A splattering of supplies over dented metal tables and piled on the floor in a dark, dingy corner. An unbalanced coat rack for his sweeping leather jacket that resembled more of a cape than a coat. A half-decent bathroom he could barely fit into on the far side of the room. A dirty floor. Bare walls. And a mirror. No one else but him on the whole floor and only occasionally a couple other people in the entire building.
He’d asked for sanitation, more light, updated supplies, and time.
“Time is of the essence, Roberto.”
“You’re an engineer now, not a gangster. I’ll call you by the name you were born with or I’ll come up with something else if I feel so inclined. And since I pulled you off the streets before the cops arrested you, I think you’ll be more than happy to let me call you whatever I wish.”
He was silent for a while, then, “I need more time.”
She sighed testily and approached him. “You’ve been here almost a full month, Roberto. I’ve given you a workspace and all the supplies that were available to me. I’ve given you food, which you hardly touch, clothing, which you scoff at refuse to wear, and a bathroom that you’ve yet to shower in.”
He looked up at her and glared. “The water’s brown.”
She smiled brightly. “Well, we can’t all work in first-class establishments, can we?”
He said nothing.
“I gave you a bed as well. In the corner of the room, see?”
He didn’t turn to look at the makeshift cot with the flat pillow and torn blanket.
“I could go faster if I had updated supplies and more light.”
“I’ve given you what I can, Roberto. I expect you to give me what I want in exchange or I’ll throw you back onto the streets where you came from.”
“I was doing just fine on the streets.”
“You were on the verge of war and your men were changing sides with the police on your doorstep. Your street smarts won’t save you if you end up there again. You’ll be dead within the day.”
He bit his tongue to keep from spouting words he’d later regret.
“But before you so carelessly tossed your life away, you were thriving as a mechanical engineer.”
She ignored that. “It was a skill that you should’ve probably built on instead. Just look how useful it’s proving to you now.”
His eyebrows narrowed.
“Two weeks,” she said brightly, patting him on the shoulder. “Two weeks and this machine better be up and thriving and simple to use.”
“You can, and you will, or I will deliver on my promise to hand you over to your competitor…should I ever happen to run across you.”
He didn’t say anything as she left the room, bitterness and questions thrumming through him. Grudgingly, he got back to work.
Now, a week later he was still buzzing with hatred for his new employer. Everything in him wanted to refuse to work any further. The time limit she had proposed felt impossible. This machine she demanded be built should be done in a clean facility with all the necessary tools at hand, not this third-rate establishment. He had made progress with what she had given him, but not enough. Not nearly enough to be finished on time.
Amunet Black already profited from dealing illegal drugs in the underground world she’d pulled him from. He didn’t understand how the machine she wanted built could possibly be directly aligned with it. He would not be making multiple of these machines for her to add to the inventory. She had plenty of henchman to do her dirty work for her, and they rarely turned on her. As far as he knew only one of the henchmen – henchwomen, rather – had attempted that and managed to escape with their life. He always wondered why Amunet hadn’t gone after her. It wasn’t like she wasn’t quality. She was of the highest. But from what he knew…she’d never been seen again.
His annoyance aside, there was one benefit to being tasked with this chore for Amunet. He knew where he stood. He was under her protection as long as he was of value to her. When he finished it…
He blinked, his mind refocusing as he registered the feminine form coming from the doorway. He looked over his shoulder, rolled his eyes and returned to his work.
“What a warm welcome you give me,” the pale-skinned woman decked out in blue chuckled as she walked into the room, skimming her fingers along the edges of anything she walked past on her way to him, a pretty frost decorating objects as she touched them.
“What do you want, Frost? I’m busy.”
Her heels clicked as she walked around him and pouted.
“Too busy for me?”
“Always too busy for you.”
“That’s too bad, because I-”
He caught her hand as it reached to run down his lapels. Shock shot across her face briefly but was quickly replaced by a sly smile.
“I said I’m busy.”
He released her hand and resumed his work.
“You still have a week left,” she informed him, at which he scoffed.
“A week,” he muttered under his breath.
“I can get you more,” she offered casually.
His hands slowed their work, but he refused to give her his full attention.
“And better supplies.”
His hands stilled.
He lifted his head, his eyes narrowing in on her.
“And how would you manage that?”
“With a better room in a sanitary building.”
He waited a beat too long before saying, “You’re lying.”
She shrugged. “If you say so.”
The tapping of her blue-and-silver-painted fingernails on the metal surface nearly had him flipping the table over at her. But also, he was curious.
“You can get me a sanitary room with up-to-date technology, good lighting and more time to finish?”
The pop of her lips emphasized her shimmering lipstick.
“You’re just going to have to trust me about that one, darling.”
He stared head-on at her for a while – until she cracked.
“Well? Do you want my help or not?”
“What do you get out of it?”
“Can’t a girl help out an old friend?”
“We are not-”
“There’s a new drug on the market.”
He blinked. “Huh?”
“A new drug. It’s gonna blow everyone’s minds and load up Amunet’s pockets with more money than she could possibly dream of.”
His mouth fell open before he could stop it.
“Amunet has it?”
She chuckled. “Of course not. I don’t even have it yet.”
He glared again. “So, you have nothing.”
“Not yet. But I’ll get it. Don’t you worry. And when I do, it’ll conveniently fall right into Amunet’s hands. She won’t be able to resist offering me a partnership in the deal.”
“You’re already her top henchman.” She glared. “Henchwoman,” he corrected, but she didn’t seem to like that term much either. “Why are you doing favors for her?”
Her face relaxed into an easy, all-knowing smile.
“This isn’t for her. This is for me.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off by continuing, “And that’s all I’m going to say about that.” He pursed his lips. “Do we have a deal?”
“What deal? All you’re doing is giving me a gift for reasons I have yet to figure out.”
“I give you what you want, you give me what I want. Later. Down the line.” She waited a bit and then batted her eyelashes, smiling prettily. “Promise?”
He ran through all the scenarios but couldn’t seem to find a reason to say no.
“How much time will you get me?” he asked.
Her pearly whites shown brightly at him. “As much time as you want, Reverb.”