Short Story: Even Fools

Cracked asphalt rose to plateaus, forming sheer drops to insects too malformed to see their repetition on the massive scales beyond. Humans were no different. Only their scale was. They did all the same foolish things, made all the same foolish mistakes.

Difference was, intellect had kept them alive long enough to thwart death’s equalizing grasp.

Insects didn’t have that advantage, but they were no more in control of that cascade of datum known as Time than Humans, either. Time was ever the dictator. This go-round, it dictated with age went grace.

The elderly were no longer the Olympians. It was the youth. Problem was, in a world of asphalt and suffocated atmo, even the most vibrant soul could not compete. Worst of all, the elder non-competitives were deluding themselves into believing things weren’t as bad as they’d made them.

But they were. And they were only getting worse.

An ant at the apex of one plateau peered over the edge to see another at its base. In deference to the similar scene playing out a hundred miles west, and one more elevated, the man at the base of the cliff wasn’t pumping his antennae in curiosity. He was dead.

Scale mattered, even if size didn’t.

The man that pushed him was staring into the distance, sun still beating on him from its late-noon arc as if nothing’d happened.

But it had.

He’d pushed him. That was supposed to be the end of it but the scream came. Piercing. Shrill. Echoing in the nothingness far longer than he’d have liked or expected. Then, the distant crack. Nothingness again.

Then it was over– supposed to be, anyhow. He slugged the rest of the beer, threw it into the gorge.

That was when it hit him. Later, the Sheriff guessed that was how it happened too. He explained it to a deputy, “Crime of passion.’ People don’t get what it means. Think passion’s all about fucking,” he as much as flopped down as a man with a rod in his spine could.

“What it really means is, ‘people too fuckin’ stupid to look at the bigger picture.’ History’s rife with it. Humans get caught up in the mob mentality, their momentary fury, and fuck things up. Only reason a group can do it’s ‘cause the individual’s capable. Just amplifies it from there.”

The Deputy then asked, “That why you became a Sheriff, Sheriff?”

“Nah, got tired of getting arrested,” He slugged back a shot of coffee. “The problem nowadays, everyone’s afraid to do anything for themselves. Right or wrong.”

The Deputy’s face was small, “Mind if I ask why you kept gettin’ arrested, Sheriff?”

He sparked a joint, “Possession.”

The Deputy laughed.

The night would be quiet, as with all others. Nothing happened at night in the desert. Night was for the warm-blooded, those forced to warm their own for the better of all such as the Sheriff. The next few hours would be spent processing paper-work, filling in forms.

“He ever admit why he did it?” The Deputy’s wife later asked,

Her husband sat beside him on the porch as they puffed their own reefer, “Nope.”

She passed it to him, held her breath. Fireflies floated past in the haze of heat and smoke, drifting upward together with as they puffed deep, let their thoughts drift.

She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she guessed a woman caused it. Nothing turned men against one another faster than women. Usually too, the more the woman, the worse the effect.

“Must’ve been a helluva woman.”

That ponderous introspection had caught her in line at the grocery store. Had it not, she’d never have drifted off, never seen them.

It wasn’t difficult to sniff out the small town three-lane grocer if you were a crook. It was even easier to sniff out the crooks when you used to be one. The place was small, convenient: a path of least resistance for dregs seeking ground.

Marriage to a Deputy had instilled some instincts in her, for instance the ability to spot the two, out of place men in one-oh-four-degree heat wearing flannel over-shirts, rolled caps, and leaning into themselves rather peculiarly. They were loitering. Waiting for badness, she wagered. Lucky really, if they’d been smarter, she might never have seen them.

But she did. They were waiting and by now, so was she. She angled at the cashier, leaned forward as if to set items on the belt. She spoke fast and low, “The two men over there may be about to rob the store. Press the silent alarm and alert your manager. Now. Go!

Her body stiffened. She was instantly feeling under the register. Then, with a terrified attempt at nonchalance, she stiffly speed-walked for the manager’s office. Careful not to appear too out of place she knocked, but forced her way in. A thought to decry the intrusion was waived at the woman’s terrified stiffness.

“I think we’re being robbed!”

“What?”

The shouts came then.

The alert had gone out from the store and the Deputy’s wife’s phone near enough together the threat was obvious. The Sheriff himself had been nearby, and the Deputy not far from him. They were first on-scene, caught the guys mid-draw. The guns went up. Before a minute had passed, it was over.

The confusion never had a chance to give way to chaos.

Later, after taking statements and returning to the station, Sheriff asked the Deputy the cause of the robbery attempt.

“Crime of passion, Sheriff,” the Deputy said. “Couple out-of-towners needed cash to fix the car.”

“Uh-huh. Anything else?”

“Sure. I asked ‘em, “Why not ask someone for help?”

“They say anything?”

“Yeah, sure. “Where we come from you don’t ask, ‘cause you know the answer.”

“Hmm…” The Sheriff retorted.

Later on, the Sheriff relayed the conversation to the two men in holding, adding, “I get it. You’re drifters. Prob’ly running from a past no man can begrudge. So I’m gonna’ give you a choice: leave now, never look back and never come back. Or stay on as deputies, and learn to be real, proper men. Flaws and all.”

“Catch is,” the Sheriff admitted forthrightly, “You show signs of regression, I put you down. Clean from here-on. S’all that matters.”
They eyed one another, shrugged. It was the best deal they’d find– especially given no-one else was offering. They took to it, too– even fools know change is good.

Advertisements

Hard Lessons: Part 2

2.

To This, We Drink

Dropping off the merchandise meant a night out. One of the rare times where meeting a Middler in public was as much for safety as payment. Titus wanted full deniability, witnesses. Curie agreed. Everyone in the Fox-Hound knew the game. Even Triads weren’t bold enough to cause such a public scene over one job.

Especially not at a shadow-hangout loaded with patrons armed to the teeth.

Add to that the general public in full-swing on cooler nights and there was no chance of anything popping off. No-one wanted that publicity. Summer was gone. Everyone left behind was getting their last nights of debauchery in before hibernating through the winter’s rains and snow

Pacific-Coast imagery notwithstanding, West Coast ideas fell short of Jackstaff’s latitude. Too northern to be tits and ass all year, too Southern to be Canadian wilderness. An urban no-man’s land, however paradoxical it seemed.

But that was part of its appeal. Despite grotesque helpings of poverty and homelessness, Jackstaff was always growing. The wealthy were always moving in. With them, came clientele. Best of all, Marks. There’d been no better time to be a thief since the days of the open-air bazaars.

Provided one was good enough, smart enough– smart about it– they could take everything not nailed down. No-one would be any the wiser ’til they were long returned to obscurity.

Presently, that obscurity was a bar on Jackstaff’s outskirts. The Fox-Hound was one of those places of juxtapositions managing to define itself with negative space, what it was not. The once-kempt exterior, its wood and mulch-colored scenery had faded until satirized it as “rustic.” The inside’s poorly-aged woods and half-rusted brass gleamed beneath lost polish of a decade’s to-do lists.

Yet more-selective patrons, clad in the finest silks and leathers, mingled freely with the denim and cotton marking even the drunken bar-hoppers. Always those types stumbled in before falling out again, oblivious to their mistake and gouged wallets.

Between extremities of both life and style were the interlopers. Few as they were, people like that didn’t need to fit in. Neither fixer nor civilian, tooler but not tooler, too smart to need to front for contacts nor oblivious drunks. They were people playing a different game just so happening to interact with others’ and using the same board and rules. One was pleasure, the other business.

Crystal followed Angela in; clad in tight, riding leathers that would’ve diverted all eyes toward them were they not so utterly average for the place. They’d come on separate bikes, but in pro-gear, handguns more defensive than fashionable like the other patrons’. They didn’t need to be pretty. They needed to be functional.

Crystal’s shoulder-length cut softened the announcement of Angela’s swept-back blue-mohawk to the crowd, allowing them to enter as if another pair of lean-muscled predators in a room filled with ’em. Undoubtedly, anyone looking closer saw the apex predators for what they were.

They entered the bar from the rear, as custom for regulars. The bar itself hid its parking lot from the main street. With it were hidden the high-end cars and bikes of the regulars and occasioners. Driving home the rustic veneer kept the place place discrete. Besides, everything was a shit hole now, why’d it matter if you went to a different one to drink? To Fox-Hound’s credit, it worked….

For the most part.

Angela readjusted the Jian on her back, concealed in a vinyl covert tube. Crystal unzipped her leather-jacket. Gold flashed above a chocolate hand, prompting them toward a back-booth. The man attached to it pivoted in his purple cashmere and khaki slacks to shake a hand before him. A small, gold-chain glinted beneath his collar, disappeared as the second man stepped between it and Crystal.

The man passed, once more revealing Titus. He smiled toward her, teeth and eyes glinting like the Five-carat Asscher-cut in his left lobe. Angela allowed Crystal into the booth first, unslung the tube, then set it in the center of the table beside a fresh pilsner.

“Angela,” he said with a practiced, silken tongue.

“Titus.”

She unzipped her jacket, revealing hints of color beneath her high neck-line. Her figure was vaguely outlined in curved hips, small breasts. Were she not so intimidating to strangers she’d have had her choice of fling. Were she straight or bisexual, she’d have been even more sought after than Crystal.

Titus cracked the blueprint tube and peered in. The sheathed Jian glinted in low-light. He tamped the lid back on, propped it in a corner of the booth. He slid a USB key from beneath a pile of miscellanea.

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

Titus had never lied. He wouldn’t start now.

He motioned a waitress over with a finger, the swiftness said he’d palmed her a G or more to serve him for the night. Angela ordered a scotch-rocks. Crystal a Mojito before the mint was gone for the season. Small-talk subsided into the fatigued silence of old friends before Titus broached a subtext he’d reserved for now.

He eyed Crystal. “Curie’s got an assignment. For me. I’ll need you along.”

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

Angela intoned, “I assume she has something else for me.”

He nodded to both of them, order a pint. A bygone instruction told her to slide an envelope from her apron onto the table. She whirled back toward the shadows near the bar. He offered Angela the envelope.

She took it without looking. Inside would be an SD-card, encrypted with the specific key Curie’d recently delivered via courier. Only after combining the two would she receive full details. Such contracts were only ever issued if the involved parties were expecting a knock-off– or attempts anyhow.

That alone told of risk. Knowledge of her profession said the key’s use meant the Mark or John was well-connected, powerful. Were it not for her own professionalism, she might’ve been immediately curious of the job’s details.

Fortunately, she’d long ago learned the knock-off was irrelevant. Planning for improv meant being prepared if things went wrong.

She pocketed the envelope and excused herself for the bar, knowing Titus needed Crystal alone. She pushed through the bodies outside the occupied stools, leaned to order and drain a pint.

Titus intentionally relaxed, obvious in the slight discomfort in the movement. He wasn’t the type to overplay a hand. It was clear he needed to appear as nonchalant as possible, meaning there was already more to what he was about to say.

“I need help. Angie’s busy. Next job’s too big for me alone.”

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

He sipped his pint. “No. I trust you. Curie doesn’t trust you alone yet, but I trust you with me. Nothing personal, Cee. You’re good at what you do, but your strength’s teamwork. Angie’s more than capable alone. Besides, mine’s a two-man gig. Her isn’t. Pays good too.”

Crystal chuckled at the in-joke; all jobs paid well when you’d lived on the street a decade.

She sipped her mojito, both agreeing and scorned by the Fixer’s assessment. It wasn’t from malice, rather assessment. If it were, Titus wouldn’t have pinged her for the job.

She focused on that, hoping to play to her strengths, and spoke levelly, “Wasn’t aware you were a fielder anymore.”

“Usually not,” he admitted, setting his pint down with a half-twist. He straightened slightly, “Used to be. Not for a while now. But an old acquaintance owes me.”

Her brow cocked slightly. No-one owed anyone in this game. If they did, they paid with their lives or were being collected on. But Titus was far from a collector, and so far as Crystal knew, no-one had outstanding debts. In a game as small as theirs, she’d have heard a whisper at least.

She recalled the last “acquaintance” she’d met. Angela’s had kidnapped and tortured her nearly to death. She’d only been saved by the skin of Crystal’s teeth and Arthur’s impeccable timing.

Titus read her thoughts. “Nothing sinister, Cee. Just a job need’s doing. But there’s a time issue. Stake out. Couple days or so. Interested?”

“May I ask what’s the Madame’s interest is in your old friend?”

He grinned, “The Madame feels any strength of mine is strength of hers. She also feels this is best handled as professionally as possible.”

Crystal considered it. That Curie felt her strengths weren’t in solo work wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A surgeon didn’t use a mallet to open a vein– ‘least not a good one. Curie was being tactical, precise, allowing Titus the job while Angela worked solo in the meantime.

It took a moment for her to realize the offer itself was a compliment, an honor even.

Titus wasn’t a fielder anymore, but he was incapable of incompetence. He’d never stand for it either. Curie knew that. Knew, undoubtedly, Titus would ping her for the job, allowed him to.

The opportunity was too good. Prove she could do jobs with others. Prove her worth and training. She glanced over at Angela, engaged by a tall, gaunt, man at the bar. Crystal recalled the last time she’d chosen such an opportunity.

Her eyes flitted back, gaze returned to Titus, “Alright, I’m in.”

His half-smile gleamed, “Get the details to you tomorrow.”

He waved the waitress back, a folded stack of hundreds in his hand, then slid it to her as he stood. He whispered something as she pocketed the cash and she turned away. He grabbed up Curie’s merchandise with a last smile and parting, then disappeared through the crowded bar.

Crystal nursed her mojito watching Angela converse with the man. It was quiet, awkward, hinting intimacy despite the distance between its speakers. For a moment Crystal thought him an old lover, but even in her youth Angela only sought women. Crystal’s gut churned.

She slug back the remnants of her drink to mosey within ear-shot.

“I don’t know,” Angela said with an uncharacteristic uncertainty. “… Not the best idea.”

“Angie. It’s not a big deal,” the man said, curiously ambivalent. “I’ve never even seen your place. Probably living with a couple roommates anyhow. Wouldn’t want to bother you.”

Crystal ordered another drink and listened carefully. His casual use of a nickname reserved for only those closest confirmed intimacy, but something beyond distrust coursed through Crystal. It took a moment to understand why. Angela huffed with something akin to being shaken, and it doubled itself into recognition.

“… Outside in an hour. There’s no reason not to. I’ll give you a lift.”

He smiled a predatory smile and Crystal suddenly sourced the doubt; Angela’s confidence was gone.

No creature capable of stealing confidence from Angela was to be taken lightly. Crystal caught only an edge, but was on-guard. Some mysterious person wanted to know where Angela lived. It made her uncomfortable.

In the time Crystal’d known Angela, few things had shaken her. That rather small list now had another addition.

The predatory smile disappeared with a hug, “I missed ya’, Angie. Meet you outside. Go. Mingle.”

Angela said nothing, shaken to one well-versed in her silences. The man moved away through the crowd and disappeared into the crowd.

Crystal finally butted-in, her own predator’s instincts riled, “Friend?”

Angela returned to reality slowly. “No… My brother.”

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

She sat atop a bar-stool, dressed and hunched over like a man might. She’d learned to emulate them, though mostly to defy conventions. She was a rebel through and through, but rebellion wasn’t the cause of the day’s slump. It wasn’t spite, nor angst, either. Not even the usual mix of downers and booze that could take down a twice-laid, pro-player.

No. Today, it was loss.

Cameron had seen and done about everything one could, short of all-out world-war. Street wars, she’d seen. Even taken part of. She’d run guns, drugs, used more. She’d laundered money, skimmed from guys about to get capped. She’d even capped a few would-be hustlers.

She’d hustled her fair share too, met others in the game, traded tricks for camaraderie over drinks and drugs– even dinner, depending on the company. She’d loved, fucked, burned, and chased her chunk of women, but nothing compared to Cassie.

Cass’d started– damn near ended– that way. Cameron would’ve been the notch rather than the other way ’round. Things turned before long. They ended up inseparable. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. Both of them knew it.

Fact was, however unwilling to admit it, they’d been in love. The kind that made people insane; drove them to write poetical epics, mutilate themselves, or pump out double-platinum albums of veiled love-songs.

Now she was gone.

The semi-auto .44 pressed Cameron’s back from her waistband, loaded with two-surplus rounds; one for Cass, one for her. They’d used surplus everything since starting to save creds for a trip. Three weeks in paradise and a reprieve from the shit-hole of their lives.

At least, that was the plan. Not so much anymore…

She tossed back rotgut from a copper-plated still, regretting the rounds couldn’t have been higher grade. They’d come from Cass’ stash though. That much felt fitting at least.

The bleached faux-hawk, soaked red in her hands, stabbed Cameron’s chest.

She took another drink, hoping to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.

They’d met in the alley after the job. Smash ‘n grab at a jewelry store. The kind of knock-off a friend of a friend did for insurance. No shortage of scams these days. They were supposed to meet, divvy the loot, then head to the fences.

You went alone to a fence, or only with people that already knew them, okayed them. Otherwise, you were as good as snitching. Even if through third-parties. Didn’t matter, jackboots were jackboots. Every Tooler knew that. None took advantage.

Especially not like this.

Cameron was a few paces from Cass; just in ear-shot but not enough to hear clearly.

They were arguing. Probably a rip off, she guess. Every other dickhead Tooler tried one way or another. Mad ’cause “she ate pussy”, wouldn’t “eat” cock too. Or, ’cause she looked small enough to outfight– too small to be a well-respected black-belt in Shotokan Karate.

If she’d been given a chance…

There was no warning. Thunder cracked and the bastards fled. Cameron was too concerned with Cass, her body. It hit the dirty alley-floor and shattered Cameron’s mind. Her body still worked, but it was a long time before she knew or returned to it.

Sheremembered only abyssal despair; surfacing from depths so fathomless they’d permanently erased themselves; hot, blood-drenched fabric chilled in wind. Nothing else.

It was senseless. Capping a fellow Tooler for no reason? Beyond monstrous. Disliking someone wasn’t an excuse. Sure, there’d been tension after Tiny brought them on. Even more when he had to pull out, but Creeps aside, they’d all been hired as professionals.

Only after the creeps knew they weren’t getting more than the deal specified from the couple– did things start souring.

Cameron partially blamed herself for things. Assured to drink herself into oblivion because of it. ‘Least ’til what needed to be done was done.She’d felt those first hints of resentment, spite. Tasted and smelled them on the air. Mostly, coming from the pair they were set to work with.

By then, Tiny knew he was off the job but kept the group together and helped them plan and prepare. To Tiny’s credit, he’d done what he could ’til the job was on, ensuring it went as smooth as possible.

Indeed, it did. Despite being forced to attend other, unavoidable matters, he found a way to make due, did so expertly. Cameron could never have thought to blame him.Not in a million years. Nothing he’d had control over, or a hand in, was even far from perfect. Even the creeps had come highly recommended, with more-or-less ample skill.

Honor was Tiny’s way. His paradoxical name came from the stereotype he so thoroughly defied. Nothing about Tiny was small. Neither act nor intent, nor size and stature. He held to his word as a blood-pact, nothing more or less. No-one that knew him, believed otherwise.

Betrayal, or hints of it, weren’t a thing to him. Such fundamental wrongness didn’t exist in the world until he heard of them. Then, as its antithesis,he helped correct them.That was it. Betrayal existed only as long as was needed to ensure it did not, so it would not.

Personally, Cameron knew blaming Tiny helped nothing. No-one could predict the suddenly unpredictable regardless of the bystanders in its vicinity.

Besides, Tiny was already doing his part to right the wrong. He’d gotten the trigger-man to come in. The onethat took the life outta’ Cass. Cameron wantedhim. The other guy’d let it happen, but hating a person for intent made her worse than the murder. Too many people with hellish intentions but amicable actions to go that route.

She settled for the lesser evil; an eye for an eye. Taking out the one responsible most directly. Whether on hate or instinct, he’d shown he could not be trusted to control himself. If it had been premeditated, Tiny would’ve been involved, wasn’t.

His was crime of passion. Hers would be one of calm erasure from the collective populi.

The bartender stepped past, brushing her hand; the signal. Subtle. Indecipherable. That momentary pass still told of cold skin. The creature it belonged to as lifeless as its mate, now interred beneath a makeshift-marker outside town.

Less so even: the Earth was warming Cass now, keeping her ground temp. Cameron was less, might as well’ve been on ice. She threw back the last of her vile poison. The taste of a prison’s piss-filled casks followed her to the back door.

It’d take a few minutes before Tiny could work the guy into the alley. The places eternally reeked of equal parts piss and stale-vomit. A fitting place for the disposal of refuse.

Cameron added to the former at a squat in a corner, pissing as she hocked mucus and spat at a wall. She recomposed herself, then leaned against the wall near the door to smoke. It would open on her, giving Tiny the right entrance.

She took as much enjoyment as possible in the last smoke of her life, then flicked it away to check the .44’s chamber. Cass’ surplus round might as well’ve had Riven’s name etched in it– as if the very act of taking her life etched it there through will alone.

Instead, a brass jacket gleamed up beneath the industrial-bulb caged overhead. Five-pound moths fluttered and smacked the cage with the same of dullard indifference of the bullet beneath them.

Tiny’s deep voice reverberated the bar’s back-hall, leaked through its.

Cameron snapped the slide back; he’d talked Riven into stepping out for a line and a smoke. Riven’s mistake was thinking he’d gotten away with what he’d done– with thinking Cass was just another dead Tooler, nothing to no-one anyhow.

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

The door opened then shut. Riven whirled expecting to see Tiny’s Six-Eight figure shelling out smokes and coke.

Cameron’s five-five figure was draped in ragged clothing, reeking of liquor, and ending in the raised .44. Riven’s eyes widened. His mouth opened to protest.

Sound was swallowed in a crack. The .44 splattered his head’s contents out its exit-wound.Refuse sprayed the wall. The pistol sank, upturned. The barrel against chin.

She closed her eyes; Cass’ smiling face. She breathe, squeezed.

Nothing.

Memories flooded. Desperation. Anger. Betrayal. Worst and deepest, despair, grief.

They broke through her ’til she wound up cowering, utterly wracked by sopping-wet sobs. Tiny’d given her five minutes, expected to emerge and find two bodies, both with skull wounds. Instead, he found one; the other bleeding much deeper than senses allowed for.

The only thing he could say of the intervention later, was God, providence, Cass even.

That was how Tiny was. Cameron didn’t believe a word of it. It was cheap rounds. Cass had bought cheap rounds ’cause they were saving for their trip. Three weeks in paradise, fucking, drinking, loving. That was their plan. In that roundabout way, Tiny was right it was Cass, but divinity was a mile-stretch.

She explained as much, offered him Cass’ ticket. He replied simply, “You wan’ me to go?”

She shrugged. “Could use a friend right now. I think Cass’d be grateful.”

He finished his beer then nodded and rose to leave with her. After all, they had to pack, and boozing in paradise in a friend’s name wasn’t the worst way to memorialize them.

Short Story: Rat-King

The ’68 Camaro painted in yellow-jacket colors blasted through a stretch of desert as indistinct and unremarkable as the others behind it. Wind whipped through the interior, kept heat off the leather and vinyl upholstery. Steve Miller’s Swingtown broke into the first “oohs.” Between the three day high, and the hypnotic scenery, Dave Petrov was soaring. The .45 in the passenger seat didn’t hurt.

For the first time, Dave was free. Above all, he was safe. Dry blood still painted the nail beds of his hands, but they were clean now. No-one knew what he’d done. No-one could care if they knew. Not a single soul would cry over the death of the Fifth-Street Rats.

He was roughly five years old when he was recruited as a runner. It was the best job in the world for a naive, poor kid in need of as much food and money as possible. Home was a small town in Illinois, and considerably less “civilized” than most of its neighbors. Winters were cold. The heat was always off. Summers were hot. The nearest lake was fenced, pay to enter. Air conditioning didn’t exist for people like Dave.

Summer was always a mixed blessing. Good, long nights for staying out, scavenging, but something always went wrong. Dave still remembered the summer they’d taken his father– incidentally, the same summer he started running for the Rats. Hot as hell out. The family’d just lost their sole means of income. Eventually, mother found a way to pay the bills– either working for less than she was worth, or “spending long weekends away.” Eventually Dave figured out what that meant, but he could never find the heart to blame with five kids to put dinner on the table for. As soon as he could, he made it four.

The Rats became a surrogate family. An even that some might’ve called predestined. Dave just called it sensible. Capy was the big brotherly, bruiser-type. More walrus than man, and wearing a shirt three-sizes too small for his bulbous gut. Dominic was his foil; the skinny, twin-brother type, too tall and skinny for any clothing to fit properly. Eventually he and Dave became inseparable.

Then there was Ferret, the Rats’ version of the shadiest drug-dealer thief Uncle you’d ever met. He was greasy bastard, always smelled like a skunk. Somehow that led to the nickname Ferret– even years later, Dave didn’t get it. A few others came and went from the neighborhood, but none were out of jail long enough for Dave to know well– except the bastard, Kane.

All of this was his fault. Every time Dave searched for an expletive for him, a thousand more worked to succeed it. He was everything about Humanity that made it unworthy of preservation; stupid, but ruthlessly cunning enough to have been made leader; misogynistic enough to have driven all but the most junked-out hoodrats away. He was a million other things too, murderer, thief, liar, cheat, traitor, anything that might suit him in one moment or could be abandoned the next. All of this, as well as the biggest hypocrite Dave ever met. He complained openly of others’ dishonesty. Dave sincerely doubted a truthful word had ever escaped his lips.

But most of all, Kane was a vile, hate-filled creature of self absorption. In Dave’s word’s, A “royal asshole.” He’d learned that at eight years old, when they first met. The dead-beat thug-wannabe just gotten out after a nickel stretch for petty theft. From the moment he arrived at the Rats’ Nest, he’d begun hassling the “oreo-nigga with the whore-mother.” For years Dominic protected Dave from Kane, but it started at that moment.

Eight-year old Dave was dressed in ratty clothes, with shaggier hair than most from his mixed heritage. It always made him the odd-man out or a target for playful ridicule. The “nigga with white-boy hair,” that was Dave. After a while, he didn’t even mind. He’d learned to take the jabs in stride like the others. He was far from a hothead, and most of the time, it was just the guys joking in their round-robin way.

Kane wasn’t like that. He singled Dave out. In and out of jail for petty crimes, Kane only got worse. When he out for good, it seemed, the two were at the height of rivalry. Now 19, mobile, and with enough money stock-piled to buy half a country, Dave wasn’t putting up with it. Kane had other plans for him. Plans that involved being the fall-guy if things went wrong. It was obvious, after a time, that he’d do whatever possible to ensure Dave got pinched. No doubt, he’d seek out and raid Dave’s cash-stash, steal everything not nailed down, and then have Dave shanked in the joint.

He’d sensed where things were heading– his knuckles whitened atop the steering wheel, further accenting the dried blood beneath his nails.

He should’ve known. Should’ve seen it coming. Things wouldn’t be this way. But he hadn’t, and they were. Dom’s blood was on his hands, and no amount of soap or water would change that. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing Kane had paid for it.

Kane’d had the bright idea to rip off an airport. The luggage handlers were low-level guys susceptible to easy pay-offs. All the Rats needed was a mark, someone likely to be transporting a lot of high-value goods. They needed rich people too cheap to charter their own aircraft. Kane thought he found that in a flight manifest for a company. They’d rented out a 747 to fly a load of execs cross-country from O’Hare, bearing a load full of cargo. They could only imagine the riches they’d take with.

So, the Rats loaded up with guns and made for the airport. One of Kane’s guys let them through. Minutes later, they were rushing onto a plane, grabbing carry-on luggage while Dave, Ferret, and a couple handlers filled the car from the cargo section.

But Kane busted through the plane door with Capy and Dom and found a bunch of suited feds. The manifest had been a cover. Capy went down first. Dom was injured, managed to make back to the car. Kane had escaped with a flesh-wound.

The job had been fucked from the moment Kane was allowed to plan it. But for Dave, “I told you so” was the furthest thing from his mind when the powder keg went of. Dom fell out of the plane, clutching his wounded gut. Kane fled like a coward to the car, hid behind it. Ferret took cover, blasting holes at the feds with a sawed-off 12 gauge. He managed six shells before a fed splattered his brains across the cars side windows.

Dave and the others were burning rubber along tarmac while Dom bled out in the backseat. Kane shouted orders at Dave. Before he could finish, his brains were splattered across the car’s rear-window. With a last good-bye to Dom, he ditched the car in an alley, and started running.

He’d been running since then. His three-day high was wearing thin again, but each time it did, the look in the Rat-King’s eyes as the barrel turned on him reappeared. He was as much terrified as angry then. Mostly, because he understood then how royal an asshole he’d been, and what he’d earned as a result.

Now, he wasn’t anything. Just dead. Like the rest of the Rats, and the gang itself. That was fine by Dave. He re-gripped the steering wheel and soared along the roads, more destined for nowhere than ever before.

Into Her Darkness: Part 7

7.

Completely Sideways

The meeting was across town. Blending into the shadows was easier there. Angela’s bike rolled to a stop in a nondescript back-alley, vacant at the dark hour. The place was gravel strewn asphalt and grime covered buildings. The alleyway merely a cut between opposing buildings. The bike came to a rest near a bench and its engine died into the free-tempo metronome of heat ticks. Angela knelt to examine the bike, night-vision on and HUD searching for any damage caused by stray rounds.

She relaxed; everything was cosmetic– nothing that wouldn’t buff out.

Crystal felt the opposite. She sat on the bench, pack and artifact beside her. Her eyes were those of one whose world was upturned. She stared out ahead in a fugue state.

Angela rose with a relieved sigh, “Nothing major. Couple of those hits I was sure’d done in a fuel line.” Crystal remained silent, unchanged. “You alright? No holes?” She stepped over to search her, HUD active. “You look alright.”

Crystal deflated. “I don’t feel it.”

“Why?” Crystal doubted the question’s sincerity. “We got in. Got the mark. Got out. No fuck-ups. No one hurt.”

Crystal gave her an incredulous look, “No, just dead.”

Angela threw out a dismissive hand. “I mean us. He’d have done us both in. You know it. Besides, you think anyone’s gonna’ mourn the loss of a hired gun?”

“His family, maybe?”

Angela’s eyes narrowed, “People like him don’t have families. Besides, if they did– and gave a shit about ‘em– they’d find better work.”

Crystal was aghast, “And that makes it okay?”

“No, it doesn’t make it anything. It is what it is.” Crystal stared, dumbfounded. Angela blew a breath at the sky. “If it’d been clearer-cut, you’d have done it, right?” Crystal squirmed, shrugged. “Where’s the line, Crystal? Where d’you go from being unwilling to certain?” She looked away. “Let me explain something: If they’d pulled us, scanned us, saw no family or bounty, what d’you think would’ve happened?”

Crystal shook her head, admittedly lost. “What’s your point?”

“If we’re not worth money, we’re only worth a bullet. Their reputation gets a boost for every wannabe rip-off artist they pop. Makes ‘em look good. And the guys get their jollies off wasting some girls trying to heist the wrong truck, or worse. Meanwhile, no-one does anything. Secuirty lies, says the guys running things were attacked, there was a gunfight, any that doesn’t corroborate their version’s burned. They say they’ve investigated, sign a few checks, keep the local P-D happy, and life goes on.”

Crystal genuinely doubted her, “It can’t really be like that.”

“Why d’you think this world so fucked up?” Crystal averted her eyes, arms crossed. A black coupe appeared, inching through the alley toward them. Angela’s tone was too spiteful to have been directed, “Trust me, given the chance, they’d have drilled you in a second. Me too. Don’t shed tears over dead assholes. You’re just wasting energy.”

The coupe stopped at the lot’s edge, still running. Angela gestured Crystal over. A man slipped out; well-dressed and clearly as well off as Angela– maybe better. His brown-skin was perfectly set off by a violet sweater and jet-black slacks. A silver chain peered from beneath his collar, inflected on the slightest hint of its presence. It was enough to match the silver-accented, black frames around his eyes, and the highly-polished dress shoes that completed his outfit. He was clearly a man of both money and style.

Brief-case in hand, he made his way over, hesitated a step away, then smiled with perfect, white teeth. His voice was velvet-smooth, “Dale?” Crystal paused at such a warm greeting. He laughed, “When Curie told me to meet someone, she didn’t mention you. Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.”

Angela was considerably more tight-lipped than usual, “I was offered a job. The money was right. That’s all I care about.”

He cocked his head back a little, studied her with a squinted eye, “Uh-huh. Right.” He shrugged, “Well, I got the paper if you got the goods.”

“Crystal?” Angela motioned her forward. “This is my new partner, Crystal. Don’t get too attached, she might not stick around.”

“Titus. Nice to meet you,” he said shaking her hand with a charming smile.

Crystal dug the artifact out, “This what you’re looking for?”

He set the brief-case on the ground, took the artifact, and knelt in the beams of his headlights to examine it with a jeweler’s loupe. He “hmm’d,” and “ahh’d” for a moment, then rose to full-height and slipped the lens into his pocket.

“Legit. Can’t believe you actually pulled it off.”

“Why’s Curie want it so bad?” Crystal asked.

Titus smiled charmingly, “Little tip since you’re new; questions are a liability. Unless you need clarification on a job, don’t bother asking. Makes you look unprofessional. Answer’s usually “doesn’t matter” anyway. Dollar’s worth of free advice to save face. Keep the change.”

Crystal was genuinely surprised he’d offer anything free. “I will. Thanks.”

Angela eyed the brief-case, “All there?”

“Four-fifty, minus Curie’s twenty points. Three-thirty-seven five. Count it if you want.”

“I trust you, Titus,” Angela said, lifting the case. “Curie say anything else?”

“One: Soon. Smash and grab. Two man. Old-timer wants a cleaning job on his jewelry store. Fence says the stuffs a piece. More than this thing anyway. You’re interested, I’ll let her know.”

She glanced at Crystal, whom tried to puzzle out their jargon, then back to Titus, “Forward me the details. I’ll decide then.”

“Don’t wait too long. Lotta’ small-timers lookin’ for an easy gig like this. Don’t pace yourself outta’ business.”

“Let me worry about that,” Angela said, shaking his hand.

“Always a pleasure.”

“Nice meeting you,” Crystal said, uncertain of herself.

Titus gave a charming, sideways smirk, and strolled back to his car and climbed in. It backed from the alley the way it had come, left the two women to return to the bike. Angela transferred the case’s money into Crystal’s pack, strapped it down on the bike’s rear.

“What was that all about?” Crystal asked.

“Cleaning job?” She asked, guessing her meaning. Crystal nodded. “Jewelry store. Break in, take everything. Owner orders it to re-coop on insurance.”

“Ah. So, who’s Caruso?” She asked innocuously, more curious than she let on.

“Mob-type. Run’s numbers, guns, drugs, anything else,” she said, climbing onto the bike and handing over Crystal’s helmet. “Lately, he’s taken to showcasing more-legitimate thefts in museums. He takes a cut of profits for the exhibitions, museums get the rest. It’s a smart racket, but it’s a racket.”

“And it was one of his people that was… killed?”

“Yeah. Now get on. Standing around holding three-hundred Gs is a good way to get killed.”

Crystal wasn’t sure how true that was, but wasn’t testing theories. She climbed on, resigned to continue the conversation.

The bike started as she opened her comm, “So you’ve dealt with Caruso before?”

Angela’s lips tightened again, “We’ve crossed-paths. In this business, there’re only a few circles. All Elite. Curie’s one. As my fixer, we’re bound to run into her less-worthwhile acquaintances.”

The bike began its fast, blurred trip back toward home. Crystal refused to relent. The more she asked, the less Angela said. It was obvious there was more beneath what little she’d told. It came out in bits and pieces, monosyllabic replies, but eventually Crystal formed a good impression of it.

Crossing paths in this business meant one of two things; nearly killing one another– usually while one ripped the other off– or muscling in on the job of ripping off someone else. There wasn’t much love lost when one of the opposing team went down. It was expected. More fuel for the fire.

Clearly, Angela’s views were colored by that knowledge. As much was evident in the little bit Crystal did glean from her. The bad blood with Caruso went back years, always incidental rather than intentional. He had fingers in a lot of pies. Most, big earners. In a city and occupation like theirs, it was unavoidable to step on one another’s toes.

Even so, it wasn’t the thieves or the fixers that drew heat outside the jobs. Rather, it was the Johns that hired them. So long as the Johns got their merchandise– and everyone else their cut– there was nothing anyone could do about the job-runners. Even Caruso knew that. Ostensibly, he could fight each battle against the thieves, but the war could only be won against those ordering the thefts. Once thieves shook their pursuers, they were in the clear. That was the game. That was how it was played. How it always had been.

But none of that explained Titus’ sentiment; Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.

Whatever it meant, Crystal was certain the whole truth wouldn’t come easily, if at all. If she had to guess, something had gone sideways once. Angela had been caught, more than likely, and had likely only just escaped with her life. The more she considered it, the less Crystal liked the idea of remaining a thief.

But the briefcase full of money, and the growing commitments to Angela were hard to let go of. Moreover, the job had been easy: run across a parking lot and sifted through some boxes for over a hundred-grand after Angela’s sixty-percent take.

Crystal only laid her question to rest once Angela quit replying entirely. For now, they’d done the job. Little more needed to be said. They returned home long enough to clean up, then headed out to dinner at an upscale restaurant across town. The conversation was admittedly lighter and more forced than Crystal liked, but time passed easily enough that the tension all but disintegrated when the food arrived.

Celebratory drinks were ordered and imbibed before the pair returned home. They readied to part in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island counter. Angela looked to her longingly, as if fear fearing for their friendship. She looked ready to speak, but turned away. Crystal stopped her.

“Angela.” She hesitated, glanced back. “I know what you said’s true, so … thanks. I just wish there was another way.”

Angela winced, “What matters is you’re safe.”

Crystal looked away to seek more words. Her eyes flitted back to find Angela already strolling toward her bedroom. Crystal hesitated, then headed to bed, tired and restless from all that had happened. She managed to quell it long enough to sleep, but awoke as if no time had passed. Angela stood in the doorway again.

“Hey,” she tossed a bag at Crystal’s bed. “That’s your cut from the job. Grab some pocket money and meet me in the garage. We’ve gotta see Jonas.”

Crystal yawned, groaned, “No breakfast?”

“Coffee’ll tide you over. We’ll hit a diner soon enough.”

Crystal climbed from bed and dressed, then dug through the paper-bag of hundreds and twenties, counted out a few grand, then shoved the rest in her desk. She pocketed the bills, and minutes later, was in the garage; coffee in one hand, jacket in the other, and gun on her hip.

“What’re we seeing Jonas about?”

“Paper-work,” Angela said, leading her toward an old, metallic blue Chevelle with white stripes. “Believe it or not, you’re legally certified for a concealed carry permit. There’s no reason not to have one made. I’m licensed as an instructor and Jonas can print permits.”

“Seriously?” Crystal asked, slipping down into the vinyl-seated car. Angela “mhmm’d.” “What can’t you do?”

“Fly a helicopter… yet.”

They started off again at street-level, taking in the cool morning with open windows and an undeniable satisfaction from pocketfuls of cash. The term “dirty money” meant less and less to Crystal as they drove on. She kept quiet, letting the sat-radio occupy the car over her guzzled coffee.

A sense of accomplishment filled her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever experienced anything like it before: after a decade hopeless and penniless, success was thirst-quenching. It forced ethical fears to the surface, but she remained calm– either to rationalize or understand them better. It was, she likened, a simple exchange of services for currency. Whether she remained a thief or not, someone would be thieving.

Likewise, Crystal reasoned Caruso was going to be ripped off regardless. Whether she and Angela did it was the only variable. Had they declined the job, someone else would’ve taken it. Possibly too, with more bloodshed. However moot now, it didn’t change facts; someone wanted the artifact bad enough to shell out a half-million for it and they wouldn’t be deterred by thieves declining the job. They’d simply pay someone else.

For Crystal’s part, she felt more deserving than an unknown entity already living large. Contrary to belief, there was some honor amongst thieves. Fattening Angela’s net-worth was a small price to pay for all she’d done. Crystal wasn’t sure a billion dollars worth of jobs could ever repay the debt, no matter the blood spilled.

The Chevelle pulled up outside the pawnshop and they headed in. Jonas stood before a frail-looking, elderly black woman, and as Titus the night before, gazed down through a jeweler’s loupe. He eyed a tarnished diamond-ring as the old woman creaked, sadly; an abandoned rocking chair on a neglected front-porch in a breeze.

“It was a gift from my late husband.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He was in the army and got it in Germany on-leave,” she twinged with despair. “I haven’t the money to pay my rent this month, but he would understand, I think. Don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” Jonas repeated absently. “I can give you three-hundred for it.”

“Th-three hundred?” The woman asked verging on tears. “B-but…”

He finally looked up, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can–”

“Ma’am,” Crystal said. She counted out a thousand dollars, took the ring from Jonas, wrapped it in the bills, and put it in the woman’s hand. “Take it.”

The woman’s eyes welled-up. She burst into tears, reached up to squeeze at Crystal’s abdomen with her tiny frame. She babbled incoherently while Crystal helped her to the door. The room was quiet until the door shut and the woman disappeared, still sobbing, around a corner.

“God damn it!” Jonas fumed. “I was gonna’ flip it for twice that.”

“Christ, that’s cold,” Angela said.

Crystal slapped cash on the counter, “I never wanna’ see shit like that again. What you do’s your business, but I don’t want to see it.”

He eyed her with a deranged look. His eyes darted to Angela, then back. He took the money off the counter, “Yeah, alright.”

“Just get me my package, Jonas,” Angela said tiredly. He turned for the back-room, shaking his head with defeat, and disappeared to the sounds of rummaging. “I understand why you did that, but you shouldn’t have. Just be glad Jonas knows us, or else you might’ve just gotten jumped… or worse.”

Crystal winced, “Sorry. I didn’t think helping someone was such a big deal.”

“Flashing money this side of town’s always a big deal,” Angela warned respectfully. “Around here, everyone’s either looking to take your worth or take you out of competition. Whichever the case, flashing cash is a bad idea. Worse is making you look open to hand-outs. Even if the junkies don’t you get you then, someone will.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Jonas returned moments later with a pair of manila folders. He opened one, dumped its contents onto the counter, “Best I could do with limited materials. Been off the grid a while. Not updated in the D-Bs.” He sifted the pile, flattened it across the counter. “Driver’s license. Hunting, fishing, and weapons permits– life-time, no renewal. CCW permit. Social I-D numbers. Birth certificate. Even a bank account and forged worker ID for Clonaptic Exports– that was Curie’s contribution.” He shoved them toward Crystal. “Not bad for a kid living on the street ten years.”

Crystal suddenly realized the cards bore dated images of her, “Where’d you even get this?”

“Security Cam at a bank,” Jonas said. “Best I could do. Finding you was hard enough. Can’t use too new of an image or it’s a dead giveaway. Best way’s to pull an old one from a city database. You’re a ghost, kid. Revel in it while you can.”

Angela patted Crystal’s back, then passed another USB stick to Jonas. “Nothing like a dishonest day’s pay, right?” He smirked. “And the other thing?”

He handed her the second envelope, “S’all there. Security specs. Building blue-prints. Wiring. Everything you could ever want to knock a place off.”

“Thank fuck for white-collar criminals,” she joked smugly.

“See you soon.”

Angela tapped Crystal’s arm as she collected her papers, then followed Angela out to the car. She climbed in, “What now?”

“First, breakfast. Then, buying you a wallet.”

Crystal managed a laugh but her stomach bubbled slightly. Dread clung to the dead-air between her breaths. Why, she wasn’t sure. Especially in the moment. It felt wrong. No matter what, she had the feeling the cause would show itself sooner, rather than later. She just hoped that wasn’t in the middle of their next job.

Into Her Darkness: Part 5

5.

Not Going Back

The rest of their night passed in a lackadaisical haze. Crystal’s fatigue began to overwhelm her as she carried her new things into her room. Before long she found herself sitting on the edge of a bed covered in bags and boxes, utterly exhausted. Walking in and out of the room was equally difficult, the floor and desk littered with new merchandise, and a box of weapons and ammunition. The day had been fruitful, certainly, and she’d beaten herself up seeing to it.

Angela appeared in the door, leaned against one side, “Good day?”

“Definitely.”

“You want help putting it away?”

She shook her head, “I’d rather do it. Secure the idea it isn’t a dream, you know?”

“I do,” Angela reminded. “Arthur’s cooking dinner. You’re free to eat as soon as he’s done. Just get some sleep later. We start your real training tomorrow. You’ll need the energy.”

Again, Angela was true to her word. The morning was rough. Crystal’s machine-time was drawn out into true regimens. She went along the row, repeating the base-line work outs she done, then upping them until her body screamed agony and her limbs failed. She was given only enough reprieve to regain her breath before beginning again.

Angela kept her off the obstacle course, for now content to keep her lifting, pushing, pulling, and jogging as much and as long as possible. The base-line workouts would rebuild Crystal’s emaciated body. Only after could their work on expanding her strength begin. Arthur’s various protein shakes and calorie-rich meals did their best to quicken their pace, and over the first week Crystal’s sets and reps, or miles run, were increased. It felt as if only days had passed when she began seeing the shift. Her body was more toned and well-fed than it had been in years.

Angela too, seemed happy with her progress. Long ago she’d instructed her to leave her HUD off during training and practice. Crystal didn’t mind; half the time she forgot it was there. The rest of the time she wondered how it might ever be helpful. Soon enough though, Angela was reminding her to shut it down as she found herself playing with it more as an amusing oddity than the life-saving tech Angela assured her it was.

After the second, full week ended, the pair sat to discuss the next phase of training.

“You’ve done well. Much better than I expected. Better than I did when I started,” Angela assured her. “You have more untapped potential than anyone, so it’s time to move forward.”

Crystal was still sweating from her latest work-out. She squirted water into her mouth, sat on a weight bench in front of Angela. “Does that mean we won’t be doing this anymore?”

She shook her head, “No, we will. But we’ll be starting your agility and dexterity training with a section of obstacles on the course. I’ll have you picking locks soon. Got it?”

“Just tell me what to do.”

Angela smiled, “That’s what I want to hear.”

She led Crystal from the weight-room to the obstacle course. Along its left-side, a series of long beams, painted lines, and narrow, wall-high ledges were lined after one another. Near them higher up, wide ledges jutted from the wall at body-height from the ceiling. Rock-wall grapples led up to them and filled the space around them as hand-holds. The ledges were narrow beams leading across sections jutting this way and that or intersecting with others to create the first, agility training course.

Angela stopped near the first beam, and a line painted on the mats leading to it. “You see the path, right?” Crystal nodded. “Run it. The floor’s soft enough a fall won’t kill you, but avoid it. The last thing you want’s a broken leg so early in training.”

“We’re not using any safety gear?”

“Can’t. I need to know what you can do, not a crutch.”

Crystal swallowed terror. “I’ll do my best.”

Angela readied her stop-watch, “Take your time. This is just for reference. No pressure, okay?”

She muttered under her breath, “Okay. I can do this.”

Angela gave a three-count. Crystal bolted. She kept her feet aligned to the floor markings, followed it. A standing hop landed her atop the first bar, eyes forward. Her body automatically adjusted to the narrow beam. She reached its end, hopped to the first ledge. She teetered, forced her equilibrium. The next few ledges were strides apart, easy enough. Her confidence rose. A last pair of narrow ledges led to another high-beam, a ledge a jump from its end.

She strode across the ledges, managed a perfect hop to the beam, and took it with speed. Her confidence remained. The jump would be tougher. She’d make a full-left turn on the ledge to angle toward the wall of hand-holds.

She reached the end of the beam, hesitated, then jumped. Her feet landed off-center. Her confidence wavered. She found herself gripping the ledge, arms aching, hands bleeding. She felt, rather than saw, the floor over twenty feet below. A weak grunt emitted from her, with it went all but the last of her confidence.

She fought skinned palms and quivering arms as a fleeting thought flitted through her: a week ago she’d been incapable of this. She’d been too emaciated, too weak. Now, she was well-fed, muscled even. Angela believed in her. So much so, she found herself believing too. She had no reason not to believe now. She had to trust her gut, her mentor. Angela wouldn’t put her to a task she weren’t up to. Most of all, she had to remember failing Angela meant return to the street.

That did it.

I’m not going back.

She growled. Pulled. Pushed. Her bloody palms streaked wet on the ledge. Her throat groaned, strained, legs angled up. Her body pressed the rock wall. Confidence flared. Her feet worked. She propelled herself along it toward the next wall. She hit the edge, leapt. Her hands clasped rock-holds. Her legs recoiled off the wall. She yelped. Adrenaline flowed, blocked pain. She wasn’t going back. She couldn’t. If it meant crossing this course a million times. Falling to her death. She wasn’t going back.

She found herself angling down to the first high ledge. Her back kissed the wall. Feet side-stepped along it. They danced across the gap between one ledge and another. Deft steps put her at the first, jutting corner. It stuck out like a small box from the ceiling. Crystal’s feet and arms worked, kept her balanced. Her back scuffed the sharp corner with dull pain. It followed the wall-face to its front. Another side-step: she was around the next corner. Around an L. The last section of rock-holds led back to the floor.

Her breath was ragged. Mind and heart raced. She wouldn’t go back. She’d kill, maim, die to stay. An atavistic aggression surged through her. She’d been through hell. Life had tried to suffocate her. Every breath had been a fight. It was time to turn the tide. Time to take her life back from the forces working against it. They’d tried to beat her down again and again, never could. Never would. She’d always survived, beat the odds. She’d do so now too. And forever. She’d never find herself back on the street. Never again be poor, nor homeless. Never again eating from trash-cans.

The thoughts flung her down the holds until she dropped, with feline agility, and stuck her landing on the mats. Angela stopped the timer and Crystal rose, changed. She looked the same, sounded the same, in ways felt the same, but she was different. Both student and teacher sensed it. Her chest heaved from adrenaline surging along her spine while aggression and determination coursed through her in equal measures.

Angela approached her with a wily eye, “Good to see our effort’s not being wasted.” Crystal blew a hot breath to cool herself. Angela slotted her tablet in a back pocket, “C’mon, let’s have a little fun. You’ve done more than enough for today.”

She handed Crystal her water bottle, and led the way from the course to the concrete-block hallway. Crystal half-expected to end up in the training room. Instead, Angela led her past it and a few, other doors. The innards of them still remained a mystery, but one was about to be revealed. They stopped at the last room on the left: either a massive room, or yet another subdivided one.

“You’ll love this,” Angela said, unlocking the door with a thumb-print and a pass-code.

She pushed open the door and stepped in. Lights flared on. Immediately ahead, the room was wider, deeper. By now, she’d learned to expect just about anything from the place she was calling home. Somehow, the massive shooting range was still surprising.

To the left, the back-wall was covered in slotted pegboards and lonely, waist-high shelves. Both were covered in an arsenal out of a gun-nut’s wet-dream. Crystal couldn’t help but gawk. The collection was extensive. Weapons and ammunition of every type sat ready to be fired along the thousand yards of range across from them. The six motorized pulleys, controlled from waist-high tables beside them, waited to accompany them. Atop each sound dampeners like ancient, radio-headsets, sat idle, waiting.

“Wow,” Crystal gawked. “I never expected this.”

Angela led Crystal to the second table in line. Her pistol and TMPs out beside the ear-coverings. “It’s time you start basic weapons training. No pressure. Not yet. Today, fun. Tomorrow, you train. When I think you’re ready, we’ll add targets to the obstacle course. Then, you’ll run it with your weapons. Simple enough, right?”

Crystal nodded, slid her hand over the guns before her, “Are you sure I’m ready?”

Angela laughed, “You were born for this.” Crystal eyed her skeptically. “You have an enormous well of untapped-potential. You never had the chance to mature. To grow into anything. You’ve needed to have your energy focused. That’s all we’re doing– all we’ve been doing. Now, are you going to do this?”

She felt the second half of Angela’s question resound within her, despite it not being asked: “Or are you going back to the streets?” Her answer was obvious.

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, “Just tell me what to do.”

Angela patted her back, “Always what I want to hear. We’ll start with your pistol.”

Angela drew the “Baby Deagle” and began to illustrate: its parts. How to load. Unload. Break it down. Assemble it. She set it aside, did the same for one of the TMPs. The small machine-pistols were stripped of their attachments. Crystal guessed to get her used to them. She was excited and nervous all the same. Her anticipation overwhelmed any fear. Angela’s insistence on fun only reinforced it. The next few hours were a thorough weapons-handling course, interspersed with stances and minor demonstrations. The mood remained light. Live fire finally began, then lasted into the evening.

There was no denying Angela’s satisfaction. Crystal was progressing, phenomenally. Untapped potential or not; the more they trained, the more she excelled. Over the next week, Crystal more than halved her time on the courses. She doubled her weight and running regimens.

It was difficult to know where the shift had come from. Crystal however, knew exactly where it had come from; nearly falling off the wall. She’d faced the possibility that everything was for nothing, and denied its existence, and any plans for failure the course or the universe might’ve had in mind.

Before she knew it, Crystal and Angela were once more in the former’s room. Angela did her tell-tale shoulder-lean against the jamb. It was increasingly coming to mean something important needed to be said. For the last four weeks, Crystal had trained ceaselessly. She’d progressed along the obstacle course to encompass nearly all of it. She’d become proficient with her weapons. Was more than skilled at the simpler trades of lock-picking, and pick-pocketing. But the look in Angela’s eyes said there was more to come. At that, it said of everything, it was to be taken the most seriously.

She crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “You’ve done well. We’ll continue the regimen we’ve been running. But it’s time to show me what you’ve got.”

Crystal stood from the bed, took a step forward. She was already more muscled, lean in place of malnourished. Her shaved patches of hair were due for another shaving, but Angela was holding off.

Crystal stood firm a few paces in front of her, but said nothing. Angela stiffened slightly, straightened from the jamb, “I’m going to test you. Extensively. If you pass, you’ll be given the option of continuing. If you fail, you can continue training and attempt to pass again, or leave immediately. In either case, a second failure means going no further. If you succeed, you’ll be given one final task. After that, if you wish to leave, you may, but if you stay, you will have committed to our partnership. Understood?” Crystal nodded. “Good. We’ll begin immediately. Follow me.”

Into Her Darkness: Part 4

4.

Trust Me

Angela secured them a table in a quieter restaurant. The place was more top-and-tails than Crystal expected. It was one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. Normally, they’d have needed a reservation, but Angela’s money was worth more than the host’s sniveling. They were given a booth in the bar, mostly vacant despite the “lunch-rush” outside. The pair ordered, waited, then were treated to the best meal Crystal’d had in her entire life. She could remember others like it, but none had exceeded it. Even Arthur’s exquisite cooking could never have matched it. That there was more to come was the icing on the proverbial cake. When they finally left the restaurant, Crystal was again checking for symptoms of dreams or hallucinations. Angela caught her careful analysis of reality and reassured her.

They stopped near the restaurant to get their bearings and Crystal leaned against a railing. Her sore muscles throbbed, but her body remained upright from pure adrenaline. She allowed herself to bask in the sounds, the sights. Life thrummed and undulated around her. It echoed its consumerist gorging off the thirty-foot ceilings and pits of the lower floors. Luxury fountains and rolling water mingled with the persistent murmur of humanity. Amid it all stood Crystal like slats in a sieve, letting it wash over and through her.

“I know that look,” Angela said. “You’ve been out of the loop a while, huh?”

Crystal’s eyes fell open on Angela, “It’s unbelievable. I’d have never imagined being here.”

Angela leaned beside her, “Well, like I said, it’s not free. Not really. Work with me– at least long enough to know it’s not what you want. That’s repayment enough. Money’s money. It’s important, but the debt I owe’s better repaid through you than someone less deserving.”

Crystal’s voice was airy from gratitude, “Thank you, Angela. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.”

Angela hung a hand on her shoulder, focused on the directory map beside them, “Shoes or clothes first?”

“Clothes,” Crystal’d said decisively with a giddy laugh.

They headed into the afternoon crowds toward the consumerist ambrosia. Before long, Angela was calling security to have them guard their luggage-rack of purchases while they continued through the mall. Making it through proved as much an exercise in excess as physicality. When security finally met them at the car, Angela tipped them, then stuffed the trunk and back-seats with everything from clothing and shoes, to jewelry and knick-knacks. They drove off with the Roadrunner’s large trunk and back seat rustling.

Angela glanced over at a light, “One more stop. Then, we can head home and unload.”

“Where are we going?”

Angela was intentionally vague, “A friend’s place. He’ll need to outfit you.”

Crystal couldn’t help her curiosity, “What do you mean “outfit?”

She cleared her throat, “I’ll explain once we’re there. Nothing bad. Just easier that way.” Crystal’s face sank. “Trust me, okay?”

“Okay. I will– I do.”

She smiled and rocketed through the green light. They raced through the streets along the bustling downtown to a run-down ghetto, eventually finding themselves parked outside an old pawn-shop. A neon sign flickered and buzzed bright-red, “McCormick’s Pawn” spanning the front above barred windows and below others. More than anything else, the area was rough. Crystal was almost concerned about leaving the car, but Angela’s lack of concern allowed Crystal to follow her in.

The shop was the typical scene expected of the less-affluent parts of town. Everything was old, beat-up, and dirtier than something being sold had a right to. Crystal couldn’t help but wonder what business Angela could ever have in such a place.

The answer came beyond an aisle of pawned televisions, car stereos, and power tools at a display-case counter: Beneath it were countless gems, some inlaid in various jewelry– all more upscale than the dive had a right to. They reached the counter, and Angela slapped a hand against a bell. A wiry man in his mid-thirties shuffled from the backroom, eyes on a tablet, and eyeglasses propped up on his head. He stepped up to the counter, then suddenly recognized Angela.

“Angie? What the hell’re you doing here?” He checked his wrist-watch. “I didn’t think you’d be in. Business or–” He saw Crystal and went silent.

“Business,” Angela said. “This is Crystal. New partner. I need her outfitted.”

He looked Crystal over, “’Nother street-kid, huh?” He eyed Angela for approval. She nodded. “I can give her the full-package, but it’ll cost you.”

“Package?” Crystal asked.

Angela quieted her with a raised hand. “Same price as before. Forty-five.”

He snorted, “Sorry kid, can’t do that. Fifty five or nothing.”

She turned shrewd. “Jonas, don’t dick with me. Forty-Five. Or, I find someone else to do business with.”

He chewed his lip, “That’s cutting into to my profit.”

“Which exists because of me.”

He was carefully irate, “Might as well be handing the shit out at that price, Angie.”

“But you aren’t,” she countered. “You’re securing a business relationship with your best partner for a small premium.”

He huffed frustration, “Might as well be blackmailing me.”

“I prefer to think of it as negotiation.”

He sighed, “Fine. Forty-eight. That covers sale and installation.”

“Installation?” Crystal asked.

“Forty-Eight,” Angela said, satisfied.

He motioned them behind the counter. Angela followed promptly, but Crystal hesitated, “Where’re we–”

“You’re safe. Trust me.

Despite her apprehension, Crystal started forward. They passed through a dingy office crammed with tech gear, file cabinets, and stacked papers and file-folders. Jonas led them for a door at its end, and up a cramped staircase. It angled right mid-way up, then led up again before terminating in a door. Jonas unlocked it with a pair of keys and it opened onto a lavishly furnished apartment.

The exterior and lower floor expertly hid the luxury apartment and its expensive looking furnishings. No-one could have known such extravagance was contained within without prior knowledge. Jonas paid it no mind as he held the door for them, then shut and bolted it behind them. He typed a few numbers into a security pad beside it, shut down and locked the shop below.

If there was one thing Jonas knew, it was security. That’s why Angela had come to him. She let him push back into the lead, and followed him through an ornate kitchen of black and chrome for a short hallway, roughly the length of a pair of rooms. Four doors were stationed along it; two on one side, one on the opposite, and one at its end.

Jonas thumbed a print scanner at the end of the hall, then slid a key-card through a reader on the wall and typed in a pass-code. The door clicked and pushed open. The walls inside were white, lighted like Angela’s garage. The scent of disinfectants said it was more for sterility than style. A gurney and the plethora of machines around it said the place could be used medically. The plethora of machines on a table near the room’s center lent credence to the idea.

None of that soothed Crystal’s churning stomach. Whatever the next surprise was, she wasn’t certain she wanted it. “What’s going on here?”

Jonas cut in, “The sooner we’re working, the sooner we’re done.” He motioned Crystal to a chair across the table, “Sit.”

Crystal hesitated with a look to Angela; she nodded, arms crossed. Crystal breathed and sat. Between she and Jonas was a curious contraption at face height. Prods jutted out from the sides, angled right as if to hold one’s temples. In its center, a second pair of prods appeared ready to stab at her eyes. She was instantly nervous. Fears of cosmic scale-balancing rushed back. Whatever Angela wanted her to do now, she wanted less with each moment.

“Put your chin against this,” Jonas said, tapping a spot below the eye-level prods. Crystal steeled herself, placed her face against the contraption. “Don’t blink. It’ll be hard, but don’t.”

Crystal swallowed hard, “O-okay.”

He adjusted knobs on the machine and centered the prods on her eyes and temples. He flicked a switch and two more snapped down, thrummed to press against the bone just below her ears. They pressed against her with painful, needle-like tips.

“On three you’ll feel a slight pressure in your temples and ears. Then again, a sting in your eyes. It’s all perfectly normal. Just Don’t blink.”

She had her doubts about that.

Jonas counted. Seconds were eternities. The moments between were eons. The first prods readied with small gear-sounds. The four prods pressed through her skin like small syringes. A second of pressure passed and the area was numb. She swallowed hard, fought not to blink, still terrified. Jonas soothed her with silence, began his second count.

Sweat beaded on her forehead. The eye-level prods stared her down. Their movements were slow, methodical. Jonas counted. “Three,” came with a momentary pause. The probes shot out. In. A lone revolution of a tattoo machine’s needle. The pain was as instant as short-lived. The splendor took longer to settle in. Before Crystal could comprehend it, Jonas was on his feet beside her. He held a device against her neck just behind her ear.

Another slight, needled pressure, and her vision was engulfed by lines of code. It was like a computer booting-up in her head, for her eyes only. Strings of commands fed across her eyes. Their individual characters sharpened to a focus. A quick flicker and the strings disappeared, replaced by a heads-up-display complete with time, date, and GPS map of her surroundings in a corner of her field of view.

“How’s that?” Jonas asked. “Clear? No fuzz?”

She was completely awestruck. “N-no. It’s… amazing.” More items appeared as the HUD finished its boot. “Wh-what is it?”

“Tactical heads-up-display” Jonas explained, taking his seat. “High-grade optical augment used by soldiers and special police– and anyone able to afford the black market price. Anything you want it to do, it can. Just think it, it’ll happen. Anything it can’t do, let me know and I’ll program it in.”

“Can it tell me the weath–” She was cut short by a window opening on the HUD with the latest forecast from NOAA appearing. She breathed, “Holy shit.”

“Takes some getting used to,” Angela chuckled. “But it’s invaluable. Especially for our work.”

“And very. Expensive,” Jonas said, clearing his throat.

Angela rolled her eyes, produced a cellphone and a small SSD. She slotted the card, thumbed her phone, then ejected the card and tossed it over.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said smarmily.

Angela focused on Crystal, “How’s it feel?”

Crystal glanced over. Informatics flared on, listing Angela’s heart-rate, respiration, body temperature, and a myriad of other stats. The feeling was awesome in the most literal sense. It was as if she’d been blind since birth, were suddenly seeing for the first time. Everything she looked at was replete with information. The HUD displayed it all, from the steel floor’s composition, to the LED and wood-embedded walls. Everything was something. Every something told her more, and more about the next thing. It made her head spin. The only thing she wasn’t certain of was how to turn it off. Then again, she wasn’t sure she cared to.

“This… is amazing,” she repeated, chest heaving with exhilaration.

Angela motioned her up, “Play with it later. There’s one more thing to do.” She looked to Jonas, “Show her your special stock.”

He fingered a button beneath the table. Crystal stood, minimizing as many needless details as possible. They were captivating, but the sounds of small hydraulics managed to tear her attention back to real-space. Panels slid back in the lighted walls, revealing dark alcoves rotating on an X-axis. Velvet lined cases with weapons and objects rotated into place. The gleam of black and chrome, steel and polymer appeared across the room. Pistols and rifles mingled with various attachments and other tools of black-market trades Crystal guessed were more necessary than wanted. She glanced back at Angela, her HUD finally under control. Only its edges registered her own, personal vitals below the GPS.

Angela motioned outward, offering her the room, “Take your pick. Money’s no object.”

Both women heard Jonas’ slobbery suckle.

Crystal began to walk the room, glancing over various pistols, rifles, shotguns, and submachine guns in their endless configurations. She turned back at a wall of lock-picks and other, small instruments, and headed for the far-wall. A pistol caught her eye mid-way through the room. She stopped to survey it. The black polymer frame was fitted with a laser-attachment beneath the barrel.

“Good taste,” Jonas said, suddenly beside her. He thumbed a pad hidden in the wall and the thin braces holding the weapons in place sank away. He lifted the pistol out, “Magnum Research’s finest Baby Deagle.” He held it in an open palm, “Laser sighting, and 13-round mag chambered in 40-cal S-and-W.” He dropped the empty magazine out with one hand, caught it with the other, then slammed it back in. “Good for close to mid-range, so you might as well leave anything else at home.”

Angela stepped over, “Enough, Jonas. You don’t need sell her.”

Jonas offered Crystal the gun, she took it, tested its weight, then raised it to past Jonas’ shoulder.

“What do you think?”

She held it with both hands, allowed the laser to activate, and smiled. “I’ll take it.”

Jonas chuckled, retrieved a holster and a small box of ammunition, “Is that all?”

Angela spoke up, “She needs something else. A primary.”

“I do?” Crystal asked, sliding the pistol into the holster.

“Yes.” Angela walked the walls to a pair of machine-pistols. “These.”

Crystal stepped over, examined them. They were admittedly nice, but why she would she ever need them? She hoped the pistol alone would be enough– at that, that it’d never see use. She’d reacted as she’d thought was expected, finding something to protect herself, but it seemed Angela wanted her to become some sort of militant. It forced a pause over her.

Jonas was beside them, “Hmm… TMPs.” He eyed Crystal, then Angela, “You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Crystal wasn’t. “Why? I said I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

Angela gave her a grave look, “Better to have them and not need them. A pistol should be your last resort in a fight, not your first.”

Crystal winced. Angela instructed Jonas with a look. He keyed in a code and unlocked the machine-pistols, handed one over to Crystal. “Nine-by-nineteen rounds. Optional fifteen to thirty-round mags. Suppressors. Holsters. Detachable side-mount lasers and forward grips. Well-furnished and deadly at close and mid-ranges. Not to mention, bad-ass looking.”

Crystal felt the weight in her hand, tested it as she had before. Angela was satisfied, “We’ll take both. Furniture too. And as much nine-by-nineteen ammo as you’ve got.”

Jonas’ eyes lit up. “Yes, Ma’am.”

By the end of it, they left the pawn-shop with a large box of goods taped up and tagged “fragile” on the side. Crystal set the box in the Roadrunner’s trunk as a first, few drops of rain began falling. She shut the trunk and moved to the passenger’s seat, readjusting the “Baby Deagle” at her hip. They started back for home, Crystal more uneasy than she wanted to admit.

“Angela, I’m really grateful for everything but–”

“I’m not going to make you kill anyone,” she preempted. She glanced over with a serious gravity, “But if it comes to it, I’m going to ensure you survive.” She re-focused on the road. “Besides, you need something for weapons training. Its better to have something you’re used to.”

“Okay,” she said quietly.

Admittedly, she was a little excited to try out the weapons, but it was overshadowed by the singular thought of hurting someone. Even that person wishing to harm her didn’t feel as though it would make it easier. Whether it did or not, remained to be seen– though she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

At the very least she resolved to trust Angela’s assertion: She was teaching her to protect herself. It was little solace, but Crystal felt it better to fear killing someone than someone killing her.