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.

Into Her Darkness: Part 3

3.

Full of Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll hold you to that.”

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

“Holy hell,” Crystal breathed.

“Welcome to the training room.”

“This is amazing.”

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

You built this?”

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

Crystal rubbernecked the room, “But why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ready for this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal winced, breathed, “No.”

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Angela commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She managed a laugh, “Whatever you say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“S-seriously?”

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

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

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

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