by Krista Walsh
“Pick up the speed, girl. You think I’m training you to take tea with a Queen? Needle in, needle out, bag is done.”
Alexis growled and briefly considered shoving the sewing needle into Pops’s eye. She knew she was doing much better this week than last, but Pops was in no mood for arguing. Something had him blacker than a thunder cloud and Alexis figured she’d save her frustration for someone who wouldn’t send her to Bull for a lesson.
For the thousandth time she was creating the same bag out of the same sheet of brown canvas. She was bored, and only somewhat relieved at the reprieve from her physical training. Bull hadn’t been seen since Pops had called him out of their session a week ago. Rumours flooded through the Shadows about what was happening on the surface, but Jack had only sent out word that no one was to leave the tunnels on their own. They were to work in pairs or not at all, and night runs were off limits. The cops were picking up anyone seen wandering after curfew, and so far no one they’d taken had come back.
“Stupid riots,” Reason had complained. “One rich guy kicks it and you’d think the whole city’s sanity went with him.”
“Who was this guy that his dying is such a big deal?” Alexis had asked. Topside with Jake, she hadn’t paid much attention to who was who. Her only interest then had been surviving from one day to the next, and her only feeling towards the Golden Tracks was hatred. Now that she had food in her stomach, she allowed herself a bit of curiosity.
Reason had flung herself down onto her pallet. “He was a top investor. Knew where to place a buck so the next day he’d have ten thousand. When everything became worthless, he moved on to less…legal markets. With his death, people will rush in to fill his spot.”
“So how does that affect us?” It seemed a logical question. No one Alexis knew was in a position to climb that social ladder.
“When the cat’s away…” Reason shrugged. “The money tower has fallen, and the people who control the world are distracted. It makes sense that the rest of the poorer world would take the chance to cause trouble. Not to mention the millions of dollars Masters left behind. Everyone wants a piece.”
It still made no sense to Alexis, but whether she understood it or not, the restrictions on their lives increased. With less food coming in and fewer chances to get out, the people of the Shadows were getting cranky and restless.
She also hadn’t seen Mosh since he had come to say goodbye. More than once she’d asked Maverick where he was, but Mav had only shook his head and refused to say. Maverick himself was never far. Reason had noticed and given Alexis some pointed stares, but hadn’t commented.
The only time he let her be was when she was with Pops, like now, and Alexis appreciated the break. It made her feel less like a child in need of a babysitter.
“Didjya forget everything I taught you?” Pops’s voice cut into her thoughts. “You need to focus on what you’re doing. Wherever else your mind is, bring it back. Distraction will get you killed.”
“You gonna kill me, Pops?” Alexis asked with a tentative smile.
“Haven’t made up my mind yet,” he grunted.
The door opened, the bell jangled and Maverick came into the room in an even blacker mood than Pops.
“Of all the fecking, arse-hole shite-eating…” he greeted.
“Si’down and pull up a chair,” Pops said from his stool, gesturing to one beside him.
Maverick snarled. “I’m too angry to sit.”
“And I’m too old to stare up atchya,” Pops retorted, again jerking his head towards the stool.
With a grumble Maverick obeyed, resting his hand for a moment on Alexis’s shoulder as he passed. He dropped down and raked his hands through his auburn hair, mouth twisted in a deep grimace. Pops didn’t push him to share and Alexis returned her focus on the brown sack in her hand. A few more stitches and the damned thing would be finished. Again.
A full minute and a few deep sighs later, Maverick looked up. “The pigs have cut off the Shadows,” he announced.
Pops blinked and Alexis set down the sack. She saw the tightening of Maverick’s jaw as he ground his teeth, and the way Pops’s eyes narrowed.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“It means, lass, that as of now, the Shadows is on lock-down. The coppers have tracked down most of the doors and are standing guard. News came in on the radio. They’re calling it crowd control, but the truth is they don’t want any chances. We’ve outsmarted them too many times, and right now they’re vulnerable.”
“Goddamned house arrest,” Pops muttered, shaking his head. “They’ve got a lot of nerve.”
“They can afford it,” Maverick said. “We’ve already lost a few at the doors.”
He pushed his fingers into his eyes and then over his face. Alexis could see how much he took the responsibility of their lost friends on himself. She swallowed a ball of fear for Reason and Mosh and even Firefly, hoping none of them had been trying to get outside today.
To hide her worry, she picked her bag back up and finished off the last of her stitches, then proceeded to fill it with a handful of marbles. Step two of her sewing lesson. “Explosives make even the biggest coward feel like the tallest man,” she said bitterly.
With a swift flick of her wrist, Alexis opened her knife and sliced through the seam of the sack, catching the spilling marbles in the palm of her hand – a clean cut. She felt a flutter of pride and looked up to find both men staring at her, confusion and interest on their faces.
“What makes you say that, lass?” Maverick asked.
She looked from him to Pops. “It’s nothing,” she answered. “Just something my father used to say.”
Pops leaned forward and Alexis shifted on her seat, uncomfortable with the attention. “What was your father’s name, girl?”
“Peter,” she replied. “Peter Wallace.”
Maverick barked a laugh and leaned back on his stool, balancing on the back legs. Pops shook his head. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.
Alexis sat and stared, waited for them to explain. When no explanation was forthcoming, she set down her sack once again and crossed her arms over the counter. “What?” Did they know her father? Know something about him she didn’t? By the way they’d reacted, her dad wasn’t just someone they’d passed on the street.
“Wouldn’t that solve all our problems?” Maverick turned to Pops, not answering her question. “Not only come out with the truth, but hold it over their heads for a change?”
“If it’s true. Ole Pete always did have a great imagination. No one ever could prove he was right.”
Alexis was dying to interrupt and demand they explain. This was her father. What right did they have to know something about him she didn’t? But she held her tongue and tried to follow the banter, hoping that eventually they’d remember she was there.
“Think there’s a way to find out?”
“And if he was a delusional son of a bitch?” Pops asked. Alexis’s eyes narrowed.
“At least we’d’ve tried. Better than sitting by like good little pups while they take over another rung on the ladder. What if they get in?”
Pops snorted. “Jackie’d love that. Start a war in the subway tunnels and we’d lose right quick, but damned if many of us would give in without a fight.” He sighed and scratched the scruff on his cheeks. “Hell, there’s probably a way. Take a good plan though.”
A slow sly smile lit up Maverick’s face. “I think I already have one.” He turned to Alexis.
Alexis followed Maverick through the tunnels. She didn’t really understand where they were going or what they were supposed to do, but Maverick didn’t feel inclined to give straight answers, so instead she focused on what she had learned about her dad.
“He never used to be no poacher,” Pops had finally got around to telling her. “Sergeant Pete Wallace was the best kinda man. Good to his wife, good to his kids – you and your brother I guess. He was also the best kinda leader. Always one to go in first and set an example. Maybe unfortunately for poor Pete, he had a strong sense of right and wrong. Always there to step up at any sign of trouble and do what he could to fix it. Can’t say he saved my life, but mighta saved my legs had I listened to him.”
Maverick had picked up the story. “Tales were being spread about a terrorist threat – not from an outside group, mind, but within the city’s own borders. Prepared by the coppers themselves, the dirty bastards.”
Alexis’s jaw had dropped. “Why would they do that?”
“Power,” Maverick shrugged. “It was only rumours, o’course, and it was believed they started the rumours themselves. At that time, their control was limited. After the markets crashed and the panic rose, they stepped into make sure things stayed safe.”
“Maybe at first they even meant good,” Pops interjected.
“But then the bribes stared,” Maverick continued. “People in the Golden Tracks using what money they had to make sure the coppers kept a close eye on their gates.”
“Trouble with giving people a slice of power,” Pops said, “is that they’re never happy with the size of the plate. The corruption grew from there like cancer, until they had a hand in every pot and people they couldn’t take bribes from, they blackmailed.”
“Even still there’s only so far creating enemies can take you,” Maverick added. “When you’ve pissed off some very important people, there’s really only one method to fall back on to make sure it doesn’t bite you in the arse.”
“Fear,” Alexis cut in. Memories of this idea filtered down from a long-forgotten childhood. She vaguely remembered her father ranting about injustice, which she didn’t understand because it was all she’d ever known. She didn’t remember a time when you didn’t need to stand for a head count at school, to hear the teacher checking off names, noting the ones who had died of starvation or fever, and setting aside the names of kids who had no excuse not to be there. Those families would soon have cops banging on their doors to teach them not to step out of line.
“Not as blonde as ya look, eh, kid?” Pops said. “According to the rumours, they were prepared to blow the whole town to pieces if people didn’t behave, and considering all the trouble they’d caused already, no one was quick to stand up and question whether the stories were true. They feared a demonstration.”
“But there was never any proof their threats were real. No one knew where the explosives were kept, no one knew what the targets would be. All just a big scary story to tuck the kids in with at night.”
“Your dad, though, he believed it,” Pops said. “Earned him a reputation of being a kook, but in his reasoning it was safer to believe than not. Always thought we should plan a search of the city while we still had time to do it. We laughed him off as good ole naive Pete. Then. It got even worse for him after he came in one day waving around some papers, saying he’d discovered the targets and where the caches was kept. He begged the commanding officers to let him take a team and track them down, but they took one look at his ‘evidence’ and laughed him out of the office. A week later, a random search found a shit-ton of money in his kit and proof that he’d been skimming the books. He was given a dishonourable discharge.”
Alexis’s brow furrowed and her hands clenched into fists around the brown canvas. “It wasn’t true,” she swore. She wouldn’t sit by and let people talk trash about him.
“Well of course not, kid. Even back then no one believed it. Not Peter Wallace of all people. The guy who came up with the idea didn’t know his head from his shithole, but there was no one to argue with. We just figured they’d got their information mixed up and were too goddamned arrogant to admit their mistake. A few years after that we heard he’d been shot trying to feed his family. It wasn’t for a couple of years that some people began to connect the dots and think maybe Pete hadn’t been so crazy after all.
“One night I was on duty, guarding the Gates. A fight started – don’t know why, or about what, and don’t rightly care, but a few of the guys standing guard with me went to break it up. One of the guys throwing punches fell into some bushes, musta hit somethin’ he shouldn’t have, and suddenly bam! I’m seeing bright lights and hearin’ angels, and can’t feel nothing from the waist down.”
Alexis had asked him once how he’d lost his legs, but actually hearing the story now she was embarrassed to have intruded. Obviously it wasn’t something he’d want to talk about, even if he did describe it like any other day.
“You think the blast was part of the explosives my dad believed in?”
Pops shrugged. “Alls I know is people don’t leave bombs in bushes by accident. They do it because they want to cause trouble. Do I think it was meant to go off? No, I do not, but I do think it was connected. Again, no one else wanted to hear it and no one ever looked into it.”
“Well, we will tonight,” Maverick said.
Pops grunted. “You think you can just walk onto the base and ask for information about police explosives? Good luck with that.”
Maverick scowled. “I was trained by the best, old man, don’t you forget. Pete came back with some kind of proof.”
“And they likely burned it the second he handed it over,” Pops argued. There was a moment of silence. Maverick’s face twisted with a frustration Alexis understood. The cops had crossed a line, broken the unspoken rule of letting the Shadows stand on its own. He wanted to break that hold, and if he broke through the corruption at the same time, then good on him. But she couldn’t see how it could be done. It all seemed like a story Jake would have told her, about heroes out to save the day. She just wanted a full stomach. “But,” Pops broke the silence. “They might not have thought to destroy his work logs. If we could get hands on the file, we could narrow down where he’d found the proof we need. Maybe it would just be a matter of retracing his steps.”
A look came into Maverick’s eye and he hit Pops on the back, the now-familiar grin growing on his face.
That had been six hours ago, and now Alexis was following him through the darkness of the tunnels, her hand tightly in his so she wouldn’t get lost.
“How will we get out if the cops are guarding the doors?” she asked, the details of his plan seeming next to impossible if they he hadn’t managed to think out that one major obstacle.
He looked over his shoulder at her and white teeth glinted in the dim light. “You don’t really think they’ve figured out all our secrets, do ya, lass? We still have a few tricks beyond their ken.”
Another barely answered question, but Alexis guessed she’d find out soon enough. She also held back from asking where Maverick had gotten his hands on the combats he was wearing. She had seen the bloodstains on the chest and didn’t think she really want to know.
They started up a set of shaky stairs. As they climbed, the cool air from outside touched on Alexis’s face – the first time she had breathed fresh air in weeks. Maverick let go of her hand to fiddle with a door above his head and Alexis fought back the swell of panic that his grip had caged. She wasn’t ready for this. She hadn’t even started this branch of her training yet – why had Maverick brought her? Reason was more suited, or why not Bull? Bull could just tear down anyone in their path. What did he expect her to do other than stand there and try not to run away?
Maverick’s hand was around hers again, guiding her the rest of the way up and into the starless night. Clouds hung low overhead and a damp chill crept under her collar and down her spine. She shivered.
“Y’all right, Damsel?” Maverick asked.
“Sure,” Alexis replied. “So, I just need to go and stand there and…what? Say hello?”
“Exactly,” he said. “But try to be a wee more creative, hm?” He gave her a once-over and his mouth screwed up with concentration. “That won’t do,” he murmured, and looked around. His eyes landed on a mud puddle and again his blue eyes lit up. “Ah ha!”
Alexis did not like that ‘Ah ha’. She frowned as he pulled her towards the puddle and shrieked as he pushed her into it. The mud squelched under her hands and she struggled to get to her knees, only to slip and land on her face. She spat out damp soil and rolled onto dry land, wiping her hands on the grass and using the bottom of her shirt to wipe her face.
“Is it supposed to be camouflage?” she grumbled. “I thought the idea was for me to get attention.”
“The right kind of attention,” Maverick corrected. “You go in looking like you’ve stepped out the Golden Tracks and we’re both buggered.”
Right. Innocent and fragile. Alexis let out her ponytail and let the oiled strands fall into her face. Maverick gave a nod of approval and pulled a hat out of his pocket, shoving it onto his head. Then he rested his hands on her shoulders and leaned in. “You’re only here to keep the guard looking the other way, you understand? One sign that things aren’t going to plan and I want you to get out.”
“Okay,” Alexis agreed, staring firmly at his nose.
He gave her shoulders a shake. “Okay?”
“Okay!” she forced, this time meeting his eyes and feeling a slithery feeling in her stomach. Would she be able to? Just up and leave him if things went bad?
Maverick nodded again and guided her through a patch of trees – not enough to be called a forest, but enough to keep them well hidden as they crept around the edge of the city towards the bright floodlights up ahead. When they were close enough to see the collection of tents and crumbling buildings, really no more than shacks, Maverick knelt down and pulled Alexis close so she could hear him.
“See the one with the hole in the door?” he asked, pointing through the leaves. “I need to get in there. You need to distract him.” He pointed again, this time to a man who stood alone in the shadows. “Thank your stars the army’s as poor as it is, lass. We may actually succeed.”
He clapped her on the back and disappeared into the dark, making no noise as he crossed the damp leaves. Alexis wanted to call after him, to ask what she was supposed to do, but he was gone and she was left to figure it out on her own.
She ran her fingers through her hair again, either to settle her nerves or smooth out the mud clumps. Then, with a deep breath, she ran out of the woods screaming. “Help! Please you gotta help me!”
“Stop right there,” he yelled in answer, raising his weapon at the crazed girl coming his way. His eyes were pinched with uncertainty, and Alexis didn’t trust the way he was handling the gun. She drew to a quick halt, close enough that he could see her clearly in the glow of the floodlights.
“No, please, you have to help. M-My sister, she’s really sick. She was shaking all day, and tonight she started puking. I-I dunno, it looked like a worm…” Alexis drew up memories of her mother’s own last days – how grey and clammy her skin was, how her stomach never seemed to be empty, how her reek had filled the house they’d been squatting in.
There was a moment of tension, a pause. Alexis stood still, tears streaming down her face, hands clasped in front of her. Finally, the soldier grimaced and holstered his weapon, raising his hands to calm her. “There’s nothing I can do, miss. You’ll have to go to a doctor.”
“What doctor?” she shrieked, panicked. “There’s no one who’ll help. I beg you, please. She’s only three years old.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I think you know there’s nothing can be done. This New Plague…”he hesitated. “It’s not kind.”
He was no stranger to it, Alexis could tell. But she’d succeeded in grabbing his attention. She didn’t know if Maverick had made it in yet and she needed more time. She edged forward to avoid startling him and stared up, blinking so a few more tears would fall.
“It took my brother two weeks ago. I can’t lose her, too. So little and perfect as she is. It’s not fair!” She burst into tears and threw herself into the soldier’s arms, clinging onto him. He gave her shoulder an awkward pat. The words were fake, but the screams and anger were the most sincere she’d been since Jake had been murdered. It wasn’t fair. He was dead because people who could help refused to.
“Miss, you have to leave. You’re not allowed to be here,” the soldier spoke. Up close, Alexis could see he really wasn’t much older than she was, could see the fear in his eyes as he tried to push her away. She hung on.
“Where am I supposed to go? If my baby sister’s about to die, I don’t want to be there to see it. I won’t.”
“You can go wherever you want, lady, but you have to get off the base. It’s restricted. If anyone sees you here…”
Alexis let go and rubbed her eyes with a muddy sleeve. “What? They’ll shoot me?” She sniffled. “You think that matters anymore?” Then she saw the hint of guilt in his eyes and ground her teeth, anger setting in like nettles in her gut. “No, you’re afraid they’ll kill you for not following orders. Well screw you, buddy. Nice to know a girl can count on the army to help her.”
“What’s this now?” a furious voice cut in. Alexis stood there seething as the solder snapped to attention. A second uniformed man came forward and loomed over both of them. He stared down at her. “You causing trouble?”
The fluorescent shadows deepened the intimidating scowl on the man’s face and Alexis backed down. Her shoulders slumped and more tears threatened to spill over.”I just came to get help for my sister. She’s really sick.”
“This look like a hospital?” the man snapped.
“Doesn’t look much like anything,” she mumbled.
The man looked to the other soldier who still stood ramrod straight, only the slightest tremor in his cheek to show his terror that he wouldn’t be standing there tomorrow. Alexis wondered if she’d see his face in the Shadows next. “You get back to work, Corporal. I’ll escort this young lady off the base, and then you and I”ll have a chat.”
The man grabbed her arm and when she struggled to pull away he tightened his grip and jerked her forward, back in the direction she’d come. He didn’t let up, continuing to push and pull her all the way into the trees and back to the entrance to the Shadows.
“You find it?” Alexis asked when she caught her breath. She wondered if the facade had been necessary for the whole trip.
“Easier than finding a pig in shit,” Maverick replied, pulling open the storm door that led back into the darkness. “Half-broken lock and files still neat and proper. Have to hand it to the boys in green, even poor and powerless, they’re tidy.”
He didn’t continue until they were back in Pops’s shop, Maverick and Pops mulling over the papers. Alexis couldn’t read, but curiosity kept her there, watching the men’s reactions and listening to their thoughts. She didn’t even give herself the chance to wash up first.
“It’d help if they didn’t censor every goddamned word,” Pops complained. “Don’t know why they bothered keeping these at all.”
“You’re not finding anything?” Alexis asked, disappointed. It’d be a shame if she’d terrorized that boy for nothing.
Maverick slapped the countertop and grinned up at them both. “I wouldn’t say that, lass.” He passed a single sheet over to Pops. “Duty roster a week before his discharge.”
Alexis had no idea what it said, but she recognized the look on Pops’s face. First the curiosity and interest, bordering on excitement, followed by surprise, followed by a frown that could only be frustration. It didn’t take much to figure out what he was reading. Maverick looked at her with another sly smile. One she had already learned to watch out for.
“You can’t really be asking me to go with you into the Golden Tracks,” she sputtered.
The bell on the door chimed and Alexis turned to see Jack walk in. “No,” he said. “You’ll come with me.”