Authors: Sean McLachlan
Toxic World Book One
by Sean McLachlan
Copyright 2013 Sean McLachlan, all rights reserved.
Cover design by André
s Alonso-Herrero. Photo by CWO E.R. Carlson, courtesy U.S. Defense Imagery.
The characters in this work of fiction are fictional. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
There are a number of actual radio stations called Radio Hope. The Radio Hope in this novel is not intended to represent any of them and is entirely fictitious.
Toxic Bay, on the other hand, is a real place. . .
For Almudena, my wife
And Julián, my son
The old man
dove right into that punch. Annette Cruz was guarding the bar that evening and had a front row seat to the first good fight of harvest season. In he went, launching himself at an opponent half his age and twice his size. Annette saw the fist slam square in the old man’s face, heard the wet crack of his nose getting broken and saw the twin jets of blood shoot out his nostrils.
The old man’s head
jerked back, but his hands still came forward, landing with uncanny accuracy on his opponent’s face, thumbs feeling out for eyes and pressing.
Annette had scoped out both men as trouble the minute they walked into $87,953. Being the biggest bar in the Burbs, it go
t plenty of hard cases coming in from the wildlands to trade, scavengers from the northern ruins mixed with herdsmen from the mountains and guns-for-hire from who-knows-where. They all came for the best wheat beer and the best corn whiskey for two hundred miles. They also came for the electricity, which $87,953 had every night from sunset until sunrise thanks to an underground cable direct from New City. Colored lights, music from New City Radio, a TV showing movies, it was just like the Old Times, not that Annette was old enough to remember the Old Times.
er man had come in first. He was probably almost an adult when the last government fell, and the intervening years hadn’t been kind. He was hunched over, almost bald, with a lined, tanned face that stood out from a closely cropped gray beard. That face almost always scowled, and he looked around the bar with an air of suspicion as he drank steadily and without interruption.
The suspicion was probably for the sak
e of his companion—a girl of about fourteen dressed in jeans, a loose shirt, and a baggy jean jacket who devoured the meal the old man got for her with some trade Annette didn’t see because her attention was elsewhere for a minute. The girl’s hair was tucked into a cap in a vain attempt to make her look like a boy. Annette wasn’t fooled.
Neither was Roy. He gave Annette a look from where he stood behind the bar. Annette replied with a little nod. Yes, she’d watch these two.
An old man and a teenaged girl. A bad combination with all these outsiders about. Not that she blamed him for bringing her in. Leaving her outside alone would have been an even worse idea.
r guy was obvious trouble too. Long-limbed and swaggering, he didn’t scowl, he examined. Sussed out the bar and everything in it like a boy about to steal something from a market stall. He was as filthy as he was mean-looking, even though the stream that flowed into the cove was free for everyone to use. He sat at the bar a few places down from the old man and the girl, slapped a wrench on the counter, and asked how much he could drink in trade for it. Roy lumbered over, a heavyset man with charcoal skin and white hair. He slipped on his reading glasses, held the tool at arm’s length, and turned it over in his hands.
This looks good, barely a spot of rust. You lucked out finding this. I’ll give you a meal and three drinks for it.”
“I didn’t ask for food, I asked how many drinks I could get for it,” the scavenger growled.
“That will be six drinks.”
“Eight, take it or leave it.”
The scavenger and Roy shook hands. When Roy turned away Annette noticed the scavenger wiped his hand it on his grubby camouflage pants.
Roy walked to his
lock box, put the wrench to one side, and pulled out eight copper coins dating from the Old Times. Turning back to the scavenger he placed them on the counter.
“What’s this?” the scavenger asked.
“Tokens,” Roy said, picking one up and holding it to the light. “See how I’ve stamped my mark on them? Each one is good for a drink here any time. Plenty of people use them to trade too, although the Merchants Association doesn’t like that too much.”
The scavenger swept them away with his hands.
“Don’t need them. I’ll drink through all those tonight. Give me a whiskey and a beer for starters.”
Roy shrugged his shoulders, took the tokens back, and served the man.
For an hour not much happened. The bar began to fill up and Annette had to keep an eye out for trouble elsewhere. She intervened in an argument between two scavengers and told them to quiet down or take it outside. A little while later she had to stop a tweaker at the door. Roy had a sign outside saying “Roy loves everybody”. That didn’t apply to tweakers.
All through that hour, though, her gaze kept going back to the scavenger, the old man, and the girl dressed as a boy.
The scavenger was good to his word and he’d almost drunk through all his trade. He leaned against the bar, an arrogant leer on his face, not trying to hide the fact that he was ogling the girl. The old man gave him a sour look and tried to ignore him. The girl stared at her plate. Annette edged closer, keeping the scavenger’s back to her.
“Hey!” the scavenger called out.
Annette’s hands fell to her side, her left touching the short wooden club that dangled from her belt, her right caressing the grip of her revolver where it rested in her holster. A double-barreled 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun was slung on her back. She hoped it wouldn’t escalate that far.
The scavenger sauntered
over to the pair. The old man slid off his barstool and got between him and his girl. The practice was so quick, so fluid, Annette could tell he’d done it a hundred times before. Without taking his eyes off the scavenger he reached for his glass, then glanced at the bar when his fingers didn’t find it. Roy had already taken it out of reach.
“Hey,” the scavenger said again. “How much for the girl? I got more tools to trade. Hell, she’s young enough I’ll give you a couple of Blue Cans if you let me have her all night.”
“Fuck off,” the old man said, his scowl deepening.
The two faced off. The scavenger cocked his head.
“What did you say to me?”
“Gentlemen!” Roy boomed from behind the counter, a big smile on his face. “This is a place for relaxation, inebriation, and stupefaction! There are no enemies here, only drinking buddies. How about y’all sit down and have another drink. I’ll bring you each a free snack.”
Both men ignored him. Annette edged closer.
“Look you old fart,” the scavenger said. “You come in here with a girl and I say I want to make a trade. Why you giving me trouble?”
“She’s not for sale to anyone.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the scavenger said, a tone of false realization dawning in his voice. “You keep that piece of ass for yourself. Poor girl, having that wrinkled old cock plowing into her every night, she must—”
That was when the
old man threw himself forward. The scavenger was ready for him and landed him that killer right hook that shattered his nose. Annette could tell the old man knew it was coming, knew that he couldn’t win on fists alone and would have to win on viciousness and the willingness to take a beating.
The old man’s thumbs reached the scavenger
’s eyes and pressed. The younger man yelped, tried to pull his head away, but the old man was in close and holding on for all he was worth, his fingers splayed out in the back of the scavenger’s head and gripping hard.
The scavenger gave him a
one-two in the ribs. The old man grunted and took it, eyes glittering above a bloodied face.
The scavenger brought up his hands and smacked the old man’s arms away. Both staggered back. An instant later the old man dove in again, driving his boot into the scavenger’s knee. The younger man was still rubbing his eyes and blinking and didn’t see it coming. He went down. The old man took a step closer an
d rammed his boot into his opponent’s face, smacking his head against the tile floor.
“That’s enough,” Annette ordered, drawing her truncheon.
The old man turned on her. Annette’s heart did a flip flop when she saw the look in his eyes. She dropped the truncheon and drew the shotgun from her shoulder holster, flicked off the safety, and leveled it at his face in one quick motion.
“I said enough.” Annette growled.
The old man stood there, feet set wide apart, hands ready to reach out and grab, his look still crazed but with the light of sanity dawning.
A movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. The girl was reaching inside her jacket.
“Honey, whatever you got in there better stay in there or you’re going to get your grandfather’s brains splattered all over your face.”
“He’s my father,” the girl said, he
r voice quavering.
Annette flicked her gaze back to the old man. “
Is daddy going to behave?”
The old man took a deep breath and relaxed. He took a step back and looked down at the scavenger moaning on the floor.
“Guess I made my point,” he said.
Someone in the crowd piped up, “The guy on the floor started it, Annette. I saw.”
“I saw too,” Annette said, putting the safety back on with a significant click but not holstering her weapon. Not yet. “You and your kid can stay. Idiot here can go.”
around the bar and helped the scavenger off the floor. His eyes were red and he had the boot-shaped bruise blossoming on the side of his face. Roy patted him on the shoulder.
“Now what are you doing
starting fights for? How about you just sleep it off and we’ll all be friends tomorrow, you hear?”
The scavenger pushed Roy away. “Get your hands off me, nigger!”
Annette leapt forward and rammed the butt of her shotgun into his mouth. The scavenger pitched backward, spewing blood and teeth and landing hard on the tiles.
Roy stood with his fist poised in the air, aiming at the space where a moment before th
e scavenger had stood. He stared at Annette.
“Could you wait long enough f
or me to hit one of these scumbags? Just once?”
Annette looked down at the sorry sight at her feet, shook her head, and slung her weapon. With the help of one of the regulars she hauled him up and pitched him onto the dirt road outside. Annette
was disappointed to see him miss a puddle by inches. She’d have to improve her aim.
“And stay out! You’re banned from $87,953
on the grounds of starting a fight and using hate speech on a citizen. My boss will make it official tomorrow. Go drink somewhere that will take you,” she shouted.
Roy appeared at the
door and tossed a couple of tokens onto the scavenger’s prone form.
“Here are the drink
s you didn’t get to drink. You can trade them in the market. No man can ever say I cheated on a trade, not even with someone like you.”
Roy and Annette walked through the crowd to whistles and applause. Annette saw Roy smile. A fight was good for business as long as it didn’t get too out of hand.
Annette caught his eye and inclined her head toward the bar.
“Mind if I. . .?”
“Go on,” Roy waved his hand in that direction. “He ain’t coming back.”
Annette went behind the bar and through a doorway screened by a beaded curtain
. In the darkened back room, a narrow cot stood behind a row of kegs and between racks of glasses and sacks of flour and corn meal. On it a thin shape lay curled up in a blanket, a shock of brown hair poking out. Annette crept up and knelt down by the cot. She reached out her hand.
A low chuckle came from behind her. Roy’s big frame stood silhouetted in the doorway.
“That boy doesn’t wake up for anything less than a gunshot,” Roy whispered.
Annette looked back at her son and stroked his hair.
“Yeah, and every harvest market I wake him up at least a dozen times. I got to get him into New City, Roy. The Burbs is no place for him.”