The Golden Tracks
Alexis, Maverick and Jack crept through the city towards the Golden Gates. Cops guarded every corner, hands on holsters and gazes focused on the streets, but eyes could only see so far into the darkness and not even the all-powerful could see out the back of their heads. Following Jack’s and Maverick’s silent steps, Alexis slipped right past the police, nearly giddy with elation. She was terrified – even more so than the last mission with Maverick – but the excitement was almost as great. If someone had told her two months ago she would be stepping up for something so important, she would have laughed. Her? The girl with the oversized jacket and hole where her stomach should be? Yeah, okay.
But now there was no doubt – they were doing something incredible tonight. If they succeeded, Greylands would change forever, and who knew how far that change would reach. If not….She pushed that thought away. Have to believe it will, she told herself. Her fear hovered at the edge of her thoughts and to give into it would be to turn back. Best not think of it at all.
The wall separating the Golden Tracks from the rest of the city appeared ahead and with a last sprint across what had once been the main road, the three of them huddled against the cold brick. Pieces of worn cement crumbled into Alexis’s hair.
“So what next?” she whispered. The wall was great and all, but it wasn’t like they could climb over it. And all those cops….
Jack gave the street another scan. “The way I see it, we have three options. The first is walk right through the front door. I think we can all agree this is a stupid idea. The second is to sneak around the city to the back door. It’s probably the safest route, but takes us farthest from where we’re going.”
Alexis was happy with safe, but both Maverick’s and Jack’s expressions told her they had already decided.
“So what is option number three?”
Maverick’s face split into a grin. “We swim.”
Alexis thought he had to be joking. Of course he was joking. What, they’d just pull up on the shore of the Golden Tracks soaking wet and squelch their way to the cache of explosives?
She held onto her belief in Maverick’s jest right up to the point they reached the grey waters that had helped give Greylands its bland and unappealing nickname. She’d seen this lake in the light of day and had to give it credit for looking slightly less disgusting under nightfall.
“Jack did warn you about this, didn’t he?” Maverick asked, brow furrowed with concern.
“He failed to mention it,” Alexis replied through stiff lips. Hope of surviving the night had been wiped away with the idea of stepping foot in this water. So many chemicals had been dumped into it over the years that not even the fish had adapted. Now, it just served as another barrier that kept the rich in and the poor out.
“Don’t let him scare you too much,” Jack said without amusement. “There are more ways to cross water than to get wet.”
Alexis waited for him to magically pull a boat out of his pants, and when that wasn’t forthcoming, watched with curiosity as he went over to a trash pile and started hauling empty boxes out of the way to reveal a trapdoor underneath. He yanked it open and pulled a lighter out of his pocket before heading down, soon swallowed by the darkness.
“You can’t be serious.” Alexis shook her head in disbelief. Was anything in this city what it seemed? “Why don’t people use this all the time? Thieves with direct access to the Tracks?”
“Think we’d be mad enough to share this secret, Damsel?” Maverick asked. “Worm came to us with it when he reached the Shadows and we’ve told no one. Now let’s hurry before anyone sees us standing around like loons and figures it out, hm?” He offered her his hand and she took it, following him down the steps. Once she reached solid ground, he went back up to fiddle with the boxes and pull the door closed behind them. Jack hadn’t gone too far ahead and they quickly caught up to the flicker of his lighter. Maverick pulled out his own to spread the light.
Think someone would have given me one by now, Alexis thought.
In a line they walked beneath the lake, sound dulled by the press of packed earth and wooden supports. Someone had taken care to build this tunnel, not the work of kids with too much time on their hands.
The air was stifling and just when Alexis thought she’d have to scream to fill her lungs, she felt cool air on her face and the floor began its incline. For the first time in her seventeen years she was coming up in the Golden Tracks.
Maverick gripped her hand to hold her back as Jack climbed the steps to push open the door above his head and peer out. He gestured that it was clear and they followed, climbing up through the trapdoor and into…a closet?
Jackets brushed the top of Alexis’s head as she stepped out and she tripped on pairs of shoes that cluttered the floor. Jack was in the room beyond – a living room with dusty furniture and shutters on the windows.
“Whose place is this?” she asked, half expecting the owners to come walking in with a shotgun levelled at her head.
“A neighbour of Worm’s,” Maverick replied. “Turns out the crash wasn’t a surprise to everyone, and this guy started planning early. Worm’s father was an engineer and helped out. A lot of families have used it since.”
It made sense. To stand outside looking in, the Tracks was untouched by what was ruining the rest of the world. It was perfect. Looking around her, Alexis realised it was a show. There were some in the Golden Tracks hanging on by their fingernails, and when those nails broke their only choice was to leave. While a sign of this man’s good thinking, this tunnel was also a symbol of their shame – a quick easy way out of their lives without having to see the superiority or pity on their neighbours’ faces. She wondered how many other secret tunnels led out of the city.
Yet even knowing the house was empty, and that it belonged to a friend, Alexis felt uncomfortable – not to mention underdressed. Even abandoned this place screamed rich. How could Bookworm stand it? Having what he did and now having nothing?
“C’mon, lass. We’re here for a reason, hm? Can’t spend the whole night gawking.” Maverick’s fingers brushed her elbow to guide her towards the back door. Jack peered through a window to make sure the back yard was empty and they followed him outside. Getting into the Tracks was only the first challenge of the evening. Even behind the walls cops prowled, watching doorways and protecting the people who could afford to pay them.
She didn’t know where they were headed – Jack had only filled her in on so much. According to the logs the last night her father was here, he’d got himself into some trouble around the City Hall, barging in with accusations and attempts to tear the place apart. Pops told her it probably hadn’t been nearly that dramatic – that her father wasn’t the type to break down doors – but if her father had been upset enough to get a strike against his record, it was worth looking into. Of course, it could turn out he was batshit nuts and there would be nothing to find. Either way, she had to know. She just hoped either Jack or Maverick knew their way around well enough to find the place.
Alexis quickly noticed that people with money liked to have public places to spend it. It didn’t take much sneaking around to come across the large building that boasted a gilded City Hall sign on the front. The actual name of the city wasn’t readable at night, but even in shadow it stared down at them with the pride of every person who had paid to put it up there. Alexis figured one letter off that sign would be enough to feed a family for a month if they could find anyone to sell it to. She spat on the feet of the statue that stood outside the front door, a woman in a flowing dress with some sort of book in her hands. Alexis had no idea what it meant or what its purpose was, but she wished she could knock it over in memory of her family. It was about as much good as the stone would ever serve.
Jack started up the steps and Alexis went after him, Maverick taking up the rear. The front door was locked, but after about as much time as it would have taken Jack to use a key, the door clicked open and they hustled inside.
Alexis’s jaw dropped as she took in the lobby. If the outside was too much, the inside was over the top. The front room was a large dome, the ceiling painted with images she couldn’t make out, but which must have cost a fortune. The floor sparkled and walls glinted, catching the light that filtered through the windows.
“Stick close,” Maverick spoke, putting a damper on her awe. “All the excitement at the gates, it’s not likely anyone will patrol the building, but we don’t know.”
Alexis shuddered at the memory of the fat cop and Frank and where she would be right now if it hadn’t been for Pipsqueak, Mosh and Bull. She hoped they were all okay. Suddenly every corner took on the shape of someone who wanted to grab her and kill her, or worse, and she stepped closer to Maverick. He looked down at her and offered a reassuring smile. “I won’t let them take you, Damsel. Don’t worry your pretty blonde head.”
“There’s nothing up here,” Jack said, coming back into the lobby. He had checked all of side rooms while Alexis stared at the ceiling.
“Didn’t really think it would be,” Maverick replied. “Think they’d be stupid enough to hide their best kept secret under the mayor’s desk?”
“Yes,” Jack and Alexis answered at the same time.
“Let’s check the basement,” Jack suggested. “If we don’t find anything, we’ll have to consider heading back. The longer we’re out here, the higher our risk of getting dead.”
Alexis frowned. “We can’t just go back. We’ve made it this far. The papers have to say something else, somewhere else my dad might have been?”
Jack shook his head. “Even if there was, I won’t take the chance.”
“Then let’s hope we’re lucky,” Maverick cut in. “Where’s the stairs?”
Jack pointed to a side door across the lobby and with a sudden determination, Alexis led the way. They would find something. And if not here, she refused to leave until they had checked every place they could break into.
She fumbled in the dark until she heard a click and artificial light flooded a hallway. Alexis blinked the dots out of her eyes and focused on the doors lining the walls ahead of her. Words etched on plaques labelled each of the rooms, three on each side of the hall, which branched at the end in two directions and probably led to more doors in more hallways. She didn’t care much what the plaques said, but opened the first to do a sweep of the room.
By the layers of dust on the table and the thick smell of mould from the carpet, Alexis guessed this basement hadn’t seen much use. Dampness set deep into her bones. The check was quick – a peek under the table and behind the door – and then she returned to the hallway to meet up with Maverick and Jack, three of the six doors now open.
“You know,” Maverick said. “Even if we don’t find anything, we should think about taking over this place. I could see you at the head of one of these boardrooms, brother.”
“Sure, a nice tunnel from here to the Shadows. We’ll meet every week to discuss food rations. Brilliant.”
“Ach, don’t be so sour. So we don’t save the world tonight. There’s always tomorrow.”
The floor above them creaked and as one the trio froze, ears strained. There were no footsteps, and Alexis started to breathe again, but Jack’s and Maverick’s eyes were glued to the doorway. There was a shadow in the window and Maverick reached to grab Alexis’s arm, tucking her against him. It seemed to Alexis that the door hadn’t creaked so loudly when they had opened it before, but this time it set her teeth on edge.
A man came down the stairs and familiarity set in.
“Fletch? What the fuck are you doing here?” Jack demanded.
Fletch raised a knife in response. The blood spattered on his shirt suggested the weapon had already been used at least once tonight. “About to make sure you stay out of my way. For the last time.”
“No!” Alexis pushed Maverick aside and just about stamped her foot. She wasn’t afraid, she was pissed. Maverick tried to reach for her, but she shook him off. “I need to find out if my dad was right,” she said. “We’re so close! We need to know if those explosives are here. And if anyone’s going to kill us, it should be cops we’re trying to stop, not someone who should be on our side.” She glared at Fletch.
“I don’t know about that,” Maverick snorted.
“Shut the fuck up, Scotty,” Fletch snapped, and focused his furrowed brow on Alexis. “You said something about your dad?”
Was there a point to holding back? Either he’d kill them now or let them finish this mission – lying wouldn’t make a difference. “Yeah, he had some sort of idea about a cop threat.”
Had she hoped her words might slow him down? Sure. Had she expected it? Not a chance in hell. So as Fletch lowered the knife, a look of shock and confusion spreading across his face, she wondered what was going through his head.
He looked at her more closely, eyes taking in her features. “You’re Pete Wallace’s kid?”
Nothing could have prepared her for this question. She had only just learned who her father really was, someone more than a criminal shot for his crime, but this man – someone she’d never spoken to, or even officially met – seemed to know exactly who he was. “Yes.”
“Fuck.” Fletch passed his hand over his face and tucked the knife away. Maverick and Jack came forward again and Fletch narrowed his eyes at them both. “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to find what we came for. You’re going to take what you want, I’m going to take what I want and then we’re going to go our separate ways and I’ll never have to see your fucking faces again. Deal?”
“Win-win all around,” Jack replied, flatly.
“Depending on what you want,” Maverick added.
“Either we have a deal or we don’t.”
“I still don’t see what you have to offer,” Jack said. “You never said what you’re doing here.”
Fletch shrugged off his knapsack and pulled a journal out of the front pocket, throwing it to Jack. “It’s Wallace’s. Something he was working on when he was discharged. I managed to…reclaim it. I knew the where, just not the what. You’re saying the explosives are here?” Jack flipped through the book with a frown and then gave it to Alexis. She opened to the front page and took in her father’s handwriting. Maps, lists, some words written in big letters, underlined and traced over more than once to make them stand out. She knew enough to appreciate that it was her dad’s thoughts about something urgent.
“Best guess based on what we know,” Jack answered.
“At least we know we’re in the right direction,” Maverick said.
Jack nodded and jerked his head down the hall. “Unless that book is very specific, let’s get started.”
Maverick and Jack turned and headed down the hallway and Alexis fell back to talk to Fletch. “You knew my dad?”
Fletch gave a short nod.
“Were you his friend?”
No response this time.
“Where’s Mosh?” Maverick asked over his shoulder.
Mosh? Alexis looked up at Fletch and saw him roll his eyes. “Kid’s fine. Left him outside to find his own goddamn way home. You’ve found me, right? No need for him to babysit anymore.”
That was the mission they had set Mosh on? To follow this guy?
“You left him out in the Tracks on his own? He’ll get killed,” she said.
“Not if he stays quiet and hidden like he should. Think of it as a learning exercise.”
Alexis scowled and left Fletch on his own, quickening her pace to walk next to Maverick.
It didn’t take long to scan the whole basement. There were more rooms and hallways than Alexis had thought, but most of them were small and all of them were empty. Frustration began to set in and she kicked shut yet another door.
“This doesn’t mean he was wrong, lass.” Maverick rested his hand on her shoulder. “Maybe just wrong about the place.”
“Or wrong about nothing,” Fletch said. He stepped back to reveal the inside of the janitor’s closet.
Maverick’s hand fell to his side. “Huh,” he said. “Right next to the mops. Lucky no one took it for cleaning supplies.”
Piled in the back of the closet were ten or so crates, each of them stamped in red with three letters that even Alexis could make out.
“TNT. Shit.” Fletch scratched at his neck.
Maverick whistled. “If this doesn’t open people’s eyes, nothing will. Drop a few crates of this at the nearest police station, we’ll see what sort of reaction we can get.”
“First is figuring how to get it out of here. Stuff must weigh a ton.” Jack stood back to take everything in. Alexis understood how they all felt. It was one thing to believe it, but another thing to see it. She wondered what her dad would think, if he knew his proof had finally been found.
“Take the journal back to Pops, Damsel,” Jack said. “He’ll want to see it.”
Fletch squared his shoulders and faced off with him. “I’m not letting that book out of my sight.”
“Fine, you go with her,” Jack replied.
Maverick jerked around. “What are you thinking, man? You can’t send him off alone with her! It’s what he’s been after since she got to the Shadows.”
“She can take care of herself, Maverick. They can send reinforcements to help bring this stuff back, and once we have it, we go public with what we know.”
Alexis listened to the back and forth and when it looked like Maverick was about to give in, she put her foot down. “I’m not going anywhere,” she declared. “We’re in this together. I came here with you, so let me pull my weight. Don’t just send me off like an errand girl.”
Jack frowned. “Damsel, you couldn’t lift one of these crates if you tried. Take the journal, take it to Pops, and he’ll tell you what to do with it. This is no errand. It’s important.”
“What if something goes wrong? What if you get caught? They’ll kill you on sight and don’t try to tell me they wouldn’t. At least I can stay and keep watch, give you warning if I see anyone.”
Jack stopped listening to her – if he’d ever listened to her at all, and turned to Fletch. “Take her out of here, will you?”
Fletch growled, “I don’t take orders from you, Jackie-boy.”
Slurs against himself Maverick could take, but at this he pushed Fletch back against the wall and crowded him. Alexis reached out to stop him, remembering what Fletch had tucked in his waistband. “You seem to have a bit of respect for her pa. I don’t care what you think about me, but if you have any consideration for what Pete would have wanted, you will take his daughter and keep her safe.”
The two men scowled at each other until finally Fletch pushed Maverick away and grabbed Alexis’s arm. “Fine,” he said and started tugging her towards the door.
“Wait! No – stop!” She struggled to get away. She didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay where she was needed. Why couldn’t Fletch bring Pops the damn book?
Her eyes caught Maverick’s and he gave her a wink and a smile. “Keep him in line, all right, Damsel? I’m right behind you.”
With none of them on her side, she knew she didn’t stand a chance. Fletch glared down at her and she glared back, shaking off his grip. She could get by on her own feet without having her arm torn off. She gave one last look at the two men side by side, red- and black-haired, starting to haul the crates out of the closet.
The door to the basement shut behind them and they crossed the darkened lobby in silence. It was still dark out, probably just on the side of early morning, and Alexis wondered if they’d have time to get people in tonight. She hated the thought of Maverick and Jack being stuck here until tomorrow. She hoped they’d be safe, and felt a bit better knowing that basement wasn’t exactly a high-traffic area.
They reached the exit and Fletch stopped, hand on the door. “We step outside, you’re under my command, got it? One step out of line before we reach the Shadows and I leave you for the cops.”
Alexis nodded her agreement. She didn’t like the guy, but she wasn’t stupid enough not to listen to him. He was the one with blood on his shirt; he could get them out of here one way or another.
A muffled BOOM sounded from the lower levels and plaster crumbled into Alexis’s hair as the building shook. Her gaze flew to Fletch’s and for a moment the world held still. Smoke plumed from under the door to the basement. She hesitated. Fletch hesitated. She started running. Fletch hesitated a second longer before he took off after her. Tackling her, they crashed together to the floor just as a second blast went off that blacked out the world.