“The Rum Cake Runner” by Jessi Cole Jackson
Read our interview with Jessi Cole Jackson
Sitting on the threadbare sagging couch cushion, Nesi tied her Sneaks’ laces tight, double knotting the loops. The apartment was warm, as it always was, and smelled sweet, as it always did.
“And pick up those vanilla beans before making your rounds. It’s important.” Uncle Toni said. Her head whipped up.
“No way! I’d have to go to the market with a full load.”
He just shrugged. “If you go after your deliveries again today, Rohit will have closed up shop again and we need it for tonight. No arguments.”
“The mutts’ll sniff me out for sure! I’ll be a wafting target.” Nesi said.
Nonna chuckled from her old wooden rocker in the corner. “She’s just like you, Antonio. She doesn’t understand how to not argue.” She rocked and knit, her work already done for the day despite the early hour. They could bake the sweets Nesi was responsible for delivering anytime, but the bread making – the smaller, but only legitimate aspect of the De Luca family business – had to be done at night so it was fresh each morning.
Uncle Toni handed Nesi a red cap. “Wear this one today and be sure to turn it on. You’ll be fine at the market.” Sweat stained and faded, it was in much worse shape than her regular cap.
“This thing doesn’t even work half the time!” she said. What good was AI detection software if it never worked? She smacked the dirty cap against her palm. Maybe she could jostle it hard enough that it’d actually warn her. “Who’s going to bail me out when I get snagged by the coppers?”
“I will, little one,” Nonna said, her low voice creaking and groaning like the chair she rocked.
“You want me to give the best route we’ve got to Beto?” Uncle Toni said. “Put on the cap and get your butt out the door. You’re gonna be late for everyone.”
Nesi rolled her eyes but put the filthy thing on her head, pushing her shaggy black bangs to the side so they weren’t in her face. She kissed Nonna and walked out the door, a small white paper bag in one hand and the rest of the day’s deliveries in her rayon backbag.
She’d barely made it down the three flights of rickety steps before she had her first customer.
Old Mr. Yan sat on his front step, his dirty shoes resting in the even dirtier gutter. “Hello Nesi. Two almond biscotti, please,” he said.
He held out his wrist so she could scan it for credits. Uncle Toni preferred to be paid by cash, but Nesi didn’t care. Payment was payment – so what if credits had to be made clean? That was why they baked all night and her older cousins sold bread in the market. Everyone knew you couldn’t actually make any profit on that sort of baking.
Nesi handed Mr. Yan the small white paper sack and droned the line she was supposed to recite after every purchase. “And remember, always buy your pastries from De Luca. We’re fresh. We’re discreet. We have the best sweets in New Rio.”
They did the same thing every morning, which was okay with Nesi. She hadn’t even bothered to pack Mr. Yan’s order away with the rest of the little white bags since her first week on the job, three years ago. He may be predictable, but predictable made running pastries easier.
“Thanks Mister!” she said and dragged herself off down a narrow alley, the opposite way of all her scheduled deliveries. She wished she could follow her normal route – after all, she rarely got into any trouble that way. But orders were orders and if she came home without the vanilla beans again, Uncle Toni would give her route to Beto and she’d have to spend another two years drumming up new customers.
She’d made it down the couple of stone stairs and a single step into the marketplace before bumping into another shopper.
“Watch out you little malcriada!” an old lady hissed, shaking a wrinkled fist in Nesi’s face.
She ducked away quickly to avoid getting whacked. “Desculpe!” she called over her shoulder but a sea of people had already separated them.
Stupid Uncle Toni.
Mornings were the worst time to come to the market – full of white haired Asian ladies like that old crone, young bottle-blonde women with brown haired babies strapped to their chests, half-rusted androids overloaded by goods, and olive skinned errand runners like her ducking and darting through the crowd. And they were all haggling over whatever goods they’d chosen, scanning credits, trying to pack too much into their too small totes.
Even if this went well, which she still doubted, it would take her forever just to get through all of these people. Hopefully her customers would wait for her and wouldn’t buy sweets from any of the other runners.
“Hey kid!” someone shouted behind her. She turned, her best salesgirl smile on her face, expecting someone to have recognized her uniform – green pants, white shirt with the De Luca family’s emblem on the chest, red cap – and wanting to place a quick order. It would be odd to buy from her in the middle of the market, but it happened sometimes. She wouldn’t turn away the business.
But when she turned, she couldn’t see around the people closest to her. Who had yelled?
She shrugged and turned back toward the merchant stalls. There was a lot of shouting in the crowded market. If there was no business to be had, she needed to just keep fording through people. Get to Rohit Rangan. Buy his vanilla beans.
Then a warning EEP! from the mutt sensor in the cap screeched in her ear. Incoming trouble.
She looked back again in the direction of the voice and locked eyes with a man in a dark blue uniform. A copper. Merda!
She heard a harsh, mechanical bark. She jumped, clicking her heels together to turn on her HoverSneaks. She had to get away, quick. Hovering should help.
She hadn’t seen the mutts, but she knew they must be with the coppers – the warning system in her cap didn’t activate just for the men, and that bark sounded close.
Holding on tight to the straps of her backbag, she zipped forward, fast, aiming for a small gap in the crowd ahead of her. She just hoped all of the old biddies wouldn’t leave the same sort of gap between her and the law.
“I’m sorry!” she called out when she careened into a particularly frail looking lady. The lady’s middle-aged son glared at Nesi over his mother’s head. She covered the family emblem on her chest with her hand, and tried to just keep moving forward.
Stupid Uncle Toni.
If she could just keep ahead of the coppers, she would be ok. The mutts could have caught her easily, but after that incident in the northwest market last month, laws changed. Now they had to be kept on a short eLeash.
A Único rolled on its rusty single wheel into her escape route, cutting her off. Its little plastic back basket, full to the brim with the harvest’s best root vegetables and apples, was rigged on with tape and wires.
Nesi grabbed its slim polyvinyl shoulders and pushed the little android from behind.
“Oh my!” its tiny metallic voice squeaked, no doubt shocked by its sudden burst of speed.
It probably hadn’t moved that fast in ten years.
She shoved it gently to the side, out of her path, so she could squeeze past. That model was notorious for tipping over when jostled and the last thing Nesi needed was to be tripping over rutabagas and McIntosh.
The mutts’ hollow barks sounded closer. She looked at the roofs of the buildings surrounding the square. She needed to get out of the market, now. If only the Sneaks could make her fly.
The coppers she could handle. Even if they caught her, they would just throw her in a cell overnight with the other runners, try to charge her with selling illegal goods, and so what? She was a kid according to the law – still not 15. They’d let her and any cellmates go within 24 hours.
But if the mutts got a hold of you, they were known for never letting go until you were broken and bleeding. And most of the time they didn’t care if you were a legitimate delivery boy carrying French loaves or someone like her, with much less legitimate product.
She angled her body to move faster through the crowd, wishing she could scream at everyone to just get out of her way. But that would do her no good, just give the coppers a more specific point in the crowd to convey on.
“Walnuts today, Nesi!” Mac, the nut seller, yelled when she whizzed past his stall.
“I think I’ll come back later!” she called back, making the big man laugh loudly.
“Little runners need to wrap their stashes better so the mutts can’t detect them!” he called
at her retreating back, laughing and laughing. His booming chuckles carried across the entire square.
Best thing about ol’ Mac – he was loud. Thank God.
Market browsers of all ages now noticed her in her delivery uniform, full pack strapped to her back, trying to escape from the two coppers and their slobbering electro-mutts. And once they noticed her, they began to make a way for her, whispering quick encouragements before filling in behind her.
One thing that was always certain about the residents of New Rio: they would help Nesi however they could to keep her goods out of the hands of the law. Sugar had been an illegal substance before even ancient Nonna was born, but that hadn’t stopped people from consuming it.
“Make a way!” she heard one of the coppers say.
“Move!” the other one yelled, followed by swearing.
Soon enough she reached the old sandstone steps that led out of the market square. She turned to be sure she had made a clear escape and saw her pursuers in the middle of the courtyard, pressed in a sea of bodies. It looked like the shoppers closest to them were talking – playing the role of concerned citizens. But maybe it wasn’t an act – it wasn’t very often a citizen caught a copper by his ear. Maybe they were asking for aid to catch the thief of a stolen watch or complaining about the state of the trash collecting robots.
Both coppers looked out above the heads of the crowd at Nesi, who was easy to spot hovering just above a step in the middle of the stairway. She smiled and gave a little wave, kicked off the hover feature to save the battery and landed with a little puff of dirt.
She turned and left the scene saying a quick prayer of thanks. They would never find her in the winding labyrinth of streets that was New Rio, even with the mutts. Runners knew the streets better than anyone, Nesi better than most runners.
She was hot, dusty and relieved. She had made it. Now on to the day’s deliveries.
Hours later, Nesi trudged back into the market. It had been a long day walking her way around the city, hot in the autumn sun. After the morning’s incident, she hadn’t even been able to hover. Her Sneaks were almost out of juice. At least she’d been successful – only two small bags of product left. Perfect.
She made her way over to Mac’s stall just in time. He was packing up for the night.
“Hey Mac, wanna do some business?” she called out when she got close.
He glanced over a thick shoulder and smiled. “Hey little Nesi! Nice flying today.” He set down a crate of black walnuts and came over to other side of the rickety table he called a counter.
She grinned and with a flourish of her hand, bowed to the big man. “I do what I can, sir, to entertain the masses.”
He laughed hard at the little joke, slapping his thigh. His face turned a bright cherry red. Mac always laughed too loud and too hard and too long. Eventually he calmed down enough to say, “So you want to do some business, little lady? Finished up your delivery boy tasks for the day?”
“That I have.”
“Got a list for me?”
She glanced around the square, craning her neck to see if old Rohit Rangan was still around, but the spice seller’s shop was closed up tight for the night. Uncle Toni wouldn’t have his precious vanilla for the night’s baking then. Maybe he’d have to come down himself tomorrow.
The whole place was nearly deserted, totally empty of other customers with only a few vendors packing up their little shops. “Pecans, almond flour, and a whole bag of those walnuts.”
“You want shelled or unshelled?”
She sighed. “Unshelled if they’re cheaper.”
He chuckled. “They always are, Ness.”
She took the bag off of her shoulders and unzippered an outer pouch that would turn into a shopping tote. She held it out to Mac, still folded.
He shook it out, but before leaving the counter, raised an eyebrow in the direction of her main bag. It sat on the counter, not quite flat. “Got anything to trade, or will this all be on credit today little menina?”
She opened the main compartment of her bag and pulled out two white paper sacks. “A little trade, a little credit,” she said. She gestured to the tote he held. “Now fill that up.”
He guffawed and walked back to the crate full of the unshelled black walnuts. He filled the little tote full to the brim with the small lime green spheres, some of which were already half crumbled away from the black shells. She really hated shelling the things – by the time she got done her hands would be black and the stain stuck around for weeks, but Nonna insisted. Unshelled were cheaper.
Mac brought the bag back, hoisted it up to the counter, and took a second tote Nesi had unzipped off of the main compartment of her backbag. “Anything worthwhile?” he asked, gesturing toward the little white bags still sitting on the counter.
She nodded and held one out to him. He took it quickly with a big meaty hand, greedy to see what Nesi had left from her daily deliveries. “A couple of mini rum cakes,” she said.
He opened the bag just barely and took a big sniff. His eyes rolled back in his head with pleasure.
“See this,” he said, “is why you need one of them scent-preventing bags. Those mutts can spot you from a kilometer away!”
Nesi laughed. “Yeah? You think Uncle Toni would spring for one of those? They’re like five times as much as the Sneaks and I had to pay for those myself!”
“Yeah, that’s what makes Antonio a good business man, right there.”
“What? Not giving a titica about his favorite niece and best runner?”
Mac waved a dismissive paw. “Nah. It keeps you on your toes, moving fast. Besides, you turned on those fancy hover shoes today and they just made you bump into a whole lotta people you could have avoided.”
She rolled her eyes.
“You almost knocked over that sweet little old lady,” he said.
“What? Where? I’ve never met a sweet old lady in this whole town,” she said and made him laugh and laugh again.
“Alright, alright, I’ll have to go to the back for what you really came for,” he said with a wink and pulled her cap down over her eyes.
Nesi pushed it up and glanced around quickly even though most everyone else was gone. She didn’t want the wrong vendor to overhear and snitch Mac out.
“Pecans and almond flour!” she yelled to make sure no one got any ideas.
He raised a hand to say he heard her already.
After a few minutes of waiting, Mac came back out, lugging her second tote now full of sugar, up to his counter. The little table shook when he set it down. Nesi was going to have a long walk home based on that thud.
“That’s four and a half quilos of granulated white gold, my little friend.”
Nesi’s eyes widened. “Why so much?” It was twice the normal amount. Nonna would be as pleased as peaches.
Might even make Uncle Toni forget that she didn’t get the vanilla.
“Eh, my other regular hasn’t been by in awhile.” He chuckled. “Maybe the mutts caught him distributing.”
“What?! Your other regular? Mac, you hurt my heart,” she thumped her scrawny chest.
“Right here. It wounds me that you’d sell to our competition.” It didn’t wound her any that their competition mightta been picked up by the coppers.
Mac just waved away her melodrama. “A man’s gotta eat, and that sweet little Vietnamese kid buys a lot of sesame paste – something your operation’s never even heard of. And he’s a lot nicer than you are.”
“You selling your best black market product to the squints, Mac?”
“Hey now. None of that talk. Besides, a credit’s a credit my little lass. If I cared about such things do you think I’d sell to a Carcamano like you?”
She held out her arm. “Yeah, yeah. Take what I owe you, you filthy bourgeois pig.”
He scanned her, taking his credits quickly and efficiently. Any other merchant in the whole place and Nesi would’ve bargained and battled with for a solid half hour before agreeing on a price, but she’d been coming to Mac for years. Unless there was some sort of shortage, his prices stayed the same for her.
He snatched up the other treat in its little white bag, peeked inside and said, “This one’ll be for the missus.” He gave her a little salute with his empty hand. “Nice doing business with you, Ness.”
She nodded, slung her now empty backbag onto her shoulders and picked up the totes from the counter.
She’d only gotten a few steps away from his stall when Mac called her back. She stopped. “Whaddya want?” she asked over her shoulder, not even bothering to turn her whole body.
He waved her back over.
She sighed, picked up her totes, and trudged the few steps back.
“Hey, Nesi, sorry about that. I almost forgot. That flatfoot said to stop by the precinct tomorrow.”
“One of the coppers from this morning?” Nesi asked. “What do you mean he wants me to stop by? You tell him who I was?”
Mac’s face got all red and blotchy. “Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I did. Whatcha think, I’m some sort of snitch? Going around to all the law I can find and telling them all my best clients? C’mon, Nesi.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry! What’d he want then?”
“Did I ask the cop what he wanted from a delivery kid? No, of course I didn’t ask the cop what he wanted! I assumed, and call me crazy, but I assumed he wanted a cookie or, I dunno, something sweet.”
“You told him that I run pastry?!” she asked.
Mac’s face got even redder, if that were possible. “Your Imaldito outfit tells him what you sell, you little punk. You’re a maldito billboard, kid, wearing that! Who else wears that get up? Other sweet runners, that’s it. Even the legitimate De Luca bread sellers across the way don’t wear that get-up. And no other runner would be seen dead in those ugly pants.”
She agreed with him there, but you wore the uniform that went with the job, or you complained and got a smack in the back of the head by Uncle Toni. Complaining wasn’t worth the headache.
But she was curious. What’d the copper want? She very briefly thought about heading over to the copper’s HQ, and then shook her head. Had she really just considered that?
“Well, I’m not going to walk into the flatfoot mecca, am I?” she said, “especially on some stupid merchant’s hunch? What do I say: ‘Hey guys, I got the best illegal goodies, they taste like the things your grandmother’s grandmother used to bake from only the finest black market sugar. Please don’t arrest me officer.’ You’re crazy. Way too risky, Mac.”
He pulled out a little rectangle of paper. “I think he was hoping you would do something with this?” he said.
She reached for the paper, but he pulled it away.
“What is it even?” she said. She hadn’t really gotten a look at it, but even if she had, she’d never been very good at reading. She only had enough to get around, and that didn’t need to be much. Whatever it was, it looked old, the paper and ink faded.
“Don’t know,” he said, wiping it on his apron like it was dirty. Maybe it was if it had been riding around in Mac’s pocket all day.
“It’s from the copper?” Nesi asked.
“Yeah. He said it’s something his old grandpa cop told him about.”
“And he wanted me to have it?” To say she was wary wouldn’t even come close. Suspicion kept you safe on the serpentine streets of ol’ New Rio.
Mac laughed, long and hard. “I’d say he wants your Nonna to have it, unless you’re the one now doing the baking,” he crossed himself dramatically, “Heaven help us all.”
He shrugged and handed it over. “Looks like it to me. If it turns out to be any good, you remember your old friend Mac’s the one that gave it to ya.”
She pocketed the paper. “Alright. We’ll see what the family says. May not be a bad thing to have a flatfoot owe ya one.” She picked her totes back up and left.
She made the long walk home a bit quicker than she thought, climbing up the three rackety staircases without even having to pause, only using her Sneaks a little bit toward the end. She walked through the living room, lined with rack upon rack of cakes and cannoli shells cooling, waiting to be stuffed and packaged and sent out with Nesi and the other runners first thing tomorrow morning.
She finally dropped the totes when she made it to the kitchen. Nonna and Uncle Toni were already working away. Perfect. She would need them both to agree to the plan she had worked up on the way over.
She said her hellos to Uncle Toni, gave the required kisses to Nonna, and pulled out the old recipe card. “So I nearly got caught by the coppers today.”
They both stopped what they were doing and looked at her.
“Obviously you got away,” Uncle Toni said. His hands were covered in dough and powdered sugar, but he stepped away from the cookies he’d been balling.
“Yeah. No sweat. Even better though, apparently one of them has a sweet tooth. He went through Mac to give us this.” She pulled the now-wrinkled paper out of her pocket.
“Some sort of recipe?” Nonna asked, but Nesi didn’t hand it over yet.
“I thought maybe we could make whatever’s on here and sell ‘em special. Since it came to us as a special request we could charge a little extra. It could make us a nice profit and create some goodwill, maybe. It wouldn’t hurt to have friends among the coppers.”
Nonna and Uncle Toni shared a quick look, then Uncle Toni nodded. “Not bad thinking, kid. Let’s see it.”
Nesi handed the paper to Nonna. She had the cleaner hands of the two. Uncle Toni moved to read over his mother’s shoulder.
“Seems simple enough. We could do these.” Nonna said.
He nodded and laughed. “Well done, kid. Looks like we just got a new menu item and an important customer. Want to be the first one to try the De Luca family’s brand new…” He squinted at the piece of paper. “…jelly donut?”
Nesi grinned. Did she ever. Trying new product was the biggest perk of a runner’s job.
About the Author
Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey (the pretty part), though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes (then sands, stains, dyes and rips them apart for authenticity) for a tony-award winning regional theatre. By night she writes short stories, bad poetry and lots of outlines. She’s currently up to her elbows constructing 18th century corsets and writing a YA novel. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking with her husband, teasing her two cats, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.
Read our interview with Jessi Cole Jackson