This article is part of the Eastwood series.
The big guy in the overalls shoves me down the hall ahead of him. I can hear Childs somewhere on the other side of a wall, talking in that voice almost like a man pretending to be a woman, saying something about false prophets and Washington. I'm guessing we're at least partially the subject. I tense up, figuring I'm about to be pushed in front of a crowd, made an example of. That's what I get for volunteering to talk to Childs first.
Instead, I get shunted off into a little side office. The fake wood panels are decorated with a big cross on the wall and leather furniture. Looks like it used to be a break room or something for the mall employees, but shelves have been brought in and filled with books and a rug set out to give it a feel like a study. The big guy shoves me down into one of the chairs and stands by the door.
Twenty minutes later, Childs joins us, mopping sweat from his red face and discarding his jacket over the back of one of the chairs.
"Thank you, Bennett," he says to the big guy in the overalls. "You can go."
Bennett hesitates, concern plain on his face, before he slips out through the door. That hillbilly ogre is right to be cautious: I have the shiv clenched in my fist just out of sight. I have no intention of going out like the RUSFOR team. I'm at least taking one of these people with me.
Childs bends his bulk down to a mini-fridge tucked between filing cabinets and takes out a plastic baggie full of clinking glass vials. He bites the cap off a syringe and jabs the needle into one of the vials. He looks at me as he lifts his shirt, revealing the underside of his pale blubber marked with dozens of faint, purpling bruises. He jabs the needle into his flesh and injects the insulin.
"You always underestimate me," says Childs. "Your kind, I mean. You believe that because I speak from faith I am ignorant. They are the ones who only see half of the picture. I understand the secular world and the one beyond. I understand what faith can inspire people to achieve. Anything. So do not think me ignorant."
I never said he was ignorant, and just because I think Childs is a nut, doesn't mean I think he is more of a nut than half the other people running things. If his Wild Days are coming to pass, the nuts are the reason. Bunch of posturing idiots, brimstone preachers, collectivists, and county sheriff fascists trying to take over when things get dicey. It's why anarchy will never work. Somebody always has to be the boss.
Childs discards the syringe in a sharps bin and tucks his shirt back into place. It's an awkward gesture, requiring him to hunch forward and stuff most of his hand down his pants, revealing his disfiguring obesity and his lack of concern for my opinion of him. Not a good sign about my future survival. He fishes a neon-colored sports drink out of the refrigerator and pours it into mismatched cups. He hands me one like he's serving wine with my last meal.
"The world needs me right now. It's chaos coming, the Wild Times, and the people need a shepherd with a clear vision." His voice becomes higher as he quotes his own prophecy, "We will enact righteous violence, spread the fire, and plunge our knives to soak our limbs in blood. Our souls will be united in this New Purity."
"Sounds like you got a handle on things," I say.
"I am engaged in combat for the soul of a nation. The government, which thought it could remove me from the field of battle, is a fading vestige. You served a dying empire. The rotten shell of the egg from which our new country will be born. They are not my enemies, only an impediment. The true foe are those who try to conjure rival forms of nationalism."
"Harper Paine," I say.
"Yes, you understand. He is the most powerful of the false prophets. He believes in a patronizing religion, just words and rituals to clothe his ambitions. He knows the danger I pose and that is why his rallies have been recruiting a militia. He means to go to war with me."
"He has a TV show," I interject.
"So do I," says Childs, waving his hand dismissively. "We both have a militia. What he has that I don't are trained men. He hires them. I must recruit from the faithful. People like Bennett are...useful...but someone like you and your friends would elevate our capabilities. If you pledged yourselves to me you could become warriors of God. Generals. You could train an army and defeat my enemies."
He wipes a buttery lock of hair from his face and fixes me with his intense stare. I think he expects me to jump out of my chair and cheer him. He doesn't realize it, of course, but he is using the same sales pitch on me as the US Air Force did back at Freer. A little more flattering and a lot more threat - join or die - but it's that same feel of being bent over a barrel and told to smile about it.
I decide to tell Jeremiah Childs that he can go fuck himself. Before I can shiv him, a wall of meat named Bennett busts through the door. He looks wound up about something.
"Calm yourself, brother," says Childs.
"TV," Bennett splutters. "Turn on the TV!"
Harper Paine's face appears on the screen. He's at one of his rallies, probably the one in nearby Kingsville, and he's wearing a windbreaker patterned after the Texas flag. He's all puffed up and shouting into the headset mic on his jaw, but the sound is off.
While Childs and Bennett are fumbling around trying to find the remote control, I become fixated on something else. A flash of light and dark blue as the camera drone moves around to follow Paine on the stage. There are people behind him. I originally thought they were part of the mural on the curtain. Men and women, wearing uniforms of light blue with dark vests. The fleur-de-lys patch of a French North African security firm.
"Les Sentinelle," I murmur. "Eva."
Bennett shoots me an irritated look. Childs finds the remote. The sound snaps on and the room is filled with the reverberating oratory of Harper Paine in high dudgeon.
"The only way to fight a scorpion is with a boot!" shouts Paine. He is met with riotous applause. "Your donations to the New Texas Project have gone to buy a mighty fine boot. A nice cowboy boot we're gonna use to step on the biggest scorpion in all of East Texas. He's been givin' all of us in the freedom movement a bad name with his racist ways. You know who I'm talkin' about. The devil of Corpus Christi."
A photo of Jeremiah Childs, visibly doctored to make him look fatter and blotchier, appears projected on the curtain behind Paine.
"Now what they don't want you to know, and I mean all the usual suspects - the media, Hollywood, the Marxists - is that they want him running things. Want him 'cause he's a pushover. A strawman for them. They get Jeremiah Childs and they can swoop in and do whatever they want, 'cause even Washington ain't gonna be as bad as him. And you know how I know that? Because right now, right this very moment, Jeremiah Childs is hosting none other than the guy I been beatin' in the ratings five nights a week!"
The winged eye logo of CBSNBC animates onto the projection beside Childs, followed by a picture of a smiling Brody Sondergaard. A Stalinist crimson line connects Childs and Sondergaard with the winged eye between them like a cartouche. The crowd goes wild with jeers.
"That's why we gotta crush 'em tonight. We're gonna bring down that boot right this very minute, right as I'm saying this, and we're gonna have a long talk with my good friend mister Sondergaard."
More wild cheering. Bennett looks panicked. Childs stares at the TV, the remote clenched in his fist.
"So now it's up to you, First Texas. You all swore the oath at the beginning tonight! Does that mean something to you? That boot is coming down, but I need your help too. You are hereby mobilized. Get your guns and your trucks and drive, 'cause it's time for the Battle of Corpus Christi to be written in the history books." The cheering is so loud the computer processing the audio struggles to dampen it.
There is shouting from the distance. Not on the TV, but here at the mall. The thump of a helicopter is followed moments later by a prolonged sound of breaking glass, as if something is crashing through an entire skylight over a food court. Childs looks from Bennett to me. I think he expects me to volunteer to help.
"Get him out of here," spits Childs. "Tell Randy to meet me at Loco Tacos with everyone he can muster. We'll deal with this."
Loco Tacos doesn't exactly have the same ring to it as the Alamo, but it somehow suits this bunch. Childs ignores Bennett's objections and starts equipping himself with some of the most ridiculous firearms I have seen outside an action movie. Bennett gives up on his boss and reminds me that he is carrying by jabbing the barrel of his monster caliber revolver into the small of my back.
"Let's go," he says.
He marches me back the way I came. The hall is echoing with distant shouts of confusion. No shooting, but with so many armed idiots it's only a matter of time. I remember those kids and their playground in the food court.
"You need to get those kids out of there," I say.
"Mind your business, Yankee," says Bennett. He unclips the big radio from his belt and sends, "Randy, what do we got?"
"Helicopter dropped something in through the skylight," crackles the answer. "Can't get a good look at it. Want me to try?"
"Negative," says Bennett. "Get everybody back from there. It might be a bomb or something. The Prophet wants us to gather up at Loco Tacos."
"Oh, hold on, it's moving." There is a long pause before Randy continues. "Lights are coming on. It's...robots. They dropped gawddang robots in here."
The shooting starts as we arrive at the locked door to the storage room. Crackling suppressed guns meeting with the boom of shotguns and the long rattle of retrofitted full autos.
"Goddammit," hisses Bennett. He thumbs the radio. "Randy, what is going on? Randy, get back from there!"
"We'll get 'em!" whoops Randy.
He says something else, but it is drowned out by the roar of gunfire. The shooting and screaming are getting louder. Bennett can't raise Randy again on the radio. The barrel of his gun lowers from my back. He turns, looking away from me, fiddling with his radio.
I kill him. It's not quick. It's not clean. I jab him over and over in the kidney with my shiv. He drops his radio and his gun. I get him down on the cold tile floor, wrestling him, stabbing through his fingers to get at his neck.
Even with that shiv buried in his throat he keeps kicking and fighting. He's strong under all that blubber. Hurt and mad. Gurgling "motherfucker" at me from the top of his palate with a desperate warble in his voice. He doesn't have it in him to beat me. Fire and knife.
I kill him. Until he stops kicking. Wipe off what blood I can. Get his gun, radio, and keys to unlock the storage room. The adrenaline makes it hard to slot the right key into the lock. Keys for a house he's never going back to. Keys for a car he's never going to drive again. More keys. Which is it? The gunfire is getting louder and louder.
There's more screaming now. Something big explodes in the distance, outside the mall maybe. I finally get the right key, unlock, and throw open the storage room.
"Ay Dios mio," moans Vargas as he sees my blood-covered face.
Spinoza grabs my arm. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," I say and I hand her the gun for some reason. Can't even explain it. Just don't want to hold onto it anymore.
"What's our move, mate?" asks Pike.
"Things just got a lot more complicated. We need to go. And he's coming with us."
I point my finger at Sondergaard.
"Like hell," says the reporter. "You go ahead. I'll stay right here and--"
I'm sick and tired of this shit. Tired of being told what to do by these fucking people. I grab him by his shirt and drag him out through the door. He fights me, but shuts up when he sees Bennett sprawled on the floor in a huge pool of blood, throat opened, obviously dead. Get a good look at what you people are making me do today.
It's hard to know which way to go. Some of the Children are running for the exits, some of them are running in with guns and improvised weapons. The only thing I can discern from all the gunfire and shouting is that the drones are losing the fight, but shooting a hell of a lot of idiots in the process.
"There," I say, pointing to a loading door at the back of a gutted Abercrombie & Fitch. The door is open a little and I can see the outside dark. My adrenaline starts to fade, and the shakes start to come on, and Pike takes Sondergaard from me. We escape into the lot, into a firestorm and the chaos of Corpus Christi as it is swallowed up by war.
Childs was right. The Wild Times are here.
|Zack is the author of the new short story collection Wages: Future Tales of a Hired Gun, a blood-soaked satire of private military contracting. He is also the author of the genre-hopping novel Liminal States, soon to be available as an audiobook. You can find out more about Zack's latest projects and special offers on his Facebook page.|
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