Miss Falcone," LeRoy continued in a stern voice, "I'm not in a position to reimburse you financially. At the Bureau, we have a policy of not-"

"I'm not talking about money, Mister Senior Special Agent."

The senior agent cocked his head and shot the tall woman a puzzled glance, almost like it was the first time he had heard someone on the fringes of the criminal world declining a cash payment. "If not money, then…?"

"I'll tell you when I get back. If I get back."

"All right."

A pregnant pause filled the air between the two people. It lasted long enough to become awkward, so Giulia cleared her throat and relaxed her stance. "Can I be granted a couple of minutes with my fiery friend out there? There's something I need to say to her. In private," she said, putting the package back down on the conference table.

"Of course, but you are to go upstairs alone. We can't allow that Miss Appleby joins you on the last leg of your mission. She's simply too volatile."

"Yeah? That's what I love about her," Giulia growled, giving the evil, wrapped package a mighty whack with her fist.

"I'll send her in at once," Marvin LeRoy said and crossed over to the door in his high-quality shoes that barely made a sound on the carpet as he walked.




Heather shot Giulia a look of pure exasperation that said she couldn't quite believe what she had just been told. She opened her mouth to complain, but her jaws clicked shut almost at once. A few seconds went by before the same thing happened all over again. The third time was the charm, and she slammed her hands onto her hips while she let out a growl that originated from somewhere deep down her throat. "Well, pardon my fuckin' French, girl, but that's the single worst piece of motherfuckin' bullshit I've been exposed to since… since… since I don't know when! And that says a fuckin' lot!"


"For fuck's sake, girl! Those fuckers want you to go back upstairs to that trigger-happy motherfucker who has already peppered his own, Goddamned elevator! And the same trigger-happy motherfucker who apparently sent his fuckin' vehicular goons after us so they could kill us stone-fuckin'-dead like three other poor fucks who had no fuckin' chance whatsoever!"


"And you said okie-dokie, I'll do that?! I mean, what da flying fuck, girl?!"

"Candy," Giulia said, putting her hands on Heather's shoulders in the hope it would calm the fiery blonde down or at least take her off the boil. "Will you please stop swearing for a minute so I can explain?"

"It had better be oh-so-fuckin' good, that's all I'm say-" - Heather didn't have time to go on beyond that before Giulia had claimed her lips in a strong, little kiss. The first kiss grew into another, larger one right away that offered plenty of tongue, and then a third one just for old times' sake. By the time they separated from the triple treat, Heather had indeed calmed down from the fiery high-water mark she had been at. Now, she was just the regular, incendiary Heather Appleby. "I s'pose I could keep my pants on for a minute or so," she said with a grin.

"I know it sounds like a hare-brained idea, and maybe it is, I don't know… but if these business-suit-wearing land sharks aren't cut down to size once in a while, the whole thing will get out of hand for us regular folks out there. You've already seen how much power this fella has. He's got a shitload of thugs at his beck and call, and they're not dime store robbers either. They're killers who have already wasted three people. Three that we know of, mind you. We stopped those thugs tonight, Candy, but if we don't cut off the shark's head, he'll just buy new goons while ordering a tuna sandwich for lunch. Call it street justice, or call it whatever you will. It's my motivation… my reasoning for going ahead with Marvin LeRoy's plan."

Heather scrunched up her face as she digested Giulia's long soliloquy. After a while, she shrugged though it hurt the gunshot-induced abrasion on her arm. "I guess that's an okay reason, girl. But I still don't fuckin' like it no matter what kinda spin you put on it. It's gonna be so fuckin' dangerous for you to go up there… alone… unarmed… hey, if you asked kinda nicely, maybe those Fed-fuckers would give you my Glock?"

"I don't want your Glock, Candy. I don't do guns, remember?"

"Yeah, but the trigger-happy motherfucker upstairs does!" Heather said and threw her hands in the air. "Look, girl, I love all your fuckin' awesome karate-shit, you know that, but no matter how cool and sexy it looks when you kick some fuckin' goon ass, it sure as fuck in a drainpipe can't stop a bullet! The fucker's been trying to kill us all evening… will you at least wear some fuckin' Kevlar or something?"

"Where?" Giulia said, opening her pale-blue windbreaker to reveal the formerly white tank that had gained a few sweaty stains over the course of the hot, muggy and overly dramatic night. "Over my tank top? Under it? He'll notice at once and just pop me in the head instead."

"You're. Not. Fuckin'. Helping. Girl," Heather growled. "I don't want that motherfuckin' sonovabitch to be poppin' you anywhere!"

"I'll duck if he starts thinking about it. Heather, I need to go," Giulia said and leaned down to kiss her old lover once more.

Heather put up her hands to stop the taller woman before they could perform a sweet lip-lock. "I'll kiss ya. But it ain't gonna be no fuckin' goodbye kiss, you hear? You gonna come back, and then you and me gonna fuckin' drive home to my fuckin' crib in my brother's fuckin' Silverado, and then we're gonna get nekkid and lather each other up in the shower and spend the whole Goddamned day banging the biggest drum so fuckin' hard the windows'll shake!"

"I get the picture," Giulia said and once again cut off the fiery blonde with a kiss.


Ten minutes later, Giulia entered the corridor on the seventy-fourth floor carrying the heavy, mysterious wrapped package that she had come to hate. She had used the staircase at the fire escape to remain incognito for as long as possible, and it seemed to have worked as the corridor was still quiet. After observing her surroundings thoroughly, she began to move down toward the far end from where she and Heather had been caught by the strike team.

Similarly to down at the other end of the corridor, a row of golden letters on a wooden plaque offered directions to the offices of Mr. N. Manning, snr. mgmnt. The abbreviations were followed by several acronyms that Giulia couldn't decipher - not that she gave a flying fig.

She paused to take in her surroundings once more. The corridor was eerily quiet save for the faint hum of a distant vacuum cleaner. On the countless floors below, the cleaning teams were still hard at work getting everything in ship-shape for the new day. Though she needed to keep her mind on the task at hand, she couldn't help but think that an honest cleaning job would be the right opportunity for her to get back onto the labor market - if the cleaning companies would want to hire an ex-con, which they probably wouldn't if her previous attempts at finding a job were anything to go by.

Gloomy thoughts of spending her days flat on her back on her sofa bed staring at the stained ceiling suddenly filled her mind. Such a fate would obviously still be better than looking up at a headstone for all eternity, but not by much. Sighing, she carried on further down the corridor.

When she reached the private elevator that Nathan Manning had fired into, she let out a grunt at the sight of the two bullet holes that formed a wide pattern on the back wall. The mirror that Heather had used for her mock posing had been shattered, no doubt by the third shot that seemed to have hit the metal hand rail and ricocheted off that. Dozens of shards of glass were littering the carpet; that was seven years of bad luck right there.


At the far end of the corridor, she reached the door to Nathan Manning's office. Her heart rate picked up and she felt an unpleasant hot flash roll over her body. Although the entire Beaumont Building was air-conditioned, she began to sweat, and she needed to wipe her clammy palms on her khaki cargo pants while she balanced the package on one knee at a time.

The moment had come to shake the apple tree. She moved out of the firing line by crouching down next to the door, hoping that if the man inside shot at it, he would do so at the level of his perceived opponent's head rather than the feet. "Mr. Manning?" she barked loud enough to be heard through the white door. "Mr. Manning, this is Giulia Falcone. I'm sure Eddie Espinosa has told you my name!"

'Are- are you alone? You b- better be!' a nervous, male voice said from beyond the door.

"I'm alone!"

'I'll- I'll kill you if- if you're lying!'

"I'm alone, Mr. Manning!"

When the door's lock was suddenly fiddled with, Giulia clenched her jaw and tried to keep her heart under control. She tightened her muscles, already fearing the moment when a round of lead would scream through the air in her direction. Instead of a gunshot, she was greeted by the door being pulled open.

Holding her breath, she peeked around the corner and through the foot-wide crack. The man she and Heather had seen in the parking garage hurried behind a huge, dark-wood desk so he would be safe in case it was a trap. The office was so dark she could not discern any of his features, but she noticed he had a gun in his hand - that was to be expected, however, so it didn't cause her further grief. "Mr. Manning?" she said, pulling her head back from the opening.

"Come in… keep your hands where I can see them!"

"I got your package," Giulia said and stood up straight. Crunch time. While her heart took off all over again, she drew a deep breath and let it out through her nose. Then she stepped across the threshold and moved into the large corner-office.

It was larger and far more luxurious than the non-descript conference room she had seen a floor below. The walls carried what appeared to be genuine, exquisite oil paintings, and although they were still of ships, they depicted eighteenth and nineteenth-century Men-of-Wars, four-masted windjammers and single-masted packet ships rather than contemporary mechanical marvels.

The floor was covered in a plush carpet that had been woven in a tasteful pattern that continued the maritime theme: tan waves seemed to crash around a cream-colored background. Similar colors adorned the sections of the walls that weren't graced by the oil paintings. The shiny dark-wood desk was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship meant to instill a sense of the type of furniture found in the captains' quarters on old sailing ships. Its basic design was repeated in the individual items of a three-piece couch arrangement just inside the door.

The elegant colors and designs of the luxuriously furnished office clashed severely with the color, design and intent of the black Beretta model ninety-two that Nathan Manning held in his trembling hand. The handgun was a killing machine, and its owner looked like he was prepared to use it against anyone who would stand in his way of getting the final package.

"Close the door behind you. Then stay there," he said, taking a few short steps to his left so he could keep the tall woman covered with his trembling gun. Once Giulia had pushed the door closed with the tip of her boot, she remained there like she had been told. The lock engaged which meant she couldn't get out in a hurry - she was stuck there for the time being.

Manning seemed to accept the setup, because he came around the corner of his large desk so a path would be cleared for Giulia to get over to it. "All right… now get to the desk. Put the package on it," he said while keeping several paces back from her as they went past each other.

"You don't need that gun, Mister. I'm unarmed," Giulia said as she put the heavy, wrapped package on an uncluttered corner of the desk. She noticed that an advertisement pamphlet from one of the well-known airlines had been put on the desk's integrated blotting pad.

Nathan Manning never said a word as he moved first sideways and then backwards to get to the light switch just inside the door. As he hit it, his face was revealed to Giulia for the first time. Clean-shaven and somewhat pale, he appeared to be in his late forties or possibly early fifties. Though his hair was mostly sandy in color, it had begun to turn gray in places. His face was slender to the point of being gaunt which, in combination with his paleness and pale-blue eyes, gave him an odd, sickly look - Giulia couldn't tell if he really was ill, or just nervous to the point of nearly passing out.

He wore a steel-gray business suit that was clearly tailor-made, as was his off-white shirt. He wore no necktie, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone like he was too nervous to wear the confining garment. His leather shoes appeared to be handcrafted as well, and all in all - save for the black Beretta that he used to threaten Giulia with - he appeared to be the perfect Gentleman.

"Walk around the desk and open the top drawer. Get the box cutter. Open the package," Manning said, taking another step forward and to the side so he would never lose his aim on the taller woman.

Giulia shot him a dark glare while the gears churned in her mind. She had a few aces up her sleeve, but how the jumpy man would react to them was anyone's guess. As she pulled open the desk's top drawer, she assumed a confident expression that she needed to dig deep inside herself to find. The box cutter was soon in her hand, but she narrowed her eyes at the sight of a second handgun in the drawer: a silver-gray pistol that had no magazine. A plastic box containing a cleaning set was next to the weapon.

She stored the information for later and slid the drawer shut. Though the metal box cutter was ready, she held off moving back to the wrapped package she had put on the corner of the desk. It was time to initiate the ploy she had thought out - and she hoped the land shark would fall for it. "By the way, Mr. Manning… Jason Burke relayed a few juicy details about the special agreement you and he had," she said in a tone that brimmed with confidence, or even arrogance.

"Had? Is Jason dead?" Nathan Manning said in a strangled voice.


The man holding the gun gulped several times. After a few seconds, he moved his free hand up to wipe his brow. "And… and what did he tell you?"

A cold smile played on Giulia's lips. "Oh, he told me plenty. He told me that you had ordered the death of the first three couriers," she fibbed, tapping the box cutter against the package. "He also told me that he had recorded some of the conversations he'd had with you."

The news seemed to hit Manning hard, and he stared wide-eyed at the tall woman who was standing behind his desk like she owned it. "Wh- what?" he croaked after a short delay.

"Recordings that I was able to get my hands on. I've only had time to hear a few sound bites, but they're quite fascinating," Giulia fibbed. Though her body tried to struggle against the overly confident act by making her palms sweat and her heart throb in her chest, she let a devious grin play across her features like she was getting ready to take over the whole criminal empire. "Of course, if something should happen to me here, now, those recordings will be sent to a connection I have who in turn is connected to the boys in blue. I'm sure they'll be very interested."

Nathan Manning's eyes fluttered open and shut several times in rapid succession like he was teetering on the brink of fainting. "Who- who the hell are you?" he said, taking a step ahead but stopping the motion almost at once. A few seconds later, he resumed moving ahead to get closer to the desk and the tall woman.

"I'm your new right-hand woman, Mr. Manning," Giulia said and let out a cold laugh. "Your enforcer, if you will, though it's such an old-fashioned word. I should probably seek a better financial deal than the one Jason Burke had. Don't you think?" While she spoke, she sliced open the wrapped package with a few well-placed cuts.

Over the course of the evening and night, she had speculated endlessly on what the box might contain, but the sight that greeted her as the shelf-paper folded away rendered her silent - it was money. Tons of money. Tens of thousands of dollars. Countless bundles of used one-hundred dollar bills stacked and wrapped in official-looking paper bands that all carried stamps from the US Customs Services and the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA.

Although she'd had plenty of hands-on experience dealing with large amounts of cash in her former career as an armored car driver, it was still an impressive sight. She managed to maintain her cool, devious facade to keep with her fibs, but she felt like staring wide-eyed at the bundles of money. She still needed to work out the story behind the US Customs Services seal on the label, not to mention the DEA stamps on the official bands that the bundles were wrapped in, but the pieces of the puzzle were slowly connecting in her mind - with the DEA involved, it could really only be drug money.

She couldn't see the tracker or homing beacon device that she had imagined the FBI would use to keep the package under surveillance, but she knew the technology they had at their disposal was nothing short of amazing. Such a device didn't need to be larger than a pinhead.

Nathan Manning had fallen silent. Now and then he looked up at Giulia with an unreadable expression on his face. Sighing, he put the Beretta into his jacket pocket - a gesture that made Giulia let out an inaudible sigh of relief. "All right," he said quietly as he walked closer to the desk. "If you're good enough to eliminate Jason Burke, you're good enough to take his place at my side. I'm leaving the country in a couple of hours so we'll need to make it a long-distance partnership. How much do you want?"

"Oh, I'm not greedy, Mr. Manning," said and let her fingertips slide over the many used Benjamin Franklins on the desk. "Let's say… the eight grand that Eddie Espinosa promised me. Plus a peek into your little black book of contacts. I'm sure you have one. I feel a sudden urge to enter the market now that you're… how shall I put it? Retiring? Going on a permanent vacation?"

"You ask a lot, Miss Falcone," Manning said in a surly voice. His right hand hovered near the pocket where he kept the Beretta. He fell silent and closed his eyes like he was weighing the pros and cons of his various options.

Giulia narrowed her eyes; she wondered if she had overplayed her hand after all. When Nathan Manning's hand suddenly slipped into the pocket and retrieved the Beretta, she knew she had. A short grunt escaped her throat, but she wanted to smack herself silly for trying too much too fast.

Manning whipped out the black gun but kept the muzzle away from Giulia for the time being. "It's too much. I can't allow you to get your hands on my contacts. Not that they would do you any good. Common thugs like you simply don't understand. Enter the market… what do you even think I'm doing here? Dealing ten gram bags of marihuana? This isn't something you can settle with brass knuckles in a filthy alley somewhere. We're talking seven, eight figure deals! The people I work with would tear you apart and feed you to their guard dogs," he said, shaking his head. A moment later, he aimed the Beretta at Giulia. "I'll deal with you now instead. Step away from the desk. Get over here."

Giulia scrunched up her face into a dark, angry mask. As she locked eyes with the gaunt-looking man to keep his undivided attention, she made sure to wrap her fingers around the metal box cutter. Nathan Manning hadn't noticed she was still holding onto it. Although the blade was short, it was razor-sharp and could inflict a lot of damage at close range. She moved around the corner of the dark-wood desk and into the middle of the floor, stopping a few paces short of her opponent so she had room to maneuver. "Aren't you forgetting what I told ya? That I have the recordings-"

"Recordings can disappear. And so can you. Get down on your knees," Manning said in a strangled voice.

Giulia could see by the desperate look in the man's eyes that he intended to pull the trigger - she counted herself fortunate that he hadn't done so already. She knew she had to move quickly, so she took a deep breath, clenched her jaw and got ready to jump him.

"I said, get on your knees!" Nathan Manning barked, thrusting the gun ahead of him like it would convince the tall woman to move faster.

It did, but not in the way the businessman had hoped. Instead of adhering to the command, Giulia threw the heavy box cutter directly at Nathan Manning's face. The metal tool whacked him across his left cheekbone and gave him such a fright that he yanked the trigger twice. Being hit on the head made him jerk around which meant he hadn't had time to aim at anything. Both rounds smashed through one of the panorama windows in the corner office and sent shards and smaller fragments of glass flying onto the street some seventy-four floors below.

The shots had been as loud as thunderclaps in the office, but Giulia ignored the violent reports to jump ahead and grab hold of Nathan Manning's arm that held the Beretta. Another shot rang out as she wrestled with him for supremacy; the third blast charred and tore a large chunk out of her second-hand polyester windbreaker. It all got a bit too close for comfort, so she twisted his wrist which made him let out a wild scream. The black gun fell from his limp hand and landed on the tan-and-cream carpet with a bump.

Once Giulia's opponent had been disarmed, she elbowed him hard in the gut before she took a firm grip around his torso and flipped him over her hip with all the ease in the world. As he landed on his back with a hard crash, she fell down on one knee intending to punch him into next week for threatening her with the gun, but the wide-eyed, starkly frightened look upon his face made her back off.

"No! No, please… please stop… no more! I c- can't- please!" Nathan Manning croaked, shielding his already bloodied face with his hands. "T- take the money… take it… just go! Please!"

Pulling back from her whimpering opponent, Giulia retrieved the black Beretta and threw it over to the door so it was out of the way. "You're pathetic! You talk the talk… but when it comes down to it, you crap your pants at the first sign of real trouble," she growled, grabbing hold of the expensive, steel-gray jacket to give it a little yank. Though the incident had been a small one, her system had still responded by going into full defense-mode. She took several deep breaths to get her insides back under control, but it was hard going.

Letting go of the suited crook, Giulia got on her feet and moved over to the door. She quickly worked the lock so the nice door wouldn't risk being destroyed when it was busted down by the FBI strike team. "And it's not even your money to give," she said, pinning her opponent to the spot as she cracked open the white office door to signal the end of the seance.

"Wh- what?"

"You're about to meet plenty of new friends. They'll be here before long," Giulia continued, stepping away from the door so she wouldn't be bowled over by the phalanx of special agents she could already hear running along the corridor. A thought crossed her mind as her eyes fell on the dark-wood desk. Nodding to herself, she moved over there in a hurry while a brief smile flashed across her face.


Before long, the luxurious office turned into a three-ring circus with plenty of armed, well-dressed FBI agents swarming around collecting the money and any evidence Nathan Manning would have hidden in there. While Senior Special Agent Marvin LeRoy took care of their suspect, Giulia strolled back out into the corridor in her tattered, charred polyester windbreaker that suddenly sported an odd bulge at the back. She was a woman on a mission, and it involved finding a certain fiery blonde.


Giulia didn't even need to ask any of the FBI agents where on the seventy-third floor they were keeping Heather 'Candy' Appleby - as she exited the staircase at the fire escape, it only took her three seconds to recognize the characteristic cursing and swearing that streamed out of an office that had been commandeered for the purpose of the sting operation:

'Ooooh! Oh, for fuck's sake… where da fuck did ya learn how to clean a wound and put on a fuckin' band-aid, bro? At Doctor fuckin' Frankenstein's? Ouch! Whadda-fuck… are ya actually tryin' to hurt me worse than gettin' shot did? Whadda-fuck is this… death by nurse? Will ya gimme that fuckin' band-aid! I'll do it myself! Thank you! Good-fuckin'-bye!'

Giulia chuckled as she leaned against the doorjamb to the office. A young, male paramedic flew past her with cheeks that had caught fire from all the verbal abuse that had been hurled at him. Peeking in, she had to grin at the sight of Heather standing at a table with her black sweatshirt rolled up to her armpit while she tried to apply a two-by-two-inch piece of skin-colored band-aid to the abrasion. The fiery blonde didn't appear like she was having any better luck than the paramedic had, so it was clear that an explosion was imminent.

Before the blonde volcano could erupt, Giulia stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. Heather looked up and broke out in a relieved smile.

"Girl! Hoa-fuck, am I glad to see you… ah, fuck this shit," she said and threw away the band-aid. The sleeve came down on its own as she moved away from the table and into Giulia's waiting arms. They offered each other a squeeze and a little arm-rubbing before they took a step back so they could look each other in the eye. "Hey… what the flying fuck happened to your jacket, girl?!" Heather said when she noticed the torn, blackened state of the polyester windbreaker.

"A Beretta happened."

"Oh, my fuck!"

"He missed, so it wasn't too bad."

"Still…" Heather said, taking in Giulia's appearance from top to toe. She stopped at several scenic spots just to make sure that it was all still there. "I fuckin' hate bein' shot at. It sucks big, hairy donkey balls!"

"It kinda does, I'll give you that," Giulia said with a hoarse chuckle.

"We were huddlin' around a small radio-thing so I had my ears on your talk with the fucker. Chilling, girl! You almost had me convinced you had gone bad. And Mista LeRoy's face just turned fuckin' greener and greener like he was gettin' mighty concerned about your agenda. It was fuckin' priceless, girl!"


"Yeah. Of course, when the fucker fired atcha, I got a little too-fuckin' worried myself. Well, actually, I sorta had to grapple with one of those fancy-ass special agents 'cos I wanted to run up there and kick some major ass. I had already made it to the fuckin' door before that Armani-wearin' fella caught up with me. We sorta argued for a moment or two…"

"Really? I find that hard to believe…"

"Yeah, I know. Me, Mizz Wholesome, arguing? But it all got sorted in the end, thank the Big Fuck… hey, what was in that fuckin' package, anyhow?"

"A ton of money. Maybe a hundred grand, maybe a little less. All used bills wrapped in DEA bands."

A long, comical whistling left Heather's lips. "Fuckin' hell. Drug money, huh? Didya take the eight fuckin' grand that Espinosa promised you?"

"Nah. That would've been a little too hard to explain. I'll pay Eddie a collecting visit later. Or maybe I won't… I don't know. From now on, I prefer to make an honest buck instead of all this horsing around. Easy come, easy go," Giulia said and pulled Heather back to her. They locked eyes for a moment before they broke out in identical cheesy grins and decided that talking was overrated.


The heated kissing-session was interrupted by someone knocking on the door. "Getta-fuck outta here! We're busy neckin'!" Heather cried, "I'm finally gettin' me some of the fuckin' good stuff, and I- aw, fuck…"

Senior Special Agent Marvin LeRoy entered the office with little regards to the fact that Heather and Giulia had been engaged in a good, old bout of tongue-wrestling. His left eyebrow crept up his forehead as he caught the tail-end of the two women making out, but he cleared his throat and tried to ignore the awkwardness that fell upon him. "Miss Falcone, I must say you did an excellent job. I'm sure it couldn't have been easy up there."

"It wasn't, but I got the job done like I said I would," Giulia said, reaching down to grab a good chunk of Heather's rear-ward facing cheeks to finish off their little wrestling match - the fiery blonde offered her a wicked grin in return that held plenty of promise for the future.

"Ah… quite," Marvin LeRoy said, pretending that he hadn't seen anything.

"Where did all that money come from? And don't give me your 'I'm not at liberty to say' speech or any of that crap."

"Well," the senior agent said before he paused to lick his lips. He let his eyes rest on the two women for a moment before he continued: "I obviously can't divulge all the information, but suffice to say that someone has been stealing confiscated drug money from one of the DEA depots. Eight-hundred thousand dollars in total has gone missing. With this fourth package, Mr. Manning has received a total sum of roughly three-hundred and sixty thousand."

"So you're still close to half a million bucks short?" Giulia said and cocked her head.

"Unfortunately, we are. But now that we have Mr. Manning, and can connect him to the killings of the three previous couriers through Mr. Burke, perhaps we can get him to sing about the people he works with… and for," the senior agent said, even going as far as offering Giulia a brief smile. "Perhaps the Bureau should consider hiring you, Miss Falcone? You seem to have a knack for getting the results."

Giulia shook her head at once. "No, thanks. I wouldn't want that job. I do have one thing I would like to ask for, though."

"Miss Falcone, like we discussed before… a financial-"

"And like I said before, it doesn't have anything to do with money. Not directly, at least." - Heather and Marvin LeRoy both shot her a puzzled look - "What I'm asking for is to have the criminal records of myself and Miss Appleby cleared. Emptied out. Purged. Whichever term you wish to use."

Special Agent LeRoy scrunched up his face like he was considering the implications of the unusual request, but he didn't have time to say anything before Heather stepped forward with her hands in the air.

"Whoa there, gorgeous," she said, looking up at her old lover. "I fuckin' appreciate the notion, you know I do… but I did actually rob that fuckin' candy store, girl. I did the crime, I did the time, and that fact should be on my fuckin' permanent record. I don't wanna fool nobody and I don't want no fuckin' freebies from nobody, either… not even you. I'm sorry, girl, but that's how it is."

Giulia grinned; she had expected nothing less.

A few moments went by where the senior special agent looked at both women. "I would need to agree with Miss Appleby with regards to her criminal record," he said in his regular authoritarian voice. Pausing again, he continued in a softer tone: "Your case, Miss Falcone, is quite different, however. I've studied it thoroughly over the past day and a half since Mr. Espinosa hired you for the job. Taking your efforts helping the Bureau into account, I believe there may be cause for a revision of your criminal record. I'm afraid I cannot offer you any guarantees, but I promise that my case report will include a detailed description of your involvement in everything that has transpired."

"That's all I can ask for, Mr. LeRoy," said, nodding. "Not many companies want to hire ex-cons. I need an honest job so I can find my feet after my release from prison."

"I'll make sure to mention that as well. Good day, Miss Falcone… Miss Appleby," Marvin LeRoy said before he turned around to head back to the door.

"Hey, wait a minute, Mista F-B-I!" Heather said, jumping forward. "What the fuck is gonna happen to me and Giulia now?"

The senior special agent put his hand on the door handle, but didn't turn it. "You are both free to go, Miss Appleby. We will get in touch with you later, however. You'll get your telephones back as soon as I find Agent Whittaker. Oh, and the rolled-up seventeen-hundred dollars, Miss Falcone."

"Thanks," Giulia said.

"But what about my brand-new Glock?" Heather continued, slamming her hands onto her hips. "And the magazines and the cool revol-"

"I'm afraid not, Miss Appleby. They've been permanently confiscated. Have a nice day," Marvin LeRoy said as he left the office.

"Have a nice day? Have! A! Nice! Day?! My fuckin' Glock! And the fuckin' awesomely cool high-capacity magazines?!" Heather cried, throwing her arms in the air before she began to stomp around in a circle on the carpet. "Aw, those fuckin' Federale fuckers! Buncha motherfuckin' sons-a-bitches the buncha'em. Federales stealin' my brand-new Glock, what the fuckety-fuck-fuck is the world comin' to?!"

Giulia let out a long, tired laugh at seeing how irate Heather Appleby could still be, even after an endless, steaming hot and muggy night where they had been shot at, banged up and chased all over town by violent crooks out to kill them - not to mention all the dozens of other dramas they had been involved in.

"Whadda-fuck you laughin' at, girl?!"


Stopping with a jerk, Heather drew a deep breath before she let it out slowly and matched Giulia's tired laugh with one of her own. "At least you're bein' fuckin' honest about it. So now whaddaya wanna do?"

"Go home," Giulia said and wrapped an arm around Heather's shoulder. Turning them both around, she shuffled off towards the door.

"Yeah? Your place or mine?"

"Not mine. There's gotta be a-hundred and fifteen degrees there now," Giulia said as she opened the door.

"Oh… yuck."

The corridor was swarming with FBI agents, but since only Agent Whittaker approached Giulia and Heather to return their telephones and the wad of one-hundred dollar bills that had been temporarily confiscated during the frisking, they had apparently been told by Marvin LeRoy to let the women go.

Heather offered the blushing agent a stone-cold shoulder while Giulia counted her money and put it into her rear pocket. Once she was set, she smiled at the younger female agent to offset her blonde partner's surly behavior.

"And while we're on the topic of yucky," Giulia continued as she and Heather got on their way down to the elevators, "the water pipes crapped out the other day. I'll bet they'll do the same this morning when the whole building tries to tap water at the same time."

"Uh… okay? What the fuck does that have to do with fuckin' anything?"

"Well, didn't you wanna get nekkid and share a shower? I distinctly remember you saying something about lathering us up-"

"Sold!" Heather said while a wide, cheesy grin played on her lips. Moments later, the grin faded into a deep frown as she remembered the sorry state of the once-so pristine fire-engine-red Chevrolet Silverado parked down in the garage. "It'll be the last fun I'll ever have… oh God, my brother's gonna fuckin' kill me…" she croaked, scrunching up her face.

"Shower first, then a nap, then family dramas," Giulia said and pressed the Call button on one of the public elevators. It didn't take long before an electronic ding was heard signaling that the car had arrived. After the doors had slid open, Giulia ushered the mortified Heather inside before she pressed the button labeled Parking Garage. "Maybe your brother won't even notice the tiny, little dents? And I'm sure the battle scars 'll polish out…" she said, wrapping a long arm around her old lover's shoulder to pull her into a sideways hug.

Heather's only reply was to groan out loud and bury her face in her hands.


A few minutes later, Giulia drove the battered and bruised fire-engine-red truck out of the parking garage and onto the small connecting accessway below the imposing skyscrapers. Dawn had broken while the sting operation had been carried out, and the sky had already turned a faint shade of bluish-purple.

The V8 up front burbled merrily as they drove through the narrow alley that led them back onto West Thirty-third Street . Giulia needed to wait for several silver or charcoal-gray luxury sedans to go past before she could trickle out onto the street. Apparently, several members of Beaumont Worldwide's senior management had been called to their headquarters early following the news of the major bust.

"Cheer up, Candy," she said, reaching over to the passenger seat to rub the slouching, moribund blonde's thigh. "As long as the dynamic two-some stick together, we can deal with any kind of drama, right?"

Heather let out a deep sigh. "That's easy for you to say, girl… you don't know my brother."

"I don't know him yet, but I will. I'll be there to back you up, I hope you know that."

"Yeah. I do."

"Good," Giulia said and fell silent for the next few hundred yards. As the traffic lights turned yellow at the intersection of West Thirty-third Street and Avenue C, she brought the truck to a halt in the turning lane. "Anyway, before we get to that, I have a present for you."

"A present? What kind of present?"

"A big, ol' handgun kind of present," Giulia said and leaned forward so she could pull out a silver-gray pistol from underneath her tattered windbreaker.

"Da fuck? It's a SIG-Sauer model Two-two-six Sport! Where the fuck did that come from?" Heather said, staring wide-eyed at the high-quality pistol.

"It was donated to the cause by that nice Mr. Nathan Manning," Giulia said, wearing a broad grin. "It was in his desk drawer. He didn't need it any longer."

"Hoa-fuck, girl!" Heather cried, sitting up straight. "No fuckin' way!"

"Big way. It doesn't have a magazine, but I guess that won't be a big obstacle for you. I think it's been cleaned lately. There was a cleaning set in the drawer as well, but it wouldn't fit in my pocket."

"But how the fuck did you get it past the Feds?!"

"I gave them the other gun… the Beretta Manning used in his office," Giulia said and broke out in a shrug. "And they didn't frisk me again."

As the traffic lights turned green, she let the battered Silverado trickle around the corner and onto Avenue C sticking to the speed limit of thirty miles per hour so they wouldn't stand out in the crowd of cars around them - well, apart from the truck's battered exterior. They faced far less of a hassle than usual because of the detours caused by the broken sewer pipe down at the Twenty-sixth Street bridge, so they were able to make good progress along the broad avenue.

"Whoa, that's just too fuckin' awesome…" Heather said, staring at the silver-gray SIG-Sauer as she turned it over in her hand to feel its weight and quality. She moved back the slider to sniff the ejection port. "Yeah… it's clean. Un-be-fuckin'-lievable…" she continued, looking over at the tall driver.

"I'm glad you like it. I know you'll take good care of it," Giulia said with a chuckle. "And I'm sure your friendly neighborhood gun merchant Stan-the-Man Chapkanov will be happy to sell you another high-capacity magazine or two."

Heather grinned at the prospects. "Yeah…" she said, stowing the firearm down in the footwell so it wouldn't be visible from the street.

"Oh, we have one, little stop to make before we can hit the 'burbs up north."

"For gas?" Heather said and leaned to her left so she could look at the gauge on the space-age dashboard.

"No. For some grub and something sugary to drink. We'll need all the energy we can get 'cos I'm planning on keeping our juices flowing all day… and then some," Giulia Falcone said; the shit-eating grin on her face soon reached from ear to ear. When even that wasn't enough, she let out a saucy laugh as the cherry on the whipped cream pie.

"Fuckin'-A, girl!" Heather 'Candy' Appleby cried, leaning over even further so she could bump fists with the woman she would spend the rest of the day reconnecting with - or bumping into - on a whole 'nother level…




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