Clarence took a deep breath, then slowly let it out, hoping that the sweat accumulating across his body wouldn’t give the wrong impression. Breathe. Relax. It’s not the first time military hardware has traded hands. He reached up and adjusted his tie, then slicked his hair back, feeling into a sudden well of confidence from his own thoughts. They might call it illegal arms dealing, but what’s legal in this world? Those who have the gold make the rules and weapons are worth their weight in gold. He glanced up at the clock, noting that his client was starting to get late — real late. Did he find a better deal?

“Were you followed?” a male voice asked from behind Clarence, momentarily startling him.

“By who?” Clarence mumbled back, glancing behind himself to see a scarred man — a representative of the mercenary unit he was trying to sell to.

“Anyone. You know how this business is,” the scarred man replied, moving over to sit at the chair across from Clarence. “I took in a few sights, delayed my meeting a bit. Keeps people on their toes.”

Clarence lifted an eyebrow. “Why would anyone care about our business?”

The scarred man leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. “UN’s cracking down — haven’t you heard? Too much surplus American hardware leaking out into the world. Piracy is at an all time high. Doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to get what they think about our business.”

Clarence pursed his lips as he thought for a moment, considering his words. “Well, we do sell products made by rocket surgeons, so-“

“Don’t get smart with me,” the scarred man dryly remarked, sitting back and folding his arms. “And besides, it’s surplus rocket surgery anyways. Unless you’re telling me you have access to new build stuff, to which I’d call bull.”

“Right. Straight to business.” Clarence cleared his throat and grabbed his briefcase, causing the scarred man to reach for his waist.

“Easy. No sudden movements,” the scarred man whispered, lifting his chin up toward Clarence’s briefcase.

Clarence paused for a moment, then shook his head. He slowly brought the briefcase up and set it on the table, then flipped open the latches. He twisted it around and let the scarred man look inside as he opened it up, showing off the various brochures and papers within.

“You’re not good at this, are you?” the scarred man asked, relaxing his body. “Assassins are all over now. I hear even spies are getting involved with mercenaries now.”

“Not my monkeys, not my circus,” Clarence replied, pulling out a few pages from the briefcase. “You wanted to talk missiles, yes?”

The scarred man nodded. “Air-air, air-surface, surface-surface. Anything you got, double for stuff that can be adapted to the air.”

“AGM-65, AIM-7, and AIM-9,” Clarence whispered, handing a sheet of paper to the scarred man. “Surplus from the old California Guard. Conveniently misplaced by a few clumsy personnel in the current Republic.”

“Five finger discount, you mean,” the scarred man mumbled, looking over the paper. He glanced up and narrowed his eyes. “You want a pretty penny for this stuff. AGM-65B? AIM-7F? Old stuff. At least the AIM-9s are Mikes. But I hear they even got X-rays out on the market.”

“Yeah, at ten times the expense,” Clarence grumbled. He opened a hand to the paper. “The 65’s are well-maintained and updated. Scene-mag and all that stuff. Some refined processor logic. 7’s are a bit old, but they did a few mods to them, too — put in some H-build stuff in them, kept the same motor. 9’s are stock, of course.”

The scarred man tossed the paper aside, shaking his head. “Too much. Maybe at half price. Maybe.” He pinched his fingers together to emphasize his point. “You’re askin’ a king’s wages for surplus gear.”

Clarence folded his arms and snorted. “You know anyone else who has this stuff? And in this quantity?”

The scarred man looked aside and let out a sigh. “I can’t afford all of them, only part of the lot. If you can piece it out-“

“No, no way,” Clarence interrupted, dismissing the scarred man’s request. “You buy the whole lot or you buy none at all. This stuff’s hot merchandise and I’m not sitting on it any longer than I have to.”

“I can’t afford the whole lot,” the scarred man lamented. “C’mon, do me a solid — we don’t need all of it, not right now.”

I can’t afford to have it taking up warehouse space,” Clarence replied. “You told me you were ready to buy. I told you what it might cost. You wanted to iron out the details. These are the details — you telling me you’re a liar?”

The scarred man narrowed his eyes at Clarence. “Be careful there. I might just drill you in the head for that.”

Clarence looked around the packed restaurant, then opened his arms wide. “Yeah, so everyone else can see you and drill you in the same way, am I right?” He pulled his arms back in and shook his head. “All or none, price as noted. Take it or leave it.” He tilted his head toward the paper, the lines of text almost taunting the scarred man. “You’re not the only interested potential buyer of this stuff. I could double the price of that stuff and have it sold tomorrow.”

The scarred man let out a long sigh, then pursed his lips. He looked at the paper, then back up to Clarence. “What if I bring another buyer along and split it? He pays half, I pay half.”

“I won’t hold it in reserve, if that’s what you’re asking,” Clarence grumbled. “I’ll talk to the next interested party and if they buy it, you’re out of luck. That’s how the game is played.”

“No, no,” the scarred man mumbled, shaking his head. “If I get another interested party and you’ve still got it tomorrow, would you split the deal up then?”

“Yeah, fine, whatever; so as long as you’re paying for the stuff and getting it all off my hands, that’s enough.” Clarence reached out and grabbed the paper, stuffing it back into his briefcase and closing it with a thunk. “But as already noted, there are other buyers. You and… Whoever the hell mercenary unit of the week you work with, you’ll be behind them.”

If they buy,” the scarred man whispered, standing up. “Same time and place tomorrow. I’ll meet you and we’ll work something out.” He casually walked away, leaving Clarence alone at the table.

“Damn this market,” Clarence grumbled, shaking his head and setting his briefcase on the floor. Another man emerged from a booth and sat down across from him, looking out the door for the scarred man’s presence.

“That could’ve gone better,” the man mumbled with a shake of his head. “No deal?”

“No deal,” Clarence answered, gently slamming a fist on the table. “How the hell is it we can’t sell a damn thing in this market? It’s a seller’s market! Tell me, Bill, what the hell are we doing wrong?”

Bill shrugged, displaying a nonchalant look on his face. “Maybe the fact it’s stolen hardware is scarin’ them off.”

Clarence opened his hands and looked around. “It’s all stolen stuff! Who cares? The only ones who want it are pirates and mercenaries, nobody else cares how we got it!”

“Well, y’know, with the UN makin’ a big deal about it… Not a good deal,” Bill remarked with a grimace.

Clarence rubbed his eyes and let out an annoyed sigh. “But why would any of these characters care about what the UN thinks? It isn’t like the UN can just ask the USA to come in and crack down on them!”

“Eh, might be able to give trouble to some countries,” Bill mumbled. “Y’know a lot of places let mercs transit freely, lookin’ the other way so they can earn a little bit of money off of them. UN might squeeze these places a bit, which could land mercs in hot water. Especially so if they have munitions marked as ‘stolen.’ “

“It’ll take a lot of work by the UN to get those countries to care about stolen munitions,” Clarence dryly remarked. He glanced around for a bit and waved a waitress over, who subsequently came up to the table with a notepad in hand.

“Strike out again?” the waitress mumbled, looking at her notepad.

“Maybe,” Clarence mumbled. He cleared his throat and tilted his head toward the menu. “Today’s special. And yes, I can pay.”

“With what?” the waitress asked in annoyance.

Clarence glanced over and let out a tired sigh, then pulled out his wallet and withdrew a few bills. “Old US currency. Still good, according to the banks.”

“Yeah, til the gold runs out at Knox,” the waitress muttered in reply. “But fine, you can take it up with Bubba since you’re such good buddies.”

“Hey, what about me?” Bill asked, displaying a sad look on his face.

“You pay for your own,” Clarence snapped back. “You told me the buyer was good!”

“I said we had a buyer! And you said you’d pay for chow!”

“And did he? Did he buy anything?”

Bill depressingly looked down. “No. Not really.” He glanced back up and narrowed his eyes. “But he might. Tomorrow.”

“Make you a deal,” Clarence said, pointing a finger at Bill. “I’ll buy your chow now if they actually make the deal tomorrow. If they don’t, you’re buying me chow for a week. Deal?”

Bill pursed his lips, then grinned and nodded. “Deal! You’re on!”

The waitress rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. “You’re both dumber than a bag of hammers. Whatever; what do you want?”

“I want-” Bill began, but then stopped as Clarence held a hand up.

“Something from the kid’s menu,” Clarence remarked, waving a hand. “Surprise him.”

“Hey!” Bill protested, balling his hands into fists.

“You know that’s all he can afford, Bill,” the waitress muttered, writing down on her notepad. “I’ll be right out — after I discuss this with Bubba.”

“You’re too kind, Paige,” Clarence mumbled, rubbing his temple.

“You two are just another couple of mouths to feed. You’ll have to sell that warehouse of yours and Bubba will be all too happy to collect. Mark my words.” Paige shook her head and turned away, walking off before Clarence or Bill could argue with her any further.

“You know anything about intellectual osmosis?” Clarence asked Bill, watching Paige walk away.

“Osmo-what now?” Bill replied, canting his head in confusion.

“I think Paige ascribes to it. Probably ’cause of you.”

“I get ‘intellectual’ but you lost me at ‘osmosis,’ ” Bill muttered while looking down.

Clarence snorted and gave Bill a dry look. “Yeah, I get that a lot when I’m with you. The blind leading the blind.”

Bill looked up and raised an eyebrow. “Well, I ain’t. Blind, I mean. You know that! You can see it!”

Clarence rolled his head into the palms of his hands. “Y’know Bill, for being such a dangerous business we’re in, I’m really surprised you’ve made it this far. Much less without getting me killed in the process.”

“Well, that means a lot, comin’ from you!” Bill remarked with a beaming smile. “I got faith in ya! We’ll make that deal happen!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Clarence muttered, hoping the conversation would end. He glanced over to see the TV at the bar showing all the day’s current events — all the chaos in the world — and caught a glimpse of a few words that annoyed him further. “UN cracking down on black market,” eh? Well, with all that nice European money, why dontcha just buy it all up? Instead, you gotta make my life miserable with another “crackdown”!

Bill glanced at Clarence, then to the TV and back. “Somethin’ going on?”

“No more than usual,” Clarence mumbled in reply. “Just wondering how long this is gonna last.”

“What? Er, what’s gonna last?”

“Yeah, too long. Far too long.”

“AGM-65B. Yes, surplus. No, no, not ‘new’ surplus — surplus-surplus! But- Gah!” Clarence slammed down the phone and grunted in frustration. “Bastard hung up on me.”

Bill, looking over a manual from a packing crate, scratched his head. “Hey, whatsit about ‘AGM-65D’? Can we get those?”

“Not before we clear out what we’ve got,” Clarence grumbled in reply. “You find a buyer over there yet?”

Bill shook his head, setting the manual aside. “Someone said they had a line on AGM-65Ds and laughed me off when I said AGM-65B was just as good.”

“Because it isn’t!” Clarence growled back in annoyance. “They’ve even got missiles with those-those… Fancy new screens now!”

Bill lifted an eyebrow at Clarence’s words. “Fancy screens? Why would they put a new TV on the missile?”

Clarence frantically dug through some papers on his desk, then shoved one into Bill’s face. “‘Charged-Couple Device’! It’s not like the old seekers, you nitwit!”

“So… Not AGM-65B?” Bill innocently asked as he took the page from Clarence and looked it over.

“Many times better than what we’ve got,” Clarence muttered. He sighed and sat back in his chair, almost at wit’s end. “Stuck with stolen, ancient hardware that nobody will buy.”

Bill looked up and jutted a thumb behind himself. “You sayin’ our stuff is worthless?”

Clarence grimaced, then shook his head. “Not worth enough to turn a profit. We could part out the 9s, then maybe the 7s, but then transport and delivery will eat us alive. Not to mention what might happen if we get caught delivering any of it. And we’d still be stuck with the 65s, which are takin’ up the most space.”

Bill pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. “Why don’t we just call them AGM-65Ds? Paint over the markings-“

“No,” Clarence sternly interjected. “Bad business there. For one, the seekers are a dead giveaway, for two, you do somethin’ like that and you’ll never make a deal again.” He took a deep breath and held a hand up. “Somebody has to have a use for these older munitions. Training or cheaper anti-tank reserve, anything. There’s a lot of hardware out there that can only use these older missiles, too — like F-4s and whatnot. Plenty of operators with those types, looking for a deal. We just gotta find ’em.”

“OK but what if we call them AGM-65X? Call it a new model from out west — how they gonna know?”

“Bill, you’re tryin’ to sell weapons to people armed to the teeth with those very same weapons!”

Bill gave a blank stare to Clarence, his head still empty of coherent thought. “So?”

Clarence rubbed his eyes in frustration. “So, do you think it’s a good idea to screw those people over by selling them counterfeit goods?”

“But they ain’t counterfeit. They’re legit! Just acquired through alternative means!”

Clarence glanced up and took a deep breath. “You’re talking about making them counterfeit by misrepresenting them. These guys know the hardware! It’s their business to know the hardware!”

Bill frowned. “You sayin’ they can tell the difference from a B model and a D model? ‘Cause I can’t tell!”

“Gee, I can’t imagine why,” Clarence muttered. He lightly smiled and opened a hand to Bill. “You seen our AGM-65s? The B models we got?”

Bill nodded. “Yeah, I’ve seen them. Unpacked one of the crates with you, didn’t I?”

“Remember the seeker? Rounded end of the missile?”

Bill pursed his lips as he thought for a moment, before silently nodding again.

Clarence pinched his index and thumb fingers together. “Little gizmo at the nose of it. Looks like a little camera.”

“Yeah! Yeah! I got it!” Bill frustratingly muttered.

“You can’t see that in a D model,” Clarence whispered, shifting his fingers to point at a data sheet between the two of them. “Uses an infrared seeker. Not CCD. Not TV. Anybody with two neurons to rub together can see that from an instant.”

“So what?”

Clarence lifted his eyebrows and opened his hand. “How you gonna pass off an obvious TV seeker missile as a IR seeker missile to our discerning buyer?”

Bill thought for a moment, lightly rubbing his chin. He smiled and held a finger up. “Just paint over the window.”

Clarence grabbed a newspaper and rolled it up, then smacked Bill over the head with it. “You ninny! You’ll ruin the damn thing by doing that!”

“So what?! Nobody will use the damn thing as is! Also, don’t hit me again!” Bill exclaimed, rubbing his head.

Clarence reached over and hit Bill over the head again for emphasis. “We want them to use the hardware, moron! We want them to come back to us after they’ve used them so they’ll buy from us again!” He tossed the newspaper aside and let out a frustrated sigh. “We’re trying to run a business here! We need customers to build a reputation!” He narrowed his eyes at Bill, his frustration readily evident. “A good reputation!”

Bill closed his eyes and let out a sigh. “Then all I can think of is wait for our original buyer to show up with his friend. I got no idea who else might want the stuff.”

Clarence stood up and looked out over the vast expanse of the warehouse; it was full of various shipping crates marked “People’s Soviet Socialist Republics of America,” the branding of the new west coast government. A stylized red star with an angry-looking bear on the side added further emphasis of the new direction the states had taken in the past decade. They lay it on thick. Big guys at the top put a big crackdown on things once they took over, but who didn’t see that coming? At least the Northeast tried to be impartial with their little soviet experiment.

“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” Bill asked, opening his eyes to look at Clarence.

“Lettin’ my mind wander,” Clarence muttered. “Wonderin’ how our country came to this.”

“Came to what?”

Clarence waved a hand around the warehouse. “This. Sellin’ warfare. Mercs make up the economy now. Or did they always? Messes with your head.”

Bill scratched his head. “Whaddya mean? You sayin’ we should be able to find buyers easy?”

Clarence let out a depressed sigh and looked down. “I’m saying that before the Cold War ended, we dumped a lot of cash into the idea of World War III. The idea of it, Bill. The Soviets fell, then we did. What did we do other than get ready for that big fight that never came?”

“Er, movies? I remember when Hollywood was a big thing!” Bill triumphantly announced.

Clarence glanced behind himself and raised an eyebrow. “So, you’re sayin’ that our culture was a big thing?”

“Er… Uh-huh. Yeah!”

Clarence grinned and shook his head. “I guess that’s as good an answer as any.” He walked over to one of the crates and tapped on it. “We threw a lot of resources into this stuff, y’know. I wonder how many mouths one of these would feed.”

Bill pursed his lips as he thought for a moment. “I dunno, Clarence. I never tried eatin’ one.”

Clarence rolled his head forward and let out an exasperated sigh. “Bill, I’m sayin’ in terms of money. What’d we estimate the value of one of these things at? Sixty-five thousand or so?”

Bill held a hand up and ticked off his fingers as he crunched the numbers. “Yeah. Sixty-five to seventy. Sixty-two on the low end.”

“You can feed a family and then some on that for a whole year,” Clarence remarked. “What were we doing in Iran, burning up that kind of money every second, while people here at home were starvin’? Were the problems over there so damned important that we had to take food off the table to deal with ’em?”

“Well, yeah!” Bill exclaimed, clenching a fist. “Them Iranians were causin’ problems! I remember my dad talkin’ about how bad they all were!”

“Nah, wasn’t important at all,” Clarence continued, ignoring Bill’s words. He tapped on the crate again for emphasis. “This piece of junk ain’t worth that. It’s built to take lives, not save ’em. All put together so somebody can claim to be king of the scrap heap. Pieced together by geniuses, used by warriors, justified by politicians — and not one of ’em asked if they should.”

Bill frowned, still lost as ever. “Should what?”

“If they should’ve made this junk,” Clarence answered. “They were all tryin’ new ways to blow people up n’ not one of ’em asked if they should.”

Bill blankly stared at Clarence, his mind unable to comprehend the philosophical discussion in front of him.

Clarence glanced back to Bill, then let out a sigh. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.” He sat down on the crate and looked down at the floor. “Have you got any more contacts we haven’t rung up yet?”

Bill rubbed his chin, then lifted his eyebrows up. “I might have one. He ain’t a buyer, but he might know someone interested.”

“On short notice?” Clarence asked, looking over to Bill.

Bill pursed his lips, then followed up with a quick nod. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Then make the call,” Clarence muttered, waving a hand dismissively.

Bill reached over and grabbed the phone on his desk, then punched in a few numbers. He waited a bit for the other end to pick up, then nervously smiled. “Hey, uh, is Julie there? Er, tell her ‘Bill’ is calling.” A shout on the other end caused him to grimace and hold the receiver away from his ear for a moment before pressing it back in. “I know, I know! I’m sorry! I’ll make it worth your while!”

Clarence passed a dry look to Bill and folded his arms to illustrate his disapproval. I don’t know what that moron thinks he’s doing by callin’ up old girlfriends — especially right now!

Bill unconsciously held a finger up, trying to stall the person on the other end of the call. “Let-let me- no, no, I’m- just tell her I’m sorry, OK?!” He sighed and looked down. “I got hardware! OK?!” The other person clearly stopped chattering into the phone, waiting for Bill to explain. “I’ll put the guy on the line, alright?” He offered the handset to Clarence, who walked over and took it.

“Clarence speaking,” Clarence said into the receiver.

“Clarence, is it?” a female asked in annoyance. “If you’re torturing Bill, I want one of his toes!”

“Are you interested in some missiles?” Clarence bluntly asked, cutting straight to the chase.

The woman paused for a moment, seemingly collecting herself. “Mercenary hardware? What kind?”

“AIM-7, AIM-9, and AGM-65,” Clarence coolly answered. “Surplus stockpiles from the old Guard.”

“Mmm,” the woman whispered, then giggled. “I might be interested. What’s the catch?”

“They’re hot, you have to buy the whole lot, and they’re not the latest and greatest.”

“That bad? How many?”

“20 of the 65s, 30 of the 7s, and 25 of the 9s. The 9s are Mike models, by the way. Half-price on the 7s — they’re F models.”

“Large stock,” the woman muttered, with the clacking of a keyboard being heard. “4.2 million for the whole lot, roughly.”

“Make you a deal,” Clarence slowly said, “3.8 million if you buy the whole lot.”

Bill shook his head and held his hands up. “Clarence! Clarence! That’s not enough! That-“

Clarence held a finger up to stall Bill. “All liquid. You take the stuff, you pay us in straight cash. That’s the deal.”

“No deal,” the woman growled. “No one keeps that kind of cash on hand. Who do you think you are? I don’t even know you!”

“Then 4.5 million,” Clarence whispered, a smirk stretching his mouth, “in exchange for future deals. You extend a line of credit with some liquid on delivery.”

“Hmm… No.” The woman laughed. “4 million credit. No liquid.”

“No way. I’ve got an interested buyer already. 4.3mil, with 300 thou as liquid.”

“Done! I’ll take that deal,” the woman gleefully exclaimed, cackling into the phone. “I can take delivery this afternoon.”

“You got the trucks?” Clarence asked, rubbing his eyes.

“That bad, huh? It’ll cost your liquid. Hundred K, right off the top.”

Fifty K.”

“Oh, I like you, Mr. Clarence,” the woman lustfully whispered. “Fine. Fifty and I get to have Bill for the evening.”

Clarence glanced over to Bill and grinned. “Consider him a free bonus.”

“Wait, what?” Bill nervously asked, his eyes widening at Clarence. “Whaddya mean?”

“This is going to be the start of a loving relationship, isn’t it?” The woman cackled again. “Alright, call me ‘Julie.’ Where are you?”

“451 Warehouse Road. Just down from the airfield,” Clarence answered. “I assume you want to inspect the hardware first?”

“Yes, naturally. I’ll be there in about… 45 minutes?”

“We’ll be waiting.” Clarence hung up the phone and pressed his fingers together, turning to address Bill. “We’ve got a deal. Unfortunately for you.”

Bill blinked his eyes for a moment, then frowned. “Julie bought it?”

“She’ll inspect it first, then take delivery,” Clarence replied. “Then you belong to her this evening.”

Bill shot up and balled his hands into fists. “You’re gonna to get me killed! Julie’s nuttier than squirrel shit!”

“Relax, Bill,” Clarence muttered, walking back over to the missile crate. “She probably just wants to squeeze your balls a bit. Maybe cut off a toe.” He glanced behind himself and displayed a smirk. “I’m willing to pay that price.”

Bill nervously paced around, dreading the moment that Julie would walk through the door.

“Relax, Bill,” Clarence grumbled, folding his arms. “I won’t ask what it is you did to tick her off, but this is our only lifeline at this point. I don’t expect the other buyer to give us a deal.”

Bill stopped and gave an incredulous stare to Clarence. “You don’t know her, Clarence! She’s nuts! She’ll demand sex one moment, then call you a horny dog the next!”

“Not my problem. That’s what you get for messing with crazy.”

Bill balled his hands into fists. “I didn’t! I ran far away from ‘er after I found out!”

Clarence raised an eyebrow. “Was that before or after?”

Bill let out a sigh and looked down. “After.”

Clarence bowed his head and opened a hand. “My argument stands.”

Before Bill could argue more, a loud bang on the door echoed out, cuing Clarence to walk up and open the smaller door leading into the warehouse. Shortly after opening it, a cane entered through the doorway, followed by a plump but fit looking middle-aged woman. She steadied herself on her cane and limped through, her frame draped by a gray dress with a simple straw hat covering her head. Clarence couldn’t help to think that she probably looked much better when she was younger, but time had clearly taken its toll on her — as had the breakup.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the woman announced, looking to Bill and then to Clarence. She shoved a hand into Clarence’s gut, expecting him to shake it. “Clarence, I presume? Julie. Julie McMann.”

“A, uh, pleasure, Ms. McMann,” Clarence mumbled, taking Julie’s hand and firmly shaking it. “Can I offer you anything?”

“Just a look at the merchandise,” Julie replied, glancing over and grinning at Bill. “I am always looking for good deals. Especially ones where liquid is not a problem.”

Bill looked away and nervously scratched at his throat. “Uh, how’s it going, Julie? Kids doin’ good?”

Julie snorted and looked past Bill. “Oh yes, most certainly. But let’s talk shop now; show me the hardware.”

“Right this way, Ms. McMann,” Clarence loudly said, leading Julie deeper into the warehouse. He stopped next to one of the racks where they had opened three crates, the best examples of the missiles they had. “AGM-65, AIM-7, and AIM-9 — everything else is just like these.”

“Mm-hmm,” Julie muttered, balancing herself on her cane as she squatted down to look at the AGM-65 crate. “Older models. Scene-mag, at least. No wonder you’re having problems, even in this market.”

“They’ll still blow up a tank,” Clarence replied. “Harriers can use ’em. Peregrines, too. Anything capable of goin’ slow.”

Julie glanced over to Clarence. “Fast jets don’t use them, which are most of my customers in this area. I might be sitting on them for a while.” She straightened herself and looked up, apparently calculating some numbers in her head. “I won’t extend 1.2 million of the credit until they sell.”

Clarence nodded his acceptance. “That’s fine, so as long as you take them off our hands.”

“No, no, we can’t-” Bill tried to protest, then stopped as Clarence held a hand up.

“You know you’ve got garbage on your hands — hot garbage,” Julie icily whispered at Bill. “I can sell these but it will take time. If you want me to take the whole lot, that’s my price.”

“It’s a fair price, Ms. McMann,” Clarence whispered, briefly glancing over to Bill in anger.

“Good,” Julie muttered, moving over to look at the AIM-7. “These, however, will go quick. Even older air-air missiles are selling like hotcakes now. Seems everyone is scared of getting blasted out of the sky.” She ran a hand across the missile’s case, stopping at the nosecone. “Oh yes, these are valuable indeed. Seems they modified these missiles a bit.”

Clarence nodded. “They’re still marked as F models, but they were rebuilt at some point with an H guidance kit. Never updated the markings, though.”

Julie pursed her lips, then let out a sigh. “If they weren’t hot, you could ask double for these. A shame that they have to be sold like this, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

Clarence displayed an indifferent shrug. “It’s the way of the world. We managed to scoop these up, straight from a source in the Republic. Got them across the border from New Zion and into the Midwest before our source got caught.”

Julie winced, the first time that Clarence saw any form of empathy from her. “Harsh. Gulag for sure, if not the firing squad. The commissars don’t take too kindly to theft of the People’s hardware.”

Clarence folded his arms and grinned. “Unless they’re doing the selling, in which case it’s all for the glory of the great socialist state. Whatever makes them happy.”

“It’s slavery,” Julie muttered, stepping away from the AIM-7 and onto the AIM-9. She gleefully smiled at the missile in the crate, clearly impressed by it. “Mike model AIM-9. Truly valuable. All-aspect, the latest improvements — outside of the X-ray. I’d imagine the loss of these is what stings them the most.”

“Yeah, these are in big demand now,” Clarence agreed, looking down at the missile. “Less common than the Limas, slightly better, and jealously guarded by the successor states. Some have fallen back to flying with older Papas and even Juliets til they can get their hands on X-rays — or AIM-132s.”

“The Europeans often put huge restrictions on their hardware. I’d expect only the Northeast to opt for AIM-132s.” Julie leaned over to get a better look at the seeker. “These are fresh — zero time. I’m guessing they found these in some forgotten warehouse.”

“Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is some acquaintances informed me of the munitions and I jumped on them.”

Julie straightened herself and narrowed her eyes at Clarence. “Too quickly, it would seem. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have hot munitions. That means more trouble for me.”

“I only found out when our contact got arrested,” Clarence replied, shaking his head. “We’d already taken delivery and transported them by that point.”

Julie displayed a knowing smirk. “Rookie mistake. You’ll learn eventually.” She closed her eyes and shrugged. “Or you’ll get killed. One or the other.”

Clarence cleared his throat, then lifted his chin toward the crates. “Is it all to your satisfaction?”

Julie opened her eyes and looked over the crates. She rubbed her chin with her left hand, thinking for a moment, before finally dipping her head into a nod. “Yes. 4 million in store credit, 300 thousand in liquid — minus fifty for delivery. And you’ll be short of 1.2 million on the credit until all the AGM-65s sell.”

“Alright, consider it done.” Clarence extended a hand, to which Julie shifted her hands around and embraced it.

Julie slowly began to grin. “Oh, and Bill for the evening. Can’t forget about that.”

“Of course; I assumed it was implicit,” Clarence remarked with a mischievous smile.

“Clarence!” Bill protested, holding his hands up. “You can’t do this to me!”

“Do you want me to pay for your lunch the next week or not, Bill?” Clarence asked, lightly turning his head to address Bill.

Bill let out a depressed sigh. “Alright, alright. Just to make this sale.”

“Perfect,” Julie lustfully whispered, taking her right hand back from Clarence and steadying herself on her cane. “Know when you’ve been beaten, gentlemen. This is all a valuable lesson.” She limped past Bill, then lightly turned her head to address the two men. “I will have my crew here to take delivery in an hour. Ensure that everything is packed tightly, please.”

“We’ll be waiting for them, Ms. McMann,” Clarence replied with a smile. He watched as Julie lightly nodded, then walked away, opening the small warehouse door and walking out.

“Thanks for screwin’ me over,” Bill muttered, grabbing a lid for one of the missile crates and sliding it back into place. “She’s a beast. A witch, even!”

“Quit complaining,” Clarence grumbled, sliding the lid for the AIM-9 crate back into place. “We managed to offload this hot stuff before it could bite us in the ass. I suspect Julie knows which palms to grease to keep these damn things from being a problem for us or her.”

“It ain’t just palms she knows how to grease,” Bill muttered, taking a hammer and pounding some nails into a crate. “Also poles and floors! And you, if you get in her way!”

Clarence shrugged. “You’re still alive and kicking. Can’t be all that bad.”

“‘Cause I ran! I ran as fast as I could!”

“N’ I bet the greased floor helped with that,” Clarence remarked with a chuckle. “Face it, Bill: we got lucky.”

Bill let out another sigh, then begrudgingly nodded. “Yeah. We managed to get this junk off our hands. Not much of a profit, though — what, 250 thou? Is that enough to cover our rent?”

“It’ll cover rent and a huge chunk of our debt,” Clarence snapped back, securing the AIM-7 crate’s lid. “The credit we’ll use to move around some more high value items. Work a bit harder to sell it outside of our comfort zone.”

Bill turned around and sat down on the crate he had just secured, then looked over to Clarence. “Clarence, can we really make it in this business? I mean, really — what are we doin’? We got involved with this hot stuff as our first deal; what’s gonna stop it from happenin’ again?”

Clarence finished pounding a nail into the crate, then wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. “Honestly, Bill, if we have to keep selling hot munitions, I’m fine with that. Might be a niche we could leverage, since no one else will.”

Bill lifted an eyebrow. “Whaddya mean? What if the UN stings us? Or-or the successor states?”

Clarence opened his arms and looked around the warehouse. “Big rewards take big risks. If you don’t take the risks, you won’t get the reward. Everybody’s offering this stuff; if you wanna muscle in on the deals, ya gotta do somethin’ unusual. Five-finger discounts from New Zion or the Socialist Republic is a good thing in my book — or even the Northeast. Midwest and Southeast got it made, especially when you consider that the UN hates ’em.”

“Yeah but… Those guys in the Southeast, they’re, uh… Pretty bad about religion, too. Close to New Zion.”

“Ain’t my problem,” Clarence replied with the shake of his head. “They’re tryin’ to rein it in; I don’t rightly care, seein’ as how I don’t live there. There ain’t gonna be a grand unification, Bill. You just pick your poison and take your chances — and I’d rather take my chances here rather than there.”

Bill scratched his head, then pursed his lips. “So why do it? Any of this, I mean.”

Clarence walked up to Bill and put a hand on his shoulder, then waved his other hand out. “Ya see, Bill, all that ideological bull is just that: bull. Nobody out there believes it. It’s all about the haves and the have-nots. This stuff is our ‘have’ and it’ll change us from ‘have-nots’ to very much ‘haves.’ When you got all the dough, you got all the power — and that means you can do what you want, where you want.”

Bill frowned in confusion. “How’s that mean you can be an atheist in New Zion?”

Clarence snorted and closed his eyes. “You think all of the guys runnin’ that place are true believers? They talk a good show, but I betcha behind closed doors, they’re just like everyone else. Can’t change human nature, Bill.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Clarence,” Bill muttered, looking down.

Clarence opened his eyes and patted Bill on the back. “See, you’re learnin’ already!”

Bill expertly maneuvered the forklift, putting the pallet down in the bed of the truck with precision. It was one of the few things he was truly good at and the key reason why Clarence put up with his otherwise strange quirks.

“Last load?” the truck driver asked, looking over the pallet.

“Last one!” Bill shouted over the forklift’s actuators. He backed away and parked the forklift, hopping out as he turned it off. He clasped his hands together, as if he was brushing off imaginary dust. “That should do it!”

The driver nodded and made a few remarks on a clipboard he carried, then handed it over to Bill. “Alright, sign here. Just acknowledges change in ownership for the stuff.”

Bill smiled and was about to sign when Clarence came up and held a hand out. “Not just yet, Bill,” Clarence muttered, glancing over to the driver. “Nothing gets signed until we get at least part of the liquid.”

The driver shook his head. “Didn’t you get the details? It’s all electronic now. Banks insist on it.”

“No details were given to us,” Clarence sternly replied. “Mind enlightening us?”

The driver shrugged and flipped through the clipboard, pulling out another sheet of paper and handing it to Clarence. “You gotta go through the bank. Once they have your signature on the ownership transfer-” he tapped the clipboard for emphasis “-they’ll transfer the agreed funds, as indicated. Easy.”

Clarence narrowed his eyes at the clipboard, then let out a sigh. “If that’s the way it has to be… Fine.” He grabbed the clipboard and sloppily signed the paper, then stuffed it back into the driver’s hands. “Just don’t tell me it will take months before the bank hands over the money.”

“Usually a day or so,” the driver replied with a shrug. “What’s the rush?”

“Rent’s due in a week and I’d like to pay it off with real money, not favors,” Clarence grumbled.

The driver waved a hand dismissively. “You’ll get your money faster than that, don’t worry about it. Good afternoon, gents.” He tucked the clipboard under his arm and hopped back into his truck, slamming the door with a solid thunk. The engine stuttered a bit as he cranked the starter, then caught on and allowed him to drive away.

“You were expectin’ hard cash?” Bill asked, watching the truck drive off.

Clarence nodded. “Yeah. We’ll make do with what they give us, but cash would’ve been easier.”

“Guess times are changin’,” Bill muttered in reply. He glanced over to Clarence. “You owe me chow for a week.”

Clarence lifted an eyebrow at Bill. “How do ya figure that?”

“We sold the stuff. You said you’d buy my chow for a week if we sold it.”

Clarence rolled his eyes and looked up. “Bill, that was for the other buyer and technically it means you owe me a week’s worth of chow — because he didn’t buy it!”

Bill’s eyes darted back and forth, followed by a frown as he tried to think. “That don’t make sense. What’d we agree to earlier?”

Clarence reached up with a hand and rubbed his face. “I paid for your lunch today on the bet that he would buy tomorrow; if he didn’t, then you’d pay for my chow for a whole week!”

Bill blinked for a few seconds, his thoughts churning in his head. “Oh. Well, we sold it, so I think you should buy my chow.”

“Good thing your thoughts don’t dictate how this business goes,” Clarence muttered, walking back over to the crude desks they had set up in the warehouse. He sat down in his chair and let out a content sigh. “Not exactly how I planned for things to turn out. Guess we’ll have to start the process all over again.”

Bill walked up to the desks and scratched his head. “How did you plan for things? To turn out, I mean.”

“More cash, less credit,” Clarence answered. He opened his hand to the papers across his desk. “We’ll have to trade with Julie to make our credit worthwhile. That’ll bite into our profits, especially if we get more five-finger discounts.”

Bill frowned. “We’re gonna get more discounts?”

Clarence snorted and gave Bill a dry look. “If we’re lucky, yeah. But I’m talking about how we source hardware; we need a more reliable fence for this stuff.”

“What’s a fence got over a warehouse? I thought our warehouse is a lot more secure than a fence.”

“A fence-fence, you numbskull!” Clarence shouted, slamming his feet on the floor. He rubbed his face and let out an annoyed sigh. “A fence is someone who deals in stolen goods. Like us, but better at the job.”

Bill scratched his head again. “That’s a dumb name. Why would we be fences? We ain’t keepin’ anything in.”

Clarence folded his arms. “You toss things over a fence, right? Ergo, we catch hot things and send them over our heads.”

“OK Clarence, if that’s whatcha mean,” Bill mumbled, not content with Clarence’s explanation. “But where to now?”

“Now,” Clarence said, raising his voice, “we keep our ears to the ground. See if we can’t find more hardware looking for a home. Anything and everything.”

Bill pursed his lips, once again straining to think. “Where we gonna find anything and everything?”

“Bill you… I have no idea,” Clarence mumbled in reply. “I thought I had a good idea when I said it.”

Bill rubbed his chin for a moment, then lifted his eyebrows and held a finger up. “I could call my other old girlfriends.”

Clarence slowly blinked his eyes, then narrowed them at Bill. “How many old girlfriends do you have? You worry me sometimes, pal.”

Bill opened his hand and seemingly counted off his fingers, taking Clarence’s inquiry seriously.

“Never mind, I don’t wanna know,” Clarence interjected, holding a hand up.

“I got a few, since ya asked,” Bill muttered, looking down as he dropped his hand. “Should I call ’em?”

“If you think they can direct us to some sources, you go ahead and do that,” Clarence replied. “Use the phone at the loading docks — I don’t wanna hear more bellyaching like ya got with Julie.”

“Right, right. Sorry. I’ll ask around.” Bill quietly walked away, heading for the other end of the warehouse and giving Clarence some peace and quiet.

Clarence picked up an inventory sheet, one he had made for their recent haul. He looked over it and shook his head. All that trouble for a bunch of stolen junk — junk that was made for a war that never came. Or did it? Maybe it did and this is just us livin’ our lives in purgatory. He sighed and tossed the sheet aside, leaning back in his chair and looking at the ceiling. The phone began ringing and he glanced back, any fleeting thoughts he might’ve had vanishing over the annoying sound. He grabbed the receiver and placed it against his ear.

“Uh, is this Clarence’s Military Surplus?” a feminine voice asked on the phone.

“That’s right,” Clarence mumbled. “What can I do for you?”

“I heard you had some stuff for sale. And trade.”

“Not anymore I don’t,” Clarence replied. “Just sold it. You’re too late.”

“Ah, that’s too bad,” the woman mumbled. “I had some stuff I thought might be of interest to you.”

“For buying, maybe.” Clarence narrowed his eyes. “What are you offering?”

“Let’s just say I have access to some factory-new hardware. From the Northeast.”

“And you wanted to trade for this?”

“Correct. I’d prefer for it to be traded rather than bought.”

“There a particular reason why?”

“Call it a quick bait and switch. I represent certain interests in competition for a job; unfortunately, our competitors seems to have a better array of hardware, brand-new from the Northeast. I’m not sure how they struck the deal, but I need their hardware ‘appropriated’ and replaced with second-line hardware.”

Clarence leaned forward, resting his elbow on his desk. “So you don’t really own the hardware — you’re trying to get us to do a theft.”

“Not in so many words,” the woman whispered back. “But if you were to ‘redistribute’ it to yourselves or other interested buyers, I would make it worth your while.”

Clarence sighed and glanced to the back of the warehouse, seeing Bill nervously pace back and forth while talking on the phone. Can’t expect him to help. Nobody he knows is gonna spot us some outdated hardware. He glanced back to the phone. “How soon do you need the replacement hardware?”

“Two weeks. The client will be inspecting hardware as part of the contract negotiations; they need to see second-line hardware.”

“And how much do you need? What kind?”

“Anything of older gen hardware — just enough to sell the lie. The client can’t tell the difference between Russian and American stuff, so it just needs to look archaic.”

“And if we do this for you, we keep the hardware, plus…?”

“My everlasting love,” the woman lustfully answered.

Clarence snorted. “Ha! Get real. You’re asking for us to replace however many pieces of munitions with some kind of older, worn out stuff, all for a reward of stolen equipment that we’ll have to sit on for a while. You can’t fence hot stuff just like that.”

“It’d be about 50 pieces of various modern ordnance,” the woman grumbled. “And if my love isn’t enough, then I’ll add fifty thousand in liquid to cover the costs of moving it.”

Clarence looked over to the clock on his desk; it was already past quitting time, which meant he couldn’t call Julie up and get some ordnance back. “Tell me what this modern ordnance is and I might consider working something out.”

“A few AIM-132s, AGM-88s, GBU-12s, GBU-15s, a nice selection of CBU-97s, and a real special set of AIM-120s. The C model, in fact.”

Clarence narrowed his eyes, not trusting the words he was hearing. “That’s some advanced hardware, especially for new. You could do some real damage with it.”

“The owners are an F-16 unit, if that allays your concerns. They sell themselves as capable of getting any precision job done.”

“It makes me more suspicious, in fact,” Clarence whispered. “That kind of hardware isn’t just easily moved around, especially new.”

“Can you do it?” the woman curtly asked.

Clarence took a deep breath and pursed his lips. “Call me back in 2 days. I’ll see if I can get some hardware to ‘trade’ with you.”

“I’ll do that. But work quickly; you simply drew the first straw. There are others out there, you know.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of that,” Clarence muttered. “Good day, ma’am.” He hung up the phone and glanced back up at Bill, still talking away on the phone. The twists and turns we go through in this business. I’m swimmin’ without a life jacket n’ tide’s comin’ in. But what else is new?

Clarence sat down at the table, having spent the morning hitting up all the dealers he could find in the area — as he had predicted, no one had any real stock they were willing to let go, even for a trade on the possibility of more lucrative equipment. Similarly, Bill had been unable to find any other sources for equipment or deals, leaving the one mysterious woman’s offer the only lead they had. For Clarence, it looked like they might have to go back to Julie again, the thought of which churned his stomach. Bill tried to complain about her this morning, but I tuned him out: a deal’s a deal and she still sees somethin’ in him, which is more n’ most guys get. She’s now our only lifeline and I don’t like that. Not one bit. He let out a sigh and glanced over, seeing Paige coming up to the table with a stern look on her face.

“I’m surprised you’d show up here, two days in a row,” Paige grumbled, narrowing her eyes at Clarence.

“Needed a break,” Clarence replied. “Seems like I keep steppin’ in it, like you say.”

Paige lifted an eyebrow and eyed Clarence curiously. “Oh? What now?”

“Sold the stuff, barely. Got some liquid out of it, but mostly credit.”

“Bubba will expect you to pay off your debts,” Paige growled. “You’ll need a lot of liquid to do that.”

“Oh sure, more than enough to take care of that,” Clarence muttered while waving a hand dismissively. He looked down at the table and rubbed his chin. “The problem I’m havin’ is now someone else wants to make a deal n’ I don’t have stuff to deal with. I don’t wanna have to go to Julie again.”

Paige snorted and rolled her face into the palm of her hand. “Julie? Julie McMann? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, I am surprised — surprised that she even gave you the time of day.”

Clarence shrugged. “Turns out that Bill knew her well enough. She made the deal with a lot of concessions, but it’ll keep us afloat for a bit.”

“Julie doesn’t make deals with losers — not without some serious concessions,” Paige dryly remarked. “But it ain’t none of my business. I assume you can pay for something, again?

Clarence nodded. “Special for today. I can pay with a bank card now.”

“Good,” Paige muttered, waiting for Clarence to pull out his wallet. He noticed her expectant look, so withdrew his wallet and pulled out a card, handing it to her. She looked at it and shook her head. “If it bounces, it’s your problem. Banks can deal with you their own way.”

“Banks deal with everyone their own way,” Clarence mumbled, waving Paige away. She let out an annoyed sigh and walked away, leaving him with his own thoughts. This world has gone to hell in a hand basket. What the hell am I treadin’ water for? Always lookin’ for some new deal, only to get sucked right back in the whirlpool.

“Were you followed?” a familiar voice asked Clarence.

Clarence briefly glanced behind himself. Who- Oh. Right. The other sucker. He waved a hand to his former potential customer. “Nobody followed me today. I told you: other buyers were lined up.”

The scarred man rotated around to be in front of Clarence, joined by another man, both of which had displeased looks on their faces. “I thought you were lyin’ about that bit,” the first man growled.

Clarence folded his arms and lifted his chin at the men. “Yeah, well, you were wrong. The entire lot’s been sold.”

The two men looked at one another, then looked back at Clarence with murderous intent. “You better un-sell it then,” the second man whispered in a threatening tone.

Clarence leaned forward and opened a hand. “You can go talk to Julie McMann. She owns it now.”

“Julie won’t sell to us,” the first man muttered, glancing aside. “Says we’re bad business.”

“Not my problem,” Clarence mumbled, sitting back in his chair. “I don’t own the stuff anymore. It’s a done deal — transferred, as agreed to the buyer. You forfeited your place in the line.”

The second man slammed a fist on the table, staring daggers into Clarence’s eyes. “I need those weapons! Not later! Now!

Clarence looked over to address the first man. “Your partner here is getting unhinged. If Bubba comes out to find out what’s going on, you’ll find yourselves with more problems than lack of weapons.”

The first man glanced around, noticing the patrons eyeing him and his companion with suspicion. He leaned over and whispered into the second man’s ear, which caused him to glance over and straighten himself, adjusting his shirt.

“The Blood Hounds don’t forget or forgive that easily,” the first man whispered, looking at Clarence. “Reneging on a deal can get you killed.”

Clarence held his hands up and looked around the diner. “What deal? We never made one. You couldn’t take the hardware, I told you that other buyers were in line.” He lifted his chin toward the second man. “You said you’d bring your friend here to take delivery of half, I said if it’s still available, you’d get a chance. You were too slow on the draw and now you ain’t got shit.”

The second man leaned over and grabbed Clarence by the collar of his shirt, breathing into his face. “It’s bad business to cheat mercs,” he growled.

“Now boys,” another man loudly announced behind the table, “don’t make this into a bad situation. I don’t like havin’ to wipe up blood n’ pay the law to cart off bodies.”

The two men glanced up, then stepped back while widening their eyes. Clarence adjusted his collar, briefly glancing behind himself to see Bubba pointing a nasty looking AK47 toward the table.

“These two gentlemen were just leaving, Bubba,” Clarence remarked with a smile. He glanced over and squinted at the two men. “Weren’t you?”

The first man glanced around then grumbled and quickly walked away, saying nothing. The second man made a cutting motion across his throat with a finger while glaring at Clarence, then quickly followed the first man out of the diner.

“Goddamnit, Clarence,” Bubba grumbled, relaxing his grip on the rifle and standing next to Clarence’s table. “What the hell have you gotten yourself into?”

Clarence sighed and rolled his head back, seeing Bubba giving him a look of disapproval. “You really have to ask?”

“With you?” Bubba asked, momentarily pausing. He snorted and looked out the entrance to the diner. “Always. Spill the beans, you dumbass.”

Clarence shrugged. “They were too slow to buy my deal. So I sold to Julie McMann.”

“God damn,” Bubba muttered, pulling out the chair across from Clarence, leaning the rifle against the table. “Ya sure know how to stir up trouble!”

“Yeah. Welcome to my life,” Clarence muttered.

Bubba lazily pointed a finger at Clarence. “Piece o’ advice: don’t do anything that gets ya killed. At least not before ya pay me back.”

Clarence rested his chin on a hand. “Don’t you worry about that, Bubba. I’ll pay you back in a couple more days.”

Bubba frowned. “Why not now?”

Clarence opened a hand at Paige as she brought his card back. “Y’know the banks: they do things their own way nowadays.”

Bubba snorted and stood up, grabbing his rifle as he did so. “So does everyone else. Pay it back in full or that warehouse of yours is mine.

Clarence opened the door to the warehouse, ignoring the various sounds coming from the airfield outside. “Bill! Any luck?” He frowned after a moment, wondering if Bill had heard him. “Bill! You better not be nappin’!”

“Uh, Clarence,” Bill sheepishly muttered out loud, “ya make any new friends out there?”

Clarence walked past the storage shelves to see the two men from the diner, holding Bill at gunpoint. “Well, seems I did,” Clarence mumbled walking up to the desks. “Put the guns away, morons.”

“Screw you, buddy!” the second man from earlier exclaimed. “Where’s the hardware?!”

“Toldja it was sold,” Clarence answered, pulling out the chair behind his desk and sitting down. “Julie McMann. Remember?”

“Ask ‘er for it back,” the scarred man growled. “All of it. Your lives for the hardware.”

“C’mon guys!” Bill nervously whispered. “We can work this out!”

“Quiet!” the second man ordered. He stared at Clarence, shifting the muzzle of his pistol up. “You get the weapons back and we’ll forget this happened.”

Clarence waved a hand dismissively. “Why would you want outdated hardware anyways? Stuff’s not much good nowadays.”

The first man snorted. “You know how it is these days: anything and everything is valuable on the black market. It’s a seller’s market and y’all are bad sellers.”

“Let you in on a secret,” Clarence said, leaning forward. “That hardware was hot. Stolen.”

“So the fuck what?!”

Clarence shrugged. “Depends on how close ya wanna get to a Republic Commissar.” He pressed his hands together and smiled. “On the other hand, if stolen goods are your thing…”

The second man narrowed his eyes at Clarence, clearly annoyed with him. “Don’t much care, so as long as we get our munitions.”

“Factory fresh,” Clarence whispered, shifting his smile into one of mischief, “straight from the Northeast.”

The two men exchanged glances, then eyed Clarence with suspicion. “Go on,” the first man muttered.

Clarence leaned back in his chair and wrapped his fingers behind his neck. “AIM-132s, AIM-120s, AGM-88s, GBUs — various toys, all awaiting for ‘appropriation.’ If you got no qualms about stealin’ it yourselves.”

The first man grinned and lowered his pistol, stuffing it back into his waistband. “What’s the catch?”

“Your old hardware,” Clarence answered, lifting his chin toward the men. “Any spare old stuff you got. AIM-9J. AIM-9D. AIM-7. Two rocks chained together. You take the stuff and leave behind old junk.”

“There a reason for that?” the second man asked.

Clarence opened his hands and shrugged again. “That’s what my contact wants. Wanted the hardware I sold to Julie, in fact — an even trade. Well, not quite, but you get the picture.”

“And you can get this hardware quickly?”

Clarence pointed at the first man, then swept his finger over to the second one. “Depends on how quickly you can get it, gentlemen. My contact will call me back tomorrow.” He folded his arms and glanced over to Bill. “You can kill us now and lose a chance to get some good hardware, or you can kill us later if you don’t get what you need.”

The second man sighed and looked over to the first man. He cursed under his breath, then stuffed his pistol back into a holster on his right hip. “We’ll be back. Tomorrow — with more people. Ya better not be shittin’ us.”

“I always pay my debts,” Clarence muttered. The two men straightened their shirts, then casually walked away, leaving through the warehouse’s small side door.

Bill collapsed on the floor and tried to catch his breath, his fear having gotten the better of him. “Goddamnit, Clarence! What the hell didya do to them?”

Clarence took a deep breath, then slowly let it out and rubbed his mouth. “I tried to tie up a couple loose ends with one thread, Bill. You should try it sometime.”

“If’n that means I gotta get shot at,” Bill muttered, “then you can count me out!”

Clarence snorted and looked up at the ceiling, admiring the steel construction under the roof of the warehouse. “We’re in the business of missiles, rockets, bombs, explosives — just about anything that goes boom. Gettin’ shot at, my good friend, is part of the job.”

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