The Late Great America
Chapter 1: Opportunities
Dan Norton shook his head and looked at the flat tire on his almost worn out bicycle. "Made in China by slave labor and sold by Wal-Mart to idiots." He sighed and decided he'd have to try Plan B, whatever that turned out to be.
"I'll have to try to bootleg a charge on that damned battery." He looked with longing at his hybrid, many times modified Ford Shopper he kept protected from the weather by an old tarp. The small two passenger, three-wheeled vehicle was Ford Motor Company's answer to the oil shortage.
The pocket sized solar battery charger were not able to keep the old, barely functioning, heavy-duty acid batteries charged. Dan had scrounged the batteries from an old truck a local freight hauler had placed outside its gates for the scrap man to haul off.
He figured someone had left the batteries in the truck for later retrieval. Dan grinned and told himself, "Oh well, I got here first, so I get the most." Gasoline engines were worth their weight in scrap. After all, what good is a hauler you can't get fuel to keep it running?
"Damn it," Dan complained to himself, "Why in hell does all this have to happen right now? All my little side deals have been stopped by that damned new plant security system. I need some money, and in a hurry."
Dan's usual petty and at times, not so petty pilferage made the difference between a decent living and a poverty level existence most people endured. He never got greedy and took no unnecessary chances. "Take a little, leave a little," had been his philosophy.
Then, new security measures had been implemented. The Department of Defense, the DOD, had decreed that someone was stealing from the government and the bureaucrats wanted it stopped right now. Only politicians and high-level bureaucrats had the authority to steal.
Inasmuch as there were no factory replacement batteries immediately available, Dan had a problem. Even the generic batteries cost more than the originals. "Damn, the boss is away and junior will play." He checked the charge rate again, shook his head and began his five-mile jog to work.
"Oh man, I'll have to step on it to get to work on time," he told himself and set out at a mile-eating lope. Five miles at three miles an hour gave him a little extra time to reach his desk before the lockdown began. Seconds after the starting buzzer sounded, no one could get in or out of Steiner Industries without a pass from upper management.
"What's your excuse this time?" Sol Steiner's whiny voice assaulted Dan's ears grated on as he hurried to his work cubicle.
Dan ignored the whine and tried to catch his breath. He looked up from the desk he had been leaning against and asked, "Excuse? For what?" Dan tried his best to speak in a quiet voice. Now was the time to deal with this pla-dough bodied idiot. Then perhaps he, Dan, could get his day's quota of work done.
"We expect our employees to be at their work stations tem minutes before the buzzer."
Just then the loud buzzer sounded. "See? You barely beat the lockout. What do you have to say to that?"
"Sol, if I sit here and listen to your bullshit, I won't get any work done. You know only your mother can change policy. Her policy was that lockout began one minute after the buzzer as a security measure. It was designed to keep intruders out. Please go away and let me do my job." Dan turned away and hit the on button to start the system diagnostic program on the new product line.
"God, why did Rebecca Steiner have to pick this month to take her holiday to the Holy Land?" Beth Martin, his only crewmember and work partner eased herself into Dan's work cubicle and stared at his thirty-six inch monitor.
"The DOD decided, in their infinite wisdom, to award us the new weapons contract as preferred bidder." Dan snorted, "We got the contract and have her whiny little asshole of a son to contend with. Right now he's running around scared because he doesn't know what to do."
Beth laughed and added, "He also knows what's going to happen when his mother gets back and finds he ran the only maintenance engineer off who knew how everything worked."
"I heard that!" Sol Steiner screeched at them.
"Sol, if you open your mouth one more time, I'll walk out of here, kick that damned front door open and go home. I mean it.
"You revoked my charging privileges because you got pissed at me and I have to ride a bike or run to work. Now the bike is broke and has a flat tire.
"You refused to permit me to order a new set of batteries for my car through the company. And I can't charge those crap acid batteries at home, except with my solar charger."
"There were higher priorities," Sol whined.
"Yeah," Beth sneered at him. "Your two brainless bed bunnies needed incentive to continue to service you. I heard all about it when the brain dead twins laughed about how they put up with you to get what they wanted so they could go out at night and have a satisfying sex life. You're pathetic."
"Well, I can fire you, you're nothing but an assistant." He drew himself up straight and still had to look up into her eyes. "Get out of here and wait in the visiting area until I have time to let you out."
In a moment of bravado, Dan told him, "I quit." He started to run a purge to remove his personal software from the company owned computer.
Sol Steiner's paranoia kicked in. "No!" he screeched and reached around Dan and hit the power shut-off switch that supplied power to the computer. Sol's hand also brushed the big red button next to the cutoff switch. Bells rang, a claxon horn sounded and in less than a minute two internal security people ran up. One pulled his weapon and held it at the ready with the barrel pointed upward.
"What's the problem?" the one who left his weapon holstered asked.
"Ask this dimwit," Dan told them. I am no longer an employee so I don't have to say anything."
"What do we have to do to shut down the noise?" the guard with his weapon out asked.
"Don't ask me, I no longer work here." Dan already regretted his decision to resign. His pride wouldn't permit him to retract those fateful words.
The smirk on Dan's lips triggered all the frustration and fears inside Sol. He drew back his fist and struck Dan in the mouth. "Arrest this son of a bitch!" Sol screamed. "I fired him and he tried to sabotage the security system he used to service."
Beth interrupted the tirade. "If you lift the fingerprints off the main kill switch, you'll find it belongs to this diminutive idiot." Sol tried to slap her in the face. She doubled up her fist and punched him in the mouth.
"To use proper medical terms, he's flipped out," Dan told the two guards and grinned. "Right now this whole plant is one step from shut down until Rebecca Steiner gets here to administer the override code. She's the only one with the proper protocols. I guess everybody goes home now."
"Hoo boy," Beth whispered. "They can't start the new DOD contract until your mommy gets here Solly. Oh is she going to be pissed at you if that five hundred million dollar contract flies out the window to a competitor because you can't even get one of the NCRs to start. You poor schlub."
Sol dropped to the floor and curled up on his side in a fetal position. "Mommy," he whimpered and began to suck on his thumb.
Beth grinned at Dan, looked at the two, bemused by the strange events guards and asked, "Well, would you two please help two helpless ex-employees get their personal belongings together and make certain we take only what's ours?"
The guard with the drawn weapon slowly replaced it in the side holster and shrugged, His partner, an older but not much wiser man, Looked down and the whimpering Sol, still lying on the floor. What do we do with that?" he asked.
Dan gave him a disgusted look. "Hell, I have no idea. Since I don't work here any more, I don't give much of a damn either.
Both guards turned to look at Beth for answers. She grinned and told them, "Hey, don't ask me; I no longer work here. You heard it, that worm on the floor fired me."
Then reality set in. "Dan? I'm on week to week where I live. As soon as Payroll informs them I've been terminated, they'll evict me. Under that last presidential executive order, landlords and property owners no longer have to follow due process of law. That damned idiot."
Alarmed, Dan decided to "clarify" her statement. "Of course you mean that idiot on the floor and not that wonderful man in the White House. You'd never make treasonous statements against our president."
Beth was horrified at her near treasonous statement, as she realized what she had said. "Oh heavens no. After all, it's like he said in that last wonderful speech he gave, 'Almighty God directs him, ' personally." She closed her mouth tight and shuddered.
Both guards nodded and looked sympathetic. If not for Dan's fast save, they'd have been forced to turn her in to the Homeland Security people for interrogation. As they well knew, nobody ever was the same, after a trip to the Cuban Homeland Security Information Center. Nobody. And that is, if they ever returned, in the first place.
Dan grinned at Beth and told her, "Get your stuff from your desk and I'll get mine. You can stay at my place."
"But..." Beth started to say that she had no personal property. She looked at Dan and saw him frown at her.
Then she understood, "Yes, my personal, technical instruments." She rushed back to her work bench and grabbed an empty waste basket from beside her work station. She began to load it with everything from a hand held oscilloscope to a precision hand held cutting laser.
He called after her retreating back, "Make certain you get it all. You know how valuable all that equipment is if you have to replace it."
Dan had already begun to strip his work area of everything portable. He glanced with longing at the big monitor and decided it would be too risky to try for that. Even these grossly underpaid security guards weren't that stupid.
They met at the security door to the building. "Follow me he told her and began to walk toward the tool room. When they arrived, Dan told the tool room clerk, "Open the small freight doors. We have to get this stuff out on the dock to be boxed for shipping. The clerk nodded without answering and hit the buzzer to let Beth and Dan into the tool room.
When he turned away to open the freight doors, Dan swept his hand across four boxes of diamond cutters and black diamond wheel dressers. Dan grabbed electronic components, tools and anything else within reach until he had filled both their containers to the top. Beth looked at him and opened her mouth. Then she shut it again. Dan seemed to know what he was doing.
"Here," he told her, "We'll put our stuff in that." He indicated a four-wheeled wire cart that was usually used to carry heavy packages from shipping to the different departments.
"What in hell are you doing?" she demanded. She did obey orders, though, and placed her load inside the cart. Dan placed his waste basket on top of hers and began to push the cart toward the executives' gate.
"Just shut up and listen. Right now I'm winging it."
Dan shoved the cart up to the gate guard and told him, "This is Idiot Boy's gifts, for his girlfriends."
The guard didn't bother to look at the load. "You know where he's parked?" he asked.
"Yeah," Dan told him. "No problem."
Beth followed along behind Dan, as he pushed his cart toward a low to the ground expensive sports coup. He opened the deck lid with an electronic master card. "My invention," he told her. "I just fried all the electronics in this baby."
"Oh my god, we're going to prison for sure," Beth moaned. She watched with horrified fascination as Dan released the four-pack of new lithium batteries from their cage and dropped the whole assembly into the cart with the rest of the load.
"Now, let's get the hell out of here." As Dan had anticipated, the pair of outer gate guards had left their post to find out what was happening in the plant. Dan led Beth out onto the crumbly blacktopped road and began the long walk home, to his place.
They made a detour by her former apartment on the ground floor. He stood in her doorway, while she went inside to retrieve her few belongings. She entered and took her two shabby changes of outer clothing and worn out underwear. She was ashamed that Dan saw the condition of her wardrobe. "That's it," she told him. Dan led the way to his apartment.
Once they were inside the parking area where his little Ford was parked, Dan made a beeline for his small vehicle. He opened the battery compartment and inserted the newly stolen lithium batteries. He removed the lead batteries from the compartment he had already modified to accommodate the acid-lead batteries. The four-pack dropped right into place and was inserted into the clip fittings. His Ford was ready to run down the streets at a wild twenty mines an hour.
"Dan, are you crazy? You've left a trail of witnesses behind us that a blind man could follow. What are you going to do when they come and arrest you? Damn it, Dan, I'm scared."
"Hey, Beth, remember that in prison, you'll get fed two meals a day. Unless you were damned lucky, you'll be just another starved till dead body for the street pickup crews to find. People with no jobs are dead people. We both got caught up in the excitement and pretty well burned our bridges behind us.
"Damn you, what have you gotten us into?" she moaned.
"Beth, come on up to my apartment." He stopped and remembered, "Wait, we'll have to hide this cart. I don't want to get caught with it anywhere near me for the next week."
Dan led the way to the back of the parking lot and opened the back doors of a rust covered step van. With her help, he dragged the cart up inside and locked it up tight. "Believe it or not, this old thing still runs. All it needs is fuel."
He led her up to his third floor apartment and unlocked the door. "I'll get you a key," he promised.
"In the meantime, you can start earning your room and board. He took off his shirt and pants.
"She got a sour look on her face and said, "Okay," in a flat monotone.
"The kitchen is through there." He pointed at a closed door. "I have four beers in the fridge. Bring two out here, one for me and one for you. If you don't drink, I'll celebrate and slug 'em both down." Her grinned at the look on her face as she realized he didn't expect her to pay for a place to stay on her back.
"Two beers coming right up." She opened the small six cubic feet fridge and retrieved two of the four soft plastic containers.
"Dan, what is that black string that goes from you refrigerator to the window?" she asked as she handed him his beer.
"Sit," he told her.
He opened his beer and took a small swallow. "That is a wire, not a string. It leads from an induction coil that sits next to the main building electrical service box into the apartment and gives me free electricity. There is barely enough energy to power my fridge and the TV. If I don't need it to cool the food, or leave the TV off, then I get to turn on the overhead light."
"I never realized how clever you are. You hide it well." She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
"Ah, thanks, I guess," he told her.
"Now, oh mastermind in disguise, what wonderful plans do you have for us for tomorrow? I just know you have something planned."
He gave her an evil grin. "A lot of tomorrows plans depend on what happens after we go to bed tonight. There's only one bed and it's a forty-eight inch..."
There was a loud crash and the entrance door to the apartment flew off its hinges. Beth screamed and two men in black swat gear rushed in. "Down on the floor!" one of the intruders yelled.
Dan grabbed Beth and jerked her down with him as he went face down on the old, worn carpet. "Keep down," he told her in an urgent voice.
"Wh, what's happening?" she moaned.
"Shut up, maggot," a harsh voice ordered and then Dan heard the sound of a slap. Beth shrieked and began to sob.
Dan's muscles tensed and he fought the urge to jump up off the floor and try to do battle. He well knew that way led to disaster. Any resistance to Homeland Security was met with lethal force. "Beth, shut the fuck up before you get us both killed," he told her. She choked off a sob and fell silent.
"That was great advice the maggot just gave you," a harsh voice said. "Get up on your feet."
Dan stood and helped Beth to stand. "Whatever you're looking for, it's not here," he told the pair. "If I had it, whatever it is, I'd damned well turn it over to you just so you wouldn't hit me like you did her."
"You're even a bigger wuss than the guard at the plant said you were. I heard how you even let that pansy ass Sol Steiner, the owner's son hit you."
He snorted his contempt and said, "That little sissy said you took a lot of valuable tools and equipment away with you, when you left the plant this morning. Where is it?"
Dan struggled to keep his face as bland as he could. He continued his seeming servile attitude and answered, "I really don't know. After Sol told Beth and me to clean out all the equipment from our work areas, he said to take it out and leave it on the loading dock."
"He said to do what?" the other Homeland Security cop asked in an unbelieving voice.
"Yes sir. He said his little bunnies would pick up everything and take care of it for him. He also said that if I didn't do as he told me, he'd make sure Beth and I didn't get our final paychecks."
"Y, yes sir, that's what happened. I was there and I saw Dan leave it all on the loading dock. Then we came here to his place. He's going to let me stay here until I get another room to rent somewhere." Beth's head nodded back and forth, as she teetered on the edge of hysteria.
"Better get that door fixed," one of the pair of intruders said, as they left.
"Go wash your face while I secure the door." She nodded and looked around for the toilet.
"Through there," he told her and pointed toward a closed door next to the open bedroom entrance.
"You got your own private bathroom?" she asked.
"Yeah, but there's no hot water right now. As soon as I can get my hands on a wind generator, I'll have all the comforts of home."
Dan placed the door back into its opening and shoved hard against its hinges. They popped back into place. He had installed spring loaded balls, instead of hinge pins, the Homeland Security cops had done little damage to the solid core door. He smiled and waited for Beth to come out.
"Let's go out and get a burger," Dan told her, as soon as she had washed her face and come back out into the front room. "We'll need to buy a few groceries, while we're out, to tide us over."
Beth stared at him in astonishment. "What is wrong with you? Those ... those monsters! They kicked down your door and assaulted us and you tell me we're going out to eat? Right now I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat again." Her hands dropped to her sides and she stood alone in the middle of the room with her head down.
"Hey, Those bastards get their kicks knocking down doors and pushing people around. I didn't think they'd get around to us until tomorrow. I bet Sol dropped the dime on us. After the way he folded and dropped to the floor and bawled for Mommy, nobody will believe him about anything.
"You knew they were going to come around?" she asked. Beth stared at Dan as if he were a complete stranger.
Remember when Wes Cavanaugh Got fired and managed to rip off the company for a few hundred dollars worth of office supplies?"
Her own problems were temporarily forgotten. Beth told him, "Yes. But he got caught the next day."
"Yeah, but before he was arrested, the goons kicked in my door here and slapped me around. I kept trying to tell them I didn't do anything and they kept hitting me. Then I realized that if I just shut up and lay on the floor, they'd probably stop using me for a punching bag. I shut up and they left. I learned something that evening.
"Oh, what did you learn?" she asked in a sarcastic voice.
"Well, one thing I learned was that these apartments have real cheap doors. And two, if I didn't want to buy another door the next time, I better innovate."
Dan looked down toward the floor and remembered the other time he got his door kicked in. I begged that door from the company after it was thrown away. Then I stole some spring-loaded balls in tubes. They were used out in the manufacturing area to snap heavy barriers into place around the grinding areas.
For the first time, Beth noticed the entry door into the apartment was back in place, as if nothing had ever happened. "Oh! Then you've been planning for this day and you let me get hurt just so..."
Dan interrupted her, "No, Beth. I did not plan for this day. Stop and think, how could I plan for the idiot boy to pull his shit just when he did. That was a moment of opportunity. I merely got an inspiration and took advantage of the events that followed."
The sour expression returned to her bruised face, "Well, since neither of us have a job when your rent comes due, we'll both be homeless. How long can we stay here?"
Dan laughed, "With what we got away with, it will be a long time before we have to get in the commodity line for free cracked wheat and rancid cheese."
"Do you know how dangerous it is to get away with selling that stuff? I read an article on line while I still had a computer. It said that almost every person who stole even a box of wire clips got caught. It had something to do with how all purchases made by a company where tracked, right to the end user."
"That must be why I never got caught. I never ever stole a wire clip in my life. On the other hand, I've augmented my salary for the past ten years by taking a little here and a little there. The thing is, I never got greedy." He grinned and added, "Well, not until today."
He held the door open for her. "Thank you," she told him and smiled.
"Dan, I look a mess with this damned bruise on my face. Let's just get something at the market and return to your apartment. I don't want people to see me." She gingerly touched her bruise. It had begun to discolor.
"Oh hell, if anyone says anything about it, you just tell 'em I smacked you around because you smarted off to me. That way I'll look like a real he-man without raising a finger. Dan laughed at the outraged look on her face.
"Do you really think it's manly to beat up on a woman?" Her voice had a dangerous edge to it.
"Good grief no, I don't. Anyone who beats up on someone weaker than himself has to be the most craven coward in the world, or a moron."
She went down the stairs ahead of him. Dan smiled and considered that it might be a good thing to partner up with Beth. She was smart, not too bad looking and just might be the one he wanted to partner up with for life. He'd have to see.
In the small café, nobody seemed to notice her swollen face. Dan splurged and ordered them real meat as part of their meals. "Oh god, Danny. I haven't tasted a piece of roast beef in I don't know how long. Years, it's been years since I ate real meat. Then it was just a small hamburger patty."
"Ah Beth, please don't call me Danny again. When I was in school, a bully used to call me Danny boy and then shove my face in the toilet. I hate that name." He grimaced and took another bite.
"Oh, sorry. She turned to her meal and began to eat again.
"By the way, this beef may not have come from an animal that said, "Moo."
"What do you mean?" She gave him a puzzled look.
"There's always a chance it growled and ate honey and fish. Or it may have run last in a race and its jockey killed it and sold the carcass to the black market." Dan smiled and took another bite.
Beth thought a moment, shrugged and took another bite. She told him, "Meat's meat and it tastes real good with potatoes and gravy, so I don't care." She smiled and savored the next bite.
"With any luck, we'll be able to eat out like this about once a week, so long as we go to a different restaurant each time."
Beth gave him a questioning look. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, if we make it a habit and come to the same place and eat these expensive meals, someone will snitch us out. Then Homeland will come around and ask us how it is we can afford to throw money around. So, we just eat at a different place each time."
"Dan!" she exclaimed, "I thought you were broke. I heard what you said about the batteries for your car and your bike's worn out tires. How can we eat out all the time if you don't have any money?"
"When I got to work this morning, I was flat broke. Then opportunity came knocking and the future got much brighter."
"But, I don't understand."
"I've developed a few contacts over the past few years that I sold things to, when they ... ah, followed me home. It was mostly bits of scrap metal, a couple pounds of copper one time and some corroded aluminum pipe another.
Then I was able to gain access to the diamond tipped cutters. And tool steel bits. Even worn out drill bits are salable. Everything I got out of the plant with could be sold somewhere. I just didn't get too greedy. That's why I was never caught."
"And today, all that changed?"
"Lady, it changed with a bang. Do you know what that laser cutter you dropped in your trash bag cost the government?"
Beth got a thoughtful look on her face. "No, not exactly. However I imagine it was quite expensive."
"Would you believe that Sol's car cost just a little more than the total price of those two laser cutters we took with us? Because they're on the restricted list, I'll get almost what they cost new, for each of them. All told, I'll take in, from the various sales of our new acquisitions, more money than we'd both earn in a lifetime put together."
Beth looked dazed. "Oh my god, I'm going to be sick. If we'd got caught, we'd both have gone to the gas chamber, or been shot out of hand."
"Well, you'll be able to see a little bit of what we have in our future in about ten minutes. Let's go." Dan slipped out of the booth. Beth followed. Dan paid for the meal and left a small tip. They left the café.
"Where are we going?" Beth asked.
"Well, in order to pay for any groceries we buy this afternoon, we need some ready cash. I spent almost all my emergency stash on our meals just now."
He led her to a deserted looking alley. Halfway in, a young hoodie stepped out in front of them. "It'll cost ya to get past here." Dan flipped him a ten-dollar coin and led Beth on up to a locked door. She looked back at the street punk.
"He is a gangster from the hood," Dan told her. "His whole function is to collect that entrance fee. Cops see his shakedown and think that's all he does is to extort money from suckers. If we had been followed, the follower would have been stopped and questioned by a half dozen hoodies. It's like insurance.
Dan knocked once and waited. A hidden speaker said, "Come in." There was a muted click, the door opened and they entered. "I got something real good for you, Barney," Dan told the man who waited for them to come up to him.
Dan pulled a black diamond grinding wheel dresser out of his pocket and handed it over. "It's never been used."
The elderly man smiled and said, "Since you won't have any more of these toys for me, I can only give you half the usual price. Too bad you lost your job."
"Where'd you hear that?" Dan asked.
Barney smiled, "Oh, your little friend Sol sometimes brings me little goodies. He was in here an hour ago and gloated that he had fired you and your lady friend and set the HS boys on you."
"Ah, so that's why they were so quick to kick in my door." Dan's face turned serious. "Barney, I'll do you a favor that might save your life."
Barney smiled. "Oh? What's that?"
The odds are that Sol has been taken in for questioning by now. You know what will happen if any pressure is put on that little bastard. He'll scream like a baby and spill everything he knows. You better head out for a hidey hole and pull the opening in after you."
"Is this the straight stuff?" Barney asked. His face was without any expression.
"Believe me, I'm going to run for it if you try to stay here and bluff things out. If you've bought much of anything from Sol, the HS will know it in a second. Homeland Security cops do not mess around."
Barney raised his shoulders in a sigh and a shrug. "Ah well, it's been a good run." He reached into a drawer of a table near him and handed Dan a small box. Dan almost dropped it. He opened it and saw it was a tray of gold Euros. "My way to say thank you."
Barney motioned them to follow him. They went out another way, down a narrow, ill lit passageway. He opened the door at the end and motioned them to go. "If you've conned me, I'll be around for a refund."
"I told you straight. Thanks for the gift." Dan led Beth away from the building. They barely got a half block away when they heard an explosion behind them. Flames shot up into the air and Dan hurried them away from the area.
"Let's go home," Beth told him in a scared voice. "We ate well this evening. We can go shopping in the morning."
"Okay, but we'll have to get rid of these coins, first. I have an account with a local, ah, private bank. He'll handle things for us."
Dan led her back toward the apartment. He stopped at a small, nondescript house just a block from home. He led Beth up to the front door, knocked three times, and then led her around back. The back door opened and they entered.
A short man in late his sixties greeted them. "Have you come to get a loan to tide you over? Your friend Barney informed me of your loss of employment."
"No. Mister Means," Dan told him and laughed. "I wanted to make a deposit. Barney rewarded me after I told him some bad news."
"Oh? What was the news?"
"I told him that the HS was about to come after him. An acquaintance was about to roll over on him. To show his appreciation, he gave me these." Dan took the cover off the tray and showed Means the mint condition Euros stacked inside.
"I see, he was very grateful. I assume that explosion was connected to the message you delivered?"
"Well, I have a hunch the cops who tried to raid the place kicked the wrong door in." Beth giggled nervously at Dan's joke.
She added, "Or maybe he slammed the door too hard."
"What do you want me to do with these?" The banker became all business in an instant.
"Invest them for me and help me legitimatize them somehow, if you can. You know more about how to do that than I do."
Means accepted the coins and nodded. "Tomorrow, you shall win a lottery. You will opt for timed payments so the tax bite isn't so bad. Then perhaps a run of luck at a casino."
"I'll have to have a hell of a lot of luck. There'll be a lot more cash to handle in the next few weeks."
"Oh? If it's an appreciable amount, perhaps I can expedite things and help you realize even more than you would alone."
"I never realized that you had other services," Dan told him. "This is Beth, She's my partner. If you'll send someone around to my apartment tomorrow evening, I'll have her help your man do an inventory."
"I'll send my son. He's learning the business."
Dan looked embarrassed, "Could you let us have a thousand US dollars on account? I have an embarrassment of riches and no ready cash."
"Here," the banker told him and fished a small roll of bills. Beth accepted them and placed them in her bra.
"We'll look for your son tomorrow, then. Have a good evening," Dan told his new associate politely and led Beth back outside.
It was barely five o'clock in the afternoon. Beth felt giddy and light headed. Dan was dizzy, as he thought about the whole new world of opportunity that had opened up to him. They walked back toward the apartment.
Dan led her to his old Ford, pulled the clam shell hatch open and bowed her in. "You're my very first passenger," he told her.
Beth looked in wonder at the tattered and worn interior. "Oh Dan," she sighed, "This is wonderful! I only rode in a car once before in my life." Dan pressed the on switch and drove out of the parking area."
"Well, if things work out right for us, we might even buy an almost new one, one of these days." He felt proud that he had all these little extras he could show off to her.
"Let's head over to the local Thieves' Alley Market and get a live chicken. That way we can make certain it clucks and doesn't fly around looking for something to kill." He paused, then added, "I'd also like to see what they have available in plastic cans. Mexico has opened their borders to us so we can import food from them again."
"Yeah, as if anyone has the money to buy imports," Beth snorted.
"Well, it's a messed up world right now. I have a feeling things are going to be better for us." They rode on, at up to twenty miles an hour over the patched and pitted streets.
Thieves' Market was an eye opener for Beth. Nearly a hundred stalls lined both sides of an old narrow street near the waterfront. It seemed there was barely room for the press of shoppers to do their business and go home. Dan learned no live chickens were to be had on that particular day. However, he did discover a half dozen vacuum-sealed bags of preserved cactus and fruit compote of some sort. He made a deal for all six. He decided he could resell them for a good profit later.
Beth gazed with longing eyes at a counter piled high with women's clothing. "Get a couple of changes and some undies too, if they have anything in your size."
He started to hand her a few hundreds, then changed his mind when he saw the glazed look in her eyes. "On second thought, I'll help you bargain for what you wish to buy. This was all new to her and Beth would be a lamb led to the slaughter, if he left her to make her own purchases.
After Beth got three complete changes of slacks and shirts, plus the required cotton underwear, Dan led her to a fresh produce stand. They chose a dozen potatoes, a bag of brown rice, dried, unshelled beans and peas and a bag or dried corn. It was time to go back to the apartment.
Once home and the groceries were put away, Dan stood in the middle of the living room and grinned hard at his new partner. "Damn! This is unreal."
"Yes it is," she answered and began to undress. "Please take your clothes off and have sex with me.
"Are you sure?" Dan asked, suddenly unsure of himself.
Her eyes blazed with an inner light. "Oh Dan, we either fuck or I'm going to kill you." She finished undressing.
"Oh," Dan said in a small voice and took his clothes off while Beth waited impatiently. "Are you sure?" he asked her, "I don't want to take advantage of you."
"Oh god, Dan honey, today I lost my job and helped steal a fortune. I've been beaten by cops, fed real meat, watched you accept a bunch of gold from one man and hand it over to another. If you don't fuck me, I'm going to explode!" she shouted.
Dan almost ran out the door. Instead, he stayed. Two hours later Dan and Beth were both exhausted. "Dan, I love you," she told him in a small voice.
"Beth, you don't have to tell me stuff like that. I already want you to be my partner."
"No, Dan, I mean it. You swept me off my feet, you excited me and you made me have an orgasm. I love you. You are mine forever. I mean it."
He hugged her close to him and smiled in the darkness. "I feel something for you too, Beth."
She rolled over and backed up tight against him. They slept.
The next morning, a whole new world opened up to them. An imperious knocking at the door woke them up. Still half asleep, Dan answered the door naked. He unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. There stood Rebecca Steiner, in all her expensive finery.
She looked at the groggy, naked man in front of her and said, "I hope you're not too drunk to talk business." She cast a critical eye up and down his skinny, naked frame. She seemed to not notice he was male.
"Ugh," Dan grunted. "I need to put some clothes on. Wait here."
She followed him inside and sat on his broken down old couch to wait. "God, if this is the home of a master thief, I'll eat ham for breakfast." She stared around the dismal front room in disgust.
Beth came out of the bedroom door that Dan had just entered. "Miss Steiner, what are you doing here?"
"Sit somewhere, girl. I don't care to look up at anyone." Rebecca was at her imperious best.
"No, you much prefer to look down on everybody," Beth answered. Her sharp voice caused the older woman's head to jerk up.
Rebecca Steiner asked, "What have I ever done to cause you to dislike me?"
"You paid me starvation wages and tried to steal my humanity. To you, I am a body to be exploited, not a real person at all." The bitterness in Beth's voice caused Rebecca to wince.
"I am in business to make money. You people should be thankful that I even give you jobs at all. If you don't want to work for me, I can hire someone else within the hour."
"Yes and you'll just get someone else that hates you just as much as I do or Dan does.
"Not so, honey. I don't hate Miss Steiner, not at all." Dan came back out of the bedroom and looked better dressed and his face washed. His hair was still mussed up.
"There, see?" Rebecca said.
Dan continued in a calm voice, "No, I don't hate you. It's more I hold you in contempt that you cheat your people and then complain they aren't loyal to you. You pay starvation wages and then gripe to your friends that employee theft is driving you bankrupt. You are as pathetic as your lowest paid worker."
"What? How dare you? I came over here this morning to inform you that you could return to work at your old job, if you'd return the property you stole yesterday." Rebecca Steiner glared at this mere nobody who dared insult her to her face.
"Well, first of all, I haven't stolen anything from you." That lie came easy to Dan. "Your son, Solomon, is the biggest thief you have working for you."
"My son told me that you stole his batteries from his car as an act of sheer malice because he had girlfriends and you didn't."
Beth hooted her amazement at that outrageous statement. "If you believe that, it's no wonder he has gotten by stealing your jewelry. He gives it to his sex bunnies."
There had been many thefts in the Steiner house. Sol claimed it was the domestic staff. Rebecca kept a steady turnover of help, yet the thefts continued. "Oh no," she moaned, "Not my Solly. He wouldn't..." Yet, she was forced to admit the sickening truth. Her son had stolen from his mother."
It was a short step in her logic to accept that Sol had maligned Dan Norton. She had been able to lie to herself and believe her darling Solomon was attractive to women. She had turned a blind eye to his many little deceits. She began to remember other indicators she had overlooked."
"God damn that little bastard! He is as weak and cowardly as his useless father I had to pay to get rid of those many years ago."
"Come back to work for me and I'll pay you better. I need you to get the computers running again. Between Sol and the two so-called experts he hired, the whole plant is a shambles."
"Where is your son right now?" Dan asked.
"Those Homeland idiots took him in for questioning and I haven't heard from him since." Dan stared at the way Rebecca changed from self-deluded mother to vengeful corporate executive in an instant.
"She continued, "If you'll come back to work for me, I'll give you your old job back and double your salary, if you produce.
Beth saw through the woman's ploy. "God, you just can't help yourself. You have to cheat the one person who can save that multi-million dollar contract. You planned to string Dan along until he got things up and running and then replace him as soon as you could."
Rebecca Steiner looked sharply at the younger woman. "Why, that thought never crossed my mind."
Beth sneered and replied, "No, of course it didn't cross your mind. It entered and stayed there."
"Have I got a deal for you," Dan told his ex-employer.
He was answered with a wary, "What?"
"I'll not return to the plant as an employee, but as a private contractor. You'll replace what Sol has stolen," Rebecca flinched and nodded. "I'll make a deal for a computer that I can use here at home and we'll sign a contract that guarantees me a set rate, so long as I perform all the functions of my earlier job description. Beth is my partner and will have an equal say, along with me."
"What do I gain out of such an agreement?" She frowned and tried to anticipate where he was going.
"Simple. First, you will no longer pay the federal head tax on Beth and I, second, you are no longer saddled with all the attendant costs that come with employee maintenance, including the share of Social Security you pay into and no one ever sees again."
Dan smiled at his partner, "Beth and I will cover the operating costs out of our fees. You'll save money and we'll make a living wage. If you're interested, set up an appointment with your accountant and we'll go on from there."
"Yes, I'll set up a meeting with our lawyers. "Here," she handed him a small communications device. "Either I'll call you tomorrow, or someone will." She turned and left.
"Dan, what did you just get us into?" Beth looked scared again.
"You'll have to blame yourself, this time. When you gave her hell about starvation wages, you made me think." Dan pulled Beth up off the couch and hugged her. "You are my inspiration."
She grinned at his enthusiasm. "Does this mean we'll have another night like last night?"
"Oh yes, and many more after that," he promised. "On the other hand, why wait until tonight." He pulled her into the bedroom behind him.
"This is just the beginning," he told her and started to undress.