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Page 13


"Good evening, sir. My name is James. I'd like to direct you and your party through our checkpoint, at which time you'll need to check your weapons with our clerk. He'll be happy to give you a receipt, and you're free to reclaim your weapons upon departure."

The man who'd uttered this well-rehearsed speech was young, with neatly cut blond hair and a smile full of straight, white teeth. He wore impeccable black trousers, black wingtips, a starched white shirt with black tie and black blazer. He held an M16 automatic rifle on Mortimer and his companions. The men behind James were dressed and equipped in the exact same manner.

Bill clutched one of the deer rifles to his chest like he was being asked to give up his firstborn. "Like hell."

The smile never wavered from James's face. "I'm afraid you will be denied entrance if we are unable to secure your firearms. For the safety of our drunken, irresponsible patrons, we must forbid all unauthorized weapons. Joey Armageddon thanks you for your cooperation."

Mortimer admired the young man's professionalism. Mortimer was confident James would remain polite and friendly the whole time he and his chums were shredding Mortimer and his companions with a lethal rain of automatic gunfire.

He edged closer to Bill, nudged him in the ribs. "Just pretend it's Dodge City and you're giving up your guns to Wyatt Earp."

Bill frowned. "Ha-fucking-ha-ha."

"Come on," Sheila said. "I just want to go in."

"Okay," Mortimer said to the guards. "We'll check the hardware."

James seemed genuinely delighted. "We appreciate your cooperation. Please follow the path through the gate. The clerk is on the other side."

The gate wasn't some half-assed blockade of dead cars like he'd seen in the small towns to the north. They'd put a cinderblock wall across the road. It was eight feet high with sporadic guard platforms on the other side, crisp men in starched shirts staring down over the sights of their M16 rifles. An iron gate swung open on well-oiled hinges, and Mortimer followed Sheila and Bill through to the other side.

It took a moment for the little village to snap into focus. Mortimer wasn't sure what he was seeing at first, but recognition dawned in ten seconds. They were on St. Elmo Avenue, and Mortimer could see St. Elmo Station a block and a half away.

Mortimer took another few seconds to realize why everything looked so strange. It looked like an actual town, a place where people lived and worked and hadn't endured nearly a decade of doom. If there had been cars on the road, Mortimer might have believed he'd finally awakened from a long, detailed nightmare. The village around St. Elmo Station bustled with commerce. The goods and services from various shops spilled out onto the streets, giving the place an open-air-market feel. Everything was clean and organized, the streets and buildings in good repair.

And light. With the oncoming darkness, a man walked the street lighting oil lamps set high on thin iron poles. They did not fear the dark here. There was no starvation or danger. Even the men with machine guns were courteous.

"Sir? Excuse me, sir?"

Mortimer blinked out of his stupor, turned to see a squat, round gentleman with a sweaty red face watching him expectantly.

"Sir, my name is Reginald, and I'm the master gun clerk. Please step to the kiosk."

The gun kiosk was some kind of converted ticket booth with a kid barely out of his teens at the window. Behind the kid hung all manner of rifles and pistols. Even a sword or two. Sheila and Bill were already folding receipts and putting them into pants pockets.

Reginald said, "If you please, sir, hand your weaponry through the window to Steven. He'll tag it for you and make out a receipt."

He handed the kid the shotgun, then the pistol he'd taken off the Red Stripe. He felt oddly naked without the guns. They'd become an important part of his personal inventory. The kid handed him back a receipt, which Mortimer shoved down the front pocket of his jeans.

"What if I need to defend myself?"

Reginald smiled with practiced patience. "You need only defend yourself from quality service and premium female companionship. I'd surrender."

Good suggestion.

Mortimer, Bill and Sheila made their way toward St. Elmo Station, walking in no particular hurry, craning their necks and gawking at the village. At one point, Sheila uttered a muted squeal and skipped toward a shop with dazzling women's clothing hanging in the window. She pressed her face against the glass like a five-year-old gazing longingly at a candy store display.

Mortimer came up behind her. "Buying a dress for the ball?"

She sighed. "Not likely without money." She brightened slightly. "But I'll get a job as a Joey Girl again. Then I'll get clothes even better than these."

"I don't doubt it."

"What gets me about these clothes is that some of them are only pretty," she said. "Not made to keep you warm or dry. Just to be pretty. Can you believe they'd make clothes just for that? I guess they used to all the time."

Anne had always wanted the most impractical clothing and loathed Mortimer for pointing that out. "Every girl should have at least one dress just to be pretty."

Mortimer didn't know if he quite believed that, but it was the right thing to say. A smile flickered across Sheila's face, and for an instant the hardness fell away and she wasn't a teenage whore and killer. She was just a young girl looking at pretty dresses in a shop window.

They realized they'd lost Bill. It was bound to happen, so many things to catch the eye and turn the head. Soon Sheila was off looking into another store window. Without vehicular traffic, the middle of the avenue had become a sort of town square. A man played a banjo while a small monkey performed acrobatic feats. Mortimer was glad the monkey hadn't been eaten. How many escaped zoo animals roamed the countryside? A few yards down, another performer juggled flaming batons. Someone else dealt three-card monty. He smelled cotton candy and some kind of meat on a stick.

He realized he didn't have any money but hoped he could get the same credit here he'd gotten at the Joey's in Cleveland. He really wanted to sleep indoors tonight. It would be a great gift to Bill and Sheila to buy them both a big dinner, a few bottles of wine. Hell, maybe he'd even get Sheila a new dress for the occasion. Mortimer admitted to himself he was thinking about everything except why he'd come all this way in the first place.

Somewhere at the top of Lookout Mountain his wife, Anne, waited.

Now that he was here, the idea of marching up to her and saying, " Hi, honey, it's me, your husband. Long time no see," seemed ludicrous. A juvenile part of him did relish the surprised look he hoped to see on her face, but mostly he didn't know how she would react, and that made him nervous.

But Mortimer owed her something. He couldn't articulate what that might be, not exactly, but he needed to see her, and he honestly believed she'd want to see him. Sure she would. They were married after all.

He was stalling. Was it possible Mortimer no longer wanted-or needed-to see Anne? He'd come down the mountain alone. It might only be natural for him to seek out his wife. To connect again with the world via the only person he could think of who might want to see him. But Mortimer wasn't alone anymore. He counted Bill as a friend. Sheila...well, he didn't know what to think of Sheila and her "apology." She was more than an acquaintance but not quite anything else, yet Mortimer still felt he wanted to call Sheila friend. Even if she was a scary, ferocious demon child.

So what did he want from Anne? What did he think she might want from him? He stood in the town square, eyes going unfocused as he thought hard about it, jugglers and monkeys and cardsharps plying their trades around him. He blotted them out. Something was coming to him, some significant thought coalescing from all the loose ends knocking around in his head.

Sheila emerged from the crowd to stand next to him, tentatively touched his arm. "Are you okay?"

"Shhhhh. Don't talk," Mortimer said. "I'm having an epiphany."

He had come all this way, fueled by the misguided notion that he still loved Anne, that he needed to find her again, win her back somehow. What he really wanted was to stem his abject loneliness, the hollow ache that had clawed and gnawed his gut for nine years, until finally he had to fill that burning hole with...something. His desperate mind grabbed for something familiar and had latched on to the memory of Anne. Mortimer had not wanted to march into the gray unknown of a shattered world without a destination, without hope of the familiar, so he'd fabricated the myth of Anne and their possible reunion.

But Mortimer found that he wasn't alone. He had Bill and Sheila and a Joey Armageddon's Platinum card. He was doing all right. He was reinventing himself in a new context. This different, surprising, shocking world might disgust him, confound him, bruise and terrify him, but so far it had not knocked him down, not so badly that he couldn't find his feet again. Mortimer Tate could stand up. He did not need his ex-wife.

He thought maybe that he loved her still but wasn't in love with her. Is that what women meant when they said that bullshit? Yes, Mortimer understood now. His mind had broadened to understand this simple truth. All it took was the end of the world.

He blinked himself out of his daydream, clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Okay, figured that out. Now let's go get something to eat."


They found Bill and headed for St. Elmo Station and the Incline Railway. The trolley car's tracks climbed the steep slope of Lookout Mountain, terminating at Point Park, the Civil War historical site at the top. From the side, the trolley looked peculiar, slanted at a severe angle, but since it traveled up such a steep slope, it meant the passengers could sit in level comfort. The trolley was packed, 80 percent of the passengers male. There was an electric vibe in the trolley car, a spark of eager expectation as they headed to Joey Armageddon's at the summit.

In some places, the grade was more than 70 percent, and as a kid, Mortimer remembered hearing that the Incline held the world record for steepest railway. He also remembered spectacular views toward the top of the mountain, but night had fallen now and all he could see were flickering pinpricks of light along the mountain and in the valley, scattered campfires and lanterns. He leaned out one of the windows, looked up ahead toward the end of the line.

Shimmering colored light crowned the top of Lookout Mountain, orange and yellow and a crazy purple shot through with searchlight stabs into the heavens. As they inched closer, the music grew louder, some sort of symphonic cymbal-crashing music. If the combined effect had been designed to heighten anticipation, it was working beautifully. Mortimer couldn't wait to get to the top.

Mortimer no longer felt he was on a quest. The desperate urgency had drained from him. He still wanted to see Anne, still felt some sort of closure would be beneficial, but he had no expectations. What will be, will be. The future was his to shape. Perhaps he would find a house nearby, set up shop. The thought of further travel wearied him. No, he would not think beyond tonight.

He was a Platinum member.

Let the good times roll.

The top of Lookout Mountain hummed and buzzed and bustled with activity. Large stereo speakers hanging in the trees boomed the classical music, which Mortimer now recognized as the theme from Star Wars. More armed but ever-friendly guards in clean black suits watched over the crowd. The passengers spilled out of the trolley car into the throng. The crowd headed for a set of gates that took them on a circular path to the front entrance. Mortimer, Bill and Sheila fell into the slowly moving mass of people. It reminded Mortimer of the few times he'd been to a Tennessee Titans game, the expectant crowds drifting en masse through the turnstiles into the stadium.

Above them, music filled the sky, spotlights danced among the trees; it was the circus and the Super Bowl and a Hollywood premiere all rolled into one. Mortimer was simultaneously awed and giddy.

After five minutes of edging forward in the line, Mortimer saw a small gate in a white wooden fence off to the side. A discreet sign in small lettering read VIP ENTRANCE. He reached in his pocket, came out with the pink Platinum membership card. He grabbed Sheila by the hand, met Bill's eye. "Come on!" He fast-walked toward the gate, pulling Sheila behind him.

"We'll lose our place in line," Bill said, but he followed.

Mortimer went straight up to the iron gate and then backed away immediately when a hand stretched through the bars holding a snub-nosed nickel revolver. The man on the other side of the pistol wore the standard black suit and gleaming white shirt, but a well-crafted, pink pin shaped like a mushroom cloud on his lapel possibly denoted some kind of rank.

He cocked the revolver with a thumb. "Good evening, sir. I'm the V.I.P. host on duty, and my name is Lars. I'm sorry for any inconvenience, but this entrance is reserved for special guests of Joey Armageddon. We thank you for your cooperation in avoiding unnecessary bloodshed and ask you to please step back in line."

"Uh..." Mortimer took a half step forward, holding the pink membership card in front of him. He readied himself to jump back if need be. He didn't quite have faith in the card's ability to stop bullets, no matter how well it was laminated.

Lars reached through the bars with his other hand and took the card, read it, smiled at Mortimer. "Very sorry for the misunderstanding, Mr. Tate." Lars made the revolver disappear into a shoulder holster and swung the gate open. "If you and your party could step this way."

They walked through the gate, and Lars closed it behind them.

The other side was gardenlike, well manicured, with tall hedges bordering a path that paralleled the slow-moving line on the other side. Discreet lanterns lit the flagstone path.

Mortimer gestured down the path. "That way?" He hoped. It would be a hell of a lot faster than waiting in the huge line on the other side of the hedge.

"You need not walk, sir. I can arrange transportation if you like."

Mortimer exchanged bemused glances with Bill. "Uh...sure."

Lars picked up an old-fashioned phone from a pedestal near the gate and dialed three digits. "Yes, I need a sky chariot for a Platinum member and his two guests. How long? Fine." He hung up.

To Mortimer he said, "It will only be a few minutes. You're not scared of heights, are you?"



Mortimer had not known what to expect when Lars had ordered a sky chariot. He'd stood for a moment, openly curious, when he'd heard a whoosh and the creak of gears and pulleys. He'd looked up, seen the hot-pink gondola fly overhead, suspended from a thick cable. It had probably been looted from some nearby amusement park. It angled down and landed at a port forty feet away. They crowded in. Lars joined them, explaining first-time Platinum visitors were escorted personally for better service. The open-air gondola (sky bucket, Lars called it informally) was just big enough for the four of them.

So they floated, music wafting up to them, lights playing across the sky. Mortimer began to laugh, deep and throaty, holding his belly. Sheila smiled too, but looked at him curiously.

Bill raised an eyebrow. "What's funny?"

"I don't know." Mortimer kept laughing.

Lars smiled knowingly. "You've had a hard journey to get here?"

Mortimer wiped his eyes. "Like you wouldn't believe."

Lars said, "First-time visitors often feel a distinct and sudden euphoria that manifests itself sometimes in an uncontrolled burst of laughter. Upon realizing you have miraculously come through certain death and horror, the relief stimulates an endorphin release in the brain, which facilitates the process. Typical after prolonged exposure to stress and trauma."

"Whoa," Bill said. "Were you a psychologist or something?"

"Tax auditor for the IRS."

Mortimer leaned out of the sky bucket for a better look. They passed over a well-lit section of ground, roughly the size of a football field. Rows and rows of men pedaled stationary bicycles. They all wore black shorts and pink T-shirts, and a thick, steamy heat rose from the area.

The sight of the slave riders put a minor dent in Mortimer's endorphin production, and his euphoria deflated. Mortimer wasn't any kind of a historian, but he could think of no era in which the haves hadn't benefited from the labor of the have-nots. Was there something about the fall of civilization that nudged a man toward socialism? Or were the concepts of "fair" and "unfair" simply less abstract when one observed hundreds of bike-pedaling slaves from the safety and comfort of a soaring sky bucket?

Still, and Mortimer hated admitting it to himself, a small part of him thought, Better them than me.

"We can take you directly into the club for seating," Lars said. "But if I might make a suggestion, you and your party might like to check in to the hotel and clean up first."

"Sounds good."

Sheila said, "I won't need a room. I'm here to sign on as a Joey Girl."

The slightest possible twitch of anxiety passed across Lars's face, but he hid it immediately, smiling instead. "Of course, madam. I'd be happy to drive you back to Human Resources."

"I don't have any money," Mortimer said. "I was given membership in Spring City and was hoping to talk to somebody about credit. I probably need some new clothes."

"I can attend to every detail," Lars said.

Lars turned out to be a whirlwind of service and efficiency. He met Mortimer and Bill in their hotel suite after the two had showered, bringing with him Armageddon dollars from Mortimer's account and fresh suits of clothing for both men.

"Lars, you've done a hell of a job," Mortimer said. "Is tipping still in vogue this day and age?"

"Of course, sir. We're civilized people here after all."

Mortimer counted out twenty of the coins and dropped them into Lars's palm. Lars tried to keep his face neutral, but it was clear he was having some kind of interior argument with himself.

"I feel it's my duty to inform you, sir, that this amount is, in fact, equal to a month's salary. And I'm considered senior staff."

Mortimer tossed back a glass of wine, considered. "I appreciate your telling me the truth. I've been out of touch, and I still haven't got the hang of the new economy. Let's just say you keep that. And if there are any special favors we need but are too stupid to ask for, you can help us out, okay?"

Lars bowed slightly, had already slipped the coins into his jacket pocket. "It is my utmost delight to make your stay here at Joey Armageddon's as comfortable as possible, and I assure you that your needs will be in my every thought."

"Great. Now, if possible, my friend and I would like to see naked girls and get shit-faced."

"Absolutely, sir. And may I say it will be our pleasure to clean up your vomit should you overindulge."


Lars escorted them via golf cart through a VIP side entrance. He'd had the foresight to reserve them a table down front, less than ten feet from the stage. Mortimer couldn't help the dopey grin on his face.

The place was marvelous.

It was set up like a big, indoor band shell, the room opening wider and taller as it went from the stage back to the front entrance. The stage jutted out in a semicircle, edged with small tables, another identical row of tables behind Mortimer. Above that another tier of tables and behind that the club proper with scattered tables, bars along each wall and sequined women in miniskirts hovering from table to table, delivering drinks and flirting with patrons.

Smash Mouth blasted from the sound system, segued into a brassy big-band instrumental with a new pop flavor.

Above, girls in bikinis hung from trapezes, waving and blowing kisses. Once in a while, a spotlight would land on one of the girls, who would then spin around or perform some other minor trapeze trick, prompting enthusiastic applause.

Mortimer's grin wilted as he thought of Anne. Had she performed on the trapeze? Who were these women? Wives and sisters and daughters. Mortimer didn't want to think about it. Thinking about it would ruin it.

A stunning, thin brunette with aquiline features handed Bill and Mortimer a drinks menu.

"I don't see any of that Freddy's crap," Bill said.

"Good." Mortimer pointed to the Jack Daniel's on the menu. "It's only six dollars a bottle. Do you think that's a misprint?"

"Must be fake stuff they're just calling Jack Daniel's," Bill said. "I'm game if you are."

They ordered a bottle of Jack Daniel's, and the waitress said she'd return with food menus.

Bill looked at Mortimer for a long second, then said, "You haven't mentioned your wife."

"She'll keep." Mortimer smiled. "I had an epiphany."

"Well, I don't know anything about that, but you're not puking so much."

Mortimer cocked an eyebrow. "What?"

"When we first met," Bill said. "Seemed like you were puking all the time."

"Give me a break."

The waitress arrived with a bottle of Jack and two tumblers. They declined ice, and she poured three fingers of Jack into each glass.

"Are you ready to order?"

"It says steaks on the menu," Mortimer said.

The waitress nodded.

Mortimer asked, "Real steak? Not rat steak or steak made from couch cushions or Soylent Green or something? Steaks from actual cows?"

"Rib eyes."

"Two steaks, potatoes and whatever vegetable is most fresh," Mortimer said.

She wrote it down and went away.

"Real steaks." Bill whistled. "Do I want to know how much that's going to cost? An arm and a leg, I bet."

"Two arms and three legs," Mortimer said. "But I don't care."

They drank. Their eyes got big and they looked at the glasses and at the bottle.

"Is it just me," Bill said, "or is this Jack Daniel's fucking fantastic?"

"It's not just you. Do you think it's real?"

Bill shook his head. "It's too damn cheap. Maybe we're just used to that Freddy's stuff."

They both laughed.

"I don't know." Mortimer grinned. "That Dishwater Lager grows on you."

"One time I had something called Freddy's Dung-Brown Tequila." Bill made a gagging face. "It seriously tasted like ass. I mean it. Sweaty ass."

They both drank the Jack Daniel's again. It was just as good the second time.

Mortimer felt pleasantly warm. It started in his belly and spread through his limbs, lightened his head. He looked up, smiled at one of the trapeze girls. He tapped his foot to a song called "I Touch Myself" and tried to remember the group.

The waitress dropped by for a visit, put a soft hand on Mortimer's shoulder. "The chef will put your steaks on the grill soon. Everything okay here?"

Mortimer said, "Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for Anne Tate. I'm told she works here."

A light came on in the waitress's eyes. "Oh, yeah. I think I know her." A slight frown. "But it's been a while since I've seen her. They employ so many people here. I can ask."

"I'd appreciate that. I'm sort old friend."

"No problem."

"Hey!" Bill held up his tumbler, swirled the amber liquid. "What is this stuff?"

The waitress looked at him like maybe it was a trick question. "Jack Daniel's."

"I know. I mean who makes it? It practically tastes like the real thing."

"It is the real thing," she said. "The distillery never closed. You can read about it here." She turned the bottle around so the back label faced Bill.

"I'll be damned," Bill said. "They still make the stuff." He squinted at the label's small print.

"Read it," Mortimer said.

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