The punk's resolve broke before his third finger did, and after he stopped screaming he told me everything I wanted to know. Most of it was nothing new --the Stark cartel had been stealing auto parts from factories owned by Nutcracker Zalez-- but he filled in a few blanks that Boss Zalez had been on me to find out. More importantly, it meant I could quit dancing with this jerk-off and finally go home. I stripped off the blood-spattered "Kiss the Cook" apron and flung it into the lap of the bound gang member, stifling a yawn. Eddie would take care of the clean-up. Actually, knowing that lazy prick he'd probably just delegate the task to another one of the Lads, but that had nothing to do with me. My work was done for the day.
Nobody even tried to pick a fight with me as I hiked through the maze of dimly-lit corridors leading to my metrotower; I guess I looked every bit as haggard and irritable as I felt. The face reflected in the filthy aluminum elevator doors looked as ragged and worn as the guy I'd been beating on earlier. Minus the blood and junk, of course.
I shuffled into my luxurious fleabag apartment with an ironic "Honey, I'm home."
Sheryl was already dead on the floor when I got there. She lay on her side, half curled into the fetal position. Her eyes were half-open and thick foamy vomit had spilled from her mouth, pooling around her head. The puke had soaked into her blonde hair, fouling the only thing she'd ever liked about herself.
I'd been expecting this scene for years, but that didn't make it any easier to take.
"Aw, fuck, Sheryl. What did you do to yourself?" I gently pulled her away from the puddle of vomit. Her limbs dangled with the appalling boneless quality of the recently deceased, before rigor sets in. I sat her upright, propping her against the threadbare sofa. Grabbing a fistful of tissues, I squatted down and began wiping the filth off her face. I'm not sure why I bothered. It just didn't seem right to see her that way. It wasn't the first time I'd tried to restore dignity to Sheryl, a strung-out whore who had always seemed hell-bent on showing me she didn't have any. "Just like old times, huh, Sher?" I dabbed at some sick that had seeped into her open left eye.
I took particular care cleaning her hair. It was the only thing she'd been proud of, and the one part of herself she'd still tend to, even after she'd started letting the rest of her appearance go. Her hair had been one of the things I'd first noticed about her, too. A couple years back, Eddie and I had gotten assigned to beef up security at a munitions factory that a rival gang --those same Stark assholes-- had been moving in on, and every day on the way to the job we passed Sheryl standing on her corner. Endvale Sector is such a drab section of Ninevah, even more cheerless than the adjacent factory districts, but her blonde hair made her stand out from her surroundings like a magnesium flare.
I'd nodded to her in passing every night for two weeks. One night she'd had a black eye. The next night, when I was off the clock, I found her pimp and helped him fall down some stairs a few times. After that she never had another black eye. We started to date. After awhile she stopped charging me.
Eddie had thought I was out of my skull. "See how she's always wiping her nose, checkin' for blood? She's on Yellowjacket big time. She's a junkie whore, Bo. She's just going to lie to you and steal your money." But you know what? She didn't. At least, not any more than any other female I've ever been with.
She moved in with me. In some respects, living with a drug-addicted prostitute was easy for me. We both kept pretty much the same hours, she never complained about the sorry state of my apartment, and she knew enough to never ask me any uncomfortable questions about the way I earn my living.
I thought her Yellowjacket use would decrease after she'd been with me for some time. I'd known enough addicts to know better, but this was my Sheryl. She was different, right? If anything, the added stability of having me around helped her ruin herself. She had a guaranteed place to stay, and even if she had a slow day on the corner, I always had cash lying around. Oh, sure, I'd cut her off whenever I thought her habit was getting out of hand, but she'd inevitably disappear for a day or two, have a marathon trick-turning session, and wind up on my doorstep exhausted and sore but as high as a satellite.
It hadn't been all bad, we'd had some good times, but overall she just wasn't happy. Nothing I did made much of a difference either way. Recently, her smiles, infrequent at the best of times, had become even rarer, and her golden hair had turned dull, brittle and lifeless.
Less than a week ago I'd returned home to find her hunched over the toilet, throwing up, blood streaming from her nose, with a fistful of her own hair hanging limply from her right hand. I'd limped straight home from a job gone south and was covered in blood, about a third of it mine, but I still tried to comfort her. I held her as best I could, maneuvering her away from the blood stains on my clothes, while at the same time she strained to avoid smearing filth on me. This happy domestic scene pretty much summed up our relationship. We were trying to be close while at the same time attempting to hold back our repulsive qualities. I guess that's just the way it goes; two people can be close or clean, but not both.
"You know what we are?" she'd rasped, looking at me with eyes every bit as dead then as they were now. A fresh drop of blood worked its way out of one of her nostrils. "Maggots. This place is dead. This planet is dead. People like you and I--" she retched suddenly, as if gagging at the very thought, "--we're just maggots feeding on the corpse, gorging ourselves on the putrid remains. Look at you." She thumped my chest, an anemic gesture indicating the blood on my shirt. "You hurt people for money. What do I do? I let people hurt me for money." She fingered the countless runs in her stockings absently.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this, Bo. And it's never going to get any better." She'd faded out at that moment, leaving me to think about what she'd said. I couldn't tell if her last statements had been about our situation specifically or the world in general. Maybe both.
And now she was dead. I'd known from the start that it'd been just a matter of time, but actually seeing her like that brought up some things inside me that I had trouble identifying and dealing with. I exhaled forcefully, trying to force all the memories of her --good and bad-- out of my head. I didn't want to remember her moving or talking, things she would never do again. It made me uneasy.
Still, it was strange. She was an experienced Yellowjacket user. As pathetic as she'd become, she was always careful about her dosage. Obviously, that shit's not Vitamin C, but Yellowjacket addiction is not generally fatal. Maybe she got a bad batch. Last year Boss Zalenz had sent me out to kneecap some pet chemists when they'd released some poor quality product onto the market; it was possible that some of that was still in circulation.
I tilted her head back, hating the cold clamminess of her skin, studying her upper lip. There was no blood. Everyone knows that Yellowjacket addiction affects the blood vessels in the nose, making them fragile. Users get bloody noses easily; it's a tell-tale sign. Whenever they take a large dose --like the kind it would take to kill a long-term user like Sheryl-- their noses leak like faucets.
I straightened, glancing around the room, searching for empty pill bottles or plastic bags. There were none, but a metallic tube partially wedged between the two sofa cushions caught my eye. A hypospray. Yellowjacket comes in pills, and she'd never injected anything before. I snatched the hypospray up, snapping it open. Inside the glass reservoir were traces of a translucent blue liquid. It emitted a harsh chemical smell, like benzene. I could feel my face hardening.
"Son of a bitch. Icepick."
I slipped back into the jacket I'd taken off just scant minutes before. I had a dealer to find. Places to go, someone to kill.
Maybe Sheryl was right. Maybe we are maggots, wallowing in degradation. Maybe things can't get any better. Maybe I am just a hired thug. But Sheryl was wrong about one thing: I'm not as mercenary as she made it sound.
After all, sometimes I hurt people for free.
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