He looked like a rough collection of bushy hair and sticks wrapped up in a tough, brown hide parcel as he came out into the full, bright sunshine. Despite his desiccated look, he moved loosely through the tangle of broken concrete and rough scrub, easily clambering over the fallen slabs, avoiding the snags of exposed reinforcing and loose rocks.
His shambolic appearance was mostly a product of his battered drover hat and vast leather coat, for beneath this he wore a sleek jerkin and many-pocketed cargo pants, high-tech boots and was wrapped in complex webbing upon which he carried a bewildering variety of tools and gadgets. His backpack carried the rest of his burden in a series of pockets, mesh and packages.
He made no attempt at stealth, it was just his nature to be economic of movement and after all, it wasn’t like there was anyone or anything he needed to avoid.
Climbing through the half-finished foundations he made his way to the Keystone Construction site shed, with its warning notices, threats and reinforcing-steel-mesh covered windows. One thing he had worked out early on was that construction sites made for some of the best pickings – tools, explosives, fuel – as they were some of the first places to be abandoned when the dying started.
Supermarkets, shopping centres, gun shops, doctor’s surgeries, hardware shops and car dealers had all been high-priority targets for looters in the beginning, when the panic set in, but for some reason nobody thought to go back to work on the building sites. Maybe they saw the futility of carrying on building new when things were crumbling all around them.
He shipped his pack and slid his titanium pry-bar from its’ sheath. It made short work of the padlock and hasp.
Removing his hat and sunglasses, he wiped his forehead, blinking at the brightness of the sun as it fought its way into his creased eyes. Putting his hat, coat and webbing in a pile by the door he made his way into the office.
He had a regular pattern for foraging: head to the bosses’ office first, check the grog supplies – it was surprising the quality and quantity of single-malts that a construction foreman kept on hand and there was little left to be found in shops, maybe the odd bottle of blended if you were lucky. Beer was non-existent out in the world and most of the time he would just take a can or two, it was just too heavy to carry and besides, who wants a warm beer anyway?
“Thanks Mr Keystone”, he murmured to himself. “Highland Park, twelve years old! Well it won’t be getting any younger even though it may be getting smaller.” He filled his canteen to the brim, capped it and took a hearty swig of the bottle before re-corking it and laying it back in the drawer. He may be a scrounger, but he wasn’t a waster.
Then back into the main office to check the key safe – it was always easier to take the time to look for keys rather than have to break into the secure storage locker. Then there was the first aid kit – bandages, disinfectant, splints, safety pins, and paracetamol, anything stronger if it was on offer. The last thing was batteries – preferably the big lantern variety but he would take what he could get. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of any of these items, but you might have to try four or five places to find it all, whereas these construction companies usually had it all in one place saving him time - and one thing he was short of was time.
With a selection of keys from the safe he turned his attention to the outside secure store. Unlike the prefab office these were built like a safe. Considering what they held it wasn’t surprising that they were tough to get into. This one was nothing special, being a cut-down shipping container with extra lugs and half-inch thick toughened steel bars welded on. There were three sets of bolts with a separate key for each. Looking through the bunch in his hand he soon identified the most likely contenders and set to work unlocking and unbolting the door.
Undogging the doors and swinging them open he stepped back to admire the view.
“Well Mr. Keystone, I do admire your work.”
The inside of the container was tidily racked with packages of explosive, shock cord, detonators, cable ties, nail guns, construction adhesive, jerry cans of diesel and a couple of portable diesel generators, for the office not the building site. Attached to the wall was a scrap of melamine doing duty as a whiteboard, with all the normal admonitions to WRITE IT BLOODY DOWN IF YOU TAKE IT. Thoughtfully, Mr Keystone’s efficiency had extended to a clipboard hanging form the whiteboard with a full inventory of the store.
Looking it over, he traced the items line by line until he found what he was looking for. “Got you, you bugger!” he chuckled. He entered the store proper and headed to the racks of equipment lining the sides. A quick check turned up the tool he was looking for – a petrol-powered cutter, like a circular saw but with a big blade for cutting through steel, concrete, or reinforcing. He dug around in a bin next to the tools until he unearthed half a dozen different cutting blades.
Hauling his swag out into the daylight he checked the fuel, ignition and gave a few tentative pulls on the starter cord. The cutter coughed and spluttered but wouldn’t start, but it was enough. He knew the fuel was probably stale but the fact that it was even trying showed him that the machine was essentially a working unit.
He closed up the store, bolted and locked the doors and kicking a small hole in the dirt under the right-hand corner of the container, tossed the keys in and covered them over with dirt. “Never know when I might need some Gele” he chuckled.
Putting the cutting disks and his forage from the office into his pack, he carefully donned his webbing and adjusted it till it sat right, then he shrugged on his old coat, put his hat and glasses on and lifted the cutter by the carrying handle.
Looking around he judged the easiest route to get himself back to the rim of the site and headed off. As he trudged up the dirt ramp he heard a mewling sound and in front of him was a young tabby cat squirming in the dust of the ramp, obviously pleased to see a human. “Hello scamp” he said. It was all the invitation the cat needed as it purred and yowled itself a sinuous path round the foragers’ legs.
He gently gave it a scratch and a tickle as it wormed its way around him. “No use making out I’m your best mate, sport. You’re on your own. If I had a tin of sardines for every moggy that tried to make me his Mum I could start a fish shop.” The cat rolled playfully on its back while giving him an inviting look. “You must think I came down in the last shower, matey-boy. If you think I’m going to give you a tickle, only to end up with a handful of teeth you’ve got another think coming”. Despite his friendly protestations, he made a few half-hearted forays to the tabby’s stomach. Sure enough, the cat was waiting with paws and flattened ears.
"Sorry mate, but I can’t hang around here all day playing; some of us have got work to do."
Rising up to his feet, he picked up his cutter, waved goodbye to the bewildered cat and made for the top of the ramp.
The cat wasn’t giving up so easily. Making the quiet half-purr, half questioning meow that seems to be the particular idiosyncrasy of the tabby worldwide, he rolled a few times back and forth as if to say ‘play with me’, but when it was obvious that wasn’t working he opted to follow along.
“Don’t think I’m an easy mark, young feller. You’ll not be getting an easy meal out of me” the forager laughed, although he realised he was happy to have the young cat along. It had been a while since he had had anyone other than himself to talk to and while at first his voice had seemed rough and halting and sounded strange to his ears, he was now talking more easily, like going for a run after a bout of calisthenics.
With the cat in tow he circled the inside of the site fence till he was back where he made his descent. There was the corrugated iron panel he had crawled in through. “This is where I get off, young feller” he said as he put his cutter through the hole, followed by his pack and with his hat in his hand got down on his knees to crawl through.
The cat brushed by him in the way that indicates you are their property and nimbly jumped the timber at the bottom of the fence. “Excuse me, matey! Ladies first, of course” he grinned. The forager climbed through and organised his belongings, put his hat on his head and surveyed the street.
Now he was out of the open pit that was the construction site, the sun was held halfway up the office buildings. He got his bearings and headed down the street towards the harbour, the glimpse of blue sea sparkling through the canyon of the business district. The cat alternately ran ahead and chased his boots as young tabbies do but it seemed not at all concerned with where they were going or leaving where he had been “You’re an adventurer, like me. No fixed abode?”
He had seen all the zombie-filled, post-apocalyptic movies that were in vogue when he was younger but as he walked along the city street he reflected on how tidy it all was. There were some broken windows and open doors, the odd car parked at an angle, but mostly it just looked like your typical city downtown on any early Sunday morning.
You could be forgiven for expecting to see a newspaper truck or bakers van turning the corner any minute. Sometimes he kidded himself that he could smell baking rolls or roasting coffee, but he put that down to the olfactory equivalent to deja vu.
He didn’t often let himself reminisce. He wasn’t particularly given to thinking ‘what if?’ and even before the death hadn’t been particularly emotional or given to inappropriate compassion, preferring to think of himself as brutally pragmatic. That isn’t to say he wasn’t appreciative of beauty, art, conversation, even love, just that he wasn’t given over to being upset with the current state of affairs. After all, there was bugger-all he could do about it and he was best employed in travelling about trying to find out whether he was, in fact, the only person left alive.
He was never egotistical enough to think he had a particularly special place in the world, preferring to keep his head down and do his own thing, at his own pace. He liked working on his own and could easily spend a month or more before seeking out other human company. He wasn’t a hermit or a loner by conviction, he enjoyed company and could happily sit in a pub with a bunch of other blokes and watch the interaction of the various social cliques, it was just that belonging to one or another wasn’t really for him.
He had worked various jobs all over the shop since he was about 19. Forest worker, long-distance haulier, rigger, builder, fisherman and farmer. When he bought his little mine it seemed the last few years had been a training ground for precisely that way of life. He was adept with machines, timber, he could look after himself and had a good sense of self-preservation. He was happier with a good book and a small glass of whiskey than in front of the giggle-box. He preferred the quiet of the desert to the bustle of the town and he preferred his own company to the stress of having to dovetail with anothers’.
It even got to the stage where the only time he turned the radio on was for the cricket – that’s if he remembered – and the last time he bought a paper was when he went into town to vote. That must have been a couple of years ago, now.
He preferred the business district to the suburbs for foraging. Here it was rare to find a body or an angry, confused dog pack and he had had his fill of both. When he first found out about the death it was a shock. He only made around three or four trips into town a year and after his last trip he had been chasing knobblies, working slowly towards what looked like a reasonably rich seam, so had paid even less notice to the world than usual. When he was nearly down to his last tin of coffee and the scotch supply was looking decidedly shaky, he got his rumbler working and spent a week or so sifting through his roughs before travelling and seeking out the dealers back at the Ridge.
There were some things he couldn’t abide. One was dirty dealing, the other was waste. The way he saw it why pay someone to sell on your behalf, it was better to look the bloke in the eye and sort out the deal face-to-face. There were some that were happier to hand off their stocks to a runner just so they could get down the pub, but he was a patient man and would take the time to find the right dealer. In the twelve years he had been working his camp he had made a few solid relationships. Not friendships, no-one you only see for a couple of hours a few times a year could be considered friends, but blokes you respected, that would do a good deal and wouldn’t look to turn you into a mug.
As he worked over his roughs he started to catalogue his supplies, making a mental shopping list which he would transcribe for the blokes down at the co-op. He preferred to give them the list and then go over it once they had it all together – no-one liked a bloke looking over his shoulder while he worked, did they? Besides, they knew that when his kit was all together and he had checked it off and paid for it, one of those bottles of scotch would be finding their way into the smoko room.
He knew the co-op boys appreciated the touch and he knew that they always made sure he got any deals that were going. After twelve years they knew which items they could substitute and which were inviolate. That’s what he liked, mutual respect. They knew if they did all right by him, he would do all right by them and so it went.
As he sorted out the roughs he was keeping a running total of what he would expect to make from his sale. It hadn’t been his best year but hit had been far from his worse and with the price of knobblies and roughs last time at the Ridge, he was thinking that he would be putting more in the bank this time than he was spending at the co-op. Not every year had been as kind.