While watching the DC wiretapping drama unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a passage in Come and Take It where the president is informed that all the executive acts empowering the security industrial complex have come back to haunt him and destroy the republic.
“Patriot” acts, secret courts, secret warrants, gathering of metadata, recording everyone’s calls and texts and pings, building back door access points, and relaxed judicial interpretations of the Fourth Amendment have nothing to do with keeping us proles safe and EVERYTHING to do with accumulating political leverage.
Surveillance is being used to build a massive blackmail database, a strategy taken directly from the J. Edgar Hoover playbook.
“Of course we can. And we have all the presidents, yourself included, to thank for it. The joint chiefs, they simply used the mechanisms that you and your predecessors put into place. We weren’t the ones who cited national security as pretext to suspend habeas corpus. We didn’t pack the courts with authoritarian-friendly judges. We weren’t the ones who turned the intelligence agencies loose to gather up the necessary blackmail data on every person in the country. We weren’t the ones who muscled those impotent imbeciles in congress into funding our black ops and secret prisons. You did that, Mr. President. You did that. You and your predecessors. And you sit there and look so astonished. We’ve simply decided that it’s time to stop fucking around.”
“It won’t work. The secretary of state will intervene. The senate, the house, they’ll impeach you.”
“No. I’m afraid not, Mr. President. The secretary of state is dead. I heard it on my way in here. Apparently she just died in a car crash…most unfortunate. She was burned alive. Congress? Don’t make me laugh. They’re puppets. We have access to everything the NSA collects. We know it all. We’ve got the goods on all of them. We know the names of their mistresses and whores. We know how much they received in kickbacks and how much they spend on porn and cocaine and booze. We know the front companies where they hide their wealth from the IRS. We know their portfolios and the untoward things done by the companies they own shares in. We know about their off-color jokes, homosexual escapades, and the shocking manifestos they wrote in their youth. Every time they, or their family members have slighted anyone on record, we have it. Every vice they bragged about, every depravity or petty crime or crude behavior or moment of human weakness. We know everything about their donors as well, and the companies they own and invested in and everything they’ve done. Guilt by association, Mr. President. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t done anything significant or even if they’ve been model citizens. We can take the most innocuous thing and spin it up in the media—the media that we control; the propaganda machine you created by throwing the real journalists out and packing the press corps with sycophants. And if that doesn’t work, we’ve partnered with the banks. We can yank anyone’s campaign funding and turn them out at the next election. And the people, they’re so damn dumb they’ll fall for it. The populace is a horde of mindless millions. You know that. All politicians know that. If you didn’t know that and use that knowledge, then you couldn’t have gotten elected in the first place. The people will fall for anything. Get ready for the show. The indictments and arrests are coming.”
“Does it really matter? Insider trading. Embezzlement. Tax evasion. Structuring. Campaign finance violations. Fraud. Drugs. Prostitution. Corruption. Racketeering. Drunk driving. Cruelty to animals. Jaywalking…whatever. Do you really think the population is going to oppose the incarceration of the very scoundrels who wrecked the economy? They don’t give a damn about the validity of any charges. They just want to see them in handcuffs doing the perp walk. Well, we’re going to give it to them, and we’re going to deliver it right into America’s living rooms on their big screen TVs.
“We can get to anyone, Mr. President. But we probably won’t have to go that far. Do you think any of those whores in congress would tolerate even a moment behind bars or a moment of financial insolvency or the humiliation of a perp walk if they could avoid it? Hell no. They’ll follow our orders.”
The Walking Dead is now the only t.v. show I can think of that has jumped the shark…TWICE!
It would have been 100 times better had Carl gotten brained. I was praying for it. Club him, Negan. Please, oh God, please do it.
Then it’s like, c’mon man…Bob Marley riding in to save the day with a tiger and the entire final battle scene devolving into something reminiscent of a terrible episode of the A-Team?
That was really, really, really, really bad. Bad, show. The Governor 2.0 (i.e. Negan) is the only thing it has going for it.
C’mon AMC. Hire ME. I can write better than that.
Here’s what I would write. It took me all of three minutes to come up with it and it would be better than any episode any of those Hollywood twats could dream up.
The survivors make their way towards a true haven. Mishone dies horribly and heroically killing hundreds of walkers to save the group en route. Rick ends up causing Carl’s death. With Rick emotionally incapacitated, Daryl takes over. In sight of the haven, Daryl sacrifices his life to stave off Negan’s band and to save Maggie. “This is for Glen!” he says as he loads an arrow into his crossbow and goes to war. Daryl and Negan, the last survivors of the battle, fight to the death while walkers close in and devour them both.
When the rest of the group reaches the gates of the haven, Rick, playing the part of Moses, chooses instead to stay behind with his dead son. He returns to Carl’s corpse, embraces him, and allows himself to be ripped to shreds by Carl and a horde of walkers closing in while he has loving, sentimental flashbacks of all the friends and family he lost.
Maggie, finally reaching safety of the haven, gazes out at the wild, wild zombie world beyond the walls, looks down at her infant son and Rick’s step daughter who symbolically become the next Adam and Eve.
Many historical accounts describe how it first became visible to the naked eye, shining low in the eastern sky in the predawn hours of early spring. It shown at first like a star, then, day by day, more brightly like that of a planet, and then as the brightest feature in the nightly heavens save for moon. There were at first many theories as to its origin, and many in those days were superstitious and prone to fevered panic and wild speculation at the onset of anything unexpected. This was the Third Century after all, and there were many, many people in those days who led busy, ordered lives punching keys on keyboards and sharing videos of their precocious cats via their handheld devices. Much of humanity had grown accustomed to predictability, abundance, and to the bliss of self-absorption.
Threat assessment was deferred to the experts appointed by the nobles the masses had elected to parent them. It was efficient to arrange society that way, in those technological days, and for the public to simply follow the perpetual stream of orders as they were beamed into their personal video screens. Just go with the flow. Any insufficiently accredited lay person, who had the audacity to attempt to question the experts and form his own personal opinion, would be quickly overwhelmed by a tsunami of data and find himself swept out of the warm sea of blissful ignorance and onto the cold, jagged rocks of mental paralysis. The Third Century was an unimaginably complex world—what with all the cat videos and cricket scores one had to process each day.
It was a widely held belief, at that time, that if an existential human crisis were ever to arise—such as the eruption of a super volcano, or the global proliferation of a deadly virus, or invasion by religious fanatics, or a massive solar flare, or a cosmic ray burst, or a reversal of the poles, or a runaway greenhouse effect, or the inevitable coming ice age, or a cataclysmic oil spill, or fascism, or an electro-magnetic pulse, or peak oil, or soil erosion, or Chinese imports, or extraterrestrial invasion— that the elected nobles would eschew their personal considerations for the sake of the greater good of all humanity, set about to solve the problem, and immediately instruct everyone as to their best course of action so that they could make proper arrangements. Regardless of how prevalent this view was, there were, nevertheless, many Ancients who absconded from this go-with-the-flow mentality and who would ask, “What in the hell is that shining light in the sky?”
This question was often either out-rightly dismissed as extremist lunacy, or reacted to by a condescending roll of the eyes by the unflappable mainstream. But occasionally, when pressed, or when the mood was right due to the ingestion of mind-numbing substances, these conspiratorial queries were entertained.
“What do you mean?” asked the unflappable mainstreamist.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was I not clear? What I meant to ask was, what in the hell is that shining light in the sky?” replied the extremist.
“Oh that? That star up there?”
“Is it a star? I’ve never noticed it until recently.”
“Oh Jesus. Don’t start. That is just Venus.”
“No. I don’t believe that is Venus. Venus is over there, in the west, about to set. See?”
“I am quite certain it is Venus.”
“No. It is not in the right place for this time of night. Not only that,” continued the extremist, “Venus follows a trajectory across the sky along a band known as the celestial ecliptic. See that bright star over there? That is Venus. That shining light there is not.”
“Then it is something else. It must be another planet. Maybe it is Jupiter.”
“No. Jupiter traverses the ecliptic in the same manner as Venus. That shining light is in the wrong place.”
“Then perhaps it is Saturn.”
“Saturn is a planet, too.”
“Then maybe it’s a comet.”
“But it has no tail.”
“Maybe its tail is pointing directly away from us.”
“Hmm, perhaps. Or maybe it is a meteor heading right for us.”
“Ha ha ha! Are you seriously suggesting that the earth is about to be destroyed by a meteor?” asked the mainstreamist. “Because I’m sure that if it was a meteor, on a collision course with earth, I would have heard about it on CNN by now.”
“Are you certain they would have told you?”
“It’s probably the international space station. It’s very bright, you know.”
“Moving so slowly in the sky? It’s just hanging there. Satellites tend to move.”
“Maybe it’s in a geosynchronous orbit?”
“No, I don’t think that is it.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. I have neither seen nor heard any mention of it in the news. If it was something to worry about, the authorities would have told us. Try not to think too much, it will make you paranoid.”
And that was how inquiries as to the approaching light’s origin were handled, at least up until the end of April when the thing became visible during the daylight hours, setting in the west around midday. By then, there were wild speculations from members of fundamentalist sects who suggested that the star was an omen, perhaps portending the second coming of our Lord and Savior Michael Jordan.
Around that same time, all the princes and presidents of the earth had been informed by their court scholars as to what it most likely was. They had heard explanations that, based upon Newtonian calculations, laser spectrometries, and direct observations by orbiting telescopes, that there was a ninety five percent level of confidence that the approaching light was actually a metallic object, constructed by some form of extraterrestrial intelligence, that had traversed the unimaginably vast distances of space to reach earth, and that it appeared to be decelerating into a trajectory that would take it into a low earth orbit.
“And what if you’re wrong?” asked the princes and presidents of the world’s nations as they were known at the time.
“What do you mean?” replied the scholars.
“You said that there was only a ‘ninety five percent confidence’. You’re scientists. You certainly must know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What if you are wrong? What if it turns out that it is not what you so confidently believe it to be? And if you are wrong, what else might it be?”
“What else might it be?”
“Yes. What else might it be?”
“Well, if we are wrong, which is not statistically probable in lieu of the thing’s decelerating trajectory and complex symmetrical form, than the thing we have observed would therefore be classified as some heretofore, unexplained, astrological phenomenon.”
“What do you mean ‘like what’?”
“Like what classification of unexplained, astrological phenomenon?”
“I imagine we would have to apply the Kulkarni-Torkleson scale.”
“The Kulkarni-Torkelson scale. It is a method for identifying classes of orbiting things. If, based upon new evidence, we were unconvinced that it was of intelligent design, than we would be compelled to classify it as a: Type 1, Non-Organically-shaped, Self-Propelled, Metallic Thing.”
“But for now you are proposing that it is of intelligent design.”
“Yes. We believe the evidence strongly suggests it is, with a 95% level of confidence.”
“So would it be classified as a ‘Type 1, Non-Organically-Shaped, Self-Propelled, Metallic Thing’ regardless?”
“Regardless of what?”
“Regardless of whether it was of intelligent design or not?”
“If it was deemed to be of human design, it would be a Type 2. And if it was deemed to be of extraterrestrial intelligent design, then it would be classified as Type 3.”
“I have a question,” asked a counselor from France who was known to be difficult at times. “What if its origin was of unintelligent human design?”
“Then we suppose we would classify it as ‘Type 1.5’,” responded the scholars, patiently.
“So allow us to play the devil’s advocate for a moment,” interjected another counselor. “Would you consider crystals to be non-organically shaped?”
“Hmm, well they occur organically but they can also be symmetrical which makes their Kulkarni-Torkelson classification somewhat problematic.”
“Aha! So would a giant, naturally-formed, symmetrical crystal, floating in space, be definitively classified as a Type 1 thing?”
“We suppose technically, yes,” answered the scholars.
“So you’re saying the spaceship…er…uh, the thing, if it was a sort of a celestial crystal, than it would be classified as a Type 1?”
“The thing approaching the earth does not resemble any known crystal. Crystals have a predictable, repeatable molecular organization which…”
“What if it was made of an unknown type of crystal—an exotic, complex, fractal-based geometry?”
“Uh. Hmm. Well, fractal-based geometry is not our area of scientific expertise as we are all astronomers and exobiologists and physicists, but perhaps it could possibly be that, albeit a very, very exotic, undiscovered type of crystal, that is also thirty miles long and has a self-contained propulsion mechanism allowing it to decelerate, and one that has a statistically improbable human hand shape affixed to one end of it.”
“Great. Terrific. Thank you,” replied the counselors.
And the counselors excused the scholars and then briefed the princes and presidents of the world’s nations who then congregated in a great blue hall in a place called Manhattan and discussed matters amongst themselves. They talked for some time before the delegate from Iceland finally rose to address the gathering.
“We simply must tell the people of the world what we have learned, today!” he insisted.
“Yes we must!” shouted some.
“Here, here!” shouted others.
“Without delay!” shouted more.
This caused a great commotion, and before long, the secretary general was compelled to pound his gavel to restore order.
“Do I have a motion on the floor to vote to discuss drafting a preliminary resolution to document our intent to debate the potential dissemination of this arguably important information to the citizens of the world?”
“Not so fast!” shouted the chancellor of Europa. He was a tall, portly, and balding fellow with thick glasses, who looked only slightly less menacing than the grand vizier of the United States, but had a pointier nose and was regrettably from a place called Belgium. “Before we relay this very significant information, shouldn’t we consider the economic ramifications?”
“I agree!” shouted some.
“Absolutely!” shouted others.
“Without delay!” shouted more.
“What economic ramifications are you referring to?” asked the secretary general.
“For instance,” continued the chancellor, “have we considered the possibility that announcing the arrival of an extra-terrestrial spacecraft might result in unreasonable worker demands—perhaps up to and including a widespread and pervasive call for taking time off to prepare for the possibility of alien invasion and human annihilation? Have we even considered how this worker idleness will negatively affect gross domestic product in the third quarter? We are already teetering on the brink of global recession.”
“Hold on,” objected the king of Kenya. “I don’t recall the scholars indicating that the spaceship was definitely of extra terrestrial origin. They merely said they were 95% certain.”
“What else would it be?” asked the imperatore of Indonesia.
“I have tremendous reservations regarding the effect of announcing the arrival of alien invaders,” decried the grand vizier of the United States. “Alien arrival could be very detrimental to the performance of our stock markets.”
“We should consider that the arrival of extraterrestrial beings raises many significant, philosophical and spiritual questions,” suggested the chairman of Sri Lanka.
“Like for instance?”
“Like for instance, will confirmation of the existence of aliens undermine the belief in God?” asked the prime minister of the Vatican.
“Do we even have a plan to contain them so they don’t try to take over the world or be a bad influence on China?” asked the grand vizier of the United States.
“We object!” replied the president of China.
“It seems it would be prudent to discuss these matters before informing the public,” suggested the sultan of Turkey. “Since we have not reported this earlier, it might appear to the public that we have been covering something up. Telling them now might greatly damage our credibility. It is probably best to continue the policy of avoiding the matter indefinitely…in order to preserve our legitimacy.”
“What do we tell the people, then?”
“We tell them,” advised the first lord of Canada, “that our expert scholars have studied the thing extensively and determined that it is, with nearly one-hundred percent certainty, a ‘Type 1, Non-Organically-Shaped, Self-Propelled, Metallic Thing.”
“Does someone have an acronym for that?”
“Yeah, you know, an acronym. Like: SETI for the ‘Search-for-Extra-Terrestrial-Intelligence’ or ELE for ‘Extinction-Level-Event’ or…”
“Or ACBAR for ‘Arcminute-Cosmology-Barometer-Array-Receiver’ or BOOJUMS for ‘Blue-shifted-Objects-Observed-Just-Undergoing-Moderate-Starbursts’…”
“How about TONENOSSPROMT?” someone suggested.
“Should we even reveal that it’s self-propelled?” asked another.
“We’ll just leave that part out and say that we are awaiting further scientific confirmation.”
“And what about the fact that it has a giant human hand shape affixed to one end?”
“We’ll describe that as a coincidental, complex, fractal-based geometry, for now.”
“Or a CCFG for short.”
…And so the world continued as it was, blissfully ignorant and essentially the same, save for the giant, extraterrestrial thing that finally decelerated into low earth orbit, rotating slowly in the sky. The entire massive object, including the human hand shape affixed to one end, was plainly visible to everyone on the planet, eight times per day, except to those who lived beyond plus or minus forty degrees latitude.
“To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox; whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies.” –Philip K. Dick, Valis
“This is a momentous day for all of humanity. The question of whether or not intelligent life exists anywhere in the universe has finally been answered. Fermi’s cruel paradox–the notion that if extraterrestrial life exists, we would have been visited and vaporized by it long ago–has now been officially debunked…We have nothing to fear by their arrival because everything worth fearing would have been done to us already. ”
“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
Mae stood in the yard in front of her ex-husband’s cabin. It was after midnight. Dieter waited in his car in the driveway. “You want me to come inside with you?” he shouted.
It seemed like a good idea to Mae at first, but then it didn’t. She decided she was safer alone. Mae didn’t turn to answer him. “No. You can go.”
“Are you sure?”
“Do you have a gun?”
“Yes. Several.” She wondered if he believed her.
“All right then. Pleasure doing business with you. I’ll be back this way next month. I’ll stop by and check on you.”
Dieter started his car and backed down the gravel driveway. His headlights and the crackle of his tires on the gravel receded into the trees. Darkness and the wild void closed in around Mae. She approached the door and took out her key, not expecting it to work. The last time she was here was the winter before last. Her last memory of the house was driving away from it in Bob’s truck. Her last memory of Bob was of him tied into a folding chair and gagged, mumbling for her to cut him free. She freed herself, instead.
She turned the key.
Bob’s death was a messy business. After it was discovered that he was a kidnapper, waves of testimonials about the violence and corruption of the deceased undersheriff came forth. The department, already struggling to restore public trust and reeling from attrition, conspired with the DA to bury the case. The sheriff’s department was, in some sense, relieved by his departure, and it was decided that no good would come of the revelations that would come to light if a real investigation pressed on. The Garrity Case would go unsolved.
She turned the knob.
Mae couldn’t believe that she had come back to this place, but where else was she going to go? Home to Omaha and her mother? Impossible. Back to her DC friends? They would have little to do with her now that she was a castaway. Bob’s house, actually her house, as she now owned it, would at least be quiet. It was a decent place to escape and think and devise a means of getting back into the Beltway.
She opened the door.
The lights did not work but she knew the house well enough to navigate her way into the living room. She sat down on the sofa and listened to the nothingness, staring through the picture window at the black silhouettes of pines obscuring the starry sky. A dog barked in the distance which reminded her of Bob’s German Shepherds. She always felt alone, but now it was palpable, with no means of escaping it at the office or at a cocktail lounge.
She checked her phone for a signal. There were two bars. She wondered how the phone companies were able to keep the cell towers powered, but the government couldn’t turn on the traffic lights. How will I charge it? she asked herself. She thought about calling T, but it was after 2 a.m. in DC, if that was in fact where he was. He might be on Air Force One for all she knew. Then she reminded herself that he had sold her out to save himself.
Mae felt for the quilt that usually rested on the loveseat. It was still there. She grabbed it and pulled it over onto herself. Exhausted, she fell asleep almost at once.
She awoke in the predawn light, sensing a presence. There was a man standing over her.
“Who the fuck are you?” she asked.
“Who are you?” he replied.
“This is my house,” Mae answered.
“What are you carrying?”
“As in weapons?”
“I have a can of mace.”
He smiled as he walked towards the kitchen.
Mae noticed her backpack resting on the table. The stranger had been through it. “What do you intend to do to me?” she asked.
He looked at her for a moment as if he was surprised by her question and what she implied by it. He grinned, then turned to the cupboard. “You’re lucky this place wasn’t looted.”
“My husband was a sheriff. The department watches over it. You don’t fuck with the sheriff around here.”
The intruder chuckled. “There’s coffee. Mind if I make some?”
“How are you going to do that? There’s no power.”
“Well, first I’m going fill this teapot up with water from these jugs over here. Then I’m going to start a fire in your woodstove, there. Then I’ll set the pot on the stove and when it comes to a boil, I’m going to—”
“I get it.” Mae sat up on the sofa, still covered with the quilt. “You need to go.”
“I will, soon enough.”
“What do you want?” she asked.
He carried the teapot over and set it on the stove. He packed the firebox with kindling and pine needles and struck a match. “You don’t need to be afraid of me.” He looked at Mae who was wrapped from chin to toe in her blanket. He reached down and took his revolver out of his waistband, prompting Mae to retreat into the sofa cushions. He approached her. She shook her head and raised her hand. Then he handed her the gun.
“Now you have nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
Mae threw off the quilt and stomped into the kitchen with the gun dangling at her side. She fumbled through her backpack and took out her can of mace and a bag of trail mix.
“There’s some tomato soup and tuna in that lower cupboard, there,” he remarked.
“Suit yourself. Mind if I take it with me when I go, then?”
He went back to the kitchen and scooped several spoonfuls of coffee into the filter.When the teapot finally whistled, he took it over to the coffeemaker and slowly dribbled the water into the basket. When finished, he poured a cup and offered it to Mae who was, by then, nibbling on her trail mix. She took the mug, he poured one for himself, and then sat down across from her at the kitchen table.
“My name is James.”
“James,” he answered.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Are you a looter or something?”
“That depends on the day.”
Mae took a sip of coffee, cringing at the bitterness.
“What are you doing here?” Marzan asked. “You don’t look like the typical someone living outside the ZOC. You’re dressed like you’re headed to yoga class.”
“I’m taking a vacation,” Mae explained.
“A vacation from my life.”
Marzan grinned mockingly.
Mae took another sip and winced.
“Look,” Marzan continued, “I don’t know how long you intend to vacation out here, but unless you are trying to vacation from life altogether, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”
“I have money.”
“American Express won’t buy much out here.”
“I’m not afraid of a little work,” Mae replied.
“It won’t be a little. You’ll need water. Lots of it. Where are you going to get it? The power’s still out. The well pump is off. The nearest creek is a thousand yards that way.”
“I guess I’ll just have to go fetch it, then.”
“How much water do you think you can you carry?” James looked her over under the table. “You weigh what, 110 pounds? Water’s heavy.”
“I work out.”
“You’re going to need wood for fire.”
“It’s the middle of summer.”
James raised his mug in salute.
“What?” she asked.
“So what are you going to cook with? What are you going to purify that creek water with? Do you have any idea how much dissolved feces is in that stream? Do you have any bleach around here? Did you think about how, in twelve weeks, it’ll be below freezing at night? It snows in September. How much wood is it going to take to heat this place in the winter, to make it warm enough so you can walk around in your yoga pants, comfortably? Do you even know how to guess? Can you even start a fire? There’s about a full cord of wood out back, but I doubt that’s enough to heat this place and boil your water and cook your meals through Thanksgiving.”
“I won’t be here that long,” Mae answered, looking insulted.
That afternoon, James went out into the yard to buck and split a rather substantial pile of logs. He used a handsaw he found in Garrity’s garage to cut them into shorter lengths. Then he took a maul and split them, mostly with a single blow that sent the pieces careening outward on each impact. Mae covertly watched him saw and swing and sweat and stack in secret, concealed in the shadows within the house. She heard his growls with each blow of the axe. She sensed a rage in him that both fascinated and terrified her. By contrast, the murky bankers and pasty bureaucrats who dominated her former life were tightly bound by their inhibitions. Their emotions unfurled only in blunt email copy and conference tirades. In a sense, James was a physical man just as Bob was, but not the same. James wasn’t putting on a show for her. And she sensed that he cared not one whit about her or what she thought of him; his mind was elsewhere. She watched him, feeling like a voyeur. He stopped after a bit, clutching at his side. Mae withdrew from the window as he made his way back into the house.
Feeling inspired, Mae walked down to the creek and filled two plastic milk jugs with silty water. She lugged them back to the cabin, nearly a kilometer. The labor set cramps loose in her forearms, but she was determined to prove herself as no weakling. She finally reached the house only to find James waiting for her on the front porch.
“Are you going to help me?” she asked.
James watched her struggle a few more steps before stepping forward and taking the jugs.
“You could probably carry four jugs with a broom handle across your shoulders,” James suggested. “There’s one in the garage.”
“I’ll give that some consideration.”
That evening, James ate tomato soup and Mae finished off the last of her trail mix. Wanting to further prove her usefulness, she tended the teapot on the wood stove which was purifying the water they were going to use for drinking and washing. The burning stove made the living room unbearably hot for the summer evening and James retreated to a bedroom.
Mae opened the windows and watched as the fire in the stove died after the last of the water was boiled. It got too dark to see in the house by ten p.m. She was hungry again and searched through the cupboards but there was nothing left that she could tolerate. She surrendered to the night and went to bed alone in the master suite with James’s pistol under her pillow.
She was startled awake by a loud noise. She sat up in bed and listened and looked out the window into the darkness. It was gunfire and explosions. She saw flashes of light that backlit the black evergreens in the lot. How close? she wondered. She got up with her pistol and went into the hall. She quietly turned the knob to the next door and slowly pushed the door open. With each distant bomb flash, she could see the outline of James’s sleeping body lying on the bed. It was warm in the room and he had kicked the blanket off and laid there in his shorts.
She stepped closer to him.
Gunfire rattled in the distance. Not so distant, this time.
The window was open and a faint breeze was blowing in, rippling the curtains.
She came to stand next to him by the bed and watched him. She thought about how easy it would be to kill him, but there wasn’t any need for that. Why did he give her his gun? She felt it grow heavy as it hung in her hand. She scanned his silhouette in the faintest of moonlight and bomb flashes. He was built like Forteson, but different, different in the same way he differed from Bob. She couldn’t define it. It just was what it was. Her eyes scrolled over him to his face, discovering his eyes were open and watching her. She suppressed her urge to flee. He didn’t seem concerned about the gun she was holding.
“What do you want?” he whispered.
“That fighting seems close,” she answered. “Should we be worried?”
“No. Go back to sleep.”
“How far away is it?”
“Look out the window.”
Mae turned and went to the widow, pushing the rippling curtains aside. She felt the cool evening breeze blowing over her exposed skin.
“Wait for a really bright flash behind the hills. Then count the seconds.”
A moment later, a flash turned the night sky white for an instant.
“One thousand one. One thousand two. One thousand three. One thousand four. One thousand five. One thousand six. One thousand seven. One thousand eight…”
“Keep counting,” James said.
“One thousand nineteen. One thousand twenty. One thousand twenty one.”
A muffled boom shook the house.
“It’s four and a half, maybe five miles away.”
“I heard gunfire close by.”
“That was morons on the ground, shooting at the helicopters heading to the fight.”
“Isn’t five mile close?”
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be over in five minutes. Go back to sleep.”
Mae left the window and went back to his bedside. “Mind if I stay in here?”
James didn’t move. Mae went over to the other side of the bed and laid down. She slid her body under the covers and pulled the duvet up over her.
The flashes and thunder of the firefight ended four minutes later, but she couldn’t fall asleep. And she couldn’t tell if James was sleeping either as he was faced the other way, unmoving.
“Are you a soldier?” she asked. She waited for his answer, listening only to his breathing for half a minute or so.
“Yes,” he finally answered.
“I thought so.”
“Because you said the water was a thousand yards away. Only soldiers and cops talk that way. No one else would say, ‘a thousand yards.’ They’d say, ‘a half mile.'”
“Do you know a lot of soldiers and cops?”
“I used to.” She held her covers up over her, up to her neck, lying in a mummy-like pose. She wanted James to talk because when he talked it put her at ease. But he didn’t. “James…” she asked.
“You don’t have to go. You can stay here.”
“No. I have to go. I have to complete my mission.”
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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
The contortions in James Marzan’s face suggested he was pushing through some thorny jungle dreamland, searching for the pathway to consciousness. His eyes opened. He was lying in bed with Croukamp sitting on a wooden chair at his side. Marzan took a deep breath and closed his eyes again and laid in calm repose for a moment before speaking.
“What happened?” he asked with his eyes still closed.
“You were very ill.” Croukamp answered. “Do you know where you are?”
Marzan opened his eyes, again. “This is Vaughn’s house?”
“Are you a doctor?”
“No, but we found one. Well, a veterinarian, actually.”
“She examined your side and found your scar. She thought that maybe you had a piece of shrapnel in there that had worked itself into a bad way with all the walking you’ve done. So she performed a little surgery.”
“I remember she put me under with something.”
“Isoflurane is what she called it, I think. She was very efficient.”
Marzan felt his side and found it covered in a bandage. “So it was a success?”
“I believe so. You look much better. By the way, this is what she pulled out of you.” Croukamp held a smooth metallic object, the size of a horse pill, between his thumb and index finger. “Strangest piece of shrapnel I’ve ever seen.”
“Where’s the boy?” Marzan asked.
“He’s outside in the yard with Jess. They’re pulling weeds.”
“Has he spoken?”
“Not a word.”
“Can I have that?”
Croukamp handed him the metal pill. Marzan examined it carefully, taking note of the barely visible digits and lettering etched in its surface.
“I need to be going,” Marzan said.
“I’m sure. Just as soon as you are able.”
“I need to be going today, right now. I don’t want to bring any trouble to you all.” Marzan pushed the covers off and sat himself up in bed with his feet on the floor.
Croukamp walked to the window and looked out. “It looks like trouble may have already come,” he observed.
Marzan heard a truck come down the driveway.
Croukamp pulled the blinds back. A white county pickup rolled down the asphalt. “I’m guessing it’s Hiserman,” Croukamp said. “He works for the banks. He wants the house.”
“Do you have my things?” Marzan asked.
“Everything of yours is there, on the dresser. Sharon washed it all.”
“Can you help me up?”
Croukamp helped Marzan onto his feet. Then Croukamp left to greet the visitor. He found Jess in the drive and stood beside her. She was already pleading her case. Hiserman looked oblivious as he flipped through the papers on his clipboard.
“I have your money,” Jess explained. “Here.” She slid an envelope into the pages of his clipboard.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Hiserman explained as he pulled it loose and tried to hand it back. “It’s too late.”
“No. It’s not my fault. I would have gotten you your money sooner but it took the agency forever.”
Hiserman shook his head, looking exasperated.
“That’s all of it right there. You have your money now,” Jess exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. There’s nothing I can do.”
“What will the government do with this house, anyway? Nobody is moving up here. Nobody’s buying real estate.”
“They don’t pay me to know that, ma’am. I just follow orders.”
Jess’s face morphed from pleading into anger. “How many houses have you taken?”
“That’s not relevant.”
“Were they all empty?”
“I’ve paid it off in full. It’s done. Are you really going to throw us out? I have a five-year-old daughter.”
“You’ll need to be out by Sunday or I’ll have to bring DSF down.”
Jess looked desperately at Croukamp, distress furrowing her face.
Then another voice caused the three of them to turn their heads. “What’s going on here?”
They discovered James Marzan leaning against the gate. Jess and Croukamp looked wary.
“Take her back into the house,” Marzan said to Croukamp. “You two are not going to want to hear a word of this.”
Jess looked to Croukamp for some direction but he did nothing but stare at James Marzan, as if he was trying to glean the level of madness this vagabond had brought into their world. Croukamp’s expression was pleading, Please don’t do something rash.
“And who are you?” Hiserman asked, sounding annoyed.
“Go inside!” Marzan ordered. “And don’t come out until this truck here drives away.”
Croukamp acquiesced, perhaps sensing resistance was futile He gestured for Jess to follow and they left slowly, through the gate, up the porch steps and in through the door.
“Who are you?” Hiserman asked, again.
“You came alone,” Marzan observed. “That was unwise.”
“I sense that you are threatening me,” Hiserman said. “You should know my office knows exactly where I am.”
“How long do you think it’ll take them to get here?”
Hiserman took out his cell but there was no signal. “Who are you?” he asked a third time.
“I might be nobody. Just a drifter. Or I might be someone. A judge and jury. A lot of that depends on you.”
“There’s nothing I can do for them. I’m sorry.”
“Actually, I think there is.”
“No, there really isn’t,” Hiserman replied, brushing his jacket aside to reveal his sidearm. “There’s nothing I can do. Now I have to go. I have more appointments.”
“You’re not going anywhere until we come to an understanding.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Hiserman said, backing towards the door of his truck.
Marzan opened the gate and stepped through.
“There’s nothing that I could do, even if I wanted to.” Hiserman opened the door to the truck.
“Oh, I don’t believe you. In fact, I bet you could go back to your office and discover the check that Mrs. Clayton gave you. You could remember that she had given it to you the last time you were out here. You must have misplaced it or something. You can tell your supervisor that. Then you can move on to the next house on your list. Everyone here would be very appreciative of that and your bankers will get their money. Everyone wins.”
“They don’t want the money. The money’s worthless.”
“It’s not worthless to her. It came at great cost.”
“That’s not my concern.”
“I’m asking you to make it your concern this one time. It’s your chance to do what is right.”
“It looks like I’m going to have to come back here with the DSF.”
Hiserman opened the door to get in but Marzan lunged forward, grabbing hold of it and preventing Hiserman from securing himself in the cab. Marzan grabbed Hiserman by the collar and pulled him out, tossing him onto the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust in the process.
“I’m armed!” Hiserman shouted as he got up off the ground.
“You don’t want to go there,” Marzan replied, as he lifted his shirt to reveal the 9mm tucked into his waistband.
“This is felony assault.”
“I don’t care. But it’s more than that.” Marzan’s tone darkened. “Now you listen very carefully to me…”
“You can’t intimidate me. I’ll have you arrested.”
“Shut up and listen and I’ll let you drive out of here in one piece.”
“The sheriff’s going to—”
“I said listen…” Marzan urged.
Hiserman stood and dusted himself off. Marzan was still barring his way back into the truck. “You’re in deep sh—”
“I don’t want to be a violent person,” Marzan interrupted.
Hiserman stopped protesting.
“Now you are going to take this check with you. You are going to make sure that it is deposited and that the house is paid off, in full.”
“I told you I—”
“You’re going to make it happen. How that is done is up to you.”
“The DSF will—”
“No. Why must I repeat myself? You are going to make it happen or I’m going to make something happen to you. Do you understand? You go and do some asking around before you call your buddies at DSF. Call some sheriff’s deputies. I want you to remember a name for me. Can you do that?”
Hiserman groaned as Marzan waited for his response.
“Can you remember a name?”
Hiserman finally relented and flinched in affirmation.
“The name I want you to remember is Garrity. Got it?”
“Repeat it back to me,” Marzan ordered.
“Garrity,” Hiserman said, rolling his eyes.
Now you go ask a few of your friends about what happened to Garrity when he got sideways with the people around here. You find out about that before you go calling DSF.”
Hiserman shook his head.
“Jess’s late husband, the man whose death was bought with this check, he had friends—professional friends. Friends who know how to get things done. In fact, some of these friends rather enjoy themselves while doing it. Now these friends have access to information. They can find out where you live. They can find out where you work. They can find out what you drive. Where you shop. Your family member’s names and addresses. Everything.”
“You can’t intimidate me.”
“You’re going to make this little problem disappear. Yes, you are. And if there’s any more trouble around here, I’m going to let Vaughn’s friends know about Mrs. Clayton’s troubles with you.” Marzan pointed his finger. “And if you ever come back here with anything, and I mean anything, other than the deed for this house, you just remember that name…Garrity.”
“Can I go, now?” Hiserman asked.
“Do you understand me?”
Marzan stepped aside and let Hiserman get into his truck.
“Here, you dropped this.” Marzan reached down and picked up the envelope with the check and handed it to Hiserman. “Don’t lose it.”
Hiserman put the key in the ignition and started the engine.