(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
Ben smacks at the garage door opener until it causes the camouflaged entrance to his cave to pivot open. The hum of a generator greets the trio and lights flicker on, half of them nothing more than white Christmas bulbs hung on rusty hooks. Ben snaps his fingers to tell everyone to take off their shoes, his white carpeting still pristine even in such a dingy home. Mismatched chairs are around a table that has a strange hole in the center, which a standing lamp comes through. A collection of robes and suits are on a wheeled cart that one would find in a department store, each garment protected by a plastic covering. The simple kitchen stands on the opposite of the cave from what Ben’s guests assume is the bedroom, which consists of a cot and bookcase. After serving food to Cassidy and Lloyd, the old man hits a button on the back wall and walks into an elaborate bathroom that is twice the size of the other cave. The tired survivors are vaguely aware of their surroundings, but it is the unexpected guest that has one of them on the verge of drawing her weapon.
“The fuck did you get us into, Commodus?” Cassidy asks, her voice a predatory growl. She glares at the gladiator, who blushes and stares at his rings. “Don’t be silent! You came to us with an offer. I don’t care if you call it an introduction because you knew he was going to make such a stupid deal. How could you not? If you were really our friend then you would have kept us out of this mess. There’s nothing to gain from getting involved. At least there wasn’t before we became Custer’s enemies. Back me up, Lloyd.”
“There really was soup waiting for us,” the serial killer whispers, the smell of fresh matzah ball soup making his mouth water. He cannot hide his joy at the first taste, which he revels in for several seconds. “You have got to try this food. It’s warm, soft, and just the hint of taste. Not sure what that water log in jelly is, but you can have mine. Smells like a dead hamster and looks like it’s made out of ground up newspaper. Don’t even care if that’s how our host has stayed alive for so long. I’m not touching it. You can have my piece as punishment, Commodus, and you can’t complain.”
“Gefilte fish does have some protein,” the gladiator says as he takes the food. Eating it in three big bites, he shudders a bit at the taste, but clears his palate with a sip of wine that reminds him of cough syrup. “I do apologize for what I did, but I have a good reason. Custer took over Battle Mountain and threatened to use my fighters for his missions. If I wanted to keep my family safe then I had to bring him others who could do his dirty work. I was going to refuse, but then I met Ben. He simply wandered into Battle Mountain and people began calling him a Messiah after he spoke to them. He came to see me and asked me to find him people that could stop the conquest. Ben convinced me to work with Custer and gain his trust before pulling in people I knew would become his enemies. Of course, you two came to mind and I waited until you came into the area. The kidnappers were not set up by me, but I did make sure you found out about them. Again, I am truly sorry for tricking you.”
Lloyd slurps at his soup while reaching out to lower Cassidy’s arm, her finger still on the safety. “Not sure what to think about this. You took a big risk because we could have always joined him. I mean, he . . . No, you’re right that we would have pissed him off or vice versa. I guess our reputation precedes us. You could have simply asked us to help. I’m sure we would have done it without charging.”
“Says you,” Cassidy blurts out before starting in on her soup. The warm food helps to calm her down, but it is the ice water that makes her forget her anger. “No point in shooting your or the old man since it won’t get us out of this. Might as well go along with whatever it is you’re planning. Lloyd and I get to loot to our heart’s content though. I saw some nice cars that I could trade for supplies and there were a few guns that I didn’t get out of the cage. Can never have enough of those. What’s the attack plan?”
“You’re going on a trip!” Ben declares as he leaves the bathroom. Dressed in a wrinkled suit with a bowtie, he goes to a nearby cage and drops in some seeds for a very tiny bird. “You can take what you need from the hunters’ vehicles. I’m sure they have enough fuel to get you as far as Colorado. Where did I put that map?”
Pulling out a large envelope from under his mattress, the old man checks it to make sure the map is inside. All he finds are worthless bonds and a list of stocks for companies that no longer exist, each page marked up with red ink. Wandering around the cave, he casually tosses a sleeping rattlesnake off a pile of papers and brushes aside scorpions whenever he finds one in his way. Hitting the door opener, he pulls out a whistle that makes a bird-like call, which attracts a pair of roadrunners to clear out the dangerous animals. With a snap of his fingers, Ben hurries to the stove and opens a bottom drawer full of cookie sheets. Beneath the pile is a package that he pulls out and unfolds to reveal a map of the Shattered States. Placing it on the table, he points at a highlighted route that goes from Congress, Arizona to New York City.
“All of the dots are Custer’s bases,” Ben explains while he takes a sip of coffee. He gets himself a piece of cake and takes a moment to judge if he will come out even by the time he is finished. “You can see that he doesn’t have forces in every state, but cutting through the heartland will keep you out of the rough areas. For example, Texas and Florida are a mess with Custer followers and the current leadership in full blown battles. Such violence will not solve our problems. We need to be strategic and weaken his base.”
“I have a better idea,” Cassidy suggest as she grabs a nearby pen. She leans forward to write, but the map is yanked out of her reach. “It would be a lot easier to go back to Vegas and take Custer out. Just like that roadrunner is demonstrating, you destroy the head of the snake and the body dies. Driving all the way to New York means we’d have to come back here to finish the job. He could rebuild his power by that point. Besides, we left his people in chaos and now he lost his hunters. There’s no way he’d expect us to come back for a frontal assault.”
“Actually, he believes that’s what you would do because it’s what he would do,” Commodus politely says, his eyes following a scorpion. The gladiator’s anxiety is etched on his face, but he does his best to keep his voice level and calm. “Two days ago, I was there and Elaine threatened to have me executed for my choice. Johnathan was almost on board, but gave me a second chance when I offered him all of my gold. He’s very unpredictable, which is made worse by how easily you can win him over. As long as he doesn’t hate you. Look, I can assure you that going back to Vegas now is a mistake.”
Lloyd snatches the map and holds it up like a newspaper, his eyes falling on the marks that are not on the route. “Katie, Tyler, Rose, and more are in some of these areas. It isn’t easy for people like us to keep friends, which means we would have been dragged in at some point. I knew this was a job for the protagonists again. Never doubt my ability to sense when a grand adventure has appeared, kid. Although, I still don’t see why we can’t sneak back into Vegas and knock his building out from underneath him.”
“You call this a snake when it is really a hydra,” Ben replies while meticulously measuring how much cake to put on his fork. Pulling glasses out of his jacket pocket, he leans closer to the moist dessert. “Johnathan Custer is the biggest head of the beast. Yet, there are smaller ones that control from the shadows and whisper in his ears. Destroy him and another will rise from the ranks. To destroy a man like this, you need to remove his base and make him appear so weak that nobody would follow his dream. Take out his sources of power and-”
“Did we switch genres here?” Lloyd asks, scratching his head.
“I was merely being dramatic to get the point across.”
“Okay, but she does have a scar.”
“Does that mean you will help me destroy Custer?”
Cassidy sighs and gets out of her chair in order to pace around the cave, which is cooling down as the sun sinks. She moves to close her jacket before realizing that it is where she left it before the fight. Taking the map from Lloyd, she reads it while circling the table and muttering to herself. Running a list of friends and allies through her head, Cassidy realizes that all of them are in danger. If she did not know any better, she would assume that Custer and his forces purposely targeted those close to her. Counting the states and estimating the distance, she silently comes up with the amount of fuel and supplies needed to complete the route. Still holding the pen, she jots down the numbers on a napkin and slides it to Ben.
“That’s what we’ll need and I’ll tell you where we plan to pick all of this up,” Cassidy states while folding the map. Handing it to Lloyd, she tries to lean against the table, but it moves and nearly knocks the central lamp over. “I understand what you’re saying and agree. No sense in killing a man when someone worse could step into his shoes. Best to wipe out the organization and weaken the main target, especially if he’s already waiting for us. An assassination would also create a martyr and make things more difficult in the future. Normally, I wouldn’t care, but this is obviously bigger than what Lloyd and I are used to. In a way, we’re going to-”
“Save our world!” the serial killer happily blurts out. Jumping to his feet, he strikes a heroic pose with his machete aimed at the ceiling. “All these years of reading and watching fiction has trained me for this role. The path of a savior will be the one I follow. I will be an honorable and stalwart pillar of goodness.”
Ben ladles more soup into Lloyd’s bowl as he mentions, “Actually, I need you to be a destructive monster that proves Custer has no power here.”
“I sense typecasting,” the black-haired man replies with a pout. Returning to his meal, he curls up in his chair and nurses his wounded ego. “Guess all people see is a wild killer with no restraint. Sure, I love taking lives and breaking shit. Doesn’t mean I lack dreams and ambitions to rise above my station. I have feelings too, you know. Can’t just call me a monster like it’s nothing. I am a human being! That’s what it says on the paperwork anyway.”
“He means we’ll help you out,” Cassidy swiftly interjects, putting her hand over Lloyd’s mouth. She growls when he pours hot soup on her fingers, which prompts her to tighten her grip instead of letting go. “Do that again and I’ll dump the rest down your pants. Not the back, but the front. Fucking hell, Lloyd! That fucking hurts! Get back here, asshole! Hey! You can’t hide in the bathroom forever!”
Seeing worry on Ben’s face, Commodus puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. “We’re in very good hands. Think of them as siblings and it will put you at ease. Although, I will point out that they might not be happy with you at the end of this. You better have a satisfying reward waiting for them considering what they’ll have to face.”
“I will cross that bridge when I come to it,” the old man whispers while he watches Cassidy use a crowbar to force the door open. He listens to the crashing from the bathroom, the noises abruptly cut off by a suspicious thud.