The Entertainment District was the Zero Zone's primary source of income. People from Neo York (and beyond) came into the Zone to experience a few edgy thrills, mingling with the human riffraff that made up the Zone's regular inhabitants. Those that wanted to claim they'd gone into the Zone, but didn't want to place themselves in any great risk stopped at the Edge of Night, a nightclub in sight of the checkpoint. The Edge of Night made sure everything only looked dangerous, inside the club was almost as safe as your average Neo York watering hole.
The more adventurous could journey further in, to the Entertainment District proper. The way was well-marked, and the District itself was unmistakable. The streets were kept fairly clean (at least, they cleared the bodies quickly), and garish neon tubing encrusted many of the buildings. During the day one could see exactly how battered some of the buildings really were, and the thick clusters of weeds were obvious. Solar panels, angled to face southward, graced just about every available rooftop, and there were even a few universal direction windmills. To Shoko, it reminded her of footage she'd seen of homesteads in the Outback.
There were people out, mainly nightclub employees engaged in maintenance and preparation for another night of revelry. There were also a scattering of cars and trucks, not to mention a virtual fleet of motorcycles. Like the 9-Tails Towing truck, all the vehicles showed evidence of having been heavily modified with patchwork repairs and jury-rigged improvements. None were quite as creative as a steam-powered truck, however.
Once the truck reached the Entertainment District, the load of cargo vanished fairly quickly. Ayane and Shoko did most of the work, with André directing who got what and where it was supposed to go. Interestingly enough, some of the clubs didn't wait for the truck to pull up, but sent their own people over to get their share of the goods. Amid the humans and cyborgs, Shoko was privately pleased to see a scattering of synthetics, including a tall, rangy Puma with flowing reddish-brown hair and patch over one eye.
For their work, 9-tails Towing was paid in an assortment of items. In most cases André was given straight cash, but some people handed over a share of the cargo they were taking away, including fresh food and medical supplies. André explained that many of the clubs gave the pair discounts and the occasional free meals. However, he'd drawn the line at the "take it in trade?" offers put forth by some of the brothels.
When they were all done Shoko found herself dripping with sweat again. Ayane didn't look much better, and the Lynx had zipped open her jumpsuit, pulling the upper half down and securing it around her waist. Underneath she had on a brief sports bra, which had quickly soaked through. Shoko decided it was a good thing the checkpoint cops were now safely far away.
Afterward André used a portion of their earnings to purchase bowls of noodles and skewers of chicken from a small shop in the district. They ate on the back of the truck, enjoying the feel of the sun and the warmth of the sun-heated metal on which they sat.
"So... now what?" Shoko asked as they returned the bowls to the shop and tossed the used skewers on a nearby trash heap.
"Like we said, we take you to CK's place." André gave Shoko a grin and then motioned to his truck. "After you."
"CK's place" seemed to define the phrase "hole in the wall." Located in what used to be a small store of some sort, the front was boarded up with layers of plywood and mesh fencing. Inside it was dimly lit and cluttered beyond belief. There were shelves crammed with a bewildering variety of electronic gear, most of which looked to have been cannibalized for anything useful long ago. Shoko counted old televisions, radios, computers, and even some cyberdecks. Bins held a mishmash of parts, as well as sealed ration packs, batteries, water filters, ammunition, medicine, and even some clothing. CK, it seemed, dealt in anything and everything.
CK himself was a short man, shorter than André, with long flowing black hair that he wore tied back in three separate ponytails. Dressed in a dirty-white jumpsuit, black boots, black fingerless gloves, and a black armored jacket, he looked liked something you'd expect to find in a bad tri-vid film, not "people who knows people." However, he seemed to know André and Ayane fairly well, so Shoko was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if he couldn't tear his eyes away from the sway of her breasts under what was left of the thin cotton T-shirt she was wearing.
CK greeted André and Ayane warmly, then looked curiously at Shoko. "So who's this? You haven't gone and gotten yourself a second girlfriend, have you André?"
"Don't even joke about it, CK," said Ayane with a mock severity. "André has two choices as long as he's with me - be monogamous or be a eunuch."
André laughed and introduced them. "CK, this is Shoko. Shoko, this Corneilious Kuno."
"How many times do I have to tell you?" CK growled. "It's CK. Just CK. Only CK." He paused and then looked up at Shoko. "Look, it's real simple. Just call me CK, which is what everyone else is supposed to do." He extended a gloved hand.
She shook the proffered hand. "Sure thing, CK. Pleased to meet you. Ayane and André have good things to say about you."
"Shoko's new in town, and has a little problem I think you can help her with," explained Ayane.
"Okay," CK replied, now all business. "What do you need? I probably have it, but if not, I can likely get a hold of it before too long."
"Well, I need money." she began.
CK laughed lightly. "Don't we all. Usually, I'm the one getting the money, not handing it out. Still, if you have something you want to sell, I might be interested in buying. Depends on what you got, though. As you can see, I'm pretty well stocked." He gestured broadly, indicating the shelves around them.
"Um, no, that's not what I meant. Actually, I was wondering if you could possibly exchange-" she pulled out a small wad of rainbow colored currency. "-this. It's Australian."
CK blinked. "Aussie dollars? Lemme see!"
His eagerness alarmed her a bit. Had Ayane and André ot previously spoken well of him, she suspected she wouldn't have let him lay a hand on her cash. But as it was, it was useless to her anyway. After a moment's hesitation, she let him take the colorful bills.
"Never seen these before..." CK shuffled the bills and started to sort them into piles based on the denomiation. "Kinda funny seein' money with animals and stuff on it, usually you expect pictures of dead presidents." Having sorted the cash, CK then ran his fingers through his hair, mumbling as he debated options out loud. "The Aussie dollar is strong, but not much call for them... I could swap 'em for HK dollars... Hmmm..."
Shoko glanced nervously at Ayane, who glanced back and shrugged in reply.
"Okay," CK said abruptly, apparently all business. "You've got about five hundred here in legal tender of the Land Down Under, which is around five hundred in UNA dollars as well. That means... I can offer you..." CK took his eyes off the shape of her breasts under her T-shirt and looked down at a tiny solar calculator. "...about 375 in not-so-crisp UNA currency. Whaddya say?"
Shoko's nose scrunched up as she began crunching numbers in her head. Math wasn't her strongest skill by any means, but she soon figured that this was 75 cents on the dollar for her. Of course, that was assuming he was telling the truth about the exchange rate, something she unfortunately had no way to check on. A 25% cut was more than she wanted to pay, yet not as much as she'd feared he might demand. Still, no harm in trying to negotiate for better.
"I dunno, CK. A 25% cut? I know you're in this to make a profit, but that seems like an awful lot. This is all the money I have to live on, at least until I can find a job. And a big synth like me, well, I got quite an appetite."
She clasped her hands behind her back, a position that drew her shoulders back and thrust her chest forward, causing her breasts to strain against the fabric of her shirt. "I'd be very grateful if you could see your way to taking a smaller cut, say maybe 10 percent?" she said, putting a slightly suggestive drawl in her voice.
"Ten percent..." CK's attention seemed to be drawn to the obvious points of her nipples where they pushed out against the stretched cotton fabric of her shirt. "Uhmm..." Behind her Shoko could hear André mutter something and Ayane giggle.
"Look, it's not that simple." Tearing his eyes away from her chest, CK took refuge in his calculator screen. "In order for me to make any money, I need to convert these Aussie dollars to UNA dollars to nuyen. Over in Neo York you'd get like... a dollar ten for every Aussie dollar, 'cause the Aussie dollar is strong... here in the Zone, it's not that easy. If I gave you ninety cents on the dollar, you'd get four-fifty UNA, which means for me to make anything off of this, I'd have to find someone willing to then give me like ninety-five to ninety-nine to the dollar, which ain't gonna happen." CK punched some keys on his calculator and forged ahead, oblivious to everyone else in the room.
"So I give you seventy-five cents to the dollar, and then I turn around and trade it in to someone with Neo York connections for around eighty cents on the dollar. He then hands it over to someone who takes it into a NY bank and gets five-fifty total. You get three-seventy-five out of your original five hundred. I make a total profit of twenty-five bucks, and the guy who finally gets it makes around fifty to one hundred. See?" When he finished CK was sitting down looking up at Shoko, a position that allowed him to look right up under her shirt. He stared at the sight for a few moments, licked his lips and then looked away. André and Ayane murmured to each other and laughed again.
Shoko chewed on this for several moments. She figured there wasn't much point to trying to argue with CK, in the end she either had to take whatever he offered or not exchange her money. Yes, she had strong doubts about his claim that he was only making twenty-five dollars off this deal, but she wasn't sure he was fudging his figures, and she could guess how valuable it might be to be on the good side of a well-equipped fixer like CK in an uncertain place like the Zone. Accusing him of lying to her could only serve to piss him off and possibly insult Ayane and André, who'd introduced them, after all. Better to take the deal and stay on his good side for now. Seventy-five cents on the dollar wasn't really too bad, especially compared to the fifty percent she'd initially feared he might demand. Besides, she might still maneuver some other concessions out of CK if she played her cards right.
Leaning a bit farther forward, so as to gift CK with an even better the view up her butchered T-shirt, she sighed and said resignedly, "Okay, I'll take the 375. It's still better than I thought I'd get. Sorry to nudge for more, I was just hoping to spend tonight in one of those 'Family Hotels' I saw on the edge of the Entertainment Zone. I need most of this money for food and supplies, but if I'd had enough extra I might've spent a chunk of it on a good room tonight. I got kinda sweaty today." She vaguely gestured at herself, calling attention to her damp hair and the dark, V-shaped stain across the front of her shirt, "I figured a shower and a soft, warm bed would have me looking a lot better when I went out job hunting tomorrow. Oh well, I'll make do somehow."
There was a pause where Shoko could swear she could hear the gears turning in CK's head. "I... uh..." He gestured with one arm to the back of the shop. "I've got a shower and hot water... uhm... if you need."
"Corneilious Kuno!!" Ayane stepped up to the table and slammed her hands down on the battered surface. "How dare you! We did not bring Shoko here so you could get laid!"
"No buts!" Ayane turned to look up at Shoko, her tails lashing back and forth. "Shoko, if you need a place, we can put you up at the garage for a few days."
Leaning to one side, CK looked between the two synthetics to André, obviously in search of some support and sympathy. Shoko looked over her shoulder in time to see André shrug in reply. "Do I look like I have any say in this?"
"Then it's settled," Ayane stated. "CK, give Shoko her money."
With a sigh (and a flush of embarrassment), CK stood and walked into the back of his shop. A few minutes later he returned with a thick wad of wrinkled and worn paper UNA dollars, held together with a rubber band. He dropped the bundle on the tabletop. "There you go. Three hundred and seventy five. In small bills."
Biting her lower lip to keep from laughing at the hangdog expression on poor CK's face, Shoko took the roll of money and, pointedly not counting it, slipped it into her inside jacket pocket.
She hoped CK's embarrassment wouldn't leave him angry with her. Swallowing her impending giggles, she schooled her voice into a tone of sincerity and looked into his eyes. "Thank you, CK. You've really helped me out here, and I won't forget it. You've got supplies that I'm sure I'm going to need as I get settled in, so you can count on me returning in the future to do more business with you."
CK blinked hesitantly, as if looking for a hidden meaning in what she'd said. "Yeah," he said slowly. "You're welcome. Glad I could help."
She then turned to face Ayane and André. "I want to thank you two as well. I just can't thank you enough for letting me stay with you until I get myself settled in, especially as you only met me this morning. I don't know how people as nice as you guys survive in a place as nasty as the Zone. But are you sure I won't be inconveniencing you too much?"
Ayane waved a hand dismissively. "Nah, we got enough room. Really, you're welcome to stay with us a few days."
Shoko tail was twitching happily back and forth. "Well, okay then. But I want to make myself useful while I'm there, so if you need me to help out with anything, just say so. Okay?"
"We sure will," André assured her.
"So, is there anything else you need from CK before we head for the garage?" asked Ayane.
"I don't think so. Thanks again, CK!" Shoko started to turn away, then stopped. "Oh wait! There is one thing. CK, do you only deal in hard goods or do you also handle, uh—what's the right phrase—service brokering?"
The fixer raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. "Well, I usually deal in merchandise, but it all depends. What did you need?"
"Well, I'm going to start looking for a steady job of some sort tomorrow, but I was thinking that on the side I might like to do the occasional 'odd job' on a freelance basis. You know, make a little spare cash on the side. If you hear of anyone who might be looking to hire someone for work a Puma would be suited for, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know and maybe refer me to them. For a fee that we can negotiate later, of course.
CK rubbed his chin, looking doubtful. "I can keep my ears open, but don't get your hopes up. The odds of finding the sort of work you're thinking of might not be as good as you imagine."
"Why not?" asked Shoko.
CK considered his words a moment. "Well, mostly because nobody knows you. The Zone's practically overflowing with guys willing to do anything for a buck, so why would anyone hire a unknown Puma? And... anything people would want to hire you for... might not be anything you'd want to do."
"Oh," said Shoko disappointedly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Oh well, I was never counting on street sam work to sustain me anyway, I just wanted to earn a little extra on the side, you know? Having a regular job was always my plan. Tomorrow I'll go out and see if I can't get a job as a bouncer at one of the nightclubs around here."
"A bouncer, huh? Try 93 Underground. They've recently lost a few of their bouncers, and I don't think they've hired anyone new yet. It's probably your best shot."
Shoko noticed that CK was sounding dubious again, and smiled wanly, wondering why he sounded like he thought she would need luck. After all, a job as a bouncer should be right up her alley, shouldn't it?
"Well, thanks again," she said to CK, then to Ayane and André, "Well, I'm ready to go if you are."
"Then I guess we're off." said André. "Cya, CK."
Offering one last farewell to CK, Ayane and Shoko turned and followed André out of the shop. Watching them depart, CK noticed that Shoko's rear end was almost as nice to look at as her front. He found himself hoping she'd come back soon to do more business with him, next time preferably without Ayane tagging along to supervise.
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