Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

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full moon loonies

The baby rolled over to play with her toes. Jess smiled, tickling one chubby foot and she scowled, kicking him. Hours ago, the shouts and screams of the wounded died. Vents filtered incoming air, but it wasn’t hard to imagine wood smoke and scorched hog. He turned his mind from that to the baby.

“Laws, but she’s getting big, ain’t she?” he said to a smiling Nina.

“Yep. I bet she weighs a ton-and-a-half.” She clutched her back and bent over with a loud groan. Eyes wide, she dropped to her knees staring at the ceiling. In a stage whisper, she said, “Excuse me, jefe.

As much to hide a smile as to hide the heat in his face, Jess looked from her.

“It’s OK, precious. You can play down here.”

Eyes wide and filled with delight, Nina jumped up and ran to where Wainwright sat frowning over the cell phone. No matter how busy he was, he stopped to smile.

“I’m hooked into the grid, the power lines that run over the city. With no electricity in them, they make a superb antenna. See?” Naked copper wires ran from an outlet to the phone. “An excellent uplink to satellites. Most seem to be still operational.”

“Folks need iron,” Nina said, her face solemn. “Need it for arrow heads and such, not softer stuff like copper. That’s why so many come t’ town.”

“That’s a very astute observation,” Wainwright said, smiling. “Very smart of you to see that.”

“Oh, it ain’t nothing. Dave used t’ say that before he got eaten. He was awful smart.”

Jess took the baby to him, tiptoeing by a dozing Linnet. A knife in one hand, she squatted before the foodstuff, which is where she belonged, a guardian of the family.

The small picture was filled with static, but a face appeared. It wasn’t Mister Solomon, but another man. A woman appeared, scowling and leaning over something.

In a whisper, Nina said, “That’s Miz Jane. I don’t like her. She’s mean and yelled at Mister Solomon and a couple of sold-ers.” She squinted and said, “I mean solders. Sold-jers. They were nice and talked to me.”

Wainwright said, “It’s only a record--”

Jess cleared his throat and looked away, then held a hand over Nina’s head. He held up five fingers, then one. Wainwright winced.

“Well, yes, your dear friends. We need to know more about this installation--” His eyes jerked and he coughed. “This building. There may be traps hidden here, as there were in the library.”

“Traps?” Nina’s eyes widened.

“The ceiling and the roof,” Jess said, kneeling by her. He let her wrap her arms around his neck. “Those boys saved us, remember?”

“Kitty, too.”

“And her two babies.”

“I wish she was here. I like kitties.” Nina scowled. “Just not the big yellow one that ate some of my Mommy’s goats. Pa said he would eat me, too, if I snuck out of the house to see the baby goats again.” She choked and buried her face in Jess’s neck. “I want my daddy.”

Jess grimaced and held her as he stood. She sighed and grew slack. Linnet opened a bundle, signing she wanted to take Nina and lay her in it. He picked her up, putting her in the bedding for Linnet.

Wainwright cleared his throat again.

“Our Mister Solomon,” he said. “A recording, I’m afraid. He would have been in DC when the war started.” He stared blindly at the ceiling. “My son. His mother and I parted as friends, yet, it was years before we met again. At the time I was in Georgetown, teaching at the university. Despite a fellowship at University, I moved out here. It made things easier for him, you know, as I was so deeply into the Tea Party.”

Turning from them, Wainwright let his shoulders slump. “There is no coast. At least, one worth mentioning. Clouds of terrorists came in and slaughtered whoever survived, then many died of radiation sickness. The earthquakes and that frightening nuclear ice age. I’m afraid they destroyed what remained.”

“He’s gone.”

Head bowed, Wainwright sighed. “...Yes.”

Jess rubbed the back of his neck and glanced at Linnet. She frowned, but knelt near the children. The baby sprawled in sleep, but Nina shivered and sighed. Linnet stroked her shoulders in soft touches. After a few minutes, she slept and Linnet rose.

She opened a bag of chips, but Wainwright said, “No, there’s better here.” He opened the cell phone and raised it. Broken by static, an arrow appeared on the screen. He walked towards where it pointed and stopped at a wall.

Frowning now, he squinted and raised the cell phone again. Now matter how he turned, the arrow remained pointed at the wall.

“Behind here.” He pushed on the wall, but it remained solid.

With more hope than conviction, Linnet said, “Open sesame?” After a moment, she shrugged and turned from them.

Wainwright took a deep breath and punched the wall. His fist broke through and he jerked it out to peer in. Jess knocked him away from the hole.

One hand steadying the old man, Jess said, “Excuse me, sir. I saw that trick used a couple of times. You get a man to look in a hole, then stab him.” He looked away. “I was the bait.”

Steady eyes studied him. “A rough character, your Jack.”

“Did time in a Marine stockade. Then a few years in Huntsville, down in Texas. He was there when the bombs hit but he escaped. Him and Miz Packer.”

Eyebrows rising, Wainwright shook his head.

“At one time, I used to sympathize with those trapped in prison. It turned out, though, they were the lucky ones.”

“Those that didn’t starve, anyway.”

Wainwright looked from them. “Thick walls and much of the penitentiary underground. It’s likely that’s how most died.” He broke more plasterboard free and thrust in an arm. The lighter flickered. Crates painted in desert camouflage stood stacked to the ceiling. Wainwright nodded and kicked down part of the wall. He squeezed through only to shout in horror. Jess yanked him back and a dried corpse shattered on the floor.

They glanced at it. The man wore Air Force blue, but the strips of a sergeant.

“He must have been working here when they were hit.” Wainwright stared and frowned. “Every military base was bombed. They used technology given them in nineteen-ninety-eight and twenty-sixteen. Given to them by antiwar protests in our government,” he said and shuddered with hate.

“Crap happens,” Jess said. He tore apart a box to cover the corpse. Eyeing the hole, he went in and Wainwright followed with the lighter only to stop.

“No, wait,” the man said. “Lights, on.”

Weak flickers ran through florescent bulbs. Balances hissed and one buzzed, but they glowed.

Jess stood, staring in awe at a mountain of food. Then up. And up still more. With no qualms, Wainwright peered at labels.

“Yes, here. MRE, meals ready to eat. Let’s hope they’re no older than from Desert Storm, back in the eighties.” He gave Jess a humorless grin. “Then they’re still considered fresh.”

“Here, that was--” Jess frowned. “Man, that was better then forty years ago.”

“Military humor,” Wainwright said and pulled down a crate. He grunted and jumped back. It burst open and brown packs fell out. Jess shook his head and stepped away. Dark stains covered part of the floor, and empty packs lay near the wall.

“Doc? Come here.”

Grunting over another crate, Wainwright said, “Yes?”

Jess nodded at the stain. “He wasn’t killed during the war, but after. Maybe died of thirst.”

“But, the taps are working. There’s water in the cisterns. It’s not the best, mind, run-off from the tarmac, but he would have--”

Almost gently, Jess said, “Where’s the door? And he’s not armed. Every morn, first thing I do is reach for my toys, not my duds. In times like he knew, a trained military man would carry a piece.”

Wainwright let the crate drop. He walked to Jess to stare at the stains. Then at the ceiling.

“He was left at the door. The soft spot in the wall is the only way in or out. I thought.” He looked back and walked to the corpse to uncover it. Linnet grimaced, but he frowned, turning it over.

“Look.” Wainwright touched a small hole in the chest. “He was shot. Possibly where the stain is. After he mummified, someone propped him against the wall to frighten intruders.”

“Wild, man.” Jess slipped through the wall to look over the stain. There was none where Wainwright opened the wall, but only near the stacks of crates. He eyed the tops of the stacks and backed through the wall.

“Get what you want,” he said. “We’re going to seal it as best we can.”

Wainwright dragged out crates and Linnet chose two.

“No, that’s all we’ll be able to haul, Doc.” She stacked the crates over the hole and looked around. “A nice booby-trap,” she said, muttering. “If a body got in, then they could get in again.”

Wainwright nodded, but said, “The place is sealed. Our guest could have been murdered a decade ago.”

Linnet gave him a cool look. “Mister, how did you survive since the Troubles started?”

Jaws clenched against a shout of laughter, Jess spun from the alarm on Wainwright’s face. The cell phone made a sort of hacking cough and Wainwright frowned at it.

“Solomon,” he said. “Give us a little wisdom.”

The face was blurry, cut by infinitely small squares of light. “Women are all nesters, Pop. And, a wise husband lives by three words, ‘I’m sorry, dear’.”

“Well, at least he’s smarter than he looks,” said Linnet.

The face in the cell phone chuckled and gave a small bow. Wainwright, though, frowned.

“The man is gone to his reward. Have a little respect.”

Then it was Linnet’s turn to look away.

“Excuse me. He was your son.”

“Yes. A man known for intelligence and wisdom. As Jess has said, very quick on the brain.”

“Thank you,” the picture said and it smiled. “Now, the air is still fresh? How is the water? After all this time, it needs to be tested.” A wry look appeared on the lean face. “Odd, but parasites are showing up in every source we have but glacial ice on the mountains.”

“They didn’t die?” Wainwright grimaced. “Of course, if a single human survived, so would anything that burrowed. Jess found a prairie dog town near the campus.”

Eyes wide with delight, Solomon said, “He did? Where?”

“Right around East 6th and North Campbell Avenue,” Jess said. “It was a construction site or something. Doc here thinks they carry a fungus with them and plant it. All I know is, the ‘rat I ate was tasty enough.”

“You killed one?” Stark horror came over the lean face.

With a lazy smile, Jess said, “At the time, it was him or me. He attacked me. By accident, most likely. Probably thought I was Kitty, come to haul him off. That’s a lady ocelot living in the library.”

The face turned and the mouth moved, but no sound came from the cell phone. When the face turned back, Solomon beamed a smile.

“No problem. You’re all right? Everything is fine with you?”

“Right as rain. Doc, too, ‘cause we shared the stew and even the baby got some soup.”

“And you’re all healthy.” The face grinned and Solomon clubbed a fist on an unseen desk with a shout, “Yiii-haw.”

Eyes wide, Wainwright held the cell phone at arm’s length and stared.

Solomon took a deep breath and grinned. “Man, that’s good news. So many were terrified we’d never be able to live outside shelters without radiation suits. DC is a glowing swamp. New York City, LA, ‘Frisco, Seattle, Miami no longer exists. Mexico City and all the way down to Venezuela, the coasts are toast.”

Eyeing the image, Wainwright nodded.

“Yes, we knew it would happen. No chance at evac whatsoever, not with local governments busy vying for power and the worse mess coming from DC, itself.”

Grim now, Solomon said, “We earned it. Tell the people the truth and let them decide, but the news media slanted it to their own glory.”

“All for fun and profit. And now they’re dead. But, what of the rest of us?”

“Of the few who survive, it’s mostly anarchy. We simply do not have the manpower to rescue you. If you remain in the sub basement, you’ll stay safe.”

“Children need the sun.”

“Children need to live long enough to bear children. There are sun lamps.”

“And little power. Something has happened to the solar panels. I said, did I not, hide them as roof tiles. But the cheap units were used.”

Solomon looked away. “The government of the nineties had other things on its mind.”

“Indeed, what mind?” Wainwright scowled but it died to a bitter sigh. “Coke-Nose Willie Boy and Hildabeast, as that Iroquois called her. People have broached the outer defenses of the museum.”

A noise came from off-screen. Solomon frowned to his left and it subsided.

“...How?”

“Quite likely battery acid. It ate right through the shields.”

“Then it’s only a matter of time before they seize the shelter, as well.”

“Yes.”

“Hey, Mister Solomon.” Nina hopped from her nap to Wainwright to grin at the image. “Gee, where’s your uniform? I bet you’re as handsome as Pa when he came home from Iraq and Mama jumped his bones--”

Linnet clapped a hand over Nina’s mouth.

“Excuse me, Doc,” she said to Wainwright. To Nina, she hissed and dragged her away.

Nina kicked and tried to shout but the hand stayed tight over her mouth. Linnet hissed in Nina’s ear and moved the hand.

“Geez, Linny. But I heard Pa say so. Said he went to help Grampa and Nana Vargas on roundup and wore his cammies from the war and Mama used to ignore him all the time, but when he showed up in uniform, she about tore the duds right off his a--”

Again, Linnet clapped a hand over Nina’s mouth. She yelped and jerked her hand free.

In a cold, cruel voice, Nina said, “Don’t do that again. Don’t ya dare else I’ll take a stick to your ornery hide.”

Not quite in a mutter, Jess said, “I got to find a good uniform and wear it.” He winked at the tragic look on Wainwright’s- and Solomon’s faces. “Might be, jefe, elk medicine runs in the family.”

An MRE slapped on his face and Jess ducked two more. He grinned and dived into the bathroom. Outside, Nina shouted at the cell phone and Solomon’s voice greeted her. Jess touched the doorknob but a knife thudded into the door, the tip breaking splinters from cheap plywood. He eyed it and smiled.

“Yep, Pa was right. Ain’t no woman like an exciting one.”

Nina started to chat with the image and the pleasant baritone answered back. They were playing a word game called synonyms. And meant then, beside, also, too. Nina turned it into a rhyming game. Will shall, shall not should show sheep short shine. Solomon said shirk and Nina stopped.

“Shark,” said Linnet. She sounded far enough away Jess eased open the bathroom door and a toilet flushed. He stilled, but all the woman did was glare at him. With an apologetic smile, he walked from the room only to still. Sluggish pumps sent water hissing through the pipes and Jess ran to the stairs.

At the top, he listened. Men were rousing, striking the walls and shouting. Jack’s voice rose strident and harsh over them.

“Shut up,” Jack said. “We can’t follow the noise.”

“Those crumbs--”

“Led no-where.” Jack paused. “An animal, maybe. It found a bag of chips.”

“What happened to the grub? Who stole all that food?” Shouts went up and this time a rifle cracked, then the shouts turned to a roar of angry men.

Jess sank to one heel to wait. He pressed a hand over the stitches, willing them to heal. Chuck never could clean himself, let alone his tools. Jess took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly and the ice in his stomach melted.

The shouts at last began to die and again, Jack bellowed for order.

“Clean up this mess. Danny.”

“Yes, sir?”

Jess frowned. The kid was alive yet. Something of hope for the others came to him. A faint scratch made Jess stiffen. Then Linnet’s scent drifted over him. That nervous flutter was back, but warm, not cold.

She sank into a crouch near him, but not close enough to touch. Jack shouted at someone. One hand came out and Jess took it. He reached out and she let him draw her close.

In a mutter, Jess said, “He stole the food.”

Her eyes flashed, but she nodded.

“Get a crew,” Jack said. He moved out of the stairwell but the voice was strident, carrying far. “I want every drop of blood gone. Hear me? Take twenty men to the Y and bring the women and all the food there.”

Cheers went up but Jack shouted over them and they hushed.

“There’s got to be a stash here, a bigger one than Jess and that old goat could haul. Every military base had to have a month’s rations for duty station men and women. The rest of you spread out and look.”

Lips against Linnet’s ear, Jess said, “Keep ‘em busy and dole out the food. So long as he can trust the men on guard, he’s in control.”

Linnet nodded. A hiss drifted up the stairwell. She turned on one heel, ducking when Jess tried to do more than kiss her.

Wainwright stood a level below and Linnet slid up, out of Jess’s arms to sign an all-well. The man grunted something. Jess turned.

He stuck a thumb up, Doctor, then signed all-well.

Wainwright tried to be quiet as he retreated, but a little noise still came from his boots. Jess leaned towards the door. A scratch came through and he pressed an ear against it.

One finger pressed over his lips, he cut a hand down. Linnet stepped close to lean on the door to listen. His gaze crept down a lean waist to the curve of her buttocks and outline of thickly muscled legs. Jess grinned, but a knuckle cracked on his head. He winced, but grinned anyway.

He stole down the stairs and gave a low whistle, a wolf call. She scowled, sultry, not sullen, and followed.

The hole to the storeroom was bigger. Nina still chatted with Mister Solomon. She had pieces of cardboard cut to form plates and a frying pan. A kitchen set of the same material waited near it and the cell phone sat across the table. Solomon raised a cup and sipped, then pretended to reach out to take a plate.

“Here,” Nina said, scowling. “Manners. When we get married, you’re gonna leave off being a wild cowboy, hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, eyes twinkling. “No wild nights out with the boys, I swear.”

“That’s good. Mama always said ya got to domesticate a man right, else he wanders on ya.” She took a piece of cardboard and pretended to pour it in his ‘cup.’ “How’s the coffee? I made it like Pa liked it, strong enough to eat a mule shoe.”

Solomon sipped and grinned. “Ah, very good. If the rest of your cooking is as good as this, the chef from the Waldorf will beg you to work for him.”

“Just plain cowgirl cooking,” she said, and put chips on his ‘plate.’ “No dessert till you finish those vegetables. Mama says that’s what’s why you cowboys are so durn mean, not enough fiber in your diet.”

Jess snorted and Nina glared over one shoulder. She smiled and held up a plate of chips.

“Here ya are, Jess. Hey, Linny. Tell Grampa Doc t’ please come and get it.”

Wainwright appeared and hurried to them with a box of something, but hid them behind him. A grin on his face, he sank to his knees bowing his head for a moment.

As ‘dinner’ wound down, Wainwright pulled out the box.

“Dessert,” he said, smiling at Nina. Cardboard ripped and he handed Nina a pack of cupcakes and one that said berry pie.

Nina grinned but said, “What do I do with them?”

“Why, we eat them. That delicious repast deserves the very best dessert.”

“Oh.” Nina bit into the pie and grimaced. Saddened about something, Wainwright tore off one end of the paper, then slide a sugar-crusted pie from it.

Looking from him, Nina sighed, but swallowed, paper and all. She opened the pack and ate with Wainwright and Solomon. Solomon raised a coffee cup and sipped.

“Delightful, Miss Nina.”

She grinned and a boom came down the stairwell.

Nina turned and screamed. Beard long and tangled, a man rushed from the storeroom with a pipe. He wailed and swung at Wainwright, who ducked but jumped to sink a foot in the man’s stomach.

The man crumpled to the floor, but struck with the pipe. Wainwright snarled and his heel kicked the man in the head. The man flopped back only to roll and growl.

Jess lunged, but he was fast. Teeth bared he jumped at Wainwright again and Nina screamed. She held up a knife and the man faltered, the pipe sagging in his hands.

“A kid? There aren’t any more kids.”

The cell phone barked and the man stiffened, coming to attention. Watching the man, Jess signed to Linnet. The manzanita bow still taut in her hands, she eased back from behind him.

“Sir?” The man saluted. “Sir, intruders in the garrison.”

“I know. These are personnel. You’re Corporal Escobedo?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why are you trying to kill them?”

“S-Sir, I was assigned here. We were on guard duty, Sergeant Michaels and I. An in-intruder came down the tunnel and sh-shot him in the back. I stopped the man, but the doors locked-down and couldn’t find help. Sergeant Michaels died.”

Solomon said, “And you were locked in with him?”

The man shook his head. “Sir, no. I went out to the roof and stayed there for a while. No one came but everything died. I come back down and stayed here, mostly, but the stink was bad.”

Solomon nodded. “Do you know where the solar panels are? The installation has been breached and they may well find a way into the stores. These people are starving, but they’re not enemy troops, either.”

“I saw the freaks, the invaders.” Escobedo’s eyes grew huge and shining with a smile. “They came in, several hundred strong, but folks in the barrios cut ‘em down. Tough folks, down in the barrios.” He gave a small cough. “’Scuse me. I took leave without permission.”

Solomon gave him a faint smile. “At the time, you were in command. We need the panels cleared. These people have to be fed, but a sinister element is among them. An escaped convict, Jackson Dubois, of Kenedy, Texas.”

“Ain’t.” Jess shook his head. “He’s of Pennsylvania, him and Miz Packer. When he gets mad, he calls her a mine rat and she screams he’s a polock and worse things.”

The man turned to frown at someone, but shrugged.

Escobedo threw a salute and turned to Wainwright to salute.

“Sir?”

Holding one arm, Wainwright winced.

“Yes?”

“Orders?”

“The solar panels need to be cleared,” Solomon said.

“And them elevators behind the wall will work.” Jess grinned. “We load each one with food and send it up. If they got their own food, Jack won’t be able to hold his boys.”

Solomon grinned and stuck a thumb up.

To Solomon, Wainwright said, “Jess is our Chief of War.”

“Jefe de los gorrillos,” Nina said, muttering around a mouthful of cake. Dark crumbs rolled over her chest. She winced and ducked from an angry Linnet.

Escobedo eyed Jess, but spun and marched into the storeroom. Jess dashed after him with Linnet on his heels.

Escobedo pointed up, at a grill in the ceiling along the wall. Not talking, he climbed the stacks to the hole and pulled himself into it. As his heels disappeared, Jess went in, his face set against the pull of stitches. A few feet behind Jess, Linnet followed and closed the grill.

The tunnel went up ten feet before it cut into a narrow room. Monitors flickered and cameras watched a small horde of men curled in sleep or playing cards. Empty bags of chips and jugs filled with murky water sat on the floor. A man crawled to his feet scratching his head. He looked around and Jess ducked, but came up with a sheepish grin. The man walked under the camera and the sound of water striking plaster came through.

Jack shouted and men jumped to their feet.

“I gave orders, no filth in this place. You were to use the restrooms.”

A sullen voice came from under the camera. “The toilets are full but the water stopped. You said we ain’t to go outside--”

Jack pulled a pistol and fired.

“Clean it up,” he said. “I want a crew to haul barrels of water here until we can find the cisterns.” He scowled over the men and three rushed forward to drag a bleeding corpse from sight.

Escobedo shook his head. “A bad one, him. Like those Kim Jong boys, that came in with the terrorists.” He sighed and walked to a wall. One hand pressed on it and a hidden door opened to a fire escape. In a whisper, he said, “You got to be quiet. He has guards walking patrol.”

When Jess nodded Escobedo slipped out the door. Jess came out glancing at stars burning over them. This was a lower landing and the rest went up.

“Chopper pad,” Escobedo said, whispering as he crept over metal stairs. “The brass tried to escape that way.” Face sour, he grunted. “AWOL. The chopper got hit with a sonic wave. It’s over there.” He pointed to the southeast and the tangled remains of machines. “I saw it on the monitors. Then I jumped down the tunnel to warn Michaels, but that ol’ boy was already dead.”

He smiled at Linnet. “Thank God, thank God some good people survived.”

In a whisper, Linnet said, “I think most were good people, at least before the Troubles got too hard.”

Escobedo grimaced, but shrugged and crawled out onto a crust of sun-baked dust. He eased along the wall. A pair of ragged pants appeared and he stilled.

Jess touched him on the shoulder. The corporal gave a small start, barely a small shift at that touch. In sign, Jess told him to move to the left, behind the exhaust system. After a moment’s hesitation, Escobedo nodded and crept behind pitted metal boxes. Jess slid under one, creeping through dust and around blackened metal legs.

A small scratch came from behind him and he frowned. Linnet peered at him. He signed to go down, to watch and wait. She scowled and stuck her tongue out, but eased back, silent. Deadly, like all females. A small shudder ran over Jess.

Smiling to himself, he slid out looking for more men. This one turned to walk along the parapets. Jess whistled and the man spun. Escobedo rushed him, knocking the man over the parapet. The man shouted but crumpled on a sidewalk. Jess tackled Escobedo, knocking him to the roof and rolled him under the equipment.

Three men charged up the stairs and to where the one went over. They looked down.

“Not a mark on him,” one on the ground said. “He must have fallen.”

One on the roof, said, “The wall is a meter high. How the hell could he? You, Mark, look for his tracks.” He kicked at dust, the worn toe of a boot scraping packed dust. “There has to be something.”

A bird called and all of them looked up, eyes seeking the source of the sound.

“It’s that punk, Danny.” He shouted in delight. “Man, he brought the women.”

The one on the roof shouted, but the rest charged away, leaving him alone. Eyeing the remains, he held a rifle at arms. He stepped back scanning first the roof, then the sky and walked with caution to the middle of the helicopter pad. He turned with the rifle up. It snapped to his shoulder and he grinned at Escobedo. A dart took him in the throat. One hand clutching at the dart, he staggered back and the rifle dropped.

He sank to his knees staring at a dark form easing from the fire escape and fell forward. Jess ran in a crouch to him to wrench the dart free. He tossed it at Linnet, who caught it, and turned cleaning it of blood. The man sighed, bubbles coming from the wound and he blinked. Jess used a rag to stanch the blood and wasn’t gentle as he shoved it in the wound. The man gasped and tried to speak.

With a small shake of his head, Jess hushed him.

“The military stash, it’s in a lower level. If Jack takes it, all ya all will be his slaves. Do you understand?”

When the man tried to nod, Jess said, “It was supposed to be distributed after the war, but somebody killed one of the guards. The place went on lockdown. All we want is to get away from Jack and his sister, Miz Packer. She’s a loony.”

The man sighed and again, his head tipped a scant few centimeters. Jess gripped one shoulder. He cut a hand at solar panels. Escobedo and Linnet rushed to them, knocking crusted dust from them. A light on the parapet gave an uncertain glow. Jess nodded at the wounded man and ran to help, wiping dirt from the cleaned ones and the rest. Like Wainwright said, these were cheaply made, not the quality used at the college.

He went to the man and shoved a pack of chips and one of cupcakes under the baggy shirt.

“Mister Solomon says we’re to see all you all get it. OK?” When the man signed he heard, Jess said, “Tons of food. Enough for a couple thousand for a month. You tell Jack--mind, have a lot of witnesses or he’ll kill you--that Mister Solomon says they know where he is, and this time he’ll get the rope for his crimes. If he behaves, he’ll get amnesty. Might be a while, but the military is strong. They got weapons, ammo, fuel, and lots o’ boys to man the guns. They’re taking over till we can have elections again.”

The man sighed and signed Good.

Jess buttoned his shirt closed. He checked the wound. Blood congealed under the rag, but little showed on the mouth. It would be worse than a sore throat, but the man survived harsher problems. He winked and slid back to where Escobedo and a scowling Linnet waited.

They stole down the stairs only to have to huddle against the door. Just below them, a hundred men stared and smiled at a ragged group of women. Riding in a cart, Mrs. Packer arrived in style, smiling, nodding and the men cheered. One hand rose to blow a kiss.

When they crowded into the lower ground floor, Jess turned and pried open the door. They crept in and Escobedo locked it. Linnet went on, but Jess and Escobedo stayed in the computer room, watching lights glow in lampposts. With a grin, he stared at Mrs. Packer. She walked to Jack to give him a deep, long kiss and he smiled.

Not quite to himself, Jess said, “To every man, his poison.” Then he gave Escobedo a crooked grin.


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