NOW I THINK IT’S TIME for the master of rhyme! The next tune’s so sweet you’ll be on your feet in a heartbeat. That’s right, I’m talking ‘Pumpin’ Smoke’ by Warm Coffee.”

Marbles kicked back, feet up on the plastic bags. The makeshift cushions around him weren’t as comfortable as he was used to, but this was his best available option. He pulled his foot back as it slipped off the smooth surface. Then he replaced it with force, digging a better foothold into the bag of frozen chips with his heel. The harsh movement made something slide out of place behind him, and the corner of a box poked into his back. This isn’t working.

He tapped his earlobe and willed the volume of his R-chip lower as he heard a set of footsteps approaching. With more energy than he had shown during the entire day of work, Marbles jumped from the pile of boxes and bags, picked one up, and made it seem as if he were organising them in some way. He continued his flurry, even when the footsteps stopped behind him, pretending he hadn’t even realised someone was there. After a solid minute, the person coughed, and Marbles turned, practising his best “surprised” reaction. “Oh, I didn’t realise — ”

“Save it. I saw you lying down. We have cameras, you know.”

Marbles stared back, not knowing how to respond. He wasn’t used to being caught like this, and he was trying to work out if he should stick to his story and try to fast-talk his way out of the situation or just admit defeat. If he really had been seen through the cameras, then the latter was the only real choice. Feeling his face glowing redder by the second, he dropped the bag of chips and briskly walked straight out the front door. It was getting late, anyway, and Marbles wasn’t a fan of working overtime.

Removing a small wad from his pocket, Marbles flicked through the notes, reminding himself why he worked such long days in the first place. He was glad to have taken payment in advance this time, as the last few jobs had all ended with him having to leave rather quickly and empty-handed.

He tucked the notes back into his pocket and heard a yell following him down the pathway. Here we go again.

“Hey! Hey you! Give that back!”

Marbles increased his pace.

“I saw you take that from the till. I’ve just watched the footage.”

“I’m making it easier for the manager. I take care of my pay so he doesn’t have to worry about it.”

“I know it don’t work like that, pal. Hand it over.” The man increased his pace, too. He was jogging now and had a certain look about him that Marbles had seen before.

Marbles turned and ran. With the same ease as every time before, he sprung himself up a drain pipe and hopped from one roof to another. He slid down the edge of a ladder, hopped a fence, and rolled out into a main street, joining a stream of people who were also heading home from work.

Marbles wasn’t that impressed at the pay rate for someone who had to go through so much effort each day. If only he knew to whom he should address a formal complaint. For now, though, he just had to worry about normalizing his breathing. He couldn’t blend in if he were the only panting maniac. Marbles flicked his ear and asked the R-chip to turn the volume back up, and even over the bustling and chaos of the vehicles and people all around him, DJ T’s music wove strands of calm through him. He saw an alley coming up on the left but decided against taking it. Just ahead of him was a fast-bus stop. If he could just board a fast-bus, this whole part of town, as well as the warehouse worker, would be far behind him in a matter of minutes.

As Marbles removed the notes from his pocket to purchase a ticket, they leapt from his grip and sprawled themselves across the pavement ahead of him. Something heavy had bashed him from behind. Dazed, Marbles fell straight onto his face. He tried to shake away the dizziness, but something held his flattened nose to the ground. He caught glimpses of his money being whipped away by shuffling feet or desperate hands.

Something metallic burned his neck.

“You have been placed under citizen’s arrest. You have two weeks to turn yourself in to a police station. If you refuse, you will remain branded, you may be considered a fugitive, greater fines may apply, and you may be pursued by the full force of the law. You have the right to — oof!”

Marbles had heard enough and took pleasure in his left hook, catching the man’s jaw as he rolled free and stumbled to his feet. He managed to snatch up a single note that still swirled in the wind, then turned back towards the nearby alley. A quick glance downwards revealed an almost useless amount in his hand, but he pocketed it anyway and jumped a barbed wire fence. This time, Marbles ran for a good thirty minutes, making sure to place as much distance as possible between him and the man from the warehouse. He also found that extra oxygen and adrenaline was the best cure for his dizziness; the man had taken him down hard.

Feeling he was far enough out of reach, Marbles ducked into a nook and waited for the sun to lower itself a bit further, making sure to take no chances this time. He felt his neck and a sharp pain leapt through him as his fingers bumped over the still tender skin. Almost as an afterthought, he reached to his nose and felt that it was swollen and slightly out of place.

Once the sun had completely set, he stepped out from where he’d been hiding. Marbles smirked at the averted gazes of the people around him. It was as if they were too scared to even acknowledge his existence. His nose must have been more grotesque than it felt, and mixed with the fact that he just emerged from a dark corner down an alley, he wasn’t surprised when people ahead of him crossed the street. In fact, he preferred it this way. Although he felt that the situation was just a big misunderstanding, it was still embarrassing being publically branded and having to hand yourself in. He quickened his pace, wanting to reach the violently flashing POLICE sign before his lingering shadow cloak wore off. At the base of the blue and white chequered steps, he was approached by a figure that he hadn’t noticed before and who must have been standing somewhere to the side of the station. By his appearance, Marbles realised that this man, too, was exploiting the shadow-cloak effect. The man fit the profile of someone people subconsciously steered clear of and whose direction people certainly didn’t glance in. A long dark coat covered his body and scraped the floor. His cap covered his eyes, and his scarf was pulled up to his nose, muffling his voice.

“Nasty mark you got there, friend. Probably holds, what, five, maybe six minutes?”

Marbles wasn’t overly familiar with the workings of the citizen’s arrest brander, as he had been branded only once before, as a child. A shopkeeper had caught him slipping a pack of sweets up his sleeve, and he planted a mark right across Marbles’s face. Needless to say, Marbles went straight down the station and got it removed, cashing it in for a “juvenile’s warning slip.” That was after the cops had watched the last few minutes of his memory leading up to the branding, which was all stored in the mark burned upon the skin.

“Uh, I wouldn’t know,” Marbles sputtered, feeling a little uneasy about the stranger talking to him.

The stranger smiled, eyes surprisingly warm. “Yeah, that’s how they get you, you see? You hand yourself in, admitting guilt, assuming you’ve been caught, but really, you don’t know what evidence they have against you. I mean, have you any idea what they will see on that mark o’ yours?”

It was a fair question, and despite the bad feeling in his gut, Marbles couldn’t help but consider it.

“Now that you mention it, I don’t really know why I’m here. Was all a misunderstanding…”

The stranger waved a dismissing hand. “You needn’t explain yourself to me, friend. That’s not my business. My business is extracting information from marks like yours, for clients such as yourself. That way, you know exactly what you’re handing over to the police before you do it. If there’s anything unexpected saved in that little barcode of yours, at least you have the choice to leave it unread.” He finished this sentence with a wink. He turned his head slightly, revealing a mark on his neck, which had been tattooed in. “Had this baby for twelve years! No one’s come looking. No warrants out for my arrest. It’s all scare tactics. They’re busy enough without worrying about looking for guys with nothing but a little suspicion around them. If I had handed this in, I would be in a much worse place right now, let me tell you.” He chuckled slightly, and Marbles, suddenly afraid of what the stranger might have done to earn that mark, felt his gut churn again. They watched each other for a little while before the stranger shrugged. “Eh, whatever. Up to you, friend. But I’d say that peace of mind is worth the small fee. Here’s my card, but the number will have changed by tomorrow afternoon, so be sure to call me before then if you’re interested.” He turned to leave.

“Wait, um… okay. I’ll do it. Out of curiosity if nothing else, what’s the charge?”

The stranger turned and studied Marbles’s face. His eyes seemed to pierce Marbles’s skin as he assessed his new client.

“Hard for me to give you an exact figure right now, as it varies depending on the crime and the client’s situation.” His eyes faded as he noticed the rips, the sweat patches, and the undersized shirt of a low-paid warehouse worker. “Usually, warehouse getup suggests around one thousand dollars starting fee. Looking at the state of yours, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if even that was too much of a stretch.”

Marbles opened his wallet to confirm the stranger’s theory. He laughed a raspy laugh into his scarf.

“Worse than I thought. Five bucks? Jesus. Well, I’m a man of solutions. Since I’ve already invested time into you and you’ve shown interest in what we offer, it would be stupid for me to turn you away now. Know what this is?” He opened a pouch around his waist to reveal a small disposable drive with a faint orange glow inside. Marbles nodded.

“Perfect!” He slapped Marbles on the shoulder and simultaneously dropped the drive into his pocket. They started walking together towards the stranger’s hideout, voices kept low. “So let’s get this under way. Send us five hundred in crypto bits and then destroy that drive. Payment due in, let’s say, one week? You manage that?”

Marbles nodded again, thinking of his horde of crypto bits he’d never had the opportunity to actually spend. The stranger slapped his shoulder again and gave a hand signal to another shrouded figure down the way. “That guy’ll take care of ya, friend. Good luck.”

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Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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Jonathon best

Jonathon best

Jonathon Best is a science-fiction / fantasy poet and writer, from the burning wastes of Western Australia. Find his books at jbestbooks.com

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