Puck found a strange Chinese girl in a busted up research facility that shouldn’t have been touched for the past sixty years.
That sort of things warrants asking some questions. Of course, it’s rare that mysterious ageless science projects wander around for very long without being noticed.
Cover art by: Toni Infante
I FELL OFF THAT BIKE A LOT
MEET THE AUTHOR
This is the area of the site where Randall P. Fitzgerald pretends that Randall P. Fitzgerald isn’t writing Randall P. Fitzgerald’s own biography.
Randall was raised in rural North Carolina and is currently living in Portland, Oregon. He’s trying not to let the constant motion sickness caused by rapidly moving plaid destroy his productivity. Other than that, he writes books. Sci-fi and fantasy, probably. Maybe with some other stuff in there.
Requisite snide remark about Portland out of the way, Randall is continuing to refer to himself in the third person and it makes him sick. He’s going to stop writing this bio now.
KEEP IN TOUCH
A dim, repetitive buzz woke Puck from a lazy kind of half sleep. She was naked in her bed, trying to find a reason to stay there for as long as humanly possible. Annoyed at the noise, she sat up. She’d had motion detectors installed after the incident with the UNAT forces, not wanting anyone quietly burning a hole in her door or knocking another wall down on her. The best the system had done to this point was warn her that coyotes were wandering around or that Benson was coming to annoy her at someone’s request.
She looked across at Lei sitting at her consoles. The girl switched the view from whatever site she was reading to a video view.
“It is the dirty man again.”
Puck groaned and sat herself up in the bed. Her body still ached from the week before but the bruises were fading and she was beginning to feel restless. She pulled herself out of the bed and grabbed her clothes from their untidy pile on the floor to carry with her to the console. She dressed next to Lei, the girl looking up at her. It was definitely Benson. Puck gave another groan and pulled on her pants.
“Third fucking time in a week…” She sighed.
Lei stood up when Puck pulled on her shirt and both headed into the garage area.
“Is he a messenger?”
“He’s whatever keeps himself useful.”
Puck came to the steel door at the far edge of the garage and waited. Benson tapped and she tapped back almost immediately, not opening the door. She heard the greasy weasel give a startled squeak.
“Ha!” The familiar wheeze dragged itself out of him. “Almost like you was waiting for me, huh Puck? Heh. Real coincidence… Ain’t you gonna open that door?”
“Just say whatever you got sent here to say, Benson.”
“Right… right. O’ course.” He gave a nervous chuckle. “Little Bill wants to see you.”
“Wouldn’t tell me. I asked him, you know? Didn’t want to bother you, Puck. I know you hate—”
“Yeah, I get it.” She slapped her hand against the door and walked away. She heard a few more muffled words but they were too quiet to make out.
There was a small corner of the garage that served as a bathroom, among other things. Puck ran some water in the sink, splashed her face with it, and pulled down her still-unbuttoned pants. Lei came over while she was on the toilet.
“Bill is the large one?”
“He is a nice man.”
Puck looked Lei over. “Opinions vary.”
The girl only ever spoke when they were alone, and only to Puck. She’d made no attempts to get Lei to speak in front of anyone else and figured if the girl wanted to, she was capable of it. She seemed to know well enough that she wasn’t a prisoner of any kind, even smiling fairly regularly.
Lei watched Puck as she sat on the toilet, not saying anything but looking for all the world like she wanted to. The girl was short and thin, something Puck noted fairly often. The sturdiest part of her was the leg that Octavius’s doctors had installed. She’d be useless in a fight and that was assuming she was normal other than whatever put her in a secret Chinese research time capsule. Her roughly cut, dark black hair shifted as her head cocked to the side, matching black eyes focused on Puck. She spoke as Puck finished her toilet related business.
“Is it about me? You want to know what I am?”
Puck wiped herself and pulled her pants up, buttoning them. She looked over Lei again, searching for some hint of hostility in the question. Not finding any, she flushed the toilet and walked back to her room to grab her gun. The girl hadn’t brought herself up a single time since waking up five days ago.
“It’s probably about you. You got any information you want to share to save me a big pain in the ass?”
Lei shook her head. “I do not remember much. History. So much history. But nothing about me. My name. My parents. Only barely. I would know their faces.” She frowned. “But I understand they are likely dead. If not from the war then from age.”
Puck moved to the door and pulled it up. “Can’t argue with that logic. We’re going out.”
Puck got into the car and Lei shook the confusion off before joining her.
“Were you not hiding me? I thought…”
Puck drove out of the garage, got out, closed the door, and then returned. She started their drive toward Little Bill’s. “No point in hiding you around here. Doctor Carl knows about you and there’s no doubt someone pulled open his mouth by now. I’m willing to bet that’s why Benson’s been by so many times. Making excuses to get gossip.”
Glares from passing Chinese residents told her that the hunch was likely true. They glared long before they’d have been able to see Lei in the passenger seat. If nothing else had leaked out, they knew Puck was in possession of a Chinese girl. That was enough to draw their ire pretty much regardless of the circumstances.
It was midday, or close enough, so the foot traffic around Bill’s and Clarabelle’s was pretty much as high as you could expect to see in Victorville. Puck pulled her car to a stop beside Bill’s in the normal spot.
She opened the door casually, as though the entirety of the town wasn’t watching her from the moment they came into view. The staring at least had more range to it, not just angry glaring through gritted teeth. Lei stepped out shortly after and became the center of the unwanted attention. When Puck came around the car and started heading for Clarabelle’s, Lei stuck close, nearly running into Puck’s back. Glancing back, Puck could see the girl’s body language screaming in discomfort. She was hunched, staring straight ahead and trying her best not to need to look to either side for any reason.
Puck stopped in the street and Lei’s head bumped into the middle of her back. The stares had become annoying and Puck had no interest in dealing with them. She pulled her gun and let it hang by her side. Every familiar face immediately looked away, knowing what was about to happen.
Puck’s eye scanned the street around her, a few still staring. She chose the most openly hostile of them. A Chinese man with a scowl that she suspected was reserved primarily for baby rapists and traitors to the Three Great Dragon States. He was maybe twenty feet away, loitering at the far end of Clarabelle’s.
“Hey!” She looked directly at the man, motioning with her head to Lei. “If there’s a problem with the company I’m keeping, I suggest you speak up.”
The man opened his mouth and before a sound came out, she raised the gun and put two bullets in his leg. A metallic clack registered as one of them found bone. The man crumpled instantly, screaming in pain.
Puck scanned the yard and eyes darted away from her gaze as fast as they could manage. She holstered the gun and went to the door of Clarabelle’s. Pulling it open, she found Doctor Carl and Clarabelle both standing under the disused screen, staring at her. Clarabelle’s eyes shifted down to Lei and back up to Puck.
“Causing so much fuss.” Clarabelle shook her head. “How’m I s’posed to get folks in here?” She sighed, resigning from the argument before it even started. “Go’n sit.”
Vince had come out of the kitchen at the sound of the shot and had been watching them. He nodded and headed back into the kitchen. Clarabelle returned to badgering Doctor Carl as Puck and Lei took a seat in one of the booths.
“Now back to what I was sayin’. You’re new around here and ya want to be useful doncha?” She pointed up at the screen. “Screen needs repairs. You need food. What’s not to like?”
Doctor Carl held his breath for a moment, looking awkwardly up at the screen. “I don’t even know if I can.”
“No need in bein’ coy, I heard from Bill aboucha.”
She smiled real big and Doctor Carl’s eyes shifted up to the screen and back. His shoulders slumped in defeat.
“Let me go get some tools.”
“Just dandy! I’ll be waitin’.” Doctor Carl left and Clarabelle turned her attention to Lei, walking toward the booth with purpose. “Rare to have a newcomer from that direction. Explains why ya had me sendin’ plates of food out that way.”
Puck’s eye shifted from Lei to Clarabelle. “Yeah. That explained it. Not everyone in town talking about it.”
Clarabelle feigned shock. “Gossip! In li’l ol’ Victorville? I won’t hear of it.” She laughed. “Vince has been happy for an excuse to try out new recipes. What with ya payin’ up front, he figured ya can’t rightly complain. Not with the free delivery and all.”
“Sure. Can you go make sure he’s not cooking any of that shit now?”
Clarabelle laughed and walked into the kitchen. She started shouting immediately. “Donchu feed that precious child any more of your shit, Vincent!” He answered back in kind as the door shut, muffling the words into background noise.
“I should thank them. They fed us.”
Puck eyed the door. “They charged us for the food. That’s more than enough thanks.”
“You paid them? I did not see anything change hands.”
Puck looked at Lei for a minute before remembering that the girl was born maybe sixty years before. “It’s been, maybe… ten years— something like that— since they got rid of the last cards.”
Lei nodded, not adding anything or asking anything. The food came out a few minutes later and Clarabelle forced herself into the booth beside Lei.
“So, what’s the story, Puck? Don’t keep a girl wonderin’.”
“No story, Clarabelle. Lei was in trouble, I helped her. That’s the beginning and end of it.”
Clarabelle looked at Lei who said nothing, only ate neatly and quietly. Clarabelle was unsatisfied by all of it.
“Musta been some trouble for Mama to let her through.” Puck stared at Clarabelle, a stupid, knowing grin spreading across the diner owner’s face. “Oh deary. Ya couldn’t mean to say Mama doesn’t know.”
Puck took a bite of her food. “No, I’m sure she’s known for days now.”
Clarabelle stood up, laughing under her breath. “I do believe my Vincent needs me in the kitchen. Excuse me, hun.”
She couldn’t hear anything specific but Puck could guess well enough what the conversation was like in the diner kitchen. Lei watched Puck as they ate.
“I am sorry for making trouble.”
Puck only watched her food and ate it quietly. “I made the trouble.” She finished and stood. “You done?”
Lei nodded. “I do not find it very good.”
They left as Doctor Carl came back with some tools. He nodded at Puck but didn’t say anything. The concrete lot was much less interested in them as they moved back across. Benson was angrily tending to the stains where the man had bled before they went to eat. He muttered to himself, looking up at her only once and frowning.
They crossed to Little Bill’s and pushed the door open. The room at the far end of the bar was open and Little Bill was inside, talking to someone through the console. The drunks were scattered around the bar, none of them paying any real attention to Puck as she came in. The sort who were there in the middle of the day never cared about anything besides whatever show was on and being drunk.
Bill noticed her and gave a cursory wave before returning to his call. She took a seat at the bar, Lei sitting beside her. It was only a minute or so before Bill finished his call and came out.
“Stringbean and shortstack. About time you got here.” He motioned toward the back room. “Finally managed to hear something about that guy I told you about. The doctor.”
“That him?” Puck nodded toward the room.
“The call just now? Nah, bar business. This guy…” Bill looked away at nothing, shaking his head in annoyance. “He’s been ducking me for weeks. Doesn’t matter, I—”
“Who…” Lei’s voice cut in, hesitant. “Am I shortstack? Does he mean me?”
Little Bill slapped a hand on the bar and laughed. “Damn right I do.” He smiled wide. “And you’re welcome in this bar anytime, understand?” He nodded toward Puck as he grabbed two glasses, filling them with soda water and adding lime juice. “If this one gets annoyed with you, you just come to Bill’s.”
Lei watched as Puck took a drink from the glass that Bill sat on the bar. She hesitantly took a sip of her own, her face screwing up instantly, though she held her tongue.
Puck raised an eyebrow, but didn’t bother saying anything about Lei’s expression. It was odd enough for her to have spoken at all. “So where’s this guy?”
Bill chuckled, looking at Lei as she took another small sip. “The Traitor Farms.”
Puck rolled her eye and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it. “Of course he is.”
“Least you don’t have to go through Mama’s.”
Puck took a deep drag, slowly blowing the smoke out. “Not sure how much better that makes me feel. What else you got? Who is this guy exactly?”
Bill leaned back against the counter at the far side of the area behind the bar, a few bottles shifting as he did. “Not really sure. He must be out at the Traitor Farms for a reason. Can’t ever really be sure. He’s definitely old enough, though. Must’ve been in his twenties toward the end of the war.”
“And he worked for the States?”
“That’s the rumor.”
Puck scoffed and took another drag from her cigarette. “Rumor?”
Bill shrugged. “It’s what I’ve got.”
“You got a name at least?”
“Korean?” Puck looked up from her glass to see Little Bill nodding.
“And proud, apparently.” His eyes cut over to Lei and then back to Puck. “So, you know… be careful.”
Puck finished the last of the drink and stood up. Lei did the same, wincing at the taste but bearing with it.
Puck started toward the door. “Pavel in his shop?”
“Should be.” Bill grabbed the glasses and emptied them into a sink. “Stringbean…”
Puck stopped and turned to look at him.
Little Bill nodded at Lei. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Bill frowned. “I hope so.”