The temperature started falling like a rock Thursday night. Vinnie had spent the day in Delaware, sweating through his linen suit while the thermometer flirted with the hundred degree line; he was picking up a box of guns for Sonny, pieces that had fallen off the back of a truck somewhere before they'd been registered.
Halfway back to Atlantic City, after dark, he stopped at a deserted gas station on the side of the road to call the numbers in to his lifeguard. By then, his breath was fogging in the phone booth, and the guns leached heat out of his hands one after another until his fingers were tight and clenched up with cold.
"Man, what is up with this weather?" Vinnie said, blowing on his hands.
"It's pretty crazy," Lifeguard said. "Get this: they're saying it's going to get below freezing on the boardwalk tonight. Hope the heat is on in your place."
"At Sonny's?" Vinnie snorted. "It's always on."
Sonny was looking out the window of his office, frowning, when Vinnie lugged in the box. "Where do you want these?" Vinnie said, and then put it down and went to stand next to him: it was snowing up here, weirdly; a cloud of big flakes that evaporated before they got down to the street.
"Your mother gonna be okay?" Sonny said, looking over at him. "She got heat over there?"
"Yeah," Vinnie said. "Pete went over, turned it on for her. Can you believe this? Must be some kind of freak thing."
"Probably all melt by tomorrow," Sonny agreed.
It snowed all day Friday.
Sonny woke him up Saturday. Vinnie struggled up to an elbow, rubbing his face in the dark, groggy. "What time is it?" His clock was dead.
"It's nine in the morning," Sonny said, pulling the curtains; outside a thin grey light was fighting its way through swirling snow. "Come on, get up. The phones are down. We're going to go get your family. Come on, come on, we're going to have to take the stairs."
Yeah, that was a great scenario, his mom and Pete staying here. "My mom's got heat, Pete's at the church," Vinnie said, sitting up. "They're going to be okay—"
"Then they can be okay in North Carolina, too," Sonny said.
"You want to go down to Carolina because it's snowing a little?" Vinnie said. "Come on, Sonny, it'll melt in a day."
"A tornado went by Philly this morning and it's sixty below in Montreal," Sonny said. "We're going. But hey, you're okay with leaving them behind in this, we could go right now." He raised an eyebrow. "So what do you say, Terranova?"
The streets were pretty bad, but the highway was worse, even empty; the Caddy plowed up big fans of slush as they went, kept trying to fishtail. Sonny sat in the passenger seat drumming his fingers on the dashboard all the way. About halfway through the trip to Brooklyn, they started to see cars going the other way, like early migrant birds flying south.
"I'm not going to leave my house and go so far," Vinnie's mother said. "For a little snow? Vincenzo, don't be foolish."
"Listen, Vinnie, why don't you go grab some things for your mom," Sonny said, sitting down with her, giving Vinnie a quick jerk of his head away, and when he got back his mother was uneasily letting Sonny help her into a winter coat. She looked at him anxiously, but he couldn't ask her what Sonny had said. He didn't really care, anyway; he'd been infected with Sonny's sense of danger, and now it was crawling over his skin, the urge to go, go, go.
They got to St. Dismas and found ten kids huddled on the floor in sleeping bags, a couple of old women wrapped in blankets sitting in the pews; Pete and a couple of the other priests were carrying around mugs of hot soup on trays. "I can't leave," Pete said.
"Look, Pete, I don't know what's going on, but it's not going to clear up quick. It's not going to be safe here. The city's not ready for this, not in February and sure as hell not in August," Vinnie said.
"I know," Pete said simply. "You should get Mama out of here. I have to stay."
He turned back to helping one of the women hold the soup in her shaking hands. Sonny caught Vinnie's arm and pulled him aside. "We've got to get going," he said. "The snow keeps coming down like this, the roads are going to go to hell."
"I can't leave Pete!" Vinnie said.
"He doesn't want to go, what are you gonna do?" Sonny said, and shrugged. "You want to hit him over the head and take him?"
"I am not going to beat up my brother!" Vinnie hissed.
"Then let's go," Sonny said. "Either way, but make up your mind, Terranova, because we are out of time."
"Sonny, he's not coming because he's taking care of these people—because they need him." Vinnie shook his head. "Look, I'm going to stay and help him."
Sonny made an exasperated jerk of his shoulders. "Help him do what, freeze to death? He can handle it without you, believe me. Come on, don't start acting like a martyr on me."
"I can't walk out of here and leave him," Vinnie said. "Would you have left Dave?"
Sonny blazed up like a house on fire. "Dave wouldn't be acting like a goddamn—" Vinnie hurriedly lunged forward and put a hand over Sonny's mouth; Sonny's eyes popped, so shocked he let himself get dragged into the vestibule and out of earshot before he shoved Vinnie off. "What the fuck—"
"Calm down a second, I'm sorry, all right?" Vinnie said, grabbing Sonny's arm again. "I'm sorry. I just—Sonny, I can't. I can't."
Sonny jerked his arm loose, but less like he was about to take a swing at Vinnie. He pressed his mouth tight for a second, and then he stepped close and said softly, "So what about your ma? You gonna keep her here, too?"
Vinnie turned away from him, like he could find an answer written on the wall, except instead he got a view of the snow collecting on the other side of the narrow stained glass panels around the door, red light filtering out onto it. He sat down on one of the benches against the wall and put his face in his hands. He couldn't think.
"Christ," Sonny muttered, and then he said, "Goddamn it, all right, already," and went back into the main room. Vinnie lifted his head up, confused, and went after him. "How many people you got here total?" Sonny was asking Pete.
Pete hesitated and glanced at Vinnie. "Twenty, I think—no, twenty-one, Signora Benedetto is lying down in the sacristy."
"All right, get them packed up, ready to go," Sonny said. He turned and jerked his head to Vinnie. "Let's go, come on."
It felt like being thrown a lifeline; Vinnie grabbed onto it with both hands and followed Sonny outside. The snow was coming down in horizontal gusts, and the Caddy was already stone-cold, whining as he started it up. Sonny set him cruising the main streets, doing the parking lots in back of the strip malls until they found a small delivery truck left parked behind the Shop-Rite. "It's going to be rough to fit twenty people in there," Vinnie said, using his arm to wipe snow off the windshield and the hood.
"They'll keep warm, anyway," Sonny said, and shot out the lock on the driver's side. "Get the guns, put them up front. They're in the trunk of the car."
"What do we need guns for?" Vinnie said. "You planning on shooting a tollbooth clerk or something?"
"Vinnie," Sonny said, "when the chips are down, there's only two things you worry about: people and guns. People you can't replace; guns get you anything else you need."
They found a big toothy snowplow—Summer Clearance Special, $1299!—and heaps of old greasy tire chains stuffed in the back of an auto body shop. It took an hour working half-blind in the snow to get them hooked on, then they threw in a couple of spare tires and a box of random parts and headed back to the church. By the time they got everyone piled in and were back on the road, it was starting to get dark again, and colder. "Take the first shift," Sonny said. "I'll take over when you need a break." He closed his eyes, and Vinnie merged in with the traffic heading over the Verrazano.
The tollbooths were closed and the traffic was moving slow but steady, off the bridge and on to I-95. 1010 WINS was talking professionally about the hundred-degree heat wave in China and the satellite images of the Antarctic ice shelf vanishing almost overnight when the announcer suddenly broke off and said, unsteadily, "The Coast Guard reports there is—there is a massive tidal wave headed for the tri-state area. Everyone along the coastline is urged to head inland and to higher ground, or go to higher floors—"
In the rearview mirror, Vinnie saw a shadow growing, a more solid black creeping up over the sky behind the bridge. "Holy shit," he said; Sonny woke up, said, "What? What?" Vinnie skimmed between two sedans crawling sluggishly through the snow, got to open road and floored the accelerator, while behind him the Verrazano disappeared in an explosion of white froth and a roar that came all the way through the snow and the closed-tight windows.
"Jesus Christ," Sonny said, and then the wave hit them: mostly broken already, but the road went slick and wild under the tires, and they were both grappling with the steering wheel that wanted to go ten different ways at once, trying to keep the wheels pointed straight, while everywhere horns exploded and cars smashed into one another. "Jesus," Sonny said again, when they'd got the truck stopped, both of them hanging onto the wheel and shaking.
Vinnie said, "I need to check on Mama—"
"No," Sonny said. "There's nothing we can do right now anyway, man, just keep driving. Keep driving." The radio was nothing but static.
Vinnie pulled into a rest stop off I-95, an hour later: the parking lot was full of cars, many of them already snowed under. He opened the back, hands shaking, but Mama was okay, with two of the kids snuggled against her sides. Mrs. Benedetto wasn't doing so well, though, her lips bluish and her hands barely twitching over her rosary.
They'd piled blankets on the floor of the truck, and cushions raided from the pews and confessionals, with airholes shot every foot or so all the way around the walls. It was warm enough thanks to all the bodies, but everyone was still shaken up and full of demands—what was that, what happened, why didn't you stop—and it took a while to calm everyone down, until Sonny said, "All right, shut up, we're not holding a press conference. Everybody's going to hit the bathrooms, we're getting some gas and some food, and we're back on the road. Here, get going, go buy whatever you want."
He handed out tens and twenties like restaurant fliers, emptied the truck out. He looked at Vinnie. "You want to go first?"
"Yeah, okay," Vinnie said. "I'll look around, see what kind of supplies I can find."
There was a line twelve people deep at the phone, but it moved fast: no one was answering. Uncle Mike didn't pick up; neither did Frank, at least if Vinnie had gotten the number right, dredged out of his memory. Then he called the OCB hotline, and after six rings a woman picked up. "Hello?" she said, tentatively.
"Yeah, I'm someplace I can't talk," Vinnie said. "I can't reach my lifeguard—"
"What's his name?"
"He's—I don't know, dammit, his name's Mike, but I don't know the rest," Vinnie said, helplessly. "Or there's Frank McPike—"
"He hasn't called in," she said, after a moment. "What's your name?"
"What?" Vinnie said. "You don't goddamn ask that without a cross-check, that's basic procedure—who the hell are you, anyway?"
"I'm a secretary," she said.
"Why are you answering this number?" Vinnie said. "Get me a director—"
"Honey, I'm who's here," she said. "There's maybe a couple other people in the building. You give me a name, I can let anyone know you called in, if they call looking for you. That's all the procedure I got."
"Great," Vinnie said, and hung up. He went to the john and washed his hands, still stained with grease from getting the truck set up, and went out into the main hall of the rest area. People were gathered around watching an old rabbit-eared 10-inch television someone had carried in, the volume turned all the way up: the President was speaking from somewhere not the Oval Office.
"—all Americans to help one another, to do their best to maintain order and respect the local authorities. The safest places right now with the rising coastal waters are inland and to the south—" he was saying; Vinnie stood and listened a while longer, watching the crowd: a lot of families, parents holding kids close; some college-age kids, some older people; all colors and kinds, all scared. It was still snowing, and a lot of those cars weren't going to make it out of the lot the way they looked, much less any distance south.
He went outside. There was a woman he didn't know in the truck, kneeling next to Mrs. Benedetto. "Yeah, she's a doctor," Sonny said, in an undertone. "Your brother found her; smart move. She's traveling with a kid, we can fit them in."
"I need to talk to you a minute," Vinnie said.
"Come around back here, we don't want to get too far from the truck," Sonny said, led him around to the front of the truck. "Unless all of these buffone are even stupider than they look, they're going to start looking over this lot and figure out we got the only real way out of here pretty soon."
"That's what I want to talk to you about," Vinnie said. "We get everyone here in a caravan, take the biggest cars, we can plow the road and they can line up behind us."
"Are you kidding me?" Sonny said. "You already saddled us with twenty people to handle, now you want to take on the whole goddamn northeast?"
"It's got to be safer going in a group anyway," Vinnie said. "We've got a bunch of kids to watch out for already, it's not going to hurt—"
"Don't be fucking stupid," Sonny said. "Every car we add on, we're asking for trouble. Forget about it. What's the matter with you? You don't even know any of these people. Some girl in there give you a sob story or what?"
"Sonny—" Vinnie rubbed his face. "Christ. Sonny, it's my job."
Sonny snorted. "What, looking out for strangers—" He stopped. "Jesus Christ, you are a cop," Sonny said, and whirled away from him.
Vinnie jumped after him and grabbed his arm. "Sonny, come on, I—" Pain exploded along his jaw, and he staggered and nearly fell until Sonny grabbed him by the shirt and body-slammed him up against the hood of the truck.
"You son of a bitch," Sonny said. "You goddamn lying—"
Vinnie grabbed Sonny's arms and shoved back. "Goddamn it, Sonny, it doesn't matter! Your casino's gone—the Jersey coast is gone, all of fucking New York City is gone, the OCB is gone—"
"And you think that means it doesn't matter?" Sonny said. "That's why it matters; you think I'm putting my life on the line out here with a fucking Judas?" He laughed, harshly. "I'm a first class moron—I'm worrying about getting your family out of the woods, you're worrying about how you're going to stab me in the back."
"Just shut up already, and stop trying to act like you're some kind of innocent here," Vinnie said. "I'm not going to apologize for doing my job. It doesn't mean I don't—don't care about you."
"Yeah, I'm touched," Sonny said. He let go and shook Vinnie's hands off his arms and turned away, towards the gas station.
"Where the hell are you going?" Vinnie said, following after him.
"The fuck away from you," Sonny said, not stopping. "Keep the truck. I'll get another ride."
"You just finished saying there wasn't another car going to make it out of here," Vinnie said.
"Then I guess I'll freeze to death," Sonny said. "That's what you were after anyway, what the hell do you care?"
"Oh, that's good, Sonny," Vinnie said. "The world's coming to an end, and you want to go sulk somewhere. You know, you're starting to remind me of my ex from high school—"
He blocked the swing, this time, and punched Sonny back in the mouth. Blood spattered on white, and Sonny jumped him into the deep wet snow. Vinnie tried to slug him low, but the thick coat just smothered it; Sonny shoved him further down, lumps of snow sliding down the back of Vinnie's neck, icy needle cold, and his breath hissed out between his teeth while he tried to grab hold of Sonny by the waist, his hands fumbling.
"Goddamn lying bastard," Sonny was saying through his bloody lip, pushing him down harder until Vinnie blindly scooped a heap of snow and shoved it hard into Sonny's face, grinding his hand up. Sonny's grip loosened and Vinnie rolled them over; then Sonny hooked an arm around Vinnie's neck and pulled him down into the snow with him, both of them swinging wildly and missing, mostly just shoving each other around until they were both shivering and wet and choking, hanging on to each other, gasping.
"Vinnie!" Pete yelled, distantly. "Vinnie!"
"Goddamn it," Sonny said, and heaved himself up. They staggered together towards the truck, now half surrounded by a ragged cluster of men; Pete and one of the other priests were standing in front of the truck door, trying to face them down empty-handed.
"Boost me up there, and get around behind them," Sonny said, and Vinnie knelt down and gave him a heave up onto the cab. Sonny climbed onto the roof of the trailer and cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Hey! All of you get out here," his voice carrying clear through the thin drizzle of snow. "Yeah, everybody, come out here and listen."
Vinnie edged around back of the crowd, his hand on the butt of the gun tucked into his waistband, ready to draw. More people were coming out of the rest stop and getting in close.
"All right, here's how this is going to work," Sonny said. "Anybody who plays it smart, you're getting out of here with us. Anybody who thinks they have a better idea for how to run this show, they won't be going anywhere."
"I hope you're fucking happy," Sonny said back in the truck, smoking a cigar out the rolled-down window; he'd taken a tire iron and smashed in the glass cases in the convenience store, getting people started on the looting.
"Yeah." Vinnie was watching the mirror with one eye, the road with the other. The handful of cars were stringing themselves out behind the truck, seats crammed full of people, trunks crammed full of vending machine junk food. Ahead, the plow pushed the soft wet snow into walls on either side. He looked at Sonny and said quietly, "Thanks."
Sonny twitched his hand dismissively and didn't look at him, but when the signs came up, Next Rest Stop 10 Miles, he said, "We should get more gas every chance we get."
By the time they hit the Maryland border two days later, they had a caravan of twenty-nine. Vinnie figured he should've expected it: Sonny never did do things by halves, and he had an instinct for running things anyway. This was an operation like any other, and goddamnit, if he was doing it, it was going to be done right. It helped—or didn't, depending on your view—that pretty much everyone started treating him like their hero. Sonny was made for that kind of thing, playing Lord Bountiful; he lapped it up and turned it back around, and suddenly their random caravan were all his people, to be protected and taken care of and ordered around by fiat. Now he was pretty much walking into rest stops and ordering people to get in their cars and follow along, even smacking around the dazed, half-catatonic ones until they got moving; he set up driving shifts and divvied up supplies and made people do things like wipe down the cars to get the worst of the salt off.
They were pulling south and west, looking for a way to get through the mountains somewhere the snow hadn't reached: the radio worked in occasional bursts for the first couple of days before dying off completely, long enough to tell them that the coastline was creeping in towards them, the ocean swallowing up the eastern seaboard with more tidal waves, the snow-logged cities vanishing.
But with that many people, gas was starting to be an issue. There was one big station wagon bringing up the rear of their caravan, loaded with cans of gasoline; Sonny had asked for volunteers to drive it and gotten them. But the further they got, the more stations were running dry, and by now the cans were getting emptied at an alarming rate.
Later that day, they found another small truck abandoned at a rest stop, big enough to take the people from five cars. It took half an hour to dig it out of its snowbank and chip the ice off the front door enough to get it open and the exhaust pipe cleared. "All right, baby, there we go," Sonny said, clapping his hands together as the engine roared to life. "Let's lose the guzzlers."
"I'm not leaving my car," Dan Brolen said, stalking up to them in the parking lot; he was traveling in a big Chrysler with a quiet, stifled wife and two small girls, and he'd already refused to take in more people, carrying extra supplies instead.
Sonny turned to look at him, head cocked like a pistol. "Your car gets ten fucking miles to the gallon," he said. "Get your things moved over, or I'll set the goddamn thing on fire with you in it."
Brolen said, "Who the fuck put you in charge, anyway," and reached for him with a big, meaty fist. Sonny didn't so much as twitch, and the hand never reached him; Vinnie folded Brolen down to the ground with two kidney punches, hard and quick. Everyone stopped working, talking, leaving Brolen's low, wheezing breaths loud in the snow-deadened air.
"The reason you're here and not turning into a popsicle somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike is because you got lucky and hooked up with us," Sonny said, loud enough to carry across to everyone. "You don't have the brains to appreciate that, we'll leave you out back and make room for somebody else who does."
Brolen picked himself up after a minute and staggered over to start moving his things into the truck.
"He's going to be a problem," Vinnie said quietly.
"Not him," Sonny said, watching another group at the other end of the lot, a handful of men talking: the Boston guys who'd been traveling together, a couple of other middle-aged men; they were watching Brolen, and after a minute a few of them went over to help him. "He's too stupid, and he's an asshole. Nobody's going to follow him. But there'll be others."
But the next incident came out of left field. It was the first clear day they'd had, blue sky and sun that turned the snowdrifts into a playground instead of a nightmare, and Sonny stopped them to let the kids get out and run for a while, mostly an excuse for everyone else to get some fresh air. The older teens slouched off into a corner of the lot and split into small clumps vaguely organized around the college kids' van, playing cassettes on an old boom box out of the back and smoking. Sonny spread out all the road maps he'd been harvesting on a swept-off picnic table and got the more recent of their strays to give him advice on the roads.
They were talking quietly when one of the girls made some noise, quickly muffled. Sonny's head came up as Vinnie turned to look: some of the kids were out of sight, in the woods behind the van. "Keep a hand on these," Sonny said to one of the women standing next to them, and they left the maps and went. The kids around the van were all staring, uneasy, and some looked at them gratefully; they all scattered out of the way quick.
A few of the guys had cornered a girl up against a tree, just a little way into the straggle of woods; her lipstick was smeared and she was pushing at them, trying to keep her skirt down with one hand. Vinnie took the biggest guy, a six-foot bruiser with a football player's neck, hauled him off and slammed him into a tree head-first, locked his arm behind his back and held him while the guy strained and tried to get loose. Sonny just grabbed the other two by the arms and dragged them off. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he demanded.
"Hey, what's the problem, man, we were just having a little fun," one of the guys said, a skinny blond kid who had lipstick marks on his jaw.
Sonny slapped him hard enough to rock him back. "A little fun?" he said. "You act like a wild dog, you think that's fun?" He smacked the blond kid again, then grabbed him by the ear and twisted him wincing to the ground. "What's your name, sweetheart?" he said to the girl, who was crying quietly and wiping her face.
"Linda," she whispered.
"All right. Linda, you okay for a minute here?" She nodded. "Good. I'm going to send a couple girls to help you get cleaned up, okay? Don't you worry about nothing, these scumbags aren't going to touch you again, they know what's good for them."
"Bring that one," he added to Vinnie, and dragged the other two stumbling out to the parking lot, the blond kid still squirming; his pal, a younger kid maybe fifteen, was just cringing away and following. "Hey, doll, a couple of you go in there and help that kid get herself put together, will you?" he said to one of the older girls; she nodded and a few of them ran into the woods.
Football-kid was putting up a pretty good fight while Vinnie wrestled him over to the lot with the others. "Get the fuck off me, man!" the guy said, straining. "She came out there with us, you think she was expecting to look at pictures or something?"
"Shut up, asshole, before I break your neck," Vinnie said, and shoved him down to his knees. His head was pounding; if Sonny told him to take out his piece and blow all three of the fuckers away, he thought he'd do it.
"All right, who's responsible for these little shits?" Sonny demanded, shoving the kids flat to the ground. "You two stay down there, you don't want me to kick your asses for you some more. Anybody?"
One of the older guys—Paulson, Vinnie thought—was shouldering through the crowd. "That's my son, get your goddamn hands off him," he yelled at Vinnie.
"Back off!" Sonny snapped. "Who else?" The blond kid's parents came up, and the other's elderly aunt. "Shut the hell up," he said, when they all started trying to talk. "You raised these kids to act like animals, don't complain when I treat them like animals.
"What do you people think is going on here?" he demanded, and he wasn't just talking to the parents anymore. "You think the police are still out there, the army, the courts? They're all gone. There's nobody to protect you but the people you're looking at right now, the people around you. You don't treat them right, you don't watch their backs, they're not going to watch yours, and then sooner or later you will end up as roadkill."
Linda was coming out of the woods, her parents and a few other girls helping her. "All of you," Sonny said, "look at her family. You want to be in a spot where you have to depend on them to save your life, after your kids did something like this to their daughter?"
The big Paulson kid had quit straining quite so hard; he didn't look over at the girl. "We didn't do—" the blond kid started, in a whine that Sonny cut short by kicking the kid in the side, hard.
"Shut up," Sonny said. "A girl's crying, she's not having a good time, and if you can't figure that out, you're too stupid to live. Now all of you, pay attention, everybody. The weather's been easing off, the roads are better. Four, five more days and we'll be out of the snow. Then? Then you all make a choice." He swept the crowd with a hard look. "Anybody who wants to break off on their own, we drop you off at the first town or rest stop with enough supplies for three days. Six or more people want to leave together, you can have one of the cars.
"Anybody who stays after that—you had better understand that this, these people, are your family, your flesh and blood. You live for them, and you die for them. If you can't get that, there's not going to be a place for you with me."
"I'll beg your pardon, and ask a question that's been burning me," one of the men said abruptly, one of the Bostoners, with an Irish lilt in his voice. "Don't misunderstand me, friend, I don't disagree with your philosophy, but it seems to me we'd be better served by having something of an election to decide who's to run this shebang."
"Oh, it seems to you," Sonny said, contemptuously. "Is that right? Well, pal, you want to run yourself a democracy, you wait until the snow clears and take anyone else who wants to waste their fucking time, and you can have your election. Anybody who wants a fighting chance to make it through this mess alive can stick with me."
He shoved the kid over onto his back with his foot. "And you three, you listen up real good. You got until then to make amends to that girl over there, because she and her family, they get to decide if you're allowed to stay. Otherwise, you don't have a place whether you want one or not. Capisce?"
"Your friend's a little high-handed," one of the other Bostoners, a guy named Macready, said to Vinnie, after the crowd had broken up uneasily. He was smiling. "Some people might take exception to that sort of thing."
Vinnie eyed him. "Yeah? Some people might be pretty fucking stupid." He got Sonny aside. "Listen—"
"Yeah," Sonny said. "We're going to need a few guys. I'm thinking Johnny V., Tino; maybe that Polack Kristof and his oldest kid, Chavez. Steady men, nobody who's going to be too excitable."
Vinnie nodded. "How about Edison?"
"Yeah, all right." Sonny made a face. "That guy's too polite. Feels like he's fucking with you."
"What, just cause he's been brought up better than you?" Vinnie said.
A woman came over to their table the next stop after they organized the guys. Vinnie didn't recognize her, she hadn't popped out of the crowd at all: maybe thirty, short, ordinary-looking with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and no makeup, and she sat down across from Sonny and slid a Jersey City badge under the name Marie Ostrow across the table and said, "Is this going to be an all-boys' club or what?"
Sonny glanced at Vinnie, and then he said to her coolly, "This isn't exactly going to be a by-the-book operation here."
She rolled her eyes. "I worked Vice in Jersey City. You think I don't know who you are? If you didn't get a pass on account of the world ending, you'd have gotten one far as I'm concerned for the way you handled those kids."
"All right," Sonny said. "You need a gun?"
"I've got my own piece, but I'm low on ammo, so yeah, give me another," she said. "And if we get a chance, we should stop at the next state police station we pass and pick up some tasers. Shooting somebody in the leg out here would be like giving them a death sentence. Makes it harder to pull the trigger."
Sonny nodded. "All right. You can show people how to use them? Good." He looked at Vinnie. "All right. Next time we pass a police station, we keep going, we pull off at the next rest stop. You take one of the other cars, take her and Edison and go back, see what you can find, bring it back on the quiet. I don't want everybody going shopping."
The snow mostly stopped two days later; by the end of the week, they'd crossed into Virginia, and the snow was cleared out; instead there was mud everywhere and wreckage: shattered trees and the remains of buildings, waterlogged cars along the side of the road already stinking of rust. The blond teenager and his parents took off the first day they could, silently; they hadn't even tried to talk to Linda's family, even though she'd okayed the Paulsons and Mrs. Brewer and her nephew staying on, for not a lot more than an apology.
"You sure?" Sonny asked her quietly, taking her aside. "Because you don't get to take this back later. You're quits with them?"
"Well, it would be okay if Keith and Andy kept doing all our chores," she said, trying a smile, and then she dropped her eyes and added softly, "And—they're really scared."
"They're smart to be scared," Sonny said. "But that's their lookout. You're not responsible for them suffering the consequences of their actions. You tell me straight, how you're really feeling about it."
She raised her head back up. "I still don't like them," she said, "but I don't want them to die."
A handful of other people left at the last big interstate junction before they turned west, six solo travelers planning to take one car and try and get back to their own families, farther down south. Everyone hugged them and wished them luck; Sonny gave them maps and extra supplies and a list of names. "Show that around, you find other people looking for any of us," he said. "We're going to head across the mountains here and go towards the Mexico border. We'll leave markers when we can, at gas stations or on the road. Find your families, come after us if you can."
Nobody did any hugging with Brolen and his wife and kids when they left. Vinnie watched in the side mirror as the caravan pulled away from the rest stop, the little girls standing together over the heap of supplies while Brolen and his wife packed things into an abandoned car.
"Quit it," Sonny said; he was driving. "You can't save the whole fucking world."
"Listen," Vinnie said, "pull over, give me fifteen minutes to talk to the mother—"
"She said no," Sonny said flatly. Vinnie stared at him. Sonny didn't look away from the road, his face hard in profile. "You think I like this any more than you do? We both know what's going to happen to those kids. But there's things you can't do." He glanced over. "Close your eyes, get some rest. You've been up for twenty hours."
It was still cold, even without the snow, but you could roll down the window for some fresh air without a hat or gloves, and the weather was clear. But the roads stayed strangely empty, except for the deserted wrecks, and the radio stayed quiet. "I don't like it," Sonny said uneasily.
They were headed almost due west now, and in another day they finally began climbing up into the Great Smoky Mountains. The narrow road twisted and turned through the passes, and there was a lot of mist. Vinnie wasn't sure he was really seeing smoke at first. He nudged Sonny. "Hey, wake up."
Sonny sat up, rubbing his face, and looked. "Stop the caravan."
The smoke was a twisting, dark pillar in the distance, climbing. "You want to check it out?" Vinnie said, shading his eyes to look up at it.
Sonny gestured to the mountains on both sides. "Well, we're going past it whether we want to or not, so yeah, I'd rather know what the fuck it is beforehand. Everybody stay with your cars," he ordered, and detailed off Ostrow and Kristof to organize a watch; Vinnie brought one of the little compacts around to the front and they went on ahead to scout.
As they got closer, the smell hit them, rotten-egg sulfur and an acrid stink like burning tires, bad enough that it made his stomach churn. The smoke wasn't just the black pillar: thin white sheets of steam were rising up out of the ground to either side of the road. "Does this thing have air conditioning?" Sonny said, coughing, and leaned forward to flip the vents closed.
"Holy Christ," Vinnie said, and stopped the car at the crest of the hill.
They got out, hands over their noses and mouths. It was like looking into Hell. The valley to the right of the road looked like someone had put their hand on the wall and swept it bare down to granite, trees and dirt piled up like matchsticks in a trash heap at the bottom, blackened and still burning. Vinnie's eyes were watering with the smoke.
"What the fuck, my feet are getting hot." Sonny bent down to put his hand on the ground. "Holy shit, ow." He jerked his hand back, shaking it.
Vinnie walked cautiously up to the edge of the cliff and looked over: more steam was venting out the mountainside, and seams of dull black rock showed through on the bare cliff face. "I think the whole mountain's on fire or something."
"Don't be nuts. It's a fucking national park, not a coal mine," Sonny said. "How the hell would it get set on fire?"
"Fine, you tell me," Vinnie said, waving down at the mountainside. "It sure smells like it's on fire."
"Yeah, no kidding." Sonny walked up to him and looked over. "Fuck."
Vinnie looked along the road: it snaked along the mountain past the valley and disappeared behind the curtain of smoke. "What do you want to do? Think we can go around?"
"This is the only road, and we stripped the last five gas stations to get enough to make it through the mountains," Sonny said. "We go back, there's a good chance we're going to get stranded on the east coast, and last we heard anything on the radio, the ocean was coming in fast." He looked out over the valley.
"We could have a vote," Vinnie said.
"Forget that," Sonny said. "We don't have a fucking forest ranger along, do we? Spreading out the decision isn't going to make it less stupid, it'll just waste time arguing over it." He blew out a sigh. "All right. Going back is pretty sure to be bad, this way we just don't know. So we keep going. Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll rain."
They drove single file, hugging the inside lane, and went as fast as they could. The first plume of black smoke fell away behind them, but more of them appeared as they drove, off in the distance to either side, glimpsed between the mountains. The smell never got better, but one of the teenagers had the bright idea of digging out her strawberry flavored lip balm for everyone to rub under their noses, to help cover it up a little.
"Oh, thank God, rain," somebody said, looking up; they'd stopped to take care of necessities at a rest stop that was just a bathroom and a couple of vending machines and a scenic overlook of mountains on fire. It was getting late in the day, and the clouds were coming together fast, darkening to charcoal grey with a weird greenish cast. "I know we're in the mountains, but that's a tornado cloud if ever I saw one," one of the truckers said, a guy from Kansas.
"Great," Sonny said. "Back in the cars, everybody, let's get the fuck off this hill."
Hail started falling as they drove, tin-roof rattling overhead, smearing the road with ice. "Keep an eye out for some cover, I want to pull over as—" Sonny said—his mouth kept moving, but Vinnie couldn't hear him; the whole car was full of white light, and it was like a bomb going off. The passenger-side window blew in on top of him, safety glass shattering into pebble-size chunks like ice, cold air roaring in. The truck was skidding as Sonny hit the brakes. "Holy shit!" he was yelling, sounding muffled and far-away, and the air smelled like smoke and ozone.
Another lightning strike went off a little further away this time, a bolt as thick as a tree-trunk, glowing threads trailing in every direction around it. More blazing flashes of white light were going off in the clouds above, smoke rising from the ground where the first bolt had hit. "Jesus," Vinnie said. "I guess that's how it caught on fire."
Sonny put the truck in park and killed the engine; the rest of the caravan had all stopped behind them, too, and they sat in the dark watching the storm travel away across the mountains like a huge crawling spider putting down its crooked stick-legs of lightning, leaving black smoke pillars climbing away behind it.
They crept out of the mountains three days and another two storms later, everybody shellshocked and nauseous. They'd lost two cars along the way, crashed with blown-out tires and smashed windshields, and all the others were dented like they'd been through the wars. There were a lot of cuts and bruises, some bad whiplash cases, and nobody had done much sleeping.
Signora Benedetto had somehow clung on through the whole terrifying escapade; they'd made room for her to lie flat in one of the trucks and wrapped her in blankets and cushions, with Dr. Amato sitting next to her giving her small doses of medicine and water and Pete on the other side, talking to her softly. They stopped at the first gas station for everyone to use the bathroom and catch their breath, and lifted her out for some fresh air. "We're out of the mountains, Signora," Pete said gently, holding her dry narrow hand, and she smiled up at the sunlight and died without speaking.
They buried her in a small shallow grave by the road and covered it over with rocks and a makeshift cross made out of car parts. Pete gave the eulogy, and all two-hundred-something of them stood close together around the grave while he spoke, people crying quietly, holding hands. Vinnie clamped down on his jaw; he hadn't even known her, he hadn't said a word to her beyond "How are you doing? Okay?" and helping her into the truck, but his throat was burning.
The pumps at the station were dry. Even siphoning out the gas from the two wrecks, they were getting down to fumes in most of the cars, and as they passed another three roadside stations, all dry, they started to see the side of the road littered with the corpses of cars with empty gas tanks. "Sonny, I know it's a bad idea, but we're going to have to try further off the highway for gas stations," Vinnie said grimly.
"Yeah, on both counts," Sonny said.
He put together a foraging party: three of their guys, Macready and one of his pals, a couple of neutrals. "You're in charge while we're gone," he told Pete, who blinked at him in surprise. "I'm figuring those Irish guys are at least gonna have some respect for a priest; they shouldn't give you a hard time as long as Macready is out with us. If we're not back by nighttime, figure we're a loss, and move on to try again. Ostrow knows where the guns and spare ammo are."
They took the two biggest cars and the station wagon, empty gas cans rattling in the back, and followed the exit ramp with the sign GAS 2 MILES onto the narrow country road. The road was restful to look at, lined with green trees that hadn't all been knocked down or set on fire, and after half a mile it broke out into farmland: big fields of what Vinnie thought was cotton, or had been cotton, before it mostly got squashed flat and soaked into mush by hail.
The gas station was tiny and abandoned, with a handwritten paper sign taped up over the sandwich-board price that said $8 GALLON, ONE TANK. "Well, this might be a wasted trip," Sonny said, but when they got their makeshift pump rigged up, there was plenty of gas left, enough to fill up the three cars and all the cans they had. "I'll check if there are some more cans in the station," Vinnie said, and took Edison with him.
"Do you suppose everyone has left the area?" Edison said.
"Looks like it," Vinnie said. "I sure as hell wouldn't stick around with those storms going off in the mountains and probably spilling down here. It must've been like being under siege."
"Then perhaps we should consider stopping in at some of the farmhouses. We could use more clothing and dry goods."
"It's not a bad idea," Vinnie said, but Sonny vetoed.
"There's going to be plenty of time to worry about that crap after we find someplace safe enough to settle for a while," he said. "I'm not looking to meet the one last nutcase hiding out in his barn with a shotgun just because mama needs a new pair of shoes."
They filled up another five cans and headed back to the highway. Vinnie rolled the window down for the fresh air, let it blow through the car, the first clean air they'd tasted since going into the mountains. That was why he heard the pop-pop of gunfire as they came towards the entry ramp, in time to slam on the brakes.
"Take the keys," Sonny said, already getting out of the car, gun out of his waistband. He sent one quick look over the guys. "Tino, Edison, you're with us." He took the keys out of Vinnie's hand and tossed them over to Macready. "Move the cars under the overpass, keep out of sight. We need that gas."
They crept up the entry ramp staying low and fast. There were maybe fifteen or twenty motorcycles gathered at the head of the caravan. It was hard to see through the cluster of cars, but there was one big guy standing with a shotgun, at least five or six others flanking him with pistols. Pete was standing in front of the caravan with his hands spread, talking, too far away to hear what he was saying; Ostrow was next to him.
"You don't go for your guns until I do, you don't shoot until I give the word, and then you blow them all the fuck away," Sonny said, and looked hard at Tino and Edison. "You got that? All right, stick close."
He stood and walked right up the ramp and through the crowd. Vinnie thumbed the safety off and kept the gun casually hanging at his side while he followed. "What the fuck is this?" Sonny said, putting his hand on Pete's shoulder, moving him back. Pete glanced at Vinnie, anxiously, but stepped back and away. "You're a real tough guy, huh, firing off shotguns around little kids, old women? You better be prepared to make a fucking explanation."
The motorcycle leader eyed Sonny up and down, insultingly slow; he was about six-three, two hundred fifty pounds, with tattoos climbing out of his leather coat and up his neck. "You're the one traveling through my turf without permission, Guido."
"It's the fucking interstate highway, Mad Max, and if you keep blocking the road you're going to get run over," Sonny said.
"Oh, you can go by," motorcycle-man said. "You just leave us one of these cars, fill up the trunk with some supplies, and hey, a couple of those girls can stay and keep us company." He leered over at the truck and the college kids' van, where most of the teenage girls were clustered.
"You know," Sonny said gently, "I'm a reasonable man. This is a rough time. We don't want trouble, and I don't begrudge a man trying to survive. There are what, twenty of you? We've been doing okay on food, over-the-counter medicine, that kind of thing. We can spare you a couple days' supplies. That's all you get."
The big man cocked his head, still grinning. "And if I say no?"
Sonny smiled. "Say yes."
The motorcycle guy leaned in close to Sonny's face and stage-whispered, "No."
Sonny shot him twice, neat professional double-tap right to the heart, and dumped his body off. One of the girls screamed, quickly muffled. He moved his gun over to the guy who'd been on the leader's right.
"Let's try that again," Sonny said. "The offer's down to one day's supplies. Say yes."
Vinnie had raised his gun and put the next guy to the left in his sights; Edison and Tino and Marie were all lined up next to him, taking aim. The guy swallowed and wet his mouth down with his tongue. He flicked his eyes to the dead body on the ground, to their pointing guns, and then he said, "Yes."
"Good," Sonny said. "See how easy that was?"
Sonny changed the driving order after that: they started going in a square, taking up three lanes when they could get them, with the trucks loaded with women and kids and older people in the middle, and their four little Japanese imports as a guard around the gas wagon in the back. It slowed them down a lot for the first day, and they had a few little fender-bumps, but everyone got used to it pretty quick.
They worked out a better system for foraging: any time they passed a sign for gas, the caravan slowed but kept going, and two-man parties broke off in the zippy little cars one at a time, dashed out to the stations and got gas and caught up again. The storms were behind them and the roads started going fast.
A woman approached them during a rest stop the next day: Jennifer Levy, a therapist from New York. "You're still busy, but now that we're out of immediate danger, there are a lot of people with nothing to do but sit in cars all day thinking about everything they've lost," she said. "Some of them are going a little nuts, and it's going to get worse."
"Great," Sonny muttered, but he let her organize daily group meetings, "so we can get to know one another, form social bonds, start providing emotional support," she said. He even sent out foraging parties to bring back a special treat for the first one. They'd been passing big cattle farms along the side of the road, cows mournfully stripping the grass in their fields down to the dirt, and a couple of the guys knew how to butcher and build a roasting spit, so they had themselves a barbeque.
Everybody stuffed themselves; they were all sick of rest stop food and junky snacks. Jennifer pounced while they were all vulnerable and sleepy and got people going in a circle talking about where they came from, what they used to do. It was a weird mix: a lot of truckers, no surprise, but also equal numbers of plumbers and lawyers, five biology teachers from Atlanta who'd been at a conference in Pennsylvania and decided to head home by car when the airports got closed, secretaries and a couple of nurses, some mechanics and some engineers. The Boston guys were in construction, and Macready had owned a bar.
"We've all done interfaith work," Pete was saying, speaking for himself and the other priests from St. Dismas, "and we want you all to know that we'll do our best to counsel you in the traditions of your own faith, if you feel the need for spiritual guidance." He grinned. "Not that we won't make the occasional pitch for our team now and again, but we're parish priests, not missionaries."
Mama had been talking to the other older women, and when her turn came she volunteered them all to watch the kids, when people needed a rest or to get other work done. "We old ladies want to be useful also," she said, smiling. Vinnie watched them both, full of pride, and didn't notice that the icebreaker was headed his way until Jean Merkel next to him was finishing up; she was a radio DJ with a great voice, and everyone was cracking up at her story even though it was just about getting her three kids into snowsuits and driving to Jersey; she sang bits of a few songs and kept the patter going a long time, and then she turned and smiled and said, "So Vinnie, your turn?"
And that meant Sonny was next. Vinnie turned and looked at him. Sonny was stretched out lazily on his side on a tarp, propped up against one of the old stumps they'd dragged over to make seats with. He saw Vinnie looking and shrugged. "What are you looking at me for? Go ahead, tell them. What the hell, right?" He jerked his thumb at Vinnie. "This guy's a federal agent."
People all got a little brighter. "Man, so you're, like, FBI?" Tyler asked, one of the older kids.
Trust Sonny to jump right into the deep end. Vinnie just hoped he knew what the hell he was doing; people had gotten a little freaked out by the shooting, and if Sonny handed Macready the mafioso thing on top of it—"Yeah," Vinnie said. "I'm with the OCB, that's the Organized Crime Bureau. I'm—I was an undercover agent."
It set off a buzz of conversation among all the people from the church; Mama sat there looking proud and smug while her neighbors whispered furiously around her.
"So—does that mean you were his supervisor?" Cecilia Huang, one of the teachers, leaned forward to ask Sonny.
Sonny raised an eyebrow. "Sweetheart, I'm the guy he was trying to put away." He glanced at Vinnie. "Funny how things work out, huh?"
"Oh yeah, hilarious," Vinnie said, eyeing him.
"Organized crime?" One of the kids laughed. "So, what, you're like Don Corleone or something?" A few other people giggled; when they noticed the crowd from the neighborhood staring at them, unsmiling, they all stopped abruptly.
"Christ, that Hollywood stuff, forget about it. I had a little action in Atlantic City, that's all," Sonny said, flipping a hand dismissively, but after the circle broke up Macready wandered by and offered them cigars.
"There's an acquaintance of mine named Mahoney, ran in Philly," he said casually. "Had a few interests down there in Jersey."
"Mack? Mack's my goombah," Sonny said, lighting up, and Macready nodded and wandered away again.
"You did that on purpose or what?" Vinnie said, after they'd sacked out in a quiet corner of the rest stop. Everybody was pretty wiped out, and Sonny had decided to let them all have a night sleeping flat. They'd been collecting sleeping bags and blankets and pillows along the way, and now people were little lumpy bundles scattered across the floor.
Sonny shrugged. "Construction and a bar and IRA? What were the chances they weren't going to be connected? Mack knows all those guys up and down the East Coast." He fell silent, and then he said low, "Hope like hell he made it out of there."
Vinnie swallowed and lay down on his back, trying not to think about Frank, about Uncle Mike. Frank had a family, didn't he? He wished he'd paid more attention, asked more questions.
"Why did I say no liquor again?" Sonny said wistfully, after a little while.
"Because the last thing we need is people getting drunk and going nuts?" Vinnie said, unenthusiastically. "I could go for half a bottle of whiskey myself."
"No kidding," Sonny said. "First chance for a decent night in a month, and I can't fall asleep." He sighed. Then he nudged Vinnie in the side. "Come on, talk to me. How'd you get to be an agent, anyway?"
"Well, Pete was a priest, I guess I had to find something else my ma could be proud of," Vinnie said. "There was a recruiting office at St. John's—"
"What, you're kidding me, you're a college kid?" Sonny said.
"The bureau won't take you without a degree, pretty much," Vinnie said. "You never thought about going?"
"Me?" Sonny said. "Nah. My dad got whacked, Dominic had been shipped back to Sicily, Dave was out there hanging in the wind, you know how it is." He paused and huffed a soft laugh. "Hey, you guys never figured out who ran the Nantucket Thanksgiving operation, did you?"
"The one where half the Genovese family got blown to hell in Connecticut? No, that one's been open for—" Vinnie sat up. "That was you?"
Sonny laughed again, putting an arm behind his head. "Yeah. Nobody ever knew but Mack and Dave. Half the fucking made men in New York hauled in for questioning, and nobody ever asked me the first thing about it."
"No kidding, Jesus; what were you, seventeen?" Vinnie said.
Sonny shrugged, a faint movement in the dark. "They killed my father. That made me a man."
Vinnie lay back down slowly and stared up at the ceiling. At seventeen, what the hell had he been doing? As little schoolwork as he could get away with, chasing girls, playing basketball, Golden Gloves—hanging out in the neighborhood all day, playing at being a tough guy, but at night he went home to his dad smoking cigarettes and demanding to see his homework grades, Mama showing him college brochures, Pete in divinity school and going through that strange alchemy that turned him from a brother into a priest. He'd been a kid, and nobody had asked him to be anything else.
"What, are you feeling sorry for me or something?" Sonny said. "Forget about it. I've got no regrets. You play the hand you're dealt." Then he looked over at Vinnie, his dark eyes liquid with the light filtering in from the parking lot and the handful of street lamps still hanging on, his face tired but still more alive than any other ten guys Vinnie had ever seen, the faint rueful glimmer of a smile after everything. "And then God comes along and knocks over the table."
Vinnie looked at him, the guy he'd gone under to destroy, the cold-blooded killer who'd saved his life and his family, and said softly, "Well, I guess he's dealt us fresh. And I can't complain about the cards."
Sonny was silent, and then he moved over. Vinnie didn't figure out what he was doing until Sonny was already kissing him, and then he didn't figure out what he wanted to do himself until he was kissing Sonny back, his hands pulling hurried and clumsy at Sonny's pants, going for his skin. They were all sticky with sweat and grime after almost three weeks without anything but rest-stop bathrooms to clean up in, and Sonny had two days' worth of beard to go with Vinnie's three, so they were scraping each other up, and all he wanted was more.
"Shh, shh," Sonny was whispering, against his mouth, against his cheek, in his ear, except he was stroking Vinnie hard and fast, and how the fuck was a guy supposed to keep quiet with—with—
"Sonny," he whispered back, and caught Sonny's head in his hand and turned him so he could kiss him more, deep, let his gasps out into Sonny's mouth. It felt so fucking good, better than being drunk would've been: proof he was alive and here and free, and he came and came and fell asleep, still holding Sonny close, in a room full of people who weren't strangers anymore.
"What do you think?" Sonny asked, staring down at the poky green seedling.
"What do I know about corn?" Vinnie said. "It's growing out of the ground, that's gotta be better than not."
"That book says it's only supposed to be knee-high in July. Maybe we shouldn't've planted it this soon," Sonny said, then shrugged. "Ah, what the hell. At least the potatoes are looking okay."
"What are you worrying about, anyway? We've got enough cans and supermarket stuff to last a century by now," Vinnie said. "Ginny says if the guys haul in any more bags of flour, we can start building houses out of paper maché."
"Yeah, great, then our grandkids can starve instead of us," Sonny said. "We can't rely on that stuff, we gotta get this right. Besides, what, you want to be eating peaches in syrup the rest of your life?"
"I'm just saying, we've got time for the learning curve," Vinnie said. "Hey, does that mean I can have your share of Mama's peach pie tonight?"
"In your dreams, pal," Sonny said, and they just barely missed squashing the corn seedling, mock-wrestling.
The compound was looking pretty good. They'd stopped on the far side of the Mississippi River just a little way into Arkansas, on a farm that had been left in good shape, probably by somebody who'd panicked about the cold wave and run for Mexico. A lot of people had done that; word from the handful of stragglers who'd made it back to the area was that most of them had probably gotten caught by the swelling Gulf, which had eaten a quarter of Texas and most of the lower Mississippi delta. Chances were nobody was going to come back and make a fuss over squatters.
The farmhouse and the barns had been good enough to put a roof over everyone's head for the first month or so, while they built the wall Sonny had insisted on, and since then they'd been putting up little houses inside the barricade at a steady clip. Most weeks they got two or even three up, between planting whatever the hell they could find seeds for and hoping it grew. Sonny had copped them one near the wall, so they could react fast when there were any threats; Mama had kept her room in the farmhouse, and Pete was living over the small barn they'd converted into a church.
They'd also built a little hospital, now with two doctors and four nurses, and stocked it with all the modern equipment; to run that and the big restaurant-size icebox, they had a generator and big tanks full of gasoline from the refinery one day away. They even had a little radio station of their own: they'd scrounged supplies from a broadcast station in Little Rock, and now Jean was running a daily show of music from scrounged cassettes and her own patter, which everybody could tune in to while they worked, with FM walkmen or little portable stereos. One of the engineers was building her an honest-to-God radio antenna on top of the house: she sometimes caught scraps of broadcasts, and she thought once she had the boost, she'd be able to start getting some real news, put them back in touch with the wider world, or what was left of it.
But it almost didn't matter; maybe life didn't look the way it had before, but it was good. The work was hard, but it was kind of fun, too, learning all this new stuff, making the farming work, building things, keeping an eye on the kids, having big family-style dinners with Chinese and Mexican and Italian food all sharing the long tables, jostling for space with the dozen other cuisines they'd picked up along the way.
The foraging teams kept bringing in strays along with supplies, newcomers who invariably took one look at the neat, orderly compound, the kids running around loose in the walls, and asked to stay. Pretty soon they'd have to expand the wall, or maybe start a second compound at the next farm over.
The truck pulling up to the gate right now was honking four times: that was the signal that meant strangers with them, and there was a motorcycle on its tail. It wasn't their shift on guard, but Sonny was already headed for the gate: he always liked to check out newcomers personally when he had the chance; he instinctively hated the idea of letting anyone in unvetted.
Vinnie checked the gun in his waistband and followed him; Macready rolled down the passenger window as they walked up and said, "Seems to be he's looking for you, laddie."
"What?" Vinnie said, and turned to see the motorcycle rider take off his helmet. He stared, blankly, and then he was hugging Frank up off the ground. "Frank! Jesus, you made it."
"Yeah, I'm glad to see you too, Terranova," Frank said, although it came out as more of a wheeze. "Can you put me down now? You're crushing the mail."
Frank slung down a big messenger bag off his back and handed it to Vinnie to hold; the motorcycle had a pair of big saddlebags, too, stuffed to their seams, and a hard-sided case on top of them with a shotgun holstered over the wheel. "I'm riding in from Knoxville. We're trying to put together a mail circuit," he said, taking the saddlebags off the bike. "Right now I'm mostly carrying stuff aimed at people from the area, but if everyone gives me their name and past addresses, we'll route any mail we get for them over here."
Sonny had stopped to talk briefly to Macready before strolling after Vinnie. "A regular Pony Express, huh?" he said, raising an eyebrow. Frank turned around and did a double-take. "So, Vinnie, this a friend of yours from back home?"
"Uh," Vinnie said, looking between them. "Frank, this is—uh, right, you already know. Sonny, this is—this is Frank McPike. He's—he was—"
"The OCB director for Atlantic City," Sonny said.
"Well, uh, that—yes." Vinnie gave up. Frank and Sonny were eyeing each other like bristling cats. "All right, all right, you guys can put down the hackles any time now," Vinnie said.
Neither of them made a move right away, then finally Sonny glanced at Vinnie and said, "What the hell, I'm never going to hear the end of this otherwise," and stuck out a hand.
Frank looked at it like it was a rattler with its mouth open until Vinnie caught his eye and glared, hard. "I see what you mean," Frank muttered, and shook Sonny's hand.
"Your family, are they okay?" Vinnie asked, as they headed towards the farmhouse; the word about the mail had spread already, and people were starting to gather.
"Yeah, they're back in Knoxville," Frank said. "It's all right there. The governor called out the National Guard and managed to keep a handle on things there, it didn't get too messy." He glanced around the compound. "You guys look like you're doing okay. You haven't had trouble with the gangs out here?"
"We had a little, we straightened them out pretty quick," Sonny said, coolly.
Frank eyed him. "Yeah, I bet."
"We're doing great," Vinnie said hurriedly. "You should bring your family here. Hey, we've even got corn growing and everything."
"You're growing corn?" Frank said. "Isn't this too early for it?"
"Goddammit," Sonny muttered, and they went up the stairs into the house together.
All feedback much appreciated!