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Page 15

"The village?"

"The collection of merchants clustered around the St. Elmo Incline station at the bottom of the hill," Armageddon explained. "You outfitted yourself at the Joey's store in Spring City. Up until a year ago, that was the model for all the clubs. But we started something here and also at the Joey's in Wilmington. We turned the Joey's store into a sort of brokerage, and instead of selling goods directly to the consumer, we've become wholesalers. An example: We bought several tons of cotton from a grower in Mississippi. We've been selling to tailors who have in turn opened clothing stores in the village. We paid the cotton grower in Armageddon dollars, most of which he spent to resupply himself down in the village, so the cash went right back into the local economy."

He tapped Lookout Mountain on the map and traced an outward spiral with his finger. "What started as a single economic location-Joey Armageddon's-has now widened into an economic zone. If similar zones expand around the other Joey's locations, the ever-increasing circles will eventually meet and overlap. A working, growing civilized economy.

"In Europe during the Middle Ages, a single institution stood against ignorance and barbarism-the Roman Catholic Church, as I've already told you. In our time, we also have an institution that has come to our rescue: the franchise."

Armageddon sat back at the desk, sipped his own coffee. "It all has to be gradual, of course. We still own half the merchants in the village and subsidize others. But there are merchants who have opened shops on the edge of the village, and I have no idea where they came from. They simply showed up one day to join the economy. People aren't waiting to be led anymore. They're taking initiative."

Mortimer thought about it, absorbed what he'd heard. Impressive. Still, it seemed odd, hard to swallow, that civilization could be reborn through a franchise of nudie bars. "It's great...really...but..." He trailed off with an embarrassed smile.

"I want you to speak freely," Armageddon said. "I'm not a dictator, and I'm not perfect. I want to hear if you have concerns."

"I don't understand why a go-go club," Mortimer said. "If you're setting out to save civilization, or build some kind of new civilization, then why not...well...anything but a titty bar?"

Armageddon cracked up laughing, genuinely amused. "Hell, man, you think I started all this to save the world? Hell, no. It was an accident. And it's not a titty bar. It's a go-go club. It might not make any difference to you, but it's an important distinction to me."

"I'm sorry." Don't poke the bear.

"We try to strike a certain tone. But I was going to tell you how it started. It's still early but I think I could use a drink after all. Join me?"

"Anything but Jack Daniel's."

They went out to the porch, a table and chairs overlooking the valley. Mild, only a chill in the air but not cold. Mortimer definitely anticipated an early spring.

They smoked cigars, and Armageddon drank Jack Daniel's over ice. Mortimer almost could not stand the smell of it, but a cold draft beer helped take the edge off his hangover. The cigar smelled good.

"It was never part of any grand scheme," Armageddon began. "Like so many people back then, I found myself running for my life. Talk to anyone who lived through those first years, listen to their stories. They'll always be stories of running."

Mortimer wondered if he would forever be separated from the rest of humanity by this lack of experience. He'd hidden during those times. He'd been lonely, but he hadn't been hunted.

"I was just coming out of a looted Ruby Tuesday's in Birmingham when they spotted me." Armageddon cradled his drink, a faraway look coming into his eyes as if he were trying to picture the episode, recall each detail precisely. "I'd been scavenging for food, hadn't found any and was on my way out when I saw the three of them. They had that raider look about them. You learned the type fast enough if you wanted to live. You saw them coming, and you found a hiding place. Fast. But they saw me a second later, and I dashed back into the Ruby Tuesday's. I ducked behind the bar, knowing that wasn't good enough. So I'm looking around for something, anything, an idea of how I'm going to get out of this, but knowing I am truly fucked. And my eyes land on a bottle. I can't believe it. In the midst of destruction is one unopened bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum. I take out my pocket handkerchief and wipe the dust out of three shot glasses, just as I hear boots crunching through the rubble on the floor, and I know they're creeping through the place looking for me. They're coming slowly because maybe I have a gun, or who knows?"

Armageddon sipped his Jack and shook his head like he couldn't believe what he was going to say next. "So I popped up, started wiping the bar with the handkerchief and said, 'Gentlemen, how are you doing today?' And I lined up the shot glasses and put the bottle on the bar. I was about to wet myself, and my legs felt like noodles. But you couldn't guess it. On the outside, I was steady as a rock.

"The three of them looked at each other like they weren't sure what was going on. Two of them had knives and one had a huge wooden baseball bat with nails sticking out of it. I didn't look at the weapons, just smiled. There was this long, silent ten seconds. And they came over to the bar. Just came right over and nodded at the shot glasses. I kept filling the glasses and made small talk. Yes, it was a hot day. No, I hadn't thought to cook rats that way. And I kept smiling and kept pouring and let myself believe I might actually bluff my way through this.

"And then the booze ran out. I figured that was it, but I smiled and said, 'Thanks for coming in, gentlemen. I hope you stop back again soon.'"

Mortimer found he was hanging on Armageddon's every word. "What happened?"

"They left. I shit you not, they waved good-bye and were on their way. They didn't offer to pay, and I didn't ask, but I thought about it a lot over the next few days. I think I reached something in them, triggered by the familiar sight of a neighborhood saloon. I realized that the most comforting thing a person could see was a place open for business, even if it was just pretend."

They sat in silence, sipped drinks and smoked cigars. Mortimer thought he could understand. More than anything, people were desperate for normalcy. The comfort of routine and familiarity.

"So you see," Armageddon said, "I didn't plan anything. It all evolved. And try to imagine if I had set out with the sole intention of helping my fellow man. Maybe I should have given away food to all who needed it. But where would the food have come from? How would it be replaced? Never give to the needy. They take and take and use and use and never put back. I could give it all away and feel like a hero for a day, but then we'd be right back at square one."

Mortimer frowned, tried to hide it by sticking the cigar in his mouth.

"You don't seem convinced."

"It's just hard to believe the best way to help people is not to help people."

"What political persuasion were you?" Armageddon asked. "Back when such things mattered, I mean."

"I was a registered independent. My wife was a Democrat."

"Ah, one of the independents." Armageddon grinned. "The luxury of blaming everyone but taking no responsibility. Forgive my little jibe. The point is that none of that matters now. Nobody's pandering for anyone's vote anymore. There is only what works and what doesn't work, and the difference is life and death."

"I'll take your word for it," Mortimer said. "This is all still new to me."

"Well, it's a beautiful day," Armageddon said. "Let's drink our drinks and smoke our cigars and I promise not to bore you with any more of my amateur babble on politics and economics."

"It's not boring," Mortimer said. "But you are keeping me in suspense. You said we might be useful to each other."

"You've heard of this Red Czar, I'm sure," Armageddon said.

"Leader of the Red Stripes. I saw some of his handiwork in Cleveland."

"That's the man," Armageddon said. "Little is known about him. What we'd like you to do is infiltrate his organization, find out what he's planning." Armageddon took a long, slow drink of his iced Jack, smacked his lips. "And if you can get close enough, we'd like you to kill him."


Mortimer sat in stunned silence for nearly a full minute before saying, "Is that all? Anything else? Would you like the moon a little bit to the left?"

"I'm serious," Armageddon said. "You're uniquely qualified for the task."

"First, no way," Mortimer said flatly. "Second, how the hell do you figure I'm uniquely qualified? And third, no fucking way."

"Don't be hasty. Let's consider this from all angles."

"Don't you have people for this?" Mortimer asked.

"We've already lost six good men," came a deep voice from behind them.

Mortimer started, turned his head to look at the newcomer. A tall, broad-shouldered black man in his middle forties, fit, but with patches of gray in his close-cropped hair, hard features and piercing alert eyes of light brown. He wore an olive-green dress army uniform, but of what army Mortimer could only guess. He wore a star on each shoulder, but the pink Joey's mushroom cloud on each lapel.

"We've sent spies and assassins," the black man said. "None have returned. One was a navy SEAL and another a former FBI agent."

"Ah. Malcolm, just in time," Armageddon said. "Please join us."

Malcolm approached the table, bent suddenly and kissed Armageddon on the lips. "Sorry I'm late."

"Don't give it a second thought." Armageddon gave Malcolm's arm a gentle squeeze. "We're having a drink if you want something."

Malcolm shook his head and pulled up a chair. "It's a bit early, isn't it?"

"Don't start."

Malcolm turned his attention back to Mortimer. "I briefed those men myself and sent them into enemy territory. I feel responsible for them. We only found out later that there are spies among us, men sending the details of our every move back to the Czar."

Mortimer sat up, cleared his throat and tried to look apologetic. "Look, I'm flattered you thought of me, but if trained men couldn't-"

Armageddon held up a placating hand. "Let General Malcolm explain. Then you'll understand."

"For months now, we've had reason to believe the Czar is brewing something pretty big," Malcolm said. "And we've been brewing our own little rebuttal. We received word that a refinery has begun production again just outside the malaria zone of New Orleans. Think about what I'm saying."

"Gasoline." Mortimer remembered all the dead cars along the interstate, the uncomfortable ride in the mule wagon. A plentiful supply of gasoline would change the world. Again.

"With a steady supply of gasoline, the sky's the limit for what the Czar can throw at us."

"And it's not just what he can do to us in a military way," put in Armageddon. "Shipping will change, the flow of goods and services."

Mortimer said, "That would be good, wouldn't it?"

"If he would play along, it would be very good," Armageddon said. "I would gladly pay Armageddon dollars for gasoline. Others would trade too. If he were smart that's what he'd do. But tyrants never think like that. No, his Red Stripes have already shown they'd rather take what they need than trade for it. Fueled with unlimited gasoline, they'll plow through here like locusts and leave nothing, destroying everything we've worked so hard to build."

"Why would he do that? It doesn't make sense."

Armageddon shrugged. "How can one understand the twisted mind of the megalomaniac? He is the Napoleon of our time, the Hitler, the Stalin. Every so many years, these men come along and ruin it for the rest of us."

"That still doesn't explain why you think I'm the man for the job."

"Allow me to give you a quick bullet-point list of why we want you involved," Malcolm said. "One: you've proven resourceful, having come through a number of unique dangers just to get here. Two: as a Platinum member, it's in your best interest to protect Joey Armageddon's, not destroy it. Three: since you've only just arrived, you're an outsider."

"Why is that a plus?"

"As I said," continued Malcolm, "we have spies among us. Even if I picked one of my most trusted men, I don't think we can prevent word getting out. The Red Stripes would be waiting for him, and I'm not losing another man if I can help it. We've already fabricated a story for your arrest. We plan to stage your escape. Then the Czar and his men won't suspect we've sent you. We have strong evidence that one of our guards is on the Czar's payroll, and I'll arrange for him to be on duty when you break out. He'll report to the Czar that you're not one of my soldiers."

Mortimer shook his head. "No, I don't think so. Just because I'm not one of your soldiers doesn't mean the Red Stripes are going to throw me a welcome party. Why should they care if I got drunk and thrown in jail?"

"We've thought of that," Armageddon said. "Tell him, Malcolm."

"We're going to let it leak that you've stolen our defense plans," Malcolm said. "The Czar won't be able to resist that." To Armageddon he said, "I'll have one of my people leak it to the kitchen staff. That'll be like broadcasting it on the radio."

"Naturally, we'll supply you with everything you need," Armageddon assured him.

"And what's my motivation to say yes to this suicide mission?" Mortimer asked.

"Beyond defending our tenuous grasp on civilization from the marauding forces of darkness?"

"Way beyond that."

"We would compensate you, of course. Say twenty thousand Armageddon dollars."

"No amount of money will-how much?"

"Twenty thousand," said Joey Armageddon.

"It doesn't make sense." Mortimer rubbed his eyes. His hangover was coming back double. "It still doesn't have to be me. You could bribe anyone."

"We thought you'd want to undertake the mission, considering certain personal reasons," Malcolm said.

"There are no personal reasons," Mortimer said. "There are personal reasons not to do it. To keep my person from getting killed, for example."

"I'm afraid there are personal reasons. Reasons that you might find compelling," said Armageddon. "The Czar has Anne. Your wife."


What kind of man would leave his wife in the evil clutches of somebody called the Red Czar?

I would, damn it. I had an epiphany. Doesn't anyone respect my goddamn epiphany?

Nobody respected his epiphany.

Joey Armageddon and his gay general were right. They had Mortimer's number. He had to try to help Anne. Mortimer waffled. But eventually he agreed to do it. He'd see this thing through to the end. He would find Anne. For better or for worse.

"If I'm going to do this," Mortimer said, "then I'm going to do it my way. And I'm going to need some things. Get a pen and paper."

Mortimer told them what he needed, and the general briefed him on how it would work.

"We'll arrange a contact who will guide you when you get there. He's trustworthy."

"How will I know him?" Mortimer asked.

"Don't worry," Malcolm told him. "He'll know you."

Armageddon took Mortimer's hand, shook it firmly, looked him straight in the eye. "I know you're not crazy about this, probably even feel somewhat coerced, but you're going to do some good. Frankly, you'll be a hero."

Mortimer returned the handshake, could only nod and smile weakly. Hooray for me.

"We can't take him back to his cell like this," Malcolm said. "He looks too good."

"You're right," Armageddon said. "We're supposed to have interrogated him to get our defense plans back."

"What?" Mortimer didn't like where this was headed.

Malcolm came up behind him. "I'll hold his arms. Work over his face a bit."

Back in his cell, Mortimer prodded at his puffy eye with his fingertips.

They enjoyed that. Assholes.

A black eye and a swollen lip. He could live with it. He'd had worse. Mortimer rubbed the stump where the Beast had taken his little finger. It seemed an eternity since he'd come down the mountain. Events had swept him along, pushed him forward. Fate was a terrified horse dragging him over rocky ground.

Take it easy, man. It'll be okay. All you have to do is bust out of Armageddon's prison, meet up with the mysterious guide, foil the Red Czar, assassinate him if possible while fighting off hordes of Red Stripes (no problem, since they seem to have only one bullet each). Oh, yeah, find your wife and tell her where the hell you ran off to nine years ago.

Child's play.

Mortimer waited patiently until finally the expected controlled explosion blew back the cell door, ripping it partway off the hinges. Smoke filled the cell and the hallway beyond. Shouting. Confusion.

Buffalo Bill leapt through the smoke and landed in the cell. "Come on, man. They're waiting for us."

Mortimer followed him out of the cell, down the smoky hall. They burst out of the bunker, where Mortimer spotted Sheila behind the wheel of a golf cart. That surprised him. Mortimer had told Armageddon he wasn't going anywhere without his partner, Bill, but he hadn't said a thing about the girl. No time to wonder about it now. They hopped into the cart, the sound of machine-gun fire cracking behind them.

"Drive!" shouted Mortimer.

Sheila stomped the accelerator, and they shot down the narrow path, twisted in and out of the trees until the bunker was well behind them.

"Do you know where we're going?" Mortimer asked.

"Sort of," Sheila said.

"We were told where to drive the cart," Bill said. "After that we don't have a fucking clue. I was hoping you'd fill us in. We were instructed to bust you out of jail, and the rest is a mystery."

"I got us a gig," Mortimer said.

"Say what?"

"You said we should be partners, right? I'll tell you all about it when we're in the clear."

Sheila turned off the road and headed into the forest. They soon came to a ring of stones, some kind of long-unused camping area. Sheila parked the cart. They held their breath and listened. A moment later, they heard footsteps through dry leaves. Lars stepped into view. He'd been hiding behind a stand of trees and wore a camouflage poncho over his black suit.

"This way," Lars said. "It's all here."

They crowded around and Lars directed them to a pile of luggage hidden among the shrubs, six backpacks. They were mismatched but all of good quality and stuffed with supplies.

"We'll need to put on a bit of a show as if we're looking for you," Lars told them. "But the pursuit won't make it this way for a while, and they won't look for you very hard. Still, I would advise you not to linger." He handed Mortimer a folded map. "We've marked the best route on here, but you might have to improvise as events dictate." He shook Mortimer's hand. "I wish you luck, sir."

"Thanks, Lars. It's been grand."

Mortimer, Bill and Sheila slung the backpacks over their shoulders, headed south into the woods.

"Back on the road again. I'm going to miss that soft bed," Bill said. "Where we headed anyway?"



It was already a notorious place of legend and peril throughout the new world.


Just the name of the place sent shivers through some of the old-timers. Mothers frightened naughty children by threatening to send them south to Atlanta. Stories became more colorful in the telling and retelling. The Headless Zombies of Buckhead was a favorite tale for those who enjoyed loose talk in saloons, as was the myth of the entire Braves baseball team turning cannibal and roaming the city in search of people to deep-fry in hot canola oil. It was generally understood that the ghosts of Delta flight attendants haunted the airport, and that anyone spending the night in or near the airport experienced vivid, disturbing dreams often resembling footage from Airport 1975. It was commonly known that various gangs, almost like tribes, ruled sections of the city. This was not uncommon for many metropolitan areas where food shortages were sudden and devastating, a situation that encouraged the strong and ruthless to prey upon the weak. No citrus had come up from Florida for years, nor anything else from merchants traveling in or too close to the forbidden city.

Other stories, while unconfirmed, were widely believed nevertheless. The most popular rumor claimed Atlanta was the headquarters of the Red Czar. Furthermore, the Czar himself was credited with killing all the gang chiefs in the city one by one, by challenging them to duels, beheading them with a fireman's axe and putting their heads on spikes as a warning to any who might defy him.

"And that's what you've gotten us into," Bill said.

"How the hell was I supposed to know?" Mortimer pushed aside a tree branch, followed the narrow game trail. "It's not like anyone pulled me aside and said oh, by the way, the city of Atlanta is now instant death, so don't go there, whatever you do. Next you'll tell me they don't make Coke anymore."

"Ha ha. I'm serious about this, man."

"I heard there's a rapist grizzly bear," Sheila said. "He escaped from the zoo, and he catches people camping and rapes them from behind."

"Oh, now, come on!" Another branch slapped Mortimer in the face. Fucking bullshit map. Where the hell's the road?

"I don't know about no rapist bear," Bill said. "But I know people who go there don't come back."

"And how do you know that?"

"A friend of a guy of somebody I talked to in Nashville."

"A friend of a guy of somebody you talked to, huh?" Mortimer squinted at the map, hoped he hadn't gotten them lost.

"I'm just saying it would have been nice if you consulted me first is all," Bill said.

"Me too," Sheila said.

"I couldn't very well consult you from my prison cell." To Sheila Mortimer said, "And what are you even doing here? I thought you were going to try to talk them into letting you be a Joey Girl."

Sheila made a disgusted sound. "I had a change of heart about that. I don't want any sweaty men climbing on me unless I say so. A whore is a whore no matter how fancy. I want to kick ass and explore like you guys."

"Did you hear that, Mort?" Bill asked. "We kick ass and explore. I think we should put that on our business cards."

Sheila stuck out her tongue.

Mortimer stopped, sat down on a log, dropped his gear. They each carried two backpacks stuffed with supplies, and Mortimer wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Spring had definitely come early. "Take five."

Sheila and Bill dropped their backpacks too, sat on the ground, visibly relieved.

"When do we find the road?" Sheila asked.

"Not much farther." I hope. Mortimer swigged water from his canteen. "Okay, let's redistribute some of this stuff." He clapped his hands. "Gather 'round, kids. Christmas time."

He opened three backpacks before he found what he was looking for, a slightly dented Union cavalryman's hat, blue with gold trim. He handed it to Bill. "Not quite like the one you lost, but it's the best I could do on short notice."

"Whoa." Bill took the hat, tried it on. It fit well. "Hell, now I do look like George Custer. Where'd you find it?"

"Museum display. But wait, there's more. Armageddon said he'd get whatever I needed for the journey, so I put in an order for these." Mortimer went into the backpack and came out with a pair of pistols with belt and holsters, handed them to Bill.

"Oh, my," Bill said, taking the pistols. "Oh, my goodness."

Mortimer wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the cowboy's eyes go watery.

Bill cleared his throat. "These are beautiful." The.45-caliber Colt Peacemakers were handsomely made, well oiled, the finish a deep blue. He strapped them on, performed a couple of experimental quick-draws, a wide grin splitting his face.

"I hope these are to your liking," Mortimer said. "Of course, I didn't have time to consult you..."

"Oh, hell." Bill looked mildly embarrassed. "You know I'm not going to let you run off into danger all by yourself."

The backpacks also contained three.45 MAC-10 machine pistols with shoulder straps and extra magazines and two.45 automatics with shoulder holsters. He handed the weapons around, and they spent a few minutes strapping them on and getting the feel.

They continued to search the backpacks until they found food, and Mortimer was delighted to discover a pound of ground coffee and a small supply of cigars. When Armageddon paid them the twenty thousand, Mortimer would damn well lay in a supply of coffee, whatever the cost.

They ate, drank more water from the canteens.

"Okay," Mortimer said. "Let's get moving."

The road was only another ten minutes' march. They checked the map again and set off. They were armed, fed and headed to Atlanta.

In the time before chaos and destruction, one could streak down I-75 from Chattanooga to Atlanta in under two hours. Now the world was again an enormous place, and from Lookout Mountain, via the zigzag "safe" route Lars had outlined on the map, the forbidden city of Atlanta was a good week's hard hike.

The fourth day, it began to rain and didn't stop. They shivered in the bone-numbing cold. Staying dry was an impossible task. They tried to stay positive. Mortimer and his companions trudged on undaunted, spirits refusing to be dampened.

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