Five-Dollar Circus: Chapter Four

Matt watches chaos unfold, and it’s hard to believe his eyes


Back to Five-Dollar Circus: Contents


4. MY LITTLE EYE

 

Matt looked dubiously at the screens in front of Loren’s conference table. All of them showed muted newscasts: a cavalcade of chaos and fire, interspersed with solemn-faced reporters and coloured banners running beneath them, carrying notes and tallies of the carnage. The National Guard depot was still burning, hours after the robbery, and several incidents—in the form of explosive drone strikes from above—had hit the same area of the city, causing widespread panic and, this being Steelport, opportunistic looting.

The reflections of the TV reports danced on the shiny black surface of the table, which was polished to a near-mirror shine. Well, it was a series of desks, really, arranged in an extended triangle shape in the centre of the large, understatedly elegant room. Almost everything in the office had that sleek, minimalistic look about it. Mr. Loren seemed to think it made things look more expensive although, to Matt, it just made the place feel empty and rather uncomfortable.

He cleared his throat, looking down at the patch of desk in front of him, and feeling unsure of what to do with his hands. He was always worried about leaving fingerprints on the perfect mirror-black surface. He wondered idly if there was a team of cleaners who came in at various points during the day to wipe it all down. Funny, because the only people Matt ever saw in the building were Morningstar. You could always spot them, even without the little enamel badges that Mr. Loren believed were a more tasteful alternative to the vulgar business of gang colours. Pink stars for Morningstar (though many of them did flag red in their clothing, too), green stars for Killbane’s people, and Decker blue for his, though frankly very few Deckers actually wore them. Matt had pinned his to the lapel of his custom Christopher Valkirie jacket out of courtesy—and he was bright enough to know when politeness was sensible—but the symbol held no meaning for him.

He looked carefully at his employer as the news reports played on, bathing the surface of the table in fire.

“Um, forgive me for saying so, sir, but… it, er, it doesn’t seem as if the Saints have, uh… ‘fled the battle’ just yet.”

Loren glanced sharply at him, the sardonic quality of that aquiline profile not entirely diminished by the black eye and bloody bandages. Matt was dying to know how badly the Saints had kicked his arse up on that plane, but he was well aware it was probably more than his life was worth to ask. They certainly hadn’t “fled” as Mr. Loren had confidently predicted they would try to do once they fell to earth.

In fact, in Matt’s opinion, blowing up part of a National Guard complex and absconding with the contents of its warehouse was about as far from fleeing anything (except possibly pursuit) as one could get. All right, nobody had categorically stated that the Saints were responsible, but the facts were indisputable.

So far, Killbane had failed. His Luchadores hadn’t even found the Saints, despite the fact the Boss should have been right under his nose. This was the reason Matt had found himself summoned in person to Loren’s office and, given that Killbane was not present at this particular meeting—something which Matt was intensely grateful for—it was easy to feel rather smug about things.

“You think I underestimate them, Mr. Miller,” Loren observed, not dignifying Matt’s jibe with either acknowledgement or response.

A cigarette—one of those horrible-smelling European ones, dark as ditchwater—smouldered in the Belgian’s lean, elegant fingers, a single flake of ash falling to the red scarf he wore draped around his neck. He flicked it away, and brought the cigarette to his lips.

“They… certainly have a flair for the dramatic,” Matt said, his gaze shifting to the screens again. “A cement mixer, wasn’t it?”

Mr. Loren exhaled tersely, a plume of smoke slipping from between his lips. Matt didn’t care for the smell of it, though at least the air con in here was turned up high enough to filter out the worst, even if it did make the room feel cold.

“Buffoonery,” he said dismissively, tapping ash into a shiny black glass ashtray that stood in the centre of his shiny black desk. “They know nothing. Only thuggish violence and idiotic displays.”

Matt thought of the ATM camera feed, and nodded. “Yes… but, given that we don’t know where they are….”

This was a sore point. Matt was fairly sure they shouldn’t have been so difficult to track down, but the Saints seemed to have disappeared. Clearly, they were laying low somewhere, most likely in Steelport’s suburbs, which were so fragmented and decayed that it was virtually impossible to keep decent track of anything. The Syndicate controlled so much of the prostitution and drug trade in the city that Mr. Loren didn’t consider it worth their time to pay too much attention to the regular cycle of meth labs and cheap hookers operating out in the arse end of town. Besides, cracking down—pun totally intended—on those disorganised elements gave the police something to do, which also worked in the Syndicate’s favour. Thus, the illusion of balance was preserved. Up until now, there hadn’t been any real disadvantages to the system.

“We will soon know,” Loren said, pulling on his cigarette and flaring his nostrils like an angry maiden aunt. “I have a job for you, Mr. Miller. A particularly sensitive matter of surveillance and logistical coordination.”

“Right.” Matt nodded again. That didn’t sound too bad. As long as it was over by nine, because he had a date. “What, er…?”

Mr. Loren smiled. It was not a happy smile: rather, the grimly prepared gritting of teeth in the face of something that was going to be messy, but ultimately satisfying. A bit like extreme paintball, Matt thought.

“The building on Montgomery Boulevard, near the park. It is one of the properties you have wired for surveillance, yes?”

Matt racked his memory. The Morningstar had a lot of properties downtown, where influential clients were wined and dined. Said clients had very definite expectations regarding their privacy, so it was important that the buildings were regularly swept for bugs—certain intelligence agencies had the most irritating habit of trying to listen in—and, if he was doing that anyway, Mr. Loren had always encouraged Matt to be creative. This extended to making sure the buildings were wired for sound and visuals, which afforded the Syndicate the privilege of certain… insurance policies… on their clients, should they ever be needed. The tricky part was making sure no one knew they were being watched, but Matt always enjoyed a challenge.

“The penthouse? Yes.”

“There is a party there tonight. I envisage that there may be… uninvited guests.”

“Ah. You think the Saints will try to… to what? Break in? Or—”

Loren took another pull on his cigarette. “Oh, I think they will try to do something memorable, Mr. Miller. And I want you to make sure it ends with a bang.”

Nonplussed, Matt frowned. “Well, if we can find out where they’ve been hiding—”

“It does not matter,” Loren snapped. “Why waste time looking for them when we can draw them out? I have made sure this soirée has been well publicised, and I do not think our… friends… will miss the opportunity to invite themselves. We will have them just where we want them.”

He reached into the inner pocket of his exquisitely tailored jacket, and drew out a slip of paper with what looked like a phone number written on it, along with a series of numerical codes. Matt sighed inwardly. After all the trouble he’d taken to set up the secure network, the phone, the tablet… every gadget imaginable, and the old man still insisted on writing things down on paper. It was unbelievable.

Loren pushed the paper across the desk. “You will call this gentleman. His name is Anton. As we speak, he is planting several significant charges throughout the building.”

Matt coughed, almost choking on his own saliva. “What? Wait, you’ve… you’ve put a bomb under there? But what about—”

Loren held up a hand, calmly hushing him. “Please, Mr. Miller. It is merely a contingency. If the Saints should make an appearance and not immediately find themselves, shall we say, removed from the premises with extreme vigour, then it may become necessary for a more… forceful effort.”

“You’re going to blow up the building,” Matt repeated numbly. “If they get inside.”

Loren shrugged elegantly and took another pull on his cigarette, exhaling the smoke in a slow pool of vapour. “I doubt it will come to this, but I do not wish to waste any more time. We have bigger fish to fry, do we not, Mr. Miller? This is why I will require you to monitor the situation. You already have cameras throughout the building. These are the codes to begin the detonation sequence. You will liase with Anton; he will explain the positioning of the devices. You will know, if the moment comes, what you must do. And you will do it, yes?”

Matt’s pulse quickened. He was sure he could feel it skittering under his skin. “But, the party… all those people. They’re Syndicate clients, a-and the place will be full of Morningstar, and—”

Loren looked impassively at him; that tired, jaded look, as if he thought Matt was a bloody child. The Belgian knocked another little nub of ash off the end of his cigarette, arching his grey brows, even though the movement clearly pulled painfully at the wounds on his face, making him wince.

“That, Mr. Miller, is precisely why it is a last resort. I believe we can confidently expect our people to dispatch the Saints if they dare to show their faces. However… if the worst comes to the worst… well, imagine what the media will say.” He held up one hand, tracing the pattern of hypothetical headlines in the air. “‘Third Street Saints attack private party with stolen bomb. Building destroyed by murderous street gang.’ Although they will no longer be a street gang, of course. They will be terrorists. Dead terrorists. We will have the evidence of this, and those who remain will be of no consequence to us.”

Matt nodded slowly. The TV news channels had gone to their respective commercials; the screens were full of adverts for local businesses, and the brutally flashing logos heralding the new season of Professor Genki’s S.E.R.C., coming soon (also a proud sponsor of Channel 12).

He’d never been asked to directly kill people before. Certainly not a whole building full of them. Oh, it wasn’t that he was frightened, or morally outraged or anything… the Saints did have to be stopped, and Matt had to admit that this was a clever plan. Ruthless, but very clever. Besides, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t been in situations where people had died before. In fact, he’d been personally responsible for arranging a number of helicopter and car crashes that had taken out the potential assassins Mr. Loren kept him around to dodge. And there was that time with the molotovs and the police motorbike, and that wasn’t even mentioning the people whom Matt had completely annihilated in cyberspace.

When it came down to it, destroying someone’s career—taking their whole life away from them, brick by brick—was fundamentally more personal than putting a gun in their mouth… or so he liked to think. And he wasn’t scared of killing. He preferred not getting actual brain matter splattered all over him, and so he was perfectly comfortable with never actually having done the deed in the flesh, so to speak, but… he wasn’t afraid. You couldn’t be, in this life.

An entire building, though. That was a lot of people. And, all right, probably by the point Mr. Loren was talking about—the point, if it came, when the battle was lost—the Saints would already have cut a bloody swathe through things, and there would have been more than enough civilian casualties to start with… inasmuch as anyone there would actually be a civilian, unless you counted strippers… but… it was still a hell of a thing to ask.

Mr. Loren cleared his throat delicately, looking at Matt through his swollen eye as he tapped a thumb rhythmically against the butt of his cigarette. “Are you all right, Mr. Miller?”

Matt swallowed hard. “Um. Yes. Yes, thank you. Er….”

“This will not be a problem, I trust?”

Matt looked down at the slip of paper still sitting on the table before him. He reached out, taking it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, then forcing himself to man up and fold his hand around it. There were always going to be unpleasant jobs that needed to be done. It was the nature of the game. And he wouldn’t be doing anything that was unnecessary. After all, if it happened, it would happen because of the Saints. It would be their fault. It was already their fault it was necessary. It was all on them, really.

“No, sir,” he said, tucking the paper carefully into his pocket. “Not a problem at all. The, um, the surveillance feeds should suffice. If it’s possible, it might be wise to locate a few extra cameras around the entry points to the building… service elevators, uh, fire exits… things like that. I’ll get patched in on feeds from across the street, too, maybe traffic cameras in the immediate area. We can be on them before they get there.”

Loren smiled. “Excellent. I am pleased to know I can rely on you, Mr. Miller. Always the strategic thinker.”

Matt blinked, momentarily flustered by the compliment. He was, of course. Strategic. And brilliant. And, out of all the people on the planet he could have chosen to head this side of operations, Mr. Loren had picked him, recognising his skill, his talent… his potential.

“Um. Thank you, sir.”

This was where it started. If he squinted, he was pretty sure he could see the rest of his life stretching out ahead of him, glittering with possibilities.

He was going to have to reschedule his date, though. Damn.

~o~O~o~

Courtney lived just on the north edge of Burns Hill, where the suburbs stopped and the industrial wasteland started. From the top floor of her house, you could see the cooling towers of the old reactor, which were lit up in Decker blue at night to show everybody who owned Stanfield… apart from on her birthday, when they’d turned yellow, because it was her favourite colour.

She didn’t really go by Courtney anymore; she was “Court” now, or “LadyKaos” on her photography website. Sometimes “Kourt of Kaos”, which Matt thought sounded like a rather wanky band name, but he never said that aloud.

It was about five in the afternoon, Assemblage 23 was playing from her iPod, and he was sitting on her bed—all right, floor-level futon, which was covered with a cheap, blurry Indian print throw in a deeply unpleasant shade of beigey yellow—watching her put in her dread falls. It was a lovely view… but a shame about the constant stream of complaining.

“It’s not fair! I don’t want to go on my own!” she groused for about the fifth time, bent over in front of the large wall-mounted mirror, fingers tugging and snapping at the elastic with which she was trying to fasten the brightly coloured artificial locks to the two buns of her natural hair that jutted from the top of her head.

The dread falls were about eighteen inches long: heavy, thick, and composed mostly of tubular pieces of bright blue foam, old Ethernet cables, and braided bits of fake hair dyed in a vibrant array of Manic Panic blues and violets. They were impressive, Matt had to admit, and the overall effect was stunning.

He opened his mouth, preparing to point out that she wouldn’t be on her own, because they’d been planning to meet a bunch of her friends at the club anyway… but she was busy being cross with him, so he didn’t say anything to interrupt.

She straightened up, carefully flipping her DIY cyberlox back and glaring critically into the mirror as she adjusted the way they fell around her face. Her own hair was dyed raven black, the same shade as his—an evening in with a couple of jars of cream colourant and the extended cuts of Nyte Blayde, Season 3 on DVD had been immense fun—and her fringe was trimmed in a perfectly straight, blunt line halfway down her forehead.

Court’s eyebrows were heavily plucked, suggesting a certain element of permanent surprise, but she raised them even further as she fiddled with the thick black headband that hid the join between her natural hair and the twin falls of chaos fountaining off her head.

“I just can’t believe you’re doing this to me. It fucking sucks, Matt. Fucking hell!”

He shifted uncomfortably on the futon and shrugged. “It’s really not my fault. I can’t help it if—”

“I don’t care!” she said, sneering at herself in the mirror, then narrowing her eyes as she looked over her reflection’s shoulder, scowling at him.

She’d finished her makeup. Pale skin, gothic eyes with crystal-studded lashes, lips a brighter, more pearlescent blue than his, and dark blue crystal studs twinkling in her nostril and snakebite piercings. She wore a black high-neck top with black fingerless gloves that reached above her elbows and had tiny white skulls printed on them, a dark green miniskirt, thigh-high black-and-white striped stockings, and big, heavy, black over-the-knee boots that bristled with buckles.

She looked fantastic. Once she got under the blacklights at The P3ll37 and started dancing, she was going to look unreal… and he really, really wished he could be there to see it.

“It’s not like we didn’t plan this,” Court grumbled, continuing to give him that reproachful stink-eye via the mirror. “If doing stuff with me is less important than what your boss says….”

Matt winced. “It’s not really like that. The thing is—”

She turned from the mirror, the artfully positioned dreads spinning with the movement and falling against her shoulders like knotted whips as she struck a pose of cruel parody. “‘Ooh, I’m a hacktivist, I don’t have time for the petty bullshit of you nine-to-five braindead wageslaves! I live to create anarchy! Free information and an end to the censorship of government! But wait, what’s that?’” Court put a blue-tipped finger to the side of her mouth and bugged her eyes in a pin-up girl caricature of surprise. “‘Oh, no! My boss wants me to work late. Well, gee willickers—’”

“Oh, come on, I have never said that in my life!”

She scowled afresh, her fake lashes getting close to knotting. “‘—gee-fucking-willickers, I guess I’d better just drop everything, because I’m a good little boy and I do what I’m told.’ Does that sound familiar? Huh?”

Matt frowned petulantly. “It is not remotely like that. Just because I can’t tell you about it—”

“Oh my god, right, yeah… your super-secret bullshit, Matt, I forgot.”

Hands on her hips, Court glared hotly at him, and he tried not to think about how good she looked when she was angry. She was also intensely annoying when she was like this, but Matt was prepared to forgive her that… or, at least, parts of him were. Outside, under the ambient pulse of Court’s music, cars rumbled up and down the street, and a couple of children sounded as if they were throwing stones at the vehicles. A man yelled, and the kids squealed and ran, footsteps thudding on concrete. There was a lot of life in this neighbourhood.

He did want to tell her about what he did in more detail. She knew about the Deckers—she thought it was cool, and she liked coming up to the reactor and hanging out there—and she knew a little bit about the Syndicate. Not everything. Never everything, because that would have been dangerous. She thought the work Matt did for Loren was basically internet security. It wasn’t her fault; those were the terms he’d explained it in, and Court wasn’t a hacker. Her thing was building, the actual nuts and bolts of computers—or ports and chips, maybe.

She could put together a system that would shame the latest top-of-the-line beast, from parts, in less than twenty minutes. If you gave her a couple of days, she could also throw in the most incredible looking custom case… but she couldn’t code to save her life, and she wasn’t interested in learning.

Court said it made them a good match: she was all about the hardware, and Matt was software. There was a joke in there somewhere about him wanting to load his hard drive into her bay but, knowing Court, he suspected she’d have responded with a 90s-style “3.5 inch floppy” jibe, despite the fact she’d probably never seen one. A floppy disk, obviously. Not… oh, god. She certainly hadn’t seen his, anyway. They hadn’t been going out long, and the perfect opportunity had yet to present itself. Or… well, something like that, anyway. It was a matter of timing.

“Look, love,” Matt wheedled, trying to scramble up from the futon in the most dignified manner possible, while doing his best to turn on every last ounce of British charm he could muster, “if I could tell you about it, I would, but I can’t. I said I’m sorry. At least you’ve got other people to go with.”

“Don’t wanna go with other people.” Court pouted. “Wanted to go with you. I’m wearing your fuckin’ colours and everything.”

“I know. And you look amazing. I’m gutted too.” Matt reached out tentatively and took her hand. “And I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I really will.”

She didn’t pull away, kick him on the shin, or swear very much. She just let out a soft “fucking hell” and looked slightly less angry, which he supposed was a win… and a virtue of Britishing intensely at American girls, especially when combined with the power of his big blue eyes and a suitably sad-puppy-dog expression. He squeezed her fingers.

“If you really don’t want to go, you could always come by the reactor instead, hang out while I’m busy. Maybe pick up a pizza or something?”

Court wrinkled her nose. “Fuck that. I’m not gonna sit around and watch you stare at a screen. I’m still going out. I just wish you could tell your boss to shove it… unless this is, like, some intense world crisis shit or something.”

Matt smiled uncomfortably. Whatever happened tonight, it was fairly certain someone’s world was going to be in crisis.

“You’re probably right,” he said. “You’d hate it. I’m being selfish. C’mon… we’ve still got time to get something to eat, then I’ll give you a lift there. Sound good?”

Court’s azure mouth twisted into a reluctant smile, and she leaned in to peck him gently on the lips. There was always a makeout embargo once she had her makeup on. “I guess. Sushi? You’re buying.”

Matt shrugged. He didn’t care for the whole raw-fish-and-sticky-rice thing, but if it got him off the hook with Court, he didn’t mind paying for her. One of the perks of working for Mr. Loren was having plenty of cash in his pocket… although it didn’t make him feel that much better for missing out on a night of liberated fun.

Court broke away and went to snatch up her jacket—a gift: black leather Valkirie, like his, with a Decker blue trim—and Matt watched her fondly, trying ever so hard not to think about the explosives lodged under the downtown penthouse. If that thing went up tonight, chances were the blast would be heard in Stanfield.

“You’re not planning on going on anywhere after, are you?” he asked, as she slipped the jacket on.

Court raised her heavily arched brows. “Why? You jealous or something now?”

“No! I just… wondered. You’re not planning to go anywhere near Sunset Park at all?”

She pulled a face. “Eww. Wine bars and shitty nightclubs. No. We might hit Moulin Gothique later, if the bouncers are off the side door. Why?”

Matt shook his head. “Oh, no… just… curious. I’ll be thinking about you. That’s all.”

“Huh.” Court eyed him suspiciously as she snatched up her iPod, loading her pockets up because she hated carrying a purse. “That’s… nice.”

Matt smiled, and hoped it looked genuine.

~o~O~o~

Later that evening, he was wishing fervently that he was out with Court and her friends, drinking horrible shots and losing himself in a pounding bass beat and overdone strobe lighting.

Matt was ensconced at his battlestation, multiple extra monitors hooked up and half a triple cheese pizza congealing in its greasy box beside his double-extra-large cherry-flavoured Joe. He’d texted Court, but she hadn’t replied; he hadn’t really expected she would. She was probably enjoying herself.

This part of the job was monotonous. Matt felt slightly weird about that, because he was sure it shouldn’t feel quite so dull. His screens showed him the interior of the downtown penthouse, feed after feed split into squares patchworked over the monitors: corridors, doorways, offices, storerooms, and then the glitzier foyers and upper rooms in which the party was being held. He watched Morningstar staff criss-crossing busily—all crisply, neatly dressed, with that same slightly supercilious expression they all seemed to share—and watched the bartenders and the girls hired for the evening’s entertainment prepare to receive their guests. The audio feeds were all turned down; he didn’t really want to listen to the shitty music they were playing, or hear the plethora of tired banter and mindless chitchat that would undoubtedly ensue.

Matt was used to the sense of voyeurism that came from watching stuff like this. He rather liked it, though not in a getting-off-on-watching way as much as a being-omniscient-and-knowing-everything-without-anyone-knowing-he-knew kind of way. Cyber god, he reminded himself, wondering as he watched the faces of bored-looking men in suits with little pink enamel pins on their lapels—or of dancers helping each other with their pasties and fishnets—whether he was going to end up being a benevolent deity, or the sort of god who rained fiery destruction down on the entire district.

He sucked cheese grease off his thumb and flicked glumly through the next cycle of displays.

Eventually, the party got going. Guests arrived in small, dark helicopters, and in limos with blacked-out windows. They were a diverse bunch: but for a few fat, red-cheeked, middle-aged men who seemed to fit every stereotype Matt could possibly have imagined, most of them wouldn’t have looked out of place if he’d seen them in a store, or walking down the street. All right, the nicer kind of store, and maybe only the New Baranec streets where you usually saw wealthy high-rollers wandering in the neon glow of the casino strips… but the point was that nothing about them screamed “organised criminals”.

There was one guy with a scar running down his cheek who did look worryingly like a Bond villain—Matt decided to assume the man had a Russian accent, and started making up a backstory for him in his head—and a couple of ridiculously good-looking young Arab men who headed straight for the strippers. Certainly, none of them were anything like the Saints, and there was no sign of them anywhere.

As the champagne flowed, the music throbbed, and the building’s entire upper floor and rooftop suites devolved into one flowing ribbon of opulent hedonism, Matt was beginning to think Mr. Loren had been wrong.

He slouched back in his chair, using his toes to twist it gently side-to-side in an attempt to swizzle away his boredom. He’d finished the pizza, drunk the rest of his coke, and was now trying to pretend to himself that he didn’t really need to pee, just in case anything happened while he was gone… however unlikely that seemed. There were girls gyrating, people drinking, dancing, and generally making merry. One set of feeds showed the pulsing central rooms, replete with Mr. Loren’s rather ostentatious taste in neo-classical sculpture—ugly, but admittedly impressive—and a large collection of hideous but expensive modern art. The lights were down low, and the plate glass windows gave panoramic views over Steelport, reducing the city to a prickling sparkle of lights and silhouettes against the darkness. Out on the rooftop, where a large pool shimmered under the red-and-pink lights, the party had spilled out to the terraces, bringing more dancers and more revellers. Someone had already jumped in the pool with their clothes on, demonstrating that—however much money was involved—it was always that kind of party.

Inside, Matt had already watched the ridiculously good-looking Arabs seduce (or possibly just offer money to) one of the strippers, and then retire with her to a bedroom. On the white-upholstered sofas in the penthouse’s main lounge, a handful of guests were enjoying dances from some of the other girls, while the feeds that covered the various service corridors, back rooms, and elevators showed a couple of other patrons—and the odd Morningstar—being somewhat less selective in their choice of amorous venue.

Matt rolled his eyes at the couple that evidently thought they were being oh so very edgy by fucking in the service elevator. That was just plain rude. The bar staff needed to bring fresh booze up through there and, sure enough, the camera that covered the kitchen-side door downstairs showed him an extremely irate Morningstar mashing the call button repeatedly, a crate of vodka waiting at his feet. Matt sniggered and shook his head.

“Dear me. Not your night, is it, sunshine?”

He frowned slightly at the realisation he’d started talking to the camera feeds—a sign of extreme tedium, if not insanity—and whizzed his chair round again, lifting his feet off the floor to see if he could make a complete 360 degree turn. He could, but it wasn’t as much fun as he’d hoped.

~o~O~o~

Typically, it was just as Matt returned from the pee break he eventually couldn’t deny needing that he saw the first sign of the Saints. Several nondescript cars had begun circling the blocks surrounding the building; he wouldn’t have noticed them if it wasn’t for the fact they kept coming back, and kept moving as a pack. He sent a brief text message to Anton, alerting him of the possibility they might soon have company, and settled back to waiting… feeling somewhat less comfortable than before, despite the empty bladder.

His fingers moved deftly over the keyboard, cycling through the available cameras, watching and trying to predict any possible moves. If they tried to come up through the building—as presumably they would—they were going to discover the main elevator was locked. There were Morningstar all over the side corridors, stairways, and service elevators, so that meant the Saints’ initial assault should be easily nipped in the bud… unless they were packing serious firepower. It depended what they’d nabbed in the armoury job, Matt supposed.

He flicked back up to the top floor feeds, frowning as he saw another helicopter coming in above the building. What was this, a latecomer?

His eyes widened in horror as he watched a figure leap from the aircraft, descending gracefully on a chute right into the centre of the packed roof terrace. It was only as the partygoers started to panic, and the figure rose up from among the screaming, running crowd that Matt managed to shake himself out of his frozen stare.

“Shit, shit, shit…!” He tapped frantically at the keyboard, jamming his earpiece back in as he tried to patch a call through to the Morningstar lieutenant. “Anton? The Saints are on the roof! No, on the bloody roof!”

Matt stifled a yelp as the feed showed the chaos the Saints’ leader was causing… and he was certain it was her. He recognised the dark purple rockabilly hair, though she wore heavy black cargos, black gloves, and a wine-red leather bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar… and she was so fucking calm. There was something almost eerie about it.

People were running, pushing… falling into the rooftop pool. One man—a client, wearing an expensive looking suit and wire-framed glasses—pulled a gun from inside his jacket, but the Boss saw it before he got a chance to fire. She merely swung her arm out a few degrees and squeezed off a shot, and Matt winced as the man fell. Fucking headshot. And she didn’t even break stride. Shit. In his ear, the overlapping yelled commands from the Morningstar com channel Anton was using scrambled and echoed, and Matt cycled quickly through the feeds.

“Saints coming up on the front,” he barked into the mic, watching the pack of cars coming around again on the road outside. What the hell were they playing at? Back on the rooftop, Matt had to switch cameras quickly to follow the Boss as she made for the interior of the penthouse.

He fumbled to turn up his audio feeds, but all he could hear was screaming. The Morningstar in the building were breaking out their guns, but they’d been set for an assault from downstairs, and the Saints’ leader was making quickly for the penthouse’s office.

It took Matt a moment to work out what she meant to do. In the midst of the guests scrambling for escape, some of them were stupid enough to rush at her, thinking they could overpower a single intruder. She cracked the butt of her gun across one man’s face, grabbing him by the throat as he sagged, and hauling him around to use as a shield while she turned, squeezing off three shots in quick succession that took down two armed Morningstar who sprung at her from a side door. She dropped her bleeding human shield, bringing her boot down to stomp hard on the back of his shoulder as he tried to get out of her way, then she reached inside her jacket, bringing out something small, dark, and egg-shaped.

“Oh, shit… she’s got grenades!” Matt yelled across the com channel, watching in horror as the Boss pulled the pin, hurled the grenade, and ran for the penthouse office.

She looked like she was smiling.

The force of the explosion had Matt ripping his earpiece out and swearing; everything was still ringing in his ears as the camera feed showed the vast picture windows at the front of the central lounge blowing outwards. The big, ugly sculpture in the middle of the room wobbled, one arm breaking off and flying free into the tornado of splintered furniture and broken glass.

His fingers felt slow and unresponsive, the panic running though him like ice as he tried to access the office computer. It would have been so much better if the entire Syndicate used a single system. Matt had tried to make Mr. Loren understand that, but the old man hadn’t listened. He fumbled through the access passwords, but he was running behind. He’d barely patched into the system before he could see that she was in there. Lumbering around, obviously looking for the elevator codes or the system locks that controlled the access to the front of the building… she clearly wasn’t a hacker.

Matt started to take remote control of the system—at least the Morningstar security protocols allowed him that, even if they weren’t patched in to his vastly superior network—but he could already see the access timestamp that told him she’d got what she needed.

“Fuck!”

He kicked at the leg of his desk in frustration as the feed showed the Boss sprint from the office to the elevator control. Her lips were moving and she had one finger pressed to her ear; he guessed she was repeating the code to whoever she had on the line. Looked like the damn Saints were organised, anyway.

In fact, they were organised enough for that moment to be the one they launched their assault on the front doors. Matt saw it coming: about eight cars, not including the ones that had been circling before, screamed up to the turning circle out front, with a handful of Morningstar vehicles in pursuit. A dark blue Infuego rammed straight through the glass doors that fronted the building and, in a hail of gunfire, armed Saints poured through the wreckage… heading straight into the building. Not the side doors, not the service entrances. Straight in through the front, scattering debris and glass like snowflakes.

Everything was chaos after that. Matt had Anton screaming on the com channel, demanding information he couldn’t possibly retrieve—how many, where were they, what hardware were they packing, and where were they going?—and several of his camera feeds had been taken out by bullets, small explosions, or a number of the fires that now burned throughout the building.

The remaining Morningstar clients were pouring out of the place like rats, especially once the police sirens wailed… not that Steelport’s boys in blue intended to get too involved. That much was obvious from the way two patrol cars parked up down the street, the officers taking cover behind them and then, well, staying there. Matt assumed Loren had given the chief his instructions for tonight: keep quiet and keep out of the way.

He blew his fringe out of his eyes, still frantically cycling between the camera feeds and relaying everything he had on the com. It didn’t look good, and it was looking worse by the second. Matt didn’t understand what had happened.

The Saints must have had someone on the inside. They must have done. They’d known not just where to go, but precisely where and how to get the information. The elevator lock, the computer system, the layout of the penthouse: everything. Sure, Loren had intended to bait them with information, but this was not what was supposed to have happened… and then Matt’s stomach knotted, because he knew what was coming next.

“Blow the fucking building! Blow it!” Anton yelled in his ear, and Matt muttered a series of cusses under his breath.

“All right, all right…! Fuck….”

His hands shook a little as he entered the codes. In his ear, he could hear Anton’s heavy breathing as the man ran through the carnage, trying to get to the helipad and at least the possibility of escape before the whole place went up.

The video feeds showed smoke, fire… bodies. A lot of bodies, and a lot of people in purple. Matt wasn’t sure where the Saints’ leader had got to, but he knew it was going to be too much to hope that the bitch was dead.

He let out a long breath as the digital countdown finalised. Most of the charges were still intact and, with the damage the Saints had already caused, the building would probably go up like a tinderbox. Matt’s mouth felt dry as he looked over the last of the camera feeds and saw a couple of strippers cowering behind a broken pillar. One had a large gash on her head; blood had dripped down her skimpy bikini, spattering her augmented cleavage. Both girls were crying.

He shut the feed off, trying to ignore the ball of discomfort in his stomach.

Matt pulled out his earpiece and tossed it onto the desk. Fuck this. Fuck the Saints. He slid his hands across his face, blocking out the camera feeds and the flickering little panel with the countdown numbers steadily ticking to zero, and just let himself hide in the darkness behind his palms. What a bloody mess. It felt real now; much more real than it had when he’d thought the Saints were just a bunch of psychos, and when he’d been able to believe that the Morningstar could send them packing.

Well, that hadn’t turned out so well, had it? He let out a long, slow breath, let his hands slide from his face, and pulled up a call window, dialling Loren’s secure number. Someone was going to have to tell the old man about this… and he wasn’t going to be pleased.

Matt tried to swallow past the dry, scratchy feeling in his throat, and took one last glance at the numbers flicking down to detonation. Less than eight minutes. His last exterior camera feed showed more Saints piling into the building. Obviously, they thought they’d won. They were eager to see their prize… and, very soon, they were going to be blown to pieces.

 


On to Five-Dollar Circus: Chapter Five


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