Copyright © 2016 Ginger Booth. All rights reserved.This is a sample from Martial Lawless, the third full-length book in the Calm Act series after Project Reunion.
Martial Law vs. Religion Run Amok
“What God demands of us –” Those were the chilling final words of Major Dane Beaufort, before a mob beat him to death in the streets of Pittsburgh. Beaufort was the martial law Resco assigned to lead the city through the climate change crisis. The punishment for interfering with a Resco is death. The consequences for murdering one have yet to be devised.
Tech whisperer Dee Baker, and her partner Resco Emmett MacLaren, led Project Reunion to save New York City. The world watches to see what the hero couple will tackle next, while the opposition sells headlines with every bump in their rocky relationship.
Dee longs to escape New York to a greener life. But Emmett is available when news hits of Beaufort’s murder. The political stakes are higher than the fate of Pittsburgh. The martial law governors care enough to send their very best – Emmett and Dee.
Dee is constitutionally unfit to play second fiddle. But she accompanies Emmett into his native Bible Belt to assist. Plagued by tornados and isolated from the rest of the world, Pittsburgh has gone rogue, and it’s up to them what to do about it. But the forces afoot are darker than they imagined. And Dee is about to fall into their trap.
Martial Lawless is book 3 of the Calm Act Series, which began with End Game.
Interesting fact: February 2016 was the month the northern hemisphere first exceeded the 2 degree Celsius temperature rise that climate change scientists warned we must not exceed. Beyond that, there was great danger of planetary climate systems becoming chaotic, or even runaway temperature rise warming the planet beyond the ability to maintain liquid water. The UN’s previous goal was to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C by the year 2100. We crossed that line abruptly, and 84 years early. Of course, a planet is a very complex system indeed. They couldn’t know whether the fateful number wasn’t 1.5° C or 2.5° C.
“Emmett, you need to see this,” I warned. I beamed a video clip onto the big display in our shared office in our Brooklyn brownstone. Mob Murders Resco was the lurid headline on the accompanying breaking news report.
Lt. Colonel Emmett MacLaren, martial law resource coordinator for rebuilding the Big Apple – my partner and lover – kept his eyes on his own computer displays. “Kinda busy, Dee,” he murmured. “Video conference with General Cullen in half an hour.”
“I know that, Emmett,” I said. “And you need to see this first.”
He finally looked up and took in the headline. “Oh, hell,” he said.
We’re a lot alike, Emmett and me. Unlike about 95% of the viewing audience, he digested the whole article before playing the video, just like I had. Our friend Major Cameron once quipped that the two of us really bonded over data analysis. I suspect Cam’s point was that our relationship was peculiar to us, and I should stop asking his opinion. Point taken.
On the news story, what we knew so far wasn’t much. A putative militia member in Pittsburgh had posted the video clip to Amenac, my social web empire, on a public forum. He’d taken the video with his phone, answered a couple questions on Amenac, then went offline. The Resco of Pittsburgh – Resource Coordinator, same position as Emmett and Cam held – had been addressing some kind of rally. The crowd surged forward and back. Cut to a closeup of the Resco where he lay beaten to death on the gravel. And the video ended. We didn’t even know his name.
“Major Dane Beaufort,” Emmett supplied, after replaying the video a couple times, trying unsuccessfully to hear what the Resco said before his death. “I can confirm that much. Yeah, he’s Resco of Pittsburgh.”
“Did you know him? I’m sorry,” I said.
“Yeah. You going to release this on PR?” Emmett asked.
Emmett looked rattled, but I couldn’t tell whether from grief or very real concern for the consequences.
I sent the item back to the Project Reunion news team with those points confirmed, and signed off on publication. PR was mine, too. The Project Reunion website was powered by Amenac, our social web empire. PR News published official news with high production values, as vetted and sanctioned by us, rather than a social babble of peers on forums. Not unbiased news – created to support the humanitarian relief of New York City, PR was staunchly pro-Resco, and supported the martial law governments.
“Have to publish,” I replied to Emmett. “That video’s gone viral on Amenac, and rumors are flying. PR has to say something. You can bet Indie will.”
IndieNewsWeb was PR’s burgeoning new competition in supplying news to the Northeast. Naturally, since PR was pro-Resco, Indie’s greatest growth niche was anti-Resco, attacking PR as a pawn of the martial law governors. Indie gave voice to another point of view, and not a rare one. In fact, some of Amenac’s staff still probably wished they could change sides. I tried not to take it personally, and often failed. IndieNews’ personal attacks on me and Emmett were hard to stay philosophical about. But on the bright side, Emmett and I were heroes of Project Reunion. Attacking us left Indie shooting itself in the foot, popularity-wise. That could change, though. Indie’s editors were growing smarter. PR’s leadership, including me, needed to get smarter, too. Competition was good for us. And annoying as hell.
“Send me the links,” Emmett requested. “PR’s treatment, and the source posts on Amenac. I bet Homeland Security can figure out what Dane was saying.”
I sent him the sources promptly, and muttered under my breath, “Why does HomeSec still exist…”
Emmett forwarded my links off within a second of receiving them. And sighed, “That meeting with General Cullen…”
“Yeah, yeah,” I conceded. “Can I stay for it?”
This was pushing my luck. I often stayed in the office while Emmett consulted with his Resco peers, but Cullen wasn’t a peer. He was martial law governor of all New York–New Jersey. But drat it, my future was on the line, too. The end of September was drawing near, and with it the end of our appointed time in Brooklyn. I had my heart set on Long Island next, to live near Cam and his husband Dwayne, back on the rocky marshy shores of the Sound again, just across the water from home. This call with Cullen could decide our future.
“No,” Emmett replied categorically.
I gave up wheedling, and we got back to work. I was deep into the still unfolding story of one Dane Beaufort, deceased, when Emmett’s video call came in, a few minutes early. I dutifully picked up my work to move to the dining room, stood, and hung arrested at the sight of the screen before me.
General Sean Cullen, head of New York–New Jersey. General Ivan Link, ruler of New England. Air Force General Seth Taibbi of Pennsylvania – the others, like Emmett, were Army. And General Charles Schwabacher of Ohio–West Virginia. Wow. No, this wasn’t about whether Dee Baker’s boyfriend got reassigned to Long Island like she wanted.
Emmett swallowed, and asked the generals to wait a moment. He escorted me by the elbow to the French doors at the end of the library. He locked me out in the garden, and drew the curtains.
Now, that was pretty heavy-handed. I was tempted to defy him, and sneak back in to eavesdrop. There were two other doors into the garden, leading to the kitchen and the housekeeper’s lair downstairs. Or if those were locked, I could hop the garden wall into the militia barracks brownstone next door, and back around to the front door.
What stopped me was the begging, haunted look in Emmett’s eyes as he closed the door, and mouthed, “Please.”
Emmett slipped out to the garden 20 minutes later, and kissed my forehead. “Thank you, darlin’. Sorry.”
He perched on the teak lounge chair next to mine, in the dappled shade of a stressed-out maple, already turning scarlet despite the Indian summer warmth. Most of this sad and ravaged city I wouldn’t miss. But I loved our back garden, safely walled in the interior of the block.
“How rude,” I commented to Emmett, but then let it go. “Can you tell me anything about the big brass meeting?”
He shook his head slightly. “Not done yet,” he said. “They’re conferring. Probably call me back in a few minutes with new orders. I need to go back in. Could you stay out here? Please, darlin’. Conflict of interest with PR.”
My eyebrows rose. “I guess they saw the article. Are we in trouble?”
“PR’s not in trouble,” Emmett said. “Murdering a Resco is a big honking deal, though. Please, darlin’?”
“Your career. PR vs. IndieNewsWeb,” I said. “No contest. Besides, via you, we might get a scoop. The lip-reading of Dane Beaufort’s final words.”
“‘We know what God demands of us,’” said Emmett. “Was the last thing Dane said.” He gazed at our lap pool thoughtfully.
“Can I use that?” I asked.
“Don’t see why not,” Emmett replied. “Lots of people can lip read.”
“And, um, what does God demand of us?” I inquired.
Emmett sighed, and said, “Quite a lot, really. I don’t know what Dane meant.” Emmett went back inside to await word of his fate from on high, if not quite that high. Far above us, anyway.
I typed, erased, and retyped several emails to the PR news team back home in Connecticut. I almost called our military censor Lt. Colonel Carlos Mora for advice. But in the end, I gave up and chose to tell them nothing.
My problem wasn’t the lip-reading, but rather not saying that the rulers of the Northeast were conferring about the death of a Resco, and that somehow Emmett was caught in the middle of it. And as Emmett pointed out, plenty of people could lip-read. So I could let that part come from someone else. I put work aside, and jumped into the pool in my shorts and tank top, to swim my laps before the afternoon cooled.
Emmett’s feet dangled into the pool to greet me at the end of about the fiftieth length, and I popped up out of the water for a breather, with a smile. Swimmer’s high is a lot like runner’s high. The water was beautiful, the sky almost blue, our lonely maple flaming red, and everything was wonderful. “Coming in?” I invited.
He smiled briefly in return, and shook his head. “Maybe after I’m packed. Got a train to catch. Pittsburgh. Wanna come?”
I stared at him. “They made you the new Resco of Pittsburgh?” I asked, alarmed. I couldn’t imagine New York–New Jersey giving away the savior of New York City.
“No. Dee, I leave in three hours,” Emmett returned. “Plenty of time to talk on the train. By phone, if you’re not coming with me.”
I nodded slowly. “Sure. I’m with you. Are we coming back?”
He gazed around the garden, eyes pausing on his chickens at the far end. Emmett loved fresh eggs for breakfast. He’d raised chickens most of his life. He shook his head. “Don’t know.”
“Emmett, we can’t pack up the house in three hours!”
He chuckled wryly. “Army created the problem, Army can solve it. No, Dee, we just pack up ourselves and go. Gladys will take care of everything here, for now.” We could trust our housekeeper Gladys. Most of our urban farm here was hers, anyway. I claimed the giant brick planters at the back of the garden, but Gladys farmed the roofs.
Emmett rose and held down a hand to me. “Glad you’re coming with me, darlin’,” he murmured.
“As a PR reporter?” I asked, toweling off beside him. He’d brought me the towel.
“…Partner,” he said slowly. “We’ll see about the rest. Dee, this is explosive.”
“I think I got that, when four military governors showed up for your career review with General Cullen,” I said. “What kind of explosive?”
“What happens when a cop is killed?” Emmett asked.
“The other cops go nuts?” I hazarded. “Leave no stone unturned? Somebody has to pay for it.” I recalled an incident last year when I was visiting Major Cameron on Long Island. A rape gang had tried to harass me and my camera-woman Kyla. Cam had the lot of them executed on the spot. Attempted rape aside, he mentioned that interfering with a Resco was a capital offense, and that included his house-guests.
“Murdering a martial law governor?” Emmett confirmed my suspicions. “Much worse than that.” He stroked my upper arm. “You can take notes, darlin’. But every word has to go through censors before you send it to PR. Not up to me. This isn’t my show.”
“Why are they sending you, then?”
He shrugged. “Specialist. My job is to tell them whether Dane Beaufort was a good Resco. And make recommendations. Whether Pittsburgh should get another Resco. Stuff like that.”
I stared at him. “That would be a death sentence on a whole city, to leave them without a Resco.”
“Maybe,” Emmett allowed. “But they killed the Resco they got. And there aren’t enough Rescos to go around. Default is Pittsburgh doesn’t get a second chance.”
“That’s too much, Emmett,” I argued. “For what? To make an example of them? Do you have any idea what the public backlash would be? Punish a whole city for the actions of a few? That’s beyond the pale! It would destroy public support for martial law.”
“Would it?” Emmett countered. “It’s a passive aggressive move, Dee. You don’t like us, Pittsburgh? Fine. We’ll leave you alone. The train won’t stop here anymore.”
If it were only the train, that might not be so bad. But without a Resco, Pittsburgh’s power, communications, fuel, food, supplies, defense, and everything else would stop too. They’d be on their own.
Interesting fact: Pennsylvania has two major cities – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – widely separated by rural areas. The cosmopolitan port of Philadelphia was the 5th largest city in America, second only to New York City on the East Coast. Pittsburgh, to the west, ranked down around 60th.
“Lieutenant Colonel MacLaren, Ms. Baker, thank you for meeting with us in our car. I’m Special Agent Aidas Kalnietis, IBIS,” the man said. “My partner, Donna Gianetti.”
Kalnietis was tall and fit, with short brown hair, maybe in his early 50’s. Gianetti was only a few years older than us, maybe 40, lean and angular, luxurious dark brown hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail. They both shared that special blandness of expression and well-fitted grey business suit, a signature of the FBI. When the Federal Department of Justice had refused to lend the FBI to the task of domestic spying and enforcement of the Calm Act, Congress axed the FBI’s budget in favor of Homeland Security. Most FBI agents had the choice of a transfer to HomeSec, or finding another line of work. With no Federal government left, the scattered remains of the FBI now went by IBIS, for Interstate Bureau of Investigative Services. I’d never run into an IBIS agent before personally.
“Your rail car is much nicer than ours,” I assured them with a weary smile. Emmett and I took our proffered seats at the booth. Their dining car had latched onto our train at the Pennsylvania border just after dawn, across the river from Trenton New Jersey. We’d already been traveling all night to cover barely 70 miles. Restoring the New Jersey rails was still a work in progress. Our latest train car was a rather down-at-heel standard commuter model, with a couple dozen soldiers for company. Here in the new dining car we had some privacy to talk.
“So will you be leading the investigation, sir?” Emmett asked.
“We hoped that you’d be the public spokesman, Colonel, if you don’t mind,” Kalnietis replied, with a self-effacing air. “The two of you are well-known and respected. We’d prefer a quieter profile. But yes, we’ll handle the investigation into Major Beaufort’s death.”
“Is there someone else leading the whole expedition?” Emmett clarified.
“You’re welcome to take that role, too,” Kalnietis encouraged. “In fact, I have a document here from General Taibbi. I believe this is an honorary commission to full Colonel of the Commonwealth Army of Pennsylvania. Congratulations.”
Emmett read the document once, carefully, then folded it and stuffed it into his field camouflage pocket. “Lot of red tape,” he muttered.
“I understand completely,” Kalnietis returned. “Agent Gianetti and I spent the last two years in the Virginia militia. We reactivated in IBIS just last month.”
Ah, so these two had not unbent enough to work for HomeSec. Interesting. And they were from Virginia–Delaware–Maryland. Yet another northeastern super-state was in on this affair.
“I understand you knew Major Beaufort, Colonel?” Kalnietis asked lightly.
“Tell us about that,” Kalnietis urged.
“Beaufort was logistics officer for my brigade combat team, my last deployment in the Middle East,” Emmett supplied. “I was a field officer. Both 101st Airborne. So, first worked together six years ago? When we rotated back to the States, we both studied at Fort Leavenworth, the ILE program. Intermediate Level Education.”
“Not the SAMS program?” Kalnietis asked sharply. “He didn’t work to vet the Calm Act?”
Emmett’s eyes narrowed, surprised that Kalnietis was so well informed about this secret. “No. Beaufort wasn’t SAMS material.”
“What do you mean by that, Colonel?”
“ILE is required education for a middle-grade officer,” Emmett explained. “There’s also a master’s degree level of the program. Requires writing a thesis. Dane didn’t bother with that. SAMS is farther still, after that. Highly analytic, planning complex inter-service operations like joint Army–Navy–Air Force.”
“Out of Dane’s league?” Kalnietis suggested.
I noticed that Kalnietis was tracking Emmett’s switch to Beaufort’s first name, but I doubt Emmett did. It’s harder to catch mind games when you’re the target.
Emmett rocked his head in polite disagreement. “There are a lot of career tracks in the Army. SAMS wasn’t his.”
“Did you spend much time together at Leavenworth, outside of class?”
“We didn’t spend time together in class at Leavenworth,” Emmett qualified. “Same program, different classes. No, I mostly saw him at social functions. Softball games. Cafeteria. Church.”
“You attended the same church?” Kalnietis probed.
“Yeah. We’re both born-again Christian,” Emmett said, subdued. “Were.”
I sighed slightly, and caught Gianetti’s eyes drinking in my reaction. She smiled at me vaguely. That was unnerving. No, I’d never really come to grips with Emmett’s religion, and Gianetti easily picked up on that. Emmett didn’t press his views on me. We didn’t discuss Christianity much. In New England, it’s just rude to spew evangelical comments like ‘Jesus loves you.’ The dominant creed is Catholic. He attended rowdy born-again church services in New Haven, with an elderly black lady gospel singer named Liddy. But he mostly kept quiet about God otherwise. He allowed me my denial, I suppose.
“What was your first reaction, Colonel,” Kalnietis asked, “when you learned of Dane Beaufort’s final words? What were they exactly…”
“‘We know what God demands of us,’” Emmett supplied. “I don’t know what he meant by it.”
“I understand,” Kalnietis assured him. “But what was your first thought?”
Emmett struggled with that a moment. I reached over and squeezed his hand for moral support. “I thought it was a mistake,” Emmett finally said. “To play the religion card. That was a bad idea.”
“So the two of you share the same religious beliefs –”
“No,” Emmett cut Kalnietis off. “Well, partly. We were friendly, but not friends. Because of our religious beliefs. Dane was more…mainstream…for an evangelical. Intolerant, homophobic, blame the victim. Right-wing reactionary politics. I believe Jesus Christ is my savior, and He asked us to judge not, lest we be judged. Dane and I crossed swords a few times over politics. I was too liberal for his taste.”
“So you’d call yourself a liberal evangelical Christian?”
Emmett replied crossly, “I call myself Emmett MacLaren. Labels are just a lazy way to judge people. But my convictions are on the left side of the born again bell curve, yeah.”
“Was this a strong hostility between the two of you?”
“No,” Emmett said. “Friendly, but not friends. No hostility.”
Kalnietis moved on. “So, you last saw each other at Resco training?”
“No,” Emmett differed again. “I trained at south-central muster in Memphis. Trainer, actually. I transferred to New England the following month.” Emmett looked thoughtful. Kalnietis waited for him. “Just a random thought.”
“Please share,” Kalnietis invited.
“There was a flame war on Amenac. On the Resco forums,” Emmett explained. “Between the northeast and the south-central Rescos. I was thinking the last time I talked to Dane was during my SAMS year at Leavenworth. But no, it was during that flame war, in the spring. Just a few months ago.”
“Explain this flame war?”
“Oh, it was…no, it wasn’t stupid,” Emmett waffled. “During muster in Memphis, Sunday after church, we got together for a sort of panel discussion on using religion. As a Resco. It was an important talk, I thought. Anyway, it came up on the Resco boards. The northeast muster hadn’t covered religion. Not surprised. People up here take separation of church and public life for granted. In the Bible Belt, or even in the Midwest, it’s just not that way. Religion is always a part of life. People talk about it. It was hard for me to learn, at West Point, then coming back a couple years ago. Have to censor myself. Don’t mention Jesus Christ.”
“The flame war?”
“Oh, I got in trouble by saying yeah, we need to enlist religious leaders, but maintain Resco authority above them. The more I explained, the more I got flamed by the northerners. The southerners already understood, and backed me up. And Dane Beaufort emailed me. Said he wished he’d been to my muster instead of stuck with the damn-Yankees. Some other things.”
Emmett shrugged. “Dane was ticked off that I had a gay room-mate my second year at Leavenworth.”
“Major Cameron?” Kalnietis confirmed. This IBIS agent knew a surprising amount about the SAMS who vetted the Calm Act. Emmett and his classmates worked hard to keep their past secret, especially Cam. Officially, Cam was in ILE that year, not SAMS. Even the other SAMS weren’t aware of his role.
“Yeah. Anyway, Dane’s email brought that up again.” Emmett had his phone out, to search his vast collection of emails and texts. Apparently he found the exchange with Beaufort, and reviewed it. “Dane was concerned that Dee wasn’t a good Christian woman. Probably meant sex out of wedlock. I asked him how it was going, with communications restored outside Penn.” He paused and re-read Beaufort’s reply, and worried his lip with his teeth. “He said the public still didn’t have access. But it was an eye-opener for him.”
“In what way?” I asked. Kalnietis frowned faintly, but probably would have asked the same.
“Didn’t say.” Emmett handed the phone over to Kalnietis, so he and Gianetti could read the originals.
“What do you make of the Bible quotes at the bottom of his emails?” Kalnietis inquired.
Emmett shrugged. “Nothing. You can hook a random Bible quote generator to your email.”
“Is that professional, for a Resco?” Kalnietis suggested.
“I wouldn’t do it,” Emmett allowed. “But those were personal emails, to another born-again Christian. Nothing inappropriate.”
“Isn’t it odd, that most people still didn’t have Internet access?” Gianetti inserted.
Emmett nodded gratefully. “Yeah. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. In the Apple Zone, most people only have meshnet.” The Apple Zone was the region we’d just left, encompassing North Jersey, New York City, the northern suburbs, and Long Island – inside the epidemic control borders. The region the Calm Act walled in to die before Project Reunion.
Emmett continued, “Seems strange for Pittsburgh. But Tolliver interdicted Internet for the whole state, before the war. I thought they kept internal comms, though.”
“Was Pittsburgh in particularly bad shape?” Kalnietis asked.
Emmett shrugged. “I was focused on the Apple.”
“Would you have expected Pittsburgh to be in bad shape? It was a large city.”
“Not that large,” Emmett countered. He took his phone back and brought up the stats. “Only 300k in the city. Big metro region, couple million people. But that’s stretching into West Virginia and Ohio. Plenty of agriculture. Hell, they even have fuel. Lots of fuel.” He sighed. “New York, New England – we could wish for this resource profile.”
“I understand Rescos, like yourself, use a 10-point scale to describe the ‘level’ of an area,” said Kalnietis. “With this profile, what level would you expect, under a ‘good’ Resco?”
“Level 6 to 9,” Emmett replied. “Sky’s the limit, really. But Schwabacher said Pittsburgh was fishy.”
“The governor-general of Ohio?” Kalnietis confirmed. “‘Fishy’? What do you think he meant by that?”
“Don’t know,” replied Emmett. “But he was the one pushing for me to come out here. Taibbi – Penn’s governor – didn’t argue.” Emmett looked pained. “Taibbi didn’t seem to know much about Pittsburgh. Anyhow, Ohio and Penn have a re-industrialization plan, centered on Pittsburgh. One of the main planks of Schwabacher’s 5-year plan for the Ohio valley. But Pittsburgh was already ‘fishy’, and now this.”
“But you report to General Cullen, in New York–New Jersey,” Kalnietis probed. “Or do you revert to New England, after Project Rebuild in the Apple Core?”
Emmett sighed. “I work for the Army. Somebody’s Army. I was due for reassignment. So they figured I was available. They asked me to do this first.”
Gianetti stepped in again. “Why would the hero of Project Reunion be reassigned out of New York City?”
“I was expecting Long Island or North Jersey,” Emmett allowed. “Cullen wants to spread out his senior Rescos. He wasn’t happy having two of us in one city. It’s Ash Margolis’ home town, and he’s senior to me. So we agreed I’d stay to get the Apple Rebuild off to a good start. Then leave the Apple Core to Ash and move on.”
“You’re not offended by this?” Gianetti pressed.
“Relieved,” Emmett replied. “Not my kind of town. Just felt obligated. I care about the apples – the survivors there. Been through hell. Admire them, you know? Couldn’t leave in good conscience until they were set on a good road.” Emmett still had mixed feelings about leaving them, his heroes, and it showed on his face. “But Ash is solid. They’re in good hands.”
“So what do you see as your assignment in Pittsburgh, Colonel MacLaren?” Kalnietis redirected. “And how can we help?”
“Well, I hope IBIS can tell us why Dane Beaufort is dead,” Emmett replied. “The mechanics of it. Who killed him. They want me to figure out whether he was a good Resco, what he did right and wrong. Assess Pittsburgh. And recommend whether Pittsburgh should get a new Resco. Default is no.”
“No?” Gianetti asked sharply.
“No,” Emmett confirmed. “A Resco is a privilege, not a right. The default is that they’re on their own. Sink or swim.”
“But they’re in good shape to survive that,” suggested Gianetti, “based on their resource profile?”
“That’s the crux of what I have to answer,” said Emmett, “in my recommendations.”
“What law governs that decision?” Kalnietis asked.
“None that I know of,” Emmett replied. “Resco is a military posting. General Taibbi can assign a Resco wherever he sees fit. The murderers will be executed, though. Under martial law.”
“What would happen if General Taibbi were at fault?” Kalnietis asked delicately.
“War,” Emmett replied. “That’s what happened to his predecessor, General Tolliver. Until Taibbi’s forces killed him. Depends on how bad Taibbi was, of course. Cullen and Schwabacher wouldn’t bother to fight him, unless he was a problem for them.”
“So if he were just a Pennsylvania problem…”
“Pennsylvania would have a problem,” Emmett confirmed. “That’s the theory. At any rate, I’m not here to judge Governor-General Taibbi. Just offer suggestions.”
“I see,” Kalnietis said neutrally. “And you, Ms. Baker? I understand you’re Colonel MacLaren’s partner?”
“Yes,” I said sunnily. “Just keeping my sweetie company.”
“Uh-huh,” said Emmett wryly. “That’s not fair, darlin’. Agents Kalnietis and Gianetti are on our team here. Agents, you already caught the part where Dee is one of the principals behind the Amenac and Project Reunion web empires? Set up meshnet communications for the whole Apple? Among other tricks.”
This seemed to catch the IBIS agents off guard. I was a bit miffed and unimpressed that they hadn’t looked into me as closely as Emmett. Perhaps they thought they already knew who I was. As what, a Project Reunion reporter and love interest for MacLaren the hero?
“That’s about it for tricks,” I soft-pedaled. Looking inoffensive and unimportant was my usual strategy. It’s easier to be devious when people aren’t watching you carefully.
“Co-author of Project Reunion itself,” Emmett added.
“What do you mean, co-author of Project Reunion?” Kalnietis asked.
“She co-authored the plan with me,” Emmett clarified. “It was her idea in the first place, to use Tom Aoyama’s quarantine scheme to save New York. We were partners on it all along. The governor-generals asked me to bring Dee to Pittsburgh. Civilian perspective. Dee knows more Rescos and Cocos – community coordinators – than just about anybody.”
“Does that mean I get paid for this trip?” I inquired sweetly.
Emmett tapped the letter in his pocket, appointing him a temporary Colonel of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “Got 90 meal tickets. Want some?”
“Meal tickets?” Kalnietis asked.
“One year’s food for one adult male,” Emmett clarified. He shrugged apologetically. “That’s what Rescos get paid. Our own food too, of course, but Dee and I grow our own. The meal tickets are to invest as we see fit. As a light colonel, I get 75 meal tickets in New York–New Jersey. Only 1800 calories a day there. Penn pays 2500 calories a day on a full meal ticket, darlin’.”
“Sweet!” I said. “Huh. Then I wonder if a meal ticket is worth much here.”
“Didn’t he just say it was worth more?” Kalnietis asked, puzzled.
I smiled at Kalnietis ruefully. “If Penn can afford 2500 calories a day, people can’t be very hungry.”
Interesting fact: Pennsylvania was home to tens of thousands of Amish and Mennonite farmers, expert in low-tech sustainable agriculture, quite a prize at this time. They concentrated closer to Philadelphia.
For most of the ride through Pennsylvania, Emmett was glued to the window, taking notes on his phone and taking photos. I found the view rather repetitive myself, after Philadelphia. Lots of trees and fields. Increasingly hilly. Occasional towns. Aside from the picturesque Amish now and then, Pennsylvania looked an awful lot like New York and New England. Eight hours of it was more than sufficient, and I dozed off half the time. We both grew more alert as we passed into the urbanized landscape of Pittsburgh.
Suddenly we stopped. We were in a rail plaza of some kind, but with no passenger platform. It appeared to be an industrial district, possibly rail heads for coal and ore trains into the old steel mills. But those giant dinosaurs lay quiet, the smokestacks out of business.
Emmett waited a couple minutes patiently, then raised his voice to prompt, “Report.”
Captain Johnson, in charge of our train car of soldiers, replied, “Conductor isn’t sure why, but track signals told him to stop here, Colonel. He’s inquiring. No answer at Pittsburgh. Send out scouts?”
“Not yet, Captain,” Emmett replied. He took out his phone and tried our local contact, but got no answer. “Stay here, darlin’,” he advised, and clambered over me to confer with the IBIS dining car.
I studied Pittsburgh through the windows. Like the rolling Pennsylvania landscape, it wasn’t greatly different from a familiar New England mill town. Steep hills rose to either side beyond the industrial district, covered with deciduous trees and wood-frame houses. But where our train sat was the basic, standard-issue concrete, brick buildings, and gravel rail bed of Rust Belt industry, from a time gone by before I was born. Deserted.
Someone in Army camouflage, with a rifle, scampered between two buildings. “Captain Johnson?” I called. When I had his attention, I pointed out where I’d spotted an armed someone.
“Alright. Stay down, Ms. Baker. Look alive, guys. Shooter spotted.”
From what I overheard, apparently the train conductor was leery of going forward against the signals without some kind of explanation. That was how rail collisions happened, and a number of lines converged in Pittsburgh. For all we knew, we were honestly giving another train right-of-way. And although our train carried passengers and a few container cars of produce, that wasn’t the norm. Most trains passing through Pittsburgh these days carried coal and fuel. A collision would be a disaster.
That explanation didn’t seem to gibe with armed militia sneaking around behind the buildings, though. Not a single civilian was in sight, not even driving by on the bridge. I’d never seen a city this devoid of people. Barely one person in ten remained in Brooklyn, and it was downright lively compared to this.
I jerked upright to the sound of gunfire, from down the train in the produce department. The door between cars shushed open and Emmett’s voice came up the aisle behind me, complaining over the phone. “Now got active shooters… Are you in charge of this militia or not?… We’re at…” I held up my phone showing our location on the map, and Emmett conveyed this information. “Could call in an air strike if I wanted. Seems overkill.”
Emmett sank into the seat across the aisle from me, and gestured for me to scoot toward him, away from the window. “No, councilman. That was not a joke… Enough. Call me with an all-clear into Union Station.” Emmett cut the call. “Captain Johnson? Looters attacking the food. Help the transit guards kill them, please. Try to wing a couple for questioning.”
“Sir, yes sir,” Johnson replied promptly. There was some typical grousing among the soldiers about how protecting the food shipment wasn’t their job. Johnson shut them up and got them moving down the train toward the gunshots. Emmett gazed at me ruefully.
“Never a second chance to make a first impression,” I quipped, with my best attempt at a cheerful smile.
“Uh-huh,” said Emmett. “Joker on the phone seemed to think I was their new Resco. Commanding these people attacking the train was my job. Why does everyone want to make their fucking problems my problem today? Pardon my language, darlin’. This is just irritating.”
“Emmett? You just ordered our guards to kill people,” I said. “Kill people in uniform. That’s not ‘just irritating.’”
“Uh-huh.” I continued to stare at him, concerned, until he conceded, “It’s not ideal. Dee, I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“I’ll be careful,” I promised. Not because I was thrilled to be there. I felt as useful as galoshes on a fish. But there wasn’t any way to go except forward, and Emmett had enough to deal with at the moment. “Let me know if I can help.”
He reached over and squeezed my hand. The level of gunfire increased markedly, with some yelling, maybe five cars back. Emmett asked me, “How far are we from Union Station? That’s where we’re going.”
I swallowed and looked it up, trying to focus on the task and not cringe at each barking shot. “Only two miles. We could walk,” I reported wanly.
“Uh-huh. I don’t trust the weather today,” Emmett quipped. The gunfire gradually died. His walkie-talkie pinged him with a report of mission complete. One non-serious injury, two prisoners in hand, and a green light from the conductor to continue. Of the attackers, a good dozen were bleeding or dead on the ground, the rest fled. “Good work, Johnson. Tell the conductor to proceed when you’re aboard.”
“So this councilman at Union Station?” I inquired. “Did he arrange our hotel reservations?”
“Uh-huh,” Emmett agreed. “Can’t wait to meet him.”
Captain Johnson sent out our brace of prisoners first under guard, to kneel on the platform, fingers laced behind their heads. I was relieved to see that they weren’t bloody. Our reception committee stood uncomfortably before them while our troops fanned out to check security at the train station. When they gave the all-clear, I finally exited the train car with Emmett and the IBIS team, and a few soldiers reserved as our bodyguards.
“Colonel MacLaren!” a middle aged businessman greeted him. He swallowed nervously. “I’m Alex Wiehl. We spoke on the phone. Some porters to handle your luggage. Party of thirty, I understood?”
“Thirty-two at present,” Emmett replied, pointing to the prisoners. He narrowed his eyes. “Councilman Wiehl? You are Major Beaufort’s second in command?”
“Oh, no!” replied Wiehl. “I run the hotel?”
“I see. And where is Major Beaufort’s second in command?”
“I don’t know who that is,” admitted Wiehl.
“But you’re on the Pittsburgh city council?” Emmett pressed.
“Yes… We don’t meet very often,” said Wiehl.
Emmett was clearly growing exasperated with this game of twenty questions. Though he wasn’t physically in the train fight, his adrenaline was still too pumped up to play nice.
I stepped in, with a friendly smile, and offered my hand to shake. “Dee Baker, Colonel MacLaren’s partner. Nice to meet you, Councilman Wiehl. We’re all very tired from the trip. You have transportation for us, to your hotel? I don’t think we need help with the luggage, do we, Emmett?” Indeed, our soldiers had already commandeered the luggage trolleys from the porters.
Wiehl was clearly relieved to be allowed back onto his familiar script. He gratefully led the way to a couple shuttle buses waiting for us on the street. That street was Liberty Avenue, one of the main drags of downtown Pittsburgh. I would have expected limited parking right in front of the train station. But the hotel shuttles were the only vehicles in sight. Our party were the only people in sight.
“Is it always this empty downtown, Mr. Wiehl?” I asked.
“Oh, no one lives in the triangle anymore, Ms. Baker,” he agreed.
I admitted to never having had the pleasure of visiting Pittsburgh before, except the airport, and egged Wiehl on to play tour guide. As a hotel manager, naturally he was happy and competent to oblige. My traveling companions, all still adrenaline-poisoned, quietly eavesdropped while we prattled away. Apparently the Golden Triangle, downtown Pittsburgh, was where the broad Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, flowing west, met in a V to give birth to the mighty Ohio.
Our shuttle turned a corner onto utter devastation. “Tornado,” Wiehl explained. “We had over two hundred touchdowns in the city last year. More in the suburbs, of course. Only twenty-something touchdowns this year, so far. But don’t worry, Ms. Baker – the foundation of my hotel is an excellent tornado shelter. One of the sirens is on our roof.”
Shocked, Emmett asked, “All from a single storm front?”
“Oh, no,” replied Wiehl. “Spread over six months or so. Started getting bad about this time two years ago, with the Alberta Clippers. They just wouldn’t quit.”
“Did you have many Alberta Clippers?” I only remembered a few of those storms in Connecticut that fall. The thunderstorm fronts barreled across the continent out of a blue sky, traveling over 75 miles per hour.
“Oh, yes. Maybe a dozen,” Wiehl supplied. “Ah, here we’re back on Liberty. This is the only undamaged bridge left across the Monongahela.” He pointed downriver, toward a double rail track up a steep hillside. A pile of reddish rubble lay at its base. “Over there is the famous Monongahela Incline. The immigrants who worked in the steel mills built a funicular, so they could live on Mount Washington without having to climb up there after work. The incline isn’t operating anymore. But the Duquesne Incline is still running. The inclines are very popular with tourists. Breath-taking view from the top.”
I smiled at the ‘popular with tourists’ part. Alex Wiehl was an optimistic man. I was probably his first tourist in years. And I was only playing at it in order to ease the social tension. A brief tour couldn’t hurt.
Past the bridge, we turned left along the river and soon pulled up to an ordinary middle-class chain hotel, a long five-story block of brick with a valet zone driveway and portico. The outdoor national brand name signs had been replaced with ‘Monongahela Inn’, so professionally that I wouldn’t have noticed the name change, except that the door mat still bore the original branding.
“Did you work for the company long before the borders closed, Mr. Wiehl?” I asked.
“Yes, fifteen years,” he replied. “I’d only just transferred to Pittsburgh, though. I was in Johnson City before that. Tennessee.”
“And you were elected right away to city council?” I asked, surprised.
“Oh, no, I was just appointed to the council a few months ago,” he demurred. “I joined the Chamber of Commerce right away. Great way to make friends in a new city. Ah – should I just hand out keys and let you people sort out room assignments?” he offered hopefully. “The entire hotel is at your disposal.”
“Johnson,” Emmett ordered. Captain Johnson further delegated, and a sergeant accompanied Mr. Wiehl to the registration desk.
“Our only contact is useless,” Emmett commented to the IBIS team.
I poked him. “Emmett, I think he’s one of the movers behind the Penn–Ohio joint venture. Don’t write him off just because he isn’t who you thought he was. Schwabacher and Taibbi’s re-industrialization plan is important.”
“Uh-huh,” Emmett said sadly.
We both brightened immeasurably when we stepped into the hotel lobby. This provided tastefully bland lounge seating areas, a closed bar, and an open buffet, brimming over with delicious wafts of dinner. Our prisoners were already being escorted to a ground-floor conference room for questioning. The troops stared at the buffet, but apparently hadn’t been given leave to devour it yet.
I didn’t have that problem. I dumped my gear in a booth near the lobby and started filling my plate. Emmett and the IBIS pair followed my lead.
After nearly 24 hours travel from our home in the hungry devastation of New York City, that buffet was just about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and smelled. We had roast beef. Pork loin. Pot roast. Fried chicken. Macaroni and cheese. A choice of five cooked vegetables. Fresh tossed salad with all the trimmings and choice of four salad dressings. Potatoes three ways. Fresh chicken and dumpling soup. Warm fresh bread. Unlimited butter.
In New England and New York–New Jersey, we didn’t have enough wheat flour to make bread, let alone enough oil to waste on deep-frying. A single plate from this amazing buffet held more treats than any of us in the Apple had eaten in the past six months combined. And that was just the dinner buffet. I carried my mounded plate beyond to stare at the dessert spread. Peach and blueberry and apple pies, blueberry cobbler, yellow cake with frosting, pastries, fresh apples and grapes and a selection of cheeses and crackers. My mouth hung open at the beauty of the colors, the riches arrayed here before us. Apparently sugar wasn’t in short supply here, either.
“You can’t eat your first plate, piglet,” Emmett commented beside me. But he stared at the color-drenched desserts just as raptly as I did. And his dinner plate was mounded even higher than mine, with three different rolls perched precariously on top.
Captain Johnson called out to the troops, “As soon as the Colonel is seated, we will proceed by rank to the buffet. With decorum, ladies and gentlemen.”
We slipped into our booth with alacrity, to let loose the ravening horde.
“You may be right, Ms. Baker,” Kalnietis offered from across our shared table. “Penn has plenty of food.”
I nodded, eyes smiling, teeth sinking into warm fresh bread dripping with real butter, like everyone else at our table. Judging from their plates, our new IBIS friends from greater Virginia were just as starved for wheat and meat and deep fried things as we were.
It seemed briefly that there might be war at the hot buffet, as rolls ran out before the lower-ranked soldiers got any. But a smiling overweight middle-aged woman emerged to save the day with another vast platter of dinner rolls and Texas toast. She was trailed by a possible daughter, around age 20, wheeling out replacement hot trays of more roast beef and fried chicken.
“I like Alex Wiehl,” I proclaimed, when my mouth was temporarily empty. “I like Penn. The war, completely forgiven.” My dinner companions nodded emphatically, their mouths full.
Want more? Martial Lawless is available on Amazon.