In the fourth installment in The Locker Nine Series:
Robert Hardwick's presence at a friend's compound in northern Georgia has put him on the radar of a corrupt congressman whose only bug-out plan is to take the property of someone better prepared than himself. When the congressman's effort to take the Georgia compound fails he has to come up with another way to save his followers and their families.
He decides to track down the writer from Virginia, a man he suspects has outfitted his home to survive the apocalypse he describes in his books. In a last ditch effort to save his mission, the congressman bets everything on taking the Hardwick farm for his people.
Finally within reach of his family in Damascus, Virginia, Robert is prepared to fight him off with everything he has. If the congressman intends to take what belongs to Robert, he'll pay in blood.
A non-stop thrill ride of action and suspense.
Release date: August 9, 2019
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 276
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After breakfast Grace and Tom geared up for an outing beyond the gate. Grace had proposed going alone but Tom shut that down with the full support of her mom and Leslie. No one thought that was a good idea so they set off together with their full load-out and a selection of canned foods to serve as trade goods.
It was shaping up to be a beautiful summer morning and a good day for a walk on a country road, especially for two people with something growing between them that they were hesitant to identify. Walks were perfect for that. Distracting the body so the mind could figure things out. Relationships were hard enough to understand in the best of times, which this was clearly not. There was so much going on that it became difficult to focus. Their lives were like funnels with more running into them than could escape out the other side.
Taking a walk, doing something so normal, it was almost possible to forget the state of things. Not completely, though. No sooner had they managed to push thoughts of their situation to the side than they came across the scene of a battle they’d just fought. A shot up vehicle stuck in a ditch marked the spot were Paul had taken his last stand. He was the asshole boyfriend to Leslie’s meth-head daughter, Debbie, and had been two-hundred pounds of mean in a one hundred pound body.
He was dead now, along with everyone else who’d shown up at the Hardwick farm. After killing Paul, they’d cleaned up the scene and dragged the bodies from the road so as to not draw too much attention. Of course, the shot-up cars and the spent shell casings still told the story. Even beyond that, the faint smell of death in the air confirmed there were bodies decomposing nearby. Eventually the smell of rotting flesh would draw enough coyotes, bears, and buzzards to erase all evidence of the fight.
Grace tried to push the memory from her head. She had no interest in thinking about what had transpired there. She’d only done what she’d had to do, but both the smell of death and the memory of killing destroyed any illusion that this was simply a leisurely walk on a country road. There was no point in trying to fool herself. All she had to do was look down at the gear she wore on her body. The weapon, the loaded-out plate carrier, and the pistol belt were ever-present reminders that times had changed. No matter how pretty the day might be, it was going to be a long time before this was a pretty world again.
"You okay?" Tom asked.
Grace nodded, unsure if she should mention she was weirded out by returning to the scene of the battle. She didn’t want to appear weak. She wanted to be as tough as he was, as tough as her dad.
"It's okay," Tom said. "I've been there. It’s easy to get creeped out anytime you’re somewhere that serious shit went down. Just because you’re a badass doesn't mean you don't experience normal reactions. It doesn't mean you don't remember things. A little PTSD is normal after something like that."
“So you think I’m a badass?” Grace asked.
Tom grinned. “Oh yeah. A serious badass.”
The banter served to lift her spirits. Grace began telling Tom about her neighborhood. She pointed out the homes of people she knew and interesting facts about them. Of course, this wasn't the suburbs, so there weren’t many houses.
"Donnie's place is just up here around the corner,” Grace announced at an overgrown curve, kudzu and blackberries invading the road on both sides.
The house that greeted them beyond the turn was a sprawling brick ranch built in the late 1960s. It was the type of house built for raising a big family, for filling with children, toys, and eventually grandchildren. It was a house never meant to stand as it stood now–deserted and devoid of family.
It appeared to be in good condition, though the yard was a little out of control. No windows were broken out, the doors weren’t standing open, no trees were laying on the roof. Someone was taking care of it, or at least protecting it, since it didn’t look vandalized.
While Grace and Tom were studying Donnie's house, they noticed the overlay of clutter in what had once been a neat yard. It was the house of a man whose wife had made him keep his junk under control while she’d been in charge. Now that she was gone, the piles sprawled into view. Their assessment was interrupted when they heard the front door open. A short man with a thick shock of unruly white hair ambled stiff-legged onto the porch, a shotgun clutched to his chest.
"Get off my property!" he yelled.
Tom and Grace looked at each other, the command so stereotypical that they almost burst into laughter. The man was the very archetype of an armed hillbilly hermit.
As if sensing they were not taking him seriously, the man repeated himself. "I said get off my land! I’ll shoot your ass. Don’t think I won’t."
The gun was respectfully averted from them at the moment but Grace was afraid to ignore him any longer or it might be turned on them. "Are you Donnie?"
"Who the hell is asking?"
"My name is Grace. I'm a neighbor from up the road. My dad is Robert Hardwick."
"Hardwick you say?"
Grace nodded but realized she was probably too far off for him to perceive the movement. He was old, after all. Maybe he couldn’t even see that well. "Yes sir,” she said loudly.
"Hardwick…" he mumbled, trailing off. "I don't recall any Hardwicks around these parts."
"My parents aren’t from here," Grace said. “They moved here about fifteen years ago or so.”
"Ah, I see," Donnie replied, as if that explained everything. "Newcomers. Outsiders." He pronounced the words as if they bore foul connotations, said with the same distaste one might use when pronouncing someone a deadbeat or lazy.
Grace didn't like being referred to as a newcomer. Having been here most of her life should give her some status as a resident. Maybe her family hadn’t been here three hundred years, but this was the only place she really knew in the world. This was her home and she wasn’t an outsider.
"This place is home to us. My dad moved us here because he liked the quiet. He's a writer."
"I damn well like the quiet too, but I'm not getting much of it at this moment,” Donnie replied. “Through no fault of my own, I might add.”
"Sorry," Grace said. She opened her mouth to begin telling him why they’d shown up at his house, to get straight to business, but he interrupted her.
"Your dad’s a writer, you say?"
“For the newspaper or something?”
“He writes books.”
That information brought the same look of distaste back to his face. "So he just basically makes shit up for a living? And people pay him for that?"
"Yes, and he's the first to admit that he makes up stuff for a living. In fact, he is proud of it."
"He proud of that? In my day, we called people who made stuff up liars. Wasn’t particularly something to be proud of. Ain’t no kind of job for a man.”
Grace looked over at Tom, exasperated and uncertain of how to proceed with this contrary old man. Every aspect of this interaction was riling him up, from their appearance to her dad’s profession. He might be content to stand on his porch and argue with her, and could probably do it all day.
In fact, the more she thought about it, she got the feeling he’d enjoy doing that. Maybe this was as close as he’d come to socializing in a long time. She, on the other hand, did not have the time to waste. She had things to do back at the house. She needed to be securing the farm. She had to get this show on the road.
She gave it another shot. "Sir, can we come into your yard and talk with you? It's hard to communicate by yelling back and forth."
Donnie squinted and studied them, considering the matter. He pondered for an uncomfortably long period of time before replying. "I reckon you can come on over but no funny stuff. I may seem like a nice feller but it ain’t nothing for me to kill a man."
Grace wondered about that, how many men he might have killed. She chose not to ask, deciding to act on his invitation before he retracted it. She fought to open a sagging wooden gate she was certain had seen very little use over the years. It was more decorative than functional, the thick grass attempting to bind it to the ground and prevent her entry.
She finally had to push hard and kick it along to create an opening wide enough they could both get through. The gate was set into a neat picket fence, likely from a day when folks walked up and down the road visiting with each other. It was a day before this remote community was altered by television, when Sunday went from a day of visiting with family and neighbors to a day of watching sports on television.
Once she had it broken loose from the weeds, Grace shoved the gate completely out of the way for Tom. The whir of electric motors behind her confirmed he was following. When she looked back up at the porch Donnie was watching them curiously, eyes squinted, mouth cocked curiously.
"What's a girl like you doing wandering up and down the road with a robot? Are you from the future?”
Grace didn’t find a trace of humor in Donnie’s face. He was asking if she was from the future with the same matter-of-fact tone he might use to ask if she knew the weather forecast. She found his acceptance of the possibility they might be from the future to be charming, as if he’d expected all his life there may be a day when robots travelled the road in front of his house in the company of Earth women.
"He’s not a robot, Donnie," Grace said. "He’s not from the future either. That’s my friend Tom and he’s using a new kind of electric wheelchair."
When she mentioned the word wheelchair change washed over Donnie's face. It was as if he’d been enjoying their banter of a few minutes ago but mentioning the wheelchair took him somewhere else. Grace understood why. The very reason they were there was because she knew his wife had been in a wheelchair after having a stroke. His wife had died in the spring, before the country went dark, and Grace was hoping that wheelchair might still be around the house somewhere. This evidently remained an open wound, judging by Donnie’s reaction. Grace needed to reengage him before her progress was lost, before he became so absorbed in his grief that he sent them away.
"Donnie, I'm sure you're wondering why we’re here,” Grace continued.
It took him a moment to respond, as if a dense fog lay between the place he was in his memory and the reality where Grace stood before him. "The thought did cross my mind," he finally said. “Why are you here?” His tone had lost much of the spit and vinegar it held earlier. This was a different man, stung by loss and loneliness.
"Tom was injured in the war and has to use a wheelchair. When he’s outside, this special chair allows him to get around, but it’s too big to use inside a house. He doesn’t have a regular inside wheelchair with him. We’re trying to find one we might be able to buy or borrow."
Donnie was still distant, his thick white brow furrowed over deep blue eyes. She was losing him to the sea of memory. He was floating away, tugged from the shore by the clutching fingers of remembrance, of recollection. When he didn’t rise to her hint about the wheelchair, she pushed again, perhaps needing to be more concrete.
"I was wondering if you might have a wheelchair we could buy. I heard from my mother that your late wife was in a wheelchair before she passed away. Do you still have it?"
Donnie looked at her then, brought back to the moment by Grace’s mention of his wife. He lowered his shotgun until it dangled casually from his hand, the barrel nearly scraping the ground. He apparently understood that these couldn't be ill-intentioned strangers if they knew this much about him. They weren’t thieves, dope-heads, or people from the future. They were just desperate like him.
"I reckon I still got it.”
Grace understood that confirmation didn't mean he was willing to part with it. There might be a process to it. A courtship. “Do you think we could buy it from you? If you want, we’ll return it to you when we get Tom’s chair back."
The old man gave a loose-limbed shrug. "I reckon I couldn’t take anything for it. Before she died she asked me to give it to somebody who might need it. I was supposed to do that with all her things. I just ain’t done it yet. Can’t make myself go through it all. Reckon this is a sign it might be time."
Grace moved forward and opened her pack. She pulled out a half-dozen cans of food from her pack and lined them up on the edge of the porch. "I brought these to trade, just in case you were willing to sell."
Donnie raised a hand toward her. "Like I said, she wanted me to give it away. You don’t have to give me anything."
Grace gave Donnie a coy look. "Well, would you take them just so I don’t have to haul them back home with me? They’re kind of heavy and I’m already going to be pushing the wheelchair.”
Donnie smiled and winked at her. "You're a tricky one, aren't you?"
Grace returned the smile by way of an answer. "Are you doing okay, things being the way they are?"
Donnie gave a dismissive wave. "Honey, I grew up without juice and indoor plumbing. We had oil lamps and outhouses when I was a kid. Later I got power and county water because everyone else did but it never did make a bit of difference to me. I was content with spring water and lanterns. I have a woodstove and plenty of wood. Got a garden, canning, some chickens. Got a creek for water. I'll be fine. Only thing I miss is the Andy Griffith Show."
"I'm glad to hear that, Donnie. I don't think most folks are handling it as well as you,” Tom said. “They weren’t prepared.”
Donnie leaned the shotgun up against the wall. He bent over and picked up the cans of soup, stacking them carefully in his arms like a load of firewood. "Most people are spoiled. It's not about being prepared. It’s more about not depending on the government, or other people, to take care of you. Up until the day my wife died, I knew it was one hundred percent my job to make sure my family was taken care of. My job—nobody else’s. Wasn’t nobody in Washington going to lose sleep if I couldn’t feed my children so why would I trust it to them? Nobody in this world cares more about your people than you do."
"You sound like my dad,” Grace said with a laugh.
"Then your dad must be a sharp feller—for a liar," Donnie said, cackling at that last part. He waved at her with his free hand. “Now come on up and let’s get that chair.”
Tom toggled a joystick and whirred up to the edge of the porch. He extended a hand, leaning forward to reach toward the older man. “Sir, I’m Tom Brady. I really appreciate this. The chair will be a tremendous help.”
Donnie balanced his cans in his left arm and extended his right to shake with Tom. “Tom Brady? Like the football player?”
Tom grinned. “Better.”
Donnie nodded, eyeing the high-tech chair. “I can see that. It’s good to meet you there, buddy. Are those guns on the front of that chair?"
Tom couldn’t hold back a broad smile. "Yes, sir, they are."
Donnie pondered the unusual shape of the AK pistols with their curved magazines. "You sure you ain’t some kind of robot from the future? That’s some fancy crap right there."
Tom shook his head. "Not a robot. Just a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Donnie shrugged. "I know all about that. Been there myself a time or two.” He tugged on the screen door and held it open with his body. “We’ll get that chair and be back in a second.”
“You going to be okay?" Tom hissed at Grace.
Grace frowned, cutting Tom a look that made it clear she thought the question was ridiculous. She could take care of herself. She climbed the porch and leaned her own rifle against the wall beside Donnie’s shotgun. She still had a sidearm and a backup pistol in an ankle holster, not to mention a knife or two scattered on her person. If for some reason Donnie turned out to be a murderous psychopath she’d still be able to defend herself, but that definitely wasn’t the vibe she was getting. He was a grumpy old man, not a dirty old man.
She breezed through the doorway and entered a stuffy, damp-smelling living room. It reminded her of going inside a camper that had been locked up all summer with no ventilation. The décor was classic old-lady style with lots of embroidered pillows, doilies, and shelves of knickknacks. There were cross-stitch pictures on the wall and crocheted afghans draped across furniture. A sewing basket sat beside a worn wingback chair that must have belonged to Donnie's wife. There was a pillow in the chair with a frail-looking Chihuahua laying limp across it.
Grace could hear Donnie in the kitchen putting the cans in the cupboard. "That’s not much of a guard dog you got there. Strangers show up and it doesn't budge. I thought Chihuahuas were supposed to be feisty."
Donnie reappeared in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. He looked at the dog, his face losing all life and animation. He sighed heavily. "Honey, that poor thing died two days ago."
Grace was immediately creeped out. So many questions came to mind that she couldn’t decide which one ask first. Before she could put any of those thoughts into words, Donnie beat her to the punch.
"I know, you’re wondering why I haven't buried her."
Grace nodded, trying not to look as weirded-out as she felt. "Well, now that you mention it, I was going to ask."
"It was my wife's dog. When her health starting going that little thing was her constant companion. It never cared much for me until after she died, then it kept me company, sitting right there in her favorite chair. It kept her memory alive in some way I can’t even explain. Now that the damn thing is dead, I can’t bring myself to put it in the ground. It’s the last living memory. Was the last living memory."
The story broke Grace’s heart and she wanted to hug the man but couldn’t bring herself to do it under these circumstances. If this had been six months ago, the two of them standing in a nursing home, she could have done it. Not standing in this rotting home, though, in the presence of a dead dog. That was a little too weird for her.
"We can help bury it if you want. It’s totally up to you but I dig a pretty mean hole if you need the help."
Donnie raised his hands noncommittally, his demeanor that of a man about to crumble beneath the weight of his past. "I’ll think about it."
From the living room, Donnie led Grace down a long narrow hallway. She thought of ranch houses as being similar to trains, a long series of interconnected spaces with a few sleeper cars off to the side. She sensed Donnie hesitate at each room they passed, as if it were on the tip of his tongue to give her a tour but he caught himself.
The more observant side of Grace wondered if there was a part of Donnie that felt everything in the house worth pointing out was gone. There were children’s room still decorated for kids that hadn’t occupied them in decades. There were storage rooms full of boxes that had not been opened in years. Finally, there was a bedroom shared with the memory of a wife who was dead and buried.
"How many children did you have, Donnie?" Grace knew the question may take them to uncomfortable territory. She was here in the dark interior of his past and it couldn’t be ignored. The ghosts of his family loomed around her, making themselves known, demanding acknowledgment.
Donnie sighed as he struggled to gather that information. "I had a son, Donnie Junior, who died in Vietnam. Two daughters. One lives in Florida. She's an accountant. Got two kids that I hardly ever see. They’re probably grown now. The other teaches school in Texas. She's got more kids that I don't ever see. Probably grown too. If there’s a pattern here, it’s a damn depressing one. Can’t thank you enough for bringing it up."
Grace gave a sheepish smile. "Sorry. Did you ever think about moving closer to one of them?"
"My wife asked for years and I wouldn’t do it. Stubborn, I guess. Felt like if they weren’t going to come see us, then I wasn’t going to go see them. About the time my wife finally convinced me to consider moving, she up and died on me. I thought more seriously about it then but it didn’t seem right to go without her. I’d have felt guilty for allowing myself a privilege I’d deprived her of."
"Maybe you can reconsider when things get back to normal. I’m sure your kids would love to have you closer to them. I’m sure your wife would want it."
Donnie reached the last door in the hallway and paused, holding the doorknob in his hand as if opening it was an act of will he had to muster all his strength to perform. He twisted and pushed, then turned to look at Grace. "I ain't gonna be moving anywhere ever again. I plan on being dead before people are travelling around the country again."
Grace frowned. "Donnie, that’s not a very positive thing to say. You need to keep a good attitude."
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