The sky was the color of a computer monitor tuned to blue screen death, cerulean winter crowding out the midday sun. In a glass encased elevator sliding up the side of a building, Dylan Marsh had the opportunity to contemplate the distinct smallness of Cincinillity below. Touched by the sun, but never bright, a lonely outpost in humanity's receding future.
At the two hundred and twenty seventh floor, the elevator let out to Wucherei, Ocker, and Associates Wealth Management. As Marsh entered the premises, a gorilla in pinstripes halted him.
"Through the scanner."
The security guard pointed to a sign--No weapons, no upgrades beyond this point.
"C'mon Gergelim, you know I'm analog," Marsh protested. His off the shelf body parts weren't a point of philosophical pride, as it was with pure body zealots, so much as a statement of relative wealth, and it didn't do him any favors with anyone.
"Doesn't matter, through the scanner," the goon repeated. With a huff Marsh stepped into the detector and submitted to the body scan. No weapons, no upgrades, all meat sack, the x-ray confirmed. Contented that his job was done and the partners and associated wealth managers were safe, Abrir Gergelim nodded Dylan towards a door down the hall.
Behind office number five, labeled "Collections," a rotund man named Billingsly sat waiting in a leather chair behind a large, oaken desk.
"zuckuss2089, good to see you," he addressed Marsh by his handle.
"Got a job for me, Billingsly?" Marsh didn't like his handler, he didn't like his office, and he hated the desk. Drenched in the wealth of a bygone era, the fat man lorded his money over the lowly recovery agent with each gesture and accessory.
"Always to the point with you," Billingsly remarked as he poured one glass of reserve scotch for himself, "You never learn to savor anything."
"I learned that folks who stand around trying to savor things end up bugfood," Marsh quipped, taking the bottle of Patriot Mash offered to him and pouring himself a glass of corn alcohol.
"Yes, I suppose that's what you think you've seen. But from up here, the perspective is a little less ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’"
Whatever, "You got a job for me, Billingsly? Or are we just here to chat."
"Here you go, z. 'Loaders and deadbeats, real Low City scum. Your specialty," he said, flicking a datachip across the desk. Marsh dropped it into an external port on his handset. Family of three, as Low as Billingsly promised, finders commission of five hundred thousand bucks. Enough zeros for his time and effort.
"I need these down and outs picked up by the end of the week. We need the revenue on this quarter's books."
On the way back to the office, Marsh decided to avail himself of the files assigned by Billingsly. It was a typical ‘loader tale. Immigrant small timers with a little Class B consumer debt, nothing the agencies could collect, only write down or negotiate. Then they were given a birth permit. Since Low City schools are essentially thirteen years of pre-prison, they decide to take on some Class A debt for a travel permit to a Top Side school. Class A debt is collectable by any means. Those who default lose their collateral—freedom. In reality, this means they become scavengers, harvesters, or soldiers—jobs that always have an abundance of openings but few applicants. It’s an efficient arrangement. The government gets the warm bodies it needs, the banks are repaid their principle and interest in lieu of wages for the debt conscript, plus a commission split with the recovery agent, and deadbeats are turned into productive members of society. A win-win for everyone.
The particular details of this case, largely unimportant beyond tracking and identification, were a family of Angolan immigrants by the name of Jamba, first evacuated in 2101 by the Portuguese Colonial Repatriation effort, and then again to the USNA in 2203 when the fall of Porto doomed their second homeland. Father was Eutímio. Mother was Nela. Daughter was Dulce.
Dylan braced himself for the inevitable. Took a deep breath in. Held it for a moment with his eyes shut. Then released it. He became zuckuss2089.
At a checkpoint in Wilder, Marsh was pulled out of the train car for looking too Low City for sunlight travel. His credentials are pulled, vetted, and verified. DXM89NY984611. Recovery agent. Cleared for all intra- and intercity travel during an active case. Permitted to be condescended to by Topsiders and to hunt Low City delinquents. Lucky to be on this side of Class A debt.
Back in the office, he synced his handset with the main docking port.
“Effie, get me the last known location of EEJ80FC097225.”
A holographic silhouette of a woman blinked on and nodded at Marsh.
“Ok, Dylan. Searching.”
Outside his office window was the brick face of another building, soot stained and blackened by worse, refusing to indicate the winter sunset. It was always the same dark gray weather here, sometimes wet, sometimes colder or less cold, but at least it’s above the fogged permanent dark of Low City.
“Eutímio Eusébio Jamba was last tagged by Cincinnati Central Monitoring entering a station in Groesbeck. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter.”
Marsh groaned. In life after the apocalypse, there were a lot of shit holes, and Groesbeck was one of the worst. It was a proverbial den of inequity. Thugs, spice heads, and poppits were the nicer variety of scum it housed. Highly organized gangs of gear reapers and comprachicos also called this place home, and there was a lively underground organ trade. It was the kind of place that was all too easy to disappear in, whether you wanted to or not.
“Ok, Effie. I need a cross reference of all known associates of the Jamba family.”
The holo-secretary stared at Marsh with blank eyes and a listless smile.
“I have indexed your request.”
“Thanks, Effie. Now pull a list of all new contacts within the last six month. Focus on subjects with high frequency.”
“I have completed your request, Dylan.”
The big screen in the office lit up with two public profiles. One Devlin Schlemmer and one Ren Caron. Marsh did an eeny, meeny, miny, moe and selected his first witness for bracing.
From a certain point of view, world history is a series of before and after tableaus. Arranged such, it can be characterized by seminal events: the Dorian invasion, fall of the Roman and Mauryan Empires, Mohammed’s foundation of the last great religion, Westphalia, Columbus’s rediscovery of the Americas, the flying shuttle, the Second World War, the upheaval of 1989. Each period punctuated by the triumphant cry of history’s demise or the caterwaul of impending apocalypse. These great ages also came with an accompanying paradigm shift in culture, industry, architecture, and fashion. In the world of the twenty second century, the new age was signaled by the emergence of ravenous giant insects that devoured most of the world. Its transformative thinking was moving from square footage to cubic feet.
Humanity moved up, in a literal sense, to its last few gleaming metropolises spiraling upwards into the sky. The vertical reimagination of society has impressed a literal sense of station on the people. Basking in the sunshine among clouds and safely removed from the uncomfortable details of the machine and human activities that support their ascent are the topsiders. At the very foundation of society is the deeps’n’creeps--the poor, the criminal, the immigrant--characterized as ‘loaders, shuffling along permanently darkened streets and alleyways, waiting for government dole or new hustle to buoy them through a distinctly Hobbesian misery. The middle floors in between are crowded with the likes of Dylan Marsh, his somewhat betters and somewhat worse, never clearly aligned with either pole; rather defecting from one interest to the other with self-preservation in mind.
Devlin Schlemmer was firmly pinioned upon the crest feathers of the upper floor elite. Holding court at his lavish two story condominium somewhere above the hundred and fiftieth floor of a fashionable Avondale high rise, Marsh had to go through three different security checkpoints in the building itself before he was permitted to send his credentials to the door agent.
.”Yes? Who is it?” A female voice asked from behind the gold embossed nameplate.
“My name is zuckuss2089. I’m here to speak with Mr. Schlemmer.”
“He’s busy right now.”
Marsh smirked, a mirthless twist of the lips that soured his face, and pushed his credentials against the receiver.
“I’m afraid it’s official business, ma’am.”
The lacquer paneled door receded into the walls to reveal a luxurious sitting room. The décor was specifically leather backed and real wood, just the kind of subtlety that said ‘rich enough to afford natural.’ The walls were lined with aquariums, and brightly colored creatures that were beyond Marsh’s apprehension fluttered through water and glass like neon ghosts, underwater spirits raised up to perilous heights, blissful accoutrements oblivious to the smallness of the world and its tenuous standing.
Mrs. Schlemmer was a blond number, more beautiful than bright, Marsh presumed, and somewhat confused as to what brought a recovery agent to her door.
“I’m sorry, uh, Mr. Zucker, there must be some misunderstanding—“
Marsh put up a hand defensively, dismissively, “No misunderstanding, ma’am. Just an inquiry about an associate of Mr. Schlemmer. Is your husband..?”
“Yes, right here,” a man replied as he walked down a spiral staircase, in no hurry to meet his unwelcome caller, “I’m Devlin Schlemmer. And you are..?”
The sheen off his smile burned Marsh’s eyes with a nuclear white. Gleaming eyes, bronzed skin, hair that was washed, conditioned, and then gelled into a just-so look of easy wealth, seemed to enrapture the room. Schlemmer was a man who commanded attention, even as he extended a friendly arm.
“Call me zuckuss,” the recovery agent replied, taking the soft hand firmly, “I have a couple of questions for you.”
“Do you mind if we..?”
Schlemmer looked at his wife, and then back at Marsh.
“I’m sure that whatever you have to ask is appropriate for my wife.”
“It’s uh… a sensitive matter. My client would prefer the utmost discretion.”
Surely Schlemmer, staring as he was at a recovery agent who had climbed up some scores of stories just to see him, no doubt having to flash, submit, and surrender credentials, all the while enduring scans and frisking, couldn’t be terribly convinced about the sensitivity of where Marsh was and who he was seeing.
“I see. Perhaps my office?”
“Thank you, sir,” Marsh replied, falling in behind Schlemmer.
From the view of his office, a bluegrass morning spread south below the Ohio like an oil painting, its grandeur only spoiled only here and there by pieces of Kentucky ruin not within the safety of Cincinillity’s walls. Schlemmer seemed oblivious to it all as he slunk lazily into a leather backed chair.
“Drink? Smoke?” he offered.
“Tobacco?” Marsh wondered.
“I know you boys are company men, after a fashion, but it wouldn’t be a personal offense, if a legal one, to offer you a cigar?”
“No, sir,” Marsh confirmed. He hadn’t had a smoke since the Atlanta siege, hadn’t seen tobacco in the wild, so to speak, for nigh on a decade. The military declared its cultivation a waste of resources and its possession a felony.
“Very well. Rhodopis, bring two coronas and a bottle of bourbon.”
“Yes, master,” a sultry, if digitized voice responded. The door to the office opened and a small robot on treads wheeled the order to its dissipated master.
“You lose a bit of the elegance,” Schlemmer acknowledged, catching Dylan’s stare, “Of the flesh and body servant. And it costs a pretty penny more, too. Still, the wife minds less and nothing needs be bolted down.”
“I imagine both arrangements have their benefits, Mr. Schlemmer.”
“Indeed. Please call me Devlin,” he took a cigar from the tray and lit it with a built in torch on the machine, offering the second to Marsh.
“Do you take it neat?”
“I take it any way I can,” Marsh admitted. Devlin had a chuckle and poured two fingers of Kentucky’s finest, also rare and likely illegal, for the two of them.
“Now, Mr. zuckuss, what can I do for you today?” Ringed smoke seemed to surround Schlemmer like a halo.
Dylan took a sip of bourbon and puffed his own cigar. The whiskey was vanilla sweet, warming his throat like a liquid primer. He almost choked on the cigar smoke—acrid, bitter, and dried out. Out of breath, out of practice, out of his element. With a fist over his mouth he stifled a cough with a clearing of the throat. A feline smile unfurled on Schlemmer’s lips.
“Do you know a Nela Jamba?”
“I presume that’s the pronunciation,” Marsh continued. With a click of his handset, he beamed a projection of his quarry onto the desk.
“Rhodopis, dim the office,” Devlin commanded. Intelligent nanoglass to changed hues and blot the light.
“Is she familiar?”
“I can’t say I recognize her.”
Marsh took another sip of whiskey.
“Records filed with the Cincinnati Transit Authority have your validation on a topside transit auth. Under an approved service category.”
Earnest confusion played across Schlemmer’s face like amateur kabuki. He made a show of studying the image more closely. Taking a sip of bourbon. Puffing one, twice, a third time on the cigar.
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t recognize her. As I alluded to, we had some help on that was terminated after a sum of money went missing. It’s possible she was one of them. Maybe my wife used my credentials to get her pass approved?”
Marsh took a long, deep drag on the cigar, rinsing the smoke around his mouth as if he relished the taste of charcoal. Truth was it was making him a little sick to his stomach. He could feel his cheeks greening with nausea. But in this dark room, in this reluctant audience, he could afford a little theater. Opening mouth slightly, he let the smoke waft slowly out like a smoldering furnace, great billowous cloud gathering about his head in a swelling tempest.
“Did your wife approve this?” Marsh wondered, expanding the holocapture of Nela Jamba to a scene outside a Low City love motel, a scowling Devlin Schlemmer in tow.
A Cheshire grin enveloped Schlemmer’s face.
“Now that you mention it, she does look a bit familiar.”
Puff, puff, exhale—Marsh fogged the room again, leaving embers and the eye captured sunlight glinting off the eyes. The sad reminiscence of a forgotten rendezvous, captured forever in digital amber, burned in its own light on the table.
“She owes a lot of money, Devlin.”
“Please, call me Schlemmer,” he replied, the phosphorous grin plastered on his face, “None of it is mine and her creditors have no standing with me. What of it?”
Marsh gulped his bourbon down and pushed the empty glass across the table to Schlemmer to fill.
“Mr. Schlemmer, I imagine that a man of your… means doesn’t interact with people like me very much,” his host obliged another two fingers, “But a recovery agent isn’t some megabyte Pinkerton trolling random strangers for pieces of blackmail to feather the nest. We are agents of the banks, processing yottabits of connections at nine point nine petahertz. It does not escape our notice when someone makes a large cash withdrawal just a few days before an associate of theirs absconds without settlement.”
“You must be very proud of your processing power--”
“We don’t care about your infidelities,” Marsh leapt up and put both hands on the desk, leaning forward with palpable menace, “We don’t care about your hush money. We’re not interesting in blackmailing a shareholder—maybe not ours, but someone else’s—over a small matter of whatever passes for love with you people. We are only interested in the solvency of our financial institutions, their ability to collect, Devlin, which I’m sure is a sentiment that you can sympathize with. So, one more time, do you know a Nela Jamba?”
Schlemmer locked eyes with him, his fluoridious fangs no longer bared with amused disdain, a small grimace tugging and twisting at age lines erased by botulism. Marsh took his bourbon and finished it in a slug, presenting Devlin with another glass to fill. He did not skimp.
“Perhaps we had a momentary indiscretion. She was an… exotic fruit. But she had trouble of her own, needed some money. I made her a one-time gift which my wife understands to be severance. I haven’t heard from her since.”
Dylan took the whiskey, had a sip, kept his eyes unflinching arrested on Schlemmer’s.
“Did you procure her other favors? Something we should know about before she is seized?”
There was a glimmer of malice in Schlemmer’s eyes when he responded, “No.”
In another life, another world, Dylan would have put his cigar out in Schlemmer’s whiskey, downed his own, and walked out the door without so much as a ‘thank you for your time.’ Later the wife would have contacted him with doubts about her husband. There would be a romantic interlude. The whole case might even resolve with a wealthy widow looking for a working class lover.
In the real world, Marsh stayed to finish his smoke, and then his drink, making himself awkward and over burdensome by not leaving after he tied up the lead. Even after Schlemmer had asked Rhodopis to sanitize the air and return the window tint to natural light, he lingered with half a bourbon in his hand. It was only after Devlin Schlemmer politely insisted for the second time that he be excused for business that Marsh finished whiskey and stood to go. He hesitated at the door.
“Tell me, Devlin, you could have fixed it for her. You could have kept your exotic flower. Why not?”
The Cheshire grin returned, more assured, more derisive and contemptuous, returning advantage to where it belonged. Looking down at the cigar end, the empty glass, and then back to Marsh.
“It’s cheaper to pay for someone else’s problems to go away than to make them your own, Mr. zuckuss. Good day.”
Bracing a sixteen year old for info was a lot less difficult and a lot more rewarding. There’s something about kids, especially punk kids, they think because they are half your age that somehow you’re the pushover. Marsh served in the military. Fought bugs and came back with all his pieces. He’d been trained in hand to hand combat and kept in shape. Most importantly, he’d actually been in more than a few scraps. He was competent and experienced. Tough, even.
Ren Caron wasn’t tough, but he was motivated. Marsh caught up with him in the outskirts neighborhood of Madeira. Low as it goes, dark as it comes, as deep’n’creepy as it gets.
Unlike the Schlemmers, Ren Caron wasn’t someone with what you’d call a ‘robust profile.’ State ward, parentless, shifted between guardians in it for the money or drunk on charity till a kid like him sobers ‘em up. Not that he was the worst there is, only as bad as they come. A kid who’d seen too much without anything to look forward to. A wannabe tough ready to put it on the line for dopers or for the USNA’s finest.
Dylan could relate.
zuckuss, however, needed to get paid.
He caught the kid out in a sim suite. Caron was chilling with some friends, basing some spice off a tinny. Marsh must have looked something fierce, striding towards the kid with coercion on the mind, duster flowing behind him like a bad shadow emerging from the wafting haze of burning alkaloid salts. A bad angel of someone else’s retribution, indifferent to claims of collateral innocence.
The kid had deeper intuition and booked as soon as he’s made, his friends scattering like marbles scrambled by the shooter of consequences. Marsh doesn’t need to run him down.
“Effie, lock the visual profile of the subject in field,” Marsh ordered. His visor glass tinted blue green, capturing the startled face of Caron. It then broke down his facial features into the recognition data, assessed his heat signature, breath pattern, the beating of his heart. The data was synchronized with Cincinnati Central Monitoring and he was plugged into every surveillance device in the sector. Schematics of each building and alleyway were downloaded and possible escape routes were generated, evaluated, and recommended. He gave the kid a head start, watched him pick a route towards the nearest fast tram, and let Effie guide him to the nearest choke point.
Marsh let the kid run half past him before exploding from around the corner and checking Caron into a dumpster. The kid got off one unbalance punch before zuckuss2089 put a brass knuckled hello into his gut. While the kid was doubled over, Marsh twisted his arm behind his back and pushed him up against the wall.
“Dulce Jamba. Where is she?”
“I don’t know her man.”
Marsh twisted the arm more, putting considerable strain on the shoulder.
“Next time you lie, I break it. She’s your girlfriend.”
“I already read your SMS, don’t waste an arm over bullshit. She’s your girlfriend,” Marsh repeated. The kid grunted, not so much in agreement but in defeat.
“You talked met her the night before she disappeared. Met by a power station in Oakley where the electrical interference obstructs sound recording. Clever,” Marsh admitted, “But the vids still saw her give you a bag. What was inside?”
“How much nothing?” Marsh wanted to know as he started wrenching the kid’s arm out of its socket. He let the kid scream for a few moments.
“How much nothing?”
“Seven hundred thousand!” Caron cried.
“Who’s it for?”
It took all of Marsh’s mean not to suck in his breath and let his shoulders slump. Becoyo was as big time smuggler, moving a lot of illegals into the city and a lot of rather-be-deads out. It would be an exaggeration to say he was the biggest name in Cincinillity’s organized crime circles, but he was big enough.
Marsh worked the kid over for another fifteen or twenty minutes, extracting little information of value. But that wasn’t the point. He was imparting a lesson. Love is a luxury in the deeps that Low City survival can’t afford.
Back in the office Marsh set his gear out. Becoyo was the only one who knew where Jambas had gone to, and he would be backed by some heavies. The job called for a super-rig exoframe which would double Marsh’s lift strength. Pneumatic bracers equipped with blunt extenders and laser sharpened blades would allow him to pack a punch and make his point. A stun prod and a netralizer cannon to subdue and secure the Jambas. Thoth Eyes goggles to give him eyes in the dark and a link to Effie. Last, but not least, an old black leather duster--baggy enough to cover his gear without impeding him, badass enough to make him feel like fucking Batman’s weaponized shadow.
He put his hand on the ten millimeter but thought better of it. Bounties had to come back in one piece, breathing. Nonnegotiable.
“Effie, ping Augur. Let him know I need him on demand for the next eight hours, usual rate.”
The response was immediate.
sup, zucks? putting more of my people into debt bondage for your corrupt masters?
“Yeah, yeah, Augur. Just dropping into Groesbeck to oppress some innocents. I might need your cracking. Just be around.”
whatever, man. if your monopoly is good, ill play. hope u like the taste of the tears you drink.
The autocab dropped him off in surface Groesbeck before taking off to answer a better fare. Marsh steeled himself for the fetid warrens of decaying Low City tunnels, an unwelcome visitor in the interminable bowels of Cincinillity. Before him were miles of alleys and byways, governed by their own laws, as primal as the topsiders were rarified. From the sunlight to the deep darkness, Dylan was a fish out of water, forever asked to swim upstream in a river of human despair.
“Effie, what’s my sitch on surveillance?”
Less than 20% of cameras operational in this sector.
Old pipes rattled with the death clang of obsolete fittings. Permafog silted the concrete, disparaging the walls and archways with another blackening of soot. Artificial lightning arced from damaged transformers. This was the lurid decay upon which the last human bastions were founded. Low City darkness. Creeper territory.
Marsh switched to heat vision, inverting shadow and form into a more comfortable world of thermal signatures. The exoskeleton was powered on. All batteries charged. He was ready to go.
Jabar Becoyo was not an easy man to track down. His comms were obscured and all data traffic encrypted—if you could even figure out what device was his amongst all the proxies, dummies, burners, and bots he used to conduct business. A bank backed recovery agent has a lot of resources at his disposal, but Marsh would have needed federal level tech and computing power to break the network. In the end, it was tried and true sleuthing that got a fix on the gangster’s location. Security is only as good as its weakest element, and it is the human element that makes a system most vulnerable.
A tracer on Becoyo’s girlfriend’s handset put him in the vicinity of Colerain, just north of the old Reagan Highway. Effie dropped a bug into the handset on the back of a bogus ad for cheap sky level tanning time. They had a backdoor that was broadcasting location, audio feed, and downloading copies of all video she was snapping. Marsh had logged enough duckface and bathroom mirror selfies to fill a whole server farm. He tapped into the feed.
“How’s it feel?”
Marsh cut out. In flagrante delicto wasn’t exactly zuckuss2089’s line of work but it had its benefits. He’d corner Jabar with his pants down. He might not even have his boys with him. All he’d have to do was extract some information and slip out before anyone got offended.
Becoyo had arranged his rendezvous at a Low City poppit club called Shade Gray. The layout of the club was straight forward. There was a street entrance guarded by an overdressed ape in a cheap suit. That fed into a large dance pit. Above the pit were two separate levels. The first was a bar and the second was a VIP section where men of violent disposition could retire with their arm candy for thoughtful conversation and emotional connection. Safety code wasn’t exactly a primary concern at Shade Gray, but its exclusive clientele did occasionally have to make a hasty exit during the occasional shakedown from law enforcement. That left a top level exit which would allow Marsh to beat feet after his interview with Jabar. All he had to do was time his entrance into the club, slip past security, and force his way into the champagne room. Nothing to it.
Security at clubs like this is always some kind of low rent thug paying their dues upwards to scum perched higher up on the shitpole. They all have enemies and beefs. A skilled operator can track down these beefs, play the internal factions against each other, and manipulate their way to the target. zuckuss didn’t have time for that, so he tries the next best thing—a honeypot.
Effie culled their profiles from online listings for companionship. They good enough for a second look and clean enough so that one didn’t have to worry about their wallet. ‘A-team’ was a ‘loader girl whose hair of the week was a lime green. Marsh wouldn’t know the winter from the plunging neckline and hem of the skirt. Even the fishnets looked indifferent to the cold as she marched up with stiletto confidence and laid her best game on the bouncer. And he marched her ass right out of line without so much as a once over.
‘B-team’ was a dusty eyed blond with week old scruff. He sauntered up to the bouncer with skintight reserve and bashful charm. Where the A-team struck out B-team is scoring a touchdown. A meaty arm wrapped his shoulders and guided the boy through a side door. Well, you never can tell about people. Marsh was able to take the door unobstructed.
Inside Shade Gray was the typical debauch of spice heads and space cadets, terpsichoreans and choreomaniacs. Music crashed about the walls with strobed cacophony, forcing an unwelcome wince on Marsh. He slid past the semi-nude revelers to the second floor bar and got a glass of contraband.
“Alright, Effie. Start the timer.”
Through sips of sour mash and fermented fruit, he watched the world as it marched to Thoth’s metronome. Two bruisers stalked the VIP with bored malevolence. One at the top of the steps, another at the presumed entrance to the private room where Becoyo entertained his women. Both of them were heavily mechanized and likely well-armed. Marsh pulled out his handset and tapped out a love letter to A-team.
I’ll double your pay if you can get up the VIP, firestarter.-z
He tapped his fingers nervously on the rails of the second floor. Below him, the undulating tarantella of junkies and losers pulsed to the requiem of humanity’s final days. It was manic and it was sad, like watching the twitching nerves of a severed limb deny its final separation from history. Someday the music would stop. Someday dancing will end. The memory of the party will fade into the ether of dissipated days, leaving behind the faintly sweet odor of something decayed.
triple ‘n im in.
zuckuss2089 smiled. He had a way in.
Pandemonium erupted from the upstairs catwalk as A-team was able to coax a dead-end poppit into taking her up to the reserved rooms. The two toughs on security were quick to lay the beat down, but they were drowning in chaos before the first punch was thrown. Friends of the unfortunate dupe, and other eager guests ready to see their status upgraded, charged the stairs. Marsh's agent put the finishing touch on the melee with indiscriminate mace spray, turning the revelry into a violent orgy of fists and kicks.
With a toss of a half full drink into the frenzy, Marsh left so that zuckuss2089 could truly begin. Wrapping a scarf around his face, the recovery agent walked over to a far table, righted it, and stood on top. With the added musculature of the exoframe, he pulled himself up on to the catwalk behind the muddle of security and crasher.
zuckuss was into the VIP lounge with the twist of a door knob. Gesture signaling prompted Effie to use the localized broadcast of the woman's handset to reveal the prize door.
A heavy footed entrance introduced zuckuss into mid-coital intimacy. The room reeked of perfume and vinegar, sweat and spice smoke. A swift kick to the head sent Becoyo slumping to the ground, bleeding but conscious.
"Jamba, family of three trying to split on a bad loan. Where are you hiding them?"
""Up City motherfuh--"
zuckuss delivered another toe kiss to the chin, sending a spray of love and dentia onto the floor.
"Again. The Jambas. Where are they?"
Becoyo's mistress recovered from her shock and made a move for something on the other side of the couch. zuckuss raised an arm and fired the netralizer, cocooning her in a nano electric fiber weave that would keep her muscles paralyzed until released by the control unit.
"Spit it out, creeper."
Becoyo looked up at zuckuss with bloodshot anger. Bloody saliva dripped from his mouth onto the floor. Muted fury, defiant silence, and a tense grimace of anachronistic machismo were the only response to zuckuss's demands. The stun prod slipped from sleeve to hand. Becoyo had chosen the path of most resistance.
Persuasion was short and brutal. Marsh had learned that electric current applied to a subject's manhood could and would quickly produce substantive answers to urgent questions. This was the standard interview practice that zuckuss lived by. Becoyo was brave, stubborn, and perhaps, in the twisted codes of criminality that ruled Low City, honorable. But he was also human, and there are only so many volts between flesh and the truth.
"I gon delete you, chingado. Put your Up City ass on erase so bad that no computer will recover your system enough for an ID. Promise you, you gon burn."
Sweat poured from Becoyo's face, mingling with tears, blood, and threats. The room smelled of sex and singed flesh. The silence between them was broken only by the steady crackle of the capture net. The gangster was beaten, broken, and the location of the Jambas were in zuckuss's hands, yet his eyes burned with an evil determination.
"'Cope," zuckuss replied with mocking imitation of deeper cant, "Pleasure doing business with you."
Marsh left the room with a surety that his targets were in hand. It wasn't quite satisfaction, not even close to that feeling. More like an uncomfortable cousin of relief.
At the back exit, Marsh realized his celebration was premature. The door panel was locked down with serious security protocols and he'd just alerted club security to his presence.
"Augur, I need a righteous crack on the keys to the kingdom."
ur a cold badass, z. y not use the ice I gave u?
"It's too hot for a script."
typical. upcity L7 can't handle the kitchen and needs a true creep to put out the fire
Effie synced in one of the Thoth lenses with club security's vid feeds. The guards had settled their dispute with the clientele with submachine guns. The pit was a stampede of routed revelers. The two goons were headed his way.
"I don't have time to fluff you're ego and can't pay if I'm dead. 'Cope?"
The door opened with an affirmative beep.
Marsh was cut short by a gun shot. They had caught up to him. So much for praising Providence.
"Effie, get me an exit! " zuckuss cried and he vaulted over the fire escape and plunged down to the street below. The exoskeleton's enhanced strength allowed him to just barely catch a lower ledge.
"Effie, set release timer on the netralizer for fifteen minutes."
With any luck, they might get caught up trying to find a backdoor into his systems. If he could chew up enough time...
More gun shots rained down on zuckuss, rattling through the alleyways and arteries of subluminous neglect. The boss's lady must not have been very important after all.
"Effie, I need schematics on those units," Marsh screamed over the clap and clatter of gun fire. The Thoth Eyes lit up with waypoints for an autocab departure hub. A miniature cross-sectional map of the sector hovered in the upper left corner of Marsh’s eye.
Query return: subjects over thirty percent enhanced. Artificial limbs detected: load boost, speed boost, expanded range of motion. Networking capacity active. Warning: aftermarket enhancements detected. Warning: weaponized enhancements detected. Please report violations of the Controlled Interface Special Preclusion Act to the Controlled Technologies Section of the Federal Enforcement Bureau.
Great. Freaking great. Two jacked up punks were on his ass that were literally stronger, faster, and plugged into Cincinillity’s network in real time. There was no question of whether or not they were peeking the security cams. They were the ones who had decided which were disabled and which still operated. He was on their turf. They had home field advantage and he was running a route they certainly knew how to close down.
“Effie, track those units.”
Two blips came up on the cross-sectional. Sure enough they had split up and we’re closing in on him with a pincer. There was no way for Marsh to make it topside before they closed in on him.
“Effie, get me an intercept.”
There was no choice but to fight it out and hope for the best. They had already divided. It would be up to him to conquer.
Damned if leaving the ten millimeter at home wasn’t a fatal mistake.
Marsh revved the power throttle on the exoskeleton to maximum yield and flicked the stun prod to full discharge. Effie’s routing had found him a ride down a storm drain. He kicked up on to the top of the pipe in midstride, ripping some of the fastenings with his exoframe’s grip as he clambered up. He caught his breath as the trajectory and timing were calculated by his virtual assistant. Not much room to spare. Gritting his teeth and bracing his legs, Marsh pushed off down the worst waterslide of his life. It was gonna be a rough ride.
Groesbeck nights were rough and ready, the kind of frontier experience that never was, where the strong go armed and the weak go willing under the thumb of the least evil despot. Cops and robbers marked their territories, extorted their tithes, bared polite fangs with fingers crossed behind their backs. It was built to take the Up City waste, transmute food from offal, smiles from grief, obedience from lawlessness in the alchemical formulation that is the besieged state. It was the orderly chaos, where privation and liberty directly correlate, departure from social custom marked readily by depleted rations and stepped on fixes. It was the apex of slum sophistication, the apogee of ghetto fabulous.
It was Dylan Marsh careening wildly down a drainage system, headed straight for bold disaster.
zuckuss2089 exploded feet first into the chest of an oncoming juggernaut with more than force enough to level a normal man. For the unholy marriage of prosthesis and animus, it served only to arrest his relentless pursuit just enough to push him back a few steps on reinforced polymer blade legs. The monster stood a good six and a half feet tall with sterling colored limbs, rippling musculature, and an evil disposition. Network cables spidered out from the back of his skull like fiber optic sinew, coaxial synapses integrating two forms of impersonal brutality. His face, were such a thing left to exist, was obscured by a featureless silver mask. He ran on networked video feed alone. Two lone dreadlocks, fashioned like a bug’s antennae, bent downwards in ultimate disdain for the weakness that was human. This was a creature beyond. Superior.
Dylan was in a lot of shit.
With barely a pause for breath, Becoyo’s guard brought the full force of his titanium plated arms down in a two fisted pile driver that ruptured the asphalt barely vacated by the rolling Marsh. zuckuss propped himself up. The faceless mask swung dumbly in his direction, maybe wondering why he was not a stain, maybe estimating the force it would take to pulverize him into a paste.
He wasn’t going to find out.
Marsh dared a charge of his own, his right swinging haymaker executing with a piston powered hammer towards the blank face. It clanged harmlessly into metallic arms brought upright to block. The force of the deflection reverberated violently through the frame and ended in the clattering of his teeth. If zuckuss’s dance partner felt anything about it, he wasn’t showing it.
He didn’t even blink. The counterblows came in swift succession, deceptively graceful despite the large frame of the pugilist. Marsh bobbed erratically, jerking hither and fro as he weaved between gleaming fists of pure destruction. Brick and concrete, welded steel and girded support offered no resistance to the furious pummeling of everything zuckuss had barely escaped. With each step, Marsh’s dodges slowed, the calls were closer, the collateral destruction of inanimate property more devastatingly complete. All it took was the slightest hesitation, the briefest slip, and he was vulnerable to an apocalyptic level of battering.
Stars hadn’t even cleared from his eyes before the behemoth was on top of him, drawing back his arm for the finishing blow. Marsh would have called it over had he been watching himself. It seemed so predictable, but zuckuss couldn’t let himself go down like this.
Left handed thinking brought the knife blade slinging out of the exoframe and plunging into his side. A roar both primal and mechanical escaped from hidden emitters, perhaps even human lips, as Marsh felt his arm and duster sleeve slick with fluid. With his free hand, he caught the faltering blow with the frame’s claw and pushed it to the side, while wresting the knife violently from skin and rib. Staggering to his feet, Marsh showed no mercy, slicing the neural cords between the base of the skull and the limbs.
Without signals fired from the brain, the electronic nerves seized, advanced prosthesis became lifeless paperweights grafted to human torso. Becoyo’s ‘banger slumped to the ground like a broken colossus. Brutish grunting beat erratic time to his strained breathing. The knife must have punctured a lung. In a split second Marsh had reduced technical superiority to a disabled, sputtering mass.
Dylan pulled down his scarf and tried to suck in smogged air. His chest ached something painful. Ribs were broken, probably. He shuddered through a body wracking cough. It left blood on the back of his hand.
“Effie, call a rescu—“
Marsh went sideways and off kilter as a blow to the back of his head blackened his vision. He heard first the whining of stressed metal and felt second the snapping of the pneumatics and scaffolding that was the catastrophic ruin of his exoframe. An ocean of oil and fluid flooded the inside of his jacket. As he tried to right himself, another blow staggered him the other way and a third sent zuckuss flying a good six feet into a concrete wall. The behemoth’s partner had showed up.
Pixelation sliced through the view of the Thoth’s Eyes but she was easy enough to see. Effie’s warnings about the aftermarket augmentation didn’t even begin to describe the woman before him. She’d doubled up on arms and switched out the hands with a set of fittings so varied it had to be a nod to the Swiss Army. Knife, claw, hand, hammer. Cute. She was, Marsh guessed, a little more expressive than her counterpart, relying on a translucent Hemisphere-Pano for visual augmentation, which covered her head only down to the bridge of her nose. The bottom half was decorated with a smile that curved wicked with delight. The rest, as far as he could tell, was nature grown but no less threatening.
Marsh put himself back up on wobbly feet, dripping blood and lubricants. He raised a hand in greeting.
“I don’t suppose you’re here just to protect your buddy and make sure I don’t mess him up anymore?”
“Can we talk it out?”
“I’ll permit you to scream.”
“I’m charmed, likewise.”
Marsh raised his knife arm, painfully aware of mangled metal and the extra weight of a dead exoskeleton. With a sweep of one of her right arms, the friendly Kali snapped the blade off the frame. He couldn’t even raise his right arm enough to see her make similar work of his hammer fist. She cocked her head sideways, smirk still curling about her face, waiting for him to make the first move.
Even if she hadn’t snapped the exoframe, there was probably little he could have done to overwhelm her. Grab the knife and claw, she hits with the hammer and fist. Stop the hammer and she snaps off a limb with the claw. Any combination of restraint not involving the knife would leave a person in position to be carved up like a Christmas meal. So he ran. Which is what she wanted, anyway.
Running was a generous term for what he was able to manage in his condition. Marsh gimped along at an accelerated rate while she followed him at a steady pace, never catching up, never falling behind. That implacable pace, the sense of neither urgency nor fatigue, was truly terrifying. Questions of if, when, and how were bargained downwards to diminishing returns of fate all too certain. This was deeper and creeper misfortune shadowing him, serious kegare, and he needed a way to get clean.
“Effie,” Marsh gasped, “I need a place. Hot. Limited mobility.”
He could have cried to see her query calculating.
“It's a damn tough life full of toil and strife,” the modded goddess started singing, “We deeper scum undergo. And we don't give a damn when the bugs done come, so long’s the spice still flow…”
It was a crooning, haunting tune--the seeping sound of inevitability. A banshee call, a keening wail, seduction and sorrow wrapped up in transhuman blues.
“For we're homeward bound to Low City ground, where the good shit’s not for me. But they don’t give a damn, we’re just creeper scum, stuck in Old Cincinnati.”
Marsh’s eyes were rolling and wide white like a panicked horse. Fear was primal and palpable, something he could feel in the beating of his heart and the raggedness of his breath. It was a parforce execution, summary persistence.
“Stuck in Cincinnati, creepers, forgotten by Up City, jeepers, ditched and pitched to spice my deepers, left to rot in Low City.”
He wasn’t sure there was a second verse left for him. With her claw arm snapping time, he could feel the rhythm changing time, speeding up, closing in.
“Beneath this smogged veil lies a lonely jail, of vice and misery and pain, with promise broken and dreams since ended, a deeper fears no shame…”
Sector power station located. Rear entrance at 3925 Poole Road. Clearing entry credentials.
It was a block away. It was a long way to limp. It was his only chance to change the beat. Otherwise the song would remain the same.
Stuck in Cincinnati, creepers, forgotten by Up City, jeepers, ditched and pitched to spice my deepers, left to rot in Low City.
She watched him with the same jagged smile on her face and he battered the door open with his shoulder. Effie had selected the ground floor of a lumbering corpse of a tower in which to stage zuckuss's last stand. There were no inhabitants. There were no infestations. The power company hadn't even risked a maintenance drone. When the lights went out, it would be final. A grim surrender to efficiency and constrained resources.
As far as Kali was concerned, it would be the perfect place to stash a body.
Modest disrepair accented the lonely hallways as Marsh plodded to the generator room. Stealing a glance over his shoulder, he saw her six limbed silhouette blot out the doorway. Only one exit here and she now blocked it. Dylan was committed. Step over step she followed him, humming a funereal tune.
The inside of the room was exactly as specified. Small, dark, coughing with the sporadic electric discharge of the erratic generator. As he turned around he found her standing just behind him, silent as a ghost. Her smile suddenly flat, she greeted Marsh with a wordless swing of her hammer fist.
His dodge was more of a stumble, a lucky enough falter to carry him underneath her charge and towards the doorway. He would be free, if she had been merely human.
A metal hand grabbed zuckuss by the arm and spun him about so the claw could slice open his shirt from waist to collar, nicking him on the chin. Underneath the black clothes and affect, Dylan was naked and scarred. His chest was a map of bar fights and recovery tickets, battles with giant bugs and unlucky survival. There was almost pity in her eyes. If he squinted hard enough, he might mistake it for respect.
Her hand took him by the neck and brought him up close to make sure she had his full attention, while the knife arm pulled back like a scorpion tail. His arms stirred limply at his side.
zuckuss jammed the stun prod hard into her stomach. Their bodies writhed with kilovolt passion. As the current reached her load capacity it tripped her safety reset and released Marsh from her grasp. He slumped into a twitching heap while she tilted backwards into the transformer. The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was the seraphitic halo that surrounded her as she wailed another chorus to an old song, a gold limned spectacular to a knocked out audience.
When he woke up a few minutes later, the room smelled of burned flesh and an intruding darkness from which there is no retreat. Standing weakly, Dylan couldn't bear to look at the fruit of his gambit. He struggled to slough the dead weight of the ruined exoframe. It was a feckless tantrum, from which he emerged with the net cannon and a tattered duster. He stumbled from the power station, having robbed the sector of light, and limped unaccosted to his exit.
"Effie, summon an autocab."
Order processed. Low City surcharge applies.
Becoyo was waiting for zuckuss at the autocab stand, naked and brandishing a ten millimeter semiautomatic. Dylan laughed bitterly. The night was cold and long. It might never end.
"Hey pal, how’s it going?"
A bloody grin spread across Becoyo’s lips. Burn marks scored his body in a patchwork quilt of insistent questions from zuckuss2089.
“I tolju I’n’I gon’ four oh four you, motherfucka. Tolju gon’ burn.”
Marsh gritted through a kind of smile of his own.
“Look. You’re boys fucked me up pretty back. I fucked you up pretty bad. We fucked each other. Why don’t we just call it even and walk away?”
A barking laugh sprung from Becoyo’s mouth, revealing broken teeth and stubborn rancor.
“Even, Up City? Even? You come in my house, pendejo, like you motherfucking King Tick and I just some bugfood. You mess my lady and flip Jabar like I’n’I some kinda bitch, and you think we even? Ain’t enough monopoly in Cincinillity to pay off that debt. You owe me blood and splatter, pieces of dome sprayed in the street, screams like you done seen Hell and prefer the devil to what I do. You in debt to me, topside. What it be now is collection.”
Becoyo pulled back the hammer, held the gun like he was on the vids, and squeezed the trigger. Marsh fell backwards, not sure if he was hit or not, the clapping of gunfire and ricochet punctuating the night like the final eruption of the storm everyone had been expecting. He hit the ground hard and, extending his left hand, fired the netralizer. Becoyo was suddenly spun in sparking white filament, gun and man consumed in gossamer prison.
It took Marsh a long time to stand. He wasn’t hit, but he wasn’t OK. No one came in the wake of the gunfire. No one called the police. He limped over to Jabar Becoyo who, prone once more, seemed a shade less intimidating than his outsized reputation. Turning him over on his side, Marsh found the control panel. It was a small disk, no bigger than a belt buckle. On it was a simple interface: a timer and a release protocol. zuckuss2089 lifted his leg and smashed it with his heel. There’d be no backhacking his signal, no cutting the net without nonconductive clippers. He kicked Becoyo a second time for good measure, spit on the ground, and got in the autocab.
Low City Cleves thrummed quiet in the night. It was the sound of snow on a muted vid-screen, a dropped connection with the proxy server, the unrequited melodies of dream signals going 403 in the night. The fog infesting it, staining face and lung alike, was a place to disappear in. A refuge for those who didn’t want to be found. It was also a desert of perception, sad and bereft, with no caravans to ride, full of gypsy ghosts searching for that exit, the safe haven, the persistent delusion that when the smoke clears something better will be there this time around. Disappointment lurked in cragged reality and quicksand misfortune. It had its own agents and creepers, stalking the darkness, reaping consequence sewn by the dreamer.
Marsh looked out from the window of the autocab into the desolate darkness, feeling within him some pulse of that permanent shade. It was a feeling of something that couldn’t be cleaned. A scar, a stain, a blemish. Some strange and unctuous fate from in which he would always feel the undesired fly.
The meet was supposed to take place at an abandoned shipping depot, a place where grand vehicles once gathered to carry loads of goods along the interior highways. There was something romantic about that past, the freedom of the road and the promise of the next horizon. In a world of debt and ticks, unattainable highs and inescapable lows, the hope of a new beginning still glowed for some, albeit with a faded burnish. For the Jambas it would prove to be an elusive light, just another will’o’the wisp leading them astray down a path darker still.
They came by foot well after midnight and huddled together over a vent for the old underground rail. Dylan waited some time to assure himself that no one else was coming before zuckuss2089 emerged from the shadow. He did not announce himself. The netralizer enveloped Eutímio Eusébio Jamba in its phosphorous clutches and brought him to ground amidst the screams of his wife and daughter. The second target was the lovely Nela.
“Wait, please—“ she cried as he pointed the net cannon at her, “Please, my daughter.”
“You are guilty of attempting to abscond on Class A debt owed to Wucherei, Ocker, and Associates Wealth Management.,” zuckuss replied, “I am remanding you into custody under the auspices of the Wealth Services Restoration and Corporate Protection Act. Surrender peacefully or I will be forced to restrain you.”
“Please,” she said, “My daughter. It’s not her fault. Please—“
“A squad car has been summoned. Police officers will take you to a Delinquency Processing Facility where you will held until your work release is arranged.”
“Please, have some pity.”
“Quiet,” Marsh growled, “Or I will put you in the net too—Failure to surrender or any injury caused to a recovery agent, his property, or any officer of the law during the enforcement of his duty will result in fines and penalties levied against your debt. All assets on your person or held in your name are now considered forfeit. All food, housing, and medical costs incurred by you during your work release will be added to the terms of your debt.”
The woman grabbed at hem of his duster and bowed her head at his feet. The sound of her crying echoed cavernously in the empty streets. Lyrics of that deeper song came to him, much against his will.
“Please, my girl. She—you can’t. She’s just a girl.”
Dylan cringed beneath the scarf that masked his face as he kicked her away from him. He leveled the net cannon at her with serious gravity.
“Do not touch me,” zuckuss ordered.
In the middle of this domestic, three figures took shape at the edge of Marsh’s vision. The trauma of Groesbeck firmly in mind, he pulled out the ten millimeter he’d retrieved from the office and politely inquired:
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Ah, Wilson, man,” said one of the three as the Nela Jamba sprung a loud fresh leak in her waterworks.
“I don’t know any fucking Wilson.”
“We’re the coyotes, hombre.”
“We gonna have a problem here?” Marsh wanted to know.
“Nada, pana. To’ bien. Jabar paid in advance.”
Every working stiff should be that lucky. Marsh didn’t quite put the gun away, but he took his eyes off them long enough to get another gander at his targets. There, front and center of him, was Dulce Jamba. She was a sweet kid, he was sure, but just then her eyes didn’t say it. They bugged out with a fury that had drawn her mouth so tight her lips had all but disappeared. But they were bright eyes too. Bright like the past before bugs and the upwards megalopolis. And Dylan got to thinking about the things he had, the things he didn’t, and all that had been taken away from him since he had been her age and the world turned upside down. Got to thinking about things that had to be and things that didn’t.
He got to thinking about the taste of the tears he drank.
“Alright, kid. You come with me, I take you up to the world and you work it out between you and the bank and government. If you come back, you get to stay. Maybe make it Up City, maybe end up right back here. You go with them and there’s no coming back. Next time you enter a city, you’ll be a fugitive. Cameras will recognize you and you’ll end up in the stocks. But if you don’t come back—out there, ain’t no debt. Ain’t no recovery agents. Just ticks and fools who think they can live outside the walls. You can go with them or with me, but you’ll never have this family back again. Either way. It’s your choice. And if you have a problem with that when you’re grown, we can settle up then. See who owes whom and how much. But you gotta decide now.”
“Oh thank you,” her mother wailed, “Thank you mister. Oh baby, Dulcinha, go with them, vá com Deus, te amo filha.”
She walked over to the three men, Little Dulce, to a world of danger and uncertainty, the freedom everyone craved and the certain risk it entailed. Like as not, she wouldn’t survive a year. Those men, what did they even know about them? Who they were or what they’d do? But there’s always consequences in the devils we trade in. No one lies about the risk. Sometimes, there’s even reward.
“Effie, call in transport for two loan jumpers. Also, I’d like to report criminal assault with a deadly weapon. Please forward to the police the locations of three incapacitated suspects in Groesbeck. Make sure the complaint charges interference in a debt recovery case in addition to the attacks.”
And then, because he’s feeling sentimental, Dylan let them hug one last goodbye.
Back in Billingsly’s office, it’s a different scene of reunion and remorse. They stared at each other from across the vast gulf of a desk, neither able to bridge the yawning gap between then.
“The contract was for three, zuck.”
“The contract was for recovery. I recovered two. Could not find the third.”
“Could not, or would not?” Billingsly wondered as he swirled his scotch. He hadn’t even offered Patriot Mash for Marsh this time.
“That’s not covered in the contract. Two debt jumpers, though, and you owe me.”
Billingsly stood up and walked to the large panel window that made up the outer wall of his office. Beyond the glass was a large gray cloud that had rolled in. It might be a storm or some temporary fog passing. The day had started so clear, too. But that’s how things were. Cold and darkening as the frontiers got closer, the ticks got closer, day got lost in the night.
“God damn it,” Billingsly exploded, flinging the glass and its contents against the wall and generally in the direction of Marsh’s head. zuckuss2089 didn’t even flinch.
“You were supposed to bring me three!”
“I have two.”
“We’re gonna post a loss this quarter!”
Marsh shrugged, which was all he could do anyhow. Billingsly fumed but took the point any way.
“I’m gonna prorate your fee. There’s no way around that.”
Marsh nodded, it was fair.
“I got expenses, fat man,” he replied. That was fair too. A new exoframe wouldn’t cheap. The osteoregenerator and rib setting hadn’t been cheap, either. Billingsly glared at him from behind narrowed slits.
“Send us an invoice.”
“It’s done,” Marsh said. Effie, an efficient a sidekick as ever, hummed along her circuits in the direction of crafting a pro forma. Two deadbeats, a couple of ass beatings, and some redemption besides, maybe. All in a day’s work, sir. Marsh got up and walked to the door. As it opened to belch his unwanted derriere from the office, he looked back over his shoulder at his corpulent patron.
“I expect payment by the fifth, or the account goes to collections.”