"Way out on the edge of town. Like an hour ago, and it's been quiet since."
Mortimer and Bill exchanged glances. Mortimer asked, "Should we expect trouble?"
Shelby shrugged. "Town militia will handle it. Anyway, a thousand Red Stripes could ride in on Harley Davidsons for all I care as long as they brought me a chef and ten guys for the bikes. You want the omelets or not?"
"We'll take two plates," Mortimer said.
"And beer," Bill shouted after Shelby.
The old lady brought two mugs of the Dishwater Lager. They sipped. Mortimer realized he was comfortable. Warm. He'd been warm since coming here and figured maybe the church was old enough to have an oil-burning furnace. Maybe even coal-burning. He wondered if there was anyplace a nuclear power plant still functioned. That would be a lot of energy. A town could pretend nothing had happened with that kind of power, dishwashers and microwave ovens and televisions. Except there were no TV channels anymore. You could watch DVDs maybe.
"This sure don't compare to the Joey's in Spring City," Bill said.
"You want me to go put our names on the waiting list?"
The omelets arrived with long, thick links of sausage. Mortimer tasted the eggs. Fresh and good. The sausage was heavily spiced, perhaps to cover the taste of the meat itself. He remembered pigs and cows were scarce.
"What do you think this is?" Mortimer stuffed another big chunk of sausage in his mouth.
Bill shrugged. "If we're lucky, squirrel or raccoon or something. Best not to ask."
They ate. They drank. It was pleasant and quiet. They didn't ask.
Barely audible over the sad notes of a Kelly Clarkson song, the distant pop pop pop of small-arms fire froze everyone in the saloon. Mouths stopped chewing. Patrons held beer mugs halfway to lips. Everyone waited and listened. The seconds crept by, and everyone was about to breathe again when they heard another burst of fire. Maybe a little closer. Maybe a little farther away. It was hard to tell.
A tall man pushed away from a table across the room. He sighed and stood. He was thin; his face had deep lines and thin lips. He wore a state trooper's hat and a Georgia Tech sweatshirt, and had an automatic pistol on his belt. "Keep on with what you're doing, everyone. I'll take a look." He left through the front door.
"Who was that?" Bill asked.
An old man leaned over from the next table. "Officer in the town militia."
The old guy snorted. "Hell, there's always trouble. The world is sewn together with it."
They finished their meals, and Mortimer said he was heading back to the room. He wanted an early start. Bill said he wanted to stay a while longer, have another beer and see if he could get some more news out of the locals.
Mortimer went next door. The bank lobby was empty. It might have been nice to shoot a game of pool. On the way upstairs, he noticed somebody looking at him through a cracked door to another room. The door closed quickly as he passed.
Mortimer entered his own room, sprawled on the bed. He stared at the ceiling a long time. Tired, bone weary, but sleep didn't come. The stucco patterns on the ceiling were random, but if a person looked at them long enough, they formed images. Even as a kid, Mortimer had seen that, the faces in the stucco, animals and battleships and the Empire State Building. The mind wanted to see things, wanted something to be there, needed there to be anything but nothing.
Mortimer looked at the ceiling and saw pigs and cows. Maybe it was the sausage playing tricks on him. He tried to see something else, a message, anything useful.
Pigs and cows and no sleep at all.
He almost didn't hear the knock at first, thought it was part of some obscure dream, but he'd never really gotten to sleep, had only been lying there letting his thoughts drift. He waited until he heard the knock again before saying, "Who is it?"
The door creaked open, a sliver of hallway light widening to put the small figure into silhouette. She turned, and Mortimer could see her figure wrapped in something thin and silky, small breasts turned up and firm, thin waist. She was short and young, although difficult to tell how young in the poor light.
"Who are you?" he asked.
She closed the door and went to the bed, sat on the side next to Mortimer. Her weight barely registered, sagging the mattress only a little.
"Did Shelby send you? I'm not paying for this." But there was little conviction in Mortimer's words. She smelled good. Soap.
"I saw you coming up the stairs." Her voice was light and sweet. She was very young. She put her hand on Mortimer's leg, ran it gently down to the knee. He winced slightly when she rubbed over the arrow wound but didn't say anything. An erection began working in his pants.
With her other hand, she reached toward the nightstand and switched on a lamp. It was a pink lamp with bunnies on the shade, a child's lamp. The twenty-five-watt bulb cast weak yellow light.
He could see her face now, heart shaped with full lips. She was sixteen or seventeen at most, but Mortimer wasn't sure that sort of thing mattered anymore. Her copper hair looked like a dye job, but it was clean and shiny and bobbed at her neck. Her skin was clear and smooth and white. She looked familiar, but maybe that was just something he wished, so he wouldn't be in bed with a stranger.
She started working on his belt, her feather touch unbuckling him with practiced ease. He opened his mouth to object again but couldn't make any words come out. Soon he was lifting his ass, letting her pull down his pants. She reached for his erection. It was so hard, it was almost painful. He gasped when she stroked it. She cupped his balls, held them a moment, then stood and dropped her robe. She was white. Pink nipples. A small, downy patch of brown hair between her legs.
There was something in her hands, a little package she ripped open. She grabbed the base of his erection, unrolled the condom over him.
She straddled Mortimer, lowered herself slowly onto him. He moaned. Mortimer had forgotten. It had been so long. How could he have forgotten?
She started to ride, bouncing with quickening rhythm.
Mortimer took her by the hips, held her. "Slow down." He wouldn't be able to hold back, and he didn't want it to be over so soon.
She slowed, rocked back and forth. He cupped a breast, and she leaned down so he could take it in his mouth. When she sat back up again, Mortimer looked at her face, took in the shape and the eyes.
"I know you."
She smiled and nodded.
"Sheila." She no longer looked like the squashed, terrified child who had been at the beck and call of the Beast, the man who had beaten and robbed him and cut off his pinkie finger.
"This is my way of saying I'm sorry, I guess." She nibbled her bottom lip, shrugged, looked almost coy. "I couldn't help you before, when Kyle was doing all those things."
The Beast's name had been Kyle. Not Bruno or Spike or Butch. Kyle.
Now he did let her ride. She picked up a good rhythm, made little circular motions as she slipped up and down. He thrust back into her, hands full of her backside, moaned from the throat raw and feral. She made whining little grunts every time she came down, tiny gasps as she went back up again.
He came so hard, he thought he might blast her into the ceiling. She yipped surprise and shuddered on top of him, then slid off with a little giggle, curling next to him, both of them breathing heavily, soaking the sheets with their sweat.
Sheila put a hand on him, idly stroked his chest hair. They lay for a while not saying anything. Mortimer mused that Sheila had been exactly what he'd needed. He felt like he could sleep now all the way to morning, although he found he was even more eager to find Anne.
When they heard the gunfire, it seemed much closer this time. And when they heard it again, it was right out in the street.
Mortimer exited the room quickly. He'd already packed. He even had his shoes on. All he had to do was pull up his pants and buckle his belt. He ran out of the room with the double-barreled shotgun in one hand and the Nike tote bag in the other. Somewhere behind him, Sheila had jumped up and grabbed her robe. Mortimer didn't look back.
I accept your apology, little girl. Stay safe if you can.
He heard more gunfire and saw flashes in the window as he ran through the bank lobby. He went across to Joey's, where he saw men upending tables, facing the front door, rifles and pistols ready. He saw Bobby and Floyd crouched behind one of the tables, Bobby with his single-barreled shotgun and Floyd with a very-small-caliber revolver.
Mortimer knelt next to them. "What's happening?"
"Red Stripes overran the barricades," Bobby said. "A shitload of them. Just came out of nowhere."
"I thought you'd be home guarding the chickens."
Bobby snorted. "I should have been, but dumbass here needed to dip his wick. Dumb horny idiot."
Floyd flicked his brother the bird. "It was worth it. That Sheila can fuck like a demon."
Mortimer tried to pretend he hadn't heard that. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I'm looking for a pal. Seen a guy with blond hair and a big mustache?"
Bobby shook his head. "Ask Shelby. He's hiding behind the bar."
Mortimer hoisted himself over the bar where the church altar had once been. He found Shelby and Bill passing a bottle of Freddy's Bowel Explosion Bourbon between them.
"I'm selling this place," Shelby said. "I mean, seriously, I've fucking had it." He took a swig of bourbon.
"Don't bogart the bottle." Bill took it, drank.
Mortimer dropped between them. "I'd like to cancel the room for tonight, Shelby. Credit the difference to my account."
Mortimer took the bottle from Bill. "You want to get out of here or not?"
Bill grabbed the bottle back. "How? They're shooting out there." He drank deep and fast, coughed, some of the bourbon splashing on his chin.
The front door burst open and somebody yelled to hold fire. The jagged racket of a gun battle came loud from the streets. Two men stumbled in, carrying a third between them. The man they carried bled from the belly. They kicked the door closed behind them.
"Fucking hell!" one of them said. It was the lanky militia officer Mortimer had seen earlier. "They're swarming out there like flies on a turd. Get one of them tables up."
A pair of men with deer rifles righted their table. The officer and his comrade dropped the wounded man on the table faceup. He groaned and clutched his belly, thick blood oozing red, pumping out like they'd struck oil. He was crying and moaning and asking for his momma.
"Is there a doctor?" the officer asked the room. "Somebody with medical experience?"
A flurry of gunshots and one of the front windows shattered, spraying glass. Everyone hit the deck. The door flew open, and two men rushed in. They were met immediately by a half-assed volley of rifle fire, but it was enough to put them down. More invaders crowded the door. Shots flying inside.
"Pick your targets," the officer yelled. "Don't waste ammo shooting wild." He drew his pistol and fired at a face that appeared in the shot-out front window. The wounded man was still groaning on the table. Shots shattered bottles behind the bar, and Mortimer ducked down again, throwing his arms over his head as glass and booze showered him.
Shelby began to laugh uncontrollably. "I paid for that fucking booze!"
Mortimer didn't want to stick his head back up to see what was happening. But he could hear. Shots and furniture scooting on the floor and men screaming and the gut-shot man on the table crying out for his mother.
Mortimer held the shotgun tight against his chest. Maybe he should be helping with the firefight. Or maybe he should have stayed in his room.
"Shelby, is there a back door to this place?"
"Through the kitchen. Opens to an alley. But the alley goes to the street and that's where all the shit is happening."
"At least we could make a run for it." With the bullets flying, Bill seemed a lot more willing to make a break for it.
"Your call," Shelby said. "Die in here or die in the alley."
Somebody leapt over the bar and landed three feet from Mortimer. He swung the shotgun, only just stopped himself from pulling the trigger and turning Sheila's face to hamburger.
She'd changed. Instead of a seductress, she now looked like a teen on her way to a high school campout. Jeans and a denim shirt and a black leather jacket. Reebok sneakers. A khaki Jansport backpack.
She looked at Mortimer, her face strangely calm and confident. "I'm getting out of here. You coming?"
"Wait for me," Bill said.
They crawled behind the bar, following Sheila.
She paused in front of Shelby. "I quit."
They crawled all the way to the end of the bar, the firefight still flaring in spurts out front. Sheila stood and dashed for a side door. Bill and Mortimer followed. Mortimer paused, looked back. A handful of men lay dead behind the overturned tables. A pile of dead Red Stripes choked the doorway. Others fired in through the broken window.
Mortimer went through the door, found himself on the other side with Bill and Sheila in some kind of vestibule. They followed Sheila through another door, down a hall and then into the kitchen.
Bill said, "We can't go this way. Shelby says it just leads to an alley and the street."
"I know a way," Sheila said.
As they went past stoves and refrigerators, Sheila grabbed a string of uncooked linked sausages and hung them around her neck. They found the old crone sitting on a stool near the back door. The door was metal and barred. It shook with thuds, men on the other side trying to knock it down.
"Will you be okay, Edith?" Sheila asked.
The old woman patted the MAC- 10 in her lap. "I have a full clip. And anyway, it'll take a bulldozer to knock down that door."
"We're leaving through the pantry. Can you close it behind us?"
The old woman nodded.
Sheila flung open the pantry door, motioned for Bill and Mortimer to follow. Inside, shelves were lined with various canned goods and foodstuffs. A canvas bag hung on a nail just inside the door. Sheila grabbed it, tossed it to Bill. "Fill it up."
Bill didn't hesitate, began scooping random items into the sack.
Sheila reached to the back of one of the middle shelves, knocking off cans. "Come on, come on. Where is it? Ah!"
An audible click, and the back of the pantry swung open. Stone stairs on the other side spiraled down. She lit a candle. "This way."
They went down the stairs. The door thudded closed behind them, and the little candle was the only light. The sound of the outside world had been cut off. The stairs ended at the mouth of a tunnel, which was dank and tomblike.
They followed Sheila into the tunnel. She picked her way carefully, watching her steps in the dim candlelight. The ground was uneven, the ceiling low enough in places that Mortimer had to hunch over.
"They used to smuggle slaves through here during the Civil War." Sheila's voice was barely above a whisper. "Edith said the pastor had been an abolitionist and part of the Underground Railroad. When she was a schoolteacher, they brought kids on field trips here."
They walked for a while, maybe twenty minutes, until they arrived at a wooden door made of heavy planks and iron hinges. Sheila grabbed an iron ring and pulled. "Help me."
Mortimer grabbed the ring too, pulled, his muscles straining. Finally the door swung open. They stepped into fresh air and darkness. Mortimer blinked, letting his eyes adjust. They'd come out under an unused railroad bridge, a small creek flowing in front of them.
"We can follow the tracks," Bill suggested.
"No," Sheila said. "If we go along the creek a mile or so, we'll cross a dirt road that takes us south. Nobody will see us. Come on." She didn't look back to see if they followed.
They hesitated only a moment before running after her.
The stars were brilliant in the night sky, the moon a crescent of glowing silver. The night was cold but not bitterly so. Mortimer slung the Nike tote over his shoulder, fixed the Maxfli cap firmly on his head.
"Where's she taking us?" Bill asked.
Behind them, the scattered shots sounded like popcorn. Like a string of firecrackers on the Fourth of July.
HIKING AND CAMPING
Sheila led them farther and for longer than Mortimer would have hiked if it were up to him. The creek twisted past houses and into the forest. After a long time it hit a dirt road.
"The logging trucks used to come through here," Sheila said.
Mortimer expected her to stop and make camp, but she climbed up the embankment to the road and kept going.
Bill finally spoke up. "Any time you want to s-stop is f-fine with me. I wouldn't say no to a fire." He didn't have a coat and shivered.
"Not yet." She kept walking.
They marched by starlight and the wan glow of the moon. Another hour slid by. Bill marched with his head down, his back bent, carrying the sack of goods from the Joey's pantry. At last, Sheila halted, looked about, seemed to get her bearings. She dove into the woods, and Mortimer found himself on a narrow path.
The path soon opened into a clearing, and Mortimer made out the vague shape of a structure. As they approached, he saw it was some kind of picnic area.
To Bill Sheila said, "Get wood if you want a fire."
Bill dropped the sack, started picking up sticks.
"What is this place?" Mortimer asked.
Sheila relit the candle and held it up to a brown sign with yellow lettering. TVA STATE PRESERVE. PICNIC AREA E.
"We were here when it got the worst," Sheila said. Her voice was flat and cold. "A Brownie troop. Kyle was the husband of our den mother."
Mortimer was glad it was dark. He didn't want Sheila to see the look on his face.
Bill dropped an armload of wood next to the fire pit. "Let's get this f-fucking thing lit. I'm freezing my b-balls off."
They made a circle around the fire and ate chunks of brown bread taken from the Joey's pantry. Nobody had the energy to cook anything. Sheila pulled a tightly rolled, very thin sleeping bag out of her backpack. She unrolled it three feet from the fire and slipped inside. The sleeping bag was pink, with pictures of the Little Mermaid on the front.
Mortimer gave his thin blanket to Bill, who didn't have a coat. He used his tote bag as a pillow. The fire took the edge off the cold. Even Bill had stopped shivering.
In spite of a deep exhaustion, none of them could fall immediately to sleep. The buzz of the danger they'd left behind still coursed through Mortimer's veins, his mind tumbling and turning with a hundred thoughts. Maybe the others felt the same way. Mortimer glanced around the small camp and saw open eyes glinting in the firelight.
"Maybe we should count sheep," Mortimer said.
Bill yawned. "That'll just make me hungry for mutton."
"How did you end up at the Cleveland Joey's, Sheila?"
She didn't say anything for a while, like she was trying to figure out how to start. Finally, she said, "I sort of panicked after Kyle was killed. I know that probably sounds stupid, but you get used to someone telling you what to do all the time, when to eat and when to sleep, and, well, just everything. I went back to the firehouse at first."
Sheila sat up, wrapped the pink sleeping bag around her, stared into the fire. "After spending one night by myself, I knew I couldn't just stay there and do nothing, if only because the food would run out. But it wasn't that so much. I just felt I had to go, you know? I haven't really thought about it until now, not clearly, not asking myself what I was thinking or if I had any plans, because I didn't. I didn't have any plans except I had to go. But thinking back, I guess I knew that it was up to me. That I could go or stay or live or lie down and die and it was completely up to me and nobody else. It was scary that first day, not having anyone tell me what to do, but once I packed everything and left the firehouse, I didn't see how I'd ever lived before. I guess I hadn't lived, not actually. I was just this thing that Kyle used. When he died, I started living."
Mortimer propped himself up on one elbow. "What happened?"
She pulled her gaze away from the fire, met Mortimer's eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Well, to end up at Joey's. You were suddenly free, but then you ended up..." Mortimer couldn't bring himself to say a whore. "It seems like you went from serving one man to serving any old man who walked through Joey's front door."
Sheila cocked her head to one side, eyes squinting like she was trying to understand a duck that had suddenly started speaking French.
"It's different," she said. "You don't understand at all. Men come from miles around to see me. They need what I can do for them. Kyle made me think I needed him. And that was wrong. Men want me. Need me."
"Don't get upset," Mortimer said. "I didn't mean anything."
"I'm not upset. I just can't believe you don't understand. If you think being at Joey's is the same as being with Kyle, if you don't see how it's totally different, then I don't know how to explain it to you."
Now Mortimer sat up, made vague shushing motions. "Look, I know it's a lot safer at Joey's. They treat you well and feed you and it's like a million times better than what Kyle was doing. Of course it was a better situation."
"You still don't get it." She did appear angry now, her hard eyes flashing in the firelight. "I have worth. At Joey Armageddon's they recognize that worth. They showed me I have value. All those years, Kyle wasn't raping me. He was robbing me."
Sleep came eventually. Mortimer awoke the next morning to the smell of sausage and coffee and thought he'd weep for joy.
"Morning." Sheila tended the fire, cooked the mystery sausages in the pan Mortimer had purchased just yesterday. She didn't seem upset. The morning was bright. Birds sang. The air was crisp and sweet.
She said, "Off somewhere taking a shit, I think."