Ozark Retreat - Chapter 5




Ozark Retreat - Chapter 5

Brady worked for the corporation until late in 2010, when his two-year contract was up. He didn’t renew it. The company was giving him basic cases, using salaried agents to work the more lucrative insurance recovery cases that Brady was so good at solving.

He continued to work, mostly as a courier, respecting the non-competition agreement he’d signed for the company. Brady had specifically exempted courier work from the agreement, along with a couple of other lines of work that he enjoyed that wouldn’t really impact the company if he was on the playing field.

It was on the return trip into St. Louis after a New York to LA courier delivery that Brady heard the news about Taiwan. The Captain of the aircraft announced it. The sitting Taiwanese government had passed a resolution to call a constitutional congress as the first step to Independence. China had begun to attack the near coast of Taiwan, in preparation to invade.

Brady didn’t quite hold his breath until they landed, but he would have if he could have. He felt much better when he was sitting in the Suburban, armed again. He listened to the news as he drove toward his apartment.

His landline was ringing when he arrived at the apartment. It was Barbara, asking him if he’d heard the news.

“Yeah. On the plane.”

“We’re bugging out first thing in the morning,” Barbara told him. “What about you?”

“Maybe. I want to see how this begins to track out. I have another job I’m supposed to start Monday.”

“You hear the weather forecast?”

“No. I haven’t. Why?”

“An arctic front is headed this way. They’re predicting a foot of snow accumulation here by Saturday morning. Freezing rain twenty miles north and south of an east west line through Popular Bluff. You know what ice storms do to that country.”

“Yeah. Look. I just don’t know. I think you’re smart to leave tomorrow. Don’t be surprised if you seem me in your rearview mirror. But don’t count on it, either.”

“You take care, Brady. Don’t wait too long, if this Taiwan situation gets worse. I know you are a dedicated worker, even independently, but don’t let it get you killed.”

“I won’t. Promise. I gotta go. Just in case, I’m going to go fuel up the Suburban. It’s down to three-quarters.”

“Shame. Shame. ‘bye”

Brady hung up the phone and went back to the parking garage. It took him a good half an hour to get to the local station and fill the Suburban’s tanks with diesel. He kept the radio on to listen to the news.

The US government had issued a strong protest and called a UN Security Council session. Two carrier groups were ordered to sail at full steam to the area. China was warning off all nations to stay out of its local affairs. Taiwan was part of China and would remain so.

Brady stayed up late, watching the news. All the news networks had it as lead and secondary stories. Brady knew nothing would be resolved that night. He made sure his SAME NOAA NWS radio had fresh batteries in it. He put it on the nightstand beside his bed.

No alarm sounded during the night. Brady got up the next morning and went out for breakfast. At nine o’clock sharp he called the client he was to work for the following Monday. It was now Thursday morning. He talked the client into letting him pick up the package that afternoon for delivery Friday afternoon. The client didn’t like it, but Brady didn’t leave him much choice.

He had worked for him before and was not too impressed with his business or his interpersonal skills. Had he known what the package was this time, he would have turned down the job. Previously it had always been small, extremely expensive museum quality art objects going to private collectors. Brady had checked the man out and there were no indications of illegal activities, but Brady always felt greasy after dealing with him.

When he arrived at the man’s studio, he immediately smelled a rat. Parkinson was waiting for him, a frown on his face. Sitting casually in a chair nearby was a woman, dressed in red. Brady took a second look. She smiled a friendly smile at him and he had to smile in return.

“Let’s go into my office,” Parkinson said, leading the way. “Normally I don’t like to be rushed,” he said as soon as the door closed behind Brady. “But you may have a point. The weather could delay you if you wait to leave Monday. And I promised delivery by Wednesday of next week in Kansas City.”

“At least it isn’t across the country the way it usually was, just across the state,” Brady thought. “What’s the package this time?”

Brady didn’t like the way Parkinson hesitated and shifted his eyes. “You know I won’t do anything illegal.”

“It’s not illegal,” Parkinson quickly said. “It’s just sort of unusual,” Parkinson hesitated again, and then said, “You saw the woman out there? It’s her.”

“Her? Are you joking?” Brady was incensed. He turned around when the door opened behind him.

“You tell him about me?” asked the woman in red. She moved to stand at the end of Parkinson’s desk, staring inquisitively at Brady.

“Sort of. Just that you were the package.”

“You look like a big girl,” Brady said. “I doubt you need a baby sitter on a trip to KC.”

“Actually I’m only a B-cup,” she said, taking Brady totally by surprise at her announcement. “And Daddy says I need a keeper, not a baby sitter.”

“I’m not getting involved in some kind of kidnapping situation,” Brady said, thinking suddenly of LaRhonda.

“It’s not kidnapping,” Parkinson immediately said.

“Then what’s the problem of her getting on a plane or a bus and heading out on her own?”

Parkinson as much as wrung his hands in misery. “It’s complicated.”

“Money,” Red said. “I don’t have any. Spent every last dime Daddy put in the credit card account. He won’t let me use American Express.”

“So have him wire you some. Or get Parkinson here to spring for the ticket.”

“Don’t want to. Want Daddy to pay for it. He won’t.”

“Look, Collingsworth… Cut me a break, will you? He one of my biggest customers.” He glared at Red. She just grinned at him. “And she knows it. She won’t go home unless I hire a bodyguard, and turn around and charge her father for it.”

“You knew about this a week ago and don’t already have it sorted out?” Brady asked, more than a little annoyed.

“I can be difficult,” Red said, again rather matter-of-factly. “Daddy always says so. So it must be true.”

“I’m out of here,” Brady said, rising from the chair.

Red made chicken clucking noises. Brady turned as red as Red’s hair and outfit.

“Tell you what, Pretty Boy, I’ll add triple to what you’re getting from him, if you do it.” She nodded toward Parkinson.

“You said you spent every dime. It doesn’t sound like your father would fork it over when I get there,” Brady replied, his annoyance growing at Red’s calm demeanor.

“Actually, I’m lying.”

“About what? Being out of money or paying me?”

Red grinned. “Yes.”

Brady almost growled. “How old are you? You’re acting like a sixteen year old.”

“Why, thank you. But no. I’m legal. I’m twenty-six.”

Brady couldn’t help it. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened. She sure looked a lot closer to sixteen than she did twenty-six.

It took a moment, but Brady finally responded. “No. It’s ridiculous.”

Red made the clucking sounds again. “Stop that,” Brady said.

“Come on,” she said. “It’s just a game. Play it and win and you’ll be rewarded.”

“Wait a minute,” Brady said, frowning, “why wouldn’t I be successful? You said you were willing to go, just with an escort.”

“Well, things just sort of happen around me. Daddy always says so.”

“Lord have mercy,” Parkinson said. “She’s right. She’s a jinx.” Red stuck her tongue out at him.

That settled it for Brady. There was no way he was going to saddle himself with her, with everything going on, jinx or not. She was just too unstable. He felt his conscience twinge as he turned to leave. Red moved over to him and linked her left arm through his right. “By the way. Don’t ever call me Red. I know you were thinking it,” she said as they were walking out the office door.

Brady struggled just slightly, but her grip was firm. He resigned himself to the fact that he was escorting her to Kansas City. “Okay. Deal. Don’t call me Pretty Boy. My name is Brady. What should I call you?”

“Daddy calls me Precious.”

“I am not going to call you Precious!” Brady insisted. “What is your given name?”


Brady groaned.

“I know,” she said then, laughing at him, “I always figured that if I ever had to be an exotic dancer to make a living if Daddy cut me off, I’d use the name Star. You can call me that.”

Brady didn’t respond to that directly. He asked, “Where are your bags and things.”

“The hotel is holding them. I haven’t paid the bill.”

“Great. I’ll spring for it. I’ll make sure Parkinson pays me back.”

“Actually, I’ll send them the money when I get back home. Take my word for it, it will be cheaper on you to buy me new than to get my stuff out of hock.”

“You don’t really need anything else,” Brady said. It’s only a long day’s drive.”

“Actually I do,” she said, leaning over toward him as if to whisper confidentially. “You see, it’s that time of the month. I need the works.”

Brady hung his head for a moment, and then turned on the turn signal, checked the traffic behind and moved into the left turn lane. “There’s a mall just up here,” he said.

“You are so sweet, Brady.”

“Don’t push it… Star.”

Star giggled.

Brady pulled into the mall and stopped. He gave Star two hundred in twenties. “Just get what you really need. I’ll wait here.”

“Spoilsport,” Star said. But she took the money and got out of the Suburban.

Brady saw her shiver. Then she was jogging toward the mall entrance. He turned on the news to see what was going on. It wasn’t good. The local weather or the world news.

He almost didn’t recognize her when Star approached the truck. Before she’d been red. Now she was blue. Blue jeans, blue shirt, blue denim jacket. What broke the color scheme was the St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. It was red.

She opened the second seat passenger door and set three shopping bags inside, and then climbed into the front passenger seat. She handed Brady some money. He was a bit surprised there was as much as there was.

He put it away and started the Suburban. “Ready?” he asked, looking over at her.

She nodded and buckled up. Brady headed out of town, finally picking up Interstate 70 west. Before they left the suburbs Brady pulled into a Bonanza Steak House and they ordered dinner while the sun was going down. Star had a healthy appetite, Brady noticed, though she didn’t gorge. She did pass on dessert, as did Brady. Then they were on the road again, the light almost gone

“Can we listen to some music?” She asked after a while.

“I really want to keep it on the news, with everything going in like it is.”

“Sure,” Star replied. “I don’t really mind. What’s going on really brings out how petty I am about this doesn’t it?”

Brady glanced at her, but brought his eyes back to the road. Traffic was heavy. He didn’t say anything.

“Oh, it’s okay. I know how I am. I do it on purpose to get attention. Usual story, I won’t bore you with it other than to tell you I love my father and he loves me despite how I have made it sound.”

Star was silent for a while and then asked, “What do you think about all this stuff that is going on? Are we at real risk of war?”

“I think so,” Brady said.

“It is history repeating itself. People just never seem to learn from the past,” Star said with a sigh.

“That is so true,” Brady said, surprised and pleased at Star’s remark. “You seem to have a good grasp of history.”

“I should. It was my major in college. I intended to become a teacher. Didn’t work out. The career counselor recommended against it. I was too independent minded, though she didn’t put it that way.”

“I can see that,” Brady said with a smile directed at Star. “Seems like much of the education system is more interested in teaching a politically correct agenda than having independent thinking going on.”

“Don’t get me started,” Star replied with a snort. “So. What do you do besides escorting devilish children home?”

Brady found himself telling her all about his detective career. Star listened, keeping quiet, except for the occasion prompting question. Then Brady yawned hugely. “We’re going to have to stop,” He told Star. “I need some rest.”

“Okay. I’m sleepy, too. I can’t sleep when traveling.”

It was another thirty minutes before they came to a motel with a vacancy sign on. Star followed Brady inside the office when he stopped the Suburban. Star stood nearby, looking through the tourist brochure rack while Brady arranged for the rooms. She was surprised when he came over to her so quickly.

“We’ll have to try another place. They’ve only got one room left.”

Star was eyeing another couple coming into the lobby. “Single or twin?” she quickly asked Brady.

“Twin, but…”

Star gave him a little shove to hurry him back to the desk. “Take it. I trust you.”


Star nudged him again. “Hurry, or that couple will get it.”

Brady could usually think on his feet very well. He had to be able to, in his line of work. But Star affected him in some way he couldn’t quite define. He stepped over to the desk before the other couple got there. “We’ll take the room.”

He came back over to her in a few minutes and handed her a card key. “I’ll just sleep in the Suburban,” he said, leading her toward the lobby doors.

“Don’t be silly, Brady. We’re both grown-ups here, despite my somewhat childish antics at times. You said there were twin beds. You’ll just have to keep your eyes closed at certain times.”

Brady was feeling fatigued. It had been a tiring job from which he’d just returned, and on top of that he’d stayed up late the previous night. He really didn’t want to look for another place or sleep in the Suburban. And Star was persuasive.

“Okay. Okay. We’ll share the room. Come on.”

Star followed him out to the Suburban, smiling slightly. They took the Suburban to the far end of the row of two story rooms. Brady had to park it some distance from the room. Star hopped out, opened the rear passenger seat door and took out two of the three bags she’d set inside from her quick shopping trip.

“You need the other bag?” Brady asked as he got his grip out of the back of the Suburban.

“No, but thanks. It’s the outfit I had on before.”

Brady led the way to the second floor room. He wondered if Star was cold. All she had was the light jacket and it was starting to get cold. That front was traveling faster than first predicted.

After he set his bag down on one of the beds Brady turned on the television while Star went to the bathroom. There was live coverage from one of the carriers bound for Taiwan. Brady watched the news while Star took her shower and prepared for bed. Though he was turned away from the bathroom door, when Star asked him through the slightly opened door to close his eyes, she did so.

His sharp ears could hear her pad to the other bed, pull back the bedspread and sheets and climb in. “Okay,” she said.

Brady got up and went to the bathroom himself, taking his grip, keeping his eyes averted from the other bed. He didn’t see Star smiling at him. When he came out of the bathroom several minutes later Star was laying on her side, apparently already asleep. Brady turned off the TV, slipped out of his silk robe, slid into the second bed. He fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke up at his normal time the next morning. Star was still asleep, her long red hair spread over the pillow and her face. Brady shook his head, went to the bathroom, and then went to start the Suburban. A light snow began to fall as he went back to the room.

The television was on and Star was in the bathroom when he got back. The Taiwan situation was taking a back seat this morning on the local channel. The approaching blizzard was headline news. Not only was it faster than predicted, but much stronger. Brady was frowning when Star came out of the bathroom.

“You look worried,” she said, seeing the expression on his face. “China start something already?”

Brady shook his head. “No. It’s the weather. That blizzard may hit before we get to KC.”

“Why not just stay here until it blows over?” Star asked. “Seriously. I’ll see that Daddy reimburses you for the expenses.”

“It’s not the money,” Brady said. “I just… had somewhere I wanted to be as soon as possible.”

“Oh, my! I’ve really interfered with your plans. I’m sorry.”

Brady thought she looked about to cry. “It’s all right. It wasn’t a rigid timeframe. Just as soon as I could. It’s still the same way.”

“Look. Why don’t you just take off? I’ll make it the rest of the way on my own,” Star said, very quietly.

“Not likely. I said I would get you there and I will.”

“One of those, huh?”

“I’m afraid so. The Suburban should be warm by now. We can leave as soon as you’re ready.”

“I’m ready.” She gathered her coat tightly about her when she stepped outside. The light snow was being blown about by a strong wind, but she didn’t complain about the cold. They stopped and got a fast food breakfast and then headed for Interstate 70 again.

Traffic was already flowing fairly heavily, despite the weather, much of it commercial trucking. “The goods have to move,” Brady said aloud as he merged alongside one and behind another as he got on the Interstate.

“What?” Star asked.

“All the trucks. Moving goods.”

“Oh. You know, I read somewhere that there is only a three day supply of food in most grocery stores. They depend on regular deliveries just to stay open.”

“True,” Brady said. “Sad state of affairs.” The snow was getting heavier. Brady turned on the wipers. “Way too many people are dependent on those deliveries for their next meal.”

“I suppose so. Since I read that I’ve often wondered what I would do if the trucks stopped running for some reason. Like a strike or something. Since I travel so much I don’t keep much in the apartment. I eat out a lot and over at Daddy’s the rest of the time.”

“I used to be that way. The eating out part.”

“But you’re not now? Are you a survivalist?” Brady noted that she didn’t use the term as a derogative one.

“Well… a prepper. To a degree,” Brady responded, not willing to say much more than that, on general principles.”

“I guess the term Survivalist has a lot of bad connotations now, doesn’t it. Prepper sounds better.”

“You’ve got that right. How about you?” Brady asked, taking a quick look at her and then getting his eyes back on the road. “You said you wonder about a truck strike. Have you been stocking up on food since then?”

Star sighed. “No. More of a do as I say, not as I do, person.”

Brady didn’t respond. He was concentrating on driving in the blowing snow and heavy traffic. Most of the big rigs had slowed down and were stacked up in the right lane. Many drivers were taking advantage of that, passing long strings of them at high speed. Brady matched his pace with the trucks and eased over into the right lane.

The wind was coming from the north and several of the semi’s were having trouble keeping their trucks in the right hand lane. A Ford Excursion blew past Brady on the left, but had to swerve to avoid being sideswiped.

The driver lost it and the Excursion went into the median at high speed, flipping over twice, winding up on its roof. Like all the big rigs within sight of the accident, Brady pulled over and jumped out of the Suburban, telling Star to use the OnStar button to get help. He had to jerk back to avoid another car traveling at high speed. When the way was clear he ran over to join the group of truck drivers at the Excursion.

A couple of them had fire extinguishers at the ready, with the others trying to get the doors open. Brady heard a siren in the distance. Since the others seemed to have the situation in hand and the authorities were on the way, Brady stepped back, still ready to lend a hand if needed.

One of the drivers had a window punch and starred the wind shield more than it already was. Two more stepped in and cleaned the glass out with gloved hands. Brady ran back to the Suburban and got a couple of blankets out of the back and took them back to the wreck.

The front seat passenger was being eased out of the vehicle when Brady got back. He spread out one of the blankets and the woman was placed on it. While the truck driver that had stabilized her head during the removal continued to keep her spine aligned, Brady wrapped her with the rest of the blanket. She had no obvious signs of injury, but she was out cold.

He laid out the other blanket, but those trying to get the other passengers were having difficulty. A State Trooper showed up and after evaluating the scene had everyone back away from the Excursion, except for the two fire extinguisher wielders. He brought another extinguisher from his trunk and handed it to another trucker to monitor the situation

“A rescue truck and two ambulances are on the way,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be any serious bleeding or lack of breathing, so we will wait for them.”

Brady hung around until the other emergency services arrived and then picked up the blanket that wasn’t being used and went back to the Suburban. He stowed the blanket and got into the driver’s seat.

“How are they?” Star asked.

“Don’t know for sure. No blood to speak of, and everyone was breathing. The Trooper thought it best to wait for the professionals before trying to get the others out. We aren’t needed anymore so it’s best if we get out of the way. Thanks for calling it in. We got a quick response.”

“Yeah. The OnStar operator was great.”
Brady eased the Suburban back onto the travel lanes and headed west once more. The sky was darkening despite the time of day, and the snow was getting heavier and heavier. Suddenly Star’s cellular phone rang, making both of them jump.


“Hi Daddy.”

“What? But you can’t! Don’t you see what is going on? It’s too dangerous!”

Brady couldn’t make out what was said, but he could tell Star was getting a lecture from her father. Brady kept his concentration on the road. She seemed to be taking it well.

“Okay, Daddy. It’s your life. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Star closed the cellular phone and sat quietly for some time.

“We don’t really have to hurry. Daddy won’t be there when we arrive. His new girlfriend just talked him into going on a world cruise. They’ve already left the port. Can you believe it? At a time like this!”

Brady made sympathetic noises. Star sat silently for several more minutes. “He’s even closing up the house. I won’t be able to stay there while he is gone. The staff will be gone by Monday. Rats. Hoist on my own petard. I don’t think he’d be going if I hadn’t acted up again. My own fault. He did this once before, but only for a month. This is a good year, if he doesn’t come back early. Which he probably will, but no telling when.”

“What are you going to do for money? Did he cut you off? Or do you work?”

“I volunteer. I don’t have to work. But Daddy didn’t cut me off, anyway. Besides which, I do have money of my own. I just don’t like to touch it. A trust fund from my Grandfather. It’s just easier and more fun to live off Daddy. He insists on it, actually. Like I said, he loves me and I love him. We just show it in strange ways.”

“Oh. So you’ll be okay, then.”

“Of course. I can take care of myself, when I want to.”

Brady left it at that. Both fell quiet, lost in their own thoughts as they continued to listen to the news on the radio. The snow storm got worse and the stormy political situation did, too, even as they listened.

They ran out of the snow just before they got to Kansas City. Star gave Brady precise directions to her father’s house. It was a big one, on five acres, in the very good section of town. Lots of glass. Star had Brady accompany her inside. He carried her bags, but gave them to a maid when she opened the door and reached for them.

“Come on back to the study. I’ll get you that money. How much do you charge Parkinson for a delivery?”

“Seven-fifty a day, plus expenses. But you don’t have to worry about that. He’ll pay me.”

“Oh, but I owe you. Triple I believe I said.” Star had a safe behind a painting open and was taking out stacks of bills. That would be fifteen hundred a day for two days, plus expenses. Four thousand should cover it, shouldn’t it? Including a tip.”

“I’m not going to take your money. Parkinson will pay me. That’s all I want.”

Star smiled, but her eyes glinted. “I pay my debts. Late sometimes, but I pay them. I said I’d pay you triple and I will. Even if I have to buy something that can’t be returned and give it to you. My next trip to St. Louis.”

Brady didn’t want to argue. He didn’t want the money, but it was easier to take it than not. Besides, she could obviously afford it. Or her father could, at least. He could at least get a dig in. “Actually, I’d prefer it in gold, but cash will have to do.”

“No,” Star said. “That’s not a problem. I’ll check Kitco for the spot price.”

“Are you telling my you… I mean your father keeps gold in the house?”

“Sure. He thinks I’ll get kidnapped by foreign nationals and he’ll have to buy me back using gold or diamonds. He’s a little paranoid.”

Star was opening up the laptop computer sitting on the desk. It was the work of only a couple minutes to go into kitco.com and get the spot price of gold. She converted it in her head, much to Brady’s surprise, and then rose and went back to the still open safe.

“Six and three quarter ounces. You did a good job. We’ll make it an even seven.” Star took out a plastic coin tube that glowed golden. She counted out seven one ounce American Gold Eagles, and handed them to a speechless Brady. “I really do appreciate you doing what you did.”

Brady managed a “No problem,” but that was all. As Star began to close up the safe, Brady said, “I’ll be going, then. Take care of yourself.”

“Okay. Thank you, Brady. Brady, before you go, could you give me some tips about what to do if this war talk comes true?”

“Gee, Star! I don’t think a few tips will help, but… buy non-perishable food, a lot of it. And get lots of water. And look for a place where you can shelter from fallout. Better yet, get out of town. St. Louis may or not be a target. There are so many things that should be done. It’s hard to prepare on short notice, even with plenty of money.”

“I understand, Brady. Thanks for the advice. I’ll walk you to the door.”

Brady found himself reluctant to leave. Sure she was a grown woman and able to take care of herself. But still…

Then he was outside, walking to the Suburban. His conscious pricked him a bit as he drove away. He’d gone less than a block when he turned around and went back to the house. The maid let him in when he rang the bell. Star came walking in to see who it was. “Brady!” she exclaimed, obviously quite surprised to see him again.

“Look. I have a retreat in the Ozarks. If you want to go with me until this all blows over… since your father isn’t here…”

“Really?” Star asked softly. “Even after all the trouble I’ve been?”

Brady nodded. It was enough for Star. She became all business. “What do I need to bring? Besides money.” She was headed for the study. Brady followed along.

“I’ve got everything we need,” he told her.

“I pay my way,” she replied, going to the safe and opening it. She went to the credenza behind the desk, leaned down and took out a leather attaché case. She transferred everything in the safe to the case. “What else?”

“Camping gear if you have it.”

“We use the motorhome. You think I should drive it down?”

“No. Be nice to have, but it would slow us down. I really want to get going.”

“What about guns? All right if I bring one? Or two?”

Again Brady was surprised by Star. “One little one and one big one?” She pulled a Walther PPK from somewhere behind her back and showed it to him. “Daddy got it for me.”

A little alarmed now, Brady quickly asked. “Can you shoot it effectively?”

“Oh, sure. I go to the range three or four time a year.”

“Okay. You had that on the trip?”

Star nodded and re-holstered the PPK. Brady had to look hard to see its imprint on her shirt in the small of her back. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t picked up on the fact that she had apparently been carrying the entire time. There was even a spare magazine from the looks of it.

“And the big gun?” Brady asked.

“It’s Daddy’s actually, but it’s the only long gun Daddy has here. It was a gift and he likes to keep it handy and look at it.” Star went to a large wooden armoire and opened one of the tall doors. She took out a very expensive looking case and set it down on the desk. “Take a look. Should I even bring it?”

Brady opened the case. “Nice gift!” he said as he peered down at the beautifully engraved long arm. “A drilling,” Brady said then, picking up the butt-stock and action from its compartment in the case.

“Actually,” Star corrected him, “It’s a vierling. There are four barrels, not three.”

Brady picked up the barrels and looked in the chamber end. She was right. He checked the ammunition in the case. Apparently it was a double barrel twenty-gauge with a .308 Winchester barrel below, and a .22 Hornet just above the .308.

“It’s a Heym Model 37V vierling,” Star said. “Daddy looked it up after he got it. Over twenty-grand to have one made. He loves to admire it. Only shot it a couple of times. He let me shoot it once at the range. Several people shot it that day. The consensus was that it was ‘Sweet’. I could see why they said it.”

“Not a good defensive weapon, but a great hunting gun. Bring it if you want. Do you have any more ammunition for it?”

“In the armoire.”

Brady went over to look and found two full boxes of twenty-gauge 7 ½ shot, two twenty-round boxes each of .308 and .22 Hornet hunting ammunition. There was also a partial box of each. Brady set it out. He noticed a wooden case, and on a hunch, checked it. It was a fancy gun cleaning kit. He set it on the desk, too.

Star put the two components back into their individual compartments in the case. A tooled leather sling was in another compartment, with a quick detach scope in another. Eight shotgun rounds and four each .308 and .22 Hornet occupied drilled holes in an upholstered ammunition block.

“This really should be kept in a gun safe,” Brady said.

“Daddy thought about it, he said. But figured if he had one he’d just bring his collection home. He’s trying to shy away from them. Politics and all, you know.”

Brady decided not to get into that debate. “Put the ammo in your case and go get everything you want to take. I’ll take these out to the truck. Will we need to go to your apartment, too?”

“No. I spend so much time here that everything important is kept here. The apartment is more for the show of independence. And to be by myself when I really want to be.”

Brady waited in the entry hall for Star after he put the gun and ammunition in the Suburban. Star came around a corner carrying two large suitcases. The maid was behind her with two more.

Taking the two cases from the maid, despite her protest, he led the way out to the Suburban, Star following along with her two cases. “What do you have in here, bricks?” Brady asked as he hefted the first case into the back of the Suburban.

“Just girly things,” Star replied.

Brady didn’t reply. He just put the other bags in beside the first one.

“Just one more,” Star said, headed back to the house, while Brady waited with the back door of the truck open.

She loaded it herself when she returned. Brady noted that Star was wearing a much heavier coat now, but was still in the blue jeans and blue shirt, and baseball cap. She’d changed shoes, too, from the jogging shoes she’d got at the mall for a comfortable looking pair of walking shoes.

“I’m ready,” she said, shifting the large leather shoulder bag to a more comfortable position, and Brady closed the door.

With both of them in the Suburban, Brady set off. “You need to stop anywhere?”

“Yeah. My bank.” Brady hated to use the time. China was invading and the US carriers were launching aircraft to intervene. They might not have much time. But he drove Star to her bank and waited in the Suburban while she went in. It seemed like forever to Brady, but it was just a few minutes.

Then he got a little annoyed, for when she came out she pointed to a shop next door to the bank, turned and went in. Brady couldn’t make out what kind of shop it was, but if she came out carrying a fancy dress he was going to turn her over his knee. He was still contemplating how bad an idea that actually was when she hurried out of the store. She ran over to the Suburban and got in. She wasn’t carrying anything, but since she said, “That’s it. We’d better go. They had a radio on in the store. I’m getting really scared, Brady.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll be safe at my retreat when we get there.”

“Good. But we still have to get there before the world blows up. Thank you so much for bringing me along. You certainly didn’t have to. I hope Daddy is okay.”

Brady didn’t reply. The snow storm had caught up with them. The blizzard would be on them before they reached Springfield, Brady was sure. And after that, if the forecast held true, they’d be out of the blizzard, sure, but had an ice storm to get through before they got to the retreat. He did take the time to top off the fuel tanks with diesel before they left Kansas City behind them.

They continued to listen to the radio as the miles and the hours passed. Brady was an experienced driver and had little trouble with the snow in the heavy, four-wheel-drive Suburban.

Suddenly Star said, “I noticed all the stuff on the Suburban. Can you tell me about it? It all looks so interesting.”

Brady hesitated, but shrugged mentally. Star was going to the retreat. Wouldn’t be many secrets left when they got there. “Sure. Stop me if I bore you.”

“Don’t worry,” Star said with a laugh.

“Well, of course it started out as a standard four-wheel-drive three-quarter ton Chevy Suburban. It was stolen from the original owners by one of the Mexican drug gangs. They had some custom things done to it, like the snorkel and a winch under the front bumper. Larger fuel tanks replaced the original tank. Put a two inch lift under it. They had a light bar on top for driving lights. And some hidden compartments here and there. It was used as a carrier for cross border drug runs in remote areas.

“They finally got caught by the border patrol and the Suburban was impounded and put up for auction. I knew about it, of course, and put in a bid for it. Wasn’t the Suburban’s fault it had been used for illegal activities.

“I used it the way it was until I started prepping. I made a few changes after I learned about such things on the internet. Swapped the gasoline engine for a non-electronic diesel and had the frame reinforced. Instead of an alternator, I got an old fashioned 12 volt generator installed, along with an air pump, and hydraulic pump. I replace the original single battery with a two battery system for the 24-volt starter, using the biggest batteries that would fit. Plus, there is a third deep discharge 12-volt battery to run 12-volt equipment and an inverter.

Compressed air is piped to the front and rear bumpers so I can use air tools for changing tires and such. Ditto for the hydraulic system. Besides using it for tools, it supplies the power for the new hydraulic winch that replaced the 12 volt winch in the front bumper. I’ve got a portable hydraulic winch that slides into the rear receiver hitch.”

Brady looked over at Star. She still looked interested, so Brady continued. “The same shop that replaced the engine installed heavier skid plates, and added a couple more. A welder friend made the heavy-duty custom bumpers. The front bumper, beside the winch, has the light guards I’m sure you saw, along with the additional lights and spare tire carrier. There is also a 2-inch receiver hitch under the bumper.

“The rear bumper has a 2-inch receiver hitch and swing away mounts for another spare tire, Hi-Lift jack, D-handle shovel, axe, pick-mattock, sledge hammer, and three five-gallon jerry cans of water.

“The heavy-duty top rack has more lights mounted around the edges and two remote control spot/flood lamps. The antennas for the communications gear are mounted on it, too. I don’t carry much in it most of the time, because of fuel mileage, but there are a pair of aluminum bridging ramps, an extension ladder, and a third spare tire in it right now.”

“These are custom bucket seats and console. As you can see, the communications and navigation gear are mounted in it, along with the auxiliary switches for the extra lighting.

“I have a couple toolboxes in back with tools, service items, and spare parts.”

“Wow! You know, I almost bought a Hummer, once. Just for kicks. I think I like this better.”

“Maybe you have the prepper gene,” Brady said and Star laughed. Brady liked her laugh.

He kept up a steady pace, going south on Highway 13, occasionally passing a vehicle going slower than he was. Much of the traffic was going around him, but he’d already seen enough vehicles off in the ditch, many of them four wheel drive, than to drive the same way. And they hadn’t even hit the ice yet.

Brady stopped and helped the first two vehicles they saw off the road, but there were just too many of them if they stopped and helped everyone. Emergency services vehicles, as well as maintenance vehicles were out in force. Brady decided to let them handle the job they were being paid to do. He quit stopping to help, even as the blizzard caught up and passed them.

He slowed down to a crawl in four-wheel-drive but was able to keep going. The state had been plowing the road so the snow wasn’t too deep in the travel lanes yet, but it was building rapidly. They began to see more cars stopped. Not all of them were in the ditch. Some had just stopped in the travel lanes, afraid to go further in the blizzard.

Brady carefully drove around them until finally they saw no one else. They were the only thing still moving. The snow was almost up to the bumper on the front of the Suburban, but it was a light, dry snow and the truck was able to push through it with little trouble on the somewhat aggressive all-weather Toyo tires the Suburban sported.

Brady was about ready to pull to the shoulder and stop. The Suburban was losing traction occasionally now. But he decided to push on just a little bit further. He was glad he did, for in another mile they ran out of the snow fall like driving through a wall. There was only the lightest dusting of snow ahead of them.

Unfortunately, as they hit Springfield, they hit freezing rain and were right back down to a crawling pace. But Brady kept it up. They were on the home stretch. Though he still had plenty of fuel, he topped the tanks again, so they could take a break and get something to eat and warm to drink, before they continued.

“I don’t see how you do it,” Star said, as they left Springfield and picked up Highway 65 going south toward Branson. “I’d be a nervous wreck. I never would have made it through the snow, much less this. Especially in the motorhome.”

“We aren’t there yet.”

“I’ll shut up,” Star said. “I am a jinx.”

No sooner than she had said it than a car on an interesting road couldn’t stop and slid though the intersection. Brady had to swerve to miss it and the Suburban spun out, going down into the ditch on the right side. It still had a little bit of momentum and Brady floored the accelerator. The diesel engine roared and the Suburban began sliding all over, but Brady was able to get it back up onto the road.

“Holy cow!” Star said. “That was some driving!”

Brady looked back. The car had slid all the way across 65 and then kept going on the intersecting road. Brady wasn’t sure the driver had even seen the Suburban. He got out into the freezing drizzle and walked around the Suburban, checking for damage, but couldn’t see any.

After a bit to catch his breath he got back in the Suburban and continued the journey. Suddenly, just north of Branson, the radio went dead, and the vehicle that was ahead of them slowed, and pulled over to the shoulder of the road. Though the next vehicle was some distance ahead of them, Brady was sure it had stopped, too.

“This is it,” Brady said grimly.

“What?” Star asked.

“I think we just got hit with an EMP surge. See the cars up ahead? They suddenly came to a stop. At the same time the radio went dead.”

“Oh. How come we didn’t stop?”

“No critical electronic parts on the engine. EMP proof. But not the radio.” They were coming up on the first stranded vehicle. A woman was out in the cold, coat clutched around her, staring the engine under the open hood of the car.

“Brady…” Star started to say.

He was already pulling over to stop. Star got out of the Suburban this time with Brady. “Come on, Lady,” Brady called. “We’ll take you in to Branson. You aren’t going to get it to start.”

She didn’t ask why, just hurried to the back door of the car and backed out a few seconds later carrying a baby in a child carrier seat. Brady took the child from her when she slipped and almost fell. Star helped her to the passenger side of the Suburban while Brady went to the driver’s side rear passenger door and set the baby carrier on the seat. The mother leaned over and began to fasten the carrier into place with the seatbelt. Brady and Star climbed back into the Suburban and Brady got it moving again.

He also stopped at the second vehicle. It was a man alone. Brady offered to give him a ride in, but the man refused, saying his brother-in-law was traveling behind him and would help him get the car going. Hi brother-in-law was a crackerjack mechanic, according to the man.

Brady looked over at Star. She shrugged.

“I feel bad,” Brady said when he got back into the truck. “But he really insisted on staying to wait for his brother.”

“Can’t save people from themselves,” Star said.

The mother asked from the back seat, “What’s going on? I just thought my car quit, though it just had a tune up, but with this other one at the same time…”

“I think we’ve been attacked with an EMP weapon,” Brady said.

“What’s that?” the mother asked. “What do you mean, attacked?”

“It’s a nuclear device enhanced to knock out electronics in a wide area,” Brady said. “Did you notice your radio went dead at the same time the car died?”

“Yes… I guess it did, but I didn’t really notice. Nuclear device? Do you mean atomic bombs? We were attacked with atomic bombs? That can’t be! That just can’t be!”

Brady had to concentrate on his driving. Star twisted around in her seat and began trying to calm the mother as the baby slept peacefully, oblivious of what was going on. Whatever Star had said to the mother seemed to work. She was sitting quietly, cooing to the baby when they came up on another stopped vehicle.

This time it was a man, woman, and child. Brady offered to take them the rest of the way to Branson and they accepted, the man saying, “Cell phone won’t work out here. They guaranteed it. I’ll be talking to them, believe you me!”

Neither Brady nor Star tried to explain this time. Brady just made room in the back of the Suburban for the father and son. The mother rode beside the other woman. They didn’t see anyone else and were soon in Branson. It was cold and raining, but no more ice. Both families lived in Branson and Brady dropped them off, warning them that they should try to find a radio that would work and find out what was going on. He refused to explain further.

Star took note of Brady’s still grim expression and repeated her earlier assertion. “You can’t save people from themselves.”

“I know. But that baby…”

“Try not to think about it,” Star said softly. She didn’t admit that the baby’s fate was in her thoughts, too.

Another forty minutes and they were at the compound.

“You have a castle!”

“Not exactly,” Brady said.

“Sure looks like a castle. Kind of short though.”

“It’s not a castle.” Brady had already been kidded about being King of the Castle after the crenellated parapet wall had been installed. Brady drove up, past the gravel parking lot half full of vehicles, mostly cars, though with a mix of pickups and SUV’s, as well as two Class C motor homes.

Brady was pleased to note that the compound had been secured. The main gate was closed and he assumed it was locked. The gate was in two parts that rolled open and closed on V-grooved steel wheels that ran on inverted angle-iron set in concrete. The wheeled, steel caged concrete bases supported walls of the same type of bullet and fire resistant construction that most of the community buildings did, only thicker.

Star noted an unusual feature of the gates. One of the walls had a large circular opening in it just above the base. It was filled in, but Star couldn’t for the life of her figure out why it was there.