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Freedy saw the black smoke long before they reached Centerville.
Garland had been pushing the Miata as hard as he could, stopping reluctantly for gas just outside Pennsylvania and grabbing some fast food, and then they were off again. They shaved at least an hour off their outward bound time.
After Freedy told him what he'd seen and heard, Garland tried calling Charlie and the others to warn them, but the signals all seemed to be jammed.
"Just what the hell did you steal to get him so pissed?" Garland asked at the last gas station.
Freedy started to explain, but Garland interrupted. "Oh, hell. You drive, Freedy, I want to check out these papers."
Freedy didn't dare drive as fast of Garland, but he drove faster than he ever had before. It was actually kind of exhilarating. Foolish, but exhilarating.
Garland didn't say a word, just pulled the pile of papers out of the backpack and shuffled through them one by one, patiently reading every word. He picked up the ledger last and for the first time reacted.
"My dear, Freedy," he exclaimed. "I do believe we've got Darrell Horn by the balls!"
Freedy relaxed. He'd been afraid that Garland would be mad at him for taking more than they had agreed upon. Sure enough, the old hippie wasn't happy with his stealing the deeds to Centerville.
"These won't hold up," he said. "It's too established that Horn Mining owns that land. So this will only inconvenience him. Besides, we don't want to use the same illegal tactics against him that he used against us. We're better than that."
Having just burglarized the penthouse of the city's tallest skyscraper, Freedy thought Garland was being overly finicky. Then again, they'd really only meant to steal back what was rightfully theirs.
He didn't say anything about the bag of gems in his pocket.
They rounding the slight rise about Centerville, and Garland slammed on the brakes. The road was broken in front of them, split like a lightning bolt. Not only shaped like a jagged bolt but glowing like one. But they would've stopped in any case.
The earth was on fire.
It was if the Aurora Borealis had fallen to earth. Flames shot up like geysers throughout the valley, and the village itself was surrounded by a curtain of strangely colored flames. Blues and greens colors were mixed in with yellows and reds.
The second they got out of the car they started coughing from the fumes, their eyes started watering.
War had been declared by the gods of the underworld on the little town of Centerville.
Garland crept forward, and by steering the right tires off the road just inches from a cliff, they managed to get by the lightning bolt. There were other, smaller cracks, all along the road. Once as they passed a fiery asterisk to the right, the entire hillside gave way to a glowing chasm.
Spots of people were walking their way, like refugees from a battle, with their possessions in wheelbarrows and on bikes and on their backs. Women and children mostly, and when they talked to the first group they were told that Jerry Brant had commandeered most of the men of the town to fight the fires, though it seemed hopeless to everyone.
They were using bulldozers and excavation equipment to create firebreaks, and dynamite to collapse hills of dirt down some of the craters. As they stood there speaking, they heard a giant explosion in the background.
"How did this happen?" Freedy asked a young girl -- he thought her name was Norma -- who just a day before had served him coffee at the diner.
"Horn," she spat. "He started them with incendiary bombs. He landed at the town square and yelled at us through a bullhorn. Something about he'd be damned if he'd let commies takeover his operation and he'd just as soon destroy the place. Said it was his town, and he could do to it what he wanted."
Freedy tried to laugh in disbelief and fell into a coughing jag. The E.P.A. would probably argue with that notion, he thought. Then, again, they'll probably fine Horn some laughably paltry amount, He'd get some kind of insurance settlement, and he'll have some flunky write a book about it. Freedy could just imagine him going on his show, "Try To Get A Job After This!" and explaining how to deal with unexpected catastrophes...
"Where is Horn now?"
She pointed at the highest of the low hills that surrounded the town, a place that had cliffs on all sides. Now she drew his attention in that direction, he saw the three helicopters silhouetted against the sky like three vultures.
"The people were getting ready to grab him and throw him into one of the pits to appease the gods, so he took off in his copter. There he sits, the bastard, looking down on the hell he created..."
"Anyone been hurt, Norma?" Garland asked.
"Mr. Harrison had a hole open right beneath his feet, and he's in pretty bad shape. Some of the others have some burns on the hands and arms from trying to beat the fire. Your friends with the motorcycles have taken some of the younger kids with asthma and some of the old folks with breathing problems out of here. No one else has been able to drive out."
She nodded at the Miata, which didn't so much look white anymore, but more like a zebra with black stripes. "You go much further with that little car of yours, Mr. Garland, and it will be a sacrifice to gods... "
"As it should be," Garland mused. "Come on, Freedy. Let's see if we can help."
They inched their way down the rest of the hillside, dodging people and fires. Looking back, some of the road crumbled away behind them. Norma was right -- Garland's sports car was never leaving the valley.
The town seemed strangely deserted. But when Freedy looked toward the roofs, he saw young people up there with blankets and barrels of water. Every time a spark would land, they'd run and put it out.
The streets themselves were lacking the fire pits and cracks. The townsfolk back at the beginning had purposely chosen a part of the valley without a seam of coal under it. Coal towns had been known to go up in smoke before.
Some of the structures built later at the edge of town weren't so lucky. They were either blackened husks or were still burning. The motel was gone, along with what few possessions Freedy still had. Sheila was nowhere to be found. He suspected she was in the thick of it, wherever the thickest of it was.
The real battle was taking place a few hundred yards beyond the city limits, where the miners were building earthen dikes and diverting the fires wherever they could.
Freedy saw Billy and Barry, and Jay and Jim amongst them. But not Charlie or Sheila. Garland marched up to Jay. "Where's Charlie? Where's Brant?"
Freedy could barely hear what they were saying beneath the crackling of the fires. Every few minutes a tree outside the barricades would burst into flame and flare like a birthday candle for a short time.
"Up there!" Jay shouted, pointing to the south of town. There was a small reservoir up there, and Freedy saw men scrambling about the sides, and a what appeared to be a petite blond to one side, frantically waving the men off the dam. "That F.B.I. agent's up there too, says she knows something about demolition."
"Uh, are they sure they want to do that?" Garland shouted. Before he finished his sentence, Freedy saw the banks of the dam blow outward, and a surge of water gush down toward them, followed by a huge boom.
The water water thundered toward them like a tidal wave, but began to be siphoned off by the giant holes in the earth even before it got to the town. One there, the earthen dikes had been cleverly built to divert the flow of the water around them. The water kept coming, and then it was if a thick cloud had descended into the valley as steam and mist covered everything. Through the wisps of thick fog, Freedy saw that Centerville was a sunken island in the middle of a steaming lake.
The battle of Centerville was over.
On the hillside above, they could hear the helicopters starting up. Moments later, they swooped over the town. Someone with a very strong arm managed to toss a rock against the side of the lead copter with a clang. Then the vultures shot upward and flew back to the east and disappeared from view.
21 hours ago