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.”

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Preview: Energy and Matter

Energy and Matter
(Coming 4/21/17)

Hailey is a normal teenager, if a little rough around the edges: she does her homework, hangs out with friends, and occasionally smokes a joint or two. Most of all, she loves school, physics in particular. So the book her physics teacher loans her, like most things, is welcomed and absorbed with an unmatched fervor. After racing through and returning it, Hailey finds her thoughts even spacier than usual– and complete with exhilarating trances where the world dissolves into a curious light.

But that light is becomes frightfully blinding when Hailey begins hearing others’ thoughts. As she soon learns, this new ability is only the very tip of an immense iceberg that includes prescient visions. Those visions only worsen matters when she believes her best friend’s life is in danger. Jumping into action means running headlong into a discovery that will radically alters not only her life, but the lives of her best friend and family as well.

Will this dangerous new world get the best of Hailey, or will she find herself mastering of it ? Find out here in Energy and Matter, Friday, April 21st!

Energy and Matter is a Sci-Fi novella of intrigue and action, the first installment in a new series that follows Hailey Ferguson through a life-altering revelation and beyond!

Excerpt from Chapter 1: “A Gift From A Book”

…Her heart leapt. Fear coursed through her. Whispering thoughts chased it away: she’d been here once already, even if it was a dream. But it couldn’t be. It didn’t feel like a dream. And despite her numerous and underwhelming talents, lucid dreaming wasn’t one.

A knock sounded on the door. Her vision flitted within the strange state, followed the ethereal, immobile white-light of walls to the doorway where another, blue figure glowed– judging from the outlined-knob, beyond it.

“What the hell?” she breathed quietly.

Into Her Darkness: Part 10

10.

Improvisation

Something wet slid across Crystal’s face. Her eyes snapped open on blinding light. Arthur was leaned over her, easing her back with a hand. The other dabbed a wet cloth against a tender area near her temple. It came away bloody. Her room took shape around her, and she sat up in bed.

Arthur hissed, “Easy. You took a helluva hard hit.”

She sat up, head-splitting migraine with her. She powered through it, “Where’s Angela?”

“Gone. Found you unconscious outside the weight room.”

She pushed herself up, swayed. Arthur steadied her. “We need to find her. Now.

“We will. But you shouldn’t be up. You have a concussion. Not exactly fighting shape.”

She waved him off, “Caruso has Angela. He’ll kill her.”

He squinted a wily eye at her, “You sure it was his people?”

She nodded, began sweeping the room with her eyes for anything useful, “They hit us on the road. They must’ve followed us back. Found out where we–” She cut herself off. “Jesus, Jonas!”

She raced from the room, grabbed a random key, and rushed into the garage. Arthur strode after her. She hit the key-mote and a black Ferrari California winked across the garage. She rushed over, slid in, and double-checked her gear. Arthur sat inside. The turbo-charged engine came to life, rising in a growl before falling back to a purr. She dropped it into gear, tires chirping, and raced to the surface. At ground level, the Ferrari howled a V8 war-cry and rocketed for the pawn-shop.

Sunrise wasn’t far off. Whatever Caruso had planned would have begun long ago. He was likely to make it last as long as he could, prolonging her suffering to make the most of the “example” he aimed to set. At least, Crystal hoped that would be the case. Counting on the man’s depravity to torture her friend as long as possible made her sick– though, she preferred it to Angela’s death. The bizarre, mental gymnastics taking place to accept her reality were becoming more ludicrous by the day.

The Ferrari came to screeching halt outside the pawnshop. Crystal rushed in, car still running. The place was a tossed cell in a jail-house: she was forced to wade through damaged and piled merchandise for the office. She stopped short just inside. Arthur entered, saw her face fall into blank emptiness away. He worked his bum-leg over the obstacles toward her and into the office.

They stood amid a brutal scene, the main-room’s damage evidently done on the way out. Jonas had been surprised: blood was splattered across a computer monitor and keyboard. Bone fragments and scattered gray matter had painted the immediate area of carbon invoices, print-outs, and ledgers. In their center, Jonas splayed, face against his keyboard entrance wound in the back of his skull.

“Holy mother of God,”Arthur said.

Crystal’s drew taught at one side, “It’s how they knew where to find us.”

“Now what? Any idea where they might be?” Arthur asked, a paternal aggression to his tongue.

“No. But Titus may know.”

“How d’you intend to contact him?”

Crystal replied with action; she eased Jonas back in his chair. His head lolled back, revealing the exit wound. Pulverized bone had congealed in a mass of fleshy, brown gore and hair. Identification was nearly impossible, but she knew it was Jonas. She suppressed a gag, smearing blood across his keyboard to seek out a video-messaging program. She fought sickness to find and dial Curie.

The tone rang. A woman’s voice answered, would-be image replaced by a black screen, “Who are you? Why are you calling from Jonas’ line?”

Crystal choked on her breaths, “Madame Curie? I’m Crystal, Angela’s partner.”

“Yeah? Who gives a rat’s ass? Why’re you calling me? Where’s Jonas?”

“Dead,” she said bluntly. “Angela’s gone. Alfonzo Caruso raided us and took her. I need to know where she is.”

Curie’s voice hardened, “You fucking with me?”

“Never,” Crystal bit back. “I want my partner back.”

“Prove you’re not lying.”

She yanked the camera from the monitor, angled it at Jonas’ body. A silent pause passed, as if Curie were gasping but too professional to let it be heard, before Crystal replaced the camera.

“Now you believe me?”

Curie was stiffer now. “Titus will meet you in twenty minutes outside Harbor View motel. Waste no time. Go.”

The line went dead and Crystal turned away. “We need to move.”

The Ferrari idled long enough for Arthur to climb in, then burned rubber toward Harbor View Motel. Titus’ quick response told her Curie had long been planning offensives against Caruso. No doubt there was professional rivalry between them, but losing Julia had likely made Curie thirsty for vengeance. Losing Angela to him too was unacceptable. Personally, Crystal just wanted Angela back alive.

The Ferrari shed a trail of rubber along half a city block. Tires squealed in a corner, before the turbo-charger’s whine dominated the night. They whipped around corners, barreled along straights, and caught air on micro-shifts in terrain. For Crystal nothing existed but pavement and the motel. It wasn’t far; a place on one of the long-abandoned boardwalks as rundown, discolored, and ravaged as the rest of the harbor.

The whole area was something from a post-apocalyptic vid. Knurled steel, rotted wood, boarded or shattered windows; all it needed was nuclear winter to complete the image. If the street lights hadn’t been shut down years ago to save taxpayer money, even they’d have flickered from neglect. Instead, the place was pitch-black, dead-quiet. It was almost vulgar, vile, any manner of things lurking within it.

Crystal didn’t care. She was too focused on the large parking-lot, and the only other car in it. She zoomed toward it. Twenty-minutes had been liberal for Curie’s runner. His coupe waited patiently, as if it’d been there hours but neither days nor seconds mattered to it.

She rolled to a stop near it, “Stay here.”

She climbed out for Titus’ open window. The interior panels and electronics lit his face from beneath with hard shadows. Despite being as suave as ever, they tinted him with a hint more violence than before. As she approached, he handed over a file-folder that Crystal immediately opened.

“He’s got an old factory ‘cross town,” Titus said without hesitation. “Gotta’ few other places ‘round town, but this is isolated. He’ll need the space to keep her from being heard. She’ll be there.”

Crystal flipped through the folder, “Good. Thank you.”

Titus stopped her before she could turn, “Crystal. This guy’s gotta’ screw loose. And his men– well, there’s gonna’ be an army between you and her.”

“I know.”

Titus nodded approvingly, “Then you know the stakes. Get her back.”

Crystal whirled for the Ferrari. The engine revved, purred. The stream-lined body whipped, tires screaming. Crystal and Arthur left billowing smoke and headed for the far side of town. Arthur sifted the file-folder, find satellite maps, and directed her through the fastest route. The car whined and roared, never stopping nor slowing. It weaved through traffic, left sane speeds in the dust, and did its best maxed out along the straight-aways.

Crystal’s fear tried bubbling up; she might easily die like this. Her senses wrestled the fear away– Angela would die if she didn’t get there fast enough. Her grip tightened, knuckles white. Her boot dropped, squeezing every ounce of speed it could from the screaming, turbo-charged V8.

“There,” Arthur said, pointing left.

The skyline opened along yet another coastal harbor area. This one was different, as abandoned as the last– or so it appeared– but the water was black, pitch formed of an unyielding primordial ooze. A long-disused industrial shore of pipes, gravel, cement, and sand pits rolled inward from the water’s edge. The factory itself was dark, a conglomerate of man-sized pipes, smoke stacks, and angled steel patchwork from a bygone, industrial era.

Crystal killed the head-lights, gliding forward as a wailing specter. She passed derelict guard-houses and limp chain-link, moving from asphalt to gravel. It crunched and rattled in the Ferrari’s wheel-wells, spit out again by thick tires that raced toward rowed, ramshackle trailers. Their size and placement suggested they’d once been foreman’s offices, meeting places, but were now little more than the rusted skeletons and marred sheet-metal.

The factory was no different. Aside from ever-blinking red and white aircraft warning lights, nothing signaled the place was known to exist. But somewhere nearby, Crystal knew, were Caruso’s vehicles. Wherever that was, she couldn’t risk getting too close. The element of surprise– and the fear of Angela being suddenly executed– was all that kept her from driving straight through the front doors.

She kept her head level, half-circled the factory, berth wide, engine quiet. Near a rear-entrance and loading bay she found the mobsters’ cars. The collection of luxury sedans said more than she cared to hear as she maneuvered to the factory’s left. A large patch of overgrown grass appeared beside more, rusted-out trailers spanning the factory’s shorter side.

The Ferrari came to a rest between two trailers and its engine cut off. She took the file-folder and dug out the factory’s blueprint, studied it in her HUD’s night-vision. She memorized the layout, rendering it on her HUD with a mental command. Arthur leaned over, squinting to study the map in the darkness.

He pointed to a central area, “Here. Foreman’s office. It’s big. Enough for staff meetings.”

“You’re sure?” He nodded. “What about security?”

He pointed to a corner near the rear-entrance “Check-point. Same place workers would’ve checked in. If anything’s still live, it’ll be the surveillance gear running from there.”

Crystal handed the folder back, drew her Baby Deagle, and checked the magazine. She slapped the mag back in place and repeated the check on her TMPs. She tested the lasers and suppressors, then re-holstered them and climbed out. Her long, leather coat trailed behind her, buttoned mid-way up.

Arthur ready to follow her, “You can’t go in alone.”

She stopped short, “You’ll only slow me down. I need you as my back-up.” He eyed her skeptically. “No bullshit. If I get into trouble, drive straight through the building and get us out. You can’t back me up trying to play hero.” He gave her a look meant to accost, but she snapped, “Save it, Angela needs us.” He grumbled, returned to the driver’s side.

Crystal started for an entry-point on the factory’s near-side, stormed over to it. The man-sized ventilation duct, accessible a foot or so off the ground, was roughly halfway along the building. She rubber-neked the grounds between her and it, pulled her mini pry-bar from a pocket. She breathed, popped a corner of the rusted grate loose.

She froze, listening. Heart raced. Fifteen seconds was an eternity. Her free-hand hovered near a TMP. Her aural monitors at full-gain. Only after was she certain she hadn’t been heard. Another moment of prying before she was in and replacing the vent-cover.

The darkness inside forced her night-vision to further dial up its contrast. Dirt and dusted covered aluminum ducts appeared, outlined, beneath her. Small clouds formed from her ingress, her knees and hands leaving clean trails in her wake. Her hands were soot-black in moments. She moved carefully, a Decibel meter on her HUD beneath the small map to ensure she remained quiet. The mobile pip at the map’s center turned where she turned, drifting ethereally over otherwise fixed blue-prints as she progressed through the vent.

The stink of dead bodies and decades-old sickness from various chemicals, powdered and otherwise, forced her to breathe through her mouth. She suddenly understood why a mobster wanted an old chemical plant, and why he might bring an enemy to it. The epiphany quickened her pace. Her pulse doubled its time. There was no telling how long she had. Caruso’s desire to take his time might’ve been wishful thinking. Angela could already be dead.

Crystal couldn’t allow the thought further purchase. She followed the ducts to a central point; a long intersection both above and below that stretched into darkness and beyond. If her map wasn’t betraying her, she should’ve been directly above the factory’s main control room. She needed to leave the vents, get her bearings, otherwise she’d be lost just long enough for everything to go to hell.

Deft hands and careful planning forced her across the chasm of intersecting ducts. A ledge of bent, thick aluminum gave enough purchase to pull across. Midway through, her legs slipped, slammed the vent loud. Her Db meter spiked red. The sound echoed through the vents– and likely the entire factory. She swore under her breath, stomach rising to her throat, suffocating, while she pulled herself into the vent.

She started forward again: they’d know someone was in. If they didn’t, it was a miracle and maybe things wouldn’t go so cock-eyed. She wasn’t holding her breath– although given the shit she was kicking up, she probably should’ve been. Her body powered through, mind working on how best to locate and retrieve Angela. Improvisation was the only way. It’d served her well thus far. Angela had taught her well. Crystal sensed a cruel iron in this as her true final test– what might ensure her debt was repaid now or never could be.

The vents split at a T. She headed left, hoping to find the security room. The duct angled downward. Her HUDmap shifted levels, descending as if with stairs. Before long, she was crouched at another grate. Slatted steel looked on a dark hallway interrupted by sparse, dust-caked incandescent bulbs. This was it, she knew. Just beyond here was security. Beyond that, a mile of maze-like corridors. Somewhere in the middle of it all was Angela.

She drew a TMP, flicked the safety off, and threw herself against the grate.

Into Her Darkness: Part 9

9.

Bitter Taste of Victory

“Come out now or we shoot you down!” The voice called.

Angela trembled, “Someone know about the job. They waited for us to grab the goods.”

“Does that really matter now?” Crystal spat.

“I’m giving you ’til five, or we come up shooting. One…”

Angela risked a look at the way forward, careful not to expose herself. “We can make. If we zig-zag between alcoves–”

“Three…”

“Are you crazy!?

Angela unholstered a gun. Crystal followed. “Get to the last one. Stay put.”

“Four…”

They booked it. Crystal didn’t look. Her legs pumped fury and terror. Gunfire barked ahead and behind her. She hit the first alcove after Angela. They angled for the next. Caruso’s men followed. The gunfire’s epicenter echoed nearer-by. The women bolted again. Crystal threw herself into a sideways run, hit the alcove, sprinted off again. They made the last alcove as sparks and gunpowder wafted in ‘round the corner. Small calibers echoed through the dead-night, the steps still moving, but slower. “When I say, run for the truck’s far-side,” she said, yanking away one of Crystal’s holstered TMPs out.

Angela shoved the truck keys into her hands. “What about you?”

“Just go!” Angela spat. She flicked the safety off, snapped the bolt. “Go!”

Crystal fled. Angela leaned out. The suppressed TMP burst in clacks. It cut through the barking pistol fire. Sprayed ammo forced the men to dodge for cover. Crystal reached the truck’s edge. Adrenaline boiled her blood. She shouldered her way along to the driver-side, stopped near the rear-wheel, and drew her pistol.

“Move! Move!” Crystal radioed.

Angela sprinted backward, spraying more fire across the alley. Crystal’s was aimed, accurate. One of Caruso’s men ducked from cover. Crystal forced him back in. It was a distraction: another man opposite him had stepped out, took aim at Angela. He fired off a pair of rounds. Crystal was on him. Angela yelped stumbled forward to her hands and knees near the truck. The gun followed her down. Crystal re-targeted; the man was dead before her could try for another shot. Angela skidded into a roll that put her at the truck’s bumper.

“Angela!”

She clambered up the tailgate, fell over into the truck’s bed. “Go!”

Crystal was in the truck. The monstrous engine roared, drowned the gunfire that chased them from the alley. Spinning tires squealed in a haze of smoke. Steel divoted within it. Splintered orbs appeared in the passenger-windows. Crystal burned from the alley, all twelve cylinders firing. She fish-tailed into the street, headed for anywhere. The mobsters pursued them on foot. A block of gunfire saw another fish-tail around a corner, then another, and another, until she’d put enough distance between them to keep from being found.

Angela’s active comm echoed her words, “Son of a bitch.”

Crystal agreed, “That was too close. Are you hurt?”

Angela checked her shoulder: a minor glancing wound. If she’d been an inch further left, she’d have taken the bullet full-on.

“Nothing serious,” she said, compressing the wound. “Pull over. Let me get up front.”

Crystal did as instructed. She let Angela in, then started off again. Angela set to bandaging herself while Crystal drove for Jonas’ shop. Mid-way through, Crystal’s thoughts mounted, forcing her words out.

“You’re not telling me everything.” Angela winced, fixed her bandage in place. “Angela?”

“I heard you.”

She huffed, “Who the hell are these guys? What’d you do? This isn’t just about the museum.”

“Professional rivalry. Nothing more,” Angela said, evasively.

“Bullshit,” Crystal spat. “Something pissed these guys off. Something you did. I can’t work with you if you’re not honest with me.”

They pulled up to the pawnshop and Angela grasped the door handle, “Not now. Not here.”

Crystal growled, climbed out after her. They entered with packs filled with jewelry. The “open” sign was already off, but Jonas sat at the counter writing in a ledger-book. He raised a finger at them, mentally calculating something. He scribbled it in and shut the book.

He looked up, immediately spying the fresh bandage. “Run into some trouble?”

“Just give me the money,” Angela demanded.

He eyed Crystal’s averted gaze, shrugged, “Merchandise?” They handed over their bags. He tested their weight, “Good haul. Prick’s definitely getting his insurance check.”

“Can you make this quick, Jonas? In case you didn’t notice, I’m still bleeding.”

“Gotta’ call Curie first though.”

“Then do it,” she ordered, her irritation doubling as she compressed the wet bandage again.

He disappeared, leaving them to the growing tension. Crystal’s mind raced with questions. Anger frothed from each of them. She wasn’t even sure why. The truth wouldn’t change things. It might have been shock, but she needed to know and refused to go any further otherwise. She was about to say something when Jonas reappeared.

He eyed Angela alone, “Curie’s on the line. Wants to talk to you. Just you.”

“Stay here,” Angela instructed.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “No shit.” She fell into a lean against the counter as Angela left.

Jonas watched the exchange, waited. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t know half of it,” Crystal said with waning breath.

“Any idea who it was– or how they found you?”

“Some mafioso named Caruso. Angela won’t tell me more.”

Jonas was suddenly squeamish. The very idea of the two being mentioned together made join act as if a wet snake were slithering up his leg.

“Jonas?” He avoided her eyes. “What d’you know?”

He grimaced, glanced back at the doorway, then leaned forward at a hush, “You didn’t hear this from me, but Caruso’s had a hard-on for Angela for a while now. She heisted some piece of his at an exhibit in San Diego– running a crew hired for the job. They set up in a ritzy hotel to case the joint, then made the play. Problem was, Caruso’s people were aware someone was going to move.”

Crystal’s voice lowered to match his, “So they were waiting for her?”

He shrugged. “Angela ran that job. It went off even with the hitch. She got in, got out, made delivery, but someone recognized one of the guys with her. He got ‘im to talk. Messed him up bad before he gave up Angela.” He glanced back again, breathed. “Three weeks later, she shows up here wasted out of her goddamn mind, ranting about Julia– her partner– being dead. Only she knows for sure what happened. Lotta’ whispers say it was retribution from Caruso though.”

Crystal’s eyes doubled in size. “He killed her partner?”

He winced. “All I can say’s she’s gone, and they were close– thicker than thieves, so to speak. A… personal thing, you know. Not my business. Catch my drift?”

Her heart and stomach were once more in her throat. Angela had said her partner left. Dying hadn’t been mentioned at all. Her face went blank and settled into indifference as Angela reappeared.

“Curie’s done,” Angela said, more calm than before. “Get us our money.”

He disappeared again. The tension returned, albeit muted. Angela said nothing, kept herself focused on her injury to avoid any questions. On the contrary, the new information was still working through Crystal’s mind. Threads still unraveled, connected. Facts fell and fitted into place like puzzle blocks, forming an image thus far obscured. She was still trying to work things out when Jonas paid them and said goodbye.

They made their way back home, and climbed out without a word. Crystal stopped a moment to survey the truck before heading in. The truck’s damage was as cosmetic as the bike’s had been, but the clear signs of a fire-fight meant it required couldn’t simply be driven again. The splintered windows and bullet divots were dead giveaways that the truck– and likely its occupants– spent time outside the law’s confines.

Crystal followed Angela into the house. She stopped at one side of the island. Angela crouched at a cabinet, dug for a bottle, and produced an aged whiskey and a pair of rock-glasses. She stepped over to the counter, poured two glasses, downed one, refilled it, then passed Crystal the other. She set the bottle aside and braced herself on the counter. She stared into her drink, the tension draining from the air, and into Angela.

“Sit.” Crystal sank onto a stool. Silence rang. Then, “I never lied.”

Crystal remained silent; it was not the time to speak. Whatever Angela had to say needed to come naturally. Her eyes remained locked on the glass and its contents. “I was twenty-four. Living on the streets. I’d celebrated my birthday by trying to drink myself to death. Nearly succeeded. I didn’t want to wake up to my life again.” She gave a small shake of her head to ward of old, evil thoughts. “I was found on the street, mostly dead. I was taken to a hospital. When I woke up, I was still alive. I didn’t know that. I figured I was dreaming out the last seconds of life.”

Crystal watched her conscious mind disappear, lost as it was in memories. She drifted back slowly, as if remembering she was supposed to be recalling something.

“Point is, I was twenty-four and wanted to die. Tried to die. The only way I could think of. The only way the streets allowed for a coward too afraid to run into traffic– or put a broken bottle to their wrist.” Her eyes rose, focused past Crystal on a point that only existed in her mind. “Julia changed that. She’d found me after taking payment for a job. Took me to the hospital. Paid my med bills out of pocket. She promised to stay while I got clean, but only if I agreed to help her later.”

She hesitated. Crystal suddenly herself mirroring Angela. She knew now how it was meant to repay the old debt.

Angela’s mind was further elsewhere, but her voice remained present. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. Julia never forced me though. She asked, every step of the way; was I willing to do this or that? Would I train with her? Would I drive for her? Eventually, we outright started planning jobs together. Running them. Celebrating. Something had… changed.”

Painful memories played. Crystal was silent, watching. Angela’s eyes shut and her head fell.

“I fell for her. She loved me too, I think–” she shook her head. “–No. She did. I know it. She showed it time and again. I just… never believed it. Not fully.”

She stiffened, gritting her teeth; her memories too unbearable. Crystal wanted to speak, to comfort her, but things needed to play out. She needed the truth– they needed the truth. Angela fought valiantly against the tears welling in her eyes. Soon though, her voice quaked, the levee broke, and they flowed freely.

“A year and a half ago, Curie sent Julia and I to San Diego for a job. Museum job. Problem was, security’d been bolstered by Caruso’s people. We were unknown to him then. But that job…. it had bad idea written all over it. The money was right, but the security was off. We did the job, nearly got popped, and fled. We came back home to make delivery and take payment… ”

She lost what remained of control and her breath stuttered. It stung Crystal’s heart, as if cleaved in two by a lone blow.

“Two days later, a few of Caruso’s guys caught us coming out of a bar. They’d been tipped off by one of the locals on the crew. None of us really knew him, but they beat him ‘til he gave us up. Killed ‘im afterward. They tracked us and–.” Her tears dripped onto the counter, her eyes fixed on her glass and face fighting for stillness. “They chased us for four blocks, cut us off, knocked us out, took us to an abandoned factory.”

Her arms shook, threatening to buckle beneath her weight and white knuckles. Crystal fought with all her might to keep from reaching out to her.

“We woke up, tied up. Caruso was there. He told us he was going to “send a message.” She choked on her next words. “He… he shot Julia three times in the chest. Set the place on fire around us. Left me for dead– or j-just to think on what happened.” Her next movements were apprehensive, conveying all the pain they could: she clutched her glass, lifted it with a trembling hand, paused, then slugged down the liquor. She exhaled hot air. “I broke free. Cut Julia from her chair. Carried her out. She’d been dead minutes. I let the place burn, hoping Caruso would think I was dead. He knows I’m not, wants to fix that.”

Crystal waited for Angela’s words to finish echoing through her mind, then swallowed in a dry throat. She sipped her liquor and finally met Angela’s eyes. A silent question of whether or not she might speak went unnoticed. Crystal took it as a sign that it was alright.

“You loved her. You feel guilty for her death.” Angela gave a lone nod. “I’m sorry. I understand why you didn’t tell me, but you should’ve known it was only putting both of us in more danger.”

Angela’s mouth twitched with guilt. “I couldn’t risk telling you until I was certain you could be trusted– as much as I wanted you to be, if you’d gone to Caruso, told him I was alive, he might’ve paid you off to set me up. I couldn’t risk that.”

Crystal understood her fear, but it didn’t change facts: Caruso knew Angela was alive, even how to find her on the job. Something had to be done. They had to put a stop to it.

“The museum job put you back on his radar?” Again, she nodded. “Then we need a way off it.”

“He’s not going to stop, Crystal,” she said with certainty. “He wants to use me to set an example that he’s not to be fucked with. Just like Julia. Your best chance is to run. Take off. Stay as far away as possible. Maybe he’ll leave you alone. No-one knows who you are. No-one’s seen your face yet.”

Crystal rose to her feet, “Angela, I’m not leaving you. Besides, if we separate, we’re as good as dead anyhow. He might even grab me just to use me as bait. We’re stronger together.” Angela glanced up, eyes wet and face red. Crystal chest fluttered with sympathy, but she stiffened against it to remain composed. “I owe you more than I could ever repay. But more than that, you’re my friend. I’m not going to abandon you. We’ll find a way out, I promise.”

Angela blinked out tears, her voice soft, “Thank you.”

Crystal stepped around the island, ready to comfort her. An alarm screamed through the house. She stopped, glanced around. Angela swore. Arthur’s voice piped in on their comms.

“Someone just breached the escape tunnel. Armed. Armored. Maybe a dozen or so.”

“Caruso,” Crystal said.

Angela drew her gun, started for the gym, “C’mon! We can’t let them get through.”

Crystal followed on her heels. They sprinted for the gym’s atrium, through it to the hallway beyond. The corridor stretched out ahead as the alley had earlier. Doorway alcoves were scattered every few feet, with the escape tunnel far ahead at the right. Angela and Crystal burst into the hall just as the sliding wall hiding the tunnel exploded in a cloud of dust and concrete. They dove for cover at opposite sides of the hall. Gunfire erupted. Angela leaned out, firing.

“Arthur, lock down all interior doors! I don’t want them getting to–” Gunfire cut her off. She growled, leaned out to keep the men from advancing. “Lock the place down!”

The alarm gave way beside Crystal to snapping bolts as they locked in place. The sounds echoed along the halls, and at either end, trapping them in with Caruso’s people.

Crystal blasted off a few rounds without looking, “Now what!?”

“Beat ’em back,” Angela yelled, wasting the last of a magazine.

Crystal leaned out, caught one man in the chest as he hurled something. Her HUD tracked it, spitting alerts across her vision. The object and warnings clicked in her mind. A grenade landed with an explosive bang and a blinding flash. Her eyes and optics reeled. Her head swam. The concussive blast blew her backward, knocked the wind from her lungs. She smacked her head against the concrete-block. The bright light receded. Her HUD deactivated to reboot. Her vision phased in and out of focus.

Moments came in pictures, seconds of blackness between. She saw the wall rise ahead, slumped back against another. Blackness. Then, Angela in a similar heap, gun firing randomly. More blackness. Black-clad figures in riot-gear rushed Angela. She struggled, tried to fight, unbalanced by the grenade. Someone prodded her. Electricity arced along her. She seized, went limp. More blackness. Crystal fought to raise her weapon. A masked man appeared. His boot rose. The last thing she saw was it coming at her before her head hit concrete and she lost consciousness.

Into Her Darkness: Part 7

7.

Completely Sideways

The meeting was across town. Blending into the shadows was easier there. Angela’s bike rolled to a stop in a nondescript back-alley, vacant at the dark hour. The place was gravel strewn asphalt and grime covered buildings. The alleyway merely a cut between opposing buildings. The bike came to a rest near a bench and its engine died into the free-tempo metronome of heat ticks. Angela knelt to examine the bike, night-vision on and HUD searching for any damage caused by stray rounds.

She relaxed; everything was cosmetic– nothing that wouldn’t buff out.

Crystal felt the opposite. She sat on the bench, pack and artifact beside her. Her eyes were those of one whose world was upturned. She stared out ahead in a fugue state.

Angela rose with a relieved sigh, “Nothing major. Couple of those hits I was sure’d done in a fuel line.” Crystal remained silent, unchanged. “You alright? No holes?” She stepped over to search her, HUD active. “You look alright.”

Crystal deflated. “I don’t feel it.”

“Why?” Crystal doubted the question’s sincerity. “We got in. Got the mark. Got out. No fuck-ups. No one hurt.”

Crystal gave her an incredulous look, “No, just dead.”

Angela threw out a dismissive hand. “I mean us. He’d have done us both in. You know it. Besides, you think anyone’s gonna’ mourn the loss of a hired gun?”

“His family, maybe?”

Angela’s eyes narrowed, “People like him don’t have families. Besides, if they did– and gave a shit about ‘em– they’d find better work.”

Crystal was aghast, “And that makes it okay?”

“No, it doesn’t make it anything. It is what it is.” Crystal stared, dumbfounded. Angela blew a breath at the sky. “If it’d been clearer-cut, you’d have done it, right?” Crystal squirmed, shrugged. “Where’s the line, Crystal? Where d’you go from being unwilling to certain?” She looked away. “Let me explain something: If they’d pulled us, scanned us, saw no family or bounty, what d’you think would’ve happened?”

Crystal shook her head, admittedly lost. “What’s your point?”

“If we’re not worth money, we’re only worth a bullet. Their reputation gets a boost for every wannabe rip-off artist they pop. Makes ‘em look good. And the guys get their jollies off wasting some girls trying to heist the wrong truck, or worse. Meanwhile, no-one does anything. Secuirty lies, says the guys running things were attacked, there was a gunfight, any that doesn’t corroborate their version’s burned. They say they’ve investigated, sign a few checks, keep the local P-D happy, and life goes on.”

Crystal genuinely doubted her, “It can’t really be like that.”

“Why d’you think this world so fucked up?” Crystal averted her eyes, arms crossed. A black coupe appeared, inching through the alley toward them. Angela’s tone was too spiteful to have been directed, “Trust me, given the chance, they’d have drilled you in a second. Me too. Don’t shed tears over dead assholes. You’re just wasting energy.”

The coupe stopped at the lot’s edge, still running. Angela gestured Crystal over. A man slipped out; well-dressed and clearly as well off as Angela– maybe better. His brown-skin was perfectly set off by a violet sweater and jet-black slacks. A silver chain peered from beneath his collar, inflected on the slightest hint of its presence. It was enough to match the silver-accented, black frames around his eyes, and the highly-polished dress shoes that completed his outfit. He was clearly a man of both money and style.

Brief-case in hand, he made his way over, hesitated a step away, then smiled with perfect, white teeth. His voice was velvet-smooth, “Dale?” Crystal paused at such a warm greeting. He laughed, “When Curie told me to meet someone, she didn’t mention you. Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.”

Angela was considerably more tight-lipped than usual, “I was offered a job. The money was right. That’s all I care about.”

He cocked his head back a little, studied her with a squinted eye, “Uh-huh. Right.” He shrugged, “Well, I got the paper if you got the goods.”

“Crystal?” Angela motioned her forward. “This is my new partner, Crystal. Don’t get too attached, she might not stick around.”

“Titus. Nice to meet you,” he said shaking her hand with a charming smile.

Crystal dug the artifact out, “This what you’re looking for?”

He set the brief-case on the ground, took the artifact, and knelt in the beams of his headlights to examine it with a jeweler’s loupe. He “hmm’d,” and “ahh’d” for a moment, then rose to full-height and slipped the lens into his pocket.

“Legit. Can’t believe you actually pulled it off.”

“Why’s Curie want it so bad?” Crystal asked.

Titus smiled charmingly, “Little tip since you’re new; questions are a liability. Unless you need clarification on a job, don’t bother asking. Makes you look unprofessional. Answer’s usually “doesn’t matter” anyway. Dollar’s worth of free advice to save face. Keep the change.”

Crystal was genuinely surprised he’d offer anything free. “I will. Thanks.”

Angela eyed the brief-case, “All there?”

“Four-fifty, minus Curie’s twenty points. Three-thirty-seven five. Count it if you want.”

“I trust you, Titus,” Angela said, lifting the case. “Curie say anything else?”

“One: Soon. Smash and grab. Two man. Old-timer wants a cleaning job on his jewelry store. Fence says the stuffs a piece. More than this thing anyway. You’re interested, I’ll let her know.”

She glanced at Crystal, whom tried to puzzle out their jargon, then back to Titus, “Forward me the details. I’ll decide then.”

“Don’t wait too long. Lotta’ small-timers lookin’ for an easy gig like this. Don’t pace yourself outta’ business.”

“Let me worry about that,” Angela said, shaking his hand.

“Always a pleasure.”

“Nice meeting you,” Crystal said, uncertain of herself.

Titus gave a charming, sideways smirk, and strolled back to his car and climbed in. It backed from the alley the way it had come, left the two women to return to the bike. Angela transferred the case’s money into Crystal’s pack, strapped it down on the bike’s rear.

“What was that all about?” Crystal asked.

“Cleaning job?” She asked, guessing her meaning. Crystal nodded. “Jewelry store. Break in, take everything. Owner orders it to re-coop on insurance.”

“Ah. So, who’s Caruso?” She asked innocuously, more curious than she let on.

“Mob-type. Run’s numbers, guns, drugs, anything else,” she said, climbing onto the bike and handing over Crystal’s helmet. “Lately, he’s taken to showcasing more-legitimate thefts in museums. He takes a cut of profits for the exhibitions, museums get the rest. It’s a smart racket, but it’s a racket.”

“And it was one of his people that was… killed?”

“Yeah. Now get on. Standing around holding three-hundred Gs is a good way to get killed.”

Crystal wasn’t sure how true that was, but wasn’t testing theories. She climbed on, resigned to continue the conversation.

The bike started as she opened her comm, “So you’ve dealt with Caruso before?”

Angela’s lips tightened again, “We’ve crossed-paths. In this business, there’re only a few circles. All Elite. Curie’s one. As my fixer, we’re bound to run into her less-worthwhile acquaintances.”

The bike began its fast, blurred trip back toward home. Crystal refused to relent. The more she asked, the less Angela said. It was obvious there was more beneath what little she’d told. It came out in bits and pieces, monosyllabic replies, but eventually Crystal formed a good impression of it.

Crossing paths in this business meant one of two things; nearly killing one another– usually while one ripped the other off– or muscling in on the job of ripping off someone else. There wasn’t much love lost when one of the opposing team went down. It was expected. More fuel for the fire.

Clearly, Angela’s views were colored by that knowledge. As much was evident in the little bit Crystal did glean from her. The bad blood with Caruso went back years, always incidental rather than intentional. He had fingers in a lot of pies. Most, big earners. In a city and occupation like theirs, it was unavoidable to step on one another’s toes.

Even so, it wasn’t the thieves or the fixers that drew heat outside the jobs. Rather, it was the Johns that hired them. So long as the Johns got their merchandise– and everyone else their cut– there was nothing anyone could do about the job-runners. Even Caruso knew that. Ostensibly, he could fight each battle against the thieves, but the war could only be won against those ordering the thefts. Once thieves shook their pursuers, they were in the clear. That was the game. That was how it was played. How it always had been.

But none of that explained Titus’ sentiment; Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.

Whatever it meant, Crystal was certain the whole truth wouldn’t come easily, if at all. If she had to guess, something had gone sideways once. Angela had been caught, more than likely, and had likely only just escaped with her life. The more she considered it, the less Crystal liked the idea of remaining a thief.

But the briefcase full of money, and the growing commitments to Angela were hard to let go of. Moreover, the job had been easy: run across a parking lot and sifted through some boxes for over a hundred-grand after Angela’s sixty-percent take.

Crystal only laid her question to rest once Angela quit replying entirely. For now, they’d done the job. Little more needed to be said. They returned home long enough to clean up, then headed out to dinner at an upscale restaurant across town. The conversation was admittedly lighter and more forced than Crystal liked, but time passed easily enough that the tension all but disintegrated when the food arrived.

Celebratory drinks were ordered and imbibed before the pair returned home. They readied to part in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island counter. Angela looked to her longingly, as if fear fearing for their friendship. She looked ready to speak, but turned away. Crystal stopped her.

“Angela.” She hesitated, glanced back. “I know what you said’s true, so … thanks. I just wish there was another way.”

Angela winced, “What matters is you’re safe.”

Crystal looked away to seek more words. Her eyes flitted back to find Angela already strolling toward her bedroom. Crystal hesitated, then headed to bed, tired and restless from all that had happened. She managed to quell it long enough to sleep, but awoke as if no time had passed. Angela stood in the doorway again.

“Hey,” she tossed a bag at Crystal’s bed. “That’s your cut from the job. Grab some pocket money and meet me in the garage. We’ve gotta see Jonas.”

Crystal yawned, groaned, “No breakfast?”

“Coffee’ll tide you over. We’ll hit a diner soon enough.”

Crystal climbed from bed and dressed, then dug through the paper-bag of hundreds and twenties, counted out a few grand, then shoved the rest in her desk. She pocketed the bills, and minutes later, was in the garage; coffee in one hand, jacket in the other, and gun on her hip.

“What’re we seeing Jonas about?”

“Paper-work,” Angela said, leading her toward an old, metallic blue Chevelle with white stripes. “Believe it or not, you’re legally certified for a concealed carry permit. There’s no reason not to have one made. I’m licensed as an instructor and Jonas can print permits.”

“Seriously?” Crystal asked, slipping down into the vinyl-seated car. Angela “mhmm’d.” “What can’t you do?”

“Fly a helicopter… yet.”

They started off again at street-level, taking in the cool morning with open windows and an undeniable satisfaction from pocketfuls of cash. The term “dirty money” meant less and less to Crystal as they drove on. She kept quiet, letting the sat-radio occupy the car over her guzzled coffee.

A sense of accomplishment filled her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever experienced anything like it before: after a decade hopeless and penniless, success was thirst-quenching. It forced ethical fears to the surface, but she remained calm– either to rationalize or understand them better. It was, she likened, a simple exchange of services for currency. Whether she remained a thief or not, someone would be thieving.

Likewise, Crystal reasoned Caruso was going to be ripped off regardless. Whether she and Angela did it was the only variable. Had they declined the job, someone else would’ve taken it. Possibly too, with more bloodshed. However moot now, it didn’t change facts; someone wanted the artifact bad enough to shell out a half-million for it and they wouldn’t be deterred by thieves declining the job. They’d simply pay someone else.

For Crystal’s part, she felt more deserving than an unknown entity already living large. Contrary to belief, there was some honor amongst thieves. Fattening Angela’s net-worth was a small price to pay for all she’d done. Crystal wasn’t sure a billion dollars worth of jobs could ever repay the debt, no matter the blood spilled.

The Chevelle pulled up outside the pawnshop and they headed in. Jonas stood before a frail-looking, elderly black woman, and as Titus the night before, gazed down through a jeweler’s loupe. He eyed a tarnished diamond-ring as the old woman creaked, sadly; an abandoned rocking chair on a neglected front-porch in a breeze.

“It was a gift from my late husband.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He was in the army and got it in Germany on-leave,” she twinged with despair. “I haven’t the money to pay my rent this month, but he would understand, I think. Don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” Jonas repeated absently. “I can give you three-hundred for it.”

“Th-three hundred?” The woman asked verging on tears. “B-but…”

He finally looked up, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can–”

“Ma’am,” Crystal said. She counted out a thousand dollars, took the ring from Jonas, wrapped it in the bills, and put it in the woman’s hand. “Take it.”

The woman’s eyes welled-up. She burst into tears, reached up to squeeze at Crystal’s abdomen with her tiny frame. She babbled incoherently while Crystal helped her to the door. The room was quiet until the door shut and the woman disappeared, still sobbing, around a corner.

“God damn it!” Jonas fumed. “I was gonna’ flip it for twice that.”

“Christ, that’s cold,” Angela said.

Crystal slapped cash on the counter, “I never wanna’ see shit like that again. What you do’s your business, but I don’t want to see it.”

He eyed her with a deranged look. His eyes darted to Angela, then back. He took the money off the counter, “Yeah, alright.”

“Just get me my package, Jonas,” Angela said tiredly. He turned for the back-room, shaking his head with defeat, and disappeared to the sounds of rummaging. “I understand why you did that, but you shouldn’t have. Just be glad Jonas knows us, or else you might’ve just gotten jumped… or worse.”

Crystal winced, “Sorry. I didn’t think helping someone was such a big deal.”

“Flashing money this side of town’s always a big deal,” Angela warned respectfully. “Around here, everyone’s either looking to take your worth or take you out of competition. Whichever the case, flashing cash is a bad idea. Worse is making you look open to hand-outs. Even if the junkies don’t you get you then, someone will.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Jonas returned moments later with a pair of manila folders. He opened one, dumped its contents onto the counter, “Best I could do with limited materials. Been off the grid a while. Not updated in the D-Bs.” He sifted the pile, flattened it across the counter. “Driver’s license. Hunting, fishing, and weapons permits– life-time, no renewal. CCW permit. Social I-D numbers. Birth certificate. Even a bank account and forged worker ID for Clonaptic Exports– that was Curie’s contribution.” He shoved them toward Crystal. “Not bad for a kid living on the street ten years.”

Crystal suddenly realized the cards bore dated images of her, “Where’d you even get this?”

“Security Cam at a bank,” Jonas said. “Best I could do. Finding you was hard enough. Can’t use too new of an image or it’s a dead giveaway. Best way’s to pull an old one from a city database. You’re a ghost, kid. Revel in it while you can.”

Angela patted Crystal’s back, then passed another USB stick to Jonas. “Nothing like a dishonest day’s pay, right?” He smirked. “And the other thing?”

He handed her the second envelope, “S’all there. Security specs. Building blue-prints. Wiring. Everything you could ever want to knock a place off.”

“Thank fuck for white-collar criminals,” she joked smugly.

“See you soon.”

Angela tapped Crystal’s arm as she collected her papers, then followed Angela out to the car. She climbed in, “What now?”

“First, breakfast. Then, buying you a wallet.”

Crystal managed a laugh but her stomach bubbled slightly. Dread clung to the dead-air between her breaths. Why, she wasn’t sure. Especially in the moment. It felt wrong. No matter what, she had the feeling the cause would show itself sooner, rather than later. She just hoped that wasn’t in the middle of their next job.

Into Her Darkness: Part 4

4.

Trust Me

Angela secured them a table in a quieter restaurant. The place was more top-and-tails than Crystal expected. It was one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. Normally, they’d have needed a reservation, but Angela’s money was worth more than the host’s sniveling. They were given a booth in the bar, mostly vacant despite the “lunch-rush” outside. The pair ordered, waited, then were treated to the best meal Crystal’d had in her entire life. She could remember others like it, but none had exceeded it. Even Arthur’s exquisite cooking could never have matched it. That there was more to come was the icing on the proverbial cake. When they finally left the restaurant, Crystal was again checking for symptoms of dreams or hallucinations. Angela caught her careful analysis of reality and reassured her.

They stopped near the restaurant to get their bearings and Crystal leaned against a railing. Her sore muscles throbbed, but her body remained upright from pure adrenaline. She allowed herself to bask in the sounds, the sights. Life thrummed and undulated around her. It echoed its consumerist gorging off the thirty-foot ceilings and pits of the lower floors. Luxury fountains and rolling water mingled with the persistent murmur of humanity. Amid it all stood Crystal like slats in a sieve, letting it wash over and through her.

“I know that look,” Angela said. “You’ve been out of the loop a while, huh?”

Crystal’s eyes fell open on Angela, “It’s unbelievable. I’d have never imagined being here.”

Angela leaned beside her, “Well, like I said, it’s not free. Not really. Work with me– at least long enough to know it’s not what you want. That’s repayment enough. Money’s money. It’s important, but the debt I owe’s better repaid through you than someone less deserving.”

Crystal’s voice was airy from gratitude, “Thank you, Angela. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.”

Angela hung a hand on her shoulder, focused on the directory map beside them, “Shoes or clothes first?”

“Clothes,” Crystal’d said decisively with a giddy laugh.

They headed into the afternoon crowds toward the consumerist ambrosia. Before long, Angela was calling security to have them guard their luggage-rack of purchases while they continued through the mall. Making it through proved as much an exercise in excess as physicality. When security finally met them at the car, Angela tipped them, then stuffed the trunk and back-seats with everything from clothing and shoes, to jewelry and knick-knacks. They drove off with the Roadrunner’s large trunk and back seat rustling.

Angela glanced over at a light, “One more stop. Then, we can head home and unload.”

“Where are we going?”

Angela was intentionally vague, “A friend’s place. He’ll need to outfit you.”

Crystal couldn’t help her curiosity, “What do you mean “outfit?”

She cleared her throat, “I’ll explain once we’re there. Nothing bad. Just easier that way.” Crystal’s face sank. “Trust me, okay?”

“Okay. I will– I do.”

She smiled and rocketed through the green light. They raced through the streets along the bustling downtown to a run-down ghetto, eventually finding themselves parked outside an old pawn-shop. A neon sign flickered and buzzed bright-red, “McCormick’s Pawn” spanning the front above barred windows and below others. More than anything else, the area was rough. Crystal was almost concerned about leaving the car, but Angela’s lack of concern allowed Crystal to follow her in.

The shop was the typical scene expected of the less-affluent parts of town. Everything was old, beat-up, and dirtier than something being sold had a right to. Crystal couldn’t help but wonder what business Angela could ever have in such a place.

The answer came beyond an aisle of pawned televisions, car stereos, and power tools at a display-case counter: Beneath it were countless gems, some inlaid in various jewelry– all more upscale than the dive had a right to. They reached the counter, and Angela slapped a hand against a bell. A wiry man in his mid-thirties shuffled from the backroom, eyes on a tablet, and eyeglasses propped up on his head. He stepped up to the counter, then suddenly recognized Angela.

“Angie? What the hell’re you doing here?” He checked his wrist-watch. “I didn’t think you’d be in. Business or–” He saw Crystal and went silent.

“Business,” Angela said. “This is Crystal. New partner. I need her outfitted.”

He looked Crystal over, “’Nother street-kid, huh?” He eyed Angela for approval. She nodded. “I can give her the full-package, but it’ll cost you.”

“Package?” Crystal asked.

Angela quieted her with a raised hand. “Same price as before. Forty-five.”

He snorted, “Sorry kid, can’t do that. Fifty five or nothing.”

She turned shrewd. “Jonas, don’t dick with me. Forty-Five. Or, I find someone else to do business with.”

He chewed his lip, “That’s cutting into to my profit.”

“Which exists because of me.”

He was carefully irate, “Might as well be handing the shit out at that price, Angie.”

“But you aren’t,” she countered. “You’re securing a business relationship with your best partner for a small premium.”

He huffed frustration, “Might as well be blackmailing me.”

“I prefer to think of it as negotiation.”

He sighed, “Fine. Forty-eight. That covers sale and installation.”

“Installation?” Crystal asked.

“Forty-Eight,” Angela said, satisfied.

He motioned them behind the counter. Angela followed promptly, but Crystal hesitated, “Where’re we–”

“You’re safe. Trust me.

Despite her apprehension, Crystal started forward. They passed through a dingy office crammed with tech gear, file cabinets, and stacked papers and file-folders. Jonas led them for a door at its end, and up a cramped staircase. It angled right mid-way up, then led up again before terminating in a door. Jonas unlocked it with a pair of keys and it opened onto a lavishly furnished apartment.

The exterior and lower floor expertly hid the luxury apartment and its expensive looking furnishings. No-one could have known such extravagance was contained within without prior knowledge. Jonas paid it no mind as he held the door for them, then shut and bolted it behind them. He typed a few numbers into a security pad beside it, shut down and locked the shop below.

If there was one thing Jonas knew, it was security. That’s why Angela had come to him. She let him push back into the lead, and followed him through an ornate kitchen of black and chrome for a short hallway, roughly the length of a pair of rooms. Four doors were stationed along it; two on one side, one on the opposite, and one at its end.

Jonas thumbed a print scanner at the end of the hall, then slid a key-card through a reader on the wall and typed in a pass-code. The door clicked and pushed open. The walls inside were white, lighted like Angela’s garage. The scent of disinfectants said it was more for sterility than style. A gurney and the plethora of machines around it said the place could be used medically. The plethora of machines on a table near the room’s center lent credence to the idea.

None of that soothed Crystal’s churning stomach. Whatever the next surprise was, she wasn’t certain she wanted it. “What’s going on here?”

Jonas cut in, “The sooner we’re working, the sooner we’re done.” He motioned Crystal to a chair across the table, “Sit.”

Crystal hesitated with a look to Angela; she nodded, arms crossed. Crystal breathed and sat. Between she and Jonas was a curious contraption at face height. Prods jutted out from the sides, angled right as if to hold one’s temples. In its center, a second pair of prods appeared ready to stab at her eyes. She was instantly nervous. Fears of cosmic scale-balancing rushed back. Whatever Angela wanted her to do now, she wanted less with each moment.

“Put your chin against this,” Jonas said, tapping a spot below the eye-level prods. Crystal steeled herself, placed her face against the contraption. “Don’t blink. It’ll be hard, but don’t.”

Crystal swallowed hard, “O-okay.”

He adjusted knobs on the machine and centered the prods on her eyes and temples. He flicked a switch and two more snapped down, thrummed to press against the bone just below her ears. They pressed against her with painful, needle-like tips.

“On three you’ll feel a slight pressure in your temples and ears. Then again, a sting in your eyes. It’s all perfectly normal. Just Don’t blink.”

She had her doubts about that.

Jonas counted. Seconds were eternities. The moments between were eons. The first prods readied with small gear-sounds. The four prods pressed through her skin like small syringes. A second of pressure passed and the area was numb. She swallowed hard, fought not to blink, still terrified. Jonas soothed her with silence, began his second count.

Sweat beaded on her forehead. The eye-level prods stared her down. Their movements were slow, methodical. Jonas counted. “Three,” came with a momentary pause. The probes shot out. In. A lone revolution of a tattoo machine’s needle. The pain was as instant as short-lived. The splendor took longer to settle in. Before Crystal could comprehend it, Jonas was on his feet beside her. He held a device against her neck just behind her ear.

Another slight, needled pressure, and her vision was engulfed by lines of code. It was like a computer booting-up in her head, for her eyes only. Strings of commands fed across her eyes. Their individual characters sharpened to a focus. A quick flicker and the strings disappeared, replaced by a heads-up-display complete with time, date, and GPS map of her surroundings in a corner of her field of view.

“How’s that?” Jonas asked. “Clear? No fuzz?”

She was completely awestruck. “N-no. It’s… amazing.” More items appeared as the HUD finished its boot. “Wh-what is it?”

“Tactical heads-up-display” Jonas explained, taking his seat. “High-grade optical augment used by soldiers and special police– and anyone able to afford the black market price. Anything you want it to do, it can. Just think it, it’ll happen. Anything it can’t do, let me know and I’ll program it in.”

“Can it tell me the weath–” She was cut short by a window opening on the HUD with the latest forecast from NOAA appearing. She breathed, “Holy shit.”

“Takes some getting used to,” Angela chuckled. “But it’s invaluable. Especially for our work.”

“And very. Expensive,” Jonas said, clearing his throat.

Angela rolled her eyes, produced a cellphone and a small SSD. She slotted the card, thumbed her phone, then ejected the card and tossed it over.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said smarmily.

Angela focused on Crystal, “How’s it feel?”

Crystal glanced over. Informatics flared on, listing Angela’s heart-rate, respiration, body temperature, and a myriad of other stats. The feeling was awesome in the most literal sense. It was as if she’d been blind since birth, were suddenly seeing for the first time. Everything she looked at was replete with information. The HUD displayed it all, from the steel floor’s composition, to the LED and wood-embedded walls. Everything was something. Every something told her more, and more about the next thing. It made her head spin. The only thing she wasn’t certain of was how to turn it off. Then again, she wasn’t sure she cared to.

“This… is amazing,” she repeated, chest heaving with exhilaration.

Angela motioned her up, “Play with it later. There’s one more thing to do.” She looked to Jonas, “Show her your special stock.”

He fingered a button beneath the table. Crystal stood, minimizing as many needless details as possible. They were captivating, but the sounds of small hydraulics managed to tear her attention back to real-space. Panels slid back in the lighted walls, revealing dark alcoves rotating on an X-axis. Velvet lined cases with weapons and objects rotated into place. The gleam of black and chrome, steel and polymer appeared across the room. Pistols and rifles mingled with various attachments and other tools of black-market trades Crystal guessed were more necessary than wanted. She glanced back at Angela, her HUD finally under control. Only its edges registered her own, personal vitals below the GPS.

Angela motioned outward, offering her the room, “Take your pick. Money’s no object.”

Both women heard Jonas’ slobbery suckle.

Crystal began to walk the room, glancing over various pistols, rifles, shotguns, and submachine guns in their endless configurations. She turned back at a wall of lock-picks and other, small instruments, and headed for the far-wall. A pistol caught her eye mid-way through the room. She stopped to survey it. The black polymer frame was fitted with a laser-attachment beneath the barrel.

“Good taste,” Jonas said, suddenly beside her. He thumbed a pad hidden in the wall and the thin braces holding the weapons in place sank away. He lifted the pistol out, “Magnum Research’s finest Baby Deagle.” He held it in an open palm, “Laser sighting, and 13-round mag chambered in 40-cal S-and-W.” He dropped the empty magazine out with one hand, caught it with the other, then slammed it back in. “Good for close to mid-range, so you might as well leave anything else at home.”

Angela stepped over, “Enough, Jonas. You don’t need sell her.”

Jonas offered Crystal the gun, she took it, tested its weight, then raised it to past Jonas’ shoulder.

“What do you think?”

She held it with both hands, allowed the laser to activate, and smiled. “I’ll take it.”

Jonas chuckled, retrieved a holster and a small box of ammunition, “Is that all?”

Angela spoke up, “She needs something else. A primary.”

“I do?” Crystal asked, sliding the pistol into the holster.

“Yes.” Angela walked the walls to a pair of machine-pistols. “These.”

Crystal stepped over, examined them. They were admittedly nice, but why she would she ever need them? She hoped the pistol alone would be enough– at that, that it’d never see use. She’d reacted as she’d thought was expected, finding something to protect herself, but it seemed Angela wanted her to become some sort of militant. It forced a pause over her.

Jonas was beside them, “Hmm… TMPs.” He eyed Crystal, then Angela, “You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Crystal wasn’t. “Why? I said I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

Angela gave her a grave look, “Better to have them and not need them. A pistol should be your last resort in a fight, not your first.”

Crystal winced. Angela instructed Jonas with a look. He keyed in a code and unlocked the machine-pistols, handed one over to Crystal. “Nine-by-nineteen rounds. Optional fifteen to thirty-round mags. Suppressors. Holsters. Detachable side-mount lasers and forward grips. Well-furnished and deadly at close and mid-ranges. Not to mention, bad-ass looking.”

Crystal felt the weight in her hand, tested it as she had before. Angela was satisfied, “We’ll take both. Furniture too. And as much nine-by-nineteen ammo as you’ve got.”

Jonas’ eyes lit up. “Yes, Ma’am.”

By the end of it, they left the pawn-shop with a large box of goods taped up and tagged “fragile” on the side. Crystal set the box in the Roadrunner’s trunk as a first, few drops of rain began falling. She shut the trunk and moved to the passenger’s seat, readjusting the “Baby Deagle” at her hip. They started back for home, Crystal more uneasy than she wanted to admit.

“Angela, I’m really grateful for everything but–”

“I’m not going to make you kill anyone,” she preempted. She glanced over with a serious gravity, “But if it comes to it, I’m going to ensure you survive.” She re-focused on the road. “Besides, you need something for weapons training. Its better to have something you’re used to.”

“Okay,” she said quietly.

Admittedly, she was a little excited to try out the weapons, but it was overshadowed by the singular thought of hurting someone. Even that person wishing to harm her didn’t feel as though it would make it easier. Whether it did or not, remained to be seen– though she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

At the very least she resolved to trust Angela’s assertion: She was teaching her to protect herself. It was little solace, but Crystal felt it better to fear killing someone than someone killing her.

Into Her Darkness: Part 2

2.

Ground Rules

The pair occupied the bathroom most of the afternoon. Despite evidence of living alone, Crystal learned Angela had a valet. The old man paid no mind to the two young women in the bath. He merely rustled in with bags of food and set them on the floor. Angela thanked him and he disappeared again.

“Arthur,” she said snipping hair. “Hired him to monitor my security system, been here ever since, helping out.” Angela directed her to stand, uncorked the drain, and switched on the shower. “Scrub down. I gotta’ dig for something.”

She sank to her knees at the bathroom counter, dug until the shower was off. Crystal climbed out to dry herself. Angela emerged with an electric trimmer and towels, directed Crystal to sit on the toilet and took a spot on the tub’s outer-edge. She draped a couple towels around, scalped the sides of Crystal’s hair down like her own, then stood a few paces away.

She nodded to herself, satisfied, then eyed Crystal, “You wanna’ prune that forest?”

“Huh?” Angela eyed her groin. Crystal chuckled inexplicably. “I guess. It’s like wild kingdom down there, huh?”

Angela handed over the trimmer, “Meet me in the kitchen. We have things to go over.”

“Okay. Angela?” She hesitated at the door. “I dunno why you picked me, but… thanks.”

Her mouth drew a crooked half-smile, “Wait ’til after the first job. Tell me then if you’re grateful.”

She left Crystal at the mirror: for a woman that hadn’t touched herself in years, let alone been with someone, the experience was foreign– to say the least. She wouldn’t have minded the “forest” if she’d hadn’t been the type obsessed with hygiene. Manicures, pedicures, waxes; that was her way of life. Her former “baldness” meant anything was a sign of less-fortunate times. In the end she opted for what was quickest, somewhere between bald and not. At least it matched her head.

She dressed to find herself resembling her neo-punk benefactor more. Her hair was shaved at the sides; short and spiked on the top and back. Her clothing, a touch too tight in the bust, bore that same combat-ready punker look.

But given the corpse-stench emanating from her clothing on the floor, it might as well have been a Versace ball gown. It certainly felt like one. It might not have been her style before, but lacking one entirely had made her flexible. Besides, she looked hot, like some alt-culture model. One with a future. Helluva lot better than when she’d woken up. Preferences be damned, she felt hot.

Angela sat along the island’s far-side in the kitchen. Laid out before her were a series of blue-prints, digital photo-prints, and a laptop, amid a plethora of other, indistinct paperwork. Scattered among the piles were the Chinese food containers, untouched steaming the air with heavenly aromas. Angela dug at a box of chow mein, intensely focused on the screen and barely blinking. The flit of Crystal’s approach, broke her focus. She shut shut the laptop, motioned to a stool across from her, and shoved over a box of food.

“Sit. Eat.” Crystal obliged. “You need to bulk up or you’ll never have enough energy to train.”

She opened a box, “Train? You mean like weight-training?”

“Among other things,” Angela said between chews. Crystal’s silence begged elaboration as she attempted to avoid looking slovenly. Angela didn’t notice, too busy speaking between alternate bites. “First of all, you need some muscle. Means strength training. Bulking diet. Plus, need to be nimble. So, gymnastics too. Eventually, a cutting diet to shape and mold yourself. You’ll need free running to supplement that. Dexterity and balance training too. All of that requires an agile build.”

“Wait,” Crystal said, head beginning to swim. “What’s free running? And why an agile build?”

Angela washed down a hunk of food with a swish of wine. “Worst thing for a thief’s getting caught. You need to be able escape any heat. That means putting as much ground and environment as possible between you and your pursuers. Best way to do that’s moving fast through places cops and regular crooks can’t get through. Free-running guarantees it.”

“And it’s what?”

“Parkour,” she said simply, as if the word should have meaning to Crystal. “Running. Climbing. Vaulting. Jumping. Rolling.” Crystal gave her a sort of deranged squint. “It sounds crazy, but it’s kept me alive.”

Crystal chewed slower, “I’m not sure I can do it is all.”

“That’s your first obstacle to overcome then. Things a person can’t do come as a result of one of two limitations; the mental or the physical. Physically, no, you couldn’t do it right now, but that’s the point of training. Mentally, you’ll never do anything if you don’t believe you can. So just trust me when I say, you can, and I’ll teach you how. Got it?”

Crystal manifested as much confidence as she could. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Angela finished the last of her food. She headed for the fridge, dug out a bottle of water, set it in front of Crystal. “You’ll have to learn other things too– invaluable tools of the trade. So long as you do what I say, and trust me, you’ll do fine.”

Crystal hesitated with a grimace, “What about in the mean-time? How’m I supposed to get back and forth between here and–” She hesitated again “Home?”

“You won’t. There’s a spare room for you. I can’t risk anyone following you back. Least, not ’til you’re trained. Besides, you need restful sleep. The next few days are going to be rough. You can’t train riding a cement floor every night.”

She stammered in confusion, “Are y-you sure?”

“Certain,” Angela said with a soft look. “This is home until you decide to leave. Or rather, if you decide to leave. Everything’s open to you, but if you want the gravy-train to keep rolling, you’ll abide my only two rules; no guests, and no stealing– especially from me. I see the irony, but what you learn’s only to be used on our jobs. Unnecessary theft brings unnecessary heat. Everything we work for can be gone in a blink if you get caught for petty theft– or something equally else asinine. Besides, I have a seven-figure bank account. If you need anything, ask.”

Crystal swallowed the last of her food, grateful for it and the seemingly endless hospitality of her benefactor. She helped Angela clean their trash, then stood before her in the kitchen.

Angela instructed her with a few words, “You need rest. Street-living takes a lot outta’ you. It’s still early, but I have things to do. Morning will come sooner than you think. It’s not going to be easy. Get as much rest as possible: lay around. Watch TV. Have some wine, beer, whatever, but get to sleep early. Okay?”

“Okay. And thanks again.”

“You want to show your appreciation, do it through your training. That’s enough for me.” She pointed to a doorway opposite the garage. “Your room’s through there. Second door on the left. Bathroom’s across the hall. You need anything you can’t find, ask Arthur. He’ll show you or get it for you. Whatever you need.”

“Where’re you going?” Crystal asked as Angela headed for the garage.

“To meet someone,” she said cryptically. “Relax. It’s all good.”

Crystal shrugged and Angela slipped out. A distant engine fired, deeper and louder than the bike. Crystal guessed one of the trucks. The sounds shrank away, ascended, then disappeared altogether. Crystal glanced around, lost for action, then headed for her room. The corridor was long, wide. Dark wood doors occupied either wall, spaced a modest distance. The corridor ended in a set of equally dark, double-doors. Crystal stopped at her new room, almost knocked, but glanced up and down the hall then stepped inside.

It was much larger than she’d expected. A queen-size bed, armoire, chest of drawers, desk and a television took up most of the space. Various electronics occupied the spaces between and within them. The house’s décor was continued in earthen wood and radiated warmth. It swelled Crystal’s breath in her chest. She’d hit the lottery, found herself once more wondering if her mind had cracked. Was it a dream? Some extraordinary hallucination?

Thoughts compelled her to the bed. She sank onto it. The plush mattress coddled her. The mattress and sheets were brand new, unused. She let herself fall against it, let it hug her body with comfort. She drew herself onto the bed, then splayed out as wide as possible. A giggle bubbled up from her gut, trembled along her throat, then forced itself out.

Once, long ago, she’d had a bed like this. A room like this. She’d had a television. And a desk. And a refrigerator. And plenty of food. She’d had clothes. Furniture. Everything a person could ever want or need. In a blink, they’d been taken away, stolen by willful negligence. Crystal’s mother hadn’t suffered. Everyone knew she wouldn’t. Crystal had.

As soon as legal, she was thrown out to fend for herself. Money wasn’t tight. It was non-existent. Luxury too. Necessity hadn’t been covered, only survival. Crystal’s mother was living the high-life, bouncing from one trophy-case to another while Crystal lived from trash-cans, under leaky roofs, while fighting starvation tremors.

Now, all of that was looking to change. Again, in a blink. Obviously, maintaining the change would require more effort, as well as flexible definitions of right and wrong. But her sense of right and wrong had been dictated by people whose own actions defied the true definitions. Or at least, what Crystal felt to be the true definitions. Her parents had been liars, cheats. They’d abandoned their child for their own, selfish desires. Thief or not, criminal or otherwise, Angela had already shown herself the inverse. The moral conflict was as obvious as it was clean-cut. So long as no-one was unduly hurt, there were worse ways to make a living. Angela was right about that. Crystal’d seen it herself.

In all, Crystal could do worse than to emulate Angela. No-one was perfect, certainly, but regardless of motivations, Angela seemed a genuinely good person. No-one visited kindnesses on the destitute or down-trodden without some selfish motivation. Even if it was as simple as pride from helping, it was there. Angela had been honest, forthcoming from the beginning. She did right by Crystal as someone had done right by her, and in exchange, Crystal would become a thief.

If there was one thing Crystal’d learned living on the street, it was how much people had and didn’t need. Even in the room she’d been given, there was more than her wildest dreams would’ve allowed for. Ultimately, that was the mark of reality; however seemingly absurd it might be in retrospect, her mind would never concoct such hospitality nor good fortune.

She felt her breaths swell again, but refused to move. The bed was too comfortable, the room too warm. She didn’t want to disturb a single iota of the moment. Still, tears welled in her eyes. Their slight chill as they met air along her cheeks was the only affliction to the warmth. Even if without full understanding of how or why, life had finally turned a corner. She wept quietly, draining her grief so it might one day be replaced with hope, joy even.