Here’s the last chapter in the story. About 30 pages.
She’d always considered herself an anarchist, and she thought that ironic – or she had, anyway – once upon a time.
Anne Rutherford left Grand Island, Nebraska for Cambridge, Mass, in a way unlike any before her. Wide-eyed and sure of herself, academically accomplished and politically naïve, she made it into Harvard on a Wadsworth scholarship, determined to make a real difference in the world. Yet she’d grown up in the Methodist Church, and had even believed some of the things she learned there, and she had been raised to become someone’s wife. But it time she picked up on some of the glaring internal inconsistencies within the Good Book, and that came to her as an awakening of sorts. She began to focus her inquiries on the internal inconsistencies she found in her home, and then, soon enough, everywhere she looked – and always through that same prism of questioning.
One of her father’s oldest friends, a deacon in a nearby church, ran a hand down her skirt one Sunday after services, and when he slipped a finger inside her he played with her physical emotions for the very first time. Far from being scared, or even upset, she was curious about the feelings she experienced, and when he pulled out his penis and almost forced her to take him in her mouth she grew only more intrigued at the man’s inconsistencies. He did the same thing almost every time he came over on Sunday after services, and in time she began to anticipate his various little comings and goings, looking forward to things she might learn by examining the man. And in time, she learned how to gauge his emotions, chief among them the need to control her, and then she used his errant feelings to tease him – just a little. She began to see how easy it was to manipulate the old man, to use his lust as a weapon, and eventually, to turn it against him to her advantage – to take a perceived strength and turn it into a weakness, to play with him, if only for her private amusement.
She began to watch people, men mostly, after that, and she began to see patterns in their behavior. She saw how men expected to be treated, and how they reacted when they weren’t. Like her little brother, she thought, only in grown-up clothes. She was twelve, maybe thirteen years old when a local city councilman did the same things to her, and she let him. She led him deeper into a relationship of her own design, then she dumped him, and she regaled as she watched the man dancing on strings she alone knew about. When he pushed back, she exposed him, and she laughed inside as the police took him away – while the world saw her tears.
And her ability to exploit men had set a pattern of sorts, when she began high school. When she had trouble with a class, when the material was just too hard to get a handle on, she went to her teachers and got all the help she needed. Men, women – it made no difference. All had their needs, and she knew how to take care of them. She began to see herself as a chameleon, able to change color in an instant, recognize danger and adjust, quickly, to the needs of the moment. To survive. That was, by that point in time, the ‘all’ of her existence.
And as a result, she didn’t have time for ‘boys’ in high school. They seemed focused on just one thing: using sex as a crude means of control, and when they couldn’t control, usually because they were so clumsily arrogant, they became jealous – and violent. One boy tried to ‘make it with her’ after a football game one night during her junior year, and she sensed, as she rejected him, that he was going to rape her. And the whole thing was so pathetic, she thought at the time. She simply laughed at the boy, made fun of the size of his penis, and he dissolved before her eyes – and then disappeared. It was just that simple. Learn the mechanisms of control, then use them.
Then one Sunday a cousin asked her to come with her to a presentation.
“Oh, you’ll see.”
And so she had gone along, curious why there was a need for such secrecy.
The event was held in a conference room at a local motel, and there were a few hundred people gathered there, and then a fiery pastor of some sort came out and began to exhort the gathered about how to best live their lives. Using a skillfully woven narrative, the woman related biblical passages to current events, leaving no room at all for any other conclusion that the end was nigh, that the Second Coming was at hand, and that the only way the people in that room could avoid damnation was to reach deep down into their pockets – and GIVE!
Despite the crudeness of the message, let alone the messenger, what struck Rutherford was the rapt adoration she felt being showered on the pastor. There was an unquestioning acceptance of everything the woman said, even though, to here, anyway, much that she heard was patently absurd. Still, it was hard not to be taken in. There was talk of love and brotherhood, and a community coming together through a shared love for the Lord, and for Jesus Christ.
After a few hours of this, there came a pause, and the pastor asked those in attendance to stand – but only if they had taken the Lord Jesus Christ into their heart. And people stood while the woman shouted about Christ’s love, about Christ’s willingness to forgive, to accept – and when the woman stopped speaking everyone in the room turned to Rutherford, for she alone had remained seated.
And she had never, not once in her life, felt so much hate in one room as she felt just then.
And then the pastor turned to her with something akin to fire in her eyes, and she pointed at Anne, called her out as an agent of Satan, and the hatred she felt in the room turned to something far more sinister. Men turned and faced her, and a man by the stage handed out canes, the pastor screamed for the assembled to strike out at Satan, to drive Him from their midst.
She stood and ran for a door, but the way was blocked – by more men with canes – and she turned, slipped through the converging crowd, made it to a fire escape and burst out into the night, ran all the way home – and yet as she ran all she could think about was the woman’s power, her ability to control an otherwise normal group of people, and it took years for her to get the woman’s fiery eyes out of her mind.
By the time she was a first year at Harvard she knew the stakes had increased, but the game was still the same. She could still lead men around by their needs, get what she needed from them by playing along with their game, and still use them up and spit them out, move on to the next errant fool – but she discovered something even more interesting in Boston: there were more people here, people just like her, playing the same game. And, she soon learned, the stakes grew even higher in this league, the state of play was more polished, and, not infrequently, the game was played to the death.
Her second year roommate, Julie, told her she had good legs and that she ought to wear more provocative clothing, but she simply didn’t have the money for that, or so she explained. “That isn’t a problem,” Julie explained, and she put forth a solution. They went to an underground club that next Friday, and Julie explained Anne’s problem to an older gentleman, and he said he’d be more than happy to help Anne out.
And he had been, too.
He picked her up the next morning, in a limousine, no less, and had spent the day with her. They visited the trendiest boutiques on Newbury Street, and some of the lesser known but no less trendy fetish shops on the other side of the night, then he took her to get her hair done. She had her first manicure, and a pedicure too, and by the time Saturday night rolled around she was, in his estimation, anyway, ready.
And he came by her dormitory at nine that night, in the limo again, and took her to a club “not very many people know about.” There were lot’s of limos dropping off people in an underground garage downtown, and these people were dressed, by and large, in black leather, and they carried bags in with them. They dressed inside, dressed in outlandish costumes, and they wore props like she had seen in some of the seedier shops earlier that afternoon. She saw her roommate then, with a short whip in hand, and a phallus strapped around her waist, working over a man, while another woman was doing her level best to suffocate the poor chap with her vagina.
Her escort, the old man, seemed to understand this was Anne’s first exposure to such proceedings, but he proved a gentle teacher. He was, he explained, a top, or a master, but that, obviously, not all men were tops, and as he led her from scene to scene he explained the roles on display, what he called the transfers of power, who was doing what, and, presumably, why. And the why was suddenly of great interest to Anne, for she was seeing a new, much larger vista into the inner workings of power and control that women, in particular, exerted over men, and as suddenly she knew she wanted to be a top, too.
Yet she could feel her escort’s growing lust – for her – and she intuitively understood that she would have to play with him – on his terms. But rather that wait for him to take charge, she stopped at one point and held out her hands, wrists together, and she said four words that forever changed her life.
“Please, Master? Teach me?”
He had taken her to a room that night, and with several other women to assist him – his women, she learned – she was taken in, indoctrinated, and she became his plaything, for a while. Until, a few months later, she felt him falling in love with her. Then, and only when she was sure he was under her control, she turned the tables on him. She asserted control the next weekend at the club, she wielded the whip, wore the phallus, and she began to bend him first to her need, then to needs of his own he had long repressed.
She knew by then, of course, that he was an immensely wealthy and powerful man. He walked the corridors of power in Washington as easily as he helmed his schooner off the Vineyard; he had a jet, of course, and took her places on weekends, and she knew enough by then to not ask about his wife. He took her skiing in Austria and fishing on Scottish rivers, became her tutor, her mentor, advising which classes she should take at school, helping her some nights with her studies, and as his was an able mind she listened, and learned, about his world. When they went to the club he taught her even more, more about the inner dynamics she observed, the tormented inner psyches, the hidden impulses on open, and sudden display. There was no act depraved enough, she soon learned, no personal backstory dark enough, and in the end she understood that all life revolved around power and control – and nothing more.
She thought of all the boys in high school who had ‘come on’ to her, and she began to see their clumsy efforts as nothing more than the pathetic attempts of lost children. Children not open to or aware enough of their own cravings to assert control over their darkest needs, and she began to reclassify people. People who knew, who understood the nature of these needs, and people who remained clueless, children who let half-understood impulses control their lives. She began to see that very powerful people were, by and large, very tuned in to this part of their Selves, and that they were very tuned in to others on the same wavelength. Like neurons in a vast body, they were linked by this awareness – and in time she was, too. She began to study this connection, the way it worked, and could not work absent this special ‘awareness,’ but once the connection was made it was like whole new worlds opened up to her.
They spent a week together on his yacht the summer after her junior year, and they sailed from Boston to Southwest Harbor, Maine. He gave her a book to read their first night out – Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – and he told her it was an important book in Washington, but that the hidden parts of the story could be found in the heroine’s extraordinary submission to men. The author had been, he claimed, a complex, introverted woman, yet a very dominant presence in the world – until she was around a true Master. Then she had reverted to type, he said, and wanted nothing more than to be raped, to be physically consumed by the real Master, the World Historical Figure, the real men who moved about world creating massive societal change. She would have to be, he told her, willing to bow before these real men in her quest for power, or in her ascent they would crush her – if only in their sport.
Then one evening he had asked, and seriously, too, if she would like to get married – to him.
“Why?” she asked. “Do you love me?”
“You are the only person I’ve ever loved. I was born to love you.”
“I don’t feel that way about you.”
“Oh, I understand that.”
“Because I want to help you achieve your dreams.”
And so she married him, and he guided her through the ins-and-outs of Washington until one day he was gone. She was surprised how much his passing hurt, but by then she had grown immune to such things. She in fact viewed herself now as a shark, cruising reefs in solitude, feeding when necessary, but most of all enjoying the feeling of immense, unquestioned power. She was a predator, she knew, consuming anyone and everything that got in her way, and she moved up the career ladder at FBI headquarters with patient, monotonous regularity.
She was a good cop, and she was good because she understood the repressed sexual dynamics that seemed to drive the human mind. And criminals were, after all, human beings – of a sort, anyway. The sort who had little control over such things, just the type she most loved to crush.
Over the years, one other fact of life emerged in Anne Rutherford’s world that seemed to edge out all other concerns, and that was the continuing social injustice women faced in society. The fact bothered her intellectually, and from a distance, for as a career law enforcement officer many such facts of life had been eased by federal regulation. Such things as unequal pay and sexual harassment no longer ‘obvious’ issues in the workplace, but of more importance, in her capacity as a law enforcement officer she ran into the real savagery such inequality visited upon women and children, and on an almost daily basis.
And she learned two things very quickly in her first years on the street.
The first was that there appeared to be real predators out there, predators whose crimes were not simple, accidental encounters. Their crimes were nothing less than the pre-meditated savagery of men who preyed on weak women, and who most often did so to exert control over a powerless, terrified victim. The second: that there were men in law enforcement who simply saw this predation as a part of the natural order of things, and as such, these crimes were rarely worth bothering with. She listened to agents toss off brutal jokes about women serially abused and murdered, jokes referencing mutilated vaginas or the emotional vagaries of PMS, and she wondered why some men thought these things funny. Perhaps because they knew so little about themselves?
Her first assignment, after completing her post-academy training at a field office in Hartford, Connecticut, had taken her into the bizarre realm of profiling, the reconstructive/predictive psychoanalysis of criminal behavior. With her academic background in sociology and psychology, this was a natural progression for her, and with her less well known sexual predilections an integral part of her deeper background, she discovered she had a real interest in this work.
She was sent to the field office in Cleveland, Ohio, when a series of disappearances gained national attention, and she began looking over the information gathered to date. The first things she noted were the victim’s names, names like Anna and Hannah. Palindromes. Every victim’s name was a palindrome, so instantly she knew these people had been chosen, that their disappearances were not random. So, if they weren’t random, were there other unifying characteristics?
After she posited her ‘palindrome insight’ with the SAC, or Special Agent in Charge, she found that men in the office tended to avoid her, but soon other women in the office took a more serious interest in her work, and her methodology; soon these women started working the area with her for clues, then developing ideas with her, helping her re-interview victim families, for instance, then charting the results on maps of the city, then Cuyahoga County. When all this information was collated, like the spokes on a wheel the abductions seemed to point inward to a small area in an older suburb called Brook Park. And all the victims belonged to Methodist churches, which rocked Anne’s personal world, if only a little, but perhaps her involvement became a little more personal after that.
She and her little crew of female agents visited churches in the area, developed lists of names, then cross-checked their names with other lists of known and suspected sexual predators, and they began to focus on a handful of homes in the area.
One afternoon she began watching a man who lived alone in a small house on Holland Road, and she followed him to the airport. He pulled into a parking garage but remained in his van, and an hour later he left – without once getting out or doing much of anything – except to look at two women through binoculars.
She knew then that she had found their man.
So she returned to the field office and swore out an affidavit for a search warrant and took it down to the courthouse. And it was denied. No probable cause, the judge said. Not enough to warrant such an intrusion, anyway. Get more solid information, he told her, “and don’t come back until you do, little lady.”
So she joined up with another female agent and they sat up on the man’s house, watched him for days.
And nothing happened.
He went to off work in the morning, invariably stopped off for dinner on his way home in the evening, then he went inside his home for the evening – and that was that. But then one evening he returned to the airport in his van, and he parked next to a new Chevy, and they parked almost out of sight and watched as he moved around inside the van. They waited for hours, then looked on as a flight attendant walked up to the back of the Chevy and put her bag in the trunk, then moved around to get in the car – and when the van’s side door slid open the man reached for the woman, grabbed her by the throat and put a hooded-cloth over her face, then pulled her inside the van. By the time he had sedated the woman, Rutherford and her partner had pulled their Explorer behind the van, blocking his escape, and moments later they had him on the ground, in handcuffs. Dozens of units converged on the scene after that, and the man was taken away to be interrogated, leaving Rutherford and a handful of other agents free to search the man’s house.
They found an ordinary enough home on the main floor, and a carnival or horror in the basement. Tables where women had been tied down and dissected, a butcher’s counter where the bodies had been further reduced, and vats of acid where their remains had been discarded. There were still bones in those vats, and teeth, and in the end Rutherford accounted for nineteen women who had passed through the man’s carnival of horror. Nineteen lives snuffed out by savage need, a need to control, an all-consuming need to instill fear, a need to torture.
Then they found the video recordings.
Of each victim’s last hours among the living, of the man’s twisted love for these women. For he had indeed loved them, indeed, he worshipped them, intoned Godly incantations while he kissed them and fingered them, went into fervent prayer as he slit their wrists. He drank their blood, eventually bathed in each victim’s blood, recreating a bizarre, almost medieval ritual after each murder. She saw patterns of obsessive-compulsive behavior in his rituals, and she knew these usually formed in childhood so she reached out and revisited the man’s past, reconstructing the elements within his upbringing that had helped shape and inform his extreme needs.
She found an absent father, a controlling and sexually abusive mother, alcohol and drug abuse a constant throughout his life. One neighbor recalled how the boy had enjoyed capturing dogs and cats, blinding them with sewing needles, then setting them loose on crowded streets and watching them get hit by passing cars. Another recalled stories she’d heard from neighborhood children, of how he’d brought girls home from school and tied them up in the garage behind his house, then how he’d painted them with red paint, cutting off their hair with pruning shears before releasing them.
His father was long gone by the time of his arrest, but she ran across his mother – and almost be accident. She’d been living in homeless shelters for years but had recently fallen ill, been transported to St Luke’s and diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was terminal, in an isolation ward when Rutherford interviewed the woman, and the event was transformative for Rutherford. What emerged was a portrait not of evil, or even simple weakness, but a cycle of victimization. Of sexual abuse, first by her father, then by her husband – who particularly enjoyed sodomizing her with a broomstick – yet when told of her son’s peculiar needs the woman only smiled.
“That’s all he ever wanted to do,” she told Rutherford. “He worshipped girls, from the first. When I took him to church he liked to sit behind attractive women in the pews, and when we kneeled to pray he would reach out and play with their shoes, then he would sniff his fingers. When we walked home he would confess these little sins to me, and I would beat him, then let him play with my shoes, smell my feet.”
“What role did the church play in his life?”
“We went several nights a week, because he seemed to enjoy it so.”
“What about your parents? Did your father play with you, with your feet?” Rutherford asked, and the woman had simply looked away.
Look away. Turn away. Let your impulses control you – never take control of them. Let other people control you, until there was nothing left of your life to control. That was the universal constant she found in that instant, and it reinforced all her earlier thinking.
So his crime had been part of a cycle, but Anne now suspected cycles like these were always involved. Sniffing feet, like a dog or any other predator might, was too obvious, too full of unexplored irony, but cycles of inverted lust weren’t that obvious, and control for control’s sake wasn’t ironic, and she saw this man’s love, his seriously perverted love, had developed in a youth spent surrounded by the trappings of religious order, yet such order was little more than delusion absent real understanding of both the self and the institutional order’s purpose. His mother’s serialized abuse helped create a new, unholy trinity, but what interested Rutherford most was how seemingly ‘normal’ the man’s upbringing was – from a distance, anyway. She had been on the street long enough to realize his upbringing was far from unusual, and that just a few key differences in his mother’s behavior might have changed the outcomes of an endless stream of broken lives. But because she was just part of a longer cycle playing out over time, she’d never been aware of her own role in the drama.
She returned to Washington after that and began a graduate program in psychology at Georgetown, more intent than ever of understanding the dynamics of these cycles, to unearth key differences between what might be ‘normal’ and what led to criminal psychopathology, yet her professors seemed resolutely uninterested in her line of study.
Try Sociology, one of them told her, and so she had.
When she wasn’t working on cases, she went to prisons and interviewed inmates. She went to seminaries and interviewed seminarians. She went to her husband’s clubs and participated in their minor, acted-out predations, yet she did so from then on as more of an observer, as someone interested in questions she perceived in these activities, not just the answers intuited in the needs and counter needs of play-acted passion. Yet in the end she saw, in all these settings, women and children as victims of a peculiar, predatory lust – and she saw no way out of this dilemma going forward. Nothing would change for women and children if the status quo remained, because everything was locked in ancient cycles of need and lust. A lust defined by men. A broken need that had become a self-perpetuating cycle of broken dreams and endless despair.
And yet, she soon discovered she was not alone in this thinking. She met other women running up against the same hard wall. Too often victims, and often enough, the women who helped victims. She kept note of these contacts, and over the years she was staggered to tally just how many she had met. Then she began to reach out, to discuss the framework of an idea…
So, as like-minded women, they met for years and discussed these issues, and in time they met and planned ways they might change the system. Physicians, nurses and social workers. Women in Congress, women in law enforcement and the military, women in academia and journalism. They met and planned at retreats in the country, and at more mundane political gatherings, where like minded adherents were first identified, then courted. An initial network of less than a hundred mushroomed into thousands, then the tens of thousands, and still they planned.
The group integrated with sub-groups around the country. Groups that almost always included wealthy, politically connected men. Groups that her husband had once belonged to. Clubs, little play-acting clubs, with play-acted control the goal. And soon she had the means, suddenly, to co-opt larges numbers of politically influential men all around the country. It didn’t take long for the group to realize that the same architecture could be applied globally, and so they spent a few years putting a larger network in place.
Then He came along. The latest president. The “pussy grabber,” the man who’d allegedly raped a 13 year old girl, then had his thugs threaten her with death when she decided to press civil charges. His election was a galvanic moment for the organization, and things began to move rapidly after that.
So – one day they decided to act, and they had found a perfect first target. A pedophile mixed up with Mexican drug runners who liked to make snuff videos, who lived in Dallas, Texas, and she decided to commit her protégé to this endeavor. To infiltrate law enforcement at the highest levels of the investigation, to mask the group’s activities for as long as possible.
And Genie Delaney had gone to Dallas willingly, had complete access to all the information being developed by the Dallas Police Department. She met with Delaney several times, and a key member of the department was identified for contact. A lanky, motor-jock who had flown for the Air Force, a kid named Ben Acheson.
Delaney was assigned to get as close as she could to him, to gather information that could be used to compromise him – when and if the time came.
And then some fuck-up shot Delaney, and all their plans started to unravel.
And Anne Rutherford had the last epiphany of her life.
She was sitting on a patio at a seaside estate in Estoril, a huge stone patio overlooking the sea, and she was looking at two Russian colonels and their mistresses. They looked like whores, and she laughed a little. ‘Well, maybe that’s because that’s exactly what they are,’ Rutherford said to herself. ‘They’re just like me, so who would know better?’
She had her Iridium on the table in front of her, and it chirped once, so she looked at the display, then signed on and took the call.
“Hello,” she said – tentatively.
“Yes. I got your message.”
“I’ve found Ben.”
“He’s in a Russian POW camp, north of Lisbon.”
“He’s in a make-shift hospital there, and I’ve heard he has a badly broken leg. I’m trying to get the Russians to let us get it fixed.”
“Several network people are here, have been since the election. Anyway, I think I’ve convinced a colonel to take me with him on an inspection tour of the POW camps north of the city. Do you want me to pass along a message?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Look, it’s bad here. Ben’s grandfather is sick…well, what can I say. Cattle are falling over in the fields, too much radiation in the grass, in the rain that’s falling, and there’s no more fuel so we can’t drive into town, and anyway, there’s nothing left, even if we could.”
“The grocery stores…?”
“Bare shelves. Satellite radio was our last link to the outside, but they went off the air yesterday.”
“How are you?”
“I’ve been vomiting blood all morning. Does that answer your question?”
“Genie, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry? Well, I guess that’s something.”
“Do you? I wonder? Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time, would you do it all over again?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“I knew you’d say that. Funny, I guess.”
“Funny? No, that’s not the word I’d use. Inevitable is a word that comes to mind. Non-sustainable is another. Maybe we just sped things up a little.”
“Wow, you really are a true believer, aren’t you?”
“Yes. We could have kept going down the same road, maybe another generation, maybe not, before things fell apart…”
“And you got to make that call?”
“It wasn’t just me, was it? I recall you were all for it, too, along with a few thousand like-minded people. Before you fell in love with Ben, anyway.”
“I know,” Genie said, quietly. “Like any other cult member, I guess. In the end it all comes down to brainwashing, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe. But political parties and their handmaidens in the media have been doing that for the last fifty years. We just took it to the next level.”
“Yes, I think so. Any idea how long people over there have?”
“In this part of Texas, two weeks. Maybe three. Average exposure in town is now over 300 rem. Last word we had was the major cities in Texas are silent now, but Houston was flattened on day one. Something like four large hydrogen warheads. There was one on the west side of Fort Worth, to take out an aircraft plant there, and San Antonio took a direct hit according to one report, but all our fallout is coming from the west coast. I can’t even begin to imagine what happened out there.”
“Any snow yet?”
“About two feet on the ground.”
“How about power?”
“Ben’s grandfather put in solar a few years ago, even a small wind generator. There’s enough power to keep the lights on.”
“Any news, anything on the internet?”
“Nope. It’s down. Everywhere, as far as I can tell.”
“Yes, it is here, too. Are you sure there’s nothing you want me to pass on to Ben?”
“There’s no need, Anne. You couldn’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“I don’t know. Can you make it all go away? Like this was all just a bad nightmare?”
“If I could.”
And the line went dead a moment later – though whether intentionally or by happenstance, she had no way of knowing.
She saw the Gaz Tigr as it turned onto the ramp, as the Russian behind the wheel turned for the C-17, then, as it drove by, she could just see Ben in the passenger’s seat.
“You go now,” the GRU colonel said to her, shoving her towards the aircraft.
She nodded her head, walked towards the Tigr as it stopped by the aircraft, and when she saw Acheson climb out her heart soared. He was walking, with a cane, but he was walking on his own, and he almost seemed surprised when he saw her walking his way, but in the end he ignored her, walked up to the code panel on the C-17 and entered a code – and she saw Piskov walking up from behind, a pistol drawn.
“Ben,” she called out, “was that stuff you told me about a delayed detonation code for real?”
Acheson turned, saw Piskov, and Rutherford – and he smiled at her ‘head’s up.’ “Five hour delay, as promised.”
“What’s this?” Piskov said, clearly not believing what he’d just heard.
“Oh, come on, Leo,” Ben said. “We know all you want is access to the birds so you can try and get to Kentucky, but there’s no way this aircraft is going to get anywhere near the coast. Besides, just how many more bombs do you think you need to drop?”
“We will stop bombing your country when your country stops bombing ours?”
“Oh? When’s the last time our country bombed Russia?”
“We hear there are preparations underway for a massive strike, right here in Europe.”
“Oh. I wonder who would spread a rumor like that?”
“Rumor, truth, does not matter now. Duty is all that’s left.”
“Duty to what, Leo?”
“To the homeland.”
“Ah. Well, good luck with that, Leo. Really. Now, are you going to shoot me, or let me load up our injured and get them on their way home?”
“But you just say you will not be allowed to US airspace. You think I am fool? All of us?”
“Why yes, Leo, now that you mention it, I do think you are fools, all of you. All of us, for that matter. And do you know why, Leo? Well, let me tell you anyway, Leo, because I’m pretty sure you don’t care why. You’re a fool, all of you are fools, for thinking you could win a nuclear war. You’re fools for wanting to believe the same old tired propaganda Stalin used to sell: pure fear, all the time. You’re fools even now for believing that same old bullshit, that we’re getting ready to plaster good old mother Russia with another wave of atomic horse manure. You are, Leo, in my opinion a race of fools, and it was humanity’s misfortune to end up on the same planet with you.”
“I could say the same thing about America!”
“And you know what? You’d be correct. We’re all fools. All of us, Leo.”
“Maybe you want me shoot you in face now? Save all the pain?”
“Fine with me, Leo, but there’s a quarter kiloton nuclear warhead ticking down right now, and it’s going to go off, right here, in just about five hours.”
“You bullshit. No such thing, and we know it.”
“Yeah, sure Leo, just like you know you can win a nuclear war. But don’t take my word for it. Come here, look at the display.”
Piskov walked over, looked at the display. “So, countdown timer. Big deal. Could mean anything.”
Ben went to the panel, hit the audio annunciator button, and a woman’s voice filled the air around the door.
“You now have four hours, fifty-six minutes to self-destruct. The minimum safe distance from this device is fifteen miles.”
“What is this mother fucker bullshit!” Piskov screamed.
“Leo, it’s not bullshit. It’s a point two five kiloton fission warhead, and it’s going to go off in a few hours, right here, too. I’d suggest you get in that little jeep of yours and beat feet out of here.”
Piskov stepped close, put the Makerov to his forehead. “You disarm now!” he screamed.
“Sorry, Leo. Once it’s armed there’s no way to stop it. And oh. If you shoot the panel, the bomb goes off. No delay. It just goes off.”
“You not shitting on me?”
“Well, let’s not go overboard, Leo. After all, we hardly know one another.”
Acheson was grateful Rutherford turned away, hid her laughter as well as she did.
“Leo, honest Indian. No bullshit. Now, can we get my people loaded. I want to get out of here.”
“But, where you go?”
“Well hell, Leo, this is the Marrakech Express. We’re going to Morocco, in case you want to come along.”
“Open ramp. We load now.”
Ben went to the panel and entered another code; lights came on, doors whirred open. Russians frog-marched the ground chief and loadmaster over, took off their hand-cuffs and ankle shackles – then ran away as fast as they could.
“Chief, go wake up my airplane, would you?”
“Sir, did you really arm that warhead?”
“Yes, Chief, I did. Now, let’s hop to!”
“So, is no bullshit.”
“No bullshit, Leo.”
“My thoughts, exactly.”
“You think you pretty funny, no?”
“No funnier than you, Leo. And you’re a very funny man.”
The man turned, began walking off and muttered: “Fuck you, and your mother, too.”
“No thanks, Leo. Trying to quit. Causes cancer, in case you haven’t heard.”
Piskov stopped in his tracks, shook his head, then started walking again.
Rutherford walked over and stood beside him, took his hand in hers. “You know, I wonder. Is he really that fucking stupid, or was he acting.”
Acheson shrugged, then looked at her. “You have any idea where to go?”
“Yup,” she said, grinning, “think so.”
Trucks began backing up the loading ramp, then troops helped carry the injured men to the cargo deck – which was, thankfully, still set up with standard Medevac beds, respirators and IV pumps. The loadmaster came up, asked Acheson if he had any special orders, and Ben told him to make sure the men were strapped in tight, because it was going to be a bumpy ride.
The loadmaster walked away shaking his head, wondering how the hell the pilot knew that.
Acheson walked up the forward steps and then up to the flight deck, and he confirmed entries on the code panel, released a safety – and only then went to his seat. A minute later someone claiming to be a Marine F-35 pilot came up and asked if he could be of help, and Acheson looked at the man – who appeared uninjured – and asked him where he was from.
“Mississippi,” the man said.
“Oh? Where’d you go to school?”
“Yeah? How ‘bout them Buckeyes?”
“Yeah, they had a good year, didn’t they?”
“Better than you, Ivan. Take a hike.”
A few minutes later a heavily bandaged pilot came huffing and puffing into the cockpit, and he looked at the overhead panel and sighed. “Someone tells me there’s an airedale up here who don’t know how to fly real good, and shit, I thought since I’m Naval Aviator and therefore, by definition, a better pilot that any goddamn Air Force puke that ever lived, maybe I ought to come up here and see if I could give away some free airplane flying lessons.”
Acheson turned and looked at the man. “They take the training wheels off your Tomcat yet, hot shot?”
“Tomcat? Man, where you been the last twenty years?”
“With your mother, drilling her in the can.”
“She gettin’ any better at it?”
“Howdy. My name’s Acheson. You?”
“Bond. James Bond.”
“You know, I’m just as fuckin’ sorry as I can be, but my grandfather’s last name was Bond, and so was my Dad’s. And I can’t fuckin’ help it if they both liked Ian Fucking Fleming. Alright? Any questions?”
“Yeah man. Say, what are all them-thar buttons up there for?”
“Oh, those operate the in-seat dildo dispenser. Don’t touch them unless you want hemorrhoids.”
“Oh, right. Heard about them,” Bond said as he tried to slip into the seat. “Yeow. I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had.”
“Ejected – at Mach 1.3.”
“Never done that. Is it as fun as I hear?”
“Funner. Man, this looks like an MD-11.”
“Kind of, but don’t let looks fool you. You flown commercial?”
Acheson heard someone close by, turned and saw Piskov standing in the cockpit door.
“You decide to come along for the ride, hot shot?”
“I come to tell you your men are loaded. You now leave any time you wish.”
“Oh, well, I’ll come down and see you off.”
“As you wish.”
“Jimmy? Back in a flash.”
Before he left the cockpit, Acheson went into a locker and pulled out a Beretta 92 SB-F and slipped it into his waste-band, then followed Piskov down to the main cargo deck.
“Chief,” he said to the ground chief, “I need you to give me a hand with something,” and as Piskov turned to the chief Acheson cold-cocked the Russian with the Beretta.
“Sir?” the wide-eyed crewman said.
“Wrap his ass in duct-tape and throw him in the head, would you?”
He walked aft to a foot locker sized metal box the Russians had placed on the cargo ramp, then he went over and closed the cargo ramp. When it was closed he turned to the loadmaster and smiled: “Help me open this, would you?”
They worked for a minute, then busted the lock and opened the case.
“What is it, sir?”
“Small nuclear warhead, would be my guess.”
Acheson looked at the control panel, then felt someone coming up from behind. He turned, saw Rutherford standing there. “You don’t happen to know any Russian, do you?”
“Silly me, of course you do. Mind telling me what this says?”
“Push here, and kiss your ass goodbye.”
“Thanks. Want to try again?”
“The green button is a timer set/reset button. Yellow is arm. Red is detonate now.”
“And it’s set for eight hours and ten minutes right now?”
“That would be my guess – yes.”
“So, to reset to five minutes, looks like we hit the green reset button,” he said, punching the button, “then turn this dial to five minutes. Next, to begin the countdown again, hit the green button again, then hit yellow to arm the bomb, then you’d have five minutes to get the fuck out of Dodge. That about right?”
“Ben. You’re not.”
And Acheson nodded his head. “You reap what you sow, darlin. Chief, I’m gonna taxi out to the end of the runway and hang this bird’s ass out over the grass and drop the ramp. Make sure all the lights are out back here, and when I make the turn you’ve got thirty seconds to get this thing out in the grass and get your swingin’ dick back in here. I’ll be doing the run up, and don’t forget to push the green button, then the yellow. If someone shows up shootin’ then press the red one and start sayin’ your prayers.”
“We’re counting on you, buddy.”
“I’ll stay with him, Ben.”
“No need. Come on up with me now.”
They met the chief coming out of the head – and Ben looked in, saw Leo trying to scream through a wad of silver tape over his mouth. “Found some handcuffs, too, sir,” the Chief said, grinning.
“Cool. Soon as we’re airborne, I want you and the loadmaster to strip him naked, put him in a parachute, and get ready to throw his ass out of here on my say-so.”
The chief laughed. “Man, did he piss you off or something?”
“Or something. That’s a nuke back there, timed to go off when we’re somewhere over the Atlantic, or close to home.”
“Roger that, sir.”
He turned and left for the cockpit, and Rutherford followed him again.
“You’re evil, you do know that, don’t you?”
“Just following the Golden Rule. Kind of. You know, do unto others before they do it to you first.”
“Have a seat,” he said, pointing at the left jump-seat. “I better try and remember how to fly one of these things, and fast.”
“You know, it’s the simple expressions of competence that really warm the heart,” Bond said.
“And who is this?” Rutherford asked.
“Bond, James Bond,” both Acheson and Bond said, as if on cue.
“Ah,” she said, “dinner and a floor show. How charming.”
Acheson saw the ground chief outside making hand signals, and Acheson held up two fingers – and got a nod.
“Okay, let’s start two.”
“And you obviously think I know how to do that, don’t you?” Bond said, grinning.
Acheson shook his head, reached over and started the engine, then watched pressures and ratios until power stabilized. When the chief signaled three fingers, he started the inboard right engine – and just then another Tigr jeep drove up, and two soldiers ran up to the open boarding door. A moment later they burst into the cockpit.
“Kepitane Piskov? Where he is!?” One of them shouted.
And Rutherford, in perfect Russian, told them he had gone already, that he had exited through the aft cargo ramp several minutes ago. She went with them and showed them all the patients in their litters and, thoroughly confused, the men left. She came up to the flight deck a few minutes later, completely amused with herself now.
“They say we’re to communicate on 121.5. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Yes indeedy.” He turned COMM 1 to the frequency and and called in: “Ground, the is Air Force 60002, how do you read?”
“60002, we read five by five.”
“Any information you want to pass along?”
“0-2, such as?”
“Oh, you know, runway, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction. The basics, maybe?”
“The base commander advises you may fuck off.”
“60002, I read that as clear to fuck off, barometer is fuck off, and wind speed and direction are fuck off as well? Is that a good read-back, or should I tell you to fuck off too?”
Another voice came on after that. “Sorry about that, Air Force. You are clear to take off on runway 17, barometer is 29.95, wind out of south, speed light and variable, C-A-V-U reported to Lisbon.”
“Thanks, tower, and y’all have a good life.”
He finished starting one and four, then entered the LAT and LON from the readout on his sat phone into the INS, and then noticed he had a clear GPS signal so reactivated the system; he input Lisbon as the first “waypoint” in his route, then he turned to Rutherford.
“Where are we going?”
“Not where you think,” she said, handing him coordinates scrawled hastily on a scrap of paper.
“Interesting. Any reason why?”
“And of course, you’re going to tell me, aren’t you?”
“I see. Perhaps I should just leave that bomb onboard.”
“Fine. I know what the red button does.”
He turned back to the FMC, the flight management computer, and input the coordinates she’d given him, not sure why he was trusting her – but then he considered: without an alternate? “Oh well, any port in a storm,” he sighed.
“0-2, we are ready to taxi.”
“0-2, you will be number two, behind Sukhoi 27.”
Bond chimed in now. “Why are they sending one of those up now?”
“To shoot you down as soon as we deviate from a course towards Lajes,” Rutherford said.
“That would be my guess, too,” Acheson added.
“Gee, swell,” Bond whispered.
Acheson advanced the throttles and turned for the taxiway, followed the splotchy blue fighter out to the end of the runway, then went on the intercom as he braked. “Everyone prepare for departure, we’ll be turning on to the runway after the Russian fighter just ahead takes off. That’ll be the loud noise you hear in just a moment. Lights out now, Chief.”
The Sukhoi’s engines ran up to an incredible roar and held power for several seconds, then it leapt down the runway and vaulted into the sky. He waited several seconds then let off the brakes and the C-17 coasted into a wide turn, Acheson letting the tail, and the cargo ramp, drift out over the grass beyond the runway’s threshold. As he turned for the centerline he lowered the ramp, and started a stop watch on the panel, then he began his engine run up. He watched pressures and ratios, and the clock, and forty seconds later he raised the ramp and released the brakes.
The C-17 crawled down the runway, slowly built speed, and at 137 knots he rotated and began a very gentle climb.
“Positive rate,” Bond said. “Gear up.”
“Okay.” Acheson cleaned the wing and turned to the first heading prompt, keeping an eye on the timer now, accelerating through three hundred knots while still only a few hundred feet above the trees.
The threat panel chimed, indicating an airborne radar was painting the aircraft. He turned the ECM panel to AUTO, and two more warnings sounded.
“Here comes Ivan,” Acheson whispered.
“I know that sound,” Bond added, “and I still don’t like it.”
Acheson reached to the overhead, flipped off two safeties, then armed ‘White Eyes,’ and a deep, steady warning alarm sounded.
“What the Hell’s that?” Bond cried.
“A two billion candlepower retina scorch. Sorry about this, Ivan, but you asked for it.” He activated the system, and seconds later the threat panel erupted. “Heat-seekers!” Acheson whispered as he reefed the -17 into a tight, climbing right, flares and chaff trailing – then he slammed the pedals into a steep diving left – and saw two Russian Atoll heat-seeking missiles arc away into the night. Then he saw the Sukhoi wobbling into a shallow dive, and he watched it slam into trees a few miles away, then heard Rutherford behind him whispering “Sweet Jesus…”
“Thirty seconds,” he said.
“Til what?” Bond replied.
“Big box go boom.”
“What big box?”
“Tell ya what, Slick. Just hang on.”
A sudden sun came out, and he looked at the display, saw they were 24 miles from the runway. “Hope this is enough…”
He held onto the stick, but the expected concussion never hit so he banked into a steep left turn and looked back – and saw a wall of flame at least a mile high roaring through the hills and forests. Turning for Lisbon again, he firewalled the engines and began a max power climb.
“Was that a nuke?” Bond asked.
“I think so, but it’s generated a huge firewall, and it’s moving fast.”
Bond looked down, saw the wall moving below them now, then he looked at their airspeed. “It’s got to be moving at close to 500 miles per hour!”
Acheson looked at their altitude – 22,000 and climbing – and he saw the fire racing for Lisbon, still 60 miles distant. “What have they gone and done now?”
“Must be super-hot,” Bond said, his voice full of wonder. “It seems to be fusing everything in it’s path. Probably a cobalt encased warhead.”
“Well, it was meant for us, for the new government, supposedly in Kentucky somewhere.”
“That figures. A warhead like this would cause fires in those hills that would burn for months, maybe all the way to Kansas.”
“You got to hand it to Ivan. He’s got a death wish a mile wide.” He got on the intercom. “Chief? Can you come up here now?”
He heard the man come in a moment later. “Yessir?”
“Assuming I can get ahead of this firewall, I’ll be dropping down to 12,000. I’d like to give our passenger a parachute lesson right about then.”
“Intensity dropping off now,” Bond said, and Acheson trimmed into a shallow descent.
“Wish I knew where a convent was…”
“There is one,” Rutherford said, “near the river just beyond the financial district. There’s a gray tower, a tourist thing, very easy to spot.”
“Really? Sweet! Chief? We’re going to drop our boy on a convent. Real low like, maybe.”
“Very pretty place,” Rutherford added. “Called the Carmo.”
“Wonder what they’ve got going on at the airport?” Bond asked.
“Transports and fighters, would be my guess.”
“If this was my airplane I’d get down in the weeds right about now.”
“Not a bad idea.” He trimmed for a 450 knot dive, and aimed for the river. “Chief, better get ready…”
Skimming along the river, they flew past the airport, and pulling up sharply, Acheson flew past the monastery, grinned when the air pressure popped, and then when the pressurization system restarted. The Chief came forward, told him that the Russian had seemed a little less than grateful for being dropped off by parachute, and Rutherford shook her head when Bond quipped something about the ‘fella making it to church in time for morning prayers.’
Heading almost due south now, Acheson trimmed for a fuel conserving climb and engaged the FMC, then went aft to check on his ‘passengers.’ He ran into Captain Cullwell, the physician, and saw she was shaken.
“What’s wrong?” he asked when he saw her ashen expression.
“Radiation alarms started going off in here a few minutes after take-off. What kind of bomb was that?”
“Don’t really know. Navy guy up front mentioned a cobalt casing, but I’m not up on all that stuff. How bad was it?”
She shook her head, turned away. “You don’t want to know,” was all she said.
“Well, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot now anyway, does it? Still think you need to run an IV while I’m up front?”
“Yeah. I’ve got everything ready.”
“Okay, let me check in with folks back here, then I’ll meet you up on the flight deck.”
She nodded her head while he walked all the way aft and spoke with the airman who’d taken the bomb out to the grass. “You have any trouble getting that thing out of here?”
The boy looked grim, then shook his head.
“Okay, spill it.”
“There were houses back there, sir. I mean, families. I saw a kid at a fence with his dog, watching us. Like…up early to watch the airplanes, you know?”
Acheson swallowed hard, took a deep breath in through his nose and blinked. “They put that on here so we would carry it to our country…”
“I know, sir, but did we have to? Set it off, I mean. You’d disarmed it. Wasn’t that all we needed to do?”
Acheson shook his head. “Maybe…”
“I heard you guys talking, sir. About, well, when will it be enough, sir? They’re like crazy with suspicion, and who knows, maybe that started it all, but it’s like, well, we just can’t let it go either.”
“I know,” Acheson said. “Maybe that’s why we’re here right now, why we are where we are, spiraling down the drain.”
“I was thinkin’, sir. We’re like two boxers in a ring, with no ref. We keep pounding away on each other, and we’re going to keep on ‘til there’s nothing left. Isn’t that about it, sir? Isn’t that who we are, I mean really, deep down, all there is to us?”
“I don’t know, kid.”
“Sir, you look like hell. Maybe you better go sit down.”
Acheson nodded, turned to the cockpit – then felt the world falling away.
Someone opened his eye, shone a light in – and he tried to turn away. His hands were tingling, his feet too – then he knew he was going to vomit and tried to sit up. Someone helped him lean over the stretcher, held a bucket under his face and he let go. When he was finished he noticed the fluid was streaked with long clots of blood, and he tasted the coppery essence of hemoglobin, not the usual bile-soaked barf he remembered from nights after drinking too much.
Acheson looked up, saw Cullwell getting ready to stick him with a hypodermic.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Sedative, and I want to get some whole blood in you. There was a fridge forward with about twenty units of your type. If I can get it in you’ll feel a lot better.”
“Not a sedative…”
“I’ve got to get your blood pressure down – it’s 155 over 110. Ben, you’re losing a lot of blood – out your rectum now. You understand?”
But he didn’t, not even a little – yet he did feel like he was falling again.
He felt a hand on his forehead and opened his eyes, saw Rutherford standing over him, looking into his. She smiled when she saw his eyes and leaned over, kissed his forehead. “About another twenty minutes,” she said, “then you can sit up.”
“What about…where are we?”
“Hey, turns out that Navy puke knows how to fly after all.”
“Pah. Nobody in the Navy knows how to fly.”
She grinned. “How do you feel now?”
“Better. Not as nauseated.”
“That’s the promethazine,” Cullwell said. “And I can’t give you any more ‘til we’re on the ground – or you won’t even be able to pick your nose without help, let alone pick out a runway.”
“Swell. That’s one of those drugs we aren’t allowed to take before flying…”
“Guess what, Ben. No FAA, so no worries, and besides, you’ve got three quarts of brand new motor oil flowing through those veins, and you’re gonna feel like a new man as soon as you get up.” Cullwell disconnected him from the IV pump, then swabbed down the shunt and put a bandage over it. “Just a few more minutes,” she said, “and you’ll be good to go.”
“How far out are we?” he asked Rutherford.
“About 800 miles – a half hour ago, anyway.”
He took a deep breath, then coughed – and he tasted blood in his mouth again. “Damn.”
“I started coughing up blood a few hours ago,” she said, wiping spittle from his chin.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.”
Cullwell walked up again, another syringe in hand. “Sleeves up,” she said.
“Just a little vitamin cocktail.”
“Right. Sure thing,” he said, rolling up his shirt sleeve. She swabbed his arm, then pinched and stuck him – and he let out a long sigh – as in his mind’s eye he was looking at a kid in Portugal, in his back yard, peeking over a fence at jets taking off just before his day got started, a little pup yapping at his feet.
“You sure the tower is 119.3?” Bond asked, looking at the runway and tower as it passed below on their ‘downwind.’
“That’s the latest published info I have. The VOR is still active, so I’d assume either everyone is dead down there, or they’re just not talking to us. See any traffic?”
“An old 757 at the terminal, a couple of ATRs parked out…wait…looks like three C-17s just off the ramps, covered with netting. Some troops too.”
“They’ll be mine,” Rutherford said.
“What do you mean, ‘yours’?” Bond asked, turning to look at her.
“They’re part of my group.”
“You mean…?” Bond said, looking from Rutherford to Acheson.
“We had just arrested her,” Acheson said, dropping the flaps and cutting power, “and were transporting her back to the States when all this happened.”
“Oh, that’s just great, man. So, we’re getting ready to land in a nest of these people?”
“That’s one way to look at it. You’ll get to spend the last weeks of your life surrounded by women…”
“Feminists, you mean. Not the same thing as women.”
Rutherford groaned, looked away. “Just my luck,” she sighed.
Acheson made an easy turn onto final, then put the flaps all the way down. “Gears, please.”
Bond dropped the lever, and three green lights popped. “Anything else I need to know?” he added.
“We’ve been moving stuff here for weeks, before all the excitement broke out. Kind of a refuge, I guess, in case things turned sour.”
“So, you thought this could happen?”
“It was always a possibility.”
“Man, our tax dollars at work.”
“You should experience the world, for just one day, from my perspective…”
“No thanks,” Bond groaned.
“Could y’all just shut up, please,” Acheson growled. “This is my last time in an airplane, and I’d kind of like to enjoy it, ya know?” He was gentle now, gentle on the controls, trying to store all the sensations in memory, smiling as he flared over the threshold, easing her down like he was settling on eggshells, then easy braking and light reverse thrust. He saw the other C-17s and taxied over slowly, and several women – M4 carbines in hand – walked towards them.
“I’d better go out and show my face now,” Rutherford said, and she disappeared, went down to the forward door. Ben stopped, shut-down 1 and 2, then released the lock. He saw her walk out on the ramp and the guards snapped off salutes, then ran up and hugged her.
Bond looked at Acheson and groaned again. “Figures,” he said.
Rutherford looked up at him and made “kill the engines” motions, drawing a finger across her neck, and he started the APU, then shut down the other two engines – just as the Chief and the loadmaster came into the cockpit.
“What’s the plan?” the Chief asked, looking at the women on the ramp.
“Get with them,” Ben said, pointing at the women, “see where they want to put us.”
“Sir? Word is they started all this, so ain’t they the enemy?”
“I don’t know, Chief. Are they?”
“I’d say they are,” Bond said.
“Well, that’s just great. Maybe a few hundred people left here, and we’re going to spend our last few weeks trying to kill one another. I wonder who we can get to chisel that on our tombstones. ‘Here lies the remains of a race that just could not learn.’ Why don’t y’all go get some sticks and stones, try and beat some more people to death.”
He turned and looked at them. “No, really. That’s an order. Sticks and stones, men. Kill anything that moves…right now! Go! Go forth and KILL! Do your species proud – ?”
No one moved, no one said a word.
“Well, unless you’re going to stay here picking your nose, I suggest you get out there and figure out where these injured need to go.”
“Come on, Chief,” he heard the loadmaster say. “Let’s figure it out.”
“You okay?” Bond asked when they were alone again.
“What do you think?”
“Me? I think if you lose it, a whole lot of people are going to go down with you, so maybe you ought to snap out of it.”
He saw the chief down on the ramp, watched him talking with Rutherford and the other women, and he saw the guy point up to the flight deck, then Rutherford looked up at him, nodded and spoke with the guards. He leaned back, shut his eyes then, and felt himself drifting away – but he spoke again, softly. “I think y’all are going to have to get on without me now, Jim.”
Bond tried to keep him from falling out of the seat, but failed.
Acheson woke in a long night, saw he was in a field hospital of some sort, tried to take stock of where he was, what was happening around him, but there were only a few lights on, and those few were in the distance. A nurse walked by and he spoke out, she stopped and looked into his eyes, listened to his lungs, told him she would bring him something to drink and he leaned back, looked up at the fabric structure overhead – then he remembered Portugal. Their flight – their escape – and then – the bomb. It wasn’t all a dream, he realized. It had happened, yet now everything felt like a dream. Genie and The Duke, Carol and all the others – like a jumble of crazy-hazy memory, something that had been, and now – wasn’t. He wanted to crawl inside of himself and disappear after that, but Rutherford came to him, pulled up a chair and sat by him.
Then she handed him a Coke, in a plastic cup – with ice!
He sat up for that, and drank it slowly, savoring it, chewing the ice with a kid’s grin on his face, and at one point he looked at her, really absorbed her simple beauty. The kindest, yet most complex eyes he’d ever seen, and her lips. He looked at them and wanted to kiss them, then he saw Genie in his mind’s eye and he wondered where she was.
He felt a hand on his forehead and looked up, realized he’d been sleeping again, then he saw Rutherford again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry we didn’t get to have more time together.”
She was smiling, but she was crying, too, and he wondered why.
“You belonged to someone else, Ben, but I feel so lucky I finally found you.”
She nodded her head. “Yup. You know, I never fell in love. I was too busy studying all the ways love goes bad, and why people do terrible things in the name of love – but then there was you. You came out of nowhere and for the first time in my life I knew what love was.”
“What was it, for you?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking about that for a while. Peace maybe? I looked at you once and I knew if I could just rest in your arms that everything would be okay. And that none of this would have happened. Isn’t that awful? How one person’s silly, shallow life ended up being the end of things?”
It was difficult, but he slid over on the stretcher and made room for her, then he opened his arms. “Lay with me now, would you?” he asked.
And she slid on the stretcher, let him put his arms around her, and she lay facing him – looking eye to eye, soul to soul. He was searching for something, she thought, some way to make room in his heart for her, and he kissed her once again, then she felt him ease away.
She held him close, talked and talked about all the things they’d do once they were together again, and by the time she stopped talking he was still and cool. She couldn’t let go, and she felt gentle, prying arms sometime later, and as she watched them take his body away she felt, for the first time in her life, something like loss.
I think I’d had it with sailing, really, by the time we sailed into San Francisco. The routines were getting stale, and the perpetual uncertainty about what lurked unseen in the night wore on me constantly. Still, crawling through the shrubbery when Persephone and I ran from Lajes had come almost as an epiphany, a rebirth, of sorts. When we saw that marina I think we were both filled with an endless elation: escape was at hand, and the sea would deliver us from death.
We found a decent boat, Clytemnestra, a Nauticat 371, that had just been provisioned, her tanks filled, and we found her owner down below, clutching her chest, diaphoretic, with her eyes full of panic. I got us out of the marina and rolled out the sails, and we sailed due south for weeks. Persephone’s skilled hands coaxed life back into the woman, a physician from London out to see the world after her husband passed, and we found our way to the Cape Verde Islands three weeks later. We took on water, managed to get some fuel, and continued sailing south.
A new routine developed on Clytemnestra, a routine based on washing her decks with sea water every two hours. Blackened dust fell on everything constantly, and the evil stuff got into every nook and cranny, especially down below, if we failed to keep her decks fresh – yet we noticed something rather uplifting within a few weeks. The further south we managed to get, the less fallout we accumulated on deck. At Cape Verde we took Clytemnestra’s sails down and doused them in the sea, aired them on the beach, and Sephie and I shook them out before we put them up again, then we put out to sea, aiming to get as far south as we could before winter.
Jill Armstrong was a sort of minor revelation, and, of course, in the end I fell in love with her. Persephone, being the sort of earth-mother type that blesses all love, made room for Jill in her heart and the three of us arrived at Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands, just as winter was coming on. Being crewed by a nurse and a physician, and a Londoner at that, saw us welcomed with open arms, and Sephie and I looked at one another and knew we were home, that our journey was at an end. Not quite the voyage we set out to make, but there you go.
There has been almost zero radiation this far south, and that was the end of that, for now, anyway. There was little news about the north, only that loss of life had been extreme. The islanders didn’t really know what had happened, and really, neither did we. It was enough, in the end, to realize that man had taken a few wrong turns along the way. Survival would take precedence now, above all else, and perhaps war would be at an end.
Or perhaps not. I tend to doubt we’ll ever learn from our mistakes, but I could be wrong.
We moved into a commune of sorts, an agricultural commune at that, and we settled in for the long night as the first snows of winter fell, and we went to sleep, an easy, deep sleep, and we were soon dreaming of the Spring. But that’s another story, for another day…
© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com