Avenue B was crowded with petty consignees who made their living as best they could. DNA, RNA and organ banks. Barter firms. Boosterware outlets. Gambling holes. Hotels. Bars. Trixiepens. Bodegas. Prosthetic surgeries. Hockshops. Each animated with the cadence of people turning profits, the murmur of small enterprise, the barbed aroma of sweat and adrenaline.
Talitha Manchand inched her way out of the vendor clutter and holographic psychedelics of the avenue and jetted down a hotel-lined sidestreet. Three quarters down the block, she hooked a sharp left and spun the ’13 GeoPlymouth Cloudburst into a convenient alley. Guided by its lasertracking system, the hovercar maneuvered effortlessly through a maze of dumpsters and garbage cans, kicking up a mini-storm of grit and paper trash. The Cloudburst stopped a few feet from the back entrance to the Forgotten Realm Hotel, gently lowering itself on its flexible skirt. When she killed the engine, the skirt deflated and retracted into the car’s underbelly housing. She flicked on the dome light and slipped the Glock 19 out of the holster secured under the glove compartment and checked the load.
Flicking off the dome light, she climbed out the car, checked the alley, holstered the Glock in her advantage belt and walked over to the hotel’s back door. The sonic padlock was ancient; she picked it with a high-frequency whistle normally used to stand off attack dogs. With a soft click and a push of the door, Talitha stepped into a cluttered urine and sex-scented stairwell that used to be a service entrance and ghosted her way through the lobby.
The lobby loiterers were pretty much what she expected: snuffheads, scavoes, jonniegirls. Each in their little cliques, dialoguing. Except for a rail-thin stimfella, who was dealing stims to a skud, she might have gone unnoticed. The skud looked so hard up for a fix he probably would have snorted potassium cyanide. Behind the stimfella were two husky goons on the lookout. Definitely his billyboys.
“HEY!” the skud yelped as the stimfella pushed him to the side and walked away. “I slid you cash, so where’s my stash, man?”
Talitha knew there was no way the skud was up to going toe to toe with the stimfella but jonesing muscles sometimes made a weak man strong. And judging by the way he was listing and clutching the left side of his torso, he probably sold a lung or kidney to enjoy the uncollected stim.
“I’m talking to you, man! You deaf, or just stupid?” His answer came in the form of sledgehammer fists. The billyboys beat him to the ground and all he could do was bawl out in anger against their fury, trying to protect the recent surgery stitches.
The stimfella swaggered on an intercept course with Talitha and his billyboys, having made short work of the skud, weren’t too far behind. All three men stopped directly in front of her, blocking her path.
“Name’s Trent, jodie. Whatcha doin’ in the Paradise?” the slump-shouldered stimfella brushed blond locks out of his eyes and rubbed a blemish on the side of his aquiline nose. “Your man not servin’ you right? Lookin’ for a jock to rock your box? You found ‘im. I promise you a screamin’-and-creamin’-yabba-dabba-good-time,” he said, licking his thin dry lips.
“Fuck off,” Talitha said, before her brain could catch up to her mouth. There was no way this was going to end peacefully.
“Best put some speck on the way you talk to me, ‘fore I have to do it for you, the hard way,” The stimfella said, grabbing his crotch.
The billyboys exchanged glances and laughed. This was a game to them, Talitha realized. They were out for shits and giggles. Their laughter faded when Trent, sporting a lime green weasel-suede leisure suit, reached into his breast pocket, came out with a yellow plastic inhaler and fired a round up each nostril. He absently passed the inhaler over his shoulder for his billyboys to divvy up the dregs. Talitha studied the stimfella. A full head taller than she, confident, tough and tanked up on some stim that probably boosted his reflexes and gave him an adrenaline buzz. Someone was going to get hurt.
Talitha considered it might be her, so she tried to sidestep. Billyboy one and two flanked their boss left and right and circled her, smiling, Trent lashed out at her face with the back of his left hand, a bitch-slap, what real men used to keep their women in check. This punk regarded her the same way he did his stimmed-out trixies. Someone he could slap around one minute and get them to go down on him the next.
That was all it took.
Talitha’s body went wild. Blocking the slap with her forearm, she snagged his wrist with one hand and slammed the heel of her other palm into his elbow. The impact forced the elbow joint to bend the wrong way with a moist, popping sound. Trent’s scream trailed his collapsing body to the floor.
Billyboy One came in from behind and tried to get Talitha in a headlock but before his arm locked around her throat, she slammed the back of her head into the biliyboy’s face, smashing his nose. At the same time, she hooked her foot behind one of his knees and forced it to buckle while shifting all her weight against him suddenly. They toppled backward. When his head struck the tiled floor, his grip loosened and she rolled out of his arms and drove her elbow down into his solar plexus.
The remaining billyboy was over her suddenly, shifting his weight to his right leg so he could kick with his left. Talitha ducked inside the kick with her arms close to her chest. Then both arms shot out one after the other and her tiny rock hard fists slammed into the billyboy’s testicles like pistons from an ignited car engine. The quadruple punch doubled the man, forcing him to topple over Trent’s body and crash to the floor in a fetal position.
Talitha rolled to her feet and brushed herself off. She glanced around the lobby, her expression explicit. It said, simply: Next?
The cliques slowly scattered, loiterers making their way towards the exit. They recognized the fighting style and pegged her as slamtracker.
“Now that they know what you are,” said a voice from behind the front desk. “They’re probably planning to bum-rush you when you leave.”
“The least of my worries,” she mumbled.
The desk clerk, who’s nametag read: ADEL, was a nondescript beaker-bred hermaphrodite who looked as androgynous as they claimed Bowie did in his heyday. Adel seemed mildly amused, glancing past Talitha to the three moaning men on the floor.
The skud picked himself up unsteadily and began rummaging through the stimfella’s pockets. Trent made a weak grab attempt but the skud stomped down on Trent’s broken arm. The stimfella shrieked, eyes rolling into the back of his head, and the skud returned to his scavenger hunt, taking all the stims and money he found.
Talitha thought, maybe, if he hurried to the organ bank, the skud could get his old lung or kidney back, or even buy new ones. More likely, he would forego the organs and buy more stims. He was visibly bleeding from where his stitches popped, but he seemed rather pleased with his ill-gotten gains. He pocketed his goods and on his way out the door, he kicked both billyboys in the face, obviously the icing on his satisfaction cake.
Talitha turned her attention back to Adel, flashed her credentials and said, “You know why I’m here.”
“I’m the one who called, but don’t go thinking I’m some sort of snitch. I just needed the finder’s fee for an emergency, that’s all,” the clerk said and pushed a slip of paper toward her. “That’s his room number.”
“Not my concern how you justify it, as long as the information is accurate,” Talitha started for the elevator, spotted the OUT OF ORDER sign then made for the stairs instead.
The Forgotten Realm lived up to its name. Calling the place low-tech would’ve been high praise. Most of the mechanix here were decades old. Still, Talitha had to admit she was slightly impressed that the whole place was put together from salvaged materials. Shame no one here jerry-built an air conditioning system. She was on the nervous side to begin with, add that it was the last night in July, and it made for a woman who gave off enough sweat to cure the Delaware drought. Walking up twenty-three flights of rickety stairs didn’t help the matter any.
Talitha heard the stairwell door close behind her. Her left hand adjusted her advantage belt to put the more suitable compartments in her reach. The Glock 19 mini 9mm trembled in the grip of her tense right hand. She debated whether or not to leave the safety catch on. Her index finger rested near the trigger.
Cold fear poured down her spine as she started down the long, empty hallway. She licked her lips, trying to taste some courage. The Glock grip itched her palm. Her breath was quick. She paused outside the door number scratched on the slip of paper. Standing off to one side, she tweaked the doorbell and waited. Nothing. She put her mouth to the apartment’s intercom, ‘Marv Quinton?” Still nothing.
The locks on the door were electronic; finger-idents that were programmed to the renter’s fingerprints that could only be overridden by special 4-digit codes. Child’s play. From one of the smaller sections of her advantage belt she pulled a device roughly the size of her thumbnail. It looked like a tiny calculator. She placed it on the lock panel and it took all of fifteen seconds to tumble the locks.
As soon as the pneumatic door opened, her stomach quivered. “Mr. Quinton?” Talitha called into the doorway of the jet apartment. No answer. Not that she expected one. If he felt up to having company, he wouldn’t have made her pop all three of the finger-idents on the door.
Her weapon readied, she stepped inside. The door hissed shut behind her, the locks snapping closed. Darkness swallowed her like a hungry animal. The heat was three times as severe inside, made worse by the stale air. “Lights on.” she spoke to the ceiling, but nothing happened. Either he had disconnected the light mechanism, or this dump wasn’t fitted with voice activated halogen strip lighti—
To the left, the tip of a matchstick scraped along the warped wooden floor and burst into life. The barrel of the Glock swung left, her body following and she planted her feet firmly apart, slightly bent, thumbed the safety off and braced herself to lay into that corner of the room.
Laughter. Man’s laughter, as the match rose to light the tip of a cigarette. She couldn’t see his face clearly, the flame played eerie shadow games with his features. He sat on a stool in the corner, looking like a gargoyle on a precipice.
“You should be more careful when you violate someone’s space. If I was as mental as most make me out to be, I would’ve flatlined you at the door,” the gargoyle said. He blew out the match and was devoured by the shadows again, all except the fiery tip of his cigarette.
“Marv Quinton?” she tried becoming less of a target, stepping away from the spot he saw her at, but the floorboards creaked, giving away her movements.
“Depends on who’s asking,” the cigarette tip bobbed up and down as he spoke.
“Talitha Manchand, ‘Rinth police.”
“You mean slamtracker, don’t you? ‘Rinth cops don’t come this far out when they can hire local.”
“Fine. I’m a tracker, okay?” she swiped at the sweat on her forehead.
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton-“
“Not in the dark, Mr. Quinton!”
“I have my reasons.”
“NOT IN THE DARK, MR. QUINTON!”
“The years haven’t been kind to me.”
“Did I ask you all that? I just need to viz you, okay? It’s regulation.”
Quinton stood up and reached over to hit the old fashioned manual lightswitch. Two dusty fluorescent rings flickered on and Talitha squinted until her eyes adjusted to the light, and it took all the self-control she had to keep from flinching.
To Be Continued…
Text and audio ©2002-2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys