“Look, Butcher Bird, I ain’t got no idea what it is.”
I sighed, scratched at my beard, and ignored the dirty look Shocktop was giving me. We’d been back and forth through Trade Town talking to every grey bearded prospector and scavenger we knew while the rest of the crew was drinking and whoring and maybe even eating. Trade Town. Wasn’t much of a town, more a collection of canvas tents, tin shacks, and busted RVs. It served though as a major hub. Everyone came through, and people pretty much minded their manners.
Most of the time.
The item in question was a simple grey box. A few wires jutted out from one end, and bits of colored plastic decorated the other. I’d bet if you ran a charge through it, it would light up. We’d picked it up from a local hold we’d raided about a week back. There was something about it, an itch on the back of my neck, telling me it was important. Problem was, figuring out why was proving tougher than I thought.
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Hazer, I’ve known you for a while now, right?”
Hazer nodded. “About six or seven seasons now.”
“In all that time, have I once done you wrong?”
He shook his head. “But-“
I held up my hand. “Let me finish. People come to you with all sorts of gadgets. Books too by the look of it.” I gazed around at his shop. Piles of rusted out tubes next to boxes with cracked screens. Books with their covers cracked and torn, half their pages missing. But Hazer was well fed. Looked healthy. Doing all right for himself, and not the least of it was because of folk like me willing to bring him things acquired in a less than peaceable way.
“So what you’re telling me is you’ve got no idea at all? After everything I’ve done for you?” My hand drifted down to the handle of the knife on my belt. I saw Shocktop, who’d up to now been idly browsing take a keener interest in our conversation, rest her hand on her gun.
“Now Butcher, I aint’ said that.”
I narrowed my eyes. “No? So what was it you said?”
“I said I don’t know. But hold on, I know someone who might.”
“Well now, that’s more like it.” I offered him one of my friendlier smiles, saw him cringe. Well, that was all right too. “So, please, introduce us.”
“Well now, that’s a bit of a problem right there,” Hazer said. “Now, now, take it easy,” he quickly amended. Might have had something to do with seeing Shocktop and I getting tense again. “I know a fellow, he might know what that is. Name of Plunker. There’s a problem though.”
“Isn’t there always?” I asked.
“Harrow has him.”
“Shit,” Shocktop spat. I nodded in agreement.
“Thanks for nothing then,” I said. I reached into my jacket, smiled when I saw Hazer flinch again, and tossed him a bit of scrap metal as I collected the box. “We’re square?”
“Square,” he said, spitting in the dirt.
“Fucking Harrow,” Shocktop said as we made our way through the early evening crowds. I was recognized by most, which meant they got out of my way. People who didn’t recognize me were usually dragged to the side by those that did. Fine by me. I wasn’t in any mood to have to make an example of someone.
I could only shrug. “People say that about you and me too,” I said.
She spat again. “We’re not like him. Not at all. So what now? See if you can trade it for something? Throw it away?”
I smiled. “We go talk to Harrow.”
It wasn’t as if Harrow was hard to find. He had as regular a set-up as you could have at Trade Town, a series of shacks surrounded by a fence formed of detached car doors half-buried in the ground. Two heavies were out front, cradling rifles. I couldn’t see their eyes behind their goggles, but I could feel them on me, boring into me.
“We should have brought more of the crew,” Shocktop said. Her nerves were pouring off her in waves, making me twitchy.
“Here,” I said, handing her the box. “I’d hate for it go missing, understand?”
“Got it, BB,” she responded, slipping it into her satchel.
I took a deep breath and approached the gate, my hands up and open.
“Hi there. Wanted to have a word with Harrow.”
“Yeah? What word?”
Trying hard not to look wolfish, I offered a smile. “Need to talk to him about Plunker.”
The two exchanged a long look, and I had to wonder just how much could be conveyed behind those goggles.
“Who are you?”
“Name’s Butcher Bird.” I wondered if it would be a good thing or a bad thing if my rep preceded me.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of you. You armed?”
I cocked my head to one side and raised an eyebrow, flipping my jacket back from the pistol on my hip.
“Turn it over,” the one on the right said. “She stays here.”
“It’s okay, Shocktop,” I said, keeping my eyes on the two guards. I eased the pistol out with two fingers, passed it to her. “The gun stays with her, all right? Would hate for it to be misplaced.”
“Whatever. Come here.”
I walked over, spreading my arms as I was frisked. “Usually I got bought a drink first.”
They finished patting me down and opened the gate. More armed people inside, and little surprise. Cages were situated throughout the compound, filled with filthy, scrawny bodies. A few dogs were chained nearby, and they looked better fed than the slaves. I kept my eyes forward, but I saw the slaves scurry into the back of the cages as I walked by, not wanting to attract attention from any potential buyer. Couldn’t say I blamed them.
Harrow was inside one of the buildings, sitting behind a long metal table. There was plate in front of him, looked like he’d just finished eating. The smell of it, a greasy, meaty odor, hung in the air. My stomach growled.
“Butcher Bird! Been a long time,” he said. “How’s the crew holding up?”
I shrugged. “Same old, same old,” I said.
“Wicked and Shocktop still running with you?” he asked.
“Yes and no. Shocktop hasn’t gone anywhere. Wicked bought it on a raid.”
Harrow shook his head. “Sorry to hear that. So. What brings you to darken my doorstep? Seems I recall we didn’t have polite words to say last time we met.”
“Business, Harrow.” I’d been hoping he’d forget about the last time, was wishing he’d been too drunk for any of that to make it through. “I understand you’re holding someone named Plunker.”
Harrow cocked his head to one side, ran a scarred hand over his bald dome. It gleamed from the single bulb set in the ceiling. I wondered if he shaved it daily, or maybe he had someone do it for him.
“Yeah, could be I remember that name on my ledgers. What’s it to you? Last I remember you don’t deal in slaves.”
I shrugged, slipped my thumbs through my belt loops. I wished for my gun, missing it’s comforting weight on my hip. It wasn’t like I was planning on starting a fight. Harrow had two guards in with him, and those weren’t odds I favored. “That’s right. I don’t. I came across a bit of something, can’t make heads or tails of it. I heard tell Plunker might be able to. Then I heard tell if I want to see Plunker, I have to see you.”
Harrow smiled, and I knew what it must be like when I smile at folk. Sent a chill up my spine. “See,” he said, jabbing a finger at me. “I knew, I just fucking knew, one day Butcher Bird would darken my door, hat in hand, needing something from me. And here you are.”
“What’s the cost, Harrow?” I asked.
His smile grew wider, fingers drumming on the table top. “You know me. I’m a businessman. Usually I’d take something in trade for Plunker. One of yours for him. Maybe that cute little purple haired girl you got. What’s her name? Dazzle?”
“Razzle,” I said, entertaining for a moment the thought of what she’d do to Harrow if he lay an unwelcome hand on her. “Not looking to take him off your hands, Harrow. I want him to look at something, that’s all.”
“Huh. So you want to rent not buy, that it?” He rubbed his hand over his chin.
I nodded. “Yeah, that’s it exactly. Might take an hour or two at most.”
“All right. But it’s still not free.”
“Nothing ever is. How much scrap do you want?”
Harrow frowned and placed both of his hands down flat on the table, pushing himself up to his feet. He towered over me, and the blade at his belt wasn’t just for show. “I don’t deal in scrap, Butcher Bird, and you should know that. I ain’t one of the ragpickers dealing in old metal and bits of junk. I need a bit of violence done. That’s the price to see Plunker.”
“Okay. So what do you need done?”
Harrow sat back down, all smiles again. “That’s more like it. See, I always knew you were a sharp one, Butcher. Must be why you’re running your own crew.”
“What’s the job, Harrow?”
“You’re familiar with the pit fights?”
I nodded. Pit fights were a draw of Trade Town. Throw a couple of heavies into a make-shift arena, give them some crude weapons and watch them murder each other. Brutal sport for a brutal time, I suppose. Different players in town backed different stables of fighters. It was a way to make some quick scrap, if you were quick, strong, and lucky. Chances were good though that before long you’d be feeding the stray dogs that prowled the outskirts.
Harrow sat back down in his chair, leaned back and placed his hands behind his head. “Good. That’s good. You’re going to enter.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’m hardly in my prime, Harrow. I’ve got people who-”
Harrow shook his head. “Nah. That’s not the way this going to go. You want to pay me, I want paid in blood. Yours, understood?”
“Yeah, I’m with you.”
“Good. Now you’ll understand if I can’t let you leave before the fight.”
I narrowed my eyes to slits. “That wasn’t part of the deal,” I said. “My crew is going to wonder what happened to me.”
Harrow clapped his hands and the door out opened. In came Shocktop, flanked by two of Harrow’s goons. She didn’t look any the worse for wear.
“You okay, BB?”
“Yeah. Harrow’s been the soul of hospitality.”
“Your boss is going to be staying with me a bit longer, Shocktop,” Harrow said. “I suggest you and the rest of his crew head over to the arena tomorrow. Seems there’s going to be a special guest appearance.”
Shocktop raised her eyebrow at me, the corners of her mouth turning down slightly. I rolled my shoulders. “It’s fine, Shock. After the fight, I’ll be talking to Plunker. That right, Harrow?”
Harrow smiled again, row upon row of gleaming teeth. “When have you known me to go back on my word?”
A knife banging against the bars of my door was my wake-up call. I sat up from the thin mattress on the metal cot, stretched my arms up over my head.
“What’s for breakfast?”
“Huh?” the guard asked. She looked like most of Harrow’s crew. Tall, broad, shaved head. A wicked scar ran across the bridge of her nose.
“Harrow doesn’t expect me to fight on an empty stomach does he?”
“Oh. Come on to the kitchen. We’ll get you fixed right up,” she said, unlocking the door.
The politeness threw me off. In my experience, slavers and guards were all about insults first, especially when they felt they were in power.
Breakfast was a bit of cold meat. I didn’t question the source, but it didn’t taste like rat. Some water washed it down.
“When are the fights scheduled for?” I asked.
“Mid-morning,” my chaperone told me. “You know what’s involved?”
“Yeah, unless the format’s changed recently. One on one, right? Some weapons scattered about? Fight until one is dead? I got that about right?”
“Yeah, that’s about the size of it,” she said, nodding. “We’ve mixed it up a little bit recently. We’ve had some two on two fights going, and we’ve managed to do a couple of beast fights if a trapper’s been lucky recently. We always end with the main event though. A one on one fight between two veterans. Harrow tends to throw problem slaves into the arena. If they win, it looks good on him. They lose, well, it’s one less mouth to feed.”
“Let me guess, I get to be the main event.”
“Harrow did say you were a smart one. Come on, I’m supposed to escort you over.”
The guard shrugged. “You try anything, and you won’t get what you want from Harrow.”
“Yeah, there’s that.”
She led me to another part of the compound. There were a series of benches and wooden hooks lined the walls. I could hear muted shouts and cheering from nearby. The games were in full swing, and we were close.
“Here we are. Any last minute prep you’d like to do?”
“Another hot one today?” I asked.
“Better believe it. It’s probably worse in the arena.”
I shrugged out of my jacket and shirt. “Probably.”
The guard gave a low whistle. “That’s quite the collection of scars you’ve got there,” she said. I caught a hint of admiration in her voice.
“The product of a wicked life,” I said. “Guessing all the weapons are out in the arena?”
She nodded, her eyes still fixed somewhere south of my eyes. I stretched my arms up over my head, bounced on the balls of my feet. “No chance you telling me what’s waiting for me out there, is there?”
“Sorry. No. Even if I did know, and Harrow found out about it? It’d be my ass out there next week.”
I slowly rolled my neck, then my shoulders, then my arms. “Yeah, I understand.”
“Want a kiss for good luck?” she asked.
I looked at her, thought about the last time any woman looked at me the way she was. I smiled, and she didn’t flinch. She tasted sweeter than I expected, and she was hungry, her tongue probing between my teeth, her arms tight around me. She pushed me away, gave me a wink.
“Luck,” she said, leading me to the entrance of the arena.
The gates opened, the sunlight glaring off the hard packed dirt of the arena. They didn’t bother to clean up between matches, and the air reeked of spilled guts and emptied bowels. The dirt was stained a deep, rust red, a constant reminder of pain and death to come. Benches were arrayed around the arena, the stadium packed with spectators and all of them anxious to see more blood spilled.
I heard someone shouting, but I didn’t pay it any mind, my eyes fixed across the arena at my opponent. He stood at least a head taller than I did, even stooped over as he was. His over long arms dangled past his knees, and his mouth, under its small piggish eyes and squat nose, was broken into a feral grin, tusks jutting out where teeth should have been. His body was slabs of hard muscle, and bony protrusions jutted out from his skin. A mutate, out from the wastes.
I ran forward, my eyes on a spear thrust through some poor fucker. The mutate didn’t bother with weapons, charging straight for me, forearm extended to ram me into the air. I saw him coming, feinted left and dove to the right. I felt the wind of his passing as I got out of the way, then hit the dirt hard. I scrabbled to my feet. The brute was wrenching the spear I wanted out of the corpse, grinned at me as the blood dripped off of it.
It took a few experimental jabs with the spear, and I kept backing up. There was no way I was going to get that away from him, and I didn’t stand a chance in close. As I backed up, I nearly fell when my heel caught on something. As I stumbled, the mutate attacked, its spear jabbing hard at my stomach. I winced as it cut a shallow wound along my ribs. As it brought the spear back for another attack, I kicked my foot up, dirt briefly obscuring the air between us and bringing the length of chain that nearly killed me into my hands.
When the brute thrust again, I slipped to one side, flung the chain around the haft of the spear and pulled hard, my heels digging furrows in the dirt. The mutate grunted as he was jerked forward, but his grip on the spear was sure. He twisted the spear, brought the butt of it up in attempt to catch me between the legs. I twisted my hips and caught a blow on my thigh for my trouble that sent me sprawling. I kept hold of the chain as it unwound from the spear. I wouldn’t be trying that again.
Scrambling back to my feet, the spear tip plunged into the dirt where I was but a moment ago. The mutate lunged again, only this time as I slipped to the side I moved closer, the chain whistling through the air and striking his shoulder and back. The brute howled in pain as he brought the spear around, wielding it like a club and catching me on the side of the head.
The whole world went black and red and around and around and around. I’m not sure how I kept my feet, as I tumbled drunkenly around the arena. I swung the chain, flailing wildly and hitting nothing. Part of me wondered when the killing blow was going to come. Stars were still dancing in my vision when I saw the mutate charging again, the spear couched under its arm to deliver a killing blow. Desperate, I flung the length of chain out, releasing it in a low awkward spiral. It caught him in the shins, ruining his momentum and sending him to the ground. The impact did what I couldn’t, knocking the spear loose from his grip and sending it skittering across the ground toward me. I kicked it up into my hand. He’d just managed to get to his feet when I drove the spear down hard at the base of his brain, putting all my weight behind the blow. Somehow, impossibly so, he still tried to get to his feet, a bestial groan reverberating his body. Gripping the haft with both hands, I twisted it sharply and that was the end of the fight.
It didn’t take much looking around the area to see where Harrow was sitting. I stumbled in that direction, one hand clutching my hand, blood seeping through my fingers.
“You’ve had your fight. Where’s Plunker?”
Harrow smiled that wolf grin of his and slowly clapped. “Go back inside. We’ll talk there.”