Into Her Darkness

1.

Honor Amongst Thieves

Crystal Kane sat at the front counter of a retro, 1950’s-style diner. It was a place three or four times her age. In her late-twenties, it might not have been saying much, but it felt the opposite. She’d been through the wringer, somehow come out in one piece, but older, thinner than felt fair. She’d been a cheerleader in high-school. One of the popular, beautiful girls, that exclusively dated those of similar status, and shunned anyone below her. That had ended on graduation day. She found herself alone when everyone else was going off to college. The friends that promised to call were, like so many other things, lost to life– disappeared without a trace.

That summer had been hell. Crystal had been a blissfully ignorant airhead all through school. Then, as if to reinforce that those days were over, life crumbled. Only weeks into “life beginning” she learned her father’d cheated on his taxes for all of his life. Likewise, her mother had… well, cheated the rest of it. The family split up. Dad went to jail. Mom occupied a new man’s trophy case each night. Crystal ended up out on her ass. Not much had changed since, at least not thematically.

A waitress poured her a cup of coffee at the counter. She’d never been one for alcohol. Downers weren’t her style– the costs of having been peppy until life became enough of a depressant to need no more. Most days, she haunted the diner ‘til lunch, sucking down coffee like a drunk to their hooch. No-one seemed to mind, nor bothered to learn her name. Par for the course, she guessed. She wasn’t one to complain. Not anymore.

The only spot of luck she’d found was the economy’d– and society at that– nose-diving the same time she did. She and others like her took advantage of it. They found free lodging in rundown or abandoned buildings in newly forming ghettos. Hardly the Ritz, but anything with a roof and most of four walls was better than street sleeping in bad weather. Along with a few others in “her building” Crystal managed to scrape together meals of scavenged offenses into a communal soup pot.

Crystal couldn’t recall her last, solid meal. She’d only managed to afford coffee by scouring the streets for change: one cup, one dollar, unlimited refills. The streets were running out of change though. Given the state of things, they weren’t likely to be replenished anytime soon. “Flat broke” was an understatement. There wasn’t a damned thing she’d bought or owned in nearly a decade. Periods were the worst, and a subject better left un-broached.

Someone sank into place beside her. The peripheral profile and weight on the stool said it was a woman. Odd. No-one sat near her. Ever. She didn’t blame them. She’d been forced to showering only during a proper rain. At most, once a week if she was lucky. Usually less.

The woman didn’t seem to care though. Something in the air between them said she was entirely different to most people. Crystal still refused to look at her, fearing any visible revulsion would shatter the remnants of her broken spirit. Nonetheless, she couldn’t deny the sensation of something forming in the air between them.

A robust, tomboyish voice directed words at her, “You look like hell.”

It couldn’t have been me, could it? Crystal remained motionless, wondering if her mind had finally cracked. She’d been waiting for life’s weight to split it open like an egg for years now. Sanity had always managed to keep it cushioned though. Maybe this was finally it– sweet release.

“Need a shower too,” the voice added. “Hair-cut wouldn’t hurt.”

The waitress stepped over, white and polka-dot clad. She habitually refilled Crystal’s cup. The other woman ordered a cup, waited to say anything else until it was brought.

“Talky thing, ain’t ya?” She said wincing at the coffee. “Shit coffee. Why’d you even bother to spend money on this shit?”

Crystal’s head finally rose, checked her left side to ensure no one was there. The same, empty stool greeted her as always. Her head turned back and right, the woman’s features focused. She was like something from a post-punk vid; shaved temples, short, platinum-blonde on top with blue highlights, and more piercings than seemed possible for a human face. Feline features around blue eyes and dark make-up drowned the metal. The neo-punk was topped off by a shredded t-shirt, leather jacket, and tight jeans stretched over combat boots.

If Crystal’d had any feelings left, she’d have found herself both envious and aroused by the woman. It wasn’t that she liked women, but rather, this one exuded such cocky confidence it made her both unlikable and unyieldingly desirable. Such paradoxical nature alone forced Crystal’s eyes to linger.

The woman met her eyes. “You know, if you cleaned up, you’d be good looking. You want a job?”

Crystal’s brow furrowed, “I’m not a whore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The woman threw her head back with a laugh. “Honey, if I wanted a whore, I’d be asking the broads outside.” Crystal wasn’t amused. The woman’s face reformed seriously. “No, I need a woman. One rough enough to handle herself, but soft enough to look good. If you’re interested, just say yes. There’ll be a point of no return. Any time you want out before, say so. Once you’re past it, you’re locked in. Got it?”

Crystal shrugged. She’d done a lot of things, awful by even depraved standards. Mostly, it was solely to survive. Then again, what wasn’t these days? This idea seemed ludicrous anyhow: some stranger appears, offers her an out from the hell she’d been sucked into? Not a chance.

“What would I have to do?”

“Well, first, get cleaned up. Then, we’ll get you some new clothes. You’ll have to look the part, like me– so clothes, haircut, piercings.” The woman eyed her extensively. “Eventually, you’ll have to do something specific for me.”

“Like what?” she asked, more hopeful than she expected.

The woman frowned, glanced around, “You agree to come with me, I’ll tell you everything when we’re alone.”

Crystal eyed the half-empty coffee cup in her hand: what was the worst that could happen? Death? There were a lot worse ways she could think to go than trying to get out of this mess.

“Uh… okay.”

A few minutes later, the two slipped outside together. “I’m Angela, by the way.”

“Crystal.”

Angela led her around a corner of the diner, into an alley behind it. A BMW motorcycle was propped in the center of the small roadway, a helmet strapped to it. Angela climbed on, passed over the helmet. “Just don’t fall off.” Crystal did her best to swing a leg over the bike, put her hands around Angela’s belly. “No getting fresh. Not ’til you’ve showered, anyway.”

Crystal managed a snort. It was sort of a laugh. At least, closer to one than she’d managed in a long time. The bike started with a gurgle of fuel and the high-sounds of a performance-tuned engine. They took off, raged toward top-speed. Streets and ramshackle buildings blurred and zipped past. The scenery only sharpened long enough to corner before once more racing up to speed. The bike zigged and zagged toward the city’s edge. One of the piers came into view; a place once a center of nightlife where tourists were as plentiful as residents. Now, it was a sad caricature of itself. A few strips of abandoned buildings and storefronts were all that remained, like a coastal, ol’ west ghost town.

Angela maneuvered around a corner, into an alley, and raced toward a warehouse at its end. An abrupt turn found them facing down another alley. In its center a section of street began to rise up, wide enough to accept a vehicle: an elevator camouflaged by its place in the road and built into a housing underground. They zoomed into it, sank beneath the street. The elevator settled into place. Lights flared on across panel-lighted walls. Crystal was blinded. She blinked out water, found herself among a veritable showroom of modern and classic cars. Her jaw nearly fell off as her eyes bulged.

“Hop off,” Angela instructed.

Crystal obliged. Angela zoomed forward to a spot at the far-left, turned, and inched the bike backward with her boot-tips. Crystal shut her mouth, shuffled over, neck swiveling to take in classic muscles parked among super-cars, pick-ups, SUVs, and other bikes.

Whatever Angela did was clearly profitable, but what use could she have for Crystal? She wasn’t skilled, or all that smart, and had been living a vagrant’s life the last decade. She’d scrounged for every minor necessity. Luxuries didn’t even exist anymore– not beyond the few she saw now. What the hell could she possibly help with?

She met Angela at far-end of the garage, the bike’s engine still clicking from heat. Angela threw her leg over, rose to full height, then hung her helmet off a handlebar. She rounded at Crystal, surveyed her shabby clothing and hair again.

“Shower and a haircut.”

She thumbed her way past a print-locked door. Crystal followed her into a kitchen of black and chrome appliances, mahogany-stained cabinets, and black-granite counter tops. LEDs crawled to full-brightness in the ceilings and walls as they entered, cast warm light across equally warm, earthen tones. An island counter and stools at one side sat amid the L-Shaped kitchen’s center. Angela’s boots reverberated off the hardwood to the double-wide fridge/freezer combo as she dug out a bottle of wine.

Food peered out from the fridge, made Crystal’s stomach growl and her mouth water. Angela must’ve heard it. She whipped ’round, “I’ll order in. You like Chinese?”

She couldn’t be sure anymore, but wasn’t picky. “S-sure.”

“Good.” She slid a phone from her pants pocket, thumbed it, held it up.

For the next few minutes, Crystal was transfixed as Angela bantered Chinese to someone on the other end. She ended the call, slid the phone into a pocket, and dug for a corkscrew and scissors in a drawer. She led Crystal through the adjoined living room. More motion-sensor lights did their upward crawl, revealing plush, leather furniture, a glass coffee-table, and a large television and stereo sitting on standby. The place reeked of an excess contrary to the neo-punk air Angela’d cultivated. Yet somehow, Crystal sensed she was even more at home here than anywhere, as if her confidence alone ensure it.

They entered a large bedroom, passed its king-sized bed for a pair of doorways. Angela handed over the wine-bottle, directed Crystal into one door– a bathroom– and entered a walk-in closet beside it. The bathroom was the most modest room she’d seen yet: quaint, with a full shower-tub, toilet, and studio lighted mirror somehow retaining the elegance of the home’s other décor. Crystal focused on herself in the mirror though; it’d been months, years maybe, since she’d seen herself reflected in anything other than a sheet of metal.

She blamed Angela even less now for wanting her to clean up: her hair was more dread-locked than anyone but a Rastafarian had a right to. Her face looked smeared by handfuls of grease and road dirt to say nothing of the utterly pitiful clothing she wore. Above all, she reeked. She couldn’t smell it herself, so long accustomed to it, but she could smell everything else. By comparison, toilet mold was pleasant.

Angela reappeared with a pile of clothing, set it aside to unlace her boots, remove her socks, and roll up her pants, revealing a plethora of tattoos.

“Get naked.”

“Huh?”

She moved to turn on the tub, “You need to soak that shit off, and I need to cut your hair. So. Get naked.” Crystal hesitated. “I see it every day. If it makes you feel better, I’ll get naked too.”

Her eyes widened, “No, that’s… It’s fine. I’ll just–”

“Jesus, here,” she interrupted, tugging off Crystal’s long coat.

She helped to undress her upper half, then tossed the dirty clothes aside. A bra was evidently more than Crystal’d been allowed. Moreover, her clothing hadn’t prevented her bare skin from getting just as greasy and dirty as the rest of her.

The bath frothed with bubbling soap as Angela helped Crystal from her pants. There was no denying the homeless girl’s discomfort. To her credit, she powered through it for the sake of her new benefactor. Likewise, Angela remained detached, handled the whole thing as if a nursemaid.

Crystal plunged her feet into the hot water. Her eyes welled up involuntarily; a warm bath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a warm bath. She sank into the water, like a cooked noodle snaking through a fork. The tears flowed as she submerged her head. On emerging, they were just more wetness, camouflaged by dirt-streaks and flushed cheeks.

Angela gave her a moment, then sat on the back-ledge of the tub behind her. “This is all gonna’ have to come off,” she said, settling in with scissors in-hand. “I’ll do my best, but honestly, you’d be better off shaving it.”

Hair-styles were the last thing on Crystal’s mind. The warmth infecting her was too powerful. The urge to sleep came on but would mean squandering it. Instead, she let a dull dreaminess take her. With it came the distinct fear of if she’d hallucinated Angela’s existence. If she had, she didn’t want it to end. She’d go to her grave never seeing reality again. Angela’s hands weighed her shoulders though, telling her it was reality; a bizarre one where someone gave a shit. At that, more of one than an entire world combined.

So, what was the price? She couldn’t help but wonder. Angela’s hands were rough, used to hard labor or something else that she couldn’t place. Their grip was strong; it tugged her hair firmly this way and that. The precise, staccato notes of the scissors told of dexterous fingers, certain of themselves and their actions.

Crystal’s curiosity finally piqued. “Why’re you doing this?”

Angela answered as best she could, keeping her mind focused on the task at-hand. “Short answer, I need a new partner. My job isn’t the kind you can do alone. My last partner left after a big job. I can’t keep working without one. Thing is, I know what it’s like being a street rat. I was one once. If it hadn’t been for someone doing this for me, I’d be where you were this morning.”

She was grateful, but the obvious question needed to be asked, “What kind of work do you do?”

“Let’s just say its legality is questionable,” she replied, tilting Crystal’s head. “Sit up.”

Crystal inched upward, nipples hardening from the cool air above water. Angela maneuvered her back, between her legs, laid her head back to trim the front of her hair. Crystal closed her eyes to avoid the awkwardness of looking up at her.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means.”

“I’m a contract thief.” Crystal’s eyes opened to a squint. Angela’s hands stilled. “Don’t judge me when I’m helping you. Trust me, there’s a lot worse ways to get by. Few pay as well.”

She winced, “Sorry. I’m… not judging you, but you don’t have to– you know, hurt people, right?”

“Only if they try to hurt me,” she said sternly. Crystal frowned. “You want out, say so.”

Crystal thought about it: given what she’d seen so far, Angela’s lifestyle was… well, a lifestyle. To say it was leaps and bounds beyond hers missed just how different their two worlds were. Even before the fall, she hadn’t seen such luxury. That it was all funded by so-called “dirty money” was unimportant given she possessed only a set of ragged clothes. If forced to choose between “dirty money” and penniless street-living, her morality was more than flexible.

Crystal eased her head back, “No. I’m still in.”

“But?”

“… Is it, you know, dangerous?”

Angela eased slowly into motion again, “Sometimes.”

Crystal closed her eyes. “Just don’t get me killed.”

“That’s the plan.”

Something acknowledged the possibility of it. Something else said she’d do everything to avoid it. Why, Crystal wasn’t sure, but a sense of intense loyalty resounded beneath it. At the very least, Crystal would follow things to their “point of no return.” Wherever it was, until then she’d at least feel like a human being again, rather than a creature eking surviving breaths. Maybe even, Angela’s company would prove as worthwhile as she felt Crystal’s would. Only time would tell.

2.

Ground Rules

The pair occupied the bathroom most of the afternoon. Despite evidence of living alone, Crystal learned Angela had a valet. The old man paid no mind to the two young women in the bath. He merely rustled in with bags of food and set them on the floor. Angela thanked him and he disappeared again.

“Arthur,” she said snipping hair. “Hired him to monitor my security system, been here ever since, helping out.” Angela directed her to stand, uncorked the drain, and switched on the shower. “Scrub down. I gotta’ dig for something.”

She sank to her knees at the bathroom counter, dug until the shower was off. Crystal climbed out to dry herself. Angela emerged with an electric trimmer and towels, directed Crystal to sit on the toilet and took a spot on the tub’s outer-edge. She draped a couple towels around, scalped the sides of Crystal’s hair down like her own, then stood a few paces away.

She nodded to herself, satisfied, then eyed Crystal, “You wanna’ prune that forest?”

“Huh?” Angela eyed her groin. Crystal chuckled inexplicably. “I guess. It’s like wild kingdom down there, huh?”

Angela handed over the trimmer, “Meet me in the kitchen. We have things to go over.”

“Okay. Angela?” She hesitated at the door. “I dunno why you picked me, but… thanks.”

Her mouth drew a crooked half-smile, “Wait ’til after the first job. Tell me then if you’re grateful.”

She left Crystal at the mirror: for a woman that hadn’t touched herself in years, let alone been with someone, the experience was foreign– to say the least. She wouldn’t have minded the “forest” if she’d hadn’t been the type obsessed with hygiene. Manicures, pedicures, waxes; that was her way of life. Her former “baldness” meant anything was a sign of less-fortunate times. In the end she opted for what was quickest, somewhere between bald and not. At least it matched her head.

She dressed to find herself resembling her neo-punk benefactor more. Her hair was shaved at the sides; short and spiked on the top and back. Her clothing, a touch too tight in the bust, bore that same combat-ready punker look.

But given the corpse-stench emanating from her clothing on the floor, it might as well have been a Versace ball gown. It certainly felt like one. It might not have been her style before, but lacking one entirely had made her flexible. Besides, she looked hot, like some alt-culture model. One with a future. Helluva lot better than when she’d woken up. Preferences be damned, she felt hot.

Angela sat along the island’s far-side in the kitchen. Laid out before her were a series of blue-prints, digital photo-prints, and a laptop, amid a plethora of other, indistinct paperwork. Scattered among the piles were the Chinese food containers, untouched steaming the air with heavenly aromas. Angela dug at a box of chow mein, intensely focused on the screen and barely blinking. The flit of Crystal’s approach, broke her focus. She shut shut the laptop, motioned to a stool across from her, and shoved over a box of food.

“Sit. Eat.” Crystal obliged. “You need to bulk up or you’ll never have enough energy to train.”

She opened a box, “Train? You mean like weight-training?”

“Among other things,” Angela said between chews. Crystal’s silence begged elaboration as she attempted to avoid looking slovenly. Angela didn’t notice, too busy speaking between alternate bites. “First of all, you need some muscle. Means strength training. Bulking diet. Plus, need to be nimble. So, gymnastics too. Eventually, a cutting diet to shape and mold yourself. You’ll need free running to supplement that. Dexterity and balance training too. All of that requires an agile build.”

“Wait,” Crystal said, head beginning to swim. “What’s free running? And why an agile build?”

Angela washed down a hunk of food with a swish of wine. “Worst thing for a thief’s getting caught. You need to be able escape any heat. That means putting as much ground and environment as possible between you and your pursuers. Best way to do that’s moving fast through places cops and regular crooks can’t get through. Free-running guarantees it.”

“And it’s what?”

“Parkour,” she said simply, as if the word should have meaning to Crystal. “Running. Climbing. Vaulting. Jumping. Rolling.” Crystal gave her a sort of deranged squint. “It sounds crazy, but it’s kept me alive.”

Crystal chewed slower, “I’m not sure I can do it is all.”

“That’s your first obstacle to overcome then. Things a person can’t do come as a result of one of two limitations; the mental or the physical. Physically, no, you couldn’t do it right now, but that’s the point of training. Mentally, you’ll never do anything if you don’t believe you can. So just trust me when I say, you can, and I’ll teach you how. Got it?”

Crystal manifested as much confidence as she could. “Yeah.”

“Good.” Angela finished the last of her food. She headed for the fridge, dug out a bottle of water, set it in front of Crystal. “You’ll have to learn other things too– invaluable tools of the trade. So long as you do what I say, and trust me, you’ll do fine.”

Crystal hesitated with a grimace, “What about in the mean-time? How’m I supposed to get back and forth between here and–” She hesitated again “Home?”

“You won’t. There’s a spare room for you. I can’t risk anyone following you back. Least, not ’til you’re trained. Besides, you need restful sleep. The next few days are going to be rough. You can’t train riding a cement floor every night.”

She stammered in confusion, “Are y-you sure?”

“Certain,” Angela said with a soft look. “This is home until you decide to leave. Or rather, if you decide to leave. Everything’s open to you, but if you want the gravy-train to keep rolling, you’ll abide my only two rules; no guests, and no stealing– especially from me. I see the irony, but what you learn’s only to be used on our jobs. Unnecessary theft brings unnecessary heat. Everything we work for can be gone in a blink if you get caught for petty theft– or something equally else asinine. Besides, I have a seven-figure bank account. If you need anything, ask.”

Crystal swallowed the last of her food, grateful for it and the seemingly endless hospitality of her benefactor. She helped Angela clean their trash, then stood before her in the kitchen.

Angela instructed her with a few words, “You need rest. Street-living takes a lot outta’ you. It’s still early, but I have things to do. Morning will come sooner than you think. It’s not going to be easy. Get as much rest as possible: lay around. Watch TV. Have some wine, beer, whatever, but get to sleep early. Okay?”

“Okay. And thanks again.”

“You want to show your appreciation, do it through your training. That’s enough for me.” She pointed to a doorway opposite the garage. “Your room’s through there. Second door on the left. Bathroom’s across the hall. You need anything you can’t find, ask Arthur. He’ll show you or get it for you. Whatever you need.”

“Where’re you going?” Crystal asked as Angela headed for the garage.

“To meet someone,” she said cryptically. “Relax. It’s all good.”

Crystal shrugged and Angela slipped out. A distant engine fired, deeper and louder than the bike. Crystal guessed one of the trucks. The sounds shrank away, ascended, then disappeared altogether. Crystal glanced around, lost for action, then headed for her room. The corridor was long, wide. Dark wood doors occupied either wall, spaced a modest distance. The corridor ended in a set of equally dark, double-doors. Crystal stopped at her new room, almost knocked, but glanced up and down the hall then stepped inside.

It was much larger than she’d expected. A queen-size bed, armoire, chest of drawers, desk and a television took up most of the space. Various electronics occupied the spaces between and within them. The house’s décor was continued in earthen wood and radiated warmth. It swelled Crystal’s breath in her chest. She’d hit the lottery, found herself once more wondering if her mind had cracked. Was it a dream? Some extraordinary hallucination?

Thoughts compelled her to the bed. She sank onto it. The plush mattress coddled her. The mattress and sheets were brand new, unused. She let herself fall against it, let it hug her body with comfort. She drew herself onto the bed, then splayed out as wide as possible. A giggle bubbled up from her gut, trembled along her throat, then forced itself out.

Once, long ago, she’d had a bed like this. A room like this. She’d had a television. And a desk. And a refrigerator. And plenty of food. She’d had clothes. Furniture. Everything a person could ever want or need. In a blink, they’d been taken away, stolen by willful negligence. Crystal’s mother hadn’t suffered. Everyone knew she wouldn’t. Crystal had.

As soon as legal, she was thrown out to fend for herself. Money wasn’t tight. It was non-existent. Luxury too. Necessity hadn’t been covered, only survival. Crystal’s mother was living the high-life, bouncing from one trophy-case to another while Crystal lived from trash-cans, under leaky roofs, while fighting starvation tremors.

Now, all of that was looking to change. Again, in a blink. Obviously, maintaining the change would require more effort, as well as flexible definitions of right and wrong. But her sense of right and wrong had been dictated by people whose own actions defied the true definitions. Or at least, what Crystal felt to be the true definitions. Her parents had been liars, cheats. They’d abandoned their child for their own, selfish desires. Thief or not, criminal or otherwise, Angela had already shown herself the inverse. The moral conflict was as obvious as it was clean-cut. So long as no-one was unduly hurt, there were worse ways to make a living. Angela was right about that. Crystal’d seen it herself.

In all, Crystal could do worse than to emulate Angela. No-one was perfect, certainly, but regardless of motivations, Angela seemed a genuinely good person. No-one visited kindnesses on the destitute or down-trodden without some selfish motivation. Even if it was as simple as pride from helping, it was there. Angela had been honest, forthcoming from the beginning. She did right by Crystal as someone had done right by her, and in exchange, Crystal would become a thief.

If there was one thing Crystal’d learned living on the street, it was how much people had and didn’t need. Even in the room she’d been given, there was more than her wildest dreams would’ve allowed for. Ultimately, that was the mark of reality; however seemingly absurd it might be in retrospect, her mind would never concoct such hospitality nor good fortune.

She felt her breaths swell again, but refused to move. The bed was too comfortable, the room too warm. She didn’t want to disturb a single iota of the moment. Still, tears welled in her eyes. Their slight chill as they met air along her cheeks was the only affliction to the warmth. Even if without full understanding of how or why, life had finally turned a corner. She wept quietly, draining her grief so it might one day be replaced with hope, joy even.

3.

Full of Surprises

True to Angela’s word, morning came early. Crystal’d wept herself to sleep then slept like a baby. Nearly the whole night too. Angela’s voice snapped her eyes open from the doorway. Crystal found herself still warm, nestled beneath fresh, thick blankets. The room focused, and all of her fears of dreams or hallucinations faded. Angela was real. Her home was real. The bed and its warmth were real. So was the deal she’d made that exchanged Angela’s hospitality for her compliance. It remained difficult to believe, but Crystal knew somehow, somewhere, stranger things were happening.

Angela leaned in the door jamb, “Sleep well?”

Crystal groaned with a pleasureful stretch, “Is that really a question?” Angela laughed. She glanced around the room, “What time is it?”

“Four A-M,” she said, straightening in the jamb. “Wear the clothes from last night. We’ll get you more later. Meet me in the kitchen. Breakfast’s ready.”

“Breakfast?” Crystal asked, more surprised than she should’ve been.

Angela was already down the hall. Crystal dressed in a hurry, admittedly more hungry than she’d been in a long time. Despite the previous evenings meal, she’d merely activated her long-dormant appetite, not sated it. She pushed her way into the kitchen, found Angela on the island’s far-side, shoveling food into her mouth. A digital newspaper was thumbed upward on a tablet, a headline reading something about “corporate take-over.” Crystal’s attention was too focused on Arthur shuffling about before a stove. His burgundy bathrobe and silk pajamas were frayed with age. His slippers, even older, scuffed a symphony of equal parts stubborn survival and enduring comfort. The hardwood floor thunked softly as he turned, pan in hand, and shoveled bacon and eggs for Crystal.

Her mouth watered at the sight– to say nothing of the heavenly aroma. She took it with a “thank you.” he grunted in reply. “Not much of a morning person, Arthur,” Angela said to her. He grunted again. They chuckled together. “Anyway, don’t overeat. You start training today. I can’t have you getting sick.” Crystal hesitated mid-way through a bite with a wide-eyed look. Angela gave her a sidelong glance, “I’ll go easy today. But it won’t last. Today’s evaluation. I need to know what you can do to focus your training. Besides, we have places to go. You’ll need energy for that, so I won’t beat you… up too much.”

Crystal smiled over her food, finished the bite. “Where’re we going?”

Angela gave a crooked grin, “It’s a surprise. I promise you’ll like it.”

She winced. Angela questioned her with a look. “I’m not really a surprise person. The last surprise I got was ending up on the street.”

Angela grimaced, “Sorry. Just remember what I said: trust me. You’ll like this.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Breakfast was mostly silent after that, more from world-class cooking than anything– then again, Crystal realized, it could’ve been the worst food in the world, but so long as it was fresh and hot, it was just as enjoyable. An empty plate later, she followed Angela back past her room for the door at the hall’s end. The seemingly normal door opened onto a monstrosity of a room three or more fold the height and five the width of the rest of the apartment. The combination gym, obstacle course, and climbing section alone was the size of a football field. The far-end continued through a set of doors, and on into mystery.

“Holy hell,” Crystal breathed.

“Welcome to the training room.”

“This is amazing.”

Angela chuckled, “You’d be surprised what you can do with money and elbow grease.”

You built this?”

Angela led her toward the far doors, “A couple people helped– Arthur was one– but yes. Built and designed it myself.”

Crystal rubbernecked the room, “But why?”

“I take the winter off. This year will be different, but I don’t want to go soft lounging around. So instead of working, I train.”

Crystal followed her to the back-wall, neck craned. Apart from the hand-holds across the walls and ceiling, hooks for zip-lining and over-hand holds were dotted or lined here and there. The course was constructed with every type of obstacle Crystal could name; barbed wire, hurtles, thick wood for vaulting, ropes for climbing– so much it was difficult to take it all in.

She passed through the doors and found herself staring down a long, wide hallway. Concrete block replaced the training implements and homely décor. She trudged along, feeling distinctly like a recruit in boot camp. Angela sensed it, felt the same from a Drill Instructor’s position.

They passed a few doors before pushing through one on the left. A large exercise room rivaling the adjoined kitchen and living room was filled with fitness machines and weight benches. They lined the walls with sturdy readiness. Meanwhile, the central area was filled by specific weight-sets and machines. Angela had accounted for every type of work-out imaginable. Crystal could only imagine what more lay unseen.

The LEDs threw light across blue-mat covered floors, sank into or bounced off the modern black-and-chrome equipment. The room was as much a high-end gym as a personal one, but Crystal knew that was exactly Angela’s intention. She was led to a corner where Angela dug through a cabinet, for work-out clothing. She shut the cabinet, gathered the stuff into a pile.

“You’ll need that stuff clean for later.”

Crystal was internally ecstatic. New clothes were one thing. Two sets of new clothes was like a holiday she’d only dreamed of. She sat on a weight bench, unlaced her boots, then changed while Angela thumbed her tablet. She hesitated, then began to scribble with an attached stylus.

“You ready for this?”

Crystal knotted her fresh running shoe. “Hell yes.”

Angela was stern, serious. “I wanna see what you can do. Don’t hurt yourself. I need to know honestly what you can handle to design our regimen. Don’t be a bad-ass. We can’t waste time waiting for you to heal. We’ll start small, move up ‘til you can’t handle it. Got it?” She nodded. “Let’s do it.”

The next few hours were a grueling test of Crystal’s endurance and strength. She went through each machine pushing, pulling, thrusting, ran miles on a treadmill– or rather, sprinted a few seconds then jogged the rest. She biked miles more on a stationary cycle, trudged more still along a stair-master. The whole time, Angela stood beside her, almost silent until forced to urge her on; half-cheerleader, half Drill Sergeant.

It was only three hours before Angela called for a stop. Finished in the weight room, Crystal was ready to collapse. She panted, wheezed, sweating as if dunked beneath water. Angela let her catch her breath, throw down some water, then escorted her back to the obstacle course.

“You’re serious?” Crystal asked, feeling the first aches from her sore limbs.

Angela’s brow rose, “You want out, say so.”

Crystal winced, breathed, “No.”

Angela walked her along a section of course, illustrating what was expected: She would begin with a short sprint. Vault over a half-wall. Drop to crawl under a small fence. Sprint into a rope-climb on a full-wall. Jump from atop it to the next. Then, to the floor below. From there, the last section was a series of hurtles and vaults, ending in a long balance-beam and full-wall she would finish atop.

The course covered less than a third of the room’s obstacles. Either Angela was being charitable, or it was simply impractical to expect more of her yet. Either way, Crystal was glad for that. The course wouldn’t be easy, especially for tired limbs. She took her place at the course’s start. Angela stood beside her, tablet in-hand, and gave a three-count. At “Go” Crystal bolted.

She sprinted, stumbled, recovered. The first vault was sloppy. She toppled over it, landed on tired calves, then stumbled to her knees. She used the momentum to throw herself prone, passed beneath the fence, then staggered back up into a run, calves and thighs searing. She hurled herself at the rope wall. Her hands and arms ached, throbbed. She kicked and grabbed, groaned, struggled for the wall-top. The jump beyond was easier. The landing came with another stagger that nearly knocked her off its far-side. The hop was slower, but she was focused on the course ahead. Her mind and heart ran even faster, unconsciously calculating each step and pump.

She reached the first hurtle, cleared it: landed, stepped, vaulted. The process repeated rhythmically, brought her to the last section of floor and beam. Her burning legs sprang. Fire sputtered within, launched her over the last vault, atop the beam. She crossed it in fast, easy steps, landed on the floor beside Angela.

“Stop!” Angela commanded.

Crystal doubled over, panting, aching– but more alive than she’d ever been.

Angela gave her a water bottle, “That was a helluva lot better than I expected.”

“Thanks,” she said breathlessly, squirting water into her mouth. “I tried.”

“Ever been athletic?” Crystal shook her head. “That’s damned impressive.”

Crystal took another squirt of water, straightened, “I… don’t want to go back… to the street.”

“I know the feeling.” She motioned her along, “C’mon, we’ll get your stuff. You can shower and then get your surprise.”

She managed a laugh, “Whatever you say.”

Crystal and Angela parted at the bathroom. The former soaked her aching muscles in a hot shower, tossed the clothing in a pile near her bed, sat atop it to lace her boots. For once, she was excited about a surprise. She wasn’t even sure why. So much good had happened that having a little hope only felt right. Trusting Angela felt only fair. Such kindness was rare enough. A little faith in return was hardly a burden to repay.

She met Angela in the kitchen, her upper-half clad a leather jacket with sunglasses propped on her head. She motioned toward the garage and led the way to a mid-70s Plymouth Roadrunner, then slid into the driver’s seat. The engine started with a billowing roar. It rumbled to the elevator, then rose into the alley and the fresh, afternoon gray.

Angela backed the length of the alley in a half-second, watched the elevator sink, then spun the tires and threw the car around to face the open road. Angela slipped on her sunglasses, dropped the clutch and burned along the block. An inexplicably giddy joy crept up through Crystal as they zoomed through the city. She was once more the carefree girl she’d wanted to be. She might as well be out ditching class and hell-raising again.

Twists and turns led them into downtown. She hadn’t seen the place in as long as anything else outside her street-living haunts. The illusion of her place as another, normal person was only bolstered by their eventual destination. Angela pulled into the parking lot of the city’s super-mall.

Crystal sensed a joke: the mall was like someone had combined every consumerist desire possible into a few million square feet. In combination with the massive food court of fine and fast dining, the place was the epitome of every person’s slobbery, materialist desires. Moreover, it was a hell of a place to spend the day.

They angled into a space and the minor fear slipped from Crystal’s mouth, “You’re serious?”

Angela laughed full-on. “Surprise. Time to shop.”

“S-seriously?”

“C’mon, we’ll have lunch first, then blow as much cash as possible.”

Crystal’s legs were rubber. She wasn’t going to be living like a normal person after all. She was going to be living like a movie star, like royalty. Better, even– Angela knew how to have fun. She climbed from the car, groped along it for its trunk, then wobbled after Angela.

Never in a million years would she have expected this. Not because she underestimated Angela’s benevolence, but because it’d been so long since she’d even thought of a shopping spree that it never could’ve occurred to her. Past fears be damned, this was one hell of a good surprise.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t help but wonder about the eventual balancing of the cosmic scales. She wasn’t sure could ever level it. Only time would tell. For now, she merely hoped there were no catastrophic repercussions. Given the last decade though, she wasn’t holding her breath.

4.

Trust Me

Angela secured them a table in a quieter restaurant. The place was more top-and-tails than Crystal expected. It was one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. Normally, they’d have needed a reservation, but Angela’s money was worth more than the host’s sniveling. They were given a booth in the bar, mostly vacant despite the “lunch-rush” outside. The pair ordered, waited, then were treated to the best meal Crystal’d had in her entire life. She could remember others like it, but none had exceeded it. Even Arthur’s exquisite cooking could never have matched it. That there was more to come was the icing on the proverbial cake. When they finally left the restaurant, Crystal was again checking for symptoms of dreams or hallucinations. Angela caught her careful analysis of reality and reassured her.

They stopped near the restaurant to get their bearings and Crystal leaned against a railing. Her sore muscles throbbed, but her body remained upright from pure adrenaline. She allowed herself to bask in the sounds, the sights. Life thrummed and undulated around her. It echoed its consumerist gorging off the thirty-foot ceilings and pits of the lower floors. Luxury fountains and rolling water mingled with the persistent murmur of humanity. Amid it all stood Crystal like slats in a sieve, letting it wash over and through her.

“I know that look,” Angela said. “You’ve been out of the loop a while, huh?”

Crystal’s eyes fell open on Angela, “It’s unbelievable. I’d have never imagined being here.”

Angela leaned beside her, “Well, like I said, it’s not free. Not really. Work with me– at least long enough to know it’s not what you want. That’s repayment enough. Money’s money. It’s important, but the debt I owe’s better repaid through you than someone less deserving.”

Crystal’s voice was airy from gratitude, “Thank you, Angela. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.”

Angela hung a hand on her shoulder, focused on the directory map beside them, “Shoes or clothes first?”

“Clothes,” Crystal’d said decisively with a giddy laugh.

They headed into the afternoon crowds toward the consumerist ambrosia. Before long, Angela was calling security to have them guard their luggage-rack of purchases while they continued through the mall. Making it through proved as much an exercise in excess as physicality. When security finally met them at the car, Angela tipped them, then stuffed the trunk and back-seats with everything from clothing and shoes, to jewelry and knick-knacks. They drove off with the Roadrunner’s large trunk and back seat rustling.

Angela glanced over at a light, “One more stop. Then, we can head home and unload.”

“Where are we going?”

Angela was intentionally vague, “A friend’s place. He’ll need to outfit you.”

Crystal couldn’t help her curiosity, “What do you mean “outfit?”

She cleared her throat, “I’ll explain once we’re there. Nothing bad. Just easier that way.” Crystal’s face sank. “Trust me, okay?”

“Okay. I will– I do.”

She smiled and rocketed through the green light. They raced through the streets along the bustling downtown to a run-down ghetto, eventually finding themselves parked outside an old pawn-shop. A neon sign flickered and buzzed bright-red, “McCormick’s Pawn” spanning the front above barred windows and below others. More than anything else, the area was rough. Crystal was almost concerned about leaving the car, but Angela’s lack of concern allowed Crystal to follow her in.

The shop was the typical scene expected of the less-affluent parts of town. Everything was old, beat-up, and dirtier than something being sold had a right to. Crystal couldn’t help but wonder what business Angela could ever have in such a place.

The answer came beyond an aisle of pawned televisions, car stereos, and power tools at a display-case counter: Beneath it were countless gems, some inlaid in various jewelry– all more upscale than the dive had a right to. They reached the counter, and Angela slapped a hand against a bell. A wiry man in his mid-thirties shuffled from the backroom, eyes on a tablet, and eyeglasses propped up on his head. He stepped up to the counter, then suddenly recognized Angela.

“Angie? What the hell’re you doing here?” He checked his wrist-watch. “I didn’t think you’d be in. Business or–” He saw Crystal and went silent.

“Business,” Angela said. “This is Crystal. New partner. I need her outfitted.”

He looked Crystal over, “’Nother street-kid, huh?” He eyed Angela for approval. She nodded. “I can give her the full-package, but it’ll cost you.”

“Package?” Crystal asked.

Angela quieted her with a raised hand. “Same price as before. Forty-five.”

He snorted, “Sorry kid, can’t do that. Fifty five or nothing.”

She turned shrewd. “Jonas, don’t dick with me. Forty-Five. Or, I find someone else to do business with.”

He chewed his lip, “That’s cutting into to my profit.”

“Which exists because of me.”

He was carefully irate, “Might as well be handing the shit out at that price, Angie.”

“But you aren’t,” she countered. “You’re securing a business relationship with your best partner for a small premium.”

He huffed frustration, “Might as well be blackmailing me.”

“I prefer to think of it as negotiation.”

He sighed, “Fine. Forty-eight. That covers sale and installation.”

“Installation?” Crystal asked.

“Forty-Eight,” Angela said, satisfied.

He motioned them behind the counter. Angela followed promptly, but Crystal hesitated, “Where’re we–”

“You’re safe. Trust me.

Despite her apprehension, Crystal started forward. They passed through a dingy office crammed with tech gear, file cabinets, and stacked papers and file-folders. Jonas led them for a door at its end, and up a cramped staircase. It angled right mid-way up, then led up again before terminating in a door. Jonas unlocked it with a pair of keys and it opened onto a lavishly furnished apartment.

The exterior and lower floor expertly hid the luxury apartment and its expensive looking furnishings. No-one could have known such extravagance was contained within without prior knowledge. Jonas paid it no mind as he held the door for them, then shut and bolted it behind them. He typed a few numbers into a security pad beside it, shut down and locked the shop below.

If there was one thing Jonas knew, it was security. That’s why Angela had come to him. She let him push back into the lead, and followed him through an ornate kitchen of black and chrome for a short hallway, roughly the length of a pair of rooms. Four doors were stationed along it; two on one side, one on the opposite, and one at its end.

Jonas thumbed a print scanner at the end of the hall, then slid a key-card through a reader on the wall and typed in a pass-code. The door clicked and pushed open. The walls inside were white, lighted like Angela’s garage. The scent of disinfectants said it was more for sterility than style. A gurney and the plethora of machines around it said the place could be used medically. The plethora of machines on a table near the room’s center lent credence to the idea.

None of that soothed Crystal’s churning stomach. Whatever the next surprise was, she wasn’t certain she wanted it. “What’s going on here?”

Jonas cut in, “The sooner we’re working, the sooner we’re done.” He motioned Crystal to a chair across the table, “Sit.”

Crystal hesitated with a look to Angela; she nodded, arms crossed. Crystal breathed and sat. Between she and Jonas was a curious contraption at face height. Prods jutted out from the sides, angled right as if to hold one’s temples. In its center, a second pair of prods appeared ready to stab at her eyes. She was instantly nervous. Fears of cosmic scale-balancing rushed back. Whatever Angela wanted her to do now, she wanted less with each moment.

“Put your chin against this,” Jonas said, tapping a spot below the eye-level prods. Crystal steeled herself, placed her face against the contraption. “Don’t blink. It’ll be hard, but don’t.”

Crystal swallowed hard, “O-okay.”

He adjusted knobs on the machine and centered the prods on her eyes and temples. He flicked a switch and two more snapped down, thrummed to press against the bone just below her ears. They pressed against her with painful, needle-like tips.

“On three you’ll feel a slight pressure in your temples and ears. Then again, a sting in your eyes. It’s all perfectly normal. Just Don’t blink.”

She had her doubts about that.

Jonas counted. Seconds were eternities. The moments between were eons. The first prods readied with small gear-sounds. The four prods pressed through her skin like small syringes. A second of pressure passed and the area was numb. She swallowed hard, fought not to blink, still terrified. Jonas soothed her with silence, began his second count.

Sweat beaded on her forehead. The eye-level prods stared her down. Their movements were slow, methodical. Jonas counted. “Three,” came with a momentary pause. The probes shot out. In. A lone revolution of a tattoo machine’s needle. The pain was as instant as short-lived. The splendor took longer to settle in. Before Crystal could comprehend it, Jonas was on his feet beside her. He held a device against her neck just behind her ear.

Another slight, needled pressure, and her vision was engulfed by lines of code. It was like a computer booting-up in her head, for her eyes only. Strings of commands fed across her eyes. Their individual characters sharpened to a focus. A quick flicker and the strings disappeared, replaced by a heads-up-display complete with time, date, and GPS map of her surroundings in a corner of her field of view.

“How’s that?” Jonas asked. “Clear? No fuzz?”

She was completely awestruck. “N-no. It’s… amazing.” More items appeared as the HUD finished its boot. “Wh-what is it?”

“Tactical heads-up-display” Jonas explained, taking his seat. “High-grade optical augment used by soldiers and special police– and anyone able to afford the black market price. Anything you want it to do, it can. Just think it, it’ll happen. Anything it can’t do, let me know and I’ll program it in.”

“Can it tell me the weath–” She was cut short by a window opening on the HUD with the latest forecast from NOAA appearing. She breathed, “Holy shit.”

“Takes some getting used to,” Angela chuckled. “But it’s invaluable. Especially for our work.”

“And very. Expensive,” Jonas said, clearing his throat.

Angela rolled her eyes, produced a cellphone and a small SSD. She slotted the card, thumbed her phone, then ejected the card and tossed it over.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he said smarmily.

Angela focused on Crystal, “How’s it feel?”

Crystal glanced over. Informatics flared on, listing Angela’s heart-rate, respiration, body temperature, and a myriad of other stats. The feeling was awesome in the most literal sense. It was as if she’d been blind since birth, were suddenly seeing for the first time. Everything she looked at was replete with information. The HUD displayed it all, from the steel floor’s composition, to the LED and wood-embedded walls. Everything was something. Every something told her more, and more about the next thing. It made her head spin. The only thing she wasn’t certain of was how to turn it off. Then again, she wasn’t sure she cared to.

“This… is amazing,” she repeated, chest heaving with exhilaration.

Angela motioned her up, “Play with it later. There’s one more thing to do.” She looked to Jonas, “Show her your special stock.”

He fingered a button beneath the table. Crystal stood, minimizing as many needless details as possible. They were captivating, but the sounds of small hydraulics managed to tear her attention back to real-space. Panels slid back in the lighted walls, revealing dark alcoves rotating on an X-axis. Velvet lined cases with weapons and objects rotated into place. The gleam of black and chrome, steel and polymer appeared across the room. Pistols and rifles mingled with various attachments and other tools of black-market trades Crystal guessed were more necessary than wanted. She glanced back at Angela, her HUD finally under control. Only its edges registered her own, personal vitals below the GPS.

Angela motioned outward, offering her the room, “Take your pick. Money’s no object.”

Both women heard Jonas’ slobbery suckle.

Crystal began to walk the room, glancing over various pistols, rifles, shotguns, and submachine guns in their endless configurations. She turned back at a wall of lock-picks and other, small instruments, and headed for the far-wall. A pistol caught her eye mid-way through the room. She stopped to survey it. The black polymer frame was fitted with a laser-attachment beneath the barrel.

“Good taste,” Jonas said, suddenly beside her. He thumbed a pad hidden in the wall and the thin braces holding the weapons in place sank away. He lifted the pistol out, “Magnum Research’s finest Baby Deagle.” He held it in an open palm, “Laser sighting, and 13-round mag chambered in 40-cal S-and-W.” He dropped the empty magazine out with one hand, caught it with the other, then slammed it back in. “Good for close to mid-range, so you might as well leave anything else at home.”

Angela stepped over, “Enough, Jonas. You don’t need sell her.”

Jonas offered Crystal the gun, she took it, tested its weight, then raised it to past Jonas’ shoulder.

“What do you think?”

She held it with both hands, allowed the laser to activate, and smiled. “I’ll take it.”

Jonas chuckled, retrieved a holster and a small box of ammunition, “Is that all?”

Angela spoke up, “She needs something else. A primary.”

“I do?” Crystal asked, sliding the pistol into the holster.

“Yes.” Angela walked the walls to a pair of machine-pistols. “These.”

Crystal stepped over, examined them. They were admittedly nice, but why she would she ever need them? She hoped the pistol alone would be enough– at that, that it’d never see use. She’d reacted as she’d thought was expected, finding something to protect herself, but it seemed Angela wanted her to become some sort of militant. It forced a pause over her.

Jonas was beside them, “Hmm… TMPs.” He eyed Crystal, then Angela, “You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Crystal wasn’t. “Why? I said I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

Angela gave her a grave look, “Better to have them and not need them. A pistol should be your last resort in a fight, not your first.”

Crystal winced. Angela instructed Jonas with a look. He keyed in a code and unlocked the machine-pistols, handed one over to Crystal. “Nine-by-nineteen rounds. Optional fifteen to thirty-round mags. Suppressors. Holsters. Detachable side-mount lasers and forward grips. Well-furnished and deadly at close and mid-ranges. Not to mention, bad-ass looking.”

Crystal felt the weight in her hand, tested it as she had before. Angela was satisfied, “We’ll take both. Furniture too. And as much nine-by-nineteen ammo as you’ve got.”

Jonas’ eyes lit up. “Yes, Ma’am.”

By the end of it, they left the pawn-shop with a large box of goods taped up and tagged “fragile” on the side. Crystal set the box in the Roadrunner’s trunk as a first, few drops of rain began falling. She shut the trunk and moved to the passenger’s seat, readjusting the “Baby Deagle” at her hip. They started back for home, Crystal more uneasy than she wanted to admit.

“Angela, I’m really grateful for everything but–”

“I’m not going to make you kill anyone,” she preempted. She glanced over with a serious gravity, “But if it comes to it, I’m going to ensure you survive.” She re-focused on the road. “Besides, you need something for weapons training. Its better to have something you’re used to.”

“Okay,” she said quietly.

Admittedly, she was a little excited to try out the weapons, but it was overshadowed by the singular thought of hurting someone. Even that person wishing to harm her didn’t feel as though it would make it easier. Whether it did or not, remained to be seen– though she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

At the very least she resolved to trust Angela’s assertion: She was teaching her to protect herself. It was little solace, but Crystal felt it better to fear killing someone than someone killing her.

5.

Not Going Back

The rest of their night passed in a lackadaisical haze. Crystal’s fatigue began to overwhelm her as she carried her new things into her room. Before long she found herself sitting on the edge of a bed covered in bags and boxes, utterly exhausted. Walking in and out of the room was equally difficult, the floor and desk littered with new merchandise, and a box of weapons and ammunition. The day had been fruitful, certainly, and she’d beaten herself up seeing to it.

Angela appeared in the door, leaned against one side, “Good day?”

“Definitely.”

“You want help putting it away?”

She shook her head, “I’d rather do it. Secure the idea it isn’t a dream, you know?”

“I do,” Angela reminded. “Arthur’s cooking dinner. You’re free to eat as soon as he’s done. Just get some sleep later. We start your real training tomorrow. You’ll need the energy.”

Again, Angela was true to her word. The morning was rough. Crystal’s machine-time was drawn out into true regimens. She went along the row, repeating the base-line work outs she done, then upping them until her body screamed agony and her limbs failed. She was given only enough reprieve to regain her breath before beginning again.

Angela kept her off the obstacle course, for now content to keep her lifting, pushing, pulling, and jogging as much and as long as possible. The base-line workouts would rebuild Crystal’s emaciated body. Only after could their work on expanding her strength begin. Arthur’s various protein shakes and calorie-rich meals did their best to quicken their pace, and over the first week Crystal’s sets and reps, or miles run, were increased. It felt as if only days had passed when she began seeing the shift. Her body was more toned and well-fed than it had been in years.

Angela too, seemed happy with her progress. Long ago she’d instructed her to leave her HUD off during training and practice. Crystal didn’t mind; half the time she forgot it was there. The rest of the time she wondered how it might ever be helpful. Soon enough though, Angela was reminding her to shut it down as she found herself playing with it more as an amusing oddity than the life-saving tech Angela assured her it was.

After the second, full week ended, the pair sat to discuss the next phase of training.

“You’ve done well. Much better than I expected. Better than I did when I started,” Angela assured her. “You have more untapped potential than anyone, so it’s time to move forward.”

Crystal was still sweating from her latest work-out. She squirted water into her mouth, sat on a weight bench in front of Angela. “Does that mean we won’t be doing this anymore?”

She shook her head, “No, we will. But we’ll be starting your agility and dexterity training with a section of obstacles on the course. I’ll have you picking locks soon. Got it?”

“Just tell me what to do.”

Angela smiled, “That’s what I want to hear.”

She led Crystal from the weight-room to the obstacle course. Along its left-side, a series of long beams, painted lines, and narrow, wall-high ledges were lined after one another. Near them higher up, wide ledges jutted from the wall at body-height from the ceiling. Rock-wall grapples led up to them and filled the space around them as hand-holds. The ledges were narrow beams leading across sections jutting this way and that or intersecting with others to create the first, agility training course.

Angela stopped near the first beam, and a line painted on the mats leading to it. “You see the path, right?” Crystal nodded. “Run it. The floor’s soft enough a fall won’t kill you, but avoid it. The last thing you want’s a broken leg so early in training.”

“We’re not using any safety gear?”

“Can’t. I need to know what you can do, not a crutch.”

Crystal swallowed terror. “I’ll do my best.”

Angela readied her stop-watch, “Take your time. This is just for reference. No pressure, okay?”

She muttered under her breath, “Okay. I can do this.”

Angela gave a three-count. Crystal bolted. She kept her feet aligned to the floor markings, followed it. A standing hop landed her atop the first bar, eyes forward. Her body automatically adjusted to the narrow beam. She reached its end, hopped to the first ledge. She teetered, forced her equilibrium. The next few ledges were strides apart, easy enough. Her confidence rose. A last pair of narrow ledges led to another high-beam, a ledge a jump from its end.

She strode across the ledges, managed a perfect hop to the beam, and took it with speed. Her confidence remained. The jump would be tougher. She’d make a full-left turn on the ledge to angle toward the wall of hand-holds.

She reached the end of the beam, hesitated, then jumped. Her feet landed off-center. Her confidence wavered. She found herself gripping the ledge, arms aching, hands bleeding. She felt, rather than saw, the floor over twenty feet below. A weak grunt emitted from her, with it went all but the last of her confidence.

She fought skinned palms and quivering arms as a fleeting thought flitted through her: a week ago she’d been incapable of this. She’d been too emaciated, too weak. Now, she was well-fed, muscled even. Angela believed in her. So much so, she found herself believing too. She had no reason not to believe now. She had to trust her gut, her mentor. Angela wouldn’t put her to a task she weren’t up to. Most of all, she had to remember failing Angela meant return to the street.

That did it.

I’m not going back.

She growled. Pulled. Pushed. Her bloody palms streaked wet on the ledge. Her throat groaned, strained, legs angled up. Her body pressed the rock wall. Confidence flared. Her feet worked. She propelled herself along it toward the next wall. She hit the edge, leapt. Her hands clasped rock-holds. Her legs recoiled off the wall. She yelped. Adrenaline flowed, blocked pain. She wasn’t going back. She couldn’t. If it meant crossing this course a million times. Falling to her death. She wasn’t going back.

She found herself angling down to the first high ledge. Her back kissed the wall. Feet side-stepped along it. They danced across the gap between one ledge and another. Deft steps put her at the first, jutting corner. It stuck out like a small box from the ceiling. Crystal’s feet and arms worked, kept her balanced. Her back scuffed the sharp corner with dull pain. It followed the wall-face to its front. Another side-step: she was around the next corner. Around an L. The last section of rock-holds led back to the floor.

Her breath was ragged. Mind and heart raced. She wouldn’t go back. She’d kill, maim, die to stay. An atavistic aggression surged through her. She’d been through hell. Life had tried to suffocate her. Every breath had been a fight. It was time to turn the tide. Time to take her life back from the forces working against it. They’d tried to beat her down again and again, never could. Never would. She’d always survived, beat the odds. She’d do so now too. And forever. She’d never find herself back on the street. Never again be poor, nor homeless. Never again eating from trash-cans.

The thoughts flung her down the holds until she dropped, with feline agility, and stuck her landing on the mats. Angela stopped the timer and Crystal rose, changed. She looked the same, sounded the same, in ways felt the same, but she was different. Both student and teacher sensed it. Her chest heaved from adrenaline surging along her spine while aggression and determination coursed through her in equal measures.

Angela approached her with a wily eye, “Good to see our effort’s not being wasted.” Crystal blew a hot breath to cool herself. Angela slotted her tablet in a back pocket, “C’mon, let’s have a little fun. You’ve done more than enough for today.”

She handed Crystal her water bottle, and led the way from the course to the concrete-block hallway. Crystal half-expected to end up in the training room. Instead, Angela led her past it and a few, other doors. The innards of them still remained a mystery, but one was about to be revealed. They stopped at the last room on the left: either a massive room, or yet another subdivided one.

“You’ll love this,” Angela said, unlocking the door with a thumb-print and a pass-code.

She pushed open the door and stepped in. Lights flared on. Immediately ahead, the room was wider, deeper. By now, she’d learned to expect just about anything from the place she was calling home. Somehow, the massive shooting range was still surprising.

To the left, the back-wall was covered in slotted pegboards and lonely, waist-high shelves. Both were covered in an arsenal out of a gun-nut’s wet-dream. Crystal couldn’t help but gawk. The collection was extensive. Weapons and ammunition of every type sat ready to be fired along the thousand yards of range across from them. The six motorized pulleys, controlled from waist-high tables beside them, waited to accompany them. Atop each sound dampeners like ancient, radio-headsets, sat idle, waiting.

“Wow,” Crystal gawked. “I never expected this.”

Angela led Crystal to the second table in line. Her pistol and TMPs out beside the ear-coverings. “It’s time you start basic weapons training. No pressure. Not yet. Today, fun. Tomorrow, you train. When I think you’re ready, we’ll add targets to the obstacle course. Then, you’ll run it with your weapons. Simple enough, right?”

Crystal nodded, slid her hand over the guns before her, “Are you sure I’m ready?”

Angela laughed, “You were born for this.” Crystal eyed her skeptically. “You have an enormous well of untapped-potential. You never had the chance to mature. To grow into anything. You’ve needed to have your energy focused. That’s all we’re doing– all we’ve been doing. Now, are you going to do this?”

She felt the second half of Angela’s question resound within her, despite it not being asked: “Or are you going back to the streets?” Her answer was obvious.

Crystal’s eyes narrowed, “Just tell me what to do.”

Angela patted her back, “Always what I want to hear. We’ll start with your pistol.”

Angela drew the “Baby Deagle” and began to illustrate: its parts. How to load. Unload. Break it down. Assemble it. She set it aside, did the same for one of the TMPs. The small machine-pistols were stripped of their attachments. Crystal guessed to get her used to them. She was excited and nervous all the same. Her anticipation overwhelmed any fear. Angela’s insistence on fun only reinforced it. The next few hours were a thorough weapons-handling course, interspersed with stances and minor demonstrations. The mood remained light. Live fire finally began, then lasted into the evening.

There was no denying Angela’s satisfaction. Crystal was progressing, phenomenally. Untapped potential or not; the more they trained, the more she excelled. Over the next week, Crystal more than halved her time on the courses. She doubled her weight and running regimens.

It was difficult to know where the shift had come from. Crystal however, knew exactly where it had come from; nearly falling off the wall. She’d faced the possibility that everything was for nothing, and denied its existence, and any plans for failure the course or the universe might’ve had in mind.

Before she knew it, Crystal and Angela were once more in the former’s room. Angela did her tell-tale shoulder-lean against the jamb. It was increasingly coming to mean something important needed to be said. For the last four weeks, Crystal had trained ceaselessly. She’d progressed along the obstacle course to encompass nearly all of it. She’d become proficient with her weapons. Was more than skilled at the simpler trades of lock-picking, and pick-pocketing. But the look in Angela’s eyes said there was more to come. At that, it said of everything, it was to be taken the most seriously.

She crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “You’ve done well. We’ll continue the regimen we’ve been running. But it’s time to show me what you’ve got.”

Crystal stood from the bed, took a step forward. She was already more muscled, lean in place of malnourished. Her shaved patches of hair were due for another shaving, but Angela was holding off.

Crystal stood firm a few paces in front of her, but said nothing. Angela stiffened slightly, straightened from the jamb, “I’m going to test you. Extensively. If you pass, you’ll be given the option of continuing. If you fail, you can continue training and attempt to pass again, or leave immediately. In either case, a second failure means going no further. If you succeed, you’ll be given one final task. After that, if you wish to leave, you may, but if you stay, you will have committed to our partnership. Understood?” Crystal nodded. “Good. We’ll begin immediately. Follow me.”

6.

In the Field

The first few tests were less harrowing than Crystal expected. They amounted to running the course in its entirety, picking locks within a time-limit, and accuracy-based speed shooting. Angela had trained her well enough that pressure felt as natural as daily practice. At lunch, Angela’s personal gravity seemingly increased. Her stiff-lip hardened. Crystal soon learned why: all of her field skills were about to be tested in the field.

The pair took their lunch break, sat at the island counter across from one another. Angela’s sudden taciturnity kept her from saying much while they ate. Still, Crystal ate slowly, hoping to prolong a possibly untimely end of their partnership– and her newly-comfortable life. Angela downed a drink, fished for another in the fridge, then cracked the top on a can of soda.

She deliberately waited for the fizz to die before speaking, “You’ve done well.” Her tone was short, firm rather than cold. “Better than I’d anticipated, but there’s only so much we can learn with imaginary pressure. We’re going to put your skills to use.”

Crystal sipped autonomously from a cup, watching Angela beyond it.

She continued, “I’ve spoken to my Fixer, the woman that sets up my jobs. We call her Madame Curie. She’s lined up a job; a Museum piece is being transferred into town on a truck-full of others. The goal’s to nab it. Together. If you wish to continue, that is. This will be the final test. If the job goes as planned, you’re in.”

Crystal let the words sink in with an other drink.

Angela gave it a full minute. Then, on cue, “You in?”

Crystal didn’t want to make the decision in haste, but wasn’t sure she couldn’t. She guessed her answer would’ve proven the same regardless. If the options were repaying Angela or returning to stinking like a corpse, she’d attempt repayment every time. With that in mind, she nodded.

“I’m in.”

Angela’s eyes narrowed. “Then we’ll begin planning the job.”

The next hour was an exercise in focused listening. Every detail Angela gave was as important as the last. Every sentence was dense, packed full of information to warn, plan, or instruct. Not a single word was wasted. Before Crystal realized it, she and Angela were standing beside the BMW bike, fitting finger-less gloves. They were like digital-age warriors; clad in all black, beanie-caps, and loaded with guns, tools, and an empty pack for loot.

Crystal was floored. Yet beneath it all, her stomach churned inexplicably. She wasn’t sure why, the plan was simple: Await the delivery vehicle. Sneak inside to it. Grab the target. Run. The devil was in the details, but no matter what she examined, she found her fears rooted elsewhere. Even her minor fear of choking under pressure wasn’t the origin. Angela’s faith in her, she knew, would override that. Eventually she was left with no choice but to focus on the job and hope it worked itself out.

Angela stepped over with a small tin of make-up, began smearing her face. “All cameras have facial-recog software linked to central crime databases. If you’re spotted without this, they’ll peg you before you realize they’re there. It’s one of the most important tools we use. Never leave home without it.”

Angela stuffed the tin in a pocket of Crystal’s vest, then produced another to coat her own face. Metal flakes and gray, thermal paint made for a glittering, tight mask that smothered the skin. It was a small price to pay to keep them safe against the inevitable lawmen looking to stake claims. Crystal knew next to nothing about tech, but figured the metal flakes somehow confused the software. How, she couldn’t say, but all she cared to know was where Angela needed her.

Gear secured, they saddled up the bike. The engine ignited its high-performance growl, then bellowed a roar into the elevator. At street level, the roar repeated, echoing into the freshly risen night until it reached top-speed. Crystal’s HUD activated: Temperature and barometric readings appeared immediately, various metrics and calculations beneath them fading in and out as the bike angled around corners.

They glode along straights at top-speed. Ramshackle harbor-buildings turned to rundown ghettos. Vagrants and usual passersby whizzed past with futile readings. The ghettos turned middle-class– or as much as was left in their brave, new world. In truth, they galloped through what remained of the middle-class; slum-lord ghettos whose only difference from the lower ones were fresher coats of paint. Then, the upscale, downtown buildings began to appear.

The glitz and glamour of a cocaine-nightlife surged around them. Sharks and prey of all types emerged from the crevices to take it all in. Drunk couples walked hand-in-hand. Lower-upper class groups queued for list-only bars and restaurants while the A-listers entered from Limos at the back. The homeless and poor pan-handled, or hid or ran from men in blue armor. The city was a surging, roiling organism awash in colorful light and a parasite called humanity that the bike passed as if an impulse along the nerves of its streets.

The further they traveled, the more sparse the land became. It turned from the ass-shaking gold and silver of downtown to the tea and crumpets of old money-uptown. Pristinely groomed foliage and parks cut swaths between lavish, high-rise apartments or gated communities. Verdant hues dominated bright-white flood-lights and neutral, newer-than-most skyscrapers with out-of-season beauty. There was no denying “uptown” varied wildly from its lower counterpart. Of course, that meant infinitely more to the two thieves sizing up a mark than anyone.

Angela leaned them onto a long, four-lane avenue, aimed for a central area of grounds. They twisted, turned. If Crystal knew anything about the city she’d inhabited her whole life, it was that this was the height of its cultural contribution. The raving, boozing downtown district may have been what made the news, but Museum Mile made the society pages. In the end, those were the ones counted.

The grounds were immaculate, assaulting to the senses. That was the point. Dirt and asphalt didn’t exist here. Everyone from the Groundskeeper to the Grand Curator worked to ensure the little bit that did was forgotten. The Mile was different from anywhere else in the city– even the world. The colossal museums looked as if some Roman architect had been sucked through time to design the largest, most luxurious forums ever seen.

The largest of the museums was no different; all domes, hard angles, filigrees and columnar supports. The place was cast in tastefully opposing shades of beige, white, and gray. Sculptures of Gods and Goddesses lined the apexes and column-bases, outlined the front and sides of the museum. Various depictions of rituals, historical events, or people, lined the filigrees in between. Truly, the place was a wonder of human engineering and ego.

And they were about to rip it off.

Angela killed the bike’s headlight and Crystal’s night-vision software engaged. Her HUD dialed up its contrast, lightening the area so she might focus on the task at-hand. They went quiet, as they sailed along a side-road for a Museum’s rear-lot. They passed wide around a fenced, compound of loading bays. A guard-house cast an imposing silhouette in the darkness near the gate, but was far enough that they’d passed unheard and unseen.

The bike banked around like a fighter-jet to come about. It cut through the parking lot behind the compound and came to a rest somewhere in the middle. The two women climbed off to watch the for the truck’s arrival and confirm its markings. This was the easy part. The next, entering the compound to nab the target, wasn’t. Angela had hinted it might be as simple as scaling the fence, but Crystal doubted as much. Only time would only tell.

They left the bike, sneaked to the half cement, half chain-link fence encircling the compound. They kept their gravity centered near their knees, and crept along to the far, left side for an ideal vantage point. The guard-house remained far enough to keep from being spotted, yet was close enough to watch the guard, the gate beside well in view, too.

“There’s only one delivery tonight.” Angela said, sweeping the compound with binoculars. “One truck. Driver and loader. Two people. Two guards near the door. Cameras. A guard in the shack.”

She handed the binoculars to Crystal, whom confirmed her assessment: A pair of uniformed security-guards stood outside the personnel door at the furthest loading bay. Cameras were stationed along the building’s corners, near the rolling doors, and through-out the lot on light-poles to capture roughly the entirety of the inner-compound.

Crystal couldn’t help but notice the coverage, “How do you plan to get past the cameras?”

“Stay covered ’til we’re ready to move. Once anyone knows we were here, we’ll be long gone.”

Crystal chewed her tongue, “Not much room for error.”

“Think on your feet. It’s what I trained you for.”

A truck lumbered up to the gate. Crystal handed the binoculars back. “Mark’s arrived.”

Angela watched the truck stop and the gate creep open. The truck rolled in. “Payday’s a– Shit!

A sedan rolled in behind the truck, followed it through the lot with a wide berth to allow it to back up against a loading bay.

“Curie, you hag, you fucked us!”

Crystal’s adrenaline flowed. “What is it?”

Angela handed over the binoculars, “Security escort. Not unheard of, but not on the roster. The artifacts are private property. It’s the only reason they’d be here.”

Crystal watched the delivery truck settle into place. Its two occupants climbed out. Ahead of them, the Sedan’s four doors opened. Four, large men in suits climbed out. From her HUD, Crystal knew they were packing heat. They walked with excess weight to their hips, confirming as much. Her stomach bubbled and churned again: things were about to go completely sideways.

“Maybe it’s not our night,” Crystal whispered.

“No.” Angela dug in a vest-pocket for disassembled bolt-cutters and a cell-phone. She assembled the cutters, handed them over. “We’ve committed. We’ve got a client waiting. Stop now and we might as well write off our reputation– my reputation. Start cutting.”

Crystal took the cutters, hands near trembling. A breath forced adrenaline through them, and she began snipping apart the fence. Angela rolled it back in a large section, ushered her through, then followed her in. They skirted the edge of the lights, careful of the roving cameras. Light-yellow cones showed the camera angles on their HUDs– another useful tool of the trade Crystal was grateful for.

Angela stopped her mid-way through the lot. “There.”

Two, roving cones intersected periodically, a blind spot forming behind one as they did. The only problem was the glaring light all around it from above.

“We need to ensure no-one sees you.”

Crystal was exasperated. “Why me?”

“Because I have to draw them away,” she said, thumbing her phone.

In the distance, the bike started. Its engine revved. The faint silhouette of the performance-tuned bike raced for the gate. It angled around, stopped in front of it.

“Get ready,” Angela instructed. “One chance; get to the light. On my say, go for the truck.”

Crystal swallowed hard. Bile surged upward. Adrenaline flowed, knocked it down. The bike’s head-light flared on. It’s back tire began spinning. Burning rubber screamed with stinking, white smoke. The guard-house lit up and someone appeared at its side. Crystal was ready. Angela watched the guards near the truck halt mid-step, then turn to gawk.

“Go!”

Crystal bolted. The vision cones hit their first apex, began to swivel back. She dodged others, slipping in and out of shadows at the raised cement-bases of light-poles. The cones began to meet. The group near the truck headed for the smoking bike, weapons-out. One stayed behind, urging the driver and his comrade inside as he took a post at the truck’s rear.

Crystal ducked behind the target pole, glaring light all around her. All anyone needed was to look in her direction. She was literal deer in the headlights; eyes plastered wide, body frozen in terror.

All eyes were trained on the bike. The group approached the gate, guns drawn. The screeching tire went silent, and the light shut off. Smoke curled and wafted through the newly dead night, drifting away on a breeze to reveal the bike’s riderless form.

Angela’s voice piped in over Crystal’s comm-implant, “On three, make for the truck’s far-side. Don’t stop. Get inside it. I’ll handle the last guard.”

Her three count lasted an eternity. Time passed in flashes. Crystal found herself sprinting for the truck’s side. The bike’s headlight flared, strobed, incapacitating the group. Security was down, writhing, shouting in pain for help. The guard at the truck sprinted for his comrades. Crystal slipped behind the truck. The man stopped midway between the group and the truck to see the men shaking off the sudden attack. They groaned, rolled, rose to their feet one-by-one. The bike gave a pair of meeps and tore off into the night.

Crystal’s hands worked triple time, picking the truck’s padlock. Moments later she was in. She shut the door, found herself at the rear of a truck-full of crates, each stenciled with black painted lot-numbers.

“I’m in,” Crystal radioed.

“Lot 1-6-9-1.”

Crystal’s HUD flickered with an indicator, automatically searching as she skimmed the tight quarters. It located the lot number at an angle, highlighted it near the front of the truck. Crystal side-stepped, squeezed between two rows of larger crates, and centered herself before it. She fought for a grip on the crate, found it wedged in place.

“It’s stuck.”

Angela was running, panting, “Crack the box. We only need the contents. Terra Cotta warrior. Sixteen inches.”

Crystal fished out a few, small tools, jammed a mini pry-bar between the edges of the crates lid, and heaved her weight against it. Wood snapped. Metal groaned. Then, the slight cascade of packing materials and confetti-like paper spilled atop Crystal’s feet. She dug, felt her fingers clutch cool ceramic, and rejoiced internally. She yanked the artifact out, and stuffed it in her pack.

“I’ve got it,” Crystal said, edging toward the door. “Is it clear?”

No response.

Crystal hesitated, “Angela?” Her heart doubled its rhythm. “Angela?” She glanced around hopelessly. “Shit!”

With a deep breath, she pushed a door open and peered out to the right: where the guards should have been was nothing. She swallowed terror, crouched, and climbed out as quietly as possible. She rounded the rear of the truck, set her HUD to search for Angela. Nothing.

She hesitated to survey the lot; guards were still searching for the bike. The group roamed like ants swarming an insect carcass at the gate. Vision cones of the blind spot oscillated, beckoning her forward. She readied in a crouch to sprint. A loud click sounded behind her.

“On your knees, hands behind your head.” Crystal clenched her eyes shut. The voice repeated itself. “I will shoot you. Do it now!”

Crystal was torn. Where the hell was Angela? Why was this happening? Why was she even here? What was she going to do now?

“On your knees!

Crystal winced, chest deflating. She sank to one knee, then the next, “Don’t shoot. Alright? I’ll do what you say.”

“God damn right you will,” the man said, advancing toward her. “On your stomach. Flat. Arms out.” Crystal did. The man jerked the artifact from her pack. “Look what we have here. Guess it’s not your day. Get up. Hands up. Don’t even think about going for those pieces.” Crystal sighed, rose back to her knees then to her feet. “Good. Face me.”

Crystal turned in time to see Angela appear behind him. The next moments progressed in slow motion; Steel flashed. Disappeared. Crimson spilled, spurted. His jugular was pierced. He dropped the artifact, head forced against the truck’s rear-edge. It caved in with a bloody crunch. Angela was fast on the catch; the artifact was in her hand. He fell to a heap, gun firing randomly from a spasm.

Time resumed its pace.

Shit!”

Crystal was still frozen. Men rushing toward them were muffled by Angela tackling her into cover. The bike’s engine revved up again, was beside them seconds later. Crystal was still frozen, her eyes traumatized, stuck on the body. Angela jerked her toward the bike. Her legs worked autonomously to put it under her. More flashes. Moments formed vague pictures. They burned a trail toward the gate, gunfire aimed for them. Sparked colored the road, the bike’s extreme edges. Angela kept accelerating, weaving this way and that until they rocketed through the gate with a wide turn.

Muzzle flashes followed them down the Mile, but the bike soon left it behind. Crystal’s mind remained there, caught in the man’s lifeless eyes.

7.

Completely Sideways

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.”

“Uh-huh.”

“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.

8.

The Jewelry Store Job

Their day went in usual fashion, or what Crystal had come to know as such. They took breakfast in a quaint diner on the dingy side of town– not unlike the one where they’d first met, and returned home for daily training. They finished in time for lunch, then set to planning the next job.

Given the whole thing was being orchestrated by the store’s owner, it felt disingenuous to plan so much. Angela felt otherwise. Even the easiest jobs could go wrong if not taken seriously. Angela’d seen and heard of it happening enough. Even if the owner was in– the security guards, the whole damned town, even– one do-gooder with a gun or cell-phone could fuck it up.

Angela wouldn’t let it be an issue, but Crystal couldn’t help her nervousness. A niggling fear in her mind and gut only added insult to it. More and more, Crystal felt things were about to go wrong in a big way. Intuition told her it wasn’t the job, but logic and fear saw no other possibilities and overrode it.

The pair sat in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island. Jonas’ folder and its contents were laid out neatly between them. Angela examined the pages with an eagle-eye view while Crystal sifted her IDs and papers. Mostly, to keep her fidgeting hands moving while Angela mentally sorted the details of the job the following night. It would have to be enough time for Crystal to come to grips with what clawed at her. Otherwise, she’d be carrying more weight than she could handle. The last job had proven how fast one might need to move– and how fast things could turn bad.

The pair spent the night in planning, and broke only for dinner with Arthur. He counseled Angela with vague grunts and low mutters. Crystal was out of place, looking in on an intimate moment between two people forced together by circumstance and make the most of it. Arthur’s tones seemed to hint genuine concern, or interest, alongside detachment.

The night passed with sluggish inactivity. When the trio finally retired, Crystal passed out almost immediately, awoke to distant cooking, and found only Arthur present in the kitchen.

“Angela gone?” She asked, sitting at the island.

He grunted an affirming reply, “Shopping. Tools for tonight.”

Crystal spooned sugar into her coffee. “Didn’t think she’d ever need anything.”

“Ev’ry job’s different.” He shuffled over, dropped eggs and bacon onto a plate. He shuffled back and forth, plopped down toast. “Eat. You’ll need it come nightfall.”

“Thank you.” He grunted, ready to trundle off. “Wait.” He hesitated. “I just want to ask…”

He about-faced, his figure suddenly imposing in a paternal sort of way. He gave her a placid indifference while she struggled for words– the last thing she wanted was to speak ill of Angela. After all she’d done, it wasn’t right. All the same, a question needed to be asked, even if Arthur refused an answer, perhaps speaking it aloud would seal an idea in her mind.

“Is Angela…” Arthur’s brow rose. She breathed deep, exhaled slowly, “Should I be worried? I mean, is she being honest– about repaying some kind of debt?”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You’re asking if she can be trusted. If she’d betray you, or cast you out.” Crystal gave an apprehensive, but solitary nod. “Her business is her business, Crystal. I can’t tell you what’s in her heart. But I’ve been here a long time. Long enough to know she does not often betray her word. If she says there is a reason for something, there is one. If she says that reason is something personal, it is. But you want to know if you should leave.”

Crystal’s eyes fell to the floor, “Yes.”

“I can’t tell anyone how to live their life, girl, ut there’s not a thing Angela has shown me to distrust her. Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps not. But I’ve never wanted for, nor feared anything, since I met Angela. In this world, that’s more than most can say.”

Crystal met his eyes a final time with a silent gratitude. He replied with a slow, solemn nod, and turned away. She was left to stew in her thoughts. He hadn’t said much, but it was enough. However he felt really, there was no denying Anglea’d kept an old man off the street, gave him money, shelter, food. In exchange, she asked only occasional household aid.

The same went for Crystal; Angela’d given her everything. Not only was it in a possibly-vain hope she stay, but also to repay something deeper, more personal. She’d been a street-kid until someone helped her from the gutter. Who that was, when, and why, remained a mystery. In fact, the more Crystal thought, the less she knew about Angela and her past. Everything from her birthday to her hometown was a mystery. Was Angela Dale even her real name?

It hurt to think of, but their attachment forced her to evaluate the situation honestly. Crystal’d never had friends. Not really. Even if she’d had, it was so long ago now it didn’t count. For her to stay, commit to Angela’s partnership, she’d have to be sure of every possible variable. The only way to do that was to learn more about Angela. She’d picked up on enough surface details to fill in anything Angela might willingly tell. There was little indication she’d been anything but herself as well.

But deeper, personal things were another matter. Crystal couldn’t fully commit until she knew them. That meant confronting Angela. It would be a delicate task to broach– likely best when celebrating their next job. She’d decide afterward whether to stay or go.

The afternoon turned to evening with more speed than Crystal liked. Angela returned with a box of toys to be used on the job. Among other things, were laser-focuser prisms; small attachments to avoid triggering laser alarms; old-fashioned cam-jammers to loop empty feeds on security cameras. Angela’d taken the job as seriously as she’d said. Crystal was glad for that honesty, if nothing else.

They geared up. Crystal gave her weapons extra care. If something did go wrong, she wanted to be ready. Freezing up again was unacceptable. Were circumstances different, she’d have been killed. Not exactly an auspicious start to her career. Moreover, she’d started to come to grips with the prospect of death on the job– preferably someone else’s, rather than hers.

Death was a certainty. Everyone knew, every day, death might come. The difference for her and the mobster was the deliberate skirting of death’s cross-hairs. To mourn the loss of a random mafioso seemed as pointless as futile. Countless more, better people would die the same instant without ever having a choice or being mourned. Crystal merely hoped she wouldn’t be one. Any other feelings were unnecessary and dangerous.

Angela led her to an over-sized Chevy pick-up in the garage. It was a tank with a lift-kit, run-flat tires, inch-thick steel-plated doors, bullet-proof acrylic-glass windows, and pro-tuned suspension. All of it was propelled by a super-charged V12 capable of outrunning all but the most luxurious police super-cruisers.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit over-kill for a smash and grab?” Crystal asked.

“You wanna’ take that chance?” Crystal winced. “Didn’t think so. Cops love these kinds of jobs. They get to nail a suspect, confiscate the merchandise, and tell all the news vids they made a million-dollar bust. Meanwhile, who’s gonna’ notice a few diamonds missing and in a wife’s ears, or on a husband’s finger?”

“I see your point,” Crystal said, heaving up and into the passenger’s side.

Angela climbed across from her. The truck was roomy, more than comfortable, but with a definite utilitarian feel. Its engine fired and Crystal shuddered in fear that it might explode. Instead, the truck idled forward into garage’s main aisle. It inched toward the elevator. Crystal cringed at the clearance. Moments later, they emerged at ground-level, unscathed.

They started for the far-side of town, biding their time to blend in. Amid a bustling, thriving city, the truck was hardly conspicuous. The most notable thing was the two women inside it. But the half-tinted windows and dark night made it impossible to tell they were there. So far, things were going smooth, but the nagging fear in Crystal’s gut remained. It might not be the job that would go sideways, but something would.

Soon they were parked in an alley a block from their mark. Nondescript, uptown alleys formed maze-work paths through the city blocks. They’d parked along a main one, wide enough for a pair of vehicles. The first, branching alley was too small for anything but Angela’s bike. It would keep them from getting blocked in if they had to ditch the truck. Crystal pled with her gut that they wouldn’t.

They hopped out, started forward. An undeniable exposure descended over Crystal. Clad in black, faces painted, and carrying more fire-power than a Texan at a gunshow felt asking for trouble. Before Crystal could question her, Angela dug a pair of tailored trench-coats from her pack, handed one over. The long leather had no sleeves, but perfectly hid their arsenal. All that remained visible were their beanie-caps and face-paint. Anyone passing by would be none the wiser. Crystal just hoped no-one stopped. They’d know right away something was up.

The walk began, shorter than expected, but each cross-street and intersecting alley was approached with upward hand, a creep to the nearest corner, a peek up and down, then a rush across. The last intersection was as nondescript as the rest. Indeed, the Jewelry store was sandwiched between buildings with an alley behind it. It was completely unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of uptown.

Crystal kept a look out while Angela knelt, picked the lock on the back-door. She flew through the primary lock, the deadbolt, re-pocketed her picks, and instructed Crystal to wait with a hand on the knob. She slid down the wall toward a junction box, popped it open, then fiddled with the wires inside. On a silent three count, she shorted a wire while Crystal pushed open the door.

Angela hurried back, took point. They slipped in and their night-vision flared: a lone security camera roved beside the door, angled for a full-view of the door’s surroundings. The door itself was a major blind-spot Angela took full advantage of. She dug out a cam-looper, spliced it on, and double-checked the feed on her HUD. Crystal watched it too, with a picture-in-picture view; Angela waved a hand before the camera, but the image remained as it was, expertly looped.

They advanced into the main show-floor. It was everything Crystal expected from a high-end jewelry store. Glass and chrome cases were everywhere. Jewels and polished metals glistened in them, along colored satin and velvet. Mannequin necks, hands, wrists, and fingers, were adorned with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and every other gem imaginable.

Angela was focused elsewhere. Crystal turned from the splendor to see lights glowing in the main-room’s corners. The camera’s vision cones suddenly appeared on her HUD; a few oscillated here and there. Angela handed over loopers, motioned Crystal left. She waited, timed herself. Angela couldn’t begin the right side until the first camera was looped. Crystal took her chance, moved like a swift shadow.

In moments, the wire was stripped, spliced, and her HUD showing a looping feed. Angela moved to the next camera, repeated the process, then ushered Crystal up. The rhythmic bypasses of rudimentary security continued until each vision cone faded and the place was nearly theirs for the taking. All that remained were the lasers.

Angela stood beside the first display case, passed over a bag of prisms, “Pick each case. Use your HUD to locate the grid. Put a prism over the emitters, then grab everything out. Remove the emitters in reverse order. Got it?” Crystal nodded. “Take the left, I’ll take the right.”

Crystal stood before the first case, took a deep breath, and fished out her picks. A visual aid appeared on her HUD, displayed the crisscross grid invisible to human eyes. Beside it was a small, 3D render of the lock she was picking. She minimized it, worked the lock by feel to set the pins. With a final twist, the case opened.

“Cakewalk,” she breathed, following the grid-lines back to their emitters.

She removed a prism: the name was deceptive. It was really a small L-shaped bracket with a hole machined in one side. The hole held a highly-polished, faceted crystal around a copper heat-sink. She held her breath, started in the lower left corner, angling one arm carefully through a cross of beams. Her heart jumped as she rotated the first prism through her fingers, hovered it in place over the emitter.

She swallowed hard, released the bypass. It slotted over the emitter, halved the bottom section of grid. She repeated the movements on the next, bottom corner, exposed the entirety of the bottom section of case. Deft movements slotted the next crystal. Then the next. The case was cleared. She dropped her pack, stuffed the case’s contents in it.

She glanced back to see Angela a few cases ahead and quickened her pace. She removed the prisms, then repeated the process at the next case. The pair went along the walls, cleaning out jewelry by the thousands in moments. Crystal finished the last wall-case while Angela made a move for cubical displays in the room’s center. Laser-grids encompassed the innards, but an extra pair of emitters made it nearly impossible to clear the whole grid.

Angela swore under her breath. Crystal caught it. “What?”

“It’s going to take longer than I thought.”

Crystal made her way over, pack now laden with liberated wares, “What d’you need?”

Angela thought for a moment, “Give me your prisms. Pick the register. Find the safe. I’m not leaving anything behind.”

Crystal handed over her prisms. Angela picked the display’s lock, made for the register across the room. She had it open in seconds, found it empty, scanned the display cases of rings, bracelets, and other items beneath it.

“Register’s empty. There’s no grid on this stuff,” Crystal whispered into her comm.

“Alarm,” Angela said, focused on the emitters before her. Crystal knelt, felt around the bottoms of the cases for wiring. “Use your fingers. Metal cutters will set them off.”

Crystal nodded, pinched the thin wiring with a pair fingernails, severed one case’s alarm. She went along the horseshoe of cases, cutting alarms, then working locks. The first opened with difficulty. She tried the HUD render. Inaccurate for the lock-type. She shut it off, closed her eyes. Springs popped and set. The tension arm twisted. The first display opened. She didn’t bother with deft movements. Instead, she swept all the merchandise into her pack en-masse and picked at the left-overs.

Angela liberated the last of the stand-up displays, then hurried past, “Keep working, I’m going for the safe.”

Crystal pivoted to the next case, picked it, and swept the merchandise into her pack. She was about to move to the next when headlights appeared outside. She flattened against the floor on instinct. Her heat raced.

“Someone’s here,” she radioed with a whisper.

Angela froze at the safe, “What!? Who?

“I don’t know. I can’t—” she hesitated, inched sideways along the floor to peer out at the doors. A man in an expensive-looking suit sat in a car, glanced in through binoculars. He clearly wasn’t a cop. The shifty way he checked his surroundings said it wasn’t anyone affiliated with the store. He was avoiding suspicion too much, as if it were important he not be questioned.

It hit her: it was one of Caruso’s men. She was certain of it. He’d been at the last job, one of the incapacitated guards she’d sneaked past. Now he was here.

“It’s one of Caruso’s guys from the museum.”

“Shit!” Angela’s heart leapt into her throat. She focused on the safe, “Has he seen you?”

“No, but–” He laid down his binoculars and the car rolled forward. “He’s leaving.”

Angela didn’t feel better. Crystal didn’t either. Caruso’s men had learned about the job. How was less important than finishing and getting the hell out before they were ambushed. Crystal double-checked the door, then rose for the last of the cases. She located and picked the locks without looking, eyes on the doors. She moved as fast as possible, sweeping the last of the merchandise into her pack. Angela reappeared, safe-money liberated and ready to finish the job.

They moved as shadows, removing the loopers in reverse order. One-by-one, the camera-cones reappeared. They returned to the back room and the last camera, then slipped out as they had in. They sprinted along the alley toward the truck. Angela hesitated at the corners, then ushered Crystal through before taking off again. They passed the first few unhindered. Angela’s confidence returned. Crystal’s waned. Her stomach gurgled, lurched bile up her throat. This was the thing she’d been fearing. When it hit, it was nearly catastrophic.

They crossed the last intersecting road, into the last section of alley. The truck was parked with its broad side in the center of the T, far ahead. Crystal could taste freedom, home, drinks of victory. Atop it all, the bile came up. Things were going completely fucking sideways. At the same instant, they crossed the street headlights kicked on from the perpendicular road. Tires squealed. Crystal had enough time to throw Angela into the cover of a dumpster-alcove before the car squealed to a stop.

Feet dropped onto asphalt and a voice called out, “We know it’s you, Dale. Give it up.”

Angela’s face whitened. Crystal’s heart seized. She clasped her pistol.

9.

Bitter Taste of Victory

“Come out now or we shoot you down!” The voice called.

Angela trembled, “Someone know about the job. They waited for us to grab the goods.”

“Does that really matter now?” Crystal spat.

“I’m giving you ’til five, or we come up shooting. One…”

Angela risked a look at the way forward, careful not to expose herself. “We can make. If we zig-zag between alcoves–”

“Three…”

“Are you crazy!?

Angela unholstered a gun. Crystal followed. “Get to the last one. Stay put.”

“Four…”

They booked it. Crystal didn’t look. Her legs pumped fury and terror. Gunfire barked ahead and behind her. She hit the first alcove after Angela. They angled for the next. Caruso’s men followed. The gunfire’s epicenter echoed nearer-by. The women bolted again. Crystal threw herself into a sideways run, hit the alcove, sprinted off again. They made the last alcove as sparks and gunpowder wafted in ‘round the corner. Small calibers echoed through the dead-night, the steps still moving, but slower. “When I say, run for the truck’s far-side,” she said, yanking away one of Crystal’s holstered TMPs out.

Angela shoved the truck keys into her hands. “What about you?”

“Just go!” Angela spat. She flicked the safety off, snapped the bolt. “Go!”

Crystal fled. Angela leaned out. The suppressed TMP burst in clacks. It cut through the barking pistol fire. Sprayed ammo forced the men to dodge for cover. Crystal reached the truck’s edge. Adrenaline boiled her blood. She shouldered her way along to the driver-side, stopped near the rear-wheel, and drew her pistol.

“Move! Move!” Crystal radioed.

Angela sprinted backward, spraying more fire across the alley. Crystal’s was aimed, accurate. One of Caruso’s men ducked from cover. Crystal forced him back in. It was a distraction: another man opposite him had stepped out, took aim at Angela. He fired off a pair of rounds. Crystal was on him. Angela yelped stumbled forward to her hands and knees near the truck. The gun followed her down. Crystal re-targeted; the man was dead before her could try for another shot. Angela skidded into a roll that put her at the truck’s bumper.

“Angela!”

She clambered up the tailgate, fell over into the truck’s bed. “Go!”

Crystal was in the truck. The monstrous engine roared, drowned the gunfire that chased them from the alley. Spinning tires squealed in a haze of smoke. Steel divoted within it. Splintered orbs appeared in the passenger-windows. Crystal burned from the alley, all twelve cylinders firing. She fish-tailed into the street, headed for anywhere. The mobsters pursued them on foot. A block of gunfire saw another fish-tail around a corner, then another, and another, until she’d put enough distance between them to keep from being found.

Angela’s active comm echoed her words, “Son of a bitch.”

Crystal agreed, “That was too close. Are you hurt?”

Angela checked her shoulder: a minor glancing wound. If she’d been an inch further left, she’d have taken the bullet full-on.

“Nothing serious,” she said, compressing the wound. “Pull over. Let me get up front.”

Crystal did as instructed. She let Angela in, then started off again. Angela set to bandaging herself while Crystal drove for Jonas’ shop. Mid-way through, Crystal’s thoughts mounted, forcing her words out.

“You’re not telling me everything.” Angela winced, fixed her bandage in place. “Angela?”

“I heard you.”

She huffed, “Who the hell are these guys? What’d you do? This isn’t just about the museum.”

“Professional rivalry. Nothing more,” Angela said, evasively.

“Bullshit,” Crystal spat. “Something pissed these guys off. Something you did. I can’t work with you if you’re not honest with me.”

They pulled up to the pawnshop and Angela grasped the door handle, “Not now. Not here.”

Crystal growled, climbed out after her. They entered with packs filled with jewelry. The “open” sign was already off, but Jonas sat at the counter writing in a ledger-book. He raised a finger at them, mentally calculating something. He scribbled it in and shut the book.

He looked up, immediately spying the fresh bandage. “Run into some trouble?”

“Just give me the money,” Angela demanded.

He eyed Crystal’s averted gaze, shrugged, “Merchandise?” They handed over their bags. He tested their weight, “Good haul. Prick’s definitely getting his insurance check.”

“Can you make this quick, Jonas? In case you didn’t notice, I’m still bleeding.”

“Gotta’ call Curie first though.”

“Then do it,” she ordered, her irritation doubling as she compressed the wet bandage again.

He disappeared, leaving them to the growing tension. Crystal’s mind raced with questions. Anger frothed from each of them. She wasn’t even sure why. The truth wouldn’t change things. It might have been shock, but she needed to know and refused to go any further otherwise. She was about to say something when Jonas reappeared.

He eyed Angela alone, “Curie’s on the line. Wants to talk to you. Just you.”

“Stay here,” Angela instructed.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “No shit.” She fell into a lean against the counter as Angela left.

Jonas watched the exchange, waited. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t know half of it,” Crystal said with waning breath.

“Any idea who it was– or how they found you?”

“Some mafioso named Caruso. Angela won’t tell me more.”

Jonas was suddenly squeamish. The very idea of the two being mentioned together made join act as if a wet snake were slithering up his leg.

“Jonas?” He avoided her eyes. “What d’you know?”

He grimaced, glanced back at the doorway, then leaned forward at a hush, “You didn’t hear this from me, but Caruso’s had a hard-on for Angela for a while now. She heisted some piece of his at an exhibit in San Diego– running a crew hired for the job. They set up in a ritzy hotel to case the joint, then made the play. Problem was, Caruso’s people were aware someone was going to move.”

Crystal’s voice lowered to match his, “So they were waiting for her?”

He shrugged. “Angela ran that job. It went off even with the hitch. She got in, got out, made delivery, but someone recognized one of the guys with her. He got ‘im to talk. Messed him up bad before he gave up Angela.” He glanced back again, breathed. “Three weeks later, she shows up here wasted out of her goddamn mind, ranting about Julia– her partner– being dead. Only she knows for sure what happened. Lotta’ whispers say it was retribution from Caruso though.”

Crystal’s eyes doubled in size. “He killed her partner?”

He winced. “All I can say’s she’s gone, and they were close– thicker than thieves, so to speak. A… personal thing, you know. Not my business. Catch my drift?”

Her heart and stomach were once more in her throat. Angela had said her partner left. Dying hadn’t been mentioned at all. Her face went blank and settled into indifference as Angela reappeared.

“Curie’s done,” Angela said, more calm than before. “Get us our money.”

He disappeared again. The tension returned, albeit muted. Angela said nothing, kept herself focused on her injury to avoid any questions. On the contrary, the new information was still working through Crystal’s mind. Threads still unraveled, connected. Facts fell and fitted into place like puzzle blocks, forming an image thus far obscured. She was still trying to work things out when Jonas paid them and said goodbye.

They made their way back home, and climbed out without a word. Crystal stopped a moment to survey the truck before heading in. The truck’s damage was as cosmetic as the bike’s had been, but the clear signs of a fire-fight meant it required couldn’t simply be driven again. The splintered windows and bullet divots were dead giveaways that the truck– and likely its occupants– spent time outside the law’s confines.

Crystal followed Angela into the house. She stopped at one side of the island. Angela crouched at a cabinet, dug for a bottle, and produced an aged whiskey and a pair of rock-glasses. She stepped over to the counter, poured two glasses, downed one, refilled it, then passed Crystal the other. She set the bottle aside and braced herself on the counter. She stared into her drink, the tension draining from the air, and into Angela.

“Sit.” Crystal sank onto a stool. Silence rang. Then, “I never lied.”

Crystal remained silent; it was not the time to speak. Whatever Angela had to say needed to come naturally. Her eyes remained locked on the glass and its contents. “I was twenty-four. Living on the streets. I’d celebrated my birthday by trying to drink myself to death. Nearly succeeded. I didn’t want to wake up to my life again.” She gave a small shake of her head to ward of old, evil thoughts. “I was found on the street, mostly dead. I was taken to a hospital. When I woke up, I was still alive. I didn’t know that. I figured I was dreaming out the last seconds of life.”

Crystal watched her conscious mind disappear, lost as it was in memories. She drifted back slowly, as if remembering she was supposed to be recalling something.

“Point is, I was twenty-four and wanted to die. Tried to die. The only way I could think of. The only way the streets allowed for a coward too afraid to run into traffic– or put a broken bottle to their wrist.” Her eyes rose, focused past Crystal on a point that only existed in her mind. “Julia changed that. She’d found me after taking payment for a job. Took me to the hospital. Paid my med bills out of pocket. She promised to stay while I got clean, but only if I agreed to help her later.”

She hesitated. Crystal suddenly herself mirroring Angela. She knew now how it was meant to repay the old debt.

Angela’s mind was further elsewhere, but her voice remained present. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. Julia never forced me though. She asked, every step of the way; was I willing to do this or that? Would I train with her? Would I drive for her? Eventually, we outright started planning jobs together. Running them. Celebrating. Something had… changed.”

Painful memories played. Crystal was silent, watching. Angela’s eyes shut and her head fell.

“I fell for her. She loved me too, I think–” she shook her head. “–No. She did. I know it. She showed it time and again. I just… never believed it. Not fully.”

She stiffened, gritting her teeth; her memories too unbearable. Crystal wanted to speak, to comfort her, but things needed to play out. She needed the truth– they needed the truth. Angela fought valiantly against the tears welling in her eyes. Soon though, her voice quaked, the levee broke, and they flowed freely.

“A year and a half ago, Curie sent Julia and I to San Diego for a job. Museum job. Problem was, security’d been bolstered by Caruso’s people. We were unknown to him then. But that job…. it had bad idea written all over it. The money was right, but the security was off. We did the job, nearly got popped, and fled. We came back home to make delivery and take payment… ”

She lost what remained of control and her breath stuttered. It stung Crystal’s heart, as if cleaved in two by a lone blow.

“Two days later, a few of Caruso’s guys caught us coming out of a bar. They’d been tipped off by one of the locals on the crew. None of us really knew him, but they beat him ‘til he gave us up. Killed ‘im afterward. They tracked us and–.” Her tears dripped onto the counter, her eyes fixed on her glass and face fighting for stillness. “They chased us for four blocks, cut us off, knocked us out, took us to an abandoned factory.”

Her arms shook, threatening to buckle beneath her weight and white knuckles. Crystal fought with all her might to keep from reaching out to her.

“We woke up, tied up. Caruso was there. He told us he was going to “send a message.” She choked on her next words. “He… he shot Julia three times in the chest. Set the place on fire around us. Left me for dead– or j-just to think on what happened.” Her next movements were apprehensive, conveying all the pain they could: she clutched her glass, lifted it with a trembling hand, paused, then slugged down the liquor. She exhaled hot air. “I broke free. Cut Julia from her chair. Carried her out. She’d been dead minutes. I let the place burn, hoping Caruso would think I was dead. He knows I’m not, wants to fix that.”

Crystal waited for Angela’s words to finish echoing through her mind, then swallowed in a dry throat. She sipped her liquor and finally met Angela’s eyes. A silent question of whether or not she might speak went unnoticed. Crystal took it as a sign that it was alright.

“You loved her. You feel guilty for her death.” Angela gave a lone nod. “I’m sorry. I understand why you didn’t tell me, but you should’ve known it was only putting both of us in more danger.”

Angela’s mouth twitched with guilt. “I couldn’t risk telling you until I was certain you could be trusted– as much as I wanted you to be, if you’d gone to Caruso, told him I was alive, he might’ve paid you off to set me up. I couldn’t risk that.”

Crystal understood her fear, but it didn’t change facts: Caruso knew Angela was alive, even how to find her on the job. Something had to be done. They had to put a stop to it.

“The museum job put you back on his radar?” Again, she nodded. “Then we need a way off it.”

“He’s not going to stop, Crystal,” she said with certainty. “He wants to use me to set an example that he’s not to be fucked with. Just like Julia. Your best chance is to run. Take off. Stay as far away as possible. Maybe he’ll leave you alone. No-one knows who you are. No-one’s seen your face yet.”

Crystal rose to her feet, “Angela, I’m not leaving you. Besides, if we separate, we’re as good as dead anyhow. He might even grab me just to use me as bait. We’re stronger together.” Angela glanced up, eyes wet and face red. Crystal chest fluttered with sympathy, but she stiffened against it to remain composed. “I owe you more than I could ever repay. But more than that, you’re my friend. I’m not going to abandon you. We’ll find a way out, I promise.”

Angela blinked out tears, her voice soft, “Thank you.”

Crystal stepped around the island, ready to comfort her. An alarm screamed through the house. She stopped, glanced around. Angela swore. Arthur’s voice piped in on their comms.

“Someone just breached the escape tunnel. Armed. Armored. Maybe a dozen or so.”

“Caruso,” Crystal said.

Angela drew her gun, started for the gym, “C’mon! We can’t let them get through.”

Crystal followed on her heels. They sprinted for the gym’s atrium, through it to the hallway beyond. The corridor stretched out ahead as the alley had earlier. Doorway alcoves were scattered every few feet, with the escape tunnel far ahead at the right. Angela and Crystal burst into the hall just as the sliding wall hiding the tunnel exploded in a cloud of dust and concrete. They dove for cover at opposite sides of the hall. Gunfire erupted. Angela leaned out, firing.

“Arthur, lock down all interior doors! I don’t want them getting to–” Gunfire cut her off. She growled, leaned out to keep the men from advancing. “Lock the place down!”

The alarm gave way beside Crystal to snapping bolts as they locked in place. The sounds echoed along the halls, and at either end, trapping them in with Caruso’s people.

Crystal blasted off a few rounds without looking, “Now what!?”

“Beat ’em back,” Angela yelled, wasting the last of a magazine.

Crystal leaned out, caught one man in the chest as he hurled something. Her HUD tracked it, spitting alerts across her vision. The object and warnings clicked in her mind. A grenade landed with an explosive bang and a blinding flash. Her eyes and optics reeled. Her head swam. The concussive blast blew her backward, knocked the wind from her lungs. She smacked her head against the concrete-block. The bright light receded. Her HUD deactivated to reboot. Her vision phased in and out of focus.

Moments came in pictures, seconds of blackness between. She saw the wall rise ahead, slumped back against another. Blackness. Then, Angela in a similar heap, gun firing randomly. More blackness. Black-clad figures in riot-gear rushed Angela. She struggled, tried to fight, unbalanced by the grenade. Someone prodded her. Electricity arced along her. She seized, went limp. More blackness. Crystal fought to raise her weapon. A masked man appeared. His boot rose. The last thing she saw was it coming at her before her head hit concrete and she lost consciousness.

10.

Improvisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy mother of God,”Arthur said.

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

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

“No. But Titus may know.”

“How d’you intend to contact him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prove you’re not lying.”

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

“Now you believe me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

“There,” Arthur said, pointing left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11.

Into Her Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Crystal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t save her if you’re dead.”

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

“Bullshit!” Caruso barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sadistic Prick.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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