War's End: Tales of the Collapse

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
tales of the collapse ebook cover March 2022.jpg

An Excerpt...

99 Problems

“This is the way the world ends.”

“I dunno, Cal. What do we need with them, anyway?” Donnie slid lower in the bucket seat and stared at the house. “And what’s for sure the old man has even got ‘em?”


The plan was simple. Most of them were. Cal wasn’t particularly bright, but he was sneaky and good at working out solutions to pesky problems. He excelled at finding weed when they were running low. And he could slip a six-pack out of the store right under the clerk’s hawk-eyed stare when what was left over from their meager paychecks wouldn’t cover it. Hell, given a chance, he could get them a hooker to share and pay her off in meth he’d made in the basement a few months back.


This, however, this was bigger than rolling some dude fresh off the farm with more homegrown than sense or stealing beer from a guy who didn’t own the place. This was stepping over the precipice into dark territory.


“Shit, Donnie, don’t wuss out on me now.” Cal fiddled with the settings on the radio. No one was talking. The music was on an endless loop, ever since the news out of Austin. As the power outages continued, the stations were dropping off one by one, vanishing from the atmosphere as if they had never truly existed.


    If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son

    I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one.


“Damn, this a fucking great song.” Cal turned up the volume, and the speakers gave short static bursts. Cal ignored this, slapping his hand on the steering wheel in time.


“Cal, c’mon man, let’s just go back home. I don’t got a good feeling about this.”


    Tip my hat to the sun in the west,
   Feel the beat right in my chest.

 

Cal turned and stared at him, his eyes turning mean like they did when he didn’t get his way. And everyone paid the price when Cal didn’t get his way. Donnie looked at the floor, but he could feel Cal’s eyes on him.


“Wake the fuck up, Donnie, the world has changed, and we gotta change with it. We need those guns and pretty soon we’re gonna need food and a hell of a lot more.”


    At the crossroads a second time,
   Make the devil change his mind.


“It’s just a power outage, Cal, they’ll fix it soon.” Donnie protested, knowing even as he said it that it wasn’t that simple. The power had been out for two days now, and there had been no crews on the ground, no one fixing whatever was broken.


And more than that, there were no cops, no government vehicles. Hell, not even the 24 Independence bus was running. And while some of the more tight-knit communities through the metro had come together and tried to fill the hole left after the desertion of the police, forming citizen watch groups, the rundown street that Cal and Donnie lived on was certainly not one of them.


    It’s a pound of flesh, but it’s really a ton
   99 problems and a bitch ain’t one.


“Look, if you’re gonna be a pussy about it, Donnie, you can just stay here. I mean, shit, I wouldn’t want you to have to break a nail or pee your little panties.” Cal sneered.


Donnie flushed. “I’m just saying maybe this isn’t the best place to do it.” He looked out of the windows. There wasn’t any trash, not like on their block, and the houses were quiet and dark.


“We go up north of Independence and we’ll get our asses handed to us,” Cal snapped. “They got something to protect.”


“What and this guy doesn’t? Look at his house!” The house, its outline dim in the gloom, was large and well-built. Cal hadn’t been inside it, though, only Donnie, when he was contracted to do some work there installing a tile floor in the spacious kitchen. Which was, of course, how this had all started. The man’s sign, in the window of his side door no less, had been the giveaway.

   
   If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you son,
   I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one


“I’ll bet he’s got plenty of booze and cash besides the guns.” Cal replied, ignoring Donnie’s last comment. “Look, we need those guns. Look around you Donnie, this shit isn’t getting better, and it’s gonna get a lot worse. The water and gas still work, but for how long? Hell, Price Chopper was cleaned out of everything except the goddamn produce section and half the workers there were running scared. We need to defend ourselves.”


“You got a gun already,” Donnie pointed to the revolver sitting between them. 


“Yeah, and it’s got four bullets in it and the gun shops were cleaned out afore the grocery store was!” Cal barked back at him, “We need this, Donnie, or we’re gonna be deader than doornails in a few weeks’ time without those guns.”


    99 problems,
   But a bitch ain’t one.

 

Donnie sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, “Fine. I’ll do it.”


“Yeah?” Cal grinned at him.


“Yeah.”


Cal reached over and punched his arm. “Cool, let’s do it. Just like we talked about, right?”


“Right.”


Cal had come up with the plan after he had driven by the area, nice and slow, during the day. No one had been out even then. Folks were staying inside now. Not like they had been in the first few days, when the garbage trucks were still picking up the trash each week and the bus was still running. Now, with the lights off and fall quickly approaching, there were plenty of rumors, but no real, hard facts. Still, folks stayed inside, checking their smartphones that were slowly running out of juice and debating whether to run a generator which would give them a connection to the world but draw all the wrong attention in the process.


Yesterday had brought news of a nuke in Austin. Shortly after that, all but a handful of radio stations had gone silent. The tv stations were all off the air and there wasn’t just a general sense of unease anymore, now it was more one of terror. 


They were on their own.


    Like broken glass under my feet
   I could lose my mind in this heat


The sound of their footsteps crunching over gravel was far too loud. Cal hissed at Donnie, “Remember to stick to the plan.” Then he disappeared into the shadows.


They had gone over it back at their cheap rental house off of St. John. Cal had said, “I’ll take the way around back and set myself up around the corner of that back door. You go on up to Old Man Nichol’s door and get him to come out.” 


That had been Cal’s plan, and Donnie had gone along with it. As he approached the door, he couldn’t help wondering exactly how he was going to get the guy to come outside where Cal could get the drop on him.


He knocked on the door. 


    Looking for the prize, but I don’t want blood
   I order one drink, then I drink the flood


One minute stretched into another and he knocked again. “Hey, Mr. Nichols, you there?”
 

“Who’s there?” Donnie heard Nichols’ voice on the other side of the door.


“Uh, it’s uh me, Donnie. I worked on your kitchen floor this past spring and you said to come by if I, uh, if I ever needed more work.” As the words left his mouth, he realized how stupid it all was. This guy wasn’t going to let him in. Why would he? 


Rather improbably, he began to hear the locks turning, chains rattling seconds before the door opened. The older man stared at him. “Donnie? You do realize it’s almost midnight, right? You okay?”


And now, staring at Nichols again, Donnie understood why Cal had been so hot to take this guy down. Especially after Nichols had given Donnie a ride home all those months ago. He hadn’t really thought about it at the time, but now, staring at the man again, he could see what Cal had been hinting at.


The smile on Nichols’ face was more than friendly, a lot more. So was the hand he had placed on Donnie’s arm, the sensual slide down it, like a woman would do if she was looking to get some.
Donnie suddenly remembered Cal questioning him about Nichols.


“Any signs of a woman ‘round there?” He had asked. And there hadn’t been. Donnie had just figured that Cal wanted to make sure there were no woman or kids to get hurt. 


“He’s all artsy fartsy and shit,” Donnie had told Cal, “Like the carved Roman statues and naked guys and all that.” And Cal had rolled his eyes, shook his head and laughed.


    Well, you can come inside, but your friends can’t come
   99 problems and a bitch ain’t one


Before Donnie could say anything to Mr. Nichols, Cal stepped forward, the weapon in motion, hammer back, the pistol pressed against Nichols’ forehead.


“What the hell!” Nichols squawked in surprise as Cal shouldered past Donnie, backing the man up until he slammed against a cabinet on the opposite end of the small enclosed porch.


“Shut your mouth,” Cal said, pressing the gun hard against Nichols’ forehead. He tipped his head at Donnie, “Donnie, get your ass inside and shut the door.”


Donnie did as Cal instructed, hands shaking as he twisted one of the deadbolts into place. Rolling some kid for weed and a handful of cash was one thing, but this was far different. They were in this man’s house. A house is a man’s castle.


“Where are the guns, old man?”


“What guns?” Nichols gasped as Cal jabbed harder with the revolver.


“Cal, wait, just let me talk to him.”


“Nah, Donnie, I got this.” He sneered at the older man, “Fuckin’ freak. You hot for Donnie here? Stop looking at him, you look at me. I’m the one with the gun to your head. Now you tell me, where are the guns?”


“I don’t know what you…” His words were interrupted by Cal punching him hard in the gut, knocking the air out of him.


“Fine, we’ll play it your way, old man. I bet that shit is upstairs, right?”


And then Cal made a mistake. He looked away. It was just a second, and that was all it took for the man to shove him hard, and then run from the room.


“Shit, he’s getting away!” Cal shouted, no longer worried about making too much noise as he stumbled, struggled to regain his balance, and then pivoted and ran after Nichols.


Donnie stood there, unsure of what to do, the light from the oil lamp that Nichols had set by the door flickering. Cal turned, slowing for a short second before he disappeared from sight, “Come on Donnie, move your ass, we got to catch up to him!”


Rooms, doorways, curtains, and old furniture—it all passed with a blur—the darkness of the house far more intense than the dark of the night outside. Here there were no stars, no moon, only Donnie, Cal and Nichols, playing a nasty game of keep away. And they were running out of rooms.


It was Cal who found it first. The door ajar betrayed the light flickering within. “Holy shit, Donnie, he’s got a goddamn arsenal in this room.” 


It was the last thing he said, past gurgling. The bullet caught him in the throat and he collapsed like a sack of potatoes on the immaculate wood floor. 


Nichols stepped out of the shadows and pointed his gun at Donnie, “I liked you, kid. And I never would have hurt you. But this, you have brought this to my door. And what am I to do?”
Donnie put his hands up. “Mr. Nichols, I’m sorry. I should have never told Cal about you. It was wrong and I…”


“It’s best you don’t talk right now, Donnie, I’m liable to shoot where you stand and I already have this friend of yours blood fixing to stain my wood floors.”


Cal gurgled and bubbled, the blood flowing freely from his throat. His gun had fallen from his grasp when he was shot, and Nichols had his foot firmly over it, ignoring Cal’s efforts to claw his way toward it.


Nichols shook his head and clucked, “What to do, what to do?”


Cal had almost reached the gun and Donnie watched him with horrified fascination as Cal reached not with his right hand to grab the gun, but with his left, which held his Muela. He raked it down the back of Nichols’ leg and the older man screamed, and Nichols’ leg buckled, blood spraying. He fell to the floor, the gun booming in his hand as he collapsed. 


    If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son
   I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one


Donnie felt a searing pain in his chest and struggled to understand why. Nichols was on the ground, Cal’s knife cleaving gouges in his flesh, gurgling sounds from both of them as Cal put the last of his energy into murdering the man whose house they had invaded. 


Donnie looked down, confused, at the bloom of red, that spread slowly from a hole in his chest. His eyes glazed, his vision blurred, and he felt cold.


So cold.


Falling to the ground felt as if it were happening to someone else. More that gravity changed, morphed, and broke the laws of physics. The floor came up and greeted him in a rush. He could hear the tchotchkes clattering and breaking as they tumbled off of the side table, victims of his bulk collapsing onto the fancy spinets and arches of a Victorian era.


The floor was cold, hard, unyielding.


    I got 99.


The blood pooling on his chest was filling his lungs, and he gasped, trying desperately to suck in air and finding only blood. There wasn’t pain so much as what felt like a heavy rock pressing on his chest. No matter how much he tried to suck a breath in, there was simply not enough air.


    99.


The darkness, which had been nibbling at the edges of his vision, now was rushing in. From far away he could the pounding and yelling. A splintering of wood from the door being broken down. Voices. The floor shook imperceptibly as others entered the large, rambling house.


    99.


“What the hell happened here?”


    99.


“Oh man, they got Nichols! Shit!”


    99 problems.


Another voice, “Are they all dead?”


A foot nudged Donnie, and he tried to speak. He wanted to tell them he hadn’t wanted to do it, that it hadn’t been his idea, but the words were just bubbles drowned in blood.


    But a bitch ain’t one.


“This one’s still kicking, but not for long.”


    99.


Donnie couldn’t see anything now. Instead, he felt lighter than his body, his soul slipping from the flesh and bone that lay dying on the floor.


“A hidden door? Holy shit, Nichols was hiding the mother lode in guns! I can’t believe it. He kept telling us that sign was just bullshit. We could have handed it to those fuckers who came barreling through last week with the AKs. Could’ve handed them their asses. That stingy old piece of shit!”

 

    99 problems and a bitch ain’t one.

 

And then Donnie was gone.

Read more from War's End: Tales of the Collapse by clicking one of the links below...