Mortimer considered Anne's parting words. They were square. He'd found her. Saved her. The slate was clean.
Sheila's head came up through the moonroof. She held the headset away from her ear. "It's working, guys. Hey, they're doing it. They're running the Red Stripes out of gas."
They went to the Cooper. Mortimer took the headphones, listened but didn't hear anything. "What happened?"
Sheila took the headphones back and listened. "It was working a minute ago." She ducked back into the car, played with the switches. "It's working fine, we're just not getting anything."
"Maybe they're all out of range now," Bill said.
"The Czar has a shortwave radio setup in his lab," Mortimer said. "I want to know what's going on."
"Shit," Bill said. "Don't go back in there."
"They're all dead or ran away."
"You don't know that."
"Stay with Sheila," Mortimer said. "I won't be long."
The copper tang of blood hit Mortimer as the elevator door slid open on the top floor of the CNN Center. Lars lay dead in front of him, multiple bullet holes in his back. It struck Mortimer that he wore the same black suit working for the Czar as he did working for Armageddon.
Meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
Mortimer stepped over the body, crossed through to the "throne room."
The giant slumped dead in the chair, his chest and face caked with dark blood. He still clutched the caveman club in one hand. Around him lay half a dozen Red Stripes with their heads smashed open. Horace had gotten in his licks before he went down.
Mortimer picked his way around the bodies, trying not to step in too much gore, and entered the laboratory.
Freddy-the Red Czar-sat with his back to Mortimer. He wore a headset plugged into a ham radio. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head and taking gulps from a bottle of his terrible vodka.
He must have sensed Mortimer's presence, turned abruptly. "Oh, it's you. Asshole. You started all this."
"I attacked before I was ready. You made me think Armageddon was about to attack too, so I attacked first."
"I need to borrow your radio," Mortimer said.
This made Freddy laugh harder. "You want to hear what's on the radio? Here, have a listen."
He unplugged the headphones, and the speakers buzzed to life.
¨C "...and I think they're dead too. I can't find any of the security people and-oh, hell, they're everywhere. They killed Nancy and the whole kitchen staff..." Static.
"Who was that?" Mortimer asked.
Freddy laughed again, eyes afire with madness. "That's your precious paradise. Joey Armageddon's is in ruins. Lookout Mountain is a slaughterhouse."
"You're a liar."
The static cleared, the voice coming in strong again.-"...if you can hear this, if anyone's reading me at all. Repeat, the bicycle slaves are in revolt. They're apparently organized, maybe been planning this...I don't...they got weapons...so many dead..." It fuzzed to static again and didn't come back.
Mortimer felt his stomach twist, his fingers and arms and face going cold and numb.
Freddy slurped vodka, much of it spilling on his chest. He coughed, wiped his mouth. "Nobody wins. Only losers. Only more and more of the world dying faster and faster. I couldn't bring back civilization my way, and Armageddon couldn't do it his way."
Mortimer thought about the village around the incline station, all the bustling shops, the happy people singing along to "Walk Like an Egyptian." It would have worked, thought Mortimer. We were so close.
"So what's it going to be, Mortimer Tate?" Freddy belched, drank more vodka. "Are you going to shoot me now? Ha. What's that going to prove? Go ahead. You'd be doing me a favor."
"Always glad to help."
Downstairs, Mortimer climbed behind the wheel of the MINI Cooper, started the engine. He felt light and insubstantial, like he might float up out of himself, get lost on the breeze. Or maybe he would faint. He wasn't sure.
"You find out anything?" Bill asked from the backseat.
Mortimer hesitated, took a deep breath. "No. No, I didn't find out anything."
"I'm sure it's all fine," Sheila said. "Last we heard General Malcolm had won. The Red Stripes ran out of gas."
"Yeah, that's right," Bill said hopefully. "They kicked ass. And we rescued those women. I'd say the good guys won the day."
"Right," Sheila said. "Yeah."
They looked at Mortimer, waited.
"I want to see Florida," Mortimer said. "You guys ever been to Florida?"
They scrounged a hose to siphon enough gasoline from the battlefield wrecks to get out of the city, kept heading south and finally slowed nearly to a stop when they spotted an unknown edifice in the center of the interstate ahead.
"Looks like a person," Sheila said.
Mortimer scratched his chin, blew out a sigh. "Just standing in the middle of the highway?"
"It's too big to be a person," Bill said.
Mortimer briefly pictured Horace, the shark-toothed giant. "We'll go slow. I'll toss it into reverse if something happens."
"Or run him over," Sheila suggested.
They edged closer, and the thing took shape. It was made in the form of a human, arms outstretched, legs bent. It stood atop a length of neon orange fiberglass that might have once been a car door or hood.
They parked the MINI, got out. The wooden plaque at the base of the sculpture read:
Upon closer examination, Mortimer saw the length of fiberglass had indeed been expertly shaped to resemble a surfboard.
"Huh." Mortimer sat on the front bumper of the MINI Cooper and looked at the metal surfer. The legs were axles banged and bent into submission, the arms strands of metal Mortimer couldn't identify, but the stubby fingers were spark plugs. The torso looked like a gas tank. The skull was some engine part Mortimer could only guess at, lightbulbs in the eyes, the wide mouth a car stereo. An orange highway cone for a hat.
Something in the body language kept the sculpture from looking completely comical. It must have weighed a ton but seemed perfectly balanced.
Bill sat on the bumper next to Mortimer. "It looks like the least little thing could knock it over, massive and fragile at the same time. I wonder how long it took him to do it."
"Beats me." Mortimer noticed a lack of bird droppings on the sculpture. Nothing rusted. This one was relatively new.
Sheila sat on the other side. "I'd have signed my name. Doesn't he want credit?"
They sat looking at the surfer a long time, nobody saying a word.
They ran out of fuel twenty miles north of Valdosta. They camped near the car that night, built a small fire and slept the sleep of the dead.
The next morning they sat around the campfire's cold coals, no gasoline, no food, no ideas and no coffee. If Mortimer had been granted only one wish, it would have been for the coffee.
Sheila spotted it first, a black speck in the blue of the sky. They sat and watched the speck grow bigger all morning until it was close enough to recognize as the Blowfish.
They yelled and jumped and waved as it passed overhead. Bill broke one of the mirrors off the MINI Cooper and tilted sun flashes at the blimp. Just when it looked like it would sail right on by, it made a slow, slow, slow, awkward turn and landed about two hundred yards down the highway.
Reverend Jake seemed happy to see them. They were sure as hell happy to see him. Sheila asked if he'd come looking for them. The reverend looked slightly embarrassed, admitted that he hadn't been searching for them. Instead, he'd been following the interstate south, intent on witnessing to the heathens in tropical Miami or Key West. He had, in fact, picked up intermittent signals on the radio that sounded vaguely like Jimmy Buffett music.
"Can you stomach some hitchhikers?" Mortimer asked.
The reverend cleared his throat. "'As you do unto the least of my children, so have you done unto Me,' says the Good Book."
Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.
¨C ADOLF HITLER
For three weeks they floated south. At first they used I-75 as a guide, but somewhere between Gainesville and Ocala, unseen snipers popped off a few shots at them. They veered east until they hit the Atlantic and followed the coast, always south.
They scavenged food, and with the onset of warmer weather, they also scavenged shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops. Bill didn't look right, the Union officer's cap and the six-shooters and the Bermuda shorts and the pink shirt that said MY HUSBAND WENT TO FLORIDA, AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT.
Mortimer wore cutoff jeans and a white tank top that said TECATE, and Sheila switched between a glowing blue one-piece and a wispy-light sundress with spaghetti straps.
They stuck close to the beach so they could catch fish and crabs and oysters. Jimmy Buffett came in much clearer as they went south. Mortimer became obscenely fond of "One Particular Harbour," although Bill's favorite was "A Pirate Looks at Forty."
They got stuck in Boca Raton for a week when the Blowfish's little engine finally ran out of gasoline. They rigged an exercise bicycle to turn the propeller and took turns pedaling. This reminded Mortimer of the bicycle-slave uprising back on Lookout Mountain, but he quickly put it out of his mind.
He never told the others what happened.
They remembered what fear felt like as they passed Miami. The city looked just as decayed and haunted as Atlanta had, and they kept their distance.
If they'd tried to make Key West on foot or by car, they'd never have made it. Half the bridges were out, and Mortimer strongly suspected they'd been destroyed on purpose to keep away outsiders.
Too bad. Here we come.
They put down in a parking lot, several onlookers marveling at the sight of a blimp suddenly among them.
A man in his late fifties with a pierced ear, a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and a braided white beard introduced himself as the unofficial "sort of leader spokesperson guy" and asked for news of the outside world.
Mortimer said, "You don't want to know."
They were made welcome, and the locals showed them the ropes. They all got together about once every three months (give or take) to vote on whatever issues anyone wanted to raise, but nobody was obligated to abide by the outcome, so there wasn't a lot of stress about it.
Mortimer was told to find any old abandoned dwelling and help himself. He found a small, three-room place forty feet from the beach and moved in. Sheila moved in with him by unspoken agreement.
Reverend Jake set up a church. People came occasionally for a little fire and brimstone, the closest thing the community had to theater.
The public library had been set up on the honor system. You signed out a book and brought it back whenever. If you kept a book too long, somebody might occasionally show up on your doorstep and say something along the lines of "Hey, man, you done with Potty Training for Dummies yet?"
It amused Mortimer to check out Milton's Paradise Lost, but he quit reading halfway through and started checking out all the Harry Potter books instead.
They fished. They lounged in the sand and got tan. Mortimer made love to Sheila every night, often on the beach, sometimes in their lazy porch hammock. The Key West folks were easygoing, polite, helpful. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Mortimer knew that there was an ugly world out there waiting to crash down on these people. Sooner or later somebody would notice the island wasn't getting its fair share of misery, and they'd swoop in with pain and sorrow.
But not today. Maybe never. Mortimer planned to forget, to make himself as blissfully ignorant as the rest.
Six months went by like nothing at all.
He was lounging in the shade of his porch one day when he saw a figure walking up the beach toward his little house. Sheila swung in the hammock next to him, snoring lightly. It was late afternoon and hot.
The figure took shape as he got closer. Bill. His long Buffalo Bill/George Custer hair bleached almost white, long braids on either side, as was the style on the island. He carried his boots in his hands and walked barefoot in the sand.
Mortimer waved and waited. Bill stepped onto the porch, nodded hello. Mortimer put his finger to his lips in a shhhhh gesture.
"Go ahead and talk," Sheila said. "I'm awake."
"I'm getting a little restless," Bill said. "Thought I'd take off. Wanted to see if you'd come with me."
"Sounds needlessly hazardous," Mortimer said.
"One of the guys I know has been working on a boat at the old navy base. It's rigged for steam. We've been on the shortwave radio to a lot of folks willing to trade. Thought we might get some commerce going."
Mortimer shrugged. "I don't know. I can't really think of anything I need."
They had plenty of fish to eat, and mild weather, and fish, and people in Bermuda shorts who wanted to talk about how good or bad the fishing was on any particular day, and Jimmy Buffett music, and fish, and lots of swimming in the warm ocean, and fish, and plenty of goddamn fish.
"We're heading for South America. Thought we might swing by Colombia, pick up some coffee."
Mortimer stood, stretched lazily. "Guess I'd better get packed."
"Me too," Sheila said. "Don't leave me stuck in paradise."