The city outside of The Seventh Circle was a furnace whose incomplete combustion rendered spent, fetid air. Each time the bar’s door opened, squalls of ash and heat punished One Ball. He ignored the oily soot that coated his skin and leathers. This was where he sat. His headaches bloomed every day and were getting worse.
One Ball stirred a finger through the bowl on the counter and chose two fat red pills and a longer blue one. He munched on them without sipping his ethanol. The background ruckus of gaming and quarreling nearly drowned out the video monitors until Lois the barmaid hooted for her patrons’ attention:
“Shut up, shut up, Jailbreak is on! I love Jailbreak…he or she is so dreamy!”
One Ball and hundreds of his fellow customers, the ones who could move, pivoted to gape at the two dozen or so overhead viewscreens. A soundtrack of industrial punch presses and searing guitar feedback crashed through the bar’s powerful audio system before abating to an idling throb. One Ball’s fingers twitched to the beat; everyone alive recognized Jailbreak’s first mega-hit song. A face materialized on the 3-meter-wide screens. The crowd, as if rehearsed, sighed in a chorus of stale exhalation.
“Bad day, good day, all you dishrags and kabobs! Live forever!” shouted a carved and painted tribal mask. Dreadlocks sprouted at all angles. A gloved, bejeweled hand stroked the mask’s pointed chin. One Ball couldn’t turn away from Jailbreak’s blue eyes, which burned fiercely from cutout holes.
“Hark from your galleries and make a play for them streets!” burbled Jailbreak in tones distorted electronically. “Ain’t no reason to crouch in yon warrens when there’s a lotta more plates to lick and credit to trade.”
“Plates to lick,” muttered One Ball, tasting some spirits but never unlocking his eyes from Jailbreak’s. The music began to swell again.
“Go do something!” Jailbreak yelled over the aural assault. “Watch your back! I’m coming up behind you! Live forever!”
“Live forever,” mouthed One Ball and Lois and the others.
Jailbreak’s mask dissolved into a montage of kittens in a basket, daredevil motorcyclists performing stunts, and military tanks rolling through urban streets. Words appeared in block letters on the screens:
JAILBREAK’S NEW SONG ‘I GET ME’ IS AVAILABLE FOR TRANSFER. TELL NON-READING FRIENDS. LIVE FOREVER.
The background noise level resumed its usual jagged rumble. One Ball’s shoulder still throbbed from the last music transfer he’d bought weeks ago. Cascading layers of chains on his jacket jingled as he rubbed the sore spot caused by the implant.
“Jailbreak should be President!” declared an elderly barfly a few seats away from One Ball.
“He or she is,” Lois replied while connecting an ethanol barrel’s output hose.
One Ball signaled her and pointed at the barfly. She slid a ration of ethanol in front of the frayed oldster, who must surely have been in his forties. He cackled with jubilation and patted the woman’s arm.
“You’re an angel sent back from the afterlife, my sweet!” he told Lois. “You have delivered this poor kabob’s salvation. Live forever!”
Sprawling and raucous The Seventh Circle may have been, but in this city of sixty-five million it was One Ball’s favorite pub. He’d purchased his first intoxicant here when he was twelve years old. At fourteen, watched as the man rumored to be his father was beaten badly enough to never walk again.
Despite the morning’s pills and booze, One Ball’s brain pain climbed to the pile-driver mark on the I-wish-I-were-dead scale. He drained his jigger. The door opened for possibly the thousandth time this morning. Oozing through the mob, a shambling hobo plopped onto an adjacent stool and waved for service. The seats to either side of One Ball were almost always open.
“Your finest ‘nol, my fair lady, and pour one for this psychokiller-looking kabob — my partner in crime!”
Lois set down two ethanols and grinned toothlessly. “Here you go, hunk-a-man. How do you like the new work I had done?” She pushed back her silver coiffure to reveal the fine pink traces of laser sutures surrounding each ear.
“Bow-wow-meow!” said One Ball’s benefactor. “Lois, you may be old enough to be my grannykin but with those foxy ears I could take you right here, right now, on this bar if you ask me to!”
Lois batted her crossed eyes, blushing. The transplanted ears’ color did not change.
“Oh, cut it out, Cash!” she replied, walking away, although her smile said please go on.
Cash Money removed his porkpie hat and rag-festooned overcoat, slinging them over a stool. A wide belt with a bejeweled buckle accented his self-illuminated unitard. Slicked-down hair and clustered tribal tattoos on his face lent him a strong resemblance to a decorated torpedo.
“How they goin’ O.B.?” asked Cash, One Ball’s best friend since childhood. “You ain’t been around much.”
“Lickin’ plates,” replied One Ball.
He stared straight ahead. Cash tapped the greasy countertop, tasted his drink, made a retching sound, and side-eyed his companion. Setting down the jigger, he selected half a dozen yellow pills from the bowl and popped them one at a time into his mouth.
“I heard Jailbreak planted a new hit,” he said to One Ball. “He or she can do nothing wrong!”
One Ball nodded semi-automatically. His chupryna topknot danced. Nodding hurt. Talking hurt.
Cash leaned closer and puffed ethanol fumes into One Ball’s ear:
“Two new lucky candidates are snoozin’ inside my truckster out in yon alley,” he whispered. “Expensive ones, probably. Some of the best ever. And it’s almost like they wanted to be taken!”
Kidnappers of humans risked the death penalty; heisting animals and holding them for ransom would yield twenty-five years of hard labor. The crime of graffiti netted ten years. Jailbreak adjudicated musical infractions himself or herself on a case-by-case basis.
Roused at last, One Ball turned toward his friend. “You napped a dog — two dogs — without me?”
Cash squirmed in his seat, reached up to adjust the hat he’d removed already, and tossed back his ‘nol. His dilated eyes jittered.
“I waited for you, O.B.,” he whined. “For weeks, I did! But I gotta earn a living! I got bills, I got expenses — I mean, I just told you about Jailbreak’s new song. I been saving my left shoulder for the transfer!”
More than a little unsteadily, One Ball slid off his seat and stood upright. The stool tipped over with a clatter. Startled rats scrambled across his boots and then resumed their browsing. His brain was an anvil and the world was a hammer. Leather, chains, studs, composite body armor — One Ball, a dark skyscraper wobbling in its own earthquake, for a moment evoked his former guise: a man of might and menace.
“I can’t do this no more,” he said slowly. “Dognapping is no kind of job for a man. I want— I want— “
“You want whatever your girlfriend says you want!” snapped Cash Money. “Me and you, we got this great thing — which I remind you was your idea — and now you wanna give it up because some Oriental dishrag grows you a conscience or something!”
“Asian,” slurred One Ball. “Asian. Don’t say Oriental.”
“You’re whipped!” Cash continued. “All you care about is your slant’s sweet sugar pot! That’s what kind of kabob you turned into.”
With improbable speed relative to his size and condition, One Ball grabbed his friend’s head. His thumbs rested below Cash’s jaw and pressed upward. Fingers tickled the eye sockets’ corners. One Ball’s fitness was past its peak, but his hands didn’t know it today. Suspended above the bar stool, Cash flailed at One Ball’s arms but did nothing more than displace soot. He kicked One Ball’s crotch and elicited not even a grunt. One Ball touched noses with Cash and said through clenched teeth:
“Don’t ever talk about Xingjuan again. With one bite I can take off your snout. It don’t matter to me what style you buy to replace it, just make sure it stays outta my life.”
One Ball heaved Cash backwards; jiggers and pills scattered. The more sentient customers studied their hootch instead of gawking, but Lois cursed, waving a towel as if it were a battle flag. In her other ropy hand she aimed an improbably outsized handgun at One Ball’s chest. He backed away, shuffling through the rubbish and rodents. Cash Money glared at him, his once-slick hair jutting out now in oily spikes.
“Live forever, ass-stain,” whispered Cash.
Rage lit up Cash’s eyes, but his lips curled in a smirk. Opening the door one last time, One Ball turned and left. He filled his lungs with the city’s seared funk — air even fouler than that within The Seventh Circle. In one direction, traffic wallowed in a cacophony of hot gridlock. In the other, a self-driving delivery van skidded into the back of a bus and erupted into an inferno. Oblivious to the mayhem, One Ball stepped around a sleeping or deceased vagrant and trudged through the clutter.
The late morning sun’s gray spokes isolated high rise buildings and pushed through the ruined troposphere. One Ball’s headache, still present, waned as he turned toward his apartment six blocks distant. Nearby sirens wailed. 3-D projections of Jailbreak’s mask floated above the city’s major intersections, whose holographic billboards flickered and chattered nonstop. What with having to detour around militias, sinkholes, and demonstrations, One Ball wasn’t going to arrive home very quickly.
Zhou Xingjuan would be waiting for him, her hands warm and stars shining through her eyes. Together that night they’d release the two schnauzers, two pit bulls, three Westies, and the German shepherd all caged within the eightieth-floor two-room apartment.
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