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Page 20

"Who dares come to see the Red Czar?" His voice was thunder.

"Uh...Mortimer Tate."

"Oh, right through there, then." The giant pointed at a door off to the right.

Mortimer hesitated. "What?"

"You want to see the Czar?"

Mortimer nodded.

"Right through that door. Off you go."

Mortimer's eyes shifted to the door, back to the giant. He edged toward the door. Nobody stopped him. He walked through, shut the door behind him.

At first, Mortimer thought he was in some kind of enormous kitchen, long countertops, sinks, refrigerators, bubbling vats. A second look, and it seemed more like a laboratory, with beakers and test tubes. Mortimer also noticed a shortwave radio hissing in the corner. It was tempting to run to it and call for help. Bunsen burners heated some of the larger beakers. A chemical smell, yeasty and pungent but vaguely familiar. Many of the vats were labeled.





Mortimer scratched his head.

"Welcome to my little playroom, Mr. Tate," said a voice behind him.

Mortimer spun, startled. A small man stood before him, a head shorter than Mortimer, bland, pale face, hair a mouse brown. Lips a bit too pink, smile way too happy.

"I'm the Red Czar," he said. "But please call me Freddy."


When Mortimer recovered, he said the following: "You're shitting me."

"I shit you not," the little man said.

"But you're the guy who makes all the booze and beer and everything," Mortimer insisted. "You can't be the Czar. That's...that' can't be the Czar."

Freddy frowned. "What did you expect?"

"Ten feet tall with shark teeth."

Freddy chuckled. "Oh, you mean Horace out there in the throne room. Yes, it's good to perpetuate a certain image. The fear has been a useful tool, and just between you and me, I have a weak spot for that sort of thing. The dungeon too. I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons."

"How...why...?" Mortimer shook his head, gathered himself. "So what are you? A brewer who has taken up conquest as a hobby, or a warmonger who just likes to make shitty alcohol on the side?"

"It's a long, astounding tale of amazement and wonder." Freddy looked at his watch. "But since I'm launching an offensive tomorrow to smash Joey Armageddon out of existence, I don't really have the time to do the story justice."

"But why would you want to destroy Armageddon? He sells all of your booze in his clubs."

Freddy's face hardened. "He sells it because my Red Stripes control the supply routes. Any of his precious microbrew he tries to deliver gets captured by my men. Then only Freddy's beer and liquor get through. Stupid Marx thought the means of production was the key. He was a fool. It's always been about distribution. Only I am able to mass-produce enough product to keep his growing franchise supplied. Well, it's not good enough. I want the whole thing, soup to nuts. I'll take over his clubs and I'll run it all." There was a gleam in Freddy's eyes as he spoke of his intended conquest. An evil gleam.

Mortimer noticed a particularly long test tube on the counter close to him. He remembered Armageddon's instructions. Kill the Czar if possible. He edged toward the test tube. If he could break it off, maybe he could take out Freddy with the jagged end.

"Besides," Freddy said. "You think Joey Armageddon is such a good guy? Those club owners sitting like kings while the whole town bows down to them. Armageddon like an emperor on top of his mountain. It's positively feudal. He has everyone hypnotized with tits and ass."

Another two feet and he could make a grab for the test tube. If he jammed it right in Freddy's throat...

But Freddy was watching him. Mortimer had to keep up his end of the conversation. "So what am I doing here?"

"We know you escaped from Armageddon's jail," Freddy said. "My people say you might have useful information."

"That's why I'm here," Mortimer said. "I thought I might be able to trade the information."

"For what?"

"Maybe I want to move up in the world. Maybe I want to be on the winning side. And maybe I thought I could trade the information for my wife."

"From what I hear, she's not exactly poised to fly back into your arms."

Mortimer shrugged. "I'm flexible."

"I'm not," Freddy stated. "I launch my assault tomorrow. Armageddon will be crushed, and his ridiculous clubs and all of their resources will belong to me. Once I control the region, the rest of the continent will kneel before me. There's nothing you can do about it."

We'll see about that.

Mortimer reached for the test tube. Froze. Slowly pulled his hand back.

The automatic pistol in Freddy's hand was pointed directly at Mortimer's stomach.

Freddy smiled. "I seem harmless, don't I? I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, you know."

"Let's work something out," said Mortimer. "I can tell you about Armageddon's defenses."

"Hmmmmmmm, no, I don't think so," Freddy said.

"You know I can. You have spies who can confirm it."

"I have many spies that tell me many things." Freddy looked past Mortimer. "Isn't that right, Lars?"

Mortimer turned. His mouth fell open.

"My apologies, Mr. Tate," Lars said. He also trained an automatic pistol on Mortimer's midsection. "Yes, I'm afraid I've been in the Czar's employ the entire time."

"An IRS auditor." Mortimer spat. "I should have known."

"I wanted to talk to you face-to-face," Freddy said. "There was a chance you really did have some useful information, but now it's obvious you were merely a pawn in one of Armageddon's feeble schemes. He must be desperate and weak, so I'm launching my attack immediately to take advantage."

Mortimer said nothing, exhaled slowly. For nothing. I came all this way, was beaten and burned, all for nothing. My wife doesn't want my help, and I can't do a damn thing against the Czar.

But he had to try. "I have information. Stuff Armageddon didn't know about. You've got to listen to me."

"You've grown tiresome, Mr. Tate," Freddy said. "Lars, please escort Mr. Tate to the elevator, where Jim Ford is waiting to take him to the dog pit."

"Now, hold on," Mortimer said. "I think you'd better-wait. Dog pit?"

Lars lifted his pistol. "This way if you please, Mr. Tate."

Lars took Mortimer back to the elevator. Jim Ford, Terry Frankowski and a brace of goons waited for him. Lars motioned him aboard the elevator, offered him only a slight nod of the head as the doors closed and the elevator began its long descent.

"So I hear you're for the dog pit," Ford said. "Good. The boys can use a little entertainment."

Mortimer said, "I don't suppose the dog pit is your colorful name for the local sports bar."

They all laughed at that.

"No, it's an actual pit," Terry said. "About twenty feet deep."

"With dogs," added Ford. "Rottweilers. Usually a half-dozen or so."

Terry's hand shot out, poked a finger at the button for the third floor.

Ford said, "We're supposed to head straight for the dog pit. What the hell are you doing?"

"I forgot something in my office," Terry said. "It won't take but a second."

"The hell with that," Ford said. "Get whatever it is later."

Terry sighed. "I've already pressed the button."

"Just let the doors open and close again, and we'll be on our way," Ford said.

The lights on the display counted down, seventh floor, sixth floor, fifth floor...

When the button lit up for the fourth floor, Terry grabbed Mortimer's wrist. When the light blinked for the third floor, Terry dropped, pulled Mortimer down with him right as the elevator doors slid open.

Jim Ford had just enough time to say, "Aw, hell-"

Ted and Reverend Jake on the other side of the door let loose with a pair of machine pistols, spraying the interior of the elevator at chest level. The blaze of slugs shredded meat, and the Red Stripes convulsed in place as the bullets hit. Blood rained down on Mortimer's head and back. Bodies fell on top of him.

He shoved them off. "What the fuck?"

Ted and the reverend each got an arm and pulled him up. Reverend Jake looked down at the bodies. "God have mercy on your black-hearted souls."

"Terry is our man on the inside," Ted explained. "He helped organize your escape."

"Sorry I had to burn you with the cigarette," Terry said. "I had to keep up appearances."

"No problem." Mortimer kneed him in the balls.

Terry whuffed air, bent in half, groaned. "Okay. That's cool. I deserve that."

"Did you get close to him?" Ted's eyes were wild with hope and anticipation. "He sent for you, right? Did you kill him?"

"I never had a chance," Mortimer said. "The Czar's been one step ahead the whole time. He knew who I was. He knew everything."

"Shit. You didn't find out anything?"

"He didn't spare me a lot of time," Mortimer said. "He's too busy getting ready for his big attack tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Ted and the reverend said together.

"Spawn of Satan," the reverend said. "He barely has enough gasoline. We thought for sure he'd wait another week, maybe even two."

"We've got to get word to Armageddon," Ted said. "And we've been standing here too long anyway."

They shoved the dead Red Stripes into the hallway and took the elevator. Ted pressed the button for the roof.

"Wait," Mortimer said. "My wife! The Czar has my wife and a bunch of other women held captive. We can't leave them."

"No time," Ted said.

"I'm not leaving without them," Mortimer insisted.

"They're all the way at the top of the other tower," Terry said. "We'd never make it."

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