The sky over the city was the color of a lighter’s flame, burning its afterimage into the back of your eyes.
Even in the shelter of the abandoned warehouse, Ivan felt like he’d sweat through his shirt several times over. Halcyon’s heat was unbearable, and its humidity stifling, but he made no move to fan himself or wipe sweat from his brow. If he did, the two thugs below him would undoubtedly notice. They were cat Animus, and even in human form their hearing would be keen enough to pick up the movement. As it was, he was fortunate that the ambient noise of machinery and construction in the Emperor Drive district was loud enough to mask his heartbeat.
The warehouse arclights had been blown out long ago, leaving the interior dim save for what little light filtered through errant gaps in the roof and the shuttered windows. Perched on the catwalk that ran around the upper level of the warehouse, Ivan had a perfect view of the deal that was about to go down, whilst hidden safely behind a hanging sheet of canvas. It was a tight fit for someone his height, but he knew how to fold his body to minimize his profile. He was dressed for concealment, too - a dark, fitted t-shirt and gym pants, with his features hidden behind a black face mask.
The thugs were triad muscle, clad almost identically in black polo shirts and cargo pants, the informal uniform for Three-Tigers Triad grunts. They were both cat Animus, with subtle calico and tabby markings in their hair, respectively.
“So where is he?” The calico Animus lit up a cigarette, taking a drag and tapping ash onto the ground. “Bastard better not be standing us up.”
“He wouldn’t dare. That guy’s new to the game, but even he knows not to fuck around with us on our own turf. He lives in Emperor Drive. He knows who runs this place.” Tabby leaned against a stack of wooden pallets, a backpack slung against his chest. “Even with everything that’s happened lately, nobody would be dumb enough to play us.”
“Hey, Old Fang won’t be in jail for long. Hegemony’s bullshit trumped-up charges won’t stick.” Calico pulled the hem of his shirt up to reveal a pistol stuck in his waistband. “And if this punk needs to learn a lesson in respect, that’s what we’re here for.”
Tabby nodded noncommittally. He didn’t reach for a weapon, and Ivan suspected that he wasn’t carrying. Firearm possession carried a heavy penalty here, and few criminals considered it worth the risk to go around armed in public. Halcyon had a more genteel breed of criminal compared to what Ivan was used to back in Nocturnov, but there were still a great many ways to die if you got careless.
“I mean, we’ve run Emperor Drive for decades. No disrespect, but the Three-Tigers Triad is more than just Old Fang, even if he is the big boss. We’ll come back stronger than ever.” Calico gestured with his cigarette, scattering ash all over.
“If we make it that long. The Hegemony isn’t the only problem we’re dealing with. Other gangs started to make a move on Emperor Drive the moment they heard about Old Fang’s arrest. We had a run in with the Mirokyu Clan last night, if you hadn’t heard.” Tabby scowled, glaring a hole in the ground. “Tora and Ah Hu ended up in the hospital.”
“Shit. I thought they were the toughest guys we had!”
“They were. They even went full beast mode, but the Mirokyu bastards had some serious firepower. Still, they put up a fierce fight. Bloodied their claws good before the police broke things up.” Tabby spoke grimly, and Ivan mouthed along with him, getting a feel for his voice, his accent.
“That’s what we need. We need to show the world that nobody fucks with the Three-Tigers. You know what they say about a wounded beast, right?” Calico bared his teeth in something that wasn’t a smile.
Tabby didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. “Let’s just get this deal done and get back to the safe house. Why did that asshole insist on doing this in the middle of the day, anyway?”
“He said he felt safer this way.” Calico made exaggerated air quotes around ‘safer’, rolling his eyes.
“Safe? He’s selling illegal drugs he cooked up in his basement to a triad. Has he been getting high off his own supply or what?”
“No, I checked him out beforehand. He’s pretty straight-laced, works at some pharma company as a technician. He managed to smuggle some alchemical equipment out from work, cook up a batch of icebreak at home. He said it was lab-grade stuff, gave me a sample to try. It’s the real shit.”
The seller was indeed new to the game, a lab tech who’d recently fallen on hard times and turned to unlicensed alchemy to make ends meet. He’d been pretty loose-lipped about it, too - Ivan’s network of whispers in Halcyon was still a work in progress, but even so he’d learnt about this deal with plenty of time to spare.
Icebreak was an upper that also brought your body temperature down, letting you party as hard as you liked without even breaking a sweat, very popular in Halcyon for obvious reasons. Given that anything narcotics-related also carried a heavy penalty in Halcyon, up to and including the death penalty, Ivan surmised that this guy must really be in deep shit if he’d decided to go this far. This was the sort of risk you took when you were desperate, when the death penalty might actually be a reprieve from your other problems. He could commiserate.
The Three-Tigers Triad would redistribute the icebreak at a premium, turning the forty thousand dollars in that backpack into upwards of a hundred thousand, or more depending on how much filler they could cut it with. This was a sweet deal for them, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the way these guys grouched and complained.
Their conversation came to a sudden halt as they both turned towards the warehouse’s back door, listening to something Ivan couldn’t pick up. Moments later, the door creaked open and a furtive-looking man slipped in, an off-white tote bag clutched in his arms. He was human, middle-aged, wearing bland office clothes that hung loose on his frame. Ivan reached for his phone and hit send on a message he’d written ahead of time.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” His voice was hoarse and shaky, and he moved like someone who expected to find a gun to his head at any moment.
“We’re here.” Calico flicked his cigarette to the side and called out to the man, who jumped. “You got the goods?”
The seller lifted a package wrapped in brown paper out of the tote bag. “Y-you got the cash?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Woon. Let’s see it.”
Woon nodded twitchily, unwrapping the package to reveal a clear airtight plastic bag filled with white-blue crystalline powder. Calico opened the seal on the bag and stuck a finger into the powder, then swiped it over his gums. He inhaled sharply and involuntarily, shuddering like someone had dropped ice down the back of his shirt.
“We good?” Tabby watched impassively, one arm laid protectively over the backpack of cash.
“Yeah, we good.” Calico resealed the bag, and motioned for Tabby to come forward. Woon wrapped the package up again, putting it back into the tote bag. Tabby unzipped the backpack and pulled it open to reveal stacks of rubber-banded hundred-dollar notes. “You wanna count it?”
“No, no. It’s ok. I trust you.” Woon held the tote bag towards them and reached for the backpack.
“You better. The Three-Tigers Triad treats its people fairly, Woon. You keep the icebreak coming, we’ll put in a good word for you with the bosses.”
“Wait, keep it coming? I told you at the start that this was a one-time thing. I can’t keep stealing reagents from the company.”
“And I just told you to keep it coming. Find a way. Or we’ll find you. The same amount, by the end of the month. Are we clear?” Tabby pushed the backpack into Woon’s chest, but the man made no move to take it.
“Look, I - ARGH!”
The warehouse’s main doors blew open, flooding the warehouse with blazing sunlight. Ivan had been waiting for this, and had shielded his eyes in time, but the three men on the ground were caught off guard by the sudden glare - and the deafening siren.
The police were here.