Scavenger Dogs (Episode 3)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“What’s this all about, Harrow?” I asked, stepping back into the cool shade of the waiting area. Blood bubbled up from between my fingers where I had it them pressed against my side. Two Harrows dipped and swum, and my head ached something fierce. His guards had taken my spear away from me, and I was stripped to the waist. Not even a knife to my name.

Harrow ran his hand over his bald pate and glared at me with eyes as hard as tempered steel. He frowned, scowled, and pulled on his beard. I got the impression he wasn’t happy with me. His guards were standing nearby, feet apart, hands on their rifles. They were watching me, not their boss.

“Butcher Bird, what am I going to do with you?” he asked, his voice a low growl.

I scuffed my feet in the dirt of the floor. “Last I checked, we had a deal. I go into the arena, I come out, I get to see Plunker.”

“You were supposed to die!” He lunged at me, spittle flying from his lip, but he restrained himself from hitting me.

I smiled, showing him too many teeth to be polite. “I’ve never been good at that,” I said. “Where’s Plunker?”

Harrow tilted his head, narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t you hear me? You were supposed to die. Why would I ever let you anywhere near Plunker?”

My smile vanished quicker than a rattlesnake strike. “You’re not going back on your word, are you Harrow?” I saw his bodyguards exchange a look.

Harrow laughed, started to pull the pistol from his holster. He was slow though, too many years of giving orders and not getting his own hands dirty. His eyes went wide when he saw me coming at him, and he pulled the trigger before the gun was aimed properly, sending the bullet straight into the floor. I didn’t go for the gun directly, instead wrapping an arm around his neck, and pressing his body tight to mine. My other hand was on his wrist, my fingers digging in, keeping him from putting the gun on me. His guards trained their guns on me, their brows furrowed, sweat dripping from their hands.

“I’d think twice about pulling those triggers,” I snarled, backing away from them. Harrow clawed at my arm with his free hand, but my arm was a steel cable. “I might just snap your boss’s neck on my way down, and then what will you do?”

The door behind me crashed open, and I closed my eyes. I wished I’d planned this better. I wished I told Shocktop she was in charge when I died. I wished… well, mostly I wished I hadn’t lived such a piss poor life. There were two gun shots, but I didn’t feel anything. I cracked my eyes open. The guards were down, heads split like melons.
“What was that, boss? You want to put me in charge?” Shocktop was flanked by Ticker and someone else. I tried to place the face with a name, but was drawing a blank.

“I didn’t say anything,” I muttered, wresting the gun from Harrow. “Now, let’s try this again. Where’s Plunker?”

“Fuck. You.” Got to give credit where it was due, Harrow was a tough bastard.
I pointed the gun down, sent a bullet into his foot.

“Fuck!” he shouted, collapsing to the ground, clutching the wound.

“Want me to put a bullet through your other foot?” I asked.

“Fuck you, Butcher Bird.” His teeth were gritted against the pain. “He’s back in the compound.”

I nodded. “Alright then, let’s go.”

“I can’t walk like this!” Harrow said, blood gushing from his foot.

“So hop.”

We didn’t have any trouble getting past the guards at the compound. It probably had a lot to do with the gun I had nestled in Harrow’s back or maybe it was the rest of the Dogs behind me, all armed and looking mean. Harrow’s people took one look at him, another at us, and were all smiles and politeness.

Harrow led us deeper, down to where he kept his pens. It smelled foul, all old sweat and fear, shit and rot. It reminded me why I didn’t deal with slaves. I dealt enough with human misery, and slaves were just pushing it too far, even for me. He pointed out a pitted metal door, a rusty lock keeping it closed, and a small opening for food set at the bottom.

“Well?” I prodded the barrel of the pistol into the small of Harrow’s back. He sighed, produced a ring of keys.

“Give me a moment, will you?” he said. He took his sweet time to find the key, but that was on him. Longer he took, the longer he was going to bleed into the dirt. He clicked the lock open and pulled at the door. Inside, sitting at a workbench with thick goggles strapped over his eyes was an older man, thin, greying hair on top. He looked fed and healthy, so there was that at least.

“Plunker?” I asked.

“Yeah?” He peered past Harrow at me. “Do I know you?”

“Don’t think so,” I replied, shaking my head. “You and I’ve got business, though. Unless, of course, you’d prefer to stay a guest here?”

The old man smiled, picked up a bag and stuffed a variety of odds and ends into it. He pushed past Harrow and made sure to stomp on his bad foot, causing him to howl in pain. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Harrow, I’d say it was a pleasure doing business with you, but I’d hate to be caught lying,” I said.

“Fuck you, Butcher Bird. I’m not going to forget this.”

I stepped up to him and pressed the barrel of the gun under his chin, forcing his eyes up to meet mine. “Don’t. Don’t forget. Don’t forget what it was that led to this. If you’d played me straight, well, I wouldn’t have shot you, would I? Remember what got you here, Harrow, and hope we don’t cross paths again, because believe me I’m not going to forget either.”

***

“So, do you have any idea as to what it is?” I asked Plunker. We were camped outside Trade Town, bikes covered with tarps to keep the blowing dust and dirt off of them. Most of the crew was sleeping, while a few others were keeping watch on the perimeter. We weren’t expecting trouble, but then, that’s when it usually found us. Shocktop, Plunker and I were standing around the tent we’d set up. A kerosene lamp sat on the one small table we owned. Plunker sat hunched over it, turning the box over in his hand and staring at the wires and lights.

“Where did you get this?”

“Does it matter?” Shocktop asked.
Plunker looked up at her, but it was impossible to see his eyes behind the lenses of his goggles. “It might. Might help me figure out where it came from.” He shrugged, turned back to the box. “Might not though.”

“Took it on a raid,” I offered. “We hit a settlement about fifty miles from here. They didn’t have much.”

Plunker wrinkled his nose. “But you took what they did have, anyway?” he said. There wasn’t much malice in his voice, just a sort of weary resignation.

“Not all of it, no,” I said. “Does that help you?”

Plunker shook his head, ran his calloused fingers over the casing. “What’s this?” he asked. He brushed a bit of built-up grime off the casing, peered down closer at it. “Huh. Don’t know how I missed that before. You don’t have a map, do you?”

I blinked at Plunker, looked over at Shocktop, then back to Plunker. “What kind of map are you looking for?” I asked. “Not like we care much about roads and such, what ones are still intact.” It was true, too. Most roads were cracked and ruined stretches of asphalt, dotted with the wreckage of the previous age. Not the sort of thing conducive for actual travel. Our bikes were fitted with over-large tires as a result, designed for cross-country travel.

“I’ll see what we’ve got, boss,” Shocktop said.

I sat cross-legged in the dirt as Plunker kept studying the device. A bit later, Shocktop pushed open the flap of the tent with a couple of rolled tubes clutched under her arm. She was followed by Razzle who had a few more.

“This is what you were looking for?” Shocktop asked.

“Yes, yes, that exactly,” Plunker said, leaping up and snatching the maps from her. “Why didn’t you tell me you had all of these?”

I exchanged a long look with Shocktop, and shrugged. “It’s not like I tell those Dogs to turn over everything they come across,” I said. “Sometimes they surprise me with what they have.”

Plunker ignored me though, unrolling maps, then rolling them back up with a snap.

“No. No. No. Definitely not. Wait, this isn’t a map. Nice breasts though. No. Ah, here we go.” Plunker rolled out the map further, traced his finger along the gridlines. His finger stopped, backtracked, and then tapped with confidence.

“There. That’s what you’re looking for.”
I stood up, squinted at where his finger was pointing, and looked back at Plunker. “Are you sure?” I asked. “There’s well… there’s nothing there but mountains.” I looked over at Shocktop. “This is a terrible idea.”

“When was the last time you had a good idea, boss?” Razzle asked. I glared at her. She was still upset about having to climb up the shit pipe on that last raid. I could tell.

I looked back at the map. “So where is this, then? Compared to where we are?” I stared down at the map, tried to figure out where it was we were looking for. “And how’d you figure out this is where the box is from?”

Plunker looked up and smiled at me. “See this?” he said, holding up the box. I squinted, but all I could make out were some fuzzy looking numbers. “These are coordinates.” He pointed to the spot on the map again. “These are the same coordinates. You’ll probably find whatever this box corresponds to there.”

“Probably?” I raised an eyebrow, scratched at my chin.

Plunker sighed, pulled the goggles up from his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Look, I don’t know what you are going to find out there. Could be this is where it was made. Could be whatever this fits to can be found there. I don’t know.”

“Any idea what it might do though?” I asked.

“Hmm? Oh, it’s like a key. These wires connect over, these lights come on, and once everything’s green, well, the thing it’s attached to should open up.”

“So, like a key to a door?” Razzle asked, peering around me at the device.

Plunker nodded, tossed me the box. “That’s it exactly. I don’t know what you’ll find there, and I hesitate to guess. Could be looters or raiders have already gotten there, though without this,” he reached out and tapped the box, “they’d have a hell of a time getting to whatever it was.”

“Have you ever seen one of these before?” Shocktop asked.

Plunker nodded. “Yeah, once or twice. They were always connected to what they were supposed to open though. I’ve never seen one detached like this one is.”

“So all we need to do is drive up into the mountains, find the door that this goes to, and what? Any idea what we can expect to find?”

Plunker shook his head. “No idea,” he said with a smile. “But, that’s part of the excitement isn’t it?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Sure. Shocktop, Razzle, we’ll head out come morning. Make sure we’re ready to go, all right?”

“What about me?” Plunker asked after they left the tent.

“What about you?” I asked. “You showed us what we’re looking for, right? You can go.”

The old man pulled his goggles from off his head, polished them on his shirt. “Go where? Harrow razed my home. I don’t have anywhere to go. Besides, I’d like to see what this opens.”

I frowned slightly. “You want to come with us?”

“Why not?” He placed the goggles back on his head, adjusted the strap. “You might need me anyway, figure out how that things fits the lock.”

I snorted. “Can you fight?”

“Does it look like I can fight? Of course not. I know my way around machines though, and I can help out on the bikes. That’s worth more than another gun.”

“All right. You’re in. For now.”

***

“This is it?” I asked. We were standing up in the mountains, a cold, biting wind whipping around us. It was Plunker, Shocktop, Razzle, Trigger and myself standing around, knee deep in snow, staring into a recessed entranceway. Part way into the cave, the surface changed from roughhewn rock to pitted metal, and a small red light blinked fitfully above a rounded door. We’d left the rest of the gang, and the bikes, behind when we began our ascent, hoping to find what Plunker swore would be there. It had taken two days to find it.

Plunker nodded, head bobbing up and down like a bird’s. “Yes, yes, this is it,” he said. “Give me the box, will you?”

I handed him the smooth black contraption, the wires carefully wrapped around it. He placed his pack on the ground, rummaged around in it for a pair of pliers, a screwdriver, and a wirestripper. He removed part of the metal wall, tongue peeking out between his cracked lips as he worked. He connected the wires as we dug our hands into our pockets, huddled together for warmth. Not for the first time I wondered why I’d drag us on this fool quest.

“There we go!” he said, smiling.

“There we go what?” I asked. “Nothing’s happening.” I pointed to the still closed door. “See? Nothing.”

“Give me a moment,” he said. He pulled the box back out, twisted his head from side to side. “Ah. Woops.” He disconnected two wires, swapped their leads. A small spark jumped out, causing Plunker to jump back and blow on his singed fingers.

There was a long, slow grind of a noise, like drawn out thunder. It shook the ground under our feet and dislodged snow up on the mountain. The door rolled to one side, years of disuse conspiring against it, but move it did. A series of lights, long disused, came spluttering to life.

I checked my gun, and smiled at the others.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go see who’s home.”

Alex S. Johnson Interview (Part One)

For our first interview here on Dark Futures, we’re pleased to welcome Alex S. Johnson. Alex edited the recently released anthology Axes of Evil, a heavy metal themed horror anthology. He is also a writer himself. 

First of all, could you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

Hi, David, and thank you so much for the interview. Let’s see. I’m a 47-year-old man of Norwegian/Scottish heritage, a second-generation Californian. I attended U.C. Davis for my B.A. in Comparative Literature and have a Master’s degree in English Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills. I live in Sacramento, California, in a small suburb where I spend most of my time writing and networking with people who share my interests and enthusiasms. My partner, Charie D. La Marr, lives in Long Island. I lived in Los Angeles for two decades, have taught English at the college and university levels, have worked as a music journalist, editor and writer. That should be good to start things out with.

What do you think it is that draws you to horror fiction?

That is a really good question that I’ve been pondering a good part of my life. I think I’ve always been attracted to the darker aspects of reality because they seem to hold the keys, in a way, to understanding the entire picture. The cliché of not being able to really understand the light until you’ve explored the dark. I was raised in a household that follows Vedanta, which is the philosophical school derived from ancient Hindu scripture, so from a very young age I was exposed to myths and legends of cosmic cycles, huge forces, gods and demons and multiple levels of consciousness. That is kind of an unusual background for a middle class Caucasian living in a primarily Christian country, and partly as a consequence of that difference—trying to explain my parents’ beliefs to myself and other people—I’ve become extremely sensitive to the different lenses through which various cultures perceive questions of good and evil.

Most Western horror fiction is informed by the dominant paradigm of Christianity. So if your religion or spiritual tradition tells you that good and evil are only apparent and that the true reality is transcendent of the pairs of opposites, it becomes a very intriguing and appealing life’s work to interrogate the majority standard. That may be why I’m more drawn to a writer like Clive Barker, say, than Stephen King. Barker once said that there is something fascinating about extremes, on both sides. I love that ambiguity and tension.

On a more basic level, I love horror fiction because it addresses the emotional life of human beings, the fundamental desires, fears, temptations, dreams sacred, mysterious, profound and terrific, that move us and motivate us. More than any other genre, horror cuts to the bone, and deals with the ultimate fear—death, the beyond, and how it defines the significance or perhaps tragedy of what we do as individuals and as a society. Death, like sex, is a limit experience. A wall. What’s on the other side? What happens when you transcend the barrier? There’s a lifetime of stories to be had if you seriously ask those kinds of questions.

What about heavy metal?

Heavy metal music has been a solid friend to me from when I first discovered it around the age of 12 or 13. I love the sexual drive of it, the energy, that martial sense of power. It’s a great mood elevator and I’ve actually re-discovered that aspect of it since I gave up substances a few years ago. Metal is energy moving in a forward direction, and it helps to surmount the walls I mentioned earlier.

Why do you think those two things go together so well?

I wish I could address that question from a more informed place, but I think I’ll answer you this way. The Reaper is coming for all of us, rich or poor, smart or stupid, and there’s nothing any one of us can do about it. The only difference comes with our attitude towards that fact. Heavy metal is the soundtrack of defiance to the horror comedy that is life. When I go out, I want to be rocking, throwing the horns, or as they say in the UK, the sign of the goat (just learned this!) Going bravely into certain oblivion with Ozzy on one shoulder and Lemmy on the other. Heavy metal and horror map that place in the nervous system that makes us feel alive by confronting us with the immutable terms we’re given.

Axes of Evil is published by Chupa Cabra House. Was the anthology your idea or did they come to you?

Axes of Evil Volume One was published by Chupa Cabra House, yes. I had developed the idea over about a year’s time and pitched it to several publishers before Chupa took it on.

How long did it take to, from start to finish, to put Axes of Evil together?

Axes took approximately five months to put together, which includes soliciting authors, selecting the stories, working back and forth with the authors in some cases to develop the stories further, and finally, copy-reading and proofing and compiling the manuscript. My partner, Charie D. La Marr, was responsible for the vast majority of the line-editing that became the finished product.

Axes of Evil is quite long for a short fiction anthology. According to the Amazon listing, it contains 34 stories and is 576 pages long. Was it being a large book the plan from the start or did it just turn out that way?

I think that the length is partially due to the lengthy incubation period of the project, the fact that it went through three distinct stages—the first version of the book was as a benefit anthology titled Gore Beyond Bizarro—and the enthusiasm and interest of our contributors. I wanted to showcase not only well-established pros like Lucy Taylor but also put on display the extraordinary talent of up-and-coming writers I’ve discovered mainly through online networking. Another factor was the reach of the book. Axes reflects as best as I was able the global sweep of heavy metal and horror. We have stories from writers in the UK, Australia, India, Europe, the entire continental U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. So yeah, it’s a big book, but big with talent. Bulging, even.

How would you say Axes of Evil has been received?

We have had a great deal of support, acknowledgement and response from media outlets, bands and fans. It’s selling fairly well—I don’t have the complete figures, but Kindle and print sales combined have been much better than expected. The first week it appeared, the book went straight to Number 7 on Amazon’s list of bestselling horror anthologies, and it’s still in the Top 100.

Is this better than you expected, worse than you expected, or is everything proceeding exactly as the demon who collected your soul promised?

If you see that little imp, I have a few things I’d like to get off my chest! I’m not sure what I expected. Just having the book out there is an achievement, as far as I’m concerned. Our contributors have been very enthusiastic, for the most part, in getting the word out and letting us know how happy they are to be involved.

I understand there is to be an Axes of Evil II. I think I’ve even seen a possible Axes of Evil III mentioned. Are these follow ups going to differ from the first in some way or be generally very similar?

There will indeed be an Axes II. Axes II will be pretty much in the same vein as the first volume, with an eclectic array of tones and voices, from comedy-horror and satire to full-blown, no holds barred Splatterpunk, with some quiet and atmospheric pieces as well. The plan for Axes III was originally to create a shared-world high fantasy anthology that would be engineered by myself and a handful of other authors. If it does happen, it will still be located within the fantasy realm rather than pure horror. That being said, there have been some personnel changes that have affected the nature of the shared-world concept, and at any rate, we’re already talking more than a year from now before an Axes III sees the light, if it does.

Since many of our followers are writers, could you give any insight into what you’d like to see in submissions for Axes of Evil II?

My basic philosophy as a composition instructor and as an editor is that passion counts. If you don’t have passion for heavy metal music and horror fiction, don’t submit. I want the stories to be deeply informed by love, awareness and knowledge of the ambience, sights, smells, tastes, language and, most important, sound of metal. Heavy metal is in many respects the hero of the books. And of course I want tight, well-constructed, scary stories. They may be humorous as well, but in any case they need to be well-made stories that will satisfy the reader. I’m willing to and have worked with writers who submitted a draft that needed massaging, but I expect that the draft you submit is the one you would like to see published. It’s a good idea to have someone else beta-read your story before you send it in.

That’s probably enough about that for now. Let’s move on to you.

The second part of this interview focuses more on Alex S. Johnson as a writer. It will be published in this site next week.