I knocked out Brock’s front left tooth the day I met him. He and Colton tried to mug me during my first delivery to the Complex. They were just a couple of scrawny teenagers, but I’m not a big girl and they had knives. So I hit Brock in the mouth with my bike lock. Colton’s older brother, Connor, broke-up the fight before it got any worse.
Two years later I still had nightmares about it and still hated doing deliveries at the Complex. My heart pounded as I approached their perch on the picnic table in the center of the courtyard. They didn’t even glance up from their phones.
“Going to see Carl,” I said, handing them a couple of warm energy drinks from my bag. “Keep an eye on my bike, yeah?”
“Si, senorita,” Brock said with a big toothless grin. I hated him calling me “senorita.” I didn’t even speak Spanish. And seeing his missing tooth always made me feel like shit.
The Complex was a block of six withered apartment buildings on the edge of Seattle. They were supposed to have been condos, but construction had halted on the neighboring light rail line during the Iran War and it was never completed–so the Complex ended up as low-income housing instead. It bordered an abandoned shopping center full of junkies with a habit of breaking into people’s cars and apartments. Brock and Colton were like the Complex’s immune system. I guess they decided I was non-harmful.
I jogged up the stairs to Carl’s apartment. He answered the door as out of breath as I was and, dragging his oxygen tank, went into the kitchen to make me a cup of instant coffee. He never let me help, so I took my customary place on the spine-mangling papasan.
“The apartment next to mine just opened up, Juana,” Carl said, handing me my coffee. “We could be neighbors.”
“I haven’t saved enough for a deposit yet,” I said. “And I couldn’t rent an apartment in my own name, even if I could afford it. Loan Enforcement would pick me up, throw me in a restitution camp.”
As if I’d wanted to live there anyway. But hey, at least it would be my own place.
I set his pills on the coffee table. A month’s worth of black market Avastin, a cancer drug, fresh from the pharmaceutical printer in Landon’s basement. A year’s supply would cost him about $100,000 if he bought them from the pharmacy.
“I never should have gone to college in the first place. It’s not like I ever wanted to work in an office or anything,” I said.
“At least you had the opportunity,” Carl said. “Those boys out there probably never will.”
I hadn’t thought about that. Colton’s mom had been serving cocktails at a strip club ever since self-driving trucks went online and all the truck stops closed down. I had no idea what Brock’s parents did, or whether they were even around, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be co-signing on any loans.
“I wonder where they’re going to end up,” I said. “These days you can’t even get a job as a dishwasher without a degree. Hell, I have a degree and I can’t get a job as a dishwasher.”
Carl tapped his phone to confirm the purchase. I always felt like letting the clients keep my cut. Carl barely scraped by on his Social Security check.
My phone rang on the way out of the building, and my stomach did a backflip when I saw the caller ID. I almost let it go to message, but answered at the last second.
“I thought you didn’t want to talk to me anymore,” I said.
“I never said that,” Nicole said. “I just wanted to give it some time, after what happened.”
“Yeah, so why now? It’s been, like, six months.”
Seven months and 12 days, but who’s counting?
“I need someone I can trust,” she said. “Can you meet me at Bar Nuit in an hour?”
I wanted to say no. Wanted to tell her to find someone else to be her puppy dog. But of course I said yes.
The bouncer gave me the usual “You sure you’re in the right place?” look, but let me in anyway. I only came here with Nicole.
I was early so I sat on the back patio and drained a vodka tonic while I stared at the door. For anyone else I’d have been five minutes late, still wearing whatever I had on all day. For Nicole, I had stopped and changed into my most flattering jeans and a clean t-shirt I told myself was stylish. But I was still out of place among all the white doctors and financial analysts. I remembered the first time she brought me here, I told her about the underground hip-hop shows I used to organize in high school. She seemed to think it was so cool. Later that night she told me I needed to dress better and stop hanging out with “losers.” Maybe she was right.
Nicole glided through the door exactly one hour after she called. She carried an oversized tote bag that matched her outfit, which looked like it was peeled right off the screen of Vogue, and sat with a single fluid motion. I always wanted to be able to carry myself the way she did.
I wanted to catch up, hear about her life, convince her that I’d been doing great things for the past seven months. But she ordered a round and cut to the chase.
“We’ve developed a new cancer drug at work,” she said. “But the regulatory process is expensive and slow. If we can test it on the sly, we can make sure it works before we go through the process, save some money, and get to market faster.”
“And you want me to turn Landon’s clients into guinea pigs?”
“The company will compensate the test subjects and pay you a referral fee. We could put you on the payroll as a research assistant or something,” she said, playing with her necklace.
“I can’t just walk out on Landon and take his clients with me.”
“We can cover Landon’s cut. He doesn’t even have to know.”
I finished my drink without saying anything while Nicole kept twisting that fucking necklace.
“Juana, it kills me to see you living like this,” she said after a minute. “This could be a way out. I’m trying to help you.”
Almost everyone I knew from college lived like me, even the ones with jobs. Loan Enforcement took so much out of paychecks that most people worked under the table for virtual currency. A bunch of my friends found work through this app where young guys–and it was always guys––could have people come over and clean their dishes, do their laundry, that sort of thing. I did that a couple times. Then a guy complained that he wanted “an American” to do his chores for him. I told him I was born in the U.S. and that my family had lived here for two generations. He gave me a one-star review, and I haven’t been able to find work through the app since.
I told my mom I did freelance design. She worked hard to give me the opportunity to go to college, and hearing that I worked in the black market would kill her. I couldn’t even live at her place. I would have been thrown in a restitution camp for sure. So I crashed with the few people I knew who had straight jobs.
I didn’t know how long that could last, and Landon was worried that Russians were going to flood the market with black market drugs that we couldn’t compete with.
“What would I have to do?” I asked.
“You can start whenever you’re ready. I have the treatments with me,” she said.
She reached into the tote and pulled out a duffel bag that looked like it was made of tinfoil. A Faraday bag. Smash-and-grab artists use them in case they’ve lifted something with a GPS tracker in it. Whatever was in the bag, she wasn’t supposed to have it.
My skull tingled and my palms sweat. I heard myself say I needed to go to the bathroom and I walked inside, but instead of stopping I just kept going out the front doors to my bike. I rode all the way home without stopping.
Someone grabbed me from behind while I was locking up my bike at home. I screamed and struggled, but then I felt a gun against my ribs and I froze.
The guy dragged me into a black SUV parked on the street outside my house. My kidnapper, a young, big guy in a black leather jacket, kept his gun trained on me as he dumped out my bag on the floor board.
“Where are they?” he shouted in an accent. Eastern European, I thought. This guy didn’t seem like Loan Enforcement.
“The samples. The samples. I know you have them, where are they?”
I wanted to tell him that Nicole was back at the bar, that she had what he was looking for. But I thought about Brock and Colton and how I stood up to them, and told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. But he kept insisting and threatening me. I swallowed a lump in my throat and gave him an address.
“My partner will be there with what you’re looking for,” I said.
Two cell phones hovered in the dark over the park bench as I led Leather Jacket toward Carl’s building. We trudged up the stairs and walked one door past Carl’s apartment. Leather Jacket kicked through the door and stormed through the empty apartment, checking each room, one hand on his gun, the other crushing my wrist.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“I don’t know. He must have skipped town.”
He dug the gun barrel into my skull. I wanted to throw up.
“There’s one other place we can try,” I said.
He motioned to the door with the gun and followed me back into the hall, pressing the barrel into my back. It felt like I was walking through mud, and each stair creaked. At the bottom, I opened the door and stepped into the night air. Then I heard glass shatter behind me and the gun’s pressure was gone. I spun around and saw Leather Jacket tumble to the ground, Brock and Colton on either side of him holding broken bottles.
Connor helped us hog-tie Leather Jacket and drag him upstairs to the empty apartment. I tried to wait until I’d calmed down to call Nicole, but I couldn’t. I had to know what was going on.
“Where did you go?” she asked, distressed.
I explained what had happened in a trembling voice.
“Oh God, I didn’t think he’d find you. I met him at a conference,” she said. “He works at Gentez. He said he does security.”
That clicked. Gentez is Russian or Czech or something. That’s the company Landon was worried about, but he said they’re more like a cartel than a company.
“He let slip that he was transporting some samples,” she said. “He said it was something new, important, not even patented yet. I stole them out of his car. I was going to copy the work and use it myself.”
“Why the fuck would you do that?”
“I know you think I got my job because of my parents, but do you think it’s easy to keep it?” she said. “There are thousands of other chemical engineers in this city with loads more experience. I get one shot. If I can’t produce, I’m done.
“He figured out the samples were gone faster than I thought he would. Before I got the chance to copy them, he called me, threatening me. I realized I was in more trouble than I thought. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about, then checked into a hotel. I decided to pass the bag off to you, thinking it would be safer if someone else had it. Someone must have seen us at the bar and followed you.”
I was still shaking and nervous, but I filled the guys in. Her story didn’t add up, but the good news was she still had the bag.
“So what are we gonna do with this Russian dude?” Connor asked.
“We can’t let him go,” I said. “He’ll find his way back here, with friends. Christ. I’m sorry I ever got you guys into this, but I didn’t know where else to go.”
“Come on, Juana, we need you. And we take care of our own,” said Brock.
I smiled at that.
“Well, we can’t let him go, and we can’t keep him tied up here,” Connor said. “That leaves one option.”
“No,” I said. “They’ll come looking for this guy. No matter how good we do at… uh, getting rid of him, his phone has been here. His car has been here.”
We sat and fidgeted in silence for a few minutes.
“We should let them do the job for us,” I said.
“Huh?” asked Colton.
“All we have to do is make his boss think he took the bag and tried to skip town,” I said. “We drug him, dump him and the bag in a strip club parking lot somewhere outside of town. They’ll do the rest.”
I called Nicole back and asked her to meet us on the way out of town.
“We should have Landon take a sample before we get rid of it,” she said. “Then I can sell it. I’ll cut you and him in on whatever I get for it.”
“No,” I said. “His bosses may already be looking for him. Plus there’s the tracker–we can’t open the bag.”
“We can open it in a secure room,” she said. “I know everything’s gotten completely fucked up. But I can still make it worth your while. Otherwise, all this was for nothing.”
We had to stop at Landon’s anyway to get something to drug Leather Jacket with. And I knew there was a GPS dead zone in the industrial district.
“All right,” I said, and gave her directions.
We drove toward the industrial district with Leather Jacket in the trunk of Connor’s car. Typical Nicole. Her world has never wanted me. Hell, she never wanted me. And now, after everything, I was sentencing a guy to death because she wanted credit for someone else’s work. Because she wasn’t happy with what she already had.
She must have been sleeping with him. How else would she have gotten him to tell her about the sample? How else would she have been able to get into his car? Thinking about it made my skin crawl.
This guy was ready to kill me a few minutes ago, I reminded myself. And I still stood to make some money on the deal. But Connor was helping me. If we got pulled over, he’d go to prison. I dragged him and the Complex into this mess, and they were glad to help, even the kid whose teeth I fucked up. And the whole thing about Bar Nuit didn’t make sense.
I had Connor pull over. I got out, opened the trunk and took the ball gag out of Leather Jacket’s mouth.
“We need to talk,” I said.
Connor and I were leaning against his car when Nicole pulled into the storage unit parking lot. Connor opened his car door as she walked over to us, letting Leather Jacket out. I aimed his gun at Nicole.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” I said. “You give him the bag, and then you and I settle this alone.”
“No matter what you do, he’s going to kill us, you do know that?” Nicole said, tears welling up in her eyes, right on cue.
“I’d rather take my chances with him,” I said. I held up his phone, showing her a picture of me. A picture she took with her phone back when we were together. She had sent it to him from another phone, a pre-paid I guessed, saying I was trying to sell Gentez stuff on the street.
“I fucked up, I was scared,” she said. “But seeing you again, I know no one else would do these things for me.”
I hoped she couldn’t see how much my hand was shaking as she walked toward us.
“I love you,” she said.
I could’ve shot her just for that.
“The bag. Now,” I said.
For a second I thought I’d actually have to shoot her, but she handed it to Leather Jacket.
“There’s a bus stop two blocks that way,” Connor said to Leather Jacket. “Find it, take a bus to your car, and then never come back to the Complex.”
When Leather Jacket was gone, Connor got back in the car.
“Get out of town, don’t come back,” I told Nicole. “Don’t use your real name on anything, or he’ll know where you are, and they will come after both of us. Understand?”
She nodded, then got in her car and drove away.
I’m still in Oakland two months later. Connor says no one has come looking for me, but I figured it would be best to get out of town for a while. I might stay. Landon says Brock and Colton are doing a good job, and he’s even teaching them to use the printer.
I don’t think about Nicole much anymore. It won’t be as hard for her to live off the grid as the rest of us; her parents can always buy her currency. But it’ll humiliate her.
I’m still crashing with friends, working odd jobs. The city reminds me of the Complex. People take care of each other here. Only they’ve taken it further. No one here washes other people’s dishes. We make our own food, our own medicine, our own electricity.
Last night 10,000 people marched on one of the debtor camps. The news called it New Bastille Day. They said the banks and the government are talking about loan forgiveness now. But it’s too late. We don’t need them anymore.
This story originally appeared in Membrane from Dreadful Cafe in December 2013