The Fire This Time, Part Two

 The Right-Wing Riot is proud to be serializing “The Fire This Time,” Roy M. Griffis’ prequel to his novel “The Big Bang.”  Click here to read Part One.  The story continues in Part Two, below.

 

 

First he needed a plan, hell, even a clue, and it turned out that Mrs. Dominguez had provided that.  Looking for spare change to buy breakfast, he was digging through the wad of papers in a dirty briefcase on the Bug’s floor boards when he came across the document that his former manager had given him on his way out and down.  “Do You Think You have a Drinking Problem?” it asked him.

He’d spent nearly a year destroying himself (“suicide, one sip at a time” a guy in one of Those Rooms told him), and it took longer to rebuild a life.  That rebuilding got him a mercy deal on the trailer surrounded by friendly goats and noxious weeds.  He needed a job, though, and through the kind offices of another friend of a mutual friend named Bill W., he got a night job working security out at one of the big Indian Casinos on the east side of Tucson.  It was nearly 60 miles to drive, but he didn’t mind.  It was cooler at night, anyway, hardly any traffic on the I-10.  He’d do his rounds (as only one of a few token palefaces at the Apache-owned and run business), then he’d read a certain big book he always brought along.

It wasn’t an impressive life, as these things went, but beat the hell out of living in a car that was almost as old as he was.  And he might have stayed with the goats and the weeds and the little trailer for a long time except the Big Bang happened, and his world was once more grabbed by the ankles, hoisted upside down, and given really thorough shaking.

He’d been asleep that day in late August 2008 when it happened, and only slowly became aware that Things Had Changed.  A deep boom pulled him out of his sleep.  That had been several parts of David-Montham AFB going up, courtesy of some old Soviet suitcase nukes that had been smuggled onto the base by illegal immigrants in servitude to M-13, a very unforgiving prison gang that wasn’t particular about for whom it outsourced services of this nature.

Even as Whistler sat up on the couch that was his resting place, trying to process the still- echoing boom and the alarmed bleats of the goats as they scampered away from the noise, there were was more rolling thunder from roughly the same direction.  That time, it was much of University of Arizona being vaporized thanks to the efforts of some select international students whose education in America hadn’t sufficiently broadened their horizons or opened their minds as much as had been hoped.

And from there things followed what Whistler would later learn was a depressingly familiar trajectory.  The poor parts of town burned, most electronics died, cars became immobile, and plane fell from the sky like buildings thrown by angry titans, smearing entire neighborhoods across the reddish-brown dirt.  Shortly after that old people, the chronically ill, or the damned unlucky began to die, too.   Without air conditioning, in the summer Tucson was an especially inhospitable place and the heat killed a lot of fitter people, too.  Riots broke out, looting was met with lethal force, and life became ugly for a time.

He didn’t have the whole story, of course.  He ventured out just far enough to speak to one or two terrified residents, but everything they told him was stunning.  He might have discounted their stories of frantic Emergency Broadcasts that failed after a few days, as well as the wild rumors of a nuked Washington DC (and New York and Chicago and any other town whose name they might have known), but the lost power, useless phone lines, stalled cars in the middle of the streets, and the fire-twisted carcasses of 747s atop what had once been homes and businesses were pretty damn compelling evidence of something.

Whatever had happened was huge, clearly.  And too big for him to wrap his mind around.  He couldn’t do anything about it, whatever that huge “it” had been.  For now, he’d keep his head down, work the Steps, and take it one day at a time.

He just stayed close to the trailer and the goats, some of whom he’d begun to give names.  There was a well on the ranch, and so he and the livestock had water.  In that respect he was a lot better off than much of the Tucson metropolitan area.  He didn’t care to leave the ranch, especially after he started seeing the huge flocks of black birds that moved in like five-mile wide thunderclouds  over the city.  When the wind shifted, the scent of corruption was strong and overall, he’d rather smell the goats.

He didn’t know it at the time, but he risked hanging by breaking into the long unused main house and pilfering a lot of canned goods.  The ranch’s owner had typically chosen to communicate her desires to him by phone, and so he’d not heard from her since that big boom had woke him up.  She’d sounded old, but cranky and tough, so she might still be alive.  To himself, he justified grabbing the food by recalling his overdue and likely never-to-arrive paycheck.  But he had been trying to change things in his life and enforced honesty had been part of that.  So he left a handwritten, dated and signed accounting of everything he took from the pantry.

When Snowmaggedon arrived (that was what the locals called the harsh winter that deposited several feet of snow on the startled human and animal residents of the desert), he debated moving into the ranch house, but decided to stay put.  He thought it would actually be easier to stay warm in the smaller confines of the trailer than the more open expanse of the other building.  He did make a more complete inspection of the interior of the main house and came away with a number of useful acquisitions (all duly noted and recorded on a sheet of paper pinned to the empty pantry shelves).

The most useful thing he found was a couple of hunting rifles with old scopes and plenty of ammunition.  The old ranch lady might’ve had a little bit of a paranoid streak in her, before she got too old to take care of the place on her own.   He was glad of the discovery of the weapons, as the coyotes had started to pester the goats with the coming of the snow.

The goats, while smelly and flatulent and lousy conversationalists, were for the most part relatively good company as long as one overlooked their propensity to experience the world as something to be chewed on.  They didn’t really bother anyone and they weren’t particularly aggressive (except the Ram with testicles like hairy avocados, and even that was only when the dimwit thought Whistler wanted to get better acquainted with the lady nannie of the moment).

When the coyotes carried off one of the kids, there was nothing Whistler could do but listen to the very human-sounding screaming of the poor animal as it was turned into goat sushi.

There was nothing he could and something about that fact pissed him off.

With the rifles, though, he might persuade the coyotes to look somewhere else for dinner.  He’d done two years in the National Guard, back when Carter was President, so he’d had a little training.  With plenty of time on his hands and a little patience, he became a fair shot.  Remembering what he’d heard about how to keep crows out of a field, he took to hanging the carcasses of the dead predators upside down on the fenceline that faced the mountains.

He needed oil for the VW, and that’s what finally sent him creeping carefully in the direction of the big city.  He was a good 30 minutes by state highway from the northern edge of the city.

There was still snow on the roads, and he drove with great care.  In places, the wind had piled the dirty snow up on the sides of buildings and motionless vehicles, making Tucson look a lot more like Evanston.  As somebody brought up in the MidWest, he knew too well the sense of horizontal free-fall that took place during an icy skid.  With no EMS or open auto repair, he was going to be extra solicitous of the VW.

Even in these thinnly populated parts of Southern Arizona, he passed more stalled vehicles on the road that he expected.  He eased the Bug up beside one formerly nice Beemer that had ended ass-over-teakettle in the depression between the north and south-bound lanes of the state highway, a bit of sky-blue amid the frozen, brittle brown stalks of the weeds that had died around the car.

The doors on the BMW were open and the trunk hung down like a slack jaw, giving the whole thing a weirdly skull-like look.  He took a quick look inside.  No one there.  He had maybe expected to find some kind of remains, desiccated to yuppie jerky by the desert heat and the dry winter air.  When he straightened, there were some figures moving toward him from the strip mall across the way.

He took in the sight.  They looked fat with misshapen heads at first, until he realized they were wearing several layers of clothing and hats against the cold.  There were five of them and as they crossed the highway, they spread out like a basketball team running a play.  They hadn’t called to him or said a word, they just raced toward him.  When in doubt, get the hell out a one-armed guy in One of Those Rooms had said to the newcomers.

It sounded like an excellent plan.  Whistler jumped in the idling VW, shoving it in gear.  It had been too long since he’s driven, because he neglected to push in the clutch before strong-arming the shift, and the Bug jerked and lurched forward several feet as the engine coughed and died.

Well, shit.   The approaching un-Welcome Wagon had sped up when he had leapt into the car.  He laid his hand on the rifle in the passenger seat and got out of the car.  “I don’t want—” he was saying when they began to shoot at him.

The pop-pop noises were thin, almost inconsequential, until the passenger window behind him starred and spat tiny splinters of glass at him.  This sucks, he thought with a very unpleasant sense of deja vu.

He couldn’t tell if they were actually trying to shoot him or just scare him off.  The basketball team only had handguns, which made their aim erratic and undependable.   Either way, he was on the wrong damn side of his VW.  He rolled across the hood with none of the grace or control he’d seen in a dozen bad movies, landing on the far side to twist his ankle.

But he never let go of the rifle.  Briefly oblivious to the stomach-churning pain that burned like a hot coal glued to the side of his leg, he brought the deer rifle up as he leaned over the curving hood of the VW.

He’d actually managed to hit a couple of coyotes on the run when he was defending the goats and those predators had been streaking away from him.  These predators were running right at him.

He pulled the trigger.  Down stuffing flew out the back of the nearest figure and white fluff hung in the air like a mist even as the man (?) folded and tumbled.

A bullet skipped across the hood beside Whistler’s elbow.  He flinched, waiting to feel something – an impact or a slice.  Nothing, and then even as the skin between his shoulder blades rippled with gooseflesh he rolled left off the hood to fire through the open windows of the Bug.

The figures slowed, hesitated.  He winced as he stepped back to the right, working the bolt on the deer rifle and crouched low behind the fender.  Now the skin of his scalp crawled, as he had to expose at least half his head to be able to see his attackers.

Coyotes.  Predators.  It was a chant that beat through his mind in time with his breathing.  He didn’t need the scope, couldn’t use it as it would narrow his field of vision too much.  The four men — he could see that now, he was pretty sure the dirty, scuffy figures were men — had paused back a good fifty feet , looking from one another.  Guess the goats around here didn’t shoot back, Whistler thought.

He was willing to let ‘em go.  He had no burning desire to shoot anyone.

Then they ran at him again.  Desperate?  Or just thinking they could overwhelm him with the quantity of lead they were throwing at him and the abused VW?

This reallllly sucks he told himself as he put a round through the abdomen of another coyote.  The man yelped as he spun away and Whistler could hear him swearing and crying in pain.

He yanked the bolt back on the rifle and forced himself to seat it with some control.  If the rifle jammed, he was really screwed.  The three remaining figures were shooting at him again, using every gangster pose they’d ever seen in a movie.  One wild shot hit a tire on the driver’s side of the bug, and it went flat with a hiss and a thump.

When Whistler shot the third man through the throat, the last two predators turned and ran, leaving their companions to bleed out onto the dirty snow.

The two men spared a glance over their shoulders while they ran back to the dark strip mall, as if afraid they’d be shot in the back.

Whistler just watched them go.  His heart was pounding, sweating was trickling down his spine, and his arms were trembling.  Even if he had wanted to, shaking like this he couldn’t have hit those fleeing coyotes.

He’d likely just killed three men to protect himself, and, since he was forcing himself to be honest, to protect his car.  Goddamn,  he thought as sour bile gathered at the back of his throat.

Behind him a voice said, “Freeze, mister.”

He turned and there was another group of armed men behind him.  Every single one of them had a firearm of some kind in their hands, and they were every last one pointed at him.

A young black guy in a faded Highway Patrol uniform, right down to the Smokey Bear  hat said, “Put ‘er down, buddy.  We’re on your side.”

Whistler thought about it, the rifle still in his hands.  Behind him, one of the wounded men made noises that could hardly be called human.

“It’s all right, buddy,” the Highway Patrolman assured him.  “Think about it.  We coulda shot you when your back was turned.”

Facing all those guns, Whistler sure hated the idea of putting the rifle down.  On the other hand, he hated even more the idea of dying here in the dirty snow, bleeding to death leaned up against the side of his piece of shit VW.

He took the deer rifle by the warm barrel and laid it on the roof of the Bug, stock facing away from him.  “Don’t want it to get wet,” he explained as he put his hands on top of his head and stepped away from the car.

“Fair enough,” the Smokey said.  “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.  This is just so we ensure everybody’s safety.”

The tiny muscles inbetween his shoulder blades were gonna be tuckered out tonight — if he had a tonight left — because Whistler did as he was told, even as his entire back tensed against the bullet he expected to escort him out of the world.

 

Instead, they marched him to a small Arizona Highway Patrol office and bought him a cup of coffee.  It was instant, bitter and vaguely sulfurous from well water, but better than a bullet in the back of the head, so he took the thick Dunkin Donuts mug and gripped it tight to hide his shaking hands as he waited in a really small room with two chairs and table.  The only light came from the window high up in one wall.

The coffee had just cooled to a drinkable temperature when the door opened.  The black Smokey came in, followed by a Hispanic man with a broad chest and silver hair.  He extended a hand.

“Mr. Whistler?  I’m Acting Captain Quijano.  You’ve met Officer Jackson?  He treated you all right?”

“Yeah,” Whistler said, standing and shaking hands with someone for the first time in about eight months.  He didn’t shoot me.  “He was fine.  Didn’t read me my rights, tho.”

“You weren’t under arrest, Mr. Whistler.”

“Uh…I’ve been kind up of the hills since…whatever happened happened.”

Jackson and Quijano exchanged a glance.  “Where in hills, if you don’t mind me asking?  Jackie, can you get the map out of the office?  And leave that door open so we get some light.”

The Smokey left, which gave Whistler a chance to take a closer look at the Acting Captain.  He was clean-shaven, with short hair that didn’t touch his ears.  He had wrinkles around his eyes, probably from a few years in the Arizona sun.  He seemed fit, not as muscular as Jackson, but like he was in good shape for his age.  He just had a vibe that felt familiar.  “What were you in?”

“Army,” the Acting Captain said simply.  “You?”

“National Guard.  Two years.”

Quijano nodded.  “Jackson said you weren’t too bad with your rifle.”

At that, Whistler looked away and concentrated on the coffee mug for a second.  “Coyotes,” he muttered after a minute.  “I’m the caretaker on little ranch out past Oracle.”

He didn’t say anything more until the laminated map was brought in.  It must’ve been a Geological survey map or something, it seemed to be focused mostly on the land.  Some highways had been added with a pencil.  Whistler pretended to take a minute to get oriented to the map while he worked out a quick moral problem with himself.  He was supposed to be honest in all of his affairs, but he didn’t know much about these folks.  Nothing wrong with being cautious.  He pointed to the range of foothills within about five miles of the ranch’s actual location.

Quijano nodded and Jackson added a note in pen on the map.  “Census,” the Acting Captain explained.  “We need to know who’s in the neighborhood.”

The coffee was now room temperature and probably close to battery acid in taste.  Whistler put the mug down.  “So…who the hell are you guys?”

The old NCO’s face creased with a flinty smile.  “I think we’re about all the government that’s left hereabouts.”

 

Whistler did have another cup of the instant coffee, after all.  Quijano laid it out for him as they ate a pack of stale vending machine shortbread.  “The Big Bang” they called the event for short.  Nukes in DC.  Major cities up in flames (both petrochemical and nuclear in origin), even not so important places like Tucson hit.   Infrastructure failing, power and water often unavailable (the bigger the municipality, the more things there were to go to shit), civil government dead or scattered, and a lot deaths from environmental factors like too much heat during the summer and too little during the long weird winter (which appeared to be everywhere).  Over and over, Quijano was honest about the ambiguity of their information, saying things like “We don’t know exactly what happened, but we think..” or “Some guys from Iowa came through on motorcycles, they said they’d heard…”

“So most of this is your best guess?” Whistler asked, filtering the last of his coffee through one of the dust-dry cookies.

“Yeah.”

“Who, though?”

Quijano scowled.  “My best guess would probably be wrong.  A lot of the early attacks looked like suicide bombings.  That’s pretty standard MO for your basic Islamic hairball.  But then the other stuff…railroads being torn up, factories set on fire.  That’s not what the sons of the desert like to do.”

That was an interesting question that could wait for another day.  More pressing was “So, who elected you?”

“Nobody,” Quijano said.  “We volunteered.  Somebody has to organize basic services.”

Basic services most people had taken for granted, like a feeble attempt at sanitation (drag the dead out of the homes that were still standing and burn the bodies, a civic duty that had few takers).  Law Enforcement. A census.  When water and power failed, those who still could tried to flee the still standing parts of Tucson.  The death toll, Jackson said, was steep and horrible.  The old, the ill, and the very young died from the heat and thirst and the actions of the more predatory refugees.

Whistler remembered the flocks of black birds over the city like a roiling stormcloud that only folded in on itself but never shifted position.  That was Darwin’s dance on a huge scale, and it was staggering to imagine that happening across the nation…at least in the places that hadn’t been nuked.  The realtor with the big rack had said he was lucky.  Insisted on it.  She was right.

The coffee was gone and the cookies were just crumbs.  “Gotta get back,” he said, pushing back from the table.  “Coyots like to come in for a look around dusk.”

“Of course.”

Jackson led him outside.  The Beetle was there, with a bunch of new scratches in the pitted paint, punctuated by 7 or 8 bullet holes in the sheet metal.  The rear tire wasn’t flat, though.  Some mountain-man lookin’ dude in a ZZ Top tee-shirt and a Dumbledore beard handed Whistler the keys and said “Couldn’t fix that window, but we found a radial tire for that busted one.  It’s gonna drive funny, but it’ll get ya home.”

“Thanks,” Whistler told him.  He’d been expecting to have to hike back to the ranch.

Quijano came out, carrying his rifle.  “It’s kind of dirty, you need to clean it.”

“No charges about those guys I…(killed)…shot back there?”

Jackson said, “Pretty clear case of self-defense.  We don’t normally patrol that far but we heard the gunfire.”

“I’m glad you did,” Whistler replied honestly, stowing the rifle in the passenger seat.

Quijano stood by the driver’s door.  “We might need to ask a favor of you, from time to time.”

“Like what?”  Whistler’s voice came out a lot more distrustful than it had sounded in his head.

“Help out.   Maybe help us keep the main highway clear.  If we want to rebuild…if this damn winter ever ends…we need to get around, even if it’s just the edge of the city.  The Center of town is pretty well just charcoal.  Lot of things are easier to do as a team.”

That was reasonable.  Besides, being around other people he could get a little more information on what was going on, if not on what had already transpired.  “Yeah, okay.”

 

And that was how he found himself driving toward the little school on that early morning in April, 2009.  Spring had come late, but it had come, the melting snow leaving behind long greasy smears on the dirt, the dead lawns, the streets, the newer cars now as dead as the passenger pigeon; the noxious black slime even dripped from cacti.

He had assisted Quijano and Jackson and the other members of the ad hoc posse/citizen’s committee or whatever you wanted to call it.  He’d helped clear some debris from blocked runoff channels so the spring thaw wouldn’t wipe one of the few remaining bridges that spanned the dry riverbed in North Tucson.  He had pitched in on a few other tasks, even started learning a little advanced first aid.  The volunteering wasn’t entirely selfless, as the committee would share a little gas with him in return for his labor.  It seemed fair.

Even though they didn’t screw around when it came to law and order, Quijano and his people had done a decent job of making this widely spread “territory” safe, to point that they had managed to reopen a small school as well as a little post office (which reminded him of something somebody had once said about a triumph of hope over experience).

So when Whistler saw the black smoke spinning up into a column like a warning finger, it seems right and proper that he climb into the now much-more battered Bug and head over to check it out.  He was pretty sure he was the closest volunteer around with a working automobile, and he could get onscene fastest.

Maybe he could get there and stop the spread of the fire.  With so many empty homes, there was a lot of flammable material sitting vacant, with who knew how many propane tanks or lawn mowers with tanks of gasoline slowly percolating into vapor in the warming air.

He wove through the back streets that dipped and rolled with the high desert terrain, jogging thru mostly empty housing tracts, crunching over broken glass or the brittle carcasses of tumbleweeds that had bounced free of backyards and dead lawns.

As he left a cluster of one-story faux-adobes and got onto Cortaro Farms road he crested a rise and now the smoke acted like a finger pointing down, directly at the burning structure, and that’s when he knew it was the school.  He was suddenly oriented with a destination and a route he’d traveled many times.  He mashed the pedal on the VW, hearing the sewing machine whine of all 1200 cc of the mighty four-cyclinder engine as it gave him everything it had.

As he was propelled at his top speed of fifty miles an hour, he passed a few people who had emerged from random homes.  He honked at one fool who had wandered into the middle of the road to get a better look.  Yeah, vehicular traffic was still rare and the remaining residents of NorTuc had gotten out of the habit of looking when they crossed the street.

He wasn’t the first to arrive.  Others, probably parents of the students, had seen the smoke; they were in the parking lot on bikes, a Vespa was laying on its side, and there were even a couple of horses tied to the chain link fence.

It wasn’t really even the sight of the flat roof aflame that rendered him briefly immobile with shock, or the four-foot wide metal cross from the top of the entry way laying on the sidewalk beside the burning American flag, the same flag some nostalgic patriot had put up when the school had first re-opened.  It wasn’t even seeing ten black Toyota trucks in a semi-circle in the little parking area, their front fenders facing the entry to the school, snuggled in between the building and the little forlorn rose garden that was circled by the drive.

It was the men inside the vehicles and standing in the back of those black trucks shooting automatic rifles into the burning building.

 (to be continued…)

(Can’t wait for the next installment?  Read the whole thing here🙂

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