An hour and change later, the Challenger rolled to a halt in front of Wayne’s Roadhouse in Hagerman, tucking in between a battered pickup truck and a flotilla of e-bikes. The bikes all bore the same mottled crimson sheriff-star logo. The word “New” filled the middle of the star by virtue of it not being crimson. A number of the gang congregated on the porch, lounging about on the disintegrating remains of a few old sofas.
Cautious stares lingered on the driver as he got out and locked the car. He ignored them; they were far more interested in fighting with the “Olds” over borders than bothering freelancers. Inside, the room smelled of food, beer, and fart. A dozen or so people sat scattered at tables and booth seats along the right wall. Wayne’s only waitress, a jittery black-haired android everyone called Bee, waved at him. One artificial breast hung out of her torn shirt, and her tight leather pants didn’t leave many curves to the imagination. Not that anyone really imagined much about a machine anyway. Probably why Wayne didn’t waste a new shirt on her.
A man’d have to be real lonely to get off on a plastic tittie.
She followed the driver to the bar, leaning on it in a pose reminiscent of an Old West prostitute. Her smile might have been reassuring if not for the patches of visible metal on her cheek and the sporadic twitches shaking her body. Every so often, a bad one would come hand-in-hand with a spark and trace of burnt silicon in the air.
“Need anything, hon?”
“Got any burgers?”
“Y-y-yeah.” Bee, in the throes of a violent spasm, grabbed the bar in an effort not to fall. “Little bitta deer, and some other furry critters. Won’t even taste the tire marks.”
She headed off toward the kitchen in her herky-jerky stride, strands of dark hair wobbled back and forth over the “B-19-C” on the back of her neck. Wayne emerged from a camoflague curtain behind the counter a few seconds after the brim of his cowboy hat. He was a head taller than the driver, and a decade or so older. Something like fourteen years ago, he’d been a driver himself. His ice blue eyes narrowed, and he pulled his thick moustache as if trying to figure out what to make of the man slouched over his bar.
“What’s with all the News out front?” asked the driver.
Wrinkles deepened at the corners of Wayne’s eyes as he laughed. He turned and held a mason jar up to a spigot on the wall behind him. “Buncha Olds are holed up south of here a ways, down by Carlsbad.” He set the improvised glass, full of thick, brown beer, in front of the driver.
“Why do they give a dust-hopper’s ass where ‘Mexico’ starts anymore?”
“Damn fine question, Kevin,” said Wayne. “Best I can figure is men need to have somethin’ to fight over or they ain’t happy. Squabblin’ over the borders o’ two countries what don’t no more exist seems like as good an excuse as any.”
“Heh. I’m fixin’ to be happy when I stop fightin’.” Kevin fished the pouch out of his armored jacket and dropped it on the counter.
The clatter of coins attracted every eye in the room, except for Bee’s.
“Finished that hermit delivery. ’Nother hundred today.”
Wayne pulled out a worn ledger and set about counting. He slid a hundred coins to a separate pile, pulled ten out of it, and then another three. The mass of nine hundred coins went back in the pouch.
“Ten percent?” Kevin sat up as Bee put a plate in front of him, a burger and fried sweet potato strips. “Thought you said five.”
A creak came from the counter as Wayne leaned his weight onto an elbow. “Read the fine print, boy. I get five percent commission on posted jobs, minimum ten coins. Gil contracted you to collect a thousand for his ‘bacco. Your share o’ that contract’s a hundred. Roadhouse gets ten percent facilitatin’ fee, an’ you jes’ paid me three for the food. Nine hundred goes to the seller.”
Kevin ate a fry, grumbling the whole time. “Where’s that leave me?”
After adding a ‘deposit’ line to the ledger under Kevin’s name, Wayne pointed at a number: 9918.
Kevin smiled. “One more run.” He gathered the burger.
Bee was right; he couldn’t taste the tires.
Feminine grunting, accompanied by several heavy sets of footsteps and a woman yelling grew louder out front. The scent of meat filled Kevin’s nostrils; nothing else mattered.
“Get off me,” shouted a young woman, before emitting a long, straining groan of exertion.
Thump. Something hit the wall and the porch rattled with the clomping feet of several people.
A few patrons glanced at the entrance.
“Help! Please, someone!” screamed the same girl. “Let me go!”
Men snarled and grumbled. The door opened with a crash, revealing the steel-toed boot that had kicked it. Kevin stared over the bun at the mirror behind the counter. Everyone had turned to look, except Wayne, who didn’t seem to care much about the ruckus beyond frowning at the man who’d punted the door.
Three men dressed in a random assemblage of mismatched garments loped in. Tee shirts, army coats, jeans, camo pants, and road dust covered them. Two carried a squirming, bound woman in a clean black jumpsuit as if she were a bundled carpet. Long, pure white hair waved about as she fought to get free. She had a lithe, delicate build, and seemed young―between seventeen and twenty. Cloud-white hands, tied behind her back, peeked out every few seconds as she futilely tried to grab her abductors. Her outfit looked far too clean to have been outside long.
Kevin returned his attention to the food and took a bite. The room went back to what they were doing as well. Wayne pulled the journal away, flipping it around. “Looks like one of the moles poked her head out.”
“I heard them moles is pale, but damn.” Kevin finished chewing. “What you figure’s goin’ on there?”
Wayne flashed an appraising smirk. “Don’t know. Don’t care so long as they don’t break any o’ my shit.”
“Surprised the News didn’t try to poach the bounty.” Kevin took another bite of the burger. “Got any jobs waitin’?”
“Three on four ain’t the kinda odds the News like ta pick.” Wayne leaned on the bar and offered an expression of sincerity. “You might wanna do more than one run, kid. You spend all your bits on a Roadhouse up north, you won’t have anything left to buy stock. Gonna make for some real lean times if all you got ta sell is chargin’.”
The woman groaned and grunted; scuffing wood added to the din.
“I got a damn trailer full of crap to sell.”
“What about food? People come here more to eat than anything else.” Wayne un-leaned from the counter and snapped the book shut. He started to say something to Kevin, but looked up as the girl’s pleading and cursing ended with the slam of a sliding chair. “Hey, easy on the furniture.”
“Decent burger. Scav the meat yourself?”
“Yep. Picked it out of my grille yesterday.” Wayne winked. “I’ll add this ta yer balance.” He pocketed his part of Kevin’s money and re-bagged the remaining eighty-seven coins. He tossed it up and caught it. “Nah, few young bloods sell what they find on the short runs. Lot of dust-hoppers a little ways west.”
Kevin lifted the burger to his mouth again; the scent of barbecue sauce and six different forms of road kill ground together swirled in his nostrils. He glanced over the bun at the mirror behind the bar. Wayne and his mirrors. The newcomers had taken a table in the back, near a small corridor that led to the bathrooms. He shuddered. The bathrooms of Wayne’s Roadhouse were truly a haven for the desperate. Even Bee refused to clean them, and she had no sense of smell. The android wobbled up to the edge of the newcomers’ table, taking orders while the captive squirmed. One man on either side kept the woman trapped behind the table in a corner seat. Snowy hair hid her face, save for the point of a delicate nose.
“Someone help!” She wailed. “I’m being kidnapped!”
“Don’t forget the solar array.” Wayne clucked his tongue. “Pays for itself in a couple months. Amarillo’s the only place ta even get a decent set.”
“Notice I’m aiming for ten grand?” Kevin sighed. “Most of that is the freakin’ panels.”
“Please… anyone,” cried the woman.
Wayne carried the money into the back past the curtain.
Her captors, and everyone else in the bar, ignored her. Kevin added a fry to his next bite, savoring the taste of meat mixed with potato. Wayne knew his way around the grill all right. Somewhere down in the basement, the old man had a safe―supposedly past a half-dozen autoturrets programmed to incinerate anyone but him. It’d be damn inconvenient if Wayne died. Since banks hadn’t existed for fifty-some-odd years, it beat carrying thousands of coins around.
Kevin dipped his fingers in a bowl of pepper, dusting the fries before eating two more. Bee wobbled past him, trays clattering, and dropped off food at the table. The men attacked their meals with wild abandon.
“How can you all just ignore me?” yelled the bound girl. “Please, someone… they’re going to kill me.” She strained and writhed.
No one moved.
Kevin swabbed some of the meat juice off his plate with a fry, before tossing the soggy thing into his mouth. A few minutes later, Wayne emerged and resumed his place behind the counter. The girl attempted to stand, but the man to her left shoved her down none too gently.
“Hey! I said watch the furniture.” Wayne’s shout echoed over silence for a short while before the din returned.
The woman gave him a dire look; the pointing finger seemed to blame her for being rough with the chair. “Please, someone, help. Many people will die if I fail.” She set about trying to wrench her hands free for a little while before giving up with a fatigued sigh. “Someone…” Her voice fell to a tiny whisper. “Please don’t let them rape me!”
One man in the back yawned. Someone farted. Wayne went over to check the lock on the roll top door protecting his gun & armor booth from casual shoplifters.
“Damn fine burger, Wayne.” Kevin popped the last hunk in his mouth, using the one remaining fry to absorb as much liquid as he could from the plate. “Lemme get another brew?”
“I’ll give a thousand coins to whoever helps me.” The white-haired girl sniffled.
“Bah, you ain’t got that kinda cash,” said a deep male voice to the right.
The room got quiet for about four seconds. Her three captors looked up, ready for a throw-down, but no one moved. Soon, the din resumed and they returned their attention to their meals. Kevin ate the last fry, and wiped two spots of burger juice from his armored jacket before licking his finger. The woman tried to get out of her chair again, and one of the men pushed her back down. Wayne came by with another mason jar filled with homemade beer as Bee collected the empty plate. Kevin glanced into the opaque amber liquid. His gaze flicked up at the mirror’s view of the room behind him. The girl made eye contact with him in the reflection. He lifted an eyebrow at her.
“You put honey in this, Wayne?”
“Found a bit, yeah.” The older man chuckled. “Some guy put it up for transport, but got himself dead. Spoils of war.”
She pouted at the table. “At least let me have some foo―”
Kevin kicked off the counter, rotating on the spinning barstool while drawing his steel-grey 1911. His first shot hit the right-side man in the neck, spattering the wall red. The second caught the left-side man in the lower chest as he started to get out of his chair, turning a lunge into an ungainly face plant. Kevin slid off the cushion as soon as he faced the back corner. His feet hit the ground, and he raised his pistol higher; the third man’s turned back afforded him the time to aim for the head. Bullet number three flung a corpse across the table and seasoned the food with brain bits.
“Damn waste of eats,” said a voice off to Kevin’s left.
“I’d still eat it,” wheezed an old-sounding voice.
“Nasty mother of a dust hopper,” muttered Wayne.
A half dozen others had weapons drawn, aiming randomly. When Kevin let his arm drop, the slow process of relaxing started.
“S’only brain and blood. Ya’veet worse afore,” replied a gurgling female.
The pale white-haired woman drew her knees up, cowering away from the split-open skull in front of her. She looked at the floor to her right and trembled, turning wide, innocent eyes up at Kevin. He approached, holstering his 1911 before crouching to check her captors’ possessions.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doin’ there?” shouted Wayne.
Kevin grumbled. “Come on, man, I’m getting low on .45.”
“Anyone dies in here, their shit is mine. You know the rules. Someday, you’ll be takin’ advantage o’ that part of the Code. Bee, clean that up.”
“Yeah… yeah.” Kevin sighed.
The android grabbed a rag. “Sure thing, boss.”
The woman, cringing from the gore, scooted closer to Kevin. “So, that’s what it takes to get a man to do the decent thing? Money?”
Kevin wandered back to the bar. “I wanted to finish my burger first.”
“Hey.” She squirmed as if to remind him she was bound hand and foot. “Little help?”
“I just gave you a little help.” He lowered himself onto the same stool he’d vacated, and removed the magazine from his pistol. “Crap, Wayne, I only got three left. You got any .45 in stock?”
“Eighteen. Three coins apiece.”
Kevin grumbled. “That’s robbery, and you know it. I got some .40 cal I can’t use. Trade?”
“I’ll have to see the trade, make sure it ain’t too old to work.”
The girl wobbled to her feet and hopped over to the bar.
“It ain’t as old as you are.” Kevin winked and took a sip of the beer. “The rounds have scratchings. Ween’s work. Less than four months ago.”
“That crazy old fucker on the houseboat?” Wayne laughed. “I thought he bit it a year ago.”
“Hey, whatever your name is…” The white-haired woman bounced closer; her hair danced at her beltline. “How ‘bout untying me?”
Kevin glanced sideways at her. “No problem. How ‘bout that thousand coins?”
She bit her lip. Her black jumpsuit rustled as she squirmed. “It’s not actually on me, but I can get it once I get where I’m going.”
Wayne chuckled. “At least she’s original.”
“Now ain’t that convenient.” Kevin slid the magazine back into his .45 with a click.
“I’m not lying. I have something very important that’s gotta get to Harrisburg. There are people there who will pay you for getting me there safe.”
The room went quiet at the name.
Kevin chuckled and took another sip. “Oh, so you want to hire a driver to take you all the way to Harrisburg? I usually charge a thousand coins to drive a third of that distance. The area ‘round Pitts ain’t no joke.”
A few others in the room joined in his amusement. Bee swayed by with a basin full of guns, knives, and other random items, which she carried into the back room.
“Yeah, okay. I want to hire you to take me to Harrisburg.”
Kevin looked her up and down before he searched all eight pockets of her jumpsuit. An odd scent clung to her, somewhere between clean and chemical. She tried to wriggle away, but didn’t get far. “You ain’t got a damn thing to pay me with ‘cept the usual. You’re pretty cute”―he patted her on the cheek―“but you ain’t thousand-coins-a-fuck cute. Can probably sell you for twice that to some Wilders down in old Mex.”
“Bet’cha get two grand for her in Glimmertown,” said a gurgling middle-aged woman in an armored vest made of steel belted radials. She toasted him with a half-full mason jar and took a healthy swig.
“Naw, more like 1800,” mumbled Wayne.
Kevin took a sip of his beer as she shivered. “Lucky for you, I don’t believe in slavery.”
She sagged, sighing with relief. “Look, I know you probably don’t trust me, but there’s a doctor expecting me in Harrisburg. He can give you a thousand coins, I swear. Maybe more.”
“Harrisburg’s a long way from here,” said Wayne. “Most drivers’d charge least five or six grand to go all that way.” He clapped Kevin on the shoulder. “That would take care of that little nest egg you’d be needin’ to set up yer own Roadhouse. Course, Kevin’ ain’t gonna wanna go anywhere near a population center. He’s got a thing ‘bout Infected.”
“Who the hell doesn’t?” yelled a man.
“Heh.” Half of Kevin’s mouth smiled as he sipped his beer. “How do I know you’re not takin’ me into some kind of ambush? I’m too damn close to retiring to take stupid chances.”
Gem-blue eyes widened as she made her most earnest ‘trust me’ face. She added a little whine and bounce. Bee tottered by with a bundle of clothes, setting them on the counter. With a towel from her apron, she dabbed blood from the girl’s cheek. Unable to resist, the woman tolerated it, cringing away from three naked dead men on the floor. Once satisfied she’d gotten all the blood off the girl, Bee walked across the room to the dead, grabbed the first corpse by the leg, and dragged him out the back.
“Nice try. I fell for that look once. Woke up bare-ass in the desert wrapped around a cactus, minus one pickup truck and all my gear.” Kevin drained the beer and slammed the mason jar down. “That ain’t happening again.”
Wayne chuckled. “Did you ever find that bitch?”
“Nope.” Kevin got up and tromped toward the exit.
“Hey, you can’t leave me tied up like this! Come on.” She hopped to face him as he went by.
He didn’t react, heading outside to the Challenger.