Grin Minus Cat

It’s a busy night at Fleisch, booths and bars packed with lonely suckers worshipping at the altar of evolutionary urges, draining their banks dry to watch women who’d never in a century fuck them dance like tonight they just might.

Me, I’m here on business. Some fresh faced small-timer calling himself the Cheshire ripped us off last week: intercepted our drop, ghosted before I could get my boys on the scene, then had the gall to try negotiating a buy-back with the boss. He should consider himself lucky I intercepted the message.

Nino would probably send a butcher squad; I just want to talk it out and get the shipment back where it belongs. I’m a good cop that way.

I carve through the neon gloom, heading toward the bar. Love bugs are drifting through the dark, those little gengineered things that prick you with an aphrodisiac- amphetamine cocktail to really get you spending. I swat one dead against the bartop, smear its guts into a smiley face with my thumb.

The bartender grimaces. “What’ll it be?” she shouts over the skull-pulping music.

“A dumbshit with a deathwish,” I say. “Name of Cheshire. Should be waiting for me.”

Her eyes flick to the spot my police holo would usually be, then she nods toward the private booths. “Third down.”

I order one of my standards, a rotgut vodka with hot sauce, and walk it to the back, past the jack-off stalls where fleshpads grow the orifice of choice— ace costs extra—for overstimulated clientele. The Cheshire’s not quite at that point when I find him in booth three, but he looks close.

Small man, striped purple jacket, splayed back on the gel cushions and utterly transfixed by the stripper wrapped upside down around the slowly rotating pole. He paid for quality: she’s long and lithe and beautiful, all hollow cheeks and beestung lips.

He only looks up when I click the door shut behind me. Frowns. “You’re not Nino.”

“Of course I’m not Nino.” I swirl my drink. “You thought Nino fucking Alvarez was going to come meet a nobody like you? I’m the trashman.”

He smirks. “Oh. Well.” He returns his gaze to the stripper, who is now moving spider-like toward the ceiling, clutching the pole with neon blue claws. “No mess here, Mister Trashman. Run along. The Cheshire only talks to big fish.”

I slosh my drink directly into his eyeballs, dousing them in alcohol and capsaicin. When he gropes inside his striped jacket, blind and howling, I smash the empty glass over his skull for good measure and he goes down in a heap.

“Look at that, you Alice-in-Wonderland-ass motherfucker.” I grab the edge of his orange-splattered coat, dislodging a few crumbs of glass. “A mess.”

I pocket his gun, a cheap modular thing still warm from the printer, and draw my own. The visual threat isn’t really going to translate. He’s still clutching at his eyes, rolling and moaning. The stripper is still doing her thing, either a true professional or just doped to the gills.

“Where’s the shipment you stole?” I demand.

“My eyes,” he sobs. “My fucking eyes, man—”

I stow the gun, grab him by the lapels instead. “I’ll take them out with a spoon if you don’t answer me. Where’s the shipment?”

“You’re in for it now,” he groans. “He’s in for it, right?”

And I get that little premonition, that little something plucking at the back of my mind, right before a slender muscly arm clamps around my windpipe. Neon blue nails waggle in my peripheral, close enough to look blurry. I know, instinctively, they are scalpel sharp.

“Hi,” says a very lucid voice in my ear. “These have neurotoxin on them, so just pretend you’re a statue, okay? A monument to the city’s dirtiest cops.”

Her other hand worms into my pocket and retrieves her partner’s gun, then yanks mine from its holster. I got limited head movement, so I stare down at the small man in the striped purple jacket, who’s apparently not the brains or even the muscle. He gets to his feet, glaring at me with capillary-burst eyes.

The two of them work together to cuff me to the pole, and he can see well enough to aim an elbow under my ribs. Then he steps back, gun leveled, and the stripper who I am fairly certain is also the Cheshire comes around front. She slumps down into the gel cushions, folds one long leg over the other.

“I got a butcher squad outside,” I say. “It’ll be easier on you two if they find me alive.”

Her lips peel back, and I realize the nails aren’t the only thing that glows. “You came alone, actually. And that message you jacked was never making it to Nino anyways.”

The hairs on my neck hackle up.

“Yeah,” she says. “Funny thing about that shipment we stole. I’m new in town, but I checked around and the drug purity’s about twenty percent higher than what Nino’s been selling.”

My heart pounds hard. “I don’t find that funny,” I croak.

“Nino wouldn’t either,” she says. “He would think that one of his bought cops has been ripping him off for almost a year already. Taking a slice of the high-purity product to sell on the side, and double-cutting the rest down to baby powder.” She shakes her head. “I tried that shit. Barely even buzzed me.”

“What do you want?” I ask, already suspecting, maybe even hoping.

“I’m new in town, like I said.” She shrugs. “I’m going to need a trashman.” She stands up, wraps herself in a chameleon coat scrolling designer patterns. “I have the booth booked until morning, maximum privacy. You’ve got plenty of time to think about it.”

They head for the door, and the last thing I see before they shut it is her radioactive blue grin floating in the dark, and shit, I guess this is what love feels like.