Smackie Phelps studied the hundred nud coin under a good lamp, using a jeweler’s monocle and applying several chemical tests as well.
“It’s the real thing, Kay,” he said finally. No one else could get away with shortening Kaboomer’s name, but between these two it was a term of endearment. Literally. They were close. Really close, gay without the pride. The eldest son of the late Farmer Phelps had earned his nickname by the age of fifteen, able to get hard only when smacking the tar out of a sex slave…or when using fists and feet to whip any dummy who was fool enough to challenge him in a barroom brawl.
No one ever did that twice.
“Figured it was.” Not the slightest trace of Deep Blasted accent remained in the Boomer’s voice.
The Roller dealer made a few notes on a desk pad, doodled a bit in the margins, felt the first stirrings of an erection. Everyone in the BLs knew, as did the better informed outsiders, that you needed a Roller to travel anywhere in The Nation and live to tell about it. Horseback? The first pack of raiders would rape you and eat your horse, or maybe the other way around.
On foot? Not even a fully armed Special Forces squad could make it through, end to end. Smackie knew that for a pure dee fact, having once witnessed the demise and subsequent consumption of ten hard-muscled young Fedcops who’d considered themselves invincible. One hadn’t been quite dead when he was spitted.
At least that batch of raiders cooked their long pig; too many nasty diseases transferred from raw homo sapiens.
Flycar? Not a chance. The Feds disrupted any attempt to set up the necessary atmospheric traffic control, mostly by having Air Force patrols shoot down anything in flight. The U.S. of A. might not be able to conquer the Blasted Bastards on the ground–dang straight they couldn’t–but they sure enough ruled the sky.
That left Rollers. Ole Grumm, a distant ancestor of Smackie’s very own, had designed the first such. Generations ago now, that was. There were plenty of bomb craters after the Battle of Ohio, plenty of burned-out wood and steel and plascrete, plenty of rain-filled scum-covered ponds…and no roads. Army brass at first believed their 20th generation Humvees with ACD (Air Cushion Drive) would handle the new terrain easily.
Air blasting down that hard had a tendency to stir things up a bit, and one of the things that tended to come up–along with cooked rat bones and charred everything–was a Jovian attack chemical called The Pox. Outside historians, they’d heard, claimed the Jupies had never used chemical weapons, but that was B.S.
People breathing The Pox in quantity tended to die a lot…and so did airflow engine chambers.
To outsiders, Rollers were a mystery. No tourist realized until too late that it was a simple solarchem engine like the relic these fresh fools drove that was the heart and soul of the finest–the only–relatively safe transportation in the BLs. The death of a hundred Bastards, as Blasteds often referred to themselves, was not too high a price to pay for such an engine.
Their nation claimed the BL territory entire. They were underpopulated and nationalistic. Breeding rates were good this generation, so far at least, but they still had a long way to go. The lives of tourists were, however, entirely expendable …except for young females who might be impressed into service as enslaved breeders.
“What do you think we need for a strike force, Kay?” He asked the question sincerely. In bed, the Boomer was submissive and totally so, but that didn’t mean he lacked a tactical mind. For that matter, he had a freaking nice ass, too–which, God bless him, he kept scrupulously clean at all times despite his filthy disguise.
The scraggly-bearded slave Lieutenant had been thinking about that (the attack, not butt-scrubbing). His eyes no longer looked sad but betrayed an innate intelligence he’d kept carefully hidden from their quarry.
“Two for the tall half-Aff with the Thug Taker. He’s obviously the rich ayhole’s bodyguard. Big, young, fast reflexes, wary eyes. On his own turf, he’d be serious trouble.”
“If he’s that dangerous, Boomie, maybe we’d just better needle ’em from the Pin. Take no chances.”
“If you say so.”
“But you don’t think it’s necessary.”
“Well, I wouldn’t if it was my money paying the hired help. He can’t watch two ways at once, and the others aren’t going to do him much good, I’ll tell you that. The rich guy hasn’t got a tooth in his head.”
Smackie leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. “What’s being toothless got to do with it?”
“Aw, nothing really, I guess. I’m just jealous. Here’s a dude with obviously more money than he knows what to do with, and yet he doesn’t have the sense to get a decent set of choppers. Maybe we’ll snag a roving dentist who can do mine one day. Let’s see…besides being toothless, the man is arrogant. You ought to’ve seen him flipping that gold around like he was King Crap and we were his serfs. What an ayhole.”
Hm. Phelps propped his leather combat boots on the desk, the picture of relaxation. “It’s you who always say it takes an ayhole to get rid of excrement, Boomie. Arrogance isn’t a reason to underestimate the man, either. What else?”
“Like your act, eh?”
“Half the size of the big Aff.”
“Op’alhg the Stalker isn’t very big, either, and neither one of us would want to mess with him.”
“Wasn’t even wearing a sidearm where he could reach it. Might have been a small shoulder piece under his jacket, but nothing under a two second draw.”
“Well, now you’ve got something. One good, solid man to take out the Golden Oldie, then. What about the Ancient?”
“That’s how I knew they weren’t Feds. We don’t grow ’em that old in The Nation, I’ll tell you. Never even seen a tourist that old; swear he’s ninety if he’s a day. Got a good look at one of his hands. The thing was all clawed with arthritis, covered with liver spots. And his knees were nearly as locked up as your tool gets.”
“That bad, eh?” Smackie grinned. “Okay. That leaves the woman. What about her?”
“Best danged calves and rear end I’ve seen in a coon’s moon. I’m hoping you’ll give me a crack at her after you’re done.”
“I mean danger, you idiot.”
“Danger?” Scraggly chin whiskers quivered in amusement. “Her? Dang, she ain’t no bigger’n a minute, good stiff breeze would blow her clean to Indiana. And she’s busted up something fierce. You can’t tell it when she walks, still looks good, but her man even had to cut her omeltte for her before she could eat it. An omelette! Oh, yeah, and she threw a screaming fit when one of the eggs came out with a fertilized streak in it. She’s like some kind of infant, almost. Great body, but I do believe she’s mental to the max.”
“All right. I get the picture. Well, we’ll play it safe, then. Shouldn’t take us more than a few minutes to pick up Hyvix and Ralg on the way. I’ll drive the Pin; you take the Coy. The boys can bracket the bodyguard. You want the rich dude?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” Kaboomer’s eyes literally danced with excitement.
“All righty then. That leaves me the super-old geezer and the arthritic midget.”
“She ain’t a midget, Smackie. Just really, really petite. Pocket rocket.”
“Whatever. Now, speaking of pocket rockets, drop your pants and grab your ankles. Little Arnold is feeling feisty.”
It was something after 5:30 when the two Rollers eased to a stop in the Blasted Bastard’s parking lot. There was still good daylight; it wouldn’t be sunset for another two, two and a half hours. Vera, the Bastard’s only employee except for morning housekeeping, informed her boss–Smackie–that the rich tourists were registered in rooms 6 and 7. There were no other customers in the seven room facility; it was not like outsiders were exactly pouring into the Blasted Lands these days.
The Boomer expertly aligned the Coy so that its needle gun covered those two doorways. Stocky and energetic, Smackie Phelps climbed down from the Pin’s entry hatch, striding quickly to number 7. He knocked firmly three times as would any hotshot salesman.
Both Hyvie and Ralg were left in the Pin for the moment.
He knocked again. Had the marks gone somewhere? No, their car was right there. Already asleep? That would be just too easy. Maybe they were running from something, though, worn out. Maybe–the hairs on the back of his neck stood up a second too late.
“Evening, Mr. Tourist, Sir.”
He whirled. Beside the Pin, admiring its quarter inch steel plating, stood a wizened old man. An old Indian, maybe one of those worthless Chippewa refugees, tottering around on his last legs, propped up by a scarred black cane.
“Get out of here, grifter,” Smackie snarled, then suddenly realized the targets might hear him if they were indeed in the room after all. But this snark rubbing the Pin’s armor was trying to horn in on his territory. The fool would pay for that. Later. For now, the ayhole must simply be quietly intimidated enough to keep him from ruining a solid setup. Phelps strode over to the man with long–long for the Smacker, anyway–steps.
He stopped short. The Chippewa con man had straightened almost casually, twisting his cane so that the seemingly solid black ironwood separated neatly into two pieces. Smackie was looking down the barrel of an extremely large bore pistol. Single shot, but one round from that thing would be more than enough. Boomer would like that one, he thought inanely.
It took another full second for the horrible truth to register.
“You’re the stupid tourist, aren’t you?” His voice had dropped to a near whisper.
“The stupid one? I get to be the stupid one?” Sven grinned, revealing a toothless mouth. They’d lost one of the brown contact lenses, so his right eye gleamed blue.
Electric blue, the Roller chief’s mind decided. Blue lightning. He shook his head.
“Hard to see how Boomer missed the danger in you,” he said ruefully.
“Flattery will get you everywhere. No, that’s close enough. I’m sure you have no doubt I’ll pull the trigger.”
Smackie nodded dumbly. He had no doubt.
“And you’ve noticed we’re on the other side of the armor here, protected from yonder needle gun ports by your own bait car.”
Smackie nodded again. Yes, he’d noticed. Too freaking late to do him any good, but he’d noticed. Eventually.
“And doubtless it has occurred to you that I wouldn’t leave those hatches uncovered, just in case a few clowns might come popping up out of there.”
Smackie nodded miserably. It had occurred to him.
“Well, then. Let’s negotiate.”
“What?” For the life of him, this made no sense.
“You’re not familiar with the term? Negotiate, which Webster’s Edition 2145 defines as–”
“No, no. I know what it means. I just don’t know why you would do that.” The Blasted’s mind was still reeling, but he was beginning to be able to direct its activity in a general sort of way.
“Ah.” The Seeder held his cane pistol an almost careless manner. Smackie was not fooled. Boomer had been fooled. Boomer would get such a baseball bat up his rectum. If any of them lived. “You do not see why, when I’m holding you at gunpoint, I should offer to cut a deal?”
“Exactly. I certainly wouldn’t in your place. If you Feds have pulled off a setup like this, you gotta have nades or smokers in your kit. One apiece through the breathers and my boys will come boling out like ants when you soak the anthill with gasoline and light ‘er up.”
“Ah. I see. Or we could just use fuel jelly on the Rollers and heat them up a bit, beans in a tin can over a campfire.” Sven was nearly bursting with laughter on the inside but–somehow–managed to keep a straight face.
“Yeah. You could do that.”
“Mm. Don’t suppose there’s the slightest chance I could convince you we’re not Feds, could I?”
“Snowball in Hell.”
“Hm. Guess I can’t blame you there. Who else would bother to con the cons in the Edge, eh?”
“Exactly.” Smackie Phelps tried to force a small note of triumph into his voice. No joy, though; it refused to venture any farther than somewhere around his liver. Something was making him uneasy all over again, something he couldn’t quite identify.
“Nope. Only a Fed would give a hoot ner a holler about the BLs. Only a Fed. Tell you what, Mr. Smackie-Wackie, why don’t we wander over to the office? They have excellent coffee in the lobby here. Oh, and you might want to tell ’em on the intercom to sit tight in those APCs for a bit, you know?”
“Armored Personnel Carriers. The Coy and the Pin.”
“Oh. Guess that’s kind of what they are.” He tapped a code on his wrist mounted walkie talkie and spoke into its little solar mike. “Hyvie, Ralg, Boomer. Hold your fire. This tourist and I are going to have a little talk in the office.”
“Thank you,” Sven said cheerfully. “Now, just in case that little tappy code of yorus gave your boys some sneaky combat instructions, I should tell you that the jellied gasoline isn’t really a joke. I know it’s kind of unheard of these days, but you see, the Bureau does have this big old stockpile in EC Sector 42 and we did have room in the car trunk for enough of the stuff to flame a few APCs. Nor should we ignore the fact that the big, light chocolate young, um, agent who made your Boomie-Woomie so nervous at the station? He’s got this kind of jumpy trigger finger.
“Know hwat I mean, Smackie-Wackie?”
Phelps gritted his teeth. That was the second time with the Smackie-Wackie, but Boomie-Woomie? He really needed to kill this guy.
If he got the chance.
Gene Trask lounged comfortably in an upholstered chair just inside the office’s open door. The old man had a nice view of the parking lot from there, and with that nice bright sun still helping out, no one outside could see much more inside than shadow and glare. A Model 80 splatter gun rested across his knees. He watched in obvious amusement as Kate Jensen popped up from behind the clerk’s desk, bouncing on her toes in sheer glee at the game they were playing. Her man had promised her that since he’d changed his mind and there might not be any killing this time after all, she could at least tie up the clerk, gag and blindfold her…and then mess with the head honcho’s head.
She cocked her pretty little mouth and let fly the moment Smackie came through the door.
“Goo-ood afternoon, Mr. Phelps! This motel will self destruct in–oh, you don’t recongize the old Mission Impossible line, do you? That’s history, and you have to read to learn history, and I bet you just hate to read, don’t you, Mr. Phelps? I hear from my batsonic hearing that you think we’re all Feds, so you can call the blue-eyed Indian Fed and you can call him there on the chair I swear I swear and did you notice how the clerk inside is all nice and tied up for plucking like a Christmas chicken, did you, Mr. Phelps? And did you see the hole behind me in the wall? It’s tall, room enough for us all and I hate when I rhyme but I can’t stop this time and–” Her voice abruptly changed in midsentence from a little girl singsong to the dread Mommy Voice from Hell. “–IF YOU EVEN TWITCH I’LL KILL YOUR ASS ON A DIME!!!!”
Molten rage blazed from her normally beautiful brown eyes. Smackie was jolted to the core. He’d seen some crazy bleeping mutants in his day, but nothing like this. Nothing. Her eyes had actually gone jet black with crimson rings around them. The stocky Roller dealer was not a religious man, yet he knew he was facing either the Head Demon or Sinbinder Himself.
He peed his pants.
“This,” he muttered weakly, “Is the helpless little rape-worthy redhead Boomer described?”
“Yeah,” Sven grinned, again revealing that great, toothless maw. “Kind of excitable, ain’t she?”
Smackie wanted to crawl inside that mouth and hide. It would be safe there. He knew the thought wasn’t rational, but there it was. He wanted his Mommy, never mind that Mother Phelps had been dead and gone these past thirty years and more.
“Well now,” the Seeder stroked his chin thoughtfully, smearing skin dye around a bit, “You’ve met everybody but our tall, milk chocolate, and handsome fellow with the flame pack. Would you care to be introduced, or shall we sit down and begin our discussion?”
Did he want to be introduced to the man his most trusted informant had described as the only dangerous one of these people?
“I shudder to think,” he admitted, meaning every word. “Let’s begin our, ah, discussion. By all means. I, uh, assume you’re not exactly Feds after all.”
“Oh, but we are,” Kate piped up, once again using her little girl voice. “That man there is Fed Smith, and the senior citizen with the lovely splatter gun pointed at your middle is Fed Jones, and I’m Fed Up!”