[This story will be uploaded chapter by chapter. I will make a new post to each chapter but will also add them to the first post to make it easier for people who have not yet read the whole thing. Feedback appreciated! Enjoy!]When the infection hit, the world was not prepared. In a few short years, governments toppled, and the world's population was devestated. In the chaos, the few governments that had managed to remain in power were faced with global crisis, failed economies, and anarchic revolutions on all fronts. Nearly a century after the outbreak, even the educated cannot imagine the way the world used to be. The new generation of humanity has congregated in walled city-states, soverign by themselves, sheltered from the undead and the wild outside world by massive guarded fortifications. With very little contact from city to city, the world's only option to deliver various supplies and packages from one place to another was to send men into the harsh world that most hid from. These men were called Runners; in addition to their job being one of the most lucritive of all, it was also the most dangerous.
The destroyed highway provided a good means of transportation to the nimble. Much of the highway was littered with destitute cars, most of which were stripped clean decades ago. Now, the cars provided a slightly elevated position for a perceptive Runner, looking to see a little bit more than his six feet of height allowed him to. After hopping onto the frame of a car, step by step, the agile young man pressed binoculars to his sharp eyes and peered over the distant grassy ridge beyond the bend of the highway. There was no movement ahead-- that was both good and bad. Nothing humanoid was naturally a good thing, but the absolute lack of wildlife meant that there may be something unpleasant awaiting him ahead. He tucked the binoculars into the side pouch on his bag, tightly buckling the strap to secure them before hopping down from the frame of the destroyed vehicle. Placing sunglasses beneath the brim of his cap to shield the glare from his eyes, he began down the cracked asphalt, preparing to vault the railing and hike through the grass, all the while deciding if he was being overcautious or if his concern for the area ahead was just.
Nothing set him on edge more than trudging through tall grass. It slowed him down, it made him more vulnerable, and it was just plain uncomfortable. There were a number of dangers as well, and he hated putting himself more at risk than he already was. On occasion, however, there was no better way; for now, he was stuck with the route before him. He idly tapped his finger on the trigger guard of his carbine as he moved, his eyes cautiously scanning his surroundings.
Moving beyond the rusted guard rail that lined the side of the road, he stepped into the grass with a soft sigh. After taking a few steps, he felt reasonably certain that there was no imminent danger present, but remained on high alert. His steps became heavier as he scaled a gradual incline, and soon found himself peering over the peak of a hill. In the distance, he spotted his destination: the city-state of Constitution, protected by a massive concrete wall. Another quick peek into his binoculars allowed him to scan the area and see that there was no danger anywhere obvious between him and the city gates.
After replacing the binoculars back into their safe place, he began down the hill. Being so close to his destination-- close, but not yet there-- made him very nervous; he pulled his carbine to his shoulder and moved quietly down the hill. His eyes kept moving, always watching the ground ahead of him, occasionally taking a moment to check his blind spots. He listened for anything other than his own movements, his ears vigilantly noting every sound the grass made as it swayed in the wind. Nothing unusual reached his senses. On he moved, growing closer to Constitution with each step, until the downhill walk became an uphill climb, and the city walls loomed over him.
Soon, he stood before the city gates. As he approached, he heard the sound of chains rattling and observed as the thick steel bars of the gate elevated before him. It reminded him of the old castles he had seen in books; the gatehouse of a castle was built to complicate attacking armies, and the outermost defense was a portcullis. The portcullis, typically made of mesh of wood and wrought iron, was a massive gate that often lifted vertically into the interior of the gatehouse. All that was needed was a few chains and wenches to lift the gate, making it a very reliable and simple operation. It was likely that this was the very reason the gatehouse of Constitution used that particular setup.
By the time he reached the gatehouse, the portcullis was fully lifted. He quickly moved into it and stopped with a heavy sigh of relief as the gate lowered before him. Quickly, he pulled the magazine free from his carbine and tucked it into his chest rig, before pulling back the charging handle and ejecting the loaded round. He picked it up from the ground and slipped it into his pocket, and then let the carbine hang over his chest as hand.
Moments later, doors on either side of the gatehouse opened. Men wearing gear similar to his, carrying weapons equally as serious, moved from the room with their rifles trained on him. Uncomfortable, he shifted slightly, but said nothing. The doors closed, leaving five relatively-uniform men standing before him, four of them armed and ready to fire. The fifth man, unarmed, stepped toward the Runner and cleared his throat.
"Afternoon," the Runner said.
"Afternoon, Runner. Do you have any papers?" the man said, as he slipped on a pair of cloth gloves.
"None valid for Constitution. The last time I was here, my papers were stolen."
"I see. Without your papers, we are required to search you and your gear. A medical exam is also required before entrance to the city is permitted. Do you consent?"
"Yes," the Runner sighed, "I consent."
The man made a motion to the others standing by, who lowered their rifles and stood in a relaxed military stance. One of the doors opened again, and a young fellow trotted out to hand the unarmed man a clipboard. The young one then disappeared behind the door again.
"Are you familiar with Constitution Entrance Approval Form 1.2A?" the man asked.
"Yes," he replied. He had been through this routine more times than he could recall.
"Then state your information, in order, as appears on the form."
"Parker Oliver Mason, of Louisville. Age, twenty-seven. Born April 6th, 2064. Ethnicity, white. Eyes, brown. Hair, black. Five foot ten; one hundred, seventy pounds. No militia experience. Runner, certified by the Louisville Runner Agency."
As he man scribbled away on his clipboard, Parker watched two men step from the side rooms, one of which approached and reached for Parker's bags. With an annoyed sigh, Parker unclasped the buckle for his rucksack, and lowered the pack to the dirty ground. His secondary pack, containing the items he was running, came next. After that, his belt and chest rig, which carried his loaded pistol and much of his ammunition. Now, without his gear, he submitted himself to the other man who patted him down as the first fellow searched through his bags and equipment.
While they conducted their search, the man with the clipboard began sounding off Parker's rights while in Constitution. It was a formality, but an unnecessary one; Parker made it his prerogative to be extensively familiar with the laws of Constitution.
"Follow Common Moral Law. Do not use narcotics or alcohol in public. Carry your firearm how you see fit, but load only expanding or frangible ammunition; use of full metal jacket ammunition is punishable by expulsion, exile, and execution depending on the circumstances. Discharging your weapon is legal only in the instances of self-defense, defense of another, defense of property, or defense of the common good of Constitution. Do you understand and submit to the laws and their parameters?"
"Yes," Parker answered simply.
Moments later, the man handed the clipboard and pen to him. "Please sign on the bottom line."
With a smirk, Parker signed his name. The whole process was bullshit-- none of this paperwork went anywhere but to the file cabinet. He had undergone all of this so many times that he knew it did not matter if he had his papers or not, as he would probably have to do it all again anyway. The filing system was a disaster and nobody seemed to be able to keep track of Runners' information as they passed through.
He glanced over to see his gear being repacked just as it had been. He had to give that much to the men conducting the search: for as thorough as they were, they always seemed to get everything packed in just about exactly the way it had been when they started. They acknowledged that he had nothing troubling, and allowed Parker to take his gear as he was led to the door on the east side of the room. Parker knew the medical exam was next.
Soon, he was standing in a white room with a man that claimed to be a doctor. Parker was required to strip down and be physically inspected everywhere on his body. Standing bare before the man, who was slightly shorter than Parker and wore eyeglasses as he tapped a pen to his notebook, felt all kinds of wrong. This was Parker's least favorite part of his job.
"When was your last encounter with the nonmortuis?"
Parker groaned. He hated that phrase. "Less than two days ago."
"Was there any physical contact between you and the nonmortuis?"
The doctor nodded and began to inspect Parker's body. As awkward as it felt, he knew it was necessary; he had seen the effects of not having these procedures on less-organized cities. If a Runner or a Scout returns to his city after having been bitten, but is not screened, the city would be doomed. The individual would die, turn, and then bite someone else. Suddenly the inhabitants of the city, who live in the city to escape the dead that own the wilderness, would be faced with an overnight outbreak of the very creatures they had already been hiding from. For Constitution, the walls would then serve not to keep the dead out, but only to keep the doomed in.
Some time later, the exam was over. After Parker had gathered his gear and reequipped everything, he moved toward the end of the gatehouse that led inside the city. The guards, still standing along the walls of the room, watched him as the large metal doors opened inward, and he stepped out into the city of Constitution.
The first thing he did was pull the 5.56x45mm round from his pocket and press it into the magazine he had pulled from his carbine. He replaced the magazine into the pouch and pulled another free-- one loaded with hollow point rounds-- and slipped it into its rightful place, before pulling the charging handle on the weapon, satisfied by the report the mechanism gave him. He glanced about him, checking his surroundings to ensure that he was no longer being watched, before clicking the fire-selector on his carbine into the 'safe' position. He let the carbine hang over his chest as he began down the dirty, cracked street. On either side of him stood burned out homes, all of them one story and none of them with an intact window. Most of the abodes showed signs of habitation; the flicker of lantern light, the smoke from a controlled fire, the sound of people talking, or even just the way the property itself looked. Parker felt sad in the realization that his trade made him essentially wealthier than the entire neighborhood combined; it was likely that his carbine alone was probably worth more than the value of any one of the properties. He had entered on the impoverished side of Constitution, but he had logically reasoned that it was safer to move through the ghetto than to try and walk through the wilderness around the city to get to the other gate. He chose the less dangerous of the two paths.
To the people around him, he was quite a sight; everyone knew he was a Runner just by one look at him. It was not his carbine or his gear, or even his look of experience that kept the thugs from trying to rob him-- it was the fact that everyone knew a Runner was more capable of killing someone than any walking corpse ever could be. Generally, nobody wanted to take the chance of picking a fight with a Runner, because unless that person was a Scout or another Runner themselves, the odds were not in their favor.
Parker tried to ignore the eyes that burned holes in him, but could not. He found himself glancing to every person that stopped to look at him as he passed. His skin crawling, he quickened his pace to get out of the neighborhood. After taking a swift left turn, he found himself approaching much more comforting territory: farmland. Constitution was entirely self-sufficient, including its own farms and ranches to supply the city with food.
The city-state of Constitution was one of a waning number of cities that still thrived under the use of capitalism. The farmers produced the food that was either sold directly to consumer, or sold in bulk to a vendor in the market district for a discount in price to the vendor and in tax to the city. Tax was rarely disputed, because the percentages was voted into process by land-owners among the working class of Constitution; it was a flat rate for everyone, although the rates for some goods were higher than others. It was the city-state's primary source of revenue; it kept the militia armed and trained, and the walls thick and strong. No one could argue with that.
His time in the farmlands was short. After the road deteriorated beneath his footsteps into a dirty path, he followed a fork to the right that led him back into a more industrial setting. He knew he had entered the wealthier part of Constitution, where the hum of generators could be heard while passing the well-lit properties. Most of the houses were fixed up, some even painted to look nice. Some had lawns, and even gardens, around their front doors; fences lined the properties and a few had decorative doorways installed into the gates. Parker caught himself wishing he had a property like those. He knew it would be pointless, though, to spend the amount of money or barter the amount of goods needed to acquire one when he would always be off in the wilderness doing his job. "Maybe when I retire,"
he told himself.
For a moment, his vision lingered on one of the properties as he passed. It was then that he noticed a man trailing some distance behind him. Only observing him from the corner of his eye, and only for a fleeting moment, Parker observed that the individual wore a bulky pack, and noticed the distinct shape of the stock of an unidentifiable rifle sticking out from over the man's shoulder. More than this, Parker was unable to discern from his point of view; from what he knew, however, it was logical to assume the man was a fellow Runner. He took careful mental note of the man, and looked ahead again, feeling confident that the follower did not know he had been noticed. Looking to the ground, he watched his shadow; since it was cast in front of him, he would be able to see another shadow cast by someone approaching from behind. He kept his hands idly resting on his carbine, ready to respond to a threat if necessary.
Soon, he came to his appointed destination; a fenced manor, significantly larger than most of the others in the area. He studied it for a moment, also contemplating the man who seemed to be following him, before deciding his best course of action was simply to enter and turn in the package. The gate was unlocked, so he unlatched it and nudged it open, closing it behind him. He cast a nonchalant look over his shoulder as he ascended the several steps that led onto the porch. The man he had seen was nowhere obvious; this was unnerving. Stopping at the door, he knocked solidly four times. Moments later, a woman answered.
Immediately, as though it had leapt up and slapped Parker across the face, he recognized the look burned into the woman's face: fear. It was out of the question that this would be her response to seeing him-- Runners were intimidating, but not so terrifying as to put such a look on a young woman. Parker noted that she was attractive, standing average height with long black hair and fair skin, but her gentle grey eyes were glazed with fright. Parker observed for a moment, but just before he spoke, she said, "You're the Runner?"
"Yes," he replied after brief hesitation.
"Please, come in," she said, her voice cracking slightly as she spoke the last word. "My husband is in the den."
Apprehensive, Parker cleared his throat and said, "Ma'am, why can't I just hand it to you here? It isn't heavy or anything."
"N-no, my husband was very clear that he get the package directly."
"Then call him to the door?"
The woman bit her lip but showed signs of annoyance. "He can't really get around... Please, just come in and give it to him."
Parker began to put it together. The overweight abusive husband with a temper problem probably just got done screaming at his wife, and now she struggled to compose herself in front of a stranger. Imagined images of a broken home-life leapt to his mind and he suddenly pitied the woman. With a sigh, he caved, and stepped through the door, which the woman closed behind him. He moved with her through the foyer into what he presumed was the den. In the center was a couch and a table, a fireplace set before it, and lining the room beyond that was a balcony that led to rooms on the second floor, protected by a railing and reachable via two stairways on opposite sides of the room. A man, presumably the woman's husband, sat on the couch in the dimly lit room. She urged Parker forward, and so he approached, until he was close enough to see the man clearly; he was badly beaten, with spots of blood here and there and massive bruising all over his face. There were large bruises and lacerations all over his arms, which were exposed by his white tank top. Alarms in Parker's mind went haywire, and he turned to look at the woman expecting some form of explanation.
Instead, he saw a man emerge from behind the door, and grab the woman by the hair. She was forced to her knees, just as Parker clicked the selector switch on his carbine to firing position. Before he could pull his rifle to his shoulder, the man had produced a pistol and had it firmly placed against the back of the woman's head. Parker's stomach sank; he knew he could take the man out, but only at the expense of the woman's life, because the man could pull the trigger faster than Parker could level his sights on target. the sound of activity attracted Parker's attention, and he glanced behind him to see another man with a carbine pointed at the badly-hurt husband. Lifting his gaze, he also noticed several other men-- he counted at least three-- on the balcony, with carbines and assault rifles at the ready. Because he was still breathing, Parker knew these people obviously desired something from him.
"What the fuck do you want?" he demanded.
The assailant that stood behind the woman spoke, saying, "Your bags. Drop them."
Reluctantly, Parker removed his left hand from the guard of the carbine and removed his pack, lowering it to the ground. On top of that, he lowered his second bag-- the one containing the delivery-- before standing full measure and replacing his hand on the carbine again. His mind searched desperately for a strategy, but he found none that ended in his survival. He was outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded, and his escape route was cut off. If these men wanted him dead, the best he could hope for was to die fighting.
"Kick them to me."
"Kick them to me, now," the man reaffirmed.
Parker leaned down slowly and grabbed the bag with his left hand.
"I said 'kick,' you piece of shit!" the man snarled.
Disregarding the response, Parker prepared to toss the bag instead of kicking it. He knew he had precious seconds to act; his plan was simple; throw the bag at the man, make him flinch, giving him time to bolt for the door while firing from the hip in hopes of killing only that man to open his escape route. It was probable that he would take fire and likely be killed in the attempt, but it was even more probable that he would have no further opportunity to escape, and there was nothing stopping these men from killing him whenever they saw fit.. A tinge of guilt stung his heart as he concluded that the woman and her husband were doomed, but he knew they most likely were from the beginning.
The bag had just left his hand, sailing toward the man who stood roughly ten feet away, when Parker heard the distinct pop of a suppressed firearm. He quickly lifted his carbine and fired, two rounds ripping through the surprised man's chest. The assailant discharged his handgun twice as well, the first bullet tearing through the screaming woman's thigh, the second hitting only the floor. The woman rolled to the ground in agony as the man behind her slumped against the wall, failing in attempts to breath. A cacophony of gunfire reverberated through the building as Parker charged for the door, snatching his bags with his left hand before skidding to a stop near the front door. The men were still firing, even though he was no longer in their line of sight. He shuddered at the idea of the hostages being executed. But it sounded more like an exchange; every few shots, a suppressed firearm could be heard. Seconds later, two more suppressed shots finalized the situation, and no more gunfire could be heard. The woman still cried, shrieking on the floor. Parker was prepared to leave, until he heard the woman, through her hysterics, shouting nameless thanks to someone in the room.
The suppressed shots, the apparent gunfight that only briefly involved him, the fact that all the targets appeared to be dead-- Parker realized there was another shooter in the room.
Moving back to the doorway into the den, he called into the room, "Who are you?"
At first there was no answer.
"Who are you and what the fuck just happened?"
It was risky, making contact this way. He had no idea who he was dealing with, or even if there was more than one of them. He bit his lip nervously as no response came for several seconds, but then, he heard a man's voice.
"A Runner. And I think I just saved your life."
"And the woman's," Parker hollered out with a chuckle. "You're a real fucking hero, aren't you?" He heard the man laugh lightly, over the woman's sobs. It was reassuring to hear. "Look," Parker said, "If you're a friend, then we need to get the hell out of here before the militia shows up.
"Copy," the man replied, before what sounded like him vaulting the railing down to the first floor. "Meet me at the north gate. I'll have the woman with me. You already know what I look like."
This confirmed Parker's suspicion that this fellow was indeed the Runner he had noticed following him. Full of questions, but also wary of the approaching law, he readied to leave before noticing the pistol discarded in the doorway-- a token from the man he had shot. He snatched it, reasoning that it did not weigh much and could easily be sold, before he rushed past the front door and into whatever room was on the other side of the foyer. He followed the hallway away from the foyer until he saw a back door, bursting through it. He was in the cramped back yard of the manor, also fenced in; after hopping the fence and moving beyond the next property, he found himself in an alleyway that led to the street from which he had come. He took it, and began to make his way north.
The streets were pretty barren, probably in reaction to the gunfire that erupted inside the manor. Uncertain if he should be expecting more hostiles, he kept his rifle live, but left it laying lax over his chest in a calm fashion so as not to inspire suspicion. He could hear shouting down the street-- likely the militia arriving on the scene, he reasoned. For all its niceties and freedoms, Constitution, like most other cities, was under martial law. Any form of criminal activity was met harshly and mercilessly, with no exceptions. Most felt that it was the only way to maintain peace, security, and order. Careless criminals did not last long; if they were not shot by their victim, they would be shot by the militia.
Parker kept expecting to hear gunfire behind him, the sound of the militia engaging the other Runner. He heard no such noise. After walking hurriedly for over a mile, with the manor out of earshot, he felt confident that the Runner had made it out. He continued on his path, unfaltering.
Roughly half an hour later, he arrived at the north gate. The Runner and the young woman were nowhere to be seen. Uneasy, he took in the entirety of his surroundings. There was a crowd of working-class individuals bustling about, most likely because of the north gate's proximity to the market district, which always saw a hefty amount of foot traffic. Moving to the wall, he waited until he was certain that no one was watching him before taking a moment to slip out the partially-used magazine and press a fresh one securely into place. It was an old habit; insurance, to make absolutely sure he was never caught off his guard and killed because he only needed one more round. He leaned idly against the wall, waiting, watching.
Inside of ten minutes, Parker spotted them. His attention was nabbed by the woman's rather loud sobbing, which rang out subtly over the bustle of the nearby crowd. Drawing too much attention was not good. Still, Parker's heart ached for the woman; her husband apparently did not make it out. He was certain that her tears were not for the bullet wound in her leg but for the loss of her partner. That was a wound Parker hoped never to have, because he knew it was one that never completely healed.
Behind her, pushing and urging her to keep moving, was the Runner. He wore a black vest adorned with magazine pouches, partially obstructed from view by the thick straps to the pack he carried on his back. Parker noted the pistol strapped to his thigh, which appeared to have a suppressor installed on it, and the stock of a rifle between his body and his pack. A moment later they stood before him, the woman leaning heavily on the Runner for support. Parker noticed that the bullet wound was covered with what appeared to be a wadded-up shirt, probably both to stop the bleeding and to keep the public from seeing blood.
"We need to get out of here," Parker said immediately.
"I know," replied the Runner in his gruff voice, "But it's too hot right now. And we can't take a wounded civie out into the wilderness or we could all get killed."
Parker wanted to object to his steadfast desire to bring the woman along, but held his tongue. "Then what are we gonna do?"
"I have a friend just outside the market district, right down that street. She'll put us up for the night. In the morning, we can sort things out."
The situation was out of control. Parker did not like being out of control. He came here to deliver a package like any other, and ended up in a firefight. Now he was tied down to this man and some bleeding civie woman. "Why shouldn't I leave right fucking now?"
"Because you have no clue what's going on and it would only be a matter of time before you walk into another trap. This lady might have some answers, so swallow your fucking pride and let's get moving."
The Runner made a good point, and Parker had to respect his no-bullshit attitude. Nodding stoically, he simply replied, "Lead the way."CHAPTER 2
The familiar click of each fresh round being pressed into the magazine satisfied Parker. He set the magazine beside the freshly-cleaned carbine that laid on the floor next to him, looking up to see his new friend entering the room. He had set up his bedroll in the corner of the den, but being in such an unfamiliar setting made him feel as though he would probably spend most of his night laying with his eyes open and his pistol loaded.
"Loading up?" the Runner said.
Nodding, Parker responded by saying, "I never caught your name."
"Reuben," he replied, before moving to sit on the floor, extending his hand, which Parker shook.
"Parker," he said, introducing himself. "Thanks for the assist back there, Reuben. You probably saved my ass."
"Maybe. But I didn't save everyone."
"Her husband?" Parker said with a sigh.
"Yeah. Apparently his name was Max. She told me about how they tortured him and forced her to watch. She said they planned on raping her and making him watch, when you showed up."
A shudder passed through Parker's spine as he thought about that. Despite the death that occurred, he was at least thankful that he arrived before anything more could happen. "Who the fuck were they?"
"Hell if I know. We might get more out of her, when she wakes up. But given her state, I don't think she or her husband was the objective, and I don't think she sold you out. I think someone wants you, and they used her and her husband to get you where they wanted you."
"God damn," Parker muttered, leaning back against the wall. That was all he seemed to be able to say.
"Look," Reuben said, scooting closer. "She's pretty damaged by what she saw. It could be a while, a couple days maybe, before we get anything useful out of her. Still, I really think you should stick around. Whatever she knows, if anything, it could make a big difference to you."
"What about your friend? She doesn't care if we stay?"
"Nah," Reuben replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Sal is cool. She'll put us up as long as we need."
Parker did not care for all the 'us' and 'we' he had been hearing lately. He typically preferred to travel alone, but if he was going to have a traveling partner, it at least needed to be someone he knew he could trust. Reuben seemed nice enough, but just because he did some nice things did not make him trustworthy.
"Bravo Company, huh?"
Looking to Reuben for a moment, Parker realized he was referring to the brand of the carbine that sat beside him. He patted the side of the weapon and replied, "Yeah, mostly-- there are some other parts in there, too."
"With a compact ACOG from--" Reuben leaned over to get a better look before adding. "God damn, is that a Trijicon?"
"It is, actually. You know your builds?"
"I used to own a gun shop in Louisville. I did a lot of AR-15s like yours. Specialized in old tech, and even had a stock of those old powered optics-- not that they sold often. Where are you gonna find batteries for those, you know?"
Before Parker could get into the gun talk, Sal entered the den and looked to them both. She had straight blonde hair that hung over her shoulders, covering the spaghetti straps to her red blouse. Over her legs was a flared brown skirt that hugged around her waist and curves. The skirt, although somewhat tattered, lured Parker's mind to fowl places, and he looked away as quickly as he had glanced to her.
"Well," she said with an exasperated sigh. It was then that Parker looked once more, and noticed she was wiping blood from her hands with a washcloth. "Your lady friend in there should be fine. The bullet didn't hit anything severe. But it will be a while before she can really walk again-- at least a week, probably more." She looked over to Parker and said, "Do you know how long you're staying?"
Pausing a moment, he cleared his throat and responded, "Uh, no, not really. I'm not imposing, am I?"
"No," she said with a suddenly-bright smile. "A friend of Reuben is a friend of mine. He's got solid judgment. This house is too big for me, anyway. Stay as long as you like. I'll be sure to let you know if you become a pain in my ass."
All three of them laughed lightly before Sal mentioned something about dinner being ready shortly. As she exited, Reuben gave Parker a sly look, to which Parker was unsure how to respond. "What?" he asked.
"I saw the way you looked at her," he said. “You're interested, aren't you?"
"What the fuck?" Parker said with a surprised expression. In reality, it was a cop-out response to buy himself time, because internally he was asking himself the same think.
"No need to get defensive. She's available. Hasn't had a man in more than a year."
"What's with you?" Reuben asked indignantly. He quickly followed up by saying, "Either you've already got a girl, or you're queer. Those are the only options. Nobody could not
be attracted to Sal unless they were loyal to a fault, or queer."
Unable to keep from laughing, Parker nodded, and replied, "You might be right about that one. Sure, I've got a woman, and I'm loyal as a dog. End of discussion."
"Touchy, aren't we?"
"About detailing my relationships to a stranger? You bet."
"Alright then, I know when to back off. Sorry I asked," Reuben conceded.
Feeling guilty about being so blunt, Parker waved it off and said, "Hey, don't worry about it. Sorry I got snippy. Just been a rough day."
With a chuckle, Reuben nodded and replied. "Yeah, I hear that." He stood and moved toward the door, turning to ask, "You want a drink?"
"Suit yourself." Disappearing through the doorway, Reuben spoke to Sal too quietly for Parker to hear. Left alone to his thoughts for a few moments, Parker considered what he would do now; he could get back to business and risk the pursuit of whomever had sent those men, or he could investigate it with Reuben and try to figure out what the attack was all about. It made him consider his stance with Reuben; the fellow seemed like the kind of guy Parker could really get along with. The possibility of making a friend occurred to him, and it scared him half to death. He had grown so used to relying on so few people that the concept of learning to trust seemed alien to him. Reuben was more than just a helpful companion-- he was a crash course in learning to let down apprehensive walls.
Parker was glad to realize that the ringing in his ears was finally gone. It was something to which he had grown accustomed over the years; he found earplugs to be too stifling for his hearing to wear all the time, and preferred to simply deal with the effects of gunfire on his ears. If he had time to put them in before an encounter, he would, but that was rarely the case. In the open, it was not a big issue; in an enclosed space, however, such as the home that the firefight had occurred in, the sound of gunfire still hurt his ears. Once the ringing started, it was easy enough to ignore; he was used to living with it. Still, it was an annoyance he was glad to be rid of now.
Reuben stepped back into the room with a smile on his face and a bottle in his hand. Parker saw no label and figured it was probably something distilled locally or by Sal herself. Whatever it was, the smell of the alcohol was quite potent, and it reminded Parker of a time when he could let his guard down and have a drink. He recalled so faintly what it was like to enjoy himself. The smell made him feel a little more comfortable with Reuben, if only because he knew Reuben had let his guard down a bit. It also made him miss what he called a home-- or rather, the person who made it feel like home.
"So how come you don't go after Sal?" Parker said suddenly.
With a surprised blink, Reuben paused to figure the best way to put it. "Well," he said with a sigh, "A couple reasons, I guess. First of all, it'd be like sleeping with my sister, and that's just weird. It's one of those situations where you just know the person too long and too well, you know?"
Parker chuckled and shook his head. "Not really, no. I never really understood that logic before, but I‘ll take your word for it. What about your other reasons?"
Lifting the bottle to his lips, Reuben spoke, almost speaking into the bottle itself. "Tried it, didn't work out."
Parker sat up straighter and grinned. "What? You two were together?"
"Yeah, for a while. So what?"
"Nothing, it's just surprising. You guys don't act like... Well, like a parted couple acts."
"It was complicated, and it was a long time ago. The fuck makes you so curious all of a sudden anyway, Mr. Mysterious? I thought you were all business and no questions."
"You thought wrong, I guess. I'm making friends here,-- what do you want?"
The two laughed, before Reuben took another swig from the bottle and said, "Alright then, since you're so friendly all of a sudden, what's with your woman? I told you about one of my relationships, so now it's your turn."
Parker groaned and leaned back again, folding his arms. He thought a moment, sorting his words out in his head before he cast Reuben a contemplative look and said, "You ever heard of the Washington County Widow?"
"Yeah,” he replied, scratching his chin as he recalled the story. “She was that crazy broad who murdered her husband some years ago then skipped town. Some of the militias in Washington County figured she'd killed two or three other guys, too, all lovers of hers from what I hear. They even had posters of her distributed to some of the surrounding cities with a sketch of her description on it. Even offered a reward for a while, but now it seems like nobody really cares anymore."
"She's not as crazy as you've heard," Parker said with a chuckle.
Reuben was at first confused by the statement, but when he realized what Parker meant, he set the bottle aside and leaned forward. "Wait a minute, wait a minute-- you're with her
? You're fucking joking, right?"
No response; Parker just chuckled and shook his head.
"You're with the Washington County Widow? You're out of your fucking head! No wonder you're so paranoid-- even your girlfriend tries to kill you!"
With a laugh, he waved his hand at Reuben and said, "Nah, she loves me to death. We’re perfect for each other.”
“You mean because you’re both insane?”
Parker chuckled and said, “You’re awfully gullible for a Runner.”
Narrowing his eyes, Reuben got the idea that he was not really with the Widow and he let out a sigh. “Oh, I get it. Another defense mechanism. Well, whoever your woman is, I can’t help but wonder why you hate talking about her. None of my business, though.” Falling quiet, he took another swig of the bottle before commenting, “It’s nice to see you screwing with me, though. It’s a good change-up from your normal somber self, even if I’m the patsy.”
"Yeah, I'll keep you on your toes."
The two were distracted by Sal's soft voice announcing that the food was ready and that it was waiting for them. Eagerly, the two stood and moved into the kitchen to get their meals.
Parker slept more peaceably than he expected to that night. He still kept his .45 pistol close at hand the entire night, and routinely awakened to check his surroundings as had become habit over the course of his life; still, never before had he slept in a place for the first time, and actually found rest. He did not like that at all, because with peace came false security, and that brought mistakes. Even with a well-placed sense of security came the danger of complacency, which had taken more lives than all the shots he had ever fired. Parker refused to feel secure so that he would never become complacent; but when he felt at peace, that became much harder.
He awoke to the sound of a teapot whistling. By the time he opened his eyes, whomever was managing it had quickly snuffed the sound out. Early morning sunlight splashed through the barred window into the den, and Parker judged it to be around six in the morning. He sat up and rubbed his head, clearing his vision for a moment before standing and moving past Reuben, who was still soundly sleeping, and into the kitchen.
Surprise colored his face when he saw the black-haired woman steadying herself on a crutch as she dunked a few teabags into the teapot. She had not yet noticed him. He observed her for a moment; her black hair was somewhat matted with blood and sweat, but her clothes were clean-- probably fresh from Sal's closet. She wore a light blue button-up shirt and a knee-length brown skirt similar to the one Sal herself was wearing the night before. The woman's left leg was bandaged down to the knee; the bottom hem of the bandage was visible beneath the edge of the skirt
The muffled sound of her sniffle tugged at Parker's heart. He quickly did his best to straighten himself up a little bit before clearing his throat softly. She turned to look at him, and he noticed her eyes were red with tears. Only able to muster a gentle smile to her, she smiled hollowly and looked back to her teapot.
"You're the runner, aren't you?" she said quietly. Her voice sounded as though it would be smooth any other time, but it was hoarse and pitiful from the screaming and sobbing the day before.
"One of them, yes. I'm Parker."
She turned with a mug of tea and set it on the small kitchen table, sliding it his way. Parker did not realize it was for him until she returned to the teapot to pour a second cup. He muttered gratitude to her but she dismissed it by not acknowledging it. "I guess I should thank you," she said, turning with her cup. She hobbled to the chair and slipped clumsily into it, but Parker reacted quickly to grab the back of the chair to steady it for her. When she was situated, he sat as well. He turned the chair angled to the table so that he could face her better, and took a sip of the tea.
After setting the mug back down, he replied, "I didn't do anything but blunder into a trap. Reuben was the one who saved our asses, yours and mine."
"That bastard had a gun to my head," she objected. "You were the one that shot him. Not Reuben."
Parker could have argued that although he killed that man, the other men would have mowed them down without Reuben's intervention, but he chose to leave it alone. Taking another sip, he looked away from the woman, unsure of what to say.
"Look, it wasn't your fault." Parker looked up to her, surprised by her words. Not his fault? That made no sense. She went on, adding, "I'm sure you feel guilty. Please, don't blame yourself. What happened had nothing to do with you."
Watching her for a moment, he got the feeling that she knew more about the situation than he did. "Well if it wasn't about me, than what was it about?" he asked. "That was no average robbery."
"Do you still have the package?"
Leaning back in his chair, he sighed and said, "Yeah, I've still got it. You're telling me that God damn package is what this is all about?"
"Probably," she replied, before taking a sip of her tea. She cleared some of the coarseness from her throat, looking up to him. "It's a very important parcel."
"Well what the hell do I do with it now? Give it to you?"
"No," she objected quickly. "No, I can't do anything with it without..." She paused for a moment, clearing her throat again and looking away as she finished. "Without Max. But I can tell you where to take it from here, and it's very important that you do."
"You know I have to report the change of destination back to the agency, right?"
"You can't." she stated bluntly.
Confused, Parker said, "Come again?"
"If you do, whoever sent those men may be able to track you down. You might get reprimanded for it but believe me, you will be fantastically compensated."
Parker nodded, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. "What the hell is in this damn box anyway?"
The woman looked away and said simply, "I can't tell you. If you knew, there would be many more problems than there are now. For once, your agency's protocol is necessary-- you can't know what's in the box. Just deliver it as soon as you can."
Sighing heavily, he scratched his forehead and considered what she was telling him. "Where do I have to take it?"
"Shepherdsville. Take it to 122 Dale Avenue-- a man named Clyde lives there and he will take it from you and give you payment."
Parker committed the information to memory until he would have an opportunity later to write it down. "This better be good money," he commented. "That's several days away."
"Fifty thousand in paper."
Unsure if he had heard her correctly, he leaned forward and stared at her. The words echoed in his head and he replied with a simple, "No shit? Where is all that money coming from?"
"My employer has deep pockets and really needs that parcel. That's the most we can offer so don't try to haggle. Just get it there and don't tell anyone where you're going."
Fifty thousand dollars was enough to purchase the home he longed to retire in. It was enough to set him for a long time, and he could see that on his horizon now. He could collect the payment, purchase a home, and settle down. He could plant his subsistence farm right there in Constitution just like he had always wanted to, and he could live the rest of his years in peace without worrying about wandering the wastes or being ripped apart by the undead.
"Fair enough," he said with a contemplative nod. "I'll do it."
The woman smiled warmly, and looked very relieved. She leaned her elbow on the table and rested her cheek on her hand, before saying, "I'm glad. By the way, my name is Laura."
Parker smiled softly and nodded in reply, before saying, "Well, Laura, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go catch a little more sleep before the day really starts."
The two exchanged brief goodnights before Parker moved into the den once more. Laura sat in the dimly-lit kitchen and finished her tea, her thoughts traveling back to her late husband and the situation from which she had so narrowly escaped. Despite the pain and the horror of what she had gone through, she felt at peace knowing the package would be safely delivered. She was confident in Parker.
After slipping away from the kitchen, Parker returned to his bedding for the night. Trying as he had, he found himself unable to return to sleep. Instead, he pulled free the bag that contained the parcel he was running. Opening the sack, he pulled the box out and studied it. It was roughly twelve inches by eight inches, and looked to be about six inches deep. It was made out of thick, solid metal-- Parker guessed titanium or tungsten. All he really knew was that it was the most secure box the agency had to offer, and it was phenomenally expensive to order for parcel delivery. Whatever was inside must have been priority one for the customer.
It was also one of the few pieces of technology preserved from the old world. Parker had no clue how it worked, but the lock did not accept a key like normal packages. Instead it bore a small keypad with the numbers zero through nine displayed on it, each on its own button. The paint on the numbers looked like it had been gone for years, but the etching was still quite clear.
With a sigh, he tucked the box back into the bag and set it aside. As he laid the bag over his pack, he noticed the pistol laying next to it. It was the piece he had recovered from the man that head taken Laura hostage. He picked it up and looked it over with curiosity; he recognized it as a Beretta 92FS, a 9mm handgun that he liked for the magazine capacity. Reaching over to his pistol belt, he drew his traditional sidearm, a Glock 21, and compared the two. Both were in savage condition; the metal was heavily battered and badly discolored, but both looked serviceable. Neither had any internal issues, as he ensured through a quick field strip and inspection. He preferred the Beretta's eighteen-round magazine to his Springfield's thirteen, and also generally preferred 9mm to .45 simply for the purpose of recoil; less recoil meant shorter time between target acquisitions, and more control for follow-up shots. Still, while the Beretta was a solid weapon, his Glock was equipped with 'night-sights'-- reflective fiber optic sights that made it easy to aim in low-light conditions. He needed those too badly to make the Beretta his sidearm. Besides, he had no 9mm ammunition, except for the one loaded magazine that was recovered with the weapon.
Tucking the Glock back into its holster, and stowing the unloaded Beretta into his pack, he leaned back to lay on his bedroll, mulling over what the coming day had in store for him. With Laura’s new instructions, at lest he knew where he was going, but suddenly it did not feel right to just get up and leave. He hurt for Laura, and he was growing attached to Reuben and Sal. He reminded himself that doing that was a dangerous business; having friends and known connections was a liability. But then he recalled that he had told Reuben about his significant other, callously referred to as the Washington County Widow, and sighed. This was why he tried to avoid people he could trust; once the trust started, he often trusted too much too quickly. Now he had told someone he hardly knew one of his biggest secrets. For his own security, he felt that he should stick around Reuben for a while. If he bolted and left them behind. Reuben might want to make some money with that information. At least if Parker was there with him, he could kill Reuben before word got out.
Finally, Parker managed to fall asleep. The morning came swiftly after that; when he opened his eyes, the sun was peeking through the windows, and the morning market bustle could be heard down the street. People came to the market in the early hours to get the first picks from shops with new stock; every day, there was a shop somewhere in the market with the newest stock that just came into town of this or that, all based on what was selling best. Runners came from all over to supply the market districts in towns like Constitution; it did not pay as well as running private or corporate parcels, but it was much more consistent, and there was no danger from the human element. But in Parker’s line of work, taking packages from anyone to anyone, people could be just as dangerous than the undead outside the walls.
Sitting up in his bedroll, he listened for a moment to see if he could hear anyone else who might have gotten up before him. He heard nothing. Quickly but quietly, he stood and changed clothes, packing his dirty clothing into a small, tightly-tied bag in a separate pouch of his pack. He donned his pistol belt but left everything else for now. Leaving his room, he stepped through the empty kitchen and into the living room. Sitting in one of the stuffed chairs was Reuben; at first, Parker thought he was asleep. But Reuben looked up at him, smiling, and said quietly, “Good morning, sunshine. Sleep well?”
“As well as is normal,” he said blandly. “Are the ladies up yet?”
“Sal is. She went to market. Laura is still sleeping.”
“She needs it,” Parker said with a sigh, moving to the couch beside the chair in which Reuben sat. After taking a seat, Reuben leaned forward, and motioned for Parker to lean in.
“I head you and her talking last night,” Reuben said quietly. “Didn’t hear what you two said, but thought I’d ask if it was anything important.”
Parker wondered how much of that was true. Did Reuben already know what was said, but was asking so that he could pretend to learn it without Parker knowing he was eavesdropping? Or was he really just being curious? “Yeah, pretty important,” Parker replied, deciding that Reuben’s motives did not matter for the moment. “She gave me an address and told me it’s urgent that I get the package there. She told me not to contact the agency.”
Casting him a wary glance, Reuben stated, “That could get you suspended. Even fired. Or charged, if she suddenly claims she never got the package.”
“I know,” he said. “But you wouldn’t believe the amount of money she said is coming my way if I do this.”
“What, five thou? Ten thou?” Reuben guessed.
Parker pursed his lips. “Something like that.”
“Sounds a little shady, man. Why’s this package so damn important?”
“She wouldn’t say. But I gather it’s more than a letter from mom.”
Reuben grinned, and said, “Well it could be a trick, Parker. You’d be walking right into it, unless you had a brave companion watching your back.”
“Yeah, I’ve thought about that. But why would you want to play bodyguard when this isn’t even your delivery?”
“For the greater good,” he replied. “And for a cut of the pot, of course.”
“Right. And why should I trust you?”
Reuben leaned back in his seat, and sighed. “After all we’ve been through,” he said sardonically. “Well, I don’t suppose you’ll accept ‘because I’m handsome’ as an appropriate answer?”
“Try again,” Parker said, working to resist cracking a smile.
“I’m not going to beg you to let me tag along, if that’s what you’re looking for. Maybe you should trust me for the same reason I jumped in on that trap you wandered into in the rich district: because you need someone to watch your back. Two heads are better than one, and all that. If you want to go it alone, fine, but your big reward won’t mean much after you get yourself shot or eaten.” Pushing up from his seat and moving toward the kitchen. Brushing past Parker, he added over his shoulder as he left the room, “It’s up to you, Parker. If you want to be a lone wolf, have at it.”
Left alone to his thoughts, Parker let out a sigh and mulled over the ultimatum. He did not care much for the way Reuben seemed to think he was incapable of handling things on his own, but the man made a point-- he did save their lives when he intervened in Laura’s manor. Maybe Parker was not giving him enough credit.
Parker moved over to the chair in which Reuben had been sitting, and plopped down, peering out the barred window beside him in thought.