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Derrick Yu heard a knock at the door. There was some shuffling around the alley outside, and a dog barking, but there shouldn’t have been any customers at this hour.
He shut the laptop lid, opened the plastic drawer beneath the desk, and twisted the scalpel attachment onto his right prosthetic arm. The tug at the root of his arm when it was fully twisted on always gave him a rush of adrenaline.
Padding around the spare parts on the floor that were due to be sorted, he slipped on his boots—no socks because he was in a rush—and crept across the dusty, tiled floor towards the door.
The peephole showed that there was a man with a shaved head standing at the door, with no obvious mods on him. Probably not a customer then.
Derrick waited, crouching in place, and hoped that the man would just go away.
Knock, knock, knock. It was timid, like he didn’t want to draw attention, but impossible to ignore. It was only one man, too. Instead of a gangbanger, Derrick now worried more that this man was a drunk who was going to piss on their wall.
“We’re closed,” Derrick shouted.
Knock, knock, knock. “Hey, come on man, lemme in, I need an emergency repair.”
“I told you, we’re closed. Come back tomorrow. We open at 10 AM.”
“But I need help now!”
The sound of laughing came from outside. Tony had finally come back, and he had another bar girl with him.
“Hmm? Another customer? What is it, like three in the morning? Jeez.”
“Hey homie, you the owner right here?”
“No, I’m the President and she’s my First Lady.” Tony guffawed loudly and the girl giggled. “Yeah, yeah I’m the owner, just fucking with you. What are you waiting for? Go on in!”
Derrick opened the door, and Tony pulled the girl inside. They smelled like fried chicken and a 6-pack of beer. There would probably be vomit on the kitchen floor next morning, but that was a problem for tomorrow.
The man tried to come in right after Tony, but Derrick pushed him back and glared at him. He was skinny, nervous, and wearing a wifebeater. Never seen him before. “Welcome to Hack Alley, what do you need?”
“It’s . . . sensitive, you feel me?” He started walking in, but Derrick barred the door with his arm.
“Whoa whoa whoa, hold it. Tell me what you need first, and then we can go inside.” He tapped the frame with his scalpel, and the man winced.
The man was looking around so fast, his head seemed like it was going to spin off. “Well why don’t we go inside? I gotta play it cautious, you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t. Can you be more specific?”
“It’s . . . it’s . . .” he whispered, pointing at his crotch. “Fuck, man, I’m really about to show you right here,” he said, and started pulling down his pants.
Derrick shoved him out the door and slammed it shut.
“Come onnn, man.” A few more feeble knocks came, but the alley eventually grew silent again.
Derrick sighed. The sound of the bed creaking in the next room got louder as he went toward the desk. After opening the laptop and staring at the screen for ten minutes, he realized he wasn’t getting anything else done for the night.
So he tugged his boots off, tossing them into the corner near the trash bin, and twisted off the scalpel attachment and set it back in the plastic drawer. The dirty earbuds on the counter would do, after a quick wipe down.
He put on some music, flopped onto the bean bag, and closed his eyes. He really needed to soundproof his bedroom one of these days.
A motorcycle zoomed through the alley. Derrick rolled off the bean bag, and onto the floor, where he laid, until the motorcycle’s rumble merged with the general din of traffic. Poking through the gaps in the old metal blinds, shafts of daylight pressed on his eyes, driving him away from the sleep he dearly desired.
Well, there was no point in laying on the ground now. He got up and washed—the faucet was dirty—and then took stock of the room as he dried his hair. Nothing important seemed missing. His wallet and phone were still hidden behind the desk, and the miscellaneous parts on the ground were still accounted for. Spare hands were a pretty hot commodity among bar-girls; even if they didn’t have prostheses themselves, the bar owners usually knew a person who needed one. Last time, it had been a huge pain to track that one girl down . . . .
Derrick rapped on Tony’s door, and heard the bed creaking inside. “Wake up, man. I need your help checking out this cochlear implant. It’s not passing any of our tests, and we’ve got a patient coming in two weeks who needs one.”
No response. Derrick opened the door and backed away, as the nasty air from Tony’s room wafted into the kitchen.
“Get dressed, dude. I’m going to clean this vomit off the floor, and I hope you’re up and washed by the time I’m done. There’s a glass of water for you on the counter.”
Derrick put his arms up and stretched. The missing weight on his empty mounting cuff made him feel naked. It tugged at his skin as he twisted left and right, working the kinks out of his back. His right hand was still sitting in pieces on a mat near the tool shelf.
The pieces were scuffed and the fingertips were worn, but a good coat of paint would fix that, whenever he got around to it. How many years had it been since Tony installed this for him? Derrick had replaced bits and pieces, but never the actuators themselves. For some reason, he was clumsy and stiff with any other model.
There were a few spare hands he could use to put his ‘real’ hand back together. Derrick twisted one of them on, and got to work.
With his hand cleaned and oiled, Derrick ripped another piece off the torn rag he had been cleaning parts with last night and mopped up the vomit, tossing it into a plastic bag. Luckily, today was trash day.
It was cool outside, which made it somewhat refreshing, despite the dust, smog, and smell of burning trash wafting through the air. The ‘Hack Alley’ neon sign rattled slightly in the breeze.
Twenty years of breathing in this air. There must be a pile of microplastic dust in his lungs by now, billowing around like the content of a snow globe with every breath.
He tossed the bag in their trash can, and dragged it out toward the entrance of the alley, which was piled high with empty cartons of beer, takeout containers, and bags that had overflowed from the group of other trash cans that spilled out into the street.
Wait, it was trash day . . . which meant a weeks worth of potential new parts was being taken away. He had been putting off the weekly dumpster dive, and now he would have to rush through it. He flicked through the notes on his phone until Tony’s ‘wish list’ popped up.
- Lithium-ion batteries of various sizes
- Transformers (from old audio systems)
- Motors (the smaller the better, certain brands preferred)
- Laptop and TV Speakers
- Large electrolytic capacitors
It was a lot of stuff, and Derrick had only found a few speakers last time he went diving. If only he could take the car to the scrapyard every week . . . but gas cost money, and he was diving for parts because they had no money. So he would have to walk.
The sounds of grunting, and scuffling feet on sidewalk, broke out from around the corner. Derrick stuffed his phone into his pocket and slunk back into the alley, crouching down behind a plastic crate that smelled like rotten bananas.
“Back the fuck off. Stop. I’m telling you—” Smack. A man fell face-down at the entrance of the alley, and his glasses bounced a few times before settling on the pavement. He tried to push himself up with shaking arms, before a pair of men wearing white caps and jackets ran in and gave him a few kicks each. One of them had a prosthetic leg with claw marks painted on the side.
White Leopard gangsters: Chinatown’s oldest, lingering malady.
Were they coming down the alley? Would they spot him now, if he went back inside? He had been coerced into modding a few of their members, and even gave one of them first aid before, but that didn’t mean much when they were in a bad mood. It’s OK, I’ll just pretend I didn’t see anything. They only know ‘Derrick.’ They know I don’t want trouble. They won’t recognize me. I’ve got a new face. A new, ugly, face.
“I warned you. No money, no fix. You try that shit again, and we’ll kill you for real. Fucking junkies.”
<Come on, let’s go big bro,> the other one said in Mandarin Chinese. <Or are we gonna’ forget to collect from Tony again?> They started walking towards the door to Hack Alley.
Shit! There was nowhere to hide. Derrick stepped out from behind the crate and put his hands up. “Hello, gentlemen. Sorry for sneaking around, I heard a fight break out and took cover.”
The one with the prosthetic leg looked older, and his white jacket had food stains that were more obvious up close. His partner barely looked fifteen—probably a recent immigrant—and was already beating up junkies and collecting protection money. That’s what the White Leopards did: hook their claws into kids and turn them into predators. Derrick kept his hands up as the pair circled around, cornering him against the wall and the crate. The messy eater’s leg prosthesis shuddered a bit with each step.
He loomed over Derrick and jabbed a finger in his face. “Who’re you?”
<That looks like Tony’s, uh, nephew, I think?>
“Ah, the doc’s boy.” He glanced up at the Hack Alley sign and backed off a bit, giving Derrick some space to breath. “Well, Tony’s late on his payment—been late for a while. We were in the neighborhood, and stopped by to collect. Where is he?”
Hung over and in no shape to answer the door. Tony hated the White Leopards when he was nice and sober. But when he was hungover . . . . A group of Leopards once came to Hack Alley the morning after Tony had been drinking, and they all would have come to blows if he hadn’t vomited on their shoes (they billed him for the shoes, but were too disgusted to pick a fight).
“He’s not available right now, but if you come back later in the afternoon you’ll probably find him.”
“Are you telling us to make another trip? Is that how it is?”
“No, no sir!” Derrick peeked out from behind his raised hands. Don’t look them in the eyes. What if they see?
<Then bring out Tony, and make it quick you asshole!>
“Wait, please!” Derrick held the young Leopard away from the shop’s door with one arm, like he was reining in a dog. This gangster really was just a kid. “We don’t want any trouble, and I’m sorry we’re late. But we don’t have enough to make the payment this month. Can you give us another week to get everything together?”
“Okay, then give us what you have right now, stupid. We’ll come back and get the rest later. Might add on a fee for wasting my time.” There was that shit-eating Leopard’s grin.
They needed that money to buy parts before the scalpers took them all. Losing it now was not an option.
“Speaking of not wasting your time, sir, you’ve never been our customer before, have you? How would you like a free tune-up on your leg?”
“Nice try. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be broke if you were any good.”
“Respectfully, sir, we are good. We’ve helped a few of your brothers out in the past.”
“They’ve got trash mods. Mine’s top-class; it’s above your pay grade.”
“Well, I noticed your leg is from Stoneridge Prosthetics, and it seems to be out of order. We have a lot of experience with Stoneridge products, and we’re right here, while their nearest shop is two hours away in the big city. Why not give us a try?”
The Leopard looked down at his leg, and kicked with it. The shudders vibrated his thigh, and made him wobble a bit.
“And you want to postpone your payment, huh?”
“Yes, please. We’ll make sure your leg is in top shape.”
The Leopard was massaging his leg, and looked up at the neon sign once more.
“Ah, why not, it’s out of warranty anyways. Alright, I’ll try you out. You better not fuck my leg up, or you’ll regret it.”
“Fantastic. Could I have your full name and availability, sir?”
“They call me Big Mike.”
They scheduled an appointment, and the White Leopards left without taking a penny, stepping past the collapsed junkie on their way out. Derrick made a note on his phone to tell Tony they had another unpaid job to do. The poor got poorer, it seemed.
Now, about that junkie. “Hey, are you okay?”
The junkie groaned and shifted on the ground. He had probably blown in from a different part of town, or he might’ve been a refugee, as Derrick didn’t recognize him. Either way, he couldn’t just leave the man on the ground; it was bad for business.
It was always tough dragging limp bodies around, but Derrick managed to tug him ten feet away from alley’s entrance, and prop him up against the wall. There was a bottle of water in the back of their fridge that had been crumpled up so it was barely standing, but it would have to do. He stuck it in man’s lap so he’d have something to drink when he woke up.
And with that, Derrick grabbed his bag and set off to the nearest dumpster. He had a long day ahead of him.
Derrick pinned the bag under his arm as he dug around in his pockets for the keys. The bag was fairly light, since the garbage trucks had already taken most of his potential loot by the time he started diving. There had been a lot of walking, and empty dumpsters: a good analogy for his life at the moment.
The late afternoon sunlight glinted off the lock—a new one, since Tony had lost his key last week. As he swung the door open, someone called out from the far end of the alley.
“Yo dog, you open now?”
It was the skinny man who flashed him last night.
In the daylight, he seemed even smaller than before. His shirt wasn’t over-sized, but rather, draped over his coat hanger of a body.
Derrick eyed him from the corner of his vision, and prayed that he would go away.
“Yo I came back today, just like you told me. Now can you help me with my fucking problem?”
Fuck. Well, they needed the money, so it was time to get to work.
“Yeah, we’re open. Just keep your pants on until we get to the office.”
“I feel you, homie.”
Tony was in the bathroom, blowdrying his hair. He would always wash his hair when he got up, even if he didn’t shower or brush his teeth.
“We got a customer, Tony. I’ll bring him to the operating room, and call you if I need to.”
Tony mumbled something that was drowned out by the blowdryer. He would probably get back into bed after washing up.
Derrick swept some components out of the way and pointed down at the cleared path. “Watch your step and follow me, please.”