Got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
You ever think about what you’d put on your tombstone? I signed to Bish as George Thorogood and the Destroyers sang in the background from the portable CD player.
He answered without blinking an eye. “You think we’d have tombstones?”
It’s a hypothetical conversation, Bish.
“Fine. All right…how about, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil because I’m the evilest motherfucker in the valley.'”
Sniper. Tattoo artist. Superstitious bastard.
“I’d date you,” Bish offered.
It’s a tombstone, not a dating profile, man. Besides, you’re not my type.
“Don’t sell me short. You never know when we’ll be the last two left on earth.”
Fine, but you’ll carry the babies.
Bish laughed. He didn’t often, but, hell, it was a good sound. “I’d keep the same thing for my dating profile but I’d add big feet.”
I laughed silently. Definitely a good addition for any grave.
“Nothing more needs to be said. except the fact that we don’t need tombstones yet. And fuck dating.”
Bish and I’d turned twenty within a month of each other, Aries and Pisces, respectively, and I felt much older, but how the hell did older feel? What was twenty supposed to feel like?
“I’m thinking most twenty-year-olds haven’t killed as many people as we have,” Bish said thoughtfully, because I’d been talking without realizing it, my hands signing a hundred miles an hour. I swear, half the time Bish read my mind instead of my hands, which isn’t that odd considering I could pretty much do the same to him.
Not like we did it for sport.
“No?” Bish asked, caught the look on my face and said, “No. right. Definitely not.”
“Do I have to remind you again that burning the bones was your special psychotic touch?”
They always did it on Supernatural. Keeps the bad luck away.
Bish nodded. Whether he believed my superstitions or not, he went along with it, because we’d lived like brothers since we were eight years old. “We haven’t killed anyone in a month.”
That’s a good thing, Bish.
He furrowed his brow like he was trying to decide if I was making a joke. People sometimes thought Bish was born without a conscience. I know they’re wrong, or else I wouldn’t be alive, because I’ve annoyed the piss out of the man more times than I could count. Just say, right, Bish.
I closed my eyes and went back to absorbing as much sun as I could.
“You know I’m lying, right?”
Based on shit like that, most people wouldn’t realize that Bish was as much my keeper as I was his.
The rocks under my back were warm. I was nearly dry from our last jump in the lake that was freezing cold but not as murky as it should be. Ever since the Chaos happened, the world as we knew it was pretty fucked. The sun was still out for its bimonthly showing, already twenty minutes over its two-hour allotment for this part of the country. The satellite that punched a hole in the atmosphere was strong—supposedly developed by scientists who’d feared this happening but hell, we wouldn’t know for sure—and I figured that maybe constant use and the fact that three years had gone by since the Chaos hit was clearing the atmosphere of un- wanted debris that made it seem like night was the only flavor in town.
Bish and I had run off and joined the military at sixteen after we’d lost everything in the Chaos. Bish’d never had a lot of tolerance for cowards and, in this brave new world, there was no room for them. Bish and I took action, sometimes more than we should’ve. So far, it had only helped us.
I rested my arms over my head, trying not to appear as restless as I felt. All day, I’d been fighting off a hinky feeling, but I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t want to ruin my day—our day—in the goddamned sun.
So far, it hadn’t. Our clothes were spread out around us, our weapons near—Bish’s rifle was actually hanging off his neck to the side—”So I don’t get tan lines,” he’d explained—and our van was parked in the trees, close by but camouflaged.
Once the atmosphere swallowed the sun again, the chill would hit quickly, and the darkness would shadow everything here. We were nearly three hours from Defiance—three hours post-Chaos was really an hour trip pre-Chaos, but the state of the roads and the dearth of lights and gasoline didn’t make for easy road trips anymore.
But right now, the heat bit into my skin and I wasn’t moving until the last of it disappeared. Then the skin on my back prickled as heat and premonition mixed, and I opened my eyes, fully expecting to see a rise of white smoke in the distance.
“Something you want to tell me?” Bish asked as I continued to stare into the distance.
I dreamed about that fucking copperhead again, I told him.
“At least I know what’s been fucking you up today,” Bish murmured, more to himself than to me. “And that dream’s not a bad one.”
Bish was right. I’d dreamed I’d killed that same damned snake only two times before last night. once, the night before Bish showed up on my porch; the second, the night before we were ambushed with our team nearly a year ago…and again last night.
According to my father’s superstitions, killing a snake in your dream means victory. Triumph. Not an everyday kind of victory, but a triumph. Something that changes the course of your life forever.
Something that changes you.
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Bish asked, even though he knew why. What he meant was, “Why the hell didn’t you warn me?”
Maybe it’s nothing, I told him, even as the scream cut the air sharper than a knife’s blade, shattering the peace with its terror. When I looked at him in the rap- idly fading light, I knew he’d dreamed of that damned snake too.
I was on my feet, wet shorts dragged on, weapon in hand as I threaded my way through the trees as the sun began to fade. Bish would follow after he dressed and covered our tracks.
This was déjà vu. Not the screams, but the scent of danger. me, running through brush and ducking down to see what was happening.
For just a brief second, there was a young boy in front of me, hiding in the bushes, lying flat. When I looked up, I saw a giant of a man coming toward me in the dark. The boy and I locked eyes and then we locked hands. And then we ran.
My blood racing, I blinked that scene away, because I wasn’t running away this time, because I wasn’t six anymore. But the scene in front of me wasn’t any less intense.
The past months had been about establishing Caspar as Defiance’s leader, defending our territory, training and planning like hell to hold our own against Keller’s mafia. Keller was elusive at best, always with body- guards, and he kept his biggest weakness, his family, hidden and protected.
And now I was staring at victor, Keller’s youngest son, who was taking a meeting with the second in command of the lords of vengeance in spitting distance.
The LoV was a one-percenter MC, a vicious gang of assholes both before and after the Chaos. They were a misogynistic bunch and Defiance had taken in several women who’d escaped from them and sought refuge. Which meant suddenly we had more mouths to feed. At least production of the tubes had started again full force after lance was killed, which brought in good money to the MC and the town by extension.
It also meant that smoothing things over with Keller was most important—they were our main source of gas and food, although Defiance did have its own under- ground gardens and water sources.
It was a complicated relationship, fueled by need and hate. Then again, the best relationships often were. Rumor was that Keller was in the human-trafficking business and the LoV seemed to be their newest and most productive supplier, because it looked like I’d stumbled onto a sale. In between Keller’s men and the LoV were a man and a woman. I could smell the fear emanating from them from where I hid, crouched low. Adrenaline flooded through me to the point where I was in danger of acting without thinking. I always moved too fast. Without Bish at my side, I forced myself to stand down, to observe, find my opening.
I couldn’t go back to grab Bish, because the LoV would disappear with the pretty girl. She was so fucking painfully pretty, pale with long wavy hair, skin like a Botticelli painting my mother used to have hanging in her room. Her hair was loose blond waves down her back—she looked slightly familiar, like she was a movie star. Unattainable.
And then she kicked the man holding her squarely in the balls. That shit made me fall in love.
It was like a kick to my own gut, and for a second, I couldn’t breathe. My throat closed, my body shuddered. It felt like getting struck by lightning and my first reaction was to walk out there and grab her.
But this was one of those What would Bish do? moments. I knew how to rescue, but didn’t want to start a war between Defiance and LoV. We had enough trouble with the mafia and, right now, we needed them.
Trafficking was unfortunately easier than ever. A lot of women and guys went willingly, lured by the hope that Europe was in far better shape than the U.S. True or not, I guess they’d find out when they got there. But it was pretty apparent that this girl wasn’t willing. Her hands weren’t tied, but she was a little shaky. They might’ve drugged her to keep her in line, or maybe it was simply fear.
I knew shit like this happened, but knowing and seeing it were two different things. I went taut, like a bow ready to snap and fire.
Bish’s light touch on my shoulder was the only thing that stopped me. I could get a few good shots and Bish could take out the rest, but we wouldn’t do that unless we needed to.
Bish knelt next to me, assessed the situation. Losing sun in maybe ten, I signed.
For victor to show for a meeting in person, these two had to be pretty important. Defiance had its ear to the ground, and we’d heard nothing.
Maybe Caspar has, Bish signed back to me, and that was true. The guy didn’t have to tell us everything. Maybe just seeing this transaction would give us some much-needed leverage. That is, if I was willing to sit through the transaction and just watch, which seemed less and less likely, based on the girl’s posture.
Most women I saw with the LoV were one of two types—as lethal as the MC’s men or scared to fucking death.
This one was scared.
“Sex trade.” Bish confirmed what I’d been thinking. “Not getting involved.”
Now that was different from what I’d been thinking. He was right—this wasn’t a war we needed. Defiance was tasked with keeping our own safe, and although Bish and I hadn’t been officially patched into the MC, we were as good as, standing behind Caspar and helping to train Defiance’s enforcers. It was simply up to us now whether we were in this for the long haul, or if we were going rogue.
You can’t change the world, Caspar always said.
But Caspar had changed his world. So maybe that was a false proverb of some sort, passed down through the generations by men who hadn’t been bold enough.
I’m going in.
Bish gave me a WTF look. “Feeling suicidal today, are we?”
Better way to go than fighting?
While fighting would be satisfying, we had to be smarter. Especially when it was us against upwards of twelve heavily armed men. But before we could do anything, the girl’d stepped in front of the man she was being sold with, like she could stop the trade—and bullets—with her body alone. When she spoke, her voice shot through me like an AK’s round. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Neither is he.”
Victor smiled. “Honey, you’re going to be on your knees, sucking my dick and anyone else’s dick I need you to. Time to put you in your place.”
Then he turned to the LoV and said, “I’ve got your money—for her.”
“What about him?” The LoV pointed to the guy.
Victor shook his head, never taking his eyes from the girl. “I don’t need a guy. Put a bullet through him in front of me and I’ll pay you for the girl.”
This was fucked.
Even after Victor told her what would happen to her, she stayed in front of the man, ready to save him.
“You’ve got me. Just let him go,” she told Victor.
I waited for the man she was trying to save to step in front of her, to be a man. Instead, he told Victor, “I’ll make sure you get paid your money if you let me go.”
Let me go. Nothing about her. At that moment, the blonde’s life changed forever. It was as visible as the sun had been minutes before.
We had a much better shot of winning this in the dark.
“Charlie, what are you doing?” she asked, turned to stare at him, but the man named Charlie ignored her, telling Victor, “Take her. I’ll pay.”
Her face told the whole story, like this was the first betrayal she’d ever experienced, and if it was: first, good for her to have gone this long without one; and second, what a hell of a lesson.
The money exchange came through for the guy. As the LoV grabbed her, she turned and looked in disbelief at the man who’d sold her out, the betrayal etched clearly in her face.
We’d grown used to seeing a lot of people being treated like shit. Didn’t mean we liked it, and maybe it wasn’t any worse than it had been before. It’s just that no one bothered to couch it anymore. And you couldn’t fight the whole world, but you could pick your battles.
Lightning flashed, illuminating the beautiful girl’s face. Storm’s coming.
“From all directions,” Bish agreed.