And I'll Just Say Hello - CosmicTapestries (2024)

***

“I am telling you, these character layouts are gold. Once we cast and get this universe off the ground, it’s going to be total bank.”

The sunlight flooding the boardroom was as dazzling as the sketches that Johnny had laid out carefully on the table in front of him. Outworld was spread across the wooden surface, the vibrant color illustrations he had commissioned telling the story of how the last year of his life had been spent. The layouts had been worth every penny he’d spent to have them boarded up, at the cost of one slightly broken Hochuli statue. One of the few things he had managed to keep in the divorce, probably because it was as shattered as the marriage it was bought during.

Johnny had been careful to cast the whole tale as fiction, taking artistic license with the details that needed to be carefully concealed for everybody’s protection and anonymity. Still, his friend’s renders told the story, their story, of Mortal Kombat, in a way he was proud to have put his blood, sweat and tears in. Now he just had to sell it to the six other people sitting around the table. Four men and two women formed the executive board for Tri-Lion pictures. In Hollywood, if you wanted your horror or fantasy movie to be epic tier, you looked to the purse strings they held in iron claws. Johnny had been around long enough to know that for every movie they OK’d, there were a dozen they rejected. It wasn’t easy, even for people who had worked in the industry, and he was fighting twelve months off the lot, a very public divorce and a rumor mill that spun faster than Princess Kitana’s fans.

Johnny quietly surveyed the room, sending silent pleas to whatever gods would listen. The faces staring back at him were his jury and his firing squad. They could make or break him. He could see a mixture of interest and incredulity, but there was no way for him to predict if the board would take the chance. The folders in front of him had been handed out days before. They knew all the details, but it was up to him to sell the story, and that’s exactly what he had spent the last hour and a half doing. Now it was time to step back and hope he had done enough.

He reached for a bottle of water and took a swig, trying to hide how nervous he was. The silence seemed to stretch on until finally Bob Tobias, a balding, portly man he knew was the mouthpiece, finally eased back in his chair. “I have to say, Johnny, you really went all out and put this together well.”

“Thank you.” Johnny toyed with the plastic bottle. “It’s been a bit of a passion project. Time consuming, but I’ve put everything I have into it.”

“We can tell.” Bob flipped through the folder and then let it drop closed. “So, I’ll get right to the point. We like it. There’s a lot of potential here to work with.”

“That’s absolutely amazing.” Johnny resisted the urge to fist pump the air and tried to keep his tone measured. “So, the project is a go?”

“Tentatively.” Bob cleared his throat and indicated the character sketches. “But we do have something things we want to…suggest. Just ideas to make it even stronger.”

And now the games would begin.

This was the part Johnny had been dreading. There was always a fight for changes, ways that the studio thought more money could be earned or tweaks that would put more asses in seats. He’d never been under the illusion that his vision (Okay, Liu Kang’s vision borrowed with permission) would come out completely intact. It was down to him to keep it together, in more ways than one, and not lose his temper or blow his shot because he couldn’t pull a solid poker face.

Taking a seat, he pulled his tablet closer and brought up the notepad app he had been using to keep track of ideas. “Okay, let’s talk. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“First, you lack romance.” Bob tapped the script treatment. “This is fantastic, and sexy in its own way, but we want to you to build a couple people want to root for! Unresolved sexual tension is a huge seller, we need you to tap into that.”

“Think Han and Leia,” a dark-haired woman—Mary? Mariah? Johnny couldn’t remember her name—piped up. “Or Arwen and Aragorn.”

“And you need a female bad ass.” This was from a younger looking man with glasses at the end of the table. “They’re hot right now. Huge with our key female demographics, like 18 to 45. Think solider or police officer.”

“Did you read the script all the way through?” Johnny felt his ire rise and tried to keep it in check. “We’ve got Tanya, Kitana and Mileena to name a few. They’re all pretty bad ass in my opinion. Li Mei is the head of the Sun Do police force.”

“No,” The kid waved his hand and Johnny briefly thought about making him eat it. “Think more all American. Like Navy SEAL or Marines. Tough as nails but someone everybody will fall in love with.”

Johnny angled the tablet towards him, so the screen was concealed and wrote f*ck Knuckle. Doesn’t know anything. Romance? G.I. Jane? He picked up the water bottle and took another sip, desperately wishing it was vodka or whisky. Any of the hard stuff that he had decided to give up as a crutch when he’d started drafting Mortal Kombat. “All right, I can try to figure something out. Maybe have Liu recruit someone from the Special Forces to add some red, white and blue into it. I had thought of a romance between Raiden and Kitana…”

“Excellent.” Bob gave him a smile that would have made a bull crocodile proud and fiddled with his phone. “Fantastic. Okay, let’s get the wheels in motion, get these photos over to casting and we’ll meet again in…say three weeks? Four? See what you’ve got then.”

“Perfect.” Johnny rose to shake his Bob’s hand as everyone began to pack up and scurry out. The older man’s eyes held a shrewd edge; he clearly thought he had just made Johnny hit the mat and roll over on his back. Keep the wannabe director running in circles until he gives up or fails out.

Johnny smiled, piling on all the charm he had cultivated through out his career. The good thing about being on the mat was that it made a nut shot really easy and man, after everything the last year had put him through, he was coming up swinging.

An hour and two conference calls later, Johnny could breathe a sigh of relief and escape the confines of the boardroom. Outside the blue sky of an early California summer stretched above his head as flowing as a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. The sun was vibrant, the day was warm and best of all, the rest of it was his. An almost frighteningly blank canvas of possibility.

A year ago, at this time, he’d have headed home to Malibu and dragged Cris to the beach. Or they’d have taken the Ferrari down the coast and gone to the vacation house at Lake Tahoe. Eight years ago, he’d have gone home to the ranch style house in Beverly Hills, he had bought himself with the royalties from his first successful movie, Cage Match. He’d have pulled out his little black book and had a date arranged for the night within the hour. There had been no shortage of models and actresses, all blonde, tanned and more than happy to be on his arm with short notice.

Now, Johnny hit the highway and headed for Venice Beach and the condo he had purchased six months before when the divorce had been finalized. The drive still felt strange despite the fact he had been born and raised in Venice. Try as he might, he couldn’t help but think he was going backwards in a way. His new place was right on the beach, he refused to give that up, but you could have fit the whole interior layout into the ground floor of the mansion easily. It was still expensive, but most of his excess had been liquidated in the breakup to cover costs. What was left was homier and more eclectic than he would have lever admitted he liked but it wasn’t like he was planning on showing it off any time soon. The thought of dating made his stomach twist in knots and if he wanted dalliances…. that’s what hotels were for. He wasn’t ready to share the space with anyone. Not yet.

By the time he pulled the Ferrari up in front of the white sandstone building, he had narrowed his plans down to two solid options: grabbing his surfboard and hitting the waves for a few rounds or making a few calls and seeing if he could still get court side for the Laker’s game that evening. It would be easy enough to turn it into an evening out, dinner, the game and then maybe a beer after. Good publicity after the breakup to show he wasn’t still wallowing in the aftermath and hadn’t gone full Howard Hughes in his misery.

Most of his entourage had gone with the money, but he was lucky enough in a town as fake as LA to have a few solid people he could still call for a night out. Hell, he wouldn’t have the condo if it hadn’t been for his oldest friend Art Lean. When he’d been at his lowest point, and the script had just been a pipe dream he had barely any funds for, Art had been the one to suggest they go in together with his brother to open the Venice Street dojo. The studio ran classes seven days a week with some of the best martial artists teachers they could get, and Johnny’s new place took up the upper floor. It was win-win, money coming in to make bank and he got to be the silent partner keeping an eye on up-and-coming talent.

He bypassed the large glass door, briefly checking in on the class in progress, and then headed for the private elevator next to the office, letting the barrier slide closed behind him with a grateful sigh. In a minute, he was on the upper floor and pulling aside the wrought iron screen to step into the large loft that was now home. The word still felt strange to him, as if the leather and wood décor belonged to someone else and he was just a guest in his new life looking in.

The space was open and airy, with large glass windows that let in the light and gave him a stellar view of the boardwalk below. The kitchen was open concept with a large island, leading directly to the living and dining room. A wickedly expensive stereo system, his prize possession, dominated one wall, along with his collection of vinyl records and fight trophies. The only delineated space was his bedroom, set off to the side through a pair of double wooden doors. A spiral staircase led up to the catwalk and the nook he was calling his office. More like a dais than anything, it held his desk and computer and was covered in papers and notes for the script most of the time. The whole place was beautiful, luxurious, and it was his…but somehow that didn’t make him feel quite as fulfilled as it had in the past.

Johnny dropped down on the Italian leather sofa and leaned his head back, closing his eyes as the stress of the day began to ease. After a moment he reached over the arm, searching until he found the door to the wine fridge he had tucked there and grabbed a much-needed bottle of Budweiser. No hard stuff anymore, but he wasn’t a saint, and it had been a long ass day to be completely and totally sober. Eyes still closed, he pulled an old trick out of his pocket and ran his thumb along the edge of the cap until he found the right point, popping it easily and sending it flying over his shoulder.

“Neat trick. You’ll have to teach me how to do it.”

“Jesus f*ck!” The words came out in an undignified yelp as Johnny jumped in surprise, sending a torrent of beer over his shirt, the couch and anything within reach of the shaken bottle. “Awwww man, this thing is custom!”

Kenshi raised an eyebrow in a comical gesture as he emerged from the dining area. “I’ll have to take your word for it unfortunately.”

To Johnny’s eyes, Kenshi had changed little a since they had parted company in Fengjian village. He appeared as silently as a ghost, as cool and calm as ever, in a black suit and red tie, a thin white cane in his tattooed hands. “How the hell did you get in here?”

“Because this place has two things in common with your old.” Kenshi lowered himself into an overstuffed chair casually. “It’s excessive and your security system is sh*t.”

“Maybe by your standards.” Johnny scowled and retrieved a towel from the kitchen island to mop at his shirt. “This is me being frugal.”

“That’s truly horrifying.” Kenshi crossed his feet at the ankles and made himself comfortable. “I’ll take one of those beers… once you’re done cleaning up of course.”

“You know, most guests call before they break in,” Johnny swiped up what he could off the couch and then activated the nearby Roomba to come over and mop up the rest off the floor. With a sigh, he fished another beer out of the cooler and set it on the table beside Kenshi, then retrieved another for himself.

“Guest? After everything we’ve been through? I would have thought we were close at this point. Like brothers.” The long neck bottle beside Kenshi rose off the table and floated gracefully to his reaching fingers. After a second, the cap turned by itself as if twisted by an invisible force and dropped with a clink to the floor.

“My brother is an asshole of the first degree.” Johnny winced as vivid memories of getting his ass handed to him by his older brother James resurfaced. “Trust me when I say, I like you a lot more.”

“I’m touched.” Kenshi took a sip of his drink and then set it aside. “Things going well at the studio?”

“Moving along. They like the script; we’re moving to casting. It’s slow going but it looks like we could start filming in the late winter.” Johnny flopped back down again and took a long pull of beer, leaving out the changes they wanted him to make. “You? How’s my sword treating you?”

Kenshi scowled but seemed to understand that Johnny was just pulling his leg. “Sento has been a great aid; you know how grateful I am that you returned her to me.”

“I do, but please continue to remind me.” It hadn’t been easy to explain to Cristina’s divorce attorneys that he had simply gifted a three-million-dollar sword to a friend his ex-wife had never met. In the end, Johnny had fallen on his own proverbial blade and said it had come from a shady dealer (not far from the truth). He had simply righted a wrong and returned it to the family it had been stolen from decades before. He’d been dinged half the value from his portion of their assets and moved on with a minimum of regret. “It makes the circus hoops I had to jump through seem less fire laden.”

“That bad huh?” Kenshi made a sympathetic noise.

“Let’s just say, there were points where I’m pretty sure Cris just wanted the sword to see how far she could shove it up my ass.” Johnny cleared his throat, trying not to let his still wounded pride show through. Months later, and he still had moments where he felt like he had been run over a cheap cheese grater, raw and shredded. Quickly, before he became even more morose, he changed the subject. “Any how, you didn’t commit B&E to hash the break down of my marriage. Don’t take this the wrong way, but what the hell are you doing here? Last I heard you were in…Tokyo?”

“Osaka.” Kenshi corrected him. “I was working with the few remaining clan members who had bucked off the Yakuza such as I, trying to rebuild our family’s legacy. I only made back stateside a few weeks ago. The…organization…I work for put in a call for intel and my contacts are useful.”

Johnny watched the flickering emotions across the other man’s features. In the short time he had known him, he had quickly realized he never wanted to sit around a poker table with Kenshi Takahashi. Unless he was in pain, like had been in Shang Tsung’s flesh pits, his emotions were largely inscrutable, and his control was impeccable. Something was bothering him, something big enough for him to seek out an ally…or maybe a needed friend. “Care to share details, or do I have to start concocting wild theories? Pretty sure nothing can top the sh*t we went through in Outworld, but you may surprise me.”

“That’s precisely why I’m here.” Kenshi considered his words carefully. “I wish I could say it was a social call, but the truth is I, we, need your help.”

“We?” A feeling of déjà vu began to creep into his stomach, causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand up. “Did Liu send you? Are we deep in the sh*t again? Man, I am not ready to start drafting a sequel so soon.”

“The last I heard Liu was still in Outworld keeping tabs on the new empress and I haven’t involved him in this. Yet.” Kenshi made a gesture with his hand and the beer bottle at his side lifted into the air. After a second, it began to rotate slowly, the label hulling off and unfurling in the air like an apple peel. “This is much closer to home, and I think you may be able to help in ways a lot of other consultants couldn’t.”

“Need a pro fighter huh?” Johnny grinned and linked his hands behind his head smugly. “Or are you looking for a wingman? Because I don’t play supporting roles anymore.”

“This is the guy you want to recruit for spec ops Takahashi? His ego’s like a spotlight, they’ll see it a mile away and shoot him.”

For the second time in under an hour, Johnny let out an undignified yelp and almost dropped the bottle in his hand. From his bedroom strode one of the most muscular men he had ever seen, the wide expanse of his chest and biceps impressive even from across the room. Clad in an expensive looking navy suit that complemented his dark skin and hair, he fixed Johnny with a shrewd stare and barely tried to hide his disapproval.

“Okay, that’s it, I need the home security version of a tactical system, or a German shepherd or something.” Johnny made a horrified face and drained his drink…just in case. “How many people have you got in there? Are we talking clown car or orgy?”

“I told you I could handle this.” Kenshi flashed an amused glance in the man’s direction.

“And I told you I vet everyone who works for me personally.” He strode across the room, arms crossed and stopped short of sitting down. “Besides, I was getting sick of studying his movie posters and the smell of Acqua De Gio was giving me a headache.”

“Johnny Cage meet Special Agent Jackson Briggs.” Kenshi made an introductory gesture between them. “Head of the newly formed Outworld Investigation Agency. Jax, meet Johnny Cage. Actor, writer, and performer.”

“You forgot all around awesome.” Johnny co*cked a finger gun in Kenshi’s direction.

“How can I when you never let me forget it?” Kenshi arched an eyebrow and then canted his head. “Have a seat, Jax; stop looming before you give yourself a migraine. We can trust him; you have my word."

With a grunt Jax dropped his considerable bulk into a nearby armchair, make the frame squeak alarmingly and level a cool gaze Johnny’s way. “That’s a lot of trust, you had better not f*ck this up Hollywood.”

“Why don’t we start from the beginning, and you can walk me through what’s going on.” Johnny reached for his phone and began to thumb in a familiar number.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jax scowled. “Put that f*cking thing away before I bury you in the Navada desert.”

“Relax, I’m ordering pizza.” Johnny stuck the phone on speaker so the other two men could hear it dialing. “On you of course. We can eat and you can bring me up to speed.”

Jax considered him for a moment and then tossed a look at Kenshi who gave him a shrug. With a sigh he sunk further back in the chair and Johnny could see him mentally giving in. “You put onions on that pie, and I’ll shoot you dead. Also tell them to throw in some hot sauce.”

“You got it.” Johnny smiled broadly as the call connected. “Bossman.”

Jax tossed a soft glare at Kenshi. “You better know what you are doing Takahashi. He’s a collie pup going into deal with Maco sharks.”

“That pup has well honed teeth,” Kenshi informed him. “And a charisma we badly need. He’s our best chance at making this work.

Jax sighed. “God, I hate that you’re right.”

An hour and two extra large pizzas later, Johnny sat back and pushed his plate aside. “So, let me get this straight, we’ve got an US military agency keeping tabs on potential threats from other realms?

“One of a few that have sprung up over the past six months.” Jax took a bite of pizza and took a moment to wash it down with beer. Britain has the monarch approved Protectors of the Realm, Canada’s looping in with them for now. Something is in the works in Japan and Australia. We’re all networking together to pass information, any threats that could come up. That’s how we found out about this…situation.”

“It’s a new drug, something unknown to us.” Kenshi piped in, tossing his own plate aside. “It popped up on the party scene, first in Moscow and London, then New York, and now here in LA.”

“I’m not surprised.” Memories of his time on the party circuit, half hazy and filtered through the contents of a co*cktail glass flashed before Johnny’s eyes. “If you’ve never hit the clubs on a Saturday night on the boulevard, it’s hard to imagine the amount that gets passed around. Pills, powders, tabs, capsules, you name it and you can find it.”

“This stuff is lethal, even in small amounts.” Jax retrieved a folder and slide it across the coffee table. “Eight overdoses so far. Two dead in Berlin, one in Frankfurt. Three people went down at a house party in Battery Park and last I checked two were still fighting it out in ICU. The other didn’t make it past the ER.”

“Last night, a twenty-five-year-old model at a party in Beverly Hills was found unresponsive at a studio party. She’s in ICU at Cedars-Siani in an induced coma.” Kenshi shook his head. “This stuff wreaks havoc, Johnny, burns people out faster than we’ve ever seen.”

“It’s as if cocaine and ecstasy made some sort of unholy union and then supercharged the effects.” Jax shuddered and shucked his jacket, tossing it aside. “The ODs are awful to hear about, the stuff of nightmares. Rapid breathing, violent seizures, vivid hallucinations, muscle spasms. It raises the blood pressure rapidly, causes heart arrhythmia and eventually they tap out via stroke or coronary.”

“Jesus,” Johnny felt his stomach roll and quickly reached over to shut the pizza box in front of him. “Why isn’t this in the news?”

“OIA got to it first, we’ve been vetting what gets out.” Jax’s face creased in worry. “But it’s only a matter of time before it leaks somewhere.”

“My sources told me that the sellers may have gone to the Tojo clan first and the Yakuza felt it was too risky.” Kenshi pushed his pizza around listlessly and then set it aside. “So now the drugs are being moved by the Black Dragon clan, a mercenary group working out of Jakarta.”

“That name sounds like something out of a B-grade kung fu movie.” Johnny gestured to the DVDs collected near by. “You know, all cheesy moves and no real heat.”

“They’re anything but.” Jax interjected, tapping the folder. “Their leader is a thug named Kano, and he’s making sure they have fingers in every pie they can. Drugs, black market antiquities, sex trafficking, kill contracts, the works. He’s the most cold-hearted prick I think I’ve ever heard of.”

“Remind me to never introduce you to my old man.” Johnny began to leaf through the documents, stopping when he came across a collection of post-mortem photos. Still faces stared back at him, clenched hands and the pallor of death speaking volumes of agonizing last moments chasing a high. “Holy sh*t, you weren’t exaggerating.”

“Not in the slightest,” Jax closed the file with a snap and dropped it back into his briefcase.

“How the hell can I help you with this?” Johnny’s expression was dismayed. This wasn’t just out of his wheelhouse; it was a different universe all together.

Kenshi leaned forward pensively. “Johnny, we think this is stuff is coming from Outworld.”

For a minute, Johnny didn’t know how to respond. There was no sarcasms or quip suited for the seriousness of the situation at hand. “Have you talked the Empress?”

“Not yet,” Kenshi sighed. “We don’t have enough proof to go to her. I’ve got Li Mei keeping tabs on the underworld in Sun Do for us, but it’s…complex. So far, we’ve had nothing concrete enough to go to Mileena, that won’t sound like an accusation.”

“Yeah, and we saw firsthand how well that went with Sindel.” Johnny shuddered at the memory. They’d nearly wound up on the wrong side of the Umgadi and at the epicenter of an interrealm incident.

“Exactly.” Kenshi canted his head in agreement. “Before we can do anything we need more information and that, my friend, is where you come in.”

“How so?” Johnny was all ears, the gravity of the request sinking in. Drugs in Hollywood were as old as the industry itself. Everyone, himself included, had lost friends to the monster of addiction. In his youth, Johnny had never been afraid of the occasional bump or pill offered at a party, living fast and dangerous and far to young to understand or care about the risks. Here, the risks were laid out in 8x10, the cold steel of the coroner’s examining table in high definition.

“Kenshi thinks you’d be the right fit to go undercover for us. You’ve got everything we need to get in with the Black Dragon,” Jax began ticking things off on his fingers. “Money, charisma, and contacts in Hollywood that could be exploited.”

Kenshi didn’t pull punches or sugar coat the details, something Johnny greatly appreciated. The last year had been nothing if not eye opening to him, about how much he appreciated cutting the bullsh*t and just laying things out straight. “If you could make them trust you, convince them you can be their distributor in Los Angelas and get the drugs on the Hollywood party circuit, then we could get a sample for analysis.”

“I’m not exactly covert.” Johnny nodded to the wall of trophies over the TV. “I’ve had a pro-fighting career. Two dozen movies. They’ll know who I am.”

“That’s what we are counting on.” Jax made an encompassing gesture to the loft and all it’s contents. “We want you to play the Hollywood star and convince Kano you’re the right person to sell his drugs. Use every skill you have. Be charming, win him over. Think of it as the role of a lifetime.”

“And what about my actual career?” Johnny reached for hie beer and took a slug. “I’m just getting back into it. If it gets out that I’m slipping drug into parties, it’s all over. I’ll be ruined.”

“I’ll talk to the studio personally.” Jax assured him. “We’ll fix anything that gets FUBAR’d. Maybe we can swing it as good publicity, an all-American actor helping the war on drugs.”

“It’s a huge ask Johnny, we get that, and it’s extremely dangerous.” Kenshi conceded. “And unfortunately, we don’t any time to waste. Every day could mean more deaths.”

“Oh, don’t lay on the guilt or anything.” Johnny stared at the ceiling for a moment. Casting was starting, the script needed work, and he was looking at long hours with little pay off for months. At the very least he could do something useful and maybe something good would come out of it. “Okay, you’ve hooked me but if this goes tit* up, I want your word you’ll help me get everything back on track. No bullsh*t, I can’t afford for this to wind up killing what little leverage I have.”

“Agreed,” Jax gave a curt nod then flashed a glance at Johnny. “Kenshi will start making calls through his contacts to set up a meeting. You’ll have a few days to get everything in order and then it will be game on.”

“No time for dress rehearsal huh?” Johnny winced. “Anything else you need me to know that isn’t in that folder?”

A look passed between Kenshi and Jax, fleeting but important.

“There is one thing I need you to do,” Jax grimaced, clearly uncomfortable. “We have one of our top agents undercover with the Black Dragon, she’s been in deep for almost a year under the code name Kira. She’s missed her check ins recently; I need you to find out if she is okay and report back.”

“It’s not like Sonya to miss our meetings.” Kenshi chimed in, concern lining his features. “We’re worried about her.”

“Is there a chance she went rogue?” Johnny asked.

“It’s doubtful.” Still Johnny saw the apprehension in Jax’s eyes. It was clear he wasn’t entirely sure himself. “Either way we need to know.”

“I can handle that. Maybe she can help me.”

“That’s what we are hoping.” Jax rose and reached for his jacket. “We’ll be in touch in the next couple days. Be prepared to travel to Jakarta at a moment’s notice. Kano won’t come to you; you’ll have to go to him.”

“Not a problem, I can get it cleared through set design. Tell them I’m going on a research trip to look at potential shooting locations.”

“Good.” With a million things to put together in a short time, Jax was clearly trying to make his escape. “I’m heading back to the office to start the ball rolling. Kenshi, start filling him in on procedures and get his clearances going.”

“You got it.” Kenshi pulled out his phone and began to sweep the screen with graceful fingers.

“Anything I can do to help?” Johnny asked.

“Just be on the damn plane when we tell you to be.” Jax stepped into the elevator and pulled the screen across with a clang. “And don’t get yourself killed. The last thing I need is more f*cking paperwork. I’m drowning in it as it is.”

***

“Your luggage, sir.”

“Thank you,” Johnny hefted his duffle bag on his shoulder and flashed a high watt smile at the airport attendant. Money talked, and it turned out that the amount he had still made people babble. Between his cash and Jax’s connections, he’d been assigned a “meet and greet” attendant that had whisked him through getting his travel documents checked and his bags retrieved almost as soon as he landed. “Could you point me to the pickup lounge?”

“Down the hall to your left, Mr. Cage.” The attendant tilted his head in the right direction. “And welcome to Jakarta. Please, enjoy your stay.”

Johnny raised a hand in a mock salute of thanks and began to weave his way through the throngs of people coming and going. It was almost eighteen hours between Los Angeles and Indonesia. Even ensconced in first class, it had been a brutally long flight, with plenty of time for him to begin to worry he wouldn’t be able to pull the plan off.

In the seventy-two hours since Kenshi and Jax had shown up at his apartment, Johnny felt like he had lived two lifetimes. There had been calls to make to his agent, to his parents, and to Art, letting them know he was going out of town. Then had come all the paperwork, his contract for the OIA, his emergency contacts. Hell, even an updated will that he had left with his lawyer because he hadn’t thought of that since the divorce. Seeing the document had brought home how hazardous the situation was, and the fact he had only the scant details that Kenshi was filtering to him to guide his path.

This wasn’t like walking onto a movie set and knowing he was doing his own stunts. If he f*cked up, there was a real chance he’d never come home again. He’d have to be hyper vigilant to make sure he didn’t say or do the wrong thing.

Like any role he’d taken, he started getting into the mindset right away, dressing impeccably in dark khakis, a grey shirt and his favorite Prada sunglasses. Hell, he’d even sprung for a shave and a hair cut from his stylist, a bill he had promptly sent to Jax as a business expense. Now as he strode across the busy terminal, he began to wish he had picked something lighter. Sweat was already gathering between his shoulder blades, the fabric of his shirt clinging like a second skin. With a grunt, he hefted his duffle bag higher on his shoulder and scanned the crowd, following the signs as he went. Thank God most were translated into multiple languages. His grasp of Indonesian was small, limited to a few phrases he had learned when he was filming Dragon Fist in Surabaya almost a decade before. He was down to the translator app on his phone and that was going to have to be good enough to get by for now.

The pickup lounge was reserved for all first-class passengers and consisted of a separate seating area and much to his relief a small coffee stall. The rich smell was enough to make his mouth water after such a long trip and he found himself gravitating towards the barista, trying to remember the conversion between dollars and rupiahs. “One large please.”

The takeout cup was a welcome weight in his hands and the first sip was manna, even as it was scalding his tongue. With a yawn, he scanned the line of drivers holding signs, looking for his name in the typed print. There, at the end, a short, dark-haired man in a grey driver’s uniform made a beckoning gesture and Johnny headed in his direction.

“Mr. Cage.” He made a semi-formal bow, the light glinting off an insignia pin to his lapel. “Welcome to Jakarta. My name is Elang. I’ll be your adjunct for the duration of your stay. Anything you need I can acquire, so please don’t hesitate to ask.”

For a moment, Johnny let his eyes linger on the symbol, a bayonet backed by a pair of wings and flanked by an anchor. He’d lay good money on it representing the Indonesian military. When he thought about it, it made total sense. The Indonesian government would be crazy to let American federal agents into their territory without some type of presence. 50/50 he was there to make sure that national interests didn’t get stepped on and make sure Johnny was behaving himself while he was on the job.

“Right now, a shower and a ten-hour nap sound like heaven.” Johnny tried to smother a yawn. “Did you get the directions to the hotel?”

“Of course,” Elang gave a nod. “Please, follow me.”

They stepped outside into the rush of noon heat and suddenly the inside of the airport seemed as cool as a Colorado fall. “I’ve forgotten how frigging hot it gets here.”

Elang chuckled. “At least you have the right idea with the coffee.”

“That’s more a survival thing. There’s almost a full day’s difference between here and LA. It’s either coffee or a gurney.” Johnny took a slug out of his cup and followed behind as Elang lead him quickly to a long grey town car.

“The hotel is about fifteen minutes away; we’ll get you settled and then perhaps a meal?” Eland open the car door and Johnny gratefully slid inside, welcoming both the quiet and the air conditioning.

Leaning back against the seat, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked to see if he had reestablished service. Jax had assured him the SIM card he had dropped off the evening prior would work once he landed. Still, Johnny could feel the relief once the smart phone powered up and he could see three solid bars. It was a connection to his life and the safety of home that he hadn’t known he had needed until that moment.

Traffic was steady around them as they headed for the Mentang District and watching the cars pass through the tinted glass was almost lulling. Jakarta was beautiful to behold in its own industrial way, tall skyscrapers and bevelled steel. For a moment Johnny wondered if growing up in Los Angeles and spending time filming in New York had changed his ideas of what beauty was. He was just as happy amid skyscrapers as he was surfing Zuma Beach; the appreciation was just as profound and humbling. They passed an exquisitely built mosque and then a large, manicured park with a stunning fountain in the center. In another life, Johnny would have asked to stop and take pictures. Maybe file them away for the script as ideas for Sun Do but time was everything and his body was crying for the comfort that only a long shower and soft pillows would provide.

By the time they pulled up in front of a very modern looking hotel, Johnny was drowsing, only waking when the car pulled to a sharp stop, and he sloshed now cold coffee over his hand. “Dammit.”

The car door opened smoothy as Johnny was wiping his hands, grateful he had remembered to grab a napkin from the coffee stall. He stepped out into the concrete jungle, nimbly avoiding getting hit by a cyclist in his torpor. Elang passed him his duffle and then held out a hand for Johnny’s phone so he could input a number into the contacts. “The check in desk is just across the lobby. I’m a call or a message away, please don’t hesitate.”

“Noted.” Johnny couldn’t help as he watched the car pull away but wonder how long the baby-sitting act would go on for. Between checking in on the regular with Jax and Elang watching his steps, he wouldn’t be able to sneeze without three government agencies filing paperwork. He could only hope time and trust would loosen the reigns, so it didn’t feel quite so stifling.

His thoughts drifted to the ambiguous Agent Blade. From what Kenshi had told him, she was tough as nails, smart and deadly in the field. They way he had talked, Johnny had wondered if something more had gone on between them, but Kenshi had been firm that they were colleagues, nothing more. Still the way he had spoken, it was clear the respect he had for her, and the real worry that something had gone wrong. Unlike Jax, he was leaning towards maleficence and not an action or choice she had made. Johnny could only hope to prove him right and bring back something to put their minds at ease.

Crossing the lobby, he approached the concierge desk and soon found himself on his way to the top floor, where a private set of suites had been opened for him. Taking the cardkey from the desk clerk had been a flash to the past, when money had rolled freely, and filming had kept him put up in hotels all around the world. Booze, pills, women, there was nothing he couldn’t have if he wanted it, and he’d never been afraid to ask. Then he’d met Cristina in a bar in New Orleans while he was filming Fatal Infinity and he’d promised himself he’d do better, be better. It had worked, for awhile at least but fame was as intoxicating as good whiskey, and it hadn’t been long until he was right back to where he was before.

By the time the elevators opened to his floor, Johnny had worked his way into mopey introspection, not helped by the headache beginning to burn behind his eyes. Almost on autopilot, he headed for door and tapped the key, stepping inside with a grateful sigh and letting the door click shut behind him.

For a moment he simply let himself breath in the quiet and then he took in the suite for the first time. Blinking in surprise, he allowed himself a contented grin. “Hot. Damn.”

Spread out before him was what could only be described as luxury. Deep grey carpets spread out in all directions, leading to a well sized sitting area and a well stocked kitchenette. Through a separate door he could see a California king bed and what he assumed was a closet big enough to make him weep. Dropping his duffle bag with a groan, he began to pad around, catching sight of the master bath, a large soaker tub and a glassed-in shower with a black marble bench. There was a small area devoted to working out with weights, a floor mat and a treadmill. Outside a pair of sliding glass doors led to a private balcony with the city spread out like a map for him to see.

“Damn Jax, remind me to buy you a beer when I get home.” He had assumed that the room being on the OWA’s dime meant it would be modest, but it was clear they were expecting him to play the part to the full extent of their budget. Johnny ran his hand along the back of a nearby sofa, feeling the soft leather melt under his fingers. This was what he was used to, all the trappings and expensive little things that he had thought were so important to his image.

With a sigh, he headed for the kitchen to check the fridge, promising himself that, that was the last time he allowed himself to feel sorry for himself. It wasn’t doing any good. And wasn’t that the real point of hauling his ass halfway across the world? To do some real good again, where it counted? There were people counting on him and he’d be damned if he was going to let them down.

Johnny was so lost in thought he almost missed what had been left on the countertop for him to find. On a platter sat a brown tall neck bottle in ice with the words Great Northern and an etching of a swordfish on the side. Beside it was a folded piece of paper. Carefully Johnny picked it up and unfolded it to find a simple message in a surprisingly elegant script:

Chivomengro. Tonight. Come alone.

Setting the note down as if it might bite him, Johnny fished his phone out of his pocket and took a photo then sent it off to Kenshi along with a short message:

Landed safe. Checked in. Someone left this for me to find.

A short moment later, his phone vibrated with a short reply:

Good, that’s exactly what we wanted.

A second message followed almost immediately:

Watch your back. Don’t wind up with a knife in it. Check in day after tomorrow.

Johnny tossed the phone on the counter and rubbed his temples. He had hours until he had to leave, plenty of time to clean up and get into the role so to speak. With little regrets, he began shedding his clothing, leaving a trail behind him until he was fully nude, and then headed for the bedroom. Crawling between the sheets, he closed his eyes, and was sound asleep it seemed before his head even hit the pillow.

Evening in Jakarta proved much cooler then the daylight hours; by the time Johnny was ready to head out the door and meet Elang, he was glad he had remembered to pack a decent variety of clothing. Standing in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom he studied his reflection critically. Black cargo pants, a black t-shirt and a dark green vest with a hood. Look well put together but not over the top had been Jax’s instructions. Kano apparently hated pretension (notably he was his own exception) and Johnny had endeavored to find a middle ground that would allow him to still fit in but carry the message he had money to burn. The sunglasses he slid on were the same Prada ones he had worn that morning and the black leather boots he laced up were a well-worn pair he’d owned for years, saved for shooting days on location when the weather was sh*t. Running his fingers through his hair one last time, Johnny decided he would pass muster. Before he forgot, he stopped and slid the burner phone Kenshi had prepped for him into an interior pocket, tucking it away out of sight before heading for the door.

Downstairs, he crossed the lobby, giving a smile and a briefly wave to some of the hotel staff who clearly recognized him. Outside, Elang had already brought the car around and was waiting, giving him a curt nod. “Good evening.”

“Let’s hope so.” Johnny slid into the back seat and allowed the adjunct to close the door behind him. “Have you ever heard of a place called Chivomengro? I need to meet someone there.”

“It’s a nightclub in the south part of the city. Block M.” Elang caught his gaze in the rearview mirror. “That part of the Jakarta, it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing and who you need to talk to.”

“I have a good idea.” Johnny leaned back against the seat. “Don’t worry about me. I can hold my own.”

“I have no doubt.” Elang reached behind him without looking back and tapped the center console. The top opened with a slight hiss of air to reveal a padded compartment containing a Glock 19. “I’d feel much better if you took that with you.”

Johnny reached for the gun and one clip tucked under it, loading it silently then slipping it into his vest next to his phone. “Better?”

“Much.” Elang began to steer them into traffic, aggressively ducking around the cars that were heading into the downtown core.

As they lapsed into silence, Johnny began to go through his story in his head, all the details he had gone over with both Jax and Kenshi. He was in a way, in his element. Allowed to play a character, in this case himself, or a previous incarnation of himself. Brash, co*cky and thinking the world owed him everything.

He watched out the window as Jakarta sped by them, the well polished look of the Mentang gave way to more urban sprawl and then the downtown core began to build around them, the bright lights of restaurants and bars zipping by like they were light speed. Gradually the buildings became seedier, the lights slightly clouded as if seen at the bottom of a glass of beer. They turned a corner into what seemed like a club district, and suddenly it was more like the LA that Johnny knew, people milling about, bars thriving as the night flowed around them.

“It’s up here, on the left.” Elang began to slow and then pulled the car to a stop. “I’ll park just outside the district. If you require…assistance, I’m a message away.”

For the first time he didn’t move to exit the car and open the passenger side door. Johnny took it in stride, knowing that it was a calculated move. One less face for the crowed to recognize if needed. Cracking the door, he slipped out and hit the sidewalk, raising his hand in a casual wave as the car began to pull away.

Alone, he headed for the club, using the cover of his sunglasses to scan the crowd as he approached the door. Nobody stood out to him, although it wasn’t like any member of the Black Dragon would have a glowing neon sign about their head.

Stepping up to the bouncer, he glanced over the top of his sunglasses. “Johnny Cage. If there’s a list, I’m on it.”

The man at the door could have done a second act as a sumo wrestler and come out with an Oscar. With a hundred pounds and four inches on Johnny, there was no way he or anyone else was getting in if it was unwarranted. With a grunt, he glanced down at a clipboard and then stepped aside so Johnny could skim by.

Inside, the music was giving off a deep bass that Johnny could feel straight to his bones. The dim lighting was just enough for him to see the writhing mass of bodies on the dance floor moving to the beat. There was a scattering of tables lining the edge of the room, and a long slightly beat up wooden bar running along one corner. Above on a large TV, a bare-knuckle fight was playing, the two opponents beating the pulp out of each other in a savage brawl. For a moment, Johnny watched until one laid out the other on the floor and then refocused his attention, heading toward the bar and taking a stool at the end.

From down the black polished surface, the bartender glanced in his direction and then made his way over. “Two drink minimum mate, what can I get you to start?”

There was something in his word, the way he held his body warily that made Johnny sit up and take notice. Compared to the swath of club goers, the short, slightly barrel-chested man was dressed down in a tight white t-shirt and black jeans with combat boots. Judging by bulked muscles of his arms, and the web of scarring on his neck, he’d had his own experience with the criminal underbelly, be it local or not. He glared Johnny’s way pointedly, clearly expecting him to start drinking or piss off.

For a moment Johnny drew a blank, unfamiliar with the local fare, and then he remembered the note in his hotel room. “I’ll take a Great Northern.”

“Good choice.” There was an accent to the man’s voice, thick and guttural. Throw in a head of close-cropped ginger hair and there were few guesses as to where he was from. Edinburgh? Glasgow maybe? Johnny mused the possibilities in his mind as his beer was set upon the bar.

Taking a sip, he leaned back to watch the fight again. The winner of the first round was savaging his new opponent using a combination of Muay Thai and what looked like MMA style moves. The new opponent went down, kipped back up expertly and lashed out with a roundhouse kick that sent the other combatant flying into the metal cage. “Oof, he’s going to feel that in the morning.”

“Maybe, he will. Maybe he won’t.” The bartender smirked. “It depends on how good he can fight, and how long he can last.”

“How many rounds normally?” Johnny ‘s gaze stayed fixed on the flat screen, unable to look away.

The barkeep chuckled. “Until one of them goes down and stays down. It’s not really a…regulated tussle. If you catch my drift.”

“Local huh?” Johnny played dumb as he took another sip of beer. “You ever get people putting money on it?”

“All the time.” Now there was a pair of shrewd eyes assessing him up and down. “I could get even get you better seats if you’d like, for a small fee.”

Johnny pulled out his wallet and tossed a couple American bills on the bar. “That enough?”

The other man didn’t hesitate to scoop up the bills and tuck them away. Glancing down the bar, he let out a low whistle. “Nick! Get your ass over here and tend bar, I need to take someone to VIP.”

A younger greasy looking man in a torn jeans and black leather jacket skirted quickly around the dance floor and headed behind the bar. “It’s getting packed out there Denton, the line is three deep.”

“That’s what we f*cking want, it’s how we make money.” Denton swatted the man in the back of the head. “Just keep boozing them up and turning them out, that’s all you have to worry about.”

Turning to Johnny he co*cked his head. “Come with me.”

Johnny obediently slid off his stool and dropped in behind Denton as he began to plow his way through the crowd towards the back of the club. Now he could see the building was bigger than he had originally thought, the single tables giving away into more private booths. Beyond that, they turned a corner and found themselves at an emergency exit. Denton pushed it aside easily to reveal a set of stairs and began to descend without waiting to see if Johnny was behind him.

As he arrived on the bottom step, Johnny was met with a heavy gauge steel door. Pausing he watched as Denton gave a series of quick knocks and then stepped back. From the other side, someone responded with a sharp knock and then the door moved inward.

Immediately Johnny’s senses were assaulted with a familiar smell. Unwashed bodies, and the scream of enthusiastic spectators. As the door slammed shut behind him, and his eyes adjusted to the fluorescent light, he got his first real view of what the Black Dragon was about, not the false front above. People lined the room four deep, money in hand, screaming and yelling in both English and Indonesian. In the center was a familiar large wire cage with combatants at the center. As Johnny watched, one went down with a sickening crunch and much like Denton had predicted stayed down in the dirt. The other fighter paused and then gave a savage kick to the downed man sending blood flying in a spray across the sand. Realization finally slammed into Johnny like a lead weight.

The TV upstairs in the bar wasn’t a televised fight. It was a live feed.

The fight cage door opened, and two heavily tattooed men entered the ring. One went to the champion, thrusting his arm into the air in a gesture of victory. The other approached the figure crumpled on the ground. Without remorse or compassion, he pulled a 9mm handgun from his waist and fired a bullet into the loser’s skull.

Immediately, as Johnny blanched, the crowds went insane, cheering for the winner and passing bills back and forth in a flurry of pay outs. The dead man was hauled from the cage, leaving a streak of blood and gore in his wake. The champion standing retreated to the corner and took an offered shot, tipping it back with a wince and rapidly accepting another.

“Whole other world down here,” Denton observed, his eyes flicking briefly in Johnny’s direction.

“That’s putting it mildly.” Johnny steeled himself, knowing if he showed any emotion at the murder he had just witnessed, the game was up.

“Wanna a closer look?”

“What?” Johnny was about to turn when he felt the cold sensation of steel at his back, the tip of a knife resting between his ribs precisely.

“Move slowly, head towards the entrance.” Denton gently pressed the blade home to prove his point. “Refuse or try to turn tail and they’ll find you in a ditch tomorrow Hollywood. Not even the best undertakers will make look you look decent for your fans to cry over.”

There was a quip on the tip of his tongue, that given the high crime rate in LA that probably wasn’t the case, but Johnny wisely stayed quiet and moved stiffly towards the cage gates. If anyone in the crowd took notice of the knife at his back, they chose to look the other way, a testament to where their loyalties obviously lay.

“In you get.” Denton pulled open the cut wire and pushed Johnny through it, causing him to stumble momentarily. “Let’s keep the crowd happy huh?”

The chain clanged shut as Johnny righted himself and tried to establish his bearings. The iron scent of blood and the acidic reek of fear and piss coated the ring like a bad cologne.

“Shut up the hell up!” Behind him, Denton had turned to face the crowd, making a rude gesture to silence the masses. “Lads and ladies, the Black Dragon has a special treat for you tonight! All the way from sunny Los Angeles, we’ve got Johnny Cage himself!”

Voices began to clammer, the noise level rising and taking over the space in a fraction of a second. Johnny watched as Denton put two fingers in his mouth and let out an ear-splitting whistle. “Stop yapping and make your bets before I get the boys to start breaking necks!”

In the ring, with obvious little choice, Johnny rapidly tried to take stock of his new opponent. Tall, well built, the man was on his third bout and still standing, even bruised and bleeding. The bravado he would have normally brought to a bout, planned or impromptu, wouldn’t do him any good here. Instead, he removed his sunglasses, tossing them in his pocket and took a loose fighting stance, squaring off immediately.

His opponent was on him in an instant, throwing out a series of fast punches that would have leveled someone with less experience. Johny threw up a block and then feigned to the left, sending out a well-timed kick that caught the other man in the stomach and sent him reeling.

Amid the hisses and boos from the crowd, Johnny launched a shadow kick that connected with his opponent’s left shoulder. Something gave way under his boot, and he could have sworn he saw pain in the other man’s eyes. Before he could rally, Johnny continued his onslaught, tossing out measured punches and launching into an uppercut that slammed the man’s jaw shut with a painful crunch.

With a burst of speed that took Johnny by surprise, the other fighter caught a second wind, and the real dance began. There was no clock to measure how long they wove around each other, how many punches each took or kicks that spun out. Fatigue was not an option, and even a fall to the mat could be lethal.

Taking a hit, Johnny stumbled back, wiping a smear of blood off his lip with the back of his hand. His opponent was worse off than he was, one arm almost useless and blood running from his hairline down the side of his face. Turning his head, he spit blood from his lips and squared off again, exhausted, but clearly determined to come out on top. Johnny cracked his neck and bounced back on his heels, the adrenaline and excitement catching him even in the worst situation and moved into a flip kick that came crashing down, meeting the bone of the other man’s skull with a sickening noise. With a grunt, he dropped to the ground, finally still and deathly quiet.

Lost in the moment, Johnny let out a whoop, raising his hands in victory as the old feeling if exhilaration coursed through him. Suddenly he was twenty years old again, at the top of his game, long before Hollywood had knocked at his dressing room door. Abruptly the sound of a gunshot cracked through the air and sent him tumbling back to earth with a nauseating crash.

Standing over the now limp and bleeding body of his opponent was the same dark-haired man as before, the handgun still smoking from the bullet he had just fired to the fighter’s skull. Grabbing the body by the ankle he began to drag the dead man towards the exit.

Would he have to fight again? It seemed to be a king of the hill match, you stayed until you were beaten. If so, then he’d need to stay on his toes or he’d never leave the ring alive. Inwardly Johnny assessed his body; his ribs were smarting, but intact. One of his eyes was throbbing, but he could see, and he hadn’t lost any teeth. He could handle a few more opponents, but then what? Turn on the charm? Try to talk his way out? That didn’t seem like it would work but he wasn’t above trying.

He was still rapidly contemplating a plan when, suddenly, something heavy crashed against his temple and everything went black.

“Come on sunshine, time to wake up.”

A hand slapped his cheek lightly, and then again with slightly more force. With a groan as the nerves zinged painfully, Johnny’s eyes began to flutter.

“f*ck Denton, I said test him out, I didn’t say kill him.”

“I didn’t! It was just a little tap, don’t be dramatic.”

As consciousness came flooding back in, Johnny’s body screamed in protest at the abrupt resumption of services. He was stretched out on the concrete floor, which was only marginally cleaner than the fight cage floor had been. A face swam briefly into view and as his vision cleared, he realized that somewhere between winning the bout and getting hit, he’d been moved from the arena. The sound of fighting and people yelling as the matches continued but now seemed diffuse and tinny.

“What the f*ck?” Sitting up, Johnny gingerly rubbed the back of his head. “Is that how you always welcome guests? Throw them in the cage and beat the sh*t out of them?”

“Only the ones we think have potential.” A man stepped into his field of vision, broad and muscular in rough spun black pants and a white muscle shirt. With was no grey in the dark crop of his hair or beard, Johnny guessed he couldn’t have been more then a handful of years older than himself. Scars crisscrossed the stranger’s arms and what was visible of his neck and shoulders, disappearing under his shirt and out of view. Battered combat boots and one of the biggest bowie knives Johnny had ever seen completed the look. Moving fully out of the shadows, he stopped a few away and for the first time Johnny realized that a large steel plate encircled his right eye socket and cheek. The eye that glared back was a vivid shade of red, matched only in color by a large crystal strapped to the bandolier across his chest. “If you can’t survive one of our Friday nights, then you’ve got no business playing with the Black Dragon.”

“You should put that on a bumper sticker. You’ll get the message across faster.” Johnny kipped to his feet warily and crossed his arms over his chest in a purposely annoyed gesture. Time to play the part he was getting paid to play. “Kano, I presume?”

“You’ve got some f*cking huge balls.” Denton scowled but stayed leaning against a nearby pillar.

“If you’re talking about Disco Warrior, those were prosthetics.” Johnny winced. “Not one of my best early roles but it paid for my first sports car.”

Denton rolled his eyes but to Johnny’s surprise Kano let out a chuckle. “Come on Denton, pull the stick out of your ass. Go check on Nick, see if he needs any help.”

“Bye bye,” Johnny blew him a mock kiss, watching as the Scotsman stomped from the room and then turned back to Kano. “Your henchmen needs to blow off some steam. Maybe you should throw him in the cage for a few rounds.”

“Denton’s done his time.” Kano gave him a cold assessment and then gestured to the room around them. “He helped me build this place from the ground up, him and few others. Just as soon put a knife between my shoulders, but at least he’s honest enough to admit it.”

With his head finally clear, Johnny could see that they were tucked away in what would have passed for a VIP box in any legitimate boxing ring. Much like below, a handful of tables were scattered about the room, taken up by a coterie of Kano’s inner circle. Johnny clocked a tall dark-skinned man slouched in the corner watching him carefully, a rifle tucked casually by his side. On the periphery of his eyesight, Johnny spotted a pair of brunette twins loaded with more knives than good sense watching him intently. Finally, lounging in the shadows, cleaning the twin of the bowie knife Kano was wearing was a lone woman. Blade perhaps? He couldn’t get a good look without seeming obvious.

Letting his eyes wander from her, he was drawn to a large set of full-length windows, giving a peak view of the fight cage below. So, Kano hadn’t been joking about it being a test. From there he would have had a full view of the fight Johnny had just participated in. Somehow this made anger boil up in Johnny’s stomach, of being dropped once again into a fight he may not have come out of. Knowing what was on the line, he pushed the feeling away and accepted a bottle of beer when it was offered. Below, the fights were still going strong, only growing more and more savage as the night progressed. Taking a sip, Johnny began to throw some crumbs to the wind. “So, what did Takahashi tell you when he reached out?”

Kano lit a cigarette, filling the air with the smell of old smoke and tobacco. “Said you had a business idea. Something about a partnership. I’ll be honest, my first thought was to slit your throat and call it an accident.”

“And your second?” Johnny raised an eyebrow, realizing at that moment that both his phone and gun were missing from his vest. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as unease began to take hold.

“I was curious.” Kano shrugged. “Not very often we get a…potential investor of your caliber in our game.”

‘Then you need to up your stakes.” Johnny took another drink and tried to quell any nerves, telling himself this was just another role he was playing. He just had to make his marks like on any set. “You’re missing out on what a man like me can offer.”

“And that would be?” Kano looked unimpressed, never taking his gaze off the brawl below. Leaning close to the window, he thumped a fist off the glass and make a cutting gesture. Below, the men were abruptly pulled apart and sent to lick their wounds before it all began again.

“Style,” Johnny his hands wide in an encompassing gesture. “Class. Connections. A way to get whatever you want to people who can afford to pay a lot of money for it.”

That got his interest. Johnny saw it sweep across Kano’s face as fleeting as a thunderstorm. “Go on then.”

“I can get into places in Hollywood you could never dream of,” Johnny scoffed. “Parties, events, awards shows. Hell, even board meetings. If you’ve got... product you want to distribute, no one is going to bat an eye if I’m the one putting out there. They won’t touch me.”

“And if they do?” It was heartening that Kano didn’t just outright refuse the idea, but Johnny could see he was far from convinced. “I’m not putting my cards on a pretty B-list actor who rolls over at the first poke.”

“Oh, please.” Johnny let the words roll off him. “If you think that’s going to insult me, you’ve never read some of my movie reviews. Let me be blunt: I can get you a foothold in LA, better than the one you have, and I can make you a f*ck ton of money. Either you want it, or you don’t. The ball is in your court.”

“You can always kill him if he f*cks you over.” The tall dark-skinned man rose and stretched, fingers caressing the rifle stock almost lovingly. “Hell, I’ll do it right now for you.”

“Too right, Onabru.” Kano canted his head in agreement. “But it would be damn shame given the way he can take a hit.”

“It’s a sh*tty idea if you ask me.” A female voice came drifting out of the corner, as flowing as the smoke from Kano’s cigarette. “So you’ll probably love it.”

“Watch your mouth,” Kano growled, “Before someone puts a fist to it.”

“Color me terrified.” The words dripped with the same sarcastic wit that Kano favored. Languidly the women unfolded herself from her seat and rose to join them, leaning against the pillar that Denton had so recently vacated. She was of medium height, standing probably 5’8 in a wicked looking pair of black stiletto boots. Long white-blonde hair was pulled into a high ponytail that hung down her neck and well past her shoulders. As she turned her head to glare at Kano, Johnny could see the strands were streaked with a vivid crimson ombre that looked eerily similar to fresh blood. “Should I start running now or after the hangovers kick in tomorrow morning?”

“Even drunk off my ass I could still beat yours.” Now there was real annoyance in Kano’s voice. “Don’t overestimate your worth, Kira.”

Kira. His earlier suspicions had been right. Johnny schooled his features, trying to seem indifferent as she joined the conversation. Mentally he began to try to recall the things Kenshi had told him about Sonya Blade: she was smart, deadly and an elite fighter. They way he had spoken, she was the best of the best at her job and didn’t take any sh*t from anyone for anything.

Kenshi hadn’t mentioned anything to Johnny about her being a total knock out.

Killer cheek bones complimented a pair of shrewd blue eyes and the toned lithe body of a fighter. Long legs were encased in a pair of corseted leather pants that showed off just the right amount of skin from calf to upper thigh. A black crop top paired with a maroon leather vest hugged her curves in all the right places and gave a glimpse of the star and laurel tattoo that curled around her right bicep.

For an instant, Johnny felt his heart quicken, something that hadn’t happened to him for very long time and then he remembered where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. With a grin, he crossed his arms over his chest and let his eyes linger over her before settling on her face. “Hello gorgeous, I’m Johnny.”

“And I’m not even remotely interested.” She scowled deeply and then moved on as if he wasn’t there. “We don’t need him, Kano. It’s reckless when we’ve already got a foot in the door via the gang leads.”

“They can’t get where he can,” Kano argued. “And it could mean a safe house in sunny California. Ties to other big cities.”

“And a stronger police presence.” There was more to it, Johnny could see it in her face, but it wasn’t something she was going to give away to just anyone, let alone himself or Kano. “Every step forward means we lose a little bit of control. More room for error.”

“Lady has a valid point.” Kano dropped his cigarette and toed it out with his boot. “You still haven’t explained what’s in this for you.”

“What the f*ck do you think?” Johnny grimaced. “A decade ago, I was the top sh*t in Hollywood. I could have anything I wanted. Booze, drugs, houses, cars, women. You name it and I had it on a plate. I had respect, and I had power. Everybody wanted a piece, and do you know what made that?”

“What?” Kano sneered. “Dreams and talent?”

“No asshole, f*cking money.” Johnny felt his face flush in anger, and hoped to God he was selling the point. “Life’s sh*t without it. My marriage failed; my career is in the toilet. I want the f*cking life I had before, and I can’t do that without the cash to back it up.”

“And you think pushing for us is going to do that?”

The tension in the room was steadily rising. One wrong move and Johnny knew it could go badly very quickly. For her part, Sonya (Kira? He’d have to be careful to make sure he didn’t mess that up) was scrutinizing the nails on her left hand, and at the very least feigning disinterest.

“I think it would be a damn good place to start.” Johnny shook his head and took a pull off of his beer. “Look, I don’t owe anyone anything in Hollywood. I built my career myself, and no one, not a single f*cking person, stepped up to help me when I needed it. If I’m going to be on top again, I’m going to have to do it myself. I can make us both a lot of money. You bring this new product I’ve been hearing so much about, and I’ll use my contacts to make sure it circulates. You get a better foothold in LA, and I get my old style back. It’s a win for both of us.”

“Intriguing idea.” The idea of power and money was intoxicating to Kano; Johnny could see the bigger picture playing out in the other man’s head. Los Angeles was the city of both dreams and nightmare and apparently even the head of the Black Dragon wasn’t immune to the illusion.

Before Kano could response, Denton reappeared in the doorway, hurrying over and whispering something into the other man’s ear. Kano co*cked his head, taking in what was being said and then straightened his shoulders. “Hold your piss for a minute, I have to go check in with one of our VIP fighters before the match begins.”

Turning to leave he tossed a glance over his shoulder. “Kira, give our guest a once over, will you? Make sure he’s not too badly scuffed; I want to be able to keep the conversation going when I get back.”

The double entendre of his words was clear, making Johnny struggle to hide his disgust. With a chuckle, Kano disappeared through the doorway and down the stairs, the other following behind him like a demented school of fish.

Once they were alone, Johnny turned back to Sonya and jerked a thumb in the direction they had gone. “Does he do that oft—”

In the space of a broken sentence, Sonya moved across the short distance between them and put him in an arm lock so tight Johnny was sure the wrong move would shatter his elbow. There was little he could do as she whipped him across the room, bending him at the waist and pushing his face hard into the rough wooden table she’d been seated at. “You have exactly a minute to answer to answer two questions that determine if I kick your ass or not: What the f*ck are you really doing here? And who sent you?”

***

“Do you want details verbatim or is paraphrasing okay?” Johnny winced as she fisted her free hand in his hair and lifted his head off the table an inch to glare at him. ““Ow! Ow! Ow! Okay, this is normally a third date thing…second if things are going really well.”

“I’m not laughing asshole.” Sonya shifted his arm higher up his back and leaned in, adding her weight. As she leaned in close to his ear, Johnny caught the faint strains of a Southern accent to her words. Not heavy like Cristina’s; smoother, lighter as if she’d been away from home for an extended period of time but no less as visible when she was angry. “You’ve already wasted one minute.”

“Red…Tail…sent…me.” It came out as a wheeze as he struggled to breathe. Jax had left most of his briefing in Kenshi’s capable hands. The code name he used with Sonya had been a small but vital detail if Johnny was going to get her aid him in any way. “I’m here to help.”

The arm across his neck eased immediately and Johnny sucked in a much-needed breath of air. Turning he sat on the edge of the table and rotated the arm she had just hyper extended. “That’s better, maybe now we can actually talk face to face.”

“Why would he send you?” Sonya had retreated a few paces away, hands balled into fists. “I didn’t ask for any outside help.”

“And yet here I am,” He spread his hands wide in an encompassing gesture. “Gorgeous, charming and with all the right phone numbers. Guess he thought we’d be able to work together well.”

“Bullsh*t, he sent you to check up on me.” Sonya sighed and raised her eyes to the ceiling. “He knows I don’t need f*cking help.”

“You’d missed your checks ins a couple times,” Johnny was surprised at the visible hurt in her features. “He asked me to touch base while I was here.”

“What? He thought I’d gone rogue.” She scoffed. “f*cking unbelievable.”

“Jax was worried.” Johnny leaned back on the table, wincing in disgust as his hand came in contact with something sticky. “Don’t take it personally.”

“How can I not?” She was holding herself ramrod tight, a soldier through and through, he’d bet his life on it. “Kano’s been a paranoid f*ck the past few weeks. I haven’t been able to safely get away to check in. This is what I get for doing my job properly? A Hollywood babysitter?”

“No, a partner.” Downstairs the sounds of a bout finishing rose to a fever pitch. Johnny had no clue how much time they had until Kano returned but it couldn’t be more than a handful of minutes. “Come on, what have you got to lose?”

“I have everything to lose!” She hissed. “And I don’t need anyone else’s blood on my hands. Go home. Tell Jax you’ve seen the inside and changed your mind. Tell him I’ll touch bases with him soon and I’ll have enough to blow it wide open.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t seem like a ‘tell him’ type.” Johnny pointed out. “More like a beat me to a pulp person. He and Kenshi asked me to be here, so here I stay…proverbially speaking.”

At the mention of Kenshi’s name, Sonya made a dismayed face. “He’s in on this disaster too? I go away for a few months and they both lose their f*cking minds.”

“It’s been a year for that.” Johnny could feel the anger coming off her in waves. In his younger and dumber days, he’d have made a crack comment about how even angry she was gorgeous. He got the feeling however, here that would get him kick squarely in the nuts and he’d already taken enough for one night. “You of all people should know that if they’re willing to go as far as they did, it must be for a damn good reason.”

“You know nothing about me.” She looked towards the windows, gauging the pit below before turning back to him. “If you stay, you’ll get both of us killed.”

“Give me some credit, I can handle myself.” He wished he could explain the past twelve months to her, everything he had seen and been a part of with Liu Kang and the others. It would have made their current situation seem tame compared to the battle they had fought. Instead, he chose to try to level with her, for what it was worth. “Look, I really want to help. The stories they told me, about what this drug is doing… It looks like you could use any help you can get.”

“I’m the only help I’ll ever need.” Reaching under the table she retrieved his phone and gun, sliding them across the wooden surface to where he could reach them. “Hide these better next time. The phone alone will get your throat cut.”

“Noted.” Johnny settled the gun in the inner pocket of his vest, not failing to notice the clip was gone. Reaching up he ran his fingers across the back of his head, wincing at the goose egg he found there. “I think I may be lucky to walk away with just a mild concussion.”

“I didn’t hit you that hard.” She moved to his side and examined the back of hos head, moving aside his hair gingerly with a feather light touch.

“You hit me?” He pulled back out of her reach. “I thought it was Kano’s thug, the ginger?”

“Denton.” She reminded him. “And no, he just carried you in here. I volunteered for the job.”

“Why?” Up close her eyes were stunning, a deep cerulean that made his breath catch.

“You’re not the only one being tested Cage.” He could have sworn he heard a smidgen of regret in her voice and then it was gone, replaced by hard anger. “I’m being watched all the time. Every action, every choice, they don’t miss anything.”

“You don’t have to do it alone,” he pointed out.

“In the end you’re always alone.” She refused to meet his searching expression, choosing instead to trace a pattern on the worn tabletop with her nail.

“How very nihilistic.”

“Spoken like a man who’s never hit rock bottom.” She crossed her arms defensively.

“And that just proves you don’t know anything about me either.” Johnny scowled.

The sound of voices at the base of the stairs caused them both to stop and pause, turning towards the door.

“sh*t.” Sonya turned to him in mild panic. “Take off your shirt and vest.”

“What?” Johnny made a face, watching as she whipped her own vest off and tossed it on a chair and let her hair down in a tumble around her shoulders.

“If they come in here and think nothing happened, it will raise suspicions.” She began to help him along, tugging at his vest in an annoyed gesture. “Take your f*cking shirt off!”

“Okay, okay, I get your point. Geez.” Johnny pulled his shirt off, wincing as his ribs pulled. “Now we really have reached third date status.”

“You wish.” She lounged against his hip, the warmth of her skin making him shiver. “When they come in, act like you’re about to pull your shirt on.”

“Gotcha.”

“This isn’t a muscle competition.” She flicked him in the shoulder. “Stop flexing.”

“I’m not.” He suppressed a smile at the surprised look in her eyes. With more free time, and no booze, he’d been clocking more hours in the gym than ever. If he went by the way her eyes lingered on his shoulders and pecs, it was well worth the effort.

“Unbelievable,” she muttered as Kano strolled through the door again, his cronies in tow.

Johnny busied himself as she had instructed, grabbing his shirt and pulling it on leisurely then his vest. Beside him, Sonya ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it up and back into a similar ponytail as before.

“Well! That seems to have gone well.” Kano gave a leering grin and clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “Little tussle always does a man good eh?”

“If you say so.” Johnny drained his beer in one gulp and tossed the bottle aside, trying to seem unimpressed.

“Our VIP fight is about to start.” Kano gestured to the windows. “We run them once a week for our…discerning customers. High rollers, friends.”

Johnny approached the glass, watching as a bulky-looking man entered the fight cage and began to preen, building up the crowd as he flexed his arms. He was no larger than the man Johnny had fought, no less muscled. Nothing overly special to the naked eye. “He’s your prize bull?”

Kano laughed. “No mate, keep watching. This guy’s just the poor rube whose night is about to go to sh*t.”

Below the crowd began to cheer and scream as a secondary gate went up and a looming shadow moved from the darkness and into the pit. There was a guttural roar that sent a chill down Johnny’s back, one he remembered all too well.

The fighter entering the pit was a Shokan.

“Impressive, isn’t he?” Kano gave a leering smile as they watched the blood bath begin. “I bet you’ve never seen anything quite like him.”

Johnny sent a silent prayer to the gods that none of the production sketches he had created had leaked to the media. In the portion for Outworld, he’d commissioned two sketches that looked very much like the four-armed warrior below. Masking his surprise, he drew on all his acting skills and made a horrified expression. “Where the f*ck did you find that thing?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” They watched as the Shokan thundered across the cage and made a grab for the other combatant. The human was quick on his feet, dodging the massive arms that come his way and launching a pummelling attack that barely made an impact. With a growl, the Shokan gave him a vicious swat, sending him reeling. He rallied quickly, trying to send out a kick and instead found himself on his back, being pummeled with the full force of the beast’s weight. It was far from a fair fight and soon, the human was senseless, hanging like a rag doll as the Shokan raised him in the air. There was a quick glance towards where they stood, and Johnny watched Kano give an almost imperceptible nod. With a leer the massive creature grabbed the man’s head in his hands and snapped his neck, tossing the body aside in the dirt.

The crowd went wild, screaming praise as Johnny fought the bile rising into his throat. He darted a glance in Sonya’s direction and found her watching the cage with a grim familiarity. If she was surprised to see the Shokan at all, she wasn’t showing it on the surface. The again, she’d been undercover for almost a year, it couldn’t have been the first time she’d seen the creature. Johnny would have killed to have a glimpse into her mind, to know what she was thinking at that moment as she took in the slaughter below.

Beside him, Kano split the air with an amused chuckle. “Amazing, isn’t it?”

“That’s one word for it.” Johnny swallowed reflexively.

“Take a good look Cage,” The Black Dragon leader turned to him and gave him a chilling smile. “Because if you make a deal with me, and then f*ck me over, what I do to you, your friends, your family, hell even your dog, will be ten times worse. Do we understand each other?”

“Like crystal.” Johnny fought back the urge to haul off and deck the bastard right in the face. Leaning back as he if he was stretching slightly, he tossed another glance towards where Sonya was standing, and was surprised to now find her studying him in return, with what he could have sworn was mild curiosity etched in her features. Either he was truly mistaken, or she was quietly taking all of him in, and despite her earlier actions, she wasn’t totally displeased with what she saw.

Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and for the first time in a long time, Johnny felt the vague stirrings of attraction low in his chest. Heat, low and diffuse, spread through him making his co*ck sit up and take notice. How long had it been since that had truly happened? Since he’d looked at a gorgeous woman and found her looking back at him with the same nascent stirrings.

Quickly Sonya turned away as if caught, locking her gaze on the Shokan below as a new opponent was hauled into the ring.

“Excellent! Good to know we understand each other.” Kano clapped Johnny on the shoulder, drawing him close as the smell of body odor and sweat wafted past his nose. “Denton! Get us another round of beer, will you? Let’s get this party started properly, shall we?”

He smiled broadly as he directed Johnny back towards the cage below. “If you think this fight was a mess, just wait until we bring out the bloody TaiGore.”

The sun on his face woke Johnny the next morning from a dead sleep, piercing through his slumber sharply as it filtered over his eyelids.

With a pained groan he rolled over, trying and failing to hide his face in the pillows, only to find them sorely absent. Raising his throbbing head slightly Johnny realized he was actually stretched across the foot of the bed in his hotel room, still clad in what he’d been wearing the evening before. His mouth felt like smoked sand and tasted like stale beer mixed with sick. Even half asleep he could tell he was going to spend, at the very least the morning, nursing the hangover from hell.

“f*ck it.” Letting his head drop back down onto the duvet cover, he buried his face against the fabric and threw an arm across his eyes for good measure. There was no solid reason to get up yet, and no reason to believe his body wouldn’t fully rebel if he did. Sleeping it off seemed like the best option, especially since there was a very good possibility, he was going to have to do it all again that evening.

The rest of the night came roaring back as fragmented images in his mind. Laughter from Kano and his clique as they watched the Shokan go through victim after victim. Booze that had been an almost continuous stream, with one beer bottle emptied and another pressed into his hand. He remembered blood soaking the concrete floors, made even worse once they had released the hulking animal that Kano had spoken of. While the Shokan had at times, been willing to humor the other challengers, the TaiGore had simply attacked and slaughtered all it came up against. The massive apex predator had made easy work of the human fighters with its claws and bladed tail, surprisingly agile as it stalked and attacked its prey.

At some point during the spectacle, the smell and the beer had finally become too much. Johnny had excused himself, slipping out to a nearby alley just in time to throw up everything he had eaten in what seemed like the past week and then some. By the time he’d recovered and made it back inside, Sonya had disappeared from the onlookers, and it was just he, Kano and the boys left to cut up the rest of the night. If the mercenaries had noticed his needed moment of escape, they hadn’t mentioned it to him, simply passed him another beer and gone back to hollering at the ring.

Johnny vaguely remembered leaving the club just before dawn and returning to the car to a worried looking Elang. Stumbling across the lobby and then making it to the elevator and then…nothing. He must have just collapsed on the bed and passed out cold.

Now, more awake and painfully aware of his body than he ever wanted to be, he was about to make an effort to return to the comfort of sleep, when the bedside phone jangled loudly, sending a wave of agony straight through his temples. Reaching out to snag the earpiece, if only to make the noise stop, he cleared his throat. “Hello.”

“Hello sir.” The voice on the other end was tinny, the English strained. “I’m sorry to wake you, but there is a…woman in the front lobby, insisting that she be allowed up to see you.”

The way the word ‘woman’ slipped from his tongue made Johnny raise an eyebrow in curiosity. In his world, that could have meant a psycho fan or paparazzi; in this world, it could have meant just about anything. “Did she say who she is?”

“No Mr. Cage.” There was a long pause, the silence speaking volumes. “Just that… forgive me… She’ll pistol whip your ass again if you don’t agree to see her.”

Sonya. There was no one else it could be.

“It’s fine.” Johnny sat up and ran his fingers through his hair to try to tame it. “Send her my way.”

He hung the phone up with a click and scrambled off the bed, heading to the bathroom to rinse out his mouth. The man in the mirror was an almost typical Hollywood mess, pale skin and bloodshot features that spoke of trying to keep up with the in-crowd and failing. His right eye was surrounded by a livid purple bruise and there was another along his jaw almost as vibrant. Badges of honor for a night survived in the trenches.

There was no time for a shower, so instead he just splashed some water on his face and took some aspirin, hoping to kill the throbbing pain in his eyes. Johnny had managed a clean black t-shirt and was searching through his duffle for clean socks when there was a sharp knock at the door. With a muffled curse, he tossed the bag on the floor beside the bed and approached the entryway like a dawn firing squad. As it fell open to reveal Sonya standing in the hallway, he sagged against the door jamb slightly and stifled a yawn.

She eyed him with a mixture of amusem*nt and sarcasm. “Well, don’t you look like dogsh*t.”

“Nice to see you too.” He moved aside so she could enter, then eased the door shut behind her. “No hope you brought coffee with you, is there?”

“Not a chance,” She appraised the room with a critical gaze. “Jax must have come into some funding to afford this. When I got here, all I got a duffle bag and a warning to behave.”

“This is all just part of the role he wants me to play. It has to look real right?” Johnny shrugged, wincing as it caused his ribs to pull. He’d almost forgotten what it was like to take a proper beating in the ring. It sure as hell hurt more than he remembered. Not as much as the asskicking he’s taken helping Liu with all the timeline sh*t but damn close.

“I guess,” Sonya leaned on the edge of the small kitchen table and crossed her arms over her chest. In the day, she was dressed casually, in a black tank top and ripped jeans, a black leather jacket hugging her arms and shoulders. Like the night before, Johnny was struck by how beautiful she was, fierce and more than a little annoyed with him. He could have also sworn there was a fleeting moment of concern in the way she held her body, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. “Did you think about what I told you last night?”

“Not even a little bit.” He watched true irritation flare in her eyes as he spoke. “I was just trying to keep pace.”

“Then think about it now.” She glared openly, a clear attempt to mean mug him. “Go home Cage, go back to where it’s safe and let me handle this on my own.”

“Not going to happen.” Johnny grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-bar and cracked the top. “I made promises to Jax and Kenshi, I intend to see them through.”

“You can’t be this stupid.” She waved a hand in baffled frustration.

“Oh yes I can, I assure you.” He drank half the bottle in one grateful gulp and then settled himself on the nearby sofa. “Have you ever seen Cage in a Bottle? Two seasons of some of the stupidest choices I’ve ever made.”

“You saw those things last night,” She argued. “I knew signing up for something called the Outworld Intelligence Agency that I was dropping in feet first. Kano is messing in some next level sh*t. I don’t what it is yet, but those things…they sure as hell don’t come from around here. Why would you want to get involved?”

“Maybe because I don’t have much left to lose.” Johnny shot back. “Something, I get the feeling you might understand.”

That got her. He watched a million emotions flicker across her face: anger, denial, sadness and most of all regret. With a heavy sigh, she squeezed her eyes shut for an instant and then shook her head. “You have no idea what you’re getting into.”

“You may be surprised.” He stretched an arm across the back of the sofa and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. “So, this is why you came here? To ride my ass over sticking things out?”

“No, Kano sent me to get you.” She pushed off the table, arms still hugging her middle. “I just thought I’d take the opportunity to try to talk you out of it.”

“For what?” It couldn’t have been more than four hours since he had left the club, and no one had said anything to him. Granted most had been passed out at that point, and he’d been one of the last people standing. The last he’d seen of Kano he’d been passed out on a booth, snoring like a chainsaw.

“A field trip, out of the city.” She gestured to his bag seemingly resigned to him sticking around for the moment. “Finish kitting up, we need to hit the road fast or we’ll get caught in traffic and never make it on time.”

“Is this a good trip, or a ‘I wind up in a ditch trip’?” Johnny threw on his socks and shoes, then grabbed his vest from the evening before.

“That depends on if you piss me off on the way.” Sonya was out the door and in the hallway before he could make a quip back.

Johnny paused to slide on his sunglasses and tuck the case back into his vest pocket. With a grunt, Sonya leaned in the doorway and grabbed his shoulder to pull him out, causing him to let out an undignified yelp. “Haul ass and stop preening. Kano hates to be kept waiting.”

She was on the move quickly, dragging him with her and not letting his arm go until they were in the elevator. Once downstairs, she kept up a clip she steered them across the lobby and out into the early morning light.

Thankful for his sunglasses, Johnny suppressed a groan as his head pounded horribly. Of all things in the world, he hated the desperate miserable feeling of a hangover the most. The feeling only deepened as they approached a sleek looking black motorcycle parked at the curb. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. We’re going on this?”

“You got a thing against bikes?” She opened one of the side bags and pulled out a black pair of fingerless gloves then began to work her hands into them. “Because that’s an offense I may take personally.”

“Only when I look and feel like death.” Johnny could think of worse things then a ride with a gorgeous woman, but passing out mid-ride bouncing down the road like a cartoon character wasn’t one of them.

“Well suck it up, we don’t have a choice.” She pulled a helmet off the seat and tossed it his way then put her own on. “And don’t throw up on me when we get going.”

“I’m not making any promises.” He waited until she had seated herself, then eased onto the seat behind her before donning his helmet.

“Hang on to my waist,” she instructed. “And if you try to cop a feel, I’ll launch you into orbit via Kawasaki.”

“Hot.” The words were barely out of his mouth when she gunned the bike forward. Johnny locked his arms around her waist before he became airborne and settled in for the ride.

He stole a peek in a side mirror and was rewarded with the ghost of a smile playing across her lips as he made himself comfortable on the leather seat. Playfully he nudged her shoulder, calling over the wind as it stole the words away. “I saw that.”

She schooled her features and took a turn fast enough to make his stomach drop then yelled back .“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Uh huh.” They stopped at a red light, and he decided to push is luck. What was the worst she could do? Pull a wheelie and drop him into traffic? Shoot him? All were viable scenarios. “Georgia?”

“What?” She pulled a quick look over her shoulder at him, equal parts baffled and irritated.

“Your accent.” Johnny cleared his throat. “My ex-wife… She was born in Tennessee. I was trying to guess if you were from near there."

There was a silence that lingered as they crossed a bridge out of the Mentang district, and he began to wonder if he had in fact crossed a line he shouldn’t have. Personal information and covert ops didn’t mix, even as a rookie he knew that.

Abruptly Sonya let out a sigh, and said something under her breath, slowing the bike to a stop as they hit a wall of traffic.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.” Johnny leaned over her shoulder dramatically to listen.

“Austin. I said I was raised in Austin, okay?” She grumbled and elbowed him gently in the ribs. “Now let me concentrate on driving before we end up in a ditch.”

“Fine, fine.” Johnny relaxed comfortably; hands still locked around her waist. He paused for a moment. “I’ve never been to Texas, but I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”

“It is.” There was a wistful tone to her words, and he wondered how long she had been away from home. “Big Bend country is stunning. The first time you see it, it’ll take your breath away.”

“Sort of like when I saw you last night.”

There was silence again and then she actually chuckled. “Do lines like that actually work on women?”

“You tell me.” At least she hadn’t jettisoned him or hit him in the nuts. Instead, there was a bemused quality to the way she pulled a face and rolled her eyes at him

“I think you should focus and try not to get us both killed.” She waved at hand at a passing truck to signal where was she was moving as traffic began to crawl and then began to navigate out of the city and onto the rural roads.

“So… a solid maybe?”

The route Sonya took them on was clearly one she had driven before, and it wasn’t long before they lapsed into a comfortable silence. Between the sun, the breeze, and the smell of cinnamon wafting from her hair, Johnny could almost lie to himself and imagine they were on a perfect first date. Close his eyes, and it was the California coastline flying by as they headed to El Matador for a picnic on the beach….

Only the bike slowing to a halt made Johnny realize he was almost dozing, the lingering effects of his hangover, and the rumbling of the motorcycle acting in tandem to sap his energy. He jolted awake as Sonya put the brake on and blinked. “Are we there?”

“Not quite.” She slid from the bike and appraised him from behind her sunglasses. “I can’t have you falling asleep and ending up eating pavement. The only injuries you are allowed to have are from me.”

“I’m flattered.” He yawned and dismounted to stretch, wincing as he realized how stiff his body had become on the short trip. “Where the hell are we?”

As far he could tell they were in the middle of nowhere, with a stretch of almost endless road both in front and behind them. To his left extended an expanse of green fields ending in a swatch of blue water. To his right was a roughhewn patch of ground about the size of a football field with a wooden building standing at one end. From under the relative shade of the porch, a serving window stood open with an elderly man hovering inside.

“Call it a pit stop,” Sonya was already moving toward the shake without waiting for him to keep pace. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”

By the time Johnny had caught up, she was already ordering for both. The scent of fruit and spices was heavy in the air, and he was surprised to feel his stomach growl. He couldn’t read a word on the small menu board, but it didn’t matter a whit as the owner was already sliding two large paper cups across the counter and chatting with Sonya like she was a regular customer.

“Coffee?” The hope was evident in his voice as he accepted the drink, she slid down the counter to him.

“Better. Fresh coconut water.” This time she didn’t conceal her laughter as he pulled a dismayed expression. “Don’t be such a big baby, it’ll make you feel better.”

“So would a double espresso.” Still, he took a sip and let the sweet flavor mellow on his tongue as they waited for the food she had selected. Soon the owner returned to the window with two bowls in hand and laid them on the weather-beaten counter.

Sonya scooped them up and headed for a nearby picnic table with Johnny tagging behind. He slid down on the bench gratefully as she pushed a bowl and a napkin towards him. “Care to tell me what I’m eating? Or are we playing mystery brunch?”

“Pisang Goreng.” At his hungover, slightly mystified, and very blank expression, she rolled her eyes. “It’s a banana fritter with spicy plum jam. It’s sweet, and it’s greasy. Think Indonesian hangover food.”

“You had me at grease.” Johnny forked a portion and took a bite, savoring the flavors of powdered sugar and vanilla. “Jesus, if we had these in LA, I’d weigh three hundred pounds and die happy about it.”

Sonya gave a smile and lifted her cup to the stall’s owner. “Banyu makes the best I have ever had. You can get these in a lot of places here, but they don’t taste as good as his.”

“You come here often?” Johnny indicated with his fork and then shoveled another bite into his mouth. “’Friday nights are fantastic, but Saturday mornings are full of regrets’ type deal?”

“Not quite.” Sonya poked at her food as she was debating how much she wanted to say. “I don’t drink, actually. Not anymore. I do what I have to, to maintain my cover but once the hard-core boozing starts, I just wait until they are too drunk to notice and make my out.”

That explained the disappearing act from the night before. He doubted that anyone beyond him had even noticed she was gone. It was the perfect time for her to slip away and do any intel work she couldn’t do with the all-seeing gaze of the Black Dragon on her. Not to mention a moment of respite, away from Kano and his thugs. “And what? Escape to places like this?”

“In the middle of the night? I don’t have a death wish.” She drained her cup and set it aside. “No, I just pass by here a few times a week. Once I started stopping for food, I kind of got hooked. If you’d ever seen the crap the Dragons eat in the city, you’d understand what I mean.”

“Did you bring me to one of your favorite spots?” Johnny’s face lit up in recognition despite the hangover. “I knew you liked me.”

“It was on the way, don’t push your luck. I can’t take you to Kano looking like hot sh*t, you’ll never live it down.” Sonya sat back and canted her head. “Although I’d say with a little bit of food and electrolytes in your system your prognosis is stable to our location.”

Johnny took the late bite of fritter and swallowed it down with the last of his drink. “Spoken like a field medic.”

The look of surprise on her face was enough to make the comment worthwhile, given the fact she doubted his observation skills. “And how do you figure that?”

“You walk, talk and breathe like an officer.” Johnny licked a bit of sugar off his thumb casually, not failing to notice her eyes tracking the movement. “Not to mention, I know a squad tattoo when I see it. I’m fairly certain I caught a peek of that crest on your arm last night.”

“I don’t hide it.” She shrugged. “Almost everyone in the Black Dragon has some type of service under their belt. It’s what makes us appealing to Kano. We’ve got skills training and anger he couldn’t get anywhere else.”

“How long did you serve?” He tossed his fork into the empty bowl and wiped his hands on his napkin.

She looked away, staring over the fields and then cleared her throat. “If you’ve finished, we should go. We’ve still got another hour on the road.”

“Running away?” The comment caused her to stop and flinch, her hands fisting at her sides.

“f*ck you.” She stopped and turned to scowl deeply at him. “If you had any brains, you’d do the same.”

There was a growing feeling in Johnny’s gut that if she hadn’t been on direct orders to deliver him to Kano, she’d have shot him on the spot and ruined a perfectly good breakfast. He raised a hand in supplication and tried to calm the tension. “Be easy. I didn’t mean to cross a line. I was just…curious… how you ended up here? Proverbially speaking of course.”

“That’s classified.” She tossed Johnny his helmet and remounted the motorcycle. “Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.”

To say the quiet of the next hour was awkward was an understatement. They rode silently as the countryside flashed by and the distance closed between them and their final destination. Johnny was contemplating trying to break the ice when they crested a hill, and he took a surprised breath. “What the hell—”

“Welcome to Keta-Tendjo.” Sonya didn’t seem shocked at his reaction to the village that had come into view. They crossed a wooden bridge and as they drew closer Johnny could see the wooden walls that lined the perimeter, and the guards watching warily as the bike approached at a breakneck speed. “If there’s a beating withered heart left in the Black Dragon clan, it currently beats here.”

“You’ve got to be sh*tting me.” The landscape around them was gorgeous, rolling green hills, off set with fertile fields. In the distance, a low mountain range dominated the landscape, rising to jagged peaks and disappearing into the clouds. “For how far?”

“More than you and I will probably ever see. They have a lot of bolt holes. I suspect lots of places that only Kano and a few others know about.” She began to slow as they approached the gates. “What were you expecting? Some type of showy Hollywood mansion? Pet Siberian tigers? Or maybe a decrepit set of warehouses?”

That’s exactly what he’d been picturing, but he sure as hell wasn’t about to admit that now. From the top of the gates, he caught sight of a figure in olive green body armor and a respirator stalking the bulwark, an automatic weapon in his hands and two large hooks swords on his back. “Who’s Mr. Airsoft?”

“That’s Kabal.” Sonya waved a middle finger as they passed underneath the rampart. “Keep your eye on him. He’s fast, and he’s mean. If Kano ever decided to have you followed, Kabal will be on it like a shot.”

“Noted.” Johnny co*cked his head as he spotted another tall man in a cowboy hat scaling up a nearby ladder converse with the sentry “And John Wayne?”

“That’s Erron.” Sonya coasted to a stop and put on the breaks. “I don’t know much about him to be honest. He’s newer than I am but he hardly ever leaves the village. I think he fancies himself the sheriff around here when Kano is in the city.”

“And how often is that?” Johnny pulled off his helmet and tossed it on the seat. This was like seeing two sides of a very different coin, one that had been lifted out of someone’s pocket when they were too drunk to notice.

“Two or three nights a week.” Sonya took a side bag off the bike and slung it over her shoulder. “It’s easy to get tagged in the city, the police are always watching. Out here no one questions him.”

They left the motorcycle behind and entered the village proper, stepping into what could only be described as a thriving marketplace. Vendors lined the space selling everything from fresh meat to pottery and everything in between. “These people work for the Black Dragon?”

“Work for is a strong term.” Sonya stopped to peer at a basket of apples and then selecting one, passed a coin to the stall owner. “Under the thumb of may be more accurate. It’s not like he gave them a choice. It’s either accept Black Dragon rule or face the consequences."

Now that she had mentioned it, Johnny could see the worry etched on the faces of some of the stall owners as they hurried from point to point. Most walked with their eyes cast to the ground, dead set on going from point A to point B and back again as fast as possible. “How long?”

“At least a year.” They turned a corner, heading down an alley and towards the village center. “There’s something in the mountains keeping Kano keen. I think it may be where our new mystery drug is coming from.”

“You think?”

“Look of you thought you were going to come here, and find out I knew everything, you’re talking to the wrong person.” She snorted and steered them towards a large concrete building. “You’re better off making friends with Denton. He probably has the best ins.”

“Known Kano a long time, has he?” Johnny sidestepped a puddle he hoped to God was mud and tried not to gag. The bloom was starting to fade, and the cracks were starting to appear already. Some houses they passed looked like they had been through a hell of a fight. Most had broken windows, and he thought he caught sight of a small face peering out at him from the rubble. The idea that there were children living under Kano’s rule made Johnny’s stomach twist in ways he hadn’t known possible.

Sonya gave him a deadpan expression and then shook her head. “Jesus Christ, you need to pay less attention to pretty women and more on your targets. If anyone else had dragged you in half beat last night, Kano would have killed them. Denton gets away with sh*t because at the end of the night, there’s only person climbing into Kano’s bed, and it sure as hell isn’t you or me.”

“No sh*t.” Johnny filed that away to tell Jax in his next debriefing. If there was a chink in Kano’s armor they could exploit, they needed to use it to their advantage. “I’m surprised he lets himself be that vulnerable with anybody.”

“He’s still a man with needs like any other. Although he’d punch you in the face before he’d admit it.” Sonya raised a hand to indicate for him to stop and approached a faded green door. She tapped twice and stepped back expectedly as it opened “Hold here for a minute.”

From his vantage point Johnny watched as it opened a silver, and a small face peered out timidly. A girl of no more than seven or eight stood in the crack , clad in a faded dress, long hair hanging past her shoulders. Seeing Johnny, she almost shut the door quickly again, but Sonya stepped in, making a calming noise. “It’s okay Mala, he’s with me.”

Sonya opened her satchel and took out a small mesh shopping bag, sticking the apples in it she had purchased earlier. To that she added a portion of rice, tea, and an orange bottle that Johnny could guess was antibiotics. A large bar of chocolate and a small can of baby formula topped off the sack. Setting it on the ground, Sonya waited patiently for the child to put it in the house and then asked a question in Indonesian that Johnny couldn’t understand.

At his glance Sonya began to translate. “I’m asking how her mother and baby brother are doing. They’ve been sick for the past few weeks.”

“And?” He listened as the child rattled off a response, trying to pick up the words he understood.

“She says the baby is as well as can be, her mother is still ill.” Sonya spoke again, indicated the bottle and then held up two fingers to indicate the dose. “I’m telling her to get her mother to take two a day until the bottle is empty and that I’ll be back in four days.”

With a pensive nod, Mala went back inside and shut the door, the lock clicking audibly. As they set off again Johnny cleared his throat, a mixture of sadness and rage making it feel constricted. “I’m guessing you aren’t supposed to do that.”

“Mala’s father was killed a month ago. There was a fight in the marketplace, and he got caught in the middle. Her mother runs a fruit stand, but she’s been too ill to work.” Sonya’s entire body was rigid, her rage evident in the way she moved them along. “The villagers pay the Black Dragon for everything important here, including medicine. No work means no money means no food or penicillin. I try to help who I can when I can, on the down-low.”

“Anything I can sneak in to help?” They mounted the short step of steps to the concrete building.

“Bandages maybe, candy for the kids. More antibiotics,” Sonya hesitated but the respect in her words was evident. “I’ll sneak you a list.”

“Consider me on it then,” They paused in front of the entrance, the space between them suddenly seeming both charged and awkward. It was a surreal feeling, parting company almost as if they had been on a strange day out. “I assume Kano’s waiting for me inside."

“And he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” She squared her shoulders, and he could see her mentally slipping into her own character. “Let’s get this over with.”

***

Inside the building was brighter than Johnny would have anticipated and much more active. The air was warm and stale, smelling of dust and sweat, and a sickly-sweet smell he couldn’t put his finger on.

People hurried back and forth between what seemed to be several sorting stations, boxing piled up around them. As he took everything in Johnny watched as one of the exhausted looking workers tripped, and stumbled, the box he was carrying hitting the ground with a thump. A man Johnny recognized from last night, Onabru, walked over and gave him a savage kick, a litany of insults slipping from his mouth to the prone figure. Involuntarily, Johnny took a step forward, only to feel Sonya reach out and subtly take his hand, sinking her nails into the soft skin of his palm.

He took a breath as she disengaged and met a pair of knowing blue eyes. She gave a subtle shake of her head, slight but sharp. The message was clear: Keep it in check.

Indicating that he should follow her through the room, she pulled him to the back corner where a de facto office area had been hastily constructed. If you could call a sh*tty corner with a dilapidated couch and an ancient Playboy calendar on the wall an office. The dim lighting made the area look more like an interrogation room than a workspace, something that Johnny realized may very well have been done intentionally.

Kano was seated at a low desk, penning figures into a black ledger with the enthusiasm of a surly child with too much math homework. “Took you f*cking long enough.”

“It’s not my fault you both drank too much.” Sonya rolled her eyes sarcastically. “It was either that or spend half the trip covered in vomit.”

Kan closed the ledger and threw it in her direction. “Go double check the shipment numbers for tonight’s load. I want some undivided time with our guest.”

Sonya caught the book nimbly in one hand and flipped him the bird with the other. With a grunt, she walked away and disappeared back into the din, out of sight.

“Women, eh?” Kano emerged from around the table and clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “I’ve got good news for you Mr. Cage.”

Considering he smelled like stale beer and vomit, Johnny was dangerously tempted to ask if it was brushing his teeth. “Oh? Do tell?”

“I’ve decided to take you up on your offer.” Kano grinned and extended his hands palms up as if in friendship. “And that means not killing you like I had originally planned.”

“Fantastic.” Johnny couldn’t help but feel a tad relieved, although he trusted him about as much as a rabid wolf. “I’m glad you could see sense.”

“Cents mate,” Kano fell into step beside him and began to drag him along. “Dollars and cents. Come on, let’s get you acquainted with our production center.”

It was a sweatshop in a derelict municipal building and that’s exactly what it looked like. Tired bodies and haggard faces sorting through piles of what looked like and smelled like shredded hay. Women and even children with pale anxious faces, separating the dried grass with the speed of those terrified they’d face a beating if they stopped for water or rest. While Shang Tsung’s flesh pits had been horrifying, this was another type of grotesque that left Johnny shaking inwardly with rage. This was their home, their village and to be treated like chattel was perverse and insulting. It left an anger burning in his throat so physical he had to swallow it away.

From under the fibers there was an occasional opalescent glimmer, pale and ghostlike. As Johnny watched, one of the workers came up with a long glimmering strand and immediately passed it off, sending it down the line to a table where he could see several other coiled sections waiting for inspection.

“What is it?” As they approached the table, the workers scattered in fear, heads bowed and eyes on the floor as they lined up along the back wall with both ease and familiarity.

Kano reached for a strand and ran it through his fingers as if inspecting the quality. Up close, Johnny could see that the rope bore a striking resemblance to a string of pearls, the colorings shifting over the beads in an almost hypnotic pattern. The orbs varied in size, starting at almost the size of a jawbreaker in the center and tapering to much smaller increments at the ends. “The locals where it comes from call it Lagu Hati. The closest translation we can figure is heart song because it makes you euphoric, makes your heart race. I’d like to call it something tougher, Dragon Tears or Dragon Blood but right getting it on the market is the more important. We can f*ck with details later.”

“You’re missing out on a ton of good pearl necklace shtick.” Johnny leaned in closer to inspect the strands. “Not to mention a bible of anal bead jokes.”

Kano chuckled, but his gaze never wavered off the coils in front of him as he ran it through his fingers like a rosary. In that moment, Johnny knew something Sonya didn’t. There was a second weak spot in his armor that they could potentially exploit, and it was laid out like so much jewellery on the wood in front of them. “The bead size controls the dosage. The four-armed fella in the pit last night, he takes one of the big beads before every fight night. Folks like us seem to only be able to take the smaller beads. Anything other then that and… it gets messy.”

The forensic photos Johnny had seen were on playback in his mind, people not much younger than himself with faces pinched in death. Forcing the revulsion away, he gestured to the stockpile around the room. “Is all this going to out to market?”

“Every bit, it’s the biggest haul we’ve done so far.” Kano drew his finger in an imaginary line, sweeping over the crates. “We’ve got loads going out to Tokyo, Vancouver, Seattle and New York tonight. Belfast and London tomorrow. “

“How do you move that much so easily?”

Kano’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and Johnny mentally kicked himself for asking. “Never you mind that, it’s a need-to-know basis, same as where it comes from. Just sell the sh*t to rich people, don’t ask questions and we’ll both stay happy.”

“Works for me.” A picture was forming in Johnny’s mind like a war map, dots lighting up where the crates would go. It was so much bigger, so much more widespread than they had anticipated. Now more than ever, it made him want to do everything he could to help put a halt to it. Maybe he could even impress Sonya a little in the process and call it a bonus. “Where do we go from here?”

“You head back home, and we’ll be in touch. We’ve got ways to get the stuff to you.” Kano spat on the ground, and for the first time Johnny saw traces of a hangover from the night before. His eyes were blood shot and rimmed with red, his cheeks haggard. “I’ve got to take a piss. Take a walk around, have a look. Don’t f*cking touch anything or I’ll cut your hands off.”

Given the state of the place, Johnny wouldn’t have been surprised to see him unzip and just let fly on the floor but instead he headed for the main doors, slamming through them and into the daylight. Johnny took in all the details he could about the beads of Lagu Hati, trying to commit to size the color patterns he saw reflected in the pearls. His fingers itched to pull out his phone and take a photo, or better yet, palm a bead so he could bring something tangible back to show Jax. It was a stupid idea; surrounded by Kano’s people, he wouldn’t make it a foot before they took him down. As if to compound that, Denton passed by, giving Johnny a glare. At the other end of the room Kabal had come down from ramparts and was walking the floor. No. It was a death sentence to even contemplate it out in the open.

Instead, he began to wander, stepping around the crates that littered the floor as he moved between the stations. There was no chatter between the workers, not a shred of idle movement, just a heavy feeling of fear and finality. If something was to go wrong, they would pay the price, and that made Johnny watch his steps even more carefully. Being impulsive was one thing, killing innocent people was another. He needed time, to build trust, to make the right move. Pick-pocketing in the heart of the lion’s den wasn’t it.

Johnny made his way across the room, stopping as he passed an open doorway to the back of the building. Inside, Sonya was checking crates meticulously against the ledger. Opening the lids to check the contents, then closing then again when satisfied and marking them with a black stamp. Checking briefly over his shoulder to make sure Kabal wasn’t on his tail, Johnny entered the room and made his way over to her. “Is it always like that out there?”

She continued to work, moving onto the next crate in line. “What would you expect? Truth or dare? Spin the bottle? It’s a f*cking drug lab, not a sleepover. They’re terrified.”

“I’ve never been so disgusted in my life,” Johnny admitted. “I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this.”

“You can still walk away.” She closed the ledger and faced him. “No one’s going to think less of you.”

I f*cking will.” He leaned against a crate and crossed his arms over his chest. “How have you managed to do this for so long without cracking?”

“I find my outs, and I take them. Sometimes it’s a minute, sometimes it’s an hour or a feeling, a memory.” She shrugged and leaned next to him, close enough that he could feel the warmth from her body. Leaning her head back, she closed her eyes. “I think about home, summer in North Carolina, my cabin on the lake. Hiking in Great Smokey Mountain. Anything to remind me that I’m not these people.”

“No, you’re one women army it seems.” He bumped her shoulder playfully and felt his heart skip as she actually smiled at him. “Locked, loaded and on a mission.”

Sonya arched an eyebrow and then peered out the doorway to see if anyone was looking. Turning her palm over, she revealed a tiny bead of Lagu Hati in her palm. “You have no idea.”

“Holy f*ck.” He pulled back, for a brief moment wondering if Kano would come thundering in the door and reveal the whole moment to be some sort of test of loyalty.

“Don’t just stand there, take it quick.” She glanced out the doorway furtively. “Get it to Jax so he can have it tested.”

“What about you? If they find out, you swiped one…” He shook his head. “It’s too risky. I can wait for a better time.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Without further comment she reached out, grabbed him by the belt buckle and slipped her hand deep into the waistband of his pants to deposit the bead. Her fingers brushed across the plain of his stomach, sending a shiver down his back that went straight to his dick.

Mentally he wagged a finger at his co*ck, begging it, not for the first time, not to be his utter ruin. Let’s face it, it was damn near impossible with a gorgeous blonde with her hand down his pants and a smirk on her lips that made his mouth go dry.

From the hallway came the sound of voices approaching, Johnny recognized Dentin’s guttural tones as he barked orders at someone. Beside him, Sonya paled and for the first time he saw a hint of panic in her eyes at the thought of anything suspect. “f*ck, what now?”

Johnny saw a million feasible plans wash over her face as she quickly removed her fingers. They had seconds to spare and everything to lose. With a soft curse, she turned abruptly and stepped into his arms, pulling them around her waist tightly. In the space of a breath, her lips were on his, the scent of cinnamon was in his nose, and he was lost. Winding a leg around hers, he tipped her back slightly, nipping at her lower lip and begging for an entrance that she gladly gave. Raw heat washed through him, igniting a craving he hadn’t thought possible anymore, and he found himself tangling his fingers in her hair and willing it not to end.

“Wooooo! Would you look at that?” They broke apart to see Denton and Onabru filling the doorway, watching them with leering eyes. “Quite the scene we’ve walked in on.”

“Shut the f*ck up and get out.” Sonya raised a double bird and then wound her hands in Johnny’s vest. “If you want a peep show, go into the city like the rest of the men, pay for it and get f*cked.”

Denton started forward as if to confront her, but Onabru reached out an arm and held him back. “Come on, it’s not worth it.”

“Bitch.” Denton turned and stalked off again toward the main floor. There was an instant where Johnny thought Onabru was going to say more and then he simply reached in and pulled the door shut with a thump, leaving them in relative privacy.

“That was close.” Sonya sagged against the nearest crate and closed her eyes. “Worth it but too close.”

“You know if I get this bead home, if we can get enough information to nail the Black Dragon.” Johnny made an encompassing gesture to mean everything around them. “This could be the end.”

“Don’t be a f*cking fool, Johnny.” To his surprise, she leaned and brushed her lips over his again in a lingering kiss. Pushing off she retrieved her ledger and headed back to the main room. “This is just the beginning.”

And I'll Just Say Hello - CosmicTapestries (2024)
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