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Page 6


"I'm sorry." Mortimer blinked. "But did you just say cannibals, or have I gone crazy?"

"I'll explain later. Right now the pumpers are overdosed and I have to bring them down before they all have heart attacks." She dashed off in the direction of the handcar, her perfect balance a tribute to long experience on the rocking flatcars. Train legs instead of sea legs.

Bill flopped into one of the theater seats. "I'm out of shells for the rifle."

"You okay?"

Bill nodded. "Guy jumped me before I could get the pistols out."

"Stay here. I'll see if she needs any help."

Mortimer climbed forward after Tyler. He noticed the train had slowed again to the pace of a fast walk. He reached the handcar and found most of the musclemen slumped on the deck, eyes closed, massive chests rising and falling with shallow breaths. Greasy piles of meat. Only two of the big brutes remained to work the hand pump.

Mortimer watched Tyler put two fingers to a man's throat, shake her head and roll him off the train.

"What happened?"

"His heart exploded," Tyler said. "I couldn't dose him in time. The two pumping are on a half-dose of downer juice. When they get tired, I'll wake up two more to take over. Best we can do for now."

"Can't we just stop for a while?"

She shook her head, squinted up at the sun. "At this pace, we won't reach our destination in daylight. It's dangerous to run at night, but worse if we stop."

Mortimer remembered she'd said something about cannibals. He gulped. "Right."

"I need your help now," she said. "Get to the back end of the train and keep watch. We don't want anything crawling up our tailpipe while we're going this slow."

He flicked her a two-finger salute and headed back the way he'd come. He picked up the Uzi along the way and paused to tell Bill he'd be guarding the back of the train.

"I'll keep my eyes peeled here," Bill said.

Mortimer went into the gear and found a box of 9 mm ammunition, winked at Bill and headed back.

He sat with his feet dangling over the back of the last flatcar. The track dwindled behind. Forest had cropped up on either side, although he occasionally glimpsed a stretch of road or power lines, a small abandoned house. A barn. He thumbed new shells into the Uzi's magazine, reloaded the police special. He wished he had cigarettes. Mortimer had never smoked, but lighting up a Lucky seemed like something soldiers on guard duty did in the movies.

Miles and hours crept away, never to be seen again.

In spite of the cold wind on his neck and ears, Mortimer started to drift, the rocking train easing his eyelids down. He slumped, the Uzi heavy in his lap. With the adrenaline rush from the attack fading, the aches and nausea of his hangover seeped back into his body. He'd pay a hundred Armageddon dollars for three hours back in the hotel bed.

Joey Armageddon's, the hotel, the food, the drink, the lights. It had all fooled Mortimer, lulled him into forgetting the world was now a wild and broken place. Could Anne survive out here? This savage country where women were bought and sold like cattle. She seemed far away, and here was Mortimer inching along on a train powered by sweaty men. Mortimer had read those Conan the Barbarian novels as a teenager. It took a barbarian to live in such a world, someone brutal and ruthless with the survival instincts of an animal. Mortimer wasn't a barbarian. He was an insurance salesman. He felt suddenly small and fragile. He needed Starbucks and Krispy Kreme and Jiffy Lube.

Mortimer dreamed of Anne in a metal bikini like the one Carrie Fisher wore in Return of the Jedi. But she wasn't chained to Jabba the Hutt. She was chained to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but not the Conan Schwarzenegger. It was Arnold from The Terminator, the flesh peeled away from half his skull, revealing the metal underneath. One eye glowing red.

This is my woman now, said the Terminator.

No! That's my wife.

Take him away, barked the Terminator.

Men grabbed him, took him to the Thunderdome, where Mad Max tried to kill him. No, not Mad Max. Mel Gibson handing him a big wooden cross. Carry this. He stuck a crown of thorns on Mortimer's head. The thorns tore flesh, blood running into his eyes.

Mortimer looked at the blood in the palm of his hand. The blob of blood became a glowing light, blinking red. Michael York grabbed his arm. Run! Run!

Mortimer ran. He was in a bright city. They were chasing him. He ran and ran until the world was a blur, a forest, then a desert, then the ruined buildings of a deserted town. Anne! Anne! Where was she? And even if he found her, then what? How would they live? Where would they go? Mortimer thought he was rescuing her. He couldn't even save himself.

He felt somebody grab him, looked up at Kurt Russell with long hair and an eye patch. Come on. We've got to escape from here.

Leave me alone. I'm too tired.

"I said wake up." The voice had become feminine but with a hard edge.

Mortimer started, blinked. Kurt Russell's face morphed into somebody else. Only the eye patch remained.

"You'd better not be falling asleep," Tyler warned.

Mortimer dug the sleep out of his eyes with a thumb. "No, of course not."

"Uh-huh." Tyler looked doubtful. "It's going to be dark soon, and I need you on your toes."

"I hate to even ask this, but when you say cannibals, are you being figurative? I mean, is it a gang that calls themselves the Cannibals or something?"

Tyler leaned down, pinched the flesh of his cheek. "They'd fry you up and serve you with little red potatoes, man. Now stay awake." She went forward again.

"They'd find me very chewy," he shouted after her.

Great. I'm going to be an entr¨¦e.

The train crawled along like an anemic box turtle. The sun sank, and in the final orange fuzz of daylight, Bill came back to the end flatcar, sat next to Mortimer. He cradled the lever-action rifle, the last rays of the sun making his complexion ruddy and outdoorsy. He looked like the cover of a Louis L'Amour novel.

"She wants you up front," Bill said.

What now?

He clapped the cowboy on the shoulder. "Stay awake."

He made his way forward, moving more easily this time, getting used to the sway of the train. He found most of the sleeping meat snoring on the deck of the handcar, except for the two at the hand pump. Tyler waved him over, handed him a big, heavy flashlight.

"Get up to the front of the train. It'll be full dark soon. I don't usually like to run at night, but it can't be helped. I need you to watch for obstructions."

"Right." He started for the front.

She grabbed his arm tight, looked down at the flashlight. "I'm not even going to tell you what a flashlight and rechargeable batteries cost. You drop it over the side and-"

"I know, I know. You'll toss me over and feed me to the cannibals and blah blah blah."

"Just so you understand."

He took his position up front. The sun finished its escape, and the night went dark and cold quickly. Mortimer flipped on the flashlight, and the beam stabbed out far and strong, lighting up the track a good fifty feet in front of the train.

Mortimer kept his eyes on the track but allowed himself a glance at the sky. The stars hung bright and vivid in the deep black of space. With the wind in his hair, the light out front, Mortimer almost felt like he was flying, the train gliding along smooth and straight.

The forest widened, the trees falling away on both sides. They were on a long bridge. Mortimer fished around with the flashlight. They were crossing over a river. It must have been one of the dozens of middling-sized rivers that fed the Chickamauga. It would be deep and cold with mountain runoff. Mortimer leaned over the edge, looked down, the flashlight beam playing over the running water. He estimated it maybe twenty-five feet down. His gaze came back up, away from the river.

A face, slack jawed, haunted eyes.

It startled him. Mortimer gasped. It had only been a second, a glimpse. But Mortimer was sure he'd seen a pale figure, greasy haired, standing on the bridge at the edge of the track. He leaned over the side, shined the light back the way they'd come.

Nothing. Had he imagined it?

He swung the light back forward again. A gap in the track, twenty feet away, the metal rails twisted and scorched as if from a blast. Mortimer's eyes shot wide. He drew breath to scream a warning.

Too late.

The handcar dove into the gap, jammed and jerked to a halt, the flatcars piling up behind. The crash was a shattering mix of splintering wood and groaning, clanging metal. He heard a number of screams, the loudest his own as he flew headlong onto the railroad track ahead of the train. He landed hard, the wind knocking out of him. He rolled and tumbled.

Then he was flying, wind flapping his clothes. Stars flashed over him, then his breath was taken away by the freezing sting of impact. The river closed over him like a cold tomb. He bounced against a rock, kicked, paddled, surfaced. He had time for one ragged breath before the river took him down again.

Mortimer spun and tumbled in the dark water, the current sweeping him an unknown distance in time and space, the cold searing him to the bone with white-hot pain. His lungs burned. He broke the surface again, gasped and gulped breath, taking in water too. He coughed and picked a direction in the implacable night, kicked and stroked for the bank. The icy water had sapped him.

He was about to give up when he touched bottom, dragged himself onto the land and flopped on his back in the patchy snow and mud. He lay a moment, chest heaving as he sucked air. Every limb screamed murder.

The ripple of orange along the water made him sit up. He'd come down the river farther than he'd thought, the current so swift. In the distance, hellish light bathed the bridge. The Muscle Express burned, the flames reaching into the sky.

It must have been visible for miles and miles.


Shivering, aching and cramped from the cold, his wet clothes clinging to him, it took Mortimer nearly an hour to pick his way along the steep bank until he stood almost directly below the blazing train. He stood in its heat, let the warmth spread through him.

Had Tyler been aboard? Bill? He shuddered to think of them burning alive.

But there had been no fuel. The train had been powered by muscle. What had caused the fire? Or who? The same people who'd sabotaged the track. An ambush. He jerked his head around, scanning the tree line. Nobody.

He had to get ankle-deep in the water again to make his way to the other side of the bridge. He found crates busted open. The train had been looted. His eyes raked the water and the far bank. No bodies. Where were the muscle guys? Had Mortimer been the only one thrown clear? The bodies had been taken.


A shiver crawled up Mortimer's spine that had nothing to do with the cold.

Turn around and walk the other way.

But he didn't. At the very least he owed Bill. He had to know, had to see. He started walking upriver, keeping close to the bank, clueless where else to go.

Soon he'd have to stop and build a fire and damn if anyone saw. Hypothermia was fast becoming a bigger worry than cannibals. But Mortimer had no matches, and if he did, they'd be soaked. He could rub sticks together until doomsday and never get a fire. Everything near the river was snow-soaked and muddy.

Why had he come down from the mountain? There was no point in continuing. He'd lost the Uzi. The police special was at the bottom of the river. He couldn't rescue Bill even if he was still alive. All of Mortimer's possessions were lost, even the Armageddon dollars.

He'd have traded every last Armageddon dollar he had for dry clothes and matches.

A cup of hot coffee.

He marched on. Lie down and sleep. Go ahead, his body said. Slip into that final dream without thought or pain. The idea was so seductive. That he could give up, curl into a ball and simply drift off forever.

A hamburger would have been nice.

Through the dense trees up the bank, Mortimer glimpsed a flicker of orange. He jogged toward it, wove a crooked path among the trees. The fire was farther than it had seemed at first, and Mortimer soon slowed to a ragged walk, stumbling in the dark, tree branches scraping his face, roots catching his toe.

He tripped, fell face-first flat into cold leaves and mud.

Mortimer sighed, heaved himself up on his elbows and summoned the energy to get to his feet.

He heard the scream and went flat again.

The second scream was worse than the first, a panicked, terrified, agonized howl.

Mortimer could not make himself move forward. Petrified. The screams came again, a series of hopeless cries mixed with indistinguishable pleading and sobbing, each wail turning his spine into jelly.

Even worse than the screams was the chanting, low and guttural. Mortimer couldn't quite make it out, but it seemed to be the same word over and over again. He had to know, had to find out. Even as he told himself Run, he found himself slinking forward, crawling on his belly like a lizard, slithering through the dead leaves and the sparse undergrowth.

It seemed to go on for hours, the hideous screaming and chanting, Mortimer's edging closer an inch at a time. It must have only been twenty minutes.

A lifetime of pain and evil could be packed into twenty minutes.

Mortimer was close enough now to hear the many voices chanting.

"Meat. Meat. Meat."

Turn around. Run, you dumb son of a bitch.

"Meat. Meat. MEAT!"

Another scream punctuated the chant. The crowd paused to raise an ugly, jeering cheer before resuming. "Meat. Meat. Meat."

Mortimer flattened himself against a fallen tree. Raise your head and look. You wanted to see this. Look.

He raised his head but suddenly squeezed his eyes shut tight. He could feel the heat from the bonfire on his face. Open your eyes. Do it. Look now. Do it.

Mortimer opened his eyes.

It took him a long moment to completely realize the scope of the horror.

He looked into a large compound, a group of Appalachian savages swaying and pumping fists around a big bonfire. Meat meat meat. They all wore ragged denim, many in overalls. Beat-up hats pulled tight on greasy heads. Some macabre version of the Hat-fields and McCoys. Some held rifles, but many others clutched crude spears with heads of jagged metal.

Just to the left of the fire, several figures had been tied to poles stuck in the ground. Like a captured safari party in a bad Tarzan movie. He saw two of the musclemen and Tyler. Bill was there too. Even at this distance, Mortimer recognized their terror-stricken expressions. They waited to be eaten.

Much closer to the fire, a table made out of a large wooden door had been propped up at a forty-five-degree angle. One of the muscle guys had been tied spread-eagle on the table. A splash of red gore stained the table where his left leg used to be. He stared vacantly into the night sky. Catatonic.

Mortimer realized he was watching the whole scene through some sort of makeshift fence only three feet away. A closer examination turned his stomach. The fence had been constructed of old, bleached bones. Toothy skulls capped the posts. How many gruesome meals did those bones represent?

A loud voice snapped Mortimer's attention back to the bonfire.

A tall figure, gaunt, hands raised like some savage priest's. Dark paint around his eyes, making him look like a raccoon. "We have conquered the train that dares invade the clan's territory!"

A cheer from the crowd.

Mortimer propped himself up on the fallen tree, craned his neck for a closer look.

The priest wore a large necklace of finger bones. A wide black belt from which hung a rusting cavalry saber. High black boots. A black cape, probably looted from some costume shop. He'd have looked almost comic if not for the glint of fire reflecting in his demon eyes.

The priest's voice carried over all. "We are the clan, and we absorb the strength of our enemies through blood. Nothing is forbidden us!"

Another cheer.

"Bring forth the butcher! Take the other leg!"

Wild cheering, followed by the chant. Meat meat meat!

A hairy brute emerged from the crowd. A short man but wide, a bulging fireplug. He wore a stained leather apron, various knives and cleavers dangling from his belt. An orange Tennessee Volunteers cap. He clutched a gleaming hacksaw in his thick hand and approached the muscle guy strapped to the table.

Dear God...But Mortimer couldn't turn away. He watched, transfixed.

The butcher bent over the muscle guy's leg, prodded it with thick, stubby fingers, nodding to himself, egged on by the chanting crowd. The muscle guy still stared ahead at nothing, deep in his horror-induced trance. The butcher set the saw's teeth against flesh, high up the thigh.

Meat meat meat!

The saw blade bit deep, the butcher leaning all of his weight into it. Bright blood fountained. The muscle guy was yanked back to reality, screamed and thrashed against his bonds, eyes bulging. The butcher was relentless, sawing back and forth with long, hard strokes. Blood sprayed his apron and face.

Mortimer turned away and vomited.

At last, the screams stopped. Perhaps the muscle guy had passed out, or maybe he'd simply died from shock and blood loss. Mortimer poked his head up again, fearing what he might see.

The legless muscleman twitched and drooled, eyes hollow, seeing nothing. The butcher carried the leg to a small group of cannibals who already had the other leg lashed to a spit attached to two long poles. Once they'd attached the other leg, the cannibals held the legs over the fire. The smell of roasting human almost made Mortimer throw up again.

"Break out the fermented blood," the priest shouted. "Tonight we party!"

The most enthusiastic cheer yet. A group of cannibals produced instruments: mandolin, guitar, harmonica and bongo drum. They played-something between bluegrass and adult contemporary. Some danced around the fire. When the meat had cooked, portions of leg were sliced off and passed around. Lips smacked. The butcher brought the arms and torso to be cooked.

Mortimer went flat on his belly again. He couldn't watch any longer. He crawled around the camp trying to edge closer to the prisoners. The thought he could free his friends was laughable. But he had to see, had to be able to tell himself in the deep dark of future restless nights that he'd tried.

The music, the hellish orange of the bonfire, the chanting and dancing and occasional scream all mixed to form a portrait of hell that would have made Dante piss his pants.

Mortimer belly-crawled until the cold and wet and the long night sapped all that was left of him. He curled against a stump, clapped his hands over his ears in a futile attempt to keep out the nauseating racket of the vile barbecue only a hundred feet away. He lay exhausted and defeated. Sorry, Bill.

Sleep took him finally, and he dreamed of unspeakable things.

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