Authors: Norman Christof
The last few hours went by in a blur. Chaz drove, barely paying attention to vehicles and buildings around him. Roads around Montgomery were busier than most, and the drivers seemed agitated and erratic. More than once, Chaz was on the receiving end of nasty looks and obscene gestures. Chaz paid no attention. Whether the root of their agitation was his driving or something else, he didn't care. Besides, what were they going to do? Run an armored military vehicle with automatic weapons off the road? When it came to getting what you wanted, Chaz understood better than most that might was right. Until someone bigger and mightier came along he was going to do what he needed to. If that meant driving a few fools off the road, then so be it.
Lost in thought, Atlanta exit signs came up sooner than he expected. The last few hours had done nothing to dissuade him from the task at hand. The only people that mattered were your own people. That's what those freak huggers had taught him. Hell, that's what a little girl had taught him. Right or wrong, your people are your people. You stick with them for as long as it takes. The navigation screen beeped, informing Chaz he had arrived.
The sign read "Atlanta City Hall." The streets were pretty quiet for this time of day, but pretty normal for an impending apocalypse. Chaz pulled up over the curb, and onto the sidewalk in front of city hall. No point blocking traffic and pissing someone off enough to vandalize the vehicle. Not that anyone really would, considering what it was. He wouldn't be long anyways. He got out, took the keys and locked it. While no one would likely steal the vehicle, there were enough weapons inside to arm a small gang.
No point in giving anyone stupid ideas
, he thought. Taking only his sidearm, Chaz walked to the front doors and paused.
What if he did find Abby and the kids? Would they even want to talk to him? Would they even care? He didn't want much. Just to see them once more, and say his goodbyes. He hadn't thought much further. What if they didn't want him to find them? What if they had as much hate in their hearts for him as he did for those freaks? He did leave them. At least physically, he did. He went off to war, and left them to fend for themselves. He left them to take care of each other, in a way he couldn't. But it was Abby that had left him emotionally. The kids never really had a choice in the whole screw-up. Who did they blame for it?
, he thought. Their mom was always there. She'd never left them, and she was the one that told the story. She could be pretty fair when she wanted to. But this time ... did she want to be?
Chaz's thoughts were interrupted by the pounding of a security guard on the other side of the doors. He watched Chaz walk up to the doors, then stand there in a daze. After a bit, the guard got a bit suspicious and approached Chaz as his partner watched from the lobby desk.
"Hey, buddy, you can't come in here with that," he said, pointing to Chaz's sidearm.
The guard was locking the door when Chaz yanked it open. The guard jumped back and drew his weapon. "Sir, you need to step back and let the door go. I can't let you in here with that weapon." He motioned again to Chaz's sidearm. Chaz noticed the second armed guard standing behind the reception.
"Look, son, we seem to having a simple misunderstanding. You don't really need that gun out, do you? Don't force my hand here."
The young security guard glanced back to his partner nervously, but wasn't ready to back down. "I don't care what you think, mister. My partner and I have you well covered."
Chaz grimaced. "You know, you're probably right. He's got that nice tall desk to hide behind, and he knows full well I'm preoccupied with you. Too bad you don't have a big desk to hide behind, huh? How good of a shot is your partner there? I'm betting you guys don't get a lot of time on the practice range."
The kid backed up a few steps closer to the desk.
Chaz went on. "Look, kid, nobody needs to get hurt here. Take a look at me. Do I look like a crazy?"
The guard didn't answer, but kept his weapon up.
"Take a look at the insignia on my chest here." He tapped his fingers on his chest. "You know what that is? It's an eagle holding arrows. You ever seen that on a soldier before? I'm guessing probably not. You know what that is?"
"What, some medal for bravery or something? I don't know, and I don't care, I just ..."
"It's a colonel's insignia, son. I'm a colonel in the military. Your military. The military that protects you from all those freaks running the countryside. I'm one of the guys keeping you safe inside these city walls, and letting you sleep safe and sound at night with your family."
"I don't have a family, I live ..."
"Look, kid, stop talking and just listen. I'm not just any colonel. I'm Colonel Chaz Sheperd."
The guard at the desk finally lowered his weapon and spoke. "Billy, damn, it is him. I thought he looked familiar, and he's right. I recognize him from the TV and the internet."
Billy looked at his partner, then back at Chaz. Keeping his eyes on Chaz, he said, "I don't know who that is. I don't care if he is who he says; we can't just let him in here armed."
The other guard holstered his weapon and walked around the desk, over to Billy. "Put your fucking gun down before he kills both of us!"
Billy kept his weapon up, but looked directly at his partner. "No! We can't," he said, shaking his head.
His partner grabbed Billy's weapon and tossed it behind the desk. "Colonel, we're sorry, what do you need? Anything we can do to help, just name it. I have family down in Louisiana that wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for you. My name's Elvis."
Chaz had to grin. "Elvis? Like the singer?"
"Yea, my mom was a big fan."
"Hmm, me too. Seems like your mom has good taste, and knows how to raise smart kids. I need the property ownership office. Which way?"
"Yes, sir, absolutely. Third floor. Take the elevators just behind me. Go right off the elevators, then another right and it's on your left. You can't miss it."
"Great, thanks, Elvis."
Chaz walked by Billy, and pulled out his sidearm. The unarmed Billy took a step back. Chaz handed his weapon, grip first, to Billy. "Hold onto this for me will ya, son? I wouldn't want to have any more misunderstandings between here and the property offices."
Billy took the weapon, and whispered, "Yes, sir, no problem, sir."
"Oh, and one more thing, Billy. Can you keep an eye on my vehicle out front? We wouldn't want to be responsible for losing military property now, would we?"
"No, sir, I'll keep an eye on it."
Chaz pressed the button and waited for the elevator. He could still hear the two guards.
"How the fuck was I supposed to know who he was. I don't even own a television."
"Just because you don't own a television, doesn't mean you have to act like an idiot. This ain't the Wild West."
Chaz smiled, and stepped into the elevator, thinking to himself,
it ain't the Wild West today, boys, but it will be soon.
Just The Facts Ma'am
Chaz found the office just like Elvis said. A woman with a touch of gray in her long brown hair sat behind the reception station. She had her elbow propped on the desk, her head in her hand dozing off. He could see a few other workers in the back offices, but no customers.
Chaz cleared his throat. "Excuse me."
The woman nearly jumped out of her skin.
"Sorry to disturb you," Chaz continued. "I was just wondering if you could help me to find someone?"
The woman, regaining her composure, realized she was still at work, and replied, "We're not Missing Persons here, Sergeant, this is the property office."
"Yes, ma'am, it's Colonel, ma'am, and I know what office this is. I was hoping you could tell me if a certain individual still owns property in this area."
"Why don't you just look it up yourself? Check a phone book or something? This isn't the Stone Age, you know."
"Yes, I did try that. But this person doesn't want to be found. I figured since property records are legal documents, I should be able to track them down here."
"Doesn't the military have all this information? Just use your own databases."
"This is unofficial business, ma'am. I'd really appreciate it if you could help me out here."
"Fine, fine, you can use one of the self-help kiosks behind me. They'll have everything you need."
"Ahh, yea. I'm not really great with computers. Don't suppose you could spare a few minutes and give me a hand?" Chaz gave her the most sincere smile he could manage. He was never the most handsome guy in the room, but he did understand the sway of a man in uniform.
"Fine, fine, follow me. Everybody else just accesses our website for this stuff. I don't know why you old-timers insist on making extra work for me."
Sitting herself down at the nearest kiosk station, she typed in the names Chaz suggested, starting with Abby's married name, Sheperd. When that didn't work, they tried her maiden name, Monroe. Then a bunch of variations of married and last names with Abby, Abigail, and Abbie. None of the names returned anything.
"That's odd," Chaz commented. "I know she had a house here for at least a little while. There must be some record of her. Wait. Try her mother's name. Susan Monroe."
She tried several different variations, and eventually came up with a hit. "Susan Margaret Monroe. The house was bought about this time last year, then sold again six months later. I have another record for her, but it's outside the city. Looks like she bought property north of here, up in Calhoun. There's an address."
"Great, where is that?"
"Not far, about seventy miles north. Just head up I-75." She looked Chaz in the eye. "You'd be a fool to go though. That area was overrun a couple of months ago. The military moved in and practically burned the whole place down. It was a major disaster. I'm surprised you didn't know, being military and all."
Chaz was taken aback a bit, but didn't say anything.
"You OK, Colonel? These people you're looking for weren't friends or family, were they?"
"Just print out that address for me, will you?"
She printed the record out. Chaz grabbed it, and headed straight for the door. He stopped just long enough in the lobby to retrieve his weapons from Billy.
The outskirts of Calhoun seemed like any small southern town. New subdivisions were springing up outside the city limits. Larger-than-average-sized lots were built to emulate the big plantation homes of years gone by. Chaz didn't pay much attention to the architecture; he was more interested in finding his family. At least, what he hoped would be a family. He did notice that the homes were all still standing, and in pristine condition. There were certainly no signs of devastation and ruin. Rumors could run pretty rampant these days, especially with a crumbling infrastructure. Everybody loved to hear gossip. It was getting harder to distinguish between gossip and the truth.
What Chaz did notice as he entered the city, was that the buildings got smaller, and people were scarce. Small towns could be quiet, but considering it was early evening, there should have been more people out and about. He expected to see adults returning from work and kids coming home from school. What he didn't know was in Calhoun, not many kids walked home alone anymore. Even adults didn't feel secure walking the streets. Chaz passed a couple of cars going the other direction, and the drivers all gave him good long stares. They probably didn't get many military grade vehicles rolling through town, Chaz thought, and if that lady at the records office was telling the truth, the last military units to visit hadn't created any local cherished memories.
What was hopefully Abby's current address was clear across town. Chaz would have to drive right through downtown to get there. He began to see signs of deserted buildings the closer he got to downtown. Lawns that looked like they hadn't been mowed in a season, boarded windows, and at least one home gutted by fire. It looked like there may have been some truth to the rumors. The further he drove into the downtown, the worse it got. Scenery changed from just the odd burned-out or deserted home to a main street transformed into a warzone. Every single building had experienced some major damage. Windows were blown out, and major structural walls were lying in the street. It was difficult navigating the Humvee through all the debris.
At one point, the main road was totally impassable. There were at least twenty vehicles deserted or crashed, blocking his path. Chaz stopped the Humvee, grabbed his automatic, and climbed out to get a better look. He climbed onto the top of a delivery truck to survey the area. There was no sign of movement, and no way to drive down this road. A few blocks past city hall it looked clear. At least, where city hall should have been according to his navigation unit. Now it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. Bricks, broken glass, plaster walls, some office furniture, and plumbing fixtures. Whatever had happened here in Calhoun, the worst of it had hit city hall.
If I just detour down a few of these side streets, I can likely make it to this road, and get to Abby's place,
Considering all the destruction, it was surprising that Chaz hadn't seen any casualties around. At least the military had done some sort of cleanup. They couldn't have been in too much of a hurry to leave. Chaz backtracked a block, and took the first street north. It took a while till he found a street running parallel with the main street that looked passable. The roads weren't in great condition, but the further he got from downtown, the better they got. Eventually he got back on track, driving towards Abby's last known address.