Jane stilled in her office and held her breath. Water dripped into the bathroom sink on the other side of the office wall. A vehicle rumbled down the alley on the other side of the pull-up door behind her seat. Her hands hovered over the packing slips on her desk before her fingers danced over the two packages on the scarred desk. One box contained nothing but raw materials for her chef to create designer drugs. The other contained drugs. Ordinary drugs available at any dispensary.
And worth over a hundred thousand credit on the street.
Certainly worth more than her life.
The creak of the floorboards sounded again. Closer this time.
She pinched the matted leg of the one-eyed teddy bear and dragged it closer. Its matted bottom scraped the scarred desktop betraying the presence of a .22 semiautomatic, stuffed inside. She paused. Even though ‘dicts gave up the right to life, shooting was messy business. Blood was hard to clean up, and the services charged a mint.
Glancing around the cramped space, she growled low in her throat. Damn, she’d left her machete outside. Retrieving it now would make too much noise. Rolling the teddy over, she scratched it behind the tattered ear before unbuttoning the flap on its backside and removing the weapon.
Her hand was steady as she checked the magazine and verified the bullet in the chamber. She rolled her shoulders easing the crunch of tension in her bones. Keeping her eye on the small door separating the office from the hall beyond the interior door, she slid back the mustard paneling, exposing a bank of monitors. Old and outdated, two screens settled between the studs of the wall in line with the red and blue lines of the plumbing.
She hit the switch. Pixels swarmed the screen and formed an image of the storefront. Gray tinged the worn plank floorings thanks to the smoky glass of the bubble cameras. Beyond the holographic displays of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Egyptian Pyramids, and the Great Wall of China, residents and tourists hustled along the sidewalks. No one paid attention to her store.
So where was the intruder?
Swiping the screen, she changed views. No one huddled behind the counter, ransacked the ginger jars full of candy, or tried to break into the automatic tellers to steal the cryptocurrency account numbers.
Jane leaned forward in her chair.
The camera panned the area near the restroom and hallway door.
There! A shadow moved in the crack under the door to the hallway. A deep breath settled her heart into an even rhythm. Raising the gun, she aimed the business end at the door then swiped her index finger over the screen bringing up the feed from the hallway.
A middle-aged woman in a gray pencil skirt and coral blouse shifted the yellow mop over the secret hatch in the floor, hiding a secondary entrance to the basement. Penny Noire adjusted her grip on the black and white shopping bags before sweeping her fingers through her bobbed brown hair. After one quick check of the pearls at her neck, she reached for the handle for the office door.
Jane snatched up the bear and returned the gun to its hiding space. “Woman’s gonna get her fucking head blown off one of these days.”
“Language, Janie dear.” Penny sidled into the room and smiled.
The woman always smiled—in every picture taken with her forty-eight foster daughters, in every run-in with the Corporate Police, in every hearing before the Corporate Judges. The only time she stopped was when Phil the Fink abandoned their thirty-year marriage to fuck foster daughter number forty-eight.
Then her smile crumbled as she lost her trust, the love of her life, and her income.
And Jane hadn’t known how to respond to the woman who’d raised her since she was eleven.
But Penny had cried when the state’s child services revoked her fostering permissions, leaving Jane as the last girl Penny saved.
That didn’t seem fair. Jane had asked the preacher at the church Penny had forced her to attend why such a bad thing had happened to Penny? He mumbled nonsense about being a woman and sin and flaws that would cause a husband to stray. Jane had punched the preacher in the face and broke his nose.
He’d had her arrested.
Penny had bailed her out, putting a lien against her house just before the foreclosure proceedings had begun. They’d been homeless on Jane’s eighteen birthday when the case had been dismissed.
“Janie,” Penny hitched a hip onto the desk and wiggled onto her new seat. “I’m waiting for an apology.”
“I’m sorry.” Jane mumbled. “But you watch my language enough for both of us.”
“One day, you’ll meet someone who will see past your facade to the kind-hearted woman who just wants to be accepted, scars and all.” Penny bent over the shopping bag.
Jane rubbed her arms dispelling the itchy feeling such words always evoked. She’d fallen for that crap before, then she discovered her ex-boyfriend helping himself to her inventory and replacing the drugs with sugar pills. Her soul was scarred and she made sure to pick those scabs often so she never healed, never forgot, never trusted. “I’m not nice, Pen. I’m a horrible person, a serpent according to Sinners’ Salvation.”
“We both know I raised you not to base your life on someone else’s opinions.” Penny thrust a square purple food container at her. “Now, I made you an egg, tomato, and sausage sandwich for breakfast. You’re too thin.”
Jane balanced the container on her fingertips. Refusing wasn’t an option. Penny was part steamroller; part abused schnauzer. Her stomach rumbled. The traitor. “I ate earlier.”
“Then you can eat again.” Penny popped the lid and set it on the desk. “With Jazz in the Park tonight, you’re going to have a busy day. Besides, I thought you might like to launch my newest product tonight.”
“What have you cooked up this time?” Jane used two hands to lift the roll and swallowed the saliva pooling in her mouth. Homemade bread, because Penny was a master chef at more than cooking drugs.
“My masterpiece.” Grinning, Penny removed an open bag of dry cat food.
“I thought Misty Seas were your masterpiece?” Flakes of toasted bread speckled her shirt. Peppery aioli sauce mingled with the warm eggs and sausage. Jane’s eyes fluttered in ecstasy.
“That was before time-release technology became shareware.” Penny lifted out a red velvet box marked photos.
Jane swallowed her mouthful. “I thought you couldn’t get it to work?”
Rolling her eyes, Penny set the box on the counter before stroking it. “I couldn’t get it to work at first. But, like I said, you don’t give up because something’s hard. That’s what makes you so successful.”
Jane shifted in her chair. Why did Penny always make it out to be something more? Theirs was a business arrangement. Nothing more.
“Your designer drugs help.” Jane turned the bread to get a bigger dab of aioli in the next bite. “So, what do you have for me?”
Penny carefully lifted the lid of the box. Crimson hearts rolled around the black satin interior. A ‘P’ and an ‘X’ stamped the front of the pills with her designer mark. An ‘N’ validated the back. “I call it Nirvana.”
“Nirvana, huh.” Setting down her sandwich, Jane lifted one red pinky-nail sized tablet and rolled it between her fingers.
“Yep, you know, as in a release from endless suffering.”
“I know what it means. I finished those business classes and got that associate’s degree, remember?” Jane set the pill back into the box. But drugs weren’t nirvana, just a temporary state of crazy. When the user came down, the same shit still needed to be dealt with, and worse crap joined the jamboree.
Penny nudged her shoulder. “I was there when you got your certificate. Heard your name read and saw you walk across the stage on the Holo-tron.”
Jane’s skin heated. Why did Penny get so excited over a scrap of paper? How much did it really mean when she’d earned C’s and D’s to get it? “So what is it? Uppers? Downers? Sidewaysers?”
“That’s not even a word.” Penny rested a bag of disposable baby diapers then an oversized black pen on the table before folding the bag and tucking it into her oversized purse. She clicked the top of the pen. A holographic computer and keyboard appeared on the desk. “Not that drugs don’t throw you sideways, just no one under the influence can say it without laughing.”
Jane didn’t correct her. When a ‘dict was high as a kite, everything was funny.
“Nirvana is a cocktail drug.” Penny‘s trim fingers typed on the keyboard. “First you soar with the eagles, then just as you’re starting to come down, the first time-release coating dissolves and your senses expand. Then lastly, there’s a detox agent so you fall asleep and flush it out of your system, waking up rested and ready for a new day of drudgery.”
Penny brought up the Certificate of Analysis for the drug. Spikes appeared along a chromatogram, each had a label. Underneath were a list of names and concentrations.
Jane recognized the scientific names of the stimulants and barbiturates. Of course, her tongue would knot if she tried to pronounce any of them. But one in the list was unfamiliar. She pointed to the string of thirty some letters. “Is that the coating thing?”
“Yep. Nice to see drugs haven’t dulled your senses.”
“You know I don’t partake.” Not since she’d been born addicted. She wouldn’t take the chance of ruining everything she’d worked for.
“Don’t tell anyone that. Why would someone trust a dealer who doesn’t get high?” Penny shifted screens, pulling up the gateway to Mainlining, the dark web ‘dicts, black hats, and white hats used to transfer information away from the government’s prying eyes.
Jane tapped the Certificate on the screen. “That’s why ‘dicts buy from me. Plus, I’m clear-headed enough not to pass along bad stuff.” She scanned the page, looking for the watermark of an approved lab. “Or allowing any bogus certs to get by me.”
“There’s lots of bad stuff going around.” Penny dragged and dropped the cert onto Jane’s cloud drive and the quantum key encryption scrambled it. “Certs are uploaded and no, they’re not fake. I rushed the DOA lab test so you could sell them tonight.”
Jane selected another pill and rolled it between her fingers. “What do you want for them?”
“That means I’d have to sell them for sixty to make a profit.” Damn the tax man for taking a quarter of the retail price.
“They’re worth thirty.” Penny clicked the pen and her computer blinked out.
“I don’t doubt it. But they’re new and this isn’t Snobsdale or uppity Carefree. People here work for a living. Many won’t take a chance on something they’ve never heard of before.” Especially when it would eat up a significant portion of someone’s salary.
“You don’t think you can get that much for them?”
Jane bit the inside of her lip. After two decades, Penny knew all her hot buttons. Jane would always do what she was told not to do. And she would do it well. Slowly exhaling, she counted the hearts. “I could get twice that much for them, but only after folks know what they can do. Create the demand—”
“—Then set the price. I know. I helped you study for the test.” Penny tossed her pen into her bag.
Jane’s finished counting. Five hundred hearts. Ten as freebies for her best and most connected clients. “Can you make me another ‘k’ before the weekend?”
Once word spread, Nirvana would be a perfect Sunday night dinner. A thousand pills might not be enough as she was Penny’s exclusive distributor. But scarcity would make them all the more in demand.
“No problem.” Penny winked. “I have another five hundred already made.”
“Good.” Sweeping the pills into her palms, Jane moved a blank switch plate aside. The vacuum click on then she fed the pills into the tube. The inventory control box flickered to life on her monitors. Numbers scrolled as it counted the drugs. After wiping her empty palms on her leggings, she cracked her fingers, assigned the new drugs a location, price, and name. “Now, did you get so lost in your masterpiece that you forgot my order of Misty Seas?”
“In the cat food. Along with another bottle of dye to color in your Cain’s mark.” Stooping, Penny kissed Jane’s cheek. “Send the credits within the hour. I’ve got to pay for my health insurance this month. Bloodsuckers raised my rates because I’m now fifty-five.”
Jane paused. Her former foster mother would tell her if she were facing problems, wouldn’t she?
“Relax, Janie dear.” Penny patted her shoulder. “I’m in excellent health.”
Jane shrugged. She hadn’t been worried. Not even a little. “You’ll have the money within the hour, and I’ll also let you know any feedback on Friday.”
“No need. I’ll check Mainlining. It’s faster than the news and twice as truthful. Now see me out. The front door. I’m not some criminal needing to sneak out the back.”
Stifling a sigh, Jane followed her down the hallway-slash-janitorial closet. The woman didn’t understand the danger. “What if one of your church friends see you?”
“Then, I’ll introduce them to my beautiful, successful daughter.”
Crazy. Making those drugs had made Penny crazy. Shaking her head, Jane glanced beyond the posters plastered in her storefront window. Photos of azure seas, tan sands, and baroque architecture deliberately fooled many into thinking she ran a travel agency.
Across the street, men and women in suits lingered in the park. Many chatted in groups. A few checked their phones and cast surreptitious glances at her store. Tough. She wouldn’t open until after three. A cowboy on his horse brooded in life-size bronze in front of the library. The five-story, city hall curved like a protective brick hand behind the squat, white library.
Maroon carpeting deadened their footfalls as she crossed the open space behind Penny. The canned lights in the ceiling turned on before she reached the midpoint. Behind the single countertop on the left, shelves ran along the mirrored wall. Bright colored ovals, rounds and squares filled the candy jars.
“If the cat food contains the Misty Seas, what’s in the diapers?” Jane swerved behind the counter.
Penny paused by the door and smiled. “My contribution to the women’s shelter up the road. Add it to your weekly offering.”
Damn it. How did Penny learn so many of Jane’s secrets? Leaning across the counter, she hit the button under the marble surface. The alarm beeped as it turned off but the cameras snapped photos of the door. A deep buzzing noise filled the room.
“Sunday brunch at eleven. No excuses.” Penny threw open the door.
A bald man pulled Penny outside then spun her out of his way. He stomped inside, slammed the door shut, and locked it manually. “You and I got unfinished business, Janie.”
Jane’s tongue stuck to the roof of her dry mouth. “Tyler.” His name was acid in her throat. “I didn’t know you were out of prison.”
“I told you I’d find you, babe.” He cracked his knuckles. The ones tattooed with the word kill on them. “You didn’t think I’d forget how you betrayed me, did you?”