Cutter had brought the aerodyne down but managed to take out a stand of trees and a house. Now the craft sat at a slight angle atop at pile of debris and tree parts.
"Damn," said Mouse as we looked at the crash.
"Fucking assholes owe me," Cutter said, walking up to us.
"How the hell are we supposed to get back to Redding?" Mouse said.
"We'll deal with that later. First, we get Beck." I looked at Cutter.
He nodded and gestured toward the narrow paved road ahead. "This way."
We started after him.
"You sure you know where you're going?" said Mouse.
Cutter turned so he was facing us but kept walking backwards. He gestured around him with one hand. "We're in French Gulch. About thirty klicks west of Redding. Place died twenty-five years ago. Claw uses this as a kind of landing area for supply runs."
"Meaning people like you help them out," I said.
"Strictly a job," he said. "I don't take sides."
"So you've been here before?" said Mouse.
"Three times," said Cutter. "Supply run, like I said. Food. Parts. Materials. Clothing. You name it."
"Why not just drive up here from Redding?" I said.
"If Capitol got wind of a supply run, they could blockade the city. No one in or out. Or take out a truck or two enroute. Aerodynes can land pretty much anywhere. It was a no brainer."
"At least until Capitol gets their own aerodynes."
"Until then," said Cutter.
I said: "You know them. They know you. Why'd they shoot you down?"
"That's what I want to find out."
* * *
We'd been walking for several minutes. On either side of the road were dilapidated houses buried in overgrown weeds. Rusted and dust-caked cars, tires gone flat and windows broken, sat in driveways and along the side of the road. From the dashboard of a nearby faded green sedan, a pair of squirrels sat on their haunches, noses twitching, staring as we went by.
"So where is Claw?" I said.
"They've got a base up in the hills," Cutter said. "There's a road that runs northeast from town. Leads up there."
"It's a fixed base?"
He nodded. "Used to be an old mine. Pretty sure they're using it now."
"Why not use the town?" said Mouse.
Cutter shrugged. "My guess is power. None out this way anymore. You'd have to use gennys. And that'd be a lot of them. Might as well just use the big one in the mine."
"Makes sense," Mouse said.
"Should be there in about an hour," said Cutter. He looked at me. "We just planning to go in, guns blazing?"
" 'Course not," I said.
"So you have a plan."
"Working on it."
Cutter stopped and gaped at me. "You're kidding, right?"
"You get used to it," said Mouse. "Just follow her lead."
"Follow her lead? What the hell kind of ronin are you?"
"The 'still alive' kind," I said.
"Makes things interesting," said Mouse, grinning.
* * *
Just like Cutter said, the paved, two-lane road led northeast away from town, flanked by three long-abandoned buildings on our left and a shrub-dotted rust-orange hillside that angled sharply upward on our right.
Mouse, keeping pace with me, said: "Why do you think these Claw guys grabbed Beck?"
"Best guess is ransom," I said. "Fighting against the corporations and all that. They know Cutter. We were armed so they probably figured we were hired muscle. Beck wasn't armed so he was probably the important one. Usually works that way."
"Good point. Always boils down to money."
"Most of the time."
Mouse wiped sweat from her forehead and shifted her shoulders beneath her back scabbard harness. "I hate this heat."
"Me, too," I said, feeling the sweat spreading across my upper back, and the thin lines snaking down the side of my face.
Mouse inclined her head at Cutter who walked several paces ahead, the AK held at low-ready position, head scanning the road ahead. "And him?," she said. "Can we trust him?"
"For now," I said. "But I'm watching."
"He's kind of a mouth."
"But nothing like Jake Steele, right?"
"I'm not answering that."
She snickered. "You just did."
I ignored her.
We walked on in silence for another few minutes, no other sound except for the dull thunk of our boots on the concrete, and the random call of a nearby bird or two.
Shortly, Mouse said: "You figure out how we're gonna play this yet?"
"The mine bothers me," I said. "One way in. One way out. Fatal funnels are a bitch. Remember Sakura and that old factory?"
She shuddered. "Yeah."
"I'll let you know when I figure something out."
"Make it quick."
(to be continued...)