If you cut the main artery from some living organism and laid it out across an arid wasteland then, Sabbi supposed, you would have something much like the Strip. True, the Strip was inorganic, a man-made thing cast in concrete, steel and glass, but still it lived. There were places where you could stand and see the Strip stretching away like a ribbon of light across the night-time desert, unspooling for mile after mile, blurring into one featureless splash of neon advertising hoardings.
And sooner or later, it would bleed out and die.
But Sabbi had become expert at letting tomorrow take care of itself. Save your worries for the here and now: there were plenty of reasons to.
The crowds of shoppers ebbed and flowed–and that was good. They provided her with anonymity: a hundred thousand or more, thronging the broadwalks of the Strip on a hot summer afternoon, closeted by endless store-fronts and restaurants and coffee-houses–imprisoning them within the Strip’s rapacious jaws.
From behind the gleam of her sunglasses, Sabbi scanned faces, trying to avoid flat-foots mingling with the shoppers. Most of the cops wore the Strip-sponsored uniform–visibility a key part of their deterrent–but they came in a plain-clothes variety too. They knew all about the petty thieves, the grifters like Sabbi who worked the lower echelons of the Strip’s ecosystem. Flat-foots carried the authority of no lesser person than the Chairman herself to arrest-and-deport on sight. They also carried tasers delivering kick-ass voltage–not intended to be lethal but not something Sabbi was inclined to put to the test. Worst of all, they carried attitude.
And now the stolen bracelet was burning a hole in her pocket. Every fiber of Sabbi’s body could sense its bulk as she moved, its cool sleekness pressing against her thigh. You could find plenty on sale down the Strip worth ten times its price. But this one was special. This was a commission, lifted to order. These days, Sabbi only worked to commission. The payouts were lower but the work was steady, so it balanced out in the long run. And it helped make her feel more… legitimate. The way a professional business-woman ought to act. Yeah, go me with my worthless career aspirations.
Something didn’t feel right, though. A vague uneasiness gnawed at her. Nothing she could pinpoint, but you didn’t survive on the Strip without learning to trust your instincts. And right now those instincts were telling her this wasn’t worth the risk.
So just do it–and do it quick.
There was no shortage of marks to choose from. There was never any shortage on the Strip. That was the whole point.
She drifted closer to a young woman browsing store-fronts arm-in-arm with her boyfriend. Strip-standard attire said everything there was to say about her: wealth, privilege, arrogance. Perfect. Sabbi stumbled lightly into the woman, mumbled an apology, and the bracelet slipped into the woman’s shoulder-bag in one smooth motion.
Sabbi would drift for a while to get her composure back, but stay close. If all seemed okay, she’d find an opportunity to ‘reacquire’ the bracelet. No sense in wasting a commission payout. Nobody would be any the wiser. And no harm done, except maybe a tiny dent in profits for one particular Strip merchandiser, and frankly she considered them good for it.
Sabbi noticed a man watching her from thirty feet away, the way you do when one pair of eyes seems to be locked on you in a sea of oblivious faces. She felt her heart jump. She lifted her head, looking straight at him, letting him get a good look at her shades.
With the sunglasses on, Sabbi looked as if she had bug-eyes. The lenses had a clever faceted-prism design: transparent for the wearer, but appearing to everyone else like the compound eye of some nightmarish bipedal insect. And while the casual observer was trying to make sense of it–a hundred tiny reflections of their bemused face staring back from those lenses–Sabbi was checking them out, working out what kind of mark they might be, or what threat they posed. Or maybe sussing out an escape route. Definitely one of those, and sometimes all three at once.
She loved those shades. Sure, people noticed them, but they were meant to. And because they only ever noticed the shades, not the person wearing them, when she took them off it was like throwing an invisibility switch.
She side-stepped away into the thickest part of the crowd, slipping the glasses off, changing direction at random. Glancing back a couple of times, she caught only the briefest glimpse of the man. His movements seemed to lack urgency, but he was shadowing her moves and that couldn’t be chance. Sabbi quickened her pace, beginning to shoulder her way through strolling couples who didn’t move out of her way in time.
And now Sabbi could feel a buzzing at the base of her skull, a kernel of pain threatening to blossom into a headache. She ignored it and pressed on, puzzled at the surge of people suddenly moving in the opposite direction. A moment later, she heard it. Or felt it. Or–
Perfumes for the ladies! Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else! All kinds of perfumes!
The words slammed into her frontal cortex, assaulting her with almost physical force. No sounds though, just fully-formed words straight into her brain. Around her, people were dipping their heads and turning away, like a shoal of fish cleaved in two by a predator. Some were rubbing their foreheads, others muttering curses.
Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot–
Unwelcome thoughts and images exploded in her brain, thundering around inside her skull until she was sure she could feel her eyeballs vibrating.
She saw the hawker twenty yards ahead, his hand-cart piled high with bright packages of cosmetics. Sabbi knew most of the street traders in this zone, but here was a new face–frozen into a rictus smile that was fooling no one. In front of his stall, tethered to it by a thick ankle chain, the Thal paraded miserably up and down, issuing forth the mental torrent of advertising slogans.
Maxine à la Mode! When it’s too hot to wear anything else!
Maxine à la Mode!
Sabbi had never seen an actual live Thal, and certainly never got this close to one. As far as she knew, the few that had survived into adulthood had all been taken to isolation centers once the geneticists had finished dicking around playing god and the federal legislators had closed down the labs. This one had a stocky build, classically prominent brow-ridge with receding hairline and thick black hair allowed to grow long, but otherwise normal-looking. Not all Thals were strong broadcasters, but most showed the symptoms: predisposal to unilateral telepathic projection, an ability–if that was the right word–that laid bare their soul to everyone around. She tried to imagine what it would be like to uncontrollably broadcast your innermost thoughts to anyone within range, to forego even the most basic level of privacy.
And now this? Using a Thal as some kind of all-pervasive advertising gimmick? That had to be a new low. Though never underestimate the Strip’s ingenuity if there was a quick buck to be made. Sabbi shuddered, but she was damned if she couldn’t nearly smell that perfume now.
The Thal was tiring. His thoughts were losing focus, breaking up into an incoherent babble that mostly radiated hurt and loneliness and longing. The hawker yelled something incoherent at him but the wash of emotions only fragmented further.
The Thal continued to parade up and down, his head endlessly questing from side to side in that curious manner of the slow-witted, as though searching for something long since lost. He looked forlorn.
Sabbi let herself be carried with the flow of the crowd away from the hawker, the Thal’s thoughts beginning to fade from her mind. She’d lost sight of her pursuer, and that made her nervous. And she’d almost certainly lost her commission.
Something hard and claw-like gripped her arm, tightening inexorably. From behind, a voice spoke into her ear, foul-smelling breath assaulting her nostrils. “Prosser wants a word, my little lady-bug. Wants to know when he gets paid.”
“Ow! Let go of me! You’re going to cut my frackin’ arm in half!”
“Prosser’s not happy.” The grip tightened. Sabbi half expected to see blood staining her sleeve.
“I told you before, Crab. When I’ve got it, Prosser gets it.” Her fingers skittered uselessly over the pincer-like artificial hand squeezing her upper arm, trying to pry it loose. A tingling numbness was beginning to spread from the loss of circulation. Rumor had it that Crab had once snapped a man’s head clean off at the neck, like dead-heading a flower. Some poor unfortunate who had seriously pissed off Prosser. Just like her.
With no lessening of pressure, Crab began to maneuver her towards one of the narrow service alleys leading away from the Strip. The people flowed around them in an ill-temper, unsettled by the Thal’s blunt advertising message. Even now, something akin to the Thal’s carrier wave reached out to anyone within a hundred yard radius, broadcasting its jumble of resentment and misery; a cacophony of sub-vocal thoughts. It was like having some whiney two-year old living inside your skull. She glanced back and saw the hawker slip some kind of gauze hood over the Thal’s head–and immediately a calm descended.
“Look,” she told Crab. “Maybe there’s another way.”
“Oh yes, lady-bug. I like the other way.” The grip tightened a fraction and Sabbi yelped.
“Listen! What if I could set Prosser up with a shot at the Lakenbys store?”
Crab seemed to think about this. The pressure eased a fraction. She could almost hear the gears turning in his brain. “Lakenbys is not possible.”
Well, yes. They all thought that. The smart grifters stayed well clear. Lakenbys took security to a whole new level on the Strip: i-cams everywhere, beam interferometry on the display cases, item tagging–you name it, and Lakenbys had almost certainly implemented it. And there were too many staff with suspicious eyes. Management policy was ruthless prosecution of all grifters to the maximum permitted in law. But even Lakenbys had a weakness. Customers. You had to entice customers into the store–so long as they came with big fat credit chips. Draw them in, sell the goods, complete the transaction, send them on their way. In and out. And that meant being open and inviting. A pro like Sabbi sneered at the unsubtle nature of snatch-and-run, but really it was no different to the usual mode of business–except for the bit about the credit transaction. You had to be audacious and quick, and the staff had to be slow or off-guard. But it could be made to work.
“No, not possible. Not Lakenbys,” Crab repeated.
“Yes, possible. With the right kind of distraction. And I know just the thing.”