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.

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Hard Lessons: Pt 4

4.

Details, Baby. Details.

Titus eased into a booth before Crystal, clearly out of his element. The diner was in one of the dingier parts of town. The pair might’ve stuck out were Crystal not so frequent a sight of the place. Its retro 50’s style was long embedded in her heart, and despite the grime and muck– or perhaps because of it, the place felt like home.

Besides, even in her darkest hour they’d never thrown her out. So long as she could scrape enough change for a cup of coffee a day, and she didn’t disturb anyone, she could stay in, keep warm. Were it not for that, and a single conversation, Crystal’s life would consist of scraping muck for sustenance…

If she lived at all.

Nowadays, she met contacts here for that reason. She was giving back more than enough, infinitely more than what they’d given because they deserved it for giving at all. In the process, she ensured no-one there breathed a word of ill against her, no matter the circumstance.

It allowed her and and Titus to discuss details in the vague way so-called criminals do, publicly.

“That’s our stake.”

He slid an SD card over with a sleight of hand, lifted his coffee to drink.

She slotted it in a tablet, HUD in public-mode as she twiddled her thumbs and waited to fit in. For all anyone knew, she was checking emails. Titus’ tone encrypted his meaning; they might’ve been planning a party for an old friend.

In a way, they were.

Crystal contained a smile to continue the bluff, let the tablet rest as if reading. She focused on the foreground of her HUD, strings of data here and there, informatics, readings. Then, a series of photos filled her vision:

An empty, rundown street. Industrial. Corroded. Seaside across town. The place was newer, considerably smaller than usual. The prominent target, a former fish-packing plant.

She knew the locale; knew every warehouse there had been out of use a decade or so by all but occasional dealers. It was also near the water, which meant dingy, shit-smelling lofts and salt-corroded steel to scope the place.

She loathed jobs like this, but they paid right. She especially hated inevitably ending up smelling like fish days afterward– or any of the other industrial gifts left in Jackstaff’s many former-quays and fisheries.

At least she and Titus would suffer equally. He was far too refined to enjoy the place, but even he knew a job was a job.

She sighed, mentally sifting images to get a lay of the land; streets, loading docks, alleys. All empty. Their lengthened neglect was evidenced in trash and debris caught in their narrow wind-tunnels. Only living photographs might capture their entrapped eternities. Ever-spinning. Never-moving.

The tragedy was repeated on and through the whole, claustrophobic area via the light of a Hong Kong ghetto; low-lit with aged incandescence and the sheen of near-constant wetness oozing from the sea-air, rain or shine.

Altogether, an average, industrial image of a coastal fishing city sans one thing; people.

The target was different. Lit differently, more fluorescent. The bulbs were newer, conforming to codes or else looking right only at specific distances.

The differences were subtle, meant to be missed as pieces, but obvious and numerous otherwise. After seeing it that way, the building looked out of place; an art decco server-farm in northern wilderness. Stylistically fitting, but thematically off.

“Hidden,” Crystal said absently.

“Mmm,” Titus replied, sipping coffee. His tongue wished to recoil, but he held it firm. “Old friend’s place. Goes by once a month.”

She pushed and arranged images with her eyes to better fill the area’s blue-print. The tech caught on, instantly rearranged the photos properly.

“Storage?” Crystal mused.

“Near as I can tell.”

She played a vid; high angle images of a middle-aged man with olive skin in rain. Drone footage, Crystal guessed. Titus was good with tech; always knew the hottest gear. Usually, its designers too.

The mark emerged left-of-frame, crossed wet grounds. A tailored two-piece betrayed obvious wealth, putting him supremely out of place despite the emptiness.

“Done your homework,” Crystal said.

Titus let out a laugh.

The olive-skinned man approached a side-door. The tens tightened into two-second increments. Stills embedded in the film at each zoom. This stop-motion way allowed Crystal to observed the man approach a seemingly random section of warehouse wall and turn to face it. Frame-by-frame, flew at insane speed into filmstrips of stills faster than normal vid.

The man pressed a hand at a section of the warehouse’s sheet-metal wall. The narrow alley suddenly glowed with growing light. Nearby street sank, slid away, just wide enough for a small staircase. The man entered. It slid shut again.

“Feels familiar,” Crystal admitted, thinking of Angela’s garage.

“Same designer.”

“Friend of yours.”

He gave a casual nod, continued, “Problem’s the lock. Like your bike. Hand. Eye.”

She winced: biometrics were notoriously difficult to crack. Most common among wealthier, less-legally inclined folks and paranoid governments, there still weren’t many bypass measures. Some needed retinal scans. DNA. Voice-print. In any and every order. Usually with secondaries, key-codes, passphrases, print-scanners.

Cracking a biometric was a job in itself.

Most could be bypassed with enough, proper interaction with the mark; high-res 3D HUD scan converted to bypass a retinal scanner; conversation mined by aural implants for vocal phonemes; even prints or DNA lifted or taken with minimal interaction and proper tech.

Combining any of a number of them raised the difficulty almost exponentially. The trick was shadowing the mark long enough to get all of ’em at-once. Best way to do that, was a long con, or a slick hit.

Every thief worth their coin knew the best security was obscurity. Once that was gone, it was just a matter of time-vs-loot.

Most too, knew cracking a single biometric was generally key to a job. Most of its effort simply went into grabbing the key-sample to generate bypass from. Titus would’ve known that too. Unless he had something up his sleeve, Titus wasn’t the type to be unprepared.

He was too deliberate. The act of a job would be as much a message as the job itself for an… old friend. She guessed too, that was another reason he’d taken her along on it, to minimize chance that anyone else but the effected parties knew.

Her brows pivoted. She minimized her HUD to meet his gaze, “Rushing play? Risky.”

“Still in?”

“Still worth it?”

A smile gleamed over his sour coffee at the prod. She trusted him, that was what mattered. “Always.”

“Then, details, baby. Details.”

She slid the tablet away, simultaneously minimizing the remains of HUD to the unobstructed world. Business fell away to breakfast. The waitress approached, set down two, steaming plates. Titus took careful bites to test the food as he should’ve the coffee.

He ate with careful regard, “Dale show up last night?” Crystal chewed slowly. “Had ‘im pegged the moment he came in.”

He didn’t say, because I own the place.

She tossed back juice, waiting.

“You like ‘im?”

“No,” she said with a calm, firm-edge. “And I don’t expect to.”

“Wouldn’t think so.”

She raised a brow, “You know ‘im?”

“My job, Cee,” he slanged. His next words were exquisite, practiced eloquence. “Partnerships require contingencies.”

Crystal understood. More and more, Titus was a creature of mystery. It was the perplexing way of humanity. Something she’d missed over the years of isolation required by street-living, seemingly so simple outside, yet harboring such complexity.

She smiled, “And our contingency?”

“Depends on our partnership.”

Crystal flushed; she wasn’t sure why. Something in Titus’ tone. She hid a crooked smile and began to eat.

Breakfast passed in causal fashion, ended in a parting amid a cold, rising rain. Titus’ Turbo S shimmered morning-gray along royal violet in millions of beaded droplets collected across its planes and surfaces.

He chided Crystal with an offer for a ride. She fitted her helmet and zipped her leathers in reply. Isolated and half-smirking, she mounted and positioned the bike, then fired its engine. Only after masked and zooming away did she laugh.

The bike was designed and calibrated to her body. Everything from the tires to the gear-ratios to its shape were tuned to a profile she’d created and helped install. The bike was nothing but an extension of her.

Titus knew that; his contact had built it. Her ballistic woven coat and pants could mid-caliber bullets, negating even pelting rains at high-speeds. He knew that too…

Meaning there was more than just joke in the offer. Just as with the job. She couldn’t deny the curiosity growing within her.

Titus knew many people, why her? Why this job? Mixing business and pleasure? He was capable of it, certainly, and obviously found pleasure in her company beyond normal, professional capacities. Otherwise, he’d never have thought of her when the job came up.

But did it go beyond that?

Only time would tell, but the thrill was enough. She hadn’t been chased in a decade, let alone by anyone like Titus, ever. The obvious compliments put her in a mood good enough to be angry once it soured.

Back home, it did just that.

Lucas sat at the island, drunk, hoping to repeat the previous night at ten AM. He was alone. Angela was gone, prepping for Curie’s assignment. Lucas had sunken into the slump-shouldered hunch of the never-sober, professional gambler hoarding poor cards. The backless stool accompanied the shaggy dog glaze in his eyes. His breath sounded over small roll of grease creeping off him and onto his surroundings.

Judging by the sudden gleam Crystal received, he was near-to prowling too. Crystal readied herself as a cat arching to hiss. Two predators had met, would fight. One would lose, even if it was too stupid to realize it yet.

“Where is she?”

“Angie?” Crystal said nothing. “Gone. Dunno where. Didn’t ask.” He managed to stand without swaying, sauntered over with a grease-slick’s attempt at coolness. The still-oblivious predator moved to strike. “But uh, I got time, if you like.”

Crystal leaned in at him, a corner of her mouth cocked in a half-smile. She locked eyes with him, tempted him into fully revealing his intentions. He did, wet his lips with a flick of his tongue. She made it obvious she knew exactly what he wanted, and knew he knew it.

Then a quiet whisper, “Not even in your wildest dreams.”

He staggered back, eyes flashing shame, panic, anger. She’d already stepped past. Somewhere inside him he recognized what happened. He spun on heel to challenger her.

“Told Angie you liked cunt.”

Crystal didn’t bother looking back. “I don’t like you, do I?”

She slipped through the hall, into her room, leaving Lucas to fume.

Were he not alone, he’d have shattered the beer bottle on a wall. Instead he snarled, slugged back the rest, and slank toward the fridge.

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.