Hard Lessons: Part 16

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

Dawn was growing. Its rays warmed the slick, half-frost formed atop the days of rains from the cooling wind. Angela had done all she could from home. Waiting longer only worsened matters. She’d rallied her people, whom were pinging various contacts or prepping for the shit-storm to come. She had only one decision to make now.

One that might well destroy her– to say nothing of her brother.

Angela stood before the three people she’d asked for help; those she trusted most and who’d gone out of their way for her; she for them. Even if one were as close to coworker as she could have, his disposition assured he reciprocated. After all, the others were technically her employees, were more family now than not.

None of that changed that three of the four of them could soon easily lose their livelihoods, possibly, their lives.

Angela took a deep breath, eyed Titus at one side of the island. He gave a resolute nod and dialed a cell phone. The inbuilt encryption took an extra moment to engage before the call was made.

Titus spoke without ceremony, but deep respect, “Madam, we may have a problem… No. Yes, Dale. The younger one, yes… Yes.”

Among other things, the half-conversation confirmed Curie had known of Lucas’ presence. Possibly everything since. How didn’t matter, only her reaction. That she’d obviously anticipated the issue was evidenced in the short time it took to reach Angela.

The inevitable moment came. Titus handed Angela the phone. She took a deep breath, lifted it to her ear, and gave a long, hard blink.

“Yes, Madam?”

“Listen well, Angela. I will say this once; you have damaged my trust in you.”

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

“However, given circumstances we’ll continue to do business, provided you retrieve the merchandise and answer one question honestly. If it is learned this answer is false, our relationship will be terminated, as will your access to my resources and contacts. Is that understood?”

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

Curie’s charisma was aged, fine wine; the result of decades of the politesse of shadow dealings.

Her lethality was something else. Something supernatural. It cut through the audio compressed encryption, the distance– the whole damned universe, and held a knife to Angela’s throat. Then with still-water clarity, it became firm and mechanical.

“Is it remotely possible your sibling might have been working to compromise you? Think deeply. Answer honestly.”

Angela hesitated for several reasons. Chief among them was the question’s curious nature. It’d never occurred to her Lucas might be a plant. Especially now, it was obvious his focus was solely on one thing. Before, she’d been unwilling to admit what that one thing had been. Now, she knew if she didn’t admit, Curie would kill him.

Almost for that reason alone, she was willing to say no. Still, she hesitated. Respectfully more than anything. Curie’s mechanized confrontation with it meant, she was now staking her life on her feelings, whatever they were.

In other words, was she certain her brother wasn’t an imposter of sorts?

Angela knew for certain no-one on Earth– not even were Julia alive, could have so thoroughly duped her. The person she’d met, let her stay in her home, was Lucas. Warts and all, as they say. Which also meant she wouldn’t believe he was any more than a junked-out, manipulative loser running from debt.

That hard truth’s silver lining firmed her response, “No, Madam.”

A slight hesitation, as if Curie were eyeing fresh ink on a contract. “Very well.”

Her tone shifted as if akin to a sentencing, “Then meet the buyer. Explain the situation. I will arrange the details but he will deal with you as he sees fit. Though you remain under my protection for now, I stress that this is your mess. You are to clean it as quickly and discretely as possible or I will.”

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

“You have breached etiquette. As such, you’re to take full responsibility. The buyer will be informed of this, but I expect you to address it as well. Ensure it never happens again.”

“Thank you,” she replied, suppressing the lump in her throat as her should-be severed head mysteriously attached.

She returned Titus’ phone. He stepped out to confer privately with Curie. Five, long minutes of utter silence bridged the gap to his return. No-one breathed. No-one wished to. Crystal watched Arthur, whom scrutinized Angela: her pale face glistening from eyes catching stray light through distant thoughts.

Titus returned quietly, shelling out a series of instructions and insisting they break for sunrise topside, immediately. Crystal and Angela would meet the buyer together. The former would while the latter explained things. It was as much for Angela’s protection as anyone’s.

Besides, Crystal’s identity was irrelevant. She had nothing to do with the job. The premature meeting and its circumstances were suspicious enough, compounding that with paranoia of an ambush was foolish. So, she rolled to an idle purr outside an old florist’s shop. The Roadrunner’s 440 echoed off the not-quite-abandoned-nor-painted part of town.

Her HUD disappeared to see Angela better. “Ping if you need me.”

Angela noticed, breathed gratitude. She slipped out alone. Crystal suddenly understood the old mafioso, their fears of being wacked.

Angela pulled open the darkened, empty interior of a former florists shop. The place was littered with the refuse of a thousand dead plants, sticks, and crumbling tendrils of ivy. The place was so long dead, even the mold had dried out.

A middle-aged man awaited her just inside; familiar, but in the manufactured way. A hit for the Man Zi Tong? A revenge play. No. He wasn’t armed, it was obvious. He thought himself above it. The vague hint of something scholastic to the air convinced her otherwise. He gazed up at the highest draping point of a once-grand kudzu, now withered to nothingness.

“Ms. Angela Dale, I presume?” He said, almost languidly.

She affirmed, and after a moment of respetful silence, explained her purpose there.

He replied with a discipline so stiff, it could only have been garnered from whatever scruples his illicit activities eroded or formed in him. “As I told your Madam, it is a most displeasing situation. However, I was assured you would rectify it. Unfortunately, she does not understand the extent of the severity this mis-step represents.”

“She does,” Angela corrected respectfully with a slight bow. “As do I.”

“Yet the problem remains.”

“Forgive me, but however unfortunate it is, it is coincidental rather than engineered. I promise this much to you.”

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

A gut-punch, but hardly undeserved. She took it well enough, “Be that as it may, one does not punish the child for the warzone it finds itself within.”

He seemed ready to cut. His eye rose, teeth grit. He’d been bested– worse, stalemated. At least defeat was a reason to flip up the board and storm off.

Angela knew types like this, well-off Asians from homelands where life was discipline or death. Ideological languages of the Samurai and Shaolin Warriors were filtered through them via a sieve of generations of force-fed shadow-dwelling, its effects.

Angela continued formally, “As offender, it is my duty to mediate I will have the merchandise soon. This is merely a formality to ensure any blame falls where it belongs.”

He gave a single, deep nod, recognizing her flexibility to his customs, then frowned. “Be that as it may, the importance of these matters must be accounted for. Thus, my associates are forcing me to take it into my own hands. As you were no doubts informed, I can do you no harm nor hindrance without also scorning the Madam.

“As I’ve no desire to do either, you may leave unharmed to find … your brother.”

It came from his mouth with such repulsion Angela swallowed to clear it from her own tongue.

He continued thus; “Meanwhile, I will be seeking my merchandise. Rest assured, as you will find your brother soon, I will find it. Whether these two conflict is entirely up to you.”

Angela winced, concealing her fury poorly. The John about-faced and disappeared through a back door. Angela did the same through the front and slid into the Roadrunner with her gaze averted. Crystal waited. The car’s comm rang. Angela answered, toggled it to she and Crystal’s comms with a thought.

“You have something.”

Arthur echoed in their ears, “Not him. Locale. City-feed around midnight, he–“

“Arthur, the point please,” Angela said, audibly distressed.

He grumbled a reply, “The Factory. Meet Titus there.”

“That shit hole? I should’ve known.” Crystal was already heading for The Factory.

The ride was short, padded between bouts of Angela’s random, furious swearing. Crystal guessed her thoughts fed her fury, but didn’t much care to know the particulars. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway, better to stay focused and keep from getting hit by shit, than try to redirect the fan.

They pulled up in the strip-joint’s lot. The gray shadows left the Factor unchanged despite the daylight hour, making Angela wonder if the place’s sordid patronage ever left. Gut instinct doubted it; parasites rarely abandoned hosts.

Titus approached the car and Angela specifically, his hand out. “Cee and I will handle this.”

“Titus–“

“Your brother, your game. But we’re out of time. You want him back? Leave this to me.”

She bit her tongue, acquiesced and sat still. She watched the pair as she fidgeted and squirmed, idly.

Crystal eyed Titus as they approached the door. “Plan?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

“No,” he said firmly, hesitating outside. “Wyatt’s a fixer. Cap him, you’re rogue. Has to be me.”

She gave a reticent nod, then pulled the door open. He stepped in with an authoritative spine, led her along the hall toward the club-proper. He surveyed the room with a wide sweep, located Wyatt, and headed straight for him.

The club’s never-ending procession of grease-balls and their eyes tracked his every step. They split toward Crystal; grease sloughing off air after her only to meet her leather’s thick armor instead.

“Ah! Titus,” Wyatt said with a grimy smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you.” He offered Titus a seat, half-sarcastically.

Titus took it all in stride; firm, indifferent, but with an obvious aura of threat Emilio all but disregarded. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Wyatt asked, shit-eating grin knowing damned well who.

Titus warned, “I won’t repeat myself.”

The slime-ball smile grew across Wyatt’s face, giving him the wide-mouthed grin of cartoon villains and fools. Somehow, it made him more disgusting. Crystal guessed Wyatt was the type of person the archetype was created for. Were it not for his obvious middle age, she’d have thought him the inspiration for even the eldest representations.

Wyatt suddenly sneered. “That’s right, Titus. You won’t. And neither will I.” He produced a cigarette, then drew over a reeking candle, hesitated to light it from its flame. “I’m not telling you shit.”

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

His face slammed the lit candle, shattering it. Crystal reacted, drawing her TMPs to spin about on the room that was drawing and diving for cover. Titus forced Wyatt’s bloody forehead against the table, shoving glass into it and forcing a pistol against his neck. He gave a wet squeal. The room froze.

Titus’ strength forced through the accumulated grease on the back of Wyatt’s neck to grip it like an iron vise. The semi-auto barrel pressed Wyatt, an unwavering certainty of death at any further bullshit.

“You’re alive because others deem it so. That can change. No-one will argue with Curie if I take you out. And she won’t argue with me if she feels I did what was necessary. That is the price you pay for operating the way you do. Everyone here knows it.”

Wyatt was instantly a weasel squirming along a table in its own blood and grease. Crystal’s hands were firm, ready.

“Alright. Alright!” Wyatt intoned, blinking at blood and glass. “Dale’s brother. Came in looking to score. Gave him some cash. Favor for a favor sort of thing.”

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

“Why not?” The vise tightened. He groaned, “Really. Baby Dale owing me a favor. Why pass that up? Everyone knows I wanna cut that bitch down a peg.”

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

No one heard her. At least, no-one admitted to it.

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

“I can’t do that, Titus. Be as good as snit–” Titus’ grip tightened again. “Argh! Alright. North-docks. Abandoned warehouse. Smiley squint-eyed fish. Can’t miss it.”

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

The first hints of actual sincerity entered Wyatt’s tone, “Yeah. Guy didn’t have a time. Kid didn’t mind. Gave ‘im a hold over. He was… shaking. Detoxing. While we were talking. Dealer’s smaller time but he needed a score too. Big enough to pack heat though, so I didn’t ask questions.”

Titus prepared to release him, “I find out you’re dicking me, I’ll be back.”

Titus released him. Crystal lowered her weapons. The room eased back into motion, however slowly from now-cooler grease. A few kept their weapons drawn to show the others their way out. The pair couldn’t have been happier to oblige.

They exited the club, met Angela, then got the hell out.

They split up in two cars headed for the nearby deal. City-feeds showed someone was there. If the feeds’ last few hours were to be trusted, so was Lucas. Angela could only hope they got there before the deal ended… or Curie’s John showed up.

Advertisements

Hard Lessons: Part 15

15.

Loyalty

Angela’s active comm signal bounced off a string of wifi and radio towers between the apartment and their warehouse above. It spring-boarded to a cable satellite, encrypted by a digital, one-time pad and unreadable to any. It then plummeted to Earth again, landing across Jackstaff and into Crystal’s comm.

All of it in real-time, with no intervening system aware of the relay. The call was a fading ghost in a machine.

Angela explained everything about Lucas in as few words as possible.

“I’m on it. We’re finishing up,” Crystal said, jamming a tripod into a duffel bag. Titus tossed her something. Her reflexes activated, “I’ll meet you after the drop.”

“Thank you, Crystal,” Angela said, humbly.

“Haven’t done anything yet,” she admitted.

Comm-stats shrank to nothingness on her HUD. Titus grabbed the last of their gear, headed downstairs. Crystal checked her pistol, then followed him down the stairs two at a time. The rain was at full-strength now, had been for an hour.

Nearing the door was like approaching Niagara on a turbulent day. Stepping out into more-so.

Titus tossed gear into a car-trunk parked as close as possible to the door, “Plan?”

Crystal projected over rain, “Keep moving ’til the buyer’s there.”

“I’ll ping you the details.” He started for the driver’s door, instantly drenched. “Stay sharp. Stay safe.”

Titus’ rent-a-car started off. He’d specifically taken it for to keep his Porsche from sticking out. Whether to Saito or some local snooping around, the car was like a shard of glass in the gut. Crystal, on the other hand, was an unknown. Her bike looked like countless others, no matter how modded, allowing it to blend in anywhere.

She stepped into the ever-pouring Niagara and disengaged her biometrics. A ping from her HUD woke the bike. The starter stuttered then roared, bringing over sixty-cubic inches to life. The rear-wheel squealed, left rubber steaming in cold rain atop the small rise where it peeled.

Crystal did her best to race a loop of Jackstaff. Even she wasn’t tempting the fates tonight. She stayed on the insides and middles, at half speed. Slicked-wet Northwest coasts meant one slide and plummeting to a painful death. Else rural, inland highways where animal life was abundant and stupid, humans not excepting.

Urban and Sub-urban grids, human-progress; she snorted a laugh to herself behind her helmet.

She completed a loop, then made for the next. Her favorite– the same she’d raced after Lucas had shown up. It felt an eternity since she’d managed that last, 26 minute run. Not great, not terrible. But impossible now. Even if the rain was letting up now that she was further inland, she doubted it could be even that quick tonight.

Everything since her last circuit felt impossible. Mere days had formed lifetimes of development. She and Titus, their job, Angela and her brother, it was mind-numbing in scope. Certainly, in sheer volume of questions raised. Principally among those questions was what both the immediate and distant futures held for them as individuals and a group.

Lucas might not live out the next few days. If so, what of Angela then? If she buckled from inevitable guilt, the pair might be out of commission. Worse, Angela might lose her edge, endangering them both.

Crystal downshifted off the highway, passed one gear, was back up again in an instant.

The I-5 was long behind her when the 531 took shape beneath a flash of lightning. Most people would’ve been dampened by the wind and rain, Crystal was floored. A challenge. It made her hunger for more. She pushed the bike, pushed herself; reactions and reflexes, knuckles white beneath armored gloves.

Lucas was a liability. For everyone.

Curie knew that now. As much as Angela liked to think she was Curie’s favorite, she was just another fielder, a tooler. Angela’s mistake was in believing, that because Curie had supplied the details to take down Caruso, get her back, Curie felt otherwise.

But it was downright stupid to ignore– for even a moment, the obvious gain to Curie for removing a rogue player from the game. To mention none of the other benefits of taking Caruso out.

Getting Angela back was a bonus and a final spit in the face of one breaking the system they were meant to maintain, but to think a mere tooler– even one as good as Angela, couldn’t be used as an example herself was even more foolish, no matter the eventual lesson.

Simply, that meant; if Angela didn’t get the card back from Lucas, or it fell into the wrong hands because of him, Angela would suffer. Through her, so would the others. Apart from her rep and livelihood being damaged, any involved would likely kill Lucas for the trouble.

That was the game. The same one guys like Titus were privy to every moment. Toolers were too, but it was rarer. Much rarer. Most didn’t care. Ambitions aside, Toolers rarely experienced such events without being their object. That was the game. The one they all played.

But this was a level above even Titus’ control, one you were inside or outside. There was no on the fence. The Saito job was the perfect example of that. Playing against the house meant putting your ass on the line, but playing for the house meant total commitment.

There was no third option.

With Crystal’s experiences as guides, you played and won or played and lost, no matter the side. But you played. Refusing that reality put you outside. You were then either forced back in line as harshly as possible to ensure you never stepped out again, or a mark. Repeat offenders had the worst punishments, right after the higher-ups falling from grace– like Caruso.

Like Angela could easily be doing now. Only time would tell if she’d pull up in time, or splat-dive on the ground.

Crystal raced the 531 to the 9, took the roundabout at full-lean. She followed through, out, roared along wet roads gleaming like fresh pitch. The S1000 growled hornet-fury hellfire along the 204. Crystal’s HUD read the wind at her back; no doubt she’d be fighting to stay on the ground were it not for her weighted mods. As it was, she was only gaining speed, riding pavement like an SR-71 rode afterburners.

Power and fury beneath her hands and between her legs floored her. Like Titus fighting to sate her lust; power. Hatred for Caruso’s attack on Angela, Lucas’ attempt to repeat it; fury. She vibrated with conviction and three hundred horsepower, recalling her last ride, her fears of Lucas’ eventual effects on Angela.

If he wasn’t found soon, Curie would be informed of a deadline. Titus had agreed to keep things quiet until necessary otherwise, but couldn’t afterward without risking his rep, and possibly, his life. No-one could expect that of him.

Above all, middlers couldn’t burn bridges. Especially with fixers they’d worked nearly-exclusively with for a decade. If Titus burned his bridge with Curie, one of the most respected fixers alive and a patron of the “Old Guard,” the other fixers– middlers and toolers too– would think him unreliable.

In the end, the truth mattered much less than the effect.

Small text appeared on her HUD, sent directly from Titus’ phone. Sat coordinates, nothing else. She shifted into seventh, blasted back onto the I-5. A small clock put her time at 22:28:30, a new record– and as far as she knew, not for herself alone.

She raced back into Jackstaff, across it, the bike a hornet’s nest speared through driving rain. The drop was a dock-side parking-lot along a former boardwalk’s edge. The middle-class patronage had long ago slowed to a trickle before drying to nothing when industry began to fail. Middle-class had gone from accurate description to moniker for have-nots scraping by, doing their best not to end up homeless. Most failed.

The true middle-class now, were people like Crystal, Angela. Shadow-dwellers. People skilled in grey-area trades that had no fear of the shadows themselves, visited or lived in them.

The disrepair left behind from the predigital-era made for a mine-field of potholes at the drop. It made sense, Crystal knew. Use the environment to decrease the chance of an easy getaway. Asphalt, weakened by salts and snow, then washed away by rains and breakwaters, formed trenches and pit-falls along the lot.

Days of rain had half-flooded the lot already. For anyone else on a bike, crossing the lot was impossible. Crystal’s HUD made it a breeze.

She raced in, swerving and weaving through the random flares alerting her of danger. She approached Titus’ rent-a-car, now emptied of its gear and facing the lot’s entrance from its coast-side. Titus had put the rear-bumper against the rusting guard-rail, forcing her to bank wide right, then again, left, to align to his driver-side.

She cut the engine.

The sudden stillness and quiet resolved into the storm driving around add against Crystal’s helmet. Beneath it, the timid slap of seawater on concrete and steel, thirsting for more ferocity from the exhausting wind and rain.

The natural distraction was broken by an engine along the road. She knew well enough Titus had timed the call and her arrival with the client’s. Paired headlights angled toward them through the parking lot, crept forward through the pot-hole minefield.

Crystal watched. Tires and suspension sank, rocked in the car-killers beneath, exhibiting the same aged-grace of elderly humanitarians. It approached within a car’s length, and stopped, idling. Its rear window sank unceremoniously.

Crystal eyed Titus through her visor, head turned just enough to make it obvious. He nodded.

She swung a leg off the bike, headed for the window. The darkened interior masked the man’s features. She reached into her jacket, produced the water-tight case. A gloved hand gripped it, slid away.

A moment later, it presented an envelope. Crystal knew it would contain a USB stick with a private bit-currency wallet for the agreed upon job-price. Whatever that was, Crystal’s cut was twenty-percent. Standard for outside contractors. She trusted Titus wouldn’t stiff her.

More than that, she trusted the John wouldn’t stiff Titus. He’d technically worked without a fixer due to his personal knowledge of the mark, had even arranged the buy, but could never have planned it without Curie’s sanction otherwise. If she’d gotten wind of it afterward, he’d have been just as tossed out on his ass as if slighting her directly.

Thus, the John stiffing Titus would be game-on for his kind of traitor.

She returned the envelope to Titus and he drew out the stick, slotted it onto a handheld tablet, then started the car. The headlights flicked on, prompting the John’s window to rise and his car to come about. For the briefest moment, Crystal caught the John’s face through the rising window and a streak of lightning. She couldn’t be sure how or why, but she was certain she’d seen him before.

The car curved about and trundled off. Titus sounded over the rain and wind, projecting enough to be heard.

“Gonna’ ditch this tub, get my car back. Meet you at Angela’s.”

“You know how to get in?”

“I helped build it.” Crystal gave a lone nod. He hesitated, “Get back. A-Sap. She’s hurting.”

Crystal nodded, turned back for her bike. Titus’ window rose. His rent-a-car crunched and splashed forward while her leg arced over her bike, knocked back the stand, and came to rest on a shifter.

A thought, and the engine roared to life. She started forward, retracing her weaving swerve in. Titus was already gone, down a different road and headed in the opposite direction. He’d evidently thought of Angela when arranging the drop; Crystal was home in a minute. Then again, most of their side of the city was utterly abandoned, so she might’ve imagined it.

Her bike marked its way along the garage with a wet tire. She made a mental note to offer to scrub it for Arthur– or with him, as he was wont to negotiate her down to– and climbed off her bike She glanced up and down the garage; everything in its place. A minor burden lifted from her; at least they wouldn’t need new DMV covers because of Lucas’ bullshit.

She caught herself, stowing anger to better suit her needs. Angela had made a mistake. Anyone in her position might have made it. To be furious with her friend and mentor for that was unfair. Especially in such desperate times, Angela hardly would’ve done the same. Then again, perhaps therein lay her problem.

Crystal recomposed and calmed herself, then headed in.

Angela was hunched over a laptop, fingers programming Lucas’ ID into sifting cit-cam feeds. Crystal knew the play; she was hoping to use the same facial-recog system they avoided, blanketing the city, to find him. Indeed, the same system they’d learn to evade as trade-secrets.

There was nothing professional Her shoulders were slumped, eyes glazed with the distant red of obvious tears and a gleaming idea. She looked more determined than Crystal could recall seeing her. Crystal stepped silently into her peripheral and Angela gave a start.

“Sorry. How are you?”

Angela shook off growing fatigue to reinvigorate herself, “I’ll be better soon.” She refocused on the laptop and its camera feeds.

Crystal swallowed, “Angela, if we don’t find him–“

“Curie will have him killed,” she finished, completely unfazed. “I know. So I need to find him.”

Crystal gave a small nod. Nothing more needed to be said. She started around the island counter, cracked open the fridge for a water-bottle, then sat across from Angela to drink in silence.

Once she finished typing, Angela heaved a pensive sigh. “I made two mistakes, Crystal. Neither was Lucas’ fault. He doesn’t deserve to die for them. I should’ve known it’d end up this way. I should’ve listened. I–“

“Don’t. You did your part right. He stole from you and ran off.”

“It’s what he does. I should’ve remembered that.” She shut her laptop. “Every now and then, he’d fight with our parents. They were assholes. Good money says they still are. If they could’ve gotten away with it, they’d have watched us showered and shit.”

She cringed at unspoken memories then shuddered, shaking them off.

“Every once in a while, Lucas would have enough and take off. No-one that really knew our family could blame him.

“Then again, no-one knew yet how things worked. No-one official, and not by design.” She shook her head with a mix of disgust and anger. “I was always the first one he let find him. He was like that. Nowhere he couldn’t hide. Funny, I left first and couldn’t be found.

“Then again, he found me…”

She trailed off. Crystal let her. An obvious undercurrent of emotion formed the sibling-bond; one she could not understand. One so strong, it led Angela– whose emotions ruled her despite her ruthless, cold, logic where necessary– to disregard trusted advice and let herself be manipulated.

“We had only each other. Ali got the true short end. Prob’ly doesn’t even remember my name. Couldn’t I’d blame her for hating me, if she thinks of me, anyhow.”

She winced at the thought, cleared her throat to strengthen herself. “Lucas implied I’d left he and Ali to fend for themselves. He was wrong about himself but right about Ali. That guilt drove me to this.”

Crystal blinked confusion, “Wait. Guilt? How’s guilt a mistake?”

She cleared her throat again, visibly stronger, more collected with each moment. “My first mistake was thinking, after I left, they were better off without me. At first, that was a swaying conviction. It’s easy to see yourself as the problem when you’re drinking from rain-gutters.

“But even after Julia, I kept that mindset. She helped me reach a position where I might have helped them– or Alison, at least. Instead, I forgot about her.”
She stiffened, as if hearing herself hand down her own criminal-sentencing. “The second mistake I made was being confronted by Lucas, and rather than admit my first mistake with Ali, make another by trying to make up for it with him.”

She faced Crystal directly. “I saw it too. Everything you did. I felt it all. But I also felt it was my duty to help. Just like with you and Julia, overlooking my brother’s risks was penance for my guilt. Just like me looking for him, needing to find him. To not be alone. And him finding me instead. Truth is, he never needed me, but I always needed him.”

A resounding silence rang in Crystal’s ears as she pieced together what little had gone unspoken.

Angela’s eyes held true, confirming the last of Crystal’s suspicions. “As kids, I needed his resilience to keep me going. When I left, I needed the assurance he could care for himself. While I was gone, I needed the hope he was better off without me.

“When he showed up, I thought I needed forgiveness because I felt guilt. Truth was, I was ignoring my instincts. I do need it, but not from him. It’s Ali. I need her to forgive me for the years she’s spent living in that hell-hole. Lucas saw that vulnerability, and took advantage of it. As everyone expected, including me.”

She huffed, winded but stretching to loosen herself up as if a pre-job prep. “Now, I have to find him. Otherwise he’s going to cost Curie a buyer and she’s going to punish me for it. By killing him. In the end, it is my fault, but guilt and blame mean nothing if I fail.”

She met Crystal’s gaze again with a different tone, firm as before but with a clear request. “I have to find him, Crystal. And I need your help. Like I need Arthur’s and Titus’. Without you, Curie will get there first. No matter how long I stall.”

Out of respect, Crystal was quiet, thinking deeply on it. The last time Angela had needed her assistance so gravely, she was being tortured to death. She hadn’t been able to ask then, but Crystal felt she might not have even then. Where guilt was concerned, her martyrdom was strongest.

She clarified for both of their sakes, “What you’re asking is for me to risk everything I’ve built over the last year and a half, for your brother.”

The very thought of her own words gave her a moment of cringing disapproval. Nonetheless, she’d spoken them. Angela acknowledged with a look; among the unspoken subtext it said Crystal thought her brother less than a grain of salt. Risking everything for him didn’t seem worth discussing.

Still, she evened herself on Angela. “I wouldn’t give Lucas a breath of insult, so this is about you. You need me. You’d do it for me. So yes, I’ll help you, no matter the cost or risk.”

Angela’s chest sank with a breath, “Thank you.”

Hard Lessons: Part 14

14.

Meanwhile

Angela stood beside her bed, the clock there synced to her HUD and both reading 12 AM. Unbeknownst to her, Crystal and Titus were currently stuffing gear into packs in a race against the clock. She, on the other hand, had all the time in the world.

Lucas had received his latest cocktail beside her on the couch, where she’d sat until after he’d fallen asleep. The reason was simple; if Angela had learned anything, it was that some things couldn’t happen alone. Once Lucas had fallen into his restless sleep, she’d left for some herself. His rehab schedule meant aligning to his use schedule; midnight and midday dosings with sleep somewhere between.

She centered herself at the bathroom mirror with her own, liberal doses of water, pot, and whiskey, then made for the kitchen. An undeniable, sibling responsibility had consumed her. While Lucas was hardly a child, even less likely to ask for help than a hit, her duty was tending to him rather than his ego.

She approached the island, spying a scratchy-note. Sudden fear erupted in her chest. The agony of every troubled-child’s environment reared. Her fear was confirmed in fewer words than felt fair:

I can’t do this, Angie. Thanks for trying.

I love you, sis.

The writing was shaky, done with obvious speed and jitters. He’d run. She panicked. Completely.

She spun in frantic circles, eyes trailing. Her head ached, mind racing unable to comprehend anything. Bilious stomach acid was already bubbling up. Her brain smeared the images her eyes clawed for purchase on. It found none, and nothing coherent otherwise.

All in hope, for some sign that he was there, had changed his mind. Panic had never so thoroughly seized her. She neared a faint amid dizziness that toppled her sideways. She had the vauge and distant notion of catching herself on the island, fighting to breathe.

In reality, she wailed, sobbing. The open-close of a door didn’t register. She was too consumed. She collapsed, caught by a vague but familiar form and weight. Arthur’s gravel-throat was rolling over her skin, vibrating her bones, but nothing was audible outside her the piercing ring of her own mind.

She was a sub on full-alert, reporting damage; a computer throwing errors before a crash. She needed a reset, and there was no avoiding it. Before she knew what had happened, she’d gotten it.

She emerged from her fugue state unaware any time had passed. It had, copiously. Only then could she comprehend the melange of terror, guilt, panic, and grief that had gripped her.

Her body tensed, released. Her muscles gave one last, minor tremor, and she breathed normally again.

Had he not worked for her so long, Arthur might have questioned her sanity. He’d been hired to run security by Julia, but also to keep an eye on Angela during her recovery. If it could have been called that. In truth, it wasn’t much more than the re-awakening any person experienced after surviving and leaving street-living.

In all those years, Angela had been tearful precisely twice. Once, when she returned with Julia’s dead body in her arms. Then, once after being tortured by the bastard that had killed her. Both circumstances were extenuating, obvious.

This wasn’t.

Yet Arthur knew its origins. He’d sensed them. As he sensed the breakdown that drew him to her. Apart from the obvious, there was the deeper, unspoken geyser of emotion now drained like her many tears. That geyser, formed over decades of emotional neglect, abuse, and manipulation was thought to have been forever been covered, quieted.

Instead, the pressure had built from deep quaking– her brother’s re-appearance. Consciously or not, she’d known that pressure would mount, release, destroy anything in its way. This time, she was lucky. It had only damaged what little emotional resistance remained around her childhood, and not the world around her.

Arthur cradled her in silence, dutifully sentinel. He knew little of the Dale home-life directly, but he’d gathered enough. Family of five– four for most of Angela and Lucas’ lives. Heavily sheltered. Criminally so. Forcibly intrusive. Obsessive. Repressive. The list went on.

The Dale parents were obsessed with keeping their children on certain, proscribed paths. As a result they’d wedged themselves into every aspect of their children’s lives for one purpose; control. Where that could not extend, they cajoled and intimidated, demanding constant reports of every moment of their absence.

What wasn’t mandated as part of their cult-like mentality, didn’t exist.

Except that it did. Angela had always known that. Lucas too. Because there was evidence of it everywhere you looked. No doubt, Alison knew it now too– Arthur hoped, for Angela’s sake.

Arthur could only liken the Dale parents to the blind-faithed, ignorant fools forcing friends and family into Jonestown before offering them Flavor-Aid. Certainly, by any metric the damage their children had suffered indicated their unfitness as human beings, let alone parents.

There was never a question to Angela’s emotional instability existing. Rather, it was if the miracle she’d managed was genuine; was her stability as real as it seemed? Lucas had the same inability to process emotion, but did his sister have no greater grace or resolve?

Arthur might’ve forgiven Lucas for everything else, but forcing that question erased any remaining sympathy he had. To be forced to compare someone like Angela to the less-than-dirt-beneath-a-shoe that was Lucas was too much.

He was putting his foot down, and beneath it was going to be Lucas’ gut. Angela had given him everything he wanted, and needed. If something weren’t done soon, she’d keep hurting herself for someone undeserving of even her consideration, let alone her blood.

Angela emerged from the ruptured-Earth her emotions left behind, almost entirely unaware of reality. The grip that had seized her was total, extending through every muscle and nerve in her in her body. There it had put her into lock-down, technically still living, but hard pressed to be called it.

She’d managed to wrest herself away from Arthur because her body’d relaxed naturally. Arthur coaxed her slowly back to speech, offering her anything she wanted. He sat beside her on the kitchen floor; old, bum leg stretched out alongside the island. The other propped him upright.

Angela stared, afflicted by waves of flickering thoughts. “I knew it would happen,” she croaked finally. She wet her throat, “I knew it would happen and I still let him get to me.” She cast a desperate look about, “Why’d I let him get to me?”

“Some people matter enough they’ll always get to us. Always. No matter how we fight, they win.”

She clenched her jaw, “I can’t allow this, Arthur. I can’t be weak like this. Lucas–“

“’Isn’t weakness to love, Angela,” he corrected firmly. “S’Our greatest strength. May be a weakness to fail to recognize love as strength, accept it as one, but that’s not loving that’s weakness. Some times, the hardest lessons are those that make us strongest.”

Her eye twitched, “And this one? What is it?”

“That no matter what, sometimes your love will wound you.” Arthur eyed her deeply, “You hurt because you love. You love because you hurt. You become stronger for it, every day. That makes you Human, not weak. That is strength.

“Sooner you learn to accept your nature, sooner you can use it to your advantage.”

Angela’s gaze held his a moment, searching for any trickery buried beneath his words. She found only conviction. She stared forward, wearing a soldier’s thousand-yard-stare. Arthur was right. More often than not, that was the case anyhow, why would this be any different?

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

Love let Lucas into her house, her car. Love, her ability to show and reciprocate it, let Crystal in; told the truth of Julia’s death. Love saved her, let her into Angela’s house. She’d never have bound to Julia were it not for love. Love, too, plunged her into Julia’s depths. Even the depraved street-living would never have come about if she weren’t so deeply loving.

Forever wounded by the lack of love her family offered, she sought it elsewhere. Eentually, she found her way toward it, if not to it.

To say childhood was at the root of many of her problems was like blaming a foundation for a swamp-house’s slant. It was short-sighted, didn’t fully explain how deep the problem went, and was far too simple for such complex a reality.

Yet Angela knew that love given freely to simply be reflected it back was necessary for a healthy life. Her parents didn’t, had answered only with distrust and suspicion, thus wounding the giver. As common with children, that giver was wounded deeply for life. So much, she’d spend most of her life since trying to compensate. To give. To love. Regardless of circumstance.

Crystal was a prime example: Similarly in need of love, her very entry into Angela’s home and life might have destroyed them. It hadn’t though, and only due to Crystal’s own actions. Actions Lucas was equally capable of but unwilling to perform.

From the moment he’d been allowed in, directly or not, he’d been doing damage. He knew that now, didn’t care. She pushed herself up from the floor and opened the drawer for her tablet. Why, exactly, left her mind as the drawer opened, empty of its contents.

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

She jerked open the other kitchen drawers in a frenzy of swearing movement.

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

She circled amid the mayhem, completely aware of the irony. “Fucking thief.” Arthur moved to stop her. “The card. For Curie’s John. He took the tablet. Now he’s got the card.”

It took Arthur a moment to untangle the knot of confusion she’d tied, but he kept her grounded, “Stop now. Think. He can’t have gone far. He doesn’t have enough money to leave town and he’s half-way into detox. He’ll be trying to score, which means small buyers.”

She stammered slightly, trying to slow herself, “Right. Right…. Uh. Titus. Titus will know.”

“I’ll call.”

“No, I will. Better to be honest and take responsibility… right?”

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

Hard Lessons: Part 13

13.

Complex Problems

Crystal smeared anti-ID paint across her face as she monitored the vids for the signal. Her weapon harnesses and belt-pouches clasped with industrial clacks. She tested the fit of her clothes, re-laced her boots; she’d have only seconds, would need them all. She checked the baby Deagle at her side, flipped the safety off, just in case.

Titus reported in, “’round the corner.”

Crystal watched a figure in high-end silks enter from one side of her digital surveillance net. She turned for the door, HUD superimposing the vid-feeds on a corner of her vision. It tracked Saito, shifting cameras as recog-software cycled angles along his passage of the buildings.

Crystal slipped from the rear of the building and into the shadows amid the downpour. Rain puddled on the porous jungle of concrete, reflecting the gray behind the blare of countless, incandescent street lights. Water rebounded off sheet metal, ricocheted into the distant gurgle of street-drains suckling rainwater. Their gullet’s resonance said it they did so as dutifully as failing infrastructure could; as the prideful, final remnants of a near-ruined system might, when emblematic of the depth of its own flaws.

Dim, GPS blips tracked Titus and Saito across her HUD. The information was further resolved on the screens before her. Titus remained in place. Saito moved laterally, toward the edge of the building where his palm-pad was hidden. Beside it, the alleyway concealed the entrance to his vault as the alley outside Angela’s apartment concealed her garage.

Saito’s blip gave only the slightest moment of hesitation. Crystal watched him on the PiP-feed: He glanced over his shoulder, around. In only a beat more than usual, he continued for the side of the building, his hidden panel. He rounded a corner and disappeared behind a series of columns and overhangs.

“Go,” Crystal instructed.

Titus sped past like a shadowed freight-train. Cameras tracked him, their recog scrambled by his face-paint. He doubled his pace on the PiP view. Saito hesitated again.

“Wait!” She commanded.

Titus stopped a step before the edge of the building that would expose him to Saito, the alley, and blow the job. He back-stepped quickly, doing his best to look nonchalant despite the exposure he felt. Crystal watched Saito rubberneck the alley, then put a hand on the wall. A section of alley-floor sank into darkness, revealing only the slightest hint of stairs in the edge of its scant light.

Saito was moving again. Titus was ready. He struck with precision; the sniper’s distant bullet, there and gone for one purpose. He flashed through from obscurity and into the alley. In two steps he’d bridged half the distance. The mark stopped mid-step. He’d had just enough time to squint through the rain at his assailant.

Titus struck. Saito was down, dazed. Titus reeled back a fist. Then, Saito was out.

Crystal was too busy running to watch. She sprinted over puddles, never splashing ground, silent. The street became alley, the alley, stairwell. A moment later, groaning, mechanized hydraulics re-sealed the hatch and she found herself in the dark.

“I’m in.”

Titus strained against Saito’s unconscious weight as he carried him to their hiding spot. Crystal crossed from stairs to floor. Lights flared on in the walls, forcing her to blink against suddenly-wet eyes. Her HUD engaged her new software, readjusted the contrast. She blinked out the last of her confusion and took in her surroundings:

The staircase had deposited itself in an unceremonious foyer. One of necessity rather than form. Walls of light, as in Angela’s garage, confirmed the shared architect. The design, as much for function as form, equally complimented the post-digital-age aesthetic. A style further evident in its extra-wide, utilitarian corridor running the length of its high-strength vault.

From the layout above and below, Crystal judged the vault-proper as just below the near-edge of the warehouse. The design of Angela’s home and garage said the vault was likely built up beneath the warehouse-floor, kept as innocuous cover easily investigated.

That was a popular theme in the shadows; the sleight of hand that kept one looking in the warehouse for wrong-doing, not the property above or below it that was equally there and open to construction. It was an obvious relic of a Pre-3D age. One where the idea of everything came from notions built on paper.

Paper was flat. 2 sided. Or at least, only 3 sided after exceptions or manipulation.

The post-digital-era was different. People weren’t flat anymore. They had depth too; had gone beyond the X and Y planes to the Z, even the T. 1 and 0 was old news because it had done so much more already. It was a symbol, sure, but an old one. One that wasn’t right for the times.

She started down the long corridor. Immediately drawn right, into a dead-end occupied on either side of a smaller hallway.

To the right, safety-glass walls sectioned and protected computer panels controlling various, connected hardware, no doubt monitoring and linking the vault’s various systems. In addition, large breaker panels and high-voltage symbols and cabling led in, spliced from the nearby grid-work that fed the warehouse

None of that was technically illegal, but it wasn’t exactly board-approved building code either. Clearly Saito wasn’t entirely above using old connections, despite the game he supposedly wasn’t part of. Their job aside, Crystal could already tell this guy was headed the way of his old boss if he wasn’t careful.

Judging by immaculately organized patch-panels, network switches, and other routing tech more was freshly interconnected here than procurable outside his former-network. She knew what network it was, because it fed her and Titus too.

Crystal focused left, on the immensely-thick vault-door half-protruding from the wall.

The door was decidedly intimidating. More than that, it was disheartening. Vaults doors couldn’t be picked or tooled. Most couldn’t even be blown open. They had to be plasma-cut or utterly removed. Neither was an option here

Unless they contained a small key-panel to the side; a standard panel for a non-standard door. One Crystal couldn’t help but smile at.

She stepped over, producing a small, cordless drill, and started working out hex head bolts. The internall-suppression mechanisms, some self-modified, withdrew the bolts in utter silence. The panel of number-letter keys and LCD readouts came free.

She fished through the internal wiring, feeling for the connectors. A wrench and a twist freed a pair of wires from a conduit, spliced them. A spark, a whiff of burnt insulator, and the grinding clicks of a few thousand pounds of meshing gears and bolts fell open.

Then, a prolonged hiss as the door eased open within its extra-wide corridor.

Crystal never ceased to be amazed at how few whom relied on digital technology actually understood it. Whether the highest-grade, state of the art containment facility, or the lowliest car-door lock, it relied on and required one thing to work; power.

Thus, power was also its greatest weakness and vulnerability.

Crystal couldn’t help but think of what Titus had said about vulnerabilities. In context, people whom didn’t understand such basic principles of digital security were incapable of planning for its exposure. Most electronic-locks had the fail-safe of a latch lift-able in the event of a power failure. Thus, the idea was to never lose the power in the first place.

State of the art facilities with billion dollar security systems compensated for this with multiple redundancies, complimentary fail-safes to prevent total system-loss. From their own, private police forces to their own power-plants, there were back ups to the systems.

All the same, Crystal guaranteed one or more vulnerabilities existed. Even in the most powerful systems, there was some weakness to exploit. What made her job difficult were the redundancies, the layers and overlap.

All of it though, required power. If it couldn’t be cut, that meant peeling back layers until getting to the target. As mentioned, it made her job difficult.

What made her job hilarious, almost pathetically easy, was ignorant fools putting a half-mil door on a vault they never bothered to reinforce digitally or electrically. It was its own weak-link in the chain of security.

The door stood open before her. Were she not so certain of Saito’s own foolishness, she might’ve hesitated. Fortunately, the door told her all she needed to know. No matter what more lay inside, protecting the vault and its various charges, something would betray them.

“I’m in,” she said, HUD scanning for anything suspicions.

It found nothing but clear ground.

Titus’ drugs would keep Saito out for hours, but he couldn’t risk him becoming lucid. Worse, if something happened to him, Curie might hesitate with him in the future. Their relationship required knowing exactly when and where to strike, how to compliment each other therein, for the best collective effect. It wasn’t always a Grand-slam, but it was never a miss outside their control.

Meaning, mostly fielders like Crystal assigned to jobs, fucked up.

Those were the requirements of a Fixer-Middler relationship; trust and loyalty. Curie was the M to his Bond, or near enough to be indistinguishable. Shaking the foundation meant shattering the usefulness of that partnership. It would happen eventually, if they lived that long– always a question in their line, but until then it couldn’t happen.

Neither side was prepared to weather it.

“You’re looking for a workstation. Concealed. Its drives.”

Crystal stared down rows of sleek, metal cabinets, counters, and drawers. Each was locked with a number-print bypass. Nothing beyond her skill, but the room looked to be half as wide and long as the warehouse above.

“Anything more?”

“No.”

“Titus, this place is fucking enormous.”

There was a long, deliberate quiet. Crystal was left utterly alone, just beyond the intimidating vault-door. She’d never wanted to run from a job so thoroughly. Something about the looming walls, the cold sterility of the vault; the sudden silence and aloneness. She felt trapped, imprisoned.

Something clicked. She suddenly understood the vault.

Rounding the door and heading out along the short hallway for another, her steps and HUD scanning. Lines of invisible code flickered like particle collisions in an accelerator inside her brain, processing for traps, lasers, trip-wires, pressure-plates, anything that might signal something.

There was nothing but white-light paneled walls, ceilings, and tiled floors.

Her steps remained cautious regardless; if she’d learned anything, it was that the more benign something felt, the more benign it was. Call it intuition; simple human sensory-logic, but if a room felt unused, it was.

Vaults had that feeling as a rule, most times. They were seldom used, but always contained the lingering presence of humanity. A distant, decayed hint of cologne, perfume; the last, infinite echo of a footstep; the hint of minor, animal warmth long since cooled.

That was what comprised reality. What gave an old house its musk. An old leather its feel. In simplest terms, it was life’s effect on a thing.

But Saito’s vault wasn’t merely empty. It was sterile. It didn’t reverberate. It didn’t smell. It didn’t echo. It didn’t linger or breathe. It was dead. Or rather, had never lived. It was just one more redundancy in a 2D system turned 3D. That’s how she knew it.

She found herself at the end of the hall, still awaiting Titus’ reply and knowing why he’d been silent. He didn’t want her getting dependent on him. They’d had sex. The relationship had changed. They hadn’t. She snapped back to her senses, alone but recomposed.

She found it then, another door. Expertly concealed to a human eye seeing a 2D plane, her HUD spotted it instantly. The wall panel rose imperceptibly but outside digital tolerance, decidedly out of place to the software in her HUD. In its adherence to remain innocuous, it sacrificed any further, external security.

Were the room beyond it not 3D, unlike the unliving, unbreathing vault, it might gone unnoticed. Even had the HUD missed it, Crystal knew she’d have sensed it eventually. Ultimately, this saved time. She looked about the door and scanned for any hidden method of entry. She slid her hands along its edges. They suddenly hissed, came loose, and slid into the wall to reveal the small, glass-walled entryway inside.

“Found something. Lab-like.”

“Worth a shot,” he said, tapping Saito’s phone as he squatted beside his unconscious body.

Crystal pushed forward through an inner glass door that sealed behind her. Decon fans spun-up and whirled gaseous air. She tensed up, too focused on the room beyond to notice. The sterile white made more sense now.

What didn’t was the thing lying in pieces on a steel table across the room.

The door to the lab-proper opened on something crossing an OR mid-surgery with a tech-workshop. The steel table, like a gurney, contained one-half a vaguely-human thing. It wasn’t, of course. Too much of it was open, exposed to the air; too much mechanical, robotic, to be human. All the same, Crystal couldn’t contain herself.

Jesus Christ,She breathed, eyeing the craftsmanship of the micro-joints beneath a hand. “It’s like Blade Runner in here.”

“Cee, stay focused,” he instructed. “The drive.”

Crystal swallowed, giving the creation one last, awe-inspiring look before turning for a nearby table and a computer there. Contrary to Titus’ expectations, it was not concealed. Even further contrary to Crystal’s expectations, it was also not protected in any way worthy of what likely resided within.

With a quick, few applications of her cordless driver and deft fingers, she worked the small SSDs from the computer and server cases and pocketed them. After one, last look of eerie sorority at the half-assembled creature, she hurried out and toward the stairs.

She started up, triggering an automated protocol that opened the staircase again. Top-side, Titus was stuffing Saito into his driver-less Continental, its scenic-route re-programmed. He shut the door, and it started away for the other side of town. Between that and the drugs, they’d have more than enough time to pack up and get out before anything was discovered.

The pair started through the rain to pack-up their hideaway together.

Hard Lessons: Part 12

12.

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Angela’s chest was freshly-damp from the bag of detox drugs.

She swung herself off her bike, pulling her helmet off as she made for the apartment. Lucas would be descending into the first stages of withdrawal. It was going to be a long, painful process. She found he and Arthur across from one another at the island. The former rippled with tremors.

The old man steeped a tea-bag in steaming water, silence pregnant with welcome intrusion.

Angela tossed the bag on the counter, unzipped her coat to cast it on a chair. The grease-slick of her brother’s face and body matched the pools around his collar and armpits, the lines across his paunchy torso. His hair stuck about at odd angles, torn at but too oiled to lay flat again.

She measured out doses. He tossed them back with the muscle memory of an addict. Just as well, only an addict could’ve stomached his cocktail. It might’ve killed a normal person just from sheer, drug-induced introspection. To say nothing of its own, inherent mortality rate– currently unknown, but likely only somewhat lower than the addiction’s itself.

There and then, Angela’s heart wrent in two.

She and Lucas had been tormented, scarred. So heinously, the only way to cover them was with worse, deeper ones. His trembling breaths broke only for the tea to rise. Hot or not, its influence spurred the cocktail through him with welcomed result.

All the same, withdrawal was worsening by the minute. Arthur took his leave, but Angela remained to watch Lucas’ detox take hold.

The silence became cooler, calmer.

The cock-tail was working expertly, but it couldn’t last. The crash would come, or the treatment would just be the new high. She’d figure it out later. What mattered now was keeping Lucas’ body from stressing itself past shut-down.

In other words, killing him.

Angela said nothing, but her mind raced. Addiction had never made sense to her. Not as it evidently did to most. Arguably, she’d had stints as one, but considered it more byproduct than feeding a monkey on her back.

The monkey’d never been the point. Rather, it was escaping the very real, shit-stained piss-reeking reality of life on the street.

Escapism was the goal in both cases, but their journey’s existed in mutually exclusive universes. Trying to kill herself with drink had never been about drinking; she’d have taken any, less-painful way out. Alcohol was cheap, abundant, easy to steal in lethal volume.

Her lack of addiction was further evidenced in her current ability to drink without turning into– well, Lucas.

She knew the real reason twelve-steppers and teetotalers alike shamed others, their lifestyle. They were ashamed they couldn’t control themselves, thus everyone must be incapable of controlling themselves.

The last, logical thing for an addict, it seemed to Angela, was relinquish what self-control remained another’s whims. Fuck that. Grab a hold and steer the bitch with all your might. Like a wild mare frenzied, or a Ferrari with no brakes at 200km/h.

Yet, any use more than once a week was “functioning.” Anyone with a joint or riding a high around the house was a drug abuser– abuser, as if their definition had any room for “use” outside the pharmaceutical industry.

What a joke, Angela felt. And most people like her, felt the same. If only for the simple reason0 they knew enough crooked doctors whom found scripts easy replacements for care. Hell, if it weren’t for those crooked M-Ds, Lucas wouldn’t be detoxing now.

Probably, anyway.

Angela breathed easier as Lucas did. Ultimatey the factual thing those twelve-steppers and teetotalers refused to admit or were ignorant of, was their place as part of the sixty percent addicted to something else. All it meant was the same thing any system’s rules meant; Follow. Eyes forward. No resistance.

The problem was, that ideology wasn’t built for people like Angela.

Simply, they hadn’t existed then because technology hadn’t. Whether through AA, her zealot parents, or the heat, the rules they were being told not to break could never apply to them in the first place. It was a catch-22. They were ghosts in the system. To it. They and it existed separately.

People like Angela, Crystal, even Lucas to a lesser extent, didn’t live outside the laws from any sense of rebellion, but because those laws and rules governed a world made for people unlike them. People whom walked in the day, whom knew nothing of shadows, schemes, or the misfortune that led to them.

They were the simple minority; no matter how many they seemed, they were always fewer. That was good though, it kept the game from tipping too far and the board upending entirely. Fact was, laws and rules were needed to keep masses in line. Not individuals or counter-groups.

Shadow was night to day in many ways.

Angela knew that, was grateful for it. As were all those like her. For good reason, too; they were the night to that day, but also could not exist without it. Their duality was like that espoused by Easterners as the Yin and Yang. Each was necessary because each was one-half of a whole.

Angela knew that. Crystal knew that. Titus knew it. On some level, every person whom lived, regardless of side, knew it. It wasn’t a matter of want nor need, it simply was; a reality best summarized as the positive-negative balance in the universe. In its way, its own law of Karma.

The truth, as evident as irrefutable, was visible in all of existence. From quantum physics to electricity, right on down to society. Every particle had an anti-particle. Every 1, a 0. Every integer an, equal negative.

Angela and those like her, Lucas included, were night to day, yang to yin, 1 to 0. It was just the way of things. Those “qualified” to help those like Lucas were fundamentally incapable of it. Not from malice, ill-intent, lack of experience or wanting. They were simply learned in a system outright engineered not to function for him.

In essence, it was a system for yin-minded. He was the inverse, the opposite; the yang. As a result, the systems in place to help him would always, immediately, encounter insurmountable resistance. Not from total ineffectiveness, but from flawed handling of their charges.

The system was formulated for matters of black and white, without room for shades of gray. Gray simply added too many variables into an equation meant to be simple, solvable for a majority of people. It was a yin-minded system, for yin-minded people, with only room for yin-like variables.

Angela watched her brother relax, the sweat of his face a lone, oily coat that glistened with the fluorescence overhead. She may not have understood addiction, but she understood the danger that ignorance posed.

All addicts like them, whom needed help and couldn’t get it, were simply pushed aside. The black and white mindset of the majority meant even seeking help was next to impossible for the yang-types– no matter the context.

Angela could think of no better example than her own kidnapping. As a thief, a dark-dweller, she’d run afoul of another dark-dweller whom kidnapped and tortured her. The mafioso in question could only be combated by further dark-dwellers.

Why? Simply, the responding system made no allowances for the reality of life as an opportunists with particular skills.

Angela was a thief. Once her only, truly marketable skill. Now, simply her most experienced. What choice did she have in her hour of need, but to rely on her friend and protege to come to her rescue?

For people like her, police didn’t exist– save as a thing to be utterly and entirely avoided. Shadows policed themselves. Forced to by virtue of their nature. All involved knew it, and knew why. Those not involved inadvertently tried altering the very fabric of the shadows’ nature, eventually writing off their misunderstanding as failure— hence Lucas’ inability to detox properly.

She wanted to be angry, but it was no one’s fault, really.

Nature was rife with paths of least resistance. Rarely was the effect positive. Especially in regards to the utterly complex required of psychic trauma.

Angela handled her own in her own way, for good or ill. Unfortunately, that hardly prepared her for dealing with another’s. Even Crystal knew only of how to deal with her own. Angela simply shared what little she felt relevant to the moment at-hand, and focused instead on doing the job.

She did her best to keep from making matters worse. Admittedly, she was a poor mentor in that way, especially given her tendency toward emotional repression. Especially when it came Lucas and her childhood.

She stayed beside him through-out the day, silent but tending to him when needed. Somewhere, hidden away, Arthur watched. He was silent on firm instruction to let her handle things, but prepared to step in whether she liked it or not. She figured as much.

Though he’d never tell her, he was proud of her handling of things. He refused to let his guard down, but also refused to scold Angela for trying, listening, success or failure. Lucas was, after all, her brother and she had a right to try to help him.

By sundown and Lucas’ second cocktail, he was ready to sleep. Utterly empty of food and energy despite her offers, he finally collapsed into sleep. She sat nearby until certain he was out, then rose to shower and collapse on her bed.

The sun sank behind the persistent layer of rain and gray, forcing the surveillance feeds’ contrast to change. Crystal’s eyes skirted newly-revealed crevices previously lost in rainy daylight and shadow.

Nothing unusual.

The drones had been battery-swapped when she’d taken over to let Titus sleep. Presently, she sat on-watch, skimming the feeds between bouts of boredom-tempering Aug-coding.

The sex had been spectacular, and sorely needed. She was still stretching periodically, just to ensure she hadn’t pulled anything. There was no way to know yet though. She was still too numb with pleasure. She’d stretched once before watch, was ready for another.

She started with her legs; a rigid thief was like a cat without feet.

She suspected Titus had found trouble keeping up. She didn’t blame him. He’d hardly been expecting it, was tired when they’d started. She felt likewise. Yet, she forced them onward for hours; their endurance was higher than she’d given either one credit for.

After all, how could it not be? Keeping with one so deprived and newly-energized as her would be no easy feat?

Teens met the energy levels, but they were chumps. Inexperienced. Sloppy. They were as lucky to get in as off. All that time burning energy, barely using any to get off, just as porn told them to. Nothing compared to the sex of two, experienced partners. Especially not one with a decade of pent-up fantasies from missed opportunities in youth.

That Titus kept pace was impressive enough, that the acts had the desired effect was doubly so.

It could only have happened if he were fully committed, either in body or mind. He seemed to have managed a fair bit of both.

Another car entered the feed, caught her eye as a black streak smearing the feeds.

She scrutinized the shape, letting it morph in her mind. It resolved into a Lincoln Continental, old style, well-maintained. Not a rare sight for this side of town, but not common. It was the same car she’d seen before; circling the block and unwittingly tracked by the various drones.

She woke Titus, prepped to move. Together, they watched, waited. The Continental circled a final time before coming to a stop outside the building they occupied, their target.

As if cued to, a man emerged. A drone’s feed immediately flashed an ID marker reading out Saito’s ID alongside informatics.

Titus fitted his belt with a small pouch and checked the slide of a small pistol, keying-off a quiet beeping on one of the laptops. He let his pistol’s slide chamber a round, flicked the safety, and started off.

Crystal tightened her laces; only moments now.

Hard Lessons: Part 11

11.

Walk the Walk

Angela sat in yet another filthy alley awaiting Titus’ contact. There was no question as to his arrival, only how long. He was as likely to show early as late. Dealers were like that. Most times, it couldn’t be helped or blamed.

So, she sat, helmet on and arms crossed atop her bike. She’d pointed it for an exit in the unlikely event a fast getaway was needed. The rain made sheets of low visibility between here and there. Good; better prepared than trapped.

Rain drummed on her helmet, perfectly blended with external mics feed environmental sounds to her aural implant. It gave rhythm to her thoughts, forced her to face facts; Crystal and Arthur had been right.

Right or not, Lucas was her brother. She had to help him. At least try. Their conversation replayed in her head endlessly, examined for selfish intent. Over the rain pelting her and the morning thunder rattling her chest, one question he’d posed rang true; why hadn’t she gone back for them?

Truthfully, she couldn’t be sure. She’d left her siblings to criminally overbearing parents a decade ago. Wrongful as Lucas’ accusations were, she hadn’t attempted to re-establish contact. After Julia, she could easily have transplanted Lucas and Alison from their parents’ dangerous invasiveness.

Then again, whether Ali could be saved most pressing. She’d grown up almost entirely without Angela. The teen-aged girl might not remember her beyond photos together. Angela couldn’t bear the idea of having left her behind, alone.

At least Lucas went through the worst of it with Angela. They were together when they’d first learned of the cult-mentality of their parents and their religious groups. They endured an utterly nonexistent privacy brought about by a so-called open home for precisely as long as they had to, then fled.

Angela was certain her parents’ surveillance cameras and intrusive snooping trained her to be the thief she was. It gave drive to violate that net of security, regardless of where. Or, at least, it made it more bearable and natural to do so.

As soon as she could, Angela put the past to work for her. She’d never have known anything about herself or the world were she there much longer. Sexuality, adrenaline, success; all “improper” for a girl of her stock. So, she fled to the streets and ended up stuck there.

For far too long.

She’d had enough one birthday night. Childhood was excruciating. Adulthood wasn’t looking better. Street life was cold reality; day-to-day survival of eating from dumpsters, trash cans, drinking from half-crushed cans and broken bottles, choking on random cigarette butts and refuse.

No-one would’ve blamed her for having had enough.

Were it not for Julia’s timely discovery of Angela’s slow death, their eventual love, she wouldn’t be around to worry about her brother’s addictions. She wondered if that was a bad thing, but immediately recalled Crystal.

She breathed easier, if only a little.

Wet ceramic squealed from the import beyond the alley entrance. Her helmet faded and compensated for the rain and light reflected from the NSX’s futuristic angles. A skinny Japanese kid, no more than nineteen, hustled into the alley. He stopped mid-way through.

This wasn’t a dealer. Angela saw it in the rigid spine, the uncertain but shrewdly narrowed eyes. He was a courier, running any and everything any and everywhere for cash. A kid with a part time job under the table. He had no idea what he was carrying or what he was doing.

Angela swung her leg over her bike and started over, helmet on. She stopped at arm’s length. He hunched forward, cradling something.

“All here,” he said.

Angela unzipped her jacket, exchanged a manila envelope for the bag. They double-checked their swap, then about-faced. Angela zipped her coat, chest now damp from the bag, and returned to her bike. In moments, she was gliding through pelting rain.

Across town, Titus sat at the bank of laptops, increasingly more concerned that Saito had yet to show. Most of him didn’t mind, not at the thought of Crystal’s milk-white body nude beneath the blanket behind him.

The rest of him felt the same, professional agitation of any long-term job. He did his best to calm himself with that thought; just another job. He sparked a joint, deciding he could wait as long as he had to. Extra time with Crystal, wasn’t something he’d mind.

They’d tacitly agreed on no strings for now, unbidden as the future was. All Titus knew was that he’d managed a night with a woman aching for pleasure, and was now aching from his best attempts to provide it. Judging by her deep sleep, he’d done a decent enough job.

He kicked back, puffing deep on the joint to watch the various camera-feeds. Their drones were still flying pre-programmed routes, quick and easy labor he’d cooked up during job-prep. With the aid of a GPS satellite and locator chips in each drone, he wrote macro subroutines strung together in a specific structure;

A series of flight routes within a few blocks of one another. Between their size and camera feeds, they could monitor most of the area three-dimensionally, auto-adjusting against wind within tolerances to retain patrol feeds. What was more, they could be live-edited to compensate for the worsening rain as it blew in from the Pacific.

In effect, he had total command of the area. Until now, he’d only ever used components of the system, but the various drones’ programming seemed to need only ironing out, polishing. In other words, it was smooth sailing until Saito finally decided to show.

As it had been since the job had begun. Agitation was the monotony setting in then.

Titus didn’t like complications, but he liked monotony even less. It made him anxious. Mostly, monotony meant the target, in this case Saito’s hidden vault, was used to an interruption in its routine similar to his method of interacting.

In other words, that it was aware of his presence, however benignly. That problem was obvious to anyone aware of his and Crystal’s intent.

Crystal stirred amid sleep, but did not wake. He couldn’t help but glance back. The toned muscles of her back and silk-smooth skin showed the obvious commitment to making herself whole again. She’d lived on the streets long enough to know; caring for every part of oneself was as much a privilege as a responsibility.

It wasn’t hard to see how far she’d extended that mentality. Her hair was long, luscious. Her eyebrows were prim, even. Her skin was soft, clear, and clean. Her entire body, as Titus could attest, was pampered. More than that, it was appreciated, loved anew as few could be.

Crystal had received a new lease on life. Any astute observer knew that. Therein it gave her something few others had. A lust and love for life impossible without her history. It intoxicated him with his own lust for life, especially given the profound and beautiful woman few wouldn’t be enamored with.

Alarms rang in his head.

He’d kept things fast and loose for the sake of work. Letting anyone in exposed both sides to risk. Especially for two playing the game on different levels. It was dangerous to be more involved than necessary. Crystal didn’t know the extent of his role in the game. And It was for the best. Certain affairs weren’t for the faint-hearted. Even less, for those potentially vulnerable to their knowledge.

He couldn’t allow Crystal too deep in yet. Otherwise, she might end up learning things she wasn’t allowed to know. Not yet, anyhow.

Selfish as it seemed, the game took precedent in every facet of life. Everybody playing knew that. That rule extended to partners, was the sole reason he refrained from any, serious ones.

He admitted himself a bit of a romantic. Not a bleeding heart, of course. Far from it, in fact, but a man aware of a few specific things about relationships. He used them as guide-lines, nothing if not principled. A reality that made him all the more fit for the game.

Unfortunately, it also made it more difficult to admit there was more to bringing Crystal.

The thing at the heart of matters he hadn’t been ready to admit, now confronted him beneath the warmth of cannabinoids, post-coital ecstasy, and plain emotion.

He was forced to admit he liked Crystal. Liked her in a way that would lead to more.

Careful or not, it was there. The more he denied it, the worse he’d make things. Much as Crystal was right about his vulnerabilities, she’d missed the extent. His actions were entirely transparent to. He’d miscalculated, and for someone living on output, that was dangerous.

For all of his smoothness, all of his careful planning and cool, Titus was a romantic and he did want Crystal.

But those were vulnerabilities.

Forced to recall his own sentiments about vulnerabilities, he reached an epiphany; he felt a helluva a lot better off with Crystal around than not.

Hard Lessons Pt. 10

10.

Talk the Talk

Lucas hunched across the island counter, eyes on his own reflection in the black-mirror of coffee. The air was still, quiet. Only the occasional drip of a fridge broke through, however distant. Even then, it was merely an aural nudge to affirm temporal events still flowed.

Angela had no idea where to start. Lucas wouldn’t be saying anything anytime soon though. Hints of desperation and shame tainted the air, taking residence to replace any need for speech. She started as simply as possible, emotions in check for brevity’s sake.

“I gave you money. And a car.”

Her tone shook. It was pointless to scold. Keep it simple. Adult. Lucas could do what he pleased. Her issue lie elsewhere.

“I gave you money, and a car, and you took advantage of my trust. I expected we’d act responsibly because we’re adults. Myself by offering to help. You, by taking it as help.”

That seemed better, Angela thought. Remove anger, needless subject matter, and look at the framework of the act: he’d left with her vehicle, kept it in a bad lot, on a bad side of town, just to burn money getting trashed.

She wouldn’t have begrudged him the night were it not to such an extremity. Taking a load off was one thing. Being soused to the gills all day and night at a shit-hole like the factory was another. If she hadn’t shown up….

“Lucas, We’re both adults.” She put her hands flat on the island. “I know you’re using. I don’t know what, but I don’t care. You need to stop. It’s not helping you.”

This time he eyed to protest.

“Don’t lie, Lucas. Don’t bother trying. I know Emilio Wyatt better than you’d ever imagine. He sells two things and only two things; strong drugs and cheap whores.”

“Ang–“

She hardened, justified now that he was fighting her. “Save it. You’re bingeing. I didn’t grill you when you showed up, so don’t question me now. Don’t argue. Just listen: Stay away from Wyatt.

Each syllable stung harder, visible in the tics and twinges of his smallest facial muscles. Effects of the moment of clarity she’d caught him in. Mostly, from forcing him to sober up overnight.

“Trust me, Lucas. Keep your head down. Wyatt knows who you are now. And where you are.”

Lucas hid it well, but not from Angela. She knew he was running, from what didn’t matter.

“Wyatt’s got it in for me. Doesn’t matter why. What matters is, you’re an avenue to me.”

Lucas winced, catching her subtext, “Angie, why d’you–“

“Save it and listen.” He nodded slowly. “Get clean. Here and now. I can help. Otherwise, you’re on your own. I can’t risk harboring a junkie. My work’s too vulnerable.”

“What work?” He asked, finally.

Angela paused; it had taken him this long to wonder.

Something abraded the heart in her chest. At the moment she wasn’t sure it was hers for its seeming numbness. It was obvious why; all this time and only now had he asked. Merely from selfish curiosity and only spurned by fear of consequences for himself at that.

No doubt Lucas’ inner-workings were priming to appear concerned, when all he wondered was how bad the damage would be when he defied her.

She ignored his question wholesale, “You’re risking my work. Chill out and sober up. Or leave.”

A frothing anger bubbled in Lucas; the victim emerged. “What? How can you–“

She cut him off, knowing his mind, “This isn’t about money, Lucas.”

“Really!?” He spat in disbelief, mock or otherwise she wasnt sure. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen nothing but caviar life. You haven’t once– and what about Alison? Or Mom? Or Dad? You haven’t even asked about them. Now you’re–“

“Our parents are the problem, Lucas,” She said, weakening at mention of Alison. “If either of them cared, they’d have found me. You did. I’m offering my help.”

He trembled with emotion, likely detox too. His obvious sobriety was wearing him down. He looked twice his age. At thirty, that was saying something. His eyes were wet, as if he fighting back tears welled by the mess of his life. Ones he refused to admit the source of.

She stepped around the island, sat next to him, “I can help you, Lucas. Let me.”

His strength suddenly failed him and he collapsed, sobbing. She caught and soothed him, shushing the grief and fear as it coursed through it. However long she held him, she wasn’t sure, but when he’d finally managed to recompose himself he sat upright in silence for a long time.

Finally, Angela broke it.

“I’m going to help you. What’ve you’ve been using?” He said nothing. She winced, knowing what it meant. “How long?”

“Too long.”

“You can’t do this alone, but I’ll get you through it.”

He offered her a grateful smile, then returned his gaze to the floor.

Angela quickly showered and readied herself. She stepped from her room to double-check something on a tablet, made note of Harman’s SD card in it, then stepped around the island in her riding jacket. She thumbed a list, shut and locked the tablet, slid it in a drawer on the far-side of the island.

In twenty minutes, Lucas hadn’t moved an inch. Shame and desperation clung to him in equal measure around still, stagnant air. Lucas was like a living statue. The pain necessary would have cut Angela but what needed to be done, needed to be done now.

“I’ll be gone a half-hour. We’ll start working you off the stuff when I get back.”

Hints of an emotion tugged at his face, never fully manifesting.

He didn’t move. She lingered until he did, then reassured him with a look. She left him alone at island and made for her bike in the garage. In moments she was top-side, zooming off across town. Her HUD flashed an alert, bone-comm implant vibrating invisibly.

“Yeah?” Titus answered.

She zoomed through a stoplight. “Methadone. Naltrexone. Grass. Gabapentin. Alley off fifth. One hour.”

Titus had long ago committed the mental checklist to memory. It was an old favorite. Middlers called it the Junkie’s deep-clean; a street-based backdoor treatment for addicts. Usually, Heroin addicts.

He dialed his cell. Crystal watched him from the cot, his muscled form stiff and strong against his thoughts’ weight. He stood nude before the screens, silhouetted like some statuesque God of ancient time. His body, muscled like an old street-kid living fat and healthy as he liked, made its power known in the slight relief of his features.

He repeated Angela’s order in code before setting the cell down and returning to her.

Crystal laid her head against a hand, watching his half-erection in the glow, “Leaving?”

He stepped over confidently, “Nah. Business. All yours.”

Crystal’s tongue skirted the bottom of her lip. Before he could make his move, she did. Insatiably. Twice turned to thrice. Already he was one up on her. She didn’t mind. It’d been longer than she knew anyhow. He, on the other hand, felt compelled to even the odds.

Crystal wasn’t sure how it’d started, but sensed its origins in the passionate kiss she’d given him. How it had happened was less important than that it did. Crystal’d wanted it, needed it even, and Titus wanted her. It was a sort of silent business deal perfect for its indifference to everything, even itself.

For now, there was no need to go deeper than a thrust.

Night turned to day in a slow procession of sex and gathering exhaustion, until forced them to slow to retain the reserve needed for work. Until then, the feeds would alert them when needed. Placid boredom was reason enough to fuck, but releasing Crystal’s immensely built-up pressure in the meantime was obligation.

By the end, neither was sure how the army-issue cot had survived. Then again, all either one cared about was the pure ecstasy coursing through their loins. Crystal laid beside Titus, only having just caught her breath.

“I needed that.”

He chuckled, “Been a while?” She nodded, more or less. “Doesn’t seem to have mattered.”

She chuckled, “A compliment?”

“The highest,” he replied, putting a joint to his lips and sparking it.

He offered and she took a deep hit, straining through held breath, “Don’t think less of me.”

“Never.” She blew a cloud of smoke at him skeptically. He chuckled, “I’d never have brought you if that were possible. Sexual talents aside, your skill merits respect. I’d never disrespect you like that.”

She smiled, taking another drag, “Sexual talents, huh?”

“Mhmm.”

She snickered, climbing atop him again to lean and savor him with a kiss. Then, with a long breath, she shotgunned smoke into him to blow his mind a fourth time.