Tuesday started out like most of my days. I woke up in my room, not to an alarm, but to something even more reliable. The morning silence of the ghetto was shattered by the sound of conflict. Like most mornings; my routine always started out by listening to my married roommates fighting over whose turn it was to get up and make breakfast.
By my count it was Eddie’s turn. Dolores was extolling Eddie to remember the eggs she made yesterday. I remembered the eggs. The soot from their fire was still staining the wall behind the stove. Apparently Eddie remembered the eggs too. Normally he would forget; but this time he remembers. So, as a change from the usual argument, this time his reasoning is that because breakfast was burned to carbon before anyone could bite into them, they don’t count as her turn; she’s got to do it right this time, etcetera, etcetera.
Really: if you wanted to eat something other than burned eggs, I don’t know why you’d try so hard to get her to make something. The lady has many skills. She delivered second-rate chow to the local degenerates at the derailed boxcar pretending as a diner down the way about 10 hours a day. But there was a reason she served the food and didn’t cook it there.
By my estimation, the argument had about ten minutes before it spilled into the living room and one or the other of them tried to involve me.
I pulled on my rumpled business suit quickly. The west wall of the apartment was wet through-and-through, meaning rain outside was soaking through the rotten woodwork. It would be a day like most in Seattle, wet and dreary. I threw on my lined coat and hat over the top. It wasn’t cold enough to wedge myself into the form-fitting suit, and even with burned eggs for breakfast I still somehow managed to pack on a few pounds, so it wasn’t so much form fitting as form restricting right now.
The familiar weight of a street line special was weighing down the right coat pocket. I almost took it out. It was a worthless firearm. Even with the stick-n-shock ammo I found for it, all I was going to do with that heater was piss someone off and get myself in worse trouble… but still, sometimes it was better to have something rather than nothing.
The argument was heating up to the ‘everyone knows’ portion of the exchanges. “Everyone knows that if you burn it, it don’t count”, versus “everyone knows that if you don’t like what’s made then it makes no difference”
That was my two minute warning. It was time to get out of dodge. I would meet up with both of them at the diner later. They’d end up there anyways. Preferably; I’d be able to do so without having to decide another argument for them.
I kicked open the door. The swollen wood distorts the frame enough that it won’t open any other way. I do it as quietly as possibly; which is to say not at all. Luckily, the loving couple’s shouts seem to cover up my commotion, and they don’t even notice my departure.
I’m two steps out the door and pulling my collar up to keep out the rain when my comlink rings. I check to make sure it’s not my brother or his girl before I answer it. Nope, even worse: It’s my boss.
I debate letting it go to voicemail, but remember that I promised my bookie: Bugsby that I’d at least try to make a payment this week.
“Valiant.” I answer as professionally as I can.
The woman on the other end is as nice as a ghoul dipped in nitro-glycerine.
“Oh, now you are answering your phone huh? How nice for you. I’m calling to tell you that you are fired.”
Hmm… did I miss too many phone calls? Better play it safe.
“Fired huh? That’s too bad Gabbie. I was just on my way to drop off those Urban Brawl Thunderdome tickets I told you about.” I let that hang in the air. “I even got a backstage pass so you could try to interview what’s his name? Thug… something?”
“You know I’ve been trying to get an interview with Doug the Thug for a month you bastard!”
That I did.
“And, you know that he doesn’t do interviews.”
I knew that too.
“And yet, my friend in the field said that he has a sweet spot for blondes in leather miniskirts.” I suppose it might be true. I didn’t know any Ork brawler to ever say no to a blonde in a miniskirt.
“So, what are you proposing Valiant?”
“Well, I guess I do owe you the tickets anyways; I’ll give them to you even though I’m fired.” She was a sucker for the pity-play.
“I’m not going to fall victim to your pity-play you worthless slime-ball!”
Yes she was.
I shrugged deep enough that she probably heard it through the phone. “I wouldn’t ask you to be. I simply am a man that does his best to pay his debts. I owe you for the thing with the bees.” I did not. That debt was paid long ago, and many times over.
“You do remember that I’m not a blonde.”
Hook, line, and sinker.
“When has a little thing like hair color ever stopped you?”
She was thinking how to get around the preamble obstacles now. I was golden.
“I don’t even think I own a mini-skirt.”
She was probably wearing one right now. I didn’t even bother to respond.
“Do you think it would work?”
“Stranger things have happened. Listen, I’m about ten minutes out; I’ll drop them off if you tell security not to kick my butt when I walk through the door okay?”
“Okay Valiant. I’ll see you in ten.”
I dialled up one of my hacker friends, Digital Diva.
“Diva! It’s Teddy! I need a favor.”
Her avatar popped, unasked into my field of vision. Today she was a vixen. Like, an actual deer; only with wires for antlers. I thought about telling her that only boy deer had antlers, but it was a nice effect and she probably worked hard on it, so I let it pass.
“Deer Teddy. What have you found yourself in now?” Puns today huh? I could work with that.
“Well, you know I only call you when I have something fawn planned.”
Her avatar buried her head in shame.
“Is that the best you can do? I hope you didn’t rack your brain too hard for that one.”
“Buck up; its early still, I’ll probably get better.”
She at least laughed at that one. A pity laugh, perhaps, but a laugh none-the-less.
“I need tickets to that Urban Brawl Thunderdome thing tomorrow.”
Now a more serious laugh.
“Those have been sold out for ages. You can’t find hyde nor hair of them anywhere.”
“Yea, I guess to have a shot at finding some I’d have to know some super talented forger. Especially if I wanted a buck-stage pass.”
“You can fur-get-it. It would take me hours to make those.”
“If I needed the tickets now, but you could make them real later, would that work? I’d doe you a big favour…”
“Oh Teddy, I can never say no to you. I’ll get my people on it. You do owe me though.”
I laughed. “You know I’d never hide from a debt.”
She signed off with “Don’t you fur get it.”
I stopped by the lucky panda coffee stand on my way to Redlight Newscast’s local office and grabbed a half-dozen fresh cups, and a Nu-foam carrying box. I did my best to keep the recyclable (and thus instantly disentegrateable in rain) cups from wayward drops by hiding them under my coat. Stepping through the front doors set off the usual alarms.
“Mr. Valiant, You’ve been fired. You can’t come in here at all, and walking in with a gun was a no-no, even when you worked here.” That was Glen, a cast-off from Loanstar when Erant Knight took over. His current job was lobby security for my employer.
“Glen, I brought your coffee. And my worthless gun is in my pocket, where it’s always been. And always will be with any luck. I’m just dropping off some stuff for Gabbie. Call her, she’ll tell you it’s on the up-and-up.”
A tense moment passed before he lowered his gun, followed by less tense moments spent exchanging pleasantries over fresh coffee while we waited, then we were friends again as I was given the go-ahead to get up to her office.
I handed another cup of coffee to Dianne, Gabbie’s under-appreciated secretary.
“Two sugars, because you are sweet.”
“Don’t fraternize with him, he’s fired.” Gabbie called from the office.
Dianne still took the coffee with a smile though.
I felt my comlink buzz with the electronic transfer of what looked like two tickets, and a backstage pass to boot. Right in time.
I pulled up Gabbie’s link information, and handed over a physical cup of coffee along with the digitally signed passes.
“One pack of nutra-sweet, a shot of half-soy-crème, and a dash of caramel for good measure. Oh, and the tickets. Naturally.”
She looked at the coffee and tickets sceptically. “These aren’t fakes like last time are they?”
Probably not: last time was one of the few times that Digital Diva’s goods didn’t pan out. These would be fine.
“Course not. That was a fluke. And the coffee is as real as it gets.” It was as fake as the pass of course. I couldn’t afford real coffee.
She sipped her coffee, regarding me coyly over the top of the cup.
“You know, if you hadn’t just been fired; I would have had a job for you tonight.”
“Really?” sometimes I wondered who was playing who with these exchanges. Other times I had no doubt that she was a master manipulator.
“Yea. And to boot: It’s a lot of work to find someone else I hate enough to make carry all that luggage up and down those steps.”
“Steps huh?” I asked tentatively.
“Lots of steps. Top floor of the Aztechnology mall.”
“I suppose the elevator would be out of the question.”
She laughed. “Wouldn’t want you to bump into anyone famous and get them dirty… No, it would be the back steps. And there would be lots of equipment. Some ner-do-well fixer is throwing himself a party and inviting a bunch of famous people to make him self feel good.”
I nodded, acknowledging her wisdom. Well played.
“Too bad I’m fired. That would be quite the punishment for missing your calls.”
She slid a company pass across her glass desk. I grabbed it before it landed in my lap.
“Wish I didn’t fire bobby last week. He would have been perfect for this work. Now I’m stuck with only you.”
I smiled. She won this one.
“Aztechnology mall tonight huh? I’ll be there.”
“This doesn’t mean you are re-hired. This is probationary only. Don’t confuse my current poor selection of staff with any future promises for work.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I stood and moved to take the last cup of coffee, I normally got one for Jake, the security decker of the building.
She knocked my hand away.
“Leave it, I’ve got a meeting with another cretin, and a little coffee will make him more amiable to my requests.”
“Yes madam.” I’d still stop to talk to Jake. Even without coffee he was good company.
I got halfway to Jake’s office when my comlink rang again. It was a busy day. I answered it without looking.
“Hey, it’s Trainwreck; I need to call in a favor pronto Omne.” He sounded panicked.
“Calm down, what’s going on?” Trainwreck was a friend in the underground railroad, and he was not one to panic easily.
“Can you meet me at boxcars in ten? I don’t want to talk on the phone.”
He was a paranoid sort usually, but this was above and beyond, even for him.
“I don’t think I can make it in ten, even running; I can do fifteen, unless you need me there bad enough to pay for a cab.”
He hesitated before answering. He was actually thinking of paying for my cab to get there faster. “No, less digital trail the better. Just hurry.” Huh, this must be something major. He wasn’t even worried about the money.
I wasn’t the running sort. And running in the rain was dangerous even for people in good shape. I did manage a jog though. At least most of the way I jogged, I did stop for a breather a couple of times. But I made it in just under fifteen minutes. My breath would catch up with me in about an hour probably. I stumbled into the boxcars diner.
Dolores was already serving the usual selection of miscreants. Angelo was seated in his usual spot, as was Eddie; the three of them were deep in a conversation held at shouting volume about where the best vacation spot was. Looking tired and more paranoid than usual Trainwreck was huddled quietly in the only booth the greasy spoon had available. I waved to Dolores, who didn’t stop arguing to acknowledge my entrance, although she did wave back.
I took a seat next to Trainwreck and whispered as loud as it took to be heard over their clamorous shouts of: “No, It’s Tahiti!! It Guam! Hawaii is the best!!”
“What’s the problem ‘wreck?”
He glanced feverously around the car, looking for ninjas or somesuch before answering “I got burned by a client. A big client.”
Getting burned was nothing new for a smuggler. Sometimes your goods got jacked en-route by the competition, sometimes the property you were moving had kink-trackers that told big brother exactly where and how you moved things that didn’t want to be seen. Burning a route was expensive, and if it was a route that your smuggler buddies also used; it could get you black listed. Still; neither of those things should have been un-manageable for trainwreck. He’d been in the business long enough to know how to mend-fences with his cohorts even if a major pipeline got kinked up.
I decided to keep it simple.
“How can I help?” I didn’t need to know what exactly his problem was, and it would help his paranoia if I just offered help without wanting to know the details.
“I still have the package. I need to off-load it.”
I guess I could do that for him. I knew a fence or two that would happily move hot goods if the margins were right.
“Done. Where is it my friend?”
“She is in my trunk.”
Now, sometimes people feminize things. Riggers in particular seem to love naming their vehicles and calling them ‘my girl’ or some-such. Something about how he said: ‘she’ though, made me think this wasn’t the case here.
Dolores brought some eggs on toast and set it in front of me, causing a pause in our conversation. I thanked her and waited until she was a polite distance before resuming the conversation.
“So, She’s in your trunk?”
He filled in the details quickly
“She was running away, her father is some high mucky-muck and had a pack of T-birds waiting at the border crossing. I got away, but in the wrong direction. She’s got too much heat on her, and her father made me, meaning I can’t move her. I’m lucky I got her here to the diner.”
So much for the wisdom of volunteering in advance. Oh well. A friend in need was a friend in deed. I tossed a couple of wet bills on the table. Dolores loved paper money, so I paid with it whenever I found some.
Train-wreck’s ride, a hover-car with beat-up ablative armor; was parked taking up two spaces in the parking lot. Luckily most of the clientele here were destitute, and so it was the only car in the lot, making double-parking a non-issue. I walked up and knocked on the trunk.
It took a couple of moments before the trunk opened, revealing a too young and too skinny sino girl with haggard hair and dark circles under her eyes. She looked ready to cry.
“It’s alright madam, I’m here to help. We can’t move you out of town right now, but I’ve got some friends you can stay with for the time being.”
At that she actually did start to cry.
Now, despite what poor opinion you may have of the ghetto, dragging a crying teenager down the street will garner you all sorts of unwanted attention. And if that teenager has rich friends, and no shoes, and an overprotective father who’s actively looking for her; doing so will get you noticed in about two seconds.
First things first. It took a couple of tries to get her to calm down and come with me. We got as far as the thrift shop before she started to shiver. Her designer shorts and tank-top weren’t doing her any favors in the rain.
I helped her paw through the donation box to find some warmer clothes, hopefully some without tracking devices in them if my hunch was correct, and politely turned my back so she could change in the alleyway.
I dropped her designer threads down the closest manhole cover and walked her the couple blocks to my favourite drycleaner.
Press & Smell drycleaner is the home and lively hood of a sweet dwarf lady named Pookie. I once saved her family from a fate worse than death, and so they are friendly towards me and mine. Luckily for me, and my un-named teenager, theirs was a labour intensive business, and an extra set of hands would be welcomed for a couple of days.
All I had to do was walk in the door, and one of Pookie’s daughters, Teresa I think, was pouring hot soup into bowls hastily pressed into our hands extolling us to stay warm and dry, as if such a thing is even possible in Seattle.
I briefly explained how my ‘friend’ needed a place to stay that was out of sight for no more than a week, and Pookie showed up from the back room as if by magic. She took the teenager by the elbow and started explaining what her duties would be and how to work the cleaning press, and how nice girls should stay away from trouble. I was two spoonfuls away from finishing my soup when Pookie made her way back to the front of the store, to scold me for getting involved in trouble.
“You are a good man Mr. Valiant.” Worst scolding ever.
“Yea, you keep telling me that. Thanks for helping me out with this. Anything I can do for you while I’m here?”
“No, no, you do so much already. Would you like a new suit? I don’t think this man is coming for it. He’s three weeks late. It’s nearly your size. I could fix it up for you.”
“Yea, I could use some new threads…”
A half-hour later I paid for the suit and left. She told me I didn’t have to, but I did anyways. I also paid in advance to have my other suit cleaned. They were good people, and could use the business. I didn’t have much pocket money, but they could use it more than me.
I walked to the closest working bus station. It would probably take me the rest of the day to get to Aztechnology’s mall. And if Gabbie was half as mad as she was pretending to be, I would be carrying heavy equipment up and down steps for the remainder of the night.