Second Dead

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Chapter 39: Farrar

“I would have thought,” Penri barked, “two members of the 3rd would be better soldiers than what I am presented with. Perhaps General Mancini runs his outfit differently these days. However, I demand the respect of my rank.”

The battle-hardened soldiers stood silent.

“I will have the proper recognition of my rank as senior field officer or I will have you court-marshaled and executed on this very spot.”

We’re going to die. I kept up my charade of being cool, calm and collected. All I could think was that I did not want to piss myself when I died.

The tallest and by far oldest of the trio raised his arm in salute. The second soldier of the 3rd infantry division followed. Without any real conviction, the remaining soldier raised his arm in a slipshod salute. He winked and continued to smirk my way. Major Penri glared at the men until with a prod from the shorter soldier from the 3rd, all three stood at proper attention.

Major Penri remained ramrod straight for a few seconds before he returned the salute. All four men dropped their arms and resumed their suspicious glares.

“Names and rank,” Penri demanded.

Whatever else these men thought their day held in store when they woke up this morning, a horrific death at the hands of a moaner, a tragic mishap, or any of a hundred other possibilities; being dressed down by a short, bald, crippled, major appeared to be far removed from any scenario they envisioned.

“I asked… for your names.” Major Penri’s soft tone conveyed much more menace than his thunder of a few moments before.

The tallest soldier replied, “Wenk, sir. Private Wenk.”

“Private Thompson, sir,” the other man from the 3rd said with rather more enthusiasm.

The third soldier sneered, “Goosby. Sir.”

Penri hobbled forward until he stood inches from Wenk, who had a good foot on the major. He gazed up and said, “If you’re a private, I’m a ballerina.”

“Yes, sir. If you say so, sir.”

Penri stepped back. “You’re career, I can see that. Explain to me, how after twenty years service you’re a Private.”

Wenk appeared sheepish and stood even more at attention. “Well, sir, there was these marines.”

“At ease,” Penri barked. All three soldiers relaxed their stance. “I’ve heard this one before. What, may I ask, is the highest rank you achieved?”

“Master Sergeant, sir.”

“I see.” Penri paused. “Did you win?”

Wenk seemed embarrassed and replied in a little less than a whisper, “Um, no sir.”

Something close to amusement crossed Penri’s face. “Hmm. Well, I would have busted you down too. A marine, for God’s sake.”

“Marines, sir.”

“Sergeant, I need you to move your vehicles so I can pass.”

Wenk’s expression hardened. “Sorry, sir. I’m afraid I’m unable to comply.”

“I’ve given you a direct order, Sergeant,” Penri said coolly.

“Again, sorry, sir. And it’s Private. I’m not authorized to let anyone pass, sir.”

“Let me talk to your commanding officer.”

Wenk snorted, “Shit, sir, you’re the first live officer we’ve seen in months.”

Wenk turned to Goosby. “Get the alderman.”

“Yeah, all right,” Goosby replied. He slouched off toward a Humvee.

“He’s a pressed man,” Wenk explained after Goosby walked out of range. “Good enough against moaners, but I don’t trust him out of my sight. He has funny ideas, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do, Sergeant.” Penri sighed. “Who’s this alderman?”

“He’s good enough people. Just old. He’s kind of lost hope, listens to the wrong crowd these days.”

“Anna, hand me the radio,” Penri said, his eyes glued to Wenk.

He fumbled to grasp the radio as he stared at Wenk. He put the walkie-talkie to his mouth and said, “Vector vector.”

He stared for a moment longer and then said, “Sergeant?”

Wenk gazed toward our vehicles. He returned his eyes to the major and the two resumed their standoff.

“Very well, Sergeant. Be advised, Private Wallis can acquire and down a target in three seconds,” Penri bluffed. “Tango tango, stand down.”

Wenk fixed his gaze on Susan. He exhaled a little deeper than normal. The major had been right. Wenk knew whom Susan had targeted.

“Sergeant?” Penri asked for the second time.

Wenk gazed at Penri and said, “Thompson, stand the men down.”

Thompson turned toward the trees at the base of the cliff and made a gesture with his upraised arm. Two soldiers were in the trees and upon Thompson’s signal they both lowered their weapons.

Penri spoke into the radio again. “Tango tango, take up the rear guard and let me know when our friends are sighted.”

Major Penri handed me the radio. He removed a pencil and pad of paper from his pocket and scribbled a note. “Take this to Bulger. Give me fifteen minutes alone with the sergeant.”

I grabbed the message and got out of there. I stopped long enough to find out from Theo how much time had elapsed. Fifteen minutes. We only had fifteen more to get through the roadblock. I ran to the Humvee and handed the note to Klara, before dashing to the back of the vehicle.

Much relieved, I returned to Klara. She handed me a helmet and said, “Careful, there’s hardware in there.”

“Thanks. Listen, in less than fifteen minutes, the herd of moaners will appear around the bend. Take down any runners who get too close and only if it’s necessary.”

I walked back to Penri, slow, to give him the time he requested.

“--I’ve seen it in action, with helicopters. Although I must confess at the time I did not realize the significance of what I observed,” Penri said to Wenk.

“Ah, good,” Penri said when I returned. “Sergeant, your helmet please.”

Wenk hesitated, taken by surprise at the request. He handed it to Penri who placed it on his own head.

“I’m cold,” he muttered. He removed the helmet from my hands.

“Sergeant Wenk, this helmet belonged to the finest soldier I’ve ever had the privilege to serve with.” He removed two brass chevrons from the helmet and handed it to Wenk. “I, Major Charles Penri, Commander of the Eastern Missouri Containment Zone hereby reinstate Henry Wenk to the rank of Sergeant first class.”

“Err, Master Sergeant.”

“Yes, well there’s the little matter of losing a fight to a marine to consider.”

“Marines, sir,” Wenk said, again, most eager to clarify this point.

Sergeant Wenk turned the helmet over and stared at the stripes. “Sir, I don’t deserve this.”

“Perhaps,” Penri said while he urged Wenk to put the helmet on. “But then again very few of us do. Unfortunately, there is the fact I still may have to kill you. I wouldn’t want you out of uniform if that should happen.”

Penri stepped forward and pinned the chevrons on Wenk’s collar. He stepped back two paces and raised his arm in salute. Sergeant Wenk and Private Thompson returned the salute.

The sergeant’s Humvee sped up the road toward us at the very moment Susan’s voice came over the radio, “Moaners at three o’clock.”

Major Penri and Sergeant Wenk both raised their binoculars toward the latest threat.

“Where the hell did those come from?” Wenk grumbled.

“They’re swimmers,” I said. “From the river.”

“Thompson, pull the men in,” Wenk barked.

Events developed much too fast for my comfort. Soldiers converged on us. The Humvee drew ever closer with an additional unknown in the form of the alderman. Penri stood silent while all these threads of danger converged. I fought the urge to flee while I waited for his next move.

When the Humvee pulled to a stop, Penri reached into my coat pocket and removed the walkie-talkie. “Dave, drive up here and join us please,” he whispered.

Dad pulled the truck out of line and advanced along the convoy. Ten feet behind the major and me, he stopped. He walked toward our position while George and Carmen remained in the truck.

Two soldiers topped the railroad tracks and were now less than a minute away. Wenk turned away from us and whispered in Thompson’s ear. The two infantrymen from the cliff wall arrived first, followed by the duo from the river.

“Wenk, there’s a whole crowd headed toward us. At least a thousand,” a soldier from the river reported.

“Sergeant Wenk,” Thompson corrected him.

“Hot damn. I fucking called it,” the soldier exclaimed. “Shit,” he stuttered at the sight of the major. He jerked to attention and saluted. Here at least stood a soldier happy to be back in the army.

“At ease,” Penri said. He appeared unfazed by the unfolding events.

Thompson and the two snipers from the cliff wall stepped back several paces behind Wenk. Goosby and two other men returned with the alderman in tow the same moment Dad stopped next to Penri.

“I told you they would mess it up,” Goosby said to the alderman. “Let me and my boys handle this.”

The alderman was indeed old, close to ninety, easy. He seemed quite fit for his age. Thin and just shy of six feet tall, he had the weathered look of a farmer, someone with deep ties to the land. His sharp eyes glanced around, first at Penri, Dad, and me, before he turned greedy eyes toward our vehicles. When his gaze fell on Dad’s beat up old truck with the two children inside his expression changed. Self-loathing crept across his face.

Sergeant Wenk said, “Alderman, may I introduce Major Charles Penri, Commander of the Eastern Missouri Containment Zone.”

“About time you guys showed up. It’s been hell around here. You ain’t got much of an army,” he said, his gaze on the children.

“The horde’s arrived,” Susan’s voice shrilled over the radio.

Panic threatened to overwhelm me. Moaners closed in around us, and these people exchanged pleasantries.

“I suppose you think you’re gonna take charge,” the alderman sneered. “You think you can come in here and steal whatever you want, just like all them other officers.”

Penri squared his shoulders. “No sir. We of the Missouri National Guard do not pillage.”

“National Guard, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I was called up by order of the Governor of Missouri, and do not have authority to requisition supplies not necessary for the immediate safety of the citizenry of the state. We simply require a safe conduct through your town. In exchange, we will assist you in your crisis. Sergeant Wenk has the details, and he will, pursuant to Directive Seven, continue to render assistance to the last elected official of the town of Farrar.”

“Sergeant?” the alderman marveled at the stripes on Wenk’s helmet.

“Yes. Sergeant,” Penri replied with an edge to his voice. “Directive Seven for the conduct of the war specifically charges all armed forces to render aid to any local civilian authority still functioning if said unit finds itself unable to return to the normal chain of command. Sergeant Wenk has, and will, continue to fulfill his duty in this regard. Directive Seven also authorizes the ranking officer to assume control in case of a military emergency.”

“Yeah. What emergency have you cooked up?”

“Look,” Sergeant Wenk handed the alderman his binoculars and pointed toward the river.

“We can take ’em,” the alderman said without much conviction.

“Look again.” Wenk pointed down the road past our vehicles.

He shrank when he gazed at the horde. The glasses lowered and the once proud alderman had a defeated glaze in his eyes.

Penri spoke calmly, “There is a way. You can survive this, but it will take courage.”

“Enough of this bullshit,” Goosby screamed and raised his weapon.

Thompson used his rifle butt and struck Goosby on the back of his neck. He crumpled to the ground while Wenk’s soldiers disarmed his men.

“Prick,” Thompson huffed over Goosby’s limp body.

“What are we going to do?” the alderman whimpered.

“The war is back on, gentlemen.” Penri raised his voice to be heard by all. “But there will be no battle today. We have a new strategy. A winning strategy. Today we overcome. Today we survive, and save ourselves for the fight ahead. The hour for fear is behind us. It is time to grow strong again and prepare. Prepare for the counter-attack to come. Seven months or seven years, however long it takes, it will come!”

The soldiers cheered.

“I don’t understand. We gotta man the fences,” the alderman said.

“Come with me, sir. I will explain everything.” Wenk took the old man by the arm, and led him toward the Humvee.

The soldiers followed Wenk to their vehicles. Sergeant Wenk barked out orders. The harried radioman, hard pressed by the torrent, skillfully relayed the instructions to the compound ahead.

“What’s going to happen to him?” I pointed to Goosby, unconscious in the street.

“Nothing more than he deserves,” Penri replied. “I’m told he is a murderer and criminal of the worst kind. Unfortunately for him there is one last service he can provide today.”

I shivered at Goosby’s fate. “What now?”

“Like I told the alderman, we will render assistance,” Penri replied. “And of course, a heavy price will need to be paid.”

“What?” Dad demanded. “What do you expect us to give them?”

“Nothing I can’t afford.” Penri pulled a letter from his coat. “Sergeant Wenk wants me to deliver a message. He has a wife you see. Perhaps a child, too. Sergeant Wenk asked -- And I promised…. To get word to her and find out if they’re alive. A rash commitment perhaps, but one I intend to honor.” Penri put the letter back into his pocket, lifted his chin and walked with a purpose I’d not seen before.

“He might as well have asked for the moon,” Dad groaned.

As we made our way to the vehicles, Penri turned to me and asked, “So tell me, Anna, do you believe in fortune?”

“My mom does,” I replied, baffled.

“Fortune smiled on us all today.”

I stared at Penri, bewildered.

“The farm house we passed,” he explained. “The one surrounded by moaners; well, Goosby and his goons came across a group of survivors who sheltered there. Goosby took an interest in one of the women. Well, you can guess the rest, there occurred some gunplay and in the end Goosby and his goons shot the men dead.”

“Just the men?” I asked, shocked.

“Yes, the women were -- Well, when Goosby and his crew finished having their way, they tied the survivors to the porch. Just in time to feed a band of moaners while they made their getaway. Wenk had every intention of executing Goosby for this crime before we showed up.”

“Major, I have a question.”

“By all means.”

“You called me your canary in the coal mine. What did you mean?”

Penri stopped. “Simple, I needed you to help me judge the state of discipline in these men. Soldiers are men; well, these soldiers were all men. As such, they could not help but discern you were a woman. You’re an attractive young lady and any man of a certain age would no doubt take notice.”

“Susan’s much prettier,” I said. “Or how about Jane?”

“Ah, you sell yourself short.” Penri smiled. “Susan is too young. She would, of course, have elicited a rather unsavory response from someone of Goosby’s character. But not Wenk or Thompson I think. No, I needed to know where these men’s priorities lay. You gave me the answer. Neither Wenk nor Thompson, after a cursory inspection of course, took any notice of you with the exception of the weapon you carried.”

“Wow, you really know how to sweet talk a girl.”

“Hmm, perhaps you misunderstand. I’m sure Wenk and Thompson took note of the fact you are an attractive young woman. That said; you as a woman were irrelevant to them at that moment. A good sign. If they conducted themselves less professionally, I would have proceeded with a different strategy. Wenk maintained his situational awareness despite your obvious feminine allure.” Penri chuckled. I smiled myself.

“Goosby flagged himself as trouble right away. And Jane? Well, I took into account the color of her skin.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “What about you?”

Penri sighed. “It took so many generations to get to where we are. Perhaps in this new world we shall make it will not be so. One can hope. I felt it prudent to present a racially diverse front to these men. One must be cautious in times like these.”

Back at the convoy, Penri explained what we were about to do. Penri, once again would lead a horde across a populated area. We would have free access through the town and the townspeople knew how to survive. When he finished, Dad confronted him, angry for what he had agreed to do.

“You’re taking a big chance with my family,” Dad shouted.

“Quite the contrary. More than ever, I’m committed to their well-being. I promise I will do all in my power to ensure their survival.”

“Yeah? I’m not so sure I believe you,” Dad yelled.

“Well, you should.” Penri’s gaze settled on me. “Your wife and daughter are the two most important people in the entire country.”

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