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The White Mountains

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Tall, bristly weeds crowded the entrance around the house. Lanterns hung from the porch roof, casting shadows over the carved wooden birds that decorated the walls. A rock path wove through the grasses and shrubs. Kobra Kid followed the path to the front door, then knocked and folded his arms. He waited a few minutes, but nothing happened.

Party Poison leaned over him and knocked on the door. “Hello?” he said. “It’s Party Poison and Kobra Kid. We’re here for the delivery.”

Voices sounded inside the house. Suddenly footsteps pounded up to the entrance, and the door burst open. Kobra jumped back. A girl wearing a coat of rabbit skins stood in the doorway, her frizzy blonde hair puffed around her head like dandelion seeds. A watering can dangled from her hand.

“Hey,” she said. “You the delivery boys?”

“Yeah, that’s us,” Kobra said.

“All right. Cool.”

She turned and gestured for them to come inside. They followed her into a wide-open space piled with dusty boxes and crates, stacks of books, and musty furniture. Wide glass windows on the back wall revealed the towering grasses, shrubs, and trees outside. Light filtered through the tree branches, casting dappled shadows over the room.

Juniper perched on the armrest of a couch crammed with stacks of magazines. A woman with a lined face and straight, brittle hair was squeezed between two stacks, flipping through a magazine that was so old and dusty the pages crackled. When she saw the brothers, her face cracked into a smile.

“Well, hello there,” White Fir said. She grabbed a cane that leaned against the table and shakily climbed to her feet. “We’ve got some news for you, I’m afraid. Your boss probably isn’t going to like it.”

Shit, Kobra thought. “What is it?” he said.

Juniper flipped backward and did a handstand on the floor, her feet pointing straight up in the air. “We’re selling to the White Mountains,” she said from the ground. Her voice was slightly strained.

“June, stop doing that,” White Fir said. “Yes, we’re selling to the White Mountains now. We’re still willing to pay you for the delivery, if that’s all right with you. They just gave us a much better offer.”

“Wait–the White Mountains?” Kobra said. “That old building next to the border?”

“They converted it,” Juniper said from the floor. Her arms were shaking from exertion. “They’re buying food there now.”

“June, stop doing that. Yes, they’re buying food now. We just got a call this morning.”

The brothers exchanged looks. “Look,” Poison said. “I know you guys got a better offer, but–” He laughed humorlessly. “Chow Mein’s going to be pretty pissed. He and Cherri have been waiting on this deal all week.”

“I know,” White Fir said. “I understand that, but when we get a better offer, we have to take it. This house isn’t free. We’ve got to be able to heat it through the winter.”

Kobra sighed and nodded. “I understand that,” he said. “We’ll do the delivery, because we need the money, too, but–Chow Mein’s probably not going to work with you again after this.”

“We’ll survive,” Juniper said in a wavering voice. Then she pitched forward and hit the floor with a thud. She climbed to her feet, stretched out her arms like a dancer, and hurried off to the back room.

After strapping the crate of amole bulbs into the backseat, the brothers started for the White Mountains. The sun was starting to set by the time they reached the building. It was shaped like a half-oval, with white mountains painted on the front wall like jagged teeth. As Kobra hauled the crate inside, he felt like he were stepping into a giant mouth.

A girl in a bright yellow jacket sat behind the desk, chewing on a root. The building was dull khaki, with rickety metal shelves and ancient dust in the corners. An old clock hung over the shelves with both hands pointed at the 12. Aside from a disintegrating calendar and a faded military map, the walls were bare.

The girl looked up, then took the root from her mouth and spread her arms. “Heeey,” she said. “It’s Party and the Kid!”

Kobra laughed as he hefted the crate on the desk. “Hey,” he said. “We’ve got a delivery from White Fir and Juniper. They live up in Goldenrod.”

“I know who they are,” she said. As she sorted through the shiny white bulbs, the stringy grasses rustling, Kobra stepped back and surveyed the shelves. A few jars of preserved vegetables sat next to a box of potatoes. On the bottom shelf were five gallon jugs of water. The water was so clear that Kobra wondered if they had filtered it through a purifier.

“Are you guys selling this stuff?” Poison said

“We’re selling it to shopkeepers,” the girl said. She counted the bulbs, then scribbled something on a sheet of paper. “We buy it from the farmers, clean it, peel it, scrape off the mold, whatever, and call the shops and let them know what’s available.”

“Oh yeah?” Poison said.

“We’re trying to even things out a little,” the girl said. “You know they were getting scurvy up in Zone Three because they didn’t have enough fruit.” She jammed the bulbs back in the crate and tucked the paper inside. “And, you know, some shopkeepers have so much while others have so little,” she said in a light voice.

The brothers exchanged looks. “Is that so,” Poison said lightly.

“We just want to make sure everyone gets what they need,” the girl said. She stood up and hefted the crate onto one of the back shelves. “Did they already pay you guys for delivery?”

“Yeah, they paid us,” Kobra said.

“Great.” She flopped back down in the chair. It creaked under her weight. “If you guys ever want to work with us, call W9XQ. We’re going to be putting out an ad in the radio soon, so listen for that.”

“Yeah. Got it. Thank you.”

When the brothers headed outside, the sun glowed orange behind the mountains. Dim evening light glinted off the Trans Am’s hood. Kobra climbed into the driver’s seat and switched on the engine, Poison sitting down beside him. The evening light was bluish through the windshield.

“Well, that sounded like a huge fucking scam,” Kobra said.

Poison laughed as they pulled out onto the road. “Yeah,” he said, scratching his hair. “That place is going to get raided in a couple of weeks. They’re going to try to pull this with one of the big gangs, and the whole thing’ll fall apart.”

Once again, our first sponsor is the White Mountains,” Dr. Death broadcasted. “Run by the Lemonade gang, Aidy, Citrus, and Sourball. Not Sourball the magazine, mind you. If you’ve got crops from your little gardens that you’ve been growing all year, call them at W9XQ and they’ll give you a fair price. And if you’re a shopkeeper–which is about a dozen of you, last time I checked–give them a call and they’ll hook you up with a batch of supplies. Everybody gets the same shit for the same price, more or less.

Cherri Cola wiped his dusty, sweaty hands with a towel, then hefted another box out of the closet. Dust motes swirled in a shaft of light through the motel window. Thick, muggy air hung in the room. As he sorted through the jumble of empty containers–bottles, yellow glass ash trays, crystal dishes, plastic containers–Dr. Death’s voice crackled from the radio on the dresser.

Next up is Cool Blue from North Waterfall,” Dr. Death said. “He got his hands on a water purifier a couple of years ago, and he’s been getting you kids fresh water ever since. Just take a jug or a bottle over to him with a couple of carbs…

Cherri sighed to himself. He grabbed a flashlight from the bedside table, flicked it on, and shined it on a metal shelf in the back of the closet. Three dusty glass jars of preserved vegetables. One gallon jug of water. He closed the door and grabbed his transmitter, then waited for the commercials on the radio to end. When the first song started to play, he turned to Dr. Death’s frequency.

“Hey, Dr. D,” Cherri said, sinking into one of the chairs. He pulled the curtains closed, blocking the hot rays of sunlight.

Hey there, kiddo,” Dr. Death said. “How’s it going?

“It’s going great,” Cherri said. “I just wanted to ask you about that place you’ve been advertising this week. That new, uh…distribution center.”

The White Mountains?” Dr. Death sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Well, I knew this call was coming. As soon as they placed that ad, I knew your boss would be grinding his teeth all week.

Cherri laughed a little. “I just want to make sure it’s legit,” he said. “Have you guys looked into it?”

Yeah, Pony checked the whole thing out. They showed him the record books, took him on a tour, even took him on a shipment. It looks legit.

“Oh yeah?” Cherri said. “Nothing looked suspicious? No  missing records or anything?”

Nope, they were pretty transparent. Believe me, I had my own questions about these kids, but everything checked out. I made some calls, and they’re telling the truth about where they came from. They’re from Zone Four originally. Left because of the bad gang activity up there.

“Right,” Cherri said. He drummed his fingertips on the armrest. Then he shook his head and lowered his voice. “Listen…I don’t want these kids to lose their jobs, but they’re really cutting us off. We’ve lost a third of our usual food suppliers.”

Have you thought about working with them?” Dr. Death said. “I know your boss probably isn’t big on the idea, but you guys need something to get you through the winter.

“Tom won’t do it,” Cherri said. “He doesn’t trust middlemen.”

That doesn’t surprise me. What about outsourcing? Call some people up in Zone Two or Three. I’m sure they know his name, they’d probably love to work with him.

“He’s tried, but it’s a long process, D.” Cherri rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “We’ve got lines closed for the winter, some parts of the mail route are shut down. It’s going to be a few weeks before we get anything.”

There was a pause. Dr. Death sighed.

All right, look,” he said. “Between you and me–this isn’t going to last. These kids are inexperienced. They’re going to slip up at some point, lose their cash, lose a bunch of stock, whatever, and end up closing the whole place down. I give it about a month before everyone’s back to selling to you and Chow Mein again.

“We can’t wait a month,” Cherri said. “Not in winter.”

I know,” Dr. Death said. “That’s why I’m saying, just work with these kids when they’re around. And when it’s over, you’ll back on top of the market again. I don’t want you guys to end up closing the shop because you can’t stay afloat.

Cherri was silent for a few moments. He thanked Dr. Death and they said their goodbyes. The line went dead.

An hour later, Cherri pulled up to the White Mountains. The paint was visibly chipped and faded in the sunlight. When he stepped inside, a crowd of people bustled around the room. Aidy dashed back and forth between customers behind the desk, her yellow jacket a flash in the crowd. The shelves behind the desk were stacked with boxes, crates, and glass jars of food. Voices chattered and rang out through the air.

Cherri watched as Aidy sorted through a crate of shriveled potatoes. She opened a metal lockbox and counted out six, eight, ten carbons–twice the amount that Chow Mein would have paid. Cherri’s eyes widened. She was about to turn to the next customer when suddenly she caught his eye.

“Hey, it’s Cherri!” she said. “How’s it going, my man?”

Cherri smiled and raised a hand in greeting. “Hey!” he said. “I need to talk to one of you guys. Do you have a few minutes?”

“What?” she shouted.

“I said, I need to talk to somebody!” he shouted over the crowd. “Do you have a few minutes?”

“You want to talk to somebody?” said. “Hang on, I’ll get Rusty.”

She grabbed a transmitter from under the desk and muttered something into the speaker. A few moments later, the back door burst open. A man with a mop of wavy blonde hair and shadowy eyes stood in the doorway. He caught Cherri’s eye, smiled, and said “C’mon back.”

Cherri followed him into the back room. Crates and boxes were piled on the shelves. Three girls were cleaning vegetables, pulling off roots and stringy leaves, wiping off dirt, slicing peppers and stripping out the seeds. A woman sat at a desk in the corner, scribbling down records. She briefly glanced up at Cherri, then turned back to the logbook. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead.

Rusty led him over to a space near the wall, where a Zone map hung above them. Cherri noticed seven or eight pins glittering on the map: most of them in Zone One, with a few branching out to Zone Two.

“My name’s Citrus,” Rusty said, shaking his hand. “But most people call me Rusty, sounds nicer and all that. So what can I do for you?”

“All right, I’ll get right to it,” Cherri said. “I work for Tommy Chow Mein at the Four Aces supply store.”

“Yeah, we know. I think we’ve talked to you on the transmitter a couple of times.”

“Right,” Cherri said. “We need to talk about what you’re doing here. I understand what you’re doing, and I respect it, but Tom and I have lost about a third of our suppliers since you came in.”

Rusty leaned against a shelf, his hands in his jacket pockets. “Well, you guys are welcome to work with us,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get you on board since the beginning. We’d love to work with you.”

“We’re not comfortable with it,” Cherri said. “It’s not you, it’s just–we’ve had some bad experiences.”

“I get it,” Rusty said, raising his hands. “Hey. I totally get it. But I’m just saying, the offer’s out there.”

Cherri laughed politely. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing a hand across his face. “Of course. But look–I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

“What is it?”

Cherri paused while he thought of a way to phrase it. “All right, look,” he said finally. “You guys are undercutting our business. If our suppliers keep turning to you, we’re not going to be able to make it through the winter.”

Rusty furrowed his brow in concern. “Well, that’s not good.”

“Right. It’s not. So for now, I’m asking you to do your business somewhere else.”

There was a pause. The girls stopped cleaning and glanced back at them. Even the woman at the desk momentarily looked up.

“You want us to work somewhere else?” Rusty said. He scratched at his hair with a half-smile.

“I hate to ask this,” Cherri said. “But so many of our suppliers have turned to you–”

“No, I get it,” Rusty said, still wearing the half-smile. “But we can’t just up and leave, man. I mean, we’ve got a whole set-up here.”

“I’m not asking you to move,” Cherri said. “But just–focus on another area. Try the western area, I know they have trouble keeping their shops going. Focus on someone who needs it.”

“But we can’t leave,” Rusty said. “You saw the crowd out there. We’ve got people depending on us.”

“I understand that,” Cherri said.

“And look–I mean no offense, man, but what gives you the right to just come in here and tell us we have to leave?”

Cherri took a breath to steady himself. “Because this is our territory,” he said.

Rusty stared at him. “Your territory?” he said. “What–you control the place now? Are you and Tommy and the Ultra Vs some kind of gang that controls the market?”

“No, but this is our area of the market,” Cherri said. “Other people don’t set up shops here because they understand that.”

“They don’t set up shops here because they know Tommy’s gonna smoke ‘em out,” Rusty said.

“That’s not true.”

“Bullshit, it’s not true. What’s the store that always has everything? While people in Zone Three are dying of scurvy because they can’t get any citrus–”

“He’s been in the business for years,” Cherri said. “That’s why he’s successful, because he knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, he knows how to run out the competition. He’s a fucking liar and a thief.”

“Hey,” Cherri said sharply. “Don’t insult him.”

“I’ll insult him as much as I want, because it’s true. He’s the reason we started this in the first place, because some people have so much and others have so little. And if he’s got a problem with that, he can take it up with us, instead of sending his employees to fight for him. Because we’re not moving. He can yell at us, threaten us, send his people out as much as he wants. I don’t care. Because we’re not going anywhere.”

Cherri’s expression was hard. “All right,” he said suddenly. “All right. Fine.”

“What? What does that mean?”

Shaking his head, Cherri pushed past him and headed for the door. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said.

“What? Is that a threat?”

“It’s not a threat.” He paused at the doorway. “I’m going to talk to Tom. We’ll continue this later.”

“Yeah. You’re damn right we’ll continue this later, because we’re not leaving! You hear me, Cola? We’re not leaving!”

Cherri shook his head as he pushed through the door, squeezing his way through the bustling crowd. Aidy called his name, but he didn’t respond. He hurried outside and pulled out his transmitter, turning to Chow Mein’s frequency as he headed for the car.

Three tubes were mounted to the gas station wall, each spilling its contents into a tray: white rice, brown rice, and broad beans. Poison scooped up the last grains of rice with the plastic scoop and tipped them into a bag. He held up the bag and frowned. Two ounces, at the most.

“Is that tray almost empty?” said the woman behind the desk. She peered at them over the rows of shelves, empty except for a few stray boxes and cans.

“Yeah, it’s empty,” Poison said.

“Hang on a minute, hon. We just got an order in this morning.”

She disappeared into the back room, then returned with a leather bag. She poured the rice into the tube, the rice rushing into the tray with a sound like crashing waves.

“Where’d you get that order from?” Kobra said.

“There’s a place near the border called the White Mountains,” the shopkeeper said. “They’ve started selling food recently. Much cheaper than the prices from the usual folks.”

Kobra nodded, then exchanged looks with Poison. After paying for the food, they drove to a plain that was thick with trees and shrubs. A dust-spattered trailer was parked beneath a Joshua tree. Beside the trailer were the blackened remains of a campfire, a single lawn chair, and a rusty dark yellow car that Kobra had never seen before.

Poison knocked on the trailer door, the supplies tucked under his arm. “Hey, Val,” he said. “It’s us. We’ve got your supplies, man.”

No response. Poison frowned and leaned toward the door. He heard muffled voices inside the trailer, rising in short bursts.

“I think he’s got company,” he said to Kobra. He knocked on the door again. “Hey. Come on, man. We’ve got to get going.”

Nothing happened. Poison sighed and drummed his fingernails against the door. Then he banged against the door with the back of his wrist. “Hey,” he said. “Val. Get out here. We don’t have all day for this.”

The voices inside grew louder. Poison shook his head and tugged at the handle. It was locked. Kobra was about to step forward when the door suddenly burst open.

“–we’re not going to put up with this shit!” a girl shouted as she hurried outside after him. “I’m serious about this, Val! If he ever shows up like that again, we’re going to–”

“He’s not going to show up again, because the Vs and I aren’t going to allow it,” Val said. He grabbed the supplies out of Poison’s hand, crammed them under his arm, and fished in his pocket for his wallet.

“Oh, can you promise me that, Val?” she said sarcastically. “Can you promise me that he’ll never show up again?”

He jammed a crumpled handful of loose carbons into Poison’s hand. “Yes, I can promise that!”

“Bullshit! You didn’t do anything when he showed up the first time!”

Gritting his teeth, Val hurried back into the trailer and slammed the door shut. The girl raced up the steps and yanked on the handle, but the lock clicked inside. She shouted and pounded on the door. Val didn’t respond. From inside came the sounds of dropped boxes and slammed cabinet doors.

The girl gave the handle a final tug, then marched off the steps and wheeled around to the brothers. She appeared to be the same age as Aidy, with a bright pink jacket.

“I want to talk to you, too,” she said. “You work for Tommy Chow Mein, right? You and the Vs?”

“What does it matter?” Kobra said.

“It matters because your buddy Cherri tried to run us out of town yesterday,” she said. “He showed up at the White Mountains and said that we’re not supposed to be here. He said that this is their territory.”

“Wait–you’re from the White Mountains?” Kobra said. “Look, he’s not wrong. They’ve been here for years. You can’t just show up and start taking business away from them.”

“We’re not taking business from anyone,” she said. “We’re just out here, trying to help people. And if you keep giving us trouble, they’re all going to be real pissed off at you.”

“What are you saying?” Kobra said. “Hey. Come back here. I want to talk to you.”

But the girl was already hurrying to the car parked in front of the trailer. She slammed the door shut, then took off down the highway. Smog sputtered from the exhaust pipe, trailing behind the car. Kobra watched the road until the smoke dissolved in the air. Then he turned back to Poison.

“Jesus, what the hell was that?” he said.

“They’re not going to do anything,” Poison said. “They’ve got, what, three people? They can’t stir anybody up. Nothing’s going to happen unless one of them gets assassinated.”

Kobra laughed shortly. “Yeah,” he said. They started back to the car, the dry grasses crunching under their feet. “I know you’re right, but…don’t you think that’s odd? A kid going straight for Val Velocity.”

“She probably didn’t know who he was,” Poison said. “They’ve only been here a couple of weeks, Kid.”

“That’s long enough to know what he’s like,” Kobra said. “I know grown men and women that won’t go near him, what the hell is a kid doing out here? And then she threatened us like it was nothing.”

“These kids think they’re tough, don’t they?” Poison said. “Especially if they’ve raised themselves. She and her friends probably think they can take him on.”

Kobra unlocked the car door and swung it open. “I’m just saying, man, I don’t trust this operation,” he said. “They’re too cocky for a bunch of kids.”

They climbed into the Trans Am, the sun glinting overhead through the windshield. Kobra switched on the engine and pulled out onto the road. He drummed his fingertips against the steering wheel as he drove, his mind racing as the sun started to sink behind the mountains.

The last rays of sunlight glinted through the curtains. Cherri opened the door and swept the dirt out onto the sidewalk, where the air was starting to cool. An engine rumbled nearby. He leaned against his broom for a moment and watched a dust-spattered car putter down the highway. Then he stepped back inside and closed the door, a radio tinkling softly on one of the shelves.

“I’ll take out the recycling tomorrow,” Cherri said to Chow Mein, who was flipping through an address book behind the desk. “Since I’ll be heading in that direction anyway.”

“Don’t bother,” Chow Mein said. “I’ll have Val do it, when he decides to show up.”

Cherri laughed. “He’s going to hate you for that,” he said, wiping the dust off a ceramic frog statue.

“I’m sure he will,” Chow Mein said. He extracted a map from the papers heaped on the desk. “I’ve managed to get in touch with a few suppliers in Zone Two. They won’t get back to me for a few days, but they think they can round up  few stores.”

“They think they can, or they will?” Cherri said.

“God only knows,” Chow Mein said. “If we’re lucky, we might get something edible. More likely, they’ll send us the rotten, contaminated food that they can’t sell.”

Cherri nodded and fell silent. A leaden atmosphere hung over the room, like a thick, musty curtain. He was starting to fold a stack of blankets when an engine rumbled outside. Cherri automatically checked that his ray gun was in its holster, then headed for the door.

“Good Lord, has he finally decided to show up?” Chow Mein said, glancing at the clock behind him.

Cherri opened the door, expecting to see Val’s shock of white hair. Then he stopped. A girl stood in the doorway, wearing a bright yellow jacket that glowed neon in the porch light.

“Hey,” she said. “I want to talk to you, mister.”

She pushed past him and strode into the store. Chow Mein looked up in surprise, then closed the record book. His expression was grim.

“I want to talk to you, too,” Aidy said. “Let me tell you something. You’re not going to threaten us until we run out of town.”

“We haven’t threatened you,” Chow Mein said.

“Yeah, you did. You sent your guy out there yesterday, telling us we need to stay off your territory.”

“This is our territory.”

“Bullshit, you can’t claim territory. You’re not a gang.”

“No, but we’ve been here much longer than you have,” Chow Mein said. “And as one of the few stores in Zone One that’s competently run, we don’t tolerate anyone that threatens to undercut our business.”

“What the hell–undercut your business? What the hell does that mean? We’re just trying to make a living!”

Chow Mein shook his head. “You’re not just trying to make a living,” he said. “I figured it out two weeks ago. Most of the shopkeepers that I’ve spoken to have figured it out as well, even if they still buy from you.”

“Figured out what?” Aidy jammed her hands in her pockets. “What do you think we’re doing?”

Something in her expression made Cherri’s insides go cold. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Tom. That’s enough.”

“You’re funneling most of the food market through your store,” Chow Mein said, ignoring him. “In the winter, when people get desperate, you’ll raise the prices. If an item gets too cheap, you’ll limit the stock. A store doesn’t cooperate with you, you’ll deny them supplies, that sort of thing.”

Aidy’s face was red. “You think we’re just trying to–control the market?” she spluttered. “You think that’s what all this is about?”

“That’s exactly what I think,” he said.

There was a pause. “Okay,” Aidy said finally. “Okay. Fine.” She took out a transmitter. “Hey. Rusty. Get in here.”

She stuffed the transmitter back in her pocket, glaring at him. Cherri’s mind flashed with the old warning signs he had learned years ago: Acting defensive. Strange behavior. Standing near the door. As a car door slammed outside, he reached toward his ray gun. Footsteps crunched on the pavement, followed by a creak as the front door swung open.

Silver studs glinted off Rusty’s jacket in the porch light. Studs dotted his dark red jacket like stars, with a moon that Cherri knew was stitched on the back. He grabbed the door before it could slam shut and quietly closed it behind him, glaring at Chow Mein as if he were a Draculoid. A cold fever ripped through Cherri’s veins. In a flash, he whipped out his gun and pointed it at Rusty’s head.

Rusty’s eyes lingered on Cherri’s for a moment. “Let me make something clear to you two,” he said, pacing down the floor. “You’ve been giving us a lot of trouble these past couple of weeks. And that’s fine, I get it. I know you Killjoy types are headstrong. But you’re not going to keep interfering with our business.”

“You’re not businessmen,” Chow Mein said. “You’re thieves.” For the first time, disgust lingered in his voice.

Rusty stopped in front of the desk. “Any way you wanna cut it, Tom,” he said. “We’re not here to debate. We’re just here to tell you that if we get a hint of trouble from you again–any phone call, any surprise visit, whatever–there’s a whole gang of us that are ready to make your life a living hell.”

“This isn’t going to last,” Cherri said, still aiming the gun at Rusty. “Dr. D’s going to investigate you. He’ll expose you.”

“The last investigation  went pretty well, I think,” Rusty said. “You can send them after us again, but you know, we’ve got people all over the place. I don’t think it would end very well for you.”

Cherri opened his mouth to reply. Suddenly his transmitter buzzed, cutting through the silence. For a moment, no one spoke. Without taking his eyes off Rusty, he reached into his jacket pocket and switched off the transmitter. The air went silent.

“Got somebody looking out for you, do you?” Rusty said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Chow Mein said abruptly. “We’re not going to cave to a bunch of sleazy drug addicts from Zone Four.”

“Tom,” Cherri said. “Hey. Watch it.”

“Yeah, you better watch it, Tommy,” Aidy said with bombast, as if she’d seen a similar scene in a movie. Rusty raised a hand and shook his head, silencing her.

“We’re not drug addicts,” he said. “And we’re not sleazy–well, some of us are a little bit. But if you work with us, this could all go away for you–”

“We’re not working with you,” Chow Mein said. When Cherri shot him a look, he said “Cherri, this gang is some of the most disgusting filth I’ve ever seen crawl out of the Zones. We’re not going to cave to a couple of children sent by the Blood Moons, for God’s sake.”

“A couple of children?” Aidy shouted, stepping forward. “Hey. You better watch yourself. We’re not just a couple of kids.”

“You’re children sent by your gang to threaten us because they’re too cowardly to do it themselves,” he said. “You’re wasting your lives with the Blood Moons. The children in these gangs, they think–ach, I’m going to rise in the ranks, I’m going to prove my worth and become a leader. But you’re worthless to them. When they’re through with you, they’ll throw you out in the desert.”

Tom,” Cherri hissed. “For God’s sake. Stop it.”

“That’s bullshit,” Rusty said, his voice rising. “That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“It’s not bullshit,” Chow Mein said. “I’ve had plenty of ex-gang members come to my store, begging for supplies. Sometimes only days after they tried to intimidate me.”

“We’re not going to beg,” Aidy said. “We’re going to drive you outta here. We’ll own this store.”

“I’m sure you will,” Chow Mein said. “And then it will collapse, due to being run by three inexperienced teenagers, which I imagine is the same fate for the White Mountains.”

“Hey, fuck you, man,” Rusty said. “Do you know who you’re talking about? Huh? Do you know who you’re talking to here?”

He started forward. Cherri readjusted his aim. “Stay back,” he said.

“No, I think he needs to understand something,” Rusty said. “We’re not just some shitty gang from the valley. We could end you two assholes if we wanted to.”

“I’m sure you could,” Chow Mein said dismissively.

“Hey. Watch it with the fucking attitude.”

“You better shut your mouth, Tommy,” Aidy shouted.

“Yeah. You better shut your mouth, Tom. Because if you say one more fucking thing to us–”

“Yes, I know. You’ll run us out of town. But you’re wasting your time, because as soon as the Moons get tired of you–”

Rusty’s face was red. His hands shook with rage.

“–you’ll be dead like the rest of us.”

Rusty whipped something out of his jacket, a flash of silver. Cherri shouted and fired his gun. A blast of light hit Rusty’s arm, and he howled and staggered back. But drops of blood had already stained his jacket. Chow Mein staggered back, clutching his throat. Streams of blood ran between his fingers. His face was white.

“What did you do?” Aidy shrieked. “What did you do?

Rusty turned and darted for the door. Cherri fired again. Rusty yelped and stumbled against the door, a blackened hole burnt into the back of his jacket. He fumbled with the handle and pushed it open. Cherri’s first instinct was to follow him, but he forced himself to stay as Rusty and Aidy darted out the door. A furious rage boiled inside him like hot air gushing from an ocean vent. When the door slammed shut, he jumped forward and locked it, then grabbed a blanket from the shelf in the corner.

“Just keep looking at me,” Cherri said in a rush. “Come on. Stay with me, Tom.”

He loosened his necktie, then rolled a corner of the blanket and pressed it against his throat. Blood immediately seeped into the fabric, a dark brown stain like mold. One hand still clutching the blanket, he grabbed his transmitter and frantically turned the knob. He had staunched plenty of wounds in the Soldiers for Peace; why were his hands shaking so much?

“It’s Cherri Cola,” he said. “We need a medic to the Four Aces Supply Shop. Right now. We’ve got a life-threatening throat wound.”

He glanced down at the blanket. Dark blood had puddled into a wet clot at the center. He rolled up another section and pressed it against his throat, the blood seeping in immediately. The blood stained his shirt collar, collected on the ground, streaked shiny and wet across Cherri’s hands. Cherri wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and took a gasp of air.

“Oh God, help me,” he said aloud. “Jesus Christ, just–fucking help me out here. Please.”

He rubbed the dog tags that hung from his neck, leaving a streak of blood, then made the sign of the cross. “Stay with me, Tom,” he said again. “Come on. Don’t do this shit.” He looked desperately up at the ceiling. A cluster of flies buzzed in the corner. One of the lights flickered above them, the greenish light pulsating like a heartbeat.

Three cars gleamed in the Trans Am’s headlights: Cherri’s pink Ford, an old blue Chevrolet, and an unfamiliar white car with rust crawling up the sides. Kobra parked in front of the entrance and paused, the headlights hovering on the front doors. Aside from the faint hum of the porch light, the store was silent.

“Where the hell is Val?” Kobra said. “I thought he guarded the store before they left for the night.”

“I don’t see his car,” Poison said. “You think he didn’t show up?”

Kobra drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. “I’m getting out,” he said finally, shutting off the engine. The headlights went dead. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

He holstered his ray gun, then stepped out into the cool night air, Poison following him to the entrance. Kobra rapped on the door with his knuckles. Flies and gnats buzzed around the porch light like specks of dust.

“Hey, man, it’s us,” he said. “Poison and Kobra.”

No response. Kobra tugged the handle, then knocked on the door again.

“Hey,” he said. “Cherri. Are you in there? We’ve been trying to reach you all night.”

Nothing happened. Kobra walked over to the nearest window and cupped his hands around the glass. Through the crack between the heavy curtains, he could see a strip of light. He strained to hear the sounds of voices or footsteps, but nothing moved inside the shop.

“I’m going to call him again,” Kobra said, pulling out his transmitter. “If he doesn’t answer, I’m calling Dr. D–”

Suddenly the door burst open. Kobra jumped back, blinking in the light from the doorway. Cherri stood in the entrance. Something dark was streaked across his hands. At first Kobra thought it was mud, but as he approached, he saw dried dark red patches flaked across his skin like rust. Kobra went still.

Something had gone still in Cherri’s expression, like a soldier awaiting his next move. “Come on,” he said. “You better come inside.”

Cherri told them the story. As Kobra listened, his face went white. He glance desperately at Poison, a feeling of dread pooling in the bottom of his stomach. The thick weight of significance hung in the room. The night suddenly seemed to mark a dividing point in their lives: what would happen if Chow Mein survived, and what would happen if he didn’t.

“I called the medics about twenty minutes ago,” Cherri said finally. “They’re stitching him up in one of the back rooms.”

Kobra nodded. He ran a hand through his hair, struggling to think of something to say. “Hey,” he said. “I’m so sorry, man.”

“Just let us know if you need anything,” Poison said. “I mean–if it comes to that–we’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry about it.”

Cherri looked like he was about to say something. But after a moment, he nodded and patted Poison on the shoulder. They stood in silence for a few minutes. Kobra eyed the side door, as if one of the nurses would burst into the room at any moment. His stomach tensed like a tightly closed flower bud. Poison patted his back, then rested his arm around his shoulders.

Suddenly a fist pounded on the door, rippng through the silence. Kobra jumped, his heart pounding. He grabbed his gun and looked wildly around the room. Cherri drew his gun and marched over to the door like a soldier striding into battle.

“Who is it?” he said.

“It’s me,” said a familiar voice. “Val. The hell’s going on in there?”

Cherri unlocked the door. In a flash, he burst it open, grabbed Val by the collar, and wrenched him through the doorway. The door slammed shut behind him. Cherri dragged him over to the middle of the room, Val gasping and struggling like a caught fish. Kobra stepped back toward the desk, his eyes wide.

“Where were you?” Cherri shouted. “Huh? Where the hell were you tonight?”

“I was doing some business!” Val said. “Just some business in Zone Two! Okay? Let me go, you fucking psychopath!”

Cherri shoved him to the floor. Val scrambled to his feet and backed against the wall, his eyes darting from Cherri to the brothers. He drew his gun and pointed it at Cherri.

“Stay away from me,” he said. “Yeah. You too, Killjoy brothers. Keep that fucking animal away from me.”

“Tom and I were attacked tonight,” Cherri said.

“What? By who?”

“The Blood Moons.”

Val’s eyes widened. “What?” he said. “What the fuck? What did you do to piss them off?”

Cherri rattled through the story. Val stared at him in shock. He looked over at Poison as if he had the answers, then carefully holstered his gun and stepped away from the wall.

“Look,” he said, raising his hands in defense. “I didn’t know about this, okay? I just heard some shit on the radio about the White Mountains–”

“What did you hear?” Cherri said.

“They cleared the place out. They’re gone. Trucks were spotted all over the place. They just grabbed their shit and left.”

Cherri went still. Hardness crept into his expression, and Kobra suddenly knew that he had already made up his mind.

“Where did they go?” Cherri said.

“I don’t know,” Val said. “A couple of people saw them going down east. Probably going back to their base, wherever the hell that is.”

Cherri jammed his gun in its holster, then quickly checked his transmitter. “Keep the doors locked,” he said to the brothers. “Val, call the Vs and send them over here to guard the place. Keep the radio on and listen to Dr. D. There’s a radio in the back closet.”

“Whoa, hey,” Kobra said. “What are you doing?”

Cherri shook his head and marched over to the door. As he unlocked it, Kobra hurried up  behind him.

“You can’t go out there, man!” Kobra said. “What the hell are you thinking? You think you can take them on by yourself? They’ll blow your head off, you’ll come back in a body bag.”

Cherri opened the door; a gust of cool air flowed through the crack. He turned to hand Kobra the keys, then stopped. For a moment, their eyes met. Then Cherri dropped the keys in his hand.

“Just keep the doors locked,” he said again.

Kobra stared at him, feeling suddenly helpless. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t do this, man. Please.”

Cherri glanced at him, then stepped outside. A burst of cold air washed through the store. Then the door slammed shut, the sound reverberating through the walls. Kobra gripped the keys in his hand as if he were clutching a handful of bird bones.

Someone touched his shoulder. Kobra jumped and whirled around to see Poison standing behind him. “We’ve gotta call someone,” Kobra said shakily. “Get the Vs to hunt him down, or–tell D to make a broadcast–”

“We’ve gotta let him go, kiddo,” Poison said gently.

“What the hell are you saying? We can’t  let him go out there! You know the Blood Moons, they’ll tear him apart. And he’s probably going to march into their camp, guns blazing–”

Poison grabbed his shoulders. “Kid,” he said. “Hey. Listen. I don’t want him out there either. Believe me. I don’t. But we can’t stop him, kiddo. If we send someone after him, he’s just going to get away.”

“Tell them to tie him down!” Kobra said. “Handcuff him to a chair or some shit, I don’t care, just get him out of there before he gets himself killed!”

“We can’t stop him!” Poison said. “Okay? He’s hardwired to do this. The Soldiers trained him for years. If we stop him now, it’ll just eat at him until he snaps and goes after them a month later. We can’t stop him, Kobra.”

Kobra’s throat felt raw. The back of his eyes burned. He looked away and rubbed his eyes on his palm, still clutching the keys.

“Hey,” Poison said gently. “Let’s go sit down, okay? C'mon.”

He led him over to the row of chairs near the magazine rack. Poison tossed the keys to Val, who locked the doors and switched on his transmitter. While he argued with one of the Vs, Kobra cradled his face in his hands, then pushed his hair back. The entrance and the side door stood like formidable barriers. One of them would open first, and the thought made his insides tighten like a vise.

Twenty minutes passed. Val paced back and forth in front of the desk. When a a pair of headlights passed through the curtains, Kobra jumped to his feet. But when Val opened the door, Vaya’s voice rang through the entrance. Kobra sank back into his chair. He jiggled his foot, his nerves rattling like a cold shiver.

“Let’s turn on the radio,” Poison said finally. “Where did he say it was?”

“Back closet,” Kobra said.

Poison climbed to his feet. He was heading for the closet when the side door creaked open. Poison stopped and turned around. Kobra jumped out of the chair, suddenly light-headed. Even Val turned to the door.

“How is he?” Kobra said.

An African American woman in a white apron and rubber gloves stood in the doorway. “He’s stable,” she said. “You’re friends of his, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, we are,” he said. “We know him. We’ve worked for him.”

“Well, he’s lost a lot of blood,” she said. “Is there a list of donors in the area? Does he keep a callbook around here?”

“We’re donors,” Poison said, stepping forward. “Kobra and me.” He glanced back at Val, who silently shook his head.

“You are?” the nurse said, snapping off her gloves. “That’s great. Blood types?”

“B positive,” Poison said.

“I’m A negative,” Kobra said.

She looked up at Kobra. “A negative?” she repeated.

“Yeah. I was tested back in the city.”

“And you’re prepared to donate?”

Kobra hesitated. He glanced over at Poison, then nodded.

“All right. Follow me.”

The brothers followed her down the hallway. One of the motel doors was open a crack; Kobra saw a swish of white and quickly glanced away. She led them into the room at the end of the hallway, where a chair was already positioned beside the bed. A dusty lightbulb glowed from the ceiling, casting a dim light over the boxes and crates stacked around the room.

“Have a seat,” she said. “You don’t have any diseases, do you? Any history of STDs, cancer, organ failure?”

“Oh, no. None of that.”

While she prepared the needle, Kobra glanced over at Poison. He sat on the edge of the bed. His face was white.

“Hey,” he said quietly, rolling up his sleeve. “You don’t have to stay here. Go back and keep an eye on Val.”

Poison shook his head. On the nurse’s instruction, Kobra stretched out his arm and squeezed a bundle of rags she pressed in his hand. He closed his eyes when she probed the inside of his arm. She swabbed it with disinfectant, leaving a wet spot. Then there was a faint prick, like a pinch against his skin. Poison sucked in his breath and looked away.

As the blood flowed into the bag, Kobra’s head started to feel light. A faint buzzing rang in his ears. He sank back against the chair, his limbs weighing down like concrete. Someone brushed the sweaty hair from his forehead. His vision fogged as if smoke had seeped into the room, leaving it white and blurred.

“Make sure he gets lots of fluids,” the nurse said after a while. Her voice sounded tinny and far away. “Have him lie down until he feels better. If anything seems strange, come find us. We’re in the third room on the left.”

A few minutes later, the door swung closed. Poison grabbed his hand and helped him out of the chair. Kobra stumbled dizzily into the bed. His head was still light, with a giddy feeling floating in his stomach. His arms hung uselessly like two dead weights. Poison switched off the light, and the room went dark.

“You might’ve just saved his life, Kid,” Poison whispered, sinking into the chair.

Kobra wanted to tell him not to mention it to Chow Mein, because he’d hate having a Killjoy’s blood in his veins. But his tongue wouldn’t move. He closed his eyes and let his body weigh against the mattress, a faint buzzing still humming in his ears.

Cherri flashed the binoculars across the desert below. A campfire crackled several feet from the crumbling mine shaft. Six vehicles surrounded the area, with tents planted inside the circle like mushrooms. A few of the tents glowed from within like lamps. People paced around the camp, argued quietly, consulted maps, cooked food over the campfire. A radio crackled nearby, the transmission too low to be heard.

Cherri shifted on top of the hill, the dry grasses bristling against his stomach, then increased the magnification. He scanned the campsite for Rusty and Aidy. Several people wore the dark red jackets, but none of the faces were familiar. Someone tossed a handful of grasses onto the fire. The flames whooshed up like a yellow tongue and crackled and spat, shooting sparks into the sky.

Cherri lowered the binoculars. A cool wind whipped his hair around his face. The highway stretched out several miles away, empty and silent. He thought of a night several years ago when he had camped out on a hill for hours, his legs frozen in his boots, watching two Draculoids build a fire below. Their white jackets stood out against the desert like drops of white paint on a canvas.

A crack of light, a yelp followed by abrupt silence. The other Draculoid shouted, then whipped his gun out and fired. A burst of light exploded from Cherri’s gun and ripped through the Drac’s mask. He crumpled to the ground. As Cherri climbed to his feet, the white car reflected the campfire light, dancing and gleaming while the stench of burnt rubber filled the air–

A swell of nausea hit him. He turned away from the camp and rubbed the bridge of his nose. After taking a few deep breaths, he picked up the binoculars and focused on the campfire. The group was passing a jar of some pickled vegetable around. Cherri thought of the boxes and crates of vegetables at the White Mountains, and his grip on the binoculars tightened.

Just one look, he thought. Just give me a glimpse of this piece of shit.

Suddenly two voices rose above the silence. Cherri quickly scanned the area until he spotted two women arguing near one of the tents. A few people approached, speaking in hushed tones, but one of the women waved them off. A man hissed something at her. She snarled at him in return, then yanked open the tent’s front flaps.

The first woman shouted and grabbed her arm, pulling her back. She shook her off, then scrambled into the tent. A few other people hurried over. After a few moments, the woman burst out of the tent, dragging someone out behind her. Shouts erupted around them. She hauled him over to the campfire, the figure struggling and writhing like a snake. When Cherri caught sight of his face, he stopped. A cold stillness washed over him. He lowered the binoculars and peered through the weeds at the scene playing out below.

Rusty’s face was purplish and swollen like a tuber. When Cherri raised the binoculars again, he saw that he stood hunched over, cradling his elbow. The woman shouted and gestured toward him. A few people argued, while others stood and watched silently. She kicked the back of his legs, forcing him to his knees. Someone cried out in the back. In a flash, she whipped out a ray gun and aimed it at Rusty’s head, her shoulders heaving.

A jolt ripped through Cherri like an electric shock. Cries erupted below him, some pleading, some cheering. His hands shook as he grabbed his ray gun from its holster. Could he hit him from this distance? If he fired, they would see the flash of light from the hill and fire back. But he couldn’t let her take this from him, his moment, his vengeance…

Another woman burst out of the crowd and tried to snatch the gun. They fought and shouted, a shot firing from the gun and disappearing into the sky, until she wrested the gun away. Several people bellowed from the crowd. The woman roughly smacked the back of Rusty’s head, then marched away,  muttering under her breath. Rusty didn’t move. Two people hauled him up by the armpits and dragged him over to a tree, where they dropped him like a sack of rice.

As the crowd started to disperse, Cherri picked up the binoculars again. Rusty sat slumped against the base of the tree. People walked past him as if he were just another shrub on the ground. Murmured conversation filled the air again, the campfire dwindling to a cluster of orange flames. Someone squirted lighter fluid on the fire. The flames roared up again.

One hand still holding the binoculars, Cherri started to reach back for his gun. Just when he closed his fingers around the handle, he stopped. Cherri’s insides went cold. Rusty had looked up, their eyes meeting through the glass lenses.

His mind raced like a leaf caught in a roaring waterfall. He could fire off now and scramble down the hillside, but the shot would cost him precious seconds. If he immediately started down the hill, he might be able to make it to the car before Rusty alerted the others. But what if they followed him? With a cold chill, he realized they might trek over to the store–with more experienced gang members and more experienced knives that would make more than a quick, half-hearted cut.

Cherri and Rusty stared at each other through the weeds. Time seemed to slow to a halt, as if someone had hit the pause button. A hundred possibilities hung in the air. Cherri steeled himself, bracing his feet on the hill, ready to scrabble back or shoot: whatever decision he would make the moment that Rusty looked away.

Kobra opened his eyes. He shifted in the darkness, then rolled over on his back. Bluish moonlight shone through the curtains, faintly illuminating the room. For a split second, Kobra thought they had stopped at a motel on the highway. Then he saw the stacks of cardboard boxes that leaned against the wall.

He slowly pushed himself to a sitting position, his limbs shaky and weak. A bandage was taped to the inside of his arm. Kobra turned to see Poison sitting in the chair beside him. A glass of liquid sat on the bedside table. For an instant, he thought it was his blood. Then he saw the can of powdered orange juice next to the dusty lamp.

“Hey,” Poison whispered, as if he were still asleep. “You’re awake.”

Kobra carefully pulled down his sleeve to ward off the chill in the room. “Is Cherri back yet?” he said. “Has you called you?”

“I haven’t heard from him,” Poison said quietly. “I’ve been trying to radio him, but–” He stopped himself. “No. I haven’t heard anything.”

Kobra was silent for a moment. “What about Chow Mein?” he said. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” Poison said. “He’s awake. Val just told me a few minutes ago.”

Kobra nodded. He leaned against the headboard and wrapped his arms around himself. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes.

“We want you to drink this,” Poison said finally. He handed Kobra the glass of orange juice. “It’ll help you get your strength up. The medic said you should drink a lot of fluids for the next few days. She wants you to eat a lot of beans and meat, too. We’re going to see if we can get some meat from the market this weekend.”

Kobra nodded and took a sip. The orange juice tasted dusty and diluted in the stale water. He drank slowly, then set the glass back on the table. He glanced over at Poison. Something must have been revealed in his expression, because Poison took his hand and squeezed it. Kobra’s eyes burned red and wet with unshed tears.

A gust of wind wheezed outside and rattled through a crack in the window. “Did you call Dr. D?” Kobra said, rubbing a hand across his face. “I know it’s late, but maybe he could–”

Suddenly there was a pounding at the front door. Poison jumped out of his seat. “Stay there!” he shouted as Kobra climbed out of bed. “No! Stay here! Don’t follow me! If you hear anything, go in the closet!”

Pulling his gun from its holster, Poison dashed down the hallway and burst into the main area. Kobra and Val hurried behind, followed by one of the nurses. When they reached the door, the pounding abruptly stopped. A voice cut through the silence.

“It’s me!” he shouted. “Cherri Cola!”

The brothers exchanged shocked looks. Val fumbled through the keys, then unlocked the door and swung it open. For a moment, no one moved. Then Cherri grabbed Kobra in a quick hug, patted Poison on the arm, and hurried inside.

“I’m sorry,” he said breathlessly. “I’m so sorry about this.”

“What the hell happened?” Poison said as they started down the hallway.

“Nothing happened,” Cherri said. “Nothing. I, uh–I showed up, and I couldn’t do it. I even saw the little shit himself. But I couldn’t do it.”

“You were there?” Poison said. “You found their camp? What if someone saw you?”

“It’s fine,” Cherri said. “It’s good. Nothing’s going to happen.”

“Yeah, and how the hell do you know that?” Val said.

“I know,” Cherri said. “The kid saw me, but he didn’t do anything. Didn’t say anything. I don’t think he’s going to be there much longer.”

“He saw you?” Poison said. “What the hell are you–”

“Where’s Tom?” Cherri interrupted, suddenly stopping in front of one of the doors. “How is he? Is he okay?”

“He’s right down this way,” the nurse said. They followed her to the door that Kobra had seen earlier. Inside, the medic was packing her equipment into a cracked leather suitcase, while the other nurse untied a plastic bag from a thin metal pole. Kobra winced when he saw traces of his own blood inside the bag.

“You’re not out of the woods yet, of course,” the medic said, glancing at Chow Mein through the dresser mirror. “Make sure you’re cleaning it and changing the bandages every day. I’ve seen more deaths from infections than from the wound itself.”

Chow Mein  nodded, then winced and touched his neck. Kobra wondered if it were painful for him to speak. His throat was taped with white bandages, with dried dark blood staining his collar. His dark hair was matted with sweat. Kobra suddenly felt like he were intruding, and he looked away.

“Jesus, Tom, I’m so glad to see you,” Cherri said. His voice wavered with relief.

“I’ve had worse,” Chow Mein said hoarsely. “Are the Blood Moons still here? Have they been run out of town yet?”

“They left,” Cherri said. “They’ll probably be out of the Zone by tomorrow.”

He nodded again. He seemed to be calculating something.

“Which one of you donated the blood?” he said suddenly. “Please, God, tell me it wasn’t Val.”

“It was me,” Kobra said.

Chow Mein looked at him. “It was you?”

“Yeah. Our blood types match. A negative.”

Kobra rolled up his sleeve, revealing the bandage taped over the darkening bruise where the needle had pricked him. Then he folded his arms over his chest, feeling slightly apprehensive.

Chow Mein was silent for a few moments. “Well, I suppose I should thank you,” he said finally.

Kobra blinked. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure. No problem, man.”

He stepped forward and they shook hands. When he stepped back, Cherri gave him a faint smile and patted him on the shoulder. The medic closed and locked her trunk, then hefted it off the dresser.

“I’d prefer to stay, but we’ve gotten another call,” she said. “Call us if there are any complications.”

“Of course,” Chow Mein said.

“If you do, we’ll be over here as soon as possible. You’re my main priority tonight.”

She headed for the door, one nurse following with the IV rack, the other carrying a bag of bloody towels. Kobra watched as they disappeared into the hallway. The rack’s wheels rattled against the floor, the sound echoing through the hallway. He turned to Poison, who gently touched his arm, and the front door quietly swung shut.