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Cold Water, Thirsty Souls

Fiction
Gladiator

Cold Water, Thirsty Souls

“Feel God’s love! Die of thirst as repenting atonement and be saved! Accept His punishments as your absolution! His judgment, and His alone, will –”

Crack!

Security’s baton crunched into the doomsayer’s skull and sent his head bouncing off the sidewalk. Blood seeped into the crumbling cement as the security team dragged him away.
Fitz didn’t care for the religious fanatics, but security didn’t have to be so rough.

“They say there’s plenty of water left, it’s all just dammed up the river somewhere in Arizona so they can keep it for themselves,” a man said somewhere farther up in line.

“Really? I thought Colorado didn’t let it flow out of state because they’ve had a snow drought the last few years,” someone argued back.

“Easy, blow up the dam,” another gruff voice chimed in.

“Next,” the dried-out captain yelled.

Everyone shuffled through the snaking ration line and Fitz felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw Kyle Green – a much thinner Kyle Green than the man he had served with in Iran.

“Hey Fitz!” Kyle exclaimed. “How’ve you been? I had no idea you were living in California, these days. Sorry I kind of dropped off the radar after Tehran. Seems like neither of us strayed too far from base, huh?”

A few short years ago, Kyle would have died for Fitz and Fitz would have done the same for him. Kyle was drying out, like everybody else.

“Something like that. Once a marine, always a marine, right?” Fitz said. “Your knee ever get back up to speed?”

Kyle nodded. “Well enough. Doesn’t seem to matter much now that we’re both stuck in the ration line like everyone else. How’s Sheryl?”

“Great except for the morning sickness. We’ve got number two on the way.”

Kyle was stunned. “Congrats!” He stammered. “How can you guys afford that? You buying extra rations? Rooming with another family? Telling the law grandpa’s still alive to keep his extra liters, or what?”

Fitz threw a quick lie. “I’m just getting along with less.” He knew it was bad as it rolled off his tongue. The only guy in line who still had elastic skin was getting along with less.

Kyle saw through it. “Sure you didn’t sell all your nine-mil? Thought you’d never get rid of was that stock pile.”

“Still got plenty of nine-mil.”

“You wanna go shoot some time? Debbie could bring over Douggie and our little ones can play while we had a boys date. We’d have to promise Deb and Sheryl they’d get a day of their own when we would watch the kids, but you know what I mean. There’s a great range not far from here that gives a fat veterans discount.”

“Why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you when I finally get some time off. Might be able to squeeze in a day before number two is born.” Fitz hoped he could get ahead of Kyle’s questions.

“Tell you what,” Kyle said, “I’ve heard that there may be a few gallons that fall off a truck tonight. Intersection of Magnolia and Cahuenga. Why don’t we swing by there tonight and then go straight to the range first thing in the morning. Bring your guns and we won’t have to double back to pick them up.” Kyle said in a coy attempt to recruit a well-watered warrior to liberate some gallons for the both of them.

But Fitz already knew about the truck, just not the intersection. “Thanks, but I can’t. Night shift,” Fitz said.

“Okay, Fitz. See you soon.”

The line moved forward and Fitz handed over his ticket to the captain and took his pallet of water. He watched Kyle brooding in line and dragged his pallet over to him. Maybe a few extra gallons could keep him out of trouble tonight. “Kyle, take five gallons for Deb and your little guy.”

“Fitz, come on, man. You’ve got number two on the way.”

“Like I said, I’m getting along with less. Take the water and don’t worry about the chaos of scraping for a few stolen gallons off that truck tonight. Let’s meet up here, same time next week, and we can talk. We might have some openings at my job and I’m sure I could get you an interview.” Fitz plopped the five-gallon-jug at Kyle’s feet.

Everyone in line was staring at the two of them. If Kyle didn’t take the jug there would be a riot over Fitz’s extra water. The captain eyed them both, giving them a minute before he had Fitz arrested and thrown out.

“Thanks, Fitz,” Kyle said as he put the water on his sled.

“Same day next week. Let’s meet here early, okay?”

“Yeah.” Kyle kept his mouth shut as Fitz walked away.

Fitz hoped Kyle would stay home tonight.

***

And Frodo volunteered to take the ring,” Fitz said as he closed the book.

“Why, daddy?” Charlotte asked, sitting wide awake in her bed.

“Because sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to so we can protect the people we love.”

“How?”

“When Frodo takes the ring, he’s going to destroy it and stop all the bad guys from hurting anyone else.”

“Do you stop bad guys, daddy?”

Fitz took a deep breath. “I make sure we have a house, and food, and water. I do everything I can to protect you and mommy.”

“From bad guys?”

“From all the bad things I can. Making sure you have a house and food and water is the most important thing.”

“Which bad guys are trying to take the food and water?” Charlotte asked.

“Lots of people are trying to figure out how to get enough water and food for everybody. Maybe one day you’ll be the one to get food and water to everyone because you’re so smart.”

Charlotte’s eyes lit up with the possibility. “Really?”

“Yep. You could save the world with your brain. But, you’ve got to keep your brain strong and to do that you have to go to sleep. Go to sleep, save the world. Sound Good?”

Without so much as a goodnight, Charlotte hurled herself under her covers and squeezed her eyes shut.

Fitz kissed her forehead and whispered, “I love you.” He walked the short hall into the kitchen and living room to suit up. As quietly as he could, he took his rifle from the coat closet and pulled out its empty magazine. He gathered his other mags and clicked in round after round of ammo.

Sheryl walked out of the darkness of the hall and into the light of the kitchen.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,” Fitz said.

She glanced at Fitz’s gun and body armor on her way to the pantry.

“Just thirsty,” she said. Her eyes avoided him as she opened the false wall and grabbed one of their secret gallons of water. “Be careful tonight, okay?”

“Of course.”

“This isn’t worth your life, you know,” Sheryl said as she poured herself a glass of water.

“I know,” Fitz said. Nothing paid like this and certainly nothing else had the water benefits. Who else wanted an ex-soldier? Police? Get paid less to do essentially the same thing and be hated by society. No. He knew he needed a new skill set, but nothing was so lucrative.

There was a knock at the door.

Fitz clicked the magazine into his rifle and chambered a round as he approached the peephole. He put his eye to the small, dirty lens and saw a dark, blurry man. It was Woz, pistol holstered and towing a box labeled “solar panels” on a sled at his side. Fitz swung the door open for him.

“Ten gallons, buddy. Let’s move.” Woz pushed the sled inside and peeled back the top of the box – ten more gallons of water for the house.

Sheryl snuck back into the darkness as Fitz and Woz hauled the water into the secret compartment in the pantry. “I thought it was twenty gallons,” Fitz remarked.

“New policy. Half now, half after,” Woz said.

“Great.” Fitz rolled his eyes. “When did that happen?”

“Monday,” Woz commiserated. “Bag your gun and let’s go.”

Fitz tossed his gun, ammo, and body armor into a duffle bag and left the house, quietly locking the door behind him.

***

Fitz slept most of the way to San Bernardino and woke up in the mountains on the way out to the tanker trucks. Two tankers were at the pumping station tonight, each getting a final armor check. The tanks were reinforced because the poachers had recently taken to the idea that if they weren’t getting the water then no one would. It made for a slower convoy and a lot more opportunities to get hit.

Logen, balding and eternally frustrated, was doing the armor check and inspecting the welds on the V-shields of the undercarriages. Those redirected most of the energy from any IED blasts away from the belly of the tanks. Logen also planned the routes the trucks would take.

Braced for Logen’s annoyance, Fitz approached. “Logen, when did you plan this route?”

“Busy,” Logen retorted as he shook his dying flashlight at a spot weld.

“I think it’s compromised.” Fitz said.

“Of course it is. They all are.”

Fitz checked for anyone listening. Everyone else was gearing up and putting on their uniforms and body armor.

“I heard that we’re going to get hit at Magnolia and Cahuenga.”

“Guess you’ll be ready for it, then.”

“Can’t you change the route? Send a scout ahead or something?” Fitz asked.

“Isn’t your job to engage in these types of things?”

“My job is to get the water there safely.”

“Look, if someone is selling the route I don’t want them to know that we know. We’ll dig them out soon enough.” Logen said.

“I don’t want to wait around for ‘soon enough’, Logen.”

“Highly doubt it’s anyone on the line with you guys tonight. Benefit of standardized uniforms. Their contact would have no way of telling them apart from anyone else. Just keep an eye out for anyone acting squirrely and use your best judgment. See you in a few hours.” Logen clapped Fitz on the shoulder and moved on to the next truck.

Fitz climbed into the back of the van, an armored Humvee, and sat on the hard bench sandwiched between two other operators. He was across from Woz and two more operators, their legs interlocked like a zipper. Six operators per van, two dozen operators plus the six drivers making thirty guns pulling twelve-thousand gallons of water. The caravan pulled out. Lead van and then Fitz’s van as the spear, two water tankers, then two follow vans. Fitz closed his eyes and slept again.

***

He opened his eyes when they pulled off the two-ten and into Burbank. They were taking Magnolia out to North Hollywood where they would branch off into side streets and make their way up into the hills. Burbank was quiet. The rows of thrift stores, post houses, and memorabilia shops passed in an endless loop. Woz played with his laser sight, clicking it on and off. Everyone in the van was bored. If anyone in his van had sold the route, they were playing it very, very cool.

Burbank Avenue was ahead.

“Guys,” Fitz said. “I heard we’re gonna get hit at Cahuenga.”

“Bullshit,” Woz said.

Fitz peered out a murder hole to watch for any signs of trouble.

Woz saw how serious Fitz was and clicked on his laser sight. “Fuck.” The other operators turned on their FLIR goggles. Woz leaned over to the driver’s comm-window and said, “Reyes, be on the lookout for –“
Tires squealed and the lead van careened into a telephone pole just ahead of them at the south-west corner of Magnolia and Cahuenga.

A hard rain of bullets poured onto the convoy. Fitz’s driver slammed on the gas to push through the intersection. Explosives detonated just behind their front axle and knocked their back wheels off – scraping the van along the asphalt until it ground its way into the curb.

Two vans down.

“Out!” Woz yelled.

The caboose operator punched the escape button and blew off the rear hatch in a dense puff of smoke, hiding the operators as they poured out. Fitz raised his rifle and fired on the highlighted silhouettes, illuminated by FLIR, and watched them fall with each report of his rifle. His viewfinder showed the glowing weapons and neon silhouettes dropping to the ground.

Fitz prowled out of the smoke and saw that the tanker had slowed to a crawl, waiting for the first follow van to take the lead. More bullets whizzed by, punching into the concrete and asphalt around him. Fitz took cover behind the moving tanker, keeping in step with its crawl.

Another wave of poachers swarmed in behind Fitz. Leading them was Kyle, with his centuries-old hunting rifle swinging up to aim at Fitz’s disguised face. But Kyle was weak from dehydration and weary from fighting so hard every night. He was slow to aim, slow to his trigger. Fitz gave him the kindness of a single round through his bad knee and dropped him out of the fight. One of his lieutenants bent down to help him up. Fitz cracked off another round and obliterated the lieutenant’s orbital bones, pouring the man’s brains onto Kyle’s face. The lieutenant’s body crumpled over Kyle and knocked him flat, out of harm’s way.

Other poachers descended in a herd of two dozen. The ones who couldn’t find cover fast enough were shot through by the operators in their secured positions. But the poachers now outnumbered the operators nearly three to one and they were focusing their efforts on the crashed lead van. Two operators, Simms and Hurley, held tight to its side panels, completely pinned down. Simms took a bullet in his back plate and knocked him off his feet, sending him right into Hurley and nudged him out of cover. A bullet struck Hurley’s helmet and blood showered into his eyes. He screamed, blinded by blood, and was punched through by the guns of thirsty, howling men.

The caboose van zipped past Fitz and swung up to the lead position.

Fitz grabbed onto the tanker as it kicked into gear. He popped off covering fire toward the advancing poachers, slowing their advance.
Another operator, Wilson, was crawling out the back hatch, over the bodies Hurley and Simms.

Holding tight to the tanker, Fitz leaned as low and grabbed Wilson by his body armor, dragging him along the street. Using all his strength, Fitz hefted him onto the back platform.

“Can you hang on?” Fitz shouted. Wilson nodded and wrapped his arms around the back ladder as Fitz returned fire at the poachers.

Wilson clenched his teeth and grunted as the tanker rattled through the streets.

“It was Grassmick. He shot Dougherty and steered us right into that post. Fucker. I got him before I crawled out.”

The convoy barreled through North Hollywood and climbed up the hills. The operators clinging to the sides of the tankers were on high alert as the convoy snaked up the tight switchbacks toward the peaks. If the poachers knew the route, there was nothing stopping them from hiding in the hills. Woz’s laser swept through the darkness.

The convoy pulled up to an iron gate and a winding driveway nestled between two tall guard towers. Spotlights blazed onto the vans and the tankers. Everyone waited in silence as the delivery was being confirmed on chain. Fitz’s arms burned from holding onto the truck for the last ten miles, all uphill, but knew if he moved an inch that everyone in those guard towers would smoke him. They might waste the whole convoy. “Three hundred bucks, twenty gallons. Three hundred bucks, twenty gallons,” Fitz reminded himself. The gate slid open and they were waved in.

At the mansion, the tankers pumped themselves dry into the billionaire’s holding cistern and his people tipped everyone with a liter. The billionaire’s woman, whoever she was, swam naked in their elevated glass pool above the convoy. She looked like she was flying above them, an angel of judgment. She peered down at the little people below who kept the shower running.

Fitz crammed into the lead van with Woz and the extra operators. He tried to sleep as the rising sun began to cook their steel box. He found no comfort.

***

Ten more gallons, each disguised as a box of solar-repair equipment, were given to the operators at the pump house after they changed back into civilian clothes. Woz took Fitz home and helped him push his box inside. Sheryl ate her breakfast with Charlotte and the little girl scrambled out of her seat to hug her father.

“Daddy!” Charlotte squealed. “I had a dream I helped you stop bad guys. We would stop them all, right, daddy?”

Fitz lifted her up. “I think it would be better if we could help people instead of stop bad guys, don’t you? Don’t you want to help people?”

“I want to be like you and Frodo. He helped people by stopping bad guys – like you.”

“If we could help everyone there would be no more bad guys. That’s the best thing you could do. If we could help everyone, daddy wouldn’t need to leave for work anymore and we could play together all day every day. So, let’s not worry about how to stop bad guys, but how to help people, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, daddy.”

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