Read Pickers 4: The Pick Online
Authors: Garth Owen
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Following up leads, the pickers found directions to a seed bank in the French Alps. They have resolved to travel there and find blight resistant grain for the home they left ten years previously.
Along the way, they have picked up a passenger, Chloe, who needs a lift to another town.
Travelling through the bad lands, and encountering recently abandoned farms, Maxine and Chloe start a brief, fun affair.
After leaving Chloe in her new home, the family head for the Goat Track, a tough road over the Pyrrennees into France. Once over it, they begin to see the effects of the blight on crops and communities.
Trekking up France to the Northeast, they finally approach The Valley, the community they ran from a decade earlier. Before they can get there, however, they become involved in a running fight to defend three trucks carrying orphans to the same destination.
Back in the place they used to call home, the family face the same tensions that drove them away ten years earlier.
Under the mayorship of Remy's brother, Julien, the Valley has opened to the outside world. But influential members of the council still hold grudges.
Meanwhile, Tony and Veronique have become attached to Luke, one of the orphans they saved. He climbed into their truck, and decided to stay.
Despite some resistance, a team of the town's Scouts volunteer to help pick the secret vault for seeds and whatever else can be found. Leader of the Scouts is Georges Meunier, who Maxine had a childhood crush on- though she won't admit it. They grow closer as they prepare for the expedition.
The building was so old that it become part of the scenery. The roof was provided by the thick foliage of a tree that had first undermined, but now supported, the walls at one corner. Foliage sprouted between the stones, and the walls were more green than grey.
Still, there were hints that the hut had seen use more recently. Thin branches that had been growing across the gap of the door had been broken off to allow access. Fresh, lighter green shoots were growing from the breaks, so it hadn't been done this season.
Still, they approached slowly and carefully, weapons drawn and placed to cover each other. Maxine stalked toward the door sideways, feet lifted high at each step to clear roots and vines. Her uncle's shotgun hung on the lanyard she had fashioned for it. The trusty 9mm was in her right hand, but she could use the room clearer with her left if needed.
Georges was working his way along a ridge that had once been a wall, an assault rifle held high but ready. Right up until she was practically standing in it, he could spray a short burst through the door without any risk of hitting Maxine.
This was the first man made structure they had come across since leaving the Valley, and they were going to be careful approaching it.
Maxine stopped short of the door. Georges nodded at her glance his way and started moving round to look for holes in the wall.
The door lay flat, just in front of the opening, barely recognisable after being chewed up by frosts and roots. Maxine stepped carefully onto it, and it cracked and crumbled some more. She raised the 9mm, bracing it with her left hand.
The leaves filtered light through as rough shafts and a dark green glow, but it was still much darker in the hut than outside. Maxine moved slowly as she approached the threshold. She checked the dark corners. Anything waiting in ambush would be in them.
The branches of the roof rustled, and the scratches of light danced around the interior. Maxine stepped back, and raised her gun. Her gaze went up, past the lintel of the doorway and to the tree. A familiar shape was moving up through the branches. Georges hadn't found a break in the wall, so he had gone looking for one in the ceiling. It was a bit silly, but just the sort of thing she would have done.
Maxine stepped through the door, then quickly to her right, out of the frame of light. She swept her gun around the room, eyes over the sights all the time. There was a shape in the far corner, but it wasn't going to move. She holstered her pistol and pulled the lanyard over her head. "It's clear. You can come on down."
Georges did come down, dropping through the branches until he found one that couldn't bear his weight. He only had a short way to fall to the floor.
Maxine was over by what had been a bed, but was now flaky slivers of powdery wood in a rough frame shape. The bundle atop it was mostly covered by a blanket, only the grey bones of a skull showing. The empty eye sockets stared at Georges, and he found himself moving aside to avoid them. "How long do you think they've been here?" he asked.
"A year or two." Maxine drew back the blanket to reveal the corpse's torso. Whatever creatures had cleaned the skull of its flesh, hadn't been as successful on the rest of the body, leaving leathery flesh glued to its clothes. Insofar as Raiders had a uniform, the corpse was wearing it- a battered dark denim jacket, sleeveless top and jeans. Not a mere foot soldier, he had been important enough to merit genuine vintage clothes, but not the leather jacket of a leader.
"He didn't die naturally, either." Maxine said, pointing to the dark stain in the top and jacket, which had spread out from a neat, straight stab just below the rib cage.
"I wonder if he was spying on the Valley?" Georges said.
"Go through his bag, maybe that'll tell us." Maxine had spotted something on the floor. Overgrown to the point that she had to tug it free of knotted grass, was a belt with two holsters, each containing a revolver, and little loops holding rounds for them. Maxine drew one of the guns and checked it. There was too much rust to trust the weapon to work as it was, but her Picker instincts kicked in, and she thought it could be saved.
The bag clanked as Georges carefully moved it. "Knives, guns and grenades." he said, going through the contents. "No binoculars or notes. Maybe someone took them."
"A Raider would never leave guns behind. He got away from whoever stabbed him and they never found him again."
"Maybe we'll find clues to what happened as we go further."
Maxine smiled at Georges' optimism, it was sweet. "Maybe not. Do you think the bag will hold together?"
"Not for long."
"Let's get it outside so I can inventory it. And leave this guy be." Maxine drew the blanket back over the corpse, covering its head as well this time.
There was a flat area, surrounded by trees, up by the road. It would be ideal for a bivouac if the wagons didn't catch up with them by night fall. Arms crossed under the bag, Georges could carry it without fear of tearing. He found a flat topped boulder large enough to be a table and gently lowered the bag to it. Maxine sat beside the bag and dipped her hand into it.
"So, erm, do you think the wagons will catch us up today?" Georges asked.
"Perhaps, but not until late."
"Very late? We have a while to wait for them?" Georges gaze was dancing around, looking for nice, comfortable flat spots they could lie on. It came back to the boulder. He did some calculations, and his expression gave away how naughty they were.
Maxine could have teased him, but she could tell how turned on he was, and it warmed her in turn. She smiled up at him. "Why don't you go get the bikes while I do this. Then we can get.... Comfortable here."
The bikes were a short hike back up the trail. The motors may have run silently, but the sound of the tyres on the stone strewn surface would have given away their approach. Georges had been gifted an electric motorcycle built around the frame and major components of Maxine's old ride. The other parts had been salvaged from junkers around the Valley. It was far better than his old fuel burner, but his lover still had the superior bike.
Georges rode Maxine's bike back first. He found her checking the action on a semi-automatic pistol, so engrossed in her work that she barely registered him. When he returned, some time later, with his own bike, she was sitting on the boulder waiting for him. Lined up beside her were the two revolvers, two semi-automatics and several knives, ranging from a machete with a blade nearly the length of her arm down to a short, thin and still very sharp looking stiletto.
"That dead man was serious." Georges said, looking down at the armoury. "I've only ever met one other person so heavily armed."
"Tease. I say the revolvers were his weapons of choice. The rest, he'd stolen or.... Acquired along the way."
"Weren't there grenades? Where are they?"
"There's a rotten tree stump over there. I put the bag inside it, with the grenades in. I really don't trust explosives that haven't been stored properly. I might put a charge in with them before we leave"
"And the other weapons?"
"Probably keep them. There'll be space in one of the wagons, I'm sure."
"And what are you going to do with them until then?"
Maxine stood, and put an arm around Georges' waist, so they could both look down at the rusty armoury. "You want to use the space for something else?"
Maxine pulled Georges' shoulders down so she could nuzzle his neck and whisper, "Go get the bed roll, then."
They each wore one piece suits, with padding in unflattering places, and heavy duty boots. Not the sexiest of outfits, until Georges turned from the bikes to find Maxine had unzipped hers and shucked out of it to be naked from the waist up. She gave him a grin, and he rushed over with the bed roll.
The glyphs on the road pointed the way and hinted at road conditions. An arrow pointed left, a circle indicated loose surface, and a right angled triangle, sloping down from right to left, told of negative camber. They were sprayed onto the surface in orange paint, the code based on notation used by the Scouts on their trail maps.
Georges and Maxine had set off the day before to mark the path for the wagons. The charge limit on their bikes meant they would be waiting somewhere ahead for a top up. The wagons might, just, catch up with them before night fall.
The buggy scooted ahead of the wagons, to see if the markings had missed anything. Wagon two followed slowly.
Veronique transcribed the markings to a paper map laid out on the little table. Her computer had calculated roughly where they were, based upon information from the various accelerometers on board. Its best guess didn't quite match up to the trail marked on the paper map, so she clicked on the line on screen and dragged it until it matched. A few clicks matched the notes to the paper map, and the computer recalculated the display.
The cabin was tilting. Not at an angle the wagon couldn't cope with, but enough that moving around the insides would be better with hand holds. Veronique turned her chair so that she faced the uphill wall and was pressed back into the cushions.
"How much further do you think they got?" Veronique wondered out loud. "Hooking back to leave all these markers must have slowed them down."
"However far, I bet they hope we don't make it until tomorrow." Tony said.
Veronique's laugh came out as a little snort. "It is so sweet, the childhood sweethearts getting together. At least, until you think about all the sex they're having. Probably right now."
"I don't think Maxine would agree that they were childhood sweethearts. Or Georges, either." Tony had stood in his seat and kept himself upright by hanging onto the steering wheel. It was the best way to see the road ahead and keep the turning radius just right.
Fabien had wedged himself in position with a foot on the centre console and a hand reaching up to a handle above the side window. "I've known Georges for about six years. Until you arrived, I didn't think he was interested." he said.
"In girls?" Veronique asked.
"In sex. In people, some times. He's great once he gets going, and when he's sure of the situation. But sometimes you'll catch him and you just know he'd rather be out here or building something that will get him out here."
"That sounds a lot like my sister. We'll probably roll in on them mid fuck, whenever we catch up with them."
"Perhaps we should start calling them on the radio. Though that would be mean, interrupting them mid-shag." Fabien said.
Veronique buried her head in her hands and groaned. "Let's stop talking about this. I really don't want to think about my little sister having sex."
They straightened out, though there was still some heavy camber. The buggy was parked up ahead. The co-driver waved to them and the little vehicle started moving, slowly, again.