7.5 or News.

Wishes were fishes, and I was swimming. Three more people doubled our manpower, even if they could only watch with bows in hand. I made sure never to hand out more than one bow, of course, but none of us had been shot yet, so that was something.

Of course, proving that I wasn’t full of crap by having us double up for a few days so that the new blood could see just what our merry little settlement was like had gone a long way to foster the spirit of cooperation. Nothing like realizing the person walking next to you was the only one who didn’t have a vested interest in gutting you to tweak your attitude.

Two of the newbies still didn’t like that I was in charge, but since all the rest of us backed me, there wasn’t really much they could do. The cabin we completed yesterday probably helped with that too, but I wasn’t exactly around to ask. Instead I was working on beach front property, well out of the range of wagging tongues. 

They had a new member too, who swore he was a were-dolphin, and swam like it. He swam a bit too much though, when he should be helping out. Martin seemed to be torn between helping out and watching, but at least he was trying.

It was time to stop anyway, the sun was beginning to set. I could set much better hours now for the most part. It was kind of refreshing. Sal was enjoying it too; Gerald was manning the store. He wasn’t as good in a fight as we were, but he didn’t really need to be; attacking him would be starting a war. He was the pawn to my king, technically, not that he would like that comparison.

Or think I knew how to play chess. For some reason, Gerald still thought I was an idiot about some things, even if the first few days had cured him of much of that.

I worked my way around the town through the forest; no bike meant I had to be careful. Gerald, Don, and Sal were using them now, which meant short of an obvious emergency the rest of us were stuck walking. I was half tempted to revive my car, but Les wanted to try salvaging a few more bikes first. Really, he was welcome to it, and I hoped against hope it would keep him out of trouble.

I was fairly sure I wasn’t seen skirting the town – but I was being followed anyway. I was pretty sure it was the same guy I’d tried to catch following me on and off the last week and change, but as usual I couldn’t get a fix on him. And just as usual, he followed me most of the way home and then veered off. I’d long since given up trying to lay traps for whoever it was; they had avoided every single one.

It was good the guy wasn’t a wolf; if he had been, I’d have been disappeared already. I just wish I knew who it was.

I knew I could catch him… if I wanted to risk more people doing it, and commit more resources.

Still, an issue for another day. I made it home and no one stuck me on accident, so it was a win there.

Speaking of arrows, Natalie had been busy making them since I showed her how. We almost had enough for a siege now, and would by the end of the week. That and we had enough tinder wood shavings to light fires through the winter.

“Any news?” Nat had also started checking the news feeds on the internet more or less every day, using my computer. The newbies knew something was up, but they didn’t know where the power was going just yet, and none of them were in earshot.

“The bill to free us reached the house, they are going to vote on it tonight.”

I didn’t hold out much hope for the American process, but some people had managed to get a bill proposed to make the camp we’d been sent to illegal, and another to declare anyone considered a were human. Despite that step and the country’s history, there wasn’t a lot of support for the bill. At least not from what I’d read.

In a way, it was nice to see the country unite on something. In another way, it was stupid that they were united against the rights of a section of citizens.

Nat shared my pessimism. That was why she was making arrows.

“Well, I’m going to nap. Wake me if something happens.”

Nat nodded but worked her mouth a few times.

“Okay, what? Out with it.”

“Do you really think we can resist if the Wolves come for us?”

That was all? “I think we can resist if the Wardens come for us. Unless they shell us or something, we’ve got a really good chance. All you have to do is wake me up first so I can show you everything.”

She grinned. “Right, because you play your cards close to the vest. Will do, bossman.”

Which meant she’d make me pay later unless I missed my guess. Oh well, it could wait.

The cabin was empty, so I just undressed and put night clothes on; everyone was outside. We all needed time to unwind, but we couldn’t yet. Not until winter. I wondered who was on wood duty; we needed enough for two cabins now, and no one would want to cut firewood in winter.

Hm, I should include fireplaces of some kind in the homes of people I liked. I wonder who had thought of it yet.

Nat burst in, slamming the poor door. “We got trouble.”

“What?”

“Just come on, outside.”

I jumped up and followed her. Les was right outside, an arrow nocked and his bow trained on a guy that I vaguely recognized. He was a rat.

“You’re a long way from home, guy.”

“Sorry to trespass, but I got some news you’ll probably want to hear.”

“Alright, out with it. And maybe tell us how you found the place while you’re at it.” We wouldn’t be killing him or anything, but it was super awkward to have him here.

The rat took a deep breath and all but bellowed it out in his thin, reedy voice. “The wolves have a new handy-man.”

Well, shit.

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7.4 or Be it ever so humble.

I liked Gerald. He was caustic, sarcastic, and word weary, all hidden behind a genteel facade. He reminded me of my grandfather. Betty was a nice sort, a secretary by trade. She told me that readily – she didn’t really have much practice on taking care of herself in this kind of thing, and it showed easily.

Don was a middle manager at a fast food place, he wouldn’t tell me which one. Something in his eyes reminded me of me.

Gerald got right to the point. “Why should we, any of us, follow you? Who put you in charge?”

Well, that was an easy one to field. “Merit, basically. If any of you think you can do better, you can have the job. But as for following me? You should follow me because this entire town is not a safe place for you to be, and I’ll take you somewhere safe if you’ll let me.”

At least he had waited until we were out of easy eavesdropping from anyone else; we were alone on this stretch of road and huddled as we were no one would be able to read our lips. It spoke well of him.

“And why should we believe that? You could be leading us somewhere secluded to kill us.”

A good point, but too filled with outside thinking. 

“You think any of them would care if I murdered you in their sight? You’re assuming, here. First, you’re all classified as were-raccoons, absurd as it sounds,” Betty opened her mouth but I kept right on going.

“So am I, and so are the people I’m trying to lead you too. Second, part of the reason you’re in this danger – a large part – is because of me. It is not at all safe here for any of you, because the wolves hate us right now. You’re welcome to stay and confirm that, but you really shouldn’t take too long to do it.”

Gerald stared right into my eyes the entire time I spoke, then pronounced his verdict. “I believe you.”

And that was that. Don opened his mouth, but looked past my shoulder and then fell in line.

There were wolves behind us. A good half-dozen of them, headed this way, with a certain bandaged jackass in the lead. Hm, I was surprised he could work that hand, someone must have done a good job sewing him up.

Betty noticed too. “Are those…?”

“Yeah, we should go,” I told her.

I led them to the tree my bike was under and collected it. “So, some things you should know. I’m a handyman of sorts, and I’m currently working on houses for the gangs or factions or whatever you want to call them in town. I opened a hardware store and contractor business, where I get paid for my work on vouchers like you’ve been given. We were chased out of town by the wolves, who are the strongest group in town because I didn’t want to stay and become their good little chained fix-it boy. So instead we set up outside of town, at a hidden location.”

I rounded on them. “That’s important. The secret will get out, eventually, but none of you need to rush it. Telling someone, anyone, exactly where we are will be very bad.”

“How far outside of town?” Betty asked. 

Her shoes weren’t really made for long walks, she wasn’t going to like this. “Miles away, and we may have to dodge a tail if we’re slow.”

Betty’s eyes widened comically. “Can you ride a bike, Betty? If so I’ll let you ride this one. It looks like trash, but it works.”

We would all be stuck to the pace of the slowest anyway, it wasn’t like I needed it. 

Betty cast a stink-eye at my bike. “I do know how. Do I need to?”

“It depends on how much you love your shoes, really. I’m going to set a pace though, and I need you all to keep up.”

Gerald cut right to the chase. “How long have you been awake, Roy?”

I saw no reason to lie. “Sixteen to eighteen hours. I’m not sure exactly what time it is. Your guess is correct, I do want to get home and sleep. The wolves following us?”

“They don’t appear to be. One of the others ran up to the group, said something, and then they all turned around.”

“Good, cool, thanks. That means we only need to worry about the good tails, sneaking along with us in the treeline.”

“Paranoid much?” Betty asked, nervous.

“Yes, I am. You should be too; it’s a good habit to have here.”

“You’re trusting us,” Gerald pointed out.

“No, I’m responsible for you, more or less. I don’t want your blood on my hands, so I’m taking a chance with you three. It doesn’t hurt that we need the manpower.” 

Oddly enough that seemed to settle some of Don’s concerns. “So this isn’t some pure altruistic move on your part.”

“No, it’s not. We all help each other around here, at least within our groups. If you’d rather side up with the ex-cons who basically got a get out of jail free card, you’re welcome to it.”

They all three chorused, almost like they planned it: “No thanks.”

“Right, so I better get to explaining what’s going on here.”

The entire walk back I talked and kept an eye out behind us. By the time we all made it back to the old driveway that marked the way to the cabin, my voice was beginning to give.

“Alright, I better go first now. My uncles are likely to be trigger happy otherwise.”

“Do your uncles have guns, then?” Gerald asked. Betty stopped, wringing her hands.

“No, they don’t. They have bows I made for them, and we have a watch. Like I said before, the wolves don’t exactly like us. So I’m going to go first and give the signal for them not to shoot.”

Don opened his mouth, but I was tired so I just beat him to the punch. “You don’t know that I’m not setting you up, you need to take it on faith. But seriously, would I have talked myself hoarse if I was just trying to set you up? Think about it a bit.”

Don was not exactly impressing me, here.

I walked ahead and didn’t say a word when my new ‘friends’ started trying to stay hidden behind me. I couldn’t blame them really.

The three stopped at the sight of the cabin; I wasn’t sure what they expected. 

“Who built all this?” Gerald asked.

“I and my brothers, mostly. There is another person here, named Natalie, who helped me with the greenhouse. Now that you’re here, I’ll either need to build another cabin, or an expansion onto this one. It isn’t a good idea to spread too much. Come on.” It would be their preference, but I wasn’t going to build a cabin for each of them – too much effort.

Once in range, I started swinging my arms in the prearranged signal. One repetition of that and Les jumped out of the tree he was in. I smirked at the sounds of surprise behind me.

“Hey, Roy. Who are your friends?”

“Three converts unwillingly drafted into our cold war.”

Gerald had stepped up and was looking around with naked curiosity. “I’m Gerald, pleased to meet you. And you are?”

“Les Marsh. Pleased to meet you too, I guess.” 

“Great, Les, you’re here, you handle this. They are your responsibility now, I’m going to get some sleep.”

“Hey, wait!” Les protested. 

I ignored him; I had to rush or I might be forced to stay up.

Natalie had heard. “You’re late.”

“Had some excitement. Supposedly the last bus we’re going to see, and it had three people labeled as were-coons on it. I brought them in rather than see the wolves get them.”

Nat tensed. “I guess that’s fair. So, how bad is it?”

I shrugged and went into the bathroom. I wasn’t dirtying up my bed and bedding with dirt and grimy clothes, but I wasn’t going to take long. “Two look to be mostly useless, just bodies. I hold out some hope for the third.”

“High praise, coming from you,” Nat told me. 

I didn’t think I was that bad. I sponged off in a hurry, threw some clean clothes on, and got into bed. 

“I don’t care what you have them doing, but see about getting a tally of their skills, and putting them to work. Just do it quietly, okay?”

Nat snapped to and saluted. “Sure thing, boss!”

Whatever.

 

7.3 or Last of the new blood.

Construction work was the same old same old, no matter where you were. Even if you couldn’t do the best job. Plywood here, planks there, plaster in a bucket, it never changed.

The cats were doing most of the work, I was supervising. The house was beginning to take some kind of actual shape, an even better shape than I had suspected was possible. It would become the kind of free advertisement I needed for later.

But more importantly, setting things up this way allowed the cats to finish doing their respective tasks when I finally left in order to sleep. Even so, a week later and the place still didn’t look all that great. The floors were done, and now the walls were coming along, but it would be days before we needed the paint I’d ordered. 

I should probably go pick it up from the wardens before they made a big deal of it. It basically belonged to the cats, they could take care of it.

The noise of an engine had me looking up. It was too smooth and too diesel sounding to be anything but a bus or a truck, but I’d learned the schedule for both, and we weren’t due for either.

Carey turned to me, thinking along similar lines I was sure. “Well, guess we better see what that’s all about.”

“Probably.” I guess it was a good thing I hadn’t already started home since I just would have had to turn around. But I was really too tired for this crap.

The cats five men met the wolves’ nine just outside their house. They both stopped and took their times posturing a bit, which I ignored. Things had pretty much gone back to normal, but the two sides still hated each other.

The wolves hated me more by now, I was sure, but they couldn’t spare any attention for me with the cats staring them down.

The vehicle was a bus.On the bus were people, looking like normal people. Stepping out front of the bus was my old buddy officer Vergen. The good officer represented an opportunity for me; he was both friendly and chatty. 

“Officer, what’s going on?”

“Oh Roy, good, you’re not dead yet. How’s it going?”

Vergen’s smile was a little too wide – something was off about it. “Surviving. Can you tell me what’s going on? This is….”

“An unscheduled delivery, yes. This is the last bus of inmates this asylum gets, barring an official governmental order. All babes in the woods, compared to the people here now.”

Vergen leaned in close, whispering. “Some of them are even yours, be sure to take good care of them.”

The two groups behind me caught up, so the good officer stepped back, raised his weapon and did his best to look forbidding. He actually did a credible job at it.

This made no sense. The place or park or whatever it was being called could easily house thousands, and they were stopping at under three hundred. What was the government playing at? 

The powers that be had to know what letting a bunch of cons loose and outnumber everyone else would do, what that would lead to.

So now we were stuck waiting for the new and possibly last influx of people. As before, the board was getting updated immediately, even before the new blood walked out.

Vergen hadn’t lied, two male, one female, all three tagged as raccoons. Don Sandofur, Gerald Klapak, and Betty Glick. There were also another half a dozen wolves, another four cats, and a couple… dolphins? What?

Al sidled up. “Any bears?”

“Two,” I pointed them out. “Good luck with them.”

He was going to try and convince them to side with him, maybe even help run the grocery. But that would probably be a hard sell. I, on the other hand, had a relatively easy job of things, mainly because I had the strongest enemy it was possible to have here. It was kind of ironic, but that’s how things worked out.

Al seemed nervous. “I’m not good with people.”

I snorted. “None of us are, except our good buddy Mark.”

That we didn’t need Marks brand of good with people, I left unsaid. Al picked it up anyway and grinned at me.

“I can always use you as an example.”

“That would probably work,” I admitted. “Some parts should probably be left out though.”

“Like the part where you owned your enemies pretty much by yourself?” Al said, loud and proud.

The wolves definitely heard him. Time to not get murdered.

“You said that I didn’t.”

“That’s right, I did. It was my statement, and mine alone.” Al said with a grin and a wave to the wolves.

Corey walked up. “Something about this is weird. Why so few people on this bus? It could hold fifty, and only twenty on it?”

“Not totally the right question, but close enough. The real question is why now? And the answer to both, according to my sources, is the same. This will be the last bus we get.”

Why so few were-raccoons? Assuming I bought into this farce at all, that was also a million dollar question. There were officially more were-sea creatures here than were-raccoons.

People started coming out; that was fast. They still had their bags too, which was more than most of the people here got. Not that I could complain about that.

“I feel like I should have made a sign.”

Al nodded. “Me too. But to be fair I hadn’t had any reason to before.”

I nodded. Among the first few out were two men and a woman, both a little on the small and wiry side, even if all three were taller than I was. The first two were early twenties, and the man had the haircut and bearing of a military man. The last one was mid-forties if he was a day and bold, back straight and staring us all down What were the chances…

“Don, Gerald, and Betty.”

I was right, the fix was in. all three turned to look at me. I lowered my voice and made sure no wolves were in range to hear it.

“If those are your names, you’re going to want to come with me. There’s a target on your back right now that you don’t even know about.”

The older guy had a cultured voice. “Well, that seems about par for the course, now doesn’t it?”

7.2 or Manpower.

Sleep was the cure for many ills, but waking up wasn’t one of them. I really needed to figure out how to grow coffee, in case the wardens stopped being so nice. It might not keep us as happy and unfocused as all the beer, but it helped, and it was something they could control to make us compliant. It was even worse than food since food was easier to grow here if you knew how.

I was pretty sure that no matter how isolated I was, the cabin and greenhouse hadn’t escaped notice. I hadn’t heard or seen anything, but that meant little. There could be drones flying overwatch in swarms from a mile up; we’d never see or hear them. It was a good thing I wasn’t actually trying to hide anything from the wardens – yet.

Still, I had some coffee for now, and set it to percolate over the fire. I was alone in the cabin, but I heard Nat and Les talking outside. They seemed relaxed, so I let it go.

The door opened as I got my first cup, and Nat strode in, stopping cold when she saw me.

“Jeez! You’re up early.”

“Am I? Didn’t notice. Anything going on?”

Nat shook her head and grabbed her own cup. “Not a thing; despite you getting followed neither Les or I have seen or heard anything.”

“How’s the greenhouse doing?”

“We got some sprouts, so I’d guess well. I’m not sure what that means yet; I grew flowers some, but I never had a garden.”

“It’s good,” I told her. “It’s on schedule, maybe a little fast. Means we will be canning as winter starts. Depending on the weather and how good a job we did, we might risk another batch of seeds for mid-winter harvest.”

It wouldn’t be enough by itself unless we wanted to get by on half rations, but as a supplement to the stuff I was already stockpiling we could do worse.

“Canning? Do we have cans? Do you know how to can too?” Nat asked.

“Well, jarring technically. We do have quite a few bell jars with matching lids. But yeah, I know how. You tend to learn these things. I also know how to cook a mean stew from preserved veggies.”

Nat sighed. “Is there anything you DON’T know how to do?”

“Quite a bit actually,” I told her. “But we do have internet access of a sort. If I need to, I’ll find it on there and learn.”

Nat made a show of sitting down. “It’s too exhausting, keeping up with you.”

I shrugged. “You don’t have to try.”

Nat drained her cup and went for another. “Unless something happens to you; trying to plan for everything here, like you do.”

“Well, that’s fair,” I conceded. “The plan for that depends on what happens to me. If I get sick or something, we kick Les out the door and make him tend shop. If I die somehow, Sal will be in charge. He doesn’t know everything that I know, but he’s pretty responsible.”

Nat pondered that for a moment. “We need more people,” she finally concluded.

I couldn’t really argue the point, but I felt she was missing the point. “We need more good, trustworthy people.”

She toasted me. “Good point, and thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Well, I better get going. Sal isn’t going to relieve himself.”

She giggled.

…Right, that came out wrong. “You know what I mean.”

Nat wiggled her eyebrows. “I certainly do. But you’re right. If you’re up, you better go. Sal was griping about lack of sleep.”

“Right.”

“Hey, Roy? You ever give a thought to a five-day work week? I don’t think I’ve seen you take a weekend off since I’ve been here.”

Well, there was a reason for that. “That’s because I haven’t. I haven’t really taken weekends off since fourteen; if I didn’t work, I didn’t eat. But I’ll think on it.”

We needed more done, not less, but Nat was saying close the store for the weekend. The problem would be guarding it. Closed or not, it would still need someone there to make sure people weren’t running off with the stuff. We couldn’t just cart all the crap I needed to the cabin, then we’d need to cart it back whenever I did something.

“It comes down to numbers. Whether I worked or not, the stuff I’m trading what the wardens give us for is too valuable. I can’t just let it get taken, and closing the place down isn’t really an option because if I do it becomes that much harder for us to eat come winter, even with the garden.”

“So we just need more people.”

I drained my coffee. “Yep. I’m waiting to see who the next bus brings.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the solution… it was more that I couldn’t implement it yet. We had to be very careful about who we extended the cabin for. Or built another cabin for. Maybe that was something I should put more thought into; if the cabin got too big, it would be too obvious, which would lead to an entire host of problems. The answer would be to spread out, but that sort of defeated the purpose of grouping together in the first place. Perhaps building cabins right next to each other, apartment style? 

But I didn’t want to start my own town. It might be seen as a direct challenge to the gangs, or more importantly, the wardens.

Whatever. I grabbed my bag and waved on my way out the door. Les was watching and the moon was up. I heard an owl hooting in the distance. 

“Hey, Les.”

“Hey, Roy.”

“Nat watches in the daytime, right?”

“She sure does.”

And she hadn’t slit his throat yet, even after the days he was at his most annoying. He also hadn’t touched her – or she’d have told me. That couldn’t be easy for him, considering he hadn’t had any female company in a long time. Unless she liked the attention; that was a possibility.

No accounting for taste if so, but it was her right. Either way, it wasn’t my business unless Nat or Les wanted to be. 

“Alright. Les, anyone around you’d trust enough to let in here?”

Les ran a hand over his stubble. “Not a chance, really. I don’t keep good company.”

“Well, thanks for giving it some thought.”

I got on the old crappy bike; Les was supposed to make another one, but he was taking his sweet time with it. Honestly, if I saw a finished product next week, I’d be impressed.

The hike in the near dark was just as boring as yesterday, but for all that the moon was still around, it seemed darker. My hearing was picking up sounds of movement, but it was all too small or different to be human origin.

The road was as brightly lit and empty as last night, thankfully. I set off, wondering if perhaps my plan had been too ambitious. If I had allowed my greed to get the better of me, I could do it again. I’d better not, once was enough.

The trip took less time when you were thinking. I probably should have been paying more attention. However, nothing had happened. I stashed the bike in a new spot (new every time, of course, no sense being predictable) and strolled along the deserted main street until I came to the door. No one stopped me or even appeared to be watching.

“Sal, let me in.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’.” The door opened, just wide enough to admit me.

And there he was, the man of the hour.

“Get any business today?”

Sal shook his head. “Not a bit. How did the thing with the cats go?”

“It went alright. Listen, you got any names you want to nominate for hanging with us?”

Sal shook again. “None that aren’t already doing stuff on their own. But I hear you; this crap is for the birds.”

Maybe I could get one of the rats to cover for us… or would that be sending a signal I didn’t want sent?

“Alright. For now, just get out of here and get some sleep. I’m trying to work out a way to take weekends off. Sleep on it and let me know if you come up with something.”

Sal opened the back and checked it. It was clear. “Alright, sure thing. Have a good night.”

“A nice boring one in all likelihood. Be careful driving home.”

“Sure thing, mom.”

 

 

7.1 or Illusions.

Sal knocked, right on time.

 

“How did the bike do?” I asked as I opened up.

 

He glared at me, offended. “It’s still in one piece. Kind of amazing to think that Les made it, actually.”

 

“I know, right? I’m pretty sure he cheated somehow.” I led the way to the back and the other door.

 

Sal smirked at me as he shut the door. “Oh, he did. But before you ask, I’m not going to tell you how.”

 

“Dick.”

 

“Yup.”

 

I waited for a beat. “Alright, I’m out of here; got to see a lady about a job, then I’ll be headed home. If you need help in the next hour, head cat-ward. Otherwise, just leave.”

 

Sal clapped me on the back hard enough to send me through the back doorway. “Sure, you big worrying softie. Get out of here and do your thing. Don’t forget to get some sleep.”

 

“Later.”

 

There is something fun about leaving out the back, only to go round the front and walk boldly down the street; it confuses watchers for one thing and lends a certain air of recklessness or bravery that was a little at odds with what I was actually feeling.

 

It was a calculated risk though.

 

For now being bold paid off, as once again people watched me to see what I’d do, but did not interfere. Which was good, since all the little things added up. 

 

Normal was an illusion, after all, but an illusion everyone bought into. They had to buy into it to make it work.

 

Of course, things like that also worked in the opposite direction; which was why I soon found myself staring at Emily as if she’d grown a second or even third head. In a way, she had.

 

“You want me to what?”

 

Emily scuffed her shoe on the sidewalk outside the home she was squatting in. A bad habit, that; she would need new shoes before the rest of us. “I want you to fix the floors like I asked before, but I also want you to… I don’t know, armor the place? Fortify it, if you can?”

 

“You know that will be really obvious to see, right?”

 

Emily all but yelled; “Not if you do it inside, like reinforce the walls and stuff!”

 

I looked around. It looked like only the cats were listening in on us for the moment, which was good.

 

“No Emily, you misunderstood. Doing any kind of fortification work is really obvious simply by watching the work being done.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Wow, that crestfallen look. “So what happened?”

 

She looked up but wouldn’t meet my eyes. “This morning you were all ready to strike a bow for normalcy. Now you want new floors and a reinforced house. What changed?”

 

She pointed across the street. At the wolves compound, where they had clearly been busy. The rickety fence between properties had been torn away and was currently being used alongside other less savory looking boards to make a fence around the back of the area. The front walks and driveways had monstrosities that looked almost like extended gates being slapdashed over them.

 

The craftsmanship was terrible, but if they didn’t fall apart no one would be able to see what they were up to. At least from ground level at any rate.

 

How I’d missed that when it was just down the street… I must be more tired than I thought.

 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. That will probably come down in the first big storm.”

 

Those storms were coming, and soon.

 

It didn’t seem to help her. “Alright, fine, I’ll see what I can do without making it obvious. Show me this floor of yours.”

 

“Right, this way.”

 

There were guys everywhere, all trying to look tough, all trying to give me the look. Most couldn’t pull it off. Still, they were annoying to get around.

 

We got to the kitchen, and I could feel the sag the moment we stepped in. No one followed us.

 

“Sorry, they are pretty protective right now.”

 

“I don’t blame them. I see what you mean about the floor. All this stuff is just going to have to come out.”

 

“That bad, huh?” She looked more than a little put out by the news. Was she actually cooking in here somehow or something?

 

“Well the supports might be ok but this wood is pretty damaged and the underflooring might be rotten underneath; there’s just too much give.”

 

“Great. I was kind of hoping we could use this room for something. The guys were hoping we could.”

 

“You can. It’ll take a day or two, but it won’t be that bad,” I raised my voice. “If I can get a little help in here, it won’t take long at all.”

 

Corey chose that moment to pop into the doorway. “You’ll have it, don’t worry. You have the lumber?”

 

“If you have my rate.”

 

He held his hand out and we shook. Then I held my hand out to Emily and with after a moment of hesitation we shook.

 

“I’ll get everything set up, and I’ll start tomorrow, bright and early.” 

 

Corey’s eyes narrowed. “How bright and early?”

 

“As bright and early as I can get away with.”

 

Corey sighed. Emily sighed. A few other people in range sighed. “Alright, I guess the sooner the better. Can we also buy some plywood from you? some extra you might have?”

 

“Sure.” I’d mark it up, but that should be obvious. As long as he didn’t care he could buy whatever from me.

 

To be honest I was confused as to why no one else had made my deal with the wardens; even if everyone else was lazy that didn’t prevent them from buying building materials, or anything else the wardens allowed to be fair.

 

“Alright, business here done, I’ve got to go while the getting is good?”

 

Corey nodded, so I threaded my way around the supposedly intimidating guys and left. I hopped the fence on the other side of the house, found my bike under the correct tree and left. As before I was being followed. As before the watchers did not follow me all the way home.

 

A slight backtrack had me on their trail; whoever it was, they were alone. They must have heard me coming, however. 

 

Merging their trail with a deer trail wasn’t a bad effort – but I was still able to find a footprint or two, right out in plain sight among the deer tracks. They led out into the woods, and a collapsed house.

 

The place was a complete wreck; once a Victorian it was now a pancake, with the roof sitting close enough to the ground for me to jump to it. Somehow the mostly intact roof had collapsed and smashed the walls in such a way as to take the whole house down. And here the trail just dried up; there was no clue where my watcher had bolted from here, neither around the house or in the trees.

 

I took note of where the place was though; this house was well back in the boonies and had no visible road to it, yet whoever was watching for me had gone right to it. Either it was simple luck, or they had known where it was. Given how they vanished, I would assume knowledge. And if they knew beforehand, then how far it was from the cabin (a mere six miles at best) was an issue.

 

An issue for later; I needed sleep for now.

6.5 or Normalcy is overrated.

The bike I was treated to when I woke up, fumbling in the dark of a new moon… was a bike.
 
That was the best that could be said of it; the tires were more patch mess than solid rubber, the frame was a little misshapen and not at all straight, and the gears groaned and clicked alarmingly. I was grateful I couldn’t actually see it more clearly in the bad lighting. 
 
“It’ll hold,” Les rushed to assure me. “Well, all but the tired possibly. Nat and I both tested it, and I know it looks bad, but it held up fine.”
 
“How did you patch the tires, and where did they come from?”
 
“There was a box in a house not far from here that had them, believe it or not. As for how I patched them, well you don’t want to know. I didn’t use your stuff though, I wasn’t sure I wanted to waste an actual patch kit on the things in case they blew out on me.”
 
Well, that was comforting… but I had to admit I’d have been pissed if he’d wasted my patch kit. I stepped up on it as Les lit up a cigarette and it held me without a popping noise. I gave Les another look.
 
“Look, I rode it over a mile, and so did Nat. It’ll hold. And if it doesn’t hold, I made a spare. Just take it with you and replace any flat with that multi-tool you always carry. time’s wasting, and Sal expects you at midnight, so you better get cracking.”
 
There was no doubt; he had planned this. They had planned this between them. “Fine.”
 
I took the food, water, and other assorted fun stuff and placed it in the horribly ratty bike basket tied to the front, stowed the spare tire and pump on top, and set off carrying the ungainly load because no matter what anyone said, I wasn’t riding a bike in the forest in the dark.
 
The night was not as dark as it should have been, given the cover and lighting, but I couldn’t find an extra source of light. The road was downright bright as I stepped into it – was it just my imagination?
 
No, I was trained to notice lighting and how much dark I had to hide in, and there was less of it now than before. Something had changed; I could still hide, but it would be harder.
 
I started off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the moon as it rose. It was beautiful and quiet out and just above chilly; a warning of the season change to come. 
 
The bike did its job and didn’t die, taking me right to the town; I jumped off and left it behind a tree near the road. If anyone can find that in the twenty minutes it was left alone they deserved it. I didn’t see any spotters, but if one stole this p.o.s. more power to them. I took the basket of stuff though; no sense tempting fate.
 
I did my best creeping and ended up at the back door without any real issue. Sure, a few of the watchers spotted me but that’s because I wanted them to; nothing worked better at lulling people into a false sense of security than ‘seeing’ everything.
 
Of course the one person I wanted most of all to notice me took three minutes to answer my coded knock.
 
“You’re early,” Sal commented as he opened the door just wide enough to let me in.
 
I was early – by maybe ten minutes. “Les built me a bike.”
 
Sal let the cigarette drop from his mouth for comedic effect. 
 
“I know. It’s trash, but it worked to get here. You need to trade me out, in case I need to make a fast getaway though. And you’ll need these.” 
 
I handed him the spare tire and the pump. He took one look, then picked up his cigarette up in order to drop it again.
 
“I know, I know. If you get jumped on the way out, come back. Otherwise, business as usual. It worked to get me out here, and you aren’t all that much heavier than I am.”
 
“Right, fine, I know when I’m not wanted. I’m out. It was all quiet on the western front today by the way; no one came by.”
 
Worse than I’d hoped but about what I expected. “Right. Get some sleep and come back around noon?”
 
Sal waved and slipped out the door; I watched him as far as I was able, and no one tried anything. Not that I expected them to; Sal was liked. I was the one people swore vengeance against.
 
No, if anything happened it would be under cover of darkness. I was somewhat grateful for the competing lighting of the street; from the torchlight coming from Al’s to the bright halogens the Wardens were using to light up their compound, there was enough light to ruin night vision from that side. Given the odd lighting effect I noticed coming in, it meant one less direction to watch, and one I could run in if I had to.
 
Unless the wolves were very smart and very brazen. I couldn’t really count on the cats responding, but the wolves didn’t know that; not for sure. I suspected any words to that effect were all lip service, but I could deal with that. Had in fact.
 
A watch was boring when nothing was happening, but the night passed. It was tense, boring or not. 
 
The sun was just peeking into my broken windows when someone walked down the street, clearly heading my way.
 
The surprise was who it was. It was Emily, my bus companion. She strode right up to the door alone and knocked. I could see a few cats skulking around the few remaining shadows though. keeping an eye out. It looked like the only person not aware of the tail was Emily herself; I can’t imagine the wolves missing it.
 
I unlocked the door and let her in. “So, what brings you here?”
 
“Good morning to you too Roy.”
 
I stepped back to let her in. “Good morning. Now, care to tell me what you’re doing here?”
 
She gave me an exaggerated look of feigned ignorance. “Discussing remodeling plans with someone. The floors of the house where I’m living are still spongy and they look like crap. I was hoping you could do something about that.”
 
I could indeed do something about that. And more importantly, I saw what she was doing. Making a bid to force normalcy. It was silly, but something I could use; after all no one else wanted to be the first to break any rules of polite society. Well, usually. A farce, but a useful one as long as it lasted… if people bought into it.
 
“Well, I’m sure I can, but it depends on what you want. Floorboards are hard for me right now, but I can do plywood and braces, and then I can try to order some vinyl locking fake wood from the wardens.”
 
“Or maybe just some paint? Make it look like linoleum? How good are you at painting? I don’t really care that much if it means I can stop feeling like I’m fat enough to break through the floors.” Emily replied with a smile.
 
“My paintings not that good,” I answered her. “But sure. We can figure it out. Shall we discuss what type of wood look you want? I have pine, and pine, and pine.”
 
“Why I think pine will be just lovely, don’t you?” And there it was, another smile.
 
“Alright, that works. I’ll be over later to give it another look. Say, after noon?” If Sal was on time, he would watch the place while I checked. I could play the farce too.
 
“Sure, that sounds good. We’ll be expecting you.”
 
She walked right out without a care in the world; I watched her watchers scramble to stay out of sight with a little amusement as she headed across the street to Al’s. I wondered if anyone would just magically happen down the street in order to help her with her groceries; I hoped so.
 
She was clearly looking to put any unpleasant thoughts of the last few days behind her. I’d do my part, but I doubted it would be that easy.

6.4 or Cloak and dagger.

Sal came to relieve me by mid day. He huffed and puffed his way down the main street and up to the door and took his time getting in once I opened it for him. At least he had my portable cooler; all prepped for the stake-out.
 
I stifled a yawn and threw the bar back across.
 
“Any trouble?” Sal asked.
 
“Some; just some testing of the waters. Nothing too serious.”
 
“Casualties?”
 
“Just some people hurt. Someone almost lost a hand, that sort of thing.”
 
Sal raised an eyebrow and glanced at the nearest window. It wasn’t the correct one. “Wolves or cats?”
 
I headed for the back door. “The wolves. The cats came by later, to help. At least that’s what they said.”
 
“I see. Go get some sleep, I can handle it.”
 
I shook my head. “It’ll be awhile yet; I’m leaving you the bike. One thing you need to know; the rats already evacuated the more expensive stuff; nothing left is worth your life. So if you get pressed too hard, leave it. The rats also have a way through the floor; don’t clean up the dust, sawdust, or any of my other tells, and you won’t get caught flat-footed.”
 
Sal blew a breath but nodded.
 
“Good luck,” I told him as I went out the back. 
 
I wasn’t about to promise I’d be back at nightfall, but I’d try. I didn’t even expect any customers, but we couldn’t leave the shop alone… it would send all the wrong messages.
 
Right now though, I would have more immediate problems. Alone, on foot, and hated. I fully expected to be followed by at least some wolves, and probably beaten if caught. I was sort of surprised they weren’t waiting for me, but perhaps that would draw too much attention.
 
Either way, they would have to catch me first; even tired I was willing to bet I was faster.
 
I needed to go to the junkyard anyway; that would probably throw them off.
 
No, that was stupid. Whatever, I needed to anyway, I might as well just do it. I could always ditch the frames if I needed.
 
The junkyard was still where I’d left it, but finding good bike frames and parts was harder than cars. Finding bike frames of any kind was harder in fact. I settled on a few rusted out frames with some pedals and gears tied to them. I might be able to weld together or brace somehow and then started off, looping away from town and to my highway.
 
I was unmolested the entire way… which was odd. I did have a watcher, but I wasn’t worried about just one person. Of course, my route was known to a certain point and people had time to set an ambush up along it, so I was better off focusing forward. Walking down the side of the road was my best bet; I’d have preferred the road itself but that left me too vulnerable to projectiles.
 
My tail actually stopped an hour into the hike, and no others came forward. I still did the usual misdirections but their lack of follow through saved me a lot of time.
 
“Jesus, you look like hell,” Lester said, popping down from the hide as I passed. “Anyone follow you?”
 
“If they did, they’re better than me. I did have a tail, but they quit at around mile marker five.”
 
Les made a show of looking at my haul. “Hm. You go get some sleep. Tell Natalie to spell me and I’ll see what I can do to get one of those working by the time you need it.”
 
Well, that was thoughtful. And a little frightening. “I’ve got no rubber for the wheels, so I doubt there’s much you can do.” Riding on the rims would just crush the wheels.
 
“I know, I’ll figure something out.”
 
Sure he would. I clapped him on the shoulder regardless. “Good luck.”
 
As soon as I went through the door Natalie said: “You look like hell.”
 
“So I’ve heard.” Natalie was sewing. Sewing a large curtain, it seemed like, out of black cloth I didn’t recognize with a very large needle and a very heavy white thread. It looked industrial to be for industrial use for me.
 
“What are you up to?” I asked her; this was new.
 
“I’m making a shower curtain.” She looked up, almost daring me with her gaze.
 
Whatever; it wasn’t like any of us were going to do anything; even Les was all bark. “That’s what the door is for. Besides, we have one.
 
“I wanted a better one.”
 
….Whatever, it was her time. “Well, front and center to take watch. Les has a project and I need sleep.
 
She stood and saluted smartly. “Sure. Try and get more than a few hours this time.”
 
“Can’t, I’ll need to relieve Sal by midnight, which means I need to leave by nightfall.”
 
Nat stopped, her hand on the door. “You know, you could let one of us do that. We are better rested.”
 
How to answer that? I decided to go with the truth. “I could. It’s not that I don’t trust you or Les. It’s that going into a situation like what’s in town? I don’t trust the skill sets you or Les have to see you through it. It’s bad, and out of all of us I think I’m the only one who can go in and out without running into trouble.”
 
“I see. I guess I better learn quickly then; I don’t trust Les not to get drunk and burn the store down.”
 
“Neither do I, come to think of it. And I’m trusting him with my welder right now. You better go make sure he doesn’t burn the forest down.”
 
“I’ll do that… and Roy? You should clean up a little before you bed down; you’ve got blood on you.”
 
Oh. Whoops. Nat shut the door as I headed to the bathroom, looking for the blood I’d missed.