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A crew of orphans is all that stands between Jackie and life as a prisoner in some squalid basement harem. When pox killed their parents, she took the boys in. Taught them to scavenge. Taught them to kill. But she's not much older than they are, and the boys are growing up fast. Her authority is eroding. The guys begin to compete, and the winner will lead the crew, alongside her. Infighting threatens to tear the crew apart. When rival gangs discover that their little band has one of the last surviving girls, Jackie must make a decision. Will she give herself up to save her crew, or take off alone through the streets?
Rape gangs might be the least of her worries. Pox is spreading among animals, who gain an eerie intelligence before they sicken and die. One-legged Joe thinks she’s nuts, but Jackie is convinced. The pox is sentient, and it’s after her.
Courtney Farrell is a biologist who turned her love of books into a career as an author. She has published fourteen nonfiction books and three exciting novels for young people. Courtney lives with her husband and sons on a Colorado ranch where they enjoy a menagerie of horses, dogs, cats, and chickens.
Amazon Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Bait-1-Courtney-Farrell/dp/0990444902/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402629224&sr=1-1&keywords=bait+%28volume+1%29
BAIT by Courtney Farrell
I was doing all right ’til the rats got the pox. That’s when everything got personal. That was the day I stole a car, and started a war, and let the whole world find out I’m a girl. That last part really screwed up everything.
Gray clouds hung over the crumbling city, and the wind carried a bite of snow. Anybody with a shred of sense had already crawled into whatever hole they called home. I headed for the river, ’cause I’m stupid like that. I had boys to feed, seven or eight of ’em, depending on which strays showed up and how many of my regulars came back alive. I meant to bring home dinner whether I got soaked doing it or not.
The whole long riverbed stank, a rotten-egg smell of swamp gas and trash that sank under the good air and wouldn’t blow away. I didn’t care. The riverside warehouses creeped me out worse, with their peeling paint and dirty, broken windows. Anything could be inside, a pox-infected boy, or worse, a bunch of healthy men scouring the city for a rare surviving female like me. I pulled my baggy gray sweatshirt down over my little round butt and snugged a ball cap low over my eyes, hoping I looked like a scrawny boy. No girl in her right mind would go outside, not alone, and especially not here. I did it all the time, but I had to. My boys were hungry. Me and old Joe, we kept those kids alive, and I’d keep on doing it ’til the pox took me.
Scrambling down the rocky slope, I came to a shadowy place where bare-branched cottonwoods creaked in the wind and leafless brown willows tangled over frozen mud. The river ran shallow, black and sluggish, weaving almost silently between snow-covered rocks. I picked my way over old tires and broken chunks of concrete. A rustle came from the bushes. My head snapped around. Trash fluttered from its trap on a fallen barbed wire fence. I let out a breath and kept picking my way upstream. It was dangerous going, with evening coming on, but down low I kept out of sight of any scavengers who might be working the flats.
A flat, ice-slick stone tipped underfoot and I almost skidded into knee deep water. I bit back a girly squeal. Ahead, a pair of mallards squatted near the shore, the male’s green head bright against the gray concrete that littered the riverbank. My stomach growled. I bent and picked up a big slimy rock, even though I didn’t have a chance in hell of landing a duck. I had better luck with rats, and when I missed they didn’t explode into the air to alert anybody who might be watching.
The wind picked up, making my wet fingers ache. I stopped for a second, just long enough to switch the rock to my left hand and jam my freezing right in a pocket. The ducks picked that moment to take off. They soared over my head in a spray of water, wings pumping fast. I took a left-handed shot at the little brown female, missed her clean, and then made eye contact with the male. That’s when I knew he had the pox.
I knew it for sure, ’cause ducks don’t make eye contact. Neither do rats or pigeons. Sure, they might see you, but they never really meet your eyes. Not unless they have the pox. It looked at me, the pox did, right through that duck’s eyes, and I about choked on my tongue. The green-headed drake swooped and landed on the other side of the river. He waddled along the bank, fat and fearless. I practically drooled. Clenching my hands together in the big front pocket of my hoodie helped, but they still itched for a rock or a stick. I didn’t grab one. The pox never gave up on tempting me, and I never quit resisting.
It jumped species, infecting one kind of animal and then another. Sick ones wandered around in the open like they wanted to get eaten. I think they did, ’cause that’s how the pox spread. One-legged Joe called me crazy, but I knew I was right. That’s why I survived, when just about every other female on the planet died. I looked the pox in the eye and I recognized it in a thousand different bodies. It slipped from one to the next, so I looked close, real close, before I made a kill. If I saw that gleam in the eye I walked away, no matter how hungry I was. Okay, that was kind of a lie. I didn’t really walk away.
I got spooked and ran.
In the dying light, the ground looked flatter than it was. I stumbled, but didn’t stop. Forget the duck, I told myself as I splashed through the shallows. Icy water stabbed my toes. Get a few rats. Rats never get the pox. Won’t be long, they come out after dark.
The sound of men’s laughter jolted my nerves. I plastered myself against the right bank, low and still as I could get. Heavy thuds of booted feet passed across the lip of the embankment, not ten feet from my head. Cold ground sucked the heat from my body, but they’d see me if I moved. They’d grab me and lock me up, like they did to all the girls. The pox hit us girls the worst, so we’re valuable now. Only a few survived, and all of us young. Pox took the others, the mothers and aunts and grandmothers, leaving me alone. I hated it for that.
Up by the warehouse, a man grunted, like he was hauling something heavy. He set it down with a thud. Something squeaked, and it took me a second to recognize it as the springs of a car, groaning under a load. It’d been a few years since I’d ridden in one.
Old-man noises came from above. They reminded me of my grandpa getting out of a chair. A deep voice spoke. “Sophie, my back’s shot. Let’s finish up tomorrow. Besides, Rico wants us back before dark.”
A woman’s laugh cut the gloom like silver bells. “Rico can wait. You boys, bring over those last four crates for your Uncle Benny.”
“He ain’t my bleedin’ uncle,” one of them grumbled in a fake British accent. The other guys laughed. Even I smiled a little.
“Be a love and lift this one in for me,” the woman said. “I think we can fit two more in the back.”
I knew that voice. Sophia Arabola, the most beautiful woman in the city. The last free one, besides me, and I didn’t count. To my crew I was just another brother, even if I am technically a girl.
Sophia Arabola. Even her name was beautiful. I’d peeked at her before, when I was sure the Zunos couldn’t catch me. Her face came back to me, a perfect oval, nose straight and fine, lips full. A body so lush that men’s heads turned whenever she walked by. Her eyes were too black for the pupils to show. Maybe that was the secret of her magic. Sophia had some secret way of controlling men, some way I didn’t understand. They didn’t lock her up and rape her. Instead, they fell all over themselves trying to please her. I kind of got that. Part of me wanted to run to her, too, but of course I didn’t. She’d sell me out in a heartbeat.
Sophia’s crew had the territory next to ours, and they didn’t like us much. That gang gave me nightmares. The Zunos were grown men, with guns and gear and cars. They would’ve rolled over us already if we had anything worth stealing. Lucky they didn’t know about me. I was worth stealing, big time. Besides Sophia, I hadn’t seen another girl in years.
I had one thing in my favor—Flint’s Army. Not that Flint was my guardian angel, or anybody’s. Him and his douchebag band of wanna-be soldiers would rape me quick as the next guy, then sell me into some basement harem. But lately, Flint was pushing the Zunos hard, crossing their borders at night and picking off the occasional sentry. He probably suspected they had a woman. With an army breathing down his neck, Rico didn’t bother with kids like us.
Shadows deepened as the sun went down, invisible behind steel gray clouds. The wind picked up. I curled on my side, hood up to hide my pale face. A rock gouged my hip, but that was okay. The pain kept me centered.
Men spoke from the warehouse parking lot, up the bank, out of sight. “We can’t get the last of ‘em. The roof could come down any second.”
“To hell with it, then.”
A mound of soil under my right foot gave way, and I slid a few inches downhill. Under my boots, a handful of rocks rolled into the water. Did they hear that? I gripped the red Colorado clay with my fingernails and listened hard.
Tiny scratching noises came from the riverbank, all around me, as rats came out of their burrows. A little early for rats, and too many all at once. Goosebumps spread along my arms and tingled up my spine to the base of my skull. Pushing myself up on my arms, I turned in slow motion and looked over my shoulder. A hundred pairs of beady eyes looked back at me. One rat, a big male, clawed his way up the riverbank and lunged for my boot. I kicked him into the water, whirled and yanked my hand back before another one sank his teeth into it. A little scream escaped me as I struggled to my feet. I spun in place, stomping and shaking my hands, imagining them clinging to me, their sharp little claws deep in my cotton sweatshirt.
Rats have the pox now, damn it! The last clean meat around. It sent them to bite me, since I won’t eat anything infected. Clever.
An engine coughed to life above. Its headlights reflected dimly off the far bank, showing more rats coming my way from both sides of the river. A few brave ones plunged into the current and tried to swim. They got swept downstream. I scrambled up the rocky slope, sucking in air with rapid gasps. For a second I saw the big white SUV waiting there, and it gave me a blaze of hope. Then I put my hand on a rat’s wriggling, furry back and squealed like a loser. I jerked back, slipped on the ice, and fell in the river. When that water hit my stomach I thought my heart would stop. The cold shocked a gasp out of me as the current dragged me along. Sharp stones and underwater garbage tore at my jeans. I rolled to all fours, heaved to my feet, and staggered for the nearest shore. Icy water streamed off my clothes.
Shaking with cold, I climbed up into the shadow of the warehouse. One of its walls had collapsed, and the roof sagged sideways. That explained the rich pickings there. None of the other scavengers could get to those crates, but the Zunos had a lot of manpower. Their old white Jeep idled in the parking lot, its headlights splitting the darkness. A man trudged past, a flashlight hanging heavily in one hand.
A busted Coke machine leaned drunkenly against the warehouse wall. I faded into the corner next to it, out of sight and out of the worst of the wind, too. If I had to, I could wait there ’til the Zunos were gone.
A rat nose touched my ankle. I couldn’t help it—I jumped, sucking in a loud hissing breath. When the flashlight beam fell on me, the rat ran away.
“What’s this? He ain’t one of ours,” a chunky man said. His fat jowls shook when he talked. He walked up to me, shining the flashlight in my eyes. “You okay, kid? Why ya all wet?”
“Rats chased me,” I whispered in my huskiest voice. A couple of pairs of their bulging black eyes peered at us from the shadows.
“Rats? Chase ’em right back. Them ’re good eatin’, boy.”
I shook my head, knowing opening my mouth was the last thing I ought to do. But compared to the pox, anybody was a friend. “Not these ones. Don’t. They got pox.” I walked away, wet clothes heavy on my skinny shoulders.
He spoke behind my head. “Everybody knows rats don’t get pox.”
I tried not to turn.
“Wait a minute,” he said. Before I could run, strong hands grabbed the sodden hoodie on either side of my waist and yanked it up. The cold night air hit my wet skin and I let out a squeal. The man dragged me backward, running his free hand over my ass. “You ain’t no boy.”
“Get off!” I twisted hard in the fat man’s hands, but he was a lot stronger than me.
“Mine!” A big dark-haired man bellowed. He barreled up to the chubby one and started wrenching the guy’s arm. “Rico said, next one’s mine!”
Working together, the men pinned my wrists and lifted me clear off my feet. They slammed me face down over the hood of their car. A big hand on the back of my neck held me there. I struggled, tasting oily dust and my own blood. My hat fell off, and wet brown hair stuck to my cheeks. I cursed myself for not cutting it sooner, even though my small nose and delicate chin wouldn’t let me pass for a boy, hair or no hair.
“Stop this, now!” Sophia Arabola’s voice rang with power.
“If we let ’er go, she’ll run,” Chubby whined.
“That’s no way to treat a female,” Sophia snapped. From her tone, she might as well have said Goddess. “Release her.”
They let me go. I would have run, but I couldn’t. Knees shaking, I slid off the hood. Three men stared hungrily. My eyes cut from them to the rats and back again. The men edged in. Pox-infected rats crept closer. I pressed my back against the warm hood of the Jeep and didn’t move.
“Sweetie, you’re gonna catch your death of cold,” Sophia told me. “Come with me and I’ll get you something dry to wear.”
I didn’t answer. My eyes tracked rats through the shadows.
Sophia didn’t seem to notice them. She bent to peer into my face. “How old are you, honey? Fifteen? Sixteen? You’re small for your age, aren’t you, but real pretty. I like your spiky hair. That retro punk look suits you.”
I said nothing, and it wasn’t just ’cause I had no idea what retro punk meant. Something in her eyes jogged my memory, like I knew her. I shook off the feeling. Of course I did. I’d seen her before, just not up close.
“This poor child’s in shock,” Sophia told the men, like they cared. She beckoned to me. “You just need a hot meal. Don’t worry. I won’t let them touch you.”
I eyed the rats. Sophia’s offer seemed like a good deal, especially at the moment. I took a couple of hesitant steps toward her.
“I know you’re cold. We’ll be on our way in a minute, and I’ll get the heat on for you.” Sophia gave me an encouraging nod and then moved to the back of the jeep. “Toss in the last crates, would you, Benny? Give him a hand, boys, those are big ones.”
A couple of huge crates sat on the asphalt behind the open hatchback. Pairs of men bent and picked them up. I ghosted around the dented white Jeep until I stood even with the open driver’s side door. With matching grunts, Benny and the chubby one heaved the last crate into the vehicle.
Sophia squatted behind the car to read the label on a box. “I can’t wait to get these home and open them.”
She looked up just in time to see me leap into the driver’s seat.
Men pounded toward me, shouting. I slammed the car door and hit the lock button. The windows were open, I didn’t know how to close them, and there wasn’t time. I shoved the stick to ‘D’ for drive. The Jeep lurched forward, but I couldn’t reach the pedals.
Quick as a cat, Sophia sprang forward and grabbed my neck with one hand. She pinned my head back, and I felt a rat wiggle behind my neck. It thrashed in my hood, tearing the thick cloth with its teeth. A naked, wormy tail whipped across my lip. I seized the horrid, infected thing, and I threw that rat right in Sophia Arabola’s face. It clung, she screamed, and I slid my butt right off the seat and stomped on the gas.
Too bad I didn’t know how to drive.
A coming of age story set in a dystopian future. I don’t think the title does the story justice. I’m not sure I would have picked up a book called Bait to read, and yet the story was really very good. It is an interesting peek into human nature and behavior and what drives us to do what we do.
I give this book 4 out of 5 clouds.
This product or book may have been distributed for review; this in no way affects my opinions or reviews.