To Cassie’s surprise, there was something approximating a real breakfast waiting for her in the kitchen.

“It’s our dirty secret,” Julilla said as they sipped real coffee and ate powdered eggs in a corner near the pantry. “Actually, it’s not that big a secret that a person needs calories in order to train and fight, but….” She looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

“Most of us suspected,” Cassie said. “We just didn’t know the details. That would be hard to deal with on a bad day.”

“The little bit of extra we get is barely enough on a hard training day. I’d hate to try and do it on your starvation rations.”

Cassie finished her coffee and accepted a Little Debbie oatmeal cake for dessert. A breakfast like this was almost worth the possibility they might have to fight.

They left the hotel as the sun cast its first glow over the skyscrapers, making patterns of light and shadows on the ravaged streets. They moved around an improvised barricade and stepped over the bodies of children sleeping with the deep oblivion of heavy drink and drugs. An early-rising mutt chased them for a block, yapping, but Julilla didn’t bother trying to shoot it.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

Julilla looked at her out of the corner of her eye. “Watercrest Lofts.”

Cassie shook her head. The name didn’t ring a bell.

“One of those fancy converted brownstones near the warehouse district.”

“You mean the whole urban renewal thing?”

“I mean where they raised the rents so the poor people would have to move out.”

“And what’s supposed to be at the lofts?”

“If my sources are correct, it’s where Thing One and Thing Two live.”

Somehow, Cassie wasn’t surprised. “Why do you think they’ve got the computer?”

Julilla stepped around a mangled bicycle frame, stripped of wheels and gears. “Remember the night they got into the hotel? I spent some time looking at how they climbed in our third-story window.”

Cassie remembered the way Julilla had stood at the window, running her hands across the sill, examining nicks and gouges.

“I saw the exact same types of marks on the window to Dr. Brody’s office yesterday. I know I’m no detective, but….”

“It’s better than no lead at all.”

“We’ll see when we get to the lofts.”

By the time they reached the warehouse district, the mysterious figures who had lurked in the shadows at dawn had given way to sleepy-eyed urchins lolling on curbs and their more enterprising brethren seeking to buy, sell, steal, or trade for breakfast. A group of dirty girls rushed Cassie and Julilla and tried to interest them in perfume and silk scarves, but went away when they found they had no food to trade. Some Pharm children chanted their medical offerings from a storefront kiosk. And on a corner, a tall boy in dirty robes shouted passages from the Bible and sang snatches of hymns while a girl in similar garb sat at his feet strumming a guitar.

Cassie was trying to take it all in when a rangy brown-skinned boy ran up to them. “Hey, babes, nice morning! You going somewhere? Want some coffee? I know a place where a pretty girl is always treated right.”

Julilla cocked an eyebrow. “Get out of here. You’re making a fool of yourself.”

“Don’t be like that, pretty lady. We all got to stick together and help each other out, you know. Let me show you—”

“I got something to show you.” Julilla drew her Glock.

The boy raised his hands and took a step back. “Now come on, friend, no need to get all Telo on a guy.”

“You’re not my friend.”

He turned appealing eyes on Cassie. “Tell her I’m one of the good guys.”

By now Cassie had drawn her pepper spray. “How would I know if you’re one of the good guys? Go away.”

“Why are you being this way?” He lowered his voice. “You don’t fool me. You’re not from this side of town. You need a guide. You need a friend. You need—”

Julilla fired into the ground at his feet. “You need to find another mark, you little shit.”

The boy leaped back with a snarl. “Fine, bitch. Be that way.”

Cassie and Julilla watched him slouch across the street where he started chatting up a girl in blue face paint. “I wonder what that was all about,” Cassie said.

“No telling. Probably some sort of pimp deal. Food, sex, you know…the basics.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Cassie said as they started walking again. “Especially not to put off dying for a few more months.”

“I couldn’t either, Telo or no Telo. I’ve seen what bastards men can be and that’s one area where I’m not compromising. But a lot of girls give it up, and for dumber reasons than just to get by for another day.”

“There was a girl from my school who was selling her services outside the Wal-Mart last winter,” Cassie said. “Me and Leila used to see her there and sometimes we’d try to talk her into quitting, but she said she could get canned peaches and Hershey bars doing what she was doing and no way was she quitting so she could eat rice and beans with us.”

“I hope it worked out for her.”

“It didn’t.” Cassie looked away. “We finally quit seeing her there and later someone said they saw her body in a ditch. Just her body. Her head was never found.”

“I’m sorry.”

Cassie gave a small shrug. “It wasn’t like she was a friend or anything. I just hope those Hershey bars were worth it.”

They were nearing the renovated district now, which was scarcely distinguishable from the slums which had been there prior to gentrification. Brick walls were pitted from gunfire and blackened from the smoke of blazes set in loft apartments, and in an empty corner lot, someone had set fire to a pile of tires and the smoke rose in a long black plume. A pack of children and yapping dogs ran past, their cries shrill in the morning air.

Julilla pointed. “I think that’s it up there. The one with the gargoyles.”

Cassie squinted, then laughed. “Whose idea was it to put gargoyles on an old warehouse? It looks ridiculous.”

“That’s developers for you. Anything to make someone think he’s getting something special instead of a recycled sweatshop.”

As they approached the converted warehouse, Julilla urged caution. “I don't know if it’s booby-trapped or what. I don’t even know if they’re here, but we were told these two like to sleep late, so we should be able to corner them if we can catch them by surprise.”

“Should we go in disguise?”

“Damn.” Julilla stopped in her tracks. “That’s a good idea. We should’ve gone to the Thespians and seen if we could borrow something.”

Cassie pondered. “We could check some of these other buildings for something to put on that would look…I don’t know. Less like we’re on a mission?”

The girls ducked around a corner and sat on the stoop of a brownstone to think. Finally Cassie had an idea. “Remember those religious people we saw a few blocks back? I wonder if they’d loan us their robes for a good cause?”

Julilla gave a slow smile and patted her Glock. “We can always use the persuader if they won’t cooperate willingly.”

“So you’re game?” Cassie got to her feet.

“Oh, hell yes.” Julilla gave an uncharacteristic giggle. “Jesus saves.”



Alice Audrey said...

Somehow I don't see costumes helping much.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

Teenage logic. These kids are smart about a lot of things, but they've got a lot to learn, too.

Alice Audrey said...

Lol. That's about right. Teenagers do tend to charge full force in ridiculous directions.