"Hey, it used to be a lot worse," Bobby said. "Back when Daddy was alive we'd rob them and strip them and kill them. But I guess Daddy finally felt guilty about that because he shot himself. That was him you saw at the desk."
"Anyway, folks are worth more alive now with the new Joey's. We put a sentence on them for trespassing and they work it off on the electricity bicycles. But members get a pass. You can't fuck with the customers."
Bobby mumbled, "Whoa," and the mule eased to a stop in front of a relatively well-kept brick house. "Floyd, I'm dropping you off here."
"What?" Floyd's voice leapt two octaves.
"Damn it, Floyd, we're the only people for ten miles with chickens. You want them stole while we're away? Now get out of the wagon."
"But I want to see the Joey Girls."
Floyd grumbled but got out.
In a second, the wagon was on its way again.
"He's as good a brother as a man could ask for, but he's hornier than a damn jackrabbit. They only got four girls at Joey's and he's been at each of them maybe a half-dozen times."
Mortimer didn't have anything to say to that.
"But overall, I guess you could say we're relatively affluent here," Bobby continued. "We got chickens that lay good eggs, so we can trade. We got two hogs we're trying to breed, so if that works out we might end up being the pork barons of the whole damn state. I like to think big."
Mortimer's stomach growled. A plate of bacon and eggs would be heaven. And coffee. A cup of coffee.
A steak. He'd kill for a thick, red T-bone steak.
No, not kill. That kind of thing wasn't a figure of speech anymore.
"And I might be getting a job as a Joey Girl," Sue Ellen said.
Bobby snorted. "Hell, girl, that place is known for the hotness of its female employees. Why would they want your ugly ass?"
"You shut up, Bobby. A good brother would support his sister's career ambitions."
"You don't have no tits."
"I said shut up. You smell like cat piss. Shut up. Tits ain't the whole package. I'm refined. I dress nice."
Bobby nudged Mortimer in the ribs. "She found all these old clothes and thinks she's Elizabeth Taylor."
"I don't even know who the hell that is." Sue Ellen stuck her tongue out at her brother. "Shithead." She touched Mortimer on the shoulder. "You think I'm attractive, don't you, Mr.-hey, we never did get your name."
"Mortimer, you think I'm attractive, don't you?"
Please leave me alone.
Sue Ellen shook his shoulder. "Seriously, I'm pretty, right? Alluring."
Mortimer swallowed hard, cleared his throat and nodded. "You look nice."
Bobby brayed laughter. "Shit, Sue Ellen, he's a Platinum member. He could have big-titty blonde whores out the ying-yang." Bobby nudged him again. "Eh, buddy? All them choice whores. Eh?"
"How much farther is it?"
"Oh, it's a ways. Get comfortable."
Clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop.
As in Spring City, the folks of Cleveland, Tennessee, had decided to congregate downtown, fleeing the exposed suburbs for the relative safety of brick buildings and narrow streets, almost like a tightly clustered medieval village behind a palisade. Even more than Spring City, the downtown had been made into a fortress, the roads blocked in a zigzag pattern with junk cars. Bobby maneuvered the mule slowly but with ease through the narrow path. A block from the courthouse, a pair of men with rifles rolled aside a barricade made of scrap iron welded to supermarket shopping carts.
One of the guards waved the wagon through. "Who you got there, Bobby? Somebody for the bicycles?"
"Not this one," called Bobby as he eased the wagon past the barricade. "He's got a Platinum card."
The guard laughed. "You hear that?" He winked at his buddy. "We got us a playboy in town. Hide your daughters."
Mortimer smiled weakly and waved.
They passed the courthouse, and Mortimer noticed two more riflemen patrolling the roof.
"What's with all the fortification?"
"What do they want here?"
"Same as always," Bobby said. "Food, weapons, clothing, women."
"And blood," added Sue Ellen, her face suddenly stern.
Bobby reined in the mule and they dribbled to a stop in front of a gigantic stone church. "In there," Bobby told Mortimer. "Sue Ellen, help me carry in these eggs."
Mortimer climbed out of the wagon, stretched and heard his joints pop. Every limb was stiff. He looked at the wide, closed double doors of the church, then back at Bobby. "In there?"
Mortimer pushed the doors open and stepped into the church. It was cavernous within, and the footfalls of his wingtips echoed off the high walls and vaulted ceiling. The church had been cleared of pews. There was nothing but wide-open space between him and the altar. Mortimer recalled that medieval cathedrals had no pews. The peasants had to stand and kneel on the cold stone floor. That was when people were serious about religion. Hard people for a dark age.
Mortimer felt weak from hunger and fatigue, his head slightly dizzy.
The setting sun suddenly poured its light into the far windows, a fiery orange and red coming through the stained glass. It bathed Mortimer in holy light. It warmed him, drew him toward the altar.
At once Mortimer felt leaden, the weight of his journey, the accumulated fatigue of running from danger and into danger. Replaying the past few days' events in his mind, Mortimer could hardly believe he was still alive. Perhaps it was some form of miracle. Maybe the hand of God had directed him to this place. Maybe this was God reminding him, showing him that even in this desolate land, in these forsaken times, a higher power was still here, still taking some interest in the small creatures, this ridiculous humanity, crawling and hiding like insects over the earth.
Mortimer sank to his knees in front of the altar, the light nearly blinding him now, the setting sun at a perfect angle, streaming in, lighting up the dust motes in the air like fiery meteors burning in the atmosphere. Mortimer clasped his hands, looked up into the haunted eyes of Christ.
In that moment there was no sound. Time seemed to grind to a halt.
In the pure quiet, voices arose, perfect and clear. A hymn from nowhere, singing clear and sweet. Strange yet so very familiar. The song filled the room, filled Mortimer, lifted him up.
The figure of Christ moved. Mortimer gasped. The figure descended, floating down toward him. Mortimer's heart froze. He opened his mouth to scream.
"Look out down there," somebody yelled at him.
Mortimer closed his mouth, blinked, saw the men in the rafters, lowering the crucifix with thick rope.
"Stand aside, buddy."
Mortimer stood aside. The men grunted, lowered the heavy figure little by little.
Mortimer recognized the song now. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones.
The foot of the big crucifix hit the stone floor with a loud tunk.
"Watch out for Jesus."
Mortimer sat hunched over a plate of baked beans, a slab of ham and a biscuit. In between bites, he slurped at a cool pewter mug of Freddy's Dishwater Lager. He might have claimed the meal tasted heaven-sent, except he wasn't sure he believed in religious experiences anymore. Anyway, the food was good and filled him.
A work crew had filled up the empty space in the church with chairs and tables. Mortimer glanced up from his plate. The crucifix had been replaced with a sign reading JOEY ARMAGEDDON'S SASSY A-GO-GO, lit up with garish pink light. The sound system worked well with the church's acoustics, and the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" came out of the speakers at a tolerable volume.
The twitchy, bug-eyed man sitting across from him squinted at the pink membership card again and began apologizing for the third time.
"You see, officially we're not even supposed to be open yet. It's just that it's so damned expensive getting everything up and running, and a little cash flow wouldn't hurt. You see what I mean, right? Serve a few meals, pour a few beers. I only have four girls and one's down with diarrhea."
Davis Shelby had been a syndicated film and television critic back when people had cared about such things. He was short and spindly and hawk-faced, with a thatch of Brillo-pad hair the color of dull copper. He made a habit of dabbing at his face constantly with a threadbare handkerchief. Somehow he'd come into a Joey's franchise, but in less than half an hour, Mortimer had formed the opinion that the whole operation might fall down around his ears any moment. Whatever qualities might be considered the exact opposite of leadership and organizational skills, Davis Shelby possessed them in spades.
"You're allowed a line of credit, of course," Shelby told him. "Normally up to five hundred dollars. That's just standard for Platinum members." He dabbed at his sweaty forehead with the handkerchief. "But we've just had the devil's worst time getting shipments. We were supposed to get a strongbox of currency a week ago, but there's been no sign of the wagon train up from Chattanooga. Without the currency, we can't buy goods to fill up the store, pay for booze deliveries. It's really been a pain in the ass."
"I'll take the five hundred in trade." Mortimer shoved another biscuit into his mouth, washed it down with lager. "Is there anything in the store at all? I need a gun, food and gear for a long hike. Socks. I want some socks."
"Of course," Shelby said. "We do have some things. We've been stocking since December. It really is never-ending. There's always something to do or something breaking, or you hire a fellow to tend bar and he's killed by Red Stripes or disease or some damn thing. I can't keep the place staffed for shit."
"Maybe owning a club isn't your thing."
"I thought it would be like Rick's in Casablanca, very romantic, and I could wear a white tuxedo jacket and there would be music and pretty girls."
"But without the Nazis."
"Right!" He wiped the back of his neck with his handkerchief. His body produced enough sweat for three men. "Instead it's like running a saloon in a spaghetti western. Men drink whiskey until they're ready for a whore, and if there isn't a whore available then they want to fight. And if they lose the fight, then somebody has to mop up the blood. And the guy who mops up the blood quit, so I have to mop up the fucking blood. Bogart never had to mop blood. A circus. It's like being ringmaster of some psycho circus."
Mortimer nodded at the pink light. "At least you have electricity."
"Six men for the bicycles in the basement. Got to have juice for music and lights and refrigeration."
Mortimer spooned in the last of the food, considered licking the plate. "I saw a place a few days ago that had electricity. One hundred percent solar."
"Men are easier to come by than solar panels," Shelby said.
Mortimer pushed away from the table and burped. "I'd like to get those supplies now. And a room for the night if you have one."
"Yes, sir. Absolutely."
Mortimer could get used to being a Platinum member.
The Joey's store was pitiful compared to the one in Spring City, but Mortimer was still able to purchase a number of useful items. He wished he had access to all of his supplies back in his cave.
He made an even trade for clothing. The suit and wingtips for jeans, a red flannel shirt, boxers and sweat socks. He bought a pair of black Timberland hiking boots with minimal scuffing and a khaki baseball cap with the word MAXFLI stitched on the front in navy blue. A gray overcoat with mismatched buttons.
The weapons selection was poor but nonetheless expensive. A.357 magnum revolver tempted him but was simply too expensive. He settled on a short double-barreled shotgun, twelve-gauge, and a half-dozen buckshot shells.
Assorted foodstuffs, a silver Zippo lighter with fluid, a compass that had clearly been a child's toy but worked, an extra pair of socks, a unopened bottle of Bayer aspirin, a bowie knife, a large terry cloth towel, fishing line and a small set of hooks, a tin cup, a pot and a fork. It all fit into a cheap Nike tote bag.
Total cost including a room for the night: 448 Armageddon dollars. He planned to use the rest of the credit for a big meal and many drinks in the bar that night. In the morning, he'd hit the road again.
He let Shelby lead him out of the Joey's store in the church basement.
"Come this way," Shelby said. "And I can show you where your room is, up a different set of stairs. We knocked through to the building next door. Don't mind the men on the bicycles."
A familiar sight, like the men in Spring City, leaning heavily on the handlebars, pumping legs and sweating and going nowhere. Mortimer wondered how many of them Bobby and Floyd had caught "trespassing." How long would they have to ride those stationary bikes until they'd worked off their sentences? Until replacements arrived? It all seemed too close to slavery. Had things really devolved to such a state? Maybe Mortimer was thinking about it all wrong. At least those men on the bikes had a place to sleep. Three square meals a day. Starving men can't pedal.
Mortimer couldn't quite convince himself.
"Mort!" A hoarse voice. "Mort, holy shit, it is you!" The voice growing stronger. "Over here! It's me!"
Mortimer looked up, met the eyes of the man on the far bicycle, the golden hair, the extravagant mustache. "Bill?" He rushed forward, a huge grin splitting his face. He patted the cowboy on the back, barely restraining an urge to hug him. "I thought the cannibals got you."
"They almost did," Bill said. "Listen, can you do me a big favor?"
"Could you get me off this goddamn bicycle?"
Davis Shelby had grand plans for turning the Bank of Cleveland into a classy hotel.
Almost none of those plans had yet come to fruition.
But Shelby had made a valiant start. He'd knocked through the church basement into the bank basement, and steps up took him to the lobby. The lobby was undergoing a conversion into an informal lounge, with a heavy, ornate pool table and a dartboard and a foosball table that looked ready to crumble. Couches and plush chairs. The teller counter had been converted into a bar, self-service since Shelby couldn't staff it. There was a huge five-gallon jug of pink liquid labeled FREDDY'S TOOTHACHE MUSCADINE and a stack of mismatched cups.
They paused for a drink, and Mortimer understood the toothache part. The pink wine was like a thin, stinging cough syrup. So sweet it made him wince. He had a second cup.
The room was minimal but clean and warm. A single bed. A stand with a pitcher of clean water and a washbasin. A narrow couch along the far wall. No windows. Bathroom down the hall.
"Your pal can stay on the couch, I suppose." Shelby cast a sidelong glance at Buffalo Bill. He didn't have a handbook to tell him what to do when a valued Platinum customer asked for the release of one of his slave laborers. Shelby was loath to lose a bicycler but reluctantly decided he could use some goodwill with a Platinum member. Shelby even suggested that if Mortimer should happen to find himself at the home office he might put in a word about what a stand-up guy Shelby was.
Sure. A regular Conrad Hilton.
Shelby left them in the room, muttering about the chef.
Buffalo Bill fell onto the couch, sighed dramatically. "Jesus H. Christ, I'm glad you came along, old boy. I was thinking I had a long, tedious future riding a stationary bicycle into the sunset."
Mortimer flopped on the bed. "What the hell happened to you after the cannibal camp?"
"It is a long, hair-raising tale of woe and toil."
Mortimer shook his head. "Can't listen to a hair-raising tale dry. Better go downstairs and get the jug."
Bill grinned, left the room and returned thirty seconds later with the jug and two cups. He handed one to Mortimer and filled it with too-sweet wine.
Mortimer gulped, smacked his lips. "Okay, I'm ready."
Buffalo Bill had been scared shitless, running through the night forest, a raging gang of inhuman flesh-eaters on his heels. Sore from being tied up, he put the pain out of his mind and kept running. The thought of being cowboy stew had spurred him on. But even with the heart-pounding fear turning his mouth all cottony, Bill found himself circling back. Maybe with the entire tribe on the chase, the camp would be unguarded. Bill could not bring himself to leave his hat and six-shooters.
But they had left guards at the camp, and Bill was forced back into the woods, directionless, cold, unarmed, tired and alone.
Mortimer thought him foolish, to run back into the hellish maw of the cannibals for a hat and a pair of guns. But maybe Bill was doing something more than that, something even more important than Bill himself realized. He wasn't going back for guns and a hat. He'd been going back for his identity. Even now, on the couch without his hat, without the gleaming pistols, Bill looked deflated, somehow less than he was. Mortimer remembered first seeing him on the road coming down the mountain, standing with his legs spread, six-shooters blazing, demanding Mortimer's release with wild confidence. He'd looked like a hero.
Now he looked like another dirty, ragged refugee. What could a man do if he couldn't even hang on to who he was?
Anyway, he was safe now, and drinking cheap wine. There were worse things.
"None of that explains how you ended up on a Joey's bicycle," Mortimer said.
Bill laughed, shook his head. "That's the most boring part of the whole story. I finally found a road, walked along until I found a barn and crawled in to sleep for the night. Guy kicks me awake the next morning, points a shotgun in my face and tells me I'm trespassing. Next thing you know, I'm pedaling my ass off."
"I'll drink to that." Mortimer lifted his glass.
"Screw you." But he laughed again and drank. "What about you?" Bill asked. "Any adventures on the way here?"
Mortimer's laughter trailed off. He took a long, slow drink. The image of Ruth's face made his gut twist, beautiful and innocent one second, terrified and mad the next. The memory of Mother Lola's grotesque nudity made him shudder. So much since the panicked flight from the cannibals. It seemed like a month ago.
"I'll tell you about it sometime."
"Sure." If Bill sensed anything awry with Mortimer's mood, he kept it to himself. "I'm gonna grab a shower."
"I'll be here."
Bill left Mortimer alone.
The bed was comfortable and warm, and Mortimer had a full belly. It was a welcome change not to be afraid and cold. Stay, a voice in his head told him. Rest. Sure, then what? Go home.
The cave? That didn't seem like home anymore, it couldn't be, not now that he knew there was a living, breathing world going on. A strange world, and a dangerous one, but it was the only thing going. No, Mortimer would keep looking for Anne. Maybe it was his version of going back for his hat and gun.
Surely nature must abhor stasis. There's something in a man that makes him go and go and go, and maybe the direction wasn't even important. He would find Anne, and it would be everything or it would be nothing, but it would be forward motion if nothing else.
He was nudged awake five minutes later by a freshly showered Buffalo Bill. "Come on and buy me a drink."
The Cleveland Joey's lacked the party atmosphere and pure sexual energy of its sister establishment in Spring City. No girls dancing in cages. No smiling women working the crowd. But as a reasonably friendly neighborhood saloon it was passable. Men playing poker and drinking at various tables, an ancient toothless crone behind the bar, serving slow but eventual mugs of beer. The lighting was low but not too dark. The music was something by the Dixie Chicks. Mortimer recognized it because Anne had been a fan. Maybe she still was.
The old lady indicated they should take any open table, so they found one in a corner and sat. Shelby showed up ten seconds later, looking harried and put out.
"If you want a girl, I'd get on the waiting list now."
Mortimer shook his head. "Just food."
"And beer," added Bill.
"There's omelets and sausage. The eggs are fresh. I just got them."
Mortimer smiled. Looked like he'd have a chance to try some of Bobby's eggs after all. "Okay."
"You got anything else?" Bill asked.
"No. I'm cooking myself. No chef."
"He quit on you?"
"Hell if I know," Shelby said. "He never showed. At least if I was running a circus the fucking clowns would turn up for work, right? Anyway, I thought I heard some shooting, so maybe he's dead."
Mortimer frowned. "Shooting?"