By Lyndsay Ely
Foreword by James Patterson
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Seventeen-year-old Serendipity “Pity” Jones inherited two things from her mother: a pair of six shooters and perfect aim. She’s been offered a life of fame and fortune in Cessation, a glittering city where lawlessness is a way of life. But the price she pays for her freedom may be too great . . .
In this extraordinary debut from Lyndsay Ely, the West is once again wild after a Second Civil War fractures the U.S. into a broken, dangerous land. Pity’s struggle against the dark and twisted underbelly of a corrupt city will haunt you long after the final bullet is shot.
They dragged in the dead scrounger in the fade of the afternoon, tied to the last truck in the convoy. Dust clouds billowed after the vehicles like a fog, blanketing the compound's entrance in ochre twilight.
Pity squinted and pulled her bandanna over her nose. She wandered into the commotion, eyes half scanning the jumble of vehicles and riders for her father but mostly letting her feet carry her over to where the scrounger lay. Flies alighted on him and on the trail of wet muck he had left behind. The body was facedown, though when one of the convoy guards kicked him over, Pity reckoned that was no longer an apt description, as there wasn't much face left to speak of. She swallowed the sourness that rose in the back of her throat.
The guard, dressed in a weathered Transcontinental Railway uniform, sniffed and spat. "Shoulda left the trash outside for the crows."
"What'd he do?" Pity toed the scrounger's mangled hand. There wasn't a lot to be made of the body. Male, certainly. Maybe young. Maybe not.
"Thief. Found 'im sneaking around camp this morning. Nearly made off with an armful of solar cells."
Brave, she thought, but dumb. It was one thing to pick through the abandoned landscape, another to steal from a Trans-Rail convoy.
A hand clamped around her arm. "Get yer ass away from that!"
She grimaced beneath the bandanna, careful not to let the emotion touch her eyes as she turned to her father. Three days' worth of dust and grime from riding motorcycle escort to the convoy did nothing to diminish his chill air of authority. The guard mumbled a quiet "Sir" and hurried off, but her father's slate-hard gaze never left her. Pity took an involuntary step back and spotted the commune mayor, Lester Kim, standing behind him, along with a sharp-featured man she didn't recognize.
The stranger's eyes slithered over her. "This her, Scupps?"
Her father nodded. Pity flinched when he reached out again, but he only yanked the bandanna down. Strands of acorn-brown hair fell across her cheeks. She pushed them back.
"She don't look much like you."
"Serendipity favors her mother." Lester's head bobbed up and down on his scrawny chicken's neck. "In the good ways, mind you."
"You mean like my aim?" Pity stifled a smirk as Lester stiffened. She also pretended not to notice the narrowing of her father's eyes, a sign that she should be silent.
He shoved his pack at her, sending a fresh cloud of dust into her face. "Get home and clean my gear. We're back on the road tomorrow morning."
She hesitated, eyeing the stranger still considering her like a piece of livestock.
"You gone deaf while I was away? Go!"
Pity obeyed, plunging into the mess of workers unloading crates, each one etched with the Confederation of North America seal and destination marks for Pity's commune, the 87th Agricultural. The smell of exhaust tinged the air, clamorous with labor and barked orders. It was a familiar enough scene, save for an aberrant oasis of order at the center of it all. Set away from the rest, a pair of sleek black trucks idled, gold logos emblazoned on their sides. Pity slowed.
She wandered closer, curious. In matching black uniforms—none of which looked like they'd seen six months on the road—the Drakos-Pryce team moved with precision and order, stacking their delivery in neat piles. The commune and Trans-Rail workers gave them a wide berth, tossing only the occasional awed look their way.
Except for one.
Hale looked up as she spotted him, waving her over to where he stood before an open case. "Pity! Take a look at these."
"What—" Her breath caught as she spotted the rifle. It was a model that couldn't even generously be called recent, but it was still better than anything she had seen in person. "Those are for the commune?"
He nodded. The settlement's head firearms instructor, Hale was also responsible for everything that came and went from the armory. "Security upgrades."
Pity's hands itched as he lifted the gun out of its container. She longed to feel the exquisite balance, to look through its scope and gently wrap her finger around the trigger.
Inhale, aim. Exhale, shoot.
The memory of the words came with the pungent scent of cheap home-still, along with the vague sensation of her mother's touch as she made some small adjustment to Pity's form. Pity could still feel the warmth of the sun bleeding into her skin, see round after round of targets as she cut them down. Never quite as well as her mother, not yet, but creeping closer and closer with every—
No. Pity's hands tightened around her father's pack, an anchor to reality. Her mother was gone, and her daddy would sooner grow feathers and lay an egg than allow her anywhere near a weapon like that. Not that he'd get one, either. They'd be issued to the wall-walkers, the men and women who patrolled the commune ramparts and crop field fences. Her mother had been one of them once—the very best, sober or not.
The old ache rose within her, the anger and frustration at her exclusion from the commune's defensive forces. She'd inherited her mother's eye and skill with a gun. But as mayor, Lester Kim made the labor appointments, and Lester listened to her father so much that people joked about who really ran the commune.
At least riding escort keeps him gone half the time.
Hale caught wind of her thoughts. "Come down to the range when he's gone. It'd be irresponsible not to test these out before distributing them, right?"
A smile found her lips. Hale had been her mother's friend once, and he had no qualms about letting her practice shooting when her father was gone. At least she'd been able to keep her ability from withering away.
"Don't look around," Hale said abruptly, keeping his voice conversational. "Your father is coming this way. Go on, before he gets any closer. If he asks why we were chatting, tell him I was passing along your brothers' range scores."
She couldn't resist. "Are they any better?"
"Well, they can hit a barn… provided it don't move too quick."
Pity swallowed a chuckle and ran off, leaving the fuss of the convoy behind for a cluster of squat administration buildings. Beyond them lay the commissary shops and, finally, the neat grids of worker homes. The identical rust-colored structures were mostly deserted, their residents still at work in the fields or barns, but a lanky arm waved from the porch of one.
"Pity! Thank goodness. Save me!"
As Pity angled over, arguing voices drifted out from within the house. "What's going on?"
Finn glanced over her slumped shoulder. "Well, so far as I can tell, Rena Harrow is pregnant." Pity's best friend ran a hand through her cropped wheat-hued hair; an untidy nest of dirt, oil, and whatever else had been dripping on her that day. "And her mother is none too happy about losing her first grandchild, so she's trying to get Rena to fess up and marry its daddy before she's whisked away to a mothers' home for nine months of luxury incubation."
Pity winced as somewhere inside the house a door slammed so hard that the windows shook. Despite the values preached, CONA didn't try to stop people from doing what they were going to do—not with birthrates still so low, a lingering remnant of the bioterrorism years that had preceded the Second Civil War. But children born out of wedlock were considered wards of the government and adopted out to couples who couldn't conceive in the natural way.
"I'm guessing Rena isn't too happy about planning a wedding?"
Finn shook her head. "Which is no business of mine"—she nudged the bag of tools beside her—"'cept that the block's generator is belly-up again, and I need to check each house to see if they're over-drawing power. I've been sitting out here for an hour, waiting for those two to cool down."
"The generator's down again?" Pity grimaced. "This is the third time this month!"
"Well, all I can do is keep patching it up until I get the right parts. Oh, geez, you just got that look."
"The one where your face scrunches up and your cheeks go so red I can barely see all those freckles."
Pity tried to smile but her mouth turned down instead. "I can make do with cold water to wash, but he's not going to be too happy about bathing in it."
Finn's expression curdled as she spotted the pack, only to brighten an instant later. "Wait, the convoy's back?" She jumped up. "C'mon!"
"Where?" Pity stayed put. "I need to get home before—"
"The belts I ordered come in with this convoy! I can finally finish the Ranger!"
Excitement flickered within Pity. The Ranger was Finn's baby, her mechanical firstborn. It had started as an old frame for a plains buggy, scavenged out of the junk pile, but since finding it, Finn had begged, traded, and scrounged for every wheel, clamp, hose, and gear. It would never win a prize for looks, but her friend swore it would be faster than a jackrabbit when she was done with it.
"And with the Ranger ready to go"—Finn leaned in closer, whispering—"we can finally start making real plans to—"
"Standing around when you should be working, squirt?"
They both started at the new voice. Two long shadows approached, attached to Pity's brothers.
"Yeah, squirt," Billy parroted. "Dinner ready yet?"
Pity frowned. "You're early."
"Outgoing crop shipment needed to be loaded up by tomorrow, so they called all the crews in." Henry adjusted the rifle slung over his shoulder and eyed the pack. "You seen Daddy?"
"Then don't you think you should be cooking?"
"Generator's down again, boys," Finn said. "Dinner's gonna be late."
Henry and Billy frowned in unison, looking almost like twins with their dusty brown hair and field tans. At eighteen and sixteen, they hated being called boys, and Finn knew it.
"Again?" said Billy. "I thought you were supposed to be good at fixing those things, Josephina!"
Finn bristled. "I ain't a miracle worker."
"I'll manage something," Pity interjected. "You go on, Finn. I'll stop by the workshop later if I can."
"A busted generator ain't Pity's fault. Y'all remember that." Finn shot Billy and Henry an acid look as she headed off, tool kit slapping against her thigh.
Pity stared after her, tight with impatience. Six more months, she told herself. In six months she'd be a legal adult.
And as soon as that day came…
Not giving her brothers a chance to make more demands, Pity turned on her heel and headed to the last house in the line. Inside, stale silence met her as she threw her father's pack into a corner of the kitchen and began knitting together a meal. Billy and Henry entered a few minutes later, clomping up the stairs to clean up before dinner. Pity had just grabbed a wet rag and started work on her father's gear when he, too, arrived home. He leaned his rifle beside the door and sat at the table. When Henry and Billy joined him a moment later, all three folded hands.
"Thank you, Lord," her father intoned, "for your blessings on our fields and our stock so that we may feed the mouths that depend on us back east. And may they continue so, amen."
For a while, the only sounds were chewing and the clink of utensils against plates. As Pity rinsed out a canteen, Henry and Billy traded furtive glances.
"Heard y'all got a scrounger," Henry ventured finally.
Their father chewed a mouthful of cold chicken. "We did. Caught and dealt with. Nothing to speak of." Her brothers' disappointment at the brevity of the story was tangible, but they knew better than to press. "Pity, bring me some water."
She grabbed a glass from the shelf. "I made some lemonade if you—"
"I said water."
He stared at her as she brought the glass over. She kept her own gaze carefully downcast.
"My gear gonna be ready by morning?"
"Good. I'll only be gone a day or two. While I'm away, get your own things packed."
Halfway back across the kitchen, she faltered. "What?"
"You best learn to hear better than you been, girl. That nonsense isn't going to be tolerated where you're headed." He took a sip of water. "The man who was with me at the convoy is from the 34th Mining. You're going back with him when I return."
"But—" Her guts twisted into a sick knot. "Why?"
"Why do you think?" Billy smirked. "There's only one thing a place like that would want from you, and it's between your—"
"You shut your goddamn mouth!" The retort snapped out before she could stop it.
"Pity!" Her father's face turned rosy. "You will not blaspheme in this house!"
"Sorry!" She took a step backward, reflexively conscious of possible retreats—the stairs, the back door—but he remained at the table. "I… I just don't understand."
"What's unclear? You're headed to the 34th. Lester's already approved the transfer."
"But that's not… I can't…" A shiver of realization raced through her. She should have seen it coming. Six months and she'd be lawfully released from his control. But he couldn't let that happen easy, not him. Her jaw tightened. "You sold me off, didn't you? You and Lester."
Bridal bribes, they called them. CONA rewarded communes that met their birth quotas, so it hadn't taken long for an underground market to arise between those that had an excess of fertile young women and those that didn't. Her transfer might come under the guise of a worker exchange, but Pity knew exactly what it was. Was the stranger intending to force her into marriage, Pity wondered, or was he only her ferryman?
"How much did you get for me?"
Her father didn't answer. He stood slowly, fingertips pressed to the table so hard that they were white. "You will do your duty to the Confederation, and you will obey me."
Pity tensed with anger. And though her heart pumped cold fright, it didn't stop the words that came out next. "Momma never would have let you sell me off."
"Your mother"—her father's face went from rosy to red as he said the word—"was an insurgent and a drunk. And if she hadn't gotten herself killed, she'd have sent you wherever she'd been told to send you!"
"No, she wouldn't!" Pity took three shaky steps toward her father.
He gave a derisive sniff. "Lord knows she had no trouble selling herself, now, did she?"
"And look what kind of heartless, godforsaken son of a bitch she got stuck with!"
She didn't register the pain until she was on her knees, staring at the wood slats of the floor. She lifted one trembling hand to the side of her face. It came back slick with crimson.
"The 34th is more than you deserve." Her father's voice fell on her like a rain of gravel. "You will be ready to leave when I return. And if I hear one more word of dissent, I will go to Lester and make sure you're sent to the very farthest edge of the settlements. And you don't even want to know what brand of sons of bitches they send out there. You hear me?"
Cheek throbbing, Pity raised her head. A few feet away, within easy reach, was her father's rifle.
He followed her gaze. "Go ahead," he said. "Try. They'll all say how ironic it was that your mother bargained her way out of the noose only to have you end up in it."
She swallowed hard, the coppery taste of blood coating the inside of her mouth. Trembling with fear and adrenaline, she got to her feet and met her father's eyes.
Glacial indifference stared back.
Pity inhaled sharply, then turned and bolted out the back door, not slowing a moment for the cacophony of shouts that trailed after her.
"Dammit," Finn growled. "I told them the generator wasn't your fault!"
Though she doubted pursuit, Pity locked the door of the workshop after her. All concrete floor and corrugated metal, it was little more than an old shed wedged into the back corner of the garages, just large enough for a tool bench and the Ranger. She wiped at her eyes. "It's not…"
"Hey, stop!" Finn grabbed a clean rag and doused it with alcohol. "You're smearing the blood around. Let me."
Pity winced at the sting of disinfectant.
"Well, you don't need stitches," her friend said at last. "But you're gonna have a helluva bruise. What happened this time? You forget to fold Billy's underpants?"
Pity drew a breath. Simply thinking the words made her tongue go stiff. "I'm… being sent to another commune."
"A mining settlement that needs fertile women. He and Lester schemed it up."
Finn stared in disbelief. "That… that…" She grabbed a wrench and pitched it across the shed. It clanged against the wall, leaving a dent. "When?"
"When he gets back from the next transport." Pity slid into the Ranger's passenger side. The patchwork seat embraced her, as it had a thousand times before. Still fuming, Finn climbed in opposite. She fished out a flask from beneath her seat and offered it.
Pity reached, then hesitated.
"A little. For the pain," said Finn.
She winced at the potent, evocative scent that escaped as she unscrewed the top. It was good for pain, all right—Pity's mother had applied it liberally and regularly. But it wasn't drink that had faded her to the shade of the person she should have been. It was misery—the despair of a wolf trapped in a tiny cage when it should have been free. That and the man who had been as much a jailer as a husband, who never touched a drop of alcohol and was a monster anyhow.
Pity took a sip and grimaced. The home-still went down like liquid flame.
"What did you say to get that, anyway?" Finn crossed her arms. "A smart man should know better than to mess with the face he's trying to sell."
"Who said he was smart?" There were many words she might have used to describe her father—cunning, obstinate, righteous—but not smart. "I called him a heartless, godforsaken son of a bitch."
Finn let out a snort of laughter.
"It's not funny! He said things about my mother…" Fresh anger crested, white-hot. "He called her an insurgent and a drunk."
"And Lord knows it's true—she was! But he always… he always has to…"
Finn scowled. "And how many others in the commune were on the losing side of the war? Plenty. Your mother was a good woman, Pity. She could have made a run for the dissident camps out west—they'd never have caught her—but she didn't. She made a deal and she kept it."
"I know," said Pity. Because of Henry and Billy.
The guilt tinged every memory of her mother. But it had served as a catalyst, too, stoking her resolve to avoid a similar fate.
A few hours ago the thought had been a promising breeze, a hint of spring after a long winter. The Ranger would be complete, she and Finn would have enough currency and supplies squirreled away to keep them comfortable for a while. No one telling them what they could and could not do with their lives, and the entirety of the east open for them to explore. They could visit the cities, see the ocean—anything they wanted.
Now that dream was gone, set behind an unreachable horizon. Six months on an unfamiliar commune with no friends or allies—Pity had little doubt of her father's and the stranger's intentions. Whatever situation she ended up forced into, there would be only one way to escape it entirely.
She stared down at the flask.
On the day her mother died, the clouds had been a black line rushing toward the commune, the afternoon going from sweltering hot to shivering cold in the space of minutes. Rain pummeled the ground like bullets; lightning split the oldest tree in the orchards. After it passed, they found her mother beneath the wall, lying at the base of the ladder from which she had fallen, blank eyes staring at the clearing skies. They blamed the fury of the storm, of course, but even the torrent of rain hadn't washed the scent of home-still from her lips. What no one had said out loud was that it was a small miracle she hadn't fallen long before.
"I don't care," said Pity. On the opposite wall of the workshop, a faded CONA poster depicted happy, smiling families before the soaring skyline of Columbia, CONA's capital city. Nothing like the family her mother had bartered her life for. Nothing like what awaited Pity. "I don't care what's been arranged, I'm not going."
"Of course you're not." Finn's mouth was a hard line, her face shadowed by the canvas tarp that served as the Ranger's roof. "We planned to run, and that's what we're going to do."
"How? We've got nothing ready. The Ranger isn't even done."
"Oh?" Finn reached for the steering column and pressed the ignition switch. The vehicle rumbled to life.
Pity straightened. "Did you—"
"Yup. Purrs like a barn cat, right?"
"But we don't have supplies yet, and my father—"
"Will be gone for a couple days." Finn ran a hand over the steering wheel. "I have enough currency to get us on the Trans-Rail, so long as we don't mind riding freight. After that, well, we'll figure it out."
Pity shook her head. "No. This isn't fair. You don't need to do this. You've got some promise of a future here."
Finn scoffed. "Like what? Fixing engines and swapping solar cells until the day I die? I want to do more, see more—Columbia, Savannah, New Boston. Like we always talked about. Might be sooner than we expected, but you're not leaving me behind. If you go, I go."
Pity searched for an argument, some reason to spare Finn from troubles not her own. But a crack had already formed in her doubt, letting a trickle of hope leak in.
And, fueled by that hope, came the beginning of a plan.
Pity took a deep breath. "It's now or never, isn't it?"
"Yup," Finn said. "We've got our reason, and we've got our ride. So where are we going?"
Tears filled Pity's eyes again. She blinked them back.
"Anywhere but here."
Morning dew still clung to the grass as Pity gingerly climbed the back steps. At the door she paused, senses straining for the sound of her father's voice, his footsteps, his presence. When it opened suddenly, she jumped, but it was only Henry.
"You can come on in. Daddy's gone." He clutched a mug of coffee. "And pissed, with dirty gear to boot. I suspect you got one last good thumping when he gets back."
"You gonna pretend you care?" Pity pushed past him into the kitchen. From the table, Billy gave her an oatmeal-specked grin. "You swallow whatever you're about to say, Billy Scupps. I ain't in the mood!"
The smile faded. Pity stared him down as he struggled for a retort—Billy had never been particularly quick—but in the end he scowled and went back to his breakfast.
"Where have you been?" said Henry, as if he didn't know the answer.
"She must be heartbroken." Billy shoveled another spoonful into his mouth. "Did she cry when you told her?"
Pity was halfway to the table before she stopped herself. Upending the bowl onto Billy's head would mean he'd have to wash. Get rid of them, she thought, just get rid of them.
"You know what your problem is?" Henry came up behind her, so close that icy wariness rippled over her skin. "You got too much fight in you. Think you'd know better by now." He went over to Billy and slapped him on the shoulder. "C'mon, we're gonna be late."
Billy sneered at Pity as he and Henry grabbed their rifles and disappeared out the door.
The instant they were gone, a keen impatience shivered through her. It was sheer will that forced her to sit at the table and wait a few minutes in case they came back. On the wall, a small display screen—one of the few luxuries her father allowed—quietly broadcast the daily news update. Pity stared at the front door, paying only passing attention to the coverage: a new trade pact signed with the African Unification, the narrowing field of the upcoming presidential election. Above the display screen, the hands of the clock crept forward at an agonizing pace.
At last, she couldn't wait any longer.
Their plan was simple: head for the Trans-Rail, keeping away from the main roads, and pick it up a few stops past where anyone might be looking for them. Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she went upstairs, dug out her mother's old pack, and filled it with clothes, her meager stash of currency, and her good knife. Downstairs, she packed a week's worth of food and water purification tablets.
After that, there was only one task left, one thing she couldn't leave behind.
Her heartbeat turned from a dull throb to a pounding drum as she fingered the cutting tool in her pocket.
It's now or never.
Praise for Gunslinger Girl:A Seventeen Magazine Best YA Book of 2018!A Winter 2017-2018 Indie Next PickAn Amazon Best Book of the Month - January 2018A Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Month - January 2018
- *"Dirty politics has its grip in this Western-like dystopia... [Ely] leaves the door ajar for Pity's return--and it would be a dang shame if she has ridden permanently off into the sunset."—Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books STARRED review
- "Debut author Ely brings to life a gritty future American West... a little Into the Badlands, a little Firefly, a whole lot to say about how right and wrong so often borrow from each other."—Kirkus
- "Ely's Gunslinger Girl is as thrilling as a three-ring circus, and just as hard to look away from. With an intricately woven plot of political intrigue and characters so vivid that they vibrate off the page, it's an unputdownable firecracker of a debut. Readers will be left hungry for more!"
—Natalie C. Anderson, author of City of Saints & Thieves
- "A gripping, action-packed futuristic Western with an unforgettable heroine--Gunslinger Girl is not to be missed!"—Elizabeth Briggs, New York Times bestselling author of Future Shock
- Equal parts futuristic dystopia and gritty western, Gunslinger Girl is genre-bending at its finest. Much like the theater in which her sharpshooting heroine performs, Ely's debut dazzles and stuns.
—Erin Bowman, author of Vengeance Road and Retribution Rails
- "An action-packed, thrilling read in an exciting, genre-bending book. Ely introduces readers to a dystopian wild west that is brilliantly imagined...a plot full of surprises, temptation, betrayal, and, of course, shootouts will be a welcome addition to the dystopia bookshelf."—VOYA
- On Sale
- Jan 2, 2018
- Hachette Audio