PART IV - Avenger CHAPTER 31 – A New Authority
They appeared a motley bunch. Over their regular clothes, each one had a blanket or some other kind of robe-like covering that concealed most details – and any weapons. Some of them even fashioned hoods from the folds of their covers. Nate teased Matti that all she needed was a scythe to look like Death, himself. Most walked with staffs, hunching over in their slow pace as though trudging a few blocks was exhausting them.
Matti wondered at the wisdom of putting on appearances of such vulnerability. She tried to explain to Jason and The Judge how it was before she joined their group: anyone wandering about who didn’t appear capable of putting up a serious defense was inviting attack. She told them it would be better to arm everyone as much as possible, and then stay in a tight group while openly displaying their weapons. Jason agreed with her from the first. The Judge argued that they could still defend themselves if anyone did attack them on the way, but if someone challenged them about bringing weapons when they arrived, they couldn’t deny having any if they carried them openly. Jason was adamant about not giving up their weapons until he was convinced it was safe to do so. But when Nate had pointed out how they would all have their staffs in hand and ready to use if they were jumped even if the walking sticks might look more like crutches than weapons, Jason had gone along. She hoped they were right.
They were unable to take everyone even if the Authority did say everyone had to appear in person. Two women and a man, all nursing debilitating injuries with the beginning signs of infections had to stay behind along with another woman with a lesser injury and able to get about enough to see to their needs. Plus, of course, Vonnie wasn’t about to take the baby into such uncertainty. She was coming along, but Lazaro was back at the Victorian safely in the arms of a caring nursemaid. She and Charlie both said if the Authority didn’t like it – too bad. Satan stayed in the middle between Emmie and Lila. Erin walked beside Emmie and Ronald beside Lila. Rachel walked with Jared just ahead. Matti walked beside Nate at the front of the group behind Jason and The Judge. She peered out from her shadowy hood at each person they passed, hoping to spot Jamal or Uncle Joe and Jerry … or Woody. She knew these last three members of her family were alive until the invaders landed, but she knew the odds were greatly against them surviving since then. Still, she never gave up hope. As for Woody … not even hope, just wishes.
As the Victorian group passed, more and more loners fell in behind them, bedraggled men and women, even several children, all looking as though they yearned for human company they wouldn’t have to fight off. Not really joining the larger group, they stayed close enough that they might simply benefit, at least for the moment, in the safety of the herd.
As they approached the school campus, Matti peered about along with the others for signs that all was not as it seemed, but she saw nothing. If ambushers awaited, they were well concealed. Besides, she reasoned, why go to the trouble of an ambush?
The first of the two main buildings they came to contained mostly classrooms. It showed signs of internal fires, and the outer walls had been pockmarked and occasionally holed by laser hits, but, like the museum, the gray outer walls of unpainted granite and concrete in massive proportions still appeared mainly intact, unburned and probably habitable. In the second building, Matti recalled the Baroque styled auditorium like a grand opera hall took up the central areas of all four floors and was ringed by outer rooms, both offices and classrooms, on each floor. A raised terrace extended across the entire front and twenty feet out from the building to the first of the dozen steps that led down to ground level. This placed the main entrance and lobby on the second floor and allowed sufficient slope in the auditorium for theater seating plus a balcony and with the stage at near ground level. With its elegant colors and the glitter of crystal atop the many sconces lining the walls between sculpted mock pillars, the auditorium had always reminded her of the crystal-lined cavity of a geode. Outside, three huge pillars stretched to the roof on either side of the double doors of the entrance.
The school board backed by many parents had pushed for years to have the old school torn down and a new, modern one built, but obtaining the funds for such a project had been a nightmare. Arguments that the old buildings would surely crumble about the heads of the students in even a mild earthquake had finally swayed enough voters. The bond measure passed, and the monolithic buildings were scheduled to be razed.
Just over a month ago, Matti had sat in the auditorium watching Woody march in the procession down the central aisle to the stage with his graduating senior class. She had listened with nostalgic sorrow to speeches declaring that, with the new school almost completed out at the edge of town, this would be the last class to graduate on that stage. Her class next year was to be the first to graduate at the new school, probably to be held in the gym or on the football field since they had foregone the inclusion of an auditorium in the school’s design.
Well, she thought, peering up at the grand pillars across the front and the high, arched windows at each level of the twin, four-story edifice, they were right; no other class will graduate here.
Even with the damage of multiple hits, the building still looked as solid and impregnable as an Egyptian pyramid.
So much for engineering reports.
By the time she approached the bottom step, the group behind her had grown from fewer than two dozen to more than three score. Even those who hesitated to join them followed in their wake like flotsam on the tide.
They had made it the entire distance without being set upon by Mickey’s human dog-pack or one like it, and Matti was thankful she was proven wrong. Mickey was still out there and maybe even with more followers by now. She could imagine all the little gangs and groups of losers coalescing into one large, mini-army, but not with Mickey at the top. He just didn’t have that kind of magnetism.
A man coming down the wide flight of steps stopped in front of the group. “Judge Woodall? My God, I am so glad to see you’re still alive.”
After The Judge and the man exchanged quick enquiries and regrets about mutual friends and family, the man said, “You know, Judge, this whole thing here stinks like old fish.”
His remark drew everyone’s attention. He went on at Jason’s encouragement, “Well, they’re asking for things that don’t seem like they really need to know. They want to know how many people everyone lives with and who and where they are, and I suppose that’s what a census is all about. But, then, they ask about your religion, your race, how many guns you’ve got, and how much ammunition. But, the last thing, and what scared me the most, was they have everyone hold a bible and swear to accept God’s word and to join in the war against evil.”
The Judge looked at Jason and said, “Just what we need, another Ned Morgan.”
Jason asked, “Did they say anything about who is trying to re-establish authority? Is it someone at the state level, or federal, or just some local politician?”
“No, and it ain’t ’cause I didn’t ask, neither. They just said for me to answer the questions and not to ask ’em. And, you know what? I saw a couple of black fellas go in, and I ain’t seen any come out. They was right in front of me in the line, but they didn’t even get asked questions. Some guy came over from the side as soon as they stepped up to the table and led ’em off through a door that closed behind them. And everyone in there’s got guns.”
The raised eyebrow looks that Jason and The Judge exchanged reinforced Matti’s own growing anxieties. And, as her mind opened in its reflexive quest for answers, waves of emotions washed against her mind, stunning and confusing her until she realized they were not hers. Her association with Satan had given her practice at recognizing emotions and thoughts from external sources. She was also becoming adept at opening her mind’s ear when she sensed something to listen to. More feelings swept through her mind like a dust devil, and now they came with words.
Hate – Damned filthy –
Fear – I don’t want to die.
Confusion – Why did they …?
Belligerence – World will be better when their kind is gone.
Hate – should kill them all while we can.
Matti’s fear rocketed. She grasped Nate’s arm and said in a hoarse whisper, “Something’s wrong! Something is really, really wrong!”
Jason heard her and turned from The Judge to ask, “What’d you see?”
“Nothing. It’s in here,” she said as she laid her hand on the side of her hood. “Like from Satan. But this is people, and they aren’t –”
“Okay, people, keep moving!” shouted a man carrying a pistol in his hand down at his side as he took one step down from the top. “Come on, move it on inside.” Contempt. Fear.
To Matti, the feeling of contempt that exuded from the man was almost palpable. The fear was just detectable and was for something she couldn’t identify … something secret. She didn’t know how to probe, or even if was possible.
With a smile, Jason said, “We’ll be along in a bit. We’ve just got some things to talk about.”
“See?” said the man before The Judge. “See how pushy they are?”
“We would like to talk to your leader,” The Judge said to the man on the steps. “Out here, please, if you would tell him.”
“You can talk to him inside. Come on, now. You’re holding things up.” Impatience. Contempt. Fear.
“Why the big rush?” Jason said.
“Just move it inside.”
A second man came out and stood on the top step.
After motioning the one with the gun to move back and remain quiet, he said, “Really, now, there is no need to hold things up. Your concerns are groundless, I assure you. Why don’t you come on in, and I’ll be happy to answer your questions.” Deceit. Fear.
“He’s lying,” Matti whispered to Jason. And he also has a secret fear – but of what?
“Who do you represent?” The Judge asked the man as Jason asked Matti with his eyes how she knew.
In answer, Matti raised her hand toward her hood.
“The California Regional Authority, just like it says on the notices.” Deceit. Fear.
“He’s lying,” Matti whispered. “And something else, too. But I can’t tell just what.”
“Who is that? Who is the Authority?” The Judge asked him. “Did the state government survive, enough of it to keep things going?”
The man on the steps maintained a confident smile. “They sure did. And they need to know how many folks are still out here.” Deceit. Increasing impatience. Fear.
“He’s lying,” she whispered.
“So, come on in, folks, and let’s find out who you are. I’m sure some of you must have family in other parts of the state you’d like to inquire about and even to contact.” He made a sweeping motion with his arm towards the door behind him and added, “Right this way.” Contempt. Impatience. Fear.
“It’s a trap.” Matti turned her back to the steps and whispered to Jason and several others that had closed in enough to hear her. “He wants us in there too badly. Something’s wrong.”
“Are you the man in charge, here?” Jason asked.
Indecision. Deceit. “Yes. I can answer any of your questions. But we need to move inside, please.” Deceit. Contempt. Fear.
“Well,” The Judge said, “if you are in charge, if you don’t have to answer to anyone inside, why can’t you talk to us out here … just to allay our fears and concerns?”
“Because …” Indecision. Impatience. Contempt. “… it’s too hot out here. Come on inside where it’s more comfortable.” Goddamned old fool! I’d shoot you where you stand if we had more goddamned bullets. I’m sure going to enjoy cutting your throat, though.
Matti winced at the force and the level of contempt with which the words struck her mind. She whispered, “He’s still lying, and he’s hiding something about something inside the building, something he’s afraid we’ll find out. And he’s thinking he’d shoot you, Judge, but they don’t have many bullets, so he’s going to cut your throat.”
The Judge made a subtle nod before he answered the man on the steps. “I’ll tell you what, Mister Representative of the California Regional Authority, if you want to talk to us, you come down here, because we are not going inside that place.”
At that, a third man emerged from the building and stood beside the supposed representative. When Matti saw him, she gasped and whispered, “He’s the one that tried to lynch Woody and me.”
The Judge nodded and answered, “Why am I not surprised?” Then, in a louder voice, “Well, Commissioner Tattinger, it appears you have managed to politic your way to another position of authority.”
The curly-headed man that Matti had thought looked like an insurance agent or perhaps a lawyer smiled a politician’s smile back at The Judge. He gazed out over the crowd below him.
Taken just on appearances, Matti knew they seemed just a ragtag bunch clothed in tatters, and most of whom, apparently, couldn’t even get about without the aid of something to lean on. Those from the Victorian blended well with the others.
Tattinger’s smile became a smirk. Superiority. Contempt. He said, “Old man, you are no longer a judge – but I am, so watch your tongue. I just might find you in contempt.”
“In what court and by what authority?” The Judge demanded.
“In the Court of Righteousness and by the authority of the Lord, God, on high.” The voice emanating from the darkness of an open doorway behind Tattinger was deep, resonating, and all-too familiar. “Sworn to and bestowed by the hand of God’s own Chosen One.” Ned Morgan strode out into the sunlight and stood before them in a stark white robe and holding his metal-flagged staff.