Project: Phoenix (Neon City Book 3), Chapter 19

Story by Spiders Thrash on SoFurry

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#19 of Project: Phoenix (Neon City 3)

Scrambling to get this finished in spite of everything falling apart here. The sooner I can get this thing done, polish it, and get it into Kindle Scout, the sooner I'll have a shot at the $1,500 advance. Apologies for neglecting the replies I still haven't gotten to yet, but I'm throwing myself right into the next chapter. I've been working on this thing for over four years, and I'm hoping to finish it before things get even worse (among many other things I'm doing to try to keep my head above water ...).

Also, I've decided to change the title and cover illustration for the next draft, which explains the new thumbnail image.

"Terrific." Ramirez stared at the police cars and the four officers at the door as she drove around to the parking lot. She clenched her teeth around her cigar, zipped into the first empty space, and heaved herself out of the car with a weary sigh. "This is gonna be fun."

"Today's been a never-ending cavalcade of whimsy." Montoya chuckled and followed her around the corner and up the front stairs. Three of the cops turned to scowl at them, while the other leaned against the handrail to the door's left and stared at his tablet.

"Good timing," the cop on the right said with a sneer. "We were just getting ready to break the door down."

"You'd better have a warrant before you try that." Ramirez sneered right back.

"Just open the goddamn door. We've got an arrest warrant for Shakira Moseley. We know you've got her inside."

"On what charge?" Ramirez stepped around him and held her badge up to the lock beside the door.

"Statutory rape," the one with the tablet said. Grinning, he flipped it over and held it up to her. She caught a glimpse of the video of Otto and Shakira having sex before she turned away.

"I don't need to see that." She scanned her badge and the door unlocked. She opened the door and stepped inside. "Both of them are on the Justice Foundation's staff. You'll need more than an arrest warrant to get your hands on her."

"Gee, that's terrifying." The cop shoved her aside and barged into the lobby.

"Hey!" Ramirez jumped in front of him and Montoya stood beside her. "That's assault."

"File a fuckin' complaint. Get out of our way or we'll haul you in on obstruction charges." The cop smirked. "Don't you start thinking this little operation of yours can protect you."

"This company has a government contract. One more step and our legal department will bury you." Ramirez arched an eyebrow. "Assault me again and I'll have every right to defend myself."

"Try it." He put his hand on his sidearm and the other three followed suit.

_Shit. I was hoping they'd be smarter than that._Ramirez's pulse sped up and she prepared to draw her hand cannon.

Someone behind her cleared his throat. She glanced over her shoulder and found Otto standing a few feet away, arms crossed over his chest, scowling at the cops.

"Where is she, kid?" One of the other cops walked around her and approached Otto.

"Not here. Which is exactly where you need to be."

"We're gonna sweep this entire building until we find her, so you might as well just tell us. You don't have to protect her, son."

"Don't_call me 'son.'" Otto placed himself between the cops and Ramirez and Montoya. He waved a hand at the ceiling-mounted cameras in each corner of the lobby. "Company regs require me to inform you that you've been on camera since you barged through the front door. I suggest you be _very careful from here on."

The cops glanced at the cameras and then at each other. The one with the tablet sighed, shrugged, and went back to watching the video. Otto frowned at him, lunged forward, and grabbed the tablet. He took one look at the screen, glared at the cop, and closed the video player.

"Hey!" The guy pointed at the tablet. "I was enjoying that."

"Not as much as I was." Otto crossed his arms over his chest again. "Shakira didn't do anything wrong. Leave."

"The law says otherwise." Their leader shook his head and gave him a condescending laugh. "Last chance, kid. Tell us where she is or get out of our way. Oh, and give that tablet back."

"I don't need it anymore." Otto flung it back at the other cop, who fumbled it before getting a secure grip. Otto took his phone out and smirked at the screen. "Ah, now, that's interesting."

Oh, boy. He must've cloned it._Ramirez chuckled. _Glad he's on our side.

"_What's_interesting?" The cop lunged forward and grabbed at the phone. Otto tossed it to his other hand and sidestepped him

"Oh, nothing you need to be concerned about. Just something that might be useful later."

"Okay, you little shit, we're gonna arrest your ass, too!"

Otto slipped the phone back into his pocket and took a step toward him. "Try it."

Ramirez sighed. "Okay, hold on, this is going too far."

Before she could say anything else, the screeching of tires on pavement pierced the outer wall. Everyone spun around to stare out the windows as one of the squad cars laid rubber down the street. Ramirez spotted an obsidian face with glowing cyan eyes before the car passed out of sight.


The cops gaped at it for several seconds before they pulled themselves together. The leader turned to glare at his partner.

"You left the keys in it again, didn't you?"

Montoya burst into laughter as the other cop's face turned red.

"Fuckin' rookie!" The leader charged through the door and down the stairs, followed by his cohorts. One of them paused long enough to glance back inside, snicker, and toss off a jaunty salute.

"Well played." Still laughing, he followed the others to the remaining squad car.

Otto grinned, locked the doors, and headed for the elevator. "The rest of the team's still wrapping things up, but they'll be back for the debriefing as soon as they can."

"I'm in no hurry." Ramirez flexed her fingers as she and Montoya joined him in the elevator. "It'll be nice to just sit on my ass for a while. Even though the decoys kept the bad guys away from us, I was still white-knuckling it through the whole trip to the courthouse. And that business with the cops didn't help."

"So," Montoya said, "what was that thing with the phone?"

"I cloned his tablet. Now I can slip into their network whenever I want. Let 'em try something now."

"Screwing with the police isn't a good idea." Ramirez stared at him and puffed on her cigar.

"Oh, I'm not planning to disrupt their operations or anything. I'll be focusing my efforts on the individual cops who come after Shakira."

"Well, let's just hope our legal department can take care of it without resorting to anything nasty."

Otto shrugged as the doors parted. He headed for the conference room and Ramirez followed him.

"Yeah, I shouldn't condone anything that's not by-the-book," Montoya said as he caught up with them. "That being said, I couldn't help cheering a little inside when I realized Shadow ganked one of the squad cars right out from under their noses."

"I didn't even know she'd gotten back from the op." Otto laughed and strode into the conference room.

Ramirez walked over to the table and plopped into the nearest chair. She let out a long sigh, slouched, and glanced around. Shakira sat on the opposite side of the table, a few chairs to the left, staring at her phone and shaking her head.

"I saw the whole thing on the cameras. I hope she'll be okay."

"This isn't Shadow's first car chase." Montoya grinned. "I heard she was a thief before the boss recruited her. Burglary, grand theft auto, chop shops, and whatnot. She knows how to lead those guys on a merry chase and then ditch the car before they get anywhere near her."

Otto took the seat beside Shakira and clasped her hand. Ramirez raised an eyebrow.

"You, too, huh?"

Shakira glanced up at her, then at Otto, and shrugged. "Yeah. I guess I just couldn't fight it any longer. I have to admit, I kind of feel like a huge weight has been taken off me."

Otto speared Ramirez with a stern frown. "The boss is working on making me an emancipated minor, but until then, I'd like to keep this quiet."

"Don't worry, I won't say anything." Ramirez chuckled as her face heated up. "I'm kind of in the same boat, so ..." She shrugged.

Montoya chuckled. "Well, congrats to you both. May your journey together be interesting."

"I don't think there'll be a way to avoid that." Shakira tossed a lopsided grin at him.

Hmm, that reminds me. Ramirez took her phone out and checked her messages. The newest one made her smile.

"Good news?" Montoya cocked his head.

"Text from Hiro, letting me know he's okay." Her blush shot into overdrive as she typed a quick reply.

"Ah, you two are a 'thing,' now?" Otto grinned. "I knew it."

"Moment of weakness." Ramirez shrugged and then laughed softly. "Eh, it's weird as hell, but I guess I'll adjust. Looks like Montoya might've been right, though. We might need to start a support group."

"Mrs. Robinsons and their underage boyfriends?" Shakira snorted. "Yeah, what could go wrong?"

Ramirez grinned and checked the rest of her messages. "Oh, boy. Next one's from Kim. Dale's gonna throw another one of his fuckin' drunken parties at the house, so she's planning to spend the evening hanging out with Myaku."

"Can't blame her for that." Shakira grimaced. "Think I'll camp out here. I'd rather spend the night in my apartment, but the cops probably have it staked out."

"I've seen a few empty rooms here." Otto smiled and patted her hand. "I can drop by a sporting goods store and pick up an inflatable mattress."

"Big enough for two, I assume?" Montoya deadpanned, and Ramirez swatted his shoulder.

"Well, I just bought a big box of condoms." Otto aimed a shit-eating grin at him. "I'm gonna need help using 'em up."

Shakira took off her glasses, sighed, and buried her face in her hands. "This seemed ill-advised when I caved in a while ago. That hasn't changed."

Otto laughed and made a kissy-face at her.

"None of our business, Enrique." Ramirez cleared her throat and typed a reply to her daughter. "Anyway. Kim can spend the night in her old room in my house, if she wants. I was only exposed to one of Dale's parties for a few minutes, and that's more than I'd ever want to repeat."

"That bad, eh?" Montoya arched an eyebrow.

"Yeah." Ramirez shook her head, slipped the phone back into her pocket, and let a quick breath rush out. "I'd rather be fuckin' shot at."

"Hah!" Shadow grinned as the vehicles in front of her pulled over and parked, allowing her to zoom past them without worrying about collisions. Handy things, the sirens and flashing lights on this police car.

She glanced into the rearview mirror and found the other squad car catching up to her. She laughed, twisted the steering wheel to the left, skidded through the intersection directly ahead, and took the cross-street, heading north into the hilly part of the city. If the cop lost control and crashed into any of the cars parked in the rich neighborhoods up there, they'd be in very deep shit.

And even if that didn't happen, there were some really high drop-offs that would be perfect for the kind of escape she had in mind.

The streets became narrow and winding as she charged uphill, and the houses larger and more extravagant. The cars parked in driveways and along the curb also became fancier and more numerous with each passing second. She caught glimpses of people - all of them human - turning to stare or peeking out windows as she roared past them. She chuckled, but gripped the wheel and kept her attention on the curving street ahead. A hairpin turn came up and she wrenched on the wheel and slowed just enough to drift through it, then she floored it and squeezed between a parked SUV and a minivan heading in the opposite direction, threading the needle with maybe a quarter-inch to spare on either side.

She flicked a quick glance into the mirror just as the pursuing car screeched around the hairpin turn and scraped the curb before recovering. Her heart pounded, but she laughed again and whipped her stolen car around another tight corner.

She reached the top of the hill. The houses here were massive and spaced much farther apart. She'd spent many a night sneaking into houses just like these and leaving with a small fortune in trinkets from each, way back before Machiko's team had caught her and offered her the choice of prison or working with them. Which had been a no-brainer. Helping and protecting people made for a great career, but moments like these reminded her of more carefree days. The nostalgia was fleeting, but nice while it lasted.

Moments later she left the houses behind and entered a wide-open area. The street wound its way through a field of mixed grass and dirt before turning to gravel. She veered off to the right and headed across increasingly bumpy ground toward a cliff that overlooked the rest of the city, several hundred feet below. The car bounced her around, pulling the seatbelt taught again and again, pinching her tail against the seat each time she slammed back down, and she gripped the wheel with her right hand while moving her left over to the door handle.

One more glance into the mirror. The other car had fallen behind, but started to close the distance now that both were racing in a more or less straight line.

The ground sloped downward slightly, then the angle grew steeper a moment later.

Shadow popped the seatbelt off and flung the door open at the same time. Wind whipped at her face and hair as she launched out of the seat and spread her wings. She glanced over her shoulder as she began to plunge, changing the angle of her wings and trying to slow her descent. The car she'd vacated sailed off the cliff and arched down to the jagged rocks below. Those rocks would stop the car before it got anywhere near the buildings dozens of feet below and several hundred yards north.

The pursuing car slid to a stop, doors opened, and one of the cops yelled, "Son of a bitch!"

Shadow would've chuckled at that, had she not continued losing altitude.

Pull up. Come on. Pull up_, already!_

The ground rushed up toward her. An especially large, sharp, pointy rock aimed at her like the tip of a spear. Her heart slammed and she couldn't breathe.


She tilted her wings again, veering to the right, farther into open air, and finally got enough wind under them to begin gliding. She let a breath rush out and released a giddy laugh as she coasted over the rocks and, a few seconds later, the rooftops.

Okay. Give it a few more minutes, then I'll be out of their sight and can land.

She activated her comlink implant and sent a message to Otto's and Shakira's phones. [Crisis averted. Those guys will be too busy explaining the loss of their car to pester you for a while. Think I'll head back to the motel and see if any of the bad guys' SUVs are still intact. If some are, I know a few chop shops that'd love to get their hands on 'em.] She signed off with a giggle.

And after the debriefing, I think I'll round up a few of my boyfriends and have a goddamn orgy. Great way to use up this excess adrenaline.

She grinned, angled toward a quiet neighborhood in the distance, and let the anticipation of the upcoming romp fill her thoughts on the way to the ground.

"Why the long face, Jack?" Montoya arched an eyebrow as the trio entered the conference room and sat. "I heard it was a helluva fight. You should be glad you all got through it in one piece."

"I am." Jack sighed. "It's just now hitting me, though - my car's completely fucked. The front end was blasted with a few hundred rounds, and the rest was probably blown off the map when those zombies exploded." He slouched, propped his forehead on his hand, and sighed. "I haven't even finished paying for it."

"Sorry about the car, Jack." Machiko patted his shoulder as she walked around to her seat at the end of the table. "Lefty said she'd see what she can do with it. In the meantime, we'll requisition another car from one of our equipment suppliers. We might even be able to get one for each of you."

"Thanks." Jack smiled and sat up a bit straighter.

"That reminds me." Corona reached across him to nudge Taura's shoulder. "You've still got some driving lessons coming."

Taura's eyes opened wider. "And I'd just gotten calmed down after all the fighting."

Corona giggled, plucked a set of handcuffs from her belt, took her lockpick kit from a vest pocket, and put the cuffs on. Jack gaped at her and had to suppress the urge to facepalm.

"Here?" he whispered. "Really? Seriously?"

Corrie shrugged. "I'm gonna keep at it until I figure this out."

"Okay, everyone's here, so we'll get started." Machiko glanced around at the team. When her gaze landed on Corona, she stared for a few seconds, shook her head, and continued. "First of all, nice work, everyone. Shadow, your idea of using decoys and sticking Winslow into the trunk of an old beater worked perfectly. Lola and Enrique were able to deliver him to the courthouse without the opposing force even knowing they were on the move."

"Thanks, boss." Shadow beamed and her eyes glowed a little brighter.

Otto leaned forward. "I'd also like to thank you for distracting the cops. The situation was only a few seconds from passing the point of no return."

"Glad I could help. After you texted Hoshi, she sent messages to all of us. I headed straight here and figured out a half-assed plan on the way."

"Well, we're grateful for it," Shakira said. "That whole thing could've been nasty if they'd tried to force their way past the lobby. I just hope they didn't get a good look at you when you escaped."

"Nah. I was long gone before they could get out of their car and run to the edge of the cliff."

"Good." Machiko smirked. "I've already forwarded the camera footage of the altercation to our legal department, and they're running with it. Winslow has already entered his testimony and copies of all the files we had on the zombie experiments. The people running Argus Defense Systems have been arrested, and those directly involved in the project are being mopped up now. And the bystanders from the motel are all safe and sound, receiving medical treatment for minor injuries, and we're going to see if we can find better places for them to live. Once you all file your reports, our part of this investigation will be finished, unless we're needed to answer any questions that come up later."

"That's good to hear." Ralphie smiled and glanced around at the others. "I'm glad to be back at work, but I'm just as happy to get through this without being shot again."

Rocky patted his hand before turning to Jack and the girls. "You guys want a lift home?"

Montoya burst out laughing. "You might not want to go back there tonight. I hear Dale's planning to throw one of his parties."

"Yeesh. My daughter warned me about that. She's planning to hang out with one of her friends until the party is over." Ramirez grimaced. "Last time I was there for one of his parties, it was even more traumatic than all the shootouts I've been in. The sight of that drunk guy staggering around with no pants is forever burned into my memory."

"Same here." Shakira shook her head slowly. "His ass cheeks looked like a slow-motion molasses avalanche. I'm hoping I can find somewhere else to spend the night so I won't end up with any more mental scars. I'd just go back to my apartment, but the police are probably waiting for me to show up, and even if being on the payroll here is enough to keep me from being arrested, it's more hassle than I can bear right now."

"Thanks for bringing us onboard so fast, by the way." Otto smiled at Machiko and glanced at Ralphie and Rocky. "If it's okay for Shakira to camp out here overnight, I could use a lift to the nearest store to buy an inflatable mattress."

"I have no objections." Machiko smiled. "We've got several rooms here that aren't used for anything other than storage, though I'd hope you could find something more comfortable. A musty storage room or an empty office is no place to spend the night."

"You're welcome to crash at our little home-away-from-home," Corona said. "There's plenty of floor space for a spare mattress. We promise not to have sex in front of you."

Boiler grimaced, leaned over to Shadow, and muttered, "Don't put images like that in your kid's head."

Shadow giggled.

That crap again. Jack decided not to let it derail the conversation and aimed a grin at his girlfriends. "Since we can't keep our hands off each other for long, we'll use the roof if we can't control ourselves any longer."

Corrie giggled, leaned over to flick her tongue across his lips, and then kept fiddling with her handcuffs. After a few seconds, she winked at Otto and Shakira. "And if you can't keep your hands off each other, you can use the roof or just let us know so we can step outside until you're finished."

Otto flashed a grin that was practically bigger than his head, and Shakira sighed and covered her face with her hands. Otto laughed, slipped his arm around her, and then turned serious. "It took this long to get her to stop saying no, so I don't want to push my luck. I can wait until she's comfortable with ... well, with us. And I'd really appreciate it if nobody mentions this thing with her and me outside this room."

"What thing?" Shadow aimed an over-the-top confused look at him. "I know nothing about a 'thing' with you two."

"Same here," Ralphie said. "I heard nothing, I saw nothing."

Ramirez nodded. "I have no idea what the hell you're talking about."

Hiro leaned over to grasp Ramirez's hand. "We won't mention you if you don't mention us." He winked.

"Thanks, guys." Otto smiled.

"After the meeting, I'll be happy to drive you to the store," Ralphie said. "Do you want me to take you back here or to the safe house?"

"The safe house would be great, if that's okay with Jack and the girls."

"Sure. We're happy to help you avoid whatever horrors Dale and his buddies are about to visit upon anyone who happens to be watching the stream." Taura smiled.

"Thanks. We owe you another one." Shakira slumped back in her chair and sighed. "There's so much more than just the party that we'd have to deal with if we went back home tonight."

"Since you guys don't have a car at the moment," Ralphie said to Jack, "I'd be happy to give you a lift, as well."

"I'm thinking a late-afternoon stroll would be nice, actually." Corrie glanced at Jack and Taura. "Just a slow, leisurely walk - and it'd give Otto and Shakira some time to relax before we get there." She held her still-cuffed wrists up and added, "It'd give me time to figure this out, too."

"Sounds good." Jack grinned. "It'll also give me and Taura plenty of time to think up new ways to distract you while you're trying to concentrate on picking those locks."

"That should keep the other pedestrians entertained." She giggled.

Machiko smiled and glanced around. "Well, now that's settled, if no one has any questions, I think we can all go on about our business."

"Wasn't much of a debriefing," Shadow said with a chuckle.

"The purpose was mainly to give you a few minutes to catch your breath after the big battle. Everything seems to be well in hand, though you should keep your phones on in case something changes. So enjoy your evening, everyone. I'll see you in the morning."

Everyone said their goodbyes and dispersed. Jack stood, stretched, and took his phone out. He mapped out a course to the warehouse and noticed it would take them past several coffee stands, food carts, and ice cream vendors. He smirked. Nice.

"Okay, ladies." He slipped his hand into Taura's and put his arm around Corona's waist. "Let's head home."

Project: Phoenix (Neon City Book 3), Chapter 18

A new text message reached Otto's phone and he twitched at the notification sound. A message came through to Shakira's phone at the same time, but she groaned and left it on the conference table. Otto stopped pacing, took a slow breath, and dug the...

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Project: Phoenix (Neon City Book 3), Chapter 17

"Well," Ramirez muttered around her cigar after a quick glance at her watch, "I guess we should get going." She started the engine and eased out of the underground parking lot. Most of the debris from the recent battle had been pushed to the sides,...

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Boldly Coming -- 1st scene

"Beautiful." Trent smiled as he watched Rhoa finish setting up the targets. The soft golden light from the sun rising over the distant mountains caressed her midnight-blue skin and long, coppery hair. She turned to take in the vista for a moment before...

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