“What the heck happened to you?” the scarred warrior asks.
The ancient man shudders and clumps of hair fall from his head. He gasps, “it’s all coming apart.”
As the decaying man who might be Jackbird breaks down into a coughing fit, Gator presses him, “how do we stop it?”
“Her-,” he coughs. “He upset-” He hacks up some thin blood. “He broke the balance…”
“Stop talking gibberish old man.”
Jackbird coughs a final time and stops breathing.
Gator smacks him in the face, hoping to revive him.
But instead the man’s body rapidly molders and disintegrates in his hands. Gator stumbles back, staring at his dust-covered hand. As what remains of Jackbird decays into cracked bones and dirt, Gator pulls on his gas mask and curses.
As the dust settles in the eerily quiet ship, Gator looks around nervously.
Gator considers his next step. A sound like lapping waves dimly echoes through the ship. Peering through the gloom, he sees that the passage he came through has changed and what was once a straight corridor now turns. Around him loom engine parts, six-foot high coils of metal and less recognizable pieces of equipment. Despite the gas mask limiting his field of view, his sharp eyes spot a doorway cracked open on the opposite side of the room.
The sound of ocean waves grows he approaches the room. Inside he spies boxes. The first one he opens contains canned goods. Ignoring the swaying sensation he shoves the food into his bag, filling it to the brim. Then he quickly turns and makes his way out as fast as he can.
Back outside a crowd gathers near where the fighting broke out over the jeep. BRT is nowhere to be seen.
November circulates with the crowd where she hears many people avidly discussing the strange green lights and the glow that surrounded the visitor on his way out of town. A few have begun hesitantly to peer into Jackbird’s shop while others whisper that they saw Gator slip inside. He hasn’t emerged yet.
Violet stammers, “I didn’t know he was going to blow up the shop. But it’s not right to steal. Though it’s even less right what he did.”
Hurricane listens to her reasons and somehow he calms down. “I guess that makes sense. Especially with whatever the fricking hell that guy was doing.”
“After he walked out of Jackbird’s, I didn’t want anything to do with him,” she says.
“Yeah, you and me both.” He then looks at her sternly, sizing her up. “But I expect you to follow my orders while you are here.”
“Well you already asked us to find you an axle, we are going to find one,” she tells him. “You have my word on that.”
As she finishes a cold smile crosses his face. “Okay. Just swear to me that next time trouble brews you’ll listen to me.”
“Okay I swear,” she says with a sinking feeling.
“Alright go find out what Gator’s doing in Jackbird’s shop,” he orders her. “He’s probably looting the place. Find out if Jackbird is alive or not.”
Hurricane calls out to a pair of figures in the crowd. “Kal. Dice.” He points to the giant man face first in a patch of rusty mud. “Drag that guy off and see what he’s got on him.”
The chatter in the crowds gets thicker as more and more people arrive. November hears snippets of conversation.
“He glowed like one of those will-o’-the-wisp things,” a woman says.
“Maybe he was made of swamp gas or something?” a short man suggests.
“How should I know?” she says.
“Well he couldn’t have been up to any good,” a man in another clump tells his partner.
“That guy was shooting at us,” one of Hurricane’s thugs tells an older woman.
“Jackbird’s probably dead,” a dark-skinned man says. “Fuck he’s the only one who makes any alcohol around here. What are we going to do?”
“Well we could go in there,” the thug suggests.
“I’m not going in there, you saw what happened. It might be full of crazy green flames or something. I’m not touching that.”
November decides she needs more facts. She notes the absence of Jackbird’s best customer, Rabbit. In fact she realizes the strange woman hasn’t been around all day. She spies her brother Line corralling his growing brood in the crowd and decides now would be a good time to visit her at her house.
The dancer slips away from the crowd and down the road. Water pools in the fresh tread marks in the road. As she gets further from the center of Stumpland, the chirping of crickets and the swish of swamp water overpower the babbling behind her.
She finds Rabbit’s hut, the last before the swamp, leaning on its stilts beside the rough road south. Her quarry, a haggard woman with blond hair, sits on a wobbly stool drinking from a tarnished flask.
November strolls up to her, her necklace jingling lightly. “Hey, Rabbit did you see what was going on down there at the Theater?”
“I saw a man on fire go down the road,” she tells her dryly.
“He was glowing,” she says rocking back and forth.
“It was green right?” November asks.
“You seen fire like that before?” she asks.
Rabbit gulps down another swig and nods.
November leans against the stilts. “Where did you see it?”
Rabbit looks down. She gets out of her chair and crouches on the stoop. “I saw a green flame at Jackbird’s.”
“Really? Out in the open?” November prods.
“It was running down one of the wires.”
“The power line for one of the lights?”
“Could you show me what wire?” November asks. “Because Jackbird isn’t doing so well.”
“What?” Rabbit says with a worried frown.
“You probably want to come along anyway to see what you can get. You were one of his good customers.”
Dawning realization crosses Rabbit face. “He’s? How am I going to get my-”
She looks at her flask and scrambles down to the muddy ground. Together she and November head back towards town.
As they take in his gas mask and heavy clinking bag, the well armed man says, “I suggest everybody get the fuck out of here. This place is fucking weird.”
“What going on?” she ask.
“Where’s Jackbird?” asks one of the others, a slender woman in a threadbare hoodie.
“He disintegrated and turned in a big pile of dust,” Gator explains continuing on his way. “I don’t know if it’s spores or not.”
“I don’t know what that shit is but I don’t want to breath it in,” Gator says.
Violet nods. “I’m with you on that one.”
“Yeah,” Lizard chimes. “Let’s get out of here.” She points at an intact bit of crystalware. “Sway, just grab that and let’s gets out of here.”
As they exit the shattered shop, Violet turns to Gator. “I hope that whatever you’ve got in your bag there you’re going to surrender to Hurricane. He’s ticked off enough at me as it is.”
“This is payment,” he says firmly.
“You tell him that,” she retorts.
“Jackbird paid me to kill Dustwich. I’m going to do that,” Gator says. “A deal is a deal. There’s more stuff in there, you are welcome to get it.”
Back on the road to Stumpland, November and Rabbit hear the clinking of chains in the distance behind them. Looking back they spy roughly two dozen men and woman chained together, pulling an old van. A few people move about motivating them with whips when anyone slows down.
November recognizes Bowdy’s chain gang transport. She and Rabbit move off the road to give the slave trader a wide berth. Even so they make it back to the settlement well before her or her slaves.
November leads Rabbit around the crowd. Pausing near the shop entrance, they see Gator and the others exit.
As they do, Lizard tells the crowd, “We can’t go in there! There are spores! I don’t want to get the spots!” As the crowd moves in with their questions, she adds, “he says Jackbird is dead,” pointing at Gator.
November peers about the shop in the fading light but sees no signs of spores.
Rabbit cries, “Oh man they smashed up everything!”
As she rushes to the bar, November spots the wire and broken bulb hanging from the ceiling. The scent of ozone hangs in the air and charring mars the floor and ceiling. The whole place looks like it was hit by a grenade.
November traces the wire back across the ceiling to the wall. The rubber sleeved cord snakes down the wall and through the back door.
November looks around for her herbs. She finds the basket knocked behind the counter where she also finds Rabbit busily trying to sop up a growing pool of beer from a broken cask. The basket is singed but most of the herbs survived.
Putting the basket back on the counter, she leaves Rabbit filling several glasses with dirty alcohol.
She looks through the back door and sees the hallway weakly illuminated by the sparse light bulbs and the generator laboring in the distance. She heads inside.
“Gator went further in than I did,” she explains, “I’m waiting for what he has to say about that.”
“He said there were spores!” Lizard shouts.
“There was something kind of dusty in there,” Violet explains. “I don’t know if it was spores or not. But Gator seemed to think we needed to get out of there quick and I was not too keen on staying. I don’t want the spots!”
Hurricane looks over Violet’s head to see Gator slowly walking away. “Hey Gator! What did you see in there?”
Gator turns. “I saw Jackbird. He turned into a pile of dust. Some weird shit is going on in there. Something really weird. I heard waves. But by all means if you want to go inside go take a look.” He gestures to the shop. “Be my guest.”
Hurricane opens his mouth to say something crude. His eyes flickers from Jackbird’s and Gator. They focus on the bulging pack hanging from his shoulder. “I don’t remember your sack being that full when you came into town.”
“Sure wasn’t,” he admits smugly. “This is payment.”
“Payment from a dead man?” Hurricane questions.
“Well the deal was made before he was dead,” Gator says.
“That seems awful convenient.”
“I got a job to do,” Gator says turning. He stops. “There was a witness.”
“A witness you say,” Hurricane says. “I don’t suppose they were also reduced to dust?”
“No, November was there. She heard the deal.”
Hurricane looks around. “Okay where’s November? Anyone see November?”
The two men nearest him shrug.
“I ain’t her babysitter,” Gator tells him.
Hurricane points at Gator and turns to his men. “You don’t go anywhere until we check your story. You can go sit over there,” he adds pointing to a bench, “and once November tells her side of it then maybe-”
Gator cuts him off. “I’m sorry are you trying to tell me where to sit?”
“Yeah. I am,” Hurricane says. A half-dozen men begin to converge around the two men. “Look at it from my end. You go into the shop. Then you tell me Jackbird is dead, he made some deal with you, and you took some payment for it. For some job you are still going to do for him. I don’t know if you did that job, if you killed Jackbird, or anything.”
“Job’s not done,” the heavily armed man explains. “I’m going to go do it.”
Hurricane ignores his statement. “Right, so you wait there. And once I make sure you are on the up and up, you can be on your way. Kal and you two keep an eye on him. The rest of you find November.”
The three Hurricane indicated surround Gator. In addition to Hurricane’s teenage nephew, there is a man in crocodile leathers and woman with a Mohawk. Gator winks at them.
Violet searches the crowd for anyone who might have seen November. As she is talking an older dark-skinned man, she feels a tug on her pant leg. She turns and spots a little girl with her hair done up in two braids. Her left eye looks off at an odd angle.
“You are looking for the pretty woman?” the child asks.
Violet nods, recalling her name: Suzelle.
“She went in there. With Rabbit.” She points to the shop.
Violet says thanks and enters the shop in pursuit.
The cord snakes along the ceiling before hitting a T-intersection. The cable shoots straight into the wall, leaving November to choose left or right. Both corridors turn in the direction of the cable after ten feet.
November spies the shadow of someone moving around the corner to the left.
She moves to the back of the room and looks over.
Rabbit starts as she appears. The haggard looking woman has six glasses filled of Jackbird’s alcohol and is ringing an alcohol drenched rag into a seventh. “You scared me!”
Violet ignores the ‘theft’ and asks, “have you seen November around?”
“S-she went into the back,” she stammers.
Violet goes through the back door and into Jackbird’s beached craft. In the distance she hears the generator clanging along, lighting the occasional light bulb overhead.
She continues forward, ignoring a passageway to the left as well as a bulkhead door. A couple of corners later she reaches a set of stairs heading up.
The metal door at the top of the stairs swings open easily. As Violet climbs up into the bridge, she feels the swaying sensation of being at sea. She also momentarily hears a sound like howling wind.
The large room sports windows on three sides, though the view is obscured by a thick fog. She approaches a window, making out a wooden deck and a thin drizzle coming down.
As she ponders where she might be, there is a loud smack and the rain drops deform around two palm prints.
Violet back peddles to the doorway. Chased by the sound of someone walking on the deck, she races down the stairs, shutting the door behind her.
Thinking carefully, November pulls out a tube of lipstick, marking the direction toward the left corridor. Marking her way at each turn, she soon finds the cable again. She follows it back to a large dim room where a massive generator clangs away.
The machine is big, much bigger than she expected. Strange additions and components have been grafted on. Unsure what to make of the coils and electronics, November checks what this thing is running on. Along one side she finds a large diesel gas tank.
Unsure how that shadowy figure could have evaded her, November calls out, “Jackbird!”
Elsewhere Violet finds that the passage at the base of the stairs now continues on to the right.
Wary of getting lost in this changing maze, Violet fishes in her pack for her rope. Tying it tight to the rail for the stairs, she slowly uncoils it, keeping it taut as she goes.
She explores the new section of the ship. The passage twists and briefly splits into two, though one path dead ends after twenty feet.
Then she spies some a red arrow in lipstick on the wall. When she tries to follow it around the bend, she comes up against the end of the rope.
Backtracking a short distance she ties the rope off at a fire extinguisher bolted to the wall. Then continuing on, she follows the trail of lipstick marks.
Back outside, Gator watches the sun descend over the crowded amphitheater. He smiles at the three armed figures around him. Kal shifts his grip on nail-studded bat and glances at Smoky. The older man sweats from more than heat in his crocodile leathers. Pheonix scratches her Mohawk crowned head and fiddles with the tape on the grip of her machete.
Gradually the crowd’s attention turns from the events at Jackbird’s Jackbird’s to the chain gang dragging a van into town. Gator studies the slave powered van with the painting of a fire bird on the side, taking careful note of the men with whips and the sniper on top.
As it reaches the center of town, Bowdy gets out. A smile crosses the heavy-set woman’s unloved face.
“Howdy Bowdy,” Gator calls out.
“Howdy Gator,” she says with the first real cheer he’s heard today.
“Coming through town with some new inventory?” he asks as she approaches.
She nods and Gator looks over her stock. The slaves in the train look ragged and worn down. Two of them stand out. The first is an older man, still healthy despite his gray hair and with a look in his eye that suggests his spirit is not yet broken. The other is an ebony man with an expressionless face. Ornate facial tattoos like flames cover the right side of his face. Surprisingly for a slave, he is armed with machete.
“Rough group you got there,” he comments.
“Well that’s the old stock,” she explains. “It depends on what you are looking for. Nobody here is looking for agricultural slaves so I’m not bringing that to town. Got some craftsmen, some metal workers.”
Gator shrugs. “You know me, I don’t settle down too much.”
“You could always use somebody who knows their way around…a what do they call it…a lathe. Do some custom work on those tools of yours.”
“Mayhaps. I don’t got anywhere to keep them though,” he says.
“That’s the problem with the mobile life,” she says nodding.
“Yeah. I don’t got some fancy van like you do.”
She smiles and say, “oh well I got to talk to some potential customers. Too bad I can’t help you there.”
Gator points out Hurricane and indicates he might be in the need for some laborers.
“I’ll get around to him,” she tells him. “You didn’t see Violet around?”
“I wouldn’t count on seeing her around anytime soon,” he says bluntly.
“That’s a shame. I had something nice for her.”
“Well she’s not dead.”
“You guys had some serious trouble?” she asks.
“Some serious shit just went down. Jackbird’s dead.”
“Fuck!” she says with a frown. “His saloon is the only place worth having a drink around here.”
“Yeah, his brother came into town.”
Bowdy looks south for a moment. “I thought I saw someone who looked like him going down the road.”
“He didn’t happen to be glowing did he?” Gator asks.
“Not that I saw.”
“That’s good to know, " he says.
The two of them look forlornly at the blasted saloon.
“Looks like there is a vacancy,” Gator says.
“That’s a shame.”
“I’d keep out of there if I was you,” he warns her. “Weird shit going on in there.”
“He was always a strange bird. Guess Hurricane will need something to deal with all of this trouble. I’ll be seeing you.”
“I’ll be seeing you.”
The two part ways and Gator adjusts his holsters impatiently.
“November?” she calls out.
Back in the engine room, November hears her name echoing from the hallway. “Yeah? Who is that?”
Violet enters the room.
“Oh hi Violet,” November says over the rumble of the huge generator. “I saw a shadow moving and I thought it was Jackbird. I thought he might need some help.”
“Well if you listen to Gator that doesn’t seem likely,” she says. She goes on the explain that Gator saw him turn to dust before his eyes.
November ponders that. “But the other guy who was in here, the goon, he died in the main room. So who could the shadow be?”
“I don’t know,” Violet tells her. “There is something really weird going on with the corridors here.”
November nods and says, “I followed the wires back here because Rabbit saw -”
Violet interrupts her. “No they are changing.” She explains her trip through the ship and the odd alterations of the ship’s layout.
“I’m not too surprised,” November says as she finishes. “Whatever that weird energy was that blew up the shop and surrounded Dustwich, it came from here. Rabbit saw the green flames traveling down the power lines that lead to this generator. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This whole ship must be powered by this weird shit.”
The two discuss turning off the generator and thus the strange effect on the ship. Violet reaches for the switch but November stops her.
“Don’t go turning this off and leaving us in complete darkness.” She reminds Violet, “I saw someone moving around down here.”
Violet pulls out a small lantern and starts it. As it begins to glow, she hits the switch.
As the generator winds down, sparks fly off the device and small arcs of electricity discharge into the walls and floor. The rumble slows and dies. The lights slowly dim. In the darkness a creaking noise echoes throughout the ship as some tension is released.
The two women follow the wire out of the generator room and down the hall.
“Just so you know, Hurricane wants to talk to you when we get out,” Violet says holding the lantern out in front of them.
“What about?” November says keeping her eyes open for the shadowy figure.
As they walk, November relates the events of earlier: how Hurricane confronted Gator and how he explain he had a deal with Jackbird.
November nods and then asks, “so what is Hurricane paying you anyway?”
“I’m not doing this for Hurricane. I’m here for my family. But since they are under his jurisdiction-”
“Folks?” she interrupts.
“My aunt and uncle,” Violet explains. “I get a small percentage of what they get.”
“The gator meat?”
They soon reach the T-intersection and the end of November’s lipstick markings. But the wire that emerged from the wall isn’t there anymore.
Violet however spots her rope, still tied tight to the fire extinguisher. She leads November along it.
“So you now know where we are going?” she asks.
“I tied that there because I was trying to stop from getting lost,” Violet explains.
“Okay that sounds good to me. What is the rope tied to on the other end?” the dancer asks.
November leads her to a stairway where the other end is tied off. In the dim lantern light they see the door at the top of the stairs swinging open. A series of damp foot prints lead down the stairs, petering out down the corridor they just came down.
“I shut that door,” Violet says coldly. She moves up the stairs. “Cover me.”
November keeps close behind the survivalist as she peers through door. The view from windows on the bridge show a night sky on an inky black sea. One by one the twinkling stars begin to go out.
“This is no the way out,” November says. “Let’s go back and see if there is another way to go.”
As they descend there is another ominous creak through the ship. They find the corridor at the base of the stairs now goes to the left and right. Violet pulls on the rope to release the slip knot. Keeping it tied to the rail, she holds the free end taut and the two women follow the left passage.
They soon find a bulkhead door that reminds November of the time Jackbird led her through the ship earlier that day. She tells Violet, “I was inside the ship before and if this is the same bulkhead door, we would be going deeper into the ship if we went through it.”
They continue past it and find the path in front of them covered in a strange smear of dust. They also make out the glow of a doorway at the far end of the hall. Violet bends down to examine the dust. It doesn’t appear to be spores. Both press bandannas against their faces just in case and press on.
Just past the smear a wire exits the left hand wall and follows the corridor toward the light. The hallway soon ends and they exit a gash in the side of the ship and back into Jackbird’s shop.
Once back in the shop, Violet secures her rope to peg on the wall and heads back inside.
“Why are you going back in?” November cries out.
“This rope is expensive,” Violet explains.
“Want me to wait for you?”
“Just make it doesn’t go slack,” she tells November disappearing down the hall.
Violet follows the rope back into the ship by the glow of her lantern. The sense of emptiness grows as even the strange shifting of corridors seems to have ended. Instead of the sound of lapping water, Violet hears the distant chirping of crickets outside.
She steps up the pace, untying the rope and heading back. The bulkhead door hangs open on the way back but she hurries by, ignoring the odd canisters inside.
Back in the shop November restocks her basket of herbs to replace the ones destroyed by the interaction between Jackbird and Dustwich. The shop is quiet, empty except for her. Neither Rabbit nor the second cask of beer remain in the shop but several glasses, now empty, sit on the floor.
Violet returns and they exit. Outside the sun is setting and they see Hurricane haggling with Bowdy. Eager to deal with her lingering business, November approaches.
She finds the hardholder trying to buy a particular slave, a man named Vock the Sculptor. He’s offered a prodigious amount of gator leather.
Bowdy scratches her chin with a meaty hand. “It’s a good offer but I was really intending this as a gift.”
“Perhaps I can help,” November says inserting herself into the conversation.
The dancer manages to bring Bowdy around to the idea, but she is still reluctant.
“I wanted to talk to Violet,” she explains. “I have a bit of a gift. Something to help in pursuing her goals and restoring this fine nation of ours.”
“What was the gift?” November asks.
“Vock here,” the slave trader says slapping the shoulder of the tattooed warrior by her side. The dark man barely moves.
“How is he going to help?”
Bowdy smiles. “There are people who need to be brought into the fold and convinced to join up in these United States. So he’s here to help with the convincing.”
“How so?” she asks. “Sorry, I’m not seeing it.”
“Vock is a sculptor. A sculptor of men with his machete there.”
November points out that Violet doesn’t believe in slavery. Bowdy grudgingly says that if Violet says she doesn’t want Vock and Hurricane throws in a nice meal, she will agree to his deal.
Spying Violet overhearing this and considering her options, November decides to pull her aside.
“I think I’ve talked to Bowdy before about the 14th amendment,” Violet mutters.
“I recall you telling me about that,” the dancer says. Violet seems to ignore her.
As November struggles to get through to Violet, Gator gets up and starts walking. Hurricane’s followers trail after him.
“Let’s go boys,” he calls after them. “And lady.”
He strides over to Hurricane. The big man looks at him and says, “what are you doing? I told you to stay over there.”
“I want to get this resolved,” Gator sighs.
“You stay over there,” Hurricane says. “I’ll take care this business and then I’ll take care of your business.”
“Let’s just get this business taken care of.”
The two of them glare at each other.
“I ain’t got all day man,” Gator says.
Off to the side, November tries to cajole Violet into helping her. “All you need to do is say you are not interested in slaves. Can you just tell her about the 14th?”
Reluctantly the survivalist agrees.
The two turn around to see the assassin and their employer in a stare-down contest.
In addition to the guards on Gator, the other three enforcers under Hurricane’s command move in to back up their leader.
“I’ve had enough of your shit,” Hurricane says. “Killing people like you can decide who can live and die.”
“I’m not the one deciding man,” Gator says coldly. “The client decides. People decide. I don’t decide shit.”
Hurricane refuses to be distracted. “And looting my citizens. I think it’s time that we were done with you.”
“I think you should remember to honor your deals,” Gator says. His sharp eyes taking in the gangs weapons: machetes, knives, bats, 9mm’s, and Hurricane’s old shotgun.
Off to the side, Bowdy’s crew looks on carefully.
Gator’s hand flies up with blinding speed, pointing a well cared for submachine gun at Hurricane’s face.
“Don’t,” he says, his scarred face twisted in a grimace. “Unless you want to be full of holes. I worked with you in the past. You are going to honor this deal.”
Everything is silent for a moment. Then Hurricane blinks. “Alright, alright. You got your deal. You got your payment. You do your job. Okay.” He backs off, hands in the air.
“I don’t want this ruin our business relationship in the future,” Gator says.
“I got no beef with you.”
“Fine its gone,” Hurricane says as his men give Gator some distance.
“You are a sensible man.”
As Gator walks off, he passes Bowdy chewing on some alligator jerky. “Bowdy.”
“Gator,” she returns. “Be seeing ya.”
“Be seeing ya.”
Looking on November says,“Well they took care of that then. Why don’t you tell Bowdy what you said about the 14th and all.”
Violet nods and approaches the slave trader.
Bowdy looks up smiling. “I got something for you. Though I got a lot of bidders for it.” She points to Vock.
Violet puts up a hand. “Hang on.” She then politely but firmly declines the gift.
Bowdy takes it well. “Fair enough, fair enough. But you are going to need some help. When you figure out what that is, let me know. I’ll help it make it happen.”
Violet thanks her but says that if people will help her, it will be of their own accord.
Hurricane finishes his purchase of Vock as the sunsets and the gathering begins.