“Rock-solid characters, buzz-saw action and backstories deserving of books of their own. Amazing...”
For a hardened assassin and his snarky daughter, navigating the apocalypse is little more than business as usual. They have food, weapons, top-notch gear, and connections in the darkest holes of the special operations community. Just don't cross them because hell hath no fury like the Maguires.
Conor Maguire nearly lost his daughter when she was three years old, injured by the drunk driver who killed his wife. When the justice system failed him, Conor retaliated against the driver in dramatic and gruesome fashion.
An ironclad alibi prevented the police from pinning the murder on Conor. His actions didn't go unnoticed though. A covert agency within the US government recuited the talented young bomber and machinist. For over twenty-five years, Conor designed and built custom weapons of death and destruction at his secluded compound in the mountains of Virginia.
When a series of devastating terror attacks brought down the United States, Conor and Barb assumed they were safe in their compound. They had everything they needed. They were armed and highly-trained. Then Barb was kidnapped.
The kidnappers didn’t know why Conor was known as The Mad Mick. They didn’t know the fear and respect his name invoked in the shadowy underworld of covert operations. They didn’t know that when it came to protecting his family, he was without conscience, without compassion, and without equal.
But they would soon find out.
Release date: October 12, 2018
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 234
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The Mad Mick
It was early fall and the nights were becoming cool in the mountains. Eleven tired women walked through dew-soaked grass, their wet feet cold nearly to the point of numbness. It was a small blessing. Beyond the grassy field lay the steep trail of jagged shale leading to the grow houses. That shale sliced at their bare feet like razors.
The men who accompanied them, their kidnappers, did not give them shoes, hoping bare feet would slow the women if they tried to escape. The women did not know what they’d do when winter came. They expected they’d still be working but would they be given shoes? They were certain the men would come up with something to keep them occupied. Better they be given some useful labor than to be left at the mercy of bored men, for there was indeed no mercy at the hands of bored men.
The women were escorted by a team of two heavily-armed men. Each carried an AR-15 and wore a handgun. Enough people had been shot at the camp that the women knew the presence of the armed guards was not an idle threat. They would not hesitate to shoot if they had to.
Kellen was at the head of the line, walking behind a guard they called Buster. She couldn’t help but notice that Buster allowed his rifle to dangle freely from its sling as he mumbled curses and furiously scratched his body with both hands. Kellen saw redness and an oozing rash creeping up the back of Buster’s neck. The same rash covered both his arms and she could only assume it covered the rest of his body. His misery brought a smile to her face.
For three weeks, Kellen and her crew had discreetly collected poison ivy and poison oak during their work at the grow houses. During their bathroom breaks, they wrapped sandwich baggies around their hands, grabbing handfuls of poison ivy leaves and then folding the baggie down to encapsulate the leaves like a doctor peeling exam gloves from their hands. Before the terror attacks came and the country fell apart, one of the women in the camp had supplemented her income by selling essential oils. With a basic understanding of the chemistry behind extracting oils, they’d come up with a plan to extract urushiol, the chemical irritant present in the plants, by boiling it.
Kellen turned to the woman behind her in line and made some pointless comment, using the ruse to check out the guard behind them. She was pleased to find him in distress also, clawing at his neck with his fingernails, trying to find some relief to the rash clearly overtaking his body. The only thing these men were concerned with was their personal suffering. It was fair justice for them, considering the suffering they doled out on a regular basis.
After the women had extracted a quantity of the oil, they began adding it to the laundry. They were required to wash the men’s clothing several times a week, doing the washing in tubs and drying the clothes on a clothesline. Over the course of two weeks they had hit nearly every man’s underwear and t-shirts with the oil. Now they were beginning to see signs of progress. The women knew the oil would not be debilitating, but at least hoped the itching would be distracting. This was the very moment when Kellen would find out if that was so.
She tightened her grip on the hoe she was carrying and threw a quick glance behind her. The rear guard was staring off in discomfort as he shoved a hand into his pants to dig at his blistered and chafing crotch. Kellen coughed, the signal for the women to prepare to fight. The women readied themselves, gripping their weapons and hardening their resolve.
At the rear of the line, the woman immediately in front of the guard drove the handle of her hoe into the guard’s already irritated groin. He doubled over in pain, gasping for breath. Following through with the movement she’d practiced hundreds of times, the woman spun the implement around and used both hands to bring the sharp end of the hoe down on the man’s head. He dropped like a rock.
The man at the head of the line turned lazily to see what was going on, his rifle dangling as he scratched and scraped at the inflamed skin beneath his shirt. Kellen was already in full swing, aiming at his head like it was a fleshy piñata. He barely had time to register surprise before the thick hoe handle connected and there was a crack like a home run being knocked from the park. The guard nose-dived into the hard dirt.
Kellen rushed forward and stripped the forward guard of his rifle. She straightened, switched off the safety, and fired a single round into the air. The shot echoed and reverberated, filling the valley and rolling across the mist-covered lake. Another woman rushed by Kellen and removed the guard’s handgun from a black nylon holster. Other women took the guns from the rear guard. One of them, clearly harboring a grudge for some indiscretion, paused long enough to repeatedly bash the downed man in the head with the buttstock of the rifle. If he was not dead, he would likely be impaired by a lifelong brain injury.
At the sound of the gunshot, women throughout the camp mobilized and fell into the plan they’d been hatching for weeks. They turned on their blistered and oozing abductors. Women with knives rushed from the kitchen, slashing at guards and plunging their butcher knives deep into the bellies of the men who had taken them from their homes. The laundresses weaponized the cudgels with which they stirred the tubs of soaking laundry. The women of the gardens rose to brandish their hoes and pointy trowels.
The men of the camp did not stand idly by and allow this to happen. The armed men had a distinct advantage and they used it, whipping up their rifles and snapping off shots, trying to drop the army of wailing banshees streaking through the camp toward their freedom. In the infirmary, a kidnapped nurse had worked for two weeks to treat the unidentified rash that was debilitating the men of the camp. Of course, she hadn’t worked too hard at easing their pain since she was in on the scheme. The vile-smelling unguents that she so diligently applied to the worst of the cases was actually not a medicine at all, but a solution of animal feces and petroleum jelly that encouraged infection.
At the sound of the gunshot, the nurse took up a scalpel and went to check on her first patient. He lay in a cot separated from the others by an old bed sheet draped over a string. When he opened his eyes and smiled at his angel of mercy, she plunged the scalpel into his neck and twisted it, boring a wound from which he would be unable to staunch the flow of blood. She worked quickly to dispatch her other two patients, both of them sleeping peacefully.
After the way in which she’d been treated in the camp, she had no remorse for their misery and deaths. With her work complete, she grabbed a hidden pack containing bottled water and rations she had stolen from those designated for her patients. She threw it over her shoulder and ran from the building. She made it only fifty yards before she was spotted. When she failed to comply with an order to halt, a guard shot her in the back. She died in the wet field, tiny seeds from the tall grass clinging to her damp pink cheeks.
Kellen and the other armed women from her work party streamed back into camp. They hoped to find a full-fledged revolt underway with all of the brutal men dead or dying. Instead, they found more fallen women than men. In fact, the fighting appeared to be mostly over. Men were no longer shooting, but standing around looking at the bodies of dead women and trying to figure out what the hell had happened.
This changed things. There were women who needed to be freed but could they even get to them? Kellen and her accomplices conferred. They could open fire at the assembled men but more men were pouring onto the grounds now. They had neither enough weapons nor ammunition to drop all of them.
And what would happen if they opened fire and gave away their position? The men would surely mount horses and chase them deep into the hills where they would be killed, or worse. If they were going to get away, they had to leave now. Those women who didn’t get away would have to find another opportunity.
Kellen was uncomfortable having to make decisions for a group of people. "What do we do?” she hissed.
"We shouldn't go together," one of the women spoke up. "We'll leave a track like a herd of cattle."
Kellen nodded vigorously. "You’re right. Two groups?”
She looked around the group and found nodding heads, scared faces.
"They're talking on their radios," one of the women said. "When they can’t reach our guards, they’ll come looking for us."
"Then let's go," Kellen said. "Enough talk. Let’s get what gear we can off the two guards, then we split up and disappear.”
The women ran back to their fallen escorts, falling upon the unconscious and injured men like a flock of buzzards. Each of the two groups took one man’s pack. They turned out the guards’ pockets and took lighters, knives, and anything else they found. There were quick hugs and whispered encouragement, then the groups split off. Each ran as fast as their bare feet would carry them over the sharp paths of rotting shale and limestone.
* * *
Bryan was asleep when the first shot was fired. He’d stayed up too late and drank too much last night. Gunshots themselves were not that unusual. Sometimes the men dropped deer to add variety to the meals or fired to deter pesky bears. When the shots continued it became clear something more was going on. Bryan’s foggy mind immediately raced to invasion, a result of his persistent fear that someone would try to steal what he was building here.
He scrambled out of bed, disoriented and wobbly. He didn't know whether to go for a rifle, his clothes, or try to make an escape into the hills. He had a plan for that, with gear cached in a waterproof blue barrel. Then it occurred to him he should probably go for his radio. He turned it off at night because he didn’t want to be bothered with the chatter of sentries and early morning work crews. He picked up the black Motorola from his nightstand, turned it on, and listened for a moment, hoping to glean some insight. Men were barking at each other, shouting instructions across the radio to each other. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. After a few moments of this he became frustrated and hit the transmit button.
"Everybody just shut the fuck up. What the hell is going on?"
The radio traffic fell silent. Everyone on the channel knew who the irate voice belonged to and no one wanted to deliver the bad news. Bryan assumed they were trying to outwait each other, to see who drew the short straw and had to start talking.
"Jefferson, this is Top Cat. It looks like we had a little escape attempt."
Jefferson was the radio call sign Bryan had assigned to himself. It originated with his obsession with Thomas Jefferson, the founding father and gentleman farmer after whom he modeled himself. Top Cat was the farm manager.
"Top Cat, you said attempt. Am I to take it their effort to escape was unsuccessful?”
There was enough of a delay that Jefferson knew he was not going to like the answer.
"I don't have a full count yet but I'd say I've at least got twelve to fifteen escapees. Maybe a dozen or more dead. There are several unaccounted for."
"What about our people? Did we lose anybody?"
"I got six not responding to their radios," Top Cat replied. "I would assume those are either dead or in pursuit of escapees. I’ve got men out there trying to run down those six right now and figure out why they’re not answering."
Bryan looked for something to throw but the only thing convenient was the radio and he needed that. "Dammit! Get a team on horseback after those escapees. And listen, I know the men are going to be pissed off but I don’t want those women harmed. If anyone leaves one of the women unable to work, they've got to cover all their duties. Is that clear?"
"Do you want me on the search party?" Top Cat asked.
"No,” Bryan snapped. “I want you and Lester in my office in fifteen minutes. I want a full report on what you know."
"Got it," Top Cat replied, his voice sagging, indicating how little he relished that meeting.
Bryan’s radio clattered onto his nightstand and he flopped backward on the bed. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sighed heavily. The burden of being a landowner in hostile times was weighing on him. There was more work needed done than he had people to perform it.
They had a marijuana crop to harvest. They had poppy seeds that would soon be ready for harvesting opium. This first batch of opium would be traded and sold in its unrefined form but Bryan had hopes that by next year, if the world didn’t get back to normal, he might be able to produce heroin. He had a rough idea of how to do it and was going to spend the winter reading up on the process.
They also had food crops that need to be preserved and firewood that needed to be processed for the winter. There were literally hundreds of jobs needing to be done and, without fuel and electrical power, they all required manpower to accomplish. Nothing was easy anymore. Counting both his voluntary and involuntary workforce, Douthat Farms had over one hundred mouths to feed. That number was regretfully smaller now thanks to the dead bodies currently scattered around the property.
Bryan Padowicz had been a history professor at a small liberal arts college in central Virginia. He was in his late-forties, his thick beard and hipster man-bun beginning to show traces of gray. The collapse of the nation had both disrupted and inconvenienced Bryan. His summer days usually revolved around the same routine. He would smoke some pot and then hang out in Main Street coffeehouses, philosophizing and trying to impress young female students. Most evenings there was a party somewhere, and those also provided him with an ample opportunity to dazzle young women with his wit and intellect.
While Bryan certainly had the trappings of a socialist professor, and often pretended to be one, it was just for show. He was purely a capitalist. He’d been growing marijuana since his own college days and had gotten damn good at it. While he told folks he had installed solar panels and rain barrels on his quaint Victorian home to help the environment, he actually used his solar array to provide unmonitored water and electricity to his basement grow rooms.
Since liberal arts professors were paid a paltry sum, the marijuana operation helped him live the lifestyle he felt he deserved. He did not deal with ounces and quarter-ounces of pot as he had in his college days. He only dealt in pounds and quarter-pounds, and the proceeds from that allowed him to travel when the mood struck him. It allowed him to buy expensive pieces of art from obscure galleries. Always having top-notch pot also provided him with yet another way to meet and woo young women.
As a history professor, Bryan had enough experience with collapsing civilizations to read the writing on the wall. After the terror attacks rocked the nation, he knew it was going to take a while for the United States to get back on its feet. It was a small attack but well-planned. The terrorists had hit just the right spots in the infrastructure that they swept the legs right out from under modern society. There was a domino effect, technically called a cascading systems failure, which caused other systems to fail as a result of losing fuel, power, and communications. Now they were little more than pioneers living among the useless trappings of modern society.
Bryan also understood there was a possibility the country might reemerge from this disaster as a nation that held little resemblance to the earlier United States. He wanted to be ready for any contingency. His understanding of history told him men who controlled trade and commerce prospered, while those who isolated themselves and hid out in bunkers would remain isolated and poor. He wanted to establish himself, to put himself in a position where he might be one of the financial powerhouses of the re-emerging world. Padowicz might one day be mentioned with the same reverence as Carnegie, Vanderbilt, DuPont, Westinghouse, and a long line of others.
He’d lived in the same college neighborhood for years, a place where he could walk to class and to the local bars. It was also close enough to the core of the college community that young women could come by and visit him. Though information was sparse in the early days of the collapse, there was no panic and unrest in Bryan’s community. He sat around each evening with his friends, smoking weed and discussing the state of things. It was during one of those bull sessions that Bryan hatched the plan that would lead him to seize Douthat State Park and re-christen it Douthat Farms.
Nestled in the mountains of Virginia, Douthat State Park was a product of the Works Project Administration, a depression-era program that put Americans back to work building infrastructure projects. Between the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps, several rustic state parks were built across Virginia. Bryan had visited Douthat State Park since he was a child, camping there with his parents. It was one of his favorite places in the world. He would hike the winding trails, observe the wildlife, fish and kayak the lake, and lie on the swimming beach in the warm afternoon sand.
Bryan hatched his original plan over many stoned afternoons, laying out how he could become a colonial-era gentleman farmer if he could find the appropriate place to do so. His companions, mostly impressionable young men, were enthralled with his plan. He explained the ideal location would be remote and have a portion of the infrastructure already in place.
One afternoon, the random act of stumbling over a mountain bike helmet in his junk room reminded him of riding at Douthat State Park and he instantly knew it would be the ideal location. He understood it was too early in the collapse to act on his plan immediately but he knew how to make it happen. He’d give things a month. When employees at the camp knew they weren't getting paid anymore, and no more guests were coming, the place would be ripe for the taking. Most of the staff would be gone. What few remained could be easily driven out. Or killed.
He understood he couldn’t do it alone. He would need an armed force both to take the facility and to keep the facility. He would also need a labor force, though he was entirely ambivalent as to whether this force would be volunteer labor or forced labor. As a student of history, he was aware that slave labor was frowned upon but may be necessary to implement his plan.
Adhering to the Latin proverb that fortune favors the bold, Bryan began the process of assembling a team. To each potential member, he made clear they would not merely be a collective of farmers but potentially an army of conquerors. This was a time their descendants would tell stories about. They would become legend.
* * *
Bryan sat at his desk facing Top Cat and Lester. His office was a meticulously staged scene that conveyed power and authority. He wanted there to be no doubt as to who was in charge. No doubt of who was the mastermind behind what they were carving from the land.
Rather than opulence, the look Bryan was going for was rustic pioneer crossed with reluctant warrior. He tried to imagine if an early colonial landowner had an office on the far reaches of their property, a place he may only use once a month, how that office would be decorated. To that end, the seating was overstuffed leather for himself and crude, uncomfortable ladder back chairs for his guests. The walls were decorated with pioneer implements like early agricultural tools, broad axes, and crosscut saws. There was a pair of rustic oil lamps on his desk, and even a candlestick. A rifle rack on the wall held a small selection of rifles, from an AR-15 to a selection of lever-actions.
The only special touch he was missing, and one he had always wanted, was a genuine human skull. He imagined it sitting on a short stack of books, perhaps volumes by Jefferson. He hoped one day he might make a trip to the University of Virginia and steal some of Jefferson’s personal possessions for the desk. An inkwell and fountain pen would be delightful.
Sitting at his desk, Bryan knew Lester and Top Cat were waiting for permission to be seated, but he had no intention of granting it. He wanted them uncomfortable. Sometimes a leader had to assert his authority and this was one of those situations. Bryan let out a dramatic sigh. He wanted his frustration to be evident.
"Just what the fuck happened out there?"
Top Cat had difficulty focusing on his boss, although not because of fear. He was fairly certain the poison ivy had spread to his eyes. They itched furiously and they were burning. Just thinking about it made his underarms start itching again and he slid a hand into his shirt to scratch. He found the skin open, bleeding, and painful to touch. It was miserable. The worst suffering he’d ever experienced.
"Can you at least stop scratching long enough to tell me what happened? You look like an orangutan picking at fleas.”
"Sorry," Top Cat mumbled. "It just itches so bad."
At the mention of itching, Lester slipped a hand into his pants and began digging at his inflamed groin. His facial expression conveyed apology and embarrassment, but also desperation.
Bryan stared at the man with disgust. "What the fuck is going on with all this scratching and these oozing sores? Is there some kind of disease going around? A syphilis outbreak?" Bryan fought the urge to begin scratching his belly. He had the rash too and had taken most of the camp’s limited supply of anti-itch medication for his own use. Had the camp known he had it, there may well have been a riot.
"We just found out they put something in the laundry," Lester said. "We think it was part of this whole escape plan. We were able to extract that information from one of the laundresses."
Bryan let out a long breath and stared at his desk. "Did all the women escape?"
"Not all of them,” Top Cat answered.
Bryan cut his lead man a sharp look. "Did you kill the rest?"
Lester shook his head. "No, there's nine or ten left alive and uninjured," Lester said. "There may be twenty or so dead but they were all shot because they had improvised weapons. All the rest of the women disappeared into the hills."
Bryan ran his tongue over his teeth, aware at that moment he’d failed to brush his teeth that morning. "I trust you are pursuing them?"
Top Cat nodded. "Of course. We’ve got men on foot and horseback all over these hills but I don’t know how effective they’ll be. This damn rash is so bad a lot of folks can barely walk or ride horseback. It’s definitely slowing us down."
"That leaves about ten women to do the work of what ten times that number were doing before," Bryan said. "We have food that needs to be harvested and processed. We need firewood cut and stacked for winter. Not to mention we have grow houses full of marijuana and poppies that need to be tended.”
The farm grew more food than they could eat. They used the surplus as commodities to be sold and traded off in the neighboring communities. It built goodwill with the neighbors and Bryan hoped it would encourage them to turn a blind eye if there were questions about what went on at the farm. Not every community wanted dope-growing slavers in their midst, but it was surprising how much forgiveness a bushel of beans could purchase.
Besides raising potatoes, corn, and beans for trade purposes, they also bartered marijuana. Certainly, people who had become accustomed to smoking marijuana every day did not want to stop just because the world collapsed. He hadn’t had their grow house arrangement long enough to pull in a full crop yet but Bryan traded off some of the pot he’d brought with him to get guns, ammunition, tools, and even diesel fuel.
As he reminded himself many times, those who prospered in the world were those who took advantage of opportunities. When something came along that allowed you to leapfrog ahead of your fellow men, it would behoove you to grasp it. Bryan understood that things may one day go back to normal. He may even have to let Virginia have its precious Douthat State Park back, but by then he hoped to be a wealthy man.
"We have men who can pitch in and help," Lester offered. “We’ll just have to pull them off other jobs.”
Bryan looked at him like he was idiot. "Every man we put on crops is one less I have providing security for this community. I need every available man patrolling trails, guarding roads, and manning outposts. Do you like what we have here?”
Lester pointed at himself, questioning.
“Yes you!” Bryan said. “Do you like what we have here?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Bryan looked at the other man. “And you, Top Cat?”
Top Cat nodded.
“Then remember we may have to fight to keep it,” Bryan said. “The best way to defend it is to engage any force before they get this far. That depends on manpower.”
"We could try a recruitment push in the neighboring communities," Top Cat suggested.
Bryan shook his head. "Absolutely not. I don't want locals in here seeing the food and resources we have. I don’t want word to get out that we have an involuntary labor force. I don't want them thinking they have to drive us out so we don’t steal their women too."
Top Cat understood his boss was right. The guy was always thinking ahead a couple of steps. "Then what do you suggest?"
Bryan looked from one man to the other. He’d already decided on a plan even before the men showed up in his office. "I want a raiding party. Perhaps twenty or twenty-five men, whatever we can spare from here. Each man with two pack horses. You bring back women and anything else you can find, but especially women."
"That would leave us undermanned," Top Cat pointed out.
Bryan smiled. "Not your concern. You're not going to be here. I want you and Lester both on the road. You guys were supposed to be running the day-to-day operation of this place. You were supposed to be on top of things. If you hadn’t gotten lax, today’s fuckup wouldn’t have happened. I hold both of you responsible. I need you to get out there and fix this. To prove to me that you deserve to be here."
The men shifted on their feet, wanting to defend themselves but not wanting to be booted out of the community. This was not a democracy and their opinions meant nothing, even if they were requested.
"You don't want any local women?" Lester clarified.
"No," Bryan said. “I’ve been clear about this. You go a hundred miles from here before you even start looking. And make sure you don't lead anybody back here. The last thing we need is some posse riding in here to hang us for kidnapping."
Lester asked, "When should we leave?"
Bryan frowned at Lester with disappointment. He thought the answer should have been evident. "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. Which means now."
Conor Maguire felt the approach of colder weather in the morning air. He wore short sleeves but caught a slight chill on his front porch until the sunlight hit him and warmed his skin. He sipped coffee from a large mug, his favorite, embossed with Coffee Makes Me Poop. It had been a Father’s Day present from his daughter Barb, who really knew how to pick a gift.
There had been no frost yet, but that would come soon. The previous night had probably gone as low as the upper forties, but if the recent weather pattern held they should see upper sixties to lower seventies by the end of the day. It kind of sucked to not have a goofy weatherman updating them each evening on what to expect. It sucked not having an app on his phone that would allow him to see a current weather radar. All that technology had disappeared with the nationwide collapse.
Goats and hair sheep wandered the fenced compound nibbling at clusters of grass poking through crumbling fissures in the asphalt, dry leaves crackling beneath their hooves. Chickens trailed the goats, searching for bugs, worms, or anything unfamiliar to eat. Crows cawed in the distance, making their plans for the day. Conor dreaded the winter. He dreaded the cold and the inevitable discomfort winter brought. He dreaded the misery and suffering. Not so much for himself, as he was well-provisioned and had wood heat, but studies both public and private had shown that the first winter with no power would result in a massive loss of life.
As a statistic, those lives meant little to him. He was a solitary person. But when you zoomed in on them, those lives were neighbors, they were kids he saw playing in the yards of homes he used to drive by; and elderly folks who waved to him from the porches of humble houses with white aluminum siding and cast iron eagles over the garage door. When spring came, when the crocuses pushed through the cool, damp earth, the world would be a changed place. Conor could not help but be very concerned about what stood between the world he looked at now and that future world he could not even imagine. Between those two bookends lay volumes of death, sickness, suffering, and unthinkable pain.
Conor's friends called him “the Mad Mick,” and if you knew him long enough you would understand why. He walked to the beat of his own deranged and drunken drummer. He had his own code of morality with zero fucks given as to what others thought of it. He lived with his daughter Barb in what he referred to as a homey cottage on top of a mountain in Jewell Ridge, Virginia. His cottage had once been the headquarters of a now-defunct coal company. It was a massive, sprawling facility where there had once been both underground and longwall mines. Numerous buildings scattered around the property held repair shops and offices.
When Conor first looked at the property he thought it was absolutely ridiculous that a man might be so fortunate as to live there. It reminded him of the lair of some evil genius in an old James Bond movie. It was surrounded by an eight-foot high chain-link fence and topped with barbed wire. There was a helipad and more space than he could ever use. There was even an elevator that would take him to an underground shop the coal company had used to repair their mining equipment.
The ridiculous part was that the facility, which had cost the coal company millions of dollars to build out, was selling for just a fraction of that because it was in such a remote location no one wanted it. In the end Conor came to own the facility and it did not even cost him a penny. His grateful employer had purchased the property for him. It was not an entirely charitable gesture, though. Conor was a very specialized type of contractor and his employer would do nearly anything to keep him at their beck and call.
In an effort to make the place more like a home, Conor had taken one of the steel skinned office buildings and built a long wooden porch on it, then added a wooden screen door in front of the heavy steel door. Going in and out now produced a satisfying thwack as the wooden door smacked shut.
Conor placed his coffee cup on a table made from an old cable spool and sat in a creaking wicker chair. Barb backed out the door with two plates.
“I hope you’ve been to the fecking Bojangles,” Conor said. “I could use a biscuit and a big honking cup of sweet tea.”
Barb frowned at him. “You’re an Irishman, born in the old country no less, and you call that syrupy crap tea?”
“Bo knows biscuits. Bo knows sweet tea.”
“Bo is why you had to take to wearing sweatpants all the time too,” Barb said. “You couldn’t squeeze that big old biscuit of yours into a pair of jeans anymore.” She handed her dad a plate of onions and canned ham scrambled into a couple of fresh eggs.
Conor frowned at the insinuation but the frown turned to a smile as his eyes took in the sprinkling of goat cheese that topped off the breakfast. “Damn, that smells delicious.”
“Barb knows eggs,” his daughter quipped.
“Barb does know eggs,” Conor agreed, shoveling a forkful into his mouth.
Conor was born in Ireland and came to the U.S. with his mom as a young man. Back in Ireland, the family business was bomb making and the family business led to a lot of family enemies, especially among the police and the military. After his father and grandfather were arrested in the troubles, Conor’s mom decided that changing countries might be the only way to keep what was left of her family alive. She didn’t realize Conor had already learned the rudiments of the trade while watching the men of his family build bombs. Assuming Conor would one day be engaged to carry on the fight, the men of the family maintained a running narrative, explaining each detail of what they were doing. Conor learned later, in a dramatic and deadly fashion, that he was able to retain a surprising amount of those early childhood lessons.
He and his mother settled first in Boston, then in North Carolina where Conor attended school. In high school, Conor chose vocational school and went on to a technical school after graduation. He loved working with his hands to create precise mechanisms from raw materials, which led him to becoming a skilled machinist and fabricator.
Conor was well-behaved for most of his life, flying under the radar and avoiding any legal entanglements. Then he was married, and the highest and lowest points of his life quickly showed up at his doorstep. He and his wife had a baby girl. A year later a drunk driver killed his wife and nearly killed Barb too. Something snapped in Conor and the affable Irishman became weaponized. He combined his childhood bomb-making lessons with the machinist skills he’d obtained in technical school and sought vengeance.
How could he not? Justice had not been served. There was also something deep within Conor that told him you didn’t just accept such things. You continued the fight. There was the law of books and there was the law of man. The law of man required Conor seek true justice for his dead wife.
When the drunk driver was released from jail in what the Mad Mick felt was a laughably short amount of time, the reformed drunk was given special court permission to drive to work. Conor took matters into his own hands. He obtained a duplicate of the headrest in the man’s truck from a junkyard and built a bomb inside it. While the man was at his job, Conor switched out the headrest. A proximity switch in the bomb was triggered by a transmitter hidden along his route home. One moment he was singing along to Journey on the radio and enjoying his new freedom. The next, his head was vaporized to an aerosol mist by the exploding headrest.
No one was able to pin the death on Conor despite a lack of other suspects. He had a rock-solid alibi. The proximity trigger detonated the bomb because the man drove within its range. No manual detonation was required on Conor’s part at all. After putting everything in place, Conor took his young daughter to the mall to get a few items. Dozens of security cameras picked up the widower and his daughter.
Oddly enough, his handiwork resulted in a job offer from an alphabet agency within the United States government. A team of men who made their living doing such things were impressed with Conor’s technique. They recognized him as one of their own and wanted to give him a position among their very unique department. He would work as a contractor, he would be well paid, and he would be provided with a shop in which do to his work. There were no papers to sign but it was made quite clear that any discussion of his work with civilians would result in his death.
Conor knew a good opportunity when he saw it. He accepted the offer and, as he proved his worth, his employer decided it was worthwhile to set Conor up in his deep-cover facility in Jewell Ridge, Virginia. On the surface, Conor presented himself to the local community as a semi-retired machinist who’d moved to the mountains to get away from the city. Mostly as a hobby and to help establish his cover, he took in some machining and fabrication work from the local coal and natural gas industry. Behind that façade, Conor was the guy that certain agencies and contractors came to for explosives and unique custom weapons for specialized operations.
Over his career, Conor created pool cue rifles that were accurate to 250 yards with a 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge. A rifle scope was integrated into a second pool cue and the matched set was used for a wet work operation in Houston that never made any newspapers. He once made a music stand for a clarinetist turned assassin that transformed into a combat tomahawk. It was used for an especially brutal assassination in Eastern Europe.
He turned automotive airbags into shrapnel-filled claymore mines that replaced standard air bags in most vehicles and could be triggered remotely or by a blow to the front bumper. For another job, he’d created a pickup truck that appeared to have standard dual exhausts from the rear. In reality, one exhaust pipe was normal while the other was a rear-facing 40mm grenade launcher.
He routinely created untraceable firearms, suppressors, and unique explosive devices. His explosives contained components sourced from around the world which made it difficult to ascertain the bomber’s country of origin. It gave his employer plausible deniability. He had resources in every shadowy crevice of the world and they were always good to send Conor the odd bit of wire, circuitry, and foreign fasteners to include in his handiwork.
Like many bomb makers, Conor was fastidious in his level of organization and preparation. That carried over to his home life. His compound on the mountain had backup solar, available spring water, and food enough to last him for years. Even with those food stores, he maintained a little livestock just to freshen up the stew pot.
"What's on the agenda today, Barb?” he asked. “What do you have planned for yourself?"
"There's a girl at the bottom of the mountain, JoAnn, who I've become halfway acquainted with. It’s just her and her dad. Kind of like us. I ran into her yesterday and she said she was going to be doing some late-season canning so I offered to help. She’s canning things I’ve never done before, like French fries.”
“Canned French fries. That sounds bloody magical,” Conor said. “Plus I’m sure it would be nice to get some girl time, huh?”
Barb smiled back at her dad, a wee drop of mischievous venom in the expression, and yet another demonstration she’d been aptly named. "Actually, it would just be nice to be around somebody who’s not telling the same old tired jokes and boring stories all day long. Somebody who doesn't think they're God's gift to humor and storytelling."
Conor faked offense. "I always thought you liked my stories. I thought they were part of our familial bonding. Those stories are your heritage."
"You need new stories, Dad. I don't know if you've noticed or not but, when you tell a story, I’m usually sitting there beside you mouthing the words along with you. I know exactly how they all go. But I guess sitting there making fun of you also counts as bonding."
Conor looked smugly at his daughter. "I had a new story for you when I went over to Damascus and helped that girl Grace and her family. You were on the edge of your seat."
"Yes, but as much as I’m tired of the old stories I don’t want you putting yourself at risk just to bring home new material. Besides, you're getting too long in the tooth for those kinds of adventures. You’re not an operator anymore. Your days would be better spent puttering around the garden in a cardigan, half-drunk on Guinness, cursing at the beetles and weeds."
"Don't be so quick to put your old dad out to pasture, Barb. I've got plenty of good years left in me. And plenty of good fights."
Barb raised her cup of tea toward him in a conciliatory toast. "Well, here's to hoping those fights die on the vine. I hope you never have to use them."
"I'll toast to that," Conor said, raising his coffee mug.
"So what's on your agenda today, dear father?"
"I spoke to a man the other day who lives down in the valley near the Buchanan County line. Since the shit hit the fan he's been taking in horses people could no longer feed. Now he's got more than he wants to take care of over the winter. I told him I might be willing to trade for a few so I’m going to go look at them."
"Ah, a horse would be nice. It could take me an hour to walk to JoAnn’s house this morning. It would be half of that on a horse and a lot less effort."
"It will damn sure be easier to carry a load on a horse than on a bicycle," Conor added.
"So you've given up on your bicycles, have you? I’m shocked. I thought you were training for the Tour de Bojangles, twenty-one days of bicycles and biscuits?"
Conor shook his head. "I’ve not given up on bicycles but my tender arse has. It’s become delicate in my golden years."
Barb smiled at that. Despite her banter with her father, she loved him dearly. It was just the two of them in the world and that was fine with her. One day she may have room for a husband and children but she was in no hurry. She would try to wait the world out and see if things got back to normal one day.
"An hour is still a long walk," Conor said. "Take your full load-out."
Barb rolled her eyes. "You know I don't go out without my gear."
"It doesn't hurt to remind you. We check and we double check. That's what we do and that’s how we stay alive. Not just your rifle and your pistol, but your go bag and your radio.”
She gave her dad a thumbs up. "Got it, Dad."
“You better,” he warned. “Some things are joking and bullshit. This is not. This is life and death. Every single day.”
“Plates too,” he insisted. “Plate carrier and armor plates.”
Barb groaned. “It’s too hot, and it’s heavy.”
Conor gave a conciliatory smile. “Well, if you’re too weak to carry the weight…”
“I’ll take them,” Barb said, getting up from her seat. “You’re driving me nuts with this.” She went into the house to get her gear together. She had no intention of carrying those heavy plates. She would have to find a way to slip out without him seeing her.
An hour later Barb was halfway down the mountain, the road changing from steep switchbacks to a gentler winding course. She was headed in the opposite direction of her father, and he’d insisted on knowing exactly where she was going and when she’d be back. He’d been that kind of dad before the collapse and he was even more safety conscious now. She tried to comply as best she could but there was a streak of defiance in her. She was extremely capable and she wasn’t certain he always acknowledged that. She was proficient in martial arts and could outshoot most anyone. He’d raised her that way and she had no issues with it. She just wished he would recognize her abilities a little more, but perhaps that was all daughters complaining about all dads.
She encountered a man walking in the road toward her and froze. Her first reaction was to throw her rifle up to a ready position until she determined if he was a threat or not. She quickly identified the young man as Ragus, a regular on the porch of their compound. Her dad had a tradition of taking in strays and defending the underdog. This boy was both and she had no need for him. Although she didn’t dislike him, he’d done nothing to earn special favor from her either.
The oddly-named boy broke into a large grin at finding Barb on the road with him. The boy made no secret of the fact that he was enamored with her and considered himself a worthy suitor. At her age, the couple of years between them seemed more significant than that same number of years might at a later point in her life. To the young man, Barb was beautiful, dangerous, and the woman he loved, at least as much as a boy his age understood love.
"You’re a pretty sight to come up on," Ragus said. "For a moment I thought the sun was rising a second time on this beautiful morning." He was a little shy and found it hard to say things like this to her but nothing else he’d tried had worked. He was running out of options.
“You’re nearly as full of shit as my dad. No wonder you two get along so well.” Barb was not swayed by flattery. "What are you doing out this morning? Did you forget your daycare was closed and walk all the way to town?"
The boy was not deterred in the slightest. Barb could abuse him all day and the dazed smile he wore in her presence would never leave his face. “Going fishing with a friend. Why are you out wandering around the mountain by yourself?"
"By myself? Just who should I have with me?"
"Why, a man, of course. I'd be glad to be that man and escort you wherever you're going."
Barb couldn’t stop herself from bursting into laughter. “I haven’t seen a man this morning. All I've seen is squirrels and boys, both full of nothing but chatter and concerned with nothing but their nuts."
Ragus blushed at that and lost some of the wind in his sails. "You’re welcome to come fishing if you want."
Barb looked around the boy, examining his hands and seeing only a rifle. "I see no tackle. You plan on shooting them with that Henry rifle?"
"No, I've got a hand line in my pocket. The Mad Mick showed me how to use it.”
Barb snorted. “The Mad Mick. He been filling your ears with stories of his adventures?”
Barb started to give the boy a lecture about how her dad’s stories got bigger with each telling. She started to tell him her dad had had some wild adventures over the years but he needed to slow down and take life easier. She started to say all those things but stopped herself. Conor, her dad, the Mad Mick—whatever you wanted to call him—had saved this boy’s life, and if that boy wanted to put him on a pedestal she should probably just leave it alone. The boy needed someone to believe in and her dad was as good a vessel for that belief as any.
“Where you going fishing?” she asked, softening her tone.
“There's a boy I know back at the next intersection and I’m going to see if he wants to go with me. If you want us to walk with you, it will only take me about ten minutes to run and get him. Then we can walk you wherever you want to go."
"I appreciate your concern but the only thing worse than having one awkward teenage boy around is having two. And I say again I don't need an escort. If we ran into trouble, I’d just end up having to save the two of you."
The boy didn't argue, but hung his head in defeat. He’d struck out. Again. “Maybe I’ll see you later.”
Seeing him so dejected, and knowing what he’d been through, Barb almost felt a glimmer of guilt at being so hard on him. Almost. "You wouldn’t want to come with me anyway. I'm going to a friend's house to do some canning. Unless you’re interested in peeling and slicing vegetables, you should probably just stick with your plans."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she could see him processing this information. He was trying to determine if getting to spend the day with her was worth the boredom of having to process vegetables. "I think I'll just go fishing, but thanks anyway."
She was relieved. "Well, then I'm going on my way. Stop by the house one day. My dad don't mind you nearly as much as I do."
That remark brought a smile to the boy’s face. He could not help but be entertained by her brutally sharp wit. She could spew venom at him all day and he would sit and take it. He waved as she walked away.
She’d taken no more than twenty steps when she felt like she was being watched. She stopped in her tracks and looked back over her shoulder to find Ragus staring at her. She was immediately aware this was not so much out of concern for her safety as out of concern for the movement of her backside.
Only mildly embarrassed at having been caught, the boy threw up his hand in an awkward wave. Barb began to raise her rifle. The boy's eyes went wide and he took off running like a scalded dog. That brought a smile to Barb's face. She wouldn’t have shot him, though. Perhaps she might have shot at him, but she certainly wouldn’t have intentionally hit him. She couldn’t rightly kill someone her dad had put so much effort into saving.
Ragus probably owed Conor his life. They first met the kid when he slipped into their compound to steal a chicken. The dogs alerted on him and cornered him in the henhouse, snarling and growling. Conor would have been within his rights to shoot the lad, especially with times being what they were, but it was evident the young man was starving.
Conor stared down the iron sights of his rifle at the boy. A flashlight mounted to the rifle illuminated the boy in a blinding circle of light that forced the kid to shield his eyes. "Did your old man send you here to steal from me?"
The boy shook his head slightly. "I ain’t got no old man."
"Your mother then? You trying to feed your mother? Tell me the truth, boy, or I’ll kill you and boil your meat for my dogs."
There was no defiance in the boy. Only defeat. Conor sensed the boy would have found it a relief if he pulled the trigger and killed him.
"She died a couple of days ago."
That admission hit Conor hard. He’d been raised by his mother and lost her too. “Have you eaten since then?” he asked.
The boy shook his head. “I didn’t eat for the last couple of days before she…before it happened. I’m not sure of the last time.”
Conor led the young man into their home and fed him leftovers from their dinner. The boy ate ravenously, like a dog left to starve at the dump. Conor had to tell him to slow down for fear he would choke. At that point, it had only been about five or six weeks since the collapse, but the boy ate like he had not eaten in that whole time.
"So, why are you all alone, boy?" Conor asked.
The boy wiped his mouth with a hand, ignoring the napkin Barb had set out for him. He took a drink to wash down a large mouthful of food. "My daddy left when I was a kid."
"You're still a kid," Barb pointed out.
The boy scowled at her, apparently not fond of being called a kid. “I’m seventeen.”
“You don’t look it,” Barb said.
Conor held a hand up to his daughter. He wanted to handle this. Her badgering wasn’t helping anything. "And your mother?" he pressed.
"She passed a couple of days ago. She had cancer real bad before all this happened. She lost her job because she couldn’t go anymore. Without doctors and medicine the end came quicker than they said it would. It was…bad. It was awful."
It appeared the boy had more on his mind, like there were more words wanting to come out, but the memory of what he’d been through was blocking them. Conor, and even the sharp-tongued Barb, let it rest. The demons would come out of their own accord when the time was right. No use forcing it.
"So how are you taking care of yourself?" Conor asked.
"He's clearly not," Barb noted, gesturing at the boy as if his presence proved her point. “He’s a wastrel.”
Part of Conor wondered where she’d learned such a word. "How are you planning to get by, boy? You keep stealing from people, you’re going to get killed. That’s not a feasible plan for survival."
The boy did not respond. The answer was obvious enough he felt no need to state it.
“How are you going to defend yourself?" Conor asked.
Again, no response.
"Do you even own a weapon?"
"I got this," the boy said, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a small revolver. Lacking experience and training with firearms, he waved the pistol around, sweeping everyone with the barrel.
Conor’s hand lashed out and grabbed the revolver, twisting it from the boy’s frail grip. "Easy there, cowboy. We need to go over some basics before you get this thing back.” Conor dumped the cylinder of mismatched ammunition onto the table. The pistol was a cheap .38 with a two-inch barrel. The sights were no more than grooves in the frame of the handgun. It wouldn’t be accurate beyond a couple of yards.
“Please don’t take that,” the boy begged. “I might need it.”
"This may be decent for self-defense but only at fistfight distances. You have anything you can hunt with?"
The boy shook his head, looking down at the table and at the revolver. Conor shot his daughter a pleading glance, frustrated at the boy’s predicament and not sure what to do. When Barb was no help, offered no answers, Conor again addressed the boy.
"I’ll give you a rifle," he said. "Nothing fancy, but something that will put meat on the table."
The boy's eyes got wide. "One of those fancy army rifles like you got?"
"Oh no. I give you something with a thirty-round magazine and you’ll be blowing off shots with no regard for aim. I’m going to give you a lever-action, something that will force you to pay a little more attention to what you’re doing."
"But you said I may need to defend myself," the boy said. "Don't I need something that holds a lot of bullets?"
"No. Most days, if you need thirty rounds to get yourself out of the shit, you might as well kiss your ass goodbye. A decent lever-action or bolt gun will hold off the bad guys until help arrives. That's all you need to buy yourself some time."
"Can I have it now?"
"You come back tomorrow, lad. You come early and we’ll put a meal in your belly. Then I'll show you how to shoot a rifle and take care of one. When I'm comfortable you're safe, I’ll send you home with the rifle and a box of shells."
“How long is one box going to last me?”
“When it’s empty, you come back and tell me what that box of shells put in the stew pot. I’ll refill you. Don’t you worry about that.”
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