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Page 12

She pointed deeper into the forest. "If you go that way you'll find a nice, clear stream if you want to wash up. I got some water earlier, but I used it for the coffee." She handed him his tin cup.

The cup was hot, and Mortimer used the tail of his shirt to hold it. The cold morning air drifted up his shirt and chilled him. He ignored it, held the coffee up to his nose. It smelled damn good. "Thanks."

Sheila poked at the sausages with a fork. "Breakfast soon."

"Okay. Guess I'll splash some water on my face."

He wandered off to find the stream, in no particular hurry. The forest was starting to fill in with green; still no underbrush, but pine needles were thick on every branch. It was pleasant. Mortimer could almost pretend he was on a camping trip. It was pretty here; maybe there was even good fishing in the stream. He had not been fly-fishing in a long time.

Anne had never cared for fishing, but she liked hiking and the outdoors in general. Their last real vacation had been to Las Vegas, and neither of them had enjoyed it; they had spent most of the time complaining that they should have gone to Yellowstone instead. Maybe if they'd gone to Yellowstone the next year it could have saved things. Maybe that would have been the start, gotten things back on track.

They never got around to it.

Mortimer found the stream, splashed water on his face. It was freezing, but even that was pleasant, the wet sting waking him up. And the coffee. That woke him up too, warmed his belly.

Mortimer sat on a rock and watched the stream go by and sipped coffee, and was quietly happy that not everything in the world was broken. There were still clear early mornings and hot cups of coffee.

Sheila's scream echoed through the forest. Mortimer dropped the tin cup and was already running before it hit the ground.


Halfway back to camp, Mortimer made himself slow down. He wouldn't be able to help anyone if he ran straight into a trap. He moved as quickly as he could while remaining quiet.

At the edge of the camp, he crouched low. He saw bodies moving through the low-hanging pine boughs. He scooted around, trying to get a better look. Two men, no, three, standing near Sheila. One had her by the shirt lapel. She was trying to pull away. The men laughed.

"Doing some camping, sweetheart?" asked the one holding her.

"Fuck off."

That made him laugh more.

"Who's here with you?" asked one of the other ones.

"Just me, asshole."

"She's got a mouth on her," the third one said.

"She's got a sweet little caboose on her." The one who held her pulled her closer, dropped his rifle so he could grope.

Sheila aimed a kick at his groin. He turned and took it on the thigh, grunted.

The other two men laughed at him. Mortimer saw the armbands. Red Stripes. He tensed to spring out at them, but what could he do? All three carried rifles. Mortimer could see his shotgun leaning against his Nike bag on the other side of the campfire.

"Stupid cunt." He yanked at her shirt and it ripped, the buttons popping halfway down. Sheila gasped, fear blooming in her eyes, no trace of defiance anymore. He yanked again and the shirt ripped open. She wasn't wearing a bra, and her breasts sprang out, immediately goose-pimpled in the cold air. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her head back, her mouth gaping open, a scream caught in her throat.

Three of them. Mortimer couldn't take three. Not barehanded.

The bushes rustled on the other side of the camp, and Bill bumbled through, buckling his belt. "I thought I heard-oh, hell."

The third Red Stripe swung his rifle, aimed it at Bill. The tip of the barrel was a foot from Bill's nose. "Hey, man! Hold it right there."

Bill froze, eyes big.

Sheila dropped to one knee, grabbed the coffeepot off the campfire.

The guy holding her looked down to see what she was doing, and she splashed it all. The scalding coffee hit his eyes and he dropped her, screaming. Falling to the ground, pawing at the bright red flesh of his scorched face.

Mortimer was already out of his hiding place and running toward them. He threw himself on one Red Stripe, pinned his arms so the guy couldn't bring his rifle up. The one near Bill turned, aimed at Mortimer. Mortimer saw what was happening and turned his captive toward the Red Stripe firing at him. The rifle barked, and Mortimer felt the man in his arms twitch and die, a bloody hole in his chest. He dropped him, turned toward the man with the coffee eyes, who was already on his feet again.

Bill jumped the Red Stripe near him. They wrestled, went down.

Mortimer advanced on coffee eyes, but the Red Stripe pulled a revolver from his belt, brought it up toward Mortimer, who flinched back.

An explosion, the echoing crack of pistol fire.

The Red Stripe's head exploded above the temple, hair and bone and blood flying up and away. His whole body vibrated like some obscene tuning fork before it collapsed.

Sheila stood a dozen feet away, holding an enormous automatic pistol in both hands, her open shirt flapping in the breeze, a look of wild animal rage on her face.

Bill had wrested the rifle away from the last Red Stripe. He stood over him, about to bring the rifle butt down on his head.

"Wait!" Mortimer shouted.

Bill took a step back, but still held the rifle ready to strike.

Mortimer bent and pried the pistol from the dead Red Stripe's hand. He took it to the Red Stripe near Bill, aimed at a spot between the Red Stripe's eyes. There was fear there, and he held his hands up feebly like he might ward off the bullet.

"Now," Mortimer said. "I'm going to need you to answer a few questions."

They used Sheila's ruined shirt to tie the captive's hands behind the trunk of a thin pine. He sat up against the bark, looking afraid.

Sheila put on her only spare shirt, a navy blue turtleneck, and joined Bill and Mortimer in staring down at the prisoner. They made a menacing trio. Mortimer held the.38 revolver he'd liberated from the head-shot Red Stripe, and Bill cradled one of the deer rifles in his arms. Sheila's automatic turned out to be a.50 Desert Eagle, and Mortimer marveled that the little girl had not been knocked back on her ass when she'd fired the thing.

The Red Stripe said his name was Paul.

Sheila said they couldn't give a shit and pointed the giant gun at his face.

"Just hold on." Mortimer took her by the elbow and pulled her back, felt her muscles tense. "I want some information."

"Look, I really don't know much," Paul said.

"We'll decide that."

"I didn't even want to be a Red Stripe."

Bill smirked. "You just in it for their generous medical benefits?"

"I got drafted," Paul said. "They found me down in Georgia. I was just minding my own business and scrounging for food, and they picked me up and said I could join up or they would put my head on a pike as a warning to everyone else."

"Like hell," Sheila said.

"I'm telling you true, man," Paul said. "Let me go, and I'll run in the opposite direction."

"If you didn't want to be a Red Stripe, then why didn't you three just run off now while you had the chance?" Bill asked.

"They always make sure there's at least three of us together. The guy with the pistol was our unit leader, and we can never know if the other two will gang up on us if we try to run away. They always rotate us around, so we can't ever trust anybody."

Mortimer recalled the three Red Stripes he'd killed up on the mountain. "Check the rifles, Bill. How many rounds?"

Bill looked in each rifle. "Only one bullet each."

Mortimer thought about it and nodded. "I think he's telling the truth."

Sheila snorted. "I think he's a lying sack of shit."

"I ran into three Red Stripes before," Mortimer told them. "They only had one bullet each."

"That's right," Paul said. "You see? They don't want us to mutiny."

"Why did you attack the Joey Armageddon's in Cleveland?"

"I don't know," Paul said. "They said attack, so we attacked."

"Who gives the orders?"

Paul said, "The company captains give the orders to the unit leaders. I just do what I'm told."

"I mean the head guy. Who's in charge of the whole deal?"

"Nobody knows."

"He's lying." Sheila thrust the gun back at him.

"I'm just a grunt." Paul cast a pleading look at Mortimer. "You got to keep her off me, man."

"Like you were staying off me a little while ago?" She spat at him, and it landed on his ear.

"That wasn't me, man. That was Brandon. He's, like, a fucking animal."

"You didn't try to stop him." Cold hatred in her eyes.

"I told you. I'm just a grunt."

"You must've heard rumors," Mortimer said. "Something about your leader."

"There's always talk around camp. Nobody knows what's true and what's bullshit."


"They say he's eight feet tall and has pointed teeth like a shark's."

"Do you want me to shoot your goddamn face off?" Sheila yelled.

"You asked, so I told you."

"Try us with something a little more credible," Mortimer suggested.

"Most stories agree his headquarters is down south," Paul said. "He sends out his spies to get information and deliver orders to the company captains. Sometimes people will just disappear, and everyone always says it's one of the Czar's spies doing an assassination."

"The Czar?"

"That's what everyone calls him."


Paul shrugged. "Hell if I know."

Sheila growled. "You're a useless asshole."

"Take it easy," Mortimer said.

"Fuck easy," Sheila said. "You don't think this guy would have taken his turn if you hadn't come back? Him and his buddies?"

Paul shook his head. "No way. I-"

"Shut your goddamn mouth." She put the barrel of the automatic against his forehead, pressed hard.

"Hey, man, get her off-"

"Sheila, let's not get excited, maybe just..." Mortimer took a step toward her.

"I should blow your fucking balls off, pig." She aimed the gun lower.

"Sheila, don't-"

"She's crazy, man. Get her away-"


Paul howled.

Bill jumped back. "Fucking shit!"

Mortimer could only watch in horror.

Blood gushed from the ragged hole between Paul's legs. It came out fast, forming an ever-widening pool, like somebody had kicked over a five-gallon tub of raspberry syrup.

"Oh, God! Holy shit, man." Hot tears rolling down Paul's suddenly pale face. "You've got to help me. Oh, Jesus."

"In some places, they chop off a thief's hand," Sheila said. "This is what you get."

"Oh, Jesus God, help me, fucking shit, I'm going to die, oh, shit." The blood gushed out so fast, they could see him actually deflate, shrinking against the pine trunk.

Mortimer gulped. "Do we have a first-aid kit, something to staunch the blood?"

"Are you kidding?" Bill looked green. "He's like a damn blood geyser or something. How do we stop that?"

Paul's head flopped, and his chin hit his chest. The bloodflow had slowed to a dribble. The former Red Stripe sat in a pool of his blood so big and round, it seemed impossible that it had all fit inside him. Paul had drained and looked shriveled. A raisin that had once been a grape.

"I never seen anybody bleed out that quick before," Bill said. "Must be some kind of world record."

"Good." Sheila turned her back on the mess and began to pack.

Mortimer stood a little while, feeling vaguely sick. The copper smell of blood mixed with coffee and pine.

They finished gathering their gear and followed Sheila back to the road. They walked a long way in silence.


They walked for two days toward Chattanooga, looking for human settlements but finding none. There was only the long broken highway and the occasional dead automobile. They saw people in twos and threes once or twice in the distance but paid them the courtesy of leaving them be. Once, a line of Red Stripes sent them into a ditch, where they watched and waited as the column marched past.

They said little to one another. An uneasy pall hung over the trio. To Mortimer, Sheila now seemed like something alien and dangerous. Equally disturbing was how Bill took the episode in stride, almost as if a young girl hadn't blown a stranger's testicles into hamburger at all.

Mortimer realized his problem had nothing to do with Bill or Sheila. They knew how to conduct themselves in this shattered world. Mortimer didn't. But he was learning. Violence is the way now. It gets you what you want. Solves your problems. What could we have done with the guy anyway? Let him go? No. Squeeze a trigger and the problem goes away.

Mortimer considered his brief interrogation of the Red Stripe. Somewhere a ghostly, mysterious leader pulled the strings of a reluctant army. This too must be part of the natural order. It was too much to hope that the world might be left to heal on its own. Society had always been defined by its antagonists. The Greeks fought the Romans and the Romans battled the barbarians. Now the desperate and bedraggled refugees of a broken civilization had the Red Stripes to deal with. It depressed Mortimer to think that conflict was the natural state of the universe. It all started with a Big Bang, and it would just bang and bang and bang until it banged itself out.

No wonder Nietzsche said people would need to invent God if He didn't exist.

Stupid Kraut.

Who decided to invent Nietzsche?

One of Anne's books. She had so many egghead books, wanted to go to the University of Memphis to study philosophy, but Mortimer had talked her out of it. He had talked her out of so much. Talked her out of living. Oh, God. No wonder she'd left him.

Nine years to figure that out.


That night they made camp in the middle of Interstate 75, the husks of old cars on three sides of them providing shelter from the wind. Over a modest campfire, Bill fried the last of the suspicious sausages Sheila had liberated from the Joey's pantry.

"I should have asked him if anyone else made it out," Sheila said.

Mortimer looked up. He'd been nodding off. "What?"

"The Red Stripe. Whatshisname."

"Paul," Bill said.

"I should have asked Paul if any of the other girls made it out. I tried to find them before we left, but I guess they were with clients. I hope they're okay."

"I'm sure they're fine." Mortimer didn't believe it for a second.


For a moment, she seemed to want to say more, but maybe she didn't know how. She rolled over and went to sleep. After a while a sound like soft crying came from her side of the campfire, but it was difficult to tell over the howl of wind through the busted-out car windows.

They next morning they started walking again, every muscle in Mortimer's body groaning from sleeping on the ground.

By midday he spotted the remains of Chattanooga's insignificant skyline, humping up from the horizon like the yellowed bones of some long-lost skeleton rising from the dead.


Sheila told Mortimer this: The Chattanooga Joey Armageddon's (the Joey Armageddon's, the first, the prototype, the home office) was at the top of Lookout Mountain.

This is what Mortimer knew about Lookout Mountain:

When he was ten years old, his father had taken him. There was a legitimate Civil War memorial at the top, a historical landmark, flags, cannons, etc. Additionally there were a few cheesy tourist destinations in the area. Ruby Falls, a long cave with an underground waterfall at the end. The proprietors shone a red spotlight on the rushing water to give it the "ruby" effect. At certain times of the year, the underground river that fed the falls slowed to a sad trickle. But nobody wanted to go to a tourist attraction called Ruby Trickle. Another place: Rock City was a collection of unique rock formations connected by flimsy bridges and walkways. Ceramic gnomes had been placed strategically to heighten the cheese factor. To a ten-year-old Mortimer it had all seemed like a magical land of wonder and enchantment.

As an adult, these wonders were much less wondrous. One Labor Day weekend, a year after his wedding, Mortimer had taken Anne to see the sights. He'd talked her out of attending a Shakespeare festival.

Anne had not been amused. It was a blisteringly hot day, and she was dirty and sweat-stained by the time they'd finished touring Rock City. Even Mortimer wondered why he'd thought the trip would be a good idea. Looking around he'd seen only families. Moms and dads with two or three kids on the loose. The realization had hit him palpably in the gut that a hot summer day among ceramic gnomes might not have been his father's idea of a good time. The things parents did for their kids.

Not knowing what else to do, Mortimer had pressed on, taking Anne to Ruby Falls. At least the caves would be cooler. The gift shops were filled with the bright debris of future spring cleanings.

At the end of Anne and Mortimer's long cave tour, the music swelled, and suddenly, in the total darkness, the red spotlight had blazed forth to illuminate a pathetic trickle of water. A recorded voice boomed Behold Ruby Falls!

In the indifferent silence that followed, while the bored tour group shuffled and looked over their shoulders for the exit, Anne suddenly burst out laughing. It had all been so ridiculous, the big buildup, all for a little dribble into a puddle. Mortimer had started laughing too, and kitsch value had saved the weekend, at least a little. They adjourned to a Mexican caf¨¦ and got slightly drunk on watery margaritas. They'd had fun, but Mortimer had always been aware that in some important way, on some important level, he and Anne weren't fully connected. Perhaps she would have thought the same about him if they'd ended up at the Shakespeare festival.

One last memory struck Mortimer with wry amusement.

The Incline was a trolley-style railroad car that climbed Lookout Mountain to the Civil War park on top. As a ten-year-old, Mortimer had ridden with his dad down the Incline to St. Elmo Station, where tourist shops and ice-cream parlors and arcades and frolicking fun in every form clustered around the foot of the mountain.

When Mortimer had returned with Anne, he'd been shocked to find the area had fallen on hard times. The streets were deserted and most of the shops had been boarded up. The once bustling tourist zone around St. Elmo Station had become a ghost town.

It was the only place Mortimer thought might actually be better off for the fall of civilization.

They still had a long walk ahead of them.

Lookout Mountain was south of the city. They hiked I-75 until it intersected with I-24, then headed west on 24. They found out quickly enough which exit to take. A large wooden sign had been erected, featuring the vivid illustration of a thrashing, large-breasted woman against a pink mushroom cloud. An arrow underneath with neatly painted lettering read THIS WAY TO JOEY ARMAGEDDON'S SASSY A-GO-GO.

Their moods picked up at the sight of the sign, and they all three exchanged sheepish smiles. It wasn't quite like coming home, but it beat the hell out of camping on the interstate. They picked up the pace as they hit the exit ramp. They wanted a bed and a meal and a drink. Many drinks. And loud music and all the extravagant good times for which Joey Armageddon's was famous. It was why people came from miles and miles. To lose themselves in indulgence and forget the daily horror of simply waking up every morning and living. Respite, haven, sanctuary, and yet much more than that. Something that reminded you on a primal level that it was good to be alive.

Five minutes later, a dozen men pointed automatic rifles at them.

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