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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
“And who is this?” Jess asked as she knelt and extended her hand.
“This is my new dog, Fitz,” Croukamp answered.
“What happened to Nicco?”
Croukamp bent over and patted the mutt on the neck. Her tail wagged vigorously. “I had to get a new watchdog. Nicco is too old. He’s deaf.”
“Where did you find this little girl?”
“The Wilmots had her. She wasn’t getting along so well with their other bitch.”
“So where’s Nicco?”
“The Wilmots are watching him for now.”
“Look at her. You got some meat on your bones, don’t you girl?”
“What do you mean by that, Mr. Croukamp?” Jess asked.
“My dear, just that it might be easier to butcher someone else’s dog than my own…if it ever came to that.” Croukamp stood upright. “So are you ready to go?”
“Don’t say things like that.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Clayton. I’m sure Fitz will have many happy years.”
“I’m ready, then. Sharon’s got Brooke. They’re hanging laundry.”
The two of them walked to Croukamp’s rusty truck which sat parked under his carport. He opened the creaky door for her, then let himself in on the driver’s side. The shocks squeaked as their weight shifted in the cab. He turned the key and the truck roared to life, rattling and smoking.
“I can’t believe this thing still runs,” Jess observed.
“She’s a sturdy old beast. No computers to fry. Runs better than my dead Lexus.”
“Are you going to fix it?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s expensive. Say,” he continued, “do you mind if we make another stop after we cash in these FEMA cards?”
“It’s your truck, Mr. Croukamp. I’m just along for the ride.”
Croukamp backed out of the driveway and onto the road. The power steering whined as he tugged and turned the wheel. The gearbox clunked into drive and down the snaking foothills road they went. Jess had not been into the city for a month. The farthest she had gone since was the 285 overpass where squatters had taken up residence. The squatters were always followed by the looters.
The aspen leaves had burst out on the sunny-side slopes of the flume they travelled. The creek that rippled along the canyon floor was filling with crystal clear water, runoff from the melting highland snows to the west. Beavers had gnawed off a dozen or so trees near the ponds along the way. Jess spotted a roof that had collapsed during the heavy spring snows. No one lived at that property anymore except raccoons and skunks, or perhaps a black bear. An old family car sat in the driveway, tires and wheels and windshield removed by scavengers. The gas had likely been siphoned long ago. The hood was raised and the engine compartment was gutted. Battery, hoses, and belts were stripped out. Solenoid, starter, air filter, spark plugs, water pump, and the windshield wiper motor would have been taken as well, if they were deemed working. The side windows were smashed in and birds nested in the dashboard. The wild things made good use of the detritus of human decay. They would happily use it until the decades of the elements gobbled it up and returned it to dust.
Croukamp saw what Jess was looking at. “All this concern over man’s impact on nature is much ado about nothing.”
“What do you mean?” Jess asked.
“Wood rots. Metal rusts. Cement crumbles into sand. Nature always wins in the end.” The road bent away from the abandoned lot and into a narrow section of the gulch. “My father used to always say that man leaves behind no permanence. The closest he can get, if he cares about such things, is to see to the endurance of his kind.”
“What did he mean by his kind?” Jess asked.
“His family. His community. His way of life.”
They connected onto Highway 285 and followed it down out of the foothills towards the city Along the way they were passed by a convoy of semis with trailers emblazoned with blue eagles. Their windows were covered with metal grates and tires by plate steel. Along with the semis drove an armored escort consisting of two Humvees. Any state-sponsored venture outside the zone of control was accompanied by mechanized escort and at least a drone overhead.
They approached the first checkpoint which was just before a highway overpass. The checkpoint was the unofficial border between the ZOC and the wild, wild west called the “red zone” or “RZ.” Beyond the overpass, directly downhill from the checkpoint, sprawling outwards on a flat plane extending to the eastern horizon, lay metropolitan Denver. Half the population—well over a million people—had left. The metroplex spanned an area of roughly five hundred square miles of “gun free zone,” unless you were a DSF trooper, a militant, or a gangster—all with comparable power in the region. If you weren’t armed, then you were prey, completely dependent upon one of those three armed gangs for your very survival. The population’s loyalty was fairly evenly split into thirds.
Croukamp stopped the truck at the checkpoint and a trooper in all black approached.
“Do I amuse you?” the trooper asked.
“You actually said ‘papers please,'” Croukamp replied, grinning. He handed his license, registration, insurance, gas ration card, and ZOC travel permit—which edict required citizens to have to legally drive on the 285 corridor.
“Where you headed?”
“FEMA distribution center. We’re stocking up.”
“What are you bringing back? How do I know you’re not supplying insurgents?”
“Because I’m seventy years old and my neighbor here has a five-year-old daughter.”
“Why would that stop you?”
“I suggest that if you suspect me of a crime that you make an arrest. Otherwise, I’d prefer to be on my way.”
“Why are you living up there? There’s no power. Nothing’s open”
“We like the views,” Croukamp answered.
“You just need to know where to go to get things,” Jess added.
“It’s suspicious,” the trooper said.
“I don’t see why living in the house I own would be suspicious,” Jess replied.
“You should move down here. DHS will get you properly housed, temporarily, until the grid is restored.”
“I’ve heard about their accommodations. No, thank you,” Jess said. “We have all we need.”
“It’s still suspicious,” remarked the trooper.
“If I leave, the scavengers and looters will come in and take everything.”
“And how do you intend to stop them, now?”
“Can we please get going, officer?” interrupted Croukamp. “We’d like to get our supplies and get home before dark. There’s going to be a long line and we still have to come back through here.”
The trooper handed Croukamp back his papers. “Look here at my visor,” he said. “Say cheese.” The trooper got their picture with his visor cam and then motioned them through the checkpoint. Facial recognition software meant that they were now pinged at this time and location and recorded in an NSA server buried in the Utah desert. This data collection had been occurring for years, but if one had nothing to hide, one had nothing to fear.
They drove through and stayed on the highway as it converged into a boulevard flanked by empty strip malls and boarded up big box retailers. Liquor stores and hamburger joints were about the only active storefronts. The liquor stores were heavily barred and most had evolved into drive-thrus. It was safer for the legally disarmed purveyors to defend themselves from the heavily armed bandits who prowled the night. The fast food joints no longer accepted cash and so were an undesirable target.
What survived of other forms of commerce—unasphyxiated by the ever-encroaching volumes of regulations and swarms of government-paid code enforcers working on commission, evolved just off the strip mall zones. Entire manufacturing operations, fulfilling local needs, were sprouting up in backyard toolsheds, garages and basements. Mechanics and apothecaries, dentists, brewers, surgeons, tailors, and gunsmiths built black market businesses just beyond the edge of state control. Anything could be had, so long as someone had real currency.
The black markets proliferated, propelled by the availability of a pool of desperate labor and a dozen forms of money—all deemed illegal by government decree. Government hates competition. In addition to the traditional precious metals, a half dozen varieties of scrip, issued by respectable merchants and fully redeemable for gasoline, coffee, and alcohol, had acquired the public’s trust. Cigarettes thrived as alternative legal tender, as did cannabis and over-the-counter medications. A carton of smokes, smuggled in behind false walls by the truckload by Hmong immigrants living in Vancouver, was worth five gallons of gas. And there was, of course, the hardest currency of all—bullets. And just as predicted by Gresham’s Law, the bad money drove out the good. Reloads of .223 became the popular unit of exchange while new rounds of 5.56 and 7.62 were hoarded as a store of value, slowly appreciating against their weaker counterpart.
None of this money was any good at the local school district football complex which had been converted into a FEMA distribution center. Concrete barricades surrounded the lot and a fleet of growling semis pulling trailers with blue eagles painted on their sides, guarded by troopers in black, pulled through to drop their loads. Croukamp parked his truck in the lot farthest away. He and Jess got out and walked into the queue.
After a two hour wait, they managed to acquire the Homeland Security-determined essentials of dried noodles, rice, flour, canned beets, bricks of white soap, single-ply toilet paper, powdered milk, toothpaste, and three five-pound blocks of cheddar cheese. They swiped their Chase-issued FEMA ration debit card and pushed their goods back to the truck in two rickety shopping carts.
Croukamp drove north, away from the FEMA center. He turned off the boulevard and into a residential neighborhood. They wove through a subdivision of weathered ramblers on a crumbling, residential lane where the unkempt sumac and junipers seemed to swallow entire houses. The lane was littered with looted cars, cans and bottles, bursting trash bags and broken goods—appliances, furniture, tires, shopping carts.. The brown lawns were overgrown and the sidewalks were decomposing into gray rubble.
Each brick facade of the circa 1965 house faced the street with a wide, novel glass window opening into a living room. Many were covered in plywood, steel bars or both. The driveways were cracked by the winter thaw and freeze and heaving in the shifting Bentonite clay. Asphalt shingles curled under the intense, year-round sun. Aluminum gutters dangled loose from rotting soffits. Some doors stood kicked in. Some insides were charred. Some siding was tagged with gang signs. This neighborhood had been wasting away long before the dollar default. Most buildings were rented to struggling immigrants; they were the only homes they could afford as the rents exploded in the pre-crash run-up.
Croukamp pulled his truck into one cracked concrete driveway. It was a house better kept than most, but not kept too well. A well-maintained property would draw the attention of bandits and the code enforcers that worked on commission. In the yard stood a six-foot-tall twig of an elm tree, staked and mulched, with two dozen spring green leaves sprouting from its delicate limb tips.
“I’ll be right back,” Croukamp said. “If you see anything, honk the horn.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Jess answered.
Ian got out of the truck and slammed the old door twice to get it to close which made the truck shake and the suspension squeak. He went up to the door, knocked, someone answered and Jess watched as he went in.
“How’ve you been, Ian?” asked a stubbly-faced man with dark hair and eyes and an even darker expression.
“I’ve been well, Markus.”
“You sure you haven’t had enough of it up the hill?”
“I’m doing just fine.”
“You want a drink? I got some JB?”
“No thank you. I’ve got to pass through the checkpoint, again.”
“Can you believe them Broncos?” his host asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t keep up on it,” Croukamp said. “Didn’t they move, anyway?”
“They’ll always be my Broncos,” he said as he went into the kitchen cupboards and took out the whiskey. He poured himself a glass — neat because there was no ice. “What a season. I had to run my generator to watch half the games. You know how much that cost me?”
“But they’re in Los Angeles, now, I thought,” Croukamp remarked.
“Of all the places to move them…Los Angeles. It isn’t permanent, though.”
“I don’t think they’re coming back here any time soon. Have you had a look around? It looks like a hurricane went through this place.”
“They said the power will be on in a month.”
“They’ve been saying that every month for a year, now.”
“Yeah, well people need their bread and circuses. Here more than anywhere. When they come back, it’ll be like the Saints after the Katrina, a public lovefest.”
Croukamp looked around the living room noticing the bars on the windows. “I hate to be rude, but I’ve got someone waiting in the car and I promised her we’d get back by dinner.”
“I’m sorry, Ian. I’ll get your stuff. One second.” He left and returned with a bedroll he handed to Croukamp.
Croukamp unrolled it, revealing two Armalite rifles. He took one out, pulled the charging handle and locked the bolt back. He looked down into the chamber to clear it. He listened as he released the bolt. He tapped out the two pins and removed the lower. Then he wiped his finger into it and examined for corrosion. He reattached the lower and flipped the sites up. He raised the rifle to his cheek and stared down the line of sight. “Should have mounted the foresight on the barrel rather than the rail. It’s truer.”
“You’re free to mount it wherever you want,” Markus replied. “Those are excellent rifles, Ian. I cleaned them up real good and oiled them, but they were in great shape when I got them.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I get all kinds of stuff. You’d be surprised what you stumble on when you work in law enforcement.”
“Actually, I probably wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Now don’t get caught with those. Possession of an AR would probably get you a year in prison.”
“Nah. It’s only six months for a first offense. I wonder what kind of dumbass would let the police find these.”
“Actually, the dumbasses turned them in.”
“They lost their nerve, I guess.”
“How much for the two, and the magazines?”
“Four ounces gold, 150 silver or 4,000 .223.”
“Now what would I shoot if I paid you with my .223?” Croukamp asked while he produced four Kruggerands from his money belt.
Markus took the coins. “You got a way to get them rifles past the checkpoint?”
“I made a secret compartment.”
“How James Bond of you. Are you sure they won’t find it?”
“I’m old and they have idiots working the posts.”
“You sure you don’t want to move down here? I’ve got plenty of room here.”
Ian sighed. “Maybe I should be asking you if you want to come up the hill.”
Markus took a seat in his easy chair and reclined with his coins and his drink. A look of exhaustion came over him. He took gulp of his whiskey. “You can’t get her back,” he said, fixing his dark eyes onto Ian’s.
“Where in the hell did that come from?” Croukamp asked, still examining his rifles.
“There was nothing you could do, Ian.”
“Says you. I could have been there.”
“I could have been there, too. And then we would both be dead. Burned alive.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Croukamp answered stoically.
“There were hundreds of them, Ian.”
“They’re cowards. Had we topped a few, the rest would have ran off.”
“Only to return the next day, and the next, and the next…”
“One day more is better than one day less.”
“So is that what this is all about? You staying up in those hills, protecting that widow? You think that will bring you peace?”
“It already does. She has a child. Her mother-in-law is with her now, too. I can’t leave them. But I probably wouldn’t leave regardless.”
“They can come here. I have room.”
“They won’t leave.” Croukamp set the rifles down and glared at Markus. “What makes you think this place is safe? You know they’ll find out about you. Then you’ll be a marked man.”
“They respect me.”
“Who? The gangs?”
“I’m a cop.”
“No. You’re just a survivor, working both sides and building a list of enemies.”
“I’m the only justice there is.”
“Don’t judge me, Ian. Don’t judge me by some failed ideal from the good old days. The rules have all changed.”
“It’s been lucrative for you,” Croukamp said.
“Yeah? So? It’s dangerous work. I got you what you needed, didn’t I?”
“Maybe you’re not a survivor. Maybe gangster is more appropriate.”
“There will always be gangsters, Ian. Some wear tattoos and hide in the shadows. Others wear suits and ride in limos. And others carry badges.”
“I’m sorry, Markus. I’m out of line. It was a pleasure doing business with you. Thank you for these.” Croukamp rolled up the bedroll around his rifles, stood, and tucked them under his arm.
“You be careful.”
“You do the same, Markus.”
They shook hands and embraced, then Croukamp walked out. Markus scanned the street then closed and locked the door behind him. Ian lowered the gate of the truck and set the bundle down. He used a small screw driver to loosen the screws holding the inside surface of the bed door secure. He pried it up just enough to slip in the two rifles. Then he screwed it back down as far as it would go. He got in the truck and they drove off.
Traffic was light on the road back, but they did not speed for fear of getting shaken down by a traffic cop or getting the truck impounded. They would reach the checkpoint within four minutes. Jess watched Ian as they drove. His thick, weathered fingers worked the steering wheel, his eyes concealed by mirrored sunglasses, his thin silver hair combed back, his face cracked and spotted by decades in the sun. His beard was full and white.
“Mr. Croukamp,” she asked.
“I’ve been with you to that house three times and you’ve never introduced me to the person that lives there.”
“Maybe next time.”
A black Homeland Security Humvee sat parked on the shoulder. Its .50 cal M2 tracked them as they passed. The dulling bronze sun was sinking into the foothills. It would be down behind the hilltops in an hour.
“He lives dangerously,” Croukamp continued.
“You sound like my father.”
“If I was your father, I would come get you and take you to some place safe.”
“Nobody is taking me anywhere.”
“Then someone needs to look after you.”
“That’s very patronizing, Mr. Croukamp.”
Ian focused on the road ahead.
“I do want you to know that I appreciate everything you’ve done for us.”
Croukamp was expressionless, his gaze fixed ahead. “You’re welcome,” he replied. “But I’m happy to do it.”
“I am not helpless, Mr. Croukamp. I will not be a burden to you.”
“The only burden to me would be to be of no use to anyone.”
They were approaching the checkpoint, ahead. There was no line. There was never a line to leave the ZOC, only to enter it. Croukamp let off the accelerator. A blue eagle eighteen wheeler rumbled past them in the left lane going close to a hundred miles per hour. It was waved through the checkpoint at full speed.
“Who is he?” Jess asked.
“The man who lives in that house.”
Ian answered without expression. “I had a farm in Rhodesia, a large farm. My employees lived with us. Markus was my quartermaster. He ran the operation when I was away. It seems like I was always away in the later years. ZANU started taking over the ranches and farms and throwing people out. I was travelling, appealing my case. One trip I had to fly to Salisbury, then London, then New York. Talking. Talking. Lawyers and magistrates and bureaucrats. The cancer had gotten my wife by then. Markus stayed with my daughter Kay and the staff. There were fourteen mouths to feed and we had little coming in, but they all stayed with us on the farm while I appealed my case. I guess they thought it better to stick it out there then to try and find work in Mugabe’s communist paradise.”
They decelerated and came to a stop at the signal of two storm troopers.
“Should I be worried about this checkpoint?” Jess asked.
“You don’t know anything. We’re just neighbors. I gave you a ride into town so you could redeem your FEMA card. That’s all.”
“What if they search the truck?”
“Don’t think about that. Assume they will. But assume those idiots won’t find anything.”
One of the troopers approached. His face shield was down. He carried an M4 with both hands. “Papers…” he demanded.
Croukamp retrieved them from his visor and handed them over. The trooper scanned them and handed them back.
“Where are you headed?”
“And you?” the officer asked Jess. Behind them, another officer was poking through the pickup bed at the boxes of items they had acquired at the distribution center.
“Home,” Jess answered.
“You two live together? Family?” the guard asked.
“She’s my neighbor,” Croukamp answered.
The officer searching the bed began lifting items up and pushing things aside.
“What’s he looking for?” Croukamp asked.
“Contraband, ammo, weapons, anything that could aid Doc,” the guard answered.
“He’s wasting his time,” Croukamp remarked.
“There’s an insurgency in case you didn’t notice,” the trooper snapped. “There’s danger everywhere in the red zone,” he said, looking over the inside of the truck.
“Seems like it’s plenty dangerous down here, too,” Croukamp observed.
“Why would you say that?”
“We’ve heard about the gangs going around, terrorizing people,” Jess replied.
The officer checking the bed disappeared from Ian’s mirrors.
“You suggesting the police aren’t doing their job?” the trooper asked.
“I’m just repeating what I heard,” Jess said.
“Who did you hear that from?” asked the trooper.
“I don’t remember. Someone at the FEMA center.”
“Probably some traitor Doc you’re whoring around with,” the trooper said.
“Excuse me?” Jess snarled.
“Hey Robisch, come check this out,” shouted the trooper at the back.
Jess’s eyes filled with scorn. The troopers were all the same person to her. They were all the very one who had murdered her husband. She reached for the door handle to get out but Croukamp stopped her.
“Not now,” he urged her in a whisper. “Think about your daughter. It won’t mean anything to him to beat you senseless, then drag you to jail.”
She looked at him, her eyes smoldering.
“Think about Brooke,” Ian reiterated, tightening his grip on her arm.
Jess relaxed. “What are they doing back there?”
“Who knows? But if he comes back here and asks me to get out then you need to betray me.”
“You will. You will and you will go back to your daughter and protect your family.”
The two troopers popped up behind the truck and the one named Robisch made his way back to the driver side window.
“What’s the hold up?” Croukamp asked.
“I have a question for you,” the trooper stated. “How do you protect yourself up there?”
“What do you mean?” Croukamp asked.
“Up the hill, outside the ZOC, how do you protect yourself from Doc or the looters?”
“We lock our doors at night knowing that the police are there to protect us,” Croukamp answered as he glanced at his mirror trying to find the other trooper.
Two Black Hawk helicopters rose over the hogback, just ahead to the west. They flew over the checkpoint loud and low.
“…And we pray,” Croukamp added.
“That doesn’t sound like much of a plan,” said the trooper.
The officer behind them appeared again. Ian saw that he was running his hand along the tailgate.
“You don’t think prayer is an effective plan?” Croukamp asked as he forced his eyes to look away from the mirror. Jess stared forward, silent, motionless, unblinking.
“Not really,” answered the guard. “I think I would be armed, myself.”
The officer in the mirror jiggled the handle on the tailgate.
“I thought firearms were illegal,” Croukamp said.
“Indeed they are,” answered the trooper. “But we all know that we gotta do what we gotta do to protect ourselves.”
The trooper at the back pulled on the tailgate.
“You can level with me, Mr….” the trooper looked over Ian’s papers, “Mr. Crowkamp. What are you armed with? A single rifle or a shotgun isn’t going to concern the DSF. I myself have a twelve-gauge at home.”
“Having a gun without a permit is illegal. I try not to break the law. Does your friend back there need help?” Croukamp asked as he turned to look back over his shoulder. “It’s an old truck. The tailgate tends to stick.”
“Hey! You need a hand back there?” the trooper asked.
Croukamp watched the officer yank on the gate twice more. Ian glanced at Jess. Her eyes were widening with anxiety. Ian took his glasses off and smiled gently, trying to calm her.
“You wouldn’t be transporting any guns or ammo, would you?” called the trooper.
“Like I said before,” Ian answered. “That would be illegal.”
“Don’t lie to me. It’ll just make things worse for you. Come clean now.”
“I’m a law-abiding citizen. Am I free to go or are you detaining me?” Croukamp grinned and put his glasses back on.
The tailgate popped loose and swung down with a clang. The officer at the back reached in and lifted a couple boxes and felt the bed. Croukamp’s smile broadened further. The trooper climbed onto the gate and pulled the boxes up. The trooper pushed the boxes from side to side and pounded his palm on the bed. Jess’s eyes remained fixed. Then the gate slammed up twice, catching on the second try.
“It all looks good here,” the officer at the back shouted.
“I guess you’re free to go,” Trooper Robisch said as he handed Croukamp back his papers. Ian started up the truck and he and Jess slipped out of the ZOC.