The road stretched out to the horizon, so straight it seemed like a crease upon which the world could fold. Vigilance returned as the relief of surviving another ambush faded. He flicked the rear view back to the wide-angle. A faint chirp came from the camera in the plastic bubble on the back window. It seemed silly to have a third tail light in the window; the housing proved much more useful as a camera, not that anyone paid much attention to signals or lights these days. Within an hour, a bullet-riddled sign caught his eye. Artesia settlement, a mile away.
Within a few minutes, he slowed and turned onto a cracked and battered side street past a handful of crumbling RVs, trailers, and a half-dozen huts. He drove through the dead town, following a little-used back road that took him to a desolate outcropping of rocks a quarter-mile farther down with a single armored door. Ten paces away, the matte-black car whirred to a halt amid a rolling cloud of beige. Listening to the barely audible electric hum of the wheel motors, he waited. A narrow slit in the door pulled to the side, revealing eyes. They regarded him for a few seconds and the metal plate slid closed with a clank. The driver took hold of the innocuous silver can and got out. Clanks and squeaks emanated from the armored door, which opened a few seconds after he reached it. Warm air carrying the fragrance of stale humanity and wood washed over him.
“Took ya long ‘nuff,” said the old man in the doorway. Brown-white hair and beard fluttered in the wind for a moment of silence. “That it?”
“Yep.” The driver patted the plastic lid like a drum. “Got the coins?”
Wrinkled hands clasped the metal can, failing to pull it out of the driver’s grip. Yellow eyes widened. “You’ll be understandin’ if I wan’ ta check it first.”
“Fine, old man.” The driver kept his grip on the can until both of them were inside.
Tattered coats, boots, and pipes hung along the length of the narrow entryway. Coils of rope and hose hung on one side opposite spindles of wire and twine. With some reluctance, Kevin surrendered the can to the shaking arms reaching for it and put one hand on his .45. The old man ducked deep into his burrow, scurrying off like a squirrel with the world’s last acorn. After nudging the door closed, the driver followed.
A single naked light bulb hung from a wire above a wooden table in the center of a room bedecked with maps. Pre-war radio equipment sat on a longer table against the wall in back, next to a massive shell―the kind of thing once fired from tanks. The driver stiffened, staring at it, relaxing a touch at the lack of wires connecting it to a button.
“Heee!” The old man squealed and spun in a circle with his prize. A plain steel cylinder with a plastic lid―an old coffee can. He set it on a workbench, opened it, and inhaled the sickly sweet scent of pipe tobacco. “Tis the stuff.”
“I watched Gil load it. Could’a told ya it was real. Don’t much like gettin’ shot at for bullshit.”
The old man more or less ignored him, grabbing one of a dozen pipes from his wall and wiping it out with a grimy finger. He moved to the canister and set about packing the bowl.
“Care ta join me?”
The driver looked down at his boots, letting the air out of his lungs. “Nah, thanks. That shit’ll kill ya.”
Yellow eyes gazed at the driver’s scuffed body armor, a red leather jacket with Kevlar panels sewn in here and there. He glanced at three pistols, two knives, and the face of a man who just got shot at to deliver tobacco across the Wildlands. “Heh. Kill ya. Yeah, I s’pose it would at that.”
He set the pipe down and shuffled around a corner, deeper into his subterranean nest. The driver’s hand tensed around the .45. At the scrape of coins sliding over a metal desk, he loosened the grip, but only a little.
“Thousand?” asked the old man.
The elder emerged from the hallway, carrying a burdened cloth sack, which he tossed to the driver. “Yanno, boy. They used ta use bits o’ paper for curn-cee when I was teeny. Lot easier ta carry than these.”
He caught the sack, moved to the table, and opened the pouch before poking a finger at the contents. “Yeah, but coins don’t rot.”
“Also, usta-be ‘at the different size ones were worth different ‘mounts. Now, coin’s a coin.”
You told me that last month… and the month before that. “Ya don’t say.”
The old man shrugged and went back to his beloved pipe. “Sure’n you don’t wanna ‘ave some?”
Minutes passed as the elder smoked and the younger counted. Satisfied at the amount, the driver cinched the bag closed and tucked it into a satchel. “Yeah. I’m sure. Need ta be gettin’ back.”
“Much obliged.” After a handshake, the elder followed him to the exit and sealed the door behind him
The driver stood in silence, staring at the old hermit’s place, pondering the bizarre kinship that occurred between two people who didn’t trust anyone. That’s gonna be me in thirty years. He flopped in behind the wheel and secured the coins in the glove box. A thumb swipe across six blue rocker-switches on the shroud over the instrument panel brought the car to life.
He laughed. As if I’m gonna live that long.