Hard Lessons: Pt. 5

5.

Getting Sentimental?

Crystal moved about, stuffing a duffel bag full of clothing and other items she’d need. Beside it, a black Molle pack bulged with sensitive gear and armaments, save the pistol eternally in arm’s reach.

Presently, its ballistic nylon just hung beside her button-fly, nestled between cotton and denim with the Baby Deagle’s familiar weight. Comfortable. Secure. Like her armored riding-leathers, a manifestation of continual discipline and preparation. Doing it felt good, especially when she could afford to. Turning a street-rat into a thief always made a certain sense.

Usually anyhow.

Now, she felt awkward, as if running. As if the job was just a convenient excuse. A knock rounded her at the door, Arthur stepped in and closed it at a nod.

“Leaving tonight?” She grunted non-committally. He grunted assent. “Jus’ take care’a yourself, kid. Hate to see something happen to you.”

She managed a smile, “Getting sentimental with age?”

The slack-lines of his face tightened. “Won’t be ’round to save yer ass forever. Stay outta trouble.”

“No promises.” She returned to her bags. “I sense that isn’t the only reason you’re here.”

He cleared his throat with a step forward, “I heard what happened earlier.”

“You mean the pathetic garden snake he is showing his fangs? I expected as much.” She didn’t bother to look, stepped to a desk, dug through it. “Where don’t you have surveillance gear?”

He firmly dodged the question. “Be careful with him, Crystal.”

You be careful with him, Arthur,” she corrected. “I’m leaving.”

His voice stiffened further. The caustic sound caused her to meet his gaze. “I received a care package. Everything on Lucas Dale. Known aliases– many of them.”

She hesitated, rationalizing, “And?”

“He’s not to be underestimated.”

“You have more than a hunch.”

He remained firm, “He’s been in every lock-up along the West coast. From Imperial to Seattle. Mostly petty theft.”

“He’s a drifter burning credit.”

“His or an aliases, yes.”

Crystal knew the con. It worked, but never forever. It was a hold over from the era of real criminal organizations. The kind smuggling cargo by ship-fulls into the ports, leaving trails of bribes along their way. The type to play the game by the rules, so long as they knew how to skirt them.

Not the wannabes that were wantonly bribing politicians for new laws, new rules, trying to tailor the game to their greed. The bottom line was, even those original gangster knew the game worked because everyone needed each other. That was why they could work the subtlety needed, that was the field of play, and those were the rules,

The original Gangsters to burn credit along the coasts, were working to get startup capitol. They later became industry players, selling of names and logos at massive fortunes without blinking. IN the end, the logo may’ve been a billion years old, it was the family– the people– behind it, that mattered.

By the time the creditors finally pissed enough to come looking, arrived, they were paid off with interest for the trouble. Not all of ’em came looking though. Not all cared or needed. That just made the Gangsters happier.

But the con wasn’t allowed to go nowhere. That was how you ended up with schemes and laws named after you.

You could con, but not for the sake of conning alone. It had to be going somewhere. If you weren’t going somewhere, you couldn’t confuse the mark with your movement. The fact was though, no matter how good you were, the longer between burn and profit, the worse off when the creditors finally came calling.

The idea was to toss money at them, just like everyone else. That way, they think you’re just getting to them in line. When in reality, you’re waiting, seeing if you can get away with keeping it, or if they really did expect it back.

Crystal’d seen a few public corp-deals use the tactics with different language. Recently. The con was alive and well. Most of it was sound, functional. Then again, the criminal dumb enough to try it alone would never learn why not before it was too late.

So, Lucas.

Crystal couldn’t help the smug validation, focused instead on Arthur’s warning. Angela’s capture had taught her the old man’s intel was always good.

But like Angela’s capture, Lucas’ burnt credit could come back to bite them– even if they didn’t want him around. Nothing short of a change in blood allowed for it. If the issue were colder, darker, a severed link could let come what may, never involving them. After all, families were often composed of strangers.

But Crystal knew Angela, their friendship. She’d been there every step of the way since they’d met. Lucas hadn’t. Now, acting as if he had been, beyond her personal slight in the issue, was attempting to pull wool. Her predatory features flashed, then hardened to match Arthur’s.

“What else?”

“Petty mostly. DUIs. Long list. Quiet a year or so. No trail ’til he showed up.”

“Underground.” He nodded.

In the shadows. The same shadows she and Angela lived. She winced. If he’d been off the grid that long, not in jail, he was either clean or–

She spoke it aloud, “He’s in deep. With something.”

Arthur nodded, “He didn’t just run into you two.”

“Think someone’s after him– us?

He gave a single, firm shake, “No. More’n likely sheltering himself. He’ll try to poke his head out. We’ll confirm something then or not.”

She shifted her weight, crossed her arms. “An actual hunch this time?”

Arthur nodded, “Drugs.” Crystal’s brow rose. “Mental-deficients could see the guy’s a user. Binge-type. Drink’s just’a stop gap ‘til he’s carrying again. My guess, better be soon.”

“You think he’ll try ripping us off.”

One of Arthur’s eyes narrowed, “Try to.” He glanced past a corner, eyed the hall beyond, “I put a palm lock on the Gym. Keyed to your HUDs. Work like RayFIDs. Can’t get in. Doesn’t matter though. Damage is already done.”

She tried to ferret out his subtext, couldn’t.

“Garage.”

A toon’s ton of bricks, minus all the potential amusement, tumbled down upon her at once. Panic hit. Angela’s garage– their garage. Millions of creds worth of automobiles. In plain sight. Most custom. All immaculate. Crystal conservatively estimated eight million after armor and tuning.

And aside from the few biometrics installed on their bikes, nothing would keep Lucas from taking the keys and dropping it at a chopper. Worse, if he dropped it at the wrong one, it could bring heat. Crystal had to bank on Lucas being too proud enough not to rip off his own sister.

She wasn’t holding her breath.

Any further chance for hope was buried by fresh reality. Whether or not Lucas knew when he’d found her, he knew now; Angela had money. Worse,was the minor subtext both Arthur had discerned. If Lucas was into drugs, he was into the drug trade.Meaning he’d likely skipped town after burning credit with dealers.

In other words, until it was necessary to leave to survive.

In simplest terms, Lucas was a failed, petty thief; a con-artist hiding from dealers, hoping to magically recoup piling losses before someone caught or killed him.

Angela needed to know. She wouldn’t yet. She’d been too befuddled. That, Crystal knew, was the source of her uneasiness. Angela always had a plan, a back-up plan, some ability to improvise; some route whose clairvoyance was always in reserve. Even if it took a retreat, regroup, she always had a way through, because she was always clear-headed, business-like.

But this wasn’t a job.

It was her brother, the same type of clouding to her judgment therein, that had occurred with Caruso; intimacy. Then it was Julia, her former mentor, lover. Julia’s murder, Angela’s own escape, and a later theft, brought it on then.

Now, it could be Lucas. Same barrel, different trigger.

The last time Angela hadn’t thought clearly, she’d been kidnapped and tortured. The acts might only be against her brother this time, but could wound her all the same. Neither Crystal nor Arthur could allow it. More than that, they wouldn’t. Regardless of how, it needed to be handled.

“We ‘ave to talk to her,” Arthur said finally.

“No. I do.” The old man grunted. “We play this properly. I fail to make her see things, you can. Ganging up guarantees failure. Freeze all but the funnels. After the Tong job, there should be a liquid, few thousand creds here. Enough to hold us over. All of us. By the time this next job’s done, we’ll know how to proceed.”

“Why’m I freezing the accounts?” He requested for Angela’s future benefit.

“Security. A possible situation you’re monitoring. Don’t lie. Don’t bullshit. But don’t address it if you don’t have to. Take it all if she wants, but keep in mind the ceiling yourself. The creds themselves are safer in limbo if there is a breach.

“Meanwhile, I’ll be on Curie’s expense account. Prep to ration, too, just in case.”

He considered her earlier sentiments, “This means were involved now.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But Lucas brought heat. She knows security risks must be monitored, regardless. Given our suspicions, it’s not unfair, even if she’s unwilling to see it that way yet.”

Another knock sounded, as if on some invisible cue. Crystal beckoned Angela in.

Arthur hobbled past, “Take care of yourself, kid. Hate to see somethin’ happen to you.”

“Getting sentimental?”

He grunted evasively, hobbled out.

Angela leaned against Crystal’s desk, uncertain of what to say. She began in the obvious place.

“How long’s Titus need you?”

“Week at most.” She stuffed the last of her gear into bags, zipped them shut. “You?”

“Job’s a go as planned.”

The silence settled into frankness. “Angela, I know you don’t want to hear it, but you’re like a sister. You’ve done more for me than anyone should, so hat I is from love and respect.”

“Lucas,” she guessed. “He hit on you?”

She hesitated, “Yes, but that’s not what’s bothering me. I can take that. This is more.”

Angela’s guard rose. Remnants of sibling defense manifesting in stiff corners of the mouth; a white grip on one hand, the other crossed beneath it. The kind of things so subtle only software could catch it, yet so engraved in Human DNA, software wasn’t necessary.

Crystal caught it faster than a HUD ever could, ever would.

“I know he’s your brother, so I’ll only say this; I’m concerned. For you and our friendship.”

Bile churned in Angela’s gut. Crystal’s fury perched on her tongue, tightening the subtle lines near her mouth, formed from the decade of accompanying her isolation, street-living. It met Angela’s bile, held it level.

Crystal was pleased, “I’m leaving. I don’t want to fight with you.”

“Why bring it up?”

It was a fair question. She could have just as easily left it, festering or not.

“To remind you what you know. Blood or not, you owe Lucas nothing.”

“How would you know?”

Another fair question. Crystal had no family to speak of.

“I know you, Angela,” she countered with equal fairness. “You trained me. Taught me to trust my instincts. They’re telling me something’s off. I trust you. You trust me. “

Angel softened slightly, silent. She deflated enough for Crystal to focus. Only facts. No posturing.”Your shock’s blinded you to the fact that he’s found you. Against all odds. Now, he knows we have money. Connections.”

If Angela questioned Crystal’s sincerity, there was no sign of it. She was quiet, still.

She replied slowly. “I’ll think about what you’ve said. But how I handle this situation is none of your business otherwise.”

Crystal respectfully corrected her, “So long as you do not live alone, it is more than your business. It becomes my others’ business when you allow them in.”

Angela assented with a nod.

Crystal finished packing and made to leave, “All I’m saying is, keep him checked, Angela. For all our sake’s. His too.”

They parted with little more than a tacit agreement. Crystal snatched her helmet off the handle bar, then made for her rendezvous with Titus. She hadn’t seen Lucas again, but she would. Somehow she knew it. At least she was getting away for a few days, if only to let come what may.

At least someone wasn’t too sentimental yet.

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