Energy and Matter: Part 5

5.

In The Beginning

Neither girl was sure how long the ride lasted, but at some point the rain stopped. Though they’d both checked their phones at various points, they could only guess the time they’d left the alley, and thus that they’d been traveling over a half-hour. Yaz let them out as soon as the truck stopped, but it was as pointless to attempt discerning their whereabouts. They were in the woods near a cabin; anything more was too much to expect yet. Neither of them liked the idea much, but the alley attack was too fresh to want to be elsewhere.

They stood, waiting for Yaz’s instructions. The air was thick, the woods thicker; the sun only breach the canopy in small, rhombic rays. Sunlight scattered across mud and debris-strewn ground, disturbed only by the splat of Yaz’s boots on the ground. Soft tamps elsewhere marked the appearance of the driver, clad like a lumberjack in flannel and sporting an equally large beard.

If it weren’t for his grizzled, massive figure, the girls might’ve mistook him for a hipster. The rigid discipline in his walk, and the holstered pistol on his right hip, spoke of a genuine article though. The rifle slung over his back only confirmed it. If they hadn’t been present for their own escape, Hailey would’ve thought him hunting for his breakfast. Elise eyed her for guidance, and in turn, she eyed Yasmine.

Yaz presented him with a hand, “Bryce Miller. You can thank him for getting to you in time.”

The girls murmured “thank yous.” His dark eyes tensed to a squint, their corners wrinkled from a life harder than Hailey wanted to imagine. It had evidently left him suspicious of everyone and everything, too.

The squint settled on Hailey with skeptical appraisal. “New Seer, huh? Don’t seem like much.”

“They never do, Miller,” she reminded. Elise and Hailey exchanged a curious look.

Bryce cleared his throat, “Just keep ’em outta’ the way.”

“We’ll do our best,” Yaz replied. Her tone shifted sternly, “Relieve Anderson from perimeter patrol. Tell ‘im to keep his radio on. I might need you again.” Miller marched away with purpose. Yaz muttered, “Fuck if I’m gonna’ have someone below me telling me what to do.”

“Below you?” Hailey said.

Yasmine motioned them to the cabin, “I’m head of security.”

“Uh… what?” Elise said.

Yaz pushed her way into the cabin, “The residents put me in charge. Youth has its benefits. Imagination’s just one of them. With my training, it only makes sense.”

Elise wasn’t sure she agreed. Nothing seemed to be making sense. They rubbernecked their way into the cabin, questioned the girl’s sanity. The place was quaint, cozy even, but it was barely a trio of rooms, one open and split between a kitchen, dining room, and an arrangement of sofas before a fireplace– hardly a place to house “residents.”

Moreover, while the other two rooms weren’t discernible, Hailey guessed they weren’t more than a bedroom and bathroom. How Yaz expected them to be safe there was beyond her. Before she could say anything, Yaz stepped to a framed oil-painting on the wall. With a sideways tilt, the painting resonated with a click! A section of floor slid away in the center of the cabin’s main, adjoined room.

A platform elevator trundled up and into place, locking with another loud click. Yaz stepped onto it, motioned the girls along. They sank into darkness beneath the cabin, the light above shrinking as the floor slid back in place. A moment later, new light bled in from a break in the concrete at one side of the platform. It began at their feet, grew to full-height while the elevator sank into its housing and locked again.

LED bulbs in industrial grade light-cages glowed overhead, melding new-age tech with old-era cement to form a sturdy bunker. The entryway merged into a short corridor that angled left a short way ahead. Yaz led them around the corner, revealing that it doubled in width and height. A series of rooms were arranged along its sides, barred by heavy, steel doors; some ajar, others closed and with or without light splaying through their cracks.

Hailey and Elise followed Yaz, utterly astonished. They stopped at a room on the left, midway down the hall. She ushered them in. It was small, mostly bare, but contained as many essentials as possible; bed, dresser, end table, a desk and chair. The only other thing in the room, save a ceiling light, was a rug in the center of the cement floor, no doubt to combat the occasional bout of cold.

“You can decide which of you gets it. I’ll give the other the one next door. That way you’re close,” Yaz said casually.

“Rooms?” Elise asked. “How long do you plan on keeping us here?”

Yasmine’s face stiffened. “As long as it takes to train you. Until then, you’re walking targets.”

“Targets for what?” Hailey asked.

“We call them Hunters,” Yaz said, crossing her arms with authority. “We don’t know who they’re working for, or where they’re coming from, but we know they want Seers for experimentation.”

“What? Why?”

“Seer-abilities are valuable. Seers are even more valuable because they can withstand their connection to them. A normal person attempting to use the Link becomes addicted over time. We do what we can to keep the Hunters from capturing Seers because we can’t survive otherwise. We suspect they want to study Seers’ genetics to harness their abilities.”

Hailey recalled her visions. “Why would someone want the ability?”

Yaz looked her over, “Only an untrained Seer would feel that way.”

“What?”

“Think about it.” She let her arms fall to her sides, then made small, pointed gestures. “You have the ability to read minds. Properly trained, you can manipulate objects, remotely or locally. You can kill anyone, anywhere in the world, with a proper, singular thought. Among those things, there are often hidden talents– healing abilities, summoning power to create things fire, electricity. Do you have any idea what malicious hands could do with them? Can you even imagine what a government or a military would do to get hold of it? To know, and anticipate one’s enemies? To eliminate them without ever deploying a single soldier? A country would completely disarm its nuclear arsenal for just one Seer. They wouldn’t need nukes afterward.”

“Jesus,” Elise breathed.

Hailey stared. The walls were ready to close in. She didn’t want to be hunted, or experimented on, or to manifest fire, or hear thoughts. She wanted to smoke weed, fall in love, have sex, graduate high-school, go to college– she wanted a normal life. Yaz sensed her thoughts from the light being snuffed in her eyes.

“I understand you don’t want this. Who would? Fact is, if you leave here now, without being trained, you will die– or worse. I can’t allow that. You’re not a prisoner, but your activation means danger for more than you and your friend. Anyone you come in contact with might be used against you now. If the Hunters were to capture you, find what they’re looking for, they’d stop at nothing to root us out. I can’t allow that.”

Elise’s anger began to grow, “So we’ll be kept here against our will?”

Yaz sighed frustration, “What I’m saying is what I’ve said: As long as you’re alive, you’re in danger. Because I saved you, you’re also now a security risk. Your choice is simple, go along with what we request, receive our training, or get locked up until we end the fight or move.”

Hailey grit her teeth. She couldn’t argue but she wasn’t about to let such a crass ultimatum go unpunished.

Elise huffed, puzzling things out as she saw them. “And what about me? Why am I a risk?”

Yaz’s eyes lingered on Hailey’s before darting away, “You have valuable knowledge. The Hunters will take it from you. You’ll be tortured until they know of everything you know.”

“What if I just agree not to say anything?” Elise asked, thinking she might withstand torture.

Yaz’s face hardened into a death-mask. “This isn’t for show. It isn’t a threat. It is someone beating you ’til you talk. Pulling your teeth and fingernails out. Breaking down every. mental. barrier. you have, to retrieve everything from your mind. It is painful. It is thorough. And it is utterly unstoppable.”

Elise’s stomach rose into her throat as her heart sank. Hailey swallowed her own anger, but refused to let fear replace it. “Just tell me what to do to get out of here as fast as possible.”

Yaz seemed disappointed, but acquiesced. “Decide which one of you gets this room, then we’ll talk to Valerie.”

Elise and Hailey exchanged a look, and with a shrug, Hailey took the room, leaving Elise to the identical one beside it. Yaz kept her word, and quickly led the girls to the far-end of the corridor and a room on the right. Ahead, the corridor widened into a large room, divided by a bar-like counter at the edge of a kitchen. Between it and the entrance, the room was further divided in two sections; the right a reading area of couches, chairs, and filled bookshelves; the left, a large, twelve-person dining table presently empty.

Behind the bar, a pair of men shuffled about, the light too low to give any hint of their features. Yaz stole their attention back, and opened the door to a room whose interior was astonishing given its utterly unremarkable exterior. While outside it appeared to the same, ten-by-twelve space as the other rooms, inside it formed that room, then billowed out to half the size of a gymnasium where its rear-wall should be. School desks were scattered here and there before a white-board, and between it and a series of gym mats.

Hailey was immediately awash with an inexplicable power. A sudden belonging accompanied it, as if all her life she’d been searching for a place, and had at last found it. Her heart skipped a few beats. Her breath fluttered in her chest. She swept the room with a wide gaze that made it feel greater with each moment that passed. Though its dimensions remained unchanged, it took Hailey a moment to come to grips with the training room and see it for what it was.

A middle-aged, sinuous looking woman strolled past a young boy at a desk, and made her way over, greeting them with a firm, extended hand. Her dark eyes were alert, wily; her spine rigid. She looked down on Hailey as though a headmistress to a fresh, fearful pupil.

“Valerie Henson,” she said, focused on Hailey. “You feel it. Good. That energy? You’ve power, child, but it is chaotic, unfocused.”

Hailey exchanged a deranged look with Elise and Yasmine, “Uh. Okay.”

Valerie’s face stiffened. “I may sound crazy now, but I assure you I am not. In time you will grow to understand my meanings better than you believe possible. Until then, you must check any attitude at the door. Skepticism is alright. Critical thinking is required, but I will not accept any disrespect.”

Hailey winced, “Sorry. I’m overwhelmed. This is all kind of…”

“Insane?” Valerie asked, softening only slightly. Hailey grimaced with a nod. “It is how we all feel in the beginning.”

“It goes away?”

Valerie shook her head. “No. It merely transforms. The feeling is an effect of having your reality turned upside down for a logic obfuscated by emotion. You cannot begin to understand your power until you accept that understanding must come first through inner-knowledge. Only then can your logic be receptive enough for an explanation to manifest.”

Hailey had to think over what she’d said before responding. Considering how riddle-like her speech was, it seemed understandable. “So… I need to learn to take certain things at face-value before understanding them deeper?”

“In so many words, yes.”

Hailey eyed the three women beside her, then heaved a sigh. Everything Yaz had said about staying and training rushed through her mind– along with everything she risked by leaving. To say she wasn’t angry would dismiss her feelings.

But Hailey had never been one hurt others, let alone through inaction. In a way, it was the only reason she was here now. It was why she’d tagged along with Elise, to ensure against inaction. Now, it seemed any action would’ve caused her to be a target, and that her tagging along had made it the lesser of evils.

Given the circumstances, everything thus far had been handled as best as it could be given the options and information available. No matter what now, neither she nor Elise could be safe outside the bunker. Hailey wondered if they were really safe in it, but let the thought go in favor of more pressing matters. Presently, least of all evils seemed to be staying until properly trained– both of them.

Hailey eyed Valerie. “If I accept your training, can I return home?”

One corner of an eye tightened and slacked, “Yes. In time, however, you may feel that this is where you belong.”

Despite the feeling the power had given her, she Hailey couldn’t see herself feeling that.

“No. I’m a Junior. I don’t even have a driver’s license. This isn’t where I belong. This is where I’m forced to stay to keep people safe.”

Valerie’s nostrils flared slightly, but a hint of compassion tainted the silence between them, though outwardly she remained unchanged. “Be that as it may, your feelings may be wholly changed after my training. But enough of this for now. You must relax before you can begin. Yasmine?”

For a moment, a young girl appeared in her eyes, but disappeared in a blink, “Yes?”

“Take our new guests to the kitchen and have Kenneth fix them a meal.” Yasmine bowed her head and started for the door. Valerie eye the girls in tandem, “All I ask of you both is to be respectful and try to relax. We have enough on our shoulders here that there is no need for more. We are friends, not enemies.”

With that, Valerie turned back to the young boy, and Elise immediately followed Yaz. Hailey hesitated to examine the curious belonging, but let it settle into the background. She started forward as a vise of anxiety constricted her chest. She swallowed hard, terrified by its sudden appearance, and hurried after the others, hoping to chase it away.

Missed part 4? Read it here!

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Into Her Darkness: Part 8

8.

The Jewelry Store Job

Their day went in usual fashion, or what Crystal had come to know as such. They took breakfast in a quaint diner on the dingy side of town– not unlike the one where they’d first met, and returned home for daily training. They finished in time for lunch, then set to planning the next job.

Given the whole thing was being orchestrated by the store’s owner, it felt disingenuous to plan so much. Angela felt otherwise. Even the easiest jobs could go wrong if not taken seriously. Angela’d seen and heard of it happening enough. Even if the owner was in– the security guards, the whole damned town, even– one do-gooder with a gun or cell-phone could fuck it up.

Angela wouldn’t let it be an issue, but Crystal couldn’t help her nervousness. A niggling fear in her mind and gut only added insult to it. More and more, Crystal felt things were about to go wrong in a big way. Intuition told her it wasn’t the job, but logic and fear saw no other possibilities and overrode it.

The pair sat in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island. Jonas’ folder and its contents were laid out neatly between them. Angela examined the pages with an eagle-eye view while Crystal sifted her IDs and papers. Mostly, to keep her fidgeting hands moving while Angela mentally sorted the details of the job the following night. It would have to be enough time for Crystal to come to grips with what clawed at her. Otherwise, she’d be carrying more weight than she could handle. The last job had proven how fast one might need to move– and how fast things could turn bad.

The pair spent the night in planning, and broke only for dinner with Arthur. He counseled Angela with vague grunts and low mutters. Crystal was out of place, looking in on an intimate moment between two people forced together by circumstance and make the most of it. Arthur’s tones seemed to hint genuine concern, or interest, alongside detachment.

The night passed with sluggish inactivity. When the trio finally retired, Crystal passed out almost immediately, awoke to distant cooking, and found only Arthur present in the kitchen.

“Angela gone?” She asked, sitting at the island.

He grunted an affirming reply, “Shopping. Tools for tonight.”

Crystal spooned sugar into her coffee. “Didn’t think she’d ever need anything.”

“Ev’ry job’s different.” He shuffled over, dropped eggs and bacon onto a plate. He shuffled back and forth, plopped down toast. “Eat. You’ll need it come nightfall.”

“Thank you.” He grunted, ready to trundle off. “Wait.” He hesitated. “I just want to ask…”

He about-faced, his figure suddenly imposing in a paternal sort of way. He gave her a placid indifference while she struggled for words– the last thing she wanted was to speak ill of Angela. After all she’d done, it wasn’t right. All the same, a question needed to be asked, even if Arthur refused an answer, perhaps speaking it aloud would seal an idea in her mind.

“Is Angela…” Arthur’s brow rose. She breathed deep, exhaled slowly, “Should I be worried? I mean, is she being honest– about repaying some kind of debt?”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You’re asking if she can be trusted. If she’d betray you, or cast you out.” Crystal gave an apprehensive, but solitary nod. “Her business is her business, Crystal. I can’t tell you what’s in her heart. But I’ve been here a long time. Long enough to know she does not often betray her word. If she says there is a reason for something, there is one. If she says that reason is something personal, it is. But you want to know if you should leave.”

Crystal’s eyes fell to the floor, “Yes.”

“I can’t tell anyone how to live their life, girl, ut there’s not a thing Angela has shown me to distrust her. Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps not. But I’ve never wanted for, nor feared anything, since I met Angela. In this world, that’s more than most can say.”

Crystal met his eyes a final time with a silent gratitude. He replied with a slow, solemn nod, and turned away. She was left to stew in her thoughts. He hadn’t said much, but it was enough. However he felt really, there was no denying Anglea’d kept an old man off the street, gave him money, shelter, food. In exchange, she asked only occasional household aid.

The same went for Crystal; Angela’d given her everything. Not only was it in a possibly-vain hope she stay, but also to repay something deeper, more personal. She’d been a street-kid until someone helped her from the gutter. Who that was, when, and why, remained a mystery. In fact, the more Crystal thought, the less she knew about Angela and her past. Everything from her birthday to her hometown was a mystery. Was Angela Dale even her real name?

It hurt to think of, but their attachment forced her to evaluate the situation honestly. Crystal’d never had friends. Not really. Even if she’d had, it was so long ago now it didn’t count. For her to stay, commit to Angela’s partnership, she’d have to be sure of every possible variable. The only way to do that was to learn more about Angela. She’d picked up on enough surface details to fill in anything Angela might willingly tell. There was little indication she’d been anything but herself as well.

But deeper, personal things were another matter. Crystal couldn’t fully commit until she knew them. That meant confronting Angela. It would be a delicate task to broach– likely best when celebrating their next job. She’d decide afterward whether to stay or go.

The afternoon turned to evening with more speed than Crystal liked. Angela returned with a box of toys to be used on the job. Among other things, were laser-focuser prisms; small attachments to avoid triggering laser alarms; old-fashioned cam-jammers to loop empty feeds on security cameras. Angela’d taken the job as seriously as she’d said. Crystal was glad for that honesty, if nothing else.

They geared up. Crystal gave her weapons extra care. If something did go wrong, she wanted to be ready. Freezing up again was unacceptable. Were circumstances different, she’d have been killed. Not exactly an auspicious start to her career. Moreover, she’d started to come to grips with the prospect of death on the job– preferably someone else’s, rather than hers.

Death was a certainty. Everyone knew, every day, death might come. The difference for her and the mobster was the deliberate skirting of death’s cross-hairs. To mourn the loss of a random mafioso seemed as pointless as futile. Countless more, better people would die the same instant without ever having a choice or being mourned. Crystal merely hoped she wouldn’t be one. Any other feelings were unnecessary and dangerous.

Angela led her to an over-sized Chevy pick-up in the garage. It was a tank with a lift-kit, run-flat tires, inch-thick steel-plated doors, bullet-proof acrylic-glass windows, and pro-tuned suspension. All of it was propelled by a super-charged V12 capable of outrunning all but the most luxurious police super-cruisers.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit over-kill for a smash and grab?” Crystal asked.

“You wanna’ take that chance?” Crystal winced. “Didn’t think so. Cops love these kinds of jobs. They get to nail a suspect, confiscate the merchandise, and tell all the news vids they made a million-dollar bust. Meanwhile, who’s gonna’ notice a few diamonds missing and in a wife’s ears, or on a husband’s finger?”

“I see your point,” Crystal said, heaving up and into the passenger’s side.

Angela climbed across from her. The truck was roomy, more than comfortable, but with a definite utilitarian feel. Its engine fired and Crystal shuddered in fear that it might explode. Instead, the truck idled forward into garage’s main aisle. It inched toward the elevator. Crystal cringed at the clearance. Moments later, they emerged at ground-level, unscathed.

They started for the far-side of town, biding their time to blend in. Amid a bustling, thriving city, the truck was hardly conspicuous. The most notable thing was the two women inside it. But the half-tinted windows and dark night made it impossible to tell they were there. So far, things were going smooth, but the nagging fear in Crystal’s gut remained. It might not be the job that would go sideways, but something would.

Soon they were parked in an alley a block from their mark. Nondescript, uptown alleys formed maze-work paths through the city blocks. They’d parked along a main one, wide enough for a pair of vehicles. The first, branching alley was too small for anything but Angela’s bike. It would keep them from getting blocked in if they had to ditch the truck. Crystal pled with her gut that they wouldn’t.

They hopped out, started forward. An undeniable exposure descended over Crystal. Clad in black, faces painted, and carrying more fire-power than a Texan at a gunshow felt asking for trouble. Before Crystal could question her, Angela dug a pair of tailored trench-coats from her pack, handed one over. The long leather had no sleeves, but perfectly hid their arsenal. All that remained visible were their beanie-caps and face-paint. Anyone passing by would be none the wiser. Crystal just hoped no-one stopped. They’d know right away something was up.

The walk began, shorter than expected, but each cross-street and intersecting alley was approached with upward hand, a creep to the nearest corner, a peek up and down, then a rush across. The last intersection was as nondescript as the rest. Indeed, the Jewelry store was sandwiched between buildings with an alley behind it. It was completely unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of uptown.

Crystal kept a look out while Angela knelt, picked the lock on the back-door. She flew through the primary lock, the deadbolt, re-pocketed her picks, and instructed Crystal to wait with a hand on the knob. She slid down the wall toward a junction box, popped it open, then fiddled with the wires inside. On a silent three count, she shorted a wire while Crystal pushed open the door.

Angela hurried back, took point. They slipped in and their night-vision flared: a lone security camera roved beside the door, angled for a full-view of the door’s surroundings. The door itself was a major blind-spot Angela took full advantage of. She dug out a cam-looper, spliced it on, and double-checked the feed on her HUD. Crystal watched it too, with a picture-in-picture view; Angela waved a hand before the camera, but the image remained as it was, expertly looped.

They advanced into the main show-floor. It was everything Crystal expected from a high-end jewelry store. Glass and chrome cases were everywhere. Jewels and polished metals glistened in them, along colored satin and velvet. Mannequin necks, hands, wrists, and fingers, were adorned with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and every other gem imaginable.

Angela was focused elsewhere. Crystal turned from the splendor to see lights glowing in the main-room’s corners. The camera’s vision cones suddenly appeared on her HUD; a few oscillated here and there. Angela handed over loopers, motioned Crystal left. She waited, timed herself. Angela couldn’t begin the right side until the first camera was looped. Crystal took her chance, moved like a swift shadow.

In moments, the wire was stripped, spliced, and her HUD showing a looping feed. Angela moved to the next camera, repeated the process, then ushered Crystal up. The rhythmic bypasses of rudimentary security continued until each vision cone faded and the place was nearly theirs for the taking. All that remained were the lasers.

Angela stood beside the first display case, passed over a bag of prisms, “Pick each case. Use your HUD to locate the grid. Put a prism over the emitters, then grab everything out. Remove the emitters in reverse order. Got it?” Crystal nodded. “Take the left, I’ll take the right.”

Crystal stood before the first case, took a deep breath, and fished out her picks. A visual aid appeared on her HUD, displayed the crisscross grid invisible to human eyes. Beside it was a small, 3D render of the lock she was picking. She minimized it, worked the lock by feel to set the pins. With a final twist, the case opened.

“Cakewalk,” she breathed, following the grid-lines back to their emitters.

She removed a prism: the name was deceptive. It was really a small L-shaped bracket with a hole machined in one side. The hole held a highly-polished, faceted crystal around a copper heat-sink. She held her breath, started in the lower left corner, angling one arm carefully through a cross of beams. Her heart jumped as she rotated the first prism through her fingers, hovered it in place over the emitter.

She swallowed hard, released the bypass. It slotted over the emitter, halved the bottom section of grid. She repeated the movements on the next, bottom corner, exposed the entirety of the bottom section of case. Deft movements slotted the next crystal. Then the next. The case was cleared. She dropped her pack, stuffed the case’s contents in it.

She glanced back to see Angela a few cases ahead and quickened her pace. She removed the prisms, then repeated the process at the next case. The pair went along the walls, cleaning out jewelry by the thousands in moments. Crystal finished the last wall-case while Angela made a move for cubical displays in the room’s center. Laser-grids encompassed the innards, but an extra pair of emitters made it nearly impossible to clear the whole grid.

Angela swore under her breath. Crystal caught it. “What?”

“It’s going to take longer than I thought.”

Crystal made her way over, pack now laden with liberated wares, “What d’you need?”

Angela thought for a moment, “Give me your prisms. Pick the register. Find the safe. I’m not leaving anything behind.”

Crystal handed over her prisms. Angela picked the display’s lock, made for the register across the room. She had it open in seconds, found it empty, scanned the display cases of rings, bracelets, and other items beneath it.

“Register’s empty. There’s no grid on this stuff,” Crystal whispered into her comm.

“Alarm,” Angela said, focused on the emitters before her. Crystal knelt, felt around the bottoms of the cases for wiring. “Use your fingers. Metal cutters will set them off.”

Crystal nodded, pinched the thin wiring with a pair fingernails, severed one case’s alarm. She went along the horseshoe of cases, cutting alarms, then working locks. The first opened with difficulty. She tried the HUD render. Inaccurate for the lock-type. She shut it off, closed her eyes. Springs popped and set. The tension arm twisted. The first display opened. She didn’t bother with deft movements. Instead, she swept all the merchandise into her pack en-masse and picked at the left-overs.

Angela liberated the last of the stand-up displays, then hurried past, “Keep working, I’m going for the safe.”

Crystal pivoted to the next case, picked it, and swept the merchandise into her pack. She was about to move to the next when headlights appeared outside. She flattened against the floor on instinct. Her heat raced.

“Someone’s here,” she radioed with a whisper.

Angela froze at the safe, “What!? Who?

“I don’t know. I can’t—” she hesitated, inched sideways along the floor to peer out at the doors. A man in an expensive-looking suit sat in a car, glanced in through binoculars. He clearly wasn’t a cop. The shifty way he checked his surroundings said it wasn’t anyone affiliated with the store. He was avoiding suspicion too much, as if it were important he not be questioned.

It hit her: it was one of Caruso’s men. She was certain of it. He’d been at the last job, one of the incapacitated guards she’d sneaked past. Now he was here.

“It’s one of Caruso’s guys from the museum.”

“Shit!” Angela’s heart leapt into her throat. She focused on the safe, “Has he seen you?”

“No, but–” He laid down his binoculars and the car rolled forward. “He’s leaving.”

Angela didn’t feel better. Crystal didn’t either. Caruso’s men had learned about the job. How was less important than finishing and getting the hell out before they were ambushed. Crystal double-checked the door, then rose for the last of the cases. She located and picked the locks without looking, eyes on the doors. She moved as fast as possible, sweeping the last of the merchandise into her pack. Angela reappeared, safe-money liberated and ready to finish the job.

They moved as shadows, removing the loopers in reverse order. One-by-one, the camera-cones reappeared. They returned to the back room and the last camera, then slipped out as they had in. They sprinted along the alley toward the truck. Angela hesitated at the corners, then ushered Crystal through before taking off again. They passed the first few unhindered. Angela’s confidence returned. Crystal’s waned. Her stomach gurgled, lurched bile up her throat. This was the thing she’d been fearing. When it hit, it was nearly catastrophic.

They crossed the last intersecting road, into the last section of alley. The truck was parked with its broad side in the center of the T, far ahead. Crystal could taste freedom, home, drinks of victory. Atop it all, the bile came up. Things were going completely fucking sideways. At the same instant, they crossed the street headlights kicked on from the perpendicular road. Tires squealed. Crystal had enough time to throw Angela into the cover of a dumpster-alcove before the car squealed to a stop.

Feet dropped onto asphalt and a voice called out, “We know it’s you, Dale. Give it up.”

Angela’s face whitened. Crystal’s heart seized. She clasped her pistol.

Into Her Darkness: Part 6

6.

In the Field

The first few tests were less harrowing than Crystal expected. They amounted to running the course in its entirety, picking locks within a time-limit, and accuracy-based speed shooting. Angela had trained her well enough that pressure felt as natural as daily practice. At lunch, Angela’s personal gravity seemingly increased. Her stiff-lip hardened. Crystal soon learned why: all of her field skills were about to be tested in the field.

The pair took their lunch break, sat at the island counter across from one another. Angela’s sudden taciturnity kept her from saying much while they ate. Still, Crystal ate slowly, hoping to prolong a possibly untimely end of their partnership– and her newly-comfortable life. Angela downed a drink, fished for another in the fridge, then cracked the top on a can of soda.

She deliberately waited for the fizz to die before speaking, “You’ve done well.” Her tone was short, firm rather than cold. “Better than I’d anticipated, but there’s only so much we can learn with imaginary pressure. We’re going to put your skills to use.”

Crystal sipped autonomously from a cup, watching Angela beyond it.

She continued, “I’ve spoken to my Fixer, the woman that sets up my jobs. We call her Madame Curie. She’s lined up a job; a Museum piece is being transferred into town on a truck-full of others. The goal’s to nab it. Together. If you wish to continue, that is. This will be the final test. If the job goes as planned, you’re in.”

Crystal let the words sink in with an other drink.

Angela gave it a full minute. Then, on cue, “You in?”

Crystal didn’t want to make the decision in haste, but wasn’t sure she couldn’t. She guessed her answer would’ve proven the same regardless. If the options were repaying Angela or returning to stinking like a corpse, she’d attempt repayment every time. With that in mind, she nodded.

“I’m in.”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll begin planning the job.”

The next hour was an exercise in focused listening. Every detail Angela gave was as important as the last. Every sentence was dense, packed full of information to warn, plan, or instruct. Not a single word was wasted. Before Crystal realized it, she and Angela were standing beside the BMW bike, fitting finger-less gloves. They were like digital-age warriors; clad in all black, beanie-caps, and loaded with guns, tools, and an empty pack for loot.

Crystal was floored. Yet beneath it all, her stomach churned inexplicably. She wasn’t sure why, the plan was simple: Await the delivery vehicle. Sneak inside to it. Grab the target. Run. The devil was in the details, but no matter what she examined, she found her fears rooted elsewhere. Even her minor fear of choking under pressure wasn’t the origin. Angela’s faith in her, she knew, would override that. Eventually she was left with no choice but to focus on the job and hope it worked itself out.

Angela stepped over with a small tin of make-up, began smearing her face. “All cameras have facial-recog software linked to central crime databases. If you’re spotted without this, they’ll peg you before you realize they’re there. It’s one of the most important tools we use. Never leave home without it.”

Angela stuffed the tin in a pocket of Crystal’s vest, then produced another to coat her own face. Metal flakes and gray, thermal paint made for a glittering, tight mask that smothered the skin. It was a small price to pay to keep them safe against the inevitable lawmen looking to stake claims. Crystal knew next to nothing about tech, but figured the metal flakes somehow confused the software. How, she couldn’t say, but all she cared to know was where Angela needed her.

Gear secured, they saddled up the bike. The engine ignited its high-performance growl, then bellowed a roar into the elevator. At street level, the roar repeated, echoing into the freshly risen night until it reached top-speed. Crystal’s HUD activated: Temperature and barometric readings appeared immediately, various metrics and calculations beneath them fading in and out as the bike angled around corners.

They glode along straights at top-speed. Ramshackle harbor-buildings turned to rundown ghettos. Vagrants and usual passersby whizzed past with futile readings. The ghettos turned middle-class– or as much as was left in their brave, new world. In truth, they galloped through what remained of the middle-class; slum-lord ghettos whose only difference from the lower ones were fresher coats of paint. Then, the upscale, downtown buildings began to appear.

The glitz and glamour of a cocaine-nightlife surged around them. Sharks and prey of all types emerged from the crevices to take it all in. Drunk couples walked hand-in-hand. Lower-upper class groups queued for list-only bars and restaurants while the A-listers entered from Limos at the back. The homeless and poor pan-handled, or hid or ran from men in blue armor. The city was a surging, roiling organism awash in colorful light and a parasite called humanity that the bike passed as if an impulse along the nerves of its streets.

The further they traveled, the more sparse the land became. It turned from the ass-shaking gold and silver of downtown to the tea and crumpets of old money-uptown. Pristinely groomed foliage and parks cut swaths between lavish, high-rise apartments or gated communities. Verdant hues dominated bright-white flood-lights and neutral, newer-than-most skyscrapers with out-of-season beauty. There was no denying “uptown” varied wildly from its lower counterpart. Of course, that meant infinitely more to the two thieves sizing up a mark than anyone.

Angela leaned them onto a long, four-lane avenue, aimed for a central area of grounds. They twisted, turned. If Crystal knew anything about the city she’d inhabited her whole life, it was that this was the height of its cultural contribution. The raving, boozing downtown district may have been what made the news, but Museum Mile made the society pages. In the end, those were the ones counted.

The grounds were immaculate, assaulting to the senses. That was the point. Dirt and asphalt didn’t exist here. Everyone from the Groundskeeper to the Grand Curator worked to ensure the little bit that did was forgotten. The Mile was different from anywhere else in the city– even the world. The colossal museums looked as if some Roman architect had been sucked through time to design the largest, most luxurious forums ever seen.

The largest of the museums was no different; all domes, hard angles, filigrees and columnar supports. The place was cast in tastefully opposing shades of beige, white, and gray. Sculptures of Gods and Goddesses lined the apexes and column-bases, outlined the front and sides of the museum. Various depictions of rituals, historical events, or people, lined the filigrees in between. Truly, the place was a wonder of human engineering and ego.

And they were about to rip it off.

Angela killed the bike’s headlight and Crystal’s night-vision software engaged. Her HUD dialed up its contrast, lightening the area so she might focus on the task at-hand. They went quiet, as they sailed along a side-road for a Museum’s rear-lot. They passed wide around a fenced, compound of loading bays. A guard-house cast an imposing silhouette in the darkness near the gate, but was far enough that they’d passed unheard and unseen.

The bike banked around like a fighter-jet to come about. It cut through the parking lot behind the compound and came to a rest somewhere in the middle. The two women climbed off to watch the for the truck’s arrival and confirm its markings. This was the easy part. The next, entering the compound to nab the target, wasn’t. Angela had hinted it might be as simple as scaling the fence, but Crystal doubted as much. Only time would only tell.

They left the bike, sneaked to the half cement, half chain-link fence encircling the compound. They kept their gravity centered near their knees, and crept along to the far, left side for an ideal vantage point. The guard-house remained far enough to keep from being spotted, yet was close enough to watch the guard, the gate beside well in view, too.

“There’s only one delivery tonight.” Angela said, sweeping the compound with binoculars. “One truck. Driver and loader. Two people. Two guards near the door. Cameras. A guard in the shack.”

She handed the binoculars to Crystal, whom confirmed her assessment: A pair of uniformed security-guards stood outside the personnel door at the furthest loading bay. Cameras were stationed along the building’s corners, near the rolling doors, and through-out the lot on light-poles to capture roughly the entirety of the inner-compound.

Crystal couldn’t help but notice the coverage, “How do you plan to get past the cameras?”

“Stay covered ’til we’re ready to move. Once anyone knows we were here, we’ll be long gone.”

Crystal chewed her tongue, “Not much room for error.”

“Think on your feet. It’s what I trained you for.”

A truck lumbered up to the gate. Crystal handed the binoculars back. “Mark’s arrived.”

Angela watched the truck stop and the gate creep open. The truck rolled in. “Payday’s a– Shit!

A sedan rolled in behind the truck, followed it through the lot with a wide berth to allow it to back up against a loading bay.

“Curie, you hag, you fucked us!”

Crystal’s adrenaline flowed. “What is it?”

Angela handed over the binoculars, “Security escort. Not unheard of, but not on the roster. The artifacts are private property. It’s the only reason they’d be here.”

Crystal watched the delivery truck settle into place. Its two occupants climbed out. Ahead of them, the Sedan’s four doors opened. Four, large men in suits climbed out. From her HUD, Crystal knew they were packing heat. They walked with excess weight to their hips, confirming as much. Her stomach bubbled and churned again: things were about to go completely sideways.

“Maybe it’s not our night,” Crystal whispered.

“No.” Angela dug in a vest-pocket for disassembled bolt-cutters and a cell-phone. She assembled the cutters, handed them over. “We’ve committed. We’ve got a client waiting. Stop now and we might as well write off our reputation– my reputation. Start cutting.”

Crystal took the cutters, hands near trembling. A breath forced adrenaline through them, and she began snipping apart the fence. Angela rolled it back in a large section, ushered her through, then followed her in. They skirted the edge of the lights, careful of the roving cameras. Light-yellow cones showed the camera angles on their HUDs– another useful tool of the trade Crystal was grateful for.

Angela stopped her mid-way through the lot. “There.”

Two, roving cones intersected periodically, a blind spot forming behind one as they did. The only problem was the glaring light all around it from above.

“We need to ensure no-one sees you.”

Crystal was exasperated. “Why me?”

“Because I have to draw them away,” she said, thumbing her phone.

In the distance, the bike started. Its engine revved. The faint silhouette of the performance-tuned bike raced for the gate. It angled around, stopped in front of it.

“Get ready,” Angela instructed. “One chance; get to the light. On my say, go for the truck.”

Crystal swallowed hard. Bile surged upward. Adrenaline flowed, knocked it down. The bike’s head-light flared on. It’s back tire began spinning. Burning rubber screamed with stinking, white smoke. The guard-house lit up and someone appeared at its side. Crystal was ready. Angela watched the guards near the truck halt mid-step, then turn to gawk.

“Go!”

Crystal bolted. The vision cones hit their first apex, began to swivel back. She dodged others, slipping in and out of shadows at the raised cement-bases of light-poles. The cones began to meet. The group near the truck headed for the smoking bike, weapons-out. One stayed behind, urging the driver and his comrade inside as he took a post at the truck’s rear.

Crystal ducked behind the target pole, glaring light all around her. All anyone needed was to look in her direction. She was literal deer in the headlights; eyes plastered wide, body frozen in terror.

All eyes were trained on the bike. The group approached the gate, guns drawn. The screeching tire went silent, and the light shut off. Smoke curled and wafted through the newly dead night, drifting away on a breeze to reveal the bike’s riderless form.

Angela’s voice piped in over Crystal’s comm-implant, “On three, make for the truck’s far-side. Don’t stop. Get inside it. I’ll handle the last guard.”

Her three count lasted an eternity. Time passed in flashes. Crystal found herself sprinting for the truck’s side. The bike’s headlight flared, strobed, incapacitating the group. Security was down, writhing, shouting in pain for help. The guard at the truck sprinted for his comrades. Crystal slipped behind the truck. The man stopped midway between the group and the truck to see the men shaking off the sudden attack. They groaned, rolled, rose to their feet one-by-one. The bike gave a pair of meeps and tore off into the night.

Crystal’s hands worked triple time, picking the truck’s padlock. Moments later she was in. She shut the door, found herself at the rear of a truck-full of crates, each stenciled with black painted lot-numbers.

“I’m in,” Crystal radioed.

“Lot 1-6-9-1.”

Crystal’s HUD flickered with an indicator, automatically searching as she skimmed the tight quarters. It located the lot number at an angle, highlighted it near the front of the truck. Crystal side-stepped, squeezed between two rows of larger crates, and centered herself before it. She fought for a grip on the crate, found it wedged in place.

“It’s stuck.”

Angela was running, panting, “Crack the box. We only need the contents. Terra Cotta warrior. Sixteen inches.”

Crystal fished out a few, small tools, jammed a mini pry-bar between the edges of the crates lid, and heaved her weight against it. Wood snapped. Metal groaned. Then, the slight cascade of packing materials and confetti-like paper spilled atop Crystal’s feet. She dug, felt her fingers clutch cool ceramic, and rejoiced internally. She yanked the artifact out, and stuffed it in her pack.

“I’ve got it,” Crystal said, edging toward the door. “Is it clear?”

No response.

Crystal hesitated, “Angela?” Her heart doubled its rhythm. “Angela?” She glanced around hopelessly. “Shit!”

With a deep breath, she pushed a door open and peered out to the right: where the guards should have been was nothing. She swallowed terror, crouched, and climbed out as quietly as possible. She rounded the rear of the truck, set her HUD to search for Angela. Nothing.

She hesitated to survey the lot; guards were still searching for the bike. The group roamed like ants swarming an insect carcass at the gate. Vision cones of the blind spot oscillated, beckoning her forward. She readied in a crouch to sprint. A loud click sounded behind her.

“On your knees, hands behind your head.” Crystal clenched her eyes shut. The voice repeated itself. “I will shoot you. Do it now!”

Crystal was torn. Where the hell was Angela? Why was this happening? Why was she even here? What was she going to do now?

“On your knees!

Crystal winced, chest deflating. She sank to one knee, then the next, “Don’t shoot. Alright? I’ll do what you say.”

“God damn right you will,” the man said, advancing toward her. “On your stomach. Flat. Arms out.” Crystal did. The man jerked the artifact from her pack. “Look what we have here. Guess it’s not your day. Get up. Hands up. Don’t even think about going for those pieces.” Crystal sighed, rose back to her knees then to her feet. “Good. Face me.”

Crystal turned in time to see Angela appear behind him. The next moments progressed in slow motion; Steel flashed. Disappeared. Crimson spilled, spurted. His jugular was pierced. He dropped the artifact, head forced against the truck’s rear-edge. It caved in with a bloody crunch. Angela was fast on the catch; the artifact was in her hand. He fell to a heap, gun firing randomly from a spasm.

Time resumed its pace.

Shit!”

Crystal was still frozen. Men rushing toward them were muffled by Angela tackling her into cover. The bike’s engine revved up again, was beside them seconds later. Crystal was still frozen, her eyes traumatized, stuck on the body. Angela jerked her toward the bike. Her legs worked autonomously to put it under her. More flashes. Moments formed vague pictures. They burned a trail toward the gate, gunfire aimed for them. Sparked colored the road, the bike’s extreme edges. Angela kept accelerating, weaving this way and that until they rocketed through the gate with a wide turn.

Muzzle flashes followed them down the Mile, but the bike soon left it behind. Crystal’s mind remained there, caught in the man’s lifeless eyes.

Short Story: Cheap Imitations

She slid atop him with a sensual straddle; soft, warm, and curved in all the right places. Milk-white skin was veined hypnotically along her breasts, clavicle, and neck. Flowing, ebony hair and sapphire eyes completed her with color only matched or surpassed by pert nipples, slick labia, and jet-black nail-polish. Her black-tipped fingers slid along her navel to part herself for him. Passion surged upward from his groin. He plunged into her warm wetness with an upward thrust that forced her to cry out without will.

The cry was followed by another, then another. She rode him as a stallion. Likewise, she was his Goddess. All the passionate fury, omnipotence, and power he could convey surged through his hips. Mere moments passed before he felt neared the edge of bliss. She was beside him, body twitching, shuddering, vibrating with groans and cries.

An alarm began shrieking. The moment was suddenly ripped away. He was torn back to reality to a sound of thumping metal. His erection went flaccid in an instant. Her body flickered, frozen in place from its paused playback. He growled, ripped off his V-R glasses and their Neuro-stim prods at his temples. He launched himself from the ratty couch and across the dim apartment.

A lone, fluorescent fixture in the kitchenette behind lit the place. His feet punted trash lining the floor, his steps gaping as he readjusted himself in his pants. The door’s LCD panel rang with the incessant, intrusive sound that had stolen his paradise. An infuriated arm jabbed a thumb at the panel: It flared on to a hooded figure outside, just beyond the door, its face and profile too obscure to provide any clue to its identity.

He resigned himself to believing it was human, or at least something resembling it– no one was really human anymore. Not these days. Too many bionic parts; digital implants, neural upgrades– other rubbish that kept them from actually being human anymore. The species had entered its “post” phase, where evolution was as outdated and outpaced as a century and a half old IBM computer.

He sighed, unlocked the door with a thumb-print. It slid open to the shadowy figure that immediately pushed into his home. A pale-white hand with black nail-polish revealed itself. He should’ve figured it was her– only the real version had the bad timing enough to interrupt him pumping the virtual one.

Casey threw her off hood. As before, pale-white skin was accented by sapphire eyes and jet-black hair. Rather than flowing though, it was short, cropped below the ears. He’d always liked her more with long hair, had kept the V-R image of her that way. Still, if she’d have known the perversions her V-R form had been subjected to, she probably would’ve cut off and bronzed his cock and balls as mantle-piece.

The thing that gave him pause wasn’t her luscious body, nor the tight leather and cotton managing to barely wrap itself around her taught torso and legs. Instead, it was the terror that had widened her eyes and sharpened her brows. She stepped in, spun ’round, dropped her hood to reveal a face more afraid and dread-filled than should be possible in a thousand lifetimes.

“Casey? What the hell’re you doing here?” He asked, shutting the door. “I thought you never wanted to see me again?”

She rubbernecked the apartment, “Jason, I’m in trouble.”

He hesitated, then took a pair of steps as she paced small circles, craning her neck this way and that. It was as if she sought some explanation from the chaos and madness around her, but found only the ankle-deep trash and couch haphazardly shoved behind the V-R recliner. On a normal day, she’d have been disgusted by the cesspit. Jason had never been less than a complete slob, but this was far and away worse than anything she’d seen of him. Then again, it was far from a normal day, and trash was the least of her worries.

“I met a guy.”

Jason rolled his eyes, threw his head back, “Casey, I don’t have time for–”

“No, this is different. This isn’t–”

He threw a flat hand sideways to cut her off, “God damn it! Casey, you can’t come running back here every-time you find some new dead-beat you wanna leech off me with. I told you before, in or out there’s no–”

“Jason!” She shouted, trembling and verging on tears. “Please. Listen to me.

He huffed, went silent. She reached into a rear-pocket of her leather pants, produced a thick wallet. He wasn’t even sure how it had fit there when the pants were so tight and her ass so round. All the same, she began to turn it over in her hands.

“I met this guy. He seemed cool enough Y-you know, hanging out, partying–”

“Getting high and boozing through other people’s money, you mean.”

She shrank a little, “Yeah. Yeah that sort’a thing. Anyway, we hang out for a while, a few weeks, getting to know each other. Last night, he took me back to his place. He put on some music, mixed us some drinks… I thought everything was going well. Next thing I know, he’s hovering over me, stripping me naked while the room’s spinning around my drugged head.” He eyed her carefully, intensely focused on her hand as it extended out toward him. “I managed to hit him with a lamp. I… I think I might’ve killed him.” He took the wallet. “I found that while I was looking for a phone to call for help. After that I just… ran.”

He opened the wallet, somehow knowing what he was going to find before finding it. It was one of those intuition moments people used to verify the authenticity of precognition. Jason didn’t believe in that bullshit, but it didn’t matter. The wallet in his hand told him everything they knew was about to come to a screeching halt. The badge inside it wasn’t all that different from any other badge. The letters stenciled on it though, were something out of a nightmare. “CyCIA,” for Cyber Crimes Investigative Agency.

There was no way to avoid it now. If Casey had really killed one of their agents, it was going to be impossible to keep her out of jail. More than likely, while investigating her, they’d learn about his history too. Before long, both of them would be someone’s cell-mate in a jail so foul it made Turkish prison seem like the Ritz.

Cyber crimes had become something of a felony mixed with a cardinal sin. So much of the world relied on the net and tech that any digital tampering or hacking was worse than flashing your junk at kids on a street corner. The fact that it carried a heavier sentence, too, just showed how skewed things were against cyber-criminals. The only thing that kept them safe, was that CyCIA (sy-see-uh) was such a small entity, and their work aimed toward larger, more important matters, that they couldn’t afford to focus on small timers just trying to eke out a living.

If there was anything Jason and Casey were, it was small time. They’d managed to stay that way by avoiding CyCIA’s radar. Now that one of their agents was dead, they’d find out all the dirty little secrets the pair had hoped to contain. More than likely, it would end in a prison term– one of those long hauls in a place where hell is a more pleasant descriptor than reality. Those kinds of places were a dime a dozen for cyber crims.

He threw the wallet sideways, rushed past, and pulled her along toward his bedroom. They waded through the chaos, and he dug out as much clothing, weaponry, tech, and money as he could find in the closet, and tossed it all in a duffel bag. He drug Casey to door, reached it in a breath. Jason’s hand moved for the touchscreen–

A heavy hand thudded the door, “CyCIA, open up!”

Jason froze. Casey swallowed hard. They exchanged a look; they were fucked. Royally. Even if they managed to get past, they’d be running the rest of their lives. They’d need new identities, even before thinking of disappearing. Then they’d need time, money, contacts, connections, and a more permanent solution. None of that could be had with CyCIA on their tail.

Casey squeezed Jason’s hand. The pounding sounded again. The voice shouted, commanding them to come out. Jason’s stomach acid burned the edge of his esophagus. His heart raced. He couldn’t give her up. Not without a fight. He needed to try– if not for himself, then for her. He’d always loved her. Even if he was a pervert, a freak, a fool for loving her, he did. Anything was better than outright giving her up. He done it once before, and had always regretted it.

In a flash he was armed and firing a handful of rounds through his front door. He heard the CyCIA Agent go down. There was no going back. If they caught him, he’d tell them it was he alone, that he’d drug Casey along against her will. He couldn’t just let her go without a fight.

He thumbed the door and it slid open, “C’mon.”

He drug her their steps careful to avoid the blood. “Where’re are we going to go?”

He didn’t know, didn’t care. He had her, that was what mattered. Everything else was improv, played by ear. He’d lost her once, wasn’t going to do it again. He steeled himself, led the way to the elevator.

“Doesn’t matter.”

He pulled her in and hit the lobby button. The doors shut, and launched them down. Where they were to go after was as much a question as everything else. At least he had her and not just a cheap, V-R imitation anymore. Maybe that was the whole point; the universe was throwing him a bone, letting him have her in exchange for being on the run. It was a nice thought. He wasn’t sure he believed it. The elevator doors opened on the lobby and the pair fled into the night, together.

Into Her Darkness: Part 3

3.

Full of Surprises

True to Angela’s word, morning came early. Crystal’d wept herself to sleep then slept like a baby. Nearly the whole night too. Angela’s voice snapped her eyes open from the doorway. Crystal found herself still warm, nestled beneath fresh, thick blankets. The room focused, and all of her fears of dreams or hallucinations faded. Angela was real. Her home was real. The bed and its warmth were real. So was the deal she’d made that exchanged Angela’s hospitality for her compliance. It remained difficult to believe, but Crystal knew somehow, somewhere, stranger things were happening.

Angela leaned in the door jamb, “Sleep well?”

Crystal groaned with a pleasureful stretch, “Is that really a question?” Angela laughed. She glanced around the room, “What time is it?”

“Four A-M,” she said, straightening in the jamb. “Wear the clothes from last night. We’ll get you more later. Meet me in the kitchen. Breakfast’s ready.”

“Breakfast?” Crystal asked, more surprised than she should’ve been.

Angela was already down the hall. Crystal dressed in a hurry, admittedly more hungry than she’d been in a long time. Despite the previous evenings meal, she’d merely activated her long-dormant appetite, not sated it. She pushed her way into the kitchen, found Angela on the island’s far-side, shoveling food into her mouth. A digital newspaper was thumbed upward on a tablet, a headline reading something about “corporate take-over.” Crystal’s attention was too focused on Arthur shuffling about before a stove. His burgundy bathrobe and silk pajamas were frayed with age. His slippers, even older, scuffed a symphony of equal parts stubborn survival and enduring comfort. The hardwood floor thunked softly as he turned, pan in hand, and shoveled bacon and eggs for Crystal.

Her mouth watered at the sight– to say nothing of the heavenly aroma. She took it with a “thank you.” he grunted in reply. “Not much of a morning person, Arthur,” Angela said to her. He grunted again. They chuckled together. “Anyway, don’t overeat. You start training today. I can’t have you getting sick.” Crystal hesitated mid-way through a bite with a wide-eyed look. Angela gave her a sidelong glance, “I’ll go easy today. But it won’t last. Today’s evaluation. I need to know what you can do to focus your training. Besides, we have places to go. You’ll need energy for that, so I won’t beat you… up too much.”

Crystal smiled over her food, finished the bite. “Where’re we going?”

Angela gave a crooked grin, “It’s a surprise. I promise you’ll like it.”

She winced. Angela questioned her with a look. “I’m not really a surprise person. The last surprise I got was ending up on the street.”

Angela grimaced, “Sorry. Just remember what I said: trust me. You’ll like this.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Breakfast was mostly silent after that, more from world-class cooking than anything– then again, Crystal realized, it could’ve been the worst food in the world, but so long as it was fresh and hot, it was just as enjoyable. An empty plate later, she followed Angela back past her room for the door at the hall’s end. The seemingly normal door opened onto a monstrosity of a room three or more fold the height and five the width of the rest of the apartment. The combination gym, obstacle course, and climbing section alone was the size of a football field. The far-end continued through a set of doors, and on into mystery.

“Holy hell,” Crystal breathed.

“Welcome to the training room.”

“This is amazing.”

Angela chuckled, “You’d be surprised what you can do with money and elbow grease.”

You built this?”

Angela led her toward the far doors, “A couple people helped– Arthur was one– but yes. Built and designed it myself.”

Crystal rubbernecked the room, “But why?”

“I take the winter off. This year will be different, but I don’t want to go soft lounging around. So instead of working, I train.”

Crystal followed her to the back-wall, neck craned. Apart from the hand-holds across the walls and ceiling, hooks for zip-lining and over-hand holds were dotted or lined here and there. The course was constructed with every type of obstacle Crystal could name; barbed wire, hurtles, thick wood for vaulting, ropes for climbing– so much it was difficult to take it all in.

She passed through the doors and found herself staring down a long, wide hallway. Concrete block replaced the training implements and homely décor. She trudged along, feeling distinctly like a recruit in boot camp. Angela sensed it, felt the same from a Drill Instructor’s position.

They passed a few doors before pushing through one on the left. A large exercise room rivaling the adjoined kitchen and living room was filled with fitness machines and weight benches. They lined the walls with sturdy readiness. Meanwhile, the central area was filled by specific weight-sets and machines. Angela had accounted for every type of work-out imaginable. Crystal could only imagine what more lay unseen.

The LEDs threw light across blue-mat covered floors, sank into or bounced off the modern black-and-chrome equipment. The room was as much a high-end gym as a personal one, but Crystal knew that was exactly Angela’s intention. She was led to a corner where Angela dug through a cabinet, for work-out clothing. She shut the cabinet, gathered the stuff into a pile.

“You’ll need that stuff clean for later.”

Crystal was internally ecstatic. New clothes were one thing. Two sets of new clothes was like a holiday she’d only dreamed of. She sat on a weight bench, unlaced her boots, then changed while Angela thumbed her tablet. She hesitated, then began to scribble with an attached stylus.

“You ready for this?”

Crystal knotted her fresh running shoe. “Hell yes.”

Angela was stern, serious. “I wanna see what you can do. Don’t hurt yourself. I need to know honestly what you can handle to design our regimen. Don’t be a bad-ass. We can’t waste time waiting for you to heal. We’ll start small, move up ‘til you can’t handle it. Got it?” She nodded. “Let’s do it.”

The next few hours were a grueling test of Crystal’s endurance and strength. She went through each machine pushing, pulling, thrusting, ran miles on a treadmill– or rather, sprinted a few seconds then jogged the rest. She biked miles more on a stationary cycle, trudged more still along a stair-master. The whole time, Angela stood beside her, almost silent until forced to urge her on; half-cheerleader, half Drill Sergeant.

It was only three hours before Angela called for a stop. Finished in the weight room, Crystal was ready to collapse. She panted, wheezed, sweating as if dunked beneath water. Angela let her catch her breath, throw down some water, then escorted her back to the obstacle course.

“You’re serious?” Crystal asked, feeling the first aches from her sore limbs.

Angela’s brow rose, “You want out, say so.”

Crystal winced, breathed, “No.”

Angela walked her along a section of course, illustrating what was expected: She would begin with a short sprint. Vault over a half-wall. Drop to crawl under a small fence. Sprint into a rope-climb on a full-wall. Jump from atop it to the next. Then, to the floor below. From there, the last section was a series of hurtles and vaults, ending in a long balance-beam and full-wall she would finish atop.

The course covered less than a third of the room’s obstacles. Either Angela was being charitable, or it was simply impractical to expect more of her yet. Either way, Crystal was glad for that. The course wouldn’t be easy, especially for tired limbs. She took her place at the course’s start. Angela stood beside her, tablet in-hand, and gave a three-count. At “Go” Crystal bolted.

She sprinted, stumbled, recovered. The first vault was sloppy. She toppled over it, landed on tired calves, then stumbled to her knees. She used the momentum to throw herself prone, passed beneath the fence, then staggered back up into a run, calves and thighs searing. She hurled herself at the rope wall. Her hands and arms ached, throbbed. She kicked and grabbed, groaned, struggled for the wall-top. The jump beyond was easier. The landing came with another stagger that nearly knocked her off its far-side. The hop was slower, but she was focused on the course ahead. Her mind and heart ran even faster, unconsciously calculating each step and pump.

She reached the first hurtle, cleared it: landed, stepped, vaulted. The process repeated rhythmically, brought her to the last section of floor and beam. Her burning legs sprang. Fire sputtered within, launched her over the last vault, atop the beam. She crossed it in fast, easy steps, landed on the floor beside Angela.

“Stop!” Angela commanded.

Crystal doubled over, panting, aching– but more alive than she’d ever been.

Angela gave her a water bottle, “That was a helluva lot better than I expected.”

“Thanks,” she said breathlessly, squirting water into her mouth. “I tried.”

“Ever been athletic?” Crystal shook her head. “That’s damned impressive.”

Crystal took another squirt of water, straightened, “I… don’t want to go back… to the street.”

“I know the feeling.” She motioned her along, “C’mon, we’ll get your stuff. You can shower and then get your surprise.”

She managed a laugh, “Whatever you say.”

Crystal and Angela parted at the bathroom. The former soaked her aching muscles in a hot shower, tossed the clothing in a pile near her bed, sat atop it to lace her boots. For once, she was excited about a surprise. She wasn’t even sure why. So much good had happened that having a little hope only felt right. Trusting Angela felt only fair. Such kindness was rare enough. A little faith in return was hardly a burden to repay.

She met Angela in the kitchen, her upper-half clad a leather jacket with sunglasses propped on her head. She motioned toward the garage and led the way to a mid-70s Plymouth Roadrunner, then slid into the driver’s seat. The engine started with a billowing roar. It rumbled to the elevator, then rose into the alley and the fresh, afternoon gray.

Angela backed the length of the alley in a half-second, watched the elevator sink, then spun the tires and threw the car around to face the open road. Angela slipped on her sunglasses, dropped the clutch and burned along the block. An inexplicably giddy joy crept up through Crystal as they zoomed through the city. She was once more the carefree girl she’d wanted to be. She might as well be out ditching class and hell-raising again.

Twists and turns led them into downtown. She hadn’t seen the place in as long as anything else outside her street-living haunts. The illusion of her place as another, normal person was only bolstered by their eventual destination. Angela pulled into the parking lot of the city’s super-mall.

Crystal sensed a joke: the mall was like someone had combined every consumerist desire possible into a few million square feet. In combination with the massive food court of fine and fast dining, the place was the epitome of every person’s slobbery, materialist desires. Moreover, it was a hell of a place to spend the day.

They angled into a space and the minor fear slipped from Crystal’s mouth, “You’re serious?”

Angela laughed full-on. “Surprise. Time to shop.”

“S-seriously?”

“C’mon, we’ll have lunch first, then blow as much cash as possible.”

Crystal’s legs were rubber. She wasn’t going to be living like a normal person after all. She was going to be living like a movie star, like royalty. Better, even– Angela knew how to have fun. She climbed from the car, groped along it for its trunk, then wobbled after Angela.

Never in a million years would she have expected this. Not because she underestimated Angela’s benevolence, but because it’d been so long since she’d even thought of a shopping spree that it never could’ve occurred to her. Past fears be damned, this was one hell of a good surprise.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t help but wonder about the eventual balancing of the cosmic scales. She wasn’t sure could ever level it. Only time would tell. For now, she merely hoped there were no catastrophic repercussions. Given the last decade though, she wasn’t holding her breath.

Into Her Darkness: Part 2

2.

Ground Rules

The pair occupied the bathroom most of the afternoon. Despite evidence of living alone, Crystal learned Angela had a valet. The old man paid no mind to the two young women in the bath. He merely rustled in with bags of food and set them on the floor. Angela thanked him and he disappeared again.

“Arthur,” she said snipping hair. “Hired him to monitor my security system, been here ever since, helping out.” Angela directed her to stand, uncorked the drain, and switched on the shower. “Scrub down. I gotta’ dig for something.”

She sank to her knees at the bathroom counter, dug until the shower was off. Crystal climbed out to dry herself. Angela emerged with an electric trimmer and towels, directed Crystal to sit on the toilet and took a spot on the tub’s outer-edge. She draped a couple towels around, scalped the sides of Crystal’s hair down like her own, then stood a few paces away.

She nodded to herself, satisfied, then eyed Crystal, “You wanna’ prune that forest?”

“Huh?” Angela eyed her groin. Crystal chuckled inexplicably. “I guess. It’s like wild kingdom down there, huh?”

Angela handed over the trimmer, “Meet me in the kitchen. We have things to go over.”

“Okay. Angela?” She hesitated at the door. “I dunno why you picked me, but… thanks.”

Her mouth drew a crooked half-smile, “Wait ’til after the first job. Tell me then if you’re grateful.”

She left Crystal at the mirror: for a woman that hadn’t touched herself in years, let alone been with someone, the experience was foreign– to say the least. She wouldn’t have minded the “forest” if she’d hadn’t been the type obsessed with hygiene. Manicures, pedicures, waxes; that was her way of life. Her former “baldness” meant anything was a sign of less-fortunate times. In the end she opted for what was quickest, somewhere between bald and not. At least it matched her head.

She dressed to find herself resembling her neo-punk benefactor more. Her hair was shaved at the sides; short and spiked on the top and back. Her clothing, a touch too tight in the bust, bore that same combat-ready punker look.

But given the corpse-stench emanating from her clothing on the floor, it might as well have been a Versace ball gown. It certainly felt like one. It might not have been her style before, but lacking one entirely had made her flexible. Besides, she looked hot, like some alt-culture model. One with a future. Helluva lot better than when she’d woken up. Preferences be damned, she felt hot.

Angela sat along the island’s far-side in the kitchen. Laid out before her were a series of blue-prints, digital photo-prints, and a laptop, amid a plethora of other, indistinct paperwork. Scattered among the piles were the Chinese food containers, untouched steaming the air with heavenly aromas. Angela dug at a box of chow mein, intensely focused on the screen and barely blinking. The flit of Crystal’s approach, broke her focus. She shut shut the laptop, motioned to a stool across from her, and shoved over a box of food.

“Sit. Eat.” Crystal obliged. “You need to bulk up or you’ll never have enough energy to train.”

She opened a box, “Train? You mean like weight-training?”

“Among other things,” Angela said between chews. Crystal’s silence begged elaboration as she attempted to avoid looking slovenly. Angela didn’t notice, too busy speaking between alternate bites. “First of all, you need some muscle. Means strength training. Bulking diet. Plus, need to be nimble. So, gymnastics too. Eventually, a cutting diet to shape and mold yourself. You’ll need free running to supplement that. Dexterity and balance training too. All of that requires an agile build.”

“Wait,” Crystal said, head beginning to swim. “What’s free running? And why an agile build?”

Angela washed down a hunk of food with a swish of wine. “Worst thing for a thief’s getting caught. You need to be able escape any heat. That means putting as much ground and environment as possible between you and your pursuers. Best way to do that’s moving fast through places cops and regular crooks can’t get through. Free-running guarantees it.”

“And it’s what?”

“Parkour,” she said simply, as if the word should have meaning to Crystal. “Running. Climbing. Vaulting. Jumping. Rolling.” Crystal gave her a sort of deranged squint. “It sounds crazy, but it’s kept me alive.”

Crystal chewed slower, “I’m not sure I can do it is all.”

“That’s your first obstacle to overcome then. Things a person can’t do come as a result of one of two limitations; the mental or the physical. Physically, no, you couldn’t do it right now, but that’s the point of training. Mentally, you’ll never do anything if you don’t believe you can. So just trust me when I say, you can, and I’ll teach you how. Got it?”

Crystal manifested as much confidence as she could. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Angela finished the last of her food. She headed for the fridge, dug out a bottle of water, set it in front of Crystal. “You’ll have to learn other things too– invaluable tools of the trade. So long as you do what I say, and trust me, you’ll do fine.”

Crystal hesitated with a grimace, “What about in the mean-time? How’m I supposed to get back and forth between here and–” She hesitated again “Home?”

“You won’t. There’s a spare room for you. I can’t risk anyone following you back. Least, not ’til you’re trained. Besides, you need restful sleep. The next few days are going to be rough. You can’t train riding a cement floor every night.”

She stammered in confusion, “Are y-you sure?”

“Certain,” Angela said with a soft look. “This is home until you decide to leave. Or rather, if you decide to leave. Everything’s open to you, but if you want the gravy-train to keep rolling, you’ll abide my only two rules; no guests, and no stealing– especially from me. I see the irony, but what you learn’s only to be used on our jobs. Unnecessary theft brings unnecessary heat. Everything we work for can be gone in a blink if you get caught for petty theft– or something equally else asinine. Besides, I have a seven-figure bank account. If you need anything, ask.”

Crystal swallowed the last of her food, grateful for it and the seemingly endless hospitality of her benefactor. She helped Angela clean their trash, then stood before her in the kitchen.

Angela instructed her with a few words, “You need rest. Street-living takes a lot outta’ you. It’s still early, but I have things to do. Morning will come sooner than you think. It’s not going to be easy. Get as much rest as possible: lay around. Watch TV. Have some wine, beer, whatever, but get to sleep early. Okay?”

“Okay. And thanks again.”

“You want to show your appreciation, do it through your training. That’s enough for me.” She pointed to a doorway opposite the garage. “Your room’s through there. Second door on the left. Bathroom’s across the hall. You need anything you can’t find, ask Arthur. He’ll show you or get it for you. Whatever you need.”

“Where’re you going?” Crystal asked as Angela headed for the garage.

“To meet someone,” she said cryptically. “Relax. It’s all good.”

Crystal shrugged and Angela slipped out. A distant engine fired, deeper and louder than the bike. Crystal guessed one of the trucks. The sounds shrank away, ascended, then disappeared altogether. Crystal glanced around, lost for action, then headed for her room. The corridor was long, wide. Dark wood doors occupied either wall, spaced a modest distance. The corridor ended in a set of equally dark, double-doors. Crystal stopped at her new room, almost knocked, but glanced up and down the hall then stepped inside.

It was much larger than she’d expected. A queen-size bed, armoire, chest of drawers, desk and a television took up most of the space. Various electronics occupied the spaces between and within them. The house’s décor was continued in earthen wood and radiated warmth. It swelled Crystal’s breath in her chest. She’d hit the lottery, found herself once more wondering if her mind had cracked. Was it a dream? Some extraordinary hallucination?

Thoughts compelled her to the bed. She sank onto it. The plush mattress coddled her. The mattress and sheets were brand new, unused. She let herself fall against it, let it hug her body with comfort. She drew herself onto the bed, then splayed out as wide as possible. A giggle bubbled up from her gut, trembled along her throat, then forced itself out.

Once, long ago, she’d had a bed like this. A room like this. She’d had a television. And a desk. And a refrigerator. And plenty of food. She’d had clothes. Furniture. Everything a person could ever want or need. In a blink, they’d been taken away, stolen by willful negligence. Crystal’s mother hadn’t suffered. Everyone knew she wouldn’t. Crystal had.

As soon as legal, she was thrown out to fend for herself. Money wasn’t tight. It was non-existent. Luxury too. Necessity hadn’t been covered, only survival. Crystal’s mother was living the high-life, bouncing from one trophy-case to another while Crystal lived from trash-cans, under leaky roofs, while fighting starvation tremors.

Now, all of that was looking to change. Again, in a blink. Obviously, maintaining the change would require more effort, as well as flexible definitions of right and wrong. But her sense of right and wrong had been dictated by people whose own actions defied the true definitions. Or at least, what Crystal felt to be the true definitions. Her parents had been liars, cheats. They’d abandoned their child for their own, selfish desires. Thief or not, criminal or otherwise, Angela had already shown herself the inverse. The moral conflict was as obvious as it was clean-cut. So long as no-one was unduly hurt, there were worse ways to make a living. Angela was right about that. Crystal’d seen it herself.

In all, Crystal could do worse than to emulate Angela. No-one was perfect, certainly, but regardless of motivations, Angela seemed a genuinely good person. No-one visited kindnesses on the destitute or down-trodden without some selfish motivation. Even if it was as simple as pride from helping, it was there. Angela had been honest, forthcoming from the beginning. She did right by Crystal as someone had done right by her, and in exchange, Crystal would become a thief.

If there was one thing Crystal’d learned living on the street, it was how much people had and didn’t need. Even in the room she’d been given, there was more than her wildest dreams would’ve allowed for. Ultimately, that was the mark of reality; however seemingly absurd it might be in retrospect, her mind would never concoct such hospitality nor good fortune.

She felt her breaths swell again, but refused to move. The bed was too comfortable, the room too warm. She didn’t want to disturb a single iota of the moment. Still, tears welled in her eyes. Their slight chill as they met air along her cheeks was the only affliction to the warmth. Even if without full understanding of how or why, life had finally turned a corner. She wept quietly, draining her grief so it might one day be replaced with hope, joy even.

Into Her Darkness: Part 1

1.

Honor Amongst Thieves

Crystal Kane sat at the front counter of a retro, 1950’s-style diner. It was a place three or four times her age. In her late-twenties, it might not have been saying much, but it felt the opposite. She’d been through the wringer, somehow come out in one piece, but older, thinner than felt fair. She’d been a cheerleader in high-school. One of the popular, beautiful girls, that exclusively dated those of similar status, and shunned anyone below her. That had ended on graduation day. She found herself alone when everyone else was going off to college. The friends that promised to call were, like so many other things, lost to life– disappeared without a trace.

That summer had been hell. Crystal had been a blissfully ignorant airhead all through school. Then, as if to reinforce that those days were over, life crumbled. Only weeks into “life beginning” she learned her father’d cheated on his taxes for all of his life. Likewise, her mother had… well, cheated the rest of it. The family split up. Dad went to jail. Mom occupied a new man’s trophy case each night. Crystal ended up out on her ass. Not much had changed since, at least not thematically.

A waitress poured her a cup of coffee at the counter. She’d never been one for alcohol. Downers weren’t her style– the costs of having been peppy until life became enough of a depressant to need no more. Most days, she haunted the diner ‘til lunch, sucking down coffee like a drunk to their hooch. No-one seemed to mind, nor bothered to learn her name. Par for the course, she guessed. She wasn’t one to complain. Not anymore.

The only spot of luck she’d found was the economy’d– and society at that– nose-diving the same time she did. She and others like her took advantage of it. They found free lodging in rundown or abandoned buildings in newly forming ghettos. Hardly the Ritz, but anything with a roof and most of four walls was better than street sleeping in bad weather. Along with a few others in “her building” Crystal managed to scrape together meals of scavenged offenses into a communal soup pot.

Crystal couldn’t recall her last, solid meal. She’d only managed to afford coffee by scouring the streets for change: one cup, one dollar, unlimited refills. The streets were running out of change though. Given the state of things, they weren’t likely to be replenished anytime soon. “Flat broke” was an understatement. There wasn’t a damned thing she’d bought or owned in nearly a decade. Periods were the worst, and a subject better left un-broached.

Someone sank into place beside her. The peripheral profile and weight on the stool said it was a woman. Odd. No-one sat near her. Ever. She didn’t blame them. She’d been forced to showering only during a proper rain. At most, once a week if she was lucky.Usually less.

The woman didn’t seem to care though. Something in the air between them said she was entirely different to most people. Crystal still refused to look at her, fearing any visible revulsion would shatter the remnants of her broken spirit. Nonetheless, she couldn’t deny the sensation of something forming in the air between them.

A robust, tomboyish voice directed words at her, “You look like hell.”

It couldn’t have been me, could it? Crystal remained motionless, wondering if her mind had finally cracked. She’d been waiting for life’s weight to split it open like an egg for years now. Sanity had always managed to keep it cushioned though. Maybe this was finally it– sweet release.

“Need a shower too,” the voice added. “Hair-cut wouldn’t hurt.”

The waitress stepped over, white and polka-dot clad. She habitually refilled Crystal’s cup. The other woman ordered a cup, waited to say anything else until it was brought.

“Talky thing, ain’t ya?” She said wincing at the coffee. “Shit coffee. Why’d you even bother to spend money on this shit?”

Crystal’s head finally rose, checked her left side to ensure no one was there. The same, empty stool greeted her as always. Her head turned back and right, the woman’s features focused. She was like something from a post-punk vid; shaved temples, short, platinum-blonde on top with blue highlights, and more piercings than seemed possible for a human face. Feline features around blue eyes and dark make-up drowned the metal. The neo-punk was topped off by a shredded t-shirt, leather jacket, and tight jeans stretched over combat boots.

If Crystal’d had any feelings left, she’d have found herself both envious and aroused by the woman. It wasn’t that she liked women, but rather, this one exuded such cocky confidence it madeherboth unlikable and unyieldingly desirable. Such paradoxical nature alone forced Crystal’s eyes to linger.

The woman met her eyes. “You know, if you cleaned up, you’d be good looking. You want a job?”

Crystal’s brow furrowed, “I’m not a whore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The woman threw her head back with a laugh. “Honey, if I wanted a whore, I’d be asking the broads outside.” Crystal wasn’t amused. The woman’s face reformed seriously. “No, I need a woman. One rough enough to handle herself, but soft enough to look good. If you’re interested, just say yes. There’ll be a point of no return. Any time you want out before, say so. Once you’re past it, you’re locked in. Got it?”

Crystal shrugged. She’d done a lot of things, awful by even depraved standards. Mostly, it was solely to survive. Then again, what wasn’t these days? This idea seemed ludicrous anyhow: some stranger appears, offers her an out from the hell she’d been sucked into? Not a chance.

“What would I have to do?”

“Well, first, get cleaned up. Then, we’ll get you some new clothes. You’ll have to look the part, like me– so clothes, haircut, piercings.” The woman eyed her extensively. “Eventually, you’ll have to do something specific for me.”

“Like what?” she asked, more hopeful than she expected.

The woman frowned, glanced around, “You agree to come with me, I’ll tell you everything when we’re alone.”

Crystal eyed the half-empty coffee cup in her hand: what was the worst that could happen? Death? There were a lot worse ways she could think to go than trying to get out of this mess.

“Uh… okay.”

A few minutes later, the two slipped outside together. “I’m Angela, by the way.”

“Crystal.”

Angela led her around a corner of the diner, into an alley behind it. A BMW motorcycle was propped in the center of the small roadway, a helmet strapped to it. Angela climbed on, passed over the helmet. “Just don’t fall off.” Crystal did her best to swing a leg over the bike, put her hands around Angela’s belly. “No getting fresh. Not ’til you’ve showered, anyway.”

Crystal managed a snort. It was sort of a laugh. At least, closer to one than she’d managed in a long time. The bike started with a gurgle of fuel and the high-sounds of a performance-tuned engine. They took off, raged toward top-speed. Streets and ramshackle buildings blurred and zipped past. The scenery only sharpened long enough to corner before once more racing up to speed. The bike zigged and zagged toward the city’s edge. One of the piers came into view; a place once a center of nightlife where tourists were as plentiful as residents. Now, it was a sad caricature of itself. A few strips of abandoned buildings and storefronts were all that remained, like a coastal, ol’ west ghost town.

Angela maneuvered around a corner, into an alley, and raced toward a warehouse at its end. An abrupt turn found them facing down another alley. In its center a section of street began to rise up, wide enough to accept a vehicle: an elevator camouflaged by its place in the road and built into a housing underground. They zoomed into it, sank beneath the street. The elevator settled into place. Lights flared on across panel-lighted walls. Crystal was blinded. She blinked out water, found herself among a veritable showroom of modern and classic cars. Her jaw nearly fell off as her eyes bulged.

“Hop off,” Angela instructed.

Crystal obliged. Angela zoomed forward to a spot at the far-left, turned, and inched the bike backward with her boot-tips. Crystal shut her mouth, shuffled over, neck swiveling to take in classic muscles parked among super-cars, pick-ups, SUVs, and other bikes.

Whatever Angela did was clearly profitable, but what use could she have for Crystal? She wasn’t skilled, or all that smart, and had been living a vagrant’s life the last decade. She’d scrounged for every minor necessity. Luxuries didn’t even exist anymore– not beyond the few she saw now. What the hell could she possibly help with?

She met Angela at far-end of the garage, the bike’s engine still clicking from heat. Angela threw her leg over, rose to full height, then hung her helmet off a handlebar. She rounded at Crystal, surveyed her shabby clothing and hair again.

“Shower and a haircut.”

She thumbed her way past a print-locked door. Crystal followed her into a kitchen of black and chrome appliances, mahogany-stained cabinets, and black-granite counter tops. LEDs crawled to full-brightness in the ceilings and walls as they entered, cast warm light across equally warm, earthen tones. An island counter and stools at one side sat amid the L-Shaped kitchen’s center. Angela’s boots reverberated off the hardwood to the double-wide fridge/freezer combo as she dug out a bottle of wine.

Food peered out from the fridge, made Crystal’s stomach growl and her mouth water. Angela must’ve heard it. She whipped ’round, “I’ll order in. You like Chinese?”

She couldn’t be sure anymore, but wasn’t picky. “S-sure.”

“Good.” She slid a phone from her pants pocket, thumbed it, held it up.

For the next few minutes, Crystal was transfixed as Angela bantered Chinese to someone on the other end. She ended the call, slid the phone into a pocket, and dug for a corkscrew and scissors in a drawer. She led Crystal through the adjoined living room. More motion-sensor lights did their upward crawl, revealing plush, leather furniture, a glass coffee-table, and a large television and stereo sitting on standby. The place reeked of an excess contrary to the neo-punk air Angela’d cultivated. Yet somehow, Crystal sensed she was even more at home here than anywhere, as if her confidence alone ensure it.

They entered a large bedroom, passed its king-sized bed for a pair of doorways. Angela handed over the wine-bottle, directed Crystal into one door– a bathroom– and entered a walk-in closet beside it. The bathroom was the most modest room she’d seen yet: quaint, with a full shower-tub, toilet, and studio lighted mirror somehow retaining the elegance of the home’s other décor. Crystal focused on herself in the mirror though; it’d been months, years maybe, since she’d seen herself reflected in anything other than a sheet of metal.

She blamed Angela even less now for wanting her to clean up: her hair was more dread-locked than anyone but a Rastafarian had a right to. Her face looked smeared by handfuls of grease and road dirt to say nothing of the utterly pitiful clothing she wore. Above all, she reeked. She couldn’t smell it herself, so long accustomed to it, but she could smell everything else. By comparison, toilet mold was pleasant.

Angela reappeared with a pile of clothing, set it aside to unlace her boots, remove her socks, and roll up her pants, revealing a plethora of tattoos.

“Get naked.”

“Huh?”

She moved to turn on the tub, “You need to soak that shit off, and I need to cut your hair. So. Get naked.” Crystal hesitated. “I see it every day. If it makes you feel better, I’ll get naked too.”

Her eyes widened, “No, that’s… It’s fine. I’ll just–”

“Jesus, here,” she interrupted, tugging off Crystal’s long coat.

She helped to undress her upper half, then tossed the dirty clothes aside. A bra was evidently more than Crystal’d been allowed. Moreover, her clothing hadn’t prevented her bare skin from getting just as greasy and dirty as the rest of her.

The bath frothed with bubbling soap as Angela helped Crystal from her pants. There was no denying the homeless girl’s discomfort. To her credit, she powered through it for the sake of her new benefactor. Likewise, Angela remained detached, handled the whole thing as if a nursemaid.

Crystal plunged her feet into the hot water. Her eyes welled up involuntarily; a warm bath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a warm bath. She sank into the water, like a cooked noodle snaking through a fork. The tears flowed as she submerged her head. On emerging, they were just more wetness, camouflaged by dirt-streaks and flushed cheeks.

Angela gave her a moment, then sat on the back-ledge of the tub behind her. “This is all gonna’ have to come off,” she said, settling in with scissors in-hand. “I’ll do my best, but honestly, you’d be better off shaving it.”

Hair-styles were the last thing on Crystal’s mind. The warmth infecting her was too powerful. The urge to sleep came on but would mean squandering it. Instead, she let a dull dreaminess take her. With it came the distinct fear of if she’d hallucinated Angela’s existence. If she had, she didn’t want it to end. She’d go to her grave never seeing reality again. Angela’s hands weighed her shoulders though, telling her it was reality; a bizarre one where someone gave a shit. At that, more of one than an entire world combined.

So, what was the price? She couldn’t help but wonder. Angela’s hands were rough, used to hard labor or something else that she couldn’t place. Their grip was strong; it tugged her hair firmly this way and that. The precise, staccato notes of the scissors told of dexterous fingers, certain of themselves and their actions.

Crystal’s curiosity finally piqued. “Why’re you doing this?”

Angela answered as best she could, keeping her mind focused on the task at-hand. “Short answer, I need a new partner. My job isn’t the kind you can do alone. My last partner left after a big job. I can’t keep working without one. Thing is, I know what it’s like being a street rat. I was one once. If it hadn’t been for someone doing this for me, I’d be where you were this morning.”

She was grateful, but the obvious question needed to be asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“Let’s just say its legality is questionable,” she replied, tilting Crystal’s head. “Sit up.”

Crystal inched upward, nipples hardening from the cool air above water. Angela maneuvered her back, between her legs, laid her head back to trim the front of her hair. Crystal closed her eyes to avoid the awkwardness of looking up at her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means.”

“I’m a contract thief.” Crystal’s eyes opened to a squint. Angela’s hands stilled. “Don’t judge me when I’m helping you. Trust me, there’s a lot worse ways to get by. Few pay as well.”

She winced, “Sorry. I’m… not judging you, but you don’t have to– you know, hurt people, right?”

“Only if they try to hurt me,” she said sternly. Crystal frowned. “You want out, say so.”

Crystal thought about it: given what she’d seen so far, Angela’s lifestyle was… well, a lifestyle. To say it was leaps and bounds beyond hers missed just how different their two worlds were. Even before the fall, she hadn’t seen such luxury. That it was all funded by so-called “dirty money” was unimportant given she possessed only a set of ragged clothes. If forced to choose between “dirty money” and penniless street-living, her morality was more than flexible.

Crystal eased her head back, “No. I’m still in.”

“But?”

“… Is it, you know, dangerous?”

Angela eased slowly into motion again, “Sometimes.”

Crystal closed her eyes. “Just don’t get me killed.”

“That’s the plan.”

Something acknowledged the possibility of it. Something else said she’d do everything to avoid it. Why, Crystal wasn’t sure, but a sense of intense loyalty resounded beneath it. At the very least, Crystal would follow things to their “point of no return.” Wherever it was, until then she’d at least feel like a human being again, rather than a creature eking surviving breaths. Maybe even, Angela’s company would prove as worthwhile as she felt Crystal’s would. Only time would tell.