The second installment. Read it, tell me what you think.
‘Lost, party girl?’
Terrific; this just had to be her lucky night. Somehow she had managed to find three out of a total… one, two, three thugs in the whole of the city, at the last count. Were they merely clueless or completely stupid?
‘Do you have any idea what happens to muggers in this city?’ By their look, they were surprised she had recognised them for what they were. One point in favour of clueless.
‘You are a clever one, party girl. I can tell. I like clever girls. But you are in the black hole, here. No police watching us.’
That settled it: Terminally stupid. Yes, this was the ‘Black Hole’, and yes, it was called like that, because they couldn’t track people’s ID implants here, but no, that still left two good reasons not to mug people.
‘Look, I don’t want trouble. Just let’s forget this ever happened, all right?’
Well, it was worth a shot. Ah, who was she trying to kid; those guys lacked the brains for letting themselves being talked down. She’d either have to give them what they wanted, run or make a stand. Three thugs with knifes, against her, unarmed – it was clear who’s side the odds were on.
‘I think you’ll just give us everything you got, party girl.’
At that he started to snigger, as if he’d just made a hilarious joke. The others joined in. Aya raised an eye brow. They had to have taken some heavy drugs to find anything funny… about… Their looks were quite unambiguous. What a bunch of perverts.
Not that she had ever considered giving them anything, but this was just gross. Aya slightly shifted her position and tensed her muscles; she was a lot faster than them.
‘Come on, party gi…’
Aya lunged forwards. She jerking the man’s knife hand forward, painfully twisting it in the act, then planted her fist on his chest. The rest of the sentence died on his lips, as the air was knocked from his lungs. She treated the other two to a punch in the head and a kick in the guts, respectively. Before they had even realized what had happened, all three were already on the ground and wailing.
‘I. Am. No. Party. Girl.’ she growled at them, then, as a side note, added:
‘I have better things to do than going on a pub crawl.’ She collected their knifes from the ground and then scanned the bodies for further ones. It was unlikely the men would capable to do anything stupid soon, but why taking the risk? All she managed to produce, however, were sounds of anguish whenever her hands touched a sore spot.
Seriously, with such a low pain threshold they should have stayed at home, wrapped in cotton wool. There couldn’t be more than a couple of bruises, a few cracked rips, and maybe a slight concussion in case of the one she’d hit in the head. Nothing life threatening; not even any permanent damage to be expected.
In fact, she’d probably even done them a favour. Others might not have felt that charitable, and with law enforcement off your back, there was reason for restraint. You never knew who, or what, you’d run into here – the first reason why mugging was a bad idea around those parts.
The second reason had been watching the encounter from the shadows, and Aya gave them a polite nod as she walked off. There were about a dozen of them, armed mostly with clubs, but with the odd knife in between. They weren’t really keen on getting into a fight, she knew, and thus were only too glad for her to handle this, but if she hadn’t brought those idiots down, they would have.
Allowing people to be harassed was bad for business; it attracted the wrong kind of attention. Visitors would stay away, hurting the legal dealings, and law would be forced to move in, ruining the rest. This was their place and they’d make sure it stayed that way.
A few minutes later Aya had reached her destination, a flight of narrow stairs leading to an inconspicuous door, not different from dozens of others she had passed. Old pictures showed flashy advertising on street level and a huge luminescent arrow pointing at the door, but the need of advertisement had gone long ago, and so had the signs, once they had broken down for good. Word-of-mouth attracted more clientele anyway, and added a fair deal to atmosphere.
She stepped through the door and into the ante chamber, a small grey affair with doors at both ends. The left wall sported a breakthrough to the left, with the cloakroom counter fitted into it. Aya pushed the hood of her sweater down and took off her glasses.
‘Welcome back. Anything to check in?’ the dark haired woman behind the counter greeted her, in a business like tone, although her eyes spoke a different language. Raia was a couple of years older than her seventeen, Rain’s adoptive daughter and, in truth, loved to chat. Oh well, two could play the game.
Aya put her backpack on the counter, then pulled the transportation cylinder out and placed it next it.
‘Deposit. Rain.’ she commented, pointing at the pack and the cylinder, respectively. Then she pulled the knifes out, and, with an as casual tone as she could manage, said:
‘Get rid of these for me, will you?’
Raia’s eyes widened. Got you.
‘Tell me you didn’t…’
Aya shook her head and gave her a bemused smile.
‘Only a few kids playing mugger.’
‘Phew. Don’t do that to me ever again… Muggers? Do tell.’
‘Later, I’m here on business.’
Aya gestured towards the cylinder. Raia nodded and then stashed everything under the counter, and handed Aya a hooded, grey cloak, the item the club had been named after in a fit of heightened creativity. It smelled flowery.
‘New conditioner?’ she asked.
‘Do you like it? Was a real bargain.’
Raia looked pleased with herself.
‘Yes, that’s what I thought. So, I’ll see you later?’
Aya wrapped the cloak around her and entered the club proper. Music emanated from the band in the back, drifting over the round tables and mixing with the hushed conversations of the visitors, each clad in an identical cloak. In combination with the dim light, it lent the place a certain air of mystery, and people loved mystery. It was one reason for the appeal of the club after anonymity.
The only one not to wear a cloak – or, as a matter of fact any clothing at all – was Rain, the barkeeper, but he got away with it on accounts of the greyish fur covering all his body and the fact that he owned the place.
Aya took a seat at the bar. Instead of the traditional mirror the back was occupied by a painting of the city skyline. It wasn’t the most exciting sight she could imagine, but it fitted the place. On the more practical level it didn’t reflect faces. After a few moments Rain came over to her.
‘Peace and carrots.’ he greeted her cheerfully, with what he claimed to be the traditional phrase of his home world.
‘Peace and carrots, Rain.’ Aya replied, her voice lowered to a point where it was just loud enough for his big, fuzzy ears to pick up. No point in concealing your face, when everyone can hear you.
‘So, the usual?’
Aya nodded. Rain disappeared a moment below his counter. When he came up again he had a big glass in his hand, filled with a colourless liquid. He passed it to her and Aya took a swig. She almost spew it right out again.
‘Everything all right?’ Rain asked.
So it hadn’t escaped his attention. Who would have thought?
‘That’s water.’ Aya complained.
‘Beg your pardon?’
Rain reached below the counter and placed a bottle next to her glass, gently tapping at label where it read ‘Authentic Rilanehian Spring Water’.
‘Rain, that’s water as in “water you can get from every tap”. The closest this’, she pointed at the bottle, ‘has ever come to a Rilaneh is milliards of metres, if you catch my drift.’
‘Oh. Are you definite?’
He rubbed `his head. Aya just nodded. It wasn’t the first time she had come across counterfeit bottles like these; if was far too profitable not to be tried, and most people couldn’t tell the difference anyway. Someone ripping Rain off, on the other hand, was something you didn’t get very often. Sure, he didn’t look very threatening, not helped by the fact that he was only about half of her size, but looks were irrelevant when you got his kind of connections. Someone was going to pay for this, no doubt about that.
‘Here, let me make it up.’ he said, handing her glass with a gleaming amber liquid inside. As she took it he added with an enigmatic smile:
‘From my special stock.’
Carefully, Aya sipped at it. Whoa. This had to be from a very special stock indeed. Fruity flavours blended with earthy ones in a perfect mix, creating a flavour that was simply incredible. There also was a fair amount of alcohol involved.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ Rain asked her with a pleased smile on his face. He could read the answer in her face.
‘So, anything else I can get you?’
‘Well, one thing, maybe. Do you still offer anonymous net access? There’s some complaint I’d like to file.’
‘About the water?’
Rain sounded confused.
‘No, about a lift.’
Aya stared at her time piece, the numbers on the fluid display continually melting into each other as time trickled by. Eight minutes already. Eight annoying, boring and absolutely intolerable minutes.
The forty odd minutes before had passed in the blink of an eye, compared to this. She had filed her complaint with the lift company, caught up with the latest gossip from Rain, when he hadn’t had any other customers to tend to, and otherwise had had a nice time sipping her drink and listening to the music. The band turned out to be surprisingly good, even with the hood muffling sound, and Aya had made a mental note to drop by sometime next week to enjoy them properly.
Eight thirty. The waiting really got to her. Maybe she should demand a little extra for this, although she couldn’t see that going terribly well. Payment had been agreed upon beforehand, as always, and renegotiation would verge on blackmail. Besides this deal wasn’t about money.
If it was, she’d just let Rain handle it instead of sticking around and waiting. Or, rather, she wouldn’t have bothered at all. Breaking into offices was child’s play; at least when you didn’t lock yourself into the lift shaft. No, this deal was about something entirely different. Invaluable – to her anyway, and still a lot more than a job like this would normally fare for.
And it better had not be a rouse to get her to steal that monstrosity. If it turned out that was the case, if she had stolen it for nothing… Well, she didn’t really know what she would do, but it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Before Aya could think of any fitting revenge plans, however, Rain came over and whispered:
‘Your client has arrived.’
‘About bloody time.’ she muttered under her breath; by the looks of it she would get paid after all.
Rain gave her a stern look, and then left her again. Right. No talking, no glancing to the sides. Aya bit back a sigh. She knew she ought to be grateful for the strict protocol, with her special need for anonymity more so, but it still felt more like an archaic ritual than anything else. Maybe she should ask Rain to sacrifice a chicken or something next time. In fact she should ask him as soon as this was over – she could do with a bite and chicken sounded just about perfect.
Anyway, there was Rain again, giving her an indiscernible nod; her client was satisfied with her work. Rain leaned over and pushed a small cloth wrapped package towards her. Aya’s heartbeat quickened as she took it and carefully removed the cloth. It held a small, delicately carved statuette of a woman, and it was simply beautiful. Real art, not some modern junk, and old. She pulled her right glove off and ran her fingers over the stone; she could feel the love and dedication the that had flown into its making. An original no doubt.
She rewrapped the statuette and handed it back to Rain, then nodded. That sealed the deal. Rain disappeared from her view once more.
‘Any more orders?’ he asked when he came back after a minute or two, signifying her that her client had left and giving her the permission to speak again. He wasn’t really expecting an answer, and already turning away, but since he had asked…
‘It’s a bit late, but can you fix me some of your chicken?’ Rain turned back to her.
‘For you? Any time.’
Aya smiled; that answer alone was worth his cut.
‘How was the chicken?’ Raia asked when Aya handed her the cloak. She put it on a hanger and went to the back of the cloakroom.
‘Fantastic, as always. I didn’t realise you were monitoring orders, though.’
She really was unsettling well informed sometimes.
‘Only when I have to cook them. Well, heat up, really.’ Raia answered with a grin. She returned to the counter with Aya’s things in her arm – her backpack and the transportation cylinder as well as her other, slightly larger backpack and coat, which she had left here in the evening, before setting out on her business trip.
‘Oh. It’s only… I thought you were handling the cloakroom?’
‘Come on, you know how father is; he’d rather burn the whole place to the ground than letting me see his special customers. Had me relieved me the second I brought him your latest’, she did the air quotes, ‘”acquisition”. I only came back to see you out.’
‘Hey, I am one of his special customers, too.’ Aya complained, resting her hands on her waist in a gesture of mock offence. She was only half jesting, though, part was honest hurt pride. After all she was a pro and not some wannabe.
‘Don’t give me that, Aya, you know what I mean. Of course, you are one of his special customers, but you are also my friend. There’s no risk of you considering me a loose end to be tied up.’
An uneasy silence spread through the room. They both knew very well Raia wasn’t exaggerating; in the last two years three of Rain’s staff had been met a premature end. Accidents, of course, but that served only to underline the graveness of it.
‘So… Did you get that necklace you mentioned?’ Raia finally broke the silence. It was a blatant attempt at changing topic, but she, at least, had managed to come up with another one.
‘Pretty much. I’ve got an option on it, and unless someone is willing to pay significantly more than me, there shouldn’t be any problem.’
Aya opened the large one of the backpacks. The pair of boots it held, she exchanged for the ones she was wearing, then dumped cylinder, boots and the other backpack inside.
‘Separate boots? Don’t you think, you are overdoing it?’ Raia asked when she was fastening the flaps of the backpack.
‘Not really, they might compare boot prints or something and I’d rather not have them find the front ones on my doorstep.’ Aya replied sincerely.
‘You are paranoid, you know that?’
‘Not as much as the ones who are after me.’
Aya grinned. Raia snickered. Before long both were laughing. It just was one of these moments.
‘You know, I have to get going if I want to catch some sleep tonight.’ Aya said, after they had calmed down again. She let her hair down and put on her coat. At last, she slipped her hand into an inside pocket and pulled a length of fine, golden chain out and fastened it fastened around her neck, the delicately worked pendant coming to rest on the skin of her cleavage. Goodbye Aya the thief, hello Aya the law abiding citizen.
‘Good bye, and don’t let yourself get mugged.’ Raia said, grinning.
‘Good night, Raia.’
It was in the wee hours of the morning, when Aya finally reached the flat. She slammed the door shut behind her, kicked her boots off and dropped coat, gloves and backpack heedlessly to the ground. Even if she would have to clean everything up, it still felt great making a mess for once in a while, and she didn’t even have to worry about getting lectured for it – she was the only one around and this was her very own way of shamelessly taking advantage of that fact.
Her shamelessness even extended so far, that she’d take a bath; right now, in the middle of night. She went to the bathroom and set the tap as hot as it would go, then added a generous amount of additive, the water taking on an amber hue. Foam started to build where the stream of water splashed down into the tub. Aya skimmed the water with her fingers to test the temperature; perfect.
While the water was running, she continued to her room. Pants, sweater and socks went in one of the two strategically placed hampers – a desperate attempt to stop her from cluttering the floor with her dirty clothes. Desperate, but successful, she had to admit. Aya wriggled out of her ‘business outfit’ and dropped it onto the floor. Well, most of the time anyway.
She closed her eyes for a moment and enjoyed the slight breeze of the air conditioning brushing against her bare skin. It felt good; a bit cool, maybe, but a pleasant change from the skin tight apparel she had been wearing for hours. Even with the latest high-tech fabrics, that always made her itchy.
In the meantime, the tub was full, and the taps automatically closed; the sound of running water trickled off, and then there was nothing but silence. Aya opened her eyes again.
She was halfway to the bathroom, when she caught her refection in the full length mirror in the hallway. Damn, she was still wearing the necklace. It wasn’t as if it would melt in the water, but there was a good chance that if she didn’t take it off now, she wouldn’t before going to bed, and in the morning she’d have to take the bed apart in order to find it. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Once she had put it in its usual place of honour on her bedside table, Aya went to the bathroom and climbed into the tub. The heat immediately welled up in her, driving sweat onto her skin, and her muscles slackened. She leaned back and let her mind wander.
Had her mother taken off the necklace for bathing? She might have, but Aya wasn’t sure. It was so long ago, and she hadn’t paid much attention to it. The necklace was just there, something that her mother always wore, a part of her. And after her mother had died it had become a part of her. Even if she didn’t have to, she’d always have worn it.
She did have to, though. Aya, just like her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother’s mother’s mother and who knew how many before them, suffered from a very unique condition, so unique, in fact, that the doctors didn’t even have a name for it. Implants just wouldn’t work, either not activating in the first place, or breaking down within hours – including the ID implants afforded on every citizen, shortly after birth. If they could have gotten away with it, they’d probably rooted the problem out, but since that was not an option, they had devised an external version of the chip. Hence the necklace.
Oh yes, she really suffered a lot from that. She suffered from not being able to have any half brewed hardware inside her, and she suffered from freedom. Others in the not-quite-legal line of business had to go to great lengths to mask their ID or have it surgically removed, effectively forcing them underground for as long as they lived; all she had to do was take off the necklace. What a terrible fate for her to bear.
Sputtering, Aya woke up. She must have been fallen asleep in the bathtub. Again. If she kept doing that, she was going to drown one of these days. She could really do without that.
Aya climbed out of the tub and opened the drain. Shouldn’t she at least feel rested, when she put her life on line for a nap? As it was, she could barely keep her eyes open. Aya wrapped her bathrobe tightly around her and went to her room, slumping right away onto her bed. The very next moment her breath became slow and steady; Aya was sleeping the sleep of the just.