The large gates slowly trundled open with a grinding noise that reminded Cobra of a rock slide, heard even over the steady rumble of his engine. Beyond the widening opening, a second barrier was also sliding sideways to the right of the entrance; a heavy frame construction of rusted metal girders forming a wedge which braced the back of the gate itself. A precaution against ramming attacks. As it neared more than half way open the group got their first look beyond the walls, save for Tuc who had visited before on business. The old cracked road surface stretched directly ahead for about half a mile before reaching the opposite wall and another, equally fortified gate. The town spread to the left of the road around 100 meters before dipping down into the slope. They drove through the gates and along the road towards an old forecourt to the left that may formerly have been a petrol station or used car sales lot. The surrounding buildings seemed to be relics of the old world, maintained as best as can be expected after over a century of post-calamity neglect. At the slope and beyond the buildings were all constructs of salvaged junk, old shipping containers, ruined vehicles and even a large boat, capsized and beached at the edge of the slope. Small outcroppings of buildings had been built out of the upturned hull, clinging to the ship like barnacles made from scrap metals and wood. A short distance past the now-closing gates the group pulled into the old forecourt, each of them getting out and stretching their legs once more.
“And here we are,” said Tuc, his old jovial self returning with each passing minute. “I give you, Cinder Rock.” Tuc punctuated his point with arms raised out and upwards, the large crags of blackened rock towering either side of the town behind him. Cobra, Cin and Midnight stared blankly at him for a moment before letting their eyes wander around their surroundings once more. The upper road seemed to be nearly empty of people, save for around half a couple of passers-by who had stopped to observe the newcomers. Others simply trudged on while sparing little more than a glance their way.
“Is it always this lively?” enquired Cobra, a cocky smile spreading across his face. “I may need to sit back down and catch my breath.”
“Oh, likely people are still at market further down the slope.” Tuc directed their attention to a trail they had passed to their left, not far past the gate, which stretched down the slope of The Skid itself. The group spent a moment to take in their surroundings. Midnight’s eyes followed the line of buildings across the road from them. Beyond them would be the large expanse of the flats, and a large flat-topped construct they noticed from the road on their approach to the gates. The road was lined with several small hangar buildings sitting in front of larger old warehouses with sloped roofs and no windows. Here and there breaks in their brick and concrete walls had been covered up with sheets of rusted metal giving them a patchwork appearance. Further in several rusted old silos stood even higher, their tops visible from the road. A couple of them had split open and were blackened from fires that raged long ago. A layer of old chain link fence stretched along the border of the large warehouse buildings, secured by loops of steel rods bolted to the brickwork. Further along from where they entered the town the road branched to the right between the largest gap in the warehouses. From this distance Midnight could just make out the large double gate that straddled the road and a lone figure, possibly a guard, leaning against the side of a small booth. Meanwhile, Cobra had taken to inspecting the damage to his SUV, disinterested in the view of the town.
“Well,’ continued Tuc, breaking the silence. “I expect you gentlemen will want your payment.” Tuc marched to the back door of his van with renewed vigour, the group slowly gathering. With a salesman’s flourish, Tuc opened the back of his van and extended his arms towards the disheveled pile of crates and baskets containing trinkets and goods, from old beaten cooking wares to boxes of bullets and shotgun shells. Old electronic items sat beside children’s’ toys. Construction tools such as hammers and saws occupied an old metal basket in the back corner, as well as several small boxes containing mixtures of nails reformed out of scrap. There was even an old parasol, the original canvas long since moulded and shredded away now replaced with beaten sheet metal that overlapped in segments, allowing it to be folded still. The back of the van was hardly a sunken and fabled hulk of the old world, full of luxury treasures that could make a man rich for the rest of his life. Midnight and Cobra exchanged glances while Cin’s expression was, as usual, concealed behind his half-mask. Instead, he somehow managed, even standing still as he was now, to project a constant impression of disgruntlement.
“Again, gentlemen,” continued Tuc, somewhat abashed as he began troubling at the piles of items. He climbed into the back and attempted to reorganize the one large heap of boxes and bags into several smaller heaps as he spoke. “I wish I could have paid you a lot more in actual currency that you can use here. You may recall me informing you that The Skid settlements have all agreed on a currency called chips. I used to have a modest cache of this myself to send with the caravans to conduct trade here when unable to get here myself. I was, regrettably, forced to spend much of it on… ah, well.” Tuc gestured to the faded green van itself, purchased with the purpose of making their journey here. “Much of the rest I am going to need to establish myself here, as we discussed, but I am sure any of these goods would either fetch a good barter price if you were to resell them anywhere. Or maybe use them yourself… ah, here we are.”
Tuc fished out a small strong box from beneath several sacks that had been pinned under a toppled stack of wooden crates. He fished the correct key from the loop on his belt and unlocked the small metal box. Cobra, meanwhile, surveyed the mountain of boxes and baskets for a moment as Tuc struggled to work the key in the lock. Finally, Tuc popped the box lid open and returned to the group with a small pouch that clattered as he handled it.
“If you wish to count them out I won’t be offended,” said Tuc as he held the back out, waiting for someone to take it. “It’s not much, I know, but feel free to pick through the goods here and select something as a supplement to cover the payment we agreed on before leaving.” Midnight took the bag from Tuc with a nod of the head and worked the drawstring open to begin counting the small wooden disks. Each with a faded pattern of paint, worn through time and handling. The flat of the disk was stamped with a hot brand that imprinted the image of a domed structure topped by a large cylindrical object on one side, the other was likewise stamped with the brand that looked like a large looping series of rails with an old steam train in the middle.
A few moments of silence passed as Midnight checked the contents of the bag before Tuc eventually spoke.
“So, feel free to begin browsing. Plenty to have, at such as…” Tuc quickly selected two items from his jumbled cache of goods. “Such as these?” He continued, further slipping back into the familiar role of a salesman. “A jerry can, to store more fuel in and further extend the range of your… uh, I had always meant to ask actually. Does your imposing vehicle have a name?” Cobra frowned as he took a second’s thought before answering in an uncertain tone.
“Truck?” Beside him, Midnight lowered his head to hide his amused smile. He stepped from the conversation, having finished counting the chips to his satisfaction, and went to inspect the smaller boxes.
“Yes, ok, so your truck could benefit from such an item, or maybe a spare set of tools in his handy carry box?” Cobra scratched his chin for a second.
“I have a full set of tools already, also several fuel cans as well as two tanks in the truck itself. I guess though you can never have too much fuel.” With that decided, Cobra picked the jerry can up and headed to the back of his truck to stow it with the others.
“Ah, yes, very good. Good.” Tuc turned to find Midnight carefully picking his way through the various piles. “Yes please, have a browse and let me know what you have settled on. My time is your time.” Tuc finally turned to Cin who, at some point in the proceedings, had returned to the passenger door of the van and was now walking back to the rear. He carried the assault rifle he had wielded on the road earlier today. “Ah, no need to put it back or anything, feel free to join your friend in selecting your payment.”
“I already have,” replied Cin. To emphasize his point he hefted the rifle up to his chest and patted the frame with his other free hand.
“Ah, uh, yes yes that could be suitable too. Fitting also given you are already familiar with its use. Actually just a moment I have… uh…” Tuc trailed off as he turned to rummage through the mess, looking for the right crate needed to finish his thought. His attention was drawn towards Midnight’s out-stretched hand and the scuffed looking wristwatch it held.
“Is it ok if I take this as my payment,” asked Midnight with his usual smile. Tuc opened his mouth to reply before a voice from the roadside interjected.
“Excuse me,” came the voice behind the group. All heads turned around to the new arrivals, three in total. “I hate to interrupt this transaction, however there is no unlicensed street trading in Cinder Rock.” The woman at the centre of the group addressed them with the practiced calm, clipped tone of someone confident in their authority. A lean face under a faded pale brown baseball cap, with blonde hair tied back in a short ponytail, she wore a well weathered short sleeved bomber jacket over a loose off-white shirt tucked into combat trousers that closely matched the jacket for style. The trousers tucked into a pair of rugged and well worn black hiking boots. The silver star badge displayed prominently on the left breast pocket of the jacket marked her, it seemed, as a member of the town’s law enforcement. Either side of her were two men, one recognisable to the group as Greggins, the gate guard who had assisted in the searches of their vehicles as the group came into town earlier. The other unknown man also wore a badge on his faded green jacket. His dark brown hair was cut short and his jawline square set. He stood as the tallest of the three and was dressed in a similar loose off-white shirt beneath his jacket, khaki combat trousers and trainers that seemed to be held together with duct tape and careful ownership. Between him and the woman it was not quite a uniform but the intended impression of a common appearance seemed to be there. Tuc smiled at the law officers as he spoke first.
“Ah, you misunderstand. You see, we just arrived in town together and I am simply paying my escorts in goods.”
“He did say he was here to trade though, ma’am,” Greggins interjected.
“Yes, indeed. Though I will be seeking to secure a location I have negotiated with Merchant Guild Master Vulpan.”
“I see,” replied the woman, looking between Greggins and the group.
“Was there some issue with our arrival, may I ask?” Asked Midnight as he stepped down from the back of the van. He emphasized his question with a nod to the guard, Greggins. “I only ask as this gentleman was present when we were cleared for entry to the town not half an hour ago, officer…?”
“Chief Marshal Crystal,” she replied with a curt nod. “And this is my second in command, Deputy Marshal Jerry.” She gestured to the square-jawed marshal to her left. “You already know Greggins, as you say. And no issue at all. I ask all the guards to notify me of any new arrivals in town so I can make my introductions.”
“A pleasure,” replied Midnight as the group, including Tuc, sensing it best to let Midnight take over the discussion. “You can call me Midnight. This is Cobra, Cin and our employer, Tuc.” Crystal nodded cordially to all of them. “We may be staying awhile ourselves, just so you are aware, and we intend no trouble while we are here.”
“Do you have accommodation already?” Jerry asked.
“Actually a good friend of mine, by the name of Hog, recommended we speak to a man named Rocky. I believe he owns an inn here in town.” Crystal and Jerry shared a quick look with each other, then back to Midnight.
“You’re not from around here,” remarked Crystal, taking a more cautious tone. “That’s clear. How do you become friends with one of The Skid’s least impressive bikers?”
“Oh, we met on the road into town,” responded Midnight. Crystal gave Jerry a barely noticeable roll of the eyes.
“Let me guess,” continued Jerry, with a small measure of amusement. “He tried to extort a toll from you?”
“I don’t believe he ever mentioned such a thing. We simply chatted on our way into town after we stopped some way out of the mountain pass. He was quite good conversation, really. Then we continued on our way.”
“And now you are ‘good friends’ with Hog,” remarked Crystal. “That was quick.”
“I do tend make friends fast.”
“Well,” said Jerry. “You could do worse than the Black Rock Inn,” He nodded his head towards the next road on the left leading down the slope and continued. “Down that way to the bottom where the road bends round to the left. Sign outside the door so you won’t miss it.” Midnight turned his head the direction Jerry indicated then looked back with a nod of appreciation.
“I need to make some repairs to my truck, too,” interjected Cobra. “Anywhere in town I could find some spare parts and a workspace? Oh, and fuel.”
“Scrapyard near the other gate down the way,” said Crystal, her tone becoming unmistakably sour as she continued. “Only place with fuel in town anyway, if he has any or wants to sell it. But you should be set for parts at least. Though the owner is not too fond of hang arounds as it is.”
“I appreciate your taking the time to welcome us, as well as the directions,” said Midnight.
“Yes, well while you are in Cinder Rock, understand that you are under the protection of the Law Makers.”
“Along with that, understand that we have a low tolerance for self-styled justice here. Any issues should be directed to the Law Makers. If you can do that, and cause no trouble of your own, you’re welcome here.”
“Understood,” replied Midnight, still smiling. Crystal gave them all one last look over before turning back the way she came and headed for the road leading down the slope, Jerry following her. Greggins broke off from them to return to his post at the gate.
“Well, that was pleasant,” Cobra said with a grin once Crystal was out of sight.
“They were quite polite,” responded Midnight.
“Oh I know, I wasn’t being sarcastic. Plus she was pretty.” Cobra continued to grin at Midnight who responded with a short snort of laughter before returning to Tuc.
“So, the watch?” Midnight resumed his inquiry with Tuc who looked at him and the watch again, his mind quickly pulling back onto the previous track of conversation.
“Oh, yes of course. Actually, I was going to see about trading the various items of jewelry to a man at the market who deals in them. Clear my inventory a little so to speak. I am going to need to specialize somewhat given the various traders already filling different markets here.”
“Excellent,” responded Midnight and headed back to the truck. Cin followed suit before Tuc held a hand up to him.
“Ah, I almost forgot,” he said to Cin. “Just a moment.” Tuc scrambled back to the crate he had barely uncovered before Crystal arrived, and retrieved two items from it before turning back to Cin. “Here, you should take these too.” He held out a box of 100 rounds of ammunition for the assault rifle stacked on top of two spare empty clips. “Now normally I would charge extra for these, and the rifle as well since it is worth a lot more than the agreed medium. But I want you to have them as a gift from me. A thank you for doing a great job protecting me back there.”
“OK, sure,” replied Cin without hesitation, grabbing the items with his free hand.
“Excellent!” Tuc beamed at his gesture’s acceptance as Cin walked past him to join the others at the truck. “Well then, gentlemen, it has been a pleasure and I hope to see you all again after I get my store up and running.” Tuc returned to his van and closed the back doors with an enthusiastic slam and turned to offer his hand to the three. Midnight shook his hand first with a cordial nod of the head before Tuc turned to Cobra who was resuming his inspection of the truck, not even noticing the gesture. Tuc bypassed him for a moment and headed toward Cin who had already stored his new rifle with his pack on the back seat. Cin finally shook Tuc’s hand after an awkward pause between the two. Tuc’s smile returned as Cin turned back to making space for himself in the back of the truck, Tuc now firmly out of his mind again. Tuc turned to leave as Cobra stepped back from the truck, finally noticing him again and giving him a quick and friendly slap to the shoulder.
“See ya’ round,” Cobra said and headed for the driver side of his truck. As he climbed aboard his SUV, Tuc vanished into his van and turned off the open lot, his engine rattling like a large tin can full of pebbles tumbling down a hill. Cobra winced at the sound before turning to Midnight and Cin who were standing by the open passenger door. “So, remind me what we got paid again?” Midnight pulled the pouch from his coat pocket and hefted it in his hand. The dull clink of wooden chips could be heard inside.
“We got seventeen chips. And our wonderful goods, of course.”
“I’m gonna likely need some for the repairs,” remarked Cobra. “I’m not liking the look of the rear suspension struts after that fight today.”
“Haven’t eaten today either,” added Cin.
“And we need rooms for the night or we pitch our tents somewhere in town,” sighed Midnight, though his smile was undiminished. “Well, it’s a good thing I have other forms of currency.” Midnight withdrew a few of the chips from the pouch before tying it back up and tossing to Cobra.
“I will go secure us some lodgings,” Midnight said, turning to leave. “I will meet you all there later.” Midnight excused himself with a nod and turned the direction Jerry had given.
“Get the first round of drinks in!” Cobra shouted through his window as Midnight walked down the road.
“It won’t be that easy without much money,” Midnight shouted back over his shoulder. “But my new friend, Hog, gave me some information that might help with the rooms.” He turned his head back down the road and gave them a wave over his shoulder. Cin, meanwhile, has climbed up into the passenger side of the SUV and shut the door.
“I guess we will need to make some kind of deal at the scrapyard,” said Cobra, now realizing he was no better off money wise. Cin nodded slowly, staring out the front window. Cobra fired up the engine, still rumbling smooth despite the skirmish on the mountain pass.
At the other end of the road, around a couple of hundred meters from the forecourt, Cobra’s SUV trundled slowly through the open chain-link gate. The broken rubble ground of the scrapyard entrance, perhaps once upon a time a smooth road surface, crunched under the knobbly tires. The fence line stretched away in both directions, eventually turning round to link with the main town wall in the north. The area ahead of the gate was an open patch of land, the far side directly ahead of them dominated by a large mobile crane. To the left was a cluster of buildings, piled on top of each other like a clutch of insect eggs. A balcony stretched out from the second level and timber stairs snaked down the front of the structure. The door at the top looked to be open, though the room beyond was too dark so make anything out this far away. The open lot stretched off to the right and was lined with several large sheds, each big enough to fit a vehicle inside. All but one of them, the closest to the entrance, were locked with chain and padlock. Cobra pulled up short of the open shed and killed the engine. The place seemed deserted as he and Cin stepped down from the SUV.
“No welcome committee,” commented Cobra, joining Cin at the front of the truck. Cin simply grunted and cocked his head a little, as if listening.
“Over here,” Cin said after several seconds, and gestured toward the open shed, his attention drew there by the dull sound of metal being tapped by a hammer. The doors were held either side by chocks of wood wedged against the frame. At this angle, they could not see inside, though the occasional clank of tools could be heard. Cobra glanced at the large crane at the far end of the lot as they walked towards the open shed. It was heavily rusted and looked to have not been used for some years. The joints of the articulating arm were stained with old oil which had seeped through cracks in the heavy gear housing. The hydraulic pistons along the broad arms filthy with congealed fluids that had escaped from the cylinders. The tracks beneath were also broken in places, though no links were missing.
The metal is still strong. In pain, though… Cobra blinked, his attention brought back to the sheds as the sound of light hammering issued from the open door with a sense of renewed vigour. He had not even noticed he had stopped walking. Cin had been waiting patiently as Cobra stared at the crane.
“Sorry,” said Cobra, resuming his walk.
“Day dreaming again?” Asked Cin, his voice flat.
“Something like that.” Cin nodded silently in response as they came around to the front of the open shed. A small engine block rested on a heavy metal table which was draped with several layers of oil-stained canvas. Another bench along the side wall was similarly adorned with the small components that complete it. Gasket heads, pistons, cylinders, cam belts and a plethora of various nuts and hex bolts arranged into neat piles beside screwdrivers and torque wrenches. The frame of a bike sat on a long trolley parked against the opposite wall and two wheels rested beside it. Another small tray of nuts, bolts and fixtures sat beside them. Folded over the frame was a leather vest with a logo stitched on the back matching the bikers on the road earlier today. A man stood with his back to the door, his overalls stained from his work. His jet black hair, long enough to reach just below the neck, was held back behind his ears as he bent over the block. His left hand struggled with something out of sight as his right hand tapped a soft mallet against it with barely restrained patience.
“Stubborn fucking bolt!” Cursed the man as his hands continued to work.
“Excuse me,” interjected Cobra. The man set down his tools and sighed, his back still to the pair.
“What do you want?”
“Do you work here?” Asked Cobra. The man turned to look at them both. He stood just over six foot. He had a thick handlebar mustache and black hair held back by a bandana. His face was thin and angular with a sharp jawline. He was not heavy built though his arms were ropy with lean muscle, and his face was a mask of frustration.
“Does it look like I do?” The question hung in the air between them a few moments.
“Eh, so my name is Cobra. I…”
“The correct answer is, I don’t,” interrupted the man with a sigh. He walked towards the pair at the door as he spoke. “Make a hole.” Cobra quickly sidestepped while Cin simply turned a little, glaring at the man. If he noticed it he did not show it.
“Eh, sorry. I…”
“DAD!” The man shouted towards the large clump of buildings, interrupting Cobra again. “Customers!” He turned and stomped back to the shed, Cobra dancing out of his way once more.
“I didn’t catch your name,” he ventured.
“Didn’t give it.” The man replied curtly, taking up the mallet again.
How does Midnight do this? Thought Cobra. He turned to look at Cin who was still impassive. Cobra took in a deep breath and let it out slowly as they both returned to their SUV. Another figure eventually lumbered into view, making his way steadily down the snaking stairs from the upper platform. He gave the impression of an old mountain bear emerging from its cave after hibernation. Long ruffled gray hair and a thick salt and pepper coloured beard stretching down as far as the man’s ample stomach and was almost as broad as his chest which, despite his girth at the stomach, seemed to be heavily built with the muscle of hard manual work. His shoulders looked solid and his arms were best described as ‘thick’. He wore a sleeveless denim jacket and a pale brown tshirt, or at least it was pale brown now. His trousers were gray camo patterned with cargo pockets and he wore heavy looking boots. He lowered himself down step by step, taking more care with one leg than the other, drawing attention to the homemade brace strapped to his right knee. Once on even ground, he walked with the burden of a limp that favoured his left leg.
“Sorry folks,” he began, taking deep breaths as he continued to speek. “Didn’t hear you roll in.” His eyes fell to the large armoured SUV sitting just inside the gate as he spoke.
“That’s ok,” replied Cobra. “We haven’t been here long.”
“Grits,” the man said, holding out a hand the size of a shovelhead. Cobra stepped forward and shook it.
“Cobra. And this is Cin.” Grits looked Cin up and down briefly before giving him a nod. To Cobra’s surprise, Cin returned the gesture.
“I see you folks took a beating out there.” Grits motioned to the SUV, pockmarked with bullet impacts, dents and scratches from the skirmish earlier today.
“I would appreciate somewhere to park up and do some repairs.” Cobra looked around at the sheds again and back to Grits. “You appear to be the place for that.” Grits nodded and ran his hand through his beard as he spoke.
“I got tools and workbenches, jacks and engine lifts, not to mention plenty of spare parts.” Grits motioned to the huge mounds of scrap piled behind the sheds and the racks of salvaged parts around and behind the main building. “Question is do you have a means to pay?”
“Well, we’re gonna be in town for a while and looking to earn some money while we’re here.” Grits frowned at this.
“So, you guys got chips to pay with?”
“We just came in from the Four Cities.” Cobra paused, waiting for Grits to understand what he meant before realizing he would not know yet. “Ah yeah, I guess word hasn’t spread yet. The four are at war now. We had to grab what we could and get out pretty quick.” Grits nodded slowly, a frown crossing his face.
“We helped a trader friend of ours move here,” clarified Cobra.
“He’s your friend,” Cin replied.
“Oh come now, you telling me you two didn’t form a lasting bond while you rode shotgun in his van?”
“No.” Cobra laughed and turned back to Grits.
“Anyway,” he continued, “He paid us a little, the rest in barter.”
“I only take chips as payment,” replied Grits, his voice firm.
“Well…” Cobra mulled it over a little, wishing Midnight was here to work his silver tongue gift. “OK, how much are we talking? What’s the going rate”
“Just a chip a day for the shed and access to tools. Plus the price of parts if you need any, which vary and are negotiable. So just come see me when you pick something and we’ll work it out.”
“I also need fuel,” pointed out Cobra.
“Three chips a liter.”
“Uh, OK. Sounds, um…”
“Expensive,” mumbled Cin.
“Haha,” Grits laughed in response. “Supply and demand. And I got the only supply.” Grits seemed almost shameless in his boasting.
“It’s fine Cin,” responded Cobra. “Midnight might be able to get us some work here while I fix up the truck. And I still have some reserve at least. We can work our way to a full tank.” With that seemingly decided, Cobra withdrew the pouch from his jacket pocket and began counting out the last chips they had. “I’ll only need the shed and tools as a minimum, I guess. At least for now. How about five days worth?”
“Settled,” said Grits, grinning beneath his thick beard as he took the chips from Cobra’s out-stretched hand. He then shook hands with Cobra once more, then turned to Cin and gave him a short nod again before heading towards the sheds, withdrawing a bundle of keys from a pocket inside his jacket as he went.
“You can use this one here. Should be big enough for that beast you drive, and has all the tools you will need.” Grits unlocked the shed and turned to face Cobra and Cin. “You guys need anything else, feel free to ask. Also, I lock the front gate at six every evening until eight the next morning, no exceptions. So if you need anything from your truck you should take it with you now.”
“Understood,” Cobra replied. Grits gave him a nod once more before turning to the only other open shed.
“Hey, Jester!” Grits shouted, marching towards the open door. The loud clatter of tools being set down in a pile was followed by the biker emerging from his workspace, an oily rag in hand as he wiped off the grease. His expression was the very essence of annoyance. “Well, don’t smile on our account. How’s your charger coming along?”
“Pissing me off,” he snarled. “Should be done by tonight, though.” The biker let out a sigh.
“Well, take a break and come inside. Have a beer with your old man. Need to talk about something before you go back to the Carousel.” Jester looked between Cobra and Cin, his face still burdened with a frown, before walking towards the office building with Grits.
“Well,” said Cobra after a few moments. He turned to Cin and, after getting no response, headed to his SUV. “Guess I’ll bring the truck over and tuck her in for the night.”
“Midnight better have got us some rooms,” Cin muttered.
“Oh cheer up,” responded Cobra, stepping up to the SUV’s driver side door. “I saved us a few chips there. See how I negotiated? We can at least have a couple of drinks tonight.” Cin slowly shook his head as Cobra fired up the engine and began turning the SUV around to reverse into the shed.
Midnight found the Inn easily enough, mainly thanks in part to the street itself which was little more than a compacted dirt trail which ran mostly straight down the hill without any branching paths. Either side of the road and was stacked with roughly-built shacks that seemed to lean on each other for support. Midnight mused that the quality of construction aside, they had done exceptionally well to build along the slope of The Skid with what they had. Even though the slope itself was quite gentle it was still steep enough for one of these structures to roll down if something gave way. Unlike the Four Cities, which were built upon the ruins of old world settlements where some structures were still upright enough to support new ones, it seemed the people of Cinder Rock had built from almost nothing other than scraps of ruined buildings salvaged in whatever had caused the enormous scar on the land. Beside the upside-down ship, which still confused him a little, the only signs of the old world seemed to be the few buildings along the top road where they entered the town itself. Around half-way down the slope of The Skid itself, the road finally curved to the left and the Inn was on the right-hand side of the road at the corner.
He headed for the only door he could see, assuming it was the front entrance. The building was two floors high from the road level, with a shallow sloped roof. A sign hung beside the door, little more than a bare plank of wood with the words ‘Black Rock Inn’ displayed in faded black paint. Attached to two dull-looking brass hooks beneath was a second, smaller plank reading ‘Always Open, All Day and Night!’ in red lettering. Midnight stepped through the door into a room that was dimly lit with a mixture of oil lamps, lumpy candles and the odd string of light bulbs. Some bare and some different colours, they hung over what seemed to be the bar along the far left wall. At the opposite side of the room from this entrance was another door leading out onto what seemed to be some kind of veranda, though the difference in light made it hard to tell for sure. To Midnight’s right were some stairs which ascended to the upper floor. A faded and rusted metal sign was bolted to the wall reading ‘Rooms’. Several tables dotted the floor space ahead of him, none of them currently occupied at this time, though voices drifted around the room from somewhere to the right where the floor ended with a balcony. Beyond the balcony was a third lower floor and ahead of him, next to the open door at the back, was another staircase along the back wall leading down. The bar itself seemed to be another source of noise as a light and rapid metallic tapping occasionally gave way to murmured invective.
Midnight took a moment to wander around between the mostly vacant tables and took in the layout of the building. It seemed most people were congregating on the lower level, and there was another door along the back wall leading outside, just below the stairwell. Two men were playing a game of darts in one corner of the room while other patrons sat at several tables in small groups no more than three. In all around a dozen people spread around the large space.
“Afternoon,” came a voice from behind. Midnight turned to the bar as a man emerged from behind, wrench in hand. “Sorry, didn’t see you there.”
“Good afternoon,” responded Midnight. “Having a little trouble?”
“Oh, the damn tap is stuck again. Fifth time this month. Wish I could get a new one.”
“I imagine that is less than easy.” Midnight smiled as he approached the bar.
“You have no idea. Anyway, I’m Rocky. Owner of this bar. What can I get ya’?” Rocky was a thin and older man with hands like worn leather. His bar apron was dull and stained with faint patches where he habitually wiped his hands as he worked. His thin graying hair was brushed back close to his scalp.
“I’m told you have rooms,” responded Midnight.
“Indeed I do. Rooms and food at a set price.”
“I will need three of them,” Midnight continued. “However, in the interest of being completely earnest, there is an issue of payment standing in the way.” Midnight summarized their arrival in town from the escort job, and the subsequent disappointment of payment. Rocky kept his face impassive and nodded through the retelling.
“Why’d you guys leave The Four?” asked Rocky.
“Are you familiar with the… political situation there?” Rocky furrowed his brow a little and tilted his head.
“Eh, somewhat. Three warlords in charge of four cities built right on top of each other.”
“Well, one of the warlords now has three.Or, at least, it was about to end that way when we got out.”
“Which one?” Rocky asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Malachai.” The air between them grew somber as several seconds of silence followed. Rocky knew Malachai as the warlord leader of a cult known as The Spring Watchers. To call him a warlord may be an overstatement or unjust generalization to some people who would describe Malachai as a harmless prophet for his religion. Others might describe him as a cult leader, and the people of his portion of The Four Cities obeyed the tenants of their religion as a strict fact of life. One of which was a vow of silence with outsiders. Whatever the other religious strictures were people could only guess. A small quarter of the city was portioned for those dedicated to dealing with outsiders, and the only area outsiders may go to trade and conduct diplomatic contact. Diplomats were the only ones permitted by Malachai himself to speak to others, and only with other appointed representatives to the other two warlords.
“Do I even want to know more?” Asked Rocky.
“I’m not sure I want to know what I already know,” Midnight replied, uncharacteristically somber. “It got really bad real fast after Sable’s city fell. Thankfully we were half out of the door already, so to speak.” Again, the air grew still.
“So,” Rocky said, willing a little brightness to his voice. “You have limited money and need rooms, food and drink. You’re refugees.” Midnight smiled back at him.
“I would not put it that way. We plan to stay around here for a while, that much is true. And we intend to earn our way. I was wondering if you could extend some kind of credit to us. At least for the rooms. I have some chips on me for food and drink tonight.”
“Look, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your issue here. I don’t want to turn people out into the cold after something like that.”
“I understand, however, a very good friend of mine told me you were seeking to hire people to fix a problem and he was willing to vouch for us.”
“Oh? And who would that be?”
“A biker who goes by the name Hog.”
“Hog?!” Rocky exclaimed, an amused smile on his face. “Hog… vouches for you?”
“Yes, I know he is quite the amusing character. As you know, though, he is mostly harmless.”
“Well, that is true to a point. If you know him as you say, you know why I would laugh at the idea his vouching for anyone carries weight.”
“How did your town marshal put it? ‘The Skid’s least impressive biker.’ I believe.” Rocky laughed and nodded again.
“Yep, that about sums the man up.”
“Yes, but not his club. They do have an investment here, don’t they?”
“Oh no, not a chance. I’m not messing with the Hand of Doom. I got a good thing going with them that keeps this place running. I’m not standing for your rooms with their cut of the profits.”
“I don’t expect you to. I expect Hog to stand for the room, and he answers to you. With the club at your back.” Rocky stared hard at Midnight, weighing this option up. “I assure you, Hog understands this fully, too. Like I said, we are friends. This was entirely his idea.”
“I see,” Rocky said evenly.
“As to what we can do for you in the meantime. I gather you have a missing person you wish tracked down. And a debt that needs repaying.”
Cobra stumbled down the slope, cursing as he struggled for balance under the weight of his large travel bag slung over his shoulder. At first glance, it was not all that steep, until you carry all that you own on your back. He counted his blessing they were not heading up the hill while making a mental note to keep an eye out in the future for some kind of barrow or trolley. To his left, Cin kept pace with him while hauling two near equally large bags on his own back with the poise of a man who could comfortably make quicker time down the slope.
“You sure you don’t need a hand?” asked Cobra, maintaining his shambling trek down hill. “It’s not fair for you to carry Midnight’s stuff, too.”
“It’s fine.” replied Cin with his customary monotone voice.
“You can go on ahead, you know,” Cobra continued a moment later. “I’ll be fine.”
“You seem to be,” Cin responded.
“Ha,” Cobra said, half-laughing and half-panting. “Yeah, it’s not that far, I guess.” Within a few minutes, they found the entrance to the Black Rock Inn. Cobra let the bag slide off his shoulder and to the floor with a heavy thud.
“This is it, I guess,” he said.
“I guess,” replied Cin as headed through the open doorway. Cobra reached down and heaved the pack over his shoulder once more, regretting having let it fall as he grunted with effort while struggling to return it to its former position. He quickly gave in, content to simply grab the straps and drag the pack along the ground as he followed Cin inside.
“Let’s hope Midnight has worked something out. I really need to lay down.”
Cobra followed Cin through the room and towards what they determined to be the bar. A man stood wiping down the last of the washed glasses stacked by the basin along the back wall. He seemed to give them both an appraising look as they approached, set the mug down and planted both hands on the bar.
“Well I suppose you would be friends of Midnight,” he said matter of factly.
“Yes,” replied Cobra, letting go of his pack once more. “I see he’s already dropped by.” Cobra turned a little as he spoke and quickly scanned the room before turning back to the barman.
“He’s downstairs,” the man answered the unspoken question as he held out his hand to them both. “The name’s Rocky.”
“Cobra,” he said, shaking his hand and turning to Cin. “This is Cin.” Rocky held his hand out a moment before realizing no return gesture was forthcoming from the masked man, given his hands were still full of luggage. He nodded to Cin instead and reached beneath the bar, withdrawing a key from the hooks below and placed it on the table.
“Afraid you boys are gonna have to share for a couple of days at least.” Cobra and Cin glanced at each other slowly. “Sorry fellas, only had two rooms available for now. Might have someone checking out soon, unless he pays up a couple more days. You’ll get first dibs on it when it’s free. If you can pay, that is.” Rocky gave a shrug.
“Good thing we have sleeping bags,” said Cobra with a thin smile, attempting to inject some humour into the situation. He eventually turned to Rocky and took the key. “I understand, it’s fine. Thanks”
“You got the rooms for a week, then you gotta pay up or you’re out. That’s the deal I worked out with Midnight. You want to stay beyond that you pay up front. Should give you boys time to get on your feet here in town. I’ll let your friend fill you in on the rest.”
“Alright,” Cobra replied.
“Meal service is in an hour. Should give you time to get settled. Welcome to Cinder Rock boys.” Rocky took up the dishcloth once more and turned his attention back to the small stack of mugs still draining on the sideboard. Cobra took the key and turned to Cin.
“Guess we lug these upstairs then go find Midnight.”
“You go, I got these,” he replied, hauling Cobra’s bag on his other free shoulder with enviable ease.
“Uh, you sure?”
“No problem.” Cin held his right hand out for the key.
“OK, thanks,” replied Cobra, handing the key to Cin. “We’ll be downstairs.”
Cobra found Midnight on the lower level sitting at a table near the two men playing darts, watching the game with casual interest and a glass of pale looking beer in front of him. He spotted Cobra as he reached the bottom of the stairs and gave a lazy wave before returning his attention to the game.
“I see you got the rooms sorted out,” Cobra said, pulling a chair out for himself. He turned it around and sat leaning against the backrest.
“Indeed, sorry about the sharing situation,” Midnight responded. “We can figure out who shares with who later. Cin isn’t with you?”
“He’s putting the stuff in the room. He’ll be down soon.”
“You brought my stuff from the truck? How kind.”
“Kinda had to.” Midnight tilted his head inquisitively. Cobra filled Midnight in on the situation with the SUV and the salvage yard, as well as the need to bring the stuff they need before the gates lock for the evening. As well as the cost factor.
“It would seem we are going to need money soon,” observed Midnight.
“Speaking of,” continued Cobra. “I suspect we have signed on for a little more than owing for the rooms.”
“Correct,” replied Midnight, waving across the room again as Cin descended the stairs. “And now our comrade is joining us I can fill you both in.”
“How’s the room?” Asked Cobra as Cin pulled another chair out for himself.
“It has a bed,” deadpanned Cin. “So that’s a start.” Cin dropped into the chair and swung a leg up onto the table edge.
“So, allow me to detail the conditions of our accommodation,” continued Midnight. “We are not staying here on good faith credit alone. It seems a prior patron of this establishment took significant advantage of that and has since vanished.”
“So we’re debt collectors?” Asked Cobra.
“Well, not quite. The debt is significant, yes. And Rocky would appreciate it being settled, no doubt. However, there is a more personal factor for our good landlord.”
“Such as?” Cin asked.
“The man we are looking for is called Donnahugh. Or just ‘Donny’ to some. He is also Rocky’s nephew and has not been seen in some weeks. A missing person bulletin was posted with the Lawmakers in town and has turned up nothing so far. So it is likely he is no longer in Cinder Rock.”
“So how much is Rocky paying us to track down lost family members?” Cin asked again.
“He is forgoing the charge for the rooms and food up front for one week.” Midnight paused for a few seconds before Cobra broke the silence.
“That’s all,” Midnight responded, leaning back in his chair again with an easy-going smile.
“Well,” Cin said. “That sucks.”
“We need money to pay Grits at the salvage yard for fuel before we can take the truck anywhere significant,” Cobra pointed out. “I have maybe forty miles of fuel at a push in the reserve tank.”
“And Donny is, in all likelihood, no longer in town. I see the dilemma here.”
“And we still need to pay for the rooms in a week’s time,” Cobra said.
“Might as well have slept in the truck,” Cin deadpanned.
“And I should mention if we don’t settle our bill, then one of the biggest gangs in The Skid will be unhappy with us. They own a stake in this Inn and one of their members has been good enough to vouch for us.” Midnight continued to smile as he disclosed this final piece of information. Cobra lowered his head onto the table and groaned loudly.
“At least we have comfortable beds,” Cobra said after a moment of quiet.
“Two of them,” Cin corrected, soliciting another groan from Cobra.
“Come now, it’s not all bad. We have a week and plenty of options in town. An odd job here and there. If it comes to it we can sell some stuff at the local market. And meanwhile, we have food and a roof over our heads.”
“Yeah I guess,” said Cobra as he lifted his head from the table again.
“We’re all tired,” continued Midnight. “It’s been a long day. We should rest up and look at it all again tomorrow.”
“So,” said Cobra, eventually picking his head off the table. “Who’s gonna share a room with who?”
The evening progressed as the Black Rock Inn filled with townsfolk in time for the food service. The length of the line spoke to its popularity as a long serving table, situated beneath the overhanging second floor balcony, was quickly filled with trays and large cooking pots containing several different food options. A young man and an older woman, both with food-stained aprons, stood behind the table and served the customers two at a time, each one handing over a small round wooden chit, bought at the bar, or showing their guest keys. Drinks accompanied the meal, served from a secondary bar that had opened beside the food tables. Their guest pass allowed them a drink each as part of the meal service, while other customers needed to pay.
The three filled up on food and, with the exception of Midnight, turned in early. Midnight busied himself after the meal circulating the room, making introductions to various townsfolk with the practiced ease of a dedicated socialite. The night wound down as all but the heavily inebriated found the doors and staggered out into the lamp-lit darkness. Those less able were eventually assisted into the night, having been roused from their sleep by way of a good-natured kick to their chair leg. Midnight, too, ascended the stairs to his room and turned in for the evening.