IMPORTANT AVAILABILITY INFO FOR BLACK RUST
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Black Rust is a dystopian thriller that follows the adventures of Christian Black, a man-for-hire with a shady past. In this story, set about twenty years in the future, a virus has debilitated much of the world's population and Christian is there to clean up the mess.
I hope you enjoy it. —Bobby
I knelt behind a rusty stove and peered into the mist between the pine tree trunks, looking for the glow of flames in the distant dark. The slightest of breezes shushed through the needles on the branches sixty feet over my head.
To my left in the waist-high undergrowth lay an upturned bathtub. Beside that, a dishwasher and then a coffee table, all in line along a worn footpath that I knew from experience arced into a full circle. With most of the path out of sight in the night forest, I guessed the circle was maybe two hundred feet in diameter, the largest of two or three concentric circles. The outermost circle was always lined with the big stuff—refrigerators, couches, patio Pepsi machines, and occasionally the rusty hulk of a car.
The next circle might be lined with microwaves, desktop computers, a stand mixer or two, dining room chairs, and end tables. The innermost circle would be laid solid with the surplus detritus of a million devolved lives—silverware, toasters, knickknacks, eyeglasses, anything shiny or jingly.
The three rings made up the boundary of a post-apocalyptic Stonehenge, constructed by diseased cretins to worship the gods who’d come before them and whose descendants still walked among them. Whatever passed for logic in their deficient brains often led them to create simple, pagan religions with crude, open-air temples, almost always incorporating the discarded, inexplicable tools of their lords.
Lords like me.
Laughable, I know.
The closest I came to being a god was that I was a reaping Lucifer, stealing the souls of their faithful and flushing them down to hell. I liked that picture of myself. I liked it a lot. But it wasn’t me. I was more like a lethal high school bully, an armed mall cop, a death camp guard. Sure, we had long, euphemized official titles prescribed by the laws that made our services legal. But nobody used those titles. Truth be told, I got paid by the head for snuffing violent dimwits. So maybe exterminator was the best name. It was accurate.
Christian Black, the exterminator.
I smiled at the thought of it.
Most people called us Regulators.
Other Regulators, the ones who knew we cheated, called us Front-runners.
I looked down the line of deteriorating appliances and saw Lutz standing behind a tree trunk that had no hope of concealing all of him. His foot was propped up on a water heater lying on its side, and he was fumbling with the video recorder attached to his assault rifle.
He looked over at me.
I cocked my head in the direction of the glow, in the direction of the chanting of jibber-jabber syllables I suspected did little more than keep the degenerates’ mouths busy.
He nodded. He heard them, too.
Even without the spotter drone intel that had led us to the scene, we both knew what was going on—a ceremony for the moon, or the stars, or maybe the fog, since that’s pretty much all they could see in the air tonight.
And a sacrifice.
Of course, they were sacrificing one of their own.
If they were just dancing, chanting, and burning a pile of brush, Lutz and I wouldn’t be here.
Speaking softly into my headset, I said, “You go left, I’ll head straight in so we can catch them in a crossfire.”
“No,” Lutz replied, still panting from the effort of the hike we’d taken to get so deep into the woods. “I’ll go straight. You circle ‘round to the right.”
I looked into the shadowy trees to the right knowing the ground opened up to a cornfield in that direction—the spotter intel had provided us with a wide view of the area. I wished for the hundredth time I’d been able to replace my night vision goggles after they’d gone on the fritz a few months back. But like everything worth spending a dime on these days, used NVGs were hard to find and expensive to buy. New, they were impossible to get.
“Okay,” I whispered, knowing I shouldn’t have wasted the breath on telling him to take the longer path in the first place. He was unashamedly lazy and had been eating his way toward a heart attack since before I was born.
I stood up and walked quietly over the thick mat of pine needles, doing my best not to rustle the bushes and doing my damnedest to stay away from the poison ivy.
“Watch out for all the shit on the ground,” said Lutz.
Something pathetic buried in Lutz’s ego needed to pretend he knew more about what we were doing than I did. “Thanks, Detective.” Pure sarcasm.
His breathing grew labored. He was moving through the underbrush. “Must be some houses close by.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“They wouldn’t carry all this shit out into the woods this far.”
“I’ve seen it before.”
Yeah, of course, you’re right. More sarcasm, even if it was just in my head.
I was following the curved arc past a row of rotting nightstands and easy chairs, having lost sight of Lutz. I crunched through a layer of dry twigs as I tried to gauge my progress. From overhead, I heard the whispery buzz of drone rotor blades. More than one was up there. They were moving in close for a good view of what their operators knew was coming: bloody slaughter, video to sell to the internet voyeurs—the violence pervs who got their rocks off on that sort of thing.
Everybody got a payday when degenerates died.
“I see ‘em,” Lutz told me.
“Sit tight.” I stepped between a cracked flat-screen television and a terracotta flowerpot and made straight for the glow of the fire. “I’ll be in position in a minute.”
“Dancing,” whispered Lutz. “Naked. Got some streaks on their skin. Blood, I think.”
Blood. That’s what the report from the spotter had said. “You see the kid?” It was always a kid who drew the short straw when the d-gens decided their imaginary god wanted a sacrifice. Usually it was a young girl.
“Can’t tell,” said Lutz. “Lots of blood. I think they’ve gone cannibal. I hate this kind of shit. Know what I mean?”
No answer required. I knew exactly what he meant. I’d heard about a thousand versions of why he hated “this kind of shit.” I’d heard it through my earpiece. I’d heard it over donuts and coffee. I’d heard it over beers. I’d heard when he explained it to me over the sound of the music blaring in the car. And it didn’t matter how high I turned the music up, Lutz spoke louder. It was some kind of hater-mouth magic to always be the loudest goddamn thing around.
And it wasn’t the kind of shit they were doing they he hated. He hated them. Simple. Straight-up. Period.
Now, I don’t have any love for them myself. Nobody who can still do simple addition in their head has any reason to like the d-gens even though most of them are nonviolent and useless. Most of them wouldn’t raise a finger to harm another human, but most of them won’t raise a finger to feed themselves, either. That turned into a problem for the rest of us. When the disease came and worm-holed their brains, they’d pretty much ruined everything for everybody.
Exaggeration? I think not.
I was a kid when it all happened. I could have grown up to be a doctor spending my afternoons on the golf course and my summers in the Bahamas ogling tanned girls half my age and drinking myself into a stupor by the pool. Instead, I spend long hours every damned day hunting violent degenerates through the woods and through the crumbling suburbs, so I can pay my rent on time and dream about getting out of debt.
Looking at the light through the trees and trying to get a measure of how far away I was from the fire, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was putting my feet, and I got tangled in bramble. “Dammit.”
“What?” Lutz asked, instantly panicked. That was his way, always expecting the worst.
“Be cool,” I told him. “I’m fine.”
“We need to hurry this along,” he said. “How close are you?”
“Does it matter? Do it yourself if you can’t wait.” It was a threat more than permission. Lutz didn’t trust himself to take twenty-three d-gens on his own. Sure, he had a thirty-round magazine and another half-dozen mags on his belt, but in the trees, as close as we’d need to get before we had clear shots at them all, he’d miss, and half or more might get away. Or they might rush him. He was too old and too slow to run away if it came to that. His only choice would be to kill ‘em all or die.
That’s why he’d paired with me—not because we liked each other, but because I was a killer.
Twenty-three d-gens at pistol range? Not a problem.
Mostly not a problem because I’d be using an M4 on full auto and I could swap an empty magazine in just over a second. That, and I carried two Walther PPQs with fifteen-round magazines. With those, I could kill thirty of anything within fifty feet of me before I needed to reload.
Good? Yeah, I’m that good.
In his nasally voice, Lutz said, “I see the kid.”
I froze. “The kid? Live?” That’s not what the intel said. That’s not what the pictures showed. Or kinda showed. The damn fog had made everything hard to make out from the perspective up there.
“A couple kids.” Lutz’s hate was trying to override his good sense and telling him to pull his trigger.
“Dead or alive?”
“I think there’s one on the fire.”
“Calm down,” I spat as I yanked my foot free and started to run. I’d worked with Lutz long enough to know he was about to do something stupid, and I didn’t even have eyes on a d-gen yet.
That was bad. Lutz might get injured—no big deal. Lutz might get sidelined—big deal, as that would have a negative impact on my income. Lutz might get killed—he had all the spotter contacts, which he made a point of never sharing with me. So a dead Lutz meant I’d be back to scraping by like all the other suckers without any inside info. To hell with that. I had debts to pay.
“Do you have your video on?” I asked Lutz in order to get his mind out of his hate for a moment and into the land of rational thought. Just like me, Lutz had a digital video recorder. Mine was on an elastic strap on my head, pointed forward to record my kills. His was mounted on his rifle. It was legally required for Regulators, but more importantly, video met half the documentation obligation we needed to get paid for our kills. Two videos from separate points of view, not of the kills—that would be near impossible—but of the whole scene, fulfilled the government requirement. That was the main reason Lutz and I worked together rather than alone. No Regulator worked alone. At least none who made a living at it.
“Damn camera!” Lutz was frustrated again. He wasn’t keeping his voice down.
“Lutz, turn on your video.” It was an order, but I tried to keep my voice unemotional to keep him calm.
“I think my batteries are dead.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.” No more calm. “Change your batteries. Quick! Before they see you.”
I heard breathing and frustrated grunts in response. I didn’t know if he was changing his batteries or beating his camera with his fist. With Lutz, it could have been either.
Speaking slowly, I said, “You need to read the VC Act. I’m too far away to get a solid view of the proof.”
I burst through a stand of thick bushes and stopped. I had a view of some of the d-gens but too many tree trunks were in the way. Still, I could tell they were dancing aboriginal-style around a bonfire, naked, streaked in glistening blood, with two live children off to the side, held in the strong grip of an older woman.
On a spit, over the fire, the bodies of some toddlers were cooking.
Motherfucker! They were planning a goddamn smorgasbord.
I dropped to a knee to get out of view as my heart gushed blood through my veins so hard I could hear it rushing through the capillaries in my eardrums.
I flipped my cam on and pointed my head toward the clearing while I whispered into my headset, “I am Christian Black, Independent Degenerate Regulator number 77379, and Franco Lutz, IDR number 14634. We’ve witnessed approximately twenty-three degenerates engaged in violent or cannibalistic behavior. In accordance with the H5N1 Brisbane Strain Prion Mutation Violence and Cannibalism Act, sections three dash two and seven dash two, IDR Lutz and I will attempt to terminate the offenders under verified Sanction Case Number—”
I didn’t have the Sanction ID, which should have been relayed from the Degenerate Oversight Authority Office through the spotter drone and down to my phone.
I fished in my pocket to get my phone. No cellular signal out this far, but I did have the direct Wifi connection with the spotter drone, which had provided the data on the pending sanction when we were parking the truck before hiking into the woods. I’d taken the precaution to dim the brightness on the screen down to the lowest level, a habit I always used in the field. I keyed the phone on and the screen instantly blinked to life, displaying a red flashing pending notification over the Sanction Certificate.
Pending? What the hell?
I had to be looking at the wrong case. There was a dead toddler cooking on the goddamn fire. Lutz saw it. The spotter drone had to have seen it.
Lutz shouted through my earpiece, “They heard you!”
I looked up from my position, still squatting behind a bush, too far out for a clear shot at any more than a few of the degenerates.
Some of the dancers had stopped. A woman—a young, blonde-haired d-gen—was staring into the dark, right at my position. Only, she couldn’t have been staring at me. With the light of the fire ruining her night vision, she had to be seeing nothing but black.
A rifle shot cracked.
“Dammit, Lutz!” He should have waited for me. I raised my rifle and started to run.
Lutz answered me by squeezing his trigger and emptying what sounded like a full magazine into the dancers.
I heard the sound of his pistol shooting.
D-gens were running in all directions up ahead and their shadows were strobing black through the trees, making it impossible to tell exactly what was happening.
I lost sight of the blonde, staring woman. I couldn’t see the two kids.
Lutz yelled something I couldn’t make out and I feared he might have a d-gen’s teeth at his throat.
I burst into the clearing, planted my feet, leveled my M4, and started shooting at a handful of d-gens who were charging Lutz.
The degenerates all tumbled to the ground at his feet.
He looked over at me with a silent pistol in his hand.
“Reload!” I shouted at him as I aimed and shot at other d-gens.
They were standing, running, attacking us, or already on the ground, trying to die.
They scattered. But not fast enough.
I shot down three running into the woods on the far side of the clearing. One crawling away got a bullet in the back. Two more were in the trees but still visible. I dropped them both.
And just that quick, it was over.
No d-gen was on his feet though many were still moving.
I scanned the ring of light around the fire, looking for anything that might still be a danger. Once you started shooting them, they tended to take a violent dislike to you. Go figure. You couldn’t leave any alive. That’s just the way it was, regulating degenerates. “Lutz. You okay?”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, goddamn it.” Futzing with his pistol, Lutz stepped over a writhing d-gen to get closer to the fire. “You get ‘em all?”
“All I could see.”
Lutz looked at a d-gen squirming on the ground near him. He holstered his pistol, switched out the magazine in his rifle, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Nothing.
He was shit for taking care of his weapons.
He hadn’t run the magazine dry. He had a jam.
I scanned the dark forest for movement. Over the groans of the dying and wounded, I listened for the sound of anything running, either toward me or away.
Lutz got his weapon unjammed and fired a round through the skull of the d-gen at his feet. Then he methodically and quickly pointed his rifle and finished off every wounded degenerate on the ground. “There. I killed more than you.” Lutz crossed the clearing, stepping over bodies, focused on something that had his interest.
I was certain he was wrong on the count, but said anyway, “Good for you.” I heard a noise in the cornfield, coming from the edge of the clearing. I looked but couldn’t make out anything in the dark. I reached into my pocket to fish out my phone, hoping. “When I tried to get the Sanction ID for the mandated recording the case was still pending. They never approved the sanction.”
“The hell they didn’t.”
Lutz stared at me as I pulled out my phone. Only the crackle of the fire and chirping cicadas made any noise. I activated the device and looked at the screen, reading the details slowly, trying to confirm a mistake.
Lutz saw the truth on my face and ran to the other side of the fire for a look at the roasting kid.
I cautiously stepped in that direction for a clearer view. Evidence of the dead toddler would undo the sanction mistake. The cops would flip the sanction to active. Lutz and I would get paid. No problem. Pretty much.
Lutz came to a stop, staring. “These aren’t kids.”
I took another step to get a view of what Lutz was seeing—carcasses on a spit, legs splayed, tiny torsos split open, roasting, crusted in black. I saw claws on feet but no fingers, and snouts, not flat faces.
“They’re raccoons or dogs or something,” Lutz whined, looking up at me, worry drenching his features.
What the hell?
The d-gens are barbecuing little forest critters, not children?
And where were those two kids I saw? Thought I saw?
Lutz looked up.
I did, too.
A white spotter drone with flashing red LEDs, a pregnant Frisbee the size of a trashcan lid with a half-dozen little rotors around its circumference hovered over the tops of the trees at the edge of the clearing. It had led us to the kill site. It had gotten us into what was looking like a mess.
Two more white drones, a little farther away, floated higher in the night sky. They were smaller—the voyeurs spying, recording video, witnessing.
“These d-gens aren’t cannibals,” Lutz muttered. “It’s a dirty kill.”
A dirty kill.
One year mandatory in a work camp, per head.
Every Regulator knew that. It was the wrinkle in the law that kept men like Lutz from joyriding through the d-gen neighborhoods and shooting down every one he saw because it satisfied his hate and filled his billfold.
He looked at me and made a show of fumbling with his gun, raising it for the cameras on the drones to see, as he said too loudly for normal conversation, “My gun jammed. I only got off a couple shots.” He pointed into the darkness, arguing his defense for an invisible jury. “Into the ground. Over there.” He looked at me. “This is your dirty kill. You’re fucked.”
Anyway, I hope you enjoy Black Rust! BTW, you can click here for preorder from Amazon. (Just FYI, preorder means you're not charged until the book goes live, then it's automatically downloaded to your kindle).