CHAPTER EIGHT -- HOMECOMING
[Here it is at last, the wrap-up. And, of course, all the previous installments can be read by scrolling down. What I've tried to do here was to create a pulp adventure novel that wasn't retro, ala Indiana Jones. And the novel is autobiographical in the sense that it concerns my homeland of Southwestern Pennsylvania --not as it is, or was, but as it pleases me to imagine it. Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]
The following afternoon a small group gathered for Arthur’s funeral. Pops, Shadow, Leon, Christian, and Cathy Gorman were in attendance, along with some allies from the previous day’s faction fight who wished to pay their respects. They were assembled in the small forest glade on Pops’ property where Pops had buried Steffy.
“Room enough here for a few more graves,” Pops told Leon, “Steffy and I never had a son. Arthur is more than welcome here. I guess I’ll be joinin’ `em ere long.” He paused and looked about. Sunlight parted the clouds and slanted through the mostly-bare trees. A passing breeze rattled the boughs. A few brown leaves drifted down. “Yep,” Pops said thoughtfully, “This will be a nice little cemetery.”
In the glade a fresh grave had been dug. A simple pine coffin had been lowered into it. Arthur rested within the coffin with the Arkansas toothpick he had borne in battle.
Pops gave the eulogy.
“We lay to rest a man of the Border Region. The compass of his soul guided him here, to his home. This land will be stronger with his bones in the ground.”
Afterwards Christian led Leon, Cathy and some of the others in a prayer. Pops and Shadow stood nearby with bowed heads.
When all was said, Pops and Leon picked up shovels and began to fill in the grave. Cathy Gorman burst into tears as the first damp clods struck the coffin lid. She sobbed more loudly as each shovelful of dirt fell. Shadow remained silent, her face as immobile as a stoic Indian’s, but tears streamed freely down her cheeks.
Shadow lingered after the others had departed. The last words uttered at Arthur’s graveside that day were hers.
“Fare thee well, friend. Your love was not wasted.”
Shadow found Pops seated before his fireplace. Pain dozed at his feet. Shadow took a seat on the floor next to the dog.
Pops contemplated the flames for a moment before saying, “I guess you’re pissed at me for not letting old Pain here tear that boy’s throat out.”
It was the first time they had spoken of it. Shadow looked up and said, “No. Not actually. I just wish I understood things better.”
“I had to put an end to it,” Pops explained. “You dealt Mad Dog two terrible hurts. You took away his favorite son and crippled him for life. Now he’s physically handicapped and doesn’t have Sailor to back him up. His power is broken and so is he. I saw the fire go out of him, which is sad in a way, but it took the bitterness with it. He became a changed man before my eyes. Yes, it can come over a man just like that. I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen it happen before more than once.
“But Clanton has friends. They wouldn’t look on it too kindly if I had taken Joel from him after he had begged and pleaded with me for his life. It would be seen as an act of cruelty, me tearing the last pitiful remnants from weak grasping fingers. It would have prolonged the feud, whatever the outcome of the faction fight.
“As it is, Clanton is forever in my debt. Everyone sees him as beholden to me. No one would back him in a move against me. Not that he would attempt such a thing now. He is not without honor in his fashion. And he may be hobbling on a stick from now on, but at least he can rightfully boast that he once used it to best Connor O’Rourke in single combat. No one can take that away from him.
“Arthur sacrificed his life to save you,” Pops concluded, “And by dying in your stead he bought us the peace.”
After hearing Pops’ explanation, Shadow went in search of Christian. She found him out back by the still.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, “We need to talk.”
“About what?” Christian asked.
“About what you’re doing here. I want to know why you really came to the Border Region. And don’t give me that lame routine about looking for the girl. Anyone with more than two brain cells would have to know how futile that was. I didn’t care because I was getting paid. But now I want the real story.”
“I was going to tell you anyway,” Christian said as he began his tale, “I’m an accountant from North Carolina, like I said. I was working in Liberty’s City as a low-level bean counter for the Confederate government. And I really was engaged to Angel. That much was true. But I did deceive you about her whereabouts. I’ve always been pretty sure she’s in New York. I didn’t lie when I said she left me. She ran off with a Muslim from the Islamic States.”
“I suspected something of the sort,” Shadow informed him, “Go on.”
The whole story came out. The other man was an ISA diplomat who came to Liberty’s City on a state visit. Angel met him at a party and had been swept off her feet by his debonair charm. When he returned home, she went with him. Christian had been left heartbroken and humiliated. He was plunged into a deep depression and his work suffered. At this point he was approached by a government intelligence agency, the heir to the Old Union’s CIA.
High government officials were concerned about the possibility of a growing Muslim presence in the Border Region. The New American Confederacy, the Free Republic of Alaska, and the Border Region all formed a loose-knit confederation. In addition to utilizing a common currency, Alaskans and Border Regioners could serve in what was referred to as the American Military. The main purpose of the alliance was mutual defense. Though not a part of the New American Confederacy, the Border Region remained connected to it in certain respects. Therefore any encroachment upon the Border Region on the part of the Islamic States of America could be viewed as an indirect threat to the Confederacy. Muslims from the Islamic States might emigrate to certain areas of the Border Region and in time achieve majority status there. Then, theoretically, sections of the northern and eastern Border Region could be subsumed into the ISA county by county. For this reason, the number and location of Muslims residing in the Border Region was of concern to the Confederate government.
Unfortunately, Confederate intelligence resources were meager compared to those of the Old Union. This was where Christian came in. He was tapped to play the jilted lover wandering the Border Region in search of his runaway sweetheart. Enough of the story was true that he could act the part convincingly. The plan was for him to get far into the rural reaches of the Border Region to scout out Muslim enclaves, if any. The Confederate spy masters had little doubt that Christian would agree to take the mission. Assuming the role of a daring secret agent would act as a balm to his injured male pride. And if he helped thwart the designs of the Islamic Federation, he would gain a measure of revenge. He was the perfect cat’s-paw.
“You Border Regioners are suspicious of outsiders,” Christian told Shadow, “A trained agent attempting to infiltrate would be spotted a mile off. But a rank amateur like me just might be able to get away with it. Anyway, that’s what the people who recruited me thought. And that’s the whole story.”
Shadow punched Christian in the mouth. “And that’s for lying to me in the first place,” she said as she stormed off.
Christian rubbed his jaw and watched her ass sway as she walked away from him. He grinned sheepishly. He knew full well that if Shadow had nailed him with her best shot, he’d be flat on his back, out cold. Still, it was probably best to stay out of her way until she cooled off. That evening he unrolled his sleeping bag on Pops’ porch and slept outdoors.
Christian awoke early the next morning to the smell of venison sausage cooking inside the cabin. Shadow came out with some breakfast.
“Rise and shine, Churchy,” she said cheerfully, “I brought you sausage and eggs.”
“Uh, so you’re not still upset with me?” he asked.
“We’re good,” she replied. “I just needed to be mad for a little bit.”
They sat on the steps and ate breakfast together. When they finished she informed him, “I’m pulling out of here this morning. Have you had enough of the New Settlements?”
Merciful Lord, yes! he thought. “Where are you headed?” he said.
“Tionesta. That’s up north. Northwest, actually. It’s a couple days’ ride. I have family up there. I think you’d like it. It’s in the middle of some real nice country. And the community there is thriving. It’s a little city-state, almost. They have solar and wind electricity, and a lot of modern conveniences. It’s not like here at all.”
“Then I’m for Tionesta!”
After breakfast they said their goodbyes to Pops. Not long afterwards they were on the road again. Shadow rode Incitatus. Christian was astride the horse formerly owned by the late Sailor Clanton.
Their route took them down from the mountains and back onto the main roads. The trip proved uneventful. They passed the time in conversation. Shadow mentioned looking forward to the big Halloween festival in Tionesta.
“Halloween is not that widely celebrated in the Confederacy,” Christian informed her, “Most people tend to look on it as a pagan celebration. It’s not unheard of, but it’s sort of frowned upon.”
“Well, Halloween is the biggest holiday in the Border Region. Hands down,” Shadow said. She went on to explain its historical and cultural significance in the Region.
The Pennsylvania Uprising that ultimately led to the formation of the Border Region had its beginning in the Pittsburgh area. The Westsylvania secession movement started small, with a series of peaceful demonstrations. However, when a local congresswoman disparaged movement leaders as losers and misfits, things turned ugly. On the night of October 31, 2081, secession sympathizers retaliated by firebombing the congresswoman’s upscale home. This became known as the “Halloween Hellfire” incident. It was the first documented episode of violence associated with the Westsylvania secession movement. Things snowballed from there. Cities and counties erupted in rioting, open rebellion, and finally armed insurrection.
“And today Halloween is celebrated with wild partying all over the Border Region,” Shadow concluded, “I’ve been to some really big blow-outs in Wheeling and Pittsburgh. And, as you might expect, they do it up big in Transylvania. But usually I enjoy getting back to Tionesta for the celebration.”
It was also during the journey that Shadow filled Christian in concerning the Muslim population of the Border Region.
“I’ve traveled all over the Region. I’ve probably wandered over more of it than most. And I really haven’t encountered all that many Muslims. You probably have just as many, or more, still residing in the Confederacy. There are no Muslim ‘enclaves’ that I know of. Just a family here and there. And these tend to be free thinkers looking to practice a less strict form of their religion. As long as they just want to live in peace and do their own thing, they’re welcome. But if they were to try and proselytize and gain converts, they would be made to feel most unwelcome. That sort of thing doesn’t go over well here.”
Christian questioned Shadow concerning the specifics of where and when she had encountered Muslims in the Region. Finally he felt satisfied that he had enough information to put in his report when he got back to the Confederacy.
“Why even go back?” Shadow asked, “You should stay here. You belong here. Think about it. You killed your first man before you fucked your first woman. That makes you Border Region in my book, son.”
Christian didn’t have an answer for that one. He rode on in silence. But he did think about it.
Tionesta was an isolated community up north in Forest County. Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries the town had been frequented by visitors. Surrounded by woodlands teeming with game and adjacent to a large lake suitable for fishing and boating, it was a popular getaway destination. Many of the residences were hunting cabins and vacation homes unoccupied for most of the year. A small permanent population provided various goods and services.
Following the Westsylvania secession, the character of the town began to change. Counties to the north including Erie, Crawford, and Warren remained in the Pennsylvania commonwealth by treaty so as to furnish a corridor linking the Northeastern and Midwestern Islamic states. Non-Muslim residents of those areas faced the choice of abiding by Islamic authority or relocating. Many displaced residents came to resettle in and around Tionesta, swelling the population. By the early 22nd Century, Tionesta had become the model of a vital self-sufficient community. It was the northernmost outpost of the Border Region.
Shadow and Christian arrived in Tionesta at about noon on the 31st. They headed for the center of town. There holiday festivities were already underway. The whole downtown area had been transformed into an enormous street fair. Lively crowds milled about everywhere. Handcrafted items and food of every sort was being sold at open stalls. Smoke from the grills scented the air.
“It goes on all day and well into the night,” Shadow informed her companion, “Right now there’s feasting and dancing. After dark there’ll be masquerades.”
After stabling the horses they joined the crowds. Before long Shadow was greeted by an old friend. At the sound of a melodic voice calling her name, she and Christian turned to see a stunning blonde coming their way. The newcomer looked to be a year or so older than Shadow and was roughly the same height and build. Christian watched the two women embrace. Then Shadow made the introductions.
“Christian, this is Anime, or Anna Mae if you prefer. She was my partner in crime during my younger, wilder days. We used to perform in Pittsburgh clubs as a trash dance combo called Filth.”
Christian didn’t ask what a trash dance combo was. Anime warmed him with a smile that would make any man do her bidding. “Pleased to meet you, Chris.”
“She used to be cool,” Shadow said tartly, “Then she settled down and married my blockhead brother.” To Anime, “Where is Hondo, anyway?”
“He’s down in Clarion visiting your parents and your kid sister Penny,” Anime replied, “Any plans to go see them?”
“Maybe at Thanksgiving. I’ve been thinking of going down to Pittsburgh. I could book some sessions at Madame Irene’s and be back up here in time for deer season.”
Shadow noticed the look of sick horror on Christian’s face. She set him straight. “Will you fucking relax, already? I just do domination.”
Turning back to Anime, she asked, “So where are the kiddies?”
“I left them with my friend Sophie to watch while I came over to see you.”
As if on cue two little girls, perhaps four and five, came scampering out of the crowd. They ran straight to Shadow.
“Aunt Tam!” they squealed in unison.
Shadow cast a sidelong glance at Christian. “Not a word out of you, Church-boy.”
Shadow knelt and hugged the children. Straightening she said to Christian, “These are my little nieces that I told you about, Lois and Margo.”
The kids were clearly excited by a visit from their aunt. One of the tots looked up and asked, “Can we ride Incitatus?”
“You sure can!” Shadow promised.
Christian was moved to inquire, “Will Incitatus like giving pony rides to children?”
“I’ll bust him in the snoot if he doesn’t,” Shadow said, then added meaningfully, “You have to show big dumb animals who’s boss.”
Sensing something unspoken between the man and woman, Anime laughed. “You guys must be hungry,” she said.
The group left the street fair and strolled over to a nearby park. There were more crowds of people, and more stalls selling food. Beer, wine, moonshine and cider were sold and consumed in great quantities. From a central pavilion, a band entertained the crowd. Christian remarked that the Halloween celebration seemed to have incorporated elements of Oktoberfest.
For lunch the companions dined on pierogis at one of the picnic tables. The adults drank 33 while the kids enjoyed draft root beer. Following the meal the women got caught up. Shadow narrated her recent adventures, glossing over some of the gorier details. Anime wiped away a tear when told of Arthur’s sacrifice.
Christian proposed a toast --”To Arthur.” He and the women raised their drinks.
The adults sat in respectful silence for awhile. The children played nearby. The youngsters’ laughter proved infectious and the mood at the picnic table began to lighten once more.
“You have to come up to the house and get your vampire costume,” Anime said to Shadow, “You can change before it gets dark.”
“Great,” Shadow replied, “What about you? Are you wearing yours? It’ll be the return of the toothsome twosome.”
“No, I’m afraid not. I’ve agreed to play Sandy this year.”
Shadow laughed loudly and raised her beer in salute. “Halloween Hellfire!” she declared.
From the context Christian assumed this to be a popular toast for the occasion. The reference to “Sandy” puzzled him, however. Anime filled him in.
Sandra Popplevich was the name of the congresswoman whose home had been burned in the Halloween Hellfire episode back in `81. Over the years she became the basis for “Sandy,” an evil witch character in tales told to children. Now on Halloween in communities throughout the Border Region a local woman would dress as Sandy. The children would chase her around and she would pretend to hide. A dummy in similar attire would then be brought forth and set ablaze.
“It’s become a big tradition,” Anime concluded, “And all the kids love it.”
Later that afternoon the group adjourned to Anime’s home. It was located in a semi-rural area not far from the center of town. Shadow and Christian rode there on horseback. Anime and the kids drove in the family horse-and-buggy.
Upon arrival Shadow treated Lois and Margo to the promised pony rides on Incitatus. She then stabled her horse with the others in a small barn to the rear of Anime’s property. After providing the horses with some feed, she rejoined her companions in the house.
Anime was entertaining Christian in the living room. As Shadow came in she was telling him more about life in Tionesta; “As far as essentials are concerned, we’re totally self-sufficient. If we were cut off from the outside, we’d be okay. All of our power is wind and solar. People have been experimenting with wind and solar energy since the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, but it wasn’t produced on a large scale. Advances in the technology finally made it feasible. With communities that are energy self-sufficient, the power doesn’t have to be transmitted over long distance. So you don’t have this vast complicated infrastructure that can collapse like a house of cards.”
Shadow yawned loudly to get their attention. “Glad to see you’re fascinating our guest. If either of want me, I’ll be upstairs getting changed.” So saying, she disappeared up the stairs.
She came down a short time later. Christian turned at the sound of her footstep on the stair and actually caught his breath at the sight of her. Time seemed to slow and she appeared to drift down the stairs in slow motion.
Shadow was dressed to impress. She wore a tight black merry widow corselet. Its heavily-wired cups lifted the ivory globes of her breasts, thrusting them out. Garters from the corselet extended past black panties to uphold stockings woven in an intricate spider-web pattern. On her slender feet she wore open-toed shoes with high stiletto heels. Long satin opera gloves of a deep burgundy hue extended past her elbows. Draped about her shoulders was a black velvet hooded cloak with a red satin lining.
When Christian found his tongue he stammered, “I-I thought you were supposed to be a vampire.”
“I’m a sexy vampire!” she said playfully.
“You look great,” he admitted.
“Thanks. But I still have some bruises on my face make-up won’t cover. So I’m wearing this.”
Shadow produced a mask from somewhere. It was a grotesque affair constructed of several segments of stiff molded leather fastened together with small brass rivets. The segments --smooth domed forehead, cheekbones, upper jaw-- fitted together seamlessly to form the face of a glossy black leather skull. Christian watched uneasily as Shadow slipped the mask on. An elastic band encircling her head held it in place. Most of her face was covered by the skull mask. Only her eyes, nose and chin remained visible. She raised the hood of the cloak.
“I can’t see your face,” Christian objected.
“So look at my tits.”
After dusk they all headed back to town for the Halloween masquerade. The whole group managed to fit in Anime’s buggy for the ride down. Christian thought the kids looked cute in their costumes; Lois as a ghost and Margo as a black cat. Anime wore no costume, but a bag at her side contained her Sandy outfit for later. Shadow rode in silence. It was as though in donning cloak, hood and mask she had adopted a more somber, mysterious demeanor.
The center of town was closed to vehicular traffic due to the street fair. Anime dropped Christian and Shadow off at the outskirts of the festivities, then drove away to corral the horse and buggy. The children waved goodbye as they departed.
Night had fallen and most people at the fair were now cavorting in costume. Shadow said nothing but took Christian by the hand and led him deep into the crowds of revelers, Here there was food and drink, music and merriment. The only thing resembling this anywhere in the Confederacy was the New Orleans Mardi Gras. This seemed different and darker, however. Christian noticed that there were no funny costumes, but all the familiar figures of folklore and Gothic horror were present. And then there were the women, flaunting themselves in all manner of provocative attire. Christian, accustomed as he was to women modestly dressed, was soon sporting an erection. With an effort he avoided looking at them, and gradually it subsided.
Shadow led Christian to the town square. Here a stage had been set up and the community’s children, including Lois and Margo, were being entertained by a puppet show. In the middle of the performance a strange costumed figure came skulking onto the stage. Christian recognized Anime despite her ragged robes, pointed witch’s hat and fake hook nose. She now began to lurch about making menacing gestures. The puppet master reacted in mock horror. “Oh no, it’s Sandy!” he cried, “Help me, kids, help me!”
Dozens of laughing, screaming, jumping children rose up en masse and stormed the stage. “Sandy” was forced to retreat. The crowds parted to allow the youngsters to pursue the robed figure through the streets. She eventually took refuge in one of the shops along the main drag. The door locked behind her and she vanished into one of the back rooms.
Presently two large men in devil costumes emerged bearing a dummy garbed as Sandy on pitchforks. They went forth into the streets brandishing the dummy aloft. The children followed them through the cheering, jeering throngs as they returned to the town square. There a noose had been thrown over a lamppost. The neck of the dummy was placed in the noose and the mannequin was hoisted upwards. A third man in a devil costume stepped forward holding an upraised torch and set the dummy afire. Cries of “Halloween Hellfire” echoed through the crowd.
“A bit gruesome,” Christian observed.
“Let’s take a walk through Pumpkin-Land,” Shadow said in response, “It might calm your nerves.”
He did not question her as she took his hand once more and led him away. The din of the crowd faded behind them as they entered the park where they had eaten lunch that afternoon. In a meadow and along the slope of a hill the townsfolk had placed hundreds of glowing jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins large and small had been carved into an assortment of frightful and mournful visages. The candles flickering within them cast a pale unsteady illumination, like that produced by scores of winking fireflies. Shadow and Christian were not alone. Other couples sauntered about. The total effect of the scene was one of strange, eerie, peaceful beauty.
Christian was deep in thought. This land, this Border Region, was a land a man like Arthur had watered with his blood. Christian now felt that he could make a home here. He thought of Anime. Had she not once been as wild as Shadow? Now she was wife to some lucky man.
When he was ready, he spoke.
“Shadow, will you take off your mask?”
“I want to kiss you.”
She lowered her hood and removed the mask. The couple embraced and kissed passionately. Shadow was impressed; the boy was learning.
After they disengaged he said softly, “I’m planning on moving to the Border Region. I could probably make a good living in one of the city-states. I still have to go back and make my report, but then I’ll be free of obligations.”
He paused, hesitated, and then continued, “And there’s another thing. I want to marry you.”
Shadow was a little surprised, but only a little. I’ll bet you do, she thought, We screwed out of wedlock, and that would give it a kind of retroactive legitimacy. Nice try, Church-boy.
“Not so fast,” she replied. She preferred doing things her way and she wanted to test him, so she said, “You can start off being my personal fuck-toy and we’ll work it from there. How’s that?’
He had to think about it, but not for long. “That’ll be fine.”
“Good. So when do you think you’ll be heading home?
“I’ll be heading down the to the Confederacy in a day or two. Once there I can give my report and get my affairs in order. Then I’ll be back.
“But as to when I’m heading home, I’m already home. Home is here. In the Border Region. With you.”