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He lived alone in a warren of rambling rooms in a downtown building that had seen better days even before the pandemic. Word on the street was that he had an entire closet stocked floor to ceiling with cases of tequila, which was a story Cuervo was disinclined to dispute, even though the real source of his nickname was his love of high places and his long, hooked nose like the beak of a crow. Rumors had their uses, and Cuervo wasn’t one to let any tool at his disposal go to waste.
Today’s visitor was a greasy-haired teenager who had once gone by the prosaic name of Craig but now insisted he be called Spike. Cuervo offered him a shot of tequila and motioned him toward a hard wooden chair, then threw himself onto a battered blue sofa and hoisted a bottle in his direction. The bottle contained mostly water, but feigning a prodigious tolerance for the hard stuff helped his reputation. “May the Telo not get you before your time.”
Spike tossed back his pure tequila and winced. “How do you stand it, man?”
“A guy grows used to it. The way I figure, I’m killing off the germs from the rotten food I get from you guys in trade.”
“Don’t give me that.” Spike set the glass on the floor by his feet. “You eat as well as any of us, and you’re not even a member of our gang.”
“Didn’t mean to imply anything. Just stating a fact.” Cuervo took another hit off his bottle of phony tequila. “But let’s skip the bullshit; you came here for a reason. What can I do for you?”
Spike hesitated and darted a glance toward the door. Then, as if concluding there was no virtue in beating around the bush, he said, “Meds. We’ve got a sick girl in our group and we need antibiotics. Pain-killers too, if you’ve got them.”
“Only type of pain-killer I’ve got is the kind you just sampled. Why do you think—”
“Oh, come on.” Spike got to his feet. “Everyone knows you work for the Pharms, and this—” he waved an arm to indicate the ramshackle rooms, “—is just a cover. What’s your price? We’ve got Gatorade, Cheerios, watch batteries, powdered eggs…”
Cuervo had started to sit up, but now he lay back against the cushions as Spike continued his spiel. So they thought he worked for the Pharms, did they? Interesting. He sucked on his bottle and considered. The Pharms were one of the most powerful gangs in the city and controlled most of the remaining drug supply. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would think he, Cuervo, was one of them, but a rumor like that might be useful.
“So what do you think?”
Cuervo rubbed his chin and considered. He had no antibiotics and pain-killers, but he was on friendly terms with a few Pharms. If Spike hadn’t gone to them directly, it must be because they were enemies. Either that, or they thought Cuervo could cut them a better deal. He smiled. He’d make them a special offer, all right.
“Sit back down, friend.” He sat up and offered to refill Spike’s glass from the bottle of real tequila that he kept for guests. “Nothing’s too good for a trusted ally, especially not now that you know my secret.” He set the bottle on a small table and rested his elbows on his knees. “So tell me again what you plan to do for me. Then I’ll tell you how I can help.”
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