[The novel Guns of the Border Region is now nearing completion, so I decided to post another chapter. It takes place in the future history I've outlined in Twilight's Last Gleaming. New readers can scroll down for previous chapters of the novel. It's a work in progress; I've moved a little of the information from Chapter One to this chapter, since posting that chapter. You can also scroll down to read various portions of the future history, or a short version of the entire history. With the novel, I'm attempting to package my ideas in an entertaining, commercially viable form. The story takes place in the next century after the US has broken apart, and concerns the exploits of the sexy girl outlaw Shadow and her encounters with various dangerous characters. Think of it as "The Road Warrior" meets "Pulp Fiction." Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.
CHAPTER THREE -- INDIAN SUMMER
Weirton was, if anything, an even wilder and rougher town than Steubenville, but Shadow and Christian tried to stay out of trouble. They planned to spend the following day and another night there to rest up before finally heading into Westsylvania.
Having checked into the Gilman during the dark hours before dawn, they slept till well past noon. Upon arising the oddly-matched pair went to a late lunch. On Shadow’s recommendation, they ate at a small diner on the main drag with a full deli counter. The place was called Isaly’s, and like everything else in Weirton, it was old. Upon entering Christian took note of the chrome fixtures and the small marble tiles of the floor, mentally identifying the deli’s furnishings as late art deco or mid 20th Century modern.
Shadow ordered sandwiches of some pinkish-colored luncheon meat, sliced paper thin, that she referred to as “chipped ham.” Christian was not familiar with it, but it seemed to Shadow that it was to his liking. Just to make sure, she asked, “Enjoying your lunch, Church-boy?”
Christian looked at her oddly, as though annoyed, but didn’t reply with his mouth full. Instead, he just nodded.
Shadow’s plans for the evening involved taking Christian to a series of dive bars. They would keep to the background. Shadow wasn’t looking for more action; she merely wanted to point out to Christian how things went down in those places. If they were to be traveling together, she wanted him to acquire more in the way of street awareness.
Entering the first such place, she guided him to a small table in a dimly-lit area near the back. The location commanded a good view of the entire place, including exits, and limited the directions from which others could approach them. Shadow instructed Christian to wait at the table. She returned momentarily with two beers.
“I don’t actually drink,” he told her.
“You were drinking last night.”
“I was trying to blend in.”
“Well, try blending in some more. Drink up, Church-boy.”
“Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Don’t all you people in the Confederacy go to church all the time?”
“Not all the time. What about you?”
Shadow quaffed part of her beer before answering. “I’ve seen a lot of bad shit, sonny. If there’s a God he can kiss my rosy red ass.”
“Does everyone in the Border Region feel that way?”
“Nah, most of `em are Christian. They’re just not nuts about it.”
Christian didn’t deign to reply to this last remark. He had been praying for her last night, when she’d burst in on him, but he didn’t tell her that.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Shadow informed him, “I have good friends among the Amish.” The comment was aimed at smoothing things over. That was unusual for her. Normally, if people didn’t like something she said, they could go fuck themselves. Suddenly angry at herself, she felt moved to add, “And besides, I had plenty of your good Christian brethren come over from the Confederacy to buy my wares.”
“What sort of wares?” Christian gasped, paling as though this might be something he really didn’t care to hear about.
“Marijuana,” she said flatly, “That’s what I did all summer before heading back home by way of Wheeling. I was growing and selling pot in Transylvania.”
If Christian felt any disapproval concerning the actual revelation, it didn‘t show on his face. Instead he simply remarked, “I never understood why that part of the Border Region was called ‘Transylvania.’ The name makes me think of the one in Europe. You know…”
“Ah, yes. ‘Land of dark forests, dread mountains and black unfathomed lakes,’” Shadow replied playfully, quoting from some movie she had seen, “The home of Count Dracula.” Then her tone became more somber. “Too bad the real Dracula isn’t still around.”
Christian nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. The historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, had actually ruled the neighboring kingdom of Wallachia. A warrior prince, he had expelled the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire from the regions that later became Romania. Not that it had mattered in the long run. Romania and its neighbors east, west, north and south had all ultimately been subsumed into the Islamic Federation of Europe, the leviathan that had smashed the Old Union
Christian finally took that drink. “So how did ‘Transylvania’ get to be the name of what used to be the northern part of Kentucky of all places?” he asked.
Shadow explained. “Transylvania”, which simply meant “the land beyond the forest,” had been the name of a short-lived colony in the 18th Century. It had been established in the region later known as Kentucky. The Transylvania Colony had been founded by Richard Henderson in 1775, after he purchased the land from the local Indians. The area had been explored by no less a trailblazer than Daniel Boone himself. In the following year 1776, however, Virginia, which then claimed all lands to its west, invalidated Henderson’s purchase. Otherwise, Transylvania might have become a fourteenth colony and one of the original United States. A college named Transylvania University was founded in Lexington, Kentucky (later Lexington, Transylvania) in 1780, and famous alumni included Stephen Austin and Jefferson Davis. It was still in operation, and Shadow had visited the campus. By the late 21st Century, following the aftermath of World War III, the northern counties of Kentucky were commonly seen as part of the Border Region. When the Old Union was formally dissolved, they seceded from their parent state and adopted the old name of Transylvania.
Shadow went on to explain a little more about her livelihood, in an effort to forestall any further misunderstandings on Christian’s part. She had staked out some land deep in the woods of a remote rural county in western Transylvania to cultivate her marijuana crop. This was not a problem with such local authorities as existed in the sparsely inhabited region. She had selected the area with that in mind, but a more important consideration was its proximity to the Confederacy states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. There was little to prevent pot-smokers in outlying rural areas of the Border Region from growing their own supply, which they also commonly used in barter. While some of Shadow’s customers did hail from the Region, the majority were Confederates in search of forbidden fruit. Among the latter, the more daring ones smuggled their purchases back home. However, it was also common to hole up in a rundown motel or some such place within the Border Region for weekend pot parties. That way they steered clear of possible discovery and censure by their more righteous neighbors and peers back home, which would entail denunciation from the pulpit as well as legal consequences.
During the growing season, Shadow lived an isolated backwoods existence. That was why she had been eager to go on a tear in Wheeling, to relieve the pent-up tension of long, lonely months. Not that she had been a total hermit; there had been visits to such taverns as could be found along the rural roads and in the tiny hamlets that dotted the region. And she had neighbors close by, a gay couple occupying a small cabin. In return for a cut of the profits, they helped Shadow out and kept an eye on things when she was abroad during the off-season.
It was important to have partners. After all, it was not like Shadow had the drug trade to herself. There were others in nearby areas who would be happy to force her out, alive or dead, and grab her share of the market. Therefore she had wisely invested in things like guard dogs and night vision goggles, not to mention a shit-load of weapons.
In undertaking these measures, Shadow was merely exercising reasonable caution. She was not unduly worried about a drug war breaking out. Most of the other dealers concentrated on the manufacture and sale of harder drugs, something Shadow wanted no part of. That being the case, she was not in direct competition with them. The hard drug trade was both easier and more profitable. Still, its appeal was limited to the rougher outlaw elements of the Border Region. Shadow’s marijuana, on the other hand, was sought by the sort of mostly-respectable, fairly well-to-do Confederacy citizen that would give a wide berth to anything harder. That was a market worth getting a piece of, so Shadow did have some cause for concern. Therefore she had entered into a mutual-defense pact with other small-time marijuana growers in the region. It was important for her, her partners, and her associates to maintain a strong posture, so as not to tempt rivals by appearing weak. In the absence of that temptation, the status quo would be maintained and peace would prevail.
An outbreak of drug violence was something to be avoided. It would cause nearby Confederates to shun the Border Region like the plague, thus defeating the purpose of seizing the local marijuana trade. It would also force the local militia of the western Transylvania counties to band together to settle the matter. In doing so they would eschew such niceties as arrests and trials and so forth. No one wanted that.
Shadow gauged Christian’s reactions as she explained all this. He just sat quietly, taking it all in. That was good; he knew when to talk and when to listen. Based on what she had observed of him so far, she pegged him as naïve and clueless, but a fast learner. She now commenced to continue his education in the ways of the world.
Their vantage point in the bar afforded them a good view of the various patrons. Shadow instructed Christian in regards to the different types that frequented such places, explaining what their mannerisms and quirks revealed about them. She started with the fairly obvious; the loud drunk and the quiet drunk. In her opinion, loud drunks were basically insecure, needing to prove to themselves that they were having a good time. Insecurity was indicative of other personality problems, which could be a source of trouble. From there she described the various levels of intoxication, from buzzed to plastered, and how judgment and motor skills were affected at each level. She added her personal observations, such as how whiskey drunks were meaner than beer drunks. The real players in the outlaw trade were better at holding their booze. Shadow explained some more of the differences between pros and amateurs. Amateurs tended to be heedless; pros were always observant.
Taking their leave of the first joint, they moved on to one with more action. There Shadow taught Christian the basics of body language, as well as what various tattoos and modes of dress revealed about an individual’s personality, group affiliation, and culture. The second place also had gambling and more women. Therefore it was a perfect laboratory for the study of how fights broke out. Hardcore troublemakers, those who went out looking to indulge their penchant for mayhem, would start the ball rolling on the flimsiest of pretexts. These could be spotted a mile off, and an experienced street-fighter would be prepared for anything they might throw at them. The unwary, however, could be drawn into a violent confrontation without even realizing they were headed that way. This could come about whether the other guy had started out looking for trouble or not. Immersed in that volatile witches’ brew of booze, women, money, and a highly-charged atmosphere, egos grew large and tempers grew short.
Shadow now explained the difference between fights and combat. Fights were to establish dominance. People could and did get injured in them, sometimes severely, occasionally fatally. But there was a certain code about these things. Once a clear victor emerged, it was over and the matter settled. The former foes might even end up drinking together. Combat was a different story, however. Once somebody pulled a gun or a knife --and nearly everyone in Weirton was packing something-- it was combat, a matter of life or death. When it got to that point, the proprietor would usually haul out a sawed-off shotgun from behind the bar, force everyone to settle down, and eject the troublemakers. Every now and then some hardcore psycho would start shit looking to make a kill. These were rare cases; once someone acquired the psycho reputation, their days were numbered. Some civic-minded individual would take said psycho down by bushwhacking him when no one else was around.
Life-and-death combats were far from nightly occurrences in the vice dens of the Border Region, even in Weirton. The norm was the so-called “friendly” brawl, although such a fracas could hardly be described as a good clean fight. Shadow hoped Christian would catch a live demonstration of one here tonight, and so he did. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, it was as a participant, not a spectator.
They were at the bar ordering drinks when a guy came over and started hitting on Shadow. He either hadn’t noticed Christian, or didn’t care. Clad in jeans and a leather vest that left his thickly-muscled arms bare, he looked to be a typical Weirton tough. As such, his pick-up banter left much to be desired.
“Hiya, babe. Haven’t seen you before. People around here call me Big Jim.”
“Really?” Shadow replied coolly. “Big Jim” was actually only average height, and therefore shorter than Shadow. She devoutly hoped that he wasn’t going to explain that his nickname actually referred to his dick.
If Big Jim took notice of her icy tone, he gave no indication of it. “Waddaya say you and me grab ourselves a cozy little booth and get to know each other better?”
“Uh, thanks, but I’m already with someone.”
Big Jim raised an eyebrow as he looked Christian over. With his clean-cut looks and square-john duds, the latter looked as out of place as if he were wearing a powder blue tuxedo and had gotten lost on the way to the prom.
“Who’s this, your kid brother?” Jim snarled. “Why don’t you lose this wimp and get with a real man?”
“Because I’d rather fuck my kid brother,” she told him.
“Okay skank, fuck you. I don’t need skunk pussy like you anyway. Adios, bitch.”
Big Jim turned to walk away. Just then Shadow was startled to hear another voice ring out sharply at her side, cutting through the bar’s din.
“That is no way to speak to a lady! You, sir, are no gentleman!”
It was Church-boy, sure enough. Thanks, Big Mouth, Shadow thought, Now I’m going to have to fight this asshole to get you out of this.
Big Jim turned back towards them, grinning. “Yeah, and what are you gonna do about it?”
In answer, Christian stepped back smoothly into a boxing stance, chin lowered, guard raised, bobbing lightly on his feet. Shadow was surprised. Clearly the boy had some training. (He later informed her that he had “boxed a little in college.”) The crowd cleared a space for them as Big Jim advanced.
As he stomped forward, Big Jim cocked back his fist to deliver a roundhouse right. He thought so little of his opponent that he was going for a one-punch knockout. Christian glided in to meet him, putting him off his stride with two quick left jabs to the kisser. Catching on quickly that kid brother had some moves, Big Jim danced back in time to avoid the right cross Christian launched as a follow-up.
First blood to Church-boy, Shadow thought, watching with the other bystanders. But she knew that his moment of glory was destined to be short-lived. Christian was fighting like he was in the ring. In actuality he was moving about on a concrete floor slippery with spilled drinks, hemmed in by the crowd, with broken glass here and there as well as hard furnishings to trip over and fall against. Moreover, his opponent could hardly be expected to abide by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Shadow realized, to her horror, that Christian probably didn’t even know enough to guard against a ball shot. It was true that Big Jim would be in hot water if he allowed a trained boxer to get up to speed. The trouble was that no street-fighter worth his salt was going to let that happen.
Big Jim renewed his attack, unclenching his fists and wading back in with open hands. Going for the grapple, Shadow thought. Nor was she wrong. Jim knew that if he went in fast, grabbed kid brother and hurled him to the ground, it wouldn’t matter how good a boxer the kid was.
With no room to backpeddle, Christian had no choice but to try to intercept his opponent. Stepping up, he attempted to nail Jim with a straight punch to the face. Jim deflected the blow by swatting it aside, then grabbed Christian’s shirt front with both hands and jerked him roughly off balance. He kicked at Christian’s instep, causing him to tumble to the floor. Christian went down hard, but twisted to avoid striking his head against the floor. He was momentarily stunned, and Big Jim gave him no time to recover his wits much less regain his feet. Christian could only curl into a ball as Jim commenced to viciously kick and stomp him. Wearing heavy boots, Jim would be able to grind his fallen foe into paste in fairly short order.
He doubtless would have done so had not Shadow intervened. She began to move the second Christian hit the floor and was on Big Jim in a flash. She smashed the heel of her open palm into the side of Jim’s head to loosen him up, then flipped him onto the bar and rained hammer-fists onto his upturned face until he stopped squirming. It was a simple technique, crude but effective; she struck with the bottom of her clenched fist over and over just like she was pounding a table. Big Jim slid off the bar and dropped to the floor like a sack of manure. Christian had already risen, and Shadow’s quick inspection found no signs of serious injury.
Shadow decided to call it a night after that. She knew that she ought to be mad at Christian, but couldn’t bring herself to rebuke him. For one thing, she’d learned that Church-boy wasn’t a total creampuff. And there was something else she had noticed. Big Jim had belittled Christian, and Christian had let it slide. It had only been when Jim had insulted her that Christian had called him out. She couldn’t help but feel touched by that.
Back at the hotel, Shadow examined Christian more closely for cuts, abrasions and signs of a concussion. He stubbornly refused to take his underwear off, but she still considered the examination satisfactory.
Before they retired to their separate rooms, she kissed him goodnight. She felt that he ought to be kissed since he had just lost his bar fight cherry.
They cleared out of Weirton the next morning. Christian’s face was unmarked from the fight, but the side of his body was one big bruise. Pulled muscles made bike riding difficult. Shadow had some first aid supplies in one of her saddle bags, including a variety of meds. She gave him a pill that made the pain go far, far away. Then they headed east on old Route 22.
The Weirton city limits ended at the state line. Once they were out of town, they were in Westsylvania. At last, Shadow thought contentedly, There’s no place like home. Once Weirton had fallen behind them, Shadow relaxed. She even allowed Christian to see her smile.
The weather was warm and sultry. Shadow rode without her duster. A few weeks earlier, it had been rather chilly. Now the sun blazed hotly in a clear cobalt sky, illuminating the autumn foliage of the surrounding countryside. Leaves of bright yellow, deep reds, vivid orange and gold dazzled the sight. The scent of new-mown hay was in the air. Occasionally one saw patches of pumpkins and squash. Indian summer had come to Westsylvania.
After several miles of gradual uphill travel they reached a high crest. Shadow reined in her horse at the side of the road but did not dismount. Christian stopped alongside her. He thought she looked magnificent sitting there astride the stallion, but Shadow directed his gaze elsewhere. With a wave of her hand, she indicated the landscape stretching out below. It was a patchwork of hills, woods and farmland dotted with a few tiny hamlets. The riot of autumn colors created a breathtaking vista.
“Take a look, Churchy,” she told him, “October in Westsylvania will make you feel great to be alive.”
So will spring in North Carolina, Christian thought to himself. And to his surprise he felt a sudden longing to show it to her one day. For now, though, he had to admit that these rolling hills, painted in their sere autumn leaves, were a glorious sight. The land possessed a vibrant natural beauty distinct even from the wilds of West Virginia he had passed through.
For Shadow, this was the best time to be back. Westsylvania autumn eased the mind and warmed the heart. She considered it a form of recompense. Summer and winter here toughened the spirit. The region had long been known for its brutal temperature extremes. Humid sweltering summers followed bitter cold winters, sometimes seeming to skip spring altogether. It was a climate that had felled many a pioneer. Shadow’s own childhood memories of summer were crowded with rank weeds and maddening insects. For every fond memory of a snowy winter wonderland, there were a dozen more of when there was no snow --just frigid rain, icy winds and blasting sleet. Then the land had looked as cold and dark, hard and barren as a lump of coal. Autumn, however, always brought to her a somber sense of peace, as though she had come home to some golden Valhalla.
Shadow and Christian continued on their way, taking their time. They stopped at stores, motels and diners along the way so Christian could inquire about his runaway girlfriend, Angel. Shadow told him this would be a good place to begin his search. Meadville and Erie were due north. Both were located in the narrow corridor, still part of old Pennsylvania, that linked the Islamic states of the Northeast to those of the Midwest. Using either Meadville or Erie as a jumping-off point, Angel could head east towards New York or west towards Chicago. Assuming, of course, that her ultimate destination lay within the Islamic States of America.
Shadow gauged Christian’s reaction to the notion and watched his face grow dark with repressed anger. Ah ha! She had known he was holding back the whole story, and had suspected something of the sort. To her mind, Christianity could be strict and repressive enough for anyone. Even so, she knew that many women and men converted to Islam because of a need for “structure,” whatever the hell that was. Shadow refused to waste time even thinking about what they meant by that. Instead, she thought about the saccharine little candy-ass in the picture Christian had shown her. “Angel” looked like just the sort to walk right over a nice guy like Christian to get to some bastard who would treat her like shit. Some women were like that.
Rather than upset Christian further, Shadow kept these last thoughts to herself. They spent the night in an old abandoned house, one of the many to be found in semi-rural areas of the Border Region. Inside, they gathered broken bits of wooden furniture and heaped it in the fireplace along with fallen branches from the yard. It caught fire easily, and Christian and Shadow unrolled their sleeping bags before the crackling blaze. They retired after a simple foodpaste supper. Shadow slept lightly as always, ears alert for intruders. Of course, the horse tethered out back would raise a ruckus if anything came around, but Shadow’s habit of light sleeping was deeply ingrained.
Christian awoke the next morning to find that Shadow had risen some time previous. “I’ve fed and watered Incitatus,” she told him, “We need to get going.” She now informed him of their next destination. She would be heading into downtown Pittsburgh to take care of some business. Christian’s curiosity was piqued. Greater Pittsburgh, which encompassed all of Allegheny County and some adjacent regions, was arguably the most eminent of the Border Region’s so-called “city-states.” Downtown Pittsburgh itself would be the largest urban area Christian would encounter since leaving the Confederacy.
As they were preparing to depart, Christian noticed Shadow packing both her gun and her bowie knife into one of her horse’s saddlebags. In the major city-states, law and order held far stronger sway than in the outlying regions. Shadow, however, never went anywhere completely naked of weapons. She carried a small but deadly Spyderco folding knife clipped to her pants waist and concealed by her utility belt.
Shortly after setting out, the travelers took their leave of the main route they had been traversing. Further on, it had been rendered impassible during the war and remained closed to this day. They proceeded instead along Noblestown Road, a long narrow byway that wound its way through the hills and suburbs.
Presently Shadow and Christian entered the Pittsburgh city limits. They approached the downtown area through a section called West End. The buildings along the main drag here were old, but the activity and commerce Christian observed conveyed a sense of renewal. He looked forward to seeing the heart of the city, but as yet the downtown area still remained hidden by the surrounding hills.
At length they passed beneath a railroad bridge at a place called West End Circle to emerge onto a busy highway that ran along the banks of the Ohio River. Since reaching the greater Pittsburgh area, Christian had begun to notice more motor vehicles on the roads. Most were official and emergency vehicles powered by the latest generation of hybrid engines. There were numerous horse-drawn and peddle-powered conveyances as well. The pair merged into the traffic swarming along the thoroughfare.
Up ahead, in the vast triangle where the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers formed the Ohio, lay downtown Pittsburgh. The travelers paused by the roadside for a few minutes to better appreciate their view of the Pittsburgh skyline. It was a new sight to Christian, but not to Shadow. Her grandfather had come from Pittsburgh. In his day the city’s skyline had been dominated by the sixty-story rust-colored shaft of the U.S. Steel Building. Shadow’s grandfather considered the long-ago demise of Pittsburgh’s steel industry a milestone that heralded the decline of the Old Union. The Steel Building suffered serious structural damage during the War. Shadow’s grandfather had lived to see it demolished.
Now the most imposing structure on the Pittsburgh skyline was the massive complex that Christian mentally dubbed “the Black Castle.” Consisting of a central forty-story tower surrounded by smaller buildings of matching design, the complex was a neo-Gothic fortress constructed of black glass. For all its sharp angles and smooth glossy surfaces, it suggested the spires and battlements of some strange castle to be found on an alien world. Since the glass was opaque from the outside, the buildings had no visible windows. Shadow informed Christian that the complex was actually called PPG Place, and that it had been built as the corporate headquarters of a major glass company. Construction had been completed in 1984. To Christian, the Black Castle looked as though it had been hewn by giants from cyclopean cliffs of jet or obsidian, then honed and polished to a high gloss.
He was still staring at the Black Castle when Shadow spurred Incitatus into motion. Christian followed the great stallion on his bicycle. Their route took them along the shadowy base of Mt. Washington and onto the Fort Pitt Bridge. The bridge led over the Monongahela River and into downtown Pittsburgh. At one time a tunnel through the mountain had opened onto the bridge, providing direct access to the downtown area from communities to the south. The Fort Pitt Tunnel had been collapsed during the War, however, and never rebuilt. Now travelers were forced to circumvent Mt. Washington by various alternate routes.
Crossing over the bridge, Christian felt a sense of relief upon reaching a major outpost of civilization. The bridge led directly onto Liberty Avenue, one of the downtown area’s main arteries. As Christian and Shadow made their way up the street, he noticed that an older mode of transportation, the trolley, had made a comeback. Throngs of pedestrians crowded busy sidewalks. Christian mentally likened the scene to Renaissance Italy, when a vital new culture began to emerge amidst the ruins of a fallen empire.
The pair proceeded uptown several blocks to a multi-level parking garage, part of which had been converted to stables. There Shadow corralled the pinto and Christian stowed his bicycle. They passed a number of automobiles parked on a different level of the same structure. Some of the makes and models were unfamiliar to Christian, and he pointed these out to Shadow.
“ISA imports,” she remarked, “Say what you want about the Islamic States, but some of the best cars in the world are coming out of Detroit these days.”
After departing the garage, the pair headed back down Liberty Avenue on foot. Shadow led the way. She took Christian down a side street into a small park-like square surrounded by various taverns, eateries and market places. “This is Market Square,” she informed him, “The whole Border Region actually got its start here.”
Shadow recounted how the first small demonstration protesting the adoption of Islamic law in Pennsylvania had assembled in the square. From this had sprung the Westsylvania secession movement. Christian had, of course, read of the Pennsylvania Uprising. He recalled how the old state of Pennsylvania had been torn asunder by rioting and rebellion which spread to other affected states following the Special Election of 2081.
Christian pointed to a curious blue flag fluttering on a nearby flagpole. In the center of the blue field was the emblem of an eagle, surrounded by thirteen six-pointed stars. “I saw that flag a lot in West Virginia too,” he said. Shadow explained that the flag had originated in the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, when farmers of the Western Pennsylvania frontier had revolted against an excise tax on whiskey levied by the George Washington administration. During the Pennsylvania Uprising nearly three centuries later, the Whiskey Rebellion flag was carried by Freedom Marchers marching on the state capital of Harrisburg. In the following decades, it came to be flown from Transylvania to Westsylvania as kind of an unofficial flag of the Border Region.
From Market Square they proceeded to PPG Place, the “Black Castle” that Christian had found so ominous. As they crossed the vast open courtyard, Christian gaped pensively at the smooth black glass walls that loomed up eerily about him. He wondered what business Shadow had in such a place.
As it turned out, she had an account at a bank branch located within the complex. It was here that she deposited a good portion of the rather large sum of cash she had been carrying in her utility belt. The New American Confederacy, the Free Republic of Alaska, and the Border Region all made use of a common currency (the “American Dollar”), although in practice the currency of the Islamic States was also commonly accepted in transactions in northern parts of the Border Region. Shadow had a number of bank accounts here and there in the more civilized parts of the Region. Elsewhere she had buried hidden caches of jewelry and silver dollars from the Old Union.
At the bank, Christian deposited two thousand dollars into Shadow’s account --payment for two weeks of service as guide and bodyguard. He had ample funds loaded onto cards that could be used in the manner of old-time travelers’ checks. He also used one of his cards to withdraw some cash. Online banking was pretty much a thing of the past in most of the Border Region. During the War, telecommunications networks had been devastated, both by direct enemy action and sabotage, as thoroughly as the physical infrastructure. Afterwards, Federal recovery aid was cut to the rebellious areas that eventually formed the Border Region. Now the extent of telecommunications and other basic services varied widely from county to county. There were local intranets in operation, but only the largest population centers had full access to the world-wide web.
After their banking was completed, Shadow took Christian to lunch at a place called the Oyster House on Market Square. The place was actually an incredibly ancient tavern with some tables for diners. Furnishings were of old, darkly stained wood adorned with brass fixtures. The walls were decorated with framed group photographs of contestants in the Miss America Pageant. This was a beauty contest that had been held annually throughout the 20th Century in Atlantic City, now a part of the Islamic States of America. Shadow informed her companion that the Oyster House was actually the oldest restaurant in Pittsburgh and had long been famed for its giant-sized fish sandwiches.
Christian expressed surprise that seafood was available so far into the Border Region. “Pittsburgh gets a lot of stuff shipped in by rail,” she told him, “A lot of railway routes were wrecked during the War. Horseshoe Curve to the east of here was totally demolished, for instance, and new routes had to go around it. Of course, the rail lines pass through some pretty dark territory without much in the way of law and order. So the rail barons made arrangements with authorities in some of the Podunk counties to house private security personnel on their turf to protect the railroad interests. It’s something I might look into when I get too old for this shit and want a regular job. But I can’t believe how much Pittsburgh is booming. It’s even bigger now than when I was through here just last year.”
Corporations had discovered that there were benefits to doing business in the Border Region. In Pittsburgh they could take advantage of a free-wheeling Hong Kong-type environment free for the most part from burdensome regulations and restrictions. They were also poised to conduct commerce with both the Christian South and the Islamic North, as the Confederacy and the ISA were commonly referred to in the Border Region. The Region’s most vital urban centers were Pittsburgh, the largest city in Westsylvania; Cincinnati, located at the convergence of southern Ohio, southern Indiana and Transylvania; and Wheeling, the crossroads boomtown in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.
After lunch, Shadow and Christian took up the search for Christian’s runaway sweetheart. Once again Shadow felt like telling him that it was a stupid waste of time, a totally random scattershot approach to what amounted to a hunt for a needle in a haystack. But she didn’t. What the hell do you care? she asked herself, You’re getting paid.
At her suggestion, they checked in with local law enforcement. Angel had taken off of her own free will and there was no law against an adult doing that, so they kept mum about the details and identified her as a “missing person.” Christian showed his pictures and furnished other vital information. Neither the Pittsburgh Police nor the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department found any data to indicate that Angel had been processed by the local courts, jails, or hospitals. This reduced somewhat the possibility that she had come to harm or fallen in with serious bad company.
Shadow and Christian spent the night in a downtown fleabag called the Edison Hotel. The concierge was obviously bewildered by Christian’s insistence on separate rooms. The first floor of the hotel housed a small strip club. Before they turned in, Shadow suggested showing Angel’s pictures to the management and the strippers on the off chance that any of them had information concerning her. Christian adamantly refused to even consider the notion. “My fiancée wouldn’t associate with women like that!” he snorted.
“Shouldn’t that be ex-fiancée, Church-boy?” she snapped back, angry and offended. She thought, You stupid naïve little twinkie. Do really think that that prissy stick-up-her-ass little bitch of yours is as pure as the driven snow? She said, “Look, it’s pretty obvious you don’t know her as well as you thought you did. You’d be surprised where a chick on the run will turn. Now I know it’s past your bedtime, so why don’t you turn in? I’m going down to the bar for a drink. I’ll be up in a little bit.”
By the following morning, Shadow was over her anger. She took Christian to breakfast at a nearby coffee shop called the White Tower to make up. She didn’t bother to tell him about how she had filled in for one of the strippers who didn’t show up for work and had raked in some more dough.
Afterwards, they took their leave of downtown Pittsburgh and proceeded on horse and bike to the city’s Oakland district. Most of Pittsburgh’s universities and colleges were located in Oakland. Christian had proved somewhat more agreeable to Shadow’s recommendation that they make inquiries at local chapters of Angel’s sorority than he had concerning her previous suggestion about the strip club. Upon reaching Oakland, Christian expressed curiosity concerning the only really tall building thereabouts. Shadow informed him that it was called the Cathedral of Learning and was the central structure of the vast University of Pittsburgh campus. To Christian’s mind the Cathedral was aptly named; it was a forty-story skyscraper built in the late Gothic revival style. He hoped to examine it more closely. In his teens Christian had aspired to become an architect, but had caved in to parental pressure to follow a safer career path.
In addition to the sorority chapters, they checked with various campus organizations and examined a number of bulletin boards. They spent two days in Oakland, uncovering no leads but enjoying the college environment. Shadow turned Christian on to the delights of the crunchy natural-casing frankfurter at a place called Original Hot Dog, popular with students. Afterwards they went to the nearby Carnegie Museum to view dinosaur fossils.
This is too much like a date, Shadow thought to herself. Time to head back into the boonies.
The next day they were on the road again, Shadow astride Incitatus and Christian pedaling his bicycle. Shadow’s gun and bowie knife were once more secure in their accustomed places on her belt. They were headed east into an uncommonly picturesque rural region called the Laurel Highlands. Here the autumn foliage seemed to Christian even more resplendent than that which he had seen thus far. They passed vineyards and apple orchards, saw rows of sheaves and yellow cornstalks where harvest was being gathered. Smoke curled from cottage and farmhouse chimneys. They were not all that far out of Pittsburgh, but to Christian it was as though the city lie a million miles behind them and existed in another age.
Christian felt moved to comment on the patchwork nature of the Border Region, how it encompassed teeming, fairly modern city-states, isolated primitive backwaters, and everything in between. This brought a smile from Shadow.
“Yeah, it’s not this or that,” she said, “It’s something else. I guess that’s why they call it the Border Region.”
As they passed through the outskirts of a town called Latrobe, Christian noted a pleasant yeasty scent that hung in the air all around.
“That’s hops,” Shadow informed him, “From the brewery. This is where they make 33.”
“That beer you were swilling the other night.”
During the 20th Century, the Latrobe Brewery had produced a pale lager called Rolling Rock. Originally a local brew, it grew in popularity and came to be distributed throughout the Old Union. Early in the 21st Century a major national brewing company had purchased the Rolling Rock brand name and moved production of the beer to New Jersey. Now, over a hundred years later, New Jersey was part of the Islamic States of America. No alcoholic beverages, including the ersatz Rolling Rock, were produced there any longer. About twenty years ago, however, a group of enterprising Westsylvanians had refurbished and reopened the old Latrobe Brewery. The beer they made there was brewed identically to the original Rolling Rock. The name of their brew derived from the enigmatic number “33” that had appeared on Rolling Rock bottles.
Skirting Latrobe, the travelers headed further into the Laurel Highlands. Their trek took them due east. Less than two days ride brought them within sight of Johnstown. They spent the night in a nearby motel, turning in early. They lit out for Johnstown shortly after daybreak.
Johnstown was an old community, and glancing at its many extant ancient structures Christian and Shadow alike felt its vast age. Once it had been a vital part of the Old Union’s industrial heartland, a major producer of steel before Pittsburgh opened its first mill. With the waning of the steel age, Johnstown, like so much of the area, collapsed into rust and ruin. But unlike Weirton and Steubenville, there was also a sense of renewal here.
Manufacturers of various products had in recent years opened branch plants in Johnstown and environs. Christian was duly impressed by the presence of well-known companies, headquartered in Atlanta and other commercial centers in the Confederacy, who ran facilities here and elsewhere in Westsylvania. It was part of an emerging trend in the Border Region. With so many of the old major roads of the Region still in a state of disrepair, and with no central government to facilitate reconstruction, there was a need to circumvent the long-distance transportation of goods. The establishment of numerous small manufacturing facilities here and there saw that local areas were well-supplied. Places like Johnstown stood to benefit. Johnstown, including its satellite communities in Cambria County, was starting to come into its own as a minor city-state.
Christian and Shadow made the usual inquiries concerning Angel with local authorities, and with local businesses catering to travelers, with the usual negative results. The next day they were on their way again. This time their route veered north-by-northeast through increasingly mountainous terrain, towards Altoona.
Their journey took them past the ruins of Horseshoe Curve, just five miles west of Altoona. Here, as the name implied, a railroad line had looped through a rugged mountainside area that encircled a small valley on three sides. The rail line had originally been established to link the eastern and western portions of the old state of Pennsylvania, and Horseshoe Curve had been constructed with great difficulty. An impressive engineering feat, it had been targeted for destruction by saboteurs during the Second World War of the 20th Century. During the Third World War of 2079, enemy agents finally succeeded in burying Horseshoe Curve in an avalanche.
Shadow and Christian arrived in Altoona the following morning and spent the day there. Altoona, like Johnstown, was beginning to emerge as a small Westsylvania city-state. During dinner at a small local diner, Christian wondered aloud what would happen if Johnstown and Altoona pooled their resources.
“They have, to a certain extent,” Shadow told him, “A lot of neighboring fiefdoms form mutual aid alliances for things like emergency services and law enforcement. That’s not unusual at all. Commerce is a little different, though. Altoona and Johnstown have worked together to improve the roads between them, and done some other stuff. Conceivably they could grow into one big metro area and maybe even rival Pittsburgh someday.”
“What’s stopping them?” asked Christian.
“Politics. They’re in two different counties, so that means two different sets of county commissioners, in addition to the two mayors. You have to look at the nature of the Border Region as a whole. West Virginia is the only part of it where there’s a central state government. That’s because West Virginia was an entire state of the Old Union that opted out of the New American Confederacy. It was commonly seen as culturally part of the Border Region anyway, and when the Union was formally dissolved, that made it official. West Virginia is practically a sovereign nation almost, with the governor as its president, but everywhere else in the Region --Westsylvania, Transylvania, southern Ohio, South Indiana, South Illinois-- the biggest political entity, geographically speaking, is the county. When you cross a county line here, you’re basically entering a separate little mini-nation. That makes for some interesting ramifications.
“In rural counties where you just have these little flyspeck communities like Podunk and West Bumfuck, the county commissioners hold sway. But in Allegheny County, for example, the Mayor of Pittsburgh is the big boss. The Allegheny County Commissioners may try to wrest power from a weak mayor, or try to put their own man in the office. This is like a red flag, though, and the opposition parties are quick to make political hay out of it. As a rule, though, you don’t find weak mayors in Pittsburgh. Elections involve a lot of in-fighting, and when the dust settles the strongest guy standing gets the job. Last year the Mayor attended this big conference with the Governor of West Virginia, and acted like he was the King of Westsylvania or something. What a dick! But I digress…
“It’s in places like Altoona that things get interesting, because the balance of power between the mayor and the county commissioners is more evenly divided. In both Cambria County and here in Blair County you have what amounts to a big town surrounded by smaller towns. But once someplace like Johnstown or Altoona starts being touted as a city-state, the county commissioners don’t like it because it implies that the mayor is the de facto ruler of the whole county --which, in cases like this, he usually is. The point is, these guys are assholes. They’re all looking to become these petty dukes and barons. Any progress occurs in little bursts and spurts.”
Christian digested all this, then asked, “Is there any chance somebody with enough guts and vision could clean up Weirton and Steubenville, and start to make something of them?”
“I doubt it. Wheeling is where the big action is in the West Virginia panhandle area. They’re lucky to lap up any leftovers. They stay alive by catering to the riff-raff.”
“I really appreciate everything you’ve shown me and taught me about the Border Region,” Christian told her, “I hadn’t really realized how colorful and diverse it was. In Pittsburgh the thought occurred to me that it’s sort of like Renaissance Italy, made up of all these separate principalities. It wasn’t like what I thought at all.”
After supper, Shadow took Christian up to a high hill that offered a view of most of Altoona. Shades of evening were darkening the sky, and lights were beginning to come on all over town.
“I wanted you to see this,” she told him, “Once you leave here and head east further into the mountains, there’s no more city-states or wannabe city-states. That ends here. These are the last electric lights you’re gonna see. From here on, people make use of oil lamps, candles, and firelight. The country folk have gone back to simpler ways. After the War, they looked to the Amish to learn self-sufficiency and that became their way of life. It’s all dark territory up ahead.”
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked, half-knowing.
“Because you can’t go where I’m going. You won’t find the girl there anyway. I recommend heading back west, maybe by a more northerly route. You’ll be making a big circle through the area, but I think you’d have a better chance of finding leads. Just hook up with some other travelers who are headed that way. Or get yourself another guide.”
“But I want to go with you.”
“Why? I explained why that won’t help your search. And don’t bother offering me any more money. You’ve paid me more than enough.”
“Look, I’m headed for the New Settlements. Do you know what they are? They’re up in the mountains on the very fringe of the Border Region. After that, on the other side of the Alleghenies, Pennsylvania begins, in the Islamic States. The New Settlements are like the last frontier. They are most definitely not Renaissance Italy. They’re not even like simple Amish country. We’re talking log cabins, okay? Still want to go with me?”
“My heart just tells me that that’s the right way to go.”
Oh brother, Shadow thought, What the hell is it with this guy? Taking a moment to reflect, she considered the possibility that Christian saw himself as some sort of tormented romantic hero. She knew that much of the popular fiction produced in the Confederacy was simple-minded sentimental garbage, rife with sugary romantic delusions. A steady diet of that insipid crap could make anyone sappy. So maybe he fancied himself a knight on a hopeless Quixotic quest that he had to see through to the bitter end. Then another possibility suggested itself. Maybe he was starting to sour on his runaway Angel and looking to trade up for something better. Like her. Maybe deep down he was dying to make it with her, even if he didn’t fully understand the promptings of his “heart” (read “balls”) himself. The notion appealed to her vanity.
“Okay Church-boy, you’re on,” she told him, “There might be trouble on the road ahead, in which case I might need a little backup. We’ll hit the hay early and set out for the New Settlements at first light.”
They arose early the next morning and checked out of the last motel east of Altoona. During the night Shadow had considered leaving quietly before Christian woke up, hopefully causing him to abandon his reckless notion of accompanying her to the New Settlements. But knowing him, he’d just follow whatever he considered her probable route and try to catch her again. He could end up God-knows-where, and anything might befall him. She didn’t need that possibility preying on her mind.
As they were preparing to depart, she told him, “Before we leave the area, I’d like to find someone who has some firearms for sale. Where we’re going, it would be better if you were armed.”
“But I have a gun,” he replied, much to her surprise, “I packed one in case I found myself in some place really dangerous. It’s in one of my bike’s saddlebags.”
“Well, a lot of good it’s doing in there! Get it out.”
It took Christian a few minutes to comply; the gun was buried in the bottom of the bag under various other items. When he finally produced it, Shadow checked it out. It was a dinky little .32 revolver from some no-name firearms company. Better than nothing, she thought. She decided which of the many pockets of Christian’s jacket would furnish easiest access to the weapon, and instructed him to carry it there.
Once he had the piece squared away, she told him, “I have a gift for you.”
The gift was something she had found in her own saddlebags after rummaging through them. She hadn’t even been sure that she still had it, but knew that it would be perfect for Christian if she could find it. It was an eighteen-inch length of chain with a small steel weight affixed to either end. Christian examined it, quickly divining its purpose.
“It’s called a manriki-gusarai,” she informed him, “It was an actual ninja weapon back in feudal Japan.”
Shadow figured it would be a good weapon for Christian to carry. She didn’t have time to teach him the intricacies of knife-fighting, and knew that the manriki-gusarai would serve him well as back-up or in situations where firearms were inappropriate. It was fairly easy to utilize, and could be employed with devastating effect. A person could hold one end of the chain and whip the other weighted end about like a chain mace. If it where whirled in a spinning motion before striking, the centrifugal force could generate skull-cracking impact. Or one could grasp the chain in the middle and strike with both weights.
“You have to layer your weapons,” Shadow told Christian by way of instruction, “Don’t have your gun, you go for your knife or your bludgeon. Don’t have those, you have to rely on your empty hand skills. Different things for different situations. You don‘t take a knife to a gun fight, as they say. If trouble goes down in one of the settlements, you‘ll most likely be using your fists or the manriki-gusarai. But if we run into trouble on the road, you may as well haul out your piece and start blasting. Just follow my lead.”
She also taught him the best way to carry the manriki-gusarai. “This is my special fast-draw method,” she informed him, “I invented it. If you just put the whole thing in one pocket, it’ll get all tangled up and you’ll never get it out.”
Shadow’s carry method involved placing one end of the chain in the rear pants pocket, and the other end in the front pocket. This left a few inches of the middle of the chain exposed; to casual onlookers, it just looked like the chain on a trucker’s wallet. To draw the weapon, one need only insert the ring finger and the pinky between the chain and the pants to draw it loose, then grasp it with the other fingers and thumb while whipping it free. “You just whip it out and smack your mark across the face with both weights,” she told Christian, “I guarantee he’ll be seein’ stars. Then you can shift your grip to one end of the chain if you want.”
Christian spent about a quarter of an hour familiarizing himself with the weapon. “Manriki-gusarai” was a bit of a mouthful, so he mentally referred to it as his “ninja chain.” He practiced wielding it and drawing it.
“That’s pretty much all there is to it,” Shadow said, “It’s pretty straightforward. Ready?”
Shadow strode over to Incitatus, inserted a booted foot into the stirrup, and swung herself into the saddle. She started off down the road without looking back to see if Christian was following. Christian got on his bike and began pedaling.
The blue summits of the Allegheny Mountains loomed up ahead of them in the morning mists.