BLACK TRACE - Chapter 6
Yeah, I know. I said I wasn't going to put up another chapter. I lied.
I might lie again.
Rest of this week will be pretty quiet. Real life will be intruding and demanding a lot of time and energy. But I've got thoughts. Boy, do I ever.
Jake watched the skeletons of the chaparral pass by in the white glare of headlights. The moon was a crooked smile low on the horizon as he glanced at it through the rear screen.
He couldn’t let it go. Something in him had clicked. The petty distraction of the bitcaster fishing for a story was already forgotten. Something more raw was eating at him now. Old memories started running again in tighter and tighter loops. Moments locked and relived like micro-animations stuck into advertisements at the edge of fitful sleep. He knew what was waiting, every time he blinked his eyes closed. The pleasure of the rear-view mirror held tight. He enjoyed it like picking at a scab, seeing how much he could peel off without bleeding, but then it would catch with a sharpness.
He thought about bronze badges and the smell of black leather and cordite. The sound of boots scraping across concrete grated in his ears.
But those weren’t the worst. No, when he really wanted to feel it, he’d think about perfume and the sound of her voice. Or maybe he’d let himself touch her skin and her mechanical pulse and hear the exploding china and glasses filled with white wine.
That’s it. You got it in there, now twist it around.
Go ahead, smell the antiseptic on the green walls of the ICU, listen to the perfect artificial rhythm of that heart. Feel her hand once more as you curl it into a fist…
A sudden noise jabbed through the joyless reverie. Irritated, Jake said, “Receive.”
“Jake?” asked a Kentucky-smooth woman’s voice. “You where the board says you are?”
“Hey, Lois. Thought you’d quit. And yes, the board sees all.”
League Registered Services was on the nosy side sometimes, but they paid promptly and the jobs they hooked contractors up to were only rarely shady. Their percentage was a small price to pay for steady income and avoiding the trouble of hunting up work. Someone always had a job they wanted doing and were willing to pay for, even on the wrong side of Joshua Tree.
“Turns out that my landlord only wants cash, so here I am.” He could hear a clacking of keys on the other side. “I got a hot one for you.”
The desert in his headlights rolled by like fish bones in a flood.
“All-State Medical transport. Post-departure protection contract. They’re invoking. Double pay.”
“I bet they’re wishing they’d bought an escort before.”
“And now they need someone to pull their fat out of the fire.” It almost sounded like “far”.
“Four and a half minutes east at current speed.”
“They’re lucky I was in the neighborhood.”
“They’re lucky anyone is,” she said with more than a little disbelief.
“Okay. I’ll claim the job. Standard terms.” Jake ticked off the list in his head: fuel, ammunition, time, risk factors and that sweet post-departure bonus. Trouble was not knowing how hard he’d have to work to earn it, but that was part of the gig.
“And when you finish that one, I got a whole sheaf of jobs from Long Beach south. I swear it’s like they save them for me.”
“And you keep asking and making me feel bad for you because you haven’t figured out—”
“Oh goddammit, Jake.” Her voice was clipped through the connection, but the irritation rang through. “You’re leaving so much money on the table it makes everyone hurt. People laugh at you, you know that?”
“Then find me more jobs in places that I’ll go.” He breathed out his anger. Plenty of reasons not to go back, compelling enough to ignore the siren call of easy money. “Good thing the risk index on jobs out here pays so well, right?”
“I suppose. If you don’t have any place better to live,” Lois snapped.
“Only thing to worry out about here is rattlesnakes.”
“And guys shooting at ambulances.” More clicking. “Processing. Filed. Payment on completion and clearance.”
“I know you’re good for it.”
“And what exactly do you do with all this hard-earned?”
“Pay my bills and stay out of trouble. Goodnight, Lois.”
He snapped the connection closed then pressed on the accelerator. The thrumming became an insistent roar. He killed the headlights and activated the IRiS. The landscape went dirty white on black, infrared beams bouncing invisibly but lighting up the HUD like early twilight. He wasn’t taking any chances. Paladin he might be, but there was enough wrong out there to take precautions.
Ten kilometers to the east, the ambulance’s nose was dug into the rocky hill at the side of the road. The rollers still flashed, coloring the land a lurid red and then plunging it into predawn black. Dust settling, only the slow issue of steam from the rumpled hood fingered along.
Five bikes rolled out of the dark, riders admiring their new installation. They had followed the van since it left Blythe. The red cross spray-painted on its panels called them like a nail to the eye. Medical. Supplies and drugs for the taking, and probably not willing to shoot back.
But they lost two men getting that part wrong.
“Just that much more for us,” said the lead biker. He was a huge chunk of a man. Heavily muscled and scarred arms laid across chromed handlebars. He wore a denim jacket with the arms ripped off and woven chaps that were caked with grease and red dust. His freshly shaved head shone, skull tattoo on his scalp clean and bright.
Nobody had crawled from the wreckage and they didn’t smell like Custers willing to make a last stand over whatever they carried.
His 350 Iron Horse spat and snorted, idling badly. Dirty fuel and dust made it run worse standing than at speed. Grime clung to the oversized cylinder heads, hiding the pitted steel. Boss felt the heat coming off the cooling fins and the warm vibration of the road still ran through his body like the after-tremor of sex. Goddamn but he was a free man.
Four other motors rumbled and died, one of them making a clattering noise of bad valves. The new silence was broken only the steam and the panting of the men after the takedown.
“Halloran, Jones,” growled Boss. “Open our package.”
“Eat it,” said Halloran. “You said they’d be lambs and now Boots and Clay ain’t going home.”
“They just went home. Boots and Clay got anxious and stupid and too close. I got no room for stupid in this pack.” He pointed at the wrecked Chevrolet. “They went into that hill at sixty. If they’re alive, they’re not going to hassle us.”
Halloran spat and ran a hand through his grimy Mohawk, bright orange in his headlight. He gestured to the other man and marched to the wreck, hand wrapped around a slab-sided 1911 Colt that still had a full clip. Jones held a crowbar that he could seemingly barely lift.
Sand crunched lightly under his boots as he approached the ambulance. He took the bitten crowbar and started on the back doors. After a few fumbling and impatient seconds he threw the steel down, enraged.
“It’s jammed,” he whined. Jones was anxious. He hadn’t even seen a fix in days.
Time was something they didn’t have. Blueboys might be on their way if any were around to hear any distress call. They’d been paying attention, pretending that they gave a shit about these stretches of road again. It wasn’t like they’d just taken down a corporate convoy. This was a nobody.
Everyone was jumpy and juiced on the adrenalin from the kill. Boss thought about the last hand grenade he had. It was a brand new F-5, right from a Cal-Intercept 40-mil launcher. It would do the job and he could get more if he made the right connections. Besides, you gotta use what you have now.
“Halloran,” said Boss as he tossed the grenade. “Back door.”
Halloran caught the grenade with his open hand and placed it carelessly on the ground at the back end of the wreck, jamming it under the door hinge. He twisted the pin, then scrambled away from the ambulance, skidding on loose rock and settling for lying face down just out of range of the blast.
The grenade blew with a piercing flash and shockwave that went like a two-by-four to the face. The ambulance’s back door hung open like a loose tooth. Halloran clambered in.
“Well… Look what we got here,” Halloran said, laughing. There was an un-oiled squeak of broken wheels and then a screech. Halloran emerged from the van, pulling what looked to be a stretcher, occupied.
“The juice, man! Get the juice!” Jones whined.
The woman on the stretcher didn’t seem to notice what was going on around her. She was breathing through a respirator and a series of tubes through her mouth and nostrils.
“What d’you think, Boss? Meat on them bones.” He held up her arm like he was at market.
Boss’ tongue snaked out and around his lips for an instant. “Drop her. Just grab the stuff, we haven’t got room.”
“I got room for her,” said Nails with a laugh.
“Drop it!” Boss growled. “Stick to what you’re good at.”
Halloran shook his head at the lost opportunity. “Sorry, baby, it would have been fun.”
“Grab the juice!” Jones’ voice bit like broken glass.
“Oh, shut the…” Halloran’s voice dropped off. He held up a hand, demanding silence. “You hear that?”
Both men craned their heads and listened. Under the wind there was a growl coming up on them.
“Yeah,” grunted Boss. “Big engine, burner. Might be Cal-I.”
He looked around. No lights.
“Mount up!” he shouted.
Halloran and the others ran to their bikes. Even Jones dropped his quest for the perfect fix and ran to his sidecar. They were kicking their engines over when it found them.
Blue rounded the bend at 140 clicks per. They couldn’t even see dawn on the car by the time Jake was on them. When he saw the parking lights of the bikes, he slammed the spotlight on.
Two million candlepower hit the bikers like the wrath of God burning away the night and any shadow. Anyone who looked Blue’s way would be dead blind for a solid minute. Jake held off on the fire, giving them a chance to be smart. He snapped the lights off after he sped past. No reason to give these buzzbomb jocks a free target.
“You see it?” Boss asked. “Doesn’t sound like Cal-I.”
“I couldn’t see anything ’cept that damn spot!”
“Pull out! If he comes back around, hole him out!”
They shook the dancing lights from their eyes and started up, tires kicking up rooster tails of sand and spent cartridges that glittered in the moonlight. Jones fired off a couple of shots with a .44, but they all went into the wall of fading white that played on his eyes now.
“Knock that the fuck off until you can see him!” Boss roared.
Boss took off on his bike, peering through the scope of his Browning’s camera, seeing nothing. The smell of burning alcohol flared through his nostrils as he clamped down on the throttle. Vodka was easier and cheaper than gasoline these days.
Jake rode ahead for a few seconds. Then he braked hard, turned the wheel into a long drift using all the road he could grab. He slid around 180 degrees over the next seconds, then accelerated full back towards the cycles. Arming the three-barrel, he headed towards the rise where he could just see headlights of the oncoming bikes. The name on the back of the jackets flashed briefly through his memory, trying to recall if he’d seen them before.
“Necros.” New name. New name on a long list.
Jones and Nails pushed forward of the pack at Boss’ urging. Jones was half hanging out of the sidecar, hair wild in the wind, howling giddily at the moon. He fired his Kalash into the night sky, listening to the spent casings bounce along the tarmac.
“Pay the fuck attention!” Boss yelled uselessly from behind.
Jake drew a bead on the sidecar and fired a brief salvo. The tracers were phosphorous rail scratches through the black, easier to see as an afterimage. Ten slugs sank into the sidecar, ripping the metal and fiberglass to shreds. Jones never felt a thing.
The dead weight of the sidecar threw Nails off balance as Jake fired again. This time he hit the engine, dead on. The explosion was instantaneous, following the jet of alcohol fuel sparking. The cycle was engulfed by a ball of white fire that splattered onto the road as well. Raw heat from the bathtub vodka igniting was the last thing Nails ever knew.
Jake turned Blue’s nose to skirt the fireball and hit the gas. Blue rocketed forward. Tracers blazed away at the next target, another sidecar mount with an Arlington vehicular rifle that had finally gotten a shot off.
The front wheel of the bike went up in a cloud of shredded metal and rubber. The bike pitched forward sickeningly. Jones and Halloran were thrown from their mount and onto the road, pavement their last kiss.
Blue was doing 100 clicks per by now and gaining quickly. One of the three bikes remaining swung to the left, wheels almost on the rough shoulder. The rider opened up with a little machine pistol. It made a small popping noise, innocuous as a string of firecrackers. Slugs hit Blue’s side, doing little more than scratching the paint. Jake flicked the wheel to the right, just as the biker cut left. There was a thud of metal slamming metal as Blue clipped the bike. The motorcycle cart wheeled off the road and into the creosote.
Two bikes left. One of them firing.
Blue and the cycle charged each other. The biker was firing a pistol at the car, shots careful but useless from his shaking hand. Jake merely accelerated. The bike swerved to the right and fell into a long slide. Anyone knew that the odds of surviving laying your bike down were a lot better than playing chicken with multiple tons of automobile.
That left one bike and its rider, the huge free man with a skinhead cut who looked to be slowing to a stop. Jake swung around to get the bike from the back, if it hadn’t taken off by then. He slowed Blue and turned to face whatever was still standing. Jake saw that the bald guy was just standing astride his bike, gazing in stupid awe.
Guess that he isn’t used to targets that really fight back.
Blue’s engine rumbled with low menace as Jake crept up to the biker, stopping just yards short of him. Jake switched on the spot and Boss felt a sting of heat. He squirmed in the light.
A huge metallic voice boomed through Blue’s PA. “You Necros are scum and are not welcome on the road while I drive it,” Jake said. “Leave while you still can.”
“Road belongs to all free men!” Boss said with a fool child’s petulance.
“Free men oughta have something better to do with their time than jacking ambulances. Don’t you think?”
Boss sat there in the withering light. Sweat beaded on his gleaming scalp. His pride was drowned by fear and humiliating defeat. He swallowed hard. The light snapped off. Afterburn lingered on his face like a blush.
“Blow,” Jake said quiet-loud through the amplifier.
“Necros!” Boss shouted, smothering his fear with volume. “Blaze!”
Through the outside mike Jake heard someone get up and cough unhealthily.
**Broken ribs. That’s if he’s lucky.**
He watched the bikes move away slowly. One of them wove from side to side. It was a long ride to anywhere from here, specially if you couldn’t keep your balance.
Once Boss was over the rise and out of the line of fire, his courage returned. “You lookin’ for a tag, paladin! And I’m gonna be the one who gives it to you!” Boss shouted over the radio. Inside Blue, Boss’ voice was small and tinny.
But not tonight. This paladin isn’t dying tonight.
Jake sped back to the wreck and hoped that there would be someone to salvage. It was always better that way, finding someone alive. That way there was a reason to still be doing this. RegServ’s numbers always liked it, but all this would have gone down the same way even if he hadn’t been on the clock. Even if there wasn’t anyone alive, Slats or whoever else pulled up eventually would want to know.
The light was still rolling its red and black dirge. It hadn’t managed to attract attention, but that wouldn’t last long. Activity this far out was sure to bring on some crazies around. They smelled an opportunity just like anyone would.
There was nothing but the ambulance there, that and the woman on the stretcher. Jake stepped out of the car lightly, sweeping the area with the muzzle of his shotgun, even though the IRiS hadn’t shown anything a moment ago. Eyes like anything else could be fooled. He knelt over the stretcher and stopped for a moment. The wax mask of the woman’s face echoed.
Just like Madelyne.
He placed a hand on her carotid and tried to feel for a pulse. Nothing. She was dead. Still warm, but dead. He tore his hand away, remembering. Then he climbed through the open back door and up to the driver.
Jake looked to the driver. He was a big curly headed Mexican or Apache maybe, strapped to the seat by a six-point harness. His helmet sat in his lap as if he’d only had the strength to get it off before it slipped from his fingers. He breathed shallowly, face still grimaced in pain, even in sleep. It was a lucky thing that he was alive at all given the violence of the crash.
“Don’t worry, citizen,” Jake said, trying to be reassuring. “Just hold tight, I’ll get us some help.”
The driver nodded weakly, eyes clamped tight. He had a broad-featured face that had seen a lot of miles.
Static filled the headset as Jake adjusted the controls. He waited, one ring. Two rings.
“Cal-Intercept nightwatch,” snapped a detached male voice.
“Yeah. Is Sergeant Slatovsky there?”
“Slats? Yeah. Hold on a second.” Static.
“Slatovsky, speak up” said a deeper voice.
“This is Jake. I’ve got a situation out here. I’m about twenty miles from Joshua Tree, east.”
“Yeah, we picked up the call from RegServ. I’m listening.” Slats was also probably pushing screens at the same time. He didn’t like to waste time.
“Got wounded medical personnel, one dead passenger.”
“Aced by some cycle jocks. Necros. Five bikes, seven riders. They’re out of the picture now.” He reached for the switch to kill the lights, fingers fumbling across the dashboard. Electricals were fucked. He slapped the slider marked LIGHTS in block handwriting. Nothing.
“They thought they were. But listen, this guy’s hurt pretty bad. I can’t move him myself and we’re in the open, lights burning.”
“Yeah, gimme a couple minutes to get a car. Can you sit tight for a while?”
“So far, sure. I can’t guarantee how long that’ll last.”
“We’re rolling. Later.”
Jake killed the connection, dropping the handheld right between a plastic statue of Jesus and a stuffed rattlesnake that were stuck onto the dashboard; kipple turned into a mobile shrine.
“Sit tight, citizen,” Jake said. “We got help on the way.”
The driver wasn’t listening.
Jake walked back to Blue and climbed in. He knew he was being watched by now. The best thing to do would be to scare them off until Cal-I showed in numbers.
There were any number in the kinds of fellow travelers out here in the nobody-gives-a-fuck. The most notorious of which were ghouls, who were real trouble. Ghouls like the Necros that he’d just sent scrambling. They were the gangs wanted on multiple counts of mayhem, anything from killing a peace officer to cannibalism to arson. They were experienced, murderous, and half the reason that Cal-Intercept bothered at all. Part cult and part chaotic insurrection, they were the blood on the asphalt. Luckily they were the exception and not the rule.
Beside them, common outlaws were almost citizens. They’d simply outgrown the iceboxes and cities, whether by their own stubbornness or mistakes or refusal to play by someone else’s rules. They’d slipped through the holes in the net to scratch out lives in the desert simply because they didn’t fit anywhere else. Jake only could convince himself he was a hair away from that life.
Then there were crazies. They’d given up, but hadn’t chosen to wage war on the old world. Crazies were the folk who lived wild up in the hills, out of the towns. Living in tribes and bands, they wandered through the desert or lived at the edge of towns, trading scrap for food. Nobody knew where they came from or how people could become so lost in such a short time. Crazies might be harmless or they might flip to ghoul status. It was difficult to tell their intentions beforehand. Most citizens other than junk merchants just avoided them, but crazies sometimes found things out there that most people wouldn’t have imagined.
Treasure gets left behind, and ten pounds of gold stamped CREDITE SUISSE changes hands between a dirty group of wanderers and a lucky fuel depot operator. Chaco told that story with more than a little envy, giving it longer legs than most. Mostly crap, but sometimes there’s nuggets of wealth in the shit.
The Federal States border was about a hundred clicks away, straight through on the sixty-two. Flags were known to cross the border into California on occasion, sometimes for trouble, sometimes for opportunity. An official embargo had halted trade between free California and the Federal States, but that didn’t stop enterprising parties on both sides from sometimes makings sales out in the nobody-gives-a-fuck.
That last part being at the heart of the land.
He activated the starshell, dialing in ignition fifty, lighting when it was halfway up the arc. The rocket shot straight out, up into the night, burning a red trail of flame behind. It flew for a few seconds, then burst into a silvery-white ball of shimmer. The desert lit up under the magnesium flare, brighter than ten full moons. Off in the distance Jake spotted some figures scurrying back to the hills. They’d be kept back for the duration.
Jake saw one of the crazies through the gun-camera. He was a young kid, maybe fifteen, baby face darkened by dirt, not whiskers. His eyes became terror-filled deer eyes as light flooded the desert. They knew well enough that starshells were sent up so that shooters can see. No reason to stick your nose to sniff that wreck if its going to get shot off.
Jake climbed back into the ambulance and took up a position to the side and just behind the ambulance driver, the Arlington lying across his hip. He counted the beads on a yellow plastic rosary to pass the minutes.
A half hour later, Jake was outside the wreck. He was shooting over the heads of group of some bold crazies who had crept up to check out the crash after the flare burned itself out. Jake was shooting a ten mil Berretta, ex-U.S. Special Forces issue that had somehow ended up in the glove compartment of the ambulance.
The shots rang out clear and crazies scurried away silently.
Next time they won’t be held off so easy. They’ll be getting hungry. Slats better get here soon, before I have to take off or start making the shots stick.
There was a distant engine running in the stillness. Jake climbed back into Blue and waited in case it wasn’t Slats. He watched the sixty-two in from Joshua Tree through the vivid monochrome of the IRiS. The lead car was a Cal-Intercept cruiser, a modified Cutter Tornado with a 500 under the hood, completely uncivilized horsepower. It was bent like a hearse in the funeral light of the moon. A blocky van followed, in turn trailed by a tight clutch of motorcycle outriders, ready to dart out and warn off anyone who wanted to start anything.
Jake waited until the cruiser rounded the bend like a black shark careening through still waters. It approached then stopped and murmured restlessly for a second before the engine cut. Jake opened the door, but didn’t step outside until the driver did the same. It was Slats.
Sergeant Lou Slatovsky was a fifteen-year veteran of Cal-Intercept and he wore that service like a suit. His skin was well tanned, age lines and creases pronounced from years spent driving under the desert sun. He was a big, dark man who moved like a cop, with a sense of ownership. Though the time behind a desk weighed upon him now, making time pass faster. He looked at Jake for an instant then looked away. His eyes fixed on the ambulance.
“Let’s get this guy out of here,” he said to the two other officers who’d clambered out of the dark van.
Jake tried not to think too much about why Slats was out here. This wasn’t his gig. He drove screens now and taught the freshies how to do their jobs without getting shot up or eaten by inches in the desert. And he hadn’t walked up and grabbed Jake’s hand in a bone-crushing grip. Even when they’d first met, he’d done that.
“You move him at all?” asked the medical officer. He was slapping patches on the driver’s cheeks and wrapping the guy’s torso in a black sheath of neoprene.
“No, he was that way when I found him.” Jake turned to the stretcher where the dead woman lay. “Don’t waste your time,” Jake told Slats as he leaned over the woman. “She was dead when I arrived, maybe before.” Jake dragged himself away.
Slats looked in the back of the ambulance and examined the shattered interior. “You said these guys called themselves ‘Necros.’ Buzz jocks?” Slats was businesslike, flat. They’d just met, so far as he was concerned.
“Yeah. Small pack, five bikes. Now one or two. Couple of them had heavy stuff, Browning thirties.”
“You’ll need to file a report.” Slats looked at the grinning moon in the lightening sky.
“Shit. I file more reports that you do.”
“You also shoot at more people than I do.”
“Takes a fool to open up on a cop. I look easy.”
The silence hung between them like the smell of rot, but neither would be the first to acknowledge it. Cops walked by, carrying a stretcher. The driver looked more comfortable, drugs taking him away to a better place than here. He looked weakly in the direction of Jake’s voice. Jake turned and walked over.
“Muchas gracias,” the driver whispered. He smiled, basking in the glow of the painkillers. Jake wasn’t sure if it was he or the drugs being thanked.
“De nada,” Jake replied.
The cops loaded the driver and the woman’s body, now sleeved, in the back of the van. It was all business, no medical markings, nothing to make it a target. One of them stood by the door, waiting.
“Sergeant,” said the cop, a tall young woman. “You coming?”
“No,” Slats said, looking over at Jake. “I’ll be back in later.” Then he pointed at one of the cops and said, “You drive my cruiser back, and treat it nice.”
Jake looked at Slats suspiciously as he watched the amber taillights fade into the distance. “You mind telling me what is going on?” He tried to tamp his curiosity down but couldn’t help it.
Slats turned and looked at Jake like he had something to say but said another thing instead. “I need coffee like I haven’t needed it in ages. You want to go to Roy’s? Grab a cup of black and a bite?”
Jake gave up. “Little early, but sure. You’re calling the shots.”
“I only wish, man.” He cleared his throat like there was a bone lodged there. “See, they know who you are. They know and they want you back.”
Jake didn’t even register it. It was one of those hits that he’d been waiting for so long that it just sank into concrete and didn’t even hurt.
Here's the following chapters for ease of consumption.
The whole book should be along in early fall. Hopefully.