Breaker kicked up dust off to one side as we waited to get into Trade Town. It looked like a lot more people going in then I remembered there being, but then it looked bigger, too.
“Hey, Breaker, how long’s it been since we’ve been here?”
A few folk turned and looked at me, then where Breaker was, then back at me. It was like they never saw a person talking to their friend before.
Breaker looked up at the sky, staring at that pale yellow orb hanging there. “Been a few months at least. Why?”
“Place seem any different?”
Breaker sniffed at the air. “A bit bigger, maybe. Maybe a few more people. Same lousy stink in the air though. Shit and gasoline. You sure this was a good idea?”
I shook my head, my hand dropping down to my satchel. “Wasn’t like we were given much choice, though, were we?”
Breaker smiled at me, scaled the fence surrounding the town and peered in. The guards didn’t even look at him. Asshole. It was like I was the only person that could see him some days. “Well, shit.”
“What is it?” I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see what he did.
“Well, I could be wrong, but I think Butcher Bird and his crew are here.”
“Shit. Are you sure?”
Breaker hopped down from the fence and walked back to me. “Well, not a hundred percent sure, no. But I saw a bunch of bikes in there, and more than one was flying BB’s flag. When do they not travel in a big fucking pack?”
We moved forward a bit, the guards checking people over, making sure they weren’t on the Banned List. I don’t know how they kept it updated, how they knew someone wasn’t just lying about who they were. Sure, there were a lot fewer people around after The End, but that didn’t mean everybody knew everyone else. Take the two knuckleheads guarding the entrance, for example. I didn’t know them, and I doubt they knew me.
“Hey, Bonepicker!” one of them called out.
“Uh… hey.” I tried to place a name, but the gas mask hid the face and the bulky overcoat hid everything else. Even the gun was a nondescript bit of cobbled-together scrap, and probably shooting refurbished ammo.
“It’s me, Fingers. Been a while, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess. What’s happening?”
Fingers gave me a half-shoulder shrug, and looked past me at the rest of the line. “Not much. Trying to keep the worst of the mutants out, you know? Besides, this keeps me fed and I don’t have to go full-out raider. Those guys are nuts, huh?”
“Yeah.” I nodded, watching as Breaker slipped around the checkpoint and into Trade Town without getting even a second glance. “So who are you working for?”
The gas mask tilted at me. I couldn’t be sure, but I think Fingers was smiling at me. “No one in particular. A bunch of the established traders got together, chip in towards mutual defense. Nobody trusts any one enough to give them the keys though, so they hire us. Independents, they call us, but really we’re just a step up from dirt as far as they’re concerned.”
I smiled, all sympathetic like. “Any idea where I might find Nails? I’ve got a package for her.”
“Somebody got you doing courier work? I’m surprised. You can find her at Ferro’s. You know where that is?”
“It hasn’t moved, has it?” Trade Town was notorious for places shifting, or for the place you were looking for standing still, but everything around it moving.
“Yeah, it’s still where it was last year. You could always hire one of the local kids to take it for you. They’d do it for a bit of scrap.”
My mouth drooped a little at the idea of handing some street trash the package. I’d told Pincher I’d deliver it, safe and sound no less, into Nails’ hands and I meant it. I wasn’t going to trust my reputation on wondering if some kid was going to put the package where it needed to go or would turn around and try and sell it to someone else. “Nah, I got this. Anything going on I should know about?”
“Harrow’s still running games out of his place.” Fingers scratched at the strap of the mask. “He’s got some big event planned for this afternoon too, though everyone’s been pretty hush hush about what it’s going to be. Still might be worth checking out.”
“Thanks for the info.” I fished in a pocket, came up with a bit of bent copper wire.
Fingers put up a hand, stopping me. “Sorry, can’t take it. Against the rules, and this job is nice enough I don’t want to risk it. I appreciate the offer though. Look, if you catch me off duty, you can always buy me a drink. I hang out at the Desert Dog most nights, okay?”
“Okay, see you.”
I walked away from the guard post only to see Breaker leaning up against a bit of corrugated tin, a hand rolled cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. “So what’s the good word?”
“Well, Nails is definitely around, and Harrow is up to his usual games. Seems there’s a big spectacle planned for later. Oh, and remember Fingers?”
“Well, Fingers’ a guard on the gate. Invited me for a drink later.”
“Huh. Fingers a guy or a girl?”
I blinked at Breaker. “You know, between the gas mask and the bulky clothes, I’m really not sure.”
Breaker gave me one of his half-smiles he likes to use when he knows something I don’t. “Given how long it’s been, does it matter?”
“No, I don’t reckon it does.”
“So where are we off to next anyway, boss man?”
“I want to get rid of this package, and that means finding Nails. Finding Nails means going to Ferro’s. You remember where that is?”
Breaker dropped what was left of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel. Always thinking of others, he was. “Yeah, I think I remember the way. Fingers didn’t say it had moved, did he?”
“Not in the last year or so.”
“Yeah, I can find it, then.”
Sure enough, Ferro’s was right where it was supposed to be, and Breaker and I only got turned around twice looking for it. We walked down a short flight of stairs, and I banged on the steel door. A panel in the door opened, and hard eyes stared out at me.
“The fuck are you?” A voice asked.
I held my hands up nice and high, right where the person on the other side of the door could see them.
“I’m Bonepicker. This is Breaker.” I cocked my head to the side where Breaker should have been, but I’m fucked if he hadn’t gone again.
“Never mind.” My arms dropped a bit. “I’ve got a delivery for Nails.”
“Yeah? Why didn’t you say so?” The panel slammed shut and I heard locks and chains moving. The door opened up and I was staring down the biggest barrel I ever had the misfortune of seeing. It was a bit of cobbled-together crap and I might have been nervous, if I didn’t know it was more likely to blow up in the gunman’s face than actually hurt me.
“Go in. Straight to the back. She’s waiting for you.”
I walked further into the cool of the shelter, that bastard sun off my neck for the first time in a long time. I felt a lot of eyes on me, two-legged monsters who’d sooner shoot you than talk to you wondering just how tasty this new meat might be. I grinned, showing lots of teeth. Fuck ‘em.
“That you ‘Picker?” Nails sat all the way in the back, lounging in a chair with a tall glass of something in her hand. Four big fuckers stood around her. Probably had more than a little mutant in them but human enough to pass the gate guard if nobody looked under their coats and masks. She was this short woman, I know, but she filled a room up with her presence. Charisma is what I think you’d call it, if it was anytime but this. “Been some time. Was beginning to think you might be dead.”
I tried a smile out, decided it didn’t feel right. “Hey, Nails. How’s business?”
She smiled, making it look natural in a way I never could. “Oh, you know.”
“Sure.” Only I didn’t. If I did, I’d be sitting there instead of standing in front of her.
“Pincher wanted me to bring you something.”
Nails’ smile grew wider. “She did, did she? Bitch couldn’t be bothered to bring it herself?”
I shrugged, feeling sweat run down the back of my neck. “I owed her a favor. This is me paying it off.”
“Can’t even be bothered to come visit her only living kin.” Nails didn’t sound too upset to me. “So what is it?”
I slowly reached into my satchel, pulled the item out all too aware that Nails’ guards all had their weapons out and pointing at me.
“Ease up, fellows.” Nails chuckled. “’Picker here ain’t that stupid, are you?”
She squinted at me, making me notice the crows’ feet around her eyes. I remembered when Nails was a little girl, sitting on her daddy’s knee on that chair while he braided her hair. Pincher was somewhere else, I couldn’t remember where. I shook my head. That was a lot of years and tears ago. I guess we were all older and harder now, more’s the pity. She flicked her fingers toward me.
One of the guards took the package from me, still wrapped in a bit of brown paper and tied round with twine. He turned it back and forth, held it up to his ear, and sniffed it. He turned back to his boss, shrugged, and handed it to her.
Nails took her time opening the package and she let out a surprisingly girlish giggle when it turned out to be a book. The cover was battered and worn. “Hah! She did remember after all.” She thumbed through it, carefully turning the pages one at a time.
Pausing over one diagram, she looked up at me. “Was there anything else?”
“Nah. That was it.” Course, I had been hoping Nails would pay me for my trouble, but the way she had her nose buried in the book told me I was out of luck. I turned and took a few steps to leave.
“Hold a moment, ‘Picker.”
I froze, waiting for an order to come, for a bullet in the back, or a knife in my kidney. “Interested in some work?”
“What kind of work?”
I saw Breaker standing across from Ferro’s as I stepped out into the sun. I pulled my goggles down over my eyes so I could see. He was leaning against a pole, and he’d managed to find a cigarette somewhere.
“Still alive, huh?”
“What’s it look like to you?”
Breaker smiled and handed me a cigarette from behind his ear in an unexpected act of generosity. “Get paid, at least?”
I frowned, kicking dirt up with my boot. “Nails figured her sister already did, so why reward me twice?”
“Sister? Her and Pincher?”
I nodded, glancing over at him. “Thought you knew that.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe I did.” He tapped the side of his head. “Like a sieve, sometimes, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a bit of work to do.”
“We? Nails hired you?”
I nodded. “Yeah, who else would it have been? Not like anyone else in Ferro’s will say, ‘Boo,’ without Nails’ say so.”
“So what does she want you to do?”
“She-” I got interrupted by a crowd of people pushing past, pushing us forward. “The fuck?” I squeaked out as I was carried away from Breaker, my feet doing their best to keep me upright.
I pushed against the crowd, but it was like fighting a dust storm. There was nothing for me to grab onto and it was relentless the way it pushed and pulled.
Everyone was shouting, yelling, driving forward. My nose was filled with the stench of alcohol and sweat. I looked up as I was pushed along an alley, and I saw Breaker blow me a kiss.
I was swept into a building, all the people jostling and elbowing, cursing and belching. There was an arrangement of stands, all surrounding a central pit. A wire fence separated the crowd from the floor. I recognized where I was. Trade Town’s arena.
“What’s going on?” I shouted out, looking around for Breaker. I spotted him high up in the stands, holding a place for me.
Bastard just shrugged at me. Turning to one of my neighbors, I asked him.
“Harrow’s holding a special fight today,” he said. “Some wasteland raider is supposed to fight today. Butcher Baby or something.”
“Oh yeah, that’s it. I hear Harrow’s got something real special planned for him.”
I shuddered at that. I’d rather deal with Nails every day of the week than Harrow for even an hour. I wondered what Butcher Bird and his crew were up to, dealing with him. I probably didn’t want to know.
I didn’t pay much attention during the first couple of fights. Poor bastards, convicted of what few laws Trade Town actually had. Accused of stealing from those richer and more powerful than them. Or maybe being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fights were short and brutish, this land breeding either killers or prey. Prey didn’t last long.
Then, a hush fell over the crowd. I saw Butcher Bird come out of the gate, his face as scarred and mean as ever. He was stilling wearing his usual leathers, his greying hair tied back into a tight braid. He didn’t waste time, picking up a spear as he ran toward his opponent. I almost felt bad for the poor fucker.
I still don’t know where Harrow found Butcher’s opponent. He was the biggest mutant I’d ever seen, and ugly too, with bits of boney spikes and plates pushing against his skin. I wondered how long Butcher was going to last.
“Probably be over quick,” Breaker said.
“Not like I ever cared for BB, anyway.”
“Huh? No. Just- watch the match, okay?”
Shrugging, I turned my attention back to it in time to see Butcher Bird get clocked on the side of the head by the mutant. As the mutant rushed at Butcher Bird, the crowd’s deafening roar echoing around in my skull, I saw Butcher hurl something, a bit of chain it looked like, at the mutant’s legs. The big mutant went down, its spear falling from his fingers. Butcher didn’t waste any time, driving it down into the mutant and ending the fight.
I saw Nails in the crowd, surrounded by her entourage. Best I could tell, her eyes were fixed on Butcher Bird, but it was hard to tell what was going on behind those glasses of hers. I did see her lick her lips when he drove the spear down. I saw Harrow, too, scowling for all he was worth. If looks could kill, BB would be dust and ash.
“Told you,” Breaker said, as Butcher Bird was hustled out of the arena.
“One of these days you are going to have to tell me how you do that.”
“Yeah, but not today. Now tell me, what does Nails want you to do?”