When I enter the apartment a loud buzzing pervades the air. I feel around in my coat until I find a tiny, vibrating cell phone. Just like the Corp to plant a tracker on me while I was unconscious. I flip the phone open and bring it to my ear.
“Hello?” I say. I cradle the phone between my head and shoulder as I un-suit myself and kick my boots into the closet.
“Good afternoon, Piper,” a voice sounds. I recognize the gravelly tone instantly.
“Rupert,” I reply. I hear him exhale the thick smoke of his cigar, and it’s almost as if the pungent stink is permeating the phone and into my house.
“It’s good to hear your voice again,” he says dryly. I resist the urge to roll my eyes, picturing him at his desk, cigar in hand, feet raised up as he leans back in his chair.
“Well, I had a pretty good vacation,” I reply. He chuckles slightly.
“Listen, Piper. You took off after David died without even telling anybody. Half of Central thought you were dead. I’m just glad to find you alive and well. Now, tell me about your current situation. How are they treating you?”
“Fine. We’re debriefing tomorrow and running some VR modules. No weapons yet. Actually, I haven’t seen weapons on any of the other Hunters,” I muse. It’s one thing I miss about being a part of the team. My crossbow and daggers used to be like a second skin, sometimes my only companions.
“Too sentimental. What have I always told you?”
“A weapon is only a piece of metal to a sentimental warrior,” I repeat in monotone.
“Good. At least you still remember something. Just try to relax, and call me immediately if you see something that looks suspicious,” he mutters, then hangs up the phone. That’s Rupert’s trademark, deciding when any conversation is over. He took over Elder Corp a few years before I started training heavily, leaving his older brother Raul to a comfortable retirement in the clean beaches of Southern France. He’s one of the only Elder Corp presidents who actually did some time in the field, making him a valuable boss and ally, and sometimes an infuriating slave driver. I click the phone shut and toss it back in my bag, unable to shake his last words from my mind. Suspicious. What exactly is going on around here?
I let myself slide onto my couch, deciding that all of the big questions can wait until tomorrow, especially when I see a note taped onto the coffee table that reads Don’t forget about tonight. Dress cute—Shelley.
* * * *
The venue is at a bar called Trash. It’s a tiny hole in the wall, and one of my regular dives. I try on a few outfits in my room, even debating on raiding Shelley’s closet for something cute before I give up and slip into my favorite jeans, ripped and splattered with paint, and a simple t-shirt. At the last moment before I leave, I let my hair out and shake it so it drapes over my shoulders and dab on a bit of lip-gloss. I guess there’s no harm in trying.
With the Holo-sky glowing the frail purple of twilight, the underground comes alive with bright lights from every shop and restaurant, and as I walk along the sidewalk every door I pass carries a different scent. The food might be genetically altered, but the smell and taste is almost—almost—real. I content myself with watching the people around me; the shopkeepers haggling to sell their wares, the younger kids traveling in groups, their world centered around them for now, and the odd couple holding hands. Sometimes I think there isn’t so much wrong with this underground world. How different would it be on the surface? Eventually the wealthiest will move up to the fresh-air district, but instead of being stuck down here in filth, I wonder if the remaining population will still thrive.
“Hi there!” a light voice sounds from beside me. I whirl around to see the little girl with pigtails, the one I saw in the elevator the other day. Her eyes are bright and she carries a stuffed teddy bear in her hands. I smile at her and look around for her parents, but every adult around seems to be preoccupied with other things. I turn back to her to ask her where they are when she skips off down the street.
“Hey, wait!” I call. I pick up my pace to a fast walk, trying to keep up with her without drawing too much attention to the fact that I’m chasing a child. The way she jogs is so carefree, and she weaves through opposing travelers as if they aren’t even there. My lungs burn slightly as she finally turns off into an alleyway right beside Trash. I slow my pace before following, my mind telling me that something’s off. I look around before continuing, and everything seems normal, from the loud lineup to the bar to the slow, pounding beat coming from within.
I take a deep breath and enter the dark alleyway, but in-stead of finding the little girl, I find the guy from the other day, the one who stole from me. He leans against the brick wall, his raven hair messy against his pale skin, and his eyes are closed. I stand stock-still, just watching him breathe in and out, like he’s trying to focus deeply or push something away. His face is pained, but from here I can see the light brush of freckles across his nose, and the almost graceful way his lean body curves into the wall. I clear my throat finally to announce my presence. His eyes shoot open, but when he sees me, his lips turn upward into the slightest of smiles.
“I knew you’d find me again, Red,” he drawls. I cross my arms in front of me and raise my eyebrows. What is it with this guy?
“Because you just happened to lift hundreds of dollars of merchandise from me?” I reply. He chuckles lightly and runs a hand through his hair.
“That, and other things,” he says. I exhale, letting go of the tension in my chest.
“I take it you’ve squared it with Darcy?” I ask. His eyes flicker to me at the mention of her name.
“How do you know Darcy?” he asks. I lean against the wall beside him, facing him, not too close, but close enough that he can’t just take off on me.
“She’s my runner. Said you were her client, among other things,” I reply. To this he laughs loudly, and I don’t want to admit it, but his smile is infectious. Shelley’s words run through my head: Don’t get involved with another user.
“Darcy, as it happens, is my sister, so don’t worry, things are square. I didn’t know that you were her seller, though,” he says. I raise an eyebrow, almost like a challenge.
“Well, you don’t really know me, do you?” I reply.
“Not yet, anyway,” he says. I want to call him an arrogant bastard and go into the bar to meet Shells, but a part of me is actually enjoying his pompous banter. I never said I had good taste in men.
“So what happens now, then?” I say. He moves closer to me until he’s right beside me, his body so close to me I can feel his breath on my neck and smell the rich musk of his cologne. He leans in toward my ear.
“Now, Red, I’ve got to go into that bar and play a few sets,” he whispers, sending shivers down my spine.
“You’re in the band?” I ask. He grins wickedly before walking past me and knocking on the side door.
“Baby, I am the band,” he says. The bouncer opens the door and lets him in, and all the while I stand in the alley, still trying to catch my breath.