Curveball Issue Eight: Connections

Part One: Off the Grid

The Farraday City bus station smells of desperation steeped in false hope and empty promises. CB steps off the bus, reaches for a cigarette, sees the NO SMOKING sign, and mutters something rude under his breath. Jenny is arguing with the bus driver, who doesn’t want to open up the cargo bin to let them get their stuff.

“Destination on your ticket is Jackson,” the driver says. He’s a short, fat man with a thick mustache that, in marked contrast to the rest of him, is waxed and meticulously groomed.

“Don’t worry about it,” CB says.

Jenny narrows her eyes. “I’m not leaving my bags behind. There’s equipment—”

“—we’re not leaving anything behind,” CB says. “We’ll get everything in a couple minutes.” He scans the terminal carefully.

Jenny looks around, noticing her surroundings for the first time, and sniffs the air. She frowns, and moves closer to CB. “What are you looking for?”

“Not what,” CB says. “Who. There we go.”

CB sets off purposefully across the terminal floor. Jenny has to hurry to keep up with him.

“We leave in twenty minutes!” the driver calls out after them.

Farraday City is many things to many people: for the very rich it’s a paradise, catering to every whim at exorbitant prices, with the added promise of no paparazzi dogging your every step. If you’re a corporation it offers tax-free, low-regulation commercial zones that let you get away with practically anything—as long as you don’t do anything to embarrass the city. If you’re in the middle class—at least, in the upper part—it’s quite possible to live a safe, comfortable life, as long as you choose your neighbors carefully and don’t attract the attention of the wrong people.

If you’re poor, you’re screwed.

There’s an event horizon in the social strata of Farraday City, a line that, when crossed, offers no hope of return. That line is poverty, and once you’re in, there’s no getting out. There’s literally no getting out.

The dirty little secret of Farraday City is that the poor aren’t allowed to leave. Anyone can get in, but if you don’t own a car there’s no practical way to get out. The city has a bus station, a train station, and a shuttle service that goes to and from the nearby airport, but the use of each is strictly regulated by the city: a city ordinance that exists officially to prevent debtors from skipping town and reneging on their financial obligations gives the city the right to screen every person attempting to purchase transportation out, and the right to prevent them from doing so until any outstanding debts are accounted for.

Technically all you need to leave the city is a valid ticket. Practically, getting that ticket is next to impossible if your name winds up on any of their lists. People who find out they’re on a list spend most of their lives trying to get off it, and the net result is they usually wind up being put on more lists.

The couple CB is walking toward is sitting on one of the benches near a ticket terminal that won’t be open for another hour. The look on their faces is enough to tell CB this isn’t the first time they’ve been here, trying to work their way through a bureaucracy that was specifically designed to screw them over. They haven’t quite given up, but they’re close: someday soon, after yet another failed attempt to get a ticket out, one of them will be approached by a man who says I hear you’re having some problems with City Hall. I think I’m in a position to help. I just need you to do something for me first…

And that will be the beginning of the end.

They look older than they probably are; fear and hardship have added lines to their faces that wouldn’t be there in a better place, during better times. But they’re not beaten yet. They still have a chance.

“Trying to leave town?” CB asks.

The man and the woman look at him abruptly. Their eyes harden. The man grips the woman’s hand tightly. “I’m not interested,” he says. “And neither is she.”

“Good for you,” CB says. “You know what, screw the sign, I’m smoking anyway.” He pulls out a cigarette and fumbles with his lighter. “They didn’t let me smoke on the bus—I expected that—but I thought at the very least they’d let me smoke here. Farraday City. You know?”

Neither of them answer. They’re trying to figure out what CB’s game is, and whether it’s going to lead to violence.

CB raises his hands, trying to look disarming. “Look, I’m not making the rounds. I’ve got a simple offer. It’s not specifically safe, but it gets you out of this hellhole today. In the next fifteen minutes.”

No response.

CB gestures to Jenny, who’s standing off to one side looking confused. “The two of us have some, ah, ‘friends’ who think we’re going to Jackson, Mississippi.”

Jenny nods silently.

“For reasons that are none of your business we’ve decided to stay here instead. Take in the sights, start some trouble… but we don’t want them to know that just yet.” CB reaches into his trenchcoat pocket and pulls out their ticket stubs. “If we leave here and nobody gets on, the driver’s gonna call it in to his dispatcher—or, uh, whatever the bus drivers call it—and suddenly our departure is on record. We don’t want that. So we’d like the two of you to give Jackson a try. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than here.”

The woman’s eyes widen as she realizes the tickets are real. The man scowls. “Right,” he says. “You want us to meet your friends in your place?”

“Uh… no,” CB says, “I really don’t advise that. But here’s the thing: they know what I look like, and I don’t look like you. They’re going to see a bunch of people get off a bus, but they’re not going to see me, so they’re not going to do anything about it. Simple, no fuss, and you get out of this shithole before it’s too late.”

A glimmer of hope—just a glimmer—shines in the man’s eyes. “Are you on the level?”

CB shrugs. “I’m not doing this out of charity. I already told you my angle. And there aren’t any guarantees, I guess, but buddy, you don’t look anything like me and she doesn’t look anything like my friend.”

The man and the woman look at each other.

“Tickets,” the woman says. “Let me see them.”

CB immediately offers them to her. “Smart lady. They’re real. The boarding part has been torn off, but it’s still in transit so you can use it to get back on.”

The woman stares at the tickets intently, then hands one to the man. “Thank you,” she says.

“Bus leaves in fifteen,” CB says. “If I were you I’d get on right now.”

“We don’t have any—” the man starts to say, but the woman cuts him off with a shake of her head.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Nothing we own is worth passing this up.”

The man nods, they both stand, and CB leads them over to the bus.

The driver is sitting in his seat, scowling at them. He nods curtly at the two new passengers, and glares at CB and Jenny.

CB smiles at the man as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “How about opening that side compartment? We’d like to get our luggage now.”

The driver grumbles, then climbs out of the bus, fishing for his keys.

* * *

It’s mid-afternoon when they leave the station. The sun beats down on the grimiest urban squalor Jenny has ever seen. The only pictures she’s ever seen of Farraday City have been of the uptown area, and it always looks immaculately clean, modern, metropolitan. Uptown is an area City Hall cares about. The Greyhound station is not.

The streets are covered in trash. The walls are blanketed in graffiti—not the artistic kind, just crude tags everywhere. There aren’t any cars parked on the street except for a few taxis that look like the wheels might fall off at any moment. The buildings are old and dirty: pool halls, bars, two-bit casinos, and yes, strip clubs and brothels. Neon signs are everywhere, announcing the names of the establishments: Mike’s, Larry’s, The Dirty Pool, and the ever-classic Girls Girls Girlz.

Jenny is traveling light—just her laptop case and two smaller bags—but she wishes she were carrying less. CB’s army bag slings conveniently across his back. Her laptop case slings across her shoulder, but the other two bags, small as they are, have to be carried. She feels more exposed with her hands full. There aren’t many people outside, but the ones who are look like predators. She feels like she’s being sized up as she follows CB down the street.

She hurries to draw up alongside him, then asks “Where are we going?”

“Not too far,” CB says. “A block and a half that way.” He points. “Here, let me take one of your bags.”

“Thanks,” Jenny says. “I think—”

“Got anything expensive in this?”

“No,” Jenny says, “it’s just—”

“Good.” Suddenly CB stops in his tracks, turns, and swings the bag behind him with all his might. Jenny turns, startled, and sees the bag impact against the side of another man’s head—a thin, bony man who looks like he was taken from central casting at a B-movie about Vegas: slicked hair, jewelry, cheap but flashy clothing.

The man stumbles to one side as his hands reflexively go up to shield his face. CB kicks, hard: the sole of his boot connects with the man’s kneecap, and Jenny hears a sickening crack as the leg bends unnaturally. The man sinks to the ground, screaming.

Something dull gray drops to the sidewalk in front of the screaming man. CB takes a step to one side and kicks—the gray thing skitters across the street and disappears into a gutter. Just as it disappears beneath the far sidewalk Jenny realizes it’s a revolver.

“Just broke your leg,” CB says conversationally. “And your gun is currently unavailable.”

The man snarls.

“Also,” CB adds, “if you reach for the spare you have tucked in the small of your back, I’ll break your other kneecap.”

The man stops reaching.

“A man in your condition is at a serious disadvantage in this part of the city,” CB says. “I recommend finding some place to lie low for a while. I’m pretty sure you have colleagues who would love to get a leg up at your expense. So to speak.”

The man looks at CB in a mixture of hatred, pain and fear.

“Right,” CB says, then turns away. He and Jenny don’t take two steps when suddenly he turns again, flinging the bag at the thug who has, apparently, decided to reach for his spare—a snub-nosed revolver—after all.

The bag hits the hand holding the gun, causing the shot to go wide. CB kicks his wrist, and the gun flies out of his hand. The man screams and holds his wrist, his hand pressed tight against his chest.

CB ignores him, walks over to the gun, and picks it up. Jenny looks around nervously. A few seconds ago she thought the block looked empty. Now it looks completely deserted.

“What are you going to do?” she asks.

“What I told him I’d do,” CB says. “I’m going to break the other kneecap.”

The man tries to speak, but all he can do is gag in pain.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Jenny says.

CB glances at Jenny, sighs, then turns back to the man lying on the ground. “She’s new. You got that part right. You got every other part dead wrong.”

The man starts to whimper. CB snorts in disgust, puts the revolver in his pocket, picks up Jenny’s bag, and walks off briskly. Jenny hurries to catch up.

“Is this the best way to disappear?” she asks nervously. “Doesn’t this kind of thing attract attention?”

“This kind of thing happens all the time,” CB says. “If he’s connected it might be a problem. I’m pretty sure he isn’t.”

They walk one and a half blocks without running into anyone. They stop in front of a grimy but solid-looking building with the sign FAIR DAY PAWN sitting over the display window. Jenny can’t see much in the display window, because it’s caked with dirt. Both the window and the door have heavy iron bars over them.

“Here we are,” CB says. He holds the door open as Jenny steps through, then follows. An electronic chime sounds from the other end of the store.

The pawn shop is cluttered. The walls are lined with glass shelves, and all the shelves are locked. The shelves are stocked with watches, cell phones, jewelry, tablets, iPods, video cameras, DVD players, silverware—anything someone might think of pawning for money appears to be on display. The center of the room has larger items—musical instruments, some furniture, a few jackets and coats. The register is set in the far corner. Behind it sits a large man with shoulder-length hair and a thick, light-brown beard. He wears thick-rimmed, untinted glasses and a light yellow t-shirt with a picture of a moose printed on it.

“Heya Carl,” CB says.

“CB,” Carl says. He stares straight at Jenny. “Who’s your friend?”

“A friend,” CB says, emphasizing the word very distinctly.

Carl nods absently. “I won’t shoot her, then. What do you want?”

Jenny stares at Carl uneasily.

“I need to talk to Elliot,” CB says. “He in?”

Carl shakes his head. “Back soon. You can wait in the office if you want.”

“OK,” CB says. “If anyone asks, we’re not here.”

“Right on,” Carl says.

CB motions for Jenny to follow. He walks around the counter, through a door in the far wall. As Jenny walks by Carl she notices the back of the counter is lined with plate metal, and that a shotgun and two pistols are mounted within easy reach from the cash register.

The office has two desks, a bench and an extra chair on one end, and a workbench with an assortment of tools on the other. CB sits on the bench. Jenny chooses the free chair.

“Carl’s OK,” CB says.

Jenny shudders.

“He’s a vet and he has that thousand-yard stare you always read about but never see. Elliot—that’s his brother—says it’s PTSD. But he’s a decent guy.”

“What’s he doing here?” Jenny asks. “The way you talk, there’s nothing decent about the place.”

“There isn’t. The place is lousy. The people in it are kind of a mixed bag.”

“Got that right,” a voice says. CB and Jenny look up. Standing in the doorway is a thin, short man with long, curly black hair, graying in streaks. His face is lean, clean-shaven, and weathered. He wears the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses Carl does. “For example: here we are in Farraday City, and there’s a God damn cape sitting in my office.”

CB grins. “Heya Elliot. Jenny, Elliot Grady. Elliot, Jenny. No last name at present.”

Elliot grins, showing slightly yellowed teeth. “Interesting. What’s up?”

“How’s my special project?”

Elliot’s eyebrows shoot up over the rims of his glasses. “Well, it’s mostly ready. You moving in?”

CB nods. “We need to go off the grid,” he says. “And I need a modification. Communications stuff, mostly. Jenny’s going to need some extra equipment—she’ll give you a list after she sees what we already have.”

Elliot nods slowly. “So, what’s this? Phase two?”

CB shakes his head. “Something else came up. Can’t talk about it yet.”

“Christ,” Elliot says. “Well, I’ll need a few hours to get it all turned on, then you’re good to go.”

“What are we talking about?” Jenny asks. “Some kind of secret bunker?”

“That’s right,” CB says. “My very own underground lair.”

“… wow,” Jenny says. “That’s actually kind of cool.”

“That’s not the cool part,” CB says.

“What’s the cool part?”

“It has cable.”

Jenny shakes her head. “Nobody has cable any more, CB. That’s not even close to cool.”

CB frowns. “It isn’t?”

“No,” Jenny says, “it isn’t. Cable companies are money-grubbing monstrosities who charge you way too much money to deliver five hundred channels, and most of them are worthless.”

“Huh,” CB says.

Jenny rolls her eyes. “Honestly. Sometimes I forget you’re a hundred years old. Then you pull a stunt like this. ‘It has cable.’ You might as well brag about it having Internet access.”

“It doesn’t have Internet access,” CB says.

Jenny stares at him incredulously.

Elliot looks from Jenny to CB and tries to suppress a grin. “I guess that’s going on your list?”

“Yeah,” CB says sourly. “I guess so.”

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