Show her the Ropes
Angela Dike took a deep breath and pushed open the door to Dexter’s.
After the glare of the noonday sun, the bar was gloomy and dark. Shards of glass crunched under her feet.
“Beg your pardon,” she said as she barked her shin on something hard.
She heard a throaty chuckle. “Stand still for a moment, love. Your eyes will adjust soon enough.”
She did as she was told. After a couple of blinks, her pupils dilated and the ruins of the bar emerged. She stood by an upended table. One of its legs was missing, probably snapped off and used as a club last night. There were broken chairs, damaged tables, even an eight inch combat knife sticking up from the wooden bar and vibrating every time someone moved.
A girl, no more than fifteen, was sweeping shattered bottles off the floor.
“Bad night?” Angela asked.
The girl stayed mute.
“No worse than usual.” It was Dexter who spoke, his bass tones rumbling in the darkness. “But we won’t be open for business for an hour or two.”
“I’m not here for a drink. I`m looking for Robert Hickey.” She paused. “The leader of the Vanguards.”
“You don’t need to tell me who he is,” said Dexter. “Everyone knows Earl.” The barman shrugged one massive shoulder in the direction of a darkened alcove. “He’s over there. But tread carefully. He’s got papers with him.”
* * *
“Do we really need this crap?”
Robert Hickey spoke aloud into the darkness. Ever since Amy had died in the ambush at the truckstop, he’d been leading the Vanguards.
And he couldn’t believe the paperwork. Invoices from Jakes for repairs. Training rosters. Bills of lading for the trade runs from Badlands. Recommendations from the team leaders for gangers who’d earned the right to a gang name.
He’d never wanted to be the leader. He was a mechanic. A good one. But now he had to deal with everything. With a curse, he pushed Dexter’s latest damage claims away. A large file fell to the floor with a clatter.
“What?” he snapped.
The girl recoiled. She had dark hair, held back in a high ponytail. He sat back in his chair and wiped his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Just this damn paperwork.”
“Dexter warned me,” she said. She stepped forward and her smile lit up her face. Hickey was struck by how attractive she was, even in these squalid surroundings.
“So, what can I do for you, Miss…?”
“Angela. You can call me Angela. I came about the job.”
Hickey struggled to remember what the Vanguards were recruiting for this week. Medic? Trucker? She saw his hesitation.
“I`m a good driver. I’ve been practising since I was twelve. I can throw a Phoenix into a powerslide and punch it out clean. I can find the racing line on every track in Somerset. You don’t have to look down on me just because I’m a girl.” The confidence in her voice was palpable.
“Hell no, you`ve got me all wrong,” said Hickey, getting to his feet. “The best scout, the best driver, the best goddamn leader I ever knew. They was all women. There ain’t no prejudice in the Vanguards.”
“I just thought… I mean, you didn’t seem very keen,” she said.
“Just my tired brain trying to remember what we was recruiting for. We need a driver.” Hickey extended his right hand. “Welcome to the Vanguards, Angela.”
* * *
Big Billie Hadley pushed the old broom deep into the car cannon. He rotated the handle as the swab disappeared down the bore. He withdrew the broom and the bundle of rags lashed to the end, now coated with carbon, copper and sand, and swilled it in a bucket of solvents. That’s the problem with having a mech as a gang leader, he thought. He’s damn hard on keeping the cars in good condition.
Speak of the devil. “Yeah, Boss.”
Billie turned. Hickey came into the garage, leading a young girl with him. Damn, she was pretty. Dark hair, grey eyes, dimple in her left cheek when she smiled like she did now.
“Meet Angela. She’s just joined as a driver.”
Billie stretched out one dirty hand to shake, but thought better of it. “Nice to meet you, hen,” he said.
“There’s a deathrace this afternoon on the Junkyard Track. Pitbulls. Thought we’d break her in gently, put her through her paces. Will you take the Ma Deuce?”
“Sure. It’ll be my pleasure.”
Angela grinned at him, and he realised that for once, his reflex response would be the gospel truth.
* * *
“So that’s all there is to it?” she asked. “Stay out of the line of fire, keep my foot down, you’ll shoot when you can.”
“That`s about it,” said Billie.
“No special tactics? Advanced lessons?”
“Nope. Jes’ concentrate and we’ll come through it alive.”
“Don’t you mean we’ll win?”
Billie laughed and clapped her on the shoulder with one massive hand. “Winning is great, hen. Staying alive is better.”
He straightened and stretched. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a figure approaching. “Uh-oh.”
“What?” Angela asked.
“Trouble. Listen, just ignore him. He’s jes’ trying to rile you afore the race.” He turned to greet the newcomer.
“Harris. What can I do you for?”
“Just coming to check out the new meat. Is this she?” Albert Harris leered at Angela. The left side of his face was a patchwork of livid scars where the skin had melted and puckered into sharp ridges. His eye was red and bloody and drooped with his skin. He smiled and the result was repulsive, a reptilian leer that was hungry and predatory.
“What say you to a wager on the race, Billie?” he asked without taking his gaze off Angela. He licked thin, bloodless lips. A small stream of spittle ran out of the deformed corner.
“What sort of wager?” Billie’s voice was wary.
“Oh, the usual. If you win, I`ll pay you five kay. If I win, well, I don’t need the money.” His leer deepened. He gestured at Angela. “I get half an hour with her.”
Billie’s fist was arcing through the air even as Angela caught his arm. Albert danced back, delight evident on his face.
“He’s just trying to wind you up, Billie,” said Angela. “Besides, I can fight my own battles.” She put her hands on her hips and eyed Albert. “And alright. Give me half an hour with him if we lose. He’ll wish he’d never been born.”
Albert cackled. “We’ll see about that, missy. Break a leg.” And with that, he turned and was gone.
* * *
“Are ye sure that was wise?” asked Billie.
Angela shrugged. “He was just trying to wind us up. I couldn’t let him get to us, so I took the bet. We’ll beat him, it will be no problem.” She grinned and punched his arm. “Besides, I can’t let you get over-protective of me already.”
A crimson glow spread over Billie’s face. He bent over the targeting reticule of the front mounted heavy machine gun to hide his discomfort.
Angela’s peal of laughter was lost in the sudden blare of the starting klaxon.
* * *
“What the hell are you doing?” shouted Billie over the roar of the engine. The sluggish Pitbull must have been pushing 110 as it hurtled down the opening hill of the Junkyard. “I thought we agreed to sit at the back.”
“Relax, big boy,” said Angela. She shifted the wheel to the left, knocked another racer off its line, and slipped in front. “Check the countdown. We`ve got 15 seconds to weapons free.”
She hugged the crash barrier tight. Orange and yellow chevrons flashed past in a kaleidoscopic blur. Billie braced himself against the door as the turn pushed his bulk outwards.
“Five seconds, hen.”
“Time,” she said. She straightened the wheel and eased her foot off the gas. The Pitbull left the wall, slowing as it rose up an incline. The rest of the pack leaped ahead and Angela nipped in behind. As the timer reached zero, Billie’s heavy machine gun was lined up on Albert and not a single car could get a bead on the Vanguards.
“Smooth,” he said as he depressed the firing stud and sent several rounds of steel slugs into Albert’s rear armour. He was rewarded as the deathracer jumped sideways across the blasted asphalt.
“Now let’s jes’ stay out of trouble and let the others clear the field.”
* * *
Angela glanced at the status board. Four dead or quit, two up ahead, one other trailing four hundred metres behind, spouting great plumes of black smoke. She threw the wheel hard left to avoid a wreck.
“Can’t you hold it still, hen?” shouted Billie. “I cannae hit if you jerk so much.”
“I’ll do my job, you do yours,” said Angela. She squinted up the hill. “Those idiots are firing so much, the recoil’s slowing them down. Hold your fire, I`ll take them on the inside.”
She stamped down on the gas, willing the heavy Pitbull up the sloping asphalt. The engine whined its protests and acrid fumes rose out of the overheating engine.
“Watch it,” said Billie.
“I know what I’m doing.”
Further ahead, Harris fired a burst into the right hand side of a flame red Pitbull. The armour gave way, and the driver flagged his surrender. The next burst caught him full in the head. It disappeared in a crimson mist which coated the windscreen and covered his gangmate with blood and brains.
“That bastard,” screamed Angela. “That’s cold-blooded murder.”
“It is a death-race,” said Billie
“I don’t care. We ain’t gonna let that toerag win.” The Pitbull bounced over the broken asphalt as Angela cut the corner. The heavy car drifted sideways and slammed into Harris’s wing. He spun out and Angela punched the gas again.
“That’ll show him,” she exulted.
“It’s not over yet,” cautioned Billie.
His words were punctuated by a staccato burst of .50 calibre slugs on the rear armour. Angela tightened her grip on the wheel, jinking left and right.
“Break his lock, hen!”
“S’only two hundred metres. We can make it!”
“Go wide, let him through if you must.”
“No way. We’re gonna show that murdering bastard how to win.”
Another burst caught the rear, and another. Sunlight streamed through the shattered armour, dancing across the bare metal of the interior. Angela hunched down in her seat, as if that would make her harder to hit. The telegraph poles that marked the finish flashed into view and she straightened the wheel to give the screaming engine maximum acceleration.
“He’s still behind us,” said Billie, craning to track Harris. “Let’s finish this.”
The Pitbull rattled and rocked as it crossed the line. The adulation of the crowds filled Angela’s ears as she roared her success. She spun the wheel into a T-stop and turned to share the win with Billie.
Who hung in his safety harness, bright, glistening blood spreading across his blue coveralls and with a fist sized hole punched in his chest.