Rains died in my arms at 4:17 a.m. on November 15, 2120, according to our calendar clock. Not that I’d not been clock watching; from the moment she’d downed the hemlock, she’d rested in my arms, our eyes locked.
“Exactly as Socrates reported,” she said, “the cold, and numbness, begins in the feet and travels upward.” Her smile made it clear this was meant in irony; in fact, her smile trembled, not from emotional distress but from the effects of the Conium maculatum extract. Her eyes were dilated. The trembling was passing, though, her heartbeat slowing. It would not be long now. Poison hemlock was not native to the United States but had been considered an invasive weed for more than a century in many states.
Gathering the plants needed to concoct the fatal brew had not been difficult.
“It is not, at least so far, a painful death?”
“No, beloved. It is not.”
“That’s a good thing.”
Minutes later, her heart stopped. Her eyes remained open, but Soul had left the building.
How long I sat there, cradling her emptied vessel in my arms, I could not say except to note that by the time I rose to prepare her body, the only warmth in the room was mine. I did not again look at the clock. There was no odor, no evacuated bowel; my slave girl had not wished to be indelicate in her passing and had given herself an enema minutes before accepting the hemlock infusion from my hand. She’d even worn a diaper to soak up the urine.
Thoughtful, my Rains; she was ever that.
Splashing water on my face and drying with a towel, briefly so as to waste no unnecessary time, I considered her life, this remarkable woman who had shared every moment of my life for the past forty years, three months, and nine days. Sergeant Rains Camarlo had been imposing as Hell, six feet of hard bodied female unafraid to add another six inches with her pink stilettos. Men swirled away from her at the Veteran’s Day social, intimidated by her size or her prosthetic left hand or her flashing dark eyes or maybe her four Bronze Stars, take your pick.
Twenty-six years old she’d been then, a former Army Ranger. Nobody wanted to mess with her…so naturally I asked her to dance.
Think about it. I was eighty years of age, looked maybe fifty, and had a reputation of rattling people’s cages. Besides, Sergeant Camarlo was an absolute stunner. There was no way I could resist. As it turned out, there was no way she could, either.
Enough with the maudlin reminiscing. Things to do, cowboy. I took hold of myself and got to work.
By eight a.m., we were under way, Rains’s plain pine coffin slung beneath the backhoe bucket and the twenty foot extension ladder strapped down across the loader. Not that either my lady or I believed the body’s interment meant anything except to the worms, but we could get away with a burial or three on our Colorado mountain property. A bonfire big enough to do a proper cremation would be another thing altogether.
I stopped long enough to close the Quonset equipment door and lock it, ditto with the chain link gate that advised visitors,
High Country Research
If you can read this
you are in range
There would be tire tracks all the way, of course, but that couldn’t be helped. Besides, our first real winter storm was on its way; if we didn’t get a fresh blanket of snow sometime within the next forty-eight hours, I’d be surprised.
The fourteen foot deep hole had been dug two weeks ago, getting things ready, Rains and me sharing the backhoe operating duties. She loved that machine as much as I did; it was fitting that the MacKenzie should be the iron to carry her worn out shell to its final resting place.
Worn out? Oh, Hell yes. To the casual eye, my girl had appeared completely healthy except for her missing hand, but what does the casual eye know? The pain had beaten her in the end. Not the emotional pain; we’d healed that over the years, her and me, through our Master/slave relationship. She’d needed the structure I could provide, a command structure she could trust. I’d needed her obedience, the knowledge that she was completely open to me, that I could command her even in combat if necessary and know her response would be immediate and appropriate. It had been a powerful partnership. Yes, emotionally she’d healed, become pain free.
Her physical body was another matter. You don’t earn four Bronze Stars as an Army Ranger in one of the ugliest wars America ever fought–the CIC, or Chinese Incursion Conflict–without taking a few hits. There was enough shrapnel scattered throughout her body to make civilian air travel out of the question, a titanium plate in her skull, pins in both knees. In the end, weather didn’t just warn her it was coming; the storms raged within her own flesh.
Until now. She was free now.
“I’ll be back,” she’d promised, and I believed that. But not for a while. It would take a while to get approval from the spiritual hierarchy, time to locate a workable set of parents, time to be born again and grow up enough to make our reconnection possible.
“Row-r-r-r!” Coug Mon announced his presence as he dropped from an overhanging limb to land on the moving backhoe engine cowl. The half-bobcat stood facing forward, balancing on the moving iron like a surfer enjoying his board, stubby tail shifting left and right as he compensated for each bump and bobble. He loved to ambush me like that. I got a kick out of it when he landed on a machine. When I was on foot and he hit my right shoulder–that was always his target–it could be more than a bit disconcerting. I’d gotten quite alert to possible threats from on high.
For some reason, he’d never done that to Rains. Not once. Instead, he’d drop beside her onto the ground, walking along, maybe rubbing against her leg, but never employing the mock attack. I’d long suspected those two had a secret alliance. As my slave, the former Ranger couldn’t go around startling her Master, but could she put a twenty-five pound half-wild cat up to it?
I thought so. I really did.
At the burial site, I lowered the coffin into the grave, left the backhoe running, unlashed the ladder from the loader, climbed down into the hole, unhooked the coffin, and climbed back up. Coug Mon sat at the edge, peering down, fascinated. That he knew the pine box held his favorite human’s final remains, I had no doubt.
“She had to go,” I explained to the cat, “but she’ll be back.” He turned his head, gave me a look full of more knowing that any cat hater could ever acknowledge, then turned back to his vigil.
There were words to be said, tradition and all that. I went to stand beside Coug Mon, reciting the verse I’d prepared.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust
We had a good run full of love and of lust
The next war is coming; in fact it is here
The fact that you’ll miss it is worthy of cheer
But when you return, o’ beloved of mine
Just give me a twinkle, yeah, give me a sign
I may have a harem, or maybe have none
But always you’re welcome and you’ll be Number One”
Yeah, I spoke as if she really was down there in the hole. I knew better; it was just…one of those things you do if you’re not sensitive enough to sense the Spirits swirling around you. The Ghost Whisperers don’t have to do that, but I wouldn’t want to have to live with their levels of hypersensitivity for all the rice in China.
Damn. Rice in China. Got China on my mind.
It didn’t take long to backfill the grave. The MacKenzie’s loader just shoved the dirt pile over the edge, a few more loads were scooped out from nearby areas–winter dead plants and topsoil and all–and that was that. Coug Mon leaped back atop the machine, and off we went back to the Quonset. He could do that easily; I’d seen the bob kitty jump a fifteen foot ditch without looking like he was straining in the least. He’d come on in with me now, demanding his lunch. Just another day on the mountain.
“Happy one hundred twentieth birthday to me,” I muttered under my breath, or at least under the throaty rumble of the diesel engine. “Happy bleeping birthday to me.”
I spent the latter part of the day piddling around the place. Frankly, I don’t remember most of what I did, except for archery practice. We had four bows in the armory, two recurves and two compounds with pulleys, the whole works. I selected Rains’s compound, a granite gray jewel that multiplied an easy forty pound pull to a powerful one hundred sixty pounds of launch force. It had been years since we’d deigned to fire at a target less than 100 yards distant, so that’s what I went with, easing into the meditative rhythm of it, trying not to become disturbed when my first shots went wide. We never used the razor sharp broadheads for practice, of course, only pile arrows that could punch through most body armor. Not the elite military stuff they were making these days, but most of it.
Forty shots later, I was tuned up, the final ten arrows covering a bullseye pattern no larger than the palm of my hand. True, my hand is not a small one, but still, not bad.
I read some from the Federalist Papers that evening after supper–I did remember to eat, though only a couple of hot dogs–and wrote in my diary, both of the events of the day and a few observations about our nation’s demise. One entry stuck with me for days.
It is no wonder that America fell apart. Once the transition from Republic to Democracy was complete, say around 2090, the end was inevitable. The Founding Fathers well understood that any Democracy, by its very nature, bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. Why the Democrats of the last century worked so hard to bring this form of suicidal government about has long been a mystery to me despite the writers who explained it clearly…to a point. I now realize, at long last, the real driving forces behind such previously inexplicable action. Those forces are two. One, composed of, shall we say, immature Souls, seeks the easy way and also the emotional feel-good way, as can be seen in every one of their election campaigns. The other, composed of cynical seekers of power, coldly used that majority of fools to twist things in their chosen direction….
No. I didn’t have that quite right. There was more to it. I was missing something. Maybe. Or maybe not. I was tired. It had been a long day. My beloved Rains was gone, the pillow beside me on the bed still bearing her scent but no more than that.
Coug Mon decided to stay in for the night. Joined me on the bed. Did not object when I threw an arm over him. We went to sleep like that, his great rumbling purr sounding intermittently throughout the night…
…until the boom. Distant it was, dimly felt in our underground bunker–only the front wall of the Quonset lacked earth cover–but more than enough to bring me wide awake, staring into the darkness. Coug Mon was silent, gone from under my arm but sitting at the foot of the bed when I turned on the overhead light, staring intently at the door.
He knew. We both knew. The war had arrived.
“Well, Coug,” I said, throwing back the covers and reaching for my clothes, “let’s go see if we can figure out if it’s the Bears or the Dragons.”
“Mrp,” the big cat replied, which might have been agreement but more likely meant, “Don’t forget to fill my food bowl and leave the pet door open.” I didn’t need to worry about the fence; the massive feline could clear the eight foot chain link in a single jump if he didn’t care to climb it.
I dressed lightly in a sense, carrying my tree climbing spikes and a couple of weapons but nothing major, layering up for the cold–the thermometer reported fifteen degrees above zero outside–but leaving the parka behind. I’d need a bit of nimble agility to reach the crow’s nest.
Not that it was a literal crow’s nest, though there could have been one there at one time. The eighty foot Douglas fir had an awesome branch about sixty feet above the ground that suited my butt just fine. I settled in, breath frosting in the air in front of my face, and fished the night scope from its belt pouch. Handheld optics couldn’t do the necessary job this night, but the tripod was already in place, U-bolted to a small vertical branch that had been sawed off at the proper height and converted to a relatively wiggle free stand.
Unless the wind was blowing, that is, and the air was utterly still in this predawn moment.
The Generation Ten variable power scope had cost a small fortune. It was a bargain at twice the price. There, I thought, twiddling knobs and bringing the action into perfect focus. They were coming in alternate waves, the first waves strafing and carpet bombing by the look of it–coupled with what I knew of their tactics–and the second waves following hard on the heels of the ordnance, hundreds of Chute Troops darting toward the ground from the bellies of troop transports.
Airborne assault, Chinese style. They’d beaten the Russians to Colorado, then. The settings on the scope made it clear; they were going after Cheyenne Mountain. Which should have been a tough nut to crack, and maybe it was…but the fabled underground American stronghold wasn’t fighting back much that I could see. There’d been WorldNet rumors that we’d already shot our wad, that the big guns were silent, that our enemies already ruled the skies, that the Chinese especially had developed EMP technology that could penetrate and incapacitate our most hardened military installations and aircraft.
Looked like the rumors were true. Either that, or we had traitors in our own ranks. The way things were going, anything was possible.
I checked the settings on the GenTen. Hmm…yep, Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain, that area. Denver was likely toast already, or as good as. Ninety miles to the little mountain town of Derringer; how long did we have before their soldiers arrived?
Not long, I thought. Maybe a week, maybe a month; their commanders would want to secure the military base and the city before expanding out into the hills to mop up the smaller, less important areas. In fact, they might even ignore us as not being worth the effort for the time being; it had happened in other places, according to our ham operators. But we couldn’t count on that. Our enemies could, if they chose, cut off the roads in and out of Derringer within days. I needed to get moving.
But first I needed to know for sure if they were using EMP weapons, and there was a sure way to find out. I unscrewed the scope from its mount and headed back down the tree. Perched comfortably on a lower limb, Coug Mon watched me go, his ears cocked in curiosity.
Damn, it was cold out. I’d been up in that tree way too long. Put a new understanding behind the old phrase, freeze your ass off.
“You’re well out of it, baby,” I whispered behind my woolen scarf. She’d knitted that scarf for me, three years ago, for my 117th birthday.
We owned very few engines dependent on sophisticated electronics and/or computer technology. In fact, just one, the 2115 model Cranzer snowmobile. And sure enough, it wouldn’t even think about starting. Military caliber electromagnetic pulses have a long reach; we’d been Pulsed. “Told you, Rains,” I announced, suddenly cheerful for no apparent reason, “hi tech was not the way to go.” But the big beautiful black woman had long been the apple of my eye; I’d had to give her the late model toy just because she wanted it.
All righty then. I felt invigorated now, rip-raring to go. Action. I’d been accused of being an adrenaline junkie a time or three. Could be there was something to that, knowing I could be dead tomorrow or have to kill other human beings or whatever. The shrinks would, almost uniformly I suspect, state unequivocally that I was a head case who should be locked up with the key smelted down to recast as a Unification Party pendant or some such.
Which is why I steer clear of psychiatrists.
Antique car buffs in three states knew me, at least slightly, as a restoration buff. I was seen, had made sure I was seen, as an innocent enthusiast of the ancient. The forest green 1946 Dodge Power Wagon, the better part of 200 years old and rebuilt a dozen times, fired up with no problem. Its snow plow shouldn’t be needed on the downhill run–the snow on our nine miles of twisty mountain trail was no more than a few inches deep–but the return trip could be a doozy if the storm hit.
One last check of the war harness, add the parka and a pair of light leather driving gloves, and we were good to go. By that time, it was gray light, no need for headlights. That was a good thing.
Our down country home, fifteen hundred square feet plus an oversized attached garage, sat on forty acres tucked behind the first ridge west of the frontage road. Hidden, but not off grid, with a five hundred gallon propane tank, a monthly electric bill, the works. This was our official domicile, the place where we got our mail, our package deliveries, all that. No one other than the two of us had ever known about the up country hideout despite its much more massive nature, four thousand square feet completely invisible to Google Earth and the tax man alike.
Not that Google Earth existed any more. Not per se, not after the Chinese hit San Francisco and Seattle simultaneously. But the satellites were still out there. It would be safest to assume the Chinese had control of them.
Which was why the surface paint on the Power Wagon made it look to an overhead camera like something else altogether, but that’s another story.
Rains’s favorite 1957 Chevy, a gold colored two door hardtop, sat waiting in the garage. I choked up when I saw it, nearly ran into the far wall before remembering to slam on the Power Wagon’s brakes. Got out, walked around to the gleaming yellow hood, laid over it and cried like a baby.
Which was okay, healthy really. As long as there were no witnesses.
On the mountain, we had no outside connections whatsoever. Rains and I had built the entire fortress of solitude, just the two of us. Even the huge Quonset had been delivered, unassembled of course, to the down country yard. We’d trucked the pieces up from there.
Here, though, we were hooked up to the world like any citizen of the global economy. China and Russia both had jamming efforts going, attempting to deny our people access to news or the ability to broadcast, but our side did have excellent slicers. The computer booted up immediately…for all the good it did. No media coverage of the assault in Colorado. News blackout, then.
Naturally, the shortwave radio told another story. Ham operators are hard to stop. An hour later, I had enough pieces to the puzzle to put the overall picture together with confidence. Hundreds of planes, and yes, definitely Chinese. More than three thousand ground troops, complete with air-dropped light transports and medium weapons. Fierce fighting along the entire front range from north of Denver to south of Colorado Springs. Nothing definitive yet; our people might not own the skies any more, but on the ground we were fulfilling the old Japanese prophecy that any invasion of the American mainland would fail due to facing “a rifle behind every blade of grass”.
Uh-huh. That’s what the ham operators were reporting. I was pretty sure they were blowing smoke. Whistling in the graveyard. We might have been able to wipe out Japanese invaders, but the Chinese had billions of lives to throw at us. Their leaders didn’t care how many died. In fact, the more the merrier; infantry casualties helped fix their population bomb problem in the most straightforward way.
Two days, I thought. They could be here in two days. It was an intuitive guess, not one anybody else seemed to be making–at least publicly–but I’d learned to listen to my gut. It had kept me alive this long.
Okay. The Power Wagon was already chained up; just top off the fuel tank so it would be ready when I decided to run back up the mountain, and get going. Fire up the Chevy, head on in toward Derringer.
Toward, but not quite into the little town. Six miles of frontage road brought me to Grady’s Café. I pulled up in front at 9:37 a.m., noting that the only other vehicle in sight was the owner’s hybrid Blastophon van.
Inside, the place was vacant except for Marcus Grady himself, his waitress Tori, and two hardcases the community could have done without. Bobby Moran and Jinx Riggins, both early releases from Four Corners Correctional, compliments of President Brood’s solution to prison overcrowding. The pair of losers perched at the counter, leering at the girl whenever Grady wasn’t looking. Had Marcus seen them at it, of course, they’d have been out in the snow on their heads, bleeding or worse, but they weren’t that stupid.
Not quite. They did ignore me, the old man drifting in to take a corner table. Yeah, I looked fifty…okay, maybe sixty, but either way, that was over the hill in their twenty-something eyes. Besides, I wasn’t burly of build like the café owner, nor did I have a rep.
Locally, I didn’t.
Marcus glanced my way from the order window in the kitchen, raised an eyebrow when he realized Rains wasn’t with me. Briefly, I closed my eyes, put my palms together, laid my head sideways like I was sleeping on them. Opened my eyes again in time to catch my friend’s short nod. He got it. Marcus Grady, whose life my girl had saved under fire forty-two years ago, knew; she was taking a dirt nap.
She’d said goodbye to him eight days ago, over ribeye steaks washed down with a gallon of coffee.
The Loser Boys were finishing up, buttoning their coats, getting ready to face the weather. They didn’t have any wheels. Had an aging plow horse for a while, used to ride him around, but some of us suspected they’d turned the old fellow into horse burger. We sure couldn’t see any income to provide groceries for those boys, except right after the occasional burglary in the area. They hadn’t been re-caught yet. Maybe the Chinese invaders would take care of the problem for us.
“What’ll you have, Harrison?” Young Tori smiled while she poured my coffee. Any red blooded American male would unhesitatingly put his life on the line for that smile.
No, it’s not being disloyal to Rains’s memory, my thinking that. Not even knowing I just buried her yesterday. Truth is, my big beautiful black warrior woman had scouted Tori Connors out for me, convinced she had the makings.
Which she did, and even though I wasn’t completely sure she was of legal age yet, it was now or never. The enemy, when they arrived, would not miss a sweet young thing like this. Blond hair, cut kind of short but cute as the dickens. Five three or so. Slender, nice shape, beautifully rounded calves she showed off a lot, though she covered the rest up most of the time. Wore black a lot, but not Goth.
“Corned beef hash,” I told her, “over hard on the eggs, wheat toast. And Tori?”
“Yeah?” She dimpled at me, not necessarily because I’d said or done anything wonderful, but because she was the kind of girl who dimpled. That always impressed the heck out of me, her being able to do that as often as she did. She’d had a child out of wedlock, premature, didn’t live a day, and the town had turned on her for being a slut–being the good old fashioned hypocritical Puritans most of ’em were–yet she kept right on trucking. Didn’t rat out the father, either, though it had to be one of nine or ten boys. The Scranlon twins were top suspects, but nobody ever knew for sure.
“You know I’ve had the offer out, any time you needed a new place to live?” Currently, she rented a spare cabin from Marcus, though I’d be surprised if there was any real charge. He looked on her as his daughter, fiercely protective. Nobody bothered her as long as she stayed within Grady’s orbit.
“Yeah?” Her dimples disappeared. She knew this was serious. She’d heard the news, or at least some version of it.
“I think you should take me up on it. Today.”
“Today? It’s…it’s that bad?”
“Go give Marcus my order,” I said gently, my voice pitched too quiet for the Losers to hear. They’d paid Grady and were headed out the door, leering at Tori’s backside as they went. “And ask his opinion.”
She nodded uncertainly. “Okay. I will.”
While I waited, I turned my chair a bit, watching Moran and Riggins hiking down the frontage road…toward my place. That was unusual. Their shanty was around the corner in the other direction, more toward town but up a side draw about half a mile. What could they be up to, on foot, going the wrong way? Riggins had his hunting rifle, an old .30-30 lever action, the only long gun between them, but hunting? Plenty of deer out that way, but I didn’t think so. It didn’t feel right, not on a day like this.
Grady turned his shortwave radio on. Not his only such, but the one he kept back in the kitchen. One of the few men I’d known who could multitask like a woman, he could listen to ham operators, fry up breakfast, and talk quietly but intensely with his pert young waitress, all at the same time.
The radio sound carried. An operator broadcasting from a key vantage point–a hand dug cave in the side of a low hill if I understood who was speaking, and I was pretty sure I did–stated crisply that casualties were piling up. He could see a fair bit of the action, and it was all ugly.
Maybe our brothers in arms would give us more than two days before the local cow flop hit the rotating blades. Maybe.
Looking shaken but determined, Tori trekked back across the floor from the kitchen, nodding her head as she came. “Marcus says yes, I should go with you, and yes, do it now.”
“Good,” I told her. “Why don’t you go grab your bugout bag. Will it take you long?”
“Not–not long.” She gulped. This was a huge turning point in her young life. Overwhelming, even. So far as I’d heard, she’d never been more than a couple of miles out of Derringer, ever, except for that one Life Flight to a Colorado Springs hospital to try saving her life and the life of her premature son. She’d made it, though she’d lost her uterus in the process. Her little boy had been DOA.
Not exactly the finest training for venturing yonder.
I thought for a second or two. “Twenty minutes? You’ll want to shuck your work skirt, get into the warmest clothes you’ve got.”
“Twen–twenty should do it. I think.”
“That’s good, little one. Marcus should have me fed by then. You hustle up as best you can, okay? Snow’s coming; I’m not sure how much time we’ve got.”
She went. Five minutes later, former Lieutenant Marcus Grady of the U.S. Army Rangers brought my order along with the coffee pot. He pulled up a chair and we got down to business.
“First things first,” he said. I nodded, my mouth full. “Rains…did she suffer?”
“Not so’s she’d admit. Cold and numb, no pain. That’s what she said to me, minutes before the end. Said Socrates had it right about the poison hemlock, but she was joking.”
“That would be the Sergeant,” Grady grinned, “joker till the end.”
“Said she’d be back.”
“And she will. No doubt of that.”
“None at all.”
“You’ll take Tori as your woman? Same as you did Rains?”
“Yeah. As long as we’re good. I ain’t stepping on your toes, Lieutenant.”
He shook his great, shaggy head, regretfully I thought. “My toes are fine, Harrison. I thought about it, but I can’t. She’s just too young for me.”
“Hunh. I’m damn near double your age, young man.”
“So you are, sir. So you are. You don’t look it, though. Worst thing is, dammit, she’s the spitting image of my granddaughter, the one in Pennsylvania.”
“Ouch.” His granddaughter was no more than thirteen, and now behind Russian held lines. If she still lived. I’d known a touch of pain here and there in my life, but nothing to compare to that.
“Yeah. Anyway, I got one of my feelings, you know? Got some fallback positions here, but this isn’t the mountains. A man who knows the peaks, and is prepared like you are, he’s maybe got a chance of pulling through this thing no matter who ends up on top ten or twenty years from now. Me…not so much. This is where I make my stand, but I’m exposed here, and that means Tori would be exposed right along with me if she stayed.”
“And you can fight better, when the time comes, knowing you don’t have to worry about getting her killed or captured and gang raped in the process.”
“Exactly, buddy. That’s why people like Rains and me always appreciated you, you know?”
“Nobody has to draw you a blueprint.”
We left Grady’s Café at 10:55 a.m. by the restaurant clock, though I wasn’t too sure how accurate that battery powered beast might be. Tori’s duffle bag, which I suspected might have once belonged to one Lieutenant Marcus Grady, U.S. Army–partly because of the name stenciled in indelible ink on the side of the thing–was stuffed to the gills and stuffed into the Chevy’s big trunk. The girl, I was relieved to see, wore Carhartt overalls and a heavy duty parka plus woolen mittens.
Her cheeks were flushed, whether from the cold or the sense of upcoming adventure I could not tell.
“Seat belt?” She asked.
“Don’t believe in ’em.”
“Oh. Won’t we get a ticket?”
“In this country? Are you kidding? There isn’t a cop within fifty miles. Besides, it’s legal not to have them installed on these Extreme Antiques.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, it’s–uh-oh.” We’d rounded the first corner taking us out of sight of the café, but we weren’t going much farther. Bobby Moran, the idiot follower, was standing out in the middle of the road with his palm up, facing us in the traditional STOP position. I could have run him over, but Jinx Riggins, the smaller but smarter and definitely meaner leader, had his .30-30 zeroed in on me…and he was wisely standing to one side, just a touch down over the edge of the bank.
If I tried to run him over, I’d end up rolling the Chevrolet in the process.
“Dead silent,” I told Tori quietly but firmly as we rolled to a stop, “and roll down your window.”
I did the same, ignoring Moran and addressing the man with the weapon. “Morning, Jinx.”
“Throw it in Park and turn off the key,” he replied, obviously knowing nothing about three on the tree stick shift transmissions.
So I threw it in Reverse, just so he could see me move the stick, and otherwise did as he said, letting the engine wind down before letting out the clutch. It’s seldom a good idea to confuse a fellow with a rifle muzzle pointed between your eyes and the hammer back.
“Come on,” he ordered roughly. “Out of the car.”
Which made sense in a way, but being a rather garden variety killer with an I.Q. well below 100, Riggins hadn’t really thought things through. My left hand with its thin, chocolate brown driving glove swung the door open. The gunman missed the fact that my right hand, coming out from behind the steering column, contained a Namesake Derringer in .45 long Colt caliber.
The slug missed its intended target slightly, me having to hurry the shot and using a tiny firearm like that and all, but it still went in through his right eye and out through the upper left rear portion of his skull, taking a gratifying amount of bone and brain matter along with it.
By the time his body hit the ground, I was out of the car and rolling, snagging up the .30-30. His dying finger had jerked the trigger, missing me entirely. Whether or not Tori had been hit, I’d have to worry about later. Bobby Moran finally realized his peril as I was jacking a fresh round into the rifle’s chamber.
“No!” He screamed, “Don’t shoot!”
I shot him straight through the chest, center mass. When a 150 grain softnose hunting bullet cores you like that, you’re dead.
“You okay?” I asked the girl, not bothering to work the lever again, bending to place Riggins’s hand on the weapon. I saw her shake her head, her eyes as big as saucers. She couldn’t speak.
That first bullet must have whizzed by both of us, exiting through the window I’d told her to roll down. If she’d heard the -crack!- that comes only from a bullet headed in your direction and felt the -whizz!- right in front of her face, no wonder she couldn’t talk just yet.
For most people, that sort of thing takes a bit of practice.
There did not seem to be any other traffic–certainly the two man, misfit Riggins Gang had intended to carjack the Chevy as one of the only vehicles old enough not to be disabled by the Chinese EMP–but there was still no time to waste. There never is, in these situations. Always, the awareness lurks that even a chance observer arriving a single second before one has disappeared around the next bend…that can mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment, even between life and death.
Of course, miscalculating against a potential victim you do not well understand…that can be a death sentence, too.
Moran was not armed, except for a cheap folding knife in his pocket. No problem. I popped the Chevy’s trunk, retrieved the throwdown gun I kept there for such occasions–well wiped of prints, of course–and placed it in the fellow’s left hand. Left, because memory suddenly told me it had been his left hand raised in the STOP gesture, not his right.
There wasn’t likely to be much of an investigation, not for these two and not in these times, but I’d done what I could.
We were another five miles down the road, turning into the canyon, a single mile short of the down country house, when Tori finally recovered her voice. “You killed those men.”
“Yes.” There didn’t seem much point in arguing against the obvious.
“In cold blood.” Her voice was flat, no affect, not pleasant at all. She looked straight ahead, not turning to face me.
“My blood was hardly cold,” I replied drily. “In fact, it was running about as hot as blood gets.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Shit. What did I have here, a pacifist? A throwback Progressive Democrat? Or, to be charitable, simply a girl who’d never before encountered anything more violent than a boy forcing her in the back seat of his Daddy’s sedan or a bloody premature childbirth? “It’s fact, but I can’t help what you believe.” Come to think of it, I had more than a century of living beyond her few years, and in a male body at that. I should maybe cut the kid some slack.
It was starting to snow.
“Bobby wasn’t even armed.”
“Believe it or not,” I said, knowing she wouldn’t, “Bobby Moran was the more dangerous of those two. And,” I added as an afterthought, “I can prove it.”
“I don’t believe you.”
That again. What next–
“Let me out.”
“No,” I replied, my voice suddenly cold.
“Let me out!” She grabbed the door handle, yanked–and nothing happened.
“That door won’t open from the inside.”
She turned toward me then, in fury. “You not only kill people, you kidnap young girls? What’s next, Mister Polson? You rape me and expect me to like it or something?”
Truth be told, that door didn’t work right because it was busted; I had the necessary part to fix it but had never prioritized the time. And she thought I’d deliberately rigged up an abduction wagon? I couldn’t help it. I started laughing. Not only that, but I couldn’t quit…and strangely enough, that quieted her right down. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her expression, one of sudden wariness. Was she riding with an utter madman? What next?
We were pulling into my driveway when I finally got control enough to remark, “I didn’t know you were a fan of Shadowed World.”
“Shadowed World. You rape me and expect me to like it or something, that’s a quote from the Hunka Hunka character, right?”
“Uh…” The wariness hadn’t left her. She’d best appease the crazy person, oh yes indeed. “Yes, I guess it is at that.”
Good. We were conversing, sort of. I was still going to have to restrain her, though, and blindfold her for the ride up the mountain. She was terrified, over her head, and what? Eighteen years old, if that? No way I could trust her not to do something stupid. I was pretty sure she’d see the light, once she knew some of what I knew. Pretty sure. But in the meantime….
Rains, I thought, wish you were here.
When I told her what had to be done, Tori didn’t argue or try to resist or anything. She just muttered something inaudible.
“What?” I asked.
She spoke a little louder. “Happy fifteenth birthday to me, I said. Happy bleeping birthday to me.”
*Editor’s Note: Our staff argued fiercely over the contents of the Happy Bleeping Birthday manuscript for weeks prior to finally deciding to publish the text “as is” as translated by scholars of the College Foremost at Aquatic City University. The translation was necessary due to the original text being written in D.A.E., Decadent Archaic English, a language long dead. The controversy arose not from that but from disagreement over one central issue. Were these truly pages from Harrison Polson’s diary left behind by the barbarian Rimlander of the western Bowl country who now calls himself Wing Holder? If so, Holder (under a variety of names) has truly been alive in the same body for one hundred thousand years. Few, other than fanatics whose sanity may logically be questioned, believe such a thing is possible. It goes against the Laws of God. If it is true (pray that it is not), then Polson/Holder may well be the antiGod incarnated, the greatest evil on the good Lord’s green Earth, to be eradicated if possible and avoided at all costs if not.
For that reason, there was strong sentiment within the editorial staff, urging our publisher to suppress the material for its obvious heresy. We were overruled, however, in the end allowed to include this Editor’s Note but required to present the diary to the public. Make of it what you will.