Cracking the Books


The three walked into the room, Rick taking his seat behind the table, Sonia standing at the doorway. Eric stepped past the table over to the suspect and pulled off the hood and blindfold. The suspect sat there blinking and cringing, one hand picking anxiously at the blood stained dressing around his thigh. Eric stepped back to the opposite side of the table, Sonia offering him the second seat, Eric in turn deferring to the expecting mother, allowing her to sit.

Sonia and Eric looked across the table regarding the suspect with a casual interest while Rick sorted through the papers in his binder. The suspect looked from Rick to Eric, conspicuously avoiding Sonia, averting his gaze as his eyes darted from one man to the other.

The four continued like that for nearly two minutes, sitting in the room but saying nothing. Finally Rick looked up from his papers. “I’m sure you already know why you’re here…” he began.

“Mister,” the weak chinned punk answered, “This is all a mistake. We was just playin’, that’s all.” He nodded, “We just wanted a little bit of the herb, heard from a friend that there was a deal going down and thought maybe we’d get a bit of a taste. Honest,” he replied, shifting his gaze quickly past Sonia to Eric, “It wasn’t no more than that, the guns were just a joke, tryin’ to scare someone.”

Rick looked from Sonia to Eric, the three exchanging inscrutable glances. When Sonia looked back at the punk she noticed him avert his gaze from her instantly, looking back down at the dressing on his thigh. This seating arrangement is perfect, she thought clinically, it’s an effort for him to avoid looking at me.

“Mister, can I have a drink of water?” the punk asked, regarding Rick obsequiously. “I’m real thirsty.”

“We’ll get back to that,” Rick replied, looking back down at his paper. “Where did you get that scar?” he asked, gesturing at the punk’s left arm, a round red mark, taut and shiny above his elbow.

“This,” he asked, gesturing at his arm fastened to the chair. “That’s nothin’, just somethin’ I got climbing a fence before the shit.”

“Bullshit,” Eric replied, “That’s a gunshot wound, less than a year old by the looks of it.”

“Uh, uh,” the punk mumbled unconvincingly, looking back down at his thigh.

“Do you recognize any of us?” Rick asked.

“Uh, uh,” he repeated, not looking up. At that he fell silent.

“You don’t recognize the person who gave you that?” Sonia asked, nodding at the punk’s arm, the teen holding his head down and mumbling something incomprehensible.

“Answer the lady,” Eric snapped.

“No ma’am,” he replied weakly, finally meeting her gaze.

“Well, I have changed my hairstyle, Travis,” Sonia began, running her hand over her shorn stubble, the punk’s body responding with an involuntary jerk at the mention of his name. “Of course, I remember you,” she went on in cold reminiscence, “Sponge Bob hat, video camera, riding in that truck with Dino.”

At that the punk gave a start, eyes popping out in terror. Sonia smiled at him in satisfaction, nodding.

“That was a long time ago,” the weak-chinned teen mumbled, “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Then the teen gasped abruptly, wracked by a series of gulping, convulsive sobs.

“Just playing, right?” she asked, looking at the pockmarked thug with disdain.

“OK,” Rick announced abruptly. “We’re very disappointed with the way this has gone. You’re just not being truthful with us, not about anything.” He closed the binder. “You said you’re thirsty,” Rick explained, “Well, we’re going to give you some water.” He paused for a moment. “You’re not going to like the way we do it though.” At that Eric opened the door and called down the corridor.

Rick rose from the seat, taking some keys from his pocket. He unchained the punk, now trembling and babbling incoherently. Two of Alexander’s people, larger men, came in and lifted him from his seat. They handcuffed him then fitted a blindfold and gag before dragging him out of the room.

+++

A half hour later they returned, Travis soaking wet and shivering uncontrollably, tape covering his mouth. He was dumped unceremoniously into the chair and chained back into place.

“OK,” Rick began, taking his seat behind the table again. “This person you call ‘Pooch’, we need you to tell us everything you know about him. We know you’ve been running with him for most of the year. We know you abducted her and her friends back in March,” he gestured at Sonia. “We also know that you helped this Pooch character attack a Community in Mexicantown last month,” he went on, “What we want to know now is where this Pooch character stays, how you get in touch with him, how he found his way to Mexicantown.”

Eric stepped forward and ripped the tape from the punk’s mouth, tearing out his mangy facial hair. He gasped and paused for a moment, eyes darting about. “Well, go on,” Sonia prompted with impatience.

“This isn’t my fault,” he gasped, breathing heavily through his mouth, drooling slightly. “I’ve had this problem since before the Plague. Attention deficit and drugs-”

Rick looked at Eric and gestured with his head. Eric picked up a large hardcover book from the corner of the table and leaned over, striking the sniveling teen across the side of the head. “Listen carefully,” Rick intoned, “We want to know about Pooch. Tell us everything you know about him, from the beginning.”

“You don’t understand,” he blurted out, panting with exertion. He cringed beneath the book, a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The letter ‘T’, Sonia thought with approval, a nice big, heavy letter.

“You want to go back to the bathtub?” Rick asked, his voice low and heavy with menace.

Travis shook his head wildly, eyes like saucers. He began to speak, telling his story. He told them how he lost his mother sometime during the Outbreak claiming she was a nurse who died of CNVE, a claim which Sonia didn’t believe but allowed to pass as irrelevant. He and a pack of his friends joined up with a larger group of a similar age, late teens and early 20s, spending the days of the Outbreak and Collapse ‘getting by’ as he put it.

Eventually, about the same time Sonia and Padma volunteered for the FEMA Medical Staff, Travis and his gang sought shelter at Eastern Market, hearing how others had found refuge in the old brick buildings. There they continued their habit of ‘getting by’ through the remainder of the summer and into the winter.

They began to trade with some other gangs including one based further down I75 in Highland Park. Meth chemicals were one of their biggest trade items and around September one of the gangs they traded with introduced them to a meth cooker known as ‘Pooch’. Travis and his gang did several deals with Pooch over the course of the fall and winter, always meeting at a location in Highland Park, their leader contacting Pooch via the CB.

Sometime during the winter Travis and his gang became involved with a ‘beef’ with another gang which Sonia and the others already knew to be Karina’s rape. A series of shootings followed – one being the ambush William and Chris conducted before the blizzard – the conflict culminating in the firebombing of the gang’s shelter.

“That’s where I got these,” Travis told them, twisting his body in the chair, showing them the burn scar running from the back of his head down past his shoulders, oblivious to the fact that his wounds were inflicted by some of the very same people who detained him now. After the firebombing, Travis and the remnants of his gang sought refuge with the Highland Park gang, finding some scant support. From there they fell in with Pooch’s gang or ‘tribe’ as he called it.

“Tribe?” Sonia asked distastefully.

“Yeah, that’s what they call themselves,” he answered. “Pooch claims to be some Bayou Indian – Chocka-wawka or Chocka-Tawka or some shit like that. They even scalp and skin people, like fucking Comanches from the movies. I don’t think he’s a real Indian though, just a line of redneck bullshit.”

Over time Pooch took Travis and his companions in, gradually and with the understanding that they would still pass sometime at The Market as needed. As Travis explained it, he had only been running with Pooch and his gang for a few weeks when they abducted Sonia and Padma – “I didn’t know what they were all about until then, honest,” he offered in feeble defense, Sonia blinking at the mention but saying nothing – and, enraged by the deaths of his friends at the young woman’s hand, Pooch vowed revenge.

“Real twitchy about it, too,” he recounted, “turning it into some kind of Pledge of Allegiance, making everyone swear to it, like Indians going off on a war party.”