Charlie Naybors was blown-out tired of the cold. Get any piece-part of your socks wet and the day just went clean to hell early. His Timberlands were good, but back when he hit that concealed mud spot, they hadn’t been good enough. Man, he hated cold feet. It seemed like Charlie’s feet had been cold for about six months now. Starting mid-October he’d been in cold weather armor every day. It just got old.
Charlie could see his breath in dragon plumes ahead of him as he struggled a bit to get up the wooded hills. His boots cut a nice, swishing path through a wet and soggy carpet of fallen leaves. They seemed to be coming off the branches earlier every passing year. It was like The Sun was low on gas. He wondered who had screwed up and forgot to pay the bill up there.
A drizzle drifted down softly through the air. It was almost, not quite, cold enough to turn into something nastier. Two hours from now it would be dark, and whatever came down would be riming on every horizontal surface. The longer Charlie was on errand, the worse it was going to suck.
The trek uphill was longer than Naybors had any desire to walk. Chiggers was weird that way. He lived up hill in a place that might as well be The Unabomber Shack. Naybors was a people guy. He couldn’t get a guy who lived on the edge of town. He didn’t trust introverts. He figured they avoided people to hide. This gave him no desire to play errand boy and visit Sam “Chiggers” Pollano.
They afternoon wore on and managed to get colder still. Naybors had his hands down his pants for a degree or two of extra warmth and bent over into the hill as his legs did the repetitive work. “Colder ‘n Witch Hazel’s twat!” He muttered to himself.
Chiggers wasn’t a nickname you gave to a guy because you liked him. Sam got tagged with it back in the day when everyone knew him in High School. The kid had nerves and fidgeted like he had the bugs on him. Therefore, he got dubbed Chiggers.
That was eight years ago. Back before it started getting butt cold all the time. Chiggers drifted off a few years. He’d gotten a job somewhere. Rumor had it he’d knocked up some hoochie and manned up about things to raise the lovely offspring. Then, three years later, he’d popped back up to take care of his sick parents. The wife and kiddo never showed up and hadn’t since. Sam wasn’t talking and nobody liked him enough to care or ask why.
At least he wasn’t Chiggers anymore. The story went that some doctor put him on brain pills that straightened him out enough to get along. Naybors didn’t know the guy well, but was happy some guy had hooked him up. Everyone deserved a shot at life.
Two and half years ago, it had just gotten too damn cold for stuff to still work. Electrical power went off a bunch. The sewage and water systems got iffy. The Ritchie Richs all moved, and it wasn’t like they left a forwarding address. The town was emptying and the stores weren’t getting refilled.
The Duke Man then showed up and got things kind of back together. The Duke Man’s real name was Garland Stoker. He was The Duke Man for the unimaginative reason that he always wore a Duke University hoodie when he dressed casual.
Somehow he was smart enough to get the town organized. He was in charge and might as well have been king. He had been industrial engineer or something smart like that. He knew how to fix water pipes, pave roads, and restring at least some electrical power. The town even had a telegraph and a few running cars. The Duke Man handled bidness. For a price.
Everyone worked for The Duke Man. Charlie Naybors was like everyone else. It usually was nothing rough. Your life was almost normal, and you could trade stuff with others and get by. The Duke Man had no problem with you hooking up to his power source or using the town John. He’d even let folks line up and get water from the pipes that worked. As long as you showed up when he sent for you.
The Duke Man sent for you when he needed stuff done. Charlie had helped rake rocks when the big street in town got repaved. Guys with a reasonably strong back got asked to do things. Reasonably smart guys with a reasonably strong back did exactly what Duke Man “suggested.” That, or they weren’t seen around town so much. Lots of people were dying lately. Nobody asked enough questions to figure out the difference.
Naybors had been a Good Scout. That was the word Duke Man had put out on the street. Charlie Naybors was a Good Scout. People were nicer to you once The Duke Man called you a Good Scout. So it shouldn’t have been a shock when Charlie Naybors got sent for by The Duke Man. He apparently needed his Good Scouts to do some of the harder jobs.
The Duke Man had requested that Naybors go visit Sam Pollano. He was confused as to why Pollano shunned him after he had invited Pollano to see him. Pollano had filled up a couple of 5 Gallon Jugs at his pipes. He claimed to be concerned about Sam up there in his shack. He wanted Charlie to let him know he was disappointed in him. And to recommend to him fairly strongly that he come down town and work on forming a better rapport. He handed his Good Scout a .38 Special in case that discussion grew heated.
So Naybors finally got to the edge of cleared-out area near Chiggers’ cabin. He found out the hard way that Chiggers owned a dog. The poor mutt was some motley mix with a Labrador Retriever. It barked at Naybors and bared a fairly ugly set of teeth. Chiggers couldn’t find Milk Bones any better than most people were finding anything.
“Down, Boy! It’s OK there, Killer.” Naybors told the animal in as nice and jovial a voice as he could manage. Putting down Fido wouldn’t help things go well with Chiggers. The dog backed down a bit and began to whine a bit in a mournful voice.
“It’s OK there, Fellow!” Naybors told the dog. He carefully extended a hand for Fido to sniff. Detente would be useful here and the dog seemed accommodating. He sniffed Naybors’ hand and then gave it a desultory lick. His eyes developed a pleading expression. Naybors got the idea that maybe Chiggers Pollano had lit out for the territories. This made him think even less of the guy for leaving behind poor Fido.
Naybors made his way slowly and carefully towards the cabin. He’d met Fido about 100 yards out from the building and wasn’t sure at first where the door was. He noticed an unimpressive attempt at a porch and that the door was partially ajar. This was bad. Not even Chiggers was whacked enough to leave the door open and freeze.
Naybors reached into his coat pocket for his hardware and let out a white plume of used breath. Maybe his CO2 could improve the local climate a notch. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” He said to himself as pulled out the .38 and went in through the door.
Chiggers lay spread out on the floor. There was a bag next to his prone form. It contained dog food. Pallano had been reduced to eating it out of the bag like a kid with his favorite cereal. “Shit.” Naybors observed. “He should share some of that.”
The dog edged around Naybors and greedily buried his head in the food bag. Naybors just shook his head at the scene before him and let poor Fido pig out a bit while he pondered his options. The dog stopped and licked Pallano’s face. He got a few small, random chunks of dog food in Chiggers’ scraggly, ill-kempt beard.
Pallano grunted. Naybors got so frightened he had nearly put a round in the prone and pitiful form on the floor before him. “Ugggghhhh!” Pallano groaned as he put his hands on his head. Naybors looked around to see if Pallano had been consuming anything stronger than dog food.
No bottles, so Charlie Naybors ruled out the possibility of alcohol intoxication. Pallano rolled over on the floor and pulled himself together a bit. Naybors covered him with the weapon. “I got bad news, Chiggers. The Duke Man sent me to get you.”
“Oh, No. I meant to go. I just fell over, it was my seizures. I didn’t even know what happened.” He babbled. “I meant to go. Honest, Bro. I meant to go.”
“He wants to see you again, Chiggers.” Charlie told him in a solemn voice. “You need to get there, or he won’t be happy.”
“It’s about the pills.” He sobbed. “I asked him to help me with the pills.”
“Maybe he’s got them, Sam. Maybe you won’t be Chiggers anymore.” Naybors encouraged.
“He does.” Chiggers replied in a morose voice. “But then he asked me to do things.”
“He always does. He can get you anything for a price.” Charlie Naybors reasoned. “It’s how the world works, man. You got to play to pay.”
“I not going back to those men.” He whimpered.
Naybors didn’t need to hear more. There are things you don’t need to know. Being tactically stupid had served Charlie well. He pointed his weapon at Chiggers.
“Please.” Chiggers said. “In the chest.”
The dog raised hackles. It was as if he had sensed Naybor’s bad intent. The first round went into Fido’s head. The dog’s four legs spread and the poor canine collapsed in the lap of his master.
The next took Sam right where he asked for it. A bright red spot blossomed on the front of Pellano’s dirty, stained shirt. Pellano strained to raise his head. “Better. This. Way.” was Sam “Chiggers” Pellano’s last opinion on anything. Naybors would have to see The Duke Man tomorrow. He wasn’t looking forward to the conversation.