BLACK TRACE - chapter 2
The cover still looks like this.
No, I'm not serializing the whole thing. First three-four chapters though, that's a definite possibility.
Two nights after.
The Colorado River bled out just past the town of Parker, Arizona. It was barely even a sluggish and muddy strip out here. Between the baking sun and the strangulation of the dams upstream, only seasonal runs remained. The last of the winter rains had fed it, plumping it up to a damp stream.
Marquez could smell the river more than he could hear it now. People looked at him funny when he said he could smell water, but that was just an easy way to tell if anyone had ever been in the desert. If you had, then the sweet smell of fresh water hung heavy in the air like a woman's perfume or a barbeque and you felt it in your bones.
It was about the only thing about this duty that wasn’t terrible. The River was dammed to a shadow of its former self, but for a few months a year. Even the best work of the Federal States couldn’t hold it back. And hey fuck California and the rest of them for stepping out, right? You don’t piss off the man who lives upstream, not if you want to drink that sweet fresh.
He swept his glasses to the west uselessly, out of habit. The sun was down and the sky soaked orange at the horizon. The box girders of the broken railroad bridge formed a makeshift fence to the north and the concrete of highway sixty-two walled things off to the south. Beyond that the low and lazy peaks of Whipple caught the last of the sun and wore it like a crown they’d never earned.
The remnants of last night’s barricade had melted in place, fused to the bridge deck. It only covered most of the crossing, but enough to scare the hell out of anyone who wanted to try it without paying their bite. Plastic and glass, mostly from old television sets and whatever other junk got left there, glittered darkly.
“Whatchu looking west for? Ain’t nobody ever comes there.” Rawls blurted out his words like they were too-hot coffee.
“Remind me,” Marquez asked, “which one of us is in charge?”
Rawls stared at him and Marquez could actually see him trying out different answers in his head before giving up.
“Uh, that’d be me,” Rawls said finally, missing the joke.
“Another of life’s numberless tragedies.” Marquez put the glasses down, having seen nothing but the beaten desert going from copper to pale lavender in the sunset.
“You aren’t being insubordinate, is ya?” Rawls demanded.
He’d only been there a week, dropped off alongside another shipment of diesel and a ragged assortment of supplies. Like everything else that ended up at the Parker Crossing, he’d been left there by mistake.
Not Marquez, though. He picked the post because nobody expected a damn thing to happen there, so if he made something go right, then that would be a big fat plus by his name. Out here in the nobody-gives-a-fuck, hind teat on a dying river, Marquez had watched a procession of increasingly incompetent superiors dumped off and then ground down by the grit and the wind and the sob stories of the westies trying to get out of the Federal States and cross the desert to the promised land.
Yeah, nobody ever came from the west, but they wanted to get to it. Only the junk dealers and smugglers, at least those smart enough to pay their grease up to the guards. Those who didn’t…well, the desert is a very big place and the soil turns pretty easily in most spots. If you even bother to dig.
Marquez understood that Rawls didn’t know and he didn’t want to. He only wanted to be sent back to Tallahassee or what-fucking-ever place he’d come from first.
“I’m gonna go take a shit and then I’ll light up the barricade.”
At least all that kerosene and diesel that got dumped here had some use, Marquez thought. When confronted with a five-foot wall of burning industrial waste, most folks were happy to pay whatever it took to find another route. Westies gotta cross. It’s in them just like hunger.
“Make it worth your while,” he said with a bitter spit as Rawls walked away.
Maybe that promotion would come through sooner rather than later and then it could be him telling the pukes what to do while spending an hour at a time in the privacy of the stalls.
He looked to the east and saw the glint of an approaching windshield. The river burbled, half-dead as the car rolled to a stop. Black shell, dusty, federal markings, armed enough to roll solo out here or wherever else it wanted. No touching.
There was a moment as the side window just reflected the dusk of the sky and then rolled down smooth. Marquez saw the bar on the black leather and made an effort to stand a little taller. Maybe his ship had just come in.
All the same, he wondered why the hell this guy was out here. There weren’t any trades working that he knew about, and he’d be the guy to know. The man behind the wheel gleamed sweat in spite of the cool. Marquez smelled westie on him. He caught the name CULVER on the jacket. If it had even belonged to him.
“Evening,” the man said, slow.
“Almost there,” Marquez replied. “Still see a little gold.” He eyed the car from tip to toe and saw that it had been shot at a couple times, maybe fresh. Dust from the road in made it tough to tell. “What brings you out here to the nobody-gives-a-fucks?”
The man turned so he could look Marquez straight in the eye. He had the feel of someone who was used to being in the pursuit position, eyes forward, catching up and not about to let you pull ahead. Being out in front and alone wasn’t something he was used to. He was wanting to make a crossing, westie all the way.
“Doesn’t matter,” the man said finally. His face was drawn tight from adrenalin and riding nerve for however long he’d been on the run.
This wasn’t Marquez’ ship, but it might be a good chance to turn in a runner, get some points with the regional command. “I suppose,” he replied. “What matters is the here and now, right? The first day of the rest of your blissful and eternal fuckitude.”
The man said nothing, not even swallowing hard. Eyes forward.
Marquez glanced around, not wanting to give away how little backup he actually had. The guard post wasn’t that big, so trying to front that he had five packed guards just waiting to bust a skull was a non-starter. And in truth, he didn’t trust Rawls to wipe properly much less pull his fat out of a fire.
“You got a name? Lemme see if you’re on the list.”
The guy nodded, squinting his dark eyes hard at Marquez. “Jake Culver.”
“Not ‘Lieutenant Jake Culver’?”
“I don’t answer to it, no.”
Marquez nodded as he fished out his tablet. Half the screen only showed shades of red and the other half was scratched to useless. But it worked, which was better than the computer inside the shack.
His eyes rolled back up after an appropriate interval, at least playing at a thoughtful examination of the list. He didn’t see Culver’s face anymore. He focused on the pistol barrel instead.
Culver was holding the gun where it could be seen, but not yet leveled. He’d slipped back to a pursuit position and had known exactly what to do, and fast.
“Oh come on, soldier,” Marquez said. “No need for that.”
“Now there isn’t. I wasn’t so sure a minute ago.” Culver swept his eyes without moving to lose sight of the other man. “How many with you?”
“Half. On a good day.”
Culver smirked as if he understood exactly. “Un-holster yours. Steady. Then kick it under the car.” Hunted, he might be, but he was sure enough when it came to giving out orders.
The battered nine-mil skated along the pavement. “What is this? You’re not heisting us.”
Culver shook his head and angled it so he could see the shack now. He was unshaven, a couple days past regulation scruff, brown hair almost black, cut close. If he had been sweating before, it was gone now.
“You got nothing to heist.” He glanced away from the shack. “Just passin’.”
“Well pass already then.” The guard shifted impatiently. “You got the look of a westie on you. Could smell it.”
“‘Westie’? Is that what you call folks on their way out?” He worked over the word in his head, trying the fit.
“Yeah. Get a lot of the water works. Lot of asking for anything, just chance man, just a chance.”
“And it pays okay?” Culver did some figuring and pulled the scam out of the assignment. “I mean, you let ‘em around or you don’t, right?”
Any hopes of a plus next to his name were blowing away on a thin wind now. Marquez cursed his useless boss, having walked right into a shakedown.
“Look,” he spluttered. “Just take what you want. We got nothing out back but fuel and some canned corned beef. You take it and forget my name, forget anything even happened out here.”
Culver shook his head slowly. Then he said, “Step back slow.”
Marquez did as he was told, no hesitation.
The sky over the place was a dusty purple now and the broken bridge to the north looked like a crash site.
Culver popped the door and stepped out of the car, watching the entire time. The gun was holstered now, but his hand was near it. He’d drawn it quick and quiet enough before that Marquez figured any lunge would just earn him a free bullet.
The black leather hung on Culver with a weight. He shrugged off one arm then the other like he was shooing a fly.
“You got a useless supervisor?” Culver asked after looking the other man up and down.
Why the hell not? Thought Marquez. He’d already lost by opening up the place to a shakedown and all but admitting fleecing the westies going through, westies he was supposed to be stopping.
“Yeah. He’s useless. Goddamn corporals who think they know the way.”
Culver threw his jacket to Marquez with his gun hand. He caught it like it was made out of glass.
“Keep the bar. I won’t be needing it where I’m off to.”
Marquez shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
“You read me right enough,” Culver said. “Going out west.” He looked out past the muddy purple vein of the river staggering through, cutting a border between Arizona and California, between federal and free land.
“You expect me to thank you?” He flexed, liking the weight of the coat on his arm and the copper-colored insignia fit him real well, pulled the cocoa from his skin tone.
Culver shook his head. “Nah. I just want you to forget you ever saw me. Same as you wanted from me just a moment ago.” There was a smile on his face, but it was forced and fit poorly. He wasn’t out yet.
“Done.” He threw the coat around himself. It was cleaner than his, save for some dust and sun-beat on the left side. “Anything else?”
“I’ll take some of that canned hash you got.” Culver shot a look to the shack, fit to blow over in the next dust storm. “Unless you were just pulling my chain there.”
His smile was as sheepish as a wolf in wool. “They chart that stuff.”
Culver made a noise through his teeth. “Figures.” He turned and climbed back into the car. “Check the right front pocket there. Go ahead.”
Marquez’ hand closed around a bundle of scrip cards, hard plastic that felt like boiled fingernails. He pulled it out, all of them tied with loops of fake leather. Must have been twenty-five of them or more.
“None of those will spend where I’m bound. Maybe you can make use of them.”
The band slipped off with a tight snap. He fanned the cards out and read some of the names off, barely moving his lips as he did. Pennman’s, Torchco, Burn Heaven and Lester Brothers. All of them contracted to serve out to the Federal States, with this scrip acting as money since the real thing wasn’t so real anymore.
“How do I know I’m not being handed a fistful of duds?”
“Shit, what does it matter?” Culver said with a resigned and flat sneer. “You get ‘em for free and claim whatever you can. Those names still ring, least for now. Besides, beats shaking down people for their life savings, don’t it?”
Marquez shrugged, enjoying the new heft of the jacket. He palmed the cards and slipped them into his pants pocket. “So that’s it?” he asked with brazen disappointment.
Culver paused, one hand on the keys and the other on the wheel, gripping it hard. “You might want to quit while you’re ahead,” he said. The engine kicked over and the pipes blasted a fresh layer of dust off the road. “How far you think I got?”
He tightened his gaze down to a stare. “You? I think you got a long way.” He backed down then, remembering he was downrange. “But if you’re talking miles, it’s more than a hundred to Joshua Tree as the vulture flies. Them’s hard ones, too. Smugglers and crazies and ghouls.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking west. “They set traps. You see someone who looks like they need help? You just roll past that noise.”
“Hey, I stopped here, didn’t I?” Culver asked with a smile. “Can’t be worse than what I come from,” he said, flat. “Where’s the route past that crap on the bridge?”
The other man pointed with a curved arm. “There’s enough room to nose past if you don’t mind scraping the paint on one side or the other. It ain’t lit so you’ll do okay.”
Culver grunted as if he wasn’t worried about resale value. “I’d thank you, but I think that’s all reversed.”
“Then I owe you one. You’re welcome to collect any old time,” Marquez said with a grin. “But you won’t see me on that side. These colors never run.” He pointed at the flag on his new leathers.
“Suit yourself.” The window slid up and just reflected the blank bruise of a sky.
The cruiser rolled forward and picked up speed as it approached the slag barricade. It didn’t tiptoe past, instead clipping the side hard. Glass and plastic exploded in sharp-edged debris and the right side of the wall shuddered. A couple of old Sony flatscreens cascaded to the bridge deck, breaking into pieces.
The cruiser only picked up speed as it headed west.
“Good luck, asshole,” Marquez said and then loosed a lunger to the west. It was the least they deserved for turning their backs when they could have offered a hand instead.
The door to the shack slammed open, metallic and hollow. He swore he could smell the stink where he stood, blotting out the sweet of the river.
“The fuck was that?” Rawls asked, tugging at his belt and pained.
“Just passing through. No big business.”
Rawls paused to goggle at the stripes on Marquez’ upper arm. “Hey, that’s a nice coat.”
“Yeah,” he said with a grin. “And the bar says that you can kiss my ass for a while.”
Rawls flushed with anger, but the light just made him turn pink and speechless.
“I’m goin’ into town and visiting Torchco. Keep the seat warm for me.” He clapped his subordinate hard on the shoulder and walked over to his car. It was going to be a good night.
Here's the following chapters for ease of consumption.
The whole book should be along in early fall. Hopefully.