If he was luckyâwhich he hadn't been since leaving the piney woods of Texas, admittedlyâthe garrison of Bern Woods would be short enough on pairs of eyes that it would be all they could do to keep the gate, prison and tower manned.
Waiting had never gained him much, so he stuck his head under the gap. The sluice stood next to what looked to have been a chicken takeout, the remnants of its friendly red-and-yellow decor incongruous next to the Fort Apache palisade.
He drew Tayland's bowie knife and wiggled through. The fighting knife was the only weapon he carried. Being gunless kept him cautious and alert. It might also buy him a little time if he were captured. The only people allowed to carry guns in the Kurian Zone were those who worked for the regime; a quick harvesting in the grasp of the Reapers was the usual punishment for anyone else found with a firearm.
The town wasn't electrified at the moment. Valentine saw a few lanterns and marked the faint glow of candlelight from the upper stories of the buildings on the main street. He smelled diesel and heard a generator clattering some distance away to the south. Following his ears, he saw drums in a fenced-in enclosure next to a shed behind a stoutly built building.
Valentine got away from the wall as quickly as he could. The town seemed empty. He untied his long hair and mussed it with his fingers so it covered the scar on the side of his face, and pulled the hat down to his eyebrows. He took a slow walk toward the highway cutting the town in two, turning onto the main street at a gas station whose garage now sheltered broken-down horses instead of broken-down cars. He recognized the horse that had been dragging Tayland in an oil-change bay.
In the Kurian Zone you had to walk a fine line between looking like you were busy and drawing attention to yourself. He walked purposefully toward the one building lit with electricity.
A feed store still held feed, by the look of it, but the drug and sundry had been recently boarded up.
The brightly lit building turned out to be the town bank, complete with drive-thru teller, though it had become an antique store sometime before the cataclysm of 2022, judging from an old, rain-washed sign painted where once tellers had stood behind armored glass to service cars. Blue banners, with three gold stars set in a horizontal white stripe, hung from the flagpole next to the door of the bank/antique shop. A painted sign jutting from a pile of whitewashed rocks announced its latest incarnation: Station 46. Red-painted gallows stood just a few steps from the headquarters at what had been an intersection, dominating the central street like a grim plaza statue. There was no trapdoor, just a pair of poles and a crossbeam.
A tall sentry with a forehead that bore an imprint where it might have been kicked by a horse's hoof stood to one side of the door. Another man, proportionally older and rounder, sat in an ornate rocking chair with a shotgun across his lap. His sideburns were russet, but the sparse hair streaming out from under a pisscutter cap was gray. Both wore khaki uniforms with brown leather pads at the knees, shoulders and elbows, though the seated one had lieutenant's bars and a more elaborate uniform.
“Is this Station 46?” Valentine drawled, head tilted to match the poor leveling of the sign's face.
“Goddammit, seems like every day I hear that,” the older man screeched. “The friggin' sign is out there, plain as paint, everything but a spotlight on it. But still I hear âIs this Station 46?' from some shitheel six times a week and twice on Sundays. Never fails.”
“So this is Station 46?” Valentine asked.
The aged lieutenant turned even redder. “Yes, dammit! This is Station 46.”
“I'm to speak to the commanding officer.”
“He ain't here, boy. I mean, that's me, seeing as he's out. Whatever the question is, the answer is âno.' Now get going before I jail you for breaking curfew, you dunk.”
Valentine was happy to swallow the abuse, as long as the lieutenant stayed angry.
“I was told by one of your officers to speak to the commanding officer, Station 46. That's what I'm here to do, sir.”
The lieutenant leaned forward in his rocking chair. “What about?”
“My boy's watchin' two pen of hawgs bit north of here, 'round Blocky Swamp. There's a lot less hawgs in those pens thanks to some sergeant with a uniform like yours. He didn't pass any scrips or warrants, just took 'em. He told me if I had a problem with it to speak to the officer commanding, Station 46, Bern Woods. Walked all day, practically, as I do have a problem with someone just takin' my stock.”
“What the crap, dunk? Haven't you heard yet? There's been some changes, boy. Southern Command's not riding 'round handing out scrip no more. That's all over and out.”
Valentine widened his stance.
“I don't fight these wars, or know about it from nothing, and I keep my boys outta it too. I'm short salt and flour and sugar; thought I'd pick some up and catch up on the news after Christmas. But being short hawgs now too, I thought a trip to town was in order. I want to write on some papers and make a complaint.”
“A complaint? A complaint?”
“That's correct, sir.”
The old man wavered in perplexity, then looked at Valentine sidelong, under lowered lids, like a bull trying to make up its mind whether to charge or run.
“I'll take your statement,” he said. “I don't expect you'll get the answer you're looking for, but I warned ya fair.”
“Thanks. Would've saved us both some time if you'd done so in the first place,” Valentine said.
The older man snorted and led him inside the command post. He held the door open for Valentine with a grin, and Valentine suddenly liked the aged lieutenant a little better, and hoped it wouldn't come to killing.
Little remnants of both the banking heritage and retail life of the building remained in the form of a vault and stock tables. Valentine looked inside the vault, where arms and boxes of ammunition stood in disarray from the hurried muster he had seen ride out of town. A few footlockers and gun cases with Southern Command notations on them huddled in a corner as though frightened of the new pegs and racks. Opposite the vault a row of rooms held prisoners, confined behind folding metal gates like those used to protect urban merchants' streetside windows from burglars. Valentine counted the men, his heart shrinking three sizes when he recognized their faces. Eleven remaining marines from the
sat in the bare, unlit cellsâpictures of grubby despair. Post and the two Jamaicans occupied another cell. Two more, in Texan clothes, shared another; Jefferson passed him a hint of a shrugâhe had dried blood from a cut lip in his beard. The other was a drover named Wilson. Guilt pulled at him with an iron hook. The marines took in Valentine with darting eyes but said nothing. The surviving teamster ignored him.
Valentine heard a hoot, and turned his head to see a pair of Grogs in loincloths. Simpler, shorter versions of the Golden One known as Grey Ones, they bore brooms and dustpans, cleaning rags and wood oil. They were the last of Ahn-Kha's team, the lucky pair who had made it all the way to Haiti and back. Not bright enough to understand Valentine's disguise, they chattered in excitement at his familiar face. Valentine took a step back.
“Hell, those things give me the creeps. You got them in town?” Valentine asked, feigning fright.
The Grogs gamboled up to him, hooting. Valentine put a long table between him and the excited pair.
“Must be the smell of pigs,” the temporary commander mused. He pushed the Grogs off.
“Don't let 'em touch me,” Valentine said. The fear in his voice was real enough. If the officer decided to point the shotgun and start asking questions, there wasn't much he could do.
“What's all d'excitement?” a musical voice asked, coming from the hallway behind the Grogs.
Valentine looked down at Narcisse. She was uninjuredâassuming one didn't count the missing legs and left hand, old souvenirs of her escape attempts on Santo Domingoâand dressed in her customary colorful rags and bandannas. She “walked” by swinging her body on her handless arm, using the limb as a crutch. An accomplished cook was welcome in any army, and she'd been put to work, judging from the aluminum dish gripped in her good hand. Valentine's sensitive nose detected the aromas of hot peppers and thyme in the steaming mixture of pork and rice. Narcisse looked once at Valentine, and then turned to the officer, pivoting on her left arm like a ballet dancer on pointe.
The Grogs forgot Valentine at the smell of food.
“You ready to eat, Cap'n? Extra spicy, just like you asked.”
The older man's nostrils widened. “Sure am.” He picked up a yellowed piece of blank paper and a pencil, and handed them to Valentine. “Get lost, boy. Write down your complaint, then give it back to me.”
“This isn't official; it doesn't have a seal,” Valentine said.
“There's enough for your friend, Cap'n. He looks hungry.”
He glowered down on Narcisse. “You're supposed to feed officers first, then the men, and the prisoners long way last. He can try for a meal at the church hall.”
“Yes, Cap'n. Sorry, mister, I just do what I'm told. Thank you, Cap'n.”
Valentine picked up the pencil. “Can I write this in here where there's light?”
“As long as you shut up and stay out of my way, you can do what you like.”
Narcisse filled the officer's plate, and brought out a plastic water jug with a cup rattling on the nozzle. “You want me to take some to the boys in the tower, Cap'n?”
“No, they're on duty. We're short men with the Visor out with the riders.”
“Yes, Cap'n. Apple cider?” For someone with only one hand, Narcisse acted the part of a servant with skill.
“There's some left? Sure. This is some fine spicy. I'm from Dallas, and I'll tell you that this is good cooking.”
“Thank you, Cap'n.”
The officer, who never corrected her when she called him “Cap'n,” even ate with the shotgun in his lap. Valentine looked at the service pips on his sleeve, wondering why a man with so many years was just a lieutenant, and a junior one at that. Valentine wrote out his phony story in scraggly block capitals. The wall above him was festooned with wanted posters and poorly reproduced photos, perhaps a hundred in all. “Terrorism” and “Sabotage” looked to be the two most common crimes, though “Speculation” appeared on some. He recognized one face: Brostoff, a hard-drinking lieutenant he had served with six years ago when he ran with the Wolves of Zulu Company. There was a four-year bounty on him. Just beneath Brostoff was a half-familiar face; Valentine had to look a second time to be sure. A handsome young black man looked into the camera with calm, knowing eyes. Fratâlisted in the handbill as F. Carlsonâhad a ten-year bounty on him for assassination and sabotage. Frat would be about twenty now, Valentine calculated. He'd last seen him when he brought Molly back to the Free Territory and reunited her with her family, when the youth was serving his term as an aspirant prior to becoming a Wolf.
Valentine watched Narcisse sneak a few spoonfuls out to the guard on duty, but when she stumped her way over to the men in the cells, the lieutenant growled at her. As she turned away from the prisoners' outstretched arms she gave Valentine a significant wink.
” Narcisse said, under her breath.
Narcisse had shown her talents before in Haiti and beyond, where her curious mixture of herbalism and
rendered surprising results. She had once put a man named Boul to sleep with a mickey in his chicken. He had also seen fevered men recover and be walking around in perfect health a day after one of her infusions. Biochemistry or magic, she performed miracles with food and the contents of her spice bag.
Valentine counted the minutes and continued his scrawled essay on the loss of his fictitious stock, punctuated by plate scrapings and burps from behind. At last he heard the utensils laid down.
“Aww, I'm stuffed,” the lieutenant belched. Valentine crossed out a misspelled word and wrote a new one above it with an eye on the lieutenant, occupied exploring one hairy ear with a pinky. The oldster looked thoughtful, then doubtful, and gave a little burp.
The lieutenant stood up so fast his chair fell over backward. He went to the door at a quick walk, picking up the shotgun on the way. “Watch things in here,” he ordered the man outside, handing over the pump-action.
The tall younger guard entered, the shotgun looking like a child's toy in his grasp. “He okay?”
“Just finished his meal and left. Shithouse run, I suppose.”
The guard sat down and put his feet on the table, shotgun in his lap. Valentine tried to keep his eyes on the paper, rather than the odd crescent-shaped dimple across the man's forehead.
“Oh hell, I got 'em too,” the giant said, standing up. “C'mon, can't leave you in here alone,” he added, grabbing some keys.
“Out, pig-man, or I'll throw you out,” the private threatened, his eyes bright with anxiety.
Valentine relented, and the man escorted him out, and turned the key in the lock of the steel door. It looked like the only modification to the outside of the structure in dozens of years.
Valentine stepped aside on the porch. The guard hurried around the corner, undoing his suspenders with the shotgun under his arm.
He heard the lock turn.
“Daveed, I thought you'd never come,” Narcisse said, smiling up at him. “Let me show you where they keep the spare keys.”
The tall private returned, a little white-faced. His face drained even more when he unlocked the door and found a phalanx of rifles and shotguns pointed at him.