<<UserID:Webb>> When Jess got pregnant, we spent some time deciding where we were going to settle down. One of the first arguments was over whether we should settle in a city, or out on a ranch or farm.
Towns like Novac are the reason we settled on a farm.
When I finally hauled myself out of the bath, got dressed, and opened the door of my room, there was an old man crouched immediately outside. He scuttled backwards quickly, but he had clearly been listening at the door. Before I could ask him anything, he blurted that he’d heard me coming out of the pipes and accused me of being a lakelurk in disguise. I tried to protest -- or, let’s be honest, say anything coherent after being accused of being a lake monster by a septuagenarian eavesdropper -- but he snarled and went for what he called his sticking knife.
At that moment, ED-E floated out behind me, trilling its little battle cry as its laser array warmed up, and the old man stared at it, then relaxed almost immediately. The knife disappeared again into his food-stained clothes, and a broad smile spread across his face. He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially that he could see now that I wasn’t one of “them”.
I never did manage to figure out who “they” were -- something worse than lakelurks, apparently. What I COULD discern was that this man, who I eventually learned was named Noonan and apparently nicknamed “No Bark” by the other residents of Novac, had some serious psychological issues, likely stemming from physical trauma. Broad scars on his head were visible through his tangled mass of gray hair, there was a noticeable indent in his left temple, and one of his eyes was slightly lazy, drifting in and out of alignment with its twin. His beard was tangled and stained yellow from tobacco juice.
God, at least I hope it was tobacco.
When I had calmed ED-E down and delicately inquired further about Noonan’s rapid change of opinion, he told me -- with a wink that would give small children nightmares -- that he always knew he could trust someone who wasn’t afraid of looking crazy, and, since I had a floating robot wearing socks on its head, I must be all right. According to Noonan, it’s the normal people you have to worry about.
All things considered, I’m glad I’d decided to do laundry.
Now that he had decided to bring me into his confidence, Noonan became a gushing spring of information, delivered scant inches from my face in a harsh whisper that reeked of tooth decay and spattered my cheeks with a fine spray of spittle.
Aside from the nebulous and apparently omnipresent threat of “them”, Noonan proceeded to warn me about every other threat that he knew, which, poor man, seem to be omnipresent in his mind. Even the real threats, like the ghouls at the REPCONN facility Crawford had mentioned, became fantastical threats through the lens of Noonan’s delusion. There weren’t ghouls at the facility -- there were Communist specters, intent on launching themselves into space to vandalize the moon in the image of Lenin, painting it pink besides. The ghouls that had been killing the local cattle were something else entirely, some sort of monstrous livestock vampire he called a “chupacabra”.
Even better, this enormous, two-headed vampire thing was invisible, because he hadn’t seen it when he’d seen it. Riiiiiiiiiight.
Also, it had a machine gun.
In the midst of the rambling, I did manage to get some words out of him to explain what had happened to the poor man. Apparently, he’d been attacked by radscorpions and took several stings to the head. Even without the venom, that sort of injury can scramble a man’s brains. WITH radscorpion venom, especially introduced so close to the spine, he’s lucky not to be paralyzed or dead. I suppose, compared to that, Commie ghosts and gun-toting vampires are a blessing.
I also turned up one other interesting fact: Noonan had seen Checkers and his crew come through town, and he even remembered them specifically talking to one of the town guards, the one with the mustache. Of course, he also told me that the checkered coat was intended as camouflage in defense against aliens, and that they had eventually been chased out of town BY aliens, but at least it was a start.
I thanked Noonan for the information, and pressed some tins of Cram on him, despite his objections. Maybe he’ll just throw them away -- hell, maybe he’ll become convinced they’re out to eat his spleen -- but I worry about folks in his condition. I hope he’ll eat them.
<<UserID:Webb>> Thanks, Eyeball. Helpful as always. You know I don’t speak “beep”, right?
<<UserID:Webb>> If I find out you’ve been making fun of me, I’m going to leave the socks on you for good.
After parting ways with Noonan, I walked across the courtyard of the motel to the dinosaur statue, heading up the stairs to the door tucked into the side of its belly. The door was propped open by a small rubber replica of the dinosaur, allowing the cool November afternoon breeze to blow into the dusky interior of the building.
Stepping inside, I was immediately greeted by a cheerful bald man who introduced himself as Cliff Briscoe and quickly informed me that I was “just in time” to snap up the last of the Dinky souvenirs. Seeing my blank look, he continued to explain that the dinosaur we were standing in was apparently named “Dinky”, and he had just a few of the tiny model dinosaurs left for lucky customers like me.
I peered around the interior of the shop, seeing miniature dinosaurs peeking out from behind items on almost every shelf, and then asked him if he meant the same “limited stock” he had pressed into use as a doorstop. He deflated a bit, still smiling, and shrugged, admitting that he had thousands of the damn things -- they’d been here along with the dinosaur pre-war, and he’d inherited them along with the rest of the shop from the previous owner, who had also been unable to unload them.
Still, the things were only one cap, and the poor guy was so haplessly likable that I told him I’d take one. Besides, Callie would have loved it. I tucked it into the side pocket of my satchel with the other bits of my non-trading gear, and then took a look at the rest of his stick, which was surprisingly decent and varied.
I opened up my own bags of salvage, and we set to haggling and trading. After a good forty minutes or so, I was several hundred caps richer, and my bags were a good deal lighter. I had also traded the various calibers of ammunition I wasn’t using for a nice pile of .357 rounds that would fit both my revolver and my rifle, and I swapped for more non-perishable foodstuffs and some fairly impressive new parts for both weapons as well, including a custom lever-action for the rifle, a beautiful polished maple stock to replace the old splintered one -- I swear, Jackals chew on their weapons when they’re not eating poor wasters -- and a longer barrel for the revolver.
I always look at my weapons as my insurance policy, and, in my experience, it’s a worthwhile investment to increase your coverage.
Briscoe seemed fairly pleased himself with the new stock he’d acquired. He began sorting it and reorganizing it on his shelves, humming happily, and he pointed me up the stairs to the sniper’s nest when I asked. I repacked my own kit into a blissfully lighter load, hefted it onto my back and into ED-E’s storage module, and climbed the narrow interior staircase to another door.
When I opened it, I blinked against the sunlight after my time in the dim shop. I could see why the guards used this spot as a sniper’s nest -- the view of the town and the surrounding roads was impressive. Of course, there was an enormous blindspot to the back of the dinosaur’s mouth, looking west. I suppose it’s mostly hills and mountains that way.
Still, if any forces sweep into Novac from the west, these people are screwed.
The man on the platform glanced at me over his shoulder as I came through the door, then coughed and spat off the side of the dinosaur. He turned back to the road, saying he’d spotted me when I first came around the south bend in the road, and that it was a rare thing to see a lone trader with a robot and no brahmin.
I told him I was a doctor and not a trader, so that probably explained it. That drew a begrudging chuckle, and he turned back to me, introducing himself as Manny Vargas. He had a red beret with an NCR badge, of the type worn by recon and sniper units, and a mustache, just as Noonan had described.
The good news was that he had seen Checkers and his entourage. The bad news was, of course, that he wanted a favor first.
I swear, if anyone in the Mojave ever offers to just answer my questions or point me in the right direction without asking for something first, I’m going to kiss them right on the goddamn mouth.
Vargas said that he and the other sniper, who takes the night shift, used to be in 1st Recon -- a hell of a sniper unit -- but they’d left after some incident here in the Mojave and settled here. Vargas had grown fond of the town, and he stated that the ghouls -- NOT Communist ghosts -- drifting into town were an even bigger threat in his mind than Crawford, especially since they’re coming from the snipers’ blindspot.
I knew that was going to be a problem.
He wants me to check out the facility, and see if there’s any way to stop the ghouls from coming this way. He says that he and the other sniper can’t leave their post long enough to check out the REPCONN facility, and there isn’t anyone else in town he’d consider capable of the trip.
So, in other words, in exchange for a minor piece of information, all I need to do is travel to a possibly irradiated pre-war test site that is crawling with feral ghouls, investigate it without being torn to pieces, and return to fill in the highly trained sniper with the .308 rifle who has remained safely behind in town.
Sounds like a fair deal.
Christ, I hate the Mojave.
Ah well. No sense setting off to get eaten by ghouls this late in the afternoon. I may as well stay the night and poke around town a little more in the meantime, maybe see if anyone else saw Checkers and would be less miserly with the information. Possibly the night-shift sniper?
Heh. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even catch a glimpse of Noonan’s invisible chupacabra.