Spike leaned against a lamppost savoring the remainder of his cigarette in the dying daylight. He flipped the electronic bet cards between his fingers with a wry grin. Nice try, Vicious. Next time, don't make it so damn easy, you smug prick! He considered giving Lin his woolongs back next time he saw him. Only a passing thought before sliding them both in his back pocket. Why do that? He'd been bound to win anyway.

One hand slipped into his trench coat pocket. He glanced up at the boarded up house. The porch roof listed to the side. One of the posts had already let go. Clearly he was doing this place a favor. He flicked the safety off the detonator.

Damn right, he'd been ready for this. A week ago he'd found their bolt hole. A rival syndicate, the White Tiger's thought they could hide below the radar on Red Dragon territory. Just a small bunch of lackeys trying to stir up trouble. Spike smirked, wondering how much their syndicate had offered them for this one way ticket. A cheap price for a life.

Anyone who thought he'd been slacking had been dead wrong. He'd had eyes on this joint after hiding a nice selection of C-4 in the walls when no one was home. Sure, he could have blasted the roof and watched them scatter. But then it was such a chore chasing them down all over Tharsis. Nah. Much simpler to wait for all the little kittens to run home at once. One trigger strike instead of twelve.

His finger hovered over the button. One week of waiting, hanging around the neighborhood so he would be close by at the perfect opportunity. Damn it. Two weeks total of nothing but sheer boredom.

He thought about the eight ball, the last bloody shot in the game he never had a chance to take thanks to Vicious. Then why don't you go hit one that matters, for once.

Flipping the safety back on, he dropped it in his pocket. He plucked the cigarette from his mouth, discarding it into the street. He drew his Jericho 941 and checked the clip. Full. Vicious thought he was a coward, did he? Well, why not a little target practice just to prove a point? Time to hunt some little tigers.

He slid free of the lamppost and walked toward the door. Each click of his shoes echoed on the asphalt. Nothing shifted in the darkened windows. Heh, they'd have no idea. He reached for the doorknob with a sly smile.

A bright blue bolt shot up his left arm. He jerked backward, smoke rising from the blistered flesh. "What the—OOF!"

He never saw the board that smacked the back of his head. Spike's body crashed through the brittle front door, landing hard in the rubble. He shook his head, trying to clear away the flashing spots. Leveling his gun he swung into the darkness. Shadows moved around him. He rolled toward the partially enclosed staircase, gunfire wizzed by him. He squeezed off a few shots rewarded by an anguished cry.

That was short lived. One bullet pelted him in the left shoulder. He recoiled up the stairs a little further. They'd cornered him. Too late he realized they left that path intentionally as his only option. That had been their plan! Well, it wasn't over. He'd been in tight spaces before.

Crouching by the railing, he used half of the staircase to hide his back and fired into the darkened room on the other side. One by one he aimed at the muzzle flashes, twelve gunmen in scattered groups. Another stray bullet struck him, but all he had time to spare a thought for was nothing equated a lethal shot. If he could make this quick, he'd be alright. Six of the bastards pegged. About halfway done … then he could blow this joint. He smiled at the private joke.

A woman's wild laughter broke out above him. He whipped around, leading with the gun up the stairs. A short blade gleamed as it soared through the air and buried into his upper thigh, deep enough to strike the bone.

He wailed out and toppled backward, catching a dry rotted railing with his burnt hand. Halfway down the flight of stairs, he lay spread eagle on his back. A great wide target as bullets wizzed by raking the wood. He tried to pull himself up. Instinctively, he pried the stinging blade from his leg and lobbed it up the staircase.

It clattered against bare wood. Laughter echoed. Two amber iris's blazed crazily in the dark above him. Trying to cling low to the stairs, he attempted to flip around. A smear of blood slicked the step compromising everything. Only then did he remember that little detail about not pulling something out of a puncture. "Shit!"

"Foolish Dragon!" Definitely a woman's voice! Spike aimed the gun between her eyes, his finger slipped on the trigger and it didn't fire. "You fell right into the Tiger's trap! Come now, let's play!"

A bullet sent splinters flying as it ripped through a railing. Spike leaned to the right to avoid the debris. A lithe woman with raven hair launched hands first down the stairs. Her grip encircled Spike's upper left arm, already burning from the bullet wound. With the aid of gravity, she twisted her hands two different directions with a sadistic smile. The momentum toppled Spike backward accompanied by a sicking crack as his humerus fractured.

He didn't have long to consider that problem before he landed in a heap on the floor. For a moment he was blinded by the flashes of bright light. The gunfire ceased as she rolled onto her feet, licking her lips. "Ohhh, Topaz likes her play toy. He looks like fun. Get up. Take your medicine, laughing boy!"

His heart thundered in his chest. Who is this bitch? Spike shifted with a grunt. His right hand stubbornly gripped the gun as he pushed upward, fighting to get his legs beneath him. The right one buckled, blood-soaked denim clung to the skin. The horizon swirled. The slick floor provided no good purchase. His left arm hung useless at his side. If he tried to fight hand-to-hand he'd likely topple over from the lack of balance. No one was here to back him up.

Dimly, Spike realized he'd screwed himself.

Well, if this was it, he wasn't going alone! He locked eyes with Topaz as she flashed a set of shining claws on her fingertips. She leaped into the air. Spike tried to squeeze off a shot, but the recoil threw him off balance. She collided with him, digging the razors into his sides.

"ARGH! Get off!"

Spike bucked under the assault. But she hung on like some horrific laughing tick. He eyed the open door and made a desperate scramble for it. Shoving his gun into the pocket he grabbed the detonator and flicked off the safety.


He dove out the door.


The blast tore her body from his back and launched her with the rubble. Spike failed to tuck. The blast wave pummeled him chest first through the remaining porch support. More than wood cracked in the process. Skidding on his belly to a stop, Spike gasped in air against the sharp pain in his chest. He struggled to get a lung full.

Yellow flames flickered in the alley. A cracking groan rent the air. He looked up in time to see the porch roof careening toward him. Covering his head with the one hand he could move, he braced himself for the impact. Boards clattered and struck in a pelting rain around him. More splinters of wood.

Then … silence.

Slowly, he dared to move. Dragging himself up from the rubble. He coughed and fell into the support of the lamppost, gripping it tight with his right hand. Bone ground against bone. Adrenalin only dulled the edge of the pain. But he knew by experience it wouldn't be long before gravity won.

The horizon violently shifted as he dragged his injured leg down the street in a jarring gait. He gripped his rib cage with his right hand and tried to hold it together. He knew the vague direction from here. Not far. Not far at all. A block, maybe two.

Mao Yenrai handed Spike a cup of sake with a fond smile out on his mansion deck. "Confidence you have plenty of. More than enough to lead one day. But don't get too cocky. That's the number one killer in the syndicate." …

How many steps he had managed to take he failed to count. His inhale resulted in stabbing pain forcing him to exhale. The world dashed out from under him. He fell forward as a shaft of light broke the darkness. A door opening into the street. At least he hoped that's what it was as his eyes shut against the flood of agony.

Crap, there went my lucky streak.

"Spike!" A voice sounded infinitely far away.

A soft humming gradually infiltrated the silence. Spike drifted toward it, fighting for consciousness in the swirling void. Every burning breath fell short of a full one. Pressure restricted his ability. He blinked open his eyes, wincing in the light.

Julia's worried face swam into view. A cascade of blond curls scented like a rose competed with the odor of dried blood clinging inside his nostrils. Julia … so he had made it that far. This was her apartment, he'd only been here once when Vicious picked her up for a date.

They'd all blown the afternoon on something … oh yeah, pool. Vicious had been a sore loser. Julia's eyes had tried to follow Spike's hands as he idly played with one of the pocketed balls during Vicious's single shots. The guy had taken forever to set it up, only to miss. The ball appeared and disappeared as Spike rolled it with ease. He had watched her amusement out of the corner of his eye. But she was off limits, and he knew it.

No fantasy was strong enough to banish his reality. Pain. Of everything, his left arm and chest hurt the most. He couldn't tell which was worse. His inhale resulted in a coughing fit. His chest! Oh, definitely the chest was the worst. His eyes shut so tight tears escaped.

"Easy, Spike." Her voice pulled at him. Something to latch onto to keep from slipping away. "Don't even try to talk. You're stable, at least I was able to stop the bleeding. You've been shot. I can't dig those out. We need to get you to a doctor."

All he could do was lie there trying not to shift wrong. Fighting with himself not to consider how bloody stupid he'd been.

A key rattled in the lock. The door swung open. Vicious froze as he spied the blood smeared on the floor. He swept his gaze up to find Julia kneeling beside Spike's bandaged body. Spike wheezed in a breath and winced before coughing feebly.

He was still alive? Vicious asked dryly, "What happened?"

"I don't know." She gestured out the door. "I heard a ruckus and went outside to check. I opened the door in time to see him fall in the street. He's hurt badly, Vicious. He needs help."

He nodded stiffly and pulled out his phone. He needs a coffin and a headstone. Turning his back, he dialed a number and waited for an answer. "I'll be sending you an address for a pickup … you know who … yes … alive … for now." He hung up and entered Julia's address.

"What are you doing?" She climbed to her feet.

Without emotion, Vicious turned back and stared at Spike's prone body. "Spike is the syndicate's property. They'll want him back no matter how many pieces he's in."

Spike coughed and moaned.

Julia clasped his right hand, his left wrapped hastily in bandages. "You're not moving him. He needs a doctor brought here."

Vicious stood gazing out the window. "The syndicate will make sure he'll get what he needs." He glanced down at his phone. Mao's worried reply dashed across the screen. Word traveled fast. That man wanted Spike brought to his mansion. Vicious sighed. A syndicate surgeon was already on his way.

"Hold on, Spike." Julia's voice accompanied Spike's pitiful rasp.

A slight smile curved Vicious's lips unseen as he gazed out the window. Maybe this result was better than instant death after all.

The surgeon wiped his hands on a towel and looked up at the short man hovering in the doorway of the mansion's guest room. Mao Yenrai fingered the edges of his jacket, his eyes flicked to Spike's body as the blanket was pulled over the bandages.

"He'll live. But he's out of commission for a while. I dug out four bullets. Nothing but stitches holding that thigh together. His ribs are back in alignment, same with that compound fracture in his arm. I don't even want to know what suicide mission you sent him on. He'll need rest and a lot of these." He tossed Mao a bottle of pills. "He's damn lucky I had his blood type. O is hard to find these days with how much bleeding is going on and no time to type. At least I know this boy by sight, even bashed to kingdom come."

Mao edged into the room. "Is he awake?"

The surgeon nodded grimly. "As much as he's going to be for a bit. Not much talking for now. Those cracked ribs won't take kindly to that. Now, this is the third late night patch job this week. I'd like to get home and stay there."

"Of course." Mao gestured to a servant who accompanied the blurry eyed surgeon out the door. Slowly, Mao approached the bedside.

A dull light filled Spike's half open eyes. Each breath was an audible rasp as his chest rose and fell in a shuddering struggle. His left arm was encased in a firm splint and secured in a sling. Smaller patches of bandages concealed scratches on his face. He coughed and winced.

"Just rest." Mao placed a hand beside him, not daring to touch him. "You did your job, just like I knew you would."

"Are you sure?" Vicious shadowed the door. "Perhaps someone should go and check."

Mao didn't turn. He just gently folded the edge of the blanket.

When the silence stretched on too long, Vicious turned and let his katana hilt strike the door frame. Both Mao and Spike tensed. But only Spike made a noise, a pitiful rattle as he winced.

"I'll be back." Vicious declared. "Someone has to clean up Spike's mess."

See you, Space Cowboy!