Outside of Phoenix, Arizona
Jane Doe glanced over her shoulder. Across the street, people milled in Murphy Park, gathered in knots around the library doors, or lounged on the metal picnic tables under the desert willows, enjoying the spring before the heat hit. No one looked up from their cellphones or holographic computer displays. No one paid her any attention. Jane might be an ordinary citizen heading for the caffeine fix before the drudge job began.
But she wasn’t and never would be. Other people learned that sooner or later.
Her skin tightened and she rolled her shoulders to ease her discomfort.
It’s just pretend.
She hauled open the glass door of Bean Tango and fell into the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Saliva pooled in her mouth, and her nose twitched at the base notes of pastry. Pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head, she swept her spiky brown hair out of her face and surveyed the room.
Posters of couples locked in sweaty embraces lightened the espresso-colored walls. The images captured brooding, swarthy Latino hunks catching ladies mid-twirl, dipping them nearly to the floor or tossing them in the air. The shimmering fringe of the women’s jewel-toned gowns radiated like spokes from their toned legs.
Clearing the sweetheart’s table near the restroom, Jo-Jo Martin switched her attention to Jane. After setting the white mugs into her gray tub, she wiped down the vinyl cloth covering the wrought iron table. White streaked the curly black hair framing her dark skin. “Hey, Jane, I didn’t expect you so early.”
“Just killing time before my delivery run this morning.” Jane sidestepped the yellow ‘danger wet floor’ sign and wove a path through the tables. Anyone who considered a wet floor dangerous never dealt drugs.
Never spent a night on the streets.
Under the window sign painted in Cinco de Mayo colors, two teenage girls with Easter egg-colored hair slouched on the bench seat and texted on holographic keyboards. The pink-haired one nudged her friend before aiming her wrist at the wall beside her. A video of a thin student stumbling down an institutional hall streamed down the dark paint of the coffee shop. The girls sank into a pool of giggles.
People were shitty to each other. But this time it wasn’t her problem. Jane exhaled a shaky breath.
On the opposite side of the room, a wisp of a man alternated between rubbing his beaky nose and typing on his plastic keyboard. Implanted inside his wrist, the Cain’s mark of his drugs monitor played peekaboo with his tattered cuff. He glanced up at her. His beady blue eyes stared out of sunken sockets.
Jane turned away. Not too fast or too slow. This was her time to practice being normal, to blend in, to remember not everyone reacted with fists and kicks. Using the reflection in the glass display case, she watched the man.
The wisp of black fuzz coating his upper lip twitched like a rat’s whiskers. Glazed eyes dismissed her before he glued his attention to his work.
Jane exhaled softly and focused on the pastries inside the case. He hadn’t recognized her. Not that he was one of her usuals. Just an occasional fish in her stream of clients, surfacing only when his credit allowed.
She dealt only the best drugs.
And charged a premium for it.
Why not? Drugs were a legit business these days. And businesses needed to make a profit. Not that she planned to be a drug dispensary owner forever. One day soon, she’d leave this town and start a fresh life somewhere else, somewhere new, and her normal citizen garb would be everyday wear, not a costume.
But for now…
Her stomach growled and her breath fogged the glass, momentarily obscuring the prune danish on the top shelf.
Jo-Jo sauntered into the serving area behind the counter. The tub scraped the glass display case when she set it down. “Business good?”
“Yep.” Jane wiped the condensation off the glass with her sleeve and straightened. “Still generating income for my thug-partner Uncle Sam, so you upright citizens don’t have to work so hard.”
Jo-Jo’s dark eyes glinted, and she dropped her voice. “And yet the economy it is still depressed. Maybe you are not dealing enough of the drugs, eh, chica?”
“We’ve dealt enough that the national debt is paid off. Not my fault you respectable folks can’t do your share.” Jane propped an elbow on the counter and traced the letters of the laminated menu taped to the counter. How many times would Jane have to push the barista’s buttons until she was tossed out, proving she was just like every other upright citizen? In the two years since Bean Tango opened, Jane had needled the Latina twenty-three times.
Jo-Jo had flushed and sputtered a handful of times, but never treated Jane like shoe fungus as most others had. Was the woman infected with some kindness virus?
But they all turned eventually. It was just a matter of time.
Jane would try to get her to kick her out of her establishment next month. Eventually, Jo-Jo would break ties with Jane. Everyone did. Drug dealers were inconvenient acquaintances once a user came clean.
Jo-Jo ran her hands through the sonic wash station then whisked out a piece of wax paper. “You think the government will cut the taxes now that we’re back in the black? I could use the profit.”
“Maybe on you guys. But sin needs to be taxed, and folks like me punished for luring innocents into evil.” Jane would be an average citizen once she sold her business. No one would ever learn of her past. She boxed up the thoughts, making them disappear like her childhood. “I’ll have two prune danish, an expresso, and a coffee. Tall.”
“Two? Caffeine not going to do it for you this day?” Jo-Jo removed a paper plate from the stack behind her and slid open the display case. The sweet scent of cherry pie filling mingled with the fresh bread.
Jane almost changed her mind. Almost. Then the plate appeared and the danish stared back at her with exotic purple eyes. She loved purple. She loved the thickness of it on her tongue. “I have to restock then be open for business tonight. Jazz in the Park begins at sundown.”
Although using drugs was legal, her stream of users preferred darkness to daylight. Most didn’t want the stigma, even if they bore the Cain’s mark. She didn’t blame them.
If she’d known anything other than drugs growing up, she might have chosen a different path.
But people like her didn’t have choices.
Fate had screwed her since birth.
Lady Luck allowed Jane to profit from it.
“And nothing goes better with the jazz than a banger or glider.” Jo-Jo slid the plate on the counter. Her Cain’s mark was a dull brown, as unnoticeable as a mole.
Except to a dealer looking at a sometimes client.
“‘Bangers and gliders are last century. Today’s designer drugs will give you both. Most folks swear Misty Seas will allow you to watch the notes the band plays.” Fishing out a currency card from the satchel on her hip, Jane slid it next to the plate and picked up one danish. Pastry flaked from the edges. Sugar glittered like stars. She took a bite, moaned as the buttery treat melted in her mouth.
Food, the original drug.
As far as she was concerned, the rest were pale imitations.
Behind the counter, Jo-Jo wiped her fingers on her apron before turning to the espresso machine. “I’ve heard the Sinners’ Salvation they will be out tonight. They will probably target your store.”
“Probably.” The Christian Taliban were always telling folks how to live their lives. Most of their rules began with ‘don’t’ and Jane refused to live her life in negatives. Besides talk was not help, food in her belly, or shoes in winter. She’d learned that lesson at six. Her stomach growled at the memory.
The barista balanced a small cup on a saucer and set it next to Jane’s plate on the counter. “I’m just glad this is only the third time they have picketed your shop. My friend Rose she say that the tenth time, they throw the bricks through the glass windows.”
Jane grunted. Gossip was like friends, only good to inflict pain and suffering. Besides, if the ‘good people’ who came to save her resorted to violence, what did that say about them? Bitter hypocrisy flooded her mouth before she washed it away with a sip of espresso. “They’ll have a hard time getting past my bullet-proof glass and reinforced walls.”
Or the other traps she’d laid.
Over the whipping of cream, Jo-Jo whistled. “Business must be really good for you to have installed that.”
“The previous tenant was a bank. They did all the work.” Back when banks existed. Back when governments printed money. She’d grown up after the switch. Now everything was cards, fingerprints, barcodes and retinal scans. Setting the danish down, Jane licked the sugar off her fingers.
“Be careful anyways.” Jo-Jo eased the to-go cup of coffee onto the counter but didn’t reach for the cash card to debit the sale. Cinnamon dusted the pyramid of whipped cream on the top of the to-go cup. “You know I worry about you.”
Plucking up a spoon, Jane dunked the cream into the black liquid until it disappeared. No one really cared about her. She didn’t have anyone who thought she mattered. She swallowed the lump in her throat before she looked up. “I’ll be fine. This isn’t my first drug delivery.”
“And never do I wish to live to see your last.” Jo-Jo rapped twice on her countertop. “Especially with all this talk of the drugs war starting again.”
Jane waved her hand, dismissing the thought. The drugs war had been propaganda, not much more. She’d lived on the front lines then. She knew. “It’s an election year. Politicians will say anything to get re-elected.”
Jane would live through her last day dealing to start a life on the other side. She was too street smart not to survive. After blowing steam off the espresso, she downed the contents. Heat seared her mouth. Thankfully the butter from the pastries prevented it from doing too much damage. Her phone vibrated in her pocket.
Was it time for her delivery already?
She removed her cell, smoothed the colored dots over its camera lenses, and thumbed it on. A Jeep trundled down the alley behind her dispensary, slowing as the vehicle approached her back door. The hair on her neck rose. Her competition was sniffing around again. Bastards.
“Trouble?” Jo-Jo fixed the lid on the big coffee.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” Jane rolled her shoulders. She’d have to scare the bastards off her turf. Thank God, her work clothes were in her satchel.
Jo-Jo shoved the currency card across the counter. “I’ll get you the next time.”
Jane ground her teeth. She hated owing people, hated the power it gave them over her.
The Jeep door opened. A meaty fist flung a crowbar at her security camera.
“Fine.” Raking her card off the counter, Jane shoved it and her phone into her pocket, grabbed the coffee and pastry, and then headed for the back door.
After glancing at her few customers, Jo-Jo trailed down the narrow hall behind her. “Save a few of those Misty Seas for me, yes? Sam and I might feel like the experimenting tonight.”
“Sure thing.” Using her hip, Jane leaned into the bar. A bell over the door tinkled when it slid open. Sunlight burned her retinas. Sheesh, rising so early was unnatural. Shaking her head, she dislodged her sunglasses. They dropped onto her nose and nearly slipped off. She used her shoulder to push them in place and jogged down the alley.
A man in tattered layers of cast-off glared at her from his perch on a dumpster. Cloudy blue eyes stared out of a grimy face. He’d been someone once. Someone kind. Someone who’d shared half a tuna sandwich with a starving kid.
She set the pasty and coffee on the ground near his overflowing cart. “Breakfast, Hank.”
“Fuck off… F-fuck off.” He waved his arms at her invasion.
Raising her hands, she eased away, allowing him to return to the insanity dissolving his mind.
Three streets and two left turns later Jane entered the access way to the alley behind her shop. The wedge of shadow in the narrow pass swallowed her, and the tree in front and dumpster in back shielded her from view. Her nape prickled. Easing left then right, she checked behind her.
No one could see her.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t see anyone or the Jeep either.
Ducking under the strap of her satchel, she balanced it on the cement and rock trash can and flicked open the top.
Another check and she jerked off her polo shirt, revealing the stained marijuana t-shirt underneath. She unsnapped her jeans and shimmied them off. Her star-scape leggings shimmered in the early morning light. Balling her citizen costume up, she shoved it into her satchel and tugged out her blue wig.
A car door slammed.
Her pulse galloped. They better not be trying to break into her store. She hurried to don her persona. Satiny locks brushed her shoulders as she tucked her hair underneath the wig. Gummy tape on her forehead held the mop in place. A pair of hipster black framed glasses changed her eye color from brown to blue and added a teardrop tattoo to the corner of her right eye.
She removed the false hard bottom from her satchel and slid free a small machete. Her fingers slipped into the familiar grooves. She might not have a real tattoo, but she’d earned the teardrop.
And most other dealers knew it.
They also knew the criminal injustice system didn’t give a damn.
A Cain’s mark meant the victim’s death wouldn’t be investigated. Good people didn’t care enough about addicts to spend public funds on solving their murders.
A fact that worked in Jane’s favor. Swinging the satchel across her vulnerable stomach, she clenched the machete and slipped into the alley.
The Jeep was gone.
She glanced right, then left, then right again. Cars coasted along the roads. None turned into the alley. Good.
Keeping her back to the wall, she sidled closer to the dispensary’s back door. Once she was inside, she’d check the security streams and find out who had visited her. She might return the favor and—
A black SUV barreled toward her. The windows buzzed down, revealing thugs with automatic weapons and mirrored glasses in the front seat.
Red dots speckled her shirt, covering the area where her heart currently resided.
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