Fantasticoe 2000 Contents
What am I?--Or perhaps I should say--what was I? The person I was died before The Apocalypse, the person I am now survives, and who is to say what is real and what is surreal? How can life before the Apocalypse matter at all? No part of my world before is left in the world now. I am the only link with it, and everything I was or knew, everything I loved, every cause I fought for is as though it never existed. I am the burned out shell who keeps on, whose blood pumps and heart beats--if only as a reflex. I could die tomorrow. I would care, but not a whole lot.
I told you I was a treasure guide, the best there is. My office is the back table in a bar in Little Italy. My chair has its back to the wall. The shine on the linoleum floor was long ago worn off by too many feet, too many bar stools being scraped back too many times, too many glasses smashing on the floor when too many patrons got the knife and were dragged into the alley. The glass in the framed pictures cut out of magazines has been exposed to so much cigarette smoke that it looks frosted, and if you want to survive, you never go into the bathrooms, men's or women's. Things live in the drains. But it's safe as long as my rent is paid on time.
I'd just lit up a home-rolled and put my feet up on an empty chair when my client walked in. George Dillon was no worse than most people, but certainly no better. In fact, I'd had a hard time figuring out how he had managed to rise to any sort of prominence at all. He had found my name by tirelessly pumping everyone he knew for information. Maybe Dillon was more lucky than smart. Before The Apocalypse he had owned a chain of dry cleaning stores and had the money to prepare for what he could see coming. He invested in canned goods, tobacco, liquor, hardware, seeds, frozen meat, and gold Kruggerands. Plenty for himself, and plenty to sell. But he had not purchased enough to support himself forever. All his goods had been sold and he had lived fat and rich off the proceeds. He walked in wearing a diamond and ruby ring on his sausage-like fingers, gold chains around his neck, suit of pure silk. On either side of him came two burly bodyguards; their jackets cut loose to hide the bulge of a revolver in its holster. Bodyguards do not come cheap.
He walked straight up to me, eyes gleaming, taking in every detail of my appearance: small, neat, and all in one piece. Black hair with gray showing in it pulled back and braided tight to my head. A hat they used to call a fedora that I could pull down low when I needed to pass unnoticed, hard-wearing black denim shirt and pants, pointy-toed cowboy boots, eyes like a snake's, and a 44 Magnum tucked in my belt, where he could see it. The Magnum was the biggest gun I had yet found and its heaviness felt good and safe. When you're 5'2" in a world of big hard men, you have to have some way to get their attention.
"You must be the famous Brat," he breathed, the bodyguards bobbing along behind him like pull toys on a string.
I knew who he was and exactly what he wanted, if the rumor mill had proved correct. And I knew he wasn't just chasing a pot of gold, but something much more basic: blood, human blood. Not synthetic, not plasma, but real, pure blood and rarest of all, it was rumored to be unspoiled. The supposed site was an underground medical facility somewhere outside what used to be Washington, D.C., created and kept for the exclusive use of our country's most valuable leaders. It was said to be fifty stories underground and before The Apocalypse had been guarded more heavily than the president himself. That was all I knew at this point, but I couldn't let him see that.
"Who are you?" I asked him the question, because he should have known never to ask someone's name without giving his own first. His ignorance irked me, and his stupidity made me cautious. We had a staring contest while I waited for an answer. Waited, letting the silence roll between us, waited, not caring how long it took before he gave in.
"I am George Dillon, someone you want to be come very, very good friends with." Dillon looked at me. He expected some kind of acknowledgement in my eyes, some kind of recognition of him and his status. But Dillon was chasing rumors, so far.
"Ok Dillon, so speak."
"Well, um, ok, let's talk business. I want you to find something for me."
"What have you lost?"
"What do you charge?"
"Depends on what's lost."
"What are your terms?"
"What are you looking for?"
"We must become partners first, then I will tell you."
"Tell me now or Salvatore behind the bar over there will boot you out, bodyguards or no bodyguards."
He sat, close, and put his lips close to my face. I could smell his breath, and could imagine what his latest meal had been. Rare Porterhouse steak with garlic and onions, asparagus tips with hollandaise sauce, profiteroles stuffed with crème fraiche and coffee, real coffee, made from coffee beans, all shared with some cat of a woman who also liked the soft life. I reflected on my last meal: oatmeal with raisins and a little milk. I could afford fancier food, but I liked to live lean--I liked to live.
"I know of a treasure, a very valuable treasure."
"I'm not interested in gold."
"And I'm not stupid, Brat. Gold is nothing, gold is for the unimaginative, gold is for the uninformed. Your cut of what I'm after would set you up for life, but I need help to get there. I need help to get it out."
"And you need somebody to take the risks. Twenty percent. You pay expenses, manpower, equipment, whatever I need. If it's hard to market the goods, you fence them for me for a small percent of my gross. I find the exact location of the treasure and make the arrangements to get it out."
"Ten percent, twenty percent, percent doesn't matter! Just a little of this will be enough to let you do what ever you want when it comes to the fortune to be made. Brat, Brat, this is an opportunity you can't miss!"
"I don't deal in maybe's, and you're wasting my time." I said. He'd made me angry now. "Take it or leave it. Now buy me a drink for my time. Salvatore, bring me a double Grand Marnier neat with a Coke back."
Dillon stood up and threw some silver on the table. His little piggy eyes narrowed as he scowled at me. "Don't get too big for your britches Brat, or I might have to give you a good spanking."
I was on my feet, gun to his ear and one arm twisted behind his back before his goons could even react. "Listen to me you fat little toad. I don't take that from anyone, least of all from the likes of you. It would make me proud to drop you right now so if you ever want to talk to me again, you remember your manners."
"Arrgghhh!" he screamed. I jerked his arm tighter up his back.
"Want me to break it for you?"
Thing 1 and Thing 2 had finally noticed that their boss was not very happy and had gotten up, but the proximity of my gun to their boss's ear made them cautious. I adore intelligent men. I let Dillon go and enjoyed watching his face turn crimson. He turned and left the bar without a word.
"Brat," said Salvatore. "Do you want me to get the boss?"
I sat down and put my feet up and let the fiery orange velvet of the Grand Marnier purr down my throat. "No need, Salvatore, my client will be back tomorrow, and then I'll charge him double."
* * * * * * * *
With my Magnum in the ready position, I stepped quietly over the threshold of the Federal Building on State Street. It was 7 a.m., late enough for some sunshine to come through the high windows but early enough that most of the building's inhabitants were still sleeping. Across the vast, open first floor, I could see the grandeur of what used to be: rich wood paneling running around the lower half of the walls and a mural telling the story of industry and commerce running around the top half. Old metal desks were arranged in groups, some with only three or four desks, some with ten or twenty arranged in circles or rectangles with crazy streets and alleys formed by the spaces in between them. Some had been stacked on top of each other to make walls with blankets stretched across openings and decorated with spray-paint graffiti, old hubcaps, costume jewelry, even paintings in gold frames. I stood, still, as the odor of no-tech living came over me. Bodies and clothes never washed, wood smoke that had darkened the walls. The smell of urine and feces was so strong that the inhabitants must have been using metal office wastebaskets as chamber pots. And I could smell the almost sweet aroma of rotten meat. Spoiled food? (I hoped) Dead rats? (At least they would be dead) Dead bodies? (Well, that was not my business).
I turned my head to breathe in the relatively fresh air of the street and then ran my eyes over the area closest to me: dirt, old papers, and old clothes. I took a step forward.
"You'll have to see the Head Man." Said one of the larger piles of clothes. Startled, I looked closer at the pile that had talked. I could see eyes, hair, and a skinny, dirty claw reaching toward me.
"I said, you'll have to see the Head Man." Said Pile-of-rags, louder and more forcefully as she pulled on my wrist to help herself stand. "Are you hard of hearing, dearie?"
She came up to my shoulder and looked at me with weak, tired eyes.
"We're very careful here, don't let just anybody in. You have to be approved." Said Pile-of-rags. "It's my day to guard the door. You'll have to see the Head Man."
Seeing the Head Man could mean anything from giving him a present to fighting for my life. I had hoped to get down to the basement, where the archives were, without anyone even knowing I had passed. Maybe Pile-of-rags could be bribed.
"You wouldn't be hungry, would you?" I said, and took a bit of cheese out of my pocket, "maybe hungry enough to forget you saw me." I waved it under her nose.
"Hugo takes better care of us than that! Hugo! Hugo!" yelled Pile-of-rags, strident now. "There's a stranger here! Over here, by the front door! Stranger! Stranger! Somebody go get Hugo!"
Well, now she truly had woken up the dead. People started to come out of their desk-houses, looking, oohing and aahing, talking to each other behind their hands as they sleepily ambled over toward Pile-of-rags with the bullhorn voice. They moved as if they were different parts on the same body, and all converging on me. They were in pretty bad shape; many had limps or shuffled when they walked, many coughed and leaned on each other. They must have been all ages, for there were short ones and tall ones, but it was impossible to tell who was young and who was old for they all looked the same. But their eyes glowed with interest as they stared at me. They got closer and became more tightly packed but stopped about three feet away from me. They were waiting for Hugo, I supposed. They were the spectators in this little drama and would do nothing until he sanctioned it.
Presently, two men appeared, walking side by side to clear a path through the crowd. They reached the opening and then each one took hold of one of my arms. One of them took my Magnum and stuffed it in his belt. They looked a lot better fed than the other inhabitants, certainly better fed than Pile-of-rags. I was beginning to think she should have taken the cheese I had tried to bribe her with.
What was I going to do now? Even if Hugo, whoever he was, let me go without trouble, I doubted he would give me my gun back. And almost certainly he wouldn't let me roam through the archives in the basement at my leisure, looking for information on the location of the pure blood that Dillon had talked about. Not if he knew that was what I wanted to do. And I needed that information. Dillon would be back in the bar tonight, I was certain of it. I had to look like I knew something, I had to know something. What lie could I tell to this Hugo to get me off the hook? And how could I get him to let me down into the basement?
The two men stood silent, next to me, staring straight ahead up the open pathway they had created. Then the bodies began to stir and whisper. Someone else was coming. Sure enough, out walked the person who could only be Hugo.
Hugo could have been a professional basketball player in a previous life; he had to have been 6'7" tall and was lean but had the musculature of a trained athlete. His clothing was nondescript, worn and not too clean--typical of just about everyone these days. Then I looked at his face: hollow cheeks and thin lips, yellow, waxy skin stretched tight across an unlined forehead and dark, bushy eyebrows that looked like caterpillars sitting above the most remarkable eyes I have ever seen. Sunk so deep they seemed to come out of his brain, the "whites" were black. The iris, a silvery gray, seemed to gleam and reflect the light and there was no clear definition between the iris and the pupils, only a slow transition to the black in the middle. I was dumbfounded by them. I stared into them, trying not to flinch. I couldn't let him see that his physical presence intimidated me. I'm tough, I thought. I bet he's tougher, thought my practical side. His eyes would not release me and I got lost in them, seeing more than anyone should be able to. It was as though the history of his life constantly played out in them. I saw cruelty and calculation, conniving intelligence and a superhuman will to survive. Still he stared and still, I managed to hold his gaze.
"Jules," he said to the man who was holding my right arm. "What was she carrying?"
"Just this." He replied, and handed over the Magnum.
"You have quite a bit of stopping power here." Said Hugo as he looked at me. "Who were you planning to shoot with this?"
What was I supposed to answer? What would he believe?
"It's protection, a scare tactic, nothing more." I offered.
"And you are called?"
"And why are you here, in my little domain, Brat, entering without my permission and waking up my people?"
There it was. Laying there like an egg. Hugo had to have a reason. Hugo had my gun. Hugo had two big men holding me down and a crowd of nameless, shapeless followers just waiting to do his bidding. Well, let's go for broke, I thought. If all else seems to fail, try rudeness.
"Get these stinking men away from me--now!" I yelled. "I'm not going to tell you anything while they still have their hands on me! AND disperse these people! I won't talk business in front of the whole world."
Hugo was amused by my words.
"Jules, Stephan, let her go. The rest of you, go on about your business. There's nothing to interest you here." He held up my gun and took out the clip, then handed it to me handle first. I stuck it in my belt. That felt better. I'd find ammunition and reload when I had to.
"Madame Brat," He said to me mockingly. "Please do me the honor of dining with me--privately."
Then he turned and strode back the way he had come. Jules and Stephan blocked the exit, and besides, what would I learn if I didn't follow? I looked left and right as I came up abreast of Hugo. The city of desks appeared more fantastic now. Some had holes cut out of individual desks to the size and shape of picture windows in houses from before The Apocalypse. I could see stolen and makeshift furniture, tables, beds--all the signs of domestic life I would expect to see in a regular house or apartment.
* * * * * * * *
Author's note: This is a work in progress.
To Patricia Margaret Bellamy Thorpe, who made sure I always had plenty of books to read.
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Fantasticoe 2000 Contents