Midnight City is a dangerous place. Ryuki is about to learn that.
I sat in the middle of class with the words burning a hole in my chest.
"You'll never guess what I saw last night."
Or maybe I could say...
"You ever see a man get his head blown off? I did."
I needed to think of a way to talk about it, without seeming too eager to show off. It would kill the whole thing if it seemed like I wanted to talk about it. Dante didn't seem like the kind of guy that would run into a room and brag about what he had seen.
I rubbed my chin in thought. How does a person talk about something he wants to talk about, without seeming like he wants to talk about it?
My classroom was small, and felt cramped with 24 desks, arranged in perfect lines- 6 by 4. The desks were covered with so much graffiti carved into them, that it made it impossible to write on the surface without a book under your paper. The desks were so old that I imagined my mom might have carved some of these designs when she was 13.
The room had a faint odor of urine from the boys peeing on the outside wall- the bathroom was a whole 50 meters away. Ms. Trunston, an absent minded and neglectful woman, addressed this by burning incense. The room always smelled too much of one or the other.
I glanced to the back of the class where itrim and Venir sat, but was quick to turn around and face forward. They were the largest boys in class, and the oldest, after having been held back a grade earlier. 14 years old, and already taller than some teachers.
I could still feel the sting on the back of my head when Venir had slapped me on his way outside the other day. And there was the time that Venir had put a small nail on my seat. And there was the time that itrim had spit on my lunch- some bread and cheese. The list went on. I wasn't singled out- they did this to everyone. But I knew if I could join them, the harassment would stop. And how great would it be to actually have them as friends. They were bullies, but they were also tough. Like Dante. Maybe they could teach me to be tough too.
The bell for recess rang, and all the students made their way to the roof. I looked up from my desk in shock. How had I missed half the day? There was thirty minutes of recess, and then two more hours in the day. I had to think of a way to do this now, when it was still news. No one would be impressed about the thing I saw three days ago.
We exited the classroom quickly; we were on the fifth floor of the school and only had to climb one set of stairs to get to the roof. I remembered having to climb all five stories when I was in 1st and 2nd grade. The hand rail to guide us was rusted and jagged in places. The stairs were made of cement and steel, and had been chipped away over the decades so that the surface was unpleasant against my bare feet. The few kids with shoes sprinted up the stairs. The rest of us trudged carefully.
I made it to the roof and saw all the students from different grades. Itrim and Venir were there, sitting in the far corner. Seated around them were four other guys from my grade. They were the ones who pulled a girl's pigtail, or who stuck out their leg to trip someone in the middle of class.
Kyle was there- he had pushed me around more than once. I still heard the boy's laugh ringing in my ear when he had broken my pencil in half and pretended that it was an accident.
My stomach tightened as I approached them and recalled all the abused I had borne. My gait grew more uncertain with each step, but I forced myself to walk right up to the group, only a meter away now. Suddenly I realized the words weren't coming to me- I froze, and bent down to pick up some imaginary item off the ground. If I had shoes, I would have tied my shoelaces.
"That's not the way the scam works," Itrim said and punched Kyle in the arm.
"Right, right," Kyle said, rubbing his arm once and then leaving it alone. "I knew that."
"No, stupid," Itrim said. "You need three people to do the con. Two isn't enough."
I felt the words in my gut like vomit and couldn't stop them. It was now or never.
"Did you guys see Chawray get killed last night?" I blurted the words, so they came out quick and stiff.
There was silence from the group. I stood up and took another step toward them. No one spoke to me. They just looked at me quizzically.
"Did you see it?" I asked, more relaxed now.
"Chawray is dead?" Kyle asked.
"What are you talking about?" Itrim asked.
"Dante offed him last night. Didn't you hear?"
"Psh, you're being a little Yuina right now," Venir said, dismissing me with a wave.
"I'm not lying," I said defensively. "I snuck into the docks. I saw it. Dante gave this big speech, and he said, 'you want to go out like a punk, or like a man?' And then Chawray stood up and Dante blew his head off with a mag-glove. There was blood and brains everywhere. I even got a little bit in my mouth."
"Yea?" Venir asked. "If you saw it, then what color does a mag-glove flash?"
"Orange," I said in a cocky manner, hands on hips, head held high.
"Why'd he kill him?" Itrim asked.
"Dante said that Chawray raped a tourist."
"Oh damn..." Venir said, wincing.
"It was really loud too," I said, smiling at everything going my way. "Dante held out his hand and then BAM, Chawray was dead."
"Wow..." Itrim said, no sarcasm in his voice. "I can't believe Chawray is dead."
"Well, that's what happens when you mess with the tourists," Kyle said in a knowing voice.
"Man, don't say things you don't know anything about," Venir punched him in the arm and Kyle took the hit without complaint. "That's what happens when you mess with tourists... AND GET CAUGHT."
"Right, that's what I meant," Kyle said quickly.
We were interrupted when a group of six year olds began pushing each other around. Three of them laughed and seemed to enjoy the wrestling, but one of them began to cry loudly, the others didn't stop and the crying grew into a wail.
Itrim opened his mouth to speak to me, when he turned to the children, annoyed.
"Hey! No crying! You want to get thrown off the roof like the last kid who wouldn't quit?"
The group of boys immediately stopped their wrestling but the boy didn't stop crying. He stared at Itrim, body rigid, eyes wide, hands balled in fists, and continued to wail.
"Benga," Venir pointed to a boy in his group who hadn't spoken up yet. "Go hit this kid for me."
"I got it- I got it!" Kyle jumped to his feet before Benga could.
Kyle quickly went over to the child, who didn't run or cower, but just stood crying and stared at the teenager towering over him. Kyle gave one quick punch to the boy's cheek and he crumpled like a sack of laundry. He opened his mouth to scream but Itrim pointed at him with a horrible glare.
"Not a sound," Itrim growled. "I will KILL you."
The boy's face froze in horror as tears free-flowed, but it was all in complete silence.
"Anyway, Ryuki," Itrim said, turning to me. "You want to come with us after school?"
"Yea, alright," I said, trying not to seem too eager, and pushing the crying child completely out of my mind.
"Ok. Meet us behind Chen's at 11 tonight."
"11?" I asked. "I thought you said after school."
"11 IS after school, stupid," Kyle said as he rejoined the group and sat down.
I looked to Kyle and felt my tiny grip on the boys' respect waning.
"Alright, yeah, 11 is good," I said with a subtle nod and a cold expression. "I'll see you then."
I had a sick feeling that the longer I stayed in this group, the more likely it was that I'd say something to ruin my accomplishment. I pretended that I had somewhere to be, and then walked away. I walked past the little boy who still cried silently on the ground and avoided his gaze as he looked to me for help. I spent the rest of the recess hiding in the bathroom.
I felt sleep tugging at my eyes when I climbed down the fire escape. My mother had worked late into the evening, toiling away through dinner. She had passed out around 10:45, too exhausted to check my homework or visit with her friends in the neighborhood.
I went down to street level and quickly made my way to Chen's. The street was a hive of music and girls and drunk tourists. Every time a bar opened and a man walked out, music would blare and two or three girls on the sidewalk would approach him. Some of them were night walkers, others were just promoters for another bar. I moved past this and made my way to Chen's. I kept my head low so that Chen wouldn't see me. I knew that he wouldn't approve of friends like Itrim and Venir.
"Hey, there he is," Itrim said, standing in the alley behind Chen's restaurant.
"Why did you guys want to meet back here?" I asked.
No one else from the group was there. I had expected Kyle, and was relieved not to see him
"Put this on," Venir said, handing me a blond wig and a tiny, red dress.
"What the Detan..." I said, looking at the dress.
"We're gonna make some money," Venir smiled. "You want to earn a few credits."
"I don't get how a dress is going to make us money."
"It's easy," Itrim said. "You stand in the alley. We get some tourists to come down, looking to have a good time with a girl. They pay us before we let them in the alley. Then you run away, and we run away, and we've got their money."
"You're going to scam tourists?" I asked, my jaw dropping wide.
"See, I told you he wouldn't be into this," Venir said to Itrim. "Why are you making me waste my time with this little kid?"
"He'll do it," Itrim said. "Trust me. He's hard. He's street. I know he'll do it."
I had never heard anyone vouch for me like this. The thought of that praise turning to criticism cut into me and controlled my words.
"Ok, I'll do it," I said unsure of myself.
"Good," Venir handed me the dress and the wig.
I lifted up my shirt and pulled down my shorts. I put on the dress, which didn't fit my body properly. It was loose in some areas, and tight in others. I held my shirt and shorts in my hands.
"The wig," Itrim said.
I put it on and then Venir adjusted it.
"Here, I found these," Itrim said, pulling out a silver bracelet and a white necklace. "Put them on."
I did as I was told, surprised by the heft of the jewelry, cold against my skin. It wasn't fake.
I felt completely out of place in the dress and jewelry, and had a sick feeling about how the night would end up.
"It feels weird," I said.
"You'll be fine," Itrim spoke in a dismissive tone. "Just stay out of the light. And don't run too soon. The tourist will give us the money, and then come down the alley to you. When he's halfway between you and us, you take off, and meet us back here. Got it."
"I got it."
"Alright," Venir said. "Let's try over by the XXX Girls place. Lots of guys go in there."
Venir, Itrim, and I walked along the back alleys, moving toward our destination. The white line was along our left hand side- the line between Kambangang street's back alleys, and Early's bowery. We wouldn't have any trouble so long as we didn't cross the white line. I looked at it as we moved- untouched by grime or dirt. It shone beautifully in the dark alleys. Everyone respected the line. No one crossed it. Except me. I smiled a little as I thought about that- the only guy to cross the white line and live to tell about it.
"I can't wait for the Inspection," Venir laughed. "We'll find all the sly kids and teach them a lesson."
"My big brother," Itrim begin. "He said he killed one of the sly kids in his class, but I don't believe him. I heard the government takes the slies away as soon as they fail the Inspection."
"No, if you're quick enough," Venir smiled. "Then you can get to them- imagine what the guys will say when they know I killed one of those sly rats. I'll stab him right in his gods damned throat."
I said nothing as I walked between them and just felt so small.
"Here," Venir stopped us. "You stand here. Itrim and I will call out a mark and send him your way. Don't run til he gets halfway down the alley."
"See this?" Itrim said as he pulled a yellow sandwich wrapper out of a trash can and set it down on the ground. "Don't run until he crosses this. You hear? If you run too early it'll ruin everything."
"I got it," I said.
I stood alone as the roar and bustle of Kambangang played at the opening to the alley. Behind me was the white line and the bowery. The side alleys were empty. I watched Venir and Itrim at the alley entrance, trying to flag down men.
"Hey, you want to see something you can't see in any clubs," Itrim called out to a man; I watched the man pass by without speaking to the boys.
I felt a chill on the back of my neck and turned behind me to look into the bowery. It was empty. The white line was just a meter away from me. There were no lights behind me. No movement in the bowery. I turned back to Kambangang and looked at Itrim and Venir.
"You gotta ride this little cat," Itrim was speaking to a tall man. "Those things in the clubs are all used up. We've got the freshest girl on Kambangang."
The man looked down the alley and saw me- I felt the tourist's gaze pass over me, and I made sure to move into the safety of the shadows and lower my head a little. This brought me a step closer to the white line. Again there came a chill along my spine, like some vengeful ghost was there, and I looked back to the white line again. On the other side, shadows formed in empty doorways. Broken windows sparkled in the dim light. There was no trash there. No lights turned on in the buildings. No sign of life. No sound at all.
I looked back to the alley entrance, expecting Itrim and Venir to be haggling with the man. Instead I saw the silhouette of the tourist, filling the alleyway with his broad shoulders as he undid his belt. The man walked toward me, panting excitedly- I could smell the scent of liquor filling up the alley. I froze as I saw the man, getting bigger and bigger with each step.
"I got something for you, girlie," the silhouetted man growled.
A bolt of lightning shot through me and I took off running down a side alley, my bare feet slapping against the pavement.
"Where are you going!" the man called back, running after me.
The sound of his loose belt buckle, clinking and clacking, filled the alley as I sprinted away. The tourist only kept up for a few seconds, his heavy shoes banging against the back alley floor in awkward plops. By the time I had run to a second alley, the man was long gone. I didn't stop though. I ran the whole way to the rear of Chen's restaurant in no time, and when I arrived, I saw Itrim and Venir looking proud.
"How much did we make?" I asked, huffing and puffing.
I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see the tourist, but saw nothing.
"You did a good job staying at your post," Itrim said. "I thought you were going to piss yourself as soon as the guy looked in your direction."
"I wasn't scared," I said, still panting, and absorbing the compliment eagerly. "So how much did we make?"
Venir held up five crisp twenty credit bills.
"Wow..." I said, holding out my hand.
"Hold on," Venir growled. "You get your take at the end of the night."
I opened my mouth to argue, but didn't want the boys to think less of me.
"Just make sure you don't forget to pay me," I murmured.
"Right, let's find a new spot," Venir said. "Get pretty.
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