Albert thumbed his glasses up his nose and squinted closer at the White Dime. The drug glinted like snow in his Petri dish. He bit his lip, pinched the rubber tip of his dropper and squeezed. A drip of Idarucizemik fell to stain the powder with a green blotch. He gave the mixture a stir, examined, and squeezed the dropper again.
“Albert,” Ricky shouted from outside the lab. “You better not be cutting my drugs clean again. I want addicts, not customers.”
Albert looked to the door of Ricky’s office. He should have shut it. He thumbed his glasses again and returned to the Petri dish. One more drop would be enough to clean this batch. A healthy high, with minimal risk of death.
Light shone through the window blinds as a billboard blimp passed by outside. Bars of shadow crept over Albert as he tapped the powder into a clean-film package. Once sealed, he climbed down from his stall and gave the contents a squeeze. Six hours worth of work. Snorted in minutes. He stepped over to the window and peered through the blinds.
Below, cars and people thronged in the wet streets of Old Peckham. A collage of umbrellas and bonnets shifted beneath the lurid glare of advertisement boards. Albert looked to the blimp’s digi-display as it floated on a blare of thrusters. A local celebrity smiled from its wide screen as she endorsed a new Mil-Tech robot enforcer – Defend your home with the firepower of an army – read its slogan.
Albert tugged the blind’s cord shut and stepped into Ricky’s office.
“Your next batch is ready.” Albert handed Ricky the package.
Ricky kicked his feet off the desk and fingered the drugs. He squinted and leaned close.
“I see green, Albert.” Ricky screwed up his face. “You put that Idaruci… that Idar… you put that shit in it again didn’t you?”
“Idarucizemik,” Albert said as he brushed down his lab coat. “It will keep your clients alive, Ricky. They won’t buy again if they’re dead.”
Ricky rubbed his temples behind his greasy hair. “I’ve told you enough times already – I need addicts. And it took you what… six hours just to make this batch? Stop cleaning it for crying out loud.” Ricky clapped a hand to the desk and let out a breath. “This city’s full of junkies. What does it matter if a few O.D?”
“People die if they overdose.”
“Albert. I’ve got pushers hustling in on every street corner and the damn Yakuza are threatening to snatch my turf. If my shits not addictive I can’t earn. If I can’t earn, I can’t compete. You get it?”
A bleep sounded across the room as the stairwell voice-com blinked green.
Ricky slouched in his chair, pressed a hand to his face, and answered the call through his computer.
The voice of the door bouncer crackled through the voice-com.
“Boss, it’s Frank.”
“I know it’s you, Frank, what do you want?”
“You got a visitor who wants to see you. Sheriff Rourke.”
Ricky sat up like a startled rabbit.
Ricky scrunched up his hands and mouthed a curse.
“Great,” he forced out.
Albert leaned towards Ricky and whispered. “Best you don’t hide this time.”
Ricky flung up a hand and waved Albert away.
“Alright, Frank. Send him up.”
Ricky’s face grew pale as the voice-com clicked silent. He padded his pockets and pulled open every drawer on his desk.
“That fucks a week early.” He pushed a bundle of papers off the desk. “Albert, where’s my damn cred-stick?”
Albert sifted his hand through a drawer and pulled out a plastic card. “Here. But you haven’t earned enough to pay-off Rourke.”
“I know I haven’t earned enough,” Ricky snapped. “Because you keep cleaning my drugs.”
Ricky tore the card from Albert and pulled a gun from under his desk.
“Have you gone mad?” Albert exclaimed. “You can’t shoot the Sheriff.”
“Don’t be a coward, Albert.”
“Coward?” Albert tugged a sleeve. “Well, get yourself killed. But not me. I’m getting out of here.”
Albert shook his head and turned for the door. Before he reached it, the latch clicked and the door swung open. Sheriff Rourke entered the office with a squeak of polished boots.
Rourke paused and smiled from his square jaw. His combed hair sheened under the office light as he looked around the room. A thick finger tapped a holstered pistol.
Ricky slid his gun into his lap.
“Still doing business from this shit-hole I see, Ricky.”
“Nice to see you too, Sheriff.”
Ricky cocked the hammer of the gun. Albert chewed his lip.
Rourke nodded at Albert and stepped up to the desk. He steered his broad face to Ricky and jutted his chin at the desk.
“Wouldn’t be hiding anything under there now, would you Ricky?” He tapped his golden sheriff badge. “If I don’t leave here in five minutes you’ll have a whole precinct heading your way.”
Ricky pushed out a laugh and tucked the gun into a drawer. He sat up and cupped his hands over the desk.
“I wouldn’t be such a fool, Sheriff. Now, how can I help you today?”
“Fools sell drugs, Ricky.” Rourke clicked his fingers and opened his palm. “Pay your due or get busted.”
Ricky held his smile as he cleared his throat. “Well, thing is Sheriff, you’re early this week. If you had let me know you were on your way–”
“I can’t be early for a late payment. Where have you been? Hiding again?”
“Sheriff,” Ricky tugged his collar. “I just need a couple more days. Then I’ll have your money.”
Rourke pressed himself to the desk and leaned over Ricky.
“You’ve got until tonight. If you don’t have my money by then, I’ll give your turf to the Yakuza and ship you off to New Utopia.”
Ricky’s face went pale. “Sheriff, there’s no need for that. Just a little more time. I’ll get the money. I promise. I’ll tell you what – I’ll chuck in a bonus. Alright? An extra ten percent.”
Rourke straightened up. “Ten percent?”
“You bet. Ten percent. No problem.”
“Make it twenty. And I’ll collect it tonight.”
“What?” Ricky clutched the edge of the desk. “Tonight?”
Rourke returned to the door. “You’re a waste of good turf, Ricky. Pay me tonight or take a trip to the penal colony.” Rourke smirked over his shoulder. “I hear New Utopia is not too overcrowded.” He faced Albert. “And I hear the Yakuza are hiring chemists, Albert. I’ll put in a good word for you.”
Rourke left without shutting the door.
Ricky slouched in his seat as his face sank behind his hands. “I’m ruined.”
Albert crossed the room and shut the door. He took off his glasses and wiped them on a sleeve.
“I’m sure you’ll raise the money, Ricky.”
Ricky jumped out of his seat.
“Raise the money? With what? All I have is this package of cleaned shit.”
Ricky grabbed the drugs and hurled it at Albert. It missed and exploded against the door.
Albert threw up his hands as six hours worth of work settled over the floor.
“Great, Ricky. Now what do you have to sell?”
Ricky kicked away his chair and ran a hand through his greasy hair. “I should have shot him. Should have popped a bullet in that fat face of his.”
Albert sighed. He crouched and began to scoop the White Dime into powered mounds.
“Shooting the Sheriff is the worst thing you could do. You heard him, the whole precinct would come after you.”
Ricky mumbled as he stepped over to a window blind.
Albert blew his hands clean. “Better if you could just scare the Sheriff away.”
He jumped as Ricky clapped.
“That’s it. That’s it.” Ricky jabbed a finger through the blinds.
Albert stood up and put his glasses back on. “That’s what?”
“I’ll scare the bastard away. Look here…”
Ricky pulled up the blinds and pointed to the blimp’s digi-screen.
“You see? Mil-Tech enforcer robots. Rourke wouldn’t dare mess with me if I had one of those.”
“Mil-Tech?” Albert shook his head. “Do you know how much those robots cost?”
“Yes, yes, I know.” Ricky walked back to his desk and tapped his keyboard. “But there are cheaper models elsewhere.”
Albert pointed at the cred-stick on the desk. “If you can’t afford to pay Rourke, you certainly can’t afford to buy an enforcer robot. Even a cheap one.”
“What would you know, chemist?”
Ricky shuffled onto his seat, his face alive with excitement. He hammered a finger to the keyboard and smiled.
“See. I have trusted contacts.”
Albert walked around the desk and peered at the computer screen. Ricky had his email open.
“Trusted contacts? You’re in your spam folder.”
“I know where I am. Look at this advert.”
Albert squinted through his glasses. “Delboi Inc — Buy the best, be the best.”
“You see his product listings?” Ricky pressed a greasy finger to the monitor. “Enforcer robots. Top quality, lowest prices.”
Albert shrugged. “Well, I suppose you don’t have much choice anyway.”
Ricky waved Albert away with a hand. “Go on. Get back to work whilst I sort this out.”
Albert flinched from Ricky’s hand and walked off. He returned to the lab as Ricky dialled the advert’s number. As Albert closed the door he heard a merry voice answer the call.
“Buy the best, be the best – Delboi speaking.”
Albert rolled his eyes and pulled the door shut. He crossed the lab and opened a fridge. Each shelf was lined with chemicals and compounds. On the bottom shelf, tucked behind a case of solvent, was a small green bottle of Idarucizemik.
Albert chewed his lip. If he cleaned another batch of White Dime he knew the end user would be safe. Though the work would take another six hours. He let out a sigh. He’d have to cut it dirty to make enough in time to save Ricky’s sorry arse.
Albert shut the fridge and walked to the window. He pinched apart the blinds and peered below. Beneath the billboard blimp the streets still thronged in the rain. Shoppers hauled bags as office workers lunched at noodle stands. Teenagers wound through traffic on hoverboards and holograms smiled from display windows.
Away from the street was the dark of an alley. Albert squinted at the slouched shapes sat in the puddles. A huddle of Junkies, gaunt and pale. He saw a young woman roll her head in her hands as a rat bounced over her feet. She looked up and smiled like a child.
Albert let go the blinds.
He returned to the fridge, pulled out the Idarucizemik and began to cut a new clean batch.
Ricky burst through the door.
Albert blinked and looked up from the Petri dish. “What’s on?”
“I got a meet set up to buy a robot enforcer. Rourke won’t mess with me now.”
“Ok. Where is this meet? Here?”
“No, no. This Delboi wants to meet in the alley behind Happy Towers.”
“Meet in the alley behind Happy Towers? Could you have chosen anywhere more dangerous?”
“Happy Towers is fine. The addicts moved out after the last flooding.”
Albert raised an eyebrow. “If you say so. Just watch your back there.”
“I don’t need to watch my back. You will.”
Albert sat up. “Me? If there’s trouble, I don’t even know how to shoot a gun.”
“You don’t have to, just look mean.”
Albert fumbled a sleeve and thumbed his glasses again.
“Here,” Ricky said as he tossed over a set of keys. “You can fly.”
The hovercar wipers squeaked as the rain danced off the windscreen. Albert gripped the control wheel and looked through his side window. They flew between a warren of high-rises; each an edifice of steel and concrete with a sprawl of square, yellow windows. Happy Towers came into view and Albert sunk in his seat.
“Down there, Albert.” Ricky bounced as he pointed towards a stretch of shadow. “Park in that alley.”
Albert pushed the control wheel forward, decelerated, and descended to park behind Happy Towers. Puddles rippled under each thruster as they came to a halt.
Ricky passed Albert a gun and climbed from the hovercar. “Come on chump. Delboi will be here any minute.”
Albert tucked the gun into a pocket and peered out the windows. The alley was narrow and dark and only the glow of their headlights lifted the gloom. The puddles gleamed with an oily sheen as storm drains remained choked by litter. Albert pulled his collar tight against the drizzle and tucked a hand inside his pocket. His gun felt cold as his fingers groped for the safety switch.
“Ricky,” Albert whispered as he climbed from the hovercar. “How do I turn this gun on?”
“Turn it on?” Ricky craned his neck back and pointed above. “Hey look, that’s Delboi.”
Albert shielded his glasses and looked into the rain. From a sky-lane he saw a hovervan descend upon the glare of three thrusters. The vehicle sank into the alley and parked before them. Albert spied a head through the windscreen that only just saw over the dashboard. A yellow door creaked open and a small man jumped out with a splash.
“That’ll be Delboi I take it,” Albert said. He let go of his gun.
Delboi padded his steps through the puddles and stopped before them. He clapped his hands together with a chink of wrist chains.
“Evening gentlemen.” Delboi reached out and shook their hands. “Fine weather, aye? Now tell me, which one of you smarts is looking to buy a deluxe robot, eh?”
Ricky stepped forward and circled Delboi.
“That would be me.” Ricky waved his gun. “This robot better be as promised, you hear? I don’t want no messing about.”
Delboi held open his arms and took Ricky by the shoulder. “Of course, my friend, of course. There’ll be no gaff with me. And don’t you worry – this bot is the finest second-hand enforcer on sale.”
“Second-hand?” Ricky screwed up his face.
“Sure, so to speak. This robot is highly sought after.” Delboi winked. “By the police.”
“Ah,” Ricky smiled and tucked his gun behind his belt. “Just my kind of man. Alright, let’s have a look at it.”
Delboi trotted ahead and clunked open the rear doors of his hovervan.
Ricky looked inside and rubbed his hands with a wide grin. “Very nice.”
Albert shuffled to peered over Delboi’s head. In the back of the hovervan he saw an enforcer robot stood before a clutter of bags and boxes. Its posture was straight, chin high as its armour gleamed with polish. It looked sleek and agile, limbs strong yet supple. The face was hidden behind a solid mask that bore a single red lens for an eye. Albert nodded. It did look impressive.
“Hmm.” Ricky tapped his chin. “Where’s its guns.”
“No need. Just use one of your own.” Delboi leaned his elbow against the door. “It has been programmed with the latest marksmanship algorithms. The aim is as sharp as any Mil-Tech enforcer.”
Ricky crossed his arms. “I want to see. Albert, give it your gun.”
Delboi pushed himself off the door. “Well, look here my friend. I would love to give you a show but time’s short and I need to be quick.”
Ricky shook his head. “No show, no sale.”
Delboi rubbed his chin. “Thing is, this robot is an acquired good. If we stand here whilst the robot pops a few rounds we could attract the attention of the police. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a trip to New Utopia.”
Ricky grunted at the prospect.
“Alright,” he said. “But at least show me its battery isn’t flat.”
“Sure, sure. A quick walk around then.” Delboi leaned into the back of the hovervan and clicked his fingers. “Stacy-3837, take a stroll.”
Albert’s eyebrows arched over his glasses. “Stacy?”
“No,” Delboi said. “Stacy-3837.”
Albert looked to Ricky as the robot stepped out into the rain. He moved aside as it strode in a circle with a bounce of hips and a brush of hands.
Ricky frowned. “Its walk is a bit… dainty.”
“Dainty?” Delboi said. “No, no. It walks like a ninja – deadly.”
Ricky tapped his chin as Albert shook his head. When the robot strode passed him, he reached to tap its armour.
“Best not,” Delboi chirped as he masked Albert’s hand with his own. “Like I said – deadly. It’d twist your hand off before your stump can squirt.”
Albert tucked his hands inside his pockets and stepped behind Ricky.
“I think you should forget it, Ricky. The robot’s… not right.”
“Not right?” Delboi pushed between them and put his arm around Ricky’s shoulders. “Look, Ricky, I’ve heard of you and I know your business. Not my cup of tea, sure, but you have my respect. And so do the streets.”
“Really?” Ricky stood straight.
“Oh, sure.” Delboi grinned. “My brother loves your dope. Says its the cleanest White Dime in the whole city.”
“Well, I do try my best to cut clean.” Ricky glanced at Albert.
Delboi stood before Ricky. “But your rivals are jealous. Especially the Yakuza, right?
Ricky screwed his face up at the name.
“But with an enforcer robot like that,” Delboi pointed to Stacy-3837. “You’ll be untouchable. Hell, you could even hustle in on Yakuza turf.”
Ricky looked at the robot as thoughts of grandeur span behind his eyes. He took in a deep breath and smiled. “Alright. You’ve got a deal.”
Delboi clapped his hands. “Lovely jubbly.”
Albert threw up his own and walked back to the hovercar.
“Hey, Albert,” Ricky shouted. “Open a door for Stacy, would you?”
Albert opened a passenger door and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Behind him, Stacy-3837 came and sat. It crossed its legs, laid an arm along the back seats and pushed its chest forward.
Albert watched Ricky hand Delboi his cred-stick. Delboi gave Ricky a pat on the back and scuttled back through the puddle to his hovervan.
Ricky rubbed his hands and called out to Delboi. “Yakuza’s turf will be mine. Stacy-3837 will kick their ass for me.”
Delboi laughed. “Sure, she’ll blow them away.”
He clunked his door shut, fired up his thrusters and rose into the sky. In an instant, he was gone.
Ricky jumped back into the hovercar as Albert started the engine.
“Coo,” Ricky said as he slapped his knees in excitement. “Tonight is going to be good.”
“So you still want to try and intimidate Rourke?” Albert looked over his shoulder at Stacy-3837.
“Intimidate him?” Ricky waved his gun at Stacy. “I’m going to have my robot kill him.”
“Kill him? I thought the plan with this… enforcer was to scare him.”
Ricky clicked his cheek. “Sod that, Albert. It’s time for greater plans. With this robot I’m going to grab the Yakuza’s turf. But first they need to see I mean business, and I’ll do that by fucking up the Sheriff.”
“Fucking,” Stacy said, her voice soft.
Ricky laughed and slapped a hand on the dashboard. “You see, even the robot’s up for it.”
He tapped the navigation console, ignited the thrusters, and flew back to the office with a squeak of wipers.
Albert followed Ricky and Stacy-3837 back into the office.
“Right,” Ricky said with a smile as wide as his desk. “Get that robot hidden in the lab and give it your gun.” He looked at a wall clock. “It won’t be long until Rourke shows up.”
Albert shook the rain off his coat and pointed Stacy towards the lab. “Step into the lab,” he instructed.
Albert followed her as she strode ahead with a bounce of hips. When they entered the lab, he instructed her to halt. He pulled out his gun, gave the robot a stare, and handed it the weapon. Stacy reached out and with a gentle touch and took the gun by its hilt.
“Point the gun at the floor,” Albert ordered.
Stacy lowered the gun and stood still with the gleam of wet armour.
Albert turned for his workstation and paused. He looked back at Stacy-3837 and noticed a crack on its mask. He stepped closer and examined the fitting. It was broken and the mask had slipped a fraction open.
A minor issue, Albert concluded, but a vulnerability nonetheless. He searched his pockets and pulled out a pen. He pinched one end and used the other to prod the mask back into place. The armour felt light, almost like plastic. The mask wobbled and slipped another fraction. Albert stepped away, not wanting a stump for a hand.
He turned to call for Ricky to a have a look instead. His words were cut by the buzz of the voice-com and he tensed as Frank’s voice announced Rourke’s return.
Albert crept up to the lab door and peered into the office. Ricky was sat in his seat, feet upon the desk as he smiled at Rourke’s approaching footsteps. The door swung open and Rourke appeared; his clothes as wet as his combed hair.
“A bit wet Sheriff?” Ricky said with a grin.
“Just pay my due, Ricky – or get shipped off to New Utopia.”
Rourke stepped up to the desk. He opened a palm as he dangled hand-cuffs from his other.
Ricky pretended not to notice as he stretched and yawned. “It’s been a long day, old boy. Running around, trying to earn your money.” He stood up and walked towards the lab. He paused and held up a finger. “But, with some ingenuity, I have managed to acquire your due.” He turned to the lab. “Stacy-3837, come here.”
Albert sank from the doorway as Stacy sauntered passed and entered the office. Rourke stepped back and reached for his pistol. His hand froze when he spied the gun held by Stacy.
“What is this, Ricky?” he spat.
Ricky placed his hands on each hip and strutted beside the robot. “This is your – long overdue – payment, Rourke.” He smiled with eyes transfixed on Rourke’s expression.
“You’re making a big mistake, Ricky.”
“Sure, sure. A big mistake.” Ricky winked at Albert in the doorway. “Stacy-3837, kill the Sheriff.”
The robot didn’t move.
Rourke took another step back, his hand hesitant to pull out his pistol.
Ricky snapped a look at the robot. “Attack,” he shouted.
The robot remained motionless.
Ricky clenched his jaw. “Attack damn it.”
He kicked Stacy-3837. Its mask slipped and fell to the floor to reveal the face of a woman with red lips, parted like a sex doll’s.
“What the fuck,” Ricky exclaimed.
“Fuck,” the robot replied. It pouted at him.
Albert hid his smile as Rourke burst into laughter.
“I see Delboi found a customer after all,” Rourke said. He unholstered his pistol and jangled the handcuffs at Ricky. “So, New Utopia it is then.” Rourke grinned. “And by all means, Ricky – bring your doll along too.”