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By K.S. Merbeth
Read by Rachel Frawley
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Clementine is a bounty hunter in a world gone mad.
Bound and gagged in her passenger seat is the most revered and reviled raider king in the eastern wastes. She can’t cash him in and she can’t let him go, so together they cross the wasteworld, following a dying road and dodging bloodthirsty raiders who either want to free Jedediah or claim him as their own.
And in a world where lawlessness reigns, a tyrant worse than they could have ever imagined emerges to take the throne.
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."
The Reign of Jedediah Johnson
Once, Jedediah Johnson was just the leader of another crew of raiders carving their bloody way across the wastes. They were known as the toughest and the meanest raiders around, the scum among scum, but the scariest thing about them was their leader. People said he was some kind of mad genius, more wily than any raider before him; he was the reason why nobody saw them coming, and why no town stood a chance against them.
Of course, people also said that he could hear his name every time someone spoke it, that he could change his face every day, and that he gained the knowledge of every man he killed and ate. Rumors still run wild; nobody knows what the guy looks like, even now. But the genius part I believe. He and his men cut through the wastes in a way that had never been seen before.
One day, that infamous leader decided he'd rather be a dictator than a raider. He settled down in an old mansion in the town of Wormwood, told everyone he was in charge now, and started calling his raiding "collecting taxes."
At first, people laughed at him. When he actually showed up to collect, they fought him. Soon, those who laughed and those who fought were all dead. Everybody left didn't dare do anything but obey the self-declared king.
Even I know better than to fuck with Jedediah and his men. I'll pick off a stray if he's off on his own with a good price on his head, like the man I just killed, but that's risky enough, and it's as far as I dare to go. I've been killing raiders my whole life, but Jedediah's crew are a breed of their own. Better fed, better equipped, better organized. There's a reason they've been able to hold down this corner of the wastes for years, keeping townies under their thumb and fending off wandering raider crews as well. Jedediah holds all the power here.
So predictably, the townies lose their shit at my announcement. Most of them panic and flee to their houses. A few of the smarter ones remember the dead man lying in the middle of their town square—a dead man who worked for the very same dictator they're so afraid of. If Jedediah's men find that body here, they'll massacre these townies and burn their town to the ground.
"Just tax collectors," the sheriff shouts, struggling to be heard above the general clamor. "They don't know nothin', they're just here for the tax. Get what we owe, and hide the damn body."
Two townies go to move the corpse, but I shoulder one of them out of the way and grab its feet myself. The sheriff hesitates, as if ready to tell me to leave, but thinks better of it.
"Get it inside and cover it up," she says. We drag it to one of the nearby ramshackle homes, throw it onto the cot in the corner, pull a blanket over him—all the way over the head, since the multiple bullet holes in the face aren't exactly subtle.
A small collection of townies stays in the town square, including the sheriff and a handful of the bigger men. They surround her, which mostly just makes their leader look dwarfed and nervous. The rest of them cower inside their homes. They shut doors if they have them, cover windows with boards and blankets, and stay out of sight. When the townies move to cover the window of the house I'm in, I wave them off before they can finish, keeping a corner of it uncovered. None of them question me; they're too busy running to find their hiding spots. I crouch down next to the open spot, staying between the window and closed door, my gun in my hand.
I force myself to breathe deeply, trying to keep the wild beating of my heart under control. I've always heard about Jedediah's tax collectors, and seen the aftermath of their visits, but I've never been present for one.
Living out of my truck and never spending a night in any town means that I never get surprised. I engage with Jedediah's men on my terms only, like I do everyone else. But this … this is unexpected, and I'm unprepared. I could take out one of Jedediah's men with the element of surprise, maybe two if I'm lucky, but any more than that and I'm fucked. And even if I can handle them, killing them here when they're out collecting taxes would make it far too easy to trace them to Sunrise, and then to me.
I need to lay low. Now is not the time to fight Jedediah's men, though it's hard to hold myself back. After all, killing raiders is what I'm best at. I've been doing it since I was eight years old.
The first was a huge brute of a man with a squashed face and a hissing voice. He was alone, but our town was young, many of us barely out of our bomb shelters, and we weren't prepared. One armed raider was enough to send everyone cowering. Ours was the third house he broke into, and nobody had dared raise a hand to stop him. Even at eight, I knew what would happen: He'd take everything we had, and probably kill us too. I was stupefied to see my parents cowering on the floor in front of this man. They looked at him and their brains told them Cower, hide, let him take it, just let us live. Behind his back, I looked at him, and I looked at the gun he had seemingly forgotten on the table, and my brain said: Kill.
I was proud that night, and so was everyone else. Afterward, the sheriff started giving me shooting lessons, and my pa gave me first pick of weapons whenever we found a new haul. I would strut around town with a pistol on my hip and people would smile at me when I passed by. "The little hero," they called me. But, as I eventually learned the hard way, there's a time and place to be a hero.
Right now, right here, is not it.
Outside, the town is dead silent. I lift myself up to steal a glance out of the peephole just in time to see Jedediah's men arrive. They're unmistakable, with their heavy black clothes and huge guns. One of them is a massive man, six foot four at least, and made of muscle. He's middle-aged, with a bushy beard and hard eyes that are constantly roaming the area around him. The top of his companion's head barely reaches his shoulder, but he's solidly built as well, with a mess of wavy blond hair and a shaggy beard. His face is nearly covered by hair, his eyes barely visible, and the skin that pokes out is ruddy and sunburnt. They approach the town square and stop a few feet in front of the sheriff. The men around her draw back as Jedediah's men get close. The sheriff stands alone, straight-backed, her chin raised.
"We've got your tax," she says. "Don't want no trouble."
The two men study the sheriff and the pile of goods at her feet. It's easily three times what the townies paid me for the job, and I feel a stab of resentment at them for trying to hold back the extra goods they owed me.
"You're not the sheriff of Sunrise," the shaggy raider says. He brushes his hair out of his eyes and squints at her. "Where's what's-his-name? With the goatee?"
The big man mumbles something in a surprisingly soft voice, so quiet I can't make out the words.
"Yeah," the shaggy one says. "Sheriff Daniels."
The new sheriff hesitates, considering how to answer. Don't mention Beau, I think. Whatever you say to them—
"He was killed last week by one of your men," she says. "Called himself the Butcher."
Damn stupid townies.
"Oh," the shaggy man says, letting his hair fall back into his face. "Alrighty then." Without further ado, he crouches down and starts counting the goods for Jedediah's tax.
The townie woman's face turns red, and then purple, while Jedediah's men pay no attention whatsoever to her. I grit my teeth, willing her to keep her mouth shut. She may have already fucked her people over by mentioning Beau. When he shows up missing, Jedediah's men are likely to remember this conversation.
"He killed him over a card game," she bursts out finally. "Beau hacked his head off. It took him five hits." The words pour out of her, like she can't help herself. "There was no reason for it. Just cruelty."
"Well, there's your reason," the shaggy raider says, still counting. "I don't need the details. Was just curious."
"Aren't you going to do something about it?" the sheriff asks, her voice rising to a near shout. I wince, tightening my grip on my gun. Jedediah's men have killed people for less than raising their voice.
The shaggy raider pauses, then shrugs and keeps counting.
"Not my job," he says. "My job is collecting taxes … which you're short on. Need four more bottles of water and three food."
The sheriff, still red in the face, looks ready to argue more, but the massive, quiet raider shifts his grip on his gun. She looks at him, and her shoulders slump.
"This is the amount it's always been," she says, sounding more tired than argumentative.
"We need more this month."
The townie woman says nothing, but doesn't move to collect the extra goods either. The rest of the townspeople shuffle their feet behind her, none of them looking at either her or the raiders. After a moment, the shaggy man sighs, straightens up, and raises his gun. He steps forward until the barrel rests against the side of the sheriff's nose, and taps it against her face.
"All right, I've had about enough of this shit," he says. "Get what you owe us. Now."
The sheriff doesn't move or speak, just stares down the barrel of the gun at the raider. But the men behind her immediately scramble to do his bidding, disappearing into a nearby building for a minute before rushing back with the extra cans and bottles. They dump them hurriedly in front of the tax collectors and retreat, none of them daring to help their leader.
The shaggy raider is still staring at the sheriff's defiant face, his own expression impossible to read with his hair in front of his eyes. After a long few seconds, he lowers the gun.
"See? Not so hard," he says, and gestures to his big companion. The huge man bends down and scoops up the goods. The pile looks small and paltry in his arms, but I can tell by the stricken look of the townies that it's a fortune to them. Still, they don't make so much as a whisper of protest as the men turn to go. I sink down, resting my back against the wall, and sigh out a long breath.
I wait until I hear the sounds of their vehicles starting up, and then wait a few minutes more, staying inside even after the townies have trickled out of their houses to gather in the square. Finally, when I'm sure that Jedediah's men are gone, I stand up, holster my gun, and head outside with the others.
The townies stand in a tight, worried knot in the middle of the square, speaking in lowered voices. They turn to stare at me as I emerge, and I pause. I can feel their eyes on the bag I carry, their minds no doubt on the food and water they handed over before the tax collectors came. I pull the bag tighter against my body and rest my hand on my gun.
"Thanks for the business," I say. The townies say nothing, but continue to stare at me, hollow eyed, like I'm the one who did this to them. After a few moments, I turn my back on them and head for my truck.
Truth be told, if they asked nicely, I might hand over what they paid me. If they showed an ounce of compassion or understanding or trust in me, I might help them out. But they won't ask, and I won't give, because this place and these people aren't right. I need to save my supplies for when I do find my new home, or at least for the journey there.
Still, I pause for just a moment on the edge of town, as if I'm waiting for something. Gratitude is a long shot, but they could show some recognition for what I've done for them. At the very least, they could stop looking at me like I'm a goddamn monster just for taking what they owed me.
But it's been a long time since anyone looked at me like anything else, and I should know better by now.
I drive until my truck is long out of sight of Sunrise or any other town. Once I'm secluded enough, I pull over and dig a can of food out of my bag, prying it open with my knife and slurping it down in a matter of seconds. I almost open up a second one, but stop myself.
Pickings have been slim lately. The more Jedediah solidifies his hold on the east, the more dangerous it gets to take out one of his men, and the stray raiders and thieves are few and far between out here. It's been harder and harder to find work bounty hunting. It took me a week to catch Beau somewhere secluded enough to take him down. I had to ration the last of my food, and even now that I've gotten paid, I doubt it'll last me until the next cash-out. Maybe I'll get lucky, but I know better than to count on that. For now, though, I'll allow myself a moment to relax.
Back when I started, when I was just a sixteen-year-old townie girl with a pistol, cashing in a bounty was always a grand affair. I'd claim my reward, head home and hand it over to the sheriff, and we'd all celebrate. There'd be claps on the back and smiles and thanks. Our little hero.
Now, I look forward to eating in my truck alone. It is what it is. Being alone isn't so bad, especially when I'm all wound up from talking with those townies. Dealing with people always proves to be more frustrating and more disappointing than I expect. They don't understand me, I don't understand them, and altogether it's never a good experience for anyone involved. After I lost my hometown, I quickly realized that all strangers see is a tall woman with a burnt face, a gun, and some rather unsavory skills. I soon learned it was better for me to keep my distance, spending nights in my truck and staying focused on my job.
I thought maybe my job was the key, and that building up a reputation for myself would help people see the real me. I've built up respect, to be sure—but it's respect out of fear, not out of liking. Still, the only thing to do is keep trying, and keep saving. Maybe one day I'll have a chance to prove myself; a town in need of supplies or protection, a person who asks me for help, an opportunity to show that I can be more than just a killer … or maybe I'll just have to wait until I save up enough supplies to go somewhere new and get a fresh start.
But there's no time to dwell on that. There's still work to do. I left Beau's body with the townies, not wanting to lug it around after a near brush with Jedediah's men, but I still have his knife. So after a few minutes of soaking up the silence, I start my truck.
There are several bounty collectors in the area, all of whom have a price set for any member of Jedediah's crew, especially one as blatantly vicious as Beau the Butcher. But Alex the Collector is the closest, and one of my favorites, so I head to him.
His place is small but sturdy, a lone, stout building in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a wire fence. It looks like another abandoned ruin to someone who doesn't know better, but I've been here many times before. The guard at the fence barely glances at me before waving me through. But Alex himself squints out from a barely cracked door, scrutinizing me thoroughly as if there's some trick involved. I bite my cheek and wait as he finishes his inspection and checks behind me twice before letting me inside.
With all the windows covered, the room is dim even with the sun still up. The place reeks of some kind of chemical—or maybe that's just Alex. The Collector is a squat, jiggly, nervous man with thinning hair. He's deathly afraid of the outside world, and I suspect it's been a long, long time since he's set foot out there. But once the door is shut and locked and it's just the two of us, his nerves give way to barely contained excitement. He trembles with it, barely able to restrain himself from immediately demanding to see what I've brought. I make him wait, taking my time looking around.
His center of operations is, if possible, weirder than the man himself. Alex is a collector not just of bounties, but of souvenirs. The walls are lined with dusty wooden shelves, the shelves lined with his mementos. I don't mind the weirdness; I appreciate the fact that Alex is a freak, because it means he doesn't look at me like I'm one. Dealing with him is much better than dealing with townies.
- "Afull throttle, sand-in-your-eyes, no holds barred ride through a Mad Max-style wasteland where the bad guys become family. Finally, an underdog with teeth!"—Delilah S. Dawson on Bite
- "Merbeth has created her own universe filled with destruction and not a small amount of grim, acerbic wit. Fans of Mira Grant's "Newsflesh" series will be pleased by the smart writing."—Library Journal on Bite
- "Filled with dark humor, wit, and a realistic dystopian setting, Bite plays with the idea of who the good guys are in such a harsh world."—Booklist on Bite (starred review)
- "Merbeth's debut novel puts a unique spin on post-apocalyptic horror... Bite flips the script."—B&N
- "Pure undiluted high octane anarchy ... If you enjoy movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, or games like Fallout 4 and Borderlands, then Bite is the book for you. Gleefully unrestrained and unrelenting, strap yourself in an enjoy the ride. Bite is here, let the mayhem commence!"—The Eloquent Page
- "Merbeth returns to drag readers off of their couches and into the explosive, feverish Wastelands ... [an] edge-of-your-seat rush."—RT Book Reviews
- "Merbeth's fast-paced Mad Max-style adventure, set in a post apocalyptic desert, is difficult to put down."—Library Journal
- "A bloodstained road trip through the Wastes beckons, featuring some memorable violence, gut-wrenching betrayals and one of the most nihilistic settings I've ever come across ... A breathtaking read, best done in one go."—Blue Book Balloon
- "Revved up, Raid never takes the foot off the gas, moving forward at full throttle. Incorporating the perfect mix of Fallout, Borderlands, Rage and Mad Max it's a pedal to the metal mayhem-filled frenetic read."—The Tattooed Book Geek
- On Sale
- Jul 25, 2017
- Hachette Audio