The City has a pulse of it’s own, a humming that seems to resonate throughout the people that live here. Brad’s bar is an anomaly, a piece of the past that has worked it’s way into the future. And that is exactly his intent. But if his place is a dangerous memento of a far gone era, then The City is the face of modern ferocity. Somehow as modern as it comes and unbridled at the same time.
The Eastside especially fits this description. The Northside prides itself as being home of Diamante, the new age Costa Nostra. Downtown is all skyscrapers reaching nearly to the dome itself. The obvious Asian influence stemming from Rising Sun, the conglomerate of Asian Tech superpowers. The Westside is more like the wild west. The Continental Federacy, Con Fed to basically everyone but them, is the good old boys that believe America will rise from the ashes like a phoenix again one day. But the Eastside? The antiquated phrase that best describes it is ghetto. Lawless and untamed, filled with the scraps and losers of society.
I grew up on the far eastern edge of The City. My family’s home was practically butted up against the dome we were so far out. It was practically like not being in the City at all living by the lake. Things moved slower there, people were friendlier. It did little to prepare me for what life in the City was really like. The dome and my parents shielded me from reality.
Until ten years ago that is. That was when The Pride made their presence known as the rulers of the Eastside. We heard rumors, saw news of their antics on the holovids and shrugged it off. That was City stuff, City stuff didn’t really have any bearing on us out in the fringe. We were wrong about that. Dead wrong it turned out. By the time we realized Pride members were going to be taking a more hands on approach to all of the Eastside it was too late. I never forgave nor will forget that period. It brought me to where I am today, squatting above a bar in Deep Ellum taking on odd jobs to scrape a living. The Pride took everything from me, not just then, and I have tried to be a thorn in their side ever since. Not an effective one mostly, but enough that they knew who I was and didn’t much care for me.
And here I am, five thousand credits burning a hole in my pocket, fixing to kick the hornet’s nest looking for information about a girl they supposedly kidnapped. I went to get a soycaffe to clear my head a little. Thinking it was going to be just another day I had sipped too much of the brown and needed to counteract with the other brown. It wouldn’t help me out here to not have a clear head. And the girl that works here is cute, so it was win win either way. I got into line and patiently waited my turn, they have a kiosk outside you can order at but the cute girl was standing at the counter. Priorities. She had dyed her hair again, this time blue like a holovid display with no signal. Possibly sky blue if the pictures were to be believed from before, but few people knew for sure and I certainly wasn’t one of them. She was slotted into the system and her eyes were the color of static discharge as she rang in orders. I’m not great with ladies, hell she was the only one I really interacted with that didn’t hang out at the bar. I didn’t even know her name. But I have had a crush on her for the last couple months, making up excuses to get coffee even when the creds weren’t rolling in.
A commotion outside got everybody’s attention and I turned in time to see a psychemeth junkie pull a knife on some guy in a shabby suit. It did not go well for the junkie. He waved his knife and tried to look menacing and caught an elbow to the throat. I watched as he also got a kick in the testicles for good measure and the good Samaritan dropped his shiv into the sewer. I’m not a fan of the tweakers that roamed the streets, but watching the poor guy clutch himself as he rolled in agony was tough. Some people take their coffee a little too seriously I guess.
“Hey Gear. The usual?” the voice of an angel said.
I snapped out of my reverie and forgot all about the incident outside. She was staring at me with a smile on her face. A wisp of blue hair on her cheek I had the inexplicable urge to sweep back behind her ear. I didn’t act on it though. Just flushed with embarrassment as I pretended to look at the menu.
“That would be great, thank you,” I stammered. Only a little. Silence be damned, I was the worst when it came to talking to women. She had on a name tag but it was on her chest and I didn’t want to get caught trying to read it and have her think I was some perv. Wait. Did she know my name? I felt my face burning again.
She smiled and waited for me to slot my credstick as she sent the order through. “Working today?” she asked as I fumbled the credstick out of my pocket.
“Sort of. More like reconnaissance for a potential job.”
She smiled and I watched jealously as she pushed that stray hair back. “Still hanging out at Brad’s? I’ve been meaning to stop in and check the place out but my friends tell me it isn’t the nicest place to visit.”
As much as I was shocked she knew so much about me, my instincts flared up. Why did she know so much about me? Was she with The Pride? Had she been spying on me? My paranoia was a defensive mechanism built out of necessity and I tried to stamp it down.
“That it is, your friends were telling the truth. I haven’t been in for a while.” Just in case, you know. It isn’t paranoia when the bastards really are out to get you.
She looked, I don’t know, disappointed at that for some reason but recovered quickly and said, “I’d be okay with you though, wouldn’t I?”
Luckily for me the blush hadn’t quite faded, or I couldn’t get anymore red-faced. “It depends on your definition of okay,” I said without thinking. Thank the Silence she giggled after. I was mortified with myself. This was not like me.
“Really? Well maybe I will swing in this weekend and check it out. Maybe Saturday?”
Was that a question? I spent so much time reading, that without the prompt of a question mark I didn’t know. What the hell Gear? How many times have you been shot or stabbed? And this, admittedly gorgeous, woman has your knees shaking? Get it together you moron.
“I’ll be there. Just ask Brad for me,” I tried to say smoothly. A slight warble to my voice ruining the attempt. Idiot.
She didn’t seem to notice, or was polite enough to ignore it. Was that a hint of red on her cheeks? What the hell is happening here?
“I will, one double shot of espresso soycaffe no whip and extra caramel. See you soon Gear.”
She had written my name on the side of the cup and had added a little heart. I grabbed it and nearly ran out the door before my head exploded from the blood rushing to it. Her giggles followed me to the street. I was just a regular Casanova. Maybe I could convince Brad to be my Cyrano and feed me lines all night so I didn’t make a bigger fool of myself than I already had. If she even showed up that is. Oh Silence what if she actually showed up? I stood there for a moment and blew on my caffe for a moment before taking a sip. It was perfect, and did I detect a hint of cinnamon? I looked back at the shop and saw her looking at me through the transparisteel windows. I lifted my glass to her and she waved back.
“Gimme your credstick!” a raspy high pitched voice said to my left.
It was the tweaker I saw get handled earlier. I just sipped my caffe and raised an eyebrow and said, “You sure about that? Your shiv is in the sewer, want me to shove you down the grate after it friend?”
His eyes got real big as he looked at me. I counted to ten in my head waiting for him to make a move.
The coffee shop door opened and I heard my dream girl say, “Hey Gear Dreary, my name’s Ellie by the way.”
I turned to her and replied, “I know, it’s on your name tag.”
“You never looked Gear, I was waiting and you never did. Nice try though.” And the door closed behind her, cutting off more of her lovely giggle. At this point if I had a stroke on the sidewalk from every drop of blood rushing to my face it would just be the cherry on top.
“Hey!” Tweak responded. I forgot all about him for a second there. “Gear? Gear Dreary?”
I nodded and took a drink from the cup.
“Never mind. I’m sorry for bothering you. It was a mistake. We’re cool right? It was just a joke.”
I turned and walked down the street without saying anything to him. Ellie, huh? I need to tell Brad to be in the look out for her if she did come to the bar. He would make sure she remained unmolested by the scumbags that hung out there. The junkie was still trying to apologize as I turned the corner into the alley. Sure no one could see me I did a happy dance and nearly spilled the hot coffee down the front of my shirt. Totally worth it.
I wandered around for the next couple of hours. Stopping every now and then to ask some of the Kidz if they had heard any news of note lately. The Kidz were a gang of sorts that ran wild in the streets and if there was anything to learn, they were the first to hear it. I had helped them out once or twice in the past and we had a pretty good relationship. As good as you can have with a bunch of juvenile delinquents that is. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t sell me out to The Pride for asking questions at least and that was more than. I could say about a lot of people I knew. Their leader, at least now, was a kid named Skintag. He was one of the. I had personally helped out a scrape when he crossed the Cult of Mayhem two years back and he had always tried to help me when he could. The Kidz I asked where hesitant to talk to me, understandably, as they had an innate distrust for adults in the best conditions. I asked them to get ahold of Skintag for me and one of them, no more than eight at oldest ran off and disappeared into a squat across the street. I did my best to appear nonthreatening while maintaining an air that said I was not be played with. They respected strength and I wouldn’t put it past them to try to pick my pocket if I seemed to soft. It was a shame that they were so hardened at such a young age. Most of them products of broken homes or worse that had seen things no child should ever see. But that was the nature of the City. It either ground the soft parts off and left callouses or ate you up and spit you into the trash. These kids just had an earlier taste of it than most.
I busied myself by watching the news stream down the side of one of those holovid drones that hovered everywhere. Record profits for Rising Sun, another gangland style hit up North, and some sort of rally out West for some old USA holiday that no one celebrated anymore but them. Business as usual. A ticker on the bottom of the screen warned of migrant pirrahnabirds loose in the old Garland district. I shuddered and pitied the poor bastards that stumbled onto a flock of those bioengineered monstrosities. I had seen vids of them swarming onto a group of Disembodied Head worshippers and could still hear the caws and screams. They cleaned the entire group, fifteen people, in less than three minutes leaving behind scarred skeletons in their wake. No thank you. Every now and then some poor squatters ended up exploring the wrong building and were never heard from again.
The kid came running back and handed me a phone which I wiped on my jeans before putting it my ear. Force of habit more than cleanliness, they had a scam where they asked for help and said their parent was on the phone and needed directions. They were lost, or just escaped a kidnapper or something along those lines. Except the phone had a layer of electromist gel on it and the minute it made skin contact you fell into a shuddering mess and pissed yourself. When you got back up your credstick, phone and anything else they could pry out you was gone and you had a scar and possible nerve damage as a reminder. I didn’t think they would try it on me but I really wasn’t looking to make myself even less attractive. I wonder if Ellie likes scars?
“Gear Dreary, the man the myth. Heard you were looking for me. What’s poppin you old prick?” Skintag taunted into my ear.
“Listen here you whippersnapper, show your elders some respect,” I joked back.
“Or what? You’ll use your cane on me? Good luck Gramps.”
“What’s the word on the street Skin? Heard anything unusual lately? Maybe involving some big leaguers?”
“No. Which says something, don’t it? About a week ago they went radio silent. There’s something going on but no one’s talking.”
“C’mon Skin, that means you are the only one that knows anything then. Any rumors about a girl?”
“If you want a girl just cruise down Elm, be sure to check though if it actually a girl though. No telling what you might get down there.”
“Not what I meant.”
“I know Gramps, you probably prefer those half robots that the Suns are peddling over a real girl. But seriously Gear, there is nothing coming out of our friends.”
“Shit. Do me a favor and keep your ears open. I’m looking for info on a Rachael, maybe last name of Faust but I doubt it is legit. I can pay for any news you get me that pans out. Double normal price, might go triple if you can get it to me quickly.”
“Triple huh? I will see what I can find out. You still hanging at the regular?”
“Yes I am, you drop me a line down there the minute you hear something.”
“Deal. Did you wipe the phone off before we talked?”
“Of course. Why did I need to?”
“No but I told Baby you would. Bet him tacos on it. You always have been the untrusting type Gear.”
“With friends like you, can you blame me?”
“That’s fair. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.” And with that he disconnected. I passed the phone back to the kid, Baby apparently.
He gave me a glare that said he didn’t like being on the hook for tacos and I laughed at him. He flipped me off and ran away before I could yell at him. I liked that one.
I sighed as I began to walk back to Brad’s. I hadn’t expected to find anything out this quick, but it would have been nice to catch a break. I didn’t really care for the idea of some poor girl being stuck in the clutches of The Pride very much. Even if I didn’t exactly trust the story Franklin had said one hundred percent, no kid deserved that. No adult did either, but I wouldn’t put my neck on the line for some random idiot that got mixed up in the wrong business. But the idea that The Pride had gone quiet for a week put me on edge. Something is going on and it must be big to shut the whole crew down. What was I getting myself into? Nothing good, that much I knew. I needed answers, sooner rather than later.
I was halfway back to Brad’s, when the smell of tamales wanted to me. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. The combination of soycaffe and whiskey leaving an inferno in my guts. Subconsciously I had taken the long way back that passed by Tommy’s Tamale Shack. He does this thing where he puts chicken stock in the masa and every corn husk wrapped piece of paradise explodes in a palate drenching experience. My involuntary drool reflex had kicked in and I felt like one of those holovid cartoon dogs Brad liked to play floating along the air towards Tommy’s.
As I approached I saw there was a good crowd hanging out in front of the Shack. The sound of driving bass and hints of keyboards filling the air alongside laughter and talking. I felt myself tense up, I’m not good with people anymore. Too many bad things to count had built up a callous over my social skills. The silent brooding act was fine in Brad’s or roaming the streets. But it was something I had begun to hate about myself. You can only suffer so much, lose so much before you stop being able to interact let me a normal person. And I wasn’t normal, not like the people out here. Not like anyone as far as I could tell. Especially after the ordeal with Rocky and his gang last year.
I shook my head before the memories could come flooding back. I wasn’t here to reminisce. I was here for tamales and that special El Diablo sauce that Tommy refused to divulge the chemical make up of. It was like pepper spraying the inside of your mouth in an orgasmic way. As I pushed my way between the picnic tables of happy scarfing faces, trying to not seem as uptight as I felt. Crowds were, difficult without booze to help dampen the noise.
Damn, look at him. I bet he knows his way around in the bedroom.
I looked over in shock at a guy in all who was staring at me. He looked embarrassed and quickly turned away.
Did I say that out loud? Why is here staring at me? C’mon over hot stuff, I’ll rock your world. See what kind of tough guy you really are…
I looked away and tried to drown him out. Luckily the line moved fast and it was my turn before he get into detail of what he would do to rock my world. I needed to eat, get my blood sugar back to normal. Concentrate and clear my head.
“Gear? Silence bless you! It’s been too long my friend! Let me get you a number three smothered in question, gimme a second,” Tommy was practically jumping up and down, “Extra Diablo! Do you know who this is? This is the guy that saved my life. Without him you pinche pendejos would be selling psychemeth for a living.”
I guess you could say Tommy and I had a little history. Last year, after the incident, I was stumbling down the street. The sounds of the City deafening as I was learning to control my new self. He had just started selling his soon to be famous tamales from a cart he pushed around. A group of Cult of Mayhem initiates decided to relieve him of his cart of deliciousness and as he tried to fight back, his life as well. I had been in an alley, the voices and City overwhelming me to the point of near catatonic. His cries gave me something to focus on. I crawled, literally on hands and knees out of the alley. The Cultists saw me and laughed at the disheveled mess muttering at them to stop. Their laughter filled me with rage and I lashed out at them with all the pent up rage and confusion that seemed to be leaking from my pores. I didn’t understand what happened and neither did Tommy as the five would be robbers fell to the ground with clear fluid leaking from their ears onto the sidewalk. I collapsed right after them and will never up in Tommy’s house. He didn’t know what I did but he had felt something pour out of me and was well aware I had saved him even if we weren’t sure how I did it. That was my first introduction to his delicacies. And he was happy to have a guinea pig to test his El Diablo sauce on. Something about a five alarm fire in your mouth that makes the rest of the world fade away. And I needed that as badly now as I had then.
“Place looks great Tommy. Looks like a pretty good crowd tonight.”
He laughed and came out from the shack carrying two trays of chicken tamales drowning in his homemade queso and the near atomic scent of spice. He shooed a group over at one of the tables and motioned for me to sit.
“Gear my friend, it’s been too long. Tell me you haven’t been staying in that filthy bar with that no good cabron Bradley,” he said with genuine care in his voice.
I didn’t meet his eyes, “Not all my time, Tommy. Most of it, but not all.”
He clucked at me and I felt the sadness radiate from him. He was a good man with a heart of gold. Even if his food wasn’t the best on the Eastside, and it was hands down, he would have been successful just from the loyalty he encouraged in those around him. “Eat mi amigo, please,” he encouraged. I’m sure the drool running down my chin wasn’t a factor in that.
We both ate in silence for a bit as the bass and happiness around us acted as a healing balm. But he kept giving me the side eye as we did. Eventually his worry got the best of him, “Gear, my friend, you can’t keep yourself hidden from the world. Your gifts are meant to be shared to help make it a better place. Come work with me, I owe you at least that much.”
“Tommy I will under the condition you tell me how to make your El Diablo sauce.”
His eyes widened and he shook his head no vigorously, “Mi Abuelo’s secret recipe? Of all the things I would give you, the shirt off of my own back here and now, you ask for the one thing that would set her angry spirit upon me!”
We laughed for a long time. I couldn’t recall the last time I laughed that hard. It felt good to shed the mask and scowl. If I believed in fate I would have guessed it sent me here tonight just for this. “I’ve missed you too Tommy. And I appreciate the offer but I am working on a thing at the moment.”
He nodded and took a big bite and motioned for me to continue.
“You heard anything from The Pride lately? Any rumors come through lately?”
“The Pride? You know better than to get mixed up with them again Gear. Has it been so long you forget what they did to you? Bad news to involve yourself with those animals.”
“There’s a girl. Her father came and asked me to help him find her. He says The Pride took her.”
“Then he pays what they ask and learns to stay out of the Eastside. It’s simple.”
“I said the same thing. They aren’t asking for anything though.”
“No? What’s so special about this girl? That is what you need to figure out to understand why they have her. Once you figure that out the rest will fall into place.”
He is one hundred percent right. I was so excited to have something to do I didn’t think through what I really needed to concentrate on. I shoveled more of the food into my mouth to cover the embarrassment I was feeling. I know he saw through my attempt but he is a good enough friend to ignore it. Besides, he never passed up an opportunity to talk and my full mouth was all the incentive he needed.
“Speaking of girls, my sister’s daughter is visiting from the coast. She could use a strong man to show her the sights of the City. One that most people know not to mess with…”
I choked a little as I tried to swallow. “The same niece with the caterpillar on her forehead? The one you have been trying, desperately I might add, to marry off? No thanks Tommy. Besides, I have a date this Saturday.”
He jumped up and slapped me on the back at this news. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at him and he flashed that award winning grin of his and announced, “Everyone, listen up! My friend here is Gear Dreary, the man that saved my life and made it possible for you to feast and laugh at my humble establishment. Everyone tip your cervezas to him! He has a date!”
The crowd sent out a roar and everyone saluted me with bottles of beer and margaritas and I did my best to nod my thanks and Tommy sat back down. Obviously enjoying my discomfort and making regret having opened my big mouth.
“Now, what was that about a caterpillar on her forehead? I will have you know she is fine woman. Hirsute? A little but that adds character. My mother always said never trust a woman with too little hair, their priorities are not in the right place. Tell me about this girl you have a date with, spare no details.”
We sat and talked as we finished our food. I told him what little I knew about Ellie. He laughed at my foolishness in waiting for her to ask me out, apparently for someone that could read thoughts I had missed quite a few signals she had been giving. It’s funny that I had this reputation of being a badass around the Eastside but Tommy has the ability to bring me right back down to Earth. I needed that as badly as I needed his tamales I realized. It was easy to hide out in the bar and let my rep shield me. It was harder to go out and mingle. Not hard, scary. Scary as hell. A tension I hadn’t acknowledged for too long melted away as we sat and talked about life and the mystery that is the female. Before I knew it the crowd began to slowly vanish around us and it was time for him to close up shop. He insisted on packing me a dozen tamales and containers of rice and beans. He even threw in a bottle of hot sauce and some chips and queso. I didn’t argue at all as he loaded me down. He gave me a bear hug as I said my good byes and I promised to be back soon. Maybe I would bring Ellie with me. Depending on how if she actually showed up and didn’t decide I was a waste of her time. He said he would hold me to that and I left with my goodies and began the couple block walk back to the bar full and happy.
That of course didn’t last very long. The black slab that had been following me all day, the one I never even noticed once? It was at this point that it came speeding down the street, directly at me with high beams on shining right in my eyes. As I shielded face from the glare I heard the brakes slam it to stop mere feet from me.
“Mr. Dreary, we need to have a chat,” an unfamiliar voice said. Then something smacked me solidly I’m the back of the head and I felt myself falling. My only thoughts on the food that was going to be wasted as I hit the street. Then nothing.