The Changed -- Chapter Eleven -- by Dee Caples

The Bearer Of Bad News

Books were wonderful companions. Dancy didn’t allow many people access to his library and then only for specific purposes. City council members were allowed to peruse old municipal records and minutes from meetings nor did he object to them borrowing from the fiction section as long as they returned the books. Inventors and mechanics and such were cleared to rummage through the technical manuals all they liked. That’s what they were for and Dancy had no interest in them.

He wished his favorite, a well-thumbed copy of The Art Of War, was a hardback but he had to take what he found. Maybe someday he’d come across one. He was fond of histories and biographies, too, and no one was allowed to touch those or the philosophy tomes. No sense in them getting bright ideas. He loved Plato less than Nietzche and had scrupulously pored over everything he could find about Alexander and Napoleon.

A card game was going on at a nearby table and he kept one ear tuned as he sipped whiskey and water. From time to time a gambler came through town wanting to run a game. It was understood that Dancy got a piece of the action and he’d only had to cut off a couple of hands before word spread among the gamers that he wasn’t to be trifled with. This one had come already disabused of that notion and was busily earning him a little pile, which was a good thing.

He hadn’t realized what a priceless addition Danna’s voice was until it no longer drew a crowd whiling away time as a pretty girl sang. It was a shame JoJo had probably killed her by now, not that he really cared except for the loss of income. There were other girls available but none as talented and few as attractive. She had a fine rack, too.

Outside the saloon doors a motorcycle whizzed by, sputtered and died. A stream of profanity came from Kick as he swore at the hunk of junk then started it back up and drove to his shop. From the private drinking room behind him floated the sound of one of the whores getting her mouth fucked. In a minute he heard the meaty thwack that meant a tit slap followed by the unmistakable gagging as old Billy dropped his load. They came out of the room, Billy grinning and the girl tying up her peasant blouse to hide a rosy breast. Billy dropped the payment on Dancy’s table. “Thanks. That was sweet.”

Without looking up, Dancy flipped to the next page of his book and said, “Don’t thank me. I didn’t suck you off.”

Tweetie sashayed over to his table and canted a hip. “Can I get a shot?”

Still engrossed in the book, Dancy waved toward the bar. “Wash it down, darlin’.”

“ ‘Preciate that.” A small smile twisted his lips. He had such grateful, well-behaved whores.

The saloon doors flapped open and Degan came stomping in, straight for his table. Dancy let the legs of his chair drop to the floor and folded his arms. “Ellis said it don’t look good,” Deeg panted.

Dancy gestured for him to sit. “Tell me everything.”

He listened patiently as the dim-witted biker told of following the motorcycle tracks until they ran out, how the sand was swept clean but Nico had found blood and oil all the same. There had been no sign of JoJo or the others or even their vehicles. Dancy was highly displeased with that news. The VW buggy had been an invaluable piece of equipment. Degan was sitting there with his head bowed, his scared eyes waiting for Dancy to pronounce judgment. It wasn’t this man’s fault. He was just the bearer of bad news. In his younger, hothead years Dancy had been known to take it out on the messenger. That had proved a waste of talent, not that Degan had an abundance of that. 

“Ralph, set Degan up with a few shots on me.” The bartender jumped to it and Dancy waved off the profuse thanks as Degan hurried toward the free liquor. Drumming his fingertips, he pondered what this meant. JoJo was, he presumed, dead. If something had gotten the better of his brutal sibling things didn’t bode well for Ellis. He would hate to lose his top man and Nico, too. He was a damned fine tracker. There was nothing to do but wait and he hated waiting more than anything.

Cruz came in from walking his dog. She was half pit bull and half Irish wolfhound. God only knew where the breeder had come across one of those huge animals. The dog had the height and rough fur of the wolfhound but the jaws and chest of a pit. Bless her heart, she was about the ugliest canine he’d ever seen and she was mean as hell when he wanted her to be. Thankfully, Cruz could handle her and that freed him from having to take her on constitutionals. “Bring her over here,” he told him and the beast nudged his hand affectionately before settling down beside his chair. “Nothing like a loyal bitch,” Dancy muttered, scratching behind the dog’s ears. He liked to think dogs were capable of love because it meant this one adored him beyond a doubt. If he lost Nico he’d still have Felicia.

“Go get the Monopoly game.”

Cruz was too well-trained to whine about it. Dancy needed a way to pass the time until dusk. He suspected everyone but Councilwoman Cathy Dermott let him win and that was disconcerting. Was he such a rat bastard that everyone was too afraid to beat him at Monopoly? Well, he did like to win but it was nice when Cathy whipped his ass now and again. He had to admire her for that and she knew her limits. It was a shame she was too old for a poke. He’d bet, back in the day, she’d been a fine-looking woman. Now she was just an irascible old bag with a good head on her shoulders, a real asset to the town.

By the time dinner was ready he was bored with the game and dismissed Cruz. This was taking too long. Ellis and Nico should be back by now. His fist bumped on the table and more than a few heads turned in dread then quickly looked away since Dancy wasn’t focused on them. Staring at the wall, he thought of his brother. Six-feet-four nerveless cannibals were mighty hard to come by. If he had any love at all for anyone it was JoJo, though God alone knew why. JoJo wasn’t the brightest match ever struck. Perhaps it was their common streak of ruthlessness that tied them together. Every now and then JoJo even outpaced him, albeit in disgusting, unsophisticated ways. No, his brother couldn’t be replaced.

While he chewed he digested his choices. Kick might be okay as a tracker but he wasn’t organized enough to take Ellis’s place. Ralph hurried over with a bottle and glass and poured him a drink. “What’s this?” he asked, taking note of the distiller waiting nervously behind the bar.

“Some of Mr. Adair’s latest. Says its schnapps.”

Dancy’s eyebrows went up. “Schnapps?” He passed the glass beneath his nose and when it didn’t burn the hair from his nostrils, gave it a tiny sip. “Well. It certainly has a bite to it. Put me a bottle on the shelf and tell him well done.” Adair all but genuflected and hustled out the side door.

Ah! That short snort cleared his brain and he now had the perfect man for Ellis’s old job. Degan was still sitting at the bar, probably hoping for another free one. “Deeg. Go tell Alonso to get his ass over here.”

He didn’t need to say ‘right now’, either. Everyone knew if summoned they’d better drop what they were doing and make like their can was on fire. The young man in question was Cruz’s brother, older and harder. He didn’t bow and scrape but neither was he disrespectful and Dancy understood that because he knew it came from the self-confidence belonging to intelligent, dangerous men. Guys like Alonso couldn’t afford to let their poker face slide and reveal anything.

Dancy kicked a chair out, slid the shot glass over and poured his guest a drink. When Alonso knocked it back without making a face he knew he’d come to the right conclusion. “Congratulations. It looks like Ellis has met with an unknown accident. I’m promoting you to his spot.”

Black snake eyes regarded him for a moment then Alonso said, “Thank you, Mayor.”

A man of few words. Delightful. “I want you to choose twenty of our best men. Arrange for arms and provisions for a week. Be sure each man has ample ammo. Tell them to be ready first thing in the morning. You and Kick will select our best vehicles and I want them in top working order with emergency roadside equipment. We’re going to find out what happened to my brother, his crew and Ellis and Nico.”

Was that a smile he saw on Alonso’s face? Possibly it was. “Are we going hunting?”

What an appealing thought. “Yes, we are. Take Felicia. Find her something to eat.”

That’s how you did it. Promote a man then immediately assign him some menial task. If he did it without giving you a fucked up look you knew you had him in the palm of your hand. Not only did Alonso get right on it, he gave the huge, homely dog a pat and spoke to her in a friendly manner. Very good. Love the dog, be loyal to its master.

When he came out the next morning, he was gratified to see his orders had been carried out to a T. Dancy had been more than a mere lad when the world he’d known collapsed so he could well remember the cars of that time. Necessity and the mothers of invention had come up with all manner of modifications to keep humanity rolling down the road.

Directly in front of his door was Alonso in his truck, the hood gone to allow for the fuel system, a swear-to-God moonshine still that produced alcohol steam. The bed was full of firewood, two enormous semi radiators fixed on either side to cool down the scaldingly fast engine, a design of Alonso’s own making. The morning sun shone on his shaved pate and a pair of goggles made of tin and rubber with a very narrow window to look out of. He swore they were the next best thing to a pair of Wayfarers in the desert.

“Ah! There she is!” Dancy exclaimed, spreading his hands with joy as he laid eyes on his own transport. It was a hopped-up combine with dual motors that came from eighteen wheelers. One ran on their own blend of gasoline made here in town, the other on steam. The latter was regulated by a massive pipe organ mounted behind the cab and when it engaged, the warblers pumped clouds of steam into the pipes. Of course, the organ no longer functioned as a musical instrument but that was okay. When his baby started playing her song it was wonderful to hear. The firewood in the back of Alonso’s truck was for her, the firebox situated where the cutting deck had once been.

He looked at the strange assortment of other rides. One was a stripped-down Corvette with heavy-duty rubber webbing instead of metal doors. Another was a pickup sitting on tank tracks with a cattle guard mounted on the front for pushing shit out of the way. The thing would be impossibly slow for their purposes if not for the 500 hp police engine under the hood. But they were in no real hurry. Dancy knew every settlement within two hundred miles and Degan had assured him JoJo had gone missing not much more than fifty miles away. No one around had the fuel power to outrun him. He’d made sure of this.

With Felicia on her leash, he led her to Alonso’s passenger door and opened it. He threw up a bag of food and water. “She’s riding with you.”

“Okay, boss.”

Dancy jumped into the cab of the combine in the special seat added for him, a captain’s chair with adjustable headrest and swivels so he could make astute observations as they traveled. He was pleased to see his driver was Mary Teague, a wise-cracking mechanic friend of Kick. She wasn’t bad looking and was a sniper-quality hand with a rifle. This was going to be an interesting foray.

Leaning out the widow, he whirled his arm around like the drover of a cattle drive. “Move ‘em out!” And off they went.

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