San Tadeo, California, 07:00 Friday March 06, 2020
Safe House: Martin McLean’s House
Walking in the Light
The lights came on in my room at exactly 7 AM and woke me. I got dressed and stuffed the chain in the front pocket of my jeans along with my cash and bus pass. I went upstairs to meet my fate.
The kitchen was empty, and Martin was nowhere to be found. There was a note on the kitchen table, addressed to me.
Good luck on your first day at work. Make yourself breakfast, I’m out for the day.
Regards, Martin McLean
PS. Respect lights out in the future or there will be consequences.
“How the hell did he get the lights to turn on when he isn’t even here?” I muttered.
I felt relieved. Martin came off like a hardass. Like he expected me to be one of his soldiers. When it came down to it though it seemed like he was all talk. Still, I didn’t want to test him. After last night, it was clear I needed to find my own place to live as soon as possible.
I wandered into the other part of the house, making my way to the only bathroom. I quickly showered and brushed my teeth and then changed back into the same clothes.
In the living room on a long wooden table along one wall I spotted several photos, and went over to take a look. Martin was in most of them, wearing a uniform in roughly half of the photos. In one of the others he was a young man smiling under the bright sun, with the ocean in the background. The man standing next to him was clearly related. The family resemblance was unmistakable. I’d never seen the man before, but I had my suspicions that this was Dean. Either that, or Martin had another brother and had just never mentioned him.
I made sure I had everything before leaving Martin’s house and locking the door behind me.
Manny wouldn’t be meeting me at the corner for another 40 minutes, so I had time. I walked down Mountain View toward the JMC and crossed the busy street. Mindy was working the front counter once again and smiled and waved me over.
“Frank, you’re right on time. Come on in the back and we’ll get you a uniform and start your training.”
“Hey, Mindy. Actually, I’m here to tell you I’m not going to take the job. Sorry, I’ve got something else going on.”
“Oh, okay. Great. I mean I’m sorry we won’t get to work together, but good for you.”
“Yeah, me too. Maybe it’s for the best. Now I can get your number and take you out, and it won’t be weird.”
That kind of move hadn’t been in my toolbox before. I’d always been one of those guys who’d wait for the clear green light from a woman before I tried anything at all. The events of the previous night had filled me with a heady confidence I’d never had before. I’d faced down the dangerous leader of a street gang and come out triumphant.
She looked nervously over her shoulder, and quickly looked back.
“I could get fired,” she protested, weakly I thought.
“Come on, Barry’s not here. Put it on my receipt,” I said.
“I’ll take the number two breakfast menu, please,” I said, quite a bit louder than we had been talking.
The abrupt shift threw her briefly but then she straightened up and put the professional smile back on her face.
“Of course, sir. Will there be anything else?”
I shook my head, and she rung up my order on the register. I handed over the $100 bill that was the only cash I had at the moment. She handed me back my change and checked for her boss once again. Not finding Barry lurking nearby she pulled my receipt off the printer and quickly wrote on the back before handing it to me.
“Take a seat, sir, I’ll bring your food to the table when it’s ready.”
I returned her smile and filled my soda cup with iced tea and then found a booth near the window. Once I was sat down I checked out the back of the receipt. Written there was her name in beautiful cursive script, with a heart as the dot above the i. Below that was her phone number. I folded it up and put it in my pocket beside the bus pass. I really needed to get a wallet, or something.
A few minutes later she brought over my breakfast tray and set it down in front of me. She flashed me her brilliant smile again, the more genuine one she’d shown me before.
“Enjoy your breakfast,” she said.
“And call me,” she finished at much lower volume before turning and walking away.
The breakfast was fresh and hot, chicken and potatoes. It still seemed like an odd choice for breakfast, but it was a chicken restaurant after all. Who goes to a chicken restaurant and doesn’t order chicken?
It didn’t take long to finish my breakfast and I made sure to dump my trash in the bin as I was leaving. I entered the blacked out booth right outside the JMC’s front entrance and embraced the shadows.
Manny showed up right on time. He pulled into an empty spot and put the Regal into park. I wondered why we weren’t moving, but it became obvious quite soon.
“My mom freaked out. I had to tell her I got in a fight.”
Manny’s voice was still a little rough and visible on his throat were bruises in the rough shape of Magnus’s sausage fingers.
“She barely let me out of the house this morning. Did you see the rep change notice last night, Bro?”
“No, what are you talking about?”
“Look at your Reputation screen,” Manny said, leaning back in his seat expectantly.
|Reputation – Frank McLean|
|No reputation entries|
|Reputation – “Mack”|
|The Fatally Hip—Hostile|
“That’s not good,” I said. “I guess Magnus is pretty mad.”
“No shit, Bro.”
“What’s that actually mean for us, though? He was already pissed.”
“I mean, nothing I guess. When one of his guys IDs us we’ll be marked as Hostile. That way they’ll know to come over and kick the shit out of us, or whatever.”
“They probably already know our names though,” I said.
“This way they won’t forget, Bro. It’s not as bad as it could be really. We’re not marked as ‘At War’ – that’d mean that the Hip’s allied gangs could see our status too.”
“Maybe those douchebags don’t have any allies?” I said, laughing.
Manny grinned back at me. “Probably not!”
“Anyway, fuck those guys. You ready to go and sell? I’ve still got to pick up the skills that you have. Where are we going?”
“I’ve got a spot in mind. I can drop you there before I go to school, but first we need to get you some new threads, Bro. Everybody’s gonna think you’re a narc dressed like that.”
I didn’t entirely trust Manny’s judgment on this topic any more, but maybe he was right. Maybe my clothing was just too generic, too much like an undercover cop. At least this time I’d be able to choose instead of having to wear his stank hand-me-down.
Manny started the car and eased us out of the Maximarket parking lot. We were headed west on Florence, Manny quickly turned off and I was lost.
The satchel with the Asian kitty on the front was at my feet again and I opened it to take a look. Manny had refilled it back up to an ounce of product. That seemed like way too much.
“Manny, there’s no way I’m going to sell all of this today,” I protested.
“Chill, Bro. If you don’t, you don’t. You want to run out, instead? The spot I got picked out will be good all day. Lots of college students that need their weed.”
“You’ve sold there?” I asked.
“No, I hadn’t got around to it. I scouted it out pretty good, though. I know just where to to go. No gangs, at least not that I’ve ever seen. Just students and the occasional campus cop. You’ll have to watch out for those, but they’re lazy as fuck, Bro. If they hassle you just run. They won’t chase you long.”
“Did you bring Magnus’s cash?”
“No, I stashed most of it at home. I’ve got some cash though. You need some? Half that roll’s yours.”
Some small part of me was tempted to tell him that the whole thing was mine. I’d done the work, after all. Instead, I nodded.
“Give me a couple hundred. I want to have some cash in my pocket.”
Manny took his right hand briefly off the wheel and pulled the wad of cash out of his front pocket and handed it to me. “Take what you need.”
His roll was more substantial than the last time I’d seen it. Less $20s and more $100s, and more of both. I peeled off the top three hundreds and replaced the rubber band before handing it back. He returned it to his pocket without comment.
Minutes later we were pulling into yet another strip mall. If there was anything that LA had, it was malls. San Tadeo was no different. The storefront we stopped in front of was large, with a gaudy black and white sign. Terminator Fashions. I was confused until I saw the supplementary graphic, a rocky planet with the sharp terminator between the light and dark sides. No robotic assassins from the future.
The display windows were full of everything an aspiring gangster would want. Racks of shining, gaudy bling. Sports jerseys from every different team. Baseball hats in all colors, slogans and logos in all the right places. Manny turned the Regal off after he found a parking spot and we both got out of the car.
“Manny, where’s the gun we took off Magnus?” I asked.
“It’s in the trunk, why?”
“I need a gun, is why.”
“I guess. You can get a holster in Terminator, Big El has them.”
“Let’s get it then. We’ll bring it in and make sure the holster fits.”
Manny shrugged, and we exited the Regal. He popped the trunk and lifted up the carpet covering the spare tire. The pistol was wrapped in a dirty cloth and wedged between the tire and the depression in the floor it sat in. He handed it to me and closed the trunk.
I examined the gun more closely, marveling at how it felt in my hands.
|Browning Hi-Power (D)||Ammo (9mm Parabellum):||13/13|
The stats were really good as well. The value was still ??, but it felt and looked expensive.
I stashed it in the kitty bag with the marijuana.
“Manny, I meant to ask. How are the gun laws here in California? If the cops catch me with this gun, what will happen?”
“As long as it doesn’t have a body on it, you’ll be fine. It’s a crime to not have a serial number, but just a misdemeanor. They’ll take the gun, and if it’s got any bodies on it then you’re in trouble. They’ll issue a warrant. That’s why we toss them.”
“And this one?” I asked. “Do you think Magnus would be carrying it around with a body on it?”
“Fuck, no. The guy’s scary as fuck but he’s not stupid. It’ll be clean.”
We walked up the shop and entered Terminator Fashions.
I was kind of lost, looking around at the incredible display. It felt like a costume shop for gangsters. Everything a gangster needed to look Respectable on the Light side, or to have Street Cred in the Shadows.
“Manny, welcome back,” a friendly voice said to my right.
I looked to see a tall, immensely fat but elegantly dressed black man. His suit was perfectly tailored in stark black with a white shirt and shoes, and no tie.
His fingers were festooned with thick gold rings, and a tasteful rope of gold was around his neck. He had a friendly grin on his face, and I couldn’t help but like the man.
|“Big El” , Fixer (C3)|
“Hey Big El. I brought my boy, this is Mack.”
Big El turned his eyes to me. “Mack, welcome to Terminator Fashions. Is there something I can help you guys find today?”
I noticed he looked at me when he said that, dressed in my plain T-shirt and jeans, with only my stupid fake gold chain to differentiate me from one of the hordes of normies. Like Magnus, I could feel that Big El’s Street Cred was substantial. Whether that was just from the stats on his many rings, or because of his level and the rarity of his job, I had no idea.
Unlike Magnus, however, he came across as warm and friendly. A serious man, but not one you needed to fear unless you crossed him.
“Yeah, Mack needs some fly threads. That’s why we came here,” Manny said.
Big El smiled a bit wider at that. “Perfect. Tell me, Mack. What is it you want to tell the world? When people look at you, what do you want them to see?”
I wondered if he was speaking metaphorically, or if he really was talking about assembling a costume for me. Maybe both, I wasn’t sure.
“You mean like, what stats do I want? Street Cred, that sort of thing?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s all about the stats, Bro,” Manny opined.
Big El looked at him with a wry expression for a moment.
“Manny, you and I disagree. It is not all about the stats. One must also have a coherent look. I can help you with that, Mack.”
I chuckled. This wasn’t something that a gamer usually had to worry about. Stats were all, as Manny said. But I didn’t want to look like a clown with min-max gear. Today would be my first day selling weed, and I had a theory about what I could do to make it easier for myself. I wanted to test that theory.
“I’m new, so of course I want stats, but I do have a look in mind. It’s not a style, so much as an advertisement.”
Big El raised his eyebrow at me, but once I explained what I wanted, he was eager to help
Ten minutes later I was standing in front of a mirror, looking at the new me. It was a look I would never have chosen, except maybe for a Halloween costume.
I had a long green and yellow T-shirt on, where the green part was an enormous marijuana leaf on my chest, fading out to yellow with streaks of green on it. The color wasn’t quite High-Viz, but close.
I’d swapped my jeans and plain running shoes for a pair of sandals and cargo shorts. Now, I’m not one of those guys that hates on cargo shorts, quite the opposite. As a nerdy guy with lots of things to carry, I love them. These weren’t your typical shorts though. They were black, with green trim. They had the same number of pockets as your typical cargo shorts, but in strategic places there was an embroidered logo. Again, a marijuana leaf. It was a lot subtler than the T-shirt, but still if someone were looking, they’d see it.
Neither piece gave me any stats, but that was fine. I didn’t want to be looked at as a gangster, at least not yet. I wanted to be a walking billboard. Without skills, I would be unable to spot customers. Wearing this, maybe they’d spot me. Good old-fashioned advertising.
“This may just work for you, Mack. It’s a bold strategy, as maybe you will attract more customers. You also might attract the attention of the police.”
Back in LA, this outfit might have been considered a little outlandish, but wouldn’t have been cause for a cop to have a talk with you. Here in San Tadeo, however, weed was illegal and maybe it would be.
“I’m hoping to just use this as a crutch, until I can get my skills up. Then I can go a little more low-key.”
“Yeah, Bro. You look ridiculous,” Manny offered.
I shook my head, almost hurt. Coming from someone with Manny’s fashion sense that was quite the blow.
Big El stepped in to defend my honor. “Manny, if this outfit attracts the business that Mack hopes it does, then it’s not ridiculous. It’s all about the Benjamins.”
“It’s all about the Benjamins,” Manny repeated.
His repetition felt rote, like someone echoing an amen. This place was weird, and I added it to the list of questions to ask someone.
“Anything else?” Big El asked.
“Actually, yeah,” I said, looking around to make sure no one was nearby.
On the other side of large store, a couple walking in the light were looking through some of the more ridiculous shadow items, but they weren’t paying attention. They were merely laughing to themselves as they discovered each new, over-the-top shadow focus that Big El had in his inventory.
I pulled the pistol free from the bag and laid it on the counter in front of Big El. “I need a holster for this.”
The giant shopkeeper reached out, and then stopped himself. “May I?”
I nodded and he picked up the gun to inspect it. He checked the chamber and then popped the mag before making sure it was safe and laying it back down.
“Very nice weapon. Yes, I have a few different holsters for this. I assume you want to conceal it?”
I nodded, and he left us at the counter and returned a minute later with three holsters.
“This one is a shoulder holster, meant to be carried under a jacket. I present it as one of the options, but I expect is not what you need.
“The other two are meant to be concealed at your waistline and differ only in quality. They will fit this pistol and any roughly the same size, which includes most 9 mm automatics. This is the better of the two.”
He picked up and handed me the one I’d been looking at. It was black and silver, meant to tuck inside the waistband of pants, and tightly hold the pistol in place until needed. It looked well-made, but other than that I didn’t know much about it. I inspected it.
Leather IWB Holster
I was surprised to actually see a number for the value.
“Hold on, why can I see the value? I usually can’t.”
Big El raised an eyebrow at me but answered. “Of course, since you are in a shop, you can see the prices of the items in that shop, Mack. Have you literally never entered a shop before?”
The answer was that I hadn’t really. Or at least I hadn’t looked at any price tags. I hadn’t remembered seeing any price tags. This raised a whole bunch of other questions. Like, for instance, how did shopkeepers set prices? Was it a skill? Was there a Stock Boy Job that got the ‘Set Price’ skill?
Anyway, rather than answer Big El’s question, I deflected.
“Sorry, late night. Price is good so I’ll take all the stuff.”
Big El nodded and put the other two holsters back under the counter.
The total was $75, so I placed a $100 bill on the counter in front of Big El, who took it and quickly made change.
The new outfit had been quite cheap, relatively speaking. It was the holster that had taken most of my cash.
Since it was still clear at the counter, I pushed the pistol into the holster and practiced pulling it out. There was a bit of a trick to it, but it was easy enough. Once the gun was seated nicely, I clipped it onto the back of my cargo shorts and dropped the tail of my long T-shirt over top.
Manny observed, and commented. “Not bad. You can still see a bit of a bulge, but you really have to be looking. Anyway, dudes with the right skill will know you’re strapped no matter how good you hide it. So, don’t worry about too much. It’s really just so the normies don’t freak out.”
“Yes, and if you ever have the need, I can sell you a holster that will partially counteract that skill. It’s useful if you need to smuggle a weapon past security. Quite expensive, but worth it in the right circumstances,” Big El said.
“Thanks, I’m good with this for now,” I replied.
“Then, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if I can sell something to those two. That, or tell them to get the hell out of my store. Good luck today, Mack. I hope to see you again.”
With that, Big El left us and swept across the store to the couple who had been giggling nonstop for the last five minutes and we pushed outside.