"See if this will change your stubborn mind." the sweaty, pasty-complexioned man with a yellow smile rose from his under-stuffed couch and, with the help of his muscle-bound bodyguards, splayed a briefcase of neatly stacked bills on the heavy mahogany office desk. Across the desk, Marie Magnum snatched a stash and rifled through it, her expression inscrutable. Silence, punctuated by the ticking grandfather clock and the whirring ventilation fans, briefly ensued.

"All Venusian?" Marie brushed away her thick auburn curls to reveal her bionic left-eye, which glinted ominously under the lurid glow of the swaying chandelier fan. Beneath the artificial eye, a deep scar crawled the length of her ivory-toned cheek.

"Of course." the pasty-skinned patron dabbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief. "Five million, no bullshit. Count them if you like."

"Is that all?"

"For now, yes. But we can add five more if we see results, that said…"

Marie's right eye squinted as she crumbled a bill within her palm.

"Five million more for us to wipe our asses with?"

Kwan Liu, who sat on a footstool with uneven legs and was feigning interest in a vintage paperback edition of A Brief History of Venusian Aviation, shook his head and snickered. Although ugly red-blotches blemished the patron's cheeks, he glanced at the fluttering, moth-eaten curtain behind Kwan and kept his composure.

"I'm sure we can add twenty more."

"And I'm sure they'll worth a lot less by the time inflation runs its sweet course." said Marie without bothering to look up. "You are no fool, Wally, but neither am I."

"I prefer Walter…"

"As I said, I am no fool, Wally. Why don't we - as you suggested earlier - cut the bullshit and get to the point. How much do the raiders cost you per attack on one of your precious cities?"

"Fifty million." Walter's response was barely audible over his grinding teeth.

"By last month's rates, perhaps." Kwan snorted. He never liked cheap patrons - especially ones who feigned generosity by haggling a marginally better deal.

"Then I'll triple the pay..."

"Kwan," Marie tossed her stash of bills back into the briefcase. "Please see our guests to the door."

"Sure thing, Boss."

A wry smile appeared on Marie's face as Walter glared at her, murder emanating from his black, beady eyes and his flabby, worm-like lips quivering soundless words of malice. He continued to stand there, still and grave and straight as a headstone, even after Kwan tried to usher him to the door.

"What will make you reconsider?" said Walter, his voice cold and devoid of the usual false cheeriness. The smile on Marie's face widened.

"Something substantial, for starters. I don't ask for much, Wally. How about a quarter of the mining quota from Vega?"

"Well of course!" Walter nodded vehemently, and even the stony-faced bodyguard on his left cracked a grin. "All you had to do was ask, Ma'am. When will you depart for Navarr, I'll start making the proper arrangements..."

"Hold it. I'm afraid I'm not done listing my conditions."

"Then continue, please continue." a trace of honey crept back into Walter's voice.

"Human capital, and a decent share of it."

"Please elaborate."

"Very well. I demand ownership of all 15,000 serfs from the district of Kushan. I hope that sounds perfectly reasonable."

Every vein in Walter's temples, as if on cue, begun to throb in unison. Breathing heavily, he clenched his fists so tightly that his ragged nails drew blood from his palms. But a minute, almost imperceptible flutter of the old woolen curtain checked any outright displays of aggression. His breathing eased, and his fists opened, but the pulsating veins in his forehead and temples remained engorged.

"Can't say that is."

"Strange, considering that you lose half as many to the raiders on a good month."

"And I'd rather the entrust them to the raiders than some third rate Earth Force Agent wannabe who thinks that a few years in the corp is worth shit on my turf." to Walter's credit, he didn't raise his voice.

Marie's natural eye narrowed.

"Enough to get me a quarter of Vega's mining rights, apparently." Marie wound a curl of her hair loosely around her index finger.

"And you'd be foolish to equate the two. Mines are virtually inexhaustible, while you can't dig engineering talents from dirt. I'd settle for no more than 1500."

"And not a single more?"

"Not until you give me a damn good reason for spending half as much without tangible proof that you can't get the job done."

"Then I'm afraid we are not on the same page."

"And you think you can con me again, woman." every joint in Walter's chair creaked in protest as he leaned his corpulent body forward, his face inches from Marie's. "When's your last job, Miss Magnum?"

"Not sure I am going to dignify that with a response."

"Then I'll answer for you." Walter produced a scroll of electronic paper from his chest pocket, unraveled it, and slid it across the desk. "You are going to need whatever help you can get, Miss Magnum, so I suggest that you show a teeny bit of respect to the only person on Venus who can help you."

"What makes you think that I require the assistance of a gold digger's son." Marie cracked a smile and slid the paper back across the desk.

"Say… say that again."

Walter stood up, his face a vivid shade of purple and his flaccid body quivering with rage. The bodyguards to Walter's right placed a hand on his pistol holster. Without hesitation, Marie rose from her seat as well. At a height of six-foot two, she easily towered over her opponent.

"I asked you whether you thought I needed help from the son of a sniveling gold digger who leeched off the fortunes of established dynasties."

"Shut… your … whore… mouth!"

Huffing and puffing as if he were scaling a sheer cliff, Walter heaved himself over the office desk and swiped at Marie with his chubby arms. Evading his elephantine attacks with ease, Marie retaliated with a vicious right jab that connected with Walter's jaw with a sickening crack. Walter released an unearthly wail before collapsing, rolling off the desk, and striking the floor with a heavy thud. To Kwan's chagrin, both bodyguards drew their guns, and one of them trained his on Marie.

"Kwan!" shouted Marie as she scrambled for cover.

A shot rang out, and a spray of foam and splints marked the spot where bullet struck Marie's chair. Kwan drew his pistol, but its light weight revealed that he, against better judgment and Ragnar's repeated advice, failed to load it last night. As soon as Kwan rummaged his belt for ammunition, the other bodyguard pointed his gun at him and wagged a finger tauntingly. Flustered, Kwan dropped his weapon and raised both of his hands in the air.

"Afraid gonna give you the count of three ma'am," said the bodyguard, his gun fixed upon Kwan even as he helped Walter - shivering and bleeding profusely from the corner of his mouth - to his feet. "One..."


Kwan's heart sank when he heard a shuffle behind the table. He shut his eyes and proceeded, despite his best efforts at suppression, to shiver.



Kwan reopened his eyes a sliver when the gunshot failed to arrive. To his surprise and confusion, one bodyguard lay prostrate in a puddle of soapy water and the other had dropped to his knees, moaning pathetically while nursing what appeared to be a broken wrist. Their boss cowered behind them, his eyes wide and his face frozen in a mask of utmost terror.

"Rag...Ragnar?" Walter quavered at last, but received no reply from the dripping wet Norse giant before him, who wore nothing but the towel around his waist and a scowl as deadly as a dagger to the throat. He had steel grey eyes, a low, sloped forehead, high cheeks, an aquiline nose, and a jutted mouth that recalled the snout of some ferocious beast. A shock of dirty blond beard, darkened and tamed by water, matted against his well-muscled chest, which rippled with every heaving breath. His right hand clenched around the moth-eaten curtain that concealed the archway behind while his left loosely held half a bar of soap - the other half of which shattered against the bodyguards' head and wrist a moment prior.

"Poor Ragnar can't seem to catch a break, even when he's showering," said Marie as she emerged from behind her cover. "I don't think he's too happy about the interruption. You outta be happy that he only had soap on hand."

As if on cue, the scowl on Ragnar's face morphed into a contemptuous snarl. He bared his teeth and gave a bestial grunt of consent.

"I," Walter retreated until his back was pressed against the wall, "oh what misunderstandings. I didn't intend..."

"To punch me in the face or better yet, shoot the place up? You can do better than that, Wally."

"I didn't, I didn't know…"

"And I suppose you are willing to make amends?"

"Yes, yes. I'm gonna fire those two idiots first thing tomorrow morning…"

"Like I care." Marie yawned, her feet propped against the bullet-riddled office table. "I meant the damages..."

Ragnar let go of the curtain and flexed his right arm.

"Yes, yes, I'll see to them first thing tomorrow morning!"

"And our deal, with the additional perks we had some difficulties agreeing to earlier…"

"Yes, yes, and yes." Fat beads of sweat rolled down Walter's pale forehead and down his cheek to the corner of his mouth, where they mingled with a thin line of blood and saliva. "Make that eighteen, no, twenty-thousand serfs. I'll throw in a quarter of Kushan, just as a bonus to sweeten the deal, you know… Anything, anything you want!"

"How about getting out of my sight? Think I've got enough of your fat slobbering nonsense for a day."

"Yes ma'am, yes ma'am," said Walter with the gratitude of a newly pardoned death row inmate.

With the help of his waking bodyguard he propped the barely conscious one to his feet, and the trio scampered to the exit door like a throng of crippled crabs.

"One more thing."

Kwan silently swore that he heard something trickled down Walter's khaki suspenders.

"Yes ma'am?"

"When do we start?"

"As soon as you'd like ma'am."

"Don't be clever with me, when do we start?"

"Within one Earth week or whatever you Earthers keep time with." Walter emitted a mix of a whimper and a sob. "I swear I'll live up to my end of…"

"Get the hell out..."

The trio complied, but the stench of gunpowder, sweat, and urine lingered long after their departure. As the hollow echoes of their footsteps faded away, Marie released a long sigh, collapsed into her chair, and extracted a pack of cigarettes from her breast-pocket. Her hands shook when she attempted to light one.

"Didn't you say that smoking, even the second-hand variety, can 'kill you dead'." Kwan pinched his nose as Marie shrouded herself, and then the rest of the room in thick billowing smoke.

"Not as fast as a bullet." said Ragnar before Marie could formulate a rebuttal. "Thought you swore you loaded your peashooter."

"But we've got Rag! Frankly I don't get why we can't just have him around during the negotiations..."

"Because we can't count on Ragnar to bail your ass out every time there is trouble. " said Marie between puffs of cigarette. "But more importantly, you probably need the necessary kick in the ass to prep you for the assignment."

"What… I thought…"

"We depart for Navarr in two Earth days, if Wally upholds his end of the deal." Marie continued without a hitch.

"Christ, this is my first assignment. You can't, you can't expect me to… Chief Abgnale, he didn't agree to this, did he?"

What little color that remained drained from Kwan's face when Ragnar nodded gravely.

"And if he doesn't uphold the deal?"

"Then we'll find another who will," Marie's organic eye twinkled. "Ensign Kwan Liu, consider yourself dismissed."