We are fortunate at Amerika to be able to present the second installation of the exciting dystopia saga, Crosses & Double-Crosses by Clayton Barnett. You can find your copy on the Jungle River store, but first, read this week’s segment of the story, “News of the Fall, 1.”
Dinner, Sylvia thought wryly, turned out to be pulled pork barbeque sandwiches at a roadside stall about ten miles north of the airport. When Agent Rupert asked if they had any dietary restrictions, Roberta laughed at him.
“We spent the last eight months in the Philippines! We can eat anything!”
Halfway through her sandwich and beer, Sylvia thought it time for some answers.
“Thank you for this. I guess the finer restaurants in Dallas were booked up?” she said with a slight smile to take out the sting. This time, the man’s smile did not reach his eyes.
“Something like that!” he replied, taking a drink from his bottle. “What with the city center mostly burned to the ground and gangs of – what rumor says – cannibals working their way out.”
Roberta’s jaw hung open; a bit of pork fell out of her mouth.
“C…can…cannibals!?” she exclaimed. Rupert nodded while he finished chewing.
“After the burning of the city center, the government thought things safe enough to send in some food relief units. They vanished. They sent a Ranger unit in after them…” Another drink. “It was them that reported cannibals. Then they vanished. So, now some of our guys are fixing the problem.”
“’Some of our guys,’” Sylvia carefully reflected. “That would be ExComm?”
“Exactly!” he said, his real smile returning. “The Field Forces have their hands full on the borders, so when the police or Rangers get stretched a bit, we lend ‘em a hand.”
“Isn’t being eaten just a bit beyond ‘stretched a bit?!’” Roberta was still a little hysterical over the news that there was a city full of cannibals just a few miles from them.
“I was just being polite,” Rupert said simply. Sylvia had other interests.
“And how, exactly, is your organization ‘lending a hand?’” she asked. He put his sandwich down and leaned back in his chair.
“Ma’am,” he said carefully, “these are peculiar and dangerous times. Our Director, Mister Barrett, has seen with his own eyes just how bad parts of the rest of the US are. We…”
He paused for a moment, shrugged.
“This is our home. Our families live here.” He stared at the sun without blinking. “And we won’t surrender our home to barbarians, domestic or foreign.”
A silence fell about the outdoor table. Sylvia broke it.
“At any cost?”
As they walked back toward his rented car, the sun was low in the west.
“Given y’all’s luck here recently with planes and cars,” Rupert asked with a playful tone in his voice, “it’ll be my guess that you have no place to stay the night?”
Roberta started to speak, but Sylvia cut her off.
“If you could take us back to the airport, that’d be fine,” she said. “We’ve already imposed upon your time enough.”
He paused a moment and tapped the top of the sedan with his key.
“Well, now… about that,” he said slowly. “Word is only charted flights – expensive chartered flights – are taking off to places like Mexico and maybe even San Diego. And, as I mentioned, I will be needing a statement from the both of you about that unpleasantness earlier…”
Sylvia did not think they were under arrest nor did he seem to be kidnapping them. It was just…
“Mister Rupert,” she began. “You’ll have to forgive me. Everything you’ve said, and what’s happened to us personally in just the last few hours… well, it’s all rather sudden.”
Quite unexpectedly, Rupert doubled over in laughter. It was almost half a minute before he could compose himself to speak.
“S… sorry about that, ma’am!” he cried, wiping at the tears of laughter from his eyes. “If there’s one thing that Director Barrett has taught us, that would be the value of ‘sudden!’”
“ExComm’s got a CP off a small lake just a few miles from here… it may only be a bedroll or a cot, but you’ve my personal word,” his tone dropped; his boyish looks dissolved into something not so pleasant, “that no harm shall come to you.”
Sylvia sighed slightly as she heard her little sister let out a little ‘eee!’ God help me, she thought, that girl would fall in love with a rock if it was cute and nice to her. She gave a very slight nod of her head.
“It would seem we’re in your care, Agent Rupert,” she said, deliberately calling attention to his official capacity. His face slipped back to normal at that.
“Of course, ma’am.”
“There is one thing, though.”
“’Ma’am’ makes me feel a hundred years old. I’m Sylvia Fernandez, and this is my sister, Roberta.” He returned her slight nod.
“My pleasure, Miss Sylvia, Miss Roberta!” he agreed while gesturing at the car. “Shall we?”
“Shotgun!” Roberta called. “Agent Rupert, you’re not married, are you?”
Sylvia slowly shook her head as she got into the back seat. They set off.
“If y’all don’t mind me askin’, just where were y’all headed? Home?” His tone was conversational, but Sylvia noted his eyes never stopped moving. There was more to this man than he let on.
“NYC!” Roberta replied happily. “We were visiting some family in Manila – and big sis had some boring thing to do on Leyte – but I’m going back to school at Fordham and she’s going back to work! Then all of a sudden things seemed to fall apart here! I had to kick around Manila with my fam while big sis – ”
“Roberta? Please.” Sylvia rebuked her.
“Your work?” Rupert asked with a look tossed over his shoulder.
Thanks for running your mouth, little sis.
“I’m an attorney with a private firm in Manhattan,” she replied simply. “What I had to do in the Philippines was part of a war crimes tribunal.”
“A lawyer in New York City. How’s about that!” He mused quietly as he drove. “Um. When was the last time y’all talked to your family?”
It was lost to Roberta, but Sylvia heard the tiniest edge to his voice.
“What do you mean by that?” Sylvia asked curtly.
“Skyped them about a week ago; they said they were at the country house far out on Long Island,” Roberta began, quieter. “Dad seemed tense and we saw Mom crying in the background.
For just a moment, he ignored both of them. He rummaged in a pocket of his coat and produced a smartphone.
“Raise my rent!” he exclaimed. “Signal! That’s something of a miracle…”
He eased the car over to the side of the road and stopped. After a few stabs at the surface, he held it to his ear.
“Hey, Deke! It’s me, Alan – oh, it’s you.”
Sylvia was surprised: his entire countenance fell. He even stopped looking about. I wonder who surprised him?
“Yes… yes… no, not – what?” He turned slightly, again flicking his eyes to the rearview mirror and Sylvia. “Really? Right. Goodbye.”