Trash from all over the world had come together to make the narrow, snaking corridors leading to The Shifty Lounge.
The best way to navigate the path was by the aromas. The gulf bar had its own smell address: a sequence of sugary grease, jasmine, putrid waste, hamster odor, salted peanuts (the closest churro stand to his cell), then the plastic of a phone kiosk, stale air of undeveloped, empty rooms, and at last, the second churro stand, which was, not accidentally, positioned next to his destination.
Matteo took note of a new atrium that, by new smells and echoes, was emerging someplace behind the phone kiosk. Who or what might be inside?
The entryway to The Shifty Lounge was an old storefront to a Mexican pharmacy. “Farmacia”, buzzed in bold yellow and green block typeface. It brought back his childhood, the feeling of his mom’s hands guiding him down the market streets of Reynosa in search of Matholic relics for her card readings, some time before the violence picked up again. He could still hear her permanently dry voice, “Numerology y Calculus lets us hablar mejor con los saints”. Maybe if he’d prayed harder, he wouldn’t be in this situation.
The interior of the gulf tap room was dimly lit by overhanging naked bulbs, painted mostly black. Gulf consumption tended to make light a little too bright on the eyes. Humidity collected and dripped somewhere out of sight. Every patron inside unseen nooks radiated heat and the stench of processed, moldy tobacco and yeast, thickening the air.
“Ay, ‘teo. That box work out for you?” Dillo, the inmate who sold the physicals to him the night before said, from the darkest area of the bar. Pushy, there was no way Matteo could’ve extracted all the data from every physical in that box by now.
“Haven’t really gotten a chance to look into it,” Matteo said in Dillo’s general direction, not wanting to engage. Any conversation beyond a few replies could be a diversion. Immediately, he wondered if he’d remembered to lock the door to his cell.
“Mira me bien. Que tienes?” Dillo paused, “You ok?” Dillo leaned under a lightbulb, illuminating the leather density of his temples and cheeks and the shine of his head, always shaved clean, despite it not being a prison requirement.
“No, yeah. I’m fine. I just can’t see very well in here. Why’s Anna gotta keep it so dark? She even in here or did she finally quit to go work for a bar that actually serves booze somewhere on shore?” He heard his voice try a little too hard to be casual.
Under the light of an accountant’s desk lamp on the slate bar, two soft hands appeared. A ring, a slim jade cat touching its front paws to the end of its tail, with two green jewels for eyes, circled her right pointer finger. Anna spoke loud enough to overcome the tinted, one inch thick barrier between them. “Sling alcohol? You know I don’t touch the stuff. A two and three?” she said, scratchily, sweetly.
Dillo talked over her. “Anna siempre era aqui. In fact, since, casi, well since this pile of basura was still in the, which was it? In the… well, in the ocean. Well, Matteo — Matteo it was? Estas viviendo en el section Este, verdad? If you get some good data outta any of those ones I gave you, remember me. Y recuerdo, the big wins always come in batches,” he said, invisibly approaching and leaning closer, his frame both thick and dangerous. “I don’t get quality boxes like that everyday. You owe me and I want to remember I can work with you next time something good like a Mist comes around again to trade.”
“Yeah, man. Ya sabes,” Matteo said, conflicted, not knowing whether to answer Anna or Dillo first and irritated by Dillo’s intentional misuse of “gave”.
Matteo strained to catch a glimpse of Anna. “Let’s do three and four. I’m celebrating,” said Matteo, deadpan. He scooted his stool closer to the bartop to try to sever the conversation with Dillo. Her hands disappeared and she was entirely a shadow once more.
“Heh, heh. Remember, don’t run what you got out of the physicals by the Rangers for logging, joven. It wasn’t easy to get those. They’re premium. The data belongs in estos manos,” Dillo said while opening his fists in one motion. Impossible to know if he was threatening or being friendly.
Matteo forced a small grin, now sure there must be something good on that Speak N’ Say.
That is, unless they got caught, of course.
The Shifty Lounge shifted and saltwater slip-slapped under the floor, which was little more than plastic odds and ends fused into a porous grid, with bottle caps smashed between the approximately square spaces.
“Celebrating que?” Anna asked.
“No, I… I’m not celebrating. It’s just sarcasm. I’m just beat from working all week,” Matteo said. Better to be clear, here. Dillo was the kind of guy who understood sarcasm insofar as it raised suspicion, the kind of guy who would be more likely to assume Matteo was splurging on a drink after finding something valuable on the physicals, keeping it all to himself. The door to Matteo’s studio (had he locked it?) felt twice as far away.
“Que curioso,” Anna said.
Two Ranger Wardens in starched shirts pushed through the screen door, taking their evening break. Their confident outlines bore false majesty from the outside light before the door slammed behind them.
“‘Scuse me miss, can we get us some waters, two of ‘em,” the one wearing the black cowboy hat with absolutely no color on her skin, except for the hint of pink patches on her ears and neck, said.
Anna reached down into the fridge for cold glassware and poured. “It’s on the house,” she said. Matteo frowned because he knew she hated having to give anything to the Rangers for free.
“Carbonated again? They gonna get regular ass water in this dump anytime soon? This stuff should be called Topo Petho, nah, Todo Petho,” said the second one. A gold crown outlining his front tooth glistened, a buried treasure in a scorched pecan shell of a face.
“Howsit feel, kid?” the Ranger said to Matteo, her expression nondescript.
“To have to drink next to us dumb types? I’m Ranger Dawn,” she continued, smirking.
“I don’t know what you — ,” said Matteo.
The gold tooth revealed itself more on the shorter Ranger, “You’re a Reader. Got it written all over you. Those broad shoulders of yours ain’t been put to much use, I’ll bet.”
“I scavenge, too,” said Matteo, trying for a deeper voice and missing the mark.
“I scavenge, too, Ranger Mike. You can read nametags, can’t you?” He tapped his badge with two fingers, deliberately. “Anyway, my money’s on you buy more than you scav’. I can see it in those clean fingernails. Ah, we’re just fuckin’ with you. Relax. We already known you’re not pure scav’, see your sales on the logs all the time. Top data extractor, physical for physical.”
A drink slammed and a moment later a loud creak of what could’ve been the bathroom door or an unseen exit. Dillo was gone like a sea breeze.
“Sometimes, yeah, I do buy… Ranger Mike, to work faster. Need to send money back home on top of my penalty. But I spend more than half my time picking through stuff just like Dillo and the rest of them. If I had higher permission to go on-shore I’d be out in the city finding other physicals to pick through,” said Matteo.
“Back where’s you say you been sending all that Texas Byte?” said Ranger Dawn.
“Alamo, to my mom. Born and raised in town,” replied Matteo, proudly.
“Heh, thank god. Soundin’ like a goddang illegal there for a while, heh heh,” she replied.
“No, ma’am,” said Matteo.
“It’s a tough economy. Can’t have them roaches takin’ up work on the barge or enjoying our secure facilities. Sure you know all about that, though, broad shoulders,” Ranger Mike said before burping.
“Yes, sir. Ranger Mike.”
“Heck, you can’t blame us for checking you out. Sometimes we get surprised and catch some of y’all up to no good even though you’re stuck here for petty shit. Just locked up one hell of a good-looking citizen the other day. Was one of them duds, hiding in plain sight. Almost as bad as the aliens. Those dud fuckers’ll go crazy on you without warning. They can’t help it, it’s in the genes. Tell you what, if the government went through all the trouble of designing you as a baby, and fed you ’til you was an adult, then they made you. I don’t care who you think you are or how many lawyers you can afford, it’s your patriotic duty to report back for arrest when they realize they fucked you up,” he took a swig of the water, “Damn this Topo’s good. I take back what I said.”
Matteo could feel Anna rolling her eyes through the dark. “No bullshit dud talk is allowed in this bar. None of that is true. In fact, the only thing I ever heard about was duds dying early. They’re sick and harmless, but leave it to a Ranger to make them into some kind of monster. Anyway, nobody nowhere is making people in their lab anymore. You people got your ban on human engineering. Just leave the duds in peace already. And y’all need to leave this boy alone. Matteo isn’t a rich kid hacker, you know. He’s paying the price for some loverboy bullshit,” Anna said. She put down the two light green bottles and three shots of nicotine concentrate for Matteo, with a bang on the bartop.
Matteo drank the shots one after the other, half upset that he wouldn’t be getting that carefree three-four buzz, the other half grateful he’d be able to finish his smaller drink order quickly so he could get out of there without having to talk to the Rangers much longer. Anna always knew how to look out for him.
“Well, pardon us, miss senorita. Didn’t mean no disrespect to this fine establishment,” Ranger Mike winked at Anna, “What was it then that this strapping young man got into?”
She switched her gaze from the Ranger to Matteo, inviting him to speak for himself. She had listened to all of his sad, bad luck stories from him over the months and it had gotten Matteo nowhere with her, romantically. He supposed she wasn’t into bad boys. Or sad boys.
Matteo cleared his throat. “I’m sure you heard about the… the Tamagotchi. My uh, my lawyer said I’m not obligated to talk about it anymore.” The burn of gulf oil in his throat weakened his voice further.
“Thought you said he wasn’t one of the rich ones, Ms. Anna?”
“He didn’t actually have a lawyer — he can just read, can’t you put that much together? Matteo here put out a dating ad on a physical that happened to get a sensory attack loaded onto it at some point by who knows who? Maybe one of you Rangers in a botched setup! Some poor kid opened it up, goes stiff and her grandma dies trying to save her. Don’t need to crucify him over it. Not his fault,” she replied.
“It was stupid. I thought I’d find a girl who was into reading physicals… computer stuff, too, and I just ended up hurting someone, instead,” Matteo said.
“Hmm, don’t much care how lonely you are or how much data you extract an’ read for us, lyin’ to Ranger’s a serious infraction. Are you, or are you not, under the council of a lawyer?” Ranger Mike said with another burp.
The room dipped and as it rose, Matteo felt pinned to his stool.
“Yep, might lose our job by letting something like that slide, couldn’t we?” said Ranger Dawn.
“Yes we could,” he fingered the cuffs hanging on his belt, shot a serious gaze at Matteo and let half a smile slowly form on the right side of his face. There was the gold in his mouth again, gleaming.
Now Matteo was looking at extended sentencing, a near-the-end-of-your-life sentencing, a shared-toilet-without-a-rim sentencing.
“Heh! Haw haw, we’re just messin’ with you. C’mere let us get you another round. Never know if we’ll see you again, seem on track to check outta this place quick,” Ranger Mike said, patting Matteo on the back a little too hard. “Maybe you’ll be back on shore banging all the hotas you can handle by tomorrow night! You do like hotas, don’t you? Or are you happy to be waist deep in that jail porn of yours?! Beats a Tam-on-gitchy! Haw haw!” He raised an eyebrow in what looked like a well-worn movement.
“Heh, don’t let him give you a heart attack,” Ranger Dawn said as she turned to her partner, “Looks like this big guy is right center of learnin’ his lesson.”
Matteo grabbed the gulf bottles. He was an adult, now, but having been homeschooled, was not used to this type of casual humiliation. “I just had time to say ‘Hi,’ to Anna, here. I’ve got to get back to work. See you later. Thanks for the advice and offer. Rangers Dawn and Mike.”
“You can bet on it,” the female Ranger said with a stare that made Matteo feel like she’d been hiding her unusually deep talent for perception. “Hey, and if you ever make real progress on that sentence of yours, find me. I used to be a reader on this barge, just like you.” The thought shook him to his core.
Matteo nodded his head and bolted. He looked back into the gulf bar from the outside, hoping to re-evaluate that last interaction, where perhaps he was more friendly and blended in more than he thought, and just maybe Anna had more interest in him than just idle entertainment to help kill her hours at the The Shifty Lounge.
By Anna’s lamp, Matteo could see both Ranger’s hands push against the bar, as if to gain momentum, moving out of the chairs and towards the invisible inside of the bar, the same direction as Dillo had exited. He was convinced Dillo’s box had some illegal information of really really high value. The Rangers were probably stalling him at the bar to give other Rangers time to search the cell. If they found it, it would be full-time scavving from now on. He had to get there now. Next time he would hide his shit.
“Saludas a su mama,” Anna said, pressing her hand against the window. The cat ring tinged the glass. There was an unmistakable, natural concern in the lines of her cherub face. It was not the look of a woman lusting for her criminal that might not come back alive for another round of gulf. It was motherly. She’d never be able to respect someone she had to step in to defend, would she? Matteo furrowed his brow as if to say thank you.
The second churro stand guy, positioned directly outside the bar, handed him a bag of peanuts. “Estas en un rush, si? Necesitas comer, flaco chico. Pagame despues.”
“Yeah, yeah. I will!” Matteo took in the gold chain buried in chest hair, mustache, and oversized hands of the man passing him the peanuts and then he was off in a sprint. A tiny buzz had set in, giving him confidence in movement as he whizzed past a few gentle corners and barreled a hard left at a slippery intersection.
The path curved and right before he was in view of his door, his foot sank through the floor, into the lukewarm, brackish water. A dozen or so mosquitoes took flight from their disturbed nest.
“Chingado!” His entire left leg was submerged, the scrapes on his thigh stinging. In bracing himself, he had knocked the wind out of his chest with the sturdy gulf bottles. Peanuts were strewn about everywhere.
He pulled his leg out and rolled over onto his back. “Shit, shit, shit.” There had been no point in running. Either the Rangers or Dillo’s crooked buddies had gotten to his potentially valuable stash or they hadn’t. And if he caught them red-handed, what was he going to do, fight them? Maybe Anna would show up to save his ass again.
He yanked free a bottle opener that was partially embedded into the floor, cracked the cap of a bottle and took a long drink. A slow, short walk later, he arrived at his door. It was locked. Fuck, he would’ve had time to order a churro. He chugged the rest of the gulf right there and disposed of the bottle by filling a gap near the mailbox embedded into the wall of his pseudo-porch.
Matteo used his weight to slide the false wood-grain accordion door to his cell open and closed it behind him. He struggled out of his wet chinos. The box of physicals was untouched and he let out a sigh of relief.
Gunshots blasted from the direction of The Shifty Lounge. If something was going down there with Dillo, he needed to extract whatever data was on the physicals immediately. His senses heightened again, and he couldn’t know for sure if a few seconds or a minute had passed before he heard groans and whimpering from somewhere distant in the Barcaza.
One year of looking over his shoulder steeped in paranoia was enough. There was no way he would survive thirteen more with his sanity in tact.
He had to find a way, any way, to clear his name and get the hell off the Basura Barcaza.