Hard Lessons: Part 2

2.

To This, We Drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the most part.

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

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

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

“Titus.”

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

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

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

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

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

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

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons: Part 1

1.

Business is Business.

The lights of the main dining room flicked off in tandem. The low radiance of the remaining sconces bathed the restaurant in the upscale aura that often separated wealthy from even-wealthier by way of the room’s central, blinding strength and shadowy perimeters.

The restaurant told of Triad affiliation in its carefully selected, hand-woven colors meant to eternally bloom in light, never faded no matter the blood spilt over them. In that way, it said this was Triad territory; these shadows Triad-shadows from which they watch, embrace, and if need be, hide a corpse.

The décor complimented the message with a disciplined elegance. Highly polished Tang-dynasty shields were spaced between Middle-Chinese script-borders, sections of frosted glass of beaded dragon-reliefs, lotus flowers, and filigree. Any museum could’ve inundated the owner with offers, but even those just there for soup knew there was no point in asking.

The very thought of such flagrant wealth and power had always made Zhou Xun laugh. Even before he’d murdered Li Guo Hsu, his men, taken charge of the business. Hsu amassed stories were always amusing, from a time of youthful, aristocratic forays.

In his earlier days, one man had offered Five K for the Jian at his side; a paltry sum for the restaurateur even then. More-so given the sword was passed between Man Zi Tong Enforcers for over a century, once belonged to a royal guard of the Qin Dynasty.

Needless to say, it was worth millions if a dollar.

In Li Guo’s hands, as with the Enforcers before him, it had spilled its share of blood. Xun had watched the Jian cut down more than a few traitors and failed attackers himself. None had imparted the satisfaction of its final thrust through Li Guo’s heart by Xun’s hand. He found it a fitting end for the cutthroat, all-business man Li Guo had once been.

He was hardly that then. Hsu had softened, had grown fat on American decadence, the excreted dollars of their highest class. Despite his relative attachments to his former mentor, Xun saw an opportunity and took it. Hsu should have known, prepared.

He didn’t. His instincts were eroded by a time and lifestyle that felt them unnecessary; him, untouchable. Xun proved otherwise.

But that was the way the game was played. Few Man Zi Tong met peaceful ends. Those that did, were extraordinary. Hsu was not one. Presently, his Jian rested in a lighted case behind the register. It sat just high enough to broadcast a message across the entire restaurant; Li Guo was gone, wasn’t coming back.

No-one knew that more than his son Jun, rightful heir to his father’s business and teetering on the brink of war with Xun, his men. The Man Zi Tong was in the usual chaos of regime change, still too near to reeling to have fully settled. The only hope Jun had without his father’s resources was fronting the money to make a statement.

It just so happened a Golden Triangle trafficker liked the idea of Xun’s death, and fronted the cash. After that, all Jun needed was the statement. Jun took the cash knowing he’d pay off the trafficker or die, one way or the other. Business was business, after all.

Currently, his statement crouched at the edge of the restaurant’s roof, eyeing the door below. Crystal Kane and Angela Dale were another student-mentor pair whose bond involved significantly less interpersonal knife-play– at least where their own partnership was concerned.

The door opened below, forcing them into the shadows. Dress shoes and silks the cost of an average salary preceded Chinese tobacco wafting on Jackstaff’s autumn winds. Low Chinese broke at a pair of heels that clicked up and into place beneath them. The soft rustle and click of a fashionable clutch’s latch prompted them to peer at the newly-assembled group.

Crystal’s digital-HUD implant flashed real-time Chinese-English translations.

– won’t shake the hornet’s nest,” one man said.

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

The woman allowed one man to light her smoke. “If Jun is to have his revenge, he will have it. She loosed a ball of smoke that plumed up, past her face. “There will be nothing to stop him. We must accept that. What happens afterward is our concern.

The group broke for a pair of high-end sports cars nearby. Their exit alone confirmed their association with the Man Zi Tong, but their words erased any doubts as to their place in the organization. They were near the top, cavorting with would-be kings.

Crystal recalled once fearing these kinds of people. Then, she recalled fearing nothing for a long time. Since then, she had only feared any whom mightthrow her back in the street. That number grew smaller with each day. The Triad offshoot of Sun Yee On expanding throughout Jackstaff the last few months was hardly intimidating. They were tourists in her town, and so long’s she did her job, her game protected her.

Binnacle Sound was the new Puget Sound. Both a thriving port city, and a dead harbor filled (not entirely metaphorically) with corrupt officials. It was more difficult to know whom not to pay off these days.

For an organization like the Man Zi Tong, it was paradise. A new gold rush in a new Santa Fe. The most important thing, as usual, was carving out as much of the resource as possible and gaining power through it.

In Jackstaff, the greatest resource available was shadows. The city was a new port for the Golden Triangle’s drug trade, shipped straight across the Pacific to North America. The rest of the West coast had gotten wise, cut into the profits. To the Triads, it was too much.

It wasn’t a surprise Man Zi Tong had a presence in Jackstaff. No-one expected much of the place after the closure of the city’s main chemical and fishing industries. (The two more linked than the city admitted.) Most people in the once-thriving seaside town struggled to find ends, let alone make them meet. Unemployment was beyond a problem. It was an epidemic.

For those with far more than they could ever need but unwilling to share, coercion and loss were mainstays. Most others had nothing to lose anyhow.

Crystal had felt the latter first-hand most of the last decade. She’d lived on the graces of fools biting off more than they could chew and throwing the rest out. She’d lived on the streets, out of trash-cans, wishing to die but never willing to.

Then, Angela appeared, living high in fast cars, fashion, and offering every dream she might dream. In exchange, Crystal agreed to be her partner. What that entailed, among other things, was waiting for the group to enter their sports cars atop the restaraunt’s roof.

Glossy curves reflected exterior neongrids and filigreed ornamentation in passing; gaudy dècor were its execution not so exquisitely refined. The first car disappeared into the night in a sonorous cry of high-performance cylinders. The other remained in place, forcing Angela to huff frustration.

The clock was ticking. The job needed to be done. The longer they waited, the shorter night became and the less time they’d have if things went sideways. Crystal shared her anxiety, but was calm for the sake of balance.

It was their way; one worried, the other foiled. That duality kept them ready for anything.

Crystal focused on the second car, the man and woman there. Darkness beyond the building was too complete for even her HUD to compensate. The couple were mere silhouettes in darkness where only a glowing, cherried-clove marked their continued presence. Silhouettes began shifting. The cherry was steady at the passenger-window. A rhythmic stir began

It took Crystal a full minute to comprehended the movements, their repetition.

She rolled her eyes at Angela, “Really? Let’s just do this.”

Angela shook her head, the woman’s upper-half bobbing but her hand stock-still, hanging on the window so her cigarette didn’t tip. “Light’s too direct. Move now and they’ll see us.”

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

They watched the act, as equally removed from its sexuality as intrigued by its utter apathy. A rigid business-like quality commanded the scene. Crystal guessed neither man nor woman had much romantic feeling.

Gangers were like that, Crystal had learned; no real emotions outside fury. Everything else was a formality; sex, joy, hunger, excretion. It didn’t matter what. So long as there was a need, a requirement, it would be met. No matter how awkward it seemed from the outside.

Crystal couldn’t imagine such creatures being born. It seemed too personal.

In a way, their client was the inverse. It may have been Crystal’s reading alone, but Angela would recognize it at some point too. Hsu had contracted Curie, and thus them, for what a sentimental heist. The money was right for a Triad, but the cause of the job itself was odd. Neither of them knew what to make of it.

Hsuhad admittedpartial sentimentality to Curie, possibly for the sake of camaraderie rather than conveyance of feeling, then offered half upfront to keep that quiet. Angela and Crystal shut up after that. Cautionary acts meant taking care not to make more enemies than healready would.

Angela all but confirmed the subtext later, along with another:Hsu didn’t expect more than he was willing to pay for.

In other words, if caught, giving him up in exchange for their lives was perfectly acceptable. Angela mused this might serve his purpose as well as taking the Jian in the first place, or it wouldn’t matter as they’d be dead. Triads were like that; as likely to send a message as to let you go on good behavior. Their unpredictability was their real threat.

Crystal watched the business-fellatio, knowing all her years of street living had never quite served up a scene so emotionless. Even the eldest, cheapest whores she’d known put some life into it. This was like watching a reanimated corpse try to swallow a hot dog anchored to a car-seat.

It ended as indifferently as it had carried on; with a movement and the distant sound of spit. The cherry flared again and the engine roared. The car pulled away, leaving Angela and Crystal to work, however utterly flabbergasted by what they’d seen.

They double-checked the area, then felined their way beneath the back-door light. Inside would be cameras, security guards, night time dealers running numbers and playing cards in the basement meat-lockers. Their best chance was bypassing the cams, cutting the alarms, and finessing the Jian from the case.

They were inside in moments. Crystal slipped her lock-picks into her belt while her HUD ID’d cameras, superimposed their vision cones across the building. Angela’s HUD did likewise. The room became a mix of faded cones, dotted paths between various blind-spots.

Far ahead, the Jian gleamed in its case, freshly oiled and set upon red velvet and satin like a shining beacon. Obviously Xun had never thought anyone ballsy enough to steal it.

That was one of the problems with such creatures; he thought only of the way he himself would think, act. He was incapable of considering the minds of those unlike him. More than that, Xun likely never considered Toolers couldn’t be touched for stealing from Triads. Especially not when on contract with other Triads.

Then again, Xun wasn’t a Triad. Not really. He thought himself one. In reality, it was Jun Hsu that was. Son of a former Enforcer and allowed to operate as Man Zi Tong by the graces of Hong Kong’s Sun Yee On. Hsu was given a choice of successor. His son was the logical and groomed choice.

Of course, Hong Kong would always back a winner, but Xun couldn’t make a case if he wasn’t given time to earn anything.

But Xun didn’t understand that. He also didn’t understand security wasn’t just a feeling. It was an art. One he was not well-versed in. Li Guo had been. In the way that all powerful men were; people feared violating their security, so they didn’t.

No one feared Xun though. Not like they had Li Guo.

Most of all, Angela and Crystal didn’t fear anything beyond the job. That was the game, how it was played. During jobs, all bets were off. Toolers were the ones going suffering most immediately for those fuck-ups. Before or after, it was the Fixers, Middlers, or Johns.

Mostly, if someone wanted revenge, it was the Johns that got hit. Can’t shoot the messenger, or no-one’s bringing you messages anymore.

They reached the case. Angela set to work. Crystal fought open a security panel on the wall. She clipped a pair of leads to hot and cold wires, linked them to a small tablet. With a few swipes of her fingers the lights flickered, went out. Through-out the building heavy locks slammed shut.

A sudden clamor sent them reeling. Shouts preceded flash-lights flaring beneath automatic rifles and SMGs. Chinese and English were shouted in equal measure, both commanding them to freeze. A dozen different barrels trained and closed in, forcing them nearer one another.

“Intel was off,” Crystal whispered over shouting Chinese.

“Spilt milk.”

The Chinese went silent. A pair of men parted, allowing another through. He sidled up to the register, pistol in-hand.

“Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than most of his men. Late fifties, and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was framed by a tailored cuff and leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

Xun surveyed the suppressed TMPs harnessed on Crystal’s chest, the baby-Deagle at her side, and the gear strung along Angela’s body.

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

A spinning kick forced the .45 through the air, morphed it into a body-throw. Crystal triggered a smoke grenade that instantly filled the room. Gunfire blatantly refused to erupt, Xun’s men too afraid of hitting him as he slammed back onto the Jian’s case, shattering it.

A moment later he was on the floor, Crystal and Angela ghost trains fleeing through smoke and out the back-door. It slammed, latched and locked again. A breath later a motorcycle zoomed up, unmanned. Angela was atop it first. Crystal adjusted the Jian on her back, climbed on behind her.

They took off, rocketing away in a scream of BMW horsepower.

Before the door opened again, they were gone, lost before they could be tracked, and a hundred G’s wealthier.

Short Story: Someone Else’s Heaven

She awoke on her bed, certain of where she was and completely unaware of how she’d gotten there. Kris had a bad habit of waking up in familiar places for unfamiliar reasons. More often than not, it was a combo of drugs and The Arcade that did it.

The bar was a retro-retrofit of an old-time saloon. Someone had once attempted cash in on a wild-west craze with it, but far as Kris knew, she’d never lived through one. That the Arcade had been abandoned thirty-odd years or more before its present incarnation.

It wasn’t the best or the worst place in town. That was reserved for Downtown and the ghetto respectively. Though nowadays an argument could be made that everywhere that wasn’t Downtown was a ghetto, it was an argument made only by the people unaware of a real ghetto’s realities. Kris had grown up in that part of the city, and really, it was a different world.

One of the things about being black in Jackstaff; Male or Female, you were certain to interact with the ghetto, no matter how hard you tried not to. If you came from it, you lived it. If you didn’t, your family or friends did. Else-wise, your enemies or rivals did.

Of all the options, that last was the worst. Hood rats, Kris knew, stuck together like a rat-king. They traveled in packs, could devour you in passing swarms. She was just glad she’d managed to dodge them as much as she had.

She let her eyes focus. The groggy blur of perpetual hangover resolved into the water-stained ceiling of her loft. Like the rest of the world, her place was in between worlds; not a slum, (mostly in name only) but not the hangout of the Elite either.

Mostly, it wasn’t a slum because some damned fool got it in their head to paint half the town without actually repairing it. Then, they charged higher-than-normal rent rates for ghetto-slum living. The idea caught on, spread like wildfire.

Now, it was damned near impossible to find a place not molding, mildewed, or otherwise rank. Even if, you’d be nearer uptown than was affordable.

Kris couldn’t complain too much though. She’d lucked out. Even as she stared at the spotted ceiling, she felt a warm body beside her. She was only vaguely aware of it until her periphery resolved again and formed into the smooth, supple outline of a petite body.

The night rushed back like a freight-train. If she’d been standing, it would’ve knocked her down; sitting, it would’ve stolen the wind from her. The body was the newest bartender from the Arcade, Yuki.

Yuki was the kind of Asian-American girl whose parents hailed from their homelands. They never let her forget that. Half-Nipponese, half-Korean, she’d said once she’d “been cursed with the worst of both worlds,” from parents both monumentally judgmental and over-demanding.

Yuki’d played along until she’d turned eighteen, then fled San Diego to wander North, fucking, sucking, smoking and snorting until ending up in Jackstaff older, broke, and looking for work. She’d yet to recognize that was how most people ended up in Jackstaff.

All the same, she’d bar-hopped and couch surfed since her arrival. Months had passed with the only semblance of stability the nightly rush of gaming, drugging, and bar-tending. In a way, Kris felt, they were perfect for each other.

That feeling had gotten the best of her. She couldn’t say for sure how much so yet, but the aching in her legs and the warmth in her groin said it was enough. The distinct feeling of her cotton mouth spawned by moaning rather than drinking and getting high confirmed it. Unbeknownst to Kris, Yuki remembered it all, was too dead asleep to say it.

Didn’t matter in the end: good nights were marked by lost memory; the best by the severity of bodily exhaustion come morning. Judging by Kris’ strained lower-half, this was one for the record books.

She tried to rise from the bed; her legs wobbled, knees buckled. She fell to her ass on the bed with a whompf of old mattress. Yuki groaned half-asleep, mumbling something in Nipponese first, then Korean. She pulled the wool blanket over her head, further blotting the gray leaking in from the frosted windows, then stilled again. A moment later, she was snoring again.

Kris surveyed the room, awaiting her legs’ wake up: nights were cold already, forced the peeling trim to condensate and peel further around the windows. The drafts were enough to make her knees lock-up first thing in the morning. Usually though, that was only if the windows iced over on the coldest nights.

She suspected Yuki as the cause for her lameness this morning. Or part of it. It explained why they’d slept ’til noon; they’d been unconsciously spooning for warmth.

Kris shivered, boyshort panties and t-shirt too little to cover anything worthwhile. Her nipples hardened, forming small circus-tents on her chest. She groaned, rose again, and wobbled like a drunken sailor until she caught her footing. Gait wide, low, she sumo-wrestlered her way to the kitchenette to make coffee, lace it with Irish cream.

The ancient auto-drip protested its continued life with spitting hisses and gurgling moans. Kris ambled across the loft, returned in flannel pants and a spare blanket; as near to fully clothed as she was willing to approach so early in the morning.

Yuki tossed again. Kris poured liqueur in, then coffee, stirred. She swiveled to lean back, letting the warming plate radiate at her back while staring headlong at the bed. Yuki’s outline deformed, re-formed, pulsating beneath the woolen blanket that rose and fell with her breaths.

Kris’ eyes wandered again, up, to the decor tacked to the plaster wall. A black and white photo, enlarged to poster size; two women, spooning from a side angle. Perfect shapes, perfect skin, perfect nudity, and perfect joy; all hinting that level of perfect, pornographic class every half-romantic/half-pervert aspires to and knows doesn’t exist.

Kris stared at it, as she did every morning, assessing whether or not she’d attained that level of perfection. As usual too, she doubted it.

Even if something felt different– she guessed her jaded cynicism was finally taking over– waking up beside Yuki felt the image’s utter antithesis. The girl’s life was so hellish she’d begun running, never stopped. No perfection involved, save perfect despair.

Fact was, Kris knew the pair in the image. They weren’t a couple. They weren’t even gay. They were straight. Straight as every lipstick Lizzie drunk on curiosity then hungover on shame.

So far’s she knew these days, they weren’t even friends. They had been, once, when the photographer took the image. Somewhere between there and here, one screwed the other’s man, and they ended up at each other’s throats.

Still, the image had a resonance. Art was art, regardless of reality’s shortcomings.

She’d zoned out so hard she didn’t even notice Yuki ambling over. “Some for me?”

Something stirred inside Kris. Her eyes fell dully to Yuki.

So much happened in the span of a heart beat, it felt as though time stopped with her outside it, still running. Yuki’s voice; the high softness as petite as the rest of her. An edge of perfectly feigned timidness suffused it, concealed otherwise atom-honed steel. Something in its timbre, its rhythm, opened a flood gate in Kris’ mind.

The night came rushing back.

As if happening again, in doubled-time, Kris saw herself in the Arcade alone, bored. She saw herself getting high in a bathroom, Yuki with her. Nipponese lips pressing hers, shotgunning pot-smoke into her with growing heat of arousal,

Then, Kris remembered the hustling; players at the tables where the oldest console games ran on emus. She faked out a bar-full of players, letting Yuki run the bets’ odds rise until they’d worked the crowd to a sufficient level of belief.

Then, Kris wantonly kicked ass.

She stormed and combo’d her way through ultra-gore M-Ks, Doom M-Ps, and Street-Fighters. Each time, she won killings, killed winnings. She drank and drank, smoked and smoked. Before long, she was making eyes at Yuki; the girl who’d run from hell, somehow wound at its edge as herself someone else’s heaven.

Kris realized it then. That was what she’d felt. Why she’d brought Yuki home. The girl had wandered, drifted. She couldn’t be allowed to anymore or who she’d become would begin to be tainted. Kris felt all her feelings anew. Her stoned revelations hit in double, triple time along the gallop of a metal beat from a long-past era.

Love at first feel, and they both knew it.

They hated it for making them wrong, making them have to take back what they both thought they knew about the world, about love, but loved it too because they loved each other.

Time resumed at-once and she found Yuki before her, coffee steaming in a hand. She shoved the mug onto the sink counter separating the kitchenette and loft, shoved Yuki atop it. She didn’t resist. In mere moments they were back in bed, breath heavy, bodies slicked with sweat.

The collapsed beside one another afterward. Kris lit a mix of hash and grass, still naked on the bed. Liqueur coffee steamed the air, melding into the skunky smoke of the lit spliff. Kris watched Yuki’s small breasts sink with hit, thoroughly enjoyed the sight.

She recollected her bulwark of memory, her feelings. Mostly, she wanted to be sure Yuki’d felt it too. Her tacit admission came with a smile and nod. Then, a deep kiss that ended with blowing smoke into Kris’ mouth.

She took their joint as Yuki slurped up coffee.

“I guess you’re right, ya’ know?” Yuki finally said. “I was running. For a long time. Now I don’t need to.” She laughed paraphrasing Kris, “Running from hell to end up someone else’s heaven.”

Kris was right, too, and neither one minded a bit.

Preview: Hard Lessons

Hard Lessons
(Starting Jan. 19, ’18)

Master Thief Angela Dale and her protege are celebrating another job gone well-enough when a man appears. Crystal soon learns he is Angela’s younger brother whom has located them despite the usually-impenetrable shadows surrounding them.

Already on-guard, Crystal goes on alert once he begins insinuating himself between Angela, her work, and those closest to her. Having maneuvered himself into her home, Crystal is forced to address the issue before departing for a job.

In a world where thieves live and die on reflex, can such tension last? Find out here, starting next Friday, January 19!

Hard Lessons is a novella set in post-digital-era Jackstaff, where corporate infancy and technological supremacy combine to form pervasive, malleable trades for Fixers, Middlers, Toolers, and Johns looking to make filthy money with next to no interference. It’s a world that knows it has just begun but too, that it is certain to last.

Excerpt from Ch. 1, Business is Business:

A pair of men parted to allow another through. He sidled up to the register, “Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than his men. Late fifties and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal spoke from half her mouth. “Well?

“Improvise.”

Short Story: Between Worlds

The air percussed with bursts of fury and fire. Screams of the fallen pierced off-beats. Somewhere nearby, a chain gun was spinning up. It chattered persistence like angry hornets eternally dive-bombing an aggressor. Overhead, smoke parted, reveal the flit of chopper blades over a blinking belly light.

Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, whirled a pair of fingers in the air imperceptibly. All the same, they prompted shadows to slough from the darkness. The dim lights flickered, disturbances too fast to ever be focused. They ducked, weaved, snaked between burnt out cars, over-turned steel dumpsters.

Falling casings of the sputtering chain-gun formed a lit fuse in the night. It glinted and gleamed from the far-end of a spray of demon’s-fire. The impacts sparked fuel canisters, lit the foreground with explosions. Fire-light sputtered, finally revealing the Vipers’ bodies fully.

They kept low, carbine rifles and PDWs sweeping small arcs from their places in the diamond formation. In their center, kept low and covered, was a cowering figure. It half-fell, scrambled up, urged on Viper before and after it. It crossed light again, resolving further into the wired terror-fatigue of a peasant refugee.

Mann ordered the chopper down. The VIP fell-in, team after him. Mann and his partner and Lieutenant, John Findeberg, covered the team from either side of the doors. They piled in and ascended with the chopper, disappearing behind a flicker of smoke.

Across the team’s vision, “Mission Complete” appeared.

They emerged from the V-R headsets to the tread-milled floors of the stadium. The overhead lines feeding their electronics went slack. The noise-canceling headphones and aural VR gave way to the cheering crowd, coaxing them to normality after the jarring shift between worlds.

Mann relaxed to see their opponents doing likewise, however more sullen. He eyed the scoreboard, but if there’d been doubts, they weren’t his. He graciously congratulated the team, then planted a sloppy, wet one on Findeberg before the teams shook hands and hustled from the arena.

The cheering victory meshed seamlessly with the introduction of the next match, and after a quick shower, the Vipers made to celebrate and join the festivities. John and Seamus went along, drank and smoked their shares, deliberately catching the rest of the night’s tournament.

In the end, its outcome was less important than studying the games themselves, their players. All the same, Seamus had no doubts they’d make the championship. The team was sloshed now, but only two games remained ’til the championship.

Tomorrow, the Vipers would face London-based Churchill’s Heat. If history held, it would be a tough fight. Ultimately, the Vipers would win. It wasn’t arrogance. Seamus simply understood what made a team work well together. The SAS had done that for him, at least. More importantly though, John understood it. And Cammie and Cherry. And Mack and Jones.

They were all aware of it; communication. In-game and out.

That was what Seamus had brought to the table long, long ago, why he’d been made Captain. Before the Vipers ever went pro. Indeed, before they were the Vipers. To function well as a team in any setting, two things had to be certain; a chain of command and the assurance of no personal interference come game-time.

For the most part, that’s how things were. For Mann, the team, the league even, it was their no drug-policy. Not for fear of an edge but from its clouding the mind worse than any substance ever could. Exceptions existed, of course, but this one’s were so few as to be unworthy of mention until relevant.

2AM, Seamus escorted John’s stumbling-drunk form through the hotel suite door and to the bedroom. He shot down the cloying demands for sloppy sex, too sober anyhow. He insisted John sleep, slipping out in the mean-time to mix himself a scotch-rocks.

The suite door rustled the carpet, preceding heavy, tamping feet entering behind him. Seamus didn’t need to look; goons beside an equally goonish, rotund mafioso. These were the only types rude enough not to knock but smart enough not to kick the door down.

“This’ a private room. What d’ya want?”

An almost charming laugh. “Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, a team set to take the championship this year. A pleasure.”

Seamus downed his drink, poured another. He rounded on the men, confirming his suspicions entirely, and stepped to the counter between them. “You know who I am. I couldn’t give a cunt’s fuck who you are. I’ll say it again, this’a private room, what fuck d’you want?”

The mafioso eyed his goons. “Not going to offer your guest a drink?

“Guests are invited. You’re an intruder,” Seamus corrected.

The nearest goon laughed, “Like ‘e’d be able to do sum’in ’bout it any’ow.”

Seamus kept silent, awaiting the inevitable answer. Finally the Mafioso seemed to recognize his need to oblige.

“Very well,” he began. “You’ll lose your game tomorrow. Or I’ll return. You don’t want that.”

Seamus was profoundly amused. He laughed once, spine stiff, and threw down his scotch. He thumped it on the counter, resigned to the reality the man had faced him with. The man’s utter contempt echoed through the silence.

Seamus poured himself another, pushed past the goons to face the mafioso at arm’s length. “Yeah, aw’right. Be seein’ ya then.” He sipped his drink, never breaking eye contact, and swallowed. Then, with a deadpan, he eyed the door. “Now fuck off, Sally.”

The mafioso’s eye twitched. He nodded to his men, made for the door, hesitated there, “Lose, or I’ll be back.”

The door shut. Seamus smiled to himself.

The next night, he stood in the hotel suite’s kitchenette, waiting with glass in-hand and a bottle before him. It was as much a celebration as a eulogy. The Vipers were headed to the championship against Cambridge’s Castle Wrackers. Churchill’s Heat had put up one hell of a fight over a series of bomb-runs and S&D matches.

It was a well-earned victory, close, but even then Seamus would’ve been satisfied for that battle as an end rather than the upcoming championship. The Wrackers were push-overs. The Heat had the same spark of greatness the Vipers had. He almost felt it a shame to put them down. Then again, they fought well, and without hard feelings, that was more important in the league.

Seamus let John go out partying without him for a bit, kept him safe and occupied while he awaited for the mafioso’s manifesting. He hoped to get through it in time to drink too, celebrate, but the night wasn’t wasted so long as John remained safe.

The mafioso finally manifested across the suite from Seamus only a half-hour later than he’d hoped. The guy was almost-impressed that Seamus faced him so willingly. He smiled, nodded. His goons drew their weapons and fired. Smoke and plaster filled the air over wooden debris.

Seamus was gone.

The furthest goon dropped to a knee. An ethereal shimmer was swallowed by flashing steel. A blade punched through the goon’s throat, spray-painting the air with blood. Another breath. The blade disappeared. The remaining men reeled in terror. The ethereal shape withdrew. The blade flicked, decapitated the second goon. A final, resonant note of air and steel, relieved the mafioso of his upper-skull.

Bodies fell about, leaking blood and bodily fluids as the ethereal form re-solidified. Seamus set the blade aside to sip his scotch. He winked on a mil-grade HUD implant, engaged the comm-dialer, and spoke only his address and room number.

These weren’t the first idiots to have tried. He doubted they’d be the last. The SAS had taught him that, and more. Especially after the ghosting-Augs and gene therapy had ensured he’d never be able to do anything as poorly as a normal human. It was fine, he didn’t mind anyhow. All that gear was just going to waste in him otherwise. All that mattered was John and the team were safe.

He checked the time on his watch, showered. He returned to find plastic-suited people securing body-bags and tending to various fluids. With a scrawled check and a signed waiver, he checked his watch again; they’d been timely. He still had a whole night. That was most important. After all, like their communication, the team’s bond was key to their success.

Shame he couldn’t follow the philosophy himself.

Short story: Christmas in the Sprawl

Kaylee Hamir was one of the first-gen mixed kids from the Great Wall flood. She knew all about that flood, but personally more than officially. Other than marking her conception and the start of her parent’s noncommittal, faux-intimacy, she’d grown up dealing with its effects. She lived in its world, breathed its air– even if she shouldn’t have. Because of everything else, she also occasionally dealt with its trash-heap refuse. Often by being confronted with it directly.

Her first night on the street after the war had taught her that. While the corps were busy pulling up their drawbridges Mom and Dad were scrambling with the masses.

Then, madness. Chaos. Far-off thunder. Sustained.

Dad got in. Mom didn’t. They’d never been together strictly speaking, but whatever had held them ’til then, ended then. Mom fled. Kaylee with her. They ended up under old infrastructure, more damp than wet, and stinking of human refuse and waste.

Kaylee learned the hard way what corporate love felt like; nothing. There was none. Love wasn’t cost-effective.

Though it felt longer to her young mind, Mom was hooking shortly afterward. Three years later, she was being thrown out for refusing to herself. In fairness, Madame Mimi had given her a choice. Kaylee’d chosen, but it still felt like a kiss-off. Since then, she’d been street-living in hovels, hideaways, crashing on the least forsaken couches of the countless, rundown apartments.
On the drier and warmer nights, she slept beneath stars and a mostly-shattered greenhouse. The stillness of the abandoned, thirty-story mini-tower whispered cold but not bitterness. She settled the old mattress in the driest corner of the day, then she looked up, out.

On clearer nights, she could even ignore humanity’s best attempts to batter its way in. Even if for only moments, it was something.

She’d gotten lucky tonight, lifted enough from the markets to form a proper meal; hunk of precooked ham, block of cheese, half-loaf of bread. She’d have to fight rats for scraps in the morning, but she’d even have enough for breakfast.

Meanwhile, she could eat, eyeing reality through electric-and-neon polluting the lower world.

Fact was, she didn’t need to live the way she did. She could’ve easily been one of Mimi’s girls like her mother. It just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t for her.

Part of the Madame’s goodbye seemed to take as insult that she hadn’t wanted to be a whore. She didn’t, nor did she think she needed to be, but it wasn’t meant as a slight.In the minds of Kaylee’s generation some people sold wares, others sold themselves. There was no judgment, just facts. Ones and zeroes.Her mother had been one of the prototypes of that mentality, that eventually gave it cause to form as it did.

The former trophy-wife of an Arab exec, Kaylee’s father chose lifestyle over family once forced to. Her mother then, rather than rebel against the decision, coped. It wasn’t that he’d always had to balance the two, he just did. When he couldn’t anymore, he didn’t. There was never uncertainty where his priorities lie. It was only Kaylee’s young mind, rich with naivete, that felt otherwise then.

Fact was, her parents hadn’t always felt their distance, but they could. Sometimes, they did. Eventually it became more trouble than it was worth. Way Kaylee saw it, that was change. Just a thing that happened, was happening, eternally.Accept it as inevitable.

Her generation’s collective grasp on that was a social defense mechanism against repeatingthe world’s dismal state. The war had done a lot to many. Most of all, it profoundly impacted the social psyche. Kaylee and her ways were part of that. She and all the others like her knew it. That truth was as much part of their own, individual legacies as of their collective one.

At its purest essence, that legacy said only, “accept change.

At its more complex layers, it told to accept the world not as one constant, but as subject to one constant. Change was eternal. Everything else was passing. Only context differed; from global landscape to personal routine. Change drove reality and everything apart of it.Change was the fourth dimension, that of duration. Flowing in only one direction.

The purity of the message itself contained a thesis on human-life.Why accept change? Because it is eternal, and you are not. Any thing subject to it is riding its own piece eternity, letting it constantly and rapidly change. But why? To what end?

The answer, ingrained in the universe down to the purpose of life itself, was refinement.

Refining oneself through existence among a system of constant change. Only then could each action to become an engine of change, refinement.

In the meantime, each iteration was one step closer to perfection– because of its nonexistence. It didn’t need to exist, because ultimately perfection wasn’t the point. It was the excuse, continued existence and refinement was the purpose.

Accepting the constant of change allowed one to continue discerning the variables of life’s equation. That was the whole point to the take-over, the war, its aftermath. A force– people, couldn’t be constrained. Shouldn’t be. Not just for their own benefit, but everyone’s.

Even the uneducateds like Kaylee knew that, because that was the point too; imprinting an ever-lasting record on both individual and collective human psyches.

Yet here she was. Alone and profoundly feeling it. Then again, she’d done it to herself. In that way, it was neither good nor bad. It just was.

Few cared about holidays. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone celebrated, let alone Christmas. Shameful memories of rabid consumerism still wounded the previous generations. While Kaylee’s was still too young, too scattered, to have yet formed any conceivable culture. It’d take longer than usual for them to get there, too.

Picking up the war’s pieces wouldn’t be easy, but they knew damned well not to rush it. If you rushed it, before long you ended up like all those corp-execs; bound to sacrificial altar of Human social-evolution. By that point, all you could do was hope to go gracefully. The idea was, never let it get that far.

She bit a hunk off her bread and chewed. She stared up, out, thinking.

Broken glass perfectly centered a line of stars through the missing hunk of window. She’d learned the hard way that it flooded the room anytime it rained. The first time she slept-in on a rainy day was also the day she learned to chuck the mattress just inside the roof-access too.

Change was a constant, after-all.

The best way to cope with change, Kaylee’s generation had learned, was through contingencies, redundancies, rigid logic-structures for support when needed. Ideas and systems engineered with switches, gates, walls and moats. All of them, too, built around digital principles dominated by duality. One and zero. On and off. In/out. The standby state was persistent, guaranteed, and because of that, moot.

Kaylee sighed. The weather was perfect. Cold, but neither bitter nor windy. Kaylee guessed this was what they’d meant by global warming. Too bad the planet was fucked now. They might help it recover in time, and she certainly saw no reason not to, but human focus had turned outward again. She felt it herself through the broken window.

A nearby scuff gave way to the roof-access door easing open. Kaylee froze. Part of her was ready for a fight from the desperate, post-war refuse. The rest of her was stunned; astonished anyone would bother to climb thirty floors for nothing. It took the girl in the doorway six, eternal seconds to find Kaylee in the darkness.

Kaylee sized her up, gauged her for threats. She was small, more than Kaylee. Long clothing hung off her enough to bulwark against the warmth, but not hinder her in fight or flight. Kaylee guessed she was armed, too, but unlikely to draw a weapon if it weren’t drawn already.

She was a streeter, and streeter’s lived by a certain style of thinking.

Months of street-living had thinned and leaned Kaylee considerably, but she didn’t have the same look or mentality as a streeter. This girl was street, through and through. Kaylee’d been plump in childhood from Madame Mimi’s good graces. It still showed in her lean-toned muscles, formed well despite recent scant nourishment.

Like most streeters, this girl had none of that. Daily fights for survival and sustenance had pulled any exposed skin taught. Her clothing was something between armor and all-weather gear. Each component cherry-picked as diamonds in the rough from the ruined chaos. The tatters said she’d fought every day of her life. And won. Likely, from an early age.

Yet her caution was almost apologetic, as if conveying she knew she was interrupting, but needed to anyway. Those extra seconds were enough for Kaylee. She took a chance.

“Occupied.” The girl homed on the sound. “Here.” Kaylee said to relax her.

The girl appraised the room’s remainder with a feral sweep. Viciousness pointed her features and firmed her spine. It flashed, relaxed back into human easiness.

“Got room?”

Kaylee almost said no. It was gut-reaction. The food weighed her hand, its purpose moreso.

“Just you, right?”

The girl half-nodded, knowing Kaylee saw it perfectly despite the darkness. She motioned her in and over, began tearing bread. The girl did another, feral sweep. She slid in and around the door, closed it as quickly and quietly as possible; an obvious manifestation of lethal paranoia.

Kaylee offered her a piece of bread and the Girl’s eyes lit up. She hesitated, “You’re not going to rape me, are you?”

The girl’s spine loosened with uncertainty, eyes on the food. “If you want.”

She shrugged, “Nah, not my type.” She offered the food, let her settle. “Kaylee, by the way.”

“Laura.”

She passed over the hunk of cheese, “Merry Christmas, Laura.”

She laughed harder this time.

Short Story: Six-Leggers

She was running. Faster than she thought possible. She might’ve been small, agile-looking, but at heart, she wasn’t. At heart she was a lazy-ass couch-potato, something vaguely organic growing from one side after months of stagnation. Often enough, beneath her festered a lukewarm indentation from her time there. Now, it was aching, pain, exertion. Blitz was running like hell, and faster than any human had a right to.

She’d pissed off exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right way, so she started running. Problem was, something had gone wrong. They were running too. Faster than she’d anticipated. So fast, in fact, it was obvious they were no longer human. They’d never been human, she knew now, but whatever they were, she wasn’t about to stop to find out.

She threw herself down an alley, took it as fast as her gait allowed, power-slid across a puddle to face its open side. A fence half-way through inexplicably barred her way to the far-end of the alley, its freedom. She swore under her breath, hoping her boots fit the chain-link without a struggle. Even now the galloping six-legs charged her like the low rumble of a Maiden bass-line.

If hell was real, she decided, its minions were vacationing Earth-side.

She leapt at the fence, scrambled up it, caught her first bit of luck in the perfect fit of chain-link.

Blitz could smell them now, didn’t dare look back. They reeked of rotted sewage hinted with days-old corpse. She guessed the human suits they’d shed had hidden the smell too. Otherwise, she’d have stayed the hell away from them to begin with.

She clambered over, snagged her pants on rattling chain-link and leapt for the ground below. She landed with cool air on the small of her back. The fence had taken more than its share of her pants. She couldn’t care less about it, wouldn’t have missed a beat if suddenly ass-naked.

This was Dover’s fault. Stupid bitch. She should’ve never cooked up the scheme, never involved Blitz. Then again, Dover wasn’t busting ass down four-thirty-third street with the creds and six-legger demons. Blitz wondered if she’d ever go back to that shit hole now, but knew that was just anger talking. If she survived, she’d be back, and with Dover’s cut– less now, but her’s all the same.

It was really Yuki and Kris’ fault. Anger aside. They’d done the scam, bragged about it over beers. How the hell was Dover not supposed to try running her cousin’s scam? It wasn’t even really a scam, just a misdirection. It was only the fault of the stupid six leggers who’d put their money where their mouths supposedly were. How could they have expected not to get burned in a place they hardly knew?

Fact was if it hadn’t been Blitz– and Dover covertly– that burned them, it would’ve been someone else. They were wearing suits for fuck’s sake. No-one wore a suit this side of town unless looking to get taken for a ride or packing enough heat to fund a small army. Blitz decided, if she ever got to stop running from them, and wasn’t being eaten by them, she’d have to explain their obvious mistakes.

Then again, that also required facing them without screaming. Enlightenment wasn’t looking good for them.

She raced out into roaring traffic, completely unfazed by it. Headlights swerved and weaved on both sides of the street. Horns blared protests. She passed onto sidewalk, sprinting away from screeching tires. Something heavy thumped metal. Glass was crunched and crushed. One set of galloping legs clambered into a wrench of metal. Screams and horns said one was dead, the other still chasing her.

Even beneath the street noise she heard it, felt it; a rider from hell galloping in charge across a battlefield of blood and fire.

This couldn’t have just been about their money. There was no way. Between Blitz and Dover, they’d made a little over a G hustling through-out the night. Only a couple hundred of it was the hell-riders’ though. If only she could get away, get back to the bar, reach the range of Dover’s double barrel. She’d wanted to keep Dover out of it though, wanted to handle it herself. Do the job like a pro.Not possible now.

Dover ran the bets, upped the numbers, made the stakes look good against Blitz’s skills, and for a few hours, the dough and odds piled up. Then, when the time came, Blitz’s skills took over.

Kris and Yuki had run the scam at the Arcade in Jackstaff. Why couldn’t she and Dover run it at the Circuit Board in Seattle? Each of them do their part, form a whole, and make bank. Like pros. Not possible. Not now.

There was no way around it. Blitz was on E when she’d started. Short of giving back the couple hundred, she saw no way around making the wide bank back toward the C-B. Hoping she’d catch the last six-legger up in the panic of traffic, she sprinted back through it traffic; back toward the C-B and the way she’d come.

Galloping and screeching said the drivers and six-legger were prepared his time. She missed her chance to end things that way. No matter, she had a plan now. One she knew even Dover’d be prepped for, so long’s she knew ahead of time.

Panting for her life, pumping her legs, Blitz dialed her HUD-comm. Dover answered. She panted out a few words with spittle-laden exhaustion. “Comin’ back hot. Be ready!”

The comm cut. She angled back, around the block. The C-B was close, mid-way down. She’d have to play it right, else the six-legger’d grab her at the door, do fuck knows what. In fewer than rightful steps, she was there, half-fumbling the door grab.

Panic took over. Her center of gravity shifted. She was on her back, on the ground, eyes clenched shut in defense as something ranciddripped drool and breathed steam. She felt it reel back, ready to lunge. The air pulsed.

The legger exploded backward from a roaringblast. Screeches shredded the air. Blitz scrambled back. Buckshot tore through legs, severed them from the carapace.Dover’s double-barrel cracked open, ejected the pair of spent shells. Two more slipped in. The gun snapped shut. She let the beast have it again. First, with one barrel. Then, with the other.

It stilled into silence as she cracked open the barrel and reloaded again.

Blitz swallowed hard. “Th-Thanks.”

Dover offered her a hand. “Just protecting my investment.”

They stood, staring at the creature, wondering what the hell’d just happened. Dover decided she didn’t care to know, about-faced back for the bar. Blitz took a moment longer to watch the beast, shuddered at its reality, then hurried in after Dover, glad she was no longer on anything’s menu.