"My spirits are fucking dampened," Sheila said. "And I hate you."
Mortimer wiped rain from his eyes with a dirty hand, left a smear of mud across his face. "Try to remember that nobody invited you."
Even with the camouflage rain ponchos, they were all cold, soaked and miserable. Sheila especially had been vocal about her discomfort. They'd slogged the old, muddy Forestry Service road that roughly paralleled Highway 78 until they'd hit a little-known entrance into Stone Mountain Park. They lay under a dripping hedgerow and watched the Stone Mountain Inn through a pair of small binoculars.
"Maybe this is a bad idea," Bill said.
"We're already past today's rendezvous time for our contact, and I'm not sleeping in the rain one more night." Mortimer scanned the plantation-style hotel, broken windows, thick vines growing up the brick. "And it looks deserted to me." They hadn't seen a single person for two days, not even at a distance.
"I suppose I would like to dry out," Bill admitted. "See the chimneys? Some of those rooms have fireplaces."
"Somebody will see the smoke," Sheila said.
Mortimer made one more quick scan with the binoculars. "It'll be dark in an hour, hour and a half at most. Nobody will see the smoke then, and we'll cover the windows."
"I'm sold," Bill said.
"Me too," said Sheila, "and I want my own room away from you dickheads."
Bill snorted. "I second that emotion."
"Okay, shut up," Mortimer said. "We'll take one last look and listen, then dart across the open area and hit that door fast." The front door was off the hinges, only darkness beyond.
They dashed across the overgrown parking lot and into the door without incident. The place smelled old and mildewed, vines creeping into the open doorway. Debris, old cans, torn drapes, broken bits of furniture. Upstairs and away from the entrance, Mortimer lit a small kerosene lantern. Flashlights were easy to come by. Batteries weren't.
The first half-dozen rooms they investigated were too demolished to occupy. In one room, they found a relatively undamaged queen-size mattress, which Mortimer and Bill carried to a nearby suite while Sheila held the lantern. Broken glass and crushed beer cans littered the fair-sized fireplace. They cleaned it out and built a fire of busted furniture. They had to search five more rooms before finding another serviceable mattress.
"I think two is enough," Mortimer said. "Two can sleep while the third is on watch."
"Right," Bill said.
Sheila nodded. In spite of her earlier claims, she wanted to stay close to the group. They were far from friendly territory. Bill strung up a thin rope across the room, and they all changed into dry clothes, hanging the wet ones on the line.
They ate a cold meal of sausage and stale bread. They didn't talk. Fatigue had sapped them of the will to socialize, and they'd heard all of one another's conversation by now anyway.
Bill picked up the lantern, stretched, his joints popping. "I'll scout the rest of the hotel, make sure we don't have any surprise roommates. Then I'll take first watch if that's okay."
"Sure," Mortimer said. "Wake me when it's time."
When Bill left with the lantern, only the orange coals from the fire lit the room, making everything look like a vague monochrome dream. He sprawled on the mattress, weary.
He was almost asleep when he felt the mattress shift, Sheila's warm body sliding in next to him. She wore only dry panties and a clean white T-shirt. She smelled like girl sweat and sausage.
"Is this okay?"
Her hand went to his crotch. "I can do things. If you want me to."
Yes please. "You don't have to."
Her hand slid up to his chest, and she nestled her head into his armpit. "I'm scared."
"I mean all the time, even out in the forest with nobody around. I'm afraid something could happen. I don't know what."
"You don't have to come with us," Mortimer said. "We'll give you some of the food. You could head back. Or wait here. The hotel seems safe enough." Although he could not promise he'd be able to come back for her.
"No, that's worse. I tried that at the firehouse. At least this is my choice. I can't just be nowhere doing nothing, right? A person has to be about something. I'm more afraid of not being about something than I am of anything else. No, I'm going with you. I can help. You'll see."
Soon he felt her breathing become steady and deep. The rhythm of it put Mortimer to sleep too.
A gentle nudge on the shoulder woke him. Sheila still lay with an arm across his chest.
Bill squatted next to him, whispered, "Sorry to disturb...uh...whatever it was you were doing." He spared a glance for Sheila. "Your watch."
Bill flopped onto the other mattress as Mortimer pulled on his shoes and strapped on the.45. He looked down at Sheila one last time, so innocent and adolescent in sleep. She was neither, and Mortimer needed to remember that. What am I going to do with you?
Sheila was right about one thing. You had to be about something. Mortimer had come down the mountain because he couldn't hide in his cave any longer. He needed the world. Needed to see it, be part of it again. And it occurred to him he couldn't hide atop Lookout Mountain either, drowning himself in Armageddon's decadence, because eventually the world would come looking. Better to march out and meet it halfway.
The night passed without trouble. The next day, they climbed Stone Mountain.
They made a wide circle around the front of the mountain where the huge stone-carved likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson kept watch over the park. East of the mountain, they found the hiking trail that wound its way over a mile up the mountain, a much gentler slope than the sheer face with the three Confederates.
They climbed, stopping occasionally for canteen breaks, pausing to listen to suspicious woodland sounds before moving on again. Gray clouds hovered and roiled, but the downpour had finally abated.
Mortimer's instructions were clear. Stay on the path and your guide will find you. He's a little odd but trustworthy, Lars had told them. Sure.
They were two-thirds of the way up the mountain when Bill stopped and frowned. "Did you hear that?"
Mortimer shook his head. "Nope."
"I did," Sheila said. "An owl."
"It was supposed to be an owl," Bill said. "Sounded more like a five-year-old pretending."
The hoot came louder from the path ahead of them, and Mortimer heard it this time. Bill was right. It was the worst owl imitation Mortimer had ever heard. He thumbed off the machine pistol's safety.
"Let's go back." Sheila moved close to Mortimer, whispered, "Somebody's fucking with us."
"This is where we're supposed to be," Mortimer said. "Come on. Take it slow."
They eased up the mountain path, machine pistols held in front of them. Every few seconds they heard the phony hoot. Finally Mortimer saw him and held up his hand for the others to halt. He pointed at the shrubs, and Bill nodded, lifted his machine pistol.
The stooped man behind the shrubs apparently thought he was hiding. A giraffe behind a potted fern had a better chance of concealing itself. He was old, with white hair and wearing a black overcoat unbuttoned, ratty polo shirt and khakis underneath. Scuffed loafers. He held two leaves up to his eyes and crouched lower.
"Come out of there," Mortimer called.
Hoot. Hoot. "Where's it coming from?" shouted the old man. "Behind you? In front? Above in the tall trees? We move like the cat, like the Indian, like a ghost." Hoot. "We have you surrounded. Throw down your arms."
Mortimer glanced to either side. They were in no way surrounded.
"Shoot him," Sheila said.
Mortimer ignored her. "Come out, please. Let's talk."
"Look, we can see you, okay? You're, like, thirty feet away behind that bush. And it's not a very big bush."
The old man paused, then stood straight. He was tall, broad shoulders, snow-white hair and moustache. As he came closer, Mortimer saw the slight gap between his front teeth, piercing blue eyes that Mortimer found a bit unnerving.
"Ah, you have earned my respect," said the old man. "There's not many who can outfox old Ted. Yes, you have mighty skills and keen senses. I can see why Armageddon chose you for this mission."
"You're our guide?"
"I am indeed."
Mortimer barely heard Bill mutter, "Jesus."
"Yes, let Ted be your guide," the old man said grandly. "Mr. Atlanta, they called me. I know the way and I know the town. Old Ted knows all, the way of the wasp and the willow, the minds of all the creepy crawlies. The song of the pigeon. I see and I hear."
"Are you going to talk like this the whole time?"
"We must get off the path," Ted told them. "Others use it besides us. Come. I know a place."
He darted into the woods.
Sheila grabbed Mortimer's arm. Tight. "He is a fucking loon. We're not really going to let him guide us, are we?"
"I'm with Miss Sassy Pants here," Bill said.
"I don't have any other ideas," said Mortimer. "Just follow him."
A half mile away they sat in a circle of large boulders, which concealed them well enough. "We'll wait here awhile," Ted told them.
Ted gratefully accepted their offer of dried fruit and chunks of salami. The old man had apparently been living on rat jerky the last few days. Ted insisted that with enough seasoning it was a little like buffalo. He claimed to have a big farm out west with a giant herd of buffalo, but naturally they'd probably all been poached by now, the majestic creature vanishing from the old west a second time. Ted peppered them with relentless, fragmented stories of how he'd been "a big man" in the old days.
"I'll be back on top again." Ted cackled. "Slay the Czar, put a knife in his gizzard. Then old Ted will be duke of Atlanta. Emperor of Georgia!"
"You said other people use the path," Mortimer prompted.
Ted nodded vigorously as he chewed and swallowed a slice of dried apple. "Indeed. The Stone Mountain Goats. We're in their territory."
"I don't suppose that's some sort of benign bluegrass band."
"A gang, of course. I took one of their crossbow bolts in the ass last year," Ted said. "Want to see the scar?"
"No!" Mortimer, Bill and Sheila said together.
"Crossbow? They renaissance fair geeks or something?" Bill asked.
"The Red Czar's men control the inner city," Ted explained. "He subsumed most of the gangs into his outfit and killed the rest. But he lets some gangs patrol the outlying areas for him, like subcontractors, I guess. The Stone Mountain Goats here, the Kennesaw Blades to the west. The Czar's kinda paranoid. He lets the gangs rule themselves as long as they don't have guns. I think he's afraid they might band together and turn on him." He cackled again. "Fat chance. Those motherfuckers are so disorganized, they're like a circle jerk that doesn't know where to aim."
"What's the problem, then?" Bill slapped the machine pistol hanging at his side. "If all they got is medieval bullshit weapons, we can walk right through them."
"No, no, no. You listen to old Ted. That's not a good idea, no, sir. They're not so well armed but they're ruthless cocksuckers and there's a lot of them. Quantity has a quality all its own, as Joe Stalin said. And they're usually so hepped up, they don't feel the first few bullets anyway."
Sheila raised an eyebrow. "Hepped up?"
"Sure. The Czar gives them all the crank and cocaine they want. That's how he bribes for their loyalty. Hell, I seen a Stone Mountain Goat charge a rabid wolf with nothing but a Swiss Army knife. I mean, the wolf shredded the shit out of him, of course, but still..."
"Okay," Mortimer said. "So we'll avoid those guys."
Ted looked at his watch, and Mortimer was surprised to see it was a battered Rolex.
"Okay, they should've changed shifts by now. Let's go."
They made their way back to the path and continued up the mountain.
"Why are we going up here anyway?" Mortimer asked.
"The Goats have a ham radio, and we need to use it."
"The Goats have a radio?"
"Well, I don't have one," Ted snapped. "You think I carry around a big-ass ham radio in my back pocket? Now, hike faster."
They hiked faster. After five minutes, Mortimer noticed Ted hanging back, glancing over his shoulder. The old man climbed atop a boulder, squatted there, looking back down the trail. Mortimer went back, asked what was happening.
"Old Ted has the eyes of an eagle, he does. The nose of a wolf. The sharp hearing of a rhinoceros."
"Do you see something back-a rhinoceros?"
"Shit!" Ted leaned forward, squinted his eyes. "Shit shit shit!"
"What is it?"
"Stone Mountain Goats," Ted said. "Twenty-five. No, more like thirty of them. Coming up behind us. I can see them rounding the bend on the path below. Hell and damnation."
"I thought you said the path was clear." Mortimer stood on tiptoes, tried to see the approaching gang.
"Well excuuuuuse me. They probably saw you from one of their watch posts." He hopped down from the boulder, ran back up the path. "Come on. We've got to double-time it. We're almost there anyway."
"To the top? Won't that trap us up there?"
"Am I the guide or not? Now, come on!"
Each carrying two backpacks, except for Ted, who bounded ahead of them.
Mortimer's heart pounded, breath coming hard, lungs burning, the heavy gear strapped to his back pulling him toward the ground. Sweat in every crease. Dripping into his eyes.
The path opened suddenly into a clearing, trees falling away on either side. The ground was solid stone spreading in every direction, sprawling views of Georgia expanding to every horizon. Directly in front of them sat a small, low building, wide windows in the front, some kind of concession stand at one time, a large antenna twenty feet high on the roof. A guy came out the front, sandwich in his hand, leather jacket covered in silver studs and a machete hanging from his belt. He saw Mortimer and his team running straight for him and dropped the sandwich, ducked back inside the building and came out with a crossbow, desperately trying to cock it, fumbling with the bolt.
Ted pointed. "Somebody shoot that guy!"
One of Bill's six-shooters flew into his hand. He fanned the hammer twice, shooting from the hip. The shots cracked, echoed along the mountain for miles. Red splotches erupted in the guy's chest, and he dropped the crossbow, twitched and fell, a dying noise gargling in his throat.
Mortimer glanced over his shoulder. The Stone Mountain Goats were visible now behind them, a screaming mob waving blades in the air as they ran. They didn't carry heavy backpacks and gained fast.
"Into the building," Mortimer shouted.
They piled in through the front door, Mortimer and Sheila collapsing on the floor, both heaving for breath. Bill slumped against a wall, breathing hard too but also watching the Goats come at full speed. "No time to rest, folks."
The snack bar was similar to a Waffle House. Booths lined wide-open windows in front; a counter with stools spanned almost the entire length of the restaurant, grills, refrigerators and food prep on the other side. Where the cash register had once been sat a ham radio, all blinking lights and knobs, static leaking out of it at low volume. Wires came from the back of the radio, went up to the roof, connecting, Mortimer assumed, to the big antenna.
A crossbow bolt streaked through the glassless window, struck with a loud thock into one of Mortimer's backpacks. Something spilled from the hole rent in the backpack.
"They got the coffee," Bill said.
Mortimer looked at the brown granules hitting the floor and felt the blood surge in his veins, a white-noise buzz of rage in his ears. "Cocksuckers!"
Mortimer stood, brought up the machine pistol and squeezed the trigger at the onrushing mob. The little gun hissed fire, spent shells ejecting and hitting the tile floor with a tambourine tinkle. Another sound roared in Mortimer's ears, and he realized it was his own voice raised in an improvised war cry.
The first four Stone Mountain Goats exploded across their chests in a spray of blood. They continued forward another half-dozen steps, not realizing they'd been killed, only to fall into a heap of dead meat just outside the snack bar's front windows. The next three behind them howled and came on undeterred. Mortimer cut one more down before the machine pistol clicked empty.
Mortimer fumbled for another magazine.
The other two climbed onto the window ledge, one with a hatchet raised high, the other leading the way with an improvised spear fashioned from a shovel. Drool flowed down their chins, eyes afire with narcotic insanity.
The room shuddered with the report of Bill's Peacemakers. The first Goat fell back, shot in the chest. The other's head exploded, brain and blood landing wetly on the tile and wall.
Three more crossbow bolts flew into the open window, one an inch from Mortimer's left ear. They bounced and rattled behind the counter.
"We're too exposed out here," Mortimer yelled.
"Behind the counter." Bill dove across.
Sheila and Mortimer followed. Ted was already there, fiddling with the radio.
Sheila was the first to bounce back up, spraying lead through the open front window with her MAC-10. She didn't hit anything but sent the rest of the Goats into hiding behind rocks and trees forty yards away. The open stone ground in between was red and slick with blood and quivering bodies.
Mortimer looked at Bill and the six-shooter in each of his hands. "You don't like the machine guns?"
"Can't aim those fuckers."
"Give it here."