APRIL 20, 2789
THIS was my turf now. Mine.
I stood at the head of the alley. Smoke billowed from fire pits, the flames licking at slow-turning ’guanas on spits. Neon signs blinked overhead. Hookers danced in the street, their eyes hidden behind lizard masks, their tits bouncing free. A five-piece band at the far end pounded out a heavy beat beneath a BIG SLEEP ’89 banner. Offworld teens drank and groped and drank some more. I breathed deep of air scented with perspiration and opium.
Mine. Nobody could stop me.
I weaved into the rollicking crowd, sliding past sweat-slick flesh, my face whipped by hair from dancing hookers. Some whore tried to shove a mask in my face. I pushed her away.
Every door in the alley was propped open for the steady stream of mostly male offworlders. On a day like today, a hooker could score a new trick every ten minutes. The Big Sleep was a hot time for offworld kids on their school breaks to come down to Lagarto’s surface with their bottomless pockets and insatiable libidos.
I looked up at the ash gray sky. Weak light trickled down. The darkness would be upon us soon.
I navigated past tubs full of shine, through a floating set of fornicating holograms, up a short set of well-worn steps, and found myself stuck at the end of a line of kids jamming the door. One yelled over the music, “Let’s get up to the roof. The sun’s about to drop.”
His buddy shook his masked head. “You go. I’ll come up later.”
The first one stepped out of line and tossed his drink to the ground. He kicked off his sandals, and just like that he was on the wall, crawling upward, gecko style. I stared while he picked his way through a tangle of power cords above the door. He cleared the last of the pulsing neon and quickly scurried up three stories, past clotheslines and patches of creeping vines, finally disappearing over the top.
Fucking offworlders. How do they do that shit?
I bulled my way inside, ignoring the protests. The foyer was packed with disrobing offworlders. Seeing their impossibly perfect bods, a chill came over me. There was something creepy about these kids, how they looked too perfect to be real, like a room full of mannequins come to life. Not an ounce of flab. Not a single strand of back hair. Not one pimple-plagued ass.
The teens at the head of the line were completely naked. They waited patiently with projection units pressed against their temples, pornographic imagery beaming directly into their brains. Every minute or so, a whore would come by and grab one of the erect from the front of the line. The limpers had to wait. No time for foreplay. Not today. Today, the whores would keep the johns moving in and out as fast as possible … in more ways than one.
Time to reclaim my turf. I turned left and stomped through a pile of clothes. A lizard mask crunched under my right heel, glittery scales popping free from the plaster. I pushed through a curtain made of strands of strung monitor teeth that clacked and chattered at my entrance.
Chicho sat at his desk. It had been almost two years since I’d seen this pimp. He hadn’t changed. He had the same pinched lips, the same sharp nose, the same rodent eyes peering through a pair of wire-rims.
“Juno?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you mean, you’re back?”
I stepped up to his desk, piled with holographic ledger sheets. “It means from now on, you pay me. Just like the old days.”
“This isn’t a good time.” He looked down to read a ledger.
I gave his desk a swift boot, startling the glasses right off his face. “I’m talking to you.”
His eyes had opened so wide that white showed all around the black beads at their centers. “What’s your problem?”
Had the holo-ledgers been made of actual paper, I would’ve swiped them to the floor. Instead, I settled for pressing my fists into the desktop and leaning way down to get in his rat face. “You pay me now.”
“You can’t boss me around. You’re not a cop anymore.”
“No?” I lifted my right knuckles off the desk, and my hand immediately started to shake like it always did. Nerve damage from an old run-in with an offworlder. Using my bobbing index finger, I drew an imaginary shield over my heart. “What do you see right here?”
“I don’t know. A badge?”
I grinned wolfishly, showing molars and everything. “That’s right, Chicho. A badge. You want KOP to leave you alone, you pay me every month. I don’t get my money, and we’ll shut this shithole down. Got me?”
“What’s wrong with your hand?”
The question took me aback—not the question itself, but the fact that he was asking it in the middle of a fucking shakedown. As if he had no fear.
Puzzled, I stayed silent, letting my scowl do the talking.
When it became clear I had no intention of answering, he exhaled like he was trying to find the patience. “Listen, I pay Captain Mota for protection now. What do you expect me to tell him next time he comes to collect?”
“You let me take care of that pretty boy.”
“Um, okay. Whatever you say.”
I didn’t like his sarcastic tone. This was going all wrong. He should be scared. I caught his eyes flicking to the right and back. He’d just looked past me to the door, like he was expecting somebody. The bastard could have a panic button somewhere under his desk. My skin prickled.
I rushed to the door, arriving just as the lizard-tooth curtain began to part. I threw a right at what I guessed to be a face. The impact was painful—a monitor’s incisor got caught between my knuckles and my target. Whoever the bastard was, he disappeared behind the rattling strands of teeth. I reached for my piece but my shaky right failed to grab hold. The muzzle of a lase-pistol came through the curtain while I continued to fumble for my weapon, hopelessly incapable of a quick draw. Fucking hand. I backed up, hands raised, my right bobbing out of control.
Following the lase-pistol through the curtain came a slight wrist, then a forearm, and then came the rest of her. Fuck me. A woman. You don’t hit women, asshole. Hitting women was for cowards like my wife-beater father.
A thin red mark underscored her left eye. A crimson drop broke free and trickled down like a tear. The left side of her face was visibly reddening, quite a feat considering how overly rouged her cheeks already were. “What the fuck?”
Dammit, Juno, what did you do? “Sorry,” I said lamely. “I didn’t know.”
“What didn’t you know?” She held the weapon firm in one hand, like this wasn’t her first time. With her other hand, she swiped at the blood, painting the back of her hand with a broad red smear. She made like she was going to wipe it on her skirt, a number so skimpy that it barely qualified as a mini, but she thought better of it and let her hand hang by her side.
“I didn’t expect a woman.”
“So what?” Her eyes creased at the corners, her forehead wrinkled in anger. She stepped up and jabbed the lase-pistol into my ribs. She was short, and looking down at her, she was nothing but hair and cleavage. A toxic mix of hair spray and perfume assaulted my nostrils, and I had to turn my head to find clean air. Without warning, she rammed a knee into my crotch.
I doubled over, my lungs heaving, my face burning, my forehead breaking out in an instant sweat. There’s nothing like nut pain.
I dropped to my knees, and she pulled my weapon from my waistband at the small of my back.
Chicho must’ve been staring at me, his rodent eyes delighting at seeing me down. How many times had he fantasized about this? Month after month, year after year, I’d taken his money, and there was nothing he could do. Fuck with me, and the Koba Office of Police would’ve put him out of business. I used to run that place, me and Paul Chang. I was the chief’s right hand, his enforcer. It had been my job to keep the money coming in, and to do that I had to keep everybody on the far side of the law in line—pimps, pushers, smugglers, gene-traders, bookies, bootleggers, fences …
And cops. Especially the cops.
I was the strongest of the strong-arms, a heavy-fisted, skull-cracking beat-down artist with a mean streak. The most ruthless enforcer KOP ever saw. But I’d fallen a long way since Paul was killed by rivals. I’d lost my badge. I’d lost my wife. And here I was, doubled over and blowing like a preggo in labor.
I heard Chicho’s voice over the agony. “I’m going to do you a favor, Juno. We go back a ways, you and me, and I’d hate to see you get yourself hurt, understand? Get out of here now, and I won’t tell Captain Mota about this. Piss me off any more, and you’re on your own.”
The woman bouncer stood over me aiming two lase-pistols—one of them mine—at my head. Looking up, I caught an up-skirt view that I couldn’t enjoy in my busted-ball condition.
“Who is this geezer?” she wanted to know.
Chicho was about to answer when a voice at the door said, “Drop it.” A uniformed cop came through the monitor-tooth curtain, his standard-issue drawn.
The woman let the lase-pistols slip out of her fingers.
Shit! I raised my hands to protect my face. One gun smacked the back of my left hand and tumbled harmlessly to the side. The other bounced off my jaw with a painful thunk.
“Nice.” I glared at her.
She gave me a smart-ass grin.
Taking the weapons as my own, I slowly stood, my hand smarting, my package aching. The things I do … “What kept you?”
Officer Marek Deluski shrugged. “I didn’t know you needed help.”
Hunched over the way I was, I had to crane my neck to see the kid’s eyes. They looked truthful, but I couldn’t say for sure. I could picture the dumb shit staying outside and peeking through the curtain, secretly enjoying watching me get my huevos scrambled before coming to the rescue. This new squad of mine had a serious loyalty problem.
Now that I was back in control of the situation, this was the perfect time to exact a little retribution. I thought about shooting the pimp somewhere nonfatal, maybe in the knee, or maybe frying a hole through one of those fancy offworld shoes on his feet.
But I didn’t do that shit anymore. Even after taking a groiner.
I forced my torso upright with a groan, my face frozen in a nasty leer. The woman tried to keep her tough-girl act going, but with the tables turned, I saw fear under those long, mascara-caked lashes.
I looked into Chicho’s eyes. “You ready to quit this pissing match and talk business?”
Chicho crossed his arms, a sour expression of defeat on his face. He glanced at Deluski’s weapon then sat on his desk, his ass dropping through the holo-ledgers.
“Truce?” I asked.
He gave me a nod.
I tucked my lase-pistol back in my waistband and passed the other weapon back to the female bodyguard. She thanked me, a sign that our little spat was already forgotten. That was the way things were in the muscle business. There were times to carry a grudge, and there were times to have a short memory.
I gave Deluski the eye, and he holstered his police-issue.
To Chicho, I said, “I’m back in business. I’m taking this alley again.”
After a theatrical sigh he said, “C’mon, Juno, you can’t be serious with this. Captain Mota’s not going to let you steal his territory.”
“It’s not his. He’s the one who stole it from me. I owned this alley for twenty years. The way I see it, Mota’s just been looking after it for a while.”
Chicho rubbed his jaw. “Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but you gotta know your time is past. You were one hard-nosed collections man, I’ll give you that, but times have changed. I mean, look at you. What happened to you anyway? You look so thin.”
“I’m on a diet.”
“You need to eat, friend. You don’t look good. You get that wife of yours to cook you up a nice meal.”
My heart lurched at her mention. “Niki died.” I could only mutter the words.
“What?” His face looked a little less rodent, a little more human. “How did she die?”
“She just did,” I non-answered.
“Shit, that’s a tough break.”
I had no words. I just stood there.
“Where’s she buried?”
My voice barely audible, I said, “Out in the jungle.”
“You didn’t put her in a cemetery?”
“What’s it to you?”
He looked offended. “What if I want to send flowers?”
“Why? You didn’t even know her.”
“It’s common respect. Somebody dies, you send flowers. Why’d you bury her in the jungle?”
“That’s what she wanted,” I said, hoping to end this line of conversation.
“She got a marker?”
I gave him an annoyed shake of my head.
I felt the pressure building. “Who do you think you are, asking me this shit? It’s none of your fucking business.”
“Jesus, you don’t need to get all worked up. I’m just trying to figure out where to send the flowers. I wasn’t accusing you of anything.”
I didn’t know whether to be ticked or touched. “Just fucking forget the flowers.”
He shrugged acceptance. After an uncomfortable silence, he asked, “So you want to take over protection duty?”
“Tell me how a washed-up cop is going to keep KOP off my ass?”
A cheer went up outside. The sun must’ve just dropped. The Big Sleep had begun, the first seconds of three weeks of darkness now ticking by.
“My word is still good over there,” I lied.
He gave me a skeptical stare.
“Paul Chang and I ran that joint for twenty years. Chang was the greatest chief this planet ever saw, you know that. They’re still loyal to me. Me and Paul’s memory. I tell them to leave you the hell alone, they’ll leave you the hell alone.”
“You still got that kind of pull?”
“Listen, I know how fucked up KOP has gotten since Paul was killed.”
“Chief Chang wasn’t killed. He ate his gun.”
“Paul would never kill himself.” I pointed my shaking finger at my heart. “I was there. I know what happened.”
He shrugged his shoulders and offered an unconvinced, “Whatever you say.”
I wanted to shove the truth down his throat and force him to swallow. But I hadn’t come here to argue about Paul. I’d come to continue my slow climb back to the top of KOP.
“Listen,” I said. “We’re on our second chief since Paul. The mayor and the new brass are clueless. Nobody’s running the show, which means KOP is splintering into a thousand little pieces. Everybody can see it, and that’s exactly what’s got people wishing things could go back to the way they used to be. Cops are turning to me to unify KOP again. I remind them of a better era. Tell him, Deluski.”
“He’s right,” said the young uniform. “Juno’s got standing. Everybody says so.”
Chicho nodded his head, like he was believing the lies. “Okay, so tell me why I should make the switch. You gonna charge less than Mota?”
“Ten percent less.”
I could see the pesos dancing in his eyes. Greedy bastard. Time to hook him deep through the gills. “That’s the rate I’m offering to everybody else,” I said. “But maybe I can arrange a special rate for you.”
I bet you are. “You get all the other pimps and madams in this alley on board, and I’ll give you a year for free.”
Chicho’s beady eyes churned. “Make it two years, and I won’t limit my influence to just this alley. I got connections with snatch houses all over this city. I can make you fucking rich.”
“See, there’s the reason I came to you first.” I gave him a broad smile. What I’d said was the truth. Chicho was an operator of the highest order. Those dark eyes were always crankin’ on one angle or another.
“I think we can do business,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, saving only ten percent might be a tough sell. These people are taking a risk making a switch like that. I know you think you can handle Mota, but that guy can be vindictive when he wants to be.”
“You don’t have to worry about Mota. When I talk to him, he’ll back out.”
“You have that kind of influence over him?”
“We have a history,” I said without elaborating.
“Okay, I hear you, but I still think it’ll be a tough sell. A lot of these people were glad to see you gone.”
“You’ll have to be persuasive.”
“I can try, but you could make it a lot easier, couldn’t you?”
I let that hang in the air for a moment. “Fine. I’ll charge twelve percent less than Mota.” I knew he was scamming me. He’d sell them at ten and pocket the difference.
“Now you’re talkin’.” The pesos in his eyes were spinning. He held up a finger. “But wait … how do I convince them that you’re pulling the strings over at KOP? These people are a suspicious bunch. Don’t get me wrong now, I trust you just fine, but these people aren’t always easy to please.”
“You tell them to watch out their windows tonight. I’ll be out there with a crew of detectives and unis guarding this alley. That’ll be proof enough.”
“Why do we need you guarding the alley?” His face darkened with realization. “Don’t fucking tell me.”
I nodded. “Riots.”
Copyright © 2012 by Warren Hammond