Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

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recon

The ragged mutter of pumps smoothed and Nina delighted herself in flushing the toilet.

“I have to,” she said. “Grampa Doc and Mister Solomon said so, to clear pear-a-cites from the pipes.” She waved a hand at a red dot and water ran into the toilet. A vacuum pump sucked it out and she did it again, smiling at the flow of water.

Eyes rolling up in her head, Linnet walked away.

“It makes a lot of noise.”

Wainwright looked up from something he was reading. “The hush hoods are working now. I knew they were cheating on the contracts, but that’s PC. Whoever made the biggest donation got the contract.”

A voice came from the cell phone. “Californians, bah.”

Jess looked to see an older woman, iron hair done in a severe bun and thick glasses perched on her nose. Nina’s arch nemesis, Miss Jane.

“Young lady, I demand you listen to me.” She stopped to add Jess to her scowl.

“Ma’am,” he said but Wainwright chuckled.

“She’s only a recording, albeit a frightening one. But you need not be polite.”

One skinny eyebrow raised, she glared at Wainwright, who pretended to shudder. Escobedo scowled right back at her.

“She’s only a little kid. Cut her some slack.”

“Yeah,” said Nina and jammed boney fists on skinny hips.

“You are the future,” the woman said. “So few have been born since the day--the Troubles. So many were killed by parents who despaired of living and thought they were sparing their children a terrible death.” Her voice broke. Sobbing into her hands, she said, “Bobby and PJ. My grandchildren.” A tear-wet face raised and she stared at the ceiling. The old woman cried out, “God, my God but why did I have to live and not them?”

Solomon appeared. Folding his arms around her, he held her while she wept on his chest. Nina started to sob and Jess held her. Wainwright, though, frowned and picked up the cell phone, shaking it and then peering at the controls.

In a mutter, he said, “It must be mixing with the ghost of a soap opera.” He sat it on the floor while Nina choked, but sighed and then dried her eyes.

To the old woman, she said, “Feel better, Nana Jane? Nana Maggie always said every lady needs a good reason to cry, to get out the evil thoughts caused by men.”

Solomon gave Jane a handkerchief and the old woman nodded, filling the cloth with a loud noise and gust of air.

“Yes, of course.” She sighed. “Well, you have to learn.”

“I don’t wanna.” Nina frowned at Jess. “Why do I gotta?”

“Here,” Jess said, pointing up. “You saw the moon, didn’t you?”

“Of course, mister.” Mouth filled with contempt, Nina gave him a curt nod. “What do ya take me for, a fool?”

“Sometimes, but you’re only a hairball colt, yet. Mostly you’re real smart and do as you’re told. But the moon, now, it’s a long, long way off. How are you gonna write your name on the moon, if you can’t fly a real shuttle?” He picked up the toy and raised it overhead. “Got to get some books under your belt to drive a rig like this. It’s not like taking a walk down the street popping a cap at a creeper, now is it? You got to learn a mile of things, and if you do, might be in ten years they’ll have you taking trips to the moon.”

Arms crossed and angry, she said, “And if I don’t wanna?”

“Well, in ten years, you’ll still be looking at the moon and wishing. Might be,” he said, and sighed. “We might need to escape this place, if the Troubles get worse. Maybe hide on the moon. Yeah, and Kitty. Her and the babies, they might find giant rats there, eating green cheese, and take ‘em down so we don’t get eaten. I bet Miz Kitty would like that, whipping a giant rat to hamburger.”

Eyes wide, Nina stared at Jess.

“I think that’s what Mama used to call bull hokey.”

Jess shouted a laugh and snatched the child into the air. He whirled her around and put her before the cell phone.

“Let Nana Jane teach you, and then you can teach all of us. OK? Remember Kitty and her babies. Now they’re all alone ‘cause we couldn’t stay.”

He touched her head and walked by a bemused Linnet. Jess leaned over to steal a kiss. She ducked and he jerked from a quick slap.

“I do not appreciate brazen men,” she said. “Cowboys, laws. All ya all got to be the boldest fools ever.”

“Jet jockeys are probably worse,” Wainwright said, but muttered it. “Just look at how ex-President Bush bamboozled Mrs. Bush into marrying him.”

Nana Jane expounded the times table and Nina drifted off to sleep. The woman stopped and snarled. Nina was up like a shot and sprinting for the bathroom. She threw open the door and dived in.

Linnet frowned and took a step towards the restroom. She stopped to look up. Jess stood, frowning at where she looked. Lights blazed and dimmed.

Solomon said, “Power is up, but there are a dozen men attempting to knock out the panels.”

Jess headed for the hole. Escobedo raced ahead of him and Jess slowed, looking back at the cell phone.

“There are elevators, aren’t there? I mean, I wasn’t just hoping. How else would they get all this down here without a hundred men knowing?”

Solomon glanced at Wainwright. “...Yes.”

“Mister, it’s a little late for secrecy. Show me.”

A map of the lowest level showed on the cell phone and Jess walked to the part of the wall indicated. He popped a fist on the wall and it crumbled to plaster at his feet. A set of doors opened and a light came on.

“Please take care when entering,” a prim voice said. “Do you wish to view the command room, sir?”

“Been there, done that,” Jess said, frowning. He ran to the storeroom and hauled back cases of food. Linnet grabbed them, stacking them in the elevator.

“I hope you got a good idea,” she said and looked up. “They’re through the concrete and beating on steel.”

He flashed a grin. “Yeah, do unto others, then run.”

Linnet frowned, but grabbed Escobedo and Wainwright, making them fill the elevator with food.

Jess forced his way in. “Ground floor, please.”

“Sir, Command prefers you remain in safety.”

“Do it.”

The doors started to close, but Linnet dived in and crawled to the top of the boxes.

“Stop.” The doors opened and he grabbed Linnet by one foot, dragging her out to fall on the floor.

Face a mask of pain and outrage, she said, “Ow, that hurt--“

“Shut up, girl.” He leveled a finger at her. “You’re more important than I am, so just shut up and let me be a fool cowboy.”

Wainwright helped Linnet up. She glowered and snarled. A wise man, Jess shuddered at the dark promise in those eyes. Escobedo jumped from Linnet to force his way into the elevator. He held an M-4 at-arms and winked.

“Ready when you are, sir.”

“Lock and load,” Jess said. “Doors, close. Ground floor.” A soft hum filled the elevator and it rose from the depths of the shelter. His stomach felt a little queasy, but different from how Linnet made it feel.

The doors sighed opened on gaping faces and shocked men. Escobedo aimed at the closest. Jess stepped forward and to one side. He nodded at Escobedo to do the same.

“You’re hungry and we have some food. It was stored for you, but men murdered them who watched it, only to die in a trap.” He jerked a thumb at Jack, who stepped from the stairwell. “Like the one on the library roof, ain’t it. If they break down the door or destroy the solar panels on the roof, the whole place blows. That includes the food, the women, and two little girls in the basement. Got it?”

Men surged forward but Escobedo put a bullet through one man’s leg. They fell back and Mrs. Packer shouted, but Jess shouted her down.

“One man at a time, come get a box. Mind, you share. You were freeborn and got to stay free so the country can live again. If we live, the world will.”

Escobedo watched while Jess allowed one man at a time to come forward. A man tried to grab two. Escobedo shot him in the back. Jess nodded and the corpse was dragged away and two men took a case each. When the elevator was empty, Jess raised a hand.

“Do you want more?”

Mouths stuffed with food, men stared in shock.

“Where’s Danny Rollins? His mother and sisters, too. You can help load.”

A roar came from the stairwell. Jack and two men stumbled out and a dozen men dragged them from the building. Chubby, pasty face scorched with hate, Mrs. Packer scowled an ugly promise at Jess. Nose cocked in the air, she walked after Jack.

Danny was shoved at the elevator. His mother and sisters followed unmolested.

To Mrs. Rollins, Jess said, “Where’s Miz Elise?”

“She killed her.” The woman groaned. “That woman beat her to death and Jack wouldn’t let us save her.” She looked away. “How is her baby?”

“Fat and sassy, bless God.” Jess backed into the elevator cutting a hand at the floor. The women followed, but Danny hung back. Eyes bitter, Jess said, “Now, mister.” Rough hands thrust him into the elevator. One man tried to follow, but Escobedo clubbed him with the rifle stock and jumped back, through the doors.

Jess waited until they stilled. “I want those solar panels cleaned. Be careful with them. There should be water in the taps, but it’ll be a while until a reserve of juice is high enough to heat it for showers.”

He snapped his fingers and the doors shut. The elevator slid down and Danny followed to the floor.

Jess squatted by him. “Here, what’s up?”

Danny shuddered and his mother said, “He has a phobia about elevators.”

“Mom.”

Before Jess could ask what a phobia was, the doors opened. Wainwright and Linnet had a mountain of boxes stacked by the doors and they worked at feverish haste to load them. He motioned for the women to stay and eat, but Danny jumped in with eyes clenched and sweat running down his face.

Jess muttered an ugly laugh and Danny scowled.

“Hey, shut it. It’s a legitimate phobia.”

“Chicken, ya mean.”

Rising from the floor, Danny scowled and the doors opened. Jess gave him a faint smile while Danny frowned, staring at the men.

“Find a man you trust,” Jess said, giving Danny a small push on the shoulder.

Escobedo bellowed, “One at a time.” He moved out and to one side until the elevator was empty.

Danny came forward with two men but hesitated.

Jess stuck out a hand. “Ganian. Jess Ganian.”

The older man shook first. “Lyle Denver and this is Tighe Grayson.”

“Mister Denver, Mister Grayson. Welcome aboard.” Jess stepped back and the men made ginger steps into the elevator.

“Danny?”

With a cold look, Danny stepped in but gritted his teeth. When the doors opened below, he gasped but walked out, not ran.

With more hands, the loading went fast. Jess took the two men with him, leaving Escobedo to guard. Men tossed cases of food out, but most they stacked along the wall.

“How much more?” a solemn man said. “We can share it with the rest of the city if we know how much.”

“Mister Solomon said enough for a thousand men for one year.”

Murmurs started and men gaped at so much wealth.

“You were hording it all this time?”

Words cold, Jess said, “We found it, just like any of you could have, had you hung together instead of breaking into gangs.” He stepped back. “What we have, we share. Remember that when the blood-lust is on ya. Mama’s folks call it Korima law, the brotherhood. Americans used to remember that by instinct.”

The doors closed but Danny jumped in. Jess twisted to fire, but Danny pressed against the wall.

“You have my mother and sisters,” he said, grinning at the rifle. “I’m a hostage, too. OK?”

“A friend,” Jess said, but lowered the rifle with a lot of reluctance. “Maybe you hung with Jack long enough to be poisoned by him.”

Danny nodded. “Jack, he stopped Chuck from killing Bea. He was supposed to break her in. Mrs. Packer told him to, but he couldn’t. ...You know. He said she bit him and that’s why he couldn’t finish with her.”

Staring at the wall, Jess nodded. “He was Jack’s slave. Huntsville,” he said, glancing at Danny. “He went to prison for raping a couple of little boys and a girl, and tortured them to death. Jack should have killed him for trying with me.”

“...He still plans on it,” Danny said, frowning. The doors opened and he walked out.

The next two loads went fast. When they rose with the next one, the stack along the wall was gone and Jess raised the rifle at a new group. A woman ducked behind a man dragging a small boy. She was emaciated and her stomach stuck out in a near-term pregnancy.

One of the older men said, “Son, word is out.” A grin split the dirty face. “Man, I never thought there were this many left in the world.”

“And away fewer than should be,” Jess said. “Ma’am, if your man would be so kind, you and the young un could join the ladies in the basement.”

She cast a frightened look at her husband.

“Not if you don’t want to,” Jess said. “But, there you could figger out what you’ll need to hold you for a while. You and the new un.”

She crept forward only to snatch at the stack in the elevator and dashed back to her husband and son. Jess nodded at the man. He walked forward gripping a spear and a cardboard quiver of fiberglass arrows hung from one shoulder. Danny handed him two cases and he walked out.

“How many more?” Jess said to the older man.

“Another hundred or so.”

Jess motioned for him to enter and the man did so with a lot of reluctance.

With a faint smile, Jess said, “Chicken?”

Danny shot him an ugly look, but straightened. Outwardly relaxed, the older man chuckled. A woman with a hunchback ran from the crowd and he held up a hand. Eyes wide with terror, she skidded to a halt to stare at Jess.

“Let her come,” Jess said and the woman grinned, leaping into the elevator. The hunch moved and mewed and the woman pulled a baby down. The child looked nothing like her or the man.

“We find her,” the woman said. “This little one, I don’t know where her folks were, but she’s so beautiful.” The baby was shoved under her shirt to gum a nipple. The child gave an angry wail, but the woman only smiled.

“How old is she?”

“Maybe six months. She been eating meat a while.”

The doors opened and the woman just stood there, her eyes shining. Holding the baby, Linnet stepped forward. Mrs. Rollins reached out and the woman with the orphan started to weep. Her husband guided her into the group of women and ran back to stack cases in the elevator.

As they went up, Jess said, “Who’s bossing you?”

The old man smiled. “We voted on it and made you president for life.”

“Forget it,” Jess said, pretending to scowl. “I’m too young to die.”

Ten more loads and the power faded. Jess filled the elevator and crawled off to a quiet corner to squat and rest. He rubbed the stitches, but Linnet was there, fussing with them while he yawned and got a cookie stuffed in his mouth. She offered a golden elixir and he sipped, then his eyes widened.

“Hot cocoa?” he said, pleading with her. “It is. Tell me it is.”

She smiled and tipped the bottom of the cup up. He sipped and chewed through an MRE, then two more before he dozed off with his mouth full of food.

Years younger than Jess last saw him, Jack’s face leered at him, but it was in jest, not contempt. He offered Jess a piece of badly roasted meat and Jess took it, tossing it from hand to hand until it cooled. The other men in the gang weren’t so picky, gnawing the tough meat to pulp and swallowing.

“Not hungry?” Jack said, pointing at the meat with the tip of a Bowie. “Eat up, kid. This is all there is if the hunting doesn’t pick up.”

Jess sniffed the meat. Blood oozed from it but suddenly he was no longer scared, but starving. He devoured it even as it scalded his mouth. When Jack offered another piece, he took it, eating until he was full.

The odd one, Chuck pulled an ancient pocket watch from his shirt and it popped open with a small click. Chimes played Ai, Mi Corazon, an old Mexican love song. Jess frowned. It had been his mother’s, given her by Great-Grandfather Sauaripa, a Tarahumara curandero who died in the Famine of 1996.

Jess snatched at it, but Chuck laid him flat with the back of his hand. The man closed the watch and, at a cold look from Jack, threw it on the ground. He tried to stomp on it, but Jess tackled him, knocking him over a pile of deer guts. Jess grabbed the watch and leaped away.

Chuck climbed to his feet drawing a slender knife called an Arkansas Toothpick. Jack rose to face him.

“The kid got balls.”

“Screw you. He’s next.”

Jack cocked his head and Chuck wilted, but continued to scowl and mutter. He kicked a red ball at Jess. It bounced off one of Jess’s feet, leaving a red smear on the boot. It tipped over and his father’s face stared up at him.

Face stark and terrified, Jess gaped at Jack, who looked away. Chuck howled a laugh and Jack punched him in the stomach, then booted him in the side. The man turned from him to walk away. Chuck lunged up, but Jess screamed. He launched himself at Chuck, knocking him down and pummeled him with his fists. Only eleven at the time, he was helpless as the man knocked him down and tried to stomp him. Jack cocked the rifle and Chuck backed away.

“Bad timing,” Jack said. “Buddy, grow up before you grow brass to take down a bad-ass.” He grinned. “And I’d like to see you do it.” He walked from the camp and the men hurried after him, leaving Jess to pile rocks on what remained of his father. He tipped over, flesh spewing from his mouth to desecrate the cairn.

Linnet touched him and Jess awoke with a start.

“Jack is here,” he said, looking at the elevator. The doors stood closed and he crept to his feet.

“They took another load up.” Linnet pulled on his hand. “Sit down and rest. They ran him and Mrs. Packer off, remember?”

“The sun is up?”

“No, there’s an auxiliary power source Doc accessed. A diesel generator, but it feeds off methane from the sewers, too.”

Jess let her drag him to his heels and sipped a broth she made. Mouth still coppery, tasting the meat at that camp, he grimaced. His father, not yet fifty, and so much wisdom and love to give. He let the cup hang from one hand and stared at the floor.

The doors opened and he pulled the rifle around, aiming at them. Danny walked out, then the older man and a new one. Jess stood, waiting while instinct demanded he fire.

Holding a child as a shield, a man ran out firing at him. Danny dropped, kicking at him, and the man howled, rolling and trying to fire. Jess saw a small movement in the elevators and fired. Then everyone in the basement aimed something, even Nina and her new friends.

A gun clattered on the floor, then a body tipped out, slumping in death.

Jess walked to him. The eyes were partway open. He kicked the body over. The man was half-starved and his face a mask of open sores from malnutrition. He ran to the stairwell and up to listen. Hearing nothing, he tried the hole in the storeroom. A head dropped down, Escobedo.

“Sir, if you could get the cell phone, Mister Solomon wants to talk to you, STAT.”

Wainwright had it and ran to Jess.

“Sir?” Jess smiled at the solemn face.

Face haggard and grim, the man looked back. “We’ve accessed a satellite with viewing capacity. A large body of men is coming. My best suggestion is board up the place. Take what you can and boogie.”

“We can’t,” Jess said. “We’re still handing out supplies.”

“Jack is with them, possibly heading them. They’re coming along I-Ten to exit 267. Runners are already nearing the museum. You need to survive to fight him.”

To Wainwright, Jess said, “How many in the lobby yet?”

“Twenty or so, mostly women and children who elected to spend the night.”

Jess choked. “Any armed?”

A faint smile on his face, Wainwright tipped his head.

“All but a few newborn, yes.”

Jess ran to the elevator but Wainwright shouted.

“Where are you going?”

“Two ways in, ain’t there? I can help guard one. Take me to the roof.”

Men crowded into the elevator, packing it before the doors closed. They slid up, to the top level and then ran up the stairs to the roof.

Danny leaned over to point at a lone figure standing in the parking lot.

The man raised something and Jess tackled Danny. A bullet chipped concrete from the parapet. Danny snarled and hopped up firing. The man went down and didn’t move.

Vice desert dry, Jess said, “Remember to duck, OK?”

Danny frowned and sank to one knee, but the rifle remained fixed on the road.

Jess made a quick check of the roof. He looked over the solar panels and crossed his fingers, hoping they would survive the attack.

Taking the stairs down, he found them filled with sleeping people and roused them.

“Trouble coming,” he said, shouting over mutters and outright anger. “Jack and Miz Packer want the food for themselves. If you like to eat instead of being eaten, help fight ‘em off.”

Men and a few women crawled to their feet. Jess sent half to the roof, but the hole in the shield wall was a bigger problem.

He ran to the lobby. Someone had a welding arc out and shouted at children for staring at the fire. Most jeered him. When Jess shouted at them, they scattered. The welder grinned and touched fire to steel and the reek of scorched steel eddied towards the stairs. Shouts came down, but a man yelled about the welder.

Jess ducked from the light to go to the elevator. Another load of cases came up, these filled with dried beans, of all things. He looked them over and tasted refritos as his mother made them, too much garlic and plenty of roasted, scorching hot peppers. Women shoved by to grab plastic bags and stuff them into sacks. None of them filled a pot to cook them and he frowned.

A woman gave him a gentle smile and he smiled back, the odd, warm feeling swelling in him. The woman gasped and jumped from him. Ice drawing electric chills along his spine, Jess turned to see a smiling Linnet. She hastened to lower the little crossbow.

“Hey-lo, angel,” he said and leaned towards her to drop a chaste kiss on one cheek. Then he tried to move to her mouth, but she stilled and he sighed.

The welder cut the flame and spat on a blackened oval of steel. It spit back and he chortled.

“Had that cabrón a car bomb, like they tried at the White House, she’d not hold.” He coiled the hoses. “I’m taking this to the roof to fix the posts. They tried to bend ‘em and some cracked.”

In sign, Jess said, Posts?

“The posts the panels sit on,” Linnet said. “Doc is worried that when the monsoons hit, the winds will tear some loose. That loco did a number on them.”

Jess grimaced. A bullet hit the steel and he ducked. Right next to him, Linnet cocked the crossbow and aimed. Booms roared through the lobby and panels rattled, but so far not even dents formed. Rifle fire came from the roof.

The booms stopped. Jess ran to the inner rooms. The walls were adobe block, hardened in fire, but not impregnable.

Wainwright came after him with the cell phone but Jess shook his head.

“No,” Wainwright said, grabbing him by his free arm. “He can see them from the satellite.” The cell phone was thrust into Jess’s hands.

A younger man with a crew cut and tan shirt nodded at Jess.

“Mister Ganian?”

“Jess.”

“Yes, sir. You’re in command of Pima North?”

“The museum? Well, I don’t know who is.”

Wainwright hissed and shook his head. He pointed at Jess and Jess scowled.

“Well, I been giving orders and folks listen.”

“Sir, I’m Colonel Derek.” A brief, pained smile came and went from the grim features. “No relation to the former colonel of Hollywood fame.”

“Yeah, Hollywood. That’s in California, ain’t it?”

“No longer exists.”

Not really caring about something long dead, Jess gave a curt nod. “OK, mister, what’s up? What kind of help can you give? Jack’s here and he got a burr under the saddle. Me, I’m the burr, but Miz Packer is the whip, driving him.”

“The former madam? She’s not with him that we can discern.”

“The Y. She got a fortress where I-Ten and -Nineteen join. It’s just south of there, west of the old VA Center. That creek that drains Detention Reservoir runs by it.”

“It’s been mapped, but marked abandoned.”

Jess frowned at that. “She ain’t the type to abandon all the gold and art she found. Half the rooms are packed with it, even gold teeth.”

The man looked to one side. “Currently, the building is closed and the doors nailed shut. Sir, what’s your plan?”

“Fight them off, then try to make peace like we done here.” Jess stooped to pick up a sack of beans. “Most ain’t tasted a real meal in years.” He looked at the beans and grinned. “Doc, can you build us a--durn.” He scowled at the ceiling and snapped his fingers. “One of those things they used to shoot firebombs and such into castles.”

Eyes growing wide, Wainwright stared for a moment. “A catapult? I suppose. They aren’t very high tech.”

“Do it. Build it on the roof.” Jess smiled at the colonel. “What can you do, mister?”

A careful look in his eyes, the man said, “At this time, little but to advise, sir. It would be better to take all non-combatants to the basement, and do it while you still have power.”

“That bad, huh?”

The man didn’t answer and Jess shrugged. He handed the cell phone to Linnet and ran to the roof. He walked along the parapets muttering to men and eyeing the parking lot. At the back, it had been an open field, probably a golf course. The trees were dead and not a few down. Linnet came up with the cell phone, but it was a pale blue.

“Hey, it lost power,” she said, scowling at the unit.

Jess smiled. “Want to try the bow again? Might be you’re a little stronger from fighting me.”

“Fighting you off, you mean.” She threatened to belt him, but laughed instead. “Men, bah.” Linnet took the bow and an arrow, but Jess tore part of his sleeve off, winding it around the steel head.

“Get down,” he said and took out a pack of matches. He stood and fire flared from a match. Rifle fire crackled from half a dozen different sites but a shout stopped it. “Try to hit a tree. That big pine snag out there.”

“The one in the woodlot garden?”

Jess nodded and someone fired from the trees. He ducked to one side, running a few paces and jumped up firing the .38 while Linnet rose to shoot the arrow.

She missed and he rolled his eyes, but she scowled, pointing from the cover of the parapet at the trunk. A spark glowed there, eating into the pine. It flared and then raced up the trunk. Silvered in the heat, twigs exploded in flames, shooting sparks into other trees. Fire dropping around them, men fled the trees followed by small animals. Danny shouted and fired. A rain of lead and arrows fell on the men and most dropped into burning weeds.

Jess took the bow and gave the quiver a sorrowful eye. “You owe me two arrows, ya know.”

Then she did smack him and he grinned at the hard snap of buttocks under her jeans.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, smiling. “Only time a woman will hit a man is when she’s serious about him.” He started to whistle a tune, Mi Corazon, Mi Amor. Jess sauntered to the stairs and found Linnet there, leaning on the wall, her eyes cold as stone.

He dropped a kiss on her cheek and winked.

“Nice shooting, Miz Linnet. You know you’re in my pride, just being seen with a woman of your abilities and beauty.” Softly, he said, “Mi amor, my heart and soul.”

He held out a hand and she looked from him. Speaking softly, he said, “A shy woman is a deadly woman, because all real men adore her. Pa said that of Mama, a woman known to be a pretty good shot when she had to. Truth be known, she usually missed, at least when shooting at Pa.”

Eyes hard, fighting a grin, Linnet said, “Usually?”

“Hm. Like Mama said, what does an injuin tell a man with two bullet wounds?”

“Nothing,” Linnet said, drawling, her voice sultry. “She already told him twice. Or so my Mama told my Daddy.”

Wainwright gasped for breath, but he and a dozen men hauled up steel pipes and a shallow basket made of wire. He staggered to a halt grinning.

“Your catapult, Jess.”

It didn’t look like anything he saw in books, but the old man was smart. He survived living in the dead lands between a multitude of gangs and that was not bad at all, not a-tall.

Wainwright bolted it together, a steel frame and a pole with the basket welded to one end. A steel cable ran from a windlass to a hook. Wainwright put that in a hook under the basket and held up a hammer.

He looked around. “What are you using for ammunition?”

“Beans.” Jess took the bag of beans and laid them in the basket. “Fire one.”

Wainwright frowned. He choked and coughed, then grinned. A man cranked the windlass until the basket touched the frame. At a thumbs-up from Jess, he rapped the hammer on one hook. The basket shot up to crack against a cross member. The bag sailed into the night to shatter on the parking lot. Jeers went up from Jack’s men.

Women appeared with cases of cupcakes and MREs. At Jess’s nod, they loaded the basket, firing all of it out. Jeers grew ragged and men shouted. Gunfire cracked in the night and they began to die, killing each other over beans and stale food. Jack cursed and railed, but his gang dissolved as starving men tried to eat.

“How many shots can it handle?” Jess said, leaning over the parapets.

“All night, if you want.”

“Keep a crew on it, OK? Feed a hungry man and he’ll be of better mind. Might even be reasonable, you know?” Slipping an arm around Linnet’s waist, he walked to a darker part of the roof.

Wainwright grinned but looked away to help load the basket. A hand cracked over flesh and Jess muttered, “Laws, that stings.”


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