LYING IN RUINS – alternate Chapter 1
“You owe me a replacement breeder.” Anger hummed under the coldly precise words of the rough dressed man at the table. Despite the sun pouring through the two large dust covered windows lining the front wall, the room was dim. Tension hung on the interior’s sun-kissed haze, unbroken by the faint outside voices calling to one another and drifting through the open door as Ruin played observer to the unfolding drama in front of him.
A beatific smile curled the leaner man’s lips as he sat on the table’s opposite side, calculation glittering in his arrogant gaze. The combination reminded Ruin of a nose-twitching weasel. “You still owe me the second half of my payment.”
Shadows crept over the first man’s face, like a storm brewing on the horizon. “I’m not paying you until you give me a suitable replacement.”
“Not my fault you couldn’t keep her alive.” The response was quick, cutting. “You want a new one, you need to come up with a suitable trade.”
Leaning against the bar top along the far wall of what the locals called The Meeting Place, Ruin shifted his grip on the knife he’d been playing through his fingers, readying it for a throw. Of course, if he missed his target, another gouge in the crumbling, exposed brick wouldn’t garner much attention.
Not that he ever missed. But if he did, the bar’s owner, Holden, might not serve him from the bottles on the wall as punishment.
Ruin’s sigh was silent as he shared an exasperated glance with Vex where she stood by the door. Her shoulders tightened and her stance shifted to the left in reaction to the rising aggression spilling through the room. Yep, things were teetering toward shit. Just like he warned Reaper they would when this job came up for discussion. Mediations sucked. Give him a body or two to protect, even weapons or goods to transport, and he was good.
But running interference during petty arguments with local tyrants? Yeah, that made his list of inhumane tortures. Granted, it was a short list. Unfortunately, Fate’s Vultures’ had a rep for keeping bloodshed to a minimum, which put them in high demand. The irony was thick enough to choke on.
The first man leaned forward, snagging Ruin’s attention, his windburned skin ruddy with fury, his hands curled into bloodless fists against the table’s wooden surface. “I want my metal back, Preacher.”
In stark contrast, the weasel Preacher remained composed, going so far as to relax back in his chair and lace his fingers over his pot-belly stomach, the picture of over-inflated confidence. “The trade was final, Tobias.”
Tobias lurched to his feet, his chair shooting backwards, tumbling to the pitted floor, barely missing an empty table and chair combo behind him. “You gave me damaged goods, which makes you a liar and a thief.”
Preacher scowled, losing his infamous serene look. “She was perfectly healthy when you took possession. She was with you, what? Four weeks?”
“Three,” Tobias snapped, color washing above his wild beard and disappearing into his shaggy hairline.
Catching a fleeting spark of some softer emotion before it was drowned under Tobias’s anger, Ruin uttered a silent, mental curse and his hand itched to smack the backside of the big idiot’s head for violating a cardinal rule of survival—never reveal a weakness. If Tobias was lucky, Preacher man might have missed his slip, too caught up in his own weasly, narcissistic world view.
Preacher’s chin lifted. “There are no signs of illness in my community.” His eyes narrowed on the bigger man. “Can you say the same?” When Tobias’s expression closed down, Preacher gave a small nod, but his voice was smooth as a lethal blade. “Then be careful who you call a liar.”
An infuriated snarl curled through the air. “You put my village at risk, you perverted piece of—”
“Enough.” The deep whiplash of Reaper’s voice cut across Tobias’s and jerked his spine straight. Both men at the table looked to the left. Reaper stepped out of the shadows lining the edges of the room. Just over six feet, with broad shoulders, his dark hair caught into a tail hanging between his shoulder blades, and a close cropped beard shadowing his jaw, he closed in on the two, his expression far from friendly. Not that friendly was in his expressional vocabulary. Grim, snarly, murderous, threatening, and occasionally sardonic, but nope, friendly wasn’t one Ruin could ever remember witnessing.
The tension stretched, and Ruin lost his disinterested slouch as his leader rested his hands on the table and eyed the arguing men. Across the room, Vex moved in, weaving her way through the scattered tables and upended chairs, and a slight shift in the shadows to the right indicated their fourth member, Havoc, was coiled and ready to join if needed.
Reaper focused on the two men eyeing him warily. “You’re down to fifteen minutes, I suggest you stop arguing and come to an agreement.”
Tobias’s jaw went solid, but he proved he wasn’t stupid when he choked back his anger and turned to Preacher. “You produce a replacement and I’ll produce the second half of payment.” He folded his arms over his flannel shirt.
Preacher pushed back his chair and slowly rose, straightening the edges of his white shirt before brushing something from his dark pants. “Increase the payment by seven percent and I’ll grant you new blood.”
And that was why you never exposed a weakness, because now Preacher had Tobias by the short and curlies. Tobias’s settlement wasn’t that big, maybe numbering a couple hundred last time the Vultures rode through, and if the breeder Preacher gave Tobias died because of a virus, chances were that number had dropped. Drastically. Therefore, an infusion of new blood was vital to the settlement’s survival. It almost made Ruin feel sorry for Tobias. Almost. But everyone knew sympathy was the quickest way to find yourself lying in a deserted street, bleeding out.
The big man didn’t bat an eyelash. “Three percent, end of day.”
“Five and tomorrow morning,” was the counter. “We don’t have a phone line at Solamere. To ensure a safe delivery, I’ll retrieve your replacement myself.”
Silent seconds ticked by as Tobias considered the offer. Finally he blew out a hard breath. “Deal.” He flicked a glance at a stone faced Reaper who nodded in acknowledgement. Shooting one more lethal look at Preacher, Tobias turned on his heel, walked past Vex, and out of the room, tension following in his wake.
Preacher didn’t smile until Tobias broad back disappeared. “Well, then, that turned out better than I expected.” He turned to Reaper. “I will, of course, like a written verification of the agreement.”
When Reaper simply stared at him, there was another nervous tug on the shirt, followed by, “Right. Well, I shall leave my bona-fide in your capable hands until my return.” This time Preacher met Reaper’s gaze head-on. “I trust that Enoch will come to no harm under your supervision?”
When the old world monetary system crashed and burned to ash, it wasn’t long before the remaining rural populations turned to a bartering system. Sitting outside the reach of whatever law existed in the cities, treachery was the most common currency, until the bona-fide system was set into place, ensuring both parties had something vitally important to lose if they failed to fulfill their end of the bargain.
Reaper crossed his arms across his chest as he studied the other man. “Hour after sunrise, your son and Tobias’s will both be here, along with a written copy of the agreement.” If you didn’t know him, you would miss the disgust and fury adding a baleful light to his gaze. Not with the agreement, but with the man they were forced to work with. “I suggest you haul ass, because the clock is ticking.”
The smaller man gave Reaper one of his creepy smiles. “I am a man of my word.”
Ruin choked back a disbelieving cough of ‘bullshit’, even as Reaper’s mouth curled into a ball-shriveling smile. “Good thing considering it won’t just be Enoch who pays the penalty.”
The man went as white as his shirt, affronted shock wiping away his arrogance. “You dare threaten me?”
Reaper turned, walked back to his chair, snagged his jacket and shrugged it on, never bothering to turn around. “It’s not a threat, Preacher.” He pulled his hair out from the jacket’s collar, his eyes glittering in the dim light when he finally faced the pervert. “You signed the mediation agreement Crane sent, did you not?”
Preacher tugged on his shirt, a frown carving deep lines around his mouth and across his forehead. “I did.”
Reaper stepped in close, towering over him, his grin cold and feral. “Failure to meet the agreed upon terms means you forfeit your bona-fide and your life. Forfeiting the lives of you and your only son is a hell of a way to end a bloodline.”
Preacher stumbled back a step, caught himself, and straightened. There was no hiding his slick sheen of fear as he visibly swallowed. “I am the one who called Crane and asked for mediation. Why would I do that, if I wasn’t going to honor the final agreement?”
Before Reaper could respond, Ruin decided to chime in, “Oh, I don’t know, Preacher boy.” Preacher spun to face him, giving his back to Vex. Not his smartest move. “Maybe because by calling in the territory head you could mask the fact that by sending Tobias an infected woman you forced a renegotiation of terms on your building materials? One with better terms than the initial agreement.” He flashed a wide grin just shy of crazy at the weasel as his sister stepped up behind the ass.
Vex leaned in until her face was next to Preacher’s, her mouth close to his ear, but no one missed her venomous words. “Or better yet, maybe you wanted Tobias to pay for taking one of your playthings.”
Strangely, unlike most intelligent beings, Preacher didn’t jerk away, instead he leaned to the side and met Vex’s gaze with an unsettling fervor. “The women of Solamere who serve as breeders, do so by choice. They are not forced. They find joy in serving a higher purpose.” Only then did he move to put distance between them.
Just how many magic mushrooms were in the gutless wonder’s diet? Had to be more than healthy considering the fool believed every word spilling from his lying mouth. It didn’t escape Ruin that Preacher ignored his accusation, choosing instead to focus on Vex’s. Interesting.
Vex’s gaze didn’t waver, but her smile was enough to make even Ruin cringe. “A higher purpose or your—”
Ruin cleared his throat in warning, cutting her off. Best not to tip things to far into the fly infested pile of shit.
Her gaze flicked to his and she grimaced but changed her word choice, “Ego?”
Based on Preacher’s scowl, her dig burrowed under his skin. “We serve God’s purposes, not man’s.” Condescension coated every word as he straighten his shirt again, a move that was beginning to grate on Ruin’s nerves.
“Share your crazy to someone who’ll listen.” Reaper regained Preacher’s attention and put a stop to his nervous movements, thank god. “We don’t give a damn who you serve, so long as you fill your end of the deal and pay the agreed upon fee.”
Unable to resist pushing the zealot’s buttons, Ruin added, “Besides, everyone knows God is dead.”
Preacher managed to mimic fatherly concern, but there was something just a bit off as he shook his head. “God doesn’t abandon his children.”
Reaper’s laugh was a harsh rebuttal. “God bailed on his kids decades ago went the world went to hell.” Turning away, he walked over and leaned into Vex, and whispered into her ear. She listened, her attention never wavering from Preacher, her disgust obvious. Reaper straightened and she nodded, and then moved forward, only to stop by the entryway. Reaper flicked his hand to Havoc and headed for the door. The silent menace that was Havoc followed in his wake.
Ruin closed in on the staring man. “Let’s go.”
Preacher regained a bit of his composure, and ran a trembling hand through his shorn hair. “Your leader has no respect for God.”
Grabbing the hypocrite’s arm, Ruin drawled, “Hard to respect something that doesn’t exist, Preacher man.”
BEG FOR MERCY – Mercy and Havoc’s alternate route out of Boomer’s
They weren’t in the confined space long, and if Mercy was calculating right, they covered about two miles before Havoc stopped. Impressive, considering the soil here in the high desert was a bitch to dig through. After stepping out of the cramped tunnel and into another opening like the one they left behind, Havoc hung the lamp on an iron spike impaled in the wall. He raised his arms and twisted, stretching out his back. The soft pops made Mercy wince in sympathy. Her neck and upper back twinged from her prolonged hunch, so she couldn’t imagine what the trip did to a man of Havoc’s size. Finished, he tilted his head back, his gaze focused on the tunnel’s ceiling.
Following his attention, she did the same, but from her position, the shadows were murky, making it hard to see much of anything outside the light.
Obviously he didn’t have the same issues, because he strode over to the far wall, leaped up, hand extended, and when he landed, a rope ladder unraveled next to him. He turned back to her and kept one hand on the dancing ladder. “Ladies first.”
Recognizing his invite for the dare it was, she held his gaze as she reached under her oversized shirt to free her blade strapped to her thigh and draw it out. His eyes narrowed as the light played over the blade, but other than that one small move, he continued to study her. With a provocative smile, because she found teasing this dangerous man, fun, she brought the blade to her lips and used her teeth to hold it in place. Granted, not the best way to transport a sharp blade, but it left her hands free to climb.
The ladder stopped about waist level, so she gave a small hop to grab the rungs a little higher up and pulled her body up. When her foot hit a lower rung, a large hand curled over her ankle, drawing her attention back down. “Above are friendlies, understood?”
Blowing air out her nose in since her mouth was full, she nodded and continued up. She managed a couple more rungs before the ladder swayed under her with the addition of Havoc’s weight. The door loomed above her, and she crowded closed until she could curve her spine against the surface. Havoc’s arms came around her waist as he pulled his big body behind hers. Letting her hips and ass brace against his chest, she let go of the rope and using her arms and shoulders began lifting the trapdoor.
Cooler air rushed in, drying the sweat on her face and curling cool fingers under the heavy braid of hair. Her nose wrinkled as a strange combination of vinegar and vanilla hit. Keeping one hand on the edge of the trap door, she managed to climb out, before setting the door carefully on the floor. Havoc didn’t waste time following her. As she straightened she transferred her blade to her and looked around.
There were rows higher than her head of battered, wooden trays filled with bottles neatly piled against the far wall. Another wall held a shelf filled with cleaning supplies and old, stained sink, which explained the strong tang of vinegar. The vanilla scent was growing fainter, replaced out by the smell of roasting meat and deep fried whatever. The growl of her protesting stomach was drowned out by the muted sound of overly loud music, raucous laughter, and snapped orders interspersed with the clang of metal.
Havoc set the trap door back in place, the edges disappearing into the lines of the planked floor. After tugging the crumpled, stained mat back in place, he stood and did a quick perusal of the shelves. He grunted and reached for something, and when his hand reappeared he held a faded baseball hat. He tossed it to her, and she caught it one handed.
Holding it between her finger and thumb, she raised her eyebrows. “Let me guess, my disguise?”
He took it out of her hand, wrapped her braid around the back of her head and pulled it on until the brim almost touched her nose. “Got anything on under those layers?”
Her brain clicked into gear. “What kind of bar is this?”
“Not a bar,” he grunted. “Whorehouse.”
She couldn’t stop her smile. “Perfect.” She shrugged out of her oversized shirt, leaving her in the fitted t-shirt and her cargos. “Hold this.” She tossed him back the hat and her shirt before whipping the t-shirt over her head, revealing her faded green tank top. “And this.”
Havoc caught her t-shirt in mid-air, his eyes riveted to her. She could feel them raking over her as she toed off her boots and then undid the thigh sheath with her blade before wiggling out of cargos. Down to the tank, a black pair of boy shorts, and thick socks, she reclaimed her blade. The sharpened edge made cropping her tank an easy task. Finished with that alteration, she held it between her teeth as she secured the sheath on to her bare thigh. It wasn’t ideal or comfortable, but she wasn’t walking out of her unarmed.
Catching sight of the grime on her hands and rising over her wrists, she went to the sink and washed what she could from her arms. Shaking her arms she tried to locate a towel, but failed. Turning, she came face to face with what was left of her tank, held in Havoc’s hand. “Here.”
“Thanks.” She snatched it and used it to dry off her arms before handing it back. Then she reclaimed the oversized shirt. A few strategic cuts removed the sleeves and left her with two distinct pieces. Sheathing the blade, she pulled on the top half of the shirt back on, tying the ragged ends under her breasts. Then she took the bottom half, wrapped it around her hips before buttoning it. “Need my belt,” she muttered to Havoc.
The hiss of leather ripping through the belt loops filled the room and he handed it over. She wrapped it around her waist, tucking the torn edges of the shirt around it. She shimmied her hips to test the integrity, but the make-shift skirt held, hitting mid thigh and barely covering her blade. So long as she didn’t bend over, her ass should stay covered.
Crouching because she wasn’t up for flashing Havoc whose gaze was practically leaving scorch marks on her skin, she tugged on her combat style boots. Then she undid her loose braid, straightened, then tipped her head forward to run her fingers through her sweat-dampened hair, until the strands were wild and free. She tossed her head back up, waited the few second for the world to stop spinning, grabbed the hat and tugged it on. “Okay, now I’m ready.”
The whole transformation took less than a handful of minutes. Not bad considering her limited options.
“Holy shit, woman.” Havoc’s deep voice rumbled over her skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
CAUGHT IN THE AFTERMATH – alternate beginning to Chapter 22
Mid morning was solidly in place, when he, Vex, and Ruin hit the half-flooded remains on the outskirts of Boise. Because they’d left Math’s bike behind when bringing Cam out, he ended up riding with Vex. If it wasn’t for what lay in wait for them, he would have enjoyed the hell out of the ride—even from his less than desirable seating position. As it was, his dick was a constant ache from being nestled against Vex’s curves. Getting off the damn bike was going to require some tricky maneuvering to avoid injury.
They rode through what once was a neighborhood. You could still see the lines of what once may have been neatly kept streets, but was now a treacherous maze of pitted roadway and broken cement, ravaged by thick tree roots. Homes in various states of collapse sat among waist high grass and towering trees. Ruin dodged a collapsed light pole and veered into yard guarded by a half-collapsed porch. As Vex followed, Math caught sight of rusted wheels still attached to a sun wasted plastic wagon. He turned away from the disconcerting sight because the eerie reminders of life interrupted bothered him.
They turned into a wider roadway and slowed as their tires hit a mix of sand, dirt and old asphalt scattered across the length like some broken puzzle. Patches of high grass followed snaking fissures, but Math still noted the water seeping into their tire tracks as they passed. There was a dip on the other side of the road, like a shallow canal, and stagnant water, maybe a couple feet deep, filled it. The stench of it hit in-between the occasional breeze.
Luckily they didn’t have to ride through that mess to get to the building on the other side because Ruin found a small cement access to use as a bridge. The school was red brick, two-stories and laid out like a lopsided T. Rusted metal railing lined the front, some of the old aqua color paint clinging stubbornly in patches. There was an entrance, but no way were they getting through the pile of collapsed brick and masonry blocking it off. They edge around the remnants of a parking lot which boasted a couple of rusted out shells of cars and came to a second entrance. This one was a gaping hole that probably once held doors.
Ruin stopped his bike and shut it down. Vex pulled up along side him and did the same, but didn’t move to get off. She looked to her brother. “You going to Gus?”
Ruin nodded, his voice muffled due to his bandana. “Be back soon. Should be enough room to get the bike inside and find a spot to stash it. I’m thinking it’s best to stick to the second floor. Maybe those science room east of the gym. Know which ones I’m taking about?” When Vex nodded, he continued, “Easy for us to control access.”
Vex eyed the dim interior and tugged her bandana down. “Yeah, they’ll have to funnel through here.”
“Right, then I’ll be back soon.” With that, Ruin kicked his bike back to life and took off.
As Ruin disappeared down the road, Math got off of Vex’s bike. He shoved his glasses up and tugged his bandana down. The cool, crisp air felt good, after breathing dust for the last few hours. The change was welcomed despite the occasional whiff of wet rotten things. Vex swung off and began walking her bike into the building. Math followed along.
She wheeled the bike past a broken U shape counter that must have once served as a desk. Papers and books littered the floor, and he caught sight of some broken computer pieces behind the counter parts still standing. He took in the walls, most still solidly intact, water stained, cracked, decorated with graffiti and holes. What was left of the ceiling was wooden framework, with a couple of drunkenly hanging ceiling tiles. Vex led the way down a short hall with a few narrow windows sitting high up.
They passed through another entrance into a wider space, this one lined with metal lockers. Here, sunlight managed to make it through the glassless openings. A playful breeze drifted down the long hall, tumbling trash down the grimy floor. A few pieces got caught in the pooling water scattered here and there. They passed a couple of doors and Math caught a glimpse of classrooms—some still held desks and chairs—others had obviously hosted much more non-educational gatherings based upon the artwork decorating the walls.
At the end of the hall, there was a staircase, miraculously still standing. She bypassed the steps and went back behind it. Math followed. Vex stopped and turned to him. “Hold the bike?”
He took over and watched as she moved to what looked like a large metal shelving unit. When she grabbed it, he stopped her. “Let me do that.”
She gave him a quick grin. “Not as heavy as it looks.” And to prove her words, she set her shoulder and began walking it aside. It scraped against the floor, the noise deafening, but when she was done, a small room was revealed. It wasn’t too big, but big enough to stash one, maybe two, bikes. Since it wasn’t packed to the rafters with crap, he figured they must have cleared it out for just that purpose. He wheeled the bike in and once he had it in place, Vex moved in.
She flipped up the saddle bags and started handing him various items. “Time to load up. We can start with what we have.”
Math tucked a handgun into the small of his back, pocketed a couple boxes of ammunition—repacked from the looks of it—then started tucking the rest of what she handed him into various pockets. Along with a couple of blades, there were handful of grenades, a coil of thin wire, a couple of glass bottles with stoppers, strips of cloth, and a lighter. Vex tucked a metal box into a pocket, whatever was inside rattling. Taking inventory it looked like they had the makings of Moltov cocktails and maybe IED’s. He had to give her credit, she was as creative as she was deadly.
When she finished tucking her stash away, he was wishing he hadn’t been forced to leave his modified rifle behind when he was high tailing it out of Salt Lake. Right now his hands were itching for the familiar feel of the stock. He didn’t mind hunting down Greer’s men, but picking them off one by one would be a hell of a lot faster with a rifle, than a knife and, he studied the wire, garrotes. “Please tell me you have a rifle here somewhere?”
Vex straightened from her bike and led him out of the little room. As he helped her push the cabinet back into place, she said, “Last time we were here, we managed to tuck a few things away.” She brushed her hands on her pants. “If were lucky, no one’s found it.”
She took him up the stairs and he followed her into a classroom. Instead of desks, their were high tables with a few matching stools. Gutted lab equipment lay on tables and broken glass crunched under his boot as they walked to the back of the room where a floor to ceiling book case stood. It covered the majority of the back wall. While shelves dominated the top, the bottom was lined with cabinets. Vex pulled one open, crouched down and disappeared inside. Something heavy scraped inside, but he could only see her back. She back out, dragging what looked like a file cabinet drawer with a lid with her.
She set on the floor in front of the bookcase and flipped off the lid. Inside lay three deadly beauties, the kind normally only found in the city armories. Math gave a soundless whistle and sank to heels. He removed one and handled it with the reverence due. “Damn, woman, where the hell did you guys steal this from?”
Vex removed the second one, did a quick run through, then straighten to loop the shoulder strap across her chest. “A month or so back, we intercepted a shipment into New Seattle. Found these and a few other items stashed where they weren’t suppose to be found.” She met his gaze with a small grin. “Finders keepers.”
Worked for him. He swung the one he held across his chest, reached in and did a repeat on the last one. Both he and Vex pocketed ammunition before they shoved the box back into its hiding spot. Straightening, she moved back to the tables and began emptying items from her pockets. “Alright, ready?”
“Arts and crafts.”
With that, they began creating their arsenal of lethal surprises. By the time Ruin rejoined them, they had quite the inventory. The rest of the morning was spent picking out their spots and laying their traps. For Math, working with the twins, reminded him of how it used to be working with his fellow Strix, before Greer gutted them. It was bittersweet, but he found comfort in knowing by night fall Greer would finally pay.