The brutal truth: I procrastinated too much and didn’t get a post together for today.
The glossed-over story: Hooray! You get a special look at the first chapter of my latest release, Soldier (White Mesa Chronicles Book 1)!
(I checked, and the Amazon preview doesn’t go all the way to the end of the chapter, partly because of my little prologue thing.)
A Friend in Need
Tommy eased the motorcycle to a stop, his teeth clattering as they jolted over one last pothole.
He flicked a look over his shoulder, bracing as his “partner” jumped down and swung his rifle up and down the street.
“Clear,” called Ricco Dobson.
Tommy eased forward to be more in the lee of the torched cop car, and engaged the kickstand. Below the smashed roof lights and burned-out interior of the vehicle, the door still bore the peeling words Chicago Police. It had to be five decades since that had meant anything to anyone except history geeks like Tommy.
Creaking to a standing position, he also scanned their surroundings, tugging off his driving gloves. The road looked deserted except for the dog corpse they’d passed a dozen yards back, its mangey skin stretched tight over its skeleton. Three or four crows stared down at the two young men from tree branches or power poles, waiting ’til the coast was clear to return to their meal.
He slipped his helmet off, watching Ricco unclip his own and toss it toward the motorcycle’s back-rack.
Tommy sucked in a breath and grabbed the saddlebag that carried their goods to trade.
“Your watch,” he told Ricco.
Ricco nodded. “I know,” he retorted.
Tommy suppressed a reply. He knew Ricco had made this run before, but they’d never done it together. All he’d meant was to make sure Ricco had the routine down.
He preferred doing this run with Ben McConnell. Ben was perfectly content to avoid needless “adventures” – and he didn’t drive like a maniac hyped up on sweet tea. But Captain Dempster had asked Tommy to keep an eye on Ricco, and the least he could do in the absence of their commanding officer was honor his wishes.
As Tommy moved toward a boarded-up building across the street, the door squeaked open, revealing a middle-aged man in carefully mended legacy clothes.
“Morning, Mr. Pollock,” said Tommy.
“The same,” Mr. Pollock answered. “Real glad you guys came in today.”
“Thanks. How have you been?”
Mr. Pollock shrugged and led the way into his shop. A fat-lamp glowed on the counter, as the two-by-fours over the windows blocked most of the sunlight.
“Haven’t seen Percy Grasshopper for a while,” he remarked. “Heard what happened to him?”
“The Grasshoppers haven’t had an election, have they?” asked Tommy.
“No, more like…he’s been laying low,” Mr. Pollock answered, rounding the counter.
Tommy frowned, sucking his lip. They were toward the border of Grasshopper territory, but it still didn’t make sense for the gang captain to be “lying low”. It could mean he had the wind up about one of the neighboring gangs, which would mean bad news for Tommy and his team. The Grasshoppers were the friendliest gang they’d met in a long time.
“I’ve got more preserves,” Tommy began, pulling jars out of the backpack.
Mr. Pollock smiled. “I found something extra special I thought you’d be interested in. Lucy!”
Mr. Pollock specialized in legacy tools that someone or other had scavenged from the buildings around, then brought to him for identification. Other people came and bought the tools and containers with other things, such as deerskin clothes, distilled vinegar spirits, and the occasional tin can of ancient preserved food.
Tommy and his team, on the other hand, specialized in fresh foods (in season) and recently preserved pickles, beets, jams, and peanut butter when that year’s farm produce wasn’t ripe yet. Mr. Pollock was polite enough not to ask where the fruits and vegetables were grown.
A girl appeared in the inner doorway, her hair glinting in the gloom of the back room. A few years younger than Tommy, he estimated, Lucy was already developed as a woman – but had not yet taken the protection and provision of a “boyfriend,” as the gangs called it. Though it would surely have benefited both her and her father to connect into a gang that way, Tommy couldn’t help being happy she hadn’t moved out.
“Do me a favor – go grab the special box?” asked Mr. Pollock.
His daughter smiled. “Sure. Hi, Tommy.”
She turned and disappeared into the back room.
“Are you doing all right?” asked Tommy, watching the creases in the shopkeeper’s forehead.
Mr. Pollock held a jar of preserved pears up to the lamp, and set it down. “Oh, fine. Just…they’ve been late collecting our protection payment this time.”
“And you haven’t seen the officers around for a while.”
Mr. Pollock nodded.
Tommy nodded back. The Grasshoppers weren’t enforcing this border. Shifting gang territory would make things hard on the Pollocks, too. Most people respected the neutrality of a shopkeeper, since providing goods from different territories was one of the reasons they were valuable, but not everybody took the long-term view.
“You seem to be selling down,” Tommy remarked, glancing around at the boxes of merchandise. “Business been up?”
“Down. I haven’t had any Cowboys for a while.”
Tommy frowned. The Cowboys were pretty far to the south-west, toward the plains. This could mean they just weren’t bothering to come this far, or it could mean gang movement between them and Pollock.
“What about the Bigshots?” he asked.
A whistle sounded from outside. Ricco’s alert. Tommy instinctively checked the positions of his rifle and two sidearms.
The next moment, Ricco burst through the outer door. “Company,” he announced. “Looks like the Bigshots.”
Mr. Pollock cleared his throat and moved toward the inner door.
Tommy gritted his teeth. Ricco was supposed to stay and guard the bike. The team had better chances if they weren’t all clustered in a confined space.
The outer door opened and a tall, muscular man stepped inside. Tommy recognized the Bigshot mark on his forearm, and the scar across his forehead that identified him as their captain, Randal.
Today of all days.
“Hey,” Randal Bigshot grinned, stepping forward as his men shoved through the door behind him. “What’s shaking, Grandpa?”
Mr. Pollock stiffened, and gave the inner door a push, but it didn’t quite close.
“Nice selection you got,” went on Bigshot, dumping a box of clothes on the floor.
His men were rooting through the tools and other things on the other side of the room. One of them grabbed a jar of pickles, smirked at Tommy, and popped the lid open.
Tommy eased around ’til his back was braced against the counter. Not the ideal fighting position, but it was better than nothing. With the corner of his eye, he spotted Ricco by the wall near the door, fingers twitching. Tommy willed him to calm down.
“I’m afraid I never got your payment for your last visit,” Mr. Pollock said.
“Sheesh, did those buggers forget to bring it? My bad,” laughed Randal.
“Here, this is what you meant, right?” called Lucy, appearing in the partially open doorway. When she saw the Bigshots, she froze, shrinking back against the doorpost.
“You’ve been holding out on us, Grandpa,” grunted Randal, with a gap-toothed grin.
Tommy stiffened. There were at least six gangsters in the shop…the chances of him getting off that many shots –
Randal lunged, there was a scuffle, and the next moment Mr. Pollock staggered back against the counter as Randal dragged Lucy away from the inside door and toward the front of the store.
“I like this merchandise best of all,” he crowed.
“I draw the line at that,” gasped Pollock, forcing himself upright. His face was ghostly white in the dim room, and he drew a broom handle from under the counter. “I’ve never made a fuss about the stock you don’t pay for. You know I work fair by everybody. But you let go of my daughter.”
“Scrap it, Grandpa,” said Randal Bigshot. “You start talking big, you might break something…follow?”
He gave Lucy a shake that made her head snap back and forth. She’d been clutching a slim metal box — with a squeak, she let it go and slapped Randal’s face. He grabbed her wrist and started twisting her arm.
“Let her go.”
Randal swung his grin around, and froze.
Tommy tightened his grip on his pistol; he’d taken the split-second to cycle chambers, so he had a zap-pellet ready to fire – not just a BB. He could hit Randal anywhere, and the neurological mixture would penetrate his skin, knocking him out within a second or two and hopefully protecting Lucy.
The magazine, however, was full of BBs. Any shots he took after that would have to be vital organs.
“Let her go,” he repeated.
“Stay out of this,” grunted Randal, grabbing Lucy more tightly. She stomped on his foot, and he snarled something into her ear.
“I’m giving you a chance, here,” Tommy said, low and distinct. “Let go and walk away.”
A flicker of movement caught the tail of his eye. Like a well oiled machine, Tommy’s off-hand swung up, grabbing his second sidearm along the way, and training it on the threat.
“Don’t bother,” he went on. “I could mow you down like dandelions — it’s not worth it.”
Blood pulsed through his ears. He wasn’t ready for a massacre. And that’s what it’d be. He could take out half of them before they knifed him, and Ricco could neutralize the rest – if he didn’t get himself knifed before then. Lucy and Pollock might survive by ducking behind the counter.
Definitely not a scenario he wanted to explore.
“Like you’ve got a bullet,” sneered Randal.
“You want to find out how many I’ve got?” asked Tommy, directing the pistol muzzle right at his eyes. “It only takes one for a man, you know. Just one. And there are only six of you.”
Tommy smiled. “Wanna stay here? For good? The rest of your gang would never know.”
The other Bigshots glanced at each other, shuffling their feet. Tommy kept his breathing even, forcing them to contrast his (apparent) confidence with their anxiety.
Randal eyed his men, and shrugged. “Scrawny girl,” he grunted. “Wouldn’t last long, anyway, huh?”
Tommy clenched his teeth and stayed motionless as Randal shoved Lucy toward the counter and sauntered out the front door. His men tagged after him, one of them still clutching the jar of White Mesa pickles.
Tommy fleetingly wished Mrs. Long’s batches were prone to botulism.
He followed the Bigshots outside, still covering them with his sidearms.
Randal said nothing, but smirked over his shoulder at Tommy as he made his way up the street. Tommy’s pulse hammered in his temples as he forced himself to stay calm. Bigshot was walking away. He was really just walking away.
One of the gangsters walked over to the motorcycle. With a sneer, he reached up and grabbed the radio antenna. He pulled it down until, with a heart-stopping twang, it snapped. Tommy felt the nerves in his finger tingle, but he stayed rigid while a few nearby gangsters laughed. Not worth killing over. Grinning, the gangster dropped the end of metal and turned away, letting it bounce and clank against the pavement.
The last of Bigshot’s gang disappeared up the street. Heaving a sigh, Tommy lowered his weapons and turned toward the shop.
Mr. Pollock stood in the doorway, peering down the street toward where the Bigshots had disappeared. Lucy clung around his neck, while he squared his shoulders protectively between her and the road. Ricco, pistol still out, stared after the gangsters, eyes glinting. Thank goodness he’d had enough sense to keep a lid on his enthusiasm. He had nothing but BBs, so would almost certainly have killed someone had things come to shooting.
“Are they gone?” Lucy asked.
“For the moment,” Tommy muttered.
“Jerks,” said Ricco.
“So…” Mr. Pollock began. “Do you really have a bullet?”
Tommy holstered his spare pistol and flipped the lever to cycle his chamber back again. “I wasn’t just bluffing.”
For a moment, Mr. Pollock stared at him, the wheels of his mind almost visibly turning.
“Honey, go pack,” he said, giving Lucy a squeeze and releasing her. “Quick – we need to leave.”
She nodded and drew a breath. “Jerks. It makes me so mad –”
“It’s all right. Run along, quick.”
The girl brushed a kiss on her father’s cheek and disappeared back into the building.
Tommy drew his hand across his eyes. He’d subconsciously figured this would be the end result, but losing Mr. Pollock would leave a big hole in their intelligence network, right when gang territories were shifting again.
“I’ve been thinking about this for some time,” Mr. Pollock began in a low tone, beckoning Tommy back into the shop. “I’ve heard about a new gang – they call themselves a Republic, or something – that’s securing borders and keeping ferals and mean gangs out.”
“Like a compound?” asked Tommy.
Pollock frowned and stooped to pick up something. “I don’t know much about it, but something like that.”
When he held the object out to Tommy, Tommy saw it was a legacy CD drive, practically untouched. The LED display lights would be worth quite a lot, even if the laser read-write head had been damaged when Lucy dropped it.
“I thought this looked like the kind of special-thing that you like,” Mr. Pollock said, helping Tommy shove it into the backpack. “Just take it. Take anything you want, really.”
He glanced toward the back of the store, where Tommy knew the stairs to the living quarters were. “I know I can’t ask you for anything more, but – apparently it’s a long walk to the Republic.”
Tommy steadied his breathing, guessing where this was heading. “How are you going?”
“I thought I’d try the sewers; I’ve heard they’re clear until you get close to the lake, and then I could just follow the lakeshore.” He swallowed. “But Lucy…”
“We can take her with us,” put in Ricco.
Tommy shot a glance at his subordinate. Had he never even heard of procedure, and precedent, and ranking officers? If they were going to get any further involved, it should be Tommy’s decision, not Ricco’s.
“Can you…Can you keep her safe until I set up shop again?” asked Mr. Pollock. “I don’t have anything that would pay you for that. But you do have bullets.” His voice dropped to a hush in awe. “And I’m sure you could find me again, once I found the new Republic and found out whether it’s really better or not. You know I have trouble trusting gangs. Even the good ones…well, like the Grasshoppers.”
Tommy had to nod in agreement. Mr. Pollock’s “tax” hadn’t bought him much protection.
“We can be in touch,” Pollock went on. “You could leave word with Todd Lewis — they’re in Python turf. Once I got another place set up, I could leave a message for you.”
“Of course we’ll keep her safe,” said Ricco.
“Go guard the bike, so nothing else bad happens to it,” Tommy ordered.
Ricco glanced at him, half rolled his eyes, and stepped out of the shop.
“We could take her to some friends, until you get a new house,” Tommy told Pollock. On one of the satellite farms, Lucy wouldn’t be in violation of White Mesa’s security protocols. Besides, no matter what the non-interventionists on the security council thought, they couldn’t just leave Lucy to the caprices of fate.
“Do you have directions to where you’re going?” he continued. He was sure he’d heard about a “Republic” before – probably snatches of a security briefing he wasn’t supposed to be at.
“Here’s a googlemap,” Mr. Pollock continued, easing a yellowed piece of paper onto the counter. “From what I’ve heard, the Republic is right on the big water. I’ll follow this road as straight as I can, then follow the lake-side.”
The two looked up to find Lucy standing in the doorway, her arms full of backpacks.
“We’ll need some food,” she began. “Have we paid you for your jars, Tommy?”
“As soon as I copy that map, we’re even,” Tommy answered, pulling out notebook and pencil to capture the details of the information. His dad had been pushing to increase the bounds of the intelligence network: possibly sending teams out to collect gang information and map updates more than physical scrap. Mr. Pollock’s move would actually fit right into that program, and returning his daughter to him would be the ideal means of reestablishing contact.
“This one has your heavy coat in it,” Lucy was saying, handing one of the bags to her father. “Are we bringing –”
“I’m sorry, darling, but…Listen, I want to go downtown, but I’m not sure how safe it’s going to be, so I want you to go with Tommy and Ricco.”
Lucy’s eyes widened, and she swallowed.
“They’ll take good care of you, and just as soon as I have a good, new shop, they’ll bring you to me. Understand? You’ll be very safe.”
“And I will see you again?” she said, leaning against Mr. Pollock as he wrapped his arms around her. “Soon?”
“As soon as possible. Where did you put your mother’s locket?”
“It’s – It’s in my pocket.”
Tommy slipped outside.
Ricco had been busy at the damaged motorcycle. He’d retrieved the antenna and stowed it on the back-rack somehow, but it sure wouldn’t be sending any signals. Which meant they were incommunicado until they reached line-of-sight of the rendezvous point.
Tommy rubbed his eyes and heaved a sigh. At least Lucy would be safe. He’d feel better, himself, knowing she wasn’t hiking across the wilds of the city unprotected – well, virtually unprotected. It was more adventure than they’d expected on this mission, but Intelligence Chief Henderson would love having new data to play with.
“There’s plenty of room on the bike,” Ricco was saying. “And at this rate, we’ll be back ahead of schedule.”
That was true. The team had still been loading scrap when Ricco and Tommy had left on this side mission, and with this short a turn-around they’d get back while the others were still finishing up. Then they could start for home, taking a short detour to drop Lucy with one of the ally families outside the fence of White Mesa proper.
Captain Dempster had said the boys didn’t need him to carry out a mission — they’d show him he was right. They’d show all the officers that the “younger generation” could handle themselves without supervision.
The Pollocks stepped out of the shop. Lucy had put on a leather jacket and changed her moccasins for some legacy boots. She also held a small wooden crate.
“You sure you don’t want to check out my other wares?” asked Mr. Pollock. “I can’t thank you enough. You’re welcome to anything. Anytime. I’ll just take a crate of the smaller things.”
Wire cutters, matches, and other high-price items, probably.
“We’ll be fine,” Tommy answered. “This is probably as much as the bike can handle, anyway. What’s that box?”
“My best egg-layers,” Lucy answered, holding it up to show the feathers peeking out. The box squawked in protest.
“How’re we going to get that on?” asked Ricco.
Tommy shrugged and took the crate from her. “Get some straps.”
“Promise me you won’t do anything silly,” Lucy said, pivoting toward her dad. “You’ll take care of yourself.”
Mr. Pollock smiled and stroked her head. “Promise. As long as you’re safe…”
Ricco gave the strap a final tug and shook the crate. It looked awkward, but it seemed stable enough anchored to the bike’s back-rack.
Tommy nodded to Ricco, walked the motorcycle around for an easier return and flicked it to life. The chickens screamed and pounded the sides of their crate. Lucy twitched as the engine roared, but she stepped toward the machine with a set face.
“Here, put your helmet on, first,” Tommy suggested, handing her the spare from one of the saddlebags. “The roads are rough.”
She clipped it on, mimicking Tommy as he fastened his own, and clambered up behind him, Tommy bracing his feet against the ground to steady the bike.
“Don’t be a stranger, huh?” Tommy called to Mr. Pollock.
“I’m counting on it; I’ll leave you a message,” Mr. Pollock answered.
“The Lewises in Python turf; we’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you again.”
Tommy watched Ricco swing onto the rack on the back. The sergeant grinned and waved at Mr. Pollock, one hand gripping the rack.
“Love you, sweetie,” called Mr. Pollock as Tommy pushed off and headed back the way they’d come.
“Dad, remember to take Megda the rest of my chickens,” called Lucy, twisting around to wave with the hand that wasn’t gripping Tommy’s jacket. “See you soon!”
Tommy set his teeth as they went over a little bump, and shot a glance at Ricco to make sure he was overseeing the passing scenery. Just because they could move faster than anyone (even the horse-riding gangs in the western plains) didn’t mean they wanted to charge into trouble without warning.
Time to go see how the team – Corporal Davis, Ben McConnell, and the Parker brothers – was faring back at the rendezvous point. It was a day for firsts: the first time a team ran a scavenge mission without the senior officers, and the first time Davis had been in charge of a sub-group of the team. Tommy hoped he was keeping a close eye on Matt Parker – the youngest team-member still had some immature impulsiveness to be disciplined out.
Of course, so did Sgt. Ricco.