Carter’s Blue

Best stuff on the street, they said. Just ask the old man, he’s got it. Orleans Reinette rubbed her hands over her arms and looked both ways down Melrose. But there was no sign of the old man.

Maybe she should keep moving. It wasn’t like she had to stay in this place. But this place was just as good as the rest of them. She glanced at the shops around her. Maybe a tad more trendy than she was used to, but that didn’t matter. It was the Blue she was after.

It was always the Blue.

A police car drove past, the mustached officer on the passenger side giving her a considering onceover as it passed. She turned away, casually window shopping, leaning down to study something in the huge front window of Aardvark’s Odd Ark. If they circled around, if they came back she would have to go.

She shivered and rubbed her arms again. Who said California wasn’t cold?

She moved farther down the street, toward Fairfax. More people this way. She would look less suspicious. ‘Not going to break in, officers. Just waiting for the old man.’ Whoever he was. Wherever he was. She could wait here all night for nothing. But her connections in the Valley had dried up. Arrested, dead, who knew? Gone. Just gone.

The way she would be at sunrise.

If only she were a vampire, able to suck her life out of her latest victim. Then the world would be full of what she needed. Great gushing gouts of it, hot and salty and free. Anybody on any street corner could be her supplier, her pusher, her lifeline. But her salvation was a different color altogether. When she was younger, it had been so easy. The Blue had been everywhere. But times had changed. Now if you got caught with it, no matter how little, it was the end.

The silence was broken by the growl of a helicopter patrolling from above, its all-seeing spotlight playing along the store fronts. The patrol car must have phoned her in. She stepped back into an alcove, letting the beam travel along the sidewalk where she had been, her heart thudding in her ears.

She waited for the voice from the sky to command her out of her hiding place. Lie down. Put your hands on the back of your head. But there was no sound except the whoop whoop whoop of spinning blades, kicking up a little dust devil in the gutter.

The old man wouldn’t come now. Not with death circling in the sky above.

The chopper made one more pass, then soared off on other business. She took a deep breath of the safe new darkness. There was a touch of fog in the air, a marine layer coming in off the sea, blessing the plants with the gift of moisture. She could feel it on her arms. The cold and the dampness. So cruel, so cruel.

A rustle from the landscaping across the street. She pressed back into the alcove, but the creature that emerged from the bushes was human, a man so old his body was bent double, draped in an ancient raincoat. He stepped out onto the sidewalk, his cane feeling the way.

“Hey.” She cringed. Her voice sounded huge on the empty street. He turned her way, his eyes half blinded with cataracts.

“Hey.” Softer this time.

He nodded, once, twice. But she would have to come to him.

She took a quick look in both directions and dashed across the street, coming to a stop a step away, dust settling at her feet. He took her in, the way the cop had, that half-superior, half-pitying gaze people reserved for a junkie. Relishing the power they had over you, but recognizing the wreck you had become. Not everyone could cope though. Not everyone could embrace change so easily. Other people had moved on.

She could not.

“I heard you had the Carter’s Blue.”

He gave her that half-mocking smile, that acknowledgement of his control over her, her life and death in his gnarled old hands. “I got it. What you got for me?”

“Fifty dollars. I have fifty dollars.” She shoved the bills at him. Fives mostly, earned begging from tourists up on Hollywood Boulevard. Fives from Austin and Florida and Minnesota, now clutched in her cracked fingertips. “Please.”

He grinned, almost toothless. “I got you. I got you.” He counted the money, slowly, just to watch the look on her face as she willed it to be enough. “All here.” He folded the bills twice and stuffed them in the pocket of his stained slacks.

She scanned the sky. “Please hurry.”

“Just hang on, little missy.” He reached into his tattered raincoat and pulled out a battered plastic bottle. 12 ounces. It had been so long since she’d seen 12 ounces. The blue label was faded, worn on the corners from traveling in who knew how many pockets. Carter’s, it said, Bottled at the Source. There was a picture of a waterfall.

She licked her lips. “Please.”

He laughed and tossed it to her as if it were nothing. She juggled it, almost dropped it, wrestled with the plastic top. The seal broke and the lid came free. Finally. Finally. She lifted the bottle to her lips, let the warm stale water flow over her dry tongue, gulped it down as fast as it would flow, savoring every drop.

The old man laughed and unwrapped a stick of gum. “I just don’t understand you water addicts. All you have to do is get the auto-hydration implant and you’ll never need water again.” He patted his pocket. “Save you a lot of money.”

She wiped her mouth, licked off her fingers. “You got any more?”

He patted his pocket again. “You got any more?”

“Tomorrow. I’ll have some tomorrow.”

He smiled that toothless smile. “See you then.”

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