Hard Lessons: Part 7

7.

Let it be Known

Titus’ hand pressed Crystal’s shoulder, lingering just long enough to impart its impressions. She was already awake, hiding it out of curiosity to see how he might waking her. The cot at the rear of their room certainly wasn’t winning contests for comfort, but sleep was precious, no matter the job.

And it was better than the stinking, half-rotted floor beneath. Even through hint of occasional grass, tobacco, rations, and tech, the rot-stink pervaded. It was always there, beneath the surface.

Crystal’d rose to find a to a reserve of it in her sinuses, sat up, cringing and blinking hard.

Titus gestured at the table, “You’re up, Cee.” His eyes were bloodshot from fatigue and fresh smoke.

She yawned again, checked her HUD time, “Extra hour?.”

“I was re-calibrating the drones anyway. Supposed to rain.”

Her HUD winked. Weather forecasts appeared at a thought. She saw his meaning; a massive storm system, blowing in off the Pacific. The last, fading gasps of summer-water upheaval. They’d have another hour or so before the hit, then days of wet, soggy cold.

“Think he’ll use it?” Crystal asked. Titus nodded.

I would too.

Crystal stood to stretch, then took her place at the computers. The screens’ contrast were dialed up via cams, compensating for pitch-black night. 3 AM Jackstaff before a storm always had an eerie stillness. Were life a horror movie, it would’ve been the moment before a monster struck his first victim.

Eerieness always existed in that peculiar setting. The effect of a line being tip-toed up to until then. One pervading despite remote cameras, walls between. The usual shudder along Crystal’s spine confirmed it, but few whom knew the streets as she did would have denied it.

Titus’ voice ripped her back to reality. “Gonna’ change out the batteries before I sleep.”

“I can,” Crystal offered, suspecting an ulterior motive.

“Nah, it’ll help me relax after staring at the screens. Meditative. You know?”

She smiled; he was lying. Poorly. Both of them knew it.

She settled in her chair, “You say so…”

He disappeared for a few minutes. Distant sounds of climbing preempted drones and wind. Crystal cycled the various camera feeds until bucking tumble of Titus’ face appeared. He tucked something into a pocket, then disappeared into the darkened warehouse beneath it.

Crystal shook her head, inexplicably amused by the poker face he’d poised himself on. She brought up another pair of feeds from the front and rear of her bike in a nearby alley. The tiny, pinhole views doubled on a minute corner of her HUD.

She typed to kill the few minutes she’d need. She wouldn’t bother primping. Too suspiciouns and off-putting, like she knew something. She wasn’t supposed to know anything. Then again, she might not were she not so good.

She highlighted a section of code to actively edit it. The feeds shifted, re-saturating and changing brightness and contrast values to better illuminate the night. Titus’ pseudo-nightvision program taken to a next, logical level in the off-hours or when killing time.

Titus set the drones on a folding table, “Still haven’t found anyone to replace Jonas?”

“No-one I trust. Wouldn’t have trusted Jonas eventually either. You want someone else rooting around in your skull?”

He caught her drift. “Yeah. He was a skunk– a slippery ball of filth. And the best fence around.” He didn’t need to say; Curie’s still trying to trace everything we lost.

She did say, “and his data’s gone, I know.”

Deadman switch on his bio-mons, hooked into his networks via HUD hacks, too. If he’d been killed one foot out the door, or seen it coming, the servers would’ve gone into lock down. Accessible, but safe. Instead, nothing. He and Curie had designed the fail-safes that way. With Titus’ help.

All the same, Titus could only shrug. He set the drone on the cot to work a screw-driver at its belly. “Never said anything about baby Dale.”

Crystal hesitated, caught off-guard. “He’s an asshole. One more of ‘em. What’s to say?”

“Most assholes aren’t sharing a house with you,” Titus reminded.

She saw where he was headed, suddenly wondered if he did. All the same, she replied in earnest fashion, “True, but it’s not my business, Titus. Angela’s my sister, my mentor. She knows I’m here if she needs me. I can do nothing else ’til the situation outgrows her.”

He focused on the drones, working the screw-driver across one side, depositing the screws on a mag-mat. “Don’t have much family, do you, Cee?”

“Deep-personal now?” She asked, brow rising.

“It’s relevant,” he admitted tacitly.

“No. Why?”

Titus cleared his throat, exchanging one battery for another before speaking with experience, “Only one thing’s stronger than sibling love; Sibling rivalry.”

“I don’t follow,” she said, attuned.

“Think’a the person you’d sacrifice yourself for before allowing to die.”

She muttered, “Angela.”

He set one drone aside for the other. “Now, imagine she’s part of you. Like one-use detachable gear. One for life. Or nothing.”

“Now, if I told you she wasn’t worth feeling that way over. Knowing her importance, what she’s done for you. Multiply by the strength of blood. Then you’ve got an idea how powerful the bond is.”

Crystal’s shoulders slumped as a deep sigh escaped. She wished he wasn’t, but Titus was right. No matter the bond she shared with Angela, Lucas’ would always be stronger. There wasn’t any way around it.

Until now, she’d been doted upon by a sibling she’d never had. One that knew just how bad “Mom and Dad” could be. Angela’d rescued her from hell, and brought her into a world of luxury she still wasn’t sure how to cope with. Part of her was jealous. Sure.

The rest was frightened.

Lucas was bad news. Everyone saw it. Everyone too, saw Angela’s vulnerability in him; her blindness. The last vulnerability Angela had shown nearly killed her. More than that, Crystal had to admit her own vulnerability was Angela herself.

Titus was right, too, though; Crystal didn’t have family. Angela and Arthur were the closest thing in her mind. They were logical, rational, always there when chips were down. Otherwise, they weren’t. That was the trade-off.

Or so some would have believed. Ultimately though, what Titus was forcing her to accept was that she could treat them as family, but that there were limits to Angela and Arthurs’ loyalties, however extreme.

She trusted Angela, loved her because she’d offered her a second chance. Never judged her for taking it Even for needing it. She loved her for what she’d given to the poor, homeless girl she pulled off the street. Her first act on meeting had been benevolence. That was the Angela she knew and loved. That was why she trusted her.

But whatever version of her Lucas knew, couldn’t be that. No-one could look at her and do to them what Lucas could. No-one could see her benevolence, gorge themselves on it as if the true purpose for its existence.

At least, no-one worth seeing it in the first place.

Crystal was catapulted through memories of her own life before Angela’s offer, her training.

The utter disbelief her first night on the street. Sleeping in her own backyard, being chased from her gated community by security the next morning. That first night beyond; true street-living. All the years succeeding it. The scrounged meals. Dead-rats. Stale bread. Rotten potatoes chunked into potluck soups. Showers beneath leaky roofs during cold rain. Shivering beside trash-can fires. Bleeding into napkins.

Before she knew what was happening, Titus was crouched beside her.

“Crystal?”

She snapped back to reality; the catapult landed her right back in her seat. Her cheeks were wet. She was completely shocked by their seemingly sudden appearance. She breathed deep to regain her wits.

“You alright?” Titus asked gently, sensing what had happened. The pain was too deep to be otherwise.

She hesitated; she’d expected something scornful. A slight hint of reprimand for her unprofessional shift. She received none. Rather, he was comforting, understanding. His eased her whitened grip from the chair’s arm.

She blinked out tears, trembling from the sudden hold and release of fugue-state. “Yeah. Fine. Sorry.”

Titus was unconvinced, “Cee, if–“

“What? No. I–” She cut herself off at a sniffle, recomposed herself. “I’m not sure where that came from. Honest.”

“You were frozen. Tranced out.” She agreed, discretely curious of his thoughts on the matter. He provided without prompt to soothe her. “Happens with a lot of street-kids. I got lucky. Angela did too. We didn’t come from the street.”

He corrected himself, “Not like you did, anyhow. It’s like PTSD. Repressed trauma causing intense internal seizure, like a panic attack. But too sudden in appearance and short in length. It hits hard but doesn’t linger.”

She nodded knowingly, suddenly aware of his hand on hers. As if feeling cued to, he pulled away to stand and clear his throat. Neither the time nor place. She agreed, for now.

“If it’s personal. That’s cool. But like with Angela, you gotta’ know I’m here.”

Her cheek twitched in a pained half-smile as she met his gaze, “I’ll… keep that in mind.”

Angela emerged from her room finding Lucas manning Fort Couchlandia with Jack Daniels at the watchtower. Net vids streamed on the TV, droning a fatiguing boredom to Match its viewers’. She checked her HUD, spying it as a little after Seven AM.

Two hours from now, she’d be meeting one of Curie’s contacts, receiving the last details for her job later in the evening. Until then, she’d have to prep a plausible excuse for keeping Lucas occupied.

She shuffled past, “Why’re you up so early?”

“Don’t sleep much,” he said distantly.

“I see that.”

She readied a pot of coffee, sensing Arthur’s lingering presence nearby. She sensed he wasn’t willing to interrupt– or wait on Lucas. She ignored it until she had a cup of coffee in hand, was sinking onto the couch near her brother. He flipped vid streams with remote-macros.

A weather-cap revealed the storm system currently releasing hell on them. It was moving slowly inland, brewed in a last, desperate attempted gasp of fury in summer’s wake. She checked external cam feeds on her HUD, saw it was already raining, heavily.

“Shit’ll last all weekend,” Lucas grumbled.

“Gotta’ date?”

He half snarled, clearly irritated by something other than her, “Nah.”

She stared dully at the television, sipping her coffee. It was a few minutes before her brain worked up the wherewithal to relay her usual cover story for the night. She got up to make another cup of coffee, then sat back beside Lucas.

“I have a work meeting later, then a dinner thing. You okay here by yourself?”

He eyed her sarcastically, “I’m a big boy, Angie, I can handle a few hours alone.”

She rolled her eyes, “You know what I mean.”
“I’ll be fine. Maybe a little bored.”

She saw where he was headed, glanced back at the keyboard where their keys hung. The Chevelle keys were missing. Only one explanation; Arthur took them. She flushed, hiding irritation and embarrassment behind her coffee cup. She gave the blood in her face a moment to subside then spoke loud enough for the old coot beyond the door to hear.

“I’ll leave a set of keys and some cash for you. Go out. Enjoy yourself a bit.”

He was careful to remain aloof, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

She stood from the couch, and headed away, stomaching a difficult reality; convincing Lucas to stay out of her way was easier than she’d expected.

Too easy.

He’d never asked what she’d done for a living. However well-off she clearly was. Yet, the lack of interest, itself, was suspicious. It left her uneasy. She resolved to let it play out. For now.

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Hard Lessons: Part 6

6.

Stake out, Take out

Crystal was surprised to find herself enjoying her time away from home. Though forced to keep lights off, Titus had managed to re-tint her optical augs using certain settings. She turned it to auto-run at certain points, most notably, in the building.

In other words, they jerry-rigged her optics into night-vision.Every time she reached the warehouse’s upper floor, the settings shifted; the contrast dialed up, the brightness and saturation shifting subtly with it.

No predator-vision, but the upper-floor of the warehouse became like a faint day-light she could tweak at will.

All told though, were it not for the generally spartan surroundings, he might’ve lived there. The few cases they’d lugged in, added to the few stashed there, said this was one of Titus’ safe-houses. For now at least.

Enough was present that no-one wanted for anything in event of catastrophe, but it was infinitely more bearable with each, minute luxury you smuggled in.

For now, that translated to wanting for nothing within reason.

Crystal knew the play then. He’d likely abandon the place, compromising it if the job went right. Otherwise, he wouldn’t need it. It was like building a temporary shelter for a project too large for a shop. He’d leavewhat he didn’t want as fuel for the next person that stumbled onto it.

That was his contribution to making the world a better place. If only a part of it. Even if making dues knocking off the rest of it, he had some honor. Every one like he and Crystal did. The game-players. Fielders, middlers, fixers; didn’t matter. They all had to observe the rules or no-one played.

Presently, Crystal was prepping cabling for cameras stationed along the floor’s long, rowed windows. Most of the DSLRs were freestanding, sitting in the open but invisible by virtue of the seeming darkness inside. They were section in the main, storage area just beside the stairs.

That section separated them from the stairs beyond their main work-space’s wall. Unlike the foreman’s office they occupied, that area didn’t require additional work now. Their space did.

Crystal carefully positioned and aligned the office cameras behind their gear. She checked their feeds, rolled Titus’ heavy, dark curtains down carefully to conceal them from both sides.

The whole set-up was linked through facial recog on the small network of laptops spread along an old, six-person fold-out table.

Crystal double-checked her work as Titus slipped into place before the laptops. He keyed one up, pushing aside clay-blocks toward her and instructing her to place them in each corner of the room.

Crystal obliged, “Overkill, don’t you think?”

“Always need an exit.”

“Uh-huh, Can’t be too careful.”

“No, but you can overbuy on C4.”

She laughed, lifted a block, “Does it come with a guarantee? Lose a limb or money back?”

He chuckled, “Nothing in life’s guaranteed, Cee. You know that.”

“I guarantee you won’t explode if you don’t play with explosives,” she retorted studiously.

“Depends how you live.”

She snorted, busying herself with a table of gadgets. He settled to rhythmically scanned the feeds. Most angles of the building ahead were straight-on, more for redundancy and catching every detail and recording it.

As Titus had explained it, he had no certainties the mark would make his rounds soon. Onlyt that he should. Something might’ve changed that he’d missed, however slim the chance. No matter how careful he’d been, someone was bound to have seen him come or go.

Whether they cared enough to make note of it, or had reason to, was the question.

It was unlikely; requiring patrols and the like, things certain to draw attention. Even the few souls occupying this place wished to forget it as soon as possible. Besides, their mark didn’t like attention. Even less, drawing it. Titus was certain of that, and Crystal through him.

He and Crystal traded places for the first leg of surveillance. She settled, less tense than she’d expected. Anxiety for a job was usual. If you weren’t a little tense, your instincts– and reflexes– were shit when it came time to use them.

Too tense though, and you were equally shit.

It was all about finding the right groove to fall into. Finding the right job to fit your skills. For the uninitiated, that was finding Fixers and Middlers that saw your value too. The game required them to help put fielders in the rightful places.

Everyone needed each other, somehow.

Mostly.

She sighed, something wasn’t sitting right in her guts. Lucas, she knew. Time was the only thing left to her, for good or ill. Arthur’s intel said he was bad news. She guessed nothing would be a stretch for him. Slime was like that, malleable, thin. It needed to be to get anywhere.

Lucas oozed his slime-ball personality the way a slug oozed trails on a sidewalk; not intentionally, as more a byproduct of his existence. It was slime all the same, made clear his movements wherever he went via the sticky trail following behind. Visibly, or in the scent of his wake, he left his mark.

They’d yet to speak of it, but Titus seemed to be intentionally avoiding the conversation; enough to relay his feelings as mutual. Near-enough.

Evidently, only Angela didn’t see the danger Lucas brought. Was it any wonder though?

Angela was his sister, his family. She was one of the few people he was most practiced at deceiving. He’d have done it since childhood, starting as a kid to divert attention to and from him. Inevitably, he’d have found the various avenues and manipulations available– the cons to get what he wanted.

All of them: the few to be used anytime. The few only for emergencies. The few that never missed, usable only sparingly.

It was obvious to anyone looking inward.

In this case, everyone was outside it save the one playing and other being played. Whether or not Crystal’s interference was warranted could only be based on examples of two, specific, trash-lumps she’d called parents.

She had no experience with familial situations otherwise. At that, she’d have been better off that way. Starting from a base-line of 0 rather than -1 was net-gain in her mind. One she wasn’t privy to.

What she needed was critical thinking. A skill she’d become adept at, especially under extreme pressure. The problem was, those situations generally involved a subject she was well-versed in or confident at working with.

This was different, emotional. She was no stranger to emotions, but certainly at handling them properly. With the least collateral damage. It was a whole other world. Only Arthur’s sentiments kept her from feeling too alone.

With Titus yet to sound off, Crystal could only tell herself what she’d done was with earnest intent. Her last conversation with Angela was merely to remind and alert; even one’s family could betray.

Crystal was a prime example of that reality. Angela knew that. Well enough to know Crystal’d been cast out. Age aside, her mother favored a display-case lifestyle over her own daughter. Crystal had wallowed in that for all of a single night on the street, was otherwise occupied with staying alive thereafter.

When Angela appear, she jumped. That’s why Angela appeared. No-one knew that or the reasons therein better than the woman herself.

Crystal hoped Angela would think on things, recognize her attempts at neutrality, and avert the otherwise inevitable catastrophes that came with people like Lucas. She could do little else, save duck once shit met fan.

Titus appeared, fiddling with a tablet before leaning to type at a prompt on a screen. Crystal watched from a corner of her eye, the rest of her attention fixed on the feeds.

She cleared her throat, “So, who is this guy? Really?”

He alternated between tablet and computer, typing as he spoke, “Akira Saito. Former contact for Hiro Nakasumo, a middler.”

“Like you.”

“Mmm.”

“You knew ‘im? I thought Nakasumo only dealt with Japanese.”

“He did,” Titus replied astutely. “Ironic the one time he didn’t, he was murdered.
“More effect than the cause, Tee,” Crystral reminded. “Nakasumo was running against another fixer. You know that’s not allowed. Everyone does.”

“True, but he didn’t know it either. Saito did. He worked with whomever he could, like the rest of us. After Saito’s death, he tried turning pro, failed. Fixers never accepted him as anything more than a two-bit middle-man. Didn’t have the instinct for it.”

Crystal eyed him, “You think he set up Nakasumo? How? Curie and the others would fry him.”

“You know how the game is, Cee; we don’t carry grudges ‘less we wanna end up dead in our sleep. We care about money. Big enough job comes around, everyone sucks it up, throws down together. Even if we hate each other.

“Nakasumo didn’t work like that. He wasn’t playing the game wrong so much as trying to play a different one entirely.”

“Could’a worked if Saito’d been the loyalist type, like youf,” Crystal said of his strict one-fixer policy.

“The Madame does right by me. I do right by her. We earn income from that. Soon as that changes, we reassess, but we all know it won’t change. That’s not Curie’s style. Mine neither.”

She shrugged, more to herself than to him. “Still doesn’t explain Angela last year.”

“It does,” he corrected with a grimace. “In its roundabout way. Even the Mafia, ‘least at large, doesn’t break the rules, Cee. That’s the difference between what Nakasumo was trying to do and what Caruso did. He was trying to adapt wrong. He measured the game wrong. Caruso went to war without sanction.”

“You mean ’cause fielders are only fair-game on jobs.”

“Yeah. And off jobs, its Johns taking heat.” He reiterated what they both already knew. “There’s exceptions, but Caruso wasn’t endorsed by anyone. The Families don’t go off on whims. They’re like a corporation, a central command structure all the way down. No-one level acts without each above-level’s permission.”

She nodded, “I know. And that’s the reason they never retaliated. Far as they’re concerned, Curie– meaning us– did them a favor taking out a rogue element.

“Still doesn’t explain why we’re here. Grudge or not, nobody rips off someone they know without reason.”

He paused, focusing solely on the tablet screen. A light buzz faded up, reached full strength, then lost itself in the humming laptops. A small drone hovered near Crystal’s head, sank to buzz its camera at her face. Titus watched the tablet, thumbing it.

He began again, still focused downward, “Akira’s not a middler anymore. He’s not in the game at all anymore. That puts him outside it. Given circumstances, he could be a John or a mark. Since he stiffed me on a job, and Curie needs to occasionally flex authority, this week he’s a mark. “

“Still a grudge,” Crystal argued.

He smiled slyly, “I like to think of it as being in collections. There.

Crystal hesitated, brows furrowed. The drone returned to its charging pad behind her on recall protocol. Titus held the tablet out; her furrowed face stared back in a still, almost deranged with perplexity.

“Looks like someone dropped their pants to show a tattoo.”

Titus laughed, “Look good to me.”

“You need your eyes checked,” Crystal joked with the slightest hint of a smile.

Lucas and Angela sat across from one another in the main dining room of Aggiornamento, one of the more upscale casual places Angela frequented. Among other things, the food was exquisite. Given she hadn’t seen her brother in a decade, and that all they’d eaten together was left over bar-food, she couldn’t resist a nice meal.

They were perusing menus when Lucas whistled a bombshell dropping. “Pricey.”

She replied with a short, “Mm.”

He half-joked, “Guess I’ll owe you.”

She didn’t bother looking up. “S’on me.”

“Must been doing well. I mean damn, the chicken’s thirty bucks.”

Angela rolled her eyes. Lucas was famous for that. Anything that wasn’t skid-row was extravagance, never mind a half-chicken for twenty-eight creds was nearly the best bargain in all of Jackstaff. Especially at higher-end places. Hell, right time and place, a glass of water could cost that.

Lucas settled on a Filet Mignon with a bottle of beer; Angela fileted Salmon topped with crabmeat and shrimp. It went down with 10 year old Italian Pinot Noir.

For Angela, it was just another high-end meal. She partook at least once a week or so. This hardly bank-breaking. For Lucas, it was the most decadent meal of his lifetime. He settled into it finely.

Too finely.

He was clearly feeling atop the world. Angela didn’t notice. Things were too light. She was high on laughter, rosey-cheeked amusement, and expensive wine. Lucas soothed something deep within, so intimate, familiar, yet foreign. She couldn’t help finding herself giddy.

Drinks came and went.

Before long, Angela was ready to order an auto-cab. Lucas snatched her keys away then, “You wanna’ leave a ‘68 Chevelle overnight in a Jackstaff lot? Are you nuts?”

She blew a raspberry, half slurred, “Nothin’ll happen to it. I know th’owner.”

“C’mon. I’ll drive.”

“You’ve been drinking since breakfast,” she scoffed.

“I’m more practiced,” he said, headed for the car.

She hesitated, hurried after him. The ride home was much calmer and collected than she’d anticipated. Lucas took every corner expertly, foot tempering the allure of the 396 SS as it begged to roar. Instead, it carried them home at posted speed-limits, into the garage and the parking space without a hum out of place.

Angela stumbled into the apartment ahead of Lucas. She rounded, hugged him with a wet kiss on the cheek and a “goodnight,” then swaggered to her room and closed the door. He rounded for the hall to his room and straight into Arthur. The old man’s hand was flattened out expectantly, his face set like an angry father at a truant son’s homecoming.

“Keys.”

Lucas half-examined the old man. “Hmm? Oh. Here.”

Arthur slipped them into a pocket, eyes never faltering. “I know your game, kid. Seen it a million times. She’s family. I’m not. Put her in danger, I’ll put you in the ground.”

Arthur about-faced. The hall-door shut before Lucas snarled, slumped, and slime-trailed away.

Hard Lessons: Pt 4

4.

Details, Baby. Details.

Titus eased into a booth before Crystal, clearly out of his element. The diner was in one of the dingier parts of town. The pair might’ve stuck out were Crystal not so frequent a sight of the place. Its retro 50’s style was long embedded in her heart, and despite the grime and muck– or perhaps because of it, the place felt like home.

Besides, even in her darkest hour they’d never thrown her out. So long as she could scrape enough change for a cup of coffee a day, and she didn’t disturb anyone, she could stay in, keep warm. Were it not for that, and a single conversation, Crystal’s life would consist of scraping muck for sustenance…

If she lived at all.

Nowadays, she met contacts here for that reason. She was giving back more than enough, infinitely more than what they’d given because they deserved it for giving at all. In the process, she ensured no-one there breathed a word of ill against her, no matter the circumstance.

It allowed her and and Titus to discuss details in the vague way so-called criminals do, publicly.

“That’s our stake.”

He slid an SD card over with a sleight of hand, lifted his coffee to drink.

She slotted it in a tablet, HUD in public-mode as she twiddled her thumbs and waited to fit in. For all anyone knew, she was checking emails. Titus’ tone encrypted his meaning; they might’ve been planning a party for an old friend.

In a way, they were.

Crystal contained a smile to continue the bluff, let the tablet rest as if reading. She focused on the foreground of her HUD, strings of data here and there, informatics, readings. Then, a series of photos filled her vision:

An empty, rundown street. Industrial. Corroded. Seaside across town. The place was newer, considerably smaller than usual. The prominent target, a former fish-packing plant.

She knew the locale; knew every warehouse there had been out of use a decade or so by all but occasional dealers. It was also near the water, which meant dingy, shit-smelling lofts and salt-corroded steel to scope the place.

She loathed jobs like this, but they paid right. She especially hated inevitably ending up smelling like fish days afterward– or any of the other industrial gifts left in Jackstaff’s many former-quays and fisheries.

At least she and Titus would suffer equally. He was far too refined to enjoy the place, but even he knew a job was a job.

She sighed, mentally sifting images to get a lay of the land; streets, loading docks, alleys. All empty. Their lengthened neglect was evidenced in trash and debris caught in their narrow wind-tunnels. Only living photographs might capture their entrapped eternities. Ever-spinning. Never-moving.

The tragedy was repeated on and through the whole, claustrophobic area via the light of a Hong Kong ghetto; low-lit with aged incandescence and the sheen of near-constant wetness oozing from the sea-air, rain or shine.

Altogether, an average, industrial image of a coastal fishing city sans one thing; people.

The target was different. Lit differently, more fluorescent. The bulbs were newer, conforming to codes or else looking right only at specific distances.

The differences were subtle, meant to be missed as pieces, but obvious and numerous otherwise. After seeing it that way, the building looked out of place; an art decco server-farm in northern wilderness. Stylistically fitting, but thematically off.

“Hidden,” Crystal said absently.

“Mmm,” Titus replied, sipping coffee. His tongue wished to recoil, but he held it firm. “Old friend’s place. Goes by once a month.”

She pushed and arranged images with her eyes to better fill the area’s blue-print. The tech caught on, instantly rearranged the photos properly.

“Storage?” Crystal mused.

“Near as I can tell.”

She played a vid; high angle images of a middle-aged man with olive skin in rain. Drone footage, Crystal guessed. Titus was good with tech; always knew the hottest gear. Usually, its designers too.

The mark emerged left-of-frame, crossed wet grounds. A tailored two-piece betrayed obvious wealth, putting him supremely out of place despite the emptiness.

“Done your homework,” Crystal said.

Titus let out a laugh.

The olive-skinned man approached a side-door. The tens tightened into two-second increments. Stills embedded in the film at each zoom. This stop-motion way allowed Crystal to observed the man approach a seemingly random section of warehouse wall and turn to face it. Frame-by-frame, flew at insane speed into filmstrips of stills faster than normal vid.

The man pressed a hand at a section of the warehouse’s sheet-metal wall. The narrow alley suddenly glowed with growing light. Nearby street sank, slid away, just wide enough for a small staircase. The man entered. It slid shut again.

“Feels familiar,” Crystal admitted, thinking of Angela’s garage.

“Same designer.”

“Friend of yours.”

He gave a casual nod, continued, “Problem’s the lock. Like your bike. Hand. Eye.”

She winced: biometrics were notoriously difficult to crack. Most common among wealthier, less-legally inclined folks and paranoid governments, there still weren’t many bypass measures. Some needed retinal scans. DNA. Voice-print. In any and every order. Usually with secondaries, key-codes, passphrases, print-scanners.

Cracking a biometric was a job in itself.

Most could be bypassed with enough, proper interaction with the mark; high-res 3D HUD scan converted to bypass a retinal scanner; conversation mined by aural implants for vocal phonemes; even prints or DNA lifted or taken with minimal interaction and proper tech.

Combining any of a number of them raised the difficulty almost exponentially. The trick was shadowing the mark long enough to get all of ’em at-once. Best way to do that, was a long con, or a slick hit.

Every thief worth their coin knew the best security was obscurity. Once that was gone, it was just a matter of time-vs-loot.

Most too, knew cracking a single biometric was generally key to a job. Most of its effort simply went into grabbing the key-sample to generate bypass from. Titus would’ve known that too. Unless he had something up his sleeve, Titus wasn’t the type to be unprepared.

He was too deliberate. The act of a job would be as much a message as the job itself for an… old friend. She guessed too, that was another reason he’d taken her along on it, to minimize chance that anyone else but the effected parties knew.

Her brows pivoted. She minimized her HUD to meet his gaze, “Rushing play? Risky.”

“Still in?”

“Still worth it?”

A smile gleamed over his sour coffee at the prod. She trusted him, that was what mattered. “Always.”

“Then, details, baby. Details.”

She slid the tablet away, simultaneously minimizing the remains of HUD to the unobstructed world. Business fell away to breakfast. The waitress approached, set down two, steaming plates. Titus took careful bites to test the food as he should’ve the coffee.

He ate with careful regard, “Dale show up last night?” Crystal chewed slowly. “Had ‘im pegged the moment he came in.”

He didn’t say, because I own the place.

She tossed back juice, waiting.

“You like ‘im?”

“No,” she said with a calm, firm-edge. “And I don’t expect to.”

“Wouldn’t think so.”

She raised a brow, “You know ‘im?”

“My job, Cee,” he slanged. His next words were exquisite, practiced eloquence. “Partnerships require contingencies.”

Crystal understood. More and more, Titus was a creature of mystery. It was the perplexing way of humanity. Something she’d missed over the years of isolation required by street-living, seemingly so simple outside, yet harboring such complexity.

She smiled, “And our contingency?”

“Depends on our partnership.”

Crystal flushed; she wasn’t sure why. Something in Titus’ tone. She hid a crooked smile and began to eat.

Breakfast passed in causal fashion, ended in a parting amid a cold, rising rain. Titus’ Turbo S shimmered morning-gray along royal violet in millions of beaded droplets collected across its planes and surfaces.

He chided Crystal with an offer for a ride. She fitted her helmet and zipped her leathers in reply. Isolated and half-smirking, she mounted and positioned the bike, then fired its engine. Only after masked and zooming away did she laugh.

The bike was designed and calibrated to her body. Everything from the tires to the gear-ratios to its shape were tuned to a profile she’d created and helped install. The bike was nothing but an extension of her.

Titus knew that; his contact had built it. Her ballistic woven coat and pants could mid-caliber bullets, negating even pelting rains at high-speeds. He knew that too…

Meaning there was more than just joke in the offer. Just as with the job. She couldn’t deny the curiosity growing within her.

Titus knew many people, why her? Why this job? Mixing business and pleasure? He was capable of it, certainly, and obviously found pleasure in her company beyond normal, professional capacities. Otherwise, he’d never have thought of her when the job came up.

But did it go beyond that?

Only time would tell, but the thrill was enough. She hadn’t been chased in a decade, let alone by anyone like Titus, ever. The obvious compliments put her in a mood good enough to be angry once it soured.

Back home, it did just that.

Lucas sat at the island, drunk, hoping to repeat the previous night at ten AM. He was alone. Angela was gone, prepping for Curie’s assignment. Lucas had sunken into the slump-shouldered hunch of the never-sober, professional gambler hoarding poor cards. The backless stool accompanied the shaggy dog glaze in his eyes. His breath sounded over small roll of grease creeping off him and onto his surroundings.

Judging by the sudden gleam Crystal received, he was near-to prowling too. Crystal readied herself as a cat arching to hiss. Two predators had met, would fight. One would lose, even if it was too stupid to realize it yet.

“Where is she?”

“Angie?” Crystal said nothing. “Gone. Dunno where. Didn’t ask.” He managed to stand without swaying, sauntered over with a grease-slick’s attempt at coolness. The still-oblivious predator moved to strike. “But uh, I got time, if you like.”

Crystal leaned in at him, a corner of her mouth cocked in a half-smile. She locked eyes with him, tempted him into fully revealing his intentions. He did, wet his lips with a flick of his tongue. She made it obvious she knew exactly what he wanted, and knew he knew it.

Then a quiet whisper, “Not even in your wildest dreams.”

He staggered back, eyes flashing shame, panic, anger. She’d already stepped past. Somewhere inside him he recognized what happened. He spun on heel to challenger her.

“Told Angie you liked cunt.”

Crystal didn’t bother looking back. “I don’t like you, do I?”

She slipped through the hall, into her room, leaving Lucas to fume.

Were he not alone, he’d have shattered the beer bottle on a wall. Instead he snarled, slugged back the rest, and slank toward the fridge.

Hard Lessons: Part 3

3.

Thrown for a Loop

Lucas Dale was  early 30’s, built like a party-addict. His gaunt cheeks sank beneath vein-covered eyes caught between violet and black. His day-old clothes reeked. Cheap booze and even cheaper, powdered soaps. Not unlike those stocked in dry-clean laundromats run as fronts for drug rings.

A hint of lime rolled off the air around him, warding off other stenches through the last, benevolent grace of a decrepit water-source. Crystal guessed one of the triad’s fronts along the coast as culprit. The kind of place a middling-triad’s wife ran as condolence for her otherwise pointless existence.

Few places around town fit the bill, but none of them were any qualifier near the word luxurious. In these places, warm water was a luxury; water, blood. Wherever Lucas that cheap washer was probably the first to touch his clothes in a week. Maybe more.

More than anything, Lucas reeked of trouble. It emanated from him, rolled off in auric waves. There was little doubt as to their authenticity or sources. He was clearly the type to burn you just as soon as look at you. That was the last type of person a thief needed around.

But he was Angela’s brother. That alone put Crystal at-odds with her instincts.

Angela was many things. Cold was not one. She tried to be, atimes succeeded, but ultimately her feelings were there, buried as circumstance forced or not. History dictated her ability to compartmentalize would run until the whole damned cabinet collapsed atop her. Whether the damage of that collapse was internal or otherwise, time would only tell.

That final reality gave Crystal pause, metaphorically speaking. Literally, she was zooming through Jackstaff on her S1000RR, attempting puzzle out her feelings. The specially modified 300 hp engine rocketed its ceramic plated carapace along curving, city-roads near 200 km/h. Crystal weaved it in and out of sparse traffic, feeling the ceramic plating float and drag with each swerve.

The armor had made the bike nearly a hundred pounds heavier, requiring an overhaul of the chassis and suspension specialized to the rider only. So long as they bypassed her biometrics, anyone in the world could have driven Crystal’s bike, but no-one could have ridden it.

It was her dragon. She its rider. Both knew the other intimately. They were two halves of a whole.

Crystal leaned across four, empty lanes. The bike floated over, onto the I-5 on-ramp for Arlington, the stretch to the 531 a few miles down-range. Then, the 9 toward 2 via the 204. Meet I-5 again. Done. Time.

Most people made the loop in an hour-ten. 55 minutes if they enjoyed the thrill of speeding.

Crystal had gotten her time to 23 minutes. Her average was 30 even. She still wasn’t sure how.

Presently, she didn’t care. All she wanted was to drive, puzzle out. It was dead-night racing through coastal Washington that taught her to appreciate the things the country’d gotten righ– even if it took a custom German super-bike to see it.

Crystal’s loop was one of those few, natural tracks formed of intersections in the amber-waves of grain and its crossroads. Most times, it was utterly abandoned, but always one of the few circuits where Crystal could relax, sooth herself with speed and gravity, reflex and focus.

She needed that now. Lucas had twisted her guts into knots. Angela’s state had caught her off guard. Perhaps that vulnerability weakened Crystal sympathetically. She didn’t feel weak though, only displaced. Perhaps the speed and ease with it was done was what upset her.

At that, Lucas most certainly did act expertly. There was no denying it. What little she’d heard of the conversation confirmed as much. Classic, emotional manipulation. Simple con. Reverse psychology. Get the mark to do what you tell them not to.

The same con any junked out addict used to pull wool.

Perhaps she was getting ahead of herself though. Part of her animosity was simply from being spurned, usurped as the person closest Angela. One could never compete with family, but Crystal was doubly effected by being replaced for it. By virtue of her own, familial ties– and lack there of, Angela was family. That Crystal might not be was distressing.

Perhaps it was jealously, envy.

Something still felt off though. She down-shifted three gears to make the first turn off I-5 onto the 531. Angry hornets burst forth from the bike as it raced up, into fifth gear, burning flatland toward HW9 a kim ahead. In minutes she’d be heading south, back toward Jackstaff and Angela.

And her brother…

Her HUD flashed an alert as she juked around an autocab. Things were becoming more and more common. Locusts hailing the oncoming wrath of Gods that was really nature retaliating for the shit done to it.

More of the annoyances and things would only get worse.

She weaved back in the darkness, thrust past and into oblivion. She didn’t need to see the automated, cockpit-less car. Auto-cabs were like everything else post-digital; symptoms of a failure to recognize the system’s inherent tendency toward collapse.

Its instability was caused by its attempts to mimick life, success. The automobile suceeded because it was a way of life and transport. It fit an image and a niche. Auto cars would never lay claim to something so powerful.

Especially in large metros, places like Jackstaff that had sprung up all through-out the world, they were in. They fit into the centers of tech and new hotness but fads were over. The fad was a fad itself. The great irony that was the fad’s own fate tainted America’s west coast as if a point of pride.

Embracing automation in rich, hipster-controlled areas? They and their offspring were as honor-bound as all those oil-baron offspring had been to gouge and murder. Angela agreed, often referring to them as Jonas’– pluarlized hipster copy-cats of their former, tech-head fence.

But even he knew no automation replicated the satisfaction of carrying one’s own ass at several hundred Kims an hour from point-A to point-B.

Crystal winced at an errant thought of Jonas’ dead body, slumped over his bloody keyboard. She revved the engine, raced toward the 204, gliding along an interchange onto a short high-way. A passing alert flashed her HUD; State Patrol in the oncoming lane, oblivious to her speed, impotent, or indifferent.

She was glad, didn’t care for tickets or plate-changes after running-off. Angela didn’t like it either; it meant building new identities for the bike plates. It was easier to take a ticket, let it go on the ID in question. It made it look real. Who didn’t have unpaid parking tickets in this fucking town?

Otherwise, there was never anything linking them to reality outside the plates themselves. The bike could be painted. Often was. And there were too many hot chicks in leather on bikes floating around for Crystal to be all that unique anympore.

But building identities cost more than speeding tickets. Crystal’d only run the cops to test the bike’s capabilities. Angela was still pissed. It was unnecessary heat. Crystal wasn’t about to argue, however ironic it was now.

Since then, she’d relied on her HUD to update her on nearby rollers and it was doing just fine.

She returned to I-5 and headed back into Jackstaff, the malingering still within her. By the time she’d reached the hidden alley-entrance to Angela, she’d decided to confront Angela. She wouldn’t fight her. Not yet.

But her feelings would be made clear.

The white-paneled, brightly-lit elevator sank to its matching garage. She zoomed toward the front of the garage, past Angela’s classic and modern cars. She tip-toed the bike back into place. It settled on its kickstand, ticking heat through its armored vent-slats.

She hung her helmet over the throttle. A turn of key and phrase locked it down. Biometrics engaged as she headed for the apartment, found Angela just inside, across the island counter from Lucas. Both had drinks, Lucas’ on his third from the empty bottles nearby. Crystal entered and their eyes went to her.

She deliberately ignored Lucas but nodded to Angela, then passed through for the corridor and her room beyond. Lucas watched her go.

“Roommate?”

“More or less.”

“More?” He slugged back a drink. “You banging?”

Angela rolled her eyes, “She’s straight.”

“So she says.” Angela didn’t laugh. Lucas slugged back another beer, “What’s ‘er problem? Didn’t even introduce herself.”

“S’been a long night. For both of us. She knows who you are. She’s giving us time.”

That was precisely Crystal’s intention. At least, until Lucas drank himself to sleep, which she knew he’d do. In the mean time, she showered redressed, and emerged from the grandiose guest bathroom– hers– immediately met with Arthur’s wood-shingle face.

“I don’ like ‘im.”

Crystal pushed past, “Doesn’t matter. He’s her brother.”

She stepped into her large room, filled with all the knick-knacks and gear considered necessities for work or living. She tossed dirty clothing aside. Arthur lingered in the doorway.

“We’re not allowed to have an opinion,” she added, keying at a high-end laptop on her oak desk.

“Ah, balls. I’ve lived here long enough –“

“To know nothing’s our business ‘til it’s made our business.”

He huffed, she was right. Youth tempered age as equally as it was tempered by it.

She threaded rings through her ears, lip, brows– things that couldn’t be worn during jobs without risking giving facial structure pinpoints. Face-recog and surveillance often extended to meeting places and contacts, exchanging merchandise and payment.

Hair color and style could change, but the less revealed about a facial structure, the less likely ID could be made. That was the entire purpose behind the anti-ID face-paint. The ultra-gray, metal-flaked paint scrambled facial recog-software, causing pinpointing errors, making it impossible to discern features from shadow.

The result was a scrambled mess that disallowed ID.

That thought alone made Crystal cringe; Lucas’ appearance. Arthur’s aged astuteness caught it. The curmudgeon may have been more wrinkled nowadays, but time had only honed his senses.

“You don’t trust ‘im.”

Crystal’s examined the various piercings she’d filled her face and ears with. “I didn’t say that.”

He grunted accusatory assent. “Nah, you didn’.”

She finished with a final, emplaced nose-ring, then faced him. “Arthur, I’m no fool. I can smell trouble a mile off. Especially nowadays. If Lucas isn’t trouble, there’s no nose on my face.”

Arthur’s throaty laugh prompted her to smile.

She continued, “But we can’t get between them. Not now. Not on a hunch. We watch. If he’s as bad as we suspect, he’ll slip up eventually.”

“Aye.”

“In the meantime, start looking into little brother’s history… quietly,” she stressed. “We need to know how he found us.”

Arthur nodded and stepped away, disappearing into his adjoined bed-bathroom down the hall. Crystal left her door cracked only enough to know if anyone were coming or going. The pair of empty rooms at the end of the hall usually reserved for visitors or other guests, as far as Crystal knew, had never been occupied. The beds were brand new, never used, but Arthur faithfully changed their sheets weekly, otherwise maintaining them for posterity, thoroughness.

When Crystal heard Angela lead Lucas past, there was a mild hesitation to the air outside. The slurring joviality of ‘Little Brother’ echoed down the hall as he was led to a room and settled inside it. The brief utterance of false gratitude, then Angela’s steps echoing off hardwood.

Angela hesitated outside, knocked. Crystal beckoned her in. She uncharacteristically lingered in the open door.

“Sorry it was so sudden,” Angela said with supreme vulnerability.

Crystal didn’t like it. No-one was supposed to make Angela like this. So far as she knew, only one subject– one person– ever had. In the time she’d known her, only the recollection of Julia’s death, her partner and lover, had shaken Angela in any considerable way. That way was thing Crystal never hoped to see again, and promised herself to ensure she wouldn’t have to.

Now Lucas had done it.

“You know, if you’d like, you can sleep in my room ‘til he leaves. Alone, I mean.”

Crystal was stunned by the obvious conflict. “Angela, you can talk to me, you know.”

“About what?”

Crystal was blunt, “This is your home. As much as you’ve opened it to me, ultimately, I have no say over what you do.”

“Cryst–“

“This isn’t my business. At all. At least, not until I have to risk my life to save yours.” Angela looked away, ashamed. Crystal pressed her, “All I’m saying is, something feels off. You haven’t seen your brother in twelve years. He suddenly finds you and now he’s staying in your house? Something’s off.

“It’s not like that,” Angela argued weakly.

“Just be careful.” Crystal stepped to her door, “Whatever it is, that’s how I see it. If the time comes, remember who’s been here and who hasn’t.”

Angela nodded distantly. She moved to walk away, but Crystal grabbed her hand, squeezed it. “I’m here for you. Just say the word.”

“Thanks,” she said weakly, more distant than before.

They parted. Angela wandered off, eyes forward hyper-focused mind consumed by something deeper than she knew how to contront. Crystal sat down at her laptop to run a few, last minute things before sleep.

The malingering in her gut returned. With it came a silent hope that Lucas’ stay would end– sooner rather than later.