Hard Lessons: Part 17 (Conclusion)

17.

Mr. Brownstone

The Roadrunner screamed to a stop outside an abandoned, Happy-Fish packing-warehouse. Wyatt had done his part at least. Titus’ Custom Porsche came to a rest beside him, its high-performance tires and brake-systems able to stop on a dime, in silence.

The trio piled out at top-speed. Angela led. She crossed the distance to the doors in a stride. Another put her through a door, at the edge of a warehouse floor. Across it, Lucas stood before a heavily pierced and tattooed ganger. His ink was old, faded; an O-G, surviving on wit– and the wide line of enforcers around him.

Ganger-contractors were the real thieves; running protection to people they’d murder in their sleep for a better fee. More often though, they just cut their bosses enemies to pieces and stuffed them into cement-filled drums. Gruesome, but effective.

The trio’s sudden appearance prompted a drawdown.

Unarmed, Lucas blurted in shock, “Angela!?”

The dealer drew on him. “Fuck’s goin’ on? You fuck us?”

“N-no, this is–“

“His sister.” Angela stepped forward, a modded-Sig trained on the dealer.

The dealer grew a sardonic smile. “Oh, little sister coming to reconcile with junkie brother, eh?”

“Big sister, actually.”

“Oh, big sister. My bad. My bad.” Then, with a shout and spittle, “Bullshit! My deals don’t go South. Get out, bitch!”

Lucas pled, “Angie, just go.”

“You stole something from me, Lucas,” she said, eyes on his. “I need it back.”

“I talkin’ to a pair of deaf ‘n blind street-rats!? I said, fuck off!” The dealer spat.

They ignored him. The room twitched, bowing with anxiety. Its various players eyed one another, their leaders. Lucas reached a hand for the tablet in his pocket. The room broke into shouts. Lucas froze.

The dealer laughed, “Finally, some recognition. Aye? How d’you know I won’t just shoot him?”

“You do, you die. You’re not that stupid.” She knew his type. “You still want his cash. Can’t have it if you’re dead. Won’t get it if you hurt him.”

The dealer laughed, lips pursed and rocking, impressed she’d deigned his thoughts. “I think I might like you, sis, but you still gotta’ fuck off. Junkie, give sis her shit so we can get this on with.”

Lucas hesitated.

“Go on fuck-wit. Move it along. Got brown to move.”

Angela kept her gun level, eyes flashing. Lucas started forward; the dealer caught the flash, stopped him. “Ho, ho, wait, Esse.” He’d tasted desperation on the air. “Sis, what good’s a little piece’a shit like this to you?”

“Lucas, bring it,” she said, carefully.

“Nah, Lucas, stay.” The dealers gun leveled on him a hand. The other drew the tablet from Lucas’ pocket. “Good boy, Lucas. Sit. Stay.”

The air thickened.

The dealer thumbed the tablet with one hand, “Now, me, I’m thinking, big sis gets her crew together, brings ‘em ‘ere to get somethin’ from little bro. Risks a deal. Means he’s carrying somethin’ important. Somethin’ she wants back. Bad.

“Right, mi hermanos?

His crew nodded mischievously. He hefted the tablet in a hand, the other firm at Lucas. “I’m thinkin’ this might be worth somethin’ to her. Or someone her crew works for. Aye?” He leaned toward Angela in a hush, “Catchin’ on, am I sis?

Angela’s body tensed, rigid, “Yeah. You are.” Her face tightened, sharpened. “You won’t get out of here with it. Give it now, we all walk away. Make your deal. Don’t. Otherwise… what’s another sour deal in Jackstaff?”

He mmm’d and stepped back shaking his head, gun on Lucas, “I dunno, sis. Sounds like a threat to me. What’chu think mi hermanos? Big sis got a hard-on for putting money where her mouth is?”

Lucas twitched at the agreement, his fear and detox growing, “Let’s all jus–“

“Shut up, Lucas,” Angela ordered.

The dealer mocked her with a grating, nasal tenor, “Aye, shut up, Lucas. Big kids’re talking.”

“You walk out with that, you’re worse off than if I killed you,” Angela warned.

“Dead men don’t have no problems, sis,” he said, eyeing the tablet. “Live men on the other hand, got bankroll. Make me an offer.”

“I just did; your life.”

He laughed; deeply and uproariously, tablet held to one side of his head, mid-air. “Big sis ain’t gonna risk lil’ bro over–“

His skull’s innards splat across the tablet, spraying air with a passing slug and a paste of blood, bone, and brain. The dealer’s body crumpled.

The room was frozen save Curie’s John. He appeared alongside the bullet’s obvious source: one of a cadre of heavily armed men in fatigues. The enforcers were still processing. The John’s men raised their weapons, said nothing. The John strolled toward the newly unemployed posse, catching them before they’d grasped reality.

He projected to be heard, “I am a reasonable man. Our associate here was not. The police are on their way. You have precisely ten seconds to flee or we will open fire. Ten… Nine.”

He continued to count. One of the dealer’s men fled. The rest aimed, dove for cover. A wall of fire cut two down before they were in, the rest scrambled.

Angela tackled Lucas. She huddled over him, ballistic-weave coat fanned to shield them from the automatic weapons rattling and chattering overhead. Semi-automatic barks of low-caliber pistols answered back in sparse desperation.

Titus and Crystal kept down at one side of the warehouse’s edge. The John’s wall of fire was continuous, unrelenting.

“Let ‘em work it out, Cee,” Titus instructed, gun ready.

It took only seconds longer for them to cut down what remained of the dealer’s people.

Then, choking silence.

Crystal and Titus rose slightly. Angela and Lucas eased themselves up. Lucas was utterly stunned, but Angela was waiting, curious if the John would kill them too.

The John instructed a man at his left, “Mister Norman, if you please.”

Norman stepped over and rolled the dealer’s corpse sideways, exposing his grisly death-face and the cracked-eggshell state of his head. Norman collected and wiped the tablet, handing it to the John. He removed his card from its side, reached into the inner-pocket of his jacket, and exchanged it for a USB stick. With indefatigable grace, he stooped to place the stick on the floor before Angela.

“A job well done, Miss Dale. My regards to the Madame.”

The John was gone before the distant sirens forced them to flee.

Lucas lagged behind the others, panting and running, but too focused on the stash he’d stolen off the dealer.

No point letting it go to waste.”

Angela sent Crystal with Titus, fled with Lucas in the Roadrunner. She drove until she was sure they weren’t followed, then pulled over in a nondescript alley to breathe. Meanwhile Lucas prepped a and snorted a lump of brown. Seconds later, he was calm, collected.

Angela waited for his head to clear before it fogged up again.

He smiled, “That was wild. What the hell was that? I mean, I knew you were–“

“Get out of my car.”

His face fell off. “Huh?”

“I said, get out of my car. Now.” She safetied the Sig in her lap. “If I see you again, and you’re not clean, I’ll turn you in. I swear on my life, Lucas. I survived our childhood because of you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out with me, but I loved you then and I love you now.

“So get out, and stay away from me.”

“Angie? What’re you–“

She wasn’t listening.

“You could already die for what you know. Get out. Otherwise, I don’t want you here. Take Wyatt’s money, the Dealer’s brown, and get the fuck outta’ my city.”

He was visibly hurt, “Angie, I–“

She hardened with finality, “Get clean or don’t. I love you, but I don’t care. Go.”

Mechanical habit forced him from the car. He watched, slack-jawed as the car trundled off through pouring rain and steam-frosted air. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way. Angela knew that. Either you learned ‘em, you died trying to, or you were killed failing to.

Hard lessons, but important lessons.

18.

Never Go Home Again

Crystal and Titus stood across from Arthur at the island counter. Arthur was relaxed, more-so than the others; as if a sudden weight were lifted from them all, but him most of all.

Crystal figured it for the best, “Angela left. She say anything about it?”

Arthur shook his head. “No, but I know why.” He looked to Titus, “We may need help.”

Titus slugged back beer, curious nonetheless. “Details?”

“Have any contacts in CPS?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, turned to meet a similar expression in Titus.

*

Seattle was a big city. Bigger than ever these days. It was obvious the sprawl was taking over. Approaching metros was like coming in for cross-country landings; the highways forcing you to taxi a holding pattern until you could be pointed to a terminal. Save they did it with traffic jams and convoluted loops of concrete that made sense on paper, but not in practice.

It was no wonder auto-cars were taking over; they were just plain simpler.

In spite of everything though, Seattle never felt less like home. Unfortunately for Angela, that wasn’t necessarily a pleasant thing. She loved the city itself, but returning was like standing on hot coals while force-fed milk and honey. It took all of her emotional control not to treat it like walking straight into a lion’s den.

Guns weren’t an option here though.

To Angela’s credit, better than anyone might expect, even if she felt differently. She’d been fighting to figure out her approach. Eventually, she decided on winging it. Improv was her forte, after all.

Just past midday, she stepped through the doors of an old, back office to speak with the woman there. She was pretty, if plain, and brimming with all the pleasantness of over-educated civil servants finally meeting intellectual stimulus again. The woman disappeared a few moments later.

An eternity of hand-wringing later, she reappeared with a young girl in tow.

Alison was an almost perfect duplicate of Angela at her age; primly groomed, bicep-long curtain of hair, bright teeth and fresh braces. Thick, conservative clothing covered roughly every inch of the rest of her, like some pseudo-modern take on a puritan-pride ad. All the same, that image missed one subtle but crucial thing.

That one thing hinted itself with flashes of gold beneath Ali’s collar.

Few might have caught it, but Angela’s attention to detail was beyond the realm of most’s imagination. That last detail also made Angela’s heart ache. She knew the habit, had it herself through childhood– was partly why, despite her piercings and eccentricities, she’d never taken to necklaces.

She despised the cross, all it stood for. Ali did too. Hiding it was the only vigil of rebellion open. Angela knew her parents, knew Alison wouldn’t have been allowed a scrap of unsanctioned writing, let alone a diary. Thus she expressed herself the only way she could.

She entered the room with grace, poise. Her eyes were on the counselor. She never even noticed Angela; never expected anyone to come for her, let alone her own sister. Angela’s heart broke, its effect felt in the sudden turn Ali gave.

Her eyes met Angela’s, widened, “A-Angie?”

Tears welled, duplicated by sisters separated by a generation of suffering and now rejoined to heal. It was safe to say Alison remembered her, only time would tell if she could forgive her.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Siren’s Song

You find her eyes are dead,
cold and feeling-less.
They suck you in with dread,
leave you without happiness,
but the Siren’s song,
is far too strong,
and you’re already long gone.

She came on like wind;
slow, cool, soft,
then your wrists were pinned,
your body hoisted aloft.
Spinning went your mind,
for those of her kind.
Find sustenance in wasted time.

For you the end is near,
She will suck you dry–
the heart’s love,
the eyes’ fear.
Death is yours only to defy,
but it will come soon,
for life is its boon,
and your name,
written in its rune.

A cautionary tale,
is all you’ll become–
an old dusty trail,
of bones and then some.
For the Siren’s song,
is far too strong,
and you’re already long gone.

Hard Lessons: Part 16

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

Dawn was growing. Its rays warmed the slick, half-frost formed atop the days of rains from the cooling wind. Angela had done all she could from home. Waiting longer only worsened matters. She’d rallied her people, whom were pinging various contacts or prepping for the shit-storm to come. She had only one decision to make now.

One that might well destroy her– to say nothing of her brother.

Angela stood before the three people she’d asked for help; those she trusted most and who’d gone out of their way for her; she for them. Even if one were as close to coworker as she could have, his disposition assured he reciprocated. After all, the others were technically her employees, were more family now than not.

None of that changed that three of the four of them could soon easily lose their livelihoods, possibly, their lives.

Angela took a deep breath, eyed Titus at one side of the island. He gave a resolute nod and dialed a cell phone. The inbuilt encryption took an extra moment to engage before the call was made.

Titus spoke without ceremony, but deep respect, “Madam, we may have a problem… No. Yes, Dale. The younger one, yes… Yes.”

Among other things, the half-conversation confirmed Curie had known of Lucas’ presence. Possibly everything since. How didn’t matter, only her reaction. That she’d obviously anticipated the issue was evidenced in the short time it took to reach Angela.

The inevitable moment came. Titus handed Angela the phone. She took a deep breath, lifted it to her ear, and gave a long, hard blink.

“Yes, Madam?”

“Listen well, Angela. I will say this once; you have damaged my trust in you.”

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

“However, given circumstances we’ll continue to do business, provided you retrieve the merchandise and answer one question honestly. If it is learned this answer is false, our relationship will be terminated, as will your access to my resources and contacts. Is that understood?”

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

Curie’s charisma was aged, fine wine; the result of decades of the politesse of shadow dealings.

Her lethality was something else. Something supernatural. It cut through the audio compressed encryption, the distance– the whole damned universe, and held a knife to Angela’s throat. Then with still-water clarity, it became firm and mechanical.

“Is it remotely possible your sibling might have been working to compromise you? Think deeply. Answer honestly.”

Angela hesitated for several reasons. Chief among them was the question’s curious nature. It’d never occurred to her Lucas might be a plant. Especially now, it was obvious his focus was solely on one thing. Before, she’d been unwilling to admit what that one thing had been. Now, she knew if she didn’t admit, Curie would kill him.

Almost for that reason alone, she was willing to say no. Still, she hesitated. Respectfully more than anything. Curie’s mechanized confrontation with it meant, she was now staking her life on her feelings, whatever they were.

In other words, was she certain her brother wasn’t an imposter of sorts?

Angela knew for certain no-one on Earth– not even were Julia alive, could have so thoroughly duped her. The person she’d met, let her stay in her home, was Lucas. Warts and all, as they say. Which also meant she wouldn’t believe he was any more than a junked-out, manipulative loser running from debt.

That hard truth’s silver lining firmed her response, “No, Madam.”

A slight hesitation, as if Curie were eyeing fresh ink on a contract. “Very well.”

Her tone shifted as if akin to a sentencing, “Then meet the buyer. Explain the situation. I will arrange the details but he will deal with you as he sees fit. Though you remain under my protection for now, I stress that this is your mess. You are to clean it as quickly and discretely as possible or I will.”

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

“You have breached etiquette. As such, you’re to take full responsibility. The buyer will be informed of this, but I expect you to address it as well. Ensure it never happens again.”

“Thank you,” she replied, suppressing the lump in her throat as her should-be severed head mysteriously attached.

She returned Titus’ phone. He stepped out to confer privately with Curie. Five, long minutes of utter silence bridged the gap to his return. No-one breathed. No-one wished to. Crystal watched Arthur, whom scrutinized Angela: her pale face glistening from eyes catching stray light through distant thoughts.

Titus returned quietly, shelling out a series of instructions and insisting they break for sunrise topside, immediately. Crystal and Angela would meet the buyer together. The former would while the latter explained things. It was as much for Angela’s protection as anyone’s.

Besides, Crystal’s identity was irrelevant. She had nothing to do with the job. The premature meeting and its circumstances were suspicious enough, compounding that with paranoia of an ambush was foolish. So, she rolled to an idle purr outside an old florist’s shop. The Roadrunner’s 440 echoed off the not-quite-abandoned-nor-painted part of town.

Her HUD disappeared to see Angela better. “Ping if you need me.”

Angela noticed, breathed gratitude. She slipped out alone. Crystal suddenly understood the old mafioso, their fears of being wacked.

Angela pulled open the darkened, empty interior of a former florists shop. The place was littered with the refuse of a thousand dead plants, sticks, and crumbling tendrils of ivy. The place was so long dead, even the mold had dried out.

A middle-aged man awaited her just inside; familiar, but in the manufactured way. A hit for the Man Zi Tong? A revenge play. No. He wasn’t armed, it was obvious. He thought himself above it. The vague hint of something scholastic to the air convinced her otherwise. He gazed up at the highest draping point of a once-grand kudzu, now withered to nothingness.

“Ms. Angela Dale, I presume?” He said, almost languidly.

She affirmed, and after a moment of respetful silence, explained her purpose there.

He replied with a discipline so stiff, it could only have been garnered from whatever scruples his illicit activities eroded or formed in him. “As I told your Madam, it is a most displeasing situation. However, I was assured you would rectify it. Unfortunately, she does not understand the extent of the severity this mis-step represents.”

“She does,” Angela corrected respectfully with a slight bow. “As do I.”

“Yet the problem remains.”

“Forgive me, but however unfortunate it is, it is coincidental rather than engineered. I promise this much to you.”

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

A gut-punch, but hardly undeserved. She took it well enough, “Be that as it may, one does not punish the child for the warzone it finds itself within.”

He seemed ready to cut. His eye rose, teeth grit. He’d been bested– worse, stalemated. At least defeat was a reason to flip up the board and storm off.

Angela knew types like this, well-off Asians from homelands where life was discipline or death. Ideological languages of the Samurai and Shaolin Warriors were filtered through them via a sieve of generations of force-fed shadow-dwelling, its effects.

Angela continued formally, “As offender, it is my duty to mediate I will have the merchandise soon. This is merely a formality to ensure any blame falls where it belongs.”

He gave a single, deep nod, recognizing her flexibility to his customs, then frowned. “Be that as it may, the importance of these matters must be accounted for. Thus, my associates are forcing me to take it into my own hands. As you were no doubts informed, I can do you no harm nor hindrance without also scorning the Madam.

“As I’ve no desire to do either, you may leave unharmed to find … your brother.”

It came from his mouth with such repulsion Angela swallowed to clear it from her own tongue.

He continued thus; “Meanwhile, I will be seeking my merchandise. Rest assured, as you will find your brother soon, I will find it. Whether these two conflict is entirely up to you.”

Angela winced, concealing her fury poorly. The John about-faced and disappeared through a back door. Angela did the same through the front and slid into the Roadrunner with her gaze averted. Crystal waited. The car’s comm rang. Angela answered, toggled it to she and Crystal’s comms with a thought.

“You have something.”

Arthur echoed in their ears, “Not him. Locale. City-feed around midnight, he–“

“Arthur, the point please,” Angela said, audibly distressed.

He grumbled a reply, “The Factory. Meet Titus there.”

“That shit hole? I should’ve known.” Crystal was already heading for The Factory.

The ride was short, padded between bouts of Angela’s random, furious swearing. Crystal guessed her thoughts fed her fury, but didn’t much care to know the particulars. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway, better to stay focused and keep from getting hit by shit, than try to redirect the fan.

They pulled up in the strip-joint’s lot. The gray shadows left the Factor unchanged despite the daylight hour, making Angela wonder if the place’s sordid patronage ever left. Gut instinct doubted it; parasites rarely abandoned hosts.

Titus approached the car and Angela specifically, his hand out. “Cee and I will handle this.”

“Titus–“

“Your brother, your game. But we’re out of time. You want him back? Leave this to me.”

She bit her tongue, acquiesced and sat still. She watched the pair as she fidgeted and squirmed, idly.

Crystal eyed Titus as they approached the door. “Plan?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

“No,” he said firmly, hesitating outside. “Wyatt’s a fixer. Cap him, you’re rogue. Has to be me.”

She gave a reticent nod, then pulled the door open. He stepped in with an authoritative spine, led her along the hall toward the club-proper. He surveyed the room with a wide sweep, located Wyatt, and headed straight for him.

The club’s never-ending procession of grease-balls and their eyes tracked his every step. They split toward Crystal; grease sloughing off air after her only to meet her leather’s thick armor instead.

“Ah! Titus,” Wyatt said with a grimy smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you.” He offered Titus a seat, half-sarcastically.

Titus took it all in stride; firm, indifferent, but with an obvious aura of threat Emilio all but disregarded. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Wyatt asked, shit-eating grin knowing damned well who.

Titus warned, “I won’t repeat myself.”

The slime-ball smile grew across Wyatt’s face, giving him the wide-mouthed grin of cartoon villains and fools. Somehow, it made him more disgusting. Crystal guessed Wyatt was the type of person the archetype was created for. Were it not for his obvious middle age, she’d have thought him the inspiration for even the eldest representations.

Wyatt suddenly sneered. “That’s right, Titus. You won’t. And neither will I.” He produced a cigarette, then drew over a reeking candle, hesitated to light it from its flame. “I’m not telling you shit.”

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

His face slammed the lit candle, shattering it. Crystal reacted, drawing her TMPs to spin about on the room that was drawing and diving for cover. Titus forced Wyatt’s bloody forehead against the table, shoving glass into it and forcing a pistol against his neck. He gave a wet squeal. The room froze.

Titus’ strength forced through the accumulated grease on the back of Wyatt’s neck to grip it like an iron vise. The semi-auto barrel pressed Wyatt, an unwavering certainty of death at any further bullshit.

“You’re alive because others deem it so. That can change. No-one will argue with Curie if I take you out. And she won’t argue with me if she feels I did what was necessary. That is the price you pay for operating the way you do. Everyone here knows it.”

Wyatt was instantly a weasel squirming along a table in its own blood and grease. Crystal’s hands were firm, ready.

“Alright. Alright!” Wyatt intoned, blinking at blood and glass. “Dale’s brother. Came in looking to score. Gave him some cash. Favor for a favor sort of thing.”

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

“Why not?” The vise tightened. He groaned, “Really. Baby Dale owing me a favor. Why pass that up? Everyone knows I wanna cut that bitch down a peg.”

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

No one heard her. At least, no-one admitted to it.

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

“I can’t do that, Titus. Be as good as snit–” Titus’ grip tightened again. “Argh! Alright. North-docks. Abandoned warehouse. Smiley squint-eyed fish. Can’t miss it.”

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

The first hints of actual sincerity entered Wyatt’s tone, “Yeah. Guy didn’t have a time. Kid didn’t mind. Gave ‘im a hold over. He was… shaking. Detoxing. While we were talking. Dealer’s smaller time but he needed a score too. Big enough to pack heat though, so I didn’t ask questions.”

Titus prepared to release him, “I find out you’re dicking me, I’ll be back.”

Titus released him. Crystal lowered her weapons. The room eased back into motion, however slowly from now-cooler grease. A few kept their weapons drawn to show the others their way out. The pair couldn’t have been happier to oblige.

They exited the club, met Angela, then got the hell out.

They split up in two cars headed for the nearby deal. City-feeds showed someone was there. If the feeds’ last few hours were to be trusted, so was Lucas. Angela could only hope they got there before the deal ended… or Curie’s John showed up.

Hard Lessons: Part 15

15.

Loyalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas was a liability. For everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no third option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cut the engine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know how to get in?”

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal recomposed and calmed herself, then headed in.

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

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

“Sorry. How are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then again, he found me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons: Part 14

14.

Meanwhile

Angela stood beside her bed, the clock there synced to her HUD and both reading 12 AM. Unbeknownst to her, Crystal and Titus were currently stuffing gear into packs in a race against the clock. She, on the other hand, had all the time in the world.

Lucas had received his latest cocktail beside her on the couch, where she’d sat until after he’d fallen asleep. The reason was simple; if Angela had learned anything, it was that some things couldn’t happen alone. Once Lucas had fallen into his restless sleep, she’d left for some herself. His rehab schedule meant aligning to his use schedule; midnight and midday dosings with sleep somewhere between.

She centered herself at the bathroom mirror with her own, liberal doses of water, pot, and whiskey, then made for the kitchen. An undeniable, sibling responsibility had consumed her. While Lucas was hardly a child, even less likely to ask for help than a hit, her duty was tending to him rather than his ego.

She approached the island, spying a scratchy-note. Sudden fear erupted in her chest. The agony of every troubled-child’s environment reared. Her fear was confirmed in fewer words than felt fair:

I can’t do this, Angie. Thanks for trying.

I love you, sis.

The writing was shaky, done with obvious speed and jitters. He’d run. She panicked. Completely.

She spun in frantic circles, eyes trailing. Her head ached, mind racing unable to comprehend anything. Bilious stomach acid was already bubbling up. Her brain smeared the images her eyes clawed for purchase on. It found none, and nothing coherent otherwise.

All in hope, for some sign that he was there, had changed his mind. Panic had never so thoroughly seized her. She neared a faint amid dizziness that toppled her sideways. She had the vauge and distant notion of catching herself on the island, fighting to breathe.

In reality, she wailed, sobbing. The open-close of a door didn’t register. She was too consumed. She collapsed, caught by a vague but familiar form and weight. Arthur’s gravel-throat was rolling over her skin, vibrating her bones, but nothing was audible outside her the piercing ring of her own mind.

She was a sub on full-alert, reporting damage; a computer throwing errors before a crash. She needed a reset, and there was no avoiding it. Before she knew what had happened, she’d gotten it.

She emerged from her fugue state unaware any time had passed. It had, copiously. Only then could she comprehend the melange of terror, guilt, panic, and grief that had gripped her.

Her body tensed, released. Her muscles gave one last, minor tremor, and she breathed normally again.

Had he not worked for her so long, Arthur might have questioned her sanity. He’d been hired to run security by Julia, but also to keep an eye on Angela during her recovery. If it could have been called that. In truth, it wasn’t much more than the re-awakening any person experienced after surviving and leaving street-living.

In all those years, Angela had been tearful precisely twice. Once, when she returned with Julia’s dead body in her arms. Then, once after being tortured by the bastard that had killed her. Both circumstances were extenuating, obvious.

This wasn’t.

Yet Arthur knew its origins. He’d sensed them. As he sensed the breakdown that drew him to her. Apart from the obvious, there was the deeper, unspoken geyser of emotion now drained like her many tears. That geyser, formed over decades of emotional neglect, abuse, and manipulation was thought to have been forever been covered, quieted.

Instead, the pressure had built from deep quaking– her brother’s re-appearance. Consciously or not, she’d known that pressure would mount, release, destroy anything in its way. This time, she was lucky. It had only damaged what little emotional resistance remained around her childhood, and not the world around her.

Arthur cradled her in silence, dutifully sentinel. He knew little of the Dale home-life directly, but he’d gathered enough. Family of five– four for most of Angela and Lucas’ lives. Heavily sheltered. Criminally so. Forcibly intrusive. Obsessive. Repressive. The list went on.

The Dale parents were obsessed with keeping their children on certain, proscribed paths. As a result they’d wedged themselves into every aspect of their children’s lives for one purpose; control. Where that could not extend, they cajoled and intimidated, demanding constant reports of every moment of their absence.

What wasn’t mandated as part of their cult-like mentality, didn’t exist.

Except that it did. Angela had always known that. Lucas too. Because there was evidence of it everywhere you looked. No doubt, Alison knew it now too– Arthur hoped, for Angela’s sake.

Arthur could only liken the Dale parents to the blind-faithed, ignorant fools forcing friends and family into Jonestown before offering them Flavor-Aid. Certainly, by any metric the damage their children had suffered indicated their unfitness as human beings, let alone parents.

There was never a question to Angela’s emotional instability existing. Rather, it was if the miracle she’d managed was genuine; was her stability as real as it seemed? Lucas had the same inability to process emotion, but did his sister have no greater grace or resolve?

Arthur might’ve forgiven Lucas for everything else, but forcing that question erased any remaining sympathy he had. To be forced to compare someone like Angela to the less-than-dirt-beneath-a-shoe that was Lucas was too much.

He was putting his foot down, and beneath it was going to be Lucas’ gut. Angela had given him everything he wanted, and needed. If something weren’t done soon, she’d keep hurting herself for someone undeserving of even her consideration, let alone her blood.

Angela emerged from the ruptured-Earth her emotions left behind, almost entirely unaware of reality. The grip that had seized her was total, extending through every muscle and nerve in her in her body. There it had put her into lock-down, technically still living, but hard pressed to be called it.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from Arthur because her body’d relaxed naturally. Arthur coaxed her slowly back to speech, offering her anything she wanted. He sat beside her on the kitchen floor; old, bum leg stretched out alongside the island. The other propped him upright.

Angela stared, afflicted by waves of flickering thoughts. “I knew it would happen,” she croaked finally. She wet her throat, “I knew it would happen and I still let him get to me.” She cast a desperate look about, “Why’d I let him get to me?”

“Some people matter enough they’ll always get to us. Always. No matter how we fight, they win.”

She clenched her jaw, “I can’t allow this, Arthur. I can’t be weak like this. Lucas–“

“’Isn’t weakness to love, Angela,” he corrected firmly. “S’Our greatest strength. May be a weakness to fail to recognize love as strength, accept it as one, but that’s not loving that’s weakness. Some times, the hardest lessons are those that make us strongest.”

Her eye twitched, “And this one? What is it?”

“That no matter what, sometimes your love will wound you.” Arthur eyed her deeply, “You hurt because you love. You love because you hurt. You become stronger for it, every day. That makes you Human, not weak. That is strength.

“Sooner you learn to accept your nature, sooner you can use it to your advantage.”

Angela’s gaze held his a moment, searching for any trickery buried beneath his words. She found only conviction. She stared forward, wearing a soldier’s thousand-yard-stare. Arthur was right. More often than not, that was the case anyhow, why would this be any different?

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

Love let Lucas into her house, her car. Love, her ability to show and reciprocate it, let Crystal in; told the truth of Julia’s death. Love saved her, let her into Angela’s house. She’d never have bound to Julia were it not for love. Love, too, plunged her into Julia’s depths. Even the depraved street-living would never have come about if she weren’t so deeply loving.

Forever wounded by the lack of love her family offered, she sought it elsewhere. Eentually, she found her way toward it, if not to it.

To say childhood was at the root of many of her problems was like blaming a foundation for a swamp-house’s slant. It was short-sighted, didn’t fully explain how deep the problem went, and was far too simple for such complex a reality.

Yet Angela knew that love given freely to simply be reflected it back was necessary for a healthy life. Her parents didn’t, had answered only with distrust and suspicion, thus wounding the giver. As common with children, that giver was wounded deeply for life. So much, she’d spend most of her life since trying to compensate. To give. To love. Regardless of circumstance.

Crystal was a prime example: Similarly in need of love, her very entry into Angela’s home and life might have destroyed them. It hadn’t though, and only due to Crystal’s own actions. Actions Lucas was equally capable of but unwilling to perform.

From the moment he’d been allowed in, directly or not, he’d been doing damage. He knew that now, didn’t care. She pushed herself up from the floor and opened the drawer for her tablet. Why, exactly, left her mind as the drawer opened, empty of its contents.

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

She jerked open the other kitchen drawers in a frenzy of swearing movement.

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

She circled amid the mayhem, completely aware of the irony. “Fucking thief.” Arthur moved to stop her. “The card. For Curie’s John. He took the tablet. Now he’s got the card.”

It took Arthur a moment to untangle the knot of confusion she’d tied, but he kept her grounded, “Stop now. Think. He can’t have gone far. He doesn’t have enough money to leave town and he’s half-way into detox. He’ll be trying to score, which means small buyers.”

She stammered slightly, trying to slow herself, “Right. Right…. Uh. Titus. Titus will know.”

“I’ll call.”

“No, I will. Better to be honest and take responsibility… right?”

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

Hard Lessons: Part 12

12.

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Angela’s chest was freshly-damp from the bag of detox drugs.

She swung herself off her bike, pulling her helmet off as she made for the apartment. Lucas would be descending into the first stages of withdrawal. It was going to be a long, painful process. She found he and Arthur across from one another at the island. The former rippled with tremors.

The old man steeped a tea-bag in steaming water, silence pregnant with welcome intrusion.

Angela tossed the bag on the counter, unzipped her coat to cast it on a chair. The grease-slick of her brother’s face and body matched the pools around his collar and armpits, the lines across his paunchy torso. His hair stuck about at odd angles, torn at but too oiled to lay flat again.

She measured out doses. He tossed them back with the muscle memory of an addict. Just as well, only an addict could’ve stomached his cocktail. It might’ve killed a normal person just from sheer, drug-induced introspection. To say nothing of its own, inherent mortality rate– currently unknown, but likely only somewhat lower than the addiction’s itself.

There and then, Angela’s heart wrent in two.

She and Lucas had been tormented, scarred. So heinously, the only way to cover them was with worse, deeper ones. His trembling breaths broke only for the tea to rise. Hot or not, its influence spurred the cocktail through him with welcomed result.

All the same, withdrawal was worsening by the minute. Arthur took his leave, but Angela remained to watch Lucas’ detox take hold.

The silence became cooler, calmer.

The cock-tail was working expertly, but it couldn’t last. The crash would come, or the treatment would just be the new high. She’d figure it out later. What mattered now was keeping Lucas’ body from stressing itself past shut-down.

In other words, killing him.

Angela said nothing, but her mind raced. Addiction had never made sense to her. Not as it evidently did to most. Arguably, she’d had stints as one, but considered it more byproduct than feeding a monkey on her back.

The monkey’d never been the point. Rather, it was escaping the very real, shit-stained piss-reeking reality of life on the street.

Escapism was the goal in both cases, but their journey’s existed in mutually exclusive universes. Trying to kill herself with drink had never been about drinking; she’d have taken any, less-painful way out. Alcohol was cheap, abundant, easy to steal in lethal volume.

Her lack of addiction was further evidenced in her current ability to drink without turning into– well, Lucas.

She knew the real reason twelve-steppers and teetotalers alike shamed others, their lifestyle. They were ashamed they couldn’t control themselves, thus everyone must be incapable of controlling themselves.

The last, logical thing for an addict, it seemed to Angela, was relinquish what self-control remained another’s whims. Fuck that. Grab a hold and steer the bitch with all your might. Like a wild mare frenzied, or a Ferrari with no brakes at 200km/h.

Yet, any use more than once a week was “functioning.” Anyone with a joint or riding a high around the house was a drug abuser– abuser, as if their definition had any room for “use” outside the pharmaceutical industry.

What a joke, Angela felt. And most people like her, felt the same. If only for the simple reason0 they knew enough crooked doctors whom found scripts easy replacements for care. Hell, if it weren’t for those crooked M-Ds, Lucas wouldn’t be detoxing now.

Probably, anyway.

Angela breathed easier as Lucas did. Ultimatey the factual thing those twelve-steppers and teetotalers refused to admit or were ignorant of, was their place as part of the sixty percent addicted to something else. All it meant was the same thing any system’s rules meant; Follow. Eyes forward. No resistance.

The problem was, that ideology wasn’t built for people like Angela.

Simply, they hadn’t existed then because technology hadn’t. Whether through AA, her zealot parents, or the heat, the rules they were being told not to break could never apply to them in the first place. It was a catch-22. They were ghosts in the system. To it. They and it existed separately.

People like Angela, Crystal, even Lucas to a lesser extent, didn’t live outside the laws from any sense of rebellion, but because those laws and rules governed a world made for people unlike them. People whom walked in the day, whom knew nothing of shadows, schemes, or the misfortune that led to them.

They were the simple minority; no matter how many they seemed, they were always fewer. That was good though, it kept the game from tipping too far and the board upending entirely. Fact was, laws and rules were needed to keep masses in line. Not individuals or counter-groups.

Shadow was night to day in many ways.

Angela knew that, was grateful for it. As were all those like her. For good reason, too; they were the night to that day, but also could not exist without it. Their duality was like that espoused by Easterners as the Yin and Yang. Each was necessary because each was one-half of a whole.

Angela knew that. Crystal knew that. Titus knew it. On some level, every person whom lived, regardless of side, knew it. It wasn’t a matter of want nor need, it simply was; a reality best summarized as the positive-negative balance in the universe. In its way, its own law of Karma.

The truth, as evident as irrefutable, was visible in all of existence. From quantum physics to electricity, right on down to society. Every particle had an anti-particle. Every 1, a 0. Every integer an, equal negative.

Angela and those like her, Lucas included, were night to day, yang to yin, 1 to 0. It was just the way of things. Those “qualified” to help those like Lucas were fundamentally incapable of it. Not from malice, ill-intent, lack of experience or wanting. They were simply learned in a system outright engineered not to function for him.

In essence, it was a system for yin-minded. He was the inverse, the opposite; the yang. As a result, the systems in place to help him would always, immediately, encounter insurmountable resistance. Not from total ineffectiveness, but from flawed handling of their charges.

The system was formulated for matters of black and white, without room for shades of gray. Gray simply added too many variables into an equation meant to be simple, solvable for a majority of people. It was a yin-minded system, for yin-minded people, with only room for yin-like variables.

Angela watched her brother relax, the sweat of his face a lone, oily coat that glistened with the fluorescence overhead. She may not have understood addiction, but she understood the danger that ignorance posed.

All addicts like them, whom needed help and couldn’t get it, were simply pushed aside. The black and white mindset of the majority meant even seeking help was next to impossible for the yang-types– no matter the context.

Angela could think of no better example than her own kidnapping. As a thief, a dark-dweller, she’d run afoul of another dark-dweller whom kidnapped and tortured her. The mafioso in question could only be combated by further dark-dwellers.

Why? Simply, the responding system made no allowances for the reality of life as an opportunists with particular skills.

Angela was a thief. Once her only, truly marketable skill. Now, simply her most experienced. What choice did she have in her hour of need, but to rely on her friend and protege to come to her rescue?

For people like her, police didn’t exist– save as a thing to be utterly and entirely avoided. Shadows policed themselves. Forced to by virtue of their nature. All involved knew it, and knew why. Those not involved inadvertently tried altering the very fabric of the shadows’ nature, eventually writing off their misunderstanding as failure— hence Lucas’ inability to detox properly.

She wanted to be angry, but it was no one’s fault, really.

Nature was rife with paths of least resistance. Rarely was the effect positive. Especially in regards to the utterly complex required of psychic trauma.

Angela handled her own in her own way, for good or ill. Unfortunately, that hardly prepared her for dealing with another’s. Even Crystal knew only of how to deal with her own. Angela simply shared what little she felt relevant to the moment at-hand, and focused instead on doing the job.

She did her best to keep from making matters worse. Admittedly, she was a poor mentor in that way, especially given her tendency toward emotional repression. Especially when it came Lucas and her childhood.

She stayed beside him through-out the day, silent but tending to him when needed. Somewhere, hidden away, Arthur watched. He was silent on firm instruction to let her handle things, but prepared to step in whether she liked it or not. She figured as much.

Though he’d never tell her, he was proud of her handling of things. He refused to let his guard down, but also refused to scold Angela for trying, listening, success or failure. Lucas was, after all, her brother and she had a right to try to help him.

By sundown and Lucas’ second cocktail, he was ready to sleep. Utterly empty of food and energy despite her offers, he finally collapsed into sleep. She sat nearby until certain he was out, then rose to shower and collapse on her bed.

The sun sank behind the persistent layer of rain and gray, forcing the surveillance feeds’ contrast to change. Crystal’s eyes skirted newly-revealed crevices previously lost in rainy daylight and shadow.

Nothing unusual.

The drones had been battery-swapped when she’d taken over to let Titus sleep. Presently, she sat on-watch, skimming the feeds between bouts of boredom-tempering Aug-coding.

The sex had been spectacular, and sorely needed. She was still stretching periodically, just to ensure she hadn’t pulled anything. There was no way to know yet though. She was still too numb with pleasure. She’d stretched once before watch, was ready for another.

She started with her legs; a rigid thief was like a cat without feet.

She suspected Titus had found trouble keeping up. She didn’t blame him. He’d hardly been expecting it, was tired when they’d started. She felt likewise. Yet, she forced them onward for hours; their endurance was higher than she’d given either one credit for.

After all, how could it not be? Keeping with one so deprived and newly-energized as her would be no easy feat?

Teens met the energy levels, but they were chumps. Inexperienced. Sloppy. They were as lucky to get in as off. All that time burning energy, barely using any to get off, just as porn told them to. Nothing compared to the sex of two, experienced partners. Especially not one with a decade of pent-up fantasies from missed opportunities in youth.

That Titus kept pace was impressive enough, that the acts had the desired effect was doubly so.

It could only have happened if he were fully committed, either in body or mind. He seemed to have managed a fair bit of both.

Another car entered the feed, caught her eye as a black streak smearing the feeds.

She scrutinized the shape, letting it morph in her mind. It resolved into a Lincoln Continental, old style, well-maintained. Not a rare sight for this side of town, but not common. It was the same car she’d seen before; circling the block and unwittingly tracked by the various drones.

She woke Titus, prepped to move. Together, they watched, waited. The Continental circled a final time before coming to a stop outside the building they occupied, their target.

As if cued to, a man emerged. A drone’s feed immediately flashed an ID marker reading out Saito’s ID alongside informatics.

Titus fitted his belt with a small pouch and checked the slide of a small pistol, keying-off a quiet beeping on one of the laptops. He let his pistol’s slide chamber a round, flicked the safety, and started off.

Crystal tightened her laces; only moments now.

Short Story: His Comet

She leapt at him from behind as he strolled through the square, took him by surprise.

In retrospect, a bad idea when he hadn’t seen her in over a decade. Leaping randomly onto the back of one unaware should’ve advised her against doing so. But she’d never been the brightest bulb in the bunch, just a wild-card.

The wildest of wild-cards at that. A free-spirit, untamed to a fault, that ultimately forced them apart. Brought together again by Tianna’s frame, launched with the force of stupidity, they were quickly parted again– mostly, by Evan’s fall-down back-drop, executed on instinct (Not the calmest bull in the pasture was he.)

The next thing either knew was a giggling yelp; Evan’s sudden terror. It was her. He knew it like he knew his face in the mirror. Her voice, all its variants; coded into his brain as only someone who’d spent years putting it there, bakedin by every moment of mutually-burnt, midnight oil.

All that time together. Years. Years more since. Yet even now he rippled the same mix of emotion and memory. Evan’s mind and body flitted with images, feelings; love, pain, euphoria, joy, sorrow. He recalled every laugh. Every tear. Every shout and cry. Every kiss, touch; everything.

And all of it in a nano-second.

Whether she did too, he couldn’t say. He was certain she’d felt the back-drop. The giggling “oofs” slipping out said so.He scrambled up, staring down at the mass gasping pain and giggles. He thought to offer help as she clutched her stomach, remembered their sex being rougher.

So instead, he stared, bewildered. “Tia?”

She splayed her arms and legs out, breathing relief. In that instant, he took in time’s effects– or lack thereof. Only after he offered her a hand, and she sprang up more spryly than a teenager in heat, did he understand that little had changed.

Any hope that might’ve imparted was balanced to indifference by the drug use under her eyes.

Somehow, they only added to her appearance. The freedom of spirit, it seemed to Evan, balanced anything. Her vibrant mane and doughy, spring-bark eyes remained vital as ever, no matter what lined or hung beneath them.

“Surprised?” She snickered with a sarcastic-coyness.

His eyes narrowed habitually; time had done that. Made him shrewd. Uncompromising. Almost tyrannical in mind. Unlike her, he’d been forced to grow up, forced to become an adult, composed of self-control, occasional cynicism, and ever-waning time.

She needed none of those things. Spirit alone kept her malleable. She took things as they came, had no need to change. It was the mixed blessing of evolution. The simplest organisms survived, but at the cost of the complexity required by the more intelligent ones.

Part of that simplicity had attracted him, and vice-versa. Evan’s complexity was new, interesting. Something Tia had never known. The fact they’d lasted so long before was more a wonder of the couple’s own, lasting ignorance. Their eventual end and how it came was a matter Evan had often recalled. It was at the forefront in his mind now, though he doubted she’d recognize it.

Ultimately,someone like her was an unstoppable force. One of nature, spirit. She was a comet; bound to a solar gravity that kept her rarely insight, but always mesmerizing, awe-inspiring; beautiful.Even if she orbited for eons though, she would slowly erode; never not beautiful or full of wonder, but far from immortal and always ending.

Evan wasn’t so lucky. He was human. Like them, had his caveats, flaws.Their own end proved as much.

He’d spent months of trying to clean up, had long abandoned their lifestyle for forward momentum. Each day became a struggle to grip life despite vices, flaws, mistakes, hopes to change them for the better. Tiawasn’t changing though.

She didn’t want to. In a way, didn’t need to. Life was great for her, especially by her metrics.

To him, then, she was full of shit. He couldn’t have understood the division between humans and the forces of nature she was. Even if he recognized it then, there was no way to understand it yet. That required time, wisdom. Neither of which he’d had much of then.

It was only after coming home, finding her passed out, needled and powdered, that he left. He remembered double-checking her vitals for O-D, rolling her on her side, and grabbing what he needed quietly to live with. In the end, he left with a single pack.

She kept what she wanted, sold the rest for drug-money.

She hadn’t O-D’d, just nodded off. In fact, he wasn’t even angry when he arrived him. It was nothing abnormal for their life. It was the same life they’d lived for years. Still, his only lasting regret was that the spirit he so loved was its own worst enemy. That was not a failing of his own, he knew now.

Then, he’d simply left, confused and alone….

The memories rushed past; he saw no track-marks on her sleeveless arms, exhaled slight relief. She caught it, tried to eye him. He evaded, already checking his watch.

“Not surprised, Tee. Somehow. But what’re you doing here?”

She bounced on the balls of her feet, “Just hanging. You?”

“Lunch meeting.”

She snickered. “Big businessman now. Forgot.”

He didn’t bother asking; word got around. “Meeting an Agent. She wants me to write an autobiography.”

Tia rolled her eyes, pulled at his arm and linked it with hers. She marched them toward a near-edge of the Square. “Buy me a coffee.”

“Tee–”

“Can’t spare half-hour for an old girlfriend?” She joked, dragging him along.

He relented with a sigh, allowed her to lead him across a street and into a cafe. Minutes later they were out again, caffeinated drinks in-hand. Tia ambled, arm-linked, as her brow rose playfully. He knew her too well.

“So your agent–”

“Is just an agent.”

Her sarcastic defensiveness returned. “Just curious.”

He strained syllables, “Sure. And if I asked you?”

“I’d say I don’t care, so long as they’re fun– naked or not.”

“Typical.”

“When’d you get so stiff?” She asked with a harmless elbow.

He thought to snap, sighed instead. “Sorry. Caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“That bad huh?”

“Don’t even know.” He angled them toward an apartment building, unlocked it with a key, and led her to an elevator. “I’m not a self-writer, Tee. I’m not even sure I’m a writer.”

“Oh listen to you, Mr. Opportunity, angry at the knocking on his door.” He scowled. The elevator arrived. She led him in. “Which floor.”

“Seven.”

They rode up in silence; Tianna was in her own world. Evan replayed his conversation with Marlene: Autobiographies were the rage. Of course she wanted one. And of course from him. Never mind having nothing interesting to say about himself, he didn’t want to write one. Period.

Biographies, auto or not, were self-indulgent, over-long masturbation sessions about oneself or their heroes. Certainly, they had their place, but they were also a tacit admission that the subject had peaked.

That, in and of itself, would keep him away from one. The sooner you accepted you’d peaked– and stopped trying to achieveto do so– the sooner you started stagnating. Every creative knew stagnation was a creative’s death-sentence, their malignant cancer cells. The idea was to stave it off, in sessions, seasons, projects. Always. Indefinitely. Until you died trying to keep it up.

Not sitting and wallowing over what you’d already done.

Tia tore him away again, “Serious thoughts abound.”

He sighed and motioned her to the first apartment on the left. He led them into a modest, one-room apartment, furnished with warm woods and cheap furniture. The place was lived-in but clean; an effect of being too work-focused and economical to afford or gather much. The only thing resembling clutter outside his desk were a few food wrappers from lunch on the coffee-table.

She sat beside him on his cheap, creaking couch and finally began to discuss herself. Everything nondescript. Stories of “friends” laughing about “things,” or vents and rants about others. Nothing solid. Nothing of substance, but enough to pass the time and fill the air.

Tianna had always spoken of her life as if describing distant dreams. Ones experienced while in others. That, he felt, was Tia’s essence. Her life was a dream in a dream; Too real to be fully-illusory, too illusory to be fully-reality.

It was a manifestation of the pure wildness of her energy. There was no way to change or control it. You rode or dealt with it, that was it. Much like a tribal free from society’s laws, so too were they without its advances and progress.

Before either knew it, the sun had set taking the afternoon and turning it to evening. Tia had managedto creep over, rest her headhis shoulder. He allowed it, too enveloped in his own thoughts to feel anything beyond allowance, pressure. He let it continue after something in him began to resonate; something so deep only she could reach it.

Evan had loved her. Had spent years with her. He’d intended to spend more,but woke up one too-many timesin a pool of his own shame and grief. Even afterward, he hoped to find her beside him. She was his first and only love.

Then, his worst and deepest loss.

It was never leaving that hurt.Even now, he wouldn’t have hesitated. It was the needing something, deep down, from someone whom didn’t really need you. Something deep inside him needed her even now.Just as bad as the day he’d left, every day before that.

No matter the women before or since, none were her. None were a comet. His Comet; an indescribable, undeniable force of nature and spirit winging along solar tides.

He glanced down to find her fresh-bark eyes looking up. They came closer.

The night passed with few words, but unassailable, unbridled feeling. It was morning before her solar gravity released him and his senses returned.

He lay then in bed, half-awake. Clothing rustled nearby. She would be leaving this time. He felt it, asked anyway.

“You’re going?”

She smiled over a shoulder-blade of resplendent inks. “You think I’d ruin last night by staying?”

He winced, feeling pain cut deep as the love the night before. She slipped her shirt on, crawled up the bed, and kissed him deep. When she pulled away, their eyes met.

For an instant, the free-spirit faltered. It was as if, all along, she’d known his thoughts. Not just now, but always. Past and present, she known them as if her own. All of them.

“I have to.”

He suppressed grief, muttered, “You don’t.”

She rose, softening playfully, “I do, Evan.” Her facade returned, “Besides, you’ve gotta’ book to start. Put in a chapter about me.” She grabbed her things and smiled bitter-sweetly. “This was fun. Maybe we’ll do it again.”

She left without another word.He let her. It was easier. For both of them.

An hour later, still in the grieving throes of her departure, he sat to work. The text document stared, begging for words. Half an hour passed before he began with two words: My Comet.”