Unprepared

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    LdMorgan
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    So many PAW stories have been done so well that it took me a while to find a fairly original idea. This is my first prepper story. I hope you like it. If you don’t like it, I just hope you don’t hate it enough to track me down and break both my typing fingers. 🙂

    UNPREPARED
    By LdMorgan

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A stitch in time saves nine. A little preparation is a whole lot better than a ****-load of sorry.

    He should have known better. It wasn’t like he was ignorant. (As if ignorance was an excuse. He knew it wasn’t.)

    He was a book-junkie and a compulsive net-surfer. Over the years he’d read hundreds of PAW stories and prepper articles. They would have motivated any normal man and steered him into safer places and better situations.

    In plenty of time.

    He should have done better. He could have.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda. The after-the-fact mantra of the terminally stupid and tirelessly lazy.

    He had done almost nothing.

    Now he was out of time and completely unprepared.

    Charlie Clements stood in the darkness of his rundown two-bedroom rental and peered out through his 1950’s-style louvered window at the end of the world as he knew it.

    It was a world without street lights, without electric power, without running water, and without any one to aid or protect him.

    Before the electricity flickered and died he’d seen the live news feeds from all over America. He knew it was pointless to try to make it to a grocery store—or any other store, for that matter—for supplies of any kind.

    There weren’t any supplies left.

    Forty-eight hours after the government checks failed to arrive the banks locked their doors for a two-week “bank holiday”. In that two weeks, the Federal Government gravely promised, the Nation would regain its solvency, resolve the tangled claims surrounding a half a billion toxic derivatives having a face value of more than 70 trillion dollars, and print enough money to make everyone’s problems just go away…

    And then there would be pie in the sky and life would be swell forever.

    The Government lied. The banks didn’t reopen—and two weeks was longer than anyone could wait for their next round of entitlements anyway.

    Crushed between the high price of food, the higher price of fuel, an almost universal lack of cash, and no prospects of employment for anyone now that commerce was at a complete standstill, the people rose up like an army of berserk avengers and destroyed the nation they felt had betrayed them.

    Government officials ran for their waiting helicopters. The quick ones soared away to new lives in idyllic tropical locations. The slower ones soared only to the height of the nearest streetlights and were left hanging there, gently twisting in the wind, as a promise and a warning to all.

    The military forces of the United States pulled back to their bases like a turtle pulls into its shell. With the chain of succession completely broken they had no Commander-In-Chief and no civilian candidates for the job. They consolidated their positions and determined that their Primary Mission was to protect the United States from foreign invasion. Reforming the civilian government and/or warring against their fellow Americans was no part of their job. As far as possible, they would wait for the civil mess to be cleaned up by the civilians that made it.

    In the meantime the mobs were on the move and no lawful authority could stop them.

    Guns and booze were the first to go. As soon as the police retreated to their precinct houses and the scattered remnants of the National Guard loaded up and rolled away, their numbers drastically reduced by snipers and mass desertions, the gangs moved in with appalling speed.

    They demonstrated a level of organization far more sophisticated than anyone had anticipated.

    All across the nation pickup trucks loaded with gangbangers descended on liquor stores, gun shops, and sporting goods stores. They set up hardpoints and kept the unorganized looters out until more of their number arrived with box trailers, wrecking bars, and scores of dollies.

    For once they didn’t have to smash and grab. They took all the time they needed and left nothing of any worth behind. They carried out their assignments with disciplined speed and departed unchallenged with their spoils.

    Within hours they were also raiding jewelry stores, banks, food stores, truck stops, truck dealerships, trailer lots, and fuel depots. Armed to the teeth, they ramped their looting up from modest contingents of pickup trucks to massive fleets of eighteen wheelers. New Empires were being born by the hour and fresh gang sign defined their borders.

    Whatever the gangbangers couldn’t conveniently load up and haul away they occupied and fortified.

    The big box stores provided the barbed wire that encircled them and the gates that kept everyone but the new ruling class out. Armories were bought out with promises of safe conduct or simply overrun. Tanks, light artillery, APCs, heavy machine guns, and mortars became the tools of choice for negotiating turf disputes and safeguarding the juiciest pickings.

    Within three days, there wasn’t a significant resource in America that hadn’t been claimed by someone with enough firepower to hold it—for a while.

    Charlie knew the cities were out of food and water. Most had stockpiles for only three days—assuming the stockpiles hadn’t been systematically looted on Day One. With transportation at a standstill, fuel was no longer being delivered across the country and the cities could not be resupplied. The only fuel that was available now was what could be nervously bartered by night from a friend of a friend of a friend or stolen by stealth or force of arms.

    By Day Seven after The Crash everyone wanted out of every city. Everyone wanted to be somewhere safe (or at least somewhere else)–and almost no one had a safe place to go to or any way to get there.

    People trying to flee on bicycles were simply moving targets, as was anyone on foot that wasn’t obviously well-armed and willing to expend some ammunition to prove it. Cars were almost useless in the cities because of all the roadblocks that had been set up to define and protect the new turf of rival gangs.

    Scavenging had become the only source of sustenance for uncounted millions of desperate Americans who had only other desperate Americans to scavenge from.

    What to do? What to do? The litany of worry circled endlessly through Charlie’s mind. He had food for a few more days and about a bathtub and a half of water. His electric stove was now useless, and his refrigerator had been downgraded to an oversized pie safe—except that he didn’t have any pie.

    He had collected and saved the water as his freezer thawed. It tasted pretty funky but he was pretty sure it would be drinkable when it finally had to be.

    He had filled his bathtub with desperate speed as soon as he realized the grid couldn’t last. He had also filled every container he had that would hold water, right down to his soup bowls and coffee cups. His counter tops were covered with towers of bowls covered by plates, cups covered by saucers, pots, pans, jars, Tupperware, and re-purposed booze bottles. His only beer cooler sat under the kitchen table, filled to the brim with water.

    Cool, clear, water! The sound track in his head changed channels as he thought of the cooler, and then changed again as he thought of his toilet.

    He had cleaned it as best he could, which wasn’t much. Then he had pulled the “water-saving” bricks out of the toilet tank and filled it up to the brim. He’d corked the overflow tube and held the float down until the water started leaking around the flush handle. He’d stacked the algae-slimed bricks on the closed toilet seat to remind himself not to piss in his last-resort water supply. He’d also duct-taped the flush handle just to make sure he didn’t accidentally dump the whole tank some semi-sonambulistic morning after he finished pissing in the bathroom sink.

    The happy jingles about scrubby bubbles rang a little hollow in his head as he thought about how “rust-stained” the ancient fixture still was, even after several applications of Comet Cleanser.

    Maybe he should have bought that super-duper angled toilet brush and the magically-scented effervescent blue-white bowl cleaner…

    Shoulda.

    He shook his head. The wouldas and the couldas were standing right there, waiting their turn.

    He changed his peep angle a bit to survey more of the neighborhood, carefully keeping the curtain tightly drawn.

    He still had his car and a quarter tank of gas. For now.

    He had at least been smart about that, once it was much too late to be smart in the first place.

    In the absolute blackness of the second night after The Crash he had crept out and opened his trunk. He’d carried his spare, jack, wrench, and tools into the house, then gone back to let most of the air out of one back tire. He’d opened up his gas flap and pocketed the gas cap, then pulled his battery, leaving the hood up, and opened both front doors for good measure.

    Then he’d dragged out all the useless crap he’d been carrying around in the trunk and littered his driveway with it.

    The small roll of ace bandage he’d stuffed a ways down the filler neck would protect (at least superficially) what little gas he had, and the chopped-off length of garden hose he’d tossed on the ground beside the car would hopefully make it look like his crappy old POS Nissan had already been looted & thoroughly siphoned.

    Move on. Move on. Nothing to loot here, folks. It’s already gone. Everything’s taken. Move on.

    His car parts were now parked in his living room, along with his small electric air compressor. The tiny tank held just enough stored air to re-inflate his “flat” to about 18 psi. It wasn’t the recommended running pressure, but he knew he could drive on 18 psi for a little while.

    Possibly long enough to find a bicycle pump.

    In the immensity of time that his seven-day confinement had provided, he had packed up for the break he knew he’d have to make sooner or later.

    Two cheap fiberglass suitcases and two plastic laundry baskets held a couple of changes of clothes, plus all his extra socks & underwear, a couple of jars of water, his entire food supply, and the best of the survival gear he could muster—which wasn’t much in terms of quantity or quality.

    He had a light jacket and a folding umbrella and had salvaged his shower curtain to use as a tarp or groundcloth.

    His best and only shoes were already on his feet: a five-year-old pair of ratty leather sandals that were about a half-step up from rubber flip-flops.

    He’d never quite gotten around to buying a good pair of boots.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Six defining syllables, the borders of his life.

    His medical kit was a pair of scissors, a few antique band-aids, a bottle of Aspirin, a small jar of Vicks’, two half-bars of soap, a nearly full bottle of shampoo, and a pint of rubbing alcohol.

    He would cut bandages from clean sheets if he needed them, if he could still hold a pair of scissors when he did.

    His fire kit was a half-empty Bic lighter, a couple of tea lights, two artsy-fartsy decorative candles he’d never found a reason to light, and a handful of kindling he’d slivered out of a knick-knack shelf with a kitchen knife.

    He was set pretty well for cooking, still having his entire kitchen to work with. He had a pot to make coffee in, a nice 2-quart pan with a lid, and a 12” skillet. Also a coffee cup, a plate, some stainless silverware, and a can-opener. He knew the skillet was much too heavy to backpack, but he didn’t want to abandon it until he had to. He had packed up every kitchen knife he owned, and in the process had finally found his long-lost pocket knife—a cheap Chinese lockback with a whopping 2 ½” blade.

    For the moment he was cooking over a saucepan campfire on his dead electric stove. He’d have to make a hobo stove eventually. He knew he’d need one on the road.

    For sleeping gear he’d snatched all the sheets and blankets from the hall closet and collected all his pillows, towels, and washcloths. He figured he’d pare everything down when he had to abandon his car, as he was sure he eventually would. Until then he would at least sleep warm and fluffy.

    As he watched the empty streets darken with the sunset, Charlie realized he didn’t know a single one of his neighbors by name or by face and had no idea which (if any) were still in residence. So much for three years of ignoring and being ignored. He had not moved into a sociable neighborhood and he had not made any effort to be sociable himself.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Now he had no one to ally himself with, no one to watch his back, no one to offer advice, or even spare a kind word to ease his growing loneliness and spiralling fear.

    Charlie sighed as he surveyed the almost-complete darkness. No one remained that was foolish enough to show a light after dark. The four houses at the entrance of his little mini-burb, three blocks down, were burned-out shells because their occupants had attracted the attention of a roving mob.

    Weary from his fear and unrelenting worry, Charlie opened the curtains a few inches and then pulled a chair up to one side of the window. He would watch until he had to sleep and then deal with tomorrow when it came.

    His fear permeated his restless dreams and filled his unquiet sleep with images from which he could not flee.

    Charlie awakened the next morning still bitterly tired and stiff in every joint. He was horrified to find that it was full daylight and he was still sitting beside his partially open curtains. Anyone in his front yard would have been able to see him clearly. His presence was an advertisement that he had food and water. He was lucky he hadn’t been seen.

    His hand tightened reflexively on the pistol he now slept with. It was a short-barreled .32 caliber semi-automatic that held his entire supply of ammunition: seven bullets. It was his only firearm, and he had never planned to use it for other than bedside self-defense. He had never fired it. He had never gotten around to buying even a single box of ammunition, much less a cleaning kit, holster, or a spare magazine.

    It was a puny weapon at best. If he ever got into a fire fight with more than seven people, any of whom were more than five feet away or even slightly robust, he figured it would probably be his last.

    But for the moment, at that exact instant, he had the best pistol in the world: one that was in his hand.

    Of course, now that it was much too late he knew exactly what he should have spent his money on—before the banks closed and it ceased to exist. A Smith&Wesson M&P in .45 caliber, one with a four and a half inch barrel. And ten extra magazines. And at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

    A tuned FN FAL in 7.62 X 51 NATO, scoped and set up with fancy night sights, plus twenty magazines and 10,000 rounds of new ammo.

    A Mossberg Plinkster with a 4X scope, ten spare mags and 20,000 rounds of .22LR.

    A Mossberg 500 with the Home Defense short barrel and a BIG bucket of double-ought buck and rifled slug.

    A Ruger III with ten extra magazines and another 20,000 rounds of .22LR.

    Hell. Wishing was cheap. Make it two of everything and toss in a top-of-the-line Barrett on the side.

    And a couple of suppressors for whatever would take one.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

    He knew that right then he’d cheerfully trade everything he owned for one elderly Mosin-Nagant and fifty rounds of ex-Soviet ammunition. It would only increase his chances of survival a few thousand times over, and what were all his worldly goods worth to him, anyway, if he was dead?

    The twenty-three dollars he had in his wallet certainly weren’t worth anything now. Paper was passé.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

    Why hadn’t he bought silver back when it was $3.50 an ounce and headed for a rock-solid $5.00 just as sure as ****? God only knew.

    He hadn’t bought any at $5.00 because he’d already missed the boat. It was up over 142% at that point, so he decided to make his play when it dropped back down to $3.75.

    (DUH!)

    The only thing he could offer in his own defense was that he was a lot more ignorant then about economics than he was now. Not that it had made the slightest difference in the interim. He hadn’t bought any silver during its unstoppable run up to $120.00 an ounce because—well—because he hadn’t.

    (Double-DUH!)

    It was time for breakfast but Charlie turned his thoughts ruthlessly away from food. He was over forty pounds overweight and he knew he had to starve himself until he lost most of it.

    It would be bad enough on the road even if he were fit. Being grossly overweight essentially meant that he would be carrying an extra forty-pound pack 24 hours a day with nothing to show for it but pain and a complete inability to move fast or well.

    He probably wouldn’t last a day. His feet definitely wouldn’t.

    His hunger had been most intense the first two days. But his fear had been even more compelling, so he had eaten little. Now the hunger just gnawed at him and he ate even less. But after seven days he was definitely feeling skinnier. Puny, wobbly, and bitchy as hell, but skinnier.

    He knew he really was losing weight because he was sweating buckets and pissing twenty times a day. He knew his fat was mostly water, and the more he lost the better. He also knew that what he was doing was very hard on his body. Especially his heart. But he didn’t have much in the way of options. Not now, not any more.

    It would have been much better if he’d just spent some of the last three years in the gym. He could have stayed fit the right way—by pumping some iron and doing a few laps around the track. And he should have kept up with the unarmed combat he had enjoyed so much before he got lazy.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda. (Who’s sorry now?)

    Charlie spent most of the day doing what he’d spent most of his time doing for the seven days since The Crash: watching the street and hoping trouble wouldn’t pay him a visit.

    Three hours before sunset he took a nap. He had decided to make his first-ever scavenging run around midnight, looking for weapons, food, water, fuel, and anything else he might eventually be able to trade to somebody (anybody!) for something he needed.

    He was so plagued by hunger that he had no trouble being awake at midnight. He hadn’t actually slept much, just forced his body to lie still and get some small amount of rest for whatever good it might do him.

    He arose in the kind of darkness that he would previously have associated only with the inside of a cave. Now that the power was out it seemed almost normal. There was supposed to be a half moon up tonight, so he expected to at least have enough light to navigate by.

    Lacking a flashlight, Charlie would use his cellphone if he had to. It was a poor substitute for a penlight, but it was all he had. He would also carry a tea-light candle and his Bic in case he needed (and could risk) more light.

    He had tossed a few improvised burglar tools into a long-unused gym bag, along with an empty one-gallon gas can and a bottle of water.

    For defense, he had his little pocket pistol, a kitchen knife with an 8” blade, and an improvised sap he’d made by tying a pound or so of small nuts, bolts, & washers up in the bottom corner of a heavy cloth bag. The rest of the bag, twisted up and wrapped tightly with string, became a flexible handle about a foot long.

    A few practice swings had established that it could hit pretty hard.

    Charlie didn’t want to hurt anyone but knew he might wind up having to fight for survival. What he wanted most was to just go out, find some good stuff, and get back into his house without being seen by anyone.

    He knew he could have avoided an infinity of risk if he’d just put up some decent preps.

    Coulda, woulda, shoulda. (…Thank you, sir, and may I please have another?…)

    Just after midnight Charlie slipped silently out his back door and angled across his lawn to the corner that offered a ladder-like sapling to help him over his fence. On the far side he clambered down into a service alley that ran between the back-to-back subdivisions that had been prime real estate seventy years ago. Now they were not much more than semi-slums with oversized lawns and a few after-the-fact sheds.

    When his wheezing eased off, Charlie moved carefully down the alley.

    Abandoned outbuildings would be his main targets, but he might consider trying a house if it looked completely uninhabited. Anything that looked occupied he would simply pass on by. He wasn’t a robber by choice and had no inclination at all to die a trespasser.

    Charlie passed twelve houses on the left side of the alley before he saw a likely candidate. There was a plywood utility shed still closed & locked, but the back door of the house and most of its windows were wide open.

    It sure looked abandoned to him.

    After watching the house for about fifteen minutes Charlie decided to take the safer target first. He moved to the rear wall of the shed and set about making the quietest entry possible.

    The old-fashioned windows were just large enough for him to squeeze through and there were concrete blocks nearby that he could stack up and stand on.

    Happy days.

    The back window hinged outward, so Charlie used his vise-grips to work the two exposed hinge pins loose and then pried the whole window out. He set it carefully to one side.

    His cellphone showed him a workbench that he could clear before climbing in.

    Charlie wanted lawnmowers and gas cans. And tools. And anything that could be used as a weapon. And anything—anything—he could eat. He had a long mental list, but it reduced to almost anything he could get his hands on that might be even remotely useful.

    There looked to be some good stuff inside, so he crawled carefully in.

    Charlie kept things quiet as he rummaged quickly around the inside of the shed. This was the dangerous time: If other scavengers showed up he would be trapped inside the building. His chances of fighting his way out and escaping would be almost zero.

    His fear was immense, but his desperation exceeded it.

    Three gallons of gas, including what he siphoned out of a lawnmower, made his expedition a roaring success. He grabbed an assortment of hand tools, a few pieces of chain, a coiled ski rope, and an honest- to-God full-sized axe. There was more he could come back for later, but he decided to get out with the good stuff while the getting was good.

    After checking carefully, he slipped back out the window, grabbed his loot and retreated to the nearest heavy underbrush. There he concealed his goods long enough to go back, reset the window in its frame, and tear down his pile of blocks. He left the building looking essentially untouched from the outside.

    High on a victory-rush of pure adrenaline, Charlie toted his loot back to his home, locked it up, and returned to the property for a run through the empty house. So much good loot in the shed seemed to promise even better pickings inside the dwelling.

    Food, perhaps, or even a gun.

    Or both! Could visions of sugar-plums dance any sweeter?

    Charlie was as eager as a junkie smelling a free fix, but he kept his movements careful and quiet.

    He eased into the kitchen through the back door, and carefully checked down the hall. He poked his head around a few corners and established that the bottom floor was unoccupied.

    That was good, but someone might be sleeping upstairs. He would have to check it out.

    Staying as close to the wall as possible, he worked his way up the stairs, the little .32 questing before him like the nose of a not-particularly-dangerous dog.

    The stairs creaked a few times, but he heard nothing from above in response. His heart rate began to slow down to something approaching normal and his apprehension eased a little. He was almost golden. He had already seen some food in the kitchen and if no one was upstairs he’d be able to take it all. Plus a million useful things that might be in the upstairs bedrooms.

    Dance, you sugar plums! Dance! Dance until you die!

    Hunger was beginning to make his internal dialogs a little strange.

    From the head of the stairs a short hall led to two bedrooms, a bathroom, and what looked like a linen closet. Everything was quiet, and Charlie’s dark-adapted eyes were having no trouble picking out the major details.

    The hall bathroom was empty, the tub dry as a bone. A medicine cabinet invited close examination later.

    The linen closet looked almost empty. The Crash must have been right around Laundry Day for the family that lived here.

    The first bedroom was a boy’s room, empty, and about as messy as any boy’s room would normally be. Nothing seemed to have been packed up. Perhaps the family hadn’t been home since before The Crash.

    The other bedroom was clearly the master bedroom. There was an adjoining bath to the left, a large four-poster bed to the right, and a partially open closet on the far side of the bed. There were also two large wardrobes, a vanity table, an entertainment center, and a couple of backless chairs.

    The room was reasonably large but seemed crowded by the bulk of the heavy wooden furniture.

    Charlie eased past the large bed and into the bathroom. He wanted to check the medicine cabinet first. Anything medical would always be useful and would be prime goods for barter later on. He rummaged around for a few moments, tossed a few odds and ends into his bag, snagged all the toilet paper, and turned around to leave.

    He took one step and almost crapped his pants.

    There were four bodies laid out neatly on the floor between the bed and the built-in closet. Two men and two women. Bands of silvery duct tape glowed faintly at unresisting wrists and ankles and lay smoothly across their silent mouths.

    He hadn’t looked there. He hadn’t looked! He had just walked right past them!

    Charlie felt like his heart was going to explode.

    They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead. The words flapped around the inside of his head like bats trying to get out of a cave at sunset.

    “They’re dead. I can still get out,” he finally managed to think.

    He took one hesitant step and heard the front door open, then the sound of feet starting up the stairs.

    “I am screwed,” he thought. “I am so totally super-super-screwed.”

    Charlie took three long quiet strides, stepped over two of the bodies and squeezed his bulk into the built-in closet. He slid in sideways as far as he could, afraid to close the door more completely.

    Footsteps.

    More footsteps.

    The sound of someone peeing loudly into the hall toilet.

    The sound of a match striking.

    A man’s voice: “Take care of our guests. Bring the daughter down. We leave in ten minutes.”

    A mumbled assent, punctuated by a set of footsteps clomping heavily back down the stairs.

    Charlie held his breath as someone moved into the bedroom, preceded by the harsh smell of cigarette smoke. Half-paralyzed with fear, Charlie looked down through the louvered door at one of the corpses.

    It was a young woman, serene in death. A brunette, probably in her early thirties. Her face–at least the part that showed above the duct tape–was attractive and completely relaxed. She looked almost alive, except for the way her one visible eye gazed straight through the center of his soul and on into some unknowable Infinity beyond.

    “Death is such a waste,” he thought, and watched the woman’s cold, dead eye blink slowly as if she were in perfect agreement with him.

    “Dead women don’t blink,” he thought, as his heart clenched in shock. He watched her blink slowly again. She was alive! A captive, not a corpse. Charlie felt a wave of rage wash over him like an unexpected storm surge.

    A lizard-skin cowboy boot came into view as the smoker sat down on the bed.

    “Well, lil’ darlin’,” a nasal voice twanged softly, “I guess it’s time fer us to be moseyin’ on along.”

    The foot moved and the man’s right leg came into almost full view. There was a sharp snapping sound and a hand came to rest on the visible knee. It held a wicked-looking pocket knife.

    “It’s good yer all rested up, sweetie, ‘cause yer shore gonna be busy t’night! After you get yer brain squeezed, I’m gonna be squeezin’ ever’ little thang you got left.”

    The man snickered, then leaned over and delicately peeled a bit of the tape away from the woman’s mouth with the edge of the knife. Then he grasped the tape firmly between his thumb and the knife blade and ripped it loose with practiced cruelty.

    “You got anythin’ t’ say t’ yore friends, you best say it now, ‘cause they’re all a-fixin’ t’ die.”

    The woman, still gasping for breath, looked straight up at him.

    “Die, you worthless son of a bitch!” she said in a venomous whisper.

    The man was just starting to laugh when Charlie shoved his closet door open and poked his little pistol out. He had covered the muzzle with six layers of folded overcoat. He sure hoped it would be enough.

    The pistol snorted once and immediately jammed. Charlie pulled the trigger at least ten times in the next second and a half as he watched a tiny red dot on the left side of the man’s neck start to squirt blood down the front of his foppish I Wish I Was A Real Cowboy suit.

    The man dropped his knife and grabbed at his throat with his right hand. Blood squirted out from around his fingers. Grimacing, he let go and reached around behind his back. He whipped a large semi-automatic pistol out of his waistband.

    “Colt 1911. Nickel plated. Probably two and a half pounds…” Charlie thought distantly as he watched the gun slip through the man’s bloody fingers and sail up to the head of the bed.

    Still squirting blood from his throat, the man started to lean toward his pistol, reaching–reaching.

    Charlie dropped his little pistol and the coat it was tangled up in, took one step forward, and swung his home-made sap like he was the long-lost lumberjack son of Barry Bonds.

    The sap made a sound somewhere between a clank and a thud as the man’s head suddenly turned an impossible 90 degrees sideways and his face changed shape. His eyes stayed open as his body slid slowly off the edge of the bed.

    Charlie’s mind was utterly empty as he dragged the man aside, found the knife, and cut the woman loose. He helped her to her feet and then made no move at all as she snatched the knife from him, invested a moment in rather obviously deciding whether or not to cut his throat, and then turned to aid her companions.

    By the time she had freed them, Charlie was holding the hastily-wiped .45 out to her, handle first.

    She took it without a word, checked the magazine and racked a round into the chamber. Then she moved to stand beside the open bedroom door.

    Charlie stepped back as an older man helped a small blonde woman sit up on the edge of the bed. She seemed dizzy and somewhat disoriented. He looked like a middle-aged college professor. The other man made it to his feet unassisted. He was a large bouncer/bodyguard type and looked like he could eat a bushel of bowling balls for breakfast on an average day.

    He also looked like he had been in a serious bar fight. Both his eyes were half-open slits, but he was bouncing lightly on his toes as he stretched his shoulders. He didn’t look like the kind of person that would be easy to beat up and Charlie suspected that whoever had put the tape on him must have had a lot of help.

    Charlie reached down and snagged the coat with his pistol still entangled in it. He freed it, cleared the jam, and racked a round into the chamber. He was aware of the eyes on him as he dropped the weapon into his pocket.

    Of the three, the large man was the first to speak.

    “Thanks for shooting that guy,” he said, softly, “And also for beating his head in. He definitely deserved it.”

    “It’s not the kind of thing I normally do,” Charlie replied, “But I’m glad I was able to help out.”

    The brunette by the door snapped her fingers softly.

    “Two coming up,” she murmured, “And two more outside.”

    The large man looked at Charlie, raised his eyebrows and made a bang-bang gesture with his hand.

    Wordlessly, Charlie passed over his little popgun and pulled his sap back out. He moved over to stand in the corner behind the brunette.

    It didn’t happen like Charlie expected. Two men dressed like accountants came into the room and froze when they saw the imitation cowboy on the floor.

    “Get on the deck,” the brunette said in a conversational tone. “Keep your hands where I can see them. Make a sound and you’re both dead.”

    The men complied.

    The brunette looked around. “We have to play it out.” She said quietly. “We have no choice.”

    She looked at the large man. “Romeo?”

    He nodded.

    She looked at the older man. “Daniel?”

    He also nodded.

    She looked at the small blonde, still sitting on the bed and holding her head in her hands. “Sissy?”

    Sissy waved one hand in a “get-on-with-it” gesture.

    She looked over at Charlie. “Stay put,” she said.

    “Hmmpf! No vote for Charlie?” he thought.

    An instant later the brunette screamed at the top of her lungs “Noooooo! Don’t kill them! Noooooo!”

    Before either man on the floor could react she shot each one neatly in the back of the head.

    She screamed again, a wordless wail of agony, then stopped abruptly and shot one of the bodies again.

    Romeo swept an armload of glassware off the vanity with a satisfying crash & tinkle.

    Then he reached into the jacket of the closest “accountant” and extracted a semi-automatic pistol. He checked the chamber and moved to stand beside the brunette.

    It ended very quickly after that. Two more men came barreling up the steps and charged into the room. Each took one round in the back and was dead before he hit the floor.

    “Romeo,” the brunette said, “If you and Daniel will do a scout I’ll talk to our friend here.”

    Both men nodded, and went silently down the stairs with newly-acquired weapons ready.

    “Sissy? How are you doing, hon?” she asked in a gentle tone.

    “I’m okay, I think. It’s just that my head hurts so bad!

    Charlie eased into the bathroom, rummaged some looted aspirin out of his bag, opened his water bottle and took them to Sissy.

    “Aspirin”, he said, “And clean water to wash it down with. Is your stomach ok?”

    “’S ok,” she muttered, reaching for the pills first and then the water.

    “I’m Kiki Henderson,“ the brunette said suddenly, introducing herself. “And you are…”

    “Charlie. Charlie Clements.”

    “You have no idea how glad we are that you…uh…just happened by, Charlie. I guess I should fill you in on what going on.”

    “That would be nice,” said Charlie.

    “Well,” said Kiki, as she moved to search the closest body, “First, these guys are not FBI, or NSA, or DOJ, regardless of what their IDs say.”

    She was collecting an impressive pile of guns, cell phones, wallets, watches, badge cases, key rings, handcuffs, and other small objects as she moved from body to body. She paused just long enough to flash an authentic-looking FBI badge and ID that she had just taken from one of the corpses.

    Still talking, she started divesting the fallen of their holsters and belts.

    “These guys,” she grunted, tugging at a stubborn buckle, “Are all hardcore TSA. Except, of course, for the Cowboy over there.“

    She pointed with a sheathed dagger.

    “He was just a small-time scumbag paid to betray the people that trusted him. People like us.”

    “And you were after these guys?” Charlie ventured.

    “No,” said Kiki grimly. “They were after us. They’ve been after us for quite a while. They want to know…”

    She paused theatrically.

    … Where we live!

    “Well,” she added, “Where we live, and a lot more people like us. That and a lot of other things.”

    “I’m surprised the TSA still exists,” Charlie said, just to keep his mouth in the conversation. “Considering that the rest of the Government pretty much doesn’t, anymore.”

    “They do,” Kiki affirmed. “But they’re a rogue agency now. Heavily armed and well positioned, they’re probably the most predatory criminal group in the U.S. right now—and certainly the most dangerous. I’d say they’re about like the worst of the Columbians and the Russian Mafia combined.”

    Romeo appeared in the doorway like an oversized ghost. For such a big man he was remarkably quiet.

    “Daniel’s on guard,” he said, “And everything looks quiet. The car is still good, but we need to get a move on. Someone may have heard.”

    He gestured at the pile of loot.

    “And those phones are going to start ringing pretty soon,” he warned.

    “Two minutes,” Kiki replied. “Load up anything worth taking, and start the car. I’ll be right down. Help Sissy.”

    She started pulling the batteries out of the TSA cellphones as the other two left the room.

    “Charlie,” she said. “Be sure you leave all of this right where it is. You don’t want to risk being caught with it, and you definitely can’t barter it safely.”

    Charlie nodded wordlessly.

    “Come on,” she said, and lead him downstairs.

    The car was waiting. The trunk was open and Romeo was just tossing the last of the food from the kitchen into it.

    “Crap!” thought Charlie. “There goes my chow.”

    Kiki was talking to him, so he dragged his attention away from his misfortune.

    “…our way to a prepper community my father started when I was small. The TSA wants it for its protected infrastructure and for the well-educated slaves the population might provide.”

    She paused.

    “They’re very big on slaves right now, and getting bigger. Daniel thinks the TSA is going cannibal—that they’ll literally be eating people by this time next year. So don’t ever let them grab you, no matter what.”

    Charlie found himself oddly unsurprised at the news. A person had to be a pervo-nutcase in the first place just work for the TSA. And one would have to be a very special kind of psychopath indeed to rise in their ranks.

    “Daniel,” Kiki said suddenly, “Can we spare something long?”

    “Yes,“ he replied. “They were packing pretty heavy.”

    “Then please make up a care package for Charlie, here. It’s the least we can do. Make sure it’s clean.”

    Daniel nodded, dumped another cardboard box into the trunk and started rapidly refilling it.

    “Our refuge is several states away,” Kiki said, “And I can’t tell you any more than that. What you don’t know you can’t be forced to betray.”

    Charlie’s mouth was just starting to lead a life of its own when Kiki held up a hand to stop him.

    “Before you ask, the answer is ‘no’. We can’t take you. The Refuge is full already, as in standing-room-only full. And you haven’t been cleared by Security. And you probably don’t have any of the specialized skills we need.”

    She looked sad for a moment.

    “I’m really grateful for what you did, Charlie. Really. I am. But there just isn’t any room.”

    Daniel closed the trunk with a thump, set the care package on it and laid a scoped hunting rifle across the box. Even in the pale moonlight it looked sleek, powerful, and deadly.

    “All good,” he said. “Clean, checked, with extra ammo and some food and medical. The basics.”

    Kiki nodded her thanks.

    “There’s one thing I may be able to do,” she said to Charlie.

    “If you go to the only place in this country where four states come together one year from now, give or take exactly one day, you may find half a brick twenty feet northwest of the marker. If the brick is there, a map and some instructions will be buried just under it.”

    She shook her head again and suddenly looked fierce, like she was showing her teeth so she wouldn’t have to show her tears.

    “It’s not a promise, it’s a possibility! You saved all of our lives today, and you kept me from being brutally raped and tortured. That should count for something. Damn it, it should!”

    She took a slow breath and lowered her voice.

    “If I’m still alive in a year. If you’re still alive in a year. If the Refuge hasn’t been overrun or abandoned in a year. If I can at least get you a hearing…”

    She shrugged.

    “That’s a lot of ‘ifs’,” she said, “But I’ll try.”

    Charlie nodded as a cellphone in Romeo’s hand suddenly shrilled.

    “Times up!” the big man announced as he pulled the battery out of the phone and tossed the unit into the street. “We gotta go NOW!”

    Kiki climbed into the passenger seat and closed her door.

    “One year,” she said, grimly. “Try not to be late.”

    Charlie barely had time to grab the rifle and the surprisingly heavy box before the car swerved into the street and disappeared into the shadows, running very fast without any lights.

    A quick glance inside his care package showed a holstered pistol, a military medical kit, and several boxes of bullets. He would look at the rest of it later.

    Charlie hurried back into the house to retrieve his bag. Two minutes later he was back in the service alley and headed for home.

    As he trotted at a—for him—painfully fast pace, his mind was spinning like a runaway propeller.

    There was nothing between him and Kiki. She was just a good person trying to be fair. She was just giving him a chance to find a safe place. Her gift, if it happened, would be exactly equal to the one he had unexpectedly given her and her companions.

    Fair was fair. That was all it was.

    He had a year.

    He had a year to get into shape, travel almost a thousand miles, and find a half a brick. If he was lucky, and somehow managed to stay alive in the meantime.

    He could probably do that.

    He would leave three months early. A thousand miles was an epic journey now.

    He should probably bring something with him to contribute to the group. It might help…everyone concerned.

    Charlie didn’t have much else, but he had one hell of a library. At least 17,000 books on almost every imaginable subject. A lifetime collection that was probably almost priceless now that the Internet was dead. Transportation might be hard to arrange, but certainly not impossible for a truly motivated person.

    Charlie realized he was feeling motivated now. Very motivated.

    Could, Would, Should.

    He had a new mantra.

    His old one was officially passé.

    -End-

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