Above Cadyn’s head, the rusty, non-functioning traffic-light swung in the restless breeze. Nervously, he gazed towards the nearby alley. It wasn’t the high-pitched squeak that he could hear that bothered him: nah, it was all the noises that the sporadic metallic clang was drowning out that he couldn’t hear. With a burst of confidence energized by resting one hand on the massive machete buckled to the right side of his belt, he took a chance and scuttled quickly across the apparently deserted street.
Once sheltered by the shadows again, he edged round the corner and down the alley, stepping over rubbish that he didn’t care to examine too close. Long-abandoned needles, ration wrappers and cracked gas-masks would’ve been the best he could hope for. Cadyn stopped near the very end of the alley, in front of a cracked-out streetlight bulb and a suspiciously well-maintained metal door. He doubted that its hinges creaked.
Cadyn bestowed four quick raps on the metal surface, followed by a hissed “Niles Nine-Knives sent me!” As he waited for what seemed like forever, he glanced once more down the alley. The wait was long enough that he started to doubt his instructions. Maybe Snip’d meant the alley nine city-blocks further down Broad Way? Nah, that couldn’t be right. That alley bordered on Nuke Bros turf. Something as serious as the treasure he’d been ordered to fetch never would’ve been taken there, even as a temporary drop-point.
Finally, the door crept open. Cadyn gloated to himself in some satisfaction that he’d been right: its hinges didn’t creak. It was only a little satisfaction, since the door was being shoved open by a slumping figure at least two and a half meters tall. Crimson-red barcode tattoos slashed across both cheeks just beneath strange yellow eyes with no whites. The rest of the man’s head was shrouded by a black hoodie, but Cadyn knew from painful past meetings that a green and blue striped mohawk was crushed beneath the hood. Like the man needed to try to look even taller, Cadyn complained to himself.
The long scar on the right side of Cadyn’s rib-cage began to complain in memory. Though Cadyn himself was far from short, the figure was much higher and wider than he was.
“Accord,” he said quickly.
The other man let out a wordless growl.
“Accord,” Cadyn repeated more forcefully. “We don’t got time to waltz today, Sherman. And you forgot to wear your pretty ballgown an’ glass slippers. You decide if you wanna explain the delay to your boss… cause I ain’t gonna piss off Niles. And I bet your boss don’t wanna piss off Niles neither. Being that no one’s ever figured out where he keeps that ninth knife an’ all.”
Cadyn didn’t know much but he was pretty sure that even Sherman had a healthy fear of Niles.
Sherman’s eyes narrowed dangerously, but he silently jerked his head towards the right, down the dim-lit corridor. Grudgingly, he stepped back and out of Cadyn’s path.
Back muscles instinctively tightening, as if he could keep a knife out from between his shoulder-blades just by holding them tensed, Cadyn strolled with fake casualness past Sherman. The human skyscraper’s unwashed funk, mixed with the chemical scent of lots of cheap hairspray scavenged from one of them old-style drugstores, rolled over him.
“Thanks, Sherm.” Cadyn was pretty sure he could safely get away with that last bit, even under Accord. After all, he’d said “thanks.”
An elbow drove into the exact center of the scar on his ribs. Before the big man could fully retreat, Cadyn stomped on his bear-like foot, grinding the steel toe of his boot brutally into the bone structure at the top. Cadyn heard a low grunt of pain. “Move it already, Sherman,” he said loudly, just in case someone happened to be watching. “I don’t need to be trippin’ over your howitzer-sized feet.”
Though Cadyn could all but hear Sherman trying to weigh just how scared he was of Niles, the other man finally decided that he and Cadyn could postpone that last dance for another day. Instead, Sherman turned and lumbered down the dark hall without looking back at Cadyn.
Creeped out by Sherm’s sudden surrender, Cadyn wondered whether he might be walking into the sort of maze that he might never walk out of. Maybe Sherm’s boss Abrams was fixin’ to screw over Niles. Nah, he told himself. The Gatling Guys weren’t the smartest bunch in town, but word was that when they were bought, they stayed bought.
A moment later, the corridor widened into a room. Cadyn sniffed as softly as he could. Yeah, he definitely picked up the nutty smell of mushrooms. He was for sure in one of the Gatling Guys’ main headquarters, cause it took a lot of equipment that weren’t moved real easy to grow mushrooms indoors. His stomach rumbled jealously. A man did get tired of algae crisps, jerky and ration-bars. Keeping hard-won muscle-tone like Cadyn had weren’t calorie-cheap.
When he stepped into the big room, the scent of mushrooms redoubled. Entire trays filled with black dirt and off-white mushrooms sprang upwards from steel shelves lining three walls of the room. There was only one camp-lantern resting on a table in the middle of the room. Next to the table, Abrams was sitting in one of them crazy red canvas camp-chairs that had somehow survived it all, no matter how flimsy they looked.
Sherm’s boss was nowhere near as big or showy, but a lot more heavily armed. His needle-gun was holstered at his right side, a knife on his left, and a large crowbar rested in a sheath over his shoulder. Cadyn wondered how Abrams was even comfortable sitting in the chair like that. Besides, Abrams didn’t need to be showy: he’d obviously decided to meet Cadyn here, in the center of his power, so that Cadyn would go back and tell Niles about all the wealth the Gatling Guys possessed. Cadyn tried not to let himself be impressed. But his stomach didn’t listen to his head: it grumbled again, louder.
Then he told himself to cut out the thinking and tipped his head forward and down slightly. He counted five heartbeats fore he straightened up: the right time to salute the head of a gang that weren’t yours.
“Cadyn,” Abrams said in a cool tone. “You’re still alive.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Cadyn retorted.
“Oh, no, I’m not disappointed. You may be one of the few capable of carrying this… package… back to Niles intact. We’ve spent a great deal of time and copper acquiring it at his request.” In his left hand, Abrams held out a battered child’s backpack: a pink girl’s backpack with some sort of magical pony on it.
Cadyn wondered whether he was being mocked. “Let me see inside,” he demanded, not putting his hand out to take the backpack from Abrams.
“Oh,” Abrams husked slowly, eyes widening. Now Cadyn knew he was being mocked. “I hadn’t realized Niles had such confidence in you that he’d actually told you what was inside.”
Niles’s second Snip hadn’t. That said, Cadyn figured that if Abrams gave him any shit about opening the backpack, it didn’t contain what it was supposed to. “You thought wrong,” he bluffed, raising his eyebrows and tilting his chin up with what he hoped looked like confidence.
“Now, open it,” he repeated louder.
“But of course,” Abrams purred smoothly, opening his right hand, palm up, in an expansive gesture that was also a shameless fake suggestion that he had nothing to hide. “Anything you say, Cadyn.”
With totally unneeded dramatics, Abrams slowly glided the zipper open along the seams of the tiny, ridiculous backpack. Instinctively, Cadyn leaned forward to get a better look inside.
He thought… he thought he saw green. Letting out an involuntary breath, Cadyn moved even closer. The zipper finished its slow journey and the backpack cracked fully open. Inside was a ceramic pot filled with dirt… and a small, light-green shoot. Even… even the bud of a purple flower. Veined, half-unfurled leaves that started in a circle shape and ended in a blunt point dangled from thin stems and reached towards him like an outstretched hand.
“Well, piss on me,” Cadyn breathed in shock, as reverent-like as if he’d found an entire year’s supply of unexpired ration-bars. A plant! A real, living plant! He’d only seen pictures in books during that time they’d raided the old library computers for copper so he couldn’t tell what type it was, but it didn’t look like the sort that growed in fields. Back when there were fields. He didn’t think that kind did well in pots anyway. Or had flowers.
Very carefully, he reached back, brushing a finger gently over one leaf. It was firm, but flexible. Water-full softness stroked his fingertip. He couldn’t even imagine how people in the before-times had ate the leaves of such a beautiful thing. Not at all slimy like algae, it near glowed with life. And not in the way that the hot spots did. He couldn’t wait to tell Hayley he’d actually seen and touched one.
Then, Cadyn’s chest tightened up when he really realized what he was touching.
“Piss on me,” he muttered again in a different tone as his stomach churned, suddenly understanding that it was his job, his job alone, to make sure this fragile little thing reached Niles safely. And there were a whole eighteen city-blocks chock full of gangs and mutants and giant rats and hot spots that could shrivel it in seconds to cross along the way. He was half-aware of his other hand reaching down to caress each machete at his side in turn for reassurance again.
Abrams grinned maliciously. “Now you truly see it. Good luck, Cadyn. You’ll need it. Hand over that last installment of cigarettes you’re carrying and it’s all yours. Or, rather, Niles’.”