The desert is a great place to dump bodies. There are scavengers out here, vicious birds that are too sensitive to smog to come into the city, but look for meals in great wheels over miles. They live solitary lives, have their own territories far spread out, and they stalk. Their beaks are sharp, made for ripping up whatever’s left of carcasses. They’re ugly fuckers, in Slick’s opinion. He never did like birds, of one kind or another. They’re trouble.
Trouble, but of occasional use. Nothing gets rid of a corpse like the wasteland; dries ‘em out, wears at their features, lets the animals take a turn. No digging necessary. Just leave the coffin stuffers out to bake. Not to mention every exile has a special fear of being stranded, alone and unprepared, out in the big sandbox. Starvation and dehydration and bitter loneliness will do that to people.
It’s no different for the Crew. They look at the desert like an unsavory business partner: Necessary, but something to be wary of. Time can’t erase the memory of Boxcars (Brute, back in those days) dropping and not getting back up, Droll too dry to so much as sniffle for him. The raid on the camp after Dignitary’s spear broke and he ripped another former-Dersite apart with his hands, and only commented on how distastefully warm blood was. There are a lot of memories, a lot of bad ones, that ultimately went into forging the Crew. Derse introduced them, Midnight City made them legends, but the desert made them.
They don’t take for granted something that can turn out weapons of that caliber.
Team Sleuth doesn’t forget, either, because each of them was alone, and that was so much worse.
Trunks are naturally uncomfortable places to be, but three grown men shoved into a trunk is suffocating. In a big black car with the sun shining in a cloudless sky, the Inspector had gone ahead and passed out. His head slumps against Sleuth’s shoulder, bouncing limply with every bump, long legs curled against Ace, who was chloroformed to keep that ridiculous strength stat from breaking any bonds he was put in. Sleuth is a bit worried about that. People shouldn’t be this unconscious for this long. His own head swims, and keeps him from figuring his way out of this jam. All he thinks, over and over, is, It’s never gone this far.
They aren’t the Felt. They shouldn’t get this kind of treatment. Alright, maybe they busted up a couple of Crew operations. Maybe they fed some information to the police. Maybe they’ve been getting in the way more than usual. Maybe.
Didn’t sloppy makeouts up against alley walls mean anything to a guy anymore?
The windows in the car proper stay closed. Any air that would blow in would be hot. They’ve known that for a long time. They’re experienced at this, same way they are at bank robberies and running rackets. They are Professionals, capital P. (Usually.) Droog sits in the back with long legs spread out across the back seat, ankles crossed. Clubs is sitting behind Slick’s seat, where leg room is not an issue. Boxcars puts his feet up on the dash on the passenger side, his seat all the way back, romance pulp in hand.
Slick drives. He doesn’t fly like the crazy bat out of hell he is, not out here. Nor does he bitch. The car is silent--no radio, no conversation. It’s tense, muffled, oppressive. It isn’t always like this. They’re usually keyed up, laughing, making enough noise to further terrify whatever poor soul landed himself in their trunk. Today, mum is the word. Clubs thinks it has to do with the guys riding in the back-back. Sometimes, he isn’t as stupid as everyone thinks he is.
They drive for two hours before anyone makes much of a sound.
“I think we’re far enough,” Droog announces.
“No. Fuck you. If we’re doing this, we’re doin’ it. Now ain’t the time t’bitch out.”
“I’m not ‘bitching out.’ I think we’re far enough. You’ve been doing at least forty. Seventy, on better road.”
“We still got half a fuckin’ hour. You know how this shit works.”
The silence is worse, after that. Droog doesn’t give orders often, he isn’t the leader, he doesn’t want to be. That just makes his few solid inputs good as law. He makes Slick listen. When he doesn’t, there is something wrong. There is something wrong, now, and everyone can feel it. They feel it for the next half hour spent driving deeper into the sand.
Sleuth doesn’t realize he went out right along with his pals until he wakes up. The first thing he figures out is that the car has stopped. The second thing is Pickle Inspector woke up, and managed his way out of the complex knots they used to keep him tied. If that were Dick, they would be in good shape. They could come out swinging. If Pickle comes out swinging, he’ll die with a broken hand.
“We have stopped,” he whispers.
“Yeah, got that. Dick been awake yet?”
“N-no. No...really. He had m-moved, a, a little.”
“Better than nothing. Least he’s still alive.”
Pickle inspector made a small sound that Sleuth absolutely refused to hear as ‘who knows how long that will last?’
All three of them flinched when the lid popped, squinting in blinding sunlight against the black-on-black silhouettes created by their hosts. Boxcars grabs Ace, hauls him up out of the trunk first, and unwinds Pickle like a limp noodle from on top of Sleuth. Droog’s claws grab his lapels and get Sleuth out in the air with the rest of his Team. Slick leans on the Horse Hitcher nearby. They don’t have shovels. That’s good, Sleuth is pretty sure that’s good.
“Hey, Slick,” he calls, and smiles.
“Sleuth.” It’s a huff, from under an angry face and the wide brim of the boss’s hat.
Droog drops him, but Sleuth finds his feet again, between Pickle and Ace Dick, right where he belongs. The strongest man in the world (a title he dukes it out with HB for) is just starting to come around like a newborn bull. They pose like prisoners, because shit is a little bit beyond real at this point. This is some high-definition reality they are dealing with.
“We did try to warn you.” Droog stands back by the car with Slick, Boxcars standing with hands in his pockets as a barrier just in case, and Clubs poking his head out of an open door.
“I’m s-sorry,” Inspector whimpers. Even his friends cringe a little.
“No one wants t’hear yer cryin’, twiggy.”
“It does appear to be a tad too late for that.” Droog regards his cigarette case, lights one, closes it and puts it back in his jacket. When he looks up, there isn’t any regret in narrow white eyes.
“So. So, what? You shoot us, leave us out here?”
“Half’a that’s dead-on.” Slick takes it when Droog hands him the cigarette he was
smoking. “Y’could’a just stayed the fuck outta our business. We told ya. We told ya more’n once. Yeah, Droog? I know I ain’t the only one that gave that little speech.”
“Several times,” Droog agrees.
Pickle shivers and whines again. “I’m s-sorry.”
“That shit grates on my nerves.” The growling words are only between Slick and his second, and the former-Dignitary nods.
“Be quiet now, Inspector. I believe you’re being lectured.”
There is something generally insulting to the concept of dignity about the way the lanky detective crumples.
“We ain’t got a choice here. Well, we do. We got choices. Shitload’a choices. Could let HB work you over. Or Droog. Or anyone else works for us. We could truss ya up an’ put ya in the river. Put two in yer heads while yer sleepin’. But we ain’t. We’re out here.”
Sleuth squints. It’s partially the sun, partially in confusion, and partially because three-fourths of the Crew are squinty bastards themselves and imitating the other party is a good tool in diplomacy. “Yeah. We are sure out here, alright. How far, d’you think? You know. At a guestimate.”
“Pretty fuckin’ far.”
“Over one hundred miles,” Droog clarifies.
Sleuth whistles, but it doesn’t quite come out. “Well. Huh.”
“Don’t suppose you’re going to give us any water?”
“We ain’t exactly the fair-play type, Sleuthie. Doin’ ya more than deserved just doin’ things this way. You don’t get shit. Have fun walkin’, fuckers.”
“Come on. Do we really need to do this, guys? We’re going to get back to the city. We can stay out of your way.”
“Neither one is for certain. So, yes, we need to do this.” When Droog speaks, Slick gives a nod, to no one in particular. They’re feeding off of each other, Sleuth can tell. Maybe sloppy makeouts do count for something. Tea parties seem to count for a little something, too. Their luck was pushed about as far as it was going to go, then.
“P-please d-don’t leave us here.”
“Shhhh.” Instead of a harsher reprimand, Droog shooshes the Inspector.
“N-no, please, w-we don’t--Ace is d-drugged. I’m--we w-won’t make it b-back. P-please.”
“Let’s go.” Slick gives the word, and the Crew flows back toward the car. Moving together is natural for them, like a pack.
Pickle reaches out for Droog’s suit before he can get in the car. Black fingers close around a snow-white, stick-thin wrist, and squeeze.
“No.” There is a gasp when he squeezes harder. “No, Inspector.”
He drops Pickle’s hand, and there are no further attempts. The doors close, the car
starts, and Sleuth throws himself in front of it, one hand on the hood. All attention is on him, just for a moment.
“Thanks for the sporting chance, fellas! Top-notch, class-act. Just leavin’ like this.”
Slick blares the horn in his face long enough to make him back away, and then guns it out of there. They don’t take note of the long knife Sleuth jammed through the front grill, just the detective as he shouts and is left in the literal dust. The Crew disappears behind a dune. It is midday, with the sun’s harshest rays coming down and radiating back up. They are over one hundred (~100) miles from the city.
Sleuth watches Dick try not to vomit between the heat and whatever’s still in his system, watches Pickle sit with his head between his knees, and asks himself one question:
What will you do?