The Headhunters Race (Headhunters #1)

BOOK: The Headhunters Race (Headhunters #1)
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The Headhunters Race

Copyright © 2014 by Kimberly Afe

All rights reserved.

www.kimberlyafebooks.com

 

No part of this publication can be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic, photocopying, mechanical, or otherwise without prior permission from the author.

 

Edited by Mandy Schoen

Cover design by Lisa Amowitz

Formatted by Walking Stick Books

 

This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are fictional. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons is entirely coincidental.

 

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment, and may not be re-sold or given away without express written permission from the author.

 

ISBN-10 099118680X

ISBN-13 978-0-9911868-0-8

 

First Edition January, 2014

 

Believe in yourself.

 

I’m tugging on a boot when my nostrils fill with the stench of death. I hold my breath, not wanting to gulp in the contaminated air of rot and decay. There’s no telling what diseases the dead might have. What kind of toxic particles might be floating all around me. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but I still don’t allow myself to breathe. Not yet.

With one boot on and the other half over my heel, I abandon the act. I trip over myself to get to the small window above me. I stretch on tiptoe to reach it, not allowing myself to inhale until I put my lips between the bars and feel the outside breeze against them.

I take it in, mostly pure, but still with traces of death mixed in. I gulp one big breath and finish lacing, just as a spider drops from its web and lands on my arm. I slap it away as a torrent of childhood fears hits me front and center. A fear of spiders and death and prisons.

Governor J.D. King, my stepfather, runs our town’s penitentiary. The townspeople call it Dead Man’s Pen. I didn’t know until I was ten why they called it that. No one would ever tell me until I heard some little boy at the dairy beg his mother to tell him. My mother tried to scurry me out the door, but it was too late. I heard the woman say it was because people go in but they never come out, not even when they’re dead. King used to take me past the wretched place every Saturday. I was terrified. I’d close my eyes and look the other way. Afraid the starving criminals might escape and snatch my heart out and eat it. That’s what King said would happen if I didn’t always do as he said.

It turns out King’s prison is more disturbing than I could have imagined. The place is like hell: a run-down, decades-old penitentiary where it’s every inmate for themselves. And it’s true the prisoners are starving—but we don’t eat each other.

I take another gulp of mostly good air so I can get on with my day. I fold my blanket and lay it on the bed of dried grass that provides a bit of comfort and acts as a buffer from the cold ground. I snatch the water container from the table and tie my hair up in a ponytail. It’ll be a while before the slopfest, so I kneel down to tell Zita I’m leaving. I hate to wake her since it’s her sleep-in day, but I give her a little shake anyway. She can’t possibly sleep through the stench. “I’m going out,” I whisper. “Keep guard.”

She nods and curls into a tight ball under her cover, her pretty Greek hair feathering like sea swirls out from underneath. As next oldest in our once tight-knit group, Zita took over as mother hen when Verla died. Thankfully, she isn’t as good at it. I’m grateful she doesn’t smother me or govern everything I do.

I can already hear Boom and McCoy moving about in the room that extends beyond our alcove. It annoys me since I’m up earlier than usual and I have to pass through their room to move into the main part of the prison. It seems like no matter how early I wake up, they’re always up before me. They moved in a couple of months before Verla died. Both make me uneasy. I see the way they watch me and Zita. The way they sneak glances at our belongings and our food, especially when I’m lucky enough to catch a lizard or a rodent.

I pat the shank knife secured in the sheath at my thigh while I tiptoe around Zita. It’s the only weapon I have since my ninja knives were confiscated by King at my sentencing. Zita only had a piece of ragged steel until she inherited Verla’s broken switchblade. Sharp and blunt instruments are allowed inside Dead Man’s Pen. The Governor doesn’t care if we kill each other.

I step into Boom and McCoy’s quarters. With an obligatory nod, Boom goes back to arranging his bedding, while I try not to look like I’m staring at his disfigurement. Zita says he was beaten by King’s men and that’s why he walks with a limp and the left side of his face is sunk in. Until last week I always thought he was McCoy’s father, but I guess he isn’t.

McCoy doesn’t even look at me, and the way he holds his head with his dark hair all in his eyes makes me think it’s taking all his energy not to. He’s pretending to stoke their small fire, but I know in about five seconds he’s going to follow me out. He’s been stalking me for months, attempting to find my best hunting grounds and my resources. I always manage to give him the slip, yet somehow he succeeds in finding me when I’m done for the day.

When I get into the hall, I make a quick right and jog down a path of cracked tiles and broken cement until I come to a three-way intersection. I glance left, then right, trying to decide which direction. I prefer the stinky garden, an old examination room where a tree has sprung up. But I decide on the old mental ward’s dining hall instead. Zita calls it the darkroom. I’m not sure if she calls it that because she believes it’s haunted by dark spirits, or because it’s actually a dark room. Neither matters to me.

I race down the halls, past the abandoned cells that used to house the mental patients decades ago. Once I get there it takes me no time to fill my belly and our container. I make four trips to our cell and back without seeing a trace of McCoy. And each time it seems like the stench of death gets worse. The prison policy seems to be that everyone hopes someone else will take care of the body. It usually takes a day or so before someone does.

Not two halls down, I find McCoy leaning against a wall, whittling away at some twig. I sigh, loudly, and scramble past him. His footsteps fall in behind as I pass a cell with prisoners inside. A man and a woman. One thing that’s hard to miss is how healthy they look, with plenty of meat on their bones, fresh faces, and clean clothes. They’re new. Greenies.

The woman’s eyes narrow at me as her mouth forms an ugly snarl. My insides spark with a curt sting of energy. She knows who I am. I look exactly like my mother, from the blonde hair and wide green eyes right down to the snaggletooth. I look away quickly, knowing the townspeople hate me as much as they hate my stepbrother Gavin for her death.

“Thanks for the tip about mealtime,” I hear the woman say behind me. At first I’m not sure what she’s talking about until I realize McCoy must have brought them up to speed about the workings of the prison. I hope he explained it’s not as easy as it sounds, because the way she says it makes me think she figures it’s a piece of cake. But right now I don’t concern myself with the Greenies. My mission is two more water trips to the darkroom.

Finally I’m on my last round and heading back to our alcove. I’m satisfied with how much I’ve filled up our main water container. It’s not usually my chore; it’s Zita’s, except on her sleep-in days. I traverse the halls easily and try not to take it for granted how lucky I am that most everyone stays away from this side of the prison. Rumors say it’s haunted. No one wants to be done in by a mental-ward ghost.

I’m thinking about my strategy for getting a share of the slop when I suddenly remember the Greenies. But I remember them too late because the Greenies step outside their cell and block my path.

They look angry.

My heartbeat increases a little but I try to keep calm, looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact. I continue forward, hoping they’ll let me pass. They don’t. The man grabs me by the collar and shoves me against the wall. The woman kicks at me. “It’s your fault we’re in here,” she spits. “If you hadn’t killed your mother, we’d still be in good graces with Governor King!”

I swallow down my fear and speak slow and deliberate. “I didn’t kill my mother.”

The man snickers, but it’s the woman who answers. “You’re a liar!”

It’s common knowledge that almost everyone in this prison is here not because they’re guilty, but because they’ve somehow crossed King. Or they have something King wants. “Why are
you
here?”

The woman’s mouth puckers angrily. “Because King said we were—” She stops abruptly, her eyes lighting with realization. She looks at what I assume is her husband.

“King said you were what?” I push for the answer because I know I’ve got them.

She looks at me, her face resigned to the truth. “Cheating him.”

“Were you?” I ask.

The man finally speaks up. “Of course not! We always gave him the best deal on our meats. We don’t know why we’re here.”

He finally loosens his grip and allows me to step away. “He wanted your farm and your business. That’s why you’re here,” I say over my shoulder.

I’m confident I won’t have problems with the couple again. It’s a lot to digest, being wrongly sentenced to life in prison. It’s the only sentence prisoners in Water Junction get. Governor King is not a lenient judge. The Greenies will have to live in squalor, fight for their meals, for bare necessities, and for their security. And when I say bare necessities, I’m speaking of clothing and containers for drinking water. Sometimes you can’t even get that.

I turn the corner to find McCoy standing against the wall. I’m sure he heard everything. Our eyes meet when I push past him, me sending sharp daggers his way and him acting as though he doesn’t notice.

I return to our alcove and drink what feels like another gallon of water. I splash a little on my face to revive myself since it’s time for the slopfest. The guards dump in the slop four times a week, a not-too-appetizing soupy mixture of vegetables, potatoes, grains, and the animal parts nobody else in town will eat. It’s hard to get down sometimes.

It’s almost time to position myself for the fight so I grab our container, an old plant pot we corked, and head out. The main center is already filling up by the time I arrive. I edge my way to the long, narrow trough that breaks through a section of the prison wall near the ceiling. When the guards pour in the slop, it feeds down the metal trench that crosses nearly to the other side of the room. I barge my way into the best position, second or third person in, near the middle. This according to Zita—she’s the expert. It doesn’t always work for me, but Zita manages to bring home a full pot of slop every time.

I’m not tall enough to reach in and scoop up slop in first position at the top. Only the six-footers can do that, which means mostly the men. McCoy fits into that category. He always gets a healthy portion of slop for him and Boom. But it’s suicide. Full-out war up there. Here in the middle it’s only a minor battle. I can handle the pushing and shoving and people trying to pull you from the trough. If you go toward the bottom of the trough where it ends, even in first position, you get nothing.

BOOK: The Headhunters Race (Headhunters #1)
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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