Archive for February, 2019

THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Stilley, Stop Staring at My Tits

February 2, 2019 8 comments

Now that Earthfall 2 is mostly in the can–mostly!–I’m reorienting fires onto this…


As the train roared down the tracks, Diana Li looked over at Kenny. He had initially been excited when the train took off from Fort Indiantown Gap, chugging away as its diesel engines began moving the load along the rails. The soldiers on the flat cargo cars continued shooting at zombies as they drew closer to the long consist, and Kenny flinched at every report. But as the National Guard training facility and the thousands of zombies that had overrun it fell behind, the firing tapered off. Soon, the only noises that entered the passenger coach were those of a long train hurtling down steel rails. The sound and repetitive rhythm of the train’s progress apparently agreed with the slight boy. His eyelids grew heavy, and he slowly leaned into Diana and fell asleep. He snored gently every now and then, his breathing heavy and deep.

For her part, Diana relaxed bit by bit and sank against the seat cushions as the tension slowly drained out of her. The little Sig-Sauer rifle she’d taken possession of was still slung across her chest and she shifted it away from him. Even though the safety was on, Kenny was generally unpredictable, and it was just common sense to keep control of a loaded firearm while he was nearby. She was thrilled that the boy had drifted off to sleep. Even he had limits, though it had taken him going bat-shit crazy during the zombie attack on the barracks she and the rest of the civilians had been housed in to finally run his battery out.

It just means he’s not going to sleep later, she told herself. The guy’s going to be up all night.

Diana sighed at the thought. The little autistic boy had latched onto her something fierce, and she couldn’t go anywhere without him glomming onto her like some sort of symbiotic life form. She understood that she was the only person he’d known before his parents had been killed—not by zombies, but by lawless men who had used the rise of the zombie apocalypse to crawl out of whatever survivalist cave they lived in to perpetuate crimes against their fellow survivors—and that to him, there was great comfort in her presence. The kid didn’t care that she was a former stripper who’d balled men for money and drugs. All he knew was that she was a calming presence, and he couldn’t get along without her in sight.

That was, as the saying went, a total drag.

Reaching over him, she checked the status of Kenny’s diaper. Despite all of the activity of the past few hours, it was amazingly still dry. That was a switch. She’d almost shit herself when she’d had to chase after the boy when he panicked and ran right into the midst of a zombie horde. The sudden onslaught of maternal instincts left her puzzled and a bit depressed. Did it really take the end of the world to get her to understand the value in other people, especially defenseless children? Was God or whomever/whatever higher power conducting this hell house orchestra they were in spending a lot of time and energy to teach her a lesson she really hadn’t needed to learn before?

Oh, fuck this.

She leaned back in the seat and tried to get some rest. It had been a killer of a day, and it wasn’t over yet. She gently rocked from side to side as the train rolled down the rails, surrounded by the murmurs of dozens of other people in the cramped coach car. She heard the idiot soldier Stilley talking at the far end of the car. Even in a moving train, the guy’s voice carried.

Try as she might, sleep eluded her.

She opened her eyes and looked around the coach. Bill Everson, the old Marine who had taught them to shoot, sat across the aisle from her, his eyes directed toward the scenery out the window. His M4 rifle leaned against the coach’s sidewall, in easy reach if he needed it. Sitting next to him was another man, a younger fellow Diana hadn’t met before. He had longer blond hair that reached his shoulders and a scruffy pale beard that hadn’t really filled in yet. Wearing jeans and what looked to be a vintage Star Wars T-shirt, Diana could tell he clearly wasn’t a member of the military set. Pounding away at the laptop on his lap, the man’s brow was furrowed in either consternation or concentration. She moved her head, trying to catch a glimpse of what he was working on. A game? She couldn’t tell, there was a privacy screen over the laptop’s display.

“You need something?” the man asked sharply, without looking up from the laptop.

“Just wondering what you’re doing. Hopefully playing Left 4 Dead so you can get some experience fighting zombies.”

“Coding,” the man said.

“Coding? Coding what?”

The man sighed. “I’m writing code for a radar system. I’m trying to change it from tracking aircraft to softer targets.”

“Really,” Diana said, losing interest in the conversation almost immediately.

Everson stirred, pushing his glasses back on his narrow nose. “Jacob’s working to try and reset the C-RAM so it can engage the zombies,” he said. “If we can get that system operational, we can kill hundreds of them in one sweep.”

“Ah, sea ram?”

Everson pointed toward the front of the coach, and Diana guessed he was indicating the freight cars ahead. “You see that big gun on one of the cargo cars? The one that looks like a giant R2D2 with a hard-on?”

Diana snorted at the description. She knew exactly what he was talking about. “Yeah, I saw it. What about it?”

“It’s an anti-aircraft weapon,” the man with the laptop, Jacob, said. “I’m trying to recode the radar array so it can lock on and engage ground targets, like a mob of reekers.”

“We’ve got, like, a thousand soldiers who can do that,” Diana said.

Everson chuckled. “The C-RAM spits out twenty millimeter rounds that’ll tear right through a dozen of those things and not leave much left,” the old man said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a head shot or not—precision won’t be the name of the game. That gun can take out a couple hundred reekers in one sweep in about three seconds.”

“Sounds impressive,” Diana said.

Everson nodded. “And if Jacob here can get it to work, it will be. It’s a fine piece of machinery. We’ll be able to keep at least two avenues of attack clear, so long as we can keep feeding the gizmo ammunition.”

“Sounds like R2D2 out there isn’t the only thing with a woody for weaponry.”

Everson snorted. “At my age, I pop wood over almost everything.”

“Guys, this conversation’s pretty gross,” Jacob the coder said.

“I prefer the term ‘earthy’,” Diana said.

Jacob shook his head. “And I wish I still had my Bose headphones.”

“Life in the zombie apocalypse is a tough one, guy,” Diana said. “Now might be a good time to man up a bit.”

Jacob looked up at her, an expression of consternation embedded on his face. Diana laughed inwardly. Okay, this guy takes things women say a bit too seriously.

“Do you have something else to do?” he asked, a whiny-bitch kind of snarl in his voice.

“You don’t want to get this one’s back up, Jacob,” Everson said mildly. “She really will punch you right in the face, and even though she’s got tiny lunch-grabbers, I’ll bet it’ll still smart.”

Diana nodded toward Everson. “Yeah, the old man speaks the truth.”

“Leave me alone,” Jacob said, turning back to his laptop. “I’m busy.”

Everson looked over his shoulder at Kenny, who was still sleeping soundly in the seat. “I see the young one’s checked out for the moment,” he said. “Poor kid—going through this hell has got to be especially tough on him.”

“Thank God it’s been so easy on the rest of us,” Diana replied.

Everson looked back at her. “Tell you what. Let me sit with the boy for a while. You go do something else for a bit. Playing mother hen isn’t exactly your gig.”

Diana was perplexed to find she actually took offense at the old Marine’s words. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Everson looked at her for a long moment, his eyes unblinking behind his glasses. For a second, Diana thought the old man was going to tear her a new one. Instead, when he spoke, his voice was surprisingly mild.

“It means take a break,” he said. “I’ve got Kenny for the moment. If something comes up that I can’t handle, I’ll be sure to let you know.” He motioned to the front of the car. “Go hit the head. Or hang out and shoot the shit with your lightfighter pals. They’re all fifth wheels right now, until someone can give them a mission.”

Diana sniffed. It was odd; only a couple of days ago, she would have been thrilled to hand off Kenny’s care to someone, anyone, even an old former Marine who looked like he should be starring in one of those Discovery Channel shows about rebuilding vintage motorcycles. A few days ago, she didn’t want the responsibility, felt it had been foisted onto her because she was a woman and the kid had a soft spot for her. She realized she’d undergone a sea change when the kid had run right out into a group of hungry zombies, and she’d followed him in.

“He’ll be fine,” Everson said, as if reading her thoughts.

“Yeah. Okay. Something goes down, let me know. I’ll be up front, I guess.”

Everson nodded and stood up, crouching beneath the luggage rack over his head. “Coming out, Jacob. Watch your laptop.”

Jacob shifted in his seat, easing his legs out into the aisle as Everson climbed over. His eyes never left the computer’s screen, and Diana figured it was because he was engrossed in his work. Or she had pissed him off so much that he didn’t want to look up and meet her gaze. Which was actually fine by her. Despite whatever had changed between her and Kenny, she didn’t have time for men who couldn’t do something for her, like offer her lots of money. Or in the current circumstances, lots of protection.

Like Phil, she thought. She smiled to herself about that, mentally referring to him by his first name instead of Hastings or General, as she’d called him in her more usual derogatory way. Damn girl, you are going soft.

“Okay, get gone while you can,” Everson said, stepping into the aisle. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to want to see you when he wakes up, so do whatever you want to do until then.”

“Thanks, Mr. Everson,” Diana said.

Everson scowled. “You can call me Bill. Or just Everson. I may be old, but honorifics were never my thing.”

“Okay, old man. That better?”

Everson snorted. “Much. That I can definitely deal with.”

Diana nodded and stepped away from him, heading toward the front of the car. She swayed as the train bumped its way down the tracks, gently undulating from side to side. If the coach’s occupants were dirty, bruised, and generally looking terrified, the scene could have been one of a suburban commute, or a cross-country Amtrak ride. The thought reminded her that such a thing had been on her bucket list—taking a train ride cross country in a sleeper car on the Southwest Chief, like John Belushi and Blair Brown had done in that old movie Continental Divide. Maybe this trip would have to serve, because it didn’t look like things were about to improve.

The coach’s rest room was up front, and it was currently unoccupied. Diana took the opportunity to use the facilities and freshened up as much as she could with the weak stream of tepid water that poured into the stainless steel sink. So far, the room wasn’t a total mess, but that would happen soon enough. Too many people, and not enough places to take on new water and empty the shit tank.

Outside, she saw Stilley standing near the vestibule. He was talking to the people sitting in the club seats there, so she wandered over to check it out. Stilley grinned at her like the lecherous buffoon he was, his uniform still filthy from fighting the dead.

“Well hey there, ma’am,” he said in his booming voice. If he was even attempting to be surreptitious when looking at her chest, he failed miserably. “How’re you doing?”

“Dial it down a bit, Stilley,” Diana said. “And for the love of God, stop staring at my tits. You look at your mother like that?”

“Oh, no ma’am!” Stilley said, appropriately chagrined by the question.

“So why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well, you’re not my—” Even Stilley was smart enough to realize this wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have, so he stopped in midsentence. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Just as quickly though, he opened it again. “Hey, have you met Trevor?”


“He means me,” said one of the people sitting in the club seats. Diana looked over and saw another soldier sitting on the rearward-facing bench. The seat opposite his was empty, and his right leg rested in it. Diana noticed the air cast around his lower leg. He was a pretty good-looking guy, in his late twenties maybe. His uniform had different patches on it than Stilley’s, but that didn’t mean anything to her.

“You a celebrity or something, Trevor?” she asked, wondering why he was getting some VIP treatment. The coach was supposed to be for civilians; aside from the 10th Mountain guys, most of the troops were kicking it on flatbed rail cars.

“He’s with the Cavalry,” Stilley said, as if that was supposed to mean something.

“That so? You got a horse around here I don’t know about?” Diana asked the soldier with the bum leg. “If you do, keep an eye on it. Stilley might take a swing at it.”

“Yeah, somehow I can see that happening,” the man said, looking up at Stilley. He shook his head slightly and looked back at Diana. “No horse. I’m Trevor Martin. Just another dogface.”

“You a general or something, Trevor? Because I thought this car was for civilians only?”

Martin pointed at his leg. “Got special dispensation because of this. Compound fracture. Happened during the fight at the Gap. Wasn’t able to deploy with the rest of my Cav troop, so I got left behind with the rest of the Guard and these lightfighter scum.” He jerked his thumb at Stilley. “I guess I should consider that a win, but once this guy showed up I kind of wish I’d been killed.”

Stilley frowned. “Hey now, Sergeant, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said.

Martin winced when Stilley spoke. “Anyone ever tell you that you talk really, really loud? What are you, a cannon cocker or something?”

“Well no, I’m a light infantryman,” Stilley said. “You know that.”

“True. What I’m curious about is why your guys haven’t shot you.”

“They send him on ahead to call the dead,” Diana said. “Seems to work.”

Martin looked up at Stilley. “Yeah, stop doing that shit. All right?”

Stilley appeared indignant. “Man, I can’t believe I’m getting this. We were just having a nice, civil conversation earlier!”

“Well, you were certainly talking,” said a woman sitting next to Martin.

Stilley’s eyes almost goggled out of his head. “Damn,” was all he said.

Diana laughed. “Ignore him—he’s mostly harmless. Stilley, where are the rest of the guys?”

Stilley pointed to the closed door behind him that led to the vestibule between train coaches. “Standing security in there.”

“Okay. I’m going out. Try not to grope me.”

Stilley made a flustered noise and shook his head in apparent embarrassment. “Man, I’m getting no love here today!” Just the same, he stepped away from the door behind him. Diana pulled on the handle, sliding it into the wall recess. The vestibule was darker than the interior of the coach, but she still saw Guerra and Hartman standing off to either side, leaning against the bulkheads. They pushed off onto their feet when she stepped inside.

“Hey, dudes,” Diana said.

“Something wrong, ma’am?” Guerra said, looking at her with his dark eyes. He still wore full battle rattle, helmet, chest protector, ruck sack, rifle, and a plethora of spare magazines. So did Hartman, though the truth of the matter was he didn’t look nearly as impressive as Guerra.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Diana said. “I mean, aside from the fact that we’re running away from thousands and thousands of walking corpses that just overran an entire military installation. Other than that, things are damned peachy, bud.”

Guerra didn’t blink. “Okay. Do you need anything, ma’am?”

“Well, now that you mention it, a mani and pedi would just about hit the spot right now.”

Guerra looked over at Hartman, then back at Diana. “Not so sure we can accommodate that, ma’am.”

“What is it with you guys and ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ all the time? Do you guys work for me, or something?” Diana asked.

“It’s a polite form of address,” Guerra said, his voice stiff over the rumble of the train.

“I’m Diana,” she said. “You guys know that by now. Skip the”—the term Everson had just used sprang to her mind—“honorifics and that stuff. I’ve even been known to answer to ‘kid’, ‘sweetie’, and in rare instances where the other party is extremely good looking or fantastically wealthy, ‘bitch’.”

Guerra did blink at that one. “I think ma’am should be fine, if that’s all right.”

“How about Diana?”

“Ma’am—Diana—is there something you need from us?” Guerra asked.

She shook her head. “No. I think you guys have done more than enough for me lately.” She looked over at Hartman, who looked away from her and toward Guerra. Diana turned back to Guerra, who seemed extremely weirded out by her presence.

“Dude, what’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I’m just wondering what the angle is,” Guerra said.


“You aren’t very likeable, ma’am. You strike me as the kind of lady who only talks to people when she wants something, and that makes me wonder why the hell you’re out here hanging with us,” Guerra said.

Diana thought about that for a moment. “Ah… right. I think I owe you an apology, Guerra.”

Guerra frowned. “Apology?”

“Yeah. Back at Indiantown Gap, when you were asking me what I needed, and I needed sanitary napkins. I rubbed that one in your face a bit, and I know that must’ve been embarrassing.”

Hartman snorted. “Sanitary napkins, Hector?”

Guerra glared at him. “You always make more sense when you’re not talking, Hartman.”

Hartman shook his head, and looked out the small window in the door beside him. Guerra looked back at Diana.

“You didn’t embarrass me, ma’am. I just didn’t know why you were being so difficult when all I was trying to do was find out what you needed.”

“It’s called menstrual cramps, Hector. Even nice girls who spend all day knitting cream-colored doilies get bitchy when they’re OTR.”

“OT—? No, never mind, I get it,” Guerra said. “All right, well. Nothing to apologize for, ma’am. I’m good with it.”

“Yeah, well. Thanks for helping.” Diana looked at Hartman. “You too, guy. All you men stuck it out for me and the others. And you saved Kenny, too. You guys are fucking hard core.”

Guerra and Hartman exchanged glances again. Diana looked from one to the other, amused by their sudden inability to know what to do. Wow, I must’ve really been tough on them.

“Well, thanks for that, ma’am,” Guerra said.

“Diana. You guys can call me Diana. I don’t care what anyone else calls me, but you guys are tops in my book.” She turned back to Hartman. “I know he’s Hector, but who are you? I only know you as Hartman.”

“Hartman’s fine, ma’am.” The younger NCO looked a little stricken. “Um… Diana.”

“Come on, guy. Throw me a bone, here.”

“Um… AP. It’s just AP.”

“AP? What the fuck? Your first name is Associated Press?”

Guerra snorted loudly, and Diana looked back to see the solid-looking NCO fighting back a smile. “What’s so funny?”

“Go ahead and tell her, AP,” Guerra said.

Diana turned back to Hartman. “Well?”

Hartman sighed. “Apollo. My first name’s Apollo.”

Diana laughed. “No shit?”

Hartman nodded slowly. “Yeah. No shit.”

“Dude, you must’ve been put through hell with a name like that,” Diana said. “Is your middle name Creed, at least?”

“No such luck,” Hartman said.

“Well… good to know I’m here with the Greek god of war,” Diana said.

“Yeah, that’s him to a tee,” Guerra said. “Total god of war, that guy. At least up until he steps out of a Humvee, then he’s just a step above Stilley.”

“Speaking of Stilley,” Diana said.

“His name’s Craig,” Hartman offered.

“Awesome—I was thinking he was going to be Athena,” Diana said, and both men laughed at that. “Seriously, though,” she continued, looking back at Guerra. “The guy’s a total perv. He isn’t able to even pretend he’s not looking at my tits. I mean, I know they’re great and all, but there are kids around.”

Guerra cleared his throat, suddenly staring at the wall. “Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to him about that. I apologize if he’s making you uncomfortable.”

“Uncomfortable? Guy, being lusted after by the village idiot isn’t something that makes me uncomfortable, it’s just that in the past most of them have been drunk or high. That guy’s just rock-solid stupid.”

Both men laughed again. “Yeah, I guess you called that right,” Guerra said.

The door to the forward coach opened, and Ballantine pushed his bulk through the narrow doorway. The big NCO’s helmet came perilously close to scraping across the overhead when he straightened up. He stopped short when he saw Diana.

“What’s the problem?” he said, more the Guerra and Hartman than her.

“Do I have to do this again?” Diana asked, looking at Guerra.

“Do what again?” Ballantine looked at the two soldiers, eyes narrowed.

Guerra waved him down. “Don’t get bent, Carl. She’s just talking with us. Nothing’s going sideways.”

Ballantine didn’t buy that. “Oh, really? And what were you guys talking about, exactly?”

“Aside from Stilley, Hector and AP and me were just getting around to introductions.” She extended her hand toward Ballantine. “Hi, Carl. I’m Diana. We’re in this together, so we might as well be pals.”

Ballantine looked at her hand, clearly caught off guard. “What?”

“You know how to shake hands, right?” When Ballantine didn’t move, she raised her hand and showed him her palm. “Look, it’s been washed and everything. No joy buzzer or anything like that, I promise.”

Ballantine narrowed his eyes again, then gave her a quirky, I’m-too-busy-for-this smile. “Joy buzzer… there’s something I haven’t thought about in a million years.”

“Then shake, bro,” Diana said.

Ballantine sighed and shook her hand gently. “Okay. Done.” He released her hand then looked at Hartman. “Hartman, go forward and join Reader and Tharinger. With those two guys standing security unsupervised, this train’s going to be designated the knucklehead express.”

“Hooah,” Hartman said, pushing off the bulkhead he’d been leaning against. “Any chance we might be able to sit down sometime soon?”

“Yeah, when you take a shit or when you’re dead,” Ballantine said. “Go on, man.”

“I’m going.” With that, Hartman squared up his ruck sack, ensured his rifle was secure, and stepped through the door leading to the next coach. Ballantine turned to Guerra, then looked down at Diana.

“So everything’s cool?” he asked.

“I’m cool. You cool?” Diana replied.

“Totally,” Ballantine said.

Diana looked up at him for a long speculative moment. The big NCO had been kind of hinky ever since she’d met him, but he’d obviously been wrapped around the axle trying to get his family squared away. That was understandable; if their roles had been reversed, and if Diana had somehow been born with a more nurturing soul, she was certain she’d be the same way. Actually, maybe even worse. She kind of suspected she’d be a little more on the bat shit crazy side of the spectrum than Ballantine was if she had to worry about a family in the middle of all of this, so maybe the big guy was holding it together pretty well.

She remembered Kenny suddenly, and even though she had no doubt Everson would be able to stand watch over him, the boy wasn’t really his responsibility. She needed to get back.

“Hector, you cool?” she asked.

“Born that way, Diana,” Guerra said. “You need more lady supplies, I’m your man.”

Ballantine frowned. “What?”

“Just an in joke between us,” Diana said. “Don’t sweat it, big guy. All right, I can see you two have soldier shit to discuss, so I’ll leave you to it.” She pulled the Sig’s strap tight around her shoulder, ensuring the little short-barreled rifle was secure. “If you hear gunfire, it’s because Stilley forgot to be polite.”

Ballantine started to say something, but Guerra held up his hand. “It’s being handled,” he said.

“Attaboy,” Diana said, before returning to the coach.



“What the fuck was that about?” Ballantine asked.

“Yeah, I can see how it might’ve looked like some crazy shit was going down, but she was really cool, actually,” Guerra said. “She just wanted to get to know us a bit. Thanked us for putting ourselves on the line for her and the kid.”

“Oh.” Ballantine shrugged. “Okay.”

“Also wants us to call her Diana, not ma’am or anything like that.”

“Shit, she gonna enlist?”

“I think she’s just realized the whole bitch on wheels routine wasn’t working out for her, and she’s making the necessary attitudinal adjustments appropriate for the situation,” Guerra said. “Whatever it is, I’m good with it. I was thinking I might have to rip the bags out of her chest and beat her to death with them.”

Ballantine grunted. “What’s this about the loudmouth?”

“I have to yank his coattails a bit. He’s doing the leering bit.”

“What, at her? What the fuck does she expect, she’s a fucking stripper,” Ballantine said.

Guerra looked up at Ballantine and let out a long sigh. “Yeah, well. Not that it matters. You trying to tell me you never had a stripper girlfriend, Carl?”

Ballantine glared down at him. “No, Hector. I never did.”

“Huh. Okay. So what’s the op? Everything cool with the train?”

Ballantine nodded. “Yeah. So far, everything’s running like it should. Train’s strong, no problems. I watched the thing roll over like twenty dead, didn’t even feel a thing.”

“Okay. So where’s the gotcha?”

“Lots of unknowns out there. Switching problems. Rail problems. Other train problems. Shit we can’t control.”

“But for now, we’re good to go, right?” Guerra asked.

“Yeah.” Ballantine looked toward the rear coach. “Yeah, for now.”

“Carl… man, I got to talk to you about something.”

Ballantine looked down at him. “What’s the problem?”

“You, man. You’re the problem,” Guerra said.

Ballantine cocked his head to one side. “Don’t get you, Hector.”

Guerra cleared his throat. He thought Ballantine knew exactly what he was trying to get at, but wasn’t going to play ball and make it easy. Which meant Guerra had to nut up and tell one of the toughest soldiers he knew that he’d been acting like a fucking pussy.

“Your family’s safe, man. They got you right here, and the rest of us, too. No one’s going to let anything happen to them. But you seriously need to get your head back in the game.”

“Guerra, just what the fuck are you talking about?” Ballantine asked, and his voice was hard and brittle.

Guerra steeled himself. No turning back now. “Okay, I’ll lay it all out. You were just gonna stand there and watch the reekers tear apart that kid and the girl. You got as far as climbing out of the truck, but it wasn’t until Hastings went all Rambo and actually had to call you out that you engaged.”

Ballantine’s eyes grew wide, but his voice didn’t change. “Just what is it you’re trying to say, Guerra?”

“I’m saying that’s not what we want to see, Ballantine. The entire Tenth Mountain is gone, man. We’re it, we’re all that’s left. We want to see the remaining senior NCO get balls deep fighting the dead, no matter what. We’re fucking light infantry, man. It’s what we do, close and destroy. We don’t let little American kids die, or women either, even if they are just fucking strippers.”

“So you’re saying I’m a coward?” Ballantine took a step toward Guerra, getting right into his personal space. Most men would have taken a step back—Ballantine was a good six foot four and built to match. Guerra was five-ten on a good day, but he was quick and strong and in great shape. If Ballantine thought he could intimidate him that way, Guerra would at least give it back as good as could.

“I’m saying,” Guerra said, keeping a reasonable tone to his voice, “that we all know you’re worried shitless about what happens to your family. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to let you get away with allowing a little autistic kid to get killed, just because you’re suddenly averse to taking a risk.”

Ballantine snorted. “You got balls, dude. I’ll give you that.”

“Brass ones,” Guerra agreed.

Ballantine glared down at Guerra for a long moment, his eyes filling with brewing fury. Despite his unwillingness to show weakness in the confrontation, Guerra felt sweat slowly rolling down his back. If Ballantine was going to take it all the way, it was going to hurt both of them.

The anger receded in Ballantine’s eyes, and he stepped back after a moment. He continued to stare down at Guerra, but he slowly nodded.

“All right. I hear you, Hector. I’ll do my part. You don’t have to worry about me turning into a Nancy boy. I’m still in the fight.”

Guerra nodded back. “That’s all I’m asking for, man. Nothing more. We know you got your family to think about, because they’re right here in the shit with the rest of us. I know it’s gotta drive you crazy, but listen—my people are in California, and I have no idea what’s going on with them. So I have to stay operational, otherwise I’ll go stir. You might want to keep that in mind. You have your problems, but we have ours, too.”

“I’m with you, Hector. I’m with you.”

“Okay, man. Cool,” Guerra said. “Why don’t you check in with the fam. And send that jerk-off Stilley back here. He’s next on my hit parade.”

Ballantine smiled thinly. “You gonna bust him up?”

“Nah. Just have a talk with him.”

“Use small words.”

“Trust me. He’ll understand where I’m coming from.”