Daylight: Falling From Grace
Episode III: I Should Have Been Home Yesterday
Disclaimer: Daria and all associated characters are property of MTV. The author does not claim ownership of Daria or any associated characters, and is not being compensated for his work, which is just as well.
“Welcome to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia,” reads a sign just past the Maryland/West Virginia border on Interstate 68. In the past, thousands of travelers passed by the sign on a daily basis. Generally, they would either silently note they were on the right road, panic that they were not, snicker at the state motto, or, most commonly, ignore the sign outright as they passed by at 70 miles per hour.
However, in the last month, that flow of traffic had slowed dramatically, both in terms of speed and volume. On this day, January 31st, 2000, only three travelers would pass by the sign, and their reactions were quite different.
“West Virginia! We made it!” rang the cheery voice of Quinn Morgendorffer. Quinn’s voice betrayed none of the hardship she had to endure over the last month.
“It’s about freaking time,” added Sandi Griffin. Though Sandi had always been quick to complain, she had reason for concern, as the trio had expected to see that sign by the previous night.
“Let’s check around the sign to make sure nobody’s using it for cover,” suggested Stacy Rowe as she pulled out her pistol. Over the last few days, Stacy had been acting braver than usual and had been eerily calm. Of course, when the one you love sacrifices his life to save yours, it’s normal to undergo some personal changes.
The sign and surrounding trees were thoroughly checked and found to be devoid of human existence. Confident that they were alone, they set down their bags and started setting up camp. Stacy and Sandi set to gathering wood from nearby trees while Quinn took their large pot to a nearby stream to gather water. As Quinn was setting to her task, she thought about the course of events that led her to where she was. After all, it was just a month ago that she was commanding boys to bring her diet soda.
On the last day of 1999, Quinn remembered dancing at a house party being thrown by the football team. Sandi and Tiffany had both been there, as had Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie. Someone, she couldn’t remember who, had brought the mixings for Hairy Navels, and just about everyone at the party was drunk by the time 2000 arrived. Quinn remembered getting someone sober to drive her home, and then begging him to not take her home because her parents would kill her. The only other house she could think of was Jane Lane’s house, because Jane’s parents were never home anyway.
That morning, Quinn had awoken to the sound of electrical snapping noises. The light fixture above her sparked and caught fire, and she dived out of the way as it crashed down. She ran to tell Jane about it, and ended up pulling Jane out of the way when her computer monitor exploded. They ran from the house and escaped with their lives. Upon returning to Quinn’s house, they found that her parents and sister Daria had not been so lucky.
It would turn out that, due to some sort of solar flare or something, Quinn wasn’t exactly sure, everything electronic and electrical was shorted out and either stopped working, caught fire, or exploded. They moved on to the Zon, where Jane’s brother Trent had stayed the night, but the only survivors there were Max, Trent’s drummer, and Stu, the owner. Quinn remembered her promise to Stacy to meet her above Charles “Upchuck” Ruttheimer’s fallout shelter, where Stacy had spent New Year’s Eve. There she found both Stacy and Upchuck were still alive, though their shelter self-destructed minutes after they emerged. Through explorations they found Sandi cowering in her storage shed, as well as Mack and Jodie safe in their reinforced basement. Stu ended up being killed by bandits in the night. Jane and Max had opted to join Mack and Jodie, while Quinn, Sandi, Stacy and Upchuck chose to head out.
From there, the quartet walked west, trying to find a safer civilization and the means for survival. They traveled across the panhandle of Maryland, just now seeing the next state. Stacy and Charles had become inseparable lovers, and Sandi and Quinn had grown closer together. Quinn felt safe in Sandi’s arms, but every now and then she wondered if their relationship was one of love or mere necessity.
When they came to Cumberland, Quinn had been kidnapped by a local ruling gang of thugs who called themselves the Doomsday Device. The man in charge of keeping her prisoner, Ryan, had given her the means of escape, and had planned to take down the Device, even at the cost of his life. Her companions arranged to negotiate for Quinn’s release, but soon learned that the Doomsday Device planned to take them all prisoner and confiscate all their belongings. Ryan made his move, and after an intense minute Ryan was dead, along with apparently the entire gang. Sandi had taken a bullet to her shoulder, a wound she still favored to this day, and Stacy had run to her side. One gang member had survived, and took a shot at Stacy. Charles pushed Stacy out of the way, only to take her place in the line of fire and sustain a fatal wound.
In the aftermath, an unknown Secret Service agent barely stumbled to the three girls before collapsing in front of them. He asked them to deliver a message with his dying words. The message, labeled Executive Order 509, appeared to be a top secret communication meant for the Secretary of Labor, who had apparently spent the New Year’s at a house in Nitro, a suburb of Charleston, West Virginia. After realizing that this Secretary may be the next, or even last, person in the line of succession to the Presidency, all three eventually agreed that they had to deliver this letter at almost any cost.
Quinn looked at her two friends and considered how they all had changed over the last month. While none of them had been overweight before the New Year, they all were in much better physical condition. Instead of eating light salads and low-calorie everything, they were eating whatever they could find; from beef stew and canned pasta to MRE’s and whatever else they could pick up on their way. Once afraid to work up a sweat, they now walked for as long as they could, sometimes several hours over the course of the day. Their bodies, once wan from dieting and maintaining the Waif standard of beauty, had developed significant muscle tone. Their faces hadn’t seen makeup in a month, and their hair had grown longer and tangled. Their initial longings for facials, veggie platters, and dates at Chez Pierre had been replaced by memories of hot showers, home-cooked meals, and having families to rely on when the going got tough.
Quinn brought the pot up to the fire Sandi had gotten started. She hung the handle over their makeshift spit to boil out any bacteria or other harmful materials. Stacy had set up their canteens and the funnel they used to fill them with. Sandi worked on taking stock of the food. She knew exactly how much food she had to work with, but she insisted on checking daily; this was partly to ensure none of the food had disappeared and partly wishful thinking that extra provisions would magically appear. Thus far, neither had occurred.
“Ladies,” began Sandi, “It’s that time again. This time I want each of you to pick a number between one and thirty-six.”
Stacy spoke first. “One.”
Quinn thought it over. “Twenty-Three.”
Sandi moved a few things around, out of the view of the others. “And for me?”
Stacy and Quinn looked at each other, and said in unison, “Thirteen.”
Sandi smiled and tossed the girls MRE’s. “You really should stop being so predictable. Thirteen gives me the chicken with Thai sauce. One gets Stacy meatloaf, and twenty-three is spaghetti. Dig in, girls.”
Quinn kicked the ground. “Aw, we still had a Thai sauce left?”
Sandi shrugged. “Well, not any more. We do have plenty of beef franks left if you prefer to change.”
Quinn shook her head, while Stacy thought it over. “How many meatloaf do we have left?”
Sandi knew the answer but looked to be sure. “Just the one.”
Stacy nodded. “I’ll keep mine then. At least we’ll be done with meatloaf until the next outpost.”
47-year-old Peter Senerchia rode his horse out to the edge of the woods on his property. He paused to look out into the forest, seeing nothing but trees and small woodland creatures. He thought about the last time he’d been at this property, gathering his friends and a few co-workers for hunting season. He’d shot an 8-pointer, the biggest buck they found that year, and he carried the picture of him posing with the deer in his wallet.
It was right next to the picture of his wife and kids, whom he would never see alive again.
Peter Senerchia was entering his final year as Secretary of Labor. Being a family man, he volunteered to spend the New Year’s holiday at his summer home just outside Nitro, West Virginia with his family. The Secret Service double-checked the security of the property a week prior, and two Secret Service agents had accompanied his family on the trip.
On New Year’s Day, he awoke early and decided to take a ride on his favorite horse, Chestnut, as the sun was rising. One of the agents, John Palmer, had accompanied him on his run. As they returned from their ride, they saw smoke in the direction of the house. They rushed back, only to find the house engulfed in flames. John ran inside first, followed closely by Peter, but neither could believe what they saw. Peter’s wife and two children were already dead, along with the other agent, at the table in the kitchen. The two men barely escaped the house with their own lives.
Peter had never gotten around to installing lighting for the stable, which meant it survived the event intact. After finding out the extent of the issue, the two men had made the stable their shelter. The storage cellar was largely untouched, so a number of preserved foods were still available, and most of the mandatory supply of rations provided by the Secret Service was safe inside the stable at the time of the event. The electrical pump had failed, but a hand pump they kept for decorative purposes was fully functional. They had the tools to survive, so all they could do is wait.
Peter saw John coming towards him out of the corner of his eye. John still wore his sunglasses, but had been convinced to stop wearing his ties. “Any luck with the radio.”
John trotted to a stop next to Peter and shook his head. “Negative, sir. The radio’s working but it’s not picking up any stations.”
Peter nodded. “I’m not surprised, since it takes juice to broadcast. Hell, if you hadn’t remembered your hand-crank radio, I’d have doubted that a radio existed anymore.”
John agreed. “Even with a working receiver, it’s useless without a working transmitter within a 50-mile radius. We should really get back to the stable, sir.”
Peter looked out at the forest. “We should really get back to Washington.”
John replied, “You know we have our orders, and you know why.”
Peter sighed. “I do, but that doesn’t make me like them. I feel bloody useless sitting around here when I could be doing my damn job instead of wondering if there’s even a Washington to go back to. Two more weeks and we head back, news or no news, right?”
John nodded. “That’s correct, sir.”
Peter smiled. “Good, and seriously, stop calling me sir.”
Conditions in the heart of the Charleston Metropolitan Area weren’t any better. In fact, with so many people fighting over so few supplies, chaos seemed to be a somewhat lacking description. After nearly a month of food riots, drug wars, and fights for practically any reason under the sun, most of the ordinary, decent folks had been killed, died of starvation, or run for the hills. Those who remained were either ruthless enough to take what they needed, strong enough to keep what they had, or stubborn enough to believe they’d survive no matter what happened. Jordan James could be considered all three.
On December 31st, 1999, he had been a mere page for the West Virginia State Senate who dealt cocaine to make ends meet, hoping to eventually make his name in politics. When the events of New Year’s occurred, he used his connections, both political and underground, to band together a force to keep the peace after the police had failed. The Jordan James Five-Borough Force, commonly known as the JJ5, slowly gained control over a vast majority of the city. Most of those areas out of JJ5 control either had agreements with the Force or were too hostile to be of use. That would change as time went by.
Jordan stood before a gathering of his higher-level “supporters,” who took care of most of the actual dirty work. He surveyed the twenty-five or so bosses and administrators before him, all of whom looking at him expectantly. He knew many of them wished to see him dead – some to take his place, others to have one less mouth to feed, and still others just for the hell of it – but he also knew his value to the organization he founded. He was the public face. He was the man painted on the walls still standing in the inner city. He was the man who people recognized as their leader, and he gave them a chance to believe, no matter how untrue it was, that he cared for their well-being.
“Friends,” started Jordan, “tonight is the last night of January. It has been a month of both highs and lows. We all know about the destruction that occurred on New Year’s Day. I lost my Mother, my sister, and a number of close friends on that day. This city descended into ruin. Brother fought against brother just to survive to the next day. The remaining stores of food continued to dwindle. People were trapped inside what was left of their homes, wondering where it all would end.
“I could no longer stand idly by as the city destroyed itself, and neither could you. The people of Guthrie, Davis Creek, South Charleston, Dunbar, and Tyler Mountain banded together to form the group known across the city as the JJ5. We brought order to the chaos. We brought shelter to the homeless. We clothed the naked and we fed the hungry. And then, some of the undesirable elements of our town pointed to us and said, ‘they’re only out for themselves’ and ‘they’re trying to rule the city.’ They didn’t see that we were making sure everyone got a piece of the pie. Sure, maybe we kept some of the best pieces for ourselves, but everyone got their share. It’s because of the great work you do and your constant vigilance that we have kept order in Charleston, West Virginia. It’s because of you that there still is a Charleston, West Virginia, and not an abandoned ruin. My friends, January started out low, but ended on a high note. Now that the so-called Saint Albans Saints have been dealt with, I have no doubt that together we will make this a February to remember!”
The group at the meeting all cheered as Jordan’s speech ended. He basked in the applause which, for him, made it all worth it: the killings, the turf wars, the terror tactics; all of it. After all, if he didn’t do it, someone else would, and he’d be just another victim.
Jordan’s second-in-command, Bryce Johnson, stood behind his leader, outwardly supportive of the speech. Inside, he knew there were minor inaccuracies in Jordan’s speech. The Saint Albans Saints had been broken, certainly, but the remnants from that gang threatened their push to the northeast into Amandaville, Virginia Heights, and Nitro. Still, victory was inevitable; it was merely the cost of victory that was still up in the air. By the end of next month, the JJ5 would control practically all of the Charleston area: from Scary to Elk Hills and from Pocatalico to Port Amherst. This prospect pleased him greatly. In fact, the only thing that would please Bryce Johnson more is if, by the time it happened, the JJ5 had become the BJ5.
Sandi and Quinn lay intertwined on their blanket in a grassy meadow. A few feet away, the remnants of a picnic lunch sat waiting to be put away. Quinn smiled and looked deep into her lover’s eyes. “You know I love you.”
Sandi nodded. “I know.”
Quinn continued. “And eventually, you’ll realize you love me.”
Sandi looked away. “How will I know?”
Quinn turned Sandi’s face back to hers. “When the time comes, you’ll know.” She then placed her lips against Sandi’s.
Just then, a man on a horse appeared in the distance. He rode towards the two girls with a fire in his eyes and an axe in his hand. Sandi looked at Quinn, kissed her one last time, and shooed her away as she stood up before the rider. Quinn hesitated before running off.
The rider came to a stop before her. “You know you can’t stop me.”
Sandi nodded. “Maybe not, but I can’t stand aside and let you take her from me.”
The rider considered this. “So be it.” He raised his axe and brought it down on the shoulder of the girl before him, who stood defiant.
Sandi woke with a start. Looking around, she remembered she was in a tent in Weston, and that it was February 5th. Her pack had fallen onto her shoulder, waking her. “That does it,” she said aloud to nobody in particular, “even if I get the chance, no more freaking romance novels ever again.”
“Hear hear,” said a familiar voice outside the tent. “Are you decent, Sandi?”
Sandi smiled as she made sure her blanket covered her lingerie-clad body. “No, Quinn.”
Quinn opened the tent flap and entered the tent, closing it behind her. “Good.” She lay down next to Sandi and snuggled close. “Another nightmare?”
Sandi nodded. “Yeah; well, kind of. It was pretty good for a while.”
Quinn kissed Sandi gently on the lips. “Oh really? What was it like?”
Sandi smiled. “About like this, only no tent and less clothing.”
Quinn grinned wider. “I like it so far. Let me guess, another slab of beefcake on a horse spoiling the party?”
Sandi nodded. “You guessed it. It almost makes me afraid to try anything with you in real life.”
Quinn appraised their current position. “It doesn’t seem to be stopping you.”
Sandi stifled a laugh. “I said almost.”
Quinn shook her head and smiled. “I love you so much, Sandi.”
Sandi turned away, partly from the memory of her dream, but mostly from her feelings inside. “I know you do.”
Quinn sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to pressure you. I just can’t help how I feel about you.”
Sandi continued to look away. “I wish I knew one way or another. These days I’m not even sure what love is.”
Quinn thought about it. “I do, but I don’t know if I can describe it. It’s like, when you’re with that person, they’re all that matters in the world. The rest of the world could go to hell, but it’s heaven all around them. You would do anything, pay any cost, to make that person happy.”
Sandi sighed. “Then I guess I used to be in love; with myself. Now, I just don’t know.”
Quinn turned Sandi’s face to hers. “When the time comes, you’ll know.”
Sandi turned white as a sheet. “That’s exactly what you said in my dream.”
Quinn shrugged. “I guess that’s because it’s the truth. There was a moment I just knew how I felt about you. When you put your arms around me, just after we rescued you from your shed, I knew there was something different. Saving Jane made me happy. Finding Stacy made me happy. Finding you was something more. It was like I realized how afraid I had been that I would never see you again, and how good it felt to have you in my arms.”
Sandi pondered what Quinn was saying. “I guess that makes sense.”
Quinn smiled and kissed Sandi briefly on the lips. “Now get dressed. Another half-hour and you’ll have to find your own breakfast.”
“If it were all to come back tomorrow, there’s no way I’m going back to salads.”
Quinn and Sandi turned towards Stacy, who had just stabbed a sausage link drenched in pancake syrup and inhaled it with one bite.
Quinn smirked. “Stacy, it’s a good thing you’re the straight one.”
Stacy looked confused as she chewed. “Hmmm?” A sudden look of recognition was accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a swallow. “I still don’t get your problem with it.”
Quinn rolled her eyes in response. “I don’t have a problem with it; I just don’t see why you’d be so eager for it.”
Stacy shook her head. “I’m not eager for it. I just like the taste; and the texture.”
Quinn shrugged. “Well, to each their own, I guess. I’d rather have a slice of ham any day.”
Sandi, who’d been following the conversation with a bemused smirk, suddenly coughed up the water she had been drinking. “Wait, what are you talking about?”
Stacy smiled. “Sausage.”
Quinn batted her eyelashes at Sandi. “What did you think we were talking about?” It wasn’t long after that when Quinn and Stacy broke into laughter, with Sandi not far behind.
Bryce Johnson walked into the makeshift office that Jordan James had turned into the hub of operations for the JJ5, keeping his smile on the inside. After all, we don’t want Jordan to think we’re being too optimistic, do we? “Good morning, Jordan.”
Jordan looked up from a stack of papers on his desk. “Ah, Bryce. What’s the good word?”
Bryce finally allowed a small smile to cross his face. “Amandaville, sir.”
Jordan smiled large enough for both of them. “Excellent! Any trouble integrating them into our coalition?”
Bryce let the smile leave his face. “None in Amandaville proper, but Virginia Heights is being…troublesome. We were prepared for their assault on our flank, but they’re in it for the long haul.”
Jordan shrugged. “Well, we knew it wouldn’t be that easy. How long is the long haul?”
Bryce answered, “If we’re still bothering with them on the 10th, I’ll eat my hat.”
Jordan stifled a laugh at that. “If we can’t put them down by then, your hat may be all you have to eat that day. We really need to wrap up the western push to Scary by the 14th if we want to keep on schedule.”
Bryce nodded. “We will keep on schedule, one way or another. One more item of note, sir: the US Secretary of Labor, Peter Senerchia is known to have an estate around Nitro, which may be the perfect place to use as a staging area for the final push to Scary. There have been rumors that the Secretary was supposed to be in town on the First Day, but there have been no confirmed sightings of him or his family since then. There are, however, reports of someone claiming to be a Secret Service agent who stops anyone who tries to enter.”
Jordan considered this. “I certainly hope he’s just bluffing. The last thing we need is the federal government on our backs.”
Bryce scoffed at this notion. “You can’t seriously think the Federal Government still exists outside of Washington, can you?”
Jordan scowled. “It’s not the government that worries me; it’s the army. If they come through here, and they find out we had to subdue someone in the line of succession for the Presidency, I don’t see martial law being kind to us.”
Bryce thought this over. “He’s the Secretary of Labor. How many people would have to die before they got to him?”
Jordan shrugged. “I don’t recall, but it’s less than thirty at the most. How many of them survived just that day, though? How many may have run short on food or run out of the medicine that they needed to survive in the last month? For all we know, the Secretary of Agriculture and a Congressman from Wyoming are running the whole show by now. No, if we run into the Secretary, we thank him for his service, give him whatever he needs, and send him on his way. Or, if he wants to stay, we leave him alone.”
Bryce frowned. “I disagree. If he goes back to Washington and alerts them to what we’re doing, that might bring the Army right after us. I say we kill him if we find him.”
Jordan shook his head. “Your opinion is appreciated, but we can’t chance that right now. Anyway, if he’s even there to begin with, he probably hasn’t survived this long without outside supplies, so the point is moot. That ‘agent’ is just some kook trying to squat the property. Continue to plan his estate as the staging ground for the Scary push, and give your men orders to approach the estate diplomatically. Steve’s a good guy to arrange for any negotiations. If he fails, we won’t miss having one less bean counter’s mouth to feed. I’ll make sure he’s there after you deal with the Heights.”
Bryce nodded. “Yes sir. It will be done as you request.” And now, he thought as he walked away, I have found your weak point. All I have to do is find the right moment and squeeze, and you’ll be out of my way.
The three girls stood at the dispensary; their mood was certainly different from at breakfast. “Are you sure that’s all you can spare?” asked Quinn.
The man behind the desk frowned along with the three girls before him. “I’m sorry, girls, but even the two days of meals you have now is more than I should be offering. If you hadn’t helped us last night preparing the fields, I couldn’t offer anything other than breakfast today. I’m afraid the stable food supply will run short fairly soon. Are you sure you can’t stay and help us rebuild?”
Stacy looked solemn. “We can’t let that agent have died in vain.”
The man nodded. “A word to the wise: out in the countryside are a lot of good ol’ boys that are happy they’ll probably never have to hear another police car coming to take their moonshine stills or bust up their hoedowns. I don’t reckon they’d take too kindly to strangers saying they’re on government business.”
Quinn bowed slightly. “Thank you. At least good advice is still free and available.”
The man tipped his hat to the ladies before him. “When that changes, it’s time to pack it up. Good day, ladies.”
Steve Jensen sat at the table in his living quarters. Several papers were arranged in various stacks before him. It was an odd life being an accountant for a corrupt organization at a time when money no longer has any value. Aside from the obvious problems with the barter system – exactly how many bushels of wheat did a guard dog cost? – he had to help make sure the supplies they had would last indefinitely. Of course, he didn’t really have much else to do, since he was practically a prisoner. Sure, he could get up and walk around his block for exercise, but any further and he faced the people he portioned food out to; people who often got barely what they needed or less.
Of course, Steve couldn’t tell them that he was living on one meal a day. He couldn’t tell them that he hadn’t seen his family up in Ripley since Day One when he was stranded in his office building. He couldn’t tell them that the JJ5 had kept him as a glorified prisoner to do their accounting since the takeover.
Well, he thought, I could tell them, but they wouldn’t care.
Unlike most of the people, he got his meal every day. Unlike most of the people, he wasn’t forced to fight against neighboring towns to increase the JJ5’s sphere of influence. Unlike most of the people, he had a secure place to call his own. Most importantly, unlike most of the people who lived in the area just over a month ago, he was alive.
A knock at the door made him raise his head from his documents. “Come in,” he called, thankful for the modicum of respect shown in not just barging in.
The door opened, and a man Steve knew only as Johnson walked inside. “Good morning, Steve.”
Steve smiled, as he finished the perfunctory greeting they’d said every day for weeks. “Every morning we’re alive is a good one, sir.”
Johnson nodded. “How are things coming?”
Steve knew what Johnson meant. “Fairly well considering the circumstances. At the rate we’re going, the eastern villages shouldn’t have any issues with the food supply for another three months.” Steve knew that Johnson didn’t consider the general populace suffering from mild malnutrition to be an issue.
Johnson smiled and took the papers that Steve held out. “Excellent. I assume this does not take into account the stores of Amandaville?”
Steve nodded. “That is correct, sir. Without knowing what we gained, I wouldn’t be able to ascertain its benefits, nor the costs of feeding their people. Once I have that information, I’ll revise my projections.”
Johnson waved his hand. “Don’t worry too much about that right now. Whatever work you can do on that will be appreciated, but I want you to get ready for an extra assignment.”
Steve became nervous at that word. “Assignment?”
Johnson nodded. “Jordan personally informed me that there’s a rumor going around about a high-ranking politician that may be holed up in Nitro. Someone claiming to be with the Secret Service is keeping people away from the area, so we may need your expertise as a negotiator there, in case he cannot be persuaded to join our team. We expect to be there by the 10th, if not before, and you’ll be mobilized the day before we’re ready with a protection squad. You’ll be upgraded to the next class of meals starting today until the assignment is complete, and for an additional week when negotiations are successful. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you why you should have a successful negotiation.”
Steve was quite aware of the last negotiator who failed to negotiate the surrender of a village. He reminded himself that if negotiations fell through, it would be better to switch sides than return empty-handed. Still, his job wasn’t up for debate, and B-Meals wouldn’t leave his stomach quite as empty as the C-Meals tended to. “Of course not, sir. Thank you for your consideration.”
“Be ready to move when the time comes,” Johnson said, turning to leave. “With any luck, you may be out there sooner than later.”
That’s what I’m afraid of, thought Steve, as he watched his superior leave.
The town of Sutton proved to be a ghost town, like so many of the others the girls had passed. Burned out buildings dominated, with a few brick structures still standing. The girls had decided to take shelter in an abandoned Catholic church across from a wall reading “Chew Mail Pouch: Treat Yourself to the Best.”
“Ugh,” said Sandi as she saw the old advertisement while entering the church. “Why would anyone chew tobacco? It’s so disgusting.”
Quinn, following behind, agreed. “I know, having to spit all the time, all that brown stuff, ewww!”
Stacy, watching their backs, replied, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, these people are out on a farm where nobody’s going to see them, and can you imagine lighting up a cigarette in an open field when it’s raining?”
Sandi rolled her eyes and turned around. “Stacy!”
Stacy turned to meet Sandi’s look. “What?”
Sandi realized her mistake, blushed and mumbled, “Um, sorry. Old habits die hard and stuff.”
Quinn, taking the moment in, put her arms on both girls’ shoulders. “Come on girls; let’s check this place out.”
The girls checked out the entire building to ensure it was empty, coming to the chapel last. The chapel was fairly simple for a Catholic church. The light fixtures were all broken at best, but sufficient light streamed in from the stained glass windows, most of which were still fully intact. Several rows of pews led up to the altar at the front, partitioned off by a communion rail. To the sides, several depictions of Jesus, Mary, and other biblical figures dominated the artwork. In one corner was an altar with a picture of Mary, surrounded by several candles.
The trio walked into the room, and immediately Sandi walked to the rail, knelt, folded her hands and closed her eyes. Quinn looked on surprised, but when she started to talk, Stacy put her hand on Quinn’s shoulder. After about half a minute, Stacy stood, crossed herself, and walked back to the other two.
Quinn spoke first, “Sandi, I didn’t know you were Catholic.”
Sandi sighed. “I was. I guess I still am. After my Confirmation, I started losing faith. The head priest at our church went senile as my Confirmation was ending. One day he gave a sermon about going to a mountaintop or something, and then the next day he made an obscene phone call to a teenage girl and drove miles away. They found him and put him into a nursing home. The next guy they got was just mean. Anything and everything I did was a sin. Nothing I did was right in his eyes, unless I were to become a nun or something. All that drove me away, but since all this happened, I don’t know.”
Stacy nodded. “I remember that. Between that and that one dance you got roped into planning, eighth grade wasn’t a fun year for you.”
Quinn nodded thoughtfully. “And then I come into the picture and threaten your popularity. No wonder you were such a grouch; no offense.”
Sandi smirked. “None taken. It’s not like you were always the nicest person yourself at times.”
Quinn smiled. “Yeah, I guess so. Moving to a new city, making all new friends, hoping my popularity would carry over; I was working overtime just trying to be ‘Quinn.’ The two of us started butting heads and whatever friendship we’d made got left behind. That night I tried to spend at your house didn’t exactly help matters.”
Sandi remembered that night. “Oh yeah. Sam and Chris tripped over each other to do your bidding, and I got so frustrated I threw you out.”
Quinn thought back. “Then I went to Tiffany’s, God rest her soul, and she kept trying on outfits and asking if they made her look fat. I mean, honestly, parachute pants couldn’t make her look fat! After the tenth straight outfit asking only that question, I got frustrated, she kicked me out, and I went over to Stacy’s, where you scared the hell out of me.”
Stacy sighed. “I know. I just saw you as this perfect being back then. I thought that if I became you, then maybe I’d be perfect too.”
Quinn looked down. “Stacy, I’m sure by now that you know I’m far from perfect.”
Stacy nodded. “Yeah, I know. Some part of me knew then. When I saw the look of terror in your eyes, I knew I stepped over some line, but I didn’t realize what I was doing. Then I saw this movie where this woman starts dressing like her roommate and tries to kill her, and I realized how creepy I’d been. It took a while, but I finally started to make progress. I started to become my own person. Then, I met Charles.” Stacy had her head down and seemed to be softly crying, a change from her usual outbursts of tears.
Quinn walked over to Stacy and led her to sit on one of the pews, and Sandi followed. Stacy continued. “At first, Charles just had the solution to that magic trick I couldn’t figure out. Then, I became his confidant; his partner. I really enjoyed living this other life where popularity didn’t matter. I liked fashion, and I liked being in the club, but I was never going to be as popular as you two. You were always the popular ones, and I was constantly trying and failing to keep up with you. When I started helping out Charles, though, I realized that it didn’t matter. Why be the worst at being popular when I could be the best at this whole new persona? Why try to be someone I can’t be when I can be myself?”
Sandi had been listening intently. When Stacy went quiet, Sandi said, “It’s my fault.”
Stacy looked over at Sandi. “It’s not…” She stopped herself, realizing Sandi was right to an extent. “Well, maybe it is, but it’s more my fault than yours. I let you use me. I wanted to be you, and then I wanted to be Quinn, and then I didn’t know what I wanted. I finally found what I wanted in Charles.”
Quinn sighed. “And then it was taken away from you.”
Stacy looked over to Quinn. “Not really. He may have been taken from me, but I still have all he’s given me: the confidence and the determination to be myself.” She looked down at her feet. “I only wish he’d had the strength left to hold me in his arms one last time.”
Quinn paused in thought, and then looked over at Sandi. “Sandi, if you knew one or both of us wasn’t going to make it, what would you do?”
Sandi turned to face Quinn. “What do you mean?”
Quinn shrugged. “Well, let’s say there’s a steam roller or something coming at us, and in ten seconds, we’ll be dead, and we can’t stop it. What do you do?”
Sandi thought it over. “Hmm, I guess I’d pray for forgiveness, and if there’s any time left, yell to the heavens whatever came to mind, like ‘I never saw Paris!’ or ‘Eye shadow is overrated!’” This brought all three to laughing. “So what would you do, Quinn?”
Quinn settled down, thought for a second, smiled, and then spoke. “One last passionate kiss, like there’s no tomorrow.”
Sandi looked into Quinn’s eyes, which were fixed on her own. “I’d like to change my answer.” They laughed again at that. “So Stacy, where do you go from here?”
Stacy thought while she spoke. “Well, I can’t replace Charles. I mean, I could find some guy, but it’s not like I’m looking for a cheap lay or anything. After him, I get the feeling it wouldn’t be the same.” She paused then continued. “To be honest, the only people I really care about right now are you two. Everyone else that mattered to me is dead or bound to be impossible to find. We have our duty to deliver the message to the Secretary. Other than that, I’ll follow you around as long as you’ll have me and figure out what to do from there.”
Quinn smiled. “You’re always welcome to stay with us, wherever we end up.”
Stacy hugged first Quinn, then Sandi. “Thanks; that means a lot to me. Now, you two need some time alone, and personally, I’d rather not be in earshot.”
Sandi shuddered. “Stacy, it’s a church!”
Stacy shrugged and smiled. “What, you never had that fantasy?” She walked over to the entrance to the kitchen and Sunday school areas, leaving her two friends shaking their heads.
“There are many things,” said Sandi, “that I’ve thought to do in a church. Until now, that was not one of them. How about you, Quinn? I’m fairly sure I’ve never asked you about your religious beliefs at our daily make-up checks.”
Quinn shrugged. “My family has never been the most religious. Mom and Dad pretty much told us to treat people how we want to be treated and to figure out our own relationship with God. Daria always claimed to be agnostic, but every now and then, when she was at her lowest, I could tell she believed in something. As for me, well, I’m sure you remember that whole angel deal. I still believe in angels, or something like that, but I know I can’t just rely on them and hope everything works out. So I just try to do whatever I can, and hope God’s not mad at me when I need him, her, it, or whatever.”
Sandi looked grim. “Do you think God’s mad at us for…you know.”
Quinn didn’t. “What?”
Sandi looked slightly annoyed. “You know; being lesbians and all.”
Quinn was taken aback. “Oh. Is that why you…”
Sandi stopped Quinn. “No! That’s not why I haven’t said…that.”
Quinn nodded, relieved. “Oh. Well then, if a guy had done to you what I did to you, would that have made it any more pure and holy or whatever?”
Sandi shook her head. “I don’t see that mattering.”
Quinn put her arms around Sandi and continued. “Well, do you think God would have a problem with us just being really close friends?”
Sandi rolled her eyes. “Of course not.”
Quinn shrugged. “Then there’s not much for God to punish us for.”
Sandi smirked. “Well, other than when your tongue was inside my…”
Quinn interrupted. “And you enjoyed every minute of that.”
Sandi nodded. “Totally worth a few more years of penance.”
At the outskirts of Mink Shoals, three men stood ready to face anyone and everyone coming their way. Over the last few days, they hadn’t had much to worry about. There were a few wanderers looking for sustenance and a traveling salesman (who claimed that despite the devastation, there was still quite the market for ladies’ unmentionables) looking for business, none of whom could have caused trouble had they wanted to.
Today, however, the three travelers approaching their post were enough to rouse the interests of the two larger men, who each stood over six feet tall and weighed well over 250 pounds each. The man on the left clapped his hand on the prone form of the third man, who may have been five-foot-ten and at best 135 pounds. The previously slumbering man bolted awake, and said, “Owwww! What’d you do that for, lummox?” The larger man merely gestured to the approaching women, and the smaller man smiled and stood. All three readied their weapons of choice – the larger men shotguns, the smaller man a short sword he’d gotten from a convention a few years back – and allowed the women to approach.
As the women approached within 25 feet, the smaller man yelled, “Halt, who goes there!” and pointed his sword at the women. The tone of his was intended to be stern, though the intimidating effect was somewhat negated by the higher register and reedy quality of his voice.
The redhead at the front of the group replied. “Hi, I’m Quinn, and this is Sandi and Stacy.” She gestured to both in turn. “We’re just passing through on our way to Nitro, so if you don’t mind letting us go through…”
The smaller man smirked. “Not so fast, my fair maidens! Anyone who would cross our territory must answer me these questions three, ere the other side she see!”
Practically everyone other than him, including the other two men, rolled their eyes at this. Sandi said, “Like, is he for real?”
Stacy stepped forward, assuring the other girls, “Don’t worry; I’ve got this. Go ahead and ask; I’m not afraid.”
The man first asked, “What…is your name?”
Stacy smiled, knowing she had remembered the movie properly. “I am Stacy Rowe of Lawndale.”
The man responded, “What…is your quest?”
Stacy answered, “We seek the Grail.”
The man asked his final question. “What…are my chances of going out with you?”
Stacy smirked. “About the same chances you have of watching that movie any time soon.”
The two larger men started laughing. The smaller man turned around angry. “Stop that! You’re supposed to be on my side!”
The man on the left calmed himself enough to say, “Clyde, you just got faced, big time!”
The man on the right added, “Denied!”
Clyde stewed. “Shut up, Kevin; you too, Devon!”
Stacy took in the scene before her with bemusement. “Well, if it’s all right, we really need to get to Nitro as soon as possible.”
The man on the left, Kevin, slowly stopped laughing. “Well, unless you want to get there in pieces, I’d recommend taking your time.”
Sandi asked, “And why is that?”
Devon, on the right, explained, “Most of Charleston’s been taken over by the JJ5. They’re a bunch of crooks, thugs, and politicians trying to rule the whole city. They take over an area, take away everything the people have, and then give them barely what they need to survive.”
Kevin, on the left, continued, “Life for most of the people living there is pretty grim from what we’ve heard; even worse than we have it here. Most of the people work for the JJ5 as farmers or soldiers, and they work at their jobs as long as there’s light. After about the tenth person climbed to the top of what’s left of the Laidley Tower, they put a large dumpster at its base. They said it was to aid in general cleanup, but most people figure it was to give them something to aim for as they fall.”
Quinn was flabbergasted by this point. “That’s terrible!”
Devon nodded. “If we hadn’t negotiated with them, we’d be in the same situation. Of course, it’s just a matter of time before they come after us anyway. Why do you need to get to Nitro, anyway?”
Stacy spoke up. “We have, shall we say, personal business there that must be completed by the 14th, next Monday.”
Kevin inquired, “Important?”
Sandi answered, “Absolutely.”
Clyde, finally able to find his tongue, piped up, “Um, you’ll want to take 77 north to Tuppers Creek Road. Take that west to Sissonville Drive, then north to 622. 622 will pretty much take you to Nitro.”
Stacy jotted down the directions. “Thanks, anything else we need to know?”
Devon answered, “Just be careful. The JJ5 were pushing that direction, but Virginia Heights was bothering them something fierce last we heard. The best of luck to the three of you. I think you’ll need it.”
Meanwhile, Steve Jensen had gotten the word that he would be heading to Nitro in two days to handle any negotiations between the JJ5 and the Secretary of Labor, if indeed he was there at all. He carefully packed up all the belongings he could carry which, these days, were almost everything he owned.
As he packed the last of his spare clothes into his duffel bag, he thought back on his life. Back when he was fresh out of college, he thought about packing everything into a backpack and wandering around just to see what the country was like outside of West Virginia. Then the girl of his dreams arrived, the one he’d been looking for since he knew the difference between men and women. When he met her, he almost forgot his wanderlust. Soon he was taking an entry level job, working his way up in the company to supplement his fiancé’s part-time job. Soon he was making enough that his wife didn’t have to work, and she brought him two beautiful children. A part of him still wished he could see the country, but he knew he would only go if he could bring his family with him. It wasn’t that he felt obligated to provide for them; it just wouldn’t be the same if he couldn’t share the wonders of the road with them.
Steve sighed, looking at the family picture he’d salvaged from his office as his computer incinerated. If he ever got the chance to run away from the JJ5, he knew he had to go home first. He wouldn’t blame his family if they thought he was dead. After all, if it wasn’t for his invisible shackles, he’d have been home long before now. He wasn’t sure what would await him when he got home. Maybe it’d just be burned-out rubble. Maybe it’d be picked clean by bandits and folks passing through just looking to survive. Maybe he’d even find his family, or at least a note saying where they went.
Of course, that was if he ever got the chance to leave at all.
Steve Jensen packed the picture into his waist pack where he kept his few important possessions. Maybe he’d get the chance to wander the country after all. At the very least, if he never got out, they could all walk around heaven some day.
The sun was nearing the west horizon as Quinn, Sandi, and Stacy approached the Interstate 64 overpass at Golf Mountain Road. The area was desolate compared to the relatively well-populated areas of Tyler Heights and Cross Lanes, which had combined into one settlement referred to by many as Tyler’s Cross. They had traded there for the last few supplies they’d need for the trip, but taking that time left them a bit short of their goal. “Well, this place is as secure as we’ll find,” Quinn remarked. We could keep going, but then we’re pretty vulnerable if the Secretary’s not there when we arrive. Of course, if someone hadn’t pushed for a better deal…”
Sandi knew who Quinn meant. “Well, I’m so sorry that I didn’t take that first offer,” Sandi said, disingenuously. “I figured that dealing with me having an allergic reaction to the mushrooms would slow down our progress more than waiting for another deal.”
Quinn rolled her eyes. “We could have traded yours for another later.”
Stacy sighed loudly. “Guys, if you’re going to have a lovers’ spat, please wait until I’m out of earshot.”
Sandi grinned. “What’s the matter; can’t you stand to hear us fight, Stacy?”
Stacy shook her head. “The fighting I can stand. It’s the making up I can’t stand.” This made both Sandi and Quinn laugh despite themselves.
Steve Jensen came to a halt as the three men in front of him and two behind him had when the squad commander called for it. He looked around and saw a sign for Ridenour Memorial Park. The squad commander called out, “All right, men; this is camp. Our expeditionary force has cleared out up to this point, so from here on we may encounter belligerents. Every one of you grunts will be taking a shift for night watch except, of course, for our negotiator. Donaldson, you have first watch. The rest of you eat up, but be on the lookout for anyone approaching. Remember; ask questions first. We aren’t going to convince these people to join our side if we shoot them without a good reason. That is all.”
Steve took an old beach towel from his backpack and spread it out on the grass. Tonight it would have to serve as his dinner table and his bed. He caught the MRE the commander threw to him and looked at the label: Beef Franks. While he doubted they would taste the way he liked them without Alley Cat sauce on them (and the Alley Cats playing in front of them), he knew that they’d still taste delicious. After all, he was happy to eat anything, and this might be his last dinner if things went wrong.
Bryce Johnson walked through the “Officer’s Restaurant”, as Jordan James liked to call the dining hall reserved for the top officers in the JJ5. Many of the officers had their own names for it, including “Disappointment Diner”, “The Best of What’s Left”, “Chateau de Garbage”, and others too obscene to mention in polite conversation. It was a common misconception that the top officers always ate vastly better food than the peons. In reality, they simply had a bit more variety, got a bit bigger portions, and didn’t have to deal with moldy or outdated food. Being 2nd in command, Bryce knew there were very few “fine foods” left to consume, and most of those went directly to Jordan. Only the top three in command knew, but there hadn’t been anything high-class to be found since the month began, when an abandoned house yielded a tin of caviar and a magnum of champagne.
Bryce took his food and sat at a table of his closest confidantes. Charlie Stevens was the head of supply distribution. Danielle Loomis controlled medical personnel and supplies. Miles O’Reilly was the general of their army and fourth-in-command. Mary Daniels was the head secretary and kept records of all official meetings. Of course, this meeting would not need recording, as it was necessarily unofficial. As Bryce sat down, the final invitee stepped up to the table; an invitee who hadn’t sat at this particular table before.
“I hear you’re looking for my opinion,” said Brian Prendota, third-in-command and head of logistics and justice, as he took a seat at the table across from Bryce.
Bryce smiled. “That is correct. We were just discussing some…suggestions we’d like to address with our fearless leader.”
Brian nodded. “I would assume you aren’t intending a hostile takeover. We all owe so much to Mr. James.”
Bryce held out his hands. “Nothing of the sort, of course. We merely would like to make sure that our reservations are properly addressed.”
Brian, a former lawyer, smirked as he picked up his glass of water to take a drink. Right, I almost believe you’re not making a power play for the top. “So tell me; what reservations do you have?”
“I’m just saying we could have been there tonight,” said Quinn, summarizing her argument.
“And I’m just saying we’re better off waiting the day anyway,” said Sandi, summarizing her argument.
“And I’m just saying I’m going to smack both of you if you don’t stop arguing!” said Stacy, summarizing her irritation with the argument. “It’s a moot point. We’ll be there tomorrow, a full day before the 14th. We’ll drop off the letter, the Secretary will do whatever he’s supposed to do, and we’ll find a quiet place to celebrate Valentine’s Day.” Stacy paused. “Make that two quiet places.”
“I’m sorry,” said Quinn. “I’m just worried that every day we wait, there’s a bigger and bigger chance those JJ5 creeps get there before we do. They might be there already.”
“I know, and that’s why it’s important to show up in broad daylight,” countered Sandi. “There are only three of us. If we get surrounded, we’re done for. At least in the day, we can keep track of where they are.”
“Besides,” said Stacy, “if he hasn’t left before now, he’s not going to leave two days before his orders tell him to. Now, if you’re finished with your argument, I’m heading off to scout around. Try to be done making up in an hour or so.”
Peter Senerchia sipped from the metal cup he’d filled from the well. “I can’t believe we haven’t gotten orders yet. I mean, they’re the US government, not the local yokels. If anyone’s still alive in Washington, they would have gotten here by now.”
John Palmer spread an orange material resembling cheese onto a cracker. “We have our orders, sir. We can’t leave early. Anyway, what if someone got here just after we left?”
Peter nodded. “John, we’ve had this same conversation every day for the past week. I just keep hoping the answers will change.” He sighed. “Ah well, two more days, and then we head out, messenger or not. It’s about time you got back to that girlfriend of yours.”
John looked down at his food. “If she’s still there.”
Peter put a hand on John’s now-worn out dress shirt. “Don’t worry. She knows your protocol. She’ll be there ready for you.”
John smiled. “That’s the only thing other than my duty that keeps me here: knowing that when I get home, I’ll get to see her face again.”
Peter grinned. “I’ll bet her face isn’t the only thing you’re waiting to see.”
John laughed in response. “You’re right about that. You really learn a lot about the man you’re supposed to protect when you have to live with them this long.”
Peter nodded. “I think this is probably longer than I’ve spent with one person since I took office. It’s definitely more time than I was able to spend with my wife the last few years.”
John saw the look in Peter’s eyes. “Don’t, sir. It’s not your fault.”
Peter heard the words John had said every time he started to blame himself for his family’s deaths, and he gave the same reply he always did. “I know, and stop calling me sir!”
Jordan James called in his personal secretary, Fiona White. “Fiona, could you come here, please?”
Fiona walked into the Jordan’s office and took her usual position across the desk from him. “Yes, Mr. James?”
“I just wanted to confirm the status of our main operations,” said Jordan.
Fiona read off the papers she had brought in with her. “The main expeditionary force has worked their way through most of Nitro and should be to the 64 bridge by sundown tomorrow. The secondary expeditionary force is ready and waiting for the 14th for the push into Scary. The special Tornado force was successful in their process, and the few residents remaining have joined our cause. Your negotiation squad is encamped at a park just minutes from the Secretary of Labor’s estate, and will make contact in the morning. Tyler Mountain continues to be our northern front, but the Tyler’s Cross residents continue to promise non-interference as long as we do the same for them. To the east, all is quiet at Yeager Airport, and Port Amherst is similarly peaceful.”
Jordan rubbed his hands together. “Excellent. Any other news of importance?”
Fiona had been debating whether to tell Jordan the one bit of news she had picked up, but had decided it best to reveal the information. “Yes, Mr. James. Apparently Mr. Johnson and his usual group are dining tonight with Mr. Prendota. They haven’t let slip what the meeting was about, but there are whispers of plots against you.”
Jordan nodded. “Yes, I had expected as much. Mr. Prendota is solidly on my side, correct?”
“As far as can be ascertained, Mr. James.” answered Fiona. “He informed me that he would be coming here after dinner to discuss the meeting. He seemed to feel it would merely be a discussion of opinions.”
“That would make sense,” said Jordan, “especially if Brian really is in my corner. They know they wouldn’t dare try to unseat me without convincing him it was a good idea. How long until he comes up here, Ms. White?”
Fiona sighed on the inside, even as she perked herself up on the outside. “At least another twenty minutes, Mr. James.”
“Good, plenty of time,” said Jordan as he unbuckled his belt.
Fiona walked over to the office door to close it, all the while forcing away thoughts of violence towards her boss. It was either this or out in the streets fighting to survive. At least I’m a well-fed whore.
“No; I’m telling you that’s the exactly wrong approach,” said Brian. “The supplies angle is just going to come back and bite you. If you rush in claiming he’s holding back supplies, and then aren’t able to give out more supplies for a longer period of time than a week, the whole JJ5 will collapse like a house of cards.”
Bryce sighed. “Ok, fine. What does that leave us with?”
“The only real criticism I’d have for Mr. James is that he’s a tad, shall we say, soft,” said Brian. “That whole business going down with the Secretary doesn’t sit well with me.”
“Like anyone doesn’t know he’s going down on his secretary,” replied Danielle.
Brian rolled his eyes. “I agree, but I wasn’t referring to his secretary. Supposedly, the Secretary of Labor is out in Nitro somewhere, and there’s some d-list squad going in to negotiate with him now, rather than just take him out. If that goes south, you can press him on it; maybe even get him to lead the counterattack to show them who’s boss. If someone just happens to get a lucky shot, our Jordan becomes a martyr, and you can step up to ‘continue his vision.’”
Bryce contemplated the idea. “I like it. That way it’s not even a revolt; merely an inheritance of power. Not bad for someone who’s supposedly in Jordan James’s pocket.”
Brian shrugged. “I do owe a lot to Jordan, but I owe a lot to you too, Bryce. I would never give up my support to Jordan while he lives, but I feel you would do an equally commendable job should an incapacity in that position arise.”
Miles looked confused. “Huh?”
Bryce smiled. “That’s lawyer-talk for he can’t help us, but he won’t stand in our way, so please don’t kill him when it goes down.”
Brian stood and bowed slightly. “Your words, not mine.”
Steve took a sip from his mug, savoring the taste of Darjeeling tea. It was one of the few things he was able to grab from his office, having been on his way to make a cup when everything went haywire. Since boiling water was one of the few things they could still manage to make in large amounts, the box of tea had been his most important possession that didn’t hold an emotional attachment. The number of bags had been dwindling, but he knew he needed a cup tonight.
“Man, you gotta tell me where you found whatever you’ve been smoking, because you must be high!” Steve turned to the group of four men who’d gathered around their fire. He knew that all of them were decent shots, but they weren’t what he considered an elite force. A couple of them looked like they had been fairly obese before the food supply started dwindling, and the other two were skinny without much for muscle definition. The squad commander was in better shape, but it was fairly obvious the whole group was expendable. “There is no way Tampa could have stopped the Greatest Show on Turf.”
A second man spoke up. “Please, Warren Sapp, John Lynch; you try tossing the ball around with that defense on your ass.”
A third man joined in. “And then their offense takes over and punts the ball right back. Any defense will fade when they’re on the field all the time.”
The fourth man agreed. “Yeah, the Rams don’t have much of a D, but it’s better than that.”
The second man sighed. “All right, all right; so they get past Tampa. You can’t tell me they’re winning the Super Bowl over Jacksonville.”
The first man nodded. “I’m with you on that, man.”
The fourth man shook his head. “No way, Indy would have gotten there, and Manning wouldn’t be able to keep up.”
The third man disagreed. “No way, that whole conference is Buffalo’s to lose.”
“Buffalo?” said the other three at once before descending into laughter.
“Well, that’s how I saw it,” grumbled the third man. “They get past Tennessee and they’re scot-free.”
Steve cleared his throat as he walked up to the fire. “I think Tennessee would be the toughest match-up for St. Louis, in my opinion.”
The first man scoffed. “Now I know you guys are smoking something.”
Steve put his hands out, palms forward. “Hear me out. First they go up against Buffalo, looking for a karma payback for The Comeback. Then they’ll probably get to play Jacksonville, and they’ve had the Jag’s number all season.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed the second man. “The Jags could beat anyone, but the Titans whipped their asses!”
Steve continued, “All they have to do is get by Indy and they’re in, and with that defense and a competent offense, they’d be tougher to crack than the Bucs.”
The four men thought about that, while the squad commander walked up behind Steve and put his hand on his shoulder. “Now that, boys, is why he’s the negotiator. I was expecting the Titans to get blown out, and now I’m starting to think they had a pretty damn good shot at winning the whole thing.” Everyone laughed at that.
“So that’s pretty much it, sir,” finished Brian, who addressed Jordan James. “Bryce wants your spot, but most of the plans he’s come up with have been doomed to failure. All I did was point out why his plans won’t work.”
Jordan nodded, taking in what his third-in-command had told him. “You were right in informing me of their ‘concerns,’ as you put it. There is just one question I have for you.”
Brian answered, “What is that, sir?”
“Exactly whose side are you on?” Jordan asked. “You’re helping them out by telling them what not to do, but you’re telling me what they’re planning. Where do you stand?”
Brian smiled inside, even though his face remained serious. “I stand where I’ve always stood, for the JJ5. I’d much rather see a unified force than have everyone fighting each other while the force crumbles. I agree with your vision, but I can’t say that his is without merit. If you’re running the JJ5, I have confidence we’ll stay in power. I can’t say I have full confidence in Bryce’s plan, but his ability to lead is your equal.”
Jordan cocked his eyebrow. “And you?”
Brian allowed a small smile to show. “I’m no leader; I’m a lawyer. I enjoy my position of power and the freedom it grants me, but I’m not looking to take over. I’m certainly not one to risk everything in a petty squabble over direction that could lead to my execution.”
Jordan smiled himself. “Be careful, Brian; there will come a day when fence sitters will have to choose their side.”
Brian bowed slightly. “I hope, for your sake, that I’ll find your side superior on that day.”
Stacy walked to the center of the overpass and looked out over the landscape before her. The light snowfall they’d dealt with over the last couple days covered the trees before her. To both her left and her right were rocky hills, with Lakeview Drive, the next leg of their trip, cutting right through the burned out buildings before her like a river. Slightly to the right in front of her, the sun had approached the horizon, and the sky had melted into a spectrum of reds, oranges, and purples.
As she looked out at the sunset before her, she imagined Charles next to her, his arm around her shoulders, admiring the view. Charles always knew how to find the beauty in anything, especially her. It wasn’t that Stacy thought she was ugly; she wouldn’t have even been in the Fashion Club if she wasn’t cute. Still, competing with Sandi and Quinn was impossible. She was destined to be in the background, until Charles came into her life.
However, since Charles had sacrificed himself to save her life, Stacy had become the strong one of the group. Quinn still was the one out front dealing with people, and Sandi had nominally continued to be the president, but Stacy had been the one to make the hard decisions, and to become the enforcer of the group. She carried the shotgun, she stepped forward when the group was challenged, and she was the one to make sure they stayed focused on their task. Thinking back on how she had been before the New Year, it was amazing how far removed from her old self she was.
Stacy looked down at the camp, where Quinn and Sandi were apparently done making up since they had filled their pot with water for boiling. She watched them playfully messing with each others’ hair, something they’d done as a symbol of affection since they had gotten together. She thought back to her last moment with Charles and said the same thing she always said. “If you’re gone, why am I still here?”
In the early morning of February 13th, Steve Jensen’s group had made the 1/3 mile trek down Blake’s Creek Road, stopping before a driveway. The driveway led up a hill, out of sight, towards the location known to the JJ5 as the former, possibly current, home of Secretary of Labor, Peter Senerchia. On either side of the driveway, the forest blocked any possible view of the estate. A simple wooden gate, held together by an old, rusty chain, blocked off access to the estate to most vehicles, though one could easily step over the gate on foot. Lakeside Drive formed the northwest boundary 300 feet to the left, and Lakeview Drive flanked the southeast side to their right. Near Lakeview Drive, a decorative outcropping of rock standing five feet high bore the same sign that the gate did: “Warning: Keep Out. Trespassers may be subjected to imprisonment or execution.”
The Squad Commander, a rough-hewn man Steve knew only as “Sir”, turned to Steve and said, “All right, negotiator; time to earn your keep. There’s a man up there claiming to be with the Secret Service and that he’s guarding the Secretary of Labor. ‘Negotiate the permanent annexation of his lands by the JJ5. You are aware of what you can and cannot offer.’” He put down the placard he had read from. “Murphy, you follow him up and make sure he flies right. If he starts offering things he shouldn’t, bring him back into line.”
Steve pointed to the sign on the gate. “Sir? If these signs are right, they might shoot us just for going up there.”
The Commander took out his 9mm Beretta, cocked it, and aimed it at Steve’s head. “What do you think I’m going to do to you if you don’t? Worry about me, smart guy!”
Steve gulped audibly. “Yes, sir.”
Steve and Murphy walked up the driveway, out of sight to the rest of the squad. There they saw the estate, or what was left of it. The burnt-out remains of the house were nothing but a pile of blackened wood and stone. The stable looked relatively untouched, and a hand-pumped well was visible off to the left. However, what held the attention of both men was the man wearing a rumpled suit and sunglasses that sat upon a horse standing only feet away.
John Palmer pointed his pistol at the men. “You are trespassing on federal property. Please state your business or vacate immediately, or I will shoot you.”
Steve cleared his throat and pulled out the piece of paper he’d been sent to read. “Ahem. ‘To the Secretary of Labor and party, we of the Jordan James Five-Borough Force formally present a request to negotiate and discuss the addition of your resources to those of the JJ5. We arrive in peace, and do not wish a conflict. We would like you to join the JJ5 as an ally. We plan to use your land as a staging area for our continued expansion. If you do not wish to join us, we will allow you safe passage out of the area and ensure that you are not harassed within our boundaries. Our representative, Steven Jensen,’ that’s me, ‘has been authorized to make any and all concessions the JJ5 would be able to extend to you and your party. These requests are valid regardless of the status of the Secretary himself. We thank you in advance for your consideration, and look forward to working together to make Charleston a better place to live after the horrors of New Year’s Day. Signed, Jordan James, President and Prime Minister of the Jordan James Five-Borough Force.’” Steve folded the paper and placed it into his shirt pocket. “On a personal note, thank you for not shooting me until I’ve said my piece.”
John eyed both men warily. “Of course. And you sir?” he asked, gesturing towards Murphy
“Never mind him,” said Steve. “Murphy’s just here to make sure I go by the book. Is the Secretary available to negotiate with personally, or do you speak on his behalf?”
John nodded. “After a month and a half, there are many things about which I could speak on his behalf. This is not one of them. Wait here.” He turned his horse around and galloped to the stable.
Steve exhaled sharply. “So far, so good.”
Quinn was the last one up among the three girls. This was normal, since she chose to keep the second watch overnight, and had to get her sleep in two smaller chunks. However, when she awoke, she felt something was wrong, and she knew exactly what it was.
She walked over to the campfire where Sandi had their breakfasts waiting. After exchanging morning greetings and setting down to eat, Quinn sighed. Sandi noticed, saying “What’s the matter, Quinn? Another strange dream?”
Quinn shook her head. “No; in fact, no dream at all.”
Sandi was surprised. “You neither?”
Quinn’s eyes went wide. “You mean you didn’t have a dream either?”
“No, and neither did I,” added Stacy. “That’s like the first night where none of us have had a strange dream in weeks. I wonder what that means.”
Sandi shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe because we’re finally about to get rid of this letter, we’re finally able to put all of this behind us.”
Quinn wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right today.”
“Well,” said Stacy, “we’re about to finish up something we’ve been doing for almost a month. Even if today goes smoothly, it’s an important day. After this, we can get back to concentrating on survival. Maybe we could go back to those folks in Hancock and see if we can still help them out.”
Sandi put her arm around Quinn to comfort her. “Don’t worry, Quinn. We’ll find a place to settle down somewhere. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even have a couple kids or something.”
Quinn looked puzzled. “Sandi, how exactly would we manage that?”
Sandi smiled. “Well, given the sudden loss of most other leisure activities, there are bound to be a few cute little babies being made these days that their parents are unable to bring up properly.”
Quinn thought about that. “Hmm, all the cuteness, none of the stretchmarks; I like it.”
Peter rode out of the stable on his horse, Chestnut, alongside John on his horse. “Greetings, Mr. Jensen.”
“Steve, please,” said Steve, bowing before the Secretary.
“Steve,” replied Peter, “I appreciate that this JJ5 wishes to parlay first rather than just come in with guns blazing. John here explained your note. However, I think we can come to a resolution fairly quickly.”
Steve smiled at that. “You have no idea how happy that would make me, Mr. Secretary.”
“Peter, please,” said Peter. “Now, I have orders from the US Government stating that I am not to leave this location either until a courier arrives with further orders or after February 14th. Even if nobody arrives today or tomorrow, I’ll be leaving the next day along with my bodyguard. Normally, I’d be a bit worried about you people taking over my land, but after losing my family here, I don’t think I could bear to return.” He gestured to the charred remains of his home.
Steve realized what Peter meant. “Damn, my sincere condolences.”
Peter sighed. “Thank you. Are you a family man yourself?”
Steve nodded. “Aye, a wife and two sons. I haven’t seen them since New Year’s. I’m not sure what’s worse, not knowing what happened to your family or…knowing.”
“Believe me,” replied Peter, “if I could still believe they were out there living, I would.”
“So,” said Steve, attempting to change the subject, “you’ll leave here in two days, regardless of whether your courier arrives, and you don’t mind what happens to whatever you leave here?”
Peter nodded. “Yes, as per our orders. I am to stay here through tomorrow. If no courier arrives by tomorrow, I head back to Washington the next day. You can even have whatever horses I can’t use, as long as you treat them well.”
“Well,” said Steve, “as long as you don’t mind a couple guards out at the front of your estate, I think we have a deal.”
“As long as they don’t shoot the courier,” answered Peter.
Steve walked up to Peter and shook his hand. “Of course. What will the courier look like?”
Peter thought about that. “You know, I can’t really say. It might be another Secret Service Agent, or it could be just someone off the street. There’s a certain pin that…” Peter’s words were cut off by the sounds of gunfire coming from the direction of the main gate. “What’s that?”
Steve looked despondent. “I knew this was going too smoothly. Damn it!”
John said, “Peter, into the stable! You two, come with us!”
Steve and Murphy looked at each other, then towards the gunfire, and finally ran after the horses into the stable.
As they made their way down Lakeview Drive, Quinn, Sandi, and Stacy kept their voices down, but they couldn’t help but talk amongst themselves. “Finally, one more corner and we’ll be there,” said Sandi.
Stacy frowned at Sandi. “Keep on the lookout. My bad feeling about all this hasn’t gotten any better.”
Quinn scowled at Stacy. “Lay off of her. We’re all nervous, but we’re about to get this over with, one way or another.” Quinn looked around. “I’m just happy we haven’t run into anyone today. Maybe the Jo-Jo Five or whatever hasn’t made it this far yet.”
Sandi scowled as only Sandi could. “Or maybe they’re waiting for us to arrive. Still, I’d rather get this over with, no matter who’s there when we get there. I’d rather get shot at than have to deal with this any longer.”
Stacy looked at her two traveling companions. “Ok, keep it quiet. This is the last corner.” The three remained silent as they made their way to the corner. With a deep breath, they turned the corner together, with Stacy taking the outside, Quinn the inside, and Sandi between them.
As they rounded the corner, they saw exactly what they were hoping not to see. Five men stood surrounding the driveway to the Secretary’s residence. One flanked to either side, while the remaining three stood in front of the driveway, watching for activity. The two on either side were fairly skinny, while two of the middle group seemed somewhat flabby, despite looking desperate for a meal. The last one, the only one in clean clothes, was fairly well built, and looked to be the main threat should problems arise.
The man flanking to their side saw them right away as they rounded the corner. “Hey there, pretty ladies!”
“Damn it!” swore Quinn, under her breath.
The other four men turned to face the newcomers. The leader smiled as he addressed the women before him. “Good morning, ladies. We are soldiers under the authority of the JJ5, and under that authority, we must insist you either leave or drop your arms and join our organization.” He raised his pistol to underscore his intentions.
Quinn immediately put her hands up, while her companions kept theirs near their pistols. “Hold on, guys. Look, we’re willing to do whatever we need to, but right now, we need to get into that estate you’re guarding.”
The commander aimed his pistol at Quinn. “And why is that?”
Quinn didn’t flinch as she said, “Well, um, you see, the guy who lives up there is a good friend of ours. We’ve been traveling a long way to see if he’s ok. I’m sure we can work something out.” She posed in a way that suggested precisely what could be worked out. They hadn’t been wild about using their charms in this manner, but they agreed that it would not be best to reveal they were on government business if they didn’t have to.
While many of the men started having ideas about what they could work out with the ladies, the commander merely cocked his pistol. “Like I said, drop your weapons or leave.”
Quinn cursed her charms for failing her, while Stacy stepped forward. “Wait, you don’t understand. We’re on important business for the man that lives up there!”
The commander pointed his weapon at Stacy. “And what do you know about the Secretary?”
All three girls inhaled sharply. If the JJ5 knew they were at the house of the Secretary, they probably wouldn’t let anyone in or out. Sandi knew there was only one card left to play. “We have direct orders from Washington for the Secretary. If he’s up there, it’s our duty to deliver them personally, no matter what. Now let us through to see him or face the Federal Government.” Sandi’s hand went directly to her weapon.
The commander didn’t move a muscle. “Even if I was concerned about the Federal Government, the only way I’d let you up there with your weapons is over my dead body. Our negotiator is working with the Secretary as we speak to rally him to our cause, and I’m not letting you ruin those negotiations.”
Quinn spoke up. “Let me see if I have this straight. We need to get through, and you won’t let us through while we’re armed. You’ve allowed us to leave, but then we’ve given up our mission. We could lay down our weapons, and then you say we can get through, but if you’re lying, we’ll be defenseless.”
The commander smiled. “You have my word; you will not be harmed.”
Which might be worth less than a Boys R Guys CD these days, thought Quinn. “On top of that, after we come back down, I’d imagine we wouldn’t get our guns back, so either we join your group or run away and get killed by the first bandits we run across.”
The commander nodded. “That would be your decision.”
“May we have a moment to discuss?” asked Sandi.
“Of course,” said the commander.
The three girls gathered together, with Stacy coming around in front of the other two, as they’d planned. Quinn and Sandi kept their eyes on the men in front of them while Stacy started talking quietly. “Well, there you have it. Option one, we leave, and this never gets through. Option two, we drop our weapons, we may get through, and then we’re at the mercy of these losers. Option three; well, we all know what option three is.” Quinn and Sandi nodded.
“I don’t really think there’s much of a choice,” said Sandi.
“Option one is no good, and option two could be worse than death,” said Stacy.
“Like option three isn’t dangerous, but it’s our only chance,” said Quinn.
“Besides Big Bad, any good ideas?” asked Stacy.
“I’ve got skinny near us, and then we hit the rocks,” said Sandi.
Quinn sighed. “I was really hoping we wouldn’t have to do this. Good luck, guys.” She raised her voice. “Are you sure you won’t let us through with our guns?”
The commander nodded. “Like I said, over my dead body.”
Stacy already had her pistol out of her holster, which she had strategically placed in front of her right leg, and thus out of sight while her back was turned. You asked for it. In one motion, Stacy cocked her gun, raised it, turned, and fired directly at the commander.
The commander moved to fire at Stacy’s face, but wasn’t able to fire until after Stacy’s bullet found its home in his left rib and lung. As a result, the bullet ended up hitting Stacy in the right shoulder.
Quinn’s shot, intended to hit the commander’s heart, instead came to rest inside his skull after Stacy’s shot caused him to reflexively cover his wound. The effect was the same.
The four other men were initially shocked by the brazen attack by the girls. After a few seconds, they realized what was happening and returned fire. It was too late for the man nearest the three women, as Sandi’s shot ensured that his gun would not fire.
Quinn grabbed Stacy, attempting not to worsen her wound further, and ran over to the rock outcropping to their right. Quinn and Sandi returned fire, but both their shots and those of the three remaining men failed to find their targets.
Stacy cursed at her wound while Quinn took out a clean shirt from her backpack for a bandage. “Hold that there, Stacy. You’re going to be fine.”
Sandi grimaced. “Assuming any of us is. We’re sitting ducks here.”
Stacy clenched her teeth in pain. “Better here than out in the open.”
Sandi shook her head. “At least there we could get a clean shot.” She put her gun above the rock to fire wildly, and barely missed having her hand shot off as she pulled it down.
Quinn frowned. “We can wait it out. We’ll just stay here until they come to get us.”
Sandi shook her head. “No. Then they’ll just wait for us. We’ll be trapped here, and who knows how many reinforcements they have waiting around. They’re probably already heading here. We need to dispatch these three and fast.”
“But how?” asked Quinn. “We can’t even put a hand out without them shooting!”
“I’d take the hit for you guys, but I can’t even fire my pistol right now,” offered Stacy. “I probably wouldn’t even hit one before they took me out.”
Sandi looked into Quinn’s eyes, and, all at once, she knew the answer to a question she’d been debating for a long time. “Quinn, no matter what happens, I know now that I love you.”
Quinn smiled sadly. “I love you too, Sandi.”
With that, Sandi drew her lover into an embrace. “Please forgive me, Quinn.”
Quinn withdrew, her face a mask of confusion and panic. “For what?”
Sandi kissed Quinn deeply and passionately. In one moment, all of their pent up feelings expressed themselves at once. Finally, Sandi broke the kiss. “This.” She shoved Quinn to the ground onto Stacy’s legs. Sandi had grabbed Quinn’s pistol during the kiss, and now turned and stood up with both guns drawn, exposing her to return fire.
“NO!” shouted Quinn from her prone position.
Sandi quickly fired her pistols at the three men before her. The one to her right went down before he could even fire. The center man got off a shot that took out her right shoulder, but not before Sandi’s right-hand pistol had already fired the bullet with his name on it. Sandi took three shots on the man to her left, and the third bullet found its mark.
By that time, however, the last man standing had fired the shot that would find its home in the center of Sandi’s forehead.
As the last man fell, so too did Sandi. Quinn scrambled to her knees and crawled over to Sandi’s now lifeless body. The hole in her forehead was tiny; the larger hole in the back of her skull was largely obscured by her flowing brown hair.
Stacy saw that Quinn was prostrate over her fallen friend and lover. As much as it pained her, both mentally and physically, she turned away from the scene before her to make sure all of the men were dead. After verifying they were safe for the moment, she turned to Quinn. “Come on, Quinn. We need to get up there now, before any reinforcements come.”
Quinn’s head snapped back with an angry gaze. “Damn it, Stacy; Sandi’s dead, and you’re talking about the freaking mission?”
Stacy scowled. “I’m talking about not letting Sandi die in vain. If we spend all of our time here mourning her and any more gunmen come, we’re just as dead as we would have been if Sandi hadn’t done what she did. We need to keep moving.”
Quinn turned back to Sandi’s body. “I’m not leaving her here. She deserves better than this.”
John cautiously rode out of the stable after the gunfire had ceased. Before him was a sight he certainly had not planned on seeing. Two girls, a redhead and a brunette, were carrying a third girl, whose head was covered with a bloody towel. The middle girl was supported by the other two girls by her arms over their shoulders. She didn’t appear to be alive, her only movements resulting from the jostling from the other two. “Halt; this is government property.” he asked.
The redhead on the left spoke first, her voice broken and unsteady. “Please sir, we have a message for the Secretary.”
John pointed his weapon at the girls, noticing they each had a pistol in their belt holsters. “And how do I know this message is genuine?”
The brunette on the right answered, in a tone cold and dead. “Right chest. Check it.”
John looked at the brunette’s chest and gasped as he saw the one thing he had been waiting to see for over a month: a gold lapel pin in the shape of the number 13.
Executive Order 509, dated January 5th, 2000.
Classified: Top Secret
To: Peter Senerchia, U.S. Secretary of Labor
As you are likely aware, on 1/1/2000, an ELE occurred that simultaneously destroyed every electronic device and electric wire in the Washington D.C. area. We have since determined that the area of effect includes, at the least, all of the northeastern states and several to the south. We have yet to find an unaffected region, and fear that this may have been a global event. Determining the extent of the event has been hampered as most forms of motorized transportation have been neutralized, along with all power plants and most fuel supplies. All power, telegraph, telephone, cable, and data cables have been destroyed or rendered unusable, cutting off practically all communication. In fact, if not for salvaging the typewriter I am composing this document on, it would have been handwritten.
The President, along with a number of Cabinet Secretaries, was on board Air Force One at the time of the event. The plane had just taken off, according to witnesses, when the event occurred. All aboard are now confirmed dead. The Vice President, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Speaker of the House have also been confirmed dead in separate reports, as well as other Cabinet members, Senators, and Congressmen. To be blunt, there are now only three known living Cabinet members, yourself excluded. Secretary Allen is incapacitated and unable to serve. Frankly, our doctors are not optimistic about his chances of survival. I am currently serving as acting President until your arrival. Secretary Taylor is assisting me as my second in command. You are currently the next in line to become President, barring a miraculous recovery from Secretary Allen.
It is imperative that you return to the Pentagon at your earliest ability. The White House and Capitol buildings are unsafe and will likely be deathtraps for any returning government officials for months to come. Upon your return, I will relinquish the Presidency to you and continue to work to put this country back together. If at all possible, refrain from identifying yourself to the public as a government official, as we have numerous reports of local government officials being targeted by angry mobs and organized crime gangs. As your orders have directed you to remain at your secured location until February 14th unless and until instructed otherwise, this order becomes moot should that date elapse.
On a personal note, I pray that this note finds you and yours alive and in good health. Even if you were not in the line of succession, we need every sound mind and strong pair of hands we can get.
Caroline M. Willingham
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Acting President of the United States
Peter Senerchia finished reading the letter delivered to him just moments before by, of all people, two teenage girls. He looked at the unlikely messengers before him and sighed solemnly. “Stacy, I appreciate the sacrifice you and your friends have made to deliver this letter. While nothing I can say can bring your friend back, please know that without this letter, I could easily have walked right into a deathtrap. This letter likely saved my life, and I have you to thank.”
Quinn had cried herself asleep on Stacy’s left shoulder while both sat on wooden chairs, so Stacy replied, “Thank you, sir. It’s good to know Sandi didn’t die in vain.”
“Please,” replied Peter, “call me Peter. I’m worried about how you’re handling this tragedy. If I’d been in your place…”
“With all due respect,” replied Stacy, “it’s taken every ounce of my self-control not to be right where Quinn is.”
Peter nodded. “I figured as much. I suppose this isn’t the first tragedy you’ve endured since all this began.”
Stacy shook her head. “I’ve lost my parents, another of my best friends, and the boyfriend who kept me together through most of it before today. I’m starting to wonder why my number hasn’t come up.”
“From the looks of that wound, it almost did.” Peter sighed. “If it helps, I’ve lost most of those dear to me as well. My wife and kids were in the house when it happened. I was out riding, and when I turned around, the house was up in flames. I keep thinking that if I hadn’t gone for my morning ride, maybe I could have saved one of them.”
“Or you’d have joined them,” countered Stacy.
“I keep telling myself that,” said Peter. “Maybe hearing someone else say it will help it sink in.”
“I hope so,” said Stacy, whose tears had started to form in the corners of her eyes. “I still believe Chuck would be here if I’d only looked before I ran. I’ve lived that moment over and over in my head since it happened. I’ve watched situations where I saw the movement in time and dodged, or pushed Charles out of the way. I’ve even felt myself take the bullet instead of him. At least then he’d be alive.”
“And wishing he had moved a second faster and saved you instead,” said Peter. “Never think that he would rather have lived while you died. If he had, he wouldn’t have done what he did. Dying for the ones they love is the mark of any good man.”
Something clicked in Stacy’s brain. “You know, I guess you’re right.”
“Well, you know me, Peter,” said John. “I’d die for my girlfriend, maybe even before I’d die for you.”
“I’ll tell you this,” added Steve, “I haven’t seen my wife and kids in a month and a half, but I’d still lay down my life for them, even if it meant never seeing them again. How about you, Murphy? Murphy?”
No reply came. It wasn’t that Murphy wouldn’t do the same for his loved ones, but at that moment he was out of earshot, having “borrowed” one of Peter’s horses.
Jordan James appraised the man before him. “So you say that your squad was annihilated by three girls?”
Murphy shifted his weight from his left foot to his right foot. “Well, them and the Secretary and his Secret Service guy.”
Bryce Johnson shook his head. “From what it sounds like, they didn’t even fire a shot. They kept you from getting killed like the rest of those men.”
Murphy panicked. “They held me prisoner! I couldn’t help them if I wanted! I was lucky to escape when I did!”
Jordan had had enough. “Enough! I appreciate your effort in bringing this news to my attention, but I am not happy at all that your squad was not competent enough to kill more than one of the three girls. Please wait outside while we debate our next steps.”
Murphy bowed and walked out of the office. Bryce turned to Jordan. “I told you this man was not to be trifled with. We should have sent a crack squad to take him out right away. Now his backups have arrived, and our own negotiator has joined them. Instead of taking on two men, we’re dealing with a five-person squad!”
Jordan was starting to become irritated with his second-in-command. “Fine, you were right about them not wanting to negotiate peacefully. That’s why the Tornado Squad was placed where they are. If they can’t take them out, they’ll drive them out of the area.”
“I’m not certain that would be enough,” said Bryce. “After all, these people struck a decisive blow against the JJ5. Three girls taking out one of our best men, as well as four others, only losing one; it’s not to be taken lightly. Perhaps this requires a personal touch.” He gripped one of his wrists as he made a fist.
Jordan raised his eyebrow. “And I suppose you’d like to lead the force into battle, and let that boost your popularity. Who knows, maybe the people will see you as the real force behind the JJ5.”
Bryce, secretly relieved that his superior had taken the bait, replied, “Why Jordan, I had no such intention. I merely think this is a matter for one of the top commanders to address. After all, we don’t need a repeat of today’s mistakes.”
Jordan smirked. “I agree. That is why I shall lead the Tornado Squad into battle.”
Bryce feigned shock. “You, sir?”
Jordan nodded. “Of course. As you said, this requires a personal touch. We shall strike at dawn. I’ll make certain to set a scout to relay our success back to the home base after we wipe that compound out. You’ll have control until my return.”
“You trust me to keep things running in your absence?” asked Bryce.
“You wouldn’t be my second-in-command if I did not,” confirmed Jordan. “Feel free to use my office until I come back.” With that he walked out the door, grabbing his travel bag from his secretary’s desk.
Bryce waited until Jordan left and then called Murphy back into the office. “Yes, sir?” asked Murphy.
Bryce stroked his goatee. “Was the Secretary open to negotiation prior to the shooting?”
Murphy nodded. “You bet, sir. In fact, he said that they were going to leave the next day if their messengers didn’t come first.”
“So these three women were the messengers?” asked Bryce.
“I guess,” said Murphy. “They had the message they were waiting for and some sort of pin to signify who they were.”
Bryce considered this as he put on a pair of leather gloves. “So if the other men had let those girls go through on their own, they might have just left your group alone and left without a shot?”
Murphy shrugged. “I guess. Like I said, I wasn’t there. I’m fairly sure the shooting took the Secretary guy by surprise.”
Bryce nodded. “I see. Thank you for that information. However…” Bryce drew a pistol and fired a single shot to Murphy’s temple. “It would be better if nobody else knew that. After all, even though the Tornado Squad has their orders, our beloved leader may still escape with his life.” Bryce walked to Jordan’s secretary. “Ms. White, unfortunately Mr. Murphy passed away in his apartment shortly after his return under unknown circumstances that are currently under investigation. I shall require help returning him to his apartment.”
Sandi Griffin lay on a bed of earth, six feet below where the surface had been. From Quinn’s vantage point, there was little to tell that she wasn’t merely sleeping. Her right shoulder was covered by the fresh set of clothes Quinn had dressed her in. Even the hole in her forehead looked more like an accessory than a wound. Only Sandi could make a bullet in her head look fashionable, thought Quinn.
Stacy knelt by Quinn, still favoring her right shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?”
Quinn sighed. “No; are you?”
Stacy shook her head. “I doubt it.”
“I don’t get it,” said Quinn. “How did you keep it together when Sandi died?”
Stacy sighed. “I saw you, and I knew that there could be a dozen men coming around the rock and you wouldn’t be able to move. I knew somebody had to make sure we were safe, and I was the only one left. Somehow, I kept myself from feeling Sandi’s death.”
“I wish I could stop feeling this,” said Quinn.
“Don’t,” said Stacy. “Cry over it, get angry about it, deal with it however you need to, but please don’t stop feeling. I wish I could mourn Sandi right now, but I just can’t find it in me.”
“What do you mean?” asked Quinn. “Sandi may have picked on you before all of this happened, but…”
“It’s not that,” Stacy explained. “It’s like that whole part of me is numb; like I’ve burned myself out. First I thought everyone was dead. Then my parents actually were dead. Then Tiffany, then Charles, now Sandi. It’s like every time one of them died, a part of me died too. Now I barely have anyone left to care about. I mean, except for you and my teddy bear, I don’t have anything left from my life before all of this.”
Quinn nodded. “I guess that makes sense. I just wish I knew why she did what she did.”
Stacy remembered her earlier conversation. “The guys all seemed to think it was a common thing to sacrifice themselves for the ones they love.”
Quinn’s eyes got large. “Of course! That’s why she told me she knew that she loved me! I told her once that being in love meant that you would do anything to make them happy, no matter the cost. I told her that when the time was right, she would know if she loved me. She really did, and she died to save me, just like Chuck died to save you.”
Stacy smiled slightly. “I guess you’re right.”
Quinn looked back at Sandi’s body. “Sandi was really the guy of the relationship, I guess.”
“You may want to rethink that statement, Quinn,” replied Stacy.
Quinn smiled slightly at that. “Not like that. Well, sort of like that. I mean, she was the defender. She was the one that gave me support, and made me feel safe. In her arms, I felt like nothing could ever get to me. I guess it makes sense she died to save me.”
Stacy shook her head. “Nothing makes sense these days, but I see what you mean. Are you ready?”
Quinn shook her head. “I’ll take care of it. I need a few more moments alone, if that’s okay.”
Stacy nodded. “Of course; I’ll see you inside.” She turned to where Sandi lay for her eternal rest. “Goodbye, Sandi, and thank you.” She walked away, leaving Quinn alone with Sandi’s body and a shovel.
Jordan rode up to the squad leader on the horse Murphy had brought with him. “Is the squad ready to move?”
The squad leader nodded. “Always, sir.”
“Good,” answered Jordan. “All ten of us shall move to the Secretary’s land and eliminate anyone unfortunate enough to remain on its land. We shall move into position by nightfall and attack at dawn.
“Very good, sir.” The Squad Leader smiled inwardly, remembering his instructions he’d received just the other day from headquarters. An attack will be likely made on the Secretary’s lands in the next few days. If someone claiming to be Jordan James arrives and assumes leadership of the group, follow their orders up to and including the assault. You are to ensure this imposter doesn’t survive the attack.
As the sun set in the west, Quinn finally returned to the stable. However, the Quinn that entered the stable was not exactly the Quinn that Stacy recognized. This Quinn was covered in dirt and gasping for air. “My God, Quinn; what did you do?”
Quinn shrugged. “Well, after I buried Sandi, I wanted to dig a spot next to her, in case something happened to me. I mean, if something happens, you guys won’t want to spend all day digging a grave for me. Then I thought, ‘Well, what if someone else doesn’t make it?’ So…”
Stacy pushed past Quinn to see the area where Sandi’s grave lay. Next to Sandi’s grave was an open plot, and a second open plot was only slightly further away. To the right was an open plot next to the graves of Peter Senerchia’s family. To the left were two open plots: one next to the other Secret Service agent and one off on its own.
Stacy turned to Quinn and hugged her. Quinn softly said, “It felt so good to dig those; to stab the ground over and over for taking Sandi away. I think I needed something to do to let out all these emotions I’ve been feeling.”
Stacy pulled slightly away and looked into Quinn’s eyes. “How do you feel now?”
Quinn smiled sadly. “Better. I should be able to function in the morning.”
Stacy nodded. “Good; the way they’re talking we may need you functioning.”
Stacy and Quinn walked back into the stable to the large empty MRE crate that now served as the planning table. Peter and John were hammering out the details for their departure. “Now look,” said Peter, “I don’t care if it’s shorter the other way; we can’t risk going through JJ5 territory. From what they said, they were practically to the Airport already.”
John sighed. “I know; I just wish there was a better way.”
Steve shook his head. “There was, until the year began.”
Peter smiled a bit at that. “All right, so we head back through Tyler’s Cross and up Rural Route 4 until we hit 77, Steve heads off to his family, we continue on 5 Mile Road or Tupper’s Creek Road or whatever they’re calling it this week until we hit 79, take 79 to 68, 68 to 70, 70 to 270, and then whatever we can use to get to the Pentagon. Girls, how long do you plan on accompanying us?”
Stacy turned to Quinn. “Quinn, I’m thinking we could at least follow them to Hancock. From there we can figure out if they could still use our help, and plan the rest as we go.”
Quinn nodded. “That was where I was going to suggest we go before…all of this.”
Stacy realized what Quinn meant and turned to the men. “If you’ll have us, we’ll at least follow you to Hancock.”
Peter smiled. “Thank you. It’s hard to imagine something we could run into that John here can’t handle, but with you two as backup we’ll be made in the shade.”
John spoke up, his voice taking on a serious tone. “There is only one possible problem. If the JJ5 had a backup squad waiting in reserve, they could be here before we leave. If that happens, who knows what kind of disadvantage we may be facing. There are five of us at best, and we have the defensive advantage, but that might not be enough if they send a hundred troops in here.”
Steve shook his head. “I’m fairly certain they couldn’t muster those kinds of numbers, based on the squads I saw, but even twenty would not be my idea of a good morning. I’m not exactly the best gunslinger, but I’ll try my best if you have a gun to spare.”
“We have one extra gun now,” answered Stacy. “I still wish that we had gone down and at least taken the bullets from those bodies.”
“It really wasn’t safe,” said Peter. “We could have gone out there and found the backup squad waiting by the time we thought of it. Hell, a group of kids could have just as easily taken the weapons and waited for someone to come investigate the bodies.”
“However,” interrupted John, “that does bring up a good point. What guns and ammo do you girls have left?” Quinn and Stacy produced their three pistols and all the remaining ammo. After discarding empty shells, there was barely enough to fill the three 7-shot .357 revolvers, leaving only 6 spare bullets. “Unfortunately, the ammo I’m issued is .45 caliber, so it won’t work for your guns. If something happens to both me and the Secretary and you’re out of ammo, grab our guns. Now what other weapons do you have with you?”
Stacy lay down her backpack and started removing items. “Well, I guess this chef’s knife can do some damage if we get close enough. The awl might do for a last-ditch effort. The hammer will work in close quarters. Outside of those, the next best weapon is our water pot. I mean, I guess we could beat…” Stacy trailed off as Quinn’s eyes bulged out. Stacy realized what she was about to pull out and said “Um, let’s leave those in the pack for now.”
Peter arched an eyebrow. “A weapon you don’t want us to know about?”
“Let’s just say they’re rather…personal… weapons,” confirmed Quinn.
Peter smiled, realizing what they meant after seeing a quick flash of the items in question. “I understand. Just remember, girls, it’s better to lose your modesty than your life.”
Stacy smirked. “I’ll agree with that, Mr. President.”
Peter looked thoughtful. “Mr. President. God, it took me forever to get used to Mr. Secretary.”
Quinn climbed up to the loft that Stacy and she had been given to rest in. Stacy was already up there, changing into her night clothes. “How is that feeling?” asked Quinn, pointing to the now-cleaned and bandaged bullet wound in Stacy’s right shoulder.
“It hurts like hell,” said Stacy, “but I should still be able to shoot. I’m just lucky it didn’t hit a bone or sever a tendon.”
“That’s for sure,” answered Quinn, who also began changing. “You know, when all of this started, I probably would have said ‘Ewwwwwwwww’ when I heard that.”
“And then I would have apologized profusely while Sandi…sorry,” Stacy trailed off.
Tears appeared at the corners of Quinn’s eyes, but she held her composure. “It’s all right. Sandi would have said your name in that condescending fed-up tone she was so good at while Tiffany might have looked up from her mirror to say ‘that’s soooooo wroooooong.’”
Stacy smiled at that. “I guess we’ve both changed a lot over this trip. We learned what life is like outside of Lawndale. We’ve seen people at their worst and at their best. We learned that a killer tan and the proper blush just aren’t as important as food and water.”
Quinn nodded. “Most of all, we both found true love.”
Stacy frowned. “And then we watched as it was taken away from us.”
Quinn sighed. “At least we had it. Some people may go their entire lives without having what we had for even a second.”
Stacy perked up thinking about that. “I guess you’re right. I just wish it had lasted longer.”
Quinn looked off into the distance. “We always do. You always think you’ve got tomorrow to tell someone you love them, or how much they meant to you, or even just how much you appreciate them being part of your life.”
Stacy noticed Quinn’s undirected stare. “Quinn?”
Quinn continued, “When I saw Sandi fall over, it was like everything I’ve been trying to deal with or shove aside came up all at once. I mean, I had to see my sister just a few steps from the front door of our burning house. God, all the things I put her through, and I was finally starting to connect with her. Mom and Dad at the same time, I was a wreck. I’m surprised Jane was as strong as she was when we found them. I guess I returned the favor when we got to the Zon though. Then Tiffany, your parents, finding Sandi in the state she was in, Stu, Charles, that Ryan guy; I mean, all I really had left was Sandi and you.”
“And now it’s just me,” finished Stacy. “Hey, who knows? Maybe we could follow them all the way to Lawndale and see if Jane and the gang are still there.”
Quinn didn’t move. “Maybe; it doesn’t matter much right now. All I can think of is taking one day at a time. I mean, at the rate we’re going, the next day could be the last.”
Stacy looked down at the floor, then back at Quinn. “Quinn, in case anything happens, I want you to know that I love you.”
“Stacy, I…” started Quinn.
“Please,” interrupted Stacy, “let me finish. You are the best friend I’ve ever had. You made me feel like I had a voice, no matter how small I thought it was. You treated me like an equal, something I never thought I could ever be. At first, I took my feelings about you too far. I know now that I could never be romantic with you, any more than you could be with me, but damn it, I love you in a way that goes beyond any of that. If we get out of this, I want to stay near you the rest of my life. I hope you’ll always want me in your life.”
Quinn, who by now had turned to look directly into Stacy’s eyes, had to blink away tears. “Stacy, I…I love you too.” She fell into Stacy’s arms and started crying on her shoulder. After a few moments, Quinn released her grip and looked back into Stacy’s eyes. “Thank you.”
Stacy took Quinn’s hand in hers. “Thank you.”
Quinn awoke to John’s voice from the ladder of their loft. “Girls, wake up! It’s time to get moving!”
Quinn sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It’s still dark out.”
“For a little while,” answered John, “but I figure you wouldn’t want to make the dawn run in your nighties.”
“I guess you’re right,” said Quinn, a smile sneaking onto her face. As John retreated, Quinn turned over to Stacy and shook her.
“Mmm, come on, Charles. I know you like it rough but…” Stacy trailed off as she resumed lightly snoring.
Quinn, after shaking her head at Stacy’s unconscious admission, shook Stacy harder. “Stacy, wake up!”
Stacy’s eyes finally opened. “Hmm, wha? Oh, hi Quinn.”
“Hi,” said Quinn. “It’s almost time to go. Enjoy your dream?”
Stacy squinted at Quinn with a puzzled look. “How did you know I was dreaming?”
“The same way I now know even more than I wanted to about you and Chuck,” answered Quinn. “Now get dressed.”
Quinn and Stacy climbed downstairs to a pleasant smell. “Morning girls,” said Peter. “Steve here was generous enough to share some of his tea with us. It may not be coffee, but we’ll need every bit of help we can get today.”
Quinn smiled as she closed her eyes and inhaled the aroma wafting out of their pot. “Mmmm, this is the first thing we’ve had to drink in weeks other than water. Thanks, Steve!”
“My pleasure,” said Steve. “After all, there’s no way I was going to start today off without caffeine, and there’s no reason not to share.”
John turned to Stacy and handed her an energy bar. “We’re all packed up. The horses are ready to ride. Are you going to be ready after breakfast?”
Stacy accepted the bar gladly. “We’re all packed and this is the wake-up I needed. All we need is a little luck and a clear path.”
Outside the Senerchia property, Jordan James and the rest of the 10-man Tornado Squad rode up to the main gate. The men halted at their Squad Leader’s command. “What if they’ve already left, sir?” asked the Squad Commander.
“I’m not worried about that,” stated Jordan. “If they’re gone, I’ll post their information as most wanted criminals. I’ll offer rewards for their capture. Besides, if they’re gone, they’re probably heading to Washington and out of our hair for good. We’ll have defeated them without a fight, something I still hope for here.”
The Squad Leader cocked his eyebrow. “Sir, do you honestly think they’re going to surrender to us?”
Jordan shook his head. “Not really, but that’s why you’re here.” He turned to the men who had broken the chain on the gate and opened them wide. “Remember, be smart men. They have someone who purports to be a Secret Service officer. We weren’t able to verify that, but he’s certainly armed. The girls took out the squad you see on the ground around you. They only lost one while killing five of us. Don’t take the first shot, but be ready to take the second shot.”
The girls had just finished their shared mugs of tea when John heard a metallic clank. His head twitched in the direction of the sound, which alerted the other four. “That sounded like the gate lock. Get into position.” The five of them hurried to their positions: John moved to the front doors of the stable, Quinn and Stacy moved to the lofts on either side, Steve moved to the rear, and Peter concealed himself behind a bale of hay near the center. John had insisted on the formation, concluding that as the potential President of the United States, he needed to be the most protected, even though his .45 service revolver was potentially more deadly than the girls’ guns.
After verifying that everyone was ready, John peered out of the door, seeing nobody out there. He walked out between the partially opened doors, and waited for their pursuers to arrive.
He didn’t have to wait long before several men marched up the hill. He counted eight men on foot, plus two on horseback. Steve, who had moved to the edge of the stable from the back door, recognized Jordan James himself on one of the horses, though he didn’t know the identity of the other rider, who called the men to a halt.
John mustered his firmest Secret Service tone as he addressed the invaders. “Gentlemen, you are trespassing on property controlled by the United States Federal Government. Please vacate the property immediately.”
The Squad Commander smirked. “This area has been claimed by the Jordan James Five-Borough Force. You are harboring two women charged with murdering five members of the JJ5, as well as one of our negotiators who has failed in his mission.”
Jordan spoke up. “If you surrender the three fugitives, along with your arms, we will ensure that your treatment will be fair and just. However, failure to surrender these criminals shall be considered an act of aggression punishable by death.”
“I find these terms unacceptable,” said John. “Even if we were willing to give up our allies, it would be practically impossible to ensure safe passage to Washington, DC, for the Secretary and myself while unarmed.”
Steve cleared his throat and walked up to the front of the stable along the side wall. “Excuse me, but I would like to present the results of my negotiation, to ensure that my former colleague did not misrepresent our position.”
Jordan scoffed at that. “I highly doubt it will make any difference, but go ahead.”
Steve took a breath and began. “The negotiations were initially successful, sir. Secretary Senerchia and Mr. Palmer agreed to your demands, agreeing to vacate the premises by noon tomorrow at the latest, and allowing free reign to use any and all remaining resources. The Secretary discussed possibly leaving earlier if his messengers happened to arrive. As it happened, the messengers he was waiting for arrived during the negotiations. However, because they refused to surrender their arms, they were forced to defend themselves against our forces. One of their number was killed, and another wounded. However, our entire force, save Murphy and myself who were here proceeding with negotiations. Had the force allowed the three girls to arrive, it is likely all five of them would have left this morning without incident.”
Jordan listened intently, ensuring any important details were noted. “It seems partially an unfortunate circumstance that brings me here. However, this does not excuse the murders of my men.”
“These couriers were acting on orders from the Federal Government,” responded John. “I’ll be happy to show you the proper paperwork authorizing the use of all means necessary to deliver their message.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Jordan. “Even if their papers could be confirmed as legitimate, it would be impossible to determine if the federal government even still exists. Surrender the girls and your arms. I would be willing to let Steve go unharmed since the failure of his mission seems to have been through no fault of his own.”
“As a counteroffer,” began Steve, “would you accept me in exchange for allowing them to keep their arms? Certainly, you don’t expect them to make the trek back to Washington without protection.”
Jordan smiled. “Who said anything about letting you return to Washington? As you are on land under the control of the JJ5, you are now subjects of our rule. The three of you will be assigned jobs based on your abilities, just like everyone else. You will surrender all of your useful property to the Force, and be assigned living quarters and rations. However, you will be allowed to continue living, which is more than I can say for the girls, or for you, if you do not surrender.”
John scowled. “By order of the United States of America, all ten of you will stand aside and let all five of us leave, now, of our own power, or face the consequences of your actions.” He stressed the number to ensure that his friends inside knew the odds.
Jordan slowly moved his hand to his pistol at his waist. “No, Mr. Palmer, it is you who will face the consequences.”
Steve saw what Jordan intended to do and reached for his revolver. However, being an inexperienced gunfighter, he was unable to raise his gun before Jordan was able to draw and fire.
John realized Jordan had fired upon Steve, and quickly drew his gun to fire at the other men while Jordan’s gun wasn’t on him. With deadly precision, he took out two of the fighters before ducking behind the stable door. Several rounds pierced the door he had ducked behind, but John, knowing the thickness of the door was not thick enough to stop bullets, had moved all the way to the corner. He let out a dying wail as he pretended to be shot, then winked to Quinn, who was in his line of sight. All gunfire ceased.
Jordan watched the barn as he spoke to his squad commander. “Well, that’s two threats down. Time to get the rest of them.”
The commander nodded. “Men, go in and take the remaining fighters. Be careful, the two girls are armed, and the Secretary probably is too.”
The two men in front walked to either side of the doors getting ready to burst in and fire. However, they didn’t count on John peering through a knothole at waist level. After seeing them move into position, he placed his pistol at the hole, aimed up at the man on his side, and fired.
The man on the right side of the stable cried out and fell over dead. This led the other man to fire into the wood on that side, along with the other four fighters. One lucky bullet threaded the knothole just as John had withdrawn his gun, and it ended up implanting itself in John’s chest.
The man who’d fired the shot walked swiftly over to the stable doors and pushed them open. As he did, he was hit by a shower of bullets, as 3 of the six shots taken pierced his body before he fell. Both Quinn and Stacy added their remaining bullets to the 7-round chambers of their revolvers and prepared for the rest. Each knew that after seven shots, they would need to find new weapons.
The remaining four men chose to stay back from the stable for a moment after seeing the fate of their compatriot. As they got into position, Stacy motioned that she would come down the ladder to check on John, who hadn’t moved since he fell. Quinn nodded and covered for her. Upon reaching the ground, Stacy swiftly, yet carefully, moved to John’s body, checked for a pulse, and then slowly shook her head. Quinn sighed, then breathed deeply to maintain her composure. She had a job to do, especially now that their best shot could no longer help them.
Jordan James, upset with the results so far, turned to the Squad Commander. “You call this the Tornado Squad? Half of your men are dead already!”
The Squad Commander turned to his leader. “Sir, need I remind you that most of the losses were because of the Secret Service agent? We’re lucky we were able to take him down at all! From here on, our advantage will be much more meaningful.”
“I should hope so!” exclaimed Jordan. “It isn’t just their lives at risk here!”
Two of the men circled to the rear of the stable hoping to get the drop on those inside. However, the first man to enter found out the hard way that Secretary Senerchia had his pistol trained on the rear entrance. The second man was able to retreat unharmed, and he got enough of a glimpse to report the location back to the other men.
“From the looks of it,” responded the Squad Commander, “they’re guarding the only two ways in or out.”
“Well then,” responded Jordan, “we’ll have to make our own way in.”
Peter looked around, not having heard much of anything for the past few minutes. He called out, “Report!”
Stacy called back, “John’s dead. Steve is probably gone too; I haven’t heard from him since the shooting began. Quinn and I are fine, and both down to guns.”
Peter understood their code for having used their reserve bullets. “Damn. It’s just us three then.”
Quinn was worried. “Why aren’t they attacking? We couldn’t have killed them all yet.”
Stacy counted. “John got two before retreating and another through the knothole. We combined on one, and Peter got another. That’s five down, with at least five to go.”
“Our odds are only slightly better now, I’m afraid,” said Peter. “Three on five as compared to…” His words trailed off as a dull clattering sound came from the wall opposite Peter’s position.
The stable became silent, as they listened to another clatter of what seemed to be wood, followed by what sounded like a liquid being poured. Finally, Peter recognized the metallic sound of a Zippo being opened and struck, and swore just before all three heard the flames erupt.
Quickly, Quinn climbed down from her perch and walked over to the supplies near where the noises had been coming from, moving what she could out of the way while taking care not to expose herself to incoming gunfire. Stacy and Peter came near her towards the center of the stable. “Well, now what, girls?” asked Peter.
Quinn looked at the five horses they had intended on riding that day. “We have to let them out.”
“Are you crazy?” asked Peter.
Quinn glared at Peter. “Look, I am not letting these horses die because we couldn’t be bothered to free them!”
Stacy put her hand on Quinn’s shoulder to steady her. “We don’t have time for arguing. Besides, the horses will be an excellent diversion for our own escape.”
Peter nodded. “You have a point.”
They gathered their traveling packs and hurried over to the pens where the horses were getting excited. The smoke was starting to come through holes in the side of the stable by now. They unlatched the gates for all five horses. While four of the horses quickly trotted out at their direction, the fifth one stubbornly stood in its pen, too scared to move.
“Come on! It’s all right! You’ll be okay!” yelled Quinn at the horse.
“That’s Benny for you,” said Peter. “He’s always been the shy one.”
“I’m not leaving him!” shouted Quinn.
“The only way he’s leaving,” said Peter, “is if someone’s riding him.”
Stacy walked over and took the reins from Quinn. “Well why didn’t you say so?” With that, she calmed down Benny enough to put a saddle onto him, with some help from Quinn. Finally, she swung herself onto Benny and called to her friends. “Ok, now you two cover me at the back door. I’ll catch them off-guard.”
Quinn looked worried. “You’re not going to ride out there like that, are you? You’ll be out in the open!”
“And I’ll be fast enough to escape,” countered Stacy. “Besides, with you drawing their fire, they won’t see me until it’s too late.”
Quinn looked at her best friend. “Promise me they won’t get you.”
Stacy smiled. “Of course not. They couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
“Setting fire to the broad side of a stable,” countered Peter, “now that’s something else again.”
The three men gathered at the back door, with Jordan and the Squad Commander carefully keeping watch over the front ever since the horses started running out the back. Suddenly, bursts of gunfire came from the three men at the back. One of the men fell over dead, while another grabbed his shoulder in agony. “Where did you get these men, Rejects ‘R’ Us?”
Before the Squad Commander had a chance to speak, he saw another horse ride out, with a brunette riding it. Both of the remaining two men fell, and he saw the brunette looking their way.
Jordan shook his head. “I am constantly surrounded by incompetence! We’re leaving, now!”
The Squad Commander nodded. “Yes sir, once I take care of one last thing.”
“And what is that?” asked Jordan.
“Take care of an imposter.” With that, the Squad Commander drew his weapon. Jordan, however, was a step faster, and fired his pistol at the other man’s head first. However, as the Squad Commander took the bullet, he squeezed the trigger, hitting Jordan in the abdomen. Both men slid to the ground, and all was silent except the whinny of the horses.
Stacy saw the men fall after hearing the gunshots ring out. Noticing that both men fell away from each other, she smiled. “Hmmph, well how do you like that?”
Quinn called from inside the now-burning stable. “What happened?”
Stacy called back, “It looks like the two leader guys shot each other.”
Peter smiled. “And that’s why you never have two people leading at the same time.”
“So is that everyone?” asked Quinn.
“Three here, those two, the five before, that’s ten,” counted Stacy. “I don’t see anyone else, and at this point, I’d imagine anyone held back would be running for reinforcements.”
Peter nodded. “Keep a close eye, just in case. It’d be a shame to get this far and get killed because we weren’t paying attention. I’m going to go try putting out the fire. The fact that the stable isn’t in flames right now makes me think they’re as bad at starting a fire as they are at capturing us.” He grabbed a bucket of water and walked over to the far side of the stable.
Quinn walked out to Stacy and hugged her. “Thank you, Stacy.” She then broke the hug and started softly punching her good shoulder. “But don’t ever do that again!”
Stacy held off Quinn’s blows. “I’m sorry! I had to!”
Quinn stopped and smiled. “Wow; I mean, who would have thought you would be the one to risk their life like that? How many bullets do you have left, anyway?”
Stacy opened the chamber of her revolver. “Eep! Only one! It’s a good thing you got those two guys before I headed out.”
Quinn motioned for Stacy to hand her the gun. “Here, I’ll give you a couple of mine just in case. It’s better if we both have a few shots to take.”
Stacy nodded. “Works for me. Hey, I’m going to grab Benny. He’s trying to head back into the stable.”
Quinn smiled. “Horses may be cute, but they make Kevin look smart sometimes.” She returned to moving bullets from her gun to Stacy’s.
Stacy walked over to Benny, who had started to wander towards the barn. “Hey, Benny. You don’t want to go back in there. There’s fire and smoke and all sorts of bad things there. You want to stay out here where it’s safe, don’t you?”
If Benny could have answered Stacy’s question, it would have been cut off by a single gunshot. Stacy turned around, and saw Quinn falling to the ground. Beyond her was one of the men who had been on horseback, clutching his stomach with his left arm while attempting to re-aim his pistol with the right. “You bitches have ruined everything! I’ll see you in hell!” With that, he slowly raised his pistol at Quinn one more time to finish her off.
Stacy saw the scene before her, but without her pistol, she felt practically powerless. However, she remembered the other weapon she had on her. She reached into her pocket, pulled out the awl, and flung it at Quinn’s assailant. The awl tumbled end over end towards the man’s face.
Jordan looked over at the other woman just in time to see the weapon at point blank range before it pierced his left eyeball and entered his brain. Jordan fell over backwards, his shot missing wildly, and collapsed in a heap to the ground.
Stacy ran over to her best friend to find out the damage. It didn’t look good. Quinn had been shot in the left side of her chest. She was still alive, so it was likely the bullet missed her heart, but her breathing difficulty led Stacy to believe that her lung had been pierced. “Quinn, are you okay?”
Quinn coughed up blood. “Really…very…not okay. It feels like…my chest…is crushing me.”
Stacy held Quinn’s hand. “Please, Quinn, don’t leave me!”
Quinn smiled sadly. “Sorry, but…I’ve gotta…go. Don’t want to…keep Sandi…waiting. You know…how she…” With that, her final breath left her body. Stacy shed a single tear, the last tear anyone would ever know her to shed.
Peter shoveled the last bit of earth over the body of his bodyguard. “I’m sorry you couldn’t join me for the trip home. I’ll make sure your girlfriend knows about the sacrifice you made. Hell, if I’m the President, I bet I could get you a medal. I only wish that would make it all worth it. I guess I’ll have to get home and make sure you didn’t die in vain. Thanks pal.”
He walked over to Quinn’s grave, where Stacy kept a silent watch. “I’m sorry, but we better go. The last thing we need is another group of those JJ5 lunatics running into us.”
Stacy continued to stare at Quinn’s grave. “If it’s all right, I’d like to accompany you to Washington. After all, you could use a bodyguard now.”
Peter put his hand on Stacy’s shoulder. “You don’t have to do that for me.”
Stacy sighed and turned to face Peter. “But I have to do it for them.”
Peter nodded. “I wouldn’t mind the company, that’s for sure. It would be an honor if you’d accompany me, Stacy.”
Stacy turned back towards Quinn and Sandi’s graves. “Stacy died today. My name is Anastasia Rowe.”
Burt Smith had grown into his family name ever since that January morning when the world turned upside down. He was an All-American Offensive Tackle playing for Marshall University and was celebrating the New Year, along with their resounding victory in the Motor City Bowl, when everything turned upside down. He ended up in Washington, DC, where his strength and the skills he’d learned from his late father allowed him to take over one of the few surviving iron forges in the nation’s capital.
That was five years ago, when the government was in chaos. Now, that chaos had been mostly calmed, and President Senerchia’s forces depended on Burt’s forge to keep their horses shod and their sabers sharp. He never complained about his life. I mean, sure, he wanted to play in the NFL and become a legend, but chances were he’d have ended up third string for a team that never contended. Maybe if he was lucky, he’d get signed by some team with a shot at a Super Bowl ring, but he wouldn’t have earned it. Here, he earned everything he got and, all things considered, maybe his life here was a bit safer not having to let defensive linemen try to kill him a hundred times a game.
Burt was cooling down a new horseshoe when a familiar voice came from behind him. “Another Burt Smith masterpiece?”
Burt turned around and saw his main employer. “Anastasia! You know every one is a masterpiece. What can I do you for?”
Anastasia Rowe walked towards Burt. “I’m just checking your progress for the President. I assume production is going well as usual?”
Burt smirked. “Have I ever let you down?” Stacy folded her hands in front of her with a cross look on her face. “Well, outside the bedroom?”
Anastasia’s grimace melted away. “I told you, it wasn’t that bad.”
Burt shook his head. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway. You can’t have two people trying to take control.”
Anastasia nodded. “I guess you’re right. Have you finished with my…special project?”
Burt smiled wide. “Absolutely; I do believe you’ll be satisfied with these results.” He walked back over to a rack that had been kept away from the main walkways. He took two small bits of metal on silver chains and walked back to his guest. “Here they are!”
Anastasia smiled as she looked over the pieces. One was a brass heart once broken in half, now held together by a small amount of melted metal from behind, reading “Forever In Love”. The second was a brass circle, originally in three parts but similarly bonded together, reading “Best Friends Forever”. Anastasia looked at the necklaces for a moment, smiled, and then placed them around her neck.
“I promise I won’t tell anyone, but what are those necklaces about anyway?” asked Burt.
Anastasia looked up at Burt. “They remind me of another life.”
Author's Note: Peter Senerchia is the real name of the wrestler known as Taz; however, the character by that name in this story bears little resemblance to him (though the number 13 on the pin was chosen on that basis). Executive Order 509 is so named as episode 509 – Life in the Past Lane – was the last episode known to happen before the story started.