(If you want, buy their previous rampages for $2 by clicking on the covers below.)
Locked within the jeep, Cassidy and Lloyd try to do what they can to fight the sweltering heat. The dome has been raised and all of the hidden sniping holes are open to let a slight breeze into the vehicle. All they can see out of the windshield is the cab of the tow truck, which is taking them to Pedricktown where proud agents of Johnathan Custer are supposedly waiting for them. The other windows are kept in place by clamps that are magnetically stuck to the roof and suctioned to the glass. Similar devices are on the doors to prevent them from being opened unless they want to risk the jeep’s frame. Passing a bottle of water back and forth, the captured travelers watch the trees and open fields go by. Signs claiming that they are not near an exit and the area is not a garbage dump are on the side of the road, the occasional graffiti playfully arguing the point. With a chuckle, Lloyd points out a pair of rhinos grazing in a field, the animals cautiously eyeing a nearby farmer in a heavily dented tractor.
“I still feel so humiliated,” Cassidy blurts out while dabbing her neck with a wet cloth. She heads to the back and gets her face near one of the dome slots, the faint wind doing very little to cool her off. “I don’t even know what’s worse. Forgetting to get fuel before we left Dover or how I acted there. This isn’t the first time we ran out of gas since it isn’t always the easiest thing to get. Not to mention you and the guy in the tow truck are the only ones to see this. All of the rebels saw what I was doing. Makes me want to never trust a brownie ever again.”
“Especially those with oregano and shitake mushrooms,” Lloyd teases with a barely restrained laugh. He winces at the gentle kick to his shoulder, which is still aching from where the tow truck driver punched him. “It’s amazing what the human mind can do when it believes something happened to it. I mean, we found an entire colony of people eating harmless pastries and having psychosomatic highs. No wonder they never made it as a rebellion. This also brings up a question that’s still gnawing at me. Where did all of these idiots come from? Both sides seem to be recipients of the Ice Pick to the Brain Award.”
“I know what you mean since even Ben comes off as odd now,” the mercenary admits, returning to her seat. With no other options, she copies Lloyd by stripping down to her underwear. “Would have been easier to go straight for New York City if what’s there is so important to Custer. I understand taking out his organization, but I’d be surprised if we did a lot of damage. There has to be trouble in the south, north, and west, but we’ve just been going east and only through the middle of the country. Then again, we’ve run into a lot of heavy hitters . . . sort of. I guess they were supposed to be, but most of them weren’t very dangerous when I think back on them. Not compared to our usual sparring partners.”
The sound of damp skin unsticking from leather makes Lloyd cringe as he says, “Exactly what I was going to say. Almost all of these guys are missing the viciousness and cunning of those who have carved out a niche in this world. I get the feeling that even those who claim to have been in the Shattered States longer than the Custers were returned here after the original chaos died down. It’s like they’re working with an older set of rules, which we keep trying to follow without realizing it. Why haven’t we simply shot or stabbed these bastards the instant we see them?”
“I’m surprised you would say that since that would ruin your story.”
“Well, I don’t feel like I’m really being challenged.”
“Maybe because we keep getting stripped of our gear.”
“That is a disturbing trend this time.”
“At least our enemies are good at something.”
“I’ll send them a congratulatory fruit basket . . . complete with a swarm of fruit flies.”
The tow truck suddenly screeches to a halt, which sends those inside bumping into the dashboard. Gunfire erupts from both sides of the road, the source being a group of bandits who were hiding in rows of dumpsters. Rockets and grenades are fired from the cab while Cassidy and Lloyd close all of the sniping holes and get comfortable on the floor. Bullets ping off the jeep, but most of the attention is on the drivers. An ear-jarring barrage of bullets comes from the underside of the bed where two machineguns have been installed. Hearing footsteps next to their vehicle, Cassidy grabs one of her handguns and opens a hole to shoot a curious bandit in the groin. The chaotic fight stops the other attackers from realizing that there are armed people in the jeep, so the mercenary quietly goes back to resting. Taking a stick of jerky from a package under the passenger chair, she chews on the snack while massaging her stiff legs and back.
“Do you think we’ve grown this time?” Lloyd asks while he moves to let his friend stretch out. Peeking out of the window, he watches one of the bandits get sent flying over a dumpster by an explosion. “We might not be the deepest people in the world, but we still learn things from our adventures. I’ve certainly become calmer since we met and you’ve loosened up a lot. You’re out of your mom’s shadow and I’ve found my niche. This all came from our adventures, but I don’t feel like I’m evolving here.”
“Like we’re going through the motions,” Cassidy says, nodding her head. Opening a cooler, she takes out an icepack and runs it around her body. “That’s not exactly right. You said it best with that different set of rules thing. I feel more like an exterminator than anything else. It isn’t like this is the first time we traveled and ran into a problem in each state. Still weirded out by how often that happens. Yet, those obstacles were rarely connected like this one. Almost like we know basically what we’re up against every time we stop.”
“Exactly!” Lloyd shouts as he opens a slot in the door. He jams his machete through, which pierces a lurking bandit’s head. “The toys are different, but they all want to fight for Custer and change the country to their image. It’s just a cult that’s been spread out across the nation, which means we never have to think too much when dealing with them. Take the idiots we’re being brought to now. Our chauffeurs openly said that these guys are proud agents of Custer. They even have a picture of Elaine on their dashboard. Well, her head on a naked dancing lady, but you get my point. What was it?”
Shooting another attacker who is too close the jeep, Cassidy sighs and takes a drink while gathering her thoughts. “There’s an arrogance to what is going on here. Most of our enemies have acted superior to us every time even if they didn’t blatantly say it. Guess it’s hard to grow as a person when you’re repeatedly dealing with people who are trying to make you feel like you’re inferior. It’s all you can do to stay as you are. That and shoot them in the head. We really do need to start ending these confrontations within minutes instead of hours.”
An awkward silence overtakes the jeep when they stop hearing the sounds of battle. They peek out of the windows to see that the bandits have been wiped out and both sides of the road are on fire. One of the cab doors opens to allow the surviving driver to kick his dead partner out, the body landing unceremoniously on the pavement. As an afterthought, the burly man in a sleeveless shirt gets out and checks his friend for supplies. All he takes is a pack of gum and a pouch of gold tokens before returning to the cab. With a honk of the horn, the tow truck continues on its way and does not stop even when the machineguns on its undercarriage crash to the ground.
“I think we’ve been playing around out of morbid curiosity,” Lloyd answers, getting back into his seat. Seeing that the clamp on his window is broken, he works on forcing it down enough to let in a breeze. “Kind of like when we ran into those vampires in New Orleans, which is a story worth paying a dollar for. We could have ended that with ease, but we really wanted to play and give ourselves a challenge. In a way, the two of us are rather-”
“Masochistic,” Cassidy interjects with a laugh. Stretching out on the floor, she reaches under the backseat to pull out a clip of ammo she thought was lost. “I can see that. You’ve accused me of making things more difficult than they have to be. There is a thrill to doing that, which I’ll admit to being addicted to. Maybe, deep down, I want to see if anybody out there has the ability to kill me before I kill them. Oddly arrogant way of thinking.”
“That’s how protagonists work though,” the serial killer casually states. He honks the horn to startle the driver, who sticks his middle finger out at the jeep. “We’re so close to New York City and I want to get back to our normal life of violence. No more of this high stakes, save the country shit. Not like the place isn’t a cesspool anyway. Anyway, we should agree to shoot and stab immediately once we stop. Deal?”
Nodding her head, Cassidy sits up to shake her partner’s hand. “You got it. Nothing will stop us from blowing through this one. Let’s get our barely clothed asses to the finish line as fast as possible.”