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Page 17

He slammed a fresh magazine home into his own MAC-10, held Bill's in the other hand. Two-fisted death. That's me.

Ted kept twisting radio knobs, the hiss of static growing louder, then waning. "Blowfish, this is Big Ted. Come in, Blowfish. Damn it, I can't get the frequency."

"Do you think he's really calling for anybody or just pretending?" Bill asked.

"Part of me hopes he is pretending." Mortimer popped up, squeezed off a quick burst, sending the Goats diving for cover. Mortimer ducked back behind the counter as another bolt bounced off the back wall. "What are they waiting for?"

"They don't want another face full of MAC- 10," Bill said.

"They can sit out there forever, until the rest of the Goats get here. Every minute we wait it gets worse."

"Let's run for it," Sheila said.

Bill snorted. "You want a bolt in the ass?"

"Blowfish, where the hell are you?" Ted smacked the side of the radio with an open palm. "Douchebags!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Mortimer yelled at the old man.

"I'm calling a cab. Now shut up and let old Ted work."

"This is really-wait." Mortimer edged up, peeked over the counter, eyes darting. "They're doing something. Sheila, look out that side window."

She crouch-walked to the window, keeping her head below the counter. She popped up, looked out the small side window, then ducked again quickly. "They're out there. Right by the wall." She popped up and down again for another quick look. "They're piling up dead branches."

"Shit," muttered Bill. "Bonfire."

The radio crackled, a voice coming through the static. "Big Ted, this is Blowfish. We are a mile out. Repeat, we're one mile out."

"Hot damn!" Ted yelled.

"They're lighting the branches out here." A hint of panic in Sheila's voice. "I'm serious, guys. This fire's getting big." The smell of smoke grew stronger.

"Here they come," Bill shouted.

A half-dozen Goats screamed toward the snack bar, weapons in one hand, flaming brands in the other. The one out front carried a bucket instead of a brand, some kind of liquid slopping over the sides. Mortimer stood straight, fired two quick bursts from each machine pistol. Three Goats stumbled and went down, including the one with the bucket, but he heaved it as he went down. It flew, landed against the front windowsill with a watery metallic clung. The liquid splashed half in through the window and half down the front of the snack bar. The pungent odor hit Mortimer immediately, unmistakable.



Mortimer blazed away at the other three running Goats coming fast with the fire, the machine pistols bucking and smoking. He put two down fast, but only caught the third with a grazing hit in the shoulder, a light mist of blood flying. The slobbering, crazy-eyed Goat didn't even flinch, leapt through the front window, ignited the fire, flames spreading up the outside of the snack bar and over two booths within.

The Goat caught himself on fire too, stood there in the middle of the sudden blaze, his pants and sleeves burning. He screamed and danced.

Bill put him down with a shot from the Peacemaker.

Smoke filled the interior of the snack bar, and Mortimer felt the heat wash over him. He slammed home two new magazines, cocked the machine pistols and fired at the vague figures barely visible through the thick smoke, not knowing if he hit anything or not.

"Be advised, Blowfish," Ted yelled into the radio mike. "Zone is hot. Repeat, zone is hot."

"We see your smoke," came the voice of Blowfish through the static. "We're inbound now. Be prepared to board."

A helicopter, thought Mortimer. Holy crap, the old wizard arranged a chopper. Mortimer could hear something coming, the high-pitched buzz of some engine. It was coming.

"Time to go," Mortimer shouted.

Sheila coughed, wiped her red eyes. "You think?"

"I'm ready," Bill said.

The flames licked higher, but the doorway was still clear. Mortimer emptied the machine pistols to clear the way, then slapped in the last two magazines.


They climbed over the counter, shrinking from the flames, snot running, eyes watering. They hit the door, out into the open. The cool air hit Mortimer, clean and fresh. He filled his lungs but didn't have time to enjoy it. Crossbow bolts flew past his head. He blasted back at the Goats with the machine pistols, sent them scurrying for cover. They popped their heads up again, yelled obscenities, and Mortimer emptied the MAC-10s. He dropped the spent weapons clattering on the stone ground.

"There it is!" cried Ted. He pointed into the sky behind them. "Blowfish! Blowfish!"

Mortimer turned to look at the helicopter.

It wasn't a helicopter.

The blimp floated through the smoke of the burning snack bar. Filling the sky suddenly, the hornet buzz of its tiny motor and rear propeller was a bizarre contrast to its silent, looming mass. One would almost be tempted to call it majestic.

And one would be mistaken.

The aircraft had probably been used for advertising, providing aerial coverage for golf tournaments and college football games. It was a ragged affair now, patched with mismatched material, netting thrown over the whole thing to help attach the thick ropes that held the open-air gondola underneath, sandbags hanging over the sides.

As crossbow bolts bounced off the stone around his ankles, Mortimer's disappointment at seeing the inflated monstrosity instead of a rescue chopper was the most profound of his life.

"You must be fucking kidding me."

The blimp lumbered and bobbed, its descent excruciatingly slow. Figures appeared in the gondola. A top hat and a very long white scarf caught Mortimer's attention. More lunatics. The blimp passed over them.

And kept going.

Ted jumped into the air, waved his arms. "Where you going? You're overshooting. Dumb sons of bitches, you're overshooting!"

The blimp listed, nose dipping as it sailed past, disappearing over the other side of the mountain, down into the tourist area of the park.

Mortimer grabbed Ted by the elbow. "Is it coming back for us?"

Ted jerked his arm away. "It ain't a goddamn sports car. Blowfish is awkward. A steamship could turn around faster."

"Decide fast," Bill said. "We got company."

The remaining Stone Mountain Goats had worked themselves into a frenzy, jumping up and down, brandishing weapons, grunting like apes. Probably just snorted a few more lines of courage. The Goats must have used up the crossbow bolts, because no more flew. The Goat leader howled bloody murder, and the mob charged.

"Follow me if you want to get off this rock alive." Ted ran across the stone surface of the mountain toward some kind of small installation two hundred yards away.

Mortimer, Sheila and Bill followed immediately. Mortimer pulled the.45 from his shoulder holster, racked it and thumbed off the safety. Soon Ted had pulled ahead of them, and Mortimer's breath came short again. The Goats were gaining.

"Drop the backpacks," Mortimer shouted.

They dropped the gear and picked up speed. Mortimer turned slightly, fired behind him with the.45 without aiming.

Thirty yards out, Mortimer saw they were heading for a Swiss cable car system, a tourist ride, similar to the sky buckets back at Lookout Mountain but with a much larger enclosed gondola. The cable ran down to the tourist area at a steep angle. Ted flung open the door to the cable car and climbed in, turned and waved them on. "Hurry!"

They rushed into the cable car. Mortimer was the last in, turned and emptied the.45 at the oncoming Goats. Two clutched their guts and pitched forward. The rest kept charging, bellowing their rage.

"Does this thing even have power?"

"Nope," Ted said. "But gravity still works."

Ted grabbed a sledgehammer from a hook on the interior of the cable car, swung it sideways at a pin in the floor keeping a loop of cable in place. He knocked the pin out, and the cable flew out through the floor like a kid sucking up a strand of spaghetti. The car shook, slid down the cable, picking up speed.

Mortimer looked back through the open door. The Goats stood on the edge of the mountain, shaking fists and screeching incomprehensible curses. They dwindled rapidly behind as the cable car flew faster.

And faster.

"Brace yourself, kids," Ted said. "This E-ticket ride is gonna go splat."

Nobody enjoyed the crash.


When Mortimer had been in the insurance business, he hadn't sold anything too glamorous. Residential, auto, the occasional policy on a bass boat. As he pushed himself up from the pile of bodies in the forward section of the cable car, he wondered how amusement parks and tourist attractions had ever been able to afford liability coverage. The premiums must have been murder.

In the last sixty feet of their lightning descent, Ted had thrown the hydraulic brake, had leaned his entire body weight into the lever. A clamp grabbed the cable above, sparks flew against the hideous screech of metal on metal. They slowed, but not enough. The cable car crashed into the station, pitching them all forward into one another. They stood up now, stretched and rubbed bruises.

"Everyone okay?" Mortimer asked.

Bill groaned, picked up his Union officer's hat and snugged it on his head. "Nothing broken."

"I'm fine," Sheila said, but she rubbed her shoulder, winced.

"Old Ted has the hide of an armadillo, the bones of-"

"Don't start," snapped Mortimer.

They climbed out of the cable car and looked around. Mortimer reloaded the.45, ready to fend off another band of savages.

"There." Sheila pointed.

Just past a budget motel, in the middle of the street, the Blowfish bobbed six feet over the asphalt, straining against a thick line tethered to a mailbox. A figure awkwardly lowered himself down a rope ladder, the man with the ridiculous scarf and top hat. He saw Mortimer and the rest, waved them on, frantic, harried.

"That's Reverend Jake," Ted said. "Come on."

They ran to the blimp, and the man in the top hat-Reverend Jake-clapped Ted on the shoulder. "Thank Jehovah you've made it. Sorry to overshoot the landing zone."

"Dumbass." But Ted grabbed the reverend in a tight hug.

Jake looked past Ted at the others. "These are the ones Armageddon sent?"

"I'm Mortimer." He introduced Bill and Sheila.

"Let's get better acquainted in the air," Jake advised. "We saw more Stone Mountain Goats and they have one of those big arrow shooters. Probably only a half-mile away by now, maybe closer, and coming fast."

They all climbed the rope ladder, threw legs over the side of the heavy wicker gondola and dropped inside.

Another old man waited for them, wiry and short, barely over five feet. A full white Santa Claus beard and more white hair leaking from under a blue US Navy cap. He wore a leather bomber jacket and jeans and dirty deck shoes.

"This is Chief Larry," Ted said. "Our intrepid pilot, sky master, he smells the ebb and flow of the air currents, knows the mind of the hummingbird-"

"We're sinking." Sheila had her hands on the rail, was looking over the side at the ground slowly coming up to get them.

"Overweight," Jake shouted.

He and Chief Larry ran around the gondola, yanking on ropes and sending sandbags dropping to the pavement below. The blimp ceased its descent, but it didn't quite rise either, hovered in place, a slight breeze pushing it in a circle.

"Hell." Larry grabbed a burlap sack, chucked it over. "There goes dinner."

Ted and Jake were already pulling at wicker chairs attached with thin rope. They tossed them over, looked around for more items to discard.

Mortimer stood at the rail with Sheila, looked toward the end of the long road where something rolled into view at the other end of the park. He heard a revving sound, the squeal of tires.

Reverend Jake lifted his hands to the heavens. "Dear Jesus, take this flying contraption in your almighty hands and gather us to your bosom. Hear us, Lord, and deliver us from the savages below."

A truck! Mortimer rubbed his eyes. It was a truck, a pickup, and coming toward them fast. He had not seen a working automobile in years. He gazed at it in wonder, forgetting the truck was bringing a gang of Stone Mountain Goats to kill him. It's true. The Red Czar's getting gasoline. Somebody's producing again.

Larry picked up the heavy ham radio.

"We need that, damn you!" Ted shouted.

"We're too damn heavy," the little pilot yelled back. "I didn't know you were bringing three people."

Ted lunged for the radio. Too late. Larry heaved it, and it smashed into a thousand pieces on the road below.

The truck was only a hundred yards away. Mortimer saw three Goats across the bench seat inside the cab, another half-dozen clinging in back, waving spears and ad-libbing war cries.

Something else in the back of the truck. A giant spool of cable or thin rope, and next to it a huge crossbow mounted in the bed of the truck.

Mortimer cleared his throat. "Guys, I think we need to get organized."

Even as he said it, the blimp began to rise.

"That's it. Out of the way, Ted." Larry skipped to the aft end of the gondola, picked up what looked like a big weed-whacker, a gas engine at the end of a long shaft. He yanked on the cord three times before the engine sputtered to life. The other end of the shaft went out the rear of the gondola to a propeller, which now turned faster and faster as Larry gave it gas. He held the weed-whacker like it was a tiller on some old Viking warship, leaned into it, and the blimp slowly started turning away from the approaching Goats.

Mortimer estimated they were maybe twenty-five feet up and slowly climbing. Not enough to feel safe. "Higher!"

Larry shook his head. "The propeller is only for steering and forward motion. Lift is all according to weight, and we've already tossed everything out. Unless you'd like to jump. That would really help us out."

The truck screeched to a halt forty yards away, and all the Goats piled out, a flurry of activity. One stood behind the oversized crossbow, used a hand crank to cock it and loaded a five-foot bolt the size of a spear.

Reverend Jake appeared at Mortimer's elbow, squinted at the truck. "They call it a ballista."

"I call it trouble." Bill drew the six-shooters and opened fire, slugs bouncing off asphalt near the truck, one shot puncturing the passenger door. The Goats crouched lower but continued loading and aiming the ballista.

Bill holstered the pistols. "These aren't built for long range."

They were forty feet up, with the Goats a hundred yards behind them, when the ballista operator let fly. The spear flew fast and straight, a thin line trailing behind like the wriggling tail of a sperm. It hit the gondola low and aft, punched through the wicker with ease, and caught Larry in the upper thigh, the pyramid-shaped head coming through with a gout of blood and shredded flesh.

Larry screamed, high pitched, fell, letting go of the tiller. He writhed like a spiked trout against the bolt, howling and going a pale green almost instantly. The Blowfish drifted.

Sheila screamed, backed away at the sight of the gushing blood. Mortimer and Jake crowded forward, tried to stanch the wound with their hands, the blood pulsing through their fingers and covering their hands to the wrists in seconds.

Larry sobbed, howled, grunted inhumanly as he gasped for oxygen, convulsed once and threw up on Jake.

Something jerked the Blowfish taut. They were going down.

Mortimer stood, looked back at the truck. Men were cranking the spool of line, pulling it tight and reeling the blimp in like a game fish. Mortimer watched them crank. It was a slow process; there must have been some kind of glitch in the winch, because every fifth or sixth crank, the line would go slack again and the Goats would scramble to fix it. They started again, and this time it came loose after the third crank.

"Cut the line!" Ted shouted.

Mortimer pulled the bowie knife from his boot sheath, bent over the side of the gondola, stretched his hand. The bolt had punctured too far down. Mortimer couldn't reach it. The line was tied to the end of the bolt, and the bolt was made of some light metal that would take him twenty minutes to get through with a hacksaw.

And he didn't have a hacksaw.

The Goats kept cranking them in, the blimp edging lower a foot at a time.

"Reload, Bill."

"I'm on it." He was already thumbing fresh shells into the Peacemakers.

The rumble of engines. Three more pickup trucks rolled into view, each filled with more bloodthirsty Goats.

He knelt again next to the screaming pilot. "Is he going to make it?"

Jake was covered in the little man's blood. He met Mortimer's eyes, shook his head.

"Sorry about this." Mortimer set his jaw, dug his hands in around the wound, trying to get a grip behind the bolt head.

Larry writhed. "No, please-oh, God."

Mortimer waited. He needed to time this just right. He felt the pull on the bolt ease and yanked. A wet tearing sound inside Larry's leg. The little man screamed louder, if that was possible. Mortimer kept pulling. The bolt shaft came all the way through, but the knot caught on the other side of the leg. Mortimer braced himself, heaved, put his back into it. He had to get it through before the Goats started cranking again. Pull. The knot came through in a splash of blood and flesh.

Larry passed out.

Mortimer sawed at the thin rope with the knife. It frayed, came apart, and shot out of his hands, back through the leg wound and the gondola. The blimp bobbed, tilted and suddenly released. Ted grabbed the weed-whacker tiller, aimed them away from the Goats.

"They're reloading," Bill said.

Mortimer lifted Larry, dead weight, arms flopping, and let him fall over the side. Mortimer turned away. He couldn't bear to see the little man land.

Without the weight of the corpse, they lifted much higher, much faster.


Blowfish could not feel urgency, did not know panic or recognize the need to put itself beyond the range of the ballista. Nothing would hurry its steady rise to a hundred feet, then two hundred feet and more. The next ballista shot never came, and the blimp's five passengers shivered in the blood-soaked gondola as the temperature dropped with the increased altitude.

Mortimer welcomed the wind in his face as it helped dry the panic sweat and wash away the smell of blood.

"Hell, I sure hate to lose a man." Ted still held the tiller, heading them toward downtown Atlanta.

Reverend Jake took off his top hat. "May the Lord guide his soul to Heaven."

"You better tell him to guide our sorry asses back to the ground," Ted said. "Larry was the pilot. I kinda sorta know how to steer this thing. Maybe."

"And the radio," Jake reminded them.

"Problems?" Mortimer didn't need these guys crapping out on him now.

"A moment please while I confer with my colleague." The reverend went aft, leaned in to converse with Ted in hushed whispers.

Bill plopped down in the bow of the gondola. "What now, boss?"

Mortimer shrugged. "Let's see what they come up with."

Bill frowned, pulled the Union hat down over his eyes for a quick nap, arms crossed tight against the cold.

Sheila was back at the rail again, standing close to Mortimer, looking down. "I've never seen it like this. I mean, I've been up on a mountain, seen what things look like far away, but not like this, with nothing underneath us at all."

"Afraid of heights?"

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