Christopher John Chater
Table of Contents
In 2017 a pandemic wiped out 75% of the world’s population. Many fled the cities. Some stayed.
Dating in the apocalypse wasn’t easy.
A pretty girl bolted down an alley in an attempt to hide from marauders. She was the first woman I’d seen in a week. I performed some last second preening, fingers through the hair, slapped my cheeks for some color, and then I got up from the café table on the sidewalk and fastened the middle button to my blue linen blazer. As I strutted across the street—ignoring the car flipped over and burning, about to explode any second—I was singularly focused on one thing: my introduction to this attractive young lady.
My approach was obviously off, because when I came up behind her, she spun around pointing a punch knife at me. Her other hand was holding the lopped handle of a shopping bag. Breathless, she said, “Come near me and I’ll cut your balls off.”
Okay, she was a little guarded. I’d seen it a million times. Poor girl probably hadn’t had a day of fun during this entire apocalypse.
“My name’s Tom Collins—yes, just like the drink, but hopefully I’m not so tart. May I ask your name?”
“Fuck off,” she snapped back, scowling at me. The punch knife was held firmly in her hand, the blade extending out through her clinched fist like a raised middle finger. The weapon’s sheath, hanging from her neck by a cord, had been blinged-out to look like an Egyptian ankh, masking its deadly capability.
“There are lots of marauders around here, but I can assure you, I’m not one of them.”
“No offense, Tom, but if you don’t get the fuck away from me, I’m going to slit your throat.”
“Message received.” I sighed. “Shame. I would’ve liked to have seen you in that dress. Is it the blue one?”
“How’d you know I bought—found a dress?”
“From the bag. If it’s the blue off-the-shoulder number, with your skin, you’ll look amazing in it.”
“You’ve been following me!”
“No, I’ve been enjoying the day at my table across the street. Why don’t you come and join me. I’ve got a bottle of sparkling water with ice.”
Her eyes brightened. “You have ice?”
“I do. And slices of lime.”
She eyed me incredulously and asked, “Who are you trying to kid? You insane or something?”
I shrugged. “You’re the one who bought—excuse me, found a dress in the middle of an apocalypse. Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a great thing to do. Why let this whole ‘End of Days’ thing get you down? Just because the state of the world is . . . in flux doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun, right?”
Her eyebrows furrowed, showing confusion and annoyance, certainly not the indicator of interest I was looking for. So hard to get a read on a girl these days. Dilated pupils could be fear rather than arousal. Licking her lips could just mean they were dry. Sustained eye contact was more than likely a fight-or-flight response, not “come-hither.” Damn apocalypse was ruining my day game.
“Your choice, but I’m just across the street on Park Avenue if you change your mind.” I turned and left.
On the way back to my sidewalk table, I spotted Bob. He was coming out of our apartment building dressed in his apocalyptic best and carrying a fire extinguisher. Looking the way he did, he was sure to scare off the girl. Any more leather and he’d be a football: leather pants, which had to be causing some chafing based on his stiff, wannabe gangsta gait, matching leather jacket with a squirrel head dangling from the zipper (were Central Park squirrels considered scary these days?), and leather ten-inch boots with metal cleats that scraped and screeched when he walked, like nails on a chalk board. He’d become the poster child for “Apocalypse Chic.” It was like he’d gone to the Mad Max aisle at Target. Unfortunately, the hairdo threw off the ensemble. One side of his head was shaved to the skull, while the other side was a full three inches of dyed cherry red. If anything he looked more 1980s goth than Road Warrior, and looking like Robert Smith from The Cure didn’t really give him the desired badass factor.
In these uncertain times one could hardly blame Bob for trying to toughen up his look. He was stick-figure skinny, maybe 130 pounds under all that leather, was an inch or two shorter than average, and he had the face of a fourteen-year-old boy despite being in his late twenties. His attempt at growing a mustache had yielded him just a bit more than peach fuzz. It was like he’d started puberty but never finished it.
I sat down at the wrought iron table, picked up the magazine I’d been in the middle of reading, and said into it, “Hey, Bob. How’s it hanging?”
Bob bolted past me, sighing, shaking his head at me. “Dude, are you just gonna sit there?” He held up the fire extinguisher like an exclamation point.
“It’s the apocalypse, Bob, something’s always on fire.” I took a sip of sparkling water, a lime wheel fixed to the rim, the ice cubes clanking against the glass.
He turned to me, brows furrowed. “Really, dude? If that car blows, it could take down the whole building. Come on, man!”
In my peripheral vision, I noticed the girl come out from the alley. Warily, she scanned the sidewalk in all directions, and then she spotted me. She’d put on her new blue dress, the gold-glittered punch knife now sheathed and dangling from her neck like an ankh medallion. She looked incredible.
I was smiling when I said, “Yeah, this apocalypse sure does suck.”
Bob, unaware of the beautiful sight I was now witnessing, shook his head at me and said, “Dude, you’re a trip.” He then pulled the pin to the fire extinguisher and blasted the burning car.
The beautiful girl emerged from the white cloud like an angel. Glistening flecks of ash stuck to her afro like a halo. A minute ago she was an apocalypse survivor, scared and lost; but now she was a vision of beauty joining me for a refreshing beverage on a summer afternoon.
See. The apocalypse wasn’t so bad.
Woops, that jinxed it.
A honking Humvee wailed through the streets, grabbing our attention. Marauders. I caught a flash of fear on the girl’s face as I pushed back my jacket and reached for the two-tone .50 cal Desert Eagle holstered in my waistband. It wasn’t me they wanted, but there was no way I was going to let them have my date. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, much less this pretty girl I’d just met and wanted to get to know better. Maybe she was “the one.”
The marauders were a few blocks away, but there was no doubt they saw us. Bob, in typical d-bag form, screamed like a girl and bolted for the lobby.
“Don’t worry about this,” I said to her. “Have a seat. Pour yourself a glass of sparkling water. Sorry, I only brought the one glass. You can use mine if you like. Don’t worry; I don’t have cooties . . . probably.”
I moseyed into the center of the street, brought up my .50 cal Desert Eagle I’d named Mustang Sally, and fired a shot. The bullet ricocheted off the Humvee windshield. Bullet proof glass. Impressive. Where did these losers get a tank?
My date climbed under the table, huddled in fear.
I made my way back to her, bent over to see her under the table, and extended a hand. “I have a plan, but you’ll have to come out from under there.”
She shook her head at me.
“I just realized I never got your name,” I said.
“Jenny. My name’s Jenny.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jenny. Would you mind coming out from under the table?”
“I can’t.” She was frozen in fear.
“Come on. You’re going to be fine. I promise.”
The Humvee was getting closer.
She reached out, took my hand, and I escorted her toward my apartment building lobby. I dialed in the security code and got her inside, but I held the door open.
She cried out, “What are you doing? Close the door!”
I brought up Mustang Sally, aiming into the street. “Cover your ears.”
Jenny covered her ears and crouched down to put her head between her legs.
I aimed for the gas tank of the flipped car, the one Bob had just extinguished. Good thing he had, the fire might’ve burned up all the fuel in the tank.
The Humvee skidded to a stop, only a few feet from my target. The tank doors opened and marauders lined up on the street, their unshaven faces grinning sadistically.
They thought they had easy prey this time.
Until I fired.
The street filled with a fireball, climbing as high as the skyscrapers, a massive mushroom of fire and black smoke. The Humvee was boosted into the air, spinning, the wheels tossed from the axels, the bulletproof glass shattering, the doors blown off their hinges. The marauders were thrown in every direction, their screams nearly as loud as the explosion. Body parts pelted against the walls of the surrounding buildings and rained down on the street.
The only sound was the crackling of small scattered fires.
The smell of burnt rubber and human flesh wafted into the lobby.
I helped Jenny to her feet, her body shaking.
“I told you everything was going to be okay,” I said.
I leaned in for a kiss, hovering less than an inch away from her lips, waiting for her to put her quivering mouth on mine. She fought through her fear and kissed me ferociously.
But—and I hate to say it—something didn’t feel right. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great kiss. The moment was perfect. I was heroic; she was a damsel in distress. Textbook romantic opportunity. But…something was missing.
Was it her use of tongue: probing my mouth like a dentist’s tool, entangling itself with mine like a crocodile’s death roll? Truth be told, hers was a tongue too taut for a classic French kiss, but couldn’t I have overlooked that small error in technique under the circumstances?
This was a recurring theme in my dating history. I’d had the same nagging feeling with Samantha, Becky, Pamela—the list goes on and on. I had no idea why my gut was so picky. Didn’t it know there was an apocalypse out there and finding “the one” wasn’t so easy these days?
Pulling back from our kiss, about to give her the “it’s not you, it’s this damn apocalypse” speech, I heard the click of a gun hammer locking back.
I knew that sound. Colt 1911. In other words: Daryl.
“I thought it smelled kind of molest-y in here,” I said.
Daryl said to the back of my head, “Once again, Tom, I have to congratulate you on your taste in women.”
I groaned. “For fuck’s sake, Daryl, are you ever going to stop being the ultimate cock-blocker?”
“Women are currency in these tough economic times, my friend.”
Jenny asked, “What’s he talking about?”
Two of his goons went to grab her. With amazing speed, she pulled apart the ornamental ankh and punched the blade into the throat of the first marauder who got to her. She wasn’t quick enough to get to the second. He brought the butt of his rifle down on her head, knocking her out cold.
I winced and yelled out, “Bastard!”
“You should be more careful, Tom,” Daryl said, painfully pressing the barrel of his pistol into the back of my head. “You’re getting a bad rep in the city. I’d hate for you to have to leave. You’re so good at finding me women.”
When I turned around, I caught Daryl grinning at me over the barrel of his .45. All I can say about Daryl is that he didn’t care about hygiene before the apocalypse, so you can imagine what he looked and smelled like now. He was probably in his late thirties with two weeks’ worth of scruff on his face and nearly shoulder-length greasy hair pulled back into a pirate’s pony tail. The worn jeans, black combat boots, and denim jacket with the sleeves cut off completed a textbook marauder-sexual style, save for today’s Taylor Swift concert T-shirt. I think that was his attempt at irony.
A dozen of his goons had me covered with the double-fisted pistol pose. Kids today, they watched too many movies. They called themselves Crooklyn Clan, but to me they looked more like an ugly and heavily armed boy band. Being from Brooklyn, the most populated of the boroughs, they were able to create the largest clan in the city.
All I could do was watch as Daryl slung Jenny over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This was the third girl in a month they’d snatched from me. Fucking marauders. They were ruining the apocalypse for everyone.
Jenny would be taken to a secret site and eventually sold or traded to the clan with the highest bid. Ours was a commodity-based economy, and, unfortunately, women had become currency. If I knew where the bastards were taking her I’d go rescue her, not to mention the rest of the women they were holding against their will, and then I’d blow the place to kingdom come, but Daryl and his backup dancers were almost as crafty as they were unhygienic. They had an intricate underground system for kidnapping and trafficking girls. Today they’d used me as bait.
After they left with my date, Bob rose from behind the lobby desk. Scoffing at me, he asked, “Dude, now who’s going to clean up all that shit out there?”
My mother had been the owner of a clothing boutique in the Upper West Side called Lilith Collins Couture, but when the global pandemic hit there wasn’t a lot of interest in fashion so she’d closed up shop. Since my father’s death from cancer ten years earlier, her work had become everything to her. When the virus spread and people began evacuating the city, she stubbornly refused to leave. She’d lived here her whole life. It was all she knew. She wanted to die here.
Things got worse. Women were being kidnapped, raped, and sold like common goods. Clans had divided the boroughs and violence was everywhere. I tried to convince her that we should pack up and head out to the countryside with the rest of the survivors and try to start over, but she refused. No one was going to chase her away from her home.
Before the apocalypse, I’d been the owner of Tom’s Sporting Goods, one of the biggest providers of outdoor equipment and athletic apparel in Manhattan. When things started to go south, I began stockpiling my inventory in the basement of mom’s shop. Eventually I had to close my store indefinitely, but one day I went down into mom’s basement and found her hard at work on the sewing machine. Renewed resolve was in her eyes when she told me she was putting together a killer line of apocalyptic clothing. I didn’t know then that she meant “killer” literally.
I still remember the day she put her first outfit on a mannequin and displayed it on the sidewalk outside the shop. It was a black-and-white-striped, fit and flare dress with a deep side pocket specially made to hold a sheathed hunting knife. I hadn’t seen her smile so much in months. She pinned a sign on the dress that read: “Free, Inquire Within.” A woman passing by came in to ask about it and mom told her she could have it, but she had to be trained and she had to spread the word.
We took her down to the basement where I’d set up training targets and mannequins dressed as marauders. Mom showed her where the knife sheath was sewn into the dress and I trained her on how to draw from it and take down her attacker. I’d never been an instructor before, but I knew my way around hand-to-hand combat and tactical weapons handling. After all, I’d seen Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon at least a hundred times.
Our first client was thrilled with her new lethal persona, but she asked, “Where would I ever wear a dress like this nowadays?”
I’d noticed she’d been making eyes at me during our lesson, so I went out on limb and said, “You’ll wear it tonight, when I take you to dinner.”
The girl had a new dress, mom’s career was back from the dead, and I had a date.
That was how it’d all started. Within a few months, mom became known all over the city as “The Dress Maker,” the city’s go-to designer for fashionable apocalypse survival wear. Gowns had hidden pockets containing Chinese stars. Garter belts had Dillinger holsters. Skinny jeans came equipped with butterfly knife sheaths. Not only did she want women to look great, she wanted them to kick ass.
Mom kept the store open every day. She’d brew a pot of freshly ground coffee, put out bars of European chocolate, and include boxes of ammo with every ensemble. All at no cost. She got plenty in return. She’d been gifted more food and water than she knew what do with. She and I were offered protection, guns, and favors of all kinds. We were living large. We practically had the market cornered because there weren’t many places for people to get clothes these days. The malls were overrun with marauders and the high-end boutiques were left alone because of their impracticality.
When I got to the shop that day, I was thinking about poor Jenny. If only I knew where they’d taken her. A part of me felt responsible for her kidnapping. I’d promised her everything was going to be okay. Daryl had made a liar out me.
I entered the security code to the back door, pushed it open, and went inside the shop.
Mom came rushing up from the basement. “Honey, are you okay? I heard an explosion earlier?” A yellow tape measure was slung around her neck, and her black-rimmed glasses were pushing back her blonde bob cut like a hairclip. Her big blue eyes were wide with concern, seemingly bingeing on my safe arrival. The bags under her eyes told me she’d been up all night working. A true artist, she’d get lost in her work for days, weeks, months.
I let out a sigh and said, “Marauders. They got the girl who bought the blue dress.”
“What? The pretty black girl who was just in here?”
“Yes,” I admitted, head lowered.
“Damn it, Tom! What happened?”
“It wasn’t my fault. I got her safely inside my building, but somehow Daryl got the jump on me.”
“Daryl again. That bastard. It’s getting too dangerous around here. I know it’s my fault we’ve stayed this long, but maybe you were right. Maybe it’s time we thought about leaving.”
“Not yet? Winter’s coming. We won’t make it through another winter in New York.”
I sighed at her melodrama. “Yes, we will. We have plenty of propane.”
“I get it, Tom,” she said. “This bachelor thing you got going here is a lot of laughs, but it’s not practical in today’s world. You need to pick someone and get it over with.”
“You want me to settle? I’m trying to find the love of my life here. This Tom Collins is looking for his cherry.”
She suppressed a smile. “That never gets old.” Then, rolling her eyes, she said, “You’re thirty-five, Tom. It’s time to settle down. What about Rebecca?”
“Okay, then that cute brunette…what was her name? …Samantha!”
“Snored like a grizzly.” Off my mother’s sneer, “I need my beauty sleep!”
“Pepper Spray Pam? Come on! Let’s be reasonable!”
“Why do you call her that?”
“Because of all the tears. The girl was always crying. All she talked about was how depressing everything is.”
“Jesus, Tom, it’s the apocalypse. You could show a little compassion.” She let out a resigning sigh and said, “This is all my fault. Your father and I, we ruined you.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You and dad were great parents.”
“Parents, yes, husband and wife…not so much,” she said. “I probably should’ve told you this a long time ago, but your father and I…we didn’t exactly love each other…romantically speaking.”
“What?” I nearly fell over. I had to brace myself with the mannequin. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t get me wrong, your father was a great person: strong, kind, definitely a good provider. But we were total opposites. He was a construction worker who was into the outdoors. I was a city girl, trying to make it in the fashion world. The only thing we had in common was great sex. When I got pregnant, we decided the right thing to do was get married.”
“Shit,” I said, the wind knocked out of me. I found a place to sit on the mannequin’s riser.
For the first time my checkered romantic history made sense. I’d never had what one would call a “loving” relationship. I had a string of one night stands that sometimes lasted six months. Thirty-five years old and I’d never even been close to marriage. I just figured I hadn’t found “the one” yet. Did she even exist in my shattered concept of relationship? Had my parents permanently lamed me? Was I even capable of love?
Through the shock, I asked, “You’re springing this on me now, during the apocalypse?”
“Well, it’s all in the past now,” she said, shooing off the subject with a limp-wristed wave.
“For you maybe!”
“You should just pick someone and get it over with. Years of psychoanalysis aren’t exactly an option these days, and there are only so many available women out there. Bastards like Daryl are making it harder. How many girls have they swiped right out of your hands this month?”
I was still reeling from the whole “mom and dad didn’t love each other” bomb. My mind was piecing it together like a mystery movie montage. The shocking reveal for my years of failed romances: my parents in the bedroom with the candlestick…eww.
“They’re taking over the city!” she said, snapping me out of my self-absorption.
I stood up, brushing the dust off my ass. I was never one to dwell on things, and I was determined to not start now. “Give me until the end of summer. I’m going to clean up this town,” I said.
“Whatever you say. Just don’t waste your time looking for something or someone that doesn’t exist.” She straightened my pocket square. “Don’t hate us, okay? Your father and I—we were young and we did the best we could.”
I playfully evaded her. “Take it easy, will you? I don’t want everyone in the apocalypse to know my mom dresses me.”
“They should be so lucky.”
“Don’t worry about me or my relationships,” I said. “I’m going to find the woman of my dreams, even with the dating pool around here getting shallow. I’ll spread out into Jersey if I have to.”
The doorbell rang. I crossed the room and looked through the peephole. Two statuesque and heavily armed women were at the door.
“Who is it?” mom asked me.
“Women,” I said.
“Let me see.”
In a harsh whisper, I said, “Wait a second, it may not be safe.” Then through the door, “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for The Dress Maker,” a husky female voice said.
“Who should I say is inquiring?”
“Lady Sarah of Hoboken wishes to obtain evening wear.”
“Let her in,” mom said to me.
“Please leave your weapons at the door,” I said.
One of them unburdened herself of more hardware than I’d seen in a year. The other one turned to stand guard outside. The woman who came through the door was as tall as me and had almost as much facial hair. Women these days were raiding the pharmacies looking for the hormones and steroids that would make them as strong as the men who wanted to harm them. From what I could see the drugs were working. She scanned the room robotically and then said, “Clear.”
As if on cue, a shorter woman wearing a cloak with the hood drawn over her head came through the door. Avoiding eye contact, she wandered over to the dressed mannequin and felt the soft silk.
What was with all this pomp and circumstance? I wondered. Are they some kind of militant lesbian cult?
Mom tried to break the ice, saying, “Welcome. Help yourself to coffee and chocolate.”
The guard went to stand at attention in the corner of the shop.
I tried to get a better look at the girl in the cloak, but the hood concealed her profile. She went on to the next dress, hiding behind its flowing fabric as she fanned it out from the hanger.
Mom said, “I’m Lilith, The Dress Maker. This is my son, Tom. And your names are?”
The bodyguard’s deep husky voice boomed back, “You are in the esteemed presence of Lady Sarah of Hoboken. I am her personal bodyguard, Candy.”
Lady Sarah? Was there a renaissance fair in town?
“Pleased to meet you both,” mom said. “What can I help you with today?”
“I can speak for myself,” Sarah said. She pulled off the hood. Her long blonde hair poured out wildly. Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds. Her skin was the color of the sand on a tropical beach.
I felt out of breath when I said, “There you are.” I motioned toward her with my hand extended to introduce myself, but I suddenly got the feeling we’d met before.
Candy got in between us.
Lady Sarah said, “It’s okay, Candy.”
“Down, girl,” I said to Candy, which caused her to growl at me. I said to Sarah, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Lady before. I thought they only existed in fairytales, and they’re not usually from New Jersey, which I always thought was a shame.” I kissed her hand.
She let out a slight chuckle and said, “We’ve established a matriarchal system that works for us. It’s kept us alive and competitive. Before the virus I was just Sarah. The end of the world has made you famous as well. Better yet, infamous. Tom Collins, the apocalypse’s most eligible bachelor. Your reputation precedes you.”
“Many things precede me, given the right stimulation.”
“Thomas…” mom warned.
Facing me squarely, eyes locked on mine, Sarah grinned and said, “You’re exactly the way they said you’d be. Do you know what they call you?”
Actually I did, and it wasn’t for a mother’s ears. “Why don’t we discuss it later over—”
She flicked her hair and announced to the room, “The Doomsday Dater. Catastrophe’s Casanova. Revelation’s Romeo!”
Mom was the first to laugh. “Hadn’t heard the last one. Must be new.”
Sarah crossed over to mom with a big smile, her hands out to embrace her. “But it’s your reputation that brings me here. You are loved by all women.”
Mom took her hands, smiling modestly. “Bless you for saying so.”
“I’ve come to you for two reasons. Number one: we’d like to invite you to come to Hoboken. If you like it, a beautiful home will be provided for you.”
“Tom and I were just talking about how dangerous the city has gotten,” mom said.
“You’ll be perfectly safe in Hoboken, and you’ll be treated like royalty.”
“How does that sound, Tom?” mom asked.
Before I could answer, Lady Sarah added, “Unfortunately, Hoboken is for women only.”
“What about Tom?” mom asked. “I won’t leave without him.”
“Mom, I can take care of myself. I’ve been doing so since I was thirty.”
“Sorry, Lilith,” Lady Sarah said. “Rules are rules.”
Mom shrugged it off. “What was the other reason that brought you here?”
“I need something special to wear for a negotiation of sorts,” Lady Sarah said.
Mom’s hand went to her chin, her finger tapping her top lip pensively. “What’s the nature of this negotiation?”
Lady Sarah’s gaze went to the floor. “I’m not at liberty to say.” Obviously new to politicking, she wasn’t comfortable concealing information. Who she was before the apocalypse? Secretary? Real estate agent? Pilates instructor?
“Is it to win a man’s heart or his wallet?” mom asked.
“Isn’t it always both?” Lady Sarah asked.
They giggled like school girls, already the best of friends.
“When’s the event?” mom asked.
“I don’t think I have what you’re looking for in stock. I’ll have to make it. I’ll need to get your measurements.”
“Wow, a Lilith original. Aren’t I lucky,” Sarah said.
Sarah removed her cloak and handed it to Candy. With her hands on her hips, she modeled her perfect frame. Mom’s tape measure was having all the fun, getting wrapped snugly around Sarah’s bust, her waist, her hips.
“With that body, you’re going to be a knockout in one of my designs,” mom said.
“Literally,” I said.
Mom asked her, “Will you be strapped?”
“I never leave home without my Tom Selleck,” she said, petting the Smith and Wesson snub nose .44 Magnum revolver on her hip, “but I’ll probably be patted down before the negotiation, so I’ll have to go in naked.”
“You’ll never be naked in one of my dresses, my dear,” mom told her.
“Which I think is the one flaw in her designs,” I said.
Sarah and mom rolled their eyes at me.
“I think I know just the thing,” mom told her. “Come back in one week. I’ll have something for you then.”
“And for payment?” Sarah asked.
“No payment necessary,” mom said, waving away the idea.
“You should know that my mother’s evening wear comes with complimentary self-defense instruction by yours truly,” I said.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sarah said.
“Perfect,” I said. “Then our business is concluded. Why don’t we celebrate with a drink? My treat. How’s tonight?”
There was an awkward silence before Lady Sarah replied, “Tonight doesn’t work for me, but tomorrow I’m free for coffee during the day.”
“I’m swamped all afternoon,” I lied. “How about martinis at sunset? Say seven-ish?”
“One drink, five thirty,” Lady Sarah said.
“One cocktail, six o’clock. We’ll meet in the lobby of the Empire State Building.”
She turned away from me, signaled Candy in some unspoken way, and then left without responding.
Candy announced to the room, “Lady Sarah accepts the terms. No one is to know about this arrangement or to the Lady’s future whereabouts. Should this information be compromised the agreement will be terminated without notice and inquiries will be made that may result in copious amounts of pain and suffering.”
After they left, mom turned to me and said, “You’re out of your league this time.”
The best thing you could say about my high-rise apartment building, with its fifty-five stories of city and Central Park views, its spacious floor plans, its plethora of amenities including screening room, indoor pool, and gym, was that it was self-sufficient. Before things got really bad, the billionaire who’d built the place wanted to cater to those “one percenters” who were going green, but the apocalypse caused most rich real estate investors to abandon the metropolis in favor of more sunlight-rich areas. Oddly enough, a one bedroom unit in a countryside solar powered community now cost twice as much as a penthouse in the city. But as I like to say: more city for me. 822 Park Ave was one of the few pre-apocalypse buildings in Manhattan that was designed to run on solar panels, only tapping into public power at night or when it was cloudy. A gas-fueled backup generator had been put onsite in the event of a blackout, and we now used it for any and all sans sun situations. Gasoline was easy to come by, plenty of it in abandoned cars and gas stations around the city, but it wouldn’t stay like that for long. Unlike propane, which didn’t have an expiration date, the preservatives in gasoline and diesel only lasted for about a year and then the fuel was useless. Mom and I had enough propane to power and heat the shop through winter with a portable propane generator, but that meant we’d have to move in there, and living in my mother’s basement would put my dating life at an all-time low. Not only was winter the most dangerous time of year for us fragile humans, this Christmas season marked the first year anniversary of the pandemic that took out most of the population. Without gas, even for those of us with solar panels or wind turbines, it was going to be a harsh winter.
That night when I got home, I checked the backdoor to the lobby to see if the security keypad or the locks were broken. Daryl had gotten the jump on me again despite my best efforts and I wanted to know how. Lately it seemed like he was always one step ahead of me. The back door led to the underground parking garage, but tenants rarely went in there these days. Most people just hotwired a car if they wanted to go somewhere. A few cars were still in there, but the majority of the tenants used their assigned spaces to store supplies. When I checked the door handle, there wasn’t a scratch on it. The code to the keypad still worked perfectly.
Someone must’ve left it open.
I crossed the lobby to the elevator, remembering those bastards hitting Jenny over the head. They’d pay for that.
My place was the penthouse on the fifty-fifth floor. All of my neighbors were men, and all were bachelors. A few months ago the last married couple in the building had left. Sooner or later couples always left for the countryside. One of the more popular solar communities was called Sunnyville, known for its twenty-four hour patrol service, its spacious homes and apartments, its schools for children. Communities like Sunnyville had become the apocalyptic version of the suburbs, or as I liked to call it: the relationship graveyard.
As I was walking the hall, Marty heard me and opened the door a crack to stick his bald head out. He said, “With those brutes kidnapping women, pretty soon there’ll only be men left in the city.” His little whimpering Pomeranian was trying to force its head passed Marty’s slippered foot to see what was going on outside.
I wasn’t sure if an all-male city was a good thing in his opinion, but I said anyway, “Working on it.”
“It’s good to know somebody is.”
A piece of folded paper was taped to my door. On the outside it read in red ink:
Tom Collins apt. 55B
“Bob’s cracking down again,” Marty said.
I yanked the note off the door.
“Before you go in, Thomas, I wanted to talk to you about something,” Marty said.
“Damn it, Peaches!” he said, pushing his dog back with his leg. The dog whined and continued to try and force its nose through the crack in the door. Marty changed his voice to a whisper, “It’s about the apocalypse.”
“You don’t have to whisper, Marty. It already happened.”
“Nooo,” he said in a spooky tone, “it’s still happening. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you know what caused all that death?”
“They said it was a mutated strain of the flu virus.”
He scoffed. “That’s what they want you to think.”
“Who cares? It’s over.”
“Maybe not—damn you, Peaches! Get back!” He said to me, “Can you come inside for a moment? You need to hear this. Bullet point number one: I think the apocalypse is just getting started.”
Marty was a shut-in and he was always desperate for company. He didn’t even take his dog out; he actually had it using a litter box. The smell of dog in his place was overwhelming. If I indulged his invitation, I’d be stuck in there for hours.
“Kind of busy right now, Marty. How about later?” I opened my door, “Tomorrow-ish…?”
“Okay. But I think people really should know what’s going on. You’re popular. You can get the word out.”
Popular? What was this, high school? Was I the apocalypse’s Homecoming King?
“Looking forward to it, Marty,” I said, going into my place.
I’d moved into this penthouse just after the pandemic started. When people started dying off by the thousands, survival gear sales had gone through the roof. I hadn’t sold a tennis racquet in months, but camping gear, ammunition, knives, and all-weather clothing were flying off the shelves. It gave me enough money to get this place, and because people were leaving the city in droves, I got it for a bargain.
Moving here was a lucky break, because my old place in the Bronx ended up becoming a home for a family of orangutans. When the city had been declared a disaster area, someone let the animals out of the Bronx Zoo. The borough was now a wild animal park, but considering the way the Bronx used to be, it was kind of an improvement.
I’d bought this place already furnished and decorated by someone with taste. There was a big leather couch, objets d’art to match the building’s modern style, and a massive dining room table. A corner balcony offered a view of the park and the city. It was pretty sweet. I’m not ashamed to say the girls loved it.
I opened Bob’s note and read:
PARK AVENUE APARTMENTS TENANT MEMORANDUM:
Please make sure there’s no organic matter on the balconies, including used towels, dirty napkins, or plates with food particles on them. We’ve been having a problem with birds and rodents. All organic debris is to be KEPT INSIDE YOUR APARTMENT OR PUT IN THE INCINERATOR. Also, there will be a tenant meeting Tuesday night after sundown to discuss building security. Bob will be the keynote speaker and meeting moderator. All tenants are encouraged to come and learn about better ways to improve building safety and security.
My neighbors had unanimously elected Bob as the building super, only because he had run unopposed. No one knew he was going to be such a nightmare. Every day there was some stupid note on my door. A few weeks ago I had the idea to use the garage to store a surplus of gas, guns, and water, but Bob had used the “one space per tenant” rule to veto it. I had an idea to put a Jacuzzi on the roof—I even knew a guy who would bring it over and install it—but Bob said it went against “code.” What code? There were no more laws! I once suggested mounting a .50 cal machine gun on a tripod in the lobby, but guess how that went over? I think he vetoed my ideas because it would’ve given me status equal to his in the eyes of the tenants. He wanted absolute power.
Out on the balcony, my breakfast plates were still on the patio table from this morning. A flock of pigeons were pecking for leftovers. I shooed them off and then bussed the plates. Bob must’ve seen it. Bastard was always spying on me.
It didn’t help that everyone in the building loved the guy. They’d bought into the role he was playing as “most likely to survive the apocalypse.” It was all an act. Bob was the biggest bitch-boy on the east coast, but he had special knowledge that made him invaluable. He knew how to keep the solar panel system working, he understood the water reclamation plant in the building and kept it running cleanly and efficiently, and he was the one who made sure the gas generators kept going at night—every night. The guy lived and breathed building maintenance. The tenants treated him like a god.
I suspected he and Marty were having a “thing.” They had parties inside Marty’s apartment once or twice a week. I didn’t know for sure if there was any hanky-panky going on, and I doubted Bob was gay pre-apoc, but it wouldn’t surprise me if either of them had a prison mentality when it came to romance. Marty was agoraphobic and desperate for companionship, and Bob couldn’t resist anyone willing to listen to his utopian ideas about how he wanted to run the building. During their get-togethers, Bob would blast death metal even though Marty was more of a show tunes kind of a guy. I’d hear them jumping around, clapping, singing along. I guess they were making the most of a bad situation. Maybe one day Broadway would get a new show: Death Metal, The Musical. I’d go.
For me, when it came to romance, I’d rather die alone than settle. I knew the right woman for me was out there. With any luck she wasn’t irradiated, diseased, or had anything amputated. For the last few months I’d been imagining her in my mind. I’d made a list of her qualities and kept it taped to the door. I looked at it every day before I left the house.
Blonde hair. (Natural, of course. I’ll be checking roots, girls.)
Green eyes. (The color of Fenway grass, or those old 7Up bottles.)
Smart. (Coupled with the natural blonde part, this is indeed a rare specimen.)
Strong and independent. (She doesn’t shed too many tears over something as silly as an apocalypse. Can’t tell you how many drink dates turned into a bawling, apocalyptic catharsis: “Then we had to saw off papa’s leg . . . ” Gets a little depressing.)
Caring. (Hoping this whole apoc thing hasn’t jaded her. Plenty of fish in the sea, but they shouldn’t be as cold as one.)
Worthy. (There are women these days who would whore themselves for a cheeseburger. A worthy woman knows she at least deserves the fries with it.)
I suddenly realized why I’d felt like I’d seen Sarah before. My list finally had a face. But she was a Lady that lived in a paradise exclusively for women and I was a tramp whose last date was with a knife-wielding girl I’d met in an alley.
I was actually nervous about my date tomorrow. I hadn’t felt like this since junior high school. I hope she likes me, I found myself thinking, which caused me to want to slap myself.
A sense of panic overcame me. Sweat began to prickle at my forehead. I felt nauseated. My stomach was turning into knots. All I could think about was caring for someone in times like these. It was hard enough out there. Add some messy feelings to it and it’d be unbearable.
And what if Marty was right? What if the apocalypse was just getting started?
“You’re wearing white slacks to the apocalypse?” mom asked, looking me over.
For my date with Sarah I’d put on a double-breasted navy blue blazer with shiny gold buttons and white linen slacks.
“It’s summery,” I said.
“You’re not going to a yacht club.”
“Fine. What do you suggest?”
She began collecting an ensemble from around the shop. “Jeans. White dress shirt. Sports coat.”
“That old chestnut,” I said. “Let’s at least be original. Come on.”
Mom pushed me into the changing room and tossed a pair of jeans over the saloon doors. “You are aware that Lady Sarah came here looking for a dress, which means she wants to impress someone…?”
“She said it was for a negotiation, not a date.”
“You never know what that means these days,” she said. “You like this girl, don’t you?”
“Is that the sound of motherly concern? The woman who told me to pick someone and get it over with. Winter’s coming, blah blah blah.”
She draped a white French cuff shirt over the doors. I snatched it.
“Please tell me we still have a pair of the C4 explosive cufflinks,” I said.
“Gave away the last pair a few days ago.”
“I’d be careful with this girl, Tom. You don’t know what she’s after.”
“Same thing as everyone else: a little fun in an otherwise dreary world.” I came out of the changing room, straightening my cuffs. “How do I look?”
She tossed me the sports coat. After I put it on, she looked me over and then nodded her approval.
“Now hand me my Walther. I want to see how it looks with these jeans.”
“Going with the Walther, are we? Must be a special occasion.”
“I thought a fifty caliber handgun a little much for a first date. And as much as I love Mustang Sally, she does tend to throw off my lines.”
She handed me the pistol and I tucked it into the elastic holster mom had sewn into the pants waistline. I turned to look in the mirror. The sexiest metro man in the apocalypse was staring back at me. Arms out, I asked, “Do I look great or what?”
She sighed. “I’ve created a monster.”
Everyone knew the Empire State Building was the best spot in town to have a drink, but it was an exclusive club. An office space on the 85th floor had been turned into a lounge and bar, and I was a lucky member. For the services mom and I provided for the community, we’d been awarded a key to the elevator. It was an old fashioned gold skeleton key, and it was the only way to call the elevator car. Members swore to guard it with their lives.
I was waiting in the lobby when Lady Sarah arrived with her body guards, the same two girls as before. Regrettably, she was wearing her cloak.
“So good to see you,” I said.
As I went to give her a kiss on the cheek, Candy stepped in between us. “There will be no physical contact with Lady Sarah.”
“Hello, Candy,” I said. “You look luminous this evening. Did you trim your mustache?”
She scowled at me.
I inserted the key and called the elevator. On the ride up, Candy made sure to stand in between Sarah and me.
The elevator doors parted to a spectacular view. The entire city could be seen out the floor-to-ceiling windows. This spot didn’t have an official name, but people called it “The Office.” Cardboard cubicles were arranged at the windows, giving patrons the ultimate privacy. Small file cabinets were covered with white linen and used as cocktail tables. A curved receptionist desk was now the bar. A lectern was the hostess stand.
Daniel, the maître’d, came to greet us with open arms. “Thomas! So good to see you!” He gave me a European kiss on the cheek. “And who is your lovely guest this evening?”
“This is Lady Sarah.”
“Lady Sarah,” he said, offering his arm to her. “Right this way.” He escorted my date to my usual cubicle, leaving me to trail behind with the security detail. At least he was bragging about me to her, “Mister Collins is one of our most esteemed guests. A true gentleman. But, if you decide he’s not the one for you, I offer myself as a superb rebound.”
“You scoundrel,” I said, smirking at him.
He laughed at me. “A lady should always have options, if only to ensure she’s cherished by the gentleman of her choosing.”
“I appreciate the offer, Daniel. I’ll keep it under advisement,” Sarah said.
I could tell Sarah was impressed with the place, despite her attempts at masking it.
“May I take the Lady’s cloak?” Daniel asked.
“I prefer to keep it on, but thank you Daniel.”
“As the Lady wishes.” Daniel turned to me. “A bottle of your usual, Monsieur Collins?”
“Oui,” I said.
Sarah was scanning the room nervously. Her clutch purse was held close to her stomach, almost protectively.
Clearing my throat to pull her attention back to me, I said, “Let’s all relax, shall we?”
“Being seen with you could jeopardize the negotiations,” Sarah said.
“Don’t worry, I never kiss and tell.”
“There will be no kissing,” Candy said, getting in my face.
“Just an expression,” I said, backing away. “You have my word; no one but the staff here will know we came together.”
I pulled out a chair and offered it for Sarah. As Candy started to sit with us, I said, “Our arrangement was for a date, not a party.”
Sarah waved them off. Candy went to sit at the bar, and the other bodyguard went to stand by the elevator, but they both kept their eyes glued on us.
Sarah put her purse on the table, but kept a hand on it.
“I assume that’s where you keep your celebrity friend,” I said.
“My Tom Selleck?” she asked, petting the purse. I half expected it to purr like a cat. “Smith and Wesson snubnose .44 magnum. Heavy for concealed carry purposes, but these days the stopping power comes in handy.”
“That gun was made famous by the Dirty Harry movies. Shouldn’t you have named it Clint Eastwood?”
“He carried the 29 model. Mine’s the 629,” she said, exchanging eye signals with her bodyguards, who were on high alert.
“I’m curious,” I said. “What are you wearing underneath that cloak? Nothing, I hope.”
While staying seated, looking around cautiously, she slowly shed the cloak. She shrank in the chair, her head lowered.
I could only see her from the cleavage up, but it was a great view. She was wearing a red evening gown cut low in the neck.
“Is that dress one of mom’s designs?” I asked.
“Yes. Blowgun with a poison dart is sewn into the hem, throwing knife in the garter belt.”
“Oh, you’re wearing a garter belt. Me likey.”
“Take it easy, sport. I’m just here for one drink, because of your mother.”
I grinned at her. “No one picked out a dress like that with someone’s mother in mind. Wait a second. Why don’t you just wear that to your negotiation?”
“My host is color blind. To him the color red looks like a puke-olive, so apparently he hates red…or olive, whichever.”
The sommelier brought over a bottle of champagne and a wine bucket filled with ice. He showed me the bottle, I approved, and he poured us both a glass.
“Not sure what you’re going to do with the rest of the bottle,” Sarah said. “I only agreed to one drink.”
“I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
“There’s absolutely no chance of romantic involvement here, Tom. You can turn off the charm.”
“Sorry, charming is my default setting. Try to relax. Enjoy the view. How often in the apocalypse does one get a few minutes to just take it all in?”
“Maybe this used to be a good view, but now all I see is a ruined city. It’s a little depressing, actually,” Sarah said, shaking her head at the cityscape.
“I see a place that was once ruled by powerful men. They weren’t always righteous men, so maybe it’s best that their time has passed. And now, though the city’s future may seem a little bleak, the truehearted have a chance to mold it into whatever they want.” I raised my glass to toast, but she left me hanging and went back to looking around nervously.
“At least you can’t smell the sewers from all the way up here,” she said.
I sighed, getting annoyed. “You didn’t have to come, you know? Mom would’ve made the dress for you anyway. Everyone knows this about her and her work.”
“But you do okay from it, right?”
“Are you suggesting that I’m profiting from my mother’s talent and good will?”
“I’m not suggesting it, I’m stating it plainly.”
“By your reputation. What you do is common knowledge.”
“You mean, train women to not be victims, and, God forbid, show them a good time? There’s something wrong with that?”
“You’re peddling romance in the apocalypse. Might as well be selling crack to school girls.”
“I have yet to hear a complaint.”
“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means women are being traded like cattle. They need to be prepared, not wooed.”
“Why not both? We can’t forget our essential nature. I’m not distracting women from the horrors of reality, I’m reminding them of who they are.”
“Fine,” she said, sighing. She took a deep breath. “Maybe I’m being a little harsh. Truth is, I can’t really afford to relax. I’m too close.” She took a drink of champagne.
“Too close to what?” She didn’t stop me from refilling her glass.
“I suppose I could give you the gist of it, providing you keep it to yourself.” She took another drink.
“Most of Manhattan and New Jersey have been overrun by clans, except for Hoboken. We’ve turned our city into a fortress. Nothing gets in or out of my town without my knowing about it. But we won’t be able to sustain that forever. Our last few battles have caused us to be low on ammunition. To solve this, I’m trying to form an alliance.”
“The most powerful clan on the east coast is headed by a man named Daryl.”
I chuckled, “I know him—unfortunately.”
“I may be able to get him to provide us with enough ammo to hold off invaders indefinitely. I don’t know where he gets his supplies, but he’s got more military grade munitions than all of the clans combined.”
“Wait a second; you want him to protect you from him? In exchange for what?”
“For me.” She finished her drink.
I refilled her glass. “For you?”
She had trouble with the words, “I have to marry him.”
I laughed hysterically. “Are you insane?”
“There are hundreds of women in my community. An alliance with Daryl will keep them safe. People used to do this kind of thing all the time in the old days.”
“They used to use leeches too, that doesn’t make it right. What makes you think he’ll keep his word?”
“I don’t think he wants an angry wife.”
“Just an unwilling one.”
“I don’t think he sees it that way.”
“It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s better than being attacked and pillaged.”
“If you say so.”
“Your opinion doesn’t matter, anyway. I wouldn’t expect the Last Days Lothario to understand.”
“I know Daryl, and I can’t think of anything worse than being married to him. What can I do to talk you out of it?”
“You can stop marauders and clansmen from attacking our city and kidnapping our women.”
“It’s a deal.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, shooting me an incredulous expression.
“How about this: I come up with a way to stop the clans from kidnapping your subjects and you agree to a second date with me?”
“What makes you any better than Daryl by offering a deal like that?”
“Because it’ll be my goal to ensure that you’re happier with me than without me, and if I can’t make that happen, then I’ll insist you find someone who can.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal. If you can make Hoboken safe in the next two weeks, I’ll go out on a second date with you.”
“Seal it with a kiss?”
She smiled, considering it, when Candy came panting up to our table. “Lady Sarah, we must leave. Now.”
“What is it?” Sarah asked.
The room erupted with chaos. Automatic gunfire filled the room, shattering the recessed fluorescent lighting, splintering the windowpanes, popping wine glasses. Screams cried out from the cubicles. People running toward the exit were gunned down.
I knew I should’ve brought Mustang Sally, I thought, pushing over the table and pulling Sarah to the floor with me.
“My purse!” she said, crouching next to me. Flipping the table had sent her purse into the line of fire. Sneering at me, she said, “Thanks a lot, Tom.”
Down on all fours, I crawled until I could see around the cubicle wall. Marauders were coming out of the elevator like cockroaches through a hole. I took out my Walther.
Candy was behind a file cabinet, a gun in each hand. When she saw Sarah’s other bodyguard dead on the floor, she let out a husky war cry and sent a hail of her gunfire into the room. A few of the marauders dropped, others retreated back toward the elevator.
Sarah extracted a throwing knife from her garter belt. A duck crawl got her to where she could peek around the cubicle wall. She cocked back the knife with slow precision, and then she tossed it with a whipping motion, causing it to spin end over end until it stuck into the torso of a target nearly half way across the room. I was now in love.
She turned to me. “You got a backup?”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” I asked her, pulling up the hem of my jeans to reveal the .380 strapped to my ankle
“You mind?” she asked.
“It’s all yours,” I said smiling, waiting for her to take it.
After she pulled the gun from its holster, she said, “You enjoyed that too much.”
“Got to get it where you can,” I said, peering around the cubicle wall.
At least a dozen marauders with fully automatic weapons had formed a blockade by the elevator.
“I thought you said you were negotiating with the clans?” I asked her.
“I thought you said no one would know we were here together?”
“Yeah, about that. I’ve had a run of bad luck lately,” I said.
“Bad luck?” she asked, firing and mortally wounding one of the marauders.
“Well . . . they seem to know where I am of late.”
“Shit, Tom. And you asked me out?”
“I just thought I was having bad luck, but when you said you’d go out with me, I thought it was changing.”
“Obviously they’re tailing you.”
A marauder infiltrated our cubicle and grabbed Sarah’s gun hand. Like a gymnast, she used his arm as a high bar and swung her legs up and then around his neck. Her weight brought him to the floor. She sprung to her feet and then stomped on his face with a sharpened high heel, piercing his brain.
“Wow, you’re amazing,” I said, doe-eyed.
She turned the arm of the corpse to reveal a tattoo of a disco ball. “Boogie Down Clan. Not Daryl’s,” she said. “They don’t want the negotiation to take place.”
The Bronx was known as the birth place of hip-hop, which was why locals referred to it as Boogie Down Bronx. At least this clan was trying to keep the culture alive.
“Now I’m torn,” I said. “I don’t want the negotiation to take place either.”
“You won’t get your second date if they kill you.”
I smiled at her. “I can tell you’re already looking forward to it.”
“Lady Sarah!” Candy said. “We have to get to the lobby!”
“No,” I said. “We need to go up.”
“Up?” Sarah asked. “How far up?”
Smiling, I said, “All the way, baby.”
“You’re not referring to the fenced-in observation deck, are you?” As a hail of bullets came at us, Sarah slung her arm over her head to protect herself from falling fluorescent debris. A section of floor-to-ceiling window shattered and a loud gust of night air blew into the room.
“Higher than the observation deck,” I replied, peeking around the cubicle wall. A marauder’s boot was coming out from behind the hostess stand, giving away his crouched position.
“You want to go up into the spire? What the hell for?” Sarah asked.
“It’s a surprise. Now, follow my lead. We need to get to that exit,” I said, pointing at a back door.
“Make a run for it,” Candy said. “I’ll cover you.” Candy came up from behind our cubicle and ran into the room sending a barrage of suppressing fire toward the elevator. She dove behind the bar.
Candy’s distraction allowed Sarah and me to get to the next cubicle, only a few feet from the exit. A couple was in this space, slouched lifelessly in their ergonometric office chairs.
“I’m out of ammo,” Sarah said.
“On the count of three, we’re all going to run for that door. Got it?”
“One, two, three!” I came out from behind the cubicle and fired a shot at the hostess stand, then at the bastards near the elevator.
Candy rose up from behind the bar and popped off two caps, but then ran out of ammo.
“Come on, Candy!” Sarah screamed at her.
“Go! Go! Go!” I yelled out, pulling Sarah with me toward the door.
Ugly faces sprang up all over the room like gophers and a shower of gunfire came at us.
Sarah was through the backroom door first, Candy second, and I dove through last. Once in the stairwell, I got to my feet as quickly as I could and we all rushed up the stairs. One flight up brought us to the 86th floor observation deck. Once outside, I dragged over a fallen telescope to block the door.
“What the hell is that?” Sarah said over the buzzing sound of the engine. I assumed she was referring to the enormous blimp parked against the spire of the Empire State Building.
I had to shout, “Oh look, there just happens to be a dirigible with a captain waiting to whisk us away on a romantic flight over the city.”
“You planned a blimp ride for our date?” Sarah asked. “It was only supposed to be for one drink!”
“Yet here we are!” I said with a big smile.
“How do we get into it?” Sarah asked over the howling wind.
“Up.” I took her hand and rushed to the elevator. I opened the accordion-style metal gate and went inside. I inserted the key and depressed the 102nd floor button. Nothing happened. I hit the button again. Nothing.
“Key doesn’t work on this one,” I said. “We have to take the stairs.”
We entered the staircase of the Mooring Mast and looked up. Several flights of grated stairs twisted up the interior of the spire. As we began to ascend them, Candy began to trail behind.
She had a hand on her thigh and blood was gushing through her fingers. She had to stop. Shaking her head, she said, “I’m hit. I can’t go any further. Go without me. I’ll hold them off.”
Sarah shot me a mean glare. As far as she was concerned, it was my fault Candy had been shot, therefore it was my job to help her.
I ran down to Candy, pulled my belt out from the pant loops, and tied a tourniquet around her leg. I tried to pick her up, but failed miserably. She probably had twenty pounds on me. Helping her get to her feet was the best I could do.
“Come on. You can make it. We’re only a few flights away,” I said.
“I’m slowing you down. Go without me!” Candy said, reluctantly letting me guide her up one stair at a time. I supported as much of her weight as I could, my leg muscles burning as if on fire, my back killing me, but nothing less would have redeemed me in Sarah’s eyes.
Finally we got to the 102nd floor, the enclosed observation deck. We all took a much needed moment to rest. I listened for anyone coming up the stairs, but didn’t hear anything.
“Now where?” Sarah asked.
I pointed to a yellow ladder. There was one more flight to go. It was the highest floor of the Empire State Building, the 103rd.
We ascended the ladder and came up into a small electrical room. A man was waiting there for us, dressed in a captain’s uniform. Behind him was an open door leading to a gangplank that went to the airship’s gondola.
“Welcome to Cloud Nine Romantic Adventures!” the captain said. He began pulling rose petals out from a plastic container and littering the gangplank with them. When he finally saw the shape we were in, his smile deflated.
“What happened?” the captain asked.
“We need to get the hell out of here. Fast,” I said, helping Candy through the door, crushing rose petals on the way into the gondola. Sitting down and putting on my seatbelt, I said, “The original blue prints to the Empire State building included a dock for an airship, just like this.”
“And then they thought better of it,” Sarah said, “because it was a stupid idea!”
I let out a, “ha ha ha,” and said, “Stupid like a fox.”
She shook her head at me.
Dirigibles weren’t known for their speed. Five minutes after disembarking we had barely gone a city block. The marauders finally made it out onto the 86th floor observation deck, and they ran to the railing with guns drawn and started firing.
Sarah put her hand over her brow and said, “This is the worse getaway vehicle ever! It’s going to be the Hindenburg all over again. We would’ve been better off shooting ourselves.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “Modern airships use helium instead of hydrogen. This baby’s totally safe.”
A shot rang out, followed by a disconcerting clank. A continuous stream of black smoke rushed by the porthole.
“Unless they hit the engine,” I appended.
The intercom crackled and the captain said, “Strap in. We’re going down.”
“Crap,” Sarah said, white knuckling the arm of the chair.
“This was supposed to be a lot more romantic,” I told her.
“Where’d you find a dirigible captain these days, anyway?” Candy asked me.
“I don’t think he’s technically a captain,” I said. “Pretty sure he used to be a bartender at Chili’s. He found this blimp in a field in Jersey.”
“Oh, God,” Sarah said.
“I hope he knows how to crash land this thing in the middle of a city,” Candy said. “If we don’t make it, Lady Sarah, I want you to know it’s been an honor serving you.”
“Save your last words for later, Candy. We’re going to be fine,” I lied. “Brian’s a great pilot. He’s been flying this thing for weeks.”
“Comforting,” Sarah said.
The blimp slammed onto the roof of a building, bounced, and then slammed back down again. The gondola grinded against the roof tiles with a deafening screech.
When the scrapping stopped, we all sat in silence.
“Are we dead?” I asked.
“If only,” Sarah said.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and went to check on the captain. A roof antennae had gone through the windshield and into his brain. He was dead.
“Fire!” Candy called out.
I managed to kick open the door and we all crawled out of the gondola just before it went up in flames.
“That covers my near-death quota for the week,” I said.
I scanned the high rise buildings, trying to get an idea of where we were. Based on the surrounding buildings, it looked as though we’d landed in the worst possible spot. In golf terms, this was a hole in one, a very bad hole in one. Of all the places in the city, why’d we have to crash land here?
I turned back to the blimp. The fire was climbing up the gondola and burning away the outer fabric, revealing the internal structure. The rudder was hanging by its last bolt, swinging back and forth in the wind.
“I wonder if we could get this thing back in the air,” I said.
“Are you serious?” Candy asked.
“Why would getting back into a burning blimp be better than being here, Tom?” Sarah asked.
“We’re on top of the 33rd Street mall,” I said.
“Oh shit,” Candy said.
“I take it that’s not good,” Sarah said.
“Of all the malls in the city, this one’s probably the worst,” I said. “Completely overrun with marauders.”
“They’re hardly marauders,” Candy said. “You have to be human to be a marauder. The things that live here—they’re animals. They’re mall rats.”
“We just need to get to street level,” I said optimistically.
“How do you suggest we do that?” Candy asked, limping over to an air duct and leaning against it.
“Take the stairs…” I suggested, looking around but not seeing any.
“Why do I suspect we’re going to have to hurtle ourselves off this roof?” Sarah asked.
I took a deep breath. “Let’s get organized. Candy, how much ammo do you have left?”
“Good to know,” I said. “Sarah, you’re wearing high heels and an evening gown. Probably not good.”
“Excuse me one minute while I go change into something less rape-y.” She scoffed at me. “This isn’t one of those ‘it’s your own fault for getting raped because of what you’re wearing,’ moments, is it?”
“Nobody’s getting raped . . . probably,” I said.
“I still have the poison dart in my hem,” Sarah said.
“This place is crawling with mall rats. One poison dart isn’t going to be much help,” Candy said.
“I was referring to using it on myself,” Sarah said.
“Nobody’s committing suicide,” I said. “All we need to do is stick together and we’ll be fine. The marauders may look tough, but most of them are idiots. This is going to be a piece of cake. These guys are so dumb, they probably don’t even know we’re here.” When no one said a word, I said, “They’re behind me, aren’t they?”
When I turned around, a bearded man clocked me across the face with a shower attachment.
I woke up strapped to a leather massage chair in Comfort Corner. The place was a wreck, but I found it interesting that many of the store’s high-end lifestyle products, like shoulder massagers, CD Players, and computer tablets, were still in their boxes. Without electricity, there wasn’t much use for them.
Candy and Sarah were on the floor, tied back to back with an adapter plug wire.
“What happened?” I asked groggily.
“You got cold cocked by a guy with a shower attachment,” Sarah said. “I really liked the color of it. It was sort of a sparkly copper, like cinnamon.”
“I’d really be in a lot of pain right now if I wasn’t so comfortable in this massage chair,” I said. “If you’re going to be held against your will, this is definitely the way to go. Can one of you reach the controls? I’d love to try out the spine roller.”
“I can’t believe I agreed to go out with you. What a mistake,” Sarah said.
Candy said, “Don’t worry, Lady Sarah. I’ll get us out of this mess.”
“Why do I feel like you think this is my fault?” I asked.
“Blimp ride? Really?” Sarah said.
“The captain owed me a favor. I thought it’d be fun.”
She shook her head at me.
“Better get used to this, honey,” I said. “If you’re going to marry Daryl, being bound and gagged is going to be your Friday night—for the rest of your life.”
A man wearing a white doctor’s coat covered with blood entered the room. A necklace made with human teeth dangled from his neck. “Hello. I’m Dr. Saperstein. Welcome to Comfort Corner,” he said with a heavy lisp. When he smiled, there were no teeth in his mouth. Nothing but gums.
“You don’t still have those miniature Zen gardens, do you?” I asked. “I love those things. A little box of sand and a tiny rake. So relaxing.”
“Love the necklace,” Sarah said. “Are those your teeth?”
He pulled a stool up to the massage chair and sat down on it. “I’ve been collecting these teeth off the floors of fights, off dead bodies, and from unwilling donors.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask, but why you would do such an insane thing?” I asked.
“It’s not insane at all,” he said, cackling manically. “I’m going to make myself a set of false teeth. All I need is the right size molars and I’ll have a smile like Julia Roberts.” Looking at my mouth, he said, “I’m betting yours will do just fine.”
“I have really bad teeth,” I said. “I eat lots of sweets. Never floss.”
“Let’s take a look.”
“Nah, that’s okay.”
Sarah chimed in, “Let us go and you won’t be harmed.”
The Dentist laughed. “You’re in no position to negotiate.”
“We’re part of a clan.”
“Is that supposed to scare me?” the Dentist asked, “I don’t waste my time with fear anymore. Everything that I used to be afraid of has already been done to me.”
“Any minute this place is going to be raided. If you want to be one of the survivors, I suggest you let us go,” Sarah said.
“I used to be a dentist. I had an office here on the third floor. They took my tools, my medicine, and my teeth. There was no reason to take my teeth; they just thought it’d be funny. That’s what I’ve been dealing with here for the last six months. I used to floss three times a day. I had perfect teeth. Now I have none.”
He wheeled over a table of tools, none of which looked very clean. He put on rubber gloves, pulled up the dirty surgical mask that was dangling from his neck, and then attached a metal mouth gag on my face. He cranked my jaw open like a sardine can.
I screamed out, “Stawhhhp!”
Shinning a light into my mouth, he said, “Yes, these will do nicely. Look at that, you got gold dental work. Murray will want that,” the Dentist said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have an anesthetic. But I do have this.” He pressed play on a portable audio player. Out came the sounds of crickets. “Nature at Night.”
He put the surgical mask over his mouth, picked up a pair of pliers, and asked, “Would you prefer whale sounds?”
The metal tool clanked against my teeth, banging around in my mouth, and finally clamped onto a back molar.
There was a sound of compressed air. The Dentist’s eyes glossed over, and then he fell dead in my lap.
“Wha ’he ’uck?” I asked.
Sarah took the blowgun tube away from her mouth. Somehow she’d freed an arm from the wire, got the weapon out of the hem of her dress, and shot the Dentist with a poison dart right in the neck.
“Tell your mom thank you,” Lady Sarah said, wiggling in the constraints until they went limp. Untying Candy, she said, “That dentist said he was going to tell Murray about us, whoever the hell he is. I don’t know about you, but that was the first time I’ve been afraid of the name Murray.”
“Ma ’ooth,” I cried out. “Is it ’till ’here?”
Sarah came over to untie me. “What are you blathering about, Tom?” As she was unbinding my feet, she said, “I’m tempted to keep that thing in your mouth.”
Finally I was free. I pulled the gag off my mouth and threw it across the room. I could taste blood. My tongue found my molar, safe and sound, but it hurt like hell. “I think he scraped off some of the enamel!”
“Shut up, Tom,” Candy said. “We need to get out of here.” She managed to get to her feet, favoring one leg. “This place is crawling with mall rats.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Sarah asked.
“I know a way,” I said, holding my cheek.
They both turned to me with unconvinced expressions.
“I used to work here,” I said. “My sporting goods store is on the first floor. Biggest in the city.”
“Yeah, and?” Sarah asked. “What’s your plan, Tom? And if you say ‘it’s a surprise,’ I’ll use what’s left of that poison dart on you.”
“I had a secret hiding spot in my office. A floor safe. Very unlikely that anyone ever figured out where it is or what’s in it.”
“What’s in this secret safe?” Sarah asked.
“Yearly accounting reports proving my claim that my sporting goods store had the highest sales in the city, passwords for the computers, manager’s keys, and a gun.”
To escape Comfort Corner, I stripped down the dentist and had Sarah put on his pants and button-front shirt. She tried on his oxfords, but they were way too big, so rather than wear high heels, she went barefoot. Hopefully the marauders wouldn’t notice her red polished pedi. I’d found a cranial massager to hide her golden locks. It went over her head like a helmet, and came equipped with speakers, a remote control, and relaxing soundtrack. It made her look like a Star Wars character, but after adding a little soot and blood, she was ready for the marauder ball.
I put on the dentist’s bloody white coat and surgical mask. Hopefully, they’d think I was him.
Candy painted her face with some of her own blood, but as far as I was concerned she already looked like someone no one would mess with, so no disguise was needed.
The mall was an enclosed arena of death. It reminded me of a non-stop prison riot. It used to be alive with shoppers, upbeat music playing over the speaker system, kids laughing and playing. Now the levels echoed with toe-curling screams.
From what I’d heard, there was some civil order here. The clans had leaders and they were feared. Outsiders didn’t last long, but if we could blend in, we might find a way out.
We left Comfort Corner and entered the walkway on the third level. The only light came from scattered trashcan fires, but the darkness worked in our favor. I kept my head down, praying the disguise would work. Candy and Sarah trailed behind me, and though Candy walked with a limp, she kept Sarah protectively close to her.
A group of marauders were warming themselves by a trashcan fire. They nodded to me as I walked by. The disguise was working.
I peered over the railing to the exit on the first floor. It was completely blocked off. The same was true for the department store exits. They had the place locked down tight. My guess was there was only one way in and out, and it was heavily guarded.
My store, Tom’s Sporting Goods, was on the first floor, a good distance away from where we were. As we made the trek to it, I couldn’t believe this was where I used to work. I remembered going through women’s cosmetics as part of my morning commute so I could say hello to the beautiful women who worked there. I’d have lunch in the food court where everyone knew my name. When it was slow, I’d sneak away to the arcade and play video games.
We descended the escalator to the second level. So far no one bothered us. There was a lot of noise coming from the other side of the mall, so I figured most of the mall rats were there attending some type of an event.
Finally arriving on the first floor, a guy who looked like a drunken bum ran up to me. “Doc. I got a tooth ache like you wouldn’t believe. Can you check it out?”
I shook my head and kept walking.
“Come on, doc. Just take a look. I don’t wanna have to pull it.”
He stepped in front of me and opened his mouth. He had the worst alcohol breath I’d ever smelled. His teeth were black.
I used a right hook across the jaw that turned his lights out. No one saw him hit the floor.
“No more pain,” I said, “I could’ve been a doctor.”
“That was stupid,” Lady Sarah whispered, hurrying away from the scene. “Someone could’ve seen that.”
“We’re almost there,” I said.
“I can’t walk much farther,” Candy said, trailing behind.
I went to help her, putting her arm around me, supporting her weight. “There might still be a first aid kit in my store, but I’m not promising anything.”
“We need to get her to a doctor,” Lady Sarah said.
“We need to get out of this mall first. One thing at a time,” I said.
When we got to my store, I couldn’t believe what a mess it was. The aisle shelves had been looted and destroyed. The sunglass case had been shattered to pieces. Graffiti marked up the walls. Trash was everywhere. They’d ruined my store.
“Bastards,” I said.
I led Candy and Sarah to the back office. A security door used to be here, but it was torn off the hinges. My desk was still there, but it’d been pushed over and was being used as a makeshift barricade. On the other side of it were filthy blankets, a bush for a pillow, and lots of newspaper for a mattress. Someone was squatting in my office. I felt so violated.
Sarah helped Candy to the swivel chair.
“Tom, first aid kit,” Sarah said, snapping me out of my stupor.
“Yeah, I’ll go look.” I went out to the floor. The aisle that used to have the first aid kits was bare, but I found a bottle of rubbing alcohol in a pile of debris. I snatched a clean t-shirt from a nearly empty rack and tore it into long strips.
Back in the office, I handed what I’d found to Lady Sarah and said, “Best I could do.”
I pushed the desk against the wall and crouched down on the floor. A strip of carpet came up with a little encouragement and revealed the recessed safe. I entered in the combination and the door popped open. I reached inside and pulled out my Derringer, marveling at it. “See. Told you.”
“A Derringer?” Sarah said. “There are hundreds of marauders out there. What the hell are you going to do with that?”
It was true that the Derringer only held two rounds, but it was better than nothing. The way I saw it, it was two chances to get out of this mall alive.
Sarah tore open Candy’s pant leg. It didn’t look good. The color of the wound was black and yellow pus was seeping out. The bullet was still in her.
“We’ve got to get that bullet out,” Sarah said.
Candy put on a brave face and said, “Do it! Come on!”
“It’s gonna hurt,” Sarah said.
“I can go back and get the Nature Sounds CD,” I said.
“That’s not helping, Tom,” Sarah said. “Would you please go find me something to get this bullet out.”
“The place has been ransacked,” I said. Off her arctic glare, I continued, “But I might still have some needle-nose plyers in fishing and gaming. Let me go check.”
“You do that,” Sarah said.
Leaving the room, I used the old saying, “Customer’s always right.”
When I got to the fishing and gaming aisle, I began sorting through the trash on the floor and found a package of lures. The hooks could be useful, so I put it in my pocket. A spool of fishing line was on a collapsed shelf. I grabbed it. Then I remembered I had the Empire State Building Elevator Key. With a little filing, I could get it sharp enough to cut. Using the grip tape on a broken skateboard as sandpaper, I filed the large key into a surgical scalpel.
When I got back into the office, Sarah was pouring rubbing alcohol on Candy’s wound, causing her to scream in agony. Finally, she fainted.
Sarah sighed in relief. “I was hoping that would happen. This’ll be a lot easier with her knocked out.”
I put down the fishing line, the sharpened key, and the lures beside her.
“Nicely done, Tom,” she said.
She used the key to cut into the wound, and then dug around for the bullet. “I found it,” she said.
“How do you know how to do this?” I asked, pouring rubbing alcohol on the lure.
“I’m a nurse—was a nurse before the pandemic.”
“And you didn’t catch it being around all those sick people?”
“Yeah, I got it,” she said, “But I got better.”
She dug the bullet out with her fingers and put it in her palm to show it to me.
I took it from her and tossed it onto the desk. “I thought only the immune could survive the virus. Lucky us, the chosen ones.”
“Would you break a hook off that lure and thread it for me,” she asked. “Make sure to sanitize the thread as well.”
“You want an Orvis knot, a Davy knot, or a Baja knot?”
“Clinch knot.” I poured rubbing alcohol on the fishing line and threaded the hook.
Impressed, she said, “Never thought of you as the outdoorsman type. You come off as such a metrosexual.”
“My dad was a construction worker who loved the outdoors, and my mom was a fashion designer who rarely left the city. I’m the perfect amalgamation of the two.”
I handed her the hook and she started sewing up the wound.
When she was done with the operation, she sat back against the wall and let out a sigh.
Candy was sleeping like a big baby.
I sat next to her. “Is she going to make it?”
“Yeah, she’ll live,” she said.
“Let’s celebrate.” I reached into my safe and pulled out a split of champagne. “I won this back in 2012.”
“You didn’t think to put it in the refrigerator?”
“I would’ve drunk it if I did that. I was saving it for a special occasion.”
“Yippie, warm champagne.”
I popped the cork. “You know, sometimes you’re sort of a ‘glass is half empty’ kind of girl.”
“That couldn’t be because of this whole apocalypse thing,” she said.
I offered her the first swig, but she refused. “You first. I’m sure it’s awful.”
I took a drink, felt it assault my taste buds, and then handed it to her. “Delicious,” I lied.
She laughed as I wiped away the sour tears.
“What award comes with a twelve dollar, half bottle of champagne?” she asked.
“The Midtown Manhattan Athletic Association’s Business of the Quarter Award.”
“It is. It came with a plaque. I used to keep it right there on my desk, next to a picture of my dad and me camping at Yellowstone,” I said, remembering them both fondly. “You know, Midtown Manhattan is the largest central business district in the world … used to be, anyway.”
“And here I was worried about the loss of the Internet. Wikipedia be damned, we got Tom Collins.”
“Just doing my part to make the apocalypse a little better,” I said, taking a sour swig of champagne.
“Here’s another fun fact,” she said. “Earlier you were asking about the so-called super flu. The truth is that it was just a regular flu. Nothing super about it. The problem wasn’t the flu. It was the human immune system. A vast majority of the population was suffering from immunosuppression, which basically means that their bodies couldn’t fight off flu season. Sort of like with AIDS: people don’t die from AIDS; they die from common viruses their systems are unable to fight. The doctors were very hush hush about the whole thing, but I overheard one of them speculating that the immunosuppression could’ve been caused by radiation poisoning. Funny thing was, there were no reports of leaking reactors or terrorist attacks. It was from something else.
“Those of us who survived aren’t special. We aren’t the chosen ones; we’re just people with normal working immune systems.” She took a drink and had to force herself to not spit it out. “Oh my God, that’s awful!” She laughed it off while handing the bottle back to me. During the transaction, our hands touched. We gazed into each other’s eyes. She looked at my lips, and then back into my eyes.
“I think you’re special,” I said, leaning in.
She turned away. “I’m going to marry Daryl.”
I took a pull of the bitter bubbly.
“I’ve always been a practical girl. Even becoming a nurse was the practical thing to do. I knew I’d always have a job. But I also wanted to help people. Now, I feel like it’s my duty to help my community. Marrying Daryl is the best way to do that.”
“If you say so.”
“You don’t agree, obviously.”
“I think it’s a person’s duty to find happiness. Sacrifice and compromise never did anyone any favors. When it comes to relationships, I believe you should be with the person that’s right for you.”
“You’re a romantic. I get it. Not practical at all.”
I handed the champagne back to her.
She took the bottle, prepared herself by taking a few deep breaths like she was going underwater, and then, just before taking a drink, she said, “I hope you’re not one of those people who thinks that there’s only one person out there for you.” In a goofy voice, she said, “The one.”
I didn’t respond right away, thinking that anything I said would just sound silly to her. I usually didn’t blurt out my feelings to women, especially ones I didn’t know well, but I wanted to tell her that, with her, not only could I survive this apocalypse, but I might actually find some happiness in it. But before I had a chance to say anything, Candy woke up moaning.
Sarah got up and went to her. She took her hand and said, “You’re going to be okay, Candy. We got the bullet out.”
“Thank you, Lady Sarah,” she said, jaw clenched. “Thank you.”
A male voice came from behind me. “Tom. Tom, is that you?”
The voice sounded familiar, but it took me a second to recognize the face under the dirt, grime and facial hair. He’d always been clean-shaven; in fact, his impeccable presentation was part of his persona and he couldn’t easily be recognized without it. His face was nearly hidden by an unruly beard, and the cap he used to wear was gone, revealing a scarred bald scalp. The soft eyes, sparkling with warmth toward me, were the only reason I hadn’t drawn my Derringer on him.
Underneath the layers of clothing, I saw a glint of the gold shield on his utility belt. On it was the engraving, “Mall Security.”
“Kenny?” I asked. “I don’t believe it. How are you still here?”
“Been here the whole time,” he said, using that belly laugh that always reminded me of Santa Claus. “Didn’t have anywhere else to go when it all went down. I’ve made up residence in your office. I hope that’s okay?”
“You’re the one who’s crashing in here,” I said. “Since it’s you, I don’t mind at all.”
He put his hand in mine and shook it. “Tom Collins. As I live and breathe. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”
“I didn’t think I’d ever be back. Tell me, what’s going on around here these days? You used to know everything about this place.”
“Still do,” he said. “I’ve been keeping my eye on it.”
“Sorry to say, but you’re doing a shitty job. The place is a mess.”
He laughed. “Oh, Tom, I miss your rapier wit.”
Kenny might’ve just been a mall cop, but he was one of the smartest guys I’d ever met. He was some kind of savant.
“Well, first off, the mall is no longer owned by the Durstingmore Corporation,” Kenny said.
“I guessed as much,” I said.
“It’s now run by a clan that goes by the apt appellation, Midtown Clan. Their leader’s name is Murray, last name unknown. He’s was a Certified Public Accountant before the pandemic.”
“How did an accountant become the leader of a clan?” Sarah asked.
“He garnered an exclusive deal with the supplier known as The Bitch,” Kenny said. “To preserve order, she’ll only deal with him and the other clan leaders.”
“The Bitch?” I asked.
Kenny went on to explain their complicated market system. The clan leaders got all their supplies from The Bitch, but none of them knew who she was. She only communicated through shortwave radio and she modulated her voice. All payments to her were made at drop-off sites of her choosing.
Sarah was shocked that a woman was spearheading the sex trafficking, but Kenny explained that The Bitch’s gender was unknown. Or, to put it in Kenny’s terms: “The word does contain female connotations, yet when used in modern slang it can be a pejorative for a man or a woman.”
Her identity wasn’t the only mystery. She had more product than Amazon.com, but where was she getting it from? She also had a rigid payment system, only accepting gold or women for trade. The clan leaders complained incessantly, but she wouldn’t budge, and now that most of the banks and stores had been looted of their gold, her stubbornness was becoming worrisome for the clans.
“Why does she accept gold? There’s nowhere to spend it,” Sarah said.
“She or her supplier may believe that the economy will be reinstated, making said gold holder rich,” Kenny said. “Both women and gold are in short supply these days, and because of the scarcity principle, The Bitch has established herself at the top of a new oligarchy.”
“So while we’re trading canned food for wool socks, she’s getting rich,” I said.
“She better not come near Hoboken,” Sarah said.
“She won’t have to, you’re marrying her top kidnapper,” I said.
“Daryl told me they’re getting out of the sex trade business,” she said.
“That could be true if they think the government will be reinstated,” Kenny said. “With a government comes an economy. To protect it, there must be law and order. Russia went through a similar process after the fall of their political system. There was wide spread illegality in the beginning, but it tapered off as the economy strengthened.”
“See,” Sarah said, sticking her nose in the air.
“They don’t want to be caught with their pants down when the cops come busting people for sex trafficking. No pun intended,” I said.
Kenny laughed, saying, “Pun definitely appreciated regardless of intent.”
Kenny went on to explain that The Bitch never paid back the gold to the clans, which kept it from circulating. The economic theory also had a flaw: she didn’t accept copper or silver. Kenny couldn’t explain it. He spent ten minutes telling us about the various forms of gold standards used throughout history, but all of them usually included other precious metals.
The mall shook with the roar of a crowd. An announcer said over the mall sound system, “Welcome to the Midtown Matches!”
The crowd went wild.
“What’s going on out there, Kenny?” I asked.
“That’s the Matches,” Kenny said. “Bad. Very bad.”
“The Matches are used to appease the population’s deep-seeded bloodlust,” Kenny said. “They are brutal, gladiator-style fights to the death. Amputation that leads to unconsciousness does count as a win. Anyone can challenge the champion, and winner takes all.”
“All of what?” I asked.
“Whatever Murray decides the purse will be for that evening. Sometimes it’s food and water, other times it’s women.”
“Men,” Sarah said with a scoff.
“The good news is that it provides the perfect distraction to try and get you out of here. You couldn’t have picked a better time to visit the 33rd Street mall.”
“Reminds me of when Regis came to sing here during Christmas season that year,” I said.
“I remember that,” Kenny said, smiling. “Voice like velvet. Such a talent.”
“His ‘Noel’ wasn’t bad,” I agreed.
“If you two are done reminiscing, we need to get back to escaping this place,” Sarah said. “There are hundreds of bloodthirsty maniacs out there who want to kill us.”
“Your lady friend is right, Tom,” Kenny said. “Your chances of getting out of here alive are very slim. As a public security professional, I say that with a heavy heart.”
“You mentioned there’s a way out,” Sarah said.
“Yes….” Kenny said.
“We’re listening,” I said.
“We’ll have to go out into the mall for me to show you,” Kenny said. He pointed at Candy in the swivel chair and said, “Your injured comrade will need ambulatory assistance. We don’t have any wheelchairs left, but I might be able to find something just as good.”
I was pushing Candy in a mermaid-themed stroller. The mermaid’s tail curved upwards so her fin could be used as the handles, while her smiling face stuck out the front like a hood ornament. Candy barely fit in the thing, but she was in and out of consciousness and couldn’t complain.
Walking the mall, I said, “Is it weird I have a craving for frozen yogurt?”
“This way,” Kenny whispered, leading us into an alcove.
We lined up behind Kenny and put our attention to the direction of his pointed finger. Just outside Macy’s was a raised boxing ring. It was surrounded by a sea of marauders waiting for the show to start.
“See that door leading into the department store?” Kenny asked.
Just beyond the ring was an egress underneath makeshift scaffolding. It was surrounded by stacks of commercial refrigerators, shelving units, and anything else they could find to block the department store exit. A sentry was posted there, holding a fully automatic rifle.
“That’s where they take out the dead bodies. They’ll carry out fifteen to twenty corpses a night, and they don’t exactly check ID on the way out,” Kenny said.
“So we pretend we’re taking out a dead loser…,” I said, considering the plan. Sarah and I exchanged a look of agreement. This could work. “Who’s going to do the carrying and who’s going to play dead?”
“I’m staying here,” Kenny said.
“You are? Why?” I asked.
“This mall is all I got, Tom. One day I’m going to make it safe again.”
“That means Tom and I are going to carry Candy out,” Sarah said. “I haven’t got a lot of upper body strength, but I’ll do my best.”
“All you have to do is get past the sentry,” Kenny said. “Once you’re outside, you’re free.”
An announcer in a tuxedo took the stage. His voice boomed over the sound system, “Gentleman, it is my honor to introduce to you your leader, the man whose name strikes fear throughout all the surviving boroughs, the master of Midtown: Murrraaay!”
The crowd went into a wolf pack-like howl.
A short pudgy guy in glasses, wearing a grey pinstriped suit with a purple and gold paisley tie, entered the ring. He took the mic from the announcer and said, “We have a special prize for tonight’s winner. She’s an exotic beauty in a powder blue dress, and she’ll be his to do with as he pleases: to trade, to flog, or to ravish!”
The crowd cheered as two marauders dragged Jenny kicking and screaming into the ring.
“What’s your name, honey?” Murray asked, putting the microphone in her face.
“Fuck off,” she said into it.
The crowd’s cheering rose to a deafening crescendo.
As they took Jenny away, I tried to watch where they were taking her, but I lost them in the crowd.
“Jenny,” I said.
“You know her?” Sarah asked.
“She was my lunch date until your fiancé kidnapped her,” I said.
Murray’s voice echoed through the mall. “Let the matches begin!”
We waited in the alcove until the first few matches were over. The fights were bloody and ended quickly, and the orgy of death wasn’t contained to the ring. Fights would break out in the crowd which resulted in more bodies for them to carry out.
The time came for us to make our move, so we slowly went to join the standing spectators. At least twenty yards from the exit, Candy fell to the floor and played dead. For Sarah’s sake, I worried it might be too far. Candy was no lightweight, but it was too late to change course now. I lifted Candy up by her armpits and Sarah grabbed her by the ankles. Sarah was struggling, huffing and puffing as we sidestepped toward the exit, barely able to keep Candy’s backside from brushing against the floor. Sarah’s constant readjusting was causing Candy so much pain that she was letting out grunts, despite her best attempts to suppress them. We still had a ways to go.
Finally, a stroke of luck: Candy fainted. When we got to the guard she didn’t have to pretend.
“One more for the pile,” I said.
He was about to let me through, but he looked at Sarah in that ridiculous helmet and quoted a line from Star Wars, “‘Aren’t you a little short to be a storm trooper?’” He laughed.
“Let’s go,” I said.
The guard stopped Sarah. “You didn’t laugh. Aren’t you a Star Wars fan?”
She lowered her head, but even though her face was covered with blood and soot, her full red lips and big green eyes were a dead giveaway. No man was that pretty. The guard took one look at her and said, “You’re a girl! Murray’s gonna wanna meet you.”
He grabbed Sarah’s arm. She dropped Candy’s legs and gave him a kick in the nuts that would’ve sterilized any normal man, but this guy was wearing a cup. With one large arm, he pulled her into him. He yanked off the helmet and her blonde hair came flowing out. Even in this dim light, it might as well have been a disco ball. I had to act fast before they attracted attention.
I dropped Candy and whipped out the Derringer.
As Sarah struggled to get free, I came up behind her attacker, stuck the Derringer in his side and pulled the trigger. The rumble of the crowd muffled the noise. No one saw him drop to the floor.
“Grab Candy’s legs!” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Without hesitation, Sarah grabbed Candy by the ankles and we rushed under the scaffolding.
When we got out to the parking lot, we hurried to hide behind a truck. We set Candy down and I looked through the truck’s windows to see if anyone had followed us. The coast was clear.
The truck’s driver’s side door was unlocked. I went under the steering wheel and pulled out the ignition wires. After a second or two, I had the truck purring like a kitten. The gas gauge pointed at the halfway mark; easily enough to get them back to Hoboken.
Sarah helped me get Candy into the passenger seat.
I went back to the driver’s side and held the door open for her. “Get out of here.”
“What about you?” she asked, climbing into the seat.
“I need to go back into the mall.”
“Are you insane? What the hell for?”
“A friend of mine is in there.” I shut the door.
She rolled down the window and stuck her elbow out. “That girl…Jenny. You’re going back for her?”
“Jealous?” I asked.
“If you go back in there, you’re dead.”
“Aww, are you worried about me?” I asked.
“I’d hate our date to be the last one you ever have, being that it was such a disaster,” she said.
“Oh, come on. You know you had fun.”
“Let’s see, what was my favorite part?” she mused mockingly. “Was it getting shot at on the 85th floor of the Empire State Building, crash landing in a blimp, or barely escaping sex slavery? Tough choice….”
“Just wait until our second date,” I said.
“Remember, we had a deal. You give me a way to keep the clans from raiding my city, and I’ll give you a second date.”
“Working on it,” I said.
“When you figure it out, give me call. Your mom’s got our shortwave info. ”
“Sooner or later you’ll see: we’re perfect for each other,” I said.
“I’ll admit, we have chemistry, but these are chaotic times. Maybe if things were different. This damn apocalypse, right?”
“Wait, are you giving me the ‘it’s not you, it’s the apocalypse’ speech? Because I invented that.”
Candy woke up, moaning. She looked around, trying to orient herself. Astonished, she said, “We made it out.”
“You’re on your way home, Candy,” I said. “Hope you feel better. Sorry about the leg.”
Candy looked at me with murder in her eyes and said, “If you come near Lady Sarah again, I will kill you.”
I laughed. “And here I thought we’d bonded.”
Sarah winked at me and said, “Catch you later, Tom.”
They drove out of the parking lot and onto an unlit street. Eventually the truck faded into the night.
As I was walking back toward the mall, I reminded myself that I’d made a promise to Jenny, and I intended on keeping it.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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Christopher John Chater was born in Burbank, California. He’s lived all over the country, on the east coast, on the west coast, and in the south, and he’s worked in several industries: a production assistant in the film industry, a song plugger in the music industry, and a bartender and butler in the hospitality industry. He now lives in San Diego and writes full time.
You can connect with Chris on his website:
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Copyright © 2016 Christopher John Chater
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.
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Cover image by Whendell Souza
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The author wishes to thank Jerry Chater, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater.
You think your dating life is tough; Tom Collins is looking for the love of his life in the middle of an apocalypse! If he can overcome murderous clans, a slave-based economy, and a meddlesome mother who designs deadly dresses for women, he might just find “the one.” A novelette. Approx. 18,000 words Book one in the series.