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?”
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.