Tanya woke up and made a decision. Mother had been right. The British ex-pat had lived in luxury just about her entire life and knew pretty much nothing of life on the streets and what it did to people. There had been times recently when the Triad had given her a job to do in one seedy place or another, but that was not the same as living there. And her experiences living poor had been years ago. It had been hard to look Mother in the eyes when she was talking about life in the Barrens. Perhaps she would still not be able to make a claim of knowing what it is like to live that way, but at least she would have a better idea.
Getting up, she slipped into her robe and walked out to the living room and kitchen, where Monique was almost finished preparing breakfast. Several things were already on the tray and Tanya snagged a piece of buttered toast from the rack as she sat on the stool. The Frenchwoman poured her a cup of steaming Early Grey without batting an eye. “You are up early this morning. Do you have anything scheduled that I need to know about?”
Tanya chuckled, “No, not really. Well, yes, actually. I am going to do something off the norm for the next few days, maybe a week. I want to spend some time helping Hank in his clinic.” She notices the raised eyebrow. “I know. I know. It sounds like a crazy idea, huh? But I have realized that there is a lot I could be doing to help others out.”
“But you already give him money, and help out that creepy church lady once in a while.”
Tanya puts up a hand. “I know. But it is not enough. I want to help out more. I want to do more. Money is good, yes, but somehow not enough. I am hoping that he will let me stay for a week and help out. I will be leaving after breakfast and will be gone a few days at least. Please see that my court and climbing wall times are cancelled so that someone else may use my slots while I am away.”
Monique looks at her employer and friend. “Of course, Miss. Let me get some things packed for you. By the way, Ni NI sent a message over asking if you had made a decision on that table yet. She said the final price was 10,000 Nuyen.”
Both women smiled, knowing that this was code that the pearls had fetched a good price. If Ni Ni was willing to cut Tanya’s share at 10K, she must be getting a better price somewhere. Tanya says, “Perfect. That went faster than I had thought it would. Slot me a stick for 6K of that to give to Hank while I get dressed, will you please?”
After breakfast, Tanya got dressed in some rough clothing she kept on hand for those times when she needed to look as if she belonged in the Barrens. Monique brought her some additional clothes to put in a bag and a coat to wear to get out of the building. The pair left together, going to the garage and the Mirage.
Seattle’s streets were busy with commuter traffic, but Tanya maneuvered the bike through one neighborhood of the greater sprawl after another, deftly moving in and out of traffic and staying within the speed limit. After all, this would not be a good time to get a ticket. While driving she sends messages to both Petra and Ni Ni, explaining what she was doing and letting both know that she would likely be busy for the coming week. She pulls over to the curb a few blocks from Hank’s clinic, dismounting and trading places with Monique. The two exchange cheek busses then Tanya walks off with her largish bag across her shoulder while Monique fires up the bike and roll off back to the hotel.
The walk to Hank’s takes Tanya down unfamiliar streets. She is aware of eyes upon her and for the first time debates with herself over the sanity of this project. However, it is now too late to back away as the distance back to where Monique could pick her up is farther away than Hank’s clinic. The streets are heavily shadowed even though it is still early morning. It is almost as if the sun never really shines here and Tanya shivers a bit in spite of herself.
She arrives at her destination unmolested except by leering eyes and some verbal catcalls. Breathing a sigh of relief, she resolves that Hank had better have a room because she is not going to make that walk twice a day. She wonders how Monique does it when she drops off the small payments Tanya provides Hank for the clinic. Shaking her head, Tanya steps through the door into a different world.
The small room she entered looked to be a cross between a waiting room, triage clinic, and ICU all crammed into one small place. A small counter runs part way across the room, mostly managing to shield the people laying on the handful of cots from any prying eyes from the half-dozen beat up chairs that lined one wall. The mostly managing part meant that Tanya could see three of the cots. All were occupied; two with sleeping men and the third with what appeared to be a young woman quite far along in a pregnancy. All of the chairs were occupied and three additional people were standing near a battered caf pot, sipping what looked like watered down caf from badly chipped mugs.
A young woman in a uniform that had clearly seen better days stepped through a door in the wall behind the counter. Immediately, all of the people sitting jumped up and merged with those standing to try to get her attention, asking questions about when they were going to be seen. The harried woman managed to keep her cool and waited out the torrent of voices before shooing all back from the counter, telling everyone that Doc Hank would get to them all soon. As the group sits back down, Tanya notices that some sort of musical chairs has been played and few of the people have the same seat they had before they got up. The nurse wags a finger and chides one of those sitting, a young man with a rag wrapped around his left hand. “Now, Burt, it is your hand that is hurt, not your legs. You stand up and wait for Doc Hank and give your seat to Mrs. Hanson.” The young man seems reluctant to move, staring defiantly at the woman behind the counter. Eventually his eyes drop and he stands up, mumbling something under his breath. An elderly woman supporting herself with a cane thanks him and the nurse before taking the empty chair.
The nurse, seeing that order has been reestablished, looks to where Tanya is standing. She motions for her to come closer and says, “Yes dear. Come up to the counter. I do not recognize you so you must be new to the neighborhood. What is bothering you today?” She nods to the people waiting and adds, “As you can see, we are very busy, but Doc Hank will see you when he can. To better assist you, please describe your symptoms for me. I will let Doc know if it is serious enough to have him jump you in line.” Several of the people waiting groan, the loudest being the young man with the bandaged hand. He mutters, “Oh sure. Get the hot slot in line first. I only been here a couple hours.”
Tanya looks at the young man and smiles prettily at him without saying a word as she makes her way to the counter. She looks at the young nurse and says, “My name is Tanya Marisart. Doc…..Hank…..might remember me. Actually there is nothing wrong with me. I have come to see if I can be of any help.”
The nurse looks confused for a minute, as if she does not understand. Tanya clears her throat and adds, “I usually send Monique here but I wanted to come personally this time.”
The woman smiles. “Well why did you not say that Monique had sent you. She is always welcome. I will let Doc Hank know that you are here. He is with a patient, so it may take a few minutes.” She points to the caf pot. “Why don’t you just have a cup while you wait?”
Without waiting for a reply, the nurse disappears through the door, leaving Tanya to face the rest of the people, all of whom are staring at her except for the one she thinks is Mrs. Hanson. Tanya smiles and moves over to the pot. Burt, now realizing that the pretty woman is not threatening to take his place in line, nods to her then to the pot.
“Hank’s finest. Not very hot and weaker than a newborn, but it can keep the chill off. Let me pour you a cup.” Tanya looks at the lukewarm weak caf and quails internally. Outside, she thanks the young man.
He smiles back and continues in a conspiratorial voice, “Name is Burt. Not sure I caught it, but you’re Tanya, right?” At her nod, he goes on, “Thought so. Got sharp ears. Hear lots of things. I do not place the accent as from around here, so if you are new, consider Burt your man to get you settled. Got a place to stay? If not I can fix you up. Accommodations not like the fancy downtown tourist traps, but for the right price it can be secure.”
Tanya looks at the man then says, “Not got a place to stay yet, Burt, but only expect to be here a week.” She smiles at his look of disappointment then nods at his hand. “So, what happened?”
Burt laughs and raises his arm. “This? Ain’t nuthin but a thing. You should see the other guy. In fact, you can if you step just over here.” He tugs on Tanya’s arm and moved her to where she can see the cots and points to one. “That fragger tried to stiff me some that he owed. Good fer him it was not more he owed me or he would really be hurting. I pride myself on matching the punishment to the offense.”
Burt looks Tanya up and down, appraising her figure. “Anyway, you’re only here a week, eh? I s’pose I can still help you. I can set you up with rooms that rent by the hour if you are looking for that sort of work, or perhaps just a place to crash for a week. All sorts of lifestyle options down here.” He flips a small card from a pocket and presents it with a wink. “Comm code on the back. Call me any time if you need anything.” He gives a sort of bow then saunters back to the caf pot and pours himself another cup of the watery liquid.
Tanya is still looking at the card when the nurse comes back into the room. Those waiting look up but settle back down when she shakes her head. She motions for Tanya, “Doc Hank will see you now, dear. Please come with me.” She opens a swinging door in the counter and lets Tanya slip past her before shutting it again and leading Tanya through the door. Once through, Tanya sees a larger room that contains a dozen additional cots similar to the ones in the waiting area, but only a few are occupied. A large man is standing near one of the cots and Tanya has an immediate impression of some sort of bear. The man turns to come greet Tanya when the nurse clears her throat and the long beard and bushy hair only serve to accentuate her initial opinion.
The man nods to the Nurse, “Thank you, Elsie. I will be ready to see the next person in a couple of minutes.” Turning to Tanya, he says, “Tanya Marisart as I live and breathe. Welcome, welcome. I cannot tell you how much your help means to being able to stay open here. These people need so much and the fragging corporations are not interested in doing anything. Your friend speaks highly of you and did say that you might be by soon. What can I do for you?”
Tanya takes the offered hand and grips it firmly then puts her bag down on the floor to fish a credstick from a pocket. Holding it out to the man, she says, “I want to give you this and ask if you will let me help you down here.”
Hank takes the stick and puts it in one of the voluminous pockets of his overalls. He frowns as he replies, “But you are helping. And you certainly do not need my permission to be as generous as you are.”
“No, you misunderstand. I want to work here for a week. And maybe come back each month for a week or so for a bit.”
“May I ask why?”
“You may, but I am not sure I have a good answer. Guilt, maybe?”
“That is the wrong answer, Miss Marisart. Thank you for your contribution, but this is no place for the idle rich to assuage their consciences.” He waves a hand about the room. “People here are sick, some are dying. I am afraid I cannot use that sort of help. I can give you your money back, if you like.”
Tanya motions with her arm to stop him from returning the stick. “No…..I…..well, maybe you are right. But I want to stay and help. I need to stay and help. Will you give me a chance?”
Hank looks at the British thief for a bit then shrugs. “Maybe. Lord knows I can use help. Any experience working in a clinic?” As she shakes her head, he continues. “Triage site? Hospital volunteer facility? Street Doc?” He laughs as she shakes her head to all of the questions. “Well, what can you do?”
Rather embarrassed that she had not though ahead better, Tanya looks him in the eye and says, “I can lift things and move things. I can help wash clothes and change linens. I can……..” Her voice trails off then she stomps a foot. She takes a breath and calms herself and her voice is stronger when she adds, “I am not a child. I can help. I can be useful. Will you give me a chance?”
Hank looks her over then nods his head. “I will give you a chance, and not because of the money. I can really use help here doing just the things you mentioned. But you have to understand up front that this is hard work; no easy loafing. Got it?”
Tanya, surprisingly relieved, nods her head.
“Good. Do you have a place to stay? This is a rough neighborhood, but the local gangers have declared the clinic and its workers neutral, so you should not be bothered once it gets around that you are helping here. No one wants to be cut off from the only real medical care in the neighborhood.”
Tanya smiles weakly. “I was talking with a young man named Burt out front. He says he can fix me up with a room. Cheap and secure.”
Hank nods, “Burt is OK. Big egos come with the territory down here. He is the boss of the small gang that operates in a several block radius from here. Pretty small-time, but he can be violent. One of the men out front is here because he tried to cross Burt. I’ve seen hundreds just like him come and go in my life. It is sad, really; the man has potential, but will never leave here and never get the chance to let that potential grow. He would be good to arrange for a small place where you can pay by the week.”
He nods at a spot near the wall. “Place your bag there and go tell Elsie that I will see whoever is next. Then see if Burt can help you find a place.”
Tanya nods and puts her bag where she was told to and goes back into the reception area. Elsie is maintaining control in the room with an eagle eye. She nods when Tanya tells her to send the next person back. Consulting a ledger in front of her, Elsie calls out. “OK. Mrs. Hanson is next. Let me help you, dear.” The woman with the cane stands up and hobbles to the counter, passing through the swinging door and into the next room, accompanied by Elsie. Tanya looks at Burt and crooks a finger. The man looks about as if to be sure that the pretty girl means him, then swaggers forward.
Tanya smiles and says, “Hank said I can work here for a bit. Might only be a week this time, but I might be back every month or so. I do need a place to stay, but cannot afford to pay tourist rates. Can you help?”
“You’ve come to the right guy. I’ve got just the place for you. Grab your things and I’ll run you round. Less than a half block away, so it’s an easy walk back and forth.”
Tanya nods and goes back into the other room to get her bag. Hank and Elsie are busy with Mrs. Hanson so she just leaves. Burt is waiting for her and takes her arm as they leave the building. True to his word he stops at a door to a walkup only a short distance from the clinic and directly along the street. There are no street lights to speak of, but the light from the clinic window almost reaches this far. Burt removes a key from his pocket and opens the door to a dirty and musty-smelling landing. There is one small light bulb in the corridor, but it does not really provide more than a source for shadows. Burt points to the stairs at the end of the hall. “Up you go. Your spot is on the second floor.”
Tanya shakes her head. “What is it about these people that they have the floors all wrong? First floor, chum. First floor.” She proceeds to the rickety stairs and goes up. The creaking and groaning are enough to wake everyone in the building, except that they are likely used to the noise. What they might not hear is the low whistle from Burt as he watches Tanya climb the stairs from his vantage point behind and below her. At the first floor, she lets Burt go past her and follows him to the second door on the right. He unlocks and opens the door, sweeping his arms and saying, “Home sweet home. Take a look and then we can haggle over the price.”
Tanya carefully enters the room and almost gags. Peeling paint covers even older peeling paint. The place is one small room and a small space that she assumes is a closet. No kitchen, no bath. There is a bed in the room, a three drawer vertical chest, and a small table with one chair. The light is weak, barely illuminating the small area. She turns to Burt, but he holds up a hand. “Before you ask, the bath is down the hall. It’s shared, so be sure to wear a robe. There are three stalls so you can have privacy and the shower has a good curtain on it to keep peeping down. But you are in luck; only two other tenants on this floor and both are girls, so no worries, right? Hot water is rationed, so work out your schedule with the others, but it usually works out to about 15 minutes a day, with a buffer of another ten if you pay extra. Come on……paradise, right? And only 50 a week, 60 if you want the extra water. Paid in advance.”
Tanya almost bolted from the whole plan right there, but steadied herself. Turning to Burt, she asks, “No kitchen?”
The man chortles. “What sort of place you been living in? Nah. You got a small stuffer shack about half a block the other way past the clinic. Other than that, a soy cart usually comes by once a day about noon or so and you can get something to tide you over from Geeto. That’s about as good as it gets, Tanya. I can call you Tanya, right?”
Tanya idly waves her hand and nods. “OK. I will take it.” She reaches for a small purse and opens it to fish out some coins. She seems to waver after giving him 50 Nuyen, but closes the purse without taking the additional 10 out. Burt can see that there is little left in it after she puts the money into his hand. He looks closely at her and smiles. “Don’t worry; lots of folks here are on the way back up from the bottom. I am sure that Hank can spare you something if you are short to get something to eat. Probably not much though; that place runs pretty close to the ground for money.”
He takes two keys from the ring in his hand. “Here is the key to the front door and this is the key to the room. Don’t lose them. The fee to replace the keys is a month’s rent.” He smiles at her. “I will leave you to settle in. Still got to get my hand looked at.”
Burt shuts the door behind him as he leaves and Tanya goes to try out the bed. Gingerly sitting on it, she is pleasantly surprised to find it almost comfortable. She stretches out for a few minutes. “Cousin Jeremy would literally choke if he could see me right now. Or disinherit me. Or maybe both. What are you doing, Tanya?”
After a few minutes she rises from the bed and puts her few clothes in the closet and chest of drawers. It hits her that there really are people who live and survive in conditions like this. She doubts her ability to make it a week, but is determined to try. Going to the door, she turns and gives her new home a look before leaving and locking the door behind her. The stairs are scary enough in their own right, but the lack of adequate lighting makes them even more so and Tanya is glad when she finally makes it to the ground floor. Breathing a sigh of relief, she walks the short distance to the clinic and enters the building.
It seems that the same people are still in the waiting area, but Tanya quickly realizes that is not the case. The same number of people yes, but two have disappeared, their spaces filled by new arrivals. Burt smiles and waves and Elsie clears her throat as she motions to Tanya to come to the counter. “Doc said I was to show where things are and to get you settled in doing some of the chores. Come on back here and we will get you started.”
Tanya follows Elsie through the door, going all the way to the rear of the clinic to a small storage room. The nurse points out where the cleaning supplies are located, as well as some of the things Hank may call out for. Tanya notices a closed door and asks about it, but Elsie only shakes her head. “That is the door to Doc Hank’s private rooms. We are not allowed in there. It is where he keeps all the special medicines.”
Tanya is put to work doing pretty much whatever Hank or Elsie tells her to do. She is particularly glad for her regimen of physical activities has kept her fit, for the work here is indeed as hard as Hank had promised. She is allowed to go out to the street when the soy wagon pulls up and is very glad for the break. Here she meets Geeto, the wizened Asian who drives the wagon around. His selection is limited, but his prices are low. Or at least they seem low to Tanya. But she hears some complain about the rising prices, to which he replies that his costs keep going up. “Fragging Corporations.” There is a ragged chorus of “Fragging Corporations” as he says this, almost as if the line is a common mantra here.
Tanya wants a bit of time to see what is available so maneuvers herself to be last in line. When she gets to the counter window, she has still not made up her mind. A voice comes from behind her as Burt steps up to her side. “Hey, Geeto. Meet our newest resident, Tanya. Tanya, this is Geeto. What he doesn’t know about how to cook soy drek is not worth knowing. Hey, come to think of it, this is not worth much either. Still, it is food. And his prices really are pretty fair.”
He notices her hesitation. “Can’t make up your mind, eh? Let me order for you. So what is your speed; mild or hot?” When Tanya indicates hot, Burt smiles broadly, “My kind of girl.” Turning back to the truck window and Geeto, Burt orders a couple of Jack Burgers and adds some spiced fries. “If you like it hot, these will fry your brain. In a good way, of course.” He takes the food and watches Tanya carefully count out the coins from her nearly empty purse. Shaking his head, he guides her to a small bench against one of the buildings. He allows her to sit while he stands, leaning against the wall. Tanya bites into the burger and instantly feels the heat. Her eyes open wide and she has to suck in some air. She smiles up at Burt. “Good stuff. Have had better. And you are right; this drek is frying my brain.”
They both laugh then eat quietly. Tanya is glad that she is into spicy foods because this is some of the hottest she has ever eaten. She laughs, “I will have to remember to bring friends here to meet this guy.” She finishes the lunch and stands. “Thank you for sitting here with me, but now I need to get back to work. See you later.”
The afternoon is hard work as she fetches for both Hank and Elsie. She somehow gets the impression that they are tag teaming her to see if she will break. She grits her teeth and continues working, determined not to give them the satisfaction. The clinic stays busy all day long, with people coming in just as others leave. Hank treats everyone personally, providing care and small vials of medicine. He recognizes that Tanya has a way with people and asks her to sit with a couple of his difficult patients. She calms them down and is able to get information from them that even Hank was having a hard time gleaning. It is way after dark when the last patient leaves the clinic. Hank thanks Elsie, who nods to him and leaves, heading off to her husband and three kids. Hank motions for Tanya to come over to him. “You did well today. Better than I had thought you would, and you stuck it out, which really surprised me. And you have quite a way with people, which I can seriously use around here. Now, go home and come back tomorrow.”
Tanya lets him shoo her out the clinic door where she stands for a bit, trying to determine if she needs to answer the call from her stomach or from her tired bones and muscles that are aching for bed. She opts for the former and walks the short distance to the ‘shack, ordering a bit of food and eating it on the premises. She is one of several customers and the tables stay occupied until she has to leave or fall asleep over her plate. She takes the better part of valor and leaves the small restaurant and shop to return to her rented room. Entering the building, she is aware of a rhythmic thumping sound as she walks down the narrow corridor. The stairs seem creakier than before and she actually wonders if they will soon tumble down on one tenant or another. Perhaps on her. The slight banging is even louder on the first floor and is accompanied by moans and groans. Apparently one of Tanya’s floor mates had gotten lucky. Tanya stops off at the small bathroom at the end of the corridor to use the toilet and sign up for her rotation with the shower, noting that although she has a 15 minute ration of hot water, the showers are only available three days a week. “Well, at least I won’t be smelling worse than the rest of the people.” Returning to her room, Tanya strips and falls into bed, asleep in seconds, so tired that the sounds of the couple making love next door do not disturb her.
The internal alarm goes off at 6:00 AM. Upon waking, it takes Tanya a few moments to realize where she is. No Monique. No breakfast prepared for her. Worst, no private bathroom; and that particular need is upon her. Remembering Burt’s advice, she slips into a large men’s shirt as she has no robe and leaves the apartment to go down the hall to the shared facilities. After using the toilet, she starts to get into the shower then realizes that it is not her turn. Returning to the sink, she presses the button next to her room number for hot water, hoping that Burt had remembered to turn it on for her. He had. The warmth of the water on her hands and face was like heaven and she quickly washed up, using as little of the water as possible in order to conserve her ration.
She is just finishing when another woman walks into the room. She has a robe on and is carrying a towel. She uses the toilet as Tanya wipes her hands on her shirt, having forgotten to pack a towel as well. The woman looks at Tanya and says, “You must be the new girl. Burt said we were getting a floor mate for a week. Name is Hilda but most just call me Hil. Just a warning, I got this section of street between Agrat down that way and three blocks up. Burt said that you were not competition, but just so you know. OK?” Without waiting for a reply, the woman steps out of the robe and into the shower, turning on the water. Tanya takes the opportunity to exit the room and return to her small flat.
She stops at the ‘shack for a small breakfast then reports to the clinic for work, actually arriving before the first patient. Hank is there already; apparently he lives in rooms above the clinic, but Tanya is told that Elsie usually arrives by 7:30. Hank asks if she slept well then gives her chores to do. Once he determines that Tanya knows how to work the caf pot, he shows her where the supply of ground caf is and makes her first task to be getting the ancient pot going. Soon, Elsie arrives and seems genuinely glad to see that Tanya has returned for a second day. Patient follows patient and Tanya gets a good idea of what really working in a clinic like this is like. The list of injuries and illnesses would daunt a hospital staff, but Hank takes it all in stride, inspiring the others.
The day is a constant flow of people who need help, but most of Tanya’s chores are more prosaic; cleaning up messes and helping patients to and from cots. The rudimentary bathroom needs near-constant cleaning and she loses track of how many times she has to clean up vomit from people, cots, and the floor. This routine is broken by a quick lunch from Geetos wagon, but that respite is all too brief. Back at the grind, Tanya barely notices when the girl walks in. At first, she looks like another patient then Tanya realizes that she does not appear to be sick or injured. Her flowing hair is the color of a sunset, practically matching Tanya’s shorter locks. She stands at probably just a bit over five feet tall, and Tanya would wager that she might weigh about seven stone when wet, including the semi-revealing clothes she is wearing. Tanya admires the way the young woman walks and can appreciate the confidence she displays.
Tanya momentarily stops doing her current task as the young woman approaches Hank, who stands and embraces her, saying “Callie. It is so nice to see you. What have you been up to?”
The girl can hardly contain her excitement. “Ohmigod! I have to tell you!” She grips the man’s shirt tightly as she hops with near frantic delight. “That run……..uhh,” she cut herself off, looking about self-consciously to see just who might be listening before continuing, “that JOB……it was AWESOME.” She beams up at Hank as if a daughter seeking confirmation from her father. And he gave it to her by hugging her tightly and congratulating her.
“Well done, Callie.” He looks her over and turns her about. “You look OK; are you?”
She steps back and regards Hank with mock defiance, arms akimbo. “Now, you know I’m waaaay too quick to worry about any goons.”
He chides her about overconfidence and she rolls her eyes, as if saying “Yeah, yeah.”
As she laughs, Callie finally notices the other redhead in the room. Tanya is looking at her with undisguised interest and does not look away when the younger woman sees her. Callie is a bit non-plussed and stammers out an uncertain “Ummmm…….hello?”
Hank laughs and says, “Callie, meet Tanya. She is here for a week helping me out. If she works out I may ask her back again. Tanya, this is Calico. She is as much a daughter to me as if she were my own flesh and blood.”
Tanya stands from where she is wiping up some vomit near a cot. Her clothes and hands smell a bit……..off, so she does not offer to shake hands but nods. Her English accent is quite pronounced as she says, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.”
Calico just nods then turns back to Hank, taking his arm. “Do you think I can crash here for a couple of days? I have a line on a small place, but have to make some arrangements?”
Tanya watches as the two turn to walk toward the rear of the clinic. She can hear them talk as the girl does not seem to take any special cautions to be overheard. “Hank. Are you sure about her? I mean, why is she here? Especially right now?”
“Callie, a person could go crazy wondering why people do things. All I know is that she came in yesterday morning saying she needed to help and asked if I would give her a chance. She might be here out of some sort of guilt, or a need to lay low from someone or something for a few days. Hell, she might even be here to pay off some sort of debt or bet. What I do know is that she works hard at anything I or Elsie give her to do. And she does not complain about it. If she keeps this attitude for……………….”
As the voices trail off, Tanya again kneels on the floor to finish cleaning up the mess. She does not see the girl leave the clinic, but cannot help thinking of her. Her youthful enthusiasm was nothing short of infectious and Tanya hopes that she can maintain that through her life. She can remember another young woman with just that sort of attitude and being just that way when she was younger, before everything changed in a ball of fire on a busy street. Shaking her head at what was and what her life has become since, Tanya toils the afternoon away lost in thought; so busy that she barely notices the passage of time until she sees a shadow of someone standing behind her. Looking around, she sees Calico and as Tanya stands, the other woman says, “So. Hank recommended that I should get to know you and I was thinking maybe we could grab a bite to eat at the ‘shack down the street. Interested?”
Tanya knows that she smells horrible and probably looks even worse and rather admires the girl for not stepping back. She looks down at her clothes then back up. “Sure. That sounds rather nice, actually. Of course, I would be banned for life for going in there looking and smelling like this. Let me go over to my flat and change into something a bit nicer. Give me, say, a half hour?”
Calico nods, smiles, and walks away. Tanya watches her for a minute then smiles to herself. She looks about for Elsie then realizes that the nurse has already left for the day and it is only her and Hank. When she checks in, Hank tells her, “Phew, Tanya. You need to go get cleaned up.”
As Tanya turns away, he calls her back. “I do want to say that I have noticed that you are working very hard. I hope that you are finding whatever it is you came here for. Also, I understand that Callie asked you to eat with her. Thank you for saying yes. Now get out.”
Tanya leaves the clinic and goes to her first floor walkup where she steps into the shower fully clothed and turns on the hot water. She strips out of her clothes once the major portion of the day is washed off them. She enjoys the glorious feeling of hot water when the timer softly dings. Unused to the sound, it does not register in Tanya’s mind what the import is until the rush of icy water causes her to scream in surprise. She exits the shower stall as fast as she can, tripping over the sill and landing on the floor butt first. Cursing in English, Chinese, and French all at the same time, Tanya is highly embarrassed and glad that no one is watching. She carefully regains her feet and grabs her clothes, heading for the door. In the hallway, Tanya has to fish her room key from her sopping wet clothes, not easy to do in the buff and while dripping water. Once in the room, she leans against the door and starts laughing.
Getting dressed allows Tanya to regain a bit of her self-respect. She checks the time on her internal chrono and realizes she has bare minutes to get to the stuffer shack to meet Callie. She hangs her wet clothes over the chair and table and leaves the room, remembering to lock up before heading down the stairs. She hits the landing in a few strides and spies Hil and some man entering the building. She flattens against the wall to let them pass, flashing a smile and a short greeting to her floor mate and the lucky man before exiting. The street outside is dark, but there is sufficient light to barely guide her to the ‘shack.
Entering, Tanya is pleased to see that she is first and has not kept Calico waiting. She looks about for a seat and notices a couple getting ready to leave. Just then, Calico enters the small shop and Tanya greets her before pointing at the now vacant table. “Hello. Those seats just became vacant, shall we?”
The younger woman leads the way and Tanya cannot help but admire the view and the way Calico walks. The girl is sensuous, even if she is not meaning to be, and Tanya is not completely certain she does not do it on purpose. After all, she had been just that way when younger. To be honest, Tanya thought, she is not so much different now. The women sit at the table and look over the menu before placing their orders. Tanya looks at the food and sighs, “Got to watch my cred balance here. It would be tre easy to spend too much.”
After placing her order, Tanya waits for her companion to do the same before talking. The two make small talk while waiting for the food to arrive. When it does, Tanya cannot help but notice that the man has little spare attention for anything not poured into the catsuit Calico is wearing. When the man leaves, Tanya leans over a bit and says, “So, that was impressive. The poor bloke couldn’t keep his eyes off you, which probably comes in handy on occasion. I thought it was well done, and the clothes certainly help.” She grins a bit as she holds up a wallet. “It certainly took the challenge away from taking this. Sometimes I just cannot help myself, and you made it so easy. Let’s see if our chap is as bad off as I am right now.”
Tanya opens the wallet and frowns at the contents. “Actually, he is only doing just a smidgeon better than me, poor chap.” She sighs and looks over at Calico, noticing a slight frown that she interprets as disappointment. “I cannot really see the bloke hurt just because he likes the way you look.” She turns in the chair and calls out to the young man while holding his wallet up, relying on her photographic memory to give her his name. “Josh. Hey, Josh. You dropped this over here.”
The young man hurries over, this time interested in something other than Calico’s form-fitting clothing. He takes the wallet from Tanya’s hand and looks through it. “Thank you, Miss. Thanks a lot.”
“Not a problem. Glad to help. Try to be more careful, though. Not everyone will give it back.”
She turns back to Calico with a smile. “Now, where were we? Oh, yes. I could not help but overhear part of your conversation with Hank earlier today. It sounds like you got a new job?”
Calico’s emotions have switched twice in the past couple of minutes. The theft of the boy’s wallet, while expertly done, had disappointed her as taking advantage of someone already down about as far as he can go. The return of the wallet had impressed her. “So, the brit has scruples. Maybe…….”
She thinks a moment then smiles at Tanya as she leans closer, saying, “Nice lift, but why are you wasting your talents on working-class stiffs like us? Don’t they get kicked in the teeth enough by society? Those that live here in the Barrens already have so little that taking anything from them is just wrong. Now, the teeth-kickers; THAT’S where the real money is. Plus, there’s the added bonus that they FULLY deserve losing whatever you can take from them. Consider what it might mean to relieve some of them of the blood money that they have gathered for years, even generations. Now, that is something you could do with the sort of talent you just showed.”
Calico bites her lip and frowns a bit as she realizes that she may have said too much. After all, she does not know this woman very well; hell at all. For her part, Tanya sips at the tepid caf that had come with her meal and looks at the other woman. Putting the cup down, she carefully says, “So, you think I could take this show to the bigger leagues? I have to say that I am interested; especially if it will improve my financial position any. And I have to agree with you that there are a lot of rich blighters out there with too much money. Trouble is finding some that can be taken down. Do you have any ideas on that?”
Calico looks around. “Maybe we should not be talking about this here. I am crashing at Hank’s for a couple of days but I don’t need him knowing exactly what it is I do, you know what I mean? To him, I am still the street kid that stumbled into his clinic a few years ago. I was running from everyone and everything and he gave me a place to stay and food to eat. Hank knows SOME of what I do, but he worries a lot, just like a dad. He is genuinely nice and more like a father to me than mine was. What about your place?”
Tanya almost snorts her caf. “I have a first floor bedsit about a block from here. Certainly not posh, but it is home for the few days I am here. If you are finished with the nosh, we can go there.”
The two women quickly finish eating and rise. Tanya waves to Josh on the way out and he smiles at her before switching his gaze to her companion’s far sexier form. The walk to the flat is short and there are only a few people out on the street. Tanya spies Hil walking her path and waves, receiving a friendly nod and greeting in return. She warns Calico about the stairs and leads the way to her flat. Calico looks confused and says, “I though you said you lived on the first floor?”
Tanya smiles to herself then shakes her head and replies, “Where I come from, this is the first floor. Below is the ground floor and above is the second floor. Righto, here we are. Promise to not be too disappointed.”
Opening the door, Tanya ushers Calico into her small bedsit and the girl does not even cringe, so she must be used to this…….or worse, perhaps. She moves about the room to gather her now dry clothes and tosses them towards the dresser. Offering Calico the chair, Tanya goes to sit on the bed. “Sorry for the place. As I said, it is only home for a week. You should see my other place.”
Calico nods, “I have seen worse. I lived in worse for a time. Before I met Hank.” She shrugs, “Still don’t have much to call home, but I am making arrangements to move on up a bit.”
Tanya smiles and nods, “We all make do as we can. So what about your plan?”
Calico wonders if she has already said too much, but she is already in, so what the frag, right? “My usual operation is to find rich assholes who want to “protect” me or “take care” of me. Of course, the protection usually has a price tag of my virtue. I suppose the outfit helps put the idea in their heads. I usually go meekly with them then leave, after helping myself to some of their more portable valuables.”
Tanya looks at Calico with some surprise and a bit of concern. “I can see why you do not want Hank to find out everything. I am not judging you, but it seems to me that sort of life can be dangerous.” She holds up a hand. “Yes, I know. Just living can be dangerous. And I do not even really care if you are bartering your virtue. Hell, I have done that many times. We do what we need to do to survive.”
Calico is a bit flustered by the direction the conversation is taking. She is almost ready to just leave when Tanya continues. “Please hear me out. I like your style. I like it a lot. I especially like that you have made something of yourself and are looking at improving your position in life. If you can trust me, I can show you a different way. I know trust is a very large word and hard to earn, so let me give you something to chew on, if you have a few minutes.”
Calico seems torn between staying and leaving, but her curiosity wins over. Nodding, she settles back into the chair. “Sure. Go ahead and convince me.”
Smiling, Tanya starts. “My full name is Lady Tanya Astasia Marisart. You may have heard of me and I may even be on your blighter…uh, asshole……list. It doesn’t really matter if you have heard of me or not, actually. You can use your commlink to get a very public bio of me from the social circuit who’s who listings. Suffice it to say that I do what you do, but on a larger scale. I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and you could say it is still there. I grew up bored with my life and learned to steal things. Small time at first, then more and bigger. Now I get paid thousands of Nuyen for what I do. I live my life in a society that allows me to do what I like, which is stealing from the very people on your bli….asshole list. I do not believe much in luck, preferring to make my own. I try to plan every job meticulously and I am well equipped and highly successful. With me so far?”
Calico nods in silence, not sure what she is supposed to say at this point.
Tanya continues, “Sometimes I do contract work and often that is not in the rarefied social atmosphere I am used to. I know I cannot learn much in a week here, but it is more of a refresher than an initial class. It has been a long time since I actually lived in a place like this, although I assure you that the lower slums of London are much like the Barrens and I know those all too well. Anyway, I have been giving money to Hank for his clinic for a while and thought that I could come and try to get a feel for life here. Hank does not know why I am here and he does not need to know. I have no designs on him or his clinic other than to help.”
Tanya pauses before continuing, “I think we could perhaps work together as a team. What do you think? If you are interested, come see me when I am finished here. Give me your comm code and I will find you. I can show you a new way of life if you want it and are able to reach for it. And I can offer friendship. The ball, as you colonists say, is now in your court.”
Calico thinks for a bit before answering. “This could be what I have been looking for? She might be able to help me and it sounds like she has similar goals.” “Before I take you up on that, can you share some information on your skill set?”
Tanya sits back, not sure where to begin or really what to say. “Skill set? Hmmm, I will try. You have already seen that I can grab, and trust me, that was child’s play. I have extensive knowledge of what is worth stealing, be it art, jewelry, old coins, and the like, as well as a very good working knowledge of security systems. I can climb and descend walls and small chutes to get into places by bypassing normal entry and exit routes. I am rather good with locks; all sorts, and have equipment designed to assist me to bypass many of the best made, up to military grade, anyway, and I tend to leave THAT level of security to others. Speaking of others, I do have connections that can help me out with a specific job if I feel that my skills are not up to the task. One of my better assets is, quite frankly, me. My name and family title go way back in England, and I have found that many colonists are entranced by a noble title. I have the grace and etiquette to move in high society circles and am almost always near the top of the “Must Invite” list for all the best parties. I am more than willing to sleep with the men and women I plan to rob if it will get me closer to the treasure I want, and despite my current attire, I know how to dress, walk, and talk the part. Enough?”
Calico sits and digests this information for a bit then makes a decision. “OK. I will take you up on that, at least I will see how it works. Here is my code and I will wait for the call.”
Tanya stands up and holds out a hand. “Don’t worry, I washed it. I would offer some wine if I had some wine. But I also need some sleep or I will be dragging at the clinic tomorrow. You have the rest of the week to think about my offer, although I hope that you do not get cold feet. I think we will make a good team.”
Calico laughs as she shakes Tanya’s hand. She says her farewells and leaves Tanya alone in her small flat. Tanya looks at the closed door and sighs, “It would have been worth the lost sleep to get her out of those clothes and into bed, but she did not give any hints she was willing and it is not worth it to push.”
Tanya goes to bed, making sure that her alarm is set. It takes a few minutes to fall asleep; partially because she is thinking of how she and Callie could work together and partially because she is thinking of how she and Callie would do in bed together. She finally drifts off, to waken on time to her alarm. She dresses and goes to the room at the end of the hallway to use the loo, wash the sleep from her face, and brush her teeth. She checks the time and sees that she can still grab something from the shack before going to the clinic. Her day at work starts out fast and goes fast. She sees Calico twice during the day, exchanging greetings and smiles with her new friend. Hank takes note and finds an opportunity to thank Tanya for being friendly with the girl.
By now, Tanya almost has the work down to a routine. She even manages to work it out that she has some time to watch Hank at work with the patients when he calls her over to help keep someone calm. She has a most soothing manner and her personality seems perfect for this sort of thing. Hank’s skill is amazing and she is quite impressed. She remembers how helpless she had felt when she could not help poor Kumiho. If she had been skilled even just a bit, she could have used that kit and she does not want to feel that way again. So at the end of the day, she corners Hank and asks if she can stay past the week to learn some of the basics of first aid, breathing a sigh of relief when he says yes.
The remaining days of the week slip past. Tanya works hard and manages to even impress Elsie by the end of the week. She sends a text message to Monique telling her that she will be staying an extra day or two to learn some first aid skill. The message also refers to Calico in general terms. Tanya actually feels sorrow that she will be leaving. She has come to know a number of the people here and her small bedsit is not so horrible once she gets used to it. After figuring out the way things creak and groan, it will be hard going back to the relative silence of Suite U3A. She will even miss the sounds of Hil and her clients.
All too soon it is the final day. Burt gives her his comm code and tells her that if she is serious about coming back in a month that she should give him a call and he will make a place available for her. Several of the people that she has helped here come to wish her goodbye. Hank has to chase people away just so he can complete the training he wants to do with her. With tears in her eyes, Tanya thanks him for everything and tells him that, indeed, she did find some of what she was looking for.