“Librull strowng,” Chutney replies in a bass deep voice. He's so mixed that no one knows what the motherfucker is so they just call him Chutney like he's some kind of sauce. He ain't so tall but he's big, got arms thick like folks got legs and a neck like a tree stump with three dead bugs triforcing his hard-assness. Taiquan knew from the 'hood before he got 'scripted and got him hooked into the hustle after he demobilized. Dude was one of the last to evac out of ATL, should be bat shit crazy and missing pieces like every other Last Stand vet, but he wasn’t and everyone knew that though he hardly said a word.
“Money in there?” Taiquan asks, though they both know that the only reason he’s here and not slinging on a Tuesday morning is that Big Money is there and wants to see his ass real quick.
“Yuh,” Chutney confirms, and nods him in. Up the stairs to the fourth floor and he sees a big $ka tag in purple and green spray paint. The whole housing block is her territory and the fourth floor is her kingdom. No one comes by without a pass. Even the Texicans respect it and so long as Big Money don’t sling past G-L NW Block 26-Arkalon they don’t tax her activities and she gets to call herself an associate. If Taiquan stays on the right side of her he gets to play his little part in the game, make some monopoly while collecting the Deeper Dole without worrying about some creeper or tweaker fucking with him because he wears the purple ‘n’ green. Of course, that’s a big if right now.
No one has an audience with Moneyka if everything is cope’. Only creeps with one last chance and those all out of luck get this kind of special attention.
It’s a long hallway, a shotgun blast from the east stairwell to apartment 459 at the end of the hall. The inside is some serious Low City Drab ‘n’ Shab—frayed carpets, stained with booze and reagent and gray matter, standard issue gray cinder block walls, flickering hall lights two blinks away from burnout. A scrupulously lonely walk. There were a hundred other floors like this in this building. Maybe fifty stories up, they were even kind of nice, with balconies and windows and a view of the Kansas badlands. Below that, they were all a kind of factory issue awful, but at least they pulsed with activity—crying kids, loud music, fights over handset, soft core porn vids. Not here though. Four was as quiet as the dead.
Taiquan opens the door and there are at least ten guys waiting for him with sawed offs and good cheer. Each one of them exudes the same kind of au naturale intimidation that Chutney does, each more a formless and indiscriminate manifestation of thugging than the last. Hugo Juice recognizes him and open the blast door into the production facility.
Inside Big Money's inner sanctum is everything that outside is not. Shabby and nondescript are now cutting edge and state of the art. On the other side of the glass hallways between him and manufacture are tables full of precursors being cut by fine young things naked as the day they were born. Industrial sized vats force crystalline evaporates down long glass tubes into cooling condensers. From there, at an end of the production line that he can't see, they are ground into fine powder and either baggied as is or stuffed into multicolor capsules to be sold in the Up City clubs. Cameras got the place on lock making sure no one is touches product while small drones scoot along the floor keeping it clean of reactants and other undesirables. Big Money ain't the biggest in Guymon-Liberal, but she's one of the best. It's all quality here and a straight cash brand name outside. Taiquan stops a minute to watch the naked women as they move among the expressionless silver counter tops.
No need to rush the inevitable.
Moneyka was sitting at a table with her chemist while he tested the purity of the spice. Moneyka—he ain't even sure it's her real name—ain't pretty. She's got a broad flat face with hard angular features, like some kind of wind blown stone that won't wear down. Her eyes are narrow, bright, warm like two drill bores that have just finished a deep probe of your skull, staring through her ever present infolens as she sizes up people and product alike. Lips tight like a bird's, barely holding back the venom inside. Her body is real tight though, Taiquan's sure it's just so she can up a level in badassery but it doesn't bother him none. She doesn't like motherfuckers looking in her face and he doesn't mind scoping the rest of her.
Her billnye puts a few droplets of solution on the powder. Tense seconds while the colors change. Looks greener than monopoly.
“Where's my purp?” Money asks. A case study in bad reactions.
“Sorry, Miss Money,” bad start, “Perhaps the sample is contaminated. We could try another batch--”
Wrong answer. These kids from the middle floors, they speak their high speak and think their schooling makes 'em indispensable, but they don't know dick about the hustle. Rule one: never apologize for someone else's mistakes. Rule two: never ask for more than you've been given. There are other rules about not getting hustled yourself and keeping your supply out your own mouth, but they ain't the most important. Rules one and two—that's just business. Don't matter if you're in a Deep 'n' Creep hole or in some fancy office suite.
“Juice,” she snaps into her handset and the holo of her boy pops up, “Jan's got romance with one of the floor candy, am I right?”
“Sho' iz, Money,” Hugo replies.
“Bring her in here. Take Cane with you.
“Vids,” she barks and projections of the psilolab floor pop up in miniature, small versions of people made of light reflected back into the office like a reverse shadow, gossamer figurines suspended in routines of mix boil cut cap. Ethereal versions Hugo and Cane walk onto the floor from no where and walk up to one of the naked muses and say something to her. She must say something in response because Cane's backhand is mighty as he knocks her to the ground. They drag her by the hair back through the office, an easy two feet of space and Taiquan isn't good at conversion from eighth scale to real life but that seems like a long way to drag along your ass.
They throw her on the ground unceremoniously. Money looks over at Jan, who's sweating like the sanitation pipes leak, and then back at her boys.
“Teach this Topsider the difference 'tween purp' 'n' green.”
Ain't never been a pretty beat down. Not never. She's bleedin' all over. Maybe the worst of it was the torn bits of scalp where they went at her hair, but it didn't have much over the brutal simplicity of fists and feet. She cried a lot in the beginning. Tried to beg even. By the end though she just kind of shuddered, something half way between a sob and a breath. Jan took it better, didn't try and cover his face or wipe his cheeks as the tears streamed. Didn't impress Money none though. She just watched the production on the floor the entire time.
They wrapped her up in a blanket and took her out. Another one of the girls came in and wiped the blood. The drones coulda done it, but the drones didn't need lessons. When the girl was done and gone she cut the vids.
“See that, Jan?” she asked, pointing to the purple and green $ka heraldry above the door, “See it?”
He stuttered in the affirmative.
“My name is Money. Money is money and money is Money. I can't sell no green to Up City like you. Know why? Green is for Deeps 'n' Creeps. It's for bottom feeders. It's for motherfuckers who is itchy all the time they ain't scoring. I don't make monopoly off that nickel and dime shit,” she sent the petri dish with its reagents and low grade powders flying.
“The difference between that and my purp is coming out of your cut. Her ass was just fair warning to you. Next time, Ima make it wish it was you Cane pistol whipped. Now git out.”
Jan left walking stiffly and upright. Trying to be a player to the end.
“Chutney,” she called and Taiquan saw his boy on the holo, “This motherfucker is stealing from me. Next time he leaves this place, you pat him down real tight. Got me?”
Next thing she did was call Ektor, some chump with the Texicans who thought he was all that, but his crew wasn't big time either inside Dalhart or out. She haggled with him for a good twenty, twenty five minutes while Taiquan watched, the projected version of the dude still cross eyed and slow like a glitching VirtPersA. He took a six percent mark down. Next she calls up Juice and orders a protein shake. As Hugo walks out he eyeballs Taiquan but it's not mean mugging. It's the what-the-fuck-did-you-do-look. Taiquan ain't moved since he walked in, but he ain't lucky enough to have been forgotten.
“Chair,” she calls. An uncomfortable stool rises from the floor.
“Sit yourself,” she commands.
He sits in silence. Don't speak till spoken to. She sucks the shake through the straw until only air and drops of saliva is coming back up. Then she finally looks at him.
“We need to talk about your cousin,” Moneyka reveals.
That's when Taiquan realized he's in a whole mess of shit.
“Kindry,” he says into his handset. He's holding it up to his ear and talkin' into it like an antique because he's broke and it's broke and Taiquan's low tech to Money's high, “We gotta talk man.”
His fucking cousin.
When he met Kindry , the kid was a teary eyed snot nosed four foot nuthin'. Bugs took his pops on harvey duty, right out of the thresher in bits and pieces and he was sworn not to tell him a thing about it but did anyway two years later to make him cry when Kindry broke a controller to the virtual entertainment set. Taiquan was fourteen then and his cousin was hardly eleven and it was the first time in his life he felt bad for something he said. He'd make it up to him a few weeks later when he got his ass beat by some Texicano who tried to shake them down for the few monopoly they had for transit, but he swore any way he'd never let anything bad happen to Kindry then. Not by him and not by no one else.
His cuz though? His cuz had other ideas.
Kindry's mom was a trifler. She bent over as soon as some Updwelling junior exec looked her way and took it happily all the way up to a sub-penthouse that had fourteen hours of summer sun and a great view of the Black Mesa reclamation project. Taiquan went there once with his mother and cousin to beg Kindry's mom to let them register the kid for schools under her address. She made them wait in the foyer while she put Kindry's baby half sister to sleep. Taiquan could see into the vast living room, bigger than the apartment he shared with his mom, her other brother and his wife and two kids, dyed two hues darker than marigold from the sun shaded full length windows. It was the last time he was ever Topside without cuffs on. He saw then the resemblance between mother and son—high cheekbones, a proud thin nose, cinnamon colored eyes in the shape of almonds.
It wasn't the last time he'd see that side of his cousin.
Kindry got into a good school Topside. They never saw his mom again. Taiquan and his moms took the kid on. Made sure he got the protein paste and and nutritional supplements with cognitive enhancements to improve his grades. Taiquan walked him ten blocks towards the rapid trans to the downtown upcars. The kid was scrawny and put on airs about getting out of the Deeps to go to school and was always a smug look away from a beat down. They won some and lost some but his cuz got to school on time. Did alright too. Passed his placement exams and got a two year deferral from conscription. He had some crazy ideas about making movies. If he got a few patriotic vids under his belt he could defer the military altogether and make art. It sounded crazy to Taiquan then, but he'd already buried his moms and his other uncle and another cousin and by then was so deep in the hustle that he'd take any craziness just to see someone make it out of the smog choked Low City permadark.
Make them vids of soldiers marching. Salute the flag of the United States of North America. Make us proud, Kindry
His cousin came to him on a slow afternoon. Been texting him all kinds of 'where-you-ats' and 'what-ups' and finally found him on some street corner in upper Rosson. He was on the come down of a major tweak and his neck was red with the claw marks of months' old cuticles. Eyes were so dilated and puffy it was like staring at some grotesque stuffed chibi animal. Taiquan didn't even know what to say.
“You gotta help me out, cuz,” Kindry jonsed.
“The fuck you been up to?”
His smile was wan, lips peeling away from yellowed teeth and swollen gums, a junky's grimace. Taiquan lost it then.
“The fuck you been up to?” he yelled as he smacked him on the side of the head, “The fuck you see'n?”
“Naw cuz,” Kindry said, pushing him away with a tired look, grinding his teeth, “Ain't like that. I ain't gotta score, Quan. Just a lil' short. Need some monopoly for rent. There's this chick, cuz. Real pretty. She's got legs and is... nice. You'd love her. I need an eighth to sling. Just one time. I'm good for it.”
Taiquan saw the world in red then. The mouth agape faces and gleeful leers of the Deeps 'n' Creeps faded into the exhaust fumes and fury as he looked into the ragged shell of his cousin.
“Thought you was stars 'n' stripes now, Kinny, thought you was big time, ey?” he said, giving the dope strung marionette another animating shove, “You was all vids 'n' art, son. Where's'at? Huh? Digame, Topside. Ain't seen you 'round here when you got dreams. Naw, just when you need paper and now popits.”
Taiquan slugged him. He slugged him like he'd slugged every bully and thug who thought he could get over on him and his youngest cousin. He slugged him like the mother who took it to the gut when her youngest brother left them a bright eyed orphan with no hopes but up. Slugged him like he would any junky looking for a dime bag on the free because it's business and that's the only kind of no they understand. He slugged him because they gave up everything and still he traded it all away.
“You had my back,” Kindry screamed, blood streaming from his nose faster than his trembling hands could stanch, “ You said you fucking always had my back.”
And so he had.
Money liked Kindry. He could get Topside any time he liked. He rolled with rich kids with artistic inclinations and dirty habits. He was at all the big clubs and knew all the DJs, all the promoters, all the aspirants trying to be someone who knew someone. That was Kindry, man. Strung out and twitching like a spicehead powered by psilocykic jolts, pushing this and that to whomever and loved by all, sucking 'em in with those pretty red-brown eyes and an easy smile. He moved a lot of purp for $ka. But like mother like son. He was a trifler.
“Why you knocking like you tha pol--” Taiquan didn't even let his cousin finish before he smacked him upside the head and sent him ass over tits over the side of a couch.
“A half mil, you dumb fuck. A half mil. You don't have that monopoly. You don't know that monopoly. You don't take that paper from Money.”
Kindry lived in a rat hole on old Panhandler. Wasn't much besides the couch he slept on and a bean bag. A big vid screen and a half dozen stacks of vid archives was the only testament to shit he cared about. Little white mountains of phenethylamene and mephadrone sat lonely on a dirty tile in evidence of his oneiric distraction. His VirtPersA was projected indifferently from his handset, a vacant eyed nymphet oblivious to the family drama.
“Whatchu gotta say, huh?”
“Sorry? You mothafucker you got the biggest mélange dealer in Liberal lookin' for yo ass. She ain't wanna talk, Kinny. She wanna skin you and use you for a rug. Whatchu mean, sorry?”
“You have new messages,” the virtual personal assistant reminded them.
“Who's that, Kinny? You making moves? You got big deals in the work?”
His cousin shook his head negatively. Taiquan looked at the squalor. Not even a blanket or a pillow. Kindry was sleeping in old clothes. There was a fridge and an instant cooker, but he knew they hadn't been used in days. The motherfucker was broke.
“You got any of it?” he asked quietly.
Kindry looked up at him. His lips were full and pouting, eyes washed out with tears.
“What are we gonna do, Quan? What are we gonna do?”
“Get up,” he said, strong for his cousin, “And put on a hoodie. You got a piece?”
“Good. We gotta score big tonight.”
Oklahoma sun set over Guymon-Liberal like a cracked skull on a bloody late afternoon. Low City Deeps 'n' Creeps don't keep regular hours, but somewhere in their vestigial memories of day and night cycles they retain a sense for when time begins and time ends. The streets are crowded with the Tuesday evening L7s on their way back from being janitors and maids and maintenance techs in the upper floors. Sure, it gets them a few hours of daylight, maybe better rations, but at the end of a long day they are broke like the rest of them and calling their Topside masters 'sir' while they lick their boots. Freedom don't mean much, but it's something other than that. Maybe. Maybe you can't ever be free.
Two hoodies move through the crowd with purpose and resolve. Even down here there are cameras that cut through the smog and pick out facial features for recognition among the criminally known and surmised. Creepers are always breaking them but that doesn't stop anything so much as let the Black and Reds know that they can't shoot down defiance. The robotic lenses track their movement, note the color splashed sidereal and jagged in a stained zodiac of oils and powders, the frayed fabric of composite synthetics. It won't know who but it already suspects what and that is enough.
There is an Arab who converts credits to monopoly at a fifteen percent markup for the L7s who need to pay for their chemical fetishes on the sly. He's not a bad guy, but when you need a lot of paper fast he's the only one who's got it on hand. An alley two blocks up hasn't had camera coverage in two days for the span of about fourteen miles. Texicans been running some quality girls and after market implants on this route, so it's kinda safe if everyone's paid up. You can get to Omar's using an auxiliary sewer access. It's quick and dirty but it works. As his handset cracks the security protocols on the manhole cover's locks, and hand reaches into the back of Kindry's waist ban and removes a pistol from its careless holster. Two bullets are discharged in rapid succession into the back of his head and he falls twenty feet into the sewer waters below. Taiquan can see the dull flicker of his eyes fade from the blood and brain dappled face before a current of slurry carries him away.
It's a hell of a thing to kill a man. You take away everything he was, everything he has, everything he could be. But when you give him everything... shit, it doesn't make it better. But that's business.