Brookfield Place. Battery Park City, Manhattan, NYC – 2044
The noise of rapid footfalls made him freeze.
Glancing over his shoulder, Elijah Jones looked through the gap in the half-opened door and out into the corridor. Light streamed into his darkened office that was only lit by the yellow-bulb lamp on his desk. Waiting a few seconds, he caught a glimpse of a woman in military fatigues hurrying past. He recognised her by her black ponytail. One of his admin staff. Taking a deep breath, he faced the green wall safe again. Running his thumb over the side edge of the metal door, he felt sharp, twisted gouges in the metal.
Someone had tried to force the door. His heart raced as he took a step back and looked at the meter-square front steel door, which was mounted at head height within the mahogany bookcase. The entire old office was wall-to-wall bookcases. It was the height of Victorian luxury with dark hardwoods, brown leather, and gold-plated lamps. The opulent office for a top official in the New American Government, or NAG for short. Elijah was the Minister of Defence and Crime Prevention.
The NAG was formed after the collapse of global governments and civilisation in general. After the three-metre sea-level rise, the world was forever altered. In the brutal years that followed, a group of billionaires had tried and failed to set up a single government for the planet. It failed rapidly. Out of its ashes rose the New Governments that encompassed larger regions. North and South America were unified and governed by the NAG.
Wiping his brow, Elijah tugged at his white shirt collar, which was fastened with a red tie. He twisted his head as if he was trying to free himself. The only way to see if the intruders got what they’d come for was to look inside. He walked around the oversized teak desk and across the Persian rug towards the white panelled main door.
Opening it, he peered outside into the white-walled corridor. A yellow glow from the dirty night lights made him squint. Energy rationing in the evenings affected those in high office like everyone else. His office was on the corner of the skyscraper, and he was lucky enough to have a skywalk on his floor that connected him to the two other skyscrapers that formed the NAG headquarters. Skywalks that kept him above the flooded streets.
Closing his office door, he turned the key in the lock and returned to the safe. It was an old model with a faded brass nameplate on the front, just above the large keyhole. He reached down to his leather belt and undid the large chrome buckle. Twisting it over revealed the top of the key protruding from the white stitching of the belt, nestled in its secret compartment.
The safe unlocked with a hefty turn of the key, then opened with a twist of the large brass-plated handle. Swinging the heavy door open, he reached inside and felt the large pile of folders. His heart quickened as he felt for the object on top of the pile. It was gone. Opening the door wider, he squinted into the darkness. He could see his two Glock pistols and boxes of rounds. Reaching to the side of them, he felt his heart leap. The feel of old leather made him smile as the hair on his neck tingled. The leather pouch was still there.
A loud knock on the door jolted him as his stomach lurched. Spinning his head around, he stared at the door. ‘Sweet Jesus, man. Calm down. You just locked it,’ he said out loud.
The knock came again. Louder and faster.
‘Yes? Who is it?’
‘It’s Bryan, Minister.’
Elijah’s shoulders dropped as he reached up for the safe door and locked it. Reaching down near his right knee, he lifted the photograph of an old New York cityscape he’d found at a local market and hung it back over the safe.
Walking to the door, he buckled his belt and tugged at the front of the shirt to make sure it was straight. The anxiety was back.
‘Hello, Bryan?’ he said as he opened the door.
‘Hello, Minister,’ the man said, looking over his shoulder down the corridor.
‘It’s late. I would have expected you to be at Byrdich’s side at this hour,’ Elijah said.
‘He’s entertaining tonight, so he has given me a pile of admin to take care of.’
Elijah stood a while, staring at the short and slim civil servant. Bryan Tinoco’s boyish face belied his age as he smoothed down his black hair from left to right. A quick press of his thin moustache always followed.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘I need a quick word in private, sir.’
‘Can’t this wait until morning? I’m about to leave.’
‘Sorry, sir. It’ll only take a minute.’
Elijah stepped to the side of the doorway and let the man through. He glided in and walked over to one of the two leather chairs in front of the desk. He stood to the side of the chair and straightened his grey suit jacket. Elijah glanced down at the polished black shoes. Pristine. The man had never done a hard day’s work out in the Floodzone in his life.
‘May I?’ he asked, pointing to the chair.
Elijah nodded and walked around his desk, past the safe to the large full-length window that overlooked New York at the side of the office. It was black outside except for a few well-lit NAG buildings that were all linked by power cables that ran beneath the skywalks. The entire complex was powered by the main fusion reactor on the roof above him. Revolutionary fusion technology was the only saving grace after the climate change event.
‘Minister, I have a complaint to make.’
Elijah sighed, clenching his teeth. ‘What is it this time?’
‘Benicio has been threatening my family and me. It’s like being harassed by a crazy hyena.’
‘A good start to fixing the problem might be to call him Mr Ortega. It might not offend him as much.’
The silence made Elijah turn away from his nightscape and face the seated man. He was stroking his moustache again, his mouth pinched like a spoilt child. Elijah had the urge to beat the crap out of him, and had it been a few years earlier, the little snake would have been on the ground bleeding by now. He rubbed his thumb over his fingertips then stretched his fingers outwards.
‘Secondly, he’s harassing you because you’ve failed to uphold your side of our arrangement.’
‘No, I haven’t, sir.’
‘Interrupt me again, and I’ll make a call to Ortega. He’d love to have another forceful chat with you.’
The man gulped.
‘We agreed that you’d spy on Chancellor Byrdich and keep us apprised of all his plans.’
‘And I have.’
Elijah raised his hand and looked down at his own black shoes that were caked in dried tidal mud. His anger was going up another notch, and he forced a deep exaggerated breath, staring at Bryan. ‘You and your parents live in that big fancy house, with all the trappings of wealthy Floodlanders. You’re a thief who got caught accepting bribes in return for favours and pretty toys. You’re lucky we caught you before Byrdich did. His last advisor got hung in the main square for stealing from him.’
Bryan nodded, looking down as he picked at his fingernails. ‘It doesn’t give Mr Ortega the right to be so brutal.’
‘You’ve failed to report back to us in over a week. Ortega wants to throw all of you out into the Floodzone to live with the Scavengers. I’m helping you out here, Bryan, but I don’t know how long I can keep him from doing that.’
‘Thank you, Minister. I’m trying to get more information for you. Michael is extremely busy preparing for the warlord’s summit and isn’t doing much of anything else.’
‘I know what he’s doing because I am part of those damn preparations. He’s doing that out in the open as a cover. What I want is information about what he’s doing behind closed doors.’
‘You already know about his vices and tendencies.’
‘I’m not talking about the young women and his sordid sex life. What about the other rumours? There’s talk between other advisors that he’s doing something to guarantee the support of all his ministers. Rumours of leverage over all of us. What leverage is that?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Are you not his chief advisor?’
‘But you don’t know what he’s up to,’ Elijah said, folding his arms. ‘How come the junior advisors below you hear things that you seem deaf to?’
Bryan shook his head. ‘That can’t be true, sir.’
‘Are you telling me that Ortega’s other sources are lying to him? Maybe I’d better get him to come in to clear this up.’
Bryan jumped up and backed towards the door. ‘Give me a day or two, Minister. Let me see what’s going on.’
‘You have forty-eight hours, and be very careful during your inquiry. Don’t think these overambitious young advisors won’t sell either one of us out to the highest bidder.’
‘Leave it with me, sir.’
‘One final question. Do you think you’ve been rumbled by the Chancellor? Does he know you are working for us now?’
‘No, he doesn’t.’
‘I’ve warned you to be careful before, but you need to be honest with me so I can see off any danger to us all.’
‘I have been careful, sir. If he’d had even the smallest inkling, I was spying for you, I’d have been hanged or sent to the prison ships by now.’
Elijah watched the man’s eyes darting around. The fear level was too high to continue the conversation. He could read the fear in another man’s eyes all too well. His previous career as a bounty hunter had seen to that. ‘You have two days, then Ortega and his teams will visit your mom and dad to throw you out. I promise to make sure you’ll never get to enjoy any of that wealth you’ve stolen.’
Bryan’s bottom lip started to quiver as he turned and walked out, shaking his head.
Elijah turned back to the darkness outside his window. He took a step closer to the glass and leant his head up against it. Coolness emanated from them. It was going to be a cold night in the Floodzone. He missed the deserts of Midstate New America, but that was a whole different life. A life of danger and secrets. Secrets that needed to stay hidden out in the dunes.
Tennessee State Capitol building, Nashville, Tennessee – 2044
Two men blocked his path. Shaven-headed thugs that he had grown to despise.
The cavernous hallway of the Tennessee State Capitol building was a cool blessing compared to the heat of summer beyond its doors. Rico Lopez stood looking at the guards who blocked the two dark wood doors on either side of a portrait of an old president he didn’t recognise. Both men were in NAG army fatigues confirming the Nashville warlord’s claim that he had influence in New York. Rico clenched his fists as his gaze flicked from man to man. He could take them individually, but not as a pair. The new Sig Sauer P226 he’d liberated from another gang’s leader was digging into his backside from his back belt holster. It wouldn’t take much to whip it out and get into a fight with the guards. He smiled at them. He was here for business, so satisfying his urge to kill would have to wait.
‘How long must I wait for this idiot?’ he said, his Hispanic accent drawing a gaze from one of the NAG men. ‘I’ve been here for a fucking hour already.’
Turning around on the smooth marbled floor, he looked up and down the hall, staring upwards to the elevated ceilings. It resembled the inside of the abandoned Nashville cathedral his grandmother used to drag him to. He blessed himself with the sign of the cross and kissed his thumbnail at the thought of her. Taking a step down the hallway, the grit underneath his black leather boots crackled on the tiled floor. He touched the purple bandana that wrapped his head. A bead of sweat dripped down onto his eyebrow.
A metallic click echoed through the hallway, and a petite woman dressed in a black business suit walked out behind the guard from the left door. The guard nodded to her and stepped aside, placing his right hand on the weapon on his holster.
‘JJ will see you now, Mr Lopez.’
Rico felt his anger rise. She was talking down at him, and he despised people who did that. A man of his standing in Nashville should be respected more. He walked up to her and stared at her, his face moving closer to hers. She withdrew slightly.
‘Get in there, will you,’ the guard said.
Rico leered at the woman, trying to get her to meet his gaze. She turned and walked into the room. He watched her svelte figure float across the red carpet towards a large desk at the rear of the Capitol Library. The warlord was a man who liked to show off his status as the leader of Nashville, so he had commandeered the enormous building. Rico stepped up to the guard, clenching his teeth as he stared up at the man.
‘In ya go, Pagan,’ the guard said, nodding his head towards the open door. ‘Leave the door open, so I can make sure you don’t steal anything.’
Rico blinked and reached around his back with one arm. The guard stepped back and pulled at his pistol slightly. Rico smiled and brought his right hand up, flicking up the middle finger. ‘You’re so tough in front of your friend here. I look forward to seeing you alone out in the streets.’
Rico walked through the door with his chest bursting. These army men were soft and weak-minded, unlike his men. He was leader of the Pagans, the main gang of Nashville, but someday, he would rule all the gangs in the state.
‘Good morning, Rico,’ the warlord said. Johnson J. Wainright, or JJ as he preferred everyone to call him, was the man sitting behind the ornately carved desk at the other side of the room. The delicate piece of skirt had walked off to a small desk to the side to continue her work. Rico licked his lips slightly. They tasted of cigarettes.
‘What makes you think you can keep me waiting, JJ?’ Rico said.
‘Sorry, buddy. I had a few things to sort out with New York, so I needed a little privacy.’
Rico had stopped in front of the desk and leant on it, his hands covering old newspapers and files. ‘I’ve warned you before about treating me like a common thug. A snap of my fingers, and you’ll have anarchy in the streets. Your precious NAG platoon will cry like babies when the blood starts to flood up against their feet.’
The warlord smiled and leant back in his chair. He ran his hand through his receding grey hairline and tucked his thumbs into the red braces that curved around his bounteous belly. The front of his shirt was stained with a dark food sauce.
‘Rico, my old friend. I must apologise if you thought that I was deliberately keeping you waiting. I’m also a little hurt you think that’s how I view you and the Pagans. We’ve been business partners long enough not to have to stand on ceremony anymore,’ JJ said, swinging forward as he rolled himself up onto his feet. He waddled around the desk and walked over to a part of the bookcases of the old library. Grabbing a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, he walked back and came and stood next to Rico, passing him a glass.
Rico was taller than the warlord, and it made him feel better. This was a snivelling rich boy from a family of wealth. ‘This one of your daddy’s whiskeys?’
JJ smiled. ‘It’s one of my own. My father no longer does the brewing,’ he said, pouring a healthy three fingers into their glasses, then necked his. Rico chuckled a little and drank his too. It was smoother than anything he’d had in a long while. ‘What can I do for you, Rico? What is so bloody urgent?’
Rico rubbed the dirty cloth that was wrapped around his left forearm. The knife wound was deep, and his medic had struggled with the stitches. He grew angrier when he thought of his tattoos that would be ruined. His whole body was adorned with symbols of his thirty-five years on the planet. ‘My scouts tell me that you’ve recently had the warehouse replenished. I want to know how that could be possible without you notifying me? We have an arrangement.’
‘Many shipments come and go in this city. Do you want to know about every small van or truck and their movements?’
‘Yes. We have businesses that overlap and occasionally compete with one another. We agreed to be transparent in the spirit of fair trade so we could both prosper and grow.’
‘Come on. A few trucks here and there will slip through.’
‘Not if you run a tight ship, they won’t.’
JJ’s eyes narrowed. ‘Which ones are you talking about?’
‘I can’t read your mind, buddy.’
‘You’re stockpiling goods and weapons in other warehouses without telling me exactly what I’m protecting. I need to know what’s in these shipments so I can make sure I have the right men guarding the valuable stuff.’
‘I’ll let you know in future. Don’t worry about the last few deliveries. I have men to look after those.’
‘No, you don’t. You need me to get my men onto this. It’s what we do,’ Rico said, the warmth increasing up his spine to the base of his neck.
JJ chuckled and looked to his right towards his assistant. ‘He thinks I have to tell him everything.’
‘When it comes to replenishing critical items in the city, you do. We’ve just spent five minutes discussing our bleeding arrangement?’
‘Oh, calm down.’
Rico felt a warm heat going up the back of his neck into his head. His hands went onto his hips as he took a deep breath. ‘You’d be swamped with stinking Scavengers and moaning Floodlanders if it wasn’t for the protection of the Pagans. Now I find out that you thank me by arranging shipments to the city’s central warehouse behind my back.’
‘We only have an informal arrangement, so I don’t have to waste money paying for more platoons of NAG troops. Don’t be under the illusion that I owe you something. I’m the NAG appointed guardian of the city of Nashville. Not you.’
Rico’s head throbbed, and he felt lightheaded. He needed to kill something. It had been too long since he’d felt that rush. Turning around, he stared back at the two entrances. An ornate metal staircase was between them and spiralled upwards to a mezzanine floor filled with books. Two more NAG guards with AR-15s stood staring at him.
Rubbing his fingers together, he could feel the rope tightening around the idiot’s thick neck as he pulled on it. The gurgling sound would appease his anger. It would happen one day.
‘Are you just going to stand there like an idiot, or is there something else I can help you with?’
Rico turned and started to walk around the desk. The sound of the bolts of the AR-15s being slid back and released echoed down to him.
‘Be careful, Rico. These men aren’t as nice as I am,’ the warlord said, a grin on his face.
‘You’ve made your point all too clearly, warlord. It’s a tough world out there once you climb out from under the NAG’s skirt. Remember that.’
‘Don’t threaten me like I’m some common gangbanger. You’ve stated your case, now get the fuck out of my office. My assistant will escort you out of the building.’
Rico backed away and turned to see the woman was already walking to the door. ‘You have been warned, JJ,’ he said, grabbing the bottle of whiskey. He pulled the cork with one hand and took a long sip from the bottle. He turned and walked towards the large door on the right.
The young blonde assistant was waiting for him outside and smiled as she gestured down the hallway. He stared at her pretty face as they walked together. Her clicking high-heels were speeding up as she struggled to stay alongside him.
‘He does so much good for Nashville that you don’t see or hear about,’ she said.
Rico frowned, tilting his head to one side as he stretched the tension in his neck.
‘You shouldn’t speak to him like that,’ she started saying just as Rico pounced. A gurgling sound came from her as he grabbed her by the throat and pushed her up against an internal marble pillar. He squeezed hard as her eyes widened.
‘Hey. Leave her alone.’ Loud voices from the guards to Rico’s right.
He squeezed harder as she whimpered from the increasing pressure, at the same time reaching around with his right hand to the Sig. Pulling it out, he placed it against her forehead and released her throat. He turned towards the advancing guards. They’d reached for their weapons as they walked but stopped when Rico waved his finger at them. ‘Stop right there, meat sacks, or she gets a third eye socket in her head.’ The whimpering from the girl egged him on.
‘Back up into the lard-arse’s office,’ Rico said. The men stared at him and then at one another. ‘Listen to me, or the lady’s blood gets to decorate this place. You two will be next if you try and follow me out of this shithole.’
The men started walking backwards, then turned into the warlord’s office.
Rico turned and smiled at the woman. ‘Let me get this right. I pay for your apartment and give you money for food and nice clothes, yet don’t provide me with the information I need when it comes to what that fat fuck is doing. Is that correct?’
Her lips quivered as he moved the Sig from her forehead down to her throat. She couldn’t answer as the tears streamed down her face. Rico felt the excitement rising. He leaned his face close to hers. She smelt of lavender or something equally flowery. ‘What’s my name? The name that everyone fears but will not call me to my face.’
She blinked quickly.
Rico forced the pistol barrel up against her throat.
‘Hangman. They call you, The Hangman.’
‘Very good. Do you want that skinny white ass of yours hanging from my building’s windows?’
She shook her head and started to whimper.
‘Then do what I pay you to do,’ Rico said, lowering the weapon as he backed away and walked out.
Getting out of the building and onto the large front steps, he could see over the expanse of Nashville stretched out ahead of him. The humidity was like a wall of water you had to struggle through. Trails of black smoke wound into the air as Scavengers burned whatever they could recycle to cook their food and brew their white spirits.
Scavengers were the underclass in New America. Skulking around in the mud and dirt of abandoned cities where they searched for items long abandoned by wealthy people then traded them at the daily markets owned by the middle-class Floodlanders. These people were more wealthy in that they owned property and were educated to some level. Rico’s grandmother was a proud Floodlander. She’d be proud of him for rising to the top of the Pagans.
He looked down the steps to the white fusion van that was parked at the bottom. His two trusted lieutenants were smoking at the front of the vehicle. Both wore tight t-shirts tucked into their skinny jeans, which were wedged into brown cowboy boots. Purple bandanas adorned their heads with tattoed images covering their folded arms.
‘How did it go, boss?’ Peralta said, pulling out a metal case of cigarettes, offering them to Rico, who took one and leant forward as the lighter appeared from his other trusted man in the gang. With a long drag, he leant back and exhaled into the morning blue sky, patting his friend on the shoulder.
‘Carillo, you and Peralta know the Gonzalvez woman who assists the warlord. You said she has an older brother living with her?’
‘That is right, jefe.’
‘Pay him a visit tonight, when she has returned home. Make sure he realises that she’s failing to honour her part of the bargain.’
‘Can I break anything?
‘No, just a threat will do for now.’
Peralta flicked his cigarette onto the steps of the Capitol building. ‘Boss, we have a small problem with the Caliente brothers.’
Rico felt his mood sink. This day was not getting any better. ‘What have those fools done now?’
‘They all got beaten up. Pretty badly.’
‘What’s new about that?’ Rico said, drawing on the cigarette again. ‘Which gang were they attacking?’
‘No gang, jefe. One man did it to them. And he was unarmed.’
Rico froze for a second, the smoke hanging from his lips. He raised his eyebrows. ‘You sure?’
‘Yes, jefe. Quite a few of our informers witnessed it. He threw the brothers around with military fighting stuff, at the same time asking them to stop.’
Rico rocked back with laughter. ‘A peaceful fighter. I love it. Did we at least get his name? Or, how we can get to speak to this man who beat up the infamous Caliente brothers?’
‘He was with two old men. My informants recognised one of them in the bar and found out his name was Gibbs.’
‘Gibbs? Is that his first name or last name?’
Peralta shrugged his shoulders. ‘Just Gibbs.’
‘Bring him to me,’ Rico said.
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