the place, a city in the US.
You sit at a cluttered bench in a darkened back room, a single reading lamp illuminating a riot of circuits and gleaming mechanical assemblies. Old stuff. Valuable. Practically priceless, since they cut off the Malaysian pipeline. A wisp of smoke caresses your face, carrying the scent of vaporized resin, molten tin, and lead. A bead of sweat rises on your forehead. This work is delicate: this piece is old, and if the traces lift that would be just too bad.
The sharp clang of a brass bell and the slam of the door break your concentration. "Damn," you mutter, "who the hell can that be."
You slip through the curtain, careful not to reveal any of the very incriminating goods back there, and let out a low whistle. It's a dame, and what a dame.
"Can you help me?" she asks.
"If you're looking for baseball cards," you reply, indicating the dusty glass cases. "Can I interest you in a Roger Clemens, he's real meat."
"Yeah, you, know, pre-virtual." You watch her closely. She's hard to read, but one thing is certain, no broad ever strolled through this neighborhood at a eleven at night shopping for a goddamned baseball card.
"A friend sent me," she says, in a high tense, slightly quavering voice.
"Oh, yeah, what's his name." Your eyes narrow suspiciously. You don't like where this is going and you're too corrupt to buy the doe-eyed innocent routine from anyone who walks in off the street. Quavers can be affected, and you're practically a connoisseur.
"Maybe you'll recognize him," she says more briskly, reaching into her purse.
You suck your breath involuntarily through your teeth. "iPod," you whisper, "old by the looks of it."
"Original firmware" she purrs.
Original firmware. Easier to penetrate than a bus station whore. But this whole situation stinks bad. You're practically the only one left; better guys than you didn't last because they couldn't smell a setup. This lady may not know about the syndicate takeover of baseball in '10, but she's very au courant about stuff she has no business being.
"Lady, you must have me confused with somebody else. Monkeying with one of those things is very illegal. I don't know where you found it, but I suggest you turn it into the Department of Free Expression right away."
"Oh, I think I have the right man," she says with a laugh like breaking glass. There's a glint of steely amusement in her eyes as they flick down to your right hand.
Suddenly you become aware of the smell of hot lead. Idiot! You never put down the damned soldering iron. If she had be DFE you'd be iced by now. You'd be lucky to be iced, instead of declared "illegal information operative" and put on a plane to one of their offshore IIO interrogation facilities.
You flick off the lights. Stepping around the counter, you squeeze past her to turn the sign on the door to "Closed". Looking through the door window and up the stairs, you see a car idling at the curb with its lights off. Dark tinted windows, but there's at least a driver and who knows what they've got pointed towards you. You flick a concealed switch, and the car door opens suddenly, and vomits out an obvious goon with murder in his eyes. His headphones are still on, and he fumbles with his IR window rig as he reaches into his waistband for something more lethal. Looking past you he stops short, and apparently changes his mind, getting back into the car. You turn to see her covering up her look of disapproval.
So the lady is boss. And the goon too nicely tailored and poorly barbered to be government issue. And if they're not official, there's only one other kind of people interested in what you do: unprincipled. It's nice to deal with people who have predictable priorities. Carriage trade too, by the looks of it. While you've seen more professional goons in your time, good help is notoriously hard to come by.
"What was that about?" she asks.
"Here, let me show you." You take her hand and put it on the window. Her dainty hand is warm and soft, but dead feeling, like a fresh corpse. The window, on the other hand, is ice cold and hard, but thrumming and vibrating. She raises one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows in surprise. "He doesn't like my 'cast" you say, with a wicked grin. "Strictly for my private customers, you understand?"
You pull the shades. The only light is filtering in over the transom. "It's very dark in here," the lady says.
"Oh, I like it dark," you reply. And you do. You're like a mushroom, and your little shop is a close to a cave under a rock as you can manage. It doesn't even have a back entrance: the kind of people you worry about don't overlook details like back entrances. Any visitors have to come in the front way, from under the bright street lamp and through your cramped coffin of a shop. Dark and cramped suits you very well. "We don't need light for what we need to do."
"Oh, and what is that?" she sneers, but her voice is a bit high pitched and tense. You've seen enough nervousness to know the real thing. All bravado and broken razor blades.
"Talk. You wanted to talk didn't you?" you reply. "We can talk, but it's gonna cost ya." Retirement is looking like a higher priority right now: that stunt with the soldering iron probably took ten years off your life. Mentally you tote up how much you need to kiss the business goodbye. Not much. At this rate, three years you'll have enough to change your name, move some place sunny and to kill yourelf with cheap booze, cigarettes and women. Maybe two years if you're not too greedy.
And you're too smart to get too greedy. Or so you've always told yourself. But you're about to be tempted like you've never been before.