|Art by Tom Leins|
April kept checking the rearview mirror as she drove. The pickup trucks had fallen in behind her. She didn’t know what the hell her mother had gotten herself into, or why the bugout message had come now, but those goons behind her made it clear that things were bad. Really fucking bad.
She wanted to run. Wanted to cry. Wanted to curl up in a ball and just cry. But she could just hear her mother. Time and place, mom would say. Take care of the job at hand, survive whatever is coming at you, and then you can have a nice long cry.
It sounded good, but she doubted Joyce had ever cried a single time in her life.
So cry later, but what now? There was no way this was a coincidence, these guys showing up right after that message. And if they knew who she was, they knew where she lived. So no point going home for the pack she kept in the closet. Guess it was a good thing Mom insisted on another bugout bag in her jeep. Smaller, but enough to get going.
The light ahead turned yellow. She looked at the mirror again. It was one thing to train for this kind of thing, and to be honest, April had always thought her mom was just paranoid—too much bad shit from her military service. Had always gone along with her, rolling her eyes all the while. But maybe the old woman wasn’t so crazy after all.
April pushed down the clutch, rolled toward the stop—and then charged through just before the light went red.
Let’s see how bad they want me, she thought.
Horns blew behind her. Brakes shrieked. Shit. The two trucks had gunned it around the car in front of them and through the intersection. And closing in.
Think, McFly, think. You’re supposed to be prepared for anything. Yeah, a disaster or something, a pandemic maybe, not the fucking goon squad coming for you. So. What would Mom do?
April dropped down a gear, braked, and swung the jeep to the left, hoping to catch the goons off-guard. Tires squealed and the jeep rocked as it dropped back to all four wheels. The grey trucks were a flash in her rearview before they slammed on the brakes, the engines whining loudly as they reversed as fast as they could. Practically in unison, in two different vehicles. These guys were good. What the hell was going on?
She spun the jeep to a stop across the road and slid across to the passenger seat. There was a thumbprint lockbox in the glovebox that held a Glock 26 and two full mags. She knew what Mom would do. Meet the motherfuckers head on and get it over with.
Her hands shook but she got the box open and the gun out. She barreled out of the vehicle, then crouched behind the passenger-side fender.
The trucks had jerked to a stop, the engines idling. There were no footsteps, no talking. Had she confused them, made them think she’d ran off somewhere?
A shadow fell over her and she jerked around, lifted the pistol, finger almost curled around the trigger.
A tall man, dark clothes, hands empty but a holstered pistol on one thigh, an MP5 hung on a sling against his chest. He reached down with one hand, pushing the barrel of her pistol toward the ground. “Easy, April, I’m here to help.”
He looked over the hood of the jeep to the two waiting trucks. “Wow. You really are just like your mother, aren’t you? Have you ever even fired that thing?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Will Souterrain. Been keeping an eye out, but they moved quicker then we expected. Well, shall we get this over with?”
“Everybody pile in!”
Joyce couldn't believe what she was seeing. Parked on the dirt road ahead was an up-armored Chevrolet Himmler 9000 bugout survivalist van. She knew it came with a 6.8-liter ApocalypseTek V10 engine, 355 ponies of power, lower body armor, raised suspension, and a roof larded with solar power cells. But what really blew her mind was the fact that it was painted jet black and had a distinctive red stripe running from a spoiler in the back and down across the front.
“Sam, do you not know what ‘going off the grid’ means?”
“Hide in plain sight. That’s always been my motto,” Sam said. His face was a swollen mess of wounds, pale, sweaty, and weak. She had seen that look too many times. “Besides,” he said, “it came that way. I didn’t have the heart to repaint it.”
The others hesitated. “It’s the only way out for all of us,” Joyce said. “Unless you have a helicopter packed in your Gucci bag, Viv.”
Vivian cocked an eyebrow at the Russian, who had a huge smile on his face for some reason.
Joyce’s father nodded. “Sam,” he grumbled.
“Mr. DeWitt,” said Sam, intimidated as ever by the granite slab or her dad.
But that slab looked ready to collapse now. Weak, vulnerable. Joyce found she just couldn’t hate him like she used to.
The interior of the van was lined with ammo, a military-grade first aid kit, gas masks, and MREs. Taking up the entire back seat and stacked to the roof were rolls and rolls of toilet paper.
As Joyce squeezed in next to her father, Vivian pressed next to her.
“How can your bony ass take up so much room?” Vivian said.
“Maybe because I didn’t sell out into a cushy corporate security job. Roast beef and potato chips much?”
Vivian remained silent.
The Russian was the last to get in—apparently he had been walking all around the supervan, admiring it. “This cannot be real! I fucking love this show!” said Kuznetsov, opening the driver’s door. “I am going to be fucking Mr. T!”
“No chance, Ivan Putski,” Sam said, prodding him away with his upright Weatherby 18i. “My boat, my wheel.”
“Careful,” Kuznetsov said. “Or we make your next president even worse.”
“Cool your towers, Chernobyl. Here, listen to this.” Sam pressed the horn and it played the theme from the ’80s TV show.
“I’m going to die in this thing,” said Vivian. “And I survived Kampala.”
Joyce smacked her ex in the back of the head. “Sam! Could you please? It’s not like these hills aren't lined with people trying to kill us.”
“Oh yeah. Gotcha.”
However, the Russian was giddy as he settled his large frame into the shotgun seat.
Joyce's nerves were set on a steel edge. “C’mon, Sam. We have to move. You know April’s likely on the move already. We have to get to her before anyone else does.”
The supervan’s wheels dug into the road and it took off. That was when gunfire started peppering the windows.
“Armageddon-level window armor,” bragged Sam, increasing speed. “Top of the line.”
“Oh no,” Joyce said. Her body was reacting to a sound she could barely hear, reacting before she could even articulate the danger.
A high-pierced buzzing and then a whoosh dopplering closer.
Everyone in the van said it at the same time: “Ramrod Personal Missile.”
“FML-95?” Sam said.
“FML-99!” Joyce said.
They all braced for impact.
The trees moved slowly as the forest inhaled, exhaled. The wind whistled through the pines. There was something in the air and Jimmy didn’t like it. He was eyeballing the tree line slowly, smoking slowly. Waiting. Listening.
Then the sounds came echoing through the hills.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
Just like the new kid had said on the telephone.
Jimmy scratched at his beard, inhaled his cigarette, and continued to listen.
“See? I told ya, Jimmy. Somebody be shooting in these hills and it ain’t no hunters. Besides ain’t even the season for it, I reckon.”
Jimmy just looked at the skinny kid standing there scratching his asscrack through his crusty denim dungarees and swinging the greasy gas mask to and fro.
The Corpse Grinders Motorcycle Club was scraping the bottom of the barrel with new recruits the last couple of decades. It wasn’t like back in the day. Not at all. Half of these newer members just sat around on their choppers, posing for photographs they put up on the internets, and the other half didn’t know shit from Shinola. Fucking soft idiots. That fucking beatnik Bob Dylan had been right all along: The Times They Are A Changing.
Jimmy flicked his cigarette towards the cabin, turned and glared back into the trees and over the hills towards the lake. “Sure as shit ain’t no hunters, right Jimmy? You think it’s the po-po?”
“The what you say, boy?”
“You know, the po-po? The 5-0?”
More of the sounds came through the greenery in quick succession.
High-caliber weaponry. Shit. Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and he was eighteen years old again in A Sầu Valley. Hamburger Fucking Hill. He opened his eyes again and focused on a patch of pale-yellow light cutting through the tree branches. The scent of gunpowder twisted on the breeze. He took the pack of Camels out of his leather jacket and lit up another cigarette. His right hand was trembling, cramping up on him again, and he shook it disgustedly in front of his chest. That was the problem with surviving to the age of sixty-nine. Your body started murmuring, ‘Fuck this! I didn’t sign up for this shit, I’m outta here.’
“Nope,” he spat on the dirt, “it ain’t the cops or the pe-pe or whatever the hell you say. There’s shit going down in my backyard. Get back inside the hut and finish the batch we got brewing and then clean up, lock up and head home. I’m gonna go and have myself a mooch about.”
He walked over to his pickup truck and slid the sawed-off shotgun from under a blanket in the bed. He felt something like relief when he held the weight of it in his grasp.
Then he stopped. What the hell was that?
It was... a novelty car horn, echoing some kind of theme tune over the landscape.
He grunted and then swung himself into the driver’s seat, placing the Shorty on the seat next to him. His daughter had forced him to sell his chopper and go four-wheeled since the doctor’s diagnosis. He wasn’t happy about it, but he was never happy about much of anything.
He fumbled with the radio, gunned the engine, and pulled into the dusty lane leading towards the lake. He saw the idiot kid waving him goodbye in the rearview. FNG.
When the machine-gun fire ripped open the stillness of the air and the explosion rocked his old pickup on its axles, Jimmy swerved the truck over to the side of the dirt road and pulled the phone from the glovebox. He fingered the right digits and waited.
“Yeah, its Jimmy—I’m down at the place—there’s some kind of a clusterfuck going down in the bush, and I want you to send the boys on over—yeah—all of them—send every fucking one.”
He closed the phone and tossed it on the dashboard. He picked up the Shorty, cocked it, climbed from the truck, and started walking towards the sounds of Hamburger Hill Part Fucking Two. The Shorty trembled in his aching fists. He listened to the screams of Charlie crashing down the dusty road and smiled to himself. An uninvited guest to a regular shitshow.
A Himmler is a fine machine with an unfortunate name, but it couldn’t withstand an FLM-99. The blast had not wrecked the vehicle, but had tilted it on two wheels in a way that even its lover, Sam, couldn’t maintain or correct back to all four.
The vehicle thudded onto its side and skidded. It cracked into rock and settled, and only then could Joyce assess the damage.
Vivian’s eyes rolled beneath her closed lids, jaw set tight in pain. Sam had a hand on the passenger seat in some attempt to pull himself into a suitable position. Meanwhile, her dad had one eye open, a weird shine from it she hadn’t seen much before. Pride in her? She couldn't tell.
The windshield, even on its side and cracked, offered them all a cinematic view of their oncoming demise. Clouds of dust twisted and reached for the stars, diffused by approaching headlights and the growl of victory.
“Sam … Sam … are you mobile?” Joyce unbuckled her seatbelt, gritting her teeth close to dust at the shot of pain in her wound as she tumbled free.
Sam didn't answer with anything but a low rumble of agony.
“Dad? Can you talk? Can you move?”
Her dad winked with his good eye, but all that told her was his eye could maneuver.
Eyes opening, Vivian shot into action, greedy for breath like she’d come up from ocean depths. The headlights, still disembodied, bobbed and weaved, an alien invasion ready to start their probe of humanity right here with them.
Viv looked for her Russian, but his glassy eyes and the angle of his neck told Joyce the man had absorbed the missile for all of them and paid the price. Viv stuck her gun in Joyce’s ribs, sniffed at the reaction.
Joyce pushed her hand away and bared her teeth. “We’ve got bigger problems. Stick that fucker where you want if and when we get out of this.”
“I will. Aim your fire through that windscreen and keep it there, bitch, and remember, I’ll always have one step ahead of you.”
“Suits me, Viv, suits me.” Where I can stab you in the back?
The van kept its armory tight to the walls, thank God. Joyce scanned the pearl necklace of grenades on one side of the truck: “You think we could take them out with these?”
Viv grabbed a grenade, weighed it against the oncoming danger.
Joyce’s dad coughed. His lungs told her he had a close eye on a long white tunnel to God, to hell, to a limbo he deserved. She fought back at the idea that April thought of her the same way. Stupid, but Joyce wondered which parent her daughter preferred.
Joyce dragged her eyes from the windscreen. Wheels rumbled the earth, so loud she thought it might crack beneath her and they’d tumble to where her dad headed.
Her dad opened his eyes and smirked, shook his head as best he could. “The biggest disappointment in my whole damn life is you. Crouched there … crouched there like a nodding dog. To who? To this bitch? To this nickel and dime so-called Special Forces piece of shit? You have the nerve …” He pulled in all the air the van contained. “You have the nerve to call me your dad? Fuck off. Fuck you with your ‘dad.’ I’m ashamed of you.” He coughed, blood snaked out of his nose. “You’ve not earned the right to call me your dad.”
Her dad, the trucks, the motorbikes, the rumble, the blinding headlights, Joyce’s hand tight on the grenade, her daughter in unimaginable danger—it all competed for her attention. If only she had kept on the move. She didn’t need a home, just a gun and a bottle of whiskey. Everything else could go to hell.
The mass of vehicles stopped and the light from all of them poured in and bleached them white as snow.
Jimmy had to use the flat of one hand to shield his eyes against the flood of light, the weight of the shotgun heavy in the other hand. The squad of black vehicles pushing off toward the left... he guessed those were government. To the right, that was the Corpse Grinders. It was a mutant mix of rides, the older guys all on Harleys, the younger ones leaning toward foreign jobs. Nonetheless, the sound of a dozen engines revving and rising and falling was music to Jimmy’s ears. It sat in sharp contrast to the stillness of the black vehicles, their motors silent in the darkness.
Jimmy stopped about a hundred feet away from the vehicle flipped over onto its side, sitting in the vortex of the headlights. He lit another cigarette and took a deep breath of appreciation for what laid in front of him. Vietnam and the guys in black pajamas, the ones D.C. called “military advisors,” those were still fresh memories to him. Those “advisors,” and the missions they sent platoons on—all off-book bullshit without paperwork or word from command—had probably killed more good men than tripwires explosives had.
It’s why, when he’d come home, Jimmy had sworn to never have a goddamn thing to do with the government again if he could help it. That’s why he rode with the Corpse Grinders. Why he pledged to live and die a free man, free from the tyranny of a system that cared little for the nameless cogs that were part of its intricate machinery.
He said it was why he hadn’t filed income taxes in thirty years, but that was really because he just hadn’t felt like doing it.
He let the cigarette hang from the corner of his mouth as he walked closer to the flipped vehicle. A door hinged open and a woman raised her head. A shot cracked from the direction of the government vehicles, and it dinged off the Himmler’s armor. The woman raised a middle finger toward the sound of the gunshot. She looked at Jimmy and rested her forearms on the edge of the vehicle entryway. Jimmy noted what looked like a grenade in the woman’s hand.
“Evening,” Jimmy said. He stopped with about thirty feet between him and the Himmler.
“Evening yourself,” she said. She gestured to the motorcycles. “Those happen to be friends of yours.”
“Happen to be my brothers in arms. The Corpse Grinders Motorcycle Club.” He pointed toward the other massing of vehicles. “Those friends of yours?”
“Fuck no. In fact, they all want to kill us.”
“‘Us?’ How many ‘us’ you got in there?”
“Enough for a squad, not enough for a battalion.” A groaning noise rose from inside, creeping out like a strangled gasp from a pit.
That earned raised eyebrows from Jimmy. “Doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s my father. I’m pretty sure he’s dying.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You know, I’m not sure how I feel about it myself. I’ll get back with you on it.”
A set of headlights separated from the grouping and snaked its way toward Jimmy and the flipped vehicle and the lady with the hand grenade. As if on cue, another light appeared, but this one from above, a spotlight so bright, it almost had physical weight, pushing him down. The light remained steady on him, and under almost any other set of circumstances he might have thought it was from an UFO, but instead he realized it had to be coming from a helicopter. One so silent he never heard it coming.
Yeah, this was a goddamn government thing. Had to be.
Jimmy threw the shotgun from one hand to another and used his entire forearm to block the light.
“Those aren’t my friends either,” the woman said.
“Good to know. I’d say you’re a shit judge of character otherwise.”
The headlights morphed into an anonymous black sedan that stopped just outside the spotlight’s edge. The man who stepped out was bald, with a magnificent mustache, wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. As he moved into the circle of light, Jimmy noticed the clusters and clouds of puckered pink scarring around the man’s head.
The man didn’t pay any attention to Jimmy. Instead, he looked at the woman with the hand grenade.
“Joyce,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
“Not long enough, Dario.” She smiled slyly. “Have to say, though, I love what you’re not doing with your hair.”
No emotion registered on the man’s face. He just kept on peering at her through those mirrored shades.
Jimmy took a long last drag off of his cigarette and flipped the spent filter through the air. “There a reason you’re wearing sunglasses at night? That a thing you gotta do, or you do it on account you think it’s cool.”
The man—Dario—did a slow turn toward Jimmy, his first acknowledgement of anyone else being there. “You should probably go now.” He pointed to the bikers. “You and the rest of your tribe.”
“Me and my tribe ain’t going nowhere until—“
“What in the earthly fuck is going on here?” This was another woman’s voice, and she rose out of the Himmler, like a groundhog making a weather prediction, right behind the other woman. This lady had a pistol. She saw Dario, and her face went white as December snow. “Goddamn,” she muttered. “Goddamn. Goddamn. Goddamn.”
Now Dario smiled. “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here now. Now we can party, right?”
Jimmy swung the shotgun up to rest the barrel on his shoulder. “You know, you assholes are raising nine kinds of terror around here, and me and my guys, we’d like to know what the—“
Dario raised a single finger into the air, then pointed it toward Jimmy.
The red dot appeared on the back of Jimmy’s head. It moved to the center of his forehead as he turned around.
The gunshot echoed, drowning out the sound of Jimmy’s skull exploding. His headless body dropped to its knees, pausing a second before collapsing completely to the ground.
The motorcycles roared to life, and their furious growls grew in volume as they snaked toward the Himmler, one after another. They didn’t even wait before they started firing at the black sedan, or toward the helicopter.
“Party’s coming to you,” Joyce said. She planted her hand on top of Vivian’s head and pushed her back down into the Himmler before slamming the vehicle’s door shut again.
“If that ain’t a mess down there, it will have to do until the mess arrives.”
The body of the burly biker had yet to drop before Will Souterrain yanked the bolt on his sniper rifle and readied his next shot. His vantage atop the mesa offered a clear view of everyone and everything, and he could take his pick from a multitude of targets.
April had yet to reckon where his allegiances lay, so she was hesitant to smile. Instead, she stared hard at the tableau unfolding below them.
There were motorbikes. There were armored SUVs. There were craters in the earth from artillery and small-arms fire. There was an overturned Himmler.
Most shockingly, there was…
April hadn’t seen Joyce in quite some time, but nothing prepared her for what she saw then. Her mother, busted and bruised and…
“We have to help them.” She dusted her palms on the thighs of her jeans and stood. She hadn’t risen past her knees before Souterrain lowered her back to the ground.
“Not yet, chère,” he sneered. “You pop your jolie tete over top of this here mesa and somebody is going to clean blow it off. No, best you lay back and let me stir this gumbo.”
She bared teeth and watched him through narrowed eyes as he lined up his next shot.
“Where did you meet Joyce anyways?” she wanted to know.
“You mean your mama?” He followed the barrel of the rifle along with his target, then carefully squeezed the trigger. Nearly a half-mile below them, another biker’s head burst into a mist of claret. “Me and her had us a rendezvous in Africa. They were in need of a surgeon and I had the steadiest of hands.”
“Ah,” April said. “You must have been a poet.”
“If that’s what you prefer.” His next shot picked off a Corpse Grinder making a run for it.
“So you fancied yourself a Doctor Zhivago then?”
“I was never much for Tolstoy.”
April rolled her eyes. “It was Pasternak, asshole.”
“Whatever.” Souterrain squinted through the scope. He lined up Vivian Marchand in his crosshairs. Before he could squeeze the trigger, she was lowered into the safety of the Himmler. “All that Russian stuff sounded the same the way when your momma read it to me.”
April cocked her head. “She would read to you?”
“Never in English, chère.” Souterrain scoured the landscape for his next target. “And never with her clothes on, either.”
“She read to you in Russian?”
“That’s the only way to read…whoever you said.”
He held his breath. He couldn’t believe what he saw through the scope below him.
“Sacre merde,” he whispered as he lined up his shot. “If it’s not that cagy old bastard, Dario. Comment allez vous, mon ami?”
He put his finger on the trigger, but could apply no pressure. Behind him, he felt the barrel of a Luger pressing against the back of his head. He took his hands away from the rifle.
“What gives, chère?”
“My mother can’t speak Russian,” she said, through a clenched jaw. “So why don’t you tell me who the hell you really are.”
Inside the Himmler, Joyce was weighing her options while all hell raged outside the armored van.
“A fucking disappointment … “ muttered dad, his life slipping away in groans and half-sentences of disparagement. No help there, dad, thought Joyce.
“Goddamn. Goddamn, he’s here … “ muttered Vivian, as if she’d seen a ghost. Which she had – fucking Dario?! How the hell had he survived?
Vivian was in shock, her perfect hair mussed, and she wasn’t going to be much more help than Joyce’s dying conman of a father.
Joyce looked to the front seat for some assistance.
Sam was concussed at best, and kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He wobbled and tried to scramble out of the front seat, his ass pushing against the steering wheel, the distorted familiar refrains of everyone’s favorite paramilitary ‘80s sitcom eking out from beneath the van’s busted hood.
The sad notes of the theme did not fill Joyce with an abundance of hope for their situation.
“I’m Mr. T., you fucking Russian asshole … “ Sam said to the body of Kuznetsov, still strapped into the shotgun position, the Russian’s eyes staring into the great wide beyond. Her ex palmed the dead Russian’s face and pushed it aside, only for it to flop back into position, dangling lifeless.
Machine gun fire pelted the windshield. It held, but for how much longer?
Joyce’s shoulder ached. Her leg ached. But compared to the rest of the current residents of the attack van, she was practically in mint condition, if you discounted the rivulet of blood leaking down her forehead.
“This ain’t no A-Team. We’re fucked,” said Joyce to no one in particular.
She nervously fingered a hand grenade and tried to figure out what to do. She could wait it out, and let the motorcycle gang and Dario’s kill-squad waste each other until the odds were a little more even. But the pat-pat-pat of machine gun fire on the windshield didn’t exactly put her in a waiting mood.
She could make a suicide run of it. Lob a couple grenades, shock and awe. But a suicide run usually resulted in suicide. And that option wasn’t exactly appealing either.
She could send Vivian out there on her own, all glassy-eyed and mussed. She had to admit, that idea wasn’t too bad …
Sam stumbled over the sideways-turned front seat and steadied himself on the wall (roof?) of the van. She’d seen him in worse condition, but not by much.
“What do we do now, kid?” he asked, his trademark swagger still shining through a concussion.
“Don’t call me kid,” said Joyce. “I’m thinking.”
Her eyes darted around their small confines. There were the grenades, sure, but she’d have to expose herself in order to lob anything worth a damn. There were the AKs, but again, it meant popping out of the temporarily safe confines in order to try to get a bead on anyone of importance... and there was still the sniper on the ridge raining down death. She knew that as soon as her head popped up through the van door, she was as good as toast.
What the fuck to do?
Pat-pat-pat on the windshield. She could feel the gunfire reverberating throughout the van. It shook her from her head to her spine to … her back pocket?
She grabbed for it and flipped it open. Hopefully, she could at least confirm April was safe.
The message was from her daughter, but not what she expected.
- Mom, I’m on the ledge. Get ready to move.
The story continues right here tomorrow.