The air was moist, filled with a humidity I hand't realised I missed so much. Back south had been so dry. Every day another long walk through the desert. We've really done a number on this planet; I'm amazed anyone is left alive. I remembered my youth when the weather had been more forgiving. I had always been a gentleman with that old southern pride. Minus all the racism which so often ended up bundled in with such an upbringing. Leaving had been no easy decision, but with each new rainless day I knew staying would be more difficult than going.
It was not my personal survival I was worried about. At least, not in the immediate sense. I could take care of myself just fine through a drought. However, a lot of folks can't. I needed to be where the most people were. I needed to work.
It's funny. I never used to care about the "Why?"s of the task. Someone would call on me, I would do my work and that was that. After I was paid, of course. Now, though, I found myself fascinated by people's motivations. It had become part of my payment. Not that it had ever stopped me from accepting the task. I am a simple man, not a moral one.
"You're doing it again?" Mandy said. I glanced over my shoulder at her, she was stirring what roughly constituted stew with a stick she'd plucked from the ground. We had found wooden spoons, but she never used the damned things.
"What's that?" I asked. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the stitching in the shoulder of my suit was coming apart again. We'd need to find more thread.
"Thinking. What is it this time?" Her brown, puppy-dog eyes caught mine and reminded me of our first encounter. Must have been nearly three years ago now and she'd grown a lot in that time. Still couldn't cook for shit, of course.
"I was enjoying the moist air on my skin. Been a long time."
"I hate it. Makes me feel sweaty and gross." She poured the stew into two bowls and handed me one.
"Well, why don't you grab a shower and I'll see if I can get the air-con working?" I said. I grimaced as I sipped the stew. The heat set my tongue aflame, but helped to numb my taste buds to the flavour. Only once had I tried to drink it at a cooler temperature: never again. It had been an assault on my palate that left me retching like a teen going down on their boyfriend for the first time.
We were packed and gone by first light, like always. The walk was the hardest in months and I finally understood what she meant about the humidity. The heat hadn't relented any and a day walking in the heat with the humid air left me dripping in sweat. Not for the first time, I wished I had a change of clothes. Even if I did, I'd still wear the damned suit.
"The damned suit of the white collar whore." Eloise said, kissing my collar and leaving a red lipstick print as a reminder.
"Still? It looks unprofessional?" I said grumpily. She pulled a mocking sad face.
"Have the other boys been making fun of you? Should I have words with them?"
It was almost a week before we found what passed for civilisation these days. A small town square in the middle of Bumblefuck nowhere. You can always tell the inhabited places; nature hasn't reclaimed them quite so thoroughly. People these days cling to granite and brick and steel for comfort. They remind them of better times when they felt more safe.
"Newcomers have to report to the council." said a lean woman carrying a rifle. No doubt someone had spotted them and called for what passed as the law.
The council turned out to be three people, all in their forties or fifties who resided in a court building. It was remarkably intact, all things considered, with only minor structural damage to the exterior walls. As well as the council there were several townspeople present to watch proceedings. One of them, a kid barely in his twenties, seemed to take particular interest in things. He kept casting glances at me when he thought I was looking. Or maybe he was looking at Mandy. She was sixteen and her features had fared better than most.
"Who are you?" Asked the middle councilor. He looked like the oldest of the bunch. Late fifties with grey stubble and salt and pepper hair. His eyes squinted with suspicion and he had the wet look of a politician.
"Just some people passing through" I shrugged. Announcing my true intentions probably wouldn't be the wisest course of action in such a room. I had been through lots of places like this. Places that tried to keep the old world alive. They thrived on law and order; they went around every day pretending nothing had changed. They didn't seem to grasp that they had to adapt to this new world.
"Good, we have enough mouths to feed." He said dismissively.
"Yes, yes, but who are you?" Asked one of the others. A woman, her black hair pulled tightly into a bun.
"I'm Mandy." Mandy said, giving a polite wave to the council opposite us. The eyes of the room fell upon me expectantly. I didn't need to glance in Mandy's direction to know those brown eyes would be staring eagerly at me as well. Three years of pestering me to tell her my name. Did she really think I was gonna cave now?
"I have no name to speak of. Not since the world turned." I said coldly. I felt the temperature of the room drop as I spoke and, to be honest, was glad of it.
"So what do we call you?" The third councillor said. A short, fat, bald man with an awful toupee.
"Gone by the end of the week."
The council had been less that pleased with my attitude, but they gave us leave to stay in town all the same. An old gymnasium had been converted into a shelter for anyone who didn't have a home. A hundred and twenty eight identical cots filled the room, Barely a dozen were occupied. The beds were free, but they informed us that everything else would cost us. I was less than surprised to learn that the dollar wasn't accepted here, as if it was accepted anywhere anymore, and we could pay with labour.
"You sure there's work here for you?" Mandy asked, as she lay down on her cot next to mine and as far away from everyone else as possible.
"Work for me, or fun for you." I said, thinking about the boy who'd been watching us.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means a guy was very interested in one of us during our meeting with the council."
It was early morning when he crept up. I still wasn't sure which of us he was there for. He nervously tapped my shoulder and I sat up.
"I know you." He said. He brushed the hair from his face nervously. "I mean, I've heard of you. Other people who came here, they've mentioned you. You take care of people."
"There someone you need taking care of, kid?" I asked. He nodded. "Can you pay me?"
"I have five cans of food, plus an antique cane sword, if you want that as well."
"Yeah, I'll take that. But, I also require something else as payment." His eyes went wide and I couldn't help but laugh. The noise made Mandy stir in her sleep, but she didn't wake. "No, kid, not that. You have to tell me why. Why, in this day and age, do you require my services."
"I used to dream about this, you know?" He began. "The breaking down of society. I was obsessed with it. I used to read novels, watch movies, play games about it. I had a zombie survival strategy and everything. All those things, they always have cannibals and savages and roving bands of psychos. People do what the want and to hell with the consequences." Those people do exist, I've even ran into a few of them, I thought, though I didn't say anything. "Instead we have...this. Sure, things are different, but not really. I mean I'm not saying I want to live in a world overrun by madmen, where everyday I could get murdered. It's just...it feels like nothing's changed. Ruth, Andy, and John decided that since they'd been handling everything in the town before, they'd just continue. They were the judge, the mayor, and the police chief. They make you clear anything with them. You wanna open a business you gotta ask the council. Get married? Ask the council. Think you're neighbor's stealing...well, you get the idea. Then, I find out Mayor Andy has been taking bribes. Fucking bribes. It's shit. It's all shit! I just want to remind people the world is fucked! I want them to stop pretending everything is normal and that we have to ask those three assholes if we wanna take a shit!" What had begun as a timid, barely audible whisper ended as a quiet shout of impotent rage.
"Mayor Andy." I said and lay back down. "Consider it done."
"So, it was work after all." Mandy said the next morning. Sunrise was still an hour away.
"I thought you were asleep." I replied, slipping back into my suit.
"You never were the smartest." She said. She'd pulled two outfits from her bag and was comparing them. One was a long red summer dress, the other denim short and a black top. She gave me a glance and cocked an eyebrow. I nodded my head and the shorts. Dresses were a liability, the fabric could get snagged and slow you down. She tossed the red dress aside and got dressed. "Do I get to do the honors this time?"
"You're the cook of the operation, remember?" I snorted.
"Oh come on, I can't cook for shit." She crossed her arms.
Outside the heat had dissipated and the air blew gently on my face. It was a cold, refreshing breeze. It almost seemed like a shame to have to kill someone on a day like today. Almost. I slipped inside the house the kid had pointed out as Andy's just as the sun began to rise. I wasn't surprised to find the oily fuck snoring loudly in his bed. I slipped my hands into my pockets and gave a loud, but polite, cough. The one time mayor's eyes flung open and he stared at me in confusion.
"Good morning, Mayor Andy." I said, removing my hands from my pockets. In my right hand I held a length of piano wire with a wooden handle at either end. "I don't suppose you've got any thread? My suit is in need of repair."
Mandy met me at the edge of town. Judging by the cane in her hand and the extra bulges of her pack, it seemed the kid had paid in full. Judging by Mandy's swagger as I approached, it seemed that wasn't all he'd done.
"How was your chat?" She asked, as we began heading for the next beacon of civilization.
"Short." I replied. "I did get some more thread though, so you can fix up my suit."
"What is it with you and the damned suit?"