"I wasn't supposed to be here. I was looking in the offices. I was curious. Nobody is ever supposed to come down here." She latched suddenly on to Mortimer's arm. "Please, we have to go. If she catches us here..."
Mortimer shook his arm loose, stepped up to the wall, ran his hand along its surface. Knocked. The material was thin, flimsy. "This is cardboard painted to look like the wall."
Mortimer shoved, and the wall shook; the ship picture fell, frame glass shattering on the floor. Ruth started, yelped. He pushed the wall again, and the cardboard structure flopped over. Light streamed in, and Mortimer flinched. He pushed on, kicking the wall down until it was flat.
The hallway led to a glass door.
They went to it, pulled. Locked.
Mortimer looked for a place to try the keys he'd found in the doctor's desk. No luck.
Ruth put her hands flat against the glass, looked through to the other side. "What is it?"
"Some kind of reception area. Or maybe a security checkpoint," Mortimer said.
There was a counter, a phone and two cheap office chairs in a small waiting area. Half the lights still worked. Mortimer jerked on the door, but it wouldn't budge.
"I bet this is it," Mortimer said.
"The way out. Wait here." He jogged back down the hall.
"Where are you going?" A hint of alarm in Ruth's voice.
"I'll be right back."
Back in the dead man's office, Mortimer picked up the fire extinguisher he'd used to bash open the padlock. He hefted it, feeling its weight. Probably he could smash through the glass door with it. He turned to run back down the hall. Paused. He set the extinguisher down, entered the office again.
He stared at the corpse, still clutching the panties, imagined a macabre smile of perverse satisfaction across the mummified face. Mortimer's gaze shifted downward, came to rest on the plastic I.D. badge hanging from a frayed cord. Mortimer grabbed it quickly, yanked, and it came loose. He ran back down the hall and found Ruth squatting small and quiet against the wall.
It only took Mortimer a second to find the slot. He inserted the plastic I.D. Nothing happened.
"What's that?" Ruth got to her feet, stood close to Mortimer. "What are you doing?"
Mortimer turned the I.D. card around so the magnetic strip faced the other way. He inserted it again. The slot buzzed sluggishly, a green light flickering and struggling.
"Come on!" He jammed the card in harder, slammed the slot with the heel of his other hand. "Work, you piece of shit!"
The green light buzzed. An audible click from the glass door.
"Get it. Quick!" ordered Mortimer.
Ruth pulled the door open and held it. Mortimer put the I.D. card in his pocket, raced through the door, pulling Ruth after him. "Come on!"
This is it, thought Mortimer. The way out. Mother Lola had kept it hidden, kept all her little subjects trapped in her morbid little kingdom. But they'd made it through. They ran down a long hall, Mortimer's heart thumping.
"Wait! What's that?" Ruth halted abruptly, pulled on Mortimer's arm.
They held their breath, listened.
From behind they heard movement, hard footfalls on a tile floor, muffled voices.
"Oh, God, they're coming." Ruth's eyes shot wide with animal panic. "Mother Lola knows. She's coming."
"Hurry!" Mortimer pulled her forward, ran down the long hall.
They turned a corner, saw a smear of daylight. Double doors leading to the outside. They ran. Ruth faltered, almost stumbled, but Mortimer jerked her upright and kept running. Flashlight beams behind them now, harsh shouts to stop.
They didn't look back, hit the doors at a run, bright sunlight washing over them as they erupted into the open.
"Run for it!" Mortimer let go of her wrist, ran full speed for open ground. "We can make it," he shouted into the wind. "Keep running!" He turned his head, expected to see her sprinting for her life.
She wasn't next to him.
He stopped, turned, saw her still only a few yards from the hospital entrance. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I...I can't..." She took three halting steps, then froze, shut her eyes tight, put her hands in the air as if fending off some unseen ghost.
Mortimer ran back, grabbed her, started running again. It was like pulling a sack of bowling balls. But then she jogged, tried to keep up, Mortimer pulling and urging her. Abruptly she fell to the ground, sliding out of his grip. She curled into a ball.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" He grabbed under her armpits, attempted to hoist her up. She went limp, dripped from his arms.
"I can't...I didn't know." She shook her head, the words coming breathless. "I didn't know it would be like this."
He grabbed her, ran sluggishly with her a hundred yards before they fell into a pile. Mortimer panted, gulped for air, his breath steaming in the cold. "What the hell is your problem?"
"It's too much," she gasped. "I didn't know it would be so big. I can't do it. It's so much. So open." She put her hands over her head like she was trying to fend off the sky, gigantic open spaces threatening to crush her into the earth.
Mortimer stood, looked back at the hospital entrance. Three women stood in the doorway. Mother Lola with a fox fur around her neck, two women flanking her. Both holding bows and arrows.
"Unhand her, vile abductor," bellowed Mother Lola.
Mortimer dropped next to Ruth, whispered in her ear, "We have to go right now."
"I can't. It's too much. There's nothing between me and...and..." She waved a frantic hand at the sky. "Everything." She staggered to her feet, ran for the hospital. "I have to get back inside."
"Are you crazy?" Mortimer leapt, tackled her around the ankles. They both went down, Ruth screaming.
She kicked at him, writhed, twisted from his grip. She was up again and running.
Mortimer started after her when an arrow landed with a meaty thwock in his upper thigh.
"Holy fucking shit, that hurts!" He hopped on one leg, gritting his teeth and uttering curses. He grabbed the shaft, pulled the arrow out with relative ease. A nonbarbed target arrow. It hadn't penetrated deeply, but it stung like a son of a bitch.
Mortimer yelled, "Ruth!"
She didn't turn, fled weeping into the arms of Mother Lola.
He stood a moment looking at the women and the hospital, vines creeping up the building on all sides as if the earth were trying to swallow it whole. He saw Mother Lola and Ruth disappear back into the darkness within.
Another arrow whizzed over his head.
"Okay, okay. I can take a hint."
Mortimer limped away as fast as he could. They didn't chase him. Maybe his seed wasn't so desirable after all.
The cold tore at Mortimer's bare ankles, whooshed up his pant legs to do fierce, shrinking things to his genitalia. He shivered and trudged, favoring the leg with the shallow arrow wound. The winding, narrow road twisted and curved through the forest away from Saint Sebastian's and toward nowhere he could guess. He assumed the asphalt would eventually take him to some village or town. He'd settle for a farmhouse where he might beg a scrap of food.
He could not shake the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Ruth. Poor girl. What should he have done for her? Ultimately another victim of the world's implosion. After growing up in her sterile cocoon, how could she possibly face the unyielding totality of an entire planet?
Or maybe she was just a wack-doodle.
Mortimer hugged himself tighter, trudged on, tried to keep his teeth from chattering.
He passed three dead farmhouses before he realized it might be a good idea to scavenge. Even if he didn't find food, he might possibly find something warmer to wear. He might even stay in one of the abandoned dwellings for the night and try to get a fire going somehow.
The next two farmhouses produced nothing of value. In the third, Mortimer attempted to pull down a thick set of yellow drapes to use as a blanket, but the material disintegrated in his hands.
By evening, he was exhausted and starving. His feet hurt, and every muscle ached.
The next farmhouse had no front door, all the windows smashed out. He found only barren rooms and hard wooden floors inside. There was a fireplace but nothing he could use to start a fire. He'd read a number of frontier guides that demonstrated how to build a fire without matches, but he couldn't remember anything that would allow him to strike a spark out of thin air with his bare hands.
In the bathroom, he found a dirty plastic shower curtain still hanging. He tore it down and used it as a blanket. Mortimer spent a long uncomfortable night in the tub.
Every limb was sore and stiff when he awoke. The leg with the arrow wound was the worst. Not for the first time, Mortimer thought how much simpler and safer and more comfortable it would have been to stay in his cave. Or he could have stayed in Spring City, bought back his house from the crazy old lady.
The idea of tracking down his wife seemed useless and arbitrary now. And yet Mortimer could not quite picture himself turning back, living easily and without direction, drinking his fortune at the Spring City Joey Armageddon's.
He stretched, stomped the feeling back into his legs and hit the road again.
Two more farmhouses and still nothing. He felt he might soon eat his shoes if he didn't find food.
He arrived at a larger county road that crossed his at a T intersection. This would certainly lead to some kind of town, and Mortimer brightened microscopically. Another farmhouse sat at the head of the T intersection. Maybe Mortimer would get lucky. He went inside.
The first thing he saw was the dead body.
Mortimer was still not quite used to seeing dead bodies.
The corpse sat at a desk. The desk faced the front door. The dead man had fallen forward. He clutched a revolver in his stiff, dead hands. He didn't look quite as mummified as the dead doctor back at Saint Sebastian's, but he'd clearly been there a long time. A brown-red bullet hole above his right temple.
He couldn't take it, and he shot himself.
Mortimer's eyes fixed on the gun. It was like finding a bar of gold. Next to the man's head was an ashtray with a book of matches in it. Fire! And what was that on the end of the desk? Ravioli. A fucking can of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Ravioli.
Mortimer almost flew to the desk, arms outstretched.
The floor vanished out from under him. Falling. Flailing limbs. Rope tight across his face. He was tangled, swaying, bobbing up and down in the musty darkness.
After a few seconds, Mortimer stopped his struggling, tried to turn his head and assess his situation. He hung upside down in a large net. That much was obvious. A trapdoor must have dropped him into a net, and he now hung in the basement below. The only light came from the still-open trapdoor above. He craned his neck, tried to see what was in the basement.
Bodies. Dozens of dead bodies in a pile.
He heard something and froze. It had sounded like a bell. He struggled, heard the bell again and froze again. Experimentally, he twisted and shifted in the net. The bell sounded.
It's connected to the net, he thought. Come and get it.
He renewed his struggles more frantically. He had to get out before they came. Whoever the hell they were. Mortimer didn't want to find out. He managed to struggle right side up, reached up between the thick net ropes to see if he could feel how the thing was put together. Maybe he could untie it.
Footsteps up above, the wooden floor creaking. Mortimer held his breath. A black silhouette appeared against the square of light above him, stood at the edge and looked down at him through the trapdoor. Mortimer saw the vague outline of a firearm cradled in the man's arms.
"He got any weapons?" called a voice.
The silhouette turned his head to answer. "Nope. Go get him."
Another set of footsteps crossed the floor. The sound of a door swinging on rusty hinges, followed by the muffled clomp of boots coming down stairs. A door swung open, and light flooded the basement. A man in jeans and a heavy flannel shirt approached Mortimer. He was pale, red hair, medium height, small black eyes and yellow teeth spread out with gaps. Late twenties. On his shoulder rested a wooden baseball bat.
"I'm gonna let you down, okay? You try anything, I'll bash you good with this." He hefted the bat. "You understand?"
The man looked up at the silhouette. "Bobby?"
Bobby shifted the firearm to point at Mortimer. "I got him covered. Go ahead."
The bat wielder went to the wall, untied a rope and slowly lowered the net to the basement floor.
Mortimer spread the opening in the top of the net, shimmied out of it as he stood.
More footsteps up above, the quick patter of high heels. A woman's voice. "Did you get one?"
The one called Bobby said, "Just stay back, Sue Ellen. We got it handled. Floyd's down there with him now."
Floyd said, "You want me to search him down here or bring-"
Mortimer bolted for the stairs, ignoring the pain of his leg wound. He got three steps before feeling the sharp smack at the base of his skull. He went to his knees, his head swimming, eyes going unfocused.
"I told you not to fucking do that, asshole." Floyd's voice sounded like it was down a well.
"You got him?" Bobby called.
"Oh, I got him all right."
Another smack to the back of the head and everything went black.
Mortimer awoke with the sensation he had only been unconscious a minute or two. The back of his head throbbed. He turned to look into the eyes of a sallow, glassy-eyed corpse. His suit jacket and shirt were off, and the cement floor was cold on his back. He was barefoot.
He raised his head, saw a woman holding his shoes.
"You must be Sue Ellen."
She turned, shouted up the stairs. "He's awake."
Mortimer wished he wasn't.
Boots hammered down the stairs while the girl looked down at Mortimer. She was a sight. An emerald-green cocktail dress, a big white sun hat, black silk gloves, fishnet stockings, satin pumps. She looked like she was auditioning for a community college production of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Her face, pretty in a flat, plain sort of way, was ruddy, her brown eyes dull, her expression a bit too slack-jawed. She blinked at Mortimer, still holding his shoes. She didn't seem very concerned that Mortimer was conscious.
Maybe that was because Floyd and Bobby stood next to her now, Floyd with his baseball bat and Bobby with what Mortimer could now see was a single-barreled shotgun. Bobby had thinning hair the same red as Floyd's but a sharper, angular face and hard, probing eyes of bright blue. Like Floyd, he wore jeans and flannel shirts in layers.
The three of them gawked at Mortimer like he was a farm animal with a mildly interesting disfigurement.
"What are you going to do with me?" Mortimer asked.
Bobby shrugged. "Don't know yet. Sue Ellen?"
"Nothing hidden in his shoes," she said. "And I already went through his pants pockets. I'll look in the jacket." She picked it up, started turning the pockets out.
"Let me go," Mortimer said. "I don't have anything you want."
"Shut up," Floyd told him.
"If nothing else we can put him on the bicycle line," Bobby said.
Floyd pointed at Mortimer's thigh with the bat. "He's got a bum leg."
"He'll heal up okay."
Sue Ellen squealed. "It was in his jacket pocket." She held up the pink plastic card she'd found. "Wow. A Platinum member."
Bobby sighed. "Hell. Okay, then. Give him back his shoes."
DINNER AND ENTERTAINMENT
They all hopped aboard the wagon and started up the county road. For a while, Mortimer could not take his eyes off the mule pulling them. He'd seen no horses or cows or sheep or livestock of any kind. Perhaps the mule's mangy, decrepit state had kept it from being eaten. Even as starved as Mortimer felt, the animal did not look appetizing.
The wagon rocked back and forth. They clip-clopped up the road.
"Where are you taking me?" Mortimer asked at last.
"Joey Armageddon's," Bobby said.
"What? All the way back to Spring City?" The mule would never make it. Maybe he'd end up eating it after all.
"Hell no," Bobby said. "The new one in Cleveland. We just struck a deal with the owner to give a safe pass to members. You're a Platinum member, so we thought we'd better take you in the wagon. Otherwise, we'd have just let you walk it."
"We expect a lot more traffic through here when the new Joey's is up and running full speed," Sue Ellen said. "It's been dead around here. We ain't caught anyone in the net in...how long, Floyd?"
"Six months," Floyd said. "Maybe seven."
"It'll be nice to get commerce flowing again," Bobby said.
"More traffic means more people in the net?" Mortimer asked.
Bobby shrugged. "Got to earn a living."
"Seems a little gruesome."