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Cola Hard Cash by Bronwyn Mauldin

Cola Hard Cash by Bronwyn Mauldin

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Published by Bronwyn Mauldin
Cola Hard Cash, a short story by Bronwyn Mauldin
Cola Hard Cash, a short story by Bronwyn Mauldin

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Published by: Bronwyn Mauldin on Nov 15, 2009
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11/14/2009

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Cola Hard Cash

by Bronwyn Mauldin

Stephanie scanned the East L.A. Community College parking lot as she pulled in. A guy in a red baseball cap stood on the far sidewalk, back to her, staring into one of the abandoned classroom buildings. She was beginning to wonder if, for once in his furtive little life, Marcus was going to be late. Then the guy turned. It was him. When Marcus spotted her dark blue Honda Civic fourdoor he folded his arms across his chest. Stephanie motioned for him to come get in the car. He shook his head. She took a deep breath, turned off the engine and climbed out. “It’s not going to work,” Marcus said as she walked up. “Give me the money and I’ll take care of it myself.” God damn him. It was exactly what she’d expected. “No. I told everybody I’d go with you.” She had no intention of letting him walk away with three hundred dollars of the collective’s cash. “It wouldn’t be right to make you take all the risk on your own.” She tried to sound concerned.

“I told you to borrow somebody else’s car. They can track you down from your license plates.” “I should let them trace it to someone else?” she snapped. Of course he’d do that, cover for himself by putting other people on the line. Marcus and Stephanie stared at each other for a long moment. “You don’t have a clue what you’re getting into,” Marcus said. She rolled her eyes. His arrogant paranoia made her laugh at the best of times. Right now, it was pissing her off. “What don’t I know?” Stephanie said. “That breaking the laws against solar power is dangerous as hell?” Two years before, when the state outlawed solar, it was Stephanie who’d pulled together the group of activists who were angry enough to risk going to prison. She knew an out-of-work photovoltaics expert who taught them how to make solar panels with the new silicon paint technology. She’d found a disaffected electrician with a vivid sense of social justice. In fact, if that electrician hadn’t vouched for Marcus, he wouldn’t even be here. Not in the Autonomous Fuel Cell collective Stephanie had created. “I reckon the ones with money in their pockets always hold the trump card,” Marcus said. Sure, he was street smart and resourceful, but he thought living in a squat and eating out of dumpsters made him superior to anyone who lived in the cash economy. Meaning every other member of the Fuel Cell, but especially her. She was the only one of them who actually owned her home. “If you were one of my clients, I’d kick your ass,” she said. Stephanie was a public defender, and she knew exactly what she’d gotten into. She knew which laws they

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were breaking every time they installed one of their handmade solar panels and secretly took another Los Angeles building off the electrical grid. She knew the length of prison term to expect if they were caught. That’s why the collective had rules, why they didn’t break any more laws than they had to. Before driving out here today she’d looked up the mandatory minimum for buying silicon without a license. Fifteen years, no parole. But they didn’t have a choice. Without the silicon paint, they couldn’t build their panels, and without the panels, there was no Fuel Cell. Stephanie turned her back to Marcus. “Get in the car.” She walked away and didn’t look back. Marcus followed, just as she knew he would. He might be 25 years old, but there were times when he acted just like the kids she represented in juvenile court. It helped that she had ten years worth of life experience on him. When he was in the passenger seat Marcus carefully removed the headphones from his ears and slipped them into a side pocket of his orange messenger bag. He took off the baseball cap and ran his fingers through his short black hair, making it stick out in uneven static spikes. Not for the first time, Stephanie wondered if he might dye it. That wouldn’t seem to fit with his so-called “freegan” lifestyle, but it was awfully black for a white guy. “Nice hat,” Stephanie said, pleased with her small victory. “You usually wear that charming black toboggan.” “Camouflage,” he said. Another day, she might have laughed, even if he was serious. “I see,” she said. Still, she couldn’t help but needle him a little more. “What if somebody recognizes your signature messenger bag?”

He looked at the bag in his lap, seeming to consider it for a moment. Then he shoved it down between his feet. “There. Better?” “Super.” Stephanie started to pull away. “Tell me where we’re headed.” Marcus pulled a scrap of paper out of his jeans pocket, unfolded it carefully and read it in silence. Then he tore it into halves over and over again until he had eight equal pieces. He placed them on his tongue like communion wafers, one after another, and chewed slowly. Stephanie frowned, trying not to show her irritation. Not at chewing the paper, which was a filthy habit, so much as the silly melodrama. “Okay.” He swallowed. “Take a left on Eastern Avenue and go about a mile and a half. Then left on Telegraph Road.” Marcus directed her five miles southeast through Commerce, Montebello and Pico Rivera, a few of the ninety-some independent municipalities of the greater Los Angeles urban agglomeration. They passed through the green space of Whittier Narrows where an optimistic soul still grew half an acre of strawberries in the shade of electricity pylons by the side of the six lane road. Then into the crumbling low-income community of Downey. Timing of the Paramount Boulevard traffic lights had gone off by a few seconds, and they were caught by nearly every one. “Hey, check out up there” Marcus said, pointing to a warehouse as they passed. “Old fashioned solar panels.” Stephanie slowed to look up at a long row of rusty metal sheets balanced precariously on spindly legs. Several were listing to the side, and one was bent almost in half. Worn out old panels from the heyday of solar power. Not so

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long ago they’d been a familiar sight. So familiar, in fact, that Stephanie hardly noticed them any more. “And?” Marcus said, “Those are pure silicon wafers up there. We should go get them one night.” “Absolutely not!” Stephanie said. “They’ll put you away for a long time if the cops catch you with that stuff.” “Cops? Forget about LAPD. It’s electric company paramilitaries you need to watch out for.” That again. There were persistent rumors that the state law making solar power illegal had also established a private, quasi-police force that reported directly to the electric companies. Marcus said they were recruiting ex-mercs straight out of tours of duty in the Mideast Colonies. Stephanie couldn’t find any law authorizing an electric company police force, but that didn’t necessarily mean it didn’t exist. Patriot Act IV -- or maybe number V -- had exempted all legislation pertaining to “critical infrastructure” from public hearings. The states could pass any laws they wanted about the electrical grid without telling the public. “Don’t do anything stupid, Marcus” Stephanie said. “If you get caught, that puts all of us in the Fuel Cell in danger.” The whole idea was absurd. Electric company police? It sounded as ridiculous as Sesame Street SWAT teams or Teletubby constables. Then again, Stephanie could remember a time when the idea of the state banning solar power seemed just as ridiculous. It had been too popular, too widespread. And yet, here she was driving Marcus to meet with a second-tier organized crime syndicate, to buy the silicon paint they

needed for the Autonomous Fuel Cell’s quixotic effort to take L.A. off the electrical grid, one building at a time. *** At their last meeting, when the Fuel Cell’s solar expert reported they were out of silicon paint and his usual supplier had run dry, no one was surprised Marcus knew where to get it. The six members of the Fuel Cell pooled three hundred dollars between them. Stephanie had taken the cash and insisted on going with Marcus. After all, she’d pointed out, they needed a car, and Marcus didn’t drive. As they made their way down Paramount Boulevard, swap meets, bottle stores and check cashing outlets slowly evolved into abandoned malls and empty carcasses of bloated mega-stores. The only crowd Stephanie saw spilled out from the Downey Church of Religious Science and Wedding Chapel. This had been a middle class town once, before the Bifurcation. Six years before, the single housing market had split into two separate bubbles, each operating completely independently of the other. The wealthiest homebuyers shopped in the larger of those bubbles, and everyone else was left to scramble in the smaller one. There were plenty of stories about people who’d lost their homes when they weren’t able to make mortgage payments, who found themselves moving back into the same homes or ones next door or just down the street as renters, only this time living in a half or a third of what they’d once owned. Pressures from the housing market leaked into other parts of the economy. Jobs started disappearing. Retailers dropped their prices because nobody had money to spend, but

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they couldn’t drop them low enough for people who had nothing at all. Consumer spending all but collapsed. The Federal Reserve tried to put a positive spin on it to keep Wall Street humming along. They called what was happening “a maturing of the market.” Everyone else called it the Bifurcation. Marcus pointed ahead. “Take the next right up here.” Stephanie turned onto a street that had once been lined with individual one-story, single family homes. The houses were now connected to each other with mismatched sheets of plastic siding in Mondrianesque quadrilaterals of white, blue, yellow and red to create a single building that stretched from one end of the block to the other. Although this was the first time she’d seen the area for herself, Stephanie knew about it. She’d read about how cement floors had been poured into the spaces between the houses, and these areas subdivided into rooms and rented out. Marcus pointed to take another right, and Stephanie saw that the long building continued around the corner and all the way down the block. “Okay,” Marcus said, then paused to read the street sign they were passing. “We’re looking for an alleyway on the right, about four and a half blocks down.” Stephanie counted out the blocks as they passed. She slowed the Honda and turned into a gravel alley. “Now these are some scary motherfuckers we’re getting ready to meet,” Marcus said. “No matter what happens, keep your cool. It’s best if you stay quiet. Try not to talk so much the way you always do.” “I do not talk too much,” Stephanie said. Marcus curled a lip. “See. You always have to argue about everything. Just don’t, not here. Okay? This is serious.”

Stephanie said, “Okay.” “Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t look around too much. Do whatever I tell you, even if it seems weird. If I run, you better run too. Probably nothing will happen, but it never hurts to be prepared. You think you could find your way out of this neighborhood on your own? Maybe back up to Telegraph Road?” “Sure. I think so,” Stephanie lied, feeling her heartbeat speed up. All week she’d imagined today would be like facing judge and jury in the courtroom. The burst of adrenaline that shot her up and out of her chair, squaring shoulders and tossing her long, dark hair back. Your Honor... That was ordinary and she knew how to handle it. Marcus was making her nervous with his camouflage hat and dire warnings. This was turning out to be something else entirely, and Marcus was the one with home court advantage. She didn’t like that, but at least they were on the same team. She hoped. “Good. I mean, you probably won’t need to. Still.” He shrugged rather than finish his sentence. Whatever mad entrepreneur had filled in the spaces between the houses in this neighborhood hadn’t yet done the same to the garages, which lined both sides of the alley in various states of decay. These hadn’t been remodeled for human habitation, but it was obvious that people lived here. “It’s that dark garage on the left,” Marcus said. “Pull up across from it and kill the engine.” Stephanie brought the car to a stop opposite a gray aluminum garage that would have held two cars once upon a time. A rough window had been cut into one wall. Stephanie reached for the door handle.

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“No, we’ve got to wait here. Engine off, but leave the key in the ignition.” From inside the car, Marcus gestured with hands and fingers toward the garage in some kind of signal. Stephanie turned in time to catch only a glimpse of the shadow of a face in the window turning away. “What now?” she asked. “We practice patience.” A lifetime’s worth of slow, torturous minutes passed while they waited in the car. Although she wanted to gauge her surroundings, Stephanie made an effort not to look around too much. She kept trying to mentally retrace the route back to Telegraph Road but got lost every time. Still, no one appeared. “You told me they were expecting us.” “They are,” Marcus said. “Just chill.” Suddenly, a skinny young white man with a thin, wistful moustache was knocking on her window. Where had he come from? He wore a dark green button down shirt and khakis. Stephanie turned to Marcus, who nodded and motioned to roll the window down. It was sticky in its rollers and twice Stephanie had to use both hands to get the crank moving again. Applying lessons she tried to teach her young clients about how to act when pulled over by the cops -- why did she think they applied here? -- she took care to move her hands slowly and keep them in view as much as possible. Marcus leaned over and began talking through the driver’s side window in a language Stephanie couldn’t identify. She knew Spanish, and this wasn’t Spanish, although she heard a lot of words she could understand. Precio. Pintura. Mas barato. La proxima vez. What were they planning for the next time? There were too many other words for her to make out what they were saying. Then she

heard something that sounded distinctly Chinese, and she realized what it was. Her clients sometimes spoke it. It was the trade language that had developed between southern California gangs and their Chinese arms suppliers. Mostly Spanish and Mandarin, but with a little Armenian, Russian, and Korean thrown in. Smark, they called it, its acronym. Had Marcus ever told her he could speak Smark? She couldn’t remember. The exchange was cordial. Marcus and the man in the green button down seemed to know each other, although probably not in a friendly way. They both smiled, but Stephanie felt a chill breeze wafting between them. Green button down suddenly began speaking very rapidly, his face reddening slightly. Marcus stumbled over a few words, then the guy turned and walked away. “Where’s he going?” Stephanie asked. Marcus said, “We’ve got a problem.” “What have you done, Marcus?” “I haven’t done shit! They want four hundred and fifty bucks for the paint.” “We don’t have that much,” Stephanie said. This wasn’t exactly true. She had brought the three hundred from the collective, and added two hundred more of her own money. Marcus might think she was naive, but she’d never expected this to go down without negotiations. When she handed over the additional money to cover the final price, he’d have to thank her bourgeois, middle-class life in the cash economy for it. But she wasn’t going to just give it away. Marcus stared out the windshield. “So get him back here and start negotiating,” Stephanie said.

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“What do you think we were doing?” Marcus said. “I got him down from five hundred.” Stephanie turned to the garage. The man in the button down was standing in an open doorway, apparently talking to someone inside. “How far do you think he’ll go?” “I think that’s it. He’s waiting for me to tell you the news, and get you to cough up more cash.” So the two of you can split the difference later, Stephanie thought. “That’s what you told him? That you could convince me to pay more? Well, I don’t have another dime.” “Back off, Steph. I just told him we’d talk.” He started nodding to himself. Gently at first, then a little more vigorously. “Okay. I’ve got something that might help get the price down.” Marcus began to reach down toward the orange messenger bag at his feet, when something crashed against his passenger side window. They both looked up to see a rifle butt pounding against the glass. Once more, then again, and the window cracked into hundreds of pebble-sized pieces. “Hands up!” the man with the rifle shouted. “I see hands!” Stephanie’s heart slammed against her chest. She and Marcus lifted their hands in a universal gesture of surrender. The man with the rifle was the size of a linebacker. He shoved the butt into the window one last time, sending broken bits of glass tumbling into the car. Then he whipped the barrel around to aim it straight into Marcus’s face. The linebacker shouted over the top of the car, something Stephanie couldn’t understand. She turned to the garage. Green button down shouted back in answer. He was standing in the doorway with his arm around the waist of a

young woman in boxers, a tank top and stiletto heels. Her long, blonde hair was messy and uncombed, as if she’d just climbed out of bed. The woman pressed herself against the length of green button down’s body and kissed him on the cheek. Then she flipped her hair back from her face. Stephanie started. She blinked and squinted, confirming what she thought she’d seen. “Shit.” She looked away quickly, but it was too late. They’d made eye contact. “Shhh,” Marcus said softly, his hands still in the air. The linebacker shouted, “Open!” and gestured with his rifle through the broken window, toward the bag at Marcus’s feet. “I know her,” Stephanie whispered. “Shut up!” Marcus hissed, but he didn’t look away from the linebacker. “No weapons. No gun,” he said to him. Then he spoke in Smark. Stephanie assumed he was repeating what he’d just said. No gun. She hoped he was telling the truth. Footsteps crunched across the gravel, and all three of them turned. The young woman was walking toward the car, grinning, open-mouthed. She leaned on Stephanie’s door, a little out of breath. “Stephanie!” she said, emphasis on the last syllable as always. Irène had been born in Riverside County, but her favorite foster parents had been a Haitian immigrant couple from whom Irène had learned French. Whenever Irène was trying to sweet talk her lawyer, she’d slip into the accent of a native French speaker. “Irène,” Stephanie said, her voice flat while she tried to decide the right approach. “Quelle surprise to see you here!”

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“Imagine my surprise,” Stephanie said. She looked over at the linebacker, who’d edged back from the car a little and was looking across to the garage. Irène seemed to have thrown him off. Marcus kept his hands in the air. Stephanie’s arms were aching. She took a chance and lowered them onto the steering wheel. “At our hearing last week we told the judge you were back in school and living with a group of students,” Stephanie said to Irène. “At least, that’s what you told me.” Stephanie had worked with these kids for a long time, so she wasn’t surprised to discover Irène had lied to her. These foster youth spent years honing skills of manipulating the people in their lives, especially ones who said We’re on your side. The best Stephanie could do was manipulate them back to try to get enough of a plausible story to help them legally. Irène laughed, a high, tinkling sound, and she leaned into the car. Up close, Stephanie could see perspiration on Irène’s pale, too pale, face. Her breath smelled stale, and it had that tell-tale metallic tang of high quality pingle. “This your boyfriend?” Irène asked. Stephanie turned to see Marcus’s face go beet red. “No, this is business. Are you okay?” Irène wobbled a little on her heels, laughing again. “Irène!” Green button down grabbed her from behind, hard. Stephanie reached for the door handle. The linebacker shouted, “No move!” Stephanie froze. “You know her?” Green button down said in almost flawless English. “Sevan,” Irène said in a nasal whine. “It’s okay. She’s my lawyer.”

Damn. Sevan’s eyes opened wide. He looked from Irène to Marcus and back again, a little quelle surprise in his own eyes. The lawyer in Stephanie saw her chance. She mentally squared her shoulders and threw back her long hair. “The judge has given Irène a second chance, Sevan,” she said. She’d dealt with enough of these guys in her time. They liked to show off, but nine times out of ten they collapsed under a little tough mothering. “It’s time for her to get her act together and finish high school so she can make a decent life for herself.” But he didn’t respond the way she expected. Instead of looking down at his shoes and sticking out his lower lip, Sevan pulled a gun from behind his back and placed it against Stephanie’s head. He leaned in close and started shouting to Marcus in Smark. Marcus shouted back. Stephanie wished he wouldn’t. The linebacker followed Sevan’s cue and pushed his rifle through the broken window, knocking more glass into the car. Mauldin / 17 Marcus broke into English, shouting, “She’s not Then a fucking cop!” “She’s the law. You brought the law here!” “I didn’t know she’s a lawyer.” A lie, but it sounded convincing to Stephanie. Sevan pressed the gun against Stephanie’s head in rhythm with his words. “You gonna call her probation officer?” I should, Stephanie thought. “Look,” Marcus shouted, “I have something here. I think you’ll want to see it.” He gestured toward his orange messenger bag.

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Stephanie felt her palms go clammy. What did he have tucked away in there? “What is it?” Sevan asked. “Make this fucker get his rifle out of my face and I’ll show you.” No, he wasn’t about to do something idiotic, was he? If Marcus pulled a gun now, they’d both end up dead. Irène too, probably. Sevan hesitated. “Don’t be stupid,” Stephanie whispered. “Shut up, lawyer,” Sevan said. Then he rattled off something in Smark. The linebacker stepped back. Marcus eased himself forward, keeping his hands in plain sight. He lifted the orange messenger bag and placed it in Stephanie’s lap. Still moving slowly and deliberately, Marcus lifted the flap and pulled the sides apart, allowing Sevan to see the contents. Stephanie saw them too. So it was true. *** Of course Stephanie had heard the rumors, the stories. Everyone had. Emails about it would make the rounds from time to time. They’d probably even joked about it in the collective. But she’d written it off as some kind of urban legend, wishful thinking. It was so improbable. And yet, here she was sitting in the driver’s seat of her old worn out Honda with a gun in her face and a courier bag full of plastic soda bottle caps in her lap. In the year or so before the Bifurcation, when things were going seriously downhill but before the collapse, one of the soda companies had started a game they called “Cola Hard

Cash.” It was the sort of thing most people over thirty wouldn’t see in the blur of advertising on every bottle and can. Stephanie herself didn’t actually remember seeing the plastic bottles or caps for this specific game, but knew about it from the stories she had heard in recent years, stories she had never believed until now. Sure, she believed the Cola Hard Cash game was probably true. Just another gimmick to get people to buy a product that was nearly indistinguishable from its competitors, a trick all the other soda companies had tried at one time or another. On the inside of each bottle cap was printed a dollar amount, ranging from $1 to $1,000,000. Of course, there were a lot of one dollar caps floating around and only one worth a million. The caps were to be collected by consumers and exchanged for items of varying value. T-shirts and duffel bags with the company logo. Small audio electronics. A car, which was to be awarded to the first person to amass ten million bottle cap dollars’ worth of Cola Hard Cash. As deflation started dragging the economy down in an unstoppable spiral, the soda company added more practical prizes, durable goods like washing machines and refrigerators, in an effort to attract and keep increasingly desperate customers in the game. After the Bifurcation, the underground markets exploded. According to the myth, which Stephanie now realized must not be a myth after all, the Cola Hard Cash bottle caps had developed a value of their own. Those little backyard shops and carts that popped up in every neighborhood, they would accept the bottle caps like they were cash. Stephanie had heard there were parts of town where you could do all your business, meet all your needs,

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without any real currency. All you needed was Cola Hard Cash. “Sevaaaaan,” Irène whimpered. “Sell her the silicon paint and you’ll have her by the balls. She can’t turn me in for being here, because you’ll turn her in for buying it.” Sevan reached around to the back of Irène’s head and grabbed her by the hair. Stephanie could almost feel the pain in her own scalp, although she was grateful to see the gun drift away. Sevan held on tight while he seemed to consider what his girlfriend had just said. Irène’s eyes went blank as she stared back at him. As if a light had gone out. She was barely sixteen, Stephanie thought, too young for this. “How much you got in there?” Sevan asked Marcus. “You said four-fifty for cash? I’ll give you five hundred in colas.” Stephanie opened her mouth, but she didn’t speak. Surely Marcus wasn’t so stupid that he was raising the price. “Make it five-fifty.” “No way,” Marcus said quickly. Too quickly, Stephanie thought. “Five-ten, tops.” Sevan seemed to think for a moment. “She a good lawyer?” he asked Irène. “Le meilleur,” Irène said. “The best.” Sevan looked at Stephanie. “Sometimes my business associates need legal representation. From time to time.” He was still holding Irène tightly by her hair. Stephanie suddenly realized that Sevan had switched to English. He’d wanted her to understand every word. Stephanie was part of the price. She said, “I only represent juveniles. Younger than eighteen.”

“Exactly,” Sevan said. “What can you do for my boys?” His boys? He couldn’t even be as old as Marcus. “I’m a public defender. Cases get assigned randomly.” “Irène says you’re good.” He loosened his grip on the back of her head and began petting Irène’s hair gently. But he was watching Stephanie. “I’m sure you can take care of it.” Stephanie knew that blank look in Irène’s eyes. Most of the kids she represented had one just like it. What she realized now was what it meant. Sure, it meant fuck you and you’ll never understand me as she’d always known. But now she knew it also meant I’m afraid. She took a deep breath. “Fine, Sevan. Send them my way. Just make sure they get their stories straight before I see them.” Sevan put his arm around Irène’s waist and shoved the gun into the waistband of his khakis. He spoke in Smark to the linebacker, who headed for the garage. Marcus handed Stephanie a paper sack. “Hold this open.” He began counting out colas. When he was done he took the sack and folded the top down neatly like a mother just finishing her child’s lunch. The linebacker reappeared with a one gallon paint can in his hands. It looked tiny against his bulk. He handed it to Sevan. Marcus handed the sack of colas to Stephanie. As if they’d rehearsed it, Stephanie and Sevan slowly reached their goods toward each other through the open window. When Stephanie had a firm grip on the handle of the paint can and the colas were sitting in Sevan’s palm, each of them let go of the other’s buy. “Now get out of here,” Sevan said.

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“Yeah,” said Irène. “Fous le camp.” She flicked her fingers at them in a dismissive gesture. Stephanie reached to turn the key, but Sevan interrupted her. “Hang on,” he said. “If something happens to my Irène, I won’t waste my time with the cops. My first call will be to the electric company.” Stephanie turned to Marcus, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. “He didn’t have to tell me,” Sevan said. “There’s only one thing people like you would be buying silicon paint for.” “Start the car, Steph,” Marcus said softly. Stephanie’s hands shook as she turned the key in the ignition. She put the car in drive and began to pull away very slowly, then heard Irène call out, “Stephanieeeee!” She stumbled out of Sevan’s grasp toward the car. Stephanie braked lightly as Irène staggered against the door. “See you at my next hearing!” “Okay. You be safe.” Then Irène whispered, all-American, “You better change your license plates. Just to be sure.” She laughed her tinkling little French laugh and pushed herself away from the car, waving. “Au revoir!” *** The Downey Church of Religious Science and Wedding Chapel was deserted when Stephanie and Marcus passed it on their way back. Neither of them spoke for a long time. They got caught in a line of traffic behind a train in Montebello. Marcus opened the passenger door and began

sweeping out chunks of glass with a notebook he took from his messenger bag. Stephanie put on the parking brake and reached into the glove box, taking out an oversized wallet. “How much does the Fuel Cell owe you? For the colas.” “It works out to three hundred and eighty two dollars and fifty cents.” She said, “That can’t be right. It’s less than what he was asking for in cash.” “Colas have been moving up against the dollar lately,” Marcus said. How did he know this? Stephanie said, “I never believed those stories about colas.” Marcus slammed the door shut. “You own property. You didn’t need to.” Stephanie felt a prick of anger. He just couldn’t help himself, could he? But the truth was, he was right. “Anyway,” Marcus said quickly, “after what Irène said about having you by the balls, I knew we could get a better price. She did you a favor.” “That’s what scares me.” “She’ll be all right,” Marcus said. “She held her own with Sevan, and she has a good lawyer looking out for her.” For a moment, Stephanie couldn’t speak. She moved the stick shift into neutral and took her foot off the clutch. She finally said, “I can’t believe you could do the math in your head. With a gun pointed at it.” Marcus looked down and dusted invisible glass pebbles off his lap. The end of the train was in sight. Stephanie pushed in the clutch and released the parking brake. “Here,” she said, handing Marcus the wallet. “Count out what we owe you.”

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“There won’t be enough. It’s more than we collected at the last meeting.” Stephanie said, “I’ll cover it.” “But your window. I should take care of that. I’ll subtract it from the three-eighty. How much do you think it’ll be?” Stephanie shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. What matters is we have the paint. We can get back to building our solar panels and taking this godforsaken city off the grid.” Marcus started counting out bills. “I can hook you up with a guy in Lancaster who does auto glass for good prices. He does license plates too. Unofficially.” Stephanie had always known Marcus lived in a world different from hers, but she’d never considered how much it might be like Irène’s. Or how little it would take for her own world to become like both of theirs. What would it feel like to drive around with illegal plates? Always anxious for the day a bored cop on patrol would look them up and discover they didn’t match the car’s registration. Would it be worse than waiting for the day Sevan called the electric company and they tracked her down by her by her current plate number? She said, “Okay. Put me in touch with your auto parts guy.” Marcus didn’t smirk, and he didn’t recite lines from his book of quotations. He didn’t say or do anything to indicate he realized how the balance of power between them had shifted. He simply said, “You got it.”

Bronwyn Mauldin is a Los Angeles-based writer and creator of GuerrillaReads.com, the online video literary magazine. Bronwyn’s work has appeared in The Battered Suitcase, Blithe House Quarterly and Clamor magazine. Cola Hard Cash originally appeared in The Battered Suitcase, Vol 1, No 6, November 2008: vagabondagepress.com/81101/V1I6SS9.html.

Permission is granted to print or repost this story elsewhere, only in its entirety and without changes, as long as the author’s name is fully credited.

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