The Tin City Good Deal
by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
Moondog ranged down the freeway to the South, past the abandoned missile factory and the remains of Union bay, now a plain of cracked mud and pools of stagnant water breeding bad smells and pond vipers. He took the Pinegate exit for the city center and knocked over a three-legged jackrabbit as he came to the first dead stoplight. Moondog lifted his jerking prize and grinned. This was an omen. Good scavenging this trip to the big rock pile. With the skill of countless nights alone he made fire in a pocket of rubble, his back protected by the face of a fallen skyscraper. Deftly, he cleaned and set the rabbit on a spit and gazed out across the ruins, waiting for night. From somewhere in the west a pack of hunting dogs bayed faintly.
Tin City was suddenly revealed as the cloud-driven sky rose. It stood in solitary grandeur on its nine hundred foot tripod, sentinel above the miles of rubble and rusting debris of war. Moondog leaned back against concrete and studied the mass against the sky, wondering as always what it was like to be up there away from the grime and dog packs, to wear clean clothes and never go hungry. Heaven at nine hundred feet.
Wind soughed through the ruins spinning wisps of charred paper in its wake. Moondog finished the last of the rabbit and flipped a chunk of ropeweed into the dying fire. He caught a whisper of something out in the darkness and slid his hand over the grip of his bow.
"I wouldn't be moving too much right now, young fella."
Moondog looked carefully over his shoulder to see two men stand up from behind a mangled half-track. They were dressed in patched overalls of real cloth and both were white-haired and weatherbeaten, covering him with rifles.
A smile spread over Moondog's face. Deliberately he slid an arrow from his quiver, setting the nock to the bowstring."I might be young, but I wasn't born stupid," he chided them.
"Those are pretty nice keepsakes from the Old World you're toting but I heard the last rifle cartridge got fired off ten summers ago."
There was a sharp report and a shard of concrete blasted from the wall behind him. Moondog placed the bow on the ground and got up slowly. "You guys must be from that settlement up North I passed by last month. Yeah," he said with a tight grin. "listen, that hog I took looked real sick, wouldn't have lived two more days, I figured. Really did you all a favor-"
"Don't get all worked up, sonny," one of the visitors assured him, ejecting a spent shell and cradling the rifle. "Name's Stinson. We were just passing by and thought you looked a little lonely, might want some company."
"I do?" Moondog watched the empty shell tumble like a coin down the rock face and roll to a stop by his foot.
"Sure you do. As a matter of fact, we have a little camp over by Tin City and we know you're all asweat to spend the evening with us." He patted his rifle genially. "Ain't that right?"
The campfire sputtered in the night, sending dancing shadows among the group of old men crouched before it, painting red effulgence on the vast squat pylon of Tin City reaching up into the void. Moondog tossed aside the clean picked bone and studied his hosts. Not the usual gang of stragglers eking out a Spartan existence in the ruins of the Catastrophe. The rifles and tents were new, some even wore real shoes. They must have dug up one hell of a cache somewhere, he mused. Yet despite the meal of roast cat prepared for his benefit they had not eaten well in some time judging by their sharp-boned faces and bright eyes.
"How's the chow, pal?" Asked Stinson with a friendly grin. They were all friendly, a little too friendly Moondog decided.
"Real Trader Vic's, best in some time," he agreed, eyeing the bandoleers of cartridges draping their shoulders and the firelight glinting from gun barrels. "Nice bit of firepower your bunch has. Dig up an armory or something?"
Stinson nodded agreeably. "Ah, you know a few things about weapons, I'll bet. Matter of fact, we set up this here camp right over what's left of Army Joe's Surplus and Hunting Emporium. Least that's what the sign said."
Abruptly, the circle of old men were staring at Moondog, each face lit with an expectation of a scene planned in advance. He immediately caught the drift of what he was supposed to say next.
"Hmm. Looks like you might have a few goodies to trade off."
The circle beamed. Stinson reached behind him and produced a brass and leather case. With a flourish he snapped the catch and opened the lid. Blued steel and polished walnut reposing on a bed of red velvet. Unfired and untouched.
"This here's a Ruger Super Blackhawk, single action 44 magnum."
"Nice...real nice," Moondog breathed. "How about ammo?"
"All you can tote away."
Moondog coasted a finger down the satin barrel and contemplated the old man. "Since I figure you all know I'm a scavenger, down from the hills to pick up a few bits of metal or a bottle of something drinkable, my guess is the trade means you want something done. Am I getting warm?"
Stinson nodded cagily. "See that yonder pylon? It reaches up to Tin City, built by all the scientists and politicos to get away from all that radiation and germs after the Big One."
"You're telling me something I already know."
"You know they took up tons of lux rations with them? Enough for half a century?"
"Oh sure, and an army of security mechmen who could tear your head off and shove it up your ass."
"Not any more." Stinson tilted his head to the night sky. "What do you see?"
Moondog shielded his eyes from the firelight and squinted at the dark bulk painted against the last glow of dusk. "That's funny... don't see any podlights."
"You won't. The red flu swept through about a year ago and knocked everybody off."
Moondog turned to stare at Stinson. "You know how high that hunk of steel goes? How'd you get the goodies back down?"
"There's an old pneumatic winch on the south parapet. You just lower a few pallets to us and slide down after them."
"Sounds like you've done this before."
"We had a young stud named Jimmy used to stay with us. Parents died of the flesh rot after the war. He climbed up a couple weeks after we noticed the lights went off and scoped the place out. Used to climb up and lower goodies to us for a time before he took off last spring to find himself a woman. As you can see, the rest of us ain't spry enough for much climbing." Stinson scratched under his chin and raised an eyebrow. "Which is where you come in, sonny. We have a deal?"
Moondog dropped a coveting glance at the pistol relecting glints of firelight. No more ratty bow or trap. No more scrambling up a wall when the dog packs caught his scent. No more peering from the bushes at some settlement, eyeing their women and hoping one would stray into his clutches for a quick wrestle before a terrored flight with the settlement's males on his heels, screaming for blood. Now he could swagger in, gun blazing and take his leisurely pick.
"I'll need a hundred feet of polytrium rope, grappling hook, climbing harness and some good gloves," said Moondog. "Can you get them?"
Stinson's beard cracked into a smile. "Young fella, I told you we built this here camp over a buried surplus store. We can climb down the shaft and get you damn near anything."
The night wind rumpled the nylon walls of the tent, causing the gas lamp to flutter and dance. Moondog sat on his bedroll and spread out the equipment the oldsters had brought him. He hefted the coil of rope, already seeing it taut as a bowstring, suspending him from the upper works of Tin City over an unthinkable chasm of nothingness. Yet from the top it looked like a good deal. Easy meat. Climb up, lower the goodies and grab the gun. Moondog thoughtfully pulled the end of his mustache. His scavenger instincts whispered it was just a tad too easy, something a little off-key in the oldster glee club.
The tent flap parted. A girl slipped inside and stood before him. Her long hair was coal black and her face wore the hardness of one who had swallowed too much bitterness and hate.
Moondog dropped the coil of rope and appraised her. "Well now. Somehow I got the idea there was only old gummers in this camp. This is a social visit, I hope?"
"They're lying to you." Her mouth was set, full of defiant purpose.
"The oldsters. They want you to climb Tin City for food but they didn't tell you what it's like up there."
"So what is it like?"
"Promise to take me with you when you leave here."
Moondog grinned. "That's a bum deal. I'm a scavenger, a loner. We prowl the ruins scrounging for something to eat, maybe digging up a bottle or some goods to trade, sleeping in the debris like an animal."
The girl's eyes smoldered. "Here I'm worse than a slave. I cook for everybody, clean up for everybody and get taken by all." She shot hatred at the tent flap, balling her fists. "You don't know what it's like...the smell of old men, always...to feel their touch is like the pawing of a corpse." She knelt by his bedroll, the hardness in her face muting. "But you...you're young and there's only you. Do we have a deal?"
Moondog put his hand behind her neck and pulling her forward, kissed her. The wind rattled the tent sides in a sudden flurry. "Tell me about Tin City," he said, untying the top thongs of her buckskin dress.
"It's true what they said about the red flu, but for some reason most of the scientist's and politico's children lived, the youngest ones. They're still up there."
"How did they figure this out?"
"They talked Jimmy into climbing up to see why the lights went out. Just a bunch of little kids running around living on the food stores and rainwater tanks. No adults left to keep the generators and machines running. So they all stopped."
Moondog slid his hands over her breasts, feeling the nipples grow hard at his touch. "So what really happened to Jimmy?"
"He found the stores of food and lowered some of it to us. Then he was almost to the bottom of the pylon when they cut the winch line. The children did. He only lived for awhile -- and he was the last young man-" She closed her eyes, her breathing becoming shallow as she concentrated on his exploring hands. "Don't you see, that's how the oldsters live. They wait for young scavengers to wander into camp and they bribe them into climbing for food. And on the climb down the children cut the line."
Pulling off her dress, Moondog lowered her to the bedroll. He kissed her harder and she responded, clawing at his back.
"So why doesn't old Stinson just send somebody up there with a rifle and clean them out?" Moondog asked, half to himself. "I know it sounds a little ice-blooded, but if you're hungry enough-"
"Too many of them, little groups living in different parts of the city. You might think you've got them all then one pops out of hiding when you're halfway down." She writhed languidly as he let his weight press on her, his lips moving down her neck.
Moondog broke a slow kiss and stared absently at the gas lamp, an idea distracting him from the girl's body. Those were nasty brats up there, no question. Bright and pampered kids of what used to be society's upper crust, now left to run wild. So what was the best way to tame a pack of brats and turn them into instant cooperative little angels?
"This surplus store the oldsters have dug up," he mused, "Any chance of you sneaking me down to have a look at it?"
"Yes...yes," she moaned, pulling him closer.
"Great, let's take a stroll later on. For starters, I need to pick up a couple yards of red cloth, a bag of cotton balls and some black plastic sheeting."
The girl's eyes blinked open and focused on Moondog as if seeing him for the first time. "Uh, what did you say you needed?"
"Oh yeah, one more thing...can you sew?"
The grappler hook arched high overhead, struck a support girder and held, scraping off a flurry of rust flakes that were swept away by the wind. Moondog looped line around his climbing belt and studied the swirling clouds shrouding the bulk of Tin City and hoped they wouldn't lift until he arrived. He squinted between his feet at the oldster camp an unthinkable distance below, different colored tents looking festive and the ant cluster of oldsters watching him climb.
Damp clouds enveloped him as he pulled himself the final few yards onto an ancient catwalk. He caught his breath for a few moments and rolling up the grapple and line carefully lifted his head over the parapet.
Tin City stretched out into the distance, weathered domes and corroded buildings guarding polysaphalt streets choked with weeds. To his right was what used to be a park now sprawled with creepers and unpruned fruit trees. In the center of a field a group of children tossed a ball and ran, high voices carrying across emptiness. Their ages seemed to be between five and eight, their faces dirty but to the alert watcher at the parapet they were obviously well-fed.
Moondog grinned and unstrapped his pack. What was the old saying...like taking candy from a baby? Carefully he donned the red suit and cap, pulling on the boots and tying the cottonball beard over his face. He stuffed the remainder of his gear into the big bag and climbed over the railing.
"HO ho! Merry Christmas!" he called out, shouldering the bag and advancing on the children. All eyes turned to the newcomer and they crouched as if preparing for flight then froze, the ball bouncing away unheeded in the grass.
"Merry Christmas to one and all!" Moondog swayed before them and jovially slapped his padded belly. "I sure hope you've all been good boys and girls because Santa's here to make out his Christmas toy list."
There was an awed silence. They shot sidelong glances at each other and stared at the apparition in dawning wonder.
"It's him! It's Santa Clause!" one of them shrilled. The children broke into wild excitement, crowding about him, pulling at his belt and sleeves. "Me first, Santa! I've been good, Santa!"
"Ho ho ho! One at a time, children." Moondog passed around Yule hugs, patted tousled heads then spotted one boy standing apart from the group, eyeing him sullenly. "What's the matter, sonny?" he beamed, "Don't you want to be on Santa's toy list?"
"My name's Tommy," retorted the boy, sucking in a challenging pout. "How come I don't see your sleigh and reindeer?"
"Well Tommy, Rudolf had to stay home with the flu and the other reindeer were afraid to fly up here in the clouds without him. Had to park the sleigh down there and climb up to see you."
"That's dumb. Whoever heard of a reindeer with the flu?"
Moondog wagged a reproving finger before his nose. "Now Tommy, you won't be getting any presents Christmas morning if you piss Santa off. Is that what you want?"
Tommy dug a toe into the grass and gazed down.
"That's a good little boy. Now, shall we get start on that list?"
The children grabbed Moondog by the arms and pulled him toward the nearest building. "Follow us, Santa!' they squealed together, romping along the street, past the rusted hulk of a parked airocopter. "Can we get our stockings ready? Let's cut down one of these trees in the park and decorate it!"
The place they called home was an old warehouse and it was evident to Santa it had been a long time since anyone had told them to clean up their room. The floor was strewn with tangled bedding, broken playthings and what immediately caught his eye, discarded cartons and wrappers from foodstuffs. He blinked, taking in his new surroundings.
"Sit here, Santa!" Two little girls dragged a chair into the room. Exuding bonhomie Moondog took a seat, flourishing a notebook and pencil. The children clustered before him, growing suddenly quiet with anticipation. "Okay, who's first--"
"Me, Santa!" A girl vaulted into his lap, piledriving a knee into his groin making herself comfortable. "I'm Susan and I wanna new doll, a videohologram, a pink jumpsuit and lots and lots of candy."
Moondog grinned tightly and sucked air past the cottonball beard at his throbbing genitals. Being Santa had some unexpected occupational hazards.
"HO ho. And has Susan been a good girl all year?"
"I've been real good, Santa. We've all been good since our mommies and daddies went away, 'cept Tommy." She pointed a grubby finger at a figure perched on a broken databank, morosely slicing the arms and legs from an old doll with a pair of metal shears.
"Yeah, we've all been good 'cept Tommy," agreed another boy. "Tommy likes to play bad tricks."
"Hmm. And what kind of bad tricks does Tommy play?"
Susan shook her head gravely. "Tommy cuts the line of the bad men when they climb up to steal food and we have to hide."
"Well, Santa likes all good boys and girls, especially when they don't cut lines and make people take nasty long falls, even when they're bad men..." Moondog's eyes ranged the length of the warehouse and settled on a wall of plastic crates stacked to the ceiling.
"Concentrated beef stew, freeze-dried carrots, raisin cookies, ham jerky..." he muttered, reading the neat dayglow stencils.
"Santa, Santa! I'm next!" A boy had replaced Susan on his bruised gonads.
"I'm Robert and I wanna raygun and a pirate sword that squirts real blood, lotsa candy and is it Christmas pretty soon, Santa?"
"Yeah, when is Christmas, Santa? Is it tomorrow? Do we get our presents tomorrow?" the group began to clamor.
Forcing himself from a salivating inventory of the mountain of rations Moondog readjusted his red cap with the cottonball tassel and gazed down at his audience.
"Yes, boys and girls, tomorrow morning is indeed Christmas and back at the North Pole Santa's elves are busily wrapping all the toys. But Santa's elves have a problem. There's not much food at the workshop so the elves are hungry. Mighty hungry..."
"Give the winch a few more turns, Billy! That's right, Kevin, keep lowering." The load of rations scraped the leg of the pylon and came to rest on the ground. Moondog leaned over the parapet and watched the antlike specks of the oldsters swarm over their prize. "Okay kids, wind up the line."
"Are these your elves, Santa?" asked Billy. "Yeah, you could say that." Moondog smirked comfortably, slipping the harness with its bulky pack over his Santa suit. "Now don't forget to have your stockings hung and ready because deal old Santa will be back soon with his bag of toys." He clipped the line to his belt and swung out over the railing. "Merry Christmas to one and all! Ho ho!"
"Merry Christmas! 'Bye, Santa!" The children crowded the railing and watched the red and white figure dangle in the abyss, growing smaller before their eyes.
"He's not Santa Claus."
All heads turned to see Tommy standing behind them, pugnaciously slapping a rolled tube against his leg.
"He is too!" Susan balled a tiny fist and held it up. "I'm gonna hit you if you say bad things about Santa."
"He's not Santa!"
"He is too!"
"Oh yeah, smarty? Look what I found hanging in the old records building." He knelt and spread the sheet of paper over the ground. The others gathered around, peering over his shoulder.
"It's and old calendar," said Tommy, smoothing out the creases and tracing the words with a blunt finger. "Dee-cem-ber. That's the month Christmas is. See the picture?"
Before them was a rustic snow scene, carolers singing by a frozen pond, frostings of snow on trees and roofs where red brick chimneys spiraled woodsmoke.
"'Member the Christmas before the grownups all got sick and went away? How cold it was with that white stuff coming down from the sky?" Tommy peered up at his audience. "Who remembers, hah?"
Susan looked about her at the weathered domes and weed-choked streets. "I don't see any snow," she declared. "But I 'member there was snow the last Christmas."
"No ice neither," Robert added, kicking a tuft of grass growing from the walkway grid.
"But that was Santa Claus. He dressed just like him, didn't he?" Looks of doubt were exchanged between grubby faces.
"Yeah, he looked like Santa all right, but I don't see no ice or snow," said Tommy triumphantly. "Which means no December and no Santa Claus." He pulled the oversized shears from the back pocket of his jumpsuit and advanced on the parapet.
A hundred feet down Moondog eased the line through his harness and glanced up at Tin City. Six black dots were at the railing, silhouetted against the clouds. He waved gaily at them.
"Merry Christmas to all, children!" he cried. "Ho ho-"
The line parted.
Flames from the campfire sent bright tongues into the night, painting the faces of the squatting oldsters.
"This here's a Smith and Wesson 38 special, mint condition. Never been fired, sonny," said Stinson, smiling at the open greed on the face of his guest. "A real beauty, ain't it?"
"Yeah..." Crowbar fondled the walnut grips, savoring the black satin weight. "And all the ammo I can carry, huh?"
"All the ammo you can tote. A little climb up yonder pylon's gotta be nothing to a tough young scavenger like you-"
In the cluster of tents beyond the firelight a girl watched the circle about the fire. With shrewd calculation she appraised the veined meaty arms hanging from Crowbar's cowhide vest stretched tight across a wide back.
She let the tent flap drop and gathered an armful of dirty clothes, dropping them in a tub bubbling over a crude stove.
She looked up to where a mirror hung from a string over the tub and began to comb her hair. Lazily she untied the first row of thongs on her dress so her breasts showed and pulled the belt tight about her hips.
The insect scree of a zipper keened from the rear of the tent. A man moved from the flickering lamp shadows clutching a bundle of nylon fabric, his red and white suit shredded, his face mapped with scratches. The girl turned and studied the newcomer. "You're late," she said. "What happened?"
"Crummy surplus parachute had a couple of risers knotted. Got hung up in an old comm tower a half mile from here." Moondog dabbed at a cut under his left eye and grinned. "Caught you eyeballing the new meat that wandered into Stinson's little web. Sure you don't want to hang around and see if he offers you a better deal?"
The girl nodded as if digesting the question, then the sharpness of her face softened. "No thanks. He's big, but you're smart and very lucky. I'll bet Stinson's wondering what became of you." She pulled a deerskin bag from under a cot and opened it, revealing piled boxes of shells and the case containing the 44 magnum. "Stinson went crazy trying to find this in his tent when that new scavenger walked in." She playfully looped the bag over his shoulder and pulled his face to hers.
"Merry Christmas, Santa."
© 2010 Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
Bio: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt has returned to writing after a twelve year hiatus (spent frivolously raising a family). His work has appeared in Starwind Magazine, Space and Time, and Hobson's Choice.
E-mail: Kurt Heinrich Hyatt
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.