Greetings, my Manchovies (I’m still working on a suitable name for my fans. Scrap that one. Gross.)!
Burn Card, the second installment in the Lesser Evils series is now available for download! You may purchase the work here for a mere 99 cents.
Building out this universe is really quite satisfying, especially given our current political climate. It’s also been a great opportunity to explore different writing styles, themes, and formats. Did I succeed? I think so. Marcy Lopez was fun as hell to write and it was hard narrowing down the Las Vegas-area locations to establish settings. I think the result is a wonderfully crass, dispassionately bloodbath that offers a few fair critiques on humanity. But the further achievement is perhaps envisioning desert warfare on American soil and how complicated navigating the natural and urban environments would be if such a terrible thing would occur.
May that give you pause despite all the fun bits.
Chapter One: Removing Muffin from the Oven
The clouds cross over the desert like aimless poodles in a swimming pool. I tongue dust out of my teeth as a I readjust the binoculars. There’s no movement on the road, no changes from the last time I checked. I pull open a can of tuna and eat it quickly. A wise woman once told me that eating fish in a desert is to wish for certain, not-so-sudden death. I risk it. I drink the remaining oil from the can. I wash it all down with a gulp from my canteen and then I pull the grey blanket over me again. It’s hot under here, but it keeps the sun away. I check the road again. No movement.
The threat of sleep whispers to me in dulcet tones. I caught myself from nodding off this morning. I succumbed to a full ten minute nap shortly after that. I tell myself it’s okay. There’s a Plan B in place should I fail. But I don’t like wasting my time.
The Servicemen would take this road almost certainly and they’ll have no reason to suspect that I’m out here. I’ve done my homework. I’ve slummed through dozens of Vegas extraction reports with Cass and every single one of them note I-15, northbound. Denilles’s broadcast came through an hour ago. The mathematician consulted his voting machine and it named one Cory Koch of Clark County the next president of the New States of America. Our Muffin. It should be any time now, unless they meet with strong resistance in the city. For once, I hope they don’t. I pull out my radio and dial in to headquarters. Static and blips.
“Marcy Lopez calling in to HQ, over.”
There’s silence on the line. It’s always a queasy couple of moments for me until I get the response. It comes.
“Jasper here. Eyeballs on Muffin, over?”
“Negative. Requesting update on Muffin’s dossier, over.”
“Copy. Let me ask.”
I hear Jasper call to Cass.
“Tell that slut to hurry up, over.” I smile.
“The slut has made a rude gesture in response. Would you like me to describe it? Over.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Over.”
On Jasper’s end there are noises of shuffling papers, some voices, some wind. The Vegas chapter of the Dissent is little more than a small encampment built on the west edge of the city, nestled behind a small, dirty bar and pretty much exposed to the wilderness, with the exception of a few small shacks built from old pallets and a couple of canvas tents. It’s tactical minimalism. One could break the whole thing down and disappear the operation in less than an hour, if properly motivated.
“Affirmative. We found him. Cory Koch, 25. Handsome fella. 6’ 1”, dark hair, dark complexion, light build, no tattoos, over.”
“Copy. Party affiliations apparent, over?”
A few seconds of silence pass. I check the road again.
“There are, but indirectly. Cory’s unaffiliated himself but his father, one Warren Koch, paid dues to the Good Old Americans in 1978 through 1981, then began backing the direct liberal opposition of the Frontmen from 1983 through 1987. Koch senior died in 1988 in a party skirmish, indeterminate reasons. Over.”
This was relatively good news. Unaffiliated means less opposition to the Servicemen, which would mean less opposition to me. The fact that his father had allegiances to both liberal and conservative parties, and then left both, might temper the decision to claim him as one of their own.
“Copy. So it’s just me out here, over?”
“In theory. But you know how these things go. The Good Old Americans might just kill him for no other reason than he’s not one of them.”
“Copy. Over and out.”
I put away the radio and clean up my bivouac, sealing everything into a backpack— except for my binoculars, rifle, and blanket. I get cozy again and watch the road, watching the heat swell across the pavement. Something stirs far away along with the faint sound of a motor. I zoom in. Mid-sized Sports Utility Vehicle, tinted windows. I have to be sure. That’s a Servicemen vehicle, all right. It’s too nondescript to actually be inconspicuous. I clock it at estimated 65 mph. That might be too fast. We’ll risk it, anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? A lot, actually. I pull out the radio again and dial in the other frequency. I only know three frequencies by heart and only one of them is HQ’s. I wait until the SUV is three telephone poles away from it and then I call it in. We timed this in a practice run. It should take two seconds for the detonator to receive the signal which should then ignite the rest of the IED.
There’s a spark on the road followed by a sharp flash of orange light and then smoke. I watch through the binoculars as the vehicle jumps away from the explosion and skids along its doors. I’m worried that it’ll roll and I sigh in relief it doesn’t. It’s not an ideal landing, however. The bottom of the car is facing me. That’ll make sniping the goons harder for me— and I don’t want to ignite the fuel tank. Yet. I grab for my rifle and pull it in front of me. I check through the binoculars and see a head with sunglasses pop out of the door. I pick the rifle and dial in the sights. His head is the size of a pin from my vantage. I take the shot and pray. It mists red. Back to binoculars. No movement from inside the turned vehicle. They’re waiting me out. There’s no fire in the engine— they can sit there until backup arrives. They’ll see me coming and clip me before I make it a hundred yards. So we have to put a little scare into them. I check through the binoculars and find a gray piece of metal that’s close, but hopefully not too close, to the fuel tank. That’s my target. I pick up the rifle and line up the sights. Please lord, let my arrow fly true. I pop the shot. The car does not immolate. I wipe sweat from my hands on the blanket.
On the road below, a figure pulls himself from the wreckage, and pulls another figure out. They drop onto the gravel and limp away. Time to make good on the threat. I find the fuel tank, line it up in the rifle sights and wait until they’re out of the blast radius. Squeeze. It blows. The blast knocks over one of the figures. He ambles to his feet and begins limping away. The other turns with a pistol in his hand, looking for a target. I line him up. He mists red and crumples. I tongue tuna-bits out of my teeth.
I wrap the blanket up and strap the roll to the pack. I sling the rifle over my shoulder and heave the pack on my back. I fiddle with the radio back to the HQ frequency.
“Marcy Lopez to HQ. Targets neutralized, Muffin on foot. I’m in pursuit. Over.”
“Copy. Keep them doggies rollin’. Over.”
“Rawhide. Over and out.”
Running down the hill is an exercise of dual art-forms. One: momentum. It’s easier to fall than to climb. You just let the gravity do the work. Two: don’t roll an ankle. You have to strike the dirt with a straight leg every time one of your pins hits the ground. My masterpiece: I ran down half, slid the rest of the way. My left thigh is bloody hamburger held together by white denim jeans. It’s not a fashion statement, it’s just what blends well with the desert. The blood doesn’t help, doesn’t hurt the camouflage. It doesn’t escape me that if I biff a landing—or trip— and smash my skull against a rock, my body wouldn’t be found until the sun turned my bones black. You have to lean in to that kind of inevitability, the same way you need to lean down a rocky hillside.
Regardless of my existentialism, I make it to the road, scathed but breathing. I check both horizons for interference. There’s none to speak of. Call it clear for now.
And then a chase begins between me and Cory Koch. He’s limping, which should give me an advantage. I’m also limping, which is an unexpected turn of events. It makes it hard to gain ground on his escape. So I pull my sidearm and shoot to the left of him. He flattens, realizes he’s not dead and gets up again. I shoot to the right of him. He flattens once again. The familiar feeling of liveliness stirs in his legs and he goes off once again. I lock him in my sights, pull the hammer back and then raise the barrel to shoot a meter above him.
Koch stiffens. He calculates, perhaps, a futile exit strategy. Then he falls on his knees before bringing his head down into the dust. He’s not dead. Any shooter with a modicum of experience knows how a body falls. He’s too dramatic. Still, he could be armed. The Servicemen will have given him a gun as a last resort. So I approach carefully.
“I got a bullet trained on your heart, Muffin. Spatchcock. Now like.”
He spreads. I catch up to him. I search him. I pull a little 22 out of his pocket. I flip him with my foot and he stops playing dead.
Arms in front of his face, he says, “Please don’t shoot me.”
“I don’t want to shoot you,” I tell him. I put the rifle at my side. I extend a hand.
“Name’s Marcy. Marcy of the Dissent. Pleasure to meet you. Wish it could have been better circumstances, but it’s nice to meet you.”
Koch’s stricken with fear. Sometimes I worry about my bedside manner. He extends a hand and then chokes on his adrenaline. I take his hand and pull him to his feet. He’s unsteady, but he stands.
“You’re the president,” I say. “Do you know what that means?”
“That means… that means I…”
“That means you’ve got a bounty on your head. From every direction. If I hadn’t killed those Servicemen, you know what would happen?”
He shakes his head.
“Best case scenario, you’d serve. After that, they’d dispose of you. Second best scenario is getting gunned down by the Frontmen or the Good Old Americans.” I try to say it kindly. “You don’t want to know about the other scenarios.” He freezes. It must’ve sounded threatening. “But you’re in luck,” I assure him. “You ran into me. You can stay here if you want, but those ‘best scenarios’ are mobilizing and heading here as we speak. I highly suggest you come with me.” I remember my manners. I try to smile like the opposite of a sociopath.
“Wh-where would we go?” Koch asks. Now we’re getting somewhere.
“Back to Vegas. At first. Then we’d have to run you somewhere a little more off-grid. Maybe somewhere in Oregon. Maybe Spokane.”
“What about my family?” he asks.
I want to tell him not to think about his family. I want to tell him that he can easily rendezvous with his loved ones soon after we get him to safety. And hell, who knows? Maybe he can. So I’m not altogether lying when I say, “We get you out first, then we’ll talk about that. For now though, we got to move.”
Perhaps he heard the tremble in my voice or perhaps he saw my eyes pleadingly look at him before darting towards the road, but I saw Cory Koch, our president, finally accept his situation. I saw a light pass through his eyes as he made a silent promise. He straightened his back, exhaling audibly, and that told me that he had also made a decision.
He says, “Let’s go.”