Valencia Torreon

The filthy-faced man across the aisle watched the transaction from start to finish. He pretended to browse through a pile of moth-eaten blankets but he trained his eyes on me, not the merchandise. I don't know why I had attracted his attention. Bad luck maybe. I had conducted my business in low tones as always, taking to explain to Chi what she had before she sold anything more. She and her husband Jimmy bought a bin of scavenged computer parts from a trio of teenage boys claiming they found them. That story smelled as bad as whatever mystery meat Jimmy gnawed on. Dust free and in pristine condition, these items had been well-maintained but the owner failed to place any identifying marks on them. Fair game, in other words.

Chi was happy that they'd already broke even with a quarter of the bin yet to sell, but I could only imagine how much they'd lost. Mixed in with the cables and dented drive enclosures I found an item of real value: a gigabit ethernet card. No idea what it does, but a Curtin Lorekeeper said he'd pay good money if I ever came across one. He drew a picture and spelled out GIGABIT in big letters. Chi never changed expressions as I explained the situation but I saw the disappointment in her eyes as I ballparked what I thought a fair price might have been for the bin. I knew she was rattled because she accepted my first offer without a counter. I patted her shoulder and reminded her that they'd made a fair profit after our deal but she wasn't comforted, maybe because I said it with such little conviction. I was watching that man. I adjusted the rifle on my shoulder and said goodbye.

The filthy man pushed his way across the aisle as I turned. I slipped my wallet into my torn pants pocket and feeling it slide down into my boot. He closed the distance quicker than I expected and grabbed my hand. I shouted and darted my free hand into my vest pocket, gripping the wooden handle of my shiv. I backed into someone and elbowed them away. The faces of the merchants and shoppers around me melted into masks of fear as they watched. Most averted their eyes. From behind me, a hand clamped painfully onto my shoulder.

"What's that, lady?" the filthy man asked. His rancid breath easily carried the six feet between us.

I tried to wrench my shoulder free and failed. It was then I saw the two men leering at my sides, flanking me. Four men in total, then. Or four I knew about.

"It's my business," I said slowly bringing my empty hand back into view.

"You mean it's our business," the man said with a sneer. He fished in his pants and produced a stamped piece of tin with a winged "C" in the center. I gritted my teeth and studied the ground.

"I've done nothing wrong. I thought Crawley wanted to protect free trade." I had heard these Waltzer goons had started shaking down random merchants on the trade route, but in the Third Ward market? Their brazeness had grown. Who knew if this bullying was sanctioned or just some idiots acting on their own. Not that it mattered at the moment.

"You think you're smarter than me, don't you?" the man asked. I felt no need to answer that one.

He snatched at the card and I gave it to him freely. A small price to pay if it let me walk. He held it up and it glinted in the midday sunlight. "Now that's silver. And that there," he said leaving greasy fingerprints on the bottom ridge, "I believe that's gold. I bet you could make a small fortune melting down these parts. Am I right?"

I shrugged, avoiding eye contact. "Done. It's yours. We good?" I tried to ease away.

Silver stars exploded before my eyes and I felt a searing pain behind my ear. My mouth filled with dust and I felt someone wrestling the rifle from my shoulder. Groggy, I fumbled for my hat as the lead goon raised my chin with his boot. Hands pulled me to my feet even as my knees buckled. I felt their grimy paws on my stomach, my thighs and I screamed for them to stop, thrashing. Nobody touches me like that. Nobody.

A hand squeezed at my throat put an end to that. I started blacking out. "Cat's got claws," I heard an underwater voice say and watched as the men handed over my shivs, my .38, and the wallet I wear at the small of my back. The hand around my throat shook me.

"Take her in for questioning," the leader said. Another voice asked what questions and the leader told him to shut up. I remember being dragged through the streets. At some point I heard the clinking of chains and other voices, but that part gets fuzzy. How long ago was that? A few hours? A day? No way to tell from inside this poorly lit cell.

My legs ache but I can't sit as I've been chained to railing along with a handful of other prisoners. My head throbs making it difficult to think. The in-bred Crawley thugs pace the hall every so often banging their clubs and bellowing about public executions. Probably just big talk to get us pissing in our boots, but with what happened in the market I guess anything is possible. Still, I can feel a wallet in the heel of each my boots, where the geniuses didn't think to check. I'm sure I can buy myself out of this mess if needs be. Offer the cash I have and guarantee more after my release. That'll tempt at least one of those goons.

Don't know what my cellmates have planned though. The two men look skinny, skeevy, and shifty, but the two women have more promise. The little one has bright eyes and you can tell she's always thinking, but the other appears to be the most useful of the bunch. Muscle stacked atop muscle, her squat form sways with her intensity as she clenches and unclenches her bound hands. She'd be a lot of prisoner to handle, even in chains. When things go down--and one way or another, they will go down--I can see myself casting my lot with hers.

Until that happens I just keep telling myself this isn't the end, that this won't be the end. I won't let it be, not to Crawley, not after my brother Enrique. No, this is not the end. If anything, it's the beginning of something new. Something bitter.