Joel descended the wrought-iron stairs into a shadow-filled bay where old machinery equipment sat rusting away in the salt-laden air. He found Tess waiting patiently for him beside a large metal door that blocked their exit.
He looked at the door of galvanized steel and grunted. The sheer weight of it did not appeal to him. He shoved the gun back behind his hip and took up a position by the pull-chain to the right of the door. Dwindling sunlight filtered in through the dirty windows above, offering just enough light to see. It took a lot of effort to raise the door, heavy as it was, pulling down hand over hand on the thick chain, grunting with each successive pull.
The bearings were rusted and the high-pitched screech of metal against metal pierced their ears and caused Tess to wince. When it was raised high enough, she bent down low and slipped through the opening. Joel pressed the steel-toe of his boot down on the foot catch and, surprisingly, it held. He slipped through the gap, following his partner.
The sudden glare of sunlight made him realize they were now out in the open and immediately he ducked low, moving up to Tess who was concealed behind a section of a demolished brick wall about three feet in height. A panoramic vista painted with brushstrokes of gray and orange, decay and rust, stretched out before them: the vast arena of the loading docks. From this position, Joel and Tess could take in the entire tableau; an area that once served as a busy shipping dock for cargo ships moving in and out of the Atlantic.
What they saw were canisters and freight containers stacked helter-skelter on the dock, a landscape dominated in the center by a large open warehouse more than three stories tall, comprised of green corrugated metal walls, white lettering. There were plenty of opens walls where the panels were missing. Inside the structure he could see thick iron beams, caked with rust, that formed the warehouse’s frame. High above, surrounding the top floor, were dingy broken windows under a slightly slanted and sagging roof.
The open containers strewn throughout the wharf formed an odd kind of Rube Goldberg maze, peppered with fork-lifts frozen in there tracks, and meandering throughout this man-made jungle were a dozen or so men; desperate souls trying to make sense of a desperate existence.
In short, Robert’s men.
Joel held little regard for the men patrolling the wharf. To him anyone who worked for Robert was no different than a stalker or a clicker, although significantly less dangerous and vastly more predictable. He understood the need to find a sense of purpose in a purposeless world, but these were no better than rats feasting off the garbage of human existence.
Garbage and purpose that Robert provided.
But as bad as he despised them, they still weren’t the lowest on Joel’s list of undesirables.
That spot was reserved for uniforms with the license to kill.
Tess pointed to a man in his late thirties with greasy rust-colored hair pulled back in a short ponytail, an abrasive goatee surrounding his thin colorless lips. Robert was a smuggler, the kind that would do anything if the price was right. But it was his utter lack of loyalty that made Joel bristle.
The man in the hooded gray sweater was no bigger than the rest, certainly not intimidating, but he did convey a sense of authority that appealed to the less intelligent. He had a yellowish complexion with jaundiced eyes and it was obvious from their interaction that the surrounding men held him in high regard.
The sight of Robert issuing commands caused Tess to shake her head in disbelief. She exhaled, settled back on her heels and then she looked at Joel with an expression of utter disgust.
“That cocky son of a bitch.”
Joel, not much for long-winded speeches, merely winked at Tess and nodded in Robert’s direction.
“Let’s go wrap this up.”
Tess nodded her reply and the two observers took one last look at what they were up against. At least a half-dozen men slowly patrolled the wharf, making their rounds. Those not blessed with side-arms carried large wooden sticks in their gloved hands.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Joel put his hands on the edge of the brick wall and vaulted over it, landing silently behind a bulk of crated iron pipes. Tess quickly joined him at his side. Two guards strolled nearby, engaged in a maundering conversation.
“Shipments have been dry for a long time,” said the one closest to Joel.
“Yeah, well,” the other said as he recounted the losses on extended fingers: “We lost our contacts in the north, lost our contacts in the south. Shit. I don’t know who’s left out there to sell us stuff. Guess this is why we’re taking shitty protection jobs.”
“Fucking Robert. This rat better be good for it.”
Tess and Joel looked at each other; Tess closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Even if he is, then what? I’m telling you, this zone is done for. We better think of an exit strategy.”
“You’re insane. Going outside the wall is suicide.”
“Plenty of other smugglers do it. What do you think’s gonna happen here once supplies run out?”
“I’d still take my chances here.”
Joel left the cover of the pipes and moved in. He pressed himself up against a large blue metal bin filled with tarps of various faded colors as he patiently awaited his opportunity.
“Nice and quiet, Texas,” whispered Tess from somewhere close behind him.
When the gap between the men lengthened, Joel advanced. He used the shiv he had found earlier to plunge into the trailing man’s neck. A gasp, a spasm, and then the body went limp. It was then onto the next.
Working methodically and staying in the shadows, Joel moved quickly from one stack of crates to the next, edging closer and closer to the rear of the complex.
He crept up to the guards with cobra-like efficiency and moved with a keen awareness and intensity of focus. He took out Robert’s men one by one, freeing them from the nightmare of their subhuman existence.
A wooden club fell from the hands of one of his victims and Joel picked it, feeling the weight of it in his hands. Ahead, another guard stood facing them. Joel hung back, crouched behind a wooden crate waiting for his opportunity. Patience was key, and when it came to killing, Joel bided his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
He took a moment to catch his breath and he became acutely aware of the sound of seagulls circling above him on the ocean breeze. He had passed through a long maze of freight containers and crates, of rusted machine parts and tattered tarps. The smell of salt water filled his senses, mixed with sweat and grease, and the unpleasant odor of smoldering refuse stifling the late-afternoon air.
The guard facing him apparently didn’t notice him, for he turned away, resuming his uninspired patrol.
Joel swung the club at the man’s head, hard, crushing the skull and snapping the wooden club in two. He let the remaining wooden stub fall from his hands.
At last Joel rounded a corner and saw the closed metal door at the end of the dock. To either side, steel shutters covered the windows. Above the door, a solitary light flickered dimly, powered by some unseen generator.
“That office,” Tess said in an excited hush as she pressed up beside him. “Robert must’ve run in there. Let’s go.”
Playing it safe, Joel picked up a brick and lobbed it at the door.
“What the fuck was that?” came a surprised response from around the corner of the crate beside him.
Joel peeked around the corner, saw the last remaining guard. With the man’s back turned toward him, he scampered up behind and locked his arms around the neck. In a matter of seconds, the guard was dead.
They were now positioned just outside Robert’s office.
Joel crept to the door, grabbed the handle and pushed it open. He could feel Tess’s presence close behind, tense, ready for the unexpected.
They entered what appeared to be an ante chamber to an interior office: a waiting room of some kind. He saw a sofa, a pair of wooden tables, a few chairs, and a wooden block of shelves sitting off in the corner. A few pictures hung askew on the wall. To his immediate left, another door.
Joel rose to his feet and calmly opened the door. Inside was a large office with desks and debris, a circular fan, blinds. Standing at the far end was Robert with a gun in his hands.
“Oh shit!” Joel shouted as he ducked for cover on the other side of the door just as the bullet ricocheted past him.
“Get back!” Robert shouted, breathing heavily and firing another round. “Get the fuck back!”
Tess came around him and ducked for cover on the opposite side. Both had their backs flattened against the wall.
“We just wanna talk Robert,” Tess said, her voice loud but reassuring.
“We ain’t got fuckin’ nothin’ to talk about!” came the panicked response.
“Put your gun down!” Tess ordered, trying to mask her anger.
As she poked her head around the corner of the open doorway, Robert fired again, the bullet sparking off the metal door jamb inches from her face. She drew back quickly and glanced at Joel. Together they shook their heads.
“Yeah?” Robert said, pulling the trigger but only hearing a click. “Go fuck yourself!”
With nothing left to do but flee, Robert did the only reasonable thing left: he threw the empty pistol at the doorway. As it went clunking past them, he took off in a mad sprint through the open doorway to his right.
“He’s running!” Tess yelled as she leaned in to take a closer look. With that, both she and Joel burst into the room.
“Robert!” Joel angrily warned, irritated at having to give chase.
“Screw you, Joel!” came another panicked response.
Tess motioned toward the empty hallway.
“Joel, this way!”
Seething with anger, Joel kicked the closed door open. It banged loudly and he went past it, following Robert through a narrow alleyway littered with debris.
His prey turned a corner, fleeing like a rat. He kicked over garbage pails as he fled and raced like a mad clown down another alley.
Joel continued to race after him, feeling his anger build.
To his left, Robert slipped through an entrance shielded with vertical vinyl blinds, a cold storage room used for produce.
“We almost got him!” shouted Tess behind him.
Another hallway, another quick turn to his right, with Joel following only the sound of fleeing footsteps...
He came to a window and vaulted through it without hesitation, and then, feeling a sense of relief, found himself in a dead end alley. There was Robert, pushing helplessly against a locked fenced gate, cursing his fate.
“Come on!” the ponytailed man cried, shoving himself against the object of his own bad luck.
Tess joined Joel on the other side of the window and then smiled at the beautiful scene presented before them.
“Hello, Robert,” she said, with a cheerful sense of satisfaction in her voice.
Robert rubbed his chin, his conniving mind obviously working overtime.
He turned and smiled, relying on his impish charm.
“Tess. Joel. No hard feelings, right?”
“None at all,” she said as she calmly bent down to pick up a heavy metal pipe that was lying at her feet.
Robert’s eyes shifted quickly as he weighed his options. Finally he nodded, admitting defeat. He said, “Alright…” and then he tried to push past them in a mad dash for survival.
But Tess was ready and poised to strike. She swung hard at his leg as he raced past her, like Ty Cobb knocking one out of the park. The blow sent Robert reeling to the ground. The jaundiced-eyed man cried out in agonizing pain.
“Ah… goddammit!” he screamed, holding his broken kneecap with both hands.
With Robert incapacitated, Tess let the pipe fall to the ground, her eyes darkening with rage. The bruises on her face from this morning were still raw, and it showed in the way her lips curled.
Joel hung back, watching the events unfold with amusement.
“We missed you,” Tess said with unnerving civility.
“Look,” Robert began as the tears filled his eyes. “Whatever it is you heard, it ain’t true, okay? I just want to say --”
“The guns,” Tess said, cutting him off, circling him. “You wanna tell us where the guns are?”
“Yeah, sure.” He struggled with the proper phrasing. “It’s complicated. Alright?”
“Hmm,” Tess said. She looked over at Joel who was watching patiently from his perch against the wall as if to ask her partner, What do you think?
Joel’s response was simple. He pushed himself off the wall and walked menacingly over to Robert’s prone body.
Robert’s eyes widened. He was lying on his side, hands on his wounded leg. “Look,” he pleaded as Joel’s dark shadow approached. “Alright? Just hear me out on this. I gotta --”
Before he could say another word, Joel let a heavy boot fly across Robert’s face, snapping the greasy head back.
That was for Tess.
“Fuck!” Robert cried out.
Joel bent over the man and grabbed his right arm, forcing Robert’s chest to the ground. Carefully he straightened the wrist, palm up, using his left knee to pin the arm to the ground just below the elbow.
Robert had to know what was coming next.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” he pleaded in anguish.
Tess calmly walked over to the man, bending low so she wouldn’t have to raise her voice.
“Quit your squrimin’,” she told him.
Everyone knew the rules of the game, knew the players and what each were capable of. Tess took a knee beside Robert, indicating she was willing to hear him out. Her voice was soft and clear.
“You were saying?”
With no other cards left to play, Robert made a last-ditch effort for freedom: he resorted to honesty.
“I sold them,” he said.
The words caught Tess by surprise.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” he said, rambling the words off in a frightened gush. “I owed someone.”
“You owed us,” she replied pointedly. “I’d say you bet on the wrong horse.”
Robert sighed and nodded at the painful truth.
“I just need more time,” he said. “Just gimme a week.”
“You know, I might’ve done that,” Tess said, “if you hadn’t tried to fucking kill me.”
“C’mon, it wasn’t like that--”
“Who has our guns?” she demanded as anger rose in her voice.
A brief silence ensued. Finally the man on the ground said, “I can’t.”
Tess lifted her chin and looked at Joel. It was time for a little persuasion.
Joel pressed the full weight of his body down on his knee and yanked sharply on Robert’s wrist.
There was a snap as the elbow broke.
Robert screamed out in pain. “Argh! Fuckin’...!” He rolled over on his side, his arm as limp as a rope.
Tess leaned in close to his ear, repeating the question again.
“Who has our guns?” she asked.
Through a painful grimace, Robert answered.
“It’s the Fireflies. I owed the Fireflies.” He said it with the relief that comes from getting a horrible truth off your chest.
“What?” Tess asked, incredulous.
“Look,” Robert continued through agonizing gasps. “They’re basically all dead. We can just,” he took a deep breath, “just go in there, finish ‘em off.” He nodded excitedly. “We get the guns. Whadya say?”
Tess looked at Joel, her face full of abysmal disappointment. She slowly rose to her feet with Joel rising alongside her.
“C’mon,” continued Robert, trying to fuel comradery. “Fuck those Fireflies. Let’s go get ‘em.”
Tess looked down at the man, an arm hanging at her side with a gun in its grip.
When Robert was finished, she looked at Joel and said:
“That is a stupid idea.”
And with that she raised the muzzle of the gun and fired two angry bullets into the ponytailed head as Joel watched impassively beside her.
Joel’s shoulders rose as he sucked in a deep breath.
“Well, now what?”
“We go get our merchandise back,” Tess replied simply, her voice tinged with frustration.
“I don’t know.” She was searching for the words. “We... explain it to them.”
They stared at each other a moment as the reality of their next move became clear.
“Look,” Tess said with a sense of finality. “Let’s go find a Firefly.”