Fleas, Roaches, and Gnats

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A public shower, a trip through back-alley shops, and a handful of off-brand EnerGex left Flea feeling like a new person after a long night of disaster, dread, and mayhem. New, though maybe not healthier. Everything still ached, the edges of her vision jittered, and a gnawing emptiness squirmed just above her stomach. If only she could crawl back to her cramped flat and sleep for two days, but that was just another name for suicide at this point. Flea needed a swift resolution to her issues. A clear demarcation of friends from foes. Only one place offered both.

The Grand Vizier's Imperial Drinkhole would have never succeeded as a legitimate business. The name was absurd, for one. No one could quite figure out its origin. The location was awful, for another. No one really wanted to trek down to sublevel 3 and walk along the open edge of a vast ventilation shaft for a drink. Heavy shutters over the windows and a heavier door offered a sense of safety to those who needed it though, as did the enormous bouncer who ushered her through.

Flea rolled the oversized sleeves of her oversized coat up over themselves four times as she walked across the linoleum floor. A seat at the bar was open because a seat at the bar was always open, and she took it with a groan.

"Bad night, Miss Flea?" asked the bartender. A man with golden hair, golden eyes, and a perfectly symmetrical face.

"Bad night."

"You smell awful."

"I sure do."

"You're supposed to say–"

"Maybe later. Beer first."

The bartender took a tall glass off the shelf, placed it on the counter, and opened his mouth to disgorge a torrent of amber fluid. He wiped his chin with a black cloth as Flea sipped at the foam. There were other flaws that stopped the Drinkhole from succeeding as a business, but this was probably the most egregious.

She sipped at the chilled beverage again and glanced up at the bartender. He fiddled with the connections of the long plastic tubes that ran into his head, back, and neck from the ceiling. He blinked at 12 second intervals, no doubt timed against an internal atomic clock. He showed no sign of suspicion over what she had endured that night. No that she could ever read his signs. Being good with machines and being able to read machines were two different things, even when she had known this one for years.

Flea glanced around the long room next, looking for anyone who might be showing surprise at her presence. Not that there was much to see. Away from the brightly lit bar, gloom stretched out over the tables, their occupants, and the anechoic waffles hung from the ceiling. If nothing else, no one had shot at her yet. A firefight in the Drinkhole would be a violation of the tenuous peace that persisted within the city's more entrepreneurial element, but so was throwing her off a building just to save some money.

"Could I ask what happened?" Childlike curiosity shone in the bartender's matte eyes.

"Just a bad day, honestly. Could've happened to anyone." She drank deeply as he leaned in. Closer. Dangerously close. His ears wiggled expectantly, both perfectly synchronized.

"How did you earn such a unique bouquet though?"

"Stepped in some shit mostly. Public showers can only do so much, you know? Anyway, is the manager in? I need to talk about contracts."

"He is, but you will have to wait before going down."

"Who's he meeting with?" No one from her failed endeavor, hopefully. That could spiral into ugliness faster than she had any hope of controlling.

"I would never divulge such important information to a patron. You should know better than that, Miss Flea." He held up three fingers as he spoke. She returned with two. As usual, the difference would be split, and she pressed her thumb against his outstretched palm. A faint light flashed within, and money trickled out of a bank account somewhere off the coast. "Corporate security," he said softly through closed lips.

Flea rubbed her jaw and stared at the last few bubbles disappearing in her glass. They would have to be serious firms if the manager let them in at all. None should be interested in her, surely. Background work on the job revealed no ties between the middling company and any towering giants. Surely. "So? Vessan? Ritting-Hauzer? SSQ?"

Five fingers from the bartender. Flea showed three. He insisted on five. Seven thousand in one night would put a serious dent in her savings, but money could always be made back again. A bag over the head and bullets in the back were harder to reverse. She pressed her thumb to his palm again, and he leaned closer. So close she could hear the fair whirring inside his skull. "The Foundation."

Flea winced. Shoulders clenching in, head angling down, anyone would be able to see how unwelcome the news was. Her family's relationship with that bunch was fraught, to say the least. More than half her relatives were disappeared by their hand, to say the most. Her relatives were assholes, but the Foundation were bigger assholes, and she didn't need that kind of attention regardless. Not now, when ghostly birds flew in her wake. Not ever, so long as she remained herself.

"I'll talk to the manager later. Like, in a week. Tell him I'll be here in a week. And don't tell them about me, yeah?"

"I would never divulge information about a patron," he said with just as much sincerity as before. "Before you leave, I believe someone in the back would like to speak to you about a job."

"No more jobs. Not for a while."

"Of course, Miss Flea. I believe she would like to speak of your last job though."

Flea ground her teeth hard enough to hear. Hard enough to hurt. "What did you tell them?"

"Miss Flea, I would never–"

Ten! Ten fingers. She jammed her thumb against the indifferent plastic palm and hurt that too. Everything hurt anyway. She stuffed another three EnerGex into her mouth and washed it down with the last of the beer. "What?"

"She only mentioned representing the company your contract was against. That, and wanting to speak with the perpetrators about future endeavors. Profitable ones. There was particular interest in a young lady who fell from the top floor…?"

"Didn't fall," grumbled Flea. "For ten, you've gotta give me more than that. How did they find me so quick?"

"With all due respect, the young lady of the Sakarya family has never been very subtle. I do believe I mentioned something to that end at our last meeting. Your tendency to stand out." The bartender gestured to her shoulder, and Flea looked to see a large brown roach perched on her coat. Just enjoying the ride, apparently. It stared up at her quizzically and fluttered its wings, as if making a recommendation. If only.

"If I die, it's on you."

"I would never let that happen here."

Outside the walls was a different matter entirely of course. The empty sensation above Flea's stomach curdled further as she stepped between tables and avoided the temporary curiosity of other patrons. She should have known better than to get embroiled in all this. Somehow, she should have foreseen fate's twists and turns. Currents of disaster were already tugging away at her, unabating despite her genius.

The woman sitting alone in the back booth towered in her seat. Big, that was the only thing Flea could process as she sat opposite. Large. Immense. Something like eight feet tall, if she was going to guess. Disconcertingly muscular under the dark parka, if she were to keep guessing. Gray eyes and grayer hair, though such things could be changed in an instant. Flea felt shrunken in her shadow.

"You wanna talk?" she asked, puffing up more than she had any right to. "So talk."

The woman sniffed loudly and adjusted her surgical mask. Her hands looked well-kept for someone whose job surely involved dirtying them. Even nails, smooth skin, not even a scar to be seen. More than could be said of Flea's own. "You've got a bug on your shoulder."

"Yeah, and?"

"You smell awful too."

"Yeah, and?"

"I'm impressed you survived that fall."

"I'm a real impressive person. Can we get to the point though? I'm just a subcontractor, I don't have whatever you're looking for, and I don't know where any of those other assholes ran off to. Tell your boss to chase after them if they want the money back."

"The money's not important." The woman adjusted her mask again. "Not very important at least. The accountants won't be happy, but they never are. I wanted to talk to you about something else. You aren't the only one to steal from me lately. I want your help stealing something back."

"From you? I don't remember stealing anything from… what? A security chief? Regional manager?"

"Executive." She slid a business card across the table. The animated surface shimmered in the dim light, shifting from the Paquette Heavy Industries logo, to a short list of corporate specialties, to a modestly rendered 'Abigail D. Paquette, CEO' with a photo of the woman sitting before her.

"This doesn't prove anything."

"Believe what you want, but I'll pay more than you could make in a decade to break a bit of security. Whatever stipulations you need and a week or two of work for two-hundred thousand credits in an untraceable account." Abigail leaned forward over the table, exposing Flea to the smells of her supposed business. Heat, sweat, slag. Too many people were leaning into her personal space lately. "I can even get you a real job. A nice one. You won't have to live in this sort of shithole anymore."

Oh, how plainly she thought herself a consummate fisher with that piece of bait. How plainly she thought herself superior. An unacceptable assumption.

"Nah, I'm good," said Flea, brushing a few more roaches off her shoulder before standing. "Try the 9090 Club. You can probably find someone there. Not as good as me, but good enough."

Abigail's face reddened. She blinked five times, each quicker than the last. No anger, or at least not much. Not yet. Disbelief, maybe. Incredulousness. Maybe she was a CEO after all. Normal people would know better than to lead with suspiciously extravagant offers. "Wait–"

Flea didn't. Layer upon layer of tension were settling upon her, and she needed to slip out from underneath soon. Untrustworthy employers. Corporate security. The wretched Foundation. No, no, it was all too much to be happening at once. Something tied it all together. Something complex, and ominous, and overbearing. She wasn't willing to put up with her family's nonsensical plotting, and she wasn't willing to put up with all this.

Flea nodded to the bartender as she passed. He said something that was lost in sudden noise. Heavy footsteps thudded on the floor behind her as she approached the front door. Abigail's, maybe, but that conversation was dead and finished. A door opened further behind her, loosing angry and unmuffled voices. Flea's heart pounded as she elbowed open the door. She felt an inflection point of her own bubbling up all around, a hundred tangled threads tugging on each other at once. One step outside confirmed it as floodlights washed over her.

Drones hung in the yawning ventilation shaft like a swarm of gnats. Gnats staring at her from a hundred angles. Gnats with guns and missiles slung underneath their hovering forms. Flea stared at them, shadow stark under the bright onslaught. Other shadows stood around her on the narrow walkway. Human shapes, clad in armor that reflected none of the light. Human shapes, wearing masks with five protruding lenses and carrying stumpy guns. Flea blinked dumbly at the silent army.

Is this a bad time? asked a mossy bird as it alighted on one shoulder.

It's obviously a bad time, said the maroon bird from its perch on the other.

For the second time in recent memory, a fist closed around Flea's coat and yanked her aloft, pulling her back into the Grand Vizier's Imperial Drinkhouse.

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