Previous Story: 12. Dr. Biederman, I Presume?
There hadn’t been much time to pack. Flash’s neighborhood had been evacuated by the army two weeks into the crisis and all he had with him was what he’d been able to throw into his car. He’d remembered most of the important stuff: his expensive collection of suits, his 1985 Thors turntable, his jazz collection and his revolver. He’d also risked a drive down to Republic Square to liberate his drone, which he knew might prove crucial. Fortunately, the skeleton crew on duty had allowed him access to the tech stores. But in his haste, Flash had forgotten to take any spare batteries.
In the week since, he’d joined forces with other former peacekeepers and employed ‘Timmy’ (Telemetry Measurement Instrument) several times. The batteries had been recharged regularly and were now reaching the end of their life. So now he was on the hunt for replacements. Flash had spent his lifetime hunting people - not objects - but the skills required were pretty much the same.
Driving through the quiet city streets, Flash consulted the map spread out on his lap. Much of it was now colored with red stripes: these were the areas overrun by ‘Crazies’, or ‘CyMS’ (Cybernetic Memetic Sociopaths) as Dr. Biederman popularized on national TV a couple weeks ago. He was currently heading Uptown through a safe corridor to a large tech store known to still be operating. Flash knew this was his best chance of laying his hands on those batteries. Even though the crisis was only a few weeks old, money was already worth less than commodities like food, ammunition and fuel. With that in mind, he had some supplies in his trunk to barter with. No one in the group had objected to him taking them; they all knew how valuable the drone might be.
The sprawling SUPER BUYS store was guarded by two armed men, both of Chinese appearance. Flash knew the neighborhood well and guessed that the store had been commandeered by the Red Dragons, a local gang that had adjusted to the crisis quicker than most. He stopped at the entrance to the parking lot. One of the guards approached, an assault rifle slung across his chest.
‘What you here for, man?’
‘Got stuff to trade?’
‘Only this.’ Flash opened his jacket pocket to show his service revolver.
‘That’s it?’ asked the guard.
The guard looked him over. ‘I know you?’
‘Maybe. Ever had any run-ins with SLPD?’
The guard chuckled. ‘Ah, you know. Now and again.’
‘I was on the force.’
‘Don’t really matter what we were before, does it?’
The guard gestured towards the store. ‘Go ahead. You’ll have to leave the gun in the car.’
Flash didn’t much like entering the store unarmed but as there were other ‘customers’ present, he wasn’t overly concerned. The man who took him inside was also armed with an assault rifle and introduced him to a woman – also of Chinese appearance. She stood behind a counter at a computer rigged up to a buzzing generator. She was young and didn’t seem anxious about working for the Red Dragons.
‘I’m looking for lithium-air batteries. Size CC.’
The girl did not reply but started typing into the keyboard.
Not far away, another man was conducting a negotiation with one of the guards and an older Dragon. This man was very broad and muscular, clad in black pants and vest, arms covered in green and red gang tattoos.
‘No.’ said the woman.
‘None at all?’
‘All gone. Sorry, mister.’
Flash sighed and considered his options. ‘Can you do me a favor – find out who supplied them to the store when they did have some. That information should be on there.’
‘We don’t do freebies, mister.’
Flash did his best to hide his irritation. Only a month ago, he would have flashed his badge and got his way. Not now. He forced a smile. ‘I’d be really grateful if you could just look.’
Her eyes scanned across the screen. Flash became aware that the big man was moving in his direction.
The woman hit a few keys then tapped her fingers on the counter as she waited for the results. The gangster was only a few feet away.
‘Smithson Electronic. Thirty Fourth Street.’
Flash was on his way out when the gangster spoke.
Flash stopped and turned. ‘Er … yes.’
‘I think we have some out back.’ Despite his size, the man suddenly seemed a lot less threatening. ‘‘Recently acquired,’ he added. ‘Not on the store system. I’m Rhino. What’s your name?’
‘What have you got to trade, Taylor?’
‘Army rations. A lot.’
‘How much is a lot?’
‘That depends on how many batteries you have.’
With a grin, Rhino gestured towards a rear door. ‘Follow me.’
There they were: no less than eight gleaming circular batteries in a protective case. Enough to keep the drone in the air for months.
‘Haven’t had a lot of people asking for them,’ said Rhino. ‘Unfortunately, you will have to pay the cop tax.’
‘The what?’ asked Flash.
They were standing in a storage area enclosed by a fence. On guard duty was the man from out front, who had gleefully told Rhino he was dealing with a police officer.
‘What can I tell you – I don’t like cops. So there’s a cop tax. Nothing personal.’
Flash was half-tempted to leave and come back with the others and a few guns. But he decided to get straight to the negotiation. ‘Those batteries are used in only a handful of machines. No one else is going to trade for them. I’ll give you eighty meals.’
‘One hundred,’ said Rhino. ‘Plus twenty percent for the cop tax - that’s one-twenty.’
Flash was seriously considering not making this deal.
Rhino continued: ‘Although … cops do have their uses. I’m willing to waive the tax on this occasion - in return for some useful information.’
‘Lot of people with guns around these days. We want some bullet-proof vests. Know where we can find some?’
‘You wouldn’t bullshit me now, would you, cop?’
‘Not if I get something for it. All of the police storage depots that were evacuated were emptied of weapons and equipment.’
‘That doesn’t really help me.’ Rhino folded his huge arms across his huge chest.
‘Then keep listening. Other depots were in areas overrun by Crazies and had to be abandoned in a hurry. There’ll be vests there, for sure. I know of at least three not far from here. It’ll be risky but you’ve clearly got plenty of firepower.’
‘No cop tax?’
‘Agreed,’ said Rhino.
‘Sixty meals,’ said Flash.
‘It’s a deal.’
Flash waited until he was a block away before he allowed himself a smile. He had given up only seventy meals for the valuable batteries; and his group had countless boxes of rations at their base. As for Rhino, well he had his three addresses – and all three were indeed in ‘CyMS territory’. Unfortunately for him, none were police storage depots - they were jazz clubs.
Next Story: 14. The Master Negotiator