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Read a sample from RAID by K. S. Merbeth

A scarred bounty-hunter gets mixed up with the raider crew she set out to capture in a lawless, post-nuclear America. A thrilling action-adventure set in the world of Bite for fans of Mad Max: Fury RoadFallout and Borderlands

I
Hunters and Prey

Raiders always think they’re the top of the food chain until I come along.

This one hasn’t even noticed me following him for the past week. It probably never crossed his mind that he was being hunted until this very moment. I take out his legs first, a bullet in each kneecap before he can react. He falls forward, bleeding and snarling, rusty meat cleaver clutched tightly in hand. He still manages to crawl in my direction and brandish the knife, his ugly face contorted with pain and rage and hatred. I shoot him in the shoulder, twice for insurance, and he falls flat on his face and stays there.

I study the man, lying still in the dirt, and take a few steps closer with my gun trained on him.

His cleaver swings at my ankle. I step aside and slam my boot down on his hand. I grind my heel into his fingers until he stops struggling, then lift it and kick the knife out of his reach. The fight bleeds out of him quickly after that. I wait a few seconds before flipping him onto his back, where he lies dusty and bloody and struggling for consciousness.

‘Bitch,’ he spits at me, his eyes half-shut. I ignore him and pull a crumpled wanted poster out of my pocket, smoothing it out before comparing the hand-drawn face on it to this ugly motherfucker. The picture was clearly drawn by some half-brain-dead townie, making it hard to compare, but that huge knife is easy to recognize.

‘Beau the Butcher,’ I say. Probably came up with the name himself; he looks like the type.

‘You know who I am,’ he wheezes out. ‘Means you know who I work for. Means you know you’re dead if you kill me.’

I crouch down beside him, grabbing a handful of his stringy hair and yanking his face up, closer to mine. His eyes find the burnt skin that twists up the left side of my face and widen in recognition.

‘Clementine,’ he says, his breath quickening, and I grin. ‘You bi—’

Two hits are all it takes to knock him out.

I drop his limp body in the dust and grab his knife. It’s a famous thing, this knife, both the namesake of this asshole and better known to people than his ugly face. I admire it before tucking it into my pack with my own weapons.

Embers still smolder nearby, the remnants of the campfire that allowed me to find him last night. Idiot was too stupid and drunk on power to head somewhere safer to sleep, making him easy pickings for me this morning. I dump sand on the fire, smothering the last of it, and search through his small collection of belongings. I find a couple bottles of water and a can of food, which I stuff into my pack. There’s also some dried meat, but I toss that aside; there’s only one kind of meat to be had around here, and I refuse to partake.

Once I’m done ransacking his camp, I grab the unconscious raider by the feet and drag him to my truck. I tie his hands and feet, gag him in case he wakes up, and throw him into the backseat.

With that done, I allow myself a moment to breathe, and re-tie my dark hair back into a neat ponytail. Then I climb into the driver’s side, and smile at the roar of my truck coming to life. No matter how many times I hunt down a raider, it always gives me a special pleasure to make prey out of them.

* * *

I throw the Butcher facedown in the dirt. The townies scatter as if expecting him to jump up and grab them, staring goggle-eyed first at him and then at me. Several of them back away, their eyes wide.

My mistake. I forgot I was dealing with civilized folks. At least, that’s what they fancy themselves, hiding in their walls and ramshackle communities and clinging to scraps of what life was like before the bombs fell. They’re not like raiders, who fully embrace the mayhem of the world and make their livings killing and looting. Townies would rather rely on scavenged canned food, rather stay half-starved than eat human flesh like the sharks do. I admire the way they stick to some semblance of morality, even in a world like this. I try to do the same, though I’m no townie – not anymore. Of course, I’m not a goddamn shark, either. I exist somewhere in between the two ways of life, apart from all of them.

The townies don’t let me forget it, either. Right now, they’re staring at me like I’m some kind of monster that wandered into their midst.

The two dozen standing in a half circle around me comprise the bulk of the population of Sunrise, a dingy little town on the edge of what we call the eastern wastes. The buildings of Sunrise are all stout and cramped together, not one above a single story high. It’s like they’re crouched in the dirt, afraid to lose their hold on the earth. Beau the Butcher lies still in the middle of the dusty ring the people of Sunrise call the ‘town square.’

‘Is he dead?’ one man asks, after several moments of silence. He cautiously cranes his neck and then retracts it, like he simultaneously wants to get a better look and fears what he’ll see if he does.

‘Well, no,’ I say, my eyebrows drawing together. ‘Figured you’d want to do it yourselves.’

They ogle at me some more. One man clears his throat. Nobody meets my eyes.

‘But he’s one of . . . ’ a townie starts, and stops. He licks his lips and drops his voice to a loud whisper. ‘Jedediah Johnson’s men.’

‘Yes,’ I say, not sure what that has to do with anything. ‘And he killed your sheriff over a card game. So you wanted him dead. What am I missing here?’

There’s another long stretch of silence, in which all the townies glance at each other and shuffle their feet and refuse to look at me. Finally, a woman steps forward. She’s a solidly built, middle-aged woman, dusty and stout like the buildings of her town. The top of her head barely reaches my chin, but then again, my height rivals that of a decent amount of the men in town as well. I recognize her as the woman who made the initial deal with me – the wife of the recently murdered sheriff, who seems to be taking on the role of her dead husband.

‘Well, there’s a reason we hired you to do it,’ she says. ‘If word got out that we killed one of Jedediah’s men, he’d burn this place to the ground.’ She pauses, her eyes sliding across the scarred and burnt section of my face, the angry red skin that stretches across the entire left side. With my hair tied back, my burns are on full display. I’m not afraid to show them off, but if this woman thinks she can bring them into an argument, I’ll blow her damn head off. ‘We know what happened to Old Creek,’ she says, and leaves it at that.

My lip curls in disgust. So they’re willing to hire someone to kill a man, but not to get their hands dirty themselves. I knew that they hired me because they didn’t have the means to take Beau out themselves, but it seems they also don’t have the guts when the opportunity presents itself. I thought they’d relish the chance to deal out their own justice, especially this woman who lost her husband . . . but I guess I overestimated them.

In the dirt between me and the woman, Beau the Butcher starts to stir, lifting his head and looking around through the one eye that isn’t swollen shut. When his eye lands on me, he chuckles, spitting out a glob of saliva and dust.

‘Knew you wouldn’t have the balls to kill me,’ he says. ‘Now, if you’ll just untie me, we can talk about—’

I un-holster my pistol, shoot him three times in the head, and re-holster it.

‘All right,’ I say flatly. ‘Pay up.’

The townies gasp and blink and step back. Some of them gag. But, to her credit, the new sheriff holds her ground and her stomach. When she gestures to a couple of the men, they manage to stop staring and disappear into one of the closest buildings. They return with armloads of canned food and bottled water. I make no move to take it from them, so they dump it all in a pile at my feet and retreat to the rest of the gathered townsfolk.

I separate the pile with my boot. All laid out, they’ve given me three bottles of water and four cans of food. I count again, ticking them off on my fingers, and fix the sheriff with my hardest stare.

‘You said four and six.’

The woman doesn’t flinch. She even raises her chin at me, though her lower lip wobbles as she does it.

‘Ain’t got six to spare,’ she says. ‘Still got to pay the tax this month.’

I sigh. Part of me admires the gutsiness, but I don’t have time for this shit. Damn townies always use the tax as an excuse when it comes time to pay out. Sure, it sucks for them, giving up a share of hard-earned goods to the self-proclaimed ruler of the eastern wastes. But they know damn well that it comes every month, and they know damn well that they should take it into account when we make the deal, not when it comes time to pay me.

I know better than to try to talk sense into townies. Instead, I take my pistol out of its holster again and let it hang by my side.

‘You’ll find the rest,’ I say. The sheriff hesitates. I press my lips into a firm line, tapping my gun against my leg. Finally she nods and gestures to her men again. We wait in silence until they return with two more cans of food and one more bottle of water, and dump them on the dusty pile in front of me. I wait until they step back to join the others, count the payment once more, and slide my pistol back into its holster. I swear I hear a collective whoosh of the townies releasing breath, but maybe that’s my imagination.

I keep an eye out in case they get any stupid ideas, but none of the townies move or even look at me as I stuff the goods into my pack. When I finish and straighten up, only the sheriff meets my eyes. The wobble in her lip is gone, and she stands with her posture stiff and her jaw set, looking up at me like she’s waiting for me to demand more.

‘I’m a fair woman,’ I say. ‘Just want what I’m owed.’

The townies stare at the ground with pinched faces, and I tighten my grip on my bag.

I wish I could say this kind of treatment is unexpected. It sure hurt the first time it happened, when I had just lost my home and I was so hopeful for a new one. I was sure the town would take me in after I helped them with their raider problem. After I got my reward, I stood there waiting for the inevitable You know, we could use a woman like you around here . . . Instead, the sheriff said, You’ve got what we owed you, and the townies all stared at me like these ones are staring at me now.

As it turns out, towns aren’t so eager to trust strangers. That’s especially true when a stranger with a burnt face shows up after a local town is burned to the ground, and that stranger turns out to be particularly good at killing people. Towns do see me as an asset, but not the kind they want to invite in for dinner. Makes it hard to find a home when people view you as a necessary evil.

At this point I know better than to expect the townies to be welcoming, or even understanding, but they could at least stop acting like I’ve done something horrible by taking what they promised me.

I turn my back and walk away without another word. I keep my ears pricked and my eyes searching, just in case, but of course none of them have the spine to say or do anything. As I reach the edge of town I sigh, relax my shoulders, and reach into my pocket for my keys. Just as my fingers close around them, something on the horizon catches my eye and my blood runs cold.

Cars. Black cars, coming this way fast. And black cars mean only one thing out here.

‘Oh, fuck me,’ I breathe. For one moment, I consider running for my truck and booking it out of here. But instead I turn, run back into town, and skid to a dusty stop near the cluster of townies. They cluster more tightly together at the sight of me, wild-eyed with my hand on my gun.

‘Incoming,’ I say. ‘Jedediah Johnson’s men.’

About the Author

Debut author K. S. Merbeth is obsessed with SFF, food, video games and her cat, and resides in Tuscon, Arizona.