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.

Hard Lessons: Part 2

2.

To This, We Drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the most part.

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

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

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

“Titus.”

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

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

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

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

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

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

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Lessons: Part 1

1.

Business is Business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spilt milk.”

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

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

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

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

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

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

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

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

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

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

Preview: Hard Lessons

Hard Lessons
(Starting Jan. 19, ’18)

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Ch. 1, Business is Business:

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

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

Crystal spoke from half her mouth. “Well?

“Improvise.”