Hard Lessons: Part 6

6.

Stake out, Take out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always need an exit.”

“Uh-huh, Can’t be too careful.”

“No, but you can overbuy on C4.”

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

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

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

“Depends how you live.”

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

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

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

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

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

Too tense though, and you were equally shit.

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

Everyone needed each other, somehow.

Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was obvious to anyone looking inward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like you.”

“Mmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still a grudge,” Crystal argued.

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

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

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

Titus laughed, “Look good to me.”

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

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

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

She replied with a short, “Mm.”

He half-joked, “Guess I’ll owe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Too finely.

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

Drinks came and went.

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

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

“C’mon. I’ll drive.”

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

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

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

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

“Keys.”

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

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

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

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Hard Lessons: Pt. 5

5.

Getting Sentimental?

Crystal moved about, stuffing a duffel bag full of clothing and other items she’d need. Beside it, a black Molle pack bulged with sensitive gear and armaments, save the pistol eternally in arm’s reach.

Presently, its ballistic nylon just hung beside her button-fly, nestled between cotton and denim with the Baby Deagle’s familiar weight. Comfortable. Secure. Like her armored riding-leathers, a manifestation of continual discipline and preparation. Doing it felt good, especially when she could afford to. Turning a street-rat into a thief always made a certain sense.

Usually anyhow.

Now, she felt awkward, as if running. As if the job was just a convenient excuse. A knock rounded her at the door, Arthur stepped in and closed it at a nod.

“Leaving tonight?” She grunted non-committally. He grunted assent. “Jus’ take care’a yourself, kid. Hate to see something happen to you.”

She managed a smile, “Getting sentimental with age?”

The slack-lines of his face tightened. “Won’t be ’round to save yer ass forever. Stay outta trouble.”

“No promises.” She returned to her bags. “I sense that isn’t the only reason you’re here.”

He cleared his throat with a step forward, “I heard what happened earlier.”

“You mean the pathetic garden snake he is showing his fangs? I expected as much.” She didn’t bother to look, stepped to a desk, dug through it. “Where don’t you have surveillance gear?”

He firmly dodged the question. “Be careful with him, Crystal.”

You be careful with him, Arthur,” she corrected. “I’m leaving.”

His voice stiffened further. The caustic sound caused her to meet his gaze. “I received a care package. Everything on Lucas Dale. Known aliases– many of them.”

She hesitated, rationalizing, “And?”

“He’s not to be underestimated.”

“You have more than a hunch.”

He remained firm, “He’s been in every lock-up along the West coast. From Imperial to Seattle. Mostly petty theft.”

“He’s a drifter burning credit.”

“His or an aliases, yes.”

Crystal knew the con. It worked, but never forever. It was a hold over from the era of real criminal organizations. The kind smuggling cargo by ship-fulls into the ports, leaving trails of bribes along their way. The type to play the game by the rules, so long as they knew how to skirt them.

Not the wannabes that were wantonly bribing politicians for new laws, new rules, trying to tailor the game to their greed. The bottom line was, even those original gangster knew the game worked because everyone needed each other. That was why they could work the subtlety needed, that was the field of play, and those were the rules,

The original Gangsters to burn credit along the coasts, were working to get startup capitol. They later became industry players, selling of names and logos at massive fortunes without blinking. IN the end, the logo may’ve been a billion years old, it was the family– the people– behind it, that mattered.

By the time the creditors finally pissed enough to come looking, arrived, they were paid off with interest for the trouble. Not all of ’em came looking though. Not all cared or needed. That just made the Gangsters happier.

But the con wasn’t allowed to go nowhere. That was how you ended up with schemes and laws named after you.

You could con, but not for the sake of conning alone. It had to be going somewhere. If you weren’t going somewhere, you couldn’t confuse the mark with your movement. The fact was though, no matter how good you were, the longer between burn and profit, the worse off when the creditors finally came calling.

The idea was to toss money at them, just like everyone else. That way, they think you’re just getting to them in line. When in reality, you’re waiting, seeing if you can get away with keeping it, or if they really did expect it back.

Crystal’d seen a few public corp-deals use the tactics with different language. Recently. The con was alive and well. Most of it was sound, functional. Then again, the criminal dumb enough to try it alone would never learn why not before it was too late.

So, Lucas.

Crystal couldn’t help the smug validation, focused instead on Arthur’s warning. Angela’s capture had taught her the old man’s intel was always good.

But like Angela’s capture, Lucas’ burnt credit could come back to bite them– even if they didn’t want him around. Nothing short of a change in blood allowed for it. If the issue were colder, darker, a severed link could let come what may, never involving them. After all, families were often composed of strangers.

But Crystal knew Angela, their friendship. She’d been there every step of the way since they’d met. Lucas hadn’t. Now, acting as if he had been, beyond her personal slight in the issue, was attempting to pull wool. Her predatory features flashed, then hardened to match Arthur’s.

“What else?”

“Petty mostly. DUIs. Long list. Quiet a year or so. No trail ’til he showed up.”

“Underground.” He nodded.

In the shadows. The same shadows she and Angela lived. She winced. If he’d been off the grid that long, not in jail, he was either clean or–

She spoke it aloud, “He’s in deep. With something.”

Arthur nodded, “He didn’t just run into you two.”

“Think someone’s after him– us?

He gave a single, firm shake, “No. More’n likely sheltering himself. He’ll try to poke his head out. We’ll confirm something then or not.”

She shifted her weight, crossed her arms. “An actual hunch this time?”

Arthur nodded, “Drugs.” Crystal’s brow rose. “Mental-deficients could see the guy’s a user. Binge-type. Drink’s just’a stop gap ‘til he’s carrying again. My guess, better be soon.”

“You think he’ll try ripping us off.”

One of Arthur’s eyes narrowed, “Try to.” He glanced past a corner, eyed the hall beyond, “I put a palm lock on the Gym. Keyed to your HUDs. Work like RayFIDs. Can’t get in. Doesn’t matter though. Damage is already done.”

She tried to ferret out his subtext, couldn’t.

“Garage.”

A toon’s ton of bricks, minus all the potential amusement, tumbled down upon her at once. Panic hit. Angela’s garage– their garage. Millions of creds worth of automobiles. In plain sight. Most custom. All immaculate. Crystal conservatively estimated eight million after armor and tuning.

And aside from the few biometrics installed on their bikes, nothing would keep Lucas from taking the keys and dropping it at a chopper. Worse, if he dropped it at the wrong one, it could bring heat. Crystal had to bank on Lucas being too proud enough not to rip off his own sister.

She wasn’t holding her breath.

Any further chance for hope was buried by fresh reality. Whether or not Lucas knew when he’d found her, he knew now; Angela had money. Worse,was the minor subtext both Arthur had discerned. If Lucas was into drugs, he was into the drug trade.Meaning he’d likely skipped town after burning credit with dealers.

In other words, until it was necessary to leave to survive.

In simplest terms, Lucas was a failed, petty thief; a con-artist hiding from dealers, hoping to magically recoup piling losses before someone caught or killed him.

Angela needed to know. She wouldn’t yet. She’d been too befuddled. That, Crystal knew, was the source of her uneasiness. Angela always had a plan, a back-up plan, some ability to improvise; some route whose clairvoyance was always in reserve. Even if it took a retreat, regroup, she always had a way through, because she was always clear-headed, business-like.

But this wasn’t a job.

It was her brother, the same type of clouding to her judgment therein, that had occurred with Caruso; intimacy. Then it was Julia, her former mentor, lover. Julia’s murder, Angela’s own escape, and a later theft, brought it on then.

Now, it could be Lucas. Same barrel, different trigger.

The last time Angela hadn’t thought clearly, she’d been kidnapped and tortured. The acts might only be against her brother this time, but could wound her all the same. Neither Crystal nor Arthur could allow it. More than that, they wouldn’t. Regardless of how, it needed to be handled.

“We ‘ave to talk to her,” Arthur said finally.

“No. I do.” The old man grunted. “We play this properly. I fail to make her see things, you can. Ganging up guarantees failure. Freeze all but the funnels. After the Tong job, there should be a liquid, few thousand creds here. Enough to hold us over. All of us. By the time this next job’s done, we’ll know how to proceed.”

“Why’m I freezing the accounts?” He requested for Angela’s future benefit.

“Security. A possible situation you’re monitoring. Don’t lie. Don’t bullshit. But don’t address it if you don’t have to. Take it all if she wants, but keep in mind the ceiling yourself. The creds themselves are safer in limbo if there is a breach.

“Meanwhile, I’ll be on Curie’s expense account. Prep to ration, too, just in case.”

He considered her earlier sentiments, “This means were involved now.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “But Lucas brought heat. She knows security risks must be monitored, regardless. Given our suspicions, it’s not unfair, even if she’s unwilling to see it that way yet.”

Another knock sounded, as if on some invisible cue. Crystal beckoned Angela in.

Arthur hobbled past, “Take care of yourself, kid. Hate to see somethin’ happen to you.”

“Getting sentimental?”

He grunted evasively, hobbled out.

Angela leaned against Crystal’s desk, uncertain of what to say. She began in the obvious place.

“How long’s Titus need you?”

“Week at most.” She stuffed the last of her gear into bags, zipped them shut. “You?”

“Job’s a go as planned.”

The silence settled into frankness. “Angela, I know you don’t want to hear it, but you’re like a sister. You’ve done more for me than anyone should, so hat I is from love and respect.”

“Lucas,” she guessed. “He hit on you?”

She hesitated, “Yes, but that’s not what’s bothering me. I can take that. This is more.”

Angela’s guard rose. Remnants of sibling defense manifesting in stiff corners of the mouth; a white grip on one hand, the other crossed beneath it. The kind of things so subtle only software could catch it, yet so engraved in Human DNA, software wasn’t necessary.

Crystal caught it faster than a HUD ever could, ever would.

“I know he’s your brother, so I’ll only say this; I’m concerned. For you and our friendship.”

Bile churned in Angela’s gut. Crystal’s fury perched on her tongue, tightening the subtle lines near her mouth, formed from the decade of accompanying her isolation, street-living. It met Angela’s bile, held it level.

Crystal was pleased, “I’m leaving. I don’t want to fight with you.”

“Why bring it up?”

It was a fair question. She could have just as easily left it, festering or not.

“To remind you what you know. Blood or not, you owe Lucas nothing.”

“How would you know?”

Another fair question. Crystal had no family to speak of.

“I know you, Angela,” she countered with equal fairness. “You trained me. Taught me to trust my instincts. They’re telling me something’s off. I trust you. You trust me. “

Angel softened slightly, silent. She deflated enough for Crystal to focus. Only facts. No posturing.”Your shock’s blinded you to the fact that he’s found you. Against all odds. Now, he knows we have money. Connections.”

If Angela questioned Crystal’s sincerity, there was no sign of it. She was quiet, still.

She replied slowly. “I’ll think about what you’ve said. But how I handle this situation is none of your business otherwise.”

Crystal respectfully corrected her, “So long as you do not live alone, it is more than your business. It becomes my others’ business when you allow them in.”

Angela assented with a nod.

Crystal finished packing and made to leave, “All I’m saying is, keep him checked, Angela. For all our sake’s. His too.”

They parted with little more than a tacit agreement. Crystal snatched her helmet off the handle bar, then made for her rendezvous with Titus. She hadn’t seen Lucas again, but she would. Somehow she knew it. At least she was getting away for a few days, if only to let come what may.

At least someone wasn’t too sentimental yet.

Hard Lessons: Part 3

3.

Thrown for a Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it was jealously, envy.

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

And her brother…

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

More of the annoyances and things would only get worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her feelings would be made clear.

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

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

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

“Roommate?”

“More or less.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’ like ‘im.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result was a scrambled mess that disallowed ID.

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

“You don’t trust ‘im.”

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

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

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

Arthur’s throaty laugh prompted her to smile.

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

“Aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Lucas had done it.

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

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

“About what?”

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

“Cryst–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 1

1.

Honor Amongst Thieves

Crystal Kane sat at the front counter of a retro, 1950’s-style diner. It was a place three or four times her age. In her late-twenties, it might not have been saying much, but it felt the opposite. She’d been through the wringer, somehow come out in one piece, but older, thinner than felt fair. She’d been a cheerleader in high-school. One of the popular, beautiful girls, that exclusively dated those of similar status, and shunned anyone below her. That had ended on graduation day. She found herself alone when everyone else was going off to college. The friends that promised to call were, like so many other things, lost to life– disappeared without a trace.

That summer had been hell. Crystal had been a blissfully ignorant airhead all through school. Then, as if to reinforce that those days were over, life crumbled. Only weeks into “life beginning” she learned her father’d cheated on his taxes for all of his life. Likewise, her mother had… well, cheated the rest of it. The family split up. Dad went to jail. Mom occupied a new man’s trophy case each night. Crystal ended up out on her ass. Not much had changed since, at least not thematically.

A waitress poured her a cup of coffee at the counter. She’d never been one for alcohol. Downers weren’t her style– the costs of having been peppy until life became enough of a depressant to need no more. Most days, she haunted the diner ‘til lunch, sucking down coffee like a drunk to their hooch. No-one seemed to mind, nor bothered to learn her name. Par for the course, she guessed. She wasn’t one to complain. Not anymore.

The only spot of luck she’d found was the economy’d– and society at that– nose-diving the same time she did. She and others like her took advantage of it. They found free lodging in rundown or abandoned buildings in newly forming ghettos. Hardly the Ritz, but anything with a roof and most of four walls was better than street sleeping in bad weather. Along with a few others in “her building” Crystal managed to scrape together meals of scavenged offenses into a communal soup pot.

Crystal couldn’t recall her last, solid meal. She’d only managed to afford coffee by scouring the streets for change: one cup, one dollar, unlimited refills. The streets were running out of change though. Given the state of things, they weren’t likely to be replenished anytime soon. “Flat broke” was an understatement. There wasn’t a damned thing she’d bought or owned in nearly a decade. Periods were the worst, and a subject better left un-broached.

Someone sank into place beside her. The peripheral profile and weight on the stool said it was a woman. Odd. No-one sat near her. Ever. She didn’t blame them. She’d been forced to showering only during a proper rain. At most, once a week if she was lucky.Usually less.

The woman didn’t seem to care though. Something in the air between them said she was entirely different to most people. Crystal still refused to look at her, fearing any visible revulsion would shatter the remnants of her broken spirit. Nonetheless, she couldn’t deny the sensation of something forming in the air between them.

A robust, tomboyish voice directed words at her, “You look like hell.”

It couldn’t have been me, could it? Crystal remained motionless, wondering if her mind had finally cracked. She’d been waiting for life’s weight to split it open like an egg for years now. Sanity had always managed to keep it cushioned though. Maybe this was finally it– sweet release.

“Need a shower too,” the voice added. “Hair-cut wouldn’t hurt.”

The waitress stepped over, white and polka-dot clad. She habitually refilled Crystal’s cup. The other woman ordered a cup, waited to say anything else until it was brought.

“Talky thing, ain’t ya?” She said wincing at the coffee. “Shit coffee. Why’d you even bother to spend money on this shit?”

Crystal’s head finally rose, checked her left side to ensure no one was there. The same, empty stool greeted her as always. Her head turned back and right, the woman’s features focused. She was like something from a post-punk vid; shaved temples, short, platinum-blonde on top with blue highlights, and more piercings than seemed possible for a human face. Feline features around blue eyes and dark make-up drowned the metal. The neo-punk was topped off by a shredded t-shirt, leather jacket, and tight jeans stretched over combat boots.

If Crystal’d had any feelings left, she’d have found herself both envious and aroused by the woman. It wasn’t that she liked women, but rather, this one exuded such cocky confidence it madeherboth unlikable and unyieldingly desirable. Such paradoxical nature alone forced Crystal’s eyes to linger.

The woman met her eyes. “You know, if you cleaned up, you’d be good looking. You want a job?”

Crystal’s brow furrowed, “I’m not a whore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The woman threw her head back with a laugh. “Honey, if I wanted a whore, I’d be asking the broads outside.” Crystal wasn’t amused. The woman’s face reformed seriously. “No, I need a woman. One rough enough to handle herself, but soft enough to look good. If you’re interested, just say yes. There’ll be a point of no return. Any time you want out before, say so. Once you’re past it, you’re locked in. Got it?”

Crystal shrugged. She’d done a lot of things, awful by even depraved standards. Mostly, it was solely to survive. Then again, what wasn’t these days? This idea seemed ludicrous anyhow: some stranger appears, offers her an out from the hell she’d been sucked into? Not a chance.

“What would I have to do?”

“Well, first, get cleaned up. Then, we’ll get you some new clothes. You’ll have to look the part, like me– so clothes, haircut, piercings.” The woman eyed her extensively. “Eventually, you’ll have to do something specific for me.”

“Like what?” she asked, more hopeful than she expected.

The woman frowned, glanced around, “You agree to come with me, I’ll tell you everything when we’re alone.”

Crystal eyed the half-empty coffee cup in her hand: what was the worst that could happen? Death? There were a lot worse ways she could think to go than trying to get out of this mess.

“Uh… okay.”

A few minutes later, the two slipped outside together. “I’m Angela, by the way.”

“Crystal.”

Angela led her around a corner of the diner, into an alley behind it. A BMW motorcycle was propped in the center of the small roadway, a helmet strapped to it. Angela climbed on, passed over the helmet. “Just don’t fall off.” Crystal did her best to swing a leg over the bike, put her hands around Angela’s belly. “No getting fresh. Not ’til you’ve showered, anyway.”

Crystal managed a snort. It was sort of a laugh. At least, closer to one than she’d managed in a long time. The bike started with a gurgle of fuel and the high-sounds of a performance-tuned engine. They took off, raged toward top-speed. Streets and ramshackle buildings blurred and zipped past. The scenery only sharpened long enough to corner before once more racing up to speed. The bike zigged and zagged toward the city’s edge. One of the piers came into view; a place once a center of nightlife where tourists were as plentiful as residents. Now, it was a sad caricature of itself. A few strips of abandoned buildings and storefronts were all that remained, like a coastal, ol’ west ghost town.

Angela maneuvered around a corner, into an alley, and raced toward a warehouse at its end. An abrupt turn found them facing down another alley. In its center a section of street began to rise up, wide enough to accept a vehicle: an elevator camouflaged by its place in the road and built into a housing underground. They zoomed into it, sank beneath the street. The elevator settled into place. Lights flared on across panel-lighted walls. Crystal was blinded. She blinked out water, found herself among a veritable showroom of modern and classic cars. Her jaw nearly fell off as her eyes bulged.

“Hop off,” Angela instructed.

Crystal obliged. Angela zoomed forward to a spot at the far-left, turned, and inched the bike backward with her boot-tips. Crystal shut her mouth, shuffled over, neck swiveling to take in classic muscles parked among super-cars, pick-ups, SUVs, and other bikes.

Whatever Angela did was clearly profitable, but what use could she have for Crystal? She wasn’t skilled, or all that smart, and had been living a vagrant’s life the last decade. She’d scrounged for every minor necessity. Luxuries didn’t even exist anymore– not beyond the few she saw now. What the hell could she possibly help with?

She met Angela at far-end of the garage, the bike’s engine still clicking from heat. Angela threw her leg over, rose to full height, then hung her helmet off a handlebar. She rounded at Crystal, surveyed her shabby clothing and hair again.

“Shower and a haircut.”

She thumbed her way past a print-locked door. Crystal followed her into a kitchen of black and chrome appliances, mahogany-stained cabinets, and black-granite counter tops. LEDs crawled to full-brightness in the ceilings and walls as they entered, cast warm light across equally warm, earthen tones. An island counter and stools at one side sat amid the L-Shaped kitchen’s center. Angela’s boots reverberated off the hardwood to the double-wide fridge/freezer combo as she dug out a bottle of wine.

Food peered out from the fridge, made Crystal’s stomach growl and her mouth water. Angela must’ve heard it. She whipped ’round, “I’ll order in. You like Chinese?”

She couldn’t be sure anymore, but wasn’t picky. “S-sure.”

“Good.” She slid a phone from her pants pocket, thumbed it, held it up.

For the next few minutes, Crystal was transfixed as Angela bantered Chinese to someone on the other end. She ended the call, slid the phone into a pocket, and dug for a corkscrew and scissors in a drawer. She led Crystal through the adjoined living room. More motion-sensor lights did their upward crawl, revealing plush, leather furniture, a glass coffee-table, and a large television and stereo sitting on standby. The place reeked of an excess contrary to the neo-punk air Angela’d cultivated. Yet somehow, Crystal sensed she was even more at home here than anywhere, as if her confidence alone ensure it.

They entered a large bedroom, passed its king-sized bed for a pair of doorways. Angela handed over the wine-bottle, directed Crystal into one door– a bathroom– and entered a walk-in closet beside it. The bathroom was the most modest room she’d seen yet: quaint, with a full shower-tub, toilet, and studio lighted mirror somehow retaining the elegance of the home’s other décor. Crystal focused on herself in the mirror though; it’d been months, years maybe, since she’d seen herself reflected in anything other than a sheet of metal.

She blamed Angela even less now for wanting her to clean up: her hair was more dread-locked than anyone but a Rastafarian had a right to. Her face looked smeared by handfuls of grease and road dirt to say nothing of the utterly pitiful clothing she wore. Above all, she reeked. She couldn’t smell it herself, so long accustomed to it, but she could smell everything else. By comparison, toilet mold was pleasant.

Angela reappeared with a pile of clothing, set it aside to unlace her boots, remove her socks, and roll up her pants, revealing a plethora of tattoos.

“Get naked.”

“Huh?”

She moved to turn on the tub, “You need to soak that shit off, and I need to cut your hair. So. Get naked.” Crystal hesitated. “I see it every day. If it makes you feel better, I’ll get naked too.”

Her eyes widened, “No, that’s… It’s fine. I’ll just–”

“Jesus, here,” she interrupted, tugging off Crystal’s long coat.

She helped to undress her upper half, then tossed the dirty clothes aside. A bra was evidently more than Crystal’d been allowed. Moreover, her clothing hadn’t prevented her bare skin from getting just as greasy and dirty as the rest of her.

The bath frothed with bubbling soap as Angela helped Crystal from her pants. There was no denying the homeless girl’s discomfort. To her credit, she powered through it for the sake of her new benefactor. Likewise, Angela remained detached, handled the whole thing as if a nursemaid.

Crystal plunged her feet into the hot water. Her eyes welled up involuntarily; a warm bath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a warm bath. She sank into the water, like a cooked noodle snaking through a fork. The tears flowed as she submerged her head. On emerging, they were just more wetness, camouflaged by dirt-streaks and flushed cheeks.

Angela gave her a moment, then sat on the back-ledge of the tub behind her. “This is all gonna’ have to come off,” she said, settling in with scissors in-hand. “I’ll do my best, but honestly, you’d be better off shaving it.”

Hair-styles were the last thing on Crystal’s mind. The warmth infecting her was too powerful. The urge to sleep came on but would mean squandering it. Instead, she let a dull dreaminess take her. With it came the distinct fear of if she’d hallucinated Angela’s existence. If she had, she didn’t want it to end. She’d go to her grave never seeing reality again. Angela’s hands weighed her shoulders though, telling her it was reality; a bizarre one where someone gave a shit. At that, more of one than an entire world combined.

So, what was the price? She couldn’t help but wonder. Angela’s hands were rough, used to hard labor or something else that she couldn’t place. Their grip was strong; it tugged her hair firmly this way and that. The precise, staccato notes of the scissors told of dexterous fingers, certain of themselves and their actions.

Crystal’s curiosity finally piqued. “Why’re you doing this?”

Angela answered as best she could, keeping her mind focused on the task at-hand. “Short answer, I need a new partner. My job isn’t the kind you can do alone. My last partner left after a big job. I can’t keep working without one. Thing is, I know what it’s like being a street rat. I was one once. If it hadn’t been for someone doing this for me, I’d be where you were this morning.”

She was grateful, but the obvious question needed to be asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“Let’s just say its legality is questionable,” she replied, tilting Crystal’s head. “Sit up.”

Crystal inched upward, nipples hardening from the cool air above water. Angela maneuvered her back, between her legs, laid her head back to trim the front of her hair. Crystal closed her eyes to avoid the awkwardness of looking up at her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means.”

“I’m a contract thief.” Crystal’s eyes opened to a squint. Angela’s hands stilled. “Don’t judge me when I’m helping you. Trust me, there’s a lot worse ways to get by. Few pay as well.”

She winced, “Sorry. I’m… not judging you, but you don’t have to– you know, hurt people, right?”

“Only if they try to hurt me,” she said sternly. Crystal frowned. “You want out, say so.”

Crystal thought about it: given what she’d seen so far, Angela’s lifestyle was… well, a lifestyle. To say it was leaps and bounds beyond hers missed just how different their two worlds were. Even before the fall, she hadn’t seen such luxury. That it was all funded by so-called “dirty money” was unimportant given she possessed only a set of ragged clothes. If forced to choose between “dirty money” and penniless street-living, her morality was more than flexible.

Crystal eased her head back, “No. I’m still in.”

“But?”

“… Is it, you know, dangerous?”

Angela eased slowly into motion again, “Sometimes.”

Crystal closed her eyes. “Just don’t get me killed.”

“That’s the plan.”

Something acknowledged the possibility of it. Something else said she’d do everything to avoid it. Why, Crystal wasn’t sure, but a sense of intense loyalty resounded beneath it. At the very least, Crystal would follow things to their “point of no return.” Wherever it was, until then she’d at least feel like a human being again, rather than a creature eking surviving breaths. Maybe even, Angela’s company would prove as worthwhile as she felt Crystal’s would. Only time would tell.