FFFF #1

Yes, I know that it’s not technically the first Friday of June but it took a little longer to get the site up and running so I’m fudging it a bit.

Here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:

1) This story (Ritual) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.

2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.

This month’s free story is called Ritual. Enjoy.

Ritual

By

Jake MacMillan

Walking the two miles from the main house was hard work in the cutting wind.  The wet chill got inside David’s parka, penetrated his flannel shirt and slipped under his long johns.  Once it was through all his layers, it managed to wriggle its way into his joints where it settled in with all the attendant aches and pains common to a man twenty years his senior.

By the time he had put a hundred yards between himself and the fireplace in the main house, his face had become hard as those of the glass dolls displayed on shelves in the formal but never used dining room of the main house.  The place everyone spoke about in hushed, superstitious tones as The Hall of the Tchotchkes.  It was the kind of place you went on a dare but only if you were young.

David had never been a religious man, but he had come to respect the power of ritual in the way it psychologically beat into you with routine what you couldn’t accept intellectually.  As a boy, he had knelt on hard knee boards in the pews of St. Andrews and said his prayers and worked his rosary without attaching any significance to the activity beyond the necessity of getting it done so he could tear off his Sunday clothes and go out to play.  But now years had passed and, in the process, given him the kind of hard instruction only time can deliver.

Leaning into the bitter wind, he made his way along the neat berm of turned earth marking the garden that had now grown to be the size of a football field, its furrows frozen and sleeping in wait for spring.  From there, he crossed the tree line onto the narrow deer trail that would eventually lead to the place where his ritual would reach its finale.

The ache in his joints and the pain of his frozen skin wore away the layers of bullshit he normally used to justify his actions.  In the grip of physical duress, he could finally understand what the pain in his knees had been about all those years ago, what the repetition of those prayers had been meant to instill in him.

***

The ritual had begun on its own just a few years ago, not so long a time considering the way time seemed to have unraveled so quickly over the past decade.  It had begun back when he was still working in the small FBI field office in Austin.  While the world had been pulling itself apart at every seam, he had been drinking bad coffee, wearing a K-mart short sleeve shirt with a clip-on tie and a Smith & Wesson .357 under a Sears “brand name” suit.

The ritual hadn’t started then but its seeds had been sowed on that day when his station chief had finished going through the morning’s list of assignments and David had pulled him aside to ask for a moment “in office.”  The crowd of agents was dispersing in a mumbling mass and everyone’s nerves were jangling like loose change.  Rumors were flying from one mouth to the next, evolving with each leap.  But David had been an engineering major in school and he had a way – sometimes his wife would refer to it as a “maddening” way – of approaching situations with the cold detachment of a serial killer.

Mike Hayden, his boss and station chief, invited David into his office and closed the door behind him.  “What’s up?” He sounded annoyed, mostly because everyone was annoyed, but also because the sanctity of his office, the one place he could go to hide from all the insanity, had been breached by his least favorite agent.

“I’ve been running models…”

Mike rolled his eyes and shook his head.  “David, please, not with the models again.”

“I have a question for you.”

“Then ask it.”

David said, “Would you sell your soul to save the lives of your wife and children?”

Mike almost hit him.  He even pictured himself coming around the desk and backhanding the skinny Asberger’s idiot savant but managed to keep a lid on it.  “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I’ve been running models and the most likely prediction is that the President calls for martial law six months before the election and we – meaning agents not a part of the shadow government – end up in Region IV internment camps.  He’s going to use the North Korea thing as his opening move and then play the Iran card.  He’ll declare martial law and Homeland Security will divide the country into five semi-autonomous regions with Texas landing squarely in Region IV.”

“Is that right?” Mike asked.  He had known for a long time that David was a little on the odd side, but he’d never guessed he was a member of the tinfoil hat society.

“Then they’ll kill us,” David said flatly.  “And they’ll send our families to re-education camps.”

“That’s black helicopter stuff, David.”

“I know. And there are militias in the great northwest that want this to happen so badly they’re drooling over it, but even they don’t know what’s really coming.  They think they’re going to be able to hold out with their caches of small arms and World War II grenades.”

Mike sipped his coffee and leaned back in his chair.  “And they won’t be able to?”

“No,” David scoffed.  “Look, the problem isn’t that the Shadow Government is going to declare martial law.  The problem is that martial law is going to fail and everything is going to descend into chaos.  America works because it’s made up of a massive web of large and small businesses that cooperate on a more or less even economic playing field.  When you take that away and try to impose a centralized government, you end up with an Army that can’t get fed and has no bullets for its guns.”

An image of rogue units of the American military trolling cities and small towns in their tanks and Strykers  looking for food flashed behind Mike’s eyes.  “So, it’ll come down to guns.”

“Yes.  And the military is going to be very well armed, while the populace for all its NRA hoo-ha is going to be breaking their lances on M-1 Abrahams tanks.”

“Go on,” Mike said.

David laid it out for him, stem to stern without stopping to check any notes or correct himself.  He was like a machine that had been chewing on a difficult problem for a long time and was finally ready to spit out the results in one long stack of folding computer paper.

***

David stopped at the top of a rise and looked back down the deer path.  The house sat in the leeward side of a small mountain range two hours west of Austin.  It was a single story home, build in the 1970s, with three bedrooms and two and a half baths and a barn out back that had served as a garage in those good old days.  It was a quarter mile from a highway that was itself little more than a two lane stretch of blacktop they had littered with wrecked cars to make the approach to the driveway more difficult.  The highway was surrounded by dense belts of hardwoods threaded with live oaks that remained green year round providing excellent cover.

Hidden from view by the tree wall, dug into the earth to sit easily under the evergreen canopy, were a dozen smaller houses, more like huts than bungalows, each with two small bedrooms, a main room with a kitchen at one end, and one bathroom.

And they were already full.

Before turning back to his long march, he watched the quiet houses and wished he could see children playing in among the trees and racing across the large open lawn toward the main house, maybe catching lightning bugs in the dark or playing tag, but children were urged to stay out of the open lest a chopper make a flyover and take notice of the main house as being anything more than a subsistence farm trying to weather the chaos.  Then he turned back to the trail and followed it deeper into the woods.

***

They had begun with just the two of them all those years ago.  Mike met David at a bar across the street from the agency’s building and the two of them made their way to a booth in the back where they would be afforded a little privacy.

“You’ve thought about this a little too much,” Mike said after draining most of his beer.

“It’s all I think about,” David said.  “In not too long a time, a lot of people are going to die or be enslaved.  The democratic experiment is about to fail and I don’t want my family to be part of the fodder.  When the walls come down, anyone in a city…”

“No, I’m with you,” Mike said, signaling for another beer.  “It’s just so hard to believe.”

“Watch the news.”

“I watch the fucking news,” Mike snapped.  “I may not be a machine, but I am smart enough to see what’s going on.  I know the pieces are being put into play.”  He paused for a moment and then looked downcast and said, “Sorry about the ‘machine’ crack.”

David shook it off.  “It’s not far off the mark.  But the difference between me and those kids that can do quadratic equations in their heads is that I love my family and I’d do anything for them.”

“Even sell your soul?”

David let the question fall soundlessly to the table.

“Well,” Mike said, “that was the question you asked me to get this started.”

“I will take the appropriate actions to ensure my family’s safety… whatever they are.”

“Okay, so who else gets to be in the club besides you and me?”

“Nobody,” David said flatly.

“Then why build all the extra housing?”

“Social Darwinism.  People who are strong enough or lucky enough to make it to us will be brought onboard and trained and made a part of our community.”

Part of Mike thought that statement was outrageous, but another part wanted to surrender thinking about the coming cataclysm – which still stood a very good chance in his mind of not coming at all – to David’s nearly mechanical precision.  “How are you going to convince the couple to sell the house?”

“I’m gong to offer them more money than they ever dreamt of.”

Mike laughed.  “And where are you going to get that much money?”  And then it dawned on Mike why he was the only other person included in David’s survival plan.  “The evidence room.”

David nodded nearly imperceptibly.

“You expect me to use my access to the evidence locker to smuggle out bundles of drug money to finance the plan?”

David said, “That’s why I asked you what you would be willing to do to protect your family.”

“Yeah, but if this doesn’t happen the way you think it will, we’re going to jail forever.”

“Yes,” David said.  “There is a 2 percent chance that the Republic will self-correct, perhaps through some unforeseen behavior on behalf of the heavily stacked Supreme Court, but it’s not a percentage I’m willing to risk.  If you’re having trouble understanding the risk, imagine your son and daughter clinging to a chain link fence inside a re-education center where they’ll be bombarded with the pro-government…”

“Okay, okay,” Mike said.  “I get it.  And to answer your question: Yes, I would sell my soul to save my family.  I’ve thought a lot about it since you asked me and I figure that’s the only real job left to the man after the kids are born.  Protect the family.”

“So,” David said, “I’m going to need money for a construction team, a backhoe, and the illegal purchase of all sorts of military grade arms.”

Mike drained his beer and burped.  “Here goes my carefully crafted career.  I was supposed to be in an RV next year, you know.  Just traveling the country.”

“Sounds boring,” David said.  “I’d rather be fighting to preserve the Republic in my retirement.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Mike said without much conviction.

***

David’s breath, huffed into white clouds in front of his face as he walked, reminded him fondly of the days when he used to smoke.  He could remember with great clarity, standing on the back porch in the cold of a winter’s night with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  Not a snowy night like this one, that was new, but cold like this.

Since the change in the weather, it now snowed in the Hill Country this time of year.  Nothing like the blizzards blanketing Colorado and Utah, but enough to coat the ground with a slick white layer that made traction difficult as he followed the trail through the bare trees.

In order to keep going, to survive the plastic face and the ache in his bones, he thought about the morning’s success: A scout posted a few miles up the road had reported a rogue group of soldiers in four Strykers trailing a full-on main battle tank coming down the highway.  The drunken soldiers in soiled and torn uniforms hung off the Strykers, singing old pop tunes and waving bottles around like victorious warriors entering a liberated city.  The tank, with its big gun and computer controlled targeting system that could turn the compound’s main house into a crater with a single shot, cruised ahead pushing dead cars out of the way with a homemade cattle catcher.

It had been a while since they had seen a tank.  These days the rogue units mostly roamed the countryside in purloined Strykers and Humvees, looting homes and gardens and rustling livestock – and God save the civilians they happened across – but the presence of a tank with this group probably meant there had been further breakdown in the chain of command.

Warlords had divided the cities by now, David figured, and this group of entrepreneurs were out looking for valuables to buy their way in to one of the factions – or, worse, were looking for conscripts to beef up their own clan to fight their way in.  No one gave a damn about the countryside anymore except as a source of food, draftees, and valuables.

The tank sliced through the wrecked cars that littered the highway, shoving them into the ditches on either side without slowing as David had watched from his perch on a platform built high into the upper branches of a tall oak.  All he could think of was the work it was going to take to drag those cars back onto the highway when the shooting was over.

His main concern, however, was what the tank would do when the men inside it discovered the driveway that led through thirty yards of trees into the open area of cleared land.  They had certainly seen the house from the road.  It sat atop a gentle rise, framed by the mountains beyond.  At the highway, the drive was blocked by a Volvo turned on its side.  On the other side of the trees, a school bus, painted blue and converted into a Sunday School bus, had been pulled across the opening.

There was always the chance the gunner or the captain, drunk as skunks or stoned out of their gourds, would just open fire.  If they started firing the big gun, they would do more damage than the members of the compound could repair in a year; and if they accidentally hit the house or the collection of huts, they could kill dozens of people.

There was a six percent chance they would open fire without warning, but David had put the Volvo and the bus there specifically as a challenge, as if to say, “You can’t push through me.  I dare you to put your treads into it and push me out of the way.”

The turret gunner dropped inside as they came to a stop.  Meanwhile, David’s Rangers sat quietly on their perches in the trees above, some of them as young as fourteen, with the solid, nerveless demeanor of battle hardened professionals.  Below them, the rowdy soldiers passed around bottles and joints and hooted like howler monkeys.

The turret gunner returned to view, popping out of his hole like a whack-a-mole, and yelled for them to be quiet.  “Hey, seriously!  C’mon.  You wanna see what this baby can do?  Who wants to put money on the Volvo?”

No one did.

The tank spun 90 degrees on its treads until it was directly facing the Volvo and gunned its engines, issuing a pair of black mushroom clouds from its exhaust pipes.  Then the treads were engaged and the tank practically leapt forward, crossing the highway as it built speed.  It hit the Volvo full on and sent it skittering out of the way as though it had no more mass than a papier-mâché sculpture of a car.

And then the tank was gone.

It was as if it had simply disappeared.  The soldiers in the Strykers stared dumbly at the place where the tank should have been, but there was just dark empty space between the trees.  That was when the RPG’s started raining down on them.  The Rangers fired first into the machinegun turrets to kill the gunners and the drivers and then through the roofs of the back part of the APCs that served as the troop carrier.

Small arms fire from Rangers buried in the muck that filled the gullies raked the soldiers off the tops of the Strykers and gunned down those who tried to exit the rear of the vehicles.  The whole thing only went on for less than four minutes in real time, but it dragged on for hours in battle time.  In the end, all that remained of the rogue platoon were six soldiers on their knees by the side of the road with their hands behind their heads.

This was the part David never watched.  Udall Branch,  an ex-Marine who had taken over training the Rangers when he had come with his family from San Angelo, walked behind the soldiers poised at the edge of the ditch with his chrome plated .45 and repeated his standard speech, “You stand accused of betraying the national trust, of foregoing your oath to protect America from all enemies foreign and domestic.  Hell, you went so far as to become part of the goddamn problem.  You used your training and weapons to rape and plunder.  And this tribunal finds you guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.”

Every time Branch said the word guilty, he put a bullet in the back of the head of one of the weeping prisoners.  What mesmerized David on those few occasions when he found himself unable to avert his eyes was how the prisoners simply knelt and took their punishment.  When the first one was shot, why didn’t the others make a break for it?  It was as if they knew it was time to pay up.

Once this grisly part was done, David had hitched his carabineer to nearby zip-line and rode it to the ground so he could make his way back to the house.  A quick ride through the air, something he always enjoyed despite the circumstances, brought him to a stop in the underbrush just yards from where Mike stood with a cigarette drooping from his lower lip.

“Want me to handle the tank?” Mike asked.

“If you don’t mind.  I’ll radio the Resistance and tell them we’ll have a tank and four Strykers ready for them in a few days.”

Mike shrugged.  “Good, just find someplace new for the meet.  I don’t want those bastards following us back to the source.”

“Good idea.  I’ll have Branch keep a squad of Rangers in your wake to discourage anyone from tracing you back to home base from now on.”

Mike shuddered.  “Branch, yeah.”

“What do you want to do with them, Mike?  Offer them a home and a hot meal?  They’ve been raping and pillaging and if they’d got through our tank trap, they’d be on our wives and daughters right now.”

“You always use the same logic on me,” Mike said, his argument dull from repetition.  “It always comes back to my wife and daughter.”

“That’s because it’s the logic I use on myself.  Do me a favor and make sure they get the bodies stripped and into the shredder for bait.  We’re going to need a big haul of  coyotes and bears this year.  Lots of mouths to feed.”

***

David pushed through some branches and heard an out-of-sync snap behind him.  He turned and came within microseconds of spraying Father Maraz with 5.56mm bits of copper-jacketed lead.  “You just about got yourself killed, padre.”

Father Maraz, who had driven the pale blue bus out of San Antonio during the first riots, was light skinned like a Spaniard and had a flat face and wide mouth.  He was young and hopeful and ballsy enough to drive an old school bus through a wall of burning tires to get thirty of his parishioners out of the city before it descended into utter chaos.

“Sorry,” he said as he stumbled over some twigs that lay across his path.  “I certainly don’t want to get shot.”

“Then why are you here?” David asked.

“Curiosity,” the padre said.

“About?”

“About why you make this trek every month.”

David stopped and broke a twig off a nearby sapling.  “I like the woods.  They’re simple.  I can be alone.  It’s not complicated.”

“Yes,” Father Maraz said, catching his breath.  “But you always follow this trail and you always do it on the night of the full moon.”

“I don’t like being watched,” David said.  “I’m not in your flock, so pay attention to someone else from now on.”

“But, I can’t,” Maraz said with a smile.  “You’re the bossman.  This is your property.  The people I brought with me have been trained to operate in your way.  The boys and even some of the girls are now treetop Rangers and the rest are building cedar houses in the forest and working in the industrial laundry.  And when anyone asks why, it all comes back to you.  It’s your way.  It’s what you want.  Everyone trusts what you want, David.”

“So?”

“So here you are on your monthly trek into the woods. I just thought I’d tag along.”

David thought about it for a moment.  He wasn’t much in the mood for conversation – he was already slurring his words between frozen lips – and this was his personal thing, his private thing.  And he liked his rituals to be unchanging as rituals were supposed to be.  And if he was going to invite anyone along on this one, it would be any person in the world other than Maraz.

“It’s a long walk and it’s only going to get colder.”

“I’m fine with that,” Maraz said.

They walked through the trees in the silver daguerreotype light of the full moon through the bare hardwoods and the shadows made by the live oaks for five minutes before Maraz finally asked a question.  “How did you come up with the idea for the Rangers?”

David didn’t want to answer, wasn’t keen on conversation, but he found himself speaking anyway.  “I kept trying to design walls that would keep us safe.  I mean, I’d come up with the tank trap idea first…”

“How does that work?  Excuse me for interrupting, but I’m fascinated and I’ve never had the courage to be up close when it’s been used.”  He smiled in the silver moonlight.  David remained uncharmed.

“We used the backhoe to dig out the section of the driveway that runs through the tree line and then welded steel plates into a sort of bridge that could be covered with dirt.  It’s split in the middle and hinged.  When the tank drives onto it, the supporting springs give way and the tank falls through.  A second later they snap back into place.  We smoke out the tank soldiers and let Branch take care of them.”

“That part I don’t need to hear about,” Maraz said.

“Then we drive the tank out by removing a wall on the compound side that blocks a ramp.  Winner, winner, chicken dinner.”

Maraz nodded and shoved his hands into the pockets of his pea coat.  “So I interrupted you.”

“Huh?”

“You were telling me how you came up with the idea for the Rangers.”

“Oh, right.  I couldn’t design a wall that would keep everyone out.  I mean, even if you came up with a wall that could resist modern ordinance, eventually someone would scale it in a place where you weren’t looking and then you’d have enemy soldiers in your compound.”

“But, we have no wall of any kind,” Maraz said.

“Sure, we do.  The best defense is a good offense.  The woods around the compound are never unguarded.  I figured we’d need active coverage 24 x 7 in good weather and bad.  Then I came out here during the winter to make another offer to the owners and saw that probably half of the trees in the forest were still leafed out.”

“The live oaks.”

“Yeah,” David said, “the live oaks.  So, that’s when I started thinking about the tree houses we used to build when I was a kid.  We’d always run a zip-line down to the ground, or into the nearest swimming hole, if possible.  And I thought that the best place for our Rangers would be over the heads of whoever might try to infiltrate our area, and I thought it would be an even greater advantage if they could travel from tree to tree without leaving the forest canopy.”

“Hence the zip lines,” Maraz said.

“Hence the zip lines.”

“You said you came out in the winter to make another offer to the owners?”

“Yeah, they knew how to play hardball when it came to negotiations and there was a limit to how much cash Mike could smuggle out of the evidence room at one time.”

They topped a rise and took a moment to lean against trees to rest, their breath freezing into silver clouds in front of their faces.

“You thought about this for a long time,” Maraz said.

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“From the moment the President announced his executive order to put the country into martial law under ‘extraordinary circumstances’ until the day we bolted the city and set up permanent residence here.  All told, it was about two years.”

“Two years is a long time to think about one problem,” Maraz said.

David pushed off from the tree he had been leaning against and started down the slope in front of them.  “Not if you’re a 7 on the Asberger’s scale.”

“So, that’s how it is with you?”

“Me and Bill Gates, yeah.  And do I think Bill had a plan ready when the shit went down?  Yes.  I’m an excellent chess player.”

“What does that…”

“An excellent chess player doesn’t look at individual pieces, he sees the board in tactical and strategic groups.  The Korea thing.  The Iran thing.  The dispersal of our troops overseas.  All pieces in a game.  When the President made that executive order, I saw the board clearly for the first time.”

“Ah,” Maraz said, hustling to catch up.  He was starting to develop an annoying stitch in his side.  “You saw the end was near.”

“Yes,” David said.  “At first, I thought about it in terms of inevitability.  The way you feel when your opponent tells you it’s checkmate in seven moves and you know he’s right and there’s nothing you can do about it.  But then I realized that I was playing a different game than the President.  He was trying to destroy democracy and take control of the country, but I was just trying to protect my family.”

“So, you started making plans.”

“In my head only,” David said. “I never committed anything to paper or computer.  One of the benefits of being more rational than emotional is the ability to keep a lot of balls in the air.  I approached it as a logic problem.”

“The cedar houses?”

“Naturally bug resistant storage for clothing. Kids outgrow their jeans and their shoes.  Clothes wear out over time.”

“Putting the huts in the woods?”

“So that fly-overs by choppers wouldn’t see anything but a single house with a garden.  A big goddamn garden, I’ll admit, but basically just a house and a garden.”

“The stockpile of building materials?”

“To build more huts, obviously,” David said.  “The idea is to take whoever comes harmlessly.  If someone is smart enough and lucky enough and strong enough to make it to us, we should take them in.  The more of us there are and the more diverse our population, the better our chances of survival.”

“But not those soldiers today,” Maraz said.

“They didn’t come harmlessly,” David replied dryly.  “They had already given up their souls in pursuit of fun by violent means.”

“You believe in the existence of the soul?” Maraz asked.  They had reached the bottom of the gully and started up another incline.  His lungs felt as if they were filled with ice water and his ears ached.

“I was on the fence about it for a long time but then something happened that proved it for me.”

“What was that?”

“I lost mine.”

“You lost your soul?” Maraz asked.

“Yeah.  I made a reasoned decision to do something terrible knowing that it would cost me my soul.”

“And what was that?”

“I robbed Peter to pay Paul,” David said. “Do you need to stop for awhile?  You look worn out.”

Maraz shook his head, afraid the conversation would dry up if they stopped.  “I’m fine, but you’re wrong, you know?  Your soul hasn’t gone anywhere, David.  It’s right there inside you and what you’ve done isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul.  You’re protecting people.  The people you kill are the enemy.  If anyone has lost their way, it’s those soldiers.”

They topped the rise, still following the narrow deer trail, and David stopped.  “In order to keep my soul, God has to forgive me.”

“And that’s what He does,” Maraz said, looking around.  “Are we there yet?”

David nodded.  They had arrived in a small clearing illuminated brilliantly by the full moon, but it was no more remarkable than half a dozen others they had passed through on the way.  “It’s a long walk, isn’t it?”

All Father Maraz could do was nod as he caught his breath leaning against a tree.

“And in order for God to forgive me, I have to repent of my sin,” David said.

“It is that simple,” Maraz said.  “David, I would like to hear your confession.  I sense – have sensed for a long time – that you’re deeply troubled.  We have a moment of peace here while the war rages all around us.”

David thought about it for several minutes until he realized the reason he had let Father Maraz tag along.  He did need to confess.  Someone had to know besides him, and it would be good if it was someone bound by God not to tell.  He pointed to a large, flat slab of limestone in the middle of the clearing.  “Here lies Bonnie and Karl Reinhart, late of the middle of nowhere.”

“I don’t understand,” Maraz said.  “Buried under the rock?”

“It was the only tombstone I could manage.”

“And who are these people?”

“Two old farts who cost me my soul,” David said.  “The original owners of the house and the property.  I came out probably six times over the course of a year.  Each time I brought a bigger load of cash.  Time was running out and still they wouldn’t sell.  They just didn’t want to leave.  Retiring to the Hill Country had been their lifelong dream.  I mean, Hell, you see how beautiful it is, right?  They loved this place and they wanted to stay.”

Maraz asked, “David, are you saying that you killed these people?”

“That whole year while they were telling me no, I was looking everywhere for a place situated just right like this one but I couldn’t find anything remotely like it.  I finally reached the point where I understood that it had to be this property or nothing, so I told them exactly what I had in mind.”

“You told them your plan?” Maraz gasped.

“I thought if they could understand the good they would be doing by allowing us to use this property to save lives and help the Resistance, they would capitulate.”

“But they didn’t?”

“No,” David said.  “They were outraged that other people would be trampling all over their beautiful retirement home.  I kept trying to make them understand that there wasn’t going to be any retirement.  There wasn’t going to be any Social Security payout or Medicare coverage.  But they just, I don’t know, I guess they’d programmed themselves their whole lives on how they were going to spend their golden years, you know, and here comes this stranger who claims to be an FBI agent telling them the world is about to turn upside down.”

“They didn’t believe you?”

“They didn’t even listen to me,” David said.  “They ordered me out of the house and told me never to come back.  Of course, it was too late then.  I’d told someone what I had in mind.  No one could know but Mike and me.  No one.  Do you know that Mike and I took welding courses at the community college so we could build that tank trap ourselves?  All the houses, all the backhoe work?  We did it all ourselves.  The deal was we couldn’t hire anyone to help us because that would be like telling someone and once the word got out it would float around until the wrong person heard about it and we’d have more than a rogue group of soldiers on our doorstep.  We’d have the Region IV Provisional Government executing us for aiding and abetting the insurgency.”

Maraz lowered his head and tried to think of all the good that had come of David’s actions.  “You killed them.”

“I forced them at gunpoint to sign papers that indicated I had purchased the property from them for cash, faked a notary seal, and then took them out back and shot them each twice in the head.” David looked around at the bare hardwoods and the leafy live oaks.  They were outside the Rangers’ perimeter of canopy platforms and zip-lines.  This was just dense country.  “You think this was a long hike?  Try making it while pushing a wheelbarrow with two limp corpses onboard.”

“What made you stop here?” Maraz asked.

“I ran out of juice,” David replied.  “I made the decision that they wouldn’t be buried inside the perimeter so I just kept pushing until I was weak as a kitten.  I slept the night next to the wheelbarrow and buried them in the morning.  Then I drove their car to the worst part of San Antonio, left it with the keys in the ignition, and called Mike to come get me.”

“He doesn’t know?”

David shook his head.  “Part of our agreement was that we wouldn’t ask any questions.”

“So, Mike…”

“I have no idea what Mike did or didn’t do beyond lifting the cash we needed.  What I do know is that I committed two cold blooded murders and I hate these two old farts because they cost me my soul.”

“But that doesn’t have to be the case,” Maraz said.  “Yes, you committed a terrible sin, but God has forgiven worse.”

“And that’s why I hate these two narrow-minded, wrinkled ass, chain-smoking fuckers so much.  In order to do real penance I have to feel guilty and accept my punishment.”

“So?”

“So I don’t feel guilty.  I made the right decision considering the circumstances.  The results of my actions prove that they were correct.  Excuse me for a minute.”  Without warning, he unzipped his pants and began urinating on the slab of limestone.  “I drink a lot of water before I make the trip.”  Then he zipped up and watched the urine traces first steam and then freeze on the stone.

“But if you would just…”

David dropped to his knees at Maraz’s feet, his hands clasped in prayer, and said, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been more than twenty years since my last confession.”

With a sigh, Maraz placed his hand on David’s head and said, “Confess your sins, my son.”

“I have lied and stolen and committed murders to set up this compound and I don’t feel guilty.”

Maraz said, “If you don’t feel any guilt, I can’t assign your penance, my son.”

“I know,” David said, his voice quiet and sad.

“Then you’ve made a terrible sacrifice,” Maraz said, “so that others might prosper.  Let’s hope God mitigates your punishment based on these acts.”

David nodded, but he was sure it was too much to hope for.  He stood and was surprised to find he had tears freezing on his cheeks.  “C’mon, let’s get back.”

“Okay,” Father Maraz said, “but don’t go back without hope.”

“Why not?”

“You really hate those people you killed?”

David nodded.

“That means you feel something.  If you live long enough, you’ll learn to resolve having done the right thing with having committed a sin.  And, if I’m there, I’ll be glad to absolve you.”

A silence fell between them for a moment but was struck down by the sound of blades chopping the air in the distance.

David thought about it for a moment, thrust his hands into his pockets, watched helicopters swinging overhead through the night, and said, “Well, let’s hope we both live that long.”

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