Noir runoff wetted the hopeless cement walks of Luther City’s Umbra district—slang name for Luther’s gross city underbelly. The grim, decrepit steel adobes squashed forgotten below the more civilized upper-district arcologies. Intentionally avoided, covered-up—bad kids ended up there, warned their scared, anxious parents. Drugs, guns, stolen low-grade biotech, organ theft, seedy red-light underworld machinations—Umbra was home to the planet’s scourge and scum, most of whom would never see Apollo’s shining rays.
But they might see Hope’s.
For entrenched deep within Umbra, nestled between an unlit, window-shattered, out-of-business bodega and a sketchy grunge-ridden strip bar whose UV neon sign read “Girls, Boys, and Girlboys of All Species!” lay a small, bright, polished-white patchwork storefront with an antique wooden sign. And on that hobby sign, written in neat, Earth-English cursive were the friendly words, “Teezle’s Treats.”
Movement. From a nearby alleyway, two strangers dressed in disposable, garbage-can green ponchos appeared through the rain, the dying street lamps blinking them in and out of visibility. Each strobe drew them eerily nearer to Teezle’s. With utmost discretion, they approached the shop counter and sat on the clean, candy-stripe stools, their grey, intimidating air placing them in direct contrast with Teezle’s happy, bubbly Wonka World—dusky strangers entering the looking glass.
Sitting inside on a short wooden stepladder, the store’s owner—Teezle himself—glanced merrily up at the pair of waiting patrons. Though short, he was still somehow tall and wispy, like an old willow tree, standing serenely despite having been planted amongst steel obstruction and concrete grime. And as if his chipper store wasn’t thoroughly welcoming, his cheery, grandfatherly selection of polka-dot bow tie and matching suspenders was enough to soften the hearts of even the hardest Umbra denizens.
It had obviously worked it’s magic on the strangers. Teezle smiled. “The usual?” he asked.
The stranger on the left—the slimmer, more agile one—nodded.
Teezle rose with a jovial oomph from his stepladder. He reached over to the counter and pressed a sticky button on his beaten-up, well-loved speakers, filling the ramshackle establishment with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic rendition of ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine.’ A guilty smile crept its way onto his face. Bounce in his step, he set to work.
In the back of the shop, a large copper pot held the ichor of Teezle’s sweet business—hot, bubbling sugar. Teezle went to retrieve it. With elderly, craftmaster strength, he hefted the kettle off of its burner, and poured its contents onto the white marble counter between two square, stainless-steel rods meant to keep the sugary ooze from spilling uncontrollably. The slim stranger smiled with satisfaction watching the candy lava settle into its place.
As the mixture cooled, Teezle reached to a nearby shelf for his flavorings. On one half of the candy, he sprinkled white, powdery malic acid, meant to gift sweet flavor to the finished product. Then, into the other half, Teezled poured inky black droplets—extract of anise.
After some time, when Teezle judged the sweet goo to be adequately tepid, he took a pair of shiny sheers and snipped the mixture in half, separating the colors and flavors. Again, working with some invisible power, he palmed each half in a hand and began to knead the now-claylike sugar—the color and powder gradually working their way throughout the candy dough, of which halves turned deep onyx and shimmering pearl.
Lift, push. Lift, push. Lift, push. His repetitive, meditative movement hypnotized the strangers. Ten minutes Teezle worked. And ten minutes the strangers watched, relaxed—forgetting the troubles of the harsh world around them.
But Teezle wasn’t done. Taking the ebony and ivory halves, he changed his mesmerizing motions from a knead to a long, drawn roll. Back, forth. Back, forth, slowly, deliberately pushing the candy into a long snake.
He flattened the raven-colored snake into a thin blanket and rolled the dove-colored snake inside it. Then he continued to roll the entire cylinder. Back and forth, thinner and thinner, until the long candy rod was several feet long, but no thicker than his pinky.
He let the sugary rope harden. As it underwent its final stage of cooling, Teezle looked up at the strangers, tilted his head, and smiled. “Ready in just a moment,” he assured. And even as he did so, he reached for a dangerously sharp steel knife.
With machine-gun strokes, he snapped the rod into hundreds of tiny, individual lozenges. They flew speedily into the corner of the marble counter. Grabbing a thin, plastic, red and white candy-striped bag, Teezle slid all but one of the candies inside. The final piece he handed to the smaller stranger.
“Black licorice,” he smiled. “Your favorite.”
The stranger reached out with her seamless cybernetic hand and pondered the piece. Clever, that cross section of a white circle inside a black one—the symbol of the now-extinct Marlune race. She looked back to Teezle and glowed with approval. Teezle responded by nodding his head, then holding his open hand out to the other stranger—a towering, bulky, alien figure. It uttered a foreign growl as it reluctantly held out a small stack of federation credits.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” Teezle said kindly, pocketing the credits as he gently teased the monstrous payor. “You’ll best her in the arena one of these days.”
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