The fools go in
If they come out
They’ve nothing left
Worth bragging about
____Cdommin Vrush, Tales of the Blasted Lands.
The recharging station called itself Jupie Leftovers and had an attached restaurant plus fairly clean restrooms. There was no beef to be had but, as Pete had predicted, plenty of venison dishes from which to choose. Chicken and egg offerings were also listed on the menu, though the first plate of fried eggs to hit their table displayed a blood streak in one yoke that clearly indicated the hen fruit had been fertilized ere it had been plucked from beneath its mother.
Kate gagged at that, refusing to consider eating anything at all for several minutes. Only after the men were able to persuade the kitchen staff to produce a Mexican omelette guaranteed to contain nothing icky did she relent, and grudgingly at that. Still deeply suspicious after she was served, she picked out several tiny bits of red pepper “just in case” before gingerly taking her first bite.
From that point forward, however, the omelette disappeared right swiftly–red pepper bits and all.
“Yowall not frem here, aryuh?” The speaker in the next booth was obviously a local. Most didn’t have such a bastardized accent, or so they’d heard, but the Blasted Lands had produced something of a dialect all their own. Sad blue eyes stared out of a thin face that was none too clean, the chin barely hidden by a long, scraggly, thin beard full of weird snarls like some psychotically tangled fishing line. Narrow shoulders, sloping under a checked shirt that, like its owner, had seen better days. He held a steaming mug of coffee in his left hand, a smoldering home rolled cigarette in his right.
The Sandfire men looked at each other and silently elected Sven spokesman.
“No,” the Seeder spoke around a mouthful of excellent deer steak. “We’re not.”
“Where yowall haided, then?”
“To Hell in a hand basket, most likely.”
Scraggle-beard scratched his chin at that, nearly shoving his cigarette up his nose in the process. Dirt from his fingers had already marked the beige paper.
“Haill in a haind basket. Ain’t heard that’n in a coon’s moon.”
A coon’s moon? Sven held his tongue and kept on chewing, not an easy feat in any literal sense. Scrag-bag appeared to be a born talker; there probably wouldn’t be too many gaps in the conversation that needed filling.
“Nope. Not’n a coon’s moon. Where yowall frem?”
“Mrphg,” Enunciation and mastication did not go well together.
“Murg? Heered o’ that’n, I doo believe. Daown arouwnd Georgia, ennit?” Scrag seemed to ask a lot of questions. In the BLs, everyone knew–even here at the outer edge–locals often wore sidearms out in the open for all the world to see. Asking too many questions was considered bad form. Bad form could get you challenged. Or needled. Or lasered. Or sliced or pretty much hassled unto termination in any of a thousand ways. Yet this dude played Third Degree with them like it was no big deal?
At least this seedy critter, the kind who elsewhere would be automatically identified as one of the homeless, did not seem to have a weapon hanging under his shoulder or on his hip. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t packing, of course. Sandifre’s entire crew was armed to the teeth–or in Sven’s case the teethless–but only Pete’s .40 caliber Thug Taker was out in the open.
“Naow me, I growed up in the deeper BLs,” Scrag went on, “had me a good job, I did, till my ole man busted my chops fer liftin’ his persnal JJ stash to supply my frens. Bastid went to my boss and tole ‘im I was a ayhole, and the boss tells me, yer an ayhole an’ yer fired. An’ I lookit him in the eyee which wa easy nuff cuz he only had one eyee frem the mootations. I lookit him the eyee an’ said, your mama does Stick Men, you Jupie-lovin’ pile of caow chips. Yoo think I wanna rench on these caow chip junk heaps you call vee-hickles, you one eyee moot?
“He gits all red in the face, then I tole him, you one eyee scuse for a greese banger, your ole lady could fit a lympic size vollaball in her glory hole an’ I bet you don’t even know it takes an ayhole to git rid of crapp, do yoo, yoo twisted shnarg-pot of nonhooman bein’! So then I tole him, screeg it, eyem the ayhole what’s gonna get rid of the two biggest caow piles in the worl right now, you an’ my ole man. So I took my tork-poerger an’ poked out his one good eye an’ went on home an’ slapped my bigmouth ole man up longside the hayedd with a piece a pipe an’ took the snark off.”
He paused. The Seeder had finally downed the last bite of tenderloin on his plate and felt free to jump in. In fact, he’d better jump in. This guy was a yakkity-yak reservoir with a busted sluice gate, for sure.
“Your old man and former employer. They, ah…?”
Scrag’s unfiltered fag had burned down to his fingers, choosing this moment to get his attention. He dropped the butt with a curse, burning a hole in the cheap tablecloth, then promptly pulled another from his lefthand shirt pocket and lit up. He took a long, deep drag, pulling the smoke right down to his toes…and coughed fiercely for a full minute before answering.
“My ole man, he did the right thing, stayed dead all right. Good dead caow flop, that’un. Ex-boss, he was too stoopid to die. Guy’s still runnin’ a rench shop, blind as a bat an’ won’t quit. ‘Cept the vine sez he got one a them thingies naow, ya band it ’round yer haedd an’ it helps him see a little somehaow. I ever stop by that way agin, giss eyee better finnish the job, doncha think? Do it right this time??”
The Seeder lifted one corner of his mouth. “Good workmanship is rare.”
“Got that right, Mr. Turrist. Workmanship. I do like that wurd. You got them big wurds, doncha? Workmanship. I ever git back round Lumbus, eyell go workmanship that blind rencher’s hayedd with a pipe, mebbe could be. Right dang tool fer the job, eh? Eh?”
“Eh.” Seven responded mildly. “So, you still wrenching?”
“Me? Nah.” Scrag blew out a cloud of smoke, staring into his coffee cup as if not quite sure what the contents might be. “Ever since the Lumbus thing, I bin movin’ round. Always the BLs, o’ course. Once a Blasted, always a Blasted, no point in leavin’. But movin’.”
Understandable. Uneasy “Outside”, natives of the Blasted Lands had their own code: Take care of your own camp first, and Death to anyone even remotely connected with the federal government which had failed to protect their families during the War; the feds could go straight to Hell, do not pass Go, do not collect taxes. In truth, feds did not venture into the BLs except at great need. No wealthy, arrogant graduate of New Harvard could pass as a local for more than two, maybe three seconds.
Oh, they’d tried force, sure enough the Big Government hacks had done that–but not for more than thirty years now. Bottom line, the BLs had effectively seceded from the Union and made it stick…with a vengeance.
They weren’t against tourists. In fact, they loved tourists. Vulnerable vehicles did tend to go in one side and not come out the other, naturally. Oh, three men and one woman had a pretty fair chance of making it through, providing they were well armed and aware, didn’t run out of fuel in the wrong spot or pick up stray hitchhikers or blow a tire on a spike trap or go to sleep in the wrong motel–the BLs did have motels–or eat the wrong food or drink the wrong drink or turn their back on strangers in public restrooms.
Stuff like that.
“Do you know a good motel around here?” Sven asked in a casual voice, as if it were of no importance. He felt Kate squirm at his side and placed a warning hand on her knee under the table.
“Motel. Place to stay for a night that doesn’t, you know, have a one eyed mutant running the show. You know what I mean.”
“Ahhhh! Now, that infurmayshun will cost yoo!”
“Hundred nuds or a good pistol. No credit tracers an’ no knives or lasers.”
Pete’s eyes widened slightly; he seemed on the verge of saying something. Fortunately, their waittress stopped by at just that moment with a fresh pot of coffee.
“Pay his price if ya got it, folks,” she advised. “That’s why he lives here in Pits, so he kin pick up ready cash from incomers. He ain’t cheap, but don’t let his good looks fool ya. Takes pride in straight scoop, Kaboomer does.”
“Kaboomer?” This time is was Gene who raised a single bushy white eyebrow.
“That’s me,” the tangle-bearded fellow admitted. “Folks mush with me, I give ’em the front end of my hayund cannon. Kaboom! Kaboom!” He grinned for the first time, revealing great ragged gaps between a mouth sporting maybe half a dozen yellowed teeth.
“Got plenty of edgy blayedds and spacey light show laser stuff, yowall know wha eyee mean? But eyee doo like a little noyez. Kaboom! Kaboom!”
The waittress–no movie star herself, forty pounds overweight and crosseyed to boot–moved to Kaboomer’s table, refilling his cup, patting his shoulder fondly before heading back toward the kitchen. One could hope she might actually wash that shoulder-patting hand before serving her next customer, but the odds weren’t good.
Scraggy-bearded Kaboomer obviously had at least a little influence around these parts.
“Well, now,” the Seeder confessed, “I sort of like hand cannons myself. But how come you don’t carry one out in the open like the charger attendant out front does? Heck, even the waittresses have those cute little shoulder-holstered .380s peeking out past their headlights.”
Kaboomer cackled, a chickeny sound just shy of a shriek with a hint of Halloween broomriding witch tossed in for seasoning. “Caow flop, man, ain’t no real need to pack. Not here. It don’t git dawg dangerous till yer in a bit furtherer, ya know, wunst yer in too far ta make it back owt iffen ya git raided. Pits is the safest place in the wurl, doncha know. Yowall never bin to the BLs before, huh. Obviuss. Obviuss. Here we got law ‘n’ order. Littul Arnold runs this town an’ even killers from the Interior knows not ta mess with incomin’ turrists, beleeve me.”
“Frags an’ caow cruds, iffen we cut off the turrist trade, we’d be cuttin off our own tools with a rusty hatchet, scuze my Jupe, Ma’am.” He nodded to Kate, a gesture of sincerely insincere apology.
She nodded back, smiling sweetly. “If you’re going to cut off your own tool, It’s certainly best to use a blade of surgical quality, Mr. Kaboomer.”
Kaboomer blinked at her, confused. Pretty little redheaded girl tourists didn’t talk like that…did they? Why hadn’t she freaked? He dismissed her input almost immediatly, though. Girls were to be used and abused; what they actually said never actually meant anything.
“Hah!” He grinned again, back on top of his game. “Ain’t that a fact!”