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Page 18

"No. I like it up here. We're disconnected." Houses, trees, roads, shopping centers, fields, all passed silently below, too distant to detect the destruction and decay. "You could almost believe everything was okay down there."

Dorothy coming back from Oz, thought Mortimer, floating in the wizard's balloon. There's no place like home. Except this time when Dorothy lands, sees Kansas up close, she'll see it was torn apart by a twister.

Reverend Jake returned from his conference with Ted, cleared his throat. "We think it might be best to put down in one of the nearby open spaces, a field or parking lot maybe. Ted's dubious ability to steer Blowfish might become hazardous if we were to venture among the taller buildings and narrow avenues downtown."

"And then what?" Mortimer asked.

"And then we walk," Jake said.

Landing involved a controlled deflation of the blimp. There was much pulling of lines and opening of valves. Nothing seemed to happen at first, so lines were pulled further and valves opened wider.

Then suddenly they were dropping rapidly.

"Shit almighty, too much," Ted yelled. "Close the valve. Close it."

They were not plummeting, but neither had they achieved the gentle descent they'd intended. The ground grew big beneath them, and Ted jerked frantically on the tiller, attempting to guide them toward an overgrown suburban baseball diamond.

"Brace yourselves," he shouted.

They set down hard but without incident and climbed out.

Mortimer pointed to a set of bleachers. "Bill, get as high as you can, look around."

"Right." Bill jogged toward the stands.

Mortimer looked at Ted. "I need to talk to you."


"Is there a plan B?"

Ted cackled, shook his head. "There was barely a plan A."

"Tell me."

Ted explained. He was part of a ragtag, underground army whose goal was to wrest power from the Red Czar. Here's how Mortimer would help. He would get close to the Czar and find out his evil plans, specifically when the Czar planned to attack Armageddon. Warned ahead of time, Armageddon would be able to organize a surprise counterstrike. It had been Ted's plan to take Mortimer all the way to downtown Atlanta via Blowfish, landing under cover of darkness on one of the tall buildings. Using the ham radio (now smashed on the road back in Stone Mountain Park), Ted would have coordinated with their "man on the inside," one of the Czar's trusted men, to capture Mortimer and take him to the Czar. By then it was hoped the Czar's spies would have reported that Mortimer had recently busted out of Armageddon's prison with secret knowledge of Armageddon's defenses, his military strength, etc.

"The Czar won't be able to resist. Once you get close to him, you find out his plans, kill him if you can."

Mortimer sighed, looked up, taking in the blue sky and puffy white clouds, scratched his chin. "That's a pretty feeble plan."

"Well, it's a fucked-up plan now," Ted said. "We'll have to improvise. First, we need to get Blowfish out of sight. The Goats will spread the word and the whole metro area will be on the lookout for it."

They deflated the blimp, the compartments going flaccid as it collapsed in on itself. They shoved the thing into one of the Little League dugouts. All of them together pushed the gondola into a small circle of trees, covered it over with branches.

They walked, Reverend Jake on point a hundred yards ahead of them, ready to signal them into hiding if necessary. They zigged and zagged through a residential neighborhood, finally finding an abandoned house with a fireplace just after sundown. They were all exhausted and slept like rocks.

They yawned and stretched awake at the first crack of sunlight, Mortimer spewing a string of curses after remembering they'd lost the coffee the day before. "I wish we'd been able to hang on to our gear."

Bill hid a yawn behind the back of his hand. "I still have a few of the cigars in my shirt pocket if you want one."

"Later. You sleep okay?"

"Could have been better. I was right next to Ted. Guy has bad dreams and talks in his sleep. Man, he sure hates Jane Fonda."

"We have a long march ahead of us," Reverend Jake told them. "Let's start the morning right with a quick prayer. O Lord, hear us in our time of need as we march into the bowels of Satan's stronghold, to wrest a once-prosperous city from his evil clutches. And if it is Your will for us to be gutted and beheaded and our heads put on pikes for the crows to eat our eye sockets hollow and the black flies to plant maggots in our ears, then so be it, although, naturally, we'd prefer that not to happen."

"Amen," Mortimer said.


The five of them marched steadily, either Reverend Jake or Ted scouting ahead, finding the open path. They passed the debris of an extinct nation, hollow Exxon stations, Subway sandwich shops, Dollar General, Cracker Barrel, check-cashing places, pawnshops, banks and a Laundromat with a yellow Hummer crashed through the front window. On the back of the Hummer was a bumper sticker that said I BRAKE FOR GARAGE SALES.

They passed through another residential neighborhood and crossed into a park on the other side: swings, slides, trees, benches. The grass was long and brown.

"Break for lunch here," Ted told them. "I need to scout around, get my bearings."

Ted left them in the park.

"Benches over by that odd-looking tree." Mortimer pointed. "We can take a load off."

They walked toward it and realized it wasn't a tree at all but something fabricated of metal and wires, meant to look like a small weeping willow. When they were standing right in front of it, Mortimer saw that the trunk of the tree had been fashioned from several car bumpers welded and bent. The limbs were car antennas. Headphones and iPods and electrical charge cords hung from the limbs, draped nearly to the ground.

Sheila knelt, ran her hand over a wooden plaque, letters burned neatly into the surface:



"L'art pour l'art," Reverend Jake said.

Mortimer looked at him. "What?"

"Nothing. Let's eat."

They sat on the benches. Lunch was meager. Jerky and stale bread, what some of them happened to have in pockets. Most of the food had gone over the side in the mad rush to lighten the blimp.

Mortimer munched jerky without enthusiasm, considered the willow again. Somebody had decided to do that, had decided to stop in the shadow of a dangerous city, had paused in the necessary ongoing routine of gathering sustenance and finding shelter, had simply put it all aside to make this thing. To make art.

Mortimer couldn't decide if that was dedication or stupidity. Maybe the harder you fought to live, the more obligated you felt to live for something.

He looked at the dangling wires, headphones, MP3 players, computer gadgets. Many were corroded, covered in bird poop. The new world willow had been here awhile. Maybe years. Maybe the artist was dead now. The willow might have been the last thing he ever did.

"I used to have an iPod," Bill said around a tough chunk of jerky. "I used to love to download songs from the Internet. Man, I loved Christina Aguilera. And Moby. I wish they still had music."

"They do still have music," Sheila said.

"I mean like on CDs and digital and all that," Bill said. "You go into Joey's and the band plays and that's fine and everything, but it's not like going through ten thousand songs on Napster and picking and choosing whatever you want."

"Electricity's coming back," Mortimer said. "People are going to start using things again, microwave ovens and CD players. Maybe even the Internet."

"It's not the same," Bill said. "Not like being connected with everything while it's happening. You can scavenge old CDs and a player and make it work, but it's always going to be leftovers. It'll never be now."

"We'll make a new now," Jake said. "It'll be tough, but we'll fight and hang on and make things new again. Here comes Ted."

Ted had found the path. He led them until nightfall, and they camped within spitting distance of the ruined Atlanta skyline.


Mortimer tossed another stick on the fire. "It's decision time."

The others looked up from their places around the camp, eyes wide and curious. They hadn't realized an announcement was coming.

"This is up to me now," Mortimer said. "We're about to get neck-deep in Red Stripe territory. I have a personal stake in this. As you know, I'm looking for my wife. I need to see her. Anyway, it's enough to say that in addition to putting the brakes on this Czar asshole, I have my own motivations, which are nobody else's problem but mine."

Sheila frowned, broke eye contact.

"You can shove your hero speech up your ass," Bill said. "If you think I'm the kind to cut out on a partner, then I guess you don't know me very well at all."

Mortimer smiled. Damn, he's a good pal. I'm going to miss him when I get my dumb ass killed. "I appreciate that, Bill. More than you know. But it's a one-man job, and there's just no sense in risking everyone."

"You're stupid." The venom in Sheila's voice startled them. "We live in a time when the most valuable thing a person can have is somebody to look out for you and that you can look out for," she said. "And you treat that like it's not anything. We are here for you. Did your fucking wife come looking for you? Fuck no. Fuck you."

Mortimer's mouth fell open. He shut it again. He was simultaneously touched and offended.

"I..." Mortimer shook his head. So tired. "Okay. Thanks, guys. Sorry. Should have known better than to try that hero bullshit."

Sheila turned away, curled up with her back to the fire.

"Damn right," Bill said. "We'll figure it out as we go. You'll see."


Mortimer shot Ted a look across the campfire. The old man offered a slight nod in return.

The orange-pink smear of dawn was just hinting over the horizon when Mortimer clapped Ted on the shoulder and motioned him to follow. He waited until they were a quarter-mile away before speaking in a low voice.

"Thanks for taking last watch. Makes it easier."

"Your friends are going to be pissed," Ted said.

"It's for their own good. What about the reverend?"

Ted shrugged. "He's a practical man. He'll understand, and he can show your people a safe route away from the city."

"Let's make tracks."

They traveled quickly toward downtown, the buildings growing taller around them with each mile. Ted cautioned that they were well within the Czar's patrol radius and would need to keep their eyes and ears open.

Yeah, thought Mortimer, like I've been on a Sunday stroll until now.

They passed a number of rotting heads on tall pikes. The entire city had a haunted feel about it.

Near Peachtree Plaza, Ted abruptly pulled Mortimer into the shadows of a doorway. They watched in silence as six Red Stripes marched in loose formation on a cross street in front of them. The patrol did not appear to be particularly alert.

Mortimer and Ted scampered from hiding place to hiding place all day like that, dodging four more patrols, making their way closer to the Czar's headquarters.

Twice, Mortimer heard engines in the distance, and once he saw a Buick speeding across downtown with two Red Stripes inside. The Buick sported a flag on the antenna, white with a red stripe across the middle.

"If he's getting gas, why do the Red Stripes still patrol on foot?" Mortimer asked. "Seems like he could put them all in pickup trucks."

"Various reasons," Ted said. "First of all, they're saving up the fuel for some kind of big push. The Czar has some kind of surprise in mind, but none of my operatives can find out what it might be. Even old Ted can't sniff it out. Also, the Czar's not able to hang on to all of his gas shipments. Somebody's been raiding his supply line. Heck, we do that ourselves on a small scale. It's how we get gas for Blowfish's little motor."

"Who's making the raids?"

"Search me," Ted said.

They continued on, finally entering the back door of a building, walking the hallways all the way to the other side, ducking below a window that faced a street on the next block.

"That's the Czar's stronghold," Ted said.

Mortimer raised his head for a brief glance and ducked down again. "The Omni/CNN Center?"

"Can you believe that shit?" Ted's face went red. "Pisses me right off!"

Mortimer chanced another look, saw a dozen guards or so standing on either side of the entrance.

"That's the Czar's castle," Ted said. "He hatches all his schemes in there, and his men come and go all day and night carrying out his orders."

"What's the Czar look like?"

"Haven't you heard? Eight feet tall with fangs like a shark."

Mortimer's eyes grew big until he caught the old man's smile. He laughed. "I heard ten feet tall."

"What now?" Ted asked.

"This is as far as you go."

"Don't have to tell me twice. I'm not quite as concerned about your hide as your friends are, but I do wish you luck. You going to bluff your way?"


They shook hands.

Ted said, "I'm going to try to get in touch with my people. Who knows? Maybe we can come up with something to help."


"Try not to die, Mortimer Tate." And then he was gone. Atlanta's old, gray ghost.

Mortimer watched and waited for an hour. He told himself he was trying to get the lay of the land first, familiarize himself with troop movements before going in. Who was he fooling? He was trying to get up the courage.

Mortimer took a deep breath, walked out the front door and crossed the street.


When there had been such a thing as television, Mortimer had watched a show called Cops. In this show, police officers habitually wrestled perpetrators to the ground, where they would hit face-first-often on cement-and then have their arms pinned painfully behind their backs in preparation for a pair of handcuffs.

Mortimer knew exactly what that felt like now.

When Mortimer had crossed the street and casually announced he wanted to see the head honcho, the guards on duty had been momentarily frozen by his audacity. They recovered quickly and gang-piled him, leaving his bottom lip swollen and bloody, various bruises along the length of his body.

His hands were tied behind his back.

He was searched.

He was disarmed.

He was taken to a very small room just inside the CNN entrance and put in an uncomfortable chair, a guard standing in front of him, stone-faced, arms crossed, a pistol in a shoulder holster.

Mortimer waited for half an hour before another man entered the room. He stood medium height, medium weight, brown hair of a medium shade, but his eyes were blue and active, giving Mortimer a quick appraisal. He wore a well-cut black suit with a black tie. The red armband the only splash of color. An eel-skin briefcase in his grip.

"Hello." Too cheerful.

"Hi," croaked Mortimer.

"Throat a bit raw? Want some water?"


The man left, came back thirty seconds later with a glass, tilted it to Mortimer's lips. Mortimer drank.


"No problem. I'm Terry Frankowski. We're going to be spending some time together, so I hope you'll call me Terry."


"So let's have your story, Mortimer. I hope I can call you Mortimer. Mort?"

"Mortimer is fine. How do you know my name?"

"We found your Joey Armageddon's Platinum membership card among your belongings," Terry said. "Now, let's get down to business. Ready?"


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