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Jane froze at the sight of Tyler Payne, her ex-lover, glowering from the doorway of her shop. Do something. Say something. Hit the panic button under the counter and get the Corporate Police here.
The deadbolt hit home like a shot. Muscle upon muscle rippled along Tyler’s arms, causing the tattoos of naked women to dance seductively around his brown Cain’s mark. Early morning sunlight filtered through the bullet-proof glass of her windows to glint on the throwing knives and stars on his belt. His pecs twitched under his black wife-beater shirt.
Christ, his breasts were bigger than hers. Jane punched the hysteria into submission. “I see you had time to work out while you were away.”
His dark eyes narrowed. “‘Roids kept me from being someone’s bitch.”
And they probably helped him find someone to take care of his needs. He’d always been flexible that way. And now he was back. She inhaled slowly, willed her heart not to gallop out of her chest. She was used to violence, knew it for the tool it was.
Tyler loved violence and terror for their own sake.
Setting her trembling hand on the countertop, she swept it over the cold marble. “So what can I do for you?”
“What can you do for me?” Running his hand over his bald head, he swaggered toward the counter. “Aren’t you all uppity?”
Memories swept through her like a tsunami. The bastard considered manners as a sign of weakness, something to exploit. Had serving a better class of addicts made her soft? No. Fuck no. Raising her chin, she stared him in the eyes. “What the fuck do you want, Ty?”
The obscene language tasted bitter; the anger stretched her skin nearly to the breaking point.
“You always did have a way with your mouth.” His attention dropped to her lips. “When I was in the Pen, I’d remember when you were so eager to please that you’d greet me at the door on your knees.”
She remembered she’d thought she’d loved him, remembered his whispers of love and promises to take care of her.
She remembered too damn much.
But knew only one thing—she could only depend upon herself. “You and your hand should appreciate the memories because that’s all you’re ever gonna have.”
“Eventually you’ll come begging for me to take you back.”
The hell she would. She’d hadn’t clawed her way out of a cesspit to fall back into a sewer. “Fuck you.”
His lips quirked. Tugging a throwing knife from his belt, he scraped under his clean fingernails. “Maybe later, Plain Janie. I’ve come to collect what you owe me.” He glanced around the shop. “And interest for using me.”
“Using you?” She flattened her palms on the counter. Faint white lines marred her forearms, souvenirs when he’d cut her to suck her blood when he was high. “You hacked my inventory to steal drugs, cut the cocaine with baby powder, and nearly ruined by business.”
When she’d reported the discrepancies to the DOA, they’d suspended her license for three months and shut her out of her business so they could investigate. Months she and Penny spent living on the streets. The gutter smelled just like her childhood, but Penny deserved better.
And Jane vowed never to let love turn her stupid again. “State your business then get the hell out.”
He tossed the knife.
The motion stirred the air near her cheek. Glass shattered. Blue candies poured from the remains of the ginger jar and rained onto the floor. Feral cryptocurrency cards poked out of the wreckage. Her savings! She gulped air.
He tossed more stars. Shards of glass glittered in the rainbow of colored candies. White cards jutted like jagged teeth from the destruction. She mentally tabulated the value of the feral cards.
Christ, a half million feral credits, untraceable by any government, were exposed to the light. Had he noticed?
Tyler pinched her chin and pulled her face closer to his. “Think you can make me leave, Janie?”
“No.” She forced the word out.
“That’s right, babe.” He slapped her across the face while his grip prevented her from moving to lessen the blow.
Her skin burned. Her tooth nicked her tongue; blood flooded her mouth. She couldn’t stop the bastard, not by herself. But she wasn’t alone. She had friends. Military surplus friends like Saco and Herstal. She slipped a hand under the counter and pushed the emergency button. A soft whirl indicated her security system had received her distress.
Tyler raised his hand.
She flinched and braced herself for another blow.
Chuckling, he pulled his signature machete from the scabbard on his back and set the blade against her cheek. “Cops won’t get here before I fuck you up good, babe.”
Blood poured like warm syrup down her face as he sliced open the skin.
“I haven’t called the cops.” Pain cleared her head. Her finger settled on the trigger of the old-fashioned joystick mounted to the shelf under the counter.
“That’s because you owe me.” Lowering the blade point to her breast, he licked the blood from her cheek.
“Yeah, I owe you.” Over his shoulder, she eyed the submachine guns that had dropped from their cubbies in the ceiling. She’d be in serious trouble if anyone found them, especially with the homemade silencers.
As for actually shooting him… The Cain’s mark may mean no investigation, but her business would be shut down for days. She couldn’t afford the loss of profit. Not if she wanted out.
“I know just how you’ll repay me.” He cut the fabric over one breast, exposing her lace bra.
With a flick of her wrist, the machine gun targeted his back. “Picturing its all you’ll ever do, asshole.”
His eyes darkened, and he raised the machete.
“One more cut and I’ll be calling the cops to scrub pieces of your sorry ass outta my carpet.” She pointed to the gun.
Tyler turned, paled under his cinnamon skin. “Fucking bitch. Here I was gonna play nice for old times sake.”
She depressed the trigger. The chamber clicked empty.
He flinched then smiled. “You shoulda loaded the gun.”
“The first one is always empty. The next one explodes your skull.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Call my bluff. I dare you.”
He raised his hands and backed away from the counter. Crimson beaded along the length of his blade before he sheathed it. “My employer is offering you two hundred thousand credits for your dispensary license, less the sixty percent you owe me, and you could buy that piece of dirt you dream about.”
Two hundred thousand. Her business was worth ten times that. Not that she’d tell Tyler.
He must have been impressed by the number. “Do you still got that picture of your dream house under the counter, Janie? Dreaming of the day, you can pass as normal.”
Embarrassment heated her skin.
“Fuck you. And your offer.” She angled the joystick so the muzzle tracked him to the door. Tempting. So very tempting, but the money. She needed it, especially with a new product coming on the market tonight. “I’m not selling.”
His skin darkened. “I’ll give you a week, then the value goes down five hundred a week until the cops haul your ass out of here in a body bag.”
“If I’m dead, my license goes to the next person on the waiting list. I seriously doubt that’s your employer.” No one with a record could be a dispenser. That was the law. They needed her alive if they wanted her license.
“You’ll sign before you die, slowly.” He fingered the knives at his belt. “Your right hand will be mutilation free. At least until you sign.”
Jane jerked on the trigger. A bullet streaked past his cheek, nicked his ear, and thunked into the bullet-proof glass. “Next time I won’t miss.”
“You’ll pay for that, bitch. You’ll fucking pay.” Holding his bloody ear, he staggered outside.
The door remained open.
Jane held her breath, forcing her heart to slow to normal. One second. Two. Her legs buckled. She staggered until she slammed into the wall but remained on her feet. The impact rocketed up her spine, clattered out her skull. She shoved her hands into her mouth to stop a scream from escaping. Gears ground as the machine guns returned to their hiding spaces in the ceiling.
Ohgodohgod, what had she done?
Wounding Tyler was a mistake.
She should have killed him.
He was going to kill her.
Should she take the cards and run? Her gaze lowered to the shelf. Clear packing tape secured a news clipping to the space next to the machine guns’ joystick. Boards covered the house’s windows, the porch sagged, and the steps were missing from the stoop. A dead tree leaned over the house, and a frayed rope dangled from a skeletal branch. Her trembling hand swept over the tall grass as if to push it aside to find the tire that had fallen from the rope.
She traced the numbers under the photo. One million credits to buy a home and land. A place where she and Penny belonged, where no one could kick them out. Ever.
Her hand fisted over the paper. She just needed another year. Less if Penny’s new drug took off. She would be safe then.
Right. And pigs had started their own aerial acrobatic school.
Ty would find her.
Then kill her. Slowly.
Unless she killed him first.
He wouldn’t be her first cold-blooded murder. She wiped her damp hands on her jeans. Bile burned up the back of her throat at the thought of another tally mark on her body count. She swallowed the bitterness down. She was a survivor. He was an addict. A felon with a record. A suspect in two deaths of other ‘dicts.
No one would miss Tyler Payne.
And she would be safe. Straightening, she stood, lit a vanilla candle to mask the scent of gunpowder. After locking up, she’d take a nap. She had five days to plan. Lifting the hinged portion of the counter, she stepped into the main body of her shop. A flash of red caught her eye. Damn, the candy had made it out here.
She’d have to clean up before going to bed.
She reached for the door to close it.
A quartet of men in suits, red power ties, and leather briefcases slapping their creased pant legs entered. They dismissed her with a glance to stare at the jars behind her. They pointed and considered what the colors meant.
Newbies. A real connoisseur would know candy from drugs. The skin at her nape itched. Damn, she hadn’t hidden her stash of feral cards. If she lost them… She wouldn’t. These men made their money by stealing it legally, and she’d take her share. She shut the door, wiped the blood from her cheek, then made sure the lock clicked before strolling behind the counter. “May I help you, gentlemen?”
Fire engine red flashed in her peripheral vision. A Ferrari nosed into a handicapped space in front of her shop. Both car doors opened at the same time. A dirty-blond haired man exited the passenger side. Rubbing his nose, he spoke to the driver in a black chauffeur’s uniform.
One of the businessmen broke free of the group and sidled closer to the counter. He stroked his goatee, glanced left then right before lowering his voice. “I heard I can buy Misty Seas here.”
God, one of those. If she’d known, she would have worn a trench coat. Too bad her encounter with Ty pile drove the James Cagney right out of her. “How many do you wish to buy?”
He blinked and frowned. “Six.”
Her gaze cut to the three stooges memorizing the poster of the Eiffel Tower. “The law prohibits you from sharing your stash with friends.”
“I know the law.” Goatee slapped the counter. “I’m a lawyer.”
God save her. At least, he wouldn’t haggle about the price. Jane lifted the inventory control tablet, merged the count with the new Certificate of Analysis before switching to the dispensary orders. “I’ll need to scan your Cain’s mark and, of course, your currency card.”
Removing an alligator-skin billfold from his breast pocket, he tugged a white card free then slapped it on the counter. A gold and sapphire cuff link plinked to the counter before he rolled up his sleeve. The skin remained pink around his new Cain’s mark.
Her hair stood on end. Many had tried to steal Penny’s designer drugs mix before. With the way this one dressed, he had money behind him. Would he succeed?
“Thank you.” Removing the interface wand, she covered the brand new Cain’s mark. Goatee’s real name popped up on the screen. So did his heart condition and his job as a lawyer with Stateside Pharmaceuticals. She entered his order and six life-threatening hazards popped up. The dude liked to live dangerously. He also patronized a Snobsdale dispensary on a regular basis.
Maybe not corporate spies.
Maybe word was spreading on Mainlining about Penny’s designer trips. “Please read the warnings then acknowledge them by placing your palm on the reader.”
He rolled his eyes, ignored the possibilities of heart attack, stroke, seizures and three other obscure things and slapped his hand on the surface. “Now can I have my pills?”
Jerk. She ran his card. The wall behind her hummed when the charge cleared. The canister shot through the pneumatic tube under the counter and sighed to a stop. “Just approve the charges and you’re good to go.”
His eyes widened at the price but he dutifully pressed his thumb to the pad. “They better be worth it.”
“Like all drugs, your mileage may very.” Asstard. Removing the plastic baggie with a caricature of a surfer flashing the peace sign from the canister, she set the drugs on the counter.
Goatee Lawyer stared at the aquamarine capsules to the candy jars behind her. “Why don’t you store the stuff behind you?”
Because she didn’t have a death wish. “The designer stuff requires a constant temp to be stable. You do want a good trip for your money, don’t you?”
He grabbed the drugs, ripped open the sealed plastic and plopped one in his mouth. Glaring at her, he rolled it around his tongue before swallowing it down dry.
Like that made him a real man. She jerked her head toward the fridge in the corner with complimentary water. “They work faster with water.”
Tucking the rest in his pocket, he swaggered toward the fridge.
A shadow shifted in front of the door. The dirty-blond man from the Ferrari twitched in the entryway and tugged on his jug ears. Brad Zinkle had arrived. The most famous of her steady stream and her first legit regular client.
Jane buzzed him inside before turning her attention to the next man. “How may I help you?”
His attention flicked to her reddened cheek and cut before he averted his gaze. Right, if you didn’t notice it, nothing happened. He licked his oversized lips and picked at the pimple on his chin while staring over her shoulder. “Six Misty Seas, please.”
Definitely his first time. They’re the only ones who bothered with manners; the others thought she deserved the violence. “Cain’s mark and currency card, please.”
He fumbled with his wallet. A snapshot of a pretty blond woman landed next to his court id badge and card.
Scratching his pale scalp under his short blond hair, Brad scuttled to the counter. His chewed nails drummed on the marble. “I need a fix, Jane. You’re the only one still in business that I trust.”
“Back of the line, buddy.” The suit behind pimple man snarled.
Brad twitched, scratched at the scabs stuck like dried rose petals to his avatar tattoos. “I have a deadline.”
“And we have somewhere to be.” Goatee man shoved a bottle of water into the suit’s gym-toned gut.
Brad tugged on his ear, pulling the protruding half-moon shape farther from his lean face. “Something to keep me going for another few hours.”
The suits rolled their shoulders.
Brad returned to drumming on the counter.
Jane scanned Pimple’s Cain’s mark. One of these days Brad was going to have the shit kicked out of him. He needed to get his head out of those video games he created and step into the real world. Pimple boy’s health history returned clean, so the warnings were generic.
Like anyone read or heeded them. People still smoked cigarettes, for Christ’s sake. She shoved the list at Pimples. “Read the warnings then place your palm on the pad.”
Pimple’s Adam’s apple shimmied in his scrawny throat as he scanned the list.
Brad’s tempo increase. “Jane.”
She removed an intoxication meter from under the counter and slid it toward Brad. The beige device looked like a digital thermometer on steroids. Of course, this one measured all the substances in a person’s saliva. To dispense to someone over the limit meant an automatic revocation of a license. “Suck on this while you wait.”
The suits sniggered.
Brad frowned. His mouth opened then closed.
Arching one eyebrow, Jane ran Pimple’s card. In the four years she’d known the game designer, she knew twitch and pick were his baseline not a symptom of a high. She also knew he was active online, and she had a new drug to bring to market.
Brad’s brow smoothed and he stuck the tip in his mouth. The machine beeped and a spinning top swept the readout.
The suits began to squirm.
Her WTF meter pinged. Why were they afraid of the addict meter? The law only required her to use it if a customer exhibited obvious signs of impairment. The lawyers acted sober. What were they up to? She worked through their identical orders without learning anything else.
They left en masse. The door lock engaged behind them.
Brad removed the meter and wiped his tongue on his sleeve. “You know they’re probably trying to steal the formula for the Misty Seas, don’t ya?”
“Probably.” Many had tried before. All had failed. She checked Brad’s results. Sober, not even alcohol this time. “But as Penny is always telling me, it’s the synthesis not the quantity that drives the drug.”
He jerked his chin at her check before tossing a crumpled fast food napkin on the counter. “They do that to you?”
She smiled at his whiplash conversation.
“Nah. That was an ex, wanting to reminisce.” She dabbed at the cut. Not much blood. She’d always been a fast healer.
Brad nodded and scratched the stubble on his chin before removing his card and baring his brown Cain’s mark. “You let me know if he comes back, right. Not because I’m, you know, but, well, you have the best drugs chef anywhere. ”
“Sure.” Not. She could clean up her own messes. Jane merged his intoxication results with the digital file on his Cain’s mark. “And no, I will not introduce you to my cook.”
“Why not? I’m rich, young, good-looking and am half in love with the woman.”
“You’re in love with her cocktails.” Jane ordered up one free sample of the new drug, Nirvana. “Besides, she’s sixty, has breasts down to her knees and liver spots.”
He set his hand over the center of his chest and staggered back. “Stop. You’re turning me on.”
She shook her head. “Between the two of you, you have enough brainpower to overthrow a small island nation.”
He grinned, flashing even white teeth. “I was thinking we’d start with a small Latin American country and work our way north.”
They probably could, too. Thank God they liked people and wanted to help, not hurt, them. It made no sense, but there it was. Jane tugged the baggie with the red heart from the canister and set it on the counter. “It’s called Nirvana. It’ll perk you up, open your senses to the universe then tuck you in bed like your favorite mother.”
“That’s what the lady said.” Jane rested her elbows on the counter. A woman’s silhouette moved across the door then shifted away. “And it’s not all at once, but one after the other.”
Brad whistled low. “Three drugs in one. The lady is an artiste.”
“Yeah, well, it won’t come cheap. Sixty credits a pop.” Jane mentioned the price because she knew he’d pass the information along on Mainlining. His review would let customers know if it was worth the cost.
He tore the package and rolled the heart between his thumb and forefinger then sniffed it. “I’m sure it will be worth it.”
“Yeah, three Sunsets.” He mentioned Penny’s first concoction—a pill that mitigated the downward slide and allowed addicts to show up to work the next morning. “You know how amped up a new game makes me.”
“Just give Nirvana a clean slate first.” Jane presented him with the bill.
“I always do.” He pressed his thumb to the scanner. “By the way, keep December free. We’ll be having a launch party for the new game, and I’ll need you to provide the party favors.”
“You bet.” Her attention drifted to the bullet embedded in the bullet resistant glass.
Tyler peered inside as he walked in front of her store.
A cold draft trailed down her spine. She needed a plan on how to survive Tyler’s next visit. Otherwise, she’d be dead in five days.