Terry cleared his throat. "I'm a member of the Czar's intelligence organization, but, to be perfectly honest, my specialty is analyzing data. I'm not usually involved with interrogations, but I was the only one around, and, well, beggars can't be choosers. Am I right?"
"I'll try to go easy on you."
"Ha. That's the spirit," Terry said. "We're going to get along. I can tell."
"Now, I've got a list of questions and procedures here, so that should help things along." He produced a pencil and a clipboard from his briefcase. "First question: are you here to kill the Czar?"
"Actually," Mortimer said, "I think I can save us some time. If I can just talk to the Czar-"
Terry tsked, sucked air through his teeth. "Yeah, the thing is, I just have this list of questions, and I'd feel better if we just got through them. I'm a rules kind of guy, and, look, I'm going to be square with you, okay? I'm a little out of my comfort zone, so I really think I should stick with the format."
Mortimer said nothing.
"Let's skip ahead," Terry said. "Are you here to steal gasoline or sabotage Red Stripe gasoline supplies?"
"Super. Now let's-" Terry consulted the clipboard. "Oh, wait. It says here not to believe you and in parentheses it says slap face." Terry tsked again. "I guess we can skip that. Things are going well enough, don't you think?"
The stone-faced guard cleared his throat, shook his head.
"Oh." Terry seemed disappointed. "Rules are rules."
Terry leaned forward, swung his hand in a wide arc and caught Mortimer's face with a loud, stinging slap. Lights danced in front of Mortimer's eyes. He tasted blood, his cheek having caught on some teeth.
Terry flipped a page on the clipboard, then another page, reading ahead. "Oh, dear. Looks like we're in for a long day."
Mortimer assumed the dungeon had not been installed as part of the CNN Center's original design. He hung from a damp stone wall, held there with manacles and heavy chains.
Terry hadn't enjoyed a moment of the interrogation, but he was very conscientious about his job, had even taken twenty minutes to find a hand-rolled cigarette among the troops so he could burn Mortimer's forearm as the clipboard instructed. There had been more slaps and punches in between predictable questions.
Mortimer told him everything he could without giving away the show, sticking as close to the truth as possible. Yes, he was a Platinum member. Yes, he'd recently been to the Armageddon's on Lookout Mountain. Yes, he'd busted out of jail and escaped south. Had he been part of the recent disturbance at Stone Mountain? Huh? Who? What are you talking about?
Mortimer answered question after question, many seemingly irrelevant. But Mortimer had his chance too, made sure Terry knew that Mortimer had valuable information and was looking to trade. He'd talk only to the Red Czar himself.
So they'd put him in the dungeon.
He hung there, shoulders aching.
He was half asleep, in a daze, when he heard the dungeon door creak open. He didn't open his eyes right away. If they were coming to dump more punishment on him, maybe they'd leave him alone if they thought he'd passed out.
He heard movement, somebody close to him. He felt a soft hand on his face, a cool, wet rag dabbing at the corners of his mouth. He felt something being applied to the cigarette burns on his forearm, a salve of some kind. Instant relief.
Mortimer chanced opening one eye, looked down at the top of a woman's head, rich brown hair with three thin strips of gray radiating from her part down the center. She stooped over a bucket, wrung out a rag in clean water.
He was so thirsty.
"Who are you?" His voice so hoarse and dry.
"How disappointing. You don't recognize your own wife," Anne said. "It's only been nine years."
"Anne?" Mortimer blinked, looked into her pale blue eyes. She smiled. The gray in her hair told the years, a few more laugh lines at the eyes. But her tan face glowed smooth and young like on their wedding day, lips full, posture firm and athletic. She wore a heavy brown robe, looked like a medieval monk. She was okay. She looked good and she was okay. He'd come so far. She was okay.
He started to cry.
Anne's smile fell. "What are you doing? Don't do that."
The tears came hot and fast, sobs wracking his body, rattling the chains. He tried to talk, tried to tell her everything he felt upon seeing her, the love and regret and fear and so many things mixed together that not even he understood fully. He couldn't speak, could only gulp for breath between great heaving sobs, snot running over his lips.
Anne wiped at a tear in the corner of her own eye, wiped the snot off Mortimer's face with the rag. "You were always a sentimental jerk."
"What are you doing here anyway?"
She really didn't know? "I came for you."
"Me? Are you crazy?"
"You're my wife."
"That was nine years ago." Disbelief in her eyes. "I'm not your wife anymore."
"I never signed the divorce papers."
She snorted laughter. "Really? Divorce papers? Filed in what court? Do you think legal paperwork matters anymore? Do you think our mortgage matters, our life insurance policy? Where do you think you're going to cash the savings bonds your uncle gave us?"
"I never agreed."
"You don't have to agree. I agreed for both of us." She shook her head, went on, her voice softer. "This isn't really about our marriage, is it? It's been so long. You haven't really been thinking of me as your wife. Not after all this time."
No. Not really. He couldn't imagine anything could really be between them, not anymore, after so much had happened. "I had to see you. Just to know. After the way we left it. I felt I owed you. I wanted...I wanted to feel right about it."
"You did sort of leave me high and dry," Anne said. She continued to wipe his face as she spoke. "I didn't care for your little prank, and I wasn't going to stomp around the pocket wilderness with the divorce papers in one hand and a ballpoint pen in the other, calling your name. I'd hoped you'd come to your senses, come home and act like an adult."
She shook her head, let out a long sigh. She lifted a cup to Mortimer's lips. "Drink. Slowly."
He drank. Relief on his raw throat.
"And I would have waited you out," she continued, "but Mother called from Chattanooga. She was scared. You know she lives-lived-in kind of an iffy neighborhood. So I was caught there when all the shit really hit the fan. We actually made it through the first year okay, but she died that winter. I made my way back to Spring City."
"Looking for me?"
"I'm sorry, Mortimer, but no. Oh, I wondered if I'd see you, but no. I wanted to go home. That simple. So stupid. My house wasn't mine anymore.
"I took up wandering. Learned to kill to survive. I traded myself for food. Don't look at me like that. You know things are different now. I got tough fast. Sometimes, I thought I wanted to die, but it was never true. I wanted to live. And if you want to live, you have to understand the way things are and adjust."
"I'm going to get you out of here," Mortimer said. "Maybe that won't make up for everything, but it's a start. I'll figure it out."
"How did getting chained to the dungeon wall fit into the rescue plan?"
"I don't suppose you could get me down."
She shook her head. "No way. They let me come in to clean you up and give you some water. I think they want me to tell you to cooperate. Maybe they think seeing me will soften you up. They knew I was your wife. Did you tell them you were here for me?"
"I told them I was here for another reason. It's a long story."
"Here's my advice: Look out for yourself. If you can get loose, don't worry about me. I suggest telling them whatever they want to know. They can make things bad for you if they want to, a lot worse than chaining you up."
"I'm not leaving without you."
Anne frowned, made a disgusted noise. "Knock off the hero crap. I absolve you, okay? You're forgiven, so don't feel you owe me anything. Besides, when I was captured, they got some of my girls too, a dozen of them. I was taking them to Little Rock to open a new Joey Armageddon's. I'm responsible for them, and I'm not leaving them. So you see, I can't run off with you just so you can feel like a good guy."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mortimer said. "I've come a long way-"
"You're not the only one who's come a long way and been through a lot. So have I. So have my girls. Get over yourself."
She lifted the cup to his lips again. "Drink more. I'll probably have to go soon."
He gulped, emptied the cup.
"At least tell me why you're wearing that robe."
"This?" She stood back, opened it. Underneath she wore a hot-pink bikini. She was thinner than he remembered, stomach muscles well defined, long legs. It was the wrong place and the wrong time, but Mortimer felt the stirrings of arousal. He remembered those early days of the marriage, her legs wrapped around him, making love all night in a sweaty pile. He wanted to cry again.
She closed the robe, sighed. "The Czar keeps us all like a harem. We all have to wear bathing suits and underwear like it's the fucking Playboy Mansion or something."
"Does he make you...do things?"
"No. We never see him. I wonder if he even exists."
Mortimer managed a weak smile. "Eight feet tall with shark teeth."
She laughed. "Yeah."
A knock on the door, a deep voice on the other side. "Time's up."
"Okay." She put a gentle hand on Mortimer's face, kissed his nose. "Thanks for coming, but get out of here, escape or whatever, but don't worry about me."
He started to say something, but it caught in his throat.
She gave him one last sad look and was out the door.
Mortimer Tate hung his head. If he died right then and there, that would be just fine.
Had it been an hour or a day? Mortimer lost track of time, hanging there, feeling useless and defeated. His arms hurt.
Someone came for him at last.
The dungeon door creaked open. The newcomer took a step inside, stopped with his hands behind his back. An older man, maybe early sixties, dressed the same as Terry Frankowski had been, black suit with the red armband. He was gaunt, tall but slightly stooped, white hair and moustache, weak chin. He looked around the dungeon with clear brown eyes.
"I always thought this was a bit too theatrical." A smoker's voice, but kindly, like somebody's tough, lovable grandfather.
"It's nice," Mortimer said. "I'm thinking of doing my summer home all medieval. So who the hell are you?"
"Name's Ford. Jim Ford. I'm Terry Frankowski's boss. I'd have been the one to deal with you instead of Terry but I was off taking care of some things."
"You here for round two?"
Ford shook his head. "I'm just here to fetch you. Somebody wants a quick chat. But don't get complacent. I was an Atlanta cop for twenty-two years, and I know how to get information out of a suspect. And there's none of that Miranda bullshit keeping me from bringing in the thumbscrews. I figure I'll have my crack at you sooner or later."
"Thanks. I like you too."
"Keep it up, smartass."
Ford fished a ring of keys out of his pocket and approached Mortimer. Behind him two more thugs with pistols appeared in the doorway. Mortimer's shoulders were sore as hell. He didn't like the odds, but maybe after Ford got him out of the manacles, he could surprise them, get hold of one of the pistols...No. He was dreaming. They'd stomp him flat. All Mortimer could do was bide his time and see what they had in store for him.
Ford unlocked him, and Mortimer collapsed to the floor. He could hardly lift his arms.
"Take a minute," Ford said. "Try to work the circulation back in."
Mortimer moved his arms, slowly at first, rubbed the shoulders. The hot tingling flooding back into his limbs was sudden, excruciating murder.
"Feels nice, don't it?" Ford said. "On your feet, man. Time to go."
Mortimer didn't see much of the CNN Center. They walked down a short hall and stepped directly into an elevator. Up.
They have power. I wonder what the source is. Solar? But if they can get gasoline, maybe they can run the generators.
The elevator opened at last.
"This is your stop," Ford said.
Mortimer hesitated, then stepped off the elevator. Ford and his thugs didn't get off. The doors closed, and Mortimer was alone in a small foyer, only a single door across from the elevator.
He walked through the door into a large office area that had been transformed into the burlesque of a throne room. Four Red Stripes stood on either side of the room in straight lines, holding their rifles at attention. On the far side of the room was an enormous chair covered in red velvet, trimmed in gold. A large flag behind the throne, white with a red stripe.
The man sitting in the throne stood to face Mortimer. He wasn't ten feet tall, not even eight. But he was seven feet if he was an inch, and when he smiled, Mortimer saw the man's teeth had been filed to points. He wore a leather vest, no shirt, muscles rippling like Conan. He had a square, Frankenstein face, greasy hair. He carried a wooden club like a caveman's. He wore a necklace of human ears and noses.