Pay it Forward
Though Daga wandered around the rooftops in her gear, she wasn't intentionally looking for anything exciting. She really only had the intention to get a lay of the land, but if she did run into anything she was prepared for it.
"This is the 5th time you've stiffed a payment."
Despite the closed door of the shop below her, the occupant's voice was loud enough to cut through it. The particular use of 'payment' could mean any number of things, not all needed her intervention. But she focused her attention to it, just in case.
"I know, and I'm not doing it on purpose, you should know that by now." a less loud, apologetic sounding voice followed.
"See, I would hope you're not stiffing us intentionally, you're a good member of the community here, would hate to have to lose you." The same loud voice as before, with that very obviously veiled threatening tone.
The exchange of dialog had a very familiar ring to it. Throughout time and cultures, it was fascinating how often the practice of protection rackets would pop up. But where there is economic instability there will always be those that take advantage of the weak. Daga had nothing pressing to take care of and decided to drop down from her perch and investigate the matter more closely, sitting herself outside the shop, listening to the discussion.
A careful glance through the window caught the view of 3 figures. The one near the counter very likely was the shop's owner and two others facing her were larger in both size and stature. Another visual of note that seemed to signify these two as the 'collectors' were the same matching white waist sashes with a magenta embellishment they both wore that were the common mark of an organization Daga had seen around. Still being new to the planet she wasn't entirely certain of their role on the large scale, so this seemed just as good a time as any to take a peek into their dealings.
"Of course I haven't been, you know I've been timely in the months before, why would that suddenly change now unless it was out of my hands." The shop's owner, to her credit, didn't seem too distressed by the sound of her tone. Either she was foolish or she was just that cool-headed.
"Maybe you've become too complacent, maybe we've been a bit too friendly; provided you with the false assumption we're on good terms." There is a mocking platitude to her cadence. "Maybe you need a reminder, some 'motivation' to get back on track" the broader of the two made a nod to her less talkative and much taller companion.
" 'Motivation' doesn't suddenly generate clients out of thin air- hey!- "
Interrupting her defense, one of the collectors, the taller of the two, swept a hand over a shelf of goods, causing a terrible sound of shattering glass on metal and tile.
The shopkeep got in their face, attempting to distract them from further destruction.
"How am I supposed to pay anything if you destroy my goods!"
"Make better ones." The lanky figure sneered. "Theses been around a while."
Now that the conflict had escalated to the destruction of property and the shopkeep getting in one of the collectors' face, Daga decided to make an intervention in hopes of preventing further escalation.
"You know, if your goal is to attract customers so you can make money off the shops around here, you're not doing a very good job of it. Unless I'm out of the loop on some cultural practice, violence is generally bad for business."
The two thugs turned around to face the new voice that had snuck up on them, both surprised to find something much smaller in stature and very much not one of their own kind.
"Strange that one such 'customer' would investigate such violence if they truly felt that deterred by it." The lady responded smoothly. She smoothed out the sash at her waist, then shifted her focus to Daga.
"Seeing as you're a-" she paused to look Daga up and down. "tourist, I'm giving you a chance to leave without consequence. I suggest you take it."
"Counterpoint," Daga made a gesture pointing upward at first before pointing to the collectors. "seeing as you don't know who I am," she pointed back to herself to emphasize her words. "I'm giving you the chance to leave willingly, before I escort you out myself."
The lady glanced at her companion, then gave a hearty laugh. "And what makes you think you can do that."
"Because I've been doing this for a very long time, and I've bodied opponents far larger than either of you."
The lady gave a glance over to her lanky companion, who had been eagerly awaiting a signal.
Daga gave a dramatic sigh for show, not that she was actually surprised by the choice made. "Could we at least do this outside?" She thumbed to the door behind her.
"Why, you worried you might break something in here?"
They went to make a mess of another shelf but Daga caught the hand with a speed that alarmed the lanky thug.
"Yes, that's exactly what I want to avoid." Daga yanked the hand of the thug, turning to the door and towing the far larger figure behind her as though she were leading a child.
Before they could even process what Daga was doing, she threw open the shop door and tossed the thug out with ease, onto the street. Upon doing so, she followed them out, letting the door shut behind her.
"Much better. Now, what was it you were going to do?" Daga proclaimed in an almost jovial manner, spreading her arms out and opening herself to whatever lunge this collector might have in mind.
"The fuck… " the woman that accompanied them no longer bore the look of cool confidence she had before. "Some fuckin' power armor." She muttered under her breath then shot a look back at the shopkeep. "We'll discuss this later." And went to follow Daga and her partner out the door.
Good, the other one followed her out. No need to worry about making more of a problem for the shop. The lanky one brought themselves to their feet.
"Bettchur not so tough outta that armor." The tall one brought themselves to their feet.
Daga caught them gazing behind her, likely at their partner that had walked through the door. Daga made no movement of her head, pretending to be oblivious to the collector's backup, slipping out of whatever they had planned would be far more fun.
"Believe it or not, I'm more dangerous without it." Daga made sure to mark her words with particularly saccharin inflection.
"Then you won't mind us taking it off." The other thug announced from behind, lunging out and grasping Daga by the base of the neck - a very common place for back batteries and other important circuitry on other typical power armors. This tactic was made apparent by the current that came with that grasp, some sort of electrical gauntlet used to disrupt power armors and other such gear, which they assumed she had.
To her credit, it did cause a problem for the HUD system on Daga's helm, forcing a reboot, but she had contingencies in place in the event of such an issue were to ever occur. As for the pain of the electrical current itself, well, she had had worse. This attack was followed by the taller one lunging at her, producing something that was likely meant to puncture her but never made its mark, as Daga used the unintended support of her grasped neck to double kick her other attacker back. On the downward fall the Daga grabbed her assailant by the arm, retching her grasp off her and tossing her to the other side of the street the moment she planted her feet back on the ground.
Waiting just a beat for the two to gain sense of what just happened, Daga spoke again. "Naw see, I kinda have this brand," She brushed the emblem on her jacket to make a point. "need to keep the armor on." Daga chuckled, enjoying the low-stakes tussle. This was both to taunt, and to flaunt that she had no shortness of breath.
The two got to their feet, glancing between each other. The lanky one threw something disc shaped in her direction, while the stocky one searched her sash. Rather than avoiding the thrown object, she caught it in the air. Upon contact, it too emitted an electrical current stronger than the one but still not enough to stop her. She twisted the mine in her hand snapping it clean in half with no issue.
"Electricity? Again? I thought we already established that doesn't work." Daga taunted, and dropped the dead mine to the ground.
During Daga's showboating, the stocky enforcer attempted to get shot at the armored miscreant, which Daga spun on her heel to avoid, elbowing the woman with surprising force. Her lanky companion likewise attempted a lunge with a heated knife in the same motion, but this was just as deftly dodge in the same rotation, knocking the hand with her foot. With his range disrupted, once Daga's rotation stopped she centered herself again to grab the arm of the stocky woman and use her to body check her companion, launching them both to an adjacent wall.
The woman roused from the collision, pulling a device out from her sash. "Fuck, we don't have the gear for this." she muttered to herself, tapping the device as a vehicle appeared around the corner.
Daga sidestepped the vehicle's arrival, giving both it and the two collectors a wide berth. She had no desire to kill them, and it wasn't like she could arrest them, so getting them to run was the intended outcome.
"Thanks for wearing those flashy colors, we'll pick this up again." The woman shot at Daga before climbing into the vehicle with her companion.
"Oh! Name's Daga! Look me up!!" Daga shouted over an all-too-enthusiastic wave, which she kept up until the vehicle turned out of sight.
With the threat no longer in the area, Daga paid a glance to the shop and the owner inside, who was standing in view of the window. Interestingly enough, she looked more perturbed than frightened. Knowing how these things are never resolved by scaring off a few debt collectors, she hoped maybe the shopkeep would be amicable to discussing the details of what caused this particular conflict.
On her approach to the shop, the woman inside seemed to huff, taking a step back but didn't make any action to block Daga's entry despite seeming slightly perturbed. Daga didn't have time to ask how she was, as the shopkeep took action to speak first.
"I know you, you're that one 'hero' I keep seeing in the news for the Tonahon territories." Her inflection on the word hero made it clear she didn't hold the same sentiment. "You think the same act works here? Or is this just some stunt to add to your checklist before you leave." She got in closer as she expressed her irritation, using double pointed fingers to emphasize her point.
Daga let the woman jab fingers at her helm and remained unmoving. The woman was permitted her anger, as she knew it to be an extension of fear, a very justified fear at that.
"This isn't any stunt, nor am I doing this for appearances, I simply happened to be in the neighborhood when I heard the commotion and felt I should assist."
"Assistance I could have done without." The shopkeep turned away, walking toward the back of the room, likely to get something to clean the mess with. "What am I supposed to do when they come back?" She shot back over her shoulder. "Unless you plan on getting rid of the entire organization overnight, what you've done will only make it worse for me."
"I have a plan for that, actually." Daga knelt down among the broken glass, sifting through the shards to find if there were any pieces left intact.
"Oh?" She scoffed. "You planning on being my bodyguard? Because they're not going to come back after this."
"Not exactly, I was thinking something a bit more cohesive to the overall environment you are currently in."
The woman snorted. "Really?" She had returned with a push broom of sorts and bin. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for any survivors." Daga held up a small piece that managed to remain intact, placing it on an adjacent shelf. "Do you have any other equipment I could use to help?"
The woman held a stare for Daga a moment, confused at the request, then answered. "Give me a moment." She set the broom and bin down to turn around and rummage through the back once again.
"Have you been in the red for long?" Daga called out, while still sorting through the glass. A few pieces were whole but chipped, which she sat to the side, just in case.
There was a short silence before the woman responded from the back. "Not terribly so." She emerged again, with a small hand brush and pan for it. "A few months I struggled, but for the last five months I couldn't keep up. This is the first time it's escalated to this level."
Daga saw her return and stood up from the glass, knowing she'd need to give clearance for her to use the larger broom on the floor. There wasn't much more she could do, from what she could see it didn't seem like there were any others worth saving. She accepted the hand broom and pan from the owner upon standing up.
"How do they usually operate?" Daga went about the general area, looking for errant shards of glass that had bounced from the initial point of contact.
The owner seemed confused by the line of questioning, but answered anyway. "I just paid my dues and they left me be. It wasn't an awful amount, and it did prevent me from getting robbed, and they have been helpful with some physical labour I needed assistance with."
"Huh, so it's not so bad at least.." Daga made her observation out loud and was about to ask her next real question when something on one of the shelves she passed caught her eye causing her to pause to study it. Smokey quartz glass, with an uncanny resemblance to something from long ago. Letting go of the strange uncanniness of the piece, she continued with her questioning. "How exactly did you fall behind on payments?"
"Haven't been making money like I used to, simple as that." The woman sounded exhausted, frustrated by her predicament which would be understandable.
"Has anything happened recently that caused the decrease in sales?"
"What hasn't happened." She gave an exasperated sigh. "Recent buyouts of the local properties and building has made a mess of the whole mapping. New folks to the city don't even know this stip exists anymore and it's lost us a lot of foot traffic. It was subtle at first but it really hit hard. I think it's deliberate too, all their weird walkways that conveniently gate off access to this strip, making it look like a dead-end." The woman grumbled bitterly. "I'd fare better at another location but there's no way I'm moving shop if I can't get out of this hole. Not only that, but with this 'luxury tax' on all one-of-a-kind artisan pieces, I'm not making the same amount of money I used to." She snorted and shook her head, then paused her work to look to Daga. "Why does any of this matter to you, anyway?"
"I can't formulate an effective solution unless I have all the pieces." Daga stated plainly as she brushed more glass out of awkward spaces. "I know damn well that scaring off a bunch of collectors doesn't solve the problem when it's largely systemic in nature. This is a symptom of a larger problem, and that is what truly needs to be addressed, not chasing these smaller symptoms from all over the place."
"What, do you plan to cure this 'systemic' problem overnight?" the woman scoffed then went back to sweeping glass into the bin.
"Of course not," Daga gave the ground another look over before she made the walk to the bin to deposit the glass. "That's just another factor I need to work on to ensure long term stability for yourself and others like you. For the moment, however." Daga walked over to the counter, placing a substantial amount of the local currency of the counter of the desk. "That should cover your dues for now, but don't pay it off all at once."
"What? After all that talk, that's your plan? Just pay off my balance?" The woman sounded aghast.
Daga sighed, now feeling a little exasperated. "No, it's not, that's just what helps you in the moment. Like I've said, none of this gets solved overnight, but this gets you out of the red. But even that can't be solved with a single act. If you pay it off all at once, they'll just think you were holding out on them and demand more money out of you. Instead, pay your usual amount with extra, tell them you've made some sacrifices to make good on your dues and want to work out a payment plan."
Daga sat herself on the counter to continue addressing the shopkeeper who was holding a few of the marks in her hand, caught in thought.
"Do you typically deal with the same collectors or does it change?" Daga asked from her new seat.
"The same ones, I have.. Or well, had a pretty good repertoire with them." The woman sighed and folded her arms "I think.. She was right when she said I had become too comfortable."
"How perceptive are either of them?"
"The stocky one is impossibly good with numbers, like a walking calculator. The taller one has a nearly photographic memory." she took a glance back at the now cleaned shelf. "When they said nothing on that shelf had sold in some time, they weren't wrong."
"With that in mind, they'll likely be suspicious of an influx of money that has no easily identifiable source, but we can work with that. If you have any pieces more on the expensive side but you haven't been able to sell or don't feel very strongly about, get rid of it. Make it a gift to someone, give it to a pawn shop, but don't take it home just in case they decide to pay you a house visit. It'll make it look like you got your leg up on your payment because you got a lucky sale. But make sure it's not one of your most expensive pieces, the timing will be too suspicious."
The shopkeep looked up from her hand, out to her gallery, making eye contact with something on the other side of the room.
"If you don't think that will be enough to prevent them from asking questions, get rid of any jewelry you own that looks like it could be expensive but that you don't actually care about. Unless either one of them are jewelers they likely will not know the true value of the pieces but they will notice that you are no longer wearing them, and it will drive home the illusion that you sold off personal affects to make good on your dues."
The shopkeep still said nothing, likely processing the words Daga was saying. But the look on her face made it appear as though what Daga was saying was finally starting to click.
"Anything else such as giving any of your employees a week off or other forms of visible corner cutting can help drive home the point that you made sacrifices to make your payments. I can't speak for all the details of your operation but I think you have a good idea of what to do."
The woman remained quiet, looking back at the marks left on the counter, then back up at Daga, and sighed.
"Thank you." It was the least hostile tone she had used since first conversing with Daga.
"Don't mention it." Daga hopped off the counter. She started her walk toward the door, but turned herself such that she was walking backward toward the door, facing the shopkeep. "Really, don't, people might get the impression they can rough up civilians to squeeze money out of me." She delivered it like a joke but it was a very genuine word of caution.
On her way out, she caught sight again of the figure she spotted earlier. Looking at it again seemed to cause it to stick in her mind more than the first glance did. She considered making an offer to purchase it right then and there, but considering the awkward circumstances surrounding her generosity, decided against it, and finally let the door close behind her.
Some weeks later, Daga made the point of checking in on the shop. She didn't like to make a habit of nannying every single person she assisted, but she did like to ensure the structures she put in place still held up. For the most part, it seemed as though business was doing fairly well. The whole strip seemed to have more people in it than it did the first time she visited, meaning the rest of the privately owned shops were also experiencing similar relief. Funny what a few screws to just the right thumbs did to impact change on a larger scale. The owner of the artisan glasswork shop seemed to be in good spirits, the kind she could tell from body language didn't seem to be holding back certain anxieties while she conversed with a few customers. During her inspection of the small shop, in the window, Daga spotted the smokey colored blown glass figurine she had seen before. It was probably time she gave in to a more civilian visit.
The next day during business hours, Daga walked down the familiar street in her casual attire. No longer looking like her more heroic self, she blended into the setting with more anonymity, at least as much as an outsider species could in this case. The shopkeep looked up from her book, about to greet her when she was very visibly caught off guard by Daga's appearance.
Daga made an act of looking around the shop, in an attempt to hide that she had been there before. Weaving around the shelves in a manner that seemed natural, she made her way to the piece she had spotted some days ago. There it remained, luckily no other stranger had interest in it before her arrival.
"Don't get a lot of humans around here, not at this time of year." The familiar voice called from her counter where she sat.
"I prefer to do my traveling in the off-season. Less traffic, more room to breath, take in the sights." Daga turned to address the shopkeep.
"If you have any questions, or see anything you like, let me know."
"Actually, I do see something." Daga confirmed, and turned back to the shelf.
Gingerly, she retrieved the figure from the shelf and made her way to the island in the center of the shop where the register waited and sat the figure carefully down upon it.
"You accept cash, right?"
"I do…" the shopkeep took a glance at the figure, then at Daga. "but no change over 50 marks."
"That's not a problem." Daga smiled, producing more than was asked for the piece in question. "I don't want any change."
The shopkeep straightened her back, seeming a bit off-put by the additional change.
"This is very generous of you but I do not need your charity."
"Then don't take it as charity. Look at it like.. A surprise gift to your next customer, maybe someone a little short on change or looking to buy something for a special occasion. Maybe even use it to help someone having a bad day."
Again the shopkeep squinted, staring directly at Daga, as though attempting to see the face behind the visor. Her nose wrinkled up when she finally relented.
"Fine, I'll accept that." With that, she continued wrapping the glass figure, placing it in a protective box before handing it back. "Thank you for your patronage." she added with a very practiced tone.
"You're welcome." Daga accepted the box with a nod.
As she turned to walk out the door, she heard the voice of the shopkeep call from the register.
"You know, it's good you showed up when you did, I had another customer eyeing this same piece, might not have remained on the shelf for much longer."
"Is that so?" Daga smiled, catching the potential insinuation but choosing not to pursue it. "I guess I have their hesitation to thank for this." And left the shop with no further look back.