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.

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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 3

3.

Thrown for a Loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it was jealously, envy.

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

And her brother…

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

More of the annoyances and things would only get worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her feelings would be made clear.

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

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

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

“Roommate?”

“More or less.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’ like ‘im.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result was a scrambled mess that disallowed ID.

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

“You don’t trust ‘im.”

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

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

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

Arthur’s throaty laugh prompted her to smile.

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

“Aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now Lucas had done it.

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

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

“About what?”

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

“Cryst–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

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

No. Today, it was loss.

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

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

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

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

Now she was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially not like this.

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

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

If she’d been given a chance…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story: Six-Leggers

She was running. Faster than she thought possible. She might’ve been small, agile-looking, but at heart, she wasn’t. At heart she was a lazy-ass couch-potato, something vaguely organic growing from one side after months of stagnation. Often enough, beneath her festered a lukewarm indentation from her time there. Now, it was aching, pain, exertion. Blitz was running like hell, and faster than any human had a right to.

She’d pissed off exactly the right people at exactly the right time in exactly the right way, so she started running. Problem was, something had gone wrong. They were running too. Faster than she’d anticipated. So fast, in fact, it was obvious they were no longer human. They’d never been human, she knew now, but whatever they were, she wasn’t about to stop to find out.

She threw herself down an alley, took it as fast as her gait allowed, power-slid across a puddle to face its open side. A fence half-way through inexplicably barred her way to the far-end of the alley, its freedom. She swore under her breath, hoping her boots fit the chain-link without a struggle. Even now the galloping six-legs charged her like the low rumble of a Maiden bass-line.

If hell was real, she decided, its minions were vacationing Earth-side.

She leapt at the fence, scrambled up it, caught her first bit of luck in the perfect fit of chain-link.

Blitz could smell them now, didn’t dare look back. They reeked of rotted sewage hinted with days-old corpse. She guessed the human suits they’d shed had hidden the smell too. Otherwise, she’d have stayed the hell away from them to begin with.

She clambered over, snagged her pants on rattling chain-link and leapt for the ground below. She landed with cool air on the small of her back. The fence had taken more than its share of her pants. She couldn’t care less about it, wouldn’t have missed a beat if suddenly ass-naked.

This was Dover’s fault. Stupid bitch. She should’ve never cooked up the scheme, never involved Blitz. Then again, Dover wasn’t busting ass down four-thirty-third street with the creds and six-legger demons. Blitz wondered if she’d ever go back to that shit hole now, but knew that was just anger talking. If she survived, she’d be back, and with Dover’s cut– less now, but her’s all the same.

It was really Yuki and Kris’ fault. Anger aside. They’d done the scam, bragged about it over beers. How the hell was Dover not supposed to try running her cousin’s scam? It wasn’t even really a scam, just a misdirection. It was only the fault of the stupid six leggers who’d put their money where their mouths supposedly were. How could they have expected not to get burned in a place they hardly knew?

Fact was if it hadn’t been Blitz– and Dover covertly– that burned them, it would’ve been someone else. They were wearing suits for fuck’s sake. No-one wore a suit this side of town unless looking to get taken for a ride or packing enough heat to fund a small army. Blitz decided, if she ever got to stop running from them, and wasn’t being eaten by them, she’d have to explain their obvious mistakes.

Then again, that also required facing them without screaming. Enlightenment wasn’t looking good for them.

She raced out into roaring traffic, completely unfazed by it. Headlights swerved and weaved on both sides of the street. Horns blared protests. She passed onto sidewalk, sprinting away from screeching tires. Something heavy thumped metal. Glass was crunched and crushed. One set of galloping legs clambered into a wrench of metal. Screams and horns said one was dead, the other still chasing her.

Even beneath the street noise she heard it, felt it; a rider from hell galloping in charge across a battlefield of blood and fire.

This couldn’t have just been about their money. There was no way. Between Blitz and Dover, they’d made a little over a G hustling through-out the night. Only a couple hundred of it was the hell-riders’ though. If only she could get away, get back to the bar, reach the range of Dover’s double barrel. She’d wanted to keep Dover out of it though, wanted to handle it herself. Do the job like a pro.Not possible now.

Dover ran the bets, upped the numbers, made the stakes look good against Blitz’s skills, and for a few hours, the dough and odds piled up. Then, when the time came, Blitz’s skills took over.

Kris and Yuki had run the scam at the Arcade in Jackstaff. Why couldn’t she and Dover run it at the Circuit Board in Seattle? Each of them do their part, form a whole, and make bank. Like pros. Not possible. Not now.

There was no way around it. Blitz was on E when she’d started. Short of giving back the couple hundred, she saw no way around making the wide bank back toward the C-B. Hoping she’d catch the last six-legger up in the panic of traffic, she sprinted back through it traffic; back toward the C-B and the way she’d come.

Galloping and screeching said the drivers and six-legger were prepared his time. She missed her chance to end things that way. No matter, she had a plan now. One she knew even Dover’d be prepped for, so long’s she knew ahead of time.

Panting for her life, pumping her legs, Blitz dialed her HUD-comm. Dover answered. She panted out a few words with spittle-laden exhaustion. “Comin’ back hot. Be ready!”

The comm cut. She angled back, around the block. The C-B was close, mid-way down. She’d have to play it right, else the six-legger’d grab her at the door, do fuck knows what. In fewer than rightful steps, she was there, half-fumbling the door grab.

Panic took over. Her center of gravity shifted. She was on her back, on the ground, eyes clenched shut in defense as something ranciddripped drool and breathed steam. She felt it reel back, ready to lunge. The air pulsed.

The legger exploded backward from a roaringblast. Screeches shredded the air. Blitz scrambled back. Buckshot tore through legs, severed them from the carapace.Dover’s double-barrel cracked open, ejected the pair of spent shells. Two more slipped in. The gun snapped shut. She let the beast have it again. First, with one barrel. Then, with the other.

It stilled into silence as she cracked open the barrel and reloaded again.

Blitz swallowed hard. “Th-Thanks.”

Dover offered her a hand. “Just protecting my investment.”

They stood, staring at the creature, wondering what the hell’d just happened. Dover decided she didn’t care to know, about-faced back for the bar. Blitz took a moment longer to watch the beast, shuddered at its reality, then hurried in after Dover, glad she was no longer on anything’s menu.

Into Her Darkness: Part 11 (Final)

11.

Into Her Darkness

The vent grate crashed to the floor. Crystal rolled out, across the hall. Shadows flitted beneath incandescent lights. A figure appeared down the hall. Crystal’s hands clacked a suppressed burst. Blood sprayed from the suited chest. A second form appeared. The fire shifted. Holes were chewed open across it. Crystal stance stayed low, her gun out. She crossed the threshold, arms jerked in and around. She slammed the corner of the door, TMP ejecting a round.

Her heart stuttered, her muscles engaged. She head-butted the man with a staggering blow. He stumbled back. Blood streamed along his front from a broken nose. His hands went for his gun. The quiet triplets of fire met shell casings that clattered along the floor. His body crumpled to the dirty tile with a thud.

Crystal was already rushing to a nearby computer. Her hands danced over keys to cycle various video feeds. Aging black and white monitors jumped with random views of the factory’s interior. It flipped to a wide angle of a room. A few men occupied its edge, its center filled by a figure tied to a chair. A man with his back to the camera stepped forward, beat a cross against the figure.

Crystal’s blood boiled. She fumed, keyed up her HUD map to pinpoint the camera, then sprayed the surveillance panels with ammunition. She rushed out, took identical corridors in sprints, machine pistol out. Cracked windows and filthy frosted-glass doors passed amid heavier steel ones. Corners led to a stairwell, up to its terminus and T-intersection that around a central room before meeting again in a complete square.

She juked left, boots echoing off the walls. A door opened mid-way up the hall for a man as oblivious to her as anyone could be. She clacked her last pair of rounds into him, released the empty magazine, and slapped in another. Someone stumbled to the door in alarm, was dead as soon as he appeared. Another fought for his gun near the hall’s edge. Terror gripped him, but the murderous creature they’d unleashed didn’t hesitate, didn’t think. Death was automatic, instant. Movement flitted, then ended. Muzzle flash and clack. No stride broken, the creature gone before the bodies hit.

The quickest path was opposite the second T-Junction, through it and over a catwalk above a chemical-mixing floor. Crystal reached the doors, threw herself against them. They rebounded, knocking her back and stealing the wind from her sails. She recovered with speed: chain was fitted around the doors, held in place by a simple pad-lock.

In a moment, she was picking the lock. Her fingers worked deftly. The padlock was no match. Not anymore. Weeks earlier, perhaps– but now, never. The chain slipped through itself, clattered to the floor beneath the lock. She rose to full-height, again, but tempered her pace. A fast tempo might thunder off the catwalk, echo through the mixing floor below. Angela was close. Too close for mistakes.

Crystal found she could sense Angela– as any student sensed their lingering master. This was different, she felt it. Angela was bleeding, bruised, emitting waves of pain from somewhere ahead to the left. A definite air of past and present violence mixed with ethereal despair, pain. If she’d been more attuned, Crystal would’ve sworn she’d sensed Angela’s life-blood draining onto floor and knuckles.

Crystal rolled through the opening of the next hallway, and stopped in a crouch, keeping herself low. She shouldered her way past dirt-clouded, cracked or missing glass panes and stopped beside one. A large, open room was visible through it: to one side, an old metal desk was pushed against a wall. Beside it and behind it, panels, screens, and various instruments were formed into the wall.

Arthur had been right. The room was large, clearly intended for worker-meetings, and with a commanding view of the factory’s particulars. Through a second series of glass panes ahead, was doubtless the control room that glowed, back-lighting Angela in the chair. Her face was bloody, bruised, no part of it untouched. Sweat and blood mingled to form streams that trickled down her brow and black eyes. One was swollen shut, purple and fat, plum-like above split lip and eyebrows where piercings were brutally torn free. Her platinum blonde too, was stained red, matted by blood and sweat.

Crystal’s mouth snarled in disgust. That one human could treat another human so barbarously only seemed possible from her sudden desire to repay the favor. Death was one thing; it could be quick, simple, painless. This was different. She wasn’t going to give Caruso the satisfaction of one breath more than necessary. She steeled herself against coursing adrenaline threatening to overwhelm her sense, and formed her attack.

Judging by her view and the silhouettes playing over the windows behind Angela, roughly six men were near enough to jump into combat. Adding to that Caruso, and any others that might hear a gunshot, direct confrontation wasn’t the best option. Then again, it might be the only option. Crystal could see no other way in, but trying to take too many people at once could just as easily kill Angela as waiting much longer to strike.

Crystal pulled away as a wet thud of bloody meat being pounded echoed beyond the glass. She winced, activated her comm. “Arthur, do you read me?”

He hit a button on the car’s dash. “Eh. What is it?”

She glanced through the window: Caruso reeled back for another punch, landed it across Angela’s face, left a gash behind. “I need a distraction. Something big. Now.”

Arthur started the Ferrari, tore ruts in the grass. “Give me sixty seconds.”

“Go,” she said, firing a stop-watch on her HUD.

Crystal leaned forward again, watching through the cracked pane with sharp, quiet breaths. Angela’s body bucked from another blow; it was involuntary, a displacement of force, nothing else. She was long too numb to feel it. Her head hung to one side, limp. Blood and saliva dripped from her mouth into her lap, wetting already-damp, stained jeans. Caruso sensed her lulling. Even Crystal could tell he’d been at it a while. He was just prolonging the inevitable now. He’d long since worked out his aggression, but he flexed his back and shoulders, suggesting he wasn’t done yet. He rubbed his knuckles clean with a cloth, and turned for the desk, sitting against it with one leg braced on the floor.

“You know,” he said, tossing aside the rag for a glass of scotch. “After you escaped that warehouse, I figured, “what the hell? Kid’s got some fight. She’s learned her lesson.” Guess I was wrong. Never met such a stubborn bitch in all my life.”

Angela’s head tilted, her tongue swollen, “You soun… dizzappoint’d.”

He chuckled over a sip of scotch. Crystal snarled: the sick bastard was actually laughing. Fury boiled in her, she felt her adrenaline peaking again.

“Disappointed?” Caruso laughed. “Fuck no! I admired it. Such resourcefulness. And you managed to drag that cunt’s body out with you. That’s just goddamned heroic right there. If she hadn’t been dead before I put the last bullet in her, they’d have written fucking ballads about it.”

“Julia…” Angela said distantly, delirious from pain, blood-loss.

“Yeah, Julia,” he said with a deluded reminiscence. He sipped his scotch with pleasure, “You know the first time, it was nothing personal. No. Just business.” He rose from the desk, tossed the rag down, and took slow, forward steps. “You know how it is. Can’t have anyone thinking you’re weak. If a couple people gotta’ get offed so no-one crosses you, so be it, right? If one manages to get free, well, no harm no foul, so long’s they get the message, keep their noses clean.”

Angela gazed up with an incredulous look. That he seemed to believe his lecture had a point was more deluded than his skewed interpretation of business ethics.

He leaned in, “Then, lo and behold, one of my pieces gets ripped off– and in my own town no less.” Crystal watched him eye the guards behind Angela. “And of course, who else operates outta this town that might pull such a job? Well, the one and only, of course.” One of his men snickered with mischievous arrogance.

“I … didn’t know,” Angela said weakly.

“Doesn’t matter,” Caruso replied, straightening. His fist balled up again. “Business is business. But you made this personal– between us— when you off my boy at the museum. Just be glad I left your friend alive. Maybe your corpse will be a better message than your life.” Crystal grit her teeth. He slugged Angela another time. “You’ve stolen from me, and I intend to take repayment.” He stepped away to the desk, wiped his hands again, then lifted a pistol from it.

“C’mon, Arthur,” Crystal hissed, readying to leap madly into the fray.

Caruso leveled the gun on Angela. Crystal’s heart stopped. He sneered, “Your death will repay the debt. For now.”

The hammer dropped on the pistol. A rumble in the distance accelerated to a full-blown explosion. Then another. And Another. Caruso lowered the gun, commanded his men to go. He stopped, ready to follow, and snarled at Angela, “Your friends won’t be getting off this time.” He snapped the hammer up with a malicious grin. “You’ll watching die first, then join them.”

Crystal ducked into cover on the cat-walk. Mobsters rushed out, into the hall, away with. Caruso landed another wet thud, then followed after them, gun stiff at his side. Crystal waited until he was around the corner, rushed into the office.

“Angela,” she whispered testing her bonds. “Angela, can you hear me?” She slipped a knife through the ropes, circled the chair in a crouch to look up at her swollen face. She lifted her face, “Angela?”

“Crystal?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me,” she said, sweat and filth and pain forcing her eyes to well-up. “Can you walk?” She shook her head, unable to do much more. Crystal slipped under her side, “We’ve gotta’ get out–”

The door burst open. Caruso and his men stood before them, guns raised. Crystal froze. Angela dangled limply off her left shoulder. The led to a raised TMP, its laser-sight hovering on Caruso’s heart.

“You stupid bitch!” Caruso shouted, thrusting his gun forward. “You could’ve lived. Now you’re going to die. And for what? This two-bit thief? This hack con-artist?”

Crystal’s eye twitched, “I don’t think so.” She mentally opened her comm-channel, let her words and aural emulators transmit to Arthur. “You know as well as I do, you shoot me, you die too.”

Caruso glared at the laser-dot on his chest, “Looks like we’re at a stalemate.”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed. “I disagree. From my perspective, you’re in check. You can’t kill me or Angela without dying yourself.”

“You can’t save her if you’re dead.”

“I wouldn’t have come here if I weren’t willing to die for her,” Crystal said, stalling for time. She glanced at his goons, “Those men are all you have left, Caruso. Walk away now. Keep them and your life. Otherwise, you’ll die here tonight.”

“Bullshit!” Caruso barked.

“Don’t believe me?” Crystal asked, aim firm. “Check the security-room. No back up left to call, and the equipment’s shot. You’re cut off.” He growled. “So the question is, do you want to die over a two-bit thief?”

His face twitched, teeth ground in his jaw. He kept his raised. “If I ever see you again. I will kill you both.”

Crystal kept her aim tight. Caruso did the same. She began to angle around the chair, his gun followed her. The laser-dot kept its place. The next moment was flashes, sounds– a slide-show of carnage. The air cracked with supersonic blasts. An un-suppressed pistol downed two of Caruso’s men. He turned his head, mid-step. Crystal threw herself to the floor atop Angela. The TMP loosed a prolonged burst, sprayed Caruso’s blood through the air. Two more cracks dropped the last of Caruso’s men before they could retaliate.

Caruso hit the floor. His gun landed out of reach. Time found its pace. Crystal panicked, felt Angela for holes. Then herself. She found none. Arthur limp-sprinted in, pistol sweeping the bodies for anyone still alive. Caruso’s body bucked, shook, his lungs full of blood. He choked for his dying breaths. Arthur’s gun turned.

“Julia sends her regards,” Arthur’s gun cracked twice more. He strode over. “You alright?”

Crystal helped him lift Angela. They each took a shoulder, carried her along. She hesitated to look down at Caruso, then spit a wad of blood at his chest.

“Sadistic Prick.”

Arthur started forward again, “Come. Let’s plug those holes before you ruin the upholstery.”

Angela managed a small laugh, more of relief then anything. They carried her from the factory, sat her upright in Crystal’s lap. She cradled her until she passed out from utter exhaustion. Arthur let her sleep. Crystal did too; and wouldn’t have disturbed her for the world.

***

All told, Crystal’d passed her tests. She’d guessed as much. Angela was waiting until they’d returned from the jewelry store job, but given everything, it was forgotten. Still, her choice remained to stay or go. With Angela’s injuries so extensive, Crystal planned on sticking around long enough for Angela to return to fighting shape. Only then could it feel fair to make such a decision. Questions still bubbled up here and there, but nothing that couldn’t wait.

Crystal was shocked then, to enter her room after her daily work-out and find Angela sitting on her bed. Her arm was still in a sling, and more than a few butterfly bandages and stitches held her face together, but the bruises had begun to yellow, and her wounds to heal– even her swollen eye had re-opened. It was obvious she was headed for a full recovery.

Angela stood at Crystal’s entry, steadied herself with her undamaged arm. Crystal stopped short, “Angela? What’re you doing up? You should be resting.”

“I needed to move. Being stuck in a bed’s not my style.” She smiled weakly, hoping to soften the slight tension in the air. Crystal mirrored it, but Angela’s mouth twitched and her smile wavered. “Crystal, I’m… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth. I didn’t think Caruso was…” She trailed off. It felt too much like an excuse to go any further. “I’m just sorry, okay?”

Crystal nodded, “I told you before. I understand.”

She shook her head, “I saw myself in you, Crystal. When I found you in that diner, I saw someone whose life hit bottom without their control. Like mine.” She breathed, easier than she expected. “I was born in Seattle, just before the web 2.0 crash. My name is Angela Dale. I’m 30 this year. I have a brother and a sister, two parents, and haven’t seen any of them since I was a teenager. Julia, she… I was angry at the world. I hated living. I hated myself. Julia changed that. I thought, maybe if I could repay the debt, do for you what she did, I might find solace. Some peace. Over her death. But what I did… It was wrong to involve you like I have.”

Crystal squinted, “So… do you want me to leave?”

For the first time, Angela looked vulnerable, almost frightened by the thought. “No. That’s the opposite of what I want. I want you to stay. Even if you don’t work with me. I just… I need someone– a friend. Arthur is– well, he’s not enough sometimes. I-if you still wanna’ leave, I understand, b-but I wanted you to know how I felt. Where I stand. And all I want to know otherwise, is where we stand.”

Crystal’s face was blank. She’d trained so hard and with such singular purpose, she wasn’t sure how to feel about this new choice. She’d never been more certain of wanting to stay, but after Caruso, what she’d done, it felt almost wrong to– as if some line were crossed and she’d turned from would-be thief into murderer. She’d killed to get to Angela, killed to save her— killed for more than to survive.

But was that a choice? Angela was all Crystal had. Like family now. Angela was standing before her, saying the same thing. Were her actions really so depraved? Or was it just the nature of their lives, the dangers it presented? She wasn’t sure, but ultimately, leaving felt more wrong than anything thus far.

She cleared her throat, “Angela, I’ll stay, but I won’t waste what you’ve taught me.”

Angela’s eyes welled up, her voice barely a whisper, “Thank you.”

Crystal stepped over, “Thank you. For everything.” She hugged her gently, careful of her injuries. “Let’s get some food into you.” Angela managed a sniffling laugh.

Long ago now, it felt, Crystal had plunged into a darkness knowing nothing but hope for something– anything, better. There she’d found Angela. And as the darkness deepened around them, they found it evermore depthless, evermore eternal. Yet now she and Angela stood side-by-side, beyond it, wielding a torch of hope never to be extinguished.

Into Her Darkness: Part 10

10.

Improvisation

Something wet slid across Crystal’s face. Her eyes snapped open on blinding light. Arthur was leaned over her, easing her back with a hand. The other dabbed a wet cloth against a tender area near her temple. It came away bloody. Her room took shape around her, and she sat up in bed.

Arthur hissed, “Easy. You took a helluva hard hit.”

She sat up, head-splitting migraine with her. She powered through it, “Where’s Angela?”

“Gone. Found you unconscious outside the weight room.”

She pushed herself up, swayed. Arthur steadied her. “We need to find her. Now.

“We will. But you shouldn’t be up. You have a concussion. Not exactly fighting shape.”

She waved him off, “Caruso has Angela. He’ll kill her.”

He squinted a wily eye at her, “You sure it was his people?”

She nodded, began sweeping the room with her eyes for anything useful, “They hit us on the road. They must’ve followed us back. Found out where we–” She cut herself off. “Jesus, Jonas!”

She raced from the room, grabbed a random key, and rushed into the garage. Arthur strode after her. She hit the key-mote and a black Ferrari California winked across the garage. She rushed over, slid in, and double-checked her gear. Arthur sat inside. The turbo-charged engine came to life, rising in a growl before falling back to a purr. She dropped it into gear, tires chirping, and raced to the surface. At ground level, the Ferrari howled a V8 war-cry and rocketed for the pawn-shop.

Sunrise wasn’t far off. Whatever Caruso had planned would have begun long ago. He was likely to make it last as long as he could, prolonging her suffering to make the most of the “example” he aimed to set. At least, Crystal hoped that would be the case. Counting on the man’s depravity to torture her friend as long as possible made her sick– though, she preferred it to Angela’s death. The bizarre, mental gymnastics taking place to accept her reality were becoming more ludicrous by the day.

The Ferrari came to screeching halt outside the pawnshop. Crystal rushed in, car still running. The place was a tossed cell in a jail-house: she was forced to wade through damaged and piled merchandise for the office. She stopped short just inside. Arthur entered, saw her face fall into blank emptiness away. He worked his bum-leg over the obstacles toward her and into the office.

They stood amid a brutal scene, the main-room’s damage evidently done on the way out. Jonas had been surprised: blood was splattered across a computer monitor and keyboard. Bone fragments and scattered gray matter had painted the immediate area of carbon invoices, print-outs, and ledgers. In their center, Jonas splayed, face against his keyboard entrance wound in the back of his skull.

“Holy mother of God,”Arthur said.

Crystal’s drew taught at one side, “It’s how they knew where to find us.”

“Now what? Any idea where they might be?” Arthur asked, a paternal aggression to his tongue.

“No. But Titus may know.”

“How d’you intend to contact him?”

Crystal replied with action; she eased Jonas back in his chair. His head lolled back, revealing the exit wound. Pulverized bone had congealed in a mass of fleshy, brown gore and hair. Identification was nearly impossible, but she knew it was Jonas. She suppressed a gag, smearing blood across his keyboard to seek out a video-messaging program. She fought sickness to find and dial Curie.

The tone rang. A woman’s voice answered, would-be image replaced by a black screen, “Who are you? Why are you calling from Jonas’ line?”

Crystal choked on her breaths, “Madame Curie? I’m Crystal, Angela’s partner.”

“Yeah? Who gives a rat’s ass? Why’re you calling me? Where’s Jonas?”

“Dead,” she said bluntly. “Angela’s gone. Alfonzo Caruso raided us and took her. I need to know where she is.”

Curie’s voice hardened, “You fucking with me?”

“Never,” Crystal bit back. “I want my partner back.”

“Prove you’re not lying.”

She yanked the camera from the monitor, angled it at Jonas’ body. A silent pause passed, as if Curie were gasping but too professional to let it be heard, before Crystal replaced the camera.

“Now you believe me?”

Curie was stiffer now. “Titus will meet you in twenty minutes outside Harbor View motel. Waste no time. Go.”

The line went dead and Crystal turned away. “We need to move.”

The Ferrari idled long enough for Arthur to climb in, then burned rubber toward Harbor View Motel. Titus’ quick response told her Curie had long been planning offensives against Caruso. No doubt there was professional rivalry between them, but losing Julia had likely made Curie thirsty for vengeance. Losing Angela to him too was unacceptable. Personally, Crystal just wanted Angela back alive.

The Ferrari shed a trail of rubber along half a city block. Tires squealed in a corner, before the turbo-charger’s whine dominated the night. They whipped around corners, barreled along straights, and caught air on micro-shifts in terrain. For Crystal nothing existed but pavement and the motel. It wasn’t far; a place on one of the long-abandoned boardwalks as rundown, discolored, and ravaged as the rest of the harbor.

The whole area was something from a post-apocalyptic vid. Knurled steel, rotted wood, boarded or shattered windows; all it needed was nuclear winter to complete the image. If the street lights hadn’t been shut down years ago to save taxpayer money, even they’d have flickered from neglect. Instead, the place was pitch-black, dead-quiet. It was almost vulgar, vile, any manner of things lurking within it.

Crystal didn’t care. She was too focused on the large parking-lot, and the only other car in it. She zoomed toward it. Twenty-minutes had been liberal for Curie’s runner. His coupe waited patiently, as if it’d been there hours but neither days nor seconds mattered to it.

She rolled to a stop near it, “Stay here.”

She climbed out for Titus’ open window. The interior panels and electronics lit his face from beneath with hard shadows. Despite being as suave as ever, they tinted him with a hint more violence than before. As she approached, he handed over a file-folder that Crystal immediately opened.

“He’s got an old factory ‘cross town,” Titus said without hesitation. “Gotta’ few other places ‘round town, but this is isolated. He’ll need the space to keep her from being heard. She’ll be there.”

Crystal flipped through the folder, “Good. Thank you.”

Titus stopped her before she could turn, “Crystal. This guy’s gotta’ screw loose. And his men– well, there’s gonna’ be an army between you and her.”

“I know.”

Titus nodded approvingly, “Then you know the stakes. Get her back.”

Crystal whirled for the Ferrari. The engine revved, purred. The stream-lined body whipped, tires screaming. Crystal and Arthur left billowing smoke and headed for the far side of town. Arthur sifted the file-folder, find satellite maps, and directed her through the fastest route. The car whined and roared, never stopping nor slowing. It weaved through traffic, left sane speeds in the dust, and did its best maxed out along the straight-aways.

Crystal’s fear tried bubbling up; she might easily die like this. Her senses wrestled the fear away– Angela would die if she didn’t get there fast enough. Her grip tightened, knuckles white. Her boot dropped, squeezing every ounce of speed it could from the screaming, turbo-charged V8.

“There,” Arthur said, pointing left.

The skyline opened along yet another coastal harbor area. This one was different, as abandoned as the last– or so it appeared– but the water was black, pitch formed of an unyielding primordial ooze. A long-disused industrial shore of pipes, gravel, cement, and sand pits rolled inward from the water’s edge. The factory itself was dark, a conglomerate of man-sized pipes, smoke stacks, and angled steel patchwork from a bygone, industrial era.

Crystal killed the head-lights, gliding forward as a wailing specter. She passed derelict guard-houses and limp chain-link, moving from asphalt to gravel. It crunched and rattled in the Ferrari’s wheel-wells, spit out again by thick tires that raced toward rowed, ramshackle trailers. Their size and placement suggested they’d once been foreman’s offices, meeting places, but were now little more than the rusted skeletons and marred sheet-metal.

The factory was no different. Aside from ever-blinking red and white aircraft warning lights, nothing signaled the place was known to exist. But somewhere nearby, Crystal knew, were Caruso’s vehicles. Wherever that was, she couldn’t risk getting too close. The element of surprise– and the fear of Angela being suddenly executed– was all that kept her from driving straight through the front doors.

She kept her head level, half-circled the factory, berth wide, engine quiet. Near a rear-entrance and loading bay she found the mobsters’ cars. The collection of luxury sedans said more than she cared to hear as she maneuvered to the factory’s left. A large patch of overgrown grass appeared beside more, rusted-out trailers spanning the factory’s shorter side.

The Ferrari came to a rest between two trailers and its engine cut off. She took the file-folder and dug out the factory’s blueprint, studied it in her HUD’s night-vision. She memorized the layout, rendering it on her HUD with a mental command. Arthur leaned over, squinting to study the map in the darkness.

He pointed to a central area, “Here. Foreman’s office. It’s big. Enough for staff meetings.”

“You’re sure?” He nodded. “What about security?”

He pointed to a corner near the rear-entrance “Check-point. Same place workers would’ve checked in. If anything’s still live, it’ll be the surveillance gear running from there.”

Crystal handed the folder back, drew her Baby Deagle, and checked the magazine. She slapped the mag back in place and repeated the check on her TMPs. She tested the lasers and suppressors, then re-holstered them and climbed out. Her long, leather coat trailed behind her, buttoned mid-way up.

Arthur ready to follow her, “You can’t go in alone.”

She stopped short, “You’ll only slow me down. I need you as my back-up.” He eyed her skeptically. “No bullshit. If I get into trouble, drive straight through the building and get us out. You can’t back me up trying to play hero.” He gave her a look meant to accost, but she snapped, “Save it, Angela needs us.” He grumbled, returned to the driver’s side.

Crystal started for an entry-point on the factory’s near-side, stormed over to it. The man-sized ventilation duct, accessible a foot or so off the ground, was roughly halfway along the building. She rubber-neked the grounds between her and it, pulled her mini pry-bar from a pocket. She breathed, popped a corner of the rusted grate loose.

She froze, listening. Heart raced. Fifteen seconds was an eternity. Her free-hand hovered near a TMP. Her aural monitors at full-gain. Only after was she certain she hadn’t been heard. Another moment of prying before she was in and replacing the vent-cover.

The darkness inside forced her night-vision to further dial up its contrast. Dirt and dusted covered aluminum ducts appeared, outlined, beneath her. Small clouds formed from her ingress, her knees and hands leaving clean trails in her wake. Her hands were soot-black in moments. She moved carefully, a Decibel meter on her HUD beneath the small map to ensure she remained quiet. The mobile pip at the map’s center turned where she turned, drifting ethereally over otherwise fixed blue-prints as she progressed through the vent.

The stink of dead bodies and decades-old sickness from various chemicals, powdered and otherwise, forced her to breathe through her mouth. She suddenly understood why a mobster wanted an old chemical plant, and why he might bring an enemy to it. The epiphany quickened her pace. Her pulse doubled its time. There was no telling how long she had. Caruso’s desire to take his time might’ve been wishful thinking. Angela could already be dead.

Crystal couldn’t allow the thought further purchase. She followed the ducts to a central point; a long intersection both above and below that stretched into darkness and beyond. If her map wasn’t betraying her, she should’ve been directly above the factory’s main control room. She needed to leave the vents, get her bearings, otherwise she’d be lost just long enough for everything to go to hell.

Deft hands and careful planning forced her across the chasm of intersecting ducts. A ledge of bent, thick aluminum gave enough purchase to pull across. Midway through, her legs slipped, slammed the vent loud. Her Db meter spiked red. The sound echoed through the vents– and likely the entire factory. She swore under her breath, stomach rising to her throat, suffocating, while she pulled herself into the vent.

She started forward again: they’d know someone was in. If they didn’t, it was a miracle and maybe things wouldn’t go so cock-eyed. She wasn’t holding her breath– although given the shit she was kicking up, she probably should’ve been. Her body powered through, mind working on how best to locate and retrieve Angela. Improvisation was the only way. It’d served her well thus far. Angela had taught her well. Crystal sensed a cruel iron in this as her true final test– what might ensure her debt was repaid now or never could be.

The vents split at a T. She headed left, hoping to find the security room. The duct angled downward. Her HUDmap shifted levels, descending as if with stairs. Before long, she was crouched at another grate. Slatted steel looked on a dark hallway interrupted by sparse, dust-caked incandescent bulbs. This was it, she knew. Just beyond here was security. Beyond that, a mile of maze-like corridors. Somewhere in the middle of it all was Angela.

She drew a TMP, flicked the safety off, and threw herself against the grate.