2120 – Villa Nueva, Mendoza, Argentina
“They’re getting away.”
“I…know…” the woman growled back at the voice in her ear through clenched teeth.
Crashing through the back doors, the kid darted left around the counter but the woman vaulted the bartop and slid on one hip across the sleek metal surface to cut the corner. It was close, and Zyra was nearly on top of the kid when the little rat slammed to the floor, skidded under the tables and disappeared.
“I told you.”
Slamming both hands onto the tabletop, Zyra barked, “GOD. DAMN. IT!”
The manager and a few early morning patrons of the bar stared at her with expectations of explanation. Zyra only dropped to one knee and looked down at the vent. “You seeing this?”
“Yes, I see it.”
“Barely fit a greased infant through that fucking hole.” She lowered her forehead to the arm braced on the table, black eyes fixed like lasers trying to cut herself a larger portal.
“I warned you.”
“Yes, Chameleon, you’re very smart.”
“It is why, my dear, I am the boss–”
“And I’m a goddamn runner. Yeah. Got it…” She shook her head and looked around in thought as she muttered to herself. As she pondered, she tugged her disheveled ponytail out and tugged her shoulder-length black hair back into a tighter knot. The siren-red underside was like a warning flag to the staring patrons not to bother her, not that too many would mess with an already pissed off mercenary with facial tattoos and a visible sidearm. With a sharp jab, she pointed at the vent and barked at the bar manager. “Hey, where’s this go?”
The man shrugged and scoffed, “I don’fuckin’ know. It’s an air vent…outside, probably.”
“Useless piece of–”
“Look, the kid is gone. Not going to find an off-grid faceless vent-rat, okay? So…just call it a wash and come in.”
“We needed this take, Ishkar–”
“We always need the take, and there’s always another one. Just, leave the kid go, come in. I’ll handle it.”
Scoffing she shook her head and planted her hands on her hips, “you going to bring your giant ass down here and crawl the maze yourself? Give the vent-rat your charming ‘I know your pain‘ speech?”
There was a moment of silence then she heard, “Tristan’s a bit…busy with some family stuff but Warden’s back. As soon as everyone is here we can review our status.”
“Right…” Not wanting to think about Brian leaving, she clenched her jaw and inquired, “and Dev?”
“Yes, she’s on her way. Deal’s done, Zyra.”
Great. So no one else failed but her. Fan-fucking-tastic. No shame in showing up now. Kicking a chair over she strode toward the door ignoring the angered barking of the bartender.
– – – –
Two arguments had already broken out and Ishkar was feeling more like an exasperated den-mother than the head of a merc-operation. Rubbing at his temples, the man pushed his glass of aloe-cucumber water away. Ice had melted and it was warm now anyway. It tasted…off. No fooling himself into thinking it was real water anymore. Heaving a sigh, he leaned back and listened to the line waiting for the connection to pick up again.
“Yes, Brian, I am here.” Sighing again he awaited the news he knew– they all knew– he was going to hear.
The other man was quiet for a moment then spoken with far more gentility and precision than his younger brother. “I think- just for a while- it will be best if I stay here. Jacqueline… the rest of the family is not very sympathe– It’s very complicat–”
“No, no. I understand completely. It is quite alright, Brian. You tell Jackie I am going to miss her terribly and… don’t worry about your contract. Family comes first. Always.” Ishkar ran a hand over his face and sank forward to rest his elbows on his desk.
“I’m leaving you without a doctor.”
“I will find someone. Don’t worry about it. Take care of Jackie.”
Another long pause. Finally, the eldest Kyle brother mustered, “thank you, Ishkar.”
“Not necessary, but…you are most welco–” Raised voices and a crash from the other room stopped him. With a grumble he stood up. “Sorry, seems the animal house has awoken… again.”
Brian laughed. “Don’t get bit this time. Talk to you soon. Tristan should be back soon if he isn’t already. And…uh… tell Zyra, I’m sorry I had to leave before she got back.”
Ishkar hesitated, then muttered, “of course, I will,” before disconnecting the call.
Wishing he could slam open a sliding electric door, Ishkar instead smacked his hands on the door frame loudly as he bellowed, “WHAT DID I TELL YOU ALL?!” Stopping mid-stride, he blinked at the youth that had Tristan pinned to the floor with a blade to his throat and held another raised toward Warden. Zyra’s hand was hovering over her gun, but she was hesitant to draw it as the young teen had already drawn blood on Tristan and possibly broken a rib.
Tensing his jaw but only stepping forward enough to let the door close, Ishkar murmured, “where is Dev?”
“Back…” Zyra nodded her head toward the hall behind her, then both returned their eyes to their teammate, Warden.
Small in stature, but broadcasting his personality like a pario advertisement on the top of a building, Warden beamed a smile at the intruder. His hands were out and one of his dyed-silver locks of hair slid out of his tie to hang in a frame about his face. Being just under five-foot tall he was not much taller than the kid’s eye-level, crouched over Tristan. “No one wants to hurt you–”
“Speak for yourse–”
“Shut the hell up, Zyra,” Tristan growled, the blade on his throat scritching at his stuble.
Warden extended a hand, “no one’s got weapons out. Zyra…take off your belt…toss it on the floor.”
“Fuck you Warden.”
“Zyra.” Ishkar glowered at her and allowed Warden to handle the situation. The woman did as she was told and although the teen grabbed the belt and pulled the gun closer, it was not snatched up and drawn. Instead, one boot slammed down over it to prevent anyone from taking it. This intrigued Ishkar.
Warden grinned again and gestured, “okay…see? We offered something in good faith, now you give something.”
“Not getting my knives. No dá.” The layers of hood, free-clinic smog-mask hidden under a trendier hoodwrap and citrine-green colored goggles obscured the kid’s face The only thing proving they were talking to a person and not a dressed up android were the crusts of dried blood on their knuckles and a tuft of died orange and white hair. It was too old to be Tristan’s, but then, Ishkar was only assuming it was the kid’s.
“I do not need, nor want your knives. How about a name, first?” Ishkar stepped in now, circling around and nodding for Warden and Zyra to back off. As the kid’s eyes lifted higher and higher and higher to take in his exceptional height, he offered a grin. “Mine is Ishkar, but many people know me as Chameleon.”
The knife pulled away from Tristan’s throat and lowered from pointing at the others. In spite of his opportunity to wrangle the assailant, Tristan wisely remained lax on the floor and just played dead while Ishkar took over negotiations. The knives twirled and slid into sheathes under the filthy hoodie. “Could use a shower and burn those clothes, kid…” he muttered.
“You want I stick you, coño?”
Slow, so as not to cause alarm, Ishkar lowered to a squat. “I assume you did not follow Zyra back here just to make Tristan look like the worst merc I have.”
“Thanks, peaches. Love you too.” Tristan glared up past the teenage-weight on his chest.
Tristan squinted up. “Well which is it? Am I a cunt or a cock?”
“You’re a little bitch.” The kid smacked his forehead with the back of two fingers.
As Tristan grabbed their wrist, Ishkar caught his with a growl, “that is quite enough.”
A small hand raised, between two fingers was a NIC card. “Yours, yeah? Mala leche, ehn… if someone found out it isn’t just a regular old NIC card… can buy them food or something useful like that?”
“We can give you money, kid.” Tristan slid a NIC card from his own pocket and flicked it up to bounce ignored off one thigh.
“No. This is worth much more, I think. People don’t hide worthless data.” They kept their eyes on Ishkar. He could not help but smile.
“You figured all that out rather quickly, kiddo–”
“Tomátela! Stop calling me kid!! I ain’t your kid. None of you fuckers look twice at us– don’t look at all unless the rats get in your way,” Citrine goggles turned down to Tristan with a jerk of the kid’s head in disgust, “or offend your delicate Eco-Drone noses.”
“Eco-Drone?” Tristan chuckled. “Oh, that’s rich.”
Warden smirked from across the room, “you are the only one here that grew up in a bullshit fancy-pants enviro-home palace–”
“Go fuck yourself, Waddler.”
“Give him a good shave, yah?”
Ishkar lifted his eyes to Warden then back to Tristan, “would you two shut up? Warden, go check on Dev. Zyra, start calling our contacts. We’ll need another doctor on call.” He did not look up to see her face, knowing damn well that he would hear about it later. Looking at the kid, he raised his brows, “how about you let Tristan go be useful for a change and you and I can talk in my office, hmm?”
Pocketing the NIC again, the teen sat back, their weight shifting from Tristan’s ribs to his gut and coaxing a groan. “So you can what? Shoot me? Beat me up? Fuck me?”
“Whoa, hey… I don’t know what kind of raw deal you have gotten before, but I don’t do that- understand?”
“Sure, lo que…”
Ishkar hardened his tone and arched a brow as he leaned in. He knew his size was intimidating, and it was rare that he would use it in such a way but he would be damned if this kid was going to walk away believing, let alone implying, that he was a rapist. “Look at me. LOOK at me.” The kid went rigid but lifted their head enough that he could see eyes behind the yellow-green glass goggles. “I am not a fucking rapist and I do not beat on or kill kids. Got it?”
“Ok. Yeah. I got it…bajá un cambio.”
“Now get your ass off of Tristan and get in my office unless you don’t want to eat.”
“E-eat…?” The teen slowly stood, only seeming to half-notice Tristan rolling out from under them.
Ishkar looked down, surprised that the youth was a bit taller than he thought, but definitely underfed. “Yes, as in food. Anything you want. You can order it from my office wallscreen.”
“But, I just…” Glancing toward Tristan then the door, they twitched their head processing their confusion. “No cobanis?”
Tristan chuckled as he stretched and sauntered from the room. “Good with knives but not bright. Mercenaries don’t call cops, genius.”
“Tirame la goma!”
Ishkar only laughed and ushered the youth toward his office again. There was no reason to rush anything. The client would not be asking about the assignments for another day and he knew where the NIC was now. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the kid had stripped off the hoodie, mask and goggles. Under all that was a sliver of a person in a shirt cut to be a tank top over another skintight tank. Four more layers and there still would not be enough padding to convince him that the kid’s ribs were not protruding. Warm brown skin looked dry, from dirt or dehydration he could not tell. The orange and white tuft of hair turned out to be a rainbow splash of fire. Black at the roots that flared out to crimson then orange with one clear white shock in the middle over the right temple.
Making him self-conscious of his own vanities, Ishkar snagged a single braid from under the full mane of dreads and braids he wore and pulled it out and around it all using it to lash it all back from his face. With a small grin he watched as the youth devoured a small mountain of empanadas, a whole choripan, and moved on to an entire pizza. “It’s green olives, but it’s good…you want to try?” Although spoken around a mouthful of food, he understood and moved to sit on the floor too.
“It is, in fact, one of my favorites.” Detangling a slice from the stringy tentacles of cheese, he grinned and arched a devious brow, “have you ever tried it with red pepper and llama?”
“Llama? On pizza?? Blech…”
Ishkar grinned as he took a bite then waited to swallow before asking, “so does the llama-hater have a name, or shall I call you Yavru?”
Mouthful of pizza, and a glare from dark brown eyes, the youth stared at him then demanded around the food, “fuck does Yah-voo mean?”
Chortling in absolute delight, he leaned forward and picked over the trash finding an uneaten empanada. “Tell me your name and maybe I shall tell you.”
“Better not mean rooster or some shit like that.” Swiping a fist across their mouth, the kid pushed back a little and stared at their hands a long time seeming to debate his request. Eyes darted to him in discomfort, took stock of the room for the hundredth time before an answer came. “Can…can you just call me Blade for now? It’s…what the others call me.”
Studying the body language, the shift to distance, the way both shoulders curled in a little, Ishkar thought back to the kid’s immediate assumption that he would take any opportunity to assault them. In spite of the shouted epithet at Tristan to ‘suck my dick,’ Blade didn’t want to give their name because Blade was a girl. Hid it well. Emaciation helped, naturally, but there was more to it than that. This girl had worked hard for a long time to hide who she was and this spoke of a life lived on the streets and experience– experience that drove one to feel the need to hide. It pained him. Although they had the streets in common, his size took away any disadvantage that his sexuality may have imposed during his youth.
“Sure. Blade’s a good name. Why not Blades…plural? Looked like you were pretty good with two. Took down one of my best guys.”
Blade snorted and grinned, “ehn, you need better guys. Ones that aren’t so high up their own asses. That Zyra bitch is good though. Nearly took me out a few times. Pretty sure she’ll shoot me first chance she gets, though.”
“I dunno,” the girl shrugged, “I hit her in the tit with a work lamp in the warehouse.”
Barking out a laugh he shook his head, “well, now… now that is about the most creative thing I have heard in a while.”
“Work with what you got.” Shifting forward again, Blade picked at the pizza and thought a moment. “I don’t really know any other way. Was born in a gutter… probably die there.”
“Does not have to be that way.” He flicked an olive at her and chuckled as it pelted her in the chest. “I was born on the streets too. Now I have my own merc crew, travel the world, people call me sir.”
“So…what, you gonna take me on? Want me to steal for you?” Her body language betrayed her again as she began to recoil, legs drawing up slowly, hands lowering to the floor readying to flee. “Looking for someone to keep in your closet, I can point you to some SHO dealers. Cheap fence-monkeys… do whatever you want. Just wind them up and they’ll dance, fuck. But that ain’t me. I don’t do that, chupa pija.”
Pointing a finger at her he frowned, “what did I tell you, Yavru? I don’t do that. I am offering you a job, an apartment. Where we go, you go and you have a family and a home same as the rest of those sorry fuckers in the other room. That is what I offer, yes? No more of this rape business. I will not have it.”
An old pain, an old anger fluttered through his chest and he had to distance himself for fear of frightening her. He stood up and crossed the room, leaning down to brace his hands on the desk, exhaling to calm himself. As he breathed in slow, easy paces, he heard her stand and expected she was going to bolt. Instead the card slid onto the desk into his view.
“Kajla. Kajla Navaja.”
“Kajla? …doesn’t sound Spanish.”
Lifting his eyes to her, ignoring the offering of the NIC entirely, he watched her ring her hands a moment before confessing, “it’s not. Don’t know what I was supposed to be called. No mother stuck around after pushing me out… Navaja was the name written on the inside of the…” She walked over and picked up the tattered hoodie. Holding it out she showed him the inside. At the base of the hood was a handwritten scrawl: navaja “I was wrapped in it so, they just assumed it was a name or something. Could just as easy be anyone’s name or some bullshit gangtag.”
Hoping he did not offend her, he chuckled, “Navaja is a type of pocket knife… a folding blade. No one has shown you one? It is an amusing irony that your friends call you Blade then, it makes sense.”
The girl’s head dropped and Ishkar worried he had made her feel stupid. The girl shrugged and tossed the hoodie onto a chair. “Was just some stupid diácono… garca said it was my name… I didn’t pick it.”
The foulness of the garment made sense to him now. Her other clothes were dirty but had been cleaned to some degree. That hoodie had not been washed in probably fifteen years. “Why Kajla?”
“I dunno…they liked it, I guess. Probably some European puta on mission from the Vatican or some other stupid shit. Pulga says it’s Russian or something. Doesn’t matter. Everyone calls me Blade.”
“I like Kajla… and Blade…” he grinned, “and Yavru.”
“Didn’t say what that meant.”
“Say you will stay.”
“You said if I told you my name.”
Crossing his arms, he sat on the edge of the desk, “hmm…I did, but I can see that you want to stay. So, I am changing my terms because I know you will say yes.”
The girl crossed her arms and glared, “fuck I will. I do what I want.”
“Uh, huh.” Gesturing to the door he waited. When she glanced at it, then glanced at her things sitting near the pile of food remnants, then down at her feet, his smile broadened. “It means ‘little one’ in Turkish.”
She flicked her eyes up at him with an angry pout but said nothing in her defeat. Gesturing to the food again he murmured, “plenty more still…then we can order you some new clothes and get you a shower– a real shower– and your own room with a real bed. Perhaps a real Navaja for your knife collection.”
“The others won’t fuck with me– or fuck me?”
“Absolutely not. Anyone tries and they answer to me.”
Lowering her head again she mumbled, “how come?”
“How old are you?”
She shrugged and scratched at her upper arm. “I dunno… fourteen, I think? Three years since I left the– no four? Not sure about the before and afters… just remember getting a present sometime around Día de la Independencia. They would tell me the fireworks were for me. Liars. I think it was just a guess for them too.” Looking away from him, she grew uncomfortably still. “Had trouble keeping count after I left. Wasn’t really, important. Nothing they… I don’t celebrate their… guarango holidays.”
Seeking out her eyes, Ishkar held her gaze with intent. “No one… NO ONE is going to hurt you again, understand, Yavru? Especially any of my people. They will protect you with their lives on my say so.”
“And… I can work for you? Like Zyra does?”
“Absolutely. Show Zyra how it is done.”
He liked the smirk, the way it lit up her face as she asserted, “Fuck yeah I can.”