Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
They take me to a house in the old part of town, down by one of the rivers. Charlie has already hugged me before we get into the car and he sits beside me in the back and chatters about a dozen different things. How did I get over the border? How are Sharon and Arthur? How he and Jeannine broke up after they got to Montreal and he immediately signed up for the Resistance that was already beginning to form. What kind of camp was I in? Was it as bad as they say?
The other man, sitting in the front passenger seat, leans over and tells Charlie to lay off. There’s a procedure for debriefing and he’s screwing with it. Abashed, my old editor puts up his hands in a gesture that says sorry. But he pats my knee and says, “We’ll catch up later.”
The debriefing is what I’ve been told to expect. First they take my bag and every stitch of clothing off me and examine it minutely. They scan my belt and boots with an electronic wand, the same with the buttons on my jacket and jeans. They find nothing and let me get dressed again.
Then come the questions, but the trainers have drilled me well. I tell them about how the A-Corps began shipping selected “losers” from the Wall camps to new places in Oregon and Montana for “special handling.” We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but those of us familiar with the history of the Holocaust had a pretty good idea.
They shipped us in boxcars, I say, and the one I was in had a hatch at one end of the ceiling. It was loose, and one of us had hidden a four-inch nail in his rectum. We stood on each other’s shoulders and managed to slip the latch. Then we climbed out and lay flat on the roof of the moving car until it slowed on a long bend somewhere in southern Oregon. One by one, at half-mile separations, we dropped off the boxcar and went into the woods.
I tell them I stole clothes and a pick-up from the back yard of a rural house in Deschutes County and made my way north and east, traveling mostly at night and taking logging roads and two-lane highways, cadging food from dumpsters behind roadside eateries. The truck had a full tank and it took me all the way to Whitefish, Montana, where I ran it into a lake. Then I hitched a ride to a lumber town named Fortine and walked through the woods along Highway 93.
“What about A-Corps patrols?” my interrogator asks.
“I could see their lights coming up the road,” I say. “So I’d just duck back into the trees. They were dogging it.”
I crossed the border at a place called Roosville, I tell them. An eastbound Canadian trucker picked me up and took me all the way to Lethbridge, Alberta. He told me to look up Quakers in the phone book and make contact with them. They would help me.
“They did,” I say, “and they told me about Kamloops and what to say at the White Spot.” I know it’s safe to tell him that. Quakers won’t talk to anybody about refugees they help, not even to the Resistance. What they do is between them and God.
There are more questions. I give more answers. Finally, they put me in a room with a lock on the door. I’ll stay there until they can check my story. Charlie tells me not to worry. I tell him I won’t. That’s the truth because the A-Corps has fitted my story around elements of truth; there are new camps up north and people are being sent to them; there was an escape in Oregon, though most of the escapees were killed or recaptured within hours, some of them shot by local patriots alerted by radio and tv bulletins; Apprentice agents stole a truck in Deschutes County and left it in a Montana lake; their border-watchers at Fortine are due for replacement and punishment duty.
Eventually, as new information comes in, they might pick apart my cover story. But by then the Senator will have been snatched and the Resistance will need to find a new leader. And I’ll be back in the States, with my wife and son, writing for some organ that supports Our President and the new order.
I won’t like myself, but Sharon and Arthur will be able to live like human beings again.
It takes two days to vet me. I spend the time reading and resting and eating. My system is beginning to recover from the abuse and neglect of Camp 17. Charlie comes by each day but the people watching me won’t let him do more than put his head around the door and say hello. On his third visit, he comes right into my room and says, “You’re cleared. Get your stuff. You’re staying at my place till we get you set up.”
“I’ll need a job,” I say. “Won’t I have to apply for legal residency and so on?”
“You’ve got a job. You’re going to work for the Senator. I’ve been telling him about you and we figure you’ll fit right in.”
“A writing job?” I say. “That all seems like a million years ago.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” he says.
Charlie has a house up in the hills overlooking the junction of the two rivers. He shows me my room then says, “We’ll need to get you some more clothes. Tonight we’ll have dinner with some of the other staff, people you’ll be working with.”
I tell him I like the clothes I’ve got. “I see a lot of jeans and denim jackets on the streets. Dressed like this, I blend in.”
He shrugs. He was always more fashion conscious than I was. “Whatever,” he says. “The boss wants to meet you, too. We’ll go out tomorrow.”
“Out where?” I say, but Charlie doesn’t know. They move the Senator around constantly and only his closest inner circle know where he’ll be at any time. When he’s ready to see me, Charlie will get a call on a burner phone with the code name of the meet’s location.
“Is all the cloak-and-dagger stuff really necessary?” I say.
“They would love to get their hands on him,” he says. “A few sessions of waterboarding, then they’d trot him out for a show-trial confession. It would undercut all the work the Resistance has been doing all these months.” His face turns bleak. “Or maybe they’d just kill him, get him off the internet, shut him up.”
The next day is the twenty-third of August. According to that conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear, an extraction team – maybe even the same Navy Seals who brought me up the Columbia River – should be in the area now. It won’t be long now before I’m back with my wife and boy. Once I’ve done my job, I’ll need to get down to Vancouver and present myself at the American consulate. I don’t like to think about the way Charlie will feel, or the other good people I had dinner with the night before. As for the Senator’s fate in the hands of A-Corps operatives like the Escalade man . . . well, plenty of people are suffering worse building the Wall – if the rumors are true, what is happening in the new camps is worst of all.
Don’t think about it, I tell myself. Just do what you have to do and get back safe with Sharon and Arthur.
It is not my fight anymore. Camp 17 kicked all the fight out of me. I just want to live and see my loved ones safe.
In the late afternoon, Charlie and I are driving around Kamloops. He makes sudden turns and U-turns, watching to see if we are being followed. Before we got into the car he used a hand-held electronic device to check for tracking bugs. The car’s built-in GPS has been disabled.
The sun is just touching the dry hills west of town when the cell phone in Charlie’s pocket vibrates. He pulls into a service station and answers the call. After a few seconds he says, “Got it,” then strips the phones battery cover and removes its SIM. He tears the little piece of cardboard into several pieces and has me throw them out the window as we drive on.
We get onto Highway 5, heading north, paralleling one of the Thompsons. Traffic is light. If anyone is tailing us, Charlie says, we’ll see them miles back. But nobody is following us and after ten minutes or so, Charlie turns off the highway, crosses a cattle guard and goes through an open wire gate. We’re on a dirt road that winds up into hills covered in dry grass and sage brush. The landscape is eerily similar to Texas where the Wall is still being built.
We’ve left a dust trail in the air but in two minutes of bumping over the rough track we’re between two hills and out of sight of the highway. We continue to snake our way through the hills, climbing as we go, until we come to a fork in the road and go right. Five minutes further on, and we’re meeting trees, some scrubby conifers growing on top of a ridge. Now the road levels off and up ahead is a clearing with a log house too big to be called a cabin. It’s getting dark and I see lights from the windows.
We pull in. There are men on the porch and in the trees at the edges of the clearing. They are wearing clothes like mine, but they have the look of soldiers. Some of them have rifles like the ones the A-Corps guards used to point at us in the camp.
I follow Charlie up onto the porch. A man stops us there and tells us to put our arms out while he searches us. Charlie does as he’s told – throwing me a look that says What are you gonna do? – then it’s my turn.
After that, we’re clear and we go inside. The Senator is in an inner room; I can hear his voice through the closed door. Then it opens and he comes out and offers me his hand. He looks older than he did back during the primaries: there is gray in the thick black hair and lines around his eyes and mouth. But he still has energy and his grip is strong and warm.
He is talking, saying we’re going to do great things together, and how he’s glad I made it out of “that hell they’re making of our country.”
I agree, nodding and smiling. I’m sure my smile looks wrong because inside I’m numb. The Senator is saying something about getting my wife and child out of the devil’s grip, and I can only nod and say, “Thank you, thank you.”
And then it’s over. He goes back into the inner room and I hear other voices as the door closes. Charlie touches my arm and says, “That went well. Let’s get going.”
“Is there a toilet?” I say. “I need to pee.” My voice sounds shaky. I clear my throat but it doesn’t help.
The man at the door says, “Just go out to the treeline.”
I do as he says, going over to the evergreens start. There is a man with a rifle standing nearby but he turns his back when I pull my zipper down. That is when I undo the button on my jacket, remembering to push in and turn to the right as I do; it’s a reverse thread.
The top of the button comes off and the little battery hidden inside it falls into my hand. I use my other hand to lever up the phoney hinged rivet on my belt, making a hole exactly the size of the battery. I push the little disk in until it makes contact then I wait, counting off fifteen seconds.
Now I pry the battery free and put it back in the button and close it up, snap the false rivet back into place. I zip up my fly and turn back to where Charlie waits. I want to get him away from here before the snatch team comes. I can see that there will be shooting and men will die.
“Okay?” he says to me. But before I can answer there are shouts from inside the house. A man comes out holding what looks like a phone, but probably isn’t. He is holding it up, pointing it here and there, then looking at its screen and cursing.
Now everybody but Charlie and me is in motion. A knot of men, the Senator at their center, come running out of the log house, heading for one of the cars. The guards around the perimeter are at full alert, weapons up, sighting along them, looking for targets.
“You!” shouts the man with the scanner, looking at me. “Stay where you are!”
“What’s going–” says Charlie, but that’s all there is time for now.
The Hellfire missiles look like two shooting stars coming down from the evening sky, white flame against the yellowy red, trailing ghostly smoke worms.
“Sharon,” I say, “I’m sorry.”
And then it’s all fire.
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