The Last to Fall

 

by Anne K. Edwards

 

 

Chapter One

Jeanne Foster brushed a weary hand over her stinging eyes. It was impossible to see anything through the hanging mist that mixed with the smoke of burning buildings. What streetlights there were cast shapeless, bluish blobs of light. Buildings appeared as shapeless blackened ruins in the yellowed haze.

Worried, she studied Lester as he sagged against a grungy brick wall for support. It seemed hours since they'd started for the hospital, and their goal was no closer. He sank to the sidewalk coughing, a nerve-shattering sound in the predawn silence.

His thin body shuddered as he tried to draw the polluted air into his damaged lungs. "Jeanne, get help," he gasped.

She felt a rising hopelessness. "But nothin's open."

"Get someone," he begged as a new spasm seized him. His bloodshot hazel eyes pleaded with her. "Please."

"I'll try." Unhappily, she moved away. The swirling yellow murk immediately engulfed his skinny body as he sprawled on the walk.

Turning her head in an effort to keep him in sight, she collided painfully with a public phone stand that loomed out of the mist. Rubbing her bruised shoulder, she shoved the lowered plastic privacy shield up into its groove and fumbled in the change slot seeking a stray coin. Nothing! The box was greasy and smelled of souring humanity. The line was dead. Just like all the others.

"Damn--" She set her jaw and fought against the pressing tears of frustration.

The choking stink of fire thickened. Her eyes watered as she blinked rapidly, squinting to see what lay ahead. She'd never traveled alone through northwest Washington, D.C. and had no idea where she was. Through an unexpected break in the fog, she spotted the blurry shape of a blue and white police vehicle moving slowly along the street. Running toward it, she shouted for help.

* * *

Officer Delon Stimm heard a girl yelling and swung his vehicle to the curb. He and his massive partner, John Kersey, got out. They kept their hands on their weapons, poised for trouble.

"What's wrong?" Delon asked the slim, brown-haired girl who came out of the fog like a ghost.

"I need help. My friend's sick," she spoke in a voice shrill with urgency.

"Jojo?" He bent to look into her frightened brown eyes. It was the latest illegal drug to take over the younger generation.

"No! He can't breathe." She covered her face with her hands and began to cry.

"Where is he?" he asked with a sigh. The morning was to be a continuance of the night before--nothing was going right.

"About a block from here. That way." Impatiently, she pointed, wiping away tears with the back of her hand. "Please hurry."

The fog closed in again.

"Get in." He held the door for her. These kids... He shook his head. They get garbaged up and then cry for help.

Was that what the crumbling society he served did to its children? So many walked the streets looking for something solid to believe in and found nothing. So they turned to jojo and each other. It did not bode well for the future of the country. What future there was, he thought.

He exchanged knowing glances with John. Kids had to learn the hard way. In the rear view mirror, he saw the girl huddle into herself, shivering as she searched the street for her friend.

They found him where she'd left him, a convulsed heap of long blond hair and old blue denims. One of his sandals had fallen off.

"Lester, they'll take you to the hospital," she told the boy, bending to touch his shoulder.

Delon could tell by the way Lester tried to push himself up, the police were the last people he wanted.

In spite of his protests, John and Delon carried him to the car. Skinny kid. Not any bigger than the girl. Wonder when he ate last. They placed him on the back seat, his head on the girl's lap. "Looks like bad stuff to me," Delon muttered.

"I told you, he's not on anything," she said fiercely through renewed tears. "It's his lungs. He's got emphysema or asthma."

"Could be." John Kersey started the car. "Could be. The air's rotten. All that smoke... Don't know why anyone would start fires now. My nose burns all the time from this polluted rot we call air." He grunted as he turned the car around.

Delon nodded in agreement. As soon as the sun rose above the haze enveloping the city, the smoke would mix with heated humidity, making the air almost too thick to breathe. His sweat-soaked, light blue uniform shirt was already clinging to his spine against the plastic seat covers. Everything smelled of smoke. He shuddered involuntarily.

This wasn't the first trip they'd made before daybreak to The Old University Hospital, nor would it be the last.

"The hospital isn't going to like this," he mumbled over the boy's wheezing gasps. He hoped they didn't run into any of the roving military groups searching for looters or streeters. He'd have to turn these children over to them.

John caught his meaning. "We're becoming an ambulance service," he said as he steered the car into the emergency entrance, passing the remains of the sign that bore the once-proud name of Georgetown University. Peering through the rounded swaths the wipers made on the windshield, he said, "Going to be an ugly day. Sun isn't going to break through this muck."

* * *

White-coated attendants wheeled out a squealing gurney to meet the cruiser. Jeanne waited impatiently as the dark-skinned officer opened the rear door so she could stretch her legs to get rid of the cramps caused by holding Lester's head in the confined space.

Sniffing at the stale odor of heavy pine-scented cleanser used to cover hospital odors, she reluctantly followed them into a dim, green-walled corridor.

Officer Stimm drew her to a battered counter set to the left of the scratched glass doors.

Twisting a lock of her long brown hair, she watched sadly as the guerney carrying Lester's twitching body disappeared through double steel doors on the right.

A round-faced clerk with green-tinted hair and discontented mouth handed Jeanne a sheaf of forms and a pen. "Are you a member of his family?" she queried, eying Jeanne suspiciously.

Jeanne shook her head.

"Where have you been living?" the officer asked, his teeth flashing white against his dark skin.

"Two thousand two Connecticut Avenue in Northwest," she mumbled, twisting the hair over her left eye. The old hotel, once an uptown address, had long ago been condemned. It was home to dozens of young streeter couples like herself and Lester. She'd miss it, but without Lester, she didn't belong.

"I see," he said flatly. "One of those old places beyond DuPont Circle. Not a safe neighborhood for a girl."

She didn't answer.

"Do you know his family or where he's from?" he prodded.

She shook her head, avoiding his kind brown eyes. His unspoken sympathy would only increase her need to cry. She had no idea who his people were so she focused on the forms, placing them on the counter. "I can't fill these out."

"They have to be filled in," the clerk tapped her chewed pencil on the counter.

"I can't. I don't know if he's allergic to things. I don't know if he's been sick before." Jeanne's temper edged into her tone.

"Does he have hospitalization?" The girl flashed Jeanne a quick look.

"He never told me," Jeanne snapped. Most people didn't have it.

"Does he have a bank account?" The clerk reddened, scrawling angry notations on a pink form.

"No. He's unemployed." Jeanne turned away.

The girl chewed her fleshy lower lip in silence. "I see," she said after a pause and picked up the telephone. She toyed with a pulled thread in her blue knit top. Something red stained the shoulder.

"Will they take care of him?" Jeanne asked, pulling on her own clothes to straighten them. It had been so long since she'd fussed over her looks, she rarely thought about it. All she had was what she wore, jeans and a faded blue blouse.

"Yes. Now, can you answer a few questions about yourself?" the policeman asked in a kind voice. "Do you have a family?"

She shook her head again. No sense in getting her mom involved. She'd only say she didn't know where she failed, her excuse for everything that happened in her life. Jeanne didn't want any more of those horrible crying scenes with the well-remembered recriminations. The recollection of the hurt they caused each other nudged her conscience.

"Do you have anyone at all?" he persisted. He guided her to some chairs with patched red-cloth seats along the wall.

"No, nobody." She took the one nearest the exit sign. The fabric was unraveling and it wobbled when she shifted her weight.

"How old are you?" He sat next to her, putting his hat on his lap.

"Twenty. I left home last spring after papa died." Tears pressed in her throat. In some ways Lester had reminded her of her dad. Now he was gone again.

She straightened her shoulders and looked at the policeman. Knowing he would want proof of her age, she handed him a driver's license she'd found on the street. The plastic coating had cracked and water had distorted the features in the picture, but it looked a little like her.

"This is expired." He handed it back, his expression reflecting his belief the photo wasn't her.

Jeanne shrugged. "Don't have a car anyhow." She shoved her hair back from her face with shaking fingers. She clamped her lips shut. The license said she was twenty, but she felt more like a hundred.

He studied her intently. "We're just trying to help. You kids come here looking for God only knows what. I see it every day. You get hooked on jojo or sick like your friend."

She remained silent. The police always knew all the answers.

The officer stood. "If you have a family, go home and make up. This way doesn't work." He peered down at her, adding, "Wait here. I have other questions for you, but I want to check on your friend." He put on his black hat, pushing it back, and walked away.

Jeanne eavesdropped as he spoke to the nurse who chewed the end of a pencil. She wanted Lester to be all right, but doubted he would be. He'd been spitting up blood this time. Fear formed a knot in her chest.

"How is he? Good news might help me get the truth out of her." He nodded toward Jeanne who read concern in his gaze.

The nurse took her pencil out of her mouth. "You know University takes no public cases now that our federal funding has been cut off. The new owners are very specific about accepting only paying patients. The boy was been sent directly to Cartersea in Northeast with a few others. He was on oxygen when they left."

"Thanks." Officer Stimm turned to John Kersey, who stood near the unplugged coffee machine. "I guess that's better than nothing. We'd better get the signatures on these new service cards to show how we spent the last hour. I miss the old days when all we did was patrol through our shift. This new paperwork is a pain." He sounded tired.

The waiting gave Jeanne the jitters. If I stick around, I'll get sent to the juvenile center. And they'll get word to Mom. She felt the tears pressing again. I don't wanna go home. It's always the same thing.

She'd lost count of the times she'd been returned only to run away again. The burden of guilt her mother shifted onto her for her troubles was too much to face any more. The thought of it impelled Jeanne to her feet as the two officers were distracted by the nurse inquiring about the identity of another patient they'd brought in earlier. Catlike, she moved to the door to make her escape. Lester didn't need her now.

He'd probably never leave the hospital or, if he did live, they'd send him to one of those detainment camps where people without permanent addresses were held. She shuddered. Much as she didn't want to go home, she didn't want to wind up in one of the horrible camps she'd heard about. Even if the rumors or torture and death weren't true, the people were still prisoners.

Sadly, Jeanne accepted that she'd never see Lester again. The best thing to do was get away from D.C.

She headed into the thickening mist where she felt secure from curious eyes, but as dawn broke, the smoky tendrils began to lift and thin. Another ugly day in an ugly city.

 

Chapter Two

The yellow murk outside their hotel room window added to the bleak atmosphere inside. Nothing could brighten Ethel Riley's mood as her gaze went from the faded green curtains framing the window to her husband's back. Harry was getting old, she realized unexpectedly. The pale flesh exposed along the edges of his shorts and undershirt was mottled and sickly white. His heat-reddened face and arms that never tanned suddenly revolted her. How could she have ever imagined herself in love with him? He was losing his hair, wore glasses, and his waistline bulged. What looks he'd had were long gone. And what of his promises to love and cherish? Gone too. But then, he'd never meant them. The truth was she had spent nearly twenty years deluding herself. Painful self-honesty burned its way to the forefront of her thoughts.

His stubbornness on the matter of their only child exasperated her. They had a running disagreement about Lisa's character. She was the sole fruit of a hopeless union. Ethel turned to the mirror, hoping to block out his image. Her reflection was grim, strained. Tear stains ruined her makeup. Smearing cream over her face, she massaged it into the skin, then wiped it and the makeup off. Crying had not helped. It never did.

She forced herself to meet Harry's green-eyed stare in the glass. Setting her jaw, she stiffened her back to present as unyielding an aspect as possible as she reapplied foundation.

"Look, Thel. I know how you feel," he said as he pulled on a pair of gray slacks.

She swung her head toward him. "How could you know how I feel?" she snapped, slapping the worn silver compact down on the vanity. "I didn't want to come. You and Lisa made the decision. She can get her way with you any time I say no. I don't care if she doesn't like this heat. She's going with me. This joyride was her idea." Her voice was thick with sarcasm. "I have no interest in riding in an armored car, looking at ruined buildings."

"But the kid doesn't feel well. She said it's her time." His lined face was tired.

"Time, schmime," Ethel said in exasperation, again facing the mirror. "She wants to meet that boy from the lobby after we're gone." She picked up the brush to apply powder over the foundation.

"Must you--" He rammed his shirt into his pants.

"Yes. She's a fourteen-year-old tramp and you know it."

"I won't have you calling that child names!" His voice rose.

"You don't know. You're never home. I have to listen to the talk." Ethel burst into tears again and threw the makeup brush aside. "Oh, Harry, she's ruining our marriage."

"Our marriage was ruined long ago." He met her reflected gaze. "You didn't want a husband or kids. If you hadn't been afraid of spinsterhood, you'd never have married me."

She bowed her head under the accusation she knew so well. Leaden silence filled the room. When she raised her eyes, there was finality in her voice. "All right, Harry. Have your own way. I'm tired of fighting you. I'm leaving."

Ethel gave her short mouse-brown hair a quick brushing and stood. She opened the closet door to pull out her old black leather suitcase.

"Now, Thel--" Harry tried to coax her.

"No, Harry. She's won. You and she can have each other."

Looking down at her feet, she hurriedly stepped into her shoes. Turning, she dumped the suitcase on one of the green-covered twin beds. After hastily donning a white sleeveless top and box-pleated brown skirt, she threw the remainder of her clothes into it.

"Ethel, you've got to be reasonable. I can't raise her. She needs--" Harry began.

She cut him off. "A mother? No, she needs a home where she can do as she damned well pleases. Give it to her. I've done all I can." Snapping the case shut, she glared at him. Why did I defy my father to marry him?

A knock on the door interrupted their conflict. The short girl with red hair who entered at Harry's bidding, frowned at them. "Are you ready?" she asked sulkily, giving her form-fitting red shorts a quick tug on her left leg. Then she adjusted her equally tight yellow, sleeveless top

"No, Lisa. You aren't going," Harry said.

"Mom?" She turned to Ethel, crossing her arms over her flat chest.

"I'm going away, Lisa. You and your father will be together. Just the way you want." She turned her head to hide her tears.

Surprise rooted Lisa to the floor. "No, Mom!" she cried.

Ethel studied her daughter. "So suddenly I'm important? It's too late. You can have it all. And I'll never have to see you again." The ferocity with which she rejected her only offspring shocked her, but she wouldn't change her mind. She had long ago realized she didn't like her daughter as a person.

How easily that bond was severed. The door closed behind her. Her fingers lingered briefly on the knob, the last link with her old life. Then, clutching her purse as if to shield herself from the unknown, she pulled the wheeled case to the elevator and jammed her finger into the down button. The wait seemed endless as she nervously tapped her fingers on the handle of her case.

The suddenness of her new freedom was frightening and exhilarating at the same time. She would endure no more arguing, no more accusing silences. She'd be alone, but able to be her own person. The elevator doors bumped open noisily.

* * *

Harry Riley was stunned as he watched the gray metal door close behind Ethel. Hesitating only a few seconds and hoping she was waiting to be recalled, he stepped into the hall.

She was gone.

He went back inside, shoving the door shut to stand with his back to it. What am I going to do? Never had he felt so helpless.

"Daddy, don't worry. She'll come back. Mom can't live without us. We're her whole world," Lisa said, taking a stand beside him. She put a freckled hand on his arm.

Drawing his arm free, he saw her lips tighten. Harry couldn't help it. He was worried. In the last three years, Lisa had deliberately provoked fights between him and Ethel, playing one against the other to get her own way. In the end, his always giving in to her cost him his wife. Ethel probably would cut off his allowance, too. That worried him. Her money had been Ethel's most attractive asset when he'd courted her. It still was.

Grimly, Harry shook his head. "No, she's gone. It's been coming on too long. She says you're a tramp." Twenty years of his life had just been wiped out.

"Oh, Daddy. Don't believe what people say about me. They're just jealous," she cried.

"Jealous? Of what?" he asked wearily, taking her in. She was skinny with small green eyes set on either side of a large, flared nose in a narrow face. She resembled him when he'd been fourteen.

Lisa reddened, her lips puckering in a pout.

Harry knew she was angry, but he didn't care.

Eying her, Harry considered his predicament, not knowing what to do next. Ethel's sudden departure left him facing decisions he couldn't make. He dropped into the metal chair by the window. Too late, he needed his wife.

* * *

As he stood in front of the ramshackle brick ruin his family called home in Northeast D.C., Parge Lewland squinted at the sky and wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his big hand then rubbed it on his faded red shirt. The air was thick and heavy with humidity. He looked down at Say Lolf, his white friend, and Mando Desparto, whose folks were from some island down south. "It's gonna get hot, man."

"Yeh." Mando nodded, rolling his deep set eyes sagely. "Air dirty. Them 'burbanites comin' in makes our air bad."

"What they care? They don't gotta live here," Parge said, poking the toe of his boot into the ribs of a drunken black man who lay curled in a fetal position along the curb. He reached into the man's pockets, ignoring feeble protests. He came up empty. Not unusual in this neighborhood.

Say muttered, "No, jus' us poor fokes." He looked up at them expectantly.

"They's some havers here." Parge grinned in remembrance of the fright they'd caused as they'd charged through the streets in last week's rioting. He blinked as sweat ran into his eyes, burning. Cursing, he wiped his face again.

"Yeh, in air 'ditioned buildin's. You got a 'ditioner?" Mando asked, rubbing a jagged red scar on his cheek. Scales of dead skin drifted away.

"No an' you better quit scratchin'. You get that rash again," Parge warned him. 'Ain't no clinic no more. Got burnt down."

"Yeh, an' I got no more of that stuff to put on it neither." Mando thrust his hand into the torn pocket of his dirty jeans. "An' no money." He made a face, twisting his thick lips down at the corners.

"Ain't got no 'ditioner. An' my lil sis's in 'spital. Got the heat stroke." Say brought them back to the previous subject. His jittery movements indicated his need of jojo.

"Like to fix 'em," Mando grumbled. He glumly watched as Parge rolled the drunk into the gutter with the tip of his boot. "Ain't never gonna get no better 'less'n we do somethin'."

"Now?" Parge was all ears. "What can we do?"

"Dunno. Maybe break some glass," Mando thought aloud.

"Yeh. And let some of that 'ditionin' out here," Say giggled shrilly.

"We could do likker store," Parge offered. "I can get my cousin's gun." He needed the money. Jojo costs had gone up after the rioters had burned the car the last shipment was in. Had they known?

"Gun?" Mando's pale blue eyes turned to saucers.

"Yeh. One Cleef shot man at cleaners wif," Say put in.

"You was there?"

Parge saw Mando was really impressed.

"Yeh. Man had gun too. It was him er Cleef," Say explained.

"Man dead?" Mando asked.

"No. In 'spital," Parge told him.

"Owner?" Mando scratched his scar again.

"Yeh. They gotta learn respect us." Parge felt his old anger rising.

Say nodded wisely, scratching his crotch. "My ma says havers' women treated her bad when she worked in that ole paper factory. She tried eat with stuckups an' they say goin' shoppin'. Ma couldn't 'ford to shop," he added another argument to bolster their reasons for taking action against those who had and wouldn't share.

"Bastards," Parge growled. "Gonna fix 'em." He wasn't sure just who he meant, but any action was better than hanging on a street corner, hungry and broke.

"They's why Delie's brung her kid home to live too. She hadda quit her job 'cause they din't want her off so much. They said she din't call. Why she have to call? If she ain't there, they know she ain't there," Mando contributed. "Doan matter no mo' anyhow. Fact'ry got burnt las' month." He shrugged.

"Where Lutch?" Say picked at his crooked front teeth with his fingernail, then wiped it on his sleeveless t-shirt.

"He left her. Can't 'ford be married."

"No. Havers want more rent money," Parge agreed. He changed the subject. Their endless complaining always led to the same conclusions and he was tired of hearing how there was no way out. "Man, I gotta get some groc'ries."

Say giggled. "Meat?" he questioned.

They laughed at him.

"White or dark?" Mando urged.

"Don' matter," Parge sneered at the thought. It had been a while since that momma in the hallway of that uptown apartment building. Strange, he could never recall their faces.

"They like it?" Say asked, his ruddy face breaking into a suggestive sweat.

"Sure, an' feels good too," Parge bragged.

"Many times you done that?" Say croaked.

"Say, Parge. Looka him. He hot talkin' 'bout it."

"Ease off, Say. Ain't none here."

They looked around. A woman's squirming flesh would take their minds off their problems for a time.

"Le's find one," Say managed a final exultant squeal.

"Where?"

"Sister do. Share."

They abandoned their corner to cover both sides of the street.

Mando suddenly gave a low whistle, their signal. To Parge's surprise the prey was a slim girl with long brown hair. She was headed north toward the circle.

Streeter, thought Parge. She'd be used before. Disgusted, he grabbed her from behind as she slouched past his position. She was surprisingly strong in her struggles as he dragged her down the alley toward the abandoned warehouse that had once belonged to the Lordes Department Store.

Say and Mando converged on them.

"She do." Say nodded enthusiastically.

The girl stared at them with terror in her expression. She tried to scream, but Parge's big hand clamped over on her mouth.

Say fell on her hungrily. The rats that lived in the building squealed angrily and scuttled away.

 

Chapter Three

Walt Toplinski watched as President Kale Ruther paced the shabby Oval Office like a caged tiger, grinding his heels into the federal eagle depicted on the worn blue carpet each time he turned. "I called you in, Walt, because things aren't going well. Not at all well," Kale finally spoke.

Walt nodded, waiting, knowing Ruther would continue at his own pace. He needed someone to listen, not offer suggestions or opinions.

"I spent my entire life working for this job and what do I get? The Senate and House fight me at every turn. I've got a good mind to--" Kale stopped and shook his head

He began again, "That damned bunch I have for advisors. I haven't had one useful idea from them since I took office. They're worse than useless." He stared at Walt. "I wish I hadn't been so quick to repay those political favors."

Walt felt himself shrivel under the intensity of the blue-eyed gaze that seemed to burn into his soul. He remembered how vindictive Kale was. It didn't bode well for the senators or representatives who wouldn't bow to his will.

Kale uses people and when they've served their purpose, he throws them away. He's never been able to accept the word 'no'. Never compromises. He always finds a way around anyone who makes the mistake of trying to hold him back. And Walt was sure this was what he planned now--to find a way around Congress. He pitied them.

He and Kale had been boys together and, since reaching their majority, had shared a mutual interest--power. Kale wanted to be the most powerful man alive, while he, an army man, had settled for a ride on Kale's coattails, waiting for the promised rank of two-star general. That alone had secured his loyalty through the times when others had fallen away. There had been moments, though, when he had wavered, sickened by the man's callousness.

For a moment, Walt wondered what he'd do in Kale's place. He'd dress better than these worn green uniforms that didn't hold a crease any more. Those pinstripe suits Kale wore were always new and sharply creased. Man knew how to dress, to make his big frame slimmer.

He stifled the snort that formed. No, he didn't want to wear Kale's polished shoes. They'd tracked through too much blood. More than his own had.

* * *

Kale slapped his desk with a sheaf of papers. He, too, remembered the past. Since a small boy, he'd been possessed by an insatiable need for recognition. No one had ever understood the hunger that drove him. His mother had given him short shrift, never the attention he deserved. Her whining, total dependency on his father had alienated him before he was ten.

The early death of his father in a coal mine explosion and her hasty second marriage to Flege Foster, a burly man he quickly learned to hate, had sounded the death knell for any possibility of a mother-son relationship.

His stepfather's self-righteousness in the beatings he'd given for any infraction of the strict rules he'd set forth on how to raise children had culminated in a brawl when Kale was fifteen. Using an Indian club he'd broken Flege's arm in two places.

Kale regretted that he hadn't killed him.

His mother had taken Flege's side.

Only the quick thinking of his maternal uncle, Carl Maller, had saved him from prison. Carl had been a general player in the Philadelphia power structure so Kale had spent the rest of his youth studying the ins and outs of politics.

It hadn't taken him long to learn how to gain the power he wanted. He'd then determined to have the recognition his talent for leadership deserved. The old man, in his declining years, had been proud of his nephew's rise through the ranks. And Kale had made sure he'd shared in its rewards.

After thirty-five years of effort, Kale had reached his goal, using favors, donations, bribes, threats--anything he could to bully his way to the vice presidency. President Owen Marshall had fortuitously succumbed to a stroke the day after his oath taking.

No one ever guessed what caused the stroke. A double dose of camasine-deltropropate-xt, the new heart medicine--it had been so easy to slip it into a glass of apple juice. Kale smiled in remembrance. He'd inherited the vacancy the old man left.

But what had he gotten? The United States--once the greatest--was now a third-rate power, on its knees in a world that, too, was in total chaos. Internal dissentions, nurtured by a divided leadership, had overgrown the government like a lethal vine. Smacking one hand into the other, Kale thought angrily, it would take all of his cunning to rebuild. He would do just that. Let no one dare to stand in his way.

He reined in his wandering thoughts and returned his attention to Walt Toplinski. "I have a job for your private troops. A very special job." He studied the taller general, noting the lines around his eyes and how quickly his hair was graying. The fabric of his green uniform strained along the length of his torso. Walt needed to exercise more.

Toplinski's bushy gray eyebrows rose. That was all the surprise he displayed. "Yes, Sir. The Green Cadre is always at your service."

"I want them to find an old paxie called Mel Wilson. He was called The Rev back in the twenties. I have a private score to settle with him," Kale said.

Walt didn't ask questions. "I'm sure we can find the man. Do you have any idea where he might be or what he looks like?" he asked.

"The Rev," Kale spoke the name with a sneer, "is a few years older than me, mid-to-late fifties. Taller with brown eyes and fancies himself a man of God. He lived in a commune in Maryland, last I heard."

"I'll get the men on it today. He'll be found." Toplinski tapped his pipe into the ashtray and put the empty pipe in his pocket.

"They must use discretion. There must be nothing to connect the search with me." Kale ran a caressing hand along the grey shadings of his pinstripe jacket.

"Sir, I can speak for all of my men. Under Sergeant Dunbar, they would follow any order he gives. I believe the man could lead them into hell and take it. Dunbar is the devil's equal."

Kale laughed, a hoarse, hollow sound. "I'm sure of that. He has shown a certain ability for leadership, but he tends to take things upon himself without authorization. You'd better watch him." He stood in the center of the eagle on the carpet.

Walt nodded in agreement. "Dunbar is dangerous if he isn't controlled. But I'll rein him in tight. He reports directly to me." He got to his feet slowly. "That chair is much too comfortable," he commented, then took his leave to return to his own office.

Alone again, Kale allowed himself a few moments to reflect on his achievements. Until he had restored the nation to its former power and status in the world, he wouldn't be satisfied. And that moment was coming--his moment. He could sense it.

* * *

Jeanne lay where the men left her. She moaned, twitching fitfully as awareness returned. Her eyes flickered open, then closed again. She remembered.

Fear shot through her. Were they gone? She listened without daring to move. Several minutes passed before she was sure she was alone. At last, she took a deep breath that made her throat and chest hurt. A strange numbness and pain followed.

Gingerly, she raised a shaking hand to probe a burning sensation on the side of her face. Her fingers came away, sticky with blood. The half-brick used to silence her screams had opened a wide gash. Jeanne closed her eyes against the painful throbbing behind them, wishing she hadn't wakened. She began to shake. In spite of the heat, she was cold. Maybe, she was dying. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes as she waited. Let death come.

Moments passed. A squealing rat chased by another scurried over her bare legs. She choked on a scream, rolling into a fetal position, and they retreated. Her fright broke the lethargy holding her.

Opening her eyes again, she peered into the emptiness of the huge old building. Her vision was blurred. She heard pigeons cooing as they strutted on rusted metal beams overhead. Light gathered in broken windows, wavering on fingers of intrusive, smoky mist.

Why didn't those men kill me? Then I wouldn't have to wake up.

Harsh sobs escaped her bruised lips, eroding the stillness. Alarmed and scolding, most of the rodent population fled. One, braver than the others, remained to chew warily on what she thought must be her jeans.

Jeanne's tears ran dry. Shuddering, she pushed herself slowly up on one elbow. Uncertainly holding her blouse together, she reached for her jeans. The rat gave a shrill protest as she pulled them away from him.

Her movement altered the flow of blood so that it ran down her cheek. Frustrated by her weakness, she forced herself into a sitting position and slowly worked her jeans up her legs. What seemed like hours passed before she managed to wrestle them over her hips. She had to lie flat and roll back and forth, each time tugging them a little higher, stopping to rest several times as the pain in her head became too great. Fumbling for the zipper, she found it broken. Despair robbed her of hope. She had not even the strength of anger at that moment. She began to cry soundlessly and collapsed.

Another eternity passed before she faced the reality of wanting to live. If she remained here much longer, she'd be too weak to move. So, using her last measure of strength, she crawled with a painful slowness toward the door that danced at the edge of her blurred vision. On reaching it, she hesitated, staring with glazed eyes at the world outside. The hovering, yellow fog looked fuzzy and thinner, but humidity still pressed in suffocatingly from all sides.

A darkening warmth crept out of her brain. She no longer welcomed it. Between its sweeps, she realized she needed help and tried to call out. Please, God, let someone hear.

* * *

Daffy Ray was hopefully investigating a pile of old bottles beside a burned-out warehouse when he heard faint cries. He listened, unsure whether or not he should respond. The last time he'd offered assistance to someone, he'd been attacked by one of the gangs that frequented the alleyways of the nation's capital. They'd kill an old man for the sport.

At first glance, he thought the girl was dead. But the dead didn't call for help. Uneasily, he edged slowly toward the doorway to peer down at her. Blood oozed from the ugly wound on the side of her face. White girl.

In the depths of his alcohol-cured brain he knew the police ought to be called. He shivered at the idea. They might send him to that house on Montana Avenue again. That would mean being locked in a room while he had those horrible visions of giant bugs. One day, they'd eat him and when the door was unlocked, he'd be gone.

He shivered once more, then looked around. Nobody else to help. He stared down at the girl.

She was watching him. He could see terror in her eyes as he took an unsteady step toward her. She drew back, her lips forming soundless pleas.

"Don' be 'fra'," he mumbled brokenly. "Won' hurt you. I--Daffy Ray."

With his arms dangling limply from the sleeves of his too-large brown jacket, he bent toward her. His lips worked in confusion, not knowing what to say.

She stared at him.

Seeing she didn't understand, he made a convulsive gesture with his bony brown fingers. "Up," he managed among his slurred sounds.

The girl raised her hands to ward him off, but seemed too weak to resist him. Daffy grasped her arm and tried to lift her to her feet. He paused, panting from the exertion. He wasn't strong enough to get her up without assistance.

Finally, she seemed to comprehend he was offering aid and rolled onto her stomach to pushed herself up onto her knees. She wrapped her arms around his neck and with his help, stood gasping.

After a few minutes spent recovering their strength, they staggered into the alley.

A motor hummed nearby, rubble crunching beneath heavy tires. The girl raised her head listening intently, clearly frightened.

In spite of her obvious fear, she cried. "Help!"

"Nobo'y come," Daffy mumbled. If they did reach the street, he wondered what they'd do next.

"Hospital," the girl whispered.

He nodded. The motor sounded close by. He hesitated, fearful of being caught by the police. Sometimes they were worse than the gangs. There was one big one in the jailhouse who liked to smash fingers wrapped around the bars with his stick. Daffy's thumb of his left hand was useless to this day. They didn't bother to get a doctor for such minor injuries to prisoners.

The girl clutched his arm tightly. Her blood smeared his jacket. Amid the fuzziness of his thought processes, he realized people might think he'd hurt her.

He hesitated. Maybe he should just go away from her. Confused, he shook his head. Then, from the depths of memory he heard his mama telling him to help people, to do good when he could. With her words prodding him, he half-carried, half-dragged the girl out of the alley.

A voice caught them, "What's going on here?"

Daffy released his burden and tried to flee. A large hand caught him by his shoulder and pushed him to the ground. He began to cry.

"I know Daffy. He's a drunk who lives in whatever alley is handy. We can drop him off at the dry-out place on Montana Avenue," The big man said.

"Yeh. Be best to get him off the streets. The trouble's only gonna get worse. There'll be more killing this time."

His partner helped the girl into the back seat and then Daffy was thrust in beside her.

Daffy shuddered. As soon as he could, he'd be gone from that house. He didn't want to see those big red bugs again. They had sharp teeth.

 

 

Chapter Four

President Ruther pushed aside the empty lunch tray and got to his feet. He strode the length of the Oval Office, impatiently twisting the papers delivered into his hands by an aide. He tried to organize his thoughts as he turned to face Walt Toplinski. It was convenient to have the general's office in the White House for these impromptu meetings.

"You understand, Walt, there's bound to be resistance to my taking control of all government functions. People hate change, but this country needs a firm hand. This report confirms it." He paused and handed the papers to the ruddy-faced man who leaned against the carved marble mantle. "Without it, look where we're headed. In another generation, the United States will cease to exist." He resumed pacing.

Accepting the report, General Toplinski nodded, his gray eyes quickly scanning the pages. "I see what you mean," he said. "It'll take some doing, Sir. What media there is, isn't exactly behind us. They're wrangling over that limit on wealth you forced Congress to approve. Nobody wants to surrender their excess. And Matt Tyrone's death--the media's still wondering who paid off Al Zindini."

Kale stopped mid-stride. He fixed the man with a frigid glare.

Walt flinched.

Kale was glad to see it. Knows who the boss is.

Dealing with the media was tricky. It seemed all the newshounds wanted to incite the public against him. Too many snooped into his past, asking questions he didn't want answered. So far, he'd been able to keep most of them focused on the riots and military actions taken to bring the rebellious states back into line. But it was those who pried and spoke in secret--they could do the most damage. They had to be contained.

Fortunately, there weren't so many of them as in the past. That alone limited the damage they could do.

Walt had men report to him any news about the Government. Any reporter who failed to use the White House handouts in his stories was considered an enemy. And enemies were meant to be eliminated. As Matt Tyrone had been.

The general straightened, shifted his feet uncomfortably and lowered his gaze.

"Never mention Zindini again," Kale ordered, then moderated his tone as Toplinski finally dared to look at him again. "You did a fine job of handling that problem, Walt, but it's in the past and we need to concentrate on the future. I've told the Department of Defense I want your promotion pushed through as fast as possible." Dangle the second star as bait, and the general would remain loyal. Wearing a grim smile, Kale resumed pacing.

The death of Matt Tyrone had silenced one of his most ardent critics. He didn't know who had selected Zindini for the job, but that he had been dying assured his silence. The reward for killing Tyrone had been the release of his son from prison. In a time of national upheaval, one made use of what tools one had.

Kale spoke more to himself than Walt. "The media's interested in Tyrone because he was one of their own. Their continued criticism of my programs only slows us down. We have to put a lid on them for good. My new press secretary tells me they're sniffing around Zindini's past."

Haunted by the knowledge that what power the press still had, could inflame the population against him, Ruther sought a method to draw the paper dragon's fangs.

Toplinski's broad, decorated shoulders rose and fell with ill-suppressed tension. "Yes, sir. I'll get in touch with Arnie Smith. Maybe he'll have an idea how to focus their attention elsewhere." Kale saw Walt's worry. And that worried him.

"Tell him to make it good," Kale said, thinking Smith, the lobbyist, was for sale at any price. He was a very persuasive speaker. But, he could also be bought by the opposition. An ally to be watched.

The intracity hotline buzzed.

Kale grabbed it. "Yes?" he growled.

A female voice spoke rapidly, nearly shouting, "The rioting has started again."

"What?" he demanded, holding the phone away from his ear.

She repeated her message.

"Downtown? Well, why call me?" He slammed the receiver down. His blue eyes were cold.

He met the general's eyes, contempt in his voice. "Mayor Falle. Women! A few broken windows and she falls apart. She says the troublemakers are on the streets again. I think the resettlement program will include the entire District. The seat of government shouldn't be surrounded by slums. Or for that matter, any permanent residences."

"You're right about that," Toplinski agreed, his face serious. He settled in the red leather chair by the fireplace.

"It's not a top priority, but once the rioting is put down and the nation reunited, I'll have time to consider the matter." The nation's capital would be once more a city of broad avenues and trees. He'd allow shops, hotels and temporary quarters, but everything would be the property of the Government.

As it was, the city consisted of some government buildings, fenced and guarded embassies, homes and commercial buildings, the rest in slums and ruins with people taking shelter where they could. Most of the population had fled the trouble. Those remaining had nowhere to go so they roamed in gangs and took what they wanted, burning the rest.

"Should I send for reinforcements for the White House guard?" Walt asked, gray eyes worried.

"No. You've got the riot-control squad on duty and they should be enough. Give them orders to shoot to kill if anyone so much as looks in this direction. We know Dunbar's men won't come this way. The concrete barricade erected during Holme's administration is patrolled from the top. And there's the tunnels." Kale reflected momentarily on the situation. He had inherited a mess. To clean it up, he would need more power and that power he meant to have.

The general seemed to follow his trend of thought. "Without you, the nation will fall apart," he said. "Minorities, unions, businesses... all jockeying for position. The declining population has eroded the work force. Many of our largest cities are nearly in ruins. The national lands and parks have been pillaged. Only you can reestablish order." Walt recited the facts they both knew to be true. "Tell Congress you need those extraordinary powers now to put the country back on its feet," he advised.

"They won't pass that measure. And without it, my hands are tied. I can do nothing without total control. Congress has to be abolished. That's a task for the Green Cadre. In a few days they will be notified to seize both houses once the members have answered the call for an emergency meeting," Kale said.

"Has a plan been put in place for their arrests?"

Kale shook his head. "There will be no arrests. Certain members won't be there, but otherwise..." He left the sentence hanging.

Walt took a deep breath as if to steady himself.

Never need to explain things to Walt. He's always been quick.

Kale had determined to give himself those extraordinary powers--as many as he needed. The states had to be reunited. The country needed a strong man--him--at the helm, he thought. It was for the nation's own good that he would set the Constitution aside. It was outdated and didn't meet his needs.

The phone interrupted again.

Kale picked it up. "Miss Gladdens, I thought I said no more calls. I don't care who it--" He hit the desk with his fist, his face darkening.

"Call out the special police units if the rioting gets worse," he told the caller. "Order them to shoot to kill. The looters have been warned. Yes, keep in touch, Mayor Falle." He pressed the buzzer. "Miss Gladdens, if Falle calls again, let me speak to her."

He smiled at the general. "It appears the rioting's spread to other cities. Dunbar trained the guerillas well. By the time the police arrive, they've disappeared. Every time they go out, new rioting starts up. It's working as planned."

"How much longer will you need them?"

"I think two more days ought to see an end. We've already set the blame on the streeters and communes. Regular army units have already started emptying some of the communes."

"Will you let the governors call out the Guard?" Walt raised an old cure for domestic crises.

"Not yet. The mayors will have to try containing the rioting first. When they fail, they can ask the governors who will forward their request to your office. You're my liaison. In Mayor Falle's case, I'll let her have some of the special units from Camp Arrack when the time comes."

Walt smiled bleakly and got to his feet. "I'll call you as soon as I have word from Arnie Smith about his proposal for dealing with the media."

The door closed behind him.

The President stood before the Oval Office windows. The moment--his moment--for action was coming.

* * *

Sirens mingled with cries of the injured and frightened, penetrating Ethel Riley's slowly returning consciousness. Dazedly, she propped herself up on one elbow to look at the noisy confusion. She lay on the cement floor, just inside the main door behind an overturned pile of metal chairs and benches.

Fear and tension seemed to permeate the smelly terminal, a warehouse type of room filled with echoing noise and babble. People rushed about, their faces dazed. Some stood in groups, looking much like huddled flocks of sheep being stalked by a wolf.

Once Ethel pulled herself into a sitting position, she ran a shaky hand over her forehead and checked herself for injuries. Blood seeped from a swollen cut over her right eye, spotting her white top. She dabbed at it with a crumpled handkerchief, recalling with a shudder, the ruthless shove that had sent her sprawling against the piled furniture.

She was trapped inside the old brick bus station on Northwest Eye Street with others who'd taken refuge there when rioters clashed with police. Clutching her purse, she got to her feet and, dodging debris hurled through the broken glass doors, made her way through the milling, frightened crowd to the battered information counter set along an inside wall. It was a place where she could sit, unseen from the outside. She cringed at the continuing noise of destruction and huddled against the scarred wood beneath the counter.

A frightened youth suddenly appeared, crawling on all fours. Breathless, he stared at her. "Lady, can I stay here with you?" he whispered.

Ethel took in his stricken face and the soil smeared on his blue shirt. It appeared that he, too, had been knocked down. "Yes. There's room." She slid a pile of crumpled bus schedules aside. "Are you all right?"

He bobbed his head, his dark face gone gray around the mouth. "Scared, ma'am."

"Better draw your legs in. They'll step on you." She nodded at the fear-driven people as they shoved and pushed their way past each other, going from door to door to peer out expectantly. Whatever they sought wasn't there and they stepped away, hope dying in their faces.

He slid in beside her, brown eyes wide as he watched the commotion around them.

This boy's about Lisa's age. Thoughts of her daughter caused Ethel a momentary pang. How could a child of mine have turned out so badly? Lord knows, I tried to be a good mother. Lisa never responded to my attempts to develop a close relationship. She prefers her father because he always gives into her.

I'm glad they're safe, but it is strange I don't regret leaving them. They didn't try to change my mind. How long had they been just going through the motions of being a family? Harry and Lisa had used her as a servant, never showing affection.

Did Harry ever care for me? Even a little? Or was my family's money all he'd wanted? Daddy set up the trust fund for me so, no matter who I married, my husband would never get his hands on the money. I never realized how wise he really was.

When Harry learned she wouldn't fund his political pretensions, he had thrown a fit. He'd threatened to leave her. That was the one time she'd stood up to him and told him to go. He'd stayed, but it seemed years before he could speak to her without gritting his teeth.

For a time, the birth of their daughter had saved the marriage, but the wound never healed. She'd become aware Harry had mentally and emotionally, then physically distanced himself from her. He took the spare bedroom as his, saying her restlessness in sleep kept him awake. She had repressed the relief she'd felt at the time.

The realization dawned on her. She had no one to care. Bowing her head, Ethel covered her face with her hands and wept silently.

* * *

Not knowing what to do for the white lady who'd begun to cry, Toby Sterling pretended not to hear and peered out the doorway at fleeing rioters. They weren't laughing and shouting any longer. Few were carrying stolen goods. Most were just trying to escape the police.

He trembled at the loud reports of weaponry. Passing victims used their hands to try staunching the flow of blood from wounds as they limped by, begging for assistance from those who were unhurt. A few ventured into the bus station. Some fell in the street and lay without moving. Lot of blood... They must be dead.

The station began to fill with smoke. He fancied he could hear the roar of flames. The building next door must be on fire. That's why there's so much smoke in here.

Coughing, Toby looked at the ceiling. This place is gonna burn too. Where'll I go?

The lady had stopped crying and was watching him. "Are you alone?" she asked, wiping at her eyes with some little scrap of lacy cloth. She coughed, too.

He nodded. "Yes." He turned to stare at the door. "Do you think it'll be over soon?"

"The police are rounding them up. Can't you hear the sirens?"

He listened, but the smoke seemed to muffle sound. After a few seconds, he heard them--faint, high-pitched squeals of emergency vehicles. Nearby, the sound of shattering glass was followed by a hysterical scream. Coughing, he covered his ears with his hands. It couldn't be over soon enough.

The lady put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Toby was grateful to have someone close who shared his fear. He drew a breath and choked. His nose burned. They were going to have to leave the bus station. The increasing smoke meant the fire was getting close.

He looked at her, wondering why she had come to the bus station. Her membership in the havers, the class that separated itself by walls and guards from the poor, was obvious. Her hands were soft, like they never did any work and her clothes were quality like the ones old Missus Davy gave his cousin when she didn't want them any more. Lucky for this lady, nobody else noticed her nice clothes.

"You know, I wish I could help them. The people, I mean. They're so fed up. The Man just lies when he says things'll get better. My Grandad says he lied to all of us," Toby told her, coughing. He inhaled a lungful of smoke and gagged.

"It takes time, you know. The papers say he's pushing--" she spoke over the rasping of others coughing.

Clearing his throat, Toby interrupted, "Yes, my grandad says The Man's pushin'--pushin' us into a corner so he can show us who got the power, who runs things. Special police is everywhere." He gestured toward the street, unable to keep the bitterness and hatred out of his voice as he echoed his grandfather's sentiments. "Grandad says he'll be a dictator soon." His throat burned as he spoke. The smoke was getting thick.

She gave a shiver, whether caused by her own fear or his grim pronouncement, he couldn't tell. "It's true the world has changed. But, give him time--"

"Time?" Toby couldn't believe his ears. How ignorant she was. "My grandad says people gotta struggle to survive. No middle class no more. There's only rich folks an' poor left. Grandad says the rich are leeches on the oppressed." He thought what his grandfather said at the last secret meeting of the Lost Freedoms Movement was right.

"Your grandad sounds like an old-line communist," she said heatedly, coughing. "My father earned his wealth by building houses and loaning money to people who wanted to start their own business. It isn't the wealthy who have destroyed the cities. It's the so-called poor who steal because they don't want to work. Before they burned the factories down, there were jobs. And you do know who did the burning, don't you?"

Toby averted his eyes at her furious words. Grandad would know how to talk to her. He could make her understand. He'd say those jobs din't pay good so a man could feed his family. They din't get paid if they retired, they din't have no medical.

"My grandpa says we might have a revolution. He says it'll break the country into little bits," he said. A gray wisp of smoke settled like a noose around him, tickling his nose. He sneezed.

"People always talk revolution when things don't go well. They tried it when I was a girl, calling themselves freedom fighters. They divided the country. They're responsible for this mess." She indicated the world beyond the broken windows with a wide gesture.

"Was they all criminals?"

"Mostly. They only wanted to destroy, offering nothing to build on after the violence," She clutched her purse. "Or else they wanted power over others to satisfy their own egos. Just like all the other groups in history. Killing and destroying is easier than building."

"But books say they was tryin' to make the world better."

The lady sighed, then coughed. "So they said. But they brought death and fear, destroying the way we lived. They were no better than those of today. Do you think this," she nodded toward the smoke-filled street, "will improve things?"

"No," he said in a small voice, trying not to inhale too deeply.

A hurled chunk of cement shattered a sheet of the scarred plywood covering an opening where a window had been. Smoke poured inside. Toby clutched the woman's hand. They sat, listening with shared terror to the violence.

Stiffening at the sound of shots, she whispered, "It's close."

His mouth worked. "They won't come in here, will they?"

"No," she said.

He could tell she wasn't at all sure.

The rioters didn't understand they were hurting themselves most. His Grandad said they needed a leader, someone who could see where they were going. And one of these days, he had said, that man would appear. Toby hoped it wasn't too late.

 

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Author Bio

Anne K. Edwards writes in a variety of genres and enjoys the creative challenge in each. She lives on a small farm in south central Pennsylvania with several cats. Her interests include meeting people and reading for pleasure and review.
Author web site.

Read other works by Anne:
"Ashes"
"Claret-Amerson Diamond Caper"
"Dream Queen"
"Musings on a Muse"
"Are muses being cheated of their claim to fame?"
"Swamp Thingy's Halloween"

Check out Swamp Thingy at Large:
http://www.annekedwards.com/One-Muse-s-Opinion.html

 

 


 

 

"The Last to Fall" Copyright © 2017 Anne K. Edwards. All rights reserved.
Published by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 10-28-17.

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