Chapter 5: Exit Strategy

In the first years since the founding of Starkhaven, numerous people had taken the mayor's seat. At the time, the role was not prominent or vital to the community and was considered more of a formality.

After moving away from the cities, free-citizen Marla Rook saw potential in the growing town. She used her knowledge of politics and economics to single-handedly triple its employment rate causing a surge in its population. She helped form the network of trade routes across the Outland that would deliver supplies between the major towns and even started the first postal service outside of the IFCR controlled areas.

Following her successes, fellow political figures would pressure her to run against the incumbent mayor. She was reluctant, but it was an election she would ultimately win with seventy-three percent of the vote; an unprecedented number at the time. Upon reelection that number would escalate to eighty-seven.

Within a few decades, Starkhaven transformed from a mere resting point for travelers to the unofficial capital of the Outland and Rook became the focal point for all its successes.

The reelections in the years that followed were either uncontested or lopsided in her favor. There was simply no one that could compete with the experience and education of a free-citizen. The seat would remain hers unless she saw fit to step down.

Yet, through it all, she had shown herself as humble and diligent. Having never hired a personal assistant, her workdays were long and exhausting. When over, she would lock the door to her office and walk the half mile distance to her single story home. She would sit with her husband, who himself had been a great influence on the town, and have dinner. They would discuss their days and share whatever interesting little stories they had for one another. Afterwards, she would be forced to sort through whatever work she'd been unable to finish during her day. This would often amount to reading several hundred letters from the townsfolk as well as representatives of other prosperous towns with whom Starkhaven held relations.

On that morning, word had reached her ears of a massacre in the slums. Of the victims, Vargas, a local crime lord, had been identified. More bodies would later surface in a meat locker in the commercial district; the victims all identified as part of the same syndicate.

It wasn't news that would keep Rook awake at night, but she knew that anytime there was death of that toll in her town, a turf war was likely around the corner. Also, it made the paperwork for the day particularly brutal. The fact that she was almost done with time to spare was a testament to her skill.

She had become an expert at sifting through the stacks of mail that piled atop her coffee table. On average, Marla would estimate that only a tenth of them were worth reading.

When she whittled them down to a handful, it looked as though she'd get to enjoy the rest of her evening. That was, until a single pure white envelope caught her eye.

Mixed beneath the pile of brown unbleached paper, the mayor was able to distinguish it instantly. The clean, elegant font on its face had been printed electronically and the paper even smelled different from the rest. She was careful when cutting open the top and removing the document inside.

The word "Urgent" had been slapped in red ink at the top of the document. At its top right corner was the phoenix crest of the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic. Her eyes skimmed through the paragraphs in order to quickly understand its intent.

"Shit." She uttered and froze in place.

Her husband, having overheard, peered his head out the kitchen door. "Bad news?

With the initial shock worn off, Rook's face settled into a frown. "The worst."

Stories of the violent murders spread to every corner of town. Many hypothesized that a rival gang had decided to move on the weakened Vargas family. Those with more experience, such as the sheriff, found that hard to believe.

Eight of the eleven bodies scattered around the living room of the house had been attacked with what appeared to be a six to seven inch blade. A Comparison of the wounds indicated that either one man was doing the killing or several people carrying identical knives. The latter seemed unlikely.

Tanis had seen countless murders during his time as Starkhaven police. Killing a man with a knife wasn't easy. You would often see defense wounds on the hands of the victims. Other times, there would be flesh wounds as they tried to veer the blade away from their vital organs.

Eight men, and every one of them with a single, fatal wound.

Five others, including Vargas had died from single gunshot wounds inflicted by a revolver recovered at the scene. There were no missed shots embedded in any of the walls and considering three of the gangsters were dropped side by side, the sheriff suspected they were killed less than a second apart from one another. The shooter had some talent, although he couldn't be sure if it was the same person who had redecorated the living room.

Another two men had bled out from a weapon that Tanis had yet to identify. The blade was certainly bigger than a knife but didn't have the characteristics of a standard sword; it was more of a curved weapon.

There was a lot of evidence to work with but no suspects with which to link. His best lead was a rumor that Vargas had held someone captive as little as an hour before the massacre took place.

"Allen," He called out to a deputy that was inspecting the blood spatters at the entrance. "Do you remember the name of the guy Vargas had supposedly kidnapped?"

The lawman answered in less than a second. "Axel Reins. Y'heard of him?"

Tanis thought about it for a few minutes. The name sounded familiar, he just couldn't remember why.

Axel had spent the better part of the week trying to assess the level of danger he and his crew were in. Talk of the incident wasn't as widespread as he had expected and whispers of his name were rare. Still, he knew the sooner they were out of Starkhaven, the better.

Jim and Ballard had been able to poke and prod the streets for information. So far, there hadn't been any mention of their involvement in the massacre. It was a clean slate for both of them.

Ballard's advice had been to stay on the rooftops of the commercial district. Few people would look for them there and the numerous buildings would make it easy to hide even if they did.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

The three of them had been discussing the matter of currency and how their lack of it would make their exit from Starkhaven a difficult one. As their talk progressed, it became obvious that without a decent sum of money, making it to another town would be out of the question. They would have to find a job.

"It means what it means." The new recruit repeated his previous words. "You're not coming with us. We can keep a lower profile without you."

"He's right Ax." Jim took the Grim Reaper's side. "I know you're restless having been up here for days, but you need to hang back and let us do the legwork for now."

The bruises Axel had received during his capture had almost fully healed. Minor swelling beneath his left eye and a slight discomfort whenever he moved his jaw were all that remained from his vicious thrashing.

His lieutenant was recovering from his own injuries. The ambush in the alley had left him with a gash on his head that refused to stop bleeding the first few days. The cut wasn't deep enough to require stitches but putting his head down to sleep would be followed by a sharp sting every time. Worst of all, he'd spent hours trying to wash the blood off his pants and vest using all kinds of soap and detergent. In the end, he only managed to turn the red stains into a less suspicious brown.

Reins laid it out for the two men. "We need enough cash for a full tank of gas and supplies. A little extra just in case wouldn't hurt either. Now I'm sure you both understand that we want to stay as far away from the syndicates as possible. They may not be a problem for now but I'd rather we not gain their attention. You'll need to find a job that can be done in a hurry. I'm talking one or two days. Ballard, you know this town better than either of us. Any leads?"

Rinkov eyed the stubby man sitting next to him on the edge of the roof. "He told me about one earlier. It's worth looking into."

The leader looked at his second in command with skepticism. "Really?"

Garrick spoke two simple words. "The mayor."

It took a moment for Axel to process the suggestion. "How the FUCK is that a lead?" Jim kept quiet and allowed his friend to chew into him. "Of all the people in town, she'd be the first to connect us to Vargas."


"Probably! We were in her office together not fifteen minutes after you beat the shit out of his guys. My name is all over town. I'm pretty sure she'll have put two and two together Jimmy."

"Alright, she knows." His lieutenant admitted without shame. "Maybe she was the one who had the case buried."

The two had done more than loiter during their week. Ballard knew of a few men in town that trafficked information.

The circulating rumor was that the investigation of the murders was shut down the very same day. Starkhaven police never did show interest in the turf wars as long as the victims weren't civilians, but it was unusual for them to close a case before the bodies were even moved to the morgue. At the very least, the police would want a coroner to back their report that a victim of an apparent bludgeoning did, in fact, die from having his skull caved in.

This was important for when the mayor inquired of a particular case and the sheriff would be forced to provide her with evidence that, while the death may have been gruesome, neither the victim nor the perpetrator were worth their attention. The syndicates had been killing one another since before Rook took office and they would continue to do so long after she was gone.

The fact that the investigation was halted before a proper report could even be filed meant that either the sheriff or the mayor had ordered its termination. With Tanis having to answer for such a bold move, all signs pointed to the town's highest authority.

"Somehow, I can't see this ending well for us." Axel sighed and yielded his position despite whatever feelings plagued him.

Jim replied more serious than joking. "When does it ever?"

The following morning, the lieutenant entered town hall with the Grim Reaper at his side. The receptionist was clearly made uncomfortable by their presence. She would shift her eyes up to the dangerous looking men every few seconds before immediately veering them back down to her paperwork.

Regardless of it being a Sunday, a meeting with Rook proved difficult. Dozens of people had arrived ahead of the two to have a moment of her time. After four hours, their turn still hadn't arrived.

"Hey!" Rinkov eventually built up the nerve to nudge his companion. He was surprised when the man leaped an inch off his chair. "Were you asleep?"

"No," Jim answered with an annoyed glare. "Of course not!"

The shades made it impossible to know for sure.

The two had spent most of their past week apart; giving one another their space while keeping speech to a minimum. It was the first time they were sharing a dialog since the Vargas incident.

"So how'd you and Axel meet anyway?"

"I don't see how that's any of your business."

"It isn't." Ballard tilted his head up towards the ceiling. "But seeing as how we'll be working together for the foreseeable future, I thought we should get to know each other."

Jim seemed to consider the notion while staring into the empty hall. "All right, why don't I ask you a question? Axel tells me you're on some quest for revenge, is that right?" The slight nod from Ballard acknowledged it. "Well, I don't know anything about that, but it seems to me like you've got your priorities a little mixed up."

"What do you mean?"

"Our fight the day we met: You had the jump on me, you were faster… more skilled with an edged weapon than I could ever hope to be, and I bet those creepy animal-like eyes of yours help you see better at night huh?" The swordsman's silence was answer enough. "All that and you still couldn't kill me."

"I was toying with you." There was scorn in his voice.

Garrick gave him a moment to reflect on his own words. "You put a moment of amusement ahead of a lifelong goal. You know what they call a person like that?" He tilted his head towards the man just long enough to deliver the punch line. "'A fucking idiot'."

The Grim Reaper winced and turned away from the man. "So I see we won't be getting along..."

Their patience was running out when, rapidly walking towards them from the other end of the hall, Jim spotted Rook throwing on a summer coat. "Prison."

The single word perplexed the normally astute mercenary. "What?"

It had never crossed his mind that Garrick would answer his question.

"We met in prison."

The hall had emptied since their arrival. The others had gone in ahead of them and it now looked as though the mayor was getting ready to leave.

She double-timed past the two without ever stopping. "Walk with me." Making their way onto the busy street, she swayed past the people littering the streets. "Your friend is in a heap of trouble? Are you here to ask for my help after all the bodies you left me to clean up?"

Garrick was taken aback. "Straight to the point huh?"

Marla turned towards the man as though she wanted to say something but reconsidered. "I get one day a week to spend with my grand-kids and I lose half of it talking to a bunch of ignorant assholes. Are you going to waste my time or tell me what it is that you want?"

"Work;" Jim didn't feel the need to play games. "Something short-term that can help us out of your town."

Rook could tell it was the truth. "How much do you need?"

"Enough for two tanks of gas and a week's supply of food."

"I take it this one's going with you?" She signaled to Ballard; recognizing him from when the mercenary first waltzed into town and issued his public challenge. "You'd better look elsewhere. I've got my own problems right now."

Something was bothering her but it didn't appear as though she'd share it with them.

"We want the same thing." The lieutenant stopped walking. "But if you won't help us, we could be stuck here for some time."

The mayor understood the situation better than anyone. The three of them had become major assets in the feud between the syndicates.

At the moment, they were all occupied with expanding into Vargas' newly vacated territory. But it wouldn't take long for them to realize that those responsible for dealing with him could also help them take control of the town.

There was a delicate balance in Starkhaven. If one family were to grow too strong, the remaining sides would join together in an effort to dispatch the threat.

Were the syndicates to set their eyes on Axel and his crew, any decision made by them would prove disastrous. All-out war would be unavoidable and collateral damage would be considerable.

"Wait." She called out to the pair. "I might have something for you." At her front door, she signaled for them to come inside. "I'd rather not talk business in public."

Their meeting wouldn't take long. An hour later and they were reporting the news to Axel.

As he had watched the two approaching him in the dark alley, Reins realized something was very wrong. Jim had come back carrying his confiscated weapons.

"Please tell me you didn't steal those..."

"Better." His lieutenant was grinning from ear to ear.

"The Republic's interest in Starkhaven isn't new." The two recounted what Rook had told them in her home. "They've wanted to setup a forward garrison in town for years. I've refused every offer they've made so far, but for the last few months they've become more persistent. Something definitely has them rattled. Last week, I received a letter informing me that a Praetor Francis Briar would be coming here to personally negotiate a treaty."

"You think he's planning to use force?" Ballard recalled asking her.

"No." She had laughed at the question. "I've met Briar once before. He's spineless. And the IFCR wouldn't condone it. But the town's law enforcement isn't staffed to handle security for this kind of meeting; we're short-handed. It's not dangerous work, but boasting our numbers with people of your… skill set doesn't hurt. What do you say?"

The three men had taken the conversation to the rooftops where they would have more privacy. Axel wasn't convinced yet.

"What about the sheriff?"

"Rook said she'd take care of it." His lieutenant attempted to explain his thought process. "Look, we'll be paid the second the job is done. By tomorrow afternoon we'll have left Starkhaven in the dust."

"If everything goes well…" His boss tried to sound optimistic. "Of course, you realize that if your names are put on the FCR's shit-list, we'll end up with problems all the money in the world can't solve."

Axel understood the risk, but their options were slim. Every moment spent in town brought danger to their group. It was settled.

With the approval he needed, Garrick's attention turned to the post-human. "Would you mind giving us a few minutes alone?"

Ballard didn't question the odd request. He simply nodded and proceeded to climb down the building's emergency escape. This wasn't the first time his captain and lieutenant had wanted to speak privately.

"What's on your mind?" Axel asked his small stature friend as he leaned against one of the walls surrounding the rooftop.

Jim appeared hesitant with his next few words. "I need to know more about the Free-Citizen's Republic."

"What are you-" At first, Reins didn't appear to understand his meaning. Staring at his earnest expression for several seconds appeared to jolt his memory. "Oh! Right… Right..."

It was nightfall but Marla Rook had yet to be freed from her work. She was tireless in her efforts to keep the town running as smoothly as she could. It was, after all, because of her that Starkhaven had become such a beacon within the bleak wastelands.

"Your grand-children were hoping they could spend more time with you. You're overworking." Her husband walked up behind her as she sat in her favorite chair. He leaned in and kissed the crown of her head.

"They'll be having kids themselves by the time my schedule opens up. I think this stupid town wants me to run for another term."

"Poor grandma…" Her husband whispered with a kindly smile.

"Poor grandma…" Rook echoed the sentiment. "Go on to bed, I'll be done soon."

Another hour would pass until her work was finished. She yawned. Her body yearned for sleep although she'd be awake again in as little as four hours. There was much to do before the IFCR representative arrived.

He would surely be accompanied by a security detachment that would need accommodations during its stay. Rook may not have had any intent to negotiate but she understood full well the need for tactful diplomacy.

To top it all off, she had received an earful from Tanis after informing him that the perpetrators of the Vargas massacre would be assisting him with security. He had protested the idea, but in the end submitted to the mayor's will.

Just as she prepared to turn in, a knock at the door ruined her chances.

It wasn't unusual for people to show up at her home after hours. Certain incidents required the mayor's presence. Over the years, she would remind the sheriff to be keep her in the loop regardless of time or day.

This occasion was different. A frown immediately formed on her face when she heard the thumping at her front door.

She cracked it open long enough to speak a sentence. "I'll be out in a minute."

The night air was cold even out in the desert. Rook slipped on a pair of loafers and a coat before treading out onto her patio. She didn't seem too interested in her visitor.

The old man greeted her with a contemptuous glare. Bill Strenner had made a point of driving the mayor insane with his one man protests outside of her office window. He had never been in favor of a free-citizen being mayor and had often headed the opposition during her political career.

In recent years, with his mind deteriorating, Strenner had begun to make baseless accusations against her, claiming that she conspired with the Republic to turn Starkhaven into a free-citizen colony.

Yet, despite being a senile, childless widower, it proved impossible to have him committed to elderly care. Bill had shown he was capable of caring for himself and had no history of violent or dangerous behavior. Protesting, however irritating it may have been, wasn't cause enough to commit him.

She never looked him in the eye during their conversation. "What's on your mind Bill?"

Strenner twitched his fingers nervously. "There are men from the Republic coming tomorrow…"

"Yes Bill, I already know that."

"You're going to make a deal with them and sell out this town to those inhuman loving bastards?"

His babbling vexed the longtime mayor. She had heard it all before. "Bill, you're confused. You have nothing to worry about. Go home." She reentered her cottage.

Bill was now on the verge of tears. His voice trembled. "You can't do this. This town is all I have."

"Go home Bill!" Rook repeated the condescending order before shutting the door in his face.

He stood on the porch for several minutes afterwards, pouting at her front door, somehow expecting it would change the outcome of their conversation.

The mayor put the man out of her mind, but couldn't help worrying about the fast approaching dawn. While requests of treaties and garrisons had come from the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic many times before, there had never been a high ranking politician sent out to personally negotiate.

Marla had met Praetor Francis Briar when he was just an upstart looking for a way into the upper echelons of the government. Even back then, it was obvious to her that he would go places. He was a leech; attaching himself to anyone that could help him climb the ladder and then discarding them as though they were trash. But Rook had also noticed the man's lack of backbone and had predicted that he would never reach a position higher than that of praetor.

Briar's motivations were now clear. If he were to secure Starkhaven in the name of the Republic, the brass would be forced to recognize his accomplishment. A position as Consul would undoubtedly follow. From there, even a seat on the senate wouldn't be beyond his grasp.

"Senator Francis Briar…" The mayor pondered the possibility. "Bullshit!"

Preparations were already underway as the sun began to rise. Portions of the town were to be cordoned off to ensure the safety of the IFCR diplomat. Naturally, the praetor would have a security detachment escorting him at all times, but having them all isolated from the town would further reduce the risk of violence from either end.

"Don't kill anyone." Reins saw the two men off with a simple order.

Jim smirked before tugging back the slide of his semi-automatic and loading a round into the chamber. He then uncocked the weapon and placed it in the leather holster at his right hip. His rifle was too big and clumsy to bring along. It was decided that it would remain in Axel's care.

The lieutenant had spent most of the night disassembling the guns in order to clean and lubricate every moving part. After watching him for almost an hour, Ballard had figured that sharpening his blades wouldn't be such a bad idea. He polished the steel to a mirror shine; something he hadn't done since his arrival in Starkhaven.

The hilt of his sword protruded from beneath his open duster. His scythe had been collapsed and tucked away inside his coat where no one could see. It made him much less conspicuous than his companion.

As they neared the town hall, they could see the gathering of police officer's at the entrance. The sheriff was among them, trying to organize a proper perimeter around the building. When he noticed the pair waltzing down the street, he moved away from the crowd to meet up with them.

"Beautiful morning sheriff." Garrick beamed from beneath his mirrored sunglasses.

A contemptuous glare was the only reply he received from Tanis who then gestured for the two to follow him. They walked the short distance to the entrance of the municipal building before making their way to its second floor. Their travel through the corridors had them take several turns before reaching their destination.

A pair of large oak doors led to the boardroom. The ceiling inside was twice as high further increasing the spacious feel. This was where the meeting would be held.

The black varnish shined across the long table that stretched the length of the room. At its head, Marla Rook had been sitting patiently and awaiting their arrival.

She was looking more professional than usual: wearing makeup, dressed in a black skirt suit with white trim, her lengthy grey hair fashioned into a tight bun and her wedding ring removed.

"Glad you could make it." Her greeting was short. "The building staff has been sent home for the day. It'll just be me, the praetor and our respective security. You'll both be standing next to me along with the sheriff. You're not to say anything or stare at anyone. You don't reach for a weapon unless Tanis does it first… That means never."

Ballard looked surprised. "You mean we're going to be listening in on your discussion? Isn't it supposed to be confidential?"

"Yes." Rook admitted. "But if I assign you somewhere else, you might be tempted to run off at the first sign of trouble. At least here, you'll be useful."

The Republic was never known for running late. The convoy had rolled across the wasteland all through the night just to be punctual. It had been a long trip from the nation's capital.

Detective Lieutenant Max Wulf sat in the passenger seat of the VIP car. He had been appointed head of security for the outing two days ago and hadn't felt whole since.

Security for diplomats was police jurisdiction in the IFCR. And, while a special unit existed for such escorts, its high demand would sometimes require the temporary reassignment of certain officers.

Wulf had worked homicide for five years, another two in burglary prior to that. So when the captain of his unit notified him of his new responsibility, there were more than a few words of protest. It wasn't until he was told that the chief of police personally attached him to the unit that he conceded. If he had known then what escorting Francis Briar would entail, it may not have been enough to change his mind.

The praetor was known for his disreputable treatment of others. Max wasn't looking forward to the firsthand experience.

"It shouldn't be more than another five minutes sir." His voice lacked any and all enthusiasm as he spoke to the man in the back seat.

"About time!" Briar snapped at the detective. "I almost thought you had gotten us lost lieutenant."

This quip could have bothered the officer if it hadn't been a constant during the trip.

"Yes. Fortunately, your company made the trip bearable sir." He maintained the disingenuous politesse. "And we still have the trip back to look forward to."

Wulf wondered at his misfortune; coupled with the one politician in the Republic with a fear of flying. Traveling the hundreds of miles by air would have taken a fraction of the time had the praetor not dashed that dream. The gods must have been laughing at him.

As time progressed, the mayor appeared more and more on edge. Her incessant thrumming against the table bothered the three men but none said a word. They knew better.

"Tanis, if any of your deputies see Bill Strenner they need to escort him away from the building quickly." The out of the blue order bewildered those in the room.

The sheriff could immediately understand her concern, but knew there was more to the story. "Did something happen?

"He came to my house last night. He was distraught." She received a skeptic look. "More then usual! Anyway, the last thing we need is him making a scene in front of the IFCR."

Jim couldn't help overhearing the exchange. The name Bill Strenner had been spoken in front of him once before; it was the old man shouting nonsense outside of Rook's window the day she introduced herself.

"So who is this guy anyway?" He asked.

Rook was feeling generous enough to disclose the information. "Strenner was the mayor before me. We practically disagreed on every issue." She cracked her knuckles. "He's a purist; 'Thinks post-humans are an aversion to mankind. Being a free-citizen, I happen to disagree."

The IFCR had always held firm to the belief of co-existence between the two genera. It was a stance that had equal parts helped and hindered their growth as a nation.

"We didn't get along but we had mutual respect."

"What happened?"

"The years caught up to him. Now he's just a sad, senile old man. He's convinced himself that he's protecting the town from my free-citizen propaganda. But don't worry, he's harmless."

He watched the municipal building from his second story apartment window.

Bill Strenner was already wearing his long jacket which he had buttoned all the way up to the collar. His wrinkled hands trembled uncontrollably as they rubbed over one-another. His rapid mumblings interchanged with spouts of weeping were signs of a mind long gone.

His one room rental had paint chipping off the walls, a stale refrigerator, a rusted oven, a soiled mattress without sheets or blankets and no family photos. Bill switched off the only lamp in the room before setting out.

As he exited the building, the sun was almost directly above him. He squinted at the sky for a few seconds before waddling into the narrow alley. At its halfway point was the manhole cover he was looking for. The old man pulled a miniature crowbar from his pocked and proceeded to hook it onto one of the lid's openings. The heavy metal moved an inch at a time as he pulled with all the strength a ninety-six year old could muster. Eventually, Strenner opened the path to the sewer system.

He wheezed for air while climbing down the dark shaft; the unintelligible rambling continuing during his descent.

The convoy of military vehicles rolled through Starkhaven's streets as town deputies waved them past road blocks. The mayor had been made aware of their arrival via radio and had come down to the lobby to greet the citizens.

The cars were layered with steel and bulletproof glass. Built to handle to harsher areas of the world, the powerful engines and four-wheel drive made the bulky machines intimidating to those living in the less advanced parts of the Outland.

The truck carrying the VIP stopped directly in front of the main entrance.

"I'll be right back." Max, the detective in charge, opened the door and was about to step out when words from the back seat stopped him.

"Wait- Why do you get out first?"

The officer glanced at his driver in utter disbelief. His answer was swift. "As head of security, it's my job to make sure the perimeter is secure sir. For all we know someone could be pointing a high powered rifle at this car, ready to blow your face off the second you step out."

Seeing the politician's face turn pale had him smiling for the first time in days.

He could see the snipers sitting along the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. The deputies would be able to spot all three-hundred and sixty degrees of the structure and put down anyone trying to gain access. They weren't bad for a bunch of outlanders, he thought.

Wulf figured it was time to head inside.

"Mayor Rook I presume?" He shook the hand of the woman old enough to be his grand-mother. "Lieutenant Max Wulf, I'm in charge of security."

"I haven't had the pleasure." She greeted him with an all too fake grimace.

"Nor shall you," The detective explained. "The colossal prick's been sucking the life out of me all day. I just thought I'd give you a fair warning ma'am."

Rook's smirk was more genuine this time. "Much obliged lieutenant." She was always glad to see a citizen with a pulse.

He and Tanis spoke briefly on how to best spread their men. With most of his deputies handling the exterior, the sheriff had only a few to spare.

"My boys know the layout of this building. They'll show your men the entrances and other points of access. Apart from myself, they'll be two other men handling security inside the boardroom. Fair warning: they're hires."

"Can they be trusted?"

"They'll do their job." Rook vouched for them. "Just act like they don't exist."

Max was satisfied.

He marched back to the motorcade and reentered his vehicle. "Alright, we're getting out in one minute. Tell everyone to check their gear, and remind them that the rules of engagement are in full effect."

"I also want a weapon lieutenant." Briar was still shaken by the thought of an assassination attempt.

"Well that's too bad sir…" The officer removed the safety from his sidearm.

"Damn it Wulf! I said-"

He was cut off by a stern voice. "You're not in charge here praetor! I'm under orders. I don't have to do a damn thing you say. Got it?"

Briar's eyes burned with contempt. "I'll be sure to mention you in my report lieutenant."

"Like you weren't going to already." Max sneered back. "Get out!"

Almost two dozen men flooded from the vehicles. The praetor was one of the last out. Security boxed around him as he moved towards the building. Max trailed with no such entourage.

"Mayor Rook, an honor to meet you again." In spite of his reputation, Briar was a politician first. His smile extended from ear to ear as he shook the hand of the Starkhaven representative.

"Likewise praetor." She returned a similar expression. "How was your trip?"

"Splendid!" He lied through his teeth. "I get such joy from traveling the Outland. There's always somewhere new to explore."

Out of the corner of her eye, Marla could see the detective scoffing at the statement.

"We've prepared a room for you." She tried her best to ignore it. "Why don't we delay our meeting until you're well rested?"

"Nonsense!" Francis outright refused. "If anything, this journey helped invigorate me. We can proceed on schedule I assure you." The thought of spending a night in Starkhaven disgusted him.

The security had already spread out into different sections of the first floor. As both the mayor and praetor moved to the stairs, Tanis shifted his attention to the three of his more experienced deputies.

"Alright, the rest of the guys are watching the outside and I'll be upstairs with Rook, which means you three have to keep an eye on the citizens down here. Make sure they know all the entry points. We can't have them blaming us if something happens."

The flashlight Strenner had brought with him barely illuminated the dark path. He stumbled through pitch-black tunnels only stopping to catch his breath and check the signs that would indicate the street directly above.

Not many people were still alive from when the sewers were first constructed. Bill remembered thinking how such a foundation would help make Starkhaven the strongest in the Wasteland. His dream had slowly come true in the years that followed, but it came with a price.

Starkhaven had become an asset to the rest of the world. Control over it meant a great deal of influence throughout the east. This was something the Free-Citizen's Republic undoubtedly desired, and something Bill Strenner would vehemently reject.

The Republic would make several attempts at a peaceful unification over the years. It was Bill's strong opposition to a treaty and support from much of the town population that would ensure Starkhaven's independence.

But things had changed. His support had vanished and the full assimilation of his beloved town had become more and more probable in recent years.

It killed him.

He stopped in front of a collapsed wall. The beam of his flashlight scoped the mound of rocks piled almost as high as the ceiling of the dank sewer. Bill came closer and stuck his head up high enough to see over the hill. What he saw on the other end was just what he'd been searching. He began quickly pushing away stones to create a larger opening to the other side. When it was big enough, he slid his slender frame through it; covering him in black soot.

The steel door was one of a kind within the underground labyrinth. It looked as if it hadn't been opened in ages.

Strenner rubbed a hand over the cold metal. There was no handle or knob to open the path, only a keyway hidden beneath a layer of dirt.

It was almost as though the boardroom was split down the middle.

Jim had watched the group of people enter and disperse. The man he assumed was the praetor sat with his back towards the entrance.

He was middle-aged and appeared to take good care of himself. The navy blue suit he wore looked to be expensive but was traced with dirt marks from the long trip. He carried himself with an air of superiority and condescendence. It was the clearest indicator of his social status and political rank.

The person who looked to be in charge of his security had signaled for two of his men to stand outside before Tanis shut the oak doors behind them. Two others would be joining Wulf in the room to balance the number of bodyguards on both sides of the table.

The politicians soon started with mindless banter. They discussed the state of affairs in their respectful parts of the world, shifts in policies, the weather.

The praetor changed the mood with a question. "Don't you think in these trying times, Starkhaven needs an ally it can count on?"

A slight grin formed on Marla's face. She'd been waiting for Briar to get to the point. "I assume you mean the Republic?"

"Let's be honest mayor," Anytime a politician would utter those words, it would mean anything but. "Starkhaven is smack-dab in the middle of the desert. Thousands of gangs roam the Outland raiding, pillaging and murdering as they please. Your only saving grace has been their reluctance to attack such a large population, but that won't last forever. Who will you turn to once they've set their eyes on all you've built? Ridley? Westdawn? Either of them would have more to gain from Starkhaven being razed. No, the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic has always been your one true friend. We simply ask a show of good faith."

"What a wonderful way of putting it praetor." Her voice grew passionate. "Perhaps a show of good faith from one party will be met equally by the other?" She stretched out her open palms. "I was hoping you could tell me about the Republic's recent expansion attempts."

Briar was thrown off. "We've always looked to expand our borders mayor. Our ultimate goal of uniting the Continent has never been a secret."

"Of course." Rook's smile grew playful. "But I've been getting odd reports from many of the surrounding towns. It seems the senate is desperately trying to establish as many forward outposts in these areas as possible." Though he tried to hide it as best he could, there was a moment of absolute panic on the praetor's face. "Why is the Republic so interested in the Outland all of a sudden?"

A square slab of the hardwood floor swung up to reveal the hidden room below. Strenner emerged from the trapdoor into a dust ridden utility closet. His sneezing sent up clouds of particles while his wheezing filled his nose and mouth with the filth. As expected, his key to the underground maintenance door still worked. Looking up, he could see a small window that peeked just over the grass outside.

He was in the basement.

Bill moved to the closet door and used the second key he was carrying to unlock it. The building's bottom level was nothing more than a storage room but light was scarce and his pocket torch was almost drained of battery power. He had to once again wander through dim corridors until he could find the stairwell that would lead him up to the first floor. He stumbled several times sending boxes crashing to the ground.

He knew he was saved when his hand grasped the banister for the stairs. Relieved, he climbed towards the light, but stopped after just a few steps. His eyes shifted towards the silhouette that towered over him from the top of the flight. It didn't speak.

Neither did he.

"Outlanders do like to exaggerate when telling stories." The praetor dismissed the question. "We offer them a garrison to assist in policing their towns and they accuse us of military occupation. I assure you, the senate has as much interest in Starkhaven today as it did in the past."

Rook said nothing and instead gazed into the man's eyes to see what she could decipher.

"Now that your confusion's been settled, I'm hoping you'll hear my very generous offer?"

The patronizing remark narrowed Marla's glare. "Just one more question Francis:" Her voice turned uncivil. "On whose behalf are you here?"

Briar wasn't sure he understood the question but attempted to answer it as best he could. "I'm here representing the senate. So tha-"

"That's doubtful." The commanding voice of the mayor silenced him instantly. "If the senate wanted someone to represent them, they would have sent a consul. You, on the other hand, are just a praetor. You don't have the privilege to speak on their behalf. A lone senator's perhaps…"

So far, her listener hadn't made an attempt to stop the speech.

"You were promoted shortly after the war weren't you?" She teased him. "Stuck as a praetor for twenty years… You must have begged for this chance. 'Impress the senate and they'll make you a consul'. I never imagined someone your age could be that naïve."

The praetor fidgeted in his chair. His charade had all but peeled away.

"I can't understand why Senator Henry approved of your coming here. He must have known it would be a waste of time. Then again, the man's always been a massive cunt."

"He thought you would see reason." Briar managed to muster the will to speak. "It won't be long until everyone wants this town. Do you think you can keep your people safe forever?"

Rook was unmoved by the comment. "Enjoy your trip back to the capital praetor. Let the good senator know that his resignation might entice me to reopen negotiations in the future."

The sentries standing outside the large oak doors had overheard the majority of the conversation. It had been their only pastime in the empty corridor.

Out of all the posts, theirs was seen as the most redundant. After all, if anyone were to infiltrate the building, they would be tackled by the dozen officers surveying the first floor. Their objection had been noted by the lieutenant who had refused to explain his reasoning. They were assigned the boardroom doors no matter how boring the task may have seemed.

"Do you hear that?" One of them whispered to avoid interrupting those in the boardroom.

There was an indiscernible patter in the distance. Neither man was sure what to make of it, but it was getting closer. They faced the end of the corridor in silence as the ominous noise approached.

It was too late did they realize it was the sound of footsteps.

Out of the corner, at the end of the hall, a person moved directly into their line of sight.

Bill Strenner wasn't running with remarkable speed, but he was barreling down the hallway, indifferent to the two armed sentries. He was even unfazed when one drew his pistol and readied to fire.

"No!" The other pushed down the barrel. He had to remind the officer. "Rules of engagement…"

It wasn't more than ten seconds earlier that Briar hunched over the table realizing he was beaten. He slowly picked himself up and moved towards the door. "Your days as mayor won't last. I promise you, I'll be there at the end."

The shout from outside halted his leave.

There was no time for anyone to react. The double doors flung open in an uproarious commotion. The two guards were barely hanging onto the Strenner as he pushed and shoved his way forward. Wulf's men immediately moved to subdue him but his thrashing made it difficult without the use of force.

Jim momentarily forgot his place. "This is fucked up…"

"Shut up!" Marla shouted at him then turned to the sheriff. "Get him out of here now!"

As Bill was flailing around, a kick to the praetor's gut sent him toppling to the ground.

No one seemed to care.

"Damn it," Max moaned. "You guys couldn't keep some old geezer from getting past you?"

Despite four officers trying to restrain him, Strenner, at ninety-six years of age, forced his way to the opposite end of the table and grabbed hold of the edge. His wailing and screaming had already alerted security on the first floor. They would be too late.

"Rook! ROOK!" He was now shouting as loud as he could. "YOU'LL LISTEN TO ME NOW!" He tugged his coat hard enough to pop off every button. "I HELPED BUILD THIS TOWN, AND I'M NOT LETTING THEM HAVE IT!"

Traveling for a mile beneath Starkhaven's streets through raw sewage, accessing a hidden entrance few knew even existed, avoiding all the sentries on both floors, making it all the way to the boardroom, and even kicking the praetor: Marla would have had a good laugh were it not for what she saw next.

The two pipes strapped to his stomach had been crudely taped to an old circuit board. Color coded wires were connected to a simple switch located near one of its extremities and extended towards the cylinders.

Trying to pull Strenner out of the room from behind, the officers couldn't see the device. Neither could Tanis who was swinging around the table to assist them. Marla, Jim and Ballard watched helplessly as Bill's index finger hovered over the detonator, not allowing any of them a chance to react.

Francis Briar was picking himself up off the ground when his eyes caught sight of the explosive that wasn't more than an inch from his face.

There wasn't even time to scream.

The blast wave burst every window in the room simultaneously followed by a portion of the wall that buckled under the strain and exploded into a hail of stone and concrete that rained down onto the street below.

The detonation resounded across Starkhaven and alerted its populace to the disturbance. Sheer terror gripped the deputies guarding the perimeter; they'd never seen anything like it.

From the rooftops, Axel watched the billowing black smoke and knew right then:

Starkhaven wasn't through with them yet.