Grandma, what big needles you have--Little Red Riding Junkie

Why Grammy Don't Do Hardbake

by Michael Trice © 2004

The rat-a-tat-tat jolteed Ryan from the couch where he slept, a wrinkled sheet falling from on top of him to the carpet below and managing somehow to flow mostly underneath the inch-wide crevice between couch and floor. The taste of last night's indulgences swarmed away thoughts of an interrupted dream: mostly of a slow walk through grass laden hills in a deep night.

Weird shit that he could care less about.

Rat-a-tat-tat, again, louder than before, the sound rising almost to a thumping against the metal door to his apartment.

"Hold yer damn horses," he shouted through the grime of his mouth. Too much flesh rippled over the worn-thin tops of his briefs when he pushed himself off the couch, so he hiked the band of the cloth up on his way to the door. Again, the pounding at the door.

"I'm comin' ya son-of-a-bitch."

There was an ache in his muscles that he tried to stretch out by bending his shoulders back as if to knock at one with the other, but the pain would not subside. Pressing one hand against a cold metal panel to the left of the door, he mumbled an unintelligible curse. A static-riddled image of a short kid, his skin patchy brown like a mange-infected cat, appeared at eye-level projected by a holo-recorder in the ceiling.

"Jesus, Jesus," he shouted at the door, "this better be fuckin' life and death."

"It is, Mr. Terrance--Grammy's man, Harrison, cut Peter down at the Synnporium."

"Fuck." The door opened with a push. Jesus squeezed in quickly as he could manage.

"What happened?" Ryan demanded with a punch to the panel that sealed the door; Jesus jolted a bit at the sudden imprisonment, but recovered quickly. He gave Ryan a nasty yellow grin.

"Like I said, Peter got bled at George's place--I saw it goin' down. Ain't seen blood like that since some college Protected tried a softbake needle and opened a major flow. Nasty shit."

"You tellin' me he's dead?" Ryan asked.

Course, Jesus was not telling him anything except what the little street rat thought was a good story--all description and no content.

"Why did he get bled?"

"Hell, I ain't clued," Jesus said with a shrug. "But I can give some of the know for a bit a fix."

Ryan shook his head.

"You better have a helluva'lotta know," he sneered. Ryan stepped back a bit before turning away into the apartment's interior. "Stay there, and don't touch nothin' if you wanta walk out with both legs."

Not that there was much to touch about the front room of the apartment; having to do business out of it here and there, Ryan kept nothing more than the couch, his sheet, a row of books on an old tin shelf, and a small, round plastic table--the kind Protected would let their kids play around in a backyard--on which rested a bottle of gin and some rolled smokes. There were two interior doors: one to a seldom used kitchen and another that led off to the bedroom and john.

‘Course, he had long ago dispensed with the bedroom as such, using the space to keep himself gainfully employed. A large glass case spanned the right wall of the room--an aquarium of sorts. Tall as a short man, the whole thing came up just to the top of his chest. The contraption jutted out about arm's length from the wall, and a silvery mist cluttered the largely empty interior of the case. The exterior edges were lined in steel, with a large panel and wedge-shaped door off in the upper right corner. The wedge was designed so that the interior space of it was always cut off from either the outside air or the mist within the tank.

Ryan grabbed a two-inch plastic probe from one of the many cluttered shelves in the room, then walked over to the tank, opened the glass wedge, dropped in the small device and closed the wedge. A quick look back at the bedroom entryway assured him that Jesus was behaving, so he punched a series of codes and waited.

Slowly the probe began to shift colors, the mist in the case filling the device. Ryan shut off the flow from the wedge. Taking the now blue-tinged probe out of the wedge, he returned to the front of apartment and tossed it over to Jesus.

"There," Ryan said, "now spill it."

Jesus quickly popped the tube into his mouth and chewed the end, the flush of pleasure lighting his face while saliva trickled down one corner of his mouth.

"Yeah," he sighed before he began to mumble through his chewing. "Nothin' lak harbahk."

"Take that damn thing outta your mouth long enough to tell me what happened or I'll cram it up your lower orifice--that's your ass, Jesus."

The kid's hand trembled for a second when he tried to reach for the tube, his fingers slowly pulling on the plastic and dragging it across his dry lips as they nipple-sucked the tube for as long as he could draw it out. Only when Ryan actually moved to cover the distance between them did Jesus fully remove the plastic from his mouth.

"It went crazy like this," he said in a hurry. "I was lookin' for some trophy for the college Protected. I know y'all say they won't buy off me because I don't look Protected, but some, the ones in the know, they see my skin and think there's a guy who got trophy, so I do some with them and turn the cap'. So, I was there, pickin' up softbake, cause no Protected is gonna buy hardbake off me, and I see Peter bouncin' some perky silicon on his leg, when in comes Harrison with a burner open in hand. Shuts the whole place quiet, and George, he don't say shit as Harrison walks up and puts one into Peter like no one else is there. Shit, ain't no reason we called the unProtected for nothin'."

Ryan slammed his fist into the wall and brought Jesus' story to a halt.

"What bout me, Jesus?" he asked while reaching under the couch and pulling out a long metallic rod. "You tellin' me someone can just walk into the Synnporium and burn a known man of mine. That's bullshit."

There was a pause and Ryan stared at Jesus, eyes lit with the dare of him to speak.

"You ain't been seen much lately. People sayin' that Grammy Elise got it all goin', and you just pick up the leftovers. They say there won't be no payback. They say hardbake ain't for the hard. That's all I say, what they sayin'."

"That's what they sayin', huh?" he asked. "Take this," he tossed the rod over to him. "Don't fuck with it, I pulled it off some Korean business man finishing his vacation drownin' in a pool out some back alley. It'd be hard to come up with another."

"What ya want me to do with it?"

"Meet me out back a the Synnporium in about sixty, and I'll show ya well enough," Ryan told him. "Now get scarce and don't flake on me, or you'll find how hard a hardbake withdrawal can be. Ya never been without long enough to know how those little metal bugs in your blood make a body pretty fuckin' dependant. I seen a man fall right apart bodily if he ain't get his fix."

Jesus nodded while Ryan walked over and leaned against the door panel. The door popped open letting Jesus slip out. Ryan let the door close and went into the bathroom to grab a robe off the rack. Wrapping the faded red robe about him, Ryan tied off the cotton belt, picked up his keypad, and left the apartment.

It was a warm day: the heat rising off the asphalt and baking under the coal-burnt sky was just topping the century mark. Here and there kids sat under the shade of a porch stoop, peeling the strings off dried pees and husking the corn grown on the buildings' roofs. They listened to the street melodies set up by their older brothers and sisters--public service announcements meant to deter crime and instruct the unProtected on how to behave. Years ago the older street rats had made an art form out of reprogramming the digital announcers with a static backbeat and spliced the messages to their own. Now they were a rhythmic cry that the Protected never gave damn enough about to change; though, Ryan heard that suits often took to recording the new mixes and selling them to the Protected's own rats. The beat was the only competition that faced softbake or hardbake in the hearts of the Protected--and unProtected alike so far as Ryan cared.

The trip down to the Synnporium was a short eight blocks. There had been a time when it was a museum, but not now. The windows were dark, and neon ruled a perpetual night within. Softbake, hardbake, hard drink, easy women and easy men filled every crevice twenty-four-seven . It was a pleasure palace in the middle of Hell and Hell's capital all in one. The doors were always open, but only the green ensured action once within the grape-colored walls. Green that rightfully belonged to him, not that bitch Grammy.

The Synnporium did a lot of business with university Protected. Just a few hundred yards from the guarded walls of the university, the Synnporium offered students a chance to lose their green and their Protected inherited virginity. That was what made it prime as much as that all the unProtected hung there the same.

Ryan pushed open the door, was washed with fumes of inhaled softbake and the rhythm of a heavy backbeat, and stood there looking the whole crowd through and through. Even at this early hour their bodies writhed about the smoke of the place, some dancing, others absorbed in more indulgent motions.

Harrison was nowhere in the sea of flesh that Ryan could make out. George was there, though, and so were some of his toughs. One of them, a tall white-guy with his hair cut short to blend with a balding scalp, made his way to Ryan while George eyed him from his place behind a long counter that spanned the right side of the main room. The wall of people around him were lost in their own intoxications, oblivious to even those next to them more often than not. Better that than to smell and see what it was that lived beside you day in and day out; a rat could only pretend he was different so long when it was all he could see.

The guy making his way over to Ryan was broad-shouldered and there was something familiar about his face, but Ryan could not quite place him. It had been too long since he had been down here in person.

"Lookin' bit down on your luck in that robe."

"Fuck off."

"George says ya need to git out," the balding man told him while placing his thick body between Ryan and the bar.

"Aint got nothin' to do with you or your boss, but I aint leavin' either," Ryan said with a push to the man's shoulder. There was a moment of surprise on the other man's face at his shove, but it faded quick to agitation. He brought up a heavy hand and made to grab Ryan's arm. Ryan followed the man's eyes, seeing that he was being lazy and only watching where he was trying to grab, Ryan thrust a knee hard into his groin, then followed the movement by slamming the man's slumping head into his other knee. The force of the impact brought the man down.

Few of the patrons even noticed the exchange and no one much did or said anything from that point when he approached the bar. George shook his head at a couple of other figures who watched Ryan closely, but none of them made a move towards him.

George was a man on the threshold of obesity, whose rolls of fat could not be well hidden by the layers of fine Turkish clothes he wore. At the same time, the rings and piercings that adorned his body seemed to bob in flesh. In his younger days George had prided himself on the fine shape of his body, but he had always been lazy. Catching on in the early days of hardbake, he used some poorly designed micro-bots as a substitute for steroids. Unfortunately, his ligaments had not been able to keep up with the metabolism of the nannites and the growth of his own muscles, nearly resulting in an odd sort of paralysis. Once he stopped using, his own laziness took over, turning his statuesque build into a pile of greasy blubber.

Still, George had never been one to hold his own shortcomings against the hardbake or its dealers.

"I'm looking' for Harrison," Ryan told George from across the bar.

"Thought that'd be the case. Ya shouldn't be here, Ryan--ya know ya been too long gone."

"That's what I'm here to fix."

"Can't be fixed now. Not with any ease."

"Ya gonna get me clued on where he is?"

"Here," George said. "He's here with some piece of silicon ass. You should leave though. He's threat enough, but even if ya bleed Harrison, ya can't compete with Grammy Elise. No rat can."


"A table that way, near the back. He aint with no one but the girl, so I'd 'preciate ya takin' it out back."

Ryan nodded before turning to leave. George was right in some ways. Grammy had resources, that was for certain. That was part of the old way: the need to get softbake in was harder and it had to be protected. What that came down to was that Grammy had the numbers and contacts to wage a war he would never win. Fear had to be his main ally, and Harrison was going to help him out with that.

Even so early in the day, the Synnporium was crowded with unProtected, along with a handful of college Protected that were well on the way to becoming permanent residents. The haze of acridly sweet smoke seduced his senses, replacing the clarity of oxygen with the surreal nature of the vapors own reality. He pushed through the soft press of bodies that drifted and crawled through the spaces of the Synnporium, making his way to the rear of the expansive ground floor. Harrison was not hard to find. Sitting at a small table with only his burner and a drink beside him, the tall, dark-skinned man somehow managed to appear separated from the swirling of the intoxicating mist, the writhing red, blue, yellow of clothing, and variances of flesh. No one moved near him save a pretty young girl with long tendrils of braided, strawberry-blond hair, her arms scarred with the advertisements of softbake. She filled his drink, whispered something into his ear, and was rewarded with a smile before he waved her away. Harrison's eyes followed the her lithe form and nodded with his head for Ryan to join him.

Harrison's hair was black and gray like worn asphalt, his large frame more naturally solid than crafted muscle. There was still a bearing of authority to him, a shadow of what Ryan could recall of one of the last men to walk this part of town as a Protector. Grammy had eaten away at much of that, but kept just enough alive to serve her own ends.

"Take a seat."

Walking up, he stood opposite the table from Harrison, the small gun resting only a foot or so from where Ryan laid his hands upon the table. He did not sit, but watched Harrison as the other lifted a glass of clear liquid to his lips, moistened them, without ever looking up at him.

"I'll stand."

"It's a hot day out there," Harrison said, his eyes meeting Ryan's.

They were soft, hazel and watery like an old watchdog, wary and tired.

"Every day seems to keep growing hotter and hotter. You have to wonder how much they can take."

"I'm not here to talk about the weather, you son-of-a-bitch."

"What do you want to talk about, Ryan? The love of a good woman?"

"Not what I'm here for, neither."

"A man, then? I'm not judging, just asking?"

"I'm here cause I been clued 'bout a man. One you bled."

"Leave while you can, kid," Harrison said looking cautiously about the crowd before turning back to Ryan. "Leave and let everyone forget about you, let Elise forget about you. She might just let you live. She's shown grace before, sometimes. You'll have to stay out or move on, but you'll live, Ryan. You'll live. No other option is going to give you that."

"That aint no option for me. We both know that. You come from the outside. I've been there. There's no life out there for us, no freedom. Kept safe like prisoners. This is all I got. No fuckin' way I'm lettin' Grammy take that."

"She already has, Ryan. You just don't know it yet. She won the moment you came in here."

"I still gotta take my chance."

Ryan went for the burner, his hand only a fraction of a second slower than Harrison's in covering the plastic casing. Yet, even before Ryan realized he was too late, Harrison had the burner in hand, firing one shot into his left shoulder. The tiny slug from the gun buried itself deep into his flesh, throbbing, then burning with an unbearable heat as the incendiary center ignited. There was a burst of charred flesh, followed quickly by Ryan's screams while he fell face first onto the table.

Faint shouts echoed in his head like distant ghosts from the other patrons of the Synnporium. Blood ran down his face from the where his nose slammed into the table. There was a struggle to remain conscious, to fight off the effects of the shock. Somewhere distant he thought he heard shouting that sounded like George. Then rough hands, there was no way to tell how many, took hold of him, moving his sagging body.

There was a moment when he thought that he had blacked out, but the rush of light and the hard impact of the concrete alley brought back some sense of presence to his mind. While he lay prone on the asphalt, hovering tentatively to conscious thought, a hand pushed against his throat, grasping it tightly, but not blocking his breathing.

"Maybe I should kill you. It'd be easier on you than this."

Ryan forced open his eyes, looking up at Harrison, seeing that same sadness now clearly on display with the man's head silhouetted against the sun and sky.

"Leave me," Ryan breathed. He turned his head, looking down the alleyway. "I aint no trouble, now."

"This time."

Harrison stood, wiping blood from his hands onto Ryan's robe before turning back to the rear door of the Synnporium. Ryan watched the man leave before pushing himself up into a sitting position with his elbows. He sucked in air heavily, trying to force his body to stabilize itself enough to let him speak.

"Hey, Jesus, you here?" he managed.

There was a rustle from farther down the alley. A bit of debris moved out from behind an old ATM, eyes peaking from around the broken turret--the gun stolen long ago by someone who found it more valuable than the cash it once protected.

"Yeah, fuck, I'm here. I was sure ya were 'bout to be bled hard. Damn, what were ya thinkin'?"

"Shut up and give me the damn stick."

"'kay. No problem, Mr. Terrance, I was only sayin'."

"I said shut the fuck up, Jesus." Ryan had no idea if it was the edge in his voice, the words, or the glare he leveled at Jesus that shut him up and he really did not care. The street rat scurried out from his hiding place, carrying the Korean rod over to him. Ryan took the rod in his left hand, loosely holding the device to try and lessen the pull of the weight against his shoulder while the other hand grabbed a hold of Jesus to pull himself from the alley street.

"I need ya to do me one more thing, Jesus. You do and I'll fix ya up solid."

"I don't wanna git bled," the boy told him.

"Ya won't. But ya gotta help me get inside."

Jesus nodded.

"Good," Ryan said with smile and a light squeeze of Jesus' shoulder. The two worked their way slowly to the backdoor of the Synnporium. Ryan tried lifting the rod with his left hand, but what remained of his shoulder barely had the strength to hold on, let alone move his arm with any force.

He found his walk steady though. The blow to his face had been messy, but mostly superficial. Looking down his chest he could see where blood splattered the robe and the top of his chest that been left uncovered when he fell. Shifting his weight away from Jesus, he stood on his own while the boy opened the back door and took hold of the rod in his right hand.

The two entered the Synnporium discreetly, Jesus quickly closing the door behind them to prevent too much light from filtering in and drawing attention to their entrance. A handful of people looked their way, but no one made eye contact, no one said a word in their direction. Ryan picked out Harrison at the same table, his back placed to them, still nursing his drink. Each step towards Harrison felt too loud to Ryan, even his breathing seemed to echo over the thumping music of the Synnporium, but Harrison did not turn. The man never looked up or seemed to know what was coming when Ryan raised the rod high over head and brought it smashing against the back of Harrison's skull.

The blow struck with a solid, grisly crunch that quieted the Synnporium, save the ever-present sound of the backbeat. Heads turned and watched with surprise and fear as Harrison slumped to the floor, his hand still trying to reach for his burner while his body fell. Ryan pressed a button on the rod causing a thin circle of wire supported by three tiny cables to sprout from the device's head. There was a buzz from the wire the moment it came to life, Ryan quickly swinging it at Harrison's hand, severing it at the wrist. The floor finally caught Harrison in his fall, his face grimacing with pain while he held the stump of his left arm with his remaining hand. The wire had little heat to it so the blood ran freely from the wound.

Ryan hurriedly switched the rod to his limp hand, picking up the gun in his other. Some of George's men made to move on him, but were held at bay by the sight of the burner in his hand.

"I want ya to take that message back to Grammy," Ryan said loud enough for everyone to hear. "Peter was one of mine an' I'll do what I gotta for my own. You tell her to stay off me, Harrison."

"It's too late, Ryan. I already told you. You've already lost."

"We'll see about that," he said handing the rod over to Jesus. "Just take the message back to her. I'm sure this'll give her second thoughts."

Harrison shook his head.

"She wanted this. That's why I was sent to kill Peter. To get you out here long enough so some others could break into your apartment and destroy the hardbake. You've already lost everything, Ryan, the moment you stepped in here. I tried to tell you. You can't win against Grammy."

Ryan swallowed. There was only one response he could have; Harrison knew what it was, and that meant he was telling the truth. Grammy had ruined him. There would be bodies back at his place. Some young street rats she had sent to smash up the place, OD'ed by the swarm of hardbake released when they smashed the aquarium. Hell, there may have been enough there to kill a floor or two once let loose.

Grammy would have known.

Ryan raised the burner and fired a shot. The pellet hit Harrison in the head, his body slumping forward even before the slug discharged its chemical fire. Looking around, Ryan saw the fear and sadness on the eyes of the men and women in the Synnporium. He doubted any of them had given a fraction of that much thought to Peter's death only hours before. Harrison was one of the few lives that had meant enough around here for people to understand its loss. Grammy was going to have to kill him now.

He looked around for George, but the fat man was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was already calling her. Some of his men looked as if they might try and move on Ryan even with the burner.

None did though, they just stared at Harrison's body, watching while patrons stumbled away in their haze, the shock not enough to fully awake them from their waking comas. Ryan tossed the gun aside and walked out the back door. Jesus followed quickly behind him.

"Mr. Terrance, ya gonna need this," he said.

Ryan turned and looked at the Korean rod Jesus held out.

"Ain't gonna do me no good, Jesus."

The kid was quiet for a moment while they stood there.

"Where ya gonna go?"

"Don't know. Away. Try and get out before she finds me. I hear San Antone's got a healthy business for hardbake. Maybe there."

"Ya think they got their own Grammy Elise, ya know, down there?"

"Probably, Jesus, probably."

x x x

The language and subject matter here remind me a bit of A Clockwork Orange. More questions than answers, of course--what is "hardbake"? who is "Granny"? when and where is this all taking place?--a bizarre world sketched short and with some skill by Mr. Trice. Is there more about George to come, Michael? - GM

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