Short Story: Kudzu

Sebastian Rower slid to one side of the bed, red from exertion. Beside him lie Drake, looking something the Greeks of old. His muscled form reflected low-light across a fresh sheen of sweat and saliva. The pair were slick and panting. The taste of salt lingered on Sebastian’s tongue. His body coursed fresh ecstasy, post-sex heat.

Sebastian thought he’d known love from lust; Drake taught him differently.

He’d come to Sebastian through a sea of bodies. Its current undulated beneath swirling spirals of neon. The Club, Sebastian was a perpetual wallflower there. Most nights he clung to the walls like kudzu, simply watching, people completely unaware of his existence.

Men or women. Straight or gay. Anyone in, around, between. They all sought The Club. Their reasons were varied but similar enough. Sometimes it was drugs. Sometimes booze. Sex or something similar; always a wiling from between the long-nights and docile daylight.

Sebastian watched, never bothering to do much more than nurse a drink each night. He might’ve been content to live out that obscurity forever, little more than a passing thought in the rarest of minds.

But Drake appeared.

He had an undeniable allure. It rolled in as if on waves from beyond a place of light. Even before adding in sexuality or magnetism, it turned crowds like pre-storm gales; ever-graceful but with auras of power, intimidation, awe.

Sebastian swore he saw them, however briefly. They rolled from him in auric waves, barely visible beneath twirling lights. It seemed too, to automatically repel those Drake felt unworthy; in effect, bestowing even the knowledge of his existence was a gift.

Yet of all the vibrant, colorful people there, Drake chose the dull, earthen vine; Sebastian. Otherwise doomed to creep, alone, merely existing. Drake’s auras decided otherwise. Like an old vid of lovers at first-sight.

Drake approached, auras firing and repelling the crowd so his forceful-grace never faltered. Their eyes locked, attached by a magnetism pulling one to the anchored-other. He saw them then.

For the slightest breath, Sebastian thought himself seeing things. He was center of this God’s attentions, feared to believe it, would’ve cast his eyes away to check could he bear to. Something more said he was both seeing things and their center. He, and only he.

Drake’s approach made time exist only for them. Its eventual return found reality muted, distant and hollow from an inexplicable force between them.

Drake introduced himself with a now-familiar, sonic equivalent of silken marble. He leaned in with only the slightest touch to Sebastian’s wrist. The effect a whisper in the muted sound; a distant sea-surf amidst the hot-spring of his touch.

They danced. For hours. An eternity, it felt.

Something powdered met hot blood. The night became a blur of spinning. Ecstasy, laced with exhilaration. The Club faded to the passing background between it and Drake’s place until the flow of time became impossible to track.

Hot, fast-tempo sex dominated after. Between long, slow moments of unbridled bliss seeming to last forever.

Sebastian could take no more. He gave Drake the last, best part of his remaining strength, then fell beside the God with a growing exhaustion. The Auras, until now empowering him, were finally taking their toll. No mortal’s waves, after all.

He let himself cool down, laid his head on the muscle-bound chest beside him.

Drake curled one arm around Sebastian, used the other to light a cigarette, and smoked. Sebastian watched, Drake seeming never to exhale. Sebastian closed his eyes, hypnotized to nether realms between bouts of fluttering eyelids.

He hard only the inhale, the deep chasm between it and the next. Nothing more.

Darkness flared from a cherried-cigarette. Utterly drained, Sebastian was forced to speak. His star-struck despair was the same as any whose euphoric fever-dreams were shattered by a painful reality.

“I guess I should be going now.”

Drake said nothing, merely lit another cigarette. Sebastian moved to sit up. Drake’s arm tightened, stilling him. Sebastian waited, taking the excuse to bask in the God’s glow.

It was no good. There was no pleasure there anymore. No fire. Just two people, alone, naked. At least, one person, however God-like the other. One, utterly drained, as if its parts were decayed from the energy he’d expended.

Drake finished his cigarette, forced a pause to the air. Sebastian took the transition, tried to rise again. Drake’s arm tightened in silence. His strength was immense, firm.

A lump of fear manifested near Sebastian’s brain-stem, forced him to try again, “I should–”

Drake’s arm held firm. Sebastian was caught, held by the threatening vice that was Drake’s mass of muscles, endless strength.

“Really,” Sebastian squirmed.

Drake was silent, smoking. Again, Sebastian attempted to rise. Drake’s arm gave only the slightest twitch. He was still again. The pill exploded along Sebastian’s brain, surged freezing electricity along his spine in icy, electric arcs.

Terror shook his struggling limbs, stilled by a force not his own.He was ready to run. Trying to. It was utterly hopeless. The body that had delighted him was now against him. With only the twitch of a muscle, Sebastian writhed, clawing in cold sweat at the beast beside him.

He begged, pled for release, fearful of the God’s sudden transition. Drake finished his cigarette and finally began to move.

Sebastian held his breath: one, swift motion forced Drake’s lips against his. The creature exhaled. Smoke billowed from it into Sebastian’s lungs. Acrid smoke smothered any hope for air.

His lungs filled. His sinuses.

Still it came.

The weight was too much. His airways bulged, overfilled. They began to tear; a million tiny cuts from a billion points of skin being drawn and quartered by one another. He wished to scream, smothered from the inside out; Drake’s smoke was too powerful, too thorough.

Sebastian’s innards stretched, bled. The smoke infected his blood, filled, swallowed, replaced it. The process repeated endlessly, every inch of him torn by the next and last. Inexorable terror accompanied the stomach-drop of blood and fluid spilling into unrightful places.

Still, Drake exhaled.

Sebastian’s lungs were no more. Utterly annihilated by the force of persistent smoke. Its tearing, shredding, quarter. Until its threads severed at ever level of existence imaginable.

Then, the rest of Sebastian went too. Piece-by-piece. Tear-by-tear.

Sebastian gave a final twitch and dissolved into smoke. It dissipated slowly, taking Sebastian with it forever.

Drake eased himself back and lit another cigarette.

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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.”

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

She sat atop a bar-stool, dressed and hunched over like a man might. She’d learned to emulate them, though mostly to defy conventions. She was a rebel through and through, but rebellion wasn’t the cause of the day’s slump. It wasn’t spite, nor angst, either. Not even the usual mix of downers and booze that could take down a twice-laid, pro-player.

No. Today, it was loss.

Cameron had seen and done about everything one could, short of all-out world-war. Street wars, she’d seen. Even taken part of. She’d run guns, drugs, used more. She’d laundered money, skimmed from guys about to get capped. She’d even capped a few would-be hustlers.

She’d hustled her fair share too, met others in the game, traded tricks for camaraderie over drinks and drugs– even dinner, depending on the company. She’d loved, fucked, burned, and chased her chunk of women, but nothing compared to Cassie.

Cass’d started– damn near ended– that way. Cameron would’ve been the notch rather than the other way ’round. Things turned before long. They ended up inseparable. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. Both of them knew it.

Fact was, however unwilling to admit it, they’d been in love. The kind that made people insane; drove them to write poetical epics, mutilate themselves, or pump out double-platinum albums of veiled love-songs.

Now she was gone.

The semi-auto .44 pressed Cameron’s back from her waistband, loaded with two-surplus rounds; one for Cass, one for her. They’d used surplus everything since starting to save creds for a trip. Three weeks in paradise and a reprieve from the shit-hole of their lives.

At least, that was the plan. Not so much anymore…

She tossed back rotgut from a copper-plated still, regretting the rounds couldn’t have been higher grade. They’d come from Cass’ stash though. That much felt fitting at least.

The bleached faux-hawk, soaked red in her hands, stabbed Cameron’s chest.

She took another drink, hoping to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.

They’d met in the alley after the job. Smash ‘n grab at a jewelry store. The kind of knock-off a friend of a friend did for insurance. No shortage of scams these days. They were supposed to meet, divvy the loot, then head to the fences.

You went alone to a fence, or only with people that already knew them, okayed them. Otherwise, you were as good as snitching. Even if through third-parties. Didn’t matter, jackboots were jackboots. Every Tooler knew that. None took advantage.

Especially not like this.

Cameron was a few paces from Cass; just in ear-shot but not enough to hear clearly.

They were arguing. Probably a rip off, she guess. Every other dickhead Tooler tried one way or another. Mad ’cause “she ate pussy”, wouldn’t “eat” cock too. Or, ’cause she looked small enough to outfight– too small to be a well-respected black-belt in Shotokan Karate.

If she’d been given a chance…

There was no warning. Thunder cracked and the bastards fled. Cameron was too concerned with Cass, her body. It hit the dirty alley-floor and shattered Cameron’s mind. Her body still worked, but it was a long time before she knew or returned to it.

Sheremembered only abyssal despair; surfacing from depths so fathomless they’d permanently erased themselves; hot, blood-drenched fabric chilled in wind. Nothing else.

It was senseless. Capping a fellow Tooler for no reason? Beyond monstrous. Disliking someone wasn’t an excuse. Sure, there’d been tension after Tiny brought them on. Even more when he had to pull out, but Creeps aside, they’d all been hired as professionals.

Only after the creeps knew they weren’t getting more than the deal specified from the couple– did things start souring.

Cameron partially blamed herself for things. Assured to drink herself into oblivion because of it. ‘Least ’til what needed to be done was done.She’d felt those first hints of resentment, spite. Tasted and smelled them on the air. Mostly, coming from the pair they were set to work with.

By then, Tiny knew he was off the job but kept the group together and helped them plan and prepare. To Tiny’s credit, he’d done what he could ’til the job was on, ensuring it went as smooth as possible.

Indeed, it did. Despite being forced to attend other, unavoidable matters, he found a way to make due, did so expertly. Cameron could never have thought to blame him.Not in a million years. Nothing he’d had control over, or a hand in, was even far from perfect. Even the creeps had come highly recommended, with more-or-less ample skill.

Honor was Tiny’s way. His paradoxical name came from the stereotype he so thoroughly defied. Nothing about Tiny was small. Neither act nor intent, nor size and stature. He held to his word as a blood-pact, nothing more or less. No-one that knew him, believed otherwise.

Betrayal, or hints of it, weren’t a thing to him. Such fundamental wrongness didn’t exist in the world until he heard of them. Then, as its antithesis,he helped correct them.That was it. Betrayal existed only as long as was needed to ensure it did not, so it would not.

Personally, Cameron knew blaming Tiny helped nothing. No-one could predict the suddenly unpredictable regardless of the bystanders in its vicinity.

Besides, Tiny was already doing his part to right the wrong. He’d gotten the trigger-man to come in. The onethat took the life outta’ Cass. Cameron wantedhim. The other guy’d let it happen, but hating a person for intent made her worse than the murder. Too many people with hellish intentions but amicable actions to go that route.

She settled for the lesser evil; an eye for an eye. Taking out the one responsible most directly. Whether on hate or instinct, he’d shown he could not be trusted to control himself. If it had been premeditated, Tiny would’ve been involved, wasn’t.

His was crime of passion. Hers would be one of calm erasure from the collective populi.

The bartender stepped past, brushing her hand; the signal. Subtle. Indecipherable. That momentary pass still told of cold skin. The creature it belonged to as lifeless as its mate, now interred beneath a makeshift-marker outside town.

Less so even: the Earth was warming Cass now, keeping her ground temp. Cameron was less, might as well’ve been on ice. She threw back the last of her vile poison. The taste of a prison’s piss-filled casks followed her to the back door.

It’d take a few minutes before Tiny could work the guy into the alley. The places eternally reeked of equal parts piss and stale-vomit. A fitting place for the disposal of refuse.

Cameron added to the former at a squat in a corner, pissing as she hocked mucus and spat at a wall. She recomposed herself, then leaned against the wall near the door to smoke. It would open on her, giving Tiny the right entrance.

She took as much enjoyment as possible in the last smoke of her life, then flicked it away to check the .44’s chamber. Cass’ surplus round might as well’ve had Riven’s name etched in it– as if the very act of taking her life etched it there through will alone.

Instead, a brass jacket gleamed up beneath the industrial-bulb caged overhead. Five-pound moths fluttered and smacked the cage with the same of dullard indifference of the bullet beneath them.

Tiny’s deep voice reverberated the bar’s back-hall, leaked through its.

Cameron snapped the slide back; he’d talked Riven into stepping out for a line and a smoke. Riven’s mistake was thinking he’d gotten away with what he’d done– with thinking Cass was just another dead Tooler, nothing to no-one anyhow.

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

The door opened then shut. Riven whirled expecting to see Tiny’s Six-Eight figure shelling out smokes and coke.

Cameron’s five-five figure was draped in ragged clothing, reeking of liquor, and ending in the raised .44. Riven’s eyes widened. His mouth opened to protest.

Sound was swallowed in a crack. The .44 splattered his head’s contents out its exit-wound.Refuse sprayed the wall. The pistol sank, upturned. The barrel against chin.

She closed her eyes; Cass’ smiling face. She breathe, squeezed.

Nothing.

Memories flooded. Desperation. Anger. Betrayal. Worst and deepest, despair, grief.

They broke through her ’til she wound up cowering, utterly wracked by sopping-wet sobs. Tiny’d given her five minutes, expected to emerge and find two bodies, both with skull wounds. Instead, he found one; the other bleeding much deeper than senses allowed for.

The only thing he could say of the intervention later, was God, providence, Cass even.

That was how Tiny was. Cameron didn’t believe a word of it. It was cheap rounds. Cass had bought cheap rounds ’cause they were saving for their trip. Three weeks in paradise, fucking, drinking, loving. That was their plan. In that roundabout way, Tiny was right it was Cass, but divinity was a mile-stretch.

She explained as much, offered him Cass’ ticket. He replied simply, “You wan’ me to go?”

She shrugged. “Could use a friend right now. I think Cass’d be grateful.”

He finished his beer then nodded and rose to leave with her. After all, they had to pack, and boozing in paradise in a friend’s name wasn’t the worst way to memorialize them.

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.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Defy

I don’t want to go home,
smell the flames and death,
taste madness in the air.
Despair.

I’d rather drown
in a pitch-thick abyss,
than a sea of bright lies.
Realize.

I’d prefer a painful truth,
over comfortable nothings,
and watching them spread.
Dread.

Given the choice ‘tween,
happy lies, dark truths,
I choose the latter,
for nothing will extinguish truth’s glow.

Know.

Reality fades,
the universe with it.
Learn why,
defy.

Preview: Hard Lessons

Hard Lessons
(Starting Jan. 19, ’18)

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Ch. 1, Business is Business:

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

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

Crystal spoke from half her mouth. “Well?

“Improvise.”

Short Story: Riders

She was seeing it all through his eyes, would be until it was over. That was how it worked. Riders were like ghosts; like the little, niggling thoughts in the back of one’s mind that drove them to do a thing they normally wouldn’t.

That was how the agency liked it. More importantly, that was how Riders needed it. To allow further levity meant revealing more of the Host’s takeover. Two-twenty-three didn’t think she couldn’t handle that anyhow; the final moment of betrayal in their hearts was too much already. It was like hating yourself for so crassly leading to your own demise.

She couldn’t bear to think of feeling that the whole ride, especially knowing it was validated.

No, it was best for Hosts to live in as utter an ignorance as possible. She made sure they did, too, as every other Rider. It was an unspoken agreement that Riders do their level best to whisper thoughts that kept their hosts calm while re-forming them.

It was like the oxygen mask on a plane, deploying as it went down; Riders soothed for the sake of all aboard so the Hosts accepted their fate.

Fact was, Riders were necessary. Even if they didn’t quite understand why. Even if they never saw the full-effect of their Ride– the actions of their host– there was always an explanation, a bigger picture. The Agency assured it, promised it.

Riders couldn’t handle riding pointlessly anyhow. They’d all heard the stories of the first Hosts, their Riders. 223 didn’t need to be reminded, it was part of their training to know it. A body could only play host to more than one consciousness for a few days, a week at most. After, both Rider and Host began to lose the delineation of one and the other. It was an effect, the Agency said, of becoming too exposed to the mental processes of one another.

In essence, because both consciousnesses were encountering new methods of processing thought, they began emulating them in bits and pieces. That was perfectly fine for the short term, enlightening even, but the longer it lasted, the more permanent it became.

The block was simple human thought; certain thoughts took longer to unravel or understand as a result of mental intermediary between them and action. Generally, those intermediaries were often evaluatory, acting as filters of morality, experience to dictate decision making.

But a ridden Host had shortcuts, even longer paths. Their Rider did too, if only temporarily. The longer that connection was maintained, the longer those basic requirements were over-written, over-stayed or altogether avoided.

As a result, traits of both Rider and Host bled between them, freely exchanged. Before long, the lines blurred to non-existence. Then Rider and Host became part of one another in a sort of quasi mental-merge.

But since the Human psyche wasn’t meant for such uses or abuses, it wasn’t long before both Host and Rider were utterly insane. They became unwitting schizophrenics, completely unaware that the voices they were hearing were one another’s. The only way to really handle them then was to eliminate them.

Reasons there were two-fold; if for some reason knowledge of Riders were discovered, the consequences could be disastrous for every universe involved. More than that, it meant mistakes had been made, needed to be corrected as cleanly and painlessly as possible.

223 wasn’t a pup by any standards. She’d been a Rider nearly forty-years. Course, that was by a measure of time that didn’t exist where she hailed from. Though ostensibly human, her people had long outgrown the need for singular universal inhabitance.

In fact, if the Agency were true, the Riders efforts were to raise remaining universes’ to their level. 223 believed the Agency’s aims at least. But as much as she believed in it, as a goal-oriented entity, she had a hard time believing in its people.

After all, they were human– or near enough– and especially susceptible to error and manipulation. Riders were a pure manifestation of that.

Still, she saw his world through his eyes and would until she backed out, was pulled out, or the Host was killed. The harsh reality of being a Rider was ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Host ended up dead, in trouble with authorities, or worse. The rarer good ending did exist, and a Rider was guaranteed to have a few over time, but they were far enough between to easily forget them otherwise.

It was all for the greater good, the Riders knew, and it was never a comfort.

223’s current ride was no different from any of the other forty-years of Hosts. She rode three to four new Hosts a week these days, but had long ago abandoned hope the odds of good-to-bad would be altered in any way.

To do so was pointless. All hoping could lead to was damaging her back home. Either through some misguided attempt to help, rebel, or more emotional scarring than was necessary.

Still, she admitted that familiar pang of pity for the guy as he straightened his poorly knotted tie in a mirror. He was a well-meaning dud, but a dud nonetheless. The Multiverse was swarmed by them. It was sad in its way, so much wasted potential.

He grabbed his suit-jacket, completely unaware of the phantom taking possession of him. Before long, she had him waltzing about his kitchen to kiss his wife and kids good-bye, grab his briefcase and coffee, and slip out the door.

223 slotted herself into the correct mental state. Good riders could do it instantly, but the best took their time, got to know their Host first to develop the right empathy, the right control. 223 was nothing if not one of the best.

Thing about it was, the Ride was really just that; a ride. Good Riders knew how to nudge their Host onto track with a few, specific thoughts, nudges that turned out to be all anyone ever needed.

They weren’t really thoughts though. That was important to remember. More like feelings, shadows of feelings, shifts or sparks sometimes so deep in the psyche a person didn’t know they existed. They were phantom’s phantoms, ghostly shadows of desires, dreams, hopes. They were the little darknesses Jung built his career off.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes they were lights, but those lights were rare.

In forty years, 223’d learned to tell when big events were near. She’d been through a few; armed revolutions, bloody coups, massive, sexual awakenings– her personal favorite– and everything in and around. They were all experienced through various Hosts, eachusually only for a short period.

Usually too, the closer the event was to its climax, the darker the rides were.For some, it was assassinations, suicides, public or private but with massive repercussions. Sometimes, it was a cheating or cheated-on spouse meant to become the next Gloria Steinem or Jane Roe.

This time, it was looking bigger, darker. She wasn’t sure what, but the rides had gotten darker. Moreso than she’d ever seen. Whatever was set to happen, even this waltzing family-man had his dark part to play.

His day wasn’t rough. She’d seen worse, but she nudged him at every necessary turn. It was a testament to her skill that mere hours allowed her to turn the wife-loving, tax-paying smartly-dressed family-man into one of the most depraved monsters to have ever walked his Earth.

It started with a near accident in his brand new Lexus. The car was fine, but left him covered in coffee, neck to navel. The second nudge came minutes later at a store, when stopping to buy a new shirt. Only few pennies off the exact change, he was forced to use a credit card.

Such little things could be important; tiny sparks that fed big fires, stirring massive resentment via the way people viewed the world at-large. 223 was almost proud of how easy it had been to turn him from upstanding citizen to monster brewing.

The next nudge came an hour later. He’d changed from the ruined shirt but the suit-jacket and tie were still drying. He was forced to shake hands with his company’s CEO for the first time, neither looking nor feeling his best.

In the back of his mind, a pill of rage had formed.

223 hated herself for being so damned good, but a Rider directed their Host as per the Agency’s objective. It could take minutes, it could take days, but sooner or later the Host wound up where the Agency wanted them.

If it weren’t 223, she knew, it would’ve been someone else. Someone that might’ve made their Host suffer unduly, whether through malice or ineptitude.

223’s skill allowed her to ride The Host’s humiliation all day, nudging and prodding him into the rabid, froth of bilious fury she needed. He arrived home an hour before his wife and children a miserable wreck, then soused himself to the gills until they appeared.

The show began.

223 half-suspected the wife was a Host too. It seemed too-well played, too-well matched, for she alone to have done it all. Whether the wife was a Host too she’d never know. It didn’t matter anyway.

It took all of ten minutes before two, upstanding people became absolute, raving animals.

The wife hurled insults better than 223 expected. The husband hurled them back. Then, some plates and glasses. The children cowered, bawling in a corner further scarred with each moment.

223 couldn’t focus on them, they’d be provided for. Hell, for all she knew, they were the point of this.

Then it happened; the Wife lunged, struckhim. Humiliatied, terrified, and cooked to a boiling rage by the heated nudge of a phantom Rider, he struck back. The wife reeled back, slipped on broken glass, and slammed the back of her skull on the edge of a counter. She was dead before the crack finished resonating.

The children erupted in screams.

The last nudge. 223 watched the Host drop to his knees, lift broken glass. He jabbed, pulled. Arterial bloodspurted and sprayed the air like a demented fountain.

Then, his body hit the floor. She felt it then; that last feeling of betrayal oozing through her, but not at her. Never at her. Always at the host. Child-screams faded into the light of the Rider’s chair, and she felt it automate and sit her upright.

She fell from it into a desk chair, body shaking with grief. She slugged back something vaguely liquor-like to settle her nerves and poured. She lifted a pen, slid an ancient-looking notebook from a drawer of the glass and metal desk, and began to write:

20,073. Male. Caucasian.