Short Story: Dangerous Feeling

We are a generation of fatherless children. A generation so far lost in our own sadness and feelings of abandonment, we look only to each other.
This is the best possible outcome for the situation.
Because we. are. not. alone.

The Nuclear Family has erupted. Dad’s stopped coming home from work. Instead he visits the bars. Mom cries a lot. The other kids in the family cry, too. So we cry: we cry harder and louder than any of the others, unaware of why or how, but knowing we’re justified in it.
Then, Dad does come home, stinking. Too late after dinner– which we eat in front of the TV now. TV’s kind’a like Mom and Dad, ‘cause Dad’s always home late and mom’s always staring: out the window. Smoking. Folding Laundry.
Did she always smoke?

Dad finally detonates, taking the Nuclear Family with him.

He comes home later than usual one night. He stinks. It’s a bitter kind of stink. Like the stink after pulling a prank crossing from harmless to malicious, humorous to depraved.
Mom and Dad are screaming. We’re pulled out of the room, away from the loud noises. Sounds nearer-by try to drown them out. Deliberate sounds. Sonic equivalents of rocking back and forth hugging our head. There’s a lot of tension in our muscles and guts, and our bum doesn’t feel right– like we ate bad meat. Or suddenly developed stomach flu.
Twitches are present from then on. Subtle, yet obvious signs something’s not right.
The noises last a while, sort’a freezing us in time. We cry. The other kids don’t. The eldest runs off, able to. We envy but miss them, yet desire to remain. The other remains with us, choice-less, but too old and numb to cry. At least in front of us. Sometimes.
We cry a while instead, losing sense of time in the chaos outside that eventually dies down– enough for the arms to come away from the ears, if yet the rocking continues.

I am dangerous: I feel.

The other keeps us occupied. Somewhere inside, we know it’s a distraction: an attempt to help process. Conscious or not, even if we do not understand the terms, the knowledge is there. The underlying concepts, undeniable, immutable.

These are not things to understand, the other teaches.

I am dangerous: I feel.

Dad goes away. He’s gone a long time. He doesn’t ever come back to stay. We have to go see him somewhere else. A place that isn’t home. There are strange people there. Ones that seem to know us, greet us, like family.
I have never met them.
We start learning a lot in a short time. Big words we’re not supposed to hear or understand. Words we’re not allowed. Why?

I am dangerous: I feel.

Strange people come and go: New ones. Old ones. Elderly ones. Young ones like us. Those we like best. They, too, seem to be confused on things. We don’t speak to them much, but we like them. We make fools and fiends of ourselves. We don’t know why.
There are new places too. Places that seem strange, even for irregular people like we’ve become. Places with men in robes. Rows of chairs. Men with badges and guns. The kind that guard. All of them look unhappy to be there, so we play along. Mostly, we’re glad Mom and Dad are in the same room.
But then, later, the fighting again. Walking away alone this time.

These are not things to understand, the other echoes.

I am dangerous: I feel.

There are only a few more new people now. Some like us: younger. The others seem to have settled in their places for now. Dad is with them. We still do not know them. We know she is not Mom, yet acts as her– as if to usurp.
Snake.
We don’t like the other young one. Dad pays it our attention. We begin to cry again, more often. What is happening here?

I am dangerous: I feel.

Dad does not try to sugar coat it. Anything. He never again candy-coats a single word or behavior. This, we understand, is growing up. This is the realm of the Adult. Of the sweary-mouthed sailor-comic and the naked-chested cable lady.
It is a brave new world, someone says.
Mom says otherwise. In fact, she screams it. Everything. If she is not screaming, she is crying. Often, she is doing both together. Sometimes, we do too. Sometimes the other leads us away. Still other sometimes we wander off alone.

Until we begin to break the golden rule:

These are not things to understand, the other echoes.

But we do. We are not sure how, but we do. We are also certain on how to fix these things, but no-one wants to listen. Or is willing to stop scream/crying or stink-snaking long enough to listen.
Mom is not happy. Dad is not happy. We are not happy. Nor are the other or eldest, whom we see less and less. These are not good things. These are the baddest of bad. So why can’t we come together and prevent it? Why can’t we listen?

I am dangerous, I feel.

Slow and subtle, we feel the creep of something. An anonymity. A dreadful yearning for attention. Not ours. Elsewhere. Distractions. We wish for the night and darkness. To command fear and dread so we no longer live with tension in our muscles and tendons and bones and bum and guts.
It comes from the loins. Sometimes, late at night. We think of the naked-chested cable lady, and those things the sailor-comic swore about her. It warms us. We like it. We make it warmer. It feels good. Like awakening.
We mention it to others like us. We know that’s how it works. Somehow. Instinct, someone says. An old person word. Something to do with the warmth, awakening.
The one not like us feels good, but so does the one like us. We like warmth. We later hear words that harden but do not frighten about this. Our feelings remain unchanged, though we become more excluding, excluded.

I am dangerous, I feel.

We learn things as unusual. We believe otherwise. Feel otherwise. We exclude more. Seek only others that find night and darkness, full warmth, and sailor-comics and naked cable-ladies exciting. We join groups, bands, form tight cliques that last us decades yet form or crumble in moments.
We go through so much so quickly, and with everything else, it is impossible to know if we’ll ever come to see it all. We are not meant for this speed. And we are far beyond our realms of understanding, still hung up on…

These are not things to understand, the other echoes.

I am dangerous, I feel.

The night is sanctuary. It hides all depravity. No-one around means no-one to watch. They would not anyhow. Mom is rarely home. The other keeps us in line, fed. They are mom-sis. It is difficult. The shift is natural enough with the chaos around.
Mom works now too. It is hard. She’s not paid well. Mom-sis cannot work. She helps how she can, mostly with us. Eldest does too.
Family must support each other: this is said often. Loudly. And proudly.
Mostly it is said with a kind of wanting sorrow. A feeling we know all too well. The feeling of stink-snaking and scream/cries beneath mad-eyed smiles.

But the darkness absolves us of all. We don’t fear the others there. We feel only the warmth we surround ourselves with. We meet new people that like the warmth too. And we join the warmth however we can. We seek happiness in them because we know we won’t find it at home.
We ride forever and ever. One day is the same as the next. Night is the goal, always. Riding and running for days so nights can be warm and colorful. The days are colored no less for it. Somewhere is still an uneasiness. Tenuous for now, but at-peace.
We know it will come back again. When, we can’t say. Gut feeling says so. The one time teaches. That says the sun rises and sets. That we can trust in that, if nothing else.
The others like us, feel the same.

I am dangerous: I feel.

We become attached to a specific few. Time is spent mostly with them, or alone. They are all like us, forced into place without regard. We bond. This begins a cycle best summarized thus:

Here we go again!! what’s the point again?

Inside we are day. Outside we are night. Neither bothers us, or is any less us than the other. We ride two-ality like radical waves cause our futures so bright we gotta wear shades.
Something like that.
Knowledge comes quicker and quicker. Easier. Reading is fun. Taking time between two other things: writing, games– all stories.
Stories never wither.
Mom still cries and screams. Dad is meaner now. He says things he shouldn’t. He makes mom-sis cry. He makes Mom cry. He makes us cry. We dislike Dad. But we love him. He is Dad.
This two-ality can’t coast, bro…
We cry more. Again. Start to understand. What was hidden. Uneasiness. Out of placeness. Missing confidence. Something we never felt before.

I am dangerous. I feel.

We become excluding again, but do not stop. Ever. It is now a trait to seek almost solely the night. Warmth. Color. Exuberance. It is color that we see mom-sis embrace. It is not ours, but her own. It suits her.
We like our colors anyway. Some don’t. We understand this is why we must be excluding. Stink-snaking is a bloodsport with innocent bystanders. Like war. Which we love to understand. It is depraved. Like us. A thing of night and hot blood and passion. Corrupted innocence incarnate, which we now know ourselves to be.

It’s never to hurt. No. But like the joker whom pranks with the squirt of a flower, meant to be innocent, amusing. Showing of a sort of twisted affection only those that understand us can understand. Most do. Eventually. Even the ones that pretend they don’t, do too.
We’re not their type, but a prototype. Above they and the rest. Something tells us this. We don’t believe it. Though it is true, we don’t learn it for some time. How. Why. For now, we remain prototypical and in demand, yet plagued with failure.
Mom and Dad notice. They have no room to judge. Mom-sis notices too. Eldest is absent. All are upset.

Here we go again!! What was the point again?

I am dangerous: I feel.

And so it goes for longer than we can comprehend. Time is flashes. Television Mom and Dad. Mom-sis on the cello-lin. Lots of scream/crying. Stink-snaking. Bloodsports.

Here we go again: What was the point again?

Reading. Writing. Learning. Discussing. Seeking warmth. Often not finding it. Having it teased just out of reach. Prototype or not, frustration builds. We isolate and exclude further, never minding.
We begin to hide things. Make secrets. Lay plans. We break rules and push limits and test boundaries like never before. Night always comes and with it hides our indiscretions. Then, after the coming of day, the here-we-go-again-go-round absolves us. Day is white. Night is black. Color is everything around.
We fight. We love. We hate. We swear and smoke and drink and spit and swallow and fuck and forget and forgo and hope and dream and scream and cry and laugh and kiss and tell lies and make stories, and all to fill the void between the two-ality of things, the duality of things.
We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the universe.
Until darkness comes, and sadness falls, and betrayal abounds. We partake in it all, because we know we can and we’re allowed. Until we’re accused of excess for wanting to suckle the teats of knowledge so forcefully fed to us, and appreciated.

Something happens. More new people. Others leaving. Some gone, come back again. Others remain unchanged. Still more hurt, and hollow, desecrate and deconsecrate. Dad stays. Mom and mom-sis go away. No-one is the same again.
We are something different now. Swaddled in hate. Something changed and rabid. Weaponized. Something turned from pure, innocent, into corrupt and vile. Made vicious by pain, fetid wounds. Battered and broken. Manipulated and hurt. We are all these things.
But perhaps now…

These are not things to understand, the other echoes.

I am dangerous, I feel.

Depravity drives us. We know it well. It is simple. Animal. It is the chaos of the universe at its core. Always decaying, always eroding. Chasing the dragons of a million uninterrupted myths and legends. Then, questions. More questions. Always questions. Why so many questions?
We don’t know why we’re forced apart, the night and day. The day and night. As if the two were inseparable. Like Gemini: twins, kindred spirits. Redeemers and destroyers. Bitch and bastard. We only know that there’s ridicule, that the prototype is malfunctioned.
It is not, but we do not know that. In all the here-we-go-again-go-rounding and excess of intake, experiment, and evaluate, we lose something. A focus. A clarity.

I’m told it’s the drugs. I don’t believe that. I know the truth…

I am dangerous: I feel.

We go back and forth, round again. Wounds. Weeping. Love, swooning. Mom and mom-sis bleed. Eldest screams. We cannot look back: the trail of failed prototype parts is too hard to bear for the loss incurred.

Anything can be rationalized by a mad enough man.
I know. I did it.

We are dangerous: We feel.

We cannot go back to what we were. So we move forward. How? Inclusion. One specific. To replace one lost, and with hope, build toward what we hope to be the crowning future. That which sees day turned to night and night, day, and color and warmth and vibration all as one.
For a prototype is, if nothing else, a showpiece for some avid collector. Finding one is a surprise. Finding a good one is a miracle. She’s the latter. He would be too. Time and distance are dictators and love is what makes the world go ’round.

The danger is not that we feel. The danger is that others do, too. That vastly complicates the web of possible interaction, and no doubt befuddles the mind. Especially for mass-production models.
Prototypes though, have features not included in mass-market versions. Simply, they’re too unstable. Mostly, in the Human sense, they’re difficult to come by as a result of genetic mutation.
But every once in a while, you get one. A whole line of ’em, even. And the best thing you can do, is run ‘em dead. Not just for their sake, but everyone’s. It’s an unfortunate fact of a prototype’s existence, that it is not for itself that it exists. Rather, it is for the masses that will soon come under its designs– the ones that appeal broadly.
The great tragedy of life is that this reality of possible-pains exists. The great comedy is that tragedy’s spawning of something far greater and grander than itself.
Duality at its purest.
Where that may lead us, no-one yet knows, but we can say for certain two things….

We are dangerous: we feel.

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Hard Lessons: Part 17 (Conclusion)

17.

Mr. Brownstone

The Roadrunner screamed to a stop outside an abandoned, Happy-Fish packing-warehouse. Wyatt had done his part at least. Titus’ Custom Porsche came to a rest beside him, its high-performance tires and brake-systems able to stop on a dime, in silence.

The trio piled out at top-speed. Angela led. She crossed the distance to the doors in a stride. Another put her through a door, at the edge of a warehouse floor. Across it, Lucas stood before a heavily pierced and tattooed ganger. His ink was old, faded; an O-G, surviving on wit– and the wide line of enforcers around him.

Ganger-contractors were the real thieves; running protection to people they’d murder in their sleep for a better fee. More often though, they just cut their bosses enemies to pieces and stuffed them into cement-filled drums. Gruesome, but effective.

The trio’s sudden appearance prompted a drawdown.

Unarmed, Lucas blurted in shock, “Angela!?”

The dealer drew on him. “Fuck’s goin’ on? You fuck us?”

“N-no, this is–“

“His sister.” Angela stepped forward, a modded-Sig trained on the dealer.

The dealer grew a sardonic smile. “Oh, little sister coming to reconcile with junkie brother, eh?”

“Big sister, actually.”

“Oh, big sister. My bad. My bad.” Then, with a shout and spittle, “Bullshit! My deals don’t go South. Get out, bitch!”

Lucas pled, “Angie, just go.”

“You stole something from me, Lucas,” she said, eyes on his. “I need it back.”

“I talkin’ to a pair of deaf ‘n blind street-rats!? I said, fuck off!” The dealer spat.

They ignored him. The room twitched, bowing with anxiety. Its various players eyed one another, their leaders. Lucas reached a hand for the tablet in his pocket. The room broke into shouts. Lucas froze.

The dealer laughed, “Finally, some recognition. Aye? How d’you know I won’t just shoot him?”

“You do, you die. You’re not that stupid.” She knew his type. “You still want his cash. Can’t have it if you’re dead. Won’t get it if you hurt him.”

The dealer laughed, lips pursed and rocking, impressed she’d deigned his thoughts. “I think I might like you, sis, but you still gotta’ fuck off. Junkie, give sis her shit so we can get this on with.”

Lucas hesitated.

“Go on fuck-wit. Move it along. Got brown to move.”

Angela kept her gun level, eyes flashing. Lucas started forward; the dealer caught the flash, stopped him. “Ho, ho, wait, Esse.” He’d tasted desperation on the air. “Sis, what good’s a little piece’a shit like this to you?”

“Lucas, bring it,” she said, carefully.

“Nah, Lucas, stay.” The dealers gun leveled on him a hand. The other drew the tablet from Lucas’ pocket. “Good boy, Lucas. Sit. Stay.”

The air thickened.

The dealer thumbed the tablet with one hand, “Now, me, I’m thinking, big sis gets her crew together, brings ‘em ‘ere to get somethin’ from little bro. Risks a deal. Means he’s carrying somethin’ important. Somethin’ she wants back. Bad.

“Right, mi hermanos?

His crew nodded mischievously. He hefted the tablet in a hand, the other firm at Lucas. “I’m thinkin’ this might be worth somethin’ to her. Or someone her crew works for. Aye?” He leaned toward Angela in a hush, “Catchin’ on, am I sis?

Angela’s body tensed, rigid, “Yeah. You are.” Her face tightened, sharpened. “You won’t get out of here with it. Give it now, we all walk away. Make your deal. Don’t. Otherwise… what’s another sour deal in Jackstaff?”

He mmm’d and stepped back shaking his head, gun on Lucas, “I dunno, sis. Sounds like a threat to me. What’chu think mi hermanos? Big sis got a hard-on for putting money where her mouth is?”

Lucas twitched at the agreement, his fear and detox growing, “Let’s all jus–“

“Shut up, Lucas,” Angela ordered.

The dealer mocked her with a grating, nasal tenor, “Aye, shut up, Lucas. Big kids’re talking.”

“You walk out with that, you’re worse off than if I killed you,” Angela warned.

“Dead men don’t have no problems, sis,” he said, eyeing the tablet. “Live men on the other hand, got bankroll. Make me an offer.”

“I just did; your life.”

He laughed; deeply and uproariously, tablet held to one side of his head, mid-air. “Big sis ain’t gonna risk lil’ bro over–“

His skull’s innards splat across the tablet, spraying air with a passing slug and a paste of blood, bone, and brain. The dealer’s body crumpled.

The room was frozen save Curie’s John. He appeared alongside the bullet’s obvious source: one of a cadre of heavily armed men in fatigues. The enforcers were still processing. The John’s men raised their weapons, said nothing. The John strolled toward the newly unemployed posse, catching them before they’d grasped reality.

He projected to be heard, “I am a reasonable man. Our associate here was not. The police are on their way. You have precisely ten seconds to flee or we will open fire. Ten… Nine.”

He continued to count. One of the dealer’s men fled. The rest aimed, dove for cover. A wall of fire cut two down before they were in, the rest scrambled.

Angela tackled Lucas. She huddled over him, ballistic-weave coat fanned to shield them from the automatic weapons rattling and chattering overhead. Semi-automatic barks of low-caliber pistols answered back in sparse desperation.

Titus and Crystal kept down at one side of the warehouse’s edge. The John’s wall of fire was continuous, unrelenting.

“Let ‘em work it out, Cee,” Titus instructed, gun ready.

It took only seconds longer for them to cut down what remained of the dealer’s people.

Then, choking silence.

Crystal and Titus rose slightly. Angela and Lucas eased themselves up. Lucas was utterly stunned, but Angela was waiting, curious if the John would kill them too.

The John instructed a man at his left, “Mister Norman, if you please.”

Norman stepped over and rolled the dealer’s corpse sideways, exposing his grisly death-face and the cracked-eggshell state of his head. Norman collected and wiped the tablet, handing it to the John. He removed his card from its side, reached into the inner-pocket of his jacket, and exchanged it for a USB stick. With indefatigable grace, he stooped to place the stick on the floor before Angela.

“A job well done, Miss Dale. My regards to the Madame.”

The John was gone before the distant sirens forced them to flee.

Lucas lagged behind the others, panting and running, but too focused on the stash he’d stolen off the dealer.

No point letting it go to waste.”

Angela sent Crystal with Titus, fled with Lucas in the Roadrunner. She drove until she was sure they weren’t followed, then pulled over in a nondescript alley to breathe. Meanwhile Lucas prepped a and snorted a lump of brown. Seconds later, he was calm, collected.

Angela waited for his head to clear before it fogged up again.

He smiled, “That was wild. What the hell was that? I mean, I knew you were–“

“Get out of my car.”

His face fell off. “Huh?”

“I said, get out of my car. Now.” She safetied the Sig in her lap. “If I see you again, and you’re not clean, I’ll turn you in. I swear on my life, Lucas. I survived our childhood because of you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out with me, but I loved you then and I love you now.

“So get out, and stay away from me.”

“Angie? What’re you–“

She wasn’t listening.

“You could already die for what you know. Get out. Otherwise, I don’t want you here. Take Wyatt’s money, the Dealer’s brown, and get the fuck outta’ my city.”

He was visibly hurt, “Angie, I–“

She hardened with finality, “Get clean or don’t. I love you, but I don’t care. Go.”

Mechanical habit forced him from the car. He watched, slack-jawed as the car trundled off through pouring rain and steam-frosted air. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way. Angela knew that. Either you learned ‘em, you died trying to, or you were killed failing to.

Hard lessons, but important lessons.

18.

Never Go Home Again

Crystal and Titus stood across from Arthur at the island counter. Arthur was relaxed, more-so than the others; as if a sudden weight were lifted from them all, but him most of all.

Crystal figured it for the best, “Angela left. She say anything about it?”

Arthur shook his head. “No, but I know why.” He looked to Titus, “We may need help.”

Titus slugged back beer, curious nonetheless. “Details?”

“Have any contacts in CPS?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, turned to meet a similar expression in Titus.

*

Seattle was a big city. Bigger than ever these days. It was obvious the sprawl was taking over. Approaching metros was like coming in for cross-country landings; the highways forcing you to taxi a holding pattern until you could be pointed to a terminal. Save they did it with traffic jams and convoluted loops of concrete that made sense on paper, but not in practice.

It was no wonder auto-cars were taking over; they were just plain simpler.

In spite of everything though, Seattle never felt less like home. Unfortunately for Angela, that wasn’t necessarily a pleasant thing. She loved the city itself, but returning was like standing on hot coals while force-fed milk and honey. It took all of her emotional control not to treat it like walking straight into a lion’s den.

Guns weren’t an option here though.

To Angela’s credit, better than anyone might expect, even if she felt differently. She’d been fighting to figure out her approach. Eventually, she decided on winging it. Improv was her forte, after all.

Just past midday, she stepped through the doors of an old, back office to speak with the woman there. She was pretty, if plain, and brimming with all the pleasantness of over-educated civil servants finally meeting intellectual stimulus again. The woman disappeared a few moments later.

An eternity of hand-wringing later, she reappeared with a young girl in tow.

Alison was an almost perfect duplicate of Angela at her age; primly groomed, bicep-long curtain of hair, bright teeth and fresh braces. Thick, conservative clothing covered roughly every inch of the rest of her, like some pseudo-modern take on a puritan-pride ad. All the same, that image missed one subtle but crucial thing.

That one thing hinted itself with flashes of gold beneath Ali’s collar.

Few might have caught it, but Angela’s attention to detail was beyond the realm of most’s imagination. That last detail also made Angela’s heart ache. She knew the habit, had it herself through childhood– was partly why, despite her piercings and eccentricities, she’d never taken to necklaces.

She despised the cross, all it stood for. Ali did too. Hiding it was the only vigil of rebellion open. Angela knew her parents, knew Alison wouldn’t have been allowed a scrap of unsanctioned writing, let alone a diary. Thus she expressed herself the only way she could.

She entered the room with grace, poise. Her eyes were on the counselor. She never even noticed Angela; never expected anyone to come for her, let alone her own sister. Angela’s heart broke, its effect felt in the sudden turn Ali gave.

Her eyes met Angela’s, widened, “A-Angie?”

Tears welled, duplicated by sisters separated by a generation of suffering and now rejoined to heal. It was safe to say Alison remembered her, only time would tell if she could forgive her.

Hard Lessons: Part 16

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

Dawn was growing. Its rays warmed the slick, half-frost formed atop the days of rains from the cooling wind. Angela had done all she could from home. Waiting longer only worsened matters. She’d rallied her people, whom were pinging various contacts or prepping for the shit-storm to come. She had only one decision to make now.

One that might well destroy her– to say nothing of her brother.

Angela stood before the three people she’d asked for help; those she trusted most and who’d gone out of their way for her; she for them. Even if one were as close to coworker as she could have, his disposition assured he reciprocated. After all, the others were technically her employees, were more family now than not.

None of that changed that three of the four of them could soon easily lose their livelihoods, possibly, their lives.

Angela took a deep breath, eyed Titus at one side of the island. He gave a resolute nod and dialed a cell phone. The inbuilt encryption took an extra moment to engage before the call was made.

Titus spoke without ceremony, but deep respect, “Madam, we may have a problem… No. Yes, Dale. The younger one, yes… Yes.”

Among other things, the half-conversation confirmed Curie had known of Lucas’ presence. Possibly everything since. How didn’t matter, only her reaction. That she’d obviously anticipated the issue was evidenced in the short time it took to reach Angela.

The inevitable moment came. Titus handed Angela the phone. She took a deep breath, lifted it to her ear, and gave a long, hard blink.

“Yes, Madam?”

“Listen well, Angela. I will say this once; you have damaged my trust in you.”

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

“However, given circumstances we’ll continue to do business, provided you retrieve the merchandise and answer one question honestly. If it is learned this answer is false, our relationship will be terminated, as will your access to my resources and contacts. Is that understood?”

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

Curie’s charisma was aged, fine wine; the result of decades of the politesse of shadow dealings.

Her lethality was something else. Something supernatural. It cut through the audio compressed encryption, the distance– the whole damned universe, and held a knife to Angela’s throat. Then with still-water clarity, it became firm and mechanical.

“Is it remotely possible your sibling might have been working to compromise you? Think deeply. Answer honestly.”

Angela hesitated for several reasons. Chief among them was the question’s curious nature. It’d never occurred to her Lucas might be a plant. Especially now, it was obvious his focus was solely on one thing. Before, she’d been unwilling to admit what that one thing had been. Now, she knew if she didn’t admit, Curie would kill him.

Almost for that reason alone, she was willing to say no. Still, she hesitated. Respectfully more than anything. Curie’s mechanized confrontation with it meant, she was now staking her life on her feelings, whatever they were.

In other words, was she certain her brother wasn’t an imposter of sorts?

Angela knew for certain no-one on Earth– not even were Julia alive, could have so thoroughly duped her. The person she’d met, let her stay in her home, was Lucas. Warts and all, as they say. Which also meant she wouldn’t believe he was any more than a junked-out, manipulative loser running from debt.

That hard truth’s silver lining firmed her response, “No, Madam.”

A slight hesitation, as if Curie were eyeing fresh ink on a contract. “Very well.”

Her tone shifted as if akin to a sentencing, “Then meet the buyer. Explain the situation. I will arrange the details but he will deal with you as he sees fit. Though you remain under my protection for now, I stress that this is your mess. You are to clean it as quickly and discretely as possible or I will.”

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

“You have breached etiquette. As such, you’re to take full responsibility. The buyer will be informed of this, but I expect you to address it as well. Ensure it never happens again.”

“Thank you,” she replied, suppressing the lump in her throat as her should-be severed head mysteriously attached.

She returned Titus’ phone. He stepped out to confer privately with Curie. Five, long minutes of utter silence bridged the gap to his return. No-one breathed. No-one wished to. Crystal watched Arthur, whom scrutinized Angela: her pale face glistening from eyes catching stray light through distant thoughts.

Titus returned quietly, shelling out a series of instructions and insisting they break for sunrise topside, immediately. Crystal and Angela would meet the buyer together. The former would while the latter explained things. It was as much for Angela’s protection as anyone’s.

Besides, Crystal’s identity was irrelevant. She had nothing to do with the job. The premature meeting and its circumstances were suspicious enough, compounding that with paranoia of an ambush was foolish. So, she rolled to an idle purr outside an old florist’s shop. The Roadrunner’s 440 echoed off the not-quite-abandoned-nor-painted part of town.

Her HUD disappeared to see Angela better. “Ping if you need me.”

Angela noticed, breathed gratitude. She slipped out alone. Crystal suddenly understood the old mafioso, their fears of being wacked.

Angela pulled open the darkened, empty interior of a former florists shop. The place was littered with the refuse of a thousand dead plants, sticks, and crumbling tendrils of ivy. The place was so long dead, even the mold had dried out.

A middle-aged man awaited her just inside; familiar, but in the manufactured way. A hit for the Man Zi Tong? A revenge play. No. He wasn’t armed, it was obvious. He thought himself above it. The vague hint of something scholastic to the air convinced her otherwise. He gazed up at the highest draping point of a once-grand kudzu, now withered to nothingness.

“Ms. Angela Dale, I presume?” He said, almost languidly.

She affirmed, and after a moment of respetful silence, explained her purpose there.

He replied with a discipline so stiff, it could only have been garnered from whatever scruples his illicit activities eroded or formed in him. “As I told your Madam, it is a most displeasing situation. However, I was assured you would rectify it. Unfortunately, she does not understand the extent of the severity this mis-step represents.”

“She does,” Angela corrected respectfully with a slight bow. “As do I.”

“Yet the problem remains.”

“Forgive me, but however unfortunate it is, it is coincidental rather than engineered. I promise this much to you.”

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

A gut-punch, but hardly undeserved. She took it well enough, “Be that as it may, one does not punish the child for the warzone it finds itself within.”

He seemed ready to cut. His eye rose, teeth grit. He’d been bested– worse, stalemated. At least defeat was a reason to flip up the board and storm off.

Angela knew types like this, well-off Asians from homelands where life was discipline or death. Ideological languages of the Samurai and Shaolin Warriors were filtered through them via a sieve of generations of force-fed shadow-dwelling, its effects.

Angela continued formally, “As offender, it is my duty to mediate I will have the merchandise soon. This is merely a formality to ensure any blame falls where it belongs.”

He gave a single, deep nod, recognizing her flexibility to his customs, then frowned. “Be that as it may, the importance of these matters must be accounted for. Thus, my associates are forcing me to take it into my own hands. As you were no doubts informed, I can do you no harm nor hindrance without also scorning the Madam.

“As I’ve no desire to do either, you may leave unharmed to find … your brother.”

It came from his mouth with such repulsion Angela swallowed to clear it from her own tongue.

He continued thus; “Meanwhile, I will be seeking my merchandise. Rest assured, as you will find your brother soon, I will find it. Whether these two conflict is entirely up to you.”

Angela winced, concealing her fury poorly. The John about-faced and disappeared through a back door. Angela did the same through the front and slid into the Roadrunner with her gaze averted. Crystal waited. The car’s comm rang. Angela answered, toggled it to she and Crystal’s comms with a thought.

“You have something.”

Arthur echoed in their ears, “Not him. Locale. City-feed around midnight, he–“

“Arthur, the point please,” Angela said, audibly distressed.

He grumbled a reply, “The Factory. Meet Titus there.”

“That shit hole? I should’ve known.” Crystal was already heading for The Factory.

The ride was short, padded between bouts of Angela’s random, furious swearing. Crystal guessed her thoughts fed her fury, but didn’t much care to know the particulars. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway, better to stay focused and keep from getting hit by shit, than try to redirect the fan.

They pulled up in the strip-joint’s lot. The gray shadows left the Factor unchanged despite the daylight hour, making Angela wonder if the place’s sordid patronage ever left. Gut instinct doubted it; parasites rarely abandoned hosts.

Titus approached the car and Angela specifically, his hand out. “Cee and I will handle this.”

“Titus–“

“Your brother, your game. But we’re out of time. You want him back? Leave this to me.”

She bit her tongue, acquiesced and sat still. She watched the pair as she fidgeted and squirmed, idly.

Crystal eyed Titus as they approached the door. “Plan?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

“No,” he said firmly, hesitating outside. “Wyatt’s a fixer. Cap him, you’re rogue. Has to be me.”

She gave a reticent nod, then pulled the door open. He stepped in with an authoritative spine, led her along the hall toward the club-proper. He surveyed the room with a wide sweep, located Wyatt, and headed straight for him.

The club’s never-ending procession of grease-balls and their eyes tracked his every step. They split toward Crystal; grease sloughing off air after her only to meet her leather’s thick armor instead.

“Ah! Titus,” Wyatt said with a grimy smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you.” He offered Titus a seat, half-sarcastically.

Titus took it all in stride; firm, indifferent, but with an obvious aura of threat Emilio all but disregarded. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Wyatt asked, shit-eating grin knowing damned well who.

Titus warned, “I won’t repeat myself.”

The slime-ball smile grew across Wyatt’s face, giving him the wide-mouthed grin of cartoon villains and fools. Somehow, it made him more disgusting. Crystal guessed Wyatt was the type of person the archetype was created for. Were it not for his obvious middle age, she’d have thought him the inspiration for even the eldest representations.

Wyatt suddenly sneered. “That’s right, Titus. You won’t. And neither will I.” He produced a cigarette, then drew over a reeking candle, hesitated to light it from its flame. “I’m not telling you shit.”

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

His face slammed the lit candle, shattering it. Crystal reacted, drawing her TMPs to spin about on the room that was drawing and diving for cover. Titus forced Wyatt’s bloody forehead against the table, shoving glass into it and forcing a pistol against his neck. He gave a wet squeal. The room froze.

Titus’ strength forced through the accumulated grease on the back of Wyatt’s neck to grip it like an iron vise. The semi-auto barrel pressed Wyatt, an unwavering certainty of death at any further bullshit.

“You’re alive because others deem it so. That can change. No-one will argue with Curie if I take you out. And she won’t argue with me if she feels I did what was necessary. That is the price you pay for operating the way you do. Everyone here knows it.”

Wyatt was instantly a weasel squirming along a table in its own blood and grease. Crystal’s hands were firm, ready.

“Alright. Alright!” Wyatt intoned, blinking at blood and glass. “Dale’s brother. Came in looking to score. Gave him some cash. Favor for a favor sort of thing.”

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

“Why not?” The vise tightened. He groaned, “Really. Baby Dale owing me a favor. Why pass that up? Everyone knows I wanna cut that bitch down a peg.”

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

No one heard her. At least, no-one admitted to it.

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

“I can’t do that, Titus. Be as good as snit–” Titus’ grip tightened again. “Argh! Alright. North-docks. Abandoned warehouse. Smiley squint-eyed fish. Can’t miss it.”

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

The first hints of actual sincerity entered Wyatt’s tone, “Yeah. Guy didn’t have a time. Kid didn’t mind. Gave ‘im a hold over. He was… shaking. Detoxing. While we were talking. Dealer’s smaller time but he needed a score too. Big enough to pack heat though, so I didn’t ask questions.”

Titus prepared to release him, “I find out you’re dicking me, I’ll be back.”

Titus released him. Crystal lowered her weapons. The room eased back into motion, however slowly from now-cooler grease. A few kept their weapons drawn to show the others their way out. The pair couldn’t have been happier to oblige.

They exited the club, met Angela, then got the hell out.

They split up in two cars headed for the nearby deal. City-feeds showed someone was there. If the feeds’ last few hours were to be trusted, so was Lucas. Angela could only hope they got there before the deal ended… or Curie’s John showed up.

Hard Lessons: Part 15

15.

Loyalty

Angela’s active comm signal bounced off a string of wifi and radio towers between the apartment and their warehouse above. It spring-boarded to a cable satellite, encrypted by a digital, one-time pad and unreadable to any. It then plummeted to Earth again, landing across Jackstaff and into Crystal’s comm.

All of it in real-time, with no intervening system aware of the relay. The call was a fading ghost in a machine.

Angela explained everything about Lucas in as few words as possible.

“I’m on it. We’re finishing up,” Crystal said, jamming a tripod into a duffel bag. Titus tossed her something. Her reflexes activated, “I’ll meet you after the drop.”

“Thank you, Crystal,” Angela said, humbly.

“Haven’t done anything yet,” she admitted.

Comm-stats shrank to nothingness on her HUD. Titus grabbed the last of their gear, headed downstairs. Crystal checked her pistol, then followed him down the stairs two at a time. The rain was at full-strength now, had been for an hour.

Nearing the door was like approaching Niagara on a turbulent day. Stepping out into more-so.

Titus tossed gear into a car-trunk parked as close as possible to the door, “Plan?”

Crystal projected over rain, “Keep moving ’til the buyer’s there.”

“I’ll ping you the details.” He started for the driver’s door, instantly drenched. “Stay sharp. Stay safe.”

Titus’ rent-a-car started off. He’d specifically taken it for to keep his Porsche from sticking out. Whether to Saito or some local snooping around, the car was like a shard of glass in the gut. Crystal, on the other hand, was an unknown. Her bike looked like countless others, no matter how modded, allowing it to blend in anywhere.

She stepped into the ever-pouring Niagara and disengaged her biometrics. A ping from her HUD woke the bike. The starter stuttered then roared, bringing over sixty-cubic inches to life. The rear-wheel squealed, left rubber steaming in cold rain atop the small rise where it peeled.

Crystal did her best to race a loop of Jackstaff. Even she wasn’t tempting the fates tonight. She stayed on the insides and middles, at half speed. Slicked-wet Northwest coasts meant one slide and plummeting to a painful death. Else rural, inland highways where animal life was abundant and stupid, humans not excepting.

Urban and Sub-urban grids, human-progress; she snorted a laugh to herself behind her helmet.

She completed a loop, then made for the next. Her favorite– the same she’d raced after Lucas had shown up. It felt an eternity since she’d managed that last, 26 minute run. Not great, not terrible. But impossible now. Even if the rain was letting up now that she was further inland, she doubted it could be even that quick tonight.

Everything since her last circuit felt impossible. Mere days had formed lifetimes of development. She and Titus, their job, Angela and her brother, it was mind-numbing in scope. Certainly, in sheer volume of questions raised. Principally among those questions was what both the immediate and distant futures held for them as individuals and a group.

Lucas might not live out the next few days. If so, what of Angela then? If she buckled from inevitable guilt, the pair might be out of commission. Worse, Angela might lose her edge, endangering them both.

Crystal downshifted off the highway, passed one gear, was back up again in an instant.

The I-5 was long behind her when the 531 took shape beneath a flash of lightning. Most people would’ve been dampened by the wind and rain, Crystal was floored. A challenge. It made her hunger for more. She pushed the bike, pushed herself; reactions and reflexes, knuckles white beneath armored gloves.

Lucas was a liability. For everyone.

Curie knew that now. As much as Angela liked to think she was Curie’s favorite, she was just another fielder, a tooler. Angela’s mistake was in believing, that because Curie had supplied the details to take down Caruso, get her back, Curie felt otherwise.

But it was downright stupid to ignore– for even a moment, the obvious gain to Curie for removing a rogue player from the game. To mention none of the other benefits of taking Caruso out.

Getting Angela back was a bonus and a final spit in the face of one breaking the system they were meant to maintain, but to think a mere tooler– even one as good as Angela, couldn’t be used as an example herself was even more foolish, no matter the eventual lesson.

Simply, that meant; if Angela didn’t get the card back from Lucas, or it fell into the wrong hands because of him, Angela would suffer. Through her, so would the others. Apart from her rep and livelihood being damaged, any involved would likely kill Lucas for the trouble.

That was the game. The same one guys like Titus were privy to every moment. Toolers were too, but it was rarer. Much rarer. Most didn’t care. Ambitions aside, Toolers rarely experienced such events without being their object. That was the game. The one they all played.

But this was a level above even Titus’ control, one you were inside or outside. There was no on the fence. The Saito job was the perfect example of that. Playing against the house meant putting your ass on the line, but playing for the house meant total commitment.

There was no third option.

With Crystal’s experiences as guides, you played and won or played and lost, no matter the side. But you played. Refusing that reality put you outside. You were then either forced back in line as harshly as possible to ensure you never stepped out again, or a mark. Repeat offenders had the worst punishments, right after the higher-ups falling from grace– like Caruso.

Like Angela could easily be doing now. Only time would tell if she’d pull up in time, or splat-dive on the ground.

Crystal raced the 531 to the 9, took the roundabout at full-lean. She followed through, out, roared along wet roads gleaming like fresh pitch. The S1000 growled hornet-fury hellfire along the 204. Crystal’s HUD read the wind at her back; no doubt she’d be fighting to stay on the ground were it not for her weighted mods. As it was, she was only gaining speed, riding pavement like an SR-71 rode afterburners.

Power and fury beneath her hands and between her legs floored her. Like Titus fighting to sate her lust; power. Hatred for Caruso’s attack on Angela, Lucas’ attempt to repeat it; fury. She vibrated with conviction and three hundred horsepower, recalling her last ride, her fears of Lucas’ eventual effects on Angela.

If he wasn’t found soon, Curie would be informed of a deadline. Titus had agreed to keep things quiet until necessary otherwise, but couldn’t afterward without risking his rep, and possibly, his life. No-one could expect that of him.

Above all, middlers couldn’t burn bridges. Especially with fixers they’d worked nearly-exclusively with for a decade. If Titus burned his bridge with Curie, one of the most respected fixers alive and a patron of the “Old Guard,” the other fixers– middlers and toolers too– would think him unreliable.

In the end, the truth mattered much less than the effect.

Small text appeared on her HUD, sent directly from Titus’ phone. Sat coordinates, nothing else. She shifted into seventh, blasted back onto the I-5. A small clock put her time at 22:28:30, a new record– and as far as she knew, not for herself alone.

She raced back into Jackstaff, across it, the bike a hornet’s nest speared through driving rain. The drop was a dock-side parking-lot along a former boardwalk’s edge. The middle-class patronage had long ago slowed to a trickle before drying to nothing when industry began to fail. Middle-class had gone from accurate description to moniker for have-nots scraping by, doing their best not to end up homeless. Most failed.

The true middle-class now, were people like Crystal, Angela. Shadow-dwellers. People skilled in grey-area trades that had no fear of the shadows themselves, visited or lived in them.

The disrepair left behind from the predigital-era made for a mine-field of potholes at the drop. It made sense, Crystal knew. Use the environment to decrease the chance of an easy getaway. Asphalt, weakened by salts and snow, then washed away by rains and breakwaters, formed trenches and pit-falls along the lot.

Days of rain had half-flooded the lot already. For anyone else on a bike, crossing the lot was impossible. Crystal’s HUD made it a breeze.

She raced in, swerving and weaving through the random flares alerting her of danger. She approached Titus’ rent-a-car, now emptied of its gear and facing the lot’s entrance from its coast-side. Titus had put the rear-bumper against the rusting guard-rail, forcing her to bank wide right, then again, left, to align to his driver-side.

She cut the engine.

The sudden stillness and quiet resolved into the storm driving around add against Crystal’s helmet. Beneath it, the timid slap of seawater on concrete and steel, thirsting for more ferocity from the exhausting wind and rain.

The natural distraction was broken by an engine along the road. She knew well enough Titus had timed the call and her arrival with the client’s. Paired headlights angled toward them through the parking lot, crept forward through the pot-hole minefield.

Crystal watched. Tires and suspension sank, rocked in the car-killers beneath, exhibiting the same aged-grace of elderly humanitarians. It approached within a car’s length, and stopped, idling. Its rear window sank unceremoniously.

Crystal eyed Titus through her visor, head turned just enough to make it obvious. He nodded.

She swung a leg off the bike, headed for the window. The darkened interior masked the man’s features. She reached into her jacket, produced the water-tight case. A gloved hand gripped it, slid away.

A moment later, it presented an envelope. Crystal knew it would contain a USB stick with a private bit-currency wallet for the agreed upon job-price. Whatever that was, Crystal’s cut was twenty-percent. Standard for outside contractors. She trusted Titus wouldn’t stiff her.

More than that, she trusted the John wouldn’t stiff Titus. He’d technically worked without a fixer due to his personal knowledge of the mark, had even arranged the buy, but could never have planned it without Curie’s sanction otherwise. If she’d gotten wind of it afterward, he’d have been just as tossed out on his ass as if slighting her directly.

Thus, the John stiffing Titus would be game-on for his kind of traitor.

She returned the envelope to Titus and he drew out the stick, slotted it onto a handheld tablet, then started the car. The headlights flicked on, prompting the John’s window to rise and his car to come about. For the briefest moment, Crystal caught the John’s face through the rising window and a streak of lightning. She couldn’t be sure how or why, but she was certain she’d seen him before.

The car curved about and trundled off. Titus sounded over the rain and wind, projecting enough to be heard.

“Gonna’ ditch this tub, get my car back. Meet you at Angela’s.”

“You know how to get in?”

“I helped build it.” Crystal gave a lone nod. He hesitated, “Get back. A-Sap. She’s hurting.”

Crystal nodded, turned back for her bike. Titus’ window rose. His rent-a-car crunched and splashed forward while her leg arced over her bike, knocked back the stand, and came to rest on a shifter.

A thought, and the engine roared to life. She started forward, retracing her weaving swerve in. Titus was already gone, down a different road and headed in the opposite direction. He’d evidently thought of Angela when arranging the drop; Crystal was home in a minute. Then again, most of their side of the city was utterly abandoned, so she might’ve imagined it.

Her bike marked its way along the garage with a wet tire. She made a mental note to offer to scrub it for Arthur– or with him, as he was wont to negotiate her down to– and climbed off her bike She glanced up and down the garage; everything in its place. A minor burden lifted from her; at least they wouldn’t need new DMV covers because of Lucas’ bullshit.

She caught herself, stowing anger to better suit her needs. Angela had made a mistake. Anyone in her position might have made it. To be furious with her friend and mentor for that was unfair. Especially in such desperate times, Angela hardly would’ve done the same. Then again, perhaps therein lay her problem.

Crystal recomposed and calmed herself, then headed in.

Angela was hunched over a laptop, fingers programming Lucas’ ID into sifting cit-cam feeds. Crystal knew the play; she was hoping to use the same facial-recog system they avoided, blanketing the city, to find him. Indeed, the same system they’d learn to evade as trade-secrets.

There was nothing professional Her shoulders were slumped, eyes glazed with the distant red of obvious tears and a gleaming idea. She looked more determined than Crystal could recall seeing her. Crystal stepped silently into her peripheral and Angela gave a start.

“Sorry. How are you?”

Angela shook off growing fatigue to reinvigorate herself, “I’ll be better soon.” She refocused on the laptop and its camera feeds.

Crystal swallowed, “Angela, if we don’t find him–“

“Curie will have him killed,” she finished, completely unfazed. “I know. So I need to find him.”

Crystal gave a small nod. Nothing more needed to be said. She started around the island counter, cracked open the fridge for a water-bottle, then sat across from Angela to drink in silence.

Once she finished typing, Angela heaved a pensive sigh. “I made two mistakes, Crystal. Neither was Lucas’ fault. He doesn’t deserve to die for them. I should’ve known it’d end up this way. I should’ve listened. I–“

“Don’t. You did your part right. He stole from you and ran off.”

“It’s what he does. I should’ve remembered that.” She shut her laptop. “Every now and then, he’d fight with our parents. They were assholes. Good money says they still are. If they could’ve gotten away with it, they’d have watched us showered and shit.”

She cringed at unspoken memories then shuddered, shaking them off.

“Every once in a while, Lucas would have enough and take off. No-one that really knew our family could blame him.

“Then again, no-one knew yet how things worked. No-one official, and not by design.” She shook her head with a mix of disgust and anger. “I was always the first one he let find him. He was like that. Nowhere he couldn’t hide. Funny, I left first and couldn’t be found.

“Then again, he found me…”

She trailed off. Crystal let her. An obvious undercurrent of emotion formed the sibling-bond; one she could not understand. One so strong, it led Angela– whose emotions ruled her despite her ruthless, cold, logic where necessary– to disregard trusted advice and let herself be manipulated.

“We had only each other. Ali got the true short end. Prob’ly doesn’t even remember my name. Couldn’t I’d blame her for hating me, if she thinks of me, anyhow.”

She winced at the thought, cleared her throat to strengthen herself. “Lucas implied I’d left he and Ali to fend for themselves. He was wrong about himself but right about Ali. That guilt drove me to this.”

Crystal blinked confusion, “Wait. Guilt? How’s guilt a mistake?”

She cleared her throat again, visibly stronger, more collected with each moment. “My first mistake was thinking, after I left, they were better off without me. At first, that was a swaying conviction. It’s easy to see yourself as the problem when you’re drinking from rain-gutters.

“But even after Julia, I kept that mindset. She helped me reach a position where I might have helped them– or Alison, at least. Instead, I forgot about her.”
She stiffened, as if hearing herself hand down her own criminal-sentencing. “The second mistake I made was being confronted by Lucas, and rather than admit my first mistake with Ali, make another by trying to make up for it with him.”

She faced Crystal directly. “I saw it too. Everything you did. I felt it all. But I also felt it was my duty to help. Just like with you and Julia, overlooking my brother’s risks was penance for my guilt. Just like me looking for him, needing to find him. To not be alone. And him finding me instead. Truth is, he never needed me, but I always needed him.”

A resounding silence rang in Crystal’s ears as she pieced together what little had gone unspoken.

Angela’s eyes held true, confirming the last of Crystal’s suspicions. “As kids, I needed his resilience to keep me going. When I left, I needed the assurance he could care for himself. While I was gone, I needed the hope he was better off without me.

“When he showed up, I thought I needed forgiveness because I felt guilt. Truth was, I was ignoring my instincts. I do need it, but not from him. It’s Ali. I need her to forgive me for the years she’s spent living in that hell-hole. Lucas saw that vulnerability, and took advantage of it. As everyone expected, including me.”

She huffed, winded but stretching to loosen herself up as if a pre-job prep. “Now, I have to find him. Otherwise he’s going to cost Curie a buyer and she’s going to punish me for it. By killing him. In the end, it is my fault, but guilt and blame mean nothing if I fail.”

She met Crystal’s gaze again with a different tone, firm as before but with a clear request. “I have to find him, Crystal. And I need your help. Like I need Arthur’s and Titus’. Without you, Curie will get there first. No matter how long I stall.”

Out of respect, Crystal was quiet, thinking deeply on it. The last time Angela had needed her assistance so gravely, she was being tortured to death. She hadn’t been able to ask then, but Crystal felt she might not have even then. Where guilt was concerned, her martyrdom was strongest.

She clarified for both of their sakes, “What you’re asking is for me to risk everything I’ve built over the last year and a half, for your brother.”

The very thought of her own words gave her a moment of cringing disapproval. Nonetheless, she’d spoken them. Angela acknowledged with a look; among the unspoken subtext it said Crystal thought her brother less than a grain of salt. Risking everything for him didn’t seem worth discussing.

Still, she evened herself on Angela. “I wouldn’t give Lucas a breath of insult, so this is about you. You need me. You’d do it for me. So yes, I’ll help you, no matter the cost or risk.”

Angela’s chest sank with a breath, “Thank you.”

Hard Lessons: Part 14

14.

Meanwhile

Angela stood beside her bed, the clock there synced to her HUD and both reading 12 AM. Unbeknownst to her, Crystal and Titus were currently stuffing gear into packs in a race against the clock. She, on the other hand, had all the time in the world.

Lucas had received his latest cocktail beside her on the couch, where she’d sat until after he’d fallen asleep. The reason was simple; if Angela had learned anything, it was that some things couldn’t happen alone. Once Lucas had fallen into his restless sleep, she’d left for some herself. His rehab schedule meant aligning to his use schedule; midnight and midday dosings with sleep somewhere between.

She centered herself at the bathroom mirror with her own, liberal doses of water, pot, and whiskey, then made for the kitchen. An undeniable, sibling responsibility had consumed her. While Lucas was hardly a child, even less likely to ask for help than a hit, her duty was tending to him rather than his ego.

She approached the island, spying a scratchy-note. Sudden fear erupted in her chest. The agony of every troubled-child’s environment reared. Her fear was confirmed in fewer words than felt fair:

I can’t do this, Angie. Thanks for trying.

I love you, sis.

The writing was shaky, done with obvious speed and jitters. He’d run. She panicked. Completely.

She spun in frantic circles, eyes trailing. Her head ached, mind racing unable to comprehend anything. Bilious stomach acid was already bubbling up. Her brain smeared the images her eyes clawed for purchase on. It found none, and nothing coherent otherwise.

All in hope, for some sign that he was there, had changed his mind. Panic had never so thoroughly seized her. She neared a faint amid dizziness that toppled her sideways. She had the vauge and distant notion of catching herself on the island, fighting to breathe.

In reality, she wailed, sobbing. The open-close of a door didn’t register. She was too consumed. She collapsed, caught by a vague but familiar form and weight. Arthur’s gravel-throat was rolling over her skin, vibrating her bones, but nothing was audible outside her the piercing ring of her own mind.

She was a sub on full-alert, reporting damage; a computer throwing errors before a crash. She needed a reset, and there was no avoiding it. Before she knew what had happened, she’d gotten it.

She emerged from her fugue state unaware any time had passed. It had, copiously. Only then could she comprehend the melange of terror, guilt, panic, and grief that had gripped her.

Her body tensed, released. Her muscles gave one last, minor tremor, and she breathed normally again.

Had he not worked for her so long, Arthur might have questioned her sanity. He’d been hired to run security by Julia, but also to keep an eye on Angela during her recovery. If it could have been called that. In truth, it wasn’t much more than the re-awakening any person experienced after surviving and leaving street-living.

In all those years, Angela had been tearful precisely twice. Once, when she returned with Julia’s dead body in her arms. Then, once after being tortured by the bastard that had killed her. Both circumstances were extenuating, obvious.

This wasn’t.

Yet Arthur knew its origins. He’d sensed them. As he sensed the breakdown that drew him to her. Apart from the obvious, there was the deeper, unspoken geyser of emotion now drained like her many tears. That geyser, formed over decades of emotional neglect, abuse, and manipulation was thought to have been forever been covered, quieted.

Instead, the pressure had built from deep quaking– her brother’s re-appearance. Consciously or not, she’d known that pressure would mount, release, destroy anything in its way. This time, she was lucky. It had only damaged what little emotional resistance remained around her childhood, and not the world around her.

Arthur cradled her in silence, dutifully sentinel. He knew little of the Dale home-life directly, but he’d gathered enough. Family of five– four for most of Angela and Lucas’ lives. Heavily sheltered. Criminally so. Forcibly intrusive. Obsessive. Repressive. The list went on.

The Dale parents were obsessed with keeping their children on certain, proscribed paths. As a result they’d wedged themselves into every aspect of their children’s lives for one purpose; control. Where that could not extend, they cajoled and intimidated, demanding constant reports of every moment of their absence.

What wasn’t mandated as part of their cult-like mentality, didn’t exist.

Except that it did. Angela had always known that. Lucas too. Because there was evidence of it everywhere you looked. No doubt, Alison knew it now too– Arthur hoped, for Angela’s sake.

Arthur could only liken the Dale parents to the blind-faithed, ignorant fools forcing friends and family into Jonestown before offering them Flavor-Aid. Certainly, by any metric the damage their children had suffered indicated their unfitness as human beings, let alone parents.

There was never a question to Angela’s emotional instability existing. Rather, it was if the miracle she’d managed was genuine; was her stability as real as it seemed? Lucas had the same inability to process emotion, but did his sister have no greater grace or resolve?

Arthur might’ve forgiven Lucas for everything else, but forcing that question erased any remaining sympathy he had. To be forced to compare someone like Angela to the less-than-dirt-beneath-a-shoe that was Lucas was too much.

He was putting his foot down, and beneath it was going to be Lucas’ gut. Angela had given him everything he wanted, and needed. If something weren’t done soon, she’d keep hurting herself for someone undeserving of even her consideration, let alone her blood.

Angela emerged from the ruptured-Earth her emotions left behind, almost entirely unaware of reality. The grip that had seized her was total, extending through every muscle and nerve in her in her body. There it had put her into lock-down, technically still living, but hard pressed to be called it.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from Arthur because her body’d relaxed naturally. Arthur coaxed her slowly back to speech, offering her anything she wanted. He sat beside her on the kitchen floor; old, bum leg stretched out alongside the island. The other propped him upright.

Angela stared, afflicted by waves of flickering thoughts. “I knew it would happen,” she croaked finally. She wet her throat, “I knew it would happen and I still let him get to me.” She cast a desperate look about, “Why’d I let him get to me?”

“Some people matter enough they’ll always get to us. Always. No matter how we fight, they win.”

She clenched her jaw, “I can’t allow this, Arthur. I can’t be weak like this. Lucas–“

“’Isn’t weakness to love, Angela,” he corrected firmly. “S’Our greatest strength. May be a weakness to fail to recognize love as strength, accept it as one, but that’s not loving that’s weakness. Some times, the hardest lessons are those that make us strongest.”

Her eye twitched, “And this one? What is it?”

“That no matter what, sometimes your love will wound you.” Arthur eyed her deeply, “You hurt because you love. You love because you hurt. You become stronger for it, every day. That makes you Human, not weak. That is strength.

“Sooner you learn to accept your nature, sooner you can use it to your advantage.”

Angela’s gaze held his a moment, searching for any trickery buried beneath his words. She found only conviction. She stared forward, wearing a soldier’s thousand-yard-stare. Arthur was right. More often than not, that was the case anyhow, why would this be any different?

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

Love let Lucas into her house, her car. Love, her ability to show and reciprocate it, let Crystal in; told the truth of Julia’s death. Love saved her, let her into Angela’s house. She’d never have bound to Julia were it not for love. Love, too, plunged her into Julia’s depths. Even the depraved street-living would never have come about if she weren’t so deeply loving.

Forever wounded by the lack of love her family offered, she sought it elsewhere. Eentually, she found her way toward it, if not to it.

To say childhood was at the root of many of her problems was like blaming a foundation for a swamp-house’s slant. It was short-sighted, didn’t fully explain how deep the problem went, and was far too simple for such complex a reality.

Yet Angela knew that love given freely to simply be reflected it back was necessary for a healthy life. Her parents didn’t, had answered only with distrust and suspicion, thus wounding the giver. As common with children, that giver was wounded deeply for life. So much, she’d spend most of her life since trying to compensate. To give. To love. Regardless of circumstance.

Crystal was a prime example: Similarly in need of love, her very entry into Angela’s home and life might have destroyed them. It hadn’t though, and only due to Crystal’s own actions. Actions Lucas was equally capable of but unwilling to perform.

From the moment he’d been allowed in, directly or not, he’d been doing damage. He knew that now, didn’t care. She pushed herself up from the floor and opened the drawer for her tablet. Why, exactly, left her mind as the drawer opened, empty of its contents.

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

She jerked open the other kitchen drawers in a frenzy of swearing movement.

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

She circled amid the mayhem, completely aware of the irony. “Fucking thief.” Arthur moved to stop her. “The card. For Curie’s John. He took the tablet. Now he’s got the card.”

It took Arthur a moment to untangle the knot of confusion she’d tied, but he kept her grounded, “Stop now. Think. He can’t have gone far. He doesn’t have enough money to leave town and he’s half-way into detox. He’ll be trying to score, which means small buyers.”

She stammered slightly, trying to slow herself, “Right. Right…. Uh. Titus. Titus will know.”

“I’ll call.”

“No, I will. Better to be honest and take responsibility… right?”

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

Hard Lessons: Part 11

11.

Walk the Walk

Angela sat in yet another filthy alley awaiting Titus’ contact. There was no question as to his arrival, only how long. He was as likely to show early as late. Dealers were like that. Most times, it couldn’t be helped or blamed.

So, she sat, helmet on and arms crossed atop her bike. She’d pointed it for an exit in the unlikely event a fast getaway was needed. The rain made sheets of low visibility between here and there. Good; better prepared than trapped.

Rain drummed on her helmet, perfectly blended with external mics feed environmental sounds to her aural implant. It gave rhythm to her thoughts, forced her to face facts; Crystal and Arthur had been right.

Right or not, Lucas was her brother. She had to help him. At least try. Their conversation replayed in her head endlessly, examined for selfish intent. Over the rain pelting her and the morning thunder rattling her chest, one question he’d posed rang true; why hadn’t she gone back for them?

Truthfully, she couldn’t be sure. She’d left her siblings to criminally overbearing parents a decade ago. Wrongful as Lucas’ accusations were, she hadn’t attempted to re-establish contact. After Julia, she could easily have transplanted Lucas and Alison from their parents’ dangerous invasiveness.

Then again, whether Ali could be saved most pressing. She’d grown up almost entirely without Angela. The teen-aged girl might not remember her beyond photos together. Angela couldn’t bear the idea of having left her behind, alone.

At least Lucas went through the worst of it with Angela. They were together when they’d first learned of the cult-mentality of their parents and their religious groups. They endured an utterly nonexistent privacy brought about by a so-called open home for precisely as long as they had to, then fled.

Angela was certain her parents’ surveillance cameras and intrusive snooping trained her to be the thief she was. It gave drive to violate that net of security, regardless of where. Or, at least, it made it more bearable and natural to do so.

As soon as she could, Angela put the past to work for her. She’d never have known anything about herself or the world were she there much longer. Sexuality, adrenaline, success; all “improper” for a girl of her stock. So, she fled to the streets and ended up stuck there.

For far too long.

She’d had enough one birthday night. Childhood was excruciating. Adulthood wasn’t looking better. Street life was cold reality; day-to-day survival of eating from dumpsters, trash cans, drinking from half-crushed cans and broken bottles, choking on random cigarette butts and refuse.

No-one would’ve blamed her for having had enough.

Were it not for Julia’s timely discovery of Angela’s slow death, their eventual love, she wouldn’t be around to worry about her brother’s addictions. She wondered if that was a bad thing, but immediately recalled Crystal.

She breathed easier, if only a little.

Wet ceramic squealed from the import beyond the alley entrance. Her helmet faded and compensated for the rain and light reflected from the NSX’s futuristic angles. A skinny Japanese kid, no more than nineteen, hustled into the alley. He stopped mid-way through.

This wasn’t a dealer. Angela saw it in the rigid spine, the uncertain but shrewdly narrowed eyes. He was a courier, running any and everything any and everywhere for cash. A kid with a part time job under the table. He had no idea what he was carrying or what he was doing.

Angela swung her leg over her bike and started over, helmet on. She stopped at arm’s length. He hunched forward, cradling something.

“All here,” he said.

Angela unzipped her jacket, exchanged a manila envelope for the bag. They double-checked their swap, then about-faced. Angela zipped her coat, chest now damp from the bag, and returned to her bike. In moments, she was gliding through pelting rain.

Across town, Titus sat at the bank of laptops, increasingly more concerned that Saito had yet to show. Most of him didn’t mind, not at the thought of Crystal’s milk-white body nude beneath the blanket behind him.

The rest of him felt the same, professional agitation of any long-term job. He did his best to calm himself with that thought; just another job. He sparked a joint, deciding he could wait as long as he had to. Extra time with Crystal, wasn’t something he’d mind.

They’d tacitly agreed on no strings for now, unbidden as the future was. All Titus knew was that he’d managed a night with a woman aching for pleasure, and was now aching from his best attempts to provide it. Judging by her deep sleep, he’d done a decent enough job.

He kicked back, puffing deep on the joint to watch the various camera-feeds. Their drones were still flying pre-programmed routes, quick and easy labor he’d cooked up during job-prep. With the aid of a GPS satellite and locator chips in each drone, he wrote macro subroutines strung together in a specific structure;

A series of flight routes within a few blocks of one another. Between their size and camera feeds, they could monitor most of the area three-dimensionally, auto-adjusting against wind within tolerances to retain patrol feeds. What was more, they could be live-edited to compensate for the worsening rain as it blew in from the Pacific.

In effect, he had total command of the area. Until now, he’d only ever used components of the system, but the various drones’ programming seemed to need only ironing out, polishing. In other words, it was smooth sailing until Saito finally decided to show.

As it had been since the job had begun. Agitation was the monotony setting in then.

Titus didn’t like complications, but he liked monotony even less. It made him anxious. Mostly, monotony meant the target, in this case Saito’s hidden vault, was used to an interruption in its routine similar to his method of interacting.

In other words, that it was aware of his presence, however benignly. That problem was obvious to anyone aware of his and Crystal’s intent.

Crystal stirred amid sleep, but did not wake. He couldn’t help but glance back. The toned muscles of her back and silk-smooth skin showed the obvious commitment to making herself whole again. She’d lived on the streets long enough to know; caring for every part of oneself was as much a privilege as a responsibility.

It wasn’t hard to see how far she’d extended that mentality. Her hair was long, luscious. Her eyebrows were prim, even. Her skin was soft, clear, and clean. Her entire body, as Titus could attest, was pampered. More than that, it was appreciated, loved anew as few could be.

Crystal had received a new lease on life. Any astute observer knew that. Therein it gave her something few others had. A lust and love for life impossible without her history. It intoxicated him with his own lust for life, especially given the profound and beautiful woman few wouldn’t be enamored with.

Alarms rang in his head.

He’d kept things fast and loose for the sake of work. Letting anyone in exposed both sides to risk. Especially for two playing the game on different levels. It was dangerous to be more involved than necessary. Crystal didn’t know the extent of his role in the game. And It was for the best. Certain affairs weren’t for the faint-hearted. Even less, for those potentially vulnerable to their knowledge.

He couldn’t allow Crystal too deep in yet. Otherwise, she might end up learning things she wasn’t allowed to know. Not yet, anyhow.

Selfish as it seemed, the game took precedent in every facet of life. Everybody playing knew that. That rule extended to partners, was the sole reason he refrained from any, serious ones.

He admitted himself a bit of a romantic. Not a bleeding heart, of course. Far from it, in fact, but a man aware of a few specific things about relationships. He used them as guide-lines, nothing if not principled. A reality that made him all the more fit for the game.

Unfortunately, it also made it more difficult to admit there was more to bringing Crystal.

The thing at the heart of matters he hadn’t been ready to admit, now confronted him beneath the warmth of cannabinoids, post-coital ecstasy, and plain emotion.

He was forced to admit he liked Crystal. Liked her in a way that would lead to more.

Careful or not, it was there. The more he denied it, the worse he’d make things. Much as Crystal was right about his vulnerabilities, she’d missed the extent. His actions were entirely transparent to. He’d miscalculated, and for someone living on output, that was dangerous.

For all of his smoothness, all of his careful planning and cool, Titus was a romantic and he did want Crystal.

But those were vulnerabilities.

Forced to recall his own sentiments about vulnerabilities, he reached an epiphany; he felt a helluva a lot better off with Crystal around than not.

Hard Lessons: Part 9

9.

The Brother Problem

It could’ve been worse, in some ways. In others, it was as bad as anything that could’ve happened and didn’t. There wasn’t bloodshed, but Angela felt that would’ve been easier to deal with. Bloodshed was easy; stay alive until its over and hope you’re not on the cleanup crew.

She raced home to change into long-sleeved clothing, drop her gear from the job. She hurried Arthur out the door with her.

“How long’s he been gone?” She asked, Ferrari’s engine firing.

Arthur ducked in, careful of his stiff leg, “Left right after you.”

Her HUD read 19:08.

Lucas had been boozing and burning cash for ten hours. She’d expected as much, but her fury rose from the obvious steam rising off Arthur. Whether directed at Lucas or her, she wasn’t certain, but it prompted a small pang of guilt. That guilt combusted into an explosive rage tempered by the knowledge that it was more deadly when channeled.

Angela raced from the garage to street level, into the abandoned alley.

Arthur grumbled a command, “Find the car.”

“Working on it.”

Her HUD connected to the Ferrari’s relay, piggybacked its packets off various open-air connections, met her system in the apartment below. A small, oscillating circle pulsed in a corner of her vision. GPS maps winked on.

Jackstaff’s various cameras cycled, its regions narrowing to auto-locate her GPS frequencies. She keyed off anything in the garage. Three pips. One further along the coast near dock-warehouses; she needed to remind Crystal to mask her bike’s GPS on jobs.

The other two pips were separated by the city-proper. She cross-referenced them with live-cams nearby, knew instantly where he was, why.

And she was pissed.

“Sonuvabitch.”

Custom run-flat slicks left rubber along asphalt as they burned toward the city. Arthur eyed the car’s onboard GPS, instantly understood. Angela was properly furious now. Himself with her. Of all the places Lucas could be, the Factory was one of the worst.

Beyond it being the sleaziest strip club in all of Jackstaff, which was no small feat, it belonged to a fixer with bad blood. She’d vowed never to do business with him long ago. Worse though, the place was frequented by people with only one of two things (or both) in mind; girls and drugs.

Most often, that was pimps and addicts respectively. Knowing her brother, Angela suspected the latter.

Unofficially The Factory, had gained a colloquial additive as a result of the caliber of girls and patrons frequenting it. “Slut.”

In the end, all it meant was these weren’t the ideological descendants of Dutch “sex-workers” using genetics or surgeons to make a living. They weren’t even poor girls forced into sleaze by circumstance and lack of other, marketable skills. Rather, they were the types that wanted to be used, abused, and pissed on rather than think for themselves.

But it wasn’t just the girl’s. The Factory was famous for that mentality in all it’s inhabitants. It was the sort of place only the worst types ended up. In most of America, they were called Trash; England, Chavs. Aussies had Bogans.

Whatever they were termed wherever they were, they were all the same sect: subhuman scum-rings around the drain-pipe of society. As certain to contain diseases other humans had mysteriously achieved herd immunity against as to kill you with their presence. Usually, by slipping on their slime.

They were exactly the type of people Angela hoped Lucas wasn’t, but Arthur and Crystal suspected he was. The type of person she feared he was.

“How’d you know of a problem?” Angela asked, racing through a light. She drifted around a corner.

Arthur growled for more reasons than he wished. “What else would’a been the case?” She glared. “Gotta’ call from his tail.”

“What!?”

Her fury hit him with all the effect of at a pebble against a brick wall.

“You hired me for security. To protect your home. It’s my job.” She sneered. He ignored it. “Furthermore, you no longer live alone. Until you do, there are others that must be considered. You may take no issue with bringing a stranger–“

My brother!

He corrected them both, “One un-involved in your livelihood. And you cannot begrudge others their choices otherwise.” Her jaw ground, forcing her to wince. “… extends to anyone else you bring in. Crystal’s cleared. Lucas is not.”

She fumed in silence, nostrils flaring. He finished the argument with a last remark. “Anyone that walks through our door is screened and cataloged as risk or not. Relations aside, he’s a risk. You know better than anyone sometimes you need protecting.”

Angela’s grip choked the wheel. Her foot weighted the accelerator. Jackstaff blurred into colorful smears. They bobbed and weaved from her murderous attempts to defy gravity. Car-horns became mired in the guttural screams of a super-performance V8 that hiccuped into turns then mini-gunned back out again.

In moments, Angela found herself pulling to a stop outside The Factory.

Unlike most places frequented by society’s undersides, this had nothing approaching glitz or glamour. Nothing masquerading as it.

Neon glowed dimly from a once-curvaceous, naked broad on the roof. Her lower thigh flickered like an amputee pulling a prosthetic off randomly for a joke… for all eternity. The torn awning buzzed visibly from unsteady voltage. The products of sea-air on ancient wiring.

The one, non-junker in the lot that wasn’t hers was a mid-80s Corvette; paint-peeling, tires bald, and in serious need of a rust enema. Above all, the Factory was robustly doused in the repulsiveness of humanity’s most-vile scum pits; a smell unlike any other but profoundly afflicting.

Fitting, Angela felt.

She sent Arthur home, checked the ‘73 Roadrunner for damage– untouched. A mercy for all involved. Especially those subject to Angela’s rising wrath. She wasn’t sure how, but given the area, it could only be a matter of time before something happened. The sooner she got Lucas out, the better.

She double-checked her Walther, headed for the visible emanations outside the doors.

Impossible as it seemed, The Factory’s interior was worse than its exterior. Grime was layered along industrial-adhesive floors. Their stickiness was held at bay only by the foreign-fluid coating reapplied nightly. Deliberately non-UV lights scattered about seemed to ooze never-ending auras of sludge over them in metaphysical glows.

The patrons were no better, if they could be called that. A few were more or less normal. Barflies that hung anywhere close to home. Though that fact made her wonder about what they called home.

The rest were divided into the aforementioned two groups; pimps and their wannabes auditioning in booths, and addicts nodding off or bouncing about near the pulpit that served as a stage floor; an altar to sleaze and smut with none of the hold-backs that civilized those ideals in the modern era.

The latest number on display was something Angela wouldn’t look twice at. Not from hyper-focus, rather fear. Some part of her animal lust might mix with empathy, make her pity people she’d otherwise let drown as mercy killings.

Her HUD located Lucas through the grime and poor lighting. Then, everyone else. Her presence was known the moment she’d entered. Most didn’t bother, but a few of the twisted shadow-creatures watched. Intensely.

She didn’t hesitate, aimed straight for Lucas at a booth. Its near-edge was hidden from view, its far-side clearly visible. In it was Lucas, soused to the gills. Just drunk or high too, Angela couldn’t care less. She stormed over, instantly fighting the urged to empty her Walther into the near-edge of the table…

And the shit-slicked grease-ball occupying it.

“Ah, the Elder Dale,” an oil-slick bubbled. “And here I thought it was just one surprise I’d receive tonight.”

Angela cocked a half-snarl into a crooked grimace “Should’ve expected this. You’ll latch onto anything with an IQ higher than its bra-size.”

Something in his eyes delighted in disgusting Angela. It was a sickly sort of pleasure that couldn’t help but seem right at home in the hell-hole of The Factory.

“You’d certainly know all about that, wouldn’t you? Latching on to large breasts?”

She did her best not to roll her eyes; even clever, he was a moron. “Lucas, let’s go.”

“No, no. Stay,” Wyatt insisted. “Sit. Catch up.”

Angela remained still, ready to strike.

The eyes of every shadow holding burned her skin atop the cancerous lights. Grease congealed into thin air in her lungs, formed of the melange of drugs, blood-lust, and impotent sex on the air. As if a bonding compound awaiting activation at collective mental will.

She ignored it all, looking directly at Lucas. To his inebriated mind, the mix of lighting and intoxicants sharpening her visage to a serpent’s. As if some fierce, mythical creature had come for him, ready to lunge swallow him whole, if need be. Either way, he was going with it.

He didn’t so much hear her instructions as sense them. As a bottom-feeder senses a disturbance along the seafloor. There was no room for refusal to follow, because following was survival, reaction. It was this or something so awful it was best never known, so get on with it and do the thing.

Before Lucas knew what was happening, she’d slapped a handful of cash on the table and was dragging him out. He let her, confused by the sudden shifting scenery. The cool air of the night sobered him enough to keep him moving under his own power.

Angela said nothing the whole ride home. For that, Lucas was glad, if only because it put off the inevitable lecture. Beyond that, Angela knew there was no point talking now; Lucas was too fucked up.

When she finally did say something, it was after an obvious hesitation in the kitchen. Many long, quiet, and cold minutes later.

“We aren’t done with this.”

She disappeared into her room, leaving Lucas to fend for himself.

Across town, Crystal was discussing the matter with Arthur via her comm-implant. She’d called requesting an update on security before going on watch. Arthur’s opinion remained unchanged. He relayed everything that had occurred, positing it was just the beginning.

Before long, Crystal was once more present, sitting beside Titus on the cot, thinking.

Lucas was an issue. A threat. He was a risk to everything all of them had built and achieved. Everyone knew it. Everyone had said so. They’d all been careful, respectful. Angela still wasn’t listening. Or at least, she wasn’t reacting.

Ultimately, the risk was still present.

Crystal sighed frustration. Titus saw her thoughts, “Don’t worry about the workings. All you need’s to be ready to help if the heat’s on.”

“Think it’ll get that bad?”

He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with his own thoughts, “All I’ll say’s from here, it looks like he’s bringing heat. Little by little, sure, but heat. If that’s true, it might only get worse.”

“You mean Wyatt’s just the beginning then. Who is he? Not another Caruso, right?”

“Nah,” Titus soothed. “But there’s blood.”

“Enough?”

He shrugged. “Angela’s smarter than jumping lines between Tooler and Fixer.” He shook his head, uncertain. “Problem is, if a fight’s gonna happen, has to be between fixers. Even Curie won’t vouch for Angela if she starts line-jumping.”

“I know the game,” Crystal reminded. “Play by the rules or end up like Caruso, or Saito, or anyone else outside.”

He nodded astutely. “Bottom line, Lucas is making Angela vulnerable. Someone might take advantage of that. Best hope’s to fix the problem before there’s a chance.”

“This isn’t the first vulnerability Angela’s let slip,” Crystal grumbled, feeling more like Arthur by the moment.

“Don’t be like that,” Titus casually warned. “She’s on the level. Always. Vulnerabilities are only a problem if you don’t guard ‘em right.”

Crystal’s brow furrowed for explanation.

“Put it this way; you don’t solo well. You’re best on team jobs. Nothing wrong with it, its just who and how you are. It’s why I offered this job. Thing is, if you’re aware of a weakness, you can be aware of it.

“Take a sentimental person like Angela, wearing emotions on the sleeve sometimes. It’s not a bad thing. Case in point, you. Sometimes though, certain people aren’t aware of it, so they end up showing that sentimentality to the wrong people by mistake. People that’ll exploit it.”

“You think Wyatt’ll find some way to insinuate himself between she and Lucas to get to her?”

“Or send someone else to,” he said. “I would.”

Crystal stared off, silent in thought. Something occurred to her. “And me?” She asked almost on impulse. “What’re my vulnerabilities?”

He took a long, deep moment to think about it, then eyed her carefully, “Thinking you’ve got something to prove and carrying it like a chip on your shoulder. Problem is, you might go outta’ your range of skills to do it. That’s when you’ll hit trouble.”

Crystal followed his meaning, “Like pulling a solo job when I’m not ready?”

He nodded, smiled. “Exactly.”

She caught his eye for a long silent moment. Then kept it over a chuckle. “You think I believe that?” His brow rose. “Of all the people you know; all the middlers, fixers, toolers, you think I’m supposed to believe I’m only here ‘cause I’m good in a team?”

He laughed, caught red-handed. “Guess not.”

She grinned smugly. “And your vulnerability’s thinking you’re smoother than you are.” She leaned over, kissed him. She drew back, “And underestimating me.”