Joe was watching Kirsten playing with Annie when the call he had been waiting for came in. He had been in a foul mood all evening.
Kirsten had noticed it, of course, and had tried to find out what was bothering him but, for once, Joe was having none of it.
A brief shake of the head and a change of subject was his only response. Kirsten let it drop and tried to keep the evening cheerful.
Joe watched with a fixed stare as mother and daughter played, and only managed a forced smile when Annie tried to engage him. Then the call came.
Joe sat up straight and listened intently, staring at but not seeing his daughter building her bricks.
If you were not a clone, not used to clones, then it looked odd watching them seemingly talking to themselves.
A call to the collar was silent, heard only by the wearer via nanite manipulated threads which linked directly to the auditory cortex of the brain.
Joe made his excuses and left, his eyes again conveying the 'don't ask' to Kirsten. For her part, and for Annie's sake, Kirsten silently watched Joe's back as he left the room.
She would get her answers, probably tonight, between the sheets. But just now she was seeing a Joe as she first knew him, secretive, brooding and best left alone at times.
Annie knocked the brick tower over, and Kirsten joined in with the toddler's laughter.
Joe drove to The Borough. Every city or even large town had its own version of 'The Borough'. A place, an area, even a single block, where law and order had all but given up.
These places had their own laws, their own judges and their own punishments for those who stepped out of line.
For those who complied, though, there was safety and protection, no matter what you had done 'outside'.
Joe knew he had reached his destination by the two men standing outside the door. Not nice men for sure. But his men. And they didn't have to be nice, it wasn't in the job description.
Nods were exchanged and a single word from one of the men.
The stairs creaked as soon as Joe set foot on the bottom step. But that was not surprising.
The little terrace house Joe had entered was so dilapidated and so close to collapse that even the residents of The Borough, often used to living ten to a room, wouldn't live there.
On the upstairs landing, Joe followed the scuff marks where something heavy had been dragged through the dust and fallen plaster.
The marks led him to a room, its window boarded up and all its furniture long since gone.
Except, that is, for a single straight-backed chair standing in the centre of the floor and facing the door. The man tied to the chair was not looking his best.
His face was bruised, his lips swollen. There were cuts where punches had torn the skin, and one of his eyes was so purple and puffy that it was almost closed. Joe stopped in the doorway.
Sammy fought the ropes that bound him. But the ropes won easily and Sammy gave up, his shoulders drooping.
Joe, hands deep in the pockets of the duster, stepped into the room. Sammy watched him, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down as his former boss came closer.
"Where's my merchandise, Sammy?"
"It's still all there, Joe. I haven't... It's safe. I'll fetch it for you."
Joe stopped a few feet away. He shrugged.
"No need for that. I'll have the boys go pick it up. Just tell me where it is."
"Please Joe. I fucked up. I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you. Just don't kill me. I've got a wife and kid."
Sammy and Joe locked eyes. The one, pleading, desperate and very scared. The other... nothing, just a little bloodshot. After a couple of seconds, Joe sighed and sank to his haunches.
"We're past that, Sammy. I have very simple rules for everyone who works for me. Really, really simple ones, so we all know where we stand. Simple rules Sammy, with simple consequences.
You broke the rules so you are already dead and your wife is already a widow. So, tell me where my stuff is and it stops here." He paused for effect.
"Don't tell me, and your little boy becomes an orphan."
Sammy began to sob. Bloody snot exploding from his broken nose as the salty tears carved a final path of clean skin through the dried blood.
Joe stood up again, grimacing as his aching knees protested. He watched until Sammy ran out of tears and finally looked up.
"There's a burnt-out house west of Hope Springs. It's got a cellar..."
Joe's lips tightened. That place.
"I know it."
Out on the street, the two men by the door flinched at the double shotgun blast from upstairs. Joe came down and gave them their instructions, then drove home. The two men looked at each other.
Then they set to, following the boss's instructions to the letter. Later, they'd organise a whip-round for Sammy's wife and kid.