Chapter One: The Tallest Riley
There's always something about the dark, slick city streets that discourages exploration, but in even the darkest, deepest of these hells, there is something worth finding whether it is drugs, guns, or death you seek. Sometimes, if you looked hard enough, you found all three.
Arreland city had once been a capital: a shining star of civilization with medical facilities that ranked top in the world and enough skyscrapers to be considered ridiculous. But that had been before The Fall, when democracy and government had fled the northern continents, plunging the city and the world into economic, moral, and anarchic chaos.
There may have been civilization in other cities on the northern continents, but Arreland was still the hellish darkness that it had been left in and it was the only place I, or anyone else who lived there, knew.
We had all heard the stories growing up. In the time of our grandfathers and grandmothers, there had been a president and an organized government that had laws and people who enforced them. But our generation knew nothing of this order.
What we knew was death, crime, and fear and the night my parents died, I became a part of that world.
I was twelve and I was scrawny, half-starved from living off of canned meat and the occasional scraps I was able to steal from restaurants, but I carried myself well. I had no choice. If anyone from The Crew thought I was scared or weak, they'd kill me, steal my money, and because I was a girl, they would probably do much worse.
As I made my way deeper into the seemingly abandoned alley, I could make out shapes along the sides of buildings. By the smell and the noise, I realized this alley was filled with the homeless. My parents had never been rich, by any standards, but we had never been without shelter.
"Hey," came a cool voice from the edge of the alley. I paused but made no response. "You got money?" I felt a cold hand wrap around my arm. I reacted purely on instinct, reaching to my waistband where I had hidden my father's magnum. Pulling it out with practiced ease, I pressed it against the kid's skull and he released me. "Sorry," he drawled, "I didn't think little girls packed…" He said.
"This one does," I spat, pushing the low-life away from me. He stumbled back, mumbling curses under his breath. I waited to move on until I saw him sink to the ground and reenter his drugged stupor and even then, I didn't put my gun away.
At the end of the alley, I stopped and looked around me. It was night, and it was dangerous to be here. This was Crew territory and if there were any scouts about, they would know I was armed and not afraid to brandish.
"I'm looking for Murdock," I said fairly loud and there was shuffling to my right. I chambered a bullet. If they were going to attack me, I wasn't going down without a fight. "I'm a Riley."
There was more shuffling, but now, along with moving boxes, I could hear footsteps coming towards me. I was still unable to see anyone though and the nearer the footsteps got, the jumpier I became.
With a suddenness that shocked me and forced my eyes closed, a floodlight clicked on. When I opened them, I saw that I was surrounded, but closer than all of them, one boy stood out.
He was tall, lean, and smoking. His hand rested on the waistband of his jeans and a telltale bulge told me he was armed. The way he stood told me he was comfortable and the smirk on his face told me he was interested. His face was in darkness and I could only just see the glitter of his eyes as he spoke.
"A Riley, eh?" he asked in a deeply accented voice. "Aren't you a little short to be a Riley?"
"No," I said, clicking the safety into place before I returned the gun to my waistband. "All the tall Riley's are dead, so I guess I'm the tallest now," I said after a moment of tense silence.
The man who stood before me laughed and I could tell that he was genuinely tickled by the way he looked around him at his fellows. "Isn't she cute?" he asked as his laughter subsided. "I like her," he added. He paused, taking a deep drag from the cigarette that hung loosely from his lips, then took another step towards me. "You're a little stringy," he commented as his eyes roved me, "but some of my best men are wiry and once we get some more meat on yer bones, you might be shaped into something fierce." He then began circling me, making suggestions out loud to no one in particular concerning my hair, my height, and even my clothes. "You dress like a street rat," he said, specifically addressing me. "Your pants are torn and don't fit right, your jacket hangs off you like a circus tent, and your shoes have been worn to your socks."
"I've been an orphan for three months," I snapped, more feeling in my voice than I had felt in weeks.
"You'll be an orphan for the rest of your life, which if it was up to you, wouldn't be long," he said. "In this weather, I'm surprised you haven't caught something already," he snarled. "Where have you been staying?"
I straightened my posture as I replied, "Any place that I could talk or sneak my way into."
"Good," he said, "You have people skills." He took one more huff of his cigarette before tossing it to the ground and grinding it into the pavement. "Sal," he said sharply and a large man walked forward from the shadows.
"Yes?" and I held my breath.
"Take her inside, warm her up, and get some food in her," he said and the man nodded, getting closer to me. Turning back to me, the man said, "I'm Michael Murdock," he reached out his hand and I took it. After a quick shake, he released my hand and said, "You're one lucky little girl…" and I didn't doubt it.
The man called Murdock turned from me and, followed by everyone else, ducked into another alleyway. Sal placed his heavy hand on my shoulder and after taking my gun, led me in the same direction.