Hard Lessons: Part 15

15.

Loyalty

Angela’s active comm signal bounced off a string of wifi and radio towers between the apartment and their warehouse above. It spring-boarded to a cable satellite, encrypted by a digital, one-time pad and unreadable to any. It then plummeted to Earth again, landing across Jackstaff and into Crystal’s comm.

All of it in real-time, with no intervening system aware of the relay. The call was a fading ghost in a machine.

Angela explained everything about Lucas in as few words as possible.

“I’m on it. We’re finishing up,” Crystal said, jamming a tripod into a duffel bag. Titus tossed her something. Her reflexes activated, “I’ll meet you after the drop.”

“Thank you, Crystal,” Angela said, humbly.

“Haven’t done anything yet,” she admitted.

Comm-stats shrank to nothingness on her HUD. Titus grabbed the last of their gear, headed downstairs. Crystal checked her pistol, then followed him down the stairs two at a time. The rain was at full-strength now, had been for an hour.

Nearing the door was like approaching Niagara on a turbulent day. Stepping out into more-so.

Titus tossed gear into a car-trunk parked as close as possible to the door, “Plan?”

Crystal projected over rain, “Keep moving ’til the buyer’s there.”

“I’ll ping you the details.” He started for the driver’s door, instantly drenched. “Stay sharp. Stay safe.”

Titus’ rent-a-car started off. He’d specifically taken it for to keep his Porsche from sticking out. Whether to Saito or some local snooping around, the car was like a shard of glass in the gut. Crystal, on the other hand, was an unknown. Her bike looked like countless others, no matter how modded, allowing it to blend in anywhere.

She stepped into the ever-pouring Niagara and disengaged her biometrics. A ping from her HUD woke the bike. The starter stuttered then roared, bringing over sixty-cubic inches to life. The rear-wheel squealed, left rubber steaming in cold rain atop the small rise where it peeled.

Crystal did her best to race a loop of Jackstaff. Even she wasn’t tempting the fates tonight. She stayed on the insides and middles, at half speed. Slicked-wet Northwest coasts meant one slide and plummeting to a painful death. Else rural, inland highways where animal life was abundant and stupid, humans not excepting.

Urban and Sub-urban grids, human-progress; she snorted a laugh to herself behind her helmet.

She completed a loop, then made for the next. Her favorite– the same she’d raced after Lucas had shown up. It felt an eternity since she’d managed that last, 26 minute run. Not great, not terrible. But impossible now. Even if the rain was letting up now that she was further inland, she doubted it could be even that quick tonight.

Everything since her last circuit felt impossible. Mere days had formed lifetimes of development. She and Titus, their job, Angela and her brother, it was mind-numbing in scope. Certainly, in sheer volume of questions raised. Principally among those questions was what both the immediate and distant futures held for them as individuals and a group.

Lucas might not live out the next few days. If so, what of Angela then? If she buckled from inevitable guilt, the pair might be out of commission. Worse, Angela might lose her edge, endangering them both.

Crystal downshifted off the highway, passed one gear, was back up again in an instant.

The I-5 was long behind her when the 531 took shape beneath a flash of lightning. Most people would’ve been dampened by the wind and rain, Crystal was floored. A challenge. It made her hunger for more. She pushed the bike, pushed herself; reactions and reflexes, knuckles white beneath armored gloves.

Lucas was a liability. For everyone.

Curie knew that now. As much as Angela liked to think she was Curie’s favorite, she was just another fielder, a tooler. Angela’s mistake was in believing, that because Curie had supplied the details to take down Caruso, get her back, Curie felt otherwise.

But it was downright stupid to ignore– for even a moment, the obvious gain to Curie for removing a rogue player from the game. To mention none of the other benefits of taking Caruso out.

Getting Angela back was a bonus and a final spit in the face of one breaking the system they were meant to maintain, but to think a mere tooler– even one as good as Angela, couldn’t be used as an example herself was even more foolish, no matter the eventual lesson.

Simply, that meant; if Angela didn’t get the card back from Lucas, or it fell into the wrong hands because of him, Angela would suffer. Through her, so would the others. Apart from her rep and livelihood being damaged, any involved would likely kill Lucas for the trouble.

That was the game. The same one guys like Titus were privy to every moment. Toolers were too, but it was rarer. Much rarer. Most didn’t care. Ambitions aside, Toolers rarely experienced such events without being their object. That was the game. The one they all played.

But this was a level above even Titus’ control, one you were inside or outside. There was no on the fence. The Saito job was the perfect example of that. Playing against the house meant putting your ass on the line, but playing for the house meant total commitment.

There was no third option.

With Crystal’s experiences as guides, you played and won or played and lost, no matter the side. But you played. Refusing that reality put you outside. You were then either forced back in line as harshly as possible to ensure you never stepped out again, or a mark. Repeat offenders had the worst punishments, right after the higher-ups falling from grace– like Caruso.

Like Angela could easily be doing now. Only time would tell if she’d pull up in time, or splat-dive on the ground.

Crystal raced the 531 to the 9, took the roundabout at full-lean. She followed through, out, roared along wet roads gleaming like fresh pitch. The S1000 growled hornet-fury hellfire along the 204. Crystal’s HUD read the wind at her back; no doubt she’d be fighting to stay on the ground were it not for her weighted mods. As it was, she was only gaining speed, riding pavement like an SR-71 rode afterburners.

Power and fury beneath her hands and between her legs floored her. Like Titus fighting to sate her lust; power. Hatred for Caruso’s attack on Angela, Lucas’ attempt to repeat it; fury. She vibrated with conviction and three hundred horsepower, recalling her last ride, her fears of Lucas’ eventual effects on Angela.

If he wasn’t found soon, Curie would be informed of a deadline. Titus had agreed to keep things quiet until necessary otherwise, but couldn’t afterward without risking his rep, and possibly, his life. No-one could expect that of him.

Above all, middlers couldn’t burn bridges. Especially with fixers they’d worked nearly-exclusively with for a decade. If Titus burned his bridge with Curie, one of the most respected fixers alive and a patron of the “Old Guard,” the other fixers– middlers and toolers too– would think him unreliable.

In the end, the truth mattered much less than the effect.

Small text appeared on her HUD, sent directly from Titus’ phone. Sat coordinates, nothing else. She shifted into seventh, blasted back onto the I-5. A small clock put her time at 22:28:30, a new record– and as far as she knew, not for herself alone.

She raced back into Jackstaff, across it, the bike a hornet’s nest speared through driving rain. The drop was a dock-side parking-lot along a former boardwalk’s edge. The middle-class patronage had long ago slowed to a trickle before drying to nothing when industry began to fail. Middle-class had gone from accurate description to moniker for have-nots scraping by, doing their best not to end up homeless. Most failed.

The true middle-class now, were people like Crystal, Angela. Shadow-dwellers. People skilled in grey-area trades that had no fear of the shadows themselves, visited or lived in them.

The disrepair left behind from the predigital-era made for a mine-field of potholes at the drop. It made sense, Crystal knew. Use the environment to decrease the chance of an easy getaway. Asphalt, weakened by salts and snow, then washed away by rains and breakwaters, formed trenches and pit-falls along the lot.

Days of rain had half-flooded the lot already. For anyone else on a bike, crossing the lot was impossible. Crystal’s HUD made it a breeze.

She raced in, swerving and weaving through the random flares alerting her of danger. She approached Titus’ rent-a-car, now emptied of its gear and facing the lot’s entrance from its coast-side. Titus had put the rear-bumper against the rusting guard-rail, forcing her to bank wide right, then again, left, to align to his driver-side.

She cut the engine.

The sudden stillness and quiet resolved into the storm driving around add against Crystal’s helmet. Beneath it, the timid slap of seawater on concrete and steel, thirsting for more ferocity from the exhausting wind and rain.

The natural distraction was broken by an engine along the road. She knew well enough Titus had timed the call and her arrival with the client’s. Paired headlights angled toward them through the parking lot, crept forward through the pot-hole minefield.

Crystal watched. Tires and suspension sank, rocked in the car-killers beneath, exhibiting the same aged-grace of elderly humanitarians. It approached within a car’s length, and stopped, idling. Its rear window sank unceremoniously.

Crystal eyed Titus through her visor, head turned just enough to make it obvious. He nodded.

She swung a leg off the bike, headed for the window. The darkened interior masked the man’s features. She reached into her jacket, produced the water-tight case. A gloved hand gripped it, slid away.

A moment later, it presented an envelope. Crystal knew it would contain a USB stick with a private bit-currency wallet for the agreed upon job-price. Whatever that was, Crystal’s cut was twenty-percent. Standard for outside contractors. She trusted Titus wouldn’t stiff her.

More than that, she trusted the John wouldn’t stiff Titus. He’d technically worked without a fixer due to his personal knowledge of the mark, had even arranged the buy, but could never have planned it without Curie’s sanction otherwise. If she’d gotten wind of it afterward, he’d have been just as tossed out on his ass as if slighting her directly.

Thus, the John stiffing Titus would be game-on for his kind of traitor.

She returned the envelope to Titus and he drew out the stick, slotted it onto a handheld tablet, then started the car. The headlights flicked on, prompting the John’s window to rise and his car to come about. For the briefest moment, Crystal caught the John’s face through the rising window and a streak of lightning. She couldn’t be sure how or why, but she was certain she’d seen him before.

The car curved about and trundled off. Titus sounded over the rain and wind, projecting enough to be heard.

“Gonna’ ditch this tub, get my car back. Meet you at Angela’s.”

“You know how to get in?”

“I helped build it.” Crystal gave a lone nod. He hesitated, “Get back. A-Sap. She’s hurting.”

Crystal nodded, turned back for her bike. Titus’ window rose. His rent-a-car crunched and splashed forward while her leg arced over her bike, knocked back the stand, and came to rest on a shifter.

A thought, and the engine roared to life. She started forward, retracing her weaving swerve in. Titus was already gone, down a different road and headed in the opposite direction. He’d evidently thought of Angela when arranging the drop; Crystal was home in a minute. Then again, most of their side of the city was utterly abandoned, so she might’ve imagined it.

Her bike marked its way along the garage with a wet tire. She made a mental note to offer to scrub it for Arthur– or with him, as he was wont to negotiate her down to– and climbed off her bike She glanced up and down the garage; everything in its place. A minor burden lifted from her; at least they wouldn’t need new DMV covers because of Lucas’ bullshit.

She caught herself, stowing anger to better suit her needs. Angela had made a mistake. Anyone in her position might have made it. To be furious with her friend and mentor for that was unfair. Especially in such desperate times, Angela hardly would’ve done the same. Then again, perhaps therein lay her problem.

Crystal recomposed and calmed herself, then headed in.

Angela was hunched over a laptop, fingers programming Lucas’ ID into sifting cit-cam feeds. Crystal knew the play; she was hoping to use the same facial-recog system they avoided, blanketing the city, to find him. Indeed, the same system they’d learn to evade as trade-secrets.

There was nothing professional Her shoulders were slumped, eyes glazed with the distant red of obvious tears and a gleaming idea. She looked more determined than Crystal could recall seeing her. Crystal stepped silently into her peripheral and Angela gave a start.

“Sorry. How are you?”

Angela shook off growing fatigue to reinvigorate herself, “I’ll be better soon.” She refocused on the laptop and its camera feeds.

Crystal swallowed, “Angela, if we don’t find him–“

“Curie will have him killed,” she finished, completely unfazed. “I know. So I need to find him.”

Crystal gave a small nod. Nothing more needed to be said. She started around the island counter, cracked open the fridge for a water-bottle, then sat across from Angela to drink in silence.

Once she finished typing, Angela heaved a pensive sigh. “I made two mistakes, Crystal. Neither was Lucas’ fault. He doesn’t deserve to die for them. I should’ve known it’d end up this way. I should’ve listened. I–“

“Don’t. You did your part right. He stole from you and ran off.”

“It’s what he does. I should’ve remembered that.” She shut her laptop. “Every now and then, he’d fight with our parents. They were assholes. Good money says they still are. If they could’ve gotten away with it, they’d have watched us showered and shit.”

She cringed at unspoken memories then shuddered, shaking them off.

“Every once in a while, Lucas would have enough and take off. No-one that really knew our family could blame him.

“Then again, no-one knew yet how things worked. No-one official, and not by design.” She shook her head with a mix of disgust and anger. “I was always the first one he let find him. He was like that. Nowhere he couldn’t hide. Funny, I left first and couldn’t be found.

“Then again, he found me…”

She trailed off. Crystal let her. An obvious undercurrent of emotion formed the sibling-bond; one she could not understand. One so strong, it led Angela– whose emotions ruled her despite her ruthless, cold, logic where necessary– to disregard trusted advice and let herself be manipulated.

“We had only each other. Ali got the true short end. Prob’ly doesn’t even remember my name. Couldn’t I’d blame her for hating me, if she thinks of me, anyhow.”

She winced at the thought, cleared her throat to strengthen herself. “Lucas implied I’d left he and Ali to fend for themselves. He was wrong about himself but right about Ali. That guilt drove me to this.”

Crystal blinked confusion, “Wait. Guilt? How’s guilt a mistake?”

She cleared her throat again, visibly stronger, more collected with each moment. “My first mistake was thinking, after I left, they were better off without me. At first, that was a swaying conviction. It’s easy to see yourself as the problem when you’re drinking from rain-gutters.

“But even after Julia, I kept that mindset. She helped me reach a position where I might have helped them– or Alison, at least. Instead, I forgot about her.”
She stiffened, as if hearing herself hand down her own criminal-sentencing. “The second mistake I made was being confronted by Lucas, and rather than admit my first mistake with Ali, make another by trying to make up for it with him.”

She faced Crystal directly. “I saw it too. Everything you did. I felt it all. But I also felt it was my duty to help. Just like with you and Julia, overlooking my brother’s risks was penance for my guilt. Just like me looking for him, needing to find him. To not be alone. And him finding me instead. Truth is, he never needed me, but I always needed him.”

A resounding silence rang in Crystal’s ears as she pieced together what little had gone unspoken.

Angela’s eyes held true, confirming the last of Crystal’s suspicions. “As kids, I needed his resilience to keep me going. When I left, I needed the assurance he could care for himself. While I was gone, I needed the hope he was better off without me.

“When he showed up, I thought I needed forgiveness because I felt guilt. Truth was, I was ignoring my instincts. I do need it, but not from him. It’s Ali. I need her to forgive me for the years she’s spent living in that hell-hole. Lucas saw that vulnerability, and took advantage of it. As everyone expected, including me.”

She huffed, winded but stretching to loosen herself up as if a pre-job prep. “Now, I have to find him. Otherwise he’s going to cost Curie a buyer and she’s going to punish me for it. By killing him. In the end, it is my fault, but guilt and blame mean nothing if I fail.”

She met Crystal’s gaze again with a different tone, firm as before but with a clear request. “I have to find him, Crystal. And I need your help. Like I need Arthur’s and Titus’. Without you, Curie will get there first. No matter how long I stall.”

Out of respect, Crystal was quiet, thinking deeply on it. The last time Angela had needed her assistance so gravely, she was being tortured to death. She hadn’t been able to ask then, but Crystal felt she might not have even then. Where guilt was concerned, her martyrdom was strongest.

She clarified for both of their sakes, “What you’re asking is for me to risk everything I’ve built over the last year and a half, for your brother.”

The very thought of her own words gave her a moment of cringing disapproval. Nonetheless, she’d spoken them. Angela acknowledged with a look; among the unspoken subtext it said Crystal thought her brother less than a grain of salt. Risking everything for him didn’t seem worth discussing.

Still, she evened herself on Angela. “I wouldn’t give Lucas a breath of insult, so this is about you. You need me. You’d do it for me. So yes, I’ll help you, no matter the cost or risk.”

Angela’s chest sank with a breath, “Thank you.”

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