(More cyberpunk. I want to let the story get moving a little before wandering around in the coming weeks. If you are wondering about the pace, consider this a book excerpt)
It was a little early but his contact would be up. He didn’t go there enough to really worry; still, varying the times of day he made his visits was good form. He stopped by a local vendor and made a couple of insignificant purchases; a bottle of water and a nutrient bar. From there, he went almost directly to his destination.
The trip almost took him to the outer rim of the city. The middle rim degraded steadily as he progressed outward, further from the city core and inner rim. His apartment was situated in the middle rim, but far enough from the outer rim to be quite nice. The farther from the middle of the city the more run down and neglected everything became. The general repair of buildings and streets were the easiest signs to notice; after these, more graffiti, general vandalism and litter were big signs of troubled areas. The outer rim was far worse. Business very rarely took him out so far, and Hannox was thankful for that.
He circled the building once, looking for potential problems or signs of trouble, before parking out front. The place hadn’t changed much over the years. Max’s was a fairly popular bar, considering the proximity to the outer rim. Age had not been kind to the building, inside and out, but the relative popularity held. It had just turned 1040 when Hannox approached the door and pressed the buzzer. Nothing happened at the bar until after 1200, at earliest.
It was nearly three minutes before he got a response. The exterior speaker crackled to life with the less-than-joyous voice of the proprietor: Max.
“What the fuck do you want so early?” Max blurted out.
“I don’t know, old man, how about a martini?” Hannox shot back.
“This is a shitty time. Why don’t you come back later?”
“I hate this place during business hours,” Hannox said, trying not to smile. Max was a crusty old fuck, but proud of his bar. It was a front, like Hannox’s security company. The difference was that Hannox took no special pride in the business itself; his pride in the business was its quality as a front.
“Too fuckin’ bad,” Max returned; a little bit of hurt pride showing through, despite the half-friendly nature of the exchange. “The place ain’t any prettier before I open, either.”
“Then I’ll close my eyes,” Hannox said.
“Ah, fuck,” Max growled. Hannox could tell, even through the crackling speaker, he was in. The automatic door slid open and Hannox stepped into the quaint interior of Max’s.
The place smelled of old tobacco smoke, with a hint of cleaning fluids. It had the look of a pre-Shift establishment, even if there were some oddities. There was a lot of wood, or synthetic wood, making up the furnishings and panelling. The bar had a mirrored back wall, polished obsidian top and brass rail; pool tables, dart boards and dimmed lighting added to the ambiance.
Max was behind the bar, as usual. He always seemed a bit bigger when he stood back there, even though he was a fairly small guy. By appearance, he was in his middle sixties, though Hannox suspected he might have been older; the few wisps of hair that clung to his head were pure white and he was quite wrinkled. Max was far from ready for his day, sporting a dirty tee shirt and plaid, flannel pants. He looked a bit angrier than usual. Contributing to his angry look was his false eye, a retro hack-job that Max was apparently attached to. It was a cylindrical socket that stuck out of his face, where his right eye had been, capped with a blue lens. The lens glowed with a faint light, occasionally flickering and threatening to wink out. Max always refused to discuss it, but the rumour was he lost the eye in a fight, years ago, and got the artificial one from a low-tech street med; the price being the big consideration. Despite the eye’s ongoing glitches and Max’s improved finances, he stubbornly refused to upgrade or replace the terrible thing. Worse, it made him look that much angrier.
“You got shitty timing, Hannox,” Max said, no happier than before.
“Yeah, and a busy schedule,” Hannox said with a smile. “Residential and commercial security is a fast-paced and growing industry, you know.”
“It’s a shitty fucking business,” Max grumbled. “You should’ve opened a pet shop or something.”
“That would make it a lot harder to explain house calls.” On paper, Max had purchased a security system with a full maintenance package. It was an easy way to justify the sporadic visits.
“Maybe you could deliver shit like parrots and snakes? Specialty shit for rich fucks,” Max said, smirking. “How about that?”
Hannox liked Max. The old man was a zero-bullshit character, and a dying breed; one of the few people in the business he could relate to. It was highly likely that Max was far more connected than anyone knew. In the contract killing business, he was an independent distribution contact. There were still a few, like him, doing business in person, but they were rare. The underworld of independent killing had changed over the years, with more and more business conducted over the network. According to Max, the go-between job had bounced between digital and personal contact over the years, usually taking the path of least resistance with respect to the authorities. Hannox preferred the personal touch, even if it added complicating elements not present on the network.
“I’ll think about it,” Hannox laughed. “Anyway, you called me awfully early, so you must have something good.”
“Oh, yeah,” Max said, like he had forgot about it. “Another shitty thing that woke me up.” He shot Hannox a dirty look, complete with a flicker of light from the fake eye. “I got a call on a job, a fuckin’ monster and a half. A hell of a payoff, by the sounds of it, but the details are pretty slim. Sound like something you want a shot at?”
Hannox was not used to this approach. Sometimes, if the contract was sensitive, certain details were kept secret until the deal was accepted. Usually, these details weren’t as foggy as this, and Max wasn’t one to dick around with offers and information; after all, he got a small cut for completed jobs.
“Max, I know it’s early, and I woke you up, but get serious here,” Hannox said.
Max gave him an odd look and sighed. “Sit down, Hannox.”
Hannox almost felt like arguing, but decided to see what the old man was up to. He sat down at the bar while Max poured them coffee. Max’s drinks were standard fare, but his coffee was strong and bitter. Max always added extra cream to shut the coffee critic up.
Max sat down across from Hannox, giving him the same, odd look.
“Alright, Max,” Hannox said, growing impatient, “spit it out. You’re getting freaky.”
“Listen, Hannox,” Max said, sounding serious and calm. “I forget you’re half a kid, so I’ll let you in on the kind of deal this is, unless you’re too good for that?”
“You have my attention,” Hannox said.
“Good, now shut up until I’m done; it’ll go faster, that way. I don’t get business at calls at seven in the fucking morning, just so you know. When I get a call like I got this morning, it’s not small potatoes. You won’t be doing some small-time fuck for ten or twenty thou; and it won’t even be some medium-time fuck for a quarter mil. I ain’t got a call like this for, hell, more than ten years.”
“So, what are we talking about, then? A big-time job for a mil?” Hannox was genuinely intrigued. Max was never this serious with him, unless he was pissed off.
“I doubt it will be that low,” Max said, slurping his coffee with a wince. “No, this one will be big; an absolute fucking monster of a job.”
“But you have no details, yet,” Hannox said. “How can you be so sure?”
“I just know,” Max said, a displeased edge creeping into his tone. “The last time I got a weird one like this, shit, it was a fucking jackpot. Money’s changed a little, since then, but that fucking shit paid a couple million.”
Hannox was starting to wonder if Max hadn’t lost it, somehow. A few million creds for a job was unthinkable money; enough to retire on, if you didn’t live a flashy life. What kind of job paid that kind of money?
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Max,” Hannox said, “but why would a job pay that much with no details? There must be a catch?”
“I’m guessing the details are given to you, private-like, before you accept. Then, you say yes or no. There are probably two catches. The job is probably a doozy, a major-ass player or something. The second catch is that once you know who the target is, even if you turn down the job, you’re on a list until the dust settles. It’s probably not the best list to be on.”
“Wait a minute,” Hannox said, suddenly concerned. “This contract is through standard channels, right?”
“Before you get your balls in a knot, just fucking listen, okay?” Max piped up, finally sounding angry again. “It’s on the level, mostly, but deals like this have exceptions. You can’t expect it not to, anyway, even in this business. The reason they have to know who sees the name is to avoid word getting back. Sometimes, the price for squealing to the target is worth more than the contract, and easier to get away with. By knowing who sees the name, they can backtrack.”
Hannox sat back, tapping his thumb on the handle of his coffee mug. “Okay,” he said, still running things through his head. “Why would you offer this to me? What makes you think this type of job is even in my league?”
Max gave a rare smile. “Why? Because you’re hungry for the money, and you’ve got guts. I don’t think you’ve ever turned down a job from me, even tricky ones.”
“And you think I can pull it off?” Hannox asked.
“I have no idea,” Max said. “I’ll never know who the target is, anyway. Like I said, money and guts is always a solid bet.”
“So, if you don’t have anybody else looking into this, I’m the best gun on your list,” Hannox mused out loud. “You don’t get a cut if the contract isn’t completed, so you wouldn’t send your second choice.”
“Those are some long shot ideas, if I ever heard any,” Max snorted. “Listen, I got some slick-ass fucking guys on my list, as you put it; guys that are high-powered, psycho death machines that could fuck up any target you point them at. If you were their target, you’d be royally fucked.” Max took a swig of coffee and went on, Hannox was content to listen. “Thing is this: you may not be the best I’ve got, but you’re the best shot to pull off a job like this. Sorry to bust your bubble.”
“So, if I’m interested, what then?” The idea of being put on a list of has seen the name of target was not appealing, but equal parts curiosity and interest made him ask.
“I can’t say exactly, but I make a call and follow instructions from there. Chances are you get a name and basic terms offered to you. You probably won’t get much time to decide, after that, so be ready to make it quick.”
“This sounds pretty fucked to me, Max,” Hannox said. “I don’t like working outside of the standard system. What you’re saying sounds risky. I haven’t kept a low profile for nothing.”
“Deals this big are always fucked,” Max said. “The pay is about more than the job, it’s the whole ball of shit you deal with. It’s up to you.”
“How long do I have to let you know?”
“I can’t wait long,” Max said. “This offer is probably out to a few other guys, right now. If I don’t make contact in a few hours, someone else will have the job. You want another coffee?”
Hannox looked at his empty cup, not realising he’d finished. “No, one was enough, thanks.”
“You don’t want the job, do you?” Max said, taking both their mugs to the cleaning unit.
“The way you acted when I got here makes me think you don’t want it, either,” Hannox said.
“You woke me up,” Max said, turning back to Hannox and looking him square in the eye. “Besides, if I didn’t want the fucking job, I never would have offered it. It doesn’t mean shit to me, one way or the other. You’re a reliable guy, so I’d rather not toss you into a deathtrap contract, if that means anything to you. I think you like your safe little contracts and comfortable life too much to take the job.”
“You’re dead right, Max, you old bastard,” Hannox said, standing up. “My gut reaction says this job is trouble waiting to happen. I’ve worked too hard to jump on thin ice. I assume you don’t have anything else, right?”
“Nope,” Max said, turning back to the cleaning unit and replacing the mugs under the bar. “That’s been the first thing to happen in over a week. Anything else, chickenshit?”
“I’m good, Max,” Hannox said with a smile. “I’ll see myself out.”
“Good enough, maybe I can catch some sleep, now,” Max growled. “Call me if you grow a pair in the next few hours.”
“Screw you, too, Max,” Hannox said, as he stepped out the door.