“I’ll see your regular, and raise you…” Lohara paused for effect. “A super plus.” Her cigar smoke drifted up in a lazy coil, subsumed into a cloud that filtered the light blazing from the luminescent ceiling. Lohara chewed on her cigar and tossed the prize into the kitty–not a roller, a homemade one of cotton and string. A real tampon. A Tamobtex.
Teel surveyed her cards, her face broadcasting an imminent bluff. She stunk at poker, Lohara thought; even with a decent hand, she’d blow it. The other two players were fodder, warm butts for hard seats. All of which meant that Lohara was about to clean up.
Five junior lite rollers, eight regular rollers, and the super plus Tamobtex lay criss-cross in the middle of the table.
Teel placed her cards on the table, her pale face screwed up in disgust. “I fold,” she said. The other two players followed suit.
Lohara gathered the booty toward her bosom, which she had rested on the table.
“Bloody wench,” Teel said.
“We’re all bloody here, Teel. Don’t go gettin’ stuck up about it,” Lohara said. She pocketed the kitty, then slid the cigar from her mouth and shook the ashes onto the grey tiled floor. “Get lost,” she growled at the other two players. They slunk away, leaving Teel and Lohara alone at the table.
“All that money. So you’ll be gone for a while?”
The question came from the new girl, Yelen, age twelve. She stood by the door, next to her mother. Poor thing. Her mother had faked her own cycle to come with her. Lohara couldn’t blame her. The mense clinics were going downhill. Fast.
“Naw, sweetheart. I’m sticking around. Just means more to bargain with,” Lohara said. She winked at the girl. Lohara pulled a junior lite from her pocket and tossed it at the girl.
“Here, hon. On me.”
A confused look passed over the girl’s face as she caught the junior lite. She probably still used pads, Lohara thought.
“Now if you’ll excuse us,” Lohara said, turning her back to press home the point.
Yelen and her mother hustled out of the small room.
“Any business?” Lohara said. She took another drag.
“Sal wants a sit down,” Teel said.
“Sez she wants the mense clinics on the southeast side. Sez she can get thirty percent more and will cut you in for half.”
“That so, eh? Who’s her supplier?”
“Sez she got an inside at Tamobtex,” Teel replied.
“That’s state run, on the down low. Who’s she in with?” Lohara asked.
Teel shrugged her thin shoulders. “I’m just a messenger. You want I should say no?”
Lohara paused as she thought on the matter. As it stood, she was getting tired of the business. If she could farm it out, let someone else handle the headaches, the better for her.
“Naw. We can have a sit down. Tomorrow night. Neutral ground. The Chinese joint on thirteenth at eight o’clock. Last booth on the left,” Lohara said.
A guard approached the doorway. “Lohara, phone.” It was the burly female guard with the eye patch and an S curl, which had gone out of fashion twenty years earlier. Activator escaped from her scalp and ran down her face. Evidence of her attempts to wipe it away showed as smears that ran diagonal on her cheeks.
“Anyone ever tell you you so ugly, you make blind children cry?” Teel told the guard.
“Bitch, you so fat you need a mattress for a tampon.”
“That joke is old as your drawers.”
“You put ice in your drawers to keep the crabs fresh.”
Lohara shook her head. Those two had been going at it as far back as she could remember. A loud scraping sound echoed off the bare walls as she edged the blue plastic chair away from the table. She walked over to the graffiti-covered wall, picked up the dangling handset by the metal cord, and put the phone to her ear.
“Who’s this?” Lohara asked.
“Is this Lohara Sweet?”
“Who wants to know?”
“This is Marjo Bire.”
“The Bire family? North side?”
“Yeah. I hear you run the south side,” Marjo said.
“What of it?” Lohara asked.
“I want a sit down.”
“What is it with all the sit downs?” The last time so many sit downs happened was with the mense turf wars of 2025. “What?” Marjo asked.
“Nuthin’. I hear you northerners got juice bars and spas. Whaddya want from me?” Lohara asked.
“I have information. About the clinics,” Marjo said.
“Stop playing, this is serious,” Marjo continued. “When do you get out?”
“I get out whenever I want. I’m just here to keep an eye on business.”
“In that case, meet me tonight at the Golden Palace on Minnesota Avenue. Eight o’clock. Oh, and how much for a man?”
“Don’t you got men?” Lohara asked.
“Yes, but I’m bored with them.”
Lohara felt her on that one. They needed some new men around her turf. “It’ll cost you five super plusses. No rollers.”
“Five? That’s highway robbery.”
“Take it or leave it.”
“Oh, all right. And be on time.”
The phone clicked in Lohara’s ear and she hung up. Why would the Bire family be calling her? They were big time, controlling all the mense clinics from Baltimore to Seattle. An uneasy chill passed through her. Something big was about to go down.
“Que you be eemin’fay aberutay?”
It was citytalk. A mixture of Spanish, Japanese, Black English, and pig Latin. Every good fuku-honbucho knew it. It just took Lohara a little time to reintegrate the pig Latin suffixes back into the prefixes, distinguish between the languages, then translate in her head. After about a minute, Lohara replied.
“I’ll have the shrimp egg foo young.”
“Una gwine para querer eatay motte dat?”
“Err,” Lohara replied. She had forgotten about the Gullah. “What you just said. Yeah.”
The waitress smirked, then turned on her heel and left.
“Bony ho,” Lohara muttered.
Embossed red wallpaper provided a background to oriental silk screens displaying hunting scenes. A small rock garden waterfall trickled in the far corner, filled with fat goldfish. Pretty classy for a joint on the south side. That’s why she liked coming here.
She had arranged a man for Marjo in a nearby hotel. Six foot, black hair, black eyes. Bit of a pot belly, but the rest of him was ripped. Liked to live life dangerously. All of her men did, otherwise they’d be across the degenderized zone sleeping with antiseptic skin jobs.
Lohara sat up as Marjo entered the restaurant. She had heard about Marjo on the underground news, forever a wanted woman. They never caught her, though. A big-time professional.
Marjo was tall and willowy, with long brown hair and high cheekbones. Her coloring reflected a nebulous ethnicity. She could have been part Black, Hispanic, or Samoan. Lohara didn’t know, and wasn’t about to ask.
Marjo walked toward Lohara and slid into the booth on the opposite side. The waitress came scampering over, wearing a grin as wide as a politician’s.
“Hago avehay de yard bird motte anarcado,” Marjo said. “Y du thé.”
“Very good,” the waitress replied, then scampered away.
So she was mixing French in with the deal, Lohara thought. Must be serious.
“Nice place,” Marjo said. She rolled her eyes. “Have you made the arrangements?”
“Presidential Inn, room 526. Name’s Reno. You bring the stuff?”
Marjo reached into her designer purse and pulled out what looked like a large cigarette case. She slid it across the table as she pretended to pass the mambo sauce. Lohara palmed it and took a quick look inside before tossing it into her purse.
“Seven? I only charged you five,” Lohara said. Marjo was rolling fat.
“Let’s just say it’s a good faith payment.”
“For what?” People just didn’t go around giving out free money without wanting anything in return, Lohara thought. Two extra super Tamobtexes? Had to be the earth-shaking kind of faith.
“I have information that could change life as we know it.”
“Oh yeah? Do tell.”
“The menses pandemic? It was manufactured. By men.”
“That conspiracy theory’s been circulating for years,” Lohara said. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I’ve got proof. Memos, formulas, dissemination strategies. It’s all there.”
“Pretty convenient bundle of info. Who died and left it all to you?” And why come to me?
“Got it from an access reporter,” Marjo said.
“Access reporter? The hell’s that?”
“A reporter who has access to the highest levels of government.”
“And you believed him? How do you know he’s not being used by the highest levels of government?”
“I can sense these things.”
“Sheee-it. Well, where is all this info?” Lohara asked.
“Keep your voice down. I have it right here.” Marjo reached down beside her and passed a large manila envelope under the table. Lohara opened it, bending her neck to look at the evidence from beneath the edge of the gold tablecloth. It was all there. Signed original memos, gene mapping of the mense disease, and dissemination strategies through chocolate bars, facials, and seventy-five-percent-off sales tags. There was even a cure outlined in a report, a formula she had never seen before: Go SHo-pPiNg.
“So they did plan it. Then put us across the degenderized zone and made us go to the mense clinics. Bastards,” Lohara said. Made sense to her. She leveled a gaze at Marjo. “So what’s the plan?”
“I’ve got a contact across the degenderized zone who works for the media. We can hijack the station and broadcast the information…and the cure.”
The eunuch guard at the degenderized zone trailer scanned Lohara’s zone pass. Lohara’s fake beard itched and she wanted to scratch it, but she feared it would come off. Instead, she wriggled and tapped her foot, trying to distract her mind. Marjo wore the same beard, a fedora, and bushy eyebrows. Lohara handed the guard her pass.
“Somethin’ wrong?” the guard asked Lohara. He eyed her suspiciously and Lohara froze. Her heart began to pound in her chest. If they were caught trying to cross over to the manzone, they would get a public flogging and five years of continuous menses. She shuddered at the thought. Be cool.
“Gotta take a leak,” Lohara replied. Her voice resonated in a deep bass, and she startled herself, momentarily forgetting the voicestrip Marjo had given her.
“You can go ovah dere,” the guard said in a Jamaican lilt. He nodded his head in the direction of the field across from the guard station. Lohara almost started out of her skin, but caught herself. Emitting a deep chuckle, she replied, “Yeah, well, taking a leak ain’t the only thing I gotta do.”
The guard screwed up his face in a snarl and tossed Lohara her pass, then nodded his head again, this time in the direction of the gene sampler.
“Stick your finger in dere,” the guard said.
Lohara swallowed hard as she looked between the guard and the sampler. She ran her thumb over her index finger, making sure the thin film was still there. Satisfied she hadn’t lost it, she stuck her finger in the sampler.
“Ow!” Something had pricked her finger. Damn! The box had a needle to test her blood. She didn’t think that would happen, having been given assurances by Marjo that the box only scanned the tattooed DNA sequence. She was done for sure.
The box was small, with two lights, one pink and one blue. She didn’t know how long the testing would take, and stood there, waiting for one of the lights. If the pink one lit up, she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance of escaping. Another guard holding a machine gun stood at the end of the short hallway leading to the manzone. Her foot tapped on the blue-grey linoleum.
“C’mon, c’mon, I don’t have all day,” she muttered. She tried to sound nonchalant, but a cold sensation rolled down her spine. It was taking a long time. Lohara stole a glance at Marjo, whose eyes glimmered under the brim of her hat. Either Marjo was confident the Y-chromosome film would work, or she really had the plumbing, thought Lohara.
Ping! The light shone blue, reflecting off the dull grey of the metal wall. Lohara breathed a silent sigh of relief. She moved toward the other guard, who stepped aside to let her pass. She stepped over the red line painted on the floor, turned and waited for Marjo, alias Sir 4John.
“C’mon, FourJohn,” Lohara said. “We got that thing.”
“Yeah, the thing,” Marjo replied. Her voice was a rich baritone, and Lohara thought with the guard’s mezzo-soprano, they could take their show on the road.
Marjo grunted at the prick, and they waited in silence for the results. Ping! Marjo’s light shone blue, as well, and the guard waved her on. She joined Lohara on the other side of the red line and they both exited the dilapidated trailer.
“Y’all have a good night,” the first guard said, grinning. Then he turned to process the other men who were next in line.
“Yours didn’t take long,” Lohara whispered. She avoided looking at Marjo, fearing she would burst out laughing at their success. She stuck her hands in her pocket and walked briskly down the sidewalk, crossing the covered path over a busy highway. Several rattletrap shuttle buses idled in a small parking lot, waiting for men to cross over from the femzone, but Lohara and Marjo shunned those, wanting as little contact with men as possible, lest they be discovered.
Lohara had always wondered what it was like on the other side. She had always imagined expensive cars cruising streets lined with fashionable shops, crowds of blonde skin jobs carrying shopping bags while strolling down sidewalks, and gleaming buildings towering over swanky business districts. Like Shangri-la, only with fembots and Bentleys.
“Can you believe we did it?” Marjo was the first to speak. She grinned as she nudged Lohara.
“You got us the hook up. I was so nervous I thought I would take that leak on myself.”
Marjo laughed. “You should’ve leaked on his leg.”
They rounded a corner of the street that led to downtown. But there were no gleaming towers, designer stores, or expensive cars. Trash covered the streets and sidewalks, in some places ankle deep. Most of the streetlights were broken, draping most of the area in darkness. Several broken fembots dotted the sidewalks, some bent over at awkward angles, some cut off at the waist with protruding wires dangling, and some walking repeatedly into walls.
Broken glass glittered in the scant light that shone on the pavement, a testament to the busted windows that defaced once-gleaming buildings. In some places, where there once were buildings, now featured spires of twisted, raw metal, as if a tornado wrenched the edifices off their foundations.
A sinking feeling hit Lohara’s stomach. “What the…?”
“This place looks like a pig’s sty,” Marjo said.
“It looks like…a huge bachelor’s pad.”
Marjo nodded her head. “If I’d have known…”
“We could’ve stayed at home.”
“Got that right.”
“But the cure.”
“We’ll disseminate it, yeah. But a reunification? Do you know how much money it will take to rebuild this place?”
“Even the mense clinics on the south side look better than this place,” Lohara said.
She shook her head, then looked at Marjo, grinning. “We could reverse engineer it, you know. The disease. Then pick the men we wanted and make the rest stay on their side. Disseminate it through TV remote controls.”
Marjo laughed. “And I thought I was a criminal mastermind. Great idea. I knew there was a reason I picked you. But let’s get a drink first. We wouldn’t want to raise suspicion by crossing back over too soon.”
The pair walked down the deserted, trash-laden street in search of a bar, but there was none to be found. Rows of empty stores and boarded-up doorways lined the road.
“This place is as deserted as a beauty shop with a one-eyed hairdresser,” Lohara said.
“You’re right about…wait. I hear something.”
The two strained their necks, putting their ears to the breeze. Through the distance, a raucous noise filtered in, pricking their ears.
“Sounds like a TV. Must be coming from the juke joint,” Lohara said.
“The local bar. Let’s go.” Lohara headed in the direction of the bar, then noticed Marjo wasn’t walking beside her. She turned to see Marjo standing behind her, her hands in her crotch.
“What’s wrong?” Lohara asked.
“I had this sudden urge to scratch myself,” Marjo replied.
“Well, scratch, sniff, and come on. We don’t have all night.”
Marjo ran ahead to catch up.
The bar had been five blocks away and was on the bottom floor of a brick warehouse. A green sign swung in the night breeze: The Prancing Cantina. Lohara and Marjo exchanged looks, then plowed through the front door.
“Hey, wipe your feet!” someone shouted. It was the bartender. He was wearing a purple shirt with neck frills and dolman sleeves, wiping out a glass. “And hang up your coats over there.” He nodded in the direction of a coat rack in the far corner. The aroma of freshly baked cookies permeated the air, mixed with the sweet, pungent smell of Riesling. Men were gathered around tables, talking in low voices and sipping wine. The raucous noise had been the audience on the Oprah show, playing on the television. It was not the image of a bar that Lohara was expecting.
“Well, this is a bit weird,” she muttered to Marjo.
“You got that right. Let’s head for the bar.”
The pair made their way over to the bar and sat down on the green leather stools. The bartender eyed them before sauntering over.
“What’ll it be?” he asked.
“Two shots of whiskey,” Lohara replied. She deepened her voice, even over the bass of her voicestrip.
“You’re only fooling yourselves, you know,” the bartender said.
“Uh, what are you talking about?” Marjo said. She cut a look at Lohara.
“You ain’t the only ones to try crossing over. That finger prick you felt at the gate? It wasn’t testing your DNA. It was inserting it, get it? Don’t you feel something new down there?” he asked, hiking his leg and pointing.
Lohara’s and Marjo’s faces blanched as they inched their hands downward, afraid of what they might find. And yes. . .there was something new down there.