Knocking Down the Fares
By E.O. Costello, © 2010
(All characters in this story are © E.O. Costello)
“Steak and eggs for breakfast, Harry. Cookie must figure we’re gonna snuff it.”
Dutch said this to me gloomily as I sat down across from him in the mess hall. Much the same thought had occurred to me when I found that I had my choice of steak and eggs (cooked to order), chicken a la king, or a grilled vegetable medley. And the coffee was the real stuff, too. Usually Cookie, if he wasn’t hung over, would dish out the usual s-on-a-s, and tell us to shut up.
Not this morning. He barely even looked at me. He must have known something.
The mess hall was pretty dark, it being winter in the North Pacific, and 0545 at that. The mechanics and crew had been up for hours, of course. Last minute checks, last minute repairs, hosing out the occasional car. You know how it is.
The car barn of the Ft. Bob United & Consolidated Public Service Company can be a spooky place at this time of the morning. Mess hall’s usually the best place to be. You pretty much have other motorfurs or conductors for company, and they know enough to keep their muzzles shut most of the time.
Dutch was giving his attention to the steak. He was my motorfur, and an Eight of Spades.
A what, you ask? Let me explain.
The crew on the trolleys of FUCuPS – that’s our nickname, and smile when you say that, or I’ll put a bottle across your jaw – are expected to make 52 runs. That’s in our contract. You get a nice, sweet, $50,000 payoff if you make 52 runs. In gold.
If you live to collect it.
The tradition that’s grown up is that a fur on his first day gets a pack of playing cards. As he boards his car to start the run, he puts up his playing card. A cherry, a fur on his very first run, puts up a King of Hearts. You work your way through the Hearts, then the Diamonds, then the Clubs, and if you’re pretty damn good – or lucky – you run through the Spades.
Dutch fell into the damn good category. Like I said, he was an Eight of Spades. What he didn’t know about a Peter Witt, or a Brill, or a St. Louis, wasn’t worth knowing. He could give a car that much extra juice needed to outrun a grenade, or give a fur a clear shot.
Folks call me “Flash Harry.” I’m an Eight of Spades, too. I’m a conductor, and my job is to get the passengers on and off the cars in a damn hurry, make sure they pay up (and in real money, too), and watch the backs of my motorfur and co-motorfur.
Dutch and I have been together since we were each the Jack of Hearts. We had a deal: I’d shut up and watch his back, and he’d shut up and give me the extra speed when I needed it. A lot of motorfur-conductor relationships are like marriages. A lot end up in divorce.
Some? Well, you know the phrase “’till death us do part?”
When you’re in the Spades, as we were, the company rules on uniforms don’t apply. At least, they don’t bother you about them. Dutch is pretty utilitarian: he goes for a heavy leather jumpsuit, and motorfur’s gloves with spikes on them. He’s a boar, so he looks pretty natural in that. Me, I have a nice, tailored jacket and jodphurs, silk shirt, ascot, and aviator’s glasses. The ladies just love a tod in uniform, get me?
I looked up as a third fur joined us. Spike, Dutch’s co-motorman (Four of Clubs), put down his tray that had a mess of grilled vegetables on it. Well, I mean, he’s a whitetail, and you can’t figure a deer for chicken a la king.
Dutch turned to Spike.
“Hey. You hear anything about the run last night?”
There are three runs for the trolleys on Krupmark. There’s the 0700 run, which we’re going to be on today, the 1400 run, and the 2100 run. Night runs have a reputation for being pretty wild.
“Yeah. Milk run, I’m told.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, and said so. Dutch nodded.
“It’s been too damn quiet the last few days. What the hell is KILL up to?”
KILL. That’s the Krupmark Illuminating Company, and the bastards who own the other trolley line here on Krupmark.
Spike forked a tomato into his mouth. “Gets worse. They put up a Heart Flush last night.”
Dutch and I both put our forks down. “Christ, you can’t mean it.”
“Yeah, Harry. Ten-Jack-Queen-King of Hearts.”
Dutch cussed under his breath. Sending out a batch of cherries like that, on the night run, yet, was going to send a message to KILL. The fact that they got home with clean tailfur was going to go around the island like wildfire.
That was going to make this morning’s run interesting.
Spike’s eyes flickered up. “Shit. Get standing, guys.”
All three of us were on our trotters, hooves and footpads fast. We all knew what this meant, and sure enough, the Old Man himself walked over to our table.
Another bad sign. If the Old Man was here in the mess hall, and not in his office, something was up. Cookie had grilled a salmon for him. Rank, privileges, and that.
The Old Man was a motorfur, and what we call a two-decker. If he put up a card, right now, he’d been working on his second Ten of Clubs. He puts up a Joker, though. Aren’t many furs who can put one up. Fewer willing to put one up.
He sat down, and began to eat. We shut up. Let him do the talking. After a few mouthfuls, it was to me he turned.
“Sorry, Harry, but I gotta pull Tiny from you.”
Crap, crap, crap. Tiny was my co-conductor. He was only a Five of Hearts, but nearly everyfur figured he was going to make his Spades. You get that much more comfort when you’ve got a moose lugging a BAR or shifting his weight around in the sharp turns.
“You’re pissed, aren’t you?”
“Permission to speak frankly?”
“When the hell don’t you?”
“Thanks. Lookit, sir, there’s something going down. I can feel it. Dutch and Spike here, they feel it. Hell, lookit what Cookie’s serving up…”
“That’s my orders. And yes, there’s something up. I’m taking a car out, myself.”
“I’m not sending any motorfur who hasn’t got his Spades out on a day like today. The Opposition has been saving up for something, I don’t know what. Tried to drag ‘em out with the Heart Flush last night, but they didn’t bite. Leastways, they didn’t bite in time. They’re not going to let that pass.”
“What car you taking out?”
He meant business. That was a car with a sponson on the side for a pom-pom gun, and a triple-mounted machine-gun on the roof.
Dutch, Spike and I ate our grub, even if we didn’t taste it.
“Still trying to find somefur for you, Harry, but it’s damn tough. Iron-Ass still on his back?”
Iron-Ass was my regular co-conductor, an armadillo who used to work for the Little Rock system. Iron-Ass caught some grenade fragments a month and a half ago, and he was still not being certified to run by the docs.
“Yeah. Infection’s clearing up. No one else is cutting loose?”
The Old Man shook his head. “Not with things the way they are. Any fur out of his Hearts is worth his weight in gold. Can’t push it, either. Only reason I’m doing it to you, Harry, is that you three are in the black, you can take care of yourselves. I gotta pull Tiny, and he’s gotta be conductor on this run.”
Dutch raised an eyebrow. “Hell, he ain’t out of his Hearts, yet.”
“That’s how stretched we are, Dutch. I’m running Unholy Trinity with two Diamonds and a Heart, and that’s even with screwing over Harry, here.”
I picked at my chicken. “Betting line know this, yet?”
“I’ll bet they’ve heard that I’m running a car, this morning. It’ll be the varsity against varsity this morning, boys, and don’t you forget it. Biggest betting lines since I ran my deck two years ago.”
You must be wondering why the hell we’re talking about betting. Fact is, KILL and FUCuPS don’t make a god-damn on providing streetcar service, or electric power. The real money, the big money, is the betting.
You go into any shop here in Krupmark that takes bets – and joints like that are outnumbered only by bars and whorehouses – and you can put money down on how fast a run will be, how many passengers get on…
…and whether a trolley will finish its run. A “DNF” pays big, 25-to-1. I’ve only seen one in my time here, and the Old Man says he’s only seen four or five. Takes a lot to knock out an up-armoured Brill or Witt.
So that’s how it is. A team like me, Dutch and Spike (and Iron-Ass or Tiny) goes out on two runs a week. Which means you can, in theory, make your deck in six months, if you don’t die or get injured.
With all the streetcar companies in the States going bust (or in the case of New Haven, getting nationalized), there’s no shortage of furs willing to try. We’ve got ex-employees of forty streetcar companies at FUCuPS, from Boston Elevated (Spike’s alma mater), to Chicago (where Dutch is from) to a few boys from the Big Red Cars in Los Antelopes.
KILL has gotta lot of Yanks, too, but they’ve also got a few ringers from Europe, including some ex-White Guards who used to run armoured trains. We lost a lot of guys to one of them, Big Bad Kyrill, until a lucky shot from me set fire to his car.
I was pissed. I was sure it was going to DNF, but the damn KILL motorfur somehow brought it in. That was the last we heard of Kyrill, anyway.
The Old Man looked at his watch. “Better finish up, boys, briefing starts in fifteen. Harry, your guy will be reporting to you shortly. Dunno where he is, but stick by him once he shows up.”
“Yeah. I don’t wanna have to hose him out, later.”
“That’s the spirit, Harry. See you later.”
I filled a vacuum flask with coffee, and put in an order for lunch to Cookie that I sure hoped I was going to eat.
I’d just finished that when I turned around and almost knocked flat a little twerp in a regulation company conductor’s uniform. Nice, shiny change-maker and ticket punch and all.
“M-m-mister Kitson? M-mister Kitson?”
“It’s Conductor Kitson or “sir,” to you. Read your God-damned manual.”
The weasel, who barely made shoulder height to me, was mostly Adam’s apple, which seemed to be bobbing up and down furiously. I had a brief memory of a stupid cub in the same kind of uniform, and that was just five months ago.
“Chrissake. Get a cup of coffee, and follow me. And shut up, and keep your ears open.”
The Briefing Room has a big map of Krupmark Island on it. It’s a pretty simplified map: you see the FUCuPS and KILL car-barns on the north side (as the map is oriented), and then there are the two parallel routes, one going up and down the East Side, and one going up and down the West Side. Down on the South Side of the island, there’s the Ft. Bob Terminal. There are 3 intermediate stops, at least scheduled ones, on each of the routes. Conductors can make unscheduled stops if they want to pick up a passenger, throw a passenger out, or have a quick one. That used to happen more, the Old Man says, in the old days, and that’s the reason the Beach, the first stop on the East Side going out of Ft. Bob, has its own stop.
The rules are pretty straightforward. The car-barns are off-limits. Each of the stops is neutral territory, or “Kings Ex,” for twenty-five yards. You can’t fire at or into those zones. No ripping up rail, blowing up power lines, and there’s a neutral zone around each of the bridges.
Oh, yeah. And there’s a certain Duesenberg that’s absolutely off-limits to ANYTHING. A moke from KILL found that out the hard way earlier this year. Don’t ask for details.
Outside of that? It’s pretty much watch your hat and ass out there.
The Old Man and Dutch, by long-standing right, got the big easy chairs. I was third senior, so I could have taken one of the remaining two seats if I wanted it, but I let Spike have it. Tiny grinned at me; he knew the score, and made sure the other guys in his group knew the score, too.
I made sure Tippet stood right next to me and was taking notes.
The FUCuPS intel guy, a scrawny tom nicknamed Hungry Joe, looked like he had been up all night. That’s a good sign: it means he hasn’t been slacking off, and he wants the latest dope.
“We had some heavy squalls about two hours ago, so the rails are running pretty fast and slick. It’s gonna be overcast most of the day, so you aren’t gonna have any sun on the East Side runs.”
“Bridges and wires are in good shape, no breaks reported. Watch out for rock slides on the West Side run, the squalls might have loosened some stuff up on Mt. Krupp.”
“It was pay day at some of the houses last night, so you’re gonna see the usual lot of hung-over and hurtin’ furs on this run. Business was supposed to be pretty good.”
The Old Man cleared his throat. Hungry Joe nodded. He got the hint.
“Right. We’ve looked at the rosters KILL has run the last four days. They’ve been running mostly Hearts and Diamonds, and one or two Clubs. The Spades they’ve got have been doing a good job of laying low.”
“One of our ops saw two of ‘em last night at a joint on the beach…”
Dutch looked up. “Which ones?”
“Pisco Tommy, your old pal, and Moe the Tailor.”
“Hunh. There’s a yiffing pair.”
“The op said that they were talking up a big game last night, saying that the early run was going to be, and I quote, a real mess for FUCuPS, and they hoped we had the meat wagons ready, endquote.”
I looked up, too. “Bluffing, you think?”
“Op didn’t think so. Booze talking.”
Dutch shook his head. “Frisco’s a lot of things, and one of them is a blabbermouth when he gets a skinful in him. He ain’t bluffing, Harry. He’s bragging.”
“Guess so. Hey, Joe: how many Spades does KILL have?”
“What, active? 6 actives, 2 on the DL.”
“Any chance the hospital gang could have been sprung?”
“Could be. Haven’t seen ‘em, but you know KILL, they’ve got that clinic tighter than a virgin’s you know what. Me? I’d say they’ve sprung ‘em.”
The Old Man grunted. “So we’re looking at two Spade Flushes?”
“Uh-huh. Probably planning it anyway, but the Heart Flush last night probably set ‘em in it.”
“Loss of face, sure. Who’s the motorfurs, anyone special?”
Hungry Joe opened a file. “Pisco, Auntie Dynamite, Happy Harvey and Black Fred.”
Dutch frowned. He knew about all four – he always got the latest intel on his opposition, and there was no question that all four of those motorfurs were top notch. Stood to reason, them being Spades and all. Auntie Dynamite was the top, with a Two of Spades.
I asked about my angle. Hungry Joe opened another file.
“Honker, Silverblu, Moe the Tailor…and Big Bad Kyrill.”
“Crap. You really think he’s off the DL?”
“Harry, he’s six-eight, and God knows how much over 250. It’d take a direct hit from a mortar to even scratch the sonuvabitch. I think they’ve been dogging it, keeping that bastard off the roster until it’s just right.”
Tippet raised his paw. I was gonna smack him one, but the Old Man nodded.
“You think they’re messing with the odds?”
I’ll be damned. A sensible question. Hungry Joe scratched his ass.
“Dunno. Will say this, though: betting has been heavy since the end of the last run. And get this: the odds on a FUCuPS DNF? 9:1.”
Dutch’s head snapped up at that one. “C’mon, that’s a misprint.”
“No, it ain’t. Checked it, twice. Odds have been dropping all morning. The odds on two DNFs are at 40:1.”
“Somefur knows something.”
“Looks that way, Harry.”
“Yeah, but come on, even two Spade Flushes can’t figure that. Don’t you have anything else?”
Hungry Joe spread his paws. “I got bupkes on that. Could be weapons, could be tactics, I dunno. We’ve been looking hard at the cars at the Ft. Bob Terminal, and there’s been zip that we haven’t seen before.”
The Old Man frowned. “So we’re flying blind?”
The Old Man shook his head. “Can’t be helped. You’re right. They’re up to something. And they mean to hit us, and by us, I mean the furs in this room, hard. Okeh, Dutch. I’ll give you the choice. Which route you want?”
Dutch scratched his chin and a tush. That was a hard one, because the East Side run had Vixen’s Curve right before a bridge. Hell early on, and hell on the home stretch. Name your poison. Dutch looked to me.
“You want my advice, go with a West-East run. Vixen’s Curve is the #1 spot for trouble, and if they’re going with that, we want the Old Man to be there, first.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Thanks for the compliment, Harry.”
“Hey, it’s how we’ll find out what they’re up to.”
“All right, Harry and Dutch, West to East it is for you. Me and my boys will do the East-West run. Don’t leave the car-barn until we get a last intel report, though.”
We synchronized watches, and then shook paws. Hopefully, not for the last time.
The four of us walked over to our car. #57, Bock’s Car.
It meant a lot to Dutch. Bock was a motorfur, and he’d been Dutch’s mentor. He was a tough old North Carolina goat, and he was also the first motorfur to run his deck. Took a lot out of him. He dropped dead from a heart attack that same day at the party. Never got to spend his $50,000.
Dutch had Bock’s picture painted on the side of the car, right underneath the motorfur’s window. And it had stayed there ever since, even when a stray spent bullet a few weeks ago put a big mark in it. Dutch told Bash, the chief mechanic in the shop, that if anyone touched Bock’s picture, he’d break their neck.
Bash knows better than to screw with Dutch, especially when it comes to the memory of Bock.
The car, once upon a time, was a plain old Brill. Somewhere underneath all that armour plate lies the original paint job of the New York Railways. Sure wouldn’t recognize the car today.
Dutch and I believe in one thing: speed is armour. I think a lot of furs make the mistake of loading up their cars with all sorts of guns and gizmoes. Slows down a car, you want my view. There’s also the little matter of what happens with all that ammo. There’s a KILL car they’re still working on, I hear, that had some ammo cook off from a hit. Blew the rear of the car clean off. Auntie Dynamite was the one that brought in that car so it didn’t DNF.
Get in, get out, and go like hell. That’s my philosophy of doing a run, and it’s why I’m still alive, and so is Dutch.
Dutch and Spike went into the motorfur’s cab, and right away, you could hear the clicking noises as they were checking systems. Soon enough, they’d be shining lights underneath the car, looking at the trucks.
One good thing about a King of Hearts: the company manual is nice and fresh in their little minds, and they can run through it like a trained anthrop monkey. Tippit checked the seats and racks to see that they were clear, and checked that the doors were in working order. I made sure our change makers were working, the ticket punches were working, we had the right books, and that each of us had our personal weapon ready. Me, I like a switch iron. Aside from being handy for its real job, you can poke with it and slam a fur over the head with it. Tippit, like a lot of runts, seemed to go in for a set of brass-knuckles. I figured him for a crotch puncher, which isn’t a bad idea considering how tight a car is.
Last thing we checked was the periscope, and I double-checked Tippit on that. I had a hunch that we needed to spot something fast and as far away as possible.
He did it right. I yelled up front.
“Car is clear and green. Good to go. Over.”
“Cab is clear and green. Good to go. Trucks are clear and green. Good to go. Power is clear and green. Good to go. Over.”
I took my station at the front of the car, near the front door. Tippit stood at the rear door. With a hiss and a clunk, Dutch and Spike engaged the motors, and the car began to lurch forward.
I looked out one of the armoured slits, and I could see that Unholy Trinity, with the Old Man in the cab, was rumbling out as well. Tiny’s #2 was manning the machine-guns on the roof, crouched behind the steel tub.
Where I was standing, I could hear the radio in the cab.
“#57 to base. Awaiting clearance. Over.”
“#41 to base. Awaiting clearance. Over.”
“Copy #57, copy #41. Stand by for intel. Over.”
“#57, copy. Over.”
There was a long pause and silence. I waited for it, and sure enough, it came.
Spike had taken out his harmonica, and was playing a soulful rendition of Streets of Laredo on it. Every fur has his good-luck charm, and that was his.
The last notes died away, and the radio crackled.
“#57 and #41, this is base. No further intel. Over.”
“Good to go, gentlefurs. Kick some ass.”
“This is #57, you bet we will.”
“This is #41, ass kicking on my list.”
I looked at my watch: 6.57.
We started to inch out of the car-barn. There was a swirling fog, probably the result of the rain overnight. Just out of the car-barn, both of the cars passed a rusted-out truck on blocks.
This was Old Number One. Not much, you’d think, if you looked at it. Just an old GMC truck with a big metal box in the cab and what used to be a gun on top.
It was, counting all our predecessor companies, the first car.
You can still see the scorch marks on the side where the bomb hit it. No one came out of that box alive.
Dutch and the Old Man each paused their cars, rang the bell twice, and moved on.
Just before we reached the yard limit, I could hear Spike working the signs on the front of the car.
One read: “FT. BOB TERMINAL.”
The other had, in order, the Eight of Spades, the Four of Clubs, the Eight of Spades and the King of Hearts. It’s in the rules. Gotta show who’s running the car.
We paused at the yard limit, and I could hear Dutch testing the controller and brakes.
Right on the dot of 7.00, Dutch opened it up, and Bock’s Car was flying out of the yard, headed for the first stop on the West Side run.
The FUCuPS right-of-way runs along the outside for most of the Island. If you leave the car-barn heading down the Island on the East Side run, it’s a straight shot for the most part, no problem outside of Vixen’s Curve. The West Side run? That’s a bit tricky. We actually cross the KILL right-of-way at one point. Of course, they cross our right of way on the other side, getting back to their car-barn. So if somefur gets cute and tries to nail the other guy right out of the box, you can be damn sure there’ll be retaliation.
Still, it’s the first spot where both sides are looking out at the opposition. You can tell a lot about what a motorfur is going to do by how he charges out of the barn.
Since Tippit was on the rear post in the car, he was the one next to the periscope. He also knew, as I said, the manual fresh, so he was on it, and scanning.
Seconds went by, and we began to leave the crossing behind.
“C’mon, haven’t you found it, yet?”
“I’m l-l-looking, sir. Can’t spot it.”
“Oh, for the love of…give me that thing.”
I stepped up, shouldered him out of the way, reversed my cap, and took off my aviators. I looked through the scope.
And saw damn-all.
Now this didn’t make sense. KILL is on the same schedule as we are. Usually, there’s only a few seconds between cars at the crossing, and some motorfurs like to cut it really close. It’s called “patting the ass.” But I didn’t see a damn thing.
I got on the horn to the cab.
“Spike, radio in to base. I’m not seeing a damn thing, and neither is the Kid.”
I heard the radio click on.
“#57 to base.”
“No sign of the opp. Any word from the peepers?”
“Negative. We’ll copy you when we do. Over.”
Tippit screwed up his face. “Mechanical glitch?”
Reasonable question, so I didn’t chew his face off. Much. “What, you think I can read minds?”
“Shaddap and let me think. You, get your ass here and watch.”
We were growling along at a good clip, not too fast, and in good order to stop at Bonerag Point, the first station on the West Side. All the runs I’d made, we’d never jumped out to a 45-second and more lead over KILL.
Dutch yelled back. “Anything, yet?”
“What the hell? Maybe they got spooked by the Heart Flush.”
“Yeah, and I’m gonna be eating at the Hill tonight.”
“Just sayin’, Harry. What’s with the base, anyway? They shoulda heard something by now…”
“How much longer to Bonerag, Dutch?”
“Two minutes, maybe.”
Now, there’s a lot of curves and hills in this area, and not much of a straightaway until a few hundred yards away from Bonerag. Good motorfur can pull all sorts of crazy crap with a little timing.
The radio in the cab began to squawk. But it wasn’t from us.
“41 to base, taking fire!” Not the Old Man’s voice, must be the co-motorfur.
What the hell was this? Already? They weren’t even at Nipple Crossing, the East Side’s first stop.
“Base to 41, what is fire? Over.”
“Rockets. Four rocket salvo, over.”
“Copy, 41. Over.”
“Who the hell is this, base? Why the hell didn’t we get a report? Over.”
“Don’t know, 41. Over.”
“Well, wake up the yiffer who’s supposed to give us reports, over.”
“Base to 41, what is your status? Over.”
“Getting fired on, whaddya think?”
“Copy, 41. Specify type. Over.”
There was a squall of static and some off-mic yelling. Probably to Tiny.
“41 to base, we gotta St. Louie. Orange sides, black front. Some kind of long-barreled rifle on the roof. Rockets fired from side pods. Over.”
Dutch yelled back to me. “Looks like the Old Man’s up against Maneater. That isn’t gonna be fun.”
“The hell is that thing they have on the roof? Didn’t have that last month.”
“Santa came early, I guess. For Christ’s sake, will you find our God-damned opposition? I’m getting itchy…”
“41 to base, taking more rockets. No damage, over.”
“Copy, 41. Over.”
Tippit was scanning along. “Don’t see any…hold it, got something!”
“How far behind?”
The Kid didn’t have enough fingers or something. He was fumbling around, so I shoved him out of the way and looked behind us.
And my guts turned to ice.
“Radio base. We got issues!”
Dutch yelled back. “Spotted ‘em?”
“Yeah, I spotted ‘em. Bastards got a Streamliner.”
“You wanna come back and look? I’m telling you, it’s a Streamliner!”
“How the _____ does KILL get a Streamliner?”
“How the _____ should I know? All I know is we’ve got one, and it’s about a minute behind us.”
I heard Spike radio it in.
“Base to 57, confirm sighting. Over.”
“57 to Base, why don’t you ask Harry yourself? Over.”
“Base to 57, copy. Out.”
I heard Dutch sound two strikes on the bell, which meant that we were approaching Bonerag Point. We were going to be in the neutral zone around the station any second. The Kid looked at me.
“Sir? What’re they doing?”
“I dunno what they’re doing, but I know what you’re doing. Get your ass to the door and your punch in paw.”
Bock’s Car began to slow down, and we approached the station, which was more or less a pile of planks nailed together that was mostly straight, and had some kind of shelter from the elements, if you weren’t too choosy.
Dutch yelled back. He’d probably been looking through the viewfinder. “Nine passengers. Get ready.”
That was pretty heavy, all things considered. Mostly that we were going to be taking on all nine. I was starting to get a nasty feeling I knew what KILL was up to, but I kept my muzzle shut as the car lurched to a stop, and both doors opened.
I smacked my switch iron against a paw, and yelled out.
“Exact change, please, and get your ass on board, in that order!”
Pretty much the usual early crowd at Bonerag: a bunch of scruffy furs with boxes and cages, going to the Thieves’ Bazaar at Ft. Bob.
One gap-toothed otter, seeing a fresh face under a conductor’s cap, and figuring that face for a sucker, grinned, squealed, and shoved some paper around.
“Gimme silver? Gimmie silver? Gimmie silver?”
The Kid didn’t flinch.
“No, but I got some brass for ya.”
With his left paw, he took the bill, and with his right paw, he busted the guy across the chops, aided by some brass knuckles. A foot to the chest sent the guy flying out the door, where he busted a few planks on the platform.
The only way the company likes us to knock down fares.
I waved my switch iron, and began grabbing coins. An occasional swat helped a few furs load their stuff that much faster.
“Beggars’ Crossing, next stop, get your ass out of the closing doors!”
One scrawny old cat, God knows why, made a flying leap for the door just as it was closing, and managed to get in. He had exact change. More importantly, he had some bottles of Union Maid beer that looked authentic. I grabbed him by his filthy collar and shook him a bit.
“No vendee chug-chug, you savvy? Vendee chug-chug, you get plenty hit on nut.”
The cat understood the drill, and as the doors closed and Dutch took us out (with Spike radioing in the departure), the cat dug into his overcoat and passed over a few bottles, and then began selling some to the other passengers.
“Kid, gimmie a G-2 on our pals.”
He was getting better, and it was only because I saw his lips moving that I knew he was thinking.
“43 seconds behind, steady speed, bearing down on station.”
I relayed this to Dutch. He yelled back.
“Bastards are cramming us. Why the hell’d you let that hunk of mange on board? If they don’t stop, we’re up the creek.”
Translation: They were making us stop and pick up the passengers, allowing them the luxury of not only setting up a good shot once we cleared a station’s neutral zone, but also allowing them to skip a station with no passengers.
I keyed the comm. panel, and slid it open, giving a sharp two-tone whistle as I did. Spike reached up and grabbed the two bottles.
“You are forgiven. Go and sin no more.”
“On this island? You’ve got a _________ hope.”
I snapped the panel shut and locked it (the only DNF in my time here came when a drunk passenger dropped a scorpion down the back of a co-motorfur – we try to keep the temptations away, now), and turned back to the Kid.
“Kid, gimmie a shout when you see a….”
“Shot fired, sir.”
“No _______, Sherlock?”
I swiveled my ear. No worries, the trajectory was off. They were probably still finding the range. Wide right: I could hear it banging off the rocks on the cliff below.
“Spike, call in AP fire.”
“57 to base, taking AP fire. Wide right. Over.”
“Base to 57 copy.”
“41 to base, Nipple Crossing clear, proceeding to Mt. Venus. Over.”
“Base to 41 copy, are you taking fire? Over.”
“41 to base. Small arms fire out of the bushes. Old Man using his Motorfur’s Friend, over.”
Dutch has one of those, too, for dealing with furs what want to take potshots at your head while you’re in the station. In his case, it’s a triple barreled shotgun stuck through a gunport. Discourages a fur, you know what I mean?
They were getting closer on the range, and this one was closer wide right. Won’t see a wide left, of course – that’d fall on KILL’s tracks, and somefur would catch hell.
Spike radioed that in. I wasn’t too worried, because the track on this part of the line swerves a fair amount. Even a gunner with his Spades can’t do much more than keep range. Most of this firing was just for general principle.
Once we left Beggars’ Crossing, though, and once the Old Man left Mt. Venus, things were going to get very nasty, very fast. Beggars’ Crossing to Chokepoint is a straight-line run, and Mt. Venus is just north of Vixen’s Curve, the most dangerous part of the East Side run. Get past that, the route to Ankle Turn isn’t bad, but Vixen’s Curve will get you if you aren’t careful, and that’s even if the other side is napping. Made me glad Dutch and the Old Man were driving this morning.
“Closed to 38 seconds, sir.”
I passed that to Dutch, who grunted. Neither of us knew anything about Streamliners, but we were learning fast, and one of the things we were learning is that they were as fast as we were.
“Harry, I want in and out of Beggars’ like a sailor on an hour pass, got me?”
“You got it, Dutch. Hear that, Kid?”
That was the last shot before Beggars’ Crossing, and it was a little thing to keep our heads in. Nothing like shrapnel to ruin your morning. There was a patter of metal outside like rain.
“God-damnit, Kid, haul in that periscope. You want you should lose it? You lose that thing, I send YOU up.”
He snapped up the levers and lowered it, and then took his station.
“Beggars’ Crossing. Any furs for Beggars’ Crossing?”
No one answered. For the most part, they were either guzzling beer, eating something greasy out of a metal box, or tending to whatever it was they had in the crate stacked up next to them.
Dutch yelled back.
“Crap. 12 furs in the station. Yiffers know what’s up.”
“Leave it to me, Dutch. I got it under control.”
“Damn well better, Harry. I don’t want to be in the station more than fifteen seconds. I’m counting them, and the door closes then, fares or no fares, got it?”
We slowed at the edge of the neutral zone around the station, and glided in. Dutch opened the doors even before we’d come to a complete stop, and me and the Kid were already hanging partly outside, grabbing furs by the scruff and chucking them and their bundles in. We’d worry about the fares after the station departure.
I’d put my switch iron across the back of a duck’s rear-end when Dutch, good as his word, cranked the doors shut. The Kid was already collecting fares, and was in the process of re-arranging the beak of some guy who’d tried to slip him a slug.
“57 to base, Beggars’ Crossing clear. Over.”
“Base to 57, copy. Base to 41, report.”
“41 to base, cleared Mt. Venus, proceeding…”
I could hear over the radio a very loud thumping and crashing sound, followed by a long, high-pitched scream, that faded in and out, in time to how long it takes a fur to catch his breath.
It took a number of seconds before you could hear the voice of the Old Man.
“41 to base, we have casualty. Have taken fire from anti-tank rifle on Vixen’s Curve. Casualty took spall fragments to the face. Will report. Over.”
The car behind us was getting in the act, too, and from the sound of that shot, it was just ahead and to the right.
The yiffers were just toying with us.
As I said, the run from Beggars’ Crossing to Chokepoint is a straight run. It’s about two minutes at normal speed, and maybe a minute forty if you’re going flat out.
Dutch had heard enough. He was going flat out. Mostly.
It was hell on the motors, and I know the Black Gang at the car-barn was going to give him grief, but he slowed up and sped down to throw off the timing of whoever it was behind us. Shots were falling just behind or just in front of us.
Spike kept his reports to the base laconic, because he didn’t want to tie up the radio. Not if the Old Man needed it.
“41 to base, cleared Vixen’s Curve. Going to need a stretcher crew at Ft. Bob. Taking more rocket fire, two hits to back of car. Over.”
“Base to 41, copy. Tell Pinto to hang in there, help is on the way. Over.”
“41 to base, copy. 41 to 57, how are you guys doing?”
“57 to 41, ever guzzled a bogberry cocktail? Like that. Over.”
“41 to 57, copy. You be careful, hear? Out.”
The passengers were eyeing each other, at least the ones who could see out of both eyes. There were a few who tried to figure on cheating FUCuPS out of a fare, and figured wrong. One guy handed me a page out of a Tijuana Bible, and if this had been the regular kind of run, I’d have given him a chance to see if he could bounce. Didn’t have time for that fun today.
The Kid had the periscope up again.
Rule of the thumb is that 30 seconds is the margin of safety if you’re in a chase mode, and having to stop and pick up fares wasn’t going to help that.
I saw the kid snap the levers, lower the scope and hit the dirt. Heard the sound of the shell, and when I heard it, I yelled to the boys up front to brace.
I looked up. There was a heavy dent on the roof of the car, just short of where the cab starts.
Dud round. I thanked Whoever that folks love to sell Krupmark crap goods.
Spike reported it in. That’s why Dutch insists on having him, and why the Old Man lets him do it. You need a calm fur in a situation like this.
The Kid crawled back to the periscope, kicking a crate of cabbages (second-degree freshness type) out of the way.
I looked up at the roof. I was going to need to get up there to see how the trolley harp was doing. If that thing had been AP, we would have been dead in the water from no juice, and then dead in a bunch of other, nasty ways.
A check of my watch showed that we were running about a minute ahead of time, which was pretty good. Rules were, you had five minutes at Ft. Bob Terminal, plus whatever time you were ahead of schedule. And you couldn’t cut corners, either. You had to take the whole time. And I had an idea.
“Radio Ft. Bob for a tool crew. I want every fur they’ve got ready to hit the car when we clear it, savvy?”
“On it, Harry. We in trouble?”
“No. I’m fixing to stay out of it.”
Spike radioed it in, and I did a fast calculation of where we were. Chokepoint was coming right up, and maybe the little pals behind us were going to give us one last little pat on the ass with high explosive.
Either they were conserving ammo, checking ammo (that’s what I would have done after a dud round), or they were screwing with our minds.
Or maybe they’d figure we’d slow up after we got the fares picked up at Chokepoint.
Didn’t need much of a neutral zone around Chokepoint. Everything was in a cut that had been carved out, thanks to a liberal use of explosives and slaves. At the same time, usually. I mean, fuses are expensive. Made me think conserving ammo was the thing they were doing. No sense in bouncing a shell off volcanic rock.
“What’s the score, Dutch?”
Dutch cussed a few times, and told Spike to take control. I heard him open the gun port on his side of the cab, and after a few seconds, there was…
FOOOOOOOM. FOOOOOOOOM. FOOOOOOOOOM.
“No one on the platform.”
Yeah, they were all under it. I love Dutch’s tactical thinking.
The Old Man holding his own, barely, on his side. I’d really hate to think what would have happened to any other fur on that route today. Even Dutch. Trying to run a car by yourself under AT fire would break any fur who hadn’t run his deck.
At least he caught a break: there was only one fare at Ankle Turn, so they were out quickly.
“Any furs for Chokepoint?”
One guy with some melons raised a paw.
“Tough. Get a transfer at Ft. Bob for the northbound.”
Given the way I was waving my switch iron around, he didn’t give me an argument.
A hard bank showed that we were turning east for the approach into Ft. Bob Terminal. Anything heavier than machine-gun fire wasn’t a good idea around here, because it would either start a fire or hit a house you shouldn’t hit.
The Kid had the periscope up again.
Well, Dutch had slowed down, and the splatter of bullets on the rear of the car wasn’t going to do anything but scratch the paint. Still, it was a nasty little reminder.
“FBT to 41. Over”
“41 to FBT, go ahead.”
“Stretcher crew on standby. Need anything else? 57 asked for repair crew. Over.”
“Nothing we can’t handle, FBT. Just need an extinguisher. Over.”
“41 to 57, you guys okeh? Over.”
“57 to 41, Harry’s been thinking, over.”
“41 to 57, damn, and he hasn’t even had his ramen yet. Over.”
Crap! Forgot to put my order in. Well, low priority, anyway.
I gave my brush a snap, and yelled at the passengers.
“I’m gonna give you yiffers fifteen seconds to get the hell off my car, and the last fur outta here is the first fur that’s going to catch a switch iron on the back of his head, got me?”
Given the way everyfur was picking up their crates, sacks and other stuff, yeah, they got me. I pointed to the Kid.
“Get your ass up topside. Stay the hell out of the way down here, and keep your eyes open up there. Give me a yell when you see our pals come in.”
The Kid nodded, and shinnied up a pole. He spun around a wheel, and popped the hatch. He was through it in nothing flat, and soon, there was some fresh air to mix in with the smell of unwashed furs and cabbages in second-degree freshness.
I looked at my watch. We were, it looked like, going to have about six minutes and a little bit of change in the terminal, and for what I wanted, I was going to need it all. We’d have, maybe, one minute’s head start.
There was a slight thump as we hit one of the few really first-class paved areas in the right of way, and there was the usual reverb sound from the concrete all around us. I could also hear the station loudspeakers.
“Now arriving on Platform 4, the FPS West Side car Bock’s Car. Please allow the passengers to exit before boarding the car.”
Dutch had already opened the doors, and not a few furs were hopping out, glad to get off the car in one piece. I helped the other passengers off, with the assistance of my foot and the switch iron.
“Now arriving on Platform 3, the FPS East Side car Unholy Trinity. Please allow…”
There was an excited babble of voices which drowned out the rest of the announcement. I gritted my teeth.
Unholy Trinity was coming into the station, limping and sparking. Part of the rear armor was bent back, but what was worse, there was a nasty area of the co-motorfur’s door that was stove in.
And you could hear loud moans and cries from out of it.
I looked up at the announcements board. The clock for my car started to tick down from 6:13, and for the Old Man, it was 5:11. How the hell he got the train in early, I’ll never know.
Below that, there were the odds boards. Train 41, that’s the Old Man, had DNF odds of only 7:1. What made my blood run cold was that the odds on us making DNF were only 5:1.
The passengers were looking at those odds, and eyeing our cars suspiciously. One of them spat, and speaking to no fur, he snarled. “It’s murder, sending out brave furs on crates like that.”
A party of stretcher furs elbowed aside the gawkers, and I could see them starting to pass through Pinto, on the Old Man’s side of the cab. Pinto was holding both paws to his face, and he was flailing his hooves wildly in the air. There was a lot of blood on his paws, and it was dripping on the Old Man as he passed him through. They got him lowered onto the stretcher, and began to strap him in.
“Now arriving on Platform 1, the KI East Side car Maneater.”
Yeah, they didn’t have anything about the passengers on that one, the yiffers.
The crew of Maneater leaned out of the cab windows and doors, and watched Pinto get carted off, with slow, silent smirks on their muzzles. One of them was leaning on an anti-tank rifle, likely the thing that did in Pinto.
“Now arriving on Platform 2, the KI West Side car…”
The loudspeaker was drowned out by the yell from the fur who was riding on top of the car, waving around a Tommy gun and firing bursts from it.
“It is, Mesdames et messeuirs, the one, the only, Widow Maker, and it is the great honour of this car to be conducted by the one, the only. Big. Bad. Kyrill!!!”
So saying, he fired off a burst with each word of his name.
Kyrill was, once upon a time (and that’s the right phrase for it), a commander in charge of one of those armoured trains the Russkies used against the Germans, the Austrians and each other. Kyrill was also, once upon a time, a Cossack officer. He certainly had the bushy mustache and barrel chest of one, both of which he was showing off to full advantage as he strutted up and down the roof of his car.
I’d seen this act any number of times, and it had long since bored me.
“Hey, Kyrill! S’matter, didn’t pay your laundry bill?”
The wolf peered down. He knew damn well who it was – I’ll bet KILL’s lookouts hadn’t been clobbered – but he feigned surprise.
“Oh, ho, ho! As Kyrill lives and breathes! Have you soiled you brush yet, little one?”
“Nah, you’re shooting blanks, Kyrill. As usual.”
Kyrill reared back and laughed.
“Ahhhhh, you show fight and spirit, little one. But not for long! You like the new toy of Kyrill, yes?”
I could see that Dutch was giving it the twice-over, so I just confined myself to the basics. Streamliner, painted black and shellacked. Front of the car painted with shark’s teeth (corny), and the nose art under the cab window showed a lupine femmefur in a bustier and stockings (doubly corny).
Less corny was the fact that there was a pop-up turret just behind the cab. No, sir. KILL wasn’t going to hide the 3.1 inch gun in swivel mount that was there.
The anti-tank rifles the boys were toting were bad enough, but if that shell that had hit us hadn’t been a dud, they’d have been mopping me up off the right-of-way for sure.
Usually, when the cars are at Ft. Bob Terminal, there’s a fair number of furs getting off and then on, but none of the cars seemed to be getting any business this morning. Judging from the way the odds were swinging in favour of KILL, no guesses why we weren’t getting any fares.
The repair crew came out onto the platform. I looked over to the Old Man, but he waved off, and pointed the crew to my car. I grabbed the lead fur, said what I wanted in an undertone, and he and the boys bolted into the car.
I saw Tiny have a word with one fur, who scampered off somewhere.
Another fur handed me my morning ramen.
“Ha! You like last meal of condemned fur, little one?”
Didn’t have a snappy comeback for that one. Was kind of distracted by the dolly that was wheeling a few heavy shells over to Widow Maker.
Unholy Trinity was getting a once-over by the co-conductor and the Old Man. The Old Man was going to have to work things by himself, since substitutions were against the rules. Lose one or more of your crew? Tough luck.
Spike was checking the underside of the car with a mirror, partly to make sure things were okeh down there, and partly to make sure no one left any departing gifts for us. That’s against the rules, but I’ve seen a few folks try to push the betting along with a grenade or two.
The doors on my car opened, and some of the benches began to be passed out. The crowd booed, even if this was legit.
Kyrill laughed again. “Oooooooooh, where you put you fares now, little one? You have them maybe sit in you laaaaaap?”
Which was actually a good question. I was having the boys remove all of the benches, leaving just my jumpseat. I figured we weren’t going to get any fares, and this was a pretty blatant admission that we were going to turn tail and run like hell back to the car-barn. Kyrill asked Spike if he was going to show the underside of his pretty flag.
Spike showed Kyrill one of his fingers.
Funny thing: Dutch seemed pretty calm, judging from the way he was tapping the side of the cab, right above Bock’s picture. I know when he’s tense and nervous, and he wasn’t showing that now. Gave me some hope.
“Come, come! Have you anything to say to Big. Bad. Kyrill? Please, Kyrill would like to hear you last words for the posterity! Just before he BLOW YOU ALL TO HELL!”
I was thinking of something suitably nasty, when somefur beat me to it. With a high-pitched, squeaky voice.
“Hey! Hey Comrade! I got one grand says you’re gonna DNF. Got anything to say to that?”
Son of a ---
I looked up, and sure enough, the Kid was standing on the roof of my car, shaking a small fist at Kyrill. For Crissake, the Kid barely met Kyrill’s ribs, and here he was mouthing off to him. Goddamn stupid Heart.
What was worse, the little bastard was putting me in a spot where I’d look bad. I mean, if I didn’t back him up…
Yet another one of those damned laughs out of Kyrill.
“HO, HO! Is it the little children now that the FUCuPS is reduced to use? What a pretty, pretty little playmate you have, little one! Don’t worry, my little friend. We save you for the fun later. You like the fun, yes?”
Dutch poked one-half of his mustaches and one of his tusks out of the cab.
“Kid’s right, Tovarich. I got five grand that says the same thing.”
The Old Man chimed in with a five grand bet, and so did Tiny and Spike.
I could see a few looks among the crew of Widow Maker and Maneater. Yeah, they were still confident, but now they were wondering what the hell we were up to.
Kyrill, for his part, slung his Tommy gun across his back and folded his arms across his chest. He looked at me.
“Got anything to say, little one? You very silent.”
I gritted my teeth. I swore to myself that I was going have that weasel’s guts for garters. If I lived to do it.
“I got two things to say, Kyrill.”
“First, your mother services the Politbureau. Second…I got TEN grand you’re goin’ down in flames. Anyone got a betting slip?”
There’s always more than a few furs from the Syndicates around, and the slips were signed up. I signed for the Kid.
The fur that Tiny talked to came racing back, and tossed a small box to him, which the moose caught and nearly enveloped with one huge paw. He went stomping into Unholy Trinity, but not before I saw him sign a pair of betting slips. My guess was Tiny was getting something for his Springfield with the box sight.
One brave fur way back in the crowd asked Kyrill if he’d left his wallet in his shirt. Didn’t take more than a second for Kyrill to ready the Tommy gun and let fly in the general direction with a long burst. He got booed for that. Fickle crowd.
I tossed my ramen cup at Widow Maker, leaving a splotch of noodles on the painted chest of the car’s namesake. The 30-second warning bell for our car was ringing, and the last of the benches from inside the car was being shoved out.
The Old Man caught my eye, and gave me a thumb’s-up. I gave him a salute, and I meant it.
The loudspeaker crackled.
“Now leaving on Platform 4, the FPS West Side car Bock’s Car, making station stops at the Beach, Vixen’s Curve, Mt. Venus, and Nipple Crossing. All aboard!”
I couldn’t resist one last comment. As we were pulling out, I leaned out of the door and yelled up to Kyrill, who was pacing the roof of Widow Maker.
He glared at me.
“I was wrong about your mother. It’s your father what services the Politburo.”
The closing door wasn’t quite thick enough to drown out either the curses from the wolf or the laughter from the crowd.
The Kid scrambled down from the roof, but he left the hatch open. I grabbed him by his collar.
“Listen, you stupid spraint for brains, where the hell do you get off mouthing off like that?”
“You do it….um, sir.”
“I’m supposed to do that, you yiffer. I’M THE GODDAMNED CONDUCTOR! Now get your ass back to the scope, or I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll be humping it.”
I looked at my watch and listened for the thump for when we left the paved ground and went onto the rougher part of the right of way. That would pretty much mark the end of the neutral zone around the Terminal.
I yelled to the Kid to time it on my mark when Widow Maker left the neutral zone. He did.
Not as much as I had hoped, but with the extra speed from ditching the benches, I thought we might have a chance at keeping out of the danger zone.
Spike was giving the running reports back to the base, and I could hear the Old Man calling it out as well. From what I could see, he looked like was going to fight it out, and how, I didn’t know, but he’s always been a battler.
I saw Widow Maker load up shells, but I think that was mostly for show. If I had any guess, I was going to say that they were fixing to catch up at Vixen’s Curve, and give us one hell of a broadside from the south part, while we were showing our neck on the north side. The only thing I was hoping for was that if we could keep things to as close to a minute as possible, they wouldn’t have a clear shot at us, not with climbing up Mt. Venus.
So I was pretty startled…well, all right, scared out of my socks, when I felt the car begin to slow down? Slow down? What the hell for?
Spike radioed it in.
“57 to base. Approaching Beach Station. Picking up one fare. Over.”
There was a long pause.
“Base to 57, please repeat. Did not copy, over.”
“57 to base, approaching Beach Station. Picking up one fare. Over.”
Another long pause.
“Do you have your head up your ass, or something?”
Spike chuckled. “57 to base, copy. Ask Dutch. Over.”
I hammered at the partition.
“Goddamnit, you stupid sonofabitch, what the hell are you stopping for?!”
“We gotta stop, Harry. It’s a fare.”
“The hell we do. We’ve got no seats.”
“There’s your seat.”
“There’s your goddam seat!”
“Company rules, Harry. No hitchhikers in the cab.”
Dutch was being way the hell too damn merry, so I cussed him out and got to the door.
The car glided in, and the door slid open. The fare took her damn sweet time coming in.
Wolfess, long silver head-fur, long shiny black patent leather overcoat, high boots with spike heels. And she covered the ground pretty well with them. Riding crop and a glossy magazine in one paw, and exact change in the other paw.
From the cab came Dutch’s voice. “Comp her, Harry.”
“NOW?!? YOU’RE THINKING OF THIS NOW?!”
“C’mon Harry, company rules say…”
I rolled my eyes, and silently cursed Dutch and his free-time hobbies.
The wolfess, with a poker face, pocketed her change, strutted over to my jump seat, and demurely settled herself down as the car doors closed and we moved out of the station. She opened the magazine, and lost interest in the rest of us.
The Kid and I marked time as we pulled out of Beach Station. With no fares there, Widow Maker could barrel right through, and it did, sparks flying.
I elbowed the Kid out of the way, and looked through the scope.
We were now close enough so that I could see two things, one of which was Kyrill on the roof, waving around an anti-tank rifle. The other was that the gun mount was right behind him. I had hopes that the stupid bastard would stand right in front of it, but on the other paw, I didn’t think he was that stupid.
“GIVE ME SPEED, DAMNIT! SPEED, SPEED, SPEED, SPEED!”
“Anything you say, Harry.”
The car began to pick up speed, all right, and was starting to rock a bit.
The boys in the car-barn say that Bock’s Car is the fastest car in the FUCuPS fleet. It can do about 50 running all out, with a light load, which is pretty much what we were doing.
Problem of course is that the safest speed on Vixen’s Curve is about 40. And that ten miles per hour was a bit of oomph that I had a feeling I was going to miss, sorely.
I ran up to the front, pass the wolfess (calmly reading her fashion magazine), unlocked the partition window, and was about to scream into it when Spike shoved the butt of his .45 through it.
How the hell did he know?
I didn’t bother locking up, but ran back to the scope. The Kid and I called out the ranges. Not that it mattered too much, as we could hear a few AT rounds come flying past us. One clipped an upper corner of the car, and ripped a small hole in the roof.
I looked one last time through the scope, and saw that Kyrill was moving behind the 3.1 mount. Damn. I never have any luck. At least that made it safe to go up, and I was damned if I was going to meet my Maker inside. Best to meet him outside in the fresh air.
It was smart of the Kid to leave the hatch open, and both of us scrambled up through it and onto the roof of the car. The Kid and I tossed our hats down the hatch. The company’ll dock your pay if you lose your hat.
The Kid was glaring at Kyrill, who in turn was waving his anti-tank toy and jumping up and down. I could hear the bastard’s laughter all the way, even over the distance and all the other noise. But that wasn’t what grabbed my attention.
We weren’t slowing down. If anything, we were still picking up speed.
Vixen’s Curve station is at the end of a buttonhook, if you’re looking north. You go straight past it a little bit, and then you hit a sharp curve. You know the Horseshoe Curve at Altoona? Meet its little brother. You don’t want to know the details of how it was built. Three dead furs for each sleeper, so they say, and let’s leave it at that. It’s a pretty long drop down from the roadbed, even if the bottom is hidden by a whole lot of bogberry bushes.
With a gap of thirty seconds – and that’s about what we had – Widow Maker was going to be in a perfect position to drop an AP round right into us.
As we were blowing past the station, it suddenly came to me what Dutch was up to. The clever bastard. No wonder he hadn’t said anything at the Terminal.
Of course, he was also expecting me to figure out what the hell he was doing. Thank God we’d been through most of the deck together, and he didn’t have to tell me. He figured I’d know.
I grabbed the Kid by the collar, and yanked him nearly off his feet.
“GRAB ON TO THE RAILING WITH YOUR PAWS, DAMNIT, AND DO WHAT I DO.”
He looked slack-jawed at me, but did what I did.
Which was go over the side, holding on with one paw for dear life on the railing of the roof, and bracing both feet against the side. The Kid was in front of me, and I was in back of him, the one closest to Kyrill.
I unlimbered the .45, and took a pot-shot at Kyrill to get his attention.
Oh, yeah, and distract it a little, too.
The wires were sparking like anything, and my forearm began to ache from hanging on. I knew, though, that if I didn’t hang on, it was all over.
The Kid was whispering a prayer, so I didn’t interrupt him. I knew what was coming. I distracted myself by taking a few more shots at Kyrill, just on general principle, and then stuffed the gun in my pocket.
As we started approaching the top of the curve, I could feel the car begin to stop shaking, and start lifting.
“LEAN! LEAN LIKE A SONOFABITCH!!!”
The Kid and I each picked a different method, but both of us threw as much of our weight as we could and still hang on for dear life.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There’s no way that that trip could have lasted more than a few seconds. I’ll tell you it felt like hours, with my arms screaming at me in pain, and the sound of the Kid yelling in my ear.
So it was really sweet when I felt the car balance and hold. The Kid and I timed it, and as we felt the car begin to compensate, we swung ourselves as hard as we could onto the roof.
We got prone just as the car settled itself with a loud crash. The Kid had hooked a foot into the hatch, and had grabbed my left leg, which was probably a good thing, as I bounced. It slowed me just enough to that I could stick my other leg out and brace myself.
We were alive, moving, and still in the fight. And only Dutch could have done that. Well, maybe Bock, too.
We busted out of the curve, and began the other arm of the horseshoe of Vixen’s Curve. If there was anywhere where Widow Maker was going to make its move, it was now.
The other car had to match our speed if they were going to keep interval and line of fire, and the Streamliner looked like it was going to do that with power to spare. The 3.1 inch mount slowly started to turn toward us…
And that’s where Dutch’s genius kicked in.
You’ll remember that KILL literally has the inside track everywhere, including Vixen’s Curve. So to fire at us, going north and west, Widow Maker had to point its gun in that direction. Its very big, heavy gun.
In the same direction and side into which it would be leaning as the car went around the curve.
I braced myself and got on my knees, as did the Kid. We watched as the big black Streamliner started to take the curve, just like we did. We watched as the big black Streamliner started to go onto four wheels, just like we did.
Of course, we didn’t have all that heavy weight on our roof. We did have two furs balancing things out on top.
Tough luck you were all alone up there, Kyrill.
Black Widow began tilting over, and kept going, and going. There was a loud snap and bright flash as the trolley harp hit a crosswire and the car lost power.
Kyrill tried to keep his balance, and wobbled a bit, until a sharp jerk tossed him into the air, high over the side.
You could hear him scream from far away.
I’ll say this for the motorfur and co-motorfur: they almost pulled it off. Black Widow wobbled a bit as they must have shifted everything they had inside. But it wasn’t enough. After bouncing off the far rail, the car lurched over again, and this time didn’t get up, going over onto its side, skidding for yards and yards, snapping power poles like matchsticks and grinding sleepers into dust. It finally came to rest, about 1/3 of it dangling into space, crumbled like a kicked-up tomato can.
Behind me, the Kid whooped.
“Shaddap, you yiffer! The hell you think this is, a ballgame? Show some goddamned respect!”
I had to catch my breath after that. The breeze up on the roof was pretty good, but all the same, I wanted to get the hell back inside. Among other things, I wanted to know why the hell we weren’t slowing down.
Thanks to the crew at the Terminal, there was little that I thought could have gone flying around when we did our four-wheel dance. I’d have hated to do that with a full car, let me tell you.
I did have an anxious feeling in my stomach about Dutch’s friend.
I needn’t have bothered. She was still in my jumpseat, still reading her fashion magazine, and still ignoring everything else but it. I don’t think her headfur had even moved.
The partition hatch was still open, so I yelled through it.
“Dutch! You magnificent, crazy bastard! How the hell did you know?!”
“Sorry, Harry. Can’t talk to you now. Ready, Spike?”
“Okeh. Starting emergency procedures, now.”
“57 to base, calling in mayday. Do you copy, over.”
“Base to 57. Report status. Over.”
“57 to base. Opposition car in wrecked status on east arm of Vixen’s Curve. Casualties unknown. Over…wait, stand by. Yeah, Harry?”
“Tell him one fleabag took a highdive. Me and the Kid saw him.”
“57 to base, correction. At least one casualty, conductor on opposition car, fell off roof. Over.”
“Base to 57, acknowledge. Salvage crew being readied. Report status. Over.”
“57 to base, running diagnostics. Stand by.”
They were about to start on that when there was a distant, rolling explosion. From the other side of the island.
“Base to 41, please report. Over.”
“Base to 41, please report. Over.”
Followed by sounds of further gunfire and explosions.
“Base to 41, please report. Over.”
Dutch and Spike exchanged glances, and began to run through diagnostic checks as we blew through Mt. Venus Station. Whether or not there were any fares at the station, I suppose, was pretty moot.
We weren’t slowing down at all, and that was even with the grade climb to the station.
I knew better than to interrupt either the boys doing their check, or to ask for a status report on Unholy Trinity. Not my place in either case.
I went back into the car, and looped my paw around one of the overhead straps. The Kid had done the same at his station near the rear door.
He looked at me, and I could only shrug my shoulders.
The wolfess was still reading her magazine, though she had now crossed her legs. At least that distracted the Kid. He had eyes for nothing else.
“57 to base.”
“Go ahead, 57.”
“57 to base. Air brakes inoperable from damage, believe lines have been dislodged or broken. Reverser mechanism is not responding. Over.”
Long pause, though I could hear voices in the background.
“Base to 57. What is your current speed, over.”
“57 to base. Running 48 miles per hour. Over.”
“Base to 57, copy. What is your current location, over.”
“57 to base. Approaching Nipple Crossing station. Over.”
“Base to 57. Cleared to skip station. Initiate emergency action. Over.”
The car’s bell began to ring fifteen times, the universal signal for Get the Hell Out of the Way, Stupid.
“We still have sand on deck, right? We didn’t dump it at the Terminal?”
I’d have liked to have said no, I had weighed the risks of dumping our emergency sand supply, and had not done it out of a concern for safety. The real answer was that I was so pissed off at Kyrill it slipped my mind. Just as well.
“Yeah, Dutch. Full load.”
“Isn’t going to do much, but I want you to dump it at my order, ‘kay?”
“You got it, Dutch.”
“Base to 41, please report.”
“Harry, we’re going to be going in hard, so you know what to do.”
“Yeah, wolfess first, Kid and me second.”
“I know it’s against company policy, but…”
“Yeah, yeah, no problem, Dutch. Muzzle shut.”
I went back as I heard the car-barn call out for the Old Man. Still no response.
I stopped in front of the wolfess.
She folded her magazine shut and raised an eyebrow at me.
“We have an emergency situation here, and I need you to…”
She reached into one of the pockets of her overcoat, and pulled out some heavy leather straps. They were soon tied to the chair, and her feet and one of her paws slipped through them. It was a very professional piece of work. You had to admire it.
I told the Kid to take his god-damned jaw off the floor and prepare for an emergency stop.
“57 to Base. Initiating emergency stop procedure, over.”
“Base to 57, acknowledge. Over.”
“57 to base, estimated time to yard limit two minutes, over.”
“Base to 57, emergency stop procedure initiated at base, over.”
“Copy, base. Sand dump being readied, over.”
“Acknowledged, 57. Over. Base to 41, please acknowledge, over.”
Spike began calling out the speed and time to yard limit. I knew that about 30 seconds from yard limit, the sand dump would have to be started. It would rip the hell out of the metal tires, but better the product of Pittsburg than my furry brush.
“Took care of herself, Dutch.”
A chuckle. “Okeh. Dump on my command, Harry.”
“You got it. Suppose we’ll have an audience?”
“Yiffers probably gathering at the limit now. I’d give ‘em a blast or two, but I’m kinda busy.”
“I hear you.”
I reached a paw through the partition. I felt first Spike’s paw, and then Dutch’s. Didn’t have to do anything else. I closed the hatch and locked it.
I went to the middle of the car, bent down, and unlocked the panel that revealed a brass handle. I put my paw on it, and cocked an ear.
The view was pretty good from down there, but I had to remind myself to keep my mind on my work. Business before pleasure.
When Dutch yelled “DUMP!” I hit the handle, and felt the car lurch as four hundred pounds of sand was released to spill over the wheels. I could hear the grit catching the wheels, and then I could certainly hear the shrieking sound the wheels produced from locking up.
Dutch was sounding the car bell to warn furs to get the hell out of the way, though judging from at least one thump I felt, some stupid yiffer didn’t get the message. Wished we’d hit more, that would have slowed us down some.
We blew past the yard limit. We were running slower, but still pretty hot. My guess from the clicks of the rail was that we were going about twenty-five, which was way the hell over the yard limit.
If the boys in the car-barn knew their business, they would have done a few things. One was to move stuff as far away from us as possible, especially other cars.
Another was to rig the emergency wires; Dutch and Spike would have deployed the hooks to catch them.
The last, and perhaps most important, was to get the fire squad in their suits, and get the foam ready.
I looked behind my shoulder. The Kid had strapped himself to the rear wall, and his eyes were closed. He was praying.
The wolfess was strapped to her chair, and looked bored.
I tucked myself into a ball, even if it was going to make my pants and jacket dirty.
The car gave a violent jerk as we went through, and probably snapped, the first wire.
It jerked again as we blew right through the second wire.
I held my breath for the last hope we had.
The third, last and thickest wire caught the hook, and I was pitched forward. I hit the front of the car hard, but it was only with my back and shoulder. The car reared up, and there was sudden daylight, as with a loud, prolonged scream of rending metal, the roof of the car was peeled back, for all the world like a sardine can.
The car slammed to the ground and lurched sideways, ripped off the wheels. There was a long stretch of silence while I checked if I was still breathing.
Cursing from the front cab in two different voices told me that Dutch and Spike had made it through. I looked back to check on the Kid.
Other than a large, dark and spreading patch of wetness on his crotch, he was okeh.
The wolfess looked bored.
“57 to base. This little piggy went wee-wee-wee, and ran all the way home. Over.”
It was at that point that the car-barn exploded in cheers.
“Hot sticks, damnit, hot sticks! You yiffers fry yourselves, I ain’t cleanin’ it up.”
That note of optimism sounded by Bash, who was attempting to enforce the emergency rules. He was succeeding somewhat, though some of the car-barn boys were going at the doors anyway, ignoring the kit fox.
Given that I didn’t hear any snapping sounds or smell fresh ozone, my guess was that Bash had cut the power. Nothing says welcome home, stupid like electrocuting yourself.
I got up and flexed my neck and shoulders. Tomorrow morning I was going to be sore, and not in the usual ways and places I like to feel sore. The Kid was unstrapping himself, and trying to button his uniform jacket to hide the evidence of just how scared he’d been. I wasn’t going to bet on how well that would succeed.
The wolfess was examining herself with the aid of a compact mirror. A brief glare in my direction told me I could dispense with the traditions about femmefurs and children first.
Somefur slipped a pinch bar and unjammed the front door, which promptly fell off. The somefur turned out to be Bash.
“God-damnit, Harry, what part of the car didn’t you wreck?!”
“I love you, too, Bash. I’m feeling pretty good, thanks for asking.”
I put my paw in his face (I had about eight inches on him), and gently shoved him a few feet backward.
The urge to drop onto my stomach and kiss the concrete floor of the car-barn was resisted. I mean, a fur’s got his reputation to keep, and besides, I didn’t know what the hell had been tracked all over the barn.
Something clattered out of the right door of the cab, which turned out to be a broken off-hunk of antler. With a grunt, Spike shoved the door open with a hoof. He had gone down from 12 points to about six, and they didn’t look long for this world, either. He checked his nose, which was bleeding pretty freely, wiped it with his paw, and then wiped his paw on Bash’s overalls.
I don’t know why Bash got so upset – it’s not like blood shows up against all that oil and grease.
The Kid emerged from the rear door, and was met by one of the Black Gang, who took a big, deep, sniff, and then grinned.
“Hey, Kid. I know a good girl at the Beach who’ll change your diaper.”
The Kid’s ears turned bright red, and he mumbled to himself.
Back on the other side of the cab, the door opened, carefully, and Dutch peered out, went back, dangled his trotters, and then hopped to the floor. He was pretty careful about closing the door after him, too.
He took a few steps back, crossed his arms over his chest, and looked at Bock’s Car from front to back, and then back to front. He exhaled slowly, puffing out his cheeks, and then reached up and patted the car as if it were a living thing. Which it is to a motorfur.
Dutch’s reverie was interrupted by a yell from out in the yard.
“Here they come! They’re here!”
Now, we came into the barn like a house afire, but Unholy Trinity was taking the opposite way. The car limped in at walking speed, trailing smoke, and only just made it to the pit in fits and starts. The jerk from the final stop caused a large jagged hunk of plate to drop from the side.
Snatch, who had done the co-conducting duty with Tiny, poked his buck-toothed castorian puss out a smoking hole that had been punched into the side of the car.
“Honey, I’m hoooooooome!”
He disappeared pretty quickly with a crash, which indicated both that Tiny was active, and not particularly happy with Snatch’s sense of humour.
Bash, for his part, was showing he wasn’t happy. In fact, he was jumping up and down and waving a pair of small black fists in the air.
“What the hell! What the hell! What the hell! I just overhauled this damn car!”
The cab door opened, and the Old Man eased his bulk out of it. Our chief mechanic shut up as the bear stretched, scratched his ass, and sauntered over to the kit fox.
“You shoulda seen the other guy, Bash. Besides, this’ll keep you out of trouble for a while.”
Bash raised himself on tiptoe and shook a finger in the Old Man’s face.
“If I catch hell because I’m running up a buttload of overtime trying to fix what you and Dutch did out there…fix…where the hell am I going to get parts for this?” He gripped his head and wailed. “Where am I going to get the budget?!?”
The Old Man patted him on the shoulder, leaving him wailing and cursing, and ambled over to where Dutch and I were standing.
“Us or them?”
The Old Man grinned. “The good guys.”
“Well, Spike was due for a shed soon, anyway. I’m doing all right, and Harry still has his aviators in one piece, so he’s okeh. Kid’s all right, except for a laundry bill. What happened to you?”
“Had a running fight pretty much all the way from the Terminal. Yiffers put a few AT slugs into us, ripped the hell out of the inside…
There was a yell from inside Unholy Trinity. Bash was discovering the truth of this.
“Where the hell am I going to get benches?! They don’t make this model anymore!!”
“Shut up, Bash, we’ll go to an open seating plan. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Yiffers put a few AT slugs into us, and started catching up. They made a mistake, though. Put down the Boys rifles and went to give us the KO with a rocket.”
“Not after Tiny put an incendiary into the propellant.”
“Must have been the boom we heard.”
“Oh, you heard it? Yeah, it was a beaut. Ripped off a chunk of the front of the cab, too, right up top. Wish it’d gone down further, coulda hosed down their cab with our triple mount. Anyway, we started trading shots, between our pom-poms and their Boys.”
“How did you leave ‘em?”
“On fire and dead on the tracks, but Tiny saw them moving slowly off in the distance. Auntie Dynamite and Pisco were running that show up front, and I figured they probably brought Maneater in. Maybe one of them went back to help with damage control, don’t know. I know Snatch and Tiny had to put out a few fires on our end, why we had to break off.”
“And you lost your radio.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, guys. One of these days, I’ll write up something on signal rockets. So, what’s the story with Kyrill, Harry?”
“Last I saw him, he was doing an involuntary swan dive over the side down into the Crack.”
The Old Man whistled. “Sixty feet down, and that’s track level.”
Dutch grunted. “Yeah, but there’s tons of bogberry bushes down there. Probably broke his fall, bad luck.”
“Anything on the others?”
I shook my head. “We couldn’t stick around to find out. All I know is that they wiped out a hunk of their right of way. Send a wrecker?”
“Not going to bother. They’ve probably sent one out already, plus a meat car, I’ll bet. Car didn’t go down into the Crack?”
“Almost, a chunk of it was dangling off.”
The Old Man shook his head. There, but for the grace of God…
“What the hell am I going to do with the Kid, sir?”
The Old Man crossed his arms. “Problem?”
“Well, jeez, mouthing off like that at the Terminal…”
“I told him to do that, Harry.”
Yeah, my jaw creaked open.
“I figured we needed a distraction to allow Dutch to do some figuring of his own. Am I right?”
I could only shake my head. “How I’ve lived long enough to make my Spades…”
“Didn’t guess he was going to ring up a few bets, but it worked well enough.”
“Lucky for him.”
“Lucky for all of you.”
I turned, and put two fingers in my muzzle, and gave a whistle. The Kid peered from behind a stanchion where he was trying to keep out of sight. No such luck. I motioned him over. He came over.
He stood, fiddling with his cap. The Old Man grinned.
“Hey, Harry, how much did the Kid win?”
I fished the betting slip out of my pocket, and checked the odds. “About 22 thousand, once you take out the vig and commissions and delivery fees and taxes and whatever the delivery fur stuffs in his pocket.”
The Old Man nodded, and turned to the Kid. “Gonna buy some stock in the company?”
The Kid looked down at his feet, past the front of his trousers. “Hey, sir? What’s gonna happen to the guy at the Terminal?”
We all nodded. Chances were Pinto had made his last run.
“Why you ask, Kid?”
“There gonna be a collection? You know, passing the hat?”
The Old Man nodded. “Hey, we’re all on the same team, Kid. Go up and talk to Personnel once you get your loot.”
“And get the store to issue you a new set of pants.”
The Kid winced. “Yessir.”
A big grin. “Ah, don’t look so down in the mouth. Come on, you don’t want to look like that for the party?”
The word “party” was enough to make all of our ears perk up, and bring Tiny and Snatch over. Magic words, enough to pull a fur from hundreds of yards away.
Tiny raised an eyebrow. “You can do that?”
“Lead pipe cinch, boy. It’s a morale thing. The Directors will understand. We’ll just charge it to “incidentals.” Get a few rooms at a joint with only a few bugs, order up some booze – the real stuff, not the stuff they make out back in the alleys – and, of course…”
A few eyebrow wiggles dropped the hint of other elements of the party. Everyone grinned. Especially the Kid.
The door of Bock’s Car creaked open again. We all turned, and watched as the wolfess, not a hair out of place, stepped out of the car as carefully as if she were trying to avoid of puddle of something in the road.
She sashayed past the car-barn Boys, stopped, and turned over to go past us.
She looked us all over, and fixed her gaze at Dutch.
After a bit, she lifted her arm, and with the end of her riding crop, lifted Dutch’s jaw high up. She leaned in a bit, and growled at him.
“I comp you.”
She gave him a once over, looking at his bashed up and smelly leather jumpsuit.
“Do not change out of this.”
With that, she let his jaw down, turned on the sharp points of her heels, and marched out of the car barn.
Dutch watched her tailfur disappear out into the yard, and then lifted a paw to give his handlebar mustache a twirl. He turned to the Old Man and chuckled.
“Sorry, sir. Gotta give you a rain check. Some other time, maybe.”
The Old Man nodded, understanding. Dutch grinned, saluted, and turned around. He walked over to his car, kissed his paw, and then pressed it to the image of Bock painted on the side of the cab. Patting it, he walked out.
Presumably not to the locker room.
Snatch grabbed the Kid, and steered him away, telling him about the glories of what some of the employees of certain houses could do if you asked them nicely, and even if you didn’t ask them nicely.
Tiny shook his head in disgust, put in an order for a few bottles of some authentic (and expensive) Scotch, and went off to do his fare accounting.
Spike, blood still oozing from his nose, was told to go to the surgeon and get his rack leveled. Spike nodded, snorted, and spat some blood on the floor, just missing Bash’s brush. He left the car-barn with Bash yelling at him, leaving a quiet paw-gesture in his wake, a Parthian shot.
The Old Man turned to me. “You joining us, Harry?”
I exhaled and rubbed my eyes. I was damn tired.
“Probably made quite a haul, didn’t you? What made you put down all that money?”
“Can’t take it with you, sir.”
“I hear that. Figured out what you’re going to do with it?”
I shook my head. “Dunno. Still got a few cards in my deck.”
“Getting scared. I mean, once you’re so close?”
“Yup. You get very careful out there when you’re down to the last few, Harry, and that’s when they get you. You get too careful, you lose that spark that keeps you going.”
He put both paws on my shoulders. “Don’t lose that spark, Harry. I want you to hand your deck back in, hear?”
I could only nod.
The furs in the car-barn had started to work on prepping the cars for the 1400 run, leaving the repairs on Unholy Trinity and Bock’s Car for later. Even Bash had gone back to his office, no doubt to figure out how much he could rake off from all the bills he was going to run up.
I was all alone, and no other fur was paying attention to me.
I was halfway across to the locker room when I cussed, and turned back to Bock’s Car. Something had been forgotten, and I had to set it right.
Spike’s door was still open, so I reached in and found the crank.
I dialed out the cards display, and then manipulated the destination sign.
OUT OF SERVICE.
Walking to the locker room, again, I wondered if that was what they were going to put on my headstone.
New York, New York
September 26-29, 2010