"I appreciate the offer," Aisha said, "but you know finding Clay has to take priority."
Pooch nodded, "Okay, then. No matter what happens at the showdown, we proceed as Plan A or Plan B."
"Don't get killed," Jensen advised Aisha. He was wearing his pink 'Go! Petunias' shirt for luck. "Clay would be pissed."
Aisha snapped the slide on the SIG Sauer, chambering a fresh round, and grinned sharply at him. "Roger that."
Aisha is not sure how she got here. By here, she doesn't mean about half past one a.m., give or take, bleeding onto the dirty floor of the old Tubarão, here. She is quite fucking well aware of how that here happened. What she wonders is, how did she get from the point where she was trying to kill Colonel Franklin Clay, US Army in order to avenge the death of her father at his hands, to this point, where she's willing to put herself in front of a bullet for his sake? That, she wonders about. She's not sure whether she actually wants to know, because the only answers she can come up with at the moment are either Stockholm Syndrome, or a particular option that's goddamn ludicrous, but she can't help wondering, just the same.
It's four months past the clusterfuck of Bolivia, Max, and the port city of Los Angeles, and the Losers' latest assignment had been going so well, right up until the day before yesterday. They'd tracked their quarry from Macau to Phuket to Cebu, and finally to a freighter docked at Port Praia Mole Vitória, Espirito Santo, Brasil, where they bagged and tagged the human trafficking son of a bitch, and telephoned their shiny new Company contact that the the Brasilian UNODC could come and collect him (and a nifty little flash drive with names, dates and dollar amounts, plus a handy full color digital film showing him with his hands in the cookie jar) at their convenience. Nice and neat.
Except for that part where Niall Denny had been tracking Aisha from Macau to Phuket to Cebu, and to Vitória, where that vengeful Irish bastard son of a bastard son finally made his move, pretty much the way Aisha had warned Clay that he might. Goddammit.
Aisha is crumpled sideways, doing her best to seem just another pile of debris on the floor of the derelict taverna. Two dead men lie tumbled together off in one corner, dead when she arrived. Squatters, probably, too poor even for the favela below. No worries, now. Niall is in the room, somewhere. Colm is in the van, with Pooch and Jensen, and a third man, according to Colm, was waiting in the darkness outside the taverna to deal with any of Aisha's friends who might have come along with her. By now, Aisha reckons, he's probably not there anymore. Aisha breathes slowly, as shallowly as possible. It's hard, when what she wants to do is curl her body around the wound, whimper and pant out the pain like an injured hound dog. Niall needs to doubt whether or not she's dead, whether or not she's still dangerous. She needs to string him along for as long as possible. She needs to make this last.
After they'd completed their assignment Clay and Cougar went out to bring back beer and food, and too long a time later Cougar came back angry and anxious, without Clay. Leaving Jensen behind in case Clay or word of him showed up, Pooch, Cougar and Aisha had taken to the street, gridding the area north, south, east, west; tavernas, shops, stalls on the street. Aisha spoke Portuguese well enough, and Pooch and Cougar could communicate with a fair combination of Spanish and sign language. It was simple enough to ask whether anybody had seen any Anglos in the neighborhood. One woman told Cougar she'd seen two young Anglo men walking down the street. They were young, and very pale, and she didn't know where they were going. When Cougar told Aisha and Pooch, they could guess what had happened. They headed back to the hotel. Ten minutes after they got back a small boy arrived with a note. Pooch sent the child back with twenty reais and a co-operative reply... and Cougar, slipping grimly, silently through the darkness after him.
Aisha holds the SIG loosely in her hand, the backs of her knuckles gritty on the thin layer of landslide mud on top of the cracked linoleum. It's hard to keep from gripping the comforting butt of the SIG, from curling her finger around its familiar trigger, but she can't let Niall see for certain that she's alive. She doesn't dare open her eyes, and blood pooling doesn't make any noise, but she's still conscious and she doesn't taste blood, so that's something. If she's bleeding out enough that a puddle is spreading though, Niall will know, because dead women don't keep bleeding. Of course, eventually he's going to either decide to risk it and abandon cover to investigate, or he'll simply put another bullet into her from where he is to be sure she's dead. But Aisha's counting on the belief that he'll want to gloat a bit, so he'll be willing to wait a little longer, to feel confident that she's not strong enough to hurt him; that she's just alive enough to suffer.
The man who'd sent the boy with Niall's note was in a hotel not that far from their own. The room was on the ground floor, but when Pooch and Cougar bashed through the door he wasn't quick enough to make it out the bathroom window. He was a big Irishman, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and half drunk out of boredom. He wouldn't have stood a chance if he'd been stone cold sober.
They wrestled him into a chair. Aisha looked down at him and said, "Hello, Colm."
Colm spat at Aisha, and declared, "Y' can fuck off, all of you," but he jumped and cringed when Pooch stepped in front of Aisha and fired a single shot into the wall from an inch next to his ear, and a spray of plaster peppered the back of his neck. He shook his head against the noise and rallied, warning, "Jesus, that's a fine way to bring the gendarmarie, ain't it?"
Pooch leaned in close, his voice calm, and cold as sleet. "This is São Pedro, you stupid rube. Gunshots are as common as piss in the gutters, and the only police force around here are the drug lords. This," and Pooch pressed the muzzle of the Colt downward hard against Colm's knee, "is a genuine M1911 .45, and will first blow apart your knee, then ream out your shinbone. No surgeon in the world will ever be able to put that mess back together again."
Colm protested, already knowing what Pooch wanted from him, "Niall will fuckin' kill me, mate!"
Pooch promised coolly, "So will I, mate, but I'll do it a lot slower. 1... 2..."
"Jesus! Don't! I--" He looked up at Aisha, starting to panic. "Christ, I daren't even go home without Niall, you know that, come on!"
Aisha shook her head, "It's not my game anymore, Colm. Niall's dragged fresh players into it, and now it's between him..." She nodded toward Pooch, Cougar and Jensen. "... and them."
"Ah, fuck me," Colm dropped his head against the back of the chair, squeezing his eyes shut. "I fuckin' hate the tropics!" He asked, "Will you promise me to make it quick? 'Cause Niall wouldn't, Aisha, you know he wouldn't."
Pooch said, "My word on it."
And the walls came tumbling down.
Cougar gave Colm a small dose of morphine from the med-kit in case he changed his mind, and they walked out of the hotel together, Colm leaning on Aisha's shoulder. They tied him up in the van, holding him in case he'd lied. Then they headed for a part of favela São Pedro that had crumbled to rubble in a landslide last rainy season.
Aisha keeps imagining she hears Jensen singing, "She came in through the bathroom window... protected by a silver spoon..." She's quite sure that is not part of the plan. She wonders if she should find it worrisome. Also, the bathroom window wasn't really an option, given that the bathroom had detached from the taverna during the landslide last fall, and was now three quarters buried thirty yards up the hill, leaving not a lot of choices for Aisha's entrance into the Tubarão. Clever man, Niall Denny. Which... speak of the devil.
"So," he purrs from her right, slightly over... there. Not quite in the right spot yet.
"The lovely Aisha al-Fadhil, at last. I'm fairly certain you can hear me darlin', I've been watching you breathe." His footsteps stop about a yard from her. Almost there.
"Though not breathing very well, more's the pity."
Aisha risks opening one eye, very slowly, very non-dangerously. The non-dangerous part isn't much of an act by this point. Imaginary Jensen is still singing at the back of her head, "...she could steal, but she could not rob. Didn't anybody tell her? Didn't anybody see?"
Niall crouches down. Aisha gets a near look at his boots, at the 9mm Browning held loosely between his bent knees. Ah. That explains it. Nice stopping power, a Browning.
Aisha murmurs, "Hello, Niall. Long time no see."
Niall nudges her gun from her hand, all too easily. It's a little embarrassing. He crouches next to her, peering into her face. Handsome as ever, Niall. Sandy hair and blue, blue eyes. Plenty of grit, but not enough patience. If he'd had that, his brother might still be alive and they wouldn't be here, doing this stupid dance.
"Heard about your da," he says. "That was a shame, that was."
"Was that your hand in Miami? Seemed a bit Hollywood for your style, but we've all got to move on, meet new friends, isn't that right?"
"Might have been."
"And Los Angeles?" Niall smiles, thin and knowing. "They turned on you in L.A., didn't they. Sold you out for a very large amount of cash. Heard about that one on the grapevine, as it were. That was quite a mess you left behind."
Aisha tries to shrug, "Well, they did try to kill me." Okay, there may have been an exchange of gunfire between her and the Losers at one point... but Niall's grapevine has netted him about half the details, in reverse order. Or something. Her vision has started to tunnel. That's probably not good.
Niall clucks sympathetically. "Isn't that always the way? Though I see you've found yourself another new bunch of friends. Isn't your new sweetheart a bit old for a young firecracker such as yourself? Or were you plannin' to kill this lot when you're done with them, too?"
Volatile, Aisha mouths to herself. She smiles a little, imagining Clay saying it.
"What's that darlin'?" Niall takes her by the chin, twists her face left, so that she has to shift her body to follow. The bullet wound in her chest protests. She doesn't bother to hide the grimace of pain.
"You'll have to speak up," Niall tells her. "But listen, now that we've caught up and all, you know why we're here, don't you dear?"
Aisha takes a slow, careful breath, "Because your brother tried to stop me from leaving before you shot me?"
Niall grips her chin hard, "Because you fuckin' murdered my baby brother, you stupid girl! Did you think I'd let that go?"
"All I wanted was my share of the take, and a clean exit. I didn't think that was unreasonable. Cam wouldn't listen."
"Cam listened to me, Aisha. Not you."
"So really, if you think about it, his death was your fault, yeah?"
Niall flashes an ugly smile at her and wrenches at her shoulder. The pain jerks a cry out of her and makes her see stars.
The tiny comm piece in her right ear lights up with Pooch's voice. "He's here. He's fine. ETA twenty." Aisha gasps out a laugh through the pain.
Niall stands up, angry and suspicious, as though Aisha's suddenly transformed into a serpent. "What's so fuckin' funny?"
"Something I've learned," Aisha tells him. Niall has backed up into the room, angling toward the Tubarão's ruined front doorway. She can see when he steps into the frame of it. With Clay found they've no more need for a backup plan, so instead of shining somewhere non-lethal on Niall's body, there's a pretty little red dot decorating the side of Niall's head. "Revenge does not bring back the dead," Aisha says.
Niall spits on the floor and raises the Browning, "No, sweetheart, it doesn't, but it's not a bad substi--"
And then there's a single rifle shot, and a mess.
"Sunday's on the phone to Monday," Aisha sings softly, "Tuesday's on the phone to me... oh, yeah..." She hears Cougar scrambling downhill over the last few yards toward the taverna, rocks and chunks of the old, broken favela crumbling beneath his boots, and then he's stepping over what's left of Niall Denny, and bending over Aisha.
Cougar reaches for the med-kit slung over his shoulder along with his rifle with the night scope, and he puts his hands on Aisha, gently. "Hermanita," he says, "Let me see."
When Clay strides into the taverna - definitely hiding a limp - and looms over Aisha, Cougar kneeling at her side, Aisha smiles up at him, "You look like shit." The relief she feels at seeing him forces her to revisit option two for why she's here. Still ludicrous. Still there, just the same.
Clay grins at her through a swollen, split lip and his right eye sparks with humor in the darkness. His left eye is swollen shut. "Yeah," he agrees, "but you should see the other guy." He crouches and gently maneuvers his arms beneath Aisha, and Cougar helps him to lift her carefully. The movement hurts like a motherfucker, and she bites down hard on an exclamation. Maybe she should have accepted Cougar's offer of some happy drugs, after all.
Aisha relaxes slowly against Clay's shoulder, but warns, "First person who calls me a damsel in distress, I will shoot, soon as I can move again."
"She's a crazy little person," Jensen's voice floats from... somewhere. Aisha's pretty sure it's not just in her head this time. "But she's our crazy little person."
"Shoot. You," Aisha grumbles.
Cougar tells Clay, "A hospital would be good."
Clay nods, "I'll get Celi on the horn." Clay likes Celi. She's not afraid to let him see her face.
"C.I.A. isn't fond of me," Aisha reminds.
Clay says, "Yeah, well, they liked Niall Denny even less. Actually, I think they like me even less."
"Less than Niall, or less than me?"
Aisha can feel the prickle of Clay's stubble against her forehead when he smiles, "Probably both."
Pooch and Jensen drag two corpses into the taverna and lay them down near where Niall's body sprawls on the ground. Aisha doesn't recognize the third man, Niall's lookout. It's a shame about Colm, she thinks. She didn't remember him as being so bad, but he was big and obedient, not particularly bright, and in someone like Niall's eyes, thoroughly expendable. She can see that Pooch kept his promise. With the morphine in his system, when the time came Colm probably hardly realized.
Cougar clears Niall's, Colm's and the lookout's weapons of ammunition, and leaves them on the ground with the dead. Pooch is already carrying in armloads of old ragged scraps of broken, rotting wood they've begun to scavenge from the shambles of the old neighborhood. Cougar helps him with the wood, while Jensen pulls two five-gallon cans of gasoline out of the van.
Odds are that no one who notices a fire up here will care enough to come put it out. As far as anyone else in the world will guess, the Brazilian jungle devoured Niall Denny and his two companions, leaving nothing of them behind.
Clay carries Aisha to the van, and does his best to make her comfortable. They end up wrapped together in a blanket. Weirdly, Aisha does feel better.
"You know," Clay scolds her quietly, "There's a difference between a decoy, and bait."
Aisha raises an eyebrow at him. "Be nice to me, or I'll bleed all over you."
"And ruin some of Cougar's best work? Even you wouldn't dare."
They watch Pooch, Jensen and Cougar from the open side door. Except for how he shot her and kidnapped Clay, Aisha might feel a little sorry for Niall. He just did not have any idea who the hell he was dealing with this time around. Bad intel, she thinks, will screw you over every damn time.
Cougar jumps into the back of the van, and Pooch gets in the front and starts the engine.
Jensen lights up a fistful of dry sticks until they're flaming brightly. He chirps, "So, three dead Irishmen walk into a bar..." and tosses the lit tinder through the front door into the main room of the ruined old Tubarão. The flames catch quickly on the old wood, and the generous amount of accelerant. The flames roar up high and hot, a proper funeral pyre, already sending bright sparks into the night. The fire reflects bright yellow and orange across the lenses of Jensen's glasses as he rounds the front of the van to jump into the passenger seat.
Pooch aims the van toward Vitória, and Jensen starts singing happily, "People, who need people, are the luuuuckiest people..."
"No!" Pooch squawks over him, "No, hell no, this van is strictly a no Streisand zone! Cougar can you please make this man shut up?"
Cougar grins, leans over the front seat, and grabs Jensen's face to kiss him hard, mid-lyric. Jensen twists toward him, protesting, "Honey, not in front of the kids!" as he flails for a better grip on the back of Cougar's head.
It hurts like hell when Aisha laughs, but she decides to let it happen anyway.