Content with his third pass over the ledger, Kevin closed the black and white marbled cover, securing it with a rubber band. He leaned both hands on the dusty counter covered in beat-up linoleum and shot a glance to the right, down a short concourse lined with long-dead shops. Outside, four islands’ worth of ancient gas pumps stood covered with weeds and windblown detritus. Whoever had owned the rest stop prior to the war had bothered to convert only four filling stations to electric. That left twenty gasoline pumps rotting in place, with who-knows-what kind of mess lurking in subterranean tanks. Pre-war fuel might’ve been viable for six to eight months… Every time he felt a spark of motivation to clean it up, the idea of what fifty-year-old gasoline sludge would be like changed his mind. Not that many functioning cars remained on the roads these days. Having the ability to charge every operational vehicle left in the world all at once―throwing even more money at Amarillo―could wait. The six-port board in front of the building would do for now.
Of course, if he did revamp the old gas pumps to charging stations, he’d have the highest-capacity roadhouse within two hundred miles, though he’d have to buy more plugs, cables, patch panels, and probably more batteries as well. Far too much money to spend on maybe having more than six people needing to charge their rides up at once. He sighed and shifted his gaze to the room before him.
On the left, a space formerly used as a seating area for fast food counters held freestanding tables as well as the original booths along the window. Around the seating area, spaces which once housed a tiny donut station, McDonalds, KFC, map shop, bookstore, and a store that sold random crap like keychains and tee shirts, had been modified into large ‘premium rooms’ for guests to spend the night.
Right of the counter, a handful of tables continued into the walkway that used to run past a huge coffee shop. With the help of Tris and Paul, he’d converted the café that took up half the building and separated it into individual chambers. Where once motorists lined up for overpriced java, an opening led to a C-shaped passage with twelve tiny rooms for the economy-minded traveler.
The narrow hallway left of his counter led to restrooms; the men’s, they’d converted to the store where he sold weapons, clothes, and other supplies people offloaded here, as well as anything the Code let him take from the corpses of any poor bastard killed on the premises. Fortunately, that had only happened once in the six months since he’d opened the doors.
A grin formed as he traced his fingers down the notebook cover. The Code didn’t bother to set any guidelines for how much he could take out of drivers’ pay, but he’d been doing it long enough to know that anyone who went over ten percent wound up with an empty room and a ledger full of untaken work. Wayne rode the limit―ten on the nose―though Hagerman sat isolated enough from other roadhouses that no one did much more than gripe about it. People in that area with cargo to move didn’t enjoy a lot of choice. If they had the ability to reach another ’house, they could transport the shit themselves. This section of Interstate 80, about twenty minutes west of the ruins of Rawlins, Wyoming, didn’t have quite the same cushion of nothingness around it, so Kevin opted for six percent.
Granted, he got about five times the traffic as Wayne’s place, so it worked out.
Kevin stretched, folded his arms, and surveyed the dining area, quiet in a lull of moist chewing and the scratching of forks on metal plates. Four regulars and seven passersby joined in the mutual headspace where nothing else existed but for the food in front of them.
Kaz, a hulking tanned guy in road-worn leathers, reminded him of the irritable scimitar-wielding giant from an old movie he’d watched as a kid. Fortunately, the man’s temperament was far more amenable to civilization than some insane warlord’s henchman. He kept to himself at the corner table, near the door to one of the premium rooms.
Past a family of five―man, woman, and three kids six-ish or younger, Athena occupied a table next to another newcomer. The girl liked white. Liked white in the way some men liked steak and blowjobs. White pants, white shirt, white car. Heck, she’d even tried to paint her sidearm. The young blonde might’ve been eighteen if she were lucky, and reminded Kevin of himself at that age. At least she’s keeping her eye on the room.
Despite her focus on eating, the scrape of her voice picked at the inside of Kevin’s skull. From the look on the face of the dark-skinned behemoth at the table with her, someone he hadn’t seen before, that man had about reached the point of being done with her too. Of course, few men would object to a pretty blonde helping herself to share a table with them, but after fifteen minutes of that one’s nonstop mouth…
A scattering of dust-covered men lined the booths along the front windows. Brief conversation while dropping off their food suggested they traveled west, looking for a larger settlement to join. Only two were armed.
Laughter, deep and raspy, burst forth from the table nearest the counter. Fitch, perhaps one of the most regular of regulars, thumped himself in the chest to dislodge whatever bit of food his sudden mirth got stuck in his throat. A sheen of sweat beaded across his dark brown forehead. His partner, Neeley, a skinny, wiry blond about Athena’s age, leaned over the table with a yellow grin. The man looked he’d been on the wrong end of lung cancer for a few years, but maybe he merely lost the genetic lottery. Most of the joke they shared eluded Kevin, though it had something to do with the younger man being hot in a dingy tank top and fatigue pants while Fitch kept his heavy black leather coat on.
Kevin smiled. Armor. He knows how it is.
Kaz stood with a grunt and carried his empty plate up to the counter. “Damn sight better ’n last time. That little woman of yours finally teach ya how ta cook?”
“Heh. I wouldn’t let her hear you say that.” Kevin winked. “Besides, she can’t cook either. Been a couple weeks for you, right? Got a new employee.”
“No shit.” Kaz leaned an elbow on the counter. “She cute?”
Kevin laughed. “I’m not sure my cook’s interested in sex for coins, but I can ask.” He glanced over his shoulder at the hole in the tile-covered wall connecting the kitchen to the main room. “Hey Sang?”
A grey-haired man with pronounced wrinkles and a mild stoop leaned out of a cloud of steam. “Yeah?”
Kaz coughed and stood upright.
“He says your food’s good. Wants another portion of chips.” Kevin grinned at the dirty look he got from Kaz, but he wasn’t missing a chance for a ‘hard sell’ on an extra order of fries.
“You got an old man cookin’?’” asked Kaz in a voice a notch above a whisper.
“Sure why not. He’s good at it.” Kevin shrugged.
“Man, you need to get a workin’ girl or two in here.” Kaz glanced around. “Used ta be this place in Glimmer―”
“Yeah.” Kevin smirked. “I heard about that. Word I got is Petersen didn’t much care for slavery.”
Kaz cringed. “Aw, shit. Serious? Thought they was just into kink.”
Kevin propped himself up on the counter, arms wide. “Nah. Those women from Cloud9 didn’t wanna be there. Them chains weren’t dec’rative.”
“Shit.” Kaz shook his head at the floor, exhaling hard. “The world can be a fucked up place. Any idea how that went down?”
“A bit.” Kevin chuckled. “Bad things happen when stupid people run their mouths to the wrong little woman. So… Lookin’ for work?”
“You know it.” Kaz grinned. “Pocket gettin’ thin.”
“Well.” Kevin flipped open his notebook and leafed to a page of current parcels. “Since you’re lookin’ to scratch that itch… Glimmertown’s still got plenty of prostitutes; like fleas on a dog. I got a box of rec drugs headed out that way. Your cut’s 100 coins. Job’s prepaid, so you’ll need to come back here to cash out. Course, lose it and you’re on the hook for 1250.”
“What kinda shit?” Kaz huddled closer, lowering his voice again. “Tell me there ain’t no salt in that box.”
“Nope. Some Psilo, Lucy, and a whole bunch of weed.”
“Awright.” Kaz stood straight as the old Korean reappeared in the window and set down a hubcap full of round-sliced French fries dusted in orange and black powder. “I’ll do it.”
Kevin smiled at Sang and moved the hubcap plate to the counter in front of Kaz. “Two.”
Kaz begrudgingly handed over a pair of dimes and picked up the plate. “Your ass is lucky them shits is good. I’ll take the run. Haven’t been to Glimmer in a while. Any rush on it?”
“Only rush is wanting to get valuable cargo out of your car as fast as possible.” Kevin laughed.
“Right.” Kaz raised the plate as if in toast before returning to his table. “Gimme ten minutes.”
Fitch sidled up to the counter a little to Kevin’s right as soon as Kaz cleared. He had a bit more salt in his salt-and-pepper afro than last time, though smile wrinkles around his eyes inferred a good mood. “Kev.”
“Fitch.” Kevin raised his hand and they clasped forearms. “How’d it go up in Spearfish?”
Neeley propped himself against the counter at Kevin’s left. His Adam’s apple and nose got into a fight to see which one protruded more. “Ran into some Night Riders near the spur offa Route 16.”
Kevin cringed, thinking of giant black SUVs laughing off his bullets. “Shit.”
“Wasn’t as bad as it sounds,” said Fitch. “No up-armored trucks this time… bunch of land-boat cars. Nothing the .50 couldn’t handle. They weren’t ’spectin’ no pickup truck to move like my Banshee.”
“Six active wheels.” Kevin bit his lip. “Not sure I’d gamble on that much power consumption. Might strand yourself out there. I’m curious how you did that.”
“Hah.” Fitch flashed a blinding white smile. Grey-black beard stubble shimmered on his cheeks. Teeth that clean on a man half way to forty seemed somehow wrong. “Ain’t nobody but me gettin’ within ten feet of the Banshee’s innards.”
“Well, or Neeley.” Fitch laughed. “I will tell you the rear two ain’t ’lectric. Got a separate drive train with an ethanol-eater for when we need to haul ass.”
Kevin worked out some rough design schematics in his head. “The dead weight worth it when you’re not using it?”
Neeley and Fitch exchanged a glance.
“Considerin’ we here now?” Fitch clucked his tongue. “I’d say yes. Them Riders don’t take slaves.”
“Well, if you ditch and run, they supposedly don’t bother with you, less you shot at them.” Kevin shrugged.
“A chance I am not wont to take.” Fitch raised a finger. “Besides. Ain’t nobody layin’ their grubby mitts on the Banshee long as I’m ’live.”
“Got anything good?” asked Neeley.
Kevin perused his list of pending runs. “Got one almost made for you guys. Shipment headed to a settlement in Deer Lodge, up on I-90… used ta be Idaho? Two-thousand rounds of 9mm.”
Fitch let out a long whistle.
“Jesus crapping Christ,” said Neeley.
“It’s involved, but the pay’s good.” Kevin pointed at the page. “Need to head to Ween’s place and pick it up. People at Deer Lodge’ll give you four grand in coins. Three K of that goes back to Ween. Sixty to the ’house, and 940 is your cut.”
“And if something takes a shit, we’re into you for the lot.” Fitch rubbed a hand over his face, accompanied by the hiss of beard stubble scraping callous.
“Been sitting on this one for you guys.” Kevin smiled. “Banshee’s got the best odds of pullin’ it off. It’s an open run, but I won’t call it in to the network so no one’s aware of it. Course, that also means you gotta get to Ween’s fast before someone else does.”
Kevin raised his hands as if in surrender. “Hey, I could call it in, but then word’ll get out two thousand bullets got wheels. If you want that heat, say the word.”
“Naw.” Fitch gestured at a row of bottles behind Kevin. “Gimme a finger of somethin’ smooth and we’ll head on out. Ween still in the same place?”
Kevin whirled about, grabbed a bottle of random brown liquor, and poured a little in a tumbler glass. “Four.”
Fitch dropped three pennies and a quarter, and shot the drink back in one gulp. Judging from the wince and eye-twitch, it didn’t hit him as smooth as he’d hoped. Kevin held up the bottle, but Fitch waved him off. “Naw. God damn man, what is that shit?”
Kevin shrugged. “No idea. No label.” He sniffed it. “Could be Scotch. Could be sour mash.”
“Could be engine de-greaser.” Fitch coughed. “Awright. We’re on.”
Athena draped herself over the counter as the two men headed for the door out. “Hey there, Kev-O.” She winked. “Got anything worth my time?”
He leaned on his knuckles and shifted his weight to one leg. “Could use someone ta run a bit west, head down 789 to the Carver place. Almost out of sausage… and whatever other meat they’ve got what looks decent.”
“Food?” Athena rolled her sapphire eyes. “Seriously? You’re sending me for food? I’m not a kid.”
He let his gaze roam up and down her body. She had an inch or two of height on Tris, and a curvier, more athletic shape, not to mention bigger breasts… but something about her face made her look ‘too young.’ Perhaps her wide-eyed eagerness. Perhaps that sense of ‘immortality’ that plagues the brain of someone not yet into their twenties. White, long-sleeved shirt, mostly open over a bra, white-grey camo fatigue pants, and sneakers… no armor. “I know a guy who can hook you up with some protection.” He gestured at her chest. “Not a lot ’tween you and bullets.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad.” Athena sighed. “Armor’s only gonna slow me down. I like being able to move. Besides, I’m too fast for any of those old men.”
Kevin chuckled, eyeing the little white Honda outside up on fat mudder tires and a fourteen-inch body lift. “That thing is gonna roll over like Wayne’s mother the minute you take a turn goin’ faster than fifteen. You’ll turtle it belly up and get ripped to pieces.” Most marauders wouldn’t kill her. Hmm. With Glimmertown out of the slave trade, wonder where they’d sell her?
“Stop looking at me like I’m twelve.” Athena folded her arms. “You don’t have to protect me. I’m a fuckin’ driver, Kev-O. I can handle myself. You got somethin’ better than god damned grocery shopping?”
“I can put you in to run 400 phials of Void Salt to Glimmertown.”
The room went dead silent in an instant.
“Now you’re talkin’.” Athena slapped the counter.
“Now I’m being a smartass.” Kevin laughed, then leaned up on tiptoe to raise his voice to the room. “Ain’t no Salt anywhere within fifty miles of this place. Repeat: that was a joke.”
A din returned over the course of a minute, though two of the ‘travelers’ shot him long, worried stares.
Athena crossed her arms. “What’s your problem with me anyway? You think women are weak or something?”
Kevin glanced up at a soft thump in the ceiling. “Maybe I did when I was your age, but my eyes have been opened.” He sighed at her and lowered his voice. “It ain’t you bein’ a girl. You come off like some hotheaded kid that’s gonna get herself hurt. I ain’t gonna send you into no shitstorm ’til you’re at least not goin’ to be stupid about it.” He pulled his shirt aside to show off a few bullet scars. “Took me a few years and a few close calls not to be ‘too good’ to need armor.”
“Yeah, yeah… You’re just an old man now.” Athena’s tone came off halfway between serious and playful. “I’ll think about your food run. What’s the payout?”
She threw a wave at him. “That’s not even worth moving my car.”
“Call it a test to see if you can finish something.” Damn, now I sound like Wayne too. “Promise you a little more exciting of a run if you can handle a few cucumbers.”
“Oi, can I watch?” yelled Neeley.
Kevin pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know what I mean. Vegetables. And get some damn armor.”
Athena tapped her foot, pursed her lips, and cocked her jaw to the side. “So you’ll give me a run worth my time if I fetch your groceries?”
“I’ll toss you a job with a little more risk, yeah. What sort of gear you got on that little wind up car?”
She scowled. “One M2 Browning where the passenger seat should be, fixed forward. Usually, I make the pirates shoot each other by driving circles around them. Don’t need to be drowning in weapons when you know how to drive.”
“Is that so?” He smirked before leaning up on his toes to appraise the little Honda again. “Well, I suppose you’re high enough off the ground that mounted guns’ll go under the cabin. ’Course that thing’s a rollover waiting to happen.”
“You said that already. I’ve got a roll cage.”
He chuckled. Damn she sounds like I did ten years ago. Kevin grabbed a handful of coins from the lockbox under the counter and dropped fifty in a cloth pouch. “Mr. Carver’s got my order ready. Pick up whatever other meat he’s got with the change.”
Athena took the pouch with a frown. “You know this is beneath me.”
“Perhaps. But you’re here. I need this done, and your car is fast.”
She took two steps backward, pointing at him with the hand holding the pouch. “Okay, fine… but you’re gonna give me a real job when I get back.”
He nodded. “Yep.” Dammit Tris. You’re rubbing off on me.
Worry settled in the pit of Tris’ gut; whenever she lifted her head out of the electronics cabinet and looked to the west, she half-expected to see a flotilla of Enclave hovercraft leading a giant plume of dust. She sat back on her boot heels and dabbed sweat away from her eyes with her forearm. Kneeling among the solar panels on the roof, she wondered how much longer it would be before Nathan found a way to ignore the Council of Four. She glanced at a wet spot on the sleeve of her sky blue jumpsuit, and past it to her dirt-smeared hands.
A faint sizzle of electricity emanated from the components. The occasional whiff of ozone floated by in the dry air. Dense clusters of sagebrush littered the brown to the east of the roadhouse, but to the left, flat nothingness. She gathered her hair out of her eyes and turned south, gazing at the distant hint of mountains. Perhaps desolation could shield her from the Enclave… or at least Nathan’s petulant wrath. It’s not as if she had anything of value. Anyone Nathan had told his plan to probably shared a great laugh about her having The Cure in her headware. Not the actual cure to the virus responsible for the Infected, but music he’d put in as a cruel joke―and awful pun. She growled. Shooting Neon in the head to free those enslaved women had been a spur of the moment thing she felt neither guilt nor joy over. She daydreamed about killing Nathan slow, then bit her lower lip. Even an asshole like him… she was not that person.
Tris clapped dust from her hands and reached into the space beneath solar panel 5C: fifth unit in from the right side along the third row back from the front. Ten thousand of Kevin’s hard-earned coins had won him forty solar panels and the right to call this place a Roadhouse. Also, it prevented the military force in Amarillo from putting a bounty on his head for ‘copyright infringement.’
A third of the array had gone down between last night and this morning. They woke up to find a swath of the status panel in the office lit up red. The panels were wired in series, so a broken connection in 5C killed everything forward and right of it, knocking out an entire corner of the grid. Kevin commented about ‘Christmas Lights,’ but whatever that meant escaped her. Corrosion crumbled away from the contact point under her fingertips. Everything inside the relay box looked forty years old and covered in enough silt to prove it. If the panels hadn’t still had their factory plastic film when they arrived, she’d have thought them salvage.
Tris double-checked the panel’s switch was off before taking a wire brush from her toolbox and attacking the primary contacts. Her entire body shook with the effort of sawing the brush back and forth. Green-brown crud flaked off and carried away on the wind.
The front door clattered open and banged closed a few seconds later. Two men discussed a run up to Deer Lodge. Minutes later, a heavy car door creaked; she recognized Fitch and Neeley’s voices.
“Aww damn,” she muttered.
She hopped up and ran to the edge of the roof, trying to wave to them before they pulled out. Neeley, behind the wheel, caught sight of her and waved. Fitch nodded as dirt sprayed forward from four of their pickup truck’s six tires. They reversed around in a turn before taking off to the west. Tris watched for a moment, thinking that the ribbon of paving they followed had been meant for eastbound traffic. She found it hard to grasp how, before the war, driving the wrong way could prove fatal.
Had there ever been so many cars that they couldn’t dodge each other?
Tris loped back to the open panel on the south-facing side of solar panel 5C, her already worry-sick gut burdened by a sense of somber loss for the entirety of civilization. This place… this ‘Wyoming’ as Kevin had called it, looked as empty as though no one lived here even before the war. Miles in all directions of brown dotted with green, the occasional rickety structure, signpost, or long-abandoned truck visible in the distance.
She grumbled and resumed scrubbing the contact point. A few minutes later, it shined, and she reattached the wires, which fastened with spring-loaded connectors. Push in, quarter turn clockwise, and they caught on little nubs.
“Just an overdue cleaning,” she said to no one in particular.
Tris flipped the orange plastic cutoff switch to the upright position. A few tiny LEDs winked on inside the cabinet. Dull metallic clonks came from the panels ahead and right of her. The third one in at the second row made a loud buzzing noise and belched black smoke before a loud bang went off inside it.
She sprinted around the row to 3B, fanning at the inky cloud, and turned the panel off. Her throat filled with the flavor of burned silicon and rubber. After opening the cabinet, she waved the smoke away some more. The inky black cloud eventually thinned enough to reveal a molten connector. Fortunately, the wire itself was intact―merely the insulation around it had caught fire. This unit also had so much dirt and corrosion, it appeared to have been in service for decades. Since the wire remained too hot to touch, she took her time collecting her toolbox and repositioned herself in front of the smoking panel array.
Curiosity got the better of her and she pulled apart the inner workings of 2B. It, too, had a buildup of gunk on the wires and a quarter-inch deep layer of dark grey dust inside.
Tris sighed. “Dammit. He hooked these all up and didn’t think this much dirt was strange?”
She puffed away some of the dust and tried to dispel a cloud that tasted much worse than burning insulation. After spitting a few times, she glared at it, searching for any clues to explain why solar panels still sealed in plastic had so much crap. Letters molded in the metal cabinet read: Manf: APR 08 2018 LOT 1852.
“Damn. These things are old.” Anger flared up in her chest and warmed her cheeks. “Bastards scammed him… Amarillo sold him prewar junk.” Rage faded to dread. “Ugh. I gotta check them all so we don’t burn the entire place to the ground.”
She cleaned the contacts in 2B, reseated the wires, and put a fingertip on the switch.
“Please don’t blow up. I promise I’ll clean you all.” Tris flicked the switch, and the faint vibrating thrum of active electronics surrounded her. She let off a sigh of relief a second before her stomach growled. “Okay, guys. I need some lunch. I’ll be back right after I eat. Please don’t die on me.”
I’m talking to solar panels. She wiped sweat from her forehead again. Maybe I’ve been in the sun too long. After tossing the wire brush back in the toolbox, she stood and made her way toward the roof access hatch. A flash of pink caught her eye by the last panel of the rearmost row, 10D. A yellow-yarn-haired rag doll in a pink dress lay bent in half by where the panel array’s leg bolted down. She picked up the twelve-inch tall toy and locked eyes with it.
“What are you doing up here?” She looked to the south. “Dammit, Zoe. I told you not to go on the roof.” Next time we visit Ned, I gotta bring this… and I’ma yell at her for ignoring me. She eyed the edge. Falling from a one-story building probably wouldn’t have killed the girl, but had the girl been hurt, Tris would’ve felt horrible.
She clutched the doll to her chest and approached the rusty metal flap over the ladder down into the building. Another glance off to the west showed no sign of approaching Enclave threats… or anything else beyond the endless open terrain. Could it be that Nathan’s fear of exile or punishment outweighed his obsessive-compulsive need to ‘tie up a loose end?’
Tris fussed with the ragdoll’s hair. Will I ever be able to stop worrying? She half-smiled at the goofy face on the toy. The place had been too damn quiet without Zoe and her brother around. Kevin seemed happy to settle in, and despite her initial doubts, he’d shown zero signs of regret at ‘not being out there’ anymore. As much as she loathed feeling useless in terms of ending the threat of the Virus, Kevin had a point. How much could she accomplish alone? She pictured the imposing black and steel gates of the aboveground portion of the Enclave complex, the mounted weapons, the armored guards… even if she could raise an army out here, one of their troopers could wipe out dozens before going down. While her hardware might be on par with theirs, they had more training, more experience, and better gear. One of her―perhaps two if Zara could be talked into helping―wouldn’t tip the scales.
Tears of frustration gathered at the corner of her eyes. Kevin constantly reminded her that not being able to cure the Virus hadn’t been her fault. It’s not like she’d had the real cure and lost it… she never had it to begin with. She didn’t mess up. Nathan was an asshole.
Tris chuckled. Maybe I should let go. I guess it’s nice enough here. Could I be happy? She squeezed the doll and let her thoughts drift to the echoing memory of a child’s giggle while playing. If we’re going to settle down, might as well commit to the whole settling down thing.
“Maybe…” She traced her fingers over her stomach, thinking about Zoe giggling, trying to forget what it felt like to be strapped down on a medical table for ‘routine tests.’ “If they didn’t take them all.”
A loud, squawking beep from the back room got Kevin running. He ducked into the office across the hall from the kitchen and grinned at a plywood board full of forty green lights. Relief spread over him. Not having to replace a dozen panels felt like finding a bag of 1,500 coins.
“Tris, you are amazing,” he muttered at the ceiling.
He pivoted on his boot heel and wandered into the kitchen. The air still held the essence of greasy meat and fried potatoes. Sang reclined on his bed, a thin foldaway mattress pad scavenged from an old sofa bed, reading. The old man hadn’t had much to his name beyond a suitcase of old books when he arrived. Since he’d been here, Kevin had quietly dropped word with drivers he’d expected to see again to keep an eye out for books. A couple spare coins here and there was a small price to pay to brighten the day of a man who was happy to work for room and board.
“Hey boss.” Sang looked up, smiling. “Someone order?”
“Not yet. I’m sending Athena down to Carver’s to pick up more supplies.”
“Ahh, good. Good.” Sang nodded. “We are running low on sausage and potatoes.”
Kevin glanced at the giant silver fridge they’d salvaged from the former burger place. The solar array on the roof had more to offer than charging vehicles. “Yep. It’s ordered. Since we’ve been doing okay this month, I’m picking up some extra meat.”
“No idea.” Kevin smiled. “Whatever Carver’s got available. We’ll find out when Athena gets back.”
Wham. A heavy thud reverberated in the walls.
“Try it, asshole!” shouted Athena.
A deep male voice roared in response.
Sang nodded to the left. “Better get out there.”
“Shit.” Kevin pushed away from the doorjamb and ran to the front room.
The huge dark-skinned man Athena had been sitting with stood by a flipped-over table, hand poised over a pistol on his belt. He had his back to Kevin, gold sewn-on lettering spelled ‘Rook’ between his shoulders above a crude rendition of a castle tower in silver permanent marker. Athena hovered a few steps away in a chin-forward lean, a nascent grin still on her face. Despite the top of her head barely being even with his pectorals, she showed no sign of fear. One finger teased around the handle of a 1911 on her belt.
“Come on, Rook. You think I’m all talk? Pull that thing out and I’ll show you what a ‘little girl’ can do.”
Rook snarled. His cheeks reddened and his eyes bulged. Perhaps the mental capacity to understand firearms had left him; he seemed about to strangle her.
“What are you waitin’ for, old man?” Athena glided a step to her left, adding a sultry bat of her eyelashes. “Don’t keep a girl waiting all day. I could use the coins from selling your shit.”
“Hey,” yelled Kevin, pointing. “You kill him in here, his shit belongs to the house. You know the Code.”
Athena’s expression soured. “That’s horseshit, you damn thief. He runs his mouth into a gunfight, the shit’s mine.”
“Runs my mouth?” Rook grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled. “Argh. You irritating little bitch. You got a lot of nerve. I oughta―”
“She’s faster than she looks,” said Kevin. “Just walk away.”
“You’re not taking my shit.” Athena glared at Kevin. “That’s bull.”
“One…” Kevin walked to the end of the counter. “It’s the same in every roadhouse from the West Coast to the Mississippi. Someone gets dead in a ’house, all their crap belongs to the ’house. Ain’t about gettin’ crap, it’s about not shooting the shit out of the place.” He waved his arm as if to indicate the room. “This is supposed to be a place of respite. Preserve the sanctity of the Roadhouse Network and all.”
Rook drew his leg back, eyeing a chair, but decided against it. He stormed up to the counter. “Whiskey double, and a room.”
“Luxury room or cot-in-a-closet?” asked Kevin.
“Small room’s fine,” muttered Rook.
“Nine.” Kevin kept half an eye on Athena while pouring some JD in a tumbler. He set it on the counter next to nine coins, a mix of nickels and pennies. After collecting the money, he fished a key out of a steel bin next to the cash box. “Room five.”
“Thanks.” Rook fired off a dire glare at the grinning blonde, and tromped past Kevin toward the small rooms.
Once he’d gone out of sight into the narrow corridor, Athena rolled up on the counter. “So…” she twirled a strand of hair around her finger, smiling. “You should give me that bigger job now. You obviously think I can handle myself.”
Kevin dropped the coins one by one into the box, not looking up at her. “If he’d wanted to throw down, he’d have shot you when you decided to give me the evil stare. You broke eye contact. Half a second is all it would’ve taken… assuming he didn’t miss.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“And at about ten feet… he wouldn’t have missed.” As the last coin fell into the cash box with a clink, he shifted his eyes up to regard her. “You may think you’re hot shit, but you’re just a seventeen-year-old with more balls than brains. You’re basically me at that age―with tits.”
Athena fidgeted and rested one hand on the edge of the counter. “Nice try, but I’m nineteen.” She showed off a strange metal holster that looked like her gun might fall out of it if she jumped. “Got a quickdraw rig. I’d have had him easy.”
“Except for the part where you broke eye contact. You kill anyone yet?”
“Yeah… of course.”
Kevin chuckled. “Outside of a car? I don’t mean lighting someone up with that .50 of yours. You ever look into a person’s eyes after you put a round through their heart, see the realization in their last two seconds of life spread across their face that they’re dead.”
“It’s not gonna work, pops. You’re not gonna scare me into going home and being a ‘good little girl.’” She threw herself onto a barstool and slapped the countertop. “Gimme a beer.”
“Not what I’m trying to do.” He filled a mason jar with some of Wayne’s homebrew. “Two.”
Athena fished out a pair of quarters and set them on the Formica. “So, what are you trying to do then?”
“I’m tryin’ not to have to carry your dumb dead ass out back and bury you.” He set the beer down and scooped the coins into his hand. “All I’m sayin’ is, don’t take stupid chances, and don’t look for fights where you don’t gotta have ’em. You run the road long enough, you’ll get more than you ever wanted.”
Athena rolled her eyes and took a sip. “I dunno how you can do it… just sit here.” She leaned back, closed her eyes, and smiled. “I can’t imagine being stuck in one place doing the same damn thing every day. I’m gonna be driving ’til I’m too old to walk.”
She really is just like I was.
Kevin glanced over his shoulder at a metallic thud from the back hallway. His expectation of seeing Tris soon after the roof hatch closed proved correct. She glided over and leaned against him. After a quick kiss, he looked at Athena again. “If it’s what’ll make you happy, go for it. Just remember, stupid equals dead.” His voice became Wayne’s in the back of his mind. “There’s a fine goddamn line between confidence and foolishness, and fools don’t live long.”
“Sure thing, gramps.” Athena winked. “Hey Tris.”
“Hey.” Tris leaned up and kissed him again on the lips. “There’s a problem.”
Kevin shot a look at a ragdoll in her hand. Oh shit. She wants a kid. “What kind of problem?”
Tris stuck the doll on the shelf behind the counter, under the panel full of room keys. “The electronics on the roof are almost sixty years old. All of it was manufactured before the war.”
“That’s bullshit.” Kevin glared at the ceiling. “They’re brand new… even had the plastic film on the solar plates.”
“They’re stamped.” Tris set her hands on her hips. “I’m not lying.”
“No… not callin’ bullshit on you… That Amarillo gave me salvage.”
Tris wiped her sooty hands off on a rag. “I don’t think any of it was used… probably sat around in a warehouse. I’m going to have to clean everything. It might not be a big deal that the stuff’s so old, but if we don’t deal with it now, it’s going to be a mess.”
Visions of roadhouse-in-flames danced across his mind. “Shit. Yeah.”
“Relax. I’ll get started on it after lunch, but it’ll take me a few days to go over them all.” She locked lips for a third time, wrists crossed behind his neck.
After a few minutes, the snap of a coin touching the counter made him look. Athena smirked at him.
“What’s that?” He gestured at the dime.
“Figured if I’m getting a show I should pay for it.” She winked at Tris, who threw the cleaning rag at her.
“Sang?” called Tris.
“Can you please whip me up some lunch?”
“What you want?”
“Whatever we have the most of.” Tris let out a breath, turning to Kevin. “How’s the stock?”
“Low, but Athena’s about to run to Carver for us.” Kevin grinned.
The teen drained the three-quarter full beer without coming up for air. “Yeah, yeah. I’m goin’.”
Tris collected a tray with a burger on it from Sang via the hole in the wall to the kitchen, then flopped on a folding chair behind the counter, using her lap for a table.
“So other than our solar array being dangerously old, what else was wrong with it?” asked Kevin.
Tris finished chewing her first bite. “Corrosion on the contacts. Broke the circuit. I’m gonna be up there a while.”
“I’ll go with you.” He smiled, but looked away as a man, woman, and three kids all stood at once. After a bit of murmuring amongst themselves, the man walked over.
“Nah. There’s only one wire brush and you gotta watch the shop.” Tris winked and took another bite.
“Afternoon,” said Kevin.
“Howdy.” The man directed a suspicious squint at Tris for a few seconds before making eye contact with Kevin. “How much ya askin’ fer one o’ them big rooms a night?”
The man nodded and fished out an assortment of coins. Soon, the family disappeared through a door into what had, prior to August of 2021, been a cookie and cupcake shop.
“There’s only one bed in there,” said Tris around her hamburger. “Do we have any extra blankets?”
Kevin leaned forward and kissed her atop the head. “You are so beautiful.”
She smirked, waving a round slice of fried potato at him. “Are you trying to be stingy and not come off as an ass?”
“Nope.” He sighed with a hint of a smile. “All that you worry about, and you’re still so sweet to people.”
She suppressed a laugh and tossed the fry into her mouth.
“So… you want a baby huh?”
Tris gasped and started choking.
He patted her back until she coughed up a mangled wad of potato and took a few raspy breaths. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she gave him a startled look. “Where’d that come from?”
“Oh, you had a certain look in your eye when you came in with that doll.”
“Zoe was on the roof.” Tris scowled. “I told that girl not to play up there. What if she falls?”
Kevin leaned back, stretching. “Maybe she’d learn to listen then.”
“Do you miss it?” asked Tris.
“Miss what?” He leaned his butt against the shelf behind the counter.
She waved her half-burger around. “The road… the adrenaline… traveling.”
His lips curled into a contemplative frown. Wayne had joked about that… Soon as you find yourself lookin’ out at everyone else livin’ the life while you’re sittin’ still, you’ll wish you’da had fun with all that money. Kevin smiled. “Not really. Not as much as Wayne was sure I would. Guess I outgrew it.”
She finished her lunch in silence, set the tray aside, and stood. After a long, lingering stare, she kissed him again. “So, what are you thinking about?”
He licked his lip. “I think I’m gonna have a burger.”
She jabbed him in the side, grinning. “Ass.”
He laughed and brushed her hair off her face. “I’m thinking how glad I am those idiots carried you into Wayne’s.”
She jabbed him in the ribs again.
“Ow. What was that for?” He rubbed the spot.
“For leaving me tied up so long.” She stuck her tongue out at him, and laughed. “Okay, I’m gonna go get started on the panel guts.”
“Careful. Don’t fall.” He winked.
She gave him a raspberry and disappeared down the hall past the kitchen. Kevin shifted. He caught sight of the yellow-haired ragdoll and gritted his teeth. Driving other people’s crap from settlement to settlement had its scary moments, but the idea of having a kid of his own… now that was frightening.