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Temporary Duty
by Ric Locke

< < <   SIXTY-SEVEN   > > >

     Peters set the pick down, took up his shovel, and began transferring the little pile of anthracite coal into the stone boat. This would make a quarter ton or so, enough for a few days of warmth, and about all he could handle in one load. Maybe it was too much; when he tried to move the crude device it didn't budge. A nearby sapling made a usable bar to pry it around so that the runners sat on ground that was level enough. He stood, rubbing his forearm across his face, and regarded his triumph, then went around to pick up the bark-rope traces.
     There had been attempts to use draft animals, but not around here, where the regulations were in full force. It was one of several reasons why there were, to his knowledge, only one or two other people still living in the valley. The little town had been uncomfortable, a hard place to live. With the Feds watching every move and calling down enforcers when they detected infractions it had become impossible, and one by one all but a few diehards had moved out. It had been stated, and proudly, that the life expectancy of a revenue agent in these hills could be measured in hours. It hadn't been anticipated that there was an unending supply of the bastards.
     Peters would have moved out, too, if he could have. It wouldn't have helped. Here was as good, or bad, as any. He had clear title to the place, thanks to Congressmen long dead; no doubt they'd intended to shield some campaign contributor, but he was willing to accept the benefit. It meant he had shelter, and he couldn't expect even that anywhere else. His problems would just follow him, anyway.
     He grunted and heaved until he got the ungainly hand-made thing onto the rough trail. Late-November snow lay heavy over everything, making his task possible although messy, dangerous, and generally unpleasant; once the runners got up on the wet snow it moved fairly easily, at least downhill, and it was steep enough here to be mostly downhill. He noted a small seam that had been obscured by brush. Next year, that one; it was a good hundred meters closer than the one he'd picked while spring and summer were inspiring him with false optimism.
     A noise intruded, a humming roar with an overtone of rhythmic slaps. He listened long enough to identify it, then shook his head and tuned it out. Just the bastards across the valley getting resupply; nothing to do with him.
     The long steep stretch was dangerous with over two hundred kilos poorly secured behind him. He didn't give a damn, just heaved the stone boat until it sat on the brow of the slope, then walked around behind it and gave a shove. When it didn't move, he looked around, found another sapling-sized stick, and used it as a prybar to get it moving. Finally, he managed to grunt it forward until the nose dropped and it began moving like a sled over the snow, mowing down sumac and hawthorn shrubs along the side of the skid road.
     He dropped the stick and started trudging down the hill. On the exposed side of the mountain, the wind caught him in the face, stinging his eyes and shoving his beard back against his chin. He slitted his eyes, lowered his head, and reached to hold the rudely-woven straw hat against his head as he descended.
     The low roar turned abruptly to an ear-shattering racket, and a helicopter popped up over the ridge across the Run, silhouetted against the winter-hazy sky. He dimly remembered having the means to deal with arrogant, miserable, stupid bastards who couldn't even be bothered to find the right hill to land on. Not here.
     Apparently, the chopper driver was lost. He'd had his monthly visit from his "counselor" just last week, and besides, this one was considerably bigger than the one he usually saw, bulky, slab-sided, and boat-nosed, with a knob of some kind atop the rotor hub. It hovered indecisively over the railroad trestle where the little stream met Elk Run, obviously uncertain whether or not the rotors would fit or the ground would bear the weight. He wondered if it was newsies or just more Feds. It didn't matter either way, except that they wouldn't do anything but slap him back in jail overnight for punching out newsies. It was something to do.
     The stone boat had nosed over against a bank, but its load hadn't fallen off. He got down and started heaving, bringing the nose back onto the trail an inch at a time, then went over to the traces and started pulling again. Meanwhile, the helicopter pilot had come to a decision, for Peters the wrong one. The machine set down in the parking area where he'd put the dli, and the engine roar dropped abruptly. A man in uniform got out of a door near the nose, reached back inside, and pulled out a section of matting. Another man followed with another mat, and between them they laid a pathway over the snow to the blacktopped road that led up to the house.
     This was far enough. It was easier to carry one shovelful at a time from here to the coal chute than it was to wrestle the ungainly stone boat over to the hatch. He stuck the point of the pick in the ground where it would be out of the way, grabbed the shovel, scooped up a load, and trudged over to dump it. That was one.
     Six or seven people, all but one of them men in dark trenchcoats that flapped in the wind, got out of the helicopter and climbed the hill up to where the switchback met the driveway. "John Peters?" one of them said when he was in earshot.
     "Howdy, Miz Cade." The man's mask of professional unconcern slipped for a moment, then returned. Peters thought of a woman far away... he pushed the thought aside and focused on the moment. Interesting. The new ones usually lost their cool, at least a little, when he addressed them by the name of the IRS agent who'd brought the papers, but this one just stood there. "Yeah, I'm Peters," he said, "as if you didn't know, Miz Cade. Now if you'll excuse me, if I don't get this black stuff bunkered 'fore dark I'm like to freeze to death, and that won't do you nor me neither one any good."
     "Someone wants to talk to you, Mr. Peters," the man said.
     "Well, the feelin' ain't mutual, Miz Cade, and if it was I ain't got time," Peters said. He scooped up another shovelful, carried it over, and dumped it with a rattle.
     "Herman, Killian, go back to the chopper and get another shovel," the man ordered. "I want that pile of rock shifted. The boss wants to talk to this man, and he needs the job done before dark."
     One of the men went back to the helicopter and the other climbed the steps and approached Peters. He held his hands up, palms out, and said, "Show me what I'm supposed to do."
     Peters nodded. "It ain't all that tough, Miz Cade. Pick some up with the shovel, carry it over yonder, dump it down the hole. Even a Federal agent ought to be able to figure it out."
     "My name's Herman, Karl Herman."
     "I can't tell you folks one from the other, so I just use the first name as pops in my head," Peters said. The other one was climbing out of the helicopter with another shovel in one hand. The chopper had a strange paint job, the dark ugly green he associated with Army equipment but highly polished. He hopped off the retaining wall to the driveway surface and faced the one who had seemed to be in charge. "All right, Chief, I cannot tell a lie: I made forty dollars sellin' sang last month. Hang on, I'll go get it."
     The man blinked. "That won't be necessary. Mr. Peters, the President would like to talk to you."
     Peters bared his teeth. "Shit. There's somethin' like forty or fifty billion people you coulda brought to see me, Chief, and every damn one of 'em'd be more welcome."
     "Hansen only has access to two hundred million or so, Mr. Peters," said the man standing behind him. "I'm John Calhoun." He held his hand out, expecting a handshake; when Peters just stared at him he withdrew it, shook his head, and pointed. "Can we go in the house, Mr. Peters? This wind's cold."
     "Is it? I hadn't noticed." Peters grinned, and his visitors took in his clothing: torn jeans and a faded shirt, once checked in red, and a shapeless coat made of some kind of synthetic with padding hanging out of poorly-mended rips.
     The one woman in the party drew breath audibly, and the man who had introduced himself as "Calhoun" said, without emphasis, "It is to me. Can we go in?"
     Peters shrugged irritably. "After you, Miz Cade."
     Calhoun took a step, but Hansen held up a hand. "Mr. Peters, this is the President of the United States, and I'm his senior bodyguard. I wouldn't let my own mother walk behind the President. Please lead the way."
     "No," said Calhoun. He placed his hand on the agent's shoulder and looked at Peters, his face betraying no emotion. "Mr. Peters won't attack me. He might have shot me when he first saw me, but he'd do it from the front. Go ahead, Hansen. Careful you don't trip on the stairs."
     Hansen started to object again, but Calhoun waved irritably toward the house, and Peters opened the door. The agent shrugged and entered, a sour expression on his face, and Calhoun followed without looking back. The rest of the party filed past Peters, all of them giving him looks of bewilderment or irritation as they went by. Peters stood with arms folded until the last one entered, then shook his head and followed.
     The house had been built in the early teens, and had been constructed in the expectation that electrical power would be available at reasonable cost for all time. The service pole was still there, leaning at a drunken angle, but the transformer had long ago been salvaged, and of course the zifthkakik was long gone. Enough light came from the curtainless front window that looked out across the valley to make faces clear in the wan gloom. "You ain't welcome, but you're here," Peters noted. "Have a seat. I'll be back in a minute."
     All but three of the strangers had found seats by the time Peters returned; Hansen and two others stood by the door and windows, in attitudes suggesting wariness. "Well, here y'are," he said, displaying a transparent plastic jar that might have once held peanut butter. "I told you a lie. There's forty-seven dollars and two quarters in here. I didn't realize I was rich." He tossed the jar at Calhoun, who had selected the big chair that had once reclined. The three bodyguards reacted with jerks, one of them producing a pistol, but Calhoun caught the jar neatly, looked at it a moment, then set it aside. "That's it," Peters said, showing empty hands. "'Course it amounts to what, forty milliseconds interest? Never mind. It's what you get this trip."
     "Wait a minute," one of the other men said in a hushed voice. "You mean they've been taking every dime you get?"
     "You should know, Miz Cade."
     "No, I didn't, Mr. Peters, but the people who've been doing it work for me now," said the man. "Is that what's been happening?"
     Peters shrugged. "Eleventh of the month, or the Monday followin', they show up in a chopper. One of 'em reads me the order from the tax court in a fine ringin' voice, and the rest of 'em search the place." He grinned. "Last month they took a haunch of venison. I reckon they had themselves a nice barbecue over yonder; they couldn't have took it into town without goin' to jail theirselves."
     "I take it they didn't invite you to the barbecue," the man suggested. When Peters just looked at him he shook his head. "That shit, at least, has now come to an end. Claudia, take a note; I want to know who was on duty last month. Civil service or no civil service, their careers are over."
     "You probably won't be able to do that, George," another man commented disapprovingly.
     "Then pass the word unofficially: if they don't resign, I'll shoot 'em with my own hands," the man said grimly. "Given who I am, the worst they'll do is lock me up in conditions this man would find luxurious compared to this, and it'd be damn satisfying."
     The woman laughed, and chills went up Peters's spine. "Ask for volunteers, Mr. Secretary," she said. "I shot Expert in the Army before I took this job."
     "If I was you I'd ask around amongst the folks who used to live around here before I started shootin' revenuers," Peters advised lightly. "Like the man said, it's personally satisfyin', but in the long run it's hazardous to your health."
     Calhoun raised his arm to cut off the byplay. "I suppose you're wondering why we're here, Mr. Peters," he began.
     Peters laughed without amusement. "I done seen how you got here, Miz Cade. Tells me everything I need to know."
     "How's that, Mr. Peters?"
     "Well, you come in a heely-copter," Peters observed. "I will tell you now, an' for about the forty-millionth time: I ain't got no way of communicatin' with them folks, and if I did I wouldn't do it on your behalf." By the end of that speech his voice had risen to a half-shout. He lowered it to a hoarse forceful whisper: "And if I did call 'em up and say what you wanted me to say, I reckon they'd just laugh and close the channel. They told you, and you didn't believe 'em, and it turned out they had the horsepower to follow through. Tough shit, Miz Cade."
     "Would this help?" Calhoun held out a piece of paper, an envelope with a seal on the back.
     Peters took it and walked over to the window to inspect it. "Nice paper," he commented. "What is it?"
     "It's a Presidential pardon. It covers every offense you have ever committed against the laws of the United States."
     "Includin' today's count of global warmin' and reckless pollution of the environment, I take it."
     "If not, I'll write another one. It's a pardon, Mr. Peters. You won't be prosecuted ever again."
     Peters laughed, a sound containing such bitterness that the President winced. "And does it dissolve the tax lien, Miz Cade?" Calhoun just looked at him, and Peters nodded. "I thought not. 'Tax offenses are not criminal offenses'," he singsonged. "A billion dollars is a chunk of change, even nowadays. I ain't got quite that much jack in my jeans at the moment, and like as not it's twice that or better by now, ain't it? There's your latest installment, Miz Cade. It's like to take a while for me to pay it off." He laid the envelope on the bottom shelf of a doorless kitchen cabinet, on top of a pile of scraps. "Like as not I'll need to start a fire sometime," he remarked. "Paper's kind of scarce around here."
     The President looked him in the face, then felt around his pockets. He grimaced and turned. "The President doesn't carry money. Give me your wallet, George; I'll pay you back when we get back to Camp David."
     "George" passed over a leather trifold. The man beside him murmured, "Here's mine, too," and handed it over. Calhoun took them with an equally murmured "Thanks," extracted the contents, sorted out the bits of paper, removed the jar lid, and stuffed the currency inside. "Tax refund," he said, and tossed the jar.
     Peters managed to field it. The door opened, and one of the men outside said in an aggrieved tone, "We're done. Where do you want us to put the tools?"
     "Just lean 'em against the house next to the coal chute. It ain't like the weather's going to hurt 'em worse."
     "Right," said the man, not mollified, and closed the door with unnecessary force. The President rose, holding his eyes on Peters's, then turned and went to the window, folding his arms as if chilled. "They won't even talk to us," he whispered.
     "How's that?" Peters asked.
     "I said, they won't talk to us. They don't answer messages, and the agents we send either don't come back, or come back with nothing." Calhoun hugged himself more tightly. "I know we're all 'Miz Cade' to you, Mr. Peters, but you should also know that none of the people who did this to you hold office any more, except for a few minor underlings who didn't have any policy influence. Even Laura Cade was forced into retirement; my predecessor did that."
     Peters laughed, sourly but not as bitterly as before. "And just how is that supposed to help me, Miz Cade? From my point of view there ain't enough difference between you assholes to spit on."
     "You may be right, Mr. Peters." Calhoun turned to face him, eyes gleaming. "I signed a new law a week ago last Monday; it is now legal for a United States citizen to own articles of extraterrestrial origin. I would have brought you your spacesuit, but when I asked to see it I was told it had been rather thoroughly destroyed."
     Peters nodded. "Likely they tried to open the power nodule and look inside," he commented. "Ain't much of the lab left, either, I expect."
     Calhoun nodded. "Nor of the town around it. You've heard of Burke's Garden? Well, now we have a new one, as soon as it quits glowing." He shook his head. "I also meant to bring you some of the currency they use up there, but I discovered that if there is any in the United States the government doesn't have access to it."
     Peters nodded. "Too bad. Make a nice souvenir. I ain't got much."
     "You haven't got anything, if the reports I read are correct." The President turned toward the window again. "Do you know what the population of the United States is, Mr. Peters?"
     "I got no idea." He looked over at Hansen, who stood by the door. "I think I remember you sayin' somethin' about your goon, there, havin' access to two hundred million people."
     "I exaggerated, Mr. Peters." Calhoun was still looking out the window. "It's getting dark," he mused. "Will the Marines have trouble getting the chopper out?"
     "No, Mr. President, but they're probably getting pretty nervous," a man who hadn't spoken yet said.
     "Go and tell them we'll be only a little while longer," Calhoun said. The man rose, and the President added, "If we can't get out, we can't. Mr. Peters lives here; if he can bear it, so can we, especially with the survival gear from the chopper."
     "Yes, Mr. President." The man pushed by Hansen and closed the door behind him.
     "There won't be a census for another five years," Calhoun said as if continuing the previous conversation. "We've been keeping it a secret, but I'd be surprised if it comes up with a hundred and fifty million if things continue as they are. The Mexican government registers regular complaints about illegals crossing the border. It can't go on, not if the United States is to survive. We have to make contact again." He faced Peters again. "As you so astutely pointed out earlier, Mr. Peters, there is a limited amount I can do. There's nothing I can do about the lien. That would take an act of Congress, and the Party's still getting on the vid and making speeches about 'the good of the people first'. But there is something I can do. Maybe."
     "Let's hear it, Mr. President."
     Calhoun smiled briefly and inclined his head. "The watchers across the valley are gone. You wouldn't believe what it took to accomplish that, and it won't hold for more than a day or two; they'll be back." He paused, his jaw working. "You have that," indicating the jar. "When the chopper leaves, you'll find the contents of its emergency landing chest where it was: MREs, survival gear. And a parka; mine will probably fit."
     "And?" Peters challenged.
     Calhoun ignored it. "The Grallt have established a trading station at a place called Paranagua, in Brazil, according to the intelligence briefings I've gotten." He looked out the window again. "You escaped from a spaceship full of slavers with nothing but your bare hands. Do you think you can escape from the United States and get to Brazil with the equipment you have?"
     "I reckon I ought to give it a try."
     "Yes, I reckon you should." Calhoun moved toward the door. "I should go. I don't know what cover story Glen dreamed up, but it's bound to be wearing thin." He smiled again at Peters. "Like I said, your watchers will be back, despite all I can do, and I don't know how quickly. When you can move, you move, you hear me?"
     "Yes, I hear you," Peters whispered. He looked up. "Thank you, Mr. President."
     "Don't thank me!" Calhoun shouted, then collected himself. "So far as I can see, you've done nothing that any person could blame you for, beyond being unkind to a few revenuers."
     "I'd put it stronger, Mr. President," George put in. "Mr. Peters came home with a fortune and a family, and was prepared to use his good fortune to help assure ours. He's been separated from his family, impoverished, and hounded." There was enough light to see the man's grimace. "Under some interpretations of international law he's a head of state. And here he is, living in the back of beyond like some trapper from two centuries ago."
     "And I can't even give the man a ride to Key West in my helicopter!" the President roared, then subsided again. "If I did, and somebody talked, we'd both be in the shitter, Mr. Peters. Even the President is subject to the tax laws. According to the Party, it's a sign of egalitarianism."
     "But you think you can get away with this," Peters noted.
     "I don't know if I can or not, but it had to be tried. I'm not a good man, Mr. Peters; I'm a politician. If I thought keeping you would do any good, you'd be in jail. Or a vault." He smiled wanly. "By this time it's sure you're no use as a hostage, and keeping you is just cruelty. Unfortunately we seem to be pretty good at cruelty."
     There was silence for a moment, then Calhoun shook his head. "It is getting dark, and we do have to go," he said in a low tone. "I don't think we'll see one another again, Mr. Peters, so goodbye and Godspeed." He slipped out the door, and the others rose nervously and followed. Each of them stopped and held out a hand, and Peters took them, a series of warm dry politicians' handshakes, accompanied by murmured regrets and good wishes. The woman came last; she took his hand in both of hers, smiled, and said, "Goodbye," in a clear alto voice that broke his heart.
     He stood, clutching the jar in his left arm like a baby, until the roar of the helicopter subsided. Then he set the jar on the counter and set off down the hill to see what the promises of a President were worth these days.
     The omens were good. The cache contained the items specified, plus a lamp-oil stove that sloshed when he waggled it, an oil lantern ditto, a Marine-style multitool with a sharp blade on one section, and an M22 sliver rifle. He grabbed the gun by the barrel and slung it into the Run, where it made a satisfactory splash. The rest of the stuff could have been gained legitimately, however improbable that might be, and if he had to shoot his way out, well, it was a long way to Brazil. He couldn't remember where Paranagua might be, but he had a notion it was well to the south.
     The house across the valley that the Feds used was dark, but he didn't trust that; likely they'd left somebody behind. His woodcraft was good enough to keep tabs on them; they moved like hogs in the forest, and loved their creature comforts. He smiled in the dark. He'd eat tonight, MREs that would taste like ambrosia, and sleep warm. If he really did have a break from the surveillance, he thought he could make it to Huntington. Boats still went down the river; if not he could build or steal one that would serve, and the Ohio led to the Mississippi, which led to the Gulf. It was the best chance he'd had.
     Hell, it was the only chance he'd had.

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Copyright© 2001 by Warrick M. Locke
855 N. Swanson Rd., Mineral Wells, Tx 76067
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