Short Story: Sprawl-Blue

The sky was that special kind of blended deep-blue only found against the foreground of metro sprawls. The kind of blue where countless neon lights mix it with old-time incandescents, radiating their offspring for miles. While their multitudes fuck to make the paint, they bounce and rebound off the gloss-coats of high-end, self-driving cars.

And at a distance, it all forms that thing loosely termed “Humanity.” Progress. Civilization.

Most call it “sprawl-blue.” Not just ‘cause that’s what it is, but ‘cause it perfectly encapsulates life in a sprawl. It rolls off the tongue easier than sweat along a belly-dancer’s undulating navel. It even gives a bit of the taste of it. Copper, like blood. Hints of irreverent neons. No-one knowing could deny sprawl-blue’s as much a way of life as Junk or The Net.

Personally, Carly didn’t care for either of the last two. She was just a girl trying to make her way without being fucked for her money. In a sprawl, if you didn’t do it for yourself, you sure were getting fucked. Carly didn’t like getting fucked. She liked fucking. She liked to get her hands dirty. Slake her blood-thirst. Seel the adrenaline rush of gun and fist-fights. Most of all, she loved control. Being in control was better than cumming on X.

It started young: a taste of power from being the smartest street-rat in the pack. All the others looked up to her. Boys. Girls. It didn’t matter. Carly was Alpha-bitch. Queen. Empress and Matriarch. Everyone followed her. Those that didn’t, got far outta’ the way– or, on the wrong end of her pack.

She’d started with drugs. At eleven. Stumbled onto a deal gone bad and found a few kilos of grass, X, and Junk. Got her start with it. Made bank. At fourteen she was running guns like a bike-messenger to parcels. Literally. She and her people were decked out in street-rat clothes, looking as pathetic as possible. Were it not for Carly’s cunning, they’d have been that way. She earned herself street-cred, and eventually, control of territory.

It came with blood. Serious cost. Her first turf war left her limping every time it rained. It drew suspicion anytime she was around the “real-world” straights. That term alone always made her laugh enough to forget the limp. The real world was no different from the so-called “shadow world.” Both survived, and thrived, on power, control.

But both worlds had started to take their toll. On Carly. On people in general. Now, at twenty-two, Carly’d seen more than most people three times her age. Double that for straights. She still limped when it rained, was blind in one eye, and had the accompanying slash-scars across her face. Random hunks of meat were missing from her body. Others were fused shut, grotesquely mottled from burns, bullet-wounds, stabbings. Each was a prize of the Sprawl-blue coloring the background of every memory of every night of her life.

She stood center-stage in the middle of a storage warehouse. She was leaned forward, hands on a pallet of bags of cement. Various construction materials and pallets were laid out in seemingly random points about the floors. Elsewhere, were giant rolls of goods. Filled shelves. Everything there waiting to be shipped.

Carly’s people were formed around her, armed to the teeth. They awaited her order to throw themselves into the fray, if or when it came. They’d jump in front of bullets for her. It wasn’t for lack of survival instinct. Carly just had a way about her. A certain charisma. As a child, sheer arrogant confidence had backed it up. Since then, its spine had been reformed by bloodshed, survival. She was the only reason any of her people were alive today.

But Carly knew she wouldn’t live forever. Nor would her people. Or their ways. That’s what tonight was about; survival. Carrying on after the loss, insurance and assurance, that the world could survive no matter what happened to the “shadow people.”

The sprawl had been divided too long. The various gangs at war too long. They’d fought for territory for generations. The battles always ended with less people. Less land. More damage. Carly was no different. The only thing separating her from her enemies were the imaginary lines they’d collectively drawn– for survival’s sake.

Carly knew that. Her people knew that. Most of all, their enemies knew that.

She’d called a meeting, a summit of sorts; all of her gang, all of the other gangs. The collective armies of over a dozen warlords, mafioso, and G’s were en-route to sit down in their massiveness. Carly had managed it with exorbitant gifts. Neutral messengers. Peaceful letters. It was time for a sit down– a parley. Pow-wow. They needed co-existence, she said. If not for themselves, then for all the lost.

It had taken time, and doing, but eventually Carly’d convinced the gang-leaders to meet. It was time to end the wars, to unify the people against their true threats. The elites. Aristocrats. Politicians. Police. In effect, the so-called “Real-world establishment.”

“It is time,” she’d said. “To emerge from the shadows and retake the day.”

The first to reach the meetings were the Asian gangs– Yakuza, Triads, the like. Punctuality was their way. And scoping out the competition, laying in wait in the event of ambush, was the other gangs’ way. With the obvious recognition that no slaughter was about to take place, the Mexican gangs came next. They had to be macho, show they weren’t afraid. Then, the black-only gangs. The white-only gangs. The Italians. The Irish. So many that the warehouse was packed. Standing room only.

Carly’s heart swelled with tension and pride. So many opposing colors together. Even as the last gang-leaders led their people in, she couldn’t believe what she’d achieved. She smiled, lifted her arms wide in a V, and projected her voice.

“Thank you all for coming. You know why we’re here. To ensure the safety of our city. Our people. Our families. There’s only one way to ensure that happens. That is why I’ve brought us all here today.” She lowered her arms as something slid subtly from her sleeve and into her hand. Nobody noticed. Even her own people were oblivious.“We’ve all become a blight,” she said to suddenly confused looks. “We’re a plague. A cancer on this city. I aim to cut that cancer out!”

The obvious trap’s recognition appeared instantaneously across hundreds of faces. A single heart-beat separated it from the explosion. In a blink, the warehouse was in flames. Bits and bodies were thrown about. Blood and chunks strewn everywhere. Carly was blown clear through a metal wall. Her torso was lacerated, organs and bones pulverized by the explosives disguised as cement bags.

Her last breath made her arm go limp. The charred detonator rolled from a hand. Her eyes fixed up on the sky, that never-ending, ubiquitous, sprawl-blue.

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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 6

6.

In the Field

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal let the words sink in with an other drink.

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

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

“I’m in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were about to rip it off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Curie, you hag, you fucked us!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to ensure no-one sees you.”

Crystal was exasperated. “Why me?”

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

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

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

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

“Go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m in,” Crystal radioed.

“Lot 1-6-9-1.”

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

“It’s stuck.”

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

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

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

No response.

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

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

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

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

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

“On your knees!

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

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

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

Time resumed its pace.

Shit!”

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

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

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.

Into Her Darkness: Part 2

2.

Ground Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And it’s what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. And thanks again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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