Editor's note: This companion piece serves as a prequel to Liberty Island's newly published novel, The Big Bang
. You can also watch an interview with author Roy "Griff" Griffis.
It was just a little school. Like a lot of places there in the Sonoran desert, it was a one-story building from the 50's, built of cinder block, with a flat roof, all of it painted a remarkably less-than-festive flat white. During the three years Whistler had lived in the vicinity of the school (calling the dwellings scattered over nearly ten miles of sand, scrub, saguaro cactus and every variety of pointy, pokey plant life known to man a "neighborhood" seemed impossibly optimistic to him), he'd observed the little kids outside every spring painting murals on the longest wall, which faced the playground.
The bright, simplistic, and anatomically incorrect figures standing awkwardly on the big cement canvas were usually good for a chuckle as he drove by, unless the sun was jabbing those knitting needles of light in his sleep-deprived eyes. On those mornings, nothing made him happy except the thought of fleeing the unrelenting glare of the desert daylight and retreating to the stuffy dark cocoon of the couch at the back of the trailer.
Still, even on his worst day, Whistler wouldn't have wanted to see the little school burn, nor could he have imagined such a small structure would burn for so long.
"You're lucky to live out here," the realtor had said to him, taking his money order and handing him a single brass key.
Whistler only grunted at that. He was leasing a thirty-year-old trailer in the far corner of a tiny ranch, which apparently only grew weeds and goats. As he glanced around, he noticed one of the goats choking on something green and spiky that sprung from the baked ceramic surface that passed for dirt around here. Clearly, both the plants and livestock around here were committed to killing each other.
In exchange for a reduced rent and 'keeping an eye on the place,' he'd have his very own single-wide, which might have been the height of swinging bachelor life back when Jerry Ford was president and disco was king. In 2006, however, the strips of aluminum curled away from the siding, and its peeling paint (which had once been white) was now polka-dotted with rust where it wasn't just sheet metal gray. Nothing about the place screamed 'This is what success looks like.'
The realtor couldn't let it go, though. The woman, about fifty, wore just a touch too much face powder, possibly to cover the slight layer of downy hair that covered her skin. Whistler had noticed the realtor's five o'clock shadow when he'd reached for the key. He could tell she wasn't native to Southern Arizona. Her boots were too shiny, the business-denim jeans a bit too snug over that middle-aged backside, the slacks held tight against her midriff by a tea-saucer-sized silver buckle with an aggressively blue-green turquoise stone in the middle. The rock protruded just a bit from the buckle, almost like a push-button, and he wondered (in a way that was alarmingly free of any actual lust) if pressing the stone would cause her large bosoms to spring free of the bra and pressed cowboy shirt that struggled to contain them.
"You're lucky," she insisted again with a brighter smile than the property deserved. "Look at that view," she commanded, removing the crisp and unstained straw hat as if to give herself a better look.
The mountains. The same ones that had been there every day of the last sixteen months he'd been in Arizona and for thirty million years before that. Yeah, thrilling.
"And all that sky," she went on with a demonstrative swing of the arm that threatened to unleash her personal Alpine Peaks.
"Yeah," he finally agreed, to keep himself from being trampled by her enthusiasm.
The realtor must've been in sales a long time, because she remained adamantly upbeat in the face of his decidedly neutral affect. "And no smog!" she told him, returning the cowboy hat to the pre-made dents in her hairdo, slipping the money order into her purse, which jingle-jangled like a surrey with the fringe on top. "You enjoy your new home, Mr. Whistler," she ordered him, weaving between the goats to get to her truck, a Ford F-150 that was, at minimum, four times the vehicle a woman of her size required. She held onto the open door and leaned out the cab to intone once more, "You're lucky."
That time, it didn't sound quite so Dale Carnegie chipper. Maybe she had done more than look at his credit before letting him have the trailer. By now, he was working on keeping his mouth shut, which had turned out to be pretty easy do as long as he hadn't spent the prior ten hours filling it beer. "Yeah," he said.
Since he was also trying not to be a complete asshole, he forced himself to stand there outside the piece of shit tinbox that was going to be his home and waved to the realtor as she drove away.
The dust her truck raised from the trail annoyed the goats, which bleated threats in her direction before moving off to stand moodily in a less-trafficked part of the field. Whistler didn't open the door to the trailer, although he knew he should. Without ventilation and a cross-breeze, the single-wide would turn into a sweatbox right out of those old war movies with the POWs and the inhumane Japanese guards screaming at them.
Instead, he sat on the metal steps leading up to his house. He didn't want to think about wishing he had a drink. So he thought about luck.
Luck all depended on where you were standing at the moment, and who was looking. Could be bad luck for some black lady in Phoenix or Flowing Wells to have sickle cell anemia. Then you're talking doctor's visits, treatments, cost, time, pain. But if that same lady was in Sub-Saharan Africa, hell, sickle cell was nearly a blessing, as it kept her from coming down with the malaria that made so much of the place unlivable for Europeans for so long.
He took one more look around at the goats and the weeds before climbing to his feet. "Lucky, my ass," he muttered.
But son-of-a-bitch if that realtor lady wasn't right.
He hadn't always had to think about not being an asshole.
He'd moved to Tucson from Evanston, IL, when his employer, Fidelity Health, had relocated their call and claims center to the cheaper land, lower taxes, and lesser crime rate of the other Sunshine State.
Yeah, maybe the weather was better and your car undercarriage didn't rust out from all the salt used on northern roads. Some of his coworkers loved the sun, the relatively better traffic, the quaint neighborhoods. Others bitched about the sun, about how damn far they had to drive to get a decent bagel or a good cup of coffee or a recent copy of the Times.
"Doncha miss it, Andy?" one of them had said. They hadn't been in the new building for more than a month, and they were still stumbling over power cords strung across hallways and at least once a day someone's foot caught in a network cable that lay between the desks, sometimes resulting in an outburst of profanity that could be caught by the customers on a call with the reps.
"Who's got time to miss anything?" he'd asked, almost accurately. There was a hell of a lot work to be done just getting the office organized, the phones working, hell, even paper in the damn copiers.
"That's cause you're always here, man."
It was true. He worked longer hours than anyone in the adjuster's department, in before the rest of the team and staying until the noise of the night cleaning crew's vacuum made it impossible to hear, let alone think.
The remarks from his co-workers had continued, jocular not-so-friendly comments about his desire to climb the corporate ladder, the snide observations that he had something on his nose; he had ignored all of those, but one Friday evening, as the staff streamed out into the overly warm desert dusk of a March day, one of the new managers pulled him aside.
Mrs. Dominguez was her name. She was one of the local hires, a pleasant middle-aged Hispanic woman who was quite attractive and had probably been a real heartbreaker when she was younger. "Mr. Whistler, can I see you?" she asked politely.
"Oh, yes, of course." He closed the form he was working on and saved it. He was working on an updated set of processes for the new location. He followed her into her small office.
Mrs. Dominguez had a few pictures on her tiny desk. One of them was of two boys and a girl in matching high school letter jackets. She caught his gaze and nodded her head toward it. "Those are mine. That picture is about ten years old, though."
There was an uninviting plastic chair opposite her desk. She urged him to have a seat, and so he sat down to be polite.
"Mr. Whistler," she began.
"Just call me Andy," he told her.
"Andy, you and I haven't had a chance to get to know each other." She gestured at the files and paperwork on her desk, and he nodded with empathy.
"Lot to do, Miss Dominguez."
"And there's always more, isn't there?"
That was self-evident. "Yeah," he agreed.
"Andy, I needed to speak to you about your hours." When all he did was look at her, she leaned forward and went on. "You've been working a lot of overtime since you joined us at the office."
"I've been off the clock."
"We know. But, we can't have you working unpaid hours."
"I don't mind. It has to get done, right?" The sheepish grin he offered her was unreturned.
"Andy, it's against company policy. Because it's not right that you work and not get paid. Our budget doesn't allow for--"
"I don't mind."
"You can't, Andy. It's against state law, too. I need you to work your scheduled hours, Mr. Whistler. Can you do that for me?"
He looked directly at her. She had an open, kind face. Three grown kids, no wedding band. She was a nice enough lady, trying to make enough for her mortgage and car payments and maybe even some college tuition. She wasn't busting his chops; she was asking him to make her life a little less difficult and his work a little more legal. "Sure," he said. "I can do that. For you."
He left her office, turned off his desk lamp and the PC, and then walked out of the building. Strangely, he shivered emerging from the air-conditioned bubble into the warm evening with the odd, flat scent of dirt on the dry breeze that scraped along his cheek. He'd tell Kathy about it, he thought as he unlocked the '89 Pontiac he'd driven down from Evanston. How silly it was to be shivering in the heat. If they'd been back home, of course they'd be shivering, but it was actually cold in March there.
He slipped in behind the steering wheel. The interior of the car was hotter than it was outside. He'd been meaning to buy one of those silvery reflectors that went across your dashboard and covered the front window. The locals swore they kept your car from turning into a damn terrarium during the day.
It was only when his hands touched the hot plastic of the steering wheel and he snatched them back that he remembered. Or he forgot to forget that there wasn't any reason to go back to his small apartment in the brand-new complex.
Just like Kathy hadn't had any reason to go to Tucson. Her family, all the people she'd grown up with, they were back there in the Midwest, generations of them. "I'm not reason enough?" he'd asked in disbelief. He knew things weren't great, but...
"No," she said. "Nothing personal."
That was probably what hurt most of all. Nothing mean. Nothing personal.
So his wife wasn't waiting for him back in that little one-bedroom. There were a couple of boxes on the floor, along with a mattress (also on the floor). His work clothes were unpacked, but he knew as soon as he opened the door to that new, mostly bare set of rooms, it would smell just as warm and flat and dead as the air inside his car, with just a hint of the new wall paint under it all.
No reason to rush back to that. He looked around the parking lot, feeling the muscles that intersected between his shoulder blades and the base of his neck start to get very, very tight, curling up into the fetal position that he almost wanted to assume himself.
Well, he couldn't fill the hours with work anymore. He'd have to see what else he could do with his time.
Turned out, he could drink pretty well.
Like many hobbies, it filled up his time and used his money, both of which he had more than he wanted or needed. Unlike less consuming hobbies, he didn't have much to show for it: no great photo montages, no kitschy souvenirs that would lead into amusing anecdotes.
And like a lot of hobbies, the more he got into really practicing it, the more it cost him. Any enthusiast could have told him that.
First it cost him his car. He ignored the flashing 'Check Engine' light and one evening the Pontiac, sulky and lonely from the lack of attention, threw a tantrum and then a rod. After that, Whistler drove a simpler vehicle, a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle with a sunroof that leaked during the summer monsoon rains. But it was fairly forgiving as long as he fed it a lot of 10W/50 oil.
His hobby began getting really expensive. He downsized to a student studio apartment near the University; no sense wasting money on a bedroom and full kitchen he rarely used. Then he had to park the VW Bug, as he was stopped for a DUI. He managed to sidestep jail time only because a highly paid lawyer spotted a paperwork and evidentiary oversight. So Whistler began riding a bike to work. He had to keep working; he had a hobby to maintain.
Then it cost him a promotion.
Then his job.
As he was being walked out by security, a 9x12 envelope under his arm that contained the sum of the personal items that had been in and on his desk, Mrs. Dominguez met him in the parking lot. The guard tensed, as if afraid that Whistler might go postal on one of his former managers.
The older woman held up a hand. "I'm sorry it worked out this way, Andy."
Whistler shrugged as he tried ineffectually to make his eyebrows shield his eyes from the morning sun.
She took his hand. Her face, even to his bloodshot eyes, was still kind. She pressed a piece of paper into his palm. She leaned forward and spoke quietly. "You might need this. It helped me one time. There's help if you want it."
Without looking, he shoved the document into his pocket.
One morning, he woke up inside his VW, unable to see out of his right eye. The skin around it was so swollen he couldn't pry the lids apart with his thumb and forefinger. He checked in the rearview mirror, expecting to see the increasingly routine blue and black and yellow of a bruise, but the skin was merely inflamed. Some damn desert insect had bitten him at some point in the night. Well, shit. He'd have to wait a couple of hours for the free clinic downtown to open, so he cracked the sunroof to let in a little air, and scrunched himself more comfortably in the seat. He didn't mind the litter of paper from various fast food joints. They cushioned him a little as he put his back against the driver's door and hauled his feet up on the passenger seat.
He was wearing one red shoe on his left foot.
He didn't own any red shoes.
It was some kind of slim, leather fancy shoe.
The red shoe was bright and assertive against the sun-scoured light gray of the old car's interior. In fact, just looking at it made his already queasy stomach want to go into a gastrointestinal version of ventricular fibrillation, so he turned his good eye away from the sight.
But that meant all he had to look at was either the closed-down tire shop he was parked in back of, or the interior of his car. Both visions were dirty and essentially clothed in garbage.
This sucks, he thought.
He turned his head. The red shoe again. Whose shoe was it? Was it even a man's shoe?
This really sucks.
First he needed a plan, hell, even a clue, and it turned out that Mrs. Dominguez had provided that. Looking for spare change to buy breakfast, he was digging through the wad of papers in a dirty briefcase on the Bug's floorboards when he came across the document that his former manager had given him on his way out and down. "Do You Think You have a Drinking Problem?" it asked him.
He'd spent nearly a year destroying himself ("suicide, one sip at a time" a guy in one of Those Rooms told him), and it took longer to rebuild a life. That rebuilding got him a mercy deal on the trailer surrounded by friendly goats and noxious weeds. He needed a job, though, and through the kind offices of another friend of a mutual friend named Bill W., he got a night job working security out at one of the big Indian casinos on the east side of Tucson. It was nearly 60 miles to drive, but he didn't mind. It was cooler at night, anyway, hardly any traffic on the I-10. He'd do his rounds (as only one of a few token palefaces at the Apache-owned-and-run business), and then he'd read a certain big book he always brought along.
It wasn't an impressive life, as these things went, but beat the hell out of living in a car that was almost as old as he was. And he might have stayed with the goats and the weeds and the little trailer for a long time except the Big Bang happened, and his world was once more grabbed by the ankles, hoisted upside down, and given really thorough shaking.
He'd been asleep that day in late August 2008 when it happened, and only slowly became aware that Things Had Changed. A deep boom pulled him out of his sleep. That had been several parts of David-Montham AFB going up, courtesy of some old Soviet suitcase nukes that had been smuggled onto the base by illegal immigrants in servitude to M-13, a very unforgiving prison gang that wasn't particular about whom it outsourced services to of this nature.
Even as Whistler sat up on the couch that was his resting place, trying to process the still-echoing boom and the alarmed bleats of the goats as they scampered away from the noise, there was more rolling thunder from roughly the same direction. That time, it was much of University of Arizona being vaporized thanks to the efforts of some select international students whose education in America hadn't broadened their horizons or opened their minds as much as had been hoped.
And from there things followed in what Whistler would later learn was a depressingly familiar trajectory. The poor parts of town burned, most electronics died, cars became immobile, and planes fell from the sky like toys thrown by angry titans, smearing entire neighborhoods across the reddish-brown dirt. Shortly after that old people, the chronically ill, or the damned unlucky began to die, too. Without air conditioning, summer made Tucson into an especially inhospitable place, and the heat killed a lot of fitter people, too. Riots broke out, looting was met with lethal force, and life became ugly for a time.
He didn't have the whole story, of course. He ventured out just far enough to speak to one or two terrified residents, but everything they told him was stunning. He might have discounted their stories of frantic Emergency Broadcasts that failed after a few days, as well as the wild rumors of a nuked Washington DC (and New York and Chicago and any other city whose name they might have known), but the lost power, useless phone lines, stalled cars in the middle of the streets, and the fire-twisted carcasses of 747s atop what had once been homes and businesses were pretty damn compelling evidence of something.
Whatever had happened was huge, clearly. And too big for him to wrap his mind around. He couldn't do anything about it, whatever that huge 'it' had been. For now, he'd keep his head down, work the Steps, and take it one day at a time.
He just stayed close to the trailer and the goats, some of whom he'd begun to give names. There was a well on the ranch, and so he and the livestock had water. In that respect he was a lot better off than much of the Tucson metropolitan area. He didn't care to leave the ranch, especially after he started seeing the huge flocks of black birds that moved in five-mile-wide thunderclouds over the city. When the wind shifted, the scent of corruption was strong and overall, he'd rather smell the goats.
He didn't know it at the time, but he risked hanging by breaking into the long-unused main house and pilfering a lot of canned goods. The ranch's owner had typically chosen to communicate her desires to him by phone, and so he'd not heard from her since that big boom had waked him up. She'd sounded old, but cranky and tough, so she might still be alive. To himself, he justified grabbing the food by recalling his overdue and likely never-to-arrive paycheck. But he had been trying to change things in his life and enforced honesty had been part of that. So he left a handwritten, dated and signed accounting of everything he took from the pantry.
When Snowmaggedon arrived (that was what the locals called the harsh winter that deposited several feet of snow on the startled human and animal residents of the desert), he debated moving into the ranch house, but decided to stay put. He thought it would actually be easier to stay warm in the smaller confines of the trailer than the more open expanse of the other building. He did make a more complete inspection of the interior of the main house and came away with a number of useful acquisitions (all duly noted and recorded on a sheet of paper pinned to the empty pantry shelves).
The most useful thing he found was a couple of hunting rifles with old scopes and plenty of ammunition. The old ranch lady might've had a little bit of a paranoid streak in her, before she got too old to take care of the place on her own. He was glad of the discovery of the weapons, as the coyotes had started to pester the goats with the coming of the snow.
The goats, while smelly and flatulent and lousy conversationalists, were for the most part relatively good company as long as one overlooked their propensity to experience the world as something to be chewed on. They didn't really bother anyone and they weren't particularly aggressive (except the ram with testicles like hairy avocados, and even that was only when the dimwit thought Whistler wanted to get better acquainted with the lady nannie of the moment).
When the coyotes carried off one of the kids, there was nothing Whistler could do but listen to the very human-sounding screaming of the poor animal as it was turned into goat sushi.
There was nothing he could and something about that fact pissed him off.
With the rifles, though, he might persuade the coyotes to look somewhere else for dinner. He'd done two years in the National Guard, back when Carter was President, so he'd had a little training. With plenty of time on his hands and a little patience, he became a fair shot. Remembering what he'd heard about how to keep crows out of a field, he took to hanging the carcasses of the dead predators upside down on the fence line that faced the mountains.
He needed oil for the VW, and that's what finally sent him creeping carefully in the direction of the big city. He was a good thirty minutes by state highway from the northern edge of the city.
There was still snow on the roads, and he drove with great care. In places, the wind had piled the dirty snow up on the sides of buildings and motionless vehicles, making Tucson look a lot more like Evanston. As somebody brought up in the Midwest, he knew too well the sense of horizontal free-fall that took place during an icy skid. With no EMS or open auto repair, he was going to be extra solicitous of the VW.
Even in these thinly populated parts of Southern Arizona, he passed more stalled vehicles on the road that he expected. He eased the Bug up beside one formerly nice Beemer that had ended ass-over-teakettle in the depression between the north and southbound lanes of the state highway, a bit of sky-blue amid the frozen, brittle brown stalks of the weeds that had died around the car.
The doors on the BMW were open and the trunk hung down like a slack jaw, giving the whole thing a weirdly skull-like look. He took a quick look inside. No one there. He had maybe expected to find some kind of remains, desiccated to yuppie jerky by the desert heat and the dry winter air. When he straightened, there were some figures moving toward him from the strip mall across the way.
He took in the sight. They looked fat with misshapen heads at first, until he realized they were wearing several layers of clothing and hats against the cold. There were five of them and as they crossed the highway, they spread out like a basketball team running a play. They hadn't called to him or said a word. They just raced toward him. When in doubt, get the hell out, a one-armed guy in One of Those Rooms had said to the newcomers.
It sounded like an excellent plan. Whistler jumped in the idling VW, shoving it in gear. It had been too long since he'd driven, because he neglected to push in the clutch before strong-arming the shift, and the Bug jerked and lurched forward several feet as the engine coughed and died.
Well, shit. The approaching un-Welcome Wagon had sped up when he had leapt into the car. He laid his hand on the rifle in the passenger seat and got out of the car. "I don't want--" he was saying when they began to shoot at him.
The pop-pop noises were thin, almost inconsequential, until the passenger window behind him starred and spat tiny splinters of glass at him. This sucks, he thought with a very unpleasant sense of deja vu.
He couldn't tell if they were actually trying to shoot him or just scare him off. The basketball team only had handguns, which made their aim erratic and undependable. Either way, he was on the wrong damn side of his VW. He rolled across the hood with none of the grace or control he'd seen in a dozen bad movies, landing on the far side to twist his ankle.
But he never let go of the rifle. Briefly oblivious to the stomach-churning pain that burned like a hot coal glued to the side of his leg, he brought the deer rifle up as he leaned over the curving hood of the VW.
He'd actually managed to hit a couple of coyotes on the run when he was defending the goats and those predators had been streaking away from him. These predators were running right at him.
He pulled the trigger. Down stuffing flew out the back of the nearest figure and white fluff hung in the air like a mist even as the man (?) folded and tumbled.
A bullet skipped across the hood beside Whistler's elbow. He flinched, waiting to feel something--an impact or a slice. Nothing, and then even as the skin between his shoulder blades rippled with gooseflesh, he rolled left off the hood to fire through the open windows of the Bug.
The figures slowed, hesitated. He winced as he stepped back to the right, working the bolt on the deer rifle and crouched low behind the fender. Now the skin of his scalp crawled, as he had to expose at least half his head to be able to see his attackers.
Coyotes. Predators. It was a chant that beat through his mind in time with his breathing. He didn't need the scope, couldn't use it, as it would narrow his field of vision too much. The four men--he could see that now, he was pretty sure the dirty, scruffy figures were men--had paused back a good fifty feet, looking at one another. Guess the goats around here didn't shoot back, Whistler thought.
He was willing to let 'em go. He had no burning desire to shoot anyone.
Then they ran at him again. Desperate? Or just thinking they could overwhelm him with the quantity of lead they were throwing at him and the abused VW?
This reallllly sucks, he told himself as he put a round through the abdomen of another coyote. The man yelped as he spun away and Whistler could hear him swearing and crying in pain.
He yanked the bolt back on the rifle and forced himself to seat it with some control. If the rifle jammed, he was really screwed. The three remaining figures were shooting at him again, using every gangster pose they'd ever seen in a movie. One wild shot hit a tire on the driver's side of the bug, and it went flat with a hiss and a thump.
When Whistler shot the third man through the throat, the last two predators turned and ran, leaving their companions to bleed out onto the dirty snow.
The two men spared a glance over their shoulders while they ran back to the dark strip mall, as if afraid they'd be shot in the back.
Whistler just watched them go. His heart was pounding, sweat was trickling down his spine, and his arms were trembling. Even if he had wanted to, shaking like this he couldn't have hit those fleeing coyotes. He'd likely just killed three men to protect himself, and, since he was forcing himself to be honest, to protect his car. Goddamn, he thought as sour bile gathered at the back of his throat.
Behind him a voice said, "Freeze, mister."
He turned and there was another group of armed men behind him. Every single one of them had a firearm of some kind in their hands, and they were every last one pointed at him.
A young black guy in a faded Highway Patrol uniform, right down to the Smokey Bear hat said, "Put 'er down, buddy. We're on your side."
Whistler thought about it, the rifle still in his hands. Behind him, one of the wounded men made noises that could hardly be called human.
"It's all right, buddy," the Highway Patrolman assured him. "Think about it. We coulda shot you when your back was turned."
Facing all those guns, Whistler sure hated the idea of putting the rifle down. On the other hand, he hated even more the idea of dying here in the dirty snow, bleeding to death leaned up against the side of his piece of shit VW.
He took the deer rifle by the warm barrel and laid it on the roof of the Bug, stock facing away from him. "Don't want it to get wet," he explained as he put his hands on top of his head and stepped away from the car.
"Fair enough," the Smokey said. "Turn around and put your hands behind your back. This is just so we ensure everybody's safety."
The tiny muscles between his shoulder blades were gonna be tuckered out tonight--if he had a tonight left--because Whistler did as he was told, even as his entire back tensed against the gunshot he expected to escort him out of the world.
Instead, they marched him to a small Arizona Highway Patrol office and bought him a cup of coffee. It was instant, bitter and vaguely sulfurous from well water, but better than a bullet in the back of the head, so he took the thick Dunkin' Donuts mug and gripped it tight to hide his shaking hands as he waited in a really small room with two chairs and table. The only light came from the window high up in one wall.
The coffee had just cooled to a drinkable temperature when the door opened. The black Smokey came in followed by a Hispanic man with a broad chest and silver hair. He extended a hand.
"Mr. Whistler? I'm Acting Captain Quijano. You've met Officer Jackson? He treated you all right?"
"Yeah," Whistler said, standing and shaking hands with someone for the first time in about eight months. He didn't shoot me. "He was fine. Didn't read me my rights, though."
"You weren't under arrest, Mr. Whistler."
"Uh...I've been kind up of the hills since...whatever happened happened."
Jackson and Quijano exchanged a glance. "Where in the hills, if you don't mind me asking? Jackie, can you get the map out of the office? And leave that door open so we get some light."
The Smokey left, which gave Whistler a chance to take a closer look at the Acting Captain. He was clean-shaven with short hair that didn't touch his ears. He had wrinkles around his eyes, probably from a few years in the Arizona sun. He seemed fit, not as muscular as Jackson, but like he was in good shape for his age. He just had a vibe that felt familiar. "What were you in?"
"Army," the Acting Captain said simply. "You?"
"National Guard. Two years."
Quijano nodded. "Jackson said you weren't too bad with your rifle."
At that, Whistler looked away and concentrated on the coffee mug for a second. "Coyotes," he muttered after a minute. "I'm the caretaker on little ranch out past Oracle."
He didn't say anything more until the laminated map was brought in. It must've been a geological survey map or something, because it seemed to be focused mostly on the land. Some highways had been added with a pencil. Whistler pretended to take a minute to get oriented to the map while he worked out a quick moral problem with himself. He was supposed to be honest in all of his affairs, but he didn't know much about these folks. Nothing wrong with being cautious. He pointed to the range of foothills within about five miles of the ranch's actual location.
Quijano nodded and Jackson added a note in pen on the map. "Census," the Acting Captain explained. "We need to know who's in the neighborhood."
The coffee was now room temperature and probably close to battery acid in taste. Whistler put the mug down. "So...who the hell are you guys?"
The old NCO's face creased with a flinty smile. "I think we're about all the government that's left hereabouts."