The Man adjusted the wide brim of his hat and lit his cigarette. The sun rose slowly in the sky, already baking the dry grassland around him. Exhaling grey-blue smoke, he stooped and hefted the satchel containing his precious cargo, his hydraulic lifters hissing gently from the plate on his back.
He pressed a button on the side of his visor and examined the horizon from the crest of the hill. Behind him was a seaside town, its name lost in history. He needed to go east, and north. His gaze fell on a small town up ahead, probably also nameless. He nodded slightly to himself, and walked. He always walked. It was what he did.
The wind rushed through the town’s gate as Walker entered. Dust swirled and danced at his feet as he stepped down the main street. He vaguely recognised it as one he had visited before on his rounds, but its name eluded him for the moment. It was typical of most small English towns; wide main road, flanked by concrete pedestrian areas. Of course, only the Order drove vehicles these days, and they rarely ventured this far out; the people wandered about freely.
He double-checked the bindings on his satchel; he couldn’t afford to have any of its contents stolen from him, before checking his pistol holster. As he walked down the dilapidated main street, with its old brickwork buildings shored up with timber, he thumbed some tobacco from the pocket on the pack at his hip and rolled himself another cigarette.
The township was quiet, as always this early in the day, but the market-men were already set up, lounging in their lean-to stalls against the larger buildings lining the street. As Walker paced through he occasionally glanced around at their wares, showing interest in the stalls with the rarer mechanical objects, or those with more exotic looking items. He approached one stall.
A hairy beast of a man sat behind it, sweating profusely in the bitter autumn heat. The man was fanning himself, and looked sourly up at Walker as he examined the items on the desk.
“’Ere, don’t break anything, matey” The merchant warned. He jerked his thumb lazily towards a burly man, bald head covered in tattoos, who was standing to the right of the stall. “Mr Edwards can get a bit, hah, emotional, especially in this morning heat”
He allowed himself a humourless smile, all yellowing teeth and venom. Walker nodded slightly and continued to browse the rubbish on the stall in front of him. He clucked to himself; from afar it had appeared interesting, but he saw that it was mainly junk; discarded old world items, shabby and aged electronic gadgets that served little purpose when they were new, and much less now that they had stopped working.
He picked up a flat plastic device, about the same size as a book, but much thinner. He turned it this way and that, watching as the sun gleamed from one of its flat edges. He supposed it had been a device similar in function to those used in the city, albeit a much uglier, heavier piece of rubbish. Walker could hear the merchant grumbling more about ‘damaging the goods’ and ‘damned tourists’.
He glanced at the merchant. The man was still desperately trying to stop the flow of sweat by waving at himself with a strip cardboard; his red and green striped tunic was drenched and stained. Walker put the dead tablet down, nodded his thanks to Edwards and flipped a copper penny to the merchant. As the merchant bit the coin, supposedly to test its purity, Walker walked on, ignoring the growls about timewasters and moved on into the market.
It was just before noon and the township had come alive. Children ran and played in the dusty street as merchants bellowed and cried about prices and stocks. People milled; some with obvious business and some with nothing to do but mill and bake in the sun. Local militiamen patrolled the streets, sweating in their mismatched armour and scowling at innocent and guilty people alike, pretending to keep some semblance of order.
Walker ambled through the crowd, which parted easily around him. Out here, in these backwater towns, people knew to give a wide berth to anyone who looked even remotely of the Order; people remembered what the Order was capable of. He didn’t mind; he quite enjoyed the feeling of power it brought. He smiled slightly to himself.
He would continue to search the market for any clues, but knew it would be in vain. It was a rare thing indeed to find any of his chosen wares in small town markets such as this one. Walker sighed and stopped in the middle of the busy street. As usual the crowd, with some low muttering again about tourists, parted around him. He gazed down the street and saw a pub. He began to stroll down the street again, his hydraulic mounted boots clinking gently with every step, the sound lost in the bustle of the crowd.
He reached the tavern and flicked his cigarette stub away, bending low through the doorway. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the smoky darkness after the blazing morning sun from outside, and in that moment everything in the bar stopped. He wrinkled his nose slightly at the smell, and gazed around the dimly lit bar. A seating area was to his left, where the front of the bar was located. The bar itself was shaped like a backwards L and continued down the musty narrow room, where Walker could make out more seats and what he presumed to be a back entrance.
He glanced around, noting anyone who might cause trouble, as well as checking for potential contacts. Walker couldn’t help but chuckle; even at this relatively early hour, the pub was fairly full, a relic of English tradition. Aside from the usual bar flies and wastrels, there were three people that caught his eye. A red faced, balding man, one eyed and scarred, sitting at the bar facing the doorway. The others were to Walker’s left; one was lanky like a beanpole, with a little potbelly, pale and ill looking in the shabby light, ogling in Walker’s direction. He would have gone unnoticed if not for his drinking partner, who had stiffened when he had walked in.
She was younger than her partner; not yet a woman grown by the looks of it, but it was hard to tell. Her eyes were hidden behind a half visor, similar to Walker’s, which began at the top of the forehead and went around the head and down to where it rested on the nose, but he could practically feel the stare she was directing his way.
He rubbed his chin at that; the visors were normally issued only by authorities, such as the Order. She was scowling, her lips a sharp slash of displeasure. Walker noted their positions and strode to the bar.
“Whiskey. Neat” he muttered.
The bartender, a sallow faced woman of indeterminate age, nodded bleakly and lifted a flagon from under the bar. As she went to pour, Walker shook his head and spoke softly, “Not that one. The good stuff, please”.
The woman clucked her disapproval, like a hen, but grabbed a small stool from under the bar. With it, she reached up into a small cupboard, located above the bar itself, and fetched an aging brown bottle. She un-bunged the cork, and got Walker a less than fresh glass. She poured him a shot. Walker held up two fingers. She poured again, stopped the bottle back up and pushed the glass over towards Walker. He nodded his thanks and sipped at the drink, enjoying the oaky taste as the warmth slipped down the back of his throat, resting in his stomach.
“’Ow you gunna pay then, eh?” She spoke with the resurgent, brackish West-Country twang.
Walker took another sip, as the woman continued to worry.
“That stuff’s expensive my luv, but I’m sure a strappin’ walker loike youm got a few goodies in that bag o’ yers?”
She eyed the satchel at Walker’s hip greedily; he couldn’t help notice her eyes dart, however briefly, toward the small, scarred man sat around the corner of the bar.
Walker smiled easily and slowly finished the drink, “Now, I’m just here for some information. We can do business.”
He looked expansively around the room. The couple he had noticed earlier were both watching him; the beanpole gawping vacantly, the teen staring intently. He corrected himself mentally; he couldn’t know for sure what she was thinking, behind that half-mask lens the eyes were invisible. He saw no trouble in the room, aside from old red face.
“I have money, of course. Amongst other things.”
He patted his satchel, felt the books and papers inside, the solidness of the heavy volumes; knew he had to use them wisely. The bald man with the scar spoke up; gravel voiced and too many drinks in.
“Books, walker man? You think we want books?” He spat.
It was red face; broken and blistered veins spread across his nose, black and blue from the years of drinking. He was wearing a tattered jacket, emblazoned with the eagle skull of some old military unit; his arms were heavily tattooed but faded with age. His left eye was a vile jaundice yellow, bloodshot; his right a grey, milky tone that immediately suggested blindness. The scar, trailing from the back of his head and through his face, bisecting the eye, only enforced this. He was a veteran, clearly.
They drank cheaply, but had little to do. Anger, pain and hard, dangerous governmental training made these individuals resentful, bored and dangerous. Walker turned his gaze towards him, eyes hidden behind the impervious sheen of his half-mask visor. He slowly rolled a cigarette, letting the veteran’s anger build. The cigarette bloomed red briefly in the gloom of the pub as Walker struck his match. He breathed deep and let out a plume of blue-grey smoke.
He carefully kept his voice accent-free, to build on their already palpable hatred, “I’m assuming you can’t read?”
The man bristled, but Walker carried on, “That doesn’t mean you’re stupid though. You know books are valuable. Everyone knows it.”
The veteran scowled at him over his pint glass. “We don’t need books round here. Guns, food, money, workin’ for a livin’. S’wat it’s all about. Readin’ gets folk killed, brings about the guvverment types.”
He looked about, meaningfully. There were a few mutters of agreement, but clearly not the support the veteran had expected from his fellow bar folk.
Walker continued to stare at him, as the old man glared around at the other patrons, before turning to the landlady, “Do you even know how to read, Bernie?”
She glared at him, “What a question to arsk a lady, eh? Course I does”. She waved dismissively at him and turned back to Walker, “I just aint got the time. ‘Ere then, what’s in that ole satchel o’ yours? Got anythin’ good?”
Walker stopped staring at the man and turned back to the barmaid. “Depends what you want, m’dear. Why don’t we look and see?”
The veteran snorted. “Damn all this readin’ bollocks.”
He drained his pint and stood up abruptly, knocking his stool over. He limped from the bar, grumbling and staring at Walker with acid hatred plastered across his face. Walker tipped his hat to him as he went past and turned back to Bernie as the door slammed behind him. He allowed himself a sidelong glance to where beanpole and the girl had been sat, but they had left while he had been distracted by the veteran.
Walker scowled inwardly. He had a feeling that he had missed something. He would have to try and quash this uneasiness while he plied his trade.
Walker spread his arms expansively and, speaking louder, addressed the whole bar.