Burning Bright, Part I

Road

Adapted from a photo by: Craig Deitrich

Clee Harris dropped off Cissy and Bea at the Parent’s Network in downtown Green City. Since the east coast fell, Green City was where it was at if you didn’t have the pull to get into one of the gated communities. You had to scrap it out on the outside. That’s what Clee had to do before she settled here.There was plenty of support in Green City, even though life there was hard in other ways.

Clee had got a call from the office. There was a job. It was one of the special jobs that she was good at. It was a big job out of town on the off hours. So, there’s be a big bonus, too. Freddie was gone, and kids needed to be fed, clothed, and needed a safe place to sleep, too. And there’d be no more husbands again to do it.

“When are you gonna be off work, Mama?” asked Cissy, her ten year old.

“When you gonna be off work?” repeated Bea, who was eight and often repeated everything her older sister said.

“I don’t know, babies,” replied the big woman tenderly.

“It’s alright, Clee,” said Lori, the Parent’s Network supervisor on duty. “We’ll cover you until you come back. If it’s past ten, we’ll keep them here. Judy will help them with their homework, and I’ll put them to bed.”

“Thanks, Lori. Now, you two behave yourselves, hear? Maybe I’ll see you tonight, but probably tomorrow.”

The two girls nodded, and Cissy embraced Bea protectively from behind.

“Don’t you look so worried, now. Tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow. I promise.” Clee said.

The two girls didn’t say anything. They didn’t smile. They always worried about their mother.

She knelt down from her six-foot-three height, and looked at the two of them and smiled. She didn’t say anything to them. There were no words. But they knew their Mama loved them.

Clee had been in the army, and then the national guard. She was tall, broad, and strong. A lot of people considered her to be mannish, even her husband Freddie. But, Freddie had left five years ago. He loved her once. He called her his Watusi bride. But, things changed between them. She hardly ever thought about Freddie anymore. Since he’d just ran off, he wasn’t worth the time or effort. When she did think of him, she didn’t feel anger or even hate. It was a worse feeling than that. It was raw disappointment.

She quit the national guard after Freddie ran. She needed to be in the city, and close to her daughters, not sent off across the state at a moment’s notice like before. So, she took a job with Benny at Green City Animal Control. He had a crew of fifteen, a fleet of bio-mass fuel trunks, the latest in non-toxic, water table friendly pest elimination and animal re-location equipment. Benny had a virtual monopoly in a growing community; rats looking for grain in the silos, roaches everywhere, bats and raccoons attics, packs of feral dogs, the odd bear or two. Benny took care of them all.

But, the world had changed and was changing all the while. Some problems were bigger than they used to be. Things out there beyond the city limits and out into the old towns were a lot more wild. And Clee was his go-to when they got really bad. She had a gift for it.

***

Clee stepped into the small office. Her shadow fell over Benny, a small bald man with a lopsided mouth and cunning eyes. Benny looked up from his messy desk of work orders. Lately they’d been piling high; mostly the standard since colonists had tried to reclaim the outlying towns in an effort to gain more space to grow more food, claim bigger living space, and in some cases to consolidate their bargaining power with the bigger cities further away.

But, the rats and bugs had other ideas.

It wasn’t too bad of a problem. And Benny cleaned up in the last six-months business-wise in particular; food including fruits and vegetables, a brace of cows, two-hundred gallons of water, coffee beans, one hundred sacks of wheat grain, the same amount for corn, same again for white rice, a few score of solar powered lanterns and portable heating units, beer, tobacco, canned goods, hard liquor, pot, handmade toys for the kids, renovation services to the office, to his house, and the houses of all of his crew.

“This one ain’t like those others, Clee,” said Benny. “This one’s unusual. You gotta bring the big gear for this one.”

“What’s the bonus, Benny? I’m away from my girls after hours. Remember our deal?” said Clee, levelly.

“Yeah, I know, I know. It’s in Hodgetown, one of the new towns. Well, one of the old towns that’s turned into a new town, y’understand.”

“Yeah, I understand, Benny. But, what’s the bonus?”

“Sack of coffee beans. Three barrels of water. Vegetables and seeds. A quart of Glenfidich scotch whiskey. A new laptop, too. Any o’ this registerin’?”

“Some, yes. Some. Tell me more about the job?”

So, Benny did; an unidentified predator of considerable size, and two dead cows.

“Fine then. Throw in that first-edition volume of Maya Angelou poetry you got from that Solar Junction library job, and we’ll call it square. It’s for my girls.”

Benny smiled his lopsided smile: “Done”.

***

Clee took her bio-mass fueled truck out of town toward Hodgetown with her arsenal of gear in the back. It would take a couple of hours to get there. The roads were good until about a quarter of an hour outside of Green City, at which point they turned to dirt tracks and broken asphalt. There weren’t many cars and trucks left anyway except for public works vehicles, and commercial trucks like Clee’s.

She tuned into Radio Sweetheart the whole way, playing the oldies. Outkast’s “Hey Ya” sang out of the truck radio as she drove, and Clee tapped her forefinger on the wheel. The station was broadcast from somewhere in Crowtown where she’d never been. She’d been pretty much everywhere else when she was with the army. They were just setting up Crowtown then, about twenty years ago. By the time it was settled, and Clee had stopped moving around, she was in Green City. There were a lot of reclaimed towns now.

Humanity was bouncing back.

Hodgetown was even newer, set up about a year before. A fella named Hodge had taken a crew out there to refurbish one of the existing towns, or part of one. Then, they moved some of the families in. Hodge himself was the client on Clee’s job, too. Clee’s first stop was to see him at the old Hyatt Hotel where he set up his digs, and his office. Clee knew Hodge by reputation only; one of those hard-bitten types, smart, strong willed, and mean. I guess that’s what you had to be when you were in the Reclamation business.

He had a lot of pull in Green City for a lot of years. But, many figured he was feeling too hemmed in by the Council, which is why he struck out on his own. There were more and more who felt that way about the Council. It made Clee nervous. She read the histories. Folks trying to set up something new, growing out for growing out’s sake, rather than making something older work better was how all this happened in the first place.

When she got to Hodgetown, it was dark. She drove to the gates, and the ranger there examined her work order. She hung her broad head out of the driver’s side window to ask directions to the Hyatt, and got them.

The Hyatt Hotel was a tall building down what had been a main drag, which was strangely absent of people, unlike in Green City when everyone walked at night, talking in cafes, and bars. Clee parked out front of the Hyatt and went in, brushing past a wall of heavies that were hanging in the front. Clee looked the biggest one in the eye as he handed back the work order to her. He smirked at her, and Clee felt a pang of disgust. This was a bad place. That’s what little Bea would have said.

***

“So, you’re from Benny’s?” said Hodge. “You look like a good fit for this job.”

He sat behind a desk in the sumptuous office with one foot propped up at the edge. The foot was wrapped in a pristine cowboy boot that he never even dreamed of mud. Hodge cocked his blonde head to the side as he spoke, as if he were addressing someone dressed in strange clothes, speaking in the presence of a curiosity that he considered to be at best amusing, and at worst ridiculous.

Clee nodded. “Yes. Benny told me to talk to you about the details, though. All I need to know is the where, and the what so’s I can get started.”

Hodge smirked in the same way his thug downstairs and out front had done. When he did he revealed a single dimple on the right side of his mouth. He was handsome, and yet ugly at the same time.

“Well, the where is Thomas Edison Public School about a half-hour from here, right up against my grazing fields. I don’t know if Benny told you. But, I raise cattle. I got a bunch of boys to round them up and I keep them in an adjacent field to the school, which is abandoned right now, not part of the reclamation project just yet. What is a big part of the project are the steers. We’re setting up a trade in dairy products, maybe with a sideline in packaged meat, to eventually do business in the other towns in exchange for building supplies.”

“But, this, uh, creature made its home somewhere nearby, or maybe in the school itself. So, that’s the where. The what is harder. No one’s seen it up close. So, I’ve got boys looking out for it right now. It’s killed two of my steers so far in as many weeks, which are unacceptable losses. I think it’s been done at night, with half the carcass torn up, and half eaten, found in some bushes near the school. Dragged. That means whatever it is, it’s big.”

“So, you want it dead, then, whatever it is?” asked Clee blankly, pursing her lips.

“Well, no. Maybe not.” laughed Hodge, his head still cocked to one side smiling broadly. The dimple grew deeper in his smooth handsome ugly face. “I want to know what it is, first. It’s not a wolf, or a coyote. It’s not the usual. It’s something that we’ve never seen before. No regular animal could do that to a full-grown steer.”

“Could be a pack. Maybe it’s not one animal, but a group. I seen plenty of that on this job.”

“No. One of my ranchers saw it in the shadows. It’s one creature alright; not a wolf, not even a bear, he said. It’s something else. The townsfolk are scared. The work is slowed right down, and some people are talking about going back to Green City. I can’t have that. So, here you are.”

“When I find out what it is, what do you want me to do then?”

“Well, I want you to capture it if you can. I want to make sure everyone here knows it’s been captured so that things can resume here again.”

“I think I can handle that.”

“But, remember; whatever this thing is tore a grown steer apart. I hope you’ve brought the right equipment.”

“Yeah. And then some.” said Clee.

“You should go to the ranch right now. I have some boys there.”

“I’ll call you when I’ve learned anything.” said Clee.

***

Clee pulled up near the fence where several men were standing. Some were Hodge’s men. She could just tell. One other was not. He was a short, brown man wearing a pale hemp coat and clunky rubber boots. He turned and squinted into the lamps of Clee’s truck. When she killed the engine, the man approached, leaving the taller, gruffer men staring after him with derisive grins on their faces.They considered the smaller man ridiculous in the way that Hodge had found Clee’s height to be ridiculous.

“I suppose you brought all kinds of guns, didn’t you? You’re going to shoot it, right?” The man said, poking his head into the cab of the truck.

“Well, yeah I brought them. But, I’ve been asked not to use any of them,” replied Clee.

The man smiled darkly. “Oh, really. What do they want you to do?”

“Look, sir. Who are you exactly? One of Hodge’s men?”

“Far from it. I’m doctor Singh. Tarun Singh. I’m a mammalian zoologist. In particular, I study big cats.”

Clee opened her door and Dr. Singh stepped aside. She towered over him, and he looked up at her while at the same time not finding her height to be significant. That was rare.

“What are you doing here, Dr. Singh?”

“I’m here representing my discipline.”

“As an expert in big cats? Is that what we’ve got here?”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve got here,” said Dr. Singh angrily. “We’ve got a very big cat; the biggest, actually. A Golden Siberian Tiger.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“I’ve tracked it.”

“From where?”

“From what you would call the Outlands a number of miles from here. My former employer is an aficionado of big cats, very well off at one time before the Vine took the east coast, and owning his own compound. This one was one of his; a female who is six-hundred pounds and eleven feet long; large for a female. I was initially hired to care for the creature. But, there were complications, and she escaped.”

“Complications?”

“There was a brownout in the compound. The enclosure gate was open. Tiger escaped.”

“And now, it’s eating cows?”

“We’ll yes. So it would seem. I only just arrived myself, greeted by these gentlemen. They said you’d be here to shoot it. And I’m telling you that would not be a good idea.”

“Why is that?” asked Clee.

“Because if tigers are rare, than a Golden Siberian Tiger is all the more rare. You cannot simply kill it because it’s doing what it needs to do to survive.”

“What were you going to do once you caught up to it, Dr. Singh?”

“I was going to observe it first. I’ve never seen it interact anywhere else but in the compound.”

“Really? You were going to observe a six-hundred pound, eleven foot long cat? When you were finished observing it, what then?”

Dr. Singh paused, and looked away. Then he looked back. “I hadn’t quite got that far.”

“I gotta call my client,” said Clee.

***

Hodge felt a rush of euphoria when he put down the phone. A tiger; a real tiger. They would come for miles around to see it. They’d even pay a tribute to see it, making Hodgetown a boom town. When had tigers become extinct again? It didn’t matter. It just mattered that they had, and that Hodgetown will have the only one in existence anywhere. That freakishly big Animal Control agent would stun it and cage it. And his people would build a pen for it. Maybe he could even have it in the enclosure in the sports arena a few blocks from here. Hodge had been wondering what to rename it once the the reclamation had been done. Why not Evanston Masters Hodge Memorial Tiger Arena? Perfect.

And this Dr. Singh person; he’d come in handy too, just like the Giantess would. There’d be plenty of work for him taking care of the last tiger on earth. Hodge knew that you couldn’t build an empire on your own. And he’d surround himself with useful people. But, it would be him that everyone would know. It would be him that would be remembered.

He smiled, and the dimple on his cheek deepened. But, in a dark corner of his mind, something lurked. There would be hell to pay if anything went wrong from that point onward. Hodge would make sure of that, personally if need be.

He picked up the phone again to call Anders.

***

Read Burning Bright Part II next week.

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