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Seoul Circuit

By Tamara Boyens

Smashwords Edition

Supposed Crimes LLC, Matthews, North Carolina

All Rights Reserved

Copyright 2017 Tamara Boyens

Published in the United States

ISBN: 978-1-944591-37-3

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter One

They say money is the root of all evil, but whoever said that didn’t have a massive neural mesh failure frying their eye sockets.

I slid into the parking lot of the diner, gravel spraying everywhere as I jerked the wheel, and the white Lotus rotated ninety degrees, perfectly slotting up to the diner window.

“Whatever happened to being discreet?” Royce said.

“I’m just making sure we have good parking. In case we need to get out of here quickly,” I said.

“We should have taken another car. This is too recognizable,” he said.

“As long as we’re not in the city, it’s fine. I could have done the deal at home, but this is safer. Trust me.”

He scoffed. “If you say so.”

I turned to him. “You scared?”

He shrugged his wide shoulders, flexed his fingers. “No. But I’ve got enough trouble already—spent too much time in the Undergrid. There’s more shit going on down there than in all your casinos combined.”

“Exactly. And you want to get paid, right? So just be cool, and everything will be nice and smooth.”

He sighed. “I don’t know why I’m even letting you drive.”

“Relax. I’m in control of the situation.”

“The more you say that, the more nervous I get.”

I reached over and ruffled his short hair. “You need a vacation or something.”

He jerked away. “Let’s just get this done before you stroke out. As soon as we get back to Pasadena, I’m making you sit for a full scan.”

“Sure, whatever you say. Let’s go.”

I opened the car’s gull wings and stepped onto the rocky soil—wore flats just for the occasion. I smoothed down my white pantsuit and cracked my neck. The ache behind my eye sockets made me blink, shake my head a few times, but I couldn’t let that distract me. I had a job to do, and we weren’t leaving until I got what I wanted.

Royce stepped out the other side, still wearing a blue shirt, a red tie, and his white lab coat. I grabbed him right out of an appointment, but he’d had the entire drive to compose himself. He should be over it by now. I certainly paid him enough.

“Think you took up enough spaces?” he said.

I was parked horizontally across three parking spots. “Not like anyone else is using them. Check it out, Doris Day parking.”

“You’re lucky you have money,” he said. “This kind of thing wouldn’t fly in the Undergrid.”

I grinned and pulled a deck of cards out of my pocket. “Life is all about luck.”

It was July, but this far into the desert, it was still cold at night. The big glass front window of the diner poured light across the rocks and Joshua trees. Inside, a handful of customers sat at old tables and poked at greasy plates.

Halfway between my SoCal casinos and the Las Vegas wastelands, Barstow was trapped between temptations. With nothing much to do but get high and drive somewhere else for entertainment, I fished tons of clients from there. That’s how I knew the owner of the place. Guy lost a boatload of money on a poker tournament, and I helped him out. He owed me. A lot. The diner was as safe as it got without leaving the state.

“After you,” I said.

Royce pushed square black plastic glasses up on his nose. The silver strands in his buzz cut flashed in the moonlight. “I’m starving—skipped lunch. I’m getting a hamburger on your dollar.”

I smirked. “Cheap date.”

“Wait till you get my bill.”

“If we don’t get what we came here for, that’ll be the last payment you collect from me.”

He swallowed. “You know this isn’t going to fix things.”

“One step at a time. You’ll figure something out, I’m sure. If I die, you can forget all that bonus money I promised you.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re demanding?” he said.

“I’m rigorous. And it’s cold—get inside. He should be here any second.”

Royce pushed open the stainless steel door with a thick fist and I followed behind him, shaking gravel from my soles before stepping onto the slick diner tiles.

Inside it smelled like grease and burned eggs, burned coffee. Sand. Sadness. This was where people stopped for a bite after leaving Vegas when they were too drunk to make it all the way back to Los Angeles. Cops avoided it for that reason—too much paperwork to deal with. Perfect for me.

A young girl came to the front holding a pair of menus. “Table for two?” she said.

“Booth. For three. In the back,” I said. “By the other door.” It was hard to see, but the place had a backdoor, right beyond the kitchen. Always good to have an escape route.

The girl eyed me, clearly wondering why I knew about the other entrance.

“Is Hector in?” I said.

She shook her head. “He’s out of town.”

Heh. He wasn’t in any of my casinos, so that meant he was in Vegas again, skimming the bottom for crap bets. Judging from the shoddy look of the place, he was in deep again. I made a note to contact him once I’d settled my own issues. The little diner was an ideal spot for me to make clandestine purchases.

I nodded, and we followed her to the back booth, plopped down on torn blue vinyl seats. In the harsh fluorescent lights, every inch of Royce’s dark circles sagged beneath his eyes. He worked hard, I’d give him that. Business was brisk for him on all sides, and in my mind, that was never a bad thing. Sleep when you’re dead.

The girl dropped the menus on the streaked table. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“Coffee. Black,” I said. I looked at her nametag. Gladys. I’d remember that. In case anything went sideways.

“Same,” Royce said.

She walked off, and I used a napkin to wipe grease from the table. No use—the thin paper was no match for the layers of grime. Good thing I learned to keep my elbows off the table. My suit was probably worth more than the entire building, and my dry cleaner took offense when I ruined pricey garments.

Royce stared me down, fidgeting. “Where is this guy? I’ve got other cases back in town that I need to look after. Worked on a pretty risky implant job yesterday. Not sure it’s going to take.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were off the black market.”

“I’m not the one who installed the thing. I’m just cleaning up the aftermath. But, it’s not black market. Just off-label. Awkward candidate. Some of my clients are foolish enough and rich enough to get whatever they want.”

I folded my arms. “I have no idea what you’re implying. I always follow medical advice.”

“Tell me that again when you’re writhing around in the backseat later tonight.”

“You’re not my type.”

He laughed. “Don’t I know it. My dick’s not for sale.”

“I don’t buy dick.”

He started to respond when someone crashed through the kitchen’s double doors. I looked over my shoulder. A skinny Asian kid, clutching a messenger bag to his chest, panting and sweaty, eyes like pinholes, stood frozen in the doorway. Jesus. I needed to switch courier services. This idiot looked like he was ten years old.

I motioned for Royce to scoot over and pointed at the spot next to him. The kid didn’t move. I rolled my eyes. “You. Sit. There.”

The courier jerked his head towards me, stared for a second, and looked away again, holding the messenger bag like it was a ticking bomb. In a way it was more dangerous, but he shouldn’t have known that.

“Are you deaf? Sit down now or you’re not getting a tip. Trust me. You want that tip. It’s generous,” I said.

That seemed to get his attention. He inched into the spot next to Royce, careful not to touch him, like Royce was an electric fence. Well, the kid had some sense. Royce didn’t like being touched, and he punched like a brick house.

I pulled an envelope out of my jacket and waved it in the air. “It’s all in here. Count it if you want, but do it under the table. Even here, it’s not good to wave cash around.”

Given the value of real cash and the ease of tracking it, it wasn’t smart to use that much, but the supplier had insisted on it. I should have negotiated, but I needed the shipment so badly I would have paid the guy in kidneys.

The kid snatched it from my hand and put it into his satchel, and for a second it looked like he was going to run. It was standard to exchange the cash first, but every so often an inexperienced courier panicked when they had that much money.

“I know you’re not stupid enough to run off with it. My car is faster than yours, I guarantee it, and you don’t want my friend here to beat it out of you. Hand over the goods,” I said.

Shaking, he plunged a hand into the black satchel and came out with a white paper bag. Royce snagged the bag and peeked at the contents under the table. He pulled out his phone and queued up a scanner app. A tiny beep and a very small flash of light later, and he looked up again.

“Looks good from here,” he said. “You want this guy to stick around while we try it? The barcode checks out, and it looks factory sealed. That’s as good as I can get without opening it up and running it through a mass spectrometer.”

“I know where to find the dealers if it’s not legit,” I said and turned to the boy who was still twitching in his seat. “You can go.”

He looked back and forth between us, holding his bag and not moving.

“I said scram. Beat it. Go back to San Francisco or wherever you came from. Your job is done. Get out of here before my friend here decides we paid you too much.”

With big eyes, the kid bolted through the kitchen door. Pots and pans clattered and startled chefs yelled. Real clandestine. Once everything was under control, I’d leave a negative review on all the dark boards. Incompetence shouldn’t be rewarded.

“Who the hell are you dealing with now?” Royce said.

“Look, it’s not like you can find that stuff at a corner pharmacy. Don’t want people knowing I’m buying it, either. Trouble for all of us. This was the only source that guaranteed delivery before midnight. You told me tomorrow might be too late.”

He sighed. “You’re right about that. This is pushing it. Your last test results looked bad. Really bad.”

“I got it, no need to keep telling me. We’re dealing with the situation.”

“Jinny, you’re impossible.”

“You mean unstoppable,” I said. “And don’t call me Jinny. Just Jin.”

“I’ll stop calling you Jinny when you start calling me doctor.”

“Sure. Dr. Royce’s Chop Shop has a certain ring to it.”

“That’s Dr. Hallet. Just have to be the top dog, don’t you?”

“You’re either on top, or you’re on the bottom. I don’t bottom.”

The waitress came back with our coffees, almost slipping as she dropped the mugs on the table. Coffee sloshed out, and I slid to the side, narrowly avoiding the hot brown spray.

I cleared my throat and stared at the mortified waitress. “Clumsy. Do you know how much this suit is worth? Whatever your job is, you have to be the best. The absolute best. You don’t want to stay here the rest of your life, do you?”

“I…I don’t know. No. I’m sorry,” she said.

She was attractive. Gladys looked 18, maybe 21, Hispanic, big eyes, long lashes, small waist. Plump lips. There were a lot of reasons why people got trapped in towns like this, but I hated to see potential go to waste. Especially if that potential could make me money.

“You ever decide you want to make some serious income, maybe get out of this town, you need to up your game. Learn what it means to work hard. Then you come find me. Just ask Hector. He’ll point you in my direction.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said. From that look in her eye, I knew she was intrigued. Might see her down on Colorado later in the month.

“Good. You look like you’re smarter than this place. There’s always room for talent in my house.”

Of course she looked dumber than broccoli, but lost little flowers like this just needed to think someone believed in them. I didn’t need her mind. Just her body.

She tried to stop it, but a smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Can I get you something else?” She wiped her hands on her white apron, leaving brown streaks. We’d need to train those messy habits out of her.

“No. That will be all. Pull up our tab.” Like I would eat in a place like this. Or drink that motor oil they called coffee. Also, I took my coffee with heavy cream and tons of sugar. Plain coffee is for poor losers.

Gladys fumbled in her apron for a small tablet. I pulled out a card and waved it over the screen, punching a few numbers once the account registered. Untraceable cryptocurrency, naturally. She looked at the tip I left, and her big eyes got even bigger.

I smiled. “Like I said, work hard, and you just might win big. Why don’t you start by cleaning these filthy tables?”

“Thank you. Okay. Yes. Thank you.” She scurried into the back.

Royce sighed. “What the fuck are you doing? You can’t afford extravagant tips, and you’re blowing anything resembling a cover.”

“Relax. We’re fine. And that was just a tiny bit of crypto. Investments always pay off in the end. You know how much a girl like her could pull in if I get her in the right club?”

“You’re in over your head. I hope you’ve written me into your will— my fees are piling up, and I haven’t seen a tip like that in months.”

“Patience. It’s incentive for you to help me live.”

“You’re the boss, apparently,” he said. “Let’s hit the road. If we’re lucky we can still get back before sunrise.”

My hands felt tingly, pins and needles like when you sleep on your arm. I flexed my fingers, shook them out. Royce didn’t miss it.

“Shit. We’ve waited too long. Out. To the car,” he said.

The tingling quickly turned into burning—fiery nerve pain all up and down my arms. I hissed, clenching my teeth and squinting my eyes.

“Crap,” I said. “Help me out.”

I could still see, but my vision would be the next thing to go. Royce came around and hooked his arm over my shoulder, hauling me out of the booth. I barely noticed the bustling kitchen as we shuffled out the back door.

The cold night air felt good on my twitching, burning flesh. My legs were still working, but the tingling burn was creeping downward. Royce was pulling me now, and my expensive pumps dragged on the ground, one falling off like I was a very rich Cinderella. Those were designer shoes, limited edition.

With one hand propping me up, Royce dug through my pockets and fish out my keys. Playing cards tumbled out, and the little paper squares fluttered at my legs as they fell to the ground. He hit a button and the Lotus’ doors swung open. When he flung me down onto the back seat, I bit my tongue. Didn’t want to dignify him with a groan.

I rolled onto my side and he said, “Stay face down. This has to go at the base of your neck. And no, it’s not going to feel good.”

“Do it, before it’s too late,” I said. Wasn’t sure what I preferred—the burning nerve pain or the frightening paralysis—but they both were attacking different parts of my body at the same time. Now I couldn’t feel my toes.

He pulled a syringe out of his coat. A big one. Like he was expecting this to happen, and I guess he wasn’t wrong. He shook up the vial we’d gotten from the incompetent courier and stuck the needle into the container. Hard to tell in the moonlight, but the liquid looked like it was black. How comforting.

Royce put a meaty hand between my shoulder blades and pressed me into the leather seats. Sweeping away my shoulder-length hair, he slathered something cold and wet on the back of my neck.

“This is going to hurt. A lot. Don’t move or I’ll herniate your brainstem.”

I turned my head so I could talk. “You sure this is a safe place to do this?”

“Nope. But you’ll be totally paralyzed by the time we get back to Pasadena if we wait. Your choice.”

“Then get it over with.” I turned my head back so that my spine was facing him.

He grabbed a hunk of my hair, using it to straighten out my neck.

I had brave visions of me staying silent, but that plan didn’t work so well. He wasn’t kidding. The needlestick hurt like hell, cold as it plunged through my skin and into my spinal column, but that wasn’t the worst part. Once he started pushing down on the plunger, the pressure from the drugs went straight to my skull, giving me an instant migraine.

I screamed, and Royce put a knee in the small of my back, holding me down. “Don’t move. Not done yet. This is your pain. Own it.”

If there was a hell, Royce probably had an office there. Brutal, but he was the best in the city, and I owned him. My pet sadist.

After what seemed like forever, he let go of my neck and took his knee off my back. I didn’t move, just waited for the pounding migraine to stop.

“You can sit up. The molecules are so small they should absorb into all the dendrites quickly.”

“Just give me a minute,” I said, still facedown.

He dug a hand down to my neck and took my pulse. “Carotid feels good. You’re breathing okay. You’ll survive. Getting any sensation back in your limbs?”

I had to take my attention away from my throbbing head to check in with the rest of my body. I wiggled my fingers and toes. “It’s working. I can feel everything again and the burning’s stopping.”

Something wet was dripping down my neck.

“Oh hold up, you’re bleeding.”
Paper crinkled as he reached into his pocket and pressed gauze onto the back of my neck. “Keep still for a minute.”

“Oh man, is that getting on my suit?”

“Yup. That, and all the iodine I slathered back there.”

“Damn it, I don’t even know if Chen will be able to get that out.” My drycleaner could work miracles, but even he had limits. Only so much you could do without pouring straight acid on the fabric.

“Not my fault you’d rather get a major infection in your spinal cord. Ever hear of Meningitis? It’s not fun,” he said. “Alright, I think that’s stopped bleeding.” He took off the gauze.

Slowly, I sat up, my head feeling like a bunch of marbles in a washing machine. Bad, but it was settling. Good. Downtime is not to my liking. Keep moving like a shark, or you’ll drown. That’s the only way to survive in Los Angeles.

“Going to need to install a portal or something if I have to keep doing that to you. Multiple times a day,” he said.

My stomach felt queasy just thinking about it.

“I need a stiff martini when I get back. A big one,” I said.

“No alcohol. You’ve got enough weird chemicals floating around in your cerebrospinal fluid now.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“You’re difficult to keep alive. Now get into the passenger seat so I can take us home.”

“I’m fine, I can drive.” Before he could stop me, I slithered into the front seat. My speed and my petite frame had their advantages.

“The hell you can.”

He tried to come after me, but with his burly figure there was no way he could worm his way over the center console. He got out and came around to the passenger seat.

“The serum is working, isn’t it?” I said. I waved my hands in the air. “See?”

“That’s not the point. It could fail at any second.”

“Go out there and get my shoe. They don’t make those anymore.”

He reached over and punched a button on the dash. “Autopilot can drive us home. Sorry about your shoe.”

The car lurched forward, and I wanted to argue, but those little tinglies were creeping over my skin, like the attack was just waiting for an opportunity to sneak in again. Maybe it was time to head back to the ranch.

“You owe me one Andrea Laughton Original shoe and a Wallace Paulson suit. I’ll accept payment in goods, services, or cash,” I said.

“Take it out of my tab.”

Chapter Two

Pasadena. By the time we got back, it was late enough that even Colorado Boulevard, the main artery through the city, didn’t have much traffic. Either everyone had gone home for the night, or they were glued to a slot machine, pushing buttons for hours on end.

Right where I wanted them.

We breached Eagle Rock, the little enclave on the western side of Pasadena that was home to some of my less…exclusive establishments. With no buildings higher than a few stories, there were more motels and pachinko parlors than anything else in that neighborhood. Crammed with neon, the asphalt on the empty boulevard looked like a unicorn had vomited all over the street. Most of the motels lacked windows for more than one reason.

As much as I liked to get my way, I’d allowed the autopilot take us most of the way back through the desert. Driving is one thing I didn’t like to use servants or machines for—way too much fun, as long as I was in one of my sports cars. I had other great rides in garage, but the Lotus was special, and although I hated to waste an opportunity to drive it through an unrestricted traffic zone, I also wasn’t fond of crashing my beloved cars.

My head was feeling better, but the back of my neck where Royce had jammed in that spinal needle still ached, and I was hungry. I’m not used to waiting for anything. Patience is not a virtue. Like poverty, patience is for the unfortunate. Instant gratification is the way to go.

When the entrance to the underground mall came into view, I put my foot on the accelerator and clicked off the autopilot.

“What are you doing?” Royce said.

“Are you hungry?”

He stared at me. “Oh, now you’re worried about my needs?”

“Of course. I’m always courteous to my employees. I’m starving. We’re stopping for some food.”

“In the underground mall? You would eat in there?”

“Absolutely not.” I turned the wheel and pulled into a vast parking lot. Don’t get me wrong. I pulled tons of patrons from the colony down there, but none of them were high-rollers, and I wasn’t about to break bread in a place like that. I might put in an appearance every now and then, just to keep up face, but let’s just say I didn’t exactly hang out in the underground mall for fun.

In the far corner of the lot, a stainless steel food truck was parked, lights on, steam and smoke puffing from the roof and curling up to dance around the neon green sign that marked the mall elevators.

“Fantastic. He’s here tonight. I think our luck is turning around,” I said.

“What do you mean turning around? If I hadn’t been with you, you’d be a bag of jelly by now. I call that lucky.”

“That wasn’t luck. That was good planning on my part. There’s a difference. Even in games of chance, there’s always an element of skill. Remember that.”

“If you say so.”

I pulled up to the truck and stepped out, but stopped when my left foot touched bare pavement. Drat. My shoes. Could have called for someone to bring me another pair, but I didn’t want to attract any extra attention, just in case the serum started failing again. Showing weakness in this town also wasn’t a good idea. Too many other sharks swimming around, looking for snacks. Better to keep moving and eat the little fish first.

I made a face and took off the other shoe, tossing it into the back seat. The rough pavement snagged at my nylons, tearing little holes in the delicate fabric. Those would be ruined too. Destroying good clothing is a sin.

My stomach beat out my displeasure about the outfit, and I walked over to the food truck. In glowing magenta paint, it said “Leonardo Gonzales: Tacos and More” on the side, bright enough that it stood out even against all the other audacious signs that overpowered Colorado Boulevard.

Across the street, one of my Pachinko joints pinged away, a steady clang that told me the front hall was still full of players. Not for the big spenders, but I’ll say this—the parlors brought in consistent customers. They didn’t have a lot to give, but what they had, they spent on Pachinko. Further down the strip, out of Eagle Rock and deeper into Pasadena, the clientele changed. Less Pachinko and more Baccarat, VR pinball, drone racing, that sort of thing. The stuff that took more money and more skill. My kind of games. I only went for pachinko if I needed a mindless way to pass some time.

A few feet to the right of the taco truck, a big flashing arrow pointed down next to a sign that said “Entrance: Knock Three Times.” Cute—an allusion to the time when it was nothing more than a gang hangout. Anyone that actually knocked three times shouldn’t have been down there in the first place, and would have been greeted with a few lead slugs to the face. Now you had to knock on the elevator entrance so that the biometric scanners could enter your data into the system.

A man leaned out truck’s long service window. “Hyojin Song. Fancy seeing you out here. How are you doing?”

Behind him, meat sizzled on a grill, and it smelled amazing.

“I’ve been better, but I can’t really complain. Business is steady,” I said.

“Me too—been out here every night this week. You keep ‘em coming in, I’ll tell you that. What can I get you? On the house, of course.”

“That’s very kind of you. I like a business that treats their customers right.”

“I learned from the best. What can I get you?”

“I’ll have three carne asada tacos. Royce, what do you want?”

“Same,” he said.

Leo bent farther over the window. “Oh hey Royce, didn’t realize that was you out there. What’s the latest?”

“Just the usual bullshit. How’s your mother?”

“She’s been great since you fixed her up. Don’t know what we’d do without you.”

“Thanks.” Royce looked at me. “I like clients that are appreciative.”

I smirked. “The customer is always right.”

Leo laughed. “You need to come to this end of town more often. Might change your mind about that.”

I took note—he was joking, but I really didn’t come to this end of town often enough. Delegation is essential when your company is as big as mine, but not properly managing your underlings is a sloppy practice. Keep a tight reign on everything, or you’d regret it.

“Good point. Been quiet enough around here?” I said.

Leo started cooking, but talked over his shoulder, his long ponytail swishing across a white t-shirt that said “Leonardo’s.”

“Quiet enough. No gang uprisings recently, no police raids. Not like the police come out here much anyway. Never did anyway. Since you cleared out all that riffraff, things seem fairly stable. Can’t complain,” he said.

“You can thank Gavin for that—he did all the heavy lifting,” I said.

He stopped cooking for a second. “Doesn’t surprise me. Never would have guessed it, but I wouldn’t want to meet that guy in a dark alley.”

“I didn’t think anything scared you.”

Half Mexican, half Japanese, Leo was an old friend of mine. He’d been out here way before I’d been. He made one a hell of a taco—you could serve his food in any five star restaurant in downtown LA. He was also the unofficial guardian of the Undergrid portal in the Pasadena quadrant. Guy could swing a mean sword, and you didn’t want to be on the wrong end of it. When my implants weren’t busy shorting out and frying all my nerve endings, I was fast. Very fast. But even I didn’t want to try dodging one of Leo’s sword strikes.

“I’ve been around long enough to know when I’m outmatched,” he said.

Couldn’t argue with him. I’d never seen Gavin lose a fight.

“Hey Jin,” Leo called over his shoulder.

“Yeah?”

“Keep an eye on that Augustine character. You know, that French guy?”

I stopped breathing for a second. “What about him?”

“He’s got that new hotel in Beverly Hills. Construction’s finally finished.”

“So?”

“That doesn’t make you suspicious?” he said.

“I’m always suspicious, but his casinos are all out in Riverside. Even I don’t want to touch that dump of a town.”

“Hey, watch it,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry. No offense.”

He laughed. “Just kidding—none taken.”

“So you think he’s planning something? The deeds on my properties are ironclad. The Pasadena city planner is in my back pocket. Guy spends all of Saturday and half of Sunday pulling slots down at the Chrysanthemum.”

“I haven’t heard anything specific. Just keep an eye and an ear out, you dig? I don’t like the guy.”

Neither did I. I'd met him once and he was so slimy I felt like I needed to soak in ammonia for a week just to get him out of my pores.

“Thanks for the tip. Long night. I’ll put out some feelers when I’m back in the office,” I said.

“You need to go below for anything, you let me know. I’ll take you down. No problem.”

He wasn’t talking about the underground mall. He meant what lurked below it. Every underbelly has an underbelly, and this was no exception. Beneath the tawdry stalls of the mall, there were more tunnels—a big network of old sewer trenches and abandoned subway lines.

And people lived down there— the Circuit Breakers. They were human, but they were so riddled with illegal implants that they may has well have been aliens. Filled with people that didn’t want to be tracked by the government, they let surgeons like Royce slice out any bits that might trip biometric scanners. Highly illegal. They couldn't even set foot in a store on the surface without special precautions. Getting caught without your biometrics intact was a good way to end up in jail for a long time.

Of course, some of them had some pretty good tricks for getting around town unnoticed, but it was still risky. They had a certain look about them that tended to make cops suspicious. I helped them out from time to time, since I didn’t care for cops myself, and Pasadena wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of lawfulness. Still, it was better explore the Undergrid with an escort. Living underground for too long tends to make you a little strange. And dangerous.

“I may need to take you up on that offer,” I said.

“You okay? You’re looking a little…ruffled,” he said.

Didn’t I know it. “You know how it is, you go to a big party, things get a little crazy. What’s life like without a little fun?”

Leo wasn’t buying it, but he let it go—helped us both save face.

He put six tacos in the window, and as I was reaching for them, my wrist vibrated. My smart watch. Pushing a button, the faceplate lit up with a message in all capitals: MAJOR BREACH. RETURN FOR COLLATERAL RECOVERY OVERRIDE. No one called or send a holo-message, so it was probably a big name that got caught. Security was trying to keep it quiet. Not good.

Leo and Royce watched the look on my face.

“Problem?” Royce said.

“Got an issue back at the ranch.” I looked down at my missing shoe and the flecks of blood on my clothes. “Royce. Go into the underground mall and get me something to replace the shoes and jacket that you ruined.”

“Seriously? You want me to pay for it?”

“Do I look like I’m joking? Besides, the stuff down there’s so cheap even you can afford it.”

I crinkled my nose at the thought of wearing some import knock-offs, but depending on how much money we lost, and what kind of currency, I needed to move fast.

“You owe me,” he said.

“Actually, you owe me—the cost of this jacket alone was way more than whatever bill I had with you. Get moving. I’ll take care of these tacos while you’re gone.” I picked one up and took a nibble. Delicious.

“I don’t know why I put up with this,” Royce said.

“Because she’s the best,” Leo said.

“Thanks, Leo. I’m all about equitable deals,” I said.

“Hope your theory about luck is wrong. Skill might not be enough to get us through this week,” Royce said.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m sure you have enough skill to find me a new jacket. Size 2. Petite.”

Chapter Three

Some people called this place Pasadena. Others called it Jin City.

I preferred Jin City.

I stood outside of Jin Tower and stared up at the tall façade that blossomed into the night sky, sparkling with long tracks of neon and LED embellishments. Shaped like a blooming flower, the tower was my own design, and with every second the colors changed and shimmered. My home and the main hub of my business, it was perfect.

At the entrance to the lower casino floor, we stood still while the scanners did their business, reading our various biometric chips, snapping retina images. I waved my wrist on a separate plate to give myself executive access. I had a private entrance too, but I wanted take a sweep of the floor on the way up, make sure nothing else looked suspicious before we took care of the main incident.

The ground level was nothing but VR slots, but that’s where the most cheating happened. In Jin City, we made sure that there was something for everyone. From the low-rent virtual pachinko parlors to the highest ranking 10-deck psywave poker tournaments, there was a game for any income level and type of addict. And that was something that I understood. We provided the ultimate in gaming experience for every walk of life. Hell, I’d have children’s casinos if they let me. Get them started early.

The city hadn’t quite let us go that far yet, but it was only a matter of time. Every time L.A. County needed money, their gambling laws got laxer. That’s how the zoning changed in the first place—a little financial crash was all it took to open Pasadena to the gambling culture. Just one more bit of financial destruction, and we’d be able to expand into other parts of the city.

I’d heard whispers of movement just last week, in fact. Two spots they were opening up. Two spots I wanted very badly: Koreatown and Venice Beach. And let me tell you. Once that happened, I’d pounce so fast. A casino on the beach? In L.A.? Are you kidding? I adore the beach, and the money it would bring in would be unbelievable. Jin Tower would look like it was made out of Legos once I got ahold of that kind of cash.

And Koreatown? Well, I felt like I was owed that already. Everyone knew me there. Maybe my heritage wasn’t so straightforward, but that was another home to me. No one else deserved to have casinos there but me.

As we walked past the noisy slot machines, through holograms and past zonked out gamblers with VR headsets strapped to their faces, I tried to walk confidently. The jacket and shoes from the underground mall weren’t bad—unless you looked closely, you might not notice it wasn't actually designer clothing, but this was Jin Tower. Even here on the bottom floor, the opening bets were higher than in any of my other casinos combined.

At least Leo had given me some water and towels to clean the blood out of my hair. With my hair too wet to salvage without a blow dryer, I settled for tousling my blond hair into what I hoped looked like short, beachy waves. Fortunately, I’d had my follicles re-shocked within the last six months, so the roots were a nice, consistent shade. Not quite on point, but hopefully it looked like an intentional style.

The floor seemed quiet, in a way of speaking. Over all the flashing and bonging machines, it all looked just like it should, no sign of foul play. Organized. Clean. Everything even smelled like it should—new carpet (replaced it every three months), top-shelf alcohol, and clean, cool filtered air to help keep patrons awake and moving. Heat was the death of a casino. Pasadena was at the edge of the desert, and it was important to keep every building at just the right degree of chill. Like the perfect glass of cold soju, temperature was key.

Royce followed me without complaining, which was odd. He loved to complain. Definite character flaw, if you asked me. Make solutions, not problems.

Before I hit the button on the elevator, I turned to him and said, “You can go back to your room if you want to. You make a great security guard, but I have plenty of staff already.”

“I’m sticking with you until you let me run you through a scanner. I’m not letting you croak before I see a payoff.”

Guess he didn’t trust that the serum was going to last very long. Or he really liked his new corner of my tower. As part of his recruitment fee, I’d given him his own private suite in Jin Tower, but his residency was contingent on me being alive. Not sure what he did with all his money, but morally flexible implant surgeons didn’t exactly come cheap (something I was learning the hard way), and what he did with his cash wasn’t my business.

“The more the merrier. Remember to put your scary underworld face on, really spook the guy. Just try not to make him crap his pants. Takes days to air out the room,” I said and inspected his outfit. “You look worse than I did.”

“Hey, this is your blood.”

“I don’t mean the blood—that’s a nice touch, for you. If the guy’s sporting a bootleg implant, maybe you can threaten to dig it out and resell it on the deep webs. I just mean your general style level. What’s the shirt made of, polyester? Doesn’t even look barrier-coated.”

“Not like you use barrier-coated fabrics either, otherwise your jacket wouldn’t have been ruined.”

I snickered. “Please. I only wear natural fibers. That’s what makes it expensive. This cheap knockoff is giving me a rash.”

“Oh, so now you’re a sensitive little flower?”

“That’s right, Royce. This is my party, and I’m the belle of the ball.” The elevator came down with a soft ding. “Let’s go.”


***

At the top of the elevator, the doors clicked open, and I touched the wall as we walked through the doors—raised, gilded wallpaper. Not as nice as on my private floor, but almost. Carpet so thick my feet nearly sunk up to my ankles. Royce trailed behind me as we weaved through private card rooms and VR boxes.

The hall was soundproofed, but from the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of glitter as someone opened the door to one of the entertainment rooms. That club was all women, and it was close to Royce’s quarters. Perhaps that’s where all his money went. Everything for him was comped, including drinks, but maybe he was a generous tipper. I could think of worse ways to spend some cash. I only hired the best dancers.

We stopped at the mouth of a long corridor. A pair of double doors, surrounded by ornate raised filigree, waited for us at the end of the hallway. I’d made sure the entrance was decorative—kept visitors from guessing what we really did in that room. Wouldn’t want to ruin the fantasy.

I was about to pull out my cell and dial Gavin, when he tromped around the corner, hands in his pockets.

“You look stunning,” I said to him.

“Are you kidding?” Royce said.

I glared at him. “What do you think I am, narrow-minded? I just expect my employees to have some semblance of good taste. I’m more traditional, but Gavin’s got great style. Look at the quality. Look at those fabrics. I bet you anything that outfit’s right on season in Seoul.”

Hair bleached lighter than mine, and with better bone structure in his face, Gavin Kwon was almost prettier than I was, which was not something I liked admitting, but it was hard to deny. Wearing an artistically ripped Union Jack shirt, designer jeans with a set of chains and handcuffs around his waist, and a manicured fur demi-jacket, Gavin’s ensemble looked magnificent.

“Your eye-liner is perfect today,” I said. Wished I could do mine that well.

“Thanks, Jin.” He didn’t mention my problematic outfit—Gavin had more courtesy than that.

“So, what’s the scoop?” I said.

Gavin smiled. “Oh ho, we have a very naughty high roller on our hands. Guy usually hangs out on the psywave poker floor, losing most of the time, according to our records. Found him with a crude frequency modulator tapping out a slot machine,” he said.

“How the hell did that happen?” I said.

“He thought he was being smart. Got some circuit jockey to assemble the device in a basement bathroom. Got it all on tape. The engineer left the building after putting the electronics together, but we got his biometrics before he escaped. We’ll bring him in later, shouldn’t be difficult.”

“Shockingly stupid. Never fails to amaze me,” I said.

“Sounds like you need better security,” Royce said.

Gavin shot him a look. “Excuse me?”

“Royce, I’d watch it if I were you. I know you’re used to throwing your weight around, but you do not want to piss off Gavin.”

As head of operations in Jin Tower, there was no one I trusted more than Gavin.

And he was not someone you wanted to fight. His knuckles looked like a depressed teenager’s wrists for a reason.

Royce put up his hands. “My bad.”

Lucky for us, Gavin had a pretty good control over his temper these days. Didn’t used to be the case, which was rather fun to watch, but messy to clean up, and I’m all about efficiency. Or if not efficiency, at least luxury. Always err on the side of luxury.

Gavin cleared his throat and continued. “Once he activated the device, he only got one roll before security was all over him, but that was enough to tap out the machine.”

“Bet that was fun for the few seconds that it lasted,” I said. “Alright. Let’s go review the evidence and get those credits back. Are the videos ready?”

“Absolutely,” Gavin said, brows arched, tongue between his front teeth. “Showtime.”

I pushed open the heavy gilded doors and entered the deceptively large room. Big enough in case things got heavy, but still lushly appointed, I felt like I created an excellent spot for these little meetings. And Gavin did a good job of making sure no one broke the lamps.

I strutted inside, flanked by Gavin and Royce. Our patron was sitting on a plush silver couch, red-faced with his hands shoved into the pockets of a brown suit. A cheap brown suit, I might add. Too big in the shoulders, unfinished seams at the collar. Royce could have found something nicer in the underground mall. The man’s hairline came down too far, inches beyond his ears and right up to his eyebrows. Color was too dark. Bad dye job, couldn’t afford root shocking, and he had a bad scalp reforestation on top of that.

We needed to upgrade our software to automatically pick out customers like this. Out in the Eagle Rock pachinko shacks, he wouldn’t raise any red flags. In Jin Tower? We never should have let him past the front door.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “Thank you for joining us.”

Guards stood in position at the four corners of the room, mostly for intimidation. Gavin could take care of business by himself, but it was more professional to have a full security showing.

“Hey. I didn’t mean any harm. It wasn’t my idea. I mean it wasn’t my fault. I was under duress, you know?” the man said.

I strutted across the carpet and stopped, feet planted, shoulders squared. I didn’t need height or muscles to be intimidating.

I stuck a hand out for him to shake. “Mr…what did you say your name was?”

“Um, Wilson,” he said, staring at my hand but not shaking it, missing the part about how he’d never introduced himself to me in the first place. Good. Better to keep him frazzled.

“That’s right. Alan Wilson. Well, Mr. Wilson, I’m certainly not one to make wild accusations. We’re all about fair chances here at Jin Tower.”

“Who are you?”

I jiggled my hand, and he shook it hesitantly, his sweaty palm rubbing against my cool, dry skin.

“Song. Hyojin Song, owner and CEO of Song Entertainment Industries. You can call me Jin.”

His hand went limp in mine and I let it go so he could shove it back inside his frayed pockets. A fresh towelette appeared in my hand, as if by magic, and I wiped his sweat off my palm. Just as quickly, someone was there to take the used tissue away.

“Well then. Sorry to hurry us along here, but I’m afraid I have other places to be this evening. It’s nearly dawn, after all.” I snapped my fingers and pointed at the bar. One of the security guards sprung to life and started mixing me a drink. Never underestimate the value of well-trained staff.

Royce grumbled beside me, and I just smiled at him, hoping he’d take the hint. He could harass me later if he wanted to, but not in front of a client. Never compromise yourself in front of a client.

The guard handed me a chilled martini glass and scurried back to his post. I took a sip, and it was just what I needed. Between the premium gin and the thrill of busting this loser, it was almost enough to make me forget the unfortunate start to the evening.

“Can I get you anything?” I said.

Wilson pointed at his chest. “Me?”

“Of course. For the moment, you’re still a guest.”

The red left his cheeks. He was stupid. But not that stupid. He put his hands to either side of his thighs, like he was debating whether he should try to escape.

“Sit tight Mr. Wilson. Let’s enjoy a little show, shall we?”

I pushed a button on my watch, and a large flatscreen television came to life on the back wall. We watched as every moment of the guy’s mistake was replayed in high-definition color. You could almost see the sweat bursting out of his pores as the big jackpot rang out across the casino floor.

I turned to Gavin. “You’ve already confiscated the device?”

“Naturally,” he said.

“Your findings?”

“Just as expected. Illegal modulator. Homemade. Constructed on site, just like we saw in the video.”

I rotated back to Mr. Wilson. “Well then. We’ve presented our evidence, and it’s a strong case, don’t you think?”

His left eye twitched, and the security guards in the corners moved, just slightly. Eager. Gavin was doing a good job of containing his excitement, but he was ready too. I was hoping this guy didn’t do anything dramatic—I had enough to deal with—but Gavin was always up for a good rumble.

I stuck out a hand, and Gavin slapped a tablet into it. I glanced at the screen. “Oh you naughty boy, and gambling with cryptocurrencies too. Tsk tsk.”

Cash took a few extra steps to recover, since it was still regulated by the federal government. But anything crypto, we had full authorization to recover in any way we saw fit. Any. Way. Worst way to defraud a casino.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I really needed the money. I have kids,” he said.

“You don’t have kids. If you’re going to lie, at least make it a good one. We read your full profile, Mr. Wilson. Have some dignity.”

He started to get up, and the security guards stirred. I put a hand out and stopped them.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” Martini still in my other hand, I extended an index finger and punched some buttons on the tablet. “You’re going to return your illegal earnings plus transaction fees. I think you’ll find the sum we’ve calculated to be fair.”

“I can’t pay it back. I need that money.”

“However unfortunate your predicament, I’m afraid that’s not my problem.” I thrust the tablet in his face.

With trembling hands, he took the device and stared at the glowing numbers on the screen. “I can’t afford that!”

“I’m sure the amount is shocking, but perhaps next time you’ll think twice before going through with such an ill-advised plan. This is a small settlement—let me assure you, there are much more unpleasant ways of settling your debt. Put your thumbprint in the center of the screen, please. Or, we can just remove your thumbs and do it for you.” I took another sip of my drink.

His eyes widened, and he stared at his hands, probably thinking about what it would be like to go through life without opposable thumbs.

Gavin and the other security guards inched closer, waiting for him to bolt, but as tears played at his eyelids, the guy pressed a shaky thumb to the screen. A muted beep told me the transaction was finished.

I plucked the tablet from his grasp. “There now. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? I hope you've enjoyed your time with Song Entertainment Industries.”

Royce was leaning on a back wall, arms across his chest. I gulped the rest of the martini and set the glass on one of the gilded tables. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again.

“Come along,” I said to him. “Gavin will take things from here.”

Gavin winked at me. “Have a nice evening, Ms. Song.”

Chapter Four

The elevator clicked open, and I had to run my bios another time to avoid tripping one of the alarms. In these times, you never could be too careful. We had good security, but like we saw tonight, nothing was foolproof, and if you were willing to putz around with black market implants, it was possible to get away with all kinds of things. My sanctuary had to be impenetrable.

On the highest floor, I kept this area for my most private quarters—bedrooms, bathrooms, small kitchen. Only I had access to the roof, which was a special treat. If I felt up to it, maybe I’d watch the sunrise over the valley, but night was dwindling, and I’d been awake for more hours than I cared to remember. I was ready for some privacy, but I wasn’t alone.

Royce was still trailing behind me.

“Well, it’s been a lovely evening with you, to be sure. You’re welcome to stay in one of my spare bedrooms up here on the executive level, or you’re free to go back down to your private room. I'll text you or something if I start shorting out,” I said.

“No way.”

“You’re a doctor, aren’t you? Don't you think I deserve some rest after all that?”

He sighed. “I'm actually surprised you’re still standing. And smiling. You’re one strange woman. Most people would be flat out for the weekend after that injection. I suspect the adrenaline’s carrying you along for now.”

“You just don’t know me well enough.” I held out my wrist. “Feel my pulse. Do I look full of adrenaline?”

He waved me off. “I'm trying to protect my investment here.”

I pointed at the room down the hallway. “I’m going in there, and I’m going to get naked, take a long bath, watch the sunrise, have a cocktail, and take a much deserved nap. You can check on me when I wake up again.”

I walked down to the door and buzzed it open, blocking the gap with my body so he couldn’t follow me inside. He came close anyway, like he could squeeze through the tiny opening.

“And if you croak in your sleep?” he said.

“What, you want to come in and naked cuddle or something?”

“Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

I took off my watch, hit a few settings, and curled his fingers around it. “That’s keyed to my heartbeat.”

“I don’t know how long that injection is going to last. Might only hold for a few more hours, just so you know.”

“Feel free to come get me if my heart stops. Goodnight, Royce.” I slipped into the room and quickly, but softly, latched the door behind me.

I thought it was a fair compromise. Doctor or not, you didn’t hand out a code to internal scanners to just anyone. The rest of the controls on my watch were locked, but you never knew. Seemed like the hackers got more savvy every day, but it was only a one-way device. He couldn’t shock my heart from afar with the little standard implant I had.

The room was small when compared to my other suites, both inside Jin Tower and beyond, but it was one of my favorites. With just the bare essentials, it was where I went when I was done with any business and wanted to relax by myself. Covered in black silk fabrics and little gold accents, it was designed for pure relaxation and pleasure.

As I stepped farther inside, soft music automatically started playing and the lights dimmed. I loved this new system—even though it was almost time for dawn programming, the room knew I hadn’t been home for the night yet and was using the regular evening schedule. Even my electronics were well-behaved. Just like I deserved.

The first thing I did was strip off that noxious jacket and those awful shoes and shoved them down a waste chute. They were sucked into the abyss, sent down to the micro-incinerator, never to be seen again. Good riddance.

I hated to let Royce get the upper hand on the situation, but he may have been right. My neck started throbbing, and in a mirror I could see a healthy bruise forming at the base of my skull. Nothing I couldn’t hide with latex primers, but the headache I had earlier started poking at the back of my eyes again. A handful of anti-inflammatories and another stiff drink would help put a stop to that.

Reaching for the liquor cabinet, I realized that I was somehow out of gin. That was my fault—I asked staff not to come in here unless I explicitly asked them. I could have someone bring me another bottle, but I wanted my privacy for the moment. Perhaps a sparkling Tahitian coconut water instead. I flipped a switch on my beverage dispenser and the milky, effervescent liquid poured into a crystal champagne glass. Electrolytes would probably be good for the headache anyway.

Taking a sip of the slightly sweet mixture, I pulled the rest of my clothes off and hit a few buttons in the central control panel. Water burbled in the bathroom, and when I heard a ding, I removed a tray from a wall cabinet. Sushi and chocolate fondue with big, fat strawberries. Kitchen downstairs was fast. Excellent service. Fondue was for me, and the sushi was for Lucky. Where was he, anyway?

Too lazy to find the remote control, I used the voice system instead. “Adriana,” I said, and waited for the AI to respond.

“Listening,” it said.

“Send Lucky to room 777.”

“Your request is confirmed. Have a nice evening.”

Someone scratched on the front door a few moments later, and I cracked it open. The tan greyhound trotted inside, and I locked the door behind him. He sat at my feet, looking up happily, and I turned off the navigation program on his digital collar. Not that he really needed it anymore, but the casino could be a distracting place, easy for a dog to get lost.


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