Nails (Episode 3)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“I’m here to see Harrow.” Dust swirled around my legs as I waited outside the compound, a precursor of the dust storm to come.

“You Nails?” The guard didn’t look like a mutant, but it was hard to be sure. There was no telling what was concealed under the gas mask and bulky clothes. He spoke well enough, so it could be.

“Is Harrow expecting someone else?”

The guard shrugged. “All sorts of people have business with Harrow.”

I suppressed a snort. Yeah, Harrow might deal with all sorts of people, but few people dealt with the man on anything like a voluntary basis. Harrow was a slaver, and his biggest contribution to Trade Town was the arena he ran, pitting hard luck cases against the worst the Burned Lands had to offer.

“You armed?”

“What do you think?” Going unarmed in Trade Town made about as much sense as going around without a mask on, and you’d probably die slower inhaling the toxic air than you would without a weapon. I flipped my coat back, revealing the gun I wore on one hip and the three foot blade hanging from the other one. Truth to be told, I’d rather have other people get their hands dirty on my behalf, but that doesn’t mean I was completely useless in a fight.

“Can’t let you in to see Harrow while you’re carrying. He’ll have my hide nailed to his wall if I let you in carrying all that, especially in light of recent developments.”

“Is that so? I’m here because Harrow asked to see me. Are you going to be the one explaining that you turned me away because I didn’t want to go naked into his lair?”

The guard shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He twisted his body to look past me, checking out who I’d brought with me. He scratched at the strap holding his mask on before nodding.

“Yeah, I guess you got a point there. Come on then, let’s go see the big man.”

Calling Harrow a big man wasn’t only a statement on Harrow’s position. Even as he was now, lounging indolent, eyes half lidded, he intimidated me. The four guards standing around didn’t do anything to ease my worries, but that wasn’t anything new. Harrow smiled as I took off my mask, shook my hair free.

“Damn, Nails, you’re looking as good as ever.” His eyes narrowed and his brow lowered. “I see you’re still armed, however. That goes against my direct orders.”

I smiled at Harrow, being sure to show lots of teeth. “I told your guard that I didn’t need to see you so badly that I was willing to do a striptease. Besides,” I added, looking around at the surrounding guards, “I didn’t think you’d mind one poor woman to bring a few defenses with her.”

Harrow barked a sharp laugh. At least, I think it was a laugh. It was hard to tell with Harrow. “And if I had them taken from you?”

“You could. But at least two of your guards would be left wondering how’d they reattach their dicks when they tried.”

Harrow’s smile grew wider, and his eyes looked like those of the dogs that came howling out of the wastes, all madness and sickness wrapped into a furry ball of teeth and claws. “I’d almost like to see that happen.”

“Might put a damper on our conversation though, don’t you think?”

Harrow exhaled a long, slow sigh. He almost looked sad. “I suppose there is that. And I did invite you over to… talk. I understand you lost one of your people recently. Dogbreath, wasn’t it? My condolences.

“Anyhow, I have a favor to ask of you.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not in the habit of doing favors, Harrow. I’m not running a charity.”

“No. You’re not. A poor choice of words on my part. Not a favor. A trade. I have something you want, and I want you to do something.”

I let my gaze travel slow around the room. I took in the bare, cracked concrete walls, the guards with fingers hovering near triggers, Harrow sprawled in his chair, too tired and hurt to stand.

“I can’t think of anything you have that I want that badly, Harrow.”

“No? How about a name? A name attached to the person that killed your boy, Dogbreath? Can’t let something like that slide, can you? What would people say. Why, I’d imagine they’d think old Nails was getting soft.” His smile grew wider, but it didn’t touch his eyes. Those remained half-lidded and cold like a reptile eyeing a warm bit of rodent.

“And what do you want in return, Harrow?”

***

Nickle met me coming out of Harrow’s. Seeing the look on my face, he fell in next to me, waved the rest of the crew back.

“That bad?”

I nodded, not sure if I trusted my voice yet. I didn’t know how Harrow knew who’d killed Dogbreath and I didn’t yet. I couldn’t ignore the fact that he might be having me on, but Dogbreath was part of my crew, my family. If I let his death go unanswered, then it was time to roll over and expose my neck. Still, what he was asking me to do… My stomach flipped at the thought.

“So, what’s the move?”

“How many bodies can we pull together? Good with a gun, steady when things get loud.”

“Five, easy. Seven if you want to gamble that they’ll hold their shit together.”

“No. I only want steady hands on this, understand?”

“That bad?”

“Yeah, it’s that bad. Make sure everyone’s armed, and ready to get dirty. This isn’t going to be a showpiece. Blood’s going to have to get spilled.”

Truth to tell, this was my least favorite kind of work. I preferred deliveries, or protection. I didn’t mind a show of force to keep someone in line, but I’d figured out early there was little profit in bloodshed. All it did was piss someone off, and mean there was at least one less customer out in the world. I hated being in this corner, but sometimes there’s no helping getting your hands dirty.

“Where do we meet?”

“Ferro’s. We’ll leave from there. The less anyone else knows about this, the better, understand? And yeah, that includes you, so don’t even ask. I want everyone there at sundown, and tell them double usual pay.”

“So, this is deep shit, isn’t it?”

“Neck deep, Nickle. Neck fucking deep.”

***

The emptiness at Ferro’s did little to make me feel better. Sun was just going down, which meant the worst of humanity that called Trade Town home came out to play. I’d already sent Sage away with enough barter to get nice and drunk. Or a good meal. Maybe even both.

Nickle carried his weight. Five other hard cases sat in the bar, all of them sipping water, gnawing on dried strips of meat they could pretend was something other than rat or crow. All of them were armed, and looking at me like they wanted to eat me. Four men and a woman. It made me wish Nero was around, but no one had seen that blind fuck for months. Word was he’d wandered out into the desert, never to be seen again.

I’d managed a couple of hours of sleep between Harrow’s and then, but my eyes felt full of grit and my stomach refused to settle down. I knew once the violence started I’d be fine until it ended, but the anticipation of it was getting to me.

“All right. We’ve been hired to send a message, violent and bloody.”

“You mean you’ve been hired,” the woman said. I gazed at her, trying to place a name. Fetish, I think. Some bloodletter wandered in from the Burned Lands, a head full of violence and a hate on for anyone who looked at her funny. I figured she’d be the first one in. “We’re only the hired help.”
I narrowed my eyes, my tongue finding the side of my cheek where I thought a sore was coming in. I’d be glad for the pain, if I lived until tomorrow. “I’ve been tasked. Nickle here thought you might be able to carry weight and see some barter in exchange. If you don’t like it…” I pointed at the door.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Fetish murmured.

“Who are we working for?” someone else asked. Juggler, I think his name was. After a while, all the hired guns started to look the same. They rarely stuck around one way or the other for it to make much sense to get to learn their names.

“Does it matter?” Nickle piped up. “You aren’t exactly in a position to be turning down jobs, are you?”

“No, but I thought-”

“Are we paying you to think?”

“No, but-“

“Then don’t worry about it. The less you know the better, all right?”

“Yeah, yeah fine.”

“Good, so here’s the plan.” I pushed the tables out of the way and spread the map down on the ground.

***

“Hey Nails. Guess you thought about my offer, huh?” Capper looked up from the bar, where he was polishing the wood with a bit of cloth. “Can I get you something to drink?”

I smiled as I unhooked my mask. “What’ve you got that you recommend?”

Capper gave a shy little smile. “Not sure, really. Most of it’s crap, you know?”

“Yeah. Seems to be something of a trend around here. So what’s the least worst?”

“Oh, I’ve got something here for you.” He bent down and picked out a brown bottle. A bit of liquid sloshed around, and he splashed some into a mostly clean cup. “This part of your crew?”

Turning around, I saw Nickle, Fetish, and Juggler come into the room. Capper’s crew, the bouncer at the door, the other bartender, and the dancer on the small stage in the corner all started, looking nervous as a rat destined for the stew pot. It wasn’t usual to see so many hardcases in one place without a dustup being imminent.

“This your crew?” Capper asked. “They the ones that are going to protect me?”

I shook my head and smiled. I took a long, slow drink from the glass on the bar. “Had another offer come in, Capper. Afraid I’m not going to be able to take yours.”

Understanding broke over his face like the dawn, harsh and unforgiving. “Why you double crossing bi-”

The cold barrel of my gun pressed against his forehead stopped his sentence. In the mirror behind the bar, I saw Fetish behind the bouncer, the cold steel in her hand pressed under his ear. Girl knew her business.

“Why? Get a better offer?” Capper asked.

“You could say that.”

“Look, whatever they’re paying you, I can match. Hell, I can probably double it.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Look, Nails. Come on. Let’s make-”

The thunder of my gun, the splatter of his brains against the mirror, and his body collapsing to the floor prevented me from hearing the rest of his sentence.

“Sorry, Capper. It wasn’t personal.

“Come on. Time to go collect from Harrow.”

***

“The deed is done?” Harrow, still slouched in his chair, looked up. His bloodshot eyes bored into mine, and something dark red had crusted around his lips.

“If that’s your way of asking if Capper is dead, then yeah, the deed is done.” I should have felt worse about it then I did. Capper had never done anything to hurt me or mine, so far as I knew. Then again, none of us these days were what you’d call paragons of virtue, so maybe that’s why my conscience didn’t even twinge.

“Didn’t give you any trouble I take it?”

Shaking my head, my hand dropped to my gun in my belt. I wasn’t trying to be threatening, but I was done with the chitchat. Harrow unsettled me in a profound way. I wondered in five years’ time if I’d be any different from him. Assuming I wasn’t dead, of course.

“I’m guessing you want some information, then.”

“Well that was the point, wasn’t it? Capper dead, but without your hands on it, in exchange for the name of the person who did for Dogbreath.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Harrow ran a long, cracked finger nail between his teeth, prying something out and flinging it to the ground. “Little slip of a girl, short dirty blonde hair. Works at The Dead Rabbit. She came to me, asked for help doing someone dirty. When she told me who, I declined out of professional courtesy.”

“You’re a gentleman, Harrow.”

“Aren’t I just? Anyhow, word is she found some heavy to do it, name of Chipper. You know him?”

“By reputation.” Chipper was a freelance gun-for-hire. I’d made use of his services from time to time, but truth was he made me nervous. He wasn’t one for following orders, and he was far from a light touch. Thinking about how we found Dogbreath, well, it fit with his style.

“You need anything else?”

“No, I’ve got what I need. Thank you, Harrow.” To my credit, I kept my tone pleasant. Not an easy task at all.

“If you’re ever looking for work, Nails, want to give up the independent lifestyle…”

I’d already turned to leave, and didn’t bother looking back or giving Harrow an answer. I’d slit my own throat before working for that monster.

***

“Oh, good, you’re here.”

Ferro’s was quiet. Unusually so. Might have something to do with the fact I told Nickle to close up and send the customers home. We’d tighten our belts a bit as a result, but well, some things were best done in private. Tulip sat at the bar, a glass of my moonshine in front of her, and it about half gone already.

Nickle stood behind the bar, running a stone over his knife. The sound of metal on stone grated, and it was all I could to do to not yell at him to stop. Truth to tell, my nerves might have been a touch frayed from recent events.

“Any luck finding who did Dogbreath?” Tulip asked. Her eyes were redrimmed, but her hand was steady on the glass. She was good, I’d give her that.

“Freelancer named Chipper did for him. Nickle, let me have what she’s having.”

“Yeah boss.”

We sat in silence for a bit, both of us drinking. Nickle put away his knife and stone, and drew his gun and a small folded case. He disassembled the weapon, laying out the pieces on the bar and taking the time to clean each one.

“So Chipper’s dead, then?” Tulip swiveled in her seat to look at me.

“Hmm? No. Chipper’s hand might have been on the knife, but he wouldn’t have killed Dogbreath without someone pointing him in that direction. Besides, Chipper’s a skilled hand with a blade. I might need to make use of him myself in the future. I don’t hold any animosity toward him, any more than I would toward a gun someone aimed at me. No, I’d go after the owner of the gun, wouldn’t you?”

“I-I suppose.”

“That’s what I thought. So why’d you do it, Tulip?”

Before I’d finished the question, she’d taken off for the door, but came skidding to a stop when Fetish stepped in front of her, naked blade held crosswise across her chest and a grin like a mad dog splitting her face.
I stood up, pulling my knife free.

“Look, Nails, why do you think it was me? I’m the one that told Nickle where to find the body.” She backed away, nervous as a cornered rat. “Why would I do that?”

“Throw off the scent. You thought we wouldn’t be able to trace it back to you. So why did you do it? I’m curious.”

“Would it make a difference if I told you?”

I smiled, the warm friendly one I reserve for new potential clients. “It might.”

“Bastard was cheating on me. I found out and went to him. Told him what a useless bastard he was. He-he laughed at me. Asked me why I ever thought we were exclusive.”

“That’s it?”

Tulip nodded, tears welling in her eyes. We were standing an arm’s length apart at that point. My fingers trembled against the grip of my gun. Something whooshed by my ear, and a knife embedded itself into Tulip’s neck, sinking up to the hilt. Blood sprayed out, hitting me full in the face.

“Guh. Guh. Guh.” Her hand reached up, touching the handle. Slumping to the ground, she left a dark red streak on the wall behind her.

I turned around to see Fetish staring there. “Wasn’t sure you were going to do it. Hey Nickle, can I get a drink?”

I stared down at Tulip, body already cooling on the bare concrete floor.

“Better pour one for Fetish, Nickle.

And get someone in here to clean this up.”

Nails (Episode 2)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“Quint wants to have a word with you, Nails.”

I kept my eyes fixed on the flat grey eyes of the killer’s gas mask in front of me. It was a harder task than it sounds, given the short barreled pistol pointed at my stomach. His partner stood at the mouth of the alley, making sure no one would get curious as to what was going on. Not that there was much danger of that in Trade Town, anyway. Sticking your nose in other people’s business was a good way to get stuck with a knife.

“You’re Nod, aren’t you?”

The gunman chuckled, a dry raspy sound. “You’ve heard of me? I’m flattered. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
I lifted my hands back up, reversing their slow descent. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. That must be Blinker then, keeping watching.” I jutted my chin out in the direction of his partner. “How am I doing so far?”

Nod bobbed his head up and down. “So far so good. You know why we’re here then.”

“I can hazard a guess.” The problem was, it could be a few different reasons. The bartender at Pips wanted to hire me because these two were shaking him down for protection on behalf of their boss. Also, one of my crew, Dogbreath, was dead, and I didn’t know why. “Something to do with Pips?”

“Something, all right.”

I shook my head, while taking stock of my options. There were no exits from here, and not much in the way of cover. I didn’t like my chances trying to get the gun away from Nod. I employed people like that for a reason. “I didn’t take the contract.”

“So? Quint wants to have a talk with you anyway, understand?”

I frowned, dropping my hands to my sides. “That’s what this is? An invitation to talk? Doesn’t Quint know where I work?”

Nod spared a glance toward Blinker. “Yeah, he does.”

“And were you told to grab me off the street? This isn’t how you do business. I’d be happy to talk to Quint. Tell him to send someone over, and we’ll set up a meeting.”

“Can’t do that,” Nod replied, shaking his head. “Boss wants a meeting now, not later. Understand?”

“Yeah, I understand, but don’t expect me to like it, all right?”

“You liking it was never an essential part of the deal.”

Nod pocketed the pistol, and we exited the alley. I had no way of knowing if his gun was even loaded, but the odds were high it was. Bullets were one of the few things not in short supply, especially in these parts. He gave a quick bob of his head to Blinker and the two of them flanked me on either side. Across the street, I caught sight of Nickle and Shiv standing near a market stand, pretending to look at the scrap the vendor had on display. Shiv was one of the others ones that worked for me. I trusted Nickle had brought him up to speed. Shiv took a step toward us, but Nickle grabbed his arm and bent his masked head toward Shiv’s.

Nod and Blinker led us through Trade Town, taking me to a section I never spent much time in. Truth was, Trade Town wasn’t all that big, and competition was fierce. And it wasn’t like there were many other options out there in the waste. Sure, you could try to set up your own settlement, like my sister Pincher did, but that wasn’t exactly a guarantee of safety either. Especially when you had gangs out there razing anything they could find, as if they were trying to hasten the end. Like it needed the help.

We stopped outside a pavilion tent. A few corrugated metal fences had been set up around the perimeter, and I spotted at least five sentries, all cradling rifles, and with pistols tucked through their belts. It looked like a stiff wind would knock it over, which meant it looked like most of Trade Town. The guards nodded to Blinker and Nod, then waved us through. They didn’t bother to search me. I wasn’t sure whether that was an insult or a compliment.

Inside the pavilion, Quint lounged on a big, ratty looking couch. Rugs spread over the ground covered the dirt of Trade Town, but you couldn’t disguise the smell — gunmetal and sweat — that permeated the place. Even the filters they had running to make the air breathable couldn’t do squat about the smell. Quint looked up at me over a pair of cracked sunglasses and his mouth split open in a wide grin over a scraggly beard. More guards stood inside, looking bored.

“Nails! Thanks for meeting with me.” He didn’t bother getting up.

“Your boys didn’t give much of a choice.” Removing my mask, I shook my hair free. “So what’s this you wanting a meeting? Why didn’t you ask nicely?”

He shrugged. “Busy woman like you, I was worried you might not want to meet with me.” He waved his hand and a girl I hadn’t noticed got up from behind the couch, a glass in her hand. “Care for a drink?”

I smiled, going for warm and friendly as opposed to throat ripping. “I’ll pass. You still haven’t told me what you want to talk about.”

“All right, all right, straight to business. I can respect that. Look, with Harrow taken down a peg or two, I think there’s opportunity for us smaller operators, if we play it smart. Take Pips, for instance. There’s no reason we need to be fighting over scraps when we can be ruling this place.”

“So that’s what this is all about?”

“Somebody has been killing off members of my crew. I wanted to see if you knew anything about it.”

“Huh. I could ask you the same thing. A member of my crew, Dogbreath, got himself a dirt nap not long ago.”
Quint shook his head. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is someone’s been picking off my folk one by one, and I was hoping to see if we could, I don’t know, join forces or something.”

“That’s what this is all about? You could’ve come to me, asked for a meeting. Instead, you stupid fuck, you have your goons pull me off the street, parade me through Trade Town where everyone can see, and think I’ll just talk to you? You didn’t spend any real time thinking this through, did you? Right now, my boys are going to be loading up and coming looking for me. And they’re the shoot first, maybe ask a few questions later types.”

“Look, I didn’t mean anything by it. Can’t you call them off?”

“With what, you dipshit? Look, I can leave now, by myself, and maybe they’ll realize that everything is all right and they won’t make you bleed all over your nice rugs.”

“Oh shi-” Before Quint could finish his thought, the deafening sound of automatic weapons ripped through the air. I hit the ground as bullets stitched across the tent. Quint dropped to the ground as well, and I watched as he crawled for the edge of the tent. His guards looked confused and scared, and I wondered how far at the bottom of the barrel Quint was scraping. They saw their boss scrambling out and they followed suit.

The gunfire ceased as quickly as it started. Nickle was the first one through the tent, followed by three more of my heavies. All of them were carrying heavy automatics. “Boss, you okay?”

“You idiot, didn’t you think I might be in here?” I asked, pointing to the wall where daylight is streaming through. I pulled my mask back on before the dust could get to me. I stood up and looked behind the couch. The girl wasn’t as lucky or as smart. Her life’s blood splattered on the rugs.

Nickle shrugged. “Sorry, boss. When we got word that Blinker and Nod had picked you up, we thought you might be in trouble. So I got the boys and-”

“Yeah, yeah, I can guess what you did next. Made a great big, bloody mess is what you did.” I shook my head. “You didn’t see Quint slithering out of here, did you?”

Nickle gave a half shrug and turned to the rest of the boys. Apologies, three boys and one very mannish woman. “Can’t say we saw much of anything,” he said. “Bit of a dust storm blew up while we were coming up. Worked to our advantage, to be sure, but we didn’t see anyone leave.”

“Crap.” I should have figured it would be too much to hope for that Quint would catch a bullet on his way out. Still, he had to be hurting with his base taken over.

“All right, you four search the place, and then torch it. I mean it. I want ashes here. If you can’t carry it, burn it. Understand?”

Four heads bobbing up and down told me they got my meaning. I could only hope so.

“Good. Nickle, walk with me.”

“So you think Quint did Dogbreath in?” The way he kept running his hand over the barrel of his gun told me he was nervous.

“It’s possible, but it doesn’t make much sense. I think Quint had his people watching Pips, wanted to see what the competition was like. You saw the place, it was barely lived in. They haven’t been here long and are looking to see who the players are. He wanted to cut a deal, go into business together.”

“What, he thought with Harrow taken down he’d have a shot at the big time?”

A disgusted noise come from the back of my throat. “Harrow plays at being the big man, and the outsiders buy into it. They want to see it like those settlements out in the waste, like the one my sister runs. They want to know there is one person in charge, one person to deal with and that’s it. That’s not Trade Town though, is it? You have a hundred different factions and twice that many scams and plots all running at the same time. There’s never one top dog, and there’s no point in trying to be one. You know what getting to be top dog is good for? Getting a big fucking target painted onto your back. That’s something Quint and those like him will never understand.”

I turned down a side street, Nickle following on my heels. “That doesn’t mean you can come in and think you can push the regulars around, though.” I smiled, even though I knew Nickle couldn’t see under my mask. “You don’t get to be a regular in Trade Town unless you know how to push back.”

We got to Ferro’s, Nickle hustling to keep up. “I still want to know who killed Dogbreath, understand? And tell everyone to keep an eye peeled for Quint. I want to know the second that asshole pops his head above ground. I want him alive though, understand?”

“Yeah, boss.”

As I passed through the heavy rugs that acted as airlocks to the outside world, I stripped my mask off, but kept my heavy coat on. Not for the first time, I wondered why I did what I did. I could head out to my sister’s place, Blackgrave. From what I understood, she had a cozy little set up there, and didn’t have to worry so much about people trying to take what she’d worked hard for. Yeah, maybe the occasional mutant clan, but how tough could those really be, anyway?

I passed by the bar and picked up a bottle of the local ‘shine. That was one of the first things I did when I took over Ferro’s, converted a couple of the backrooms into stills. It was easy barter and kept us in other things we needed, like juice for the lights.

“Anyone come looking for me?” I asked Sage, a pretty little thing that had stumbled in from the wastes. Lucky for her, Nickle had found her before Harrow or one of the other slavers did, and we put her to work. Paid her, even.

She nodded her head, staring at me all the while with crystal blue eyes I could fall into forever. “Somebody named Capper came looking for you.”

“Capper? Name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Said he worked over at Pips.”

“Oh, yeah, him. I might have taken care of his problem for him, so I’ll be sure to pay him a visit. Anyone else?”

“Just the usual folk coming in to pick up their shipment.” The usual folk meant Trade Town regulars, as well as a few folks considered themselves medicine men. The ‘shine made for a good anesthetic, or so I heard.

I took a sip from the bottle and enjoyed the sweet burn as it made its way down. “Any trouble?”

“Nope. Got the usual collection of junk from the scavengers, but we’ll probably be able to get something decent for it. A couple of kids came by, trying to sell information. It wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before. Sounds like Harrow is almost back on his feet though. Word is the arena fights will be picking back up again soon.”

“Sounds good.” A wave of exhaustion came over me, and suddenly it was hard for me to keep even my eyes open. “I’m gonna go lie down. Don’t wake me up unless the place is on fire, understand? Better yet, don’t wake me up unless I’m on fire.”

I found my bed in the back and collapsed on top of it, not even bothering to take off my boots or coat. Despite my exhaustion, sleep didn’t come quick. I kept seeing Dogbreath sprawled out dead, the girl at Quint’s riddled with bullets, and countless others. I heard some folk say that it got easier with time, dealing with death. Somehow, it never got easier for me.

I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, it was to commotion out in the bar. I stumbled, still half asleep out into the bar. There was something going on, as six of my crew were standing around. Sage was backed into the corner, her eyes wide and her whole body trembling. My crew all had their guns out and pointing at the largest… thing I’d ever seen. He was enormous, all rolling layers of sun-baked flab. I could tell, because he was mostly naked, only a pair of shorts straining mightily to contain his body. He looked over at me with slightly misplaced eyes, a mouth too small for his head curled into a grin. A small deformed arm sprouted from one shoulder and curled around, in addition to the two proportional arms he sported.

“No mutants allowed,” I said, finding my voice. “Sign is pretty clear about that.”

“Harrow sends regards, Nails. You’ve been invited to a meeting.”

My eyes narrowed and a ball of ice formed in my stomach.

Fucking Harrow.

Nails (Episode 1)

Aka When All You Have is a Hammer…

By Matthew X. Gomez

“What a fucking mess.” I can’t say this was the way I wanted to start my day, staring down at the gutted corpse of Dogbreath. Hell of a place to die, stuck in a deserted shack, buried deep in Trade Town. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the deed was done here. Nickle and Tulip were standing nearby, fidgeting nervously. Tulip had found Dogbreath, then went and found me and Nickle.

“You tell anyone else?” I knelt down by the cool dead body. Dogbreath’s eyes stared, already glassed over, mouth open in one last display of uncomprehending shock. I searched the body, quick and easy. Not the first time I’d gone through a dead man’s belongings.

“No, I c-c-came straight to you.” I looked up at Tulip, saw her standing as far as possible from the body. Her eyes were wet. Too late, I remembered her and Dogbreath had a thing going on. Nothing too formal or permanent, but, well, something. It’s never easy seeing someone dead that you used to fuck, even if you weren’t the one to kill them.
“Okay, that’s good.” Dogbreath didn’t have much on him, only a knife and a bit of bent metal threaded through a cord. I tossed the cord to Tulip, figured she could barter with it for something. I tossed the knife to Nickle.
“Notice anything on that?”

Nickle held the knife up. It wasn’t much to look at, a shard of metal tied to a bit of polished wood for a handle. “It’s clean.”

I nodded. “Give me a hand here.” Nickle stuck the knife through his belt, then helped me roll Dogbreath over. The dark stain, almost black, on his lower back along with the big rip in his coat told me how the deed was done. “Poor bastard didn’t stand a chance.”

A retching sound made me look up in time to see Tulip getting sick in the corner.

“Either of you remember where you saw him last?” Odds were good Dogbreath got done in by someone on his own time, but I couldn’t ignore the possibility that his death had something to do with me. Dogbreath was part of my crew, and his death impacted me. These days there were too many movers and not enough resources, and Dogbreath getting himself killed wasn’t doing me any favors.

Nickle shook his head. “Last I saw him was yesterday, after the job we did. We went our separates after you paid us.”
I wrinkled my nose and stood up. “And you didn’t run into any trouble?”

Nickle grinned, revealing a set of cracked and stained teeth. “Nothing I couldn’t walk away from.”

“Tulip? What about you?” Tulip wasn’t part of my crew, but she’d been with Dogbreath, had hung around on the periphery and knew enough about the way things worked to know to keep her eyes open.

“I saw him last night, over at The Dead Rabbit. He wanted to party, but I had to work. He said something about getting a drink and that was the last I saw him.”

“When was that?”

“Two bells?”

“All right. Come on, let’s get out of here. Nickle? Find a corpserunner, and let them know where to find the body. Tell ‘em I’ll pick up the tab on it. Tulip, you’re coming with me.”

“On it, boss.” Nickle slipped on his mask, and stepped out of the shack, leaving me just with Tulip.

“Nails, I don’t know about this-”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I need to get to work and-”

“Don’t fuck with me, Tulip. I’m not in the mood. If you’re worried about getting paid, I’ll handle that. If you’re worried about losing your job, well, maybe I can find some work for you.”

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Are you serious?”

Shrugging, I stepped away from Dogbreath and toward her. “Sure, why not? I’m guessing you did more than serve drink at The Dead Rabbit, right?”

She nodded. “I never told him,” she started, looking at Dogbreath.

“And I don’t think it bothers him now, do you?”

She shook her head. “Now what?”

I smiled at her, trying to play nice. “Now, we find out what happened to your boyfriend. Come on.”

Both of us slipped on our gas masks before stepping onto the street. The smoke and dust wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but trying to breathe that filth without a mask would leave anyone not a mutie gasping and choking within a few minutes. I trusted Nickle would take care of the corpse. The bit of barter I’d pulled off of Dogbreath would more than take care of it. The streets were mostly empty, what with it being early in the morning. Few things got done in Trade Town before noon. That’s not to say the streets were abandoned. A few street vendors were still out, a number of urchins running through the alleyways. An old dog, mangy and with rheumy eyes, whined at us as we walked past.

“Other than The Dead Rabbit, where else did he like to go?”

“He was always taking me to Pips.”

“I didn’t know Dogbreath gambled.” Made me wonder what else I didn’t know about my former employee.

I caught Tulip shrugging out of the corner of my eye. “He didn’t, much. He said he liked to watch, see who was winning, who was losing. He said he liked watching how the game was played, and that the house always cleaned up at the end of the night. Sure, somebody might get lucky now and then, but that was to keep people coming back.”

“Huh. Was he thinking about opening his own place, do you think?” It probably wasn’t enough to get killed over, but then folks in Trade town were getting killed over less every single day.

Tulip shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe. He didn’t like talking about the future much. He said today was hard enough without having to worry about tomorrow too.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” We maneuvered through Trade Town, heading in the general direction of Pips. It would have been nice to walk straight there, but that wasn’t how Trade Town was laid out. There were no streets to speak of, and no one had sat down and planned what should go where. People came in, set up camp, and sometimes a more permanent building would pop up. Yeah, there was a wall around the main part, and if you had the scratch or the pull, you lived inside. It gave some protection from the mutants and other things crawling from the wastes, but all it really meant was you were locked up with monsters that looked like you.

We dodged past a vendor selling charred meat on a stick. More folk were coming out on to the street now, crawling out from their tents and shacks and holes in the ground. Trade Town waking up. The buzz of conversation, of humanity, picked up in volume, in intensity, all of it muffled by the omnipresent masks and wraps to keep the dust out of the lungs.

Tulip kept silent as we walked, leaving me to my thoughts. Dogbreath being dead didn’t mean my obligations were wiped out, and I still had business to do. First Pips, though, then I’d see about working on some barter, on making sure my people had food in their bellies.

Pips was housed in one of the more permanent buildings in Trade Town, a concrete slab structure sitting squat in the dust. A guard slouched outside, a gun and a knife sitting easy in his belt and close to hand. I couldn’t see his eyes past the polarized goggles, but I could feel them on me none the less. I tried to place a name to the clothes, but I was coming up blanks.

“Know who that is?”

Tulip bobbed her head. “Blanco. He’s a regular. Probably pulling guard duty to pay off a debt.”

“All right. Let’s go see what’s up.” I don’t know him, but I’m wondering if I should. Business I’m in tends to see high turnover, and good help is at a premium. Still, I don’t need anyone with a gambling problem on my payroll. Though, given Dogbreath, maybe I haven’t been doing too good of a job at that lately.

“Heya, Blanco.”

He shifted when he saw us walking up. Nothing too noticeable, but definitely more alert, ready to take action. “Nails. Tulip.” He’s connected, knows who’s who.

“You seen Dogbreath here last night?” It’s a stab in the dark, but sometimes you get lucky.

He shook his head. “Nah, I was at Harrow’s, checking out the new stock.”

“Last I checked, Harrow was shelved, especially after what happened with Butcher Bird.”

Blanco shrugged, kicked his feet in the dirt. “Word is the fights are coming back. People like to see blood flow that isn’t theirs. Figured I’d get a look, see what was on offer. Might make a bit of jingle on a fight.”

“Ever thought about doing an honest day’s work? If nothing else it’ll get you out of the dust.”

He took a long moment looking me up and down. He didn’t move his head to the side, but I could sense him sizing up Tulip too, who decided to hang back a bit, watching the street as Blanco and I conversed. “You want me to come work for you? Thought you had more than enough runners. You looking to expand?”

I shook my head. “Looking to keep status quo. Dogbreath got himself dead last night. I’ve got an opening.”

“Huh. Let me think on it?”

“Sure. Just don’t take too long. You aren’t the only one I’m asking. You know where to find me if you decide to take me up on the offer?”

“Sure do.” He stepped to the side, opening the way into Pips. “Thanks for the offer.”

I bobbed my head at him, then Tulip and I were inside. It’s dark, and it took a bit even after the masks were off for our eyes to adjust to the dim lighting after the harsh light outside. A man stood behind the bar, running a dirty towel into a filthy glass. On a small stage, a woman twirled around, shedding bits of cloth to the slack jawed approval of a couple of heavies. Back in a corner, the last dregs of a card game were wrapping up, the heavy bags under the eyes of the players testimony to how long they’d been awake.

“We’re not looking for working girls,” the bartender called out.

I cocked an eyebrow at Tulip, but decided not to say anything. Instead, I walked up, placed a hand on the counter and made myself comfortable on one of the stools. “I’m not looking for a client. I am after some information, though.”

“Oh. Sorry. When I saw you walk in with her I thought-”

“Never mind what you thought. Do you know who I am?”

The bartender shook his head.

“I’m Nails. You know me now?”

The bartender nodded his head so quickly I thought it was going to rattle off. “Sorry, I mean, I didn’t know it was you, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Someone who worked for me was in here last night. Goes by Dogbreath. You know him?”

“I know him. He was in here last night, and winning, too, for a change. Left with full pockets and everything.”

“Any idea what time that was?”

“Right about four bells.”

“Huh. You work the day and the night shift?” I dragged my nails over the scarred wood of the bartop. Dogbreath must have been flying high to leave after such a short period of time. The Dead Rabbit and Pips weren’t exactly cozy to each other.

The bartender nodded. “Danger of being the owner, I guess. My replacement comes on in about an hour. Look, you interested in picking up some work?”

“I said I’m not-”

“No, nothing like her,” he cut in, jabbing a thumb at Tulip. “I’ve been having issues recently with some of the locals. I wouldn’t mind hiring some extra protection and I hear tell you’ve got the muscle for it.”

I felt my mouth frowning, felt my stomach ball up. “Not going to be able to do it. I’m spread thin at the moment as it is. If something changes though, I’ll let you know.” I stopped drumming my fingers on the bar top. “Who is it that’s giving you trouble?”

“Couple of heavies named Blinker and Nod. You know them?”

My frown gets a bit deeper. “The names are familiar.” I knew them well enough, two operators working for a man who went by the name of Quint. He was bad for my business as we ran in similar circles and occasionally our interests brushed against each other. So far we’d managed to keep it low key, but I had an itch that we’d be spilling red before too long. “They’re hitting you up for protection?”

The bartender made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “If only. They’re harassing my customers and the girls as they walk to the club. It’s getting out of hand. You change your mind, or you think of someone that can help out, let me know, will you? I’ll make sure you get a finder’s fee.”

“Okay, sounds all right. You didn’t see anyone leave with Dogbreath, maybe seen someone trying to get all nice with him?”

The bartender shook his head. “No, nothing. Sorry, wish I could help.”

I shrugged. “No worries, and thanks.”

After we left Pips, I turned to Tulip. “I need to make some arrangements. I have irons in other fires, and I need to make sure everything there is even. You know where my place is?”

Tulip nodded. “Yeah, Dogbreath told me where it was.”

“All right, come see me there after dusk.”

“But I’m working-”

“Not anymore, you’re not. You work for me now, understand? Head on over to The Dead Rabbit, tell them whatever you need to tell them, then meet me there, okay?”

“All right. What about Dogbreath?”

My mask hid my smile as I said, “Let me worry about Dogbreath. I’ve got a few ideas. Keep your ears open, though, and let me know tonight if you hear anything, all right?”

Tulip nodded before disappearing into the crowd of Trade Town. I turned and headed toward Ferro’s, my home and castle. I had threads to pick at, and I knew one of them would lead me to Dogbreath’s killer.

Blackgrave (Episode 3)

By Matthew X. Gomez

The cold shock of water in my face brought me back to the land of the living. I gasped, shaking my head, my hair plastered to my face. I tried sitting up, but my hands were bound behind me along with my ankles, so all I managed was to wriggle a bit. I opened my right eye, but my left stubbornly refused to open. Not that there was much to see. Another shack, the walls corrugated tin, and the floor hard packed dirt underneath. I felt around for my knife, and whimpered a little when I found it missing.

“Good, you’re awake.” The voice was familiar, but it came from behind me, so I couldn’t be sure.

“Hopper?”

He came around and knelt in front of me. “You look like shit, boss.” He reached out and pushed my wet hair out of my eyes.

“What the fuck are you doing, Hopper? Why am I trussed up?”

He smiled a crooked half grin I remembered all too well. That smile was one of the reasons I’d decided to fuck him in the first place. A cold ball of panic settled into my guts.

“What were you doing with the mutants, Pincher? We found the scouting party, or what was left of it. Saw lots of tracks, lot of dead bodies. Then JoJo goes out with Junker, sees what she can find. And what should they find? Our beloved leader inside a mutant camp a stone’s throw from Blackgrave. So what happened? Planning to sell us out? Looking to save your skin?” Pulling a long knife from his belt, he dug it into the dirt.

Working some spit into my mouth, I lobbed it into the dirt. “Mutants hit the caravan. They must have been watching the spot, because they hit us coming away from it. We didn’t have a chance. I tried to get away, but I didn’t get far. I don’t know what they were planning for me, but it wasn’t anything I wanted. So are you going to cut me free or not?”

Hopper chuckled and shook his head. The cold ball in my stomach got a mite bigger. “I think it’s time for a change in leadership. I’d leave you alive, but you’d never stop scheming to get back on top, would you?”

I narrowed my one good eye. “So what? You’re going to cut my throat? Kill a defenseless woman? Yeah, you’ve got some big balls on you.”

He poked me with his knife and I writhed a bit, trying to get away. “Don’t give me that bullshit, Pincher. Are you telling me you’d hesitate to kill in order to get ahead?”

“What about JoJo and Junker? They know I’m still alive.”

Hopper’s smile grew wider, reminding me of the wild dogs you’d sometimes see out in the wastes, slaver dripping down as they eyed the weak and the old. “And? They’ll get a nice new place when I’m in charge. I think JoJo might even appreciate a bit of extra attention.”

“Got it all figured out then, huh?”

“Better believe it.”

“What about Fryback?”

“Fryback? Why would I give a shit what that fat fu-“

He crumpled to the ground. Something sprayed on my face, and it took me a moment to realize it was his blood. Standing behind him, in the doorway, was an immense, round figure. In one hand was a cleaver, in the other a pistol.

“Fryback?”

“Heya, boss.” Fryback didn’t so much walk as delicately shuffle her bulk around me. I felt my restraints part under the edge of her cleaver. “You look like shit.”

“Nice to see you, too.” Standing up was painful, all of my limbs protesting from being restrained, bounced around, and handled with less than the delicate care they deserve. Prying the knife from Hopper’s fingers, I took the gun from his holster, too. “How much trouble do you think there’s going to be?”

Fryback shrugged. “Depends on the trouble you’re expecting I guess. Hopper never officially declared you dead, and most people were waiting to see if you were going to show up again. JoJo and Junker are, sorry, were in his camp. But that’s about it. No offense, boss, but you have lousy taste in men.”

“Don’t I just.”

“That’s not the worst of it, though. Those mutants you two were talking about, they’re outside the gates. Junker and JoJo are up in the tower, but they’re saying the camp’s out of range. Figure there’s about twenty or thirty mutants out there.”

I cock an eyebrow. Sure, that was plenty for an ambush, but an assault on a settlement that was expecting them? Way too few, unless they had something planned.

“Anyone get a closer look?”

“Other than JoJo and Junker? No.”

“Shit. I don’t need them to know I’m still alive until this is all done.”

Fryback nodded, holstered her gun and hung her cleaver by a length of cord from her waist. She opened the satchel bag hanging off her massive frame. She pulls out a long, hooded coat and a gas mask. “Put those on, and those two won’t know what’s going on until it’s all over.”

I smiled at her and quickly dressed. I stuck the pistol in the pocket of the coat, but decided to carry the knife. I didn’t have any place to put it where I wouldn’t end up sticking myself.

People swarmed all over the settlement when we stepped out. The pale golden ball of the sun struggled through the ever present grey haze, and clouds of dust were kicked up by the people, my people, running all over the place, like someone had kicked an ant hill. Anyone with even one good eye like I had could see something was up, and I could be sure the mutants knew they’d been spotted. So what were they waiting for?

I clambered up a ladder and onto a platform on the wall. I couldn’t really make out the mutant’s camp through the dust being kicked up through the swirling winds, but I could imagine it was out there. I wondered how JoJo and Junker could see it, but they were up higher, and might be able to look down through the dust cloud.

“Shit, I wish Pincher was here.” I turned to the person speaking, realizing that they didn’t recognize me given I wasn’t wearing my usual attire. My skin tingled a bit at the sentiment. Maybe everyone in Blackgrave wasn’t an unrepentant bastard, Hopper notwithstanding.

“Seen any sign of the mutants?” I pressed my hand down on the railing, squinting into the distance, willing something to show itself. I lowered my voice a bit, hoping the person didn’t know me well enough.

“Ain’t seen shit.” His rifle rested, stock down, on the platform as he leaned out over the wall, trying to see anything. Two satchels rested down by his feet.

I heard the ladder rattle behind me as someone made their slow process up. “Hey Griper,” my platform mate called out, moving over to let the old man up. I could feel the old man’s eyes on me through the lenses, sizing me up and wondering if I was a known or an unknown and how much of a risk I posed.

“Hey there, Rusty. Seen any movement?”

“Nah. Nothing but wind and dust out there.”

Griper snorted through his mask. “Don’t get complacent. Those damn mutants’ll be on us sooner than you can blink. The only questions you should be asking are ‘When?’ and ‘How?’”

In the distance, I heard a motor stutter and cough to life over the driving howl of the wind. I glanced up at the tower, and JoJo or Junker started flashing with their signal mirror. “Seems we got our answer.”

“Since when do mutants have vehicles?” Rusty asked.

“Since they wiped out a caravan and Pincher’s scouting party,” Griper growled. He leaned down and grabbed one of the two satchels on the platform. “Don’t mistake barbaric for stupid. Sure, most of the mutants out there have about as much sense as walking outside without a mask on, but that’s the rank and file.” He spooled out a length of cord from the satchel and stared down over the edge. The sound of the motors grew louder and, out in the distance, I could see dark shapes looming out of the dust clouds, the familiar shapes causing my fear to grow. “Come on Rusty, get that other package ready. We need to give our guests a proper welcome.”

“But-”

“But what? Give the girl here your gun and get working. Or do you prefer ending they day in a mutant cook pot?”

Even though I knew he couldn’t see my face, I cocked an eyebrow at Griper. I took the offered gun, and sighted along it at the incoming vehicles. Sure as Griper had said, the lead truck was the one we’d taken out to where Needles said the caravan had been attacked. The mutants had been busy, however, and had added a few of their own improvements.

“That’s not good,” I muttered, sighting along the gun. In addition to adding rebar to the front of the truck to make a battering ram, they’d also installed sheets of metal over the windows. I could make out a small slit, where a driver could look through, but barring an improbable amount of luck on my part, there was no way I was making that shot. At least four mutants were piled in the back of the truck, so I drew a bead on one of them instead. Following the truck were more vehicles, less heavily kitted out but still bringing more mutants faster than I cared for.

Griper looked up and sniffed. He looked down at the satchel, then back up at the approaching battering truck. He snipped off a bit of cord, nodded, then fumbled in his pocket for something. I heard the lighter spark, then the sizzle as the fuse caught. He waited for what I thought was an inordinate amount of time before tossing the package off the wall.

“Get down!” he shouted, nearly falling off the platform as he ducked back behind it. I followed suit, as did Rusty, though he was a bit smaller. The resultant explosion was still deafening, and a shower of dirt and small rocks followed. The entire platform and wall shook from the explosion, and I wondered if the whole thing was going to collapse. I got my bearings and popped up from behind the wall.

The truck was a burning wreck. The driver stumbled out from the door, but was shot as I was drawing a bead on him, his head exploding. I turned my attention to the rest of the mutants who, undaunted by the destruction of their ram, still advanced their movements erratic and constant. I picked out a large trike, one mutant driving while the passenger riding behind fumbled with a long tube. Squeezing the trigger, I missed the driver but did hit the lead tire. The rubber shredded, the driver lost control, and the whole thing flipped end over end. More firing followed, most of it from our side. Yeah, we might have lost most of our best in that ambush, but you didn’t survive for long these days without knowing your way around a gun, or a knife, or really any sort of weapon at all. I knew Fryback would have converted her kitchen to a hospital and would be pulling duty as surgeon. JoJo and Junker were picking out targets of opportunity, something I knew whenever I aimed at a mutant only for them to drop to the ground. The ground before the walls was filled with the crawling, screaming, bleeding mutants. The truck continued to burn near the gates, and a few more wrecked vehicles dotted the landscape. The rest of the mutants still in vehicles wheeled them around and sped away from the walls, their initial attack thwarted. I caught sight of their Chief, standing up in a flatbed truck, his face screwed up in a scowl as he surveyed the wreckage.

I smiled under my mask and pulled the trigger. In the distance, a large figure flopped out of the back of the truck, bounced once, and was still.

“Nice shot, Pincher,” Griper said, patting me on the shoulder. When I looked at him, he shrugged. “Fryback told me. Not like she could ever keep a secret, could she? Anyway, glad to have you back, boss. Hopper would have been shit to work for.”

“Thanks, Griper.” After handing the rifle off to Rusty, I went down the ladder. Making my way back to my residence, I stopped short when I saw Junker and JoJo waiting for me. Yeah, I knew I’d have to deal with them sooner or later, and it might as well be now.

“Heya, boss,” Junker called out. His mask was decorated with bright blue paint, while JoJo’s was pink. I have no idea where she’d found it, but I didn’t know anyone who’d argue her choice.

“Junker. JoJo. Nice shooting.” My hand rested on the grip of the pistol, and I wished I could see their eyes. After everything else, for it come to this? I figured I’d shoot JoJo and try to go for Junker after. I didn’t like my odds.

“Thanks, Pincher.” JoJo shuffled her feet in the dirt, stared down at the ground. “Look, no hard feelings, all right? For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I hit you. I didn’t know Hopper was planning on making a play. And you were the only one to survive the ambush. How was I supposed to know you weren’t working with the mutants?”

“Because they were attacking the place I run?”

“Oh.”

“Look, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. Mostly because we’re going to be short people for a while, especially after that debacle with the caravan. I expect you two to be on your best behavior, understand? Otherwise Fryback gets to play with you.”

They both nodded and shuffled away, heads bent close and talking to each other. I’d have to keep an eye on them, to be sure, but I couldn’t spare the competent manpower to make an example of one of them. Even if I did, I’d probably have to kill both to keep the other one from being a problem down the line.

Finally, I made my way over to Fryback’s, lured over by the smell of cooking meat. “Boss, glad to see you,” she said, looking up long enough from the butcher work she was doing. She slapped a hunk of meat onto the grill, wiping her hands off on her bloody apron. “Figure we’ll get some peace now?”

Chuckling, I eased into one of the stools at her bar, my entire body aching. “Maybe a bit, but I don’t expect that to last. I’m going to have to head out to Trade Town sooner rather than later. The caravan getting hit hurts us, and we’ll need some new soldiers to replace our losses.”

She nodded, taking two big meat forks and flipping over a roast she was cooking. “It doesn’t get easier does it?”

I smiled, tapping my fingers on the table. “We’re still alive though, so there’s that.”

Fryback smiled, shaking her head. She reached under the bar top, pulled up a mason jar and set it before me. “Drink up. World’ll still be here tomorrow.”

I nodded, my fingers curling around the cool of the glass. I swiveled on my seat, leaned back against the bar, and surveyed my kingdom.

Blackgrave (Episode 2)

By Matthew X. Gomez

I woke up to the smell of meat cooking. I tried to pry my eyes open, but only one responded. The other stubbornly refused to cooperate. Not that it mattered much. It was dark, wherever here was. I heard grunting, what might have been talking, coming from somewhere nearby.

I wriggled a bit. Someone had tied my arms and legs together, and done a passable job of it. I was lying on something hard, probably concrete. I managed to roll over a bit, and saw a window. Firelight flickered around the edges of the frame, and I heard laughter, deep and resonant. Still no idea what anyone was saying, though.

I heard the scrape of wood on stone nearby, and the heavy tread of feet. I thought about feigning sleep and decided against it. Instead, I worked myself to where I could see my captor. Or one of them, at any rate.

There was no denying he was a mutant. The little bit of light coming through the door was enough for me to see half of his face looked like melted wax, drooping down onto his shoulder. One eye was bright and clear, the other filmy and gauzy. Its left arm was massive, while the right was normal sized. His enormous body balanced on legs thick as oil drums, and a tentacle whipped back and forth, erupting from his shoulder. He clutched a cleaver in its right hand, and as I watched it hacked at a carcass laid out on a table. I wondered which one of my boys was dinner tonight.

His butchery done, he stomped back out to the fire, a severed leg slung over his shoulder. Guess I wasn’t worth paying attention too. Fine by me.

Moving my hands back and forth behind me, I was able to work my jacket up. The mutants hadn’t bothered checking me too closely and the small knife I kept in the small of my back was still there. I worked it out with my fingers, teasing it out and hoping none of the other mutants decided to go check on their guest. I managed to get the knife out and positioned against the ropes. Working slowly and carefully, I managed to cut through the ropes and only sliced myself twice doing it. Of course, now came the hard part. I had no gear other than my knife, no idea where I was, and no supplies. I was in an enemy camp, surrounded by an untold number of enemies, and the wastes only knew how many miles between where I was and home. Still, nothing ever got done just by thinking about it.

I cut free of the ropes on my legs, but was careful about it, trying to keep the rope in as much as one piece as I could. Massaging my legs and arms, I waited for the pinprick sensation to fade before standing up. I still almost fell right back down again, my head spinning, and the gnawing in my gut telling me I had better find something to eat.

My eye adjusted to the dim light and I crept through the structure. I saw now they’d put me in a house, or what passed for one anyway. Creeping away from the main door, I found myself in a back room, the ceiling of which had long ago partially collapsed. It did give me more than enough moonlight to work with, though. Someone had piled crates here, and I recognized the markings as belonging to three or four different merchants. The mutants had been busy.

A quick check through the crates gained me a couple of pistols, as well clips and bullets enough for both. There was even some bottled water, a mask, and enough filters to keep me breathing for a while. On the downside, there was no food. I could only guess the mutants had already devoured that if they were moving on to corpses.

“Hehehe.”

The laughter sounded like stones grinding together and came from directly behind me. I felt ice water grip my spine as I turned around. The guns were stuck in my pockets, and my knife was back in its sheath. In his large hand, he still held the cleaver, and blood dripped down to the ground with a steady drip, drip, drip.

“Girly going somewhere?” His speech was mangled by the mouthful of misformed teeth crowding his jaw, but I could understand him easily enough.

“Thought I’d get some air. The smoke from your fire was making my eyes water.” I shuffled back a step, trying to gauge how much distance he’d need to be able to hit me with the big cleaver. Not very much at all, I was guessing.

“Is girly hungry?” The mutant smiled, a line of drool hanging from his bottom lip. “Meat is on fire, girly. You like meat?”

As hungry as I was, my stomach still did a backflip at the thought of where that meat came from. “No, I think I’m good.” I pushed my hands into my pockets, felt the pistols there. Guns were loud though, and I didn’t relish the idea of trying to shoot my way out of the mutant’s camp.

“Come on, girly. I no want to hurt you.” He shuffled closer, his smile growing wider. “Da Chief wants to talk.”

Letting my hands let go of the pistols, I pulled them from my pockets. “All right. Let’s go see this chief of yours, then.”

***

The chief of the tribe lounged on a bashed together throne of twisted metal and spare parts in the middle of a courtyard. It surprised me how well it stood up, especially given the sheer size of the mutant. If I thought my escort was big, the chief was immense. Even sitting down, he was easily a head taller than me. A scraggly beard obscured most of his face, but he was surprisingly well proportioned for a mutant. His court, if it could be called that, stood in stark contrast each bearing some unique deformity and each worse than the last. I couldn’t tell if they were because they were mutants, or if living out here in the Burned Lands without any protection was the cause. In no way would any of them been able to pass unnoticed into a normal settlement.

“Her hands are untied.” The chief’s voice reverberated through the air, making my chest thrum. “You did that?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my captor shake his head. “No, Chief. I found her like this. Maybe she trying to escape?”

“Humpf. Is that true, female? You think you can get away?” He banged a hand the size of a ham hock down on his throne. “I killed your people. Their meat roasts over my fires. I’ve burned your wagons, taken what was inside as mine. Now? I want to burn your settlements.” He grinned, leaning forward. His teeth were like a dog’s, all sharp and vicious. “You are going to help me.”

He stood up, grasping a massive metal pole that had been stuck in the ground next to his throne. I felt bile rise in my throat when I realized it was decorated with skulls and bits of bone. He used the butt of the pole to draw a rough diagram in the dirt. “We are here.” He drew a few squiggly lines, at least one of which I took to be the Iron River. “This is what I want to burn.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “It is called Blackgrave. Some of your friends told me that, before they died.” He ran one sausage thick finger over one of the skulls. “I killed the ones that helped me quick.”

I spat in the dust, looked around at the mutants. I counted fifteen or so. “Is this all your people?”

The big mutant shook his head. “No. I have more, but not much.” He shrugged, slouched back onto his throne. “We can’t afford many losses, so we ambush. We deceive.” Leaning forward, he leered at me. I resisted the urge to put a bullet between his eyes. “And we like to watch things burn.”

“So I help you, what do I get? I’d hope more than a quick death.”

The chief narrowed bloodshot eyes at me and scratched at his beard. “What are you hoping for?”

Taking my time, I looked around at this gathered tribe. “I can help you. Somehow I don’t think you’ll want to stop at Blackgrave, will you? You’ll want to hit other settlements, make the humans pay for driving you into the wastes. Isn’t that right?”

The chief nodded and growled his assent.

“So let me help you. I’d rather see you burn it all then end up with my skull decorating your pole.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

I shrugged. “You don’t. But how am I going to act against you when you have me by your side? I help you take Blackgrave, then we can talk about what else I can help you with.”

The big mutant’s face broke into a huge grin. “I like you, female. Treacherous like a snake, but I like you. So tell me how you can help me.”

“I know the leader of Blackgrave. Intimately, even. I know the trade routes, some of the secret ways into the other settlements, things you would never find on your own. I know who can be bought, who can be threatened, and who needs to be killed outright. You need me, Chief. Otherwise you’re going to get hunted down and wiped out.”

The big mutant’s lips curled into a sneer. “Let the humans come. They cast us out, hide behind their walls. They think they’re safe there? We will show them!” He raised his pole in the air and the surrounding mutants shouted their approval. It was all I could do not to cower back and the sheer display of savagery.

The chief leaned forward from his throne. “And female, if you betray us, you will wish we killed you in the ambush.”

***

The mutant who’d taken me to the chief led me back to the room where he’d woken me up. A few more rugs and blankets had been lain down, and in one corner a large pile of clothing had been arranged.

“Chief says he wants the weapons you took, girly.”

“Seriously? Doesn’t a girl have the right to defend herself out here in the wastes?”

The big mutant laughed, which did unpleasant things to the ruin of his face. “You’re safe enough, girly. For now.”

I handed over the pistols, but he didn’t ask for the knife and I didn’t offer it. Not that there was much I could do with it, anyway. I doubted it would be able to penetrate deep enough to hit anything vital.

The mutant left and I sank down onto the floor. I wondered if Hopper had tried to assert himself as leader yet. I wondered who might else be vying for the position, and what the reaction would be if they knew I was still alive. It was more than idle curiosity on my part, as depending on who’d taken over could well depend if they’d help me, or if I’d have to help the mutants in earnest. If my survival hinged on destroying those I led, so be it. Still, best to avoid that, if at all possible.

Some food was brought to me, and I ate it without thinking too much where the bits of meat floating in the gravy came from. It was overcooked and tough, but it was food. I washed it down with a bit of water and sank down onto the pile of rugs. Closing my eyes, I drifted off to sleep, images of Blackgrave burning dancing across my eyelids.

When I woke up, daylight streamed through the cracks in my shelter and the mutant with the melted face was staring at me.

“That’s a hell of a thing to wake up to.” I propped myself up on my elbow. “Chief want me?”

My jailer laughed. “Nah, he too busy right now. I like watching you sleep. You’re pretty.”

“Uh-huh. Don’t get too many women out here do you?”

Shaking his head, he took a step closer. “Nah. Big chief, he keeps the pretty girlys. They don’t last too long, though.”

A dry lump lodged itself into my throat. “Yeah, I bet.” I sat up further as the mutant took another step closer. He had that look in his eye I’d seen before, that look some men, and even some women, get when they look at a person as less than a person and more something to be owned. The mutant fumbled with his pants, a line of drool descending from his open mouth. Another step closer, and another.

“We’re going to have some fun, girly. Don’t scream now. No screaming.”

I pushed myself to my feet, my knife in my hand. I drove it hard into his stomach, in and out quick, again and again. I hated getting my hands dirty, but this wasn’t my first fight, and I hoped to Hell it wasn’t going to be my last. He caught me with a big backhand to the side of my head, sending me sprawling into the rugs. I struggled to my feet, my ears ringing. The mutant pressed his hand to his stomach, and when he pulled it away his hand was wet and red.

“Girly…” He started, choked, spat blood on to the floor. “Girly…” he tried again, coughed up more blood and sank to his knees. I got behind him, drove the knife up through the base of his skull.

“What’s going on here?” I heard a voice shout, as if from far away, and then stars exploded in my vision as something crashed hard into the back of my head.

Not again, I thought, as I slammed back into oblivion.

Blackgrave (Episode 1)

By Matthew X. Gomez

I rolled off Hopper with a satisfied sigh. He stared up at the ceiling, with that look in his eyes that some men get right after they’ve gotten laid. I hoped he wasn’t going to be a problem. Sleeping with the help rarely ended well. I pulled the sheet up over my breasts, wished Hopper was the type to fall asleep after fucking and not inclined to talk after.

“Hey Pincher, I’ve been thinking.”

Shit. “Yeah? What about?”

“You ever think about what you want?”

I rolled over to him, nuzzled under his arm. “What do you mean? I control Blackgrave, make sure everyone eats regularly, has a bit of shelter over their heads, and nobody doesn’t kill anyone else without a good reason. I’m the top bitch here. What else do you think I want?”

He furrowed his brow, his mouth turning down at the corners and making him look less pretty than I preferred. “Yeah, but isn’t there more you want than that?”

I snorted. “Like what? I’m not that ambitious, Hopper. I control one settlement, and I’ve got enough people to hold that. There’s already enough of a target painted on my backside. The bigger you get, the bigger the target. ”

“What if someone bigger comes along?” Hopper rolled toward me, stared at me with his washed out blue eyes.

I smiled. “Bigger like who? Tungsten is gone and Ironbar is still trying to pick up the pieces from when Butcher Bird and his crew hit them. Trade Town? Those fucks are too busy fighting each other to make a bigger play. No. We stay sharp, we stay smart, and the biggest thing we have to worry about are the raiders and the slavers.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right-”

A long whistle pierced the early morning air. I punched Hopper in his toned stomach, ran my hand a bit lower to give him an affectionate squeeze. “They’re playing your song, lover.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

Rolling out of bed, I found my shirt and slipped it on over my head. “Not at all. You’ve got five minutes to get to your post, and I’d do it, too. I understand the bitch that runs this place is completely unforgiving. You could find yourself on outrider patrol for the next month if you’re found to be in dereliction.”

“Shit, shit, shit.”

I watched, amused, as he scrambled for his clothes, pulled them over his not-too-shabby naked body. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to think he was getting special treatment due to the fact I happened to be making use of his dick on a semi-regular basis.

“You want me to come back tonight?” He sounded so eager I had to work hard not to laugh.

“I’ll think about it.”

After Hopper left, I finished getting dressed. Frowning, I pulled the mask over my head, and adjusted the straps before I headed outside. Sure, the air might not be as bad as it could be, or there could be a West wind blowing invisible death off of the burning flats and I wouldn’t know about it until I was coughing up bloody bits of my lungs. Not worth the risk. I paused outside the door to survey my little kingdom. Fryback was over by her shack, waddling as she carried a joint of beef to be roasted. Hopper stood near the entrance with the other guards, eyes fixed out on the wilderness, alert to movement. I glanced up to the belltower, saw a glint of reflected light. Junker was supposed to be up there with JoJo, one with the rifle and the other with the field specs.

Blackgrave wasn’t much, but it was mine. A collection of tents and ramshackle shacks scattered about without much claim to rhyme or reason. A few hard scrabble crops breaking through the rocky ground, some animals not too far mutated so as to be useless or worse. The name came from when my sister and I found the place. There was even less then there was now, but a half charred sign reading BLACKGRAVE sat over the entrance. I have no idea what it meant, and still don’t. The name stuck, though.

Griper limping over to me broke me from my reverie, his cane punching the ground as he came. “We got a problem, boss.”

Only good thing about having to wear a mask to breathe was that it was easier to hide my frowning. “What kind of problem?”

Griper shrugged. His stringy white hair dangled down from under his mask, and dirt was caked on his hands and clothes. He wasn’t much to look at, but the fact that he was old as he was spoke volumes about his ability to survive, which was why he was one of my counselors. “Not sure. One of the scouts reported it this morning. Said she saw something out there you might want to see.”

The hackles on the back of my neck went up a bit at that. “What did she say it was? Hold on, which scout?”

“Needles.” Griper scratched at the edge of his mask. I resisted the urge to do the same. Damn things weren’t built for comfort. “Looked like a convoy got hit pretty hard. She says it looks like there’s quite a bit of scrap left over though.”

Needles was new to the camp, but a decent enough scout, and an even better scavenger. If she said there was scrap to be had, well, then there was scrap to be had.

“How far out?”

“Six miles or so.” Griper drew a rough map in the dirt with his cane. He marked the settlement, then a few landscape features I recognized, followed by a general idea of where the caravan was.

“Any idea how long it’s been out there?” I stared down at the map, wondering what hit it. Could have been raiders. Could have been some new nightmare out of the wastes. Neither one filled my heart with gladness, especially so close.

Griper shook his head. “Needles said it couldn’t have been too long. Smoke was still coming up from it.”

“You and I both know that don’t mean shit.” There were places out there that had been on fire as long as I’ve been alive. They didn’t call it the Burned Lands for nothing.

“Fine, fine. But we run patrols out there on a regular basis. It couldn’t have been too long, could it? Someone else would have mentioned it by now.”

“Assuming they weren’t keeping the information to themselves,” I countered.

Griper shook his head at me. “You can’t suspect everyone,” he said.

I patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, but I can. Which is why I’m still leader of this little settlement.”

“Fine,” he said. “Do you want to send a crew out to check it out?”

“Yeah, do that. I want to go along, too, though. It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the world and I want to get a closer look at what Needles thinks she saw.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Griper used the tip of the cane to obliterate the map.

“Why not? Get a few of the boys together, and two of the trucks. Let’s see what they have out there.”

***

The ride out was less than comfortable, and I was riding up front. It had to be worse for the boys riding in the back, bouncing off of the holes in the ground, the makeshift suspensions in the trucks rattling them like dice. I rested my hand on the pistol in my belt as I surveyed the landscape. It was much as I remembered it. Grey ash spotted with blackened swathes of dirt. The occasional twisted tree clawed its way skyward. Twisted bits of metal and long abandoned structures broke up the monotony. Smoke from the desperate camps of scavengers and mutants living out in the burned lands, and all of them smart enough to stay out of sight. Eyes stared up from brackish pools of water giving off the stench of rotten eggs. All of it made me miss the comforting security of Blackgrave, even knowing each of the trucks had a gunner up on top, carrying enough firepower to given even the desperate gangers out here pause. So long as we didn’t run into one the smart groups… I shuddered to think what would happen if Butcher Bird and his group caught up with us.

We crested a rise and looked down the broken pavement and grey ash at the caravan. Or what was left of it. Black smoke still rose in places and I could see the red orange flicker of flames dancing in the wreckage.

Tapping the driver on the shoulder, I pointed down at the caravan and gave him a thumbs up. We rumbled down the hill, tires skidding on the loose ash.

We stopped about three hundred feet from the wreckage. The boys got out of the truck and spread out to cover the area. The guys on the big guns stayed put, keeping an eye on the hills in case anyone was using this as bait to bring in other prey. I figured as well armed as we were, we’d be left alone by most things out here, but there were things out here, things that were all teeth, claws, and hunger that wouldn’t be put off by a couple of belt-fed machine guns and a group of armed hardcases. It paid to stay alert.

“Let’s head over here,” Griper called out, hopping between the rocks and burned wreckage. It always surprised me how agile he was, even with the bad leg. He led me and a few others around a small hill, closer to where part of the caravan still burned. The smell of roasted meat assailed my senses and I tried hard not to think of the source. There didn’t seem to be much left, the metal left being twisted and scorched. Scattered supplies littered the ground, and I doubted much of it would still be useable.

“It doesn’t look like raiders hit this.” Kneeling down, I picked up a ragged doll. It was missing one leg, and someone had sewn bits of bone into it for eyes. “Mutants, probably. Damn. I didn’t think they’d hit anything this close to Blackgrave. Or this big. If I didn’t know better, I’d say something was organizing them.”

Griper spat in the dust. “As if we didn’t have enough troubles to deal with. At least Fryback got the filter system running again, huh?”

Shaking my head, I dropped the doll back into the blackened dust. “Bonepicker did that, not Fryback. I’m amazed she doesn’t fall into one of her pots and cook herself one of these days.”

Griper chuckled. “If she was any smaller or the pots any bigger, she just might. But you’re right, I don’t remember the freaks hitting anything this size before.”

“Anyway, I’ve seen enough. Let’s head back to Blackgrave. I don’t want to get caught out here after the sun goes down.”

We loaded back up into the trucks, the motors grinding to life, black smoke belching into the grey sky.

“That close to Blackgrave isn’t good.” Griper winced as he stretched out his bad leg, moving his walking stick into a more comfortable position in the cab. “I can’t remember the last time they hit a caravan less than ten miles from our place.”

Frowning, I stared out at the passing landscape. “It isn’t like I have a lot of options. We don’t have the manpower for patrols out here. If there were enough mutants to burn out a caravan of that size, we’d be throwing people away. The good news is that caravan wasn’t headed toward us, anyway, and I didn’t recognize any of the markings on the vehicles, did you?”

Griper shook his head. “Not this time. But what about next? It isn’t like we’re self-sufficient, and it’s probably too much to hope that the mutants that did this are going to pack up and leave.”

The trucks started up the hill. I could feel the tires spinning, gaining traction in the loose dirt of the track. I gnawed on my lower lip, not wanting to admit Griper was right, but knowing he was. And even if that caravan wasn’t headed toward us this time, chances were we might have done business in the future. The number of people willing to take their chances out in the wastes were few, what with the raiders, the mutants and whatever else was out there in the ruined lands waiting to strike. A cold pit settled into the pit of my stomach when I considered how very few options I had.

“You think we should bring in some outside help?” Griper tapped his fingers against his cane.

Turning toward him, I raised an eyebrow. “What do you think we’re going to pay them with? And who’d you suggest we hire?”

He shrugged, narrowing his eyes against the glare coming through the clouds. “There’s always hard folk out there willing to bleed a bit if it means a few steady meals, maybe a bit of scrap for trade. I’m not suggesting bringing anyone in on a permanent basis, only to get rid of this current problem.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that might-”

The rebar punching through the window interrupted my thought. Luckily, it missed me, but Griper wasn’t so lucky as it pierced his chest, pinning him to his seat. Covered in his blood, I screamed, “Go, go, go!”

Pulling the pistol from my belt, I scanned the landscape. More metal spears lanced through the air, crashing against the sides of the trucks. Chunks of concrete and other items fell as well. The attackers had chosen their ground well, up on the edges of the road where they could barrage us with missiles. They were the same mutants as had attacked the caravan, I was sure of it. They were smart enough to duck back down under cover as I heard the steady rattle of our big guns answering in kind.

“Look out!” I heard our gunner shout as a flaming projectile tumbled through the air. He tried to bring his machine gun up to track it, maybe thinking he could shoot it out of the sky. It was too small, too fast, and it impacted in the bed of the truck. I heard a dull roar as it exploded, felt the heat as flames spread throughout the flatbed of the truck.

The big gun fell silent, replaced by the screams of my men on fire.

My driver shifted gears, tried to get us out of the trap. I risked sticking my head out the window, caught sight of the other truck. It was on fire now, too, and being swarmed by mutants, their long arms dragging near the ground, their large hands gripping makeshift metal weapons.

“Come on, come on, come on,” the driver shouted. I saw the massive hunk of concrete arc up into the sky, aimed for the truck. I kicked the door open and tumbled out moments before it crushed the cab. I rolled to the side, looking for a way out. I saw Needles running by me, on fire. Served the fucker right, leading us into this bastard of a trap.

I stumbled, slid down the hill, and took off running. As I rounded a small hill, I saw a mutant waiting for me, its big fist moving to connect with my head. I tried to get under it, but it must have clipped the side of my head because all I remember next was pain exploding behind my eyes followed by darkness.

Bonepicker (Episode 3)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“Picker, why’d you take this job anyway?” Breaker stood on a small hill. I was elbow deep in machinery, coils of wire, and scrap metal piled around me. A cobbled together tower of steel and iron loomed over me, jutting into the sky.

Sitting back, I used a bit of rag to wipe the sweat and grime from my forehead. The air was breathable for a change, meaning I didn’t need the mask. I’d laid my tools out around me, no real set order other than the fact I could place my hands on whatever I needed without having to look. I squinted up at Breaker, him looking down at me from behind his goggles.

“Nails asked me to.” I put down the screwdriver I’d been using and picked up a pair of pliers instead. All these tools were things I’d scavenged or traded for, and yeah, I might have stolen a few along the way as well.

“Yeah, but what I don’t get is the why of it.” Breaker slid down on his hands and feet, kicking up dust as he came. I glowered at him, but he’d been careful and all my tools were right where I’d put them. “What does she get out of this thing working?” He stared up at it and kicked at one of the metal struts. “What is it, anyway?”

“Ain’t you ever seen a relay station before?” I stuck my head back into the machinery, looking for the wires to get it going again.

“For what, a radio?”

“That’s right.” I found what I was looking for and smiled.

“What does Nails want a radio for?” Breaker leaned over my shoulder, looking at what I was looking at. He had the good sense at least to stay out my light.

“Ahh, there we go.” I clipped the wires I needed, felt a faint surge of electricity pass through me. “Huh? Look, what kind of business does Nails do?”

Breaker shrugged. “You know I don’t pay attention to that kind of thing. She does…stuff.”

“That’s your problem right there.” I slid the panel back in place, fumbled to get the screws in enough so I could finish tightening the panel.

“What? That I don’t know the business of everyone in Trade Town? Seems a bit of a waste of brain space if you ask me.”

“That’s not what I mean. Hand me that screwdriver, would you?”

“Which one is that again?”

“Never mind, I got it.” I placed my hand on the tool, and wondered, not for the first time, why I let Breaker hang around. I mean, an extra pair of eyes were always good, especially when I’ve got my head stuck in one bit of machinery or another, but other than that he was pretty useless. Guess I just liked having someone to talk to other than myself. “Anyway, Nails is a broker and a trader. She doesn’t like leaving Trade Town because, let’s face it, that’s where a lot of the action is. It’s not the only action out there, though, is it?”

“You mean like Pincher’s.”

“Damn right, like Pincher’s.” I cursed as the screwdriver slipped a bit. “And how do you think someone like Nails keeps in touch with like-minded compatriots? If there’s nothing physical to go back and forth, it doesn’t make much sense to use messengers, does it? Not with all the other garbage and shit prowling the burned lands.” I finished the final screw, giving it a final twist to make sure. “If I was Nails, I’d want to be able to sit nice and tight at Ferro’s and send messages out to the other settlements — tell them what I was looking for, and what I was willing to give in exchange. Faster that way, isn’t it? Bit safer too. For that to work, though, the relays have to be working. Otherwise the message won’t reach. Seems this one had broken down a bit.” I snorted, backed up and found the outer panel, started to wrestle it into place. “Just like everything else.”

“Hey, you hear that?” Breaker picked up his head, looked out into the sky.

“Hear what?”

He held a finger up to his lips and scrambled up the side of the hill with barely a sound, keeping his head down and low. “Shit.”

I clawed my way up to him, but made a lot more noise doing it. Breaker grabbed my arm, made sure I stayed low.
“Butcher Bird?” Even though I was whispering, it sounded loud.

“No. Look, see those flags? Those aren’t BB’s.”

“Then who-?”

“Easy there, lad. Keep your hands where I can see them.” The voice came from behind me.

Turning slowly, I kept my hands up. It wouldn’t matter much, though. My gun was back on my bike, and that was well out of reach. I could have grabbed one of the tools on the ground, but that wasn’t going to do me much good.

The person who snuck up on me stared at me, a short automatic cradled in his right hand. I didn’t recognize his colors, and Breaker’d pulled his disappearing act.

“Can I help you?” I tried smiling. It worked about as well as it usually does.

“Who are you? What are you doing out here?” The gun didn’t waver away from me. I figured this wasn’t the first time he’d held a gun on someone.

“I’m Bonepicker. I’m a scrounger.” I tried to gauge his face, but his goggles hid his eyes, and I couldn’t get a read on him.

He looked around, saw the tools out. Lucky for me, he didn’t put one and one together to figure out what I was really doing out there. Nails would have been pissed otherwise. “Bonepicker, huh? I think you’d better come with me.”

“Now I don’t really think that’s nec-”

I didn’t even see him swing, but I hit the ground hard, lights exploding behind my eyes. I tried to get up but fell back down instead. I decided the ground was more comfortable after all, and darkness swam up and encompassed me.

***

When I woke up, the sun was dipping below the horizon, and I was alone…mostly. A single guard sat on the ground and I heard him snoring. Looking around, I was surrounded by bikes, and I saw mine in the mix with the others. That would make things a bit easier. On the downside, my arms and legs were tightly bound, though they hadn’t bothered with a gag. Why would they? Who would I scream for out here? My big question was why they decided to leave me alive. My pounding head almost made me wish they hadn’t. I heard shouting and laughter in the distance. Probably having a party out there, celebrating their good fortune and my bad.

“Huh. That is a good question, isn’t it? They must have something bad planned for you.”

I rolled over, trying to reposition my body a bit. It sounded like Breaker, and sure enough, when I was able to turn my body to see, there he was, sitting pretty as you please on one of the raider’s bikes.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed at him. “I thought you got away.”

A sad grin split his face as he got up and walked over to me. “I’m never too far from you. You know that, right? Now, do you want my help or not?”

“No, no, no. This isn’t right.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut. “You never offer to help. All you do is talk. That’s all you do. You aren’t real. You aren’t real. You are only in my head.”

A sharp slap opened my eyes, and Breaker was there, nose to nose with me. “Only in your head? What shit are you spouting? If I was only in your head, how would I have this?” He held up an object in his hand. The dying sunlight reflected off the dull metal in his hand. I grinned and spat a gob of blood into the dust.

“Where’d you get that?”

Breaker shrugged. “Doesn’t matter much, does it? All that matters is I have it and you want it.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. Something about this smelled off, and it wasn’t just the fact I hadn’t had a bath since time knows when. “You want something.”

“Damn right I want something. I want control.”

“Huh?”

Breaker sighed and sat down in the dirt next to me. “Do you think I like being the passenger here? Always looking and never touching? I want a turn in the driver seat. I get that and you get the knife. Understand, this isn’t going to be a one-time thing. From now on, I get to take over.”

“And what happens to me?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it too much.” He reached out and ran a hand through my hair, then grimaced and wiped it off on his coveralls. “I’ll let you back into the driver seat every now and again. But, and here’s the big one, you need to choose soon. Sleeping Beauty there might wake up any moment now, and even if he doesn’t, well, his friends will be by soon, won’t they?”

I closed my eyes. “Okay.” It wasn’t much more than a whisper from my lips. I was scared. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know what Breaker was going to do either. He’d always been there. Someone for me to talk to when there was nobody else around. Someone that never judged me, or looked down on me. I couldn’t remember a time without him. Maybe letting him drive for a while wouldn’t be all that bad.

“What was that? I didn’t hear you?” I opened my eyes, and the bastard was nose to nose with me again.
“Okay, I said. How loud do you want me to shout it?”

Breaker smiled, showing me his cracked, yellow teeth. “That was plenty loud enough. Now, hold on, this is going to hurt. A lot. I think.”

The entire world lurched to the right.

I felt the knife in my hand, right where I knew it was. I heard poor old Bonepicker shouting, scared of the dark, scared of not being in control anymore. Yeah, it really isn’t much fun. I should know.

A quick bit of work and the ropes on my hands were off, followed by the ones around my ankles. I popped the tip of the knife into the side of the guard’s neck and his snores became a rattle as he bled out. I made my way over to Bonepicker’s bike, my bike, and smiled. A gang like this, homeless, vagabond, tends to carry fuel reserves with it. I grabbed a couple of jerry cans and strapped them down to the bike. I looked around, contemplating my options. Bonepicker popped up from behind the bike, wringing his hands.

“We really oughta just get out of here, Breaker.”

“Yeah, yeah, in a second.”

“What are you planning?”

I winked at him and smiled. “Bet you can guess.”

Bonepicker shook his head and frowned. “I don’t like it.”

“Oh well.” I skulked from one bike to the next, setting up my surprise for them. I resisted the urge to cluck my tongue at the shabby state of repairs the bikes were in. You want nice things, you’ve got to take care of things you’ve already got. Yeah, yeah, ‘Picker was the real expert, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t picked up a thing or two looking over his shoulder all these years.

“One more thing to do.” I knelt down by my bike, opened one of the containers and oh so delicately removed the contents.

“That’s enough right there.” The voice was from behind me, and it wasn’t ‘Pickers. My knife was back in it’s sheath and it wasn’t like I could get to it with my hands full they way they were.

“If you’ve got a gun on me, I’d reconsider shooting.” I stood up slow and easy, not turning around just yet.
“Yeah, why’s that? How’d you get free anyway?”

“Trade secret. Anyway, I’m holding two sticks of dynamite right now, and they aren’t too fresh if you get my drift.”

“Huh?”

I turned around, holding the sticks up, one in each hand. “See, when dynamite gets old, it starts to sweat. And the stuff it’s sweating? Well, that’s the stuff that makes it go boom. And it doesn’t take much to make this stuff boom. I walk too fast and it might go off. Do you get my meaning now?”

To his credit, the biker nodded, his eyes wide as he stared at the two sticks I was holding. He backed away, the gun still pointed in my general direction. His hand was shaking though, and I worried he might still try and put a bullet through me.

“Here, catch.” I tossed the stick in my right hand toward the biker, and as he flinched, dropping his gun to grab it, I ran up, my hand closing around the crowbar tied to my belt. I swung it hard as he looked up, my arm shuddering from the impact as the claw end crushed his skull.

I sniffed as I bent down, picking up the stick I’d tossed at him. “Idiot should learn the difference between dynamite and a flare.” I finished making my preparations, including making sure the bike had enough gas in the tank. I stared down at the two corpses for a bit, then ‘Picker was there, getting on behind me.

“You’re done, right? You’ll let me have control again?”

“Uh-huh. Sure.” I kickstarted the bike and smiled as it rumbled underneath me.

“When?” ‘Picker screamed into my ear. Not that yelling was necessary. I could have been deaf as a post and I still would have heard him.

I smiled, pulled the goggles down over my eyes and the bandanna up over my mouth to keep the dust out. “You’re just going to have to wait and see.” Never, if I had anything to do about it. Sure, ‘Picker knew machines and how things fit together, and he paid some attention to the way people worked too. All useful stuff. Me? I knew how to take things apart, and people like me are always in high demand.

I was five miles out when the fuse I’d rigged up with the flare hit the dynamite, and then that hit the fuel supplies and the bikes. The ground shook under me, and I nearly lost control of the bike. Sparing a glance behind me, I saw the smoke rising dark against the blue black sky, the fires underneath. Even if the blast didn’t hit the bikers, they were out in the middle of nowhere with no supplies, no wheels, and nowhere to go. It was beautiful.
I pointed the bike in the general direction of Trade Town and smiled. Nails owed me for a job done, and I had the feeling it was only the beginning.

Bonepicker (Episode 2)

By Matthew X. Gomez

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?”

“Shit.”

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.

Never mind.

“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?”

“Not really.”

“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.

“Who’s Breaker?”

“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.

“Nice gun.”

“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?”

“No, ma’am.”

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.”

“Butcher Bird?”

“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?”

Bonepicker (Episode 1)

By Matthew X. Gomez

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” I slid down the dirt hill, kicking up dust around my body.
“Probably ain’t nothin’, ‘Picker,” Breaker said, perching on the rusted out shell of the car.

“Nothing? Huh. Shows what you know, Breaker. ‘Nothin.'” Reaching into my tattered coat, I grabbed hold of my crowbar.
“How long you think it’s been sittin’ here, ‘Picker? Got to be at least fifty years or so. Been picked clean, and not by you.”
“Either lend a hand or fuck off, Breaker,” I mumbled through the thick scarf over my mouth and nose. Wouldn’t do no good breathing in that dust. No telling what was wrong with it. Might do something to your lungs, your guts, or your brain.
Breaker jumped from the trunk to the roof as I wedged the crowbar under the hood. I slid it back and forth a bit, great flakes of metal sliding off the rusted hulk. Nothing out here lasted long, metal least of all. There was something in the dust, in the water, in the bones of the Earth that ruined everything. It ruined metal, it ruined cloth, and it ruined men.

Pressing down, the hood gave way with a groan. Engine was still there, a corroded mess of metal and rubber. I picked around in it for a while, smiled when I found some rubber tubing, a few other bits and bobs.
“See that, Breaker? That right there’ll get us fed next time we stop to trade. Might even get me laid.”
Breaker snorted. “You ain’t never gonna get enough scrap to get your ugly mug laid.” He looked up into the sky, cocked his head to one side. “Don’t forget to check the trunk.”
I shuffled along the car, the skeletal driver still clutching the wheel. Made me wonder where he’d been hoping to get to, where he thought he could run. Truth was, ain’t no place wasn’t touched come The End. And this was all we were left with. Ruins and wrecks.
A bit of work with the crowbar and the trunk popped open with a protest of rusty hinges. A suitcase lay inside, rotted to tatters, whatever was inside far past gone. Smiling, I picked up a small red case with a white tee on it. I worked the zipper, my grin getting wider.
“Whatcha got there, ‘Picker?”
“Medical supplies, looks like.” I rooted around in it for a bit, zipped it back up. In the bag it went.

“Where to next?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but the distant roar of engines shut it right quick. Nothing good came of hearing that noise. I clambered up the side of the hill, making sure to keep my head down. That didn’t stop that damn fool Breaker from jumping off the roof, climbing up the hill and standing straight up like the damn fool he was.

“Who do you reckon that is?” he asked me. He wrinkled his nose. “Can’t make out their colors from here. Could be Butcher Bird’s crew, come back from raidin’.”

“Shit. I hope not. What’s out that way anyway?”

“Tungsten. Blackgrave. Ironbar. A few others I think.”

“Tungsten’s a ghost town. Got wiped out last year, remember?” I remembered it well enough, the smell of death and rot hanging over everything. Even the animals were dead, and the scavengers refused to touch the bodies. I didn’t stay long, even with all the scrap lying around. Wasn’t worth dying over.

“Oh yeah. Well, they’re definitely heading back toward Trade Town now, whoever they are. Should be clear to go in a few.”
I twisted around so my back was to the hill. Finding my canteen, I pulled the rag down, swallowed a couple of mouthfuls of warm water.

“Want some?” I held the canteen out to Breaker.
He looked away, skipped back down the hill, and started heading back to the camp. Asshole.
Camp didn’t amount to much. A bit of brown tarp thrown over the bike, more dirt piled on top with a few rocks to mask it from people coming by. The bike wasn’t much, just a bunch of spare parts I cobbled together, bags and baskets tied on where’d they fit. It ran though, and it beat walking by a wide mile.
Pulling my goggles down over my eyes, I kickstarted the bike, looked around for Breaker. I didn’t see him, but that didn’t mean much. He had his own ways about him, coming and going as he pleased. One thing was certain: he was never far away.

***

“Whatcha doing here, ‘Picker? Come to trade?”

“Why else would I be here?” I tried not to stare as Breaker pissed into one of the trenches the locals had dug around Blackgrave proper.  “It aint’ for the scenery or the company.”
“You’d probably have better luck in Trade Town,” the guard offered. I knew he was trying to be helpful, but him telling me how to do my job was just aggravating. It wasn’t like I went around telling him how to stand and carry his gun. If it was, I’d have told him he’d better clean it and quick otherwise it was likely to jam on him should he need to use it. Shameful the way some people treat their things.
“Maybe. Look, is it going to be much longer?”

“Nah. Just got to get the okay from Pincher. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, yeah.”
Pincher was one of those that held themselves up to be a leader type, looking after the wellbeing of their little communities. Truth was they were a bigger bastard than the others. Pincher was a decent sort, as they went, which meant I’d barely stop to scrape them off the bottom of my boot, given half a chance.
Breaker was shaking his dick dry when Pincher came up to the gate. Her mask was fitted nicely, the lenses of her goggles polished bright. She was wearing what might have been nice clothes once, but out here in the Burned Lands nice didn’t last. Hopper came with her, one of the other guards. Breaker smiled at Hopper and winked. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

“Bonepicker.” The mask muffled Pincher’s voice, but not enough for me not to hear the distaste in her voice. “Been a while. What was the last thing I remember saying to you?”
I scuffed my feet in the dirt.

“Not to get caught trading around your place without permission,” I offered.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought. So what are you doing here?”

“Come to ask permission, ma’am.”

“Huh. Just you?”

“Well, there’s-” I caught Breaker shaking his head, frowning at me, his brow furrowed. “Uh, yeah, just me.”

“You see anything while you were out there?”

“Caught sight of raiders, might have been Butcher Bird’s crew. Didn’t think it would be smart to get close enough to be sure, you know?”
Pincher stared for a while. I hated those masks, hated the fact I couldn’t get a read on what folk were thinking while they were wearing them.

“You know who they hit?”
I shook my head.

“Ironbar, probably, seeing as how it wasn’t here. Could have been someone else though.”
Pincher sighed. Hopper cursed.

“Fine. You can come in. You’ve got two days to trade, and then I want you gone. You want food, water, or gas, you need to pay in advance. We’re no charity. Understand?”
I tried out a smile. It felt weird. “Got it. Two days, and if I want anything I need to trade for it. Err, where can I sleep?”

“You’ve got a tent, right?” She turned around, headed back where she came. Hopper stood there staring at me.

“Uh, yeah… yeah, I’ve got a tent.”
She didn’t bother replying.
It was getting late by the time I squared my camp away. Honestly, my tent was probably a better shelter than what most of the poor bastards had to work with. Corrugated metal rusting away to nothing, holey tarpaulins, and crude brick shelters dominated. Pincher had the nice house, and her trusted circle would be in there with her. Made no difference to me. In the morning, I’d see what I could trade.
I woke up to Breaker shaking me awake. Cracking an eye open, I studied him.

“What’s up?” I mumbled, my tongue thick. I took a few, warm swallows of water, rubbed the grit out my eyes.

“Trouble. Maybe.” He raised his nose, sniffed the air like he smells something off. “I don’t like Pincher.”

“We need the trade though. Wasn’t going to make it all the way back to Trade Town as it was.”
He shook his head as I gathered my gear together, wondering who to hit up first.  “What would you do if I wasn’t there to watch your back?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to answer, but he was already gone. Pissed me off when he did that.
Once outside the tent, I saw Fryback waddling over to me, beady eyes squinting against the morning light.

“Hey, there ‘Picker.”

“Heya Fryback. Still hanging around here, huh?”
She smiled, a broken tooth grin warming my heart.  “Yeah, you know how it is. ‘Sides, I like it here. What would I be anywhere else?”

“Still, the best damn cook in the wastes.”
Her smile grew even wider at that.

“You sweet talker you. Think you can spare a moment? The purifier I’ve got is on the fritz again.”

“Sure, sure, let me grab a few things.”
Together, we walked over to where she had her kitchen. It was open air, for the most part. A bit of metal overhang was rigged up to keep the worst of the weather off her customers, but her cooking area was open and exposed. Her purifier was set up in a locked shed off the main structure. Pincher let Fryback hook it up to the wind turbine, something she didn’t do for most people.. It was set up to a rain collector, and when it did rain, the water flowed in, went through the purifier and came out as something you could actually drink. I opened it up and nearly gagged on the stench coming from inside.

“Fryback, how long has it been like this?” I pulled my scarf up over my mouth, took small shallow breaths.
“Uhm, well, people have been complaining about a funny taste for a while now.”

“Uh-huh. Anybody get sick recently?” I set my satchel down, pulled out a few tools.

“Now that you mention it, yeah. Why?”

“You didn’t notice the smell?” Grabbing my screwdriver, I started taking the metal casing off housing the purifier.  Sure enough, once I got it off, I found the culprit—a rotting, festering carcass of something. It was hard to tell how long it had been in there. It probably had climbed up on top, tried to get some of the water, and fallen in. The fact no one had bothered to check it pissed me off.

“So if that’s the problem, why isn’t Fryback sick?” Breaker whispered in my ear. I turned to answer him, but he was gone. I went back to pulling bits and pieces of whatever it was out. Rat, maybe, but it looked too big for that.

“You don’t drink the water?” I called out behind my shoulder.

“Huh? Not usually,” she replied. I heard her slapping meat down on her grill, and my mouth watered in anticipation, despite the noxious task I was elbow deep in. “I’ve got some homebrew I usually drink.”
That made sense then. Most folk’s didn’t have a purifier to keep their water clean, but high proof alcohol did the trick almost as well. If they were using water from the purifier, it would give it a funky taste, but the alcohol would prevent you from getting too sick.

“Here, let me get one of those jars,” I said.

What for? You know I gotta charge you for it.”

“It aint’ for me, Fryback. I need to clean out the purifier.”

“Thought you did that.”
Sighing, I pulled the scarf down from off my mouth.

“Just the big pieces. I want to make sure to clean it, make sure any little bits are gone.”

“Tell her about the germs,” Breaker said from back in the shed.

“Why? Not like anyone believes me.”

“What was that? You talking to someone in there?”

“Ah… no, just me,” I said, forcing a  laugh. People got nervous when I told them about Breaker, so I stopped doing that a while ago.
I finished up, got the casing back on. I climbed up on top of the shed, scratched my chin as I stared at the collector. “Yeah, that’ll do it.”
Heading back to my scooter, I found a spool of fencing among the scrap I’d    been collecting. The holes were small enough to keep most critters out. A bit of work, and I had a nice screen set up  to let the water in and keep the critters out.  I tried to remember why I hadn’t done that last time I looked at the purifier.
“Because you only just found it, stupid.” Breaker was lounging on top  the shed. He’d found something to smoke along the way and was blowing lazy rings of smoke into the azure sky.
“Right.”

“What’s that?” Fryback asked.

“Huh, uhm… nothing.” I turned back to Breaker, but he was gone again. Asshole.

“So what do I owe you?” Fryback asked.
I thought about asking for water, and then remembered I’d just fixed the purifier.

“How about some of that moonshine and a bit of food?” I asked.
I squared away my payment, and was busy chewing some of it when Hopper came up to me.

“Pincher wants to see you,” he said.
I frowned, feeling a ball of worry settle in  my guts like a hornet hive.

“What’s she want? I’ve got two more days.”
He smiled at me, shook his head.

“She didn’t tell me, and it ain’t my place to ask. Now, are you coming?”

“Ain’t like I’ve got much of a choice, it?”

“No. You don’t,” Breaker whispered in my ear as I followed Hopper toward Pincher’s.

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.”