River of night, p.28

River of Night, page 28

 part  #7 of  Black Tide Rising Series


River of Night

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  “Same thing that my niece lived through,” Tom said pensively, looking into the middle distance. “I wonder what they are up to. That dinky sailboat will be getting tossed around in the storms outside the Stream now.”

  “Hey,” Risky said, shaking his hand to get his attention. “Hey. How about some food?”

  “Hmmm,” Smith replied before calling over his shoulder. “You want some food?”

  Their armed minder shrugged indifferently, so they walked outside and turned along the gravel path towards the dining facility.

  Inside, they sat over some truly bitter coffee. On the up side, it warmed Risky’s hands and smelled nice.

  “What have you thought of?” Risky asked. “All I have is trying to persuade Kohn to evacuate to the dam.”

  “I’m thinking that as bad as I feel, it’s nothing like her personal hell,” the banker replied. Risky followed his look towards the corner table, where Kendra sat, not drinking her coffee. “I’m going over to say hello.”

  He stood and moved to her table, mirrored by Risky.

  “Hi, Tom, hi, Risky,” Kendra greeted them flatly. “I’m glad that you survived.”

  “Hi, Jonesy,” Tom replied. “I’m glad that you survived, too.”

  “I didn’t,” Kendra said, looking back down at her coffee.

  After that conversation killer, Risky paused for a minute before taking her turn.

  “Why’s everyone so formal?” she said, prompting Kendra. “Miz this, Mister that. We’re living in the outlands; camp isn’t Wall Street or City Hall.”

  “Once you’ve been here long enough you can begin to see the similarities to those places,” Kendra said. “Joanna and her closest people explained that survival is contingent on working together. Cooperation requires respect. Respect starts with speech. Respect, diversity, equality, all the things that the Executive Committee define as community—the camp is as much about that as it’s about survival.” She paused again, looking thoughtful. “Actually, New Hope is more about ‘community’ than it is about survival.”

  “I haven’t recognized as many bank folks as I expected to,” Tom said, picking up the conversation. “How many are here? I haven’t seen a single senior person. Where are we storing the offline data?”

  “That’s actually kind of funny, Tom,” Kendra said, pushing her coffee away. “Site Blue was never properly finished or staffed. This place isn’t about the bank anymore. Once Kohn began organizing the place and she accepted external refugees, it was something else. Paul tried to…”

  She abruptly stopped talking and went back to contemplating her coffee.

  “Kohn has asked me to surrender to the Gleaners,” Tom stated after a longish interval. “What do you think?”

  “She’s got a plan,” Kendra said, looking directly into both their faces. Her normally bright eyes mirrored the darkness of the coffee that was slowly approaching room temperature. “She always has a plan. She makes it work. She protects the greatest number even if someone has to pay.”

  She looked back down.

  “Maybe it’s your turn to pay,” she mumbled. “It goes around.”

  Schweizer entered, the bright light from outside shining behind him.

  “Mr. Smith, I’m here to escort you to the administrator,” Schweizer said with a nod to the other guard already in the canteen. “You can come with us. Ms. Jones will stay with our other guest.”

  Risky began to stand, protesting, but Tom laid a hand on her forearm.

  “Stay and chat with Kendra, Risky,” he said easily. “I’ll be along presently.” Schweizer nodded unctuously and held the door for Tom as he walked by.

  Risky watched them both go. Then she looked over to Kendra and scooted a little closer.

  * * *

  Tom sat, seemingly relaxed, replying to the pleasant greetings as Kohn moved through the business rituals of an everyday meeting, though he knew full well that this was anything but that. Armed, Schweizer stood well behind Tom.

  “This is a bit of a change from our first meeting at the bank. The four of us, views for miles overlooking the river,” Tom said, looking around the shabby confines of the office. “Just us two, now.”

  “It was a good partnership,” Kohn replied. “Whatever did happen, after you placed me on that flight?”

  “Ding went crazy,” Tom replied, studying Kohn’s face. “He was convinced that Cosa Nova set up a hit on the police and their families at One Police Plaza. In the end he died trying to kill Matricardi and his men.”

  “I was aware of the strike on police headquarters,” Kohn said, her lips quirked. “Did anyone turn up any proof that Matricardi did it?”

  “No,” Tom said, squinting at her. “But I’m pretty sure that he didn’t. What’s your theory?”

  “I do not have any theories, Mr. Smith.” Her smile sharpened. “So, Matricardi killed Captain Dominguez?”

  “Again, no,” Tom replied. “I did.”

  Kohn raised her eyebrows, surprised.

  “Long story, but eventually Ding came to the bank, just like you did,” Tom said. “We beat off the cops after they shot down the last helicopter and set the building on fire. Then we ran for the boats with what was left of Cosa Nova. Matricardi was murdered by one of his own. We cleaned house again and got offshore.”

  “Ah, that explains how you came to have some of his men in your party,” Kohn said, tapping her pen on the desk blotter. “Reminiscing is very nice, but we have a more immediate problem. Actually, two.”

  “I’m listening.”

  “Your actions, no doubt forced upon you by circumstances, have led to a rather unfavorable standoff with this new group, the Gleaners,” Kohn said, slightly adjusting the position of the nameplate on her desk. “This comes at a time when we are still too few to be certain of fighting off a significant threat. We would lose many people even if we won that fight. On the other hand, if we surrender you to Loki and his governor, all we lose is one person and we buy ourselves considerable time.”

  “The math seems compelling,” Tom said, letting a faint smile play across his face, “but afterwards, you’re no better off. Once you pay the Danegeld, it can be hard to—”

  “I am familiar with the saying Mr. Smith,” Kohn replied acerbically.

  “What you don’t have are numbers and fighting power,” Tom said. He rolled one shoulder, but winced as the recent injury pinched something. He straightened out his leg, and winced again. “So trading away people, even a single beat-up specimen like myself, leaves you weaker than you were. In turn, that encourages the Gleaners to stick around. They’ll keep making demands until you balk, and then they’ll walk over any remaining resistance.”

  Kohn narrowed her eyes before replying.

  “You think that you have a strong bargaining position,” she said. “That is adorable. I could just kill you now and hand your body over to the Gleaners, and thereby satisfy their immediate hunger.”

  “Unlikely to impossible,” he replied impatiently. “And we both know it. The Gleaner contingent already left. Moreover, the entire camp knows I’m in here. Kill me out of hand, and you’ll have a fight. If you win—and as you pointed out, that isn’t a certain thing—you’ll be weakened enough to lose to Loki here and now instead of in a few months. On the other hand, if we work together on a different plan, if we’re seen to cooperate, your power grows.”

  Kohn smoothed her brow, dismissing the frown that he’d prompted. Then she nodded before tapping her fingers on the desk blotter.

  “Go on.”

  “Let’s skip to the important bits,” Tom went on. “What if there was an option which allowed Site Blue—”

  “Camp New Hope,” Schweizer spoke up, ending his long silence.

  “Right, New Hope,” Tom said wearily, turning his head to acknowledge the man behind him. “What if you could get more people? And power. Lots and lots of electrical power.”

  “And where would you get these things, Tom?” Kohn asked suspiciously.

  “The Tennessee River is only about fifteen miles thataway,” Tom answered. He felt his fatigue building but refocused and casually waved one hand in an easterly direction. “There are five hydroelectric power plants along the closest bit of the river. One of them will be operational or can be made that way. We take one, relocate our survivors and enjoy security, electricity, unlimited hot water, that sort of thing. And you’ll be the administrator that made it happen. You’ll be the one to restart civilization.”

  “I’m well aware of the location of the river,” Kohn replied. “And equally aware of the very large number of infected which are drawn to it as a water source. Not to mention the enemies which you have made, lurking somewhere out there. Assuming that you can actually reach such a dam, and find it functioning, why would you just give this to me?”

  “Not for you, Joanna,” Tom replied. “For everyone here. I’ve been driving through the remains of civilization for three months. I won’t pretend that I like you, or think that you’re a particularly good leader. But you are better than all that.”

  He waved his hand around the room again, indicated the world outside.

  “One of your injured men mentioned that you have a force outside the camp,” Kohn said, changing the subject abruptly.

  Apart from quickly flicking his eyes up to meet Kohn’s level gaze, Tom didn’t show any additional reaction, but it was enough.

  * * *

  “A young man, pain medication, fatigue, a pretty nurse,” Joanna said, smiling thinly for Smith’s benefit. “Interesting how much one can learn from a medical situation. So, there are another twenty or more people, friends of yours. They include soldiers. And they’re already heading towards the nearest dam.”

  Smith was silent a moment longer, then shrugged.

  “Well, I never said I’d take the dam alone,” he offered casually.

  “With so many resources, I am confident that you might actually succeed, Tom,” Joanna said. “However, I want you to succeed.”

  “Or wear down the Gleaners in trying,” Smith pointed out.

  “Or that, Mr. Smith,” she said. “Or that. But to either end, I will return a vehicle. I will allow young Mr. Connor to accompany you. You may even take your weapons with you, as well.”

  “Thank you—”

  “In your absence, the soldiers will help us guard the camp,” Joanna cut Tom off, while sliding her right hand into an open desk drawer where, out of sight, she kept a small pistol. “I will personally guarantee the best possible treatment of your wounded, who will of course need to remain. As well as Miss Khabayeva.”

  “What?” Smith said. Joanna watched his face shift from guarded confidence to surprise to anger in the space of a moment. It was delicious. She allowed him to continue. “No. No deal. They all come with me.”

  “I know you, Smith,” Joanna replied smoothly. “You, and men like you, are quite irrational about women. We are weak, we need protection, we need you to decide for us. Well, no longer. For now, you will work for me. Oh, I know that you could find a way to make trouble for me, one way or the other. If you actually succeed in taking the dam, you would be motivated to move against me and you would have considerable resources. If you fail, well, at least you distracted Loki and his governor while we prepare here. So, I will retain assurances in the form of the person that you care about more than yourself. More than your precious bank or this camp.”

  She paused, savoring the moment, watching his face.

  “Take the dam for me, and eliminate the threat from the Gleaners,” Joanna said, before adding a little encouragement, “and you may have your lover back.”

  She watched the muscles in Smith’s cheek bunch and his hands tighten on his chair arms. Behind him, her man Schweizer had readied his pistol in case Smith failed to maintain control. Smith’s eyes flickered with an animal awareness of the trap, fully realized at last.

  “Ah, yes, I am well aware of the relationship,” Joanna said, using her free hand to tap the desktop. “Your little spectacle earlier was most indiscreet, for a man who usually conceals his relationships. But nonetheless, she is one of the survivors and you pledged to protect the survivors from the bank, Smith, did you not? You pledged a full measure of your devotion. You haven’t redeemed that pledge, yet. Do this, and your mission is complete. You can do as you will. But…”

  She stopped tapping.

  “Take any action against me…” Joanna paused and smiled even more broadly, “…well, there is no need to be specific, is there? I will keep my part of the bargain, to the letter, just as before. And if, as you say in banking, the counterparty breaks the terms of the deal…let us just say that I will visit sorrow upon you, just as in the past I have visited sorrow upon all those who have broken faith with me. One way or the other, you will serve my needs. And my first need is that you explain to everyone here that we are friends, once again. Afterwards, you have a dam to secure. So put your ‘happy-face’ on. You are about to talk to the entire camp. Do be convincing.”


  After Smith failed to show, Rune had made the next two communication windows, trying to raise Randall using Risky’s handheld. He got through on the second attempt.

  “Bravo, Bravo this is Romeo,” Paul sent. Knowing the quality of any radio operators at Site Blue, apart from Randall, he decided to use military phonetics in place of names. Besides, if someone beside Gunner was listening, then the hangers-on wouldn’t recognize his voice through the distortion of the retail quality CB radio speaker. “Comeback on channel two-one.”

  “Romeo, Bravo,” Randall immediately replied. “You are go on an open channel.”

  “What the fuck over? Where’s Sierra One? I’ve been sitting on my ass since the Two unit left yesterday.”

  “Umm, all I know is that my radio room is clean,” Randall transmitted. “Anyone could be sitting on this channel.”

  “In for a penny,” Rune said. “SITREP, over.”

  Randall hesitated before he replied, considering how to condense the information to a single transmission.

  The word of Smith’s decision to accept Kohn’s deal had spread through the camp faster than the schedule of pre-Fall Pacific Fleet ship movements spread through the hostess stands in Guam and Singapore. Smith had addressed the camp in the dining facility to explain that the decision to buy time was solely his, that Kohn had his full support, and that he was thankful that his team could stay, heal and contribute.

  Risky had been kept in a CHU, under escort. After she’d fucked up one guard, Kohn had finally assigned Kendra, armed, to the task.

  So to say that things smelled fishy was an understatement.

  “Injured visitors held hostage,” Randall sent. “Sierra One will depart camp for dam. Plan to link up in same location as first contact. Site Blue unaware of your status.”

  “Well, how truly good. Really wonderful,” Paul said. There was a long pause as he digested the summary. “Pass to Sierra that I’ll be there.”

  “Don’t guarantee that we’ll get access to Sierra before departure, so you need to be ready to signal him, Romeo,” Randall said. Then, he sniggered a little bit. “Romeo. Sorry, I can’t help it. You and Kendra. Get it?”

  “Something’s gonna get git,” Rune said bitingly. “See you at the pick-up. Out.”


  * * *

  “We’re nearly all set, Miss Kohn,” Schweizer said, leaning a little more closely towards Joanna. “The Army personnel are segregated from the others, and both Smith and Khabayeva are under guard in temporary quarters.”

  Joanna looked up from the clipboard, using one hand to pin the papers that were being ruffled by the strong breeze blowing across Site Blue. She passed the clipboard to Christine, who was hovering nearby.

  “Here you go, dear,” she said. “Please get the cafeteria area ready for a short presentation and let the camp know that Mr. Smith will be addressing us later this morning.” She ignored the uncertain nod from Christine as she turned to

  “Very good, Ken,” she replied. “Before that, I’d like your read on the two new soldiers, especially the young woman.”

  “She’s the lowest ranking one, pretty junior,” Schweizer summarized. “The men are foot soldiers, artillery branch. Her specialty is administration. Kendra, ah, Miss Jones says that she’s high energy, lots of initiative and looking for something to do.”

  “Really?” Joanna asked, raising one eyebrow. “That sounds interesting. As soon as we bid Mr. Smith goodbye, please arrange an interview with her in my office. I’m always looking for new talent.”

  “Miss Kohn, she’s a soldier,” Schweizer half-protested. “Are you sure you want to try to recruit her? Military types tend to take the entire duty and oath thing pretty seriously.”

  “Precisely, Ken,” Joanna replied. “And just who has a greater claim to be representing any sort of government that a soldier would obey? A washed-up banker or a member of the city council of New York? She will be looking for something to do, and is probably tired of listening to her sergeant anyway. Maybe she is interested in, what do they call it? Ah, yes—detached duty.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” her dutiful subordinate said. “I’ll set it up.”

  * * *

  Risky was not having any of it.

  When Tom had failed to return to his prefab hut and was instead replaced by a male guard, she decided that she wasn’t going to stay inside, regardless. A bloody nose and a couple gouges to his face later, the guard was forced to contact tase Risky, which laid her out for a while. Eventually, she came to, one hand zip tied to the bed in her CHU.

  Kendra sat on the floor with her back to the inside of the unit’s door.

  “Don’t try to break the plastic,” she said in a flat voice. “You’ll just tear the skin, and then I’ll tase you and you’ll hate me even more.”

  “I need to see Tom, now!” demanded Risky. “Right the fuck now!”

  “I know,” Kendra said, leaning her head back on the door, “been there. Kohn’s just letting things settle down. Smith is just wrapping up a little speech to the camp about how he’s delighted to be working for the good of the camp. In the meantime, she doesn’t want you getting everyone more upset or trying to change Smith’s mind.”

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