Hard Lessons

1.

Business is Business.

The lights of the main dining room flicked off in tandem. The low radiance of the remaining sconces bathed the restaurant in the upscale aura that often separated wealthy from even-wealthier by way of the room’s central, blinding strength and shadowy perimeters.

The restaurant told of Triad affiliation in its carefully selected, hand-woven colors meant to eternally bloom in light, never faded no matter the blood spilt over them. In that way, it said this was Triad territory; these shadows Triad-shadows from which they watch, embrace, and if need be, hide a corpse.

The décor complimented the message with a disciplined elegance. Highly polished Tang-dynasty shields were spaced between Middle-Chinese script-borders, sections of frosted glass of beaded dragon-reliefs, lotus flowers, and filigree. Any museum could’ve inundated the owner with offers, but even those just there for soup knew there was no point in asking.

The very thought of such flagrant wealth and power had always made Zhou Xun laugh. Even before he’d murdered Li Guo Hsu, his men, taken charge of the business. Hsu amassed stories were always amusing, from a time of youthful, aristocratic forays.

In his earlier days, one man had offered Five K for the Jian at his side; a paltry sum for the restaurateur even then. More-so given the sword was passed between Man Zi Tong Enforcers for over a century, once belonged to a royal guard of the Qin Dynasty.

Needless to say, it was worth millions if a dollar.

In Li Guo’s hands, as with the Enforcers before him, it had spilled its share of blood. Xun had watched the Jian cut down more than a few traitors and failed attackers himself. None had imparted the satisfaction of its final thrust through Li Guo’s heart by Xun’s hand. He found it a fitting end for the cutthroat, all-business man Li Guo had once been.

He was hardly that then. Hsu had softened, had grown fat on American decadence, the excreted dollars of their highest class. Despite his relative attachments to his former mentor, Xun saw an opportunity and took it. Hsu should have known, prepared.

He didn’t. His instincts were eroded by a time and lifestyle that felt them unnecessary; him, untouchable. Xun proved otherwise.

But that was the way the game was played. Few Man Zi Tong met peaceful ends. Those that did, were extraordinary. Hsu was not one. Presently, his Jian rested in a lighted case behind the register. It sat just high enough to broadcast a message across the entire restaurant; Li Guo was gone, wasn’t coming back.

No-one knew that more than his son Jun, rightful heir to his father’s business and teetering on the brink of war with Xun, his men. The Man Zi Tong was in the usual chaos of regime change, still too near to reeling to have fully settled. The only hope Jun had without his father’s resources was fronting the money to make a statement.

It just so happened a Golden Triangle trafficker liked the idea of Xun’s death, and fronted the cash. After that, all Jun needed was the statement. Jun took the cash knowing he’d pay off the trafficker or die, one way or the other. Business was business, after all.

Currently, his statement crouched at the edge of the restaurant’s roof, eyeing the door below. Crystal Kane and Angela Dale were another student-mentor pair whose bond involved significantly less interpersonal knife-play– at least where their own partnership was concerned.

The door opened below, forcing them into the shadows. Dress shoes and silks the cost of an average salary preceded Chinese tobacco wafting on Jackstaff’s autumn winds. Low Chinese broke at a pair of heels that clicked up and into place beneath them. The soft rustle and click of a fashionable clutch’s latch prompted them to peer at the newly-assembled group.

Crystal’s digital-HUD implant flashed real-time Chinese-English translations.

– won’t shake the hornet’s nest,” one man said.

“Don’t be so sure,” another replied.

The woman allowed one man to light her smoke. “If Jun is to have his revenge, he will have it. She loosed a ball of smoke that plumed up, past her face. “There will be nothing to stop him. We must accept that. What happens afterward is our concern.

The group broke for a pair of high-end sports cars nearby. Their exit alone confirmed their association with the Man Zi Tong, but their words erased any doubts as to their place in the organization. They were near the top, cavorting with would-be kings.

Crystal recalled once fearing these kinds of people. Then, she recalled fearing nothing for a long time. Since then, she had only feared any whom mightthrow her back in the street. That number grew smaller with each day. The Triad offshoot of Sun Yee On expanding throughout Jackstaff the last few months was hardly intimidating. They were tourists in her town, and so long’s she did her job, her game protected her.

Binnacle Sound was the new Puget Sound. Both a thriving port city, and a dead harbor filled (not entirely metaphorically) with corrupt officials. It was more difficult to know whom not to pay off these days.

For an organization like the Man Zi Tong, it was paradise. A new gold rush in a new Santa Fe. The most important thing, as usual, was carving out as much of the resource as possible and gaining power through it.

In Jackstaff, the greatest resource available was shadows. The city was a new port for the Golden Triangle’s drug trade, shipped straight across the Pacific to North America. The rest of the West coast had gotten wise, cut into the profits. To the Triads, it was too much.

It wasn’t a surprise Man Zi Tong had a presence in Jackstaff. No-one expected much of the place after the closure of the city’s main chemical and fishing industries. (The two more linked than the city admitted.) Most people in the once-thriving seaside town struggled to find ends, let alone make them meet. Unemployment was beyond a problem. It was an epidemic.

For those with far more than they could ever need but unwilling to share, coercion and loss were mainstays. Most others had nothing to lose anyhow.

Crystal had felt the latter first-hand most of the last decade. She’d lived on the graces of fools biting off more than they could chew and throwing the rest out. She’d lived on the streets, out of trash-cans, wishing to die but never willing to.

Then, Angela appeared, living high in fast cars, fashion, and offering every dream she might dream. In exchange, Crystal agreed to be her partner. What that entailed, among other things, was waiting for the group to enter their sports cars atop the restaurant’s roof.

Glossy curves reflected exterior neongrids and filigreed ornamentation in passing; gaudy dècor were its execution not so exquisitely refined. The first car disappeared into the night in a sonorous cry of high-performance cylinders. The other remained in place, forcing Angela to huff frustration.

The clock was ticking. The job needed to be done. The longer they waited, the shorter night became and the less time they’d have if things went sideways. Crystal shared her anxiety, but was calm for the sake of balance.

It was their way; one worried, the other foiled. That duality kept them ready for anything.

Crystal focused on the second car, the man and woman there. Darkness beyond the building was too complete for even her HUD to compensate. The couple were mere silhouettes in darkness where only a glowing, cherried-clove marked their continued presence. Silhouettes began shifting. The cherry was steady at the passenger-window. A rhythmic stir began

It took Crystal a full minute to comprehended the movements, their repetition.

She rolled her eyes at Angela, “Really? Let’s just do this.”

Angela shook her head, the woman’s upper-half bobbing but her hand stock-still, hanging on the window so her cigarette didn’t tip. “Light’s too direct. Move now and they’ll see us.”

Crystal sighed, resolved to silence.

They watched the act, as equally removed from its sexuality as intrigued by its utter apathy. A rigid business-like quality commanded the scene. Crystal guessed neither man nor woman had much romantic feeling.

Gangers were like that, Crystal had learned; no real emotions outside fury. Everything else was a formality; sex, joy, hunger, excretion. It didn’t matter what. So long as there was a need, a requirement, it would be met. No matter how awkward it seemed from the outside.

Crystal couldn’t imagine such creatures being born. It seemed too personal.

In a way, their client was the inverse. It may have been Crystal’s reading alone, but Angela would recognize it at some point too. Hsu had contracted Curie, and thus them, for what a sentimental heist. The money was right for a Triad, but the cause of the job itself was odd. Neither of them knew what to make of it.

Hsuhad admittedpartial sentimentality to Curie, possibly for the sake of camaraderie rather than conveyance of feeling, then offered half upfront to keep that quiet. Angela and Crystal shut up after that. Cautionary acts meant taking care not to make more enemies than healready would.

Angela all but confirmed the subtext later, along with another:Hsu didn’t expect more than he was willing to pay for.

In other words, if caught, giving him up in exchange for their lives was perfectly acceptable. Angela mused this might serve his purpose as well as taking the Jian in the first place, or it wouldn’t matter as they’d be dead. Triads were like that; as likely to send a message as to let you go on good behavior. Their unpredictability was their real threat.

Crystal watched the business-fellatio, knowing all her years of street living had never quite served up a scene so emotionless. Even the eldest, cheapest whores she’d known put some life into it. This was like watching a reanimated corpse try to swallow a hot dog anchored to a car-seat.

It ended as indifferently as it had carried on; with a movement and the distant sound of spit. The cherry flared again and the engine roared. The car pulled away, leaving Angela and Crystal to work, however utterly flabbergasted by what they’d seen.

They double-checked the area, then felined their way beneath the back-door light. Inside would be cameras, security guards, night time dealers running numbers and playing cards in the basement meat-lockers. Their best chance was bypassing the cams, cutting the alarms, and finessing the Jian from the case.

They were inside in moments. Crystal slipped her lock-picks into her belt while her HUD ID’d cameras, superimposed their vision cones across the building. Angela’s HUD did likewise. The room became a mix of faded cones, dotted paths between various blind-spots.

Far ahead, the Jian gleamed in its case, freshly oiled and set upon red velvet and satin like a shining beacon. Obviously Xun had never thought anyone ballsy enough to steal it.

That was one of the problems with such creatures; he thought only of the way he himself would think, act. He was incapable of considering the minds of those unlike him. More than that, Xun likely never considered Toolers couldn’t be touched for stealing from Triads. Especially not when on contract with other Triads.

Then again, Xun wasn’t a Triad. Not really. He thought himself one. In reality, it was Jun Hsu that was. Son of a former Enforcer and allowed to operate as Man Zi Tong by the graces of Hong Kong’s Sun Yee On. Hsu was given a choice of successor. His son was the logical and groomed choice.

Of course, Hong Kong would always back a winner, but Xun couldn’t make a case if he wasn’t given time to earn anything.

But Xun didn’t understand that. He also didn’t understand security wasn’t just a feeling. It was an art. One he was not well-versed in. Li Guo had been. In the way that all powerful men were; people feared violating their security, so they didn’t.

No one feared Xun though. Not like they had Li Guo.

Most of all, Angela and Crystal didn’t fear anything beyond the job. That was the game, how it was played. During jobs, all bets were off. Toolers were the ones going suffering most immediately for those fuck-ups. Before or after, it was the Fixers, Middlers, or Johns.

Mostly, if someone wanted revenge, it was the Johns that got hit. Can’t shoot the messenger, or no-one’s bringing you messages anymore.

They reached the case. Angela set to work. Crystal fought open a security panel on the wall. She clipped a pair of leads to hot and cold wires, linked them to a small tablet. With a few swipes of her fingers the lights flickered, went out. Through-out the building heavy locks slammed shut.

A sudden clamor sent them reeling. Shouts preceded flash-lights flaring beneath automatic rifles and SMGs. Chinese and English were shouted in equal measure, both commanding them to freeze. A dozen different barrels trained and closed in, forcing them nearer one another.

“Intel was off,” Crystal whispered over shouting Chinese.

“Spilt milk.”

The Chinese went silent. A pair of men parted, allowing another through. He sidled up to the register, pistol in-hand.

“Mr. Hsu’s representatives, I presume.”

Xun stepped forward; a Chinese-American more white than most of his men. Late fifties, and dressed in the silks of crooked businessmen, his left hand was framed by a tailored cuff and leveled on Angela. It ended in the fingered trigger and loaded barrel of a chrome .45.

Crystal muttered, “Well?

“Improvise.”

Xun surveyed the suppressed TMPs harnessed on Crystal’s chest, the baby-Deagle at her side, and the gear strung along Angela’s body.

“Going to war?” Xun joked.

His men chuckled. He glanced aside. Angela struck.

A spinning kick forced the .45 through the air, morphed it into a body-throw. Crystal triggered a smoke grenade that instantly filled the room. Gunfire blatantly refused to erupt, Xun’s men too afraid of hitting him as he slammed back onto the Jian’s case, shattering it.

A moment later he was on the floor, Crystal and Angela ghost trains fleeing through smoke and out the back-door. It slammed, latched and locked again. A breath later a motorcycle zoomed up, unmanned. Angela was atop it first. Crystal adjusted the Jian on her back, climbed on behind her.

They took off, rocketing away in a scream of BMW horsepower.

Before the door opened again, they were gone, lost before they could be tracked, and a hundred G’s wealthier.

2.

To This, We Drink

Dropping off the merchandise meant a night out. One of the rare times where meeting a Middler in public was as much for safety as payment. Titus wanted full deniability, witnesses. Curie agreed. Everyone in the Fox-Hound knew the game. Even Triads weren’t bold enough to cause such a public scene over one job.

Especially not at a shadow-hangout loaded with patrons armed to the teeth.

Add to that the general public in full-swing on cooler nights and there was no chance of anything popping off. No-one wanted that publicity. Summer was gone. Everyone left behind was getting their last nights of debauchery in before hibernating through the winter’s rains and snow

Pacific-Coast imagery notwithstanding, West Coast ideas fell short of Jackstaff’s latitude. Too northern to be tits and ass all year, too Southern to be Canadian wilderness. An urban no-man’s land, however paradoxical it seemed.

But that was part of its appeal. Despite grotesque helpings of poverty and homelessness, Jackstaff was always growing. The wealthy were always moving in. With them, came clientele. Best of all, Marks. There’d been no better time to be a thief since the days of the open-air bazaars.

Provided one was good enough, smart enough– smart about it– they could take everything not nailed down. No-one would be any the wiser ’til they were long returned to obscurity.

Presently, that obscurity was a bar on Jackstaff’s outskirts. The Fox-Hound was one of those places of juxtapositions managing to define itself with negative space, what it was not. The once-kempt exterior, its wood and mulch-colored scenery had faded until satirized it as “rustic.” The inside’s poorly-aged woods and half-rusted brass gleamed beneath lost polish of a decade’s to-do lists.

Yet more-selective patrons, clad in the finest silks and leathers, mingled freely with the denim and cotton marking even the drunken bar-hoppers. Always those types stumbled in before falling out again, oblivious to their mistake and gouged wallets.

Between extremities of both life and style were the interlopers. Few as they were, people like that didn’t need to fit in. Neither fixer nor civilian, tooler but not tooler, too smart to need to front for contacts nor oblivious drunks. They were people playing a different game just so happening to interact with others’ and using the same board and rules. One was pleasure, the other business.

Crystal followed Angela in; clad in tight, riding leathers that would’ve diverted all eyes toward them were they not so utterly average for the place. They’d come on separate bikes, but in pro-gear, handguns more defensive than fashionable like the other patrons’. They didn’t need to be pretty. They needed to be functional.

Crystal’s shoulder-length cut softened the announcement of Angela’s swept-back blue-mohawk to the crowd, allowing them to enter as if another pair of lean-muscled predators in a room filled with ’em. Undoubtedly, anyone looking closer saw the apex predators for what they were.

They entered the bar from the rear, as custom for regulars. The bar itself hid its parking lot from the main street. With it were hidden the high-end cars and bikes of the regulars and occasioners. Driving home the rustic veneer kept the place place discrete. Besides, everything was a shit hole now, why’d it matter if you went to a different one to drink? To Fox-Hound’s credit, it worked….

For the most part.

Angela readjusted the Jian on her back, concealed in a vinyl covert tube. Crystal unzipped her leather-jacket. Gold flashed above a chocolate hand, prompting them toward a back-booth. The man attached to it pivoted in his purple cashmere and khaki slacks to shake a hand before him. A small, gold-chain glinted beneath his collar, disappeared as the second man stepped between it and Crystal.

The man passed, once more revealing Titus. He smiled toward her, teeth and eyes glinting like the Five-carat Asscher-cut in his left lobe. Angela allowed Crystal into the booth first, unslung the tube, then set it in the center of the table beside a fresh pilsner.

“Angela,” he said with a practiced, silken tongue.

“Titus.”

She unzipped her jacket, revealing hints of color beneath her high neck-line. Her figure was vaguely outlined in curved hips, small breasts. Were she not so intimidating to strangers she’d have had her choice of fling. Were she straight or bisexual, she’d have been even more sought after than Crystal.

Titus cracked the blueprint tube and peered in. The sheathed Jian glinted in low-light. He tamped the lid back on, propped it in a corner of the booth. He slid a USB key from beneath a pile of miscellanea.

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

Titus had never lied. He wouldn’t start now.

He motioned a waitress over with a finger, the swiftness said he’d palmed her a G or more to serve him for the night. Angela ordered a scotch-rocks. Crystal a Mojito before the mint was gone for the season. Small-talk subsided into the fatigued silence of old friends before Titus broached a subtext he’d reserved for now.

He eyed Crystal. “Curie’s got an assignment. For me. I’ll need you along.”

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

Angela intoned, “I assume she has something else for me.”

He nodded to both of them, order a pint. A bygone instruction told her to slide an envelope from her apron onto the table. She whirled back toward the shadows near the bar. He offered Angela the envelope.

She took it without looking. Inside would be an SD-card, encrypted with the specific key Curie’d recently delivered via courier. Only after combining the two would she receive full details. Such contracts were only ever issued if the involved parties were expecting a knock-off– or attempts anyhow.

That alone told of risk. Knowledge of her profession said the key’s use meant the Mark or John was well-connected, powerful. Were it not for her own professionalism, she might’ve been immediately curious of the job’s details.

Fortunately, she’d long ago learned the knock-off was irrelevant. Planning for improv meant being prepared if things went wrong.

She pocketed the envelope and excused herself for the bar, knowing Titus needed Crystal alone. She pushed through the bodies outside the occupied stools, leaned to order and drain a pint.

Titus intentionally relaxed, obvious in the slight discomfort in the movement. He wasn’t the type to overplay a hand. It was clear he needed to appear as nonchalant as possible, meaning there was already more to what he was about to say.

“I need help. Angie’s busy. Next job’s too big for me alone.”

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

He sipped his pint. “No. I trust you. Curie doesn’t trust you alone yet, but I trust you with me. Nothing personal, Cee. You’re good at what you do, but your strength’s teamwork. Angie’s more than capable alone. Besides, mine’s a two-man gig. Her isn’t. Pays good too.”

Crystal chuckled at the in-joke; all jobs paid well when you’d lived on the street a decade.

She sipped her mojito, both agreeing and scorned by the Fixer’s assessment. It wasn’t from malice, rather assessment. If it were, Titus wouldn’t have pinged her for the job.

She focused on that, hoping to play to her strengths, and spoke levelly, “Wasn’t aware you were a fielder anymore.”

“Usually not,” he admitted, setting his pint down with a half-twist. He straightened slightly, “Used to be. Not for a while now. But an old acquaintance owes me.”

Her brow cocked slightly. No-one owed anyone in this game. If they did, they paid with their lives or were being collected on. But Titus was far from a collector, and so far as Crystal knew, no-one had outstanding debts. In a game as small as theirs, she’d have heard a whisper at least.

She recalled the last “acquaintance” she’d met. Angela’s had kidnapped and tortured her nearly to death. She’d only been saved by the skin of Crystal’s teeth and Arthur’s impeccable timing.

Titus read her thoughts. “Nothing sinister, Cee. Just a job need’s doing. But there’s a time issue. Stake out. Couple days or so. Interested?”

“May I ask what’s the Madame’s interest is in your old friend?”

He grinned, “The Madame feels any strength of mine is strength of hers. She also feels this is best handled as professionally as possible.”

Crystal considered it. That Curie felt her strengths weren’t in solo work wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A surgeon didn’t use a mallet to open a vein– ‘least not a good one. Curie was being tactical, precise, allowing Titus the job while Angela worked solo in the meantime.

It took a moment for her to realize the offer itself was a compliment, an honor even.

Titus wasn’t a fielder anymore, but he was incapable of incompetence. He’d never stand for it either. Curie knew that. Knew, undoubtedly, Titus would ping her for the job, allowed him to.

The opportunity was too good. Prove she could do jobs with others. Prove her worth and training. She glanced over at Angela, engaged by a tall, gaunt, man at the bar. Crystal recalled the last time she’d chosen such an opportunity.

Her eyes flitted back, gaze returned to Titus, “Alright, I’m in.”

His half-smile gleamed, “Get the details to you tomorrow.”

He waved the waitress back, a folded stack of hundreds in his hand, then slid it to her as he stood. He whispered something as she pocketed the cash and she turned away. He grabbed up Curie’s merchandise with a last smile and parting, then disappeared through the crowded bar.

Crystal nursed her mojito watching Angela converse with the man. It was quiet, awkward, hinting intimacy despite the distance between its speakers. For a moment Crystal thought him an old lover, but even in her youth Angela only sought women. Crystal’s gut churned.

She slug back the remnants of her drink to mosey within ear-shot.

“I don’t know,” Angela said with an uncharacteristic uncertainty. “… Not the best idea.”

“Angie. It’s not a big deal,” the man said, curiously ambivalent. “I’ve never even seen your place. Probably living with a couple roommates anyhow. Wouldn’t want to bother you.”

Crystal ordered another drink and listened carefully. His casual use of a nickname reserved for only those closest confirmed intimacy, but something beyond distrust coursed through Crystal. It took a moment to understand why. Angela huffed with something akin to being shaken, and it doubled itself into recognition.

“… Outside in an hour. There’s no reason not to. I’ll give you a lift.”

He smiled a predatory smile and Crystal suddenly sourced the doubt; Angela’s confidence was gone.

No creature capable of stealing confidence from Angela was to be taken lightly. Crystal caught only an edge, but was on-guard. Some mysterious person wanted to know where Angela lived. It made her uncomfortable.

In the time Crystal’d known Angela, few things had shaken her. That rather small list now had another addition.

The predatory smile disappeared with a hug, “I missed ya’, Angie. Meet you outside. Go. Mingle.”

Angela said nothing, shaken to one well-versed in her silences. The man moved away through the crowd and disappeared into the crowd.

Crystal finally butted-in, her own predator’s instincts riled, “Friend?”

Angela returned to reality slowly. “No… My brother.”

3.

Thrown for a Loop

Lucas Dale was late 20’s, built like a party-addict. His gaunt cheeks and sunken, vein-colored under-eyes caught somewhere between deep-purple and black. His day-old clothes reeked of booze and cheap, powdered laundry soap. Hints of lime tinged the air around him, warding off the other stenches as if through the graces of its only, decrepit water-source.

Crystal guessed an old, cheap laundromat. More than likely a front for a middling-triad’s wife as condolence for her otherwise pointless existence. There were a few places she knew around town that fit the bill. If she knew anything, wherever Lucas had gone through to get there was significantly worse. That cheap washer was probably the first was in a week. Maybe it’s only one that week.

More than anything else, he reeked of trouble. It emanated from him in auric waves. There was little doubt as to their authenticity. He was clearly the type to burn you just as look at you. For a thief, that was the last type of person you wanted around.

But he was Angela’s brother.

That fact alone put Crystal at-odds with her instincts. Angela was many things, but cold was not one. She tried to be, at times even succeeded, but ultimately her feelings were there, buried as circumstances forced them to be. If history had taught anything it was her ability to compartmentalize until the whole damned cabinet collapsed atop her. Whether that collapse was internal or otherwise, time was the only true variable.

That final reality gave Crystal pause, metaphorically speaking.

Literally, she was zooming through Jackstaff on her S1000RR in an attempt to 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 weight of the ceramic 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. Anyone else in the world could have driven Crystal’s bike it if they bypassed her biometrics, but no-one could have ridden it.

She leaned across four, empty lanes and onto the I-5 on-ramp for Arlington before hitting the 531 a few miles down-range. Afterward, she’d take the 9 back toward 2 via the 204 then meet I-5 again. Most people might make 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 few things the country’d gotten right in its history– 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 of the time, it was utterly abandoned, but always one of the few circuits where Crystal could relax, allow herself to be soothed by speed and gravity, reflex and focus.

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

At that, he most certainly had. There was no denying it. What little she’d heard of the conversation confirmed as much. Classic emotional manipulation. Simple con. Reverse psychology the mark into doing what you tell them not to. The same type of con any junked out addict might use to pull the wool over family eyes.

Perhaps she was getting ahead of herself though. Perhaps part of her animosity was simply spurned by being usurped as the person closest Angela. One could never compete with family, she knew, but Crystal was doubly effected by virtue of her own, familial ties– and lack there of. So perhaps, really, it was jealously, envy. It still felt off though.

She down-shifted three gears to make the first turn off I-5 and onto the 531. In a burst of angry hornets, the bike raced back back up and into fifth gear, burning along the woods between there and the HW9 intersection a kim or so ahead. In minutes she’d be heading south, back toward Jackstaff and Angela.

And her brother…

She sighed, an alert on her HUD flashed as she roared toward an autocab. The things were becoming more and more common. More and more annoying. She weaved around it in the darkness, burst past with thrusting speed and settled back into place ahead of it. She didn’t need to see the automated, cockpit-less car to know the passenger inside was busy indulging its solitude. Auto cabs were the markings of large metros nearby, the places like Jackstaff that had sprung up all through-out the world.

America’s West coast however claimed to have the most. The numbers agreed, too, and Crystal hated it. She figured it a point of pride to embrace automation in an area controlled by rich, silicon-valley types and their offspring. Angela agreed, often referring to them as Jonas’– pluralized hipster copy-cats of their former, tech-head fence. Future or not, no automation could replicate the satisfaction or self-sufficiency of carrying one’s own ass several hundred kims an hour between points A and B.

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

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’s plates. It was easier to take a ticket, let it go on the ID in question. It made it look more real too, and otherwise, there was never anything linking them to reality outside the plates themselves.

But building identities cost more than speeding tickets. It didn’t matter that Crystal’d only run the cops to test the bike’s capabilities if it was ever needed. It may’ve been a half-truth on her part, but truth nonetheless. Angela was still pissed. It was unnecessary heat. Crystal wasn’t about to argue. Since then, she’d relied on her HUD to keep update her on nearby rollers.

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’s place, 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 into its matching garage. She zoomed toward the front of the garage, past Angela’s collection of classic and modern cars, and tip-toed the bike back into place. It settled on its kickstand, ticking from heat. She pulled off her helmet and hung it over the throttle. A turn of key and phrase put bike in lock-down. Its biometrics re-engaged as she headed for the apartment.

Just inside she found Angela standing across the island counter from her brother. Both had drinks in front of them, Lucas’ on his third from the empty bottles nearby. As she entered, their eyes went to her. She deliberately ignored Lucas, nodded at Angela, and passed through for her room in the corridor beyond.

Lucas watched Crystal go, “Roommate?”

Angela shrugged. “More or less.”

“More?” He asked, slugging back a drink. “You banging?”

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

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

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

That was, precisely, Crystal’s intention. At least, until Lucas drank himself to sleep, which she had no doubts he’d do. In the mean time, Crystal showered, redressed in flannel pants and a tank top. She stepped from the grandiose guest bathroom– hers– and was immediately met with Arthur’s wood-shingle face.

“I don’ like ‘im,” he said immediately, no doubts to his meaning.

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

She stepped into her large room, filled with all the knick-knacks and gear she considered necessities for work or living. She tossed dirty clothing in a hamper in a corner of the room. Arthur lingered in the doorway, awaiting further explanation as if it were needed.

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

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

“That you know nothing’s our business until it’s made our business.”

He huffed, knowing she was right. She threaded rings through her ears and lip and brows– things that couldn’t be worn during jobs without risking giving definition to her facial structure. With all the face-recog and surveillance in the modern world, that often extended to meeting contacts and exchanging merchandise and payment.

Hair colors and styles could be changed, but the less revealed about a face’s structure, the better. That was the entire purpose behind the anti-ID face-paint they wore on jobs. The ultra-gray, metal-flaked paint scrambled facial recog-software by causing pinpointing errors, making it impossible to discern facial features from shadow. The result was a scrambled mess that disallowed any ID.

That thought alone made Crystal cringe at the face of 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 either.”

Crystal kept her eyes forward, on a mirror reflecting the various piercings she filled in her face and ears, “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 him to smile.

Crystal continued, “But we can’t get between them. Not now. Not on a hunch. We just 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.

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 were usually reserved for visitors or other guests. As far as Crystal knew, neither one had been ever been occupied. The beds were brand new, never use, but Arthur faithfully washed and 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. There was the brief utterance of low voices before the door shut and Angela’s steps echoed on the hardwood floors toward Crystal’s door.

Angela hesitated outside, saw it was open, then knocked. Crystal beckoned her in but she merely remained at the open door looking in.

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

Crystal didn’t like it. No-one was supposed to be able 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 one Crystal never hoped to see again, and promised to herself to ensure she wouldn’t have.

Now Lucas had done it too.

“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, “Look, 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, and he suddenly manages to find you out of nowhere. Now he’s staying in your house. Something’s off.

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

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

Angela nodded distantly, “I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

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 walked off, eyes locked forward and mind clearly consumed by something deeper than she wished to admit existed. Crystal shut the door and sat down at her laptop to run through a few, last minute things before sleeping. Most of all, she updated and double-checked its encryption protocols before sinking against her desk chair.

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

4.

Details, Baby. Details.

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

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

If she lived at all.

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

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

“That’s our stake.”

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

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

In a way, they were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hidden,” Crystal said absently.

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

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

“Storage?” Crystal mused.

“Near as I can tell.”

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

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

“Done your homework,” Crystal said.

Titus let out a laugh.

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

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

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

“Same designer.”

“Friend of yours.”

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

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

Cracking a biometric was a job in itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still in?”

“Still worth it?”

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

“Then, details, baby. Details.”

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

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

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

She tossed back juice, waiting.

“You like ‘im?”

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

“Wouldn’t think so.”

She raised a brow, “You know ‘im?”

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

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

She smiled, “And our contingency?”

“Depends on our partnership.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But did it go beyond that?

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

Back home, it did just that.

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

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

“Where is she?”

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

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

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

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

“Told Angie you liked cunt.”

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

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

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

5.

Getting Sentimental?

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

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

Usually anyhow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hesitated, rationalizing, “And?”

“He’s not to be underestimated.”

“You have more than a hunch.”

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

“He’s a drifter burning credit.”

“His or an aliases, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, Lucas.

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

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

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

“What else?”

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

“Underground.” He nodded.

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

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

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

“Think someone’s after him– us?

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

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

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

“You think he’ll try ripping us off.”

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

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

“Garage.”

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

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

She wasn’t holding her breath.

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

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

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

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

But this wasn’t a job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Getting sentimental?”

He grunted evasively, hobbled out.

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

“How long’s Titus need you?”

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

“Job’s a go as planned.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why bring it up?”

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

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

“How would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela assented with a nod.

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

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

At least someone wasn’t too sentimental yet.

6.

Stake out, Take out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always need an exit.”

“Uh-huh, Can’t be too careful.”

“No, but you can overbuy on C4.”

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

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

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

“Depends how you live.”

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

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

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

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

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

Too tense though, and you were equally shit.

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

Everyone needed each other, somehow.

Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was obvious to anyone looking inward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like you.”

“Mmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still a grudge,” Crystal argued.

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

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

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

Titus laughed, “Look good to me.”

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

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

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

She replied with a short, “Mm.”

He half-joked, “Guess I’ll owe you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Too finely.

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

Drinks came and went.

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

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

“C’mon. I’ll drive.”

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

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

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

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

“Keys.”

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

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

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

7.

Let it be Known

Titus’ hand pressed Crystal’s shoulder, lingering just long enough to impart its impressions. She was already awake, hiding it out of curiosity to see how he might waking her. The cot at the rear of their room certainly wasn’t winning contests for comfort, but sleep was precious, no matter the job.

And it was better than the stinking, half-rotted floor beneath. Even through hint of occasional grass, tobacco, rations, and tech, the rot-stink pervaded. It was always there, beneath the surface.

Crystal’d rose to find a to a reserve of it in her sinuses, sat up, cringing and blinking hard.

Titus gestured at the table, “You’re up, Cee.” His eyes were bloodshot from fatigue and fresh smoke.

She yawned again, checked her HUD time, “Extra hour?.”

“I was re-calibrating the drones anyway. Supposed to rain.”

Her HUD winked. Weather forecasts appeared at a thought. She saw his meaning; a massive storm system, blowing in off the Pacific. The last, fading gasps of summer-water upheaval. They’d have another hour or so before the hit, then days of wet, soggy cold.

“Think he’ll use it?” Crystal asked. Titus nodded.

I would too.

Crystal stood to stretch, then took her place at the computers. The screens’ contrast were dialed up via cams, compensating for pitch-black night. 3 AM Jackstaff before a storm always had an eerie stillness. Were life a horror movie, it would’ve been the moment before a monster struck his first victim.

Eeriness always existed in that peculiar setting. The effect of a line being tip-toed up to until then. One pervading despite remote cameras, walls between. The usual shudder along Crystal’s spine confirmed it, but few whom knew the streets as she did would have denied it.

Titus’ voice ripped her back to reality. “Gonna’ change out the batteries before I sleep.”

“I can,” Crystal offered, suspecting an ulterior motive.

“Nah, it’ll help me relax after staring at the screens. Meditative. You know?”

She smiled; he was lying. Poorly. Both of them knew it.

She settled in her chair, “You say so…”

He disappeared for a few minutes. Distant sounds of climbing preempted drones and wind. Crystal cycled the various camera feeds until bucking tumble of Titus’ face appeared. He tucked something into a pocket, then disappeared into the darkened warehouse beneath it.

Crystal shook her head, inexplicably amused by the poker face he’d poised himself on. She brought up another pair of feeds from the front and rear of her bike in a nearby alley. The tiny, pinhole views doubled on a minute corner of her HUD.

She typed to kill the few minutes she’d need. She wouldn’t bother primping. Too suspicious and off-putting, like she knew something. She wasn’t supposed to know anything. Then again, she might not were she not so good.

She highlighted a section of code to actively edit it. The feeds shifted, re-saturating and changing brightness and contrast values to better illuminate the night. Titus’ pseudo-nightvision program taken to a next, logical level in the off-hours or when killing time.

Titus set the drones on a folding table, “Still haven’t found anyone to replace Jonas?”

“No-one I trust. Wouldn’t have trusted Jonas eventually either. You want someone else rooting around in your skull?”

He caught her drift. “Yeah. He was a skunk– a slippery ball of filth. And the best fence around.” He didn’t need to say; Curie’s still trying to trace everything we lost.

She did say, “and his data’s gone, I know.”

Deadman switch on his bio-mons, hooked into his networks via HUD hacks, too. If he’d been killed one foot out the door, or seen it coming, the servers would’ve gone into lock down. Accessible, but safe. Instead, nothing. He and Curie had designed the fail-safes that way. With Titus’ help.

All the same, Titus could only shrug. He set the drone on the cot to work a screw-driver at its belly. “Never said anything about baby Dale.”

Crystal hesitated, caught off-guard. “He’s an asshole. One more of ‘em. What’s to say?”

“Most assholes aren’t sharing a house with you,” Titus reminded.

She saw where he was headed, suddenly wondered if he did. All the same, she replied in earnest fashion, “True, but it’s not my business, Titus. Angela’s my sister, my mentor. She knows I’m here if she needs me. I can do nothing else ’til the situation outgrows her.”

He focused on the drones, working the screw-driver across one side, depositing the screws on a mag-mat. “Don’t have much family, do you, Cee?”

“Deep-personal now?” She asked, brow rising.

“It’s relevant,” he admitted tacitly.

“No. Why?”

Titus cleared his throat, exchanging one battery for another before speaking with experience, “Only one thing’s stronger than sibling love; Sibling rivalry.”

“I don’t follow,” she said, attuned.

“Think’a the person you’d sacrifice yourself for before allowing to die.”

She muttered, “Angela.”

He set one drone aside for the other. “Now, imagine she’s part of you. Like one-use detachable gear. One for life. Or nothing.”

“Now, if I told you she wasn’t worth feeling that way over. Knowing her importance, what she’s done for you. Multiply by the strength of blood. Then you’ve got an idea how powerful the bond is.”

Crystal’s shoulders slumped as a deep sigh escaped. She wished he wasn’t, but Titus was right. No matter the bond she shared with Angela, Lucas’ would always be stronger. There wasn’t any way around it.

Until now, she’d been doted upon by a sibling she’d never had. One that knew just how bad “Mom and Dad” could be. Angela’d rescued her from hell, and brought her into a world of luxury she still wasn’t sure how to cope with. Part of her was jealous. Sure.

The rest was frightened.

Lucas was bad news. Everyone saw it. Everyone too, saw Angela’s vulnerability in him; her blindness. The last vulnerability Angela had shown nearly killed her. More than that, Crystal had to admit her own vulnerability was Angela herself.

Titus was right, too, though; Crystal didn’t have family. Angela and Arthur were the closest thing in her mind. They were logical, rational, always there when chips were down. Otherwise, they weren’t. That was the trade-off.

Or so some would have believed. Ultimately though, what Titus was forcing her to accept was that she could treat them as family, but that there were limits to Angela and Arthurs’ loyalties, however extreme.

She trusted Angela, loved her because she’d offered her a second chance. Never judged her for taking it Even for needing it. She loved her for what she’d given to the poor, homeless girl she pulled off the street. Her first act on meeting had been benevolence. That was the Angela she knew and loved. That was why she trusted her.

But whatever version of her Lucas knew, couldn’t be that. No-one could look at her and do to them what Lucas could. No-one could see her benevolence, gorge themselves on it as if the true purpose for its existence.

At least, no-one worth seeing it in the first place.

Crystal was catapulted through memories of her own life before Angela’s offer, her training.

The utter disbelief her first night on the street. Sleeping in her own backyard, being chased from her gated community by security the next morning. That first night beyond; true street-living. All the years succeeding it. The scrounged meals. Dead-rats. Stale bread. Rotten potatoes chunked into potluck soups. Showers beneath leaky roofs during cold rain. Shivering beside trash-can fires. Bleeding into napkins.

Before she knew what was happening, Titus was crouched beside her.

“Crystal?”

She snapped back to reality; the catapult landed her right back in her seat. Her cheeks were wet. She was completely shocked by their seemingly sudden appearance. She breathed deep to regain her wits.

“You alright?” Titus asked gently, sensing what had happened. The pain was too deep to be otherwise.

She hesitated; she’d expected something scornful. A slight hint of reprimand for her unprofessional shift. She received none. Rather, he was comforting, understanding. His eased her whitened grip from the chair’s arm.

She blinked out tears, trembling from the sudden hold and release of fugue-state. “Yeah. Fine. Sorry.”

Titus was unconvinced, “Cee, if–“

“What? No. I–” She cut herself off at a sniffle, recomposed herself. “I’m not sure where that came from. Honest.”

“You were frozen. Tranced out.” She agreed, discretely curious of his thoughts on the matter. He provided without prompt to soothe her. “Happens with a lot of street-kids. I got lucky. Angela did too. We didn’t come from the street.”

He corrected himself, “Not like you did, anyhow. It’s like PTSD. Repressed trauma causing intense internal seizure, like a panic attack. But too sudden in appearance and short in length. It hits hard but doesn’t linger.”

She nodded knowingly, suddenly aware of his hand on hers. As if feeling cued to, he pulled away to stand and clear his throat. Neither the time nor place. She agreed, for now.

“If it’s personal. That’s cool. But like with Angela, you gotta’ know I’m here.”

Her cheek twitched in a pained half-smile as she met his gaze, “I’ll… keep that in mind.”

Angela emerged from her room finding Lucas manning Fort Couchlandia with Jack Daniels at the watchtower. Net vids streamed on the TV, droning a fatiguing boredom to Match its viewers’. She checked her HUD, spying it as a little after Seven AM.

Two hours from now, she’d be meeting one of Curie’s contacts, receiving the last details for her job later in the evening. Until then, she’d have to prep a plausible excuse for keeping Lucas occupied.

She shuffled past, “Why’re you up so early?”

“Don’t sleep much,” he said distantly.

“I see that.”

She readied a pot of coffee, sensing Arthur’s lingering presence nearby. She sensed he wasn’t willing to interrupt– or wait on Lucas. She ignored it until she had a cup of coffee in hand, was sinking onto the couch near her brother. He flipped vid streams with remote-macros.

A weather-cap revealed the storm system currently releasing hell on them. It was moving slowly inland, brewed in a last, desperate attempted gasp of fury in summer’s wake. She checked external cam feeds on her HUD, saw it was already raining, heavily.

“Shit’ll last all weekend,” Lucas grumbled.

“Gotta’ date?”

He half snarled, clearly irritated by something other than her, “Nah.”

She stared dully at the television, sipping her coffee. It was a few minutes before her brain worked up the wherewithal to relay her usual cover story for the night. She got up to make another cup of coffee, then sat back beside Lucas.

“I have a work meeting later, then a dinner thing. You okay here by yourself?”

He eyed her sarcastically, “I’m a big boy, Angie, I can handle a few hours alone.”

She rolled her eyes, “You know what I mean.”
“I’ll be fine. Maybe a little bored.”

She saw where he was headed, glanced back at the keyboard where their keys hung. The Chevelle keys were missing. Only one explanation; Arthur took them. She flushed, hiding irritation and embarrassment behind her coffee cup. She gave the blood in her face a moment to subside then spoke loud enough for the old coot beyond the door to hear.

“I’ll leave a set of keys and some cash for you. Go out. Enjoy yourself a bit.”

He was careful to remain aloof, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

She stood from the couch, and headed away, stomaching a difficult reality; convincing Lucas to stay out of her way was easier than she’d expected.

Too easy.

He’d never asked what she’d done for a living. However well-off she clearly was. Yet, the lack of interest, itself, was suspicious. It left her uneasy. She resolved to let it play out. For now.

8.

All Work and No Play

Angela joined the madness of upper-class mallers’ sport and luxury sedans. A pair hid Angela’s black, Ferrari California GT behind their imitations of wealth and power. She preferred the juxtaposition; the Human inability to grasp irony meant none would be any the wiser either.

She preferred it that way. For a thief, hiding in plain-sight meant you were good– and safe.

Usually.

Presently, she awaited her mark’s armored SUV. Curie’s contact had finalized the details; his afternoon and evening this side of the week was a usual affair. Every Friday night he had her, Deangelo Harman took his young daughter shopping. It was partly to fulfill the custody arrangement with his ex-wife; partly just to avoid his daughter’s vapid ego.

Harman’s dossier reeked of money. The kind from an intellect that didn’t extend to human pursuits. No doubt he’d been the desperate loner that headed A/V and chess clubs, ran them like mafia families and Arthurian round-tables.

Angela couldn’t really blame the guy. Intellectual money usually made one stupid all elsewhere. Mostly, because it was impossible to escape the isolation of intelligence. That strange dichotomy of life– the cosmic balance that needs-must-always be maintained, decided it before Deangelo Harman every entered the equation.

In essence, he was smart, wealthy, and a complete fool. Especially with women. It was forgivable. Especially since it would make Angela’s job infinitely easier.

She checked herself a final time; reviewing the play.

Harman’s firm had contracted with Arc Systems, the largest software manufacture on Earth The writ demanded NDA-tight upgrades for network-controlled drones. Classified beyond even governments. It was private and profitable.

Though hardly true AI, Harman’s firm was to use its learning principles, applied to swarm theory, to design and code networks of drones for patrol and delivery flights across Jackstaff. Having already made his name design security software as a teen, Harman was contracted as talent. His firm’s inclusion was more incidental than anything.

Nonetheless, if successful, the project would launch its next phase, expanding to other cities and areas near Arc’s various HQs and areas of control. Evidently, Harman’s software would make that happen sooner or later. Someone would prefer it didn’t.

In theory, a simple job; lift an SD card from the mark.

But Harman rarely left home; had a closed, barely existent social life; and other than these occasional trips with Sadiee, was unopen to the bump and grab necessary to pick-pocket him once, let alone twice as needed by the job’s secrecy.

A home job was equally unlikely. She’d seen the prints. His house was a fortress; physical and digital security mining and moating it with various levels of layers and pit-falls. Enough to put to shame even some of the more paranoid-thieves Angela knew.

In fact, she’d knocked off state-of-the-art systems with less tech.

To say nothing of the security escorts one expected of the wealthy and lonesome.

Raiding Harman’s fortress was a contingency, but for now, she’d lean on her feminine wiles. Hopefully passing for straight enough to get the job done. It’d been a while since she’d run the approach, but knew it was solid. Given the payout, it was also more than worth the attempt. If she managed it, the effort would pay off.

If not, improvise as always.

The armored SUV swung wide a few spaces from the Ferrari. To any passersby, they were just two more of the multitudes feeding consumerism. Modern super-malls were the sort of place Titans and kids went to melt plastic. Usually, enough to feed starving third-world nations.

Angela had done it herself enough times to know it well.

Security left first. Plain-clothes and blending well enough that Angela was impressed. She’d never have expected them to pull off such convincing cover. She saw right through it, but few others could. Her HUD auto-tracked them with opaque pips.

Harman slipped from the SUV. Sadiee took his hand and climbed down.

No more than thirteen, Sadiee already walked with the refined stiff-neck one unwilling to deign look at the withered masses she trod upon. Something primal in Angela flared. The girl was a brat. Spoiled rotten. She’d never work a day in her life. Never known the value of sweat on her brow.

She was new-age, prime meat; the next generation of ignorance that ensured thieving would continue to be lucrative well through the coming millennia.

More than that, Harman seemed proud of it; a moron in love with his own daughter’s domineering personality. Angela sensed she walked all over him. Probably, just as his ex-wife did.

And knew then exactly how to play it then.

Harman’s cronies were already inside as he escorted his miniature princess forward. Her walk said one thing, “I am here to spend money; his.

It never ceased to amaze Angela how many young women and men wore that pose. Adults donning it were even more bewildering. Mommy and Daddy-money kids were an epidemic in Jackstaff and other such cities. Then again, they had been for generations, that’s what made her work so lucrative.

People with money to burn required only the illusion of security; alarm systems, door locks, pass-codes and the like. Things to keep so-called refuse out. That was all that necessary to let them sleep at night, no matter how easy they were to bypass for someone skilled and trying to.

But People like Harman, whom needed security and built themselves fortresses and surrounded themselves with armed posse, knew true security. Not just disincentives and deterrents. Rather, the protection of valuables whilst letting moving about freely otherwise.

Thing was, the posse and fortress lulled Harman-types into the same complacency as all others.

In effect, it wasn’t just illusion that let them rest soundly, but it equally blinded them to true vulnerabilities. The kind Angela could exploit without lifting a finger.

She checked herself in the rear-view, straightened her brunette wig. She double-checked her tattoos, made sure none them shone through the bimbo-librarian-turned-huntress fashion appearance so common to wealthy prowlers.

She slipped from the car, black-leather heels like a dominatrix, if shorter. The door came in confident, measured steps. The kind a woman in such heels would use; disciplined, frightening, inviting. Above them, her slit dress wavered, revealing just enough of her shapely legs to confirm she was stunning.

Angela hated it. As cats hate hunting in floodlight. Part of her was panicking, searching for darkness to slink away into. The rest was calm, professional.

The .380 PPK/S strapped to her inner thigh helped. She’d half considered leaving it, but decided it would keep her from allowing anyone close enough. She’d breach Harman’s home-fortress before stooping that low.

She sauntered into the mall, settling into her role like an undercover agent for some acronym agency, but infinitely more experienced and nuanced. She owned every moment. Every step. Prepared to buy and sell it, eschewing market values as convenience charges.

She was the wealthy mogul looking for someone to make her as much money as eye-candy.

It wasn’t difficult to find him. She made a point of shopping first; indulging the cover, blending to absorb the mentality of the endless, excessive consumerism she’d decided a rich woman needed. Nothing she bought was useful. None of it her style. Rather, the Mogul’s.

Expensive perfumes. Jewels. High-fashion shoes. All of it demanded by the ego assertive woman she was playing. She’d keep it all too, in case it was needed for a future job or something otherwise. It wasn’t hard to make her move once she tracked him down again.

In the meandering way of a shopper, she passed from place to place before entering the department store she knew she’d find him in. Her eye flitted to capture the place as the security pips reappeared, scattering themselves across her HUD once more.

Clustered about the “young women’s” were Harman’s escorts. Hidden in plain-clothes and all appropriate, but distinctly male, and standout. Especially to the Mogul, the perceptive predator. Between she and her Mark, a whole store and a daughter with plastic to burn.

Angela took her time. Too obvious to go straight there. Besides, that required a different mindset. One open to failure. She wasn’t doing this again.

She perused high-end jewelry. Shoes. Slowly but surely weaving over. That cat was at the mouth of a meadowed plateau, Harman the prey at its edge.

She planned her move, Harman’s men pipped for reference. She needed to avoid them. Expertly. Not so much it was obvious. Not so little to get lose the edge. She had to think of them as the Mogul would; curious men hanging around, not threats to be avoided. Only once Harman revealed himself could she think of them as anything resembling security.

If her approach was off, the wind would shift without her.

Angela prepared, taking time to evaluate the air. The place was off. Not professionally, but socially. It put Harman and his ilk slightly out of place. Her more-so.

But nothing else existed save she, her mark, and their environment.

The last of the three stirred her gut. A department store like any other, but designer prices on brand-name labels. Old money didn’t work that way. Their every item was tailored. Locally or richly-imported through other old money, their family.

This was exactly the kind of place a Noveau Riche type like Harman would shop, because it was built for him. So the Old money could distinguish the New from rest but without being forced to share their traditions and ways.

In the end, they were two different animals. Harman the latter.

Like every new money tech-geek, Harman knew money like a fangirl knew their favorite pop-star. He could emulate it, romanticize it, lust ravenously for it, but ultimately it wasn’t him or his world. Not at his present social-level, anyhow.

Worse, he’d grown up middle class, left it behind in his late teens to found Harman Technologies. He knew the worth of sweat. After contracting with Arc-Systems, it was rumored HT was considering a merger with Med-Tek giant Cameron Mobility. The idea was to become part of its new software-wing; a role once filled by Arc alone but now demanding further utilization.

Initially, Harman Technologies had created network security software for local banks and other, high-profit establishments. After contracting through connections in banking and finance, Harman found himself in right place after right time, and increasingly filthy rich.

Now, he and his company mostly wrote upgrade software, patching vulnerabilities in the code of billion dollar bionic-prosthetics. AKA Augs. He sat beside literal Titans at the economic dining table. Not least of which, the Womack brothers; peers and personal friends of Harman whom were swiftly overtaking even Jobs’ wildest wet-dreams.

However much the black-markets modded– and thus finished them– it was these groups that had initially created the HUD implants being adopted by shadow-dwellers like Angela. The black market latched onto the idea, and before corporations or governments could wade through their own bloated bureaucracy, they were was already supplying it to the masses– for a nominal fee.

Fact was, all it took to make an implant was the right software in the right interface. Both of which had long since existed but required sophisticated implementation. After that was stream-lined there would be no stopping it.

In the case of Jonas, their former fence, it was a type of modified optimetrical device for needled eye treatments. Curious device, dangerous to the unskilled, but nothing prohibited. It simply wasn’t available to the general public due to cost.

But a legit-fence like Jonas could afford it on credit. More than that, any opportunist could make bank offering under-the-table services with it for cash cheaper than any “official” fee for a general waiver of consent– unspokenly agreed to before any meeting occurred.

All they’d ever needed to get there was the chances to experiment; figure out it was possible.

They did, too. While the Womacks and Harmans of the world were making themselves new-age royalty with stock-profits from the aforementioned prototypes, people like Jonas, Titus, Crystal and Angela, were making the tech viable.

Yet another reason Jonas’ death was a loss, even if half the time she’d threatened it herself.

The thought refocused her. She understood Harman better now, their environment. Her cover shifted imperceptibly. She remained the old money bombshell, but it was now also a facade. Beneath it was the “real” girl; a confused new-money kid hiding in what she thought she was meant to emulate.

The predatory wanting to be prey but unable to admit it.

With that minor adjustment came with another. Then again. Minute revisions in muscular tension. Until her posture and walk were right. The flitting, most minor hint of vulnerability to the eye. A predator posturing, that really survived on luck, desperation, even pity.

Exactly like Harman.

Angela made her move, careful not to be caught watching him pocket his phone. She let her eyes be pulled toward his tones, used the Mogul-Pretender’s quick appraisal of form to see him pocket his phone. Left-pocket. Conversing with Sadiee. Eyes up. Linger. Away.

Smooth. Natural. No-one watching would’ve ever been the wiser. Even if she’d been caught.

Angela shifted, interested now. She let herself be pulled about by the personality’s quirks. They’d seen each other now, it was obvious. They liked what they’d seen, too. These two creatures, now stealing glances, needed closer looks.

Angela agreed.

She meandered toward the young women’s changing room, the restrooms near it. The pips disappeared temporarily. She looked herself over in the mirror, spent a moment appearing to freshen herself.

She was doing three things simultaneously; building cover, reinforcing it, and otherwise working a HUD-hack on the store’s wifi.

She was here, now, for a niece’s gift. Common ground. Her persona would need it to make her move. The makeup reinforced it. The more aged a young person looked, the more they felt it. For a woman on the hunt, that meant covering it up.

The final track was actually easiest, almost seamless nowadays. Her eyes flitted back and forth to command her HUD with muscle memory, peripheral locked on the broad strokes of a makeup brush. Her bypass didn’t even need to crack the unsecured network. Her HUD auto-located the security nodes, masked its identity as authorized, and accessed the linked Surv-cams nearest her. One-by-one they appeared as thumbnails, opaque when not in focus.

She minimized the least useful, reacquired Harman. His pip returned in her periphery, tracked him through the walls.

She waited, timing her moves. Harman was getting bored, anxious. He’d watched her go in, wanted his closer look. That was good. The male mind couldn’t comprehend the female one in such situations. That was a fundamental difference between the sexes.

She watched, awaiting the intended effect. All Harman needed was the excuse of time. He’d been bored with his daughter’s plastic-melting at the outset. This was a change of pace, if nothing else. It was exactly what she wanted.

Problem was, she had precisely one chance to get the phone out of his pocket, and one more put to put it back. She’d have to maneuver it, but so long as she got through the first, she could get through the second.

Harman bobbed with boredom on the feeds. He said something she couldn’t make out, face too far to read his lips. She knew it all the same; this was it. She exited the stall, slipped to the edge of the hall, still eyeing the cams.

Angela had never had so willing a mark.

She tasted Harman’s desperation, almost pitied him. He clearly had even less pull with women than she’d anticipated. It happened sometimes; like intelligence, money could insulate or isolate. More one than the other if those effected people had few social skills to begin with.

Harman’s social stuntedness was obvious from the start.

Angela slipped out, catching his eye at the precise moment she needed. She could only imagine it from his perspective. Slow-motion. Eyes meeting, locking on. Brushing to feel the animal spark, caught in lust. Completely obliviousness to the moment.

All telltale signs of the hopeless romantic. The fool. The creature oblivious to the control his own glans were exerting. The animal lust was obvious in the air as she brushed and felt him stiffen; the utter, ingrained restraint that kept him from pouncing as nature dictated.

She smiled, drawing his eye to hide her sleight of hand and making for the young-women’s section. She could’ve signaled she liked what she saw, but she needed him thinking too quick for rationality. She wanted the glans to work against him, keep him from checking his pockets.

He bit it; hook, line, and sinker, disappearing into the men’s room with it.

Angela kept her cool, busied by clothing and half-heartedly fussing to stall. Meanwhile, the other hand pried it apart, removed the card, and reassembled it. She bided her time thereafter, taking in the posse, the girl. Letting them swarm Sadiee while utterly ignoring her.

More and more, they appeared there just for the girl. Made sense, in its way. Nobody would look twice at Harman alone. He was just another hipster living beyond his means. No-one knew him as the billionaire in plain-sight. The girl was different. She added a new element to the equation. It required compensation.

Angela played her part, phone palmed and waiting. Harman re-emerged. Rushed attempts at looking suave, that such men found compulsory, confirmed her brush had the intended effect. He was Jack Rabbit on date-night.

His best, nonchalant attempt at a return pass did her work for her. He took the long way ‘round back to Sadiee and her guardsmen, faintly brushing her back as he passed. Between the adrenaline and his hard-on, he could never have noticed the two fingers casually dropping the phone back into his pocket.

He returned to his daughter’s side, no doubt hoping to discern the performance’s next steps. He was turned but moments, speaking to Sadiee. When he rounded again, she was gone. No-one else had even noticed her. It might never have happened.

But it did.

Angela was already slipping into the Ferrari. She yanked her wig and glasses off, slipped the card out again, and slotted it in her own phone. Encrypted files displayed on the screen with the request of a password. She didn’t need to know anymore than the file-extension; the “.nppx” told her everything. She had what she needed.

She started the car, made for home, the night’s darkness rising with her. The Ferrari’s hands-free calling system pinged her HUD with an image of Arthur. She answered with a thought.

“Headed home. What d’you need?”

“There’s a problem.”

“With?”

Arthur’s voice hardened, “Your brother.”

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.”

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 binging. 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 wasn’t 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 often called 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.

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.

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. Ultimately 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.

13.

Complex Problems

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

Titus reported in, “’round the corner.”

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

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

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

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

“Go,” Crystal instructed.

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

“Wait!” She commanded.

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

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

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

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

“I’m in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, power was also its greatest weakness and vulnerability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It found nothing but clear ground.

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

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

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

Neither side was prepared to weather it.

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

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

“Anything more?”

“No.”

“Titus, this place is fucking enormous.”

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

Something clicked. She suddenly understood the vault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Found something. Lab-like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.

Meanwhile

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, sis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than that though, she felt his rightness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

New panic flooded her. “Shit. Shit.”

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

Arthur pushed himself up, “What–“

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

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

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

“I’ll call.”

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

Arthur gave a slight bow of his head, agreeing.

15.

Loyalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucas was a liability. For everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no third option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cut the engine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know how to get in?”

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

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

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

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

She caught herself, stowing anger to better suit her needs. Angela had made a mistake, one any person in her position might have made. For aggression to be the first thing she presented her mentor and friend with, was unfair. Especially in such desperate times, Angela hardly would’ve done the same to her. Then again, perhaps therein lay her problem.

She did her best to compose and calm herself and headed inside.

Angela was hunched over a laptop, fingers programming Lucas’ ID into sifting cit-cam feeds. Evidently, she was hoping to use the same facial-recog system that blanketed the city to find him. Indeed, the same system they were often forced to evade through their trade-secrets.

Her shoulders were slumped, eyes glazed with the distant red of obvious tears and the gleam of an idea. She looked more determined than Crystal could recall having seen her. Crystal stepped silently into her peripheral.

Angela gave a start.

“Sorry,” Crystal said. “How are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every once in a while, he’d have enough, take off. No-one that really knew our family could’ve blamed him.

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

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

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

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

Crystal blinked confusion, “Wait. Guilt? You said you’d made mistakes. How’s guilt a mistake?”

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

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

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

A resounding silence rang in Crystal’s ears. She pieced together what little had gone unspoken. Even so, Angela’s eyes held true, confirming the last of Crystal’s suspicions.

“As kids, I needed his resilience to keep me going. When I left, I needed the assurance he could care for himself. While I was gone I needed the hope that he was better off without me.

“When he showed up, I thought needed his absolution, his forgiveness, because I thought I felt guilty that I hadn’t needed him for so long. Truth was, I was ignoring my instincts. I do need absolution, forgiveness, but not his. It’s Ali’s; I need her to forgive me for the years she’s spent living in that hell-hole. Lucas saw that vulnerability, and consciously or not, took advantage of it.

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

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

Largely out of respect, Crystal thought deeply on it. The last time Angela had needed her assistance so gravely, she was being slowly tortured to death. She hadn’t be able to ask then, but something inside Crystal said she might not have, even then. She was much too prideful at times. Where guilt was concerned, her martyrdom was strongest.

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

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

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

Angela’s chest fluttering expanded and sank with a breath. “Thank you.”

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Madam?”

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

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

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

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yet the problem remains.”

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

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Titus–“

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

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

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

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

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

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

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

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

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

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

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

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

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

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

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

17.

Mr. Brownstone

The Roadrunner screamed to a stop outside an abandoned, Happy-Fish packing-warehouse. Wyatt had done his part at least. Titus’ Custom Porsche came to a rest beside him, its high-performance tires and brake-systems able to stop on a dime, in silence.

The trio piled out at top-speed. Angela led. She crossed the distance to the doors in a stride. Another put her through a door, at the edge of a warehouse floor. Across it, Lucas stood before a heavily pierced and tattooed Ganger. His ink was old, faded; an O-G, surviving on wit– and the wide line of enforcers around him.

Ganger-contractors were the real thieves; running protection to people they’d murder in their sleep for a better fee. More often though, they just cut their bosses enemies to pieces and stuffed them into cement-filled drums. Gruesome, but effective.

The trio’s sudden appearance prompted a draw-down.

Unarmed, Lucas blurted in shock, “Angela!?”

The dealer drew on him. “Fuck’s goin’ on? You fuck us?”

“N-no, this is–“

“His sister.” Angela stepped forward, a modded-Sig trained on the dealer.

The dealer grew a sardonic smile. “Oh, little sister coming to reconcile with junkie brother, eh?”

“Big sister, actually.”

“Oh, big sister. My bad. My bad.” Then, with a shout and spittle, “Bullshit! My deals don’t go South. Get out, bitch!”

Lucas pled, “Angie, just go.”

“You stole something from me, Lucas,” she said, eyes on his. “I need it back.”

“I talkin’ to a pair of deaf ‘n blind street-rats!? I said, fuck off!” The dealer spat.

They ignored him. The room twitched, bowing with anxiety. Its various players eyed one another, their leaders. Lucas reached a hand for the tablet in his pocket. The room broke into shouts. Lucas froze.

The dealer laughed, “Finally, some recognition. Aye? How d’you know I won’t just shoot him?”

“You do, you die. You’re not that stupid.” She knew his type. “You still want his cash. Can’t have it if you’re dead. Won’t get it if you hurt him.”

The dealer laughed, lips pursed and rocking, impressed she’d deigned his thoughts. “I think I might like you, sis, but you still gotta’ fuck off. Junkie, give sis her shit so we can get this on with.”

Lucas hesitated.

“Go on fuck-wit. Move it along. Got brown to move.”

Angela kept her gun level, eyes flashing. Lucas started forward; the dealer caught the flash, stopped him. “Ho, ho, wait, Esse.” He’d tasted desperation on the air. “Sis, what good’s a little piece’a shit like this to you?”

“Lucas, bring it,” she said, carefully.

“Nah, Lucas, stay.” The dealers gun leveled on him a hand. The other drew the tablet from Lucas’ pocket. “Good boy, Lucas. Sit. Stay.”

The air thickened.

The dealer thumbed the tablet with one hand, “Now, me, I’m thinkin’, big sis gets her crew together, brings ‘em ‘ere to get somethin’ from little bro. Risks a deal. Means he’s carrying somethin’ important. Somethin’ she wants back. Bad.

“Right, mi hermanos?

His crew nodded mischievously. He hefted the tablet in a hand, the other firm at Lucas. “I’m thinkin’ this might be worth somethin’ to her. Or someone her crew works for. Aye?” He leaned toward Angela in a hush, “Catchin’ on, am I sis?

Angela’s body tensed, rigid, “Yeah. You are.” Her face tightened, sharpened. “You won’t get out of here with it. Give it now, we all walk away. Make your deal. Don’t. Otherwise… what’s another sour deal in Jackstaff?”

He mmm’d and stepped back shaking his head, gun on Lucas, “I dunno, sis. Sounds like a threat to me. What’chu think mi hermanos? Big sis got a hard-on for putting money where her mouth is?”

Lucas twitched at the agreement, his fear and detox growing, “Let’s all jus–“

“Shut up, Lucas,” Angela ordered.

The dealer mocked her with a grating, nasal tenor, “Aye, shut up, Lucas. Big kids’re talking.”

“You walk out with that, you’re worse off than if I killed you,” Angela warned.

“Dead men don’t have no problems, sis,” he said, eyeing the tablet. “Live men on the other hand, got bankroll. Make me an offer.”

“I just did; your life.”

He laughed; deeply and uproariously, tablet held to one side of his head, mid-air. “Big sis ain’t gonna risk lil’ bro over–“

His skull’s innards splat across the tablet, spraying air with a passing slug and a paste of blood, bone, and brain. The dealer’s body crumpled.

The room was frozen save Curie’s John. He appeared alongside the bullet’s obvious source: one of a cadre of heavily armed men in fatigues. The enforcers were still processing. The John’s men raised their weapons, said nothing. The John strolled toward the newly unemployed posse, catching them before they’d grasped reality.

He projected to be heard, “I am a reasonable man. Our associate here was not. The police are on their way. You have precisely ten seconds to flee or we will open fire. Ten… Nine.”

He continued to count. One of the dealer’s men fled. The rest aimed, dove for cover. A wall of fire cut two down before they were in, the rest scrambled.

Angela tackled Lucas. She huddled over him, ballistic-weave coat fanned to shield them from the automatic weapons rattling and chattering overhead. Semi-automatic barks of low-caliber pistols answered back in sparse desperation.

Titus and Crystal kept down at one side of the warehouse’s edge. The John’s wall of fire was continuous, unrelenting.

“Let ‘em work it out, Cee,” Titus instructed, gun ready.

It took only seconds longer for them to cut down what remained of the dealer’s people.

Then, choking silence.

Crystal and Titus rose slightly. Angela and Lucas eased themselves up. Lucas was utterly stunned, but Angela was waiting, curious if the John would kill them too.

The John instructed a man at his left, “Mister Norman, if you please.”

Norman stepped over and rolled the dealer’s corpse sideways, exposing his grisly death-face and the cracked-eggshell state of his head. Norman collected and wiped the tablet, handing it to the John. He removed his card from its side, reached into the inner-pocket of his jacket, and exchanged it for a USB stick. With indefatigable grace, he stooped to place the stick on the floor before Angela.

“A job well done, Miss Dale. My regards to the Madame.”

The John was gone before the distant sirens forced them to flee.

Lucas lagged behind the others, panting and running, but too focused on the stash he’d stolen off the dealer.

No point letting it go to waste.”

Angela sent Crystal with Titus, fled with Lucas in the Roadrunner. She drove until she was sure they weren’t followed, then pulled over in a nondescript alley to breathe. Meanwhile Lucas prepped a and snorted a lump of brown. Seconds later, he was calm, collected.

Angela waited for his head to clear before it fogged up again.

He smiled, “That was wild. What the hell was that? I mean, I knew you were–“

“Get out of my car.”

His face fell off. “Huh?”

“I said, get out of my car. Now.” She safetied the Sig in her lap. “If I see you again, and you’re not clean, I’ll turn you in. I swear on my life, Lucas. I survived our childhood because of you, and I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out with me, but I loved you then and I love you now.

“So get out, and stay away from me.”

“Angie? What’re you–“

She wasn’t listening.

“You could already die for what you know. Get out. Otherwise, I don’t want you here. Take Wyatt’s money, the Dealer’s brown, and get the fuck outta’ my city.”

He was visibly hurt, “Angie, I–“

She hardened with finality, “Get clean or don’t. I love you, but I don’t care. Go.”

Mechanical habit forced him from the car. He watched, slack-jawed as the car trundled off through pouring rain and steam-frosted air. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way. Angela knew that. Either you learned ‘em, you died trying to, or you were killed failing to.

Hard lessons, but important lessons.

18.

Never Go Home Again

Crystal and Titus stood across from Arthur at the island counter. Arthur was relaxed, more-so than the others; as if a sudden weight were lifted from them all, but him most of all.

Crystal figured it for the best, “Angela left. She say anything about it?”

Arthur shook his head. “No, but I know why.” He looked to Titus, “We may need help.”

Titus slugged back beer, curious nonetheless. “Details?”

“Have any contacts in CPS?”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, turned to meet a similar expression in Titus.

*

Seattle was a big city. Bigger than ever these days. It was obvious the sprawl was taking over. Approaching metros was like coming in for cross-country landings; the highways forcing you to taxi a holding pattern until you could be pointed to a terminal. Save they did it with traffic jams and convoluted loops of concrete that made sense on paper, but not in practice.

It was no wonder auto-cars were taking over; they were just plain simpler.

In spite of everything though, Seattle never felt less like home. Unfortunately for Angela, that wasn’t necessarily a pleasant thing. She loved the city itself, but returning was like standing on hot coals while force-fed milk and honey. It took all of her emotional control not to treat it like walking straight into a lion’s den.

Guns weren’t an option here though.

To Angela’s credit, better than anyone might expect, even if she felt differently. She’d been fighting to figure out her approach. Eventually, she decided on winging it. Improv was her forte, after all.

Just past midday, she stepped through the doors of an old, back office to speak with the woman there. She was pretty, if plain, and brimming with all the pleasantness of over-educated civil servants finally meeting intellectual stimulus again. The woman disappeared a few moments later.

An eternity of hand-wringing later, she reappeared with a young girl in tow.

Alison was an almost perfect duplicate of Angela at her age; primly groomed, bicep-long curtain of hair, bright teeth and fresh braces. Thick, conservative clothing covered roughly every inch of the rest of her, like some pseudo-modern take on a puritan-pride ad. All the same, that image missed one subtle but crucial thing.

That one thing hinted itself with flashes of gold beneath Ali’s collar.

Few might have caught it, but Angela’s attention to detail was beyond the realm of most’s imagination. That last detail also made Angela’s heart ache. She knew the habit, had it herself through childhood– was partly why, despite her piercings and eccentricities, she’d never taken to necklaces.

She despised the cross, all it stood for. Ali did too. Hiding it was the only vigil of rebellion open. Angela knew her parents, knew Alison wouldn’t have been allowed a scrap of unsanctioned writing, let alone a diary. Thus she expressed herself the only way she could.

She entered the room with grace, poise. Her eyes were on the counselor. She never even noticed Angela; never expected anyone to come for her, let alone her own sister. Angela’s heart broke, its effect felt in the sudden turn Ali gave.

Her eyes met Angela’s, widened, “A-Angie?”

Tears welled, duplicated by sisters separated by a generation of suffering and now rejoined to heal. It was safe to say Alison remembered her, only time would tell if she could forgive her.

Advertisements