CHAPTER TWO

 

 

 

The Afternoon's Delight's rowboat dropped them off at a dilapidated dock below the abandoned Cliff House.  Snake and Rain watched as the ship set sail and disappeared into the drizzle to round Point Lobos, heading for her next drop-off point somewhere on the overgrown shore of Lincoln Park.  They scrambled over rocks and down to sandy beach below the tall concrete wall skirting the highway.   Rain led the way to a dark opening among the tumbled boulders.  "There's a little cave in there," he said.  "It floods at high tide.  Too bad; otherwise we could sleep over here and start out in the morning."  Cautiously, he checked inside, while Snake watched the flat plain of open sand curving southward, then he called out, "O.K., Snake; it's clear."

Snake entered and found himself in a small open space, not much higher than his head, with a round opening like a porthole at the opposite end which let in enough light for them to see clearly.  They stopped to arm themselves and prepare for the next leg of their journey.  Snake checked and loaded the Magnums, settling his gunbelt into a familiar, reassuring weight around his hips.  He snapped the leg straps, then checked his boot knife, flipping open the safety strap for quick access.  Not enough; he needed an automatic.  He watched as Rain took his crossbow from its case and braced the bowstring.  The young man slid his throwers, small dart-like knives, three to a side, into their holders on upper sleeves of his olive-drab nylon jacket, checked the shurikens and wire garrote in his belt-holder, slid the pair of slender boot knives and the heavy commando blade at his waist into their sheaths.   Finally, he unpacked his crossbow bolts and strung them in their quiver at his hip.  Snake wondered how good Rain was at using all his pretty toys.  He expected he would find out soon enough.

"We have to go through the Park," Rain said.  Snake nodded.  To the north, between the Park and the Army garrison in the Presidio, were impassible, jumbled and fire-blackened ruins left by the 2010 quake.  To the south was the walled enclave of the Sunset, patrolled by private security and sheltered by air-scrubbers from the low-lying "insanity fog" off gas-filled ocean water that regularly drenched the homeless encampments along the beach and inland.  Despite the gas-crazies who infested it, the product of war, poverty, and the fog, Golden Gate Park was their best route into the City.  Rain and Snake settled their pack bags on their backs and moved out onto the paved strip that ran along the beach.  Snake noted that his leg was still sore, but stronger.  He settled into a steady pace, concentrating on the path ahead, which ran between low pastel buildings on the left and dunes topped with ice-plant and bunch-grass on his right.  Rain automatically fell into step behind, covering Snake and walking rearguard.       

Several blocks from their starting point, a tall shape like a giant saltshaker stood at the entrance of the Park.  As they came closer, Snake could see through the gray haze that it was a windmill.  For a nervous moment, he wondered if the fog was getting to him, and he stopped, gazing up at it, then glanced over at Rain as the young man came up to stand next to him.  "Windmill?" Snake asked.

"Windmill," Rain assured him.  

Snake relaxed.  A rare, antic grin spread across his face as he contemplated the incongruous sight, and his hand fell to the butt of his gun.  He glanced around.  Broken and forgotten, the windmill stood in an unkempt stretch of lawn, surrounded by weeds and graffiti-covered debris, with no sign of people anywhere in sight.  Snake unholstered one of his Magnums, raised it, sighted at the tower.  He stood for a long minute and finally squeezed the trigger.  The hammer clicked harmlessly on the safety, and Snake slowly reholstered the weapon.         

Rain stared at him and fingered his crossbow.  "What are you doing?"

"Tilting at windmills.  Been accused of it for years."

"What?"

"Never mind.  C'mon, Sancho.  We've got a park to cross."

Rain shrugged and took up the rear again.  Snake walked point, setting the pace to favor his bad leg and keep them from getting separated.  They followed the asphalt trail created by the old road, an open track between trees.  Crazies were usually too confused to plan an ambush from cover.  Snake was more afraid of a disorganized rush, and wanted space around him.  He could feel the adrenaline tingle, the heightened awareness danger always created in him, sharpening all his senses.  He heard occasional sounds in the distance, and caught a hint of wood-smoke, but if anyone was tracking them, there was no sign.  Golden Gate Park lay in ruins: wind- and quake-toppled trees rotted on tangled grass and brush; here and there were thickets of  dead, yellow exotics that could not survive on fog and neglect after the gardeners had abandoned them.  He saw no evidence of birds or wildlife.  The sun, heading toward noon, burned a brighter, round patch of glare in the overcast sky above.        

A loud crashing and crackling of brush brought them up short, alert, weapons at the ready.  Several yards in front of them, a shaggy brown head parted the tangle of vegetation at the roadside.  Heavy, wooly shoulders followed as slowly, with a certain massive dignity, a full-grown buffalo bull stepped out onto the asphalt.  A nearly-healed wound cut across the animal's side behind the hump.  The bull lowered his head and snorted at them, shaking his horns.  Snake raised his gun and sighted, wondering if even the  .357 had enough power to drop a buffalo.  

"Don't," Rain said.  "He just wants to be left alone."  

"It's... a buffalo..." Snake said, his voice low.

Rain moved up to stand beside Snake.  "Probably from the paddock.  They had a herd of bison here in the Park.  Just stand still and wait him out.  He'll move on."

No problem.  Snake's survival training had not covered half a ton of pissed off pot roast.

They waited and the beast finally wandered across the path and into the opposite tangle of vegetation.  As they continued on their way, Rain mused,  "Poor guy.  Looked like somebody's been trying to have him for dinner.  I hope he makes it.  I'll bet he's hungry; so much of the good grass dying off.  Damn crazies.  They'll probably get him eventually."   He paused, then added, " I wonder what's happening to the zoo animals.  I hope to hell they got out of all this.  Maybe the SPCA's on top of it.  Good people."   

Snake trudged onward in silence.  He suspected Rain would not appreciate his opinion of the SPCA and didn't want to waste energy to arguing about it.

Farther down the old road they heard the sound of motion and human voices drifting through the trees.  Snake dismissed thoughts of escaped tigers and held up a hand, but Rain had already stopped and brought up his crossbow.  They advanced cautiously around a curve.  To their left was a small lake; to their right a homeless encampment sprawled tents, tarps, blankets, shopping carts piled high with nameless flotsam, across trampled earth.  Here and there the hulk of a gutted automobile squatted among the debris.  Dark figures in shapeless layers of clothing, some of them small enough to be children, huddled on the ground or picked their way over and through piles of trash.   Dogs wandered everywhere; a few began barking as Rain and Snake came into sight.  It couldn't be because the watchdogs scented them, Snake thought ironically; the stench of human and animal waste, garbage, and unwashed humanity must paralyze the olfactory nerves of anything within fifty yards of the place.   

The inhabitants of the shanty-town watched them as the two men threaded their way through the obstacles on the pavement.  Most of them stared apathetically, their faces blanked by hunger or gas or some other, more private, misery.  Snake stepped around them with impatient unconcern, as if they were pieces of paper trash blown across his path.  Some shrank back at the sight of their weapons.  One large man rose from beside a burned-out auto chassis.  "Hey -- you with the patch! "   He pulled a kitchen knife from his belt and advanced on Snake.  "Gimme your money!"  Two or three others stood up, moving in their direction also.  

Wordlessly, Snake drew and fired in one swift motion.  The man with the knife went down and the rest backed off.   The crowd melted away on each side of Snake and Rain as the pair continued down the road to the edge of the encampment and out onto unobstructed asphalt.  Rain kept glancing back, watching their rear.  A slender shape detached from the group and padded after them.  "Snake.  One behind us."  Rain turned, raising the crossbow.

"Don't shoot!"

The girl came closer.  Snake turned and stood, alert, covering Rain.    

"I want to come with you.  Please take me with you."  Unfocused dark eyes dominated a pointed face with blade-like cheekbones above hollows, framed in long, matted hair.  A hand like a claw clutched a filthy quilt around her shoulders.  She was clearly starving.  "At least take me as far as Stanyan... I'm scared to go alone."

"Why?" Snake rasped.  He wanted any information on this hellish place he could gather.

"The trees!  They come down on you!  I hear them talking at night, planning to kill me....  You can fight them.  They're afraid of your guns."   She opened the quilt, exposing her skeletal body.  Her flesh was larval-white between streaks of dirt, the insides of her thighs to the knees chapped and wet.  She thrust one hand between her legs, the quilt slipping to the ground, then held out sticky fingers toward them, smiling in a parody of seduction.  "Look!  I am the Vessel of Perfect Love -- lie with me, and be purified.  Then the trees can't hurt you either...."

Snake's stomach turned over.  He fired and the ground exploded a foot in front of the girl.  Her eyes and her mouth opened wide.  "No!  You have to take me to Stanyan!"  

Snake fired again, sending fragments of dirt and gravel in the girl's direction, peppering her body like buckshot.  "Get out of here," he snarled.   She snatched up her quilt and fled back in the direction of the encampment.  Snake watched until he was sure there were no more from the encampment following them, then turned and went on down the path as Rain took up rearguard again.  "Fuckin' crazy bitch," he muttered, then turned a lopsided half-smile on Rain.  "If you want some, I can wait."

"God, no!" Rain said fervently.  Snake's grin widened.  After a minute, Rain broke in again with, "Wonder if there was anything to that bit about 'trees coming down on you'?  I've heard rumors there's a big group over by Stow Lake somewhere that jump people going through the Park.  It's just up ahead."  He shifted his crossbow into the ready position.  Snake turned his complete attention back to the tangle of trees and bushes encroaching on the path.  adrenaline sang in him.       

The words were hardly out of Rain's mouth when several figures exploded from the grove of trees ahead and charged at them, yelling.  Snake took an instant inventory of their weaponry as he reacted: no guns; mainly sticks and pipes, a few knives.  He heard Rain's bowstring snap behind his left ear, and the one in front of the pack fell in a gurgle of blood, a bolt through his throat.  Snake mowed a semicircular path and then began picking off the remainder.  The flash and roar of the Magnums drowned out the thwick of Rain's weapons.  Three of the attackers made it to hand-to-hand range.  A smash to the head leveled one, and a quick body-blow sent the other to the ground.  He made a last lunge at Snake before a well-placed kick and a final shot disposed of him permanently.  Snake turned to see Rain pulling his commando blade from the body of the third man.  Two more lay still with Rain's throwing knives in them.  Snake watched as the rest of the group scattered and fled, disappearing into the trees, then he lowered his guns.  They had a breathing space.    "You O.K.?" he asked.    

"Sure."   Rain cleaned the blade of his larger knife on his victim's tattered shirt and sheathed it, then began methodically collecting his lighter throwing knives and steel tipped arrows from the bodies of the dead.  He gave the bloodied metal a quick wipe down and replaced the weapons in their holders.  His manner was calm and professional, his movements economical, as if he had done this many times before.  As he approached one body, it began to move.  With a lunge, the wounded man rolled toward his stomach, struggled to his hands and knees, and began to drag himself away.  Blood left a trail on the pavement behind him.  With no change of expression, Rain took three long strides after him, pulled back his boot, kicked the man in the head to stun him.  The injured man collapsed again, face down on the path.  Rain knelt behind him, unsheathed his belt-knife, and in one smooth motion, pulled up the man's head by one hand in the matted hair, and, with his blade in the other, slit the man's throat.  The body stopped moving.  Rain shoved it over on its back with a rough push of his boot, then with considerable effort, tugged his bolt loose from the man's shattered chest, checked the point, wiped the arrow on the dead man's pant leg, and replaced the bolt in his quiver.  The dead man's chest was a mass of blood and grass.  Calmly, Rain walked over to one of the other bodies and finished cleaning his blade on that one's clothing, then resheathed it.  Can't afford to waste his arrows, Snake thought to himself.  Snake had his answer to more than one question

Snake shrugged out of his pack, dug into it for his ammunition, and reloaded.  Cleaning would have to wait until he had more time.  He settled the pack on his shoulders again and rose.  "Let's move," he growled.  Rain nodded, and they headed off down the path at a faster pace.  As they neared the east end of the Park, buildings multiplied.  Snake considered holing up in one for the night.  They passed the white bones of the Conservatory, its glass shattered by the 2010 quake, its plants long gone, and circled down across the open space, past deserted tennis courts, and through a last dense tangle of trees and spiky brush out onto a hilltop.  Below them was a wide meadow, now mostly mud and trampled earth, and on the other side, a tall red-sandstone building.  They made their way over to it, but as Snake's foot hit the first step up to the building's door, a warning shot sang past his head and a rasping voice shouted, "Go away!  Get outta here!"  Snake decided not to dispute possession of the hall; there were easier ways to find a place to sleep.

Snake and Rain went on, under the highway overpass and out on the eastern edge of the Park.  In the graying twilight, a few dispirited figures huddled on bare earth near an empty concrete pond.  They ignored the travelers who trudged up the last steps to street level, where Haight and Stanyan made a wide intersection.  Gutted remnants of a supermarket and a McDonald's dominated the corners opposite the Park.  Snake looked up critically at the sky.  It would be full dark within an hour or so.  "You know anywhere to hole up for the night?" he asked.

"Not around here," Rain answered.  "We'll just have to look."

Most of the buildings in the area had been occupied and barricaded, but a short walk down Stanyan, past Waller, brought them to a deserted shop with a boarded-up bay window and a tattered blue awning which read ...AL...CRACK....  Gun drawn, Snake shoved open the door.  Inside was a narrow series of rooms leading to a tile-floored center section, and, beyond it, another room with the back door and a small, grimy window.  Against one wall stood a big wooden desk which had evidently been too heavy for looters to move.  Out of habit, Snake flipped the light-switch.  Nothing happened.  He unbolted the back door and looked out onto a concrete slab which had been the back yard of the old Victorian.  There was no sign of anyone occupying this former store.

"Wait.  I have an idea," Rain said.  He slipped out the door and returned a minute later with a battered garbage can lid.  As Snake relocked the series of bolts and chains up the back door, Rain took the lid into the center section and set it down on an open section of tile.  "We can light a fire in this thing.  It ought to be pretty fireproof.  Not much heat, but at least we can have a little light."  He pried up a couple of loose boards, pounded them into smaller pieces with the hilt of his commando knife, and, borrowing a match from Snake, lit a small blaze in the improvised  hearth.  By the wavering light of the fire and the last fading daylight from the back window and the front door, they made a survey of the rooms, picking their way carefully over the sagging and broken floorboards.  A dank urine odor and occasional rustling noises in the corners suggested rats.  Empty dog and cat food bags, bottles of shampoo and flea spray, broken boxes, cat trees, littered the rows of shelves in the front section.  Pegs for collars and leashes were empty, looted for useful lengths of nylon and leather.  One section held a shoulder-high stack of unopened blue-and-white bags of cat litter.  Snake and Rain piled them into a windbreak-cum-barricade along the bottom of the front door and windows.  Neither the icy night wind off the ocean nor any unannounced visitors would get in easily over the pile.

Snake checked the bathroom.  No, he didn't want to use it.  Picking up a final bag of the litter, Snake carried it to the back office and poured it into a large plastic litterbox in a sheltered area, to create sanitary facilities that were much safer and more comfortable than the concrete slab out back.  A search of the dusty pegboard wall uncovered a number of fluffy cat toys in cellophane bags.  Snake shook one, listening to the merry jingle of its little bell, then dropped a handful of them next to the cat box.  Musical toilet paper.  

He headed back toward the front section.  Rain was arranging empty pet food bags behind another improvised windbreak of cat litter around the little fireplace.  The insulation and padding made a serviceable sleeping area.  Snake sat down, leaning against the wall of bags, and the two opened their packs, retrieving bottles of water and cold rations packed aboard the Afternoon's Delight that morning.  Rain stacked a few more boards on the fire, and settled back himself.  The two chewed companionably in silence for a while.

"Must've been a pet store," Snake finally ventured.    

"Pet supply store," Rain answered.  "They refused to sell live animals.  Man who owned it ran the business into the ground helping animals of the homeless people in the Park.  Food.  Vet bills.  I used to stop here for supplies for my dog once in a while, when I was in the City, until I decided it was too dangerous to bring her with me any more.  Animal Crackers."

"What?"

"Animal Crackers.  The name on the awning outside.  Good place, 'til it fell apart.  Crazies must have taken the food."  He pulled up the hood on his jacket.  "Damn, it's cold down here."      

Snake grunted acknowledgement.  He cleared a place on the tile floor, pulled out his equipment, and began cleaning and reloading his guns.  Rain followed suit, checking over his bow and removing the residue left by his cursory wipe-down of his knives and arrow-points in the  Park.  They worked easily in the flickering firelight, both professional enough to handle their weaponry by touch.  Snake remembered his practice at field-stripping, cleaning, reassembling, and loading machineguns, blindfolded.  This was a piece of cake.  When he had finished, he leaned back and lit one of his dwindling supply of Ormsby's cigarettes.  He took a long drag, letting tension ease out of him with the smoke.  "You're good," he prompted.

"I've been on Security at Napa since I was apprenticed there four years ago.  We foster out at about fifteen or sixteen.  Got my first bow when I was nine, back home in Humboldt."  Rain was thoughtful for a moment.  "Made my first kill when I was seventeen.  Raiders.  I took down two of them.  Didn't puke 'til I went to collect the bolts."

Snake laughed, very softly.  "I was nineteen.  Nailed a guy in a firefight.  I didn't heave, but I relived that shot for about a week.  Kept seein' him come at me."  He took a final puff and ground out his cigarette on the tile floor.  "I'll stand first watch. Wake you in four hours."  He indicated Rain's low-tech winding

wristwatch.  "Let me borrow that."  Rain surrendered his timepiece without argument and curled up on the dog food sacks to sleep until it was his turn to stand guard.  Snake sat on the hard pile of cat litter, moving into that Zen-like state of patient watchfulness that he remembered from so many other missions, letting his mind float while his senses kept watch.  He was feeling better about this trip.       

The next morning, Rain outlined their route: "We'll go directly down Haight Street.  We can get breakfast at the street market.  It should be fairly safe.  USPF's not popular in this neighborhood; tend to lose a couple of men every time they make a sweep.  Snipers.  They don't come down here any more often then they have to."  He flashed a humorless smile.  "DMZ's down at the place where Haight turns into Market Street".  

They left the abandoned supply store, turning right down Stanyan.  In the gray morning light, the ruined neighborhood was a jumble of crumbling Victorian relics and makeshift shelters that reminded Snake of his trip down Sunset Boulevard in L.A.  They turned onto Haight, and Snake saw that the street was beginning to fill with an assortment of  people emerging from boarded-up storefronts and apartment buildings.  Tables were being brought out and set up, blankets and quilts laid out on the cracked cement sidewalks and hung up to form improvised booths, colorful banners and a wild assortment of goods materializing in the cold morning air.  "Coffee!  Morning coffee!" sang a voice farther down the street.  Snake moved toward it, Rain following.  Over a fire, a heavyset girl was stirring a huge vat of black liquid that gave off a familiar enticing aroma.  "Ten dollars a cup!  Coffee!"  Snake handed the woman a crumpled blueback for two cups of the bitter brew and a pair of suspicious-looking flat pastries.  Wordlessly, he handed a cup and one of the buns to Rain, and they settled on a broken window ledge to eat and study the crowd.

Snake caught what he thought was recognition in an occasional glance from the motley figures passing them, but they sauntered on, ignoring the two men.  This was a neighborhood where people minded their own business, where Snake Plissken the Outlaw was, perhaps, still a folk hero.  It was people like these who had helped and sheltered him, casually, clandestinely, all across the country, and allowed him to slip out of the grasp of the blackbellies time and again, an inch ahead of the net.  No Police Channel, no cars or computers or electronics: all they had were rumors, a technology no more advanced than that of the old Wild West that had made a hero of men like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.  The satellite pulse had made no difference in their lives.  They probably hadn't even heard about the new price on his head.  Snake allowed himself to relax, fractionally, and sipped the coffee.  

The black brew wasn't quite the worst he had ever had, but it was definitely in the running.  Snake wondered where the water for it had come from, then decided he didn't want to know.  At least it was hot and strong.  The rolls were heavy, gluey, and tasteless, with only a trace of sweetness, filled with anonymous crunchy flecks.  Snake picked out some of the larger bits and flicked them away without examining them.  He swallowed the last mouthful and slid off his perch to continue his journey.  Rain followed down the narrowing open space between vendors of a flea-market mixture of old clothes, household goods, crafts, food, various medicinal and recreational drugs, toys, and less identifiable items.                  

Snake heard a faint bell-like sound coming down the street toward them, joined, at intervals, by a kind  of sing-song chanting.  He cocked his head, scanning the area for the source.  "-shna, Krishna, Hare, Hare.  Hare Rama......." the words gradually became clear amid the clang of silvery hand cymbals and the beat of a small drum.  Two men dressed in orange robes covered by shabby coats and blanket capes came toward them, keeping time to their instruments in a shuffling dance-step, while two more followed them pushing a large wheeled cart.

The little group stopped, and people crowed around them as they ladled out mounds of a vegetable-rice mixture from the big, steaming, metal vats on the cart into the various containers thrust out toward them.  An appetizing smell of warm cooking spices, together with an undertone of patchouli, floated on the air.  As Snake and Rain reached the spot, one of the group, a tall man with a shaved head and tired eyes, greeted them with, "Good morning, Brothers.  Would you share Lord Krishna's good Prasadim with us?"  Snake walked on without answering.  A moment later, he looked back to see Rain in conversation with the man, putting a handful of bluebacks into his palm.  "Rain! C'mon!" Snake called.

Rain pressed the man's hands between his in farewell, then hurried to catch up to Snake.  "It's the Hare Krishnas.  They feed the homeless people here every day for free.  I didn't know they were still around."  He paused, then added, "I always used to give them something if I ran into them.  I like their ideas on animals."   

Snake snorted derisively and lengthened his stride.  Crazies.  Couldn't even blame this bunch on the gas.  Rain opened his mouth, then closed it again as if reconsidering whatever he had been planning to say.   He trotted after Snake, caught up with him, and the two continued side by side, each absorbed in his own thoughts.  Snake threaded his way between blankets spread on the sidewalk, littered with junk jewelry and kitchen pots.  He passed a table set up with rows and rows of shriveled strips of meat threaded on skewers, and a hand-lettered sign which advertised: RAT JERKY   CAT STRIPS   PIGEON JERKY   TERIYAKI. Below that smaller print read: Rats: Street $5.00, Building $8.00, Bakery $10.00 FRESH KILLED or SMOKE DRIED."  He moved on.

As they reached Haight and Ashbury, a girl in a long tie-dyed skirt and tunic and sandals approached them.  She had a good-sized reticulated python around her shoulders.  She held out a dirty hand,  "Spare change?"  Snake handed her a blueback and grated, "Feed your snake." as he walked on.

Rain smiled. "Into snakes, huh?"

Snake nodded once.  "Had some when I was kid.  Gave 'em all away, except one."  He allowed thoughts of the sleek white cobra to surface, briefly, then put her back with the other memories.  Her faded image remained on his body.  That was enough.  "She was killed."  His flat tone discouraged further inquiry.

A gang of street punks blasted past them on rollerblades and skateboards, nearly mowing down a disheveled woman standing in their path.  "Where's my birdies?  Where's my..." " she called as they swirled around her.  "We ate 'em, bitch!" yelled the leader as they skated on, laughing.  Rain glared after them, then hurried to catch up with Snake again.

As they moved down toward the intersection with Market Street, buildings began to look less shabby, better repaired, cleaner.  Sidewalk stalls gave way to regular stores opening for business, and the people walking along began to look as if they had somewhere else to sleep beside the sidewalk.  A quick glance into some of the open doorways showed shelves with many blank spaces.  Without trucks and planes, the system of distribution was breaking down, but shopkeepers and customers seemed to be joining in a pretense that everything was normal.  This was The City, where the end of the world was no more than a minor inconvenience.

Ahead, a massive pile of rubble loomed where an overpass had collapsed across Haight, blocking the street with tilted pieces of concrete-and-rebar.  Snake and Rain clambered over the remnants, another victim of the 2010 quake, working their way from foothold to foothold.  They paused at the top of the pile, in the lee of a tall gray slab covered with layers of competing graffiti, to catch their breath and check out the territory below.  On the other side, a narrow path had been cleared down the center of the street, rubble piled neatly behind sandbags and coils of razor wire.  A narrower path led to a group of tall Victorian apartments behind a two-story wrought-iron fence topped with spear-point spikes.  The building on each side of it had been ripped down to create cleared space, and the razor wire continued in an impenetrable tangle around the block of flats, creating an isolated, highly defensible tower.  The street was deserted.   "There it is," Rain said; "DMZ."  

Snake grunted.  It looked as if Rain's buddies were prepared for unfriendly visitors.  They worked their way down the other side of the rubble and up to the locked iron gate.  Three levels of curtained and shaded bay windows fronted the old wooden building.  Two sets of stairs led down into a pair of miniature cement courtyards where doors indicated basement flats.  Between them, a third staircase led upward, like a wooden drawbridge, to another pair of carved doors behind a columned porch.  A locked steel lattice gated the doors and bars covered the windows.  The glass behind the bars was unbroken, and the number over the door read 45.

A row of white buttons set into the side of the gate indicated the building had formerly had an electronic security-buzzer system.  Above them, a bell had been attached to a chain pull.  Rain gave it a determined tug, and a loud clanging announced their presence.  A window on the left center flat slid up a few inches, and the barrel of a high-powered rifle poked through the lace curtains that hid the interior from view.  A deep voice called, "Who is it?"   

Snake stood still, his hands visible. Rain pushed back the hood of his jacket, revealing his face, and called back, "Wolf!  It's Rain!  I've got someone with me."

"My god, it is Rain!"  The rifle barrel jerked impatiently in Snake's direction.  "You!  Keep your hands where we can see 'em."  More faintly, "Michael, get the door."  The front door opened, and a slightly pudgy younger man with curly reddish hair emerged, carrying a machine pistol.  Snake noticed that the man was wearing a wide leather collar with a small lock, in addition to an ordinary dark-blue sweatshirt and pair of jeans.  His snub-nosed face was intent.  Covered from two points, Snake and Rain stood still while Michael unfastened the series of locks.  

The young man showed them up the flight of steps and into a windowless dirty-white hallway.  It was probably eleven feet high, but Snake could have spanned it easily with his arms spread.  A door in the blank wall opened, and Michael waved them into a long narrow room with a small marble fireplace.  An arched alcove to their right opened onto the window they had seen from the street.  A sagging green sofa stood against one wall; the others were lined floor to ceiling with unpainted wood bookcases stuffed with a jumble of volumes.  Papers, books, magazines, cups and glasses, dishes, gun parts, and an assortment of boxes covered mismatched armchairs and littered a rug of some indeterminate color obscured by years of grime, and smelling faintly of mold.  Through a pair of curtains on the left, Snake caught a glimpse of a metal four-poster bed and, farther back, a linoleum-floored kitchen.  The flat's only other window was beside a back door in the kitchen's wall.

A muscular Black man faced them, rifle in hand, smiling broadly.  "Rain. We thought you'd be up north by now."  He turned and gave the other newcomer a critical examination.  His expression passed through confusion and dawning recognition, to disbelief and, finally, reserved  welcome.  "Snake Plissken.  What are you doing in San Francisco?"  Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "Toymaker will definitely want to see you.  Josh, too."  He lowered the rifle.  "I'm Wolf.  What can we do for you, Snake?"

"We need guns - automatics - and ammo.  Supplies.  Transit.  We need to get across the bay," Snake answered.

"He's going -" Rain began

Wolf held up a restraining hand.  "Don't tell me.  Need to know only.  I'm just the welcoming committee.  The rest of DMZ is over at the Mint.  I'll take you."

Snake regarded Wolf with new respect.  Subtle signs in the man's bearing and movement, his clipped, authoritative speech patterns, said "military."  He had the same aura of relaxed command Lieutenant Plissken had responded to in Bob Hauk.  "Special  Forces?" he asked.

"Marines."  A look of understanding passed between the two men.  "Let's go," Wolf said.  "Michael, keep an eye on things until I get back.  Nobody gets in."

"Yes, Sir," Michael answered softly, lowering his head a little and looking down.  Snake was puzzled; that was not a military response.  Something was going on here that he did not quite understand.  He shrugged mentally.  More need to know, he decided, and ignored it.  He and Rain followed Wolf down the front steps, and Michael locked the series of bolts and padlocks on the gate behind them.  

They walked the block to Market and took a right, Wolf moving easily with an  assault rifle slung openly over his shoulder.   Snake gritted his teeth and lengthened his stride to keep pace, trying not to limp visibly.  His wounded leg throbbed, and his whole body ached with fatigue from the exertions of the last two days.  Rain glanced at him, frowning, but looked away again at Snake's angry glare.

A few more blocks' walk brought them to a large, square, yellow-brick building set on a rise in the middle of an empty space.  It was surrounded by heavy cyclone fencing topped with more razor wire. Wolf unlocked the main gate and motioned them inside, but as Snake took a step toward the path leading to the front doors of the building, Wolf again held out a warning arm. "Uh-uh...mined.  Follow me."  He led them around to a side entrance, where another of the improvised warning systems was attached to the doorjamb.

Wolf sounded the clanging bell, and a minute later a metal plate in the door slid open.  "O.K., Wolf," came a female voice, followed by the click and scrape of more locks and bolts being slid back.  The door opened to reveal a muscular middle-aged woman in black jeans and T-shirt.  "Two to see Josh," Wolf said.  The woman nodded and stepped out of their way.  

The interior was dark and windowless.  Wolf picked up a lighted lantern from a table to one side of the door and led them up a flight of stairs and down a long passageway to another door, which opened into a much wider hall with floors and dado of marble squares and tall polished-oak doors alternating with high, narrow windows framed in elaborate woodwork.  

It was an elegant, official Victorian interior, but it had clearly seen better days: the floors were gouged and scraped, the woodwork chipped, and the old plaster covered with large and small cracks.  The late-afternoon light through the dusty windows was already fading.  A few turns brought the trio to a large corner office overlooking the building's front yard.  Wolf knocked once and leaned into the room.  "Josh?  It's Rain and...a a friend of his.  I thought you'd be interested in meeting him."  Snake could hear the amusement in the Black man's voice.         

"Welllll...Rain!  How're your people?  You guys were here a month ago. What'd you run out of?"  The speaker was a heavyset man with a mass of salt and pepper hair and a short beard, also dressed in black T-shirt and jeans.  He was buried in the drawer of a massive executive's desk piled high with papers and charts, his attention on whatever he was seeking in the cluttered interior.  

When Rain did not answer, he glanced up, and froze with an expression of surprise on his round face.  A second later, he broke into a delighted grin.  "Snaaaake PLISSSkennnn....!"  The voice had undertones of a vanished Brooklyn. "MAJOR Whomper of Federal Ass, baddest man in America, and Friend of the Revolution!"  This last was delivered in a stagy, fake-Russian accent.  "Like, Seriously Irresponsible Threat to Society.  Yes!  Thought they had you for sure, in Cleveland.  What can we do for you, Snake?"  Snake stared at him for a moment, nonplussed, then repeated what he had said to Wolf.  "Piece of cake," Josh said, gesturing expansively.  "DMZ Supply, Outfitters of Expeditions and thorn in the side of the USPF, at your service.  We have everything you need.  C'mon downstairs and meet the Toymaker.  He'll fix you up."    

"I'd better be getting back," Wolf said; "Michael's by himself until John and Terry come in at seven."  He headed back the way he had come, as Rain and Snake followed Josh down several flights of stairs into a large open workroom lined with metal shelves and filled with tables and workbenches full of weapons and mechanical gadgets in various stages of construction.  The small basement windows were covered in blackout cloth, but the room was brightly lit with numerous chemlamps, while a wood fire in the Victorian hearth added some further light and a considerable amount of heat to one end of the long rectangle.  The air smelled of machine oil and Pine-Sol.  Near the fire, a slender man with thick, dark, shoulder-length hair was seated at one of the benches, probing delicately at the interior of a handgun, a frown of intent concentration on his face.  As they entered, he lifted his head with a sharp, bird-like motion.  

"Daniel," Josh cried jovially, "We have company.  Snake Plissken!  Came all the way from Los Angeles to see us, to get some guns and passage through the City."

"Glorioski!  Hang on a minute..."  Methodically, the man replaced the lid on the tube he was using, wiped his hands on a white rag, and rose to his feet.  He extended a hand.  Snake ignored it.  "We saw you on the Police Channel.  Sword of Damocles EMF Pulse satellites.  Hard act to follow."  He turned briefly toward Snake's companion.  "Oh, hi, Rain.  How'd the shoulder-strap for your heavier crossbow work out?  Was the balance O.K. while running or climbing?  I've been thinking, -"

"It's fine, Dan," Rain said hastily.  Snake had the impression he was afraid to surrender his gadget back to its inventor for further tinkering, for fear he would never see it again.

"Oh.  O.K.," the Toymaker said.  He sounded a bit disappointed, but he brightened again as he turned back to Snake.  "Nice guns.  Cyclops .357 Magnums.  That's what I thought when I saw that Police Channel story on Cleveland, but I wasn't sure.  The camera was at a bad angle.  Same ones?  They look a little different."  He cocked his head slightly.  ".357's aren't my style - loud, and lots of flash; but, of course, that doesn't matter if you're fast.  I believe in good sound suppression, myself."  He smiled faintly.  "I like to work with slower, quieter bullets from as far away as possible."       

Snake had almost decided that if this techno-geek didn't stop talking, he was going to give him a direct demonstration of the Magnums' capabilities at close range.  He dammed the flow of words with: "I need supplies."   

Josh added, "They need, uh, lots of stuff..."  He turned to the newcomer.  "Snake?"

"I need automatics.  Food.  Transport."   

Rain broke in.  "We're going back up to Napa.  I was south on a run when Snake hit the button.  Killed the truck, and I had to leave it there.  Ormsby sent me out to find Snake, after we saw the broadcast, and then he came up the coast with me.  It's too hot in L.A."

"That was, like, weeks ago," Josh said.  "You came on foot?"

"We were... delayed.  We only started out a few days ago.  Took the Fish Run up, crossed the Park, down Haight, and here.  I don't know what's going on at home.  I haven't been there since before this all happened.  I've got to get back."   Rain's concern was evident in his voice.  "We need transport.  Bicycles, if you have 'em.  I'll bring 'em back next time I'm in the City."

"We'll buy," Snake interjected shortly.  This motor-mouth engineer in his plaid flannel shirt and slacks, and the over-age-in-grade hippie relic were beginning to irritate him intensely.  Pain and fatigue warred with his desire to get this transaction over with and get out of San Francisco as quickly as possible.      

The atmosphere in the room changed abruptly.  The camaraderie which Snake had been a part of a moment before shifted to exclude him, and he became a customer.  Josh eyed him coldly.  "Not with bluebacks, you won't.  The only thing they'll be good for in a month is wiping your ass."  He turned to Rain, with another of his expansive gestures, and smiled again, adding wryly, "But as a favor to a friend, we can extend credit.  We trust you.  And, like, it's a seriously bad idea to piss off a weapons dealer who knows where you live, you know?"

"Thanks, Josh," Rain said.  He smiled back at the man with what looked to Snake like genuine affection.

"Gold," Snake said flatly, unimpressed by Josh's implied threat.  "See if you've got what I need.  Settle on prices then."

"Dan?"  Josh turned to his colleague, who had resumed his seat at the workbench.  Snake took in the man's pale skin, stooped posture, and slightly hesitant movements.  This one was not well, but whatever it was, was nothing obvious.  The symptoms didn't look like any kind of gas-poisoning he recognized.  Maybe one of the bioweapon viruses from the war, he decided.   

"I'm way ahead of you."  Dan was already producing touchstone and acid bottles, setting up an assay kit on the workbench.   

Snake slipped fingers inside his gunbelt, withdrew a coin, and tossed it on the table in front of the Toymaker.  "Mexican.  22 karat, alloyed with silver.  One ounce, Troy."

Dan busied himself with stone and chemicals.  "It's good," he announced as he wiped the coin and handed it back to Snake.  He exchanged looks with Josh, who nodded.  "So, you want something semi-automatic, Snake?  I've got a couple of really trick Barret 82A1's.  They'll take .50 caliber BMG cartridges; go through anything up to, and sometimes including, medium armor plate and engine blocks."

"Good," Snake said, with deep satisfaction.  "Ammo?"

"I can come up with, maybe, a thousand rounds.  I definitely believe in a man carrying as much ammunition as possible."

"Like, a very comforting thing in these troubled times," Josh agreed.  "You know, Daniel, I think you had a Mexican bandito somewhere in your family tree.  Inherited a fondness for seriously large capacity magazines."         

The Toymaker laughed.  "So, let's go see what we've got."  He rose, picking up a cane from the side of the workbench, then stopped.  "Wait a minute.  Snake, do you have one of the new ID cards?"  

"No.  Blackbellies took all mine when the fuckers arrested me."

The Toymaker nodded.  "If you're going straight through The City, likely you'll be stopped.  With all the traffic lately, the USPF have been pulling snap searches, setting up roadblocks at random to check IDs.  I'll work on it while you put your supplies together.  Josh, can you show them around?"

"Certainly," he replied.  "Gentlemen, allow me."  While the Toymaker returned to his workbench, Josh began circling the room, pointing out supplies and equipment on the cluttered shelves in the style of an enthusiastic used-car salesman.  Snake and Rain shrugged out of their packs, shed their jackets, and followed his progress through DMZ Supply's inventory.  It took several hours to assemble weaponry, sleeping bags, light-weight freeze-dried food packets designed for camping trips, bottled distilled water, and two heavy dirt-bikes with trailers to carry all of it.

After a bit of technical discussion, a swiveling gun mount with centering springs was attached to the handlebars of one of the bikes.  The Toymaker provided a Heckler and Koch 91 for the mount.  A quick push down and rearward jerk installed the gun; a reverse shove forward and up removed it.  Snake took one of the Barrets, added boxes of ammunition, an extra cleaning kit, and extra clips.  Clothing came next.  Snake selected two sleeveless tops, a warm, dark pullover, a pair of snug-fitting, lightweight nylon pants, a hooded mountaineering parka with a removable jacket-liner, and a pair of sturdy boots.  With the addition of a change of underwear and socks, he felt properly outfitted again.                                                         

While the rest of them selected gear, Dan worked on a small square of paper, bent nearly double with his nose only inches from the surface of his table, as with press on lettering, fine-point pen, and X-acto knife, he modified a standard blank form into a fake ID card.  Finally, he leaned back out of the pool of light from the chemlamp and cried, "All right!  Come take a look at this."  Snake came over to observe his progress, and the Toymaker smiled up at him in satisfaction.  "There you go, Mr. John Davis.  Ready for the photo."  

He stared back down at his masterpiece, and frowned again, then sighed.  "I don't know how well this is going to fly.  Our laminator was electric, so we can't use it, and I can get a photo, but we don't have flash.  Just hope the USPF don't get too curious.  We'll have to do our best to make you look like an inoffensive ordinary citizen here.  The shirt's O.K.  Hmmm...."."   He reached into another drawer, pulled out a baseball cap and a hotel-style grooming kit in a plastic wrapper, complete with disposable razor and miniature cake of soap.   "Here.  Shave, and stick your hair up under the cap.  Take off your eyepatch, and just close your eyes; I can draw them in on the card.  The picture will be really small.  Probably nobody will notice, but you might want to wear dark glasses and hope for a sunny day for your trip."  He pointed.  "Bathroom's over there.  There's a mirror."

Snake shaved with cold water and soap, shoved his hair up under the backwards-facing Giants cap, then went to stand against one of the room's limited areas of open white wall space.  He straightened.  Josh smiled and stood back, hand on chin like an artist contemplating a work of art.  "No, no, my man.  Slump.  Snarl a little.  Try to look like you've been waiting at the DMV for four hours, then discovered you're in the wrong line, and have to fill out a different form and start over.  Think about trying to convince a surly clerk you have so paid all your traffic tickets.  Like, method acting."

The Toymaker chuckled.  "No - that's the way he looks in all his photos.  Let's go for something completely different.  Try for a smile, Snake.  That should confuse them "   

"Shit," Snake all-but-whispered, exasperated.  The other three were joining in friendly laugher, inviting him to share in it.  That was something he had not done for a very long time, not since Taylor, and he was not sure exactly how to respond.  He removed the patch and stood against the wall, eyes closed, trying to look casual.  He hated being photographed; any occasion demanding it was almost certain to be one he wanted to avoid.  With effort, he produced an insincere smile.  Dan took several shots with an old-fashioned camera as Snake held the pose.       

"Perfect!" Josh crowed.  "Cut... and print."  Dan took the film away for processing, while Josh and Snake negotiated a price for DMZ's services that took over three-quarters of the coins in Snake's gunbelt.  He wondered if he would have enough left to pay for passage through the City, and how much longer he could pass off his remaining bluebacks on less-astute merchants than these.  

When the money had exchanged hands, Josh leaned back in the chair he had taken over and dusted his palms together.  "Done and done," he said, sounding pleased.  He turned to Rain.  "O.K.  It's getting late.  You two are staying with us tonight.  We've got lots to talk about."  He grinned.  "Hey - I've been wanting to pick Snake Plissken's brain for, like, years.  Talk, have something decent to eat before you hit Tofu Gulch.  And, like, Dan will never forgive you if you don't try out his new gravity hot-water shower and tell him how great it is."            

Snake bristled at the man's casual assumption of authority, but let it go.  He and Rain would be out of here tomorrow, and it wasn't worth sacrificing a meal and a relatively safe place to sleep for the sake of a pointless pissing contest.  He snorted softly, and said nothing, fixing Josh with a stare that suggested he was not planning to submit gracefully to becoming the evening's entertainment.  Rain simply chuckled good-naturedly and held up his hands in a position of surrender.      

"There it is," Josh added.  "We'll get you set up, and then the subs ought to have dinner ready soon."  He glanced at his winding watch, a twin to Rain's own, and held it up.  "Seven o'clock.  Remember when I traded John for this antique?  I had a feeling it might come in handy someday, if the world really went down the tube, and I was right.  As I always am, of course."  He placed the be-watched hand and wrist on his ample chest with an expression of comically exaggerated satisfaction.

"There it is," Rain echoed, and the two shared a laugh.

"Let's go."  Josh pushed back his chair and led the way toward the workroom's door.  Rain and Snake picked up their packs and followed Josh down the former Mint's wide marble corridors, dimly lit by the portable chemlamp their host was carrying, and back to the building's central hall.  As he climbed the stairs, Snake tried to ignore the ache in his wounded leg and the dull pain behind his eyes.  Rain trudged ahead of him, looking equally wilted and weary.  Snake wondered when they would be able to get away and get some sleep.  His temper, never the best, was rapidly fraying.  They reached the second-floor landing and headed down another corridor, as Josh kept up a running monologue: "Guest bedrooms are down here.  And here," he stopped and flung open a door with a dramatic gesture, "is the famous McCarthy Post-Apocalyptic Hot-Water Shower!"  Inside was an ordinary bathroom, except for the plastic tubing running from the shower and the sink out the window and upward.  "There's a big storage tank on the roof that catches the rain and filters it.  We light a fire under it to heat it, then the hot water flows down pipes from the roof.  Open and close it with the hose-clamps. Voila!  As Dan says, really trick."  Their narrator looked as triumphant as if he had invented it himself.

"Cool!" Rain said.  He sounded genuinely enthusiastic.  "I haven't had a hot bath since we left Ormsby's.  I'll take you up on the offer.  Snake?"

A half-smile, giving credit for the ingenuity of the gadget, flickered over Snake's face, and he nodded.  "Yeah."

One of the doors down the corridor opened and a shadowy figure stepped out into the hall.  When the bright circle of light from Josh's chemlamp reached it, the shape became a muscular, dark-skinned, sharp-faced man, a hair shorter than Rain, who moved as if he was trying to claim as much space as possible.  He was clad in black, sleeveless, kevlar-spandex top, camouflage pants and buckled boots.  Another Snake Plissken wannabe, Snake thought; The only thing missing's an eyepatch.  He stopped in front of Snake, and the two stared at each other.  The other man recovered almost at once, his surprised expression shifting into confrontation.  Snake didn't move, other than to narrow his good eye.   

Josh's voice was wary as he began, "Donnie, this is...."

"Snaaaake Plissken," Donnie drawled, "The television star."

The words brought up in Snake's mind an instant flash of memory, of the smug, blustering blackbelly officer who had paraded him in front of the television cameras on his way to the deportation station at Los Angeles.  Snake felt himself bristling,  and deliberately let his face relax into the unreadable expression that was itself a defense, countering Donnie's look.  He'd met this bullying little asshole in a hundred bars and alleys.  The USPF was full of men like him.  Not worth the effort.

Snake brushed on past as if the man weren't there, feeling Donnie's stare burning into his back as he walked on down the hall.  Snake listened for any sound that might mean attack from behind, but kept moving.  Rain followed, executing the same neat side-step around Donnie.

Josh caught up to them and opened another door, ushering them into a room with two double beds.  He produced another chemlamp and set it out on one of the room's two dressers.  "Drop your stuff and we'll go on down to dinner," he said.  He seemed to be deliberately ignoring the confrontation he had just witnessed in the hallway.  Wearily, Snake dropped his gear on one bed, Rain on the other, and the three retraced their steps toward the first floor.  Donnie had vanished by the time they got out the door.

Dinner at DMZ Supply was the best meal they had eaten since their stay at Ormsby's house, a hearty bean stew with chunks of some kind of meat, which Rain carefully but uncomplainingly removed from his share, homemade bread, and a salad from the building's backyard greenhouse.  It was served by four people wearing the same kind of collars Snake had seen on Michael at the apartment on Haight Street.  After serving, they retreated to one end of the heavy walnut table they were all sharing, until it was time for them to clear away the dishes.  This had probably been an executive conference room or club-room at one time, Snake concluded from the polished wood paneling and the huge granite fireplace on the wall opposite him.  Afterward, there was coffee and cigarettes, both of them fairly good quality.  After trying one, Snake negotiated a price on several packs of the smokes to take with him.  As he was finishing, Michael slipped in quietly to join the group.    

Snake leaned back, silent, observing as Dan and Josh talked with Rain.  Finally, he let curiosity get the better of him; there was something odd going on here, and he wanted to know what it was.  He jerked his head in the direction of an attractive curly-haired woman who was kneeling to put more wood on the fire.  Snake noticed, with a twinge of memory, that she had a distant resemblance to Brain's Maggie.  Light from the flames glinted on her inch-wide silver-metal collar and the small padlock dangling from it.  "What's - all this?" Snake asked.

"That's Rayna, my slave," Wolf answered.  The woman looked up in his direction and smiled.  He snapped his fingers and she rose gracefully, crossed to his side, and stood with her head bowed slightly.  Wolf laid a hand lightly on the back of the woman's neck.  "Beautiful, isn't she?"  The woman's smile deepened, and, at Wolf's gesture, she gave a slight bow and moved away to join the other collared onesat the end of the table.

"Slave!" Snake blurted.  They snatch people and enslave them?  He tensed, judging the distance to the room's doorway.

The Black man chuckled and added, "Voluntary, of course."  He nodded to the man at the head of the table.  "Josh, do you want to explain it?"

Josh leaned back, cigarette in hand, with the posture of a raconteur about to begin an elaborate tale.  "Slave, as in master and slave.  Dominant and submissive.  S&M.   We're most of what's left of the organized leather community in San Francisco."   He flicked ashes into the fire and took a swallow of coffee.  "We've been here all along.  I've lived at 45 Haight for over 20 years.  Dan and I've been friends for about that long, and he joined me up here when LA went.  When the Judgment Day Massacre went down in 2009, we holed up there.  Then, after the quake in '10, we took over the Mint building and started ferrying queers and the leather community to safety.  An underground railroad for the kinky underground," Josh said, through a curl of cigarette smoke.  

"Judgment Day?"  Snake vaguely remembered hearing the term on a news broadcast several years back, when it had been the lead story on America's Most Immoral for about a week.

"Yeah.  President kept babbling about the Bible and how the fags were going to be punished on Judgment Day.  A lot of the community thought it was just his usual bullshit, but Dan and I were worried.  We'd been expecting them to pull something like this, watching the Christers taking over, moving in on our people.  Gearing up for the Pogrom.  My motto's 'if you think you're being paranoid enough, you're not being paranoid enough.'  Too bad I was right."  Josh shifted in his chair, stubbed out one cigarette and lit another, drew in a deep lungful of tobacco smoke and blew it out.  "Then, that summer, the blackbellies were broadcasting spot announcements on every channel, putting up billboards, like, everywhere - even the bus stop shelters -- telling everybody they'd be listed as deviants and moral criminals if they took part in the Freedom Day Parade.  That's  -- officially - the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and, like, Little Green Men's Chowder and Marching Society, Freedom Day Parade.  Idiot name.  Everybody just called it The Parade.

Karen and I went anyway.  Hadn't missed one in fifteen years, and didn't intend to start with this one.  I regard it as my mission in life to piss off the fucking President.  Like, my personal Categorical Imperative, you know?"  Josh paused, and his expression turned completely serious.  "We noticed that the barriers were heavier than usual on Market Street, but we didn't think anything about it, particularly.   As soon as the Dykes on Bikes hit Civic Center, the USPF choppers came over and strafed the whole parade-route with machine guns.  Then they sent in the ground troops to take out the survivors."       

"Shit," Snake breathed, his face a stone mask.  

Michael took up the story.  "I was marching with the leather contingent.  We were one of the prime targets.  They got almost all of us.  I only got out because," he swallowed and looked down, "because my Mistress threw me down and covered me with her body.  She died saving me."   His voice faded into silence.

"They shot Cassandra."  Wolf's voice and face were like black ice.  "I couldn't get to her; didn't have a gun.  I just watched her die."  

"They attacked the staging area and the Festival grounds, sprayed the whole area with machine gun fire," Josh continued.  "Final body count was well over two thousand dead.  Lots more wounded.  That was the end of the San Francisco sex-radical underground.  Week or two later, the queer executions began in Harvey Milk Plaza, and they began making regular sweeps of the Castro.  Karen, my partner, was captured in a raid on Different Light bookstore and executed as a "moral degenerate."  

Snake considered.  "They didn't deport them to L.A.?"

"No.  The penalty for homosexuality in the New Moral America is death."  Rain put in.

Snake turned a look on the young man, reading his anger and hatred.  "So that's why he didn't say anything about homosexuals," Snake said softly, pulling up the memory of the pompous USPF officer who had sent him into L.A.  "...atheists, prostitutes, runaways... moral criminals....  But that asshole didn't mention...." "

"Yeah.  Queers, leatherpeople," Josh finished for him.  "Here in SF, they just shot or fried them.  There aren't as many executions as there used to be.  People are a lot more careful, and the ones that aren't good at hiding are mostly dead.  But DMZ has managed to get over two hundred fifty out of the City."  Josh paused for a long moment, then added in a tone of bitter irony, "Christians are fucking dangerous, y'know?  Never trusted 'em. They've been murdering my relatives for centuries."     

"You said your partner's name was Karen," Snake said.  "So you're not...."."

"Gay?" Josh finished the sentence for him.  "No.  Just kinky.  And Jewish."  His eyes grew cold as the stones in San Francisco's winter rain, and he no longer looked in the least jovial or amusing.  Snake remembered the iron faces of the partisan leaders he had seen during the war; they had looked like this man's face.  "Never again," Josh said, grinding out his cigarette.  "They're not herding us into the ovens this time without a fight.  Three years.  But we've taken out most of the officers.  I got the one who executed Karen."

Snake nodded slowly.  

"I am."  Snake turned at the sound of Rain's voice.  "I am," Rain repeated, "Gay, that is."

The Toymaker was calmly swallowing the last of his coffee.  His tone of emotionless scientific detachment was as chilling as the others' anger.  "You and Lonnie were at the parade, weren't you?"

"Yes," Rain answered.  "We were with the Action for Animals contingent.  We got over the barriers, but he was hit by flying glass from a store window.  I got him back to Josh's apartment.  He bled to death on the couch.  I was holding him when he died."

"We lost a lot of people."  Donnie's voice came from the shadows.  He was sitting on the fireplace's wide hearth, a little away from the rest.  "There are two kinds of people in the world: doers and droolers.  The doers dug in and fought."  He measured Snake with a stare, his mouth curled in a faint sneer.  "The droolers posed for the cameras."  

Snake slowly straightened, balancing on the edge of his chair, and froze, his hand poised above his holster.  Make it worth a bullet to me, Asshole.  His single eye burned blue fire.          

"Hold it, hold it!" the Toymaker said sharply, standing up and raising both hands, palms outward.  "Everybody, calm down."  He looked from one to the other of the two men poised on the edge of violence.  "Donnie, you're out of line.  Snake," his glance took in the others in the room, "you're outgunned.  The USPF would like nothing better than for us to kill each other off and save them the trouble.  Let's not give them the satisfaction."

Donnie rose and, without a word, stalked out of the room.  Snake leaned back with his little, almost soundless, snort, and relaxed.  He reached over, picked up a cigarette from the container in the center of the coffee table, struck a match to light it, sucking in smoke, blowing it out in an indifferent gesture.  The Toymaker pointedly turned the conversation to weaponry, and soon the DMZers were involved in a lively discussion.  Snake got the impression they were deliberately giving him space, and found himself filled with a low-key, unfocused irritation.  He had been shut out - shut himself out - once again, even here.  He shrugged mentally.  Why should he care?

Rain was sitting quietly in the chair next to Snake's, listening but not taking part in the conversation, as if there were something else on his mind.  Finally, he said softly, "O.K.  I'm gay.  Does that bother you, Snake?"

Snake regarded the younger man levelly. "Doesn't mean shit to me.  Long as you remember I'm not."  Gays  Yeah, he'd work with 'em, even fuck 'em, as long as they didn't try any romantic shit on him.  Snake's mind brought up a flash of memory: Carjack, back in Cleveland, posing provocatively for him in a slutty red dress, wig, and patent-leather spike heels.  He'd had to slam Malone up against the wall a couple of times to readjust his attitude, but after that there'd been no further trouble.  Carjack had rolled over for him just like a woman, and liked it.  He wouldn't roll for any man, Snake thought to himself.  He was no faggot.    

It hadn't been like that with him and Taylor.  What they'd had with each other had been something totally different.  He remembered Bill Taylor sitting on the couch next to him in that cheap little hotel room in Chicago, feet up on the coffee table and a beer in his hand.  The television showed clips of the San Francisco Freedom Day Parade, with  the queers in dresses and leather drag posturing and cavorting self-consciously to the disco music.  Snake lit a cigarette and handed it to Taylor before lighting one for himself, and they shared a laugh at the fags before changing the channel to another news program for a report on their latest robbery.   

The discussion turned to Snake and Rain's journey through the Park, Josh and the Toymaker drawing both of them back into conversation with questions.  Snake answered shortly, thinking about heading back to his room to sleep, until the subject of Rain's crossbow came up.

"I'm switching him to an AK-47 as soon as I get him trained," Snake growled.

"Hell you are," Rain answered, his smile defusing the flat statement.  "High tech

stuff's what got us into this; crossbow and knives are fine with me."

"A bow's single-shot, and it takes too long to reload.  Forty yard's your limit; velocity and penetration go to shit before that. "

"In my business, you don't need more than forty yards," Rain said.  "I can reuse my bolts, they don't misfire if they get wet, and there's no sound or flash to give away your position."   

"Rain's got a point," Josh said, and sidelined the argument by launching into a historical discussion of the value of the bow in warfare, its revolutionary effect at Crecy and Agincourt, and the relative merits of longbow vs. crossbow.  Some of the others at the table began to fidget.  Snake listened, interested, and batted comments back and forth, calling up long-forgotten lectures and textbooks at OCS.  Rain joined in with examples from his practical experience.  Finally, Rain was overcome by a yawn in the middle of a sentence.       

"Josh," the Toymaker prompted, "These guys need sleep."

"Oh, Right," Josh said regretfully.  "Well, while I'd love nothing better than to yack all night, it's going to be a long day for everybody tomorrow.  We'd all better turn in."  He looked around at the people still left at the table.  "Wolf, you and Michael O.K. with first watch?"  The Black man nodded, and Josh added, "Regular rotation then."  He raised his voice slightly, and the woman Snake and Rain had met guarding the door earlier looked up.  "Gayle, show Snake and Rain back to the guestroom."  He turned to Snake. "You guys ready?"  Snake and Rain nodded, and the group rose to go their separate ways.


******************

                                         

 Rain lay in bed, waiting for Snake to get back from his turn at the shower.  It felt wonderful to be clean, fed, and comfortable, and he was exhausted, but he had no hope of sleep yet.  He replayed Snake's words in his mind: Doesn't mean shit to me.  Long as you remember I'm not.  Whatever happened, he was glad it was out in the open.  Among his own people, it didn't matter any more than the color of your skin or whether you were a man or a woman, or something in between, but in this outside world, where you were assumed to be straight until proven otherwise, being in the closet made him feel dirty and dishonest.  He wondered how his revelation would affect Snake's attitude toward him.  So Snake was straight -- or at least said he was.  Rain wondered about that; the other man's body language didn't ring quite true to him.  How honest had Snake been, even with himself?  Sometimes the closet cases were the worst homophobes.  The next few minutes, when Snake returned, would give him some answers.  Rain shifted restlessly on the smooth sheets.

Snake padded into their room on strong bare feet, as graceful and lethal as a wild cat, naked except for the bath-towel wrapped around his waist.  Rain's jaw clenched with the effort of not reacting to the beautiful body in front of him.  Snake walked over to his own bed, calmly dropped the towel, pulled on a pair of the briefs he had bought from DMZ that afternoon, then slid under the covers.  There was no indication in his way of moving, or his indifferent expression, that anything at all had changed between them.  Rain relaxed; Snake couldn't be that good an actor.  

"Get the light," Snake said, and Rain reached over to the chemlamp on his nightstand and turned the key, darkening the room.  He heard Snake settling in for sleep.  Outside, through the window next to his bed, Rain could see ranks of dark cloud sweeping past on the endless San Francisco wind, alternately revealing and hiding the full moon.  Cold silver light flickered and disappeared, flickered and disappeared.  Rain closed his eyes, satisfied, and slid toward sleep.

                                                 ******************

Comfortable beds and an unexpected hot shower, combined with the knowledge that others were on guard for a change, allowed Snake and Rain to get a good night's sleep.  If  Snake dreamed, he didn't remember.  He woke in predawn half-light, slipped on his patch, and lay back to think and gather himself for the day.  He considered one of Ormsby's cigarettes and regretfully passed on the idea; he had less than half a pack of them left.  He settled for one of the inferior DMZ brand.  Ahead lay the trip up Market Street into the heart of unfamiliar blackbelly territory.  The disruption caused by 666 had set the city in motion, with refugees fleeing to and from the outlying areas.  Their party might be able to lose themselves in the general confusion, but he wouldn't relax until his feet hit solid ground on the Oakland side of the bay.  adrenaline coiled in him like a tight spring as he rose and dressed, sliding his new biking gloves into the pocket of his jacket.  It felt good to be wearing things that fit again and wouldn't tangle him up in a firefight.  He walked over to the window and studied the sky.  The overcast was lifting slightly, and it did not look like rain.    

He and Rain finished repacking their gear and joined the others downstairs for breakfast.  Bottled water, heated in a large kettle over the fire, made oatmeal and coffee that was actually drinkable.  The servers added bread toasted on long-handled forks, thick preserves, and fresh strawberries from the backyard greenhouse with canned milk and sugar.  As he sat by the fire in the Victorian kitchen, looking out into the neatly tended garden in back, Snake had the sense of being transported into a bedtime story for survivalist children.  

They ate quickly, with minimal conversation.  Josh insisted that the escort up Market was free, a favor to Rain and his people, who would reciprocate if it was ever needed.  "We aren't out to skin you alive.  There are a lot of people subsidizing us on the quiet.  We manage."  Josh spread his agile voice into a whispery Don Corleone imitation: "Some day, and that day may never come, I may ask a favor of you, Snake Plissken, and you will be glad to do it, because we are friends...."."  Rain chuckled.  Snake eyed Josh for a second, then gave up and smiled, as he gave his little voiceless snort.  Josh grinned triumphantly.  "I knew I could get you, eventually, Snake.  You're one tough audience."

Snake shook his head, and rose.  There was no point in putting it off any longer.  "Let's go."

"Donnie and Wolf will escort you down Market," Josh said.  Snake frowned, but said nothing; he had to trust that the man knew his people.  "Stop by next time you're in the City.  You're always welcome."  Josh extended a hand in parting.  Snake hesitated for a moment, then shook the heavyset man's hand, silently, to seal the alliance.  It would be useful to have contacts here if he ever needed them, but he hoped he would never see San Francisco again.  The very ground here would always stink of Taylor's blood and his own failure.  

The group would travel in diamond formation, Donnie and Wolf on street bikes taking point and rear, Snake and Rain with their dirt bikes and loaded trailers in the middle.  Donnie warned Snake to avoid the ventilation grates in the street's center section, which hadn't been repaired since the BART subway trains stopped running after the earthquake, and which gave way under almost any weight.  Parts of the tunnel system had collapsed; the rest had been occupied by squatters and crazies.  "You go down, you don't come back up.  It's a long way down to the tracks," the little man added with a sort of macabre relish.  "If the fall doesn't get you, the crazies will - they're hungry down there."  Snake nodded, remembering the sewers under New York Max.  

The Ferry Building, their goal, was visible from Haight and Market at the other end of Market Street's broad cement canyon, and Snake was reminded again of how small the City actually was.  He made a final quick check of his guns -- the Magnums hidden inside his parka, the HK 91, wrapped in padding, slung across the handlebars -- and moved out behind Donnie.  

This early, there were only a handful of people out on the street, bicycles, pedicabs, and carts mixed with foot traffic.  At each major intersection, a civilian traffic cop directed movement, replacing the electric traffic lights that had vanished with 666.   The four pedaled slowly, each silent and absorbed in his own thoughts.  Snake caught a glimpse of Rain's closed and bitter expression as they moved through buildings, sidewalk, and pavement scarred by bullets.  Ahead was the hummer station at Market and Montgomery where Taylor had died.  Face set, eyes invisible behind the wraparound dark glasses, Snake allowed the memory of Taylor's dying to surface, tasting desolation that caught in his throat and twisted into rage.  He compressed anger into the determination that fueled him and pedaled faster, almost passing Donnie, until the smaller man motioned sharply to him and Snake fell back into place.  

They saw the barricades, funneling traffic into the USPF checkpoint at Van Ness and Market, a block before they reached it.  "Shit," Snake hissed, his body tightening into the familiar tense, lucid calm of fight-or-flight as the four bicycles slowed to a stop.

"Shit," Donnie echoed.  "We can't go around; that'll tip 'em off for sure.  Have to try going through."  He considered.  "Snake's the only one whose ID won't hold up.  We'll have to cover him."  He unzipped his black leather jacket and shifted his own semiautomatic into position for a quick draw.

"I'll take Snake's trailer," Wolf said.  "Rain and I can run interference."  Rain nodded understanding, his own expression grim but composed.  Snake also nodded, once, sharply, as he kicked loose the latch on his trailer hitch and loosened the wrapping on his handlebar-mounted gun so that a single sharp jerk would free it for action.  Wolf dismounted and reattached the loaded trailer to his own lighter bike, then turned to Snake with a humorless grin.  "Then all you have to do, if the shit hits the fan, is pedal like hell."  Snake gave him an expressionless look, unsmiling.           

"If we get separated, regroup at Vaillancourt Fountain," Donnie said, and each of the men nodded once more in final confirmation.  They drifted into a more open formation, Rain and Wolf pedaling ahead together like a pair of delivery-men taking a cargo into the commercial district farther down Market.  Donnie followed at some distance, with Snake not far behind him.

The roadblock was manned by six bored-looking blackbellies.  One on each side was actually monitoring the light early-morning traffic, while the other four clustered on the sidewalk to one side of the barricades, styrofoam cups in their hands sending up little trails of steam into the cold air.  The USPF patrol glanced at the first two men's identification and waved them through without any hesitation.  A few yards past the check point, Rain and Wolf slowed, then stopped with their bikes spread across the center of the street, and began a conversation, Wolf pointing toward Van Ness, Rain onward down Market, as if they were having an argument over which route would be better.

Donnie stopped, surrendered his ID, passed through to the other side of the barricade, and took the card back from the blackbelly manning the checkpoint.  He wheeled a few feet farther, just out of reach, then turned.  Making a show of reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket to stash the card, he scowled and addressed the guard with, "Jesus, another one of these frickin' checkpoints.  What a pain in the ass.  What the fuck are you looking for, anyway...?"    

"None of your fucking business," the first guard growled.  "Move along."

While the first guard was occupied with Donnie, Snake arrived at the checkpoint.  He set a foot down on the ground for balance, keeping the other on the raised pedal opposite, and fumbled in his pocket, trying to look innocent and slightly fuddled.  He pulled out the fake ID the Toymaker had crafted for him and held it up, hoping it would pass by visual inspection.  Snake cursed silently to himself as the guard held out his hand for the ID, and tensed for flight as he handed it over.  The man looked from it to Snake with slowly dawning suspicion as he ran his thumb over the unlaminated cardboard. "Hold it -" 

The blackbelly died in a salvo of gunfire as Snake drew and fired.  Snake whirled, blasting the second officer, and, in the same movement, slammed the bike into top gear and took off, shoving his gun back into his inside coat pocket.  As he sped forward, he heard the rapid stutter of Donnie's weapon behind him, covering him, and, from the corner of his eye as he flew between them, saw Wolf and Rain drawing together to create a barrier the pursuing blackbellies would have to detour around, giving him precious extra seconds.  From behind, he heard shouts and the shrilling of whistles, as he swerved back and forth across the wide street, weaving an evasive flight through the other traffic.  A stray shot sang past his ear.  For a moment, Snake thought of USPF choppers and police cars, then he realized the blackbellies would be pursuing on foot and bicycle as well.  The police whistle sounded again, faintly, in the distance, and elation leaped: this time there would be no radio or computer to track him; the contest with the USPF would be, for once, equal.  Sheer mad exultation flamed within him, and the bicycle hit top speed.

Ahead, directly in Snake's path, was one of the sagging gratings hanging on rusted bolts.  By the time he saw it, there was no time to swerve.  He made an instant decision, clamped his hands around the handlebars and, with desperate strength, threw himself and the bike upward and forward into an airborne arc.  Come on, Sweetheart!  For what seemed forever, his wheels spun on empty air.  He landed hard, back wheel catching briefly on the metal frame of the grate before momentum carried him onward.  Bone-rattling impact jarred his whole body, shooting pain through his bad eye.  Wheels caught and he was off at full speed down the long slope toward the waterfront.  He heard shouts behind him, the crack of shots growing more distant.  Flashes of pain flared in his injured leg as he pushed himself, flying on the adrenaline rush, gulping air and pedaling furiously, weaving through the thickening traffic and swerving to avoid the treacherous gratings.

With the USPF in hot pursuit, Snake blasted past the hummer station entrance where Taylor had fallen; there was no time now, thankfully, for memories.  Ahead, Snake saw a group of blackbellies gathering in his path, attracted by the sounds of pursuit behind him.  With a quick pull, he freed the HK 91 from its covering, and, cursing mentally, swung the barrel back and forth, scything the area in front of him with bullets.  He brought down several of the uniformed figures, and the rest scattered.  He slalomed through the crowd, doing forty miles an hour, bent over his handlebars, dodging the few answering bullets of the blackbellies with presence of mind enough to fire at the terrifying apparition bearing down on them, and skidded sideways into an alley off Market street, barely avoiding the cracked green-marble facing of the old bank building on the corner.  He threaded a course through the alley, back and forth across several streets, through a parking lot, and finally slowed to a stop beside the metal slab of a big department store's backdoor roll-up delivery entrance.  He paused, trying to catch any sounds of pursuit audible over the rasp of air in his own lungs, as he lowered his head to the handlebars, fighting blackness at the edges of his vision and the pain in his head.  Fucking Plutoxin-7!  There was nothing except the faint noise of normal traffic from the streets beyond his alleyway.   He had lost them.  

When his breathing slowed to normal, Snake dismounted from his bike, removed his parka, and tugged off the sweat-soaked black pullover underneath.  He rewrapped the gun on his handlebars with the pullover, tying it down with the sleeves, to hide it from view, then turned his parka inside-out and slipped it on again.  Blackbellies looking for a flying fugitive in a shiny olive-drab nylon parka would see a sedate bicyclist in a dull black jacket.  Snake pedaled slowly back out onto Market and on down toward the waterfront, ignoring the occasional uniformed figure he passed, and turned left, heading for the fountain.  When he reached the jumble of square metal boxes that stood like an eerie echo of earthquake debris in the middle of its little green park, he leaned his bike against the side of the structure and sat down on the ledge, dangling his boots over the sidewalk and gazing out over the bay like any visiting tourist.  He held the pose, outwardly unconcerned, inwardly ratcheted to the point of snapping with tension, adrenaline singing like a drug in his veins.

It was about twenty minutes before Rain came sauntering down the sidewalk toward him, looking the very picture of casual unconcern.  "This way," Rain said softly as he passed Snake's position, and Plissken slid off the concrete ledge to follow him at a short distance.  

Rain led the way down another side street and into an alcove behind a tall metal dumpster labeled 'Cardboard Only.'  Wolf and Donnie were waiting for them there, along with all three bicycles.  Wolf smiled at Snake.  "Guess you'd like this back," he said, and leaned down to detach the connection to the trailer on his bike.

"Thanks," Snake said, as he reattached the loaded trailer to his own bike.  He wished the pain in his head would back down a little.  The headache stretched his temper to the breaking point and made it hard to concentrate.

Donnie was actually grinning at him.  He blew out a breath.  "Some evasive maneuver you pulled back there, Snake.  Nice job clearing that BART grating."   The grin widened, and Snake saw the sarcasm in it.  "'Course I didn't actually see it.  I was...bubusy...atat the time, taking care of those other four blackbellies you... uh... l left behind for me."

Snake fixed the annoying little asshole with an icy blue stare and said nothing.  He turned to Wolf again.  "What about the ferry?"

"Next sail ferry to the Napa side is in an hour.  When the crowd picks up, you can try to blend."  The group pulled back as far as they could behind the dumpster, out of sight of any casual traffic passing down the alley, and waited.

When the crowd gathered for the next sail ferry crossing, Rain slipped into the swirling mass of people heading for the dock, to reconnoiter the situation.  In ten minutes, he was back, and the expression on his face was not encouraging.  "No way," he said.  "Blackbellies've cordoned off the pier.  They're checking IDs and searching everybody getting on the ferry.  I think they're looking for us."  

"Shit!" Snake spat.  There was no point in trying the fake ID again, now that the blackbellies were alerted.  They would have to find another way across the Bay.

"You're not taking the boat, that's for sure," Donnie said, stating the obvious.  Snake gave him a glare.

"Now what?" Rain muttered.  Three pairs of eyes turned automatically in Wolf's direction.  The tall Black man stood silent for a moment, frowning, then said, "We'll take the Bay Bridge."

Donnie whistled soundlessly again.  "I don't know, Wolf.  Upper deck's out - it's barricaded and patrolled.  Lower deck's possible, but it's in such bad shape I don't know if we could get the bikes through.  Plus, we've gotta double back to Fourth.  Through Bloods territory."                                             

"Bloods know me," Wolf said.  "If I can get to Pharaoh, we've got safe passage to Fourth.  We take the Bridge over, lower deck, get these two to Oakland, back home by morning."  The former Marine's voice was quietly confident.  He measured Snake with a glance.  "You fucked the System that killed my Cassandra.  I owe you, man."  Wolf moved out toward Market Street with a firm military stride.  

Snake gave his voiceless snort; gratitude made him uneasy and he dismissed it.  "So all we have to do is get to Fourth.  And what?"

"Fourth and Mission," Donnie said.  "Gang territory. We stay here; Wolf'll go negotiate."  He zipped open his leather jacket and reached inside, then took a clip of ammo from his bike pannier, emptied the old clip, and slapped the new one home in the butt of his semiautomatic before replacing the gun in its hiding place.     

Snake nodded, silently.  He was willing to keep truce while working with the man.  Personalities just endangered the objective.  He checked his own guns, reloaded and replaced them, then settled down next to Rain to wait for Wolf.

It was close to three hours before Wolf returned, accompanied by a dark-skinned, athletic Black man dressed in an echo of Wolf's Urban Unobtrusive outfit of loose gray-cotton pants, shirt, and windbreaker, with the addition of a red bandana around his head.  He observed them impassively, his face neutral, as Wolf introduced him.  "This is Pharaoh.  He's agreed to take us to the Bridge onramp at Fourth.  Pharaoh: Donnie, Rain."  He paused, then gestured toward the last member of the group.  "Snake Plissken."

The young man's expression softened and he held out a strong hand in Snake's direction.  "Snake Plissken.  You knew DeWayne Wilson."    

Snake took the offered handshake firmly.  "My wingman."  Wilson had died at Leningrad.  Sorrow and anger moved in Snake, but never reached his still, intent face.  "Friend of yours?  Family?"

"He was my dad."  Pharaoh said quietly. "I never really knew him; he was killed when I was a baby.  Mama told me you were his C.O.  Said you wrote her a letter, three pages, and sent his pictures and tags back.  And this."  He reached into his shirt and produced a gold wedding ring on a beaded dogtag chain.  The dogtags and the ring took Snake back to the day he had written the letter.  The labored scrawl, so unlike his usual neat script, had been the result of his gas-blurred vision.  It had taken him a week to write letters to every one of the forty-eight families.  

"He was a good pilot," Snake said simply.  "How's... R Reba?"

"Mama died in a blackbelly sweep.  They were lookin' for somebody else," Pharaoh answered.  "Man, we all got a reason to hate this government!"

"No shit," Snake rasped softly.  "The Bridge...."."

"I'll get you to the ramp.  Cross when it's dark.  Be careful, though: earthquake wrecked the whole lower level.  There's places where the roadbed's gone; just the side railing and a catwalk left.  Once you're in Oaktown, you talk to Chaindog.  He'll send you on through."

"Split up," Wolf said.  "Rain, you go alone; you know the way.  Donnie, you go with Snake.  Pharaoh and I'll meet you at Mission and Main."  

He and Pharaoh slipped out of the alleyway.  Rain followed in about ten minutes, and Snake and Donnie brought up the rear a few minutes later.  It was a short but nerve-wracking block to the end of the plaza and the beginning of Mission Street.  The cordon of USPF was gone, probably until the next scheduled ferry, but a scattering of uniformed guards remained.  Donnie and Snake strolled past a squad of blackbellies "searching" a frightened young woman in a business suit and heels who might have been a secretary from one of the office buildings farther up Market.  They were laughing as they passed her roughly around the group.  Snake lowered his head, letting his hair hide the side of his face; every muscle tensed as he waited for an alarm from behind him, but the blackbellies were too interested in manhandling the girl to pay him any attention.  As they reached Mission and turned right, Snake heard a faint sound, suspiciously like a sigh of relief, from the direction of his companion, and smiled ironically to himself.

A block past the old post office, the neighborhood changed abruptly to grimy commercial buildings and run-down hotels advertising weekly rates.  Scattered among them were blocks of crumbling nineteenth-century flats, their brick and wood facades black with age and dirt.  Above liquor-stores, greasy-spoons, and discount shops at ground level, tenement apartments loomed up into the gray sky.  The few empty lots, filled with weeds and earthquake rubble, were tagged with elaborate swirls of bright-colored graffiti.  People who had somewhere else to be hurried along, heads down and shabby coats pulled tight around them to keep out the damp, penetrating wind blowing down the urban canyon off the ocean.  Those who didn't -- most of them men or teenage boys -- loitered in doorways, on steps, on street corners.  Snake caught sight of a few children's faces through the grime of bare, closed windows.  Sullen hostility shimmered in the air, and a prickling sense of danger that reminded Snake of New York Max, but these were not crazies.  The dark faces tracking him down Mission were quite sane, casualties and combatants in a very real war of race and class.  Snake felt their hatred, an impersonal hatred that targeted, not Snake Plissken, but an anonymous, symbolic invader in a territory under siege.

Snake and his companions reached the twisted supports of the Bay Bridge onramp at Fourth Street, cracked concrete pillars rising out of a tangle of interlaced freeway entrances and exits, and found a spot to wait for dark, out of sight of passers-by, among the abandoned cars in a nearby parking lot.  Pharaoh looked up at the structure.  "You really gonna try to make it across?  Shit, man."  He shrugged.  "Your ass.  Like I said, you get to Oaktown, you call on Chaindog; tell him Pharaoh sent you.  He hangs at that truck yard just off the Bridge, to the left.  I got to get back."  He turned to Snake, and they traded a long look before Pharaoh added, "Anybody can make it, Snake Plissken can."  He extended his hand one more time in parting.  "Luck, Snake."

Snake studied the young man, son of a fallen member of Black Light, fellow-warrior in a war that was both different and the same as his own, with complex emotions invisible on his closed face.  Here was both the success, and the terrible failure, of his unit's mission, and Snake Plissken's success, and his bitter personal failure, as its commander.  "You, too," Snake said, as he shook Pharaoh's hand, once, hard.  It was all he could say, but in it were his pride in the men of Black Light, his respect for the young man in front of him, and the benediction of one generation on its heir and its successor.  The gang leader smiled quietly, with a look of satisfaction, then moved off, melting into the cityscape.  Snake watched him go.     

A few seconds' effort by Snake with the butt of a gun shattered a window, -- no more alarms -- and the four remaining men climbed into the rear of one of the abandoned vans in the parking lot, out of sight from the bridge's upper section or the street, and out of the wind.  Wolf reconnoitered this time.  "Pharaoh's right," he reported.  "We'll have to wait for dark.  The upper level's crawling with blackbellies."  He turned to Snake and Rain to explain, "Lights are out on the bridge, so they shut down the upper level, too, between dusk and seven A.M.  Just a couple of guards at the entrance.  We can get across then."

They settled down to wait with as much patience as they could muster.  Wolf and Rain chatted quietly about mutual friends and DMZ.  Donnie leaned against the spare tire, crossed his arms over his chest, propped up his feet, and closed his eyes.   Snake spent the first hour on a final check of his weaponry, his supplies, and his bike.  Finally he ran out of things to check, and sat back also.  His mind turned to past times he had spent waiting like this, to past missions.  He called up memories of DeWayne Wilson and Black Light, of the cold fall, so like this cold fall, before takeoff for Leningrad, and the cold metal walls of the glider hanger, so like the cold metal wall behind him now.  A sense of weary foreboding threatened, and he shook it off impatiently.  Don't jinx it, Snake.       

By five-thirty, the shortened winter day was close to full dark.  With the night came a thick fog, and the temperature dropped sharply.  The four of them climbed back out of the van, stiffly, and stood stamping feet and shaking feeling back into numb hands, preparing to move out.  "Better get started," Wolf said.  "Donnie, you take point; Snake, Rain - I'll take the rear.  Stay close to the railing and test your footing.  Bikes in front.  Let's move."  They found their way to the bridge in the last gray scraps of twilight, and started across in darkness.    

Over land, the onramp was intact, and at first Snake stepped easily, feeling the solid footing under him, guiding himself with one hand on the railing, guiding his bike with the other.  As he moved forward, the utter darkness pressed in on him from all sides.  Never, except in the darkness behind his eyes, had he known such total lack of light.  No reflected sky-shine, no twinkling white points of light, no neon colors, came from the blacked-out city on either side of the Bay.  Fog hid stars and moonlight.  Background sound behind him fell away into silence, and all he could hear was air blowing past his ears.  Onramp gave way to bridge superstructure; Snake felt, rather than saw, the massive weight of the upper deck above him.  Fog curled around him, wrapping him like layer upon layer of iced gauze, and Snake breathed shallowly, remembering gas.  Far below him, the killing-cold waters of San Francisco Bay sent up dank fumes of pollution, the smell of a rotting world.  A new prickling unease crept along Snake's nerves.    

"Thin place ahead."  Donnie's voice sounded too far away, muffled by the fog.  "Keep left; push the bike first.  It's about... three, maybe four, feet wide... n no, less...."."

Snake relayed the information to the men behind him and moved slowly forward, feeling with his boot for the drop-off to his right.  "Slopes to the right; two and a half foot wide," he called in a low voice back over his shoulder.  Wet railing was slick and numbing-cold under his gripping hand.  Wind off the Bay burned his face and bit through his jacket.  He heard a voice behind him, passing on his words.  The path widened again for a space, than narrowed sharply.  He felt loose concrete shift.  He followed a warning voice ahead into blackness.  Sound and feeling faded, sight did not exist; his numb fingers and toes barely registered railing and concrete under them.  He moved forward into void, wet cold freezing him, turning him to black ice.

The wind smelled like snow.  Like Russia.  Stumbling through treacherous, poisoned snow in total darkness, burning-blind eyes wrapped in a silk aviator's scarf stiff with frozen blood.  Safety was somewhere ahead of him.  Wind howled in his ears, pushed at him, disorienting him.  He was shivering furiously.  "You can't get water from the snow," they had told him; "the snow is full of gas.  It'll kill you."  He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.  Water, deadly water, all around him... he clung desperately to Taylor's arm, his hand growing steadily number.... .     

CRACK!  The surface under Snake's feet shuddered.  A scream, and Snake lunged toward it, grabbing for the sound.  His right hand closed on the hem of Tay... of Donnie's leather flight jacket.  The scream's echo boomed in the metal supports of the bridge, and a second later Donnie's falling bicycle clanged, once, loudly, on metal and then hit water with a splash.  Snake's own bicycle fell against his side, and he braced it with his knee.  The scrap of leather twisted in Snake's grasp as Donnie struggled for a purchase, sliding toward the broken edge.  Snake's boots skidded on the fog-slicked surface, as Donnie's weight dragged Snake forward after him, and Snake's numbed hand slid down the railing toward emptiness.  Donnie was dangling, thrashing, in Snake's one-handed grip now, pulling Snake down toward the drop into the Bay.  Him or me, Snake thought, and made an instant decision.  He let go.  As he hauled himself, two-handed, back from the splintered concrete, Snake heard a meaty thud of impact that choked off the screaming, and then another splash.  Snake clung to the railing, breathing hard, fighting to find his anger.  Leningrad, the Russian winter, the blindness, the pain of his fresh wound, receded and the rage of the betrayal rose like some elemental spirit to take its place.  Snake raised his head, looking up, out over the Bay.  Thin, high, bright threads of fire streaked across the black sky above him.  Snake straightened up slowly as he watched them, and took hold of his bicycle again, ready to move on.

Then there was a hand gripping his shoulder tightly, and Snake heard Rain's voice in his ear.  "Snake!  What happened?"

"Him or me," Snake said, his voice expressionless.  "I let him go.  He's down there somewhere in the Bay."

"Fuck."  Rain was silent for a minute, then his voice changed as he said, "Snake - are you O.K.?"  Rain was the faintest outline next to him of black against lighter black.  Something in his tone caught at the memory of Russia and Taylor that was fading from Snake's mind, but the wind blew it away.

"We have to go back."  Wolf's voice came from behind them.  "We can't do this in the dark.  Donnie was a rock-climber; if he fell, it's because there's nothing to walk on.  I won't risk losing another man"

Tactical withdrawal.  Snake remembered ordering the retreat from Leningrad, and nodded, invisible in the darkness, then said, "Yeah."  His voice sounded rusty in his own ears.  He dragged his bike around and prepared to go back the way they had come.

He heard Wolf's voice ahead of him.  "Damn, it's dark!  Can't see a thing."

"This is country dark," Rain's voice answered.  "No light from the city."

"Get moving," Snake growled.  He heard the faint sound of footsteps and the whisper of tire-treads on wet concrete, and followed them, backtracking carefully.  Their return trip, weighted down with fatigue and Donnie's death, was no easier than the outward journey.  When they reached their starting point again, the three remaining men sheltered by a support pillar under the onramp overpass.  Not daring to make a fire, they sat close together, glumly sharing silence in the damp cold, as Snake mentally sorted through what had happened to him on the bridge.  Waking dream?  Flashback?  Gas getting to me at last?  "Bullshit!" he muttered, dismissing the questions.  Lack of light is all; sensory deprivation.  Perfectly normal.... .  He called up safer, more familiar, memories, drawing strength from the black, burning core of anger within him, fighting darkness with darkness.  His own darkness rose and filled his world, driving out everything else.

As the first pale dawn light wrapped a luminous white sheet of fog around them, hiding them from any unfriendly eyes, the cold, hungry, and exhausted trio started across the Bay Bridge again.  This time, Snake took point.  When they reached the broken place where Donnie had fallen, they discovered that the catwalk had collapsed entirely. The passage was so narrow they had to sling their bikes from their shoulders with a length of rope from Rain's pack and crabwalk across, holding on to the railing for support.  They unpacked the trailers, passed the supplies over the gap, one-handed, from one to the other, and repacked them on the far side.  By the time they were finished, it was late morning and the fog was beginning to lift.  Fifteen feet farther on, the roadway widened, almost intact, and they were able to pedal, slowly, to Yerba Buena Island.

The center tunnel section of the freeway had collapsed in the quake, replaced by a jury-rigged section of infill and blacktop.  "We can detour around, overland, and go back up on the other side," Rain suggested, and the others agreed.  A short distance from the roadway, they found a sandy depression hidden by a stand of gnarled bushes, where Rain cleared an area and lighted a small fire.  Here they warmed themselves, dried their damp jackets, and ate a meager lunch before continuing.  About a quarter mile on the other side, the freeway sloped back up to rejoin the pre-quake structure.  Snake, Rain, and Wolf climbed back up to the lower level, pulled the bicycles and trailers up after them, and wheeled on toward Oakland, detouring around the broken sections of paving.  Twice more, they had to dismount and edge their way along the side of an open section, looking down through the gap in the concrete at the green water foaming and splashing around twisted supports below, sending up rank spray to dampen them.  By the time they reached the far side, Snake's skin and hair were sticky with dried saltwater.

They came off the freeway into the Oakland waterfront, an area of warehouses and industrial buildings, blacktop parking lots ringed with chain-link fence, weed-choked vacant lots, and unpainted Victorian houses with broken windows and sagging porches, set in bare earth.  Many of the dilapidated automobiles lining the streets looked as if they had been abandoned there long before 666.   A block to the left brought them to the old truck-yard.  Inside was a low stucco building surrounded by cars, semi cabs, and pieces of heavy machinery.  Several men lounged in the yard, leaning against the sides of the trucks and sitting on front seats, talking loudly and laughing.  A strapping young Black man with an AK-47 was standing at the gate in the tall chain-link fence as they came up to it.  He eyed them coldly and shifted the rifle to a ready position.  "Wha'chu want?'

"Yo, bro," Wolf said, "We here fo' Chaindog.  We down with Pharaoh over Mission.  This Snake Plissken."  He gestured in Snake's direction.

"Wait."  The guard turned to one of the other young men and handed him the rifle, then gestured to Wolf to follow him.  As they walked to the building's door, he held out his hand, and Wolf surrendered his gun to him without a word.  The two disappeared inside.  

Fifteen minutes passed as Snake and Rain waited under a barrage of hostile stares.  Snake kept his hands visible and away from his guns, but poised, as the young man covered them with the AK-47.   Finally Wolf and the first guard returned, accompanied by a massive Black man a full head taller than Snake and probably half again as heavy, dressed in loose-fitting dark pants and a bulky black Raiders jacket.  The cold, suspicious expression as he faced them brought back memories for Snake of his encounter with the Duke of New York.   "Th' Wolf say you Snake Plissken," the big man rumbled.  "You frontin' me, I fuckin' snake yo' white ass, SEC!"

Snake gave him an impassive stare in return, and stood motionless as Wolf spread his hands, saying, "Proper-T, Chaindog; you make 'im.  He all ovah d'Box.  It's up."

"Maybe."  Chaindog folded his arms and glared at Snake.  "Show me, man."

Snake allowed a hint of annoyance to surface visibly as he rasped, just above a whisper, "Show you what?"

"S to the D Snake Plissken one righteous badass muthafuckah.  Got a fuckin' tat down his dick.  Back yo' game: whip it out, suckah!"

"Fuck you!" Snake spat.  His hands hovered over the butt of his Magnums.  The AK-47 shifted, pointedly, in his direction and guns appeared in the hands of several of the other men in the yard as they came to alert attention, facing the visitors.

Wolf moved to stand next to him.  "Snake, this guy owns Oakland," he muttered in Snake's ear.  "If you want to make it through...."."

Snake allowed himself the brief luxury of imagining this Black asshole smeared all over the blacktop by a spray of bullets, before taking firm control of his smoldering anger.  For a moment, he held the other man's eyes with his own unwavering blue stare, the line of his mouth hard, calmly taking up the challenge and returning it as his hand moved slowly to his fly.  The faint hiss of the zipper was audible in the charged silence.  Snake briefly ranged with his good eye, then a wide, hot, stream of urine arced, smoking, through the cold winter air and hit the step just below Chaindog's hi-tops with perfect aim, splattering off concrete onto leather.  Snake heard the intake of breath from Wolf in his ear, and soft exclamations from Chaindog's men.  From the corner of his eye, he caught Rain's intent expression.  Spreading his feet slightly in a gunfighter pose, Snake hooked his thumbs lightly over the top of his gunbelt, fingers pointing downward toward the thick length of his exposed cock.  Inked line of the cobra's tail, clearly visible on pale flesh, curved down the heavy shaft and ended in a black band that circled the head.  

Chaindog followed the line down with his eyes, then looked back up to meet Snake's menacing, stony glare, locked in a contest of wills that was almost visible, as those around them stood frozen.  Finally, the larger man broke off the conflict.  "God damn!  Yeah, you Snake, man; proper-T.  C'mon inside."

Snake calmly tucked, zipped up, and followed Chaindog up the step and into the building, with Wolf and Rain on his heels.  They walked past a deserted repair garage and storage areas to a large office with a frosted-glass window in the door neatly labeled "Manager."  Inside was a large executive desk and several

upholstered chairs.  Chaindog waved his three visitors to them, sat down in the big chair behind the desk, and pulled off his hi-tops.  "Yo, J.T!" he called.  The door opened, and a skinny teenager stuck his head in.  Chaindog threw the shoes in his direction and the boy fielded them.  "Clean 'em off," Chaindog told him shortly, "An' tell th' General c'mere."  The boy disappeared with the wet shoes, and Chaindog turned his attention to the group in his office.  "I oughta make you do it, muthafuckah," he grumbled in Snake's direction, but it was clearly pro forma.

Snake gave him a level, expressionless stare which made it quite clear just how successful Chaindog would be if he followed through on his threat, and didn't bother to respond.  "We're passin' through," he said softly; "Just stopped to... pay our respects."  We're not looking for trouble, but we can handle it if it shows up, his tone said.

"Sheee-it..." " Chaindog drew the word out in a way that indicated disbelief combined with admiration for Snake's sheer bare-faced effrontery.  Snake could feel the delicate balance shifting in his direction.

"Pharaoh said you'd send us through," Wolf said steadily in a tone that added, silently: Are you going to make him a liar?  Do you want to take the chance of starting a gang war over this?  

Chaindog leaned back in the wide upholstered chair and gave Wolf a considering, sideways glance.  "Pharaoh's my bro.  He know I don't take shit off nobody."  He leaned forward and slapped one hand on the desk.  "You disrespected me.  I got a mind to light you up just for that, Plissken."

"Call me Snake."

Chaindog sighed.  "Shit, man, you got 'em!  Get yo' stank ass out ma face, 'fore I change m'mind."  He raised his voice to a peremptory bellow: "GENERAL!"

"Yo, Chaindog."  Snake, Wolf, and Rain rose slowly to their feet as the door opened and another of Chaindog's group entered, a slender young Black man dressed in a replica of the gang leader's uniform of Raiders jacket and dark pants, along with a black military beret pulled down over his forehead and an AK-47 slung over his left shoulder.  Four USPF eagle rank patches were sewed down one black nylon sleeve, and two on the other.  For a moment Snake contemplated them, baffled, and then the hint of a smile flickered over his mouth and was gone: taking enemy scalps, he thought.

Chaindog leaned back in his chair again and gestured first at one and then at the other: "General E-lectrik.  General, this the Snake.  You take 'im on through and see he get there."  He turned to Snake and growled, "Get on out ma town."  He turned to Wolf and added. "You, too."

Wolf nodded slowly, solemnly.  "Thanks, Chaindog.  I'll pass on back to Pharaoh."

"See you do," Chaindog answered shortly, in a tone that suggested it was both an admonition and a threat, and jerked his head toward the door in a final gesture of dismissal.

The rest of the group filed out of Chaindog's office and made their way to the outer fence around the truck yard.  At the door, Wolf turned to Snake and Rain and said, "I'll leave you here.  I want to get back across the bridge before dark.  Give my best to your Group, Rain."  He nodded a farewell to the General, then faced Snake and gave him one quick "thumbs up."

Something from deep within Snake's past stirred, a half-forgotten memory carrying with it the memory of an old emotion he had discarded long ago.  Poker-faced, he echoed the gesture, and said softly, "Semper Fi."      

Several emotions chased themselves across Wolf's dark face: surprise, pride, pain, and finally, with an ironic smile, he answered, "F.T.A.  Good luck, Snake."  The smile became genuine and then faded as he turned and started walking back toward the Bay Bridge.

Snake gave his short, voiceless laugh, and for a moment, actually grinned.  "Asshole," he muttered in a surprisingly cheerful tone.

Rain and the General both gave him puzzled looks, and Rain arched eyebrows in Snake's direction.  "F.T.A.?"  The young man finished unpacking and reassembling his crossbow, and slid it over his shoulder in a carrying-strap, ready for easy access.  From the satisfied look on Rain's face, Snake got the impression the young man felt he was fully armed again.   

"Fuck The Army," Snake answered, and turned to the General: "Let's get moving."

"Where you goin'?"  

"North," Snake answered shortly.  The General slung the strap of his rifle over his shoulder and started out purposefully down the street.  For a block or so, they walked along in silence through deserted industrial-park buildings of stucco and glass, Snake and Rain pushing the bicycles.  The General gave the impression that he was trying very hard to look cool and unimpressed while guiding the famous Snake Plissken across his territory.  Finally, Snake made the first move.  He gestured at the patches sewed down the General's sleeve: "Blackbellies?"

The young man grinned and nodded, his face lighting up.  "Dead blackbellies."   

Snake gave a single, slow nod and the hint of a grave, congratulatory smile that clearly said: 'good job.'  The General preened a bit.  "Snake Plissken.  Shit. You got one serious badass game, Snake."  The General walked on for a ways, his steps taking on a rhythmic cadence.  Gradually, he added a finger-snap in counterpoint to the thud of footstep on concrete, and broke into patterned speech: "I be strapped an I be on it; in a muthafuckin' minute/ I be snakin' out the bacon, jest as soon as we get in it/ The BBs, they be illin' bout the killin' they be riskin'/ So I bagged they fuckin' payroll, pullin' off a Snake Plissken."  His footsteps returned to his regular stride as he finished with: "Man, you in all the fuckin' raps!"  He gave Snake a sly sideways glance and added, "Bet you ain't heard 'em, though.  They got a bonk Outside on ever'thin' got your name in it."  

Rain evidently noticed Snake's puzzled expression and chimed in with," A bonk's a Parental Advisory.  It's illegal to play anything with a PA."  He chuckled.  "Not that it matters any more."

"My name is illegal?" Snake said, bemused.

General E-lectrik's grin widened.  "It gangsta, man!  Snakin' be bustin' banks, wastin' th' bacon.  Bangin.'  I be a Oaktown Playa."  He slapped the USPF badges on his left sleeve.  "I been snakin' fo' years."

"And... 'pulling off a Snake... Plissken?'"

"Killin' a PO-liceman.  Or lightin' up a crowd with a Glock.  Flyin' bullets very snake!"  The young man glowed with a reflected pride.  "I be down fo' you, Snake.  You bad!"

Snake snorted and returned to silence, but Rain grinned in return and said, "So what are some of the other raps about Snake?"

As they moved on through block after block of tumble-down Victorian houses toward the outskirts of Oakland, the General responded with a torrent of rap verses, some of which, he informed them proudly, he had composed himself, featuring Snake's name as, variously, noun, verb, or adjective.  The people that they passed glanced at them, and quickly away again as soon as they caught sight of the General's garb and the trio's collective firepower.  Finally, the houses started to spread out, becoming bungalows and more modern designs, and greenery started to creep in among them.  Their guide slowed and stopped.  He regarded Snake rather wistfully, as if reluctant to give up possession of his trophy, then said, "I don't go no farther."  He shifted from one foot to the other, as if trying to think of something further to add, and finally sketched a salute.  "Later, Snake."  Without waiting for a response, he turned and started back the way he had come.  Rain and Snake mounted their bicycles and pedaled onward toward the edge of Oakland.  Taking the back streets and keeping a sharp watch out for blackbelly patrols, they reached the suburbs without incident and wheeled on into the countryside.  A few miles out of Oakland, they found a protected spot under an overpass and settled down to wait out the night, one wrapped in his sleeping bag while the other kept watch.



                                                     CHAPTER THREE

                      

Snake half-woke in the gray pre-dawn, recognized the sounds of motion near him as being produced by Rain, and went back to sleep.  A while later, he woke to crisp winter sunshine and the smell of coffee.  Rain had built a small, almost smokeless, fire on the concrete of the underpass and was boiling up bottled water for coffee and instant oatmeal.  After breakfast, they set out again, Rain leading the way along the network of back roads paralleling I-80, skirting Berkeley and heading northward.  Snake enjoyed the sun's warmth on his bent shoulders as they wheeled through the rolling hills, green with the winter rains and sheened with a silvery layer of dew.  Each blade of grass sparkled in the morning light.  Here and there little plumes of mist rose, melting away before they reached waist-height.

They met no one on the narrow country road.  Most travelers used the easier, better-marked route of the interstate, and the local population had either sought refuge in the nearest town or retreated to a more defensible spot away from the highway.  For the first time in days, Snake felt he could really breathe, away from the gas-laden fog of San Francisco.  He drew in great gulps of the bright air as he pedaled.  He could feel the pull of the muscles in his wounded leg, but the pain was almost gone, and the bicycle rolled forward with a smooth, silent, almost effortless motion that reminded him of glider-flight.  He swooped down the long, shallow hills, feeling the bike respond to his every movement, bringing up memories of his Gulffire floating down a sweeping curve of air.  

As they continued onward after the noon-break, Snake began to notice a change in the air around him: a hint of damp breeze, a smell of moist earth, as overcast crept in again over the sky, darkening into a cloudbank toward the horizon.  Snake's mood darkened with it, memories of the Gulffire turning to painful images of falling toward earth on a dark wind.  ...the crash, Lt. Plissken crawling from under the wrecked fuselage, covered in blood, snow, and broken glass.... .  Snake snarled to himself and brought his thoughts back to the road ahead, wondering angrily why it was that every time he relaxed a little, some inner demon brought up past images to torment him.  He glanced up toward the clouds gathering as if in response to his mood, blotting out the blue, turning the sky threatening with promise of rain.  He thought of gas in the falling water.  "Rain," he muttered; then, more loudly, "Rain!"

The young man ahead of him slowed and called back, "What is it, Snake?"

"It's going to rain," Snake said, a snap of irritation in his tone.

Rain slowed to a complete stop and Snake drew up next to him.  Rain looked at the lowering clouds overhead.  "Probably will.  This is the rainy season in northern California."   

"We need to get undercover.  No telling how much gas it'll be carrying.  You know any places around here?"

Rain chewed his lower lip, considering.  "Yeah," he said.  "I sure do.  The driveway's right along here.  I passed it every time I came down south in the truck, and it pissed me off every time I drove by.  There's a place up off the road that used to be a little family winery.  Really nice people.  Didn't bother anybody.  They ran it as a hobby.  The government seized the property when drinking was made illegal.  This blackbelly Commander fixed the DEA auction and got it for practically nothing."

"There's a reason this pissed you off more than usual?"     

"The scumbag's growing a pot crop in the winery -- under grow-lights, with a generator to keep it off the power-grid -- and selling illegal booze.  He's got connections to keep the narcs and bottle-Nazis off the place, and he sics the Feds on the competition when he can.  We know he tipped off some of the raiders that hit Rivendell.  I'd love to take him out."

"Sounds familiar," Snake said dryly.  He looked up at the dark clouds overhead.  "We'd better get moving.  What's the guy got?"

"Got?'

"Defenses."

"He has an electrified fence and an alarm system...."."

"No problem now."

"...And a couple of really nasty dogs.  A Rott and a Presa Canario."

"A what?" Snake asked.

"Big ugly fighting dog."

"How many people?"

"Just him.  He's too cheap to share."

"Hpf," Snake acknowledged.  "Let's get going."

Drops of rain began to come down at intervals.  Several anxious minutes later, they rode up to a stone wall with a locked iron gate barring entry to a driveway.  Above it was a metal arch with dangling chains which showed where the old winery sign had once hung.  A blacktopped drive led away from the gate into a tangle of untrimmed oleanders and overhanging trees.   

"How far is the house?" Snake asked.

"It's a ways up the road."

Snake drew his Magnum and shot the lock off the gate.  The two men stood listening intently for any reaction, while Rain prepared and cocked his crossbow.  Nothing broke the stillness except an occasional patter of raindrops on the leaves above them.  They moved off down the drive, pushing their bikes, weapons ready for instant access.  About a mile up the road, around several twists and turns, they came to another tall metal fence with curved spikes along the top, and another, more businesslike lock.  Inside, almost hidden by overgrown trees and bushes, was a one-story brown-shingled bungalow, its windows covered with protective bars disguised as ornamental grillwork.  No lights were visible, but that, Snake reflected, didn't mean any longer that there was no one at home.  The door was ajar, opening into darkness.  A drop of rain hit him on the forehead, and he decided he and Rain were going to stay here overnight whether or not the property owner objected.

"Cover me," Snake said.    

Rain nodded.  They left their bicycles at the side of the road, and Rain stood guard while Snake knelt down on one knee and concentrated on the tricky task of quietly picking the lock.  It sprang open with a click.  Snake stood up and pushed on the tall, heavy gate, which swung slowly open with a faint protesting groan.  As he stepped through, a brindle blur came rushing around the side of the house and launched itself at him.  Snake whipped up his gun and aimed, but before he could fire, Rain's crossbow snapped, and the dog went down twenty feet from them.  The entire thing had taken place in almost total silence.  Snake exhaled and looked at Rain, and the two of them looked back at the dead dog.  It was the big male Presa Canario, muscular and scarred, but gaunt to the point of emaciation.

Wordlessly, they exchanged glances again and continued toward the building.  Snake gestured, sending Rain around the house on one side while he went the other direction.  They arrived back at the front porch at almost the same time.  At Snake's questioning look, Rain shook his head.  Guns drawn, crossbow cocked, the two men slipped through the entrance and split up to check out the interior.  Toward the back of the house, Snake found another half-open door.  Through it, he could see the foot of a large bed with a rumpled coverlet.  A faint smell of something unclean was seeping through the opening.  Finger on the trigger, body tense, Snake stepped around the door, into the room, and stood still, taking in the scene in front of him.  Strewn across the bloody bed were the decomposing remains of the house's owner.  Large parts of the corpse were missing, and several of its bones had been gnawed bare and disjointed.  What happened? Snake wondered.  Scattered among the bones were little white pills.  Snake found an amber pill-bottle next to one of the pillows and picked it up.  The label read "Nitroglycerine."  Snake snorted.  Bad heart.  It wasn't even 666.           

He heard Rain's voice from behind him.  "Snake, I found the other dog.  The one I shot had been eating him."

"Looks like one of 'em got here first."

Rain came through the door and joined Snake in staring at the mess on the bed.  The muscles in his jaw bunched, but his face betrayed no other emotion.  After a minute, he said evenly, "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."  He looked over at Snake.  "I'm just sorry about the dogs."

The two men wrapped the scattered fragments of the corpse in the bed linens and dumped the whole bundle into bushes in back of the winery-building-turned-pot-farm behind the house.  Then they pulled their bikes inside the house's front hallway and locked the door, just as the rain that had been threatening began to come down in earnest.

"Nice place," Rain murmured.   

The house did indeed look like a gentleman farmer's weekend retreat, cozily decorated in expensive country style, with large amounts of polished wood, overstuffed furniture, imitation folk art, and retro burgundy-and-hunter-green plaid.  To one side of the front hall was a small room, evidently the former children's bedroom, with two single beds and a view of the porch, driveway, and gate, where they decided they would sleep.   In the very back of the house was a family room with a stone fireplace that took up half a wall, a fire neatly laid on the grate, ready to light.  Just beyond was a kitchen and pantry, a shrine to Williams-Sonoma full of hand-painted Italian tile and designer gadgets.  Rain ignored the gigantic side-by-side refrigerator-freezer, a useless relic now, but explored the well-stocked cabinets crowded with gourmet cans and bottles, many of them imported and filled with now-illegal goodies.  "Snake, look!" he called.  Snake joined him at the kitchen window as Rain pointed to a tank visible in back of the house, and added, "Propane!  The pilot's out, but if there's enough pressure in the tank, I bet we can light the stove and the heater."

Snake, who had gone back to reconnoitering the cabinets, stopped short with an awed "Shit!" as he pulled open one door.  "Look at this!"  Inside was a wine-rack full of French and German vintages and a row of bottles.  He pulled them out, reading labels: Cointreau, Triple Sec, Chambord, Grand Marnier, Kirschwasser, Courvoisier.  His hand slowed: Stolichnaya... Glenlivet... Chivas Regal.  He picked up the last bottle and regarded it with delight.  "Shit, this fuckin' stuff's worth twice its weight in gold by now."      

"Too bad we don't have room to pack 'em," Rain commented over Snake's shoulder.  "Maybe we can send people back down here to pick up this stuff.  Trade goods."

"If they're still here by then," Snake said.  He separated out the bottles of Scotch and carried them over to the coffee-table in the family room.  He gave Rain a hard look.  "Trade goods, my ass.  This place is mine; yours and mine.  I'm not letting you give it away."

Rain opened his mouth as if to protest, and then, at Snake's unyielding expression, nodded.  "O.K., Snake.  It's yours."

Rain found a hand-operated can-opener at the back of a drawer, after some searching,  Snake set about relighting the stove, then the two of them selected a feast from the collection of cans in the pantry.  They drew the drapes and ate by the dim light of a chemlamp from their supplies.  A stock-pot full of water from the tap, heated on the stove, even allowed them a sketchy sponge-bath.  Afterward, they adjourned to the family room and lighted the fire, deciding that the darkness and rain would mask the smoke from detection by any casual passersby who might dare the wet weather.  Snake settled back against a sofa with a long sigh of contentment and picked up the bottle on the table.  "Never could afford this shit," he commented.  A drink -- the good stuff -- a cigarette, savored slowly, dry and warm.  Luxury.  He poured Chivas into a heavy glass he found near the liquor cabinet, contemplated the deep-amber liquid for a moment, his good eye half-closed, then took a sip, rolling the expensive liquor on his tongue, letting the flavor carry him into a mood of relaxation.  "Damn," he said softly, "This is living."  He set the glass down, took out his last pack of Ormsby's cigarettes, pulled out one, and lit it.  Only eight left.  Shit.  He sucked in the strong smoke, tasting the mingled flavors of prime tobacco and whiskey, and, momentarily, gave himself completely to the experience.  A paranoid voice inside him, part of the warning system that never let him rest, screamed at him not to let up vigilance, not here, not now.  He felt a stab of irritation.  No place would ever be safe, for him.  He took a swallow of the Chivas and damped the alarm at the back of his mind.  Dammit, for a little while he was just going to be instead of being on guard.

Rain curled up in a corner of the matching sofa, parallel to the one Snake was occupying on the opposite side of the fireplace conversation group, and sipped at the glass of sweet port he had chosen from among the bottles.  He was not particularly fond of alcohol, and he especially disliked the harsh, metallic taste of distilled liquor.  Wine at least had something left of the flavor of the living plant that had been used to create it.  He breathed in the scent of wood smoke, listening to the soft crackle of burning logs, and watched the man opposite him as firelight flickered over Snake's features.  Snake was hard to read, wary of revealing himself, but Rain was beginning to recognize the changes in Snake's mood.  The key was subtlety: the faint tensing of muscles around his good eye, a movement of his mouth so small and quick it was lost to the casual observer, a shift in posture.  Rain admired the way Snake's dark pants and tight sleeveless top showed off the man's hard, powerful body, and the way the red light turned Snake's dark auburn hair into a dense, curling mass that gleamed like cooling lava.  Rain imagined the way that hair would feel, heavy in his hands, and remembered the scene at Chaindog's headquarters: Snake's beautiful thick cock, his air of fearless self-confidence.  Rain sighed inwardly, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  "That guy - the rapper - he was something, wasn't he," Rain said, apparently apropos of nothing.

"Yeah," Snake answered.  He took another slow swallow of his drink and gestured with the glass.  "Thing is - what is it I do that everybody thinks is so special?  I'm just an asshole."

Rain stared at him, nonplussed; the man was apparently sincere.  "You're the one who stood up to the System, said no to it and made it stick.  Even when they caught you, they couldn't break you.  You're the one who shut down the machine."

"Bullshit.  Enough pressure, everybody cracks.  L.A. and New York Max, I was lucky; they needed me for something.  Lot of people died because of it."  Snake returned Rain's considering look, suspicion visible on his features, and his voice hardened.  "What do you want me for?"

I want to make love to you.  Rain paused and shifted mental gears, searching for words to describe his larger vision.  "That's not what this is all about, Snake.  It's what we owe you, for what you've done for the whole earth."  He stared into the flames leaping in the fireplace, turning the dead wood to ashes.  The ashes would return to the earth, and out of them, eventually, with rain and sunlight and the hidden seed, would grow a new green plant.  Destruction and creation were a cycle, each dependent on the other.  "There's too many of us humans.  We have too much power.  We need to restore the balance.  We need to see that the rest - the animals and the mountains and the rivers and the trees - have just as much right to be here as we do.  We're just part of it."

Snake was staring at him as if he had gone gas-crazy.  Rain took a deep breath and struggled on, trying to make the man across from him understand.  "That's what my grandparents and the rest of them wanted to do when they first set up the Groups, back at the end of the 'sixties: create a place where people could live in harmony with the rest of nature, create a model of how things ought to work, so that when the System destroyed itself, we could rebuild in a better way."  Rain paused and drained his glass of wine, and his own voice turned cold and hard.  "They said it was to be built on Love.  They were wrong.  It's not love, it's justice.  Justice is what's true.  There's no mercy in it.  Sometimes it's cruel, but it's what is right, what restores the balance.  Like that lady holding the scales.  What the people who run the System did was wrong, and they have to pay for it.  Now they will.  When you pushed the button, you gave the world a chance for a new beginning.  My people couldn't do that.  All they could do was hide."  Rain's voice held a complex swirl of emotions: desire, frustration, and an anger with too many targets.  He fell silent in confusion.

"You're fucking crazy," Snake growled.  He poured a second glass of the expensive scotch, considered a second cigarette and decided against it.  He drew a mental line at the top of the bottle's label: just to that line.  I can handle it.   He took another swallow, feeling it burn down his throat.  "Justice," he muttered to himself, and snorted softly, remembering the men of Black Light.  Rain was watching him.  Something about the younger man was subtly disturbing, a nagging impression at the back of Snake's mind.  Snake frowned slightly and studied him, trying to place it.

"What?" Rain said.  A stray lock of his hair drifted over one of Rain's eyes, and he tossed his head and brushed it back impatiently.   

The small gesture snapped it into focus for Snake.  Taylor.  Taylor used to do that.  Rain had the same wiry build, the same dark hair, longer than Snake's own, the same direct gaze.  He was younger than Taylor had been, but he had the same assurance and bearing.  Seeing it now, Snake was vaguely surprised that it had escaped him before.  He set down the glass.  "You remind me of someone."

"Who?"  

"Taylor," Snake said.

"Taylor?"  

Snake felt everything around him contract to a single cold, lonely point.  There was a whole world out there that did not remember Bill Taylor, to whom the name meant nothing.  "Partner.  Killed in San Francisco, Market Street hummer station."  He drew a long breath and exhaled heavily.  Rain was still looking at him as if he expected Snake to make sense of it all.  Why the fuck did they all want something from him?  Didn't they know everywhere he went, everything he did, he carried death with him?  Snake knocked back the rest of his drink and angrily splashed more into the glass.  He could feel the edges of his self-discipline being eroded by the alcohol, but he was still in control.

"Snake...?"

Rain had a worried, uncomfortable look on his face, and he seemed to be trying to find words.  Snake's internal sense of paranoia seized on an interpretation.  "I'm not drunk.  I can handle it."  A scrap of remembered dialog surfaced, and Snake's mouth twisted in a painful imitation of  humor: "'We're professionals; don't try this at home.'"  At Rain's blank look, he added, "He used to say that all the time.

The professionals thing.  We'd pull a job, have to fight our way out... make it by the skin of our teeth... and he'd say that.  Always got me to laugh, the bastard."  Snake shook his head, remembering his old partner's insouciant one-liners, the easy banter, the understanding, and the trust.  Somehow, being with Taylor had made the whole deadly, violent struggle into a game, an adventure.  Taylor had never blamed him for the failure of Black Light, for the deaths of Snake's men.  The two of them had survived, and Bill Taylor had never looked back.  He had given Snake his full, uncompromising loyalty.  And died for it.

Snake swallowed the last of the liquor in his glass in one gulp and slammed the glass down on the table.  "Shit!" he snarled.  He rose to his feet and looked around, then grabbed a small lamp-table by the side of the sofa and a large dictionary from the shelves.  He stamped to the back door, set the table down directly in front of it with two legs of the table on the book, unbalancing it, then piled a stack of fragile china dishes on top of the table.  The slightest inward movement of the door would send the whole thing crashing over, creating an ungodly racket.  "Fuck setting a watch.  Let's see 'em get through that without waking me up!"  He headed for the bedroom.   

                                                    ******************

                                                   

Rain remained curled on the couch staring at the dying fire, turning over what had happened in his mind.  Just being near Snake in an almost-peaceful situation like this made it hard to think about anything except how much he wanted Snake.  Not just his body; he wanted into... Rain considered, searching, ...into Snake's self, the thing that made him Snake.  Snake was a puzzle, an interlocking set of closed and guarded boxes, and he wanted to open them, to find out what was inside.  Why?   He wasn't sure.  If there was an answer to that, he wasn't ready to deal with it yet.    

Taylor was the key.  "You remind me of someone."           

Snake's dead partner.  Rain remembered the broadcasts of grainy, out-of-focus footage from the USPF cameras, showing the capture of a much younger Snake Plissken after the Denver robbery.  He remembered images of Snake's dark-haired, slender accomplice, the USPF bullets knocking him down, the camera tracking Snake as ran for the exit, then turned and came back to stand by his fallen friend, even as the dying Taylor croaked desperately, "Go on, Lieutenant."  Snake had not been captured; he had surrendered rather than leave his partner to die alone.  The shots of Plissken being shoved down, cuffed, and marched out past Taylor's lifeless body had showed Snake blank-eyed and unresisting, as if some central part of his identity had been left behind on the hummer station floor.  

You remind me of someone.  There was that to build on.  Rain stretched, yawned, and got to his feet, then set about rigging another table-and-dinner-plate alarm system by the locked front door.  That should give them plenty of warning of any intruders.  He moved into the front bedroom on silent feet and stood for a few minutes watching Snake's sleeping form, before he turned out the chemlamp and slipped into the other bed.    

                                                      *****************

 

                                                               

Snake found the door to the bedroom by faint light from the family room at the other end of the hall.  Rainwater drummed heavily on the roof, gurgled down the gutters, ran down the dark square of window like blood from an open wound.  Snake watched it flowing on the glass as he stripped off his clothes, and thought of gas.  Memories rose of crazies, drowned husks of humanity shuffling and drooling; of filthy, stinking, shapeless figures chasing him, of hands reaching up through splintered wood and dragging a screaming woman down to her death.  Snake slid under the covers and pulled the bright-colored down comforter up to his chin as he fought his usual battle with surrendering his defenses to sleep.  Finally, he slid into restless unconsciousness.  Some time later, he dreamed.

 

He stood atop the high iron-black cliff, staring down into a valley carpeted in the twisted, charred bodies of the dead, a charnel-house world.  Across it the one-eyed outlaw staggered and stumbled, groping uselessly among the corpses, his boots crunching sickeningly on burnt flesh.   Here and there a face, a figure, was still identifiable before it crumbled under his step: the men of Black Light; farther on, scattered shapes: Cabbie, Maggie, Brain, Taslima, Carjack... others... so many.  They were burned beyond pain now, but never beyond the outlaw's memories.  Behind him, chained to him by links he refused to break, the half-blind fool dragged another blackened corpse, slender and dark-haired, that bumped and rattled over the uneven surface, each thud an accusation.  Cinder-laden wind whistled and pushed at him, carrying the stench of death.

The figure on the cliff looked upward to where thin, bright streaks of fire swept across the black sky.  He reached for them and pulled them out of the sky.  They coalesced, streaming through him down toward the world below.  Burning drops fell around the outlaw like rain, and as they touched him, he caught fire, flaming upward like a torch.  Sparks spattered out from him, setting the charnel-pile alight, covering the world in a sheet of flame.  At its center, the one-eyed outlaw danced in the fire, burning, until there was nothing left, and he was freed of the bones and the memories.

                                                     ******************.

Rain woke abruptly to muffled sounds from the other side of the room.  He fumbled with the chemlamp on his nightstand and turned it to a dim green glow.  Across from him, Snake was thrashing and muttering, tangling himself in bedclothes.   "Snake," Rain called softly, then, louder, "Snake!"  There was no response.  Rain stood up, stepped over to Snake's bed, and gingerly reached out to shake him.

Snake shuddered and froze, then sat bolt upright, his breath coming in labored gasps.  There was no awareness in the glazed stare to turned in Rain's direction: his good eye was wide, blind; his damaged eye, half-hidden behind a lock of hair, was white and dead.  Rain swallowed, and forced himself to look at the scarred flesh, as a sympathetic tingle of pain lanced through him.  "Snake," he said again, "You're having a nightmare.  Wake up."  Snake mumbled something unintelligible, then quieted.  His breathing slowed to normal and he slumped sideways, his eyes closing.  Rain reached out to keep him from falling over, and, for just a moment, held Snake's body against his own.  He felt Snake's silky auburn hair against his shoulder, sleek skin over hard muscle, solid, compact weight.  Rain drew in the clean, masculine scent of Snake's body, and felt himself growing hard.  A stubble of beard brushed the younger man's body, Snake's breath, warm against bare skin, mingled with Rain's own.  Snake's mouth was only inches from Rain's, and Rain fought an urge to claim it with his own.  Reluctantly, he lowered Snake's sleeping body to the bed and pulled the covers up over him, as Snake dropped into deeper unconsciousness.  Rain paused for a few seconds, looking down into Snake's wounded face, then returned to his own bed.  He slipped into fantasy as his hand found his own cock, moving rhythmically.      

                                                         ******************

Snake woke to the bright stab of morning light through the bedroom's window, and reached hastily for his patch.  He felt groggy and drained, only mildly hung over, and not entirely pleased to find that he remembered last night perfectly.   He went to the window and opened it.  The rain had stopped, the sky was a crystalline blue,  and the trees shone as if polished.  "Another beautiful day in fucking Paradise," Snake grumbled half-heartedly.

From behind him, Snake heard Rain's sympathetic chuckle, and turned to face him.  The younger man yawned and sat up.  "Morning.  You OK?"

"Yeah, why?"

"You were having some kind of nightmare last night.  I couldn't wake you."

Snake frowned.  "Slept like a rock," he rasped, "Must've been your dream."  He kneaded the tightness at the back of his neck as headache stabbed his damaged eye.  For a moment, bright streaks like lines of fire flared across the black interior of his patch, and he shook his head to clear it.  This was new.  He adjusted the thin cords holding his patch and pulled his hair free from underneath them, wondering what was going wrong with the fucking eye now.  Nothing he could do about it.  He shrugged mentally and started pulling on his clothes.    

Rain outdid himself by producing a breakfast of hot biscuits, coffee, orange juice and fruit from the cans and boxes in the pantry.  Snake added a large slab of canned ham, and wrapped the rest in foil to add to his pack.  Rain sighed and settled back, interlacing his fingers behind his head, saying, "Man, I almost hate to leave."    

"Good place, easy to defend, but it's too close to San Francisco, and that SOB's customers will come looking for their connection eventually.  I'm packing what I can."  Snake traveled light, with no home base, and memories were the only things he could hold on to permanently.  The Chivas and Ormsby's cigarettes would be one of the few good ones.  Snake paused by the front hall table, saw the house keys on a ring there.  He picked them up and pocketed them.     

Snake and Rain managed to fit four bottles, heavily padded with clothing, into their supplies.  They exited the bungalow, leaving the doors and windows locked, wheeled their bikes and trailers back through the gate, and rode onward, savoring the bright autumn day.  Leaves gleamed like stained glass in the sunshine, birds swooped past, calling in various voices, and blacktop flowed on in front of them, bordered with rolling hills dotted with trees.  The very air smelled green and alive, and even Snake's spirits lifted as he pedaled along, feeling the new strength in his healing body.  Past Pinole Creek, the road began to rise gradually, and the two men settled down to a steady uphill effort.  They came over the last rise above Carquinez Bridge and pulled up, looking down toward the water.  At the base of the hill, in front of the bridge, was a barrier and a toll plaza, with a one-room shack set back slightly from the edge of the pavement.  As Snake and Rain studied the layout from the top of the hill, the door of the building opened a crack, and a figure appeared briefly in the opening, then ducked back inside.  Light flashed on metal as he moved; he was armed.

"Looks like we have a welcoming committee," Snake said.

"This is the only way to get across, unless you go all the way around to Martinez," Rain said.  "Last time I came through it was O.K., but I figured somebody was going to set up a shakedown here eventually."

"One man couldn't hold it by himself."   

Rain grinned.  "Think you can look dangerous?  Get him to call out his reinforcements?"  Snake snorted softly.

They pedaled down toward the bridge.  A burly man with short-cropped brown hair, dressed in fatigues, stepped out in front of the barrier and held up one hand.  The other pointed a functional-looking pistol in their direction.  "Halt!  Hundred  dollars toll.  Bluebacks or gold," he said as the two men came up to him.

Snake and Rain exchanged glances.  They dismounted, dropped the kickstands on their bikes, and moved out in front of the machines, spreading out slightly.  The man eyed them warily and growled, "Keep your hands where I can see 'em."  The door to the shack opened, and two more men emerged, carrying rifles.  They moved to cover Snake and Rain, one on each side of the pair.  "Drop your weapons," one man said, gesturing with his rifle in Snake's direction.  "Now."

Snake moved his hands slowly toward his gunbelt.  He gave a sudden sharp nod.  At the signal, Rain dropped and rolled, pulling one of his throwing knives from a shoulder holder as he went down.  The blade buried itself in the throat of the guard across from him as Rain rolled into the legs of the one on his side, pushing him off balance.  Snake's Magnums roared as he drew and swung around, catching the guard in front of him, and then the one Rain had knocked off-balance, before the men could recover and fire.  As Rain rose to his feet again, Snake blasted the man Rain had hit with a final bullet, as insurance.  The two of them ducked behind the toll-booth structure and waited tensely for evidence that there were any more of the gang left inside the shack.  When none showed themselves, Snake ran, crouching, to the side of the building, and slammed the door open, guns at the ready.  There was no one inside.         

Rain stopped to recover his throwing knife from the dead man's throat, then joined Snake in searching the inside of the shack.  They found weapons and ammo, along with a collection of valuables looted from travelers.  They discarded the useless bluebacks and credit disks, but took the jewelry and other items which fit in their bike-trailers and still looked useful for bartering.  Snake replenished his gunbelt stash with all eight of the gold coins they found, after Rain refused his offer to split them with him.  Several extra boxes of ammunition also went into Snake's trailer, but he discarded most of the guns.  The exception was a sleek and deadly Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol which he found hidden in a drawer, and claimed as his own by picking off a white plastic initial attached to the butt.  It lacked the raw power of his Magnums, but it was a beautiful piece of gunsmithing, easily concealed and very accurate.  With it was a flat case with a shoulder-holster, barrel-extender, flash suppresser, telescoping shoulder stock, extra clips, and a good scope.  The set was elegant and expensive-looking, clearly custom-made, and obviously stolen.  Snake wondered who had originally owned it.

 

Part Three
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