Raio motioned to her, but she ignored him and approached the bar instead. Raio scowled; in all the time Banner had known him, he'd hated to be dismissed like that. The girl made it look easy.
Must be history between them. Banner didn't voice the thought aloud. He didn't want Raio mad at him, too.
The girl appeared again, and this time she approached the table, bearing a trio of drinks. She set a Blue Moon in front of Banner, and a Heineken at Raio's elbow. She sat in the third chair, her back to the door and the crowd, and sipped her own drink--what appeared to be a hand-mixed cherry Coke with maraschino cherries floating in it; Banner could see the thick red syrup in the bottom of her glass. She settled back and regarded him with sharp violet eyes.
She looked like any other young woman Banner might see in his line of work--average height, average build, average features. Not too much makeup, and unremarkable red-brown hair long enough to be pulled in a tail--or braid like it was now--or tucked up and hidden under a wig or hat if needed. It was no wonder Raio had chosen her; she could blend in pretty much anywhere.
Raio was still scowling at her over his beer. She ignored him, a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth, like she and Banner shared some amusing secret. Banner sipped his beer and pretended not to notice.
He turned to Raio instead. "What the heck is all the secrecy about, Raio? You'd think we're undercover spies or something."
Judging from the girl's growing smirk, she felt the same way. It made Banner wonder if she'd deliberately botched her tailing technique to tick Raio off.
"Oh, you know Raio," she said with a shrug. "Likes his drama."
Raio sighed and indicated the girl. "Banner, meet my latest protege, Capri." He glared at her. "And--I hope--my last."
Capri snorted. "Don't believe him." She offered Banner her hand in a firm, confident shake. "He wouldn't give up his hobby for the world." She sipped her Coke. "It makes it all the more fun to drive him nuts."
Banner didn't doubt her. Raio was former-CIA, now "retired" and had started a lucrative business to training security teams. His "hobby" as Capri called it, was to recruit and in-depth train a select few for higher freelance work and exclusive private government contracts. His specially trained operatives--like Banner--were allowed to live and work where and as they wished, but had the obligation to drop everything and answer when Raio required.
Banner was a little different from the others. He could turn Raio down.
"Whatever you're selling, Raio, I'm not buying." Banner crossed his arms over his chest.
Raio sighed again. "Banner--"
"No. No way. Not after last time, remember?"
Raio made a face. Of course he would remember. Banner never intended to let him forget. At least he had the decency to look guilty.
"It's not a big thing," Raio protested.
"Raio, no means no. I've got a good job and a little something I'd call an actual life now. Not interested."
Capri studied him. "What's the matter? Afraid?"
Banner ignored her mocking tone. "No, but I'm not stupid, either. He nearly got me killed last time. Told me he wouldn't do it again."
"This isn't like that," Raio said quietly. He looked stricken, but Banner didn't let it change his decision.
"No offense, old man," Banner answered, "but it always turns out that way. I'm tired of it."
"Don't you even want to know what he wants before you turn him down?" Capri interrupted, seeing Banner open his mouth to cut Raio off again.
Banner shook his head. "No, because then I'd feel guilty and inclined to change my mind. Besides. I have a good job I don't want to sacrifice. I've already done that for him before." He pinned Raio with a hard look. "Twice."
"You owe him, Banner."
Banner nearly snorted beer out his nose. "Owe him? For what?"
Raio looked helpless; the conversation was utterly beyond his control. Banner almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Given how Raio had treated him over the years, and up until a few moments ago still did, he couldn't, quite.
"He taught you everything you know!" Capri snapped, now defending the man she'd been harassed.
Banner grunted. "Not true. Not even half true. And I think the last thing I did for him more than squared us."
"Then do it to one-up him," Capri suggested. "Not many can say Raio owes them a favor."
"No." He pushed his seat back and got up. "Thanks for the beer. Maybe next time you come to town you could just come to chat. It's been fun."
"Banner." Raio spoke quietly, almost quiet enough he couldn't be heard over the pounding music. "I'm sorry."
Banner shook his head. "No, you're not. If you were, you wouldn't be here."
He didn't look back as he marched out the door.
It was past two when Banner finally dragged himself home. He bolted the door and heaved a sigh. He didn't want to help Raio; he didn't want to screw up what little life he'd managed to carve out for himself in the last couple of years--he didn't care what he owed Raio. His life might suck, but at least it was his.
As much as a run-down apartment and night job can be. Who am I kidding? It's not a life--it's barest survival.
He stepped around the pile of laundry he'd tossed in the middle of the living room and approached the aquarium by the bedroom hallway. It was a seventy gallon saltwater tank; he'd chosen to put it where the hall and the far wall of the living room cornered so it was one of the first things he saw when he came home--it helped remind him to feed the fish, but also kept the light from crawling down the hall into his bedroom at the far end.
A smile tugged the corner of his mouth at the sight of the flame angelfish flitting between chunks of coral-covered live rock. The black-barred bright orange fish had been the last addition to the tank, given the species' reputation of aggression toward newer tank mates. As things were, everyone was getting along.
He opened the hood and sprinkled some food across the water's surface. There was an immediate rush by most of the tank's occupants to gobble it down before the others did.
"Sorry I'm late, guys," he told the whole community, when even his shy blue-dot jawfish emerged from its den under a solitary piece of live rock. "You've got to be starving."
They certainly acted like it. He put some more food in, and this time some of it floated down where the invertebrate members of the community waited. He watched them scramble for a moment, then shut the hood again.
The tank was pretty much the one nice thing he owned. It had taken him years and a lot of money to set up the miniature reef, but it had been well worth it.
Watching the fish was calming after the tense meeting with Raio. Banner sighed heavily and sprawled on the worn full-length sofa that ran along the wall to his right, between the tank and the door. What a night off this turned out to be.
He heard the soft, hurried pad of footfalls approaching from the back bedroom a moment before he heard the chirp-purr greeting fro his big orange cat. Banner hadn't bothered to turn on any of the lights when he'd come in, so all he could see in the tank's light was a blue-tinted orangish cat-shaped blob in his peripheral vision. A moment later, the cat landed on his chest with a heavy thump.
"Oof. Hey, buddy." Banner stroked the cat's broad head.
The cat, a stray tom he'd taken in and neutered, was orange tabby mixed with Siamese. His thick fur was creamy in color, and instead of a Siamese's dark points, he had orange striped ones. He also had the build of a tabby instead of being thin and leggy. Banner hadn't come up with a good name for him yet.
He lay there with the cat purring on his chest and watched his bright blue starfish climb the glass at the front of the tank now that the feeding frenzy had finished.
Maybe I'll call in sick tomorrow, he thought. Raio would think that means I'll take the job, though.
His stomach rumbled. He sat up and transferred the cat--who meowed in protest--to the floor.
"I need something to eat, too, bud."
The far side of the living room was also the dining room. Banner ducked into the small kitchen, its doorway in the wall opposite the tank's. The cat followed him, still meowing.
"Yes, I know I'm home late," he told him. "There's no need to yell at me."
The cat twined around his legs while he rummaged in the fridge, dug out week-old pizza. He ate it cold, along with a can of Barq's, standing in front of the fridge in the dark, illuminated only by its glow. To appease the cat, he poured a shallow bowl of milk.
"Where's your girlfriend?" he asked with a mouthful of pizza. "Hmm? Where's Sparkler?"
The former tom ignored him, distracted by the milk.
"Spark?" he called. "Sparky?"
He found the leggy black-and-white kitten curled up on his pillow in the back bedroom. He'd found her, spunky and fearless, out behind the Vault when he'd taken trash to the dumpster not long after he'd taken in the tom. She had white toes on both front feet and a white stocking on her left hind leg, a splash of white on her belly, and a drop of white on her nose. She'd been little more than bones and claws and appetite when he'd caught her. He'd gotten scratched pretty good. Now she was growing like a weed and queen of the apartment. He hadn't gotten her spayed yet; she was still too little. He'd named her for her spirited personality.
"Hey, little Sparkler," he greeted softly, scratching her small head with one finger. An immediate purr answered him; it sounded like her head was full of little ball bearings. She stretched her front paws out, little claws extending like tiny needles. Banner chuckled. "How's my sweet girl?"
Sparkler made a funny sound and stretched to turn belly up, then relaxed and fell asleep again. Banner chuckled and left her alone. He kicked one of her catnip mice when he headed to the closet; it squeaked cheerfully as it bounced away. He turned the closet light on and stripped down to his boxers, left his clothes in a pile on the closet floor. On cue, the big cat trotted in and made himself a nest in them.
"I think we're getting predictable, old man," he told the cat.
He turned the closet light off again and climbed into bed, carefully lifted Sparkler from the pillow and deposited her next to him. She got up and insisted on pillow space, curled up beside his face so her fur covered his nose. He snorted and rolled onto his back; the tom abandoned the closet and landed on his chest.
Banner sighed and closed his eyes.
A knock on the door woke him instead of his alarm clock. He shuffled through the living room, beyond groggy, jealous of the two cats still asleep in his bed.
Capri stood on the other side, holding a box of fresh Cinnabon giant rolls and a package of uncooked bacon. She wore a bright red cami and a comfortable pair of blue jeans.
"Hey," she said into his befuddlement. "Can I come in?"
"Raio didn't send me," she told him when he went to shut the door in her face. "This is just me."
With a grumbling sigh, he let her in.
A look of utter delight lit her face at the sight of the fish tank.
"You have an aquarium?" She set the food on the table and flitted around the laundry to peer in at the inhabitants. Banner could only watch in his blurry-eyed, brain-muddled state. He couldn't even figure out how to wonder why she was there.
"A flame angel, an orchid dottyback, a golden semilarvatus butterflyfish…" she named each of his inhabitants in turn, then looked at him in surprise. "A blue-dot jawfish? Aren't they hard to care for?"
Banner's brain still wasn't working properly, but Capri didn't seem to notice, too taken by the underwater world. He could smell the Cinnabons on the table and his stomach growled.
Capri walked right through the mountain of laundry to reach the table. "You have a skillet? Figured you're a guy--you'd want bacon for breakfast."
Banner's brain managed to offer her a grunt and a vague wave toward the kitchen. Capri smirked, then rummaged around until she found it.
"No good until you've had your coffee, huh?" she asked him, searching the cabinets. "Do you even have coffee?"
The smell of frying bacon woke him up enough to wonder why she didn't seem to be bothered he was only wearing his boxers. It also woke the cats; they came trotting from the bedroom, Sparkler mimicking the former tom, tails in the air.
The big cat stopped dead in the kitchen doorway at the sight of the strange woman and looked at Banner with his big blue eyes as if to ask what the heck she was doing there. Banner couldn't have told him.
Sparkler had a much larger reaction. She bolted back around the corner and down the hallway, every hair standing on end, and darted in the nearer bedroom. Banner heard her claws scrabble and knew she'd gone under the armchair.
Capri gave Banner an amused look, but didn't say anything.
"You can get dressed, you know," she told him. "This is going to take a little bit."
He rankled at her tone, but she was right. There was no sense arguing that it was his apartment and he could throw her out if he wanted.
He stopped outside the first bedroom door and saw Sparkler's white-toed paws and white nose peeking out from under his chair. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled into the room, picked up and rattled one of her bell balls back and forth in front of her nose trying to lure her out. The kitten was interested, but not buying it.
Banner left her to calm down and pulled on his jeans from the night before. Then he fed his fish and waited for Capri to get done with the bacon. She'd set two of the big cinnamon rolls out on plates with forks and knives, so he dug into one. He was halfway done before she set a glass of milk in front of him.
"Guys are all alike," she muttered.
"Hey, I didn't ask you to show up and feed me," he said around a mouthful.
"No, but you could be a more gracious host." She didn't look at him, occupied with the remaining bacon in the pan.
"I let you in. I think, given what I know about you and what we both know about Raio, I think that's gracious enough."
She didn't have an answer to that. She finished with the bacon and put the plate between them on the table. The former tom took up the third seat, peering over the edge of the table at the meat.
"Cute. What's his name?"
Banner shook his head. "Doesn't have one yet."
"You're an interesting guy, Banner."
He shrugged. "Why are you here? It's not to get to know me."
Capri echoed his shrug. "I want you to reconsider."
Banner glared at her. "No."
A muscle twitched in Capri's jaw. "This isn't about Raio. It's not even for him. It's about me!"
That stopped Banner's retort short.
"He talks so highly of you, Banner," she told him. "And I want some safe but real life experience. My father runs a big security company and asked Raio to train me--called in a favor from when they worked together. I asked if I could learn from you. Raio told me you wouldn't take the job if he asked, but I insisted. You're his best."
Her gaze went to the aquarium while she talked. Her expression was almost…wistful. "It seemed like a great idea. Raio said you'd settled down and wouldn't be doing anything…high risk anymore." She held up her hand when he started to open his mouth. "No, he didn't say what happened. And no, I didn't ask."