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Page 23

Tyler didn't slow down, aimed the Cooper at a narrow opening between a brick house and a wooden fence.

Mortimer tensed. "We won't fit. Turn it around. We won't fit."

"We'll fit, God damn it!" Tyler's grip on the wheel was iron, her whole face clenched and covered with sweat.

They flew up the driveway, across the yard and through the gap, each side clearing by less than an inch. Mortimer looked back, expecting the much wider Mustang to slam on the brakes.

The muscle car exploded through the fence, splintered planks sailing in every direction.

The Cooper scooted across the backyard, the Mustang gunning its engines behind, plowing jagged grooves into the soft lawn, kicking up dirt. The Cooper crossed over an already-down chain-link fence into the neighboring yard, dodging debris. The Mustang collided with patio furniture behind them, disintegrated ceramic pots, scattered pieces of a plastic swing set.

Mortimer emerged from the moonroof long enough to blaze half a magazine at the pursuer, bullets ricocheting in a shower of sparks. Tyler drove through a side yard, raced down another driveway and into a different cul-de-sac. Tyler stomped the gas.

A machine-gun burst from the Mustang shredded the Cooper's back right tire. The car skidded into a drainage ditch at full speed; the front end smashed into a telephone pole with a pop-crunch. This time Mortimer did fly, headfirst, forward and at an angle over the passenger side. He tried to roll with it, landing on grass and ending in a tangle of shrubbery.

He looked back, saw the Mustang rolling slowly, coming to a stop forty feet from the Cooper's rear bumper. It sputtered and conked out. There was a long moment of silence. Then the Mustang tried to crank the engine. It wouldn't turn over. It cranked again. Nothing.

Mortimer spotted where he'd dropped the H &K five feet away. He belly-crawled toward it through the grass, wincing at his sprained knee. He had minor cuts and bruises along his whole body. Forget it. Go for the gun.

The muscle car tried to crank one more time, and when it didn't, both Red Stripes climbed out, leveled their guns just as Mortimer reached the H &K. He pointed it with one hand, squeezed the trigger, let off two small bursts. He missed high, but sent the Red Stripes ducking behind the open car doors. Mortimer fired one more burst before the gun clicked empty. He felt at his belt for a fresh magazine, couldn't find one.


Sheila rose through the moonroof, hair disheveled, bright blood streaming from her nose. She lifted her.45 automatic, fired five times fast.

They all heard the high-pitched revving of another car at the end of the street, accelerating, approaching fast. Machine-gun fire. The two Red Stripes looked at each other, turned and abandoned the Mustang, running full speed back among the houses. A second later, another MINI Cooper screeched to a stop next to the Mustang. A familiar face and a familiar blue Union officer's hat stuck through the moonroof.

"Over here." Mortimer stood and waved.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." Mortimer limped to the other Cooper. The knee sprain was minor. He bent to look into the driver's-side window. The kid behind the wheel was eighteen, twenty at most, red hair, freckles, buckteeth and leather driving gloves. "You Jimmy?"

"Yes, sir. What happened?"

Mortimer shook his head. "They just stopped. Maybe they threw a rod." Mortimer didn't exactly know what that meant, but he'd heard gearheads say it.

He limped to the Mustang, slid in behind the wheel. The interior smelled like beer and cigarettes. Mortimer turned the key in the ignition. The engine wheezed and strained but wouldn't turn over. He checked the gas gauge. The needle was square on the E.

He limped back to Jimmy's Cooper. "Can you get the rest of the battle on the radio?"

"Can't do it," Jimmy said. "I'm only rigged to hear the boss and the rest of the cars in my group. Group leaders get all the frequencies. You'll have to use Tyler's radio."

Mortimer went back to the wrecked Cooper, opened the driver's-side door.

"Oh, no. Damn." He sighed. "Damn."

Tyler was hunched over the steering wheel, half out of her seat, forehead smashed against the windshield. Mortimer eased her back into the seat. Her eyes were vacant, dark blood down both sides of her face. Mortimer felt for a pulse even though he knew there wouldn't be one.

"She hit so quick I don't think she felt a thing," Sheila said from the backseat.

Mortimer reached past Tyler's corpse, flipped the switch for the radio. He put on Tyler's headset. The confused chatter of battle assaulted him. He blocked it out and, into the microphone, said, "Malcolm, this is Mortimer Tate. You still out there?"

Confused static. Then:

¨C "I don't have time for you, Tate. I'm in the middle of a battle."

Explosions and gunfire in the background had almost drowned out Malcolm's voice.

"They're short on gas, Malcolm. You hear me? All that armor and those big V-8 engines. They're sucking gas fast. Are you getting this?"

A long pause.

¨C "Okay, you heard the man," Malcolm said. "We'll do a dog-and-rabbit on them. Let's run them dry, people. Engage only enough to get them to chase you."

"Good luck." Mortimer took off the headset.

He went back to the other Cooper. "Jimmy, I need a lift. There's something I have to do."

"No way, man," Jimmy said. "I've got to get back to the fight. Those are my people."

Mortimer started to protest, then stopped himself. It was the kid's right to get himself killed if he wanted. He looked at the wrecked MINI up against the telephone pole. "You think we can get that thing running?"


Changing the tire had been the hard part. They pulled the battered Cooper out of the ditch. It started. It sounded bad, an arrhythmic clank coming from under the hood, but it would take them where Mortimer wanted to go.

They bade farewell to Jimmy, who took Tyler's body with him when he left.

The Cooper wouldn't go over thirty-five m.p.h. without the clanking getting bad, so they kept it slow, sticking to surface streets and avoiding the interstate. It took Mortimer, Bill and Sheila nearly two hours to reach the CNN Center.

They parked in front, sat in the car a moment and surveyed the scene.

Bill whistled. "What do you suppose happened?"

Mortimer shook his head. "I don't know."

Bodies. Wreckage. Flames. So much to take in all at once.

A large six-wheeled truck with an open-air bed was parked at an odd angle, one tire up on the curb, the driver's door open. The driver's legs were still in the truck, the rest of him on the ground, a pool of blood spreading out from his head. Forty feet away, a big Oldsmobile burned, the flames popping and snapping, a column of thick black smoke twisting into the air. A few dozen more bodies were scattered about, most in mismatched clothing, with the red armband the only thing they wore in common.

The stink of charred flesh made Mortimer's eyes water.

The front doors to the CNN Center stood wide open, hanging askew on bent hinges. A jam of bodies clogging the doorway.

"I'm going to have a look." Mortimer stepped out of the Cooper, drew the.38 revolver.

"I'll come with you," Bill said.

"Sheila, wait here and stay on the radio. If the battle shifts this way, honk the horn, give us some kind of warning."

Sheila looked at the dead. "Okay."

They had to climb over a pile of bodies three deep to get inside. Among the bodies were two men clad in the black suits of the Czar's secret police. One had a knife through his throat.

They entered the lobby, looked around. More bodies, many locked in the final throes of hand-to-hand combat.

"It looks like they were fighting each other," Bill said.

They walked toward the elevator for the other tower on the other side of the lobby, pressed the Up button.

The elevator door opened and a young man inside screamed, saw Mortimer's revolver and backed away, dropping a half-dozen cans of food and a head of cabbage. He wore jeans and a white T-shirt and a bloody apron.

"Don't shoot, man. I'm just the cook."

Mortimer lowered the pistol. "What happened here?"

The cook knelt, began scooping the cans into his apron. "I don't know, man. A bunch of those underground saboteurs hit while everyone was still asleep, really fucked everything up. Next thing I know all our own guys are killing each other. They're swarming into the kitchen and grabbing everything, cleaned the place out like fucking locusts, a bunch of them saying how they'll be damned if they're going to stick around here and get killed."

Bill snorted. "Looks like the proletariat bit the Czar in the ass."

"This stuff's mine." The cook clutched the cans and the cabbage to his chest. "I fought for it fair and square."

Mortimer waved his pistol toward the exit. "Get out of here."

He didn't need to be told twice, ran away and didn't look back.

Mortimer and Bill took the elevator to the top. The door opened and they leapt out, ready for action. They saw and heard no one at all. Another corpse sat crumpled in the corner with his head bashed to mush. They walked past him, opening doors and finding nothing.

Mortimer tried the last door at the very end of the hall. Locked. He jiggled the handle, thought he heard voices on the other side. He angled the revolver down, shot the lock with a single blast and kicked the door open.

A dozen women gasped at his sudden entrance, one screaming. They all wore lingerie or string bikinis. Velvet sofas and plush chairs. Soft music played from a DVD player. The Czar's harem. Mortimer was just thinking how cool it was to rescue a roomful of half-naked women when something smacked the back of his head.

The room whirled past his face in a blur and suddenly he was facedown in the shag carpeting. He felt a small hand grab a fistful of his hair, yank his head back. A cold knife blade against his throat.

"Wait!" shouted a familiar voice. "That's my husband."

"Sorry," Anne said after they'd moved him to one of the velvet couches. "We've been stuck up here for hours since all the shooting started, and we don't know what the hell's going on. We've been waiting for somebody to open that door so we could make a break for it."

Mortimer briefly related the pertinent details of the car battle and the apparent revolt among the Czar's men.

"But we don't know anything for sure," Bill said.

They headed out to the elevator, the scantily clad women with Bill and Mortimer in the lead.

When they reached the lobby, Anne saw the dead bodies and said, "Gather weapons and ammo, ladies. We may need them. For Pete's sake, Brandi, get rid of those high heels. We might have to run for it."

A stunning redhead in green panties and a matching bra kicked off her shoes. They picked through the dead, finding pistols and rifles. Anne found a Glock, checked the load and looked at Mortimer. "We're ready."

They ran out the door and were immediately set upon by a half-dozen Red Stripes.

"It's the women," yelled one of the Red Stripes. "Get them! We can have our way with them, then trade them for rat jerky."

Anne shot him in the face with the Glock.

The other women leapt into the action. An Asian girl in black stockings and garters kicked a Red Stripe in the balls. He went to his knees, and the girl stuck her gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, the back of his head exploding in a spray of red gunk. Blonde twins in matching teddies had a Red Stripe on the ground, kicking him and smashing his skull in with the butt of a rifle.

In five seconds flat, the girls had disposed of the attackers.

"Holy shit," Mortimer said.

Anne barked orders. "Lisa, I want you on the street, shout if anything comes from either direction. Brandi, that truck looks big enough for all of us. Check it out."

The redhead who'd kicked the high heels away jogged to the truck, hauled the dead body the rest of the way out of the cab without thinking twice. She reached in, popped the hood, went around front and stood on the bumper so she could look down at the engine.

The rest of the girls climbed into the back of the truck.

Anne turned to Mortimer. "I was wrong. I'm glad you came to get me. We're square now, right?"


"The engine checks out and the keys are in the ignition," called Brandi.

"Good," Anne said. "Lisa?"

"All clear," said the girl from the road.

Anne patted Mortimer's cheek. "Thanks again. Really. Maybe we'll cross paths again sometime." She skipped toward the truck.

"Wait," Mortimer called after her. "Where are you going?"

"Back to Joey Armageddon's," she said. "That's were I belong. And I told you before, I'm responsible for these girls. I need to make sure they get back safely." She climbed behind the wheel and started the truck, backed it off the curb. Lisa came in from the street and jumped in the back.

The redhead-Brandi-hopped in the back too.

Brandi had found a pair of combat boots among the dead, stood tall and strong and straight in her green panties and bra, the butt of her AK-47 assault rifle resting against a cocked hip. The wind tugged at her red hair. A long streak of somebody else's blood down one leg. Her head was up, eyes bright. She looked like she owned the world.

There she goes, Mortimer thought. The icon for a new age. She could have been on the recruitment poster for the swingingest army in the world.

She met Mortimer's gaze and winked as Anne shifted the big truck into gear and kept going.

Bill said, "So that was your wife, huh?"


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