South Eutaw Street, Baltimore, Maryland – 2043.
‘I saw what you did to that man, Bounty Hunter. How can you be sure the target he identified is still in the building? Tortured men will tell you anything to make the pain stop.’
Elijah Jones tightened the grip on the Glock17, shifting a little as he knelt at the corner of Eutaw Street. The African American looked across to the boarded building that was once the Sports Legend Museum. The red brick of the long building stood shrouded in shadow against the blue sky background and the brown dust road that ran in front of it. White window frames now laced with brown and green mould hinted at decades of disuse. The three-tiered central tower stood high over the boarded-up main entrance and once had four clock faces on the main points of the compass. The timepieces had long since been scavenged and sold on. Sweat dripped from his bald head and down his temples. The brown cotton shirt below his military webbing was soaked through, and he wiped the beads of salt from his brow with his gun hand. The heat was bearable in Maryland. The man kneeling behind him was not.
‘I told you not to talk to me until we’re inside, Alonso,’ Elijah said.
‘That’s Captain Alonso, buddy.’
Elijah edged backwards in a crouch, not taking his eye off the large, red building with its dirty white cornerstones and window cornices. Scanning upwards to the centre of the three clock towers he saw movement below one of the large radio antennae. A head popped through one of the arched windows, and the individual scanned the empty street that passed in front of the building.
‘A word, Elijah,’ Captain Alonso said.
Elijah held his hand up.
‘Don’t tell me to wait. I need to speak to you now.’
The Bounty Hunter puffed his cheeks and let out a sharp breath. Staring up at the bell tower, he saw the person had retreated. He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. Shouts broke out to the left of the museum from a makeshift trading stall. Three Scavengers were arguing with a trader who had a shotgun trained on them. Their voices echoed against the derelict buildings that surrounded them. Elijah’s informant had mentioned the side street down the left side of the museum was used as a makeshift market for those brave enough to venture out to trade. The man holding the shortened shotgun stood behind a small table that was piled up with kitchen goods. The trader stood in defiance as the middle figure of the three men who were spread out in front of him stepped forward, shaking his finger at the trader. Elijah looked up at the clock tower again.
The standoff would attract the attention of his bounty, and he would be spooked into going underground again. The chase would start all over again, and his paymaster wouldn’t be happy at his failure. They were desperate to catch this man, so Elijah had time. Patience was his golden rule.
‘Elijah. Now, please.’
Turning around, he looked back at the captain from the New American Government Army. The NAG acronym was used out in the Floodzones and Scavenged lands for good reason. Elijah stood up and walked past ten of his men who were all crouched together along the wall, thug recruits every one of them. A mixed-race group of varying ages, who would do anything for a quick NAG voucher. Scavenged jackets, helmets and body armour covered their dirty shirts and brown and black long pants. Elijah’s gaze caught the last man’s and he looked down at the man’s shirt. Several gang patches had been sewn onto the sleeve, trophies from corpses, no doubt. Living gang members didn’t surrender their gang colours.
He looked ahead to the athletic figure of the captain who’d walked away from the scene. A swaggering walk as his shoulders swung his right arm around a holstered sidearm.
Elijah holstered his Glock and turned to his right, walking around the back of the concrete building. Adjacent to the building was an overgrown courtyard that was surrounded by a square of old office blocks. Tall clumps of grass had taken control where workers had once spent their lunch breaks. Now a group of feral dogs were lying in the shade of the grass, licking themselves and resting after a night of scouring for food. Alonso was waiting for him, his foot tapping ever so slightly. The man was of Hispanic ancestry and had taken off his brown helmet to run his hand through the short black hair. Dark brown eyes watched the Bounty Hunter approach.
‘Can you address me as captain in front of those thugs of yours? At least until we enter the building. As per your agreement with Chancellor Byrdich, I’m still in charge, and they need to respect that.’
‘Of course… Captain,’ Elijah said. ‘They just don’t like you NAG boys very much.’
The soldier folded his arms and glared at him. As he shifted in his stance, his gaze was drawn to their left where two feral dogs were sniffing around a corpse. One grabbed at the leg of the Scavenger and started pulling. The drunk man reared up and screamed at the dogs, which beat a hasty retreat, tails curled beneath them.
‘I hate this damn place,’ Captain Alonso said.
‘Go back to cushy Manhattan then. I don’t need you.’
‘You don’t know with any certainty if your target is even in the building. The information could be false, and all you’ve done is led us here on a dying man’s confession.’
‘Information is information, and I have three leads pointing us to Baltimore. As for that Scavenger, we all die in the end. It was his time.’
‘Jesus, you’re bloody evil.’
‘I don’t care what you think of me. My reputation speaks for itself, and I know what I’m doing.’
‘Bullshit. We can get the Hooded Man on our own.’
‘Need I remind you how many times the NAG has tried and failed to get him? You have let him get away three times this year alone. I’m here to clean up all your mess. The target may not be in that building. The prisoner said he’d seen him there weeks ago. Leads come and go, and this is a lead that needs looking into. He may or may not be in there. We move on regardless.’
Captain Alonso shook his head and placed his helmet back on, the muscle in his jaw twitching as he stared up at Elijah. ‘I’ll give the command to go in. Is that clear?’
Elijah felt the bile rising in his throat. Grabbing the captain by his shirtfront, he pushed him against the wall. ‘I’ve chased men like this for most of my life, and I’m getting close to my bounty. I can smell it. We go when I am ready.’
‘Take your hands off me.’
‘I have the authorisation from Byrdich to go in there with my men when I see fit. Stay out of my way, and you won’t get hurt,’ Elijah said, letting go of the man. ‘I’ll get this man in my own time.’
Captain Alonso blinked a few times. ‘I can see why you got a dishonourable discharge.’
Elijah stared at him then twisted his head to the side to click his neck, releasing the tension as the adrenaline pumped through him.
‘You’re no better than these Scavengers, Bounty Hunter. I’ll be making a full report back to NAG operations,’ Captain Alonso said.
Elijah lifted his finger and pressed it to the captain’s chest, forcing him against the wall. ‘You do what you like but, stay out of my way, little boy,’ he said.
He turned and walked away, his fist clenched tight to dig his nails into his palms. Reaching for his Glock, he walked up behind the ten men who were still crouching against the wall on the pavement.
‘Stand up, you three,’ he said, addressing the closest men. ‘Go around the back of the building and surround that noisy street vendor. Move all those Scavengers along, but don’t fire off any shots. As soon as they’re gone, take up positions at the back of the museum and wait until you hear from me.’
The three men blinked and looked at one another, the man nearest to Elijah speaking first. He had long black hair that stuck out below a khaki helmet, and gaps between his teeth, allowing the stench of rotting teeth and gums to waft towards Elijah. ‘Is it really him that we’re going to try and take down? We heard Alonso mention the Hooded Man earlier.’
Elijah reached forward and grabbed the man by the front of his brown combat webbing.
‘Focus on what I tell you to do, not that NAG idiot,’ Elijah said. ‘It doesn’t matter if it is him holed up in that building or not. We’re here to do a job.’
‘Boss, do you know how many gang members he’s killed? There aren’t enough of us here. Can’t Alonso get more men?’ Elijah pushed the man backwards, who then grabbed on to his friend next to him as he fell on his backside.
‘Go and chase those Scavengers off, or I’ll shoot you myself. Are you a coward who’s afraid of a few folks who are down on their luck?’ The man stared at him, blinking rapidly. ‘Do you want to go back to scratching a living in the muck and grime, fighting with wealthy Floodlanders for handouts? I’m paying you to move those people along then go into that building with me. Are you on board with that, or do I end your life here in front of your friends?’
‘We’ll move them on, sir.’
‘I thought you might,’ Elijah said. ‘And remember that the Hooded Man probably has a family and bleeds when shot. He’s not a god, so don’t give him your fear unless he is standing over your dying body. You understand me?’
The sounds of Mozart’s piano concerto No. 23 piped from a digital player on a small table to the left of a large, dark-brown desk. Retired engineering professor Paul Hoskins sat curled over a large black notebook as he scribbled passages from a burnt and blackened book that was placed on a stand in front of him. His assistant shuffled up next to him.
‘You’ll damage your eyesight if you keep squinting like that,’ the younger man said, standing beside him.
Paul looked up at the good-looking young man and smiled. A grin appeared on the young man’s face, laugh lines stretching at the corners of his brown eyes. The professor reached up and combed back the blond fop of a fringe with his arthritic hand. Paul took the thin-rimmed spectacles from his nose and looked at the clear tape that held the lenses together. ‘Jonathan, you worry too much. I’ll try the market again next week to see if they have a better pair.’
‘You say that all the time, yet you never venture out,’ Jonathan said, placing his hand on the shoulder of the professor’s tweed jacket. ‘You do know that it’s open every day now? Not just once a week.’
‘I know that. I’m not daft. I have so much to do, that’s all. We have two rooms full of rescued books and digital recordings to transcribe. Our new digital library will not build itself,’ Paul said, looking into the young man’s brown eyes.
‘Yes, my love. I know it’s important to you.’
‘I’m not doing this for me, Jonathan. This is a chronicle of all that’s happened to the planet since the Kharon virus. There are no universities or libraries around to do this anymore. Think of all the history we’ve lost in the new world.’
Jonathan smiled at him as the concerto ended. The DJ started talking again. ‘Must you listen to Radio Cognito? You know what’ll happen if you get caught. It’s prohibited, and I don’t want us to go to jail. Think of all those slimy Scavengers.’
‘I know it’s banned. That’s exactly why I need to keep taking notes about what they discuss. We’re all making new history here. It’s a valuable mouthpiece for all the good and bad that’s happening out there.’
‘It’s been outlawed by the NAG, and I’m sure they have a good reason to do so.’
‘Rubbish. They just want to control the narrative. You’re too young to remember the press censorship at the beginning of the century. Had more people listened to this type of stations our species may not have had to suffer as much as we have.’
Jonathan rolled his eyes and walked over to a small percolator to get the jug of coffee out. He topped up the mug in front of Paul. ‘You’d better enjoy this as we’ll have to trade in the coffee machine for your new glasses.’
‘Don’t be silly. We’ll find something else to trade. We have boxes of freeze-dried coffee beans. They’re worth a fortune out there to the wealthy Floodlanders.’
‘And we can make other more valuable trades for with them.’
‘Forget it. It’s not up for discussion. Wait. Turn up the volume.’
Jonathan stabbed at the radio, increasing the volume. The volume of the voice raised to fill the room.
‘Welcome back, folks. As promised, we have a special guest with us today on Radio Cognito. We won’t use her real name, and for the purpose of the interview will call her Sharon. Welcome, Sharon.’
‘Hello, Mike and Andy. Thanks for having me on the show.’ Sharon’s voice was soft with a West Coast lilt.
‘You reached out to us a few weeks ago via email to shed more light on the number one hero of the moment. A man who is being sought by NAG, warlords and gang lords alike. You have a story to tell us about the Hooded Man.’
‘I do, and it’s also a great chance to get on the air and tell the Cognito listeners.’
‘And don’t forget our friendly NAG intelligence wing who are our biggest fans.’
Sharon laughed. ‘Of course. All listeners need to hear about the man and his great work.’
‘Some say he’s just a thief who looks after himself first then occasionally hands out what he doesn’t want.’
‘That’s not true, Mike.’
‘Did he really help you out at the hamlet you were staying at?’
‘More than that. He risked his life and went out of his way to obtain valuable antibiotics that we needed for our sick and wounded.’
‘Where did he get the drugs from?’
‘He and his team stole them from a NAG stronghold.’
Jonathan turned the radio off.
‘I was bloody listening to that,’ Paul said, leaning back in his chair.
‘I know, and that’s the problem. You’re going to get us locked up if you continue to support this station.’
‘Turn it back on you, silly boy. Stop worrying so much. I’ve got so much of our new history from these two blokes. Why would I stop now?’
‘You’ve heard what the NAG said in the market square. There’s a reward for the Hooded Man. Maybe we should catch him and turn him in.’
‘Watch your tongue, boy, or I’ll throw you out on your arse.’
Jonathan’s eyes widened, and his hand flew up to his mouth.
‘What you’re witnessing is a modern-day Robin Hood. A man who flaunts his success in the face of the law all the while helping the poor. We need more people like that out there in the Floodzone.’
‘Who is Robin Hood?’
‘Bleeding heck, we have a lot of work to do on your education. Now turn the radio back on.’
‘No, I’m sorry. I won’t risk what you and I have built here to follow a mythical man and his followers. You have said that we need to rebuild the human race after the sea-level rise and the Kharon virus. The NAG wants to do that as much as you do.’
‘No, dear boy. They want to control us all, and you start by stifling free speech. They want a census that will mark us with barcodes, so they can control us wherever we go. That’s what we must fight against. A hundred years ago, we went through a world war to ensure freedom for people. It will come to that again. Now turn the radio on, please, so I can do my bit.’
Jonathan’s shoulders slumped. ‘What if they find out what you are doing?’
‘All the more reason for me to document and archive these conversations and catalogue what is happening. It’s on a secure server, and someday will be available to all, including the NAG.’
‘But that means they can track us.’
‘We’ve been through this already. They have no interest in us at this time because there are senior figures within the NAG who’ve tasked me to archive this history. They did so on the proviso that I don’t share any details with the public until it’s all complete. Obviously, I am sharing it as I complete each area. They turn a blind eye because they know me leaking it will make people provide more information.’
‘That can change at any point in the future.’
‘You’re correct, but we’ve been over this a hundred times. They’re too busy trying to stop the fighting between the Scavengers and the Floodlanders. A solution to that problem is going to keep them busy for many years.’
‘It’s so silly that we can’t all just get along.’
‘Ever the romantic, aren’t you, my sweet boy?’ Paul said, smiling at his partner. ‘It’s a tale as old as men and women themselves. People who have nothing will always look with envy at those who have more. In reality, you cannot blame the Scavengers, because their resentment has been building up for a while now. They only want a better life for themselves and their families. They only want what you and I are lucky to have.’
‘Please don’t call us Floodlanders. I hate that.’
‘I know you do, but it’s the truth. It’s why you will always be in danger when you go out there. Danger from those who want what you have and are spiteful enough to kill you for it. It wasn’t always like this, and someday we may get to the point of a peaceful existence again.’
An electronic shrill broke their conversation. The satphone was ringing on a small table by the window. Paul walked over to get it.
‘Hello?’ There was a pause as he listened.
‘Hello again, Paul.’ The voice of a man he hadn’t spoken to in a while. ‘We’re desperate for news of a large gang terrorising the Tennessee area. We’ve lost a young girl to them and have not been able to track them.’
‘Hi, there. Glad to hear that you are still alive. Just give me a minute,’ Paul said, glancing up towards Jonathan. Paul turned and walked towards the window.
‘You’re not alone?’
‘Correct, and that is terrible news, so thanks for letting me know.’
‘Sorry to put you on the spot here but you’ve been of great help in the past with your sources into the gangs.
‘Of course. I’ll help in any way I can.’ The professor turned to see Jonathan standing closer to him, his arms folded.
‘Anything that can get us on the track of these bastards again will help. When can you contact your sources?’
‘I’ll get the word out to my main source, and she can spread the word to see if anything comes back. We don’t have many contacts in your part of the world.’
Paul looked at Jonathan; one hand had gone up to his mouth, and he was tapping a finger on his lips.
‘I appreciate it. We all do.’
‘I’ll call or text if I hear anything. Take care of yourself.’
The professor hung up and walked back over to his desk.
‘Who was that?’ Jonathan asked, following him.
‘A girlfriend of Sarah, who needs her help. It seems they’re on the run from the NAG and need an enclave to seek refuge. She’ll be going on air again this week and can ask for any help out there for them.’
Jonathan raised his hands to his face, blowing heavily into them. A long sigh echoed against his palms. ‘I love you, Paul, but you are going to get us killed or captured.’
Paul walked over to him and hugged the young man, kissing the top of his head. ‘While we’re in the fortunate position to have the ear of the NAG, we must do whatever we can to help those in need out there.’
‘Even if we die.’
‘We all die in the end. What’s more important is how we lived, so it’s important to me that we continue to help others.’
Paul stared at the open doorway Jonathan had just walked through. He was desperate for a drink. Tough decisions made the cravings rage inside him worse. He loved the boy but would have to hand him back to the gangs if he betrayed the cause.
West of Johnson City, Tennessee – 2043
The bastard ahead of them had a thirty or forty-metre head start. He’d melted away into the red dust cloud the fusion truck had thrown up as its heavy bulk was brought to a halt. The side door of the truck opened, and a streak of black and white flew through the opening and out into the cloud.
‘Get him, dog,’ the man shouted as he stepped out after the animal. Placing his arm through the strap of the shotgun, he flung it over his back and walked after the barking animal. Red dust engulfed him as he walked. Dust that made you lose direction in seconds. A man screamed somewhere ahead of him. Below the black and white scarf that covered the Hooded Man’s face, he smiled. He adjusted his round pilot’s goggles and pulled the brown hood of his jacket forward over his head. Another scream. Walking slowly towards the sound, he unclipped the strap over the Glock in the hip holster. The dust was thinning on the hot breeze, drifting away to the left.
Leafless bushes were dotted around small boulders that lay strewn around to the side of the gravel road they’d stopped on. Beyond that, sheets of black rock lay like cold oases in the sands. Red expanses extended up to the horizon of the cloudless sky.
Ahead of him was the man, lying on his back in amongst the dead scrub, kicking out with his legs as he rolled around to counter the dog’s attack. The animal twisted and snarled as it dodged the flailing limbs, biting hard on the juicy bits when they presented themselves. The man rolled to his left and raised both his arms to protect his face and throat. The three-legged dog was tearing at unprotected bits, grabbing a piece and then jerking backwards a couple of times. The fabric came away from the screaming man’s clothes. The dog shook a piece of cloth from side to side then dropped it. Convinced it was dead, it targeted another unprotected area and took a bite. More screaming followed as the man pushed at the dog, clawing at its fur.
Silly mistake, thought the Hooded Man. The dog latched on to the hand that was pawing at it and started to tug, and the barren landscape filled with another scream.
A long crack of a pistol shot drowned out the screams. The dog yanked the man’s hand once more then looked up, bloody fingers protruding out of the side of his jaw.
‘Enough of that, Toby,’ the Hooded Man said as he walked up to the cowering man.
‘Lie still, you bloody idiot. He’ll only stop if he thinks you’re dead. I could shoot you to prove that point, but it would be a waste of a bullet.’ The man went limp.
‘Let him go, dog.’
Toby looked up at the man with the covered face. He blinked as his ribbed frame expanded and contracted, straining to breathe with the bloody hand in his mouth. He looked past the Hooded Man to the truck and the second man approaching.
‘Let him go, you feral bastard. I’m not going to argue with you this time,’ the man said, grabbing Toby’s long tail. He pulled hard. The dog dropped the hand, yelping as he turned to bite the hand gripping his tail, but it was already clear of the gnashing teeth.
‘Get back to the truck,’ the man shouted, stamping his foot. Toby bounced away, his tail curled below him. Stopping ten metres away, he licked his lips and quickly sat down to gnaw at a flea on his back leg.
The Hooded Man holstered the Glock and placed his foot on the man’s shoulder. ‘I would advise against running off again.’
‘Please keep reminding me never to piss that dog off,’ came a voice from behind him.
The Hooded Man looked back at the soldier who was approaching. Shoulder-length light-brown hair, green eyes and a black scarf pulled up over his mouth. He had brown body armour beneath black combat webbing, with brown pants, tucked into black boots.
‘He does love you, Smithy.’
‘He hates my guts but tolerates you. There’s no justice in this bloody world.’
‘I feed him every day, so he sees me as the alpha male.’
‘Keep telling yourself that. He’d kill any one of us given half a chance,’ Smithy said, standing near the feet of the trembling man. ‘Now, who do we have here?’
They focused on the skinny waif of a man, who slowly rolled onto his back and then pushed himself upright, glancing over at the dog all the time. He looked down at his wounded hand and wiped it on his trouser leg. ‘It is you. I know who you are. Please don’t let the dog near me again,’ he said, pulling at his jacket as red dust fell from him.
‘That depends on the next words to come out of your mouth. I’m going to ask you a few questions, and I expect answers,’ the Hooded Man said.
‘I don’t know anything. I promise.’
‘You will tell me everything in the end. You all do,’ the Hooded Man said, reaching up and pulling the scarf down from his mouth and nose. He slipped the hoodie back off his head and wrestled the goggles down his face, allowing them to hang around his neck. ‘I see from your colours that you’re a 38 Street Roadster gang member.’
The gang member turned his face away and lifted his hand to shield his view. He was still trembling. ‘I know what happens to those who see your face. I’ve seen nothing at all. I won’t tell a soul I’ve met you.’
‘Where do you 38 Street scum currently call home?’
The man looked to the ground, his shoulders trembling as if he was freezing.
Gibbs shifted in his stance. ‘You kidnapped a young blonde girl who’s a good friend of ours. You will tell me everything I need to know to get her back safely.’
‘I don’t know the girl you’re talking about.’
Smithy stamped on the legs of the man on the floor. He cried out as a shotgun was jammed into his groin area. Smithy ground his heavy black boot into the man’s ankle, twisting it with his entire body weight. The man screamed and scratched at the legs of his torturer. He went quiet, his eyes widening as the tall man pressed the barrel of the shotgun against his chest. He fell backwards onto his elbows, and his lip started to quiver as the shotgun moved back towards his crotch.
‘Tell him something, please, or I’ll be forced to blow your junk off,’ Smithy said.
‘It won’t matter if you did. I was castrated ten years ago. Rebus made sure I’ll never have sex again.’
‘Who is Rebus?’
‘You must have heard of him. He is our feared leader.’
‘Never heard of him, but I like this Rebus already,’ the Hooded Man said. ‘Why did he make you a eunuch?’
‘He has plenty of young boys and girls there. Anyone goes near them gets mutilated or killed. I’m guessing your young friend is with him,’ the man said, pulling his knees up to his chest. He started to shake violently, saliva dribbling from his lower lip.
‘The man has the withdrawals,’ Smithy said. ‘Hey, fuckknuckle, when was your last hit?’
He looked upwards, his eyes glazed over. ‘Rebus will either have used your girl or killed her for failing to satisfy him.’
The Hooded Man swung a left fist as hard as he could, smashing it squarely onto the man’s face. A gruesome crunch rang out into the desert. Toby raised his head, ears pointing forward.
‘Tell us more about this Rebus character, or I bring the dog back to the party.’
The man moaned and touched his face, looking at the blood on his fingers as he pulled them away. He stared up at the Hooded Man, fear mixed with anger. ‘He’s our leader. Our father. Took us all in and looks after us if we do whatever he wants. And he’s going to kill you both plus that mangy fleabag over there.’
The shotgun roared as a blast of lead smashed into the gang member’s foot. He rolled onto his back and screamed into the desert floor.
‘Mate, you’re not telling us anything that will bring our friend back,’ the Hooded Man said.
The man whimpered and rocked back and forth. ‘Go and speak to Rebus.’
The Hooded Man felt the heat rising on the back of his neck. This was going nowhere. ‘I’ve been asking you all along where Rebus is, and you denied knowing. Now you tell me to go and speak to him. I would love nothing better, you idiot.’
The gang member blinked a few times trying to push himself up again. ‘Fuck you.’
The Hooded Man roared up to the heavens, his eyes squeezed shut. It was a roar of frustration and fear. Fear for the life of a helpless girl. The force of the left hook threw the gang member onto his back, the sound of more cartilage crushing making Toby get up and take a few steps closer. A choking sound came from the 38 Street member as his body went rigid and started to shake violently.
‘Drug seizure. Damn it,’ Smithy said. ‘He’s not going to be any use to us now.’
A loud growl came from behind them, followed by a blur of fur grabbing the man’s bloody foot. Crunching and ripping. Toby shook the man’s foot.
The Hooded Man stepped away and turned to Smithy. ‘I’ve failed her like so many others. We’re no closer to rescuing her. Another dead-end lead,’ he said, turning back to look at Toby.
‘He’s an addict, Gibbs. One hit away from death. You’ve saved hundreds in this hellhole, so you haven’t failed her yet. This idiot was a 38 Street Roadster, and we’ve now confirmed previous rumours of the Rebus character being their leader. Let’s take that as a small win.’
‘An eleven-year-old has no place being out there in the world with any gang.’
‘We’re getting closer and will find her soon. It’s what we do. Look at the thousands of lives you’ve helped save from these scumbags in the last ten years.’
Kyle Gibbs looked at his best friend and then down at the corpse of the gang member, his throat ripped open. ‘What’s the point of it all if I cannot protect one of our own?’
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