1.1 First Among Equals

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Blackburn, Florida

June 22nd, 2043

 

At thirty minutes past midnight, a thunderous noise filled the Ingham Tunnel leading to the island district of Vicio. A vagrant stirred in his sleep against the tunnel wall, fumbling for his wad of newspaper to shield him from the summer rain. But a storm did not come. Instead, four heavily modified vehicles shot out of the tunnel at eighty miles per hour: a 1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R, a 2021 Toyota Supra, a 2034 Dodge Challenger, and, ahead of the competition, a 2016 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.

 

The driver of the Lancer huffed her irritation. The pilots of the Challenger and the Supra were members of rival gangs, and they were certainly driving like it, exchanging scrapes and bumps as the cars escaped the dim lighting of the tunnel and danced under the neon lights of casinos and nightclubs. An overly zealous tap from the Supra sent the Challenger careening into a parking lot, crashing into a dumpster and spilling its contents onto the slick pavement. The club’s patrons acknowledged the accident with little more than raised eyebrows and amused snickers.

 

Hmph. Better him than me, Jessica thought. She glanced at her rear view mirror, watching the Supra fall behind the Skyline before returning her attention to the road. The street began to wind through the red light district, and that’s where her rival in the Skyline began to fall back: the eighties relic simply lacked the traction of four-wheel drive.

 

That’s right, stay back there, douchebag. Carlos Falcao was the man behind the wheel of the coupe, a Colombian trafficker and henchman for the crime lord known as Sonrisa. A feeling of disgust come over Jessica as she caught a glimpse of his seething face. She was not a good woman. She had done many things she was not proud of. But the skin trade? She wasn’t an animal.

 

As the two came to a sharp left turn, Jessica shifted her Lancer to the inside lane and brake checked. Carlos bit the bait, and with the finish line a minute away, was unable to pass her. His vehicle downshifted into fourth gear, the pitch of the droning engine rising to a whine.

 

There was one mile left to go, and the raw horsepower of Carlos’ Skyline began to close the gap. Jessica was not going to let him win. Her gloved thumb found its way to her control panel and pressed a small button. A compartment by her vehicle’s exhaust pipe opened up, spraying a fine, sticky black mist through the air and onto Carlos’ windshield. His windshield wipers activated, but the gunk held fast to the glass like glue. Jessica slid in front of the Skyline and, with a bump, her Lancer crossed the makeshift chalk band that constituted a finish line.

 

“And we have our winner, folks!” she heard the race’s director, LaDarius, bellow to the crowd.  “Jessica takes her third race in a row. No refunds!”

 

As she clambered out of her Lancer, she caught a wave of confused murmurs made its way through the mass of onlookers, watching her in unison. She’d heard that the majority had written off her previous two victories as flukes, the typical wannabe who clambered over the pile before being grinded under the jackboot of reality. But three times? Maybe this will teach you pricks some respect, she thought grimly, crossing her arms and leaning against the driver side door.

 

“Yo homeboy, what the fuck was that?!” She watched with amusement as Carlos approached LaDarius with frenzied eyes, gesturing at her wildly. “Her car puked all over my windshield, how am I supposed to win like that?!”

 

“You’re not.” LaDarius only looked up briefly from the wad of bills he was counting. “It was a no-rules race. You can read, can’t you?”

 

Carlos scoffed indignantly. “Oh, no rules, huh?” Jessica’s eyes shot open as Carlos reached for something metallic in his waistband.

 

“Hey, puta!”

 

A shot rang out, shattering her right headlight. She cleared the hood of her car as a bullet whizzed by her head and nearly into the crowd.

 

“You piece of shit, I’ll have my boys ship to you to the Chinese!” Another shot pierced both doors. “Then we’re coming for your boss!”

 

Pressing herself against her car door, Jessica honed in on his footsteps, waiting until he drew closer with a balled fist. Filthy degenerate. Carlos was just another typical thug, the kind who had wormed their way into the heart of a once-great city and rotted it from the inside. Blackburn had once been a shining beacon of success, a bustling port town that attracted immigrants from all over the world. If there was ever proof of the American Dream, of hard work breeding success, old Blackburn was it. But that was before her mother’s time. The American Dream had turned into a nightmare, and what was once a proud city had morphed into seedy nest of crime, greed, and apathy, hidden behind a thin veneer of glitz.

 

“Come on little girl, where are you hiding?” Carlos peered over the hood, looking puzzled. When he turned to his right, Jessica made her move, taking him to the ground in one swift movement. Jessica pinned his gun hand with her left, and with her right she removed her helmet. Carlos seemed further puzzled. Jessica was a pale woman with many freckles, her locks of red hair matted with sweat falling around her angled chin.

 

Jessica brought the helmet down on her attacker’s nose, breaking it with an audible crunch. Another blow splattered her chest with blood. There was a third blow, and a fourth, the crowd cheering louder with each, calling for his head. Before Jessica could go any further, LaDarius pulled her away.

 

“Alright, alright, easy there, Jessica.” The enraged woman bared her teeth at the race’s director. LaDarius simply clucked his tongue and pushed up his glasses.

 

“I can’t have you murdering my drivers, even if they deserve it.”

 

“You’re damn right he deserves it.” Jessica brushed herself off as she got to her feet, then popped her blood-spattered helmet back on. “Just give me my money.”

 

“Right.” LaDarius quickly counted fifteen hundred dollars and handed it over in three bunches. “I’m going to have to lower the odds on Carlos. Shame, he was good cash cow while he lasted.”

 

Jessica said nothing, storming back to her Lancer and peeling off, leaving behind a mass of excited onlookers.

 

***

 

Jessica found herself wincing as wind whistled through the bullet hole on the driverside door. LaDarius had greased the palms of the cops, so she didn’t need to fear the long arm of the law – for now. But when the Earth rotated once more and a different shift clocked in, she wasn’t going to run the risk of some goodie-two-shoes pulling her over. She was going to have to get that repaired.

 

She frowned as she calculated the figures in her head. Mouse took thirty percent of her earnings, leaving her with just a shade over a thousand dollars. If the repairs to her vehicle cost three hundred, she was left with only seven for the month. The last time she had so little, she was arrested for breaking into a fast food joint’s soda machine.

 

Still, working for Mouse beat wandering the streets alone. She ran a tight ship and took care of her own – so long as they made her money. But money was all she cared about. Mouse had clawed her way to the top of the underworld from the gutter as a lowly prostitute. Now she was a multi-millionaire and would stack bodies a mile high to keep it that way.

 

The Lancer’s speakers began to ring. Incoming Call: Mouse, said the HUD. Grumbling, Jessica accepted the call with her thumb.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Where are you? These neanderthals have been breathing down my neck for almost twenty minutes now and it’s lost its charm.” Mouse said, sounding more aggravated than usual.

 

“Paying for your rehab,” Jessica replied impassively. “Should be four fifty this month.”

 

“Ah, you won again? Good. I hope they learn a little respect for once. Try and hurry here, I’m stalling as best I can, but I don’t want to chance it much longer.”

 

“Stalling?” That raised an eyebrow. “Stalling what?”

 

Mouse sighed through her nose. “I ran into Ivanovich and… him. They wanted to talk about hashing out some sort of territory line agreement, but their bodyguards have been giving me the eye and I really don’t feel comfortable with them.”

 

“Hmph. Pleasant. Salazar’s goon wasn’t treating me any kinder.”

 

Grigori Ivanovich might have had the tacit backing of the Russian government, but no one in Blackburn could match Martin Salazar’s cruelty. The slave trade was the least of his crimes – he regularly performed human experiments on his victims that would have made the Nazis blush. And, for personal reasons, Jessica and Mouse had a particularly contemptible view of the man.

 

“If only he just had the one. God, how I wish I could just gas him right here, but his kind are just like weeds…” Mouse groaned. “I have to go. Get here quickly, Jessica.”

 

***

 

The Lodge was the criminal lovechild of Wal-Mart and the stock exchange, a place where the underworld could gather to exchange goods and services, free of prejudice or grudges. Of course, the crime lords of Blackburn didn’t set aside their vendettas willingly. The Lodge kept the squabblers in check with extreme security measures equipped to kill in the name of peace and professionality. Having operated freely for 108 years, currently taking residence in the abandoned parts of Vicio’s metro system, the Lodge kept things bearable in the underworld.

 

Half of the establishment had been devoted to a sort of bazaar area, with many stands set up by various gangs and independent criminals, hawking their wares to any and all. The other half was an open, relaxed bar-type area, with tables and couches for the occupants to use. Most of the time, the conversations were business in nature, though there were a fair few friendly discussions, as well as a fair few unfriendly ones.

 

Three occupants sat at a table near the left side of the room, centered on the wall: Nisa ‘Mouse’ Verion, the queen of the drug trade; Grigori Ivanovich, the Russian arms trafficker; and Martin ‘Sonrisa’ Salazar, fearfully referred to as ‘the good doctor’. In comparison to the two men, Mouse was practically a child, barely over five feet tall and a hundred pounds soaking wet. Her snow white skin and hair, along with her pink, endlessly spasming eyes, denoted her status as an albino and gave her her namesake. She had a lean, wolfish face, all lines and subtle curves, though there was a definite air of haughtiness about her.

 

Grigori exemplified the Russian stereotype of ‘the bear’. He was six foot three inches tall, incredibly muscular and bulky in the way that truly strong men were. The man kept his head shaved to the skin, though his bushy eyebrows and beehive beard more than made up for it. Surprisingly, he bore no tattoos, at least not visibly; a rarity for vory.

 

Martin’s tidy, too-big suit made him look a few shades bigger than he really was. Underneath folds of cloth, he was bruised skin and broken bones, many healed the wrong way. His lower jaw was wrong. It didn’t line up with his top jaw, so when he smiled, he bared two jagged rows of teeth that ended in scar tissue, the remnants of a glasgow grin. His whole face was thin and gaunt, so you could see where the joints didn’t line up. His bony fingers, several of them crooked and several more laden in gold, grasped the handle of an elaborate cane. It made up for the loss of a leg so crooked, it barely resembled a leg.

 

The three crime lords had unofficially taken over Vicio over the past couple years. Unfortunately, since it had been so unofficial, they often clashed with one another over what they thought were clearly defined territory lines. And so came about this meeting, all parties wishing to assert their dominance without wasting life or limb.

 

After what felt like ages, Mouse blew a quiet sigh of relief when Jessica arrived, taking her spot at her side. Mouse caught a brief flash of malice in her eyes when she glanced at Martin. Ugh, the feeling is very much mutual.

 

“This is what we were waitink for, malyshka? Your attack dog? Pah.” Grigori waved a dismissive hand as looked Jessica over.

 

“No, I simply dislike you two threatening me with your attack dogs.” The men’s bodyguards hardly batted an eye at her jab, each one focused on keeping watch on the other. “Now then. Did either of you come prepared with maps of proposed territory lines, or must I provide for you?”

 

“Not at all, my dear,” said Martin, reaching into his suit, not noticing Mouse’s angry twitch. His words were garbled by the improbable anatomy of his jaw. He pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper and laid it flat on the table, and they leaned in to see as he unfolded it. Ink lines crisscrossed a standard map of the Vicio district, dividing it into three parts. The largest and most heavily populated, predictably, would go to Martin. Grigori’s cut was nearly equal in size, just a little smaller and a little further from the main foot traffic. Mouse’s territory would occupy a generous sliver of land, perhaps a fifth of the island.

 

“The best ports are here, Grigori,” Martin said, pointing out a spot on the edge of the island he had circled. “A gift,” he said, insincerely, “from me to you.”

 

Grigori looked the proposed map over, ignoring Mouse’s indignant squawk. “Da. I will accept, on two conditions. One, I will trade you this section here for more port space. Two, you will not be moving your little fleshy products through our territory anymore. Is bad optics for business. I have been given a team of snipers from the Kremlin for in case you do not do this,” Grigori warned.

 

“Have you two forgotten something? Your map goes right through my turf! I refuse to settle for a drop in the bucket while you two imbeciles hoard the lion’s share for yourselves.”

 

“Watch your tongue, malyshka, the grown ups are talkink.”

 

Mouse blew out a heavy breath, gritting her teeth. “If you continue on this path, I’ll consider it an act of war.” The albino sat back in her chair, picking at her nails. “Let’s not forget who owns the arteries around here. I have more drug runners in my pocket than either of you realize. One little piece of paper from me and you may as well kiss your ass goodbye. How about we start from the beginning, where we all have an equal share?”

 

Grigori gave a baritone laugh. “Hah! Always with the threats. Ty vsegda lay, kak malen’kaya sobachka. Run along, leave us to the real work and be happy you get anythink.”

 

Martin chuckled to himself. “Act of war, she says. As if I of all people would fear these two,” he said, shooting a pointed look at Jessica. “Now, Grigori, I’ll give you the port space, but I will need to move my wares through your territory from time to time. Give me Bray Street, right here, see, to transport the goods, and we’ll not set foot off of it. If ever you see me elsewhere on your turf, then by all means, shoot me down.”

 

“This will work, da. I accept.”

 

I do not!” Absolutely livid by now, Mouse leapt to her feet, hands on the table, glaring at Grigori and Martin. Their bodyguards had their hands in their jackets, but Mouse knew it was just reflex. “I control the southern third of Vicio and that will continue to be the case, or I will retaliate.”

 

Martin laughed again, steepling his fingers on his cane. “Oh little Mouse, all this bravado is getting you nowhere, is it not? Come, why not drop this petty teenage rebellion and help your old man with his work?”

 

“If you continue this line of reasoning, I will certainly help you. Into an early grave. You’ve got no reason to speak to me that way. Frankly, it’s disgusting.” Mouse sneered at him, crossing her arms. Honestly, you think he’d learn by now…

 

“Mmm. What’s disgusting is the way you’re wasting your intellect.” He wagged a finger in ways a finger should not move. “Drugs? Oh, with your gift child, you could be doing so much more…”

 

Mouse gritted her teeth. More, indeed. “Like being hooked up to your endless parade of pumps and vacuums as you siphon away my blood? You know, you make a great point, actually. I think I’ll have my engineers make me a few. I certainly remember them well enough to reverse engineer them. Once I’m done, I’ll invite you down to the lab and you can be the honorary first test member,” finished the woman in a saccharine sweet tone, batting her eyelashes at Martin.

 

Mouse felt Jessica’s breath on her ear. “Nisa, cut it out. He’s not worth it.”

 

“My word, Jessica, how odd it is to hear you say that. You’re more full of rage than she is. She’s quite toxic for you, you know. Why would you leave your mother and go to her, I wonder…”

 

Jessica clenched her jaw. “Shut. Up.

 

Uttering a long, rolling sigh, Grigori gestured to the table between them. “Are we done here with the barkink? I would like to get this done and be goink home.”

 

“I suppose we are.” Martin traced his thumb along the lines of the map, smudging the border between his territory and Mouse’s. “Final offer, girls,” he said in a paternal whisper.

 

Mouse glanced sidelong at Jessica, then down at the map in question. She uttered a noise of disgust. “Denied. It isn’t an offer, it’s a scrap, and I’m not in the habit of taking scraps. You can try to wrest my territory away from me. Emphasis on try. We’re done here, Jessica.”

 

Martin gave a long, earnest sigh. “I was hoping not to have to replace you, Nisa, but sometimes it’s wisest to ignore my sentimentality. I’ll be sure to keep your body well preserved.”

 

Mouse snorted. Without a parting shot, the albino turned and marched away, Jessica at her side. Keep playing your games, boys, you’ll see where it gets you.

 

As she and Jessica were nearing the checkpoint to exit the Lodge, one of the representatives stopped her. “Mouse, a benefactor has declared that everyone assembled today was to receive a parting gift.”

 

Parting gift? You wanna be more specific? I’m not in the mood to play twenty questions right now, Hopper.”

 

“Outside, you will find several crates of arms. You may choose one that is to your liking.”

 

Immediately, Mouse’s hackles were up. No one gave free anything to anyone without strings attached around here. Still, it was worth it to investigate. “Who donated them?” Hopper shrugged, gesturing her out the door. Mouse rolled her eyes and stepped outside, spotted the merchandise, then froze. Those weren’t cheap parting gifts. She hesitantly gestured for Jessica to take whatever she wanted, stepping up to a table of pistols to find one that suited her best. It was tempting to take the SAW machine gun, but that was a little too much gun for her. She settled on the tested and reliable Glock 18. Good for single targets, but with the capability for fully automatic fire when things got too rough. “Get something good, Jessica,” she said, examining the other tables. “I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll be needing to use these fairly soon.”

 

Jessica felt the ridged rail system of an M4 carbine, then shook it for rattle. “There’s only minor wear. Probably surplus from America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Light enough for infantry to remain mobile, but 5.56 rounds can turn the the thickest of bone to dust.” She frowned. “Nisa, you know this is someone’s bait. Why are you biting?”

 

“Feh. Meagre bait, if you ask me. Sure, the knuckle draggers around here may fall for it, but you and I are more clever than that. Once we get home, we’ll disassemble these and go over every inch. I don’t overlook free things, you know that by now. Whatever bugs we find, we can trace. Easy.” Mouse hopped down onto the rail line, which had been replaced by a paved sidewalk by Lodge personnel, and gestured for Jessica to follow.

 

“I’ve been looking for an excuse to knock those two down a couple pegs. Their plan to oust us from our turf is just what I’ve been waiting for.”

 

“Maybe so, but they’ll be armed as well as us. Someone wants us to use these guns. Perhaps the federal government? The ATF gunwalked arms across the border in an attempt to track and arrest cartel leaders. Though, that was generally considered a failure…”

 

Mouse shook her head. “That is possible as a theory, but hardly probable. Any sting operations targeting the Lodge are doomed from the start. They’re untouchable. If they are after the guests, that is more likely to succeed, but for what purpose? Catching a slew of minnows hardly thins the pond. And you can bet that the upper bosses won’t allow themselves to be tricked by such a basic con. No, whoever gifted these guns is playing the long game, like any skilled chessmaster. At this point, we have more immediate matters to concern ourselves with.”

 

***

 

Despite her most stringent tests and analysis, Mouse couldn’t find a single thing wrong with the guns. No tracking chips, no bugs in the material, they fired just fine… It was beyond suspicious, but she had no choice but to accept them as legitimate. She stepped out of her workshop, informing the man operating the machines to be careful with her new equipment. They weren’t cheap to acquire, and they were a pain in the ass to install. The tenement had to tap a second line into the grid just for them.

 

Mouse’s headquarters were deep in the maze-like slums of Davis, the poorest area in Blackburn, but she was fine with that. No one pestered her about building codes or late night noise. She unofficially owned her building, as well as the five that ringed it, makeshift walkways running back and forth through all of them. The central building had been designed to handle administrative functions, and its top floor served as her own personal housing. The easternmost building held her manufacturing center, where all her hardware was fabricated and repaired. The southern one was her drug lab. To the west, north, and northeast was housing for her workers, along with some recreational equipment.

 

The albino left her manufacturing building, taking an external stairwell to the third floor and headed to her drug wing. Several of the workers were hanging out on the balcony, smoking, but seeing her sent them scrambling inside. “Grant!” Mouse shouted, snatching a pair of safety goggles from the rack near the door and donning them. “Grant, have you finished prototyping my latest batch?”

 

For the most part, the walls of the floor had been knocked out, leaving just the studs and areas cordoned off by plastic curtains. A frazzled looking man with thick spectacles and a beakish nose pulled the curtain around his workstation aside in a panic. “Ms. Verion! I-I… it’s… well, you see-”

 

“I’m just asking you a question, Grant. If I was accusing you of something, I’d have my gun in hand.”

 

Grant nodded hastily, dragging the curtain back completely so she could enter. A complicated array of bunsen burners and hotplates were blazing away, boiling several pots of various colored liquids. “Batch 2-129 is showing promise, but 130 and 131 are unstable… The high is potent, but short lived, and the crash is… hard. Very hard.”

 

Mouse’s mouth quirked down in a lopsided frown. She grabbed a measuring spoon from the tool tray on her left and scooped out a teaspoon of pale purple liquid from batch 130, examining it in the light. The woman popped the lid of the cooler that was underneath the folding table the tool tray sat on, grabbing an ice cube and running it over the underside of the spoon. Once she felt it was cool enough, Mouse downed it, letting the liquid roll around in her mouth.

 

Almost immediately, she spotted the problem, spitting the liquid out in a plastic cup and shaking her head. “You boiled out the magnesium nitrate. It’s all decomposed. Turn the temperature down, add a gas catch, and make sure you add the condensate into the next batch with an electrolysis shock. Not too much, just enough. I can tell by looking at 131 that it’s the same problem.” Grant immediately turned down the hotplates and added some notes to his stained notebook. Mouse turned to peer farther into the room. “Any word on my steroid?”

 

“O-oh! Yes. It’s going very, very well, Ms. Verion! Truly, you’ve outdone yourself with this formula. Our test subjects have reported no major side effects, and minimal damage has been found after three months of extended usage.”

 

“That’s what I like to hear. Listen. I want you to get to work aerosolizing it for inhaler use. I want all my gunmen, runners, eyes, everyone I keep out on the streets, I want them all to have at least two doses on them at all times. Starting yesterday, got it?” Grant stared blankly for a second, then scrambled away to relay her orders.

 

All that was left was to finish her intelligence gathering. She’d sent Jessica out almost immediately after they’d returned from the Lodge to kidnap Salazar’s goon, the one she’d trounced in her race. Jessica had worked him over during a preliminary interrogation, but Mouse wanted to be very thorough. She made her way to the northeast building, heading to the top floor where Jessica’s room was located. Rapping her knuckles on the door, Mouse shouted for the woman. After a moment Jessica pried the door a quarter of the way open, and Mouse was greeted with an unfamiliar scent; no scent. Jessica’s quarters were quite spartan, furnished only by the necessary effects. There were no special decorations along the walls, only a ratty mattress in the corner illuminated by a lamp that sat upon a small desk. Quite a far cry from Mouse’s lavish quarters.

 

“What?”

 

“I dislike that mongrel taking up space under my roof. Let’s finish up this little dance and toss him into the ocean, hmm?” Mouse looked down at her nails, vaguely picking at them. “I’ve arranged for a nice variety of chemical solutions to be awaiting us. I know Salazar’s goons can be quite… uncooperative.”

 

They quickly changed buildings, making their way from the floors of the HQ to the basement-turned-holding cells, approaching the walled off wet room in the rear. It was covered floor to ceiling with green tiles, with a drain inset in the center of the slightly sloped floor, and with various tables and shelves scattered about for convenient storage. “Is everything ready?” Mouse asked the twitchy man she had tending the room. “He looks uncomfortable in there. Good.” Carlos had been strapped securely to a mortician’s slab in the center of the room, bound across all limbs and the torso by thick leather straps.

 

“Y-yes, Ms. Verion. All ready, just like you asked, sure is! All the juice you wanted, the butane torch, shears, lots of wire, potato peeler… Some other stuff… All there!”

 

“Good. I’ll be awhile. In an hour and a half, please fetch some water for me and Jessica. I’m sure we’ll need it.” The two disappeared into the tile room, prompting the door guard to put in his headphones and nervously bob back and forth.

 

At the end of nearly three and a quarter hours of torture, Mouse and Jessica emerged. The former had blood all down her front, splattered across her face, and covering her arms to the elbow. “How frustrating…” lamented the albino, muttering to herself as she pressed a finger to her temple. Carlos hadn’t said much, beyond consulting the standard villain playbook and choosing braggadocious ranting. Something about bugs?

 

“Well, we learned that he’s still an evil demented bastard,” Jessica mumbled, slumping against the wall, staring at the floor. “I don’t think I want to know exactly what he’s been up too…”

 

Mouse frowned and put her hands on her hips. Always with the attitude. “That’s not what keeps our heads off spikes or our asses out of brothels, Jessica. One wrong step and we end up two more playthings in his game. We need to know what he’s up to, want has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, the slimy fuck is playing his cards closer to his chest than I’d hoped. Next person we abduct can’t be a peon. They have to have a position of power. Until then, we’ll just use that route info we got to keep tabs on him.”

 

Jessica waved a hand dismissively. “Sure. He’ll probably mutate a bunch of turtles into ninjas or some such nonsense, he can’t help himself.” Mouse continued to stare. Jessica crinkled her nose. “What?”

 

“That’s the ‘I don’t like what you’re doing’ tone. Jessica, if you’ve got a better plan to claw your way out of this hellhole, I’m all ears. We’re at the bottom of the barrel, in case you’ve forgotten. And as far as the government’s concerned, I don’t exist. Fighting is our only option. Us or them. I value the lives of the people I work with, I treat them humanely. I won’t, however, afford any niceties to the people that are trying to kill us.”

 

“Okay, look, Nisa, I get it. I didn’t say anything,” Jessica spat back, putting her hands out. She got to her feet. “It’s just – I mean, it’s nothing, okay?”

 

Mouse crossed her arms, her raised brow rising higher. “It’s nothing? Clearly, it must be if you’re getting upset about it. No, wait… That’s the opposite of nothing. People don’t get upset about nothing unless that’s the amount of money they have or time left to live. Either out with it or tell someone else, Jessica. I’m not your therapist.”

 

Jessica balled her fists, taking a step forward. Mouse had to admit herself, she was a little surprised. “Actually, you know what, Nisa?” Jessica pulled out her empty pockets. “I haven’t a cent to my name. I spent every dollar I had replacing my exhaust pipe. And when it comes to my hourglass of my life, I think the stress of risking my neck for your ungrateful ass is tapping a few grains of sand to the bottom. I don’t think you need to be a therapist to see that maybe I don’t want to live like an animal anymore.”

 

“Live like an animal?” repeated Mouse. “What the hell are you talking about, Jessica? Am I putting a collar on you? Am I keeping you locked in a cage? No. I take a cut of anything you do that I have to organize myself, but I’m not stopping you from taking initiative. If you’ve got a problem, bring it up to me! I’m not a mind reader, all I have to go on is what you tell me or what little I can glean from reading your body language. And since you spend a lot of time being sullen, it’s really goddamned hard to tell when it’s something you’re blaming me for or you just lost your pencil.”

 

Jessica’s whole body quaked. “Urgh, you don’t get it, do you?! It’s – it’s not just you, it’s this whole damned city, and everyone in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s you, or Martin, or my mother, everyone who’s had my leash is an asshole! And I’m an asshole too. God, do you ever sit down and reflect on how fucked up this all is? Really compare our lives to what it should be? Or do you just like this life?”

 

For a moment, Mouse didn’t reply. That – that was a low blow. “No. I don’t sit around and think about all the atrocities I’m committing. Why? Precisely because I loathe this life. All I want is to live quietly, carry out my chemical fascination, and be unbothered. But I can’t do that while scumbags like Martin are out threatening everything and everyone!”

 

Jessica followed Mouse’s eyes for a minute. Perhaps she had noticed them come nearly to a halt. There seemed to be more she wanted to say, but all she could manage was “Hmph. We’re doing a lot of good, aren’t we Nisa?”

 

Mouse watched her storm away, the usual when she got righteous indignation fever, before looking down at her hands. “Fremont, go fetch the boys from the second floor. I want that body dissolved as soon as possible.” Snapping to, the twitchy man bolted out of the room, leaving Mouse to wash up in the little sink.

 

Next Chapter

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