WHITE LINE, BLACK ROAD ...
South of the border ...
... Mexico was anything but a rich country and the roads certainly were not the greatest in the world. No upkeep and no money made them just so much rubble and chunks of asphalt dotting the otherwise bleak terrain. The hot winds blew dust up into little whirlwinds as the sun beat down on the parched earth, drying the soil to a consistency like that of asphalt. As for the asphalt, it was more like crumbling dirt now.
Mexico was not known for its fair climate. The harsh heat had cracked the once smooth, paved two lane until it was nothing more than a wide strip of potholes and eroded sections with gullies on the sides rising.
For the most part though, the local real estate was just endless flatland. Soaring heat combined with mirages and an occasional cactus was the only vegetation readily noticeable to a casual glance that took in otherwise mundane surroundings. The greenhouse effect that scientists had screamed, ranted, and raved about to the world governments for so many years was finally being felt. It had turned most of the central United States into arid wastes. What it did for the deserts was to raise the temperature even more.
It was hot, a hundred and five in the shade.
One got used to it after a while.
These were the badlands. Territory of the banditos, the various gangs that plied the crumbling roads, working under their Jefes, making a living out of making others suffer.
The underpass was fading into the landscape, crumbling. The road was in worse shape, though. The horse plodded onward, the rider keeping his head bowed slightly, under the shade of his hat to keep the hot desert wind from blowing grit into his eyes and nose. Tanned, weathered skin showed beneath the hat and tarp. Long white platinum hair was tied back into a pony tail by a rawhide strip and was accented by a head band made out of tan cloth. Chrome mirrored contacts covered his retinas, his eyes stared out at a bleak landscape with less than a casual glance. The man adjusted his posture in the saddle and drew the horse's reins back as he rode under the crumbling underpass.
Some loose rubble from the overpass fell to the ground. The man brought the horse to a stop as his tarp was instantly thrown back, his right hand on the well worn grips of a old .41 Smith revolver.
He cautiously prodded the horse forward.
He looked backwards at the pack mule that followed meekly behind the horse. The mule was laden down with wares, supplies, and it was on its last legs, lame ones. When he got to town, he would trade the mule in or sell it for food. He adjusted his hat slightly, bowing it forward to cast his deep etched face in shadow.
There was a flutter of wings overhead and he turned to look around as a hawk came in gracefully to land atop his outstretched arm. The hawk eyed him up and down, turned it's head sideways uninterestedly and screeched twice.
"Back so soon?" The man asked the bird.
"No luck ..."
The hawk spread it's wings and took two careful steps forward. The man let the hawk go free whenever he stopped, the hawk would find its own keep and almost always returned. When it didn't, it usually managed to find him a few days later. He had checked everything else. It paid to be thorough, but it also paid to be quick and he was taking too long today. The hawk screeched again and a wind blew up. More grit and ... there was something else in the air. The man sniffed the air, detecting the poignant smell he had grown accustomed to so long ago.
Where there was smoke, there was fire. The man reined the horse to a stop again, the mule bayed gratefully and then grew silent. The man reached into a saddle pack, finding a pair of Zeiss military binoculars. The hawk screamed again and flew off as the man slowly looked around the flat land. Off to the west was a column of thick black smoke rising against a stark desert. The man raised the binoculars to his eyes and locked the range finder onto the area from where the smoke was billowing.
<5.456 KILOMETERS> the range meter read and he saw a second column of black smoke begin to rise. The image buzzed with static and then grew solid again as the microchip adjusted the image. A hot wind blew up grit and dust around him and he looked back through the binoculars. His tarp blew out behind him as the grit stung his exposed skin. He touched the ZOOM stud and the lens whirred. A sharper, larger image carefully adjusted by an internal microchip showed dust trails from several vehicles in the area. Bad dustup over there. Must be the indigs brewing up some poor dumb bastard.
None worse except American bandits.
None of his business.
"Get some, mis banditos." The man said coldly.
Luck depended on who was the winner and who was the victim. This country needed a bunch of heroes. The kind like in the old movies where they wore white, rode into town on white horses and had really outrageous fights and yet somehow never managed to get dirty or to get shot. Bunch of heroes. The kind that didn't miss when they shot and the kind that didn't bleed when they were shot.
He remembered an incident a few months back as he recalled a similar bad dust up.
People had called him a 'hero' once, long ago, he remembered the time he had stopped to help those in trouble. The smoke had billowed out of an overturned midsize, an old Ford by the looks. Yes, the memories were still clear, unclouded by time and experience. He thought back. There was a Kenworth Atlas sleeper longnose painted in old Ryder rental truck colors and it's equally faded box trailer pulled over onto the side of the road across from the overturned Ford.
The doors on the Atlas were open and the driver and passenger were being escorted by gunpoint away from the rig by three bandits toting rifles and shotguns. A bandit rode an old motorcycle that was puffing out thick black smoke. Rode it around and around, shaking a bottle of Tequila at the prisoners and shouting, cursing when the drunk fool almost sent the bike over sideways in a turn. The bandits looked to be a motley group, living off the road. Living quite well by the looks of things.
A group of depressed looking individuals were huddled under the hateful stares and the guns of the bandits, they were the defeated. The victims of the strong. The survival of the fittest and the fastest. What one of the bandits was doing to a kicking and screaming woman on the ground took four other bandits to hold her down. One of the convoy men screamed out and ran forward but a bandit brought a rifle down hard into the back of the man and the would-be hero crumpled like wet paper in the wind.
Another man took off running in the confusion, hoping to get away, but a bandit casually turned and brought up a shotgun and fired the weapon. The running man was picked up a foot off the ground and thrown forward a full meter to land face first in the sand from the impact of the homemade shot. A spray of red settled on the ground around the body. The bandit then turned to search the body and finding nothing of value, turned back to watch the entertainment as another bandit kicked the first man in the stomach and made him crawl back over to the group.
The body on the ground jerked twice and was still.
A shotgun was a great weapon these days. All you had to have was a shotgun, a few empty shells, a primer, a cap, some powder, and anything that would fit in the shell. Glass, nails, rocks, metal, whatever.
You had a gun again.
The man saw all this from the shelter of a small dune about two hundred meters away and down wind. The bandits were still having their way with the woman, oblivious to the death, and he turned away, uninterested. He had seen it all before. It was something mundane, something that happened everyday in the badlands.
The man peered through the binoculars again and counted off numbers. The bandits had five vehicles; two midsizes, a luxury, a pickup, and a van, plus a few old cycles. All painted up in desert camouflage tan or just that color due to the lack of care that they got but done in typical bandit flames, murals, rust, modifications, and several sported the dried skulls of past victims. All their vehicles were being held together by a prayer and anything that could be found or stolen.
The victims of the convoy looked to have the Atlas with the trailer, the overturned Ford, and an old station wagon which had a flat tire and a blood coated and smashed front window. Thick black marks showed where the driver had lost control and had run off the road into an embankment, flipping the station wagon over. The rest of the scene was composed of a few bodies laid out and already probably looted of valuables, and the usual wreckage and debris. The Atlas still looked drivable. The man counted ten bandits and four of the others still breathing, counting the woman.
The man looked over at the trailer as there was a roar of an engine. He tightened the view mode and watched as a pair of bandits attached a heavy chain to the back doors of the trailer and then attached the chain to the rear bumper of the pickup. The pickup's engine roared, belching black exhaust from the pipes, the rear tires spun in the gravel and on the road. The rear of the pickup fishtailed and then there was the sound of rending metal and the two doors of the trailer came popping off with the snap of twisting tortured metal.
Crude, but effective, the man thought. He hit the zoom stud on the binoculars, kicking the magnification up all the way, and the lens whirred as he got a glimpse of why the bandits had wanted to hit the convoy so bad. Inside the trailer were several cartons and crates of supplies, probably from across the border. The bandits let out a cry and waved their weapons in the air triumphantly. The man continued to stare at the cases and crates in the back of the trailer.
It had to be a mirage.
He saw a carton of cigarettes tumble out and a mad dash was made by all the bandits there to see who could get the carton.
Commotion drew his attention back to the woman and the rest of the convoy. The woman was laying curled up on the ground, her clothes in tatters and her almost naked body streaked in blood, sweat, and dust. Two of the bandits were arguing over the woman, gesturing wildly and shouting. The bandits came to blows, pushing and shoving while shouting at each other. The man couldn't make out what they were saying but it was heated.
A bandit, obviously the chief, walked over and snorted, pushing the other two apart from each other. The chief looked down at the woman laying there on the ground and spit on her, kicking her and then kicking dust onto her. The bandit chief turned and said something to the other two that made them both look at the woman. The chief then drew out an old .38 revolver, pointing it at the woman's head, cocking the trigger.
The man lowered the binoculars. The bandits wouldn't shoot a woman. A woman was a rare commodity in these times and parts. Indig bandits. The man had seen enough. He had made his mind up a full two seconds before the bandit chief had drawn the revolver. What was about to happen he had seen many times before, mundane. When two people fought over one item or piece of property, the answer was to remove the cause of conflict.
The man reached over and slowly brought his '92 Wethers .308 rifle up next to him, setting the stock against his shoulder and peering through the Leopold Jaeger electronic sight fitted to the weapon. The Leopold Jaeger had been the last of the high technology items out of Germany before the Crash, and it used the same technology as the combat aircraft used in their predicting gun sights.
The safety thumbed off and placed the illuminated sight over the bandit chief's head. A laser range finder measured out three hundred and fifty four meters. A special sensor automatically adjusted for windage and bullet drop. The sight whirred softly, the lenses drew the target into focus, and a blinking LED readout projected within the target reticule stated that the target was locked in.
The .308 Wethers was a bolt action, magazine fed hunting rifle with match-grade components.
The man saw the bandit chief turn his head to face the other two bandits and the prisoners, grinning and laughing as his finger closed around the trigger. The bandit chief never saw the red dot on his forehead because the laser was projected in the infra-red spectrum, a spectrum that was passively scanned by the search unit of the Jaeger unit.
The trigger pull was smooth as the rifle bucked hard in the man's hands. The crack of the round's passage followed as the man casually worked the bolt, ejecting the smoking spent brass and loading another round into the chamber of the weapon. He sighted in for the second shot, mentally noting where the first empty casing had fallen. Brass was to be collected, not forgotten in a world of mostly hand reloaded ammunition.
The bandit chief's head split in half a good quarter of the way down the face, showering the other two bandits and the woman with pulped gore and a fine red mist. The corpse jerked twice, dropping the revolver from limp hands and fell slowly to the ground. By the time the bandit chief's body had hit the ground, the bandit next to him was staring down at the hole in his chest. The bandit fell hard to his knees with a sigh from mutilated lungs, splintered ribs, and a disintegrated spine.
The bandits were running for cover now. One of the bandits pointed toward the direction of the dead bandit leader and shouted something. He never got to finish but then that would have been all that the poor bastard would have been able to say before he had focused all his attention so desperately to trying to keep his coiled entrails from spilling out of the hole punched in his stomach. The bandits were running now, seeking cover but the man had chosen his place carefully. There was no where that the bandits could run that he couldn't move just a few meters over each way and wax them easily.
A few of the bandits were panic firing now, popping caps in all directions. Useless gesture and the only danger was that some of the victims might be hit. The man cursed them for wasting good ammunition. False bravado on their part.
Stupid. A waste of good ammunition.
He sighted again, chose another target, this one crouching nervously next to the Atlas, and pulled the trigger. The Wethers roared as the man worked the bolt, ejecting the brass and loading again. He moved to the next target, he hadn't needed to see the last man die. The splash of blood against the side of the Atlas seen out of the peripheral vision of the sight was all he needed. That made four down with four shots. Not bad, but then he had the advantage of surprise and the good sense not to waste ammunition when he could keep from it. Ammunition was hard to come by in these parts.
One shot left in the Wethers clip and then he would have to reload. A spare clip lay nearby as the man propped the Wethers carefully on the rock outcropping, stabilizing the weapon. The next round found a home in the side of the van where a bandit was crouched. The round punched easily through the bandit and continued on through the truck, passing through to the other side and on out into the badlands. The bandit looked down, staring at his caved in chest with the sudden realization that he was dead.
The body slid slowly down the side of the van, revealing the blood splashed hole in the side of the van and through the hole, bright daylight beyond. A trail of blood marked where the body slid downward and a pool of red grew around the corpse.
The man discarded the empty magazine and slammed the fresh magazine into the loading well with a snick, working the bolt action and chambering a new round. Four seconds to reload and he cursed at his slowness. Being slow was going to get him killed one day. He must be getting slow in his old age. He'd be twenty-three next month, if he lived that long. He was getting old.
He was curious as to how the bandits had spent their extra time. He peered through the sight and chose his next target. The bandits were trying to find out where he was. Several were popping caps in his direction now but the range made the rounds just an angry buzz over his head. The man sighted a bandit laying prone near the pickup, in supposed cover near the front wheel.
The Wethers roared and the round punched through the front bumper, the tire well, the tire itself, and finally into the unlucky bandit who flipped a foot and a half off the ground, twisting in mid air and spraying blood in his death spasm. The body hit the ground still twitching, blood running from between the lips as it leaned up next to the pickup and finally was still. Six indigs down, four to go.
The woman had managed to gain some composure and crawled to safety behind one of the bandits midsize. The other victims were behind cover of whatever nature they could find. They were in no danger. The man had no quarrel with them.
Easy pull on the trigger, constant pressure. The next bandit died in mid stride, trying to make a break for one of the midsizes. The corpse was neatly cut down in mid stride by the .308 round that entered near the elbow, cut the arm off, punched through the ribs, the lungs, the heart, and continued the process to punch out the other side, leaving much of the internal organs as so much pulp. The body did a jerky dance forward, a few steps back, and fell sideways in an impossible broken heap. There was the roar of a engine and one of the midsizes, an old two door black Buick, did a fishtail in the dirt, bouncing onto the road. Two bandits in the car. One firing out the shattered back widow.
The man took aim. A lone bandit managed to get away with a fresh corpse in the back seat and a good deal of blood all over the interior. The last indig hadn't even had the decency to drop his weapon outside the car when he had died. Damn. Waste of more good ammunition and a good weapon.
One got away.
That meant that reinforcements were likely to be back soon. One left. Got to finish this now. The last bandit walked out in the open, fearful, shaking, trying to look in every direction at once. His hands slowly raised above his head. The bandit was unarmed, having discarded his weapon and hoping to enjoy the mercies of his new captors.
There was no room for mercy in the badlands. The man took sight and pulled the trigger of the Wethers. No room for remorse. The rifle roared, spitting flame as the bandit screamed and fell to the ground clutching at the hole in his right knee. The round had shattered the bone and almost tore the leg off.
The bandit rolled into a fetal position and rocked back and forth, hugging the crippled leg to his chest with both arms and screamed, his face contorted in pain.
The man always liked to keep one of them alive so he could get a chance to gossip. It paid to keep one step ahead and well informed of who liked to roam the same area that he happened to be in.
The bandit screamed again. It made the man feel good to have made the scum suffer. There were others who had suffered more at the bandit's hands but now someone had made a payment on the large debt that was owed. The bandit rolled over and screamed again, blood flowing out from between tightly clenched fingers. Yes, a few ghosts would rest easier tonight. Many happy spirits. The man grinned a little as he stood, brushed the dust off, and picked up the empty magazine, collecting the spent brass.
The bandits were definitely in the hurt. He recovered the empty magazine and the spent brass from his position.
They had called him a hero that day. That is, they had called him hero until he had started taking what was his just due. Then they had called him other things. He had helped himself to some of the supplies in the trailer and to most of the scavenging that he could do to the bandit vehicles. He hadn't taken more than what he thought he needed. He wasn't greedy, just the will to survive. His saving their lives had been by way of quasi-contract. He helped them, they helped him afterwards.
One of the victims tried to stop him but the man took the Wethers and easily knocked the wind out of him. The rest of the victims quieted down after that. He let them have whatever he didn't need. Generous. He wasn't greedy, he took just enough to keep him alive, not much when you thought of how much the Atlas had originally carried. He had saved their lives so he could in turn save his.
The woman had just stood there staring at the ground, clutching at her torn clothes which failed to cover her body. The man went and found a blanket in one of the bandit cars, wrapping her in it. She hadn't protested at the smattering of blood on the blanket. She seemed to understand him, understand his ways now. Her new experience taught her a different way of looking at the world. If she could overcome it, she wouldn't go crazy. If she couldn't cope, well ...
She had lost something important in her life today. She had lost a little bit of her humanity to others.
He watched the people pack up and leave, salvaging what they could. They had agreed on his terms and he had kept his word. The only difference between him and the bandits was that he worked for his pay instead of stealing what he needed. Small difference but the woman seemed to be able to understand.
He came out of the quasi-deal with a good amount of supplies that the people could get along without and they came out with a good deal of supplies left to them. They also came out with their lives and whatever they could get from the bandit vehicles ...
He later found what was left of them a few klicks down the road on a return trip. What was left of them. The bandits had returned in force and caught the people on the open road.
He remembered that the woman wasn't among the dead bodies that he found.
He hadn't saved them, just delayed their deaths. It didn't bother him. He had grown accustomed to such happenings long ago. It was part of the game he played. The game kept him sane, kept him alive. She had obviously learned that there were other ways of surviving than fighting and winning.
It still didn't bother him, and the whole thing had been months ago.
Staying alive mattered and besides, it wasn't his fight.
It wasn't his business.
The hawk made a graceful dive onto his arm and landed hard, flapping it's wings for balance and looking up at the man who reached down to stroke the hawk affectionately. The bird cried out and walked sideways along his arm bringing him out of his memories.
The twin black smoke columns were continuing to rise from the west and he ignored them. He had seen too many similar sights before. One more dust up, a few more bodies. It didn't matter. The man had been south of the border for a long time.
He knew how the indigs thought.
He thought like them.
He returned the binoculars to the saddle pack and again he remembered the huge Atlas rig that the refugees had as he let himself wonder in his thoughts for a while.
The man wondered what had happened to the trucker that he had met a few weeks back. What had been his name? Gypsy. Yes, that was the trucker's name. A funny name for a white man, but a man worth remembering. He continued to wonder in his thoughts as the overpass disappeared finally behind him. He wondered if the trucker had made it out of the Jefe territories.
He hoped that he had.
The man adjusted his hat again and leaned forward in the saddle as the mule behind him bayed fitfully and pulled at its tether.
He goaded the horse into a trot again and lowered his head, shielding himself from the glare of the sun.
North of the border ...
... the road sang underneath the big rig, a lonesome, wailing song that was interspersed with the static of potholes and the chorus of ruts. The computer managed active suspension of the heavy ex-military transporter dampened out most of the bad spots in the road.
The rest, I barely noticed.
I was just kind of staring ahead blankly at the highway, one hand on the polymer wheel in front of me, one hand on the gear shift, with the rig in gear but my mind in neutral. I could hear the tires crying against the pavement, the throaty rumble of the Cummins under the hood, and the static of the brace of three digital CB radios.
My mind wasn't anywhere near the highway.
It was south of the border and wandering.
Wondering what it took to be a hero.
I knew a hero once. Saved my ass. Seems like a long time, now. In reality, the whole thing happened just a few months ago, when everything came right down to the wire. A time when my life went from being all in order to resembling that of a white hat wearing hero in a cheap spaghetti western.
Or a bad Bruce Dern movie.
It's a long story ...
My partner, Deano, looked up at me and took another drink of water, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
My only friend.
The two of us had known each other since the time that Deano's wife and kid had been offed by this nomad cycle gang on the outskirts of Hattiesburg. No one talks about what happened after that. Least ways not much.
He's a hell of a mechanic.
He's pretty good with a scoped rifle, too.
Deano and I were getting on up there in years. Hell, we both could remember the 'Nam, but that's not to say that we were old enough to have served. Deano taught me everything that I hadn't been able to teach myself.
We ran a twenty-four wheeler together, a old surplus Cadillac Gage HATHMAT that looks like its seen better days. You know We skipped around and hauled loads for a living, chartering out of the mid-west.
Down the roads and superhighways, those eighteen wheels keep on rolling, still the life line between the big cities. The Peterbilts, Kenworths, Danes, Rhiche Dynes, HATHMAT Cadillac Gage, and all the others. Even the corporations needed materials and trucks were cheaper than jets, that of course depending on what kind of cargo you had to have.
Both the tractor and the trailer were streamlined, air dam on the front of the tractor, spoiler on the tractor roof, and a spoiler on the trailer itself. The rig sported the latest in electronics, though somewhat cannibalized from other models, wired in unprofessionally by yours truly. No normal mechanic could have worked the rig over, but Deano and I, we knew how every wire was laid, how every connection was soldered, and if something went wrong, we could find out where the problem was. Inertial navigators with satellite linkage, backup on-board computer, computer controlled engines, HRFLIR High Resolution Forward Looking Infra-Red systems, Database system, HRNTV High Resolution Night Vision Televideo, and a host of other devices. All made necessary by the conditions of the road. The roads weren't safe anymore. Not in the best of shape in most areas, but they were roads.
I looked up at the road ahead. The sun had broken across the horizon and was rapidly climbing into the sky. Already the glare was oppressive. With the glare came the dulling of other, lesser lights that had lit the night. Ambient starlight. Enough to make the night into day if you had the right low-light optics.
We were coming up on Austin and were going to hit the beltway, slingshot around it, and get on East if I had anything to say about it. Put as much distance between me and the border as was possible was my plan.
... I took a last drag on the narcigarette, letting the chemically laced narcotic and tobacco flow in waves through my body. They say that smoking is bad for you, but today, everything can kill you. At least I know what's in the narcigarrettes and I smoke the brands that are guaranteed non-carcinogenic.
I can't always tell with the air that I breathe.
I exhaled deep gray smoke, then casually flicked the cigarette away out the open window, working the window crank of the door to put some glass back in the hole. The remains of the smoke wafted through the cabin, like old memories stirred up once more, slowly fading away.
There was nothing but static on the CB, or the radio.
Nothing out here.
Deano took a last swig from the filter canteen. The little plastic bottle had a evaporator that would collect water from the atmosphere and a built in filter that would process and purify water. He offered the military surplus item to me and I took a long drink. Too bad we hadn't spent a little extra and gotten a unit with a refrigeration coil built in.
Deano looked at me and sighed. Fifty-fifty was how we lived and it worked. We were independents, working for other people, under our terms, contracting out where we could. I thought of the road ahead. I'd be happy to see Missionary Ridge.
The highways had become a white line nightmare. The roads were still open and some small towns still flourished on the great black asphalt ribbon. The law existed only in the larger, heavily populated areas. After the second civil war and the collapse of the government, the good old US of A had become a collection of independent countries, a few states here, a few states there. Texas and the rest of the border states were fighting to keep Mexico from annexing them.
The eighteen wheelers were the life line to the cities. Neutral players among the new powers that were. Everyone still needed trade, and the North American continent was settling down into a uneasy peace. Map makers were breathing a sigh of relief. Not since the Soviet Union had disintegrated in the early 1990's had so many maps been rendered obsolete overnight.
I stared ahead at the road, lowering the sun visor to help cut down the glare. My bridge of my nose itched under the frame pads of my Ray Bans. I thought back to other things, other places, other times.
My father might not have understood the way I turned out, but he would have been proud. Hell, most people were lucky to have a job these days. I had a college education with a masters degree in business and all I was qualified to do was to drive rigs.
Screw it. I was good at it and it paid well.
I once had a government job, nice job, lots of benefits, job security. That was until the corporations all banded together and decided to take over.
Who needed the 'government'?
The corporations started printing their own money, which was only accepted in exchange for their products. Old currency became useless overnight. Corpcredit appeared. The corporations became the government and the government became a figurehead.
My government job vanished overnight.
Now I drive a rig.
I don't like someone telling me what to do.
I'm thirty-nine, physically fit, and doing well despite attempts at the otherwise by nature, other people and, sometimes, myself. I took the canteen again and took another long swallow of the chemically purified water. Water never tasted so good as when you were hot and thirsty.
The ninety channel CB was quiet, except for the constant hiss of static. Not much traffic out this way. I turned the squelch all the way up, sacrificing range for silence.
Deano leaned up against the door and snuggled into himself. He tilted his cap forward on his brow to shade his eyes from the sun.
My mind went back a few months. I thought back to someone I had met. Someone who had made a difference. It had shaken me to my foundations and I was still bothered today. I shouldn't have let him do it. I should have stayed. I shouldn't have let him talk me into leaving when I did. I should have this, I should have that.
I should have wouldn't have changed a thing.
Deano picked up the canteen and drank from it again.
My mind cleared, I forced the thoughts out as I drove. My eyes wandered from the road ahead to the instrumentation and back again.
"You still thinking about that crazy Indian?"
"Snow?" I asked, rudely jarred back to my thoughts. "Yeah."
"Yeah, well, he can take care of himself. What's done is done, nothing you could have done."
Yeah. I hate it when people try to make me feel better by rubbing my face in the obvious.
"Hey. Let's find some food."
Deano and I. Two modern day Ronins looking for a job, looking for work and something to eat. Time to find some excitement and forget about what was hundreds of klicks and weeks behind us.
It was time to find the road again.
I shifted to a higher gear, working the clutch and the shifter. Black diesel exhaust puffed away from the twin stacks behind the tractor. The speedometer read one forty-five klicks an hour.
The hot sun reflected off the crumbling black top and into the cabin of the rig. The air conditioner was laboring to overcome the glare and the ambient temperature outside. Inside it was comfortable. A pair of vents in the dash were positioned so that they would blow directly onto me.
It was a good feeling, the cold of the forced air and the climate control against my skin, the hot sun overhead, and the long black road ahead.
And a endless white line stretching to the horizon.
There was nothing but static on the radio and I felt too lazy at the moment to push the cassette tape the rest of the way into the unit.
Deano was leaning up against the window, snug in his crash harness, fast asleep.
The huge Cadillac Gage HATHMAT lumbered on down the road ...
... A hour later and a hundred and eighty-five klicks down the road, we pulled the old Cadillac Gage HATHMAT into the lot surrounding a roadhouse. We had found the listing on the Atlas in the databank, the onboard inertial navigator had pointed the way. The heavy tires of the rig cut through the dust and the crumbling black top parking lot. The squeal of air brakes announced our presence as the huge rig shook slightly, coming to a complete stop.
It seemed that the establishment was still well kept despite some of the riff-raff that blew through here like the dust storms. A lot of neon and chemo-glow strip signs advertised the place. Graffiti covered the storm breakers around the establishment. Large waist high rusty metallic anti-vehicle barricades were set up in front of the door to keep people from making the front of the bar a drive-through.
The bar's sloped 'crete walls were sandblasted clean in places but others sported the same amount of graffiti so that certain areas the whole building looked patchwork. A security vidcam sat atop each corner of the wall and two vidcams were recessed into cracking and chipping hollows beside the door.
The rotating sign out front had an old style Harley 900 Sportster cycle affixed atop it, but the winds and dust storms had reduced it from a work of art to an rusted eyesore. A old Peterbilt Special tractor was parked in the lot. So, we weren't the only riggers on the road today.
The gravel and asphalt parking area had had a lot of cars parked here over the years and judging by the way the asphalt was buckled and torn, not a few heavy rigs either. Dark spots on the asphalt could have been oil or even body fluids.
A few customers were out in the parking lot talking when Deano and I pulled in. Place looked popular for a Friday night. I carefully edged the eighteen wheeler up next to the Peterbilt, shutting down the rig's main engine. There's a second engine connected to the same transmission in a V fashion, an auxiliary power plant that the computer can bring on-line if the first engine fails. Not just any pair of engines under the hood, either, each was a three hundred and twenty-five horse, nine hundred foot/pounds of torque, Cummins ceramic. Variable pitch turbocharger, charge air cooling, port fuel injected diesels.
Big ones. Had to be. We were set up piggy back, could pull two full size trailers, switching from eighteen wheels to twenty-six with just a few minutes work.
The transmission shifter ratcheted easily into Neutral. Twenty three manual gears and the last ten equipped with automatic overdrive made life a lot easier. A green light came on atop the stick as I yanked back the first series of brake handles, hitting the emergency and auxiliary brake systems. The rig wasn't going anywhere.
I raised my chair-arm mounted control panel backwards and stretched. The digital dash instruments all dropped like stones in water. The HUD winking off. Engine RPM, turbine RPM, manifold pressure, turbine temperature, engine temperature, transmission temperature, fuel temperature, fuel pressure, oil pressure, oil backups, turbine inlet temperature, exhaust temperature, intercooler inlet temperature, and a host of other multi-colored bar graphs that measured the vital signs of the power train. Special high pressure independent lubrication systems would keep the red hot turbos oiled until well after the rest of the engine oil had settled back down into its pan.
Deano stretched in the shotgun seat and moved his own panel up and back, dual controls so that each man could drive when they needed to. Deano yawned as he hit the cabin locks, pushing his door open.
The hot air outside roared into the cabin and turned the inside of the tractor into a broiler. I ignored the heat, tying on a black bandanna and grabbing my patch adorned driving vest. It had been a long road and time to get something to eat. Even if you would regret what you ate later. Choke and pukes, roadside restaurants, blacktop side bars, were like that. Some of the 'better' ones had soy burgers or algae steaks that would be with you for a couple of states or so.
Some of the food went through you like a sieve ...
"Going to ante-up?" Deano asked me, motioning to the familiar shapes of the Franchi SPAS-12 shotgun, the Winchester 1200 Defender pump, the Steyer Manlicher Scout rifle, and the Ruger Mini-14 secured in the gun rack in the back of the sleeper. Three hundred rounds apiece in belt pouches, bandoliers, and hard mags for the shotguns. Each of the rifles had twenty magazines, not including the double stacked magazines already loaded into the weapons or in the case of the Steyr, the second magazine was located in the stock.
"Naw. Looks nice enough." I said cheerfully.
Two men appeared at the entrance of the establishment, dragging a limp body between them. Deano and I watched as they dumped the body unceremoniously onto the parking lot. One of the men spat on the body and the other kicked the body hard in the ribs, sending it rolling over to the side.
Deano nodded, swung down from the cabin and landed on the pavement, gravel crunching under his boots.
"Yeah, quaint little place." Deano replied flatly. "Right inviting."
I heard his door shut hard.
I followed and shut the cab door. We both still wore our sidearms, a 9mm Glock for Deano and a .45 Colt automatic for me. Custom Pachmyr grips, twelve inch ported long slide, tritium night sights, balanced, a Colt Overframe and a staggered magazine. Deano's piece's options read like a gun nut's wet dream.
My gloved hand popped the safety catch on the nylon holster and drew the Colt, ejecting the magazine and locking the slide open with a fluid, practiced motion. I eyeballed the magazine.
Thirteen rounds, all manstoppers.
I slapped the magazine home and let the slide fall back, chambering a round as I double checked the safety and decocked the hammer. I slid the automatic back into its holster, all slung low on the hip in a custom quick draw black nylon rig, gunfighter style even to the leg tie down strap at the bottom of the holster.
I have this philosophy of sorts, you see.
I carry the biggest handgun that I can in the hope that whoever starts making trouble will see the Colt and think twice about any aggression. It's been my experience that if you flash a .45 Colt automatic and imply that you know just how to use one and the person sees the huge barrel of the weapon, then most people are going to simmer down. The others, well, the automatic is also pretty good at what it was originally intended for.
It was standard practice between us to at least carry our handguns. All the hardware that was readily visible on us at least. Modern day cowboys, gunslingers, Ronins, whatever you wanted to call us.
We finished locking the cab securely and walked over to the establishment.
Deano was whistling some private tune and carried himself with this arrogant walk. Myself, well I had this kind of strut-gait, a walk that was reminiscent of gunfighters of old, strangely in step with today's way of life.
An anachronism on two legs, that was me.
It was part practiced but mostly post motorcycle accident.
Long story. Buy me a drink one day and I'll tell you about it.
The sun was merciless. I began to break a sweat before I was halfway across the parking lot. I looked around, not knowing what I expected to see. Beyond the storm guides, there was nothing but desert and barren rocky land as far as the eye could see. Heat shimmers and cactus.
The air was hot, hard to breathe, burning the nostrils. The sun filtered through a single small white cloud in the perfectly blue sky. The air was so blue and the land so barren that it hurt your eyes to look at either one for long. The only shade around was that made by man.
A hundred and four degrees. My Shido chronometer showed it to be a quarter to five. Didn't get dark around here for another two hours. Wouldn't start to cool off till another four.
A bead of sweat rolled down my forehead and into my eye before I could dab it away with my gloved finger. I blinked until the salty sting of the sweat faded.
I scratched at a day's growth of beard as we headed through the heavy storm/climate sealed doors, then to the swinging plastiglass front doors which were decorated with various aging and cracking decals of major credit cards that were still accepted, brands of beer served cold, establishment policies, and various shipping and tobacco companies that had once had vendorships here.
A warning sign in yellow and black proclaimed that the premises were protected by theft deterrents. Another sign located just below the fading and peeling Federal environseal statement was one that made an important point:
Notice: you can keep your hardware on you, but check your ego in at the door.
We kept our filters in anyway.
It's been my experience that most of these places leak ...
Corporate enforcement of safety regulations was one thing, government enforcement was a joke. The heavy doors slid shut behind us, sealing the establishment again. Cool air began to blow from a heavy circulation unit that was taxed to the limit in fighting the heat outside. The unit began to rattle and sound like an unbalanced clothes washer.
No one paid any attention to it.
It felt good here. The air didn't hurt to breathe and smelled artificial. Cleaner than that inside the rig. I removed my Ray Bans, storing them in a hard case and slipping the case into my vest pocket.
Inside wasn't much different from what I had expected. A simple circular bar sat in the middle surrounded by several tables, and a few booths. There were various pieces of cycles and cars hanging on the walls and above the bar was the most incredible collection of license plates I had ever seen. Tab skippers from long ago. If you couldn't pay, you had to leave your car tags.
Things like that didn't work today. If you couldn't pay these days, they were just as likely to put you in a coma as let you work the tab off.
We moved on into the place and passed through swinging saloon doors which I thought gave the place a certain touch. Cinderblock walls made smooth by countless coats of paint. The large but dimly illuminated floor area was smoky and filled with tables. Illuminated booths lined the walls and a large neon lit bar filled the back half of the room.
A few people were sitting at the bar and drinking, talking, and watching a big screen satellite TV unit set above the bar in one of the corners. A obsolete video jukebox sat in the corner, near a pair of worn out and faded pool tables. I could hear the squeak of boots on the floor as the players lined up for a shot, then the clicking sound that the cue made when it struck the ball. The whisper of the ball across the table.
Familiar sounds to me.
There were twin shafts of cobalt blue light projected upon the bar by floating sponsons and women in sparsely clad leather and studs were dancing lewdly atop the bar to the band's music. Laughter went up from the crowd in the corner and the air was dense with smoke, chatter, intoxicants. The smell of alcohol and algae based food was strong.
A TV behind the bar was showing a religious documentary. The bartender watched the program for a few seconds then shook his head and went back to wiping glasses out with a rag that probably hadn't been washed in days.
The bar wasn't bad, as most side of the road places went. Thick smoke and neon lights gave the place an atmosphere but I didn't know if the atmosphere was poisonous yet. The pudgy bartender dressed in a white smock was serving a few customers seated at the bar. Two newcomers like us didn't attract much attention and the rest of the patrons just went on about their business. Deano and I took seats at a booth. I finished casing the joint.
Bad habit, but I knew my way out if trouble started.
Deano ordered a pitcher of beer and I got my usual amaretto sour, (which I was surprised that the 'tender could mix). A homely looking waitress took our order and served us shortly. I downed my sour, letting the chemical intoxicants trickle their way smoothly down my dry throat.
I excused myself, leaving Deano to romance his pitcher as I took a seat at the bar, mingling. A lone trucker sat at the far end of the bar, where no seats were left to take. The rest of the patrons were migrant farmers, badasses, and local color in the landscape, all existing on a dollar in the hand is worth a bottle on the lips basis.
I nodded to the bartender who turned and began to fill my glass again, using some artificial lemon concentrate instead of whiskey sour mix in the drink. Didn't bother me. His right arm was a Japamerican unit, an old one. It whined as he handed me the glass and began to wipe the bar. A scar ran from his forehead down to his chin and the scar tissue drew his upper lip tightly upward at the corner into a permanent scowl.
I thanked him kindly.
He may not have been much to look at, but he did know how to make an amaretto sour the correct way and that made him just aces in my book.
One of the floating sponsons hovered way over my head, its cobalt blue ray of light shimmering down on one of the bar top dancers as she danced lewdly in front of me, lip syncing to the music.
"' ... I want to be impulsive, reckless. I want to loose myself in your flesh ...'"
She was pretty, for this kind of joint. I felt sorry for her, knowing that her kind was like lichen on a wall. Where ever there was a damp place like this in society, there would be girls like this to work there. I stuck a fiver in her leather skirt just below the navel and she passed on down the bar, the blue light floater following her. I returned to my drink and I chatted with another pair of truckers who had just entered the establishment and ambled up to the bar.
They had seen our rig and had decided that where one pair of truckers were, well ... The two riggers edged up to the bar and took seats. Introductions were passed around and between drinking we discussed what we thought of the present weight system and the totally off the wall discussion of putting yet more horsepower in the big rigs. There was also talk of what next year's models would be like, the local law enforcement agencies, their policies, where it was bad to be caught after dark, and what the chem count was on some of the roads.
Give a trucker one last breath of air and damn if he won't use it to talk his head off.
I finished my second sour and sat the glass mug down heavily on the bar. The waitress came back over to me, looking at the vest I wore, wanting to say something. There was a hard pat on my back and I turned, expecting trouble. I relaxed visibly when I saw that it was just the trucker I had seen sitting at the far end of the bar. He migrated to the seat next to me and sat down.
"I'm Thomas Carter. You're headed for the East, aren't you?"
"The right coast? Yeah."
"The 'right coast'?" he asked.
"Yeah, you know, right coast, left coast."
He nodded, getting the term at last.
"Name's Shields." I added, extending my gloved hand which he took in his.
"Pleased to meet you."
"Likewise, do I know you?"
"Naw, I run out of Miami myself. Who do you pull for?"
"Independent." I replied. "I'm the driver."
"Oh, then that rig is yours?" he asked.
"It's still the same I guess ..."
"What is?" Thomas asked.
"The principal." I replied. "Own to operate and operate to own."
"Ten four on that, Brother. Let me get the next one."
"Thanks." I replied.
"You got a handle?" the older man asked.
"Gypsy." I replied.
"Dirty Deal." the other trucker said, nodding.
"Another one?" the waitress asked in a pleasant voice.
I nodded my head and handed her back the glass. Thomas took a long drink from his mug and gave it to her also.
"Another sour ..." I said.
The waitress brought back my glass and I drank slowly. Drink always did taste like really sweet Country Time lemonade, the kind that you used to make from the powder in the can, just like you make everything today. There was a slap of wind and dust from outside the doors and a figure stood there illuminated by harsh sunlight spilling in. Some turned to look over the new arrival, others ignored the stranger. The stranger moved on inside as the doors closed behind him, shutting with a hiss. The climate control unit seemed to labor even more to make up for the loss from the door opening. I just knew that any minute the old unit was going to give up the ghost.
The crowd thinned on my left and parted, allowing the stranger enough room to move through and to take a seat at the bar next to me. I casually looked over at the new arrival and then went back to my drink.
The stranger was dressed in grey pants, urban camo type, a black nylon Kevlar vest under a synthleather jacket, and high topped black combat boots. A vapor filter canteen was attached to the military web belt around the waist as was a small Geiger counter. A compact chem sensor unit was mounted high on the web harness. A sheathed Randall combat knife was fastened to the right boot. The stranger laid down a heavy duffel bag that had been slung over the shoulder. I turned away slightly as the stranger slapped and shook some of the dust off, opening the long worn gunfighter's coat. A pair of night vision goggles and a bulky respirator covered the stranger's face, dusty from the brew outside.
The stranger slowly reached up and undid the goggles, pulling them down till they rested on the chest, the mask was undone and also left to hang at ease. A long drawn out sigh escaped from the stranger, muffled slightly by the filter plugs still in the nostrils.
A woman under all that crap, not a man as I had first thought. There was dirt and grit covering her skin where the mask and goggles hadn't been, clean, tanned skin where it had been covered.
A strip of tan cloth held her long red hair back out of her face. She turned back toward me and I couldn't help but stare. Red hair with long streaks of blonde, green eyes, and a few freckles across the bridge of her nose where the dirt didn't cover it up.
She had been walking out in all the dust and muck, in the heat.
A minute later I caught myself looking back and the woman was looking at me this time. I nodded and turned back, noticing that my glass was now empty. I motioned to the bartender again and he once again took the glass and disappeared behind the bar, sighing and shaking his head.
My fifth Sour.
Nowhere near my tolerance, I was still feeling no pain.
I laid a few corpcreds on the counter top.
I turned back to look at the woman again and this time she was watching the TV. It was the eyes that got me though. She had the thousand yard stare. Like she had seen everything before. The woman wore little makeup but if such a thing ceased to exist, she wouldn't be in much trouble.
I reached around and picked up the refilled glass. The corpcredits were gone.
The woman turned back around and looked at me.
"Soldier?" I asked, looking at her fatigues and gear.
"Excuse me?" she said, turning to me fully now.
"Are you a soldier?" I asked again, motioning to all her gear.
"Used to be." She said, nonchalantly.
"I didn't know they had pretty soldiers ..." I said, drinking and watching her over the rim of my glass.
"Flattery has been tried before." she asked, cutting to the point.
"Hell, when you walked in, I thought you were a man under all that gear."
She looked at me hard on that one, tensing.
"No offense ..." I quickly added.
Her features eased somewhat.
I motioned for the bartender again and put my hand on the bar to hold my glass. The bartender looked my way as I motioned to him. I gave him my glass. Smartass, I told myself, don't let the alcohol do the talking.
"Get me another and make it my last no matter what I say."
He shook his head and turned to do so. I reached out and tugged on his apron, he turned around and I nodded.
"And get the woman here whatever she wants, put it on my tab." I said. "She looks like she could use one."
She popped her neck loudly by moving her head side to side, but she didn't look at me.
"What makes you think that I would want you to buy me a drink?" the woman asked flatly.
Both the bartender and I stopped what we were doing. I looked up disgustedly.
"Fine." I said equally flatly. "Give her her own tab then and bring me a Pepsi if you have it."
He nodded, but didn't leave.
"You are smooth ..." the woman said, musing. "I'll take you up on your offer."
I nodded to the bartender and he moved off.
"They call me Gypsy." I said, looking past the bar at an old neon beer sign that kept flickering on and off.
"I know what they call you, it's clearly printed there on the pocket of your vest." she said, equally non-attentive.
"Name's Holly. No hard feelings. It's just that I get so tired of guys just talking to me about the same old things, you know. Cheap talk, a cheap feel. They all just want the same thing ..."
She lapsed into silence and I ignored her preaching.
"Gypsy, huh? Is that your name or what you are? I mean, is that is your real name or what?" the woman asked at last.
"My name's Christopher. Christopher T. Shields." I added.
"I thought you said your name was Gypsy."
"It's a handle, a nickname." I said.
I hoped that I didn't have to explain to her what a handle was. That would take three points away from her rating instantly.
"Look, I'm tired and I know this isn't going so well, is it?" she asked, looking at me.
I could only smirk. Holly took that for what it was.
She was definitely a nine point plus, even with reductions to the rating.
We talked for what seemed a long time. The woman touched my arm and my mind snapped back to the bar. She had finished her second whiskey shot and declined a third.
I was fixing to ask her just what she was doing in a place like this when something else caught my attention. It was a dull roar, off in the distance, and it wasn't a storm. This was mechanical, artificial. Man made thunder. Then we all could hear it.
I looked up and Holly did the same. A dull rumble, sounding like thunder way off and getting louder, closer. It reached a crescendo just outside the bar and I recognized it for what it was. Engines. Cycle engines. I had been around bikes too long not to be able to tell the difference between a automobile and a motorcycle. The noise rose and fell, rose and fell several times. Engines revving together in unison and then choking off into silence.
It must have been forty of them, not counting their groupies. I quit counting after thirty-five. They just kept filing in through the door. The climate control unit was going to die this time. They blew in like they owned the place, whooping and hollering, cursing and flipping tables over and throwing chairs about. They hassled a few patrons, chose their own tables, and generally made a spectacle of their entrance.
The bartender shrugged his shoulders and went about cleaning his glasses again.
I looked around and squinted through the dense multi-colored smoke to a far corner where the bikers had all gathered and were starting to shoot pool and gamble. The bartender and waitresses were having trouble keeping up with all the orders, the petting, and the throwing of bottles. Rough housing and wrestling broke out among the bikers while several bottles appeared and were passed easily among them. More bottles came from the bar and the empty bottles usually ended up in wild ass trajectories that ended in impacts with the floor, the walls, or sometimes other bikers and customers.
"When the circus comes to town ..." I muttered.
"What?" Holly asked, turning and looking at me.
"Nothing ..." I muttered.
I politely excused myself, for I really can't stomach wild ass bikers, and I escorted myself to the little truck drivers room. Five drinks and I had to milk myself.
The sign on the door of the men's room had been removed forcibly long ago by the looks of the door. I pushed the heavy door open and as it closed behind me, the sound of the bar diminished noticeably.
A variety of smells ranging from excrement and urine to vomit assaulted me once inside. The urinals were dimly lit, a faulty chemo glow strip set into the ceiling kept flickering like a strobe light. An old style condom machine was located on the wall near the sinks and somebody had written in larger letters above the machine 'Don't buy this gum, it tastes like rubber.'
That was good.
I'd have to remember that one and tell the boys about it. I looked around and was glad to see that the head was vacant. Well, vacant except for someone passed out in the middle of the tile floor, near the old drain.
I stepped over him carefully, threading my way over to the head, careful not to slip on the wet and often already used tissue that littered the floor. Disgusting.
The head cubicle smelled of anti-septic and something like incense which I took to be some sort of aerosol delivered drug. I looked around the floor and finally leaned over the trash can, checked the trash and found the empty aerosol bottle. Yeah, HATHMAT Flash was what I thought I had smelled. Strong but highly illegal. I made sure I used a paper towel to pick the bottle up so as not to get any residue on my skin where it might enter my pores and give me a unexpected trip I wasn't looking for. I pushed the can as far down into the trash as I could.
It had a little straw on the nozzle, much like WD-40, or Raid Crack and Crevice roach spray for that matter; you just inserted the straw into your nose and blasted away. Stuff was the equivalent of an industrial sandblaster on the mucous membranes of the nasal passages, but like real cigarettes, people tended to ignore the warnings.
Aerosol was where it was at.
I reached a stand up sani-flush, a combination urinal and dispenser, looking like a nook in the wall with a lot of buttons and lights on top of a dark glass display. The thing could dispense everything from toilet paper and narcigarettes to aspirin and condoms and even change bills. It was a shame what people did to old ideas and traditions but times changed, nothing was simple anymore. Now, taking a leak was also high tech and efficient.
I fumbled with the front catches of my jacket, finding what I was looking for. Oh, yeah, I thought as I read some of the graffiti on the wall. I felt like I was losing five kilos.
My kidneys thanked me, too.
I sighed and finished, hitting the flashing red sanitary flush button. The toilet shrieked, displayed a few nonsense statements like thanking me for using that particular model, etcetera, and a statement that I was helping keep the environment safe from pollutants by using such and such chemicals and natural ingredients with a closed loop sewage recycling system. When I looked down, sparkling, artificially colored blue water was in the basin.
I refastened my jacket catches and called up the menu. I searched through the available items and saw to my dismay that the Camel narcigarettes were out. Damn. I was on my last pack and I only had a few left. I needed a new pack and I was probably klicks from the nearest retailer. I'd walk a mile for a pack of Camels, or so the ad went from when I was younger. Right now, I felt like I could walk a mile for a pack of Camels.
I looked at the display on the CRT of the sani-flush which read 'THANK YOU' in red LED letters accompanied by a soft female voice.
Made me almost want to wave goodbye to the damn fixture on my way out.
I returned to the bar. Holly was gone, the seat vacant and her duffel bag nowhere in sight.
Oh, well, I thought, maybe next time. Visions of a cuddly end to an otherwise crappy week were rapidly evaporating in my mind.
Deano's record still stands.
I found Deano in the company of Carter and I joined them. Deano and Carter came up with different stories, most of it unbelievable bull. We shot the wind for a while with a fellow brother of the road, listening to his stories and ones that Deano had told me countless times before. Some of the bikers were playing 'Dare' and the sound of their monofilament knives thunking into the pseudowood floor resounded throughout the bar.
"Bikers." he said, disgustedly, shaking his head slowly and filling his mug from the pitcher.
I nodded. It was Deano that I worried about. I knew how he was when it came to bikers. Even the good ones.
"Truckers in a biker bar, well, this should get interesting." Deano mused aloud, cracking his knuckles loudly.
I gave him my best 'Imreallynotworriedaboutabunchofbikers' look and then I caught myself looking around the bar for Holly. I was starting to feel something akin to a need to be around her. Something about her. The past few days were weighing in heavily on me.
The road gets mighty lonely sometimes but you get used to it.
"Did you see where the soldier went?" I asked him.
"The woman you were talking to?" Carter asked.
"Yeah, the one in the urban camo."
"Uh." Carter said as he twisted around in the booth, peering off into the depths of the bar.
He turned around several times, peering over patrons and furniture, and finally turned back around, nodding his head to the side, indicating the back of the bar where all the bikers were gathered.
I stared at the corner where the bikers were, catching sight of a big bearded man who appeared to be the leader. I looked him over too. The biker was sitting at a table and playing cards. Some of the bikers were standing around watching and commenting on the game. Every now and then they would cheer or boo or turn away to something more interesting. Some of the bikers moved and I saw that three of them were playing against Holly.
She exhaled thick grey smoke casually and looked over at me, smiling for an instant and then turning her attention back to the card game. I finished my mug of beer and refilled it with the pitcher on the table. I started to get up and Deano gave a hard stare.
"Just checking out the action." I said lowly as I walked toward the corner, full mug in hand.
"Mind your own." Deano cautioned.
Deano thought about it for a minute and then started to get up to follow me, but he shook his head and refilled his mug, taking a swallow. He knew I could handle my own. He and Carter started back into conversation.
I nudged my way through the crowd of bikers to where I could get a clear view of Holly. Holly was sitting at a table with three bikers including the leader. Most of the cash in the game seemed to be sitting on her side of the table and the bikers didn't appear too happy about that. I watched as she took a long swig from a bottle of whiskey that was also on her side of the table and took a long puff on a narcigarette before crushing it out in a nearby ashtray.
She won again and the two bikers sitting to either side of her cursed and folded their hands as they got up to leave the game. Holly raked their money in towards her already large pile. That left only the leader still in the game.
The bikers surrounding me weren't the scum of the earth type that most people associated with bike gangs. Not the kind that Hollywood would want you to think everybody who rode a bike was like. They were all dressed in thick padded and intricately plastic coated and configured riding suits with various dark colors that I guessed matched their cycle colors.
O'Neal Rokk Blocks, MX style boots and pads, Hallman Mach V Protectors, and other assorted off road protection. Each also wore a riding belt, gloves, and a variety of pins, patches, and a dark leather jacket with the name of the gang proudly emblazoned on the back for all to see. Thick pads at elbows, shins, and shoulders matched the tough but malleable plastic of the rest of their suits.
On their jackets was emblazoned their own personal names, nicknames, places they had been, and other bits of biker lore. Vented and dark visored helmets lay on the floor, on nearby tables or clipped to belt hooks.
Bell, Arai, Bieffe, Nolan, and Marushin were just some of the types I could recognize. Each helmet was just as ornately decorated as the suits were and each was personalized. Nicknames were stenciled, airbrushed, or carved across the surfaces of the helmets along with broken hearts and other designs. There was also an abundance of vibrostaves, monoblades, and heavy chains.
I turned back to Holly and the game, having lost interest in the more mundane patrons of the establishment. The game went on for a while longer. Each round, the bikers' pile of money diminished while Holly's grew larger. Soon the last biker was out of the game and Holly raked in the winnings. The pile looked bigger than it really was because it was composed mostly of small bills. Outdated US treasury issue paper currency that had been laminated, plasticash, and some rolls of metal coins. Looked like silver and copper, probably dimes and pennies. I hadn't seen those in a long time either.
You miss the simple things in life, like finding a penny on the ground. No one had pennies anymore. Most people were saving them as mementos from another time, a simpler time.
She folded the bills neatly and stuffed them into her fatigue pants pocket and the rest into her duffel bag she retrieved from under the table. She pulled away from the table, took a swallow of whiskey from the bottle, thanked the players and started toward the door with the duffel bag over her shoulder. Two bikers moved to block her exit. She turned as three more bikers closed her in, another biker flanked with a fellow biker to each side.
"Leaving so soon?" asked a biker.
"You know, we lost a lot of hard earned money in that game and maybe we feel we need a chance to get some back." another said in a condescendingly explanatory manner.
The other bikers chuckled. Holly smiled a different, deadly smile and started to reach into her jacket as she backed into a biker who grabbed her and pinned her arms. She grunted and flipped the biker over her shoulder to where he landed hard on the floor. Two more bikers charged her and grabbed her arms as she struggled but she was no match for two of the men.
Another biker approached the struggling woman as she grabbed the other two bikers for support and quickly raised herself off the ground. She kicked the oncoming biker in the mouth with the heel of her boot. There was a sickening crunch and the biker held at his mouth, blood ran out between his fingers as the biker screamed.
"Sheed kikkd myd teeff een!" he managed to scream as he staggered backwards.
The others laughed at the man's dilemma. The last biker, a huge bearded man, strode forward and evaded another attempt at a kick by Holly. He reached into Holly's jacket and fumbled around inside as she looked on.
The biker made an exaggerated, surprised expression and nodded as he withdrew a 9mm H&K VP76Za automatic pistol. He checked the weapon and it's magazine of eighteen 9mm rounds. He slid the magazine back into the loading well with a snick and tucked the weapon in his belt before reaching down and withdrew a monoletto from a boot sheathe.
He started to approach Holly with the blade held menacingly outwards as the woman struggled. The others grew silent in an appreciative manner.
"What are you going to do?" asked a biker from the crowd.
"Hey, Cain. Show us some magic ..." another said.
This was followed by more chants and taunts from the gang. Cain stepped forward with the blade tracing ghost blue lines in the air. He stopped and fingered Holly's chin. Holly spit in his eye. He slowly wiped the saliva away and turned to the gang.
"She's just a wanderer. We're in for some real fun with this one." he said.
The big man slowly turned her head to the side, holding it there with his hand still on her chin.
"I don't reckon anyone would miss her much, now would they?" he asked.
He seemed to examine Holly and the question with the same quizzical nature. A few of the customers began to rise now. The bartender moved toward the edge of the bar.
"Not for a while, at least." Cain added.
"Not in my bar." came the voice of the bartender holding a pump shotgun.
Cain slowly turned and looked the man straight in the eyes.
"You just don't go and get excited and no one else will get hurt." Cain said as he pointed the monoletto at the bartender.
A pair of bikers walked up to the bar, leaning on the bartop as the bartender tried to decide what to do. A third biker had edged up behind the bartender as the man had been watching the other two bikers approach. Now the biker behind him reached over the shoulder of the bartender and took hold of the barrel of the shotgun, gently pulling the weapon out of the man's grip. The bartender swallowed hard and reluctantly let go of the pump shotgun. The third biker tossed the shotgun to the other two bikers who laughed and with their new toy proudly displayed in front of them, all three of them headed back over to the others. The bartender solemnly went back to cleaning his glasses, mumbling and shaking his head, trying not to look at the bikers any more than he had to.
"What about the Brothers?" asked one of the bikers, jerking his thumb backwards, motioning toward Deano, Carter, the two other truckers, and myself.
"What about our money?" asked another beside him.
The first biker piped down.
"She's no trucker. The way she fights, I'd say we have us a soldier here. Maybe a corporate freelancer. What about we take what we want, she can't fight us all." Cain said.
"No, but I can kill you ..." she shouted and struggled more.
The biker held her fast. The gang went wild with taunts and cheers this time as Cain moved Holly's head back to where she could see the blade. Holly struggled even more now but to no avail. The two bikers held her fast. There were whoops and hollers while, unnoticed, I moved closer carefully, nudging through bikers and groupies who were too preoccupied with the floor show to notice me.
Deano heard the commotion in the corner. He stared hard but couldn't see me for all the commotion. Deano began to walk toward the corner. The bar suddenly got louder and Deano quickened his pace.
Thomas knew that I could be in trouble. Big trouble. Bikers may be nobodies but they were nobody to pick a fight with. He just didn't know that Deano had this thing against bikers.
Damn! Carter thought as he finished off his drink and eased himself up away from the table. He was sure that Deano and I were fixing to be in need of help real soon.
He started to move towards the back of the bar as the other two truckers also got up and inched closer to the action.
I watched as Cain edged the monofilament blade closer to Holly's face. She struggled and screamed, but the other bikers still held tight. A few of the truckers were moving now, getting closer to see what all the ruckus was about.
"Watch close, missy, because I think you are going to want to see this. I think you'd look good with a pair of those Sanyo visual units, now wouldn't she?"
The blade moved slowly so all the gang could see Holly's expression. The blade moved closer but no one saw me move even closer. I acted on impulse and locked my hand around the wrist of Cain's. I tightened my grip and pulled the monoknife arm away from Holly as Cain looked on in disbelief. The biker expressed a mixture of anger and surprise at having been stopped.
"I don't think she would like that at all." I said as I lowered the man's arm and then let go.
Cain massaged his wrist and eyed me up and down. I eyed him, sizing him up. Shorter than I was, but built better. His face was plain enough, but he was going bald in a bad way in the middle of the back of his head, and to counter this, he had decided to grow what little hair he had left back there into a shoulder length pony tail. His bear came down from his sideburns and completely skipped his chin, arcing up over his top lip at each corner of his mouth. He looked like Friar Tuck gone punk.
The bikers closed into a circle and a deathly quiet filled the bar as the other patrons tried to see what was going on. I moved a few steps forward and Cain backed up instinctively. I just exuded a bad presence that set others off balance.
"Sure are some brave men here." I said, turning to face them all, but not turning my back to Cain.
I wasn't stupid.
"Think you can handle her all by yourselves? Maybe you should ..." I said as I gestured around at the bikers and groupies.
"Maybe you should get a few more members first, then you might be able to do it."
"This doesn't concern you, rigger."
I moved forward toward the biker. Cain moved also. Moved back again. He switched the monoletto from hand to hand. I knew better than to watch the monoletto; watch the eyes. The monoletto was a distraction. Still, thirty centimeters of cold steel, with a molecule thin cutting edge able to slice through any known substance given time, will do that to you. Especially when it was in experienced hands.
"Have you ever seen a natural neck tie, rigger?"
Yeah, I had. Once when I was younger. The natural neck tie was where they slit your throat and pulled the tongue out of the hole so it hung down like a neck tie. Not a pleasant thought, especially since it was a sincere one. I could have gone for my automatic but then thought better of it. I only had six shots in the magazine and there were over twenty bikers not to mention who might come to their aid.
No, I didn't need a gun.
I had learned long ago how to take care of myself. I wouldn't be alive today if I didn't know how to fight and the first lesson I ever learned is that there is no such thing as a fair fight.
Fighting fair was stupid and I wasn't stupid.
Cain lunged, but I was ready. Noradrenalin poured into my system while I stayed calm. I grabbed the biker's outstretched arm and used the big man's own momentum to flip him over my shoulder. He landed with a thud while the monoletto and the 9mm pistol clattered to the floor in opposite directions.
I retrieved the automatic and tucked it in my back pocket firmly before reaching down and picking up the monoletto.
"You ... you almost ... killed me." the biker shouted hoarsely, catching his breath as best as he could.
"Sorry. Let's try again and maybe I can get it right this time."
Cain stirred and got up. The stunt I had just pulled had made him look like a fool in front of his gang. He started toward me as I held the monoletto outstretched, handle first. The biker thought it was a trick at first but accepted the blade and weighed it in each hand carefully.
"Try again." I said, matter of fact.
Cain paced around me, trying to find a weak spot and I let him get into a position and then lowered my guard just a tiny bit. Cain sensed my awkwardness and then charged again but the charge met with the same result. Cain finally came to a sliding stop and lay still on the floor as the bikers started to talk and whisper among themselves.
I kicked the monoletto across the floor to within centimeters of the big man's reach. The biker stirred uneasily, getting up slowly with a trickle of blood from a broken lip congealing in his beard. He spat red phlegm onto the floor as he eyed me.
"Two out of three?" I asked, walking over and looking at the downed man.
I picked up the monoletto from off the floor, doing an intricate set of moves and counter moves designed to make it twirl between my fingers and hands so fast that it was little more than a blur. I had a lot of experience with sharp objects. I'd been on the road a long time. A slight buzz filled the air as I worked the blade in the practiced kata, jumping the blade from hand to hand, back and forth.
The whole bar was watching now and I finished the routine, bent down to the man who still watched me. I stopped the twirling blade with a snick and thunked it into the floor near his head.
"Put your hardware back into your pants." I said. "Before someone really gets hurt."
Laughter went up from the other patrons and the truckers. The biker gang stirred uneasily at being scoffed upon. Several moved to better positions around the tables. I walked up to the men holding Holly and looked them straight in the eyes.
"Let her go." I said.
They stood uneasily by, not sure of what to do.
"Now." I shouted and moved closer.
The bikers increased their hold on Holly until she cried out and struggled to get free. I started forward but the men let Holly go and shoved her at me with a sour grapes attitude while raising their arms in an 'it's cool' gesture. I caught her before she could fall and she nodded her head, assuring me she was alright and I inquired to see if any others might want to try to play with us. Holly reached down and grabbed her duffel bag from the floor. There were uneasy whispers as I started to lead Holly out.
The bikers parted their circle.
I withdrew the 9mm automatic and offered it to Holly who took the weapon and reholstered it under her jacket. She looked back at the bikers who continued to stare at us and she repositioned her grip on her pack, walking on forward with me.
"I appreciate that." she said. "You didn't have to ..."
"If I hadn't, then who would have? You?" I asked her.
I glanced around at hatred staring holes through us.
Groupies eyed us, bikers eyed us, patrons eyed us. It wasn't a good idea to turn our back on any one of them. I didn't know who was neutral and who was looking for a piece of trucker tonight.
"Ain't no big thing but you got to trust me. Just keep walking and do exactly what I say. Understand? We're not out of this yet." I said.
Holly nodded slowly, biting her lower lip.
I looked around at all the bikers, all the scowls, the indetermination as to what to do. I could feel the hatred in the air, it was that thick and it reverberated like a muted big bass drum. As I looked around, I began to feel like I was in a really bad Bruce Dern movie.
Deano was near the bikers when they parted and let Holly and I walk through their ring. He couldn't believe we were going to get away that easy. Cain stirred again and looked at the others. He managed a long bellowing wheeze as he tried to pick himself up off the floor.
"It's your money they're walking out with!"
"It's your damn money ..." shouted one of the road whores.
A biker stepped back in front of us and barred our way. I stopped and Holly looked around, covering me. The biker's tanned muscles flexed.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked me in a sarcastic way.
The biker grinned and I mimicked the facial gesture perfectly. I told the biker to keep smiling because that was the way I wanted to remember him. The biker looked puzzled and hesitated for a moment. A moment too long. I connected my knee with the biker's groin, producing a horrible wheezing sound from the man. I then delivered an open palm strike to the philtrum to the man's nose. The cartilage shattered and blood oozed out of the smashed nostrils. The man began to slump to the floor. I caught him by the hair and raised the man's head up to address him, he tried to scream as I grabbed his scalp and jerked hard.
"You tell me where I'm going." I said as I held the biker against a post.
The biker said something barely audible. I thumped the biker's head hard against the post twice and commanded him to speak louder.
"Andywheere youud fukeeen whada ho." the biker shouted, trying to pronounce his words without the aid of his nose.
I thanked him and let him fall ungracefully to the floor with a thud. We resumed our exit. We were in sight of the exit and walking among the other patrons. I began to hope for the best when the bartender suddenly shouted that there would be no guns in the bar. I heard the tell tale click-clack of a pump shotgun and a round being chambered. I pulled Holly to me as we hit the floor and rolled underneath a table together.
Above us, there was a flash and a roar as a pitcher on a table splintered under the hail of twelve gauge double ought buck. The few people left in the bar tried to get out of the way, to find cover where they could. A few fled out the main entrance.
The bikers started to laugh.
I began to get up, slightly soaked from the spray of beer. Beer was now running off the table and hitting the floor in little patters. Holly didn't move but turned around to look at the bikers as her hand went for her automatic.
"I don't need guns! No guns!" the bartender shouted as the biker waved the shotgun in the bartender's direction and the pudgy man ducked behind the bar.
The biker holding the Winchester Model 14a twelve gauge pump ejected the still smoking spent casing and chambered the next round.
People ducked again, women screamed and the bikers and groupies whooped it up as another shotgun blast shattered something somewhere nearby. It was a game to them now. Another tell tale snick-snick of reloading the weapon and more laughter. Taunts from the groupies and bikers directed at us. Deano had been near the biker who fired and realized that gunplay in close quarters was dangerous, especially dangerous to them.
Especially shotgun play.
Deano threw the rest of the beer out of the pitcher in a long arc that caught three bikers across the face and upper torso, soaking and blinding them. Deano quickly moved forward, lithe as a cat, as the biker took aim again. The biker never got to fire, though, as Deano reared back and smashed the heavy empty pitcher into the back of the biker's skull. The pitcher sank into the skull three and a half centimeters with a sickening crunch.
The shotgun went off anyway but it's blast dispersed into the watching crowd, inflicting several moans and a few screams from pellet stricken patrons. The biker wasn't so lucky. He just lay on the ground and twitched every now and then. Deano hadn't meant to hit him that hard and he looked at the bloody pitcher in his hand. Another biker bent down and touched the first biker's head wound. His fingers withdrew, dripping with blood and matted hair.
"He's dead ..." the biker said as he stood up to face Deano.
The biker screamed and charged Deano who grabbed an outstretched arm and used the man's inertia to flip him over his shoulder onto a pool table and on over it. Deano slowly gained his composure as the other bikers and patrons eyed him. The truckers and Carter stood their ground. Deano stared them all down and shouted.
"We came here to have a good time, rigger ..." another biker said holding a heavy chain and edging toward Deano.
"Yeah, well, I came here to drink beer and kick ass ..."
He eyed the crowd steadily as a biker moved forward a little bit. Deano looked down at the pitcher in his hand and then turned the pitcher upside down. A few drops of beer fell from the mouth of the pitcher to the floor. He looked up at the bikers slowly.
"And I'm all out of beer ..."
Carter picked up a pseudowood chair and smashed it into pseudokindling over a slower biker's back. Someone shouted and a woman screamed. The bar became a sudden melee as everyone joined in leaving the bikers caught in the middle. Truckers love a good bar brawl as much as they like to talk up a storm.
I left Holly under a table and joined in, smashing and getting smashed. Cain came at me again as my back was turned. Holly appeared behind the biker and holstered her automatic before grabbing up a heavy floating chair. She grunted and raised the chair over her head then brought it down against the back of Cain, but since it was made of high tensile industrial plastic and constructed sturdily, it didn't break. The chair rebounded off the biker's back with a thump and hit the floor.
The biker whirled at the attack on him and hollered, then he straightened up and laughed when he saw who it was. Holly laughed right back at him and proceed to kick the biker in the balls. She laughed again as the man's eyes bulged and he moaned. The man sat down hard and Holly connected with a solid right which sent Cain staggering backwards. She jumped and twirled in a beautiful crescent high kick that connected her boot with Cain's face. Cain went down and stayed down.
The girl had style. I wondered where she had picked up the strength and the ability.
Definite military training.
She gave the downed biker another kick in the ribs with her combat boots and I swear that I saw the toe of her boot go a good three and a half centimeters into the man's side.
Holly looked up and caught me watching her. Maybe the biker had been right. Holly sure knew how to handle herself. Maybe she was a corporate freelancer, a solo. Maybe she was ex-military. The way she moved, I'd say she had some form of reflex augmentation and you didn't get that by being behind a desk. I gave her a thumbs up followed by a thumb wide and a finger extended 'good luck' sign. She returned the thumb up gesture and pointed behind me to where two bikers were moving in on me.
I drew my .45 Colt automatic and took a quick aim as one of the bikers swung a piece of broken chair and knocked the weapon out of my hand. My arm went numb as the gun roared once and powdered ceiling material rained down from the passage of the slug. The automatic hit the floor, falling from numbed fingers, and was quickly kicked by a scuffling patron on into the melee where it quickly disappeared from sight. I looked for the weapon but then gave up and turned to face the two bikers.
Holly watched as I flipped one biker, compound fracturing his arm in three places and stopping the other in his tracks with a round house kick to the abdomen which rewarded me with a good, solid "ummmphh" from the biker. The biker clutched at his ribs, bending over. I brought an elbow down over one of his kidneys and he collapsed. I saw the automatic get kicked again and slide under a table. I dove for it, sliding and getting my hands around the cool stainless steel finish and the custom Pathmark-carbon grips of the weapon. I grasped it firmly, rolling from under the table. A woman screamed and pointed at the crowd behind me.
"What? Where?" I said as I twisted and rolled. "Damn. Stop screaming and get coherent. I don't see ..."
She kept shouting and pointing while trying to fend off a biker herself.
"Where damnit!?" I shouted and rolled again.
I turned and saw a biker appear above me, standing on the table top, towering over me with the jagged spear-like edge of a broken piece of furniture ready to skewer me through and through. I swore, no time to dodge. Time to use my gun ...
"Oh, there." I muttered.
I raised the Colt and shot the biker at point blank range. The .45 Colt automatic roared, spitting yellow fire and hot brass in opposite directions. I made a .45 caliber improvement in his head, entering through his lower jaw and exiting through the upper back of the skull in a vivid mist. The biker fell backwards as bloody mist filled the air.
I rolled and came up firing the Colt in front of me, twice, hitting another biker in the chest and leg. Another round collapsed the man's face and threw him backwards. Two rounds left in the magazine. I came to my feet crouching, aiming at any threatening movement. Other shots rang out and the table near me splintered as deep gouges appeared in the psuedowood top.
Someone was trying to flame me out. Not cool. I dove as a slug screamed near my ear. I rolled under a table, kicked the legs out from under a biker, hit and stabbed him in the eye with the barrel of the magnum when he fell, pushing the vented ribbed barrel as deep into his skull socket as I could. I then got back to my feet, ignoring the screaming, writhing, blinded man on the floor. I backed up hurriedly, fanning the crowd with the magnum and looking for Holly. Holly was lost again in the brawl.
Damn it. Why couldn't I keep track of that woman? I sprinted behind a column and peeked around the huge post just as another gunshot sounded and a patron behind me collapsed with a gaping hole in the middle of his back. Someone out there wanted to punch my ticket but good. I ducked and squatted around the corner of the column.
A trucker backed into me. I stopped short of blowing the man away and the rigger stopped short of sending me off to Highway One with his revolver. The other man lowered his smoking Colt .385 Peacemaker revolver and sighed visibly.
Lot of old timers carried six shooters.
"Hell of a fight. We get to use our guns now." he said as he brandished his revolver proudly.
"If you like fights." I replied as two more bikers came at us cautiously.
A man ran up to Carter and swung a wild punch. Carter ducked the first but not the second. Carter took a punch to the midsection which bent him over slightly but the armor absorbed the impact. The trucker laughed, stood straight up, came back and punched the patron in the face. He turned back to me. Behind Carter, the recently downed patron started to rise slowly.
"Better watch it there." I said, pointing behind the trucker.
"Damn, these people just keep coming back for more now don't they?"
The patron rose unsteadily on his feet and seemed to digest what the trucker had just said. A second later, the patron was making for the door as quick as he could get through the tangle of bodies. He made it three meters before someone decked him with a pseudowood chair.
"Guess he doesn't want anymore." Carter said.
"Yeah. Glad to see a friendly face in this fray." I replied.
"Take care of the light work. I got a little more serious business to take care of over this way." Carter said, edging away.
Taking care of business.
Carter grabbed the back of a slow biker's head and slammed the biker face first into a column. Slammed him hard. The biker slid to the floor trailing a line of blood down the support and didn't get up. I nodded and was carried away from Carter by the general brawl.
Geriatrics are wonderful things. I felt fifteen years younger. I looked around and caught sight of Holly. This time Holly gave me the thumb up. A biker rushed her and she did a flying snap kick to his temple which sent the biker down good. She pointed behind me to my left and I turned As a biker appeared in front of me and produced a monofilament-switchblade, flicking the humming blue edged blade open with a snick.
The biker edged forward.
"Just like a biker to bring a monoknife to a gunfight ..." I said as I holstered the Colt automatic.
The biker switched hands with the monoknife and then switched again. He did a few moves with the monoknife and I smirked. Two rounds in the automatic.
"You call that a knife?" I asked the biker. "I'll show you a real knife. Wait till you see my knife."
I reached behind my belt and withdrew a foot long length of chromed pommel and blade with a nasty serrated edge. A Gerber McCulloch chain knife. A stud on the pommel activated the high speed chain drive as the razor sharp surgical steel blades accelerated to a blur of chrome.
The hum of the chain knife was unmistakable and the biker stopped in his tracks.
"See this? This is a real knife. Now, why don't you come on over here and I'll show you what a real knife can do." I said, beckoning one finger while the other hand held the chain knife ready in a fighting stance.
The biker backed up and broke into a run to vanish amid the rest of the crowd. There's just no arguing with cold steel, especially when that cold steel is revving at five grand.
"Pussy." I muttered.
The chain knife's serrated surgical steel blades slowed to a stop and I resheathed the weapon in the small of my back as I looked back to Holly.
A biker appeared in front of Holly, brandishing a large rusted chain and swinging it threateningly. Holly ducked and shook her head slowly as she drew her 9mm H&K automatic from the shoulder holster and pointed it at the biker who stopped twirling the chain and backed up. She took aim down the fixed blade sights of the automatic.
"Sorry, baby. Party's over for you if you can't dance anymore."
The biker turned to swing the chain as the automatic roared. The ninety-four grain hollow point round caught the man in mid stride, blowing the biker's knee cap off in a huge gout of splintered bone and cartilage followed by a blood chilling scream and a flash of bloody mist. The biker rolled into a fetal position and drew his damaged leg up to his chest, screaming while rocking back and forth slowly on the floor.
"Vamos!" cried Deano as he picked up the discarded shotgun and jacked another round into the chamber.
Winchester Model 14a twelve gauge with extended magazine, flat black finish, custom polymer grips, and a ghost ring sight. Nice, thought Deano as he hefted the comfortable weight of the weapon.
"Don't have to tell me twice ..." I shouted back.
I headed for the door joined by Holly. The two of us continued forward as a biker leapt out from behind a column in front of me. The biker was brandishing a monofilament switch knife. The same biker with the same monoknife that had come at me before. I thought of the two rounds in the automatic's magazine and cursed that I hadn't shot the son of a bitch when I had the chance. I let go of Holly's hand, shoved her sideways out of the way, and moved sideways myself in an attempt to avoid the biker.
The biker lunged forward with a killing thrust of the humming weapon. The blue edge of the molecule thick magnetic field encased cutting edge sliced the air with a shriek as I weaved aside nimbly. It looked like a ballet. He thrust and I dodged, trying to get my Colt out. I grabbed my pistol but my foot hit a patch of some spilled beverage and I started to lose my balance, going into a fall.
My life is on the line and I end up looking like a Keystone Cop.
I felt my leg twist under me and my knee popped loudly, not bad, but it hurt. The biker whirled around again in response to my fall and caught me at a weak moment just as I was coming around from my blind side. I saw the monoknife coming in and threw my arm up to shield myself from the killing stroke as the biker shouted and sliced downward, striking the Colt and bounding off into my arm.
The Colt took the most of the force of the strike, but the monofilament glanced off the heavy barrel in a shower of sparks and struck my arm, cutting easily through my shirt, my skin, muscles, veins, and then grated on the very bone itself.
The biker had turned the blade at the last second and stabbed me clean in the arm. I cried out as pain overtook my senses. My vision closed to a tunnel, my stomach threatened to revolt, and my knees gave out as I fell forward. The biker wiggled the knife in my arm, widening the wound even more, laughing.
A few more seconds of contact and the monoknife would slice through the bone itself. I grunted and jerked my arm up, off the monoknife and drew the injured arm back with a scream of pain, trying to focus. I drew breath in and held it as pain washed over the severed nerves in my arm. Spots danced before my eyes and a ringing filled my ears accompanying the nausea in my stomach. Words can't describe what I hope to never feel again in my life. A warm sensation began and dark blood flowed out from the deep slash and down my arm to run off my hand and pool on the floor. My nerves had finally given up telling me that I was hurt.
I welcomed the system shock that followed.
Holly brought her automatic up to fire.
The biker started forward as I backed away, crawling on the floor.
A familiar shape rose up behind the biker as Holly lowered her automatic.
Deano still had the shotgun and as the biker sensed the other man and turned, Deano swung the shotgun and connected the short barrel and pump grip with the jaw of the biker. There was a loud crack and the biker's head hung to the side at an impossible angle as the monofilament blade fell from suddenly limp hands. Severing the spinal cord, crushing the vertebrae bones, can do things like that.
Things like breaking someone's neck.
The biker wheezed slowly and dribbled spittle out of the corner of his mouth as he fell to the ground in an equally impossible heap had it not been for the broken neck. Deano looked at me as the brawl continued and Holly appeared, staring at the slash on my arm and then rushing forward to pull the cloth strip off of her forehead and tie a tourniquet around the damaged arm.
I grunted as Holly pulled tight and the flow of blood stopped somewhat. The damage was superficial and the bleeding was mostly for show. I'd need stitches but I could live with those. Probably leave a scar, God knows I've got a collection of them already.
Deano continued to watch our backs, turning around once to look at the blood soaked cloth.
"Damn, you're bleeding bad." Deano said.
I grunted in dumb, sober acknowledgement.
"Teaches me not to listen to you anymore. How did that one catch you?" Deano asked, motioning to the biker on the floor.
"You know I have to give you one every now and then ..." I kidded.
"Now I heard it all. Slow is what you are. Haven't I taught you anything since I've known you. You go ahead, get her on out of here, too. I'll cover you." Deano said.
The pain was intense but the heavy drinking was taking some of the edge away. I tried to stop gritting my teeth. If I kept gritting like I was doing now, I would smash my teeth to splinters.
"You know what they say ..." I began.
Deano looked down at the pump shotgun and grinned.
"Yeah." Deano said. "Put a rigger behind the trigger. Get the job done."
I nodded and we were gone, heading out the door when I remembered Holly and turned around only to find her on my heels. She shoved me out the door shouting that I was slow. I held my arm and gritted my teeth. There was a medikit in the rig. I was out in the parking lot and heading for the eighteen wheeler.
I had expected to see Harleys and other low rider style bikes scattered around the lot, but the majority of the cycles present were low slung, plastic covered sport bikes. Ninjas, Shintos, Katanas, Samurais, and Ronins. Maybe two or three old Harleys, but the rest were Yamahondas, Kawasuzukis, Toyotas, and Mazda cycles. Everything from chain drive to belt drive to shaft drive, V-twins, V-fours, some turbo, some fuel injected, the Mazdas with ceramic rotary engines. Colors ranged from primary shades to off the wall combinations to nuclear tiger stripe paint schemes.
"This yours?" she asked running up to the eighteen wheeler.
My mind snapped back.
"Last time I checked." I shouted.
"I'm impressed." Holly said as she climbed up the side rungs.
I climbed as best as I could with one arm. The other arm hung at my side, draining onto the pavement. I managed to crawl into the cab, shutting the door as Holly fell into the passenger seat. I rapidly pulled my control arm forward and down, locking it in front of me. The pain returned every time I tried to do something, each new wave bigger and stronger than the previous one.
I stabbed the activators for the massive high torque starters and there was a whine from under the hood as the digital instruments and HUD came to life. Engine number one on line, engine number two powering up ... on line. Oil pressure building, steady. Turbine RPM steady. Mains on line and nominal. Fuel pressure stabilized. I gunned the engine and a thick plume of black diesel exhaust belched from the twin stacks on the tractor.
The readouts stabilized.
I pointed to the dash compartment and then to my arm. She nodded and opened the dash compartment door, rummaging around inside among old napkins, roadmaps, plastic sporks still in wrappers, and a magnetized alloy halogen hand light.
I looked over at Holly. The pain in my arm spiked through me and I grimaced. I was messing up the hell out of the carpet in the interior, not to mention myself and my seat. She held up a crumpled pressure patch. The packet looked old, but the expiration date was still valid.
"This what you want?" she asked.
"Yeah, slap it on for me, will you."
She moved my arm and the wound split open, blood running freely. She peeled the wrapping off the surgical patch and applied it to the arm. I was bleeding internally, but the patch stopped the loss of blood. I wasn't losing any blood, it just wasn't going where it was supposed to on the inside.
"That just stopped you from leaking all over the place ..." she said. "You're still bleeding internally. You better let me see about stabilizing and setting that wound."
I shook my head and turned to her. My arm was turning into a livid purple bruise color.
"You've got to cover for Johnny. There's an Colt Mini-14 and a SPAS-12 in the sleeper back there." I said, catching my breath and motioning with my good hand to the two dull black weapons slung in the gun rack in the sleeper.
The flat black waspish outlines of the twelve gage SPAS-12 were unmistakable, complete with extended mag, ghost ring sights, and nylon web sling. The 5.56mm Mini-14 was a standard model, equipped with a pistol grip, a folding stock, a flash suppressor, and a nylon web sling. Paratrooper style, fifty round magazine already in place, a second fifty round magazine taped with black electrical tape upside down to the side of the already loaded magazine, for speed loading.
"Take your pick." I said.
Holly didn't answer, instead she reached down and unzipped her duffel bag, withdrawing a flat black ACR-8 carbine complete with folding stock, Chantham laser scope on the top of the carrying handle, and a seventy five round drum. She pulled the plastic toggle of the arming lever back with a 'schnick' of metal against metal and let it slam forward, loading a round of 5.56mm soft tip into the chamber. She turned to me as she switched on the laser sight without even looking, her finger slipping up alongside the carrying handle to trip the activator.
"No thanks." she said. "I've got my own."
I looked back at the bar.
"Where do you want it?" she asked, smiling.
"My buddy's still in ... there. Should be out soon though. Doesn't take him long to ... tidy things up."
"That's a rodge." she replied.
"Good. Didn't think that I was saving a greener back in that mess."
I doubted if Holly was a greener. My every instinct was telling me very different. I reached up and pulled the air horn cord, grimacing again. A fierce shriek filled the air. I pulled it twice more and then hit another button that played out a long strain of Dixie through twelve different underhood air horns.
Deano hated the Dixie part.
"That wouldn't be him now, would it?" she asked.
Back in the bar, Deano spent the shotgun's last two rounds keeping people's heads down and bringing another chandelier crashing, plunging the room into a darkness only illuminated by the small candles at each table. Someone else had a gun, a fairly large caliber handgun by the sound of it, and muzzle flashes leapt from a corner of the room as shots were fired off in blind panic. A few of the shots found warm flesh to snuggle in but the majority just kept the rest of the patrons kissing the floor. There was a cry as another patron caught a bullet.
A triple blast of air horns pierced the shouts and screams and then the Dixie blast. The eighteen wheeler started up and Deano didn't stick around as he heard the familiar sound of the eighteen wheeler idling in the parking lot. He saw more shapes loom up out of the fray and head for him as he charged out the open door and ran for the eighteen wheeler. Behind him, five bikers in varying conditions of consciousness and blood thirstiness stormed out of the establishment after him.
"There he is!"
"Get the sonofabitch!"
And other assorted intelligent, macho outbursts.
They surged forward in a very seething, very mad mass.
"Christopher! I need backup, damnit!" Deano shouted as he turned and ran.
Holly opened the door and steadied the ACR-8 as she took aim. It wasn't smart, there were gun slits in each door and the windshield, just like an armored car, but with the door open, she could cover more area and had a clearer view of the target. Deano noticed the door open and Holly aiming the CAR- 15.
"JesusJosephenMary!" he shouted as he jumped forward and hit the pavement, rolling.
The small crowd behind him ran out into the parking lot and saw Deano hit the ground and then they too stopped in their tracks as they realized that the muzzle was tracking them. The ruby red thin beam of light lit on the chest of one of the bikers. All the thick dust in the air made the laser sight beam look like a searchlight as Holly drew a bead on her first target. There were shouts as they rapidly dispersed, diving for cover, for the entrance, or just out of the way.
I continued to stare out the window of the eighteen wheeler, leaning slightly outside while I spoke to Holly.
"Okay ... Deano's clear. Hose 'em ... down." I said.
"You got it." she said flatly.
There was the characteristic stutter of the automatic weapon as Holly walked the burst of rounds across the ferrocrete walls and the entrance. The high security door sparked as powderized 'crete and small chunks disappeared from the wall. Some rounds hit the sloped wall and rocketed off into the sky on insane arcs. Every third round was a tracer, which illuminated some pretty wild trajectories. Deano tried to dig himself into the concrete and asphalt parking lot, crawling forward on his arms.
Two other patrons weren't so lucky.
The 5.56mm rounds were designed to tumble when they hit, increasing hydrostatic shock. Thick plumes of red erupted from the thigh, chest, and head of one of the bikers. The other went down stitched across his chest with a line of gaping bloody pulp filled holes.
Back in the cab, I laughed as the mob scattered. The smell of spent propellant and the sound of brass shells hitting the floor and tinkling together filled my ears along with the loud report of the weapon. Holly continued to fire controlled three round bursts.
"Deeamn!" Deano shouted as he slowly turned his head and spat out dust and grit.
He got up and slapped the dust off of his clothes and started toward the eighteen wheeler as Holly continued to cover the entrance. He climbed up the left side and slid into the cabin, into the driver's seat. I climbed out of the seat, falling into Holly's lap. Protests to this action rose instantly. Deano ignored us and I hung on with my good arm. Deano shifted gears and kicked the motor in as the rig picked up speed and headed out of the lot, followed closely by Carter in his Peterbilt. The rig lurched forward as I tried to get situated in the cabin. A few of the bikers appeared again in the entrance. Holly let off a long burst that made them duck back inside and then she slammed the door of the cab.
Deano cursed and shifted again. I climbed and wormed my way into the back sleeper as Holly continued to protest at being wiggled on. Deano released the clutch and shifted to a higher gear, groaning at the movement.
"You ... okay, buddy?" I asked Deano.
"Oh, just fine. Never better. How about you?"
"Kind of hurts, you know," I replied, "but I can still drive."
"No way. You drive like a damn female ..." he replied.
He turned to face Holly, who gave him a dirty look.
"Speaking of which, you can thank her for saving your ass." I said.
Deano looked over at Holly who held up a finger and waved it casually in a howdy manner. The other two rigs were beginning to start up and move out of the lot.
The crowd was thinning. Some bikers running up to the trucks and throwing bottles and rocks or hitting them with anything that was at hand. Deano looked back to the instruments.
"That was a storm of lead you poured out." Deano said.
"I know how to use one of these." Holly said as she patted the smoking ACR-8, checking the number of remaining rounds on the tell-tale CRT of the drum.
Little red numerals stated that seven rounds were left in the magazine. She leaned the ACR-8 up against the door. Deano cut the wheel hard and steered the eighteen wheeler to the left. Holly and I were sent sideways by the action and against the best of my intentions, I ended up in the lap of Holly who looked down at me. I fumbled and tried to gain a hand hold.
"Where you going?" I asked, pointing and trying to hold on at the same time.
"The road's that a way ..."
"I know." He said as he steered the huge rig toward the row of cycles parked near the front of the building.
Deano turned the rig around and shifted gears. The Cadillac Gage HATHMAT lurched ahead and Deano shifted up again. A few of the bikers appeared at the door, firing handguns at us. I could hear rounds land in the trailer and the rear of the cab. Holly and I kept our heads down as Deano twisted the wheel hard again and upshifted. Thick black exhaust spewed from the twin stacks behind the sleeper and the rig lurched ahead again, gaining speed. I looked up out the front window and saw what Johnny was going to do. So did Holly.
"Damn." Holly said flatly, bracing her feet on the floor and her hands on the dash.
"Hold on." I said, bracing myself as she reached up and grabbed a ceiling handle.
The engines roared, the intercooled turbochargers spooling up to power as Deano shifted. There was a crunch of steel and plastic as the eighteen wheeler steamrollered the smaller two wheelers into so much junk metal. The eighteen wheeler bounced lightly over the first row of cycles, Deano weaving the rig one way and then the other. The rig bounced over what was left of the first row of cycles and continued across the lot. What was left of the bikes could get a fair dollar at the local scrap yard but not much else. Too bad we didn't get all the cycles.
About fifteen of them.
Guess they'd just have to double up when they rode out of here.
"Payback." he said.
Cain stared at what was left of the bikes. Parts and twisted wreckage was scattered across the parking lot. The rest of the gang was walking among the wreckage, trying to salvage what could be taken from the wrecks, and others musing over their lost rides. They passed Cain, in groups and single, but Cain ignored them. He was staring off in the direction that the truck had disappeared, the road shimmered from the heat.
One of the others approached Cain, walking slowly, nursing a hurt leg and holding a handle spar from a cafe-racer. The spar still had the throttle and most of the front hydraulic brake reservoir attached to it, but it had been ground into the pavement, scratched, discolored, and torn. A single rubber line snaked away from the handle, torn on one end, but still attached to the reservoir on the other end. Cain looked at the man.
"That all you have left?" Cain asked.
"Yeah. The only thing that wasn't flattened."
Cain bent down to the pavement and cocked his head. There, glistening in the sun, was a small patch of oil. Cain drew his finger through the warm liquid and regarded it with simple curiosity.
"Look at this." Cain said, holding his finger up so that the other man could see.
"Yeah. It's oil. So what?"
Cain wiped his finger on his pants and looked back down the road.
"So, it's not from one of the bikes. This is right where the rig passed and if that rig is leaking this much oil, then one of our shots must have scored on something in the engine. That transporter isn't going far with a leak like that. He'll have to stop sometime." Cain said.
The other man nodded more to himself than to Cain and turned to look down the road, past the others going through the wreckage. Now he began to see what Cain had been staring at for so long.
Not a road, but what waited down the road.
The huge rig and trailer cut across the two lane and we actually left the road for a few seconds. Soft shoulder beneath the wheels and I thought that he was going to jack knife the rig but he managed to get it righted and turned the general direction that I wanted to go. We marched on down the road, accompanied by a belch of black exhaust from the twin stacks with every gear shift. Overdrive kicked in and the readings stabilized.
The outer fringes wasn't the best place to have a sole proprietorship.
Holly leaned over and took hold of my arm. I pulled it back defensively. She gripped it again, firmer this time and I let her hold the arm only semi-willingly. She looked at it and then turned to face us both.
"It needs to be seen about and the sooner the better. You've lost a lot of blood."
"I know." I replied, feeling tired. "I'm sitting in half of it."
"We might need a trauma center." she added, more to Deano than to me.
My arm needed attention. Holly crawled back into the sleeper past me and got the first aid kit. She laid the heavy black bag on the flip up console, opened the bag, and pulled out the medikit. A small white box with a black lens at the top right corner and a large red cross outline in the center. The edges of the emblem were starting to peel.
The surface of the box was covered with various operating and servicing instructions and a host of small buttons laid out on a digital touch sensitive keypad on the top side. The bottom side was a myriad of small implements and dispensers recessed into their individual cavities, along with several extendable sensor and high intensity small lights. The whole thing was half the size of a modern car stereo, and was a completely automated minidoc in itself.
"Now you ... you do know how to use one of those things, don't you?" I asked.
"No, do you?" she replied.
I shook my head.
I was getting lightheaded.
"Come on, how hard can a first aid kit be, now? Does it have a tendon stapler?"
"A tendon stapler? I ... I don't think so. Are you ... going to need one?"
"Don't know yet. I suppose we'll just have to make do without one then, won't we?" she said.
The rig lurched to the side suddenly as Deano fought to keep the rig on the road.
"Keep it steady." Holly said. "I can't work with all this bouncing around ..."
A grunt from Deano must have satisfied her need for an answer.
Holly helped me to carefully take off my jacket then she managed to get my shirt sleeve opened and pulled up far enough to reach the wound. I wore a large black MTV Music Televideo shirt underneath, a short sleeve type to keep the heat down. The light exposed the wound so that I could see it clearly for the first time.
Holly removed the pressure patch and the pain returned with a fiery vengeance. I gritted my teeth as Holly removed the patch, and some of my arm hairs with the adhesive. She dropped the patch into a waste receptacle where it landed with a sickening slapping sound.
Six and a half centimeters of gore showed where the monofilament had sliced through once slightly tanned and solid skin. Fluid and blood flowed from the wound with both congealing slightly at the edges, making the wound look nastier than it was. Things like that didn't affect me much anymore. I wanted to see what the woman and the medi-kit were going to do.
Holly put the medi-kit on the dash and the kit beeped, raised itself up on four small stubby legs, then moved in a slow, very mechanical walk over to the outstretched arm of its patient. The kit stopped and squatted down over the arm, attached itself to the table with a small suction cup system, providing a stable working platform. Holly tapped out a sequence on the keypad and the 'kit extended a small arm-like device which probed the cut area with a micro-forceps and I twitched as Holly verbally instructed the 'kit to search for any bone fragments, dirt particles, or metal flakes.
A small light on a stalk-like appendage dropped down from the bottom, extended fully, and regarded the woman and then illuminated the wound.
"You're lucky," Holly said, "there weren't any major veins or arteries cut by the blow, just the meat and musculature. Lots of blood, pain ... nothing serious unless you're a bleeder." she added as she scanned the data being displayed on the 'kit's CRT.
"I'm not ..." I said.
The 'kit removed two large ragged bone chips, depositing them on the table and produced a small scanner, placing the device over the wound. The medikit's sensors whirred into action as they scanned the wound and small medical lasers flashed, mending the bone with a dose of cold ceramic filling and a warm feeling as small puffs of black smoke rose from the wound. The sensor hummed again as the laser retracted and the various medi-dispensers began to spray a fine white mist on the incision which made the cut nerves scream in icy fire but I took it easily, watching as small white and blue flecked frost formed around the wound from the supercold antiseptic spray.
The wound was properly sanitized and deadened now and next came a brown liquid spray which foamed and hissed on contact with the skin, and a few sprinkles of another powder or two that started to coagulate the blood and form a thick reddish scab. The dispensers moved around the wound and another scan of the sensors was followed by a spray of a red liquid onto the scab which made the scab pasty white and flexible. A small appendage dropped down with what I recognized as a compressed air injection gun unit and I looked away as the gun began to pulse fire a set of no-shocks, antibiotics, Qwikheal agents, and anti-toxins into my bloodstream by way of super compressed air that didn't leave a mark on my skin. The medi-kit stopped and beeped twice, a small button on top of it marked SPINNER-SEW SERVO OPERATION INITIATE was blinking.
Holly read the CRT data display and then she informed me that she was going to have to sew it up and I merely nodded. Like I had said, I could live with just stitches. The following process wasn't exceedingly pleasant, but it was bearable considering the circumstances and the possible consequences. It was a lot easier to stay alive with the technology that was available today. I watched as Holly pushed the button and the medi-kit went into a routine and fully pre-programmed operation, it's five small servo spinner arms dropped down from the underbody and began moving rapidly like a spider spinning a web as it sewed the wound closed with a combination of high intensity ruby laser light pulses and quick stitching done with the aid of magnetic beams that manipulated and 'weaved' the black surgical thread around the wound.
I was thankful that the 'kit had put a heal salve and a rapidressing patch on the stitches to keep them moist and loose and to promote infection free healing along with decreased healing time. I relaxed as Holly removed the little box which folded back on itself and she put it into a recessed part of the bag where the 'kit restocked itself with supplies from its plug in recharge / resupply module.
A small whirring of tiny electric motors was barely audible as she closed the bag and set it back in the sleeper.
I flexed the arm cautiously at first, and found that it was like the whole thing had never happened. I couldn't feel the stitches at all, and there was no pain.
"Technology." I said, flexing the arm more. "It's a very good dressing. It can't be your first."
Holly shook her head, picked up the bag and stowed it back away.
Idle conversation started up between Johnny and Holly. I was silent as usual as Deano shifted into twentieth gear and I listened to what they had to say. I hadn't really felt like driving anymore, the tranqs and pain killers were taking their toll. I watched the real estate go by.
Deano seemed to thaw out a little and even seemed not to mind that I had invited her to ride with us. I knew there was extra room. Holly accepted the offer and started counting the cash and change in her pockets.
"You two seem not to care for bikers in particular." she told me.
"Something like that." I replied flatly as I looked out my window.
"Uh, huh." Holly said. "Long story?"
"Ain't no big thing." I replied.
"Pay him no mind, he's not prejudiced." Deano said. "He hates everybody."
I grunted at that statement, ignoring them again. I was floating on the chemicals in my system. I didn't want to get to like it, even though I knew that I could.
"Sounds like an attitude. He likes his privacy, doesn't he?" she asked.
"That he does." Deano replied.
Deano chortled and stifled a laugh which made me look back at him funny. I shook my head as Deano went back to driving and I laid back in the sleeper, which was both horizontally and vertically stabilized to dampen out road vibrations and bumps. I closed my eyes.
I was suddenly very tired.
"You just got to get to know him." Deano said. "He's pretty quiet."
She then listened as Deano grumbled and cursed as he found he had several small holes burned in his shirt from the shotgun's back blast of powder. Several small holes, several big curses.
I laid back in the sleeper. The walls were covered with pictures of places that Deano and I wished we could retire too one day, things that we wished that we could afford, and things from our past.
There's a picture of Deano and his family. It's a color. Taken before holos came along.
It's that old.
I have a few pictures of my own hanging up in here. All I have left to look back on.
I closed my eyes, remembering, as Holly and Deano started talking. Their voices seemed so far away, The drugs in my system were making me melancholic.
"Hey, is that a cassette deck?" Holly asked, pointing at the dash, touching the old Kenwood there almost reverently.
"Yeah." Deano said. "Shields got it out of one of his cars he used to have."
"What an antique." she said.
"I can remember when they were brand new ..." I mumbled more to myself than anyone else, my eyes still closed and my arm across my face.
I didn't know if anyone had heard me or not. She had.
"You are old." Holly replied, turning to look back into the sleeper and clicking the overhead lamp off for me.
She had heard me.
The darkness of the sleeper was bliss.
"What do you listen to?"
"Motley Crue, Kiss, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osborne, other heavy stuff ..." Deano replied.
"Oh," Holly said. "You go for the oldies, huh?"
That made me feel a lot better ...
Yeah, I was old.
I could remember Vietnam.
Eight track cassette playing units as expensive options in new cars.
And the month that I was born, they put the first man on the moon.
I'm not old.
I'm ancient ...
May 12, 2009- Texas, on Highway- 9:00PM
... I had fallen asleep.
The dash indicator had lit again.
He hit the dash with his gloved fist. Twice. I had barely seen the indicator myself as I sat up, blinking, adrenalin rushing through my system from the fast start awakening. I hated waking up fast, made me jumpy and cranky.
"What's the matter?" Holly asked, leaning forward.
"We're getting a low oil reading in number one." I said as I came awake, drugs or no drugs.
I reached above to the overhead power train management console and cut in the auxiliaries, studying the graphic readouts on the CRTs.
"Is it bad?" Deano asked, trying to study the instruments and the information that was being displayed on the HUD.
"Yeah, you're going to have to shut her down. Bring up the RPM on number two and hold the primary till it engages." I said, monitoring the readouts on the overhead.
The noise of the engines slowly waned and throttled down to half intensity as I hit the auxiliary oil pumps that continued to lube the engine as best as they could through the shut down process. The instruments on the dash jumped in their digital tracks. The Cummins diesel whined to a complete shutdown and the computer automatically disengaged the 'dead' engine from the transmission. Now the eighteen wheeler was on half power. Deano shifted to another gear and eased down on the rig's speed.
"From what the CPU's spitting out, we just lost the master oil pump and ..." there was another whine and then nothing at all from the dead engine.
"Damn, looks like the auxiliaries just went. Managed to save the engine but can't restart it to bring it on line and up to power without getting those pumps fixed. Freeze it solid if we did. Just hope the other engine holds."
There was another uncharacteristic whine from the engine bay.
"Hear me, baby." I muttered.
Deano eased the rig down to one sixty klicks and hour.
As if in answer, the whine disappeared.
"Where are we going?" Holly asked as I called up the ETAK navigation system.
A high band transceiver was mounted into the roof of the rig. A microwave pulse bounced once from the transceiver and arced into orbit. A satellite caught the pulse and beamed back the information. Two seconds after the first data pulse, the information was flowing across the small CRT in the forward pod. I followed the beacon, zoomed in, and studied the display.
"Well, we've just left the border and we're hugging the coast till we reach Louisiana where we'll go up till we start to hit some elevation."
I punched a few buttons on the ETAK Navigator and a satellite image of the road ahead appeared on the CRT, outlined in green vector graphics. I scanned the symbols and markings on the computer generated map and put my finger above one of the dots on the road. Heat sensitive sensors in the CRT screen registered the poised finger and translated data instantly. A screen of info scrolled onto the CRT and I sat back again in my seat. Deano looked over at the display and then sighed.
"Right there?" he asked.
"Yeah, well, if you two liked the Harley, David, and Son bar, then you're going to love the Highway One truck stop."
"How far away is it?" asked Holly.
I checked the green vector graphics on the CRT of the electronic navigator. Two buttons punches later told me the needed information.
"Around two hundred klicks, close to the Texas line, if I'm not mistaken."
"Can we make it on just the other engine?" Deano asked.
"Hell. This rig was designed to run from coast to coast on just one engine alone and even then four quarts low on oil at that. It's just not recommended in the owner's manual is all. I don't want to pull this thing into anything other than a class three rated mech shop. Do you?" I asked.
Deano thought about it for a few seconds.
"Well, Highway One is the closest class three there is."
"How soon can we be there?" Holly asked.
"At what we can juice out of the second engine, about three hours."
I keyed the route into the HUD at the driver's station and punched out of the beacon service. Deano and Holly started to talk again as I crawled back into the sleeper and shut my eyes. The drugs in my system were taxing me out.
May 13, 2009- Texas, Highway One Truck Plaza
... The trip took four hours on the reserve engine alone creeping at just under a hundred and thirty klicks an hour. We made it in at about one in the morning and the first thing I knew of where we were was the fact that the rig had stopped and Deano was pulling his jacket off from on top of me where I had used it as a blanket.
The Highway One Truck Stop was a moderately happening place; any truck stop was a moderately happening place if you stayed on the road long enough. This stop was on the [COMMERCIAL VEHICLES ONLY] route, just off the main route of the interstate.
It was a small settlement on the outskirts of the interstate, sucking business in whatever way it could from the interstate nearby. Out back of the place was approximately fifteen acres filled with rusting parts and junk from over a hundred different wrecked and scrapped rigs. All fenced in by a four meter tall barbed wire topped chain link fence.
It was a place where old trucks went to die.
Deano and I had been here before.
It was a good place to get parts.
The restaurant had good food that night and was full of fellow members of the Brotherhood, the truckers that plied the highways for a living. People like Deano and me. Deano and I were warmly greeted when we pulled in. The lot was full of all sorts of vehicles, from hot rods to ultra modern highway vehicles to the big rigs and chartered buses. An even warmer greeting awaited us in the bar.
Truckers occupied the establishment. The atmosphere of the truck stop was jovial and beer and food were always being taken to tables as truckers came and went on a constant basis.
Outside the huge rigs refueled at the pumps as attendants and drivers and crew mates all exchanged stories and talked. A flashing neon sign proclaimed-
HIGHWAY ONE TRUCK PLAZA
100 PERCENT CHEM FREE
HIGH OCTANE GASOLINE AND UNCONTAMINATED DIESEL FUEL
WELCOME BROTHERS: VACANCY
GOOD ROOMS-CLEAN WATER-FRESH SHEETS-GOOD FOOD
Johnny saw to the rig being fueled while Holly and I managed to find our way to the Dispensary. The doctor there looked at my arm, complimented Holly on her work, and gave me a prescription for some pain killers which I picked up on the way out of the little office.
We joined Deano after he had parked the rig and we headed for the roadhouse. My stomach was growling, the result of my body hyped on the medicines in my system. It was time to eat.
The place was familiar enough and Deano, Holly, and I occupied a corner booth in the roadhouse. We ran through the Highway One truck stop every time we came out this far West. They had good food, a good seal, decent overnight bedding, and a top notch mechanic team.
A beat up video juke CD unit was playing out a bad copy of a Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn song about tractors rusting in a field and children with no shoes to wear. I sat back and took a long drag on a narcigarette and then passed it over to Holly who also took a welcomed pull. Deano guzzled a frosted mug of beer and filled the glass from a ornamental pitcher on the table that looked like it had once been a part of a rig's exhaust system. He burped loudly and then started the process all over again.
Carter came up and joined them, having filled his rig at the diesel island. He looked a little bushed as one of the waitresses brought him a beer. Their conversation was light. The last couple of week's events held Holly captivated with attention.
I excused myself and got two rooms. One for Holly and one for myself and Deano.
My treat, I figured that she had earned it.
I went back to the booth and dropped the room key on the plastic table top.
"Yours." I said to Holly and then dangled my own key in front of Deano.
"Ours?" Deano asked.
"You got it. I'm turning in early. Catch you later."
I turned around to face the whole of the crowd in the bar and cleared my throat. Everyone seemed to settle down a little bit as I spoke.
"Who's the baddest son of a bitch here?" I asked the crowd.
There was murmuring and then Deano turned to face Holly and whispered.
"I hate it when he does this shit, must have some kind of death wish ..."
A man stepped forward through the crowd, a huge grizzly bearded trucker in full rigging armor and armed to the teeth, clutching a Bud Lite beer aluminum cylinder. He eyed me warily.
"I am." he said flatly.
No one disputed him.
I started forward towards the man and walked past him, patting him on the shoulder as I passed.
"Good, I want you to take over here while I'm gone." I replied.
The crowd went wild with guffaws and hollers and a slow smile broke across the face of the big trucker as he raised his beer in a silent toast. He had just been had. Royally.
Truckers and the members of the Brotherhood were for the most part a good natured bunch and those that might have taken the little joke too seriously soon forgave me when I left a small deposit with the barkeep. A deposit big enough to buy everyone there a round of drinks in true Brother style. I looked back at Holly and Deano and gave a small wave.
"Later ..." Holly began, looking after me.
But with that I was gone. Deano, Carter, and Holly were left alone at the table. Holly looked back after me and then crushed the narcigarette out in a small plasticrete ashtray. She exhaled thick dull gray smoke and took a drink of the local draft beer before setting it down.
She stared at the beer mug.
"Yeah, he's also full of THAT too."
Holly laughed a little. The crowd continued to make a loud roar in the background. A shout filled the air and several heads turned to see two truckers start to duke it out with fists but the fist fight wasn't spreading and the two fighters weren't doing much harm as both wore heavily padded body armor. A ring of fellow Brothers and Sisters of the road closed in about the two fighters and bets started to be placed.
"Christopher Shields ..." Holly mused aloud.
"Yeah." Deano answered.
Deano leaned forward and put his hands on the table, closing his fists together and locking them. He sighed.
"It's a long story."
"I think we have the time." Holly said.
Deano unlocked his hands and took another swig of beer.
"I'm tired, but what the hell."
Holly refilled Deano's glass. Deano thanked her.
"Well ..." Deano began. "It all began ..."
Several of the other truckers were eavesdropping and began edging closer now, eager to hear the tale. Good talk was scarce around the road, especially good legends. Deano looked back at the truckers gathered around and spoke again as the last of the newcomers had taken a seat or moved in to stand in easy listening range.
"Well, can everyone hear me now? Is everyone comfortable? Shii ..."
He turned back to Holly and Carter.
"As I was saying, It all began down south in Mississippi, little place called Hattiesburg ..."
I sat on the corner of the bed. The room was small, clean, and anti-septic smelling. The wallpaper was late eighties if it was anything and that meant before the turn of the century. The suspended ceiling was definitely out of place as much as the fan above the bed that was slowly rotating and shaking the ceiling with creaks and groans.
Yeah, I had been running some proscribed wetware and software. I was a data pirate myself. Hell, I'm one of the oldest cowboys around. I was twelve when the home computer craze hit back before the turn of the century, way back in '81. I've always liked computers, and I just kind of kept up with them, each new advance. Well, I tried to advance my income by giving other people what they couldn't get normally.
(insert working for thieves working for thieves, ad infinitum here)
It had been good for awhile, till things got too hectic, till things got to the point where there was no honor among thieves.
I pursed my lips, shook my head, and blew softly before I wiped my eyes. I turned to the TV.
"On." I said flatly.
The TV voice recognition voder picked up my voice and the unit winked on, the monitor coming to life showing a news broadcast.
"... Action continues to gear up in South East Asia again as U.S. advisors have been flown in from Fort Bragg. So far, twelve hundred Advisors are in the area supporting the New Democratic Party that has recently come to power in a bloody overthrow of the gov ..." a newscaster said in a monotone voice as well armed troops moved about in the jungle behind him.
"Up." I said, disinterested.
" ... Demand your MTV today! ..." a long haired pinko fag rocker shouted at the screen, waving a hot pink colored cellular phone while a free one eight hundred number kept flashing on the bottom of the screen.
Another channel, with a white haired preacher who looked like the old Colonel Sanders. The elderly man was ranting and raving behind a podium, trying badly to present a southern accent.
"Brudders and sistaws! Gawd needs yaw money! He shurely duz indeed! Heee hawz spokun tooo meee andha Hee haz toll me soh ..."
"Up." I said flatly, shutting my eyes and feeling them burn with fatigue.
The TV changed channels to another channel, one up from the previous one. I watched as a cable movie began. A rerun. I continued to change the channels but couldn't find anything worth watching and switched back to MTV.
I lay there for a long time, it seemed, listening to the haunting riffs and the strings of the metal. As I did so, my mind slowly wondered back to a few weeks. To south of the border where I had met someone that I just couldn't get out of my mind.
Jonah Micah Snow ...
Deano and I had been south of the border, running some supplies, if you could call it that, to some very shady people. It was the only work we could find and it was with the kind of people who you didn't ask questions around. We had just finished a bad contract and were headed back for the border, trying to get the hell out of Dodge when we had to stop in a ravine and make a minor repair to the rig.
Damn heat was killing the electronics and the deal had gone sour. We had gotten cheated, badly, and all we were trying to do was to get back to Texas with our hides on our carcasses. Our ex-business partners were trying to see that the opposite became the truth.
It was late at night, no moon, heavy dust in the upper atmosphere and Deano and I were both tired and sweaty. We preferred to drive at night, that way, everything showed up on the infra-red. We could spot an ambush a mile away, literally, by the body heat of the ambushers. It didn't look like we would do much travelling this evening, though.
We had worked for two hours straight to pull and run a diagnostic on the master PROM. We had just replaced the PROM and loaded up the equipment when we heard it. Deano heard it first, and then me.
Like rolling thunder ...
Lots of them. We were glad that we had pulled the rig into the ravine in order to hide it and that we had taken the time to shovel lots of loose dirt on top of the rig and trailer, camouflaging it from the naked eye with some old photocell camo net. We waited. Deano had the Springfield and I had a Winchester police twelve gauge pump. Both safeties went off in unison as we moved to opposite sides of the rig, covering front and rear.
I remember hearing a set of hooves nearby, thinking it was just the wind or my imagination. Then the sound got louder. I remember swinging the shotgun to cover where my ears told me something was that my eyes couldn't see. Then I saw it, a misshapen shape looming over the edge of the ravine, forming into the semblance of a horse and a rider. The horse neighed and tried to clear the ravine, but lost its footing on the edge and the pair fell into the ravine.
The horse got up and walked around, nursing a sore leg, but it wasn't broken. The rider got up instantly and seeing us, he drew this old revolver in a fluid motion that I still can't remember seeing. He was just squatting there, one leg under him, and the other cocked outwards, bent at the knee, and the revolver in his hand.
None of us moved.
I remember how I felt, standing there with the pump shotgun and Johnny with the Springfield covering this guy and still we could hear the sound of hooves. They were coming closer and there were a lot of them. It was so loud, that I wanted to scream for it to stop.
I could feel the tremor in the ground.
It was probably the sound of so many hooves striking the hard ground that kept us from just blowing each other away. Deano and I were scared, and I admit it. The only thing that we could think of was that the Jefe had found us. A Jefe was no one to mess with. We had our own troubles, what with a large family of bandits looking for us and being stuck in a ravine where bandits could shoot us like fish in a barrel.
Deano and I never figured that we would be making our final stand in a ditch. When they got through with us, they could just shovel in more dirt.
A rig could be worth a lot of money, and down south of the border it was finders keepers to the point that killing the original owner was considered finder's rights.
I really began to doubt that I would ever see her grave again and that made me really mad. I mean, I might just be looking at my own grave here in this gulley.
A shallow, unmarked grave if I was lucky.
No grave at all if I was right. Buzzard pickings in the hot sun.
The bandits would just leave us as carrion feed.
The stranger made a gesture then, a simple one, but it eased our tensions a lot. He raised his revolver and stood slowly, walking carefully over to his horse and calmed it, leading it away from the truck and over against the gulley wall. Johnny and I relaxed some then as the man leaned up against the ravine wall. We all moved closer to the wall as the hooves got louder.
What was it?
We looked over at the man and he back at us. Silence between us. The roar of the hooves was deafening, followed by shouts of men and the whine of horses. Then, the first shape broke over the ravine. A horse and rider, at full gallop. I expected to see the horse and rider come falling down into the ravine like our guest there had but instead, the horse and rider hit the ravine and the top of the semi and they kept going.
Maybe they couldn't see that well in the dark, maybe they were going too fast to notice that for a brief second that the sound of their horses shoes against the ground struck metal instead of dirt. Maybe they thought that the semi was some form of natural bridge over the ravine. Maybe they were just too preoccupied to care, what with all the shouting and whooping that they were doing. All of them crossed the ravine, hitting the top of the semi and not breaking stride.
Loose dirt fell from the top of the semi.
Banditos for sure, and they were mad. Riding as hard as they could.
As the roar of the riders faded away, we managed to get some words out of our 'guest'.
Jonah Micah Snow.
Indian, the bow and arrow kind, not the snake charmer, magic carpet riders. Or the closest thing that passed for one these days. A gunfighter, he travelled the wastelands and badlands south of the line. The gunfighter with the chrome mirrored eyes.
I remember them well.
Implants, done to correct a bad stigma. Surgical lenses grafted onto his retinas and he had chosen chrome as the color option. Dark tanned skin, almost leathery. Stark white hair down to his waist. Heavy gunfighter's coat, wide brimmed hat, boots, gloves, a real leather holster with a Smith revolver, and the thousand yard stare.
Beautiful horse, a real one, laden down with saddle and tack, rifle and pack.
A real horse, not the kind that they grow in the vats for the rich children.
All the Jefes wanted Snow, and not a few so called law enforcement officials, but Jonah was smarter than they were. We stayed in the ravine that night. Jonah took us up on our offer of food and water in return for some information on what the quickest way out of the badlands was.
We had talked.
Jonah had been the quiet type.
The Jefes wanted his head on a stick, and there was dinero grande up for proof of his demise. I had seen how fast he had drawn his old six shooter.
Money wasn't one of my concerns right now, especially if it meant going up against Jonah.
The next morning, right before dawn, Jonah Micah left, slowly riding off into the sunrise. He had told us of a small settlement about twenty klicks north west and then simply rode off, saying that he had business to finish and that he would meet us in town, if we made it that far.
Jonah had also said that he would help us get north of the border. I told him that we had some supplies left and that he was welcome to his take if we got clear of this damn land. Jonah had nodded and I figured that was going to be the end of it, that we had seen the last of this Jonah.
It was just going to be a nice story to tell the Brothers on the road if we ever got back.
I hoped that it was going to be easy to get back now.
I awoke with a start from the half sleep that I had been in.
I had been asleep, dreaming. I looked at the Shidu chronometer. Twenty minutes I had been out. I yawned and stretched. I had things to do before I turned in for good tonight.
My arm was feeling better and I showered.
The water was hot, the way I liked it. The Egyptian filtration unit set into the shower stall had several settings. I turned the dial to 'massage' and the temp lever past 'warm'. Hot enough to turn my backside rosy red. A small decal above the shower showed a warning with the logo for an eye and an 'X' through the eye logo. I got the meaning, the water was okay but don't get it in your eyes. It took a lot of chemicals to get the water clean enough to shower in. I dried off and shaved in the small bathroom, using items from a travel kit I had taken from the cab of the Cadillac Gage HATHMAT.
I remembered the eighteen wheeler and reached over near the bedside for the phone. The rig was in the repair bay under the watchful eye of three mechanics on duty who were going to check it out. They said give them an hour. I had and now I punched in the switchboard and was connected to the service bay. A quick video conversation with the head wrench told me that the master lubrication pump was gone and it would be a few days on back order. They just didn't stock a master lubrication pump for a Cadillac Gage HATHMAT.
I hung up slowly and lay back on the bed, taking out a narcigarette from the crumpled pack in my vest and lighting it up with a small disposable lighter. I inhaled the narcotic laced, guaranteed carcinogen free smoke and sighed.
No carcinogens in this stuff.
I wouldn't smoke them if they had any.
I really wished that I had someone there with me to rub my shoulders and feet. I'd like that a lot right now. My arm begins to throb again, rising to a painful pulse, and then back again to a dull throb. I pull the skin around the stitches and feel it tighten. It's like scraping on a chalkboard with your nails, touching the stitches and running my fingers over them, that is. I can't stand it at first but it feels good to touch myself there. I gently rub the stitches until I can stand it.
I'm damn sure not going to scratch my arm with my fingernails.
I sighed again, took another drag off of the narcigarette and held the narcotic laced smoke in my lungs, floating on the rising wave of drug forced euphoria that my system was beginning to pick up. I let myself drown in it, swim around in the tidal wave of total abandon.
And then it was over. I exhaled and felt better. It seemed like bad luck just followed me wherever I went. I was finishing my narcigarette and reaching for a second one when I realized that the pack was empty. I shook the plastic wrapper vigorously in an attempt to conjure up just one last narcigarette. Shook the package again to make sure it really was empty, and swore, taking another drag as I got up and grabbed my black vest, pulling it on and donning a cap. I had to get some more narcigs and I had seen a machine near the service bays. I checked the monitor by the door, security, and left, locking the room behind me as I headed for the service bay.
The night air was comfortable. Heat lightning flashed in the sky as a full moon shone above the dark lines in the sky. The moon was distorted, hazy, out of focus. Upper dust in the atmosphere. Dust storms in the upper atmosphere. The high ferrocrete walls were illuminated by the large high intensity lights in the area. Several different types of eighteen wheelers were parked around the huge truck stop.
Most with their motors still running and a few with their owners sleeping in them instead of staying in the motel. Patrons walked in and out of the heavy front doors of the bar. A neon sign above the bar advertised it as the Fifth Wheel. I knew Holly and Deano were probably still in there, and both probably getting stuffed right now.
I looked down at my arm, visible with the vest and short sleeve shirt I wore despite the cold. The stitches were gleaming strands of biowire that would be slowly absorbed and broken down into my system, adding their own vitamins and medicines that were tailored into the engineering that went into making surgical biowire.
Can't live without it these days.
I continued to walk toward the service bay and obeying the PLEASE EXTINGUISH ALL SMOKING MATERIALS signs, I dropped the almost finished narcigarette, crushed it out under my boot, and kept on walking. The narcigarette butt still glowed feebly in the darkness but was quickly forgotten.
A Pepsi machine kept a lonely vigil on the side of the garage. The machine wasn't new by a long shot. It was the kind with the six foot tall video display that played a thirty second commercial advertising the soft drink, all in Dolby and super VGA graphics that made most holos look bad. There was one commercial for each brand of soft drink that the machine carried. A commercial was engaged then as I walked up, showing a beautiful woman drinking Pepsi out of a tall glass, lots of neon in the background, a well muscled stud swimming in an indoor pool, and a shot of the woman rubbing an ice cube down her chest to cool off.
The narcigarette machine was there also, right next to the Pepsi machine, lit in neon and other colors as a small CRT displayed commercials for various tobacco companies. It was older than the Pepsi machine, and the internal processor had a glitch which kept several white lines across the screen. I looked at the menu, with over thirty different varieties of narcigarettes available, I tried to find my brand.
I got out my wallet, took out my New Americard, and inserted it into the machine's credit slot. The machine beeped, prompting me and I punched in my personal code for the corpcredit transaction. The machine compared my card number and identification to one of several hundred thousand similar cards in the corporate data bank. My credit was approved and I selected two packs of Camels and a pack of caffeine sticks, using the tiny sealed keyboard set into the front of the machine. The machine dropped out a bonus T- shirt with my purchase of the two packs of Camels. I had to specify the size I wanted. Medium felt about right.
The machine whirred, my New Americard was docked for the amount of two dollars and some change, and two packs of Camel narcigarettes appeared in the bottom slot. I took both packs, inserting them into the pocket of my vest, and removed the New Americard.
Don't leave home without it.
I looked at the Camel T-shirt. It had a nice holo of a cartoon camel on the back wearing a leather jacket and standing beside a really fast looking Ford Cobra wannabe that had exaggerated side exhaust, wheels and tires. The caption read:
CAMEL. 100 YEARS AND STILL SMOKING
I remember when I was nineteen and I had gotten the 75th Anniversary Camel T-shirt. Yeah, when I was nineteen, Camel was seventy-five. Now it was a hundred? I wondered if I would be around to get my 'hundred and fifty years of Camel' shirt.
Not likely, I thought. I opened the pack of caffeine sticks and started to chew on one as I walked into the huge service bay through the two front bay doors which were open. Each bay door was some ten meters high and fifteen wide, big enough to drive a pair of semis through. The bay was well illuminated and had enough facilities, tools, equipment, and supplies to make any shade tree mechanic quiver. Big enough on the inside to hold five tractors, though only three rigs were inside undergoing repairs.
The first, a red and silver Ford Highway Special. The second eighteen wheeler was just a sleeper cab, a Cadillac Gage-HATHMAT Donovan, a new black, chrome, and red one. It had a blown tire and two mechs were replacing the useless solid rubber.
The third semi tractor was my charge. A mech was at the front of the sleeper with the cowl engine panel raised on its pneumatic strut. The huge engine now stripped down for repair. He heard me approach and looked up, wiping his hands on a shop towel and then on the greasy coveralls he wore. His cap was on backwards and a greasy young face showed out beneath the brim of the hat. I winced noticeably at the slogan on the cap which read I'D RATHER PUSH A YAMAHONDA THAN DRIVE A KAWASUZUKI, and at the amount of greasy hand prints that covered the cowl panel and the front end of my truck.
"Tried to rig up the secondaries, but they'll only last a few hundred klicks under normal load bearing conditions. No substitute for the MLP and we don't have one in stock. Never really seen one go out like this one here."
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"Don't work no more." the mechanic said flatly.
An air wrench screamed in the background, several short burps of forced air and a compressor coughed to life. A lug nut came screaming off a wheel, to drop to the floor with a clatter in the distance.
"I know that. Elaborate."
"Who?" he asked.
"I know that it doesn't work." I said flatly. "Now, you tell me why doesn't it work."
"Well, near as I can tell. You dropped the main spring and that bent this little drive shaft here. See. Threw a monkey wrench into the whole works. If you ask me, it's poor workmanship from the start. See, the drive shaft is grooved and that's from not having been primed which means that someone at the factory didn't pack the grease down into this one. Anyway, it just don't work no more," the youth said, jiggling the pump in front of me.
I turned and looked the truck over, tracing the long scars where bullets had creased the metal and plastic of the cab.
"Oh, yeah. I was going to ask you about those ..." the youth said.
"Don't." I said flatly.
The youth started to say something, then thought better of it. He reached in his pocket and took out a small glob of flattened metal and held it up to the light for me to see as he turned it over in his fingers and finally hefted it in his palm. I stared at the piece of deformed metal and instantly knew what it had been.
The mechanic hefted the flattened bullet and looked back up at the tractor and the open cowling.
"Someone's been shooting at you. The Kevlar wedges and ballistic cloth liners stopped the small stuff."
I thought back. Yeah. A lot of someones had been shooting at me lately. I looked at the piece of flattened metal in the mechanic's hand and shook my head. Luck, sometimes it came, and sometimes it went.
"Let me know when that pump gets in and get it here ASAP if possible. I'll pay the freight and the rush charges."
"Sure." the youth said. "Be here first thing tomorrow morning but the weather's supposed to be real bad for the next few hours. Force five storm front closing in this way. Storm like that is bound to pick up all kinds of clutter from the ground and throw it back down. God's Tantrum, what we call them around here."
I walked back outside of the bay to where we had let the trailers off before bringing the rig inside. Dark streaks were crossing and forming in the sky.
Deano took another swallow of beer from his mug, pushing the plate away. The meat had been a little stringy, but it had been real meat and that made all the difference in the world. He had asked the waitress what the meat had been. He had originally thought that it might be horse meat, or cat. The waitress had quickly told him that it was mule, and local at that.
Deano sent his compliments to the chef and asked for a bottle of steak sauce.
They had been talking about how Deano and I had been friends and what all we had done in the past few years for almost an hour now while eating. Deano yawned as he stretched good naturedly followed by an equally good natured burp. He patted his stomach and stroked his chin as Holly yawned also.
"What's been bothering him?" Holly asked. "He seems pretty preoccupied the past few hours."
"Who?" Deano asked.
"Christopher." She replied.
"Well, that's another story ..."
Holly picked up one of the keys off the table and tossed it lightly into the air and caught it again. She said goodnight to Deano who nodded.
"Don't you want to stick around to hear the rest." Carter asked her.
"I'm a little tired. I think I'm going to be hearing it from this bunch of fellows pretty soon, and for a long time after that anyway. See you in the morning."
Deano burped again. He wasn't going anywhere for the next several hours. It was good to get drunk when you could and you could always pass out among friends in a truck stop. One of the truckers moved in and sat down in her vacated seat as Deano started up again talking the road. Carter continued to be obnoxious to those around him. Deano sighed and looked at his chronometer.
It was going to be a long night.
Holly left the bar and headed for the living quarters. Deano had been too drunk and distracted with the idle conversation to notice when Holly had switched the keys on him. Deano would have plenty of time to sleep.
A wind began to whip over the barrier walls of the truck stop, bringing occasional scathing blast of dust and grit.
She staggered into a wall and leaned against it, readjusting her filter and goggles. She cursed for having not stopped drinking before she did. Her tolerance was way down from what she remembered it to be. She waited until the world got all right and orderly again before she tossed the key into the air again. This time, she had to use both hands to catch it and she laughed as she continued her walk, scanning the room numbers for the one that matched the number on the key.
She finally found the room, inserted the key, and opened the door to the darkness beyond.
All the bad weather we were fixing to get. I walked back to the motel as the wind and dust intensified. I used the key on the door and opened it.
My Shido chronometer read 4:12am in blue luminescent numbers as I shut the door. There was a shape on the second bed that I could make out in the dark and I cautiously shut the door ever so quietly. I hated to wake up Deano because I hated the way he came out of hangovers.
The door snicked shut and I turned the deadbolt before I took off my cap and vest. I was going to put them on top of the TV when I tripped over something on the floor. A duffel bag. My hand fell over the plastic vented barrel grip of the ACR-8.
Or right room, wrong occupant.
I fell forward and managed to catch myself by grabbing onto the front of the second bed as I cursed, catching the carbine before it clattered to the floor. There was a moan from the shape on the bed and it wasn't Deano moaning, not unless he had recently raised his voice an octave or two.
I backed up toward the door as the shape on the bed moaned again and writhed. My hand found the light switch on the wall as I called out.
There was a slight moan this time and more movement.
"John, that you?"
"Wrong." said a female voice.
That did it for me. I switched the overhead on and high intensity white light flooded the room. Holly lay on the bed stretched out on her back with her feet propped up on the pillows and her head at the foot of the bed. Her right leg was crossed and shoved under the other leg. She had one hand on her stomach and the other arm draped across her forehead. She quickly brought her arm down from her forehead to shield her eyes.
"Jesus Chrysler ..." I said as I started forward and picked up my vest and cap that I had dropped when I had stumbled on the duffel bag.
"Nope." Holly said slowly. "Guess again."
"Holly?" I said flatly.
The woman rolled over on her stomach and opened her eyes just a tiny bit as she regarded me and then she closed it again tight. Her fatigues were buttoned up to about mid chest, underneath a white shirt showed. She had her boots propped up on the pillows. Great, I was going to get to sleep with grit in my hair.
"How did you ever guess ..." she muttered. "Turn off that damn light ... and find me some aspirin. Please?"
I sighed, flicked the main light off, and moved over near the bedside to switch on the smaller reading lamp. Holly didn't protest. I went back to the foot of the bed and picked her duffel bag up, moving it out of the way and then looking at the woman who opened her eyes and regarded me casually for a minute before rolling over back on her back and resuming her previous position perfectly, moaning again. I rummaged through her duffel bag and came up with a small bottle of non-prescription aspirin. I underhanded it till it landed near Holly who reached over and took the bottle. The woman fought miserably with the child proof cap and finally gave up as I stood at the door, my hand on the handle.
"Where the hell is Johnny?"
"He's out ..."
"How did you get the key to the room?" I asked.
"Switched them." Holly explained over simply. "He was too drunk to notice much anyway. Just kept the bull flowing with a bunch of the boys."
"He's not the only one that's too drunk to notice much." I replied as I opened the door.
Holly grunted angrily and with a curse, rolled over again but this time she ran out of bed to roll on and, with a small yelp, she plunged over the side of the bed to hit the floor with a loud if solid thud. Another moan escaped from the little area of floor that existed between the two beds.
I sighed and lowered my head as I slowly pulled the door closed and turned the deadbolt to the LOCK position that locked the door with heavy duralloy bolts in both transom and threshold. I clicked the little sign on the door to PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB.
I walked over to the bed and looked down at Holly. She was laying face down on the floor, unmoving. Her long hair covered her head and one arm was pinned under her and the other was stretched out in front of her on the floor. I sat down on the floor with the corner of the bed set into my back. I turned and looked down at the woman and then gently began to stroke her long hair back from around her face. Another moan escaped her and I bent over, reached down, and turned her over. Long hair hung in her face and I brushed it aside also.
Holly opened her eyes and regarded me.
"I forgot which room I got for you. I suppose that's the one that Deano has a key to, isn't it?"
Holly nodded slowly and I continued to contemplate the woman.
"Soldier, huh?" I said, taking off my cap and setting it on the TV.
"Gray Beret." She said flatly.
"Gray Beret ..." I muttered. "I wondered where you had gotten your moves."
She nodded and stood up, walked over, facing me, putting her arms around my neck.
"Five years, down in the Canal and in the East. I've seen it all, baby."
"How come you didn't go Rangers?"
"Hah. I ran into a couple of those ranger pansies up North. In an downside commons. We were all sitting at the bar and they must have thought that I was some kind of greener virgin. They kept going on about how great it was to be a ranger, and how many ways they could kill someone without even making a sound, like slitting the throat."
She started to sway, tilting her head to one side. I heard her neck pop twice and she seemed to regret the movement, putting a hand to her forehead and grabbing her temples as she grimaced.
I got up and rummaged through my kit, finding a Dow Pharmacy DETOXX tab. I pushed hard on the little yellow and green pill, pushing it through the protective wrapping and aluminum packaging. I took the DETOXX back to Holly and she swallowed it without any water.
She continued on with her story, not skipping a beat.
"That's where most amateurs make their mistakes. You see, cutting someone's throat isn't quiet. Sometimes they gurgle, run around smashing into walls and knocking shit over, or they just thrash around before the brain runs out of oxygen."
Her muscles suddenly coiled like metal springs, she whipped me around and locked her arms around me, her hand covering my mouth tightly as her other hand pressed something sharp into my skin at the base of my neck.
I tried to twist away but she was strong as a tiger, holding me fast.
"Now, lover, if you really want to do it quietly, then you just grab someone in a lock like this." and she twisted hard, I thought my spine was going to snap and I fought back with everything that I had.
She had me dead bang.
"Put your Gerber at the base of the skull, here ... bone is real thin here." She said as I felt a sharp point of pain in the back of my neck.
Blood flowed down the tip of the blade where she had broken the skin. I was scared out of my mind. I had a crazy psycho bitch in the room with me.
"Know what you do next?" she asked.
I shook my head slowly, thinking fast. My heart was pounding in my ears so loud that I thought it had joined the Philharmonic Orchestra percussion section.
"You slam the blade upward, say, canting it at a forty-five degree angle and you'll scramble the medulla oblongata and the motor senses are destroyed instantly. Drop someone like a puppet with the strings cut."
I felt the knife dig deeper and I tensed. Her fingers slowly spread from across my lips. I could talk again.
"That isn't very funny." I said.
"It's not supposed to be funny. Killing someone quietly is very serious. If you don't do it right, you can get killed."
"Jesus. Let me go." I said.
"I know twenty ways to kill you and you wouldn't even know you were dead."
I think I was sweating. I could feel the blood running down my neck from the cut from the Gerber. She released me but held my arm tight and I fell forward, stumbling and turning to face her as she ran her tongue across the blade of the Gerber, licking the blood there off and returning the monoknife to the sheath on her boot. She pulled me to her once again and kissed me on the lips.
I didn't want any bones broken. I stared wide eyed at her, my heart had skipped a beat or two for sure.
"You're one crazy damn bitch ..." I said at last, catching my breath.
"That's me, one crazy damn bitch." she said as she turned me around again and bent my head gently forward, licking my neck where she had cut me. Her tongue sending goose pimples up my spine, especially when she nibbled on my ear and stuck her tongue there. She ran her hands across my chest slowly, running them under my vest and down to my belt.
"Come on, I'll make it up to you. Fix that little scratch there."
"Come on, let's get you into bed." she said.
"You're drunk ... and crazy." I said to her as I started to kiss her.
"I'll never be that drunk ..."
"Huh?" I muttered, caught off guard.
"Never." she said again softly, starting to unbutton my shirt.
Her lips parted to accept mine.
Like I said before, the road could get awfully lonely and I could wind up with some really weird chicks. If she didn't put a knife through my ribs tonight, I might just enjoy this. Later I would discover that she did have some neat tattoos under all her clothes and if she moved just the right way, the tattoos had a life of their own.
"You want to talk about it?" I asked at her as I slowly laid back on the bed.
"I saw a lot of things in South Am ..." she began.
"A lot of others did also." I said quietly, comfortingly.
"Yeah, well, a lot of others didn't come back. I did." Holly stated.
I was silent.
"One day ... one day I was pulling point for a fire team in Honduras. The villagers were all just watching us go through their village like they had seen soldiers come through every day. Then ... Then this woman runs up to me and is speaking broken English, something about her baby, and she hands me her baby all wrapped up in this dirty blanket. I was just looking at this little baby when something falls out of the blanket and lands at my feet. This guy in the team shouts 'grenade!' and we all dive for cover. I dive for cover with this baby in my arms. I'm holding a baby that had a grenade tucked in the blanket with it."
Holly looked up at me but I couldn't think of anything to say.
"They booby trapped a fucking baby! What kind of person booby traps a baby? Put a fucking fragmentation grenade on a baby!"
I held her closer.
"It's all over now. We used the Tycho mass driver to drop a rock on Honduras. We won the drug and bush wars, remember?"
"Did we? I really wonder if we won."
Holly stroked my chest.
"I once shot a twelve year old boy ..."
"I suppose you had to ..." I said.
"I didn't have too ... he just wouldn't stop. I was standing guard one night and I caught him putting a bomb in the gas tank of one of the Bradleys and I told him to stop. He wouldn't stop running and I drilled him in the back ... I told him to stop."
"A bomb in the gas tank?" I asked.
"Yeah. Indigs. Used to take grenades and put a rubber band around the handles and then pull the pin. It wouldn't go off as long as the handle was held down by the rubber band and then they would put the grenade into a gas tank of our vehicles. The gasoline ate through the rubber band and it could take a few hours or a few days but eventually ... Boom."
"Jesus!" I said.
"Yeah. Christ. Boom. All over the fucking place."
She told me a lot of other things that night and I listened until she fell asleep in my arms. I began to feel pretty good about myself then.
Maybe I wasn't so old after all.
Outside, the storm wailed and threw dust and grit against the ferrocrete walls of the building in never ending sheets ...
May 14, 2009- 6:30 AM, Texas, Highway One Truck Plaza
... I got some of what passed for breakfast and weak coffee at the diner. Fresh yeast toast, artificially flavored coffee made with chemically purified water, and what passed for artificial raisin bran with lots of gray colored sugar substitute poured on top. I scanned a soiled scream sheet taken from the local newsfax machine in the corner as I ate. Nothing of importance to me, but I've always been the kind who had to have something to read when I ate. I finished, paid up my tab, and then went over to the repair bay where Deano was still working on the tractor.
Holly was still sleeping soundly in the room.
I was feeling kind of wired. My Shidu chronometer read 9:26 AM. I had barely got any sleep at all. Dark gray chem clouds on the horizon were moving rapidly towards our way.
Great, more bad weather.
Already dust and grit was screaming over the walls of the truck stop. The wind was bad enough that I had to wear goggles, gloves, and a respirator. The dust and muck could choke a man in seconds. Guide lines had been set up between the buildings and the high intensities were already lit. I walked along one of the guide lines, hooked to it by a safety line with a D-ring and pulling myself hand over hand towards the service bay. It was slow going.
Visibility was five meters at best.
I needed to talk to Deano and I figured that he could use some help on the rig.
I let myself in through a door that wasn't facing the gale and nodded to several others who had taken refuge in the bay when the storm had started. I took my gear off and breathed in dust free air. I was looking for Deano and I found him under the hood of the Cadillac Gage HATHMAT, working away happier than one of Santa's elves at Christmas.
"How was it?" he asked.
"All right, I guess ..." I answered.
I didn't want to tell him that I had stayed up half the night playing shoulder to cry on.
"How was your room?" I asked, changing the subject.
"Typical. I managed to get some sleep and a shower though. Couldn't find my aspirin so I had to buy some from the sani-flush."
I looked at the exposed engines in their mounts, walking around and inspecting them.
He stopped his work and leaned on his arm, wiping the sweat from his brow. He walked down the gantry and under the rig to the pit. I walked over to the side of the rig and squatted.
"She's definitely not one of us." he said as I walked up behind him.
I could barely see him below the gantry under the rig. His face came up to the toes of my boots. I nodded. Johnny said the last part not condescendingly. He just meant that Holly wasn't from the road.
She was a stranger here.
The open road was my territory, and she was out of place.
Deano stopped working, wiping his hands on his stained coveralls and walking up the gantry from under the rig.
"I know." I said, leaning up against a rolling tool case and shrugging my shoulders.
"I guess I'm just a victim of circumstance."
"Oh, I see. 'Circumstance?' Is that what you're calling your 'nads now?"
I threw a shop towel at him for that. He caught it and continued to wipe his hands off, taking some hand cleanser from the tool kit. I didn't want to lose her, maybe out of a physical need for her and because she was a good lay, or maybe out of the realization that she was pretty good at what she did and could be an asset. Maybe a combination of all three. She could be very valuable in a pinch down the road.
"Look, I'm not preaching ... It's your life." Deano said.
"Ten four." I replied.
We had a working agreement, to each his own.
"She can tag along as long as she pulls her own weight. I've got no qualms about that. We have to get back to business and try and get some money flowing into our pockets." he said.
"Still ..." he began. "I don't know how long you could count on her to stay around. I just don't trust wanderers, especially pretty ones with long legs."
"Hand me that three centimeter RED spanner." I said.
Deano reached for the MAC tool tray as I slipped a mechanic level three bioplaschip into the input jack behind my ear and instantly I knew just how to work on the two huge engines, how to work on everything that there was to work on concerning the rig. High tech memory chips, user friendly interactive bio engineered software. I squeezed down below the rig into the gantry and looked at Deano's handiwork so far.
"Lets get back on the road ..." I said as I manhandled the new pump into position and Deano reached forward to drive the bolts home.
"Get some income flowing, check on the velocity of money, that sort of thing." I said.
The RED spanner whined as the rotary electric driver spun the bolt home. Deano set the torque adjustment and tightened the bolt with a whine and a squeak of metal on metal. He lowered the powered tool and wiped his forehead with his arm, leaving a greasy smudge.
"Got an idea where to?" Deano asked, looking around the tool case for a different spanner socket head.
"Oh, I thought we'd head for the mountains, get out of all this smog crap. Missionary Ridge or the Smokies, go higher up and east. Find some air we can breathe without filters."
"Get as far away from the Golden State Area as possible, huh?" he asked, not looking at me.
He didn't have to. He had hit the nail on the head. I heard the whine of the spanner and I winced with memory. Deano didn't seem to notice.
"First, let's get this rig back on the road." I whispered.
It was going to be a job just to remove the lower cowl panels. Deano eased his huge self down into the service bay's below ground gantry work area and underneath the tractor.
He looked above him at the underside of the huge rig and swore. I always had a way to get out of the hard work, not that Deano minded all that much. He did like working on the rig. Deano pulled a sliding tray over to him as I stripped out of my jacket and gear.
"Give me the two and three quarters centimeter spanner head there, will you?"
I reached over into the tray and took up a spanner head and handed it to Deano. He finished fitting the pump up inside the bottom of the motor, reaching his hands way up into the crank valley of the engine. A huge twelve and three quarters liter windage tray equipped oil pan lay at his feet and he finished seating the pump lead up inside the bottom of the big diesel.
"Hold here." he said as I moved over closer to him and reached my arms up inside the motor next to his.
It was a tight fit and it took several tries for us to get the pump lead located the right way. Deano then reached for the spanner and began to tighten the pump in place. The spanner whirred with an electric buzz as one by one, the locking screws torqued into place. Deano set the torque on the spanner and gave each screw a final twist as I eased my arms out of the bottom of the engine, finding a shop towel to wipe off.
I left the gantry to get a replacement oil filter, pan gasket, and a oil line that the damaged pump had severed. Damn filters were as big as coffee cans. Deano wiped the sweat from his brow with a shop cloth, grabbing a can of water from a refrigerated compartment of the tool kit and popping it open.
I reappeared two cans and a few minutes later and the two of us began to assemble the engine again, finally wiping all the excess oil from the bottom as I pulled out a steam gun and began to steam clean the bottom of the engine cradle in the tractor. The nozzle hissed as dark brown rivulets ran from the bottom of the engine bay to rush down a drain in the bottom of the service bay. I stared at the steam cloud, waving the nozzle casually back and forth, feeling the heat of the steam.
Deano went topside to start a laborious and time consuming complete tune up on the two engines. Deano muttered something that I couldn't make out as he pulled a coil boot off a spark plug and removed the gummed out plug with a spanner.
He was going to make damn sure that the rig was in top shape this time no matter what I said. We had plenty of time to tune the engines with a force five storm blasting everything outside. No sense in not taking the time to do things right. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, or something like that, he thought.
Deano hooked up a diagnostic CRT and terminal to the output jack of the engines and began to download information. He plugged an interface between the CPU of the engine and the jack in his head. Instantly, an iconic universe sprang up around him and he traced the circuitry of the Cadillac Gage. Simulations of the various components appeared for him and he checked each one, which ones were on line, which ones were off line, and which ones needed servicing. He was literally inside the engine, arcing from component to component at the speed of thought. Me, I was standing there, leaning on the cowl, watching his expressions. Whenever he would find something that was wrong, his face would go into a scowl for a few seconds as he ran diagnostics on the parts and then his face would relax and he would go on to the next component.
Between his meddling with the engines and my trying to reassemble them, it took us three hours and a few beers.
Outside, the storm screamed, continuing to gain strength. It was going to be a bad one this time.
I slipped my Oakley goggles back on, pulled the respirator up over my nose and mouth to make sure that it was secure. I opened the door fighting the counter force of wind that tried to shut the door from the outside. The guide line anchor was under the high intensity. I squinted hard to see the high intensities of the living quarters. Figures were visible moving in the muck. Portable high intensities clipped to belts or carried in hands bobbed and weaved in the muck like so many will-o-the-wisps. Visibility was about five meters in the brew and I fought against sixty klick winds to hand over hand my way back to the living quarters. Behind me, Deano was following slowly.
The filters in my mask needed changing but I had the kits in the Cadillac Gage HATHMAT. No danger, just that the air tasted stale. The dust and grit coming over the walls in waves slapped against my jacket and gloves, trying to get down my neck and up my sleeves. I gripped the guide line tighter and kept walking slowly. My goggles caked up and I reached up, touching the film canister there. A whir and a clear sheet of film was pulled across my goggles, allowing me to see clearly once again. I checked the tell-tale on the mask. Thirty more slides and I would have to change the canister of film.
Deano tapped me on the shoulder and I nodded as he pointed toward the restaurant. Deano was going to get something to eat. His high intensity belt light bobbing until I lost track of it in the muck. The winds suddenly picked up and I had to hold onto the guide line to keep from losing my balance.
It was rough going.
I hadn't seen a storm like this one since Nueva Habi, where I had seen Jonah Micah for the last time. I remember it real well. Its one of the few times in my life that I thought that I was really going to die.
I remember that we had barely made the settlement on our reserve tanks. There was a class three dust storm brewing up, sweeping in over the plains. People were shutting storm windows and bringing things inside their houses. Deano and I managed to get the rig parked between two buildings and we beat the storm to a local cantina where we planned on waiting out the dust up.
Surprise of ours to see Jonah Micah sitting at the bar already working on a cup. We sat down beside him and took our turn at being served. Jonah Micah was silent, quieter than he had been. I remember him looking up into the mirror behind the bar, his chrome mirrored implants eerily reflecting little images of us at the bar. Deano got up and went to what passed for the head.
It was then that I saw that someone else had entered the bar.
The front door opened and a stranger stepped inside the cantina. The storm was howling outside and it took two other locals to help close the door behind the stranger.
The man was dressed pretty much like Jonah Micah. The coat, the hat, the gloves, the holster, the stare, and a shotgun. Jonah Micah had looked back down at his drink and never looked up again. The stranger walked on up to the counter and sat down beside me on a vacant stool, setting the double barrel shotgun down on the bartop, casually pointed in my direction.
I had felt really uncomfortable then, gut feeling. The stranger had ordered a drink and the bartender had reluctantly served him. Something was brewing and it wasn't just the storm outside.
I saw trouble in the air.
Jonah Micah took another swallow of his drink and sat the cup down on the bar. The place was so silent that you could hear the echo of the cup tapping the countertop.
"Well, lookee here. Ole 'White Lightning' hisself. Imagine that, heh, heh? Been a looong time, Jonah ..." the stranger beside me had said, not looking up from the cup in front of him.
"A looong time. Yeah ..." the stranger continued.
Jonah was silent.
The stranger didn't say anything else for what seemed like an eternity. It was quiet for several seconds and then the man spoke again, eyeing me slowly.
"Tracking these two took more time than I thought. I wondered who was steering them around. You know, Jonah, there are a lot of people looking for the trucker here. You got claim?" he asked.
"Maybe." Jonah said flatly, not looking at the stranger.
"Lot of money on him and his friend's head. Not to mention that rig of theirs. Kind of money like that makes a man do just about anything to get a share of the take ... You know?"
"I reckon." Jonah said.
I didn't move.
The man's shotgun was laid up on the bar top, both barrels pointing at me casually, and his arms resting across the weapon. It wouldn't take much to reach down and pull the trigger. My automatic was holstered, which was a pretty stupid place for it to be, given the current situation. In any case, I doubted that I could clear leather and draw a bead before the man could pull the trigger and spray me all over the wall in a bloody mural.
"That sure is a lot of money for just one man, Jonah. How come you need so much?" the man asked, still eyeing me.
"I've got my reasons."
"I reckon so." the stranger said.
I started to move, just a little. The man's hand moved also, just a little toward the trigger of the shotgun. An equal amount.
Where was Deano?
"Your boots, Jonah. I've been curious for the longest now... What size are they?" the man asked, slowly sliding his hand away from his cup.
"What size do you wear?" Jonah asked flatly.
"Nine and a half ..." the stranger replied.
The stranger's hand dropped to the trigger of the shotgun.
What happened then I only remember as an after image. One instant I was sitting between two men. The next I was between a man and a corpse. Jonah's draw was faster than anything that I had ever seen. One second he had been sitting at the bar, both hands on his cup and staring at the tequila inside. The next second he had been standing, his head cocked to one side, and his arm extended fully across in front of my face. I felt his coat material, hide I thought, against my nose and lips. My nose was sore where he had brushed his arm up against it quickly and forcefully. His hand had held the Smith revolver, his thumb had cocked the hammer in mid draw, and his finger had pulled the trigger to the point that the hammer had fallen on a loaded chamber just at the instant that the revolver had been fully extended in Jonah's hand.
Art in motion.
I remember thinking how fast the draw had been, and how smooth. How artificial, how augmented, and how well practiced. Jonah had more than the chrome implants. Probably hardwired, augmented reflexes to be sure. And one other thing that I remember quite well.
There had been a shot.
Only one, but it was one that I would never forget.
The flash had temporarily blinded me, singed the little hair on the right side of my face and ear, and the roar of the Smith revolver had deafened me. I felt something wet and sticky splatter against the side of my face and arm but I didn't have to look down to see what color it was.
It was also splattered all over the mirror behind the bar and the bar top.
The stranger next to me slumped to the floor with a smoking, powder burned hole the size of my thumb in his left temple. What was left of his brains and skull were sprayed all over the rest of the bar. The body hit the floor with a sickening wet thud. The shotgun was still laying on top of the bar.
"No good. I wear a ten." Jonah said flatly. "My boots are too big for you."
He turned the revolver toward the door, drawing a bead just as another figure entered. I stood, reaching for my pistol but Jonah's other hand gripped me by the shoulder and pushed me down in my seat, out of his way. The new arrival was older than the corpse had been, and a lot more grizzled. Clutched in a pair of tanned, leather skinned hands was a large Colt automatic. The other stranger was holding it uncertainly as he surveyed the room, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His eyes finally fell on the corpse at the bar.
I heard the hammer of the Smith revolver cycle back slowly, the sound of metal hammer and springs cocking, the sound of a cylinder cycling the spent round clockwise as another loaded chamber aligned itself under the hammer.
The other man looked up at the sound; the last thing he ever saw was the barrel of Jonah's revolver spit fire.
The grizzled stranger wheezed loudly and fell backwards with a wild spasm, falling into a table and turning it over. Blood flowed from the wound in the center of the man's chest and the gaping wound that was made by the exit of the round from the man's back.
Jonah drew back his arm slowly, cycled the cylinder in the revolver, and eyed the room carefully. Satisfied, he slowly reholstered his revolver, sitting back down and draining his cup in one swallow. He reached over and took the bottle of tequila, refilling his cup. They called him 'old white lightning ' and he was just that.
I sat back down at the bar. Deano stared at the corpses on the floor and the mess on the bar.
Jonah said nothing.
The barkeep said nothing.
No one said anything.
The place was silent, everybody went about their business like nothing had happened and it had all happened so quickly.
"How did you know there were ... know there were two of them?" I asked.
"Knew there'd be two of them." Jonah said. "Anytime a man talks about there being too much money for one man alone it means that he has to split the take for a partner or two ... I knew him, not a nice man. He was the kind who wouldn't have had more than one friend at a time."
I nodded slowly, trying to take it all in.
"He probably would not have had that friend for very long either. Por fin ..." Jonah Micah had said then, getting up to leave.
"There is gas for your truck here, but you will have to barter for it. After that, I will lead you back to the north."
I turned to face him, wiping some drops from the side of my cheek and face, feeling sticky mats in my hair.
"Did you mean that bit about taking the bounty yourself?" I asked, skipping the relative train of thought with my own question.
My hand never left the bar. I knew that I couldn't outdraw Jonah.
"Do we still have a deal?" Jonah asked flatly.
"No." he said. "I did not mean what I said. If you are good for your word, then you can trust my word."
From somewhere in the establishment, three young men appeared and began to remove the bodies. Another man had begun to wipe the blood off the floor with a dented metal bucket of water and a towel, scrubbing at the blood before it could stain the wood.
No one said a word.
Jonah Micah had gotten up then and walked outside. Pulling his coat about him and his hat down as he wrapped his face in a shawl-like cloth. I saw him in the mirror as he turned and looked backwards only once.
Then he was gone.
Outside, in all that screaming, gritty brew.
I looked down at where the corpse had been on the floor.
"Who was he?" I asked the bartender, nodding toward the floor.
Deano walked up and stood beside me as the bartender turned to set a cup back on the counter behind the bar.
"Carls Farris. If there's a price on your head, pray that he doesn't come looking for you, senor." he said over his shoulder.
"Won't be looking for anyone else anymore ..." I muttered.
"A damn bounty hunter ..." Deano muttered with disgust.
"Used to be." I said. "Cada quien se pone la corona que se labra ..."
"What?" Deano asked me.
"It means 'as you make your bed, so you must lie in it.'"
I tried to finish the rest of my drink, but couldn't. It's kind of hard to drink when a total stranger's blood is slowly mixing with the tequila in your cup ...
Later, after the storm died down, we did manage to find some low grade diesel. Not quality stuff, but with the fuel filters we figured it would work. We had to pump it by hand, using an improvised siphon, from who knows how old underground ceramic tanks that we found at a long abandoned CITMEXGO gas station.
There was a lot of rust in the diesel, which didn't speak well for the quality, but beggars can't be choosers. We filtered the diesel through the filters a few times with a closed loop in the system and when we finally juiced the injectors with the aging brew, the semi didn't seem to notice.
The locals wouldn't miss the few hundred gallons. After all, no one in town had a car. Just an old Ford tractor that was used to plow what little fertile land was left and the tractor was broken right now.
We traded a set of Duracell batteries, some spare ammunition, and a Sony VGA Watchman that we wouldn't be needing any time soon for the lot of the fuel.
Jonah Micah kept his promise.
And I had kept one of mine.
Hell, cargo was no good to me if I was dead.
I could always find more cargo.
I could never buy another me.
I'm not that rich.
We cleared the border two days later and only one thought filled my mind ... We had made it.
It began to look like I was going to make it home after all.
A clap of thunder brought me back to the present and I realized that I had been standing still. I could feel the dust creeping down my jacket and I shook myself which didn't help matters much. Yeah. I needed a change of scenery, some fresh air and to put some klicks between myself and the badlands. I wiped my goggles with a squeegee built into the palm of my glove. It didn't help but to smear the grit and muck on my mask so I advanced the film again. I started to walk forward, the dim outline of the living quarters coming at me slowly out of the storm. I could see the high intensities now.
Yeah, a change of scenery and some fresh air.
Air that I could breath without filters.
And fewer dust storms.
And more money.
I never got tired of having money but for right now, I knew what I wanted. A hot shower, good food, and a warm body cuddled up next to me sure went a long way in helping to ease one's mind.
I thought about Holly and I, about Deano and I, about all of us and the road. What was in store for us? For Holly and I, well ... Maybe something was there, maybe not. Just have to wait and see. Wouldn't matter to me either way.
I'm a patient man.
I really wasn't too sure about what I even wanted to do next. I knew where I wanted to go, but after that ... well, I'd make up my mind when I got there.
I still had a lot to think about. My mind wondered back to a few weeks ago as I pulled myself carefully along the guideline. I thought of Jonah Micah Snow. I don't know where he is now, but I wish him luck. We would never have made it out of New Mexico alive if it hadn't been for him.
End of story, period.
I knew a hero once.
Who knows, maybe our roads will cross again one day.
Yeah, I'd like that.
I also thought about other things on the way back to the room.
Things like how maybe my luck had changed for the better after all. I moved along the guideline until the restaurant came into sharper view through all the dust. Something about the outline of the restaurant, something was parked in front of the entrance and the storm doors. I moved closer and squinted, trying to make out the shape there in the dust and wind.
Not just one thing, but several. A few more feet and I could see them then, still somewhat obscured by the dust but recognizable all the same. Two wheelers, dented chrome and broken plastic, scuffed metal and scraped paint, the worse for wear, parked outside the restaurant. The cycles were lashed together with nylafiber rope to keep them from falling over in the storm, lashed to a post out in front of the restaurant.
About fifteen of them.
All of them scratched and dented.
I didn't have to look all that hard to recognize them.
I guess they would have had to double up to make it this far.
Damn, I thought, as I drew my automatic and ran toward the restaurant.
My luck hadn't really changed at all ...
WHITE LINE, BLACK ROAD by Christopher T. Shields