The meeting was across town. Blending into the shadows was easier there. Angela’s bike rolled to a stop in a nondescript back-alley, vacant at the dark hour. The place was gravel strewn asphalt and grime covered buildings. The alleyway merely a cut between opposing buildings. The bike came to a rest near a bench and its engine died into the free-tempo metronome of heat ticks. Angela knelt to examine the bike, night-vision on and HUD searching for any damage caused by stray rounds.
She relaxed; everything was cosmetic– nothing that wouldn’t buff out.
Crystal felt the opposite. She sat on the bench, pack and artifact beside her. Her eyes were those of one whose world was upturned. She stared out ahead in a fugue state.
Angela rose with a relieved sigh, “Nothing major. Couple of those hits I was sure’d done in a fuel line.” Crystal remained silent, unchanged. “You alright? No holes?” She stepped over to search her, HUD active. “You look alright.”
Crystal deflated. “I don’t feel it.”
“Why?” Crystal doubted the question’s sincerity. “We got in. Got the mark. Got out. No fuck-ups. No one hurt.”
Crystal gave her an incredulous look, “No, just dead.”
Angela threw out a dismissive hand. “I mean us. He’d have done us both in. You know it. Besides, you think anyone’s gonna’ mourn the loss of a hired gun?”
“His family, maybe?”
Angela’s eyes narrowed, “People like him don’t have families. Besides, if they did– and gave a shit about ‘em– they’d find better work.”
Crystal was aghast, “And that makes it okay?”
“No, it doesn’t make it anything. It is what it is.” Crystal stared, dumbfounded. Angela blew a breath at the sky. “If it’d been clearer-cut, you’d have done it, right?” Crystal squirmed, shrugged. “Where’s the line, Crystal? Where d’you go from being unwilling to certain?” She looked away. “Let me explain something: If they’d pulled us, scanned us, saw no family or bounty, what d’you think would’ve happened?”
Crystal shook her head, admittedly lost. “What’s your point?”
“If we’re not worth money, we’re only worth a bullet. Their reputation gets a boost for every wannabe rip-off artist they pop. Makes ‘em look good. And the guys get their jollies off wasting some girls trying to heist the wrong truck, or worse. Meanwhile, no-one does anything. Secuirty lies, says the guys running things were attacked, there was a gunfight, any that doesn’t corroborate their version’s burned. They say they’ve investigated, sign a few checks, keep the local P-D happy, and life goes on.”
Crystal genuinely doubted her, “It can’t really be like that.”
“Why d’you think this world so fucked up?” Crystal averted her eyes, arms crossed. A black coupe appeared, inching through the alley toward them. Angela’s tone was too spiteful to have been directed, “Trust me, given the chance, they’d have drilled you in a second. Me too. Don’t shed tears over dead assholes. You’re just wasting energy.”
The coupe stopped at the lot’s edge, still running. Angela gestured Crystal over. A man slipped out; well-dressed and clearly as well off as Angela– maybe better. His brown-skin was perfectly set off by a violet sweater and jet-black slacks. A silver chain peered from beneath his collar, inflected on the slightest hint of its presence. It was enough to match the silver-accented, black frames around his eyes, and the highly-polished dress shoes that completed his outfit. He was clearly a man of both money and style.
Brief-case in hand, he made his way over, hesitated a step away, then smiled with perfect, white teeth. His voice was velvet-smooth, “Dale?” Crystal paused at such a warm greeting. He laughed, “When Curie told me to meet someone, she didn’t mention you. Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.”
Angela was considerably more tight-lipped than usual, “I was offered a job. The money was right. That’s all I care about.”
He cocked his head back a little, studied her with a squinted eye, “Uh-huh. Right.” He shrugged, “Well, I got the paper if you got the goods.”
“Crystal?” Angela motioned her forward. “This is my new partner, Crystal. Don’t get too attached, she might not stick around.”
“Titus. Nice to meet you,” he said shaking her hand with a charming smile.
Crystal dug the artifact out, “This what you’re looking for?”
He set the brief-case on the ground, took the artifact, and knelt in the beams of his headlights to examine it with a jeweler’s loupe. He “hmm’d,” and “ahh’d” for a moment, then rose to full-height and slipped the lens into his pocket.
“Legit. Can’t believe you actually pulled it off.”
“Why’s Curie want it so bad?” Crystal asked.
Titus smiled charmingly, “Little tip since you’re new; questions are a liability. Unless you need clarification on a job, don’t bother asking. Makes you look unprofessional. Answer’s usually “doesn’t matter” anyway. Dollar’s worth of free advice to save face. Keep the change.”
Crystal was genuinely surprised he’d offer anything free. “I will. Thanks.”
Angela eyed the brief-case, “All there?”
“Four-fifty, minus Curie’s twenty points. Three-thirty-seven five. Count it if you want.”
“I trust you, Titus,” Angela said, lifting the case. “Curie say anything else?”
“One: Soon. Smash and grab. Two man. Old-timer wants a cleaning job on his jewelry store. Fence says the stuffs a piece. More than this thing anyway. You’re interested, I’ll let her know.”
She glanced at Crystal, whom tried to puzzle out their jargon, then back to Titus, “Forward me the details. I’ll decide then.”
“Don’t wait too long. Lotta’ small-timers lookin’ for an easy gig like this. Don’t pace yourself outta’ business.”
“Let me worry about that,” Angela said, shaking his hand.
“Always a pleasure.”
“Nice meeting you,” Crystal said, uncertain of herself.
Titus gave a charming, sideways smirk, and strolled back to his car and climbed in. It backed from the alley the way it had come, left the two women to return to the bike. Angela transferred the case’s money into Crystal’s pack, strapped it down on the bike’s rear.
“What was that all about?” Crystal asked.
“Cleaning job?” She asked, guessing her meaning. Crystal nodded. “Jewelry store. Break in, take everything. Owner orders it to re-coop on insurance.”
“Ah. So, who’s Caruso?” She asked innocuously, more curious than she let on.
“Mob-type. Run’s numbers, guns, drugs, anything else,” she said, climbing onto the bike and handing over Crystal’s helmet. “Lately, he’s taken to showcasing more-legitimate thefts in museums. He takes a cut of profits for the exhibitions, museums get the rest. It’s a smart racket, but it’s a racket.”
“And it was one of his people that was… killed?”
“Yeah. Now get on. Standing around holding three-hundred Gs is a good way to get killed.”
Crystal wasn’t sure how true that was, but wasn’t testing theories. She climbed on, resigned to continue the conversation.
The bike started as she opened her comm, “So you’ve dealt with Caruso before?”
Angela’s lips tightened again, “We’ve crossed-paths. In this business, there’re only a few circles. All Elite. Curie’s one. As my fixer, we’re bound to run into her less-worthwhile acquaintances.”
The bike began its fast, blurred trip back toward home. Crystal refused to relent. The more she asked, the less Angela said. It was obvious there was more beneath what little she’d told. It came out in bits and pieces, monosyllabic replies, but eventually Crystal formed a good impression of it.
Crossing paths in this business meant one of two things; nearly killing one another– usually while one ripped the other off– or muscling in on the job of ripping off someone else. There wasn’t much love lost when one of the opposing team went down. It was expected. More fuel for the fire.
Clearly, Angela’s views were colored by that knowledge. As much was evident in the little bit Crystal did glean from her. The bad blood with Caruso went back years, always incidental rather than intentional. He had fingers in a lot of pies. Most, big earners. In a city and occupation like theirs, it was unavoidable to step on one another’s toes.
Even so, it wasn’t the thieves or the fixers that drew heat outside the jobs. Rather, it was the Johns that hired them. So long as the Johns got their merchandise– and everyone else their cut– there was nothing anyone could do about the job-runners. Even Caruso knew that. Ostensibly, he could fight each battle against the thieves, but the war could only be won against those ordering the thefts. Once thieves shook their pursuers, they were in the clear. That was the game. That was how it was played. How it always had been.
But none of that explained Titus’ sentiment; Never thought I’d see you ripping off Caruso again.
Whatever it meant, Crystal was certain the whole truth wouldn’t come easily, if at all. If she had to guess, something had gone sideways once. Angela had been caught, more than likely, and had likely only just escaped with her life. The more she considered it, the less Crystal liked the idea of remaining a thief.
But the briefcase full of money, and the growing commitments to Angela were hard to let go of. Moreover, the job had been easy: run across a parking lot and sifted through some boxes for over a hundred-grand after Angela’s sixty-percent take.
Crystal only laid her question to rest once Angela quit replying entirely. For now, they’d done the job. Little more needed to be said. They returned home long enough to clean up, then headed out to dinner at an upscale restaurant across town. The conversation was admittedly lighter and more forced than Crystal liked, but time passed easily enough that the tension all but disintegrated when the food arrived.
Celebratory drinks were ordered and imbibed before the pair returned home. They readied to part in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island counter. Angela looked to her longingly, as if fear fearing for their friendship. She looked ready to speak, but turned away. Crystal stopped her.
“Angela.” She hesitated, glanced back. “I know what you said’s true, so … thanks. I just wish there was another way.”
Angela winced, “What matters is you’re safe.”
Crystal looked away to seek more words. Her eyes flitted back to find Angela already strolling toward her bedroom. Crystal hesitated, then headed to bed, tired and restless from all that had happened. She managed to quell it long enough to sleep, but awoke as if no time had passed. Angela stood in the doorway again.
“Hey,” she tossed a bag at Crystal’s bed. “That’s your cut from the job. Grab some pocket money and meet me in the garage. We’ve gotta see Jonas.”
Crystal yawned, groaned, “No breakfast?”
“Coffee’ll tide you over. We’ll hit a diner soon enough.”
Crystal climbed from bed and dressed, then dug through the paper-bag of hundreds and twenties, counted out a few grand, then shoved the rest in her desk. She pocketed the bills, and minutes later, was in the garage; coffee in one hand, jacket in the other, and gun on her hip.
“What’re we seeing Jonas about?”
“Paper-work,” Angela said, leading her toward an old, metallic blue Chevelle with white stripes. “Believe it or not, you’re legally certified for a concealed carry permit. There’s no reason not to have one made. I’m licensed as an instructor and Jonas can print permits.”
“Seriously?” Crystal asked, slipping down into the vinyl-seated car. Angela “mhmm’d.” “What can’t you do?”
“Fly a helicopter… yet.”
They started off again at street-level, taking in the cool morning with open windows and an undeniable satisfaction from pocketfuls of cash. The term “dirty money” meant less and less to Crystal as they drove on. She kept quiet, letting the sat-radio occupy the car over her guzzled coffee.
A sense of accomplishment filled her. She wasn’t sure she’d ever experienced anything like it before: after a decade hopeless and penniless, success was thirst-quenching. It forced ethical fears to the surface, but she remained calm– either to rationalize or understand them better. It was, she likened, a simple exchange of services for currency. Whether she remained a thief or not, someone would be thieving.
Likewise, Crystal reasoned Caruso was going to be ripped off regardless. Whether she and Angela did it was the only variable. Had they declined the job, someone else would’ve taken it. Possibly too, with more bloodshed. However moot now, it didn’t change facts; someone wanted the artifact bad enough to shell out a half-million for it and they wouldn’t be deterred by thieves declining the job. They’d simply pay someone else.
For Crystal’s part, she felt more deserving than an unknown entity already living large. Contrary to belief, there was some honor amongst thieves. Fattening Angela’s net-worth was a small price to pay for all she’d done. Crystal wasn’t sure a billion dollars worth of jobs could ever repay the debt, no matter the blood spilled.
The Chevelle pulled up outside the pawnshop and they headed in. Jonas stood before a frail-looking, elderly black woman, and as Titus the night before, gazed down through a jeweler’s loupe. He eyed a tarnished diamond-ring as the old woman creaked, sadly; an abandoned rocking chair on a neglected front-porch in a breeze.
“It was a gift from my late husband.”
“He was in the army and got it in Germany on-leave,” she twinged with despair. “I haven’t the money to pay my rent this month, but he would understand, I think. Don’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” Jonas repeated absently. “I can give you three-hundred for it.”
“Th-three hundred?” The woman asked verging on tears. “B-but…”
He finally looked up, “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can–”
“Ma’am,” Crystal said. She counted out a thousand dollars, took the ring from Jonas, wrapped it in the bills, and put it in the woman’s hand. “Take it.”
The woman’s eyes welled-up. She burst into tears, reached up to squeeze at Crystal’s abdomen with her tiny frame. She babbled incoherently while Crystal helped her to the door. The room was quiet until the door shut and the woman disappeared, still sobbing, around a corner.
“God damn it!” Jonas fumed. “I was gonna’ flip it for twice that.”
“Christ, that’s cold,” Angela said.
Crystal slapped cash on the counter, “I never wanna’ see shit like that again. What you do’s your business, but I don’t want to see it.”
He eyed her with a deranged look. His eyes darted to Angela, then back. He took the money off the counter, “Yeah, alright.”
“Just get me my package, Jonas,” Angela said tiredly. He turned for the back-room, shaking his head with defeat, and disappeared to the sounds of rummaging. “I understand why you did that, but you shouldn’t have. Just be glad Jonas knows us, or else you might’ve just gotten jumped… or worse.”
Crystal winced, “Sorry. I didn’t think helping someone was such a big deal.”
“Flashing money this side of town’s always a big deal,” Angela warned respectfully. “Around here, everyone’s either looking to take your worth or take you out of competition. Whichever the case, flashing cash is a bad idea. Worse is making you look open to hand-outs. Even if the junkies don’t you get you then, someone will.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jonas returned moments later with a pair of manila folders. He opened one, dumped its contents onto the counter, “Best I could do with limited materials. Been off the grid a while. Not updated in the D-Bs.” He sifted the pile, flattened it across the counter. “Driver’s license. Hunting, fishing, and weapons permits– life-time, no renewal. CCW permit. Social I-D numbers. Birth certificate. Even a bank account and forged worker ID for Clonaptic Exports– that was Curie’s contribution.” He shoved them toward Crystal. “Not bad for a kid living on the street ten years.”
Crystal suddenly realized the cards bore dated images of her, “Where’d you even get this?”
“Security Cam at a bank,” Jonas said. “Best I could do. Finding you was hard enough. Can’t use too new of an image or it’s a dead giveaway. Best way’s to pull an old one from a city database. You’re a ghost, kid. Revel in it while you can.”
Angela patted Crystal’s back, then passed another USB stick to Jonas. “Nothing like a dishonest day’s pay, right?” He smirked. “And the other thing?”
He handed her the second envelope, “S’all there. Security specs. Building blue-prints. Wiring. Everything you could ever want to knock a place off.”
“Thank fuck for white-collar criminals,” she joked smugly.
“See you soon.”
Angela tapped Crystal’s arm as she collected her papers, then followed Angela out to the car. She climbed in, “What now?”
“First, breakfast. Then, buying you a wallet.”
Crystal managed a laugh but her stomach bubbled slightly. Dread clung to the dead-air between her breaths. Why, she wasn’t sure. Especially in the moment. It felt wrong. No matter what, she had the feeling the cause would show itself sooner, rather than later. She just hoped that wasn’t in the middle of their next job.