Happy Bleeping Birthday To Me, Chapter 2: Snake, Knife, and Five

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Tori blindfolded and handcuffed to the truck seat restraint rings, check.
Second Step computer flash drives changed out in the under-floor computer setup, check.
All windows closed and locked, check.
All doors except automatic garage closure locked, check.
Latest order of supplies from Underground America loaded in the back of the truck, check.

Time to go, then, just as soon as I opened the garage door and stepped out to take one last pretrip leak, inhaling the fresh snow-filled air deeply. I had killed, and there would be karmic payback for that, but the girl and I had both survived. The high country called, security and invisibility in the tall timber. Oh yeah. Nothing makes life taste so sweet as coming out whole on the other side of a confrontation with Death.

I zipped up, took one last deep, joyful breath, and strode swiftly to the Power Wagon. The plow truck backed out smoothly, the remote launched the garage door on its downward track, and we were on our way with a full tank of gas and a fair maiden in bondage keeping her mouth shut in the shotgun seat. Can life get any better than this? I submit to you that it cannot!

Naturally, all good things must come to an end. We’d covered the first two miles of the uphill voyage, rooster tailing snow off to the right at nearly five miles per hour, when Tori broke her silence.

“How long do I have to keep this blindfold on?”

Hm. I didn’t respond immediately, taking a moment to think it through. We were deep into the mountains now, with snow coming down heavily enough that visibility was no more than thirty, maybe forty feet, nothing to see but snow ahead and, dimly, trees to either side. There was no way she’d be able to tell where we were or where we were going. Most importantly, her voice sounded better, not nutzoid freaked out like she’d been right after the shooting. The kid was resilient; she’d taken hold of herself during those thirty cold minutes waiting for me in the garage.

“Reckon we can take it–”

The sickness hit with no warning, so severe I knew I had only seconds to act. Desperately, I jerked off her blindfold, fumbled with the snap to free the leather cuff on her left wrist–she could take it from there–jammed on the brakes, found neutral, set the parking brake. At least I hoped I’d done all that before I lunged out, landing on all fours and vomiting violently in the snow. The spasms wracked my body from sole to crown, great ripping surges that brought up everything I’d eaten for the past year or two.

Or at least, that’s what it felt like. The smell was beyond horrible, the fiery pain in my sinuses from the overflow like every drunken hurl I’d had in my misspent youth yet unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t see, the tears were pouring from my eyes so hard. There was a roaring in my ears. Dizzily, unsure how much time had passed, I tried to back-crawl away from the steaming mess in the road…and lost consciousness.

When I came to, I didn’t know where I was for a moment. When I finally figured it out, recognizing the sound of the Power Wagon’s idle and the look of the left rear tire in front of my nose, my first thought was, Tori. I’d turned her loose, hadn’t I? Yes, I was sure I had. Almost sure. If she’d taken off, like she’d wanted to right after I’d shot Riggins and Moran, hopefully she’d had the sense to follow the road back downhill. Two miles and she’d be out of the timber. She had her parka; if she didn’t panic, she could make it.

But I’d seen youngsters panic in the mountains before. Common sense did not always apply.

Then I realized my left cheek was lying not on the freezing road itself but on fabric. What? How? Time to sit up, which I did, groaning a bit but not nauseated. Mostly just weak.

“You’re alive!”

I couldn’t remember a more welcome sound. Tori was squatting by the open driver’s door, mere inches from the load I’d upchucked. The cloth that had protected my unconscious face from the freezing road surface was hers, a spare shirt she’d pulled from her duffel bag. That load of ick was already disappearing under the continuing snowfall; I’d been out for a while. It took an effort to get my eyes to focus, but she was clearly on guard, protecting me, a small revolver in one hand as her eyes scanned back and forth, unable to see much but alert, aware.

Warrior Girl right there, I thought. Rains was right; she’s got the makings. And she brought her own weapon, too.

“Good to see you, too,” I croaked. I’d ripped my throat pretty good.

She moved to help me up, but I waved her off. Feebly, I did. Big bad killer dude not need woman help, nunh-uh! “We’ve got to get the rest of the way up the trail,” I told her, “before whatever hit me hits again.” Sliding in behind the wheel never felt so good; the Power Wagon was my armor.

“What do you think it was?” She asked, climbing in the other side.

It was effort to talk, but she deserved to know as much I did, which unfortunately wasn’t much. Once we were underway, churning snow, I told her what I could. “It was like…really bad food poisoning…and….”

“But you haven’t eaten anything, um, questionable, have you?” I heard the concern in her voice, and it touched me. That, and the image of her squatting there, watching over me with her pistol. Sure, she could have just been worried the old man would drop dead and leave her alone in the mountains, but I didn’t think that was it. I chose not to think that was it. Or at least not all of it.

“No…” I had to gear down for the first switchback, and come to think of it, leave it geared down. This storm was serious; we were pushing more than half a foot of brand new snow already. At least there wasn’t much wind, if any. As long as it didn’t start drifting, we’d make it. Hopefully. “No. Last thing I had was breakfast at Grady’s.” Marcus Grady’s cooking had never poisoned anybody in his life; the man was a clean fanatic, careful as they came. “I said…it was like food poisoning. Not quite the same. That’s just…the closest I can come. Been food poisoned…a few times. I’m pretty sure I know part of it. Today was the first…the first time I ever had to kill anybody in this…this lifetime. Karmic payback, some…some of it. But not all. There had to be a trigger. I know the system. Something…something hit me to start that payback. It doesn’t ever quite just…come out of nowhere.”

Even over the steady roar of the engine and the noise of the plow, I heard her take a deep breath, steeling herself for the next question. “You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

“Thought you wanted…wanted to be rid of me.” Couldn’t help myself, sick as I was. Devil made me do it.

“Not that way, Harrison Polson. Okay, really not at all. You never killed anybody before, right?”

“Not in this lifetime. Other lifetimes…another matter entirely.”

“Yeah, okay. In this lifetime. Well, I never saw anybody get killed before, either. In this lifetime.”

I started to chuckle at that, don’t ask me why I thought it was funny, but gave it up as a bad idea. “Fair enough. No, honey, I’m not going to die on you. Ain’t…ain’t my time. Not for a long time.” I wasn’t sure if she knew I was 120 years old or not. If she didn’t, I wasn’t going to add that to her worries just yet.

Somehow, we made it to the Quonset. Don’t ask me how; about all I remembered from the entire rest of the drive was my sheer refusal to pass out again plus a little bit about making the turns on the second and third switchbacks. I got us inside, got the yard gate locked, got everything closed up, and made it into the house. That’s it. That’s all I remembered.

That time, when I came to, the worst really was over. I’d been tossing and turning some, not in the master bedroom but on the throwdown pallet in the front bedroom. I was naked, a sheet over me and one under me, nothing else. It was warm enough, and again, or still, I was weak, but my eyes were open and reasonably clear when Tori walked in.

She looked good, too, in a lime green tank top and denim shorts plus cute gray tennis shoes with pink trim. I’d never seen that much of her before; the girl had some serious legs.

“How long?” I asked.

She lit up, setting down the armload of folded bedding she’d been carrying and coming to sit cross legged on the floor near me. Not too near, though; I no doubt needed a hot shower and a turbocharged mouth rinse in the worst way. Come to think of it, a shave probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

“Three days,” she said. “Did you know you shit your sheets?”

“Uh…no. I don’t remember any of it.”

“Three times. Lucky I was able to figure out your washer and dryer. But man, I gotta tell you, I’ve never smelled anything like it. You were blowing some serious toxins, Master.”

“Master?” I stared at her, startled. “You know something about the Master/slave lifestyle? At your age?”

“What’s age got to do with it?”

My brain started working. “Rains. She filled you in, didn’t she?”

“A bit,” she admitted, smiling. “On our two trips to the Denver Flea Market, that’s just about all we talked about. And she loaned me one of your collector Gor books. And yes, I’m okay with it. I think. It’s not like I’ve tried it. Don’t think I’d care to try it with most of the wannabes out there.”

“No. No, you wouldn’t want to do that.” I eased up to a sitting position. The room only spun three or four times before settling down. “Thanks for nursing me through the whatever it was.”

“I didn’t do much nursing. You wouldn’t let me. You wouldn’t eat anything. Drank a little water here and there, but I bet you’re pretty dehydrated even so. You don’t remember?”

“Not–well, sort of maybe, now that you tell me about the water.”

“You’re like a cat, you know that? You get sick, you don’t want to be helped. Just leave you alone, let you go off and hide till you either get better or die.”

“Yup.” I nodded in agreement, regretting the movement immediately. “That’s me. I could use a little help now, though.”

“Name it.”

“You explored the kitchen?”

“Thoroughly. What’s with the freezer full of nothing but hot dogs, hot dogs, and more hot dogs?”

“Protein efficiency. When it’s completely full, there are 144 packages of 7 hot dogs each, total 1,008. I can run on two hot dogs a day if I have to for red meat, well over a year’s worth of survival. Or seven, eight months for the two of us.”

She shuddered. “I hope it doesn’t get down to that.”

“Worst case scenario only. You seen my cat? Big half bob kitty, comes and goes?”

“He’s been in and out. Slept beside you a couple of nights. You want a hot dog?”

It was my turn to shudder. “Not hardly. I’ll need to ease my stomach back to the idea of food being acceptable. You saw the teas?”

“Couldn’t miss. You’ve got more of those than you do hot dogs.”

“Not quite, but close enough. Could you steep me a mug of tea, just the black pekoe stuff, and bring it to me with a couple of plain saltine crackers? I’m going to try shaving and then crawl in the tub.”

“Shower first,” she advised, “or you’ll get the tub so filthy it’ll take me a week to scrub it clean.”

Tori, I realized, had a flair for exaggeration. She was accepting the role of housekeeper without hesitation, though, and she’d obviously taken good care of this old man while I was out of it. Rains had chosen well.

The snow, I found out, had kept coming down for two straight nights and two straight days. Not heavy like at first, but a bit here and there under a low overcast sky. My new woman–and dammit, tender of years or not, she was clearly a woman to be reckoned with–had been wise enough to stay inside the Quonset, never once stepping outside to leave telltale tracks in the snow. There’d been plenty to occupy her time and her curious mind without that, not the least being the sizeable stick built house constructed separately but entirely inside the buried Quonset hut, not unlike, she thought, a ship in a bottle. She’d explored the walkway around the sides and back of the house, the machine storage area in front, the workbenches and racks of tools along the steel sidewalls. Inside the home itself, there had been the usual rooms plus, of course, in the back, the game room complete with ping pong table and the dungeon complete with bondage toys. The only room she hadn’t seen was the armory.

Not that she couldn’t have taken a peek. She’d located the key for the lock. But, taking her new role seriously, she’d decided she’d wait until I was better and could authorize her entrance.

When she did get to see it, two days after my return to full consciousness and the first day I’d dared tackle a small but balanced meal, she’d been impressed–and I was in love.

On the rebound, Rains? Well, what if I am? You picked her out, after all.

On the third day, six days after I’d gone down hard, we loaded back up in the Power Wagon and headed down country, plowing as we went. It took a while, but plowing downhill was definitely easier than plowing uphill, the sun was shining, and despite the fact that the world had pretty much gone to Hell, it was a beautiful day.

There were seven stops on the way down, one at each branching of the canyon road. Logging trails and nothing more, most of those branches were, though a couple of them led to summer cabins owned by the rich and reclusive. At each intersection, we parked the truck and got out, forging through the snow into the timber to check my camouflaged traffic counters. There’d been no one else up this way since the storm, though. That EMP blast had really done a number on the vehicles owned by the heads-in-the-sand, too-trusting public.

It was the lack of tracks, not the traffic counters, that told the tale. Those were all dead, killed by the electromagnetic pulse just like any other hi tech that hadn’t been hardened. Thankfully, the computers and TV and shortwave radios at the down country house did live in mil spec hardened containers. Those had still been working okay when I’d made the trip to Grady’s.

Below the final switchback, where we had a good long straight shot followed by a couple of the easier curves, I put Tori behind the wheel. She was excited about that, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright, mittened hands gripping the steering wheel with ferocious enthusiasm. Never having driven a stick shift before, she killed the engine a couple of times, and the lack of power steering gave her arms a serious workout, but she loved it. She really loved it.

Yeah, she ran off the road once, but I got us winched back out of the ditch in no time. No harm, no foul.

I was back in control when we got down near the bottom. “Need to stop here, hon,” I told her. “See that big blue spruce over there, about thirty yards up the slope?”

“Uh..yeah. Wow. That’s a beautiful tree.”

“Yes. Yes it is. Now let me show you something.” We got out, climbed into the truck bed, and I set up the big tripod, adding a spotting scope and aiming it at the spruce. “There. Take a look.”

“Wha–wow! That’s incredible.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” She was looking at a mirror mounted high up in the tree, high enough to see over the last bit of ridge blocking our view of our down country house and the frontage road. I had to climb the tree and readjust that mirror once a year to take the big spruce’s annual growth into account, but she was seeing around corners and over ridges, eyeballing the house yard area.

“Rains and I thought about how to do this for a long time,” I explained. “If war ever came, or even somebody out to get us for whatever reason, we wanted to be sure we never came toodling out of the canyon into an ambush like a couple of big dumb bunnies. I climbed the tree and mounted the mirror, but it was her idea.” Man, I miss that woman.

“Well,” Tori said, her eye still glued to the eyepiece, “color me impressed.”

“Thankee. Thankee.”

“It does look like there are some vehicle tracks that pulled up to the yard gate and then turned around or something.”

“Yeah. I saw those, too. No obvious bad guys with guns, though, so let’s go check it out.”

“Okey dokey.”

There was nothing out of order that we could see…until after we’d parked the Dodge inside the garage. I walked back out to study the tracks. “ATV,” I pointed out. The day was warming rapidly, snow beginning to melt down this low. If we’d arrived a couple of hours later, the tracks might not have been there. “See how narrow they are? Knobby tires, too. Could be that old basket case machine Marcus was rebuilding.” Which gave me an idea; he might have left a message in the mailbox.

“Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“Take a look, sweetheart.” I handed her the slip of paper. It hadn’t been in the mailbox but rather stuck to the bottom, where Grady knew I’d find it.

The message slip left by Marcus Grady, affixed to the underside of the mailvbox,   three times life size.

The message slip left by Marcus Grady, affixed to the underside of the mailbox, three times life size.

Tori puzzled over the thing. “What’s it mean?”

“It means Grady’s in trouble. Honey, that cabinet in the corner, go grab the big bag out of there, would you? Quick like a bunny.” I was already unlocking the Chevy, climbing in, firing it up, backing it out into the open air. My girl wasn’t letting any grass grow under her ass, either; she understood the tone of my voice. Besides, the café owner meant as much to her as he did to me.

I popped the trunk, grabbed the bag, shucked out of my parka, swapped it out for an unhooded coat of my own design, and we were on our way. “When we get to the café, Tori, you pay extra close attention to what I’m saying, okay?”

“Okay,” she replied in a small voice. “I will.”

“I don’t know what we’re charging into. I’ll have to play it by ear.”

“Okey dokey. There’s–” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. We were passing the corpses of Moran and Riggins, the melting snow revealing their forms on the side of the road.

Grady’s Café had seen some action. One window was missing, boarded over now, and the polka dot pattern on both visible external walls could only have been made by bouncing bullets. He had company, though. When we walked in, Tori heeling me properly, two steps back and a touch to my left, five of the six people present gave me a good look. One did not; Cecily Pike, slumped at a corner table, stared straight ahead. The lights were on but nobody was home. Whatever she’d experienced this past week had destroyed her; she was nothing but a shell. Which was going to be tough for her six year old son. Couldn’t remember his name, but the boy’s eyes were as bright as his mother’s were vacant, proud of his booster seat and nursing a soda. The other three were men I did not know, but I knew their type. Their eyes gave away little, but they were heavily armed.

Chinese military, flyboys or I missed my guess, but packing more heat than most flight crews. The Chinese had begun doing that in recent years, training and equipping some of their sky jockeys to fight on the ground just in case they were shot down.

Marcus Grady himself, behind the counter instead of at his usual post back in the kitchen, greeted me heartily, overlooking Tori as if she didn’t exist. “Snake! Long time no see! Looks like you survived the gas.” His tone was affable, as cheerful as ever.

“Back at you, Knife,” I replied, grinning my toothless grin, ear to ear. Where were the others? His message had specified five–ah. Two more Chinese warriors popped into view, one working back in the kitchen as if this were a Chinese restaurant, the other returning from the restroom. All accounted for, then. “But, um, what gas?”

“You missed it? During the battle, Cheyenne Mountain fired rockets with Quaglorin gas warheads. U.S. troops were masked up, but it caught our Chinese friends off guard. Killed a pile of ’em, from what I hear. Killed a lot of civilians, too.”

“Oh? And where did you hear all this?” The Chinese were enjoying the farce, all but one pretending not to notice or understand what we were saying. Perhaps they really didn’t speak English, but Marcus Grady damn sure spoke Mandarin. They were unlikely to know that.

The man who’d been openly following our exchange explained. “He got it straight from, I believe the saying is, the horse’s mouth. From me. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Chang Yuan. Our group flew one of the troop transports your people shot down. When the gas was released, the only warning we had was seeing others fall, vomiting and then dying. We had time, barely, to don our equipment.”

Vomiting? Ah. “How far did the gas spread? Do you know, Chang?” Put ’em off by using their names, cowboy. The interpreter spoke mighty good English. Educated in America? He was not the leader; that had to be the fellow old enough to be everybody else’s Daddy. Heck, maybe he was their Daddy; those yellow folks all look alike to me.

That’s a joke, son.

In truth, one of them looked very little like the others, a full head taller and built like a martial arts movie villain. You could tell that much, even in uniform as they were.

Grady took up the tale. “Centered east of Colorado Springs. Must have gassed half a million of our own at least. Drifted as far north as south Denver, as far south as Colorado City, who knows how far east, and a few tendrils even got back west here as far as the foothills. Bunch of people sick in town, some dead. Don’t know how many.”

That explained my bout, then. A few molecules must have drifted right up next to the down country house, where I sucked them joyfully in with my deep breathing exercises that day.

Our enemies had to have been with Marcus when he’d left the note. How he’d conned them into leaving my place alone, how he’d managed to stick the note to the mailbox, that could all be explained later. Right now, the bastards seemed to be enjoying themselves, drinking Marcus’s coffee and making themselves at home, toying with the ignorant, toothless old man and the pretty young white girl.

They had designs on Tori. Of that, there was no doubt. In fact, I was counting on it.

I was paying only half attention to what was being said, simply nodding and smiling stupidly as if I believed every word of it. The fairy tale went something like this: Running for their lives after being shot down, the air crew had somehow made it the ninety miles from the front lines to Grady’s Café, where they’d begged asylum, being pursued at that point by a mob from Derringer, thirty or more men with hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Grady had used his bullhorn–he did have one of those–to warn off the townspeople, refusing to give up the Chinese to vigilante justice. Grady had then supposedly held off the bunch of them like one of those old timey Sheriffs in the movie westerns.

Uh-huh. And pigs fly. Grady could hold off the whole darned town if he decided to; I had no doubt of that. But he wouldn’t kill his own to protect invading enemy troops.

Tori, bless her heart, acted her part to perfection. She put her wide-eyed attention on whoever was speaking–that more often being the Chinese interpreter guy than Grady–and managed to look absolutely childlike.

We ordered lunch, and while the Chinaman in the kitchen was doing his thing, maybe even actually frying eggs for all I knew, I got a bright idea. Of course, I’d backed the Chevy in with its trunk facing the Café for just this reason, not certain if it would be needed or not, but thinking that diversions are often good things to have handy.

“Little one,” I said, gesturing to the Chinese scattered around the room, “our friends look like they could use a drink. Why don’t you go get that fifth of Jack Daniels black out of the trunk?” The ruse would, I hoped, do a couple of things, including getting my woman out of the line of fire. The bastards had made what I hoped was a fatal mistake, letting me get my back to the wall and close enough to the counter at the same time.

The teenager had naturally shucked her heavy coat in the well heated café. Grady had always preferred wood heat, and there was no shortage of firewood. I’d figured her special outfit, the lime green tank top with denim shorts and cutie pie tennis shoes, should have an even more powerful effect on war weary fighters than it did on me, and I was right. By the time she’d strutted to the door, flashing those legs and swinging those hips–never mind the C cup cleavage–all eyes were on the girl. She didn’t bother to close the front door behind her, so when she popped the trunk lid and leaned wa-ay over in there to reach the whiskey bottle, even the guy in the kitchen was standing motionless, staring open mouthed.

My throw to Marcus jerked their attention back, but the .45 Colt arcing through the air–cocked and locked, of course–was followed by a great crashing noise as I lunged upward just long enough to tip the square table over, using my legs and a spike of pure adrenalin. On a normal day, lifting one of those tables like that required some serious effort. The tops were made of quarter inch steel plate, well covered and disguised but capable of bouncing small arms fire all over the place.

Marcus Grady was a man who planned for contingencies.

The thunder of gunfire filled the place, much of it mine. Marcus got off the first shot, pivoting to fire a round through the order window to take out the cook; I was aware of that much as Velcro fastening on my coat was ripped open, an antique .30 caliber carbine leaped from its quick release straps into my hands, and I got down to business, seeking targets, double tap semiauto, my awareness expanded to slow time as if the Chinese were wildfire flames in short grass and I was a shovel, batting them down.

It took forever, and it was over in an instant. Combat, as I’d known in a thousand prior lifetimes–a hundred thousand, a million, a billion–trumps time.

I held position, weapon at the ready, while Marcus made the rounds, making sure none were left alive to rise up and bite us in the ass. As it turned out, he only had to administer the coup de grâce to one man. Not the interpreter, but the older man, the probable real leader of this group. His eyes were flat, expressionless, blood covering his uniform jacket, but he was not quite dead yet. Grady paused, considering. “Any last words, Major?” In Mandarin he said that, as I found out later.

“Fuck you, American,” the Major replied in perfect English.

“Back atcha.” Marcus pulled the trigger.

We both looked around carefully. “Let me double check the guy in the kitchen,” he advised. I nodded.

“Spades!” He called out. That was no surprise. My friend would have made very sure of the one behind his back before he turned to address the eating area in front of the counter.

“Clear!” I hollered. “No need to come in, Tori!”

“Huh.” The blonde didn’t hesitate, walked right back around the car and stepped in through the doorway, pausing to survey the carnage but looking remarkably calm. “This is getting to be a habit.”

“A habit?” Marcus cocked an eyebrow.

“Moran and Riggins,” I explained. “Tried to carjack us.”

“Ah. ThoughT that might be them alongside the road. Three of these guys were with me, though; I couldn’t exactly stop to check ’em out.”

“Three? How’d four of you pile on that little ATV?”

“Trailer. I had to ride. Major Asshole here, he drove. They showed up the night after the storm broke. Got the drop on me, I’m shamed to say.”

“The attack on the café?”

“That really was the townfolk. It wasn’t me shooting back at ’em, though. These Beijing buggers locked me in my own meat freezer till it was over. Wasn’t a damn thing I could do.”

“Except leave me that note. How’d you pull that off?”

He grinned. “Sleight of hand. More proud of the way I convinced ’em it’d be a bad idea to loot your place. Told ’em you had enough booby traps rigged to blow ’em all to Kingcom Come, but you’d be by the café sooner or later, and they could take you then.”

“Not knowing I’d be bringing Miss Distraction here. You done good, baby.”

“Yes,” Marcus agreed, giving the blonde a hug, “you done freaking awesome.”

We’d kind of forgotten about the pair in the far corner, gone-forever Cecily Pike and her little boy, until the child’s young voice piped up to remind us that his generation had been playing violent video games before learning to walk.

“Killing bad guys for real,” the boy observed, “sure splatters a lot of blood around.”

“It does that, Jimmy.” Marcus stepped over a body to ruffle the boy’s hair. “It does that.”

Jimmy. That was the kid’s name. His mother took a sip of her coffee, certainly cold by now. She gave no sign of having noticed either the battle or the temperature of her drink. I pulled the scrap of paper from my shirt pocket and handed it to him. “What do you make of this, Jimmy?”

He scrunched his face up in concentration for a few seconds. Then his brow cleared, and he pointed at the doodles in sequence. “Snake,” he said. “Knife, and Five.”

Tori was shaking her head. “I still don’t get it.”

Marcus and I were already starting to clean up, each grabbing a corpse by its ankles and heading for the door. Outside, the ATV could mule them enough distance away to keep the smell from reaching the café, and we’d need to spend some time scrubbing the floor, but it was a start. To my surprise, Tori pitched right in, towing the body of the smallest dude–the interpreter, as it happened.

“The first symbol represents a striking snake with no rattles. That’s me. Long time ago, I was known in certain circles as Snake, details later. Striking means I needed to be ready to kill. Lack of rattles means I’d best give no warning.”

“And Knife?” She grunted, the body being heavier than it looked, but she made it move. The girl was strong. “That’s you, Marcus?”

“Yep,” he agreed, dropping the legs of the former Major and heading back in for another load.”

“Okay. I get the Five.”

“And one more thing.” I deposited the big burly fellow beside his partner, pausing before starting after the final corpse. “Snake and Knife are facing the Five, pointing at them, more or less side by side. Which is more or less how it went down.”

Done with her part in the corpse moving contest, Tori started toward the closet that held the mop bucket and such. “So…you two men have fought together before?”

“Nope.”

“No? Then how–?”

“War stories.”

“Huh.”

Little Jimmy spoke up again. “Such is the art of warfare.”

We all stopped what we were doing and just flat out stared at the kid. He stared back, unconcerned. “Quoting Sun Tzu?” I asked nobody in particular.

“Looks like,” Marcus agreed. “When this kid grows up, America’s enemies had best be trembling in their boots.”

“Definitely. If,” I said thoughtfully, “America still exists.” The way things were going, that wasn’t exactly a sure thing.

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