A few days after the late night visit from Robby, when he’d got Eric in tow, Stuart is walking down the street. He doesn’t go out much, especially in this neighbourhood. But he needs some supplies for food for the upcoming week. He knows he could, at least in theory, have it delivered, but he’d rather not draw attention to himself. Whether it would or not he doesn’t know. But if he goes to the store then he can’t be met face-to-face with someone he’s treated, or that knew him when he’d still been a doctor. The latter is a very slim chance at best, seeing as his former colleagues and friends would never dare to come to this part of the city. They’d be robbed in seconds driving their expensive sports cars and convertibles while wearing designer clothes and high quality jewellery. Though, Stuart knows the underworld of this neighbourhood would adore it.

It’s still cold out, which is no great surprise for this time of year. At least it isn’t snowing, Stuart thinks as he crosses an empty road. Most of the roads round here are empty. Few people can afford cars and those that can don’t buy them because they’ll be gone in the hour. Taken to chop shops and cut to pieces, never to be seen again. And the police won’t come down here. Not unless they really have to. If they do it’s in large numbers and with lots of guns. Stuart understands why as he passes people. Each and every one of them eyes him up, assessing whether he has any valuables, but Stuart makes sure to keep himself looking as though he is skint and devoid of any items of value.

He hadn’t been that street wise when he’d first moved into the neighbourhood, at the demand of Robby Smith. That’s why in the first month he’d been robbed at both gun and knife point no less than eight times. Three of them were in the same week. Stuart knows that for this part of town that isn’t remarkable, but to him it had been. Unlike most he’d escaped with his life and without any injuries as well. In fact, several of the thieves had been shocked at how easily he’d given up, which is to say immediately. They’d obviously been expecting some resistance, but Stuart isn’t stupid. He didn’t want to die on a street corner or in an alley, even if he does hate this place and want to be free of Robby.

“Spare change?” An old homeless guy with a beard asks as a group pass him by.

The group ignore him and thankfully are on the opposite side of the street to Stuart, now that he’s crossed over. He doesn’t like the look of them, but knows better than to look over his shoulder to check what they’re doing. He doesn’t need to. He knows they’re gang members. He doesn’t know them personally, but the colours they wear and their tattoos give it away. So he just keeps on walking. Gang members don’t like it when other people take note of their business. Stuart had seen the results first hand. Even the homeless old guy keeps his gaze averted as he peers the other way down the street. It’s how he’s survived and Stuart respects that. Though, he wonders if the old guy has any memories which he could sell. He won’t approach him however, not while he’s out on the street. It’s too risky, at least in Stuart’s eyes.

And it’s not like he needs to. He gets a steady supply of ‘clients’ in addition to the occasional addition brought by Robby, like Eric, except nothing like Eric. He still doesn’t understand that night as he mulls over what happened even as he slips into the store. It’s a general store. Nothing fancy. But then again nothing in this neighbourhood is fancy. It can’t be. People here don’t have money, except gang members, drug dealers, loan sharks and hitmen.

Stuart had thought about hiring one of the hitmen once to get rid of Robby. This was back when he’d first started doing this mems thing. But nothing had ever come of it. Stuart had left nondescript enquiries with false names and such but he’d never gotten a response. He knows Robby never found out it was him. If he had he’d already be dead, but he had concluded that it meant that no one wanted to go against the loan shark. The hitmen likely even knew and did work with the guy, Stuart had reasoned, eventually. The reasoning hadn’t made him feel any better though.

He wonders when and how this arrangement with Robby will end as he wonders down the aisles grabbing items which he shoves into a basket in his other hand. He doesn’t stop or loiter in front of food stuffs; he simply grabs and carries on. He keeps his head low, a beanie on his head and the collar of his thin navy blue coat turned up. It does little to keep him warm, but it’s all he’s got. Robby leaves him with just enough money to survive. He has no surplus funds to use on frivolous things and he misses that.

As a doctor he’d been able to buy most things that he ever came across and had loved it. Stuart is a materialistic man and had never tried to hide it, which is why Robby takes great pleasure in denying him the ability to indulge in such things now.

There really is nothing about the loan shark to like, Stuart thinks as he joins the line to the counter. There is only ever one of the three open and it’s the same sour faced woman with grey flecks in her otherwise black hair serving every time. It doesn’t matter what day or time he comes, she is always here, serving, alone.

Today the line is long; he’s the seventh in the queue. Thankfully most of them have either a comparable or fewer number of items to him. Still he wonders why he’s never seen more staff. Do they have anymore? He wonders this for a time, paying no mind to the rest of the people in the queue both ahead and behind him. He knows there are people behind him; he can hear one of them breathing down his neck. In any other neighbourhood but this one he’d say something, but doing that here is likely to get you killed. So instead he grins and bares it.

None of the customers talk to one another. They all keep to themselves as they shuffle forward each placing their baskets down before the sour faced woman scans and manhandles the items. And she really does manhandle them. More than a few times Stuart has returned to his clinic with crushed biscuits or cookies. But he isn’t about to say anything. It’s the only general store in the neighbourhood and he isn’t willing to risk being expelled from it for life. That is if he managed to escape with his life. Especially as it would mean that he would have to traipse sixteen blocks over, walk round a store he doesn’t know and then back sixteen blocks with shopping.

Thankfully it isn’t too long before he reaches the sour faced woman. He doesn’t try to smile or greet her. He’d made those mistakes in the early days and been met with a disapproving stare. Now he simply bags what she scans, pays and then leaves. She doesn’t even verbalise the amount due. Instead, she simply points to the readout and waits for him to pay by chip, which he swipes once across the payment scanner and then pockets. As usual the payment clears and she turns away to begin fishing out the next customer’s first item that she will scan.

Stuart turns and leaves. He has to admit he prefers the rough streets to the inside of that store. It always makes him feel on edge. He doesn’t know if it’s just his own anxiety or whether it’s that store and that sour faced woman. Maybe it’s a mixture of the two he decides as he wanders back down the street heading for his clinic. The street is bathed in light that originates from the failing screens dotted about the buildings facades. None of them are original. All the screens have been haphazardly bolted to the existing buildings some years ago.

It had been an attempt by the city council to redevelop the neighbourhood, but it had failed almost as soon as it had begun. Though, much of the screens are still working, somehow. It amazes Stuart that they continue to function at all without maintenance. Still, a great deal of the screens have dead sections. Most are at the edge, but a few of the dead sectors are right in the centre of the image. However, they all show the same thing, the news. Stuart stares up at them so that he can get the latest information. He doesn’t have a screen of his own, other than those of his main console for the auctions and that of the mems extractor. Damn you Robby, he thinks as the news story shifts to a missing persons report. He watches the text scroll across the screen as the news reporter, a young man in a suit, babbles silently. Then the picture of the missing person suddenly becomes plastered across the screen and Stuart stops in his tracks. His eyes go wide as he is filled with shock. The report is showing a picture of Eric. He knows its Eric. It has to be. If not then he has an identical twin and Stuart doubts he’s that lucky. Seconds later his belief is not only confirmed, but made worse as Eric’s mother, multi-billionaire businesswoman Carla Masters, appears on screen. He might not be able to hear what she’s saying, but he doesn’t need to. She is asking for any and all information regarding the disappearance of her son.

Stuart can’t believe it. Robby not only lied to him but brought him one of THE most famous children in the city to have their mems ripped, and he’s brain dead as a result. His heart thunders loudly in his chest and at a speed he didn’t even know it could achieve. He suddenly feels light headed and his chest feels tight.

This is bad. This is bad. This is really bad. Stuart says to himself as his eyes dart back and forth. He suddenly remembers he is in the middle of the street. He doesn’t see anyone but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been seen or isn’t being watched. He has to move. His staring at the screen, if it hasn’t already, will draw suspicions. But what should he do? Should he… No that’s a terrible idea. What other one you got? A voice in his head queries. The voice is right, he doesn’t have any other idea, he’s panicking and he has to know the truth. So he drops his bags and breaks into a run.

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