Gutter Punks

 

 
The city crumbled beneath the rain, falling apart one neon tear at a time.

Something was wrong.
 
The river-rats whipped themselves into a frenzy, hustling anyone stupid enough to stray to their side of the promenade. They fleeced strangers, students, butchers, bakers. Cops. When they started stealing from cops, something was wrong. When the river-rats were sober enough to feel anything through the speed-fog, it was time to start paying attention. You could always tell a storm was coming when the animals began eating themselves.
 
Rain hammered against the iron roofs, pooling, crowding the sewer grates. It dripped from the glowing signs, beading drops of yellow, blue and red. A t.v beneath four inches of scarred glass lit the alley in a kaleidoscope of garish color. Garrett Takada’s voice used to blare twenty-four hours a day, until someone found and cut the audio cable. Interfering with Xander Corp ‘news’ was a capital crime, but no one cared. The news had been ads for as long as anyone could remember anyway. This way they could at least sleep through the night. Gunshots in Guttertown only woke the nervous.

 
Jin Asuke snapped her fingers and a bubble of flame guttered at the tip of a finger for a split second before dying. Goddamn it–a clog in the gas line. She brushed the hand against the wall behind her, wincing at the harsh scratch of metal on metal. That’s what she got for a cheap black-market bodymod. The fire lived long enough the second time to light the cigarette, which was all she needed it for. The hand was clunky and thick, rusting at the edges and a decade old at least…but better than a ragged stump of upper arm.
 
 
A river-rat begged from a pair of students as his partner scanned their bags with a homemade credit siphon. An almost victimless crime, at this point. If the students were stupid enough to carry hard credit-sticks within two hundred feet of the river, they might as well hand them over. The students wore hoods, but the river-rats’ pale skulls lay bare to the rain. What little hair they had left was lank and bleached a ghost-white. One of the rats was far gone; angry red weals dug deep fingers into his skin, and his right shoulder rocked in a ceaseless murmur. She doubted he even had full control over it at this point. He had a month left. Two if he was smart and kept his head covered. Which, knowing river-rats, he wouldn’t.
 
 
River rats. Another charming feature of the Gutter.
 
 
Steps through the alley. Jin turned, hand ducking beneath her jacket. This was her slum, so she was sure it was nothing, but it paid to be sure. She recognized the leather-swathed figure as soon as it turned the corner, and relaxed.
 
 
“Jin! There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you! Something’s going down, you have to come see.”
 
 
“You see that?” Jin gestured with her cigarette at the river. Fire flickered beyond the dead trees lining the promenade, in the sheet-iron shanties. Black water lapped at the wharf. She’d seen that water eat slums that eeked too far out over the concrete edge. Despite the name, the rats didn’t swim too well.
 
 
“Yeah, they’re river rats, Jin. They are a million of them. Something’s happened.”
 
 
“They’re stealing from cops.”
 
 
Akira ducked beneath the makeshift portico, slipping off her hood. In the angry light of the television, the scar was a black shadow cutting her face in half.
 
 
“They’re what?”
 
 
Jin glanced at her sideways. “It’s true. Look, there.”
 
 
A policeman waved his gun at the rat crowding him, blind and deaf to the second one going for the keys and credit-stick on his belt. His hood was leather reinforced with studded iron. Jin eyed it with no small amount of jealousy. Her own jacket was already growing holes. She’d slapped electro-tape on it, but that was a temporary measure. They pooled credits only a week ago to replace Akira’s.
 
 
“If that cop sees the second one, neither will see morning.” Akira frowned.
 
 
Jin nodded, exhaling a plume of heavy smoke. She’d seen it happen–all of them had seen it happen. The law was for every policeman to determine for themselves in the Gutter. He could put a bullet in each of the rats, and nobody would blink an eye.
It would make for an entertaining evening.
 
 
But the rats knew their business and the cop walked off, shaking his head, less a credit-stick keys.
 
 
“The rats don’t steal from cops unless something’s wrong.”
 
 
“The rats steal from anyone with air in their lungs. Jin, you must come. Something’s happened.”
 
 
Jin flicked her cigarette at the choked sewer grate, watching it fight to stay afloat.
 
 
“Take a breath, Akira. What happened?” She was up in arms about a perceived slight–one of Mephit’s speed-boys talking shit, most likely.
 
 
“It’s…” Akira’s gaze darted to her boots. “It’s Guidry.”
 
 
“The pawnbroker? What about him?” Jin ground her teeth. The skinny man was getting to be more trouble than his protection fees was worth. Three times this month she’d had to chase rats out of his store.
 
 
Akira muttered something under her breath, hands drumming a pattern against one thigh. The only word Jin caught was ‘Reina’, and it was enough to send her running into the rain.
 
 
Guidry’s Pawn was three streets down, in a slumped-over three-story held up by telephone poles and hope. Water dripped from the makeshift porch, made from salvaged sheet iron and bricks.
 
 
“What’s going on?” Her voice rang from the too-close corners, over the helter-skelter shelves.
 
 
“Jin! Darling, you’re here!” Reina spun from the counter, delight plastered across every inch of her face. She didn’t sound high…but that didn’t mean much. “How did you find me?”
 
 
“What’s going on? Guidry?”
 
 
The small man flinched at the mention of his name, like there wasn’t four inches of bulletproof glass between them. “I–I called Akira, I thought…I didn’t…”
 
 
On the counter was a folded square of yellow. Jin approached, hoping it wasn’t what she thought. But of course, it was.
 
 
Her dress. The one she kept locked in a chest beneath her bed, in her bedroom, which was also locked.
 
 
“Reina?”
 
 
“Hmm?” Reina looked up from where she was stroking Jin’s arm. She smiled through the fog in her eyes. She was high. Shit. Jin swallowed the rush of immediate anger, clenching  a fist.
 
 
“Where did you get this?” She picked up the dress. It was still soft, even after all these years. It smelled of wood smoke and flowers.
 
 
“Now darling, don’t be angry. I…I have a date with David in three days and I wanted to wear something lovely.” She picked at the edges of her skirt, as though to show Jin the moth-eaten holes and dirt. “He’s just…he’s so dreamy. I wanted to look like a queen.”
 
 
“Reina–Reina! Are you high?”
 
 
The fogged smile faltered and slipped, leaving behind an all-too familiar pout. It was answer enough.
 
 
“God–” Jin gritted her teeth, swallowing the acid screaming to her lips. She and Reina walked that path before, it was useless. She spun on Akira.
 
 
“Did you give her the credits?”
 
 
“What credits?” Akira snorted, toying with a stuffed bear missing an eye. She raised an eyebrow over the shelves. “We barely have enough to pay the cops to stay out of our streets.”
 
 
“Reina. Hey!” Jin snapped her fingers. Reina was dancing to the tinny music drifting from speakers behind the bullet-glass. “Reina, who gave you money for speed? Was it Mephit again? Was it–the new guy, was it David?”
 
 
“He was so nice.” Reina hid her coy smile with the back of a hand–the tattoo on the palm of her hand glared at Jin. “He said–he said he’d be my friend, that we’d be friends…”
 
 
“Goddamn it. Reina we’ve talked about this!” Jin snapped, the tentative grasp on her patience vanishing. How many fucking times would she need to have this conversation before the airhead got it?
 
 
“You can’t do that! You don’t work for Madame Butterfly anymore! You’re not a–”
 
 
The word hung on her lips, sharp as a razor. She bit it back in time, but Reina heard it anyway. Her smile disappeared for good. She nodded, like her head was too heavy for her shoulders. Tears shimmered in her fogged-over eyes.
 
 
“I–I know, I just…oh god, I’m sorry Jin, I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
 
 
Akira was there to intercept the thick-limbed Reina before she could entangle Jin. She stroked her hair and muttered niceties over the girl’s growing sobs. They shared a glance. Jin jerked her head towards the street and Akira pulled Reina out of the store.
 
 
“I called as soon as I saw it was her, I’m sorry–”
 
 
“You mention a word to anyone about this, I’ll burn your house down. You hear me?” She glared behind the counter. He nodded, shrinking back into his chair. “Say it!”
 
 
“You’ll burn my house down!” Guidry wailed, pressing deeper into his ridiculous leather armchair. She didn’t think he’d squeal, but she had to make sure. Fat as his margins were–and the rent dues he paid her–he was a spineless cretin. The air in his lungs was for sale, cheap.
 
 
She left. Akira and Reina stood beneath the porch, holding hands. Reina needed almost constant human contact. A side-effect of a childhood inside Madame Butterfly’s, too close behind them. Reina was an adult by age, but trauma left a scar every bit as real as Akira’s.
 
 
“Come on, let’s get the fuck out of–”
 
 
“Well well, Jin Asuke as I live and breathe.” The figure wreathed in black shadow across the alley, hooded. She could picture his face, fat and spread in a too-wide grin. Jin sighed. A shitty night, indeed.
 
 
“What do you want, Gideon?”
 
 
“Come come. Is that any way to treat a dear friend? And after all things I’ve done for you.”
 
 
“I’m not in the mood for your shit tonight, Gideon. Talk, and do it quick.” She slipped the dress up the back of her jacket with one hand. If he saw it, he’d comment on it. And she didn’t feel like killing anyone tonight.
 
 
“A little birdie whispered to me–juicy juicy. Worth a fat penny, to the right buyer.” He reached inside his coat, flashing the infodisk. Jin and Akira exchanged another look. A cretin he might be, but Gideon’s information was almost always accurate. If they had the credits.
 
 
“How fat a penny?”
 
 
“A hundred credits.”
 
 
She laughed in his face. “Sure, let me go to the bank and write you a credit-stick. Are you out of your mind? A hundred credits? No take is worth a hundred credits.”
 
 
“She was.” The hood inclined at one of them. “A contract for sale from Lady Butterfly on the cheap. If I hadn’t told you, your little threesome would be a much-lonelier twosome, and you might not have the streets you do. So if I say it’s juicy…”
 
 
“We can’t afford a hundred credits. Not gonna happen.”
 
 
“Fine then. Seventy-five, but only because you’re a close friend.” The infodisk danced in his fingers, light as a feather. Those fingers, dipping in every pie in the city. They weren’t friends, or anything close.
 
 
Jin made a face, pretending to think about it. The words would never pass her lips, but they had less than a quarter of what he was charging. Slumlording in the Gutter wasn’t exactly a prosperous effort. Especially if you didn’t sling skin or speed.
 
 
“Sorry, Gideon. Another time. Come on, girls.”
 
 
“Your loss.” He snapped, and the infodisk disappeared. He moved past, angling down the alley to his next stop, his next customer. He hooked a corner, diving deeper into the Gutter. Police sirens screamed as they drove past, out to save people who could afford their services.
 
 
“Did you get it?”
 
 
“How does he do that? He makes it look so easy.” Reina spun the infodisk between her fingers, fumbling and almost dropping it. Akira snagged it before it hit the ground, shaking her head.
 
 
“Goddamn Reina, I didn’t even see your hands.”
 
 
“Yeah, chances are neither did he.” Jin muttered, taking the disk. “Come on, we’ve got a block and a half before he discovers we’ve lifted it. Akira.”
 
 
Akira pushed up her sleeve–tattoos scrawled across her forearm, high-polymer and expensive. A dragon ate a bird around her elbow. A swordsman executed a helpless man on her bicep. She took the infodisk from Reina and slipped it in the drive beneath her wrist. A blue light pulsed beneath her skin.
 
 
“Hurry up.” Jin muttered, shooting a glance down the alleyway Gideon disappeared behind.
 
 
“I can’t control how fast it downloads.”
 
 
“Akira what’s this one mean?” Reina was pressing her face against the ink swirls, fascinated. She must be coming out of it–in the depths of the speed-clouds she barely registered Akira having arms.
 
 
“It’s English, Rei, it means ‘lucky one’.”
 
 
“Lucky! Like the little man, for the fat children’s breakfast. You’re lucky!” Reina gasped, spinning around Akira’s arm. “Lucky, lucky lucky.”
 
 
“None of us are gonna be lucky if Gideon comes back.”
 
 
The light switched to green.
 
 
“Got it.” Akira pulled the infodisk, tossing it to Jin.
 
 
“Great. Let’s get the hell out of here.” Jin dropped the disk beneath the porch where Gideon skulked and slipped a hand beneath Reina’s elbow.
 
 
They delved into the alleys, taking a left, a right, two lefts. It was a rabbit-warren of tight streets and haphazard intersections. Laundry strung overhead twenty feet straight up. News flashed silent over the rain-slick streets, advertising cigarettes, alcohol, pills. Men screamed at each other from windows, fat jowls and stabbing fingers. Women sat beneath the porches and front steps, smoking, talking. Watching. It was they who nodded to Jin as they hustled past, but their hooded eyes watched, waiting. Looking for a weakness. Her slum was hers for now, but she could lose it in the snap of her metal fingers. She’d been sleeping with one eye open for twenty years; she was tired.
 
 
The rain seeped through the holes in her hood; she felt it dropping onto her hair with the smell of acrid burning. Finally she slowed, looking over her shoulder. The streets were empty–no hooded men hunted their footsteps. She pushed Reina into a doorstep, shaking the rain from her hood.
 
 
“Can you access the file? What’s it say?”
 
 
Akira frowned, eyes staring blankly at the steps. “Yeah, I got it. Looks like a standard info dump. But…”
 
 
Her gasp was sudden and sharp, sending Jin into her jacket for the stun-knife at her spine. She spun on the alley, ready to send six thousand volts straight into someone’s eyeball. But the streets were as empty as they’d been ten seconds ago when she last looked.
 
 
“Akira what the fuck? What is it?”
 
 
Akira blinked, coming back to the world in a rush. All the color had drained from her face.
 
 
“Where did he…where did he get this from? There’s no way. Jin, there’s no way.”
 
 
“Akira, you’re not making any sense. What is it? What’s on the disk?” She felt better with the stun-knife in one hand.
 
 
“It’s a Xander Corp infodisk. Branded and sealed. Records show I’m the only one that’s…I’m the only one that accessed it?”
 
 
Reina’s laughter fogged between them, heavy and purling in the cold. “Pull the other one, Aki.”
 
 
Jin inclined to agree with the speed-head. “How do you know? I mean…she’s right, Akira, the odds…”
 
 
“I’m looking at the access page, Jin. Gang Xander’s sigil is everywhere.”
 
 
Akira ran a hand through her hair, looking around the alley like a net was closing in on them.
 
 
“You mean the Xander Corp sign?” Jin jerked her chin at one of the thousand gas-televisions spread through the Gutter. Garrett Takada mouthed silent enthusiasm about a bottle of liquor out of New Africa. His makeup was thick, caked-on to cover the sagging wrinkles eating his eyes. In the corner, the fractured ‘X’ spun in place. The same symbol on the black-tinted cars driving the promenade each morning on their way to the District. They didn’t even shudder when they ran over river-rats who wandered too close.
 
 
A Xander Corp infodisk could lead to sweet goods; anything from medical supplies to bodymod tech. It would all find a home in the Gutter…and they might afford to buy her a new coat. She was beginning to see why Gideon was charging an actual arm and leg for the info. How long until he found a buyer? He could be at Mephit’s speed-shop as they spoke.
 
 
Fuck.
 
 
“No, Jin, I mean his personal sigil. His sign.”
 
 
“You lost me.”
 
 
Akira sighed, a muscle flexing in her jaw. “His. Sign. Xander Corp is his company. This is his personal sigil. Like, for his household.” She turned and breathed on a nearby glass window, scratching a quick shape with a finger. A cross, or a sword of some kind, Jin couldn’t tell.
 
 
“He would use it to seal all the things that pertain to him, so the State can’t tax them.”
 
 
“Lucky Aki how do you know that?” Reina slumped against the window, smearing the sword/cross. She wrapped her arms around her torso, trying to disguise a shiver as a yawn. She was coming out of it.
 
 
“I…I read about it somewhere. I don’t remember where.” Akira swiped at her mouth and peered around the corner.
 
 
“You don’t remember where? Seems pretty convenient. I’ve never even heard of a sign. Reina, you heard of this?”
 
 
Hesitant to get in the middle, Reina lifted one shoulder and stared at her feet.
 
 
“I–you…you have to trust me, Jin. It’s…it’s just something I know.”
 
 
Something from the sixteen years she didn’t spend in the Gutter. She showed up one day, soaked to the bone, begging for shelter. Her face split in a god-awful wound, bleeding carmine into the street. They bandaged it, but that much exposure to the rain left a mark. That was eight years ago. A lot of things happen in eight years…but Jin trusted no one blindly.
 
 
“Akira. You’re…you’re sure?”
 
 
“Are you doubting me, Jin Asuke?” The woman stepped closer, squaring on her. She smelled of the acid falling from the sky, and sweat. Her eyes were harder than the sheet metal overhead.
 
 
“After all I’ve done for you? For us?”
 
 
Truth was truth. Jin shook her head. “Peace, Akira. No one doubts your loyalty. Right, Reina?”
 
 
“Right.”
 
 
“Gang Xander.” The words didn’t feel right coming out of her mouth. Like someone should charge her for the right to utter his name aloud. “What did the infodisk say?”
 
 
“It’s a manifest of some kind. A truck route, coming through the gutter. The police closed one of the main roads in the District, so it has to detour down the promenade.” Akira crossed her arms and sulked against the doorframe.
 
 
“You’re kidding. I’m not doubting you!” Jin held up her hands, cutting the hot retort on Akira’s face short. “I’m double checking. Armored truck?”
 
 
Akira shook her head. “Standard convoy. Moving in an anonymous truck, one car backup.”
 
 
Jin felt the corners of her mouth pulling up. “One car backup?”
 
 
Akira raised an eyebrow, glancing at her sideways. She was still sulking…but there was something else percolating beneath it.
 
 
“That’s what it says.”
 
 
“What time is it coming through?”
 
 
Akira’s vision blanked again. “Tomorrow morning, ten.”
 
 
Jin nodded. Travelling through the Gutter at night was pretty fucking stupid if you didn’t live there.
 
 
“What are you thinking, Jin?” Reina shivered again. They had to get her inside.
 
 
Jin slid the stun-knife back in it’s sheath. Gang Xander was sending a present to her doorstep; she wasn’t one to leave it sitting on the street for anyone to nab. Especially if that someone was that cow Mephit. This could be her ticket out of the Gutter. If the prize was big enough.
 
 
I think it’s time to go take a look at what Gideon’s got in the back room. We’ve got a truck to take.”
 
                                                                                      —
 
“Jin, I’m not so sure about this.”
 
 
The day was every bit as miserable as the night before. Heavy grey clouds skidded across the sky, spitting rain. At peak rush hour the promenade was a honking mass of tinted-window town cars and locked-down school buses.
 
 
“Reina, we talked about this. It’s fine. All you need to do is keep the drivers in the cab. Spike the locks, and keep away from the windows.” Jin nodded at the screwdriver in Reina’s white-knuckled grasp and struggled for calm.
 
 
The pickings in Gideon’s back room had been scarce, to say the least. A screwdriver with a cyber-volt battery wired to send six and a half thousand volts down the shaft. A pair of bolt cutters, and a tank of propane skulking in a corner. It sat at Jin’s feet, stuffed a sake-soaked rag.
 
 
Not exactly the state armory.
 
 
Jin watched the vans on the promenade, and told herself it would be fine. It was a single car and a van–the lightest security they could ask for. In and out. This was her way out of the Gutter; she couldn’t say no.
 
 
“Are the rats ready?” She muttered.
 
 
Akira nodded. “At our signal they’ll swarm the street. I told them they could loot the other cars, but the vans and black-tinted ones were ours.”
 
 
“Did they–they agreed? No haggling?” The last time she made a deal with rats she was stuck beneath a damp bridge haggling for two and a half hours. Akira made it back to their squalid flat in under an hour, arriving an hour before dawn.
 
 
“Oh they haggled for something.” Akira spat. “They didn’t get what they were going for.”
 
 
Jin didn’t ask any follow-up questions. She’d be willing to be there was blood on the knife Akira kept at her side.
 
 
The minutes ticked past. Jin watched the clock above Jinosuke’s ramen shop, counting the minutes. Akira stared at the passing traffic like a hawk. Reina clutched her screwdriver. Behind the big sunglasses obscuring most of her face, bags cut under her eyes. Speed-sickness. Shitty way to wake up.
 
 
“That’s it.” Akira said, straightening like a police dog. “There, coming over the river.”
 
 
It was a white van, with black windows and no doors. It wasn’t the van that caught Jin’s attention, though.
 
 
“Akira there are two cars.”
 
 
“What? I don’t–oh.”
 
 
That wasn’t good enough for her. She spun on her captain, hands curling to fists at her side. “Two cars, Akira! You said there was only going to be one!”
 
 
“I–that’s–the infodisk said there would only be one!”
 
 
Jin snarled something uncomplimentary and swung around. Two cars–two guards in each at least, that was four people to their three–not to mention the drivers. The bit with the screwdriver she made up on the spot last night; she had no idea if it would actually work. And now there were two cars.
 
 
“What do we do, Jin?” Reina rolled the sleeves of her sweater up, adjusting her grip on the screwdriver. The cars and van approached, moving through the traffic like sharks through a school of fish. She racked her head for something, anything that could help them. The rats might be able to help…but the rats were famous for their cowardice. When the guns came out they’d scatter to the winds, crawling back to their shanties.
 
 
“Jin. Do we stick to the plan? They’re coming–we need to call the rats out now.”
 
 
She could see them, bundling along the edge of the river walk, dark masses crawling over each other.
 
 
It wasn’t going to work..but it was her only way out, her only escape. She’d get out of the Gutter, or die trying.
 
 
The words were on her lips when everything went wrong.
 
 
A windshield exploded to their right, splintering into a hundred glass shards. Then a window to their left. Jin heard the screams, high-pitched, coming from everywhere. People were running on the promenade, diving out of their cars and sprinting for the bridge. The air filled with shattering glass.
 
 
“What’s happening?” She screamed. Reina had a fistful of her coat, face pressed against her. Akira was shouting, pointing, but Jin couldn’t hear her.
 
 
The black-clad figures flooded from the mouth of a nearby alley; six or ten in total, leaping over cars. They fell on the two town cars like wild dogs. They carried iron bars, fistfuls of rocks, wrenches. Reina screamed. The men hauled the guard corpses out of their town cars, looting the corpses in plain daylight. Stealing their shoes. One of them was yelling, windmilling his arms towards the van; he stood head and shoulders above the rest. Even from this distance she could see the twining, livid scar sealing one of his eyes shut.
 
 
Jin recognized him. His name was Orchard.
 
 
“Pick that up. Akira!”
 
 
The woman stared slack-jawed at the chaos. More rocks rained from the rooftops around them, shattering windows, denting roofs. Three bystanders lay where they’d fallen, bleeding and still.
 
 
“Akira!” Jin snapped her fingers. The woman swung over, eyes struggling to focus.
 
 
“What about our agreement with the rats?”
 
 
“Forget about them! Pick up the tank. We need to run. Right now. Go!” She shoved Reina ahead of her, snapping at her heels. Akira followed behind, struggling with the tank.
 
 
Jin’s head spun. Where, where would they go? Once they had the cargo, they’d slip back into the Gutter, but what path, which way– “Left!”
 
 
The alleys were every bit as much a riot as the streets. Hawkers screamed, ramen shops hissed and billowed columns of scented steam. Children raced underfoot.
 
 
“Right! Reina! There!”
 
 
They called it Hanoi place. Three alleys intertwined in one of the largest intersections in the Gutter. If the map in her head was right, they’d have to come this way; it was the straightest line between–
 
 
“They’re coming!” Akira called, throwing a look over her shoulder. A boiling mass of panic and humanity drove in front of the blood-covered thugs.
 
 
“Set it here.” Jin crouched, cradling the propane tank between her knees. “You two, get down. Wait for my signal.”
 
 
“But–”
 
 
“Go! Now!” There was no time to argue–they were almost at the intersection. She could see the whites of their eyes, the froth foaming at the corners of their mouths. Speeded, the lot of them, but not in any way she’d seen before. Akira snatched Reina and disappeared into a nearby grocery.
 
 
She snapped her fingers, and got nothing but the rusty squeak of metal on metal.
 
 
Fuck, not right now. She snapped again. Nothing.
 
 
They were coming–they were in the intersection, thirty feet away, then twenty. Jin scraped her hand against the concrete, hard enough to leave chipped divots behind.
 
 
“Please, please, please–”
 
 
A curl of flame, hardly above a spark. It was enough. The rag caught and she kicked it into the street, snatching at the collar of a youngling about to run that way. She threw herself into the nearest door, skidding down a hallway.
 
 
“Everybody down, get–”
 
 
The explosion stole the words from her mouth and the air from her lungs. She flew through the air, crunching into a wall with enough force to buckle the cheap drywall. The world faded and muted itself. She blinked back to reality, pushing. She needed to get there first.
 
 
The child was alright–crying, but unhurt. Jin staggered to her feet, weaving like a drunk to the doorway.
 
 
Black smoke billowed from the blackened street. Tiny fires burned everywhere. People were screaming, but they were far away. Bodies lay where they fell, faces blank and smeared with soot. Some writhed as hungry blue flames wormed through leather, cloth and flesh.
 
 
He was still on his feet, shaking his head like a dull ox. The big one.
 
 
She held her hand out, struggling for balance.
 
 
“Orchard. Orchard, can you hear me?”
 
 
Behind him a large black case soaked liquid gas from the street. The fires weren’t close enough to set it ablaze…yet.
 
 
His eyes cleared as she came into his sights. “You. Did you do this?”
 
 
“Listen to me. Listen. We’re here for Xander’s goods. We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
 
 
She ignored the screams. Hypocrisy was another inconvenient way of life in the Gutter. Orchard narrowed his eyes, his laugh humorless.
 
 
“These are Mephit’s goods. Bought and paid for.”
 
 
“Think of it as an exchange in ownership. I’ll work it out with Mephit.”
 
 
He spat, wet and brilliant red against the street. His eyes were clearing up with every second, narrowing, a growing menace. He didn’t feel the winding burn exposing yellowed tendons and muscle along his ribs. She doubted he felt anything at all. If they were on speed, it was a strain the likes of which she’d never seen. A scraping step behind her, then another. They were getting up fast, too fast, like they didn’t even feel the blast.
 
 
Orchard’s grin widened.
 
 
“The only thing you’re going to work out with Mephit is how long he’ll keep you chained up in his bedroom, gutter punk. Get her!”
 
 
A hand covered her mouth, reeking of unwashed flesh, and two more grasped her elbows. She bit at the closest, rewarded with a spray of copper blood. She spat in a rush.
 
 
“Akira!”
 
 
The redhead was already flying through the air, leaping from the from of the grocery. Orchard’s scream cut into a jerking, dribbling incoherence as he collapsed. The screwdriver stuck out of his neck, red light pulsing. His corpse jerked, slamming his skull against the cobblestones again and again. His dead fingers spasmed in place.
 
 
Jin lashed out with an elbow, a foot. She fell, pulled backwards. Something hit her in the temple and she saw stars. A mouth clamped down on her upper arm, and she screamed. Akira was there, punching, kicking. Reina screamed, twisting her elbow around a man’s neck. His face was turning blue, the veins sticking out. The world devolved into red pain and noise for one second, then another.
 
 
Then it was over.
 
 
They fell over each other, scrambling like monkeys to get away.
 
 
“Yeah you better run!” Reina shrieked, throwing rocks, bricks, whatever came to hand.
 
 
“Jin.”
 
 
“I’m fine.” She rasped, waving Akira away, trying to staunch the blood flowing from her bicep. She could count the teeth marks, punctured deep into her flesh. “I’m fine. Get the cargo. Reina! Help me.”
 
 
Akira grabbed the case, grunting under its weight.
 
 
“What do we do about him?” Reina jerked her chin at Orchard’s corpse, still twitching. A dead body in the Gutter was still a dead body; the police were going to come sniffing. Not to mention Mephit, whose captain she’d murdered in front of a crowd. She didn’t have time to worry about that right now. People were beginning to creep back into the alley, curiosity overriding caution.
 
 
“Leave it. Let’s go.” She limped away, supported on one side by Reina. There were already a dozen witnesses to point Mephit her way, but that was a problem for tomorrow.
 
 
They limped back to their squalid flat, locking all six deadbolts behind them. Akira set
the case down, wincing and rubbing the red weals it dug in her arms in the eight-block journey.
 
 
Jin rifled through the cabinets until she found the plastic bottle of no-label spirit. It burned like a demon over the bite-mark and she gripped the counter so tight she thought she might break it. She took a double-gulp, rinsing the blood from her mouth, and then washed the bite again.
 
 
“Open it.” She gasped, handing the bottle to Reina, who also took a deep swallow. “Let’s see if this was all worth it.”
 
 
Akira hauled open the lid. They clustered around, wordless in disbelief. Jin was the first to speak, hoarse like someone bought the air in her lungs.
 
 
“Oh my god.”

—–

Credit to this dope picture goes to LED Noir Manila:

https://www.instagram.com/led.noir.manila/

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