Chapter 1

"Dammit, didn't I tell you don't waste no more of my time?"

I just looked at the guy. My keeper. My "owner" if you listened to the head jerk of all of these jerks. Instead of answering him outright I pointed and let it sink in his thick skull and then went back to doing what I was doing which was filling a canvas tote bag with what I had been looking for … and found … without his help thank you very much. He either got it or he didn't. Basic biology isn't something I should have to explain to him.

He walked up behind me and I could see the shadow of his hand and really expected to get hit but instead he reached around me and picked a bottle up off the beauty supply store shelf. He looked at it and then at me and said, "Not bad. You got some brains under all that hair."

I shrugged. I talked to him – to anyone – as little as possible. I felt betrayed on every front and wasn't interested in leaving even a crack for anyone else to get in through.

"You don't say much do you?"

Before I could shrug again there was yelling and then some screaming outside the store. The guy – everyone called him Kiko – pushed me down and put his knee in my back. That was code for keep down in the jerk's world I guess. When I saw him pull out one of his guns I went still and stayed silent. Slowly he let up off the pressure then pulled me to my knees and pushed me against the shelves. He didn't hold me captive any longer but there was no doubt he expected me to stay where he put me. I wanted to ask if he thought I was idiot enough to go running into the middle of a gunfight unarmed but didn't. The question was rhetorical after all; obviously all of the men expected the females to be complete idiots or they wouldn't treat us the way they do.

A man – not part of the jerk's crew – came running into the store, spotted me and grinned nastily. Guess he was so busy getting ideas that he missed Kiko completely which was the only mistake he was allowed to make. Kiko reached out, grabbed the guy in a headlock, and then sent him to the ground with a snap loud enough that I knew it wasn't his collar bone that had been broken. 'Course the fact the man's head was at a weird angle highlighted the obvious as well.

Kiko stepped around me and was looking out into the street and I glanced up into the back of the store just in time to sweep his feet out from in under him. The boom of another man's gun was almost instantaneously followed by the caustic splatter of destroyed hair chemical bottles. Instinctively I grabbed a bottle of hair relaxer and threw it at the face of the attacker. I only got half of his face but that was enough considering it was the half with his eyes.

Kiko grabbed my arm and pulled me to another part of the store, all the while using his body to shield mine. I finally wrenched my arm away and hissed, "Enough with the macho. I'm not stupid enough to run off and jump into more trouble."

"Then stay close or I'll tie you to me."

I rolled my eyes but did as ordered.

There was more fighting up and down the street. Kiko kept us in the store and out of sight. He was older than the rest of the young studs in the gang and I guess had outgrown playing cannon fodder. I heard screaming but couldn't tell who it was. The man I'd thrown the hair product at was crawling towards the glass front of the store but I don't think it was because he could see anything. His upper face was covered in chemical burns. I could tell he was going into shock.

Kiko asked, "What the hell did you throw at him?"

"Hair relaxer."


"Sodium hydroxide … lye …" When he continued to look at me for an answer I sighed and said, "Lejía … like the kind of soap the old ladies in the villages make."

He looked at me suspiciously and then sighed. "You and me gonna have a talk. But now ain't the time. Here," he said handing me a pistol from one of his endless pockets. "You shoot me in the back and them out there? They'll tear you apart … after they're finished having some fun with you."

I shrugged and turned away.

He jerked me back around. "Take it. Stay here. I gotta go see who's still living."

I took the gun, checked the safety and generally made a bit of a production out of showing that I knew what I was doing. He gave me another look that said we would be talking and then left. As soon as I was sure he was gone I ran over to the guy who'd finally stopped moving, nudged him to make sure he was really on his way out and harmless enough he was unable to fight, and then started going through his pockets.

There wasn't much but it was more than I had and the last couple of years I'd learned to be grateful for anything, no matter how small or trivial someone else might find it. I didn't bother with the guns, they were too big and someone would spot them and take them from me. Then probably follow that with a punch to let me know I'd stepped outside my place. I did find a bundle of ammo tied up in a bandana that I took. Might sound stupid to some people but ammo could be spent like money in the type of places I'd been finding myself not to mention I might escape and come up on another gun somewhere along the line. He had several good blades hidden in unimaginative spots … and a couple of better blades in more creative locations. I left the money he had on him as it would distract whoever went over him next. There was a baggie of pills and I left that too. I left the cigs but took his lighter and the three books of matches I found on him.

I scooted back out of sight just in time to avoid being seen by more men entering the store front. I recognized one, didn't recognize the other two. The one I recognized was called Dern and had been on the outs with Kiko more than once; he spoke Spanish like he had a mouth full of marbles. He looked Spanish but that didn't mean nothing in this area. There had been a lot of intermarrying the last century so looks didn't necessarily say where you come from. What did concern me was the other two that I didn't recognize and why would Dern be buddying up with them.

Dern cursed when he saw the body of the fallen man with the broken neck. "We gotta get Kiko. We get Kiko and most of the others will run or fold. If we don't got Kiko …"

Easy as shooting fish in a barrel … pop, pop, pop pop. It took four to take them out because the last guy moved too fast. My shots started another frenzy of shooting, some of it coming through the front of the store so I moved further into the back. I stayed back there for about an hour going through what was left of the ransacked store, until I smelled smoke. Cautiously I moved forward and realized several buildings up the street were on fire.

"Mierda!" I cursed and then tasted the memory of soap. My cousin's wife was a big, raw boned woman that could wrestle the cattle as well as her sons did. It only took once for me to learn to watch my anger around her. I'd been roughed up before but never beaten which is what she did while she forced me to literally wash my mouth out for saying a cuss word she heard from her own children all the time. That's when I had decided that no matter what or how long I'd find my own way back across the border. But memory lane would have to wait however.

I ran over to the guys that I'd shot and then reached over and grabbed one of the canvas "eco-friendly" shopping bags hanging on a stand near the register. I decided to risk it all and took guns, ammo, and anything that looked useful off of the corpses. I wanted to curse again when I didn't find any food but it would have been surprising if I had. The areas we were passing through had been stripped starting last year and there was hardly anything to eat that wasn't still moving when you found it. And if it was moving then you better pray that it wasn't thinking of eating you.

The bag was heavy but I was used to heavy these days. In fact, I was a lot stronger than I looked. You do what you have to survive. The smell of smoke was getting heavier but I still took the time to grab a few more things … some of the no-water hair stuff that I'd come in for originally, a comb and brush, some women stuff, and a few other things that I could use and stuffed them into my small back pack that held the few worldly possessions I would refuse to give up, including for death, and then cautiously made my way out of the store and in the opposite direction than the fire was moving.

Finding that direction wasn't as easy as you would think as the fire was jumping from building to building at a faster rate and moving up and down streets and through alleys. I realized I would have to throw some caution to the wind and I tied a bandana across my nose and mouth and started jogging and then running as I spotted flames that were jumping ahead of me. Suddenly a truck shot out of a side street and nearly ran me down. The driver slammed on the brakes knocking around the people in the bed.

"Get in!"

Luck didn't play into it but I still cursed it. I jumped in and slammed the door and then Kiko threw the truck in gear and we barreled out of the city just ahead of a major firestorm.