The second ten chapters (i.e. chapters 11-20) in order.
The security officers led Mike, Callie, and the pickpocket boy downstairs to an elevator with grate doors. They entered, and one of the officers pushed the button for basement. The cabin clanked and groaned as it went down. When they reached the “Bargain Basement”, which looked empty and kind of spooky, they stopped. The officer pushed the basement button once more, and the cabin began a second descent.
When they stopped again, the doors opened this time on a white tiled hall, which seemed to slope downward to the bowels of creation. Personnel in similar outfits as the security officers walked up and down this hall to different offices, represented by white doors along the walls.
They were led out of the elevator, and to one of the doors, labeled: DETAINMENT CELL 1. The cold-voiced officer opened the door to an empty white room, and pointed them in.
The boy was to go in first, but didn’t get far. He grabbed the sides of the doorway in a panic.
“No! I can’t! I hate cramped places!” he cried.
The officer gave him a hard shove, and the boy fell to the floor inside.
“I’m not going to have the same problem with you two, am I?” he asked Mike and Callie.
Angry as he was with the kid for getting them into this, Mike nonetheless found what he had just seen intolerable. “Listen, you---“ he started to say, but Callie pinched him hard in the back.
“No sir! No problem from us!” she said in a loud voice, to drown out Mike’s “Oww! What?!”
“Shut up, Mike!” she hissed in his ear, and pushed him ahead of her into the room.
The officer addressed the three.
“A frain officer will be called to pick you up and take you to Ragginarck. You will stay here until then. If you have parents, you will be allowed to call them from there to pay whatever fines or penalties are imposed. If you don’t have parents, you’ll most likely stay there for good. Understood?”
Before they could answer, he slammed the door. The sound of it being locked followed.
“Well, that’s just great!” Mike said.
“He’s a full on crapstick.” the boy, now calm, cool, and collected, said. “The frain don’t take you directly to Ragginarck, they take you to a Judicial Complex holding cell first. After a few hours waiting time, you get maybe a quick two minute visit with a judge, maybe less; and then they haul you off to Ragginarck.”
“Oh wow, that’s so much better!” Mike said, “I was afraid there for a moment that we were totally screwed!”
The boy paid Mike no mind; he crouched down low with his ear to the door, listening for something.
“What’s your name, kid?” Callie asked him.
“What are you talking to him for?!” Mike asked, “He’s the one who got us into this! And by the way, why did you pinch me?!”
“I pinched you because you were going to tell off that jerk and get us into even more trouble!”
“How do you know? Can you read minds all of a sudden?”
“I know because I know YOU.”
Mike waved her off.
“The name’s Rakkadakkar.” the boy said, without taking his ear from the door, “But my friends call me Rak.”
“Hi Rak. I’m Callie, that’s Mike.”
“Hi.” Rak said, “Sorry again about the wallet, guy.”
“Sure, whatever.” Mike shrugged, “Fill us in, though. Ragginwhak. What is it? Where is it? Why do I get the feeling it’s not a vacation retreat?”
“Ragginarck.” Rak corrected, “It’s the prison for juvenile offenders. They don’t call it a ‘prison’, but that’s what it is, in effect. This city is pretty harsh on roundicants and travigants, especially since that shigging phote Stromen Freath became Vignach.”
“Roundicants? Travigants?” Callie asked, “Shigging phote?”
“Oh, that’s just the verbex of the inviduii.”
Mike and Callie looked at him as if he had just sprung antlers.
“Wow, you guys really aren’t from around here, are you?”
Mike and Callie shook their heads simultaneously.
“Slang.” Rak explained, “Roundicants and travigants are runaway and throwaway kids. You don’t want to know what ‘shigging phote’ means! Anyway, unless we want to end up in Ragginarck, I think it’s time we leave. I don’t hear anyone outside anymore.”
“Whaddaya mean, leave?” Mike asked, “The door’s locked.”
Rak smiled, stood up, and opened the door.
“How did you do that?!” Callie asked.
“During my ‘panic attack’, I stuck a special wad of clay into the lock hole.” Rak said, “No hole, no lock.”
He carefully extricated said clay and put it in his pocket, “A pounder’s gotta think ahead.”
“Way to go, kid!” Mike said, with newfound respect for the little thief, “I think it’s time we depart these premises.”
The three moved quickly and quietly out of the cell, and made their way up the hall toward the elevator. They were almost there when they heard a voice from somewhere behind them shout: “Hey! You!”
They turned and saw a security officer a short distance back. He had apparently just come from out of one of the offices. He was one of the two that had caught them and brought them here.
“HEY! GET BACK HERE!” he bellowed, and barreled toward them like an angry bull.
Mike, Callie, and Rak turned and ran for the elevator. They got there, opened the doors, and got in. Mike pushed the button to go up. The grate doors closed just as the officer reached them. He hit them with such force; the cabin shook as it ascended. They saw him retrieve a walkie-talkie from his belt, and bark orders into it, before he was obscured by the next floor.
They reached the bargain basement, and then the elevator stopped.
“Uhh-oh!” Mike said.
The elevator shuddered and began to descend.
“We’re going back down!” Callie said.
“I was afraid of that.” Rak said, and pushed the STOP button.
The elevator stopped again.
“Here, help me open the doors.” he said.
The three forced the grate doors open. The bottom half of the basement opening was all they had to go through, but it was more than enough. Mike helped Callie and Rak up through it: then they in turn pulled Mike up.
The basement was immense; tables and tables of bargains, and huge bins filled with clothes, shoes, and stuffed toys, cluttered the place.
“There’s gotta be a staircase around here somewhere.” Rak said.
The elevator closed its doors, and descended.
“Better find it quick.” said Mike.
“I see it!” cried Callie up ahead of them.
They followed her to the far corner of the basement, and there found a deep staircase, which led upwards to closed double doors. Behind them came the sound of the elevator, as it lumbered its way back up.
“Time to go!” Rak said.
The three scrambled up the staircase and exploded through the double doors and into the mall proper. Rak led them through the main thoroughfare, and to the nearest exit. The automatic doors swished open before them, and out they went, into the parking lot. A friendly warmth enveloped them, and they stopped a quick moment to catch their breath.
“Will they come after us out here?” Mike asked between gasps.
“They might.” Rak replied.
“We should get to our wagon then.” Callie said.
“You guys have a vehicle?”
“Where is it parked?”
“Row ten. Over there.” Mike pointed to the distance.
“Too far. Not enough time.” Rak said, “This way, follow me!”
He ran towards the first car he came across in the parking lot, and crouched low behind it. Mike and Callie did likewise; Mike took the car behind Rak’s, Callie took the one behind his.
“Get ready to haul, if I yell ‘run’.” Rak said, and raised his head high enough to peek through the windows.
He saw four mall security officers blow through the mall doors, look out and around at the vastness of the parking lot, and deflate. They turned, conferred, came to a decision, and headed back into the mall.
“We’re clear!” said Rak.
The three stepped out from behind the cars.
“Let’s not tempt fate.” Mike said, “Let’s get to the wagon.”
They hurried to row ten.
“So, Rak,” Callie said, “Need a ride?”
“I wouldn’t mind one.” he said, “Where are you two headed?”
“Good question. What do you think, Mike?”
“It’s been a long day.” Mike said, “I say we call it a night, and look for a place to---“
He stopped. They had reached row ten, and the spot where the wagon had been parked.
But the wagon wasn’t there.
“Where’s the wagon?” Callie cried.
“It’s supposed to be here!” Mike sputtered, “It’s…It’s…”
“Stolen.” Rak said, “Or ‘pounded’ as we say around here. Not an unusual occurrence in Metromax.”
“But I locked it!”
“That’s not much of a deterrent.”
“All our stuff was in there!” Callie said, “What are we gonna do NOW?!”
“You can come with me.” Rak said, “I have friends; we have a place. You could stay the night at least. What do you say?”
“Are you sure your friends would take us in?” Callie asked.
“I’m pretty sure they would.” Rak said, “And some of them might even know who to ask about a pounded wagon.”
“Is this place far?” Mike asked.
“Well, yes.” Rak said, “But I know all the shortcuts.”
“We call ourselves the Dreadniks.” Rak said, as he led Mike and Callie out of the CityScape parking lot, and into the streets. All around them the city pulsed with furious noise, while buildings like dark monoliths reached for the sky. “We live in an abandoned building in the middle of the city’s old industrial center. The area is deserted now, just a lot of empty warehouses, manufacturing plants, and decrepit office buildings.”
He led them into an alleyway between two buildings; an unlit crevasse that extended some distance.
“This is my favorite shortcut, because it covers a lot of territory.” Rak said, “Though I usually don’t go through here at night.”
He picked up the pace, and Mike and Callie followed suit.
“What are those?” Callie asked, pointing to dark lumps that lined the sides of the alley.
“People.” Rak answered.
A hand shot out and grabbed at Callie’s ankle. She stifled a scream, and jumped over it. She looked back to see if the owner of the hand would get up and come after her, but he didn’t.
“Don’t get too close and you’ll be alright.” Rak said.
As their eyes acclimated to the dark, Mike and Callie began to see the bundles of humanity spread across the sides of the alley. Some were passed out, some shook in their sleep, a few were awake and stared at the wall across from them with blank faces. Not many registered their presence.
When Rak and the Longstreets at last reached the end of the alley, they were in another part of the city altogether. Bars, stores, ratty apartment buildings, greasy theaters selling questionable fare, and mean streets busy with human commerce surrounded them at every turn.
“At least we’re out of the alley.” Rak said.
He would meet an unfortunate fate in that alley…later.
“How much further?” Callie asked.
“Just a bit.”
He led them through this area using a variety of alleys smaller than the one they just passed. One of his shortcuts required them to enter the lobby of an old and crumbling hotel, through which they passed unremarked, and exit through an unattended door at the rear. This opened on a lonely street.
Rak pointed to a mass of darkened buildings in the distance.
“That’s where we’re going.” he said, “That’s where my friends are.”
“Crike, my feet are killing me.” said Callie.
“I take it you two aren’t walkers.”
“No, we’re not.” said Mike, “Do you always walk this much?”
“Sometimes more, sometimes less. I know certain shortcuts that are safe to use during the day; these can shorten my route by as much as a third. It depends where I’m headed, of course.”
“But you’re a thief, why don’t you just steal a car?” Callie asked.
“Cars are not my area of expertise.”
“But pick-pocketing is?”
“That and shoplifting.” Rak added.
When the road they were on eventually bifurcated, they took the right hand road, which ran past the area in question. At last they reached a side road which took them straight into the city’s old industrial district.
Empty buildings and silent warehouses, like the tombstones of giants, loomed large. There were no lights anywhere; no way to see where they were going. Rak led them through the dark streets on memory alone.
“This is kind of a scary place to be living in, isn’t it?” Callie asked.
“Well at first it was,” Rak said, “A lot of the buildings were overrun by drug people and the like; but the frain did a sweep of the place one night and cleaned this area out. They were, in fact, gunning for us; but we were the only group to escape unscathed.”
“How’d you pull that one off?” Mike asked.
“We have an ace in the hole; a friend of ours named Rynza Adreynac. She’s a psychic. She has spirit guides or something, and keeps an eye on Mallacharr; the frain crellat who ordered the sweep. We just cleared out our place before they came, and went back the next day! Shigging subzats never bothered to look over here again!”
“What’s this Mallacharr guy’s problem?” Callie asked, “Why does he have it in for you?”
“It’s Stromen Freath who has it in for us. The Vignach. The city’s head honcho, and Mallacharr’s boss. Another invidium, the Skegs, trashed his fancy-pants limo about three months back, and signed our name all over it with spraypaint and…umm…other things.”
“These Skegs your enemies?” Mike asked.
“They’re just jerks. Photes, dinks, and subzats all. But the Vignach’s been obsessed with finding and catching us since. Well, all of the inviduii, but us in particular. Mallacharr’s mandate is to get us soon, or get the sack. According to Rynza, his time is just about up.”
“How could he tell you apart from any other group anyway?” Callie asked.
“He knows some of us. There was this time when we---Oops! Here we are! Almost passed it!”
Rak stopped them in front of a three-story brick building that looked no different than the others around it. Its broken windows weren’t boarded up, but no light spilled out through them. It seemed empty.
“We call it the Wherehouse.” Rak said, “I’m gonna have to ask you to wait outside here, for a bit. They’re kinda picky about who they let in, and some are gonna be cranky when I wake them up.”
“NOW you tell us this?!” Mike asked, “Whadda WE do if they say no?!”
“Don’t worry! I’ll plead your case; they won’t say no.”
“I’m not as comforted by that as you think I should be.”
Rak walked to the door and gave it a series of rhythmic knocks. At this, the door opened a crack, and released a sliver of light from inside. A shadowy shape looked out, saw Rak; then opened the door further. The shape caught sight of Mike and Callie.
“Who’s that, Rak-man?” they heard the shape ask. The voice was that of a boy in his early teens.
Rak spoke to the shape in hushed tones the Longstreets couldn’t make out. The shape let Rak in, and closed the door. The light disappeared, and left Mike and Callie stranded in the dark.
“Could you make out what it looked like inside?” Mike asked.
“No, not at all.”
“What about the door guy?”
“Nope, but I can tell it was a kid from his voice. About your age.”
“Yeah, I figured that too.”
“What if they don’t let us in? What then?”
“Don’t know.” Mike replied.
“Thanks, that’s reassuring.”
The minutes ticked by; first five, then ten.
“This is taking too long.” Callie said, “I’m gonna knock.”
“Callie, no. Rak told us to wait. We don’t wanna piss ‘em off.”
She paid him no mind. She went up to the door and was about to knock, when it opened. It was Rak.
“Come in.” he said.
The Longstreets followed him inside.
They entered a large open area, illuminated by candles and battery-powered lanterns. Large work tables, well spaced and bolted to the floor, took up most of the room; many still with chairs. Heavy black cloth covered every window. Old posters, fading ads, and homemade artwork decorated the walls. Clothes and personal effects were piled here and there. Paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils littered the tables. Supper had been eaten here, not too long ago. This was a home.
“Welcome to the Wherehouse.” the kid who had opened the door for Rak said, as he now closed it. He turned the latch to lock it, then reached for a black cloth held aside on a big nail; he unhooked the cloth, and it fell into place over the door.
“This is Wes.” Rak said, “Wes, this is Mike and Callie.”
Wes gave them both an enthusiastic handshake. He was of about Mike’s size and age, with longish brown hair topped by a red baseball cap, worn backwards.
“Rak tells me you’re staying with us tonight.” he said.
“That remains to be seen.” a voice said.
The voice belonged to one of three teenagers who sat like judges, at a table near a staircase. Rak led Mike and Callie to the panel.
The one in the middle was the one who had spoken; a black girl of about sixteen. She was a touch on the heavy side, but her eyes were shrewd, and her face suggested a formidable personality.
“They call me Bear.” she said, “This one to my right is Dom.”
“Domino Hansen at your service!” he said cheerfully. He had short brown hair and a built-in smirk on his face that gave him a look of barely restrained frivolity.
But it was the one on the other side of Bear that Callie noticed right away, the one with the black tousled hair. He looked up at her at that moment, and his blue eyes met her green; then both flicked their eyes in another direction. So quick and subtle was the event (except to the two involved, to whom it had seemed as long and loud as a brass band performing a march) that no one saw it.
But the damage was done.
Bear continued: “And to my left, is the leader of this funny farm. Jonathon Grash: palabrin of our invidium.”
Fearless leader tried to remember his name.
“Call me…uhh…Jon? Yes! Jon.” he said, flustered and red-faced.
“Obviously, we consulted chicken entrails to determine our leadership structure.” Dom said.
“WE are the leaders of this group.” Jon said with an embarrassed grin, “We three. Me, Bear, and Dom.”
“Nah, he just says that.” Dom winked.
“Let’s get down to business.” Bear said, “Time was, we used to be open to any roundicant who needed a place to crash for the night. We ourselves are not far removed from the terror of being all alone on dark city streets, believe you me. However…we’ve had to be careful of late.”
“We understand.” Mike said, “What do you need from us?”
“Rak already told us about your run-in with the mall law, and that someone pounded your wheels.” Bear said, “Also that you are unfamiliar with verbex, thus obviously not from around here.”
“What we need from you is for you to tell us about yourselves.” Jon said, “Tell us the story of your lives.”
“The whole thing?” Mike asked.
“Just an overview.” Bear said.
“A really brief overview, if you don’t mind.” Dom added, “We don’t want to be here the rest of our lives.”
“Why?” Callie asked.
“To get a sense of who you are, where you came from, and if we can trust you.” Jon said.
He looked at Callie, she looked back. This time, they succeeded in holding each other’s gaze.
“There’s not much to tell.” Mike said, “I was born in 3637, Callie in 3639, in a big city somewhere. We don’t know where. Then sometime around 3642, for reasons never explained, our father took us from our mother, and drove us out of the city.”
Callie continued, “We ended up in New Heedol, where we have lived for the last eleven years.”
“Until five days ago, when Callie knocked our father out with a frying pan. We took the opportunity to run like hell.”
“We decided to search for our mother. We thought to look for her here first. We just got here tonight. The rest, you know.”
“Was your father abusive?” Jon asked. He hadn’t failed to notice the scar on Callie’s cheek.
“Yes.” Callie said.
“He didn’t start out that way.” Mike said, “I have early memories of him laughing and smiling, being gentle. But after he took us from our mother, he changed. He became angry, then violent. The abuse, when it started, was emotional; psychological. It progressed from there.”
The three leaders of the Dreadniks asked no more questions.
“I vote we let Mike and Callie stay the night with us.” Jon said.
“Agreed.” said Bear.
“Agreed.” said Dom.
“Moreover, I believe we should help them find their wagon, and that they can remain here as our guests until we do.” Jon said.
Dom looked to Bear for her decision. If she disagreed, he would be the deciding vote, either way. If not, he would not go against the other two.
Bear remained silent. Jon and the others in the room held their collective breath, as she thought it over.
“Agreed.” she said at last.
“Agreed.” said Dom.
“It’s decided then.” Jon said.
“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.
“Wake up!” a voice called.
Mike and Callie awoke to find Rak standing in the doorway of their room. The windows in the building must have been uncovered, because gray morning light filtered in from the hall beyond.
“Time to get up.” Rak said.
“What time is it?” Callie mumbled.
“I don’t carry a watch; don’t believe in ‘em. We’ll be having breakfast soon, but Jon wants you to meet the rest of the gang first. We already told them all about you.”
“Everyone’s up but us?” Mike asked.
Mike and Callie got up, and followed Rak out of the room. In the hall, they could hear voices coming from downstairs.
Rak led them to a restroom. There were two dozen plastic gallon jugs on the floor inside; most of which were filled with water.
“The water’s clean.” Rak said. He picked up one of the full jugs, “We buy them at a nearby store.”
He plugged two of the sinks, then poured the whole contents of the jug into both; a half gallon for each.
“You can wash up here,” he said, “And dry up with those.”
He pointed to a roll of paper towels on top of a hand dryer.
“The hand dryer doesn’t work, of course. Here.”
He produced a small, sample size, bottle of mouthwash from his pocket, and handed it to Mike.
“You’ll have to share that. See you downstairs!”
He made to leave, but Mike tugged his shirt.
“What about the toilets?” he asked, a little embarrassed.
“You need to go now?”
“No, not right now.” Mike said, “But…eventually.”
“Well, the toilets don’t work. If you have to go, there’s a small wooded area behind the building. Or, if you can hold it, you could walk over to the MetroMart. They have restrooms.”
“What do you do if you have to go at night?” Callie asked.
“You go up to the roof and drop it off the side.”
“Kidding!” Rak laughed, “Look, just tidy yourselves up a bit, then come downstairs. All questions will be answered later.”
Rak exited the bathroom.
“Well, let’s not keep them waiting.” Mike said.
They washed and dried their faces, then rinsed with the mouthwash Rak had given them.
“I wish I had a comb.” Mike said. An unruly cowlick at the top of his head resisted all attempts at control.
“It ain’t like you’re pretty anyway!” Callie chuckled, pulling him away from the mirror, and out of the bathroom.
They walked down the hall, to the top of the stairs; and descended.
Morning light streamed in through the uncovered windows, and gave the ground floor a sense of hard-edged reality it had not had the night before. They were all there, the Dreadniks, twelve in all. They lounged around on tables and chairs in small groups of two and three.
“Here they are.” Rak said.
Heads turned and voices stopped talking, upon Mike and Callie’s arrival before them. The room fell silent.
“I trust you two slept well?” Jon asked, and stood up.
Callie nodded. “Uh huh.” she said.
“I want you to meet the rest of the Dreadniks.” Jon said. He moved amongst the groups to introduce them.
Jon tapped one of the boys on the shoulder. “This is Woodrow.”
Woodrow was short, dark haired, and had knitted brows just made to express irritation. He gave them a disinterested wave.
Jon tagged another; a brown-haired boy of about Rak’s age.
“This is Edward. He was the last of us to join up. He’s been with us now about…four months is it, Ed?”
Edward nodded shyly, but said nothing.
Next, Jon pointed out a bubbly-looking girl with long blond hair. She looked to be about fourteen. She didn’t wait for Jon’s introduction. “I’m Katherine Cosciddy!” she said, with gum smacking charm, “But everyone calls me ‘Kitty’!”
This prompted some nervous giggles to break out.
“This is Corrina.” Jon continued.
Corrina had short black hair, parted in the middle, and a pretty face marred by a deep scowl. “Hi.” she said, without much conviction.
Kitty whispered something in Corrina’s ear, and both broke out in the kind of cruel laughter only young girls can emit.
The last remaining girl was introduced as Peggy. She looked older than the two previous girls, about fifteen. Like Kitty, she had blonde hair, but hers was pulled back and ponytailed. She had freckles across the top of her nose, and a face that was plain, yet striking.
“Hi there,” she said, and gave Mike a wink.
“This is Spencer,” Jon went on, “Our resident smartypants.”
Spencer was a lanky kid with wild red hair and slouching shoulders; a smattering of tiny red pimples fanned across his forehead.
“Welcome to the freak show.” he said.
“Last, and certainly least, this is Kevin.” Jon said.
Kevin was the only other blonde male in the group, aside from Rak, and was possessed of a sleepy-looking countenance. He gave Mike and Callie a silent nod.
“Now that we all know each other,” Jon said, “I think it’s time for breakfast.”
“Finally,” Bear said, getting up, “I thought I was going to have to start gnawing on my leg.”
“There’s enough meat there for all of us, if you’d share.” Dom said with a grin.
“Remember I can break you like a twig, Hansen.”
“Promises, promises.” Dom replied.
Bear cracked an amused smile, as she and the others headed towards a single large table with chairs all around it. The table had been prepared with paper plates, juices, and various breakfast choices.
Peggy grabbed Mike by the arm, and steered him to a chair near the end of the table.
“You like pancakes?” she asked.
“Sure.” Mike said.
She pointed to a thinning stack of them on a plate in the center of the table. Mike was closer to it.
“Get some before it runs out!” she said, “Around here you either grab or go without. Get some for me too, would’ya?”
She grabbed two paper plates and handed them both to Mike, who had to stand to reach the flapjacks. He speared four with a plastic fork he found lying unused on the table, and brought the pancakes back to the space between he and Peggy. Peggy grabbed two juice boxes, and handed one to Mike. “I figured you for a Jandra person, like myself.” she said.
“You figured right.” Mike replied.
Meanwhile, Jon escorted Callie to the chair beside his, at the head of the table. He snatched some pancakes for her as well.
“To drink?” he asked.
“I’ll just get me one of those chocolate milk thingies there.” Calle said, “What about you? What are you gonna eat?”
“I’m getting something from the kitchenette. I’ll be right back.” Jon said, and sprinted over to a little room by the stairs.
Corrina showed up beside Calle; a plate of eggs in her hand.
“I believe that’s MY seat.” she said.
“Oh, sorry! Jon just sat me here and---“ Callie started.
“Oh, sorry! Jon just sat me here!” Corrina repeated in a prissy voice, while contorting her face.
Someone giggled. It was Kitty, who sat at Callie’s left. Callie turned to her and Kitty gave her an innocent “who, me?” look.
“Hey, subzat, I said that was my chair!” Corrina said, “I sit there all the time. Don’t I, Kitty?”
“All the damn time.” Kitty replied.
“Sorry, then.” Callie said, and got up.
“Well, now you know better, don’t you?” Corrina said.
Kitty brayed laughter.
Callie walked over to a seat at the end of the table. Mike and Peggy were there, eating their pancakes. They had not failed to see the exchange between her and Corrina.
“You okay, Cal?” Mike asked.
“Sure. I just wasn’t aware there was assigned seating.”
“Oh don’t bother about Corrina, or anything she says,” Peggy said in a half-whisper to Callie, “She’s a shank and everyone knows it. No one really likes her, except Kitty.”
“So what’s her damage?”
“Tell’ya later…” Peggy whispered, “Here comes Jon. Look.”
Jon returned from the kitchenette, and was surprised to find Callie at the end of the table. He walked over to her.
“What happened? Why did you sit all the way over here?”
“Oh, umm, there was a…misunderstanding…” Callie said, with vague gestures. She did not want to say anything that would get Corrina in trouble with Jon. The last thing she wanted to do was make enemies on her first day here.
“Oh.” Jon said. He nodded as if he understood, though the embarrassed look on his face suggested to Callie that he had understood wrong.
As he walked back to the head of the table, Callie put her head in her hands. “Oh booger,” she said, “I think I screwed that up.”
“You shoulda told him.” Peggy said, “I woulda like to have seen Corrina squirm.”
“She did the right thing.” Mike said, “We’re guests here. You don’t make trouble when you’re staying under someone else’s roof.”
“I doubt that makes her feel any better.” Peggy said.
Callie looked up to see Jon sit down at the head of the table and start eating breakfast. From her place beside him, Corrina glanced at him lovingly.
“See that?” Peggy whispered to Callie.
“Yes.” Callie whispered back.
“Now you know what all that was about, don’t you?”
Callie nodded. “Does he know?” she asked.
“Can’t tell.” Peggy replied.
“Has she made a move?”
“No, she hasn’t. I think she fears he’ll reject her, so she avoids the destruction of her romantic fantasies by not making her feelings for him known; though it’s obvious to everyone.”
“Would he reject her?”
“Oh yes. Without a doubt.” Peggy said, “She’s not his type.”
“What is his type?”
“You, silly.” Peggy smiled knowingly.
Callie considered the implications.
There may be trouble here, she thought.
Walking, Talking, Stalking
Elsewhere at the table, Edward, Rak, and Wes were laughing over something. Kevin (who had finished his breakfast before anyone else) laid his head down and fell asleep. Woodrow talked to Dom across the table. Jon listened to something Bear was saying, ignoring Corrina, who was trying to get his attention while ignoring Kitty’s attempt to talk to her.
Mike posed a question to the person at his left, Spencer: “So, how did Jon, Bear, and Dom get to be the leaders of this group?”
“They were the first. Jon befriended Bear, and they in turn befriended Dom. The three of them decided to find a safe warm place for themselves in that long cold winter of two years ago.”
“This place?” Mike asked.
“Nah man, there were several places before this one; most of them very temporary. The first place was a recently closed bookstore. The Boxwood Bookstore, it was called. Around that time, me and Rak joined up with them. We called ourselves the Dreads. Then later, we kinda melded with this other invidium that was falling apart: the Nogoodniks. Dinkish name for an invidium, innit? Peggy, Wes, Kevin, Kitty, and Corrina came over from that group. The ex-leader of that group went on to form the Skegs, but that’s a long story for another time. Anyway, a year later, Woodrow joined up with us, and a few weeks after that, we found Edward.”
“Yeah, he and his mother were living in their car. Couple of jackers tried to take the car; Edward’s mother wouldn’t cooperate, and got stabbed. They dumped Edward and his mother’s body out into the cold, and took off.”
“Damn.” Mike said.
“We found him and brought him here.” Spencer said, “Kid didn’t talk for a week. Can you blame him?”
At last, when all had finished eating, Jon called for silence. He stood up and addressed the group.
“Now that you have all met our new friends, Mike and Callie, they---Dammit! Would somebody wake Kevin up?!”
There was some laughter as Wes gave Kevin a rough shake to wake him. Kevin blinked and looked around, bewildered.
“What?!” he said.
Rak and Edward went into a fit of giggles.
Jon rolled his eyes heaven-ward, and continued, “Okay. Where was I? Oh yeah. Mike and Callie here have a problem. They had their wheels pounded at the CityScape Mall. Now, if their wagon hasn’t been scragged yet, it could still be here in Metromax somewhere. What I want us to do is to spread out and see if we can’t find it.”
“It’s a green Farrider station wagon.” Mike said, “A beat up old thing. New Heedol plates: BLS-44T.”
“If you happen to see it,” Jon continued, “Come back and tell us, so we can make whatever plans we need to get it back. Check out all the usual places and people that deal in this sort of thing.”
“It would probably be easier to pound them a new set of wheels.” Woodrow said.
“It’s not just about the wagon,” Mike said, “It’s all the stuff IN the wagon. OUR stuff. Our personal possessions.”
“All that stuff is long gone by now.” Woodrow replied.
“Either way,” said Callie, “We want OUR wagon back.”
“A waste of OUR time, if you ask me.” Woodrow persisted.
“Well, no one asked you.” Bear said, “Just do what you’re told and shut the hell up.”
Woodrow shrugged and fanned his hands out in a conciliatory gesture.
Jon continued: “Now Mike and Callie are new to the city and to our ways, so we’ll have to pair them off with someone. Callie can come with me.” he said, looking down the table at her, “If she wants to, that is.”
Callie nodded. “Sure.”
The scowl on Corrina’s face deepened.
“I’ll take Mike!” Peggy called out.
“Alright, we meet again at noon. Let’s go!”
It was Kevin and Edward’s turn that day, to stay behind and clean up the mess. Everyone else paired off and scattered: Jon and Callie, Mike and Peggy, Bear and Dom, Kitty and Corrina, Spencer and Wes. The two loners of the group, Woodrow and Rak, paired off only to split up a few blocks away from the Wherehouse.
“I fear our presence here is causing some tension in the group.” Mike said later, as he and Peggy walked through a more placid area of the city.
They were on their way to a pawn shop belonging to a man Peggy was vaguely related to; someone who knew people in “the business”.
“What tension are you talking about?” Peggy asked.
“The exchange between Woodrow and Bear, for instance,” Mike said, “Or Callie’s run-in with Corrina and Kitty. It’s clear not everyone is happy with us being here.”
“Well, you can’t expect a uniform response from a group as big as ours.” Peggy replied, “There’s always gonna be naysayers in any situation. That’s why invidiums have palabrins; to end debate and make a decision. Otherwise, people argue forever and nothing gets done. As for Woodrow, he’s just blunt. As is Bear. It should not surprise you that they get along well with each other despite many such exchanges.”
“You know, the first time I saw Bear…” Mike started to say.
“You thought she was the leader, right?” Peggy asked.
“Yeah,” Mike answered, “She so looks like a natural leader. How is it that she’s not running the place?”
“Funny you should say that,” Peggy said, “In the beginning, Jon and Dom wanted her to be the palabrin, but she didn’t like the idea of having the yoke of responsibility fall wholly on her. So they decided to share the leadership position between the three of them, with Jon as the figurehead.”
Peggy stopped. “Look, there’s the place.”
She pointed to a squat grimy building with the word PAWN written in bold red letters on its front window, which peeked out from behind iron security bars. Mike and Peggy walked over to it, and entered.
They exited empty-handed not five minutes later. Peggy’s contact was no help at all.
“Don’t worry, Mike. I know a couple of other places we can check out.” Peggy said, as they stood outside the pawn shop.
Mike nodded. “Hold on, I want to try something.” he said.
He pointed to a public phone outside a store across the street; a heavy phonebook hung from a cord beneath.
“Sure, let’s give it a shot.” Peggy said.
They crossed the street. Mike picked up the phonebook and held it, while Peggy turned the pages. She found the L’s, and thumbed her way down the columns.
“Bingo! There are six Longstreets in Metromax City.” she said. She ripped out the whole page.
Mike released the phonebook, and looked. “She would be listed under Elizabeth.” he said.
“There’s one E. Longstreet, and one Liza Longstreet.” Peggy said.
“That could be it.”
“Wait a minute! Why would she still be living under the name Longstreet?” Peggy asked, “She’s been apart from her husband---how many years now?”
“Eleven. Damn, you’re right.”
“So what’s her maiden name?”
Mike furrowed his brow. “Her maiden name was…uhh…Shale!” he snapped his fingers, “Look under Shale!”
He picked up the book again, and Peggy looked up Shale.
“There are twenty Shales here,” she said, and tore off that page as well.
Mike dropped the book and looked at the page. “If we discount the ones with men’s names before them, we’re down to a dozen possibilities.”
“What if she re-married?”
“If she did, that’s it.” Mike said, “There’d be no way for us to know.”
“There might be one.” Peggy said, “Rynza Adreynac, the psychic. She’s a friend of ours, and she’s the real thing.”
“Well if these don’t pan out, we’ll have to give her a try.”
Mike took the two phonebook pages, folded them, and put them in his pocket. He and Peggy returned to the task at hand.
After two dead-ends, Jon and Callie were on their way to a third possibility. They engaged in small talk, for the most part, but at some point they both realized that they were holding hands; had been for some time. When this had started, they didn’t know; but it had happened unconsciously. Both hands were at home in the other’s grasp, and now that they knew, they were in no hurry to release.
A short distance behind, Corrina and Kitty followed, and watched. (Well, Corrina watched; Kitty just tagged along). When Jon and Callie started holding hands, the scowl in Corrina’s face cleaved even deeper, and threatened to split her forehead in twain.
As far as Corrina was concerned, Jon belonged to her. True, he didn’t have any feelings for her, but she was sure he could come to love her, given time. But this Callie shank was a distraction, and while Jon was distracted with her, Corrina feared she would lose the fruits of her long labor to get Jon to see her as indispensible, and always there for him. She could not allow this to happen!
I have to get rid of her, Corrina thought to herself, I have to get her out of my way! I can’t depend on their wagon being found, Jon might ask them to stay! One way or another, she has to go!
Before too long, a way of doing this would fall into her hands; and the results would be terrible indeed.
Noon found the Dreadniks reunited at the Wherehouse.
“Anyone find anything?” Bear asked.
Everyone there, but Woodrow, shook their heads.
“I did.” he said, “I found the wagon.”
“Where?” Jon asked.
“Finorio Braneegan’s Car Dump.”
“Braneegan…where have I heard that name before?” Jon asked, “Wasn’t he the Azzamat who supposedly killed a guy?”
“That’s just a rumor.” Woodrow said.
“Azzamat…” Mike ruminated, “Someone refresh my memory?”
“They’re related to the Frellam,” Spencer said, “Cousins, you might say.”
Mike knew about the Frellam from books. They were a tall, broad, and hairy race that lived in the Skidderex Mountains, which separated Marriak from the cold waste of Sartholter in the north, where the Ridlaks (from which the Frellam descended) still lived.
“The Azzamat,” Spencer continued, “Are basically Frellam who decided to assimilate with civilization, rather than head for the mountains. You could say they’re more sophisticated than the Frellam; they wear clothes, they speak Thrist, they’re slightly less hairy, and they don’t eat people, but they can be just as dangerous when driven to anger.”
“That’s a stereotype,” Peggy said, “They’re not ALL hotheads.”
Spencer rolled his eyes, but did not reply.
“Where is this place, Woodrow?” Dom asked, “Is it far?”
“It’s in the outskirts, close to Elderberry; a good hour’s walk from here.” Woodrow answered, “It’s situated in a low area; from the street you can look down on it, which was how I happened to see the wagon. Braneegan hadn’t taken it into the Labyrinth yet. The spot is pretty isolated; hardly any traffic on the street. I’d wonder how he keeps a business afloat there, if I didn’t know better.”
“That’s good,” Bear said, “When the time comes to liberate the wagon, we can launch operations from there.”
“We’re gonna steal it back?” Callie asked.
“We sure as hell aren’t gonna buy it back.” Bear replied.
“There are problems though,” Woodrow said, “If we intend a febwith…”
“What’s a febwith?” Mike asked.
“A plan or scheme, to achieve certain ends,” Jon explained, “And the implementation of said plans.”
“The problems are thus,” Woodrow continued, “Though Braneegan’s employees leave work come evening, Braneegan himself lives there, at the dump. He has a small shack that serves as his home. The whole lot is surrounded by a high chain link fence with big double sliding doors at the entrance that are shut and padlocked at night. There are big light poles in various places that keep the place well-lit until dawn. While he doesn’t have any kind of professional security system, he does have five gallanashes that he releases from their cages when day is done. They roam freely around the place until morning. Gods only know how he gets them back in their cages before he opens for business.”
“I doubt you gleaned all that in passing.” Bear said, "How did you know to look in that out-of-the-way place?"
“I used to know the place when it was Jake’s Car Dump. Jake Hauge was a real nice guy who used to let us roundicant kids hang around in the Labyrinth. In winter, you could escape from cold winds there; and in the heat of summer, it was cool.”
“What is this Labyrinth you keep mentioning?” Jon asked.
“It’s the actual dump, where the cars are stacked. It’s like a maze in there, easy to get lost if you don’t know the layout. That’s why we called it the Labyrinth. When Braneegan bought the place, however; he was less than tolerant of us. He put up the fence and the lights; then he brought in the gallanashes. Who’s gonna mess with five blood-thirsty gallanashes?”
“We are, apparently.” Corrina said, with a sour grimace.
“Yes, we are,” Jon said, “But first, lunch.”
They were all tired and hungry from the walking.
Foods were brought forth from the kitchenette, and they all sat down and ate. Ravenous as they were, there was little talking at the table this time around, except to ask each other to pass this or that.
After lunch, they all got up and sat at a different table; a planning table. It had a black slate top, and Woodrow now used a piece of chalk to draw upon it a rough diagram of Braneegan’s Car Dump; as well as a map showing how to get there.
The diagram described a circular area, two thirds of which was taken up by the Labyrinth; drawn as a large grid of cluttered squares. In the space between the Labyrinth and the front gate doors, was a small square under which the legend “F.B.’s shack” was written. To the right were representations of machinery and various trucks and towing vehicles; to the left were representations of garage stalls, as well as the cages where the gallanashes were kept locked up during the day.
“Do you still have the keys to the wagon, Mike?” Jon asked.
“Give them to Woodrow. If the wagon has been taken into the Labyrinth by the time we get there, Woodrow knows the layout and can go in and get it.”
Mike took out his keys, and slid them to Woodrow.
"What if it's on top of a stack?" Mike asked.
"Then the jig is up." Woodrow said, "We go home."
“Okay,” Jon said, “First, I think we should send scouts over there to keep an eye on the place.” He looked around. “Kevin and Edward. You guys haven’t had the chance to get out today. What about it guys?”
“Sure!” said Edward.
“When do we start?” Kevin asked.
“Not now,” Jon said, “But soon. This febwith is going down tonight, after Braneegan has closed up and gone to bed.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like a piece of the action as well.” Mike said, “I don’t want anyone thinking they’re out there taking risks I wouldn’t take. So count me in.”
“Me too.” said Callie.
“Okay, you’re both in,” Jon said, “But I only want to send a small task force; maybe six or seven people. I intend to go, that’s one. Mike and Callie make three. Woodrow, of course. Rak, to pick the padlock and open the doors. Add our scouts, Kevin and Edward, and that’s seven. Now, what are our tasks, people?”
“The gallanashes have to be dealt with; as well as Braneegan himself.” Dom said, “If he wakes up during the operation, things could get hairy. Pardon the pun.”
“I think I know how we can deal with those gallanashes.” Spencer said, “Gallanashes love raw meat, right?”
“That’s right,” said Rak, “We can use meat to distract them.”
“Not just that. We can poison the meat.” Spencer said, “That way, they won’t be a problem.”
“I don’t know about that.” Callie said, “Poisoning them? Isn’t that a bit cruel?”
“They’d kill you if they had a chance.” Corrina said.
“Just how badly do you want your wagon back?” Woodrow asked Callie, “If you don’t have the stomach for what we might have to do to pull this off, then maybe we don’t do this. No skin off my nose.”
“We don’t have to poison them, you know,” Callie said, “If we can find a way to sedate them.”
“That’s a good idea,” Bear said, “And if we can sedate the gallanashes, we can sedate Braneegan as well.”
“Now that you mention it, there’s this stuff called Tullaxiffan,” Spencer said, “It’s pretty lethal straight up, but when diluted and used in small quantities, it can be used to sedate large animals or people without killing them. They wake up a few hours later feeling like crap, but no worse for wear.”
“Do you know where you can get a bottle?” Jon asked, “And can you get it by tonight?”
“Yes and yes.” Spencer said, “But we’ll also need hypodermic needle syringes. You know---like what they use to give you a shot or draw blood? Also some raw meat the gallanashes will eat that we can spike.”
“What are the needles for?” Kevin asked.
“To take out Braneegan.” Spencer replied, “But also for the gallanashes. Some might get less of the spiked meat than others. Someone has to make sure they all stay down.”
“I’ll provide you with baffin from the Wosh after the meeting.” Jon said to Spencer, “You get the Taxamuffin stuff, I’ll send someone over to the MetroMart butcher to get the meat, and someone to get the syringes at the pharmacy. Any other ideas?”
“We’ll have to deliver the meat while we’re still outside.” Bear said.
“We just toss over the fence,” Rak said, “In plastic bags. When the gallanashes smell the meat, they’ll just tear through the bags to get to it.”
“The fence is pretty high, and just throwing the bags is a little too random for my comfort,” Woodrow said, “What if we lower the meat down somehow?”
“Rak’s fishing pole.” Bear said, “Remember when Rak got a little wacky with the shoplifting and pounded a fishing pole for no apparent reason?”
“There was a reason!” Rak said, affronted; then smiled sheepishly, “Nah, there was no reason. I did go goofy there, for awhile. Remember the kitty cookie jar?”
“You mean the one Kitty busted?” Edward asked.
“You could never prove that, could ya?” Kitty said, smugly.
“Guess the place wasn’t big enough for two kitties.” Dom said with a snort of laughter.
“ANYWAY,” Bear said, bringing them back to the discussion at hand, “We can use Rak’s fishing pole to lower the meat to the other side of the fence.” She pointed to an empty spot on Woodrow’s diagram, between the gallanash cages, and the nearby perimeter of the Labyrinth. “There.”
“Alright,” Dom said, “Let’s break this down. Who does what and when.”
“Simple.” Jon said, “Kevin and Edward leave around three or four to keep an eye on Braneegan’s place. Come nightfall, Mike, Callie, Woodrow, Rak, and I head off to the car dump with the stuff. When we get there, Callie, Kevin, and Edward go to that spot Bear just pointed out, with the bags of meat and Rak’s fishing pole. The rest of us will head down to the front gate, so Rak can start working on the lock. The gallanash team will feed the gallanashes. When the big cats go down, the gallanash team will head to the front gate to inform the rest of us. The padlock will have been picked by then, and we’ll open the front gate and go in. Except Rak, who will close the gates behind us and remain stationed there until our return. Gallanash team then goes make sure the kitties stay down, by giving them all an extra shot of sleepytime, while Woodrow goes off to get the wagon, and Mike and I go into Braneegan’s shack, with a syringe each of the Taxalax, or whatever it’s called.”
“Why do you need two people for that?” Callie asked.
“Because if Braneegan wakes up,” Jon said, “It may fall on one of us to be the distraction, while the other guy sneaks up behind him to give him the jab of sedative.”
“Oh,” said Callie, “Sounds like fun.”
“After that, Woodrow gets the wagon, should it be there, and drives it up to the front. Everyone gets in. Rak opens the gate and lets us through; closes the gate, re-locks it, and gets in the wagon. Then we drive back home in style. Any questions?”
Heads shook; no one had any.
“Okay then,” Jon said, “Let’s get it done.”
The Team Departs
After the meeting at the planning table, the Dreadniks scattered.
Spencer departed to procure a bottle of Tullaxiffan, Bear and Dom volunteered to go get the syringes, while Wes, Woodrow, and Rak were sent off to get the raw meat with which they intended to sedate Braneegan’s gallanashes. Kitty and Corrina were already set for night watch duty that evening, so they just lounged around and did nothing. Edward and Kevin had a scouting expedition later, so they did the same (Kevin took the opportunity to take a long nap). Peggy and Mike got permission from Jon to go run down a few of the fourteen names and addresses on the pages they had ripped out of the phonebook earlier. Callie intended to go with them, but decided instead hang around with Jon.
She followed him up to the third floor, with its empty offices, dusty with disuse; up another set of stairs to an unlocked door, which they pushed through, to get to the roof.
“Wow, you can see far from here.” Callie said, squinting in the sunshine.
“Yeah, I like to come up here sometimes, and relax.” Jon said.
Callie walked to the edge and looked down. She noticed there was a ladder built into the side wall that could be used to climb down to the ground; it was painted the same color as the building.
“Funny, I never noticed this ladder until now,” she said, “The idiot who decided to paint it the same color as the building practically camouflaged it.”
“I was that idiot.” Jon said, joining her at the edge, “And that was the purpose.”
“Oops! Sorry!” Callie said.
“That’s okay. Most people don’t see it unless they know it’s there, or are really paying attention.” Jon said, “And that’s how we want it.”
He led her away from the edge, to a pair of lawn-chairs. A beach umbrella was set behind the chairs to shield both from the sun. Its top was pockmarked with bird droppings.
“Charming.” said Callie.
“We really ought to clean that every once and awhile.” Jon admitted.
They sat down.
“Can I ask you something?” Callie asked.
“Do you really think we’ll be able to get the wagon out of Braneegan’s place tonight?”
“If I didn’t think so, we wouldn’t be taking the risk.”
“You sound confident. Do your plans usually go off without a hitch?”
“No plan ever goes off without a hitch.” Jon replied, “Certainly not the complicated ones. The trick is to have people on the team who can improvise.”
“Don’t you ever get nervous?”
“I’m always nervous before a Febwith.” Jon said.
The two continued talking, unaware of the figure that arrived just then at the doorway behind them. It was Corrina, and she watched and
listened to the two of them chat with the cozy comfort of old friends…or lovers.
It maddened her to no end.
She herself was never able to even approximate the level of comfort these two had talking, and she knew Jon a hell of a lot better than Callie did. Yet, she was a mess whenever she tried to hold a conversation with him; a stuttering, stumbling mess. In her mind she sounded suave and self-assured; then she would open her mouth, and her voice would betray her, making her sound silly and immature. Childish, even.
A hand grabbed Corrina’s shoulder.
Startled, she whirled about, hand to her mouth to stifle a squeal.
It was Kitty.
“Dammit, Kitty!” Corrina whispered, as she closed the door, “You scared the hell out of me! Don’t do that again!”
“Ooooh!” Kitty said, “Are we spying on someone?” She opened the door a crack and sneaked a look at Jon and Callie, “Oh… I see why you’re pissed off. That Callie chick is with your Jon.”
“That Callie shank, you mean.”
Kitty and Corrina walked down the stairs to the third floor, where they could talk without being overheard.
“Where does that shank get off coming and taking Jon away from you?” Kitty said, “Who the shig does she think she is?”
“It’s all that stupid Rak’s fault, Gods damn him!” Corrina said, “If he hadn’t brought them here, Jon would be that much closer to falling in love with me!”
“Yeah!” said Kitty. She personally didn’t think Corrina had a snowball’s chance in hell with Jon, but she loved selling Corrina her own fantasy back at her, knowing that one day that dream would be punctured. The bigger the bubble, the bigger the boom when it burst; and that was something Kitty did not want to miss when it happened. She did this out of an innate cruelty, though she really did like Corrina and thought of her as a friend. It’s just that she loved melodrama; and she so loved mind games.
“You have to help me Kitty!” Corrina begged, “You have to help me find a way to get rid of her!”
“I don’t know, Cor. If you get rid of her, that’ll get Jon angry at you; then he’ll never fall in love with you.”
Kitty was pleased at the trapped animal look in Corrina’s face. Corrina was faced with opposing problems she did not have the wherewithal to solve, and Kitty loved every minute of it.
“C’mon, Cor. Let’s go to our room.”
Kitty put her arm around Corrina’s shoulder like a good friend and led her down the stairs to the second floor, and their room. She looked forward to working on Corrina’s fears some more.
Who knows? Kitty thought to herself, Pushed hard enough, Corrina might just freak out and kill the shank!
She smiled at the thought, Wouldn’t THAT be fun!
In five hours, Mike and Peggy checked out seven names on the list. The two Longstreets, they checked first. E. Longstreet turned out to be a man, while Liza Longstreet turned out to be a nice, if senile, old widow; who insisted on feeding them cookies and milk as she told them the same story, three times, about how her husband died.
The five Shales they tried consisted of: two young single women who happened to be distant cousins living in the same building; a married couple; a young man whose name, Elizar, had been misspelled on the phonebook (as Eliza); and an actress who had changed her name from Shlak to Shale for her hoped-for career in films.
When they finally made it back to the Wherehouse, exhausted and disappointed, it was already six in the afternoon. Edward and Kevin had already left to their scouting mission, and Spencer had already prepared the raw meat and syringes for the Febwith.
“So how’d it go?” asked Jon. He and Callie were sitting alone at the eating table. The remains of supper were still being cleaned up.
“It was a bust.” said Mike, dejected.
“But we still have seven more names to go.” said Peggy.
“Have you eaten yet?”
“Yeah, we stopped at a place.” Peggy said.
“Well, we leave in about an hour, so make sure and get some rest until then.” Jon said, “Both of you.”
Peggy and Mike went upstairs, and into Peggy’s room. From the sounds, it’s doubtful those two ever got around to getting any rest.
An hour later, they all assembled in the main room; those who were leaving, and those who were to see them off.
“Okay, let’s double check.” Jon said, “We got the meat bags and the fishing pole. Rak, you have your lock picking tools at the ready?”
“Yessir.” Rak said. He held up what looked like a doctor’s black bag, and shook it; the things inside jingled and clinked.
“Wagon keys, Woodrow?”
Woodrow wiggled the keys in affirmation.
“I have my Tullaxafax shot, does everyone who’s supposed to have one, have one?”
“Got mine.” said Mike.
“Likewise.” said Callie.
“This is it then, people.” Jon said, “Let’s go!”
“Good luck!” Bear said to them as they left.
“Don’t get yourselves eaten!” Dom added.
“Take care of yourself, Mike.” Peggy said, and gave him a kiss.
The Febwith Team departed.
One by one, the Dreadniks left behind went up to their rooms. Kitty and Corrina, of course, had night watch duty, and were expected to stay up all night. Bear was the last to go. “Wake me when they get back.” she said, and went upstairs.
Later, when she thought she was alone (Kitty had wandered upstairs for a bit), Corrina went to the table where Spencer had prepared the stuff. The bottle of Tullaxiffan was still there, as was the plastic gallon of water which held the diluted amount. What was in the syringes Jon, Mike, and Callie had taken with them was drawn from this gallon. Beside it, was the box of syringes with needles Bear and Dom had acquired. The box was still mostly full. Corrina took one syringe from the box and removed the protective cap over the needle.
She filled it with Tullaxiffan; not from the diluted batch Spencer had mixed, but straight from the bottle. A killing dose. She recapped the needle.
She turned, and saw Kitty there, looking at her.
For an uncomfortable moment, the two looked across the room at each other without saying a word.
Then, Kitty smiled.
Corrina smiled back, and went upstairs to their room, where she hid the syringe for later.
“Just in case.” she whispered to herself, “Just in case…”
The Febwith Goes Down
When the team at last reached the location, they met up there with Kevin and Edward.
“Anything to report?” Jon asked.
“He closed and locked up already,” Kevin said; a pair of binoculars hung from its strap around his neck, “He released the gallanashes, turned the big lights on, spent an hour or so doing various chores here and there, and then disappeared into his shack. The lights inside have been out about thirty minutes. He drew the shades when he went inside, but you could still tell when they went off.”
“Tell ‘em about the wagon.” Edward said.
“Oh yeah,” Kevin said, “When we got here, the wagon had already been moved.”
“We expected as much.” Jon said, “Can I borrow the binoculars for a second, Kev?”
“Sure.” he said, and handed them to Jon.
Jon brought the binoculars to his eyes, and looked down upon their target destination.
Light poles illuminated the car dump like daylight, and created long shadows in places, mostly in the Labyrinth. Five gallanashes roamed freely inside within its high fenced domain. A dirt road split off the main road, winded it's way down into the basin, and up to the dump’s front gates.
Jon handed the binoculars back to Kevin.
“Okay let’s move, people.” he said.
Jon, Mike, Rak, and Woodrow walked down the dirt road that led to the front gate, while Callie, Kevin, and Edward took a more direct route, down the descending hill, to get to the spot from where they intended to feed the animals.
The gallanash team got to their destination first. They hooked one of the bags of Tullaxiffan-treated meat to the fishing pole.
“Send it off, Kev.” Edward said.
Kevin put the pole to his shoulder, and with as much force as he could muster, whipped it up and forward. The bag flew up, and the expanding line made the reel clickety-clack; but the bag snagged on the pointy tops of the fence, and split open like a slit belly. Its meat guts spilled out and plopped to the ground on the other side of the fence like giant turds. The bag remained stuck to the top of the fence. Kevin pulled on the line hard until the plastic tore, releasing the hook.
“I’m glad we decided against just throwing the bags.” Kevin said.
“Come on; let’s get another one over there.” Callie said.
“And try to get this one across, would’ya?” Edward added.
“I’ll try.” Kevin replied.
Callie and Edward hooked another bag. Kevin hurled it across with better results. This one made it to the other side, and even tore loose of the hook, as it fell.
It hit the ground intact.
Callie and Edward gave Kevin good-natured slaps on the back for this success.
“Good job!” said Callie.
“Well done!” said Edward.
Kevin then drew back the line, but the hook caught and lodged itself into the cross-twist of two fence wires. Kevin fought to unhook it, but it wasn’t moving.
“Shig!” he said, “It’s stuck!”
Mike, Jon, Woodrow, and Rak arrived at the front gate. Rak took out his lock picks from his little black bag, and worked on the padlock. There was a “click”, and the padlock sprung open. Rak removed the padlock and the chain, and put them aside. The fence doors had wheels that allowed them to slide open.
“We wait,” Jon said, “Until the others say it’s safe to go inside.”
The Gallanashes came, all five of them, drawn by the scent of meat. They were not unlike panthers, except that they were hairless; their naked skin a pale and mottled grey. They ate the meat with gusto, and tore open the bag that had remained intact. There were three more yet to deliver.
“I’m going up there.” Callie said.
“To free the line?” Edward asked.
“Shig the line!” Callie replied, and grabbed one of the bags.
She slid the bag’s handle up to her shoulder, and climbed the fence. Edward and Kevin did likewise. The three of them reached the top, and tossed the bags over and down to the gallanashes; who tore into them, and devoured their contents.
“Eat ‘em up, kitties.” Callie said.
“Look at this.” Rak said, gesturing Jon and the others closer to the gate, “What is this?”
There was a line of fishing wire running low across the fence; interwoven with the fence itself. It began somewhere to the right of them, across the right-hand side sliding door, and ended in a single-prong hook that was hooked on one of the links of the left-hand side sliding door. The wire was tied to the hook through an eyelet, and was nearly invisible.
“Looks like some kind of homemade security device.” Jon said, “The unknowing thief slides open the door, pulling the wire, causing what?”
“An alarm,” Rak said, nodding, “And if we hadn’t had to wait, we would have missed it.”
“So, what do you think?” Jon asked, “Do we cut it?”
Rak scratched his chin. “I need to see where this wire leads,” he said, “I don’t want to cut it before I know what it’s connected to.”
Hunched down to the wire’s level, Rak walked off to the right, around the turn of the fence, and followed the wire to its conclusion.
The gallanashes finished their meal, stumbled around comically, like drunks, for a few minutes; and then dropped off, one by one, till none were left standing.
“Okay, they’re all under.” Callie said, “Time to join the others.”
The three left Rak’s fishing pole there by the fence, and took off running.
“The wire leads to a pin,” he said, “If the pin is pulled out by the action of sliding open the fence door, it sets off this contraption of soda cans, cow bells, tire rims, engine parts, and other metal junk that makes a ruckus like the end of the world.”
“Cut the wire then.” Mike said.
“It’s not that easy.” Rak replied, “It’s a double-sided thing. The pin is spring-loaded, so if the wire is loosened from its taut position, the pin is pulled out from the other side; to the same effect. It’s quite brilliant, really. I might just rip off the design one of these days.”
“Braneegan’s gotta have a way of disarming it.” Woodrow said.
“Yes, but we’re not inside, so we can’t disarm it the way he does.” Rak said, “However, I do have an idea.”
At that moment, Callie, Kevin, and Edward arrived.
“The gallanashes are down.” Callie said, “We can go in now.”
“Not quite yet.” Jon said, and explained the situation.
“So what are we gonna do?” Edward asked.
“Rak’s got an idea.” Jon said.
Rak took out a pair of wirecutters and a pair of needlenose pliers from his black bag. Jon and Woodrow followed him a few strides to the right of the right-hand side sliding door.
Rak gave the pliers to Jon and pointed, “Hold the line right there. I don’t know how much pull-back it’s gonna have when I cut the line, but be ready for it. Woodrow, you go over to the hook and be ready to bring it to me once the line is cut.”
Woodrow nodded, and did as told.
“You got a good hold on it?” Rak asked Jon.
“Good thing Braneegan keeps all these lights on,” Rak said, “I’d hate to have to do this by flashlight. Here we go.”
Rak took his wirecutters, and cut the wire some twelve inches to the left of where Jon was holding the line. There was immediate heavy pullback on the wire from the source, but Jon’s deathgrip on the pliers kept it from snapping back.
Woodrow was already there with the hook. He handed it to Rak. Rak used the wirecutters to remove the wire tied and knotted to it. He then passed his hand through the fence, and grabbed the twelve inches of slack wire to the left of the pliers. He ran the wire through the hook’s eyelet, and tied a new knot. He then tensed the line as tight as he dared, and hooked the hook to a fencelink.
“Okay, Jon,” he said, “Let it go, carefully.”
“And get ready to run like hell if this doesn’t work.” Woodrow added.
Jon eased his grip on the wire, and the hook held the wire taut.
“You did it, Rak.” Jon said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I do what I can with what I got.” Rak said.
They slid the doors open and walked through.
“Time to split up, folks.” Jon said, “Good luck everyone.”
Callie, Kevin, and Edward went off in the direction of the sleeping gallanashes, while Woodrow headed toward the Labyrinth, and Mike and Jon walked toward Braneegan’s shack.
Rak remained behind, to await their return. He closed the gate doors after them.
“So how did our scouts miss Braneegan setting the alarm wire?” Callie asked Kevin and Edward, as the three rushed to where the gallanashes were sleeping.
“He was moving around for an hour,” Kevin explained, “Doing this and that. You know how dull it is watching anyone do anything for an hour?”
“It’s BORING!” Edward added.
“So maybe our attention lagged at some point,” Kevin continued, “Or we were distracted by small talk for minute or two. So SUE me!”
“Don’t bite my head off!” Callie laughed, “I was just asking.”
Mike and Jon approached Braneegan’s shack and climbed the two steps up the roofless porch landing. They retrieved their Tullaxiffan shots and popped the caps off the needles.
“Try not to poke yourself with that.” Jon warned, “I’d hate to have to haul your carcass all the way back to the Wherehouse.”
“I’ll try to remember that.” Mike replied.
Jon went up to the solid and windowless front door and tested the knob. It was unlocked. He pulled it open and it moved easy and without a single creak. The utter darkness of the shack stood ready to be breached.
“Well that was easy enough.” Mike whispered.
Jon took a few cautious steps inside, until his foot snagged an unseen tripwire low to the floor. From within the depths of the shack came the loud crashing sounds of metal clanging against metal.
Apparently, Brannegan was quite a paranoid fellow.
Woodrow, only a few steps into the Labyrinth, heard the unearthly metal racket. A moment of uncertainty stopped him, and he was unsure whether to turn back, or go on ahead and hope the others could deal with Braneegan.
He decided on the latter.
Callie, Kevin, and Edward, having just reached their sleeping wards, suffered no such uncertainty. They turned and ran back toward Braneegan’s shack without a second thought.
Rak, back at the front gate, knew what those sounds meant: the febwith had gone sharfle. Or, as Mike and Callie would say, the plan had gone awry.
Rak knew what he had to do.
The Plan Unravels
“WHO THE HELL IS ON MY PROPERTY?!!” came the roar from inside Braneegan’s shack.
Jon tried to back away from the doorway, but enormous hands grabbed him and pulled him into the blackness of the shack. Mike heard a scuffle inside, then Jon was thrown bodily past him, and crashed to the ground a few feet away.
The Tullaxiffan shot in his hand flew free.
Mike, still on the porch landing, looked over at Jon, “Did you get him with the stuff?”
Reply was unnecessary. Braneegan was outside now, all six hairy feet of him in overalls, and loomed over Mike, who looked like a small rodent in the glare of a wullark’s regard. Braneegan grabbed him by the neck with one hand, and pulled him close.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON MY PROPERTY?!!” he shouted in Mike’s face, raining spittle and stench upon him.
Jon got up. There was no time to go searching for his lost syringe. He hoped Mike still had his and would have the presence of mind to use it. He ran up behind Braneegan, jumped onto the porch landing, then onto his back, and crossed his arms around Braneegan’s neck, in a stranglehold.
Braneegan dropped Mike, who remembered at last the syringe in his hand. He raised it up to Braneegan’s chest, like a dagger, brought it down on flesh, and pressed down on the plunger.
Only…it wasn’t Braneegan he hit.
He had missed Braneegan’s chest and had instead injected Jon’s arm, which had moved and shifted in the struggle to keep a hold on the wild man’s neck.
“You got ME, you DINK!” was all Jon managed to get out before he lost consciousness, dropped off Braneegan’s back, and fell to the ground like a sack of dirt.
“Oh…snot.” Mike said.
Braneegan gave Mike a backhand swat that knocked him off the porch. He stomped menacingly down the porch steps towards him.
Just then, from behind, something heavy and red flew through the air and struck Braneegan on the back of the head with a loud, yet musical, THOOMF sound. Braneegan looked aside, as if he had just thought of something interesting, then fell over like a tall tree in logging season. Standing there, a few feet back from where Braneegan had stood, was Rak.
“Never underestimate the power of a pipe wrench.” he said.
Rak spotted Jon’s dropped syringe of Tullaxiffan, and picked it up. He walked over to Braneegan, and emptied its contents into his neck.
Mike got back to his feet. “Thanks, Rak,” he said, “You’re a life-saver.”
Callie, Kevin, and Edward arrived, huffing and puffing from the run.
“What the hell happened?!” Kevin asked.
Mike filled them in on what had transpired.
“Is Jon gonna be alright?” Callie asked.
“Sure. He’ll just be out for several hours,” Mike said, “Kevin, help me carry him over to the front gate.”
From a distance came an animal sound; more yawn than roar, the sound nonetheless froze their blood.
“Is that what I think it is?” Mike asked.
Callie slapped her forehead. “The gallanashes!” she said, “We didn’t check the gallanashes!”
“Should we go back now?” Edward asked.
“It sounds like only one is awake.” Callie said, “If it’s still woozy, maybe we can get to it. I have my Tullaxiffan.”
“Even a woozy gallanash is dangerous.” Kevin said.
“But Woodrow is still over there!” Edward said, “He could be in danger if he hasn’t found the wagon yet.”
“Okay, this is what we do,” Mike said, “First we get Jon outside the gates, then Callie and I will go deal with our woozy gallanash. Kevin and Edward, you guys go look for Woodrow in the Labyrinth. Rak, you stay outside the gates with Jon and wait for us.”
“What if Woodrow shows up after you all leave?” Rak asked.
“You wait.” Mike answered, “You two put Jon in the wagon and wait.”
“What if no one shows up?”
“Then you're on your own.”
This is what happened to Woodrow.
He entered the Labyrinth. He knew it well enough to run through it, even though many parts of it were in the dark. What Woodrow did not know, however; was that in the two years of his ownership of the place, Braneegan had made changes to the layout of the Labyrinth. Minor ones, to be sure, but certain paths were now shut off that weren’t before. One of these was in a dark area. Woodrow entered this dead-end at a full run. When he reached the end of it, he smashed his forehead on an outreaching obstruction, and was knocked out cold. Blood trickled from his forehead, where the skin had broken.
Sometime after that event, Kevin and Edward stopped at the entrance of the Labyrinth.
“We’re gonna have to split up,” Kevin said.
“Splitting up is never a good idea.” Edward said.
“It is if we want to find Woodrow sometime this year.”
“Okay.” Edward sighed, “Good luck.”
The two took off on their separate paths.
When Mike and Callie reached their destination, they found four sleeping gallanashes; one was missing.
“Looks like one didn’t get his fair share of the spiked meat.” Callie said.
“Look.” Mike said, and pointed to a clear line of gallanash tracks that led back towards the Labyrinth.
“Please tell me those came from the Labyrinth, and are not going to the Labyrinth.” Callie said.
“Only one way to find out.” Mike said.
The two started running.
Woodrow awoke in darkness. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but the throbbing in his head, and the blood trickling down his face gave him the facts needed for a guess.
“Idiot,” he murmured to himself, “You shoulda brought a flashlight.”
Somewhere in the darkness, came the sound of a low growl.
Woodrow turned and saw a gallanash enter the dead-end he was currently occupying; drawn by either the scent of the blood, or perhaps the sound of his voice. It had passed through a shaft of light that illuminated the entrance of the dead-end, and then disappeared into its dark mantle.
“Shike!” Woodrow hissed, and got to his feet. He felt a moment of light-headedness, but it passed. He couldn’t see the gallanash anymore, but knew it was closing in on him in it’s slow, almost sluggish, gait.
He knew he couldn’t go out the way he came in, so he turned and started climbing up the car pile at the end of the path.
Then he heard a voice.
“WOOD-ROW!” the voice sing-songed, “WOOD…ROW…!”
It was Edward.
Edward entered the shaft of light at the entrance of the dead-end, and called out: “WOODROW ARE YOU THERE?”
Woodrow sensed rather than saw the gallanash turn around, and start bounding after Edward.
“EDWARD, THERE’S A GALLANASH HERE AND IT’S GOING FOR YOU! RUN!!” Woodrow shouted.
The gallanash roared, not sounding sleepy at all anymore; and that roar, more than anything else, froze Edward where he stood.
Mike and Callie appeared then, from an intersecting path; and as the gallanash pounced, Mike leapt, and knocked Edward out of its way. The two fell to the side, as the gallanash hit the car wall instead. The force of the collision was such that it knocked loose a dangerous rain of bits and pieces from the top of the wall of cars. The gallanash, dazed and bewildered, turned its attention to Callie, who was still standing in the place from which Mike had leapt to save Edward.
“CALLIE!” Mike cried out as the gallanash reared up on its hind legs and leapt at his sister.
The gallanash landed its paws on her shoulders and knocked her to the ground, where it straddled over her; bringing itself face to face with her. In the shaft of light they had landed in, she could see its wild eyes focus on hers.
Callie stifled another scream and stared back; her green eyes to its yellow. The creature seemed fascinated.
A silent battle of wills seemed to be taking place between those two unblinking sets of eyes. Then, abruptly, the gallanash dropped on top of her; as if it had fallen in love and was trying to hug her. When Mike and Woodrow moved the heavy animal off of her, they saw Callie’s Tullaxiffan shot sticking out of its side; its contents all gone.
Callie sat up. Terrified, if unhurt.
Mike, Edward, and Woodrow looked at her with awe.
“How the hell did you do that?!” Mike asked.
“The syringe was already in my hand,” Calle said, “So I figured if I could hold its stare for a second, I could jab it. So that’s what I did.”
Woodrow laughed. “That’s the ballsiest thing I’ve ever seen!” he said, “Amazing!”
“What’s amazing?” someone called out from a short distance away.
It was Kevin. “What did I miss?” he asked.
When they found the wagon at last, Mike saw that the back was empty; all their stuff was gone.
“I guess you were right about that, Woodrow.” he said.
“I usually am.” Woodrow replied.
“You’re an arrogant phote, Woodrow.” Callie said.
They all laughed.
When Rak saw the wagon, and everyone in it, he opened wide the front gates, so they could pass.
“Close the gate and reset the padlock.” Mike told Rak through the lowered driver’s side window, “Then get in the wagon. Woodrow and Kevin, help me put Jon in the back.”
Mike took the keys, got out of the driver’s seat, and opened the wagon’s back hatch. Then, between him, Woodrow, and Kevin, they picked Jon up off the ground and carried him to the back of the wagon. Callie got in the back with him.
Mike closed the back hatch, then walked over and got back into the driver’s seat. Woodrow procured the front passenger seat; Rak, Edward, and Kevin got the back seats.
With high spirits, the team headed home.
When they got back to the Wherehouse, Mike parked the wagon in the back, where it couldn’t be seen from the street. Corrina and Kitty heard their arrival, and awoke the others.
Through the back door, Mike and Woodrow carried Jon inside; there they were met by the other Dreadniks.
“What happened to Jon?” Corrina fretted.
“He’s just out of it.” Woodrow said, “He probably won’t come to till morning.”
“Put him in his room.” Bear said.
Once that was done, they all met back at the ground floor.
“Okay, what happened over there?” Bear asked the team.
“The Febwith went sharfle.” Rak said.
Each one recounted the bit of the story they were involved in.
“Anyway, that’s pretty much it.” Woodrow said, when they reached the end of their tale, “We found the wagon and drove it back here.”
“Well,” Bear said, “The mission was accomplished and nobody died, that’s something. Frankly I’m too sleepy to do the proper head-slapping over some of the bone-headed decisions made in the wake of the original sharfle-point, so let’s just call it a night.”
Everyone agreed. They all made their way upstairs to get some well-deserved sleep (except for Kitty and Corrina, who had night watch).
This would be the last time any of them would ever sleep in the Wherehouse again; the next day, everything would go to hell.
The World Grows Dark
Sometime in the evening, around the time the Febwith Team’s plans were hitting a snag, a white car with MACATTO INSURANCE stenciled on its sides in black paint arrived in Metromax City. The car eventually found its way to an establishment called the Caprice Motel. The car parked in this establishment’s parking lot, and a man emerged from the car. The man walked to the front office and paid for a room. The owner of the motel, a middle-aged red-haired woman named Madelyne Caprice, did not like the look of him, but could find no reason not to take his money and give him a room; so she did. Still, she was so discomfited by the man, she considered calling an old friend of hers, a psychic; but decided against it.
This is not to say that the psychic in question, Rynza Adreynac, was not made aware that something was afoot in her city. As she and her sister Carissa were enjoying a television program in their home (which was also their place of business), Rynza suddenly gasped, and grabbed her sister’s arm in a painful grip, and said: “He is here.”
“Who’s here, Rinnie?” her sister asked.
Early Friday morning found the same white car parked in front of a frain station. The driver got out of the car, walked up to the entrance of the building, and entered.
Inside was a cacophony of voices; the voices of people who sat at, or navigated around, paperwork-cluttered desks. The man walked up to the front desk, and spoke to the officer there for a moment. The officer took down his information, then pointed up to an office on the second floor, and directed the man there. The man walked up the stairs to the specified office. On the frosted window of the office door was writ:
OFFICE OF THE CRELLAT.
Under that, in smaller letters:
The man opened the door and walked inside. There, behind a massive desk, was a small balding man of about forty. He seemed to be sweaty despite the air conditioning, and looked like the kind of man that absorbed punishment for a living. He wore a brown suit and had a thin almost fake-looking moustache.
He had a telephone receiver to his ear and was writing down the information from the officer downstairs. He looked up at his visitor.
Mallacharr’s first fleeting thought upon seeing Charles Longstreet was: this man is a ghoul. He shook this childish idea from his head. True, the man made Mallacharr’s skin crawl, for some reason, but he didn’t LOOK bad. So why did he feel like bolting from the room?
I need a vacation, he thought to himself.
Of course, if he didn’t find and catch the Vignach’s current obsession (the gang of child thieves known as the Dreadniks) sometime soon; the vacation he would receive would be permanent.
“So, Mr. Longstreet,” Mallacharr said, as Charles Longstreet sat down in the chair opposite him, “How did you lose your kids?”
“They ran away.” Longstreet replied.
“Give me their names and ages.”
“Michael and Callindra. Sixteen and fourteen.”
“Where are you from?”
“Noah’s Oak, New Heedol.”
“How do you they came here?”
“A friend tipped me off that they would be here.”
Mallacharr rubbed his fingers to his temples. He was beginning to get a headache. “Mr. Longstreet, the chances of us finding your kids are---“
“They’re with the Dreadniks.” Longstreet said.
“What did---? What?!” Mallacharr stammered; thrown off his stride, and not knowing how this conversation had veered off the road into this, of all tangents. “Did you just say, ‘the Dreadniks’?”
“What do you know of them?”
“Only that my kids are with them.”
“How do you know this?”
“Like I said, a friend told me.” Longstreet said, “He also said that you were interested in catching them.”
“Who is this friend of yours, and how does he know so damn much?” Mallacharr asked.
“Trust me; you wouldn’t want to meet him.”
“Okay, but did your friend happen to tell you WHERE we could find the Dreadniks?”
“Alas, no. My friend is a tad unpredictable with the sharing of information,” Longstreet said, “Sometimes he makes me work for it.”
“What does that mean?” Mallacharr asked.
“That means he told me how I could find out for myself. That’s why I need your help. I need to get the Dreadniks out of my way; otherwise they’ll complicate things.”
“If you can indeed find them, call me. I’ll order a sweep, and catch them all.” Mallacharr said, “Including your children.”
“Understand this, though: my kids are mine. You will hand them over to me when you catch the whole group. No questions, no paperwork, no further entanglements. Do we have an understanding?”
Mallacharr thought it over.
What did he have to lose? The axe looming over his neck was ready to fall, and if this lunatic could succeed where he had failed, who needed to know?
“We have an understanding.” Mallacharr said, and pointed out a small holder with a vertical stack of his cards in it.
Longstreet stood up, took a card, then offered his hand.
Mallacharr was loathe to shake it, but forced himself.
“You’ll hear from me soon, Crellat Mallacharr.” Longstreet said, and exited the office.
Once he was gone and the door to his office closed, Mallacharr grabbed his trash can, and vomited into it.
There was a storage room adjacent to Mallacharr’s office, and in that storage room, Siana Nandehl crouched low, next to an air vent. She had discovered, weeks ago, that it was possible to hear what was being said in the crellat’s office, if she put her ear to the vent.
She heard the exchange between Mallacharr and the man named Longstreet, and it perturbed her. She was a hairsbreadth away from landing Mallacharr’s job, and she wasn’t about to let anyone help him keep it. The Dreadniks were the key to getting Mallacharr axed, and if this Longstreet person was actually capable of finding those kids, he could ruin her plans. She had not risen this far this fast in her career to be stymied by the likes of worms such as those two.
Siana walked out of the storage room and went to her office. No few male eyes followed her; for she was a head turner. She was in her early thirties, and had gorgeous blond hair that she rolled up into a tight bun. Her cold blue eyes looked damn near predatory.
Rak awoke earlier than anyone else in the Wherehouse that morning. The day looked bright and promising, and he was eager to get started on his pounding run.
Once downstairs, something caught his eye: the table where Spencer had prepared the Tullaxiffan. It was all still there; the bottle of the pure stuff, the gallon container of the diluted stuff, as well as the box of syringes. No one had bothered to put any of it away yet.
Always thinking ahead, Rak considered the utility of having a syringe of super knock-out juice at his disposal, against some future moment of need.
He went to the table, removed a syringe from the box, and uncapped it. He unscrewed the top of, and drew a syringeful from, the gallon of diluted Tullaxiffan. He recapped both the syringe and the gallon container, and slipped the syringe in his pants pocket (the same pocket where he kept his special wad of clay).
Finished, he went and prepared his breakfast. He was done before the first of the other Dreadniks started descending the stairs; and slipped out unnoticed.
Pounding was his joy, and he had a particularly fruitful morning. Even this early, he was always able to find easy targets.
He had no need of partners, though they were often forced on him. Even the best of them he found to be cumbersome, and a drag on his quick style. Such was his skill that, most of the time, his targets did not even realize they had been pounded until he was long gone (Mike was one of the few exceptions).
Because of him, the Dreadniks not only survived, they thrived.
It was getting close to noon, when he decided to head back to the Wherehouse for lunch. He was baffin-heavy, and hungry. His homeward route cut across the enormous parking lot of the CityScape Mall, where he had first met Mike and Callie, two nights ago; though now it felt like he had known them forever. Nor was this a recent feeling; he had felt that way not fifteen minutes after meeting them.
Rak marveled at how sure he had been, that they would be allowed into the Wherehouse; and damn if he hadn’t been right! Who could have forseen that? Especially after some of the betrayals and close shaves they’d had to overcome recently (nothing breeds envy amongst the inviduii like success). Rak didn’t need a psychic to tell him that there was something special about the Longstreets; something mysterious that lit them from within.
It was then that Rak entered the long alley between the Jakes and Bozun buildings; the same alley he had led Mike and Callie through two nights ago. In the daytime it didn’t look as spooky as it did at night; though it still looked like the bottom of a great abyss. He was a third of the way through, when he realized that there were no slumped figures at the sides of the alley. True, the homeless and destitute tended to congregate here more at night than during the day; but he had never seen this place as empty as it was now. Plus, there were cloaks and blankets and personal junk strewn at the sides. Things guarded fiercely and fought over by these people; never left behind or abandoned like this. It was as if something had scared them all off suddenly.
Well, not all of them.
At the halfway point of the alley, Rak spied a single figure, slumped under a grey tattered blanket.
I guess he didn’t get the memo, Rak thought, and continued walking, unafraid.
He had walked confidently past such figures many times in the past, sometimes even at night; why should this one be any different?
But, as he neared the slumped figure, some primal intuition at the base of his brain woke up, and began to scream.
Without sound or preamble, the figure rose to it’s feet; the blanket still over it’s head making it look like a grey ghost. It pulled the blanket off; but Rak had already turned back, and began to run.
Without people, objects, or architecture to weave and dodge around, Rak was reduced to depending on mere speed; and though he was fast, he felt a cold hand grasping at his back.
It would have him soon, if he didn’t do something.
Rak tried to duck and whip around, to get his pursuer to stumble (a trick that had worked for him before), but the grasping hand managed to hook in on the back of his shirt collar.
Rak’s feet flew out from under him as his attacker lifted him up, and hurled him against the side of the building. Rak remembered the syringe in his pocket; but it was already too late. He smashed against the wall, and his world went black.