“Can I ask a question?” Callie asked Jon.
Already the two were quite bold with their mutual glances. The others in the room were beginning to notice.
“How many Dreadniks are there? I see only five here.”
“There are twelve of us, in all. Most are upstairs, asleep.”
“There are offices upstairs,” Dom explained, “Which we use as private rooms. Everyone gets a room to sleep in. If you don’t want to be alone, you can double up.”
“Why doesn’t anyone sleep down here?” Mike asked.
“Anyone can, who wants to, but this area is always kept lit during the night, for safety.” Bear said, “Every night, two are chosen for night watch duty. They stay down here and keep an eye out for the rest of us.”
“Like tonight, it’s me and Jon.” said Wes, “Tomorrow night it’s Kitty and Corrina. We rotate.”
“Which is why I’ll stay down here, while Bear and Dom show you up.” Jon said, “Sleep well, tonight. Tomorrow you’ll meet the rest of the gang.”
Mike and Callie followed Bear and Dom up the stairs, to the second floor. Rak started to follow behind them, but Jon tapped him on the shoulder and motioned him to step back for a word. He did.
“You know the Holdfast, Rak.” Jon said, “Why do you insist on breaking it?”
“I’m a pounder, Jon. That’s what I do. Don’t I always bring home plenty of baffin for the Wosh? Look.”
Rak untucked his shirt, which caused four fat wallets to fall out from under it. They plopped to the ground around him like dead fish. He picked them up and handed them to Jon.
“I woulda had more, but I ran into Mike and Callie. I almost lost these when the mall officer grabbed me by the collar. It’s lucky my shirt didn’t untuck, and that the officers didn’t search me.”
“You’re an excellent pounder, Rak; but you know that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s about you going out alone.”
“Woodrow’s out alone.”
“Woodrow’s not pounding, I sent him to Rynza’s. Besides, he’s fifteen; you’re not. The Holdfast forbids anyone under fifteen to go out pounding without a partner; much less at night.”
“I work better alone.”
“You almost ended up in Ragginarck.”
“Ah Jon, you know no prison can hold me.”
“I’m not kidding, Rak. No more going out pounding alone, okay?”
“And certainly not at night!”
“The Holdfast isn’t there to make things difficult, Rak. It’s the rules we live by, that keep us safe from the photes of the world. Get it?”
“So, what do you think of Mike and Callie?”
Upon mention of her name, memory of Callie’s green eyes returned to Jon. How they mesmerized him! But…she was too young. At sixteen, he wasn’t exactly an adult, but he had what felt like adult responsibilities. He had his Dreadniks to look after and lead. For now, anyway.
Still, she lingered in his mind…
“Well?” Rak asked, shaking Jon from his thoughts.
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. You done good there, Rak. You done good.”
Up on the second floor with Bear, Dom, and Callie; Mike asked a question: “So, what’s up on the third floor?”
“More office space, but we don’t use it much.” Bear said, “Nobody sleeps there. It's a good place to go if you want to be alone for awhile.”
The second floor had a few lanterns, but just enough so one could see where one was going. Bear led them past offices with glass windows. Through these, they could see figures asleep on blankets or sleeping bags, on the floor. One of them slept on an old mattress, another was lucky enough to have a cot. Most had a whole room to themselves, and slept alone. One office had two sleepers in it. The offices were sparse and unfurnished, but each owner had personalized their room with their belongings.
“Here’s my stop.” said Dom, upon reaching his room, “Good night, and see you tomorrow.”
“Good night.” said Callie.
“Don’t let the rabid rats bite.” Bear added.
“Damn you, woman, don’t say that!” Dom said, as he entered his room and shut the door.
Bear led Mike and Callie further, to two thin metal doors. She opened the doors, reached into the darkness, and brought out a battery-powered lantern. She flicked it on, and walked inside.
It was a storage room. Some of its shelves held canned and boxed foods, as well as plastic bottles of sodas and juices.
“Did you guys steal all this food?” Callie asked.
“Some, yes. Some were paid for with baffin from the Wosh.”
“I’m afraid you lost me there.” Mike said.
“Oh. Sorry.” Bear said, “The Wosh is our group money pot. Our pounders keep us well-funded.”
“Pounders like Rak.”
“Yes. He’s a good one, a very good one; but not the only one.”
“So is there a lot in the Wosh?” Mike asked.
“Yes, but we don’t splurge. We use it to buy food and necessary items. Every Dreadnik earns their keep, one way or another.”
“There isn’t any electricity in this area, so how do you guys cook the food?” Callie asked.
“One of our guys, Spencer, is really good with electronics and such. He built this generator contraption out of crap from the junkyard. We can run a few things off it; though not all at the same time.”
Bear walked to where the shelves held blankets and pillows. She took out two blankets, and handed them to Mike. She then took out two pillows, and handed them to Callie. She gestured that they exit the storage room.
As they did so, they saw Rak pass by on his way to his room.
“Hey, Rak,” Mike said, “I just wanted to thank you for helping me and Callie out.”
“Yeah, thanks for getting us in.” Callie added.
Behind them, Bear turned off the lantern, and closed the double doors.
“Oh, you’re welcome.” Rak said, “Least I could do, right? Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow then, with the rest of the gang. I think they’ll like you. Well, most of them, anyway. Good night.”
He turned and walked to his room.
Bear rejoined Mike and Callie. “Are you guys gonna want a single room, or two separate rooms?”
“I don’t want to be alone in one of those.” Callie said.
“We’ll take a single, then.” Mike said.
“Okay, follow me.”
She led them to an office at the end of the hall.
“It’s all yours.” she said, as she opened the door for them, “Here take this.” she handed Mike the lantern she had taken from the storage room.
Mike and Callie entered their room; Bear closed the door behind them. They could see her silhouette through the window, as she departed.
Mike gave Callie a blanket, and Callie gave him a pillow. They made their beds on opposite sides of the room, and crawled under covers. Mike shut off the lantern, and the room fell dark.
“Do you think they can really help us find the wagon, Mike?” Callie asked.
“If they can’t, maybe---and this is just a thought---maybe this will do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, maybe we could stay here…with the Dreadniks.”
“With Jon, you mean?”
Callie was suddenly aware that Mike was chuckling.
“How quickly you desert Mom!” he said, his voice merry, “Ready to toss her aside for a boy you just met and don’t even know. Tsk tsk!”
“Oh, shut up!” she said, crossly, “Jackass!”
Mike laughed, but brought his jocularity under control.
“I’m sorry, Cal. Just poking fun. I know what you’re saying. I can’t say that thought didn’t pass through my mind as well; but would you really want to live this way? A life led stealing; prey to the constant danger of capture?”
“Compare that to what might happen if we never find Mom and our money runs out. At least here, we wouldn’t be alone.”
“Maybe you’re right, but we don’t have to make that decision right now. Let’s see what happenes with the wagon first, okay?”
“Now let’s try to get some shut-eye. Tomorrow only knows what tomorrow has in store.”
Downstairs, Jon and Wes played cards at one of the tables. A series of rhythmic knocks came from the other side of the door.
“That’s Woodrow,” said Jon, “Open up for him.”
Wes got up, walked to the door, and pulled aside the black cloth. He opened the door and blinked out at the night.
“That you, Wood-man?” he asked the figure before him.
“Open the shigging door!” the figure said.
“Yep, that’s you.”
Woodrow stomped inside. He was the same age as Wes, but shorter in size and temper.
As Wes locked the door and reset the drop cloth, Woodrow walked on over to where Jon was, and sat down opposite him.
“So how did it go?” Jon asked, “Did Rynza have anything for us?”
“Just one thing.” Woodrow said, and produced a folded paper from his pocket. He held it over the table. It was light blue; Jon recognized it as Rynza’s stationery. He took the note from Woodrow, but didn’t open it.
“Rynza said you should take heed of this note for the safety of the Dreadniks.” Woodrow said.
“I’ll give it a look.” Jon said, “Have you read it?”
“No.” Woodrow answered, “She said not to, and I take seriously the directions of a woman who can speak with the dead. My guess is that you should too. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to bed.”
Woodrow got up and walked to the staircase. As he ascended the stairs, Wes came over, sat down, and picked up the cards.
“Another game?” he asked.
“In a minute.” Jon said.
He got up and walked to the foot of the stairs, to read Rynza’s note in private. He sat down on the bottom steps and unfolded the paper. It’s letterhead read:
FROM THE DESK OF RYNZA ADREYNAC.
The message itself, was short:
They bring trouble with them. DON’T let them stay!
Jon stared at the message long and hard; reread it twice.
He thought of Callie and her hypnotic green eyes.
Of what could not be, between them.
Yet, even so.
He crumpled up the paper and threw it at a corner piled with trash.
Where it would be found…later.
In the bosom of the Wherehouse, Mike and Callie slept; unaware of just how much damage their presence would wreak upon the Dreadniks.
Damage, and death.