“I think we should take it.” Otto threw the last body into the trashcan. It was a short bald woman whose charred body was found in the middle of the road by the night crew.
“An upgrade huh?” Quentin wiped the sweat off of his forehead and squinted. It was a hot afternoon. The sun was beating down on them hard, without mercy, like the devil on the drum, and the desert wind was tame that day.
Quentin had seen his share of gruesome bodies: a woman stoned to death for killing her husband and a young, pregnant girl, hung after she stole a week’s worth of water and food supplies.
And then there was Clive.
Clive was buried alive, in a wooden box, when he refused to give Glaster his last cigarette. His fingers were dried and bent with blood. His knuckles-raw, scraped in tiny diamond shapes and spheres revealing bone…
Endless...endless clawing….Quentin thought.
The wooden box had been dug up and left in the middle of camp for a few hours for the folks who thought that Clive had been brave.
The stench of rotting flesh, feces, and urine was beyond foul. There was nothing brave about Clive’s corpse.
After Clive was put away for good, Glaster received a few items including two of the rarest of gifts in their camp: a small bottle of tequila from one of the Navajos and Quentin’s last spiced cigarettes. Glaster rewarded them both with a small piece of chocolate. They swirled the melting square in their mouths for a while before swallowing.
Quentin could still taste the cocoa in his mouth.
“He can get us out in the open. And you know good offers are hard to come by around here...” Otto was a pale man with dirty blonde hair and hollow circles under his eyes. And Otto knew better than anyone about a good deal. One had come to him at The Rumblin’ Diner a few days before it happened.
A young redhead, not older than eighteen, licked her plum lips seductively and told Otto that his diner had the best ice-cream float in town. The next day he bought her a turquoise bracelet from an old toothless Navajo woman, selling trinkets by the side of the road, wearing a green scarf, and a silver belt.
It was a good deal.
Otto had sex with the redhead in his trailer while his wife was visiting her cousin Ruthie. He never saw the redheaded whore or his fat wife again.
Then the world went to hell within a few hours and none of that mattered anymore
And he didn’t mind.
Nor did he mind the bodies that had piled up.
Once in a while, he would find a pin, a button or a bead and would quickly bury it in a little box lined with red cloth and decorated with white-pink seashells. Glaster knew about the secret box, but Otto was Glaster’s favorite so the boss let him keep it.
“He talkin’ to anyone else yet?” Quentin asked.
“A few folks...”
“Hmmmm…” Quentin circled the area where his wedding band had been. A nervous habit. Otto grabbed his hand, quickly, squeezed it tight and looked at the bleached-ring around his smooth black skin.
“You know we are supposed to forget about all that,” Otto said raising his chin and clenching his teeth.
Quentin released his fingers.
“Your kind has always been so sentimental…” Otto grinned.
Quentin looked down at his dark skin-it was so dark that it was almost blue. Some folks thought that Quentin was a seer. But Quentin wasn’t a prophet, just a black guy, who worked at the post office and missed his family--Kingsley, his goldfish and Alahna his wife.
“What kind of work?” Quintin took a small swig of water from his dusty canteen. They were running out of cactus fruit and water was precious.
Half of a cup per day.
Otto’s left eye twitched like a dying roach. He scratched his right arm where a red blotch had formed, a common effect in the desolate wasteland that had once been Arizona. Luckily, they had a few doctors and nurses in their camp and the rashes weren’t deadly.
Nevertheless Quentin worried about Otto
Quentin had learned about ergot poisoning on a routine cleanup. A few people had begun to hallucinate and died shortly thereafter. Quentin noticed dry grangrene and with the help of one of the books in their small library, along with Doctor Peterson, they were able to confirm it. Ergot.
He feared that it had gotten a hold of Otto.
Quentin wondered what would happen if he just took off beyond their camp borders...but he knew what was out there.
Except for a few brutal punishments, like Clive and the two girls, their camp had been pretty civilized: Stored food. Toilet pits separate from where the sleeping bags and tents had been lined up. A small library containing fifteen books. A few bikes people signed out for recreation time. Even a game night where people played cards or dice, betting on scraps of shiny metal or lost and forgotten keys. Murder and rape were rare and everyone worked on their given assignments given out by Glaster’s soldiers.
Refugees had been crossing into their camp starved and -wild eyed with weird tales. The strong ones were kept alive for work and the weaker ones were stripped of their possessions and killed. Quentin didn’t like it one bit. But he didn’t like what he had heard from the refugees who had escaped their tribes: unidentified diseases worst than ergot, cannibalism and a few camps who had taken children in promising them shelter only to use them as sex slaves instead.
“The new assignment would get us out of this dusty graveyard,” Otto said looking around at pile of bodies scattered about like demented mannequins.
“And out in the road…what does he want us to do?” Quentin asked. The Grand Canyon wasn’t too far. And he had never seen it. Maybe they could witness its magnificence…one last wondrous thing before it all went to hell for good.
“Cults are formin’. One thinks the savior is comin’ back. Another, a bunch of kids… wild kids who lost their parents. They want revenge... and then there is a female cult.”
“Jesus freaks, orphans, and women. Hell...since when is Glaster scared of orphans and women?”
“Cortez was found half-dead on the road a few days ago with an arrow in his chest and a letter for Glaster. The orphans and the Jesus freaks are just punks. The women. Well….they been followin’ some weird shit like choppin’ off their left tit.”
“Hmmm...sounds like the ways of the old Amazons….” Quentin had read about them in a mythology book.
“They offer protection to girls who have been raped and girls who want their protection from the savages out there.”
“Cortez wasn’t a savage.”
“These women are. They capture men and take them as slaves, castrate and kill ‘em.”
“What does Glaster want?” But Quentin knew the answer.
“He needs folks he can trust to take their supplies and put an end to the cults. Easy as pie...” Otto said.
“Upgrading from garbage men to assassins and thieves...any paid vacation days?”
“This ain’t a joke. People are getting restless collecting scraps and pissin’ in pits. We runnin’ out of dried fruit. And the meat that was salted is crawling with maggots”
“Scouting…it makes sense. How much time we got?” Quentin asked which was a ridiculous concept. Time didn’t seem to really exist in the dessert-even though a few folks had been able to keep time going as if it still really mattered.
“We got until tomorrow.”
“And you already said yes.”.
He listened to Otto explain the plan and wondered what Alahna would have done. The scouts would be killed along with the women. Their camp burnt to the ground.
Quentin circled his skin again where the band had been and thought of Alahna-her raven-black hair, playful smile...smooth caramel skin.
“I know a good deal…” Otto mumbled.
It happened quickly. Otto grabbed Quentin and sliced his throat open with the blade he had hidden under his shirt.
Quentin tried to gasp for air but he couldn’t. His hands shook below his neck. His mouth made a soft gurgling kha-kha-kha sound, blood spurted out, eyes rolled back and he began to shuffle sideways like a drunk dancer.
“Too sentimental for the upgrade. Glaster said..we can’t have any of that…it’s poison.”
The two men on duty threw the two bodies into the garbage can as ordered-for they were new on their assignment. They wore cowboy hats to keep cool under the desert sun.
“Not a lot today,” the first said.
“Nope... just an ordinary clean up,” said the other.
And they moved along to load up a few more before heading back to camp.