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Thread: Foreign & Domestic Part IV - Colder Weather

  1. #61
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    Chapter 14

    The young barmaid held the door for the last of the patrons.

    “Goodnight, Annie,” one of them offered as they passed by.

    “G’night,” she replied and then locked the door.

    Tolliver Jr., who everyone just referred to as Junior, had barely owned the place a week, but he’d already replaced the glass that had been smashed during Gregg’s arrest.

    “I can get the rest of this, Annie. You go on up and turn in for the night,” the newly installed owner and bartender declared.

    “You sure?”

    “Yeah, I got it,” Junior stated.

    “OK, let me just put another log in the firebox for the water and I’ll head on up.”

    He nodded and went back to cleaning his glassware. Several minutes passed before he looked up again. When he did, he saw Annie turn the corner at the top of the staircase and head down the hallway toward her boarding room, lit candle in hand.

    As she passed door after door of the old two-story apartment building, she could hear snoring, muted discussions, and the occasional amorous relationship. When she reached her room at the end of the hall, she noticed that her door was slightly ajar. She paused. Slowly, Annie turned and looked behind her. No one was there. Switching the candle into her left hand, she deliberately bent down and pulled a five inch knife that Gregg had given her from her right boot. While standing several feet back, she used the tip of the blade, and a quick thrust, to push the door fully open. A breeze from the open window brought the door back to her slightly. The light of the candle illuminated only a fraction of the interior. She could see part of the bed and nightstand, but not around the corners or either side of the doorway.

    “Is someone there?” she asked innocently but fearfully. When there was no response, she added, “This isn’t funny. Whoever is in there, you better come out now!” she declared. Still no answer.

    She was suddenly overcome with self-doubt. Did I not close it all the way when I went to work, she thought.

    “Last chance,” she stated. “I’ve got a knife and I’m coming in. If someone’s in there, it’s not going to end well for you.”

    Slowly, she inched forward. First her candle hand and leading foot and then her trailing leg and right hand, knife at the ready. Gently, she swept the door the rest of the way open and thrust her candle fully into the opening. She leaned to her right and left from outside the doorway, trying to peer into all four corners of the room.

    Nothing appeared to be out of place from her vantage point so she began to creep forward into the room.

    Just as she entered the room, a hand clamped down on her forearm. Then, just as quickly, a second grabbed her behind her bicep and flung her onto the bed. The candle hit the floor and was extinguished. She had enough wherewithal to swing the blade as she flew through the air. Annie felt it slash something, flesh perhaps.

    A hissing sound was produced by her assailant from the pain.

    In total darkness, she tried to right herself and collect her bearings on the bed. The candlelight had temporarily robbed her of her night vision. She quickly rolled to her left off of the bed. She knew her attacker was to her right, but she had become disorientated during her flight. She hadn’t realized she had flipped and was sitting on the bed backwards. Annie landed directly at her assailant’s feet.

    “You’re gonna pay for that, bitch!” they declared as she felt a painful tug at her hair as they started to pull her up.

    She didn’t recognize the voice.

    Annie had no other recourse except to start thrusting and slashing with her knife just hoping she’d meet with a body part.

    The blade was connecting, she could feel the resistance, but no pain was being induced like her initial blow. She was confused. Was she not catching them with edge of the blade?

    As she was getting to her feet, she reached out a hand to steady herself. She now knew why they weren’t screaming out… they were wearing thick leather chaps.

    She immediately began swinging the blade in an upward motion hoping to connect with the abdomen or genitalia. All she got was air. Thinking quickly, her only thought was that whoever it was had changed positions and was now standing behind her.

    Gregg had taught her to never give up. He’d said, “Don’t ever, ever make it easy for the person on the offensive. Sometimes that means enduring some pain of your own to put yourself in a better position to switch from defender to attacker.”

    Hearing his words resonate and jumble together with her own fearful thoughts, she told herself, this is going to hurt, and then proceed to roll to her left while swiping behind herself with the blade to the right. Annie felt the chunk of hair being ripped from her scalp. She cried out in pain as she freed herself. She was extremely gratified to hear her attacker howl in pain as well. Whatever body part she caught she knew it was deep gash.

    Now that she was on her back, her only thought was to start kicking… and kick she did!

    Annie started low and caught what she felt was a shin, then a kneecap, followed by a blow to the chest. She could hear the air moving as the attacker swung an arm again and again in an attempt to block her kicks. A final heel thrust must have hit them in the nose as she was immediately covered in a warm fluid, blood.

    Her eyesight was beginning to return. She could make out their shape as they quickly stood and went for the window and the fire escape. Even though they were hobbled with her kick to the knee, she was astounded with the deftness with which they exited the open window. She crawled over and watched as they took the steps down two at a time.

    In a blood curdling scream, she managed to get out a forceful, “Junior!”

    Annie heard the glass he’d been cleaning break on the tavern floor. That was quickly followed by his heavy boots clunking steadfastly up the stairs and then eventually down the hallway.

    “Annie! Where are you?” he hollered back from the middle of the darkened hallway.

    “In my room,” she whimpered as the pain from the ripping hair truly began to set in.

    There was more clunking of boots coming down the hallway as he tried to make his way in darkness. Doors began to open from other patrons and travelers as they started wondering what was going on. Some had lit candles, most didn’t. Junior grabbed the closest one and entered her room.

    He found her huddled in the corner by the open window, knees up in her chest, covered in blood. At her feet was a clump of her own blond hair.

    “What the hell happened in here?!”

    Quickly the doorway filled with curious onlookers. An elderly traveler gasped as she caught sight of the young woman clutching a knife and bleeding from her scalp.

    “George!” she stated to get her husband’s attention. “Go get the Sheriff!” she ordered.

    Quietly, Junior whispered, “Are you OK? Can you stand?”

    After a few blank moments of catatonic staring, she eventually nodded. Through the candle light, he examined her head wound. “Ester, tell him to get the doc too.”

    She relayed the message down the hallway. Her husband grunted in reply as he worked his way down the stairs.

    “C’mon, Annie,” he declared. “Let’s get you downstairs into some better light for the doctor. Whatever he’s gonna need to do you’re gonna want a stiff drink!”

    As the pair worked their way down the hallway, he asked, “Did you get a look at who did this?”

    She shook her head ‘no’, then proclaimed, “My candle went out. It was dark.”

    Quietly he whispered, “Do you think it was Deputy Burnette?”

    “No. That wasn’t his voice,” she replied in equal voice. “Whoever it was I’m pretty sure I busted him up good.”

    “Think maybe he sent someone to harass you for the whole Gregg disappearing thing?” he asked.

    “I don’t know, maybe. When the Sheriff gets here, let’s ask him to produce the Deputy.”

    In the small towns of what was left of America, an assault was a major happening. It was understood that you took your life in your hands on the road, for sure, but to have someone known to the town for almost her entire life accosted was a different matter entirely. As a result, it came as no surprise when most, if not all of the tenants, followed Junior and Annie downstairs to wait for the Sheriff.

    When the man finally did arrive, followed shortly thereafter by what passed for a doctor, everyone was mumbling amongst themselves and putting forth their own theories as to what happened.

    When he’d finally heard enough, the lawman held up his hands and said, “Listen folks, I know you’re curious, but if you could, please go back to your rooms. I only need to speak with Annie and the people that heard or saw something. Please,” he implored them. When several of the assembled began heading toward the stairs, he added, “Thank you.”

    While the doctor bandaged her head, the Sheriff went down the line asking the tenants what they knew. Each stated that they only heard the commotion and didn’t see anything until they gathered in the hallway outside her door. One by one, each was dismissed and returned to their rooms. Eventually, even the doctor left.

    When it was just the three, Annie told him what the man had said. She couldn’t prove that Deputy Burnette was involved so she was careful not to implicate the man without proof. Junior did it all for her.

    “Where’s James?”

    “What? Now hold on sec…” the Sheriff attempted to reply.

    “He’s been infatuated with her for some time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he set this whole thing up so he could be some white knight. Annie says she cut the guy at least twice, not to mention the flailing likely busted his knee and face up pretty good.”

    “I just can’t go around accusing people without cause,” the man managed to insert.

    “Why? Because he’s the Provost’s nephew! Go get him in here and if he’s been worked over, you’ve got your…”

    Before the barkeep could finish his sentence, Deputy James Burnette burst through the door. They three barely even performed a cursory review of him before each concluded he wasn’t the perpetrator. He face wasn’t cut or marked, his nose was still in alignment, and he wasn’t limping in the slightest.

    The Sheriff turned back to the pair and said, “It’s been a long night, guys. We’ll get on this first thing in the morning. In the meantime, Junior, give her a shot or two of the stuff you keep under the bar. It’ll numb the pain and help her sleep.”

    Annie never took her eyes off of the Deputy. She visually scrutinized every square inch of the man’s exposed skin and clothing. In vain, she searched and searched for even the smallest of clues that might implicate James. As he and his boss were turning to exit, she caught it.

    A small circle of blood was on the backside of his shirt cuff.

    She kept this information to herself. One way or another, she was going to rid herself of this leech and go after Gregg.

    * * *

    “But how are we going to relay everything Carlton told us in his fourteen pages to Josh in Kearney?” Scott asked in earnest.

    “What if we sent a telegram to Jake instead?” Fitz offered.

    “We could pare it down to only the top two or three items,” Sam stated. “Send it to him in Corydon.”

    Her son-in-law was silent as he quietly paced the basement floor and pondered their ideas, continuing to ‘work the problem’.

    When he struck upon an idea, he snapped his fingers and proclaimed, “I got it! We could send parsed messages a few days apart to different recipients.”

    Intrigued by the concept, the Sheriff and Sam looked at each other, shrugged, then grabbed a stool and took a seat.

    “I knew he’d be the dogs bollocks! Lay it out for us, Scott,” Fitz replied for the pair.

    “One of these days you’re gonna have to explain the British preoccupation to bollocks, Fitz… you really are,” Sam declared as she shook her head at him.

    Turning quickly, Scott grabbed one of Dallas’ whiteboards and dragged it over closer to the work bench. He quickly drew a crude representation of the lower forty-eight and an odd jagged line.

    “OK, assuming they stick to the same route on their return, which is roughly this line,” he stated as a he pointed. “The first message we send is to a ‘Katherine Watson’,” he began as he flashed air quotes. “We just tag the message to state that she is arriving via caravan in Kearney, Nebraska in the next week or so.”

    “Why use her married name?” Sam asked.

    “He’s right,” the Sheriff inserted. “We don’t necessarily want to be transmitting the ‘Simmons’ surname halfway across the country.”

    “Exactly!” he declared in reply. “The goal here is to obfuscate not only the person receiving the message, but also the intent of the message. We’ll have to encode it somehow.”

    “Way ahead of you, Scott. Josh knows the cypher,” Sam stated to the pair bluntly.

    Fitz turned to look at her.

    “What?” she professed.

    Scott stood and stared then deliberately crossed his arms in defiance. He was angry.

    “You know what, Sam,” he began quietly, but the inflection told her and Fitz he was dead serious.

    “After all of the things that have been orchestrated out of this farm, from the gun running, to bootleg alcohol, to the coordinated subversive hit and run tactics… after all of that, this family has some serious trust issues, and I’m sick of it. I’m not saying another word until you start talking… and I’m mean really talking.”

    Sam was taken aback by his veiled vitriol. In an attempt to sooth his ruffled feathers she said, “Just relax. Breathe.” Then she waited for him to take a deep breath.

    Once he did so, she added, “Josh was hearing rumors about limited telegraph availability so he created a paired down cipher built on the code we use for Carlton as a precaution. His message home was decoded when I sent you guys outside,” she explained.

    The two looked at her dumbfounded.

    Finally, Fitz asked, “And what did it say?”

    “I can see we aren’t going to move on until this is over with. Hold on,” Sam stated with a sigh as she got up. With purpose, she went to the same cabinet that held the cardboard cutout they’d used for letter deciphering. She purposefully yanked open the door and retrieved his original message, her decode, and the key. She plunked the three items on the table with aplomb.

    The two men reviewed Josh’s original text then read over Sam’s decoding. Fitz whistled through his teeth. Her son-in-law just shook his head in disbelief.

    “Scott, we aren’t keeping secrets,” she began compassionately. “It’s called compartmentalization. You know how it works. Plus, Josh and I are old, we’ve lived our lives. By keeping certain things ‘need to know’, we are protecting everyone else.”

    Scott shifted around on his feet. He knew what she was saying was true, but he still wasn’t happy about it.

    “Say someone got caught on one of those runs, the fact that you, or Fitz, or Carlos, or whoever didn’t know will keep you alive and your kids, my grandchildren, with their parents… both parents.”

    “Still don’t like it,” he stated in a short clipped terse tone. “I think I’ve reached a breaking point in the secrecy department. It needs to end. I can’t keep coming up with these ‘MacGyver’d’ solutions to nearly impossible problems if I don’t know more of the facts. I’d prefer to have the choice to be involved,” he answered with a little less defiance.

    “Understood,” she replied with a smile. “And to prove just how much I understand your need for more responsibility, I’m leaving you, and Fitzy here, to determine the messages, who they’re delivered to, when they should be sent, and where they are to be delivered. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe Tristan and Gammy need to retire for their afternoon naps.”

    And with that, she doused her headlamp. On her way by, Sam gave Scott a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. The pair watched as she hung the light up and ascended the stairs.

    When they heard the basement door shut behind her, Fitz lunged across the table and punched Scott in the shoulder.

    “Way to go, dumbass!”

    “What? It really pisses me off sometimes,” he declared.

    “You could’ve found a better way to tell your mum that she isn’t needed anymore!”

    “Huh? That’s not what I said… like… at all!”

    “Well, that’s what she heard… wanker!”

    Scott had a look of complete confusion on his face. Social queues were never this strong suit.

    “Let’s just get to work and get these messages ready.”

    “Fine,” the Sheriff declared as he continued to shake his head. “Let’s hear it.”

    Shaking off his friend’s words, he began, “You were right about the surname part. So I think we send the first message to Katherine under her married name in Kearney. Now, with a larger group they’ll probably be travelling more slowly back to the east. That and, apparently given their cargo from Omaha, the horses probably won’t be able to make the same time.”

    “That or their cargo makes them want to take a different route home altogether,” Fitz inserted.

    Scott pondered it for the briefest of seconds then replied, “I don’t think so. If Josh is anything, he’s a creature of habit. Plus, if his message to Sam is true, and Jake and Dex are onboard, he’s stopping at those two locations… presumably to drop off the cargo he picked up in Omaha. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what route he takes as long as we know his weigh points along the way to Cincinnati.”

    “Can’t we just send a message to Katherine and ask for Dex’s address in Indiana then mail him Carlton’s letter in pieces and parts?” Fitz asked. “Why parse the messages? What if Josh is wounded or dead? He’s the only one who knows the cipher.”

    “They can’t read Carlton’s letters without the key.”

    “Bollocks!”

    Scott continued to further explain his rationale. “I acknowledge that it is a risk, but it is one that we are going to have to assume. I don’t see another way. We won’t need addresses for anyone if we know the recipient and the town.”
    Fitz looked at him quizzically.

    “These Midwest towns are small and rural. Everyone knows everyone.”

    The Sheriff interjected and completed his thought. “So a telegraph operator shouldn’t have any issue delivering the message.”

    Scott then picked up Sam’s decoding of Josh’s telegram. “And the true message will be hidden.”

    “Ooh,” Fitz declared with a new idea. “What about the HAM network? Can’t we use that?” he asked as he gestured toward the corner desk.

    “Sadly, no,” Scott replied. “We lost a lot of the operators over the years when Calderon started triangulating the transmissions and locking up dissenters. That doesn’t account for the fact that the panels that were charging the batteries exceeded their life expectancy and we had a fairly strong and lengthy solar burst a few years back. Without spare parts, a large number of units were rendered completely inoperable.”

    “Bollocks! This is like a bloody Greek tragedy!”

    Dismayed, Fitz continued to leaf through the papers containing Carlton’s decrypted messages, and then took in the whiteboard rendering again. Slowly, he began shaking his head.

    “Short of carrier pigeons, which we don’t have, and the time constraints, I can’t think of anything else either.” Extending his hand laden with the papers, the Sheriff concluded, “Given that, I think you are correct. We need to cherry pick the most actionable and relevant intel and send them on to Katherine, Jake, and Dex. After that, it’s in God’s hands that Josh is alive and able to decode the messages.”

    “He could have passed the cypher on to Dallas or James, or Jesus too. You never know.”

    * * *
    Hannibal ad portas

  2. #62
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    Chapter 14 con't

    “What have you got there, Jeremy?” Calderon questioned as he worked from a seated position behind his desk.

    “Sir? Does the name ‘Colonel Simmons’ mean anything to you?” the aide asked as he stepped across the threshold and entered the POTUS’ office.

    The man slowly raised his head, removed his glasses, and flippantly tossed them onto his desk. He still didn’t respond as he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling.

    “I’m guessing that you aren’t here to tell me he’s dead.”

    “Umm, no, sir. Quite the contrary. According to this dispatch, he and three men entered Offutt depot. They are apparently visiting with associates from the General Staff. The nature of the visit is undermined as of right now. The Provost felt it was suspicious given what he knew of the man’s previous exploits.”

    The President exhaled loudly.

    “How long ago was this?”

    “They arrived several days ago and departed yesterday morning. The Provost wants permission to track and follow them.”

    “Yeah, right,” Calderon chuckled. “The next dispatch you read will be them telling us that the trackers are missing,” the man concluded morbidly.

    “Sir?”

    Without looking at the aide, and continuing his contemplative staring at the ceiling, he added, “Simmons and his brethren are old school military… old school constitutional government. He is not someone we want messing around with our governmental philosophy.”

    “Who is he?”

    “Here’s a little history lesson on Col. Josiah Simmons… He was the guy right smack in the middle of all the Congressional testimony that brought down the BigAg food industry. He was the guy that Sarkes and his convoy went to in order to disappear with the last gold shipment out of Denver. He and his group were the ones that used antique museum artillery and leveled downtown Columbus… but more importantly, he was the one that damn near stopped us when we took out Sarkes and Culpepper in one shot.

    “So, you ask, ‘who is he?’ He’s a master tactician and our worst damn nightmare!” he declared as he bolted out of his chair and began pacing nervously. Pausing for a few moments to calm and collect himself, Calderon countermanded himself.

    “Now that I think about it, I’ve changed my mind. Wherever he is, I want him followed. I want the people he talks to questioned... starting with the General Staff… and I want a full inventory of that facility completed in thirty-six hours or less! If he violates a single word of the New Constitution, I want him and all of the associates he’s cavorted with shot!”

    “Yes, sir! I’ll send the Provost a reply immediately. Should I indicate that they are to be considered illegally armed and dangerous?”

    Calderon started to answer then stopped himself.

    “No,” he declared in a calmer tone. “Don’t do that. I only want them observed until they break the law.” Then, in a tone dripping with sheer disdain for the rule of law, he added, “This is a free country after all.”

    The man then exited from behind his desk and began thinking, conspiring… configuring schemes and plans to try and figure out what Josh was up to.

    “If we indicate that he may be armed, some overzealous Deputy Provost or one of Praetorians in training in some backwater might get stupid, no.”

    The aide stood patiently as his boss tried to collect his thoughts, parse his words, and determine a course of action.

    Eventually, the President stated, “The rumor was that Simmons is from the Appalachia’s… what’s he doing all the way out there in Nebraska? I doubt he got bored and decided to take a trip. He’s up to something and that’s not what we need right now.”

    “Sir, I have a question,” Jeremy offered and broke the man’s concentration.

    “Huh?”

    “A moment ago, you said that Sarkes and the convoy went to him for aid.”

    “Or so the story goes,” Calderon inserted.

    “So, where’s the gold?” the aide asked.

    The President shrugged.

    “They wouldn’t tell my predecessor after he instituted martial law and then Sarkes was killed before we found out. No sooner did they lay him to rest in Arlington as Col. Simmons and his crew disappeared… until that dispatch. Culpepper sent teams into the hills looking for it, but…”

    “I find it hard to believe that there’s been no contact with a man so deeply entrenched in all of this. What’s it been, fifteen years since the Sarkes assassination?”

    “It’s a difficult one to decipher I’ll grant you that. I heard rumors… conjecture, but nothing concrete. He most likely was orchestrating things from afar, possibly under an alias.”

    The President then resumed his thoughtful contemplation. As the minutes passed, Jeremy stood patiently and waited. Eventually, Calderon gave his instruction.

    “I want a search conducted throughout the Appalachian Range near the Ohio Valley. He’s got roots in there somewhere, find them. Have the Provost from Omaha dispatch a team to trail them… and for the love of all things Holy, tell them to keep their distance… and by distance, I mean stay hours behind him, a day at most. So, they need to be adept at tracking. I want my instruction to not approach him or his party dispatched to each of the Regional Provost’s from the Midwest Region all the way to the coast in the Northwest. We need to know where he’s headed and why. Clear?”

    “Understood,” Jeremy replied and swiftly exited the room.

    The POTUS watched him leave and then muttered, “Josh friggin’ Simmons…. damn it!”

    Carlton smiled and just kept on raking like he hadn’t heard a thing. Calderon noticed him and called him over. The indentured gardener pretended to not hear him. It wasn’t until the POTUS practically hollered his name did he acknowledge he was being hailed.

    Quickly, as all prisoners do when beckoned, he hustled over to the window.

    “Why don’t you ever come when I call you?” the POTUS bemoaned through the open window like a parent scolding a child.

    “You know that Cap’n of yours bashed me in the ears too many times. Can’t hear much of anything out of my left side nowadays,” he replied as he lied through his teeth. He could hear perfectly out of both. The trick was keeping up the charade and not flinching at inappropriate times.

    “You worked Secret Service for Sarkes when he was running around with Col Simmons, right?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Lie, he thought. I’m a spy and one day I’m going to provide the information that gets you assassinated.

    “Any idea where Simmons was based?”

    “Sir?” Carlton asked confused.

    To clarify, Calderon said, “You know, where was his home? Did he have any close family or friends?”

    “Oh, that man, he traveled a lot.”

    Lie. He hated leaving the farm.

    “Damn!” the POTUS replied.

    “He was always on the go. I do remember that about him. He’d talk about visiting friends on Chincoteague Island in northeast Virginia and going crabbing. Or his love of visiting Williamsburg too. There apparently was something about the Governor’s Mansion gardens. Said it was inspirational.”

    Half a lie… keep the false details minimal you fool. They’re easier to remember that way.

    “As for family, I know he was divorced and had a daughter or two. I wanna say near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania maybe… can’t be sure though.”

    Partial truth, he’s divorced with three daughters, but remarried.

    “It’s been a long time,” Carlton continued, “But if I had to guess, I’d say eastern West Virginia or perhaps western Maryland, somewhere along the West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland borders.”

    Where did that come from? Shut up already!

    “Said they were ‘quick day trips’ to visit his girls so I’d start there.”

    Carlton could see the giddiness begin to fill his eye.

    Need to nip this joy in the bud.

    “But I never went with Sarkes to the Colonel’s home. They always met someplace neutral, never at each other’s particular place of residence.”

    Dejected, but still intrigued, Alejandro couldn’t resist asking, “Did he or Sarkes ever mention that last shipment of gold? Where did it ever end up?”

    “No, I’m sorry, sir.”

    No, I’m not. You’re a tyrant who deserves a bullet.

    “Only the Secret Service personnel that were members of his detail when that went down were permitted in the room when the Denver shipment was discussed. That was something they were damn near fanatical about.”

    Complete lie. Josh showed me the collapsed tunnel himself.

    “It was a total ‘need to know’ and I was on the outside looking in because all of that happened before I was assigned to him,” Carlton answered bluntly.

    Dejected, the POTUS dismissed Carlton then called for Jeremy. He listened intently as the bogus information he’d just provided was relayed to the man’s aide. President Alejandro Calderon’s minions were being sent on a very cumbersome and very wild goose chase.

    Time to write another letter, Carlton thought as he resumed his raking duties.

    Just then, the POTUS proved that he was even craftier than Carlton gave him credit for.

    “Jeremy?”

    “Yes, sir?” he replied as he stopped and turned before exiting the office.

    “Dispatch some men to D.C., well, what’s left of it. Have them search the remnants of the IRS, Social Security, and Veteran’s Affairs buildings for any hardcopy records regarding Mr. Simmons. If that doesn’t pan out, have them try what’s left of the capital building and Library of Congress. There’s bound to be a transcript of some kind in there somewhere from his testimony. Maybe that’ll give us a better clue as to where to begin searching for him.”

    “Will do, sir.”

    Crap, Carlton thought as he calmly raked.

    From behind him, he heard Calderon calling out to him once more. Feigning his deafness, he straightened and placed a cupped hand to his ‘good’ ear as if he’d maybe heard something faint. The POTUS yelled out to him again. Turning, he caught sight of the would-be-king motioning for him to come back.

    “Did you call me, sir?” he asked as he approached.

    With a sigh, the President answered. “Yes. I’ve been thinking. Maybe the grounds crew is a little too much for you these days. Would you be interested in coming inside? It’s the least I could do for you after all of the insight you’ve been able to offer.”

    Startled by his question, Carlton had to think quickly. If he agreed to readily, the reaction wouldn’t seem genuine. Harkening back to the days when society was burdened with overly bloated social programs and rampant divisiveness, he opted to assume incredulity.

    In a bit of play acting, he quickly snapped his head back and flared his eyes at the man, declaring, “Be your house slave?!”

    Without skipping a beat, Calderon immediately replied, “Slavery was abolished over a hundred and seventy-five years ago, Carlton. You are a prisoner serving time for theft and murder. My skin is just a few shades lighter than yours so you can stop the race hustle.” Standing up fully he turned his attention to his aide. “Jeremy, couldn’t we use some assistance on the wait staff? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe one of the porters fell ill? I think I’d like old Carlton here to be my personal valet. When he isn’t needed by me, we can loan him out to those offices. Thoughts?”

    Because the POTUS was standing, Carlton couldn’t see their facial queues. The whole thing smelled like a set up. Continuing to play his part as the old cantankerous prisoner, he thrust his head in the window to see the two of them more clearly.

    “I’m standing right here! I should get a say, don’t you think?”

    Startled by the man’s bravado, Jeremy stepped back. Calderon seemed unfazed and didn’t move.

    Glancing down at Carlton, the President admonished him. “You do get a say which is why I asked if you wanted to come inside. I’m trying to make your last years on this earth more comfortable. Learn some manners or I’ll rescind my offer and send you to a labor camp. The life expectancy in the camps is decidedly less than what I am offering you.”

    Maintaining his persona, Carlton sucked air from the side of his cheek like he was trying to dislodge some food from a molar. Slowly he removed his head from the window. Standing pat just outside, Carlton muttered loud enough to be heard.

    “Send me to a labor camp? Ain’t that some ****? I’ll jump out of the damn wagon and off a cliff before that happens.”

    The man waited a few silent seconds more before he unexpectedly thrust his head back inside to continue the ruse.

    “House slaves get a bed in the house, right? No more uninsulated, cotton farm, plantation looking bunk houses, right? I eat what you eat, right? And I get to use the indoor facilities too, right?”

    Sighing, the President turned back to Carlton. “Yes, you get to sleep in the house and use the bathroom. Yes, you will eat better. Are you satisfied?”

    The prisoner feigned a contemplative look, and then slowly revealed a truly genuine tooth laden smile.

    “OK. I’ll do it,” he declared and extended his hand to Calderon.

    As the two men shook hands, Carlton couldn’t help but think, you have no idea what you’ve just done, buddy.
    Last edited by theauthor; 10-30-2018 at 11:39 PM.
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  3. #63
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    Chapter 15

    Former Deputy Provost Travis Ludgren, along with his father and grandfather, rode into Kearney, Nebraska with the warm early summer sun shining above them. It wouldn’t be long before the summer heat arrived. They had followed Josh and his group for weeks as they traversed the Ohio Valley and Mississippi River from Dex’s livery in Noblesville to Jake’s farm in Corydon. Once they were discovered and confronted by James, the nearly weeklong journey from central Iowa to Offutt AFB allowed all seven of the men to begin forming the bonds of friendship. Plus, it gave the foursome from McArthur time to better assess their viability and grant them the opportunity to cancel their inclusion altogether. In fact, they’d told the Ludgren’s as much.

    At the conclusion of the journey to Omaha, they were unanimous in their decision. All three would be adept at surviving on the run given their exploits over the last twenty years.

    Travis, according to his grandfather Tug, had been groomed from the beginning of his teenage years to become a Provost of some degree. Thus allowing the family and a close knit group of friends to avoid detection and incarceration for a wide variety of ‘infractions’. They had never known of Dex’s involvement with Josh during the earliest years of the bloodletting that was the Second Civil War.

    The boy’s father, Beau, surprised Josh somewhat when he disclosed that the name ‘Little Bo Peep’ had exposed his true identity back in Indiana. They knew the code name from the early years of the Calderon presidency. Apparently, there was a great deal of folklore associated with the moniker. On faith, they’d chosen to follow him on that information alone. Josh, for his part, stated that this was the precise reason he used it. He knew people had heard the identifier and was banking on the right people hearing it.

    Jesus declared them all to be certifiably insane.

    Once the three deviated from the others near Omaha, they immediately began heading toward central Nebraska. Their mission was to recon the area and function as Josh’s advanced team, granted they were only three of four days ahead of him. The multigenerational family members had instructions to not resist any inspection and then use Travis’s standing as a Deputy Provost from Indiana to befriend local law enforcement. Once that contact had been made, each would use the information gleaned from the LEO’s to casually observe the town in a non-obtrusive manner.

    Josh recognized that the Ludgren’s were not known to the others and had never laid eyes on any of them. Trust was going to be a problem. However, the former Marine Corps Colonel had the utmost faith in the grandfather, Tug, given their conversations from Corydon to Omaha. Even though he’d only served two tours as an avionics mechanic, he’d somehow impressed upon Josh his biblical and constitutional knowledge, not to mention his healthy respect for rule of law. Before sending the family on their way as they neared Offutt AFB, Josh had entrusted Tug with a pass phrase depending on who arrived first.

    True to their tasking, Travis ingratiated himself as a man taking some time away from the job by escorting his father and grandfather to search for relatives further west. Tug spent his time in a makeshift tavern feigning drunkenness while Beau worked the fishermen down on the Platte River just south of town.

    Within the first two days, Travis was able to glean that, up until recently, the town had generally been left alone by the Upper Midwest Regional Provosts office in Rochester, Minnesota. However, new directives were coming out of Richmond that dictated a new infractions list as well as prescribed sentences. Moreover, the Provosts office had also implemented more stringent inspections in the border towns while simultaneously increasing staff.

    By littering the landscape with more Deputy Provosts, presumably to maintain ‘order’ along the heavily travelled trade routes, the re-education camps were filling quickly. It had been the Sheriff’s voiced observation Travis that most of the new hires had no previous background in anything useful and appeared to be nothing more than political favors for family and friends.

    During the same time, through his new found fishing contacts, Beau was invited to sample the wares up for sale or trade on the black market which had been established in the earliest days after the EMP. Its location was moved several times over the years depending on the political climate and level of discord, not to mention the occasional seasonal flood from the Platte.

    While not partaking, Tug had managed to confirm that the world’s oldest profession was alive and well.

    After finishing lunch with his grandfather on the third day, Travis made his usual walk through the town center and then headed toward the Sheriff’s office. When he turned the corner, he saw someone entering with a prisoner. Curiosity got the better of him as he too entered for the sole purpose of listening to their conversation. Prisoner transports were rare back home in the Ohio Valley Region so he figured that this would be a treat.

    “OK, Marshal, your transfer paperwork is in order. Go ahead and put him in the first cell,” he heard the Sheriff say as he neared.

    As he closed the door on his prisoner, he looked over a prisoner in an adjoining cell, then asked, “What’s he in for? Any warrants in the Northwest Territory?”

    “We’re still checking, but the Central Region Provost sure wants this man back in the worst way. Crazy as they come if you ask me. Goes by the name of Alex Bonner, former NorTex resident,” the Sheriff replied.

    The mere reference to the North Texas Rehabilitation Center had Grappler interested. He made a mental note to return when the Sheriff was gone to have a chat with him about that facility.

    When he raised an intrigued eyebrow at the man, the Sheriff continued. “Butchered a chain gang Boss, cut out the tongue of a trustee, freed forty prisoners, and he claims to have killed three of the Brigance brothers in self-defense.”

    “Brigance brothers?” Grappler asked.

    “They were a band of five brothers out on the road harassing travelers. Seems they liked to rob people blind… called it scavenging. One robbery went awry and ended in rape and murder. Stories made it all the way down to NorTex courtesy of the victim’s husband and son. If his story’s true, he unloaded a heavy burden off of folks down this way,” the Sheriff concluded.

    “No good deed goes unpunished,” the Marshal offered.

    With a shrug, the Sheriff replied, “I heard that, but he’s still an escapee so he’s being shipped back. Warden’s tacking on a death sentence for the killing of the Boss and the trustee though.”

    The Marshal gave the man another discerning look then turned to face the man. When he did, he noticed Travis.

    “Deputy Provost Travis Lundgren, Marshal,” he said as he extended his hand.

    “Oh, good grief. You guys are like cockroaches,” he replied.

    “I’m sorry?” Travis replied as he slowly retracted his hand.

    “I don’t know what’s being going on here in the Upper Midwest Region, but the number of you guys seems to multiply the further and further I get into the area.”

    The Sheriff interjected, “Ah, that would be the result of our benevolent Provost Trudeau up in Minnesota. Seems someone wasn’t feeling the proper amount of love and devotion and might have taken a passing shot at the man sometime back.”

    “Too bad they missed, been my experience that they’re all idiots,” the Marshal declared. “It’s the young inexperienced piss ant’s like this one that had me on the trail for over month after my prisoner escaped due to the ineptitude.”

    Taken aback, Travis stuck up for himself.

    “I can assure the Marshal that I am neither inexperienced nor a piss ant.”

    “Hmph,” the man replied and added, “We’ll see.” He then offered them some clarifying rules. “Do not approach the cell. Pass him his food under the door. Push it through from distance with a broomstick. The minute you become complacent is the minute ol’ Charlie Hustle in there snaps your neck. Comprende?”

    “Understood, Marshal Doolan,” the Sheriff answered.

    The young Deputy Provost’s glee at hearing the man’s last name was quickly covered.

    “Travis here is just passing through as he heads west. He won’t be charged with the prisoner’s care and supervision.”

    Striking a more cordial tone, the man asked, “Passing through, eh? Where are you headed?”

    With a smirk, Travis answered. “Logan… Logan, Utah.”

    Now it was the Marshal’s turn to be surprised.

    “What was your name again?” he asked.

    “Travis. Travis Ludgren,” he replied with force and pride as he re-extended his hand.

    Softening a bit, “Marshal Thomas Doolan,” he declared as they shook. “Only the criminals call me Marshal Doolan though. Everyone else just calls me Grappler, or Grap for short.”

    “Well alright, Grap. Perhaps I could interest you in a meal and a drink over at the tavern. I’d love the opportunity to pick the brain of an experienced professional like yourself.”

    Hesitantly, the man replied, “As long as you’re buying.”

    “Absolutely. I’ll lead the way.”

    The two men started to leave when Grap turned toward the Sheriff, “Oh, I almost forgot, he gets two meals a day. If he misbehaves he gets bread and water. I’ll be back tomorrow to escort him in chains to get shaven and washed. Man stinks something awful.”
    The man nodded his reply and understanding.

    Longbow smiled.

    The pair exited and made their way toward the tavern. Grappler’s badge glinted in the sunshine as his large chest swayed back and forth. The glare danced on the buildings as they neared the tavern. Once inside, it took a few seconds for their eyes to adjust from the brightness.

    Travis spotted Tug holding down a chair at a poker game. When his grandfather saw that he was with a Marshal, he quickly folded and exited the game. The three took seats far removed from the rest of the patrons. Out of habit, Grap took the chair that gave him the best sight lines.

    “Grandpa, this is Marshal Thomas Doolan from the US Marshals Service. Marshal, this is my grandfather, Tug Ludgren.”

    Tug whistled. “A real life US Marshal! Wow wee! Don’t see many of these in Noblesville, Indiana.”

    Grap looked at them quizzically. After a few seconds, he smiled. “I see,” he stated quietly. “References to Logan and now Noblesville. You guys are some sort of advance team for Josh. How’s he doing?”

    “He said he’d figure it out,” Tug declared to his grandson with a thumbing gesture. Turning back to the Marshal, he said, “He was just fine when we separated near Omaha. They should be here in a few days. Oh, and for the record, the pass phrase is ‘Katherine sends her regards’.”

    “Glad you cleared that up. Now, who’s ‘they’?”

    Travis leaned in toward the table and supplied the answer. “Josh, James, Dallas, and Jesus… and El Jefe, as Jesus refers to him, believes his three daughters and at least two of their husbands on en route as well.”

    Grappler exhaled deeply. “Oh boy, somethings got him in a twist for all of them to leave the farm. Don’t suppose you’ve been read in on what that might be?”

    The pair shook their heads ‘no’ at him.

    “I’m just a retired cop from Indy, son,” Tug inserted. “Which is to say, I know when and when not to ask questions. We’ve been here three days now and you’re the first to arrive.”

    “Oh, the other one is in the jail. Said his name was Charlie Hustle,” Travis inserted.

    “You put your friend in the pokey… under Pete Rose’s nickname?” Tug asked with a chuckle. “That must be one hell of a cover story.”

    “First off,” the Marshal began as he shifted he chair and put his feet up on the empty one next to him. “He was a friend, but he went off the rails a long time ago. Now, I’m sure he’s remorseful for what he did, but I know he’d do it again given the same set of circumstances. Apparently, this is what Josh needs at –.”

    “Let me go ahead and stop you right there, Mr. Doolan,” Tug stated as he held up his hand and interrupted the man.

    “I’ve been read in on all of that and I’ll tell you this, a friend that would do anything… anything… to protect you, your family, ride to the ends of the Earth to avenge any level of atrocity you’ve received, despite the consequences to themselves, isn’t a friend that you just throw away. Those types of friends come around once in a lifetime… once…” he proclaimed as he held up a finger. “If you’re lucky.

    “By my way of thinking, he was the one who suffered the most. He was the one that took the mantle of responsibility off of everyone else, made a decision, and not only ended the last of those damn Clan Wars in the Northwest Territory, but he also provided a level of security that the people up there hadn’t experienced in a dozen years. And what did he get for it? It wasn’t forgiveness, or any form of comfort or compassion from the people that were supposed to be his friends for his own personal loss.

    “So before you condemn him and his actions to one of the nine levels in Dante’s circles of hell, keeping in mind that you and the rest of us will be in those circles right next to him… if you believe in that sort of thing. And before you start objecting to my advice, let me ask you a question from something more contemporary. Do you know why the elderly were the first to depart when Jesus said, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her?

    “No, but I’m sure you’re about to tell me,” Grappler replied as he crossed his arms.

    “Young man, don’t stack your arms at me like that in defiance. Josh is too polite to say anything, but I don’t know you people from Adam so I don’t care if you’re offended. And sit up straight like you were raised with some sense! And get your dirty boots off of the chair! What’s wrong with you?!”

    Shocked, Grappler quickly straitened up after the scolding and offered a meek, “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

    “I’ll repeat the question, why were the elderly the first to depart?”

    The Marshal cleared his throat and stated, “I wasn’t a very good Christian in my youth and I haven’t seen too much religion in my travels since the lights went out.”

    “So what you’re saying is you don’t know,” Tug admonished him. “You shouldn’t be so afraid of those three words.”

    Another confused quizzical look appeared on Grappler’s face.

    “I… don’t… know… those are the three words you’re looking for,” Tug offered the man.

    Travis just sat there smirking and took the lecture in stride. He’d been on the receiving of his grandfather’s ‘sermons’ for his entire life. It was kind of nice to see someone else squirming and on the other end for a change.

    Again, a throat clearing preceded his response, “I don’t know why they left first.” Thomas then followed it up with, “Sir.”

    “They left first because they had lived long lives chock full of sin. They had the benefit of not being full of piss and vinegar. The elderly knew what was what. That’s why they walked away.”

    The three sat in an uncomfortable silence for what seemed like an eternity to the Marshal.

    Before he could break the silence, Tug chastised him again.

    “What the hell are you still doing here? Get your butt over to that jail and apologize to that man for being a crappy friend. Tell him you forgive him. Whatever the Colonel has planned ain’t getting’ off the ground until you people offer him your thanks and your forgiveness. Go on!” he commanded. “And push your chair in when you get up!”

    Grappler hadn’t moved that fast in years. Just as he was pushing in his seat, a group of five walked in the front door of the tavern. He stopped dead in his tracks.

    Heather squealed and then ran across the floor to his powerful waiting arms.

    As he picked her up and started to give her a giant squeezing hug, she proclaimed, “Be careful of my delicate condition you big lug!”

    She was followed closely by her sisters, Carlos, and Philip. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged all around as the six were truly jubilant to see one another.

    “Hey, I’d love to stay an all, but there’s something we need to do. Carlos, you’re not gonna like it, but it needs to be done.”

    “Actually,” Carlos said as he interrupted. “Where have you stashed Gregg? He and I need to have a sit down and clear the air.”

    Dumbfounded, Grap turned back to Tug, mouth agape.

    “Who’s this?” Katherine asked inquisitively as she motioned toward the seated pair.

    “We’ll come back and I’ll introduce you to Deputy Provost Ludgren and his grandfather when we’re finished, Katherine. We all need to visit with Gregg for a little bit.”

    “The Ludgren’s?” she questioned as she glanced over at the table.

    “Katherine? Katherine Watson?” Tug asked.

    “Yes?”

    Tug stood and proffered his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Tug and this is my grandson Travis.”

    His grandson stood as well and tipped the brim of his hat toward them. “Ma’am,” he stated before taking his seat once more.

    “Your father speaks very warmly about you and your sisters,” Tug offered without preamble.

    “My father?” she intoned.

    “He sends his love by the way… should be here in a few days.”

    The news that their father was still alive swept over his daughters like a welcome breeze. Travis and Tug could practically see the relief lift from their shoulders.

    “Oh, and he has a message for you. Josh wanted me to convey to you that Noblesville and Corydon are primed.”

    She smiled sweetly at the older gentlemen. Then she stepped toward him and wrapped him in a hug.

    Surprised, the old man said, “Oh… well… OK.”

    As she released him, she gently gave him a kiss on the cheek.

    “Thank you,” she declared. “I’ll be back in a little bit then you can tell me all about your travels with him.”

    The grandfather and son exchanged glances at one another and Travis made a gesture toward his nose.

    “Ah, not to be too bold … but how about we meet for dinner after you and your party have had a chance to bathe.”

    The group looked around at each other, then slowly, they each seemed to sheepishly shrug.

    Tug added, “It’s just a suggestion.”

    Unfazed, Heather inserted, “Have a bit of the trail on us do we?”

    Tug held up his thumb and forefinger, “Just a bit.”

    * * *
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  4. #64
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    Chapter 15 con't

    Gregg was fading in and out of consciousness, thoroughly enjoying the soft cot underneath him when he heard an odd scraping sound above him. He was about to move his resting arm from over his eyes when the sound of quieted feet landed nearby.

    What’s that idiot doing over there, he thought as curiosity was starting to get the better of him. Gregg didn’t expect to hear a question coming from his feet at the opposite end of the cell.

    “What your name, convict?”

    Startled, he removed his arm and lifted his head.

    “What the… how did you –,”

    “I think the people in this town don’t know **** about building jail cells,” he began with a devilish grin. Then he added, “That or they figured whoever was in here was too drunk to climb over,” and pointed to the ceiling.

    Gregg looked up to see that the entire ceiling was comprised of drop ceiling speckled fiberboard tiles. He had been so focused on a soft place to lie that he hadn’t even noticed. No one had.

    “Well I’ll be…” he stated astonished. “What a bunch of rookies.”

    The prisoner leaned over and peered into the opening Alex had dropped down from. He could clearly see the dusty steel trusses sprayed with flame retardant foam, but he could also make out the outline of a large circular attic vent cut into the roof. Noticing that there was a great deal of light available in what was supposed to be a closed off area, he started to ask the question.

    “Is that a –,”

    “Yep, this must be some converted office space,” his new cellmate answered before all of Gregg’s words were even out. “Definitely wasn’t a jail in a former life. Dumbasses even left the hand crank on the skylight. I’m gonna head out after sundown. You comin?”

    Placing his head back down on the softness of the first pillow he’d experienced in more than a month, he exhaled loudly.

    “You’re on your own, kid. I’m perfectly fine right here. I think I’ll enjoy the cot for a while.”

    Dumbfounded, Alex just sat there, mouth agape.

    “Are you serious?” he asked incredulously. “I’m offering you freedom and you’re gonna take a nap?”

    “To each their own, kid… to each their own,” Gregg replied.

    “Unbelievable,” he retorted astonished. “What’s your name?”

    “Why?”

    “Because when I tell this story, I want to be able to tell people the fool’s name that turned down a perfectly good escape.”

    Placing his arm back over his eyes in an effort to shield them from the daylight, he replied, “You heard the man… Charlie Hustle. You?”

    “Alex Bonner. What are you in for?” he asked casually not fully expecting the man to answer. To his surprise, the other prisoner, lying prone on his bunk, truly relishing in the comfort of a mattress, replied.

    “Same as you.”

    “The hell you say!” Alex declared. “You don’t look like you could hurt a fly… much less kill it!”

    “Take you down seven ways from Sunday, kid. The body may protest, but the mind is still sharp.”

    “Sure thing pops,” he retorted.

    “Looks can be deceiving; you’d be well served to remember that.” Slyly he added, “Not everything is what it seems.”

    “Exactly!” he decried. “And that’s how I’ve escaped from every cell, jail, and prison they’ve tried to put me in. What’d they do… trump up some charge from twenty years ago when you had some lead in your pencil?”

    “Nope. Snapped that bastards neck with my bare hands,” the man replied casually just as he had done with all of his other answers. Then he added, “It’s all a matter of leverage.”

    The exchange was starting to make Gregg curious. He’d seen Grappler’s face when the Sheriff mentioned North Texas Rehabilitation Center. Since the kid seemed bent on not letting him enjoy his mattress, he decided to engage him.

    “How’d they nab you?” Gregg asked.

    “Ahh, stupid drunken mistake. Started boastin’ and the wrong people heard.”

    “Broke out of NorTex, did ya? What’s that place like?”

    “You don’t want to know about that place,” Alex replied softly.

    The change in demeanor forced Gregg to sit up on his elbows and look at him.

    “That bad, eh?”

    “Closest thing to hell on earth I’ve ever experienced. ****ty food, dirty water, sadomasochistic guards, lunatic warden… cholera, dysentery… food poisonings were a welcome reprieve from the forced labor. The facilities back east are like a summer camp compared to that nightmare, I’ll tell you that much.”

    “How’d you get out?”

    “Honestly, it was a friggin’ miracle… I still can’t believe it worked,” Alex replied with a chortled half laugh.

    “You break out of other prisons before NorTex?”

    A wide smile broadened across Alex’s face as he held up his hand and five outstretched fingers. “I’ve broken out of every facility they’ve ever dared put me in.”

    “Maybe you should try a different profession,” Gregg offered unassumingly. “Because whatever you’ve been doing hasn’t been very successful… you keep getting’ caught.”

    “We ain’t hurting no one… they keep changing the laws is all. Come into town, play a short con, fix a game of poker or something, leave with food or extra clothes… maybe some jingle in my pocket. Nobody ever got hurt, their pride maybe, but that’s it.”

    “How do you graduate from that to murder?”

    “Ain’t’ never killed anyone before that stinkin’ Boss,” Alex explained reflectively. He paused before concluding, “I hated that man so much! I don’t know what happened… what came over me. We wasn’t even planning on killing him…”

    “Sometimes people just get so filled up with anger and hatred they snap. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up about it, kid. It gets easier. I’m guessing you were drinking to kill the voices,” Gregg offered as compassionately as possible.

    “I can still hear his gurgling in my sleep.”

    Gregg laid back down and returned his arm to his eyes before he replied. Exhaling deeply, he said, “Yeah, I know. It’s hard to kill those nagging little bastards.”

    The two sat in silence for several minutes. Gregg was beginning to wonder if he gone back to his cell or decided to go ahead and escape. When he removed his arm to look, Alex was outside of the cells and quietly rifling through the Sheriff’s desk.

    “Anything interesting in there?” he asked.

    Alex continued his search and guffawed when he opened the top drawer. Reaching inside he picked up a large key ring and held it up for Gregg to see. The two actually shook their heads in disbelief.

    “So how’d you get out of NorTex?”

    Alex took a seat in the Sheriff’s chair and put his boots up on the man’s desk. The pair chatted back and forth just as casually as if they were sitting on one of their own front porches. He took his time as he explained how they had one guy practice his rock throwing for weeks on end. Then moved on to how they figured out how to get the most dust airborne as possible. Oddly, it all came down to how fine the dirt particles were. Gregg sat in amazement at how all of the moving pieces worked to make the escape plan come off.

    When he finished, Gregg plied him with more questions regarding his adventures to Kearney and, of course, he had to ask about the Brigance Gang.

    Sitting and having a conversation with someone was a welcome respite from the years Gregg had spent in solitude. He’d had more conversation since his own jailbreak in Logan, and now sitting in a cell in Nebraska, than he had undertaken in the last decade easily.

    By the time the kid was done explaining his story, Gregg was convinced he could be of some use to whatever Josh had planned. It was plain to see that Alex had a spatial ability that would allow him to see multiple sides of a situation simultaneously. This was a unique gift. Gregg surprised himself when he deduced that the reason he felt so familiar and easy to talk to was because the kid actually reminded him of Katherine. With a little tutelage, he could become a highly skilled tactician.

    Gregg was in the middle of saying something innocuous when Alex abruptly sat up.

    “What?”

    “Shh,” he replied tersely.

    The pair listened intently for several moments until Alex quickly placed the key ring back, closed the drawer, and started climbing up the bars and back into his cell. Before jumping down to the worn concrete floor, he quietly slid the ceiling tile back into place. His head was barely on his pillow when the front door opened.

    The two prisoners were feigning a relaxing sleep when Gregg heard a voice he hadn’t heard in nearly two decades.

    “You gonna lay around all day or are you gonna get up and give your old CO a hug?”

    Gregg whipped his arm off of his face and abruptly turned.

    “Ho-ly ****!”

    “I see your language hasn’t improved, Gregg… and me without your swear jar,” Katherine replied.

    Gregg rushed to the bars. He wanted to jam his arms through so he could hold her tightly, but realized just as quickly that it wouldn’t be the same. Realizing that there were others still entering the Sheriff’s office, Gregg was starting to lose control of his emotions. One by one, Katherine’s sisters filed in and stood next to her. Behind each stood their respective husbands and Grappler.

    Choking back tears, Gregg managed, “Hey, kid. Do me a solid and go get the key.”

    Alex looked at him in disbelief.

    “It’s OK. They’re friends.”

    The six of them watched in amazement as the prisoner scaled the height of his cell, moved two tiles, and then shimmied his way down the other side. Grinning, he walked right by the astonished gathering and went behind the Sheriff’s desk to retrieve the keys.
    As he headed back to his cell bars, he handed the keys to Grappler.

    “Marshal, I think it might be better if you were the one to unlock the door. Don’t you,” Alex stated as he placed the keyring into the man’s hand.

    Grap stood there dumbfounded as he watched the prisoner climb back into his cell and replace the tiles once more. Shaking off the aberration of what he’d just seen, he handed the keys forward to Katherine.

    She placed the key in the lock and spun it. With a clink and a clunk, the door unlocked and she swung it open. The pair stepped forward and embraced like old friends. All of the regret and remorse that he’d kept at bay for so long began welling up.

    Softly, she said, “I was sorry to hear about Emily and your son.”

    The damn broke as he slowly sank to his knees.

    “I did everything I could… I couldn’t save them!” he wailed as all of the grieving emotions he’d suppressed surfaced, laying himself bare.

    She and her sisters knelt with him, consoling him. Carlos uncomfortably crossed his arms then moved a hand up to cover his mouth. He watched as the old warrior began to acknowledge his demons. His ability to ward off his own emotions was waning as well.

    From his cell, Alex sat and watched in disbelief. What in the world is going on here? Who’s Gregg? Who is this guy?

    Before any of the three could offer any additional words of condolence, he began rambling.

    “I wanted Deeks to have a friend his own age so I ignored my instincts and let them in… Clint Burnette and his little bastard son… I did it!” he howled. “I made the decision! They’re all dead because of me!”

    The sisters clutched him harder.

    “It wasn’t your fault,” Heather said as she gently rubbed his back, trying to console him. “I was there too. Any one of us could have objected at any time and we didn’t. We’re all just as culpable.”

    “But why,” he wailed. “The war was all but over! Clint went and killed the Tin Hatters anyway. He took my sweet Em away from me! He took my boy!” Gregg declared through his uncontrolled sobbing as he pressed himself further in their embrace.

    “There you go,” Katherine inserted. “That’s it… Just let it all out.”

    “I was so angry! I got so confused… I –,” he started to say from beneath the pile.

    From behind them, they heard, “I get it now, Gregg. I understand.”

    Slowly, he lifted his head through and above the tangle of arms. With tear stained cheeks, and vision blurred by their wetness, he slowly stood to face Carlos.

    “I’m sorry, Captain. I didn’t know what –,” he began to explain.

    “I forgive you…” he interrupted gently. “I forgive you.”

    Gregg stepped through the women that had been consoling him and went to his friend. When they neared, he lowered his head and placed his forehead on the man’s chest as his friend enveloped him.

    “Now that I have a family of my own, I understand,” he offered softly. “I woulda done it too.”

    “The whole thing was like a daze… a fog… it was like I was watching myself do these horrible things,” he stated haltingly. “I couldn’t stop until they all paid for it!” he growled.

    “I forgive you,” Hoplite repeated softly.

    Their friend sobbed like a man who had never experienced loss. Or at least, had never expressed or acknowledged any of the many dozens he had lost over time. Every brother, friend, or teammate that died in combat; all of the loved ones he’d lost to age, disease, or famine during the Civil War. The senseless loss of his family during the Clan Wars… all of the sorrow and grief from these losses flowed out of him and strode down his cheeks.

    No one spoke as they watched and listened to the bereft man’s agony.

    It was clear that Gregg had never stopped to grieve for his family. He’d exacted his revenge and disappeared. The fragments of information regarding his travels had been collected second or third hand by Grappler a decade later after the death of the black marketeer in Cascade. Tug’s summation, and to a degree, Josh’s presentation to the elder Ludgren, had been spot on. If Gregg was to be involved, the group, as a whole, was going to have to acknowledge the man’s actions and come to some degree of peace with them.

    The room slowly became more silent as Gregg’s labored breathing started to subside. As he held his friend close, Carlos locked eyes with his wife. She lifted her hands to wipe the tears from her eyes. Heather watched the pair as one man broke down while the other was made whole again.

    “I forgive you,” he repeated, never allowing his eyes to deviate from his wife.

    The others inched closer to the pair. Alex watched from his cell with rapt attention. As each person joined the embrace, the healing mass grew larger and larger around Gregg.

    Minutes would pass before anyone broke the silence.

    In the end, it was Gregg who attempted to end the uncomfortable silence of the situation with humor.

    “You guys stink!” he declared.

    His fellow prisoner chuckled audibly at the remark from his cell.

    Once the pile separated, Gregg turned, without uttering a word, then retreated back into his cell. He didn’t want pity. He only wanted his friends back. He had that now, and just like that, the grief therapy was over.

    “Where are you going?” Grappler asked him.

    “I,” Gregg proclaimed, “Am going to take a nap and wait for my dinner. You filthy travelers are going to find some soap and water.”

    “Now seems as good a time as any for yours,” the Marshal replied. “Ya know, since you’re already out of your cell,” he stated as he glared toward Alex.

    “Eh, let preggers go first,” Gregg stated as he gestured toward Heather. “I can wait.”

    “I want a bath,” Alex inserted. “Do we all get bathes or just him?”

    “Que est-ce?” Philip asked in French. “Est-il avec nous?”

    Grappler turned his head and looked at him.

    Layla translated for her husband. “He asked who he was and wondered if he was with us.”

    “A Frenchy? Where’d you pick up a Frenchy? Those guys are like an endangered species,” Alex intoned.

    “That ‘Frenchy’ is my husband and his name Capitaine Philip Marceau of the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment and you will refer to him with respect or so help me I’ll –,” she began but was cut off.

    As she spoke, Alex’s eyes grew large. He quickly raised his hands in mock surrender to stop her tirade.

    “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he interrupted in protest. “I was just messin’ with ya. Knew lots of Frenchy’s that got stuck here and took up residence throughout the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Delta region. Man!” he declared. “They really hate the Brits! Good group of fighters too. You gotta learn to relax lady. Geez.”

    Philip smiled at the ‘Brits’ comment because there really was no point in hiding the historical relevance.

    “Ya know what, I think Layla will go first. She seems the most irritable right now,” Heather declared the group.

    Curiosity got the better of Philip though. Switching to his accented English, he asked, “Gulf Coast? What’s your name? Where are you from?”

    Alex abruptly stood, came to attention, placed his hand over his heart, and gave a curt bow while proclaiming, “I, Mon Capitaine, am Monsieur Alex Bonner.” As he came back up, he added, “Of the renowned, or notorious depending on your point of view, Mobile, Alabama Bonners.”

    Put off by the pretentious mockery of formal customs, but still surprised that the man knew the formal address, Philip quickly put the surname and the city together.

    “I heard the Bonners were all rounded up.”

    “We were… but I have a strong desire to not remain someone’s ‘guest’ for very long… if you know what I mean,” Alex replied.

    Without preamble, Gregg declared, “He’s coming with us.”

    “The more the merrier,” Heather inserted. With a head nod in his direction, she added, “What’s the situation down that way?”

    Sitting back down on his cot, Alex rattled off some of the bigger ticket items.

    “Oh, let’s see. There’s lots of hurricane damage all over the Gulf Coast, pretty much from Corpus Christi to Tampa. Boats embedded in houses and buildings, or what’s left of the structures. Telephone poles snapped like toothpicks. Large cesspools of stinking coagulated waste and nastiness that serve as nothing more than breeding grounds for Zika, malaria, dengue, and West Nile. And, oh!” he stated as if just remembering an important fact. In truth it was just more disdain laden sarcasm.

    “Good news!” he stated sarcastically. “The levee system doesn’t exist anymore. Water came in and decided to stay a while. Whatever had been filled in and developed, nature turned back in to wetlands.”

    “Sounds like a complete hell hole,” Grappler intoned.

    “Miami, Orlando, Daytona, Ft. Lauderdale… pretty much all of them don’t exist anymore either… I heard the Keys and some of the smaller Caribbean Islands don’t have any inhabitants any more. No more worrying about those pesky Cubans!” he declared as he gave a mock thumbs-up sign.

    Katherine seemed to tire of his delivery and flashed a discerning, and a bit of a disapproving, glare in his direction. Alex smiled nervously at her and abruptly changed his tact and delivery.

    “Most of the population along the coast either left for higher ground, got shot for sedition, or they were thrown into one of Calderon’s re-education labor camps. Mostly though, it’s only the backwoods gator eaters that are hanging around. Live in the damn trees and tool around in dugout canoes if you can believe that.”

    Gregg chuckled from his cot.

    Grappler turned toward the man and asked, “What’s so funny?”

    “Oh, nothing,” he began. “I just had an image of Dallas pop into my mind while the kid was talking.” Adding a bit of a southern accent, he imitated Dallas, “Ooooh, I like ‘em! Can we keep ‘em?”

    The Marshal actually guffawed while the three sisters and their spouses chuckled.
    Hannibal ad portas

  5. #65
    Join Date
    Jan 2011
    Location
    Sweet Tennessee
    Posts
    3,702

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    awesome, thanks.
    Don't bring skittles to a gun fight.

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