8. Policing the Neighborhood

Brutus has been breaking into the same tobacco warehouse for years, now that looters have stripped the pharmacies and convenience stores. It’s perched on a narrow strip of Native American land, along with a defunct casino: a two-story building painted to resemble a barn, but with a drive-through window.

The choices have dwindled. Brutus eyes the various menthol brands with distaste, then settles on something called Virginia Slims — a ladies’ brand, he says. He adds primly, “It will help to preserve your girlish figure.”

“Shit, thanks,” says Inglorion.

The walk back traces the route that Inglorion and Lucius took when Inglorion first arrived: Through low foothills, into the fringes of the city, under the abandoned freeway, and across the railroad tracks. The freeway underpass is filled with squatters: Silent, haggard, determined to evade notice.

There are several city blocks between the underpass and the railroad tracks. These consist of narrow alleyways lined with adobe bungalows older than the city itself. There are many fanciful details, including foot-high plaster statues of rampant lions, and two massive iron horses grazing a lawn of prickly pear cactus. Some are elaborately fenced with wrought iron, rusted mine screen, or steel laser drops; more feature cracked stucco, stretches of exposed adobe brick, chain-link fences, and belligerent dogs. Inglorion finds it picturesque. He particularly likes how the walls are decorated with faded murals depicting native gods or pictograms of wars, floods and pandemics. That said, he wouldn’t choose to live here. The few people they see nod or wave in greeting, but they don’t sit on their porches or walk the streets.

The two follow a street that curves along the railroad embankment. It’s lined with parked vehicles, some abandoned, some occupied by grizzled, secretive figures. Their condition seems worse than that of the population under the freeway. Brutus has explained that they manufacture and consume a drug called “meth,” which torments them with restless energy and gives them an undead appearance.

The reach the railroad crossing. Brutus’s home lies a few blocks to the north, Inglorion’s a mile to the south.

As they climb the embankment, they see a half-dozen men lounging on either side of the tracks. It’s a half-mile to the nearest underpass. Between crossings, access to the tracks is blocked by a rusted iron fence topped with concertina wire.

As Inglorion and Brutus approach, the loungers begin to close ranks, not precisely blocking the two men’s path, but suggesting that they might.

“I’ll talk to them,” Brutus says under his breath.

When they’re within hailing distance, Brutus calls out a greeting in a language Inglorion doesn’t recognize. His voice is noncommittal, his posture relaxed. Something about his stance and manner emphasizes his age. He’s just an old farmer, returning from an errand.

Now that they’re closer, Inglorion sees that they’re in their late teens or early 20s; the eldest is perhaps 30. Their clothes are clean, unlike the shapeless and ragged work clothes common in the area.

The eldest answers Brutus, approaches him. He has a thick mustache, glossy with wax — an object of fascination and horror for elves. They exchange a few sentences. Brutus’s voice is low and calm, while Mustache’s becomes sharper, more insistent. The other five begin to form a half-circle. Inglorion notes the two closest to him: A kid with slicked-back hair, and a man in a blue denim work shirt.

Mustache reaches out, as if to shove Brutus or grab the carton of cigarettes. Brutus drops the carton and punches the man in the jaw.

Without waiting to see the result, Inglorion turns to the man closest to him, gouges his eyes, and slams the butt of his hand into the man’s nose. He drops to the ground with a howl of pain just as Blue Shirt pulls a knife and tries to shank Inglorion. Inglorion blocks the blow, grabs the man’s fist in both hands, and disarms him with a vicious downward yank. Blue Shirt recoils, yelling an insult whose meaning is lost on Inglorion, though he commits it to memory for later use.

Inglorion closes the distance and starts to throw punches. The other guy is easily twice his weight, so Inglorion hits fast and hard, aiming to rattle his opponent. Blue Shirt keeps his guard up, and takes a few wild swings. One connects with sickening force, snapping Inglorion’s head back. A few more of those, and he’ll be nursing a concussion.

The knife is at Inglorion’s feet, so he breaks off and grabs it. This allows Blue Shirt to land a few glancing blows to the ribs. Inglorion hops up and aims a series of underhand strikes at the guy’s stomach.

Blue Shirt blocks them, taking a shallow defensive cut. He’s starting to wince, hang back. Inglorion closes hard and fast, tripping him, kicking the side of his head, and kneeling down briefly to gouge his eyes.

He jumps up, sees that two thugs remain, and are circling Brutus warily. Inglorion throws the knife at the closest one. It’s a glancing blow, but he half-turns and drops his guard, allowing Brutus to knock him down with a single blow. The last man begins to back away rapidly, hands raised. Inglorion advances on him in a businesslike fashion — he’s still sizzling with adrenaline — and the man retreats rapidly down the tracks, taking refuge in the easement between the rails and the metal fence. The footing is unstable, so Inglorion lets him go, merely glaring at him with crazed silver eyes and clenched fists.

Brutus asks, “You hurt?”

Inglorion breaks off to examine his wound, a nasty scrape from wrist to elbow. “No. Or, rather, just a scratch.” It’s still bleeding sluggishly, so he strips off his shirt and wraps it up. “Did they get you?”

“No. That first guy was plenty game, though — bang up to the mark for a round or two.” Brutus surveys the remaining five. They range from out cold to playing possum. None is seriously injured. He says, “We should give them something to remember us by.”

“You think?” says Inglorion.

“Oh, yeah,” Brutus says. “It’s about policing the neighborhood. They’re not from around here. They’re riding the rails, maybe from San Diego. In any case, fuck them.”

Inglorion’s still feeling the snap, crackle pop of recent violence, so he turns to the liveliest one and stomps his ribs hard. They go down the line, administering doses of punishment, none too finely calibrated.

When the work becomes sickening, they stop, collect their cigarettes, and leave.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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