When I came to I was surrounded by black. I choked down bile as my head throbbed from the blow to the back of my head. I was sticky and felt a pang of remorse when I realized it was queso all over me and not blood. Priorities. It isn’t like queso blanco with green chilies grows on trees. And this was my favorite shirt, it even had my name embroidered on it. The kindly seamstress had given it to me as payment for an extermination job I performed at her shop. Admittedly the rat was the size of a small horse and had taken a chunk of my triceps with it’s foot long incisors. But a gift is a gift and she hand stitched the letters herself. I didn’t even care that it said Gore instead of Gear. The poor dear was deaf in her good ear. The constant jumbling around wasn’t helping my bruised brain as it frantically sent signals to my stomach to purge. I took a deep breath and counted to ten. I was in a trunk.
The last thing I remembered was headlights coming to stop right in front of me. Then a voice said something and I felt myself falling. The constant stabbing in my head made thinking difficult enough without trying to push my consciousness out to see who was driving. If they wanted me dead they could have just shot me on the spot. Silence knows they would not have been the first to have that thought. So logic said they wanted me alive. My list of enemies and general all around people that disliked me seemed to grow everyday. But the bulk of them would not bother to capture me. My hands were bound, tight enough that my fingers tingled pins and needles. I patted my pocket and was surprised to find I could feel the credstick and my phone in my front pocket. I wiggled about and was able to get my phone to fall out and when I pressed the power button it illuminated the trunk of a slab. I brought up the dialer and called the bar but didn’t want to put it on speaker for fear of whoever was driving hearing.
I slid the phone up my chest and when I heard Brad’s voice quickly said, “Somebody clocked me and through me in a trunk. Driving. Head injury. Trace phone. Cannot talk. Help.”
“Gear? You’re breaking up. What’s going on?”
“In trunk. Need help.”
“A skunk? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Help. Help. Help.”
“I don’t understand a thing you are saying. Call me back when you have better reception. If it is a skunk, tomato sauce will get rid of the smell. Good luck buddy.”
And he hung up. I was gnashing my teeth in anger. I tried to call again but wherever we had travelled to the signal was too weak to connect. Explains why they didn’t take the phone, they knew it would be next to worthless. I felt the slab slow down and eventually stop and tried to stuff my phone back into my pocket. This is just great. I laid back and decided to wait it out. Not like there was much choice. I felt the suspension shift and heard the doors of the slab open and some muffled talking outside. I strained to hear the voices, trying to muffle the pounding in my skull through sheer will power.
“… awake … heard… dangerous…”one of them was saying. I assumed he was referring to me.
Another voice chimed in, still muddied by shit trunk lid and near unintelligible, “… stories… Pride … alive… gas…”
I didn’t much care for the snippets I was getting. The Pride and gas? None of this was making any sense to me. They seemed to be moving farther away from the slab and the voices all but vanished. Worst case scenarios raced through my mind. I don’t know how long I was out. I hadn’t paid much attention to the time while Tommy and I chatted it up. If he closed shop at midnight and my phone had said it was almost one in the morning we could have driven for near forty five minutes in any direction. At this late hour traffic would be light, it was always pretty light as so few people bothered with vehicles of their own with the trams always running. I hadn’t driven in the nine years I had been this deep into the Eastside. I didn’t know anyone except for higher ups in the various corporations and Pride that did. Worse comes to worse and you called up for an AI taxi or shuttle service. Those things were a credit drain though and susceptible to hackers.
Last year a group of travelling dignitaries from the Chicago City State were high jacked and had to pay an exorbitant fee to be released. The Great Lakes was a dangerous place, or so the rumors went, but they ran with their tails between their legs back to the sub-orb home the minute they were free. Literally. Three of them were bo-mods and had some severe gene splicing done. That kind of thing was more prevalent up North where there was a more liberal view on body modifications. As advanced as The City had become, it was still in what remained of Texas, and certain things were still not widely accepted. I think it is because there were enough mutants from the Troubled Times. We have enough abnormalities roaming the streets, myself first and foremost, and it just hasn’t caught on. Yet. There are pockets here and there but not enough to be a movement. The general consensus seems to believe that we are nearly over run with monsters as is, any more and the entire place would reach a tipping point. I disagree, but the days of vocal minorities left when the Corps took control. One day, once we whittle down the imbalance in power things will change. I just don’t know if it’ll be in my lifetime. Which, if the few words I heard outside were to be believed, seemed precariously close to being over soon.
“Mr. Dreary, are you awake in there?” someone said. I had two choices, answer or play opossum.
I’m not all that bright though. I coiled my legs towards the trunk lid, ready to strike out and answered, “You owe me a dozen tamales. And to get the stains out of my shirt. Let me out and I’ll have my lawyer draw up a bill.”
“Gas him,” came the terse reply.
And I heard the sounds of the said gas begin to flood the trunk. I took a big gulp of air and held it as I waited for the lid to open. Spots began to dance at the edge of my vision and did nothing to alleviate the hammer pounding metal in my skull. Should’ve played dead, I decided as my traitorous body was making the decision to breathe the tainted air deeply in my lungs. I fought it off as long as I could. And just when I couldn’t take another second I heard the lock disengage and a crack of light as the trunk started open. I kicked as hard as I could and heard a satisfying Oomph as the trunk lid made contact with the poor bastard opening it.
I would like to say I was impressive as hell as I sprang out of the slab. In my head I would use the momentum and surprise to quickly get my legs under me and jump out. The thing is, my hands were still tied together and I was still surrounded by gas.
Instead what happened was I fumbled for a few seconds and took a gulp of air. Then I managed to fall out of the trunk onto the concrete face first. I felt my nose collapse and saw a boot rear back and as it impacted my ribs I was out again. Mercifully, the kick I was sure would crack a rib or six was not something I would have to deal with immediately. I’m lucky like that.
As my consciousness faded in a coppery spray down my face I heard some say, “Very impressive. Foolish, but I respect the attempt.” And a flash of golden eyes not far from my own rapidly unfocusing eyes as the boot was flying towards me. Lucky me. Shit.
It wasn’t a dream as much as it was a memory I found myself in. I was aware of the trunk and gas in the rational part of my brain. The part that was screaming this was just a dream. Also the part I was ignoring. I was hanging by my wrists from the ceiling. My shoulders screaming in agony as the chain keeping me suspended swung me helplessly back and the forward into the waiting fist. I closed my eyes from the blow I knew was coming. I didn’t need to see to know that it was Rocky, the self styled fourth capo of The Pride, who was about to hit me. He had been doing it on repeat for the last couple days. Between the fact my shoulders were nearly popping out of their sockets and the human piñata act I was performing, part of me hoped this next blow would knock me out or kill me.
It wouldn’t. Not for a while yet. I remember clearly that this goes on for a long time. And then it gets bad. See, Rocky was pissed off at me. He felt I had disrupted the natural order of things by daring to step up to him and his gang. Not The Pride themselves, but his personal gang. The Pride is really three groups under one banner. The real power was Leo and his gang, the Lions. Next came Cortney and his crew known affectionately as the Wolves. Poor little pissant Rocky was bottom of the pecking order. He and his Squirrels were low level at best, bottom feeders by birth.
But that is the funny thing about lycanthropy. Even the bottom feeders are inherently stronger than a normal person by no small margin. Yes, they are all lycanthropes and their gang designation is also the form they take on. But Gear, you’re wondering, how scary can squirrel be? Pretty Silence thrice damned scary. Scary enough you can use a word like thrice and no one blinks an eye. Back before the Collapse and the Troubled Times, I read that squirrels were small rodents that lived in trees and collected nuts for the winter. They didn’t thrive in the new world order quite as well. Add on the fact that a seven foot tall squirrel with an innate strength and penchant for dishing out violence with a human level intelligence and you had a nightmare instead of a cute little rodent. You had a beast. A monster from horror stories. One that held a grudge and disliked his place in the world. Rocky is their alpha. When he changes from his not unimpressive ripped muscular frame into a seven foot ruthless creature with added agility, strength and stamina you have a force to deal with.
I didn’t intend to start anything with the Pride. Not yet. There was payback to be had one day for sure. But I knew I wasn’t prepared for that kind of fight. But I was hired for a job by a guy who had discovered someone was stealing from his warehouse. His security had proven to be subpar and he asked me to take a look and figure out how they were getting in and out unnoticed with his merchandise. I had developed a reputation as someone who got the job done. It wasn’t always pretty and I didn’t always do it alone but at the end of the day I got results. The camera watched the entrances and exits of the building, interior and exterior. So I camped inside the warehouse to try and figure out how they were coming and going. The only way I could figure was through either the skylight, which was fifty feet up in the air or there was a secret tunnel.
I spent three nights in the warehouse. If there was a secret entrance I couldn’t find it and I was thorough in my search. The third night I hid myself on one of the racks with a clear view of the skylight. These old buildings, the ones not destroyed in the battles over The City, had glass sections built into the roofs with a large section that would pivot open. Fans, giant industrial types, we’re on the ceiling to help create an airflow that sucked the hot air out. It went itself to the appearance of cooling the building even though they didn’t seem to actually do much. But on that night the opened pane of glass showed a different purpose as three large shadows with big fluffy tails crawled in. I shrunk back into shadows and watched them easily make their way down the opening and scurry with little effort to the floor.
Of all the things I had suspected, mainly that the owner was behind the thefts but brought me in to help cover his tracks, giant fucking squirrels wasn’t on the list. A lot of seemingly disparate pieces fell into place as I watched. First, the thieves must be part of Pride. Second, I now understood not only the animal names for the three factions but where they got them. Fourth, I was in deep shit and totally out my league here. So I tried to remain invisible as the three picked through and grabbed the loot they we’re after.
The next morning the owner arrived to discover he had been robbed yet again. And worse, the guy he hired to check it out had been in the warehouse when it happened. I knew what it would sound like if I tried to explain that three giant squirrels were behind the burglaries. So I didn’t. I showed him the vid of the robbery I had captured on the cameras I had secretly placed through out the building. I tried to plan this out ahead of time. That was the missing third, plan accordingly and everything would play out. We were both flabbergasted, a word you can use when you are distinctly flummoxed. And the vid of three giant squirrels was both flummoxing and flabbergasting at one singular instance.
The owner took a thumb drive with the vids to the police who reacted with much the same level of disbelief we felt. They tried to laugh it off but forensic went through the footage with a very fine brush looking for signs of editing. Of course there was none. But they found something interesting about one of the squirrel monsters. It had a deformed right forearm that ended in a claw of sorts of mangled flesh. Exactly the same as a known member of the Pride. He was brought in for questioning, along with ten other members of the gang, including Rocky himself. Of course since they were in human form and didn’t change into rodents while in custody, they were released after a couple days of interrogation by the police.
In a matter of hours the news broke across the net and holovids showing the footage of what could only be described as mutant squirrels. They went viral. Suddenly the rumors that had floated around the City of lions and wolves weren’t so crazy. More and more insane tales began to circulate of reptilian men that roamed the sewers as well, affectionately referred to as Dragons. But even with proof of giant squirrels some things were still going to far to be believed. And The Pride was not happy about this new illumination into their inner workings at all.
My eyes were wide open though. The night my parents died I told the police that I heard a giant cat and saw the flicker of emerald eyes in the darkness. They were understandably doubtful about the recollection of a fifteen year old who just suffered a catastrophic loss. Hell, I didn’t trust my own memories of the night. But now it was all laid out in front of me clear as day. Not only was there a more than likely chance that a giant cat, no, a lion had been responsible. I always knew it was The Pride but I could never rectify what I had seen with the official report.
Before I could get over excited about my new understanding of what had happened. What had led me here in the first place things began to go South. The owner of the warehouse was found laid out in the center of his warehouse minus his heart. Clearly he was savaged by a giant animal with razor sharp claws. The entire City knew it had been The Pride sending a message that they were aware their secret was out. And they didn’t care. They ran the Eastside and nothing would change that fact. Their message was received. But only the victim and the police were aware of my involvement in the sudden breaking news. The only person I talked to besides the dead man was Brad and he didn’t really count. Even if he may or may not have leaked the footage anonymously to the net.
Imagine my surprise as I was walking back to the bar after a trip to the coffee shop and three gleaming chrome lined slabs came from seemingly out of nowhere to surround me. As Rocky stepped out and the other members of his crew joined him I figured that this was the end of Gear Dreary.
“Mr. Dreary, Gear I do believe. We’re gonna need you to come with us if you don’t mind,” Rocky said with a grin.
“You caught me at bad time sir,” I replied, “I am on my way to work and if I’m late again my boss said he would fire me.”
“Oh yeah? That’s funny Gear, mind if I call you Gear? Doesn’t matter. See, your boss told me all about you right before I ripped his heart out of his chest late last night. I’m sure he won’t even notice when you miss your shift tonight. Now your friend Brad? I don’t have any issues with him at all, but my boys are hanging out in his dirty little bar right now. If you don’t come along with us for a little chat right now they are ready to burn the building to the ground.”
“Umm, I don’t know any Brad. There has been some kind of misunderstanding here.”
Rocky smiled, it was a cold kind if smile that never reached his gray eyes. He reached into his pocket and handed his phone to me.
“Hello?” I said, desperately trying to figure out how to play this. To find an angle to spin this and maybe survive the night.
“Gear. I’m sorry. They came in and ran everybody off. They have some kind of jammer device and I can’t access any of my defenses. I’ve got a backup though so don’t worry about me. And the bar is insured. Run Gear! Get out of there now! I’ll f…” the line went dead. I tensed up and was about to try and bolt when one of them hit me in the stomach. I bent over as the air was driven from my lungs. Not so gentle hands tossed me into the back seat of one of the slabs.
Rocky got in beside me and chuckled as he shook his head. “We didn’t want to involve Brad. He is an old soul and has the talent to make our lives, difficult let’s say. But he’ll get over it, ain’t like you’re the first fragile human he has known that died. Sure you won’t be the last.”
With a quickness I did not expect I felt his fist spam into my face before I even realized he was going to swing. I spat blood onto the floor board and chuckled myself.
“Liked that huh? Well boy, you are gonna love what comes next.” His laughter filled the slab as I tried to figure out a way to get out of this situation.
Days later, as I hung from the ceiling, Rocky continued his promise all over my body. He went so far as to beat me to the edge of death and then brought in a chop shop doc to stitch me up and halfway heal me. And then he would start all over. Each healing was slightly less effective but I was the only one who showed any concern about that little point.
“Doc, do me a favor,” I said as he was shooting me up with one of his concoctions. “Kill me. I don’t want that squirrel fuck getting the satisfaction.
The doc looked at me in shock and shook his head no vigorously. But he did something odd I didn’t understand. He surreptitiously took a swab of my inner cheek and slid it into a glass tube he hid in his jacket pocket. He mouthed an apology and left as quickly as he had come. I couldn’t imagine the retainer he was earning but he seemed to show up minutes after they called him. Bastard. How hard would it be to stick a needle into my arm shoot me up with an air bubble.
I had lost all track of time as I swung and prayed for death. Minutes felt like hours as they took turns beating me to the brink of death. They did worse than just beat me, they broke me. Of all the loss in my life to this point I had always kept a sliver of hope, something to cling to during the lowest dark places. But here, in this filthy dilapidated building in the City I loved. I lost that spark. The only end for me was death and it wasn’t coming fast enough. I didn’t have it in me to fight. No witty come backs. It took the joy of the beatings from the Squirrels as well.
Rocky noticed and reveled in my defeat. He got right into my face and bloated and I couldn’t even gather enough to spit in his face. He had expected it and when it didn’t come he actually looked disappointed in me. Join the club buddy. “Leo was pissed at your little game Gear. You ruined his little surprise. Did you know the damage you did to his plans? No, you were just a dumb fuck with dumb luck. Just couldn’t mind your own business. Oh man Gear, I gotta be honest with you pal, I have never seen the boss lose his shit like he did when that footage hit the net,” he turned to the goons around him, “Right boys?” A look of fear crossed their faces at that. It sent chills down my spine.
“Yeah, I see it on your face. You get what I’m saying. Well, Leo wanted the person responsible to pay for all the damage. Lucky for us when old Wally broke and told us all about you and your little cameras. See, Leo demanded blood for this, oh shit, what’s the word he used?” he looked around the group for help.
A smaller member stepped forward a bit and sheepishly said, “Transgression, he said blood for this heinous transgression.”
“Yes, that’s it. Thanks Petey. Your anus transgression.” Petey looked ready to correct him but thought better and just bit his lip. “And the choice of who paid was either you or me. Well it ain’t gonna be me or any of my boys that pay for you being nosey and sticking your dumbass where it don’t belong. I’m sure you understand Gear. I’m not gonna lie and act like I didn’t enjoy beating the shit out of you. I did. Loved it if I’m being honest with you. Not too many reggies can take a beating like you have. Hell, I was almost impressed. Even asked Leo if I could make you one of us. But sadly my friend, he said no. That I was to continue beating your ass until he decided, and only then, that you could die. Petey, call the doc. Old Gear is looking kind of rough and we got some more fun ahead of us,” with that he turned to leave.
“Be seeing you soon Gear. Rest up buttercup it just gets worse from here you poor bastard,” his laughter echoing as the door closed behind him.
I was so screwed. And didn’t really care. It was all so pointless. I just let my head hang and waited for the fun to begin as exhaustion took me into the black.
“Mr. Dreary. Ahem, Hear can you hear me?” It was the doctor here to fix me up for my next round of pain. I managed to spit in his face, a thick bloody wad of phlegm that hit him on the cheek. He looked like he was going to throw up and quickly wiped his face with an antiseptic wipe from his pocket. “I understand you are angry with me. I do. But please believe me now, I am going to get you out of this.” He looked at me with wide eyes imploring me to believe him.
“Coward. Lying coward. Tell Rocky I’m not going to fall for his lies,” I painfully croaked.
He leaned in closer and whispered into my ear, “I swear to you, by the Silence itself, I am going to get you out of here.”
I actually believed him. “How?”
He looked around and then said with a smile, not unlike the one Rocky had had. “Why, I’m going to kill you of course.”
I just nodded. Fine. What did it matter now? I was not just broken mentally. My entire body was a mass of fractures and swelling. His treatments were barely keeping me together. He reached into his black bag and pulled out a long syringe and filled it with a clear liquid. The monitor they had rigged to watch my heart rate sped up with pings and the I saw the waveform spike rapidly. He stuck it into my neck and everything got heavy, heavier, and as the world faded I saw the waveform grow fainter and fainter. The last thing I heard was it’s alarm sound and then sweet death took me.
A splash of cold water brought me back to consciousness. I tried to jump back from the offending sensation but the restraints around my arms and legs had me secured to a metal chair. The pulsating waves of agony from my nose and the back of my head combined with every breath sending nausea through me in a near constant thrum. Yellow eyes. That was the last image burnt into my mind.
I looked around, eager to take my mind off of pain and the need to purge the tamales from my system. I tested the ropes and found them to be secured rather tightly. The chair was solid and had been anchored to the concrete floor. I gave a couple sways but there was no give to any of it. Great. What does it say about a guy who hasn’t had a date in five years but always finds himself tied up and awaiting a beat down? Is there an inner part of me that is just into this kind of thing? Some deep seated fetish for abuse? The idea of working at Tommy’s shack was sounding better and better by the second. At least then I could just pay for this kind of treatment like a normal person.
My mild thrashing alerted my captors to my state of awakening I guess. A six foot tall black guy in a nicely tailored suit walked in front of me. I had seen his face a million times online but this was our first face to face meeting.
I gave him a big grin, “Well now, nice to finally meet you Cortney. I thought that trunk smelled like wet dog.”
He cocked his head at me and stared daggers. Then he shook his head and a faint smile briefly showed itself. “Gear Dreary. The pleasure is all mine. You’ve become quite the little folk hero around the Eastside. So many stories about how you help out people in need, a modern day Phlegm Hardly saving lives and sticking it to the Man. I have to say, I respect what you do out there. I really do.”
I laughed at that. “The only problem is you and your gang are the Man.”
He gave a nod at that. “That is definitely an issue. But just because we are on different sides doesn’t mean that I cannot respect your game. The best rivalries are built on mutual admiration,” he said.
I’ll be damned, he isn’t what I expected from the whispers that swirled around him. I don’t know what I expected from the man known as the Butcher of Pleasant Grove. “Shame it has to be mutual then. You want to get me my food and the creds for the cleaning now or are we going to make out first?”
“Now that is the Gear I have heard so much about. Big mouth and unable to keep it quiet. Respect only gets you so far though. I am here to talk but there is nothing that says I have to listen as well. I have no issue with breaking you jaw Gear. Remember that.”
“Umm, only my friends call me Gear, Cortney or do you prefer Butcher?”
He looked about to make good on breaking my jaw for a second or two. I have that affect on people. It’s a talent of sorts.
“Okay then, Mr. Dreary. My boss has a job for you. I understand there has been some, call it friction, between our organization and you for some time now. He is willing to let it all go to the way side if you can complete this task for us.”
“I would love to but I am kind of already doing this thing. Tell Leo thanks for thinking of me though. I can schedule him for next week sometime. Maybe a grooming, shampoo his coat for him. I k ow this guy with industrial grooming shears…”
I was expecting the punch but not the strength behind it. I let out a sharp wheeze, if such a thing is possible.
“I can try for this weekend. Paint his claws, buff the pads of his paws…”
Was ready for that one too. Damn he was strong. His eyes, a deep brown flashed yellow And I decided to stop goading him for a minute to catch my breath.
“You done? Good. I didn’t want to have to hit you. I wanted this to be a polite conversation. Make a beneficial business arrangement and drop you off at home. Let’s try this one more time with the understanding that I will most likely kill you if you don’t agree to the terms presented. Okay”
I nodded affirmative. He meant it, that much was obvious. A part of me was even starting to like him. The part that hated him was way bigger, but there was a thread of not quite pure loathing. I choked that down and let him continue.
“We need you to find someone for us Mr. Dreary. And it is a sensitive issue we need handled quietly and efficiently.”
I nodded. This was odd. “Who?”
“A girl. Her name is Rachael. Rachael Faust.”