(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
“I’m betting this is what Katie was talking about,” Cassidy says as she watches the road from their hiding place. Parked behind a boulder and covered by a tan blanket, the pair struggle to stay cool in the desert heat. “There’s no way this conquering plan could work. Nebraska alone would be a nightmare unless he simply wipes out the population. I can’t think of any group that would let Custer just walk in and take over. That being said, we’re probably pretty high on his hit list now. We need to find a place to lay low.”
“Protagonists never run!” Lloyd shouts, stirring from his nap. Sipping at his bottle of lukewarm water, he stares at a rattlesnake resting under a nearby rock. “We can’t leave this adventure behind. The audience would be upset if we end it here. They need closure and action and romance and free popcorn with the purchase of two large sodas. Besides, it isn’t our style to cower in fear. That involves peeing ourselves and I’m too dehydrated for that.”
“You know there have been plenty of stories about people running away,” the mercenary points out while she checks the horizon with her binoculars. She focuses on a patch of smoke, but cannot tell if it’s a storm or exhaust from approaching cars. “I know you want to fight, but we need to think first. Custer is probably our biggest target ever. There’s no telling what he has waiting for us out there. At least Arizona has enough open space that we can make progress without running into anyone. There are nomads out here, but they’re nothing more than ambitious traders and storytellers. Best to stay off the road until dark and then make camp in a place that’s hard to see.”
Feeling cornered and on edge, Lloyd grabs a rock and hurls it at a cactus. “I’ll agree to a retreat and regroup since we weren’t prepared for this. We go back to LaSalle, stock up on weapons, and head back to Vegas for some fun. Neither of us are the type to accept a bloody lip without tearing off the bastard’s limbs. So many delicious deaths that we can bestow on Custer and his . . . daughter, right? I’m confused because Mrs. Chew Toy kept talking about them like they were a couple.”
“Pretty sure they’re father and daughter.”
“Got it. I was having Wyoming flashbacks.”
“You really have to get over that.”
“Incestual cannibals, kid. Incestual cannibals.”
“Just get in the jeep and go to your happy place, Lloyd.”
The pair leave the doors open in the hopes of cooling off the inside of the hot jeep, Cassidy taking the time to check the tires. After filling up the gas tank and running the air conditioner for a minute, they head out across the desert. It is a slow journey due to the rocky ground and patches of brush that force them to weave through the wilderness. Roadrunners repeatedly dart in their path, forcing the jeep to veer out of the way and risk driving into one of the many towering cacti. Keeping her eyes peeled for signs of pursuit, Cassidy remains silent while Lloyd rummages through their growing music collection. The mercenary cannot help, but chuckle when her friend chooses a song about fire and getting into trouble. Sensing his intentions, she looks in the rearview mirror to get a look at their weapons and supplies, which are still haphazardly piled in the back.
“Maybe we can head to Phoenix and make some trades,” Cassidy finally says, holding up her hand to stop Lloyd’s gleeful squeal. She reaches back to pull out the damaged satellite phone, a butter knife having been jammed through the top. “Bart showed me how to fix this when we lost the first one, but I only know the basics. If I can get it to work, I’ll contact Katie and see if she’ll send us some toys too. Don’t get your hopes up because this isn’t like a car engine and I’d need to trade for parts.”
“How hard could that be?” Lloyd asks while he takes off his sweaty shirt. Tossing the garment over his shoulder, he is about to put his feet on the dashboard when he hears the click of a gun hammer. “I was kidding. Trading shouldn’t be too hard. Arizona is part of that messy Theist War, right? That whole feud over the new holy city that popped up on the four corners, which is all the exposition I’m going to say about that. Christians have Utah, Muslims have New Mexico, Miscellaneous have Colorado, and Jews have Arizona. No wonder you’re worried about the trading here. Can we use that stereotype?”
“You lost me somewhere in there,” his friend admits, her focus more on driving. She skids the jeep to a stop when she realizes that they are coming to the edge of a hill. “Haggling is a pain everywhere, but I’ve heard that it’s an art form here. I’m not very good, which means we’ll be at risk of getting screwed. Do we really have to worry about stereotypes in a world as fucked up as ours? Forget I asked because I know that conversation could go on for hours. I need to figure out a way down.”
“You could ask them for directions,” the serial killer casually mentions. Pointing to a group of motorcycles and cars, he is about to shout when he spots a familiar figure. “Never mind. I see that bloated anatomy dummy from Vegas there. Grinner? Grubby? Grymer! The name just reeks of sinister intentions and halitosis. Although, neither of us have brushed our teeth today, so I shouldn’t talk. Maybe we should go before they notice us.”
Turning off the jeep, Cassidy grabs the binoculars and sneaks out of the vehicle. She waves for Lloyd to get behind the wheel while she crawls to the edge and tries to get an idea of why their enemies are here. Doing her best to read their lips, the mercenary watches Grymer scream at the others. None of them are dressed like guards, their clothes ranging from jeans and t-shirts to colorful dresses. They are all armed with rifles and pistols, none of them appearing to carry knives or anything that would be useful at close-range. Cassidy scans the vehicles to see if any of them carry weapons, but all she sees is a trio of rocket launchers in the back of a convertible. The hope of being able to steal heavy artillery from Grymer and his hunters is dashed when she realizes that her collection is superior and better maintained than the dingy guns carried by her enemies.
Cassidy is surprised when Pinworm tumbles out of a car, the man chubbier than she remembers. She adjusts the binoculars until she can see the lackey’s lips, which move in exaggerated words and make it easier for her to figure out the conversation. It takes her a moment to figure out he is talking with an accent that he did not have before. The mercenary does her best to adjust, but it becomes increasingly difficult since most of the others have their backs to her. Without warning, one of the women lifts her rifle and shoots Pinworm in the head, the large weapon knocking her off her feet. The others laugh, but Cassidy is unsure if it is at the killing or the way their friend went flying. Looking for Grymer, she has trouble locating him until she lowers her binoculars and spots a truck driving away. Crawling around the jeep, she waves for Lloyd to lower the window and reaches in for some water.
“I’ve got no idea what’s going on, but our names were mentioned,” Cassidy explains, handing her friend the binoculars. Pouring some of the drink over her head, she listens for the sound of engines below. “Keep in mind that I’m still learning how to read lips and don’t even think about making a lesbian joke. Write it down for later. Seems those hunters are early followers of Custer that are sent out on special missions. They’re hunting someone named Ben who is hiding in the desert. Not sure why this guy is a danger, but Grymer thinks we came here looking for him. He’s close by, so let’s make their paranoia a reality. Betting this Ben can give us some information on Custer. We’ll pull back and make camp up here. That way we can follow them in the morning.”
“Or we can sneak in at night and kill them all,” Lloyd suggests with a twinkle in his eye. His face abruptly becomes serious and he slides out of the jeep. “Don’t move, kid. Not sure how you didn’t notice this guy in your jacket hood. I’ll get him out and everything will be fine. Trust me on this.”
“What are you talking about?” his friend asks as she is slowly turned around. She feels clawed feet and a scaly tail touch the back of her neck before facing Lloyd again. “Are you holding a gila monster? Must have been really focused on our enemies to not notice that crawling on top of me. It’s kind of cute, but it’s also venomous. He doesn’t look happy, so maybe you should put him down or-”
With an evil grin, Lloyd runs around the jeep and throws the gila monster toward their resting enemies. A pang of guilt comes over him as he watches the animal sail through the air, but it disappears when it lands on one of the hunters. Unsure of what has happened, the young man smacks at the scaly form on his shoulder, which prompts the creature to lunge forward and bite him in the face. He shrieks in fear and pain, his flailing movements making the gila monster frantically claw at his cheeks. Two of his friends hurry to get the lizard off while the rest watch the display and do their best to appear concerned. The animal’s jaws are impossible to pry open without risking their fingers, so the hunters give up and back away to avoid being the next victim. Flopping to the ground, the gasping man scratches at his bloating throat while the gila monster finally releases its hold and scurries up the hill. Watching the lizard retreat, the hunters look up in time to catch sight of Lloyd and sprint for their vehicles, their dying friend no longer their concern.
“I can’t believe you just tossed an animal off a cliff!” Cassidy shouts while getting behind the wheel. The jeep’s tires spin while she turns away, barely giving Lloyd enough time to get the passenger side door open. “Yeah, I know it wasn’t that far of a drop and you were aiming for one of the people. It’s just . . . I mean . . . You killed a man with a fucking gila monster! Who the fuck does that?”
“Just the greatest serial killer ever,” Lloyd proudly replies as he struggles into his seat. He slams the door shut before grabbing his paintball gun and buckling his seatbelt. “To be fair, the lizard did all of the work. So, I have to give him most of the credit. Also, that hunter had to have an allergy or something because I didn’t think gila monster venom worked that quickly. For all we know, the little guy had peanut butter on his claws and that did the job. I’d suggest shellfish, but I don’t think that’s legal in these parts. Do you think food restrictions like that stemmed from allergies and a lack of understanding? I mean, I know there’s the fact that refrigeration wasn’t around and some foods rot quicker than others. Yet, this is something to consider since our world seems to have a lower rate of food allergies when compared to before the collapse.”
“Is this really the time for that?”
“Good point. I’m being a horrible distraction.”
“Thank you for admitting that.”
“I should have waited until you put your seatbelt on.”
Shooting her friend a withering glare, Cassidy aims the jeep for a bump in their path to knock Lloyd’s head against the ceiling. The pair are about to start punching each other in the arm until a bullet pings off the hood. Looking out the window, they see all of the hunters coming around a bend and barreling towards them. Outnumbered and outgunned, Cassidy hits the gas and races toward a town that she can barely see in the distance. With her own heartbeat drowning out the sounds around her, the mercenary is only vaguely aware of Lloyd using a megaphone to mouth off to the hunters.