By having some of his people operate vendor booths at the burgeoning apocalyptic marketplace growing in town, they'd been able to learn who was conspiring against Jim. In true Jim Powell fashion, he'd taken them all out. Now understanding the value of having eyes and ears at the marketplace, Jim decides to act on an idea proposed by his friend Lloyd and open a roadhouse in a vacant building in town.
For Lloyd, it would be a place to play music and sell liquor made from family recipes. For Jim, a bar in their community would serve several purposes. It would allow him to provide employment for the people in his group, breaking up the routine and giving them a sense of purpose. It would also allow them to run a trading post, bartering off items they didn't need for items that would be more useful, just as they'd done at the public market that summer. Finally, it would be a way for Jim Powell to keep a finger on the pulse of his community, cultivating intelligence assets and keeping tabs on everything happening around them.
Even as Jim and his people work to open the roadhouse, they have no idea what's happening outside of their community. They know little about the war going on between political factions of their own government. They also have no idea that a great upheaval is about to take place that will change the course of the nation forever.
Release date: June 13, 2022
Print pages: 356
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The Reset Roadhouse
Lloyd swayed in the saddle, his hat pulled low over his eyes to block out the painful sunlight. Even at a walk, nearly every step of his horse provoked a curse as the movement aggravated the wicked hangover he was nursing. He’d arrived back at Jim’s farm last night after spending a few months at the summer camp where the young musicians had been stranded with Sharon, the camp director. There had been a harvest party going on when Lloyd arrived at Jim’s place and his unexpected return only added to the festivities.
“I think I’m going to die this time,” Lloyd mumbled.
“You should have stopped drinking a little earlier,” Jim said. “What time did you finally set the jar down?”
“What time is it now?”
“A little after 9 AM.”
Lloyd made a disapproving groan. “No wonder I feel like shit. Who gets up at 9 AM?”
“Obviously not people who drink until the wee hours of the morning.”
“I don’t think it was the hour I quit that was the problem. It may have been the hour that I started.”
“I didn’t think you had moonshine at the music camp,” Jim said.
“I didn’t, but I may have made a few local friends during the time I was there. I don’t know why but a banjo player seems to take up with all the men who love a drink.”
Jim laughed. “It’s because it takes liquor to numb the pain inflicted by a banjo. A sober man couldn’t tolerate being in the presence of one.”
Lloyd cocked an eye at Jim from beneath his hat. “Must be a burden toting all that wit around all day.”
“So, did you drink every day of your ride back to the valley or just on the last one?”
“Eh, it was only a one-day ride.”
Jim gave his old friend a suspicious look. “No way. It took us days to get out there to that camp. How the hell could you make it in one?”
“You’re partial to camping in the middle of nowhere at night. I’m not so inclined. I’d like to think I’m cut of a finer cloth.”
“You’re what my grandfather used to call a ‘house cat,’” Jim said. “A man more inclined to spending his day curled up on the couch. What you’re really saying is that you were too scared to sleep in the dark by yourself, so you rode straight through?”
Lloyd managed a nod. “Little more than two days in the saddle. Might have slept some but only on the go. I drank to keep my nerve up. Hoped like hell I was remembering the route correctly.”
“So, this hangover you’re sporting isn’t just from one night’s overindulgence. It’s the accumulated hangover from several days of hard living.”
“That’s about the size of it. Now don’t you feel bad about being such an asshole and making me get out of bed so early?”
Jim laughed again. “What do you think?”
Lloyd shook his head sadly. “Nah, I guess not. There’s not a single drop of human compassion in you. No sympathy for the weary traveler. No pity for the sick and afflicted.”
“No tolerance for a lazy drunk is more like it. We got no time to waste. If you’re serious about wanting to open a roadhouse, we need to make it happen before the weather starts getting colder. We might have two months. Three at the most.”
Lloyd didn’t reply to that. It was his typical response when someone slapped him with logic and he didn’t want to accept it.
“You understand why we can’t use your parents’ house, right?”
“Too far out of town,” Lloyd conceded. “I get it.”
“Roadhouses out in the country were fine in the days when people had cars, or at least friends with cars. These days it needs to be closer to centers of population. Closer to town.”
“I liked the idea of striking up a deal with those whores and perhaps sharing the house they were using.”
Jim shook his head. “That house is too small and has too much baggage associated with it. It belonged to Hadley Wright and I don’t want people thinking I killed him just to take over his criminal enterprise.”
“Guess people in this town didn’t know we were fully intent on starting our own criminal enterprise, did they?”
“Don’t see a thing wrong with it,” Jim said. “I see this as an expansion of our activities at the farmer’s market. One more way of collecting intelligence and keeping an eye on what’s going on around us.”
“Well, if you don’t want me turning my childhood home into a bar and you don’t want to use Hadley Wright’s brothel, what’s your plan?”
Lloyd didn’t have the energy to try to pry the information from his old friend. If Jim wasn’t going to be more forthcoming, Lloyd was going to do his best to try and catch a few winks before they got to town. He removed his hat and rested it over the saddle horn like it was a hat rack, then leaned forward with his arms draped to each side of the horse’s neck. He looked like a cowboy who’d been shot and died in the saddle.
He only lasted in that position for a few minutes before he felt his stomach roiling and his gorge rising. Lloyd sat up abruptly, squinting against the harsh morning light. “Really bad idea.”
Jim grinned. “You throw up on that horse and she’ll throw you. No one likes to be under a puking drunk. Haven’t you learned that by this point in your life?”
Lloyd crushed his hat back onto his head and said nothing for the rest of the ride into town.
Jim watched wildlife along the river, pleased to see deer, squirrels, and herons. He’d been afraid that these times of deprivation might have thinned the wildlife, as had happened during the depression. The difference was that America hadn’t lost the majority of the population during the depression. Jim had no idea exactly how many people had died since the collapse, but anecdotal evidence led him to believe that they’d lost seventy to eighty percent of the local population. The good news for the wildlife was that fewer surviving people meant fewer hunters trying to eat them.
Thirty minutes later, Jim and Lloyd turned off Main Street onto a dead-end road. It led to some homes, the town park, and the sewage treatment plant.
Lloyd looked around, perkier than he had been earlier. “This is my old neighborhood. When my parents first moved here, we lived off this road.”
“I remember. You and I met playing at the park.”
“Hell, you think I forgot that?” Lloyd asked. “Worst damn day of my life. I’ve spent years trying to erase the trauma. Still can’t get shed of you.”
Jim ignored the jab. They rode a little further and Jim turned his horse into a cracked parking lot. “This is where I’m thinking we should open your roadhouse.”
“The old sewing factory?”
The building looked like hundreds of thousands of other WWII-era small industrial buildings that were scattered around the country. It was a one-story brick factory with a flat roof, the parapet wall topped with terracotta caps mortared in place. The office section had modern windows but the shop area, where the actual work was done, held a row of high windows in thin iron frames. Some of the panes had been knocked out.
“The place has been vacant for years.” Jim pointed to a For Sale sign. “It’s owned by some commercial real estate company out of Richmond that bought it sight unseen. They haven’t been able to get a tenant in there in twenty years, so I don’t feel bad about borrowing it under the current circumstances.”
Lloyd studied the building with an appraising eye. “I walked by this place hundreds of times as a kid. Rode my bike in this parking lot. Never imagined I’d open a post-apocalyptic roadhouse in the place.”
“I’ve done lots of things in the past year I never imagined I’d be doing,” said Jim. “That’s the state of the world.”
“What’s the inside like?”
Jim shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s see if we can get inside and take a look.”
They rode their horses around back and tied them off in the brush that grew up against the building. The grounds had been severely neglected in the last twenty years, with only the more public aspects of the building receiving any attention.
Jim slung his pack onto his back and his rifle over his shoulder.
“You really going to need that?” Lloyd asked.
“You grew up here. It must be a bad neighborhood,” Jim said. “I’m sure it’s gotten even worse.”
Lloyd didn’t take the bait but grabbed his gear and set off through the brush with Jim. They soon found a side door that had been pried open with a crowbar. Jim tugged on the rusty steel door and the hinges protested with a squeal.
Before going inside, Jim raised his rifle and activated the weapon-mounted light. The door led them onto the factory floor.
“There used to be several sewing factories in our community,” Jim said as he played his light around the room. “They provided a decent job, benefits, and retirement for a mostly female workforce. So many women in this area didn’t finish high school, even when we were kids, but they could get a good job in a place like this, making clothing for major retailers. The factories began going out of business in the ’80s and ’90s when corporations started having their goods made in Third World sweat shops, often by child or prison labor.”
“Mom had a lot of friends that worked here,” Lloyd said.
The high windows allowed only a muted light to pass through their grimy panes, but it was enough to see that the factory floor was empty. At least it was empty of the rows of industrial cutting and sewing machines that had once filled the space. There was a scattering of broken bottles, grimy blankets, and empty cans. A charred place on the floor revealed that someone had once thought the interior of the vast space to be a good spot for a fire. Tiny bones that may once have belonged to a household pet revealed that it had been a cooking fire, however, none of it looked recent.
A double door led from the factory floor to the office section of the building. It was not quite as big as the factory area, but had over a dozen offices, a meeting room, and a reception area. The carpet and old network cables revealed that the offices had probably been vacant since around 1990. At least vacant from legitimate tenants. Graffiti, a deflated air mattress, and more garbage demonstrated that the offices had seen other forms of activity since the collapse.
Once they were certain that the place was empty, Jim let his rifle hang and switched to a handheld flashlight. “What do you think?”
“I think I’ll take the biggest office.”
“I don’t think you’ll need an office,” Jim countered. “You’ll be too busy. Someone has to make the liquor and brew the beer.”
“Don’t know nothing about brewing beer,” Lloyd announced as if it were the final word on the subject.
“A small detail. We’ll find someone who does. There’s bound to be an amateur brewer around here somewhere.”
For the first time since coming up with the idea of opening a roadhouse, Lloyd looked doubtful. Perhaps it was the exhaustion or his hangover, but his face was clouded with concern.
“What’s the matter?” Jim asked.
“I’ll be honest with you, Jim. Having a roadhouse was kind of a fantasy when I was stuck at that camp full of kids with no liquor. I thought it would be the best of both worlds. I’d have a venue for playing music, which is the thing I miss the most. Plus, I could drink while I was doing it. Looking at this place, though…it’s a hell of a lot of work.”
Jim nodded. “Yes, it is a lot of work, but this is the kind of project I used to manage at my job all the time, back when I had a job. I know how to break down and organize things like this. I don’t see it as an insurmountable problem.”
“I’m glad you’re so cool about it. If I had to build a roadhouse, it might just end up as a circle of hobos drinking around a fire here in the middle of the floor.”
Jim laughed. “I’ll sit down tonight and organize the job on paper, then we’ll put our heads together with a few folks and make it happen.”
“What about all the physical work that needs done? Building stuff? Tracking down materials? Fixing windows?”
“That the part that scares you the most?” Jim asked. “Breaking a sweat?”
“I’ve sweated all morning,” Lloyd protested.
“Sweating out a hangover isn’t work, it’s karma. But don’t worry about that part. I can build us a workforce.”
“I used to work on a loading dock in Richmond,” Jim said. “When we didn’t have enough labor for the day, my boss would send me down to skid row and we’d hire day laborers. They’d get a bottle of wine for the day. No cash and no record keeping. They got their wine at lunch, so they weren’t good for much after that.”
“If I have to pay people in alcohol, that might not leave much to sell.”
“I’m not thinking of alcohol,” Jim said. “I’m thinking of food. We keep a cookpot going all day with a soup made out of the some of the things that no one wants to eat. Peas, canned lima beans, ramen noodles, the MREs and freeze-dried stuff that tastes like crap. We offer a big lunch each day and we’ll get workers.”
Lloyd waved a hand. “That’s fine, man. Whatever. You figure that part out and just let me know what I need to do.”
There was a whinny from outside, the cry of a startled horse. Lloyd and Jim looked at each other for a confused moment, then Jim sprinted across the factory floor. Along the brick wall, he braced his foot on a run of rusty conduit and boosted himself up to peer out a high window that looked out the back of the building. He caught sight of someone disappearing around the corner, leading their horses along behind him.
Jim dropped to the floor, looked at Lloyd, and mouthed, “The horses!”
Without waiting to see if Lloyd heard him, Jim ran for one of the front doors, hoping they weren’t chained shut from the outside. He kicked the panic bar with a boot and the door flung open violently, bouncing off the brick wall. He spotted a scared man about thirty feet away, trying to hurriedly mount his horse. The horse was spinning away, not interested in letting the stranger mount him.
Understanding that in the world of rock-paper-scissors “shooting” beat “shouting,” Jim fired off a warning shot. The round ricocheted off the bricks a few yards from the man’s head. Message received, the terrified man flung his arms up in the air and stepped away from the horse.
“Where’s the other horse!” Jim demanded, stepping forward with his rifle leveled on the horse thief’s chest.
About that time, a second man emerged from around the same corner of the building with his hands raised in the air. Lloyd was behind him, his shotgun pointed at the man’s back.
“Get over there with your buddy,” Jim ordered.
When his prisoner did as he was told, Lloyd stepped off to join Jim. He’d learned to stay up-range when Jim’s blood was running hot. It was easy to get caught in the crossfire.
With the two horse thieves standing side by side, Jim could tell that they were related. Both had bushy black beards streaked with gray and broad noses lined with broken blood vessels. Their pants sagged below their waists, but it was more a statement of their lack of food than of their sense of fashion.
“You best get that gun off me,” the first prisoner said, emboldened. He wore a grubby t-shirt that may once have been white and advertised Newport cigarettes.
“Why?” Jim asked. “Stealing horses is a death sentence as far as I’m concerned.”
“They was on our property!” Newport protested.
Jim furrowed his brow. “Your property? You’re going to have to explain that to me. This was a public street last I heard. You own the town park too? What about the sewage treatment plant?”
Newport nodded confidently, indicating that he did. The man Jim assumed to be his brother was nodding along, though not looking quite so certain about it. Perhaps he was just playing along.
“My family lives down at the end of this road. All the other families moved out and moved on. We’ve seen the way other people around this town are claiming things for themselves. They’re moving into houses that don’t belong to them, taking stuff that don’t belong to them, and generally doing whatever the hell they want. There some reason they can do it but we can’t?”
Jim didn’t have much of an argument for that. Newport was right. People were doing exactly as he said. Jim was too. “That may be the case, but you sure as hell aren’t claiming my horse.”
“Like my brother said, they was on our property,” the other man said. He wore a grubby cap that said NAPA Auto Parts on it.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Jim said. “Property lines have been a little blurry lately. If something isn’t being used, other people are coming along and putting it to use. I’m sure there’s going to be a day where this all has to be sorted out and I’m not exactly sure how that’s going to happen. It’s going to be a mess for certain. That’s part of the reason we’re here.”
Newport looked at Jim suspiciously. “Why? You hear something about us?”
Jim cocked an eyebrow. Apparently, the man was guilty of something, but perhaps no more guilty than Jim himself was. “I haven’t heard anything about you people specifically. My friend and I were looking at this building. We wanted to put it to use for a project we had in mind.”
“What kind of project?” NAPA asked.
Jim considered for a moment before replying. “I’m not ready to say yet. We’re exploring our options.”
“Can we put our hands down?” Newport asked. “If we’re going to be talking business, we should be doing it as equals. I don’t like staring down the barrel of a gun on my own property.”
“Keep’em up!” Jim warned. “We’re not talking business and you’ll keep staring down the barrel of this gun until I’m comfortable that we’re safe.”
Newport cooperated but shrugged in disagreement. “Sounds like we’re talking business to me. You’re wanting to use a building that’s on our property. That kind of makes us partners.”
“Or it makes us your landlords,” NAPA offered, flashing a grin that revealed a row of grimy teeth.
“Or my friend just kills you and we consider ourselves done with the whole matter,” Lloyd suggested.
Jim frowned, not appreciating the way Lloyd so often told people that Jim was going to kill them. Why didn’t Lloyd ever threaten to kill anyone himself? Jim supposed that this was the pattern of things. It was like Lloyd’s drinking. Spend too much time doing a particular thing and you can’t hardly get bent out of shape when people begin to associate you with it.
“We got family back in there,” Newport said, gesturing further down the road. “You shoot us and start using this building, they’ll figure out what happened.”
“They must be smarter than you two,” Lloyd said. “Didn’t see you all as the analytical type.”
“Lloyd, get those horses,” Jim said. Then, to the two brothers, he added, “We’ll be getting on out of here, but we’ll get back to you on the building. You’ll be seeing us again. Next time I suggest you don’t try stealing our horses. You might not get off so easy the second time.”
“You do that,” Newport said. “We’ll deal with you. We’re not unreasonable men.”
“Oh, I know exactly what kind of men you are,” Jim offered. “The question is whether I can deal with men like you without having to kill you. The jury is still out on that one.” No sooner had he said the words than he realized he was acting exactly like Lloyd always accused him of acting. He’d threatened to kill these men without a second thought.
Lloyd mounted his horse and led Jim’s over to him, handing off the reins. Lloyd covered the two brothers with his shotgun while Jim mounted up. Casting a wary eye over their shoulders, Jim and Lloyd rode off as Newport and NAPA watched them go.
When they were back on Main Street, Lloyd had a lot to say about the encounter. His adrenaline must have been up because he was more animated than Jim had seen him all day.
“Surely you aren’t thinking about dealing with those guys. We either need to find a different place or run those guys out of there.”
Jim shrugged. “We’ve all done some questionable stuff, Lloyd. Especially where property is concerned, but those guys are right. How is them claiming that building any different than us claiming some of the empty houses in the valley for our people?”
“Those guys aren’t using the building. They’re thieves who didn’t get away with our horses so they’re looking for another way to shake us down. I’m not paying them rent. You can’t let guys like that get a hook in you or you’ll never be free of them.”
“Let’s look at a few other places,” Jim suggested. “Then we’ll get on home and figure something out.”
Lloyd hung his shotgun over the saddle horn and got a biscuit out of his pack. The slightly crushed biscuit was wrapped in a dish towel and held a slice of cold roast beef left over from last night’s feast. He bit off a chunk of the biscuit, then gestured at Jim. “Lead the way,” he said, his words garbled by the mouthful of food.
Jim shook his head. “As my granny would say, you only got one manner, Lloyd, and it’s ill.”
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