The Road Of Danger – Snippet 81

CHAPTER 21: Halta City on Cremona

By the time the elevator thumped to rest on the ground floor of the warehouse, red strobes in the ceiling were pulsing while a musical but penetrating gong tolled. The light blurred through the dust of the building’s interior, turning the drab volume into an angry dawn.

Adele felt silly walking around with the pistol in her hand, so she returned it to her pocket. She knew from experience that she would be able to get it out quickly enough if the situation required her to do so.

The workmen Adele passed as she followed Brock’s quick strides hadn’t paid any attention to the pistol, however, nor to the more obtrusive weapons which her companions carried. Equipment was shutting down in response to the alarm, so the building was somewhat quieter than it had been when she and Tovera entered.

An amplified voice called, “All employees report to your section manager at once! Report to your section manager at once!”

Adele thought it was Brock’s grandson speaking, but distortion from multiple speakers and the building’s bad acoustics kept her from being certain. The delay before the general announcement was enough to have allowed him to give instructions to the foremen before he sent the common laborers to them.

Three trucks were backed into the loading dock: a flatbed which had arrived with a pair of sealed shipping cubes, a hopper truck into which pink rice was pouring from an overhead spout, and a three-axle vehicle with four-foot sides of corrugated steel around the bed. Brock went to the last.

The truck driver stood on the dock, looking concerned as the cargo handler who’d been with him disappeared inside at the loudspeaker’s summons. A double pallet of eight-inch piping hung from an overhead track, ready to be swung onto the bed.

“Tony, I’m going to borrow your truck,” Brock said to the driver. “I’ll square it with Norgay, or else Klaus will if I don’t get around to it. Okay?”

“Okay, Brock,” the driver said; his eyes were on the big pistol whose grip protruded above the outfitter’s waistband. “Hey, is everything okay? What’s going on?”

Brock stepped onto the truck bed, then gripped the side with both hands and swung over to stand on a back tire. He stepped from the tire to the running board and there opened the driver’s side door.

“We’ve got a bloody ratfuck for the moment, Tony,” he called to the driver, “but me and my friends here’re going to straighten Mangravite out. Then it’ll be fine.”

“Whatever you say, Brock,” the driver said with nervous brightness. “Hey, I’m sure not going to bet against you!”

Adele had detoured to the flight of steps at the other end of the high dock; her boot soles pattered on the concrete. Tovera remained on the platform, trying to watch in all directions. She held her sub-machine gun close to her chest where its outline wouldn’t be immediately obvious.

“Shake a leg, both of you!” Brock said. Adele opened the cab door and slid in. There was plenty of room for concealment under the dash if she curled her legs under her.

Tovera stepped into the truck bed. She reached for the gate with her left hand.

“Here, you can’t lift that alone,” the driver said, bending to help her. Before he touched it, Tovera straightened, pivoting the gate upward to clang shut; the catches snicked home.

Brock chuckled. He twisted the handle of the hand-brake, then let its tensioning spring pull it open.

“Next stop, Halta Harbor,” he said as he lifted the transmission lock from its detent. His foot settled onto the throttle. Motors whined; the truck accelerated slowly but as smoothly as a falling rock.

“I took this one because she’s got electric motors in each wheel-hub,” Brock said, pitching his voice so that Adele could hear him over the chorus of whines. “Don’t get me wrong–I could handle any of them: I started out in this business driving a diesel with a crunch box. But I figured not having to worry about missing a shift right now was maybe a good thing.”

Adele, under the dashboard, twisted so that she could look at Brock. She was pleased to see that he was watching the road and keeping his hands on the big, nearly horizontal wheel as he spoke.

“I see,” she said. “You’re the expert, so of course I accept your decision.”

She didn’t really see. Why would the outfitter, who was driving into a gunfight with apparent willingness, be concerned that a stranger thought him unmanly for choosing a vehicle with a transmission that was less difficult to manipulate than those of the other options?

Adele would say that she didn’t understand men, which was true; but that might imply that she did understand women, which certainly was not true. She had often thought that humans were an interesting species, but that she wasn’t a member of it.

Brock swore softly, switching the weight of his foot to the back of the single, center-pivoted, control pedal. The whining changed note and grew louder; each separate motor was turning the truck’s inertia into electricity which it pumped back into the capacitors. Daniel had explained the system to her not long after they met, for no better reason than his enthusiasm for hardware; and she had remembered, because her enthusiasm for information was just as great.

“We’ve got cops ahead,” Brock warned. “Just keep your head down and I think I can talk us through.”

“All right,” said Adele. The data unit in her pocket relayed the conversation to Tovera’s earbud, but that was probably redundant. She had never known Tovera to shoot unless she thought it was necessary–or to refrain from shooting because someone else didn’t see that necessity.

The truck slowed to a halt, but Brock didn’t lock the transmission. He stuck his head and burly shoulders out the side window and called, “Hey, buddy? Can you give me a break? I got something hot on back at the office–if I get there before her husband comes to pick her up.”

“Sorry, we gotta search all vehicles,” said a muffled voice from outside. “I feel your pain, believe me I do.”

“Look, I just dropped off a load of pipe shipped from Norsk on the Asphodel,” Brock whined. He reached into his breast pocket. “There’s nothing to search, all right? And here’s ten thalers to see it my way. Hell, here’s ten for each of you. Believe me, she’s special.”

“Well, I dunno, Jerry…?” the outside voice said. There was no reply, but his partner must have shrugged. A hand reached up to take the Alliance coins which Brock offered.

Brock’s foot shifted on the pedal. “Give’r my best,” the voice called, more faintly.

“Stop where you are!” a new voice shouted–more distant, but making up for that with volume.

Brock came off the throttle, but he didn’t rock the pedal back to brake. A sub-machine gun ripped out a short burst. It must have been aimed in the air, because Adele didn’t hear the nasty spatter of pellets hitting something hard.

“You bloody well stop or the next one’s through the windscreen!” the new voice shouted.