The Variant Effect

ZONE BETWEEN SERIES

Raid on the Barter Diamond

G. Wells Taylor

(eBook Sample)

 

Copyright 2022 by G. Wells Taylor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written consent of the author, except where permitted by law.

 

PART ONE: PROSPECTORS

 

Chapter 1

 

Freddie-boy set another chunk of wood on the coals, and moved back from the fire pit, taking care to avoid stepping on the sleepers gathered around it on their bedrolls.

It was something he could have done blindfolded, with all their snoring. Freddie didn’t think much of the noise his companions made, but it went along with the rotgut most had consumed before sleep.

The drink didn’t come with a party either. They were a grim lot at the best of times—all business—but most travelers in these lands were gripped with somber dread before going off to sleep on an open patch of ground.

If you were going to die in the Zone Between, then it was likely to happen after dark—even in July, when the nights were still shorter than the days.

 

Freddie pulled his blanket tight over his shoulders as he moved into the shadows to hunker down with his back set against a dead tree, and his shotgun balanced on his skinny thighs.

It was bad enough having to watch for dogs, coyotes, and wolf packs—and all of them blood mad and starving, but to also have to guard against raiders and the lawless men and women that reaved over the Zone ... It was an unsettling prospect for a young survivor like Freddie-boy.

And that wasn’t even considering the polk and kinderkind that were said to wander the night. They went by different names depending who you talked to, but he’d heard them called wens, blisters, and phantoms, all of them lurking about hungry or vengeful.

Freddie-boy sighed, and then cursed himself as his mind drifted to creepers. He’d never seen one in full bloom himself, thank God, but at their worst, they supposedly went about disguised as any old settler or merchant that you might recollect, before the shadows dropped and their skins burst out with teeth and tentacles.

He grumbled. Freddie would have no problem staying awake now that he had the jitters. It was his own fault for listening to Pop Dawson with his stories of the days gone by when folks were changed by toxins into snippers, snappers, biters, and burners, well, that talk could ruin anyone’s sleep.

He glanced up at the stars past the twisted tree boughs. Freddie always got first watch because he was youngest, and was denied any rotgut.

He didn’t mind the time alone so much, despite its looming horrors.

A few hours watching over the others gave him a feeling of importance, and his rangy young body would never sleep the night through if he went to bed with the sun.

Not even after a long day of travel.

No. First watch gave him time to reflect, and ponder the choices and chances that set him in that dangerous place.

 

Freddie-boy was three years old when the world ended. His parents died soon after and left him wandering the ruins until he was “adopted” by other sad survivors who found him scavenging candies at a burned-out dollar store.

They’d taken him to an encampment in the greener lands outside the city’s smoldering wreckage, where he lived hard and grew up as a refugee, wandering from this camp or settlement to the next, until his seventh birthday when he was sold by his adoptive “family” to apprentice for a trader named Dealer Bang.

Since Freddie had escaped the fires without firm knowledge of his last name, he’d taken his employer’s out of respect, and to keep it sorted in buyers’ minds and with other traders at the barter tables.

It was clear they weren’t father and son by blood, since Bang called himself Asian, and referred to the boy as “likely African.”

Dealer Bang was a trader or prospector, depending on whom you talked to, since others in his line of work also called themselves merchants, vendors, and sellers—before the classifications tuned into finer details and services like tooth-pulling, carpentry, and blacksmithing.

Traders of the prospecting variety specialized in the recovery of preserved goods, precious metals, and lost valuables.

Freddie’s employer was a generous fellow when a good day’s work had been put in, and the liquor was being passed around the fire—and you were old enough.

Dealer Bang’s wife and daughter had died of infection a month after the city stopped burning, or so old Pop had said just between him and Freddie.

For that reason, the trader was not keen to have his heart broken in wedlock again, so had focused on his business aspirations instead.

Pop said Bang had arranged to leave his barter goods to Freddie-boy if the end came on him unexpected, but the apprentice avoided thinking of such loss in a world full of it.

 

Being the youngest and most nimble often meant Freddie was the first to be sent down a played-out well to look for water, or into a collapsed building in search of swag. It was always something tricky, but his successes had given him a reputation of having good luck.

Dealer Bang’s group was a small one this time out. He’d hired the experienced but inexpensive freelancers to help recover a trove of bottled water that a one-eyed prospector had claimed to have found buried near some ruins on the way to the Q-Line.

Freddie-boy was told the Q-Line had been a last line of defense when the world ended, but was now just a string of rusty metal poles with scraps of wire hanging off here and there. It had been scavenged along its length for components used in the construction of the settlements.

 

The one-eyed man would have returned to claim his buried water, if some bad liquor hadn’t left him blind in the remaining orb, and babbling the treasure’s whereabouts before he died of fever.

Bang had acquired the information by donating three large chocolate bars to the Brothers of Christ mission that had overseen the poor fellow’s final days at the Bunker Hill settlement.

Freddie’s employer consulted his old highway maps for details to confirm the dead prospector’s ravings, something that took a keen eye, since most of the roads were overgrown now with cars all but extinct, and the remaining fuel being hoarded.

Freddie-boy straightened up when he heard their mounts fussing where they were staked on the other side of the tree against which he reclined.

Pigs made for slow riding, but they were smart, and quick to nose out threats.

When they quieted down again, Freddie-boy’s attention switched back to the fire.

 

Chapter 2

 

Freddie-boy was awake before the sun to strike the fire up and set water to boil, before opening a sack of corn to feed the pigs. He staggered sleepily over to relieve himself behind the tree a few strides past where the animals ate, leaving his older companions to hack and spit as they went about their own morning business in the dim, portioning out dried coffee crystals, or chewing gnarly strips of jerky.

The riding pigs were bred less ornery than the porkers raised as food because of their close working relationship with people. That made them tolerable company for Freddie to pass the wee hours, or like now as the crew complained about poor sleep while stamping warm blood back into their feet.

Travel had become difficult after the fuel dried up. Pop Dawson had laughed off the threat of the Zone’s nocturnal dangers, since the distances alone were enough to kill people who were used to driving everywhere.

Survivors had fought over whatever fuel they could find until it was used up after the first few years.

Electric vehicles became useless without a power grid to recharge them, though Freddie-boy had only a vague idea of what this entailed.

That left bicycles and other push-powered rigs before the vegetation smothered the roads that crisscrossed the Zone Between.

A few petting zoos, hobby farms, and riding stables had horses, donkeys, and other large animals that were put to work. At least, any that hadn’t been eaten along with all the cows during the first period when people were still crazy with toxins, and unable to believe that the world had changed forever.

During that time, some sharp trader from far off had relieved a factory farm of its tallest pigs and started breeding them for strength, size, and speed. The rapid reproduction of swine allowed for two litters of up to ten piglets a year, with a profitable market for the flesh of any runts or stillborn waiting.

The venture had been in operation for six years before rumors started circulating about such goings on, and it inspired other sharp operators to do the same with pigs, sheep, and any robust creature that wasn’t needed for the table.

Some said scientists had already been breeding a hardy pig that would hold up to climate change—and that these had been bred in with the riding stock, too.

There was talk of people raising horses in distant places, and some of the animals had shown up in the Zone Between; but, such mounts were coveted, and if they couldn’t be purchased by all, then they were shot on sight by all.

People who rode pigs knew they could not compete with horsemen, so until those prancers were common, they were not welcome.

Only a fool would ride one of the beasts now, with every gun owner in the Zone drawing a bead on them.

 

Feeding swine was little trouble, since there was plenty to eat outside the city ruins by way of vegetation, abandoned farms, and garbage pits. And the harsh new world provided lots of dead things to dig up and scarf down.

When the first riding pigs were brought to the settlements, they came with longer legs and narrower torsos, while also having leaner, more muscular bodies.

The porkers were fairly comfortable mounts that were fast in a jostling sprint, but still slow and steady cross-country with their general body shape keeping them from much sustained speed, despite the longer legs that kept their bellies two feet off the ground.

They were constant travelers though, and could dawdle on forever with their great appetites and resulting reserves of calories—powered as they were by an ability to eat almost anything organic, and a willingness to walk to any food or water they could smell.

The breed had a long way to go, as any pig rider would tell you, but Pop said that with only ten or twelve years passing since the end, it was likely that they’d have a show jumper before long.

If things didn’t get worse, and starvation didn’t drive people to eat them all.

In the meantime, pigs, sheep, and other beasts of a larger size were drafted to pull carts, carry loads, and power winches and water pumps.

Pop Dawson said it would never do for the Mercedes set, a joke that went over Freddie-boy’s head the way many of the old man’s references did.

Pop had a lot of history, but he kept its true nature to himself.

 

Dealer Bang had sent the old fellow a note through the Zone Express Mail a week before, and Pop replied that he’d meet them on the departure date at Homestead.

When the group started east at dawn, Pop joined them on the trail in sight of the settlement, and they rode until sunset when they made camp just west of the Lost Highway.

And here it was, dawn again.

Pop Dawson was said to be at least seventy, and his movements attested to that—especially after a night on a bedroll.

He stood five and a half feet tall, and had rounded back and shoulders. He limped with a slow gait on slightly crooked legs, and there was a thick look to him, likely exaggerated by his long torso, and short limbs.

Freddie knew he was dangerous in a fight though, and had heard he’d do anything for coin if he were thirsty enough.

When he showed up this time, Bang had declared that Pop must have been doing well, since he hadn’t eaten his riding pig.

The big boar was gray with black tufts over its body. It also had a pair of stumpy yellow tusks curling off its lower jaw.

Pop called him Sam, short for Samwich, because “that pig’s gotta know that if he fails as a mount, I’ll see he wins at lunch!”

Freddie-boy was sure he was joking, since the old man was never cruel to the pig and even spoke kindly of Sam in comparison to thieves that vexed the population in the Zone.

 

Pop’s tanned face was lined by age, and scarred by experience. He wore a thick handlebar moustache that was mostly white with a dense core of dark threads winding through it. His gray hair was thick and shoulder-length with stark white at the temples.

The old man had bits of vinyl and metal armor sewn onto the shoulders of his worn leather jacket and overcoat. He wore a heavily patched canvas coverall underneath with knee-high leather boots.

Pop’s look was topped off by a battered cap with frayed peak, and a sweat-stained leather flap down the back that tied up, or was left trailing like a curtain to protect his neck.

Dealer Bang called it a havelock cap used by civil war re-enactors before their fake militias had become real when the world ended.

“Hurry and ready those porkers,” Bang wandered up to say. “I’d like to get there in time to dig for the swag!”

 

Chapter 3

 

Freddie-boy slowed where a stretch of asphalt was clear of plants and recognizable, though its wrinkled surface had been deformed by the elements.

He pulled his mount’s reins to halt the beast, before looking north to where the cracked blacktop disappeared beneath the overgrown grass, brush, and saplings a hundred yards on.

Ungroomed older trees sagged to either side, framing the Lost Highway, and forming a broad ‘V’ shape overflowing with pink and blue sky, and clouds.

Freddie had only flashes of memory from his time in the ruined city, but those were dark and carried no splash of color—except for fire—so the brilliant sky was like a dream to him.

The dazzling arrowhead held him in place. Thrusting down from the heavens, it promised wonders to a young mind bored by chores and grass and pigs.

 

A great snort came from behind, and he turned to see Pop Dawson stop his own mount at the edge of the open space.

“Charlie balking?” he grated, scowling through his whiskers. The pink light from above glimmered in his old eyes.

Charlie was the brown boar that Freddie-boy rode—a young swine with a good disposition and a taste for hot peppers.

“No!” Freddie said, gesturing at the northern sky. “We’re taking it all in.”

“Don’t let it fool you, kid!” The old man nudged his pig forward. “Anything that city could have been was burned long ago. Burned, and poisoned!”

“Whatcha mean?” Freddie was wary of Pop’s simmering rage.

“Stay clear of it is what I mean!” the old man warned. “The Zone Between will kill you dead, but it won’t leave you cursed.”

He kicked the sides of his pig and started past the lad.

“I never been north of the trading post—since ...” Freddie said, nudging Charlie after him.

“Lucky you!” Pop grumbled, with a sidelong look. “And you’re still breathing, too.”

Pop whipped Sam with his reins and the startled pig sprinted south.

Freddie goaded Charlie on, doing his best to keep up.

 

The teen was still pondering the Trading Post, a small collection of tents and wooden cabins two-day’s ride north if he were to turn his pig around and keep to the Lost Highway. The outpost formed the northern point of the Barter Diamond—a trail that traders and travelers used to move between the settlements in the south, east, and west of the Zone.

The Trading Post hosted prospectors and their teams when they dared visit to sell goods, and trade for swag from the burned-out city in the north. However, most were cautious bringing such products back into the settlements since things dug up close to the city were often poisoned by disease, toxins, and fires of the old world.

It was near the Trading Post that Freddie had seen a wen, one of the polk that grew up in the leavings. He’d been told by Bang to wait with their mounts in a clutch of trees hidden from the outpost, while his boss hiked in afoot to barter. Rumors had said that a business tax on visitors sometimes amounted to a riding pig’s flesh and harness.

Polk was short for poison folk, and the one Freddie saw hadn’t lived up to the stories, since it was nothing more than a young girl with a twisted mass of rough pimples on most of her face, and one hand that was shaped like a fish’s fin.

She was going by in a hurry, likely having been turned out by her family before she changed worse, and they’d have had to put her down with a bullet.

Riding after Pop, Freddie wondered whether the old man had ever been on one of Dealer Bang’s rare trips to the Trading Post, and if that was where he started harboring his anger for it. Freddie hadn’t been to trade there himself more than a couple times—and was always left a ways off to tend the mounts.

As he understood it, prospectors did most of their trading in the lower parts of the diamond, and travelers avoided the Trading Post unless the Devil himself was at their heels. Beyond commerce, there was no reason to visit the outpost or the burned city it served.

 

Freddie-boy caught up to Dealer Bang and the others in time to be handed the leads for the two pack pigs. The massive hogs were draped with harness and netting that Bang would use for hauling the swag back to Homestead.

The beasts had been under the care of Raz and Dolly. Raz was a thirty-year-old lean and lanky scrapper with a long beard, who was up to doing all the digging and climbing that Freddie could do, but who also specialized in fighting. He carried a six-shooter pistol, and a flintlock rifle as well as a machete and several sharp knives on his belt.

Raz bragged about the bullets he still had for the handgun, since he’d prided himself on facing most threats with his blades. His flintlock was a ball and powder set up that the scarcity of ammunition had forced on most people in the Zone.

Bullets weren’t scarce so much as they were hoarded with the remaining fuel.

Raz was a rascal who liked to gamble at cards and drink whisky. He also hinted at other things he liked, but held back due to Freddie’s delicate age. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, and rugged denim and canvas clothing with pieces of handmade armor strapped over it.

Raz rode a blue-gray hog that he called Blue.

Dolly was a black woman of “thirtysomething” years as Raz told it. She was pretty in a stern way, with a crooked nose and scars on the left side of her face.

She’d said those came from the men she killed leaving the city when the world ended. Freddie-boy had taken a shine to her when they first met, and she’d been sweet enough in her way.

Her body was compact and powerfully built, with “all the right curves,” as Raz had whispered over cards. She wore a padded leather jacket with armored joints, tight denim pants, and high boots.

Dolly carried an axe on a sling over her shoulder, and a short army sword at her waist opposite a ball and powder pistol. A side-by-side shotgun hung from the saddle of her mount Pinky.

They rode after Pop, leaving Freddie-boy with Dealer Bang.

 

Freddie was slow to start a conversation with his adoptive parent and employer, though he was eager to talk whenever Bang encouraged it.

“Careful of Pop,” Dealer advised, suddenly, where he rode to Freddie’s left. “He’s a misanthrope.”

“What’s that?” Freddie asked, tugging at the pack-pig leads.

“Misanthrope?” Bang’s narrow eyes disappeared as his smile tightened. “Means he hates people.”

“Really?” Freddie-boy looked down, puzzled. “He’s nice enough to me.”

“You aren’t a full-grown man!” Dealer laughed, coaxing his pig forward. “Pop spaces these jobs so he only gets us folk in drips and drops.”

“Oh,” Freddie said, quietly. He had always enjoyed the old prospector’s company.

“Why else you think he lives up in those hills?” Bang’s expression hardened as he rose in his stirrups, pulling a rolled-up paper from his vest, and gauging the landscape.

“Dead Tree Forest lies west of us,” he grunted, eyeing the map. “We’re getting close.”

 

Chapter 4

 

Around noon, they reached a spot where the trail’s edges were lost beneath brush and tall grasses, but a general shape of the original highway remained when viewed from a distance.

They’d noticed several trees down and torn up, too.

Dealer Bang grumbled something about “twisters” as he surveyed the area with map in hand.

“That way, Raz!” he said, pointing to their left where a hump in the landscape suggested something buried. “Look for cinderblocks.”

Raz offered a dash of smile, and gestured for Dolly to accompany him. She had her shotgun ready as she nudged Pinky forward.

Off to Freddie-boy’s right, Pop growled, drew his black revolver, and followed.

“Hold back, lad,” Dealer Bang said, raising a hand to check Freddie’s movement. “I pay them for this.”

Freddie nodded, frustrated. He could see where the swag likely lay, just by the drift of the land. Such things came easy for him, and Bang knew it.

The teen tugged at the pig-lead line with one hand slipping toward his own pistol. It was a single-shot ball and powder affair, but he could hit anything he pointed it at.

Dealer Bang had drawn his own handgun, a big, nickel-plated “Magnum” as he called it referring to the weapon as a dangerous indulgence, since the piece with ammunition would draw the envious eye of any bandit in the Zone Between.

Bang was comforted to know that the Magnum outperformed most killing hardware in those parts, and any thief that coveted the gun would go to final judgment with a fist-sized hole in him.

Dealer carried it for his own protection because he was risk averse in the profit sense, and so his choice of the relatively small group of freelancers to undertake the recovery of the rumored water. Some swag was windfall, and some could attract a lethal amount of attention if rumors carried far.

Potable water was highly prized, so he had hired a couple guns for protection. Had it been a whisky find, he’d have sprung for a dozen gunmen.

 

Dealer Bang had dark-brown skin, well weathered from his time on the Barter Diamond. He had Asian features as he called them, with heavy eyelids, dark irises, and full lips. His flat cheeks were divided by a long handlebar moustache that trailed down well past his pointed chin.

He was Pop’s height, but appeared taller in his riding boots, bulletproof vest, and thick overcoat. Additionally, he favored a tall, felt top hat that he’d traded out of a big haul of theater goods pulled from the ruins up north.

He kept his small accounting book tucked up in the hat, along with a receipt pad, and a small cache of coin.

On cold nights, Bang wore it to bed with his scarf looped over the top and under his chin.

 

“Pop’s waving us over!” Freddie said, as Bang nudged his old boar Cannibal on. The big black pig grunted its displeasure, before lunging suddenly, sideswiping Freddie’s mount in the process.

No one in the group liked Cannibal, especially the other pigs.

The riders followed their companions’ path through the tall grass to arrive finally at a four-foot mound that Raz and Dolly had cleared of plants and vines to show a tumbled wall.

Dealer Bang dismounted and went to work, running his hand over the gray brick, glancing at his map, and peering up at the sky.

“This is it, by God,” he muttered, stepping back and casting his half-closed eyes around, orienting the overgrown debris with the obscured highway’s shape, and the brown line of the Tangled Hills to the west. “The wall runs parallel ...”

He looked down, placing his heels close to the ruin.

“Twenty paces,” he said, glancing at the notes on his map, before striding farther east into the field.

Raz and Dolly dismounted and followed him to either side, as their mounts started chewing the grass with the other pigs.

A short way north of them, Pop sat astride Sam on what could have been a natural rise, or something buried. The old prospector held his short-barreled handgun, watching the land around the site.

“Here!” Bang said, suddenly halting knee-deep in the rough grasses where he bent to pull foliage away from a smaller mound.

Raz and Dolly started yanking at a dead sapling that stuck out of the hump.

Freddie-boy dismounted and staked out a line to bind the pigs, then grabbed a shovel that was tied to Charlie and headed over to the digging. They’d already pulled aside a mat of grassy refuse to show cracked gray asphalt beneath. This led them to more crumbled stone and brick.

“Hey!” Dealer cried, having stamped a few paces away from them. He heaved a rotten board up, and with it a clump of dried brown grass.

“One-eye dug under here!” He looked over, beaming at his companions.

 

They soon exposed stairs in a cleft of dirt and rock that led down into darkness.

Raz drew his machete and clambered in, pausing below ground to light a candle.

“Here we go!” he said, descending cautiously. Freddie saw the stained concrete floor in the amber light, no more than ten feet down. A damp and musty breath of air billowed up. “Door’s warped in the frame.” There was a sudden sharp squeak! “Got it!”

“Well?” Bang shouted.

“Water!” Raz bellowed. “Packs of twenty-four—ten of them on a shelf. More below—and some look like cola bottles!”

“Good, good,” Dealer Bang said, rising to look at Freddie. “Get your thin ass down there to give a hand heaving it out!”

He turned to Dolly.

“You go south of us, and keep a watch,” he said. “It’s time we start worrying.”

 

“How did the one-eyed prospector find that stuff, I wonder?” Freddie said, biting at a hunk of jerky. His shirt was soaked through with sweat from three hours of toil. They were taking a break after recovering the swag. “Seems anyone would just ride by these humps of grass.”

“He might have worked here, or lived nearby. It’s a storeroom behind a gas station I’ll bet,” Pop said, squatting by the fire to get some coffee. “Seems forever ago to you kid, but the world hasn’t been gone that long for some of us.”

“So, there’s houses and such buried around here?” Dolly wondered, aloud.

“Mostly ruins ...” Pop hunkered down with his coffee, using his saddle as a stool. “People were full of toxins and crazy. They raped and burned everything the first two years.” He waved a scarred hand at the grassy landscape’s rolling contours. “It’s mostly basements and bones.”

“Bones?” Freddie blurted.

“People went berserk!” Pop gestured around them again. “This was all houses and streets—the suburbs.”

“I want to ride until dark,” Dealer Bang said, approaching to grab some coffee for himself with an eye on the swag. “Water’s worth killing for.”

 

Chapter 5

 

Freddie-boy finished feeding the crew their bowls of beans, while full night came on without a star in the sky thanks to clouds that had crept in over their last miles. They’d pushed hard north from one-eye’s claim to reach a campsite near sunset well west of the Lost Highway.

He wiped out the cooking pot and dishes as his companions placed their bedrolls around the fire, checked their guns and weapons, and settled in.

Freddie was taking first watch, as usual, but had been told that the last two would be covered by pairs. Dolly and Bang would guard second, and Raz and Pop third.

The plan was to get some rest in the darkest hours before starting the eight-hour ride to Homestead.

Dealer Bang had considered pushing on all night, but they’d have to travel slowly, and be surrounded by pitch black the whole while.

Easy to get ambushed that way.

Lighting a cookfire was another, but at least they’d be settled in and ready, with the flames at their backs should anyone come for the water.

Freddie-boy would mark the time with Bang’s wind-up watch, before turning the device over to the next guards that he’d wake in two hours.

Dealer Bang had picked an open space atop a rise to camp, where a couple dead trees and dense cedars would break the wind, and help hide their little fire.

 

Freddie had asked Pop on the way to his bedroll, if he’d noticed any sign or track that might indicate trouble, but the prospector had shaken his head dismissively and grunted: “Too dark to tell!”

Freddie agreed, having already been stymied by shadows.

The teen perched himself on a pile of firewood that he’d chopped from a big, fallen branch. He overlooked the sleepers from there, and sidelong glances showed the pigs on the line to his left. The big net bags of swag had been pulled off the pack porkers and set between the beasts and the blaze.

Bang had estimated their find at five-hundred plastic bottles of water, one hundred bottles of cola, and the same of ginger ale.

They’d broken down some of the vacuum-wrapped cartons to split the swag into the net bags for loading on the pack pigs. Those beasts had the water, while the bottles of cola and ginger ale were put into smaller bags and shared between the other mounts to carry.

Dealer Bang was not a hundred percent sure how much the pack pigs could transport, but was cautious of the water weight, so splitting the load made sense, since the crew would need speed if there was trouble from bandits or polk.

Bang had offered each crewmember a cola or ginger ale to celebrate the find, though only Freddie-boy and Dolly had taken him up on it.

She’d had her cola with jerky and biscuits before rolling into her blankets.

Freddie was still working on his.

It was warm, so a little stale tasting, and there was no fizz to speak of. He had a sweet tooth though, so he savored small sips of the drink.

His companions quickly fell asleep, and the night filled with the rhythmic sound of their breathing. They were tired, and no rotgut was shared.

 

Freddie-boy sat on the firewood, thinking back on the day, and ahead to the morrow, wondering if that pretty girl Annie Gamble would be at the Homestead barter where she traveled with her parents to sell the clothing they made.

They took the trip from where they lived at the Rifle Roundup settlement, when the barter there was not well attended, or if they wanted to bypass traders and sell directly to customers living elsewhere. It was hit or miss, since they depended on traders to transport their goods, and it was why they offered them the wholesale price.

Freddie would have to be patient if Annie wasn’t at Homestead, and see her the next time Dealer Bang arranged a trip to her settlement.

There was no set way of traveling the Barter Diamond, other than to visit its stops with company, since there was safety in numbers. And, then it was more about product, and a trader’s patience.

But something like this water? He knew Bang would want to sell it quickly. The lot of it represented too large a valuable to possess, and people were suspicious about perishable goods ...

However, there was always a market for clean water on the diamond.

It was precious.

Freddie glanced around uncertainly then, his ears honing in on the rush of wind through the grasses.

Water would be precious out here, too!

There were lots of things living beyond the settlement walls in the Zone Between. That was why they’d wasted no time to recover the water, and start back to sell it at the Homestead barter.

He sat a while longer, eyes glazing over as the fire died down to small flickers on the coals. Freddie-boy was thinking about Annie Gamble. She was tall, and well shaped. He remembered their fingertips brushing one time when she’d handed him a shirt that caught his fancy ...

 

He gasped, and sat straight up! For a second, he thought he’d fallen asleep. The memory of Annie’s eyes echoed, and the flowery smell of her hair was sharp about him.

Freddie glanced at the fire. His companions around it were silent, but the flames were dead.

He paced over and set another piece of wood on the coals, then headed back to his seat.

And he froze.

There was a sound on the wind. It was almost as if his dream was continuing. It was a woman’s voice. Annie? They were soft cooing sounds that he thought was singing.

Or maybe tears and crying. Was that it?

The grassy stalks moved again, the wind slipping through like secrets off the east side of the camp, and he couldn’t help but glance that way—even as small flames burst up from the dry wood he’d just set on the coals.

A young woman was kneeling ten yards away with the tall grass waving at her hips. Shadows danced across her faded print dress.

Her face was lost to him, bent forward as she was. The features were draped by long black hair. Her shuddering shoulders were narrow.

And she was crying.

Wake the crew!

But why was she crying?

This was no Annie Gamble, whose hair was curly and shiny red. But he guessed her to be the same age.

Close to Freddie-boy’s.

He hefted his shotgun, cocking both barrels as he moved toward the trampled edge of their small camp.

Long grass waved in the amber light.

He kept to the girl’s left, so the glow from the fire stayed on her.

“Are you okay?” he whispered, mouth dry.

The girl straightened, and her hair fell back with her mask.

A pig squealed behind him.

 

End of this eBook sample.

 

The Variant Effect

ZONE BETWEEN SERIES

Raid on the Barter Diamond

COMING 2023

 

Purchase G. Wells Taylor titles for $3.99 or less at Amazon, Google Play, Apple Books, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Indigo and Scribd.

Email questions or comments to: books@gwellstaylor.com

 

FREE eBOOK

THE VARIANT EFFECT: SKIN EATERS

by G. WELLS TAYLOR

Book 1 FREE: The Variant Effect Series

 

Old heroes battle a toxic zombie menace from the past.

The old building in a rundown part of town was a perfect place to find a body, but Joe Borland knows they’d never have dragged him out of retirement if it still had its skin. It’s been twenty years since Borland battled the Variant Effect, and twenty since he let his partner get skinned alive. Now they are ordered back into action to meet a terrifying new threat.

The Variant Effect: SKIN EATER – Full length novel FREE

 

Also FREE for you.

Vampires of the Kind in:

THE URN

by G. WELLS TAYLOR

Book 1 FREE: Dracula of the Apes Trilogy

 

Dracula of the Apes picks up where Bram Stoker’s Dracula left off and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes began.

Dracula’s Gypsy servant Horvat has the special duty of preserving his master’s body if the worst should ever happen—and the worst has happened! Van Helsing’s team of vampire hunters has decapitated the count and reduced him to dust and ashes.

Horvat’s instructions are simple. Dracula’s remains must be stored in a special urn and bathed in blood while en route to South Africa where a mysterious ally will see to his resurrection. But fate steps in off the African coast and a shipwreck casts Horvat and his precious burden into the jungle setting of another literary classic.

THE URN - Full length novel FREE

 

Also available for FREE:

WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN

by G. WELLS TAYLOR

Book 1 FREE: The Apocalypse Trilogy

 

Zombies, Angels and the Four Horsemen fight for control of the World of Change in Detective Wildclown’s first case file.

MURDER IS STILL MURDER IN GREASETOWN: Even if life has become a little complicated. Fifty years ago, at the end of the last Millennium we expected something bad to happen, but we never expected the Change. People stopped aging, the dead rose from their graves, it started raining and it’s been raining ever since. Things looked so bad that everyone thought it was the end of the world, but a guy’s still got to make a living doesn’t he?

A dead lawyer enters the office of Wildclown Investigations and hires the detective to find his killer. Wildclown and his dead sidekick Elmo soon find themselves entangled in a battle for control of a secret that offers either hope or doom for humanity.

When Graveyards Yawn takes the reader to a unique setting that mixes gothic horror with the two-fisted pragmatism of a hard-boiled detective novel.

WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN - Full length novel FREE

 

Discover other titles by G. Wells Taylor

The Variant Effect Series

Old heroes battle a toxic zombie menace from the past.

Book 1: SKIN EATERS: (FREE eBOOK)

Book 2: GREENMOURNING

Book 3: MADHOUSE 1 – ZIPLOC CITY

Book 4: MADHOUSE 2 – GAS LIGHT

Book 5: MADHOUSE 3 – BURN

Incident Report: BLOOD ANGEL

The Variant Effect: Collector Pack

The Variant Effect: ZONE BETWEEN Series

Book 1: Raid on the Barter Diamond (Coming 2023)

Vampires of the Kind

Ancient hunters. Modern prey.

BENT STEEPLE

OF THE KIND

FROM THE GRAY (COMING 2023)

Dracula of the Apes

This trilogy picks up where Dracula left off and Tarzan of the Apes began.

Book 1: THE URN (FREE eBOOK)

Book 2: THE APE

Book 3: THE CURSE

The Apocalypse Trilogy

Zombies, Angels and the Four Horsemen fight for control of the World of Change.

Book 1: WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN (A FREE Wildclown Novel)

Book 2: THE FORSAKEN

Book 3: THE FIFTH HORSEMAN

Wildclown Mysteries

Detective Wildclown’s case files in the World of Change.

Book 1: WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN (A FREE Wildclown Novel)

Book 2: WILDCLOWN HARD-BOILED

Book 3: WILDCLOWN HIJACKED

Book 4: MENAGERIE – A Wildclown Novel

Book 5: THE NIGHT ONCE MORE – A Wildclown Novel

Book 6: DAMNED WITH THE DEVIL – A Wildclown Novel

THE CORPSE: HARBINGER (Adventures of a Long-Dead Detective)

Horror Fiction

Contemporary twists on ghosts, myths, and monsters.

MOTHER’S BOY

MEMORY LANE

A CORAL PILLOW

Gene Spiral Series

Frankenstein revisited.

6 – PORTRAIT OF A 21ST CENTURY SNUFF FIGHTER

Translations

WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN (Polish Language Version)

WHEN GRAVEYARDS YAWN (Spanish Language Version)

THE VARIANT EFFECT (Spanish Language Version)

Dracula of the Apes Book One: THE URN (Spanish Language Version)

Check GWellsTaylor.com for publishing updates.

 

Connect with G. Wells Taylor Online

Twitter:

http://twitter.com/gwellstaylor

Facebook:

http://facebook.com/g.wells.taylor

My blog:

http://www.gwellstaylor.com/blog

Email Questions or comments to: books@gwellstaylor.com.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

G. WELLS TAYLOR was born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada in 1962, but spent most of his early life north of there in Owen Sound where he went on to study Design Arts at a local college. He later traveled to North Bay, Ontario to complete Canadore College’s Journalism program before receiving a degree in English from Nipissing University. Taylor worked as a freelance writer for small market newspapers and later wrote, designed and edited for several Canadian niche magazines.

 

He joined the digital publishing revolution early with an eBook version of his first novel When Graveyards Yawn that has been available online since 2000. Taylor published and edited the Wildclown Chronicle e-zine from 2001-2003 that showcased his novels, book trailer animations and illustrations, short story writing and book reviews alongside titles from other up-and-coming horror, fantasy and science fiction writers.

 

Still based in Canada, Taylor continues with his publishing plans that include additions to his Vampires of the Kind books, the Wildclown Mysteries, and sequels to the popular Variant Effect series.