The first block they passed was teeming with life. People were out, milling about. Setting up items to sell or trade in the section known as the trading corridor. Darkness floated amongst the fog as they quietly made their way down the block. Buildings were overrun with mangled vines. Roots thick and gnarled with age pushed through the concrete, leaving gaping holes big enough to cause serious injury. This was what Nadya was used to. Not the cleanliness of Diamond’s rooms, or the bright shine that accompanied their splendor. A row of rusted vehicles lined the streets. She’d thought they were empty, but as the pre-dawn light tried to break through the blackened clouds, Nadya could see movement within.
“Stay close, and don’t go near the windows,” Lindy warned. Gearheads. She could tell by the way some of the vehicles were outfitted. Some had barbed wire, others huge metal fronts meant to kill.
Nadya spent a lot of time hiding and running inside the city. She remembered there was an old garage a few feet ahead. Wait. Where had that come from? Nadya tried to focus. Tried to grab the memory and hold onto it, but wasn’t surprised at the swiftness with which it left. Her memories were vague and forever elusive.
The farther north you went, the deadlier the streets became. They passed an old church, eerie sounds of worship coming from the inside. Purists. They were radicals who embraced all things Earth related. Even if it were contaminated, they would partake. It was the reason the majority of them were deformed. Purists would drink Dark Water, claiming it was their transformation. Those with weak immune systems would die or succumb to the Rage.
It was Lindy who fucked up their plan of action. She’d said not to go near the windows, yet her choice of footwear destroyed all hopes of making it out of Gearhead Alley unnoticed. Lindy’s three-inch high-heel boots got caught on a vine in front of a rundown theater. The sound of her body slamming into a rusted car as she tried to break her fall echoed through the vacant streets. Whispers started first, low and ominous. The cars began to rock back and forth. The sound coming from the windows rose until every car within the two-block radius rumbled to a collective roar. Thwarted by shoes.
He was enjoying his attempt at trying to make her uncomfortable. She’d bite.
“I wanted to work here, in the Quarry.”
He sat forward, his face creeping out of the shadows like a nightmare. Until he smiled. When he smiled, Nadya almost stopped breathing. No one should look so lethal and refined at the same time. He had sophistication and deadly down to a science.
“So you said.” There was sarcasm in his voice.
Nadya made sure to maintain eye contact as she nodded. Males had it stuck in their heads that females were only good for a handful of things. She may be ignorant when it came to intimate relationships, but if you put a knife in her hand, hell, a piece of wood, she could disembowel a man in thirty seconds or less and not even bat an eye.
“All right, tell me why you want to work at the Quarry.” He held up his hands to stop her from speaking. “No, wait, let me guess, you want a patron? Someone to take care of you because you’re lazy and don’t want to work. Or maybe your man died and left you with a brood of brats?”
He thought she was incapable of caring for herself. She wasn’t without means. What she had to offer would take care of her friends. If not for them, this conversation would have gone differently.
“No, nothing like that. I’d like a patron eventually, but I mostly want to work here because my mother is ill and I don’t want my sister going to work at the salt factory.” Technically, they weren’t family, at least not blood, but he didn’t know that.
“Why don’t you work at the salt factory? Then your problem’s solved.”
Was he serious? Smug bastard. Like he had all the fucking answers to life’s problems.
“No, they’d be compounded. I’d get sick like my mother. It may not happen now, or even five or ten years from now, but if I live long enough it’d happen. After I get ill, my sister would end up there. A never-ending cycle of sickness and death.”
“One less family member you’d have to be concerned with. People are lucky if they get five or ten years.”
He was a bastard, Nadya decided. A cold-hearted, beautiful, fucking bastard she wanted to castrate. Use his balls for punching bags, then. Don’t stop now, not while you’re ahead. The darker part of her rationalized all the ways she could end his life. Nadya checked her voice and tried to appeal to what she hoped was a merciful side of Diamond. Instead of doing that, she said, “Do you get some kind perverse pleasure from making people feel uncomfortable? Or are you waiting for me to beg? Why are you so cruel?”
“Because, little girl, everything is not happy and fun. Shit’s real outside, The Ragers are real, death is real. Hope is a false prophet who will only fuck you in the ass without the courtesy of lubrication or a reach around. It will leave you high and dry every single time, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get off with just being broken or the sublime mercy of death. If you stay the current course, well, I can’t be responsible for the fallout. Which is why I’m a cruel, callous bastard. Don’t look to me as if I’m your savior because I’m not. If your ass comes and works for me, I’m going to use everything you got, to get everything I need, and give you the leftovers I don’t want. Got it?”
All too clearly. But it wasn’t going to stop her. Nikka and Anna had taken her in, shown her divine kindness. She would do the same for them. It was either come work for him, or work for Attia.
“Fine, I understand. Now, does that mean I have the job?”
“You still want to work here, girl?” He sounded surprised. Her nerves were frazzled, and trying to keep her anger in check was weighing her down.
“I told you my reasons, either you’re going to accept me or not.”
Diamond looked her up and down, and she knew what he saw. Weakness. That would be his mistake, not hers. She was far from weak. She was strong, resourceful, and once she told him what she had to offer, he wouldn’t refuse. A girl didn’t live in Inwood Hill Park, she survived it. Everyday. She was the first to admit, she was no beauty, but she had one thing to offer most women her age didn’t.
“I don’t think you’re cut out to work here. You can’t fight, what good are you?” Again, his mistake. “Working the Quarry takes gumption. You know what gumption is, girl. It takes brains as well as beauty. You need to be able to work the floor, use what you have to get what I want.”
Well if that were the case, she should be a shoe-in for the brains part because Iland and that other girl were far from smart.
“Yeah, I know what gumption is.” Asshole.
“All right, show me what you got, then. Disrobe.”
Nadya was startled by his request. It was the last thing she’d expected him to ask of her.
“You deaf or something? Take off your fucking clothes. I always see the merchandise before I put it up for sale.”
“So you’re saying I got the job, then?”
“No, I’m saying it’s a try before you buy type of deal.”