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Chapter XV

The inside of the Spiny Toad was a poorly lit haze of beer signs, sweaty back-lit faces and pool cues held like ceremonial spears. Agent Shield wound his way through the locals, careful not to make waves. Melissa did not help him in this. She had done something in the car, thrown some kind of switch. The men in the tavern watched her pass with keen intensity. He followed at enough distance to make sure the interest was casual, not professional.

Shield set up station at the far end of the bar. The bartender, a whiskered, half-bald man cowboy set down two trays of peanuts and waited expectantly.

“What do you have on draft?” asked Shield.

“Beer,” said the bartender and if he meant this as a joke, his face betrayed no sign.

“The local beer then.”

He nodded hesitantly, as though Shield had offered to repaint his house. “You won’t like it.”

“Why, because it’s strong?”

“No, because it tastes like piss. We have some Lone Star; that’s what most folks here drink.”

Shield indicated that was fine and was about to reach for his beer when the bartender froze. He was about to check to see if the man was okay when Melissa whispered something in his ear. A young women approached the bar, her gaze fixed on Shield, weaving around patrons who remained locked in place. The icy grip of adrenaline poured into his veins.

The young girl reached out, her fingers bent into some kind of painful looking mandala sign. No time.

Training and reflexes took control and he whipped around, already crunching down on the joint of his thumb. The bubble surrounded the offending hand and most of the young assailant’s arm. While still trying to bring his revolver out of his dinner jacket, his eyes met the small dark gaze of the girl and he felt his movements slow.

“No,” he shouted in his mind, but he felt his consciousness begin to slide into the dark. Mind hex! The knife was slow, too slow to take her down in time.

Waves of psychic energy lashed him as he leapt from the bar stool and crashed into her. He slammed her against the far wall of the bar, upending a round table in the process.

Once he made a force bubble, he could usually add a few more but the mind hex dulled the agony of his broken thumb. Instead he could only brace the girl against a wall to prevent her from preparing another spell. The revolver was in his hands now, pressed against her belly. If the girl was afraid, she gave no sign.

“You’d better tell me who you are, kid, or I’ll put you down”

Melissa rested a hand on his shoulder. “Shield, too many witnesses!”

He shrugged her off. He would find out who this assassin was, and who had sent her.

The girl smiled. “I am Agent D of Section Starfire Western Command. I’m guessing from the force sphere around my hands, you are Agent Shield.”

“What?”

“I am the agent you requested,” she said, again absolutely calm, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Apricot,” hissed Shield.

“Brandy,” she replied.

Agent D’s gaze moved to Melissa. “And you, I imagine, would be Agent LeHaze.”

She nodded. “You seem better briefed than your mission leader. Considering the state of the Section’s professionalism, I find that hard to fathom.”

Shield let go and backed away. Flipping the knife haft-up, he flicked it into the wall by D’s head. The smallest glint of doubt in her eyes gave him that equivalent measure of satisfaction.

“This is against every protocol in the book for interdepartmental interactions,” said Shield. “This bar is the wrong venue, your dead drop was ill-concealed and tonight nearly resulted in a disaster. You, Agent D, have a lot of explaining to do.”

“Look, I’m here,” she said. “And I’m ready to help. If that isn’t needed, well, I have better things to do than tromp around the Southwest looking for snakes.”

Shield’s temper got the better of him. “For the last time, this isn’t about snakes!”

D nodded. “Then I have information you’ll want to hear.”


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