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When had she stopped allowing herself to dream? At what point did her life become a matter of survival rather than an endeavor to create and enjoy something beautiful? She had to wonder if it was just her or if this was a sort of universal phenomenon, wherein during a certain phase, age, or event during their lives, people simply gave up on their dreams. Cherry wasn’t typically philosophical, but the thought occurred to her almost violently as she sipped her tea. It was so poignant that she had tears in her eyes before she had completed the thought. She had been going over the plans for this next job, making sure everything was in order. It seemed simple enough; an old shopkeeper who owned an antique shop in a small neighborhood, busy enough she wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but quiet enough to be able to avoid witnesses for her partner, Anja. A lovely name, though Cherry doubted it was her real one anymore than Cherry had been her birth given name. Still, she had become Cherry over the years. As well known in their business as Anja, but for different reasons. 

Anja was the best of the best when it came to pulling off the tough jobs. She had a strict set of rules and regulations that turned away some potential business, but if you wanted something done clean and precise, with as minimal risk as possible, it was Anja you wanted. Cherry, however, was known for being a walking, walking chameleon. She could fit in anywhere with any crowd, blend in just enough while being likeable. More importantly, she was scarily talented at getting people to trust her, and fast. Especially, though not exclusively, men. Cherry would be sent in with all the background she needed to know exactly how to play the mark, then play them like a fucking fiddle. 

There was a time she enjoyed it, but she had long since lost the taste for it, no matter how good the money. She was weary from years of transforming over and over and never being in one place for long. Hotels had been her home since she could remember, and though the caliber of hotel had quite improved since her first, it was still a business. Never a home. Cherry knew that for her, this was the last job. One can only push their luck so far, and Cherry had been in the game since she was a teenager. A young teenager at that. 

Her mother had been a prostitute who would ingest, inject or snort anything she could get the slightest high off of. Tale as old as time and all that. Her dear old mom had suggested Cherry start selling her body at thirteen years old if she wanted to continue to stay in the hotel room and not be out on the street. She said Cherry was old enough to start pulling her weight, even if she did so on her back. She had even suggested Cherry charge a premium for her age. Sickened and broken-hearted, Cherry left that same night. She might have only been thirteen years old, but she knew if she stayed, the suggestion would turn into a demand and then into  worse things if she refused. It was that night she played her first violin. She played the part of a terrified little orphan, “accidentally,” bumping into an elderly woman with expensive looking clothes and a kind face. The woman took one look at her and smiled, asking where on earth her parents were. Eyes wide and lips quivering, real tears welling up for reasons she couldn’t disclose, she told the woman that her name was Cherry and her mom had called her that because she said she was the sweetest thing.  Cherry said that her mom had died of cancer and her dad had ended his own life. She sniffled and said she had been roaming the streets, terrified of going into the system because she heard what happened to kids in foster care or in orphanages. She looked up at the woman, letting all the fear she felt show, batted her eyelashes at the old woman and said, “Especially little girls.” Cherry had the woman then, but for good measure added a watery sob and put her head in her hands, crying in earnest. 

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The woman, Rachel Monson, had taken her in that night, having plenty of room in her old, but massive home. All her family had moved away or passed away, so there was no one to ask about the appearance of a little girl. The neighbors were told that Cherry was a cousin’s grandchild, and that she had been left without parents. Cherry didn’t have to worry about going to school as the woman hired a private tutor for her when Cherry explained the police may be looking for her and that she was terrified of being taken away from the home she had found with Mrs. Monson. She had also told Mrs. Monson that she was terribly worried about what charges could be brought up against her for taking Cherry in. After that, the subject was never discussed again. Over the next five years, Cherry had honed her skills, learning from various tutors, but also from her life experience. She quickly found out she was a master manipulator, and vowed to never be in a position where someone could demand a damn thing from her in exchange for her safety or security. Even if it meant playing people to get what she needed. She also promised that her body would never be used as a commodity. 

Cherry left Mrs. Monson at eighteen, finding the kindness and naivety of strangers to be an incredible resource. One day, when she had conned a particularly large sum out of the hands of a man in a restaurant, another man came up to her and handed her a piece of a napkin. On the napkin was an address, a time and a message saying “You’re good. I’ll pay you triple what you just made. Nothing sexual.” It was the last line that sealed it for her. She was careful, went to the meeting armed with a cheap but effective little pistol tucked in the back of her waistband. The pistol had come from the home of a friendly old man who let her stay on his couch for a night. He had carelessly left it in his dresser drawer and had taken a long shower before bed. She had also been able to find some cash in the dresser. She hadn’t taken it all, just skimmed off the top. Cherry hadn’t needed to worry about fingerprints or identification, because technically Cherry didn’t exist. Not, at least, according to the government. She had wondered if anyone ever went looking for her, but if they had she was pretty sure she was assumed dead at this point. The man she met spoke calmly to her, sensing her nerves. He explained that he needed reconnaissance done, and he couldn’t be the one to do it as he would be recognized. He asked if she knew what the word meant, and she nodded quietly. She listened to him explaining that he was in the business of thievery. A proper professional, not a smash and grabber. He had grimaced slightly when he said this, as if the very idea was repulsive. 

“I won’t ever ask you to perform any duties that go beyond professionalism. I don’t judge sex workers, but no one should be forced or coerced into that line of work. Are you in?” 

She had asked him how much and when he named a figure that had a comma in it, she accepted immediately. 

Over the last ten years she had built up savings in several accounts abroad, and always had a healthy amount of cash on her person as well. She had built a nest egg that had grown to need more than one comma in the number. This job would be the last she needed to feel like she would have a long and healthy retirement. Cherry had been considering what international destination would be best for her, imagining a small house on the beach somewhere warm year round and away from people. She had been smiling to herself when it occurred to her she was daydreaming. Not just that, she was absolutely within reach of that dream, and believed in it wholeheartedly. That was the moment it occurred to her that she could not actually remember a time she believed any of her dreams would ever actually come true or even come close. She sipped her tea again and blinked back the tears that had welled in her eyes. 

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Cherry had put together a persona for this job, just as she always did for each new gig. Though she was known as Cherry in the business, she had never used that name on the job. Since this was the last one, she had decided to use it as a sort of talisman against ever going back. She had already had her guy make up the identifying documents. A driver’s license and a passport with photos of her in a dark brunette wig, curly and expensive, styled to hide any indication it may not be her own natural hair. She had worn two different outfits and changed the hairstyle just a bit for each photo. She also had a birth certificate and a social security card, and the name printed on all of these was Cherry Elaine Petitfour. She knew the name was a risk. Not only was the first name also her alias for the last fifteen years of her life, but the name was, well, hilarious. It stood out, and as a rule, Cherry usually preferred to fit in. Still, when the name had occurred to her, there was no way she could have resisted. She thought of it as a farewell kiss to the game that had raised her. Or maybe a farewell fuck you. Either way, the documents were made and the plan was set. She was going to the shop first thing in the morning to offer her services as a cleaning lady, complete with a sob story of just needing anything to keep a roof over her head, having an excellent work ethic but having been laid off from her job as a personal assistant due to budget cuts. It was a common enough story. When the owner, Harold, inevitably asked why his shop, she was prepared to tell him she felt him to be a kind spirit and had also noticed that his shop grew quite dusty and he had no one to help. She would tell him she lived nearby and had passed the shop multiple times on ventures out to hunt for work. 

Harold was a friendly man, but seemed vapid according to Anja. Cherry was unworried about her ability to get in, get the information and access needed and get this job done. Dhe’d done it enough times that it should feel downright routine at this point. Of course, each job was different from the last in some ways, but he was a lonely man getting on in years surrounded by antiques and dust. Primed and ready, in other words. Cherry downed the last of her tea, setting about her final preparations.

Harold was indeed a friendly man. Not so much so that he gave her a pervy vibe, but just enough to be receptive to her story. He had eyed her somewhat suspiciously when she had handed him a professional resume of fabricated positions and real qualifications, though not a comprehensive list. She couldn’t exactly list master manipulator, reconnaissance expert or professional wolf in sheep’s clothing on her skill set, after all. As she spoke, explaining her plight with just the right amount of desperation to be heart rending, but not enough to make it feel uncomfortable or pushy, she watched his face relax, his body language opening up by inches. He looked over her resume, heard her out and handed it back to her. 

“I’m sorry, miss. I am not looking for any help right now. But I do wish you all the best of luck.” Cherry had cast her eyes down,  then blinked up at him through her dark, thick lashes for just a brief moment, showing what she knew looked like embarrassment and hurt in her eyes. She took the resume from his hand, turned away and walked towards the door, shoulders hunched and head hanging. As she neared the door, she clinched it, sniffling once, and as she knew he would, he asked her to wait just a moment. “I can’t pay you much,” he said. “Business is good, but not great.” She let her eyes and face light up with happiness and the gratitude of a starving woman who has just been offered a bottomless buffet. She smiled, wide and pretty, red lipstick highlighting her pearly whites and thanked him with a brief hug, which he first stiffened in, then relaxed. She kept the hug brief and then looked at him sheepishly as she pulled away. “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I just, thank you so much. You wont regret it Mr.-” She looked at him questioningly. 

“Harold is fine. And you’re Cherry? Is that your real name?”

“Sure is,” Cherry said, smiling again. “My mama said she named me that because I was the sweetest thing.” 

For the first week, Cherry would show up in the morning, cleaning supplies in hand and meet Harold at the door when he opened the shop at 9:00AM. He complimented her each day on her promptness and throughout the day commented on how lovely the shop looked and smelled. It was the second week when he mentioned he could use a little more help around the place. He asked if she would mind a few extra duties if he paid her a few extra dollars per hour and asked if he recalled correctly that she had been a personal assistant. She had smiled her warm and pleasant smile and thanked him once again, hugging him and squealing with pleasure. After that, things came easily. First the alarm code, then the key to the back room, and finally the combination to the safe. There was one room he didn’t give her the key to, telling her that it was entirely unnecessary, he hardly even used it. A basement full of random items in storage and antiques he could or would never sell, he said. She ran the register for him, allowing him to talk to more of the customers as they browsed and just take some time off of his tired feet. He got into a habit of calling her his angel very quickly and seemed to genuinely trust her. This made Cherry sad, but she comforted herself by remembering that this was the last one. After this job, there would be no more preying on people’s better nature. 

As the weeks went on, she learned that Harold emptied cash into the safe sort of randomly, and only went into the bank once a month to drop the money in the safe. She had suggested that they start dropping into the safe more regularly to prevent there being so much cash in the register. She pointed out that people knew he only accepted cash and someone might get it into their heads to rob him. Harold had smiled at this and told her she was an awfully bright girl, and here was proof she was an angel. The truth was that this helped establish further trust and it would make it that much easier for Anja to get the cash in one go. There were cameras in the shop, but Cherry had not been able to find where they were recording. This bothered her, but when she told Anja, Anja had said she had planned for that contingency and not to worry. Cherry worried anyway, but not much. It was the last job, it would be fine. 

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Two days before bank day, Cherry messaged Anja and let her know that all possible reconnaissance had been done. It was Cherry’s time to pull out. She would head to another town and wait for the deposit from Anja once the job was done. All Cherry had left to do was sweep up the shop while Harold dropped the day’s money in the safe as Cherry had recommended he start doing. She began to hum as she swept, and heard a small thump coming from the back. “Harold?”  She called, sounding concerned and curious. He didn’t respond and she felt a thrill of dread go through her. Absurd for something so small to cause such a huge reaction, but there it was. A pit in her stomach, hard and tight. Suddenly her mouth went dry and her heart hammered in her chest. “Harold?” She asked again, this time a little louder. Still nothing. He couldn’t have fallen over, there would have been considerably more noise. Was he focused on counting and not hearing her? Maybe. She walked briskly toward the back room and stopped short when she saw her purse on the floor. It had been knocked over somehow, and splayed on the floor was the contents of her wallet. She had carelessly left it unzipped, and a thick stack of hundred dollar bills had cascaded out of it when it fell. She stepped into the back room looking for Harold. He wasn’t in the room and the safe was closed. 

Cherry let out a sigh of relief and bent down to put away her money hastily. He must have headed to the restroom while she was humming to herself and sweeping. She chuckled quietly at her over the top reaction and stood, zipping her purse closed. 

“Tell me the truth Cherry,” She heard it from behind her a split second before his meaty arms encircled her like a fleshy vice, squeezing her to the front of him. “ Is that my money? Is it my angel?” He squeezed her tighter and she couldn’t get her breath. 

“N-no,” She squeaked it, barely audible and began squirming, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. For an older man of his size, he was terribly strong. How had she never noticed the way his arms bulged under his button up shirts, they were hard as rocks around her, and showing no sign of loosening. She tried to speak again and he cut her off with a tighter squeeze. “I don’t think you’re telling me the truth, but you will, sweet Cherry.” Cherry fought harder, digging her nails into his thighs as her arms were trapped in his grip, but he was wearing thick trousers and it was probably nothing more than a pinch. He laughed then, and her blood ran cold. Cherry heard something in his voice that she recognized. When her mother got really high and hateful, she would lay into Cherry, a barrage of threats and insults. This was the same thing she heard then. It was a darkness beyond sanity, and it was permeating through him. She noticed something else then, as she was fighting to get him to release her. Something hard and unmistakable was pressed against her backside.  She lifted her leg and stamped on his foot with her high heel as hard as she possibly could. He bellowed, a mixture of pain and anger and flung her away from him, hard. She slammed into the safe, face first, hearing a loud crack resonating through her skull and pain exploded in the center of her face. Her nose was broken, she thought distractedly. The world was spinning, but she couldn’t lose it. She would lose everything if she did. She knew if she passed out Harold would hurt her. Badly. 

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The thought got her moving in the direction of the door, Harold stumbling towards her with astonishing speed given that she had to have broken at least one of his toes with her stomp. He grabbed for her and she moved just out of reach, running for the front door. She had to get away, had to. She reached the door, turned the knob and jerked it, realizing a moment too late that the damn deadbolt was already locked. She reached up to thumb the lock open and yelped as a massive, clammy hand closed on her throat hard enough to make her wonder if he had crushed it. He pulled her back against the front of him, and part of her registered that his previous hardness was now flaccid. Good, she thought. I hope it falls of, you sick fuck. He used his knees to push her to hers, then shoved her to the floor. Cherry felt the darkness seeping in at the edges of her consciousness and knew she couldn’t fight it much longer. She closed her eyes and felt hot tears flowing from them as he tied her legs with what felt like an extension cord, then tied her hands, his whole weight pinning her to the floor bruisingly. He then stood and lifted her, telling her if she fought he would just drop her to the floor and beat her brains in. Something told her that she should let him. Wherever he was carrying her to was not a place she wanted to go. His keys jingled and he stopped. The downstairs room. The one he had assured her was just storage. That’s where he was taking her. “NO!” She screamed it as best she could as she heard the key turn and the door click open. Then she was sailing through the air, weightless for a moment until she slammed into the stairs,hearing her shoulder crack and feeling it slip from its socket. She cried out as she slid head first down the stairs, feeling every step of the way down like a big rig ramming into her body over and over.

Finally her descent came to an end with a crashing thud, her brain still fighting for consciousness even as part of her wished for the dark nothing that unconsciousness would bring. She heard a lock click and he thundered down the stairs. He grabbed her and stood her up, facing away from him. “Oh God,” she moaned. Cherry looked around her at a room that was right out of some horror movie. There were steel tables with, oh dear God, with restraints on them. There were power tools, kitchen tools, and what looked like other hardware and, oh fuck, surgical tools, strewn about and hanging on the walls. It was like some sort of nightmare workshop. “Please,” she mewled as he pushed her towards one of the tables. 

“Shut up, Cherry. We are going to find out how sweet you are. You know, you aren’t my first. Not by far. As you can see, I have quite the set up. But you are the first one that came to me. I was going to let you live a while yet, angel. But you had to steal from me.” He tsked his tongue at her disapprovingly as he laid her on the table. She began to struggle anew, and he grabbed a scalpel. She froze as he held it to her cheek. “Now, now. You have already earned my wrath. Do you really want to make it worse?”

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Cherry looked at him silently, letting the hatred she felt fill her eyes, her face and her heart. She had only done the best she could with this life. She had been born to a mother who didn’t want her and a father who never even cared to know her, had to fight her whole life and came out on top every time. Now, here, in this basement, Cherry knew she was going to die. And she was damned if she would do it begging. She watched his face, staring him down even as he held the blade against her skin and let it bite into her. She didn’t whimper or cry out. Instead she stared at him as she said clearly, coldly and with acid dripping from her tongue, “Fuck you, you flaccid, disgusting, deranged, freak. You’ll die screaming.” She whispered the last like a curse, and felt pure satisfaction when his eyes went wide and just a little unsure. Even afraid. Then, as Cherry watched, his face went cold again, and an evil light flared in his eyes. He smiled at her. 

“Maybe. But you first.”

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