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.

Hard Lessons: Part 9

9.

The Brother Problem

It could’ve been worse, in some ways. In others, it was as bad as anything that could’ve happened and didn’t. There wasn’t bloodshed, but Angela felt that would’ve been easier to deal with. Bloodshed was easy; stay alive until its over and hope you’re not on the cleanup crew.

She raced home to change into long-sleeved clothing, drop her gear from the job. She hurried Arthur out the door with her.

“How long’s he been gone?” She asked, Ferrari’s engine firing.

Arthur ducked in, careful of his stiff leg, “Left right after you.”

Her HUD read 19:08.

Lucas had been boozing and burning cash for ten hours. She’d expected as much, but her fury rose from the obvious steam rising off Arthur. Whether directed at Lucas or her, she wasn’t certain, but it prompted a small pang of guilt. That guilt combusted into an explosive rage tempered by the knowledge that it was more deadly when channeled.

Angela raced from the garage to street level, into the abandoned alley.

Arthur grumbled a command, “Find the car.”

“Working on it.”

Her HUD connected to the Ferrari’s relay, piggybacked its packets off various open-air connections, met her system in the apartment below. A small, oscillating circle pulsed in a corner of her vision. GPS maps winked on.

Jackstaff’s various cameras cycled, its regions narrowing to auto-locate her GPS frequencies. She keyed off anything in the garage. Three pips. One further along the coast near dock-warehouses; she needed to remind Crystal to mask her bike’s GPS on jobs.

The other two pips were separated by the city-proper. She cross-referenced them with live-cams nearby, knew instantly where he was, why.

And she was pissed.

“Sonuvabitch.”

Custom run-flat slicks left rubber along asphalt as they burned toward the city. Arthur eyed the car’s onboard GPS, instantly understood. Angela was properly furious now. Himself with her. Of all the places Lucas could be, the Factory was one of the worst.

Beyond it being the sleaziest strip club in all of Jackstaff, which was no small feat, it belonged to a fixer with bad blood. She’d vowed never to do business with him long ago. Worse though, the place was frequented by people with only one of two things (or both) in mind; girls and drugs.

Most often, that was pimps and addicts respectively. Knowing her brother, Angela suspected the latter.

Unofficially The Factory, had gained a colloquial additive as a result of the caliber of girls and patrons frequenting it. “Slut.”

In the end, all it meant was these weren’t the ideological descendants of Dutch “sex-workers” using genetics or surgeons to make a living. They weren’t even poor girls forced into sleaze by circumstance and lack of other, marketable skills. Rather, they were the types that wanted to be used, abused, and pissed on rather than think for themselves.

But it wasn’t just the girl’s. The Factory was famous for that mentality in all it’s inhabitants. It was the sort of place only the worst types ended up. In most of America, they were called Trash; England, Chavs. Aussies had Bogans.

Whatever they were termed wherever they were, they were all the same sect: subhuman scum-rings around the drain-pipe of society. As certain to contain diseases other humans had mysteriously achieved herd immunity against as to kill you with their presence. Usually, by slipping on their slime.

They were exactly the type of people Angela hoped Lucas wasn’t, but Arthur and Crystal suspected he was. The type of person she feared he was.

“How’d you know of a problem?” Angela asked, racing through a light. She drifted around a corner.

Arthur growled for more reasons than he wished. “What else would’a been the case?” She glared. “Gotta’ call from his tail.”

“What!?”

Her fury hit him with all the effect of at a pebble against a brick wall.

“You hired me for security. To protect your home. It’s my job.” She sneered. He ignored it. “Furthermore, you no longer live alone. Until you do, there are others that must be considered. You may take no issue with bringing a stranger–“

My brother!

He corrected them both, “One un-involved in your livelihood. And you cannot begrudge others their choices otherwise.” Her jaw ground, forcing her to wince. “… extends to anyone else you bring in. Crystal’s cleared. Lucas is not.”

She fumed in silence, nostrils flaring. He finished the argument with a last remark. “Anyone that walks through our door is screened and cataloged as risk or not. Relations aside, he’s a risk. You know better than anyone sometimes you need protecting.”

Angela’s grip choked the wheel. Her foot weighted the accelerator. Jackstaff blurred into colorful smears. They bobbed and weaved from her murderous attempts to defy gravity. Car-horns became mired in the guttural screams of a super-performance V8 that hiccuped into turns then mini-gunned back out again.

In moments, Angela found herself pulling to a stop outside The Factory.

Unlike most places frequented by society’s undersides, this had nothing approaching glitz or glamour. Nothing masquerading as it.

Neon glowed dimly from a once-curvaceous, naked broad on the roof. Her lower thigh flickered like an amputee pulling a prosthetic off randomly for a joke… for all eternity. The torn awning buzzed visibly from unsteady voltage. The products of sea-air on ancient wiring.

The one, non-junker in the lot that wasn’t hers was a mid-80s Corvette; paint-peeling, tires bald, and in serious need of a rust enema. Above all, the Factory was robustly doused in the repulsiveness of humanity’s most-vile scum pits; a smell unlike any other but profoundly afflicting.

Fitting, Angela felt.

She sent Arthur home, checked the ‘73 Roadrunner for damage– untouched. A mercy for all involved. Especially those subject to Angela’s rising wrath. She wasn’t sure how, but given the area, it could only be a matter of time before something happened. The sooner she got Lucas out, the better.

She double-checked her Walther, headed for the visible emanations outside the doors.

Impossible as it seemed, The Factory’s interior was worse than its exterior. Grime was layered along industrial-adhesive floors. Their stickiness was held at bay only by the foreign-fluid coating reapplied nightly. Deliberately non-UV lights scattered about seemed to ooze never-ending auras of sludge over them in metaphysical glows.

The patrons were no better, if they could be called that. A few were more or less normal. Barflies that hung anywhere close to home. Though that fact made her wonder about what they called home.

The rest were divided into the aforementioned two groups; pimps and their wannabes auditioning in booths, and addicts nodding off or bouncing about near the pulpit that served as a stage floor; an altar to sleaze and smut with none of the hold-backs that civilized those ideals in the modern era.

The latest number on display was something Angela wouldn’t look twice at. Not from hyper-focus, rather fear. Some part of her animal lust might mix with empathy, make her pity people she’d otherwise let drown as mercy killings.

Her HUD located Lucas through the grime and poor lighting. Then, everyone else. Her presence was known the moment she’d entered. Most didn’t bother, but a few of the twisted shadow-creatures watched. Intensely.

She didn’t hesitate, aimed straight for Lucas at a booth. Its near-edge was hidden from view, its far-side clearly visible. In it was Lucas, soused to the gills. Just drunk or high too, Angela couldn’t care less. She stormed over, instantly fighting the urged to empty her Walther into the near-edge of the table…

And the shit-slicked grease-ball occupying it.

“Ah, the Elder Dale,” an oil-slick bubbled. “And here I thought it was just one surprise I’d receive tonight.”

Angela cocked a half-snarl into a crooked grimace “Should’ve expected this. You’ll latch onto anything with an IQ higher than its bra-size.”

Something in his eyes delighted in disgusting Angela. It was a sickly sort of pleasure that couldn’t help but seem right at home in the hell-hole of The Factory.

“You’d certainly know all about that, wouldn’t you? Latching on to large breasts?”

She did her best not to roll her eyes; even clever, he was a moron. “Lucas, let’s go.”

“No, no. Stay,” Wyatt insisted. “Sit. Catch up.”

Angela remained still, ready to strike.

The eyes of every shadow holding burned her skin atop the cancerous lights. Grease congealed into thin air in her lungs, formed of the melange of drugs, blood-lust, and impotent sex on the air. As if a bonding compound awaiting activation at collective mental will.

She ignored it all, looking directly at Lucas. To his inebriated mind, the mix of lighting and intoxicants sharpening her visage to a serpent’s. As if some fierce, mythical creature had come for him, ready to lunge swallow him whole, if need be. Either way, he was going with it.

He didn’t so much hear her instructions as sense them. As a bottom-feeder senses a disturbance along the seafloor. There was no room for refusal to follow, because following was survival, reaction. It was this or something so awful it was best never known, so get on with it and do the thing.

Before Lucas knew what was happening, she’d slapped a handful of cash on the table and was dragging him out. He let her, confused by the sudden shifting scenery. The cool air of the night sobered him enough to keep him moving under his own power.

Angela said nothing the whole ride home. For that, Lucas was glad, if only because it put off the inevitable lecture. Beyond that, Angela knew there was no point talking now; Lucas was too fucked up.

When she finally did say something, it was after an obvious hesitation in the kitchen. Many long, quiet, and cold minutes later.

“We aren’t done with this.”

She disappeared into her room, leaving Lucas to fend for himself.

Across town, Crystal was discussing the matter with Arthur via her comm-implant. She’d called requesting an update on security before going on watch. Arthur’s opinion remained unchanged. He relayed everything that had occurred, positing it was just the beginning.

Before long, Crystal was once more present, sitting beside Titus on the cot, thinking.

Lucas was an issue. A threat. He was a risk to everything all of them had built and achieved. Everyone knew it. Everyone had said so. They’d all been careful, respectful. Angela still wasn’t listening. Or at least, she wasn’t reacting.

Ultimately, the risk was still present.

Crystal sighed frustration. Titus saw her thoughts, “Don’t worry about the workings. All you need’s to be ready to help if the heat’s on.”

“Think it’ll get that bad?”

He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with his own thoughts, “All I’ll say’s from here, it looks like he’s bringing heat. Little by little, sure, but heat. If that’s true, it might only get worse.”

“You mean Wyatt’s just the beginning then. Who is he? Not another Caruso, right?”

“Nah,” Titus soothed. “But there’s blood.”

“Enough?”

He shrugged. “Angela’s smarter than jumping lines between Tooler and Fixer.” He shook his head, uncertain. “Problem is, if a fight’s gonna happen, has to be between fixers. Even Curie won’t vouch for Angela if she starts line-jumping.”

“I know the game,” Crystal reminded. “Play by the rules or end up like Caruso, or Saito, or anyone else outside.”

He nodded astutely. “Bottom line, Lucas is making Angela vulnerable. Someone might take advantage of that. Best hope’s to fix the problem before there’s a chance.”

“This isn’t the first vulnerability Angela’s let slip,” Crystal grumbled, feeling more like Arthur by the moment.

“Don’t be like that,” Titus casually warned. “She’s on the level. Always. Vulnerabilities are only a problem if you don’t guard ‘em right.”

Crystal’s brow furrowed for explanation.

“Put it this way; you don’t solo well. You’re best on team jobs. Nothing wrong with it, its just who and how you are. It’s why I offered this job. Thing is, if you’re aware of a weakness, you can be aware of it.

“Take a sentimental person like Angela, wearing emotions on the sleeve sometimes. It’s not a bad thing. Case in point, you. Sometimes though, certain people aren’t aware of it, so they end up showing that sentimentality to the wrong people by mistake. People that’ll exploit it.”

“You think Wyatt’ll find some way to insinuate himself between she and Lucas to get to her?”

“Or send someone else to,” he said. “I would.”

Crystal stared off, silent in thought. Something occurred to her. “And me?” She asked almost on impulse. “What’re my vulnerabilities?”

He took a long, deep moment to think about it, then eyed her carefully, “Thinking you’ve got something to prove and carrying it like a chip on your shoulder. Problem is, you might go outta’ your range of skills to do it. That’s when you’ll hit trouble.”

Crystal followed his meaning, “Like pulling a solo job when I’m not ready?”

He nodded, smiled. “Exactly.”

She caught his eye for a long silent moment. Then kept it over a chuckle. “You think I believe that?” His brow rose. “Of all the people you know; all the middlers, fixers, toolers, you think I’m supposed to believe I’m only here ‘cause I’m good in a team?”

He laughed, caught red-handed. “Guess not.”

She grinned smugly. “And your vulnerability’s thinking you’re smoother than you are.” She leaned over, kissed him. She drew back, “And underestimating me.”