Chapter 1

These days, it was hard not to drink.

Jean Paris Foxglove toyed with the shot of whiskey that sat on the bar in front of her.  She had certainly drunk before, for sure, when her Aunt Donna had let Paris taste her rose flavored red wine once.  And then she drank an entire bottle of that same wine when she had celebrated becoming a Social Agent a long time ago.  She had shared that bottle with Linda Dove, who also had just become a Social Agent.  She had been Paris’s only friend, or close enough to one, at the academy.

Paris pictured Linda, with her plain looking face, her thin nose, and her grey-blue eyes, plus the girl’s stringy dirty-blonde hair that never looked right, even when the girl combed well.  Not a pretty girl easily, but Linda could be attractive when she laughed, and she liked to laugh, especially when drinking.  Paris had trouble remembering the story Linda had told that night; maybe about a dog or Linda’s little sister.  Paris wasn’t sure.  Linda had snorted out some wine laughing, as she always did whenever the girl had tried to tell a joke or a funny story while drinking.  Linda was terrible at keeping a straight face.

Paris couldn’t think of what was so funny now, so many years later.  All that was left of that old memory was Linda’s snorty giggle.  Now, Linda Dove was dead, just like most of the Social Agents who had refused to hand in their gun and badge.  Linda got nailed in north Virginia, hiding out in a cabin.  Three bounty hunters had moved in at night and shot her full of holes.  The poor girl had no chance, her advantage levels had collapsed, and she was already suffering the effects of post-advantage atrophy by then.  The news showed her dead face on TV; it was thin, pale, and her eyes had darkened from what looked like crying.  Bounty hunters after former-social agents don’t take chances, so they don’t take prisoners often.  The reward was the same either way, dead or alive.

Paris picked up her shot, and whispered, “Here’s to Linda, and her dumb laugh,” then downed it.  The whiskey burned its way down Paris’s throat, causing her to cringe and fidget on the barstool.  Awful, thought Paris.  She nearly coughed it up.

“Mm, hmm, good stuff ain’t it?”  The dark-skinned bartender said from behind the bar.  “Ready to go again, Snow White?”  The bartender’s name was Dorothy, and she was as big and as wide as girls could be, before getting up off their ass became too much of a problem.  Her arm fat sagged down and touched the bar top as she wiped it.  Dorothy’s grin at Paris was unapologetic.  Dorothy had been teetering the whole time, waiting and watching for Paris to finally take that shot.  The big girl had insisted, after Paris mentioned she’d never drunk whiskey before, or any hard liqueur for that matter ever.  Paris was the only customer sitting at the bar at noon on a Tuesday, and Dorothy was giving her complete attention to Paris.  The only other customer was an older girl with glasses, sitting in a booth reading a paper and sipping on coffee.

“Snow White?”  Paris questioned the bartender after exhaling.  “Why’d you call me that?”

“You look like ol’ Snow White.  She had skin as light as yours, and hair just as black.  You ain’t never seen that ol’ cartoon before?”

“No.  I never watch cartoons.”

“It’s about a princess gett’n chased by an ol’ nasty witch, who wanted poor ol’ Snow White dead.”

“Why?”

“The ol’ witch was jealous.”

“Let me guess, the princess won, and put her sword through the witch, and it was a happy time for everyone. The end.”

“Nah, Snow White got saved by the handsome prince.”

“Hmmm, that seems dumb.  Who would like a story like that?”

“Hey, it’s the way they made those cartoons back then, before the great calamity.”

“Oh.  I see.  It’s ancient nonsense.”

“So, how ’bout another one, Snow White?”

“I don’t see how girls could drink this stuff.”

“It ain’t ‘bout the taste, honey.”

Dorothy had a brown bottle already in hand before Paris even agreed.  The bartender hummed while she poured, then capped the bottle and put it to the side.  “This one’s smoother,” Dorothy commented, “I promise.”  The bartender then left Paris alone with the whiskey shot this time, going into the back kitchen.  Her heavy body rocked left to right as she passed through the service door.  “Just holler, if ya need more, Snow White.  I’ll be in the back for a second.”

Paris stared her whiskey down, once again.  She reminded herself that she shouldn’t get too intoxicated, she needed to stay sharp, and for sure, she really couldn’t know how the whiskey would affect her.  She was still on advantage formula.  But, the former-social agent wondered to herself if that mattered anymore.  Normally, it would be foolish for her to be out at a public place, especially at a bar, and especially in the middle of the day.  But she had to.  She needed to keep her advantage levels up somehow.

Paris predicted that sometime around noon, a girl would wander in with a bundle of flowers, claiming to want to sell them.  The girl would do that all through the French Quarter, dropping in on every business that would let her in.  She’d sell someone a flower for a couple of bucks, if asked to, but that was not what the girl was really selling.  When someone asked for a white flower for example, and handed the girl a twenty instead of two dollars, the girl would hand over the flower like normal, but with an extra note rolled around the stem.  The note was a receipt, and also instructions for the buyer to know where to go and pick up their coke.  Other colors represented other drugs, and if the seller didn’t have that kind today, then the flower girl didn’t bring that color with her.

Paris wasn’t after poison garbage though; she was interested in something else.  Something that would help keep her alive.  Two weeks ago, her supply of advantage formula, that she had nabbed from an Alabama hospital had run out, and her levels had been dropping dangerously low, getting close to zero.  Once atrophy started, a girl was pretty much dead without medical assistance.  Paris hoped that the local dealer would have a black market version of advantage formula.  Those were unsafe to use but Paris had little choice.

Betty Breeze ran the flower girl operation here in the French Quarter.  Betty started out as a flower girl herself many years ago.  Paris had known the girl from church school and they had grown up together in New Orleans.  Paris even thought of her as a friend, once. When a Social Agent finally arrested Betty, years after Paris had left New Orleans behind, Betty asked for Paris to come and testify on her behalf at the trial.  Paris refused to go, but did send a video-message to the court that said only, “Miss Breeze needs to be in prison for her crimes.”  No exceptions, Paris believed, the girl was a poison dealer.

Yet truthfully, if Paris had actually gone to trial and had seen Betty’s desperate face, a face pleading with the judge and with the arresting social agent for leniency, Paris couldn’t be sure what she would have said.  She remembered riding bicycles with Betty on the streets of New Orleans, and her being fun, and also very poor.  Selling flowers was her family’s only income at the time, and that was how Betty paid for her own bicycle.  But lots of girls were poor, Paris reminded herself, and they didn’t have to sell poison.

After the purge of the US Social Agents, prisons had been opened up, and the low-level criminals had been released early.  Some were even given official apologies from the government, as if the Social Agents had arrested them wrongfully.  The government did that on purpose; they wanted the public to see the apologies and teary-eyed girls being freed, so that public got the idea that the Social Agents had been putting innocent girls in prison, and therefore America was better off without the Social Agents and the purge had been somehow justified.  Betty Breeze was one of the girls released, and she got an apology too, then she went right back to work selling her flowers.

“Here’s to the god damn government,” Paris said to herself, and then downed her whiskey shot.

Paris was wearing civilian clothes now.  On her head was a black hood from a hoodie she wore when outside, underneath was a plain white t-shirt, and for pants she wore a pair of stained navy blue slacks she had found in a lost and found.  She also wore a pair of cheap sunglasses continuously.  No more black synthetic-leather gloves and boots, like when she was in uniform.  She wore dark gloves she bought at a gas station for two dollars and eighty-nine cents and had a pair of worn hiking boots she found in a garbage bin on her feet.  Hidden and slid tightly into her left boot was a military knife.  The only part of her old uniform she kept was her cap badge, which was in the inside pocket of the jacket.  And of course she kept her nine-point-nine handgun that was tucked into her pants in the front.  She only had one magazine with seven bullets left, but it could, if necessary, keep her alive a little bit longer.  A few days ago, she had to fire her gun once as a warning shot, when Paris thought a girl had recognized her.  The girl ran away with no further incident afterward.  That was the only time she had used her gun since Magnolia Tower.

The tele-screen hanging above the bar started its regular report on bounties.  The standard rate was still twenty thousand for an outlaw former-social agent, of no real distinction, which was the majority of outlaws left.  But for the stars like Paris, and Nancy Rose, the bounty price was approaching four hundred thousand.  When Paris’s picture popped on the screen, Paris lowered her sunglasses to see better.  She had let her hair grow well past her shoulders, which helped her look different from the picture they kept using, the one from back in her academy days, when she had tighter shorter hair.

The current numbers for Paris were three hundred thousand.  Not too bad.  Rose’s face popped up next, with three hundred and fifty thousand for her.  Paris grinded her teeth.  Rose still had the higher price, and she was still alive somehow.  Rose fighting on did not bother Paris, really, she admired Rose for that actually, but Paris couldn’t understand how Rose always had the higher bounty.  Paris wondered what Nancy had been doing to earn it.

Originally, there were over eighty social agents that refused to turn their badge and gun in.  But within a month, only half or so was left, most had just given up peacefully.  The government immediately took them off advantage formula and put them into medical care for a proper de-escalation, which was needed to prevent atrophy during the post advantage formula stage in a user’s life.  The rest of the outlaws, being stubborn or dumb, kept going and went into hiding.  The government responded by offering bounties for their heads.  The current bounty report said there were only eleven former-social agents left now.  From this point, there was no turning yourself in anymore, not for most of the outlaws.  The unlucky ones would have had to kill other girls to stay alive, which meant prison time or possible execution if they happened to be taken alive.

For Paris, she could have never turned herself in, not from the start.  She had sealed her deal forever when she snuck up on stage that night at the Magnolia Tower, with her handgun out and aimed right at the Queen of Hearts, Mother Most Superior herself, and fired twice, hitting the old girl in the chest and dropping her.  The crowd screamed and went into a fury seeing the old sister fall.  During the following chaos, Paris made her escape through the subways.

With Lilac dead in the basement, and everyone else dead, or would be soon, Paris had left in a rage to kill a queen.  Paris just couldn’t let the sicarii win without making them pay for it.  It was sloppy thinking, she admitted now, the purge may not have happened, if not for her.  But when America saw the Mother Most Superior shot down by a social agent on live tele-screen, that was the final nail.  And it wasn’t even worth it, Paris lamented, Mother Most Superior got rushed to a hospital, where she was revived.  Paris had hit her in the heart, a good clean shot from thirty yards, and that’s fatal for most girls, but somehow they brought her back after twenty-two minutes dead, with a new machine heart in her chest.  Mother Most Superior had told the faithful that it was God’s Will that she had lived, it had been a miracle.  Yeah sure, thought Paris, and maybe next time I’ll make sure to aim for the head.

Dorothy was still busy in the kitchen.  Paris could hear the sound of the big girl’s faint chuckles coming from back there.  Not wanting to wait, Paris snatched the whiskey bottle sitting just within arm’s reach, and refilled her shot glass.  Why not?  With each day, and every thought after the next, even more depressing than the last, she had a hard time arguing against the why not?  After all, her sisters were either forced into retirement, making them semi-dead, or had been hunted down, making them actually dead, by now.  Well, most of her sisters anyway, some were still out there fighting.  Maybe, thought Paris, I’ll be the last one, the last social agent on the run.  She tossed back her filled glass, and let the hard liquor go down.  She shivered a bit in reaction.  Oh that’s horrible too.  But that must be why people drink it, she realized, because they felt horrible already.

As Paris wiped her sunglasses with her sleeve, the old girl from the booth walked up to the bar near Paris with payment ready in hand.  When the old girl glanced towards Paris, she froze, staring right at her.  “You’re her,” the girl blurted out.  Paris hated hearing that.  Her sunglasses were off only for a second.  Damn it.  But it must have been enough time to catch a glimpse.

“I’m not her,” Paris answered, sliding her sunglasses back on.

“You look like her. The Foxglove girl.  The safety maid.”

Paris stood up suddenly, causing the old girl to shiver.

“Are you sure?” Paris asked, “Because if I saw her, I’d be real worried.  She’s a maniac, I’ve heard.  A killer.”

Paris wanted to shoot the old girl, right then and there.  A smart move, really, since there was no turning Jean Paris Foxglove in, so adding one more body under her name wouldn’t make it worse.  Paris knew she’d be brought in, at the very end, in a body bag.  No bounty hunter was going to risk themselves to bring her in alive.  But the old girl wasn’t a criminal; she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.  I’m still a Social Agent, aren’t I?  I’m not just telling myself that to keep going.  I can’t just kill her.  But if she tells anyone…

Paris moved a fold of her jacket back, deliberately revealing the handgun resting in her waistline to the old girl.  Paris needed to handle this situation bluntly and quickly, if she didn’t want to be on the headline news tonight.  Just shoot her, Paris told herself, then shoot everyone else in the bar too, even fat Dorothy.

“I bet,” said Paris, tapping her finger on the gun’s grip, “you didn’t see her.”

The old girl shuddered and stepped back.  The look of fear on the old girl’s face amused Paris some.  The media had made Paris into a monster.  And yes, there was a part of Paris that enjoyed that, she liked being the bad girl and being feared by the public.  She had to admit some of the accusations against her had been true too, like how she had treated certain criminals.  But those girls had all deserved it, they needed a hard correction, but right now, Paris was just terrifying an unlucky old girl, someone she would have been helping normally.  Was this right?  I’m a social agent.  No, she re-thought, I was one.

Paris moved suddenly, taking an abrupt step towards the girl.  That bad reputation was what she had, and, she was going to use it.  The old girl fell backward, knocking over a bar stool with her legs.  The girl’s eyes widened, her hands shook, as she began picking herself off the floor.

“Please, miss,” begged the old girl, “I didn’t see her.  I didn’t anything.  I swear.  Sorry.  Sorry.”

Paris stood silent and continued to tap on her handgun.

The old girl said one last soft, “sorry,” as she got to her feet, and then went running for the front door.  The girl looked back once over her shoulder before hustling outside, letting the door close.

The smart voice in Paris’s head said, you should’ve shot her.  If the old girl tells the police, more might die.  I’ll be dead too.

On the bar, the old girl had left her coffee check unpaid.  Paris tossed a hundred dollar bill down beside it.  At least, she’d pay for the coffee.  Paris also swiped the last bottle of whiskey off the bar she had been drinking.  Might as well, she told herself.  The whiskey might dull the pain from bullet wounds.  And if she was lucky enough, she’d get so drunk she wouldn’t feel a thing when she died.

Paris exited out the back emergency door with a bottle in hand.  She moved through the clustered alleyways in the French Quarter until she picked up the dank musky scent of the bayou again.  The smell was much weaker than this morning.  Paris realized that was a sign that her advantage levels were burning out.  There wouldn’t be much time left now.

She could leave the city immediately, but she couldn’t know where’d she find another possible hook up for advantage formula again.  And she couldn’t continue to rob hospitals either.  She’d be putting all those sisters at risk.  The idea of the news reporting Jean Paris Foxglove was killing sisters at hospitals would be too much, even for Paris.  There wasn’t enough time anyway.  Betty Breeze was her only hope now.  I need to find a flower girl.

Paris settled on a shadowed corner in the French Quarter to sit and watch the streets.  During the day, the streets were busy but much quieter than the nights. When she had lived in New Orleans, she used to ride her bicycle up and down the streets during the day.  She and Betty would dodge and weave around tourists and the daytime drunks.  Betty had been born there.  The girl knew the place much better than Paris ever had.  Betty would probably die there too.  So could I.  She almost laughed.  Paris uncapped her bottle of whiskey and took a swig.  Awful stuff.  Her throat convulsed from the burning taste.  Then she took another drink, and another.

Today felt like a last day to Paris.  She was America’s most wanted, well, second most wanted, having a famous mom seemed to help a girl even when she was an outlaw too.  Paris never knew her own mother.  For Paris, her mother was just a ghost story; a story that was mostly fictional; hopefully fictional, as far as Paris was concerned.  All there was left of her mother, were a few random pictures from before Paris was born.  Paris was the same age now as when her mother had died–when she was murdered–and much worse than murdered, as her Aunt Donna had told Paris.  Paris had never found the girls that killed her mother, and she had tried.  That was the reason, why she’d joined the Social Agents.  The Social Agents helped girls.  They got the criminals.  They got the murderers.  That’s what Paris was before, with her sisters; social agents that got the criminals, and got the murderers.  She drank down another gulp from the bottle.  This shit gets no better.

Twenty minutes had passed, as her tech-watch showed, and the bottle in her left hand was halfway gone, when she heard police sirens.  Had the old girl talked?  Thinking again, she knew it was normal for the sound of sirens to be off in the distance in New Orleans.  It never was a clean city.  But she couldn’t shake the feeling that it could be about her.  They’d send everyone, the armed best they could muster, for Paris.  Some bounty hunters would be here too, she was sure, they would have been listening in on police chatter.

Paris fantasized about the possibility of killing them all with what was left in her handgun.  Doubtful, but at least she could take some with her, and maybe, just maybe, her last stand would be a truly famous one.  The siren faded away though, and the streets of the French Quarter remained seemingly normal.  Maybe, she thought, that old girl had been scared bad enough to shut up.  Paris could hope.

She finally felt a strong head rush, when the whiskey buzz finally hit her.  She set the bottle down near her feet.  There was close to a quarter left still, of whatever shit was in the bottle.  Her heart now stung.  Was it anxiety?  Stress?  Or was it the advantage levels dropping?  She hadn’t drunk this much in a long time, so she couldn’t be sure.  But as her heart cooled off, she began to slow down.  Even her thoughts were getting slow.  Paris thought, I’m not really dying, not really.  But as a Social Agent, as she knew, when advantage levels went down low enough, it felt like dying.  She wanted to just lie down, sleep, and then wake up fresh.  Please wake up.

She sank down low to the concrete.  Positioning herself so she saw clearly down the alleyway towards a good section of the street.  None of the passers noticed her, or they pretended they hadn’t noticed.  Girls liked to dart their eyes away from the homeless in New Orleans, like avoiding staring at a scar on someone’s face.  Paris in her ragged hooded jacket and lost and found boots, cheap sunglasses, with a whiskey bottle in arm’s reach, must look homeless and worthless.  She would think that too of herself.  In a sense, she thought, that was what she had actually become.  She was a drifter, stealing and doing whatever to survive another day.  I’m a scar.  But when you don’t want to be noticed, being a scar was an advantage, she supposed.

Nearly an hour had passed, before there was only a swish of whiskey left in her bottle, and Paris saw what she was hoping for.  A girl, just over four feet tall with cropped short hair, and wearing jeans and an awful patterned Hawaiian style shirt, was carrying a bundle of multi-colored flowers.  The flower girl was no older than ten, she guessed.  Paris pulled herself up, a lot more tipsy than she’d expected to be, (then what did she expect?) and edged closer to the street.

“Sure, I’ll buy a flower,” a tall slinky teen with blonde hair said, “but I want to pay with a kiss.”  The flower girl had been sidelined by a pair of teenagers on the sidewalk. The blonde sniggered, and the flower girl’s face turned stiff and red.  The other one, shorter and much heavier, seized the flower bundle.

“No,” yelled the flower girl, grasping away at the flowers that were held out of reach.

“Oh no,” the shorter girl said back, “how will you get your flowers back?”

“Cutie here, is going to have to give out two kisses.”  The blonde leaned down and puckered her lips.  The flower girl froze up.

“Fun time’s done.”  Paris marched across the street, her voice harsh and loud.  “Give back the flowers, now.”

The heavier one answered, “Lady, do you think you’re a fucking cop or something?”

Paris took a second to think, as she reached the sidewalk, before responding, “I’m worse than a cop.  Give her the flowers, fatty.  Right now.”  For a second, Paris considered slinging back her jacket to reveal her gun, but that wasn’t a good idea out in public on the streets.  A hard attitude should work with these teens, well good enough, she believed.  When Paris used to wear her social agent uniform, the teens rarely talked back to her after an order.  They knew better.

The heavy girl paused, as she thought about making another comment, but instead the girl tossed back the flower bundle, causing the flowers to fall to the concrete.  The flower girl scooped them up, anxiously.  The teenagers turned and walked away, and didn’t bother to say another word.  Maybe the teens knew somehow, what the scar really was, but probably they just didn’t want any trouble.  I looked like a scar to them, but I could be a dangerous one too.

Fixing her flowers, the flower girl mumbled, “I hate girls.”

“Me too sometimes,” said Paris, as she helped pick up flowers.

As the flower girl placed the last flower back in the bundle, Paris asked, “Can I buy a flower, sweetheart?”

The girl, a little flustered still, lifted her head toward Paris, and answered back, “Yes miss, which color please?”

Now face to face, Paris saw that the flower girl wasn’t a girl.  A boyHuh.  “All of them,” Paris told the boy, “but you’re gonna take me to your boss.”

“Ummm…but…”

“It’s okay.  I’m good friends with Betty Breeze.”

 

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