The Grey Stranger
CHAPTER TWO - Cactus Flower
"What the hell is wrong with this town?" I said, knocking on the door again. "I know you're in there lady! I've been knocking on your door for fifteen minutes. Oh! And you know what? You still haven't turned off your lights, you crazy git!" I took a deep breath, then mumbled to myself, "I mean, come on, if you wanted me to buy that you're not home just turn off the lights...idiot..."
Rex howled as if he could feel my frustration. I placed my hands on my bony hips and tilted my head to the side; waiting patiently for the woman, well, I was informed that a woman lived here, until she finally decided to come to the door. My duffel bag was already starting to put an eerie ache in my back and my leather boots were beginning to stiffen. I yawned, feeling my ears pop as a crack of thunder rolled overhead. Sighing, I reached for the doorknob, but the door swung open on one hinge before I had the chance.
"Whoa!" I jumped back, my outstretched arm flailing back. I recovered smoothly while acting to scratch the back of my neck. "Um...thank you for finally opening the door?"
"What do you want?" the old lady hissed. My eyebrows rose in surprise by her equally irritated tone.
"I'm sorry if I woke you," I tried to ease the tension, "But I'm new in town."
As if those words were magic, her faced uncurled from its irritating fashion. It was replaced with a somewhat friendly smile and a warm hand shake. I gladly accepted the gesture and ventured forth into her home-like shack. She had offered first, of course, but for some reason, I still felt uneasy about her. Unless she was just born paranoid, something else was wrong; she was hiding something. I sniffed the hair; it smelled like raw radroach meat. I could feel my throat gag, but I kept a straight face as she introduced herself.
"I'm Jeannie May Crawford," she finally said. I silently wondered why she hadn't said her name when she gave me a hand shake.
"Nyx," I said with a sideways grin. I didn't like my name.
Nodding at my name, I assumed she was dismissing it as something she would probably forget later on, she quickly continued, "Was there something you needed, stranger?" Stranger? I'm not a stranger! I told you my name, didn't I?
"Um, yes. I was actually wondering if you knew the Dino sniper?" I asked, pointing in the direction of the Dino Bite Gift Shop, "He's the guy who guards the town at night."
"What's the fellow's name?" the old woman said, tipping up her glasses to draw them closer to her eyes in speculation.
"Boone," I said dryly. Chit-chat has never been my specialty. "I was wondering if you knew anything about his wife?"
"Oh, she was a confused little thing," Jeannie quickly offered. I stood there, leaning my weight all on one food while I listened to her words, trying to decipher fact from fiction; just like I had done with every other townsfolk I'd come across.
"How do you mean?" I pried further.
"Well, it was evident to all of us here that she didn't like the old fashion country life Boone had wanted. She liked the bright lights of Vegas, more than the slum of the Wasteland," Jeannie explained.
"What was she like?" I felt like a stalker.
"Oh...um...she was well, um, like a cactus flower: pretty to look at but hard to get close to. She was never content, but nevertheless she tried to keep Boone happy. We could all tell that she was strung up by a thin wire after the first year of being out here."
"Sounds like you knew her pretty well compared to the other folks in Novac."
"We had only spoken a couple of times; not enough to really bond, though."
I could tell that Jeannie was trying to pull something over my head. She was hiding something. She was too determined, too comfortable about the topic. I could tell that she was laying her story out to me on too thick; almost as if she had rehearsed it a few times. I had a feeling that she had something to do with the disappearance of Boone's wife. I looked at her for a few seconds, though to me it was much longer than that. I kept a constant smile as my brain registered everyone's accounts of Carla. Only a handful of the people actually knew when she went missing while the others didn't have the luxury of finding out; that or they just didn't care.
Without anymore conversation on the topic of Boone's wife. I said my goodbyes and headed out as quickly as I could. As far as I could see, there weren't anymore houses or motel rooms that I could investigate, so, pushing through the thickening rain, I headed back towards the Dino Bit Gift Shop, lugging all of my belongings with me. I had my doubts that the guilty slaver was even in the town. If that was the case, I already dreaded the talk I was going to have with Boone.
Sighing, I pushed the gate along to allow myself into the only excluded part of town. I mentally slapped myself when I noticed the motel room check-in lobby. I had completely missed it on my way in. An excited shiver ran down my spine as the adrenaline in my body began to pump through my veins. There had to be a list of name who had come and gone in the past few months. If I had a name, I could track him down. What was necessary for normal mercenaries, like facial features and status were merely extraneous hints for me. I was an elite scout, scavenger, and, if the pay was decently high, an assassin if needed. These said skills had never come naturally to me, I just enjoyed them. It was odd, yes, but survival, in every shape or form, was everything in the Mojave desert.
To my surprise, the rusty door was unlocked. I pranced right in and flipped on the lights. For a place with loads of rubble, it was fairly nice. Everything seemed to be intact and the furniture was in good condition; as well as it could be after a nuclear war. There was a coffee table, two sofas, and a desk with an old terminal. I started for the terminal; it was probably going to be my best bet for a name. I'd take the whole list of names if I had to. Suddenly, a shimmering, but slightly faded light caught my attention just before I walked over it. I stepped back to see the mystery object beneath my feet.
"Hey, hey, hey," I beamed with excitement, "I finally get to use some of these stupid bobby pins everyone wants to sell me."
I took out a few bobby pins from my pocket and lodged them into the tiny slot a key were normally fit in. I twisted it around, pulled on it, even switched out a few bobby pins after they broke. Lock picking. How hard could it be, right? I was almost about to give up because my guilt was eating me alive. Novac was a nice little town and stealing from them would probably take my karma for a ride downhill, but it was shady; too shady for my liking. After sucking it up, I continued, only to hear a comforting click and the release of hot hair. With anxiety, I opened the safe hatch.
I smiled widely and grabbed for the bag of caps in the corner. Again, I felt bad, but to live you had to make decisions in life and I was deciding to take the bag of caps. I shrugged away the stack of papers in the left corner, but while briefly scanning them, I noticed a signature. Crawford. Jeannie May Crawford. My eyes narrowed with distrust. I quickly attached the back of caps to my leather belt, hiding it behind my thick, red desert duster. Indecisively, I reached for the top sheet of paper and read its contents. My eyes grew wider with every word. I read further and further and, to my discomfort but also relief, found that Jeannie was the guilty perpetrator of the incident.
Scoffing in disgust, I shoved the document in the side pocket of my duster, closed the safe hatch, and scrambled out of the motel lobby in search for that old woman's shack. Before strapping the practically empty duffel bag to my back, I snatched the red, velvet beret and placed it into my hand, readying it for the signal. Before long, I found myself in a steady jog. Through the wind and the boiling rain, I pushed on, eyes burning and face tingling. Finally, I reached her door and banged on it once again.
I waited again exactly how I did before, only this time I could feel my face transforming into a hot red color, angered with frustration. She answered the door quicker than I expected. I didn't have a problem with standing in the rain; I liked rain. But today, rain was just another enemy of mine. I gave no effort to offer her a smile or say anything to waste time; I cut right to the chase, though, hiding the beret between my back and leather duster.
"I need you to come with me right now," I said bluntly. I may have seemed like I was in a rush, but that was by no accident.
She gave me an odd, confused look before shaking her head, "Can't we do this routine tomorrow, dear? The weather doesn't look like its letting up any time soon." The Wastelander was just about to slam the door in my face, but, being quick witted, I shoved my foot in between the doorway and the swinging door.
"Um, I need you to identify something for me..." I lied quickly, "I think...that someone may have broken into your safe...there's a bag of caps right in front of the Dino Bite Gift Shop..."
"Well, couldn't they be anyone's?" I stood there, completely shocked. No doubt my expression told her so. Really? I tell the lady there's a bag of caps sitting outside and she doesn't want them? What person in their right mind would turn down caps!
"I don't know, ma'am, the bag has your name on it..." I compromised.
I silently celebrated when her face turned a different toll. She nodded and hesitantly agreed. Through the thinning rain, we walked, side by side, until she was standing before the Dino Bite Gift Shop. I took my place on a boulder overlooking her position. Uncovering the beret from behind my back, I slipped my hood off and replaced it with the red, velvet beret. I was caught off guard when Jeannie spoke out again.
"I don't see it, dear. Are you sure you saw it over here," the woman looked up at me.
I grinned and said to myself, "Oh, yes. It'll be the last thing you never see..."
Her head flew in all directions; scattering chunks of skull, strips of skin, and spewing thick sprays of warm blood. Feasibly it was wrong for me to enjoy this sort of thing, but as a mercenary, officials tended to make exceptions. I glanced skyward to the sniper's nest. He, of course I'm not sure why I thought he would, was neither looking at me nor allowing his rifle to be seen. I shrugged and ventured to the lobby and climbed the staircase inside. As if on cue, he turned around to me meet halfway. First thing's first; I returned his precious beret.
"Keep it," he said shoving it away from him.
Why I was surprised at this moment was beyond me, but he proceeded to pull out another red beret almost identical to the one he had given me. As if he were attending the 1st Recon ceremony all over again, in a very honorable-like manner, he placed the beret gently on his head with pride. I smiled giddily and prepped the hat to return to my head of hair, but he quickly shook his head in opposition.
"I said you could keep it," he groaned loudly, "That doesn't mean you can wear it."
I was disappointed beyond comparison. Wearing the red beret meant respect. When people saw it, they knew exactly who you are. They feared you. They fear what you could do with a gun. Scoped or not. Drowned in blunder, my posture worsening by the second because of it, I tried to shrug and show him that it meant nothing to me. Of course, later, he had the gall to prolong my defeat.
"Yet," the sniper added. I could have sworn he smirked for half a second. Still, I couldn't blame him. He'd worked for his, so that meant I had to prove to him I could one day where it with the same honor he has for so many years now; I assumed.
"Are you an outlaw now?" I asked him, truly curious. I was still unaware to many of the customs that were often tied with the Mojave.
"No," Boone sighed, "People die out here. Besides, if I'm an outlaw that would make you just as guilty." He was exclusively correct by all means. I was starting to like the way this guy thinks. The Outlaw. I was beginning to like the ring to that.
"So...what will you do now?" I asked him in attempt to make friendly conversation. The rain was beginning to let up and the sun was just starting to peek its light over the Mojave Wasteland.
"I don't know...I can't stay here, that's for sure. Maybe I'll reenlist for the NCR. It would give me a free excuse for shooting down as many Legionaries as possible," Boone suggested, "Or maybe I'll wander...like you."
That gave me a brilliant idea, "Why don't you come with me?"
"Seriously! If you think about it with two snipers we could kill a hell of a lot more Legionaries. Together, you know!"
"You're not a sniper..."
"How long have you known me, man?" I asked, gesturing to myself, "I am, too, a sniper."
"Thanks, but no thanks."
"You owe me!" I suddenly burst out. He didn't even flinch. I was running out of reasons as to why he should follow me around and join my adventures; ...wander like me. I half expected him to reply with a witty, one-word answer, but he was silent. I hoped he was thinking it over. Maybe I had brought up a good point?
"You have a point," Boone finally admitted. Bingo! "I suppose with two of us, we could kill more Legionaries than alone."
I had my fingers crossed.
"Fine. I'll come with you," he said. Though I couldn't help but feel that he was more bothered than relieved about coming with me. "Let's get out of here."
I barely remember the two of us exiting the Dino Bite Gift Shop; only that I had skipped every other step to reach the lobby and that I owed the owner of the shop a couple of caps to repair the entrance door; it was swinging on one hinge of the time I opened it. Boone followed me out of Novac and onto the broken highway, where the concrete was fractured and fragmented all along the desert highway. The sun was beating down on us, making it seem more humid than it really was after a brutal beating of dry rain. The critters weren't out yet, so we were guaranteed a few hours of peace in our travels until we got to Nipton.
"So, Boone, since you're my follower and all, maybe you should tell me the best way to put you to good use," I called behind me, though keeping my eyes out front on the gleaming road ahead. I waited for his answer.
"Just give me a rifle and a clear path to shoot in and I'll start picking them off one by one before they can even spot me," Boone said. I imagined him having that same sly grin he always puts on when he mentions any aspect of his legendary and superior skills of sniping.
I laughed, "Good. That's exactly what I wanted to hear."