AUTHOR'S NOTE: This flash fiction piece about how Alex and Julilla met precedes the action of the novel and contains no spoilers. This is a Three Word Wednesday post, and is cross-posted at Weekend Writer's Retreat, so follow the links for more literary fun!
Alex looked out the door, scanning the street for trouble. These were the moments he dreaded. Having found food, he now had to get it back to the team without it being stolen by a rival gang of hungry children. If he was caught by someone with a mean streak, not just his food but his life would be in danger. Until his gang could field a larger forage team, though, this was how it had to be.
With an easy motion, he lifted the box to his shoulder and headed out.
The streets were quiet and the sun took some of the chill off the air. It would soon be spring, and it would be nice to not be cold all the time. Weeds would sprout in the cracks of the streets and sidewalks, and anything green and living would be a welcome sight among the post-pandemic wreckage.
Up ahead, he saw the gleam of a fire and a few small figures in dark coats huddled around it for warmth or perhaps to cook a stray animal. Since Alex couldn't be sure if the group was dangerous, he took a detour, even though the side street would take him farther from his rendezvous point.
When he got back to the hotel, he would remind Mundo that they needed to find more guards and foragers. Although Alex wore a .45 and knew how to use it, real safety lay in numbers, and no one should forage alone. Their band of survivors was getting a good reputation around the city, so surely it wouldn't be hard to recruit--
Three tall boys emerged from a door down the street and started toward him with a tough, street-wise air. Alex cast a glance over his shoulder, but going back wasn't a good option, since who knew what that group around the fire would do if they caught him, or if they saw what he was carrying?
One of the three strangers shouted and they started running.
Alex took off back the way he had come, but the cumbersome box slowed him down. Footsteps pounded behind him, and then he found himself surrounded. He picked out their leader easily, with his long blond hair and aura of command, and searched his face for weakness. Maybe surrendering the food would pacify him, and he could at least escape unharmed.
One of the other boys shoved him and the box fell to the ground, then all three closed in, kicking and punching. Finally he found an opportunity and drew his .45, but one boy grabbed him from behind and forced him to drop it. Then the leader drew a coiled leather whip from under his coat and began slowly unwinding it.
Alex felt his mouth go dry. He had trained for a lot of scenarios in ROTC and his martial arts classes, but never for anything like this. He cast about for ideas, but knew with a sick feeling in his stomach that unless the rest of his team found him fast, or a more entertaining prospect came along to distract these thugs, there would be no escape.
The first lash knocked him back against his captors and laid open a gash in his coat, but didn't touch his skin. The second strike of the whip found the opening, drawing blood. Alex gasped and struggled not to cry out.
The boy was preparing to strike again when something round and orange hit him in the face. The basketball bounced to the tarmac and the boy screamed and clutched his bleeding nose. Alex felt his captors loosen their grasp in surprise and he jerked himself free as a stranger leaped into their midst, kicking and striking out with a piece of pipe.
"Run," she said, but no way was Alex going to let a girl rescue him and then abandon her. Besides, now that it was two against three, maybe he could salvage his box of food, after all.
It took only a couple of minutes for Alex and the rangy girl with the pipe to convince their assailants that this fight wasn't worth their trouble. The three boys edged away, then started running, the sound of their feet soon dying into the distance.
Alex leaned over, breathing hard. When he had caught his breath enough to speak, he shoved his hair out of his eyes and looked at the girl. "Who are you?"
She looked remarkably unwinded, and although her fighting had lacked technique, she was strong and had good instincts. "Who're you with?"
"No one." She tucked her pipe in a pocket and went to retrieve her basketball. She bounced it a few times with a casual air of experience, then her gaze fell on the box. "Since I helped you out, any chance you'd share some of that?"
"How about back at my place?" At her look of alarm, he added, "Not like that. Regency Hotel. There's about twenty of us, but we're peaceful and we're trying to grow." When she still didn't answer, he added, "We could really use someone like you. I'll teach you everything I know."
Julilla gazed at him through narrowed eyes. "For real, no tricks?"
"You probably saved my life. No tricks, ever. Word of honor."
She smiled and bounced her ball. "I guess I could check it out."
Alex hoisted the box to his shoulder and they began walking in the direction of the rendezvous point.
"What's in the box, by the way?" Julilla asked.
"Oh, man. I really hit the jackpot today."
Alex smiled to himself. Not an hour ago he had been wishing he had another savvy fighter on his team, and now look. "No," he said. "I did."