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A Refraction of Light

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Most drug empires specialize in one or two drugs, but Hector de la Cruz is a firm believer in diversification. His empire produces its share of blow and smack, but it also caters to obscure tastes, to those searching for answers to life's biggest questions down their gut, up their nose, and in their veins. His empire peddles the mind-altering spiritual experiences one can achieve under the likes of acid, DMT, shrooms, and ecstasy. He even owns Ayahuasca retreats in Peru.

What the De la Cruz empire is best known for is its peculiar ingredients that often come with the not-quite-promises of improved health, reduced wrinkles, and aphrodisiacal side effects. Why snort a line of boring old coke, when you might try it laced with saint's blood? Enjoy your rave on Molly and mermaid scales. Or, hell, try Viagra crossed with white buffalo horn. There's no guarantee you'll live longer, look better, have an out-of-body experience, or see the face of God, but there's always the chance you might.

The chemists at the disposal of the De la Cruz empire have the processing of such numinous ingredients down to a literal, if simple, science: grind them up to the finest powder, or water them down to near-homeopathic levels. Spray a very light mist of the diluted ingredient across a row of blotter papers, add a speck of dust to heroin, and so on, and voilà, an artisanal experience awaits. For a price.

There are branches of the empire for everything: logistics, design and marketing, distribution, and accounting. Most operations start in Mexico and slither their way up into California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but occasionally the snake slithers in the opposite direction. It all depends on the ingredients and whether Hector de la Cruz is hobnobbing with the elite in the U.S. or Mexico.

Shayna de la Cruz doesn't pretend to understand the specific demands Peter Avery has set for the alleged devil feathers—or why her father is so willing to cooperate. Hector may be grooming her to take over the family business, but he intends to live another several decades and so is hardly an open book. But, for whatever reason, he believes in the quality of the ingredient and bends to Avery's wishes. Los Angeles distribution only, and there's a list of dealers they aren't meant to sell to.

It seems like a lot of trouble for a celestial ingredient. Ninety-eight percent of the time, they turn out to be duds (someone did the math), but that pesky fact doesn't slow business for the De la Cruzes anymore than it's stopped the pseudoscientific ventures of Hollywood celebrities. Of course, the other two percent of the time... That's made even Shayna a believer. Her father, a lifelong cocaine user, wouldn't look as he does without a little supernatural help.

Her own faith is strengthened when she tries the first batch of Firefly. There can't be any more than a grain of sand's worth of those feathers in the concoction, but Shayna sees things that make her weep. All the colors of the universe, the blinding white light and heat of stars born and dying in the heavens. Above all else, is a sense of boundless peace. The feeling that nothing is wrong, has ever been wrong, will ever be wrong; that everything is connected and has meaning. At the tail end of the high, she thinks she hears the universe sing.

Later that night, when she stands beneath the hot spray of her shower, she realizes every scar on her body has healed. All from a crumb of divinity.


***


For all important, delicate, and brutal tasks, Hector sends his daughter. At thirty-four, she's already earned several nicknames: The Henchman, The Nail, La Bruja. Among the less eloquent, she's often just called a bitch. She's smart, mean, and efficient, and doesn't mind getting her hands dirty—likes it, even.

Her sleek, black motorcycle roars beneath her as she speeds along the 110. She takes the exit to Carson and navigates to one of their suburban drop-off sites for a vehicle change. The neighborhood is filled with single-story, middle class family homes, and the neighbors here have no clue what's in their midst. She pulls into the driveway of a plain, stucco house, casually waves to a neighbor as she goes, and tucks her motorcycle away in the garage. With the door closed, she changes the car tags on the old, white Honda sedan back to what they're supposed to be. In less than five minutes, she's on her way to Palos Verdes Estates, to the nouveau-riche house purchased under Victoria Imler's name.

She parks in the driveway and enters through the front door, a small box wedged beneath one arm. As she enters, a black poodle comes bounding up to her, yapping excitedly. Behind the dog, a man rises from the couch. He's dressed plainly—white t-shirt, snug jeans, but it suits him, and Shayna's gaze lingers on his muscles and tattoos. She could do without the ones on his face, but they're artful enough, and he's still a handsome man.

Eddie Rosales is a little fish, and only ever will be due to an overdeveloped conscience and an underdeveloped sense of ambition. But Shayna likes him a little more than the average person, and he's a surprisingly attentive lover.

"Shay, baby!" Eddie exclaims, his arms spread wide. "Long time no see."

"Hey, Eddie."

Shayna ignores his obvious invitation for a hug as she walks past him. She throws the box onto the kitchen counter and scowls when she notices the poodle has followed her, stubby tail wagging. The dog sniffs at her motorcycle boots. "I told you to stop bringing your fucking dog here."

"I know, but nobody could take Lola for me today. And you know she's my baby."

Shayna rolls her eyes. Her friends with benefits pool is filled with drifters, thugs, momma's boys, and drug abusers. Occasionally, she meets men who embody all four characteristics at a time. It would be different if her father had raised a princess to meet with politician's sons, but he honed a knife, instead. Knives always mingle with less interesting tools.

Eddie, for his part, is a drifter. He could make more of his life, but he enjoys floating from one girlfriend's bed to another, mooching as he goes. If he were smart, he'd save the money he makes from selling drugs and working at the hardware store, but Shayna doubts he has it in him. He owns a Lamborghini. Dumb purchase for a drug dealer, but then Shayna's never fucked Eddie for his brains.

Flipping open her pocket knife, she slices the taped box. She peels back the box flaps and reveals a pile of heroin baggies.

"Cool stamp," Eddie says, coming to stand beside her. He flicks a bag with his index finger.

"It's a firefly," she explains, sliding her hands around his waist. She toys with his belt buckle while staring around his arm at the open box of heroin. "You need to sell it that way. It's not just heroin. It's firefly heroin."

"Okay, but where's the rest?"

"This is all you're getting." She doesn't mention this is the case because he isn't good or well-connected enough to handle anything larger.

"What?" Eddie wheezes a laugh. "You know this won't take any time to move."

"It'll take longer than usual. It's got a special ingredient. Costs a bit extra."

He lifts one of the bags and peers at it, as if doing so might help him understand it on a chemical level. "How special?"

"Special enough that you don't get a taste," she says, snatching the baggy from his fingers.

Eddie shakes his head. "You know I don't touch H."

She does. Until recently, he only sold weed, but legalization has killed the black market even more than medical did.

"Your friend uses," she says.

"I have lots of friends," Eddie hedges.

Arching a brow, Shayna moves away from him and drops the bag back into the box. She takes his right hand in both of hers and says sweetly, "Eddie, don't ever think because you're a good lay I don't keep tabs on you. I help my father run an empire, not a corner store. That little troll you give discounts to at your abuela's? Don't take this stuff near him. He'll steal it, and then you'll be on the hook for it."

"Okay, okay." Eddie holds up his hands in defeat. "Just, you know, David's an addict, but he's a decent guy."

"Sure," she chuckles. "Just keep in mind Good Guy David doesn't have the money for Firefly, and you're not gonna want to give him a discount."

Eddie looks back at the heroin. "That pure, huh? High-end clients only?"

"Start the price at a thousand a bag. There are five hundred bags here."

"Wait." Eddie's face screws up in confusion. "You mean for a bundle, right?" He shakes his head. "Even then, nobody's gonna pay that..."

"No, per bag. I told you. It has a special ingredient."

"What's the ingredient?"

"Angel feathers."

"Aww, Shay," Eddie groans, "you know I don't wanna sell shit that's been laced with stuff that could hurt people. Especially some snake oil. Not even to the rich assholes around here."

"Eddie. You push heroin."

"Yeah, but still. People should know what they're getting into."

Jesus Christ, a drug dealer with a heart of gold. She's seen it all.

"Look, some of the stuff my father sources and has put into drugs, I'll be the first to admit it's worthless. We all know it. This stuff, though..." She looks at the heroin bags and breathes out a small laugh. "It's real. Some people have been healed using it."

Eddie's brows furrow. "What do you mean healed?"

"I mean, healed—scars gone, wrinkles smoothed, tumors shrunk."

"So, I should target the sick."

Shayna shrugs. "Target whoever. Just get the cash, same as always." She pats the side of the box. "With any luck, there'll be more where this came from." Turning, she leans her back against the counter and starts to unbutton her kevlar jeans. "Now, how about you talk a little less?"


***


When she's finally done making her rounds and deliveries to dealers around the city, it's three in the morning. She stops at a twenty-four-hour diner for coffee and to eat something she'll no doubt regret in a few hours. Plunking her motorcycle helmet down onto a kitschy, laminated table, she takes a seat and kicks up her boots on the booth facing her. While she's holding up the menu, browsing it, she feels the cushion sink down near her heels.

Shayna lowers the menu slowly, only to look into the face of Peter Avery, née Marcus Pierce. "Can I help you?" she asks.

If this big man thinks he's going to startle a poor, defenseless woman, he's got another thing coming. The black contact lenses are a nice touch, but don't work on her, either.

"Just thought I'd see how your day went."

"Aww, that's sweet, honey, but we're not married, and I'm not interested in dinner or pillow talk." She tears open a packet of sugar and tips it into her coffee. "You're the guy in the black SUV who's been following me all day, right? You're lucky I knew it was you and that my father has a standing deal with you."

Avery seethes. "All I want to know is that everything went smoothly."

"It did. My father sent me." She sips her coffee and grimaces at the lackluster flavor. "Why do you care so much about the timing and logistics, anyway?" Money is money, but more money is even better. The fact that the whole of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills is one of his no-go zones is driving her crazy with questions.

Shayna can tell he considers not replying, but after a moment he says, "Have you ever hated anyone, De la Cruz?"

"Oh, yeah. Your 'score to settle.'" Tilting her head, she smiles. "Me? I hate everybody equally." Knowing people are dirt bags, deep down, is what makes her such a good soldier.

"No," he growls, leaning forward. "I mean really hated someone."

"Maybe," she says.

"Then you know it's not enough to destroy them cleanly. Even if that's the smart thing to do."

Shayna stares and says nothing. For the first time, Avery's presence bothers her, and gelid fear snakes around her spine. Even she has to admit he's one scary motherfucker. Something about him just isn't right. But her father's been doing business with him for decades, and that's the way of it. Not to mention his celestial ingredient is the real deal, whether the feathers are from the literal Devil or not. She, for one, isn't even sure the Devil's real.

"So," she says, sniffing, "we've done our part. When do we get access to your supply?"

Avery shakes his head and leans back. "Not until I'm sure you've done a good job." He shuffles out of the booth and looks down at her with his black eyes. "I'll be in touch soon."

Usually, that's her line.

After she's finished her coffee and country fried steak, she remounts her motorcycle, her helmet tucked under her arm. Looking around to ensure she's alone, she digs into the right pocket of her leather jacket and pulls out the lone bag of Firefly. She aches to hear the universe sing.