BLACK TRACE

June 2, 2020

The rest of this is coming this summer. Unless someone wants to actually publish it and then it'll be on their terms. Right now it's on mine.

 

This book was largely written in 1991. There were some edits around 2012, some additions, but not all that much. (Note - sharpened up from last week's draft.)

 

Here's the cover. Or close enough.

 

 

Here's the first chapter:

 

-

 

Denver slept restless, a fevered child sleep. Yellow light from scattered dying fires spilled onto the street. Lazy drifts of smoke blew across the ruined downtown, passing through the exposed steel of the skyline. 

 

The streets were deadened, hours after the chants and roar of the mobs and the men who routed them. Every federal cop in Denver had been out there on the streets of downtown, no troops left to quiet the suburbs and the drift beyond. Lone Monitor APCs mounted with shotguns and gas streamers patrolled the streets now, squat and ground-low as mechanical bulldogs.

 

Harvester teams picked over the bodies of the wounded and dead, selecting for any parts that could fetch a price. Their white suits were clean and fresh as new snowmen among the tangles of wreckage. Skinnies crabbed through the shadows, fishing up spent shell casings or anything valuable enough to be traded or eaten. Others settled themselves with the body of a dead horse that had been ridden by one of the leaders of the rioting citizens. Fresh meat for once.

 

This was the fifth straight night that the citizens of Denver had risen against the keepers of law and order. Nerves and skin rubbed raw even under ballistic vests and Kevlar. The fuse couldn't burn much longer.

 

-

 

The locker room was tight and hot, muscle to tac-vest as the men suited up for tonight's game. 

 

“Spirit of seventy-six in the crowd,” someone said. “Skinnies are restless.”

 

“They singin’?” Loomis asked, a deep voice from the well of the Monitor APC.

 

“Oh yeah. ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Line Them Up.’” Willen laughed at that. “Can’t go wrong with the classics, right?”

 

Garrett shifted, like his wovens were chafing. They never fit him right, not even the new gear. “We go out there and brandish and they’ll shut right up,” he hissed.  He drew quick out of his holsters, tens lined up low and ready to spray. It was about the only thing he was any good at, good enough to get him to sergeant and no further.

 

Culver stood at the door and checked his holster straps. Tight. No accidents. “You are gonna check your fire tonight, Little G,” he said cold. His eyes were on Garrett like the nightsun spot on a hovering Bell Raven.

 

“Someone's lost his taste.” Garrett drew to full height, not that it made a difference. “We don’t get to come home if we don’t crack skulls.”

 

Culver didn’t even look at the sergeant, passing on the bait. “Depot’s low, and our re-up got sent to St. Louis instead.”

 

“St. Louis?” Willen asked with bright eyes wide. “That was all locked down. Remote-kill, full clips.”

 

Culver shook his head. “Some wise guys jammed the whole flock, turned ‘em on the garrison there. Death from above. They got to watch it coming on their own monitors.”

 

“Can they do that?” Loomis question was scarred by disbelief. “They” meant the thousands of rebel groups, from single cells to known movements, any of which would gladly trade a kidney for a pistol and five bullets to make five dead cops.

 

Culver tapped at the slate then closed it up. “Sure enough. You think they're following a rulebook?” he replied. “So maybe it’s good that we aren’t remote-controlled out here.”

 

“Never send a machine to do man’s work,” Garrett said with a lick of his lips like he wanted it. “Unless you aren’t man enough for it.” He wouldn’t shut up. He could smell Culver’s single bar and wasn’t going to be stopped. 

 

He was tall, slow until he needed speed, then he had it to spare. His eyes snapped back onto Garrett and took his size. “I’m gonna need you on shield wall tonight.”

 

Sharp white smile flashed back, saying no fucking way without a word. “Hey look, I need ten bones, can you gimme that?” ‘Cause you know the second the gates open the skinnies are gonna be all over us like we were made of cat food.”

 

“I wouldn’t give you ten bones for the last steak on the planet,” Culver growled. “Now are you on shield or does the captain have to tell you straight?”

 

Garrett’s blue eyes narrowed tight as his sneer. “Real leader would make me.”

 

Culver took the two steps to reach him in the time it took to blink. They were nose to nose, out of space between. “I would right now if our line wasn’t so goddamn thin tonight. Every man out there. Even half-men.” His eyes flicked up and down as obvious as a middle finger.

 

Hands open and at his side, Garrett backed down. “Hey, this is all too serious for me, man. You want me breakin’ skinnies, you got it. All night.”

 

Culver’s breath hissed out slow but he didn’t move away until the other man did. Someone coughed and the moment passed, but fingers of it still hung like sweat-stink.

 

“Ya ain’t supposed to call ‘em that,” Loomis said. He had two gold teeth, which in the dim of the APC offload platform made him look snaggle-toothed. “You can only do that if we’re overseas. Captain will chew your nuts clean off.”

 

Garrett laughed. “Fuck ‘em. They act like skinnies, I’ll call ‘em that.”

 

-

 

The scarecrow of a man ran from the fuel depot, past the concertina wire and the white burn of the night-sun spotlights. He flew down the slick streets, jerry can pulling him to one side as he tried to corner.

 

Two cops from the building, Culver and the captain, followed him past the jeers of the crowds and the sweeping lights. The captain brought the butt of his pistol down on a grasping white hand, tight at his belt. There was a crack and a cry and the crowd pulled back like a slug on salt. 

 

Boots scraped hard on ice and Culver heard it over the resurgent taunts. He pointed down the asphalt. That way. Shadows stood out black and sharp, cut by the moonlight now, out of the reach of the spots. He was still in reach, can thudding against stone and giving his position away.

 

The runner turned down a side street, out of the blue light and through the yellow curtain of a sodium lamp. He was still within blocks of the supply center; there would be streetlights and power for another three or so, then the darkness would keep him. The half-crumbled brick wall he hid behind was scarred with bullet holes and propaganda. Ice speared through his chest with each breath. He knew that he’d never shake those flagfaces while hauling the can, but there wasn’t any safe place to stash it, scavs would be on it the second his shadow cleared the alley. 

 

But he shot a cop, a flag at that. There wasn’t any take-back there. No undo. Don’t be seen shooting a cop if you’re going to do the rise up. Plain sight was a death sentence.

His breaths came out in white vapor that rose up and flashed yellow when the light touched them. There wasn’t a way out, not that he could see or even imagine. He held his breath until the red hands grabbed his chest.

 

The flags turned down the same alley and stopped. The tall one tried to peer through the drops of slow rain beginning to fall into the cone of light. Their breaths were careful and measured. They could keep their pace all night long. He cursed the pain that cut his chest to hot ribbons. Light glinted off their badges and the tall one’s shotgun.

Coughing hard enough to bleed, the runner exploded. Fear and pain boiled and bubbled out of him in a spasm. 

 

Both the cops stopped dead. The heavy one turned on a flashlight, stabbing a beam of light to the back wall. A piece of graffiti saying “US OUT OF NORTH AMERICA” was spelled out in dripping black letters. He spat, deep.

 

The runner froze and prayed that the flags would look past him. Another coughing fit squirmed in his chest. He clenched his teeth together, caught his lip and blood seeped warm into his mouth. His face shook for a moment and then he coughed again, spitting. Maybe they wouldn’t see, maybe they wouldn’t know.

 

They heard the noise and ran around the corner, boots sounding heavily on the concrete. They watched as the man ran down the dead end alley. His thin arms and legs faintly outlined in the flashlight beam like oversized matchsticks. He held the jerry can in one hand as he fumbled for handholds with the other one, still clutching the now-cold pistol. 

The tall flag cocked his shotgun and the runner turned, arms dropping. His pale face was burned into a skull by the white of the heavy one’s flashlight. 

 

They didn’t even have faces, just badges and uniforms. The light burned his eyes, watery and weak. His pitted and scratched .38 clattered as it hit the ground. He didn’t even need to be told.

 

The flags were silent, looking at him pinned in the flashlight beam like a butterfly in their collection.

 

“C’mon, man,” the runner said. “What d’you say? I mean, this kero was just to keep my family going until next…”

 

“Just shut up,” said the heavy one.

 

“You want I should cuff him, captain Payson?” asked the tall and faceless flag.

 

The runner thought he had been afraid before, but he had been kidding himself. He wanted to throw up but with nothing in his stomach he simply coughed. “Payson…? Oh, Jesus, if I had known this was your beat now, I…” He was pleading, falling to his knees. One hand held the can, the other went around and behind, grabbing his own neck.

 

Payson quietly as he walked over to the thief. He ripped the jerry can out of the kneeling man’s fist, fingers bony and brittle. “No, Culver. We won’t be taking him into custody.” He worked the top off the can with a metallic pop. Then he jarred the container, heavy liquid slopping out and splashing onto the runner’s neck and chest.

 

“Jesus, I’m sorry!” he cried, spittle and kerosene dribbling down his chin. “I’ll never do it again!”

 

“You say it, but you don’t mean it,” said Payson. “So I’ma help you keep your promise.”

The can made an empty noise as it bounced off the rain-slick concrete.

 

Payson opened his long black leather jacket and took a cigar out of the shirt pocket. He passed it under his nose, taking in the Carolina tobacco. 

 

“What are you doing?” 

 

The captain had never been one to follow the book when it didn’t suit him, more in the recent past. But this was something else. A sort of distracted resignation hung on him now, as if he’d had a private epiphany and was now let down by it.

 

“You got a light?” the heavy man asked with a gravel voice.

 

The runner’s eyes flicked between the two men, wondering how he could walk out of this. Maybe the crazy would eat both of them.

 

Culver shook his head. “I’ll cuff him. Judge can sentence him however he likes.”

 

“Cop killers get to shake hands with someone bigger than a judge.” He rolled the cigar between his lips. “Light me.”

 

Payson wasn’t tall, but he was big and heavyset as middle age had put its hands on him. Time was mashing granite to clay, but not to dust. His eyes were black and what sat in them now made Culver cold to his heart.

 

But a stare-down would only be a loss. The captain wouldn’t take to that. Culver took a step to the shivering little man who kneeled and slumped in the alley now.

 

There was a flare of yellow light from behind and the fingernail-chalkboard sound of a match lighting.

 

“Stop right there,” Payson warned.

 

Culver didn’t turn. “Come on. Get to your feet.” He reached out a hand to the runner.

The tossed match touched runner and flames followed, like ripples in a splashing pond. Heat smacked Culver hard. Then the orange light flared hungrily as the flame ate. He leaped back from it by reflex.

 

Payson took a long step closer, sucking hard on the cigar. He watched the burn instead of his partner.

 

“We’re here to keep order!” he spat. “My job is to decide how.” 

 

Payson’s announcement was punctuated by a strangled cry from the thief. Culver turned to face the flames, following the heat. It didn’t look like a man in the fire. Not a real person, but a thing made of straw and screams now.

 

The report of the shotgun was sharp, echoing for a moment as the voice bled into echo and died out. There was only a crackling as hearing returned.

 

Payson turned to face him, cigar blowing smoke like a renderer’s smokestack. “Now you've done it.”

 

He lowered the shotgun barrel, but not to ground.

 

“Raise it or drop it,” the captain grated.

 

The barrel eased down to vertical after a long moment in the flickering alley. 

 

“He was dead anyway. Does it matter how?”

 

Payson moved in, grim and unsmiling. “They're going to see that gunshot wound now. They'll think we're soft. That we're too weak to do the job.”

 

“What job? Who's they?” 

 

Payson turned away again, looking upon his work. “Asking questions.” He spit at the body and it sizzled. “That ain’t your job, soldier. It’s staying alive so we all can.”

 

The runner looked like he was sitting now, cross-legged at alert attention. 

 

 

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