The client was on the sixth floor.
The tower block on the corner of 6th and West Avenue was a swollen infection on the Los Atmos district. A swarming hive of vagrants and ne’er-do-wells. The rusty elevator grated to a stop, the door only partially opening, and Carter stepped out. The strictured concrete bowel of the building was marred in characteristically banal graffiti, the floor congested with the homeless. He gave the door three short raps of his knuckles. It opened and he was welcomed by a surly, burly bruiser with a bevelled face who eyed him dubiously.
‘Is that him?’ a voice floated over his shoulder.
The bruiser curled up his lip into a grotesque snarl before stepping aside.
‘Carter? My man. See Tony, told you he’d come.’
‘Come in, come in. Tony here dared to doubt your return, yet here you are. You’ve restored his faith.’
Carter stepped into the smallest apartment he’d ever been in to reunite with the shortest man he’d ever met. ‘A prayer would be cheaper.’
Mr White laughed. ‘See Tony, what did I tell you? This was the one for the job, I said. Can you believe he wanted to hire useless goons, just your regular run-of-the-mill morons? But no I said, I needed a ranger to do the job. And here you are. Can I get you something, a glass of the hot stuff?’
Mr White was short and gap toothed, his sprightliness as broad as his belly. His one good eye roamed over Carter while the other, augmented by a cybernetic implant, protruded out like a kaleidescope.
‘All right, no problem. Do you have it?’
Carter thumbed in his pocket and felt the irregular angles of the chip. He tossed it to Mr Universe.
‘Over there. Get it checked out. Don’t be like that, Carter. Just quality control. You know how these things go.’ Mr White slushed a drink into a glass spilling some on the table. ‘You have any trouble?’
Carter shrugged. ‘Does it matter?’
It wouldn’t matter if he had.
He’s just making me sit through another painful interaction until the quality control is over. Like a damn bank. For those stupid enough to be in his situation and get distracted by the feigning interest, they deserved the bullet they got for switching off.
‘Not really. I just like a good story, a bit of entertainment, you know. Like me for example.’ Mr White sipped the golden liquid from the glass. His face twisted horribly as he swallowed. ‘I like to use aliases when conducting my business. Oh, nothing new about that. But look at me, Carter. As black as the ace of spades. So why not be a bit whimsical? No-one’s going to forget the black Mr White. It’s not like I know where it comes from either. My mother only knew my father long enough to sprout me. Who is he? The devil knows. But he sure must have been black as her record to end up with me. Ha ha.’ A chuckle rumbled round his throat. ‘See? Whimsical.’
‘Oh come on, Carter. Not even a little smile?’
‘Funny.’ Carter said. I need to remember to laugh at it later. ‘And Tony?’
‘Ah. Tiny Tony. Well, why not? Everyone else is so obvious in a vane attempt to be intimidating. Like Drake “the knife” Malone. Ugh. So tasteless it borders on nauseating. So we went with plain old Tiny Tony. Irony. But I can see this isn’t your taste in humour.’
On the contrary, if Bilbo keeps telling jokes I’m in danger of busting a gut.
Seeing as he didn’t get the expected reception, the whimsical Mr White asked about the chip. Tony had been tinkering with it using some small tools he kept hidden behind his bulk. After another minute, Tony returned the chip with a wry smile and gave Mr White an acknowledging tap on the shoulder. Mr White finished his drink and put the glass down, condensation pooling at its base.
‘Nice work.’ His one eye greedily roamed over the chip suspended between finger and thumb. ‘You’ve lived upto your reputation, ranger. A nano hack card. Plug into any military terminal and press delete. The ultimate reset.’
Carter couldn’t tell if Mr White was druelling over the card or if it usually ran free, unrestrained by his lack of teeth. Either way it gave his every word a noticeable lisp.
Mr White’s human eye turned up at him. ‘Hm, see, this is the thing, Carter. I’d be obliged to pay anyone for their services. I believe in honest business. But you’re not just anyone.’
Carter stayed silent.
‘You see this.’ Mr White pointed to his bionic eye. ‘I got this, when was it now, three? Four years ago? Anyway, it was after a military excursion gone wrong. You know how it goes, damaged goods, signed off with no pension. So I got this, and the guy assured me it’s the best of its kind in the district. The black market guys have a tendency to oversell these things but it serves its purpose and he assured me it’d show many hidden things.’ He laughed forcibly. ‘And boy, was he right. I can see what you’re hiding under there. Nothing. You’re not armed. And the pressure plates screamed when you stepped on them which tells me you’re bionic, whole or in part.’
Carter tensed. ‘Don’t make this anymore than it needs to be. Pay me, and you’ll never see me again.’
So much the better.
‘And you know the law.’ Mr White ignored him. ‘Anyone with more than 50 percent bionic parts is reclassified as a droid and is without rights. No rights means no payment.’
‘Yes, the law.’ He snapped. ‘Which as far as I’m concerned, knows only that a droid has relieved them of a prototype nano-card of its own defective will and accidentally rolled through my door. I tried to detain it but…’
Carter knitted his brow. Tiny Tony snaked a hand round his pistol butt. Mr White licked his lips.
Carter jerked convulsively towards Mr White and the impetuous Tiny Tony drew and fired, the shot deafening in the small room. Before the chamber reloaded, Carter kicked up the small table and it smashed willingly against Tiny Tony’s immovable frame. As he shielded himself and took a defensive step back, Carter leapt at him through the splintered furniture twisting the gun out of his hand and sent a paralysing shock through his body with a touch of his electrically charged hand. Tiny Tony fell with a thud.
Mr White recoiled frightfully.
‘Now, now just wait a minute, Carter. I’m sure we can make a deal-’ his voice rose uncontrollably as Carter moved on him.
Carter easily overturned Mr White, groped for his hand and forcibly pressed his thumb against a digi-pad. A thin blue line traced down the screen and the device screeched in alarm.
‘Damn it.’ Carter sighed heavily. ‘You didn’t have the money to begin with?’
‘Hey, now. These are hard times.’ Mr White spat through his toothless grin.
Frustrated, Carter nullified the bankrupt Mr White with a decisive thump to the back of the head. After a brief frisk, he found only a gold watch on his wrist. It could bring maybe a few hundred. The least he was owed. Treading the nano-chip underfoot, he left the door open and returned to the elevator.
He jabbed the button angrily and slumped against the wall as it grated him back down to the foyer. His reverie in the elevator was broken by a dull ring. He rummaged in his pocket and finding the source, barked into the handset, ‘What?’
‘It’s me. I’m sending you an address. Get here. I’ve got us a job.’
Another headache. Another day gone before he’d get to sit down. Replacing the handset he mumbled to himself, annoyed, ‘I hate this district.’