Sitting down at a table with Sandra at 93 Underground, Drake thanked Sandra for the drink she had gotten him on their way back from the dance floor. Away from the flashing lights, they were able to see each other a little better. A slightly better look at Drake revealed a fresh, red welt around his neck that had been mostly concealed by the collar of his body armor and the flashing strobe lights earlier. Drake smiled and thanked her for the drink.
"Not a problem." She replied. "Its the least I can do for helping me out back there."
"Oh, it's nothing. I'm sure you'd have had it under control in a minute anyway," replied Drake encouragingly.
"Probably. But it's so rare to meet such a gentleman these days, and especially in a place like this." She responded, eyeing Drake and his neck.
Drake was a little embarrassed by the kind remarks. He blushed and cleared his throat, but smiled at the compliment. "I take it you've been in this place a few times before?
"A few times." Sandra replied. "Something always seems to happen to be when I go down here." Memories of one visit that had ended up with a fight against a whole biker gang came to mind.
Drake looked over at the partying Pumas and their captive commander. "Things like that?"
"That, getting shot at by an entire gang... Normal stuff."
"Hey, you too? Gangs seem to have 'people' problems," chuckled Drake.
"What? A whole gang tried to go after you at once?" Sandra looked earnestly surprised. Having a whole gang go after you didn't happen often. Living to talk about it happened even less.
Drake rubbed his neck at the memory. "Yeah, well they kinda won."
"Ouch." Sandra flatly said. "All I can say is that you're a pretty lucky man right now."
"Luckily, I don't think they were trying to kill me. Come to think of it, maybe they weren't exactly a gang either. I do feel pretty lucky right now. That makes three strokes of luck in a week. I'm not used to having to rely on luck." Drake grinned wryly.
Sandra looked at him "Never rely on luck. It's something i learned the hard way." She absentmindedly rubbed under her right eye.
Drake nodded and took another sip of his beer. He masked a quick look at her eye. He liked the way it looked; she had pretty eyes. He just wasn't used to meeting a woman who'd look him straight in the eye. In his experience, they were always simply after his position, money or power. Now, in the Zone, he was treated as a person instead of an object or goal. It felt strange to him. He couldn't help but notice the scarring around her right eye, though. But to Drake, it only served to prove that she was a real person, not just some product of technology.
Either ignoring or not noticing Drake's examining of her, Sandra continued. "So what'd you do to get on their Jeffs anyway?"
"I saw them wiping out another gang. I was just checking out my new neighborhood when I heard sounds of people fighting. Guess I should have minded my own business. But it was weird, you know? The winners were dragging their victims away. I think I only saw a few that I was sure were actually dead."
"Some days it's the best thing to do here in the zone." She paused for a second. "Other times you can't help but get involved."
"Yes, that's the truth," Drake agreed. "So are you?"
"...am I?" she asked.
"Involved." Drake meant personally, but suddenly felt he was being too forward so he moved to correct himself. "Business-wise, I mean."
"Oh... me? No. Not at the moment. I'm between jobs." I'm desperately poor and need cash. "You?"
"You could say that. Actually, you could say I'm desperate just to make a contact." Drake sighed. "Other than Lydia, you're the first person I've had a real conversation with here."
"There ya go. I know people, they just never call me."
"Well, they don't know what they're missing then."
Sandra chuckled. "That's one way of putting it. Mainly, I just don't get the attention of the Johnsons coming down here looking for hard work. And when I do, it always blows up in my face."
"Sounds to me like you just need a taste of success to get the ball rolling. That's hard, though, I know."
"I've had success." She paused again, thinking back over her career. "It's just that I've had more things blow up on me. Ah well."
"Well, at least you've had some jobs come in."
"Wow. Someone who's doing better than me." She chuckled again. Whoever this Drake guy was, he seemed honestly nice. And he seemed to be doing about as well as she was.
Drake smiled, a little confused.
"You've just gotta keep an eye out." She continued. "Sooner or later, a Johnson will drop by and offer you work. You just gotta make sure that you're paying attention."
"Well. I'm willing to do work in exchange for a favor. My training is probably a little too specialized otherwise."
"Working for favors?" Sandra gave him an odd look. "Man, you'll not get far in the modern capitalist system that way."
Drake broke into a laugh, but it was a short one.
"You're probably right. But I'm not sure I'm in it for the money. Eventually, I'd like to be the one with the information and the jobs to hand out."
"It's a nice dream." She sighed. She'd been there too.
"You get shot at less often. Maybe."
Drake was growing more and more hungry to know more about Sandra. "Do you live in the Zone?" he asked curiously.
"Yeah, I do. It Sucks." OK, so Sucks wasn't the right word. Blows goats? Totally tooled? Whatever.
"Oh. Maybe it sucks, but the Zone people I've met so far have tended to be the least superficial people I've met."
Sandra paused before replying. "Actually, this is true. The Zone people I know are pretty much the most blunt and straight forward people I've met." And for a lot of them, shooting at you is the equivalent for "Hi there, how are you today?" she mentally added.
Drake looked both serious and thoughtful as he listened to her. For a moment, his eyes seemed to focus on something in the distance. He brought his attention back to Sandra. "Speaking of blunt, I was wondering. Do you see Mitsumi employees out here often?"
"Not that often." She thought about why a Mitsumi man would be in the Zone. "They mostly come by looking for rogue Pumas and the like. It's a dirty line of work, but it pays well. Not that I've ever done it, mind you." Taking on a puma was, self-admittedly, one of the things Sandra least wanted to do.
Drake decided to loosen up and relax a bit. He caught the attention of a passing waitress and ordered a pitcher of beer and a couple glasses.
Drake turned back to the subject of the Pumas. "Yeah. It seems odd they'd risk such a scene just to throw a party. But then, maybe Pumas are odd."
"Tell me about it." She replied. "Your average puma is a vat-bred highly-trained killing machine, but comes with a 'cute' and 'bubbly' personality to boot."
"And I don't understand the people that buy them. I've seen businessmen spend hundreds of thousands to own Pumas, Lynxes and others to feel powerful, instead of putting that money to real use."
"Well, they've got the perks of being pretty damned good bodyguards and personal assassins." She paused, thinking about the kinds of execs she'd met while on the force. "And many businessmen have other uses for them."
"Well you're probably right. Most business men must be scared little maniacs who are too lazy to learn to protect themselves, and too small-minded not to want to lord their power over someone else." Drake took a long drink of beer.
"Damn right." Sandra replied, and took a lengthy swig from her beer mug. "That's why Zone people are the best in the world. We don't lord over anyone. And we have ta do stuff ourselves."
"I think you have something there." Drake continued, "Speaking of do-it-yourself, what are people doing during the day? The ones I'm thinking of seem to wander out to the east where things are really run down and then come back at night. I've only been here a couple days, but I don't have the slightest idea what they'd be doing."
"Dunno... I think those sorts of people could be scavengers. They go through old buildings and try to find stuff that can be used and strip them down. Then again, it could be anything." She tried to remember a few key facts of Zone Geography. She'd already had a few, and it was late. "That's a pretty damned bad part of town though, and it's pretty bad by Zone standards"
"Yes? I heard Ran was to the South... What's east?"
"Not much... It's mainly got all the most desolate buildings and the most desperate people." She replied. "The people over in the east are the ones who go into the zone to get way from everything, and end up trying to get away from the rest of the zone."
"Oh. Well, I think some parts of it just got a whole lot worse. Watch out for gangs wearing brown armbands or scarves. I think they are doing something to people. Something bad."
"Brown Arm bands are back in style? Wow. What is it, the Mussolini gang?" Sandra replied, dryly.
"Seriously, I've never heard of them. I think I know someone who might..."
"I don't know. Guess brown is an easy color to come by out here." Drake shrugged. "After today, I'm inclined to mind my own business concerning those guys."
"That's a good plan. But if you want, I could see what I can dig up on these guys."
"If you like. You don't need to go out of your way for me."
"It's not a problem." she replied, then grinned. "And it lets me annoy a few people."
Drake looked like he was about to say something else, but stopped before he got a word out.
"I've still got a few friends on the police force. They might know something. Might."
Drake lifted his drink half way to his lips but stopped when he heard 'police force'. "Were you an officer?"
"Was." She absent mindedly rubbed under her right eye, before continuing "I kinda retired. Things didn't work out."
"I'm sorry. Did you consider going to corporate security?" Drake noticed Sandra's unconscious touching of her scar. He hoped he wasn't making her uncomfortable.
"Naw... I was kinda useless to everybody at that point. And 'sides which, I can't stand corp security." She replied casually, seeming like whatever had happened was trivial.
"I see. If you don't want to talk about what happened, I understand. But if you do, I'm interested in listening."
"Well... there's not much to say. I met a PK in the line of duty and we didn't hit it off." she casually stated. "He ripped me a few spare holes and left me with a disability pension."
Drake looked shocked. "You seem to have made an excellent recovery."
"Miracle of modern cybernetics, mate." She finished, then eyed her mug before continuing. "So what about you? What are you doing in this neck of the woods?"
"I lost someone here."
"Oh. Sorry to hear it." She replied flatly, before realizing how much of an idiot she'd just sounded.
Drake looked sad and stared into his drink. "I'm still looking for her. But she's been gone for a long time."
"Someone important, right?" Sandra asked.
"My little sister."
"Oh... um..." Sandra was lost for words here. Loosing someone in the zone would be terrible. But a kid sister is something else.
Drake pulled out a wallet and withdrew a picture. The person in the picture looked like she could be Drake's twin. Dark hair, dark complexion, Caucasian. The most striking difference were her green eyes. Drake's were a natural blue.
"That her?" Sandra asked, subconsciously slipping into police mode. IC 1 female, dark hair, green eyes.
"Yeah. I haven't seen her for about a year and half. That seems like a lifetime to people here, I'm beginning to understand. Seen her?"
"It's a long time." She quickly tried t remember if she'd seen anyone resembling her, but she came up a blank. "I can't say I've seen her, regrettably. But, I might be able to talk to some people who might have seen her."
"You'd do that?" Drake looked surprised. "I can maybe work something out with you. You don't know how much it would mean to me. And I do have a lead now."
"Look, I'll do what I can. I can't promise anything, but... Heck. Anything's worth a try, right?" She was trying to sound optimistic. She knew the odds were that she was dead, a slave or just didn't want to be found.
"There's this guy. Used to be a contact with a slaver. His name is Salvo. I need to catch up with him and find out if he tried to catch her again."
"Damn..." Sandra muttered. "Now we're messed up with some bad people."
"Well, he might be out of business. His associate, I found out today, had caught Athena and a friend of hers. He met permanent early retirement when Raven discovered him."
"How long ago was this?" she asked, mind now firmly into Police mentality.
"About a year ago," Drake continued. "Raven is this girl who grew up on Clark Street. Heard of her?"
"Um... No." She felt that she should.
"Well, she doesn't live there anymore, or I'd have thanked her personally. Athena escaped because of that action."
"Okay... But you don't know where she went after that, right?"
"Right. But I did find her friend, who dropped Salvo's name."
"Okay... Well, it's a lead." She'd gone on less in past.
"I know it's thin..."
"And in my old job, I learned that a lead is good, no matter how small." She finished.
Drake reached over the table and gently squeezed Sandra's hand.
Sandra blushed before replying. "It's no problem, Drake."
"Look," Drake said softly, "you're the second person today that's said that to me. But I want you to understand how much your help means to me."
"I... um... Heck." She was trying to put clumsy sentences together in a way that sounded semi-articulate. "I've never had a relative vanish on me. But If I did, I'd do everything I could to get them back. So I think I know how you feel."
Sandra didn't miss the look of guilt that crossed Drake's face when she said that, but didn't say anything. Drake tried to cover by taking another long drink of beer. Then, looking to see no one was in the way, Drake slid his chair around to sit closer to Sandra. Sandra didn't mind.
"If you need help with anything... I'm not totally without skills. I've trained primarily to be able to eliminate assassins..."
"Wow. That's an interesting line of work." She paused. A counter-assassin. Useful in a specialized way. She could have used one when she was stalking that Nys girl. "But thanks for the offer, Drake. I'll keep you in mind. I'll need away to contact ya, of course."
"I'm living in an apartment now." Drake pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled an address on it.
Sandra took it. "Thanks. Um... I've got my own place too... and a phone number. She scribbled an address and hands it to drake.
"You have a phone? I was ripped." Drake grinned.
"I paid good money for mine." She added. "The number's with the address. And no, the phone isn't in my place. I don't think any place in the Zone has a working phone no more."
"Oh. Aren't you afraid someone will trace or track it?"
"Yeah... it's a bit of a tool. But no one's after me right now. And it sure beats sending smoke signals."
Drake laughed, "That it does."
Finishing off the rest of his beer, Drake observed the pitcher was empty already. Feeling a little light-headed, but happy, he pushed himself away from the table and stood up. Bowing just a bit, he extended a hand to Sandra as he said, "Sandra, will you dance with me?"
"Um, sure" She gave him her hand. Wow, Her inner voice said. Where did you find this guy?
As she rose from her seat, Drake brushed the back of her hand with lips soft and gentle as a warmth breath. Quietly he guided Sandra back to the dance floor...
Sandra woke up the next morning, her head feeling for all the world like someone was pounding away at it from the inside with a variety of blunt implements. "Ooooh" she moaned. It was all she could manage at the time. The sun had crept into her window, and was beaming light straight into her eyes. A short eternity of headachy pain was resolved with the decision to roll over and face the other wall. Muttering to herself as she went, Sandra rolled over to face the other wall. Instead she ended up staring at Drake's still-slumbering face.
"Tool" she muttered. She briefly hazarded a look under the sheets. "Tool." Next to her in the bed, Drake stirred. "Tool" Sandra added for the third time. She rolled back over to her side. "Shorts. I know I have a pair around here." A hand ducked under the bed, furtively feeling around for something... anything. Shorts...
Drake's eyes slowly opened, and adjusted to the glaring light. There was someone sitting up on the bed next to him, her back to him. At the moment, she was bent over, looking for something under the bed. Before he could say anything, the woman sat up. Something about her instantly caught his eyes. The skin across her right shoulder, part of her back and her right arm was heavily scarred. It looked like someone had tried to rip her apart with a fragmentation grenade or the like. Before he could get a better look, the woman slid on an oversized shirt, firmly tugging it down past her waist.
Sandra sighed to herself. This is not what she'd planned on doing. Oh, sure, she'd had a good night last night. And Drake was a great guy to be with. And the small part of her that was still a decent person had wanted to help him find his sister. It's just all that came after that... There could be complications, and lots of them. A relationship, for starters. Still, last night had been... interesting. Yeah, that was the word for it.
She jumped up from the bed, spinning around. Drake was on the bed, sitting up, a sheet mercifully still covering his lower half. Her head ached, not wanting the sudden motion. "Um, hi" She replied. She was doing better then him, clad in a tattered, oversized T-shirt and equally ratty shorts. Sandra seemed to be doing her best to look in Drake's direction without actually looking at him. "There's, um, some food-like substances in one of the, ah, cupboards. Help yourself" She went back to intently studying the floor, unable to decide if she was embarrassed, avoiding the issue, or getting close to finding one of the deeper meanings of life in the floorboards.
Drake climbed out of the bed and (much to Sandra's relief) dressed himself. "Look" He began, apparently only a little more secure then she was. "Um... about last night"
Here it comes, Sandra thought to herself. She was now staring at a stain on the wall, trying to figure out where it had come from.
"I just wanted to say thank you for your offer of help" He continued. Sandra turned to look at him, quite surprised. It was far from what she had expected.
"It's, ah, it's okay" She replied, a little unsure of herself. "It's the very least I can do for you"
There was a long awkward pause, as they both tried to think of something to say. Sandra went back to staring at the floor, then at the ceiling. Drake seemed to be preoccupied with trying to think of something to say.
"I, um, that is to say..." He began.
"Yeah, ah..." She continued.
"Yeah." He smiled. "I hope to hear from you again" There was a pause. "I mean if you've got any news about Athena or anything like that"
"Yeah, ah... I will" she replied. There was another awkward pause.
Drake turned and left. Sandra plonked herself down on the bed.
"Well." She said to herself. "Well"
Her inner voice said nothing. Maybe it had a hangover too.
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